13 Reasons Why I Moved to Victoria, Canada

Canada Day is quickly approaching, and now that I’m a permanent resident it feels even more fitting to celebrate the qualities that make this country so loved. Why did I decide to move specifically to Victoria on Vancouver Island? Victoria has many great qualities, but below are 13 of the main reasons it has stolen my heart.

1. Landscape

As I walk home from work along Fort St, a quick glance down a side street will often reveal views of Washington State’s towering Olympic mountains, snow glistening on their jagged peaks. Head towards their direction and you will eventually come to witness the vast Pacific Ocean stretching before you. When I lived in London, my social life seemed to revolve around going for food and drinks, but here a walk along the coast with friends will satisfy your social and physical needs, with no money-spending required.

Go inland and you are immersed in a sea of dense forest with tranquil lakes hiding here and there among the hemlock and Western red cedar trees. The landscape on the Island is so natural and unspoiled, and it never gets tiring to see. If you like photography, you will be in heaven here!

Brentwood Bay

2. Weather

Victoria has a moderate climate with winter temperatures usually remaining above negative. Compare that with -30 degrees Celsius in many of the other provinces and you can understand why so many people choose to move to the West Coast! Snowfall in the city is minimal, and when we do receive a mere couple of inches, the collective panic that erupts is quite amusing.

Summers are mild with temperatures rarely going over 30 degrees, allowing for sun-kissed comfort rather than sweltering torture (especially for someone fair like myself!). The lack of humidity and mosquitoes is also greatly welcomed!

If you’re into ocean sports, you will benefit from clear waters for diving and great wind speeds for sailing and kiteboarding.

Rain is less common here than in Vancouver, but even in the rain the surroundings are beautiful. Most places look dismal under grey skies, but Vancouver Island isn’t one of those places. Drifting fog over a bed of water dispersing slowly against a backdrop of evergreen trees is a trademark of the Pacific North West.

Sailing outside Cadboro Bay

3. Hiking

Drive 30 minutes outside of downtown Victoria and you are entering hikers’ paradise.  A variety of hiking options are available, depending on how far you are willing to drive to get there and how far/steep you want to walk. Mt. Doug is accessible by bus from downtown Victoria and offers 360-degree views over Greater Victoria and the surrounding Gulf Islands of the USA.  My favourite places to explore include John Dean Provincial Park in North Saanich, Mt. Work in Gowland Todd Provincial Park in the Highlands, Mt. Finlayson in Goldstream Provincial Park, Mt. Wells in the Langford area, and Matheson Lake in Metchosin. There’s nothing like a great hike to recharge your batteries and keep you smiling!

Mt. Finlayson

4. Lake Days

While England has the Lake District in the north and Hampstead Ponds in London, summer swims in lakes were never really a big thing when I was growing up.  Over here, you haven’t experienced summer if you haven’t had a lake day. Surrounded by forestry, Victoria’s surrounding lakes have authentic rustic settings that give off strong ‘Dirty Dancing’ vibes. (Because we’ve all at some point day-dreamed about re-enacting that scene!)

For a fun day out, you can pack a picnic and take a drive to Sooke to explore the potholes. More daring types can often be seen jumping from the rocks into the clear pools of water. Those searching for a quiet spot should head further upstream. Durrance Lake is a relaxing place to cool off after a hike in Gowland Todd Park, while Thetis Lake is a great option for chilling with friends, floaties and dogs. An hour’s drive up island, the Cowichan River is renowned by tubing lovers. If you’re bringing booze to any of these locations, please be respectful and take your cans away with you.

5. Wildlife

During a hike, you can expect to see bald eagles, turkey vultures and other birds of prey roaming over the trees with silent authority. Pickle’s Bluff in John Dean Provincial Park is a particularly great spot to witness a flying show.

Black bear sightings are also common as you head further inland, though the closest most people will get to one is from almost stepping in their berry-studded poop! Making regular gentle noise on the trail is typically enough to keep them away. Victoria also recently made headlines when a young cougar was spotted in the Gorge area. Thankfully, I am yet to come across one!

Between October and November, Goldstream Provincial Park is home to an annual salmon run that sees thousands of Chum salmon selflessly battle upstream from the Pacific Ocean and give up their lives to spawn. Watch closely and you can see the female digging her nest with surprising strength. You can’t help but admire these fish as they battle resiliently upstream against the current only, after after all that effort, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of making some babies. But at least it gives the other wildlife a meal!

Otters and seals are some of my favourite wildlife to see on the water, but if you’re looking for something bigger, you’re in the right place. Orca whales call this stretch of Pacific Ocean home, and it’s common to see a pod of them appear during a journey with BC Ferries over the Salish Sea to the Mainland or Gulf Islands. No matter how many times you might have seen them, the sense of awe never fades as you watch these beautiful animals rise up majestically from the water.

Humpback whales are another mammal that I’ve been fortunate to see by boat. Whale-watching trips operate out of Victoria, but as a firm believer in supporting local businesses, I tend to go with Sidney Whale Watching. The guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and they show respect for the whales’ well-being by adhering to regulations for viewing distances. I wish the same could be said for the private American charter boats.

6. Beaches

“I’m going to the beach” used to be something I’d say during an annual holiday in the Mediterranean. Now it’s something I say on a weekly basis. Why would I go drink in a rowdy pub on a Friday night after a busy week at work when I could instead soak up an opportunity for a quieter unwinding?

Within Victoria, Gonzales Bay is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an evening of sand, serenity and sunsets with a book or a guitar. Slightly bigger, Willows Beach in Oak Bay is a favourite for dog-owners and dog-stalkers-that-wish-they-were-dog-owners. A good place for seal sightings, it’s also a great place for a first date (speaking from experience!). On the eastern corner of the peninsula, there are many other quiet little coves to discover during a romantic evening walk.

If you are looking for rugged West Coast inspiration, the pebbled beaches en route to Port Renfrew will deliver. Perfect for a weekend of camping, there are a few options to choose from. Sandcut Beach and Sombrio Beach are two of my favourites. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours on these beaches appreciating the waterfalls, collecting driftwood or pebble souvenirs, looking in tide pools for small sea life, playing with seaweed (aka chasing your friend with it), and admiring the sheer number of clams and mussels. The odd surfer might be spotted braving the waves too.

Willows Beach

7. Road Trips

Whether you’re heading to Tofino for the weekend, taking a day trip to Port Renfrew, or making the long trip to Port Hardy, a road trip on Vancouver Island allows the above elements to be combined into one memorable adventure. The Island may seem small, but whether you are going solo or with friends, there is so much to discover and explore! Stopping in a few small towns such as Cowichan Bay is a great way to get a taste of the Island’s history and discover local art or trades.

Another bonus of road-tripping from Victoria is that the main highway is much quieter than the motorways of England, allowing for a more enjoyable driving experience.

Cowichan Bay

8. Food

Every road trip needs a great picnic, and Victoria is spoiled with places to stock up on snacks. Most importantly, it supports a variety of local restaurants, cafes and delis, meaning there’s no need to visit the big corporations like Starbucks or Tim Hortons.

Red Barn Market makes fresh sandwiches to order using local meat and vegetables, and offers generous servings at the ice cream counter. For this (latter) reason, the location on West Saanich Road has become a must-stop for me after a hike in Gowland Todd Park.  If you’re on a road trip to Port Renfrew, a great place to stop for coffee and sandwiches is Shirley Delicious. I’m pretty sure the South African barista has been on ecstasy every time I’ve gone..but he’s got great customer service!

One of my absolute favourite places for a post-hike treat is My Chosen Cafe in Metchosin. Tasty pizzas are made on site, and while you wait you can pet the adorable goats and donkeys nearby. Make sure you leave room for dessert, as its Sugar Shack really is the place where candy-filled dreams come true. Delicious and REAL milkshakes, mouth-watering fudge, and a variety of baked cookies, cakes and pastries await you. I personally love the Caramel Pecan Brownie and cry a little inside whenever it’s sold out.

