A selection of travel tips from TNT Magazine
Q. I took your advice and booked a trip to Iceland in January next year to see the Northern Lights while it’s cheaper than usual. Is now a good time to cash in on Iceland’s low krona value and change money, or should I sort it out a few days before I leave?
Luke Cleave, via email
A. Interesting one, this — and also relevant to more than just Iceland. As I type, one British pound will buy you US$1.49. Just three months ago, you would have got US$2 to the pound. The euro has also surged against anything from the Bank of England. A year ago you’d have got €1.48 for a nugget, now it’s €1.26. If you stashes of these currencies you’re making money simply by sitting on them. The news isn’t so good if you’re visiting these places, as you’ll notice higher prices.
So where’s good? We already know about Iceland — you can now get 185 krona for a pound versus 123 krona a year ago.
The other stand-out is the Australian dollar. You’d have got A$2.12 for £1 six months ago, but today’s rate is A$2.33. It’s a similar story in New Zealand, where a rate of NZ$2.67 means backpacking Brits can once again get tipsy and sing “we’re fat, we’re round, three dollars to the pound”.
My suggestion is to head somewhere there’s value and don’t worry about exchanging cash months in advance. You’d have to be a financial whizz-kid or a major speculator to make big wins out of buying any of these currencies.
As we all know, investments can go up as well as down. Do your own sums using a site that carries historical exchange data such as www.oanda.com.ed: If you’re planning to transfer money to Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, see www.tntforex.com where you get great rates from just £7 per transfer.
Q. I would like to travel through Colombia and Ecuador next year and am planning a stopover in New York first. Are there any airlines that go from London to New York and then to Bogotá or Quito? Would a stopover in the US be cheaper than going straight to South America? I’m happy to land in another city other than the capitals if that makes a difference to the price.
Barbara Zeisel, via email
A. I see my request for details of adventurous journeys undertaken or dreamt of by TNT readers is bearing fruit. Kudos to the reader who wrote in to say that they would go to wild areas of Central Asia, but the tours available aren’t tough enough. Hardcore!
Next up in my search for the most intrepid reader is Babs (as she’s surely known to her friends), seeking the best way to see the Colombian jungle. Getting to Colombia, like most countries in Latin America, requires travelling via the US or Spain. Miami is the connecting hub, but New York can work for some destinations too. Continental flies direct to Bogotá from Newark. Travelling in February, you should be able to make this trip with a stopover in New York for around £720. If you want to bring the cost down, fly to Miami with American Airlines then head straight on to Bogotá — this will knock about £150 off your fare. Remember, fares will vary with when you want to travel. Journey Latin America are experts on the region (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk).
Be sure to check the latest Foreign Office advice for Colombia before you go — www.fco.gov.uk.
Q. My friend and I want to go skiing for the first time this season. We’re both beginners and on a limited budget. Which countries are the cheapest places to learn? Would an all-inclusive deal be the best way to go and is it best to book online or through a travel agent? We want to go for a week starting March 1 and our dates aren’t flexible. Is there any hope for us being able to do this on a budget of around £500 each?
Tammy, via email
I’ve never got on terribly well with skiing — at least not since some wise-guy convinced me that it would be a good idea to take a skiing day trip into the Andes from Mendoza in Argentina. While I could have been sipping red wine in a café on Mendoza’s sunny streets I was instead falling over repeatedly on hard, icy slopes and breaking my new digital camera. My day ended when I lost an argument with a towbar lift and had a head-on meeting with an inappropriately positioned rock.
Still, Tammy and her friend are keen to have a go so I shall try to help. Your budget is tight, but you should be able to do this on £500 in March. Think about driving instead of flying — it will take you at least ten hours but you’ll save money and often operators will throw in a Channel crossing. Also consider going for a self-catering chalet rather than a hotel.
As for resorts, I suggest Obergurgl in Austria and Cervina in Italy, which are smaller and offer cheaper tuition than some of the big boys in the French Alps.Operators to try are Erna Low (www.ernalow.co.uk), Crystal Ski (www.crystal.co.uk) and Mark Warner (www.markwarner.co.uk). Then you too will be able to experience the unique feeling of blind panic caused by sliding down snow on a pair of carbon-fibre planks. Have fun!
Q. We’re planning a three-week trip through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. We fly into Guatemala City and out of Cancun. Are internal flights worth the expense so we don’t waste time on slow buses? What sights are must-sees and are there any issues with border crossings?
Cat Forrest, via email
Three weeks is actually an OK length of time for this exciting part of the world. As you’re on a linear route, I’d stick with buses unless you want to hop on an internal flight in Guatemala from Guatemala City to Flores where, like most people, you can jump off for the Tikal ruins. Most visitors head straight for volcanoes, lakes and indigenous cultural fun in Antigua straight from the airport, bypassing the capital altogether. You may find it either a lovely hangout or overrun with backpackers, depending on your point of view.
