RELAXED DAYS AND RUINS IN THE SUN: A long weekend in Cyprus

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We don’t usually have beach holidays, but spending a few lazy days in chilled Paphos was a nice little break.

Paphos Archaeological Park and Tombs of the Kings:

There are two main ruin sites in Paphos, and both are worth a visit. The Archaeological Park (tickets 4.50€) has plenty of impressive mosaics, and the Tombs of the Kings (tickets 2.50€) covers a large area full of ruins.

Both are linked by a pedestrian promenade by the sea, so it’s nice to visit them on the same day.

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Coral Bay:

This popular sandy beach 10km north of Paphos is a good place to spend the day. You can lounge about on a deck chair (two and a parasol for hire for 7.50€), go for a swim and have lunch at one of the many restaurants on the main road. To get there, take bus 615 from the city centre.

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Paphos Harbour:

Paphos Harbour is a nice area where tourists lounge in the sun or sip cheap cocktails in the many local bars. There are plenty of places to stop for a meal or an ice cream break.

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Pingouino:

A popular cafe in the city centre serving snacks and drinks. I had a delicious cocktail of mastiha and prosecco called Greek Spritz for 5.50€.

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Flintstones bar:

This themed cocktail bar is a popular stop. It serves good drinks and service is nice and friendly. The place is as kitsch as it sounds. Cocktails for about 5€.

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Namaste:

This Indian street food restaurant serves delicious meals in the city centre. A great find. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for 40€.

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Money:

Paphos is very cheap as compared to London. Even in the most expensive places by the harbour, prices are still relatively low. Venture off the main tourist areas and you get a beer or glass of wine for less than 3€ each.

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Food:

We did a lot of self-catering, but local produce was very good and we found loads of yummy fruit and vegetables. Restaurants tend to have a good range of veggie options, such as mezze and salads.

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Stay:

Paphos is full of resorts and holiday apartments. We stayed at Elysia Park, which had huge flats and great service.

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AMAZING FOOD AND BEAUTIFUL DAYS: A week driving around Sicily

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PALERMO

Palermo’s centre is easy to navigate on foot and on a sunny day you can cover many of the main sights on Via Roma and Vittorio Emanuele. Stop by Teatro Massimo to reenact the famous last scene from Godfather 3, or wander around the park by the Norman Palace.

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Palatina Chapel: This famous chapel located by the Norman Palace is full of intricate details and beautiful mosaics. Tickets for 10€.

Pizza Frida: I was looking for recommendations of good pizza places in Palermo (of course there are plenty) when I came across Pizza Frida. This place is popular so it’s best to book in advance. They have lots of different options and they’re all AMAZING. Dinner for four including drinks and tip for 90€. Highly recommended.

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Villa San Giovanni Degli Eremiti: a great local restaurant where large families taste the local fare. Meal with drink and tip for 15€ per person.

L’Antica Focacceria San Francesco: This popular place serves yummy street food, like arancini and aubergine caponata. Portions are huge. Dinner with drinks and tip for 15€ per person.

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Haiku: The only vegan place in Palermo is located in a nice area to the north of the city centre. The menu is varied and includes a mix of Italian and international dishes. The gnocchi had the best tomato sauce, and their famous pistachio tiramisu was definitely worth trying. Lunch for two including drinks, dessert and tip for 55€.

Stay: This Airbnb is great for a family trip. Each of the four rooms has its own bathroom and Giovanni, the host, is super helpful.

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ERICE

This little medieval town over the hills is a great place for a day trip. You can spend a couple of hours exploring the little alleys and stop around for lunch at one of the many restaurants.

Follow that with a stop for dessert at Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, which serves yummy boozy pastries.

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CATANIA

From Palermo to Catania by car it takes about three hours through the countryside. You get amazing views of Mount Etna with its snowed peak along the way.

Catania’s centre is a combination of mismatched grandiose buildings and areas that have seen better days. You can spend a couple of hours exploring the fancy Corso Italia with lots of high end shops, or explore the Old Town, with its busy street markets and lively piazzas.

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Savia: This is a great stop for lunch. They are famous for serving the best arancini, for just 2.50€. Portions are huge and everything is delicious.

