Mauritius, Indian Ocean

In the heart of the Indian Ocean lies one of the world’s most treasured and esteemed island-edens: Mauritius. A palm-fringed, volcanic island full of humble charm and luxury resorts; idyllic Mauritius both inspired and intrigued me…

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Why? Well, having spent some of my teenage years living in Antigua (Caribbean) where there are visible tensions between local people and (comparatively) wealthy holiday-makers, I was was both humbled and surprised by the genuine geniality of the Mauritian people. Despite the average Mauritian living in rustic ramshackle houses and living off of modest salaries, you would expect the 60% of the island’s inhabitants who work in travel and tourism industry (serving predominantly wealthy, white people people) to have a bit of a chip on their shoulders. This couldn’t be further from the truth – there is such a sincere curiosity and friendliness about the Mauritian community, both in and outside of the resorts which is as magnetic as it is inspiring.

Mauritius has the reputation of exclusivity and luxury – both of which the island certainly delivers. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are accommodation classifications to suit budgets of all sizes. If, like me, you’re not likely to want to fork out thousands for an opulent beachfront villa there are plenty of gorgeous and rustic hotels like Attitude’s Emeraude Beach, which in May can accommodate a couple for £400 (per person) all-inclusive. Not bad if you’re looking for some pre-summer sun! Outside of the resorts and hotels you’re paying next to nothing for food, drink, petrol, and excursions. I highly recommend hiring a car/moped and exploring the abundance of pristine beaches and tropical jungles, indulging on the delicious local street food and cold Pheonix beers!

 

Considering you’re in the Indian Ocean, which has a patch-work of nationalities influencing the heritage and culture, there were more moments the island reminded me more of the Caribbean than it’s African/Indian influencers. There’s something about whiter than white sand; crystal bays stretching to turquoise reefs; trees overloaded tropical fruits; tumultuous driving on bumpy roads; mini marts selling merchandise from bygone decades; street food sellers whipping up an absolute treat in seconds and the most mesmerizing sunsets which plasters a permanent smile on my face.

There’s something in Mauritius for everyone: whether you’re an adventure enthusiast, windsurfing lover, culture vulture, rum drinker, adventurous foodie or unashamedly a fly and flop kind of person, Mauritius is barefoot bliss waiting to be explored.

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Ravenala: a gateway to authentic Mauritius 

The amount I’ve learnt this week about the importance of the ‘personal experience‘ hotels and their intuitive marketing teams, nurture and weave into their rooms is phenomenal. What Attitude (the island’s most populated chain, with 9 unique and rustic resorts) have mastered is showcasing the rich fabric of Mauritanian culture and urging guests to experience Mauritius.

It’s both an effective and popular marketing strategy as guests have the opportunity to indulge in authentic experiences such as visiting a Mauritanian family for an evening meal; master the local language Creole on the beach; explore the island’s forests, mountains and beaches using their intuitive app; meet local craftsmen at the Attitude Bazarre where the hotel invites tradesmen to sell local produce in pop up markets; as well as the embellishment of local art, music and flavour seen across the suites, restaurants and facilities.
Ravenala is a spacious and colonial-feeling hotel with stunning west-facing coastal views – perfect for sunset spotting. The “Otentik” experience is embodied here, offering guests much more than luxury accommodation: it’s an invitation to leave Mauritius having learned about the warm and beautiful culture this wonderful island boasts.

Lux Belle Mare, Mauritius

It’s all about the little moments with Lux, a brand who pride themselves on sentiment and experience. It’s visible everywhere: from the wishes tree, to the messages in bottles (hidden bottles containing vouchers for spa treatments and all other sorts of goodies), to old-school red telephone boxes where you can call anywhere in the world free of charge. Absolute dedication to a vision has gone into crafting such a beautiful resort on the dreamy east coast of Mauritius.
Around every corner is the wow factor, it’s difficult not to be swept away!

Lisbon, Portugal

There’s something to be said about a place where you don’t have to be doing anything to  enjoy it. This is precisely the case with Lisbon, the effortlessly-cool capital of Portugal which feels like a life-size game of Snakes and Ladders: with yellow funicular trams taking you up the steep, cobbled streets, and narrow secret stairways leading down to the coast.

