Life is an adventure, or at least, my life seems to be. Writing (and publishing), learning and creating, launching new things and leaving behind old ones...
But for the purposes of this space, I'll focus mainly on travel & exploration. I'm an obsessive planner and a master of (highly) calculated risks, so along with the (shoddy) photos and reviews, I'll share my planning tools and process, tips & tricks, and budgets. Because transparency. Hope it helps!
Around the end of August and heading into September, I'll be looking for work or a likely spot to settle (with great wifi). Suggestions? Places you'd like to see covered? Drop me a line.
Also! I write for money! Need travel writing coverage of any of the above places, or more in the area? Contact me.
19 Jul 2016
First visit to Canada’s East Coast!!
So it was both better and worse than I expected; on the ‘pros’ side, it wasn’t exorbitantly expensive, I didn’t get in a car accident, and saw/visited some pretty cool sights and generally enjoyed the day. On the ‘cons’ side, the weather was crazy, the scenic areas were more limited than I’d thought, and it was a crazy long, messy day between flights!
Arrived at 7:40 am at St. John’s airport and rented a car from Thrifty Car Rental. After taking an inordinately long time to load my backpack and figure out how the thing worked (it wasn’t actually hard, lol), I had a quick and easy drive into the downtown area - even found some free parking along the way on Ordnance Street! Maybe a 10-15 min. drive, so it wasn’t bad at all, but… nothing really opened until 10 am, so I had a couple hours to kill. Since this was still in my home country, I hadn’t done as much prep and ended up winging it quite a bit, so here was the first ‘oops’. I figured I’d walk across town and get a sense of the area… and hunt down some breakfast.
The walk was great - those cute muti-coloured painted rowhouses pretty much stretch across the upper blocks of the downtown, and there’s lots of old stone architecture as well - churches and such.
Seemed to be garbage day - they had these very thematically appropriate nets over the bags on the street that really tied into the whole ‘fishing town’ thing… Probably to keep off the seagulls, lol.
Nowhere inspiring to eat, however… a couple cafes and an ice cream shop were about it. Did a loop along the top to The Rooms (a museum), which was still a half hour from opening, and then back along the lower streets and waterfront. Turns out, there are maps of recommended walks with historic sights pointed out along the way, but as I came across tehse halfway through the walk (and I was getting hungry), I just kept blazing my own trail. Tried to stop in at Rocket Bakery, but got washed out again by a horde of tourists pretty quick - too many choices, not enough time!
Harbourside Park on the way back was also beautiful, and pretty much empty in midmorning. It was at that point that I figured maybe I’d better Google for a breakfast spot, and came up with a recommended cafe… across the street from where I’d started. Sigh.
So I finally ended up stopping at Classic Cafe East for a (reputedly) traditional breakfast at a little after 10 am. A bit divey/classic diner style, but it did have the benefit of being both quiet and cheap. Tried a toutons (I think that’s a singular?), which is apparently a Newfoundland speciality, and is essentially pan-friend bread dough eaten with syrup or molasses. Kind of crispy and chewy at the same time, and in this case, friend in pork fat for a sort of baconey counterpoint to the molasses. Felt rather old-timey as an experience, which was fun… Also tried molasses baked beans and an egg for some protein; turned out to be waaay too much food. Cheap and good food in large portions; I’d come again (and in fact, tried to…)
Near where I’d parked was the Commissariat House, which was quite a small historic site, but worth the cost of admission as a second site is thrown in free. They hand out little plastic tabs that grant you access to a port-tasting & historic cellar on the other side of town. There was a converted barn/interpretative centre which tried to be edgy with a sort of shadow-puppet noir aesthetic about rebellion and newspapers… tbh, I moved on pretty quickly, but I appreciated the production value they’d put in… The house itself was two stories and held a grand private office and public counter, safe and office along the front, with a kitchen in the back, as well as a formal dining room, parlour and a couple bedrooms, all furnished. I was surprised at how close/far into the rooms you could get. Perhaps because it was early in the day, the place was quiet - I only saw two other visitors - and the site staff mostly stayed out of the way. Fun to see such early artifacts and buildings; although the level of sophistication was high, the site was hundreds of years older than any I’d visited in BC. I spent less than 30 min. at this location, then walked the couple blocks back to the car and headed out to Signal Hill.
