“Don’t call it Frisco!” Three nights in San Francisco

So this is my first blog post from my Californian road trip, which has been one of my dream trips for many years! I’m currently writing this blog post in the car as we drive along Route 1, Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Monterey, our next stop.

I’m travelling with my parents and my brother, and we’re moving on after spending our first three nights in San Francisco. We stayed in a hotel just off of Union Square, which turned out to be right in the heart of the shopping district (Mum picked the hotel!) with Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and a multitude of other high end shops on our doorstep.

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Union Square is also the best place to catch a tram down to Fisherman’s wharf, a must see location in San Francisco. We rode a tram to Lombard Street, known as the world’s “crookedest street.” The steep street has 5 hairpin bends which are decorated with hydrangea plants, which have created a tourist hotspot right outside the houses on Lombard street.

From here we walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf, taking in panoramic views of San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island – the island-prison which was home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone.

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Although highly developed for tourism, Fisherman’s Wharf still thrives on the fishing industry, with shrimp and crab-fishing boats providing the staple ingredients for a variety of restaurants along the Wharf. Some of these boats also provide trips around the Bay. For only $15 each, we had a fantastic, but rather windy boat ride to see the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge, as well as a close-up view of Alcatraz. This for me was a highlight of my stay in San Francisco, as you get to see the Golden Gate Bridge from every angle!

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After returning to the land, which was considerably less windy, we explored Fisherman’s Wharf further, including Pier 39, a boardwalk full of fun souvenir shops and food stalls, many of which sell the famous San Francisco Clam Chowder in a bread bowl.

We started our second day in San Francisco at Lori’s Diner, an excellent ’50s style diner which served the huge breakfasts with amazing milkshakes. We returned to Golden Gate Bridge, this time to walk along it. From our hotel we got a taxi to take us to the visitor centre (taxis are relatively cheap when there are a few of you travelling in them) where we learned about the building work and cost involved in constructing the bridge. We then set off to walk across the bridge, looking back at stunning yet foggy views of San Francisco.

We didn’t make it all the way along the 1.7 mile long bridge as we decided to head over to North Beach, the Italian district. Here we visited the creative heart of San Francisco, City Lights Book Store which was the focal point for the Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The independent book store welcomes people who come to read and discuss the literature available to purchase, functioning as a sort-of library where you can buy the books!

The Italian district is filled with delis and espresso bars serving authentic sandwiches and coffee. The oldest one of these is the Caffe Trieste at 601 Vallejo street. The simple espresso bar pioneered the espresso coffee culture in America from 1956 – it could be said that they are the reason why you hardly ever see a San Franciscan walking down the street without a coffee in their hand!

We ended our second and final full day in San Francisco with a walk around Chinatown and meal there. To be honest, I wasn’t as impressed with Chinatown as I thought I would be, but after spending a lot of time in London’s Chinatown maybe I had preconceived ideas of what San Francisco’s would be like. We did have a fantastic meal though – we were told by a taxi driver that the best way to choose a restaurant in Chinatown is to go for the cleanest looking restaurant, and this worked out well for us.

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Overall, my first impression of San Francisco was of a welcoming cosmopolitan city. I’d like to come back to explore it further, and I’d recommend it to any prospective travellers to California.

My next blog post will be about the start of our road trip along Pacific Coast Highway and our stop in Monterey.

I’d love to hear any comments you have about San Francisco & California in general, so please comment below, and as always you can find me on twitter: @andrea_avena

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A trip to Spain!

Once again I have to start a blog post with an apology for not posting anything in a while – who though that university would require doing work? (And going out a lot, but this doesn’t sound as good an excuse for not blogging.)

My second term has been even better than the first, particularly due to the fact that I got to spend a week in the sunny southern Spain last month. I was in the seaside resort of Nerja for my first year field trip with the rest of my year, and had a fantastic time.

