Tag Archives: Travel Blog

Twentysomething Burnouts are now on YOUTUBE!

 

**Announcement!**

Bee & Nick Say: Whilst we will still be keeping the blog trucking, we’re branching out into YouTube to capture some of the crazy whirlwind life adventure we are on. We are totally new to this (hence the Blair Witch camera shakes and questionable editing!) but will do our best to share some of our shiny new lives through the power of video. Feel free to send any questions, queries or requests for things you’d like us to film! Here are our first forays – Our Last Week in London / First Week in Los Angeles.

Living in California

Nick Says: Hello! Sorry for the slight pause there on the blog – turns out getting married (woohoo!) and then moving your entire life to the other side of the world is fairly time consuming. But we have lots to talk about, so let’s get started…

While we may have travelled for months at a time over the years, neither me or Bee have ever lived permanently in another country. About the closest I’ve come was 6 months in Australia, where I rented a room in Melbourne for 2 of them. But setting a up a home somewhere else? Brand new territory. So how can I sum it up so far? Exhilarating, terrifying, overwhelming, incredible. The superlatives are endless. And the cliche true by the way, visiting somewhere and living there are very different things.

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At some point, we will do a ‘how to’ guide for those who move to the USA – we’ve had to work out lots of things that would have been handy to know, from getting a social security number, to leasing a car, and finding an apartment. But for now, let’s give you highlights of what we’ve been up to in since moving here.

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Moving to Los Angeles so soon after our wedding meant we had to put our Honeymoon plans on ice for a bit (yes, I realise California isn’t a terrible alternative…). But we still wanted to decompress and celebrate our new marriage a bit, so we took our first weekend here to drive 2 hours south down to Laguna Beach. It was truly magical, and the perfect introduction to our new life as Californians. A beachside resort down in the O.C. Laguna Beach feels very much like an outsiders view of California distilled. It’s got the beautiful beaches, the beautiful sunkissed people (some with more work than others), the laid-back arty vibe, with the local gallery showcasing paintings of a giant grasshopper riding a motorbike down the Pacific Coast Highway, and some of the most dramatic sunsets I’ve seen in a long time, and as anyone who travels knows, you see a lot of sunsets. So take my word for it, these are very special.

We decided to treat ourselves and stayed at the Casa Laguna Inn & Spa, which was set a little bit out of the main town. During summer months though, a free trolley bus operates up and down the PCH, with a stop just outside the hotel, which meant we could ride to where all the bars and restaurants were located incredibly easily. The trolley itself looks like something from the beginning of the automobile age, made of wood and with no windows. Enjoy that sea breeze!

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As well as sunning ourselves on golden beaches, eating incredible food such as crab stuffed jalapeños wrapped in bacon washed down with jalapeño margaritas from fancy Mexican restaurant Carmelita’s, or having dessert generously paid for by a couple who sat next to us at another fancy restaurant (as a welcome to the USA gift!), we also stopped for lunch at a super cute diner just down the road, which required us to possibly illegally trespass over a fence into what seemed to be a school, in order to reach it by foot. They do not make things easy for pedestrians over here.

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When not stuffing our faces (USA! USA!) we found time to enjoy the hotel. From our little balcony at the back of our room, we had a view of the Pacific Ocean. Mornings would find us sat here at the little table and chairs provided with a cup of coffee each just admiring the view and not quite believing any of this was real. Despite being on the highway, the hotel felt amazingly secluded and peaceful. Done up in Spanish colonial revival style, they brilliantly told us the historic part of the house was from the 1920s (our flat in London was from the early 19th Century I believe). Getting fully into the relaxed zen vibe, Bee had booked us onto a ‘togetherness’ massage – which meant we were massaged while lying next to each other. I think it was meant to be extremely romantic, but we were far too English to fully relax ha! Much better was the bit after where they turned on the hot tub, which is outside and also overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and gave us a bottle of champagne. So we downed the bubbles, and watched the sunset from our own private jacuzzi. One week in and we’d changed.

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Of course, it hasn’t all been swigging champers in hot tubs and enjoying the beach. We’ve also been exploring L.A. Which due to the fact it was about 40 degrees when we got here, actually did mean enjoying the beach. Making the most of our rental car, we spent the next weekend up in Malibu, an easy 45 minute drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway, with spectacular views of the ocean to keep you occupied while sat in the occasional traffic jam. While Zuma beach is probably my favourite, a wide expanse of golden sand which you can walk along for miles, and never feels crowded despite its popularity, a little treasure trove of a beach is definitely Paradise Cove. To avoid the $40 parking fee (yep…) I would recommend parking up the hill on the PCH itself, which is free. Then it’s a quick 5 minute walk down a hill to the beach itself. It’s set up like a mini resort, with a restaurant serving food, and a shop selling beer for you to drink while sunbathing. The sun loungers and chairs were all free to use (I double checked with one of the many helpful and friendly staff) which was a unexpected bonus, and it was pretty easy to while away an afternoon here. No sunset view to be had, but one of my fave beaches so far.

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But there’s fun to be had at nighttime too in L.A. Which is lucky, as at the moment it gets dark about 5pm so that’s a lot of hours to fill. One of our favourite discoveries so far is First Friday’s in Venice. Venice itself is infamous as the weirder side of L.A. Head down here if you want to see Muscle Beach, t-shirt hawkers, and a Sikh man in full turban rollerskating along the bike path playing an electric guitar with a mini amp strapped to his back. Basically, it’s the Camden Town of Los Angeles – but by the sea and sunny. Anyway, every first Friday of the month around 20 of the best food trucks in the city all gather together for a big event. It used to be 70, but then it got a little bit out of control, loads of people got drunk and caused mayhem, and they scaled it back down. Still, it’s pretty epic and has a fun festival feel. It also introduced us to the best food we’ve had since arriving here, Howlin’ Rays Nashville style hot chicken. Words will never describe the taste sensation it was. Also a fan of this food truck was a pretty famous face. Bee noticed a man in the queue looking pretty intently at us, having clocked our British accents. Then Bee whispered to me, “is that Chris Martin?’ You know what Bee, it was. Then seemingly to make sure we really knew it was him, the Coldplay frontman started singing and dancing in front of us. I genuinely am not making this up. We snapped a paparazzi shot of him, but as it’s got one of his kids in the background I won’t put it up. We then saw on Twitter that he’d gone into a local shop and offered everyone free chicken. Incredible scenes.

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It’s not all been eating (mainly it has). While we were staying in Miracle Mile for the first month (a pretty central area which seemed to be 25 minutes away from everywhere else in the city) I took myself off to the La Brea Tar Pits for the afternoon. If you ever visit then I definitely recommend a trip here – the park is free, but the museum is worth your $12 for sure. They have millions of fossils on display, perfectly preserved skeletons of mammoths, sabre tooth cats, and other giant creatures, plus real tar (asphalt actually) which bubbles up from the ground all over the park, so watch where you step. It’s a fascinating look into the natural history of a place we associate with modernity, entertainment, and urban sprawl.

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Bee Says: Thank you for bearing with us on our life hiatus! As Nick said, we might have ever so slightly underestimated that leaving one job/house/city, getting married and moving around the world to a new job/house/city/life/culture basically feels like stepping onto the waltzers. It feels like we are only just starting to know our heads from our toes again! And now that we have, we are really excited to share our little corner of the world with you again. There’s more to talk about than we can possibly expect you to read in one sitting without an intravenous of coffee, so I’ll pick a few highlights and then I promise we’ll be back soon(er) with new news. As Nick mentioned when we first moved here we were living in an Air BnB in Miracle Mile for a month. Whilst the location was great (and when I say great you can read “walking distance from an Umami Burger) we quickly learnt that living in an Air Bnb is far from ideal on a long term basis. The apartment was sweet, but absolutely fit to bursting with someone elses stuff! Which meant we couldn’t unpack, I was having to try and dress appropriately for a new job every day without the ability to even properly unpack my suitcase and generally we felt like intruders in someone elses home. It has made a HUGE difference to get our own place.

Whilst I was at work Nick had the daunting task of house hunting; pretty overwhelming when we were shiny new off the plane and unaware of good areas, good deals or what was what. We were under the time pressure of having to find somewhere before our Air BnB ran out and to reduce my commute. Everywhere we viewed was not quite right; the most not right being a flat that looked lovely online only to turn out to be somebody’s GARAGE they had converted?! As the realtor said “you need to pass through the family home to get in and out, but they are ever so nice” we started to get a little bit of the fear that we’d never find somewhere. Lady luck shone on us though, and one day Nick saw an advert on “hot pads” with no photos, no text and just a phone number. Luckily he persevered and rang the mystery number, making an appointment to view. We turned up to a beautiful block decorated in batenburg shades (in typical me style I decided I wanted to live there based on how cute that would look on Instagram) and found an open door to an apartment with no one inside. After a quick scout around, we couldn’t believe it when we realised the place was a two bedroom apartment yet on the market for a one bed price. A Guatemalan lady called Paulina soon found us lurking inside an we basically leapt on her and signed up there and them, forcing a deposit on her as more and more couples arrived to look round. Being the first over the stoop gave us first refusal and the rest is history! Amazingly (and unlike in the UK) in the week between signing and moving in, Paulina worked her socks off to get us new flooring, an A/C unit and a professional clean. We also both have a walk-in wardobe! Living the Cher from Clueless dream.

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Having a proper home has instantly got us feeling more settled. Another key to the LA puzzle is the fact it’s in an area we are completely besotted with. Culver City is actually its own independent city in the county of Los Angeles. It’s the original “Hollywood” where the film studios were first set up – such as MGM in the 1920s. Its motto is “The Heart Of Screenland” & The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, King Kong and ET were all filmed here. It’s so the “real Hollywood” that in 1937 the Culver City Chamber of Commerce petitioned to have the city name changed to Hollywood (as the sign had become so iconic) but it was declined. As a result, studios such as MGM started placing “Made in Culver City” front & centre of the credits before all their films!

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The area is safe, pedestrianised (RARE for LA!) and super buzzy. To get a sense of it… The Wonder Years filmed its outdoor scenes on our street! The area is super well maintained; fairy lights twinkle from the palm trees and there is a real community atmosphere. We are walking distance from my work, a Trader Joes, an In-n-Out burger, a coffee shop that makes a mean Mexican Mocha, gift shops, banks, about 40 restaurants, an Arclight cinema and a Cold Stone Creamery (lethal). We also have a diner, S & W Country Diner, that is everything you’d wish from a local hangout. Kitsch decor, booths, a menu as long as your arm and insanely friendly staff who remember you and your preferences! We go every weekend and it’s basically our new second home.

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What with all this eating, we are also fortunate enough to live next to Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. This is a great hike that takes you up some gruelling vertical steps (where we regularly see the USC Trojans training!) to take in a 360 view of LA from the top. We tend to head up there at 6.30am to catch the sun rising, and I could honestly sit there for hours just watching the planes take off and land over at LAX… the sea lapping in the distance and the Gotham-like towers in Downtown. It’s always a wrench to head back down and into the day.

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An unexpected event is that we have both become big Clippers fans. Obviously there is an endless choice of sports to get into in America but basketball zoomed into our hearts the quickest. When we first moved here, Nick’s old housemate and our good friend Laura was spending her last month as an Angeleno before moving to NYC. This was perfectly timed for us to team up on a ton of our firsts/her lasts together. One of these was an introduction to the Clippers. From the moment we arrived at the Staples Centre, I knew I was about to become addicted. Firstly, basketball is easy to follow. There are no crazy rulebooks to digest and it’s obvious when someone is winning. Secondly, it’s so much more about the experience than the sport! We saw fireworks, we saw babies racing across the court to win their parents a jeep (!) we saw the National Anthem being sung, we saw “kiss cam” where the big screen display people who must then kiss on demand (I think they try to go for the people they have sussed are couples…) we saw randoms from the audience come up to try and score a slam dunk, we saw celebs lazing on the front row… the list is kind of endless. There is way more faffing about with entertainment than actual spot. That said, the sport is really nail biting. We witnessed the Clippers win 67-66 by scoring with 0.03 seconds to go… the crowd went CRAZY! It’s super good fun and the key – it’s cheap. You can get nose-bleeder seats (where the best atmosphere is I reckon!) for as little as $8 (about a fiver!) and we can ride the metro there and back, which costs about £2 return. No wonder we are averaging a game a fortnight! Those Clippers work hard too, they play about 5 games a week and are even playing on Christmas Day.

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Another great experience was heading to the Día de Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We had wanted to visit the cemetery for a while; it’s iconic for being the final resting place for more Hollywood founders and stars than anywhere else including Johnny Ramone and Toto the dog from Wizard of Oz. It’s a surprisingly tranquil and beautifully maintained place; it isn’t tacky at all which is what I was fearful of. There are various cultural events and celebrations throughout the year, but Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one close to Nick and I’s heart after we celebrated it with locals on Isla Del Sol in Bolivia. Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, but also acknowledged through various other parts of South America and the world. The holiday is used to gather family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help “support their spiritual journey.”

