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We can almost not believe that it’s that time of year again – when we get to unashamedly look back at all the crazy and incredible things we got up to, and at the same time look forward to dreams of future adventures and resolution-related challenges (are we all mentally prepared for that 1st of January diet…?). And this year has been crazy and incredible! Twelve months flew by at a whirlwind rate – we traveled to 20 countries, and 11 of them were brand new for one or both of us.  We didn’t go to some places we really wanted to go to at the beginning of the year (but we’re coming for you soon, Japan!…fingers crossed), but we did get to check off some major bucket list stuff (keep reading!).

I love writing these posts! My favourite thing about travel blogging is re-living our adventures when I sift through all the memories and photos before each post. So doing that for a whole year’s worth of travel fills me with so much light and excitement – I’m ready to do it all over again! Last year we did the A-Z of our 2016 travels, but this time I will highlight just a couple of our best moments as they shaped our travels throughout 2017.

AN UNSPOILT ISLAND IN CAMBODIA

Travel tip: it’s not a bad idea to start your year on an island.

We woke up on the 1st of January in the little port town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, picked up our backpacks and headed to one of Asia’s most beautiful and unspoilt, underdeveloped islands just 45 minutes from the coast: Koh Rong Samloem. We were graciously invited to join a Cambodian/Vietnam trip by some pretty cool friends of ours, Job and Kim (thanks for having us, guys!), and made a new friend (who we would later see again in Denmark).

There are no roads, no parties, and just one little hotel who managed to get wifi. We spent a week swimming, snorkeling, splashing around in the phosphorescence, and eating seafood and drinking beer. I even got to spend my birthday hiking through this paradise!

Best of 2017: Koh Rong Samloem island

SUNRISE OVER ANGKOR WAT

Bucket list dreams do come true! After a week in tropical paradise, and two nights in the buzzing Cambodian capital, we headed to Siem Reap, which is one of the most beautiful and serene areas we’ve ever seen…which is also blessed with one of the world’s most inspiring religious heritage sites: Angkor Wat. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 4am, jumped on a tuk tuk to the Angkor complex, and witnessed the most beautiful sunrise of 2017. 

Best of 2017: Angkor Wat

BEST MEAL OF 2017

After almost two weeks in Cambodia, we jumped on our flight to Hanoi where we would spend 2 nights before a flight back to London. Our flight back to London was also the due date for two long essays – one on African philosophy and one on Aesthetic Theory and Philosophy. I was supposed to do the bulk of my work before this flight…. Supposed to. I started writing the introduction to my first paper on the flight from Siem Reap to Hanoi. I wrote in the taxi all the way from the airport to the hotel. We ordered room service and I wrote until 4am. I woke up 2 hours later and continued writing. Finally, at about lunch time I finished my first paper. Joel forced me out of the hotel with something plugged into his Google maps, we walked a couple of blocks, and then abruptly stopped in front of what looked just like an alley way in between to buildings. ‘This is it,’ he said, and we sat down at the tiniest, smallest little aluminium bar. Within 20 seconds, a lady brought us two meals that we didn’t even order (because it’s the only thing they serve), and two cold beers. That Bun Sa in that alleyway in Hanoi was, hands down, the best meal we’ve had this year. And it powered me through to start and finish a whole new paper, handing in both essays with 2 hours to spare.

Best of 2017: Best Meal, Vietnam

This is where the magic happens

WE SURVIVED THE ARCTIC CIRCLE

Not our first visit to the Arctic circle (we adventured around the indescribable Iceland last year), but definitely the most turbulent! We survived a road trip through a full on blizzard, and learnt a whole bunch of valuable lessons. Mostly we were blown away by the icy beauty of the northern parts of our earth, and the beautiful creatures that live there. A terrifying and awe-inspiring long weekend all at once. 

Best of 2017:Snowstorm

Pro travel tip: don’t do what we did. (Also, how is this a highway???)

THE SAHARA DESERT

April has been really good to me this year, because we got to go to Morocco! It has been on my bucket list since forever and I was so bummed that we couldn’t get to it last year when we moved to London – it’s only a couple of hours away! But we went in April, and we ate as much tagine as we could, and we took in as much of Marrakech’s craziness as possible, and we fell in love with Essaouira on the way, and then we were struck silent by the vastness and beauty of the Sahara desert

Best of 2017: Sahara desert

GOING GREEK

Every non-European’s dream: living the Greek island life. We finally got to do a one-week bucket list vacation when we got a sweet Airbnb on the dreamy greek island of Paros, where we explored ancient marble caves, meandered through tiny Cycladic villages, worked on our tan, and stuffed our faces with feta, olive oil, squid and the best gyros in town. AND we got to do it with our friends Chris and Erica, who are pretty much the best travel companions out there.

Then a quick but quite a grand treat for the history and heritage-site lover that I am: 2 nights in Athens and a visit to the ancient Acropolis. It’s been a good year for our bucket lists so far!

Best of 2017: Parthenon

SIPPING SCOTCH ON SUNNY DAYS

How lucky were we that we caught one of Scotland’s only perfectly sunny days in July when we headed to the isle of Arran??? Our trip to the Scottish whiskey island was one of our shortest trips this whole year, but one of our most relaxing. Bleating sheep, waterfall hikes, meeting local travellers, whiskey, whiskey, and more whiskey. Definitely a travel highlight of year. The perfect weekend getaway waiting to happen.