If you don’t fly to Flores you can take river trips and enjoy jungle scenery around Livingstone and Rio Dulce. In Flores you’ll need a few days to see Tikal in all its glory before heading on into Belize, where a bus and boat combo can take you out into the beautiful cayes that dot the coast.
Caye Caulker draws the budget crowd. Belize City is steaming and atmospheric but not somewhere to linger too long, so head on up to Cancun via more ruins at Tukum. Cancun is package-tour central and after your adventures you may enjoy Isla Mujeres more. (Ed: enter Caye Caulker in the search function at www.tntonline.co.uk/travel for last week’s feature on Central America).
Q. My girlfriend and I are flying into New York City and then 13 nights later flying out of Toronto. What should we do in between? We want at least three nights in NYC, then time in Washington DC, Boston and Niagara Falls (yes we should have flown into DC). It will be autumn when we go, so we want to experience the most scenic drives possible.
Tim and Lisa, via email
A. You should’ve flown into Washington DC. You know it, I know it, let’s get over it. I suggest no more than three days in New York. See the classics while you’re there, but also have a day when you explore one of the outer boroughs. I’d suggest Queens. Lonely Planet author and Brooklynite Robert Reid offers a guide to the delights of the 7 subway line at www.lonelyplanet.com/travelstories/interactive/sevens_top_seven_0507.
If you’re determined to see Washington DC, go there straight after New York. Do not tarry en route. A couple of days is all you have time for if you’re going to follow my advice and do the same in Philadelphia. All these are easy to get to by Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) rail. No need to hire a car apart from when you’ve been in Philly for a few days and are going to head out and explore the autumn scenery of Pennsylvania. Why? Because every American with an RV and no imagination goes to New England in autumn. Pennsylvania has millions of trees and far fewer visitors – see www.fallinpa.com.
With your remaining five days get back on Amtrak and backtrack through New York to Boston if you’re still keen for more city sights. If not, press on to Toronto via quieter corners or upstate New York (www.ilovenewyork.com) before hitting the big falls. You’ll be pretty worn out at the end of this, but if you can squeeze in two days in Toronto you’ll love it.
Q. I’m a 26-year-old woman planning a solo trip to Morocco in November. Is it a safe destination for a female to explore alone? I’m also open to any suggestions you may have for things to do and see during my stay.
Claire, via email
A. Is Morocco a safe place for a female to travel alone? Yes. Is it a testing place for a female to travel alone? Yes. Should you still go? Probably. There’s no denying you’re going to get a lot of unwanted attention, but it’s important Morocco doesn’t get demonised. Don’t be too quick to judge – I’m sure you’ve had guys hit on you at home and this is just another version of the same game. But it can wear you down after a while, especially in souks and areas heavily frequented by tourists. Learn the French for ‘please leave me alone’, and you’ll be spared much of the hassle. Morocco is a country where women are very visible – covering the head is not universal and Moroccan women dress conservatively, but fashionably. Follow their lead with colourful clothing that falls below the knee and hides your cleavage. Travelling first class on trains is wise in terms of comfort and privacy.
In two weeks you can see imperial Marrakesh, Fes and Meknes, as well as Tangier if you take a boat from Spain. Visit ancient Volubilis, whitewashed Moulay Idriss, and modern Rabat. Take a day tour to the desert or the Atlas mountains from Marrakesh or Fes. This gives you ample opportunity to indulge in what’s undeniably fantastic about Morocco: superb shopping, brilliant food and marvellous adventures.
Q. I’m heading to Australia for Christmas via South America. I’ve heard of a flight from Chile to Auckland via Easter Island, but I can’t find anything. I’d prefer to fly OneWorld Alliance as I plan to get a RTW ticket. Can you help?
Ian Chapman, via email
A. People who suggest Easter Island is not worth visiting are chumps. It’s like nowhere else on earth, and the fact that getting there isn’t easy only adds to the adventure. Lan Airlines (www.lan.com) is the only operator to fly there. It has four flights a week to and from Santiago, and two a week to and from Papeete in Tahiti, from where you can fly to Auckland. If you get this flight right, you can havea few days to see the statues and experience the remarkable isolation of being on one of the world’s remotest specks of rock.
It’s possible to include this in a OneWorld fare, butit can be very difficult to get on the Santiago-Easter Island-Papeete flight (that’s SCL-IPC-PPT for all you plane geeks), so you’ll need to be flexible with dates. You may also need to take a Global Explorer RTW ticket rather than an Explorer ticket for complicated reasons to do with mileage and continent-based fare calculation systems. I could talk all day about these, but will try to restrain my inner geek.
The best thing for you to do is start with an RTW expert such as Trailfinders (www.trailfinders.com) and make the Easter Island flight your starting point, working backwards and forwards from there until you have your route sorted. If all else fails and you can’t get a connection, another option wouldbe to fly back to Santiago and take a more frequent cross-Pacific routing with another airline.