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Ever since I learnt about the holiday I’ve been completely in awe of it. To me, it seems such an incredibly healthy and necessary way to talk about and deal with mortality. It’s actually how even the British used to deal with death (we learnt this at Highgate Cemetery tour) by creating mausoleums and huge shrines that were visited and decorated in a not dis-similar manner. However after World War 1, for obvious reasons, this changed dramatically to the more private, sheltered and intimate attitude to death we experience now. Having a day dedicated to talking about and remembering those we have lost is such a beautiful thing; and my favourite part is that this is a real celebration. There is amazing food, dancing, music and costumes. Everywhere has their own approaches (in Bolivia they fly kites) but the positivity is infectious. At Hollywood Forever we listened to an amazing Mariachi band playing The Smiths covers, we brushed off our Spanish to chat to some of the wonderful artists and people crafting, and we felt incredibly privileged to join in this special moment of the year, in such an amazing location.

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So that’s a little glimpse of Los Angeles life. We’ve been packing it in right? Don’t worry, we still have time to nest on our new sofa and binge watch Master of None and Jessica Jones. I’ll leave you with a classic Bee and Nick quote. Driving back into LA from a weekend away we were driving through a nice looking neighbourhood. Nick: “These are such lovely houses. What area is this? Why don’t we live here?” Bee *checks Google Maps* “This is Beverly Hills.”

 

We Are Moving To LA!!!

Bee Says: Crikey, ok. Where to start? I guess the beginning would be a good place and trust me the beginning is really really recently. Before we went travelling I worked for a great visual effects company setting up their social media and digital marketing. This job took me out to their West Coast office (I blogged at the time about it here & here) which was a hoot. I loved the studio in Los Angeles when I visited; really soaking up the family-mentality and collaborative, supportive approach to work. I also appreciated the quality of life that the employees there seemed to strike a pretty perfect balance at; sure they worked super hard… but there was a big importance attached to going surfing, or to leave on time & go on an adventure whether that be to the desert, the mountains, the beach or the “wild west”. However time ticked by and I left that job to take the opportunity to travel South & Central America; and this blog was born! The end of our trip saw us back in… LA! And as you probably remember; we rather left our hearts there.

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We’ve had a few conversations since we got back from travelling about the future. Another epic backpack excursion doesn’t seem financially viable as it took us 3 years to save for the first one! We’ve also both enjoyed elements about getting our teeth back into our careers (although less about being back in pesky pricey London!) and so we have multiple times talked about wishing we could relocate to another city… another country… namely LA. However; it seemed like that ship had sailed. That moment had passed. That door had closed. Or so we thought.

I was approached by a colleague that I grew close in my previous role. And it just turned out they had an opening for a Head of PR & Marketing in their West Coast office, based in Los Angeles. And they wanted me. *insert general life imploding and ALL the feelings*

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I’ll skip over the business bits; but safe to say there were processes and long phone calls and interviews-but-not-interviews and negotiations and discussions. Overlaid on this were the soul searching, deep-digging conversations Nick and I had to have… and pretty quickly as all this has occurred in the space of weeks rather than months.

So yeah. We are moving to LA! We will head off rather promptly after our wedding in September; making the move a sort of perma-honeymoon. Obviously there are cons as with any life decision (I will miss my friends and family desperately, I’ll be sad to leave a position at Penguin that I’ve worked blooming hard at and colleagues I admire, we are going to be oh so far far away etc) but ultimately this opportunity feels like to us like we have won the lottery. What a way to start married life? With a whole NEW adventure. There is something so intoxicating and alluring about moving to California. The lifestyle, the trips we can take, the sunsets, the fact we will do our “grocery shopping” in TRADER JOES. I could talk about my thoughts and brain whitterings endlessly (and am sure I will – obviously we’ll be documenting this process in the usual method of blogging away) but they tend to revolve around “will I need black tights in LA”, “shit, I need to relearn to drive stat” “am I going to lose my northern accent?” “what the heck is a sloppy joe?” and “will we make new friends ok?”

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It is such a huge relief to have this out in the open. We actually haven’t told anyone bar family up until this point so please don’t be offended if you’ve seen us recently and we didn’t spill all (even when drunk – how impressive?!) We just didn’t want to tell anyone until we had our interview with the U.S consulate and our visas accepted. Because honestly until then it was all still pie in the sky – and I knew it wasn’t a done deal until we had that stamp. We wanted to just know for sure before doing well.. this! Getting excited! The whole process has been mind-blowing in that we’ve been working with an attorney (ooh la la) and I really extra appreciate that her last name was Cohen (fans of The O.C hands up). But here we are, and we are official, and it looks like California here we come…

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Nick Says: LA!!!!!!! That’s about all really. It really was too much of a great opportunity to say no to. It was the right time, in the right place. So while I’ll be sad to leave behind the UK (again), I cannot wait to go and explore a new part of the world. So expect a North American focus from TwentySomethingBurnouts over the next few years, as we see what the USA, Canada, Mexico and all the others have to offer. I’m already planning road trips, train trips, and back country adventures. I reckon we’ll be perfectly positioned in California to make the most of our time there. And for those who find themselves on the West Coast, look us up and we’ll go grab some fish tacos.

I loved my time in LA, way more than I expected to, and can’t wait to go back there, but this time to see it as our new home. It’s going to be a challenge for sure, but we’re lucky enough to know a few people who have lived abroad (and some in LA too) and will be asking them for all the advice we can. So see you all in LA! But before we go, we have the small matter of our wedding to sort out…

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8 Things I learnt from the Three Peaks Challenge

Bee Says: My company, Penguin Random House, is hot to trot on all things charity. At the start of each year every single person in the business has the opportunity to vote on a list of nominations for the charity of the year, and then the year is jam-packed with opportunities to band-together and raise money for that one cause. This year the charity is Mind, who in their words seek to “provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem and campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.” I was thrilled when Mind were announced as our chosen charity because I have experienced through friends & family how debilitating and devastating mental health problems can be – and how crucial it is to have access to the right people and support. With this in mind; when an email whizzed around the company in March asking for people to sign up to the Three Peaks Challenge I was quick to jot my name down; without giving an awful lot of though to what this would entail. A nice summer ramble, I thought. A bit of a jolly with my colleagues, I thought…

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What is the Three Peaks Challenge when it’s at home anyway? Well I soon learnt that it consists of climbing the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales. Those three bad boys stack up as Ben Nevis (1344m), Scafell Pike (978m) and Snowdon (1085m) and well, as if it’s not hard enough to lug yourself up three mountains; the stakes are raised by racing against the clock to complete the set in under 24 hours. The challenge racks up a total of 480 miles of driving, 25 miles of hiking, climbing a total of almost 3000 vertical metres, and.. 0 hours sleep. Sounds like fun… right?

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I thought it might be useful to share a few hints, tips and tricks I picked up through my experience in case you are considering something similar. I would HIGHLY recommend it – just book yourself a decent massage afterwards.

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1. You honestly don’t need to train that much

When I first signed up to the challenge and shared the news; I was met with bewildered and horrified faces and comments ranging from “isn’t that just for top athletes?!” to “you’re going to surely DIE”. So just to clarify, whilst the challenge is “challenging”, you just need to be at a basic level of good fitness. The event itself is actually so much more about psychological strength and grit (and ability to scoff scotch eggs at record speed). We did get given a 16 week training plan by Mind – which wasn’t ideal as we signed up with only 11 weeks to go! – but really the key suggestion was just that you do regular exercise of any type (be that walking, swimming, pilates, running, cycling… anything that tickles your fancy really) and that prior to the event you do a few mammoth walks, I did a 13 and a 19 miler, just to test the endurance of your legs. I have to say that by far the most important and useful training I did was taking the stairs at every opportunity. It’s 7 flights up to my desk at work and 3 flights up to my flat; and that was the bit that felt most similar to the vertical hiking of the peaks. Aside from a few super-hero-standard fitties, everyone in our team of 21 was a similar level of fitness and it was definitely an achievable challenge for people who are “quite active but also like sitting about eating crisps and watching Netflix”.

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2. You can never, ever predict the weather

You might think that a June weekend would be the ideal time to partake in this challenge; especially a June weekend where the rest of the country basks in a tropical heatwave. What I learnt (and maybe should have known but I was always very bad at geography, and… science) is that no matter the conditions on the ground, each mountain has it’s very own micro-climate. At best; the summit will be stuck in a cloud because it’s so high up there. At worst; you’ll experience 5ft of snow on Ben Nevis, hail, rain, wind gusts of up to 40mph on Scafell Pike and temperatures that plummet well below freezing. So ignore the weather forecast and pack for every eventuality; taking doubles of everything and waterproofs even if there is a heat wave. Trust me on this; as someone who climbed Scafell Pike with gloves that were soaking and then started to develop actual frost crystals (and turn my hands into white fat sausages) by the top. Even if it appears sunny and lovely as you embark; weather fronts can come in fast and furiously. It’s also always going to be pretty cold at the summit; and if you need a rest or hurt yourself and are sat about for any length of time – you need to keep warm and toasty.

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3. Invest in some decent kit

The Three Peaks Challenge (or a similar event) will end up costing a chunk of change. I under-estimated this bit; although the good thing is that I will re-use most of the kit and it’s that type of snazzy outdoor wear that is built to last. The challenge itself cost £80 to sign up for; and then a minimum donation total of £550. This is because Mind don’t want to lose money on paying for the aspects such as bus, guide, accommodation in Fort William on the Friday night before you start, water etc. Mind provided us with a handy kit list and luckily I had some of the key bits – most importantly a good warm AND waterproof jacket. Mine is this Madigan beaut from Craghoppers which is so reasonably priced and has an Aqua Dry outer coat (which honestly repels water, it never gets wet!) and a micro fleece for 3 in 1 warmth, wind proof and water proofing. Also it’s definitely worth investing in some proper ankle height walking boots, again that are properly waterproof and will stop you coming a cropper on any crags. The only luxury item I found it totally worth buying was some walking poles! I had previously been a special sort of idiot who thought these were only for “old people”. These metal rods are crucial for navigating up and down mountains and not shredding your knees. You can even start to convince yourself you look pretty cool with them in a Where’s Wally kinda way.

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4. Waterproof gloves are a thing. And a very good thing.

I didn’t actually know waterproof gloves existed but boy do I wish someone had told me. I would buy yourself a pair, if only to avoid standing in a service station desperately trying to dry a pair of wet-dog stinky wool gloves under the hand dryer at 2am.

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5. The UK is SO beautiful.

One of the absolute best bits of this challenge is seeing bits of the UK I would never usually visit. It may have been a whistle-stop tour but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get a really good taste of the diverse terrain, the beauty, the views and the sights that the highlands, the lake district and Snowdonia have to offer. There was plenty of gazing out of the mini bus and time to plan future trips back to all these places to see them properly (just perhaps not the mountain bits) I think the most exciting place for me to visit was Glen Coe and the surrounding area of Scotland. Having never explored past Glasgow and Edinburgh; that scenery seriously packs a punch! It’s unlike anything anywhere else in the UK. Volcanic looking peaks, snow, ski lifts!, waterfalls cascading down the side of anything high, epic lochs that last as far as the eye can see, BIG sky and air that’s so fresh my London-riddled lungs could actually feel the difference with the first breath.

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6. Treat yourself to a Camelbak

This experience has been a real education in kit. I SO wish I’d known about the holy Camelbak when we were backpacking. It’s such an obvious solution to the pain of carrying about heavy bottles of water and having to stop every time you want a swig.The Camelbak is a hydration system; which is a posh way of saying a plastic pouch that can carry 3L of water, attached to a plastic hose you can dangle over your shoulder and then easily slurp from at any moment (see the blue pipe thing below). You can even drink whilst you are walking! Genius. I am now intending to fill my Camelbak with gin & tonic and fit it to my sofa.

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7. Distraction is key

I could not have completed the challenge without Katy Perry. That is a fact! I am so relieved that I packed my ipod and loaded it full of happy pop songs; because at the points where my brain was screaming at me that I couldn’t do it, I could drown that all out with some Roar on repeat. I also listened to a bunch of my favourite podcasts – Undisclosed, Watch the Thrones and You Are Not So Smart. Somehow having voices nattering in my ears made it feel less lonely as I clambered about something that resembled the surface of Mars (that’s you Scafell!) I mentioned earlier that the challenge is a psychological one, and I can never really put into words how gruelling it was. The tiredness of my legs and body honestly paled in comparison to the battering my brain took as I went through various stages of ~the fear~ and self doubt and wanting to throw my sticks down and give up!

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8. You can never have enough snacks

I went shopping for snacks three times leading up to the challenge (as this was the bit I was most excited about) and still munched my way through nearly everything. Protein bars, fruit and nuts, snickers, oatcakes, twiglets, pork pies, scotch eggs, babybel, flapjacks, jelly babies and anything else that can deliver you a quick boost of sugar or energy needs to be in your bag and belly. I feel quite sick even looking at this photo now, and think I’m retiring from both mountaineering AND snacks.

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Well that’s just a few of my thoughts. It was equally the best and worst thing I have ever done; but I am so proud of my team for hulk-smashing their way through the challenge! We went with a great company called Adventure Cafe (and in fact I’ve pinched a few of their photos here – thanks guys) Everyone was amazing at cheering each other along at bleak points, lending out woollens when the temperature dropped and generally keeping morale high and a sense of humour when things looked wet and wild. We were also lucky to have two fantastic guides who we were totally reliant on to get us up and down safely; and deliver that tough love of “no you cannot stop for jelly babies, it’s too cold to stand still”.

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I’m currently just £10 short of my sponsorship target, so if you are feeling generous – my page is here and every penny counts. In total, my group will have raised over £10,000 for Mind… and that makes every moment I’ve woken up in the night this week with leg cramp worthwhile!