Balacon de Europa, Nerja

Balacon de Europa, Nerja

Nerja is different to other towns on the Costa Del Sol. With its white-washed houses, a well-cared for old town and a beautiful beach, it has a real sense of being ‘Spanish’ unlike towns such as Marbella and Benidorm further down the coast. It has a wonderful terrace, named the Balcon de Europa which extends from the town’s main square, and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea towards Africa. I’d recommend getting an ice cream from one of the bars near the Balcon de Europa. The area is perfect to sit and enjoy one of the many choices of flavours from the deliciously decadent chocolate ice creams to a more exotic coconut flavour. Spanish cuisine is one of my personal favourites, so exploring the many different bars and restaurants in Nerja was great for me.

Another highlight of Nerja is of course the world famous caves. I spent an hour there looking at the incredibly grand caverns with ancient stalactites and stalagmites. I could have spent so much longer in there, despite the fact that I am normally quite claustrophobic, as the natural formations are spectacular. If you get the opportunity to spend longer in the caves, there are meant to be some excellent examples of pre-historic cave art.

Eggs, Chorizo and patatas, Nerja

Eggs, Chorizo and patatas, Nerja

Although the nightlife in Nerja can’t be compared to other towns along the coast, a small strip of bars and clubs known as Tutti Frutti Plaza offers late night drinking and music for a very reasonable price. I’m sure the bars are filled with people in the height of the tourist season, but they were particularly quiet during the time of year that we visited, though with 130 students from our course, this didn’t stop us from having a great time.

Personally, I enjoyed the trip so much as I really got to know the other people on my course who I will be studying with over the next couple of years. I’m very much looking forward to taking other field trips in the years to come, especially as Malawi and New York are being mentioned for next year!

5 Interesting Travel Destinations for 2013

Burma

This South-East Asian country has been unwelcoming to western travellers in the past, but with political reform, the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and even a state visit from President Obama have led to a developing tourist industry in Burma. Burma has a rich culture that hasn’t been explored as extensively as neighbouring countries. Inquisitive travellers will be thrilled to discover Bagan, a pilgrimage site of Bhuddist Shrines and breath-taking pagodas which cover an extensive area.

Htilominlo Pahto, a 46m high pagoda in Burma's ancient city of Bagan. © Bruno Cossa/SOPA/Corbis

Htilominlo Pahto, a 46m high pagoda in Burma’s ancient city of Bagan.
© Bruno Cossa/SOPA/Corbis

Malawi

2013 is set to be a big year for tourism in Malawi. The landlocked African country has recently opened a stunning resort on the Likoma Island situated within Lake Malawi, Africa’s second largest inland sea. Kaya Mawa offers a wide range of rooms and beach houses, and a wealth of activities such as fishing and kayaking on the crystal clear waters of the lake. It wouldn’t be worth visiting Malawi without a safari trip, so making time to visit Liwonde National Park for its hippo and elephant populations is a must.

California

The USA’s sunniest state may be famous for its glamour, awards ceremonies and luxury but there’s much more to California than you see in a reality show. The state boasts some of the most spectacular vistas on the American continent, and a driving trip on Route 1 otherwise known as Pacific Highway is the best way to see as much as possible. The most stunning views are said to be at Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia mountains descend into the ocean and are dotted with redwood tree groves. Of course, after a spending some time in stunning natural beauty, travellers can ease themselves back to the urban world by visiting Los Angeles.

Pacific Highway may be considered one of the most stunning roads in the world.  © Robert Glusic/Corbis

Pacific Highway may be considered one of the most stunning roads in the world.
© Robert Glusic/Corbis

Croatia

Holidaying in the Med isn’t completely reserved for beach bums who are intent on getting a tan, Croatia’s coastline offers the chance to explore the historic and cultural city of Dubrovnik. Known as the Pearl of the Adriatic, this beautiful Venetian-built city has been restored since many parts were destroyed in the 1991 siege. The city is surrounded by  pristine coastline, offering something which other Mediterranean coastlines can no longer offer.