While I don’t drink coffee, my penchant for tea has grown since moving to Victoria, thanks to the number of independent coffee shops around that create a cozy ambiance. Wild Coffee on Yates St, Bubby Rose’s Bakery on Cook St, Demitasse Cafe in Oak Bay, and Moka House on Fort St are nice places to catch up over a brew. And because there are so many coffeehouses around, I’m yet to discover more of them!

Then we have the bakeries. The window of Crust Bakery on Fort St is forever enticing drooling passers-by with its unique selection of pastries and tarts. A couple of doors down you have the Dutch Bakery with a variety of sweet treats on offer. If you like marzipan, the Dollar Rolls are delicious! Patisserie Daniel on Cook St has mouth-watering cinnamon buns and makes fantastic cakes for special occasions. Pure Vanilla Cafe and Bakery on Cadboro Bay Road tends to attract Oak Bay’s more affluent residents, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying its selection of breads, muffins and special cakes. Empire Doughnuts is fortunately (and unfortunately for my waistline) located one block from my office, and tends to be my go-to when the menstrual hormones are raging.

Summer in Victoria isn’t complete if there haven’t been several occasions when you’ve gone straight from work on a Friday to Cold Comfort. Located on North Park St, its ice cream sandwiches with their unexpectedly ideal flavour combinations are a wonderful end-of-the-week treat. My favourite flavours include Citrus and Coriander, London Fog, Raspberry Rose, and Hoyne Dark Matter (I don’t drink the beer…unless it’s in ice cream). On Fridays they pair up with Empire Doughnuts…uh oh!

9. Fitness

I love Victoria for its many scenic paths and trails. When I went on runs in London, the sounds of traffic, the air quality and the crowds of people I had to get through before reaching the park often left me frustrated. Here those irritants don’t exist. My favourite running route takes me along a beach, through a leafy creek area, and along a quiet road with gorgeous houses to distract me from the distance.

Whether walking through the pretty neighbourhoods of Fernwood or Oak Bay, running along Beacon Hill Park’s chip trail and grassy routes, or cycling a coastal route from Cordova Bay to downtown, you are bound to find something that keeps your mind happy and your body healthy.

For indoor fitness, Victoria has a huge array of gyms to choose from. I train at at Studio 4 Athletics on Yates St, where there are great options for personal training, individual workouts, and group classes. Victoria is also full of yoga lovers; in three minutes of walking around downtown, you can guarantee to see at least two people carrying a yoga mat.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is Canada’s beloved outdoor clothing and equipment store. It’s like a toy store for adults. Located on Johnson St, the store also organizes running/cycling meet-ups, clinics and races. Before a series of niggles influenced me to hang up my running shoes for a while, I went to the Tuesday run meet-ups and found them to be good fun and a great way to socialize while keeping fit. They also inspired me to get back into racing!

Racing at Elk Lake

10. Second-Hand Shops

On the subject of cycling, I bought my second-hand road bike for $600 from UsedVictoria.com. This website is awesome for buying used items, from cars to couches. It’s also how I’ve found many of my room-shares/roommates.

The thrift stores are also a real highlight of Victoria for me. Some people might turn their noses up at the idea of wearing clothing previously owned by someone else, but I personally think it’s awesome! Bagging a deal while helping the environment…what’s bad about that? Some of my favourite work blouses, jeans and summer dresses have come from Value Village or the Salvation Army. The Patch on Yates St is also amazing for vintage dresses. If you plan to go in there only buying one dress, good luck.

These thrift stores are also great for buying furniture and art, whether you are looking for an extra bookcase or some antique ornaments. I’m a big fan of landscape canvasses and paintings, and could spend a good hour browsing through them.

As someone who enjoys reading, I love visiting Russel Books on Fort St just to browse their huge collection of new and second-hand books. Whether you are looking for historical fiction or horticultural guidance, you’re bound to find a cover that catches your interest. It’s a perfect place to kill time if you’re waiting to meet up with a friend!

11. Events

Victoria holds a range of events throughout the year that emphasize the idea of supporting local businesses and fostering a multicultural population.

My favourite event to attend is the Oak Bay Night Market, which runs on every second Wednesday of the month from June to September. With live music, food trucks, and local vendors selling original crafts and baked goods, this market has a real community feel. It feels more personal and welcoming than any of the events I attended in London. It also seems to attract all the local “hot dads”…and their even hotter wives.

Annual events like Canada Day, Car-Free Day, Oak Bay Tea Party, Pride Parade, and the Symphony Splash are naturally a little busier, but they all highlight Victoria’s friendly and diverse… (cue next point)…

12. Culture

“You folks in this town are very friendly, tank you,” spoke an Irish man recently when I offered him some help after noticing he and his wife starting perplexedly at a map. It’s become a habit of mine to proactively approach people when they look lost. I ultimately do it as a way of paying back the help others have given me here.

People visiting from Vancouver or other big cities might mock Victoria for the fact that it still accepts change for buses. I however like the fact that Victoria is a little “behind the times”. It makes it cute and endearing. It’s also a welcome change from London to have a friendly bus driver who says hello and advises tourists when they should get off. Likewise, it’s nice to hear passengers thanking the bus driver when they get off. Further, it’s refreshing when you can speak freely with a fellow passenger without feeling the alarmed eyes of others on you assuming you’re a psychopath. (Yes, that was another dig at London.) In fact, striking up conversation with a woman who used to take the same bus as me in the morning is how I made one of my friends here! I also love the fact that when I’m walking to work, I often see the same smiley old man pushing his trolley who gives me a wave and comments on the weather.

When it comes to my friendships here, I definitely fit the mould of “quality over quantity”. But that’s fine with me, because the friends I have made are some of the most open-minded, easy-going, down-to-earth, adventurous, and generous people I’ve met.

13. Proximity

Even when you live in such a beautiful city, you sometimes need a change of scene. Luckily, Victoria is conveniently located. A 40-minute bus ride takes you to the sleepy town of Sidney, where you can spend a few relaxing hours browsing bookshops, reading in a cafe, and walking along the pier.

Take the bus further to Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal, and you have your gateway to a mini vacation on the Gulf Islands. If you’re craving some time in a big city (or a trip to IKEA), you can take the 90-minute journey to Tsawwassen and head up to Vancouver from there.

From Victoria, there are daily ferries to both Seattle and Port Angeles, with the latter being your pit stop en route to Olympic National Park.

Dallas Road

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If you’re a foodie who loves spending your free time outdoors exploring nature or getting active, Victoria really does have it all. Please feel free to add your questions about or tourist recommendations for Victoria below!

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Relations & Realizations: An Expat’s Summer in Canada

It’s been ten months since I left England for Vancouver Island, Canada. Summer with its droughts and wildfires has now passed, and I still have no desire to return back to London. Not only do I have a permanent job doing something I love, but my time in Victoria has opened my eyes to a lifestyle I was missing before when I lived in London.

In the first house I lived in upon moving to Victoria, I’d wake up for work in the morning and open the blinds to see a deer just hanging out in my front yard. He became known as ‘Stanley’. On the walk to the bus stop I would pass runners and dog-walkers who would smile and let me pet their pooch. I would recognize people on the bus who were open to the concept of smiling and engaging in brief conversation. I admired and participated in the culture of saying “thank you” to the driver upon exiting the bus. I established that my favourite driver was a former pilot called Dan who provided weather updates, scenic commentary and probably even birthday shout-outs if requested.

I learned through my interviewing of various people at work that a lot of Canadians can’t decipher between an English and Australian/Kiwi accent. I made friends with a Persian family who started a new restaurant a few steps away from my office, to the extent that they wave at me whenever I pass by and look in.

I learned (and soon forgot) the rules of softball and that “good hustle” and “you got this” are a quintessential feature of Canadian vocabulary.  I experienced how wonderful it is to spend evenings after work on the beach, in a park or doing exercise, and not in a setting that requires consumption of alcohol. I learned of various locally owned bakeries and cafes that made such a refreshing change from the large corporate chains such as Starbucks, Pret and Costa Coffee that can be seen on every street in London. I realized just how fame-obsessed and media-mobbed life in London was in comparison to the easy-going, outdoor-loving West Coast lifestyle.  I also learned that I’m addicted to thrift stores.