 

Being in Beelin. Beerlin. I mean, Berlin.

Bee Says: Finally our European explorations are ramping up again, and they kicked off with me spending a busy Bee weekend in Berlin, Germany (or Beelin as Siri seems obsessed with auto-correcting it to!) My oldest friend from school is Sarah Mckay. We met in year five, and a quick Google tells me this would have made us a mere 9 years old. We had that instant you’re-my-best-friend-ok?-ok! connection and spent the next four years surgically attached and constantly sleeping over at each others houses and driving our parents mad with our experimental baking projects. Sad times came as in our teens we went to different high schools and were no longer able to be quite so much in each others pockets. Since then we have had a friendship that has ebbed and flowed through our teens and twenties as we both moved between different cities and countries and continents. Sarah has been in Berlin on-and-off for the past ten years, and full-time for the last four. I have been that annoying friend who says every January “I’ll DEFINITELY come and visit you this year” and then something else has come along and New Years Eve rolls around yet again without me doing it. So! This year, New Years Day knocked on the door and I responded by hopping onto sky-scanner. I picked a random weekend in March, which felt forever away at the time, and booked myself a long weekend to Berlin.

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I have been to Berlin once before and done the tourist trail. This time around my hope was to see a few of the treasures that are lesser known and get a glimpse into Sarah”s day to day local life there. The great thing about Berlin is that it’s only a 1.5 hours flight from London, making it practically commutable. I could leave work on Thursday at normal time and still be in Berlin for a beer before bed. Toll! Prima!

Nick Says: Bee kindly invited me along to her weekend in Berlin too. I declined as I’ve had slightly too much Berlin adventure in the last few years. I think it’s a great city, with such a unique vibe, and I love visiting, but I’m not sure if it loves me visiting it… On my first trip there, I spent an amazing few days soaking up the history of the place (and Berlin is a city that lives and breathes its history in a way like no other), caught a roller derby, got very drunk with the locals, and on the last day decided to tour round the place on a bicycle. It’s seems a city set up for cyclists, with wide cycle paths, and plenty of flat ground. So obviously I ended up becoming involved in a crash and broke my wrist. I then had to ice the break with beer, before sadly pedalling back to my hostel, and then the enxt day improvising my hoody as a sling while I flew home and headed straight to the hospital.

Round two in Berlin saw me arrive on a stag do. Surprisingly we managed to get a fair bit of culture in amongst the drinking. Tempting fate hugely, not only did I get back on a bike, but rode around on something called a beer bike which had its own bar attached. Ha, take that broken wrist of the past! This time however, fate had something else in mind for me. No sooner had we got off the beer bike (which is a huge, unwieldy contraption with a top speed slower than walking) and left it at its base then we were stopped by a couple of policemen. No problem I thought, they probably just want to do a quick search of us as we’re a large group of foreign men. But then another cop car showed up. The another. Then one more. Oh, then some unmarked cars with undercover police in. There was two policemen for every one of us. In between our poor German, and their not great English, we worked out they were trying to arrest us. At this point I swore never to return to Berlin, if I ever got to leave that was. But luckily a staff member from the beer bikes saw our plight and ran over. After a rapid fire exchange, she told us that the police had received a report of a group of guys trying to break in and steal a beer bike. Considering the aforementioned speed and size, this seemed a ridiculous idea. Doubly so for our group, as at the time we had the stag dressed up as a yellow jacketed Freddie Mercury… Hardly the most inconspicuous of robbery attire.

So as much as I love Berlin, and all it has to offer, I wasn’t too sad to be given this trip a miss and staying at home for the weekend, eating giant toblerones.

Bee Says: On Friday morning Sarah’s alarm went off at 6.30am (she’s a teacher) and I dozed on until something slightly more civilised for a holiday day. It felt truly surreal to actually remember I was in Germany; having arrived after a normal London rat-racing day and only speaking English since landing. Sarah lives on the outskirts of Kreuzberg which put me in the perfect location for strolling and sight-seeing. The Friday in question was the big day of the solar eclipse and so before I’d even had a coffee I was enjoying peeking at the pockets of people gathered on street corners with all sorts of DIY contraptions to view the sun safely.

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I holed myself up at Cafe Katulki (Friedelstraße 41,12047) to have a leisurely breakfast and finally rummage through my guide books to plan an itinerary to keep me out of trouble until Sarah was freed from the classroom. My stack of guidebooks, including the gorgeous Lomography guide, had been generously donated by my friend Amii and she helpfully annotated them with must-see and must-eats. She is a girl after my own heart (belly?) with eats outweighing sees about 4 to 1!

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Cafe Katulki has buckets a chintzy chic; and is an instagrammers heaven! From the insanely heaving cake counter, to the mismatching liberty china sets, to the tiled walls and rocking chair reading nooks; if I was a local I think I’d be in here more than my own house. Another great discovery was that the cafe has an Eastern European owner so was serving Schokolade; that hot chocolate so thick you can barely stir it. Once the sugar high kicked in, I started my stroll to destination number one – Hasenheide Park. The park is a 50 hectare green space with many treasures to discover. I hit jackpot with a clear blue skied sunny day, so could really appreciate ambling around every section stumbling across rose gardens, an open air theatre, a petting zoo, a doggy playground, a pair of grumpy camels (!) and a few sketchy drug dealers sadly; but they seemed happy enough to keep to themselves and let me walk along despite accidentally intruding on some sort of business moment. In addition to the enclosed animals; the park boasted oodles of lovely natural wildlife, even in winter. As I sat reading in a patch of long grass, a woodpecker was hammering away above my head. I also saw my FIRST EVER red squirrel! Despite many hours stealth stalking them on Brownsea Island I have never successfully spotted one of these incredibly creatures. It was a real unexpected delight, especially when I got a look at this fella’s huge ears.

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I exited the park from a lake filled with rowdy geese and duck, and was treated to the Friday call to prayer at a huge ornate mosque that dominates Columbiadamm. Being originally from Bradford this is a familiar sound and it felt special to hear it at that exact moment; as I strolled around with a brain buzzing with childhood nostalgia.

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From the park is was just a trot over the road to my most highly anticipated spot of the weekend; Temple Hof. I have a real lust for abandoned buildings and places but now that I’ve grown out of my teenage phase of shamelessly sneaking into old mills and crumbly places; I satisfy this desire through the fact that most of the people I follow on Instagram are urban explorers.

Berlin Tempelhof Airport was one of the original airports in Berlin. Situated in the south at Tempelhof-Schöneberg, after a chequered and varied history of operation, it finally closed its doors in 2008 as part of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport project (which is a whole other story if you don’t know about it. A hot topic that I heard discussed by a lot of Berliners over the weekend!) Tempelhof’s original terminal was constructed in 1927 and the main building was once among the top 20 largest buildings on earth; in contrast (wikipedia reliably informs me) it formerly had the world’s smallest duty-free shop! Having previously been one of the busiest airports in the world; during WW2 it was used by the Nazi government to assemble military aircraft. Nowadays the vast expanse of Temple Hof is home to a huge investment turning it into a “modern park” and that was evident through the various eco-gardens, nature reserves and kite-boarding tracks I saw.

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However, I was more interested in the fact that so much has been left behind. I am relieved that amongst the re-development; there are still plenty of historical relics. From old bombers, to an American shooting range, to the runway signage and the runways themselves; there is still such a sense of history and identity here that is fascinating. The space itself also had an incredibly special atmosphere. There was a sense of peace, quiet and zen that felt at-odds with the fact the park is just moments from the bustling city centre and surrounded by main roads. Once perched in the centre with my book; I could hear only the insects and the whistling wind. I stayed there for hours sitting between the slats of an abandoned railway line and having one of those perfect travel moments!

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One thing that I was crushed about, is that because I visited on a total whim, I didn’t do proper research and discover that you can actually tour the buildings themselves. So instead I spent the day with my nose smushed up against the mesh fencing thinking how amazing it would be to peer inside; little knowing I could have done exactly that and it’s the bit that would interest me the most. When I visit again (I’ve decided to try and make it an annual thing whilst Sarah is there) I’ll be snapping up a tour ticket and remedying my rookie mistake. Here is where you can do the same!

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I walked back to Sarah’s neighbourhood; ducking into Katies Blue Cat bakery (Friedelstraße 31, 12047) for a couple of the tastiest cookies I have ever devoured. I then sat by a stretch of the canal watching garishly coloured dotty beetles being busy, and hot air balloons flying over head. Yup; Berlin is a little bit like a Disney cartoon!

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Sarah was relieved to find me in one piece after my grand day of solo exploration, so we celebrated by going to her favourite burger joint. Except, well, she had forgotten where it was! We knew it was called Hamburger Heaven (or maybe Happy Hamburger) and that it was about a five minute walk from her flat. We walked for about twenty-five minutes before admitting defeat and Sarah announced that in true Berlin style, it was so obscure and cool that it was probably a pop up that had now decided to pop up somewhere new. I’m actually quite relieved that we never found Hidden Hamburger because instead we headed to The Bird (Am Falkplatz 5, 10437 // Kottbusser Damm 95 10967) which had been Amii’s #1 hot spot recommendation and in Sarah’s opinion the “best burger in Berlin” but as she is a vegetarian I had to really test this claim for myself.

The Bird is a super-hip NY style diner with an impressive line-up of the usual good stuff; burgers, hot dogs and grilled animal bits. They were also playing a pretty guilty pleasuretastic line-up of the tracks that populated Sarah and I’s mixtapes of the 90s – Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Offspring, Greenday… Limp Bizkit! So that was a fitting blast from the past. I made poor, patient Sarah translate every type of burger and topping available in great detail, as I struggled to make a choice, but we realised the entire menu was written in English on the back! In the end I opted for “The Woiks” which came with, well, everything. It was possibly the finest burger of my entire life; rivalled only by the holy Umami.

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I’m not a huge beer drinker (Nick has enough enthusiasm for both of us) but considering I had spent the past three months relentlessly hounding Sarah with the “two beers clinking” emoji on WhatsApp I thought it would be rude not to partake in one tankard. Which turned into two.. and three… because the beer in Berlin is SO tasty. I think Sarah said it’s something to do with wheat but I will hand over to Nick for the specifics.

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Nick Says: Well wheat does play a fair part, if you’re drinking Hefeweizen, but mainly it’s to do with the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law. While relaxed in the early 90s, this meant that hundreds of years the only ingredients allowed were barley, water, and hops. Producing a lovely, clean beer you can drink lots of!

Bee Says: Rather than going out on the town on Friday night, we thought we’d have a sensible early night and save our energy for Saturday. But, after getting in bed we just chatted and chatted and fell into childhood habits of saying “good night” and then instantly one of us starting to natter away again. It must have been after 3am when we went to sleep! On Saturday morning we picked up immediately where we left off and by 11am were still in bed having an indepth conversation about the holocaust. I guess this is one of the perils of Berlin. We eventually dragged our weary bones to brunch and selected an innocent enough looking cafe called Citron. Once we had sat down and were pursuing the menu,Sarah gripped my arm and whispered that she had just remembered that the last time she had been into the cafe, about a year before, the waiter had asked her out on a date (she declined). I got a bit feminist rage-y about how presumptuous and rude that is; especially when you’re minding your own business and having a bite to eat – but Sarah defended him saying she had been sat revising in there all day and they’d chatted a bit. Anyway! I could tell by the look on Sarah’s face when our waiter came over that it was the exact same guy!! He didn’t seem to remember Sarah (or was styling it out) as we ordered eggs, coffee, juice etc,

The food was great, but when the waiter came to clear up, he leaned in and said something to Sarah in German. I thought he was asking if we wanted desert, but once he had walked off she informed me he had asked her out on a date AGAIN! This guy? He must just do it to all the pretty ladies! She had said no (again) and this time was a little more annoyed about the whole thing. I guess statistically it must work on someone occasionally; but unless you want a side of sleaze with your scrambles I would avoid this place.

I had been keen to visit the Topography of Terror but poor Sarah was having a bit of a gloomy personal life patch and thought that visiting the headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office and witnessing what occurred there; might not help her mood. We compromised on the WEST:BERLIN exhibition that was taking place at Ephraim-Palais
(Poststraße 16 10178 Berlin) I had previously known very little about West Berlin post WW2 and this exhibition used photography, video, artefacts, propaganda material and art to tell the story of this “island city” before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For a reasonably small collection there was enough to peruse and ponder for a good few hours; which was a good job because the day was drizzly and dismal.

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On the way home we went to hunt out the Berlin bear! There really is one. There has been a bear kept in central Berlin since the 1700s and the original cage was about the same size as two bears in total. Nowadays the official Berlin mascot has a more palatial pit and palace to roam around; but unfortunately we forgot that very important thing about bears… they hibernate through winter! Nothing to see here!

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On Saturday night we were treated to a Spanish tapas feast by one of Sarah’s friends Lia. I could lie and say we went to loads of hip cocktail bars and an “open air” (the done thing apparently!) but it was just a very VIP little house party; with an impressive schnapps collection to keep us merry into the small morning hours.

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On Sunday we took an hour long stroll through Kreuzberg and across the river, stopping for Sarah to indulge me with a go in the Photoautomat and to buy a Nutella ice cream for breakfast – such a British thing to do when it was -1 degrees but sunny!