And if anyone’s in the mood for a little quiz, there will be a Lonely Planet guide for the best answer as to why Easter Island’s airport code is IPC.
Q. I’m going backpacking in Thailand for three months soon. Are there any islands you can recommend for my first diving experience? I’m a nervous swimmer so would love your advice!
Ali, via email
A. A Thailand’s biggest dive centre — two hours from Bangkok — is Pattaya. Yes, that Pattaya. The town has lots of dive shops, but you’ll soon find that it’s far from the vision of Thailand you’re looking for, crowded as it is with neon-lit bars, package tourists and some seedier attractions. It should be said that recent attempts to cleanthe place up have made some inroads. It’s a good option if you want to learn to dive on weekend excursions from Bangkok — but to be honest you’ll have a better time elsewhere.
With three months to play with you can venture further. Pick one of your stops in southern Thailand and settle in for some serious diving. Phuket may be its equal in terms of the number of dive operations, and comes with the added benefit of being close toa wider range of dive sites including Ao Phang-Nga’s unusual rock formations and numerous Andaman Islands rich in coral reefs and marine life. You’ll also find plenty of diving options at islands popular with travellers — Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao to name but three.
Go for a course run by a larger, well set-up dive shop in the main resort towns. Before you buy a place on the course shop around, find out how much actual dive time you get, what’s included in the price and how many people are likely to be on the course.
Q. Where is it better to change money into euros, here in London or in France where I’m planning to go? If in London, where can I do it?
Kate Til, via email
A. This question is a perennially thorny one that travellers get worked up about, and to my mind for no good reason. You shouldn’t change money at the airport. You get a bad exchange rate and in general pay commission. Same if you use a bureau de change in Paris. Otherwise, though, you’re going to be paying somewhere along the line.
Here are your options: you can buy euros, commission-free, at post offices. They won’t give you the best rate, but it’s quick and easy. The other alternative is to use a cashpoint. You get the interbank exchange rate — it’s the most up to date one for your cash, but you will generally pay a fee.
Try to avoid withdrawing cash on a credit card. You’ll often pay both a currency exchange fee and a charge for a cash advance on your card. If you’re planning on using a card, make it a debit card, preferably from a bank which offers free overseas withdrawals. The best way to avoid charges is to minimise the number of withdrawals.
Which is the best way to get money? I don’t think there’s a definitive best one. Depending on your circumstances, some options work better than others. I’ll leave it to you to research charges, commissions and exchange rates. Money Saving Expert (www.moneysavingexpert.com) has loads of good information.
But it astonishes me that people get so worked up about exchanging money and then don’t spend sensibly when they’re travelling. You may lose €5-€20 during the exchange process. That’s the price of a few beers and I very rarely hear travellers quibbling over the charges levied for alcohol on the road.
Q. My husband and I are planning a cycling trip in the Western Cape, South Africa. We want to visit places like Citrusdal, Swellendam and Franschhoek. I’m interested to know how safe it is to ‘wild camp’ in the region?
Clare Prosser, via email
A. There’s nothing like a bit of wild camping. For those unfamiliar with the term and bereft of the ability to deduce the obvious, it refers to the gloriously simple notion of stopping and pitching your tent — or pulling up the handbrake on your campervan — wherever you please, usually in a remote location far from human contact. This can be a spiffing way to overnight, though check the exact rules and regulations of where you’re travelling. In England and Wales you technically need permission, though in practice pitching your tent high in the Lake District or Snowdonia isn’t a problem. In Scotland you can do so provided you’re at least 100m from the nearest road.
But I digress. In the part of South Africa you’re visiting, wild camping is not an option. Urban areas are too populated, and wild places like Table Mountain National Park are too well visited. I don’t know if there’s a safety concern or not, but you do need to keep an eye on your valuables at all times when you’re in this part of the world. It’s not that it’s unsafe as such, it’s just that tourists can be targeted here. You won’t be short of camping options, but you do need to abandon thoughts of pulling off the road and pitching a tent.
Q. My girlfriend and I need some sun and fun urgently, but the earliest we can get away is the beginning of November. We had been thinking about Goa, but aren’t sure if we should fly that far and if it would be a relaxing trip. What would you suggest to two girls who have done the backpacking thing and enjoy life a little more comfortable now? We’d like a place with a nice beach where we can also go trekking, and a place that is not too far to fly to, but still nice and warm? And as we are in love it would be nice not to get thrown in jail because we’re kissing in public.
Lisa, via email
A. Well, jolly nice to hear that you’re in love and are keen to secure a smooch-tastic spot to holiday in. You may be frustrated by Goa, which keeps its gay scene underground. Homosexuality is still illegal in India. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on, but discretion is the order of the day. Two girls travelling together won’t cause eyebrows to be raised.