With regards to self-esteem, I stopped wearing mascara in late April after suddenly feeling more comfortable in my skin and realizing I no longer cared about looking younger or less attractive with my naturally fair features. And at the end of the summer, I went to an open mic night at a small pub up island attended by a handful of locals, and ended up singing Neil Young ‘Harvest Moon’ with a bunch of old boys playing guitars.

The kindness of Vancouver Islanders in comparison to Londoners really came to light during a bus journey on a Saturday in June, when I happened to be suffering from severe cramps. Shortly after boarding a bus crowded with passengers on a sweltering hot day, my head started spinning and everything suddenly started to go black. I closed my eyes in defeat as if to say, “Take me angels, I’m ready.” Next thing I knew, there was the sound of a man’s voice and someone’s hands supporting my shoulders. I opened my eyes to see a few strangers peering down at me uncertainly, with one of them casually holding my raised legs by the ankles. A lady placed a damp flannel on my forehead and asked me a series of questions, one of them being: “Are you on your period?” Once she had kindly confirmed to everyone on board that I was indeed enjoying the shedding of my womb, she decided that my apparently ghostly white face warranted calling an ambulance, even though I had had vasovagal episodes like this before and was pretty confident all was fine.

The lady continued to ask me a series of questions, including: “Where are your parents?” I told her they were in England. “They’re not here with you?” – “No, they’re in England. I’m from England.” – “Oh…what are you doing out here without them?” – “I’m living here, I work here. I’m 25.” – “Oh! Well what’s their number?” – “They’re in England, there’s no point. They’re asleep right now.” Suddenly I had one of those stirring moments of realization I’ll occasionally get where I remember where I am and how far away I am from home.

Once it was established that I was not a minor and had other emergency contacts in the area that could be called, things seemed to relax a little. While the bus waited on the side of the highway, those passengers that had opted to stay near me naturally got talking, asking where everyone was heading to. The poor man tasked with holding my slightly prickly legs mentioned that he was heading to the airport. Like a lady in labour feeling an unexpected surge of willpower, I shot bolt upright and gasped in horror, “You’re heading to the airport?!” The man laughed and said, “Oh I’m not catching a flight; there’s an old bomber on display I want to see.” Heart rate slowly restoring to normal, I allowed my weary self to rest back down on the seat. The paramedics arrived and as they escorted me off the bus for a quick chat-and-release, I smiled a sheepish apology at the few passengers on the back looking rather miffed that their journey had been disrupted by the menstrual cycle. The lady who had taken charge later texted to ask how I was feeling. To my grateful response she replied, “Don’t thank me, just pay it forwards.”

So I did.

A few weeks later I was reading at the beach minutes from my house when a little girl ran over to her mum to inform her that reckless Sally had taken a tumble at the playground and cut her toe open. “Oh God oh God,” gabbled the mum like an alarmed chicken, “Is she okay? Is it broken? Is there blood? You know I can’t handle blood, Lucy!”

And so Lucy ran back to assess the extent of damage further before returning with a report. “Oh God oh God,” began the chicken-momma again. “Why would she do this to me? Does she need an ambulance?”

At this point the lady spotted me observing the situation with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment, and decided to reiterate to me that she was bad with blood. “I can go help her if you’d like?” I offered. Without hesitation, the woman replied, “Oh would you? That’d be great.” She handed me a band aid sized for a large gash on the leg which I swiftly replaced with a smaller sized one coincidentally found in my bag. Little Sally sat calmly on a bench and rolled her eyes at me as if acknowledging her mother’s batty ways. I cleaned up and covered the 1-inch cut on the top of her toe and then her mum approached, only to shrink back at the sight of a slightly-bloodied wet wipe. “Thank you so much! I just can’t deal with blood when it’s on my kids; with anything else it’s fine, but not my kids.”

I decided not to ask what she would do if her child was in a life or death situation, but did insist she shouldn’t need to take her daughter to the doctor.

All in all it was a great summer, and the best thing was that I got to show my life here (and some humpbacks!) to my mum when she came out to visit for a week.

The worst thing about the summer was the part where my boyfriend and I decided to call time on our 3-year relationship at the end of it.

No relationship is perfect – there will always be struggles, and for a while you will rightfully try to work through them. Then comes the time when you have that highly needed yet highly unsettling moment of realization that someone you have loved and cared about for a long time just isn’t right for you anymore and vice versa.  Your personalities, interests and goals no longer align, and you no longer recognize them as the person you felt an instant attraction for upon meeting. No matter how much you try to compromise and persevere, you cannot find the sense of content you are looking for, and it’s time to concede defeat.  But it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of something that has always seemed so simple, natural and ideal in so many ways. As an expat far from home, questions of, “Why am I really here? Do I actually want to be here?” arose in my mind. The future seemed unclear and scary.

Then I thought long and hard about all the big things I had experienced in Canada since December, like new friendships and a fulfilling job. I then thought about all the little things I had experienced just this summer – the friendly interactions, pleasant sights and snippets of conversation – that made being here so much more appealing than returning to London and England. Why would I give up all these things I’m lucky to have in my life? Why would I return to a place and a lifestyle that doesn’t make me feel as happy? More than ever, I knew that I wanted to remain in Canada.

I started making a list of goals for when I would become single. One of them, of course, involved going back to running – that old faithful ally of mine through which I’d met many of my closest friends at university, and experienced so many memorable feelings of elation that outweighed any frustration. I missed what it felt like to run fast alongside others and feel that pre-race surge of adrenaline fueled by a competitive spirit. I tried two running groups. The first didn’t do much for me running-wise, but it gave me a hilarious new friend I held onto even if I no longer attended the group. The second meet I tried gave me exactly what I had been looking for; it got me enjoying running again. I signed up for my first race in over two years for late September, and regardless of the fact that I ended up being the first lady home in my race, I enjoyed the whole experience immensely.

Another goal included making more use of my free time to travel. It had been over a year since I’d completed a solo trip. After passing my work probation I booked a few days off for the beginning of September. It was time to leave the Island and return to the place where I first fell in love with Canada: the Rockies.

After the gross mixed-dorm experience my sister and I had in Whistler in October 2015, I vowed to avoid hostels for future trips. Unfortunately on this occasion I’d left my flight-booking a little late to organize an affordable airbnb. Instead I had a terrible sleep in a hostel in Calgary, that city of skyscrapers plonked smack bang in the middle of flat nothingness; a place, nevertheless, that was more aesthetically pleasing than I expected. I woke myself up during my Greyhound bus journey to Banff by banging my head on the window, only to recognize the prestigious mountains rising up in the distance, albeit this time with a faint cloak of smoke hovering over that had drifted up from the forest fires in Washington State.

Banff was flooded with tourists out for Labour Day long weekend. At one point during my battle through the crowds, I realized I’d passed a girl I went to school with ten years ago. There was now a McDonalds on the main tourist strip which made me cry a little inside. Banff was even more commercialized and tacky than six years earlier. I hiked Tunnel Mountain and lamented the fact that few people reciprocated my “hi” or even had the common sense to make space on the trail for my approach, too busy they were in their Lulelemon leggings taking selfies and choosing their Instagram filter. But the main thing for me was that I was somewhere different, alone, and enjoying being alone.

The next morning I sat at the same spot on the Bow River where I’d perched six years ago as a less confident and more naive 19 year old. I thought about all that has happened in the past six years – travelling, moving to London, completing my degree, commencing a long-term (and mostly long-distance) relationship, starting a job that developed into a career field, moving to Canada, and returning to single-hood again. I felt a sense of pride remembering all that I’ve experienced, learned and accomplished in that time, and suddenly the world felt like a map in my pocket, with me in control of my life route and excited for what lay ahead in my chosen path.