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It’s so good to have a local with you when you’re the type of person who asks 100 questions. I had noticed these small cobble sized plaques on the ground, which Sarah quickly identified as Stolperstein or Stumble Blocks. They are a monument created by Gunter Demnig which commemorates victims of the Holocaust across Europe. Each Stumble Block commemorates an individual – both those who died and survivors – who were consigned by the Nazis to prisons, concentration camps, and extermination camps, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide. In Berlin the Stumble Blocks are placed on the pavement at every address where the individual lived. It was gob smacking once I knew what they were; to see how frequently they appeared beneath my feet. I think it’s such a subtle but important reminder to everyone in Berlin – visiting and living – of the scale of the atrocity and the fact the victims must be honoured and remembered on a daily basis.

After a lazy lunch at yet another of Sarah’s insanely talented-in-the-kitchen friends, it was time for me to feel the Sunday night blues creep in and start my long journey back to my flat in Chalk Farm. One thing I noticed from being fortunate enough to go to three different Berliner’s homes is that they have a really cute tradition where all guests are handed slipper socks on arrival! So you can take off your shoes and be instantly toasty and comfy. Imagine buying a stock of slipper socks purely for guests?! I think I need to transition this to the UK.

Thanks Sarah for an enchanting look in Berlin and life there. I already cannot wait to come back to this unique, achingly cool and layered city. I feel like yet again I have only scratched the surface!

Nick Says: While I may have stayed at home this time, I have been up to fair bit in the UK recently. Coming up soon is my tale of taking on a microadventure in Essex which then took a surreal turn when I accidentally stumbled into the filming of a very popular TV show set in that county…

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Welcome to the LIGHT Side: Packing for 6 months with a 35 Litre Backpack

Bee & Nick Say: This post is by far and away our most popular blog entry. We’ll leave it as we wrote it, but will constantly add some updates on what we found the most useful as the trip went on, fix broken links etc. Enjoy, and please add anything you can’t live without below!

Bee Says: Before we left, I meant to do a packing list blog, as I found reading other people’s so useful when preparing for six months away. However, I didn’t think mine would be that unusual until we got here and realised that every other person we have met has a bag double our size… and usually for less time! Then I posted a photograph of me loaded up with my 35 litre beaut and my friend Eleanor Jane asked if I could post some details about how on earth I have enough clothes for 6 months. I should also add that the clothes have taken me from 40 degree tropical heat to -5 freezing flats out on the Salar de Uyuni, which is surely proof that no one needs to struggle beneath a backpackzilla unecessarily. Here is my total kit, and bag on the top right.

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Clothes (layering is key!)
    • American Apparel Hoodie
    • Craghoppers Shirt – This comes into it’s own during Amazon and Jungle trips as it is made of durable breathable material that stops both sun burn and mozzie munching.
    • Karrimor Combat Trousers (that zip off into long shorts)
    • Denim Cut Offs
    • 3 x Cotton Tee Shirts
    • H&M TShirt Dress
    • Long sleeved Uniqlo Heattech Thermal Top
    • Uniqlo Heattech Thermal Leggings (that work as normal leggings with my dress)
    • Vest
    • 7 x Knickers
    • 2 x Bras
    • 2 x Bikinis
    • 3 x Hiking Socks
    • Woollen Hat & Mittens (bought in Bolivia)
    • Headscarf, Kirby Grips and Hairbands
    • Pashmina
    • Flip Flops
    • Small Festival Style Poncho
    • Montane Lite Speed Jacket – My biggest splurge and prized possession, this jacket squeezes down to the size of an APPLE. Its windproof, waterproof (tested in many stormy downpours) and is the perfect outer shell over my hoody and thermal in cold weather, keeping all the warmth in and the chill out. I got mine for 60quid on an outdoor retail website so shop around!
    • Sunglasses
    • Sun Hat – You can spend silly money on these in outdoor shops, so if you have a small head like me opt for a kids one. Mine cost 3quid as apposed to the almost identical adult ones for 25!
    • Karrimor Walking Boots (I wear these when travelling so they don’t strictly fit in my bag but can be tied to handles and dangle off Where’s Wally style)
    • 7 Litre Healthy Back Bag Day Pack – I use this day to day and leave my backpack in the hostel, but when travelling it folds down and fits in my big bag.
Keeping Clean
  • Beach Towel
  • Wash Bag with Aveda Miniature Shampoo, Conditioner, Shower Gel, Curl Cream and Moisurisor which when diluted down with water has lasted me neart two months so far.
  • Make Up Wipes (I BADLY wish I had bought about 5 packs of these, but I only packed 1. I used to use them every night back home to take off make off, but I am not wearing make up on this trip so instead I use them to – gross – clean off dust, dirt and travel grime. Because I have so few, using one has become a total luxury that I really look forward to… Sad! They also double up as a way of “showering” when there is not water at your hostel or you are on a boat etc.)
  • Tampons (no ones needs a photo of these but there is a box in there too, as you cant buy brands you may… prefer… over here, although there are sanitary products available so its your womanly preference with this stuff)
  • Deodrant
  • Mini hairbrush
  • Dry shampoo
  • Razor and 2 Blades
  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
Essentials
  • Silk sleeping bag liner – This silk sleeping bag liner is a travel MUST have. You dont need to cart around a full sleeping bag, even the cheapest hostels in cold locations have piles of blankets and you can hire a sleeping bag if you camp on treks or tours. All you need is a silk sheet – it keeps you warm, it stops bed bugs and mozzies biting, it gives you something clean to sleep on when sheets look questionable and it is also a handy caccoon on cold night buses.
  • Travelproof Mosquito Net – We thought that hostels in Malaria regions would all provide mozzie nets… and we were SO wrong. I bought a double sized net and am so relieved I did, as it’s stopped me being bug food on many a night and especially whe sleeping on a boat or outdoor in a hammock. Don’t risk heading to South America without one.
  • Ear Plugs
  • Emergency Foil Blanket (present from Nicks dad, which hopefully by having means we will never need to use!)
  • Eaglecreek Silk Money Belt – Comfortable, safe and I basically wear it constantly, it has all my money, cards, passport, important info and memory cards in. The silk makes it non bulky underclothes and…  pretty sweat resistant for those big trek days.
  • Coin Purse
  • iPod Shuffle & Headphones (not the end of the world if you lose it!)
  • Plug Adaptor
  • Head Torch
  • Pen Knife
  • Blow Up Pillow
  • Document Holder – For Insurance Info, Yellow Fever Certificate, Innoculation Booklet, Itinerary etc.
  • Kindle – When I went backpacking to Canada, books took up half of my bag space. My paperwhite is the best thing, I never run out of entertainment and whenever there is Wifi I can download new reading material. I have a bashed up, old book looking case which helps security wise and hopefully itll last the duration of the trip!
  • Lonely Planet – Im carrying around Central America, Nick has South.
  • Digital Camera – About 5 years old and Im not too attatched to it but for the sake of snapping photos I hope it lasts the trip.
  • Chargers for all of these electric things.
  • Homemade Spanish Phrase Book
  • Diary
  • Playing Cards – Mine are special Taytos branded, a present from my Irish friend Chloe, and have already seen aLOT of heated hostel games of Shithead.
Medical
  • Overlanders Medical Kit – This honestly takes up a fifth of my backpack! But as we are visiting remote regions with no real medical care, we would be crazy not to bring a decent kit. Obviously the hope is that we don’t need it, but so far we have delved into it to stitch Nick up post window smashing on him and I ploughed through the rehydration sachets in week one. There is enough space for extra bits, so we also have it stuffed with plasters, travel sickness pills, anti diorrhea tablets etc.
  • A4 Ziplock of Tablets – Another big space chomper is the zip lock full of anti-malerias, which we have to take for the full 6months. I also have contraceptive pill, valerian root to help sleep AND spare asthma inhalers, so am basically a walking pharmacy, but the nice thing is that everytime I take a pill I know there is that tiny bit more extra room coming my way…
  • Flight Socks
  • 4 x Deep Heat Patches – Are you a girl? Do you have periods? Dont travel anywhere, or live your life generally, without these. The ultimate banisher of period pain.
  • Insect Repellent – Just pack one, you can buy DEET out here
  • Sun Cream – Same, you can buy all factors out here
  • After-Sun
  • Tiger Balm – The BEST miracle cure for bites, grazes and anything sore.
  • Germaline
  • Rescue Remedy
  • Anti Bac Hand Gel
  • Vasaline
  • Spanx – Not to help my figure, but these are amazing the day after a big hike or trek when you have sore back and legs. It takes all the pressure off and helps you limp around a little easier.

And that’s it! My life in a bag, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nicks Says: Well Bee has basically covered everything in brilliant detail, so I won’t bore with going over too much of the same stuff. But the good news for the guys is that you can get away with even less stuff.

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As you can see from the photo above, I’ve also managed to cram in a lot of stuff into a small space. My bag is a 37L Lowe Alpine beauty, bought from the fine folks at the Outdoor Emporium in Camden who are super friendly and knowledgeable about pretty much everything outdoorsy and travel equipment related. For those who want the 35L but are concerned they may need a bit more space every now and again, a very similar Lowe Alpine bag is available and highly recommended.

I’ll try not to repeat anything that me & Bee have duplicates of, but I will give a quick run-down of important clothing items in my bag.

Clothing

  • 1 pair of combats. I actually bought these from Next after finding nothing suitable in the outdoor shops, and they’re great. They include a zip pocket which is invaluable for storing passport and wallet.
  • 1 pair of boardies. Great as your swimming gear, plus double as a pair of shorts.
  • A 3/4 length pair of shorts. I usually take a pair of shorts this length on my trips, but slightly regretted it on this one. They were too bulky for the small pack, and also didn’t add anything extra that a normal pair of combat shorts would have done, with less space. So don’t follow my lead here.
  • 4 T-Shirts. These include my beloved Melburn shirt my friend got me as a memento of my time spent living in the fine city of Melbourne. 1 tee has already been binned as a health hazard, and been replaced by a Peruvian supermecardo special.
  • 1 Hoodie. Don’t leave home without it.
  • 1 krama. This is my favourite ever piece of travel clothing. It’s a Cambodian scarf, and the best 25p I’ve ever spent. It doubles as a warming scarf, sun hat, dust mask, and bandana. You can also get big versions which you can wear as a manly skirt.
  • Wooly hat/beanie – I picked mine up for about £2/$3 in a Bolivian market, and can’t recommend getting one more – travelling isn’t all fun in the sun. Especially in South America you’ll be hitting altitude, and the hat will come in very handy!

I’ve also got just about enough underwear to keep it fresh and Bee happy, but every now and again I join the ULF (the underwear liberation front). When travelling to a new place, we make sure to wear all our bulky items and save on space. This is especially important for my trail shoes which can fit in my pack, but make it a bit of a squeeze… I chose the Benefaction II shoes from Berghaus, which were brilliant in every condition and stood up to some pretty tough punishment. Sadly they no longer seem to be on sale anywhere, so here’s a link to my new choice of shoes from new company Ridgemont Outfitters, combining rugged versatility with street style.

The most important and versatile item I took though was definitely my Montane Lite-Speed jacket. It kept me warm on top of the Andes in very cold and windy conditions, yet didn’t overheat me in the tropics, was waterproof enough to keep the rain off while running for shelter during a tropical storm, and best of all packed down to the size of an apple – meaning that I barely noticed it in my backpack, and could easily take it in my daypack. It’s so good that I now regularly wear it on all adventures, and in daily life!

Keeping Clean

I also made sure to pack a bottle of all-purpose soap, vital for when you have to wash clothes in the sink. I remember not really using much of it in 9 months when I travelled with just boys, but with Bee’s totalitarian cleaning regime , it’s almost all gone! (You mean it spilt in your bag!! – Bee) A loo roll is also VERY IMPORTANT, as they don’t like to supply you with much over here. Finally, one of my must pack items is a Swiss army knife. My current one was a present from my big brother Joe, and although I’ve not had to to take out any stitches with it (a former use of mine in Bangkok), it’s been super handy. Added to that I chucked in a few travel sized shower gels and shampoos, plus a beach towel. I found that those travel towels are generally a waste of money and feel horrible. A beach towel packs away almost as small, dries quickly, and looks better when you’re sunning yourself on golden sands.

If there’s one item I regret not bringing, it’s an E-Reader. Books take up loads of room, plus I’ve been stuck with old ones and no book exchange. Which meant I’ve read the guidebook cover to cover. I’m not even going to Argentina, but I can tell you all about it’s wine growing regions… Probably should have used the time to read the phrasebook instead.

Bee & Nick Say: There are obviously pros and cons to travelling light…

PROS
  1. Our bags are small enough to put in hand luggage on flights, and in the rack above us on coaches and buses. Some bags get tampered with or stolen from the hold, and since we spend half our life on buses, we were keen to never have them out of sight.
  2. They are light enough to trek with if we want to, like we did on Isla Del Sol. Most people we see are literally struggling to even get their huge backpacks on their backs, then cowering beheath the weight even walking to the bus. It does not look fun.
  3. Packing takes us about 5 minutes, usually less. Sleeping through the alarm doesn’t mean PANIC!
  4. You boil everything down to the basics. One of the main reasons to travel is to gain perspective on your life – and in this case a uncluttered bag means an uncluttered mind.
CONS
  1. This is no fashion show. We have to wear the SAME things day in, day out, and we start to refer to our “uniform”. I dont care most of the time, but there has been the odd occasion where I have felt really dowdy and underdresses such as the Manaus opera house where I was surrounded by women in beautiful gowns and I was wearing… Combats and walking boots.
  2. No room for luxuries! Dont even think about hair dryers, GHDs, make up etc. Packing light is definitely for happy scruff bags like me. I figure that I spend alot of time on my appearence in “normal life”, so 6 months off is allowed. When you are wearing a hat and sunglasses most of the time, it doesnt really matter what your hair and face look like underneath.
  3. You pong a bit… Laundry is an expensive treat, so day to day washing has to be done in the sink with soap. This obviously means after a week or so, everything is on varying levels of gross and slightly-less-gross. Fresh washed clothes is the BEST day when we do get a proper wash done!
  4. No space for presents! You cant really stock up on any gifts or souveniers bigger than fridge magnets. We did a big shop in La Paz for friends and family and then posted it home, which we felt is probably more secure than carting it all around for another 4 months… but there is a cost attached

Have we convinced you to travel a tad lighter? What size is your backpack?