The city just oozes charm…

Walking through the labyrinth of typical white-washed homes  around the imposing Sao Jorge castle (which glow a sort of gold in the Mediterranean sun); enjoying espresso coffees and Pasties de Nata’s (Portugese custard tarts); perusing through snoozey local markets and by night getting lost is Biarro Alto sipping Sangria until the wee hours was enough for us. Three days passed at a leisurly pace, more time or poor weather would have meant we’d have been able to explore the other hilly districts, visited some of the museums/ castles and made the short journey to Balem (home of the Pasties de Nata, yum). We were quite happy keeping it casual around Alfama and our fabulous afternoon in Sintra but have left much more for my next trip to Lisbon – which there certainly will be.

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Arriving into the main station in Lisbon from our 3.5 hour train from Lagos

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Waking up fresh from our fantastic hostel Liv In about to start a day of hiking (in style) around the town

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Little trams

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A level part of Lisbon – a rare site – looking up at Sao Jorge

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Rossio Station

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Beautiful Lisbon

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Residential Streets

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Secret passages

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Meow

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Nearly at the top!

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Alfama

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X Marks the spot

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Thought-provoking street art is evident all over Portugal

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Tatty, tratitional houses

 

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Pasteis de Nata… mmmmm

 

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Heading back down from Alfama

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Sangria O’Clock!

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Delicious fresh peaches

 

 

 

 

Liv’in Hostel, Lisbon

I really feel compelled to share with you the Liv’in hostel in Lisbon, not because I’m being incentivised to, but because it was probably the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

 

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The stylish reception/ lounge area

It can be difficult to find a comfort and style in budget hostels, so after picking the cheapest hostel in Lisbon I was astounded by quality of the facilities and the funky vibe of Liv’in. Why? Firstly all bunk beds have memory foam mattresses. That’s right MEMORY FOAM: Say goodbye to dubious stains, bed bugs and loose springs my friends!

 

 

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The most comfortable bunks I’ve ever slept in!

Secondly, Liv’in hostel has nailed its service. Not only in terms of the fun and attentive backpackers they recruit on reception, but also the kitchen and bathroom facilities which make you feel like you’ve walked into a trendy, airy apartment. For a mere £12 per night the hostel includes breakfast, but not your run-of-the-mill coffee and limp toast, rather pancakes with spreads, yogurt and jam and muesli. Impressive, huh!

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Brilliant kitchen facilities to make your own meals in

If one evening you’re looking to do something a little more social, or something a little more cheaply, the hostel lays on an evening meal for €4 which includes a couple of glasses of sangria! It was a super informal and relaxed way to connect with our dorm-mates which was followed by a (not so relaxed) bar crawl, if you felt so inclined. For us, we rolled into the little convenience shop next door called Namaste for a €2 bottle of wine and Portuguese snacks, and sunk into our mattresses giggling.

Liv’in, you rocked it.


Lagos, Portugal

Lagos offers the very best of Portuguese vistas, beaches, authenticity and charm. With a  crumbling coastline, white-wash town and hippy vibe, it is really deserves credit for being the best destination along the Algarve.

 

Getting to Lagos

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We opted to take the rusty old tank of a train to Lagos which was ideal. The views along the coast are stunning – you’ll pass through rolling hills with earthy shades of soil and thirsty shrubs as well as traditional hamlets off the beaten track. The train set us back all of €5 (if you are 25 and younger make sure to show the ticket officer your passport/ID so you get a young persons discount!), and took approximately 1.5 hours.

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Let’s talk about the beach…

I’d love to tell you that we did loads when we in Lagos. It would be lying. We had an absolute ball soaking up the sun, gorging on delicious Portuguese dishes (make sure you try the sardines and swordfish, and make a point of visiting Bar Inna for traditional meals costing only 5 euros!) and drinking lots of wine and sangria.

The beaches are out of this world. The azure Atlantic contrasts the golden coast which has crumbled away leaving behind giant rocks and secret tunnels to explore. It’s said these are best viewed from one of the excursions which takes you along the coast by kayak or catamaran, but we were happy exploring different beaches by foot each day. Personally, my favourite beach was Praia dos Estudantes – though all of them are unique and worth checking out.