A view of the historic port city of Dubrovnik from one of its pristine beaches. © Peter Barritt/Purestock/Super

A view of the historic port city of Dubrovnik from one of its pristine beaches.
© Peter Barritt/Purestock/Super

South Korea

This one is definitely for the more active travellers. Though it isn’t well known outside the country, South Korea has developed into a great destination for outdoor recreation, offering travellers the potential for golfing, hiking and fishing trips. The recreation industry is set to explode in South Korea this year as it hosts three major sporting events: Special Olympics Winter Games, the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games and the World Rowing Championships.

 

Follow me on twitter for more updates, and please feel free to comment, feedback always helps!

Barcelona – The Best of Spain

Barcelona is one of Spain’s most beautiful and most cosmopolitan cities. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, bathed in Mediterranean sun and right on the coast, the city makes for a fantastic place to visit. Last week I went back to stay in Barcelona with two friends after visiting the city last year with my family, though this time I stayed for slightly longer.

We stayed in the fantastic Casa Gracia, a hostel located on the Passeig de Gracia, which is in central Barcelona and is scattered with designer shops such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Valentino and D&G. The wonderfully unique hostel provided so much more than we expected – we had a private three-bed room with an ensuite, which was immaculately clean and spacious. The hostel owner’s organised great evening’s out in Barcelona, offering free entry to the coolest bars and clubs in the city. The best feature though was the sangria and paella nights. For just €8 you could enjoy a hearty meal of paella, salad and tapas as well as jugs of sangria! Also, the staff could not have been more helpful with advising us on the best bars to go to, supermarkets to buy food as well as getting around Barcelona.

We made the most of our Hostel’s central location by buying a T-10 metro ticket. This allowed us ten stops on Barcelona’s easy to use metro system, making it easy to explore the city. On our first day, we covered La Ramblas, the equivalent of Oxford Street and the amazing La Boqueria market. The historic market is fully functional with fantastic displays of fresh fruit, the region’s finest Iberico hams and chorizos as well as an interesting, yet odorous, fish section. I’d fully recommend a visit, is a beautiful place!

Fish at La Boqueria

We all enjoyed wandering around the streets of the Barri Gotic, the older quarter of Barcelona. At its centre is the magnificent Barcelona Cathedral (not to be confused with the even more spectacular Sagrada Familia) a tourist hotspot. The backstreets here are filled with independent clothes shops, vintage and second hand stores and well as excellent Tapas bars.  We really enjoyed Bilbao Berria, a fantastic bar which offers a buffet style selection of tapas treats, including traditional Serrano hams, quail’s eggs with chorizo, padron pepper amongst modern foods such as the mini-burger’s. What’s more, the prices offer excellent value for the great quality food you get.

A small selection of tapas available at Bilbao Berria

In contrast for with our typical tourist days of exploring the sights of Barcelona, we spent one day on Mount Tibidabo, which has a great theme park! We got the bus directly there from Placa de Catalunya, the central hub of Barcelona which was only a short walk from Casa Gracia. When we arrived at Tibidabo we discovered that not only could we get to spend the day enjoying a series of white-knuckle rides, we had also found the most spectacular panoramic view of Barcelona! The view could be enjoyed with your feet safely on the ground, as well as being hoisted into the air on a rickety contraption where you stood in a basket.

Our last full day in Barcelona was spent on Barceloneta Beach, a short metro ride from our hostel and central Barcelona. The golden-sanded beach was packed with local people and tourists, and we may have arrived too late in the day judging by our difficulty in finding an umbrella to sit under! However, we managed to keep cool by enjoying lunch and an iced drink at one of the beaches many café’s and lounges.

Our short stay in Barcelona was packed with seeing sights, the most awe-inspiring being the uncompleted Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece of a church. The beautiful architecture on every street of Barcelona is no match to the Sagrada Familia, and I don’t think I’m capable of describing it in a way that will do it justice. I’ll say this much, you must see it once in your lifetime!