 

 

Take Us Back To… Morocco!

Bee & Nick Say: Ah travelling. We have managed to pack in a fair amount since landing back in London from our Latin American adventure! There’s been Ghent, Paris and Sweden, as well as a few UK-breaks. However, 2015 is a slightly different kettle of fish because we have that quite major holiday to save up the pennies and ideas for; the one that starts with honey and ends in MOON! With that in mind; travel will be a little more limited until Autumn and so we thought we could share some of the adventures we had before our backpacking as part of a “Take Us Back To…” series.

In February 2013 we went on our first foreign holiday together and after lots of contenders; settled on the dreamy location of Morocco. Neither of us had visited North Africa, and we were also keen to go somewhere that we could get out in the wilds of and use it as almost a “test” before the big trip. This post was first blogged over on Bee’s lifestyle blog likeaskeletonkey but we have edited and added to it, so join us as we return to our sanctuary deep in the High Atlas.

Bee Says: Last Tuesday my alarm went off at 4am and I didn’t mind AT all! We bundled out of the house and a taxi whooshed us to Victoria to pick up a train to Gatwick. It had snowed overnight so all the parks were Narnia-like and frost glistened on the silent streets. Somehow the blue lips and cold fingers as we waited for the train made the fact that in a few hours we’d be landing in 30 degree African sun even more satisfying. The glorious Easyjet fly to Essaouira, Agadir and Marrakesh, and our flights cost £70 return each, so if you book in advance a Moroccan escape can be cheaper than holidaying in Europe. As we creaked up into the air the captain informed us that thanks to a stiff tail wind (heh) we’d be there in a brisk 3 hours as opposed to the scheduled 3 hours 45 minutes. A bumpy trip and beautiful sunrise later and we were descending over the Atlas Mountains.

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This was both Nick & I’s first time in North Africa. Rather than staying in one of the bustling cities, we had chosen to stay in the High Atlas. This is the edge of the Atlas Mountains, and about a 25 minute drive from Agadir. After a fair bit of research we had fallen head over heels in love with the Atlas Kasbah which is an Ecolodge situated in the middle of the hills in a small Berber community. The Kasbah ticked the boxes of everything we wanted from the holiday; to be immersed in a new culture, easy access to mountains, desert, beaches and souks and… a pool to lounge around next to on our lazy days.

Nick Says:One of the thrills of travel for me is to go somewhere that feels totally alien, where the sense of the unknown is overwhelming, a tiny bit scary, but utterly compelling. South-East Asia and South Korea previously ticked those boxes for me. I could now add Morocco to the list. I’d never travelled to a primarily Arab country before, and the cultural shift was immediate even upon landing. It felt different, and exciting, and… hot. Very hot actually. An incredible dry heat that you felt immediately upon exiting the plane. This might be a sweaty trip. We had arranged via the Atlas Kasbah to be get a taxi transfer to the hotel from the airport. If there’s ever this option, I would probably advise to do it. Take it from someone who has wandered through the choked streets of Chennai struggling to find somewehere to sleep after a long-haul flight to India and a crowded train trip into the city. Or on their first trip to Asia got thoroughly lost in a pounding rain storm in Kuala Lumpur after deciding ‘finding this hostel will be easy, who needs a map?’ Or… well, you get the picture. Anyway, as well as making getting to the hotel easy, arranging our transfer meant we met a valuable guide for our week in this part of the world, the amazing Saeed. He would prove invaluable, super-friendly, and a knowledgeable man in the days ahead. He started by chatting through the local area on our drive and teaching us a few basic words of Arabic and Berber. Outside the window, the landscape was a marvel. Reddy-brown hills dotted with bushes and scrub (which would later turn out to be the source of argan oil) and seemingly impossibly arid. It immediately conjured up images of nomads roaming the hills on camels, and hidden cities springing up from the desert. But before we knew it we rounded a corner and spotted what seemed to be a fort on a hill. We had arrived at the Atlas Kasbah.

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Bee Says: We couldn’t have been more impressed with the Kasbah, in fact on the feedback survey I marked everything 10/10! We were absolutely spoilt with the local cuisine, as in the Kasbah local chefs and cooks from the village create traditional dishes. Everything from the vegetables, to the herbs used in the tea, are grown at the ecolodge in gardens and over the week we ate the best food of our life! From heaps of fluffy couscous, to steaming tagine, to this amazing invention called pastilla (a sort of noodle pastry pie filled with chicken and sweet almond) and every meal was opened with piping hot just-baked flat bread. Even breakfast, which I expected to be a lame buffet effort (HOW wrong) was an epic feast. Every morning we’d wake with the sun rise and stroll out into the immaculate gardens. Sitting in the shade of the trees, we ate a barley soup to warm our stomachs which was a bit like a tepid savoury rice pudding but curiously addictive. We would then be brought pancakes, warm bread, cake and an omelette, along with natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and 6 mini tagine pots filled with honey, pureed apple, dates, jam, butter and almond butter. Nick drank the spiced coffee but as I’m still caffeine-free (and was green with envy!) I opted for mint tea.

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Mint tea needs a whole paragraph of it’s own! Now lets just get this straight, the Moroccan mint tea isn’t like the ol’ packet peppermint stuff we have here. It’s the pillar of Arabic culture. We were lucky enough to get a lesson in making the mint tea by the Kasbah host M’bark. The tea is made with fresh mint (50 types of mint grow in Morocco), green tea and a serious amount of sugar. The tea takes 10 minutes to prepare as the water is boiled over hot coals, then poured in and out of metal teapots into small glass beakers over and over, to dilute the sugar and mix the ingredients. You can certainly taste the love that has gone into it. During our various trips we were invited to take tea with 3 different families, to whom we were complete strangers, and each time the process was done with such care (and always by the man of the house – it’s serious business remember!)

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In fact the main recommendation I would give for Morocco is how friendly and welcoming everyone is. I had read before going that in Arabic culture everyone they meet is viewed as a gift from Allah and destined to be there, and this attitude is absolutely clear by how warm and open everyone we met was. Especially given the massive language barrier! In Morocco, French and Arabic are the dominant languages, with Berber also spoken in Berber communities. We learnt that Berber people actually refer to themselves as Amazigh which means free people, as Berber was a name given by outsiders and is actually quite offensive (sort of equivalent to barbarian) although still commonly used. I speak no French and given that I’m now 8 weeks into re-learning Spanish, was desperately trying to avoid using French as I was worried the Spanish would all drop out of my brain! Nick, we soon realised, also could speak no French other than the very helpful “shut your mouth” and “I don’t give a damn” which wouldn’t exactly endear us to the local community. We soon decided it would be just as easy (and hopefully a bit more impressive) to learn key phrases in Arabic and Berber. So we made a big effort on our first day to practise and perfect how to say hello, please, thank you and no problem. It’s amazing how far these 4 phrases used alongside some sign language and big wavy arm movements can get you.

Nick Says: After a pretty lazy first day of mainly eating and drinking mint tea, we decided to spend the day hiking in the nearby foothills. Our guide was Ahmed, who lived in the local village. We assumed it would be a nice stroll about, especially considering how blisteringly hot it was. However,  Ahmed’s idea of a stroll was to walk 5 metres ahead at all times, with an almost jogging power pace, and then turn round with almost disapproving look that we couldn’t keep up with him! We later discovered that he cheekily told the Kasbah staff that he’d worked us hard because they are young! Added to the furious pace and heat was the fact that Bee was extra covered up on her arms and legs to respect the culture. This is a key thing in Muslim countries (and also in Italy when I visited some pretty religious towns) and worth bearing in mind, even if you’re male. However, it does not make hiking any easier… But it was truly awe-inspiring to be out in wilderness like this. London felt another world away. We walked miles and miles into the hills, barely seeing another living creature. What struck me about the terrain was how rocky and craggy everything was. Even beautiful flowers were covered with spiney stems and dusty leaves. The trees, despite being green, had thorny gnarled trunks. It felt like everything had to be extra tough and coarse to survive the lack of water and the desolate environment.

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Bee Says: Eventually we reached the peaks of the hills, where the nomads live. At night, we could see the nomads fires blazing in the distance and it was comforting and humbling to think of them out there, living such a simple lifestyle (especially when we had been patting ourselves on the back at going without iPhones for a week) We then hiked down to Ahmed’s villlage. En route he encouraged (ok politely forced) us to stroke a very poisonous-looking caterpillar and we both wondered if we might drop dead within minutes… but luckily we didn’t. Instead we made it to the village, and were fortunate enough to visit the Argan Oil Cooperative. As part of a push to create more jobs for women, cooperatives have been set up around Morocco where women gather to create Argan Oil (specific to the region and one of the biggest exported goods). We sat with the women for half an hour, using the stone tools to attempt to crack open Argan fruit and then crack open the nut inside, then free the small white seeds which are then crushed to make the precious oil. The women working away found it hilarious that Nick sat down and mucked in, and were howling with laughter the whole time! It felt really special to spend the time there, witnessing what daily life is like for the villagers.

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We were then invited to Ahmed’s for mint tea and a flatbread/honey feast. We met his wife and two young children and he proudly showed us his home, his chicken and the area he lived in. We started to realise that perhaps he had been walking so fast because he was excited to get us back to see his house! As we headed home in the late afternoon, the village mosque was calling to prayer. We spotted this glorious blue lizard and spent the evening star gazing.

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Nick Says: On Valentines Day we drove into Agadir. We were excited to see the local city, and take in a different kind of culture than the village life we’d adapted to. Agadir itself was a mixed experience. If you’re interested in this part of Morocco,I’d probably advise you just fly in and out of this city… Our first port of call was the Kasbah that overlooks the city, perched atop of a huge hill and visible from everywhere in Agadir. The view from there was breath-taking, and Bee had the added bonus of seeing her first ever camel, which she duly took a snap of, but was a bit frightened to pet. They are pretty bad-tempered though, so I don’t blame her. I once saw a wild camel charge a truck in Australia. Anyway, I digress. Back to the ruined Kasbah which majestically overlooks Agadir, and serves as a stark monument to the power of nature in this part of the world. The panoramic perspective clearly shows the shift caused by the disastrous earthquake that hit Agadir in 1960, killing half the population and completely destroying the old town. The Agadir we visited is apparently unrecognisable from its previous state, having been entirely rebuilt and so I guess you should bear in mind that it’s a city still recovering from a devastating natural disaster.

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Bee Says: We spent a lot of the day on the beach; which was clean and pleasant. The town however didn’t really have much to offer. Sadly (well not if you like that kind of thing) Agadir is dominated by resorts. Tourists flock for the cheap flights and guaranteed heat, but then stay in these Club-Med style resorts with huge walls and gated access. Actually I think I only need to say one thing to describe Agadir; there’s an English Pub. And for me, that’s exactly what I was trying to escape! We tried to make the most of the day by visiting the Valley of the Birds; a free nature attraction. However, as I excitedly scampered in and ran up to the first cage of blue parrots… I recoiled in horror. All the birds were balding. Some had almost no feathers. Some had actual bits of them missing, obviously having been gnawed off by their cage-mates. The ‘valley’ was an unfortunate one-way system so we were forced to carry on through what Nick coined the gauntlet of horror and we were very relieved to escape, if a little traumatised. One good thing about Agadir was that we could visit the huge Uniprix (supermarket). Morocco is a mainly dry country = no booze for sale in restaurants! So if you want a few drinks on an evening, you have to bring them yourself. Our Kasbah were very accommodating – and would happily put drinks in the fridge for us, open them to serve with dinner etc. They just don’t have the license (or inclination…) to serve it. The Uniprix is the only place in Agadir to legally sell alcohol, so we picked up a bottle of bubbles and also 4 bottles of the local Casablanca beer. I’m absolutely gutted we just had hand-luggage allowance as otherwise we would have bought a crate of this back! It was a beautiful beer, and a steal at just over £1 a bottle. The highlight of Agadir, and reason I would still recommend a visit, was twilight. As the sun sets, you can sit on one of the beach front bars drinking mint tea (obvs) watching the birds swarm around the port and then the motif on the Kasbah hill that says ‘God, Country, King’ lights up and sparkles in the distance. It was a really tranquil moment and a favourite memory of the trip.