Another ~10 min. East, Signal Hill was easily my favourite stop. Great views, not-too-strenuous paths, kind-of free-entry (oops - apparently I snuck in, as their website lists a $3.90 fee… No one checked tickets, anyways…) and some brief scrambling/hiking. Plus whales. Despite the revoltingly hot and humid weather (it was under 30C but felt like 40), it was really enjoyable to climb around on the cliffs. Lots of wildflowers, not too many people in the way on the paths, and whales jumping out on the water made it good fun.
The main attraction, which was pretty much swarmed, was Cabot Tower, which you could climb, learning about communications and site history, visiting a working (amateur) radio outpost and of course, the gift shop. The stairs to the top of the tower are steep, twisty, and crazy busy, but the views are pretty awesome. Some other ruins and small buildings within a few km hike from the Tower and a Visitor Centre a little down the hill round out the site.
Old thing on the hill. Tbh, i was more excited about the view and whales, but the tower was cool too, I guess. Some crazy stairs with too many people, a little working amateur radio station and gift shop, and more importantly, even better views from the top! #cabottower #history #culturaltourism #signalhill #stjohns #newfoundland #travelwriter #historicsites #canada #kaiespace
I kind of peeked into the Visitor Centre and decided it wasn’t worth the admission fee, but stopped at the cafe. There are also washrooms in the public part of the building.
The Newfoundland Chocolate Company has a location in the Signal Hill Visitor Centre, but since I’m not a huge chocolate fan (and was melting by that time) I opted for an iced coffee and Strawberry Champagne Gelato. On the plus side, they had free chocolate shavings at the coffee stand. Sadly, though, the ice-cream was overly sweet, kind of flavourless, and full of icy, hard chunks of fruit. Maybe I should’ve gone for the chocolate after all… Total, I spent around two hours on Signal Hill, but you could easily do the tower in 15-30 min. or take an entire afternoon to really explore and hike around. There’s also a Geo-Centre further down the hill that I didn’t want to take the time to stop at, but would have been conveniently placed for a full day of fun at the site.
At about 2pm I made it to The Rooms, which is a new, purpose-built museum, gallery and archives building. I was prepared to be indignant at the $10 admission fee, but it turned out to totally be worth it. Their exhibit on local soldiers’ experience of the first world war was stunning (kind of literally), and their art gallery and local history museums were both worth the considerable time I spent wandering them. I really ran out of time, though; two hours was not enough! I rushed through their natural history exhibit, and skipped the interactive section of their local history/industry museum where (staff?/volunteers?) were teaching little mini-workshops. I’d wanted to check out the cafe as well, but pressed onward to fit in a couple more sights before they all closed for the day.
This was pretty awesome. A freebee double ticket with #thecommissariat it includes a free #port tasting, a nice cool place to hide from the sun (#cavedweller 😜) some games that I wasn't patient enough to finish and gorgeous distressed wood, stone and brick interiors. It's like a #restorationhardware #daydream. Loved it. 😊#newmanwinevaults #stjohns #newfoundland #culturaltourism #history #historicsites #canada #travelwriter #writerslife #kaiespace
The next stop, the Newman Wine Vaults, were included in the purchase price to the first stop of the day, The Comissariat, so I rushed over to catch these around 4, just before they closed. A small attraction, it was still pretty cool (literally) to see the old stone and brick vaults. A small port tasting is included, and they had a couple (actually fun) games to keep you busy despite the small square footage. Super helpful, friendly staff, and meter parking out front. Unfortunately I had a bit too much fun here, and missed the Pharmacy Museum a block down the street, but I did catch the Railway Museum just before it closed and was allowed in to take some pictures without admission. Some neat dioramas, but overall a very information-heavy and low-interaction museum.
