An Ode to Hostels: Featuring Montenegro

There’s a reason that a lot of backpackers (including myself) start to dream about opening a hostel of their own. The magic of a good hostel transcends the destination, creating family and community. It can be a particularly beautiful setting, or a serendipitous group of people coming together. It can be the staff, or it can be a dog.

The hostel garden

Actually, that last one might just be me. But in any case, I love hostels that stick in my memory for years after, their atmosphere giving you your own little piece of paradise to look back on. And the Grove Hostel in Stari Bar, Montenegro, will always have a special place in my heart.

When we left Albania, we knew we wanted to spend just a couple days in one spot in Montenegro. We had moved around a lot, so we just wanted to stay put and didn’t really want to be in the top tourist spots during the heat of July. Some random backpacker in Saranda told us about an amazing hostel with double beds in Montenegro, so we embarked on one last exhausting Albanian bus journey to make our way there. Our first impression of Montenegrins was a bit odd: our cab driver from the bus station to the hostel kept badgering us about how old we were, what we were doing, etc – fairly normal, except then he referred to us as ‘beautiful little babies’, which was creepy and weird.Regardless, once he got us to the hostel we knew we had found something special. We were welcomed with a free beer, which is always an excellent start. We claimed our very own double beds, started chatting to everyone around us, and felt right at home. Highlights included the stunning garden, with a little plunge pool, a meandering creek, and mountain views.

One of the best things this hostel does is the family dinners. For 5 Euros, you get to eat the amazing food that the hostel volunteers whip up nightly. When I was there they did a pizza night with the traditional wood-fired pizza oven out back, they did a curry night, and…something else that I can’t remember, but I know distinctly was delectable. They accommodate dietary needs easily and happily, but it’s not just the awesome food that makes these dinners memorable. They make it so easy to bond with everyone that you don’t even need to try. The first night I was a bit nervous, as always, about sitting down and chatting to so many new people, but by the end of the night we felt like we had a new family and were participating in a rousing game of Uno!

The roomy kitchen

They don’t pack people in – they could fit tons more beds, but they specifically limit the number of guests that can stay there. By sacrificing increased revenue, they allow more of a community feel, because it’s just the right number of people so that you can get to know them all by name.

The other main draw of the hostel was the fact that every day, a volunteer runs a free day trip for guests. We were there on a Sunday, when there isn’t one, but the next day we partook in a lovely beach trip. They have a old minibus they use to shuttle you around, so we piled in and went to spend a few hours on the coast. It wasn’t the most amazing beach I’ve ever been to in my life, but it was a nice respite from the heat and hey – it was free.

This is a drone shot from the hostel – the beach was NOT this empty when we went, nor am I 100% certain it was the same beach!! It looks similar.

And….that is pretty much all I can say about Montenegro. We walked up into charming Stari Bar, the town nearby, a few times for groceries and iced coffee. I can’t say I learned a single thing about Montenegrin history or culture, so I will certainly be back to do so.

The real message of this rambling is to communicate my love for a good hostel. Sometimes it’s the people that make a place, and it’s easiest to meet those people when you’re staying at a hostel specifically designed to do that. I have two other posts on some of my favourite hostels in the world – one in Europe and one outside of Europe but here are some others that I’ve stayed at since those posts were published three years ago!

Florentine Backpackers Hostel – Tel Aviv, Israel

Honestly, I loved this one for the same reasons as above. They do family dinners, everyone hangs out on the rooftop terrace, and it’s easy to walk in and find a family.