Best of 2017: Isle of Arran

THE FAIRYTALE OF SLOVENIA

After a research trip in a packed and hot Venice in the middle of July, we were quite relieved when we stepped off the train in the Slovenian capital. We were on our way to Bled, a little lakeside town that we only knew about because my mom got engaged there a few years ago. So, we knew it was pretty…but we were not really prepared for the stunning scenery. Our jaws dropped at every corner – bright blue lakes framed by the Julian alps, with gushing waterfalls and springs running into the green valleys below. We fell in love with this magical fairytale place, like, I am sure, everyone does – it was one of those wholly underrated destinations that completely blew us away. We had so much fun swimming in the lakes and walking in the Vintgar gorge during summer, but we can’t wait to go back in winter when Lake Bled freezes over! Oh well, I guess we’ll put that on our revised bucket list!

Best of 2017: Vintgar Gorge

Best of 2017: Lake Bled, Slovenia

BEST END-OF-THESIS SURPRISE EVER

The day before my thesis was due I packed a backpack full of stuff not knowing what I was even packing for. Joel was surprising me and all I could do was hope I would be done with my thesis by the time we leave for the airport, and that we weren’t heading anywhere that I needed a visa for. We got as far as the boarding gate when it was revealed that we were going to Dubrovnik, Croatia! I was pumped. I have wanted to go to Croatia so desperately, and it was happening…AND we had so many awesome recommendations from our Croatian friends. And the Dalmatian coast just straight blew all our expectations out of the crystal-clear, azure-blue Mediterranean water.

Best of 2017: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Best of 2017: Mljet island, Odysseus cave, Croatia

A favourite travel moment of 2017: Getting to and jumping into the dazzling blue waters of the Odysseus cave on Mljet Island, Croatia.

ONE MONTH IN INDIA

Our London lease had come to an end in September, and we had decided that we want to try out Berlin for a little bit. But since we are only moving to Berlin in January, we moved out, put our stuff in storage, and went rent-free for a couple of months.  So after a quick family visit in California, and a stop at Shopify HQ in Ottawa, Canada (which turned out to be pleasant surprise), we headed to India to work and explore for nearly a whole month. We could not possibly express what an incredible and inspiring time this was. Apart from a weekend trip to Goa for Diwali, it was not the regular tourist-circuit India trip. We spent most of our time in the awesome city of Bangalore, exploring it and living it, and making new friends whose generosity and hospitality made this foreign country feel warm and familiar. From celebrating Diwali in Goa with cows on the beach, to an Indian safari in the Bandipur National Park, to a week on Havelock Island, a small piece of tropical heaven part of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, our time in India was full of highlights, all made more special by the people we met and friends we made. Now all I want to do is go back to Bangalore!

Best of 2017: Goa, India

A beach cow in Goa, India

Best of 2017: Bangalore, India

The super cool city of Bangalore, India

Best of 2017: Bandipur National Park, India

Indian safari in Bandipur National Park

Best of 2017: Havelock Island, India

The unspoilt beaches of tropical India somewhere between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

EXPLORING HUNGARY

Yes, Budapest is an incredible city – there’s no doubt about it (still don’t believe me? check this out). But did you know about the perfectly quaint little town of Keszthely on the shore of Lake Balaton – the largest lake in central Europe, aka ‘the Hungarian Sea’ – or the small spa town of Héviz that has the largest biologically active geothermal and medicinal lake in the world? It was a real treat to get away from all the hustle and pull of the big cities that we love and live in, and we felt so perfectly at ease in these tiny little countryside towns over one long weekend, riding our rusty cruiser bikes and dipping into that magic medicine lake with a bunch of old people while it’s freezing outside.

Best of 2017: Budapest, Hungary

Beautiful Budapest

Best of 2017: Keszthely, Hungary

Best of 2017: Heviz, Hungary

Dipping into the world’s largest active geothermal lake in Heviz

AFRICAN SAFARI

I’m gonna go ahead and say we have never looked forward to a trip as much as we looked forward to our two nights in Nambiti Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. We very rarely book trips way ahead in advance, but ever since we booked it 6 whole months before we couldn’t wait to go! And we were not disappointed – coming face-to-face with an African elephant, watching as the dark shapes of two male lions approach our open vehicle in the darkness, seeing the whole animal kingdom become aware and responsive to their presence while a thunderstorm lights up the sky behind them, and all of those mid-drive sunsets with sundowners and sunrises with coffee and hot chocolate in the bush…what a way to top off our 2017! There is nothing like going on an African safari – it never ever gets old – and on top of that we stayed in a gorgeous luxury safari tent with a lounge, bed, bathtub and outdoor shower all facing the wild outdoors. Happy anniversary to us!

Best of 2017: South Africa

Best of 2017: South Africa

What a phenomenal year it has been! We traveled intentionally, spontaneously, and subjected ourselves to the plans of others; we traveled over weekends, long weekends, used whatever vacation breaks came our way, and maximised those unexplained yet widely loved UK Bank holidays to make the absolute most of this year! We traveled solo, together, with and to friends, and made new friends all over the place! We threw up over broken boats (ok, not ‘we’…maybe just me), nervously outlasted a blizzard in a rental car, and chased deadlines on planes (PTL for gaining 9 hours when you fly East to West on the day of your deadline). Through it all Joel worked full time (and actually visited 2 extra countries on work trips), and I obtained another Masters degree (and took suitcases full of books to more countries than my university’s library would like to know about).