Exploring my Backyard: A Weekend in Sooke

Since I was 19, I’ve had a personal “rule” that I should visit a new country every year. Adhering to this was easy when I lived in Europe, but now I’m living in a country only fractionally smaller in square kilometres than that entire continent, not so much. However I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t have to go abroad to find something new and inspiring. I ask myself which is better – to get a vague idea of several countries, or to truly get to know one?

To celebrate my 25th birthday, I spent a long weekend in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although only 38 kilometres from Victoria where I currently live, it’s not necessarily a place one would consider going to for just a short visit. And yet it’s a place where you are suddenly exposed to swathes of tranquil forests, an abundance of pleasant hikes and a bounty of intriguing wildlife. It’s a place that proves you don’t have to go far to find beauty and adventure.

En route, my friend and I stopped at Walmart in uptown Victoria to buy some bedding. It was a hot day and as I tested the side of my face against five different pillows all with marginal variations in style,  the white-walled, air-conditioned environment of the huge store suddenly made me begin to feel restless. Victoria is a cleaner and quieter city than most, but there are people and cars and buildings nonetheless. Having grown up in the rural countryside, I need shots of rugged nature from time to time to rejuvenate myself. It was time to see more green.

On entering Sooke River Campground we stopped by the reception where a large lady sat in a rocking chair on the deck, peering over her newspaper with a suspicious frown. She resembled one of those GI Jane-types you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. We had booked one of the three rustic cabins…and rustic was a very accurate description. However we seemed to get the better deal as based on the number of Canada geese around, it would have been difficult to find a piece of ground to pitch a tent on that wasn’t speckled with poop. I haven’t been in a campground since 2014 and just being amongst tents and campers got me excited, stirring memories of  childhood holidays and the smell of barbecues and refreshing feel of morning dew on bare feet.

A lovely place for a relaxed evening stroll is Whiffin Spit, just down from Sooke town. The south side looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State and the north faces Sooke Basin. With the latter, it’s just unfortunate that the ugliest hotel you’ve ever seen was built on the water. Its huge white frame stands out in gaudy contrast to the green surroundings. The architect seems to have gone for a European look but a rustic brown would have done nicely.

For breakfast the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep in our cabin, we stopped at The Little Vienna Bakery which had friendly staff and an authentic Austrian decor. We ordered a tasty cinnamon schnecke and a filling breakfast bun to share. The cafe seemed to be a fond favourite with the elderly local population who would sit with their coffee and cakes reading the newspaper.

Then it was north towards the Sooke Potholes, where you can either stick to a gravel path that follows the river or take a wilder route closer to the water’s edge. We chose the latter, clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and darting over gaps in the rock over the water to cross to the other side. Other hikers would peer at us sitting on the other side of the river with expressions of awe, as if thinking, “How did they get there?” I noticed how when crossing over to the other side of the river via gaps in the rock, I would hesitate upon seeing a fast section of the current swooshing below me. Even if I had fallen in, there are many calm pool sections of the river where I, a pretty strong swimmer, would have been able to stop myself going further downstream. I feel like I’ve become more cautious in the past year or so, more likely to reconsider the sensibleness of doing certain physical activities instead of just going for it without worrying so much.

Instead I seem to be developing interests in more static things, such as bird watching. (Is this what happens when you reach a quarter century?!) We observed the routine of a bluish grey bird that would zoom over the water and through the gaps in the rock, only to return to her nest around a minute later to feed her chicks. Then we spotted two birds, with the dad presumably the one perching on a stone in the water as if scanning the area for safety. It brought back childhood memories of when a blackbird once made a nest in my family’s garden wall. Everyday when I got home from school I would eagerly peep through the cracks to see how things were progressing. I remember the devastation and guilt I felt when one day I saw the eggs had been abandoned.

As we left this section of the park and headed southwards, a couple on the side of the road ahead waved us down awkwardly. “Hey! We’re not hitchhiking, it’s just our car’s parked back that way,” the man said, pointing in the direction we’d come from, “and we spotted a bear and her cub on the side of the road.”

“Oh!” we replied in surprise. How typical that we had been too busy talking about something to notice two bears casually strolling nearby. We invited the couple inside our car and drove them back to the parking area, peering into the bushes in hope that we’d see the animals. No sign.

Nevertheless, it became our de facto duty to warn others of the sighting. When we spotted the men we’d seen earlier bathing in the river walking along the road in the direction of the bear, we wound down our windows and told them to jump in. We would stop oncoming cars to pass on the information, and tell others stood in parking lots. “Oh wow!” “Where were they?” “Were they big?” began a series of questions. It was like being the geek in school who suddenly becomes super popular once he claims to have seen a famous actor in the street. You could say we became quite proud of our services, even though we hadn’t actually seen the bear ourselves. It was easy to imagine a game of Chinese Whispers ensuing, with us by the end having concocted some wild story about how we had to fight off a ginormous bear that pounced on our car and grabbed one of us by the arm, dragging us out of the smashed window…

Further down stream, a gang of four elderly cyclists were taking a dip at the serene beach section. It was lovely to see a range of ages at the potholes, whether it was families with young kids, elderly hiking groups, or even young adults like our friend we spotted showing some visiting pals around.

For lunch we ate in town at Mom’s Cafe, an American-style diner with blue leather booths, black and white tiles and female-only servers. I was torn between the Hawaiian burger and fish and chips, but ended up going for the former. A minute later, a server walked out with a plate of fish and chips and I instantly regretted my decision.

“More water, honey?” I was asked while eating by our server who looked a few years younger than me. Servers over here seem to like using these pet words, but I personally find them quite irritating. Minutes later, the same server approached the table in front of us and asked cheerily, “How are you ladies doing here?” only for her face to drop in horror when the mother replied curtly: “This is my son.” Ouch. To the server’s defence, any 8 year old kid with long hair in a ponytail is going to be easily mistaken for a female.

I’d had my eye on the dessert counter since we arrived, and ordered a slice of the chocolate cream pie. “Two forks?” asked the server, occasionally glancing over warily at the table in front. My friend shrugged a half-hearted response, holding his stomach like a woman in late pregnancy while I sat up excitedly in anticipation. Back came a huge slice of rich chocolatey goodness smothered with whipped cream. Buddy conceded defeat after two bites and thereafter watched me in bewilderment with a small hint of both admiration and disgust as I proceeded to clear the plate. I definitely have a second stomach for these things.

When we went up to pay, our server was still in a state over her incident with ponytail-boy’s mum. I told her to keep the change.

Driving along Sooke’s winding coastline is a real treat, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. It’s beautifully rugged and untouched, and made the plastic, suffocating atmosphere of Walmart feel almost like something imagined. The provincial parks in Sooke are perfectly maintained too; there are pit toilets and useful information boards, but otherwise the nature is undisturbed by commercial projects. We pulled into French Beach Provincial Park and the big lunch finally hit me. I dropped off in the car, mouth open and all. I can never usually nap in the afternoons. Sooke was becoming more and more impressive.

On French Beach I discovered my unknown appreciation for rocks. “There’s… so many, all…so different….so…pretty,” I gasped to myself in awe as I began forming a pile that would later become the source of a stressful decision about which ones to keep and which to leave behind.

We drove on towards China Beach, and on the way pulled over to admire another view. Suddenly something in the water caught my attention. I realized it was a seal, powering through the waves with a slow yet defiant bobbing action that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. It was the longest seal I’d ever seen. It stopped in the shallows and we walked down onto the rocks to get a closer look. The seal had attracted the attention of others, as a man followed suit with his dog by his side, phone out to take a photo. ‘What a cute dog,’ I thought, looking at the golden spaniel fondly. Then it started barking and darted towards the water where the seal bathed.

“Hudson, come back! Hudson!” the dog’s owner started yelling. But the dog ignored him, splashing through the waves with barks of naive curiosity.

“That seal is going to destroy that dog,” my friend remarked matter-of-factly. We could only watch helplessly as the dog rushed towards the seal, its owner shouting madly. Then the dog suddenly looked back at its owner as if having had second thoughts and began to return to shore. We breathed out in relief.