You don’t offer any ideas as to your budget, so I’ve decided you’re prepared to spend up to £1500 each on your trip. For this you can get to some superb places — but for truly gay-friendly winter sun you’ll have to fly. Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica would all do the job. Cape Town is fantastic, but you’d run out of money pretty quickly unless you have a little more to spend. Only the Canaries — Gran Canaria and Tenerife being the liveliest — offer reliable, girl-snogs approved winter sun in Europe. Gay travel specialist Amro Holidays (www.amroholidays.com) has plenty of other suggestions. Or you could go somewhere in Europe and live it up in spas or on ski slopes.
ed: Check out next week’s issue of TNT Magazine for our feature on winter sun destinations.
Q. I’m going to the Middle East at the end of September, and I want to travel between the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Iran by boat. I know there are ferries that do these journeys — do you know how I can get tickets before I go? I don’t want to leave things to chance when I’m there.
Siobhan Wakely, via email
A. Siobhan’s letter has surely made scratchy the feet of the most stubborn of non-travellers. Here she doesn’t just dream, she seeks to make real taking a ferry across the Persian Gulf, linking the oil-rich Emirates and Gulf States with the equally (but for very different reasons) other-worldly Iranian ports that scarcely see a western face, let alone a female one. If we could garland a traveller with laurels and pronounce them adventurous wanderer of the year, it would surely be Ms Wakely.
Her wanderings are taking her to the edge of my knowledge (and certainly off the map of my experience), but with some scratching around the answer appears to lie at http://www.irantravelingcenter.com/valfajr8_persian_gulf.htm. Here you can find what seem to be routes, schedules and fares for these boats. There are also agencies that can book them for you. It seems that the twice-weekly boat between Bandar-e-Abbas and Sharjah is your best bet. Ferries only go to and from Iran, not in between Gulf ports. For this, you’re restricted to land options.
So a gauntlet is laid down. Siobhan Wakely is the most intrepid traveller to write to TNT this year. Can anyone come up with a more outlandish journey?
Q. My wife and I are planning a nine-day tour of Portugal and Spain (Andalucía) later this year and are trying to work out the best way to travel around. We fly into Porto and plan to visit the Douro Valley and Lisbon, and then go across to Spain stopping off at Seville, Cordoba and Granada (to see the Alhambra) before flying out of Malaga. Is this tour achievable in the time we’ve got? And which mode of transport would be the best (and cheapest) option? Are there any other sights we should see?
Mark Hannan, via email
A. Sometimes I feel like I’ve taught you lot nothing. For as long as I’ve been answering travellers’ questions in TNT I have had, above all, one message that I’ve tried to ensure comes through louder than any other. But it seems that no matter how many times I suggest that you slow down and see Europe at a gentle pace, I still receive each week a flurry of letters asking for guidance on how to pack in as much as possible. I mean, look at Mark’s email. This trip is about as appetising as a fish milkshake. In nine days he wants to see seven places, in detail, and get between them. This is no way to see the great cities of Iberia. This itinerary needs to be cut. No arguments. My suggestion would be to fly into Lisbon, take two days there, whizz down to Seville (the bus takes six and a half hours — it’s a long way!) for a few days and then have a day or two on the beach (www.andalucia.com for options) or in Granada if the Alhambra is a must-see. If you can’t avoid Porto now, take a day there and have one less on the beach. That’s a nice way to spend nine days. You may even come back relaxed and refreshed — rather than frazzled and determined to avoid going to Spain and Portugal ever again.
Q. I’m planning to travel to New York City for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. As I’ll be travelling on my own, it would be great to go with a tour group. However the only one I can find that does this is Contiki, and it’s already booked out. Are there any other tour groups? Or plan B would be a hostel located near Times Square — can you recommend anything?
Heather, via email
A. Times Square? No, no, no, Heather! You’ll be in New York at New Year: congratulations, you’re going to have a great time. The city has many outstanding features. Times Square is not one of them. It’s a transport intersection where tourists try to find something interesting to photograph before compromising on getting a snap of the Square’s only attraction: a guitar-toting cowboy wearing nothing but pants and boots. At New Year, thousands of people come here, stand around, watch a ball fall down a pole, then shuffle home. Avoid this fate: stay in a hostel with a good social scene. Make friends and test out a few bars. I couldn’t find tours offering what you’re after, I’m afraid. Thinking about hostels, though, try the Gershwin (www.gershwinhotel.com) for a funky bunk available for US$40 (£22) or have a look at www.nychostels.com. Lastly, it can be very, very cold in the Big Apple over Christmas. Spend more time in cosy bars and less shivering with other bored-looking ‘revellers’. You will, I promise, have a much better time.