And now we are at the doorstep of 2018, and we can’t wait for the new adventures ahead of us! Besides moving our base from London to Berlin, we don’t have that many things planned – 2018 is a blank canvas, and I’m so eager to see how our travels and experiences fill it in over the next 12 months. Upwards and onwards! What are you planning for the next year?

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A Weekend in Budapest: 8 Things You Have To Do in ‘The Heart of Europe’

Budapest is a fantastic weekend destination in Europe! It is aptly called ‘the Heart of Europe’ because of its central location, and ‘the Pearl of the Danube’ because of its stunning beauty: streets lined with pastel coloured buildings constructed in a pastiche of all the most complementary architectural styles, from new-gothic to the dramatic art nouveau; grand buildings lit up with a thousand lights; natural hot springs steaming from decadent old public baths; the magnificent Chain Bridge linking the Buda and Pest sided over the gushing blue Danube. Budapest is definitely one of the finest European capitals – as beautiful as Vienna and Prague, and even more romantic than Paris – and perfect for some short-term traveling. To make the most of your two or three nights (though you could spend a while week and have things left over to do!), make sure to do these 8 things during your visit:

GREAT CENTRAL MARKET

Make this the first stop on your Budapest adventure if you want to eat like a local right off the bat. Also called the Great Hall Market, it’s an enormous and beautiful market hall right in the centre of the inner city with a multicoloured, eye-catching tiled roof – you won’t be able to miss it. It’s mostly a souvenir and farmers’ market type place with lots of stalls to get fresh meats, cheeses and produce. But there are also a couple of stands on the first floor serving traditional Hungarian food, and it is GOOD. We weren’t sure what to get, so we pointed to a few things and sampled a couple of dishes and we loved all of them! Just do the same – if you like hearty, cooked meals you can’t really go wrong in Hungary. Or try the stuffed cabbage, and any kind of Lecsó, which is a vegetable stew similar to ratatouille with lots of paprika (the national spice).

Budapest Central Market Hall

Budapest Central Market Hall

Stuffed cabbage and Lecsó!

Central Market Hall

GOOD TO KNOW

The usual mantra where earlier is better (aka less busy) does not apply here when the locals do their shopping for the first few hours right as the market hall opens. We would recommend going for a late lunch when the lunch rush has died down and it’s not too busy and overwhelming.

The market is also closed on Sundays.

THERMAL BATHS

You are absolutely required to hit up at least on of the public thermal baths on your weekend in Budapest! This city is mainland Europe’s geothermal hotspot – there are over a hundred natural springs and lots and lots of baths to choose from. Start with either the art deco Gellert Baths on the Buda side or the deliciously decadent and super big Széchenyi Baths on the Pest side, where the 15 thermal baths (ranging between 16 and 38 degrees Celsius) are fed by two of these natural springs.

Széchenyi Baths

Széchenyi Baths

GOOD TO KNOW

The Széchenyi Baths are open daily from 6am to 10pm.

BEST TIMES TO GO: The baths are quietest after dark (save for the occasional ‘sparty’ = spa + party), and the early mornings when the locals come in for their baths. Tourists tend to flood the baths during the middle of the day. We would suggest going before sunset, so you can see the baths in daylight and under the moonlight when the yellow buildings and blue pools are illuminated. 

These are also the time when you can save a couple of bucks: a Post-5pm ticket and a two-hour morning ticket (6-8am) with locker usage will cost you around 14EUR. If you come any other time during the day you will have to buy a day pass for 17EUR. But you only really need a couple of hours. 

All you need to bring is your swimsuit and some sandals (though they are not required) – you can rent towels for 1000HUF (3EUR) with and extra 1000HUF deposit. CASH ONLY!

CROSS THE CHAIN BRIDGE

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is a glorious old steel construction that spans the Danube river and connects the city’s Buda and Pest sides. Take a 375 meter stroll for beautiful river views of both banks and watch the tourist boats cruise in and out. If you really want to fall in love with the city, wait until dusk when the entire thing is lit up with hundreds of light bulbs.

Budapest Chain Bridge

Budapest Chain Bridge

BUDAPEST CASTLE HILL FUNICULAR

While you’re on the bridge, look up and over towards the iconographic funicular tracks leading 51 meters up the Budapest Castle hill. This is by far the best and most exciting way to get up to the castle area – also the most efficient if you’re only in Budapest for the weekend. There’s lots to see, and the 2-minute funicular ride saves you a whole lot of time and effort. Plus, it’s the second oldest funicular in Europe! (Though the current system was reconstructed and opened in 1986 after it was bombed during WWII).

castle hill funicular

GOOD TO KNOW

A return ticket on the funicular will cost you 6EUR. 

There’s usually a line and a bit of a wait to go up, and there are people nearby who will try and sell you a ticket for a ride on a little open bus instead. ‘The same price but no wait’ – they will tell you that the wait for the tram is about 20 minutes, and that  their bus leaves right now. I decided to go the classic route and wait in line for the funicular – the line moves pretty quickly (I did definitely not wait for 20 minutes!) and it’s an iconic part of the city.

MATTHIAS CHURCH

A gorgeous towering medieval church stands in the heart of Budapest’s castle district, only a 10-minute walk from the funicular. It really is a stunning picture, with the colourful tiles on the roof contrasting starkly with the white washed walls, all the while framed by a sky-high view of the city, the Danube, and the Fisherman’s Bastion.