At that point, I remembered that there was a lighthouse that was supposed to be a big deal, and found that it was closing soon, but was also only a ~20 min. drive, so I raced back to the car and sped up to Cape Spear. Disappointingly, the area is pretty socked in with dense (pine?) forest except for right on the coast, so the drive itself was less than thrilling, but the lighthouse and surroundings were great.
Since I was less than half an hour from closing, the staff waved me through without charging for a ticket, and I raced up the stairs to dash through the old lighthouse. It’s a pretty small site in terms of reconstructed historical spaces - just a couple rooms, really, but the views were great and I wished I’d had more time for exploring and hiking the area. Again, lots of wildflowers and cool-looking cliffs, with quite extensive, but locked-down old military construction lower down the hill.
Being a Vancouverite, I figured stopping at the YellowBelly Brewery for a flight and dinner would be a cool, eat-local move, but… nope. It was crazy busy at 7-ish, which seemed good, but the beer was pretty meh and the food too uninspiring, so I moved on pretty quickly.
Should have done better research, as I couldn’t find anywhere with live music or traditional food to eat, but I did wander down to the harbour for a Beaver Tail - the Killaloe Sunrise was pretty great, with lemon and cinnamon sugar on a crispy fried disc. Figured I’d head back to the cafe for a greasy dinner, but by the time I climbed the hill back to the car (free 3hr parking at The Rooms), I figured out that the cafe had closed in the early afternoon that day. Oops.
Googling traditional NL food led me to Quidi Vidi Vllage, a fishing village and development off to the east of the city, but I kind of chickened out about the place I’d planned to go when I got there, Mallard Cottage (there just wasn’t time for a full meal), and decided to be wild and spontaneous and stop off at a divey-looking place a couple blocks back.
The Inne of Olde was a logical name - it was the cluttered, kitschy opposite of the current trend in carefully curated hipster bars, with Christmas lights strewn across the place, a wood-burning stove and mismatched chairs and tables. I’m afraid I intruded on the proprietress, presumably Linda of the sign: Linda’s Stories, Beers & Wood-Burning Stoves. Although a young couple was leaving just as I entered, she seemed about to close up, but agreed to track down some soup for me anyways. A (recent) cancer survivor, she seemed happy enough to make conversation while she waited for me to clear out (lol) - overall, a success, in my books.
For some reason, calculating the time I needed to get back to the airport for my 11:45 pm flight out was confusing me, and I had a bit of a panic driving back. Although it had only taken about 10 min. to get into town from the airport, Google Maps seemed to think I needed about half an hour to get back, but obviously I trusted the GPS and settled for just speeding a bit… nope, it was navigating me around to the industrial back end of the airport. Airport at St. John’s is apparently different than St. John’s International Airport. So that was stressful - especially when I was the only one going through security - I figured I was horribly late. Nope. The airport was just that small.
Despite the tiny departures hall (one set of bathrooms!) there was a small shop still open with t-shirts, and after a full day of running around climbing hills in insane humidity and a night and previous plane on the day, I was ready to spring for a clean(er) shirt, so I rounded out the day with a little duty-free shopping and picked up a snazzy St. John’s flower shirt (lol).
Overall? I’m glad I got the flights I did - finally had a chance to visit Canada’s East Coast, had a great time climbing around, successfully rented, drove and returned my first rental car, and tried some weird and unhealthy local specialties.
Would I do it again? Not unless the flights were even cheaper or the stopover longer (overnight at least), which sounds counterintuitive, but I way overestimated the amount of sleep I could get (5 hours flights + airplane seats = basically none) and way understimated how gross it would be not getting a shower and a change of clothes part way through. Cooler temperatures would probably have helped. Definitely interested in taking Icelandic Air’s service with a few days in Iceland next trip, and could be persuaded to stop over in Halifax if WestJet made that an option. Speaking of which, they were pretty fantastic. Dirt cheap flights, even with the extra $60 or so I spent on checking luggage, didn’t miss the airplane food one bit (who eats overnight anyways?), flights were on time and not crammed full - I had the middle seat empty on every flight - and their staff went above and beyond to be helpful. Would totally fly WestJet again.