The view from the rooftop terrace

Joey’s Hostel – Agra, India

I was in Agra for one reason – to see the Taj Mahal. I was sick of crowds and sick of heat, so I booked a stay at a hostel 400m from the World Wonder, specifically so I could get there at sunrise. The hostel was lovely – air conditioning in the rooms (very important in 47 degree heat), super helpful staff, and of course, the location. If I had been there any other time of year, I would have spent all my time on the rooftop terrace, overlooking the Taj Mahal, but with the heat I could genuinely only stay up there for five minutes at a time. Regardless, this is the view:

Tagalong Backpackers – Gangtok, India

India’s hostel scene is really just starting up, and particularly in more remote regions it is almost non-existing. In the north-east area of Sikkim, up by Bhutan and China, there is basically one hostel. Luckily, it is absolutely fantastic. It had its quirks, certainly. The food menu in the ground floor cafe is extensive and diverse, but almost everything I ordered was unavailable and it usually took about an hour to get my food. But that’s just part of Sikkim’s charm. The beds are quite comfortable, and I slept well despite having the loudest snorer of all time bunking below me.

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It’s just nice to see a place that cultivates the backpacker atmosphere in such an out of the way town, with a book exchange, espresso machines, and comfortable sofas.

North Shore Backpackers – Hawaii

I wrote a whole post about my time on the North Shore of Oahu, but this was one of those beach hostels you could very easily stay at forever. I got into bed every night with sandy feet, salty hair and couldn’t wait to get to one of the nearby beaches every morning. I had a very hard time emotionally here, but in hindsight it’s a magical place and I must go back immediately.

This beach was right across the street!

Now I want to open a hostel. Probably not the best economic climate to do so in, but Haley and I talk about everything we’d want in a hostel and who knows – maybe one day we will.

Captivating Cappadocia

I fell completely in love with Istanbul the first time I visited, in 2015 with my sister. When I planned my 2016 summer trip, I knew I had to go back to Turkey. I had originally scheduled a return to Istanbul followed by a few days in surreal Cappadocia, but a slew of terrorist attacks scared me off the capital.  I knew I would return as soon as I could (spoiler – that was in 2019) but this time, I transited right through the horrible Sabiha Gokcen airport onward to Kayseri: the gateway to Cappadocia.

The view from the hotel balcony I stayed at. Dorms here were only 10 Euros a night including a delectable breakfast.

You’ve probably seen tons of pictures of Cappadocia, maybe without even realizing its in Turkey. It’s become an Instagram hotspot since tourism in Turkey picked back up, with countless influencers sharing shots of them leaning out of a hot air balloon basket, or watching balloons float dreamily across the sky at sunrise. I believe travel is beneficial no matter how you do it, but I’ve seen so many ‘Instagrammers’ visit this gorgeous part of the country without sharing a single thing about the wonderful people, the captivating culture, or the very real struggles that a lot of locals face here. I wanted to make sure I dug a little deeper here, actually hung out with locals, and learn about the place that I was in.

And guess what – I did. I feel inexplicably at home in Turkey. The language is music to my ears, even if I struggle to remember more than the basics. The men can be a bit…forward, and sometimes verge on aggressive, but in general the people are kind, welcoming and genuinely want to meet tourists rather than just selling them something. I spent five full nights in the town of Göreme and for the last four years, I’ve been dreaming of going back.

Hot Air Balloon Ride

I got the most popular activity in Cappadocia out of the way early. I landed at the nearest airport around midnight, took an hour and a half shuttle to Shoestring Cave House, and then proceeded to get up at 4:30AM to drive to a hot air balloon. These flights get cancelled regularly, if there is too much or too little wind, hence why I booked something that left me with so little sleep  – I wanted to make sure I didn’t risk missing it. If your flight is cancelled, they just put you on the next day, but if you leave before you get to go up, you’re shit out of luck.

I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep or the distinct and ephemeral landscape of the surroundings, but this whole morning feels like a literal dream. I was disoriented and in awe of everything around us. The pilot pointed out the towns and areas nearby, which was very helpful for my first morning in the region. The best part of the views is indubitably the other hot air balloons surrounding you: if these weren’t there, it would be a lot less colorful and interesting.These hot air balloon rides are expensive – I paid 150 Euros, and I went with Royal Balloons. This wouldn’t normally be in my budget, but when there is a once in a lifetime opportunity, I have to take it. I don’t really feel the need to ever take a hot air balloon ride again, so this is something I was able to literally check off the list.