We could have spent more time in Barcelona, we didn’t get to see Parc Guell, another Gaudi designed attraction or the Olympic Village, built for the 1992 Games which regenerated the city. I’d recommend a 5 night stay in Barcelona to see the best of this beautiful city.

Churros are to die for! You dip these sweet pastries into warm melted chocolate

More Information:

We would have been lost in Barcelona without the Dorling Kindersley and Lonely Planet Guides to Barcelona, as well as the extremely helpful Tourist Information kiosks on Placa de Catalunya, and the concierge at Casa Gracia.

Follow me on facebook and twitter for more updates. 

A Taste of Tuscany

I’ve just got back from a short but fantastic trip to Tuscany. I was with my Dad a few other people for some  wine tasting on the Zonin estates, which was a great experience. I’ve been to Tuscany before, but this was the first time learning about wine making and the stories of the historic, mediaeval vineyards. Each wine tasting was accompanied by food which was best suited to the wine; and we got to eat in beautiful homes on the estates such as Castello d’Albolo. We were in the Chianti region of  Tuscany, where the famous Chianti Classico wine is made with San Giovese grapes that have ripened under the Tuscan sun. Here’s a selection of photos which I took on the trip which best represent the beautiful Tuscan countryside.

 

San Giovese vineyards at Castello d’Albolo

 

These scooters can be seen shooting about all over Italy!

 

My favourite pasta dish – Papardelle con Ragu

 

In the gardens at Castello d’Albolo

 

The tourist hotspot of San Gimignano

Vegetable gardens outside Castello d’Albolo

It’s time for you to take a break

We’re one month into 2012 and this is my first proper blog post of the year! To be honest, the last four weeks since I counted down until midnight and made my New Year resolutions have flown by in a blur of school work, exams, getting university offers and generally planning ahead in my life.

Many of us have to constantly plan ahead and organise our days and weekends, and as we all know, it’s important that we take some time out for that. Making time for friends, family and having some fun can help you move forward in your life more effectively than obsessing over work and getting stressed by it.

I myself will be taking some time out next month to go on a ski trip with my sixth form friends. I’ve only skied once before, and that was nearly three years ago, so I hope that I haven’t forgotten how to ski – not that I was that much of a pro anyway! We’re going to be skiing in northern Italy, and I found out this week that they’re very heavy snow there at the moment, so we should have a good amount to land on as I inevitably tumble down the mountain.

Oh yeah, I am this good...

Another plan that I’ve made to have some fun is a trip to Barcelona in August with some friends. We’re staying in a hostel, got some cheap flights from EasyJet and we’re going to go and explore the sights, culture and bars (mainly the bars) of Barcelona.

Although this is really exciting for me, I know you’ll probably be wondering why I’m deciding to share my plans for holidays with you. Well, it’s only partly due to the fact that I’m suffering from exam-induced writer’s block, but also because these plans have made me realise what I want to do in life.

I always knew that I wanted to go to university to study, and socialise, and recently (just as I was applying, to be honest!) I knew I wanted to study Geography, but I have always been unsure of a career path. Well, it’s not a huge idea, but as I was looking at these trips I finally decided to become a travel writer. I know, it’s hardly like becoming a doctor, but I’ll be able to merge my passion for travel and knowledge about other cultures with writing and working – and for me I don’t think anything could be better.

As you see, this brings me back to my main point. We all get caught up in the blur of life, in the rat race to success, but taking some time out for yourself, your friends and your passions can really help you with finding the right bath in life.

(I just realised that says “right bath in life” and I was going to correct it, but it made me laugh and its kind of true!  You must find the right bath in life, that is of the upmost importance)

Are A Levels and studying really that important?

