Wednesday, 29 August 2012

USA...Tick! France...Tick! Azerbaijan...erm...

Location, Location, Location!

On a recent flight, I was surrounded by a party heading to Slovenia to...erm, party.  One of the group, exclaimed to the others a few minutes after we took off, "when we land, this will be my 50th country!  And, all before my 30th birthday too!"  The milestone birthday, it turns out, was being celebrated in Slovenia, so the girl in question made it to her target by a whisker!  This little story got me we travel to put a notch on our proverbial hostel bedpost or is this just a satisfying byproduct of a wide and varied travel diet?  For those of you that were wondering, I have made it to 24 countries - so long as you count Monaco and the Vatican City as independent states.  I think that is pretty impressive for someone who has never taken a gap year that wends through a number of South East Asian and South American countries or is that flush with cash.

Some people take this tick-listing of countries visited to an extreme.  Take, for example, Kashi Sammadar, who has visited all of the countries of the World.  Or even our own Queen Elizabeth II who has visited 116 countries to date.  You can compare your travels to Liz's on this BBC News website - 'Have you been where the Queen's been?'

Though, sad to admit it, I quite like seeing where and how many places I have visited.  I love updating my travel map on Facebook; putting virtual pins into a map to highlight the cities and countries I have trampled with my size nines.  I look at the gaps on the map and think, 'I really must visit ... or ...'.  I do this, not to ensure I fill in those gaps, but help me think about the places I would like to travel to, not the ones I feel I should visit simply to pin on my map.  My travels this year have included four new countries and hopefully, a fifth before the year is out.  I realised looking at my map, I had not really seen much of Eastern Europe, but for a short break to Prague a few years back.  So, when I saw the flights to Hungary, Latvia and Slovenia at a reasonable price, I jumped at the chance to see these countries and cultures that had previously been virgin territory for me.

As for the girl at the start of the post, she may have achieved her 50 countries mostly via travel through her work commitments.  For all I know, she could have been a pilot or stewardess; jetting all over the world on a daily basis.  She might be filthy rich, with a purse deep enough to allow her the opportunity to travel lots and see a whole host of countries.  It is easy to become cynical about such people - mocking their approach to travel.  Besides, we all enjoy travel for different reasons.  Either way, we all have something in common...we like to travel.  Therefore, I am always in admiration for those people that are lucky enough to visit so many places.  They make me want to travel more as I reason with myself, 'if they can do it, so can I!'  I often fail to remember that they may have more time or cash at their disposal, but still the desire to travel remains.  So, look to your tick-listers as inspiration, a source of ideas for future destinations and most of all enjoy the experience of travel, seeing it not simply as a chance to 'tick' another place off on a list of places you have travelled to.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Glorious Free Tour...

The Ljubljana Free Tour - MikeW in the middle on the front row! (Source - The Ljubljana Free Tour)
Free!  My favourite price!  The old saying goes, "there's no such thing as a free lunch", but I disagree when it comes to one 'free' aspect of travel and it is one of my top tips for the solo traveller.  Whenever I am in a place that has one on offer, I always take the free tour.  I've free toured in a number of cities including Lisbon, Budapest, Riga, Vilnius and most recently, last week, in Ljubljana.  And, what a treat these tours are.  The concept is pretty straightforward: a person in their early twenties (often an inhabitant of the place) will have advertised a meeting point somewhere in the city, at a set time everyday, usually via a leaflet or poster in the hostels and tourist information offices.  They will walk you and a group of other fact-hungry tourists around their fair city all for nothing, nada, nowt!  OK, OK...before you all scream, "Mike, you're's not free!"...the tour is not completely free as the tour guide will explain to you at some point on your walk round the city.  They work on a tip based system, whereby you pay what you think the tour was worth.  So, in theory you could pay nothing for an abysmal tour and thus, get yourself a free tour, but if you are paying nothing, it is probably safe to assume the tour was a waste of time or you are just one tight-fisted git!

I like the free tour for a number of reasons.  First of all, you get to meet a local; someone who is always very passionate about their city and their country; happy to share many interesting facts and stories about its people, buildings and culture.  I have learnt some fascinating things from these free tours.  The quality of the guides varies.  The tours where I have laughed heartily, learnt lots about the place and felt like the guide was genuinely interested in our experience have been fantastic.  The tours where the guide has been very serious or a little eccentric, making the tour all about themselves, I have found less interesting and have tipped accordingly.  Secondly, free tours are really useful in helping you get your bearings; allowing you to see the highlights of a city in a short space of time, but then give you the opportunity to decide what you want to visit again and see in more detail.