HORSEBACK RIDING

The other main activity I did was a horseback riding tour. I booked this directly through my hotel, so I don’t remember how much it cost but I don’t think it was too much. I do remember it was through the company Dalton Brothers Ranch. A lovely Turkish guy picked me up and drove me over to the ranch, where ironically my Canadian guide greeted me and got me all kitted out. I am NOT an experienced rider, so she was great at keeping me on the lead most of the time and calming my nerves. Of course the scenery was incredible, and we stopped at ancient ruins that I got to climb on and look around in, but our conversations were the best part. She was a backpacker who had stopped in Cappadocia on a long-term trip and ended up staying as long as she was allowed. We talked about how travel had changed with smartphones – she was of the internet cafe generation – and the best ways to get around and meet new people. She was just one of those cool people that I could have talked to for hours.

SHENANIGANS WITH JULIE

 

Those activities were great, but what really made Cappadocia for me was the last few days. I had been very lonely in my dorm. There were almost no travellers here, and literally not a single other backpacker at my hotel. I woke up one morning to the sounds of someone checking in, and as soon as she was settled I psychotically walked over and said, “Hi my name’s Bethany, do you want to be friends?”

Our gorgeous dorm in a cave

Shockingly, this WORKED. Julie and I spent the whole rest of our stay together, going on adventures and making friends. One day we went on a hike, sans map or route. The hiking trails are extremely confusing here, and at one point I basically climbed through a ditch to avoid a rogue horse. We also stumbled upon this random oasis that I seem to be remembering as “The Secret Garden” – this was something else that felt like a dream. We were deep in the middle of nowhere, and up popped a rambling cottage, yard cluttered with curious and mysterious Turkish couple waving at as from a balcony. It was very random and very charming.

Just a sample of the landscapes on our hike

We also spent a glorious and free day with a rental motorbike (Julie drove, thank god) exploring towns other than Goreme. My favorite location was Uchisar, which I seemingly don’t have pictures of – but the town itself rises into a spire, visible from almost everywhere nearby. We clambered our way to the very top, up rusty ladders and past crumbling ancient walls. The views were stunning, and I wish I could show you, but I guess you’ll just have to go for yourself!

The next night, we went to a Turkish cultural show in a town nearby. It was pretty cool but also very touristy, with things like belly dancing and whirling dervishes. Super cool, but not necessarily the most authentic thing I’ve ever seen. The amazing part of the night came later, when we couldn’t find the taxi driver who was supposed to be taking us home. I recognized a voice nearby, and found the man who had picked me up for horseback riding a few days ago! He was with a few other Turkish and European friends, and immediately offered us a ride back to Goreme.

It turned into a night of new friends, raki shots, and Turkish dancing. We hung out with these locals for the next few days, asking them how the tourism downturn had affected their livelihoods (a lot) and finding out what they thought of the USA and Canada (very differing opinions). It was serendipitous that we ran into this guy again, and delightful that they welcomed us into their lives for a few days. Experiences like this can really make or break your opinion of a place, and man did this one give me a great opinion of Cappadocia.

Often I’m asked about my favourite country. Recently I’ve been saying Albania, but for many years I said Turkey. The next and logical question was why. I’d say, “The food, the people, the language, the history”, but that just didn’t quite get it across. Writing this post has helped me to understand why I loved Turkey so much: fortuitous friendships, natural beauty in spades, and the way it feels like home. I can’t wait to go back and explore more of this wonderful country.

A Love Letter to Travel

Watching my entire industry be torn to pieces by the COVID-19 outbreak has been absolutely devastating. This pandemic is wreaking havoc throughout the world, of course, but all I can speak to is my own experience. I’ve been trying to figure out how to express all of my emotions, but it’s all tangled up. I work in travel, travel is my greatest passion, all my hobbies revolve around travel. It’s completely wrapped up with my identity, and the grounding of flights, closing of borders, worldwide travel warnings – that identity has been pretty much torn away. I am SO lucky that I still have a job, I still have my income, my health, my family, my friends, my boyfriend. While my heart breaks for the people who aren’t as lucky, I’m still upset about how it has affected my life and I just needed to get my feelings out on ‘paper’ so to speak.

