5 Reasons Why Solo Travel is Awesome

Last May I threw caution to the wind and set off alone down America’s west coast. The winter season in Whistler had finally drawn to a close and it was time to burst the ski town bubble and head for the ocean. Though I was nervous to leave behind my Whistler family, this adventure was just for me and I couldn’t wait to start the journey. Turns out, it was the best journey I ever made. Here are the top five reasons that make solo travel an unmissable experience:

  1. Ultimate freedom. You’ll never be more free than this. It’s up to you and only you to go anywhere, do anything and change your plans however you feel best. There’s nothing and no-one to hold you back, no need to compromise; this is your journey.
  2. Be 100% YOU. Unrestricted and undefined by others’ opinions, when you travel alone you have a fresh slate: be whoever you want to be. Learn about yourself and get to know who you are when set free of the external influences of your everyday.
  3. Meet amazing people. The best thing about travelling alone is the extra opportunities you have to meet new people and make global friendships. Solo travellers seek each other out and have incredible stories to share of their adventures. Hostels and tour groups are the best places to find like-minded globe-trotters.
  4. Expand your comfort zone. Meeting new people is guaranteed to expand your comfort zone, as you join them on activities you would normally avoid, or that your friends back home aren’t into. I’d never considered doing a 6 hour hike before I found myself scaling waterfalls in Yosemite with my Trek America tour group last year!
  5. SEE more. Travelling by yourself gives you the time and space to gain perspective on yourself and the world. The chance to sit quietly in new places, just thinking and watching, soaking up your environment, allows you to take in and appreciate so much more than if you were chatting away with an old friend about life back home. Taking those thoughts back to your hostel dorm and mulling over the big questions that seeing the world inspires is where the richest value of solo travel lies.

Travelling by yourself can be daunting. Perhaps you’ll get lonely… and what if you need help? Rest assured, the rewards far outweigh the drawbacks and once you get used to your newfound freedom, you’ll find those worries melt away. Now could be the perfect time to start planning your solo adventure. There is so much out there to see.

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Review: Blixen, Old Spitalfields Market

When it comes to flavours, atmosphere and interior design, the people at Blixen speak my language. My, oh my, as we walked through the wood panelled, high ceilinged former bank, with ochre leather banquette seating, dark veined marble surfaces and gleaming brass railings, I wondered how it could get better. We were led through to a stunning conservatory, lush with greenery, overlooking the colourful clothing stalls of Old Spitalfields Market. “Rustic opulence” springs to mind as the perfect description for the character of this charming brasserie, and as we sunk into plush canvas benches and laid eyes on their dreamy menu we realised this was just the start of an afternoon of sensory heaven.

Now I know I am gushing, but bear with me; Blixen is a place that needs to be gushed about. Take their menu for example, a finely balanced collection of old favourites and the latest culinary trends with plenty of unique Blixen twists. From pork belly with spaetzle, kale and quince to cauliflower steak with curry leaf, toasted coconut and wild rice, it’s their flavour combinations that really get the mouth watering.

Arriving around midday, we were in perfect time for brunch (served from 10am to 2pm). Their signature potato rosti sounded too good to resist and temptation has never tasted so good. As silky orange yolk from a perfect poached egg enrobed rich, succulent salt beef, creamy hollandaise and crisp potato rosti, it was instantly clear I had made a winning choice. My sister’s bacon and fried egg sandwich was elevated by game-changing tomato jam and delicately naughty skinny fries. To top off this glutton’s feast, we gave in to sharing the buttermilk pancake stack with whipped marscapone, a delicious blueberry compote and warm maple syrup. Washed down with fragrant, floral cocktails like Hedgeland – gin, spiced apple cordial, elderflower, lime and creme de mure – it was a brunch we won’t soon forget. Safe to say we waddled out of there with grins as big as our food babies.

So if you’re in Shoreditch and struggling to choose between the oodles of trend setting, instagram loving eateries, give Blixen a try. You will be rewarded and then some.

UCPA, Chamonix: Skiing on a budget

When I turned up at the UCPA hostel in Chamonix at 10pm on Saturday night to find all five of my roomies asleep, I thought it was going to be a quiet week. I was wrong.

In search of a cheap ski holiday, I booked a week in Chamonix on the French-Italian border through Action Outdoors. £595 for all inclusive accommodation, meals, lift pass, ski rental and four days of lessons was an incredible deal. With 20cm fresh powder each day to start the week and a couple of bluebird days to round it off, the stage was set for a perfect week of skiing. I wasn’t too fussed about the rest, but thanks to a great set-up and a fantastic bunch of people, the UCPA hostel really made the holiday the unforgettable week it was.