Seconds later, it bounded back towards the water.

“Hudson!” shouted the owner desperately. His friend joined him and threw rocks in the dog’s direction, but he wasn’t interested, persevering through buffeting waves to get close to the seal, which was beginning to kick up a splash in panic. I held my breath and prepared to block my eyes as the dog got within 10 feet of the seal, only to once again retreat. The owners turned back and the dog trotted beside them, grinning at them with his tongue hanging out as if to say, “Chill guys, I was just playing with you.”

The Canadian version of ‘Fenton’ in Richmond Park sprang to mind.

We carried on to China Beach, where most of the park’s signs seemed to warn of recent cougar sightings. Despite the bear sighting that was not sighted by us earlier in the day, I’ve been advised a few times that it’s actually cougars that residents of Vancouver Island have to worry about. (And not just the human kind.) Bears are supposedly more reactive in their aggression, only attacking if they feel severely threatened, whereas cougars will apparently just go for you no matter what, leaping down unexpectedly from trees, pouncing from behind etc. And yet when you’re walking along a pretty trail, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about a blood-thirsty predator lurking in the bushes.

At least, it was that evening on China Beach, which was empty apart from two surfers braving the coastal chill. On the Sunday morning we headed to East Sooke and stopped in Roche Cove to hike to Matheson Lake. The trail starts on the famous Galloping Goose bike trail and then descends into forest. Strange noises began to enter my ears. Was it a bird calling…or something else, something bigger? The crack of a twig would send my head swinging to the side in suspicious alarm. The sounds seemed to increase in loudness and frequency. I heard footsteps, they sounded like an animal…coming closer.

Suddenly a brown spaniel bounded over a little hill towards us. He carried a thick piece of branch in his mouth with his head and tail held high in an expression of stubbornness equivalent to a toddler adamant they are going to drag their cot all the way into their new room instead of moving into a “big girl’s” bed. His owner followed suit, rolling her eyes. We watched fondly as the dog struggled to fit through a narrow gap between two trees, all the while never once considering abandoning his new find.

This trail had many ankle-twisting forks, which led on to an interesting debate about many times I’d have to stop and rest if my friend got injured and needed piggy-backing to the car. Later we drove on to the quieter western edge of the park, where there were several plots of land for sale to build houses on. I observed through green eyes the dreamy views anyone building a house here would have. If only my generation could look forward to affording such a piece of property…

Our final hike was an easy 30-minute stroll from Pike Point to Iron Mine Bay. Sweet birdsong accompanied our final few steps down to the small pebble beach, where dogs we had passed by on the road earlier fetched sticks from the water. Glistening blue water stretched out before us all the way to the snow-capped Olympic peaks. I felt truly blessed to have views like this pretty much on the doorstep of a provincial capital city.

I had been spoiled by the weather in Sooke and came away smitten with the stunning coastline I’d witnessed. I returned home to my apartment in Victoria to learn of the terror attacks in London, and suddenly felt a sense of guilt for having spent a peaceful weekend exploring quiet trails and gorgeous beaches while friends and relatives of mine were potentially getting caught up in the horrific events. London and my old life there felt so far away and yet this news hit really close to home too.

No matter how big and busy your city, having a few days away in quiet, nature-filled surroundings will make you feel rested, recharged and even more appreciative of the variety of life that exists on our planet.

Return to Reykjavík: Tourism & the Changing Face of Iceland

Everyone is talking about Iceland. That island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean with Björk, an unassumingly victorious football team and those hard-to-pronounce volcanoes. Its convenient location between Europe and North America has been taken advantage of on a higher scale in the past few years, and with Icelandair offering up to seven days of stopover time for free, why wouldn’t you go and see what all the fuss is about?

I first visited Iceland in August 2013. It was becoming more popular at that time but still had a minimalist feel to it that made me warm to it. I sensed that things would be different when I returned for a quick stop in December 2016 en route to Canada.

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Some things remained the same. The FlyBus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík still played the same man’s slow, soothing voice to welcome passengers. As we passed the same barren lands and swathes of lava fields, I still got flashbacks to medieval times, imagining Viking soldiers in battle. But as we entered the surrounding towns and suburbs of the city, I noticed more apartment buildings than before. Had they always been here and I simply hadn’t noticed? Maybe the sparkling Christmas lights just made them stand out more? No, there were definitely more. The place looked more developed and modern.

My friend picked me up from the BSÍ terminal and confirmed the development that had been taking place in and around the city. She asked if I had any plans for my two and a half days in Iceland. I realised I hadn’t given it too much thought; my main goal was to see the Northern Lights. But I also thought it would be nice to go to a geothermal pool, since I had chickened out of going to one on my last visit due to shyness about the nudity element of pre-bathing showering. I had always regretted what had later seemed like a pathetic reason not to go. My friend suggested we go inland to a place called the Secret Lagoon, which was a geothermal pool smaller, less commercial and more natural than the popular Blue Lagoon, a place I briefly stopped by at on my last visit and didn’t enjoy. She had also never been and so it seemed like a great idea.

After waiting for snow storms to pass the next morning, we set off to a town called Flúðir. The Secret Lagoon is definitely secret in that there are no signs indicating where it is. Once we arrived however, we were surprised by the number of cars parked up. I was expecting a very rustic set up with mostly native customers, but reception was bustling with a variety of nationalities. I paid 2500ISK for the ticket and followed my host to the changing rooms.

“So, we have to shower completely naked here, don’t we?” I asked, feeling the butterflies from three years ago begin to flutter back into my stomach. My friend nodded with a smile. I took a deep breath and undressed, looking straight ahead as I walked towards the shower. It was as if I thought this would stop people looking at me, but I soon realised that nobody was going to look at me anyway. Showering naked in public was so much less of an issue than I had previously let myself believe. ‘Good on Icelanders,’ I began thinking in support of their fearlessness and the motive behind it to protect their natural pools. Later on, I would even find myself shooting disapproving glares at the back of a bunch of Brits who I noticed proceed towards the pool having showered in their swimsuits. We are definitely a prude nation when it comes to public nudity (which seems ironic given that we have a fame-obsessed culture that promotes sex appeal in the form of body exposure through mediums such as sexting, glamour modelling and risque TV entertainment as a tool of socio-economic advancement.)

The Lagoon was very relaxing. There was even something refreshing about having your face pelted with hail stones from above whilst your body remained submerged in warm water. However it wasn’t as quiet as I’d hoped. Perhaps selfishly, I’d expected fewer people. As more loud groups entered the water and the drinking increased, the experience became more distracting than relaxing and we got out. Before arriving, I had already decided that I wouldn’t write a blog post about the place, in order to preserve its secrecy. I now realised that the Lagoon’s name had become an appealing marketing tool, and there was actually no secret to hide anymore.

The next morning over breakfast, my friend read a newspaper article which highlighted the growing problem of tourists feeding horses in the wild. These animals are not used to eating sugar or bread, and the treats were actually causing more harm than good, with more horses suffering from digestive problems without access to medical help. If you are reading this and planning to road trip through Iceland, please do not feed the horses or try to bribe them with food to come closer. They are self-sufficient animals and will not starve without your treats, nor suffer without your petting.

Another article discussed the rising number of car accidents on roundabouts as foreign visitors do not adopt Iceland’s road rules. On a roundabout, those in the inner lane have right of way to exit. I know – seems bonkers – but we should respect another country’s rules nonetheless. Another article reported that Keflavík airport had seen a record 6 million people enter its doors in 2016, a 25% increase from 2015. There are 323,000 inhabitants of Iceland.

That day, my friend took me on a rainy tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest of the country. Lava fields smother the land  where you can find the Bridge Between Continents – a fissure in the ground where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and diverge. The gap grows by 2 cm every year. Further on is Gunnuhver, the steam vents and mud pools of which are named after a female ghost whose shouting is supposedly symbolised by the eruption of the geyser. Reading her story reminded me of the mythologies I learned on my last visit – cultural traditions that helped make Iceland unique in more ways than its geology and landscape. Ferocious waves battered the cliffs as we drove further on. I read about a bird called the Great Auk, the last colony of which lived on a small island called Eldey off the coast of Iceland, before becoming extinct in 1844. Similarly looking to the penguin, it was flightless and stood no chance against human hunters.