Q. I’ve booked a round-the-world trip from December-March and am wondering how long I should spend touring New Zealand. As I’m travelling solo I’ve looked at various tours that seem to cover the same amount of country ranging from 13 to 31 days. What would be the shortest length of trip that would encompass the best places to visit in New Zealand without feeling rushed?
Graham Skyrme, via email
A. Aussies often mock the diminutive nature of New Zealand, but the Land of the Long White Cloud occupies a larger area than the UK, and in terms of US states it’s the same size as Colorado. So the more time you can spare to see it the better. I spent six weeks there in an increasing panic as I steamed about trying to see as much as I could. Eight weeks would be better.
To put it in terms of an itinerary: I’d spend three days in Auckland, a week exploring the Bay of Islands, another week travelling along the east coast of the North Island, a few days in Wellington, at least a week around Abel Tasman National Park and the Marlborough Sounds, a week or so trekking one of the country’s great walks, a week on the West Coast of the South Island, a side visit to Stewart Island to spot kiwis, a few days cycling along the Catlins Coastal Route, a couple of days in Christchurch and some whale-watching off Kaikoura. That’s seven weeks, with some extra time thrown in for getting around and days when you may — shock horror — want to rest. I haven’t covered the whole place, but it’s a start. You need at least 31 days, or half that and get ready to sprint around one island only. Or forget seeing very much at all, get on a bike and get out to the Hauraki Gulf Islands and settle in for some wild camping, beaches and lovely windswept scenery.
Q. I’m travelling to New York and will be there for a week or so. I’m looking for details of the biggest and best gut-busting buffet restaurants. Please let me clarify: to be considered as a buffet there has to be some kind of substantial meat on offer and it must also include dessert.
Jeremy Thorne, via email
A. I don’t know Jeremy, but I like him. I like a man who knows what he wants when he’s on holiday. Some people like to go out dancing to rag-time music or visit old churches. Our Jezza wants to head to the nearest meat-laden buffet and hoover up the good stuff till he can chomp no more. And he’ll fit right in in New York, which is certainly an excellent place to stuff one’s face.
The only problem is that buffets aren’t exactly fashion-forward in one of the world’s hippest eat-cities. Those humourless New York restaurants at the top end of the market want you to savour the flavour, not wolf it down. For that reason all-you-can-eats tend to be limited to Chinatown’s many oriental diners and places found out of the main Manhattan and Brooklyn neighbourhoods.
You can still find some ways to bust your trousers open. Churrascaria Tribeca at 221 West Broadway will feed you Brazilian-influenced meat until you want no more for £25. Minado at East 23rd and 5th Avenue appears, if reviews are to be believed, to be the city’s finest all-you-can-eat sushi place. No word on the dessert.
After writing this I’m hungry — but my desire is for knowledge. I need to know more, Jeremy. When you come back, can you report on your gorging expedition — preferably with photos? Our readers need to know. But your friends here at YAFI remind you to exercise plenty and eat in moderation.
Q. My friend and I want to do a road trip from San Diego to Mexico City in January. Is this the best way to see Mexico, and what route do you recommend we take? Do you know of a particular book or magazine article about someone’s experience of a road trip through Mexico?
Ben, via email
A. Everyone seems to be going to Mexico at the moment, which makes this a good time to mug up on the country. If you travel down the spine of Mexico, after cutting inland from San Diego, and head to the capital, you’ll cross plenty of Mexico but not necessarily the best-visited areas of the country. This isn’t because the deserts, canyons and old mining villages you’ll pass don’t offer awesome adventures, it’s because other bits are more famous. You won’t find many ancient pyramids around here.
Would I recommend a road-trip through Mexico? Absolutely. It’s a fantastic place to make things up as you go along with your own wheels, but be aware that distances between major towns can be pretty hefty. The route I’d suggest would be to cruise down through Baja California, stopping for spots of surfing and whale-watching along the way, before taking the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan and following the Pacific coast before heading up to the capital. There are, of course, loads of alternatives.
There’s an enormous amount of land to see, though, and you will need a mighty guidebook to cover it all. There are, of course, other guidebooks than Lonely Planet on the market. Mexperience (www.mexperience.com) is another good guide. There’s plenty of travel literature out there too. Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads is a wonderful account of the country in the 1930s.
Q. I’m going to travel from Bilbao in Spain to Toulouse in France but can’ find any direct rail connection. What’s the most efficient way to get there? Any idea of ticket prices, journey times and timetable websites?
Anna, via email
A. Anna’s asked an interesting question and gives me a chance to lift the lid on rail travel in northern Spain. It’s easy enough to get to the Franco-Spanish frontier at the Hendaye-Irun crossing, but then things get interesting.