As well as comfy rooms and a substantial all-you-can-eat buffet, the hostel has a great location close to everything going on in town and its own bus services to the different ski areas at set times each day. They have the cheapest bar in town (€2.20 for a glass of wine that would cost €3.50 elsewhere) and facilities including a rental shop, locked ski/boot room, drying room, stretching classes and a sauna. Other guests range in age from 15 to 50 (average 25) and everyone is there to have a good time and happy to help each other out and muck in with the tidying up in the dining room and dorms (UCPA keep costs low by asking guests to clear their tables, hoover rooms etc).

In the evenings, the hostel put on nightly entertainment ranging from games nights to dance lessons. I heard good reports, but I chose to head out to the bars in town most nights with a group of fellow Brits. Bar’d Up, Monkey Bar and Le Privilege come highly recommended and Chambre Neuf for après-ski. All memorable, despite unwise double vodka lemonades (“Did you say THIRTEEN Euros?!”). Tip: Steer well clear of mixers if you’re on a budget.

Lessons were the best I’ve ever had and all the groups were similarly impressed with their instructors. Fabien showed us all the best places to ski for our level and struck a great balance between working on technique and just having some fun, whilst being generally hilarious and bringing together a group of very different people. The skiing is varied and it’s true what they say about the brilliant off-piste in Chamonix, if you know where to go… and if you’re better at skiing powder than I am (white skis are very hard to find in a foot of the fluffy stuff).

If you’re thinking of booking a UCPA holiday, stop thinking, just go for it. From that point on, UCPA will take care of the rest.

 

Student House Hunting: 5 Top Tips

It’s the start of a new term and about time for students to start looking for next year’s accommodation. The search for private rented housing is daunting and finding somewhere decent can be tough on a student budget, but it is not impossible. With a little bit of organisation and street savvy, you too can be one of those smug students in the bright, spacious apartments slap bang on the uni bus route. Take note of these top tips from a recent graduate:

  1. Find a group of like-minded people. Decide how many people to share with based on the sizes of student properties in your area. Make sure you’re on the same page when it comes to budget, location and lifestyle (e.g. partying, cleanliness) and compare priorities (e.g. parking, double beds).
  2. Do your research. Find out the best time to start looking for accommodation at your uni and average rental prices. Also consider transport costs, utility bills and agency fees.
  3. Be prepared. Before you start viewing properties, make sure everyone has their deposit ready (inc. agency fees). If some members of your group cannot attend a viewing, agree in advance whether they are prepared for you to make a decision without them. For outstanding properties you will need to put down your deposit straight away. However, it is only worth the risk for somewhere really exceptional. Ideally all members of the group should view the house before anyone signs a contract.
  4. Be assertive. This applies when it comes to housemates and agents. If where you live is important to you, be a bit selfish and fight your corner. Better speak up now than begrudge your friends for all of second year because you’re not happy with the house. Agents will try and rush you. Spin whatever tale necessary to get them to hold the house while you get your crew on board. When I was looking for a house I told the agent the bus had broken down en route to the office to sign the contract… we were actually viewing another property.
  5. Don’t panic. You may miss out on a great property, you might disagree with your friends or change the group you’re looking with entirely, but with a bit of persistence you will find somewhere comfortable to call home next year. Good luck!

A Weekend in Budapest

I love travelling in Autumn. From crisp mornings sightseeing, to coffee and cake in cosy cafes and rainy days at museums, the cities of Europe have plenty to offer the low season traveller, all at lower prices and with fewer tourist crowds. This is certainly true of Budapest, Hungary’s stunning capital. A last minute trip this November gave me three days to explore this fascinating city and even in the wintry weather Budapest proved itself to be a real gem.

Budapest’s rich and culturally diverse history is reflected in the architectural splendour of the city’s mix of Gothic, Baroque, Ottoman and Art Nouveau buildings. This is illustrated in detail at The Budapest History Museum at Buda Castle, which takes you on a journey through time, and the periods of growth and destruction that shaped the city. Hidden in the cave system beneath the Castle, the Hospital in the Rock museum is a chilling reminder of the horrors of war and yet an intriguing insight into human ingenuity and fortitude. Guided tours provide a unique and eye-opening experience. While visiting Castle Hill, don’t miss Cafe Ruszwurm: already famous for its exquisite cakes and desserts, the delights of this quaint, understated tea room are well worth the queue.

