Country Diaries

Travel

A Bite of the Big Apple

From little acorns, big trees grow. That’s exactly how I feel about our recent move. It was a mere seed of an idea just a year ago, but in the past ten months, we’ve relocated from Sydney to the English countryside.

Yesterday, we took an evening walk through a neighbouring village as church bells rang out across the green, rolling valley. Quintessentially English thatched cottages adorned with climbing red roses glowed in the golden evening light. This is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of our former city lives!

Like everything in life, there are ups and downs to life in the country. The scenery here is undisputedly gorgeous, with rolling green valleys and a patchwork of fields punctuated by charming chocolate-box villages.

I’ve been charmed to discover the people here are friendlier, too, or at least less guarded. The cheery chorus of morning “hellos” assaulting me as I leave the house still takes me by surprise occasionally.

City vs. Country Living

Of course, nothing in life is perfect. There’s been the odd hitch or two as we’ve transitioned from city to country living.

I quickly learnt the perils of low ceilings. Seventeenth-century cottages may indeed be charming, yet every time I strap on a pair of high heels I misjudge the ceiling height, bruising my forehead.

Another particular country bugbear of mine is phone signal — or the complete lack of it.

There are loads of things about city living I miss, including sushi, small bars, delicious Vietnamese pho, and nipping to the shops for just about anything my little heart desires.

So I’ve diagnosed myself as needing a city trip to get my fix. And if a girl’s craving a city bursting with great shops, pulsing energy, and lots of bright lights, there’s only one place to go: New York.

Sadly, we’ve maxed out our travelling credits for 2017, as that’s what a trip around the world will do. So, I’m planning a trip to New York for next summer.

New York, New York

I’ve been trawling glittering NYC websites bursting with trendy eateries, hipster bars, historic brownstones, and shops until I feel quite faint with desire.

New York, the City That Never Sleeps, is jam-packed with towering skyscrapers, Fifth Avenue shops, no-frills Reuben sandwiches at Katz’s Deli, bagels, giant pizza slices, and the best darn cheesecake on earth.

On my hit list is morning coffee in Central Park, as I’ve missed proper, barista-made coffee. For the rest of the trip, I plan on eating and shopping on an alternating basis.

Call me shallow, but can you imagine the sheer, unadulterated pleasure? From sample sales to vintage clothing stores and bazaars to the glittering glory of Tiffany’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, I’m coming to get you all!

Cosmopolitans in the City

When I’ve bought myself at least one lovely outfit, a hang-the-expense, big blowout night out is in order. What could be more razzmatazz than frocking up in New York for a night on the tiles?

The plan is a lively cocktail bar for Sex in the City-style cosmopolitans, a show in neon-lit Times Square, and then perhaps a little dancing at a funky basement jazz club. And some more cocktails!

 

We haven’t decided on a hotel yet, as I’m having far too much fun perusing them all. With a seriously deluxe experience that’s synonymous with Fifth Avenue decadence and a hefty budget, there’s The Plaza. This hotel is divine, although I think our visit might be limited to high tea served in the hotel’s swanky Palm Court.

Brooklyn, Baby

A great option for a happening New York hotel is the slightly more affordable yet buzzing district of Brooklyn. This borough is often regarded as New York’s hippest, famed for its vintage flea market, stunning Botanic Garden, delicious dining options from Polish pierogies to delicious Jewish delis, and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

Brooklyn is five times the size of Manhattan and often referred to as Manhattan’s boutique version. There are some amazing Brooklyn hotels, catering to all tastes and budgets. And of course, saving a few dollars on our accommodations means extra dollars to spend in the shops!

Anyone else planning a trip to the Big Apple? I’d love to hear what’s on your hit list! Let me know in the comments.

 

Campsite calamities in New Zealand

“Welcome to Noo Ziland,” the lovely Maori airport official welcomed us as we stepped off the plane into Kiwi Country. I was charmed.