Matthias Church

Tiled roof

FISHERMAN’S BASTION

Seven white spires connected by steps and tunnels with all-around views of the city frame the Buda Castle wall. This is the Fisherman’s Bastion and it’s the perfect place for sweeping panoramic views in order to get the lay of the land. Built at the turn of the previous century, the seven towers are for the seven ancient Hungarian tribes, and the structure was named after the Fisherman’s Guild which had to protect this part of the castle wall. Definitely worth the walk from, and back to the Castle Hill funicular – especially in winter when all of the viewing areas are free.

Fisherman's Bastion

GOOD TO KNOW

The Fisherman’s Bastion is always open from 9am to after sunset, so it will serve as an amazing site for some sunset magic.

The upper deck will cost you about 800HUF in season, but the turnstiles are covered and opened up in winter so it’s free all around!

GET TO KNOW THE CITY, AND SOME LOCALS, ON A WALKING TOUR

Walking tours are always a good option for quick city breaks – especially in many of the old European centres where lots of the meaningful things to see are located close to the inner or old city quarters. We spent between 2 and 3 hours with the guys from Trip To Budapest and we had a great time, despite the fact that we couldn’t cross the river from Pest to Buda because the whole inner city was blocked off for the Prime Minister of China’s visit!

GOOD TO KNOW

These tours are free, but it is good etiquette to tip a fare amount after the tour – we generally tip about £10 per person or so, depending on the length and value of the tour.

 

Parliament

The Budapest Parilament, where our walking tour ended

DO A RUIN PUB CRAWL

Next to natural hot springs, Budapest is famous for its ruin pubs. These are spaces like warehouses, old offices, or even movie theatres that have been converted into bars by entrepreneurs and artists. So hit up one of the many for a drink and a dance, or try the Sunday farmer’s market at the famous Szimpla Kert. 

GOOD TO KNOW

Do not expect pubs in actual ruined buildings! This is not really what this is – they are just revamped buildings that used to stand empty and/or ugly.

There are ruin pubs for every type of evening – from a relaxed night for a drink and a chat to full on dance parties in massive clubs with celebrity DJs. So whatever your mood, there’s a ruin pub for it – just check out this list and make your choice.

BONUS!

GET COZY AND FESTIVE AT BUDAPEST’S CHRISTMAS MARKETS

Budapest is a romantic city – she is charming and pretty and framed by that beautiful blue Danube – and it gets even more romantic during Christmas time, when the city is lit up by Christmas trees around every corner, some of which are accompanied by quaint Christmas markets that carry the scent of baked sweets, cinnamon and the spice of hot cider and mulled wine. 

If you’re hopping over for a weekend away, you can spend your whole weekend lingering around the christmas trees, refilling your cup of glühwein and eating as many traditional Hungarian flatbreads, and rolled chimney cakes cooked over hot coals as you possibly can. But if you’re doing at least some of the other things on this list, give two of the main markets a go:

The Vörösmarty Square market is located in the central plaza of the city, opens in the second week of November, and runs until the end of December. It is hard to miss – just follow the alluring smell of honey cookies, cinnamon and fir. We loved this market, returning each day for a fresh chimney cake and browsing all the wonderful uniquely home-made crafts.

Just around the corner is the Christmas Fair at the Basilica, which is in the square underneath the towering St. Stephen’s Basilica. It is a tad smaller and only a couple of years old, but it has all the magic of delicious treats, handcrafted gifts, a small skating rink and daily light shows against the Basilica’s façade. The market opens in the last week of November and runs until the 1st of January.

Christmas Fair at the Basilica

Christmas Fair at the Basilica

Chimney cakes

Chimney cakes being baked over hot coals!

Vörösmarty Square Christmas Market

Vörösmarty Square Christmas Market

Sharing a traditional sausage with all the trimmings

We can’t recommend a weekend in the beautiful capital enough. I’ve been to Budapest both in the middle of summer and the cold of December, and both visits were perfect in their own ways. There are so many things to do besides these mentioned above, so you could extend your weekend into a long-weekend or full on week and still not run out of things to do and corners to explore! On top of all this, if you feel like branching out, you could leave the city for a night and head to the Hungarian sea, aka the largest lake in central Europe, Lake Balaton.

Let us know if you’re heading to Budapest, and if you’ve already visited – what were your favourite moments?

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We were sticky with sweat and exhausted from steadying ourselves on the jungle mud that had turned into clay slip under the rains of that morning. But now the thick Indian jungle opened up, and the pathway slid into a shallow but vast mangrove up ahead. We have never been in mangroves before, and we  gaped at the brown water slowly turning grey-blue to bright turquoise as it gently extended out in between the trees and towards the azure Andaman Sea beyond. Our guide raised his palm to his thigh, indicating how high the water will reach during high tide in these mangroves, and I proceeded to take off my trainers that were by then covered in thick dark brown jungle sludge. We waded through the big old trees and their young shoots, equal parts amazed by this completely unfamiliar landscape, and relieved to have left behind the slippery and wholly unstable jungle earth behind us (along with the pressing heat and humidity trapped beneath the canopy). Very soon we were on the eastern end of Elephant Beach, where crystal clear waters swallow the finest white sand in small gentle waves, framed at every turn by Mangrove trees teetering between the edge of the jungle and the ocean. And – after our jungle trek – we never felt like we deserved dipping into those bluest blue water more.

The mangroves by elephant beach

ELEPHANT BEACH: WHAT TO EXPECT

Do not expect elephants! If you’ve ever looked up Havelock island, you may have read about Rajah, the 60-year-old elephant who loved to swim – you could even go out and swim with him! Unfortunately, this BFG died just a few years ago.