In the town of Grindevík, we ate lobster soup in a small cafe decorated with ship memorabilia and an old piano. A group of Americans got up to leave shortly after we arrived, thanking the owner. The ditsy 20-something daughter then said to her mother, “How do you say ‘thank you’?” The mother had no answer. My friend grinned at me and I felt like dunking my face in my soup. A perfect example of one of the bad travel habits I wish I could see less of. Maybe I think too much, but I find that there’s something so rude about coming to a foreign country and not even bothering to learn one simple word (“takk”). You could argue that paying money for a travel experience represents enough ‘giving’ and justifies the ‘taking’, but I think this outlook promotes an imperial-esque sense of self-entitlement and disrespect for local culture.

On my final morning we took my friend’s dog for a quiet walk around a frozen lake. The only others we saw were a runner, another walker, and a party of horse riders.  I got the impression this was one of a decreasing number of places locals could come to where they wouldn’t find many tourists…at least in the early hours of the morning. In downtown Reykjavík later on, my friend pointed out the construction of new hotels. It’s a contentious issue, the threat that hotels and other tourist accommodation options like Airbnb pose to long-term rental space for locals. You get the sense that some natives feel they are prioritised below tourists when it comes to urban planning.

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Overall, my short return to Reykjavík was enough to illustrate the increased popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination since I last visited.  (Me ahead of a trend? Wow.) I’m not saying it’s bad that Iceland has become more popular. Afterall, as my friend acknowledged, tourism is good for the country’s economy. But my brief visit also illustrated the potential problems Iceland faces from its popularity growth. Its authenticity makes it popular and yet I worry that this is under threat from pressure to meet the expectations of tourists who come from more consumerist, materialistic and technologically advanced countries. I fear it’s in danger of becoming exploited at the expense of its culture, citizens and landscape.

I think of the slowly widening rift between the tectonic plates and relate it to what seems like a gradual tourist-takeover of Iceland. I think of the geographical mythologies and wonder if they’ll ever become regarded as archaic and unmarketable. I think of the Great Auk being hunted to extinction because of human greed. You’ll find ignorant and inconsiderate behaviour from tourists in any country, but for some reason I get defensive when Iceland is the victim. It’s perhaps because I have experienced the country from the perspective of both a tourist and local. I know how hard living in Iceland can be for Icelanders, and am able to see how large volumes of tourism can contribute to this. Are there any “secret” places anymore?  Apart from their homes, where can native Icelanders go where they are free from tourist-oriented advertisements, expensive cuisine, English-speaking “banter” and complaints about WiFi?

I grew up in the North York Moors National Park in England, a place that attracted tourists but never felt overrun by them. I was glad about this, because whilst I was happy for visitors to come and experience the beauty of the area, I didn’t like the idea of sharing my tranquil home with a mass of others. I don’t think there is anything rude or prejudiced about this. It seems a little too late for this concern in Iceland though; the main question is how a big a slice of the pie they will get.

I didn’t see the Northern Lights as hoped during my brief stay, as skies were too cloudy. Although it was a shame not to witness something I’d been hoping for, I took comfort knowing that there remains something in Iceland that can never be influenced and caused by tourist demands and actions. A natural phenomenon that doesn’t give a hoot about how much people want to see it and how much money they have to offer.

Please visit Iceland, just don’t plunder it. Support the economy, just don’t govern it. Embrace the culture, just don’t squash it. Take many a photo of the nature, just don’t leave a mark on it.

10 Tips for a Happy Travel Experience in Australia

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Australia with my mum. As we set off on our long long flight across the world, I wasn’t sure how much I would get out of such a short trip, apart from the enjoyment of catching up with family friends and relatives. It wasn’t a holiday down under like most people would imagine; there was no time spent sunbathing and not even a dip in the ocean. Unbelievable, I know.

However the short time away proved more valuable than I anticipated because it reinforced some key points one should consider covering to help guarantee a positive travel experience.  You may be destined for one of the most renowned places on the planet, but its great reputation doesn’t promise you’ll have a great time. Whilst you can never guarantee that you will have a perfect travel experience, certain travel methods can minimise the risk of you coming away disappointed.

1. Go just before busy season
For the sake of space and spending habits, consider visiting a destination just before peak season. We were in Australia from early to mid-late October for the start of spring. Mornings were crisp, skies were (mostly) blue and tourist hotspots attracted a bearable number of visitors. Viewing points at the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road were not rammed and, apart from a coach load of Asian tourists, Katoomba in the Blue Mountains was not heaving (albeit quite chilly – definitely bring a warm jumper!) Temperatures averaged 18 degrees in Victoria and reached the low 30s in NSW. Accommodation is also more likely to be available at this time of year and less likely to require reservations.
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dsc_01772Buy a proper map
My mum and I started our road trip with only the small sketched maps in our Lonely Planet guidebook for reference. This uncharacteristic lack of organisation caused quite a bit of stress at times along the way..! We were also surprised by the lack of regional road atlases on sale in petrol stations. Thankfully we were stocked up  for parts of our journey by relatives and tourist information centres.

Some people would say, “Just use GPS – duhh!” But part of the fun of a road trip is choosing your own route instead of being instructed by an annoying voice which may direct you on the fastest, least scenic route. Co-navigating a route around the western USA in 2014 was so much fun, but mainly because I had a proper map…

3. Get away from the popular tourist areas
There is more to Australia than surf and the Sydney Opera House, just like there is more to England than London and more to France than the Eiffel Tower. Part of the reason we didn’t go into Melbourne or Sydney was because of time restrictions, but also because whilst there are many elements of cities that I enjoy, there comes a point when you realise that they all mostly offer the same man-made things with small variations. I wasn’t curious enough to warrant the faff of finding a parking space for a few hours.

Instead, by going inland we witnessed some beautiful rolling Victorian countryside and lush green sheep-dotted pastures, spotted kangaroos in the wild (I admit that a fair few of them were sadly on the side of the road), and stopped by quaint little towns with local-owned cafes that made delicious fresh sandwiches.

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4. Learn from your parents
A road trip with anyone can be intense; you have to adjust to habits of the other and have limited outlets through which to release any stress. So bringing parents into the equation can be a catalyst for World War 3. You’re less likely to hold back on venting your irritation with them, and indeed, my mum and I got on each other’s nerves at times. But one habit I loved watching was the way she interacted with anyone she came across. She asks questions without worrying if she looks silly and I could see a change in the people she spoke to as their expressions transformed from autopilot make-the-customer-happy responses to genuine happy smiles. Unfortunately one person was a bit too charmed by her – I had to sit through a taxi ride in which the Italian-born driver kept telling my mum how young she looked. Vom.

5.  Prepare to be flexible with your plans
We were quite unfortunate in that we were forced to take a few diversions during our trip. The Great Ocean Road was closed between Lorne and Anglesea because of a landslide, so we detoured through bushland. There was still snow on the roads in the Snowy Mountains so, without chains, we couldn’t drive through this national park as hoped in our tiny Nissan Micra rental. We then had to take a 50 km detour en route to friends in Bellingen, north NSW, due to a traffic accident late at night. Annoying as these things are, it’s important to remain optimistic and look for the positives that the unexpected alternative might bring. Being unable to drive through the Snowys, we instead winded our way through Alpine National Park which brought us glimpses of snow-dusted mountains, silver slivers of rivers…and some curious cows.
dsc_0101dsc_01066. Ask locals for advice
Some people have too much pride to accept that they are lost or confused and need the advice of a stranger. Most people in London for example wouldn’t dream of stopping someone on the street to ask them a question unless absolutely desperate. In a day and age where people are excessively reliant on technology, my old-school mum and I opted for the old-school approach of face-to-face interaction when it came to asking for recommendations of the best routes, places to eat and places to sleep. Some people we asked still resorted to technology (indeed, one large lady in a gas station responded to my question by saying, “Just Google it” as if I was stupid) but others were very knowledgeable and had interesting tips.