*Prices in CND as of July 2016
($280 WestJet Flight Vancouver to Calgary to St. John’s to London Gatwick (single one-way ticket) excluded from totals)
($60 two checked pieces of luggage (no checked luggage allowance) excluded from totals)
$75.97 for 14 hour car rental
$7.21 to top up rental gas tank
$1 in meter parking
$15.18 Brunch: Black Coffee, Toutons, Baked Beans, Boiled Egg
$8.63 Snack: $5 Gelato + $2.50 Iced Coffee at Newfoundland Chocolate Company
$10.07 Drinks: $8.75 five-beer flight at Yellow Belly Brewery
$6.44 Snack: $5.60 Killaloe Sunrise at Beavertails Food Truck
$8.50 Dinner: $5.50 soup & bun at Quidi Vidi Inne of Olde
$6 The Comissariat (+The Newman Wine Vaults included in purchase price)
$10 The Rooms
14 Jul 2016
Exhibit one of when my crazy control-freak tendencies run into my super Google skills:
The route is: Krakow > Brussels > Dublin > Edinburgh > ?
The best part is, I’ll be able to access this on my iPad/iPhone on the ground, so we can switch gears and visit whatever is near us on-the-go. No more painstaking minute-by-minute itineraries.
27 Jun 2016
So this is one of the places where my crazy shows. Partly, it’s that I honestly enjoy the research and the (laborious) process of getting to know a place before I go there, but partly it’s just that my capacity for vividly imagining everything that can go wrong forces me to work out every detail in advance.
Also! As a control freak with an invariably cheap Scottish/Jewish/German heritage, I have to do (and double check, and document) every bit of the planning myself.
I’ve done a fair bit of looking into apps and sites to optimize the process, and really not come up with a lot that I’m impressed with. However, I’m all about the mobile and high-tech when it works. That said, here are my go-to solutions:
(This next bit is going to read like a fan letter to Google.)
Best for Airtravel: Google Flights
Really. I’ve looked into all the supposed ‘deal’ options (kayak, expedia, skyscanner - which seems to be the next best thing - and several more.) They all fail to match the prices that come up using Google Flights search, which seems to do a much better job of scraping the internet for the best prices at any given time. Bonus: its search tools are (unsurprisingly) top notch.
For my upcoming trips, only a few of the flights needed to be on specific days, so clicking the date dropdown in Google Flights let me scan through two months’ worth of flights at a time in search of the best deals/days to fly on. Be aware; prices fluctuate throughout the day and week, so it pays to keep checking back.
For the remaining segments of the trip, I had specific dates in mind, but some flexibility in destination. No problem: switch to map view and check out flight costs from your starting location to any other point. Brilliant!
Honourable mention in this category goes to Skyscanner: their search tools are pretty comparable, but their prices were just a little bit higher.
Best for Accommodation: Airbnb It was either Airbnb it or go the hostel route; hotels were ridiculous. Again, did a pretty complete vetting of ‘deals’ sites (Booking, Trivago, Expedia etc.) Airbnb offers some better pricing, and a lot more character. I’ve never tried it before; fingers-crossed that it works out well! Will report back after with reviews.
We did cave in the end and go for a hotel in one destination, and a student accommodation in another; both were found using Booking.com, but the list prices on the hotel website was better, so we ended up booking direct in both cases. If anyone has a super hotel deals website that they can recommend, I’d love to hear it. Used to get great deals a few years ago (ok, more like a decade ago…), but it was pretty unimpressive out there this time round.
Best for Itinerary: Google Maps + Apple’s Notes app with iCloud You can make custom maps in Google. It’s awesome. I’ve done this for apartment hunting (numbered so I can hit as many in an area as possible), and even freelanced making these for people that aren’t anal enough to do it themselves.