Elephant beach is one of the two most popular beaches on Havelock, so even though it’s the least accessible, it’s actually surprisingly busy. There were lots of people who came in on boats, quite a few market stalls selling fruits and snacks, a couple of jet skis being driven around, and some locker stands that’ll cost you about 50 – 100inr for a couple of hours.

Elephant beach is not really for sunbathing. The sand is soft and the water stunning, but the beach is mostly covered in the shade of the jungle and the mangroves. It’s an incredible place to snorkel, though, and definitely has the best snorkeling on the island! There’s a pretty contained reef right in the bay, with wildly diverse sea life flitting about the coral.

This reef makes Elephant Beach the most popular beach for snorkeling (the other snorkel beach would be Beach #2), and there are a ton of guys renting masks, snorkels, and floating devices, and offering their services as snorkeling guides.

HOW TO GET THERE

Elephant beach is only accessible via a 2.3 km jungle trek or via boat from the main jetty. We opted for the hike, as we wanted to experience a jungle trek anyways. We’ve heard some bad things about how muddy the path can be after the monsoon season, but we asked the local guys at our resort and everyone seemed to think it would be okay, so we set off for the trek.

THE START OF THE TRAIL

First of all, if you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know what a fan I am of maps.me – so download the app before you go to Havelock for sure. The start of the trail is clearly marked on there.

There are two main roads on the island – the 4 and the 5. The 5 runs north to south, and the 4 connect at the circle in Govind Nagar village and runs perpendicular to the 5. The trail to Elephant Beach starts at the bus stop about two thirds of the way down this road from the central village.

So head down the 4, continue left when you reach the main petrol station, and the bus stop is just a couple of bends and curves away.

Petrol station

Turn left when you see the main petrol station

Start of the trail to elephant beach

Hop off at the Elephant Beach bus stop to start hiking

THE TRAIL

A group of local men will offer to guide you through the trail. The rate we were given (and they would not budge) was 1000inr for the trek guide only, and 2000inr for a trek and snorkeling guide.

DO NOT TAKE THE GUIDE – if you’re visiting in the dry season and it hasn’t been raining for a while. The path, in this case, is pretty straight forward.

TAKE THE GUIDE – if you’re super afraid of snakes. Because you do see snakes on Havelock; we saw a bright green snake cross the path right in front of us.

TAKE THE GUIDE! – if it has been raining.

I would not recommend doing this trek if you’re visiting in the monsoon season. The earth in these jungles become like soft, extremely slippery clay. Even though we were doing it in the transition month between the wet and dry season, Joel sunk into the mud up to his mid calves, and I took a fall right on my butt – I don’t want to know what this trail is like when it has been dumping rain.

The guide does not point out plants and insects and stuff. His repertoire consists of leading the way and warning us with ‘slippery, sir/ma’am’ or ‘not slippery.’ Still, it is a huge help to be able to just follow in the footsteps of someone who knows exactly where to step and what to hold on to.

Elephant beach trail

Once you’re onto the trail, it’s very straight forward and highly unlikely that you’ll get lost. There are two little wooden huts on the way, and one or two signs giving the distance to the beach. Just follow the well trodden path until it dips into the mangroves.

Elephant beach jungle trek

Elephant beach jungle trek

If it’s high tide, take off your shoes, and wade into the mangroves – just be careful of some roots jutting out beneath the waters. The water won’t really go higher than you’re thighs, so just remove your phone from your pocket! Head slightly to the left towards the sea once you enter the mangroves for easiest access.

Elephant beach mangroves

View to the right when you enter the mangroves – head the opposite direction!

Elephant beach mangroves

You’ve arrived at Elephant Beach once you hit the sand banks! Keep heading left under the trees and over the mangrove stumps until you’ve reached the little market area. Keep going until you see a group of guys with snorkeling masks hanging off a tree. The reef is just across from them in that gorgeous cyan water – grab your mask and cool off in the bluest blue; you’ve certainly deserved it!

Elephant beach

Elephant beach

The hike is hot and can be a bit frustrating if the mud is slippery, but all of this is far outweighed by how stunning the scenery is! If you’re visiting in dry season, definitely for sure 100% you have to walk this walk; if you’re there in the transition season (November – December) and it has been showering off and on, still you have to have to definitely go. You’ll appreciate the beauty of Elephant Beach even more. Just set your expectations, be ready to get your hands dirty, and be prepared by following these few before-you-go rules below:

BEFORE YOU GO

  1. WEAR PROPER SHOES! Especially if it has been raining. The walk is much more comfortable that way. But be prepared for it to get dirty – my shoes were caked with mud after the walk.
  2. Grab a walking stick at the start of the trail (if it’s a bit muddy) – it’ll give you just that extra bit of stability.
  3. Do not walk with your phone in your hand for taking quick pictures.  Put it away in your back pack, in case you you slide and automatically use your hands to catch yourself in the mud.
  4. Bring water to keep hydrated, and some mosquito spray if you want to be extra careful

Happy hiking!

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Havelock Island’s 7 Beaches: What to Expect and Where to Find Them

From gaping at the azure blue waters lapping into the white sandy bays, to snorkeling between clouds of tropical fish all the colours of the rainbow, to hearing the showering rains slowly move towards us from a distance and then feel it over us while we drift in our kayaks through the mangroves…exploring Havelock island was a string of pinch-me-am-I-dreaming moments.