Free tours are a great way to meet other like-minded travellers.  Free tourers are usually backpackers, probably travelling solo (and on a budget) just like your good self.  On the tour in Ljubljana, I was able to meet a great girl who me and a fellow traveller, from my room in the hostel, spent the day exploring the city with and dined with in the evening.  Further than that, the people on the free tour might become future travel Aussie girl I befriended on the free tour in Riga I am travelling to Krakow with in October.

So, take the free tour...learn about the place you are visiting, soak up the culture and meet people!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Get Out There...Explore!

Some postcards made by my class during the 'Tourism' topic!

I am a Geography teacher in a secondary school, here in the UK.  I mention my travels, and the experiences I have had on them, a fair bit in my lessons, whenever it is relevant to do so.  Occasionally a student will suggest I am "always going on about my holidays"; bragging about my trips to other countries, cultures and environments.  As I aim to do in my posts on this blog, I am very conscious that I do not tell my students these travel stories as a way of showing off either a) my wealth (which for any prospective golddiggers out there, is pretty small, by the way) or b) to somehow seem to beat someone else's equally exciting travel experiences into submission with my heavily stamped passport.  I tell the students my money does not go on attending expensive Premiership Football matches, buying Playstation and XBox games, boozing every weekend in Leeds city centre or a fast car.  I save my hard-earned pennies to spend on travel.  As previous readers are well aware, I hunt down the cheapest flight possible within a time I am free to travel to ensure that I get the best value for money from my journeys and take as many as possible within the holidays I have.  Like the readers here, I want to inspire the students I teach to travel when they are older.  To take themselves off on journeys that make them more rounded individuals; exposed to all the amazing sights and experiences this magnificent world has to offer, as well as a developing awareness of the world's problems and what impact we humans have on the planet and the environments in which we live.  My 'Henry Rollin's post' a few week's back highlights this.  To travel is not to just simply get a better understanding of the world, but I believe it is vital in helping you understand yourself better.  It is this that philosophy I am trying to get across to the students I teach.

As 'The Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet' reaches almost 1000 page views, I want to thank all the visitors to my rather self-indulgent travel blog, but hope that it has and will continue to prove to be a great source of help, advice and inspiration to all visitors.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

A Travel Highlight...

A humpback whale breaching (Source -

On my first solo trip, a real highlight for me was the Australian coastal town of Byron Bay.  Byron was so much fun and is an absolutely beautiful place to be.  I hope to return there one day and experience the laid back Aussie lifestyle again.  My first day, after some (pretty poor) surfing by me was spent relaxing on the sand at Byron.  I was lying on my towel busily snoozing away when I heard a gasp from a Japanese lady, sitting on a towel, a few metres away.  She pointed out to sea and after rubbing my eyes, I was stunned at the sight of two humpback whales swimming parallel to the beach, breaching the water every few metres as they made their migration down the east coast of Australia.  It was a fantastic sight and when I looked back to the Japanese lady, I saw that she was in floods of tears; so touched by the moment.  Seeing these pictures of humpbacks in Sydney Harbour, on the BBC News website, brought back all those amazing unforgettable memories.  And, to think, I was almost too scared to make this trip...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Go Ed! Independent Travel with a Disability...

Ed on his travels (Source -

I got an e-mail from yesterday evening.  A great website for hints and tips on travel and, as it says on the tin, the incredibly popular gap year trips.  To my surprise, I spotted a familiar face and name acting as one of the guest writers...a young man called Ed Rex.  I recognise Ed from my previous work with Deaf and Hearing Impaired students in secondary schools here in the UK.  He was a pupil at a school I worked at.

Having an older brother who is profoundly Deaf, I often forget that for him to take a trip in the UK, let alone abroad, can pose some serious problems; not least one of confidence.  Thankfully, my brother and Ed seem to share a fantastic sense of adventure, are possessed with great confidence and are keen to see the world.  As I write, my brother and his wife are currently enjoying city life in Singapore after a week in the Balinese resort of Ubud.  It is great to see that Ed has taken an extended backpacking trip, but to think a profoundly deaf person is travelling independently in countries he is not familiar with is amazing.  'Go Ed' is what I say!  Most hearing people would not dare to take this trip alone, but Ed has proven he has the determination and desire to explore the World and is making the most of the fact that he is having the time of his life!