At night, the most impressive monuments are lit with thousands of glittering lights, creating splendid views across the wide Danube river from any and every vantage point along its banks. Mulled wine is served in one of the fairytale turrets of Fisherman’s Bastion, providing a romantic spot to take in the dazzling panorama. By mid November, festive evenings can be enjoyed at the Christmas markets popping up around the city (try hot raspberry punch and lángos with Nutella) and at the City Park, where the Vajdahunyad Castle moat is transformed into a gigantic outdoor ice rink with a DJ playing into the night. Under starry skies, the outdoor pools of Szechenyi Thermal Baths are the highlight of an authentic Hungarian spa experience, which you will share with far more locals than tourists at this time of year.

Thinking of a last minute Autumn/Winter break? Budapest is calling.

London in a day: Westminster to Covent Garden

See London’s most famous sights in this one day tour of Westminster and Covent Garden…

10am Begin the day taking in iconic views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge. Treat yourself to a guided tour of Parliament or Westminster Abbey to learn more about these historic institutions.

11.30am Stroll down Whitehall, past Downing Street and through Horse Guards’ Parade to St James’ Park. Enjoy coffee or an ice cream from one of the many vendors or try some of the delicious treats at Peyton & Byrne’s Inn The Park restaurant. Buckingham Palace sits resplendently at the end of The Mall.

12noon Take in the atmosphere at Trafalgar Square before experiencing an art exhibition at the National Gallery. Every year, the free BP Portrait Award exhibition attracts even non-art lovers to the National Portrait Gallery.

1pm For sophisticated British cuisine, lunch at The Portrait Restaurant with views towards Westminster and the London Eye. Alternatively try out the varied eateries of Neals Yard or St Martin’s Courtyard.

2pm Stop at TKTS in Leicester Square to purchase reduced tickets for an evening show en route to Seven Dials, where you will find a diverse mix of independent and chain shops in the narrow streets.

4pm Pause to watch the street performers in Covent Garden while enjoying a life-changing cookie (seriously) from Ben’s Cookies, still warm from the oven. A quieter experience can be found in BB Bakery, just round the corner where you will be spoilt for choice of gorgeous cupcakes, pastries and macarons.

5pm If you’re not full yet, an initmate pre-theatre dinner can be enjoyed at Le Garrick Brasserie, a wonderful candlelit cellar sequestered beneath Garrick street, serving authentic French classics.

7pm It’s time for a west end show – from musicals, to comedy to ballet and the opera, there is something for everyone.

10.30pm Finish the night in style with world-class cocktails at eclectic Brumus at The Haymarket Hotel or the lavish American Bar at The Savoy.

Moving to Whistler: One year on

When I moved to Whistler, I had no real idea of what lay ahead. I could hardly believe it was really happening till I stepped off the coach and looked up at mountains dusted with their first layer of snow. My main reason for going out there was to ski. After years of wanting to learn, I finally got into skiing at uni and loved it. A season in Whistler would give me the chance to work hard at this new skill and an excuse to go back to Canada: a country I fell in love with on a family roadtrip seven years before.

One year on I’m back home in the UK, but my time in Whistler will always stay with me. If I’d never gone to Whistler, I would never have gone on a solo roadtrip in the US; I would never have felt the excitement of the snowline creeping down the mountains in the fall; or rung in the new year surrounded by 300 other seasonnaires following the snow; I would never have ended a busy shift enjoying beers with my workmates as the sun set over distant peaks, before skiing deserted twilit trails back home; I would never have met the incredible people who forced me down black slopes, off piste and through gladed runs and the incredibly brave ones who followed me down them; I would never have had the feeling of waking up in the morning, knowing the mountains were out there waiting for me and thinking “this is my life”.

Moving to Whistler not only taught me how to ski, gave me unforgettable experiences and introduced me to friends from around the world, it allowed me to see all those tiny things I love about home so that I now know, home is exactly where I want to be. I’ve had a taste of what the world has to discover and meeting other travellers has inspired me to add dozens more destinations to my bucket list, but Whistler was my one big adventure; from now on I’ll always be back home before long.