7. Visit a small town
I think there is a lot to be gained from spending a night or two in a small sleepy town. You get a good feel for what the country is really like away from the tourist traps. A visit to a dear family friend in the country town of Lockhart gave me an insight into a local community. Greens Gunyah museum commemorated the role of the town’s residents in the World Wars. I also learned of an art craft I’d never considered before. Local artist Doris Golder’s incredibly impressive ‘Wool Art’ involves her recreating photos of animals, landscapes and public figures with sheep wool as the sole material. Way better than the Tate.

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Sunset en route to Lockhart

Whilst located on the popular Great Ocean Road, Apollo Bay also had a nice small seaside-town atmosphere. We found a motel late on a Friday night and the owner, Jim, was very sweet in advising us to get something to eat before everywhere closed. We ate pizza at a pub down the road where two gregarious girls threw back beers and mingled with the oldies and their dogs sat out on the deck. The next morning we saw one of the girls behind the only open till in the supermarket. We browsed the small Saturday market and chatted with a friendly stall-holder. You got the feeling that everyone knew everyone in this town, and it was refreshing.
dsc_00918. Every road trip needs a great playlist
Driving gets tedious and tiring, especially when driving Australian distances. You need something to keep you sane, entertained and in the correct lane. Old rock anthems are a great choice, Meatloaf’s “Dead Ringer for Love” being one in particular. And whilst she said nothing at the time, I’m sure my mum really appreciated my attempts to keep her awake by singing heartfelt harmonies to Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses”…

9. Don’t judge a book by its cover
These words of wisdom apply in two senses. In the lovely town of Richmond in the Hawkesbury region of New South Wales, a local pamphlet that I picked up after chancing across the library recommended staying in the aesthetically pleasing New Inn Motel. I asked the old man at reception if he had a vacancy and how much it cost. When he told me the rather high total, I politely asked if that was the cheapest room he had. He looked at me like a piece of dirt and grumbled, “I wouldn’t have wasted my time telling you [this price] if there was.” His unnecessary rudeness inspired me to stay elsewhere, even if there was nowhere else and it meant having to sleep in the car.

Opposite the gas station further in town we spotted a motel attached to a liquor store called The Bottle-O Richmond Inn Hotel. “What about here?” my mum suggested. I noticed the motorbikes and pick up trucks parked outside and made a face. “It just looks really laddish and is probably full of drunks,” I said. Mum tutted at my scepticism so I went inside the shop to ask. On reception was a man probably a few years older than me with a shaggy beard and a few tats. He was really friendly and understanding when I asked if he knew of anywhere cheaper, even taking me outside and pointing to a place down the road that might be worth trying. We ended up just deciding to take the available room here because his kind nature had convinced me. We found the room to have the nicest decor of all we’d stayed in, too!

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Lovely little Richmond Park

10. Never underestimate the power of the sun
I’m normally very diligent when it comes to wearing sunscreen, but managing to stay burn-free after a couple of hours of English summer weather can make one dangerously confident in their skin’s level of sensitivity. I completely forgot to apply lotion before spending a couple of hours in the morning sun in Richmond catching up with an old friend. I said goodbye looking like Rudolph having landed in the wrong country. Maybe that’s why the guy outside the train station was looking at me funny…

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People follow different methods of travel and I don’t wish to state that there is only one correct way. But by giving these pointers a go, you will hopefully get more out of your trip…and a lot less stress!

Descent into the Deep: A Daring Four-Wheel Drive in Canyonlands National Park

Most people still choose the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona when looking for breathtaking canyon views. But around 300 miles north in Utah lies another national park that will equally make your jaw drop, without having to be shared with as many tourists. Canyonlands is a mouthwatering mezze of proud mesas, deep canyons, awesome arches, and exciting drives.

There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park: Island of the Sky; The Maze; The Needles; and The Rivers. Separated by the Colorado and Green rivers,  it takes many hours of driving via the highway to get to each section. My boyfriend and I opted for the former for its easy access. About 40 minutes drive from Moab, the 191 north leads you past Arches National Park before you take a left down the 313 onto Grand View Point Road. With possession of an annual national park pass costing $80, our entry to the park was free.

It doesn’t take long after entering the park before the sweeping views from the Island of the Sky mesa take you by surprise. A remarkable vista of sprawling red ravines and flat sandy basins with jagged buttes and plateaus of sandstone rock sketched into the bare desert landscape, it is easy to see why this section of the park received its name. 1000 feet below the cliff edges, a narrow track was pencilled into the dry terrain. We knew little about this park before arrival, but soon discovered that it offers the opportunity for a drive of a lifetime.

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The 100-mile White Rim road begins with the Shafer Trail. No permit is required to drive along this section (however from 2015, those planning to continue along the White Rim road do require one). With our Land Cruiser we met the requirements of a 4WD vehicle to travel the route. It seemed foolish to refuse the chance for such an adventure. Those who get caught out by the rain can expect to pay up to $2000 for a tow. Confident that the puffy clouds above wouldn’t turn nasty, we took a deep breath and set off on an epic journey. (You can catch a short video of it here.)

Daft Punk’s ‘Disc Wars’ was the soundtrack of choice to our descent. Its rumbling first bars built up the tension perfectly as we began navigating the dirt track, careful to avoid potholes but also wary of driving off the edge in the process. The outburst of a higher tune began pertinently as we started a steeper descent towards a string of switchbacks that left me sucking in my stomach for the next 30 minutes as the edges of the steep cliffs repeatedly loomed closer before us.

If you see a car approaching, even if a few minutes drive away, it’s best to perch in the nearest space available rather than face a nerve-racking reverse back along the narrow track. Stay in low gear and use the engine brake rather than relying on the foot pedal. It’s important to keep a cool head – any loss of control and you could be doing a Thelma and Louise!

Finally we reached flat lands and could breathe normally again after our intense descent. All was quiet in our surroundings as we stopped at Gooseneck Overlook to explore the bottom of this dry ocean below the island. Lizards posed in a frozen state of camouflage against the rock painted with natural black bacteria, before darting through tiny cracks which, when peered through on all fours, might sometimes reveal a stomach-churning drop to the base of the canyon far below where rivers of sandstone snaked their way through the valley. Further on towards Musselman Arch,  giant statues of stone with bold faces stood closely together, looking like ruins from an ancient temple of the underworld. With nobody else around, it was the perfect playtime for young adults.

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The hairpin bends were just as hair-raising on the way back up the trail, however we were now more comfortable with the road. Reaching the top of the mesa and looking back down into the canyon where we had come from brought a huge sense of fulfillment. How many people could say they had conquered a road like this?! (Props to Andrew for driving it!)

Further into the park,  Mesa Arch attracts more tourists, becoming more reminiscent of the neighbouring Arches National Park. After our experience of tranquility in the canyon, the noise of clicking cameras and giddy children became a little irritating and so we drove north-east towards Whale Rock. The trail here was marked with piles of stone which gave it a more rustic feel. From the top of the rock you can see Upheaval Dome, an enormous block of rock with jagged peaks that looks very out of place in the canyon. The question on geologists’ minds is, is it simply an excessive sandstone deposit or a meteorite..?

After an adrenaline-pumping afternoon, the remainder of our day was spent basking in the evening calm at the Grand View Point Overlook. Looking out over Monument Basin, the way the canyons were carved into the plateau reminded me of the shape of bronchi from Biology lessons in school. On the other side of the road looking out over the Green River, a gang of hairy Aussie bikers on Harley Davidsons asked, “What’s for tea?” as we cooked sausages. We sat and admired the sunset beaming down on the basin below, the colours changing from intense reds to hot pinks and warm oranges. It was definitely a pinch-worthy moment. I remember seeing the tiny outline of a plane soaring overhead and suddenly feeling a flood of heartbreak because I knew I would have to be on a plane back to England in a few weeks’ time. We watched a spectacular show of shooting stars up above in an indigo sky where the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. Sat safely in serenity, I counted 50 flashes of lightning in the space of two minutes appearing hundreds of miles away to the west.