A few times, before I left on a trip, family or friends asked, “What’s the rush? The world will still be there in a few years.”

I never felt like I agreed with that – you never know what is going to happen. If you don’t go to that country you really want to see, who knows what could happen – a war could start, a pandemic could spread, a border could close. And look who was right!!!

In all seriousness, though, I am so lucky to have been able to travel to 57 countries, and see some of the most beautiful places in the world. That makes it a bit easier to put this all on pause, so I know that I made the right choice to follow my dreams right away. Because you really just never know.

My hope for the next few months are that we beat this quickly – that the world gets back to normal, people get well, borders open, industries come back to life. It’s bigger than me, but selfishly I can’t WAIT to get on that next plane. I’ve been thinking a lot about who I would be if I hadn’t found my passion of travelling. Certain countries have taught me specific lessons, certain journeys have shown me different ways to look at the world, and the essence of it all is that travel is one of the best things to ever happen to me.

China taught me that the whole wide world could be mine, if I was brave enough.

I grew up travelling with my family, but at 18 I still hadn’t really connected the dots that if I wanted to keep travelling, I just could. I kind of waited for trips to fall into my lap courtesy of my parents. Then, I spent a summer working at an accounting firm, which I thought was going to be my job for the rest of my life. I was mind-numbingly bored, and had LOTS of time to browse the internet. I discovered a world of girls not too much older than me, travelling the world alone and making it happen for themselves.

With that I booked a ticket to China, and I flew to the other side of the world. It’s so normal to me to get on a plane myself now, but then, it was scary and exhilarating. The whole trip showed me that if I wanted to see somewhere, there may be obstacles and it may be hard (see this article), but I can do it all by myself.

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Little baby Bethany in China

Morocco taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and it was all up to me. 

After China, I didn’t stop. Several short trips later and I was off for 4 months on the road. The first few weeks were pretty comfortable, either with my sister, or a friend. Then, I got on a ferry all by myself to Africa. I had no idea what I was doing, nothing booked, and when I got off the ferry to my first experience of touts hassling me and realized I didn’t have any directions, I almost broke down and left. Then I realized – it was all up to me. Nobody knew me, or anything about me. I could spend this month being exactly who I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be scared to be alone, or shy around strangers. I could be the girl who lit up a room, who picked up new languages, who lived spontaneously.

So I was. It wasn’t perfect, and I still cried a lot (wouldn’t be Bethany without some tears), and sometimes I still felt frustrated by my own limitations. But I was only 19, and I realized something that would serve me so well for the rest of my life: you are in charge of your own self. If I want to live my dreams, the only person who is going to make that happen is me. If I want to be kinder, be more fun, be happier, I know exactly what I need to do to get there – it’s just a matter of doing it.

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As I wandered across Morocco with my new friends, I stopped looking at mirrors to pick apart my appearance. I stopped toning myself down to make friends, just being exactly who I was. And I never let that go, even at home.

Zanzibar taught me that I can conquer the things that scare me most, even if I’m alone across the world.

A year later, I took off again for a post-graduation trip. I was thrilled to be getting back on the road but nervous about what awaited me in ‘real life’. I had a lot of fears about the future, so I decided why not get over some of my lifelong fears to prove that I could.

I used to be afraid of everything, and some of those things still terrify me – birds and snakes, mostly. And yes, I sometimes still sprint to my bedroom from the bathroom in the middle of the night because I’m scared of the dark, but I’ve basically gotten past that one.

But even when I was afraid of everything, water was the worst. I never really learned to properly swim because deep water freaked me out so much, and the panic I felt every time I snorkelled was second to none. I still went on snorkelling trips, and swam at the lake in the summer with my friends, but the whole time I had to choke back this all-encompassing fear of the unknown at the bottom of the water.

On Zanzibar, a blissful week of sleeping steps from the Indian Ocean finally taught me how to fall in love with the water. Even swimming alone in the daytime was scary for me at first, because what if something grabbed me and my dad wasn’t there to pull me back?