Nievski: This cool bar and restaurant with a revolution theme is a good place for a relaxed meal in an area where there are lots of nice restaurants. Dinner for four including drinks and tip for 88€.

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MOUNT ETNA

About one hour off Catania, Mount Etna provides the impressive backdrop for the city. You can take a cable car up the mountain, then get on a 4X4 bus and finally walk around a couple of the highest craters.

The trip costs 64€ per person and can be booked directly at the cable car entrance. Go early before it gets busy.

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TAORMINA:

A good stop after visiting Mount Etna, Taormina is rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful towns in Sicily. The small centre provides scenic views over the sea and there are lots of cute restaurants around serving delicious pizza and Aperol.

The main local attraction is the Ancient Theatre (tickets for 10€) with beautiful ruins and panoramic views of the sea and mountains.

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AGRIGENTO:

Located on the south of Sicily, Agrigento is home to the Valley of the Temples, an impressive collection of ancient temples and ruins overlooking the Sicilian countryside and the Mediterranean sea.

You can spend a couple of hours exploring the site before driving on to Catania or Palermo. Tickets for 10€.

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ITINERARY PLANNING:

There’s plenty to do in Sicily, and you can spend lots of time exploring the coast, the countryside and historical sites.

The best way to travel around is to rent a car. Navigating is relatively easy with Google Maps but traffic can be a bit crazy, especially around big cities.

We spent seven days in Sicily, staying in Palermo and Catania and exploring from there.

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AMAZING FOOD AND MONSOON FUN: Southern India reflections and how to

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India is a massive and diverse country, so it’s hard to define it as a whole. We visited the south of the country over three weeks, and in many ways we barely scratched the surface.

India is loud, vibrant, difficult and appealing all at once. From the luscious green landscape of Kerala to the microbreweries of Bangalore and the hippie lifestyle of Pondicherry, there’s something for everyone – you can spend a month lazying by the beach or joining the local crowds in hipster cafes.

The pull of India is undeniable. Colonial architecture, amazing food and the unstoppable activity are all there to drag you in.

The people we met along the way were really friendly, from the waiters who warned us about spicy dishes to the tuk-tuk driver who asked if we wanted to drive instead, we felt really welcome – everyone seemed to want to make sure we were having a great time; and of course we were.

And obviously India is not an easy country – there’s poverty, crazy traffic and so much noise everywhere. But amid it all, there’s beauty, culture and tradition, temples and gods creating the fabric of a country that really is a world in itself.

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HOW TO DO IT:

Itinerary planning:

Once we decided we’d travel to the south of India, we set out mapping where we wanted to go. I used this tour by G Adventures as the basis of our trip.

  • We did:
    – Mumbay – 3 days
    – Bengalore – 3 days
    – Chennai – 1 day
    – Pondicherry – 4 days
    – Madurai – 2 days
    – Amritapuri ashram – 2 days
    – Kochi – 3 days
    – Mumbai – 3 days

This was definitely a comprehensive itinerary, and although it was busy, as a way of getting to know many places it was the right balance.

Chennai didn’t really have anything to offer, but it’s the easiest starting point to visiting Tamil Nadu. We had a great time in Pondicherry and could have stayed for longer, but four days is definitely enough to see it well. Kochi was another favourite with its easygoing colonial vibe and lush greenery. And of course Mumbai is a whole world.

But the main advantage of our itinerary was that we saw many places off the beaten track – most people I know visit Delhi, the Taj Mahal and Goa. And although I would love to visit those places too, it was great to see a different side of India – one in which many of the stereotypes didn’t hold true.

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Trains:

Travelling by train in India is very popular, and because we were covering a lot of ground, it seemed like a good option. Tickets are really cheap too.

We did a lot of research before buying tickets and booked everything online – Seat 61 was a great help, as purchasing tickets can be a long process.

We took three trains, one during the day and two sleepers. All were good – we chose second class as recommended and it was comfortable and had air conditioning.

Trains were mostly on time, although we had a one hour delay once.

Stations don’t always have clear signage, but both on trains or at the platform people were helpful and gave us the information we needed.

Travelling by train is also a good way of seeing the Indian countryside passing through your window.