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Canyonlands is a place that could so easily be missed off someone’s list in favour of the more famed Arches National Park. This is a shame because it is a place quiet enough in popularity to make you feel like a local once having arrived, but crazy enough in auto-touring opportunities to make you feel like a VIP once having left! If you have a 4WD vehicle that you are confident using, definitely make sure to drive the Shafer Trail for an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. I visited Canyonlands in August 2014, and it remains my favourite national park to date.

Angels & Canyons: Discovering the Legendary Zion National Park

The noble faces of ancient towering cliffs gaze down with dignity over a desert kingdom of cottonwood trees, sandstone boulders and winding rivers where 12,000 years ago, mammoths and sloths would roam and pioneers would admire a land deemed “too stunning for mere mortals.” This was a destination to behold, a place of refuge for angels and saints who deserved to live on forever in this prestigious realm.

Your own eyes will tell you that Zion National Park is an example of the extraordinary, especially when it comes to hiking opportunities. Of the many routes available, there are two which stand out as unique in allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience its mystical vibes. One takes you deep into a canyon in which you are enclosed by huge sheets of rock; another takes you high up a cliff where you are exposed to the wider world. The first national park to be established in the geological heaven of Utah, Zion is a blessed part of the world for hiking lovers who aren’t afraid of water and heights!

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The Narrows

Zion comes across as one of the more “untouched” national parks and one of the great things about it is its free shuttle bus system which prohibits cars from travelling on the Scenic Drive from spring to autumn, hence preventing congestion and promoting a cleaner environment. Grazing deer blend in against the creamy cliffs as the bus winds its way gently through the canyon, passing sacred natural landmarks such as the Three Patriarchs. Hop off at the final stop of Temple of Sinawava and let the adventure into the Narrows begin!

The easy 1-mile Riverside Walk will lead you to the river’s edge where the wading commences. At first it feels bizarre to be walking through water with shoes on, but you’ll soon get used to the temperature and texture as you make your way further down the gorge. It’s essential to wear sturdy shoes on this walk. Many walkers use sticks to help them navigate over the rocky river floor, but I preferred to test my natural balance, precarious as this was at first. I gradually gained more faith in my feet and was able to traverse the uneven ground without looking down so often. The miracle of walking on water came to mind…although I didn’t quite get that far! Parents would tow their little ones along in blow-up dinghies. I left my muddy hand print on the glistening wet walls decorated by visitors thousands of years after the first settlers made their mark.

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Stains of iron oxide on the canyon walls form varied patterns throughout the route, almost looking like they have been painted by former inhabitants of the land. When you reach the Narrows half a mile into the walk, this is where you really don’t want a flash flood to start! As the canyon walls begin to close in, the air turns colder and echoes grow louder. The atmosphere becomes slightly eerie, as if you are in the presence of ghosts whispering your name as you enter their domain. Perhaps it is their chiselled faces that jut out into your path.

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There are points when you might be waist deep in the water, so it’s advisable not to bring valuables with you on this walk. Do bear in mind however that you may be chilly after leaving the water. Nevertheless make the most of the water on your skin as the park only receives 15 cm of rainfall a year!

Angel’s Landing

This striking monolith gained its title in 1916 after the explorer Frederick Fisher claimed that”only an angel could land on it”.

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Starting from the Grotto shuttle stop on the Scenic Drive, the West Rim Trail up to the monolith is a 2 mile thigh-burning, zig-zagging route that hugs mountains of bronzed sandstone. Lizards dart between cracks in the rock only to become camouflaged against the dried leaves. A plentiful supply of sunscreen and water is essential! After a mile you’ll find shade in Refridgerator Canyon before you have to “squiggle the wiggles” and tackle a series of steep switchbacks. My partner and I foolishly decided it would be a good idea to start running up the first one, without realising how many were left…

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Many gasps for air and gulps of water later, you’ll reach the flat sandy area of Scout Lookout where you’ll see the ridged runway for Angel’s Landing begin ahead of you. Some people won’t even make it onto the trail because they are so fatigued after their sweaty uphill trek. From the start of the trail to the end point is only half a mile, but the path is steep, complex and takes time to maneuver. But for those who get a thrill from challenging routes, it’s great fun!

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At the time we did the hike (in August 2014), six people had died within the last 10 years on this trail. In a way this doesn’t seem like much when you consider the height and width of this monolith combined with the threat of heatstroke causing hikers to keel over. This hike is not for the faint-hearted. At times you will be walking along a very narrow path with a stomach-churning drop of over 1000 feet off the side, the Virgin River looking only a millimetre wide far below. Chains regularly have to be used to ascend steep slabs of rock and there are narrow crevices which you must hoist yourself up through. One of my strongest memories is the sight and smell of sweat-stained shorts as a (rather large) man’s buttocks loomed alarmingly close to my face while he struggled to squeeze through one of the thin gaps in front of me. I would not be offering to give him a push…

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Courtesy is definitely a requirement on this hike, as many times there will be not space for more than one person to pass through a certain part of the route. Those heading back from the end would offer support to approaching hikers with calls of “Not far to go!” We finally reached the summit with stunning views of the valley of Zion sprawled out before our eyes. We, the angels, had landed and it was easily one of my most fulfilling travel moments. Man-made rock piles stand proud near the cliff edge, showcasing the hiker’s achievement to the world in front. It may not have involved the elevation of Everest, but this hike had brought its own unique challenges. Gazing out at the view ahead, you can’t help but feel superhuman after this remarkable feat.

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I saw the large man produce his camera to take a photo as proof of his achievement. Whilst reaching the summit of a hike alone is very rewarding, I was grateful to be able to experience the physical and at times mental challenges of this hike with someone else, and share the subsequent sense of success. I now wish I had offered to take the man’s photo so that he is able to look back in later years at himself against this incredible backdrop and feel a great sense of pride. I did however compensate by asking a German couple if they’d like their photo taken. I particularly loved how much they appreciated me speaking their language.

It would be easy to get slightly complacent about safety on your way back along the ridge, but in your rush to finish the hike after having seen the best bit, it’s important to remain cautious and take your time. On the way back down the West Rim Trail we passed many tourists panting as they hiked up towards the monolith under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was definitely a good idea to set off on this hike early, to avoid both the peak sunshine and the greater numbers on the trail. When you’re back on ground level, dive into the Virgin River to cool off. You won’t even care that you’re not wearing swimsuits as your body will be so grateful for the refreshing water! It was here that we chatted with a family on vacation from Minnesota, and I began to understand better why some Americans might be so ignorant about other areas of the world, because they have so many amazing places to discover within their own huge country.

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With the amount of calories that you’ll burn off completing this tough 5-mile hike, you’re bound to feel hungry later. We drove into the village of Springdale to fill up on gas and my partner asked inside for a recommendation for lunch. We were advised to visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner called Oscar’s Cafe…and it was an excellent recommendation. This was an occasion where American food portions no longer seemed outrageous. Served by a friendly waitress, we shared a scrumptious meal of fish tacos, beef burgers and sweet potato fries. Then came dessert. We dived into the mountain of ice cream-smothered chocolate brownie devilishly, only to be distracted by the sound of a young girl on another table exclaiming to her red-faced mother: “They’re gonna get fat!” My partner conceded defeat after a few mouthfuls, but the pudding-lover in me ploughed on until the end before I sank into a food coma all afternoon.

If you love the idea of pushing your boundaries to out-of-this-world levels, definitely visit Zion National Park and chase the Angel. If you’ve been to Zion before or have any questions, please comment below!

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More information on the Angel’s Landing trail can be found here.

If walking to the Narrows, be sure to check forecasts for flash flooding beforehand.