The link below is a brilliant insight into Ed's life travelling independently as a profoundly deaf person.  It makes me think how lucky I am that the minor travel difficulties I face are nothing to the tannoy, accent and planning troubles a deaf person doing a similar trip might encounter.

Holland was Lekker!

Showing off my tourist credentials...a photo in front of Centraal Station, Amsterdam!

In my previous post 'The Home Advantage', I raved on about how amazing it is to visit friends you met on your travels in their own country.  My trip to the Netherlands was great and fulfilled all the positive things, that come about from this type of travel, I talked about in 'The Home Advantage'.  Just catching up with Mitch and his girlfriend is worth the flight alone, but on top of that they planned a superb weekend of activities to show off their favourite places and some uniquely Dutch aspects of life.  Enjoying drinks at The Boathouse in Almere under the afternoon sun, a (rather wet) drive to the coastal resorts of Zandvoort and Bloemendaal, eating steak at another branch of my favourite chain of steak restaurants Loetjes and sampling the fun and festivities of the annual Amsterdam Gay Pride Boat Parade just added to my visit and further proof that you must play the home advantage, wherever possible.

It came to the point where I felt so familiar with so much about the Netherlands, following my numerous visits and contact with Dutch people, that when we were joined by an American relation of Mitch's family on his first trip to the country, I found myself extolling the virtues of Dutch trains, the Dutch honesty and how much I cannot stand Smartlap music, but love watching Dutch people melt into the cheesiness of this traditional music.

I must add, this is not a one way process.  Mitch has visited the UK on a number of occasions to be met with English food (well, a fantastic Leeds curry) and Yorkshire women calling him 'love' in shops.  So, to Mitch, thank you!  Long may this Anglo-Dutch friendship and cultural exchange continue!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Home Advantage

A canal in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam.

I have mentioned before how great travelling (and, particularly, travelling solo) is for meeting people and making new friends.  As my travel experience and the number of trips I have taken has grown, I have seemingly developed a knack for spotting potential friends.  The kind of friend I would like to stay in touch with after spending some time travelling with them for a bit or sharing some kind of travel experience with that person via a tour, day trip, night out etc.  The Irish girls I met in New Zealand and my Dutch friend are just two such examples.  Mitch and I, both backpacking solo, hit it off straight away on a sailing trip, almost 7 years ago, round the Whitsunday Islands, in Australia.  We shared a similar sense of humour, tastes in music and enjoyed hearing about each other's travels and lives back home.  We also enjoyed partying together at the traditional post trip boat party in Airlie Beach too!  Making fun of his brilliant Dutch accent (via the Austin Power's character, Goldmember) also helped the friendship grow too!

This weekend, I make, what must be, my sixth or seventh trip to Amsterdam to visit him and his girlfriend.  Before befriending Mitch, I had visited Amsterdam with my friends from home and considered it 'ticked' off of my bucket list.  We had seen all the sights, been to a sex show, visited the Van Gogh and Stedelijk Museums as well as frequent both the Erotic and Sex Museum; all rounded off with a lounge in the sun in the brilliant Vondelpark.  So, when Mitch invited me over soon after both of our returns from Oz, I was a little trepidatious about going back to see the same old things and smiling politely (like us Brits do so well) at all the things I had seen before so not to offend Mitch and his love of his country.

I could not have been more wrong.  In every visit I have made, Mitch has been able to show me parts of Amsterdam and the Netherlands I would have really had to research in depth to find.  I have been lucky enough to meet and break bread with his fantastic friends and family, enjoy dressing up like a traditional Dutch person in Volendam and wander the beautiful quiet streets of the Jordaan (only a few parallel streets from all the other tourist madness).  On top of this, I have experienced nightlife like a local, in a traditional Dutch music bar, in the Jordaan area, that left me befuddled but filled with merriment at the thought that I was having a great time without knowing a single word being sung by folk superstar singers such as Walter Kroes.  Mitch and I have stormed house music festivals such as Sensation - White and Mysteryland, visited castles I did not know existed and eaten some food I would not have even thought of trying.

And, that's the key element to all of this; visiting a local means that they show you their neighbourhood, their country at its best, showing you things you did not know were there or taste things that you never thought possible.  I could write an equally lengthy passage in praise of Ireland and all the amazing things the Irish girls have taken me to see in their fair country.  So, if you can, take the home advantage, you won't regret it!