Because of the way people drive in India, given the chance I’d always prefer a train over a taxi. Alternatively, for long distances there were good options for cheap flights.

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Transportation in cities:

India is famous for its chaotic traffic, and we saw that was the case in big cities. Public transportation is not always available, although you can get the occasional bus or metro. In smaller cities, sometimes things are within walking distance, but in general that is not the case.

Most of the time you will rely on tuk-tuks or taxis. Tuk-tuks are easily available everywhere and are good fun. In Mumbai and Bangalore there were restrictions on where they could go (and sometimes the drivers will simply turn you down!).

Tuk-tuks area cheap, but you need to agree on a price before you get in – Mumbai was the only place where they used meters.

Taxis in India are mostly app-based. Aside from Uber, Ola is a local alternative, but you need an Indian mobile number to use it. Hotels and restaurants are generally also able to arrange transportation if needed.

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Visa:

You can get an e-visa online, which is a good system. You complete the form and pay the £41 fee on this website. The site has a few glitches, so you may need to try a few times before your application goes through.

A couple of days later you get an email confirmation. All you need to do is print that off and bring it with you to the airport.

Money:

As expected, India is really cheap, and in many ways that is part of the appeal. You can get a cheap meal for £1, a hotel room for £10 and an outfit for £5. In shops and markets it can be hard to bargain as often the starting price is lower than what you wanted to pay (you should haggle anyway though, as it’s the way to do it).

There were three of us travelling and the daily kitty of £20 per person was more than enough to cover everything apart from accommodation (some days we spent only half of it).

In bigger cities, however, we found that prices vary much more, and in Mumbai you could find lots of high end restaurants with prices just a bit lower than those in the UK – so it’s best to save these for a special occasion.

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Weather – travelling during the monsoon season:

We travelled in July, which is supposed to be very hot and wet as it’s monsoon season. Because of that, we decided to travel south – the region is supposed to be really beautiful then.

What we found is that the monsoon wasn’t really what we expected. In Tamil Nadu we got no rain at all. In Kerala we got the occasional storm but that always passed quickly. Mumbai was also pretty much dry.

As for the heat, in some places it did get over 35 degrees, but restaurants and shops tend to have air conditioning or fans, so it wasn’t that bad. Many of the places we visited had a maximum temperature of around 30 degrees, which is hot but not unbearable.

So travelling during monsoon season turned out just fine – and we had the bonus of avoiding the tourist crowds.

People:

You always hear a lot about how much hassle you get in India, but our experience was different. Nowhere did we get much hassle at all – in Madurai we had a few pushy sellers, but that was very minor.

Mostly, when people spoke to us they wanted to ask us for a photo or to chat about our experience in India. People were also very helpful and forthcoming when they thought we needed directions or some guidance.

Yoga and Ayurveda:

We wanted to take advantage of being in India to do some yoga, and we managed to do so in Pondicherry (at Rishi) and Kochi (at Sivananda).

We also managed to have ayurvedic massage in Pondicherry (at Keralaa Ayurveda).

What we found though is that those weren’t as easily available as we expected – we really needed to do some research in order to find the places, and there weren’t lots of options.

With the yoga, we were the only people to show up to the public classes we did, which was great for us but also showed it was definitely low season.

But all we did was definitely great fun and amazing experiences.

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Food and Drink:

Food in India is famously impressive, but it surpassed my expectations. We ate lots of different types of Indian food, both from the north and south of the country, and at varying prices. Pretty much everywhere we ate very well.

Where we ate Western food, it was also delicious – particularly the desserts (so much cake!) were amazing. People always flagged if they thought something may be too spicy for us which was good.

And of course India is a vegetarian’s paradise, so there were always tons of options for me to choose from. I was travelling with friends who have a bit more expensive taste than me, so maybe because of that I didn’t get a case of Delhi belly at all!

Our experience of food in India was a rich part of our trip – from cool cafes to traditional thalis everything added value to our journey.

Drinking in India can be a bit trickier – in some areas there are strict regulations and it can be hard to find a bar, or you may be restricted to only a couple of places serving Kingfisher.

Big cities are easier, with bars and restaurants offering good selections of drinks. These are not super cheap though, so alcohol can have a big impact on your daily budget.