I went back to sixth form this Wednesday, full of both hope and dread. It’s my final year of A Levels, my last chance to get the ridiculously high grades expected of me to get into a decent university, where I hope to be going next September. Despite having two months away from studying which included a fantastic trip to Indonesia, I still don’t feel ready to settle down into the swing of studying, writing personal statements and worrying about the amount of UCAS points that I have.  I think the trip to Indonesia is partly due to that.

I’ve always had a clear path in mind for my life: get really good grades, get to uni, do a degree and somehow experience travel and become extremely rich at the same time.  But is all that really important?

Well of course it’s important to be intelligent and intellectual, and to experience different cultures, and to some degree have a good amount of money (you all know the saying, money doesn’t buy happiness but I’ll rather cry in a Ferrari) but the biggest thing I want is to always be as happy as I am now, or more if at all possible.

A beer and a good sunset with great friends, all you need in life.

I’m not going to be one of those bloggers who writes about wanting to be happy all the time, but I have realised that a lot of what we stand for in the Western world is not all that is needed to be happy.  In Indonesia, I met some of the happiest, friendliest people I have ever met. Although they lack things us Westerners take for granted, such as  constant supply of electricity to charge our Blackberry’s and iPhones on, and new cars to drive us to shopping centres, the people I met really valued and were made happy by some of the most simple and yet most beautiful things in life. Things like living in a community full of friends and family to protect you, enjoying a nice cold beer whilst watching an awesome sunset, and even taking the time to cook a meal for your friends.

But what does this have to do with A levels? The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t have to worry too much about getting a piece of paper to say that you are successful. Sure, aspirations and dreams are essential in life, but remember it’s not all about getting the best job, or the flashiest car.

So, as many of you go back to colleges and sixth forms, remember to work hard to achieve everything you want to do, but also enjoy the many things around you that will make you happy.

Now, I should stop procrastinating and get on with something decent to do…..

Top Ten Tips for Staying in Hotels

Here are my Top Ten ways of getting the most out of your hotel when staying abroad:

1. Put all complimentary toiletries into your wash bag even if you haven’t used them yet.

     The cleaning people will replace them when they see that they have gone, so you get more free stuff to take home! It’s not technically stealing, it’s just moving things around. Like tax avoidance. 

2. Always make sure that you are holding the key/key card before you close the door to your room.

     One of the most embarrassing things to do is to go down to reception and tell them you have locked yourself out of your own room.*

*I learnt this from experience.

3. Don’t bother packing gym clothes, you’ll never be bothered to go to the gym

     Do visit the gym though; they often have free bottles of water.

4. Breakfast can also double up as snacks for during the day.

   Just because the food is there for breakfast it doesn’t mean it must be consumed then. Take carry-friendly foods such as bananas and biscuits. Scrambled egg and sausages are more daring, but it may be worth the funny looks.

5. Collect all complimentary stationary teabags and sugar sachets

    Let’s be honest here, you’re paying for them in your overall bill, you wouldn’t buy shoes or clothes in a shop and leave them t here would you?*

*UHT milk and the Bible in the bedside cabinet are unacceptable to take with you.

6. Don’t ask for a wake-up call.

    You are woken up suddenly by a stranger who sounds too happy for both the time of day and the job they are doing. It’s very unnerving.

7. There’s no need to have your bed covers turned down for you.

   I just don’t get this. The staff who came to tidy your room before breakfast come back in the evening to fold back the bed covers. It’s pointless; they could have just left it that way in the morning.

8. If you wake up late, and more importantly are showering late, double lock the hotel room door.

This saves you from the highly awkward and embarrassing  moment when the cleaning staff burst into your room whilst you’re are butt naked and drying yourself with a towel.

9. Ask for some clothes hangers before you unpack.

 I can personally guarantee that there will never be enough clothes hangers in the wardrobe. Ever.

10. Don’t order room service.

     It’s just an extortionate price for food which you can get cheaper in the restaurant and to have crumbs all over your bed.