Rail services in Spain are scarce and often run by private companies. Historically Spanish trains have run on wider tracks (known as broad gauge) than elsewhere in Europe, which run on standard gauge. ‘Why did they do this, Tom?’ I hear you ask. One possible reason was to stop the French trying to invade by train. More recent Spanish high-speed lines in more peaceful times have been built on standard gauge, allowing for nice things like through-the-night train services from Paris. However, in northern Spain the network doesn’t really connect up, and trains may run on narrow gauge, like the train from Irun to San Sebastian. Narrow gauge is good in mountainous areas and is also cheap. Still with me? Well done.
Now then, from Bilbao to Hendaye. Trains from Bilbao (broad-gauge only, which you’ll doubtless know if you’ve been following me) only run to Madrid, so you need to hop on a bus to Irun (www.alsa.es), from where you can cross the border and pick up one of the three daily direct services to Toulouse. Fares will be in the region of €30 (£25). Check sncf (www.sncf.fr) for fares and times.
Coming up next week: more railway-related geekery. Possibly.
Q. My mate and I will be flying to Australia on December 27 via Hong Kong. We’re not sure whether to celebrate new year in Hong Kong or Sydney. Which has better fireworks and party?
Joanna Bytnar, via email
A. Firstly, thanks to everyone who wrote in with the answer to my question for Shaun Taikai (1303). I was of course describing the ideal route from Graceland to Las Vegas. The winner has been notified and a guidebook is on its way. Lots of you entered, so the bad news for those who didn’t enjoy it is that I’ll be running one again soon.
On to Joanna’s question. It’s a close-run thing, but I reckon Sydney has it. Only by a nose, though. Both cities have fireworks aplenty over spectacular natural harbours, both have a sense of devil-may-care revelry, and both are stand-out cities to visit at any time of year. Make sure you’re not short-changed time-wise in Hong Kong if you do opt for Sydney.
The first thing you should do is make sure you have somewhere to stay. New year is a busy time to be in any big city with party pants on. Sydney has some marvellous hostels (check out Sydney Central YHA for starters) where you’ll find it easy to make friends, or at least form a posse for the night. Then head down to the Harbour Bridge and get a good spot for the superb fireworks display. After this you should head down to some of Sydney’s inner suburbs (Paddington, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills all have their charms) to continue the party.
Hong Kong at new year is all about finding a good vantage point to watch the show, with a trip to the nightlife areas before and after. You can simply crawl around Lan Kwai Fong and Wanchai, eating and drinking as you please, then head down to the waterfront. Hong Kong is great at night, and if you do decide to do this you’ll still have a good time.
Q. My boi and I want to make a short mission to Timbuktu. What is the cheapest/easiest way to travel there? Where do we fly to, and what, if anything, is there to do there?
Matt Sua, via email
A. Visiting Timbuktu isn’t easy, but the thought of it surely gets most travellers’ pulses racing. Timbuktu (or Tombouctou) made its legendary name as a thriving medieval city, strategically situated where the Sahara met the River Niger. It’s fame spread far and wide and had a powerful effect on the imaginations of European travellers who imagined a kind of African Shangri-La, both remarkably wealthy and exotically civilised.
Timbuktu was these things, but hasn’t been for a long time. Visitors today are often disappointed by its low-rise lack of grandeur. That said, the city is home to three of West Africa’s oldest mosques, historic houses that were home to the earliest European explorers to make it here, and a palpable sense of isolation.
Like many of the world’s truly out of the way places, the most exciting thing about getting here is getting away again — make enquiries about return trips early in your stay. You can fly from Bamako, Mali’s capital, to Timbuktu with CAM and MAE, both Mali-based airlines. Alternatively, in the dry season (November to January) you can take what the Lonely Planet West Africa guide describes as a ‘battered 4WD’ on a ‘very uncomfortable journey’ from Mopti in eight hours, which is also an eight to 10-hour journey from Bamako. Costs vary, but expect to pay around £40 each way.
There’s also the classic option of taking a slow boat along the Niger River from Mali, which will mean getting a seat on a cargo boat (£50 and upwards) or chartering the whole boat, costing quite a lot more.
Q. I am looking to go on a diving holiday in Europe. I’m a certified diver and would like to go away for one week to do some dives. Are there any good and cheap packages with flights and hotel or should I book everything separately? And where are the best dive sites in Europe?
Barbara Zeisel, via email
A. Can you dive in Europe? Yes, of course! Should you dive in Europe rather than go elsewhere? That’s another matter.
Inexperienced divers will find Egypt’s Red Sea resorts accessible and good value as somewhere to get certified and enjoy a bit of a holiday to boot. As the Red Sea has a reputation for some of the best coral diving in the world, it’s hard to recommend anywhere else, especially for a package.
Most of the main dive operators (Google them or try www.scubadivingholidays.net) as well as larger tour operators who offer diving trips go big on Red Sea, Thailand and other exotic destinations.
Colder water or Mediterranean diving in Europe doesn’t get much of a look-in, though you can find inspiration and information from the good people at Dive Magazine (www.divemagazine.co.uk).