But I built up my confidence, and one day gave myself the ultimate test by scuba diving. I learned that the only frightening thing about the bottom of the ocean was how beautiful it was, and that freed me from my panic. The rest of the trip, I barely left the water, from pre-breakfast morning swims to sprinting into the ocean with new friends,  This was one of the best weeks of my life, and my memories of it will always be entwined with the feeling of salt on my skin, tangles in my hair, and a smile on my face.

I went home feeling ready to conquer whatever the world threw at me – and this gave me the confidence to quit that shitty corporate job 10 months later, for a life of travel and living my dreams.

Turkey taught me that home is people and attitude, not about where you are.

Many trips and many tumultous life changes later, I headed on another odyssey, this time for a literal round the world trip. I headed back to Turkey for the third time, this time with my best friend Haley. Walking back into Cheers Hostel, somewhere I had visited with my sister at age 19, genuinely felt like coming home. The golden retriever was as cute as ever, the surroundings were familiar down to the intonation of the call to prayer, and the owners recognized me and made me feel so welcome.We headed up to the bar for one drink after an overnight train ride, and ended up meeting a group of friends who we spent the next few days with. We found a local restaurant where we felt like regulars, we basically made the top floor bar our home, and everything just fell into place. I have never wanted to leave a place less – I was heading to some huge bucket list destinations in the Middle East but all I wanted was to stay in this little bubble of home, friendship, and ‘family’.

The way you look at a place really influences how your time there is. I went into Istanbul excited to return somewhere I knew and loved, and this turned the entire experience into pure joy. And of course, we really lucked out with some cool roommates.

It’s fitting that this was the last country I decided to write about, because this lesson was the most important thing I brought home with me. I had several trips coming up that will likely be cancelled, and about 50% of the time I feel absolutely panicked about the fact that I am ‘stuck’ here at home for the foreseeable future. But the other 50% of the time, I remind myself of what I learned in Istanbul. My attitude is what matters, and I am using this time to write blog posts, learn languages, read books, do puzzles, learn to cook, and spend time with my boyfriend. And as for people, I am so grateful that if I’m gonna be inside for weeks on end, I am stuck inside with my amazing boyfriend who is the OTHER greatest thing that has ever happened to me.

Learning to be at home is hard, but being at home with someone I love is making that easier. Watching my industry collapse is hard, but working for a company who values us and is doing everything they can to help us is making that easier. Living with uncertainty is hard, but getting all my feelings out in this mammoth blog post is making that easier.

Why I Fell in Love with Dubai

I gotta be honest, I was thrilled to be leaving India. I was going to miss the rock bottom prices and the beauty of the country, but I couldn’t wait to get to Greece. Specifically, I was excited to wear shorts and drink wine. But before I entered Europe, I had 3 days to spend in Dubai!

I think my mindset had a huge part in why I had such a great time. I was just so happy to be in a different country, on my way to see my family and my best friend. And with all that positivity, how could I not enjoy myself? I learned a great travel lesson here – sometimes, your enjoyment of a destination is based completely on how you expect to find it, and that’s why I fell in love with Dubai. Here are some of the reasons why:

I pushed myself out of my introvert comfort zone

I felt quite lonely and isolated after India, so I mustered the energy to reach out to a girl who lived in Dubai – via a great Facebook group called Host a Sister where you can get in touch with travelers and locals. Willa was absolutely amazing – she drove me around, gave me a sightseeing tour, and we even visited the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi together. Spending this time WITH someone made me so much happier and I felt so positive. There is nothing wrong with alone time, but after a lot of forced solitude in India I was ready to make new friends.

My amazing host Willa!

I felt like I could be more myself

Yes, Dubai is in the Middle East, but it is very cosmopolitan and I felt comfortable walking around without my legs fully covered, for example. I have no problem with dressing conservatively to fit in somewhere, but after six weeks in India, and especially in the heat, I was extremely tired of constantly throwing a scarf over my shoulders. It was so nice to walk around without being stared at, and to be able to speak to Uber drivers or store staff without feeling like I was being undressed by their eyes.