Havelock island is part of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which are part of India but much closer to Thailand. It’s a small piece of tropical paradise – just over 100km2 – but is blessed with seven of the most idyllic beaches that stretch all around its coast, the fine white sand picking up where the thick mangroves end. This island really is the best place for the perfect beach hopping holiday or even long weekend.

So here is a low-down on the seven incredible beaches of Havelock island – what to expect and how to get there:

BEACH #1

This is basically the stretch of beach around the main jetty of the island, where you’ll get in from Port Blair or Neill Island. It’s not a super popular beach to visit, because of all the boat traffic, but if you plan on kayaking through the mangroves (which we highly recommend) you’ll take off from the stretch of beach #1 that extends to the left of the jetty, where lots of smaller boats are moored to the shore. While still beautiful and worth checking out, it’s not the best beach to relax at – hop on your scooter after checking it out and head out to the next one!

BEACH #2

Just down the coast from beach #1, beach #2 is really a collection of fine white sand bays in between mangroves. It is very popular for snorkelling and shallow water diving courses, and is usually busy with dive and/or snorkelling instructors and their apprentices. However, it is still easy to find a quiet spot away from all the water sports, because of how secluded the mangroves make each bay.

Havelock Island Beach #2

HOW TO GET THERE

Just a short drive south from the main jetty you will find the helipad on your right. It’s not very assuming, so look out for a field and a wind pipe. You can reach the bays of beach #2 from here, by following any of the little footpaths on the left towards the ocean. Park your bike (Havelock island is 100% safe) and follow the narrow roads through coconut trees and in between resorts and/or private residences.

Havelock Island Beach #2

BEACH #3 – GOVINDNAGAR BEACH

This is a long stretch of pearly white sand that is broken up into many different bays by the island’s jungle, along which resorts are built. In this way, beach #3 acts as a ‘private’ beach to many hotels (even though it’s a public beach completely free and accessible to anyone). It’s the perfect spot to enjoy some sunbathing or a quiet sunrise over the Andaman seas, as it faces eastward and is generally pretty quiet, with only a fisherman here and a tourist snoozing in a hammock there.

HOW TO GET THERE

If you aren’t staying at one of the resorts along beach #3, take the opportunity and go to the best restaurant on the island – the Full Moon Café – and enjoy the access to one of the beach #3 bays while you wait for that fresh pressed pineapple juice or mouthwatering banoffee pot.

BEACH #5

Beach no 5 is a long stretch of white sand along the Vijay Nagar village and the resorts and hotels that line this part of the coast. This beach seems to be most affected by the tide, so be prepared to walk quite far to be able to actually take a dip. But, for this reason, this is the perfect beach for a long stroll along the mahua and coconut trees that thickly line the sand – venture towards the exposed shallow sea bed during low tide for an up-close look at the multitude of little sea creatures. We spent hours just looking at all the different crabs running around, catching fish and steering clear of those big orange epitome crabs that sometimes stick out a long pincer from their deep holes. Watch out for those pinching crab arms when you’re walking though the shallow water!

Havelock Island Beach #5

Havelock Island Beach #5

HOW TO GET THERE

You can reach any beach no 5 via any of the resorts on this stretch of coast. We stayed at Munjoh Resort and noticed that they are quite happy to accommodate day-visitors who want to visit the beach and make use of their beach bar.

KALAPATHAR BEACH

The water here is a striking cyanic blue, tinting into a deeper ocean shade as the depth increases. The blue waters and contrasting pale white sand are protected by the leafy jungle on either side, and the waves rolling in provides a bit more of an active splash (as opposed to the placid Radhanagar beach). This was definitely one of my favourite beaches (full disclaimer – it might have something to do with the fresh coconuts from the market and the kitten on purring on my lap). We just bundled up our things under a palm tree and dove in and out of the waves until the afternoon shower clouds started to appear on the horizon. On this note, the Andaman islands are probably – even statistically – the safest place we’ve been to. 

Havelock Island Kalapathar Beach

kittens and coconuts

HOW TO GET THERE

Kalapathar beach is about 3 kms drive south from beach no 5. The drive between these beaches is absolutely worth it in itself, with a single lane road winding though those magnificent jungles and then momentarily cutting back to hug the coast with a view of that bright, bright blue Andaman seas. Just drive until you reach the clearly marked Kalaphatar market, which is right across from the beach.

ELEPHANT BEACH

You have to have to have to go to elephant beach if you find yourself on Havelock island. It is one of the most unique and beautiful beach destinations I’ve ever seen. Again, it has that classic azure-blue Andaman seas crystal-clear waters that washes onto the finest white sand, which is enough to make it one of the best beaches ever. But then Elephant beach is also 50% mangroves, 50% beach so it feels like the place where the jungle marries the seas. On top of that, if that’s not enough, it has an easily accessible reef with some of the most diverse sea life we’ve ever seen out snorkelling.

It is one of the two most popular beaches in the island, and was also one of the two most crowded, with a fair amount of water sports going on – so, not the most peaceful spot on the island. It has a small market where you can buy some fresh fruit, and some lockers that will run you 50 – 100inr.

Havelock Island Elephant Beach

HOW TO GET THERE

Elephant beach can only be reached via boat – which departs from the main jetty – or via a 2 kilometre jungle trek. The road to the beach ends in a mangrove, through which you’ll have to wade if it’s high tide, before you can get to the beach. DO NOT ATTEMPT this trek after heavy rains or during the monsoon season – it will be crazy sludgy thick get-stuck sort of mud for most of the way.