But there’s a lot of water in Europe, and plenty of places to plunge. Cyprus (especially near Paphos), Malta and some of the Greek Islands (Santorini and Corfu in particular) offer opportunities to pitch up and book your own dives. The chief attraction is marine life and, though visibility varies, warm water makes things a little easier. The Canary Islands are another excellent spot.
If you’ve got the gear and the cojones for some cold, cold water, British shores offer some rewarding dive spots. Try the Isle of Man for marine life and caves, Scapa Flow off Orkney for a feast of wreck dives and Cornwall for reefs and drop-offs. One other treat is a dive in the bitterly cold waters of Silfra in Iceland, which entails an astonishing plunge between the American and European continental landmasses.
Q. I am heading to Italy this month and have a weekend in Rome. As it will be peak season, are tours a good way to avoid spending all my weekend in lines waiting to see the attractions like Vatican City? Or are they just a rip-off? Do they need to be pre-booked?
Angus Telford, via email
A. Angus my friend, fear not the September crowds of Rome. You’d be hard-pressed to find a weekend when the Eternal City isn’t mobbed. If it’s not tourists packing the place out, Rome will be full of pilgrims, and if it’s not them it’ll be football fans, rugby-lovers or some other kind of enthusiast. Rome, you see, packs them in year-round.
So how best to see everything? Here’s a tip: Rome may be stuffed full of wonderful sights, but it’s when you do not much at all that you understand the attraction of the place. And this is my advice to you: don’t take a tour, and if you come to somewhere with a queue, forget it. Ditch plans to see the Vatican and the Colosseum. Just go and float around.
If you want to see what the fuss is about, grab yourself a slice of pizza or a gelato and plonk yourself down by Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona and watch the evening crowds go by. Or head to the Campo di Fiori in the morning to see old Roman women buying their veggies. Take a stroll down the Via Condotti, where the heavy-hitting designers are. Or have a night on the tiles in Testaccio — the working class centre of the city by day and up-and-coming heart of the city’s nightlife by night.
Q. I’m seeking an adventurous, alternative trip en route to Australia in December. I would love to sail by yacht from somewhere like Spain to Cape Town then fly to Australia from there. Is it true you can pay a small fee and travel by container ship from port to port?
Wesley Smith, via email
A. I wrote a few issues ago that hopping on a passing yacht was the stuff of travel fantasy, only for the wise owls at TNT to point out that there are websites out there (www.crewseekers.net) where skippers advertise for crew. They do, but I still think that Terry Traveller stands little chance of getting on one of these. Even if you did find a yacht matching your route, you’re likely to need sailing or mechanical experience.
Happily, there is a way to make this journey. Sadly, it costs rather more than a ‘small fee’. The RMS St Helena is a working Royal Mail Ship that carries people, cargo and mail to the South Atlantic islands of Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha (some of the only places on earth not covered by Lonely Planet guides). There are now two annual runs from Portland in Dorset to Cape Town via Asencion and St Helena. It’ll cost you at least £1551 for the basic, budget berths (not bad value for a 26-day cruise).
There are other cargo vessels, offering a very different experience — and possibly faster passage — for comparable or slightly higher rates. Cruise People (www.cruisepeople.co.uk) offers bookings on a 22-day service from Genoa, Italy, calling at ports in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and down the west coast of Africa terminating in Durban. Fancy it? Including flights to and from your starting point, expect to pay more than £1740. And if all of those options don’t grab you, it’s time to think about buying some wood and changing your name to Noah.
Q. My friends and I are flying into Santiago in Chile, where we’ll start our mission around South America and Central America. When arriving in Chile, we won’t have onward flight tickets as we plan on taking buses or trains to southern Argentina. Will we be allowed to enter Chile without onward flight plans?
Jeremy Benson, via email
A. Onward tickets: a perennial poser. Most of the time this one isn’t worth worrying about. When a country says they require an onward ticket before they grant a visa what they usually mean is that they want to be confident that you’re not going to overstay your welcome. So if you pitch up at the Chilean border and you’re all smiles and clearly ready to come into the country and spend plenty of money you’ll almost certainly be allowed in. If, instead, you resemble an undesirable, smell of dope and the immigration official is looking for a reason to keep you out, then they may ask to see one. I’ve travelled widely both in and beyond South America and have never been asked to show one. I can’t rule it out entirely, but you’ll be unlucky to be refused entry for this reason.
A bigger risk is that the airline you’re flying with — anxious not to incur the charge and accompanying fine for letting you on the plane without the right documentation — refuses to let you check-in. You can insure against this by having an eventual onward ticket somewhere, making some hotel bookings in Argentina for a future date (you can always cancel them later) and having proof of funds to support you for your stay. A credit card will help. Anything that puts across the impression that you’re there for a good time, not a long time, is worth doing. Give your airline a call and see what they say about it so there aren’t any nasty surprises.