A TANKTOP!! IN PUBLIC!!

After India, I needed a taste of luxury

Any tiny bit of luxury felt like absolute bliss after roughing it for quite a while. Any Uber that picked  me up was a massive black Mercedes (or some other fancy car, who really knows) and the driver would get out in his fancy suit just to open the door for me. 10/10.

TIM HORTONS!!!

All of Dubai’s hostels were either sold out or seemed a bit weird/in the middle of nowhere, so in a very rare occurrence I actually booked a hotel. I had an amazing stay at the Reflections Hotel for roughly $70 a night. All of their rooms are travel-themed and mine was the Japan Room. I even had a view of the Burj Khalifa from my window, which was crazy cool.

My window view!

My hotel front-desk agent spoke English, there was a pool on the roof, I could figure out what the breakfast foods were, and most importantly of all in the crazy desert heat, everything was air conditioned.

I saw one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen

The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi could have been quite hellish – it was horribly hot and I had to wear a giant polyester abaya that was definitely not washed. However, I was so excited to be in this amazing place that I got past all of the disadvantages. Willa and I marvelled at the stunning beauty of the mosque, stopping for photo shoots and sitting (for as long as we could in the heat) to really take it all in.

Dubai is a very controversial place, but I really enjoyed myself – mostly because I was really, so very ready to enjoy myself. It was a good lesson, and the fun would only increase as I flew to Greece to meet my friends and family!

Best of 2019

Every year, I write these massive recap posts with my favorite highlights of the year, even when I have been terrible about blogging for the rest of the year. I’ve done 2016, 2017, and 2018, and now it is time to recap the best of 2019 – one of the craziest years of my life. I am never quite sure if these are interesting to anyone else, but I look back at them SO much myself, so here you go!!

In 2018, I moved home to Nova Scotia. At the very end of the year, I met a boy – and I can’t make that a highlight because it technically happened in 2018 but it was definitely one of the most important parts of my year. However, I also went on a 4.5 month trip so I have a LOT of travel highlights. I could make this a list of 50 things, but for everyone’s sake I will try to condense slightly. These are in chronological order, and a strange number of them are specifically about hostels. Also, I  made this cool map of my round the world trip so for reference – here is my route!

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Continuing to explore Nova Scotia

100% the best part of having a boyfriend has been having someone to drag on weekend trips with me – especially someone who can drive. A side perk is that we also have a blast together on these weekend trips! In February we stayed at the most charming little farm Airbnb in rural Nova Scotia and despite the freezing temperatures it was so cozy in the cabin with a woodstove. This is where we decided we were officially dating, so it will always have such cute little memories for me 🙂

We also went to my cottage for his birthday weekend right before I left on my trip, which holds a few more mixed emotions..but I LOVE my family cottage and I loved showing it to him.

When I got back, I dragged him on another weekend trip to make sure he still liked me! We drove up to Cape Breton and stayed in a YURT which I have been wanting to do ever since I learned what a yurt was. We hiked, got hit by a car at a gas station (super fun), and I even had a few driving lessons. It was lovely and a great way to end summer.

Biking around the North Shore of Oahu

The beginning of my trip was REALLY fricking hard, and I wrote about it here, but one evening was where I remembered how much I loved travel and almost cried because I was so happy. When my friends and I biked back from an evening of drinking on Sunset Beach, it was pitch black and we kept going down the wrong path and one of our bikes didn’t work, and it was absolutely pouring down. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I knew that everything was going to be okay.

Snorkelling in the Gilis, Indonesia

During my 3 nights on Gili Trawangan, I didn’t do much except eat and drink. One day, however, I went out on a full-day snorkelling tour for the crazy good price of $10!! It certainly wasn’t the best snorkelling tour I’ve ever been on – the boat was old, lunch wasn’t included, and every single boat went to the same spots at the same time, but….$10. I jumped off the top of the boat, got stung by jellyfish, made amazing new friends