Our time in New Zealand marked the nearing end of our world travels – three weeks in a camper van exploring the north and south islands. I am hopping with excitement to finally witness New Zealand’s beauty.

The idea of camping, however, has never fired me with much enthusiasm. On this trip, we discover I am a truly lousy camper.

Our first night on a campsite, I unplug the power of our neighbour’s camper van, plunging the family inside into darkness. Night two is, regrettably, even more shameful.

Returning to our van from the showers, I pull open the door and start to clamber into the wrong van. Of course, the owners are lying on the bed at eye level as I wrenched open the door. I mumble my apologies and hastily back away. Oops.

Hitting the open road 

I may be a crappy camper but I adore New Zealand and our time in the van. We can go where we want, when we want, for as long as we want – it’s heaven.

The nicest thing is spotting a beautiful lake or beach, pulling up and grabbing a spot of lunch al fresco, surrounded by the beauty of nature.

New Zealand’s north island is a delight of green, rolling countryside and wildflower-filled meadows. Tiny birds dart in and out of hedgerows like something from a Disney movie.

No two days are the same from the rugged beauty of Bay of Islands, mesmerising iridescent glowworm canopies in Waitomo and thermal springs in Rotorua.

“This is nothing. Just wait until you see the south island,” folks keep telling me. Turns out, they’re right. The north island is gorgeous, but wowzers, the south island is mind-blowing!

South island’s stunning scenery

Have you seen the show ‘West World’? The premise is an entire world, created solely as a playground for humans. This is how New Zealand’s south island makes me feel.

Each landscape is as impressive, and unbelievable, as a movie set. Every twist and turn of the road presents a new landscape – each more stunning and dramatic than the last.

From red rocky outcrops and volcanic terrain, to snow-capped mountains, glacier country and crystal clear turquoise lakes. Sometimes we turn a corner and I laugh out loud the view is so insane.

 Starry skies at Lake Tekapo

One of the trickiest things about sleeping in a van are bathroom visits in the middle of the night, necessitating a dark schlep across the campsite to the toilet block.

The first time I staggered out the van at 2am cursing my tiny bladder, I looked up to see thousands of stars twinkling brightly in the clear night’s sky. It took my breath away.

Between the lack of pollution and some scientific stuff I don’t understand, stargazing on south island is mind-blowing. I got a sore neck on those midnight bathroom-visits from peering upwards – just heavenly.

Stars over New Zealand’s Lake Tekapo

Our last night we stop at Tekapo Lake, dubbed New Zealand’s ‘bluest’. This is big talk as we have seen some pretty amazing water in a million shades of blue so far. And not just lakes – seas, waterfalls and rivers too.

Tekapo Lake lives up to the hype as a show-stopper. During the day, the glacier-fed lake is pure turquoise, slowly turning to rose gold at dusk as it reflects the changing colour of the surrounding mountains.

The next morning, it has morphed into a shimmery silver and for about the millionth time on this trip, I marvel at the beauty of nature.

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

New Zealand is easily the most jaw-droppingly beautiful place I’ve ever visited. Real, unadulterated bucket-list beauty. If you can, please go.

Next blog post, we’re back to Blighty where it’s time for us to start cracking on with our ‘new’ reality. Hopefully the sun will be shining as our arrival coincides with British spring (…or perhaps this is wishful thinking!)

Burning bodies & Babas in Varanasi

It’s 5.30am in Varanasi and I have no idea what to wear. We’re taking a boat ride along the Ganges – and the burning of bodies is a solemn affair.  Is eye make-up inappropriate? Jeans too casual? 

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt so far in this crazy town – anything goes. I slap on mascara and head out the door.

Early morning bathing in the Ganges #India

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Varanasi, India’s Holy town

Varanasi is the the spiritual heart of India and a mind-blowing place. To level with you – it’s completely bonkers.