Q. I’d like to know whether we can get a visa on the border for Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt? We are on New Zealand passports.
Vicki Jackson-Platt, via email
A. I am on a one-man crusade to make us love visas a little more. Sure, they can be fiddly, annoying and expensive, but a gooey, inky stamp in your passport is surely what travel is all about. Vicki clearly agrees with me as she is seeking further knowledge of visas. Those of you doing the same may be interested to know that a visa is called a visa as a shortening of the Latin term carta visa (‘a document that has been seen’). You can wow your mates with that one down the pub.
In terms of the Middle East, New Zealanders don’t do too badly. You can get your stamp on arrival in Turkey (valid for three months), Jordan (one month) and Egypt (one month), like citizens of other countries. Like everyone else, you need a visa for Syria. The exact situation is a bit confusing because Syria allows citizens of countries with whom it has no diplomatic representation to buy visas on arrival, but this does not apply for New Zealand. Syria’s representation in Canberra covers New Zealand, too. Apply for this in London in advance. It costs £38, takes three to four working days and is generally valid for 15 days. You can get all details from the embassy (020-7245 9012; www.syremb.com). Length of validity varies from country to country.
Do not accept this advice as the gospel truth as visa regulations, costs and length of validity change from time to time, and do a check with embassies in the UK, especially Syria, before you go. There’s a funky online tool to tell you if you need a visa or not available at www.iata.org/events/visa.htm.
Q. Hey Tom, great column. We’re thinking of heading across the US (possibly in a Cadillac) and doing that great road trip. To do it justice how much time should we set aside for this trip, two weeks, a month, more? Also which direction and places would you suggest?
Corey Layton, via email
A. Very pleased you like the column. You keep reading them, I’ll keep writing them. So, with a well-thumbed copy of On The Road in hand, I feel I should put your mind at rest. There are no rights and wrongs to a US road-trip. You can start and finish pretty much anywhere, so long as you make it coast to coast. You just have 5600km of the open road to cover in as much time as you can muster. Taking a month means you’ll need to cover around 192km a day, which is doable. You could wallop across in a few days or suck the life out of your 90-day visa entitlement. It’s up to you.
But as you ask, a few suggestions do spring to mind. Going east to west works for a few reasons: you’re always chasing the sunset, you’re not driving back over anything you’ve already flown over and you’ll be in tune with the manifest destiny of the United States: go west until you reach the Pacific.
Perhaps you’ll start in Florida, party in New Orleans, pass through Texas and New Mexico en route to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas before hitting Yosemite and San Francisco. That’s a neat trip. Or maybe you will take a northern route from New York or Boston to Chicago to less-heralded gems such as Madison, Wisconsin, Minneapolis and the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, then visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks en route to Washington State and wonderful Seattle.
Maybe you’ll do something else entirely, and that’s just great. You can’t go wrong, just get out there.
Q. I am looking to travel to both Macedonia and Croatia next month. I have found heaps of information on Croatia in TNT, but am struggling to find anything on Macedonia, especially the tourist town of Lake Ohrid. I would like to spend a week there as I’ve heard it’s beautiful, cheap, and not full of tourists. Can you give me any advice about what places to see and the best way to travel between the two countries?
Kaz, via email
A. It seems the travel trail leads to only one place this summer: Croatia (though many of you are tacking on other Balkan destinations, or even more ambitious trips, see Richard’s email). For those not too familiar with Balkan geography, Macedonia (or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as it’s also known) borders Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania, so is a little separated from Croatia. It also offers an authentic taste of the region as it has been in the past. You’ll find old-school socialist street names, few tourists and great value.
The town of Ohrid and its lake are highlights, and the Roman ruins and monasteries around Bitola and Pelister National Park’s traditional villages are also worth a look. A journey here will normally mean transitting through Skopje, which has Turkish baths, a funky old town and a nearby lake — Matka — that’s a good base for hiking and climbing. See www.exploringmacedonia.com.
To get there, fly from Zagreb or take a train via Belgrade (17 hours). There are also bus connections from other Croatian cities. I couldn’t find much about this online, but I did get on a Skopje-bound bus by mistake in Rijeka a few years back, so it’s definitely possible. See http://balkanology.com.
Q. I’m planning on doing a sailing trip in Croatia starting and finishing in Split. Then I’ll have a week to get to Cairo for my Egypt/Jordan tour. Is there a cheap, easy way of doing this? I could possibly go overland with a stop or two along the way, but I know nothing about Syria and I doubt the transport is great on that route. Any suggestions?
Richard Simpson, via email
A. A while ago I covered travelling from Istanbul to Cairo overland and the conclusion was that even taking a week over this journey would be a rush and any delays would give you problems. Given that it’ll take you the best part of another week to make your way from Split to Istanbul, this is even more of a no-no. The eastern Med is much more poorly served by ferries than the west, where boats criss-cross betwe