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Nicks Says: Our big adventure day saw Saeed back once again to show off his country. He had actually given us a lift back from Agadir the night before, and so by now we felt pretty comfortable with him. After discussing where to go, and what to see and do, we decided in the end to drive the 2 hours down to Souss-Massa National Park. There were endless options of big day trips we could have done – Marrakesh, the oasis of Ait Baha, sampling fresh honey, the waterfalls of Imouzzer or the imperial city of Taroudant. We chose the national park because it was close to the city of Tiznit so we felt we could combine a half day of wilderness and then taking in a traditional souk. At Souss-Massa we were met by a local villager Ahmed (another Ahmed!) and his trusty and much loved binoculars. He took us on a 3 hour trek which trailed the river Massa to the beach, where the sands are the same as those in the mighty Sahara. Along the sea front lay a small fishing village. Although in the distance for the time being, Ahmed gestured that we would be walking towards it through the park. We knew before we visited that Souss Massa was home to the near-extinct Bald Ibis bird. Half of the worlds population (of which there are only 800) reside there and there’s a huge local push to preserve and protect this critically endangered species. We were desperate to see them, but didn’t hold out much hope. So imagine our surprise when Ahmed suddenly whooped for joy, and a V formation of bald ibis swooped over our heads! As we stood stunned on the sand, we saw about 3 different flocks of these incredible creatures and Bee even turned professional wildlife photographer and managed to get a brilliant shot that shows their amazing baldheads. The camel photoshoot had obviously primed her. This has to be the highlight of our trip, seeing one of the rarest birds in the world. Ahmed kept saying bon chance, bon chance as it’s so unexpected to see them. Apparently he hadn’t seen any since Christmas, which was a month and a half before. We also tracked wild foxes, found a wild boar skeleton, flocks of yellow billed herons in the trees and of course… sea gulls aplenty.

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Bee Says: As we crossed the sandy planes to the fisherman’s village, I made Ahmed laugh with a crocodile impression (the international language of signing coming in handy again) and in return he gave me his Berber headscarf which I wore for the rest of the day. On another baking hot day, it was sorely appreciated. As Ahmed took his headscarf off, a big curly mop of sun-bleached hair appeared, and we realised that he was a cool surf dude undernearth the traditional dress. He also had an amazing ironic teeshirt, considering he is a guide at a national park, he was wearing a Yellowstone national park tee! After a couple of hours hiking across the type of Sahara sand I have only seen in movies; we walked around a corner and what had previously just looked like a sheer cliff face shimmering in the heat suddenly revealed itself to actually be host to multiple cave houses. It was breath-taking. Just as we were blinking to believe what we were seeing; Ahmed proudly pushed us into one of the caves, which it turned out belonged to his brother, where we took… mint tea! His cave house was beautifully painted and so cosy, the way you could see the sea lapping in the distance from his bed. Any language barrier was easily overcome by Ahmed showing us photographs of a giant dead whale that washed up on the coastline last May (BIG FISHING VILLAGE NEWS!) with men stood around it looking the size of ants. Again I was struck by how little you need to be content, and how simple his life was looking out on the ocean. On the way home Ahmed encouraged us to climb up some stairs built into the sand cliff, which then turned into… just sand. The ground gave away (imagine how slippery vertical sand is!) as we scrambled our way up the cliff. Ahmed of course remained cool as a cucumber, whilst I imagined just how much damage landing on those spiny, sharp rockpools would do to my face… Yet another near-death scrape, but as he tugged me over the final cliff-lip, the views were almost worth it.

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Sandy and sun-kissed, we drove an hour to Tiznit. On the way we didn’t see another car, only ragged rugged plains as far as the eye could see, peppered with the occasional nomad’s tent. Tiznit was a delight, and I’d definitely recommend you visit. We were the only tourists and that always reassures me that you are seeing a city in its natural state rather than putting on a show for visitors. I haven’t been to Marrakesh to compare, but I imagine this is a less intense alternative. Tiznit is the capital of silver, and we got to see a local man creating silver that looked like delicate spun sugar. I bought an ebony bracelet with silver etchings, which has shot to the top of my most favourite and precious jewellery items and would definitely get saved in a fire! Tiznit is split in two, with an old terracotta town with huge towering walls and staircases that lead to nowhere. This was where the souk was, and it was a wonder to walk around – heaps of tagine pots, Moroccan slippers, jewels, oils galore, while Saeed kept encouraging me to eat random bits of what looked like twig that he plucked from the market stalls that were apparently good for women (he didnt say how, and they tasted like tree. I even got a tongue splinter.)

Nick Says: You could tell Saeed loved showing off Tiznit. He took us to his favourite Tagine place to eat lunch (it was good, but not as good as the Atlas Kasbah), and ducked and dived around the souk chatting to people and showing off various stalls. He even decided to buy Bee a present, a lovely scarf to help her in the heat. It was such a kind gesture from a tour guide, and was yet another example of the warmth and friendliness we found everywhere in this country.

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Bee Says: From Tiznit we drove out into the proper heights of the Atlas Mountains to the Ben Tachfine dam.  As we wound narrow roads I had no idea what to expect, and as we stepped out of the car I couldn’t catch my breath. No photo or words or describing will do justice to how beautiful the view was, and how silent and peaceful and just mind-blowing this moment was. I couldn’t have felt further from home. An 86 year old nomad lived at the top of the mountain and invited us for mint tea… and offered Nick to swap me for his donkey. It was quite a nice donkey.

Nick Says: Luckily for Bee though donkeys are my number one most hated animal (a childhood biting incident is to blame) so I was able to refuse the nomads offer. He was a properly grizzled old dude though, and was obviously loving life at the top of the dam. Driving around the mountains made me realise just how vast and empty Morocco is. It felt like we would go for hours without seeing a single sign of life, instead bumping along dusty roads and staring at the parched landscape. Then suddenly we would hit a wellspring of life and activity, or perhaps pass a few nomads in tents, before leaving the far behind in the distance.

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Bee Says: So, days merged into days, and a lot of dips in the pools, hours reading in the dusky sun, exploring the high Atlas and sleeping (we averaged around ten hours a night) and for our final trip we drove out to a surf town near Essaouira which is fondly referred to locally as banana beach. Weirdly enough Nick & I had never tried surfing before, despite me having holidayed at Fistral Beach in Newquay and Nick having er.. lived in Australia! I can’t remember at what point we agreed to try in Morocco, but we thought it would be nice to try something entirely new for the first time together. We went with Surf Town who we were reassured were experts with beginners, and they lived up to the claims. We paid £54 for half a day surfing and that included a very hands-on tutor, equipment and wet-suits. We joined a group of 5 friendly Russians and together embarked on our efforts to take on the sea.

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I couldn’t believe how MASSIVE the surf board was. I am a weakling, and could barely lift the thing let alone contemplate riding it! But actually once in the water (and attached to my foot) it was a little easier to control. We learnt the basics of surfing on the sand, and then hit the (huge) waves. I have to say, I absolutely loved it. Surfing requires intense concentration, a good sense of timing (to know when to paddle, when to attempt to stand etc) but once you get up on the board it’s the most satisfying, free feeling. Although every moment of exhilaration is matched with an hour of face-planting into crashing waves, sand and (for me) rocks. Woops. I definitely caught the surf bug though, and it helped to be doing it in a glorious exotic location with camels roaming the beach and herons swooping overhead. I managed to stand up once, whereas Nick was basically Beach-Boys level surf star within hours. What I didn’t expect was the world of pain that followed the next day. Every muscle in my body was screaming, so being squished into a full-capacity Easyjet flight for nearly 4 hours wasn’t the best treatment. We both agreed that it’s something we can’t wait to try again. I can’t see us getting his n hers boards and spending the days at the beach, but I reckon we’ll definitely go again this year. It’s quite nice to have started on one of the coastlines that world class surfers long to surf on!

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So that’s the end of our first ever trip to Morocco. You have probably gathered that it stole a piece of our hearts, and we’re desperately blue at being back in -5 degree London, which currently is snowing constantly at that level that makes me feel like I’m walking around in Silent Hill. Morocco has been my best ever holiday, and I would recommend everyone and anyone to visit. You can pick and choose absolutely anything you could wish for from a holiday, and be as adventurous or as lazy as you like. I also can’t recommend Atlas Kasbah enough. Every member of staff seemed so personally invested in us having a good time, and were patient, welcoming and endlessly friendly. Nothing was too much trouble, and they made our holiday so much more special because they were from the local area so were endless sources of knowledge and tips and information.

Nick Says: Morocco is a truly remarkable country, and we barely scratched the surface on what to do there. Exploring deep into the valleys of the mountains remains a must. Diving into the manic press of humanity in Marrakesh should be experienced. A night-trek on camel to the Sahara is on the list. As is a proper trip to Essaouira. But most of all I’m tempted to come back to the Atlas Kasbah and do it all again. Which is something I’ve never felt before – I love doing new things and seeing new places. So that must mean Morocco and the Atlas Kasbah did something truly special.

Bee and Nick Say: (Back in current day mode!) Despite all our further travels, there were only a handful places in Latin America that lived up to Morocco in our minds. Morocco is a truly magical place, which sounds like a cheesy term, but its accurate. It’s a land of souks, and silver, and special tea, and nomad fires burning in the distance. The alien-ness to anything anywhere else is palpable; from the warmth of the locals, the unique cuisine, and the language, smells, colours and nature. There’s also a vital lesson to learn from Morocco and its people; the most important thing in life is taking time to just sit down, share a tea and live alongside one another in peace for a moment… or a lot of moments. Nothing is better than that. On our last night we were treated to the most spectacular lightning storms we have ever seen, as if we hadn’t seen enough already, one last gift from one of the most picturesque parts of the world.

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A Birthday Weekend in Paris: Part ii

Nick Says: Bonjour! We last left you drinking in Brewberry and eating midnight crepes. Sunday in Paris dawned bright, clear, but cold, and my day’s itinerary was revealed to me (Bee had planned everything meticulously). It was to be a true day of dreams, and started in the best way – by going to a nearby patisserie and grabbing some coffee and pastries. Near our hotel was the original Eric Kayser. Now a global chain spanning several continents, the first (and some say the best) is still open for business on rue Monge. Very patiently understanding our very, very, basic French, we were able to order hot drinks and delicious croissants (and maybe an extra pan au chocolat too) which we quickly wolfed down. Then it was off for a walk through the empty Sunday morning streets of Paris to the Jardin des Plantes, one of the finest parks in Paris. On the banks of the Seine, it houses many things, including an incredible Alpine garden with its own micro-climate. If you ever find yourself in this beautiful city I highly recommend an afternoon here – we barely scratched the surface.

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Our first stop-off here was to the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes. The oldest civic zoological garden in the world, it houses mid to small sized rare animals. Zoos are always slightly controversial. It’s never nice to see animals caged for our amusement, but without them these species may well die out never to be seen again. For what it’s worth, I thought the facilities here were among the better ones I’ve seen, and in many ways preferable to London Zoo, which I’m not a fan of. Apart from a sad Orangutan, none of the animals looked in any sort of distress.

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As well as the 19th century architecture, highlights in the menagerie included some sort of mountain goat whose coat was a giant white afro (disco goat), the rare and giant cassowary (razor clawed flightless birds that love to charge and attack you), and a flock of pink flamingos, who were just as smelly and bad-tempered as their wild brethren we saw in the Altiplano of Bolivia. But the best thing we both saw had to be the panthers/leopards. We just happened to miss a big crowd of people who had been watching for any signs of movement, but got bored and left. With no-one around apart from me and Bee, the panthers emerged (they had been hiding in almost plain sight). One was a big man panther, and the other an almost as big lady panther. Suddenly the man panther leapt on the lady panther, roared, then ran off to sulk in a corner. The lady panther rolled around on her back a bit, then went over to see where her bad-tempered boyfriend was. Bee asked me if they had tried to mate. I told they had. It lasted seconds. ‘No wonder he’s gone off to sulk’ replied Bee. Nobody but else had seen it. It felt pretty voyeuristic.

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Bee Says: After seeing all these glorious living animals… what better way to extend the experience than by checking them all out again… but in skeletal form! The Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée (Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy) also sits in the stunning Jardin des Plants. Inaugurated in 1898 the collection consists of finds from collections the great expeditions of the traveller-naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as from the ménagerie that we had just visited. Through the power of Google I knew what to expect when we walked through the huge wooden front doors of the building. Nick on the other-hand had no idea, and just LOOK at his face!

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I’m not exaggerating when I say that despite seeing half of the world in the last year; this is one of the most incredible sights of them all. It’s absolutely mind boggling! To see almost every species in existance lined up amongst each other. Every bones, every vertebrae,every flipper, tail, horn and fin. From the teeny tiny birds right up to the towering elephant, whale and giraffe. There is just this in-describable atmosphere in the room; I guess from the hundreds of lives that occurred prior to becoming a gallery of Funny Bones. The museum was extremely educational; and even though it felt a bit ghoulish examining human skeletons and bones, I realised how little I knew about what I look like under all my padding. I loved the fact that the museum still feels like something from another century too; thick wood panelling and creaky floorboards and ancient labelling and phrasing. This is a real hidden treasure of Paris and one not to be missed. After taking a peek at every animal ever, there is another, quieter, floor packed with fossils and DINO bones; including a terrifying scale model of a wooly Mammoth. I am so happy those guys don’t roam around any more; they are unfathomably big (think 10 elephants stuck together – that’s the scientific description I’m sure)

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Nick Says: After all that animal time (alive and dead) it was time to cross Paris and discover more of its wonders. But this time we would be going from the almost secret, to its most famous – the Eiffel Tower. It was about an hours walk from our hotel to the tower, and a pretty nice one too – walking down the streets of Paris, imagining we lived there, popping into shops we discovered along the way and grabbing the odd coffee to warm us up and keep us going. But then before I knew it, we could spot the Eiffel Tower looming increasingly larger in the skyline. We were really about to see it! Like all iconic buildings and monuments, there’s something almost indescribable about seeing it with your own eyes. I had it the first time I saw the Sydney Opera House, Uluru, the Statue of Liberty,Michelangelo’s David, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Tikal, and even the Hollywood sign. A thrill that runs through you, the wondrous brought to life before your every eyes and made real. It looks exactly how you imagine it, but it’s more, so much more. It’s why being an armchair tourist and a real one can never compete. We need things to be made tangible to truly affect us I think. Why is tourism the biggest industry in the world? Because of moments like this. There was the Eiffel Tower, looking exactly how I expected it to, but being so much more.