The best place we found for drinks was Bangalore, which has a vibrant craft brewery scene with lots of cool bars serving good beer to the local crowd. Indian wine is available in some upmarket places, but it’s usually expensive.

Shopping:

I knew India was going to be cheap and although I’m not one for shopping, I expected to be tempted. Prices can really be insanely cheap, but I didn’t always find things as appealing as I thought I might.

Shopping for sarees was the only thing that was a bit overwhelming as there were countless options everywhere. I still bought a few things but nothing over the top.

We also found some upmarket shops with more unique options (Fabindia was our favourite). Those still had reasonable prices but were less conducive to a shopping spree.

FISHING NETS AND CONTEMPORARY ART: Three days in chilled Kochi

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DAY 1

We took a taxi from Amritapuri ashram to Kochi, arriving at lunchtime. We dropped our bags at our hotel and set off exploring the area of Kochi Fort.

Kochi is a beautiful city – it combines the lush green of Kerala and colonial architecture with Portuguese and Dutch influences.

The area close to the beach is very laid-back and full of cool cafes and shops. We had lunch at Malabar, an amazing restaurant and hotel on impressive grounds serving the most delicious food (lunch for 2700 rupees for three).

We carried on wandering around and taking in the atmosphere until we reached XL, one of the few places selling beers in Kochi (three beers for 670 rupees).

We then reached the promenade right in time for the sunset, when the crowds were hanging out and enjoying the good weather.

We bought some ice cream on the way to the hotel and headed back to enjoy a chilled night in.

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DAY 2

We woke up early and headed to instant favourite Loafers for breakfast. This is a great cafe serving the most delicious food in massive portions (breakfast for three for 1000 rupees).

We then decided to walk to the area of the Jewish Synagogue – although not too far, the 2km to get there felt quite long as it was insanely hot.

We stopped at the Dutch Palace (tickets for 5 rupees), a beautiful building where you can learn about the history of Kochi. We then walked around the many shops selling all sorts of handicraft of the way to the synagogue – the shops really are an attraction themselves.

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We took a tuk-tuk to Oceanos, a Portuguese-Keralan restaurant serving lots of traditional local fare (mostly seafood) – it was delicious (lunch for 1400 rupees).

After resting at the hotel for a bit, we headed to a challenging but fun yoga class at Sivananda, which offers an open class every day at 5pm (400 rupees per person).

We then hopped on a tuk-tuk to the Seagull hotel, which has a popular restaurant overlooking the harbour (light bites for three for 500 rupees). We ended the night right back where we started at Loafers for some yummy and rich dessert (500 rupees for three), and then it was time to head back to the hotel.

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DAY 3

We started our last day in Kochi at Teapot, one of the many nice cafes around the town centre (breakfast for 1000 rupees).

We then took the ferry to Ernakulam (tickets for 4 rupees), another area of the city. Although it was good to take the ferry for the views along the way, Ernakulam itself doesn’t offer much – we just stopped at Volga for beers (two beers for 400 rupees) before heading back to Fort Kochi.

We had lunch at Kashi Art Cafe, another beautiful place serving nice food and much needed iced tea (lunch for 1200 rupees), before heading back to the hotel to get a break from the heat.

We had another yoga class at Sivananda, then headed to David Hall, a beautiful arts centre and restaurant, for a much deserved break and a meal. They served delicious pizzas (dinner for three for 1200 rupees) in their green backyard where you can enjoy the surroundings and pretend you’re in a scene from a Wes Anderson film.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel and pack for the morning.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: We stayed at Reds Residency, a nice B&B in Fort Kochi. Kochi is spread over a few different areas, but Fort Kochi is definitely the best place to stay as everything is within walking distance.
  • Transportation: Kochi is relatively small (at least the areas we wanted to see) and many things are close together. Particularly in Fort Kochi, you can cover most places on foot. However, with the heat it is sometimes a better option just to take a tuk-tuk – we found they had much better prices in Kochi than elsewhere in India, and most trips cost just 50 rupees or so. Transportation to and from the islands is done by a regular ferry service.
  • Drink: Although we found loads of cool cafes and restaurants, not many places in Kochi serve alcohol. XL (which wasn’t that good), Seagull and Old Harbour were the places to go for a drink in the evening – and clearly all the other tourists around knew about this too.