IEC Visa: Immigration at YVR

When you’ve gone through the whole Canadian visa application process, finally setting foot on Canadian soil is a big deal. There’s just one final barrier: immigration. It can feel pretty daunting, especially when you’ve heard horror stories about people not being given a full length work permit or even getting turned away. Being well prepared is the best way to ensure immigration goes smoothly. To give you an idea of what to expect, here’s how the process went for me…

As soon as I arrived in Vancouver airport, I was struck by how super friendly all the staff were. Even the staff at border control, who can be quite intimidating, wished me a warm welcome to Canada. On the plane, every passenger is given a customs form to fill in. It can be tricky to work out what to put if you’re moving to Canada long term. Border control were happy to confirm the details and make necessary corrections to my form once I arrived. So if you are unsure put your best guess or just leave it blank.

I was instructed to collect my luggage before heading to the immigration office which is really simple to find and will be pointed out to you. The queue took about an hour but there were plenty of seats and tonnes of other people coming in on the IEC to chat to. Our group grew considerably while we were waiting! There’s a long row of desks at the front of the room, to which people are called one by one.

When my name was finally called, I was just asked for my POE letter and passport and then asked to sit down again. Moments later I was called back to collect my documents and the holy grail: my work permit! It seemed so easy there was a strong temptation to run out the room in case the dude changed his mind! But I took a moment to check over the details before leaving and luckily everything was in order.

Overall it was a fairly painless process. I wasn’t asked for insurance details, proof of funds or any other documentation except my POE and passport, but I knew I had copies of everything which helped me feel more relaxed. Definitely look on the queuing time as an opportunity to meet other newbies. A girl I met in the queue became one of my best mates.

So if you’re about to head over to beautiful BC, as long as you remember your POE, you’ve got nothing to worry about! Good luck and enjoy!

Vancouver: Top 3 attractions

Vancouver is an outdoors city. The silver towers of this coastal metropolis are set against a backdrop of green forest, vast ocean and distant mountain peaks. As beautiful British Columbia’s largest city, Vancouver showcases the province’s stunning natural beauty and recreational culture. Despite the ever-changing weather, Vancouver’s star attractions can be enjoyed throughout the year.

  1. Stanley Park: Vancouver’s 1000 acre park, almost entirely surrounded by ocean, is unmissable. A visit to Vancouver is not complete without a cycle or rollerblade along the sea wall. With breathtaking views, wide sandy beaches and an award-winning aquarium, this is an urban oasis like no other.
  2. Granville Island: For the ultimate public market shopping experience, visit Granville Island. A reclaimed industrial area, the quirky island is home to an array of craft shops, galleries and a glorious covered food market. Grab some samples and indulge on a waterside bench, as you watch tiny boats ferry visitors across the harbour and seaplanes soar overhead.
  3. Adventure day-trips: A range of day-trips are possible from Vancouver, the most popular being Capilano Suspension Bridge, Bowen Island and Grouse Mountain. For a low cost option check out Lynn Canyon Park, with its suspension bridge, waterfalls and trails through gorgeous temperate rainforest, for the price of a bus fare.

With such a rich array of outdoor attractions, the most important piece of advice for your time in Vancouver is that as little of it as possible should be spent indoors.

Freshers 101: Surviving Freshers Week

Freshers week will be one of the most exciting and daunting weeks of your university career: a week of incredible parties, events and activities in a brand new town, with a bunch of people you don’t know. Here’s a few pointers to help you make the most of this insane week:

  • Talk to everyone. There’s no need to immediately become besties with the first people you meet. Use this week to meet and talk to as many people as you can before friendships start to solidify. You’ll quickly figure out which groups you fit in best with if you give yourself the chance to meet them.
  • Make time for your flatmates. The best friendships at uni are often formed in halls. Even if you’re not attending the same freshers events as your flatmates and neighbours, make sure you get to spend some quality time getting to know each other during the first week. If you get along, these are the people you could share your whole university experience with and in time, will start to feel like family.
  • Take care of yourself. At uni, you’re in charge of your own health and safety. Make sure you know your way home from town; save a local taxi number in your phone; drink within your limits (can you trust your new mates to look out for you on a night out?); sign up to the campus medical centre; be prepared for freshers flu and don’t think you can drink through it or you will be sick till Christmas!
  • Step out of your comfort zone. One thing people love about freshers week is the feeling that they can be whoever they want to be. Around strangers and mostly people who you won’t have much to do with for the rest of uni, you can try things you’ve never done before without fear of embarrassment. Whether that means auditioning for musical theatre society,  playing in an inter-halls sports tournament or introducing yourself to a large group of people, just go for it.

You’re unlikely to ever have an experience like Freshers Week again, so make the most of all the opportunities, meet as many people as you can and don’t shy away from trying something new.