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One of the best tips I’d been given about going to the top was from my brother Chris. He said not to take the lift, and instead to climb. It’s super easy, and also cheaper. It’s 15 euros to take the lift up, but you won’t have earned those views. Instead, pay 5 euros to hike up. The first benefit is that the queue to get in is a lot shorter than for the lifts, so you’ll have less time standing around on the ground and more time admiring the view. You can only climb to the second viewing platform, which for many is plenty high enough to get the incredible atmosphere and sights of Paris, but for those who do want to go all the way to the top you can buy lift tickets without the giant queues from here. Walking up to the first platform is surprisingly easy, and you can feel the workmanship of the 300ft tower all around (did I imagine that creaking?).

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After catching your breath and admiring the view, you can then tackle the second set of stairs, which is a lot harder than the first! You definitely feel the height you’re going up above the ground here, exposed to the air (if not the elements) as you are. But then you’ve made it, and Paris looks incredible! It really did blow me away up there. Here I was, the last day of my 20s, standing in one of the most iconic spots in the world. I didn’t know how else to commemorate it than buying an over-priced miniature version of the Eiffel Tower, from the gift-shop on the Eiffel Tower itself! Inception all over.

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Bee Says: We marched home from the Eiffel Tower, watching it glittering on the horizon as we walked further and further away from it and back towards the Latin Quarter. I think I mentioned last time that this is the best area to stay in to be close to the night life and so we were keen to head out to the streets where the local spend their time, around Rue Mouffetard, for Nick’s special birthday dinner. We eventually decided that the best possible dinner choice would be something involving lots of melted cheese so headed for a beautiful, rustic looking restaurant called l’assiette aux fromages. We figured if it had cheese in the title it must know its stuff! The place had such a lovely atmosphere; all gingham and Le Creuset (drool over their full range here!) and wood panelling, with a super friendly owner who greeted us like he knew it was a special occasion. We weren’t let down as we gobbled our way through French onion soup, pate and then a giant pot of molten boozy blue cheese fondue. Oh and a bottle of their best red wine.

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We snuck out into the freezing night with warm bellies full of cheese; but as some inspiring Brazilians taught us in Manaus “the night is a child!” (we think they meant the night is young, but this has become our favourite phrase to bust out when one of us wants to stay out late) And so it was on to another creperie; but we got bored of queuing, so we headed to the Arts Bar that sits along side a quaint little courtyard and fountain. It was there that I ordered a lovely raspberry beer. Nick ordered a local beer… only to discover it was 12%! Perhaps the hint was in the name (the beer of the devil!) and Nick spluttered and squirmed his way through this delicacy. On our early hour stroll back to the hotel, we were very grateful that our home for the night was only round the corner as I think we’d walked about 15 miles in total that day! Oh… and you know that Eiffel Tower miniature we bought on the actual Eiffel Tower that Nick was so proud about? Lets just say the wine and boozy fondue combo meant that someone left it it in its box and gift bag on the floor of the restaurant. WOOPS!

Nick Says: And so Monday came around. Our last day in Paris, and also my 30th birthday! After arranging me a delicious breakfast in bed (thanks to the hotel for being so accommodating with this), Bee then pointed us in the direction of Montmatre for a day of enjoying one of the more picturesque parts of the city. Once again we walked (taking an hour or so), and you really get to see how the city changes from arrondissement to arrondissement. We went via the Moulin Rouge, which as you can see from the photo below, is pretty shit. If you’re in Paris and want to specifically see this place, my advice would be not to bother. Honestly, all I’ve said about iconic places only truly coming alive when you visit them can be disregarded here. The Moulin Rouge is far more appealing and fulfilling in the history books and in movies…

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Speaking of movies though, we also managed to get some lunch in les Deux Moulins, known better as the cafe Amelie works in. Fortunately this lived up to the hype, as beyond a few posters, and a little shrine to the film featuring props in the toilet/telephone box, it’s still very much a cafe first, tourist destination second.

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Consuming yet more cheese and wine, we then slowly made our way up to the Sacre Cour, past the hundreds of tourists (Montmatre is definitely not a peaceful place to spend a Sunday afternoon).

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It was worth it though, as the view was spectacular up here. Then all we had to do was run the gauntlet of dodgy guys trying to tie bracelets onto us as we went down the hill (the only time something like this happened while we were here) and we could march back to the Latin Quarter. Our time in Paris was drawing to a close, but we still had to time to cram in one more amazing thing – Notre Dame Cathedral. Put off by the huge queues earlier in the day, we swung by around 5pm, when we were able to gain immediate entry. Before I go on though, the day before we had walked past the hulking Gothic cathedral, as the famous bells chimed. I couldn’t help but make the obvious, ‘the bells!’ comment, only to have Bee look at me in wonder and ask, ‘is this where the Hunchback of Notre Dame is set?!’. Sometimes, for a very clever person, Bee can still amaze me.

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Inside Notre Dame was incredible, Not a place for quiet contemplation by any means, as the sheer number of sight-seeing going on puts paid to that, but a place where you can truly be in awe about the commitment to make a building like this hundreds of years ago. It was an inspiring and intimidating place.

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But then all to soon, it was time to leave. We were back at gare du nord, and checking in to Eurostar. But there was one last birthday treat – upon finding out it was my 30th birthday the impeccably stylish Frechman at the check-in upgraded me to 1st Class! Almost made me leaving my 20s behind worth it. So we sped back to the UK fuelled by more cheese and wine, and looked back at Paris as perhaps the perfect weekend city break, especially for those based in the UK. Friendlier than you’re led to believe, easily walkable, and full of incredible sights and experiences around every corner, it’s a place I’m already looking forward to returning to. I’m making a list of places I didn’t get to see – and I think that says it all.

Bee Says: Paris really did have it all; and we are already itching to go back. The main take-away I had was how friendly the city is. I am really perturbed by the reputation the locals have; because as far as I can see it is completely incorrect. It was like any capital city in a foreign place in that you get out of it what you put in. We made effort to speak the language and smile a lot; and everyone we met made an effort to communicate back and welcome us. One final Parisian note… eagle eyed blog readers might spot that yes, I was that girl that spent 3 days in Paris and wore a different striped top every day and didn’t even realise until I was coming home. I clearly own WAY too many stripes! Paris, we loved you, thank you for giving Nick the best 30th possible and maybe, kinda, beating Machu Picchu!

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A Birthday Weekend In Paris : Part i.

Bee Says: Well, it’s time to ‘fess up and admit the fact that from this moment on both Nick and I are living a serious lie. We are no longer TwentySomething (Burnouts), as this weekend Nick turned the grand old 3-0, making us both very much ThirtySomethings which definitely does not have the same ring to it. We won’t be re-branding, we will continue to live a lie and clutch to our youth, and we’d appreciate you keeping our secret! Shh! So, the bar was set extremely high for Nick’s 30th for two reasons. The first being that he took great time and effort on my 30th back in May when we went adventuring in Exmoor and the second being that, well, we spent his last birthday climbing Machu Picchu mountain which is kind of hard to beat. I had known for a while that I wanted to take Nick to Paris because he has never been (despite seeing almost all of Europe and the world!) and I haven’t been since I was a teenager; and then I went with my marvellous mum and so I haven’t done the whole city of love romantic thing! I booked the trip in June and since then have had to live with the secret which had nearly finished me off before we even stepped foot into France. Anyone who knows us in real life will know that Nick hates not knowing something and that I am the biggest northern motor-mouth when it comes to secrets. These two character traits combined led to him incessantly questioning me; and me having to basically become a mute for months in order not to spill. Finally, 5.30am on Saturday rolled around and I could give Nick his first present and breathe a huge sigh of relief, before shuttling us out of the house and onto the Eurostar.

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Nick Says: I remember asking Bee to take me to Paris even when we racing about Latin America. Despite having been to a fair few places in France over the years, I’d never quite made it to the capital. It felt like a really classic place to spend your 30th birthday, but then I threw a spanner in the works and also asked Bee to make my birthday trip a surprise. Talk about demanding… And so it was that Bee completely managed to trick me. I thought I’d blown my chance to go to Paris (and ride the Eurostar there which is half the fun of going to Europe) and I clambered into the taxi bleary-eyed but raring to go. Bee had told me we were off to an airport. But instead we drove to St Pancras, and it was off to Paris! Perfect! But of course panic set it – I couldn’t speak the language (months of Spanish had driven any lingering Francais from my head) and I was worried that Paris had a reputation for not being welcoming to us English speakers. Would the Parisians mock me? What was there to do in Paris anyway? Beyond the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre I actually knew next to nothing about the city. Luckily Bee had provided me with a guidebook, so I could spend the 2 hour journey there frantically researching. But then suddenly we arrived. We were in Paris. And of course it was all so familiar and looked incredible.It has that similar feeling to New York. You may never have been there, but of course you know Paris. You’ve seen it a thousand times, in films, on adverts, in magazines, and online. All my doubts disappeared – I was ready to get out there and start exploring the city.

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Bee Says: After a speedy whoooosh from St Pancras to the Gare Du Nord, we arrived to crisp chilly air and a beautiful blue sky. We hopped in a taxi and had our first proper taste of Paris; with a driver who ranted, raved and beeped his horn wildly for the whole 15 minutes it took to reach our hotel. This did at least mean that we knew some French by the time we checked in… but only swear words. I wanted somewhere special to stay for such a special occasion, and after a lifetime of TripAdvisor stalking I opted for the boutique Hotel Atmospheres. The hotel was something I was concerned about; as I felt it could really make or break the whole weekend. Luckily any doubts were quashed with one look at the beaming receptionist who greeted us and exclaimed “Welcome to Paris!” The hotel room was chic and opulent (I now want golden glittery flocked tiles in my shower please) and nothing was ever too much trouble, with the staff endlessly going out of their way to make us feel comfortable. For such a hip hotel; it managed to maintain a sense of homeliness that we enjoyed in the better hostels on our big trip; whilst still delivering on the luxurious “treat” feeling of a really swanky establishment. It was honestly one of the best hotels either of us has ever stayed in. Jackpot! Hotel Atmosphere is in the heart of the Latin Quarter; the East London of Paris, which was the ideal location to walk to all the sights in the day but then stay close to home for the nightlife.

Having already been awake for 6 hours; we took advantage of the fluffy cloud bed for a power nap and then it was time to pound the pavements and really explore Paris! I had prepared an itinerary for each day (control freak!) which we loosely stuck to so that we could fit everything in. For our first foray into the city; we walked down to the river and across to the Marais area. This was a fantastic opportunity to start getting our bearings and a sense of how the city slots together. En route we walked past this beautiful art deco/nouveau department store which sadly seems to be sitting derelict but apparently will be renovated in the next year and revived to its former glory; which is already a good excuse to go back.

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As our bellies started grumbling, Nick used his burger-spidey-sense to lead us to Blend, Paris’ #1 Burger joint as tipped off to us by the delightful fellow burger-botherer Wish Wish Wish Carrie’s Paris City Guide. Don’t be put off if you arrive to a queue; we had three tables worth of French folk ahead of us and were still seated within ten minutes; and boy was it worth it. We both went for the signature which was a serious stack of burger, bacon, blue cheese and onion confit; with sides of sweet potato and FRENCH fries; it was a dreamy first dish and the perfect feed to set us on our way. The waitress also gave me a wink as she handed me my diet coke; I think she picked the name especially. Shucks!

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Le Marais is a stunning arts district of Paris; with historical haunts and ancient architecture around every corner. It is such a joy just to wander the cobbles and peer up, down and all around at the beautiful buildings where turrets, wooden shutters and stained glass are standard. There are plenty of original shopping arcades to potter through; now filled with independent artists, designers and fabric shops. We spent plenty of time peering in through windows of various art galleries and even watched an old-fashioned Parisian tailor creating a suit from scratch. This is still very much the artistic heart of Paris and there seemed to be an exhibition or gallery party in every other street; with the great and grand of the city spilled out onto the street sipping champagne. We weren’t bold enough (or good enough at French) to try and sneak into one! We did however pop into Merci (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 75003) which was sort of a French Ikea and a rabbit warren of everything from books to crockery to homeware to clothes and stationery.

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As the sun started to dip we needed to stop for a leg-rest and Nick was keen for his first French beer, so we popped into a rickety treasure trove with a cafe lurking beneath the nik-naks.

Nick Says: A weird occurrence happened to Bee and I in France. We could not stop talking Spanish! We figure that it must be because this time last year we were basically never speaking English and by this point both nearly fluent in Español. It’s almost like now our brains default click into “foreign country. must speak Spanish to be understood.” I found it frustrating not to just be able to get by as I have been used to and it was a real wake up call to how useful it is to speak the language and how improved my Spanish got in Latin America, as when we first arrived I was reliant on Bee for everything and by the end I could get by in pretty much any situation. Back to Paris and neither of us could even remember the word for WATER (agua? aqua?) and therefore we were forced to drink only alcohol until one of us remembered to Google it back at the hotel. Unfortunately the nik-nak cafe only had Carlsberg on offer for bier drinkers, which was a disappointing start.