Havelock Island Elephant Beach

Havelock Island Elephant Beach

RHADANAGAR BEACH – BEACH #7

After TIME voted Rhadanagar Asia’s best beach in 2004, it has become the most popular beach of Havelock island. Silky white sands stretch for over one kilometre while the sea gently hugs the sore – the waves only crash right on the sand so it makes for a particularly enjoyable and relaxing swim with small swells bobbing you up and down every now and then. Rhadanagar beach is also the best sunset spot on the whole island.

There is a very small market right before the beach where you can enjoy some fresh fruit and sea food, and, of course, slurp up some fresh coconut water. There’s also a little restaurant on the beach that does traditional meals buffet-style (vegetarian, no alcohol). The lockers here are a bit cheaper than Elephant beach and will cost you between 20 – 30inr for an hour.

HOW TO GET THERE

Follow Road #4 to its conclusion, after turning right by the circle (if you’re heading south) where the island’s two roads converge.The road to the beach is quite hilly, especially towards the end, so I wouldn’t recommend it on a bicycle. Scooters are perfect for getting around, or if you’re brave you can jump into the rusty public buses.

Havelock Island Rhadanagar Beach

Havelock Island Rhadanagar Beach

Havelock Island Rhadanagar Beach

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Bangalore does not really come up as a tourist destination in India. There are tons weekend getaways from Bangalore – lots of lists of beautiful places to drive or fly to to escape the city, like Mysore and Bandipur, or Goa and Kerala – but the city itself doesn’t really get the tourism-related credit it deserves. Voted one of the most liveable cities in India (and one of the fastest growing in Asia), it is a really great Indian lifestyle city – in the sense that there’s great places to eat and hang out, lots and lots of green spaces to retreat to (it’s called the Garden City, after all), cool remote-working spaces in office blocks and coffee shops. Not only home to 7% of India’s expats, but also a city where lots of people move to from other Indian cities for better job opportunities. Of course, it is also widely popular for being India’s Silicone Valley.

But!

I had 3+ weeks to be a tourist in Bangalore while Joel met up with his co-remote-workers at Shopify’s Indian office, and I loved exploring Bangalore! (Can I also just emphasise, I loved exploring Bangalore as a solo female traveler). I loved being a tourist here, not least because of all the things mentioned above, but also because I was so pleasantly surprised by how tourist-friendly this city is.

So…if you ever have a stopover in Bangalore of some kind, be sure to get out and explore a bit!

Bangalore Palace

Bangalore Palace

Bangalore Palace was my first pleasant surprise – I was brought here sort of accidentally, because my driver misunderstood me wanting to go to a different palace, but I am so glad he did! Bangalore Palace is a 19th-century 35-room mansion built in the Tudor style, richly finished with deep dark wooden cravings along broad staircases, relief ceiling paintings, strange taxidermy from royal hunts and one of the oldest wooden lifts in the world.

It was bought by the British and built for the Maharajah, in order to have some sort of suitable accommodation when he would be in Bangalore. Today it is filled with lots and lots and lots of framed little royal family portraits, political delegations, and royal hunting outings; a vase made from the trunk of an elephant splitting at the seams; and antique furniture belongings to the Wadiyars.

It is a decadent old house, slowly crumbling around the corners, and filled with distant memories and nostalgic snapshots of a previous empire, filling with light and warm air in every courtyard.

Bangalore Palace

Bangalore Palace

Bangalore Palace

Bangalore Palace

Bangalore Palace

GOOD TO KNOW

Bangalore Palace is open every day from 10am – 5pm

It has one of the more expensive tourist entry fees and will cost you around 480inr, plus 300inr of you want to take pictures with your cell phone, and 700inr for a proper camera.

This includes the audio guide, for which you’ll need an ID as a deposit.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace

What first looks just like a simple one-story building, opens up as you approach it into a two-story palace entirely constructed out of teak, with rows and rows of columns. This is where the famous Islamic ruler of Mysore retreated during summers and sometimes held his courts. It’s not every bit as grandiose as it sounds, but its fading ornate floral murals in red and gold allows you a glimpse into its previous splendour.

Tipu Sultan Summer Palace

GOOD TO KNOW

There are guides hanging around the palace, ready to offer their services. An older gentleman approached me with the price of 100inr for a tour. I looked at the temple, which seemed a blank wooden slate to me, and agreed. Getting a guide will certainly make your visit more interesting, IF THEIR ENGLISH IS GOOD ENOUGH. I understood maybe every 9th or 10th word, and just nodded out of politeness.

Open everyday from 8.30am – 5.30pm

Tourist entry fee is 200inr

Bangalore Fort

Just around the corner from the Summer Palace is a 16th-century fort built by the founder of Bangalore and later expanded on by the man himself, Tipu Sultan. It is located right by a busy market and a hospital, but all of these sounds are drowned out almost as soon as you slip through the small metal gate, muffled by the fortressed Delhi Gate casting its cool shade onto the garden. Actually, this isn’t the fort per se, but only what is left of it. It use to expand to include the Summer Palace and the area that the hospital now occupied, but most of it has been demolished.

Bangalore Fort

GOOD TO KNOW

Some sites have posted a 100inr entry fee for the fort, but I just walked in. There was one guard hanging around and nobody stopped me. So it’s free, maybe? 