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Lagos Town

 

Accommodation

I’m the world’s biggest fan of Air BnB. Seriously. There’s nothing I enjoy more than living like a local. We found a steal of a deal with this gorgeous, homely apartment just outside of the town centre. It was brilliant to have our access to private facilities like a sun terrace and really enriched our holiday with the sense of uniqueness. If you’re heading to Lagos, make sure you drop Claudio a message to stay in his wonderful home: www.airbnb.co.uk/lagos-apartment

 

 

 

 

Faro, Portugal

Many tour books, blogs and forums will advise that upon arrival into Faro airport you should hop into your transfer and disperse along the Algarve coastline. If this is your plan, I urge you not to.

Whilst petit and only really worth setting one day aside for, Faro is a white-washed warren of traditional buildings and coastal views.

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Once you’ve landed into the currently-expanding international airport you can opt to take a taxi or a bus into the town centre. A taxi will cost around 10-15 euros (depending on party size/time) whereas the bus is merely 2.20 euros. Take bus number 14 or 16 to the bus terminal, approximately 10 minutes drive away from the airport – the bus terminal is situated next door to Faro train station if you’re looking to make a connection by public transport.

We spent our one night in Faro at the Algarve Hostel  (click here for the link to the Air BnB) which was perfectly comfortable and reasonably good value. Positioned next to the bus/train station and a five minute walk to the old town, the rustic hostel was a warm welcome after a late arrival into Portugal.

Make sure you allow a couple of hours to stroll through the cobbled streets of the old town, soaking up the traditional architecture, enjoying a coffee and a Patsel de Nata (Portuguese custard tart) alfresco style, of course. In the evening the snoozy town comes to life with bars and restaurants entertaining guests looking for a casual beer or a big night out.

I wouldn’t spend more than one or two days in Faro, but it’s certainly an underrated stopover.  We were pleasantly surprised by it’s charm and allure, not to mention it’s convenient (and affordable!) public transport links to the rest of the Algarve coast.

 

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Strolling through the Old Town

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Faro Old Town

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I’m in love with the tiles in Portugal!

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Faro Old Town

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Faro Old Town

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Faro Old Town

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Even the fire stations are pretty!

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Coastal blues

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Keavy being awesome and candid

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Faro Old Town

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Bunches of bougainvillea flowers

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An adorable scene of Punch and Judy for the children

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One quick coffee to fuel a day of travelling

 

 

 

 

Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is Hanoi’s elegant, wealthy younger sister who sits around taking selfies all day. Often mistaken as Vietnam’s capital city, old Saigon is trendy, cosmopolitan and economically booming, drawing large numbers of tourists year upon year. Having travelled Vietnam extensively, Ho Chi Minh definitely feels out of place, to the extent where I feel it’s more similar to Bangkok in terms of culture, appearance and vibe.

If you’re planning a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, I would advise that you allow two full days to absorb the sites, and a further two days to take trips out to the Cu Chi Tunnels (a half day excursion) and the Mekong Delta (full day excursion). District 1 is where it all happens: you can find the backpacker area (which personally I thought was as sleazy as Koh San Road), the CBD, the historical/cultural museums, monuments and buildings as well as markets, shopping malls and an abundance of places to eat/ grab a coffee.

As a huge lover of Northern Vietnamese lifestyle and culture, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Ho Chi Minh. I was, however, pleasantly surprised: the streets are wider (and quieter!) with huge, tall trees lining them, everything is landscaped and manicured, the people are beautiful and friendly, and above all the city feels much less polluted. It’s almost like going to a different country altogether as Ho Ci Minh city feels removed from the rest of the Vietnam I know and love – to illustrate, they’re currently collaborating with the Japanese to build an underground network which will shoot them into the next century!

I left Ho Chi Minh City feeling like I understood Vietnam a lot better. I was profoundly moved by the War Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels and had a newfound respect for how far Vietnam has moved on since the war. It’s somewhere that you’re unlikely to miss if you’re travelling to Vietnam, but shouldn’t be the benchmark for the rest of your travels around the country.