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We thought dusk would be a fine time to visit the Louvre, and arrived just in time to see it glowing to life. Despite being nestled amongst some pretty mighty and majestic buildings, the Louvre pyramid was still enough to make you gasp at first sight.

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Bee Says: One final port of call was the Love Lock bridge; otherwise known as the Pont des Arts bridge where lovers attach a padlock with their names on to the walls and throw the key into the Seine, locking their love forever. This is one of the more controversial tourist traps, as some locals view the padlocks as vandalism and dislike the destruction of a historical monument. In fact, earlier this year the bridge had to be evacuated as parts of the bridge started to give way under the weight of the padlocks. I however am a sucker for anything that cerebrates the GOOD in the world; romance, love, hope. Hope is so important. I was surprised how moving I found the bridge; there is a really special hush and atmosphere as people gather to read the locks already hung, and then add their own romantic gesture. There are plenty of savvy salesman peddling padlocks on the bridge (and free marker pens to personalise them) so don’t worry about doing any pre-prep.

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Throwing the key into the river felt more permanent than our engagement! I can see all sides of the argument for and against the love lock bridge, but rather than feeling like a cheesy tick-the-box part of our trip it was actually really special and a memory I’ll definitely treasure. One slightly odd and frustrating for locals (I imagine) thing, is that the locks are spreading thick and fast. I noticed them on tons of the other non-official bridges, and actually wherever there was a piece of metal, be that a gate or a fence, there would be at least one or two locks. In fact, this is a different bridge entirely by Notre Dame and it’s also almost covered. Maybe at some point all the current padlocks will have to be clipped off and set free to make space for a new wave of lovers!

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Nick Says: We had grand plans to have a slap up meal out in the Latin Quarter to celebrate our first night in Paris. Instead I discovered Brewberry(18 rue du iron pot, 75005) which is a craft beer cave, serving up a list of over 50 brews from various heavy hitters such as Evil Twin, Hoppin’ Frog, Deck & Donahue and even Brewdog. We sat down at 7pm and by midnight we were still having “just one more for the road”, having been completely sucked in by the Brewberry charm and atmosphere. There was so much choice that it would have been rude not to keep sampling everything. I tried some local pale and blonde ales and Bee got stuck into the chocolatey porter and stouts. We came to a joint love-in over some Earl Grey infused pilsner. The bar was buzzy, they played every Queen song ever (what more could you ask for) and the “Brewberry Beer Geeks” took pity on our flailing Spanglish and spoke perfect English to us as they chatted knowledgeably about every brewery and showed us the best tactics for carrying up to 8 tankards at once. We even got chatting to various customers who came and went, which really gave us that back-on-the-road community feeling we have missed so desperately from travelling. All plans for food went out the window but luckily there are crepe sellers on every corner (why isn’t this a thing in London? Should I make it a thing?) so we could stagger back to our hotel with a nutella crepe in hand and a merry beery smile at our first day in Paris.

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Bee Says: Well that wraps up day one of the birthday weekend. I just want to mention a thank you to the team over at Caxton FX travel money card; who gifted us a Europe Traveller card (complete with £50 pre-loaded, which we drank most of in Brewberry – merci!) We met the Caxton team back at a blogger event in the summer and were instantly impressed by the concept. Caxon FX is a Visa card, which means you can top it up from your bank account before your trip; and then use it in as many places as you would with your usual card (anywhere with the Visa sign… so basically everywhere) and you can withdraw money as usual from ATMs. You link your bank account to the Caxton; meaning you can top up anywhere on the road at any point without actually needing to take your current / credit cards abroad. This is so appealing to us; as security is a massive issue when travelling and there would be nothing worse than having your cards stolen and your account emptied. This method of holiday currency means you only take as much as you need, and if it’s stolen it means the damage is seriously limited. It is also very handy for budgeting! Even better still is that Caxton have a snazzy app; so you can literally top-up within a minute at any time and in any place. I’ll definitely be using my Caxton any time I head away again, and will never ever take my bank cards or huge wedges of currency abroad with me again. There are enough things to stress about when it comes to travel; and now money and currency security won’t be one.

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There’s More To Sweden Than Stockholm : Part i.

Bee Says: Sweden is an extremely special place to my soon-to-be-bee-in-laws. Nigel (Nick’s dad) has a best friend called Stephan who came over for a years schooling in England and who Nigel was put in charge of looking after during that time. I don’t know how much looking after he did, as just seeing them together as adults makes it abundantly clear that there are a TON of naughty stories buried which no amount of bribery will result in either of them spilling! Stephan’s partner Carola is also a great friend of Sue (Nick’s mum) and Nigel, which means they spend a lot of time holidaying together over there. As a result, Sue & Nigel have lost their hearts to Sweden and as much-deserved retirement looms in their future, they want to have something more permanent over in Scandinavia and are planning to buy a summer house. Cue a family trip (which I was honoured enough to be invited along for) to house hunt! Introducing Team House Hunt: Nick, Sue, Phil and Nigel.

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Due to land not being a scarce resource in Sweden (it’s Europe’s third largest country), once you move away from the big cities, house prices are obscenely low and you get a lot of space (and style!) for your money. In the lead up to this trip we all got completely obsessed with a website called Hemnet; it’s worth browsing if only to admire the fairytale style gingerbread cottages and “the norm” additions of outhouses, saunas and acres of land or forest. The real point of this trip wasn’t to find an actual house, but it was really a fact-finding mission to explore a few different areas and work out scale, distances and the vibe of various neighbourhoods.  We were excited for the opportunity to get to know this beautiful country a little better; and we definitely learnt there is so much more to Sweden than Stockholm.

Nick Says: This was Bee’s first holiday with my family, and it was nice to see them spend time together outside of Christmas, birthdays etc. I came out of the loo at the airport to find the Horton’s crying with laughter and making Bee repeat the word, ‘giraffe’ before doing it themselves. For those who don’t know, Bee’s broad Yorkshire accent makes it sound like, ‘g’RAFF’.  I knew it was all going to be ok. It was also lovely to get the chance to go back to Sweden, a place I’d been to three or four times before, but not since I was a teenager. I also hadn’t been on a proper family holiday for years, so was looking forward to spending time with the parents and Phil too. Plus time off work is always nice! We flew BA like fancy folk and arrived safe and sound at the super stylish Stockholm Arlanda aioprt. While you can bus it into the city, the benefit of family holiday was splitting the cost of the car. So unlike most of our adventures in Latin America, we wouldn’t be at the whim of a crazy bus driver or tour guide…Naturally we got a Volvo (true fact, there are no other cars allowed in Sweden) and set off to Stephan’s country pad. We hadn’t set the sat nav  to Swedish, so we had a few interesting pronunciations of directions, including describing a road that sounded suspiciously like “shit the bed”…

Riala is a small village about an hour or so north of Stockholm near the major town of Norrtaelje. Like a LOT of Sweden, it’s beautiful, heavily wooded, and sparsely populated. Wolves have been known to roam in the forest, and numerous sparkling lakes are dotted about waiting to be discovered. It’s also where Stephan has set up shop after moving out of Stockholm. After a cross-country adventure in the car (thanks sat-nav!) we finally pulled in to his cosy house to be greeted by Carola waving from the porch. Stephan quickly followed, and it immediately felt like we were home.

I can remember Stephan visiting since I was about 4 years old. Him coming over was some of te=he most exciting times of my tiny life. I then got older, became a teenage, and visited him instead in Sweden. There he took me, my brothers, and my Dad around the Stockholm archipelago on his boat, and set in my mind the idea of exploring the world and having adventures.  But the last time I saw him was at my eldest brother’s wedding 10 years ago. How had so much time gone by? But in 10 years, nothing had changed. He was still the same Stephan, generous and welcoming. Crola was as brilliant and lovely as I remember. As we found on our travels, making (or having) friends in a different country really creates a strong bond and experience. It brings you closer to the place, and invests you more into it. I was really happy to be back in Sweden, and had that warm glow you get when the whole holiday stretches in front of you. I also had a incresingly warm glow from the amount of alcohol Stephan and Carola were plying us with. Wine, mysteroius local schnapps, whisky, beer… I didn’t think I could keep up with my parents and our hosts!I

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Bee Says: Safe to say there were a few sore and fuzzy heads the next morning, but these were swiftly eased as Sweden do breakfast (and well, most things) SO well. Stephan and Carola managed to be fresh daisies, despite drinking their fair share of box wine the night before, and scuttled around us making toast, hard boiled eggs and fresh coffee. We ate it with cheese, ham and freshly baked bread, although none of us indulged in the local caviar; bright orange and fresh out of a tube! All the while we could gaze out at the forest surrounding the house; Stephan says he sometimes finds curious deer and elk peering back.

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There were a few options of ways to spend our first day of the holiday, but as soon as Carola mentioned the words Medieval and Fayre, our eyes all simultaneously lit up! A short drive down to a 1330s castle (Penningby Slott) and the second we were out of the car it was like stepping into a time warp. We were all practically rubbing our eyes in disbelief as we stomped into the grounds and past knights, horses, chickens and traditional markets. Smoke filled the air and the smell of gun powder, hay and roasting meat billowed around us. The attention to detail was incredible!

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Long-time readers of the blog won’t be surprised to hear that Nick immediately sniffed out the most dangerous area of the fayre; the WEAPONRY. One field was dedicated entirely to swords, cleavers, archery, axe throwing and various other bits of kit; mostly being wielded by tiny children or people who looked like they’d already had a few glasses of mead. I loved the total lack of heath and safety that you know in a similar event in the UK would be stifling.

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The best game was one where you selected your weapon from a pile of impressive looking swords, some so heavy that the brothers could barely lift them, and then you paid 1 Kroner to have 3 chances at hitting a potato that was flung towards you on a bit of string. It seems like Nick and Phil should really be reborn in the medieval age as they were both really talented at this game and had soon attracted a crowd of locals cheering them on!

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The rest of the fayre was just as entertaining. We saw some canons and synchronised gun fire (I’m sure there’s technical term for this), ate samples of fresh soda bread, local honeys and amazing sour sugar candies. All around us were people in costumes racing around acting out little scenes or playing instruments or demonstrating olden time crafts. The weirdest of which was a game where we paid 1 Kroner to guess which way a mouse would run around a miniature castle, in order to win a magic stone. Sadly, we didn’t win and the mouse didn’t even look too happy about defeating us.

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As we started to grow a little weary and ready for some afternoon fika, napping and reading; there was one final treat in store for us. We stamped over to the castle to take a look at the amazing building and the horses roaming around outside, when suddenly I spotted something on the horizon staggering towards us. MEDIEVAL BABY! Definitely the best bit of the day; if not the holiday.

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Nick Says:  What could possibly top a Medieval Fayre? Not a lot that day as it turned out.  We drove onto Norrtaelje to have a look round, and while undeniably beautiful the spectacular sunshine which had been shining on us so far decided to turn into miserable rain. Which reminded Phil that he hadn’t actually brought a coat on this trip. Still, nothing that an on-brand visit to H&M couldn’t fix!

After a slightly less boozy evening at Stephan’s, the next day we were due to drive down south to begin the house hunt. While Carola had to go back to work, Stephan had decided to take a couple of days off and travel down with us. He immediately commandeered me, Bee, and Phil for his car (a giant monster 4×4, which didn’t look out of place in the giant landscapes of Sweden, unlike the tiny streets of London where I usually see them) we set off down the packed highways (about 4 cars spotted all day). We drove through tunnels which bored into mountains, skirted past endless forests, and eventually came to a service station where I could indulge two of my Swedish passions. The first was a Winner Taco, the greatest ice cream ever invented and sadly no longer available on our shores, ans the second was a cinnamon bun. I also took the time to smash my head on a metal bar while scampering up a children’s slide I was too big for, almost knocking myself unconscious and certainly giving myself a case of mild concussion which I felt for the next few days. Go holiday injuries! It also resulted in me being banned from driving (thanks for nothing head injury) which also meant I was relegated to the back of the car. Bee swiftly sat up front and quickly assured Stephan she would be the official elk spotter on this leg of the journey. It was a grand speech about howshe was honoured to be in Sweden, couldn’t wait to see the mighty elk, and would be his eyes on the side of the road. Powerful stuff. I looked back about two minutes later to find she had instantly fallen asleep instead.

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Bee Says: After nearly 8 hours on the road we finally pulled off the motorway and into a truly picturesque little lake town called Norrhult (Phil said it was like “driving through Hemnet!) where our Air BnB awaited. We had rented the top floor apartment of a home belonging to a super chirpy Dutch couple who had recently moved to Sweden. They were full of handy local tips and knowledge, and showed us to the gorgeous little grotto that we would be calling home for the rest of the week. After a quick trip to the local ICA for beer and snacks, we settled in to watch the sun dip over the lake from our window and started planning for the week ahead.

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Tune in for part 2 next weekend, which sees us meet the King & Queen Elk of Sweden, have a close encounter with the worlds biggest wooden spoon, find some creepy bits and pieces during our house hunts AND… my first ever time in a canoe. Who wants to start placing bets on whether I fell in or not?!