I like to start by researching and pinning absolutely everything I might want to see in and around the place I’m going. You can save custom notes to each destination pin: I keep quick notes, hours and ticket costs, links to reviews or attraction websites, and confirmation/contact numbers in this space. The ‘pin’ on the map can easily be set to a relevant icon, which lets me know if the museum:pub ratio in any given city has been properly allotted.
Of course, significant points like airport/train station/accommodation etc. can be pinned and marked as such, making it easy to navigate.
As the trip approaches, I’ll sometimes trim down the pins, narrowing down the areas that it will be possible to reach, or weeding out less exciting attractions, but having it all there lets me be more flexible when I’m on the road.
The best part is, open the Google map on your phone/tablet, and you can use it to navigate in real time. Instead of creating a step-by-step, attraction-by-attraction itinerary, you can hang out in an area and take in whatever you have the time and inclination for. And, since you put in the opening hours of each pinned location, you won’t waste time walking to things that aren’t open…
Of course, that’s still waaaay too chill and easy for me, so I have to timeline it all out with every possible detail, confirmation number, and backup transit route. Enter Apple Notes! This is kind of cheating, because really it’s Google notes in the Apple app on iCloud, but whatever. Point is, it’s a plain-text format that follows me from my laptop to my iPad and back again, so every detail I could possibly need is at my fingertips on the road (and can be edited as needed.) I find this step particularly helpful, since there can be a lot of ‘oops’ moments in travel if you haven’t timelined and plotted your steps thoroughly. You know, buses that don’t run on Sundays or aren’t on schedule, attractions that happen to be closed that day, flights that are too far across town to reach without a backup transportation route…
Best for Budgeting: Google Sheets OK, there’s probably a great app out there for this, but I figured I could do just as well with this online, shareable Excel-lite. Since I’m traveling with a friend, getting the numbers down is a must, but of course it’s good practice to do for solo travel as well (despite the cringe factor!) In addition to being free and browser-based so there’s no system incompatibility, a Google Sheets spreadsheet can be shared for tandem-input and real-time collaboration. It’ll also do most of the fancy calculation stuff that you might need; I find I don’t use much more than addition and multiplication, but… it’s easy, flexible, mobile and shareable. Use it. Love it.
Best for Financing: Amazon (Chase) Visa My reasons for choosing the Amazon Visa were simple: easy to get, no annual fees, no foreign transaction fees. There are almost certainly better travel cards out there for collecting points (this has a simple cash back), insurance and other perks, but I wasn’t willing to pay for the card or jump through any hoops. It’s a simple, all-online application; they mail the card within about three weeks, so plan ahead. The limits are notoriously low; get around this by topping it up ahead of your trip, or checking and paying it off regularly. It does take a few days for payments to go through, in my experience, so I’d go with putting a few thousand on it ahead of time… But I’ve been loving the no-foreign-transaction-fee feature! Great for online shopping too.
Coming soon! Travel product recommendations, and an in depth look at using Google Maps for customized itineraries + a no-holds-barred budget!
16 Jun 2016
Preview mini adventure!
Dates: June 3-6, 2016
We hit the road at about 4pm, taking the Fraser Canyon route out. The scenery isn’t too thrilling for the first while after you get past the Fraser Valley; lots of trees, if that’s your kind of thing. It is mostly riverside, winding through the canyons, which makes for a bit more visual interest. About an hour in, the mountains are a little less furred and look considerably more dramatic. At least for a little while, before it devolves into a dryer, deserty stretch where the hills take on the look of pilled cotton. Keep an eye out for wildlife (mostly deer) and scattered wood-frame and log structures. Many of the old cabins and barns along the way have collapsed from neglect; a couple tiny wood frame chapels and the odd log or sod-roofed home remain along the way. Not a fan of road trips/driving, but there are a few decently scenic points along the way.