Located along the banks of the Ganges, pilgrims from all over the world come to Varanasi for prayer, meditation, bathing in the holy river, to die or to honour the dead.

In Hinduism, Varanasi is regarded as the last stop on earth before nirvana. Many people trek here to breathe their last breath, believing their soul will go straight to heaven.

As a result, there are a lot of very interesting people round these parts. My favourite thing to do in Varanasi was sit by the Ganges in the glow of the afternoon sun, people-watching.

 

Sadhus & snake charmers

From dreadlocked-holy men painted in ashes, weird westerners in hippy gear, snake charmers, body burners, bodies being burnt, dodgy salesmen and beautiful brown-eyed Indian children splashing in the river, Varanasi is a real melting pot.

It’s a visual feast, and expect an assault on your nostrils too –  there are some interesting smells round these parts.

From burning flesh of the cremations, to the scent of cannabis regularly wafting from groups of Sadhus – or spiritual adventurers.

Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, is often pictured smoking weed. The holy guys clearly figure what’s good for the goose, is good for the ganja (sorry –  couldn’t resist!)

Couldn't resist a cheesy pic with this interesting-looking fella hanging out by the Holy River.

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Celebrating death in Varanasi

A number of hospices line the river, a daily reminder of the many dying people waiting for the end to come. Along the river are two burning sites where giant fires burn bodies right in front of your eyes 24/7.

As you walk closer and your eyes adjust through the chaos and smoke, you’ll likely see a charred hand, foot or head hanging out.

Sir, you want boat?

If families can’t afford the fees for a dying loved one’s burning ritual, often the bodies are just thrown in the Ganges.  Presumably, in the hope this will achieve an equally decent spiritual outcome.

So if you take a lovely boat ride – you’ll hear ‘sir, madam,you want boat?’ on a loop – you might just want to be mentally prepared.

Burning site for cremations on the Ganges.

Magic and mystery in India’s spiritual heart

What a grim bloody place, you’re probably thinking round about now. Bizarrely, it’s not – it’s actually amazing.

Here, the business of burning bodies is simply part of the day-to-day. Locals, workers, cows, dogs and goats all mill around the burning bodies without batting an eyelid.

I’m the world’s most emotional person – I cried when I saw how pretty Bruges was – but for some reason, I’m not upset in Varanasi. There’s a certain mystery and magic in the air that’s pretty special.

To breathe your final breath here is considered auspicious, a celebration. It must be a relief for those in ill-health who make long pilgrimages to finally arrive at their final resting place.

It’s as though everything is following the order that it’s meant to be (in the most disorganised, dirty, unhygienic way you can possible imagine!)

As a random aside – women whose husbands are being cremated may not attend the ceremony. This is for fear the women, in their grief, will fling themselves on their burning hubby and roast themselves to death. All very dramatic.

Every evening, hundreds of people gather by the Ganges for ‘Aarti’, a daily holy ritual, and quite a spectacle. Disciples dance, pray and perform with fire in Cobra-shaped fire burners to honour the Gods.

 

Greeting dawn on the Ganges

So there we were, our last morning in Varanasi, jeans and mascara doing the job just fine as we headed to the river in the dark. As we pushed off in our boat, dawn was starting to break, an ethereal mist snaking across the surface of the river.

The Ganges was totally alive by 6am as people bathed and swam, others meditating and praying on its banks. Acrid smoke from the cremations floated across the river, a constant reminder of those burning bodies.

It might not be your ‘usual’ holiday destination but Varanasi is an amazing place – life and death at it’s most raw spilling out along the banks of the Holy River. I’ll certainly never forget it.

Magical mists over the Ganges this morning #india

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So, if that all sounds a bit heavy – you’ll be pleased to hear we’re off to beautiful New Zealand next. Pristine beaches, dramatic mountains ranges and turquoise waters beckon!

Have you been to Varanasi? Did you love it, or hate it? Let me know in the comments.

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