Lalbagh Botanical Garden

There are a lot of green spaces in the city, but Lalbagh is a pretty special place I would definitely recommend going. It’s a sprawling botanical garden housing India’s largest collection of tropical plants, trees that are multiple centuries old, and a huge rock-formation mound – The Lalbagh Rock – that dates back 3000 million years. The gardens are all landscaped around a big 19th-century glass house inspired by London’s Crystal Palace, and sectioned off into smaller, easily navigable sections. It’s a great place to go for a few hours to wind down and escape the crazy hustle of Bangalore.

Lalbagh Garden

Bangalore views from the Lalbagh Rock

Street snacks

Grab a snack while you stroll the gardens – the corn on the cob rubbed with curry salt is delicious!

GOOD TO KNOW

The gardens are open from 6am – 9pm, and entry fee is 20inr unless you go between 6am and 9am, or 6pm and 7pm when it’s FREE.

There are little carts that will drive you around the park for which you can by a ticket at the gate, but this is really not necessary. The park is not that big; it’s a relaxing stroll rather than tireless walk to get from one section to the next.

Temple hopping

You’re in India, so, as a tourist, you have to go see the beautiful temples scattered around Bangalore. One of the most famous is the Big Bull Temple right in the middle of the city. Th is a good one to visit, because it is right above another temple – the Shree Dodda Ganapathi Temple – which has a huge icon of Ganesh, the elephant god.

Big Bull Temple

Entrance to the Big Bull Temple

Bangalore temples

Bangalore temples

Bangalore temples

GOOD TO KNOW

All the temples will open really early – like 5am – and close again around noon, staying closed for the afternoon until they open again in the evening, around 6 or 7pm.

Dress code:

You CANNOT take your shoes into the temples, whether they are on your feet or in your bag. You have to leave them outside with the shoe guards, which you will need to tip with what you feel fit.

You MUST cover your shoulders and your legs, either by wearing loose pants or a long skirt or dress, which is preferable.

You DO NOT have to cover your hair.

Etiquette:

It is best to bring a gift – some fruit or flowers – and a coin or two to gift to the monks. Though, it is a very peaceful environment and Indians will understand that it may be your first time in a temple, so there’s really no expectation. Just head in, copy some of the actions if you’re comfortable, or don’t. Really – I was the only tourist and nobody looked at me twice.

Museums

You can also make a stop at one of Bangalore’s many museums. If you’re from Europe or North America, or another of the world’s ‘developed’ regions, do not go expecting the Louvre or the Getty or the National Museum of your home country. Any museum person anywhere – even in these lucky places – will tell you that museums are perennially underfunded. This is of course true in India. The collections on display are small, and the exhibitions need some love, but there are some real gems to find within these museums. It might be wise to also remember that, because of colonialism, many of India’s most valuable pieces (like the Tipu Sultan Tiger, of which a replica is at the Summer Palace) were taken beyond her borders and are now held in places like the British Museum and the V&A in London.   

If you like historical art I would recommend visiting the ruby-red neoclassical Government Museum on Kasturba Road. A ticket to this museum will also gain you entry to the Venkatappa Art Gallery, which displays works by the famous Indian artist of the same name.

The National Gallery of Modern Art has some amazing Indian art works on display (even through its missing a lot of labels).

The National Gallery of Modern Art

GOOD TO KNOW

Like most places in the world, the museums in Bangalore are mostly closed on Mondays but open every other day of the week.

Entry fee to the Government Museum and the Venkatappa Art Gallery is only 20inr.

The National Gallery of Modern Art is a more expensive trip with tourist tickets at 500inr.

Bannerghatta National Park

This is a must-visit if you find yourself in Bangalore, especially if you haven’t yet been to any of India’s other nature reserves or national park. Located just over an hour’s drive out of the city, the National Park is 65,000+ acres of lush and hilly forests and includes a safari park, a zoo, a wild animal rescue centre, a butterfly enclosure and an aquarium.

A safari ticket will get you a seat on a 40-seater bus, which will drive you over 6 kms through the safari park. The safari park is fenced in sections so you have all the deer, elephants, tigers, bears, and lions in their respective enclosures. These sections are small enough so that you are pretty much guaranteed to see the animals, but large enough so that you are not guaranteed to see all of them. For example, we only saw one baby Asian black bear, even though there were multiple adults elsewhere in the enclosure somewhere out of view, behind thick foresty shrubs and boulders. The Bannerghatta safari is just a great opportunity to see these endangered animals in their natural habitat.

Tiger safari

The zoo, located right next to safari camp, is also worth a visit and it’s actually not nearly as sad as you might imagine it to be. It helps that it’s located not in a city, but on the edge of a massive forest, and that the zoo (and safari) is affiliated with the rescue centre which takes in and cares for orphaned, refused, malnourished and mistreated animals. The enclosures, like the safari, are also enormous. I was especially impressed with the snake pits. Usually, in most zoos I’ve ever visited, the snakes are kept behind glass in small, temperature-controlled areas. At Bannerghatta, because all the snakes at the zoo are native to the area, they are housed outside in large, spacious pits. It is also just fun to watch all the wild monkeys run around and stare at the zoo animals like they’re on their day out.

GOOD TO KNOW

I would highly recommend doing the earliest safari of the day (around 10am), when the animals are still active and when there’s no line at the ticket counter. Otherwise you run the risk of not seeing that napping tiger somewhere in the bushes.

The park is closed on Tuesdays, but open otherwise from 9am – 5pm everyday.

The first safari is at 10am, and you can buy tickets for this from 9am. Get there as early as possible, so that you have the chance to sit up front with the driver and guide, who may even take photos for you.

Tourist tickets are 400inr. You can also buy tickets online to save some time. 

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