We pushed through to Cache Creek area before stopping. Towns along the highway are mostly of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety, but in the past we’ve stopped to explore Clinton, which has a decent coffee shop, a tiny but well-stocked museum (with scary-chatty volunteer staff) and more antique/junk shops than one little town has any right to have. Other attractions include a gas-station/corner store with soft ice cream and a half-hearted stab at souvenirs, public washrooms, and some cute historic homes on the back streets. Definitely one of the more picturesque towns along the way.
Another past stop was the Sugar Shack, around 70 Mile House, an amazingly busy and popular stop offering poutine, a small selection of meals, lots of dessert options, maple-sugar-related paraphernalia and no-frills bench seating.
However, we tried a new stop this time ‘round: Horstings Farm Market. Open 8-6 daily, I can’t recommend it enough. Right off the highway and down a lane, the market has a few components: huge greenhouse full of potting and basket plants, orchard, roaming packs of peacocks, pastoral views, souvenirs, light grocery, full sandwich/soup deli/lunch counter, produce, and best of all, the most amazing bread you’ve ever had. Seriously; it’s almost worth the drive. Good prices for soup/sandwich, with outdoor picnic benches under a shelter and along the orchard.
Having stopped at Horstings, we weren’t able to check it out for dinner, but apparently there’s a spectacular Thai place, Sunyam, in an unassuming little spot coming into town, so keep an eye out for it.
About 3.5 hours in, we arrived at the night’s destination; family of a friend of my mother’s right around 108 Mile.
Fun fact for those not familiar with BC pioneer history; all these ~Mile or ~Mile House places are leftover from the old roadhouses along the Cariboo Road route north from Lillooet to Barkerville, part of the gold rush legacy. They were places to stop and refuel, often sparking little towns along the way. A historic attraction nearby, the 108 Mile House Heritage Site, includes a roadhouse and several outbuildings. Oh, and some pretty good ghost stories, if sex, horse-theft and murder are up your alley. Hat Creek Ranch is another along the route; I haven’t had a chance to stop, but if you’re interested in a taste of historic BC, pioneer and ranching history, these are the best opportunities before Barkerville.
June 4 we got on the road around 9, with a quick zip up to Williams Lake, only about an hour away. This section of the drive is more scenic; ranching country, it features more expansive valleys, dotted with ponds, marshes and lakes, and of course, lots and lots of cows. Walked and drove around the downtown area a bit, exploring and killing time. There’s quite a good coffee shop, The Bean Counter, attached to the public library, with the Cowboy Museum (Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin) just out back, but not much else of note. Try the Birch Water at the coffee shop for a caffeine alternative; pricy, but an interesting cultural experience. Like maple syrup before it was syrup.
The museum is also worth a visit, if it’s open; some gorgeous saddles and costumes, to start with. It’s a pretty good sized attraction, with local history (beyond ranching and the stampede) exhibits in the basement.
Spent most of the day out at my mom’s sister’s place up on the mountain; the highlight of the visit being when one of her sheep got itself caught in a fence. Disappointingly, it got itself out again without her needing to haul it out.
Stayed with her brother’s family on the opposite side of the lake; great views. Shame about the tracks just across the road. My mom’s parents live just a few streets away, so we walked up in the evening and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I’d forgotten how that worked; clearly been in the Vancouver area for too long! I’ll need to plan ahead for the future. Bonus, though, my cowboy grandpa seemed to think I needed to represent for the Cariboo on my upcoming move to the UK; two new hats, belts, and bags later, I think I’m well stocked.
Tried for an early start home on the 6th, reaching 108 Mile around 10 to pick up my mom’s friend for the ride home. We collected her at Soul Concepts Aesthetics, a suprisingly spacious and lovely little spa a couple minutes off the highway.
Had to make a stop again at Horstings and pick up some bread for the way back, of course. Only regret is that I didn’t stock up more! After that, it was a straight shot home; slightly more traffic on the Monday morning, but no jams.
So! Not the most exotic or exciting trip, but there it is! In terms of planning and budgeting, there really wasn’t much to speak of. Did some looking into attractions and where to find decent coffee, but didn’t end up having a chance to stop.