 

What to do:

 

What to see:

Ho Chi Minh City is a walking city. You can easily stroll through district 1 in a day and see most of the beautiful architecture and famous sights. Here are a few musts:

  • Notre Dam Cathedral
  • The Post Office
  • The Opera House
  • The Town Hall
  • Ben Thanh market

 

Accommodation:

Vietnam Hideout Hostel – We were thoroughly impressed by this hostel as it’s bang smack in the middle of the backpacker area, next to the bus station, is only 160,000 VND ($7 per night) and includes breakfast and some free beer. Beds were dead comfy and rooms weere clean and the hostel offered plenty of services.

 

Eating Out:

What should you eat in Ho Chi Minh City? STREET FOOD. By street food I don’t mean the dried out squid on the side of the road, but the little spots with plastic chairs and bright, unforgiving lights – this is where you’ll get the best home cooked grub and for next to nothing. Read my post on the best dishes to try in The Flavour of Vietnam: What you must eat in the south

If you are craving something other than Vietnamese food and an upset stomach, you must go to Baba’s Indian Restaurant.

Da Lat, Vietnam

Da Lat is really quite different to anywhere else I have visited in Vietnam. In fact it doesn’t feel Vietnamese at all (besides the motorbikes, Pho restaurants and Vietnamese people, that is). I had been looking forward to visiting Da Lat the most on my tour of the south as it’s the wine region of Vietnam, a more favourable climate and a stark contrast both naturally and architecturally to the rest of Vietnam. Da Lat delivered on all three fronts, and exceed my expectations.

Looking around at first glance, you think that you’ve been dropped off in the Alpes: the steep, winding roads up to the mountain town are surrounded by tall forests of pine trees – a landscape like no other in Vietnam. Once over the crest of the hill, we were totally baffled to see what appears to be a charming little French town, surrounding a beautifully landscaped lake.

Despite being a relatively small place, Da Lat is becoming a popular destination amongst backpackers. There are plenty of options to do outdoor and adventure pursuits (such as canyoning, white-water rafting, abseiling, rock climbing and cave exploration) at a reasonable cost. This was something we decided to avoid on this trip, but heard form numerous sources that it’s well worth the money and one of the highlights of being in Vietnam.

If you’re looking for somewhere a little more familiar to home, a little less hectic than other Vietnamese towns, and lungful’s of fresh mountain air, you should put Da Lat on your travel bucket list!

Things to do:

  • 100 Roofs Cafe100 Roofs Cafe (tunnels bar) – You must visit this bar at least once during your stay in Da Lat. Created 25 years ago, the building has been transformed into a labyrinth of staircases, passageways, tunnels, alcoves and a rooftop garden. It was unbelievable! (Apparently this is much better than the famous Da Lat ‘Crazy House’)
  • Rent motorbikes – most hotels/hostels will offer a motorbike rental service, in Da Lat it was especially worth doing. It set us back 100,000 VND for the day and gave us total freedom to explore the countryside, the reservoir, the cable cars and the farms
  • Buy a picnic from the Big C supermarket, drive your motorbike to the reservoir and take in the view – an absolute highlight during my time in Da Lat
  • Thien Vien Truc Lam (cable car) – this was a really nice little excursion, and again, a very French thing to enjoy. A return on the cable car will cost you 70,000 VND which is well worth doing as there is a monastery and one end of the cable car (remember to dress modestly if you wish to enter the monastery) and beautiful views across the city and beyond.
  • Elephant falls – We didn’t really know what to expect when we ventured off to find the falls. True to Vietnamese form, it’s terribly signposted so we were a little bit lost, but it was brilliant once we got there (at last) The falls are relatively spectacular, but it’s the boulders and ambling you have to do to get to it which makes it really enjoyable afternoon. Staircases and steps have been carved into the boulders which make it relatively hard work (thank you Vietnamese health and safety…), but brilliant fun nonetheless.
  • Rent swan pedalos on the lake – only 60,000 VND and a pretty view of the town and the lake!

 

Eating Out:

When it came to eating out in Da Lat, we mainly stuck to the very Vietnamese streets our hotel was on, as they offered traditional Vietnamese cuisine at local prices. Our absolute favourite thing to eat was Cha Ram Bap (a Da Lat speciality). It’s essentially DIY spring rolls, with a bettered corn/rice falafel which you add salad and picked cucumber to and then dunk in satay sauce. Delicious, and only 15,000 VND!

