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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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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Trek America Highlights

As part of a solo trip down North America’s west coast, I decided to join Trek America’s Western Budget Lodging Tour. The seven day trip would take 13 of us from San Francisco to Los Angeles, via Yosemite National Park, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Thanks to an awesome tour guide and a fantastic group of trekkers, it was a week filled with moments I will never forget. Here are my highlights:

  1. Hiking to the top of Nevada falls in Yosemite. The round trip took 6 hours and I laughed when our tour guide suggested it. I accomplished something I didn’t know I was capable of and did so surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery I’d ever seen. Scrambling over the rocks through the spray from the falls, through forest and along ledges carved into the cliffs, with a group supporting each other all the way, made for an incredible adventure.
  2. Dancing at a roof-top pool party in Vegas. Arriving at Drai’s was one of many moments on the trip which I couldn’t quite believe was real life. We’d had a crazy evening on a party bus, with two other trek groups, visiting the major sights and now I was in the middle of a beach ball fight in a bikini at a pool terrace turned nightclub with ridiculous views over the illuminated sights of Las Vegas! What?!!
  3. Watching sunset over the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is so spectacular it took a few days for its astounding beauty to actually sink in. The landscape is so unusual its like your brain can’t quite process it. We sat on the edge of the canyon in collective awe as we watched the sun’s glorious curtain call, keenly aware of our infinitesimal role as mere spectators of an age-old show.

There’s a reason these are some of the most famous places in the world, and visiting them with Trek America ensured my experiences of them were unforgettable.

Tofino, British Columbia

I have never fallen in love with a place as quickly as Tofino. A tiny surfing community on Vancouver Island, Tofino is a wild and peaceful paradise. Situated at the end of a long peninsula, with surf defining the infinite golden sands of its south western coast, Tofino village is a cluster of colourful clapboard houses, intermingling independent shops, restaurants and bars and a string of mismatched wooden jetties. Seaplanes glide into the bay against a jurassic backdrop of domed islands, draped in blue mist. A sea lion barks from the calm waters as an eagle soars overhead.

Arriving at the hostel was like joining a family. From the live-in staff to fellow travellers, everyone was friendly and super keen to share their experiences of Tofino. The facilities are second to none, with breathtaking views across Clayoquot Sound. Over three days I watched a surfing competition with my German roommate, saw the sun set from a deserted beach with a bunch of Whistlerites, embarked on a First Nations canoe tour with a fellow Brit and took off to an open mic night at a surfers hangout with the girls from housekeeping. It was a dream trip and I fell head-over-heels for the old growth forests, magical sunsets and untouched beaches.

The laid back, warm, respectful culture draws you in; the echo of ancient First Nations history captivates you as it emanates from the rugged landscape. It’s true what they say: you can leave Tofino, but Tofino will never leave you.

Tips for Solo Female Travel

Travelling by myself was the best thing I’ve ever done. You get so much more from a trip when the only person you have to please is yourself. You can change plans at the last minute and are open to meeting so many more people, giving you a chance to build friendships that could transform your trip and last well beyond it. However, there are a few things to bear in mind that can help keep you safe and avoid getting lonely on your travels.

  1. Stay in hostels in central areas which run activities and events for guests. This gives you easy access to attractions and opportunities to meet other travellers
  2. Seek out other solo travellers. Take opportunities to chat to everyone in hostel common areas, but particularly people on their own who might also be looking for a companion to check out the local sights
  3. Consider joining an organised tour. From free city walking tours to pre-booked bus tours, this can be a great way to guarantee some company for part of your trip
  4. Budget for unexpected expenses. E.g. Late night taxis or meals out with new friends
  5. Always make sure someone knows where you are. Keep a friend or family member updated with your plans and where you’re staying and always be sure of where you’re going before you set off. This is the best way to avoid making yourself vulnerable.

To make the most of your solo adventure, plan carefully, take opportunities and above all, enjoy your freedom.

Planning a Ski Season in Whistler

If you’re thinking of spending a winter on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb’s Olympic resort, start planning now for the 2018 season. These are your top considerations:

  • Working Holiday Visa
  • Job & Accommodation
  • Cost

Planning these aspects takes time, care and patience. The need for a visa prevents you from heading off on a whim, so you may as well take the time to get the rest right. There are tonnes of resources out there to help you, from Facebook support groups to working holiday package providers such as The Working Holiday Club. Getting these major points sorted in advance will set you up for a fantastic season in Whistler. Good Luck!

 

Welcome to LifeGems

LifeGems is a collection of notes, designed to provide honest insights into real life events. Shorter than standard blog posts, LifeGems present only a glimpse of the experiences that inspire them, allowing each one to deliver a focussed message. Some offer advice, some review places or events and the rest are purely snapshots from someone’s true story. Pick a category or search for LifeGems relevant to you. For now, LifeGems are the thoughts of just one person, but hopefully the future will make room for many more to share their experiences.