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COOL CAFES AND CHILLED BEACHES: Four days in hippie Pondicherry

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We ended up leaving Chennai one day early as it was a bit too much. We took a taxi (4000 rupees including everything) to Pondicherry stopping at Mahabalipuram (500 rupees entry) – a really nice temple by the sea. We explored in the heat for a bit before heading off to Pondy.

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After checking into the hotel, we headed to the French Quarter. Our first stop was Sri Aurobindo ashram, a really nice ashram where we could see people meditating and buy books at the amazing multi-lingual bookshop.

Right behind it we found Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar, a temple that looked amazing but was also very touristy. There was an elephant at the door trained to give blessings to people in exchange for a tip (which is just terrible no matter how it looks).

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Inside, the place was really impressive, with intricate detail everywhere. Even as a tourist you can get a blessing from a swami for a small donation – which was a nice thing to do even if a bit fake.

We carried on exploring the French Quarter, which was really quaint and cool but also very hot. We stopped for dinner and beers at Le Chateau, which served great food at their rooftop terrace (dinner and plenty of beers for three for 3500 rupees).

By the end of our first night in Pondy we knew we were onto something good!

DAY 2

We had a late breakfast at Cafe des Arts, a nice cafe with a beautiful courtyard serving delicious food (brunch for three for 1700 rupees).

We then headed to Mission Street for some shopping – our favourite place was Fabindia, but there are many places selling all kinds of stuff at varying prices (although even the expensive places are cheap by UK standards).

We got on a taxi to Serenity beach, where we were staying for the next three days. This is a popular beach at it’s sandy (most beaches in Pondicherry are rocky).

In the evening we went back to the city centre for drinks – we stopped at Le Space and LB2 Lounge (they’re next to each other), cool places serving yummy cocktails at around 300 rupees.

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DAY 3

By our third day we were feeling like the other hippies we saw around town.

We started our day in Auroville, a local community just outside Pondicherry. The place has a golden dome (called Matrimandir) where it’s possible to meditate, but you need to book it in advance – you can check out the grounds without booking though. Although it’s supposed to be a money-free place, the Visitor Centre is well-equipped with cafes and souvenir shops.

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Back at the city centre we had Ayurvedic massages at Keralaa Ayurveda – we had an hour and a half combo including a full body massage, Elakizhi and Shirodhara (the latter was really relaxing). All of it for 2150 rupees.

We stopped for a snack at Baker Street, a bakery serving yummy pastry, before heading off to a 75min rooftop yoga session at Rishi (only 300 rupees per person).

Back at Serenity Beach we ordered takeaway food from Theevu Plage (1100 rupees) to eat at our beautiful terrace. By the end of this relaxing and adventure-packed day, we were daydreaming about extending our stay in Pondicherry.

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DAY 4

Our last day in Pondy started with another yoga session – this time our instructor Sumesh came to our flat to teach a class at our terrace.

We then walked to nearby Motorcycle Diaries for a yummy lunch of veggie burgers and smoothies (1100 rupees).

We had a late train to catch so we spent the afternoon lazying about in our house before heading for dinner in the city. We went to Villa Shanti, the most amazing restaurant serving great Indian food (dinner for three for 3000 rupees including drinks and tip).

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: We spent our first night at Executive Inn, a nice hotel in the French Quarter. We then moved to this villa at Serenity Beach – the place was really great, with a terrace overlooking the sea, but a bit far from the city centre (although there are plenty of tuk-tuks around).
  • Weather: Pondicherry was really hot during the day (35 degrees was usual) and most places have fans rather than air-con, so we felt the heat more than in other places – although that wasn’t a big problem.
  • Go: From Chennai to Pondicherry a taxi costs 4000 rupees including all taxes. The alternative is to take an overnight train, but the taxi gives you the opportunity to stop at the Mahabalipuram temples on the way.
  • Transportation: Unlike most places we visited, Pondicherry is organised in a simple grid, so it’s easy to find your way around and you can cover a lot on foot. As ever, tuk-tuks are always available but they charge much more than in other towns.

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