Accommodation:

We spent three nights at the Thein Hoang Guesthouse on Nguyen Cong Tru street. It was a 2 km walk away from the tourist area, which we preferred, and excellent value for money. We paid 460,000 VND for a double bedroom for 3 nights (which worked out about 65,000 VND per person, per night). However, the room was very basic and being next door to the road meant that we were up with the Vietnamese traffic ever morning before 7am (which sort of worked in our favour in the end as it meant we made the most of the day).

 

Mui Ne, Vietnam

Mui Ne is described as the “up and coming” beach town of Vietnam. This would suggest that it’s in the process of being developed and relatively unknown to tourists. Wrong. Mui Ne is probably the most established (and perhaps the most disappointing) tourist town I’ve been to throughout my travels in Vietnam.

Mui Ne (pronounced “mwee-nay”) is in relatively close proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, offering city dwellers and travellers white sand and blue sky for a $6/ 6 hour drive. The town itself is one huge long strip stretching 4 miles along the coast. I was astounded by how long this “strip” actually was, it seemed to go on and on, yet you seem to pass the same scenery on repeat: resorts varying in size and luxury, restaurants serving international menus (i.e. wherever you’re from in the world you can eat your home comforts, but can’t for the life of you find a Vietnamese restaurant anywhere), gift shops and massage parlours.

The beach itself is wonderful, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s one of Vietnam’s best. What it does offer is water sports opportunities. Due to it’s positioning, Mui Ne’s coast seems to catch a lot of wind and swell making kite surfing, wind surfing and regular surfing possible. It’s relatively expensive to pay for a lesson but renting the equipment is quite affordable, so as there are limited things to do in Mui Ne I’d say it’s worth the expense. Find out more about water sports options here: www.vietnamkiteboardingschool.com

The main tourist activity is visiting the sand dunes at either sunrise or sunset. I would definitely say this is worth doing as they are quite spectacular (and only costs $6 to do). We opted for the sunrise excursion as we’d heard that the sand gets very hot in the afternoon, so despite the early start sunrise seemed the best option. The Jeep will pick you up from your hotel around 4am and drive for just under an hour to the white sand dunes (and if you’re lucky like us you’ll have the added thrill of a driver who falls asleep behind the wheel and swerves down the road!) The sun rise was really beautiful and the dunes were really well preserved. It’s possible to rent a quadbike for $10, but walking is a really peaceful experience as the sand is so fine and cool in the morning.

After sunrise comes the red sand dunes. These were slightly less impressive than the first dunes, but on this site you can hire a sledge and whizz down the sandy hills.  A 20 minute stop at a fishing town follows the red dunes- which I particularly enjoyed. There are literally thousands of fishing boats for as far as the eye can see, so we took a few snaps and scurried into a Pho diner to get a fix of cheap and authentic Vietnamese food. The next and final stop on the tour is Fairy Springs. We had relatively low expectations of this, but it was really beautiful. You wade upstream past stalagmites forged from red and golden sand, tropical palm trees and bullrushes for about 20 minutes. It’s really serene and extremely photogenic. Please note that as you enter the stream a local family tell you that you have to pay them to keep your shoes safe for you, this isn’t true as it’s free to walk up and you can keep hold of your shoes. Overall I’d say the trip is certainly worth doing, parts were a little naff but as the only tourist excursion to do in the town it’s worth seeing something other than the beach/pool.

Ultimately, if you want a low effort/ lounge-by-the-pool/ sunbathing/ chill out kind of holiday then Mui Ne certainly delivers. We ended up spending our 2 days in the town by our hotel’s glorious swimming pool, sunbathing with a Mojito in one hand and a book in the other. We stayed at the Mui Ne Hills Budget Hotel (click the link for a full review) and would highly recommend it to those travelling on a budget but still seeking some luxury!

As you can probably sense, I wasn’t hugely overwhelmed or inspired by Mui Ne. There’s just something really artificial about it. Then again, most people go to the beach for some sun and sea and not culture, so if that’s the case it’s ideal. It’s very affordable but dominated by Westerner’s and Russians – personally I’d recommend bi-passing Mui Ne and heading straight for Con Dao Islands which offer far more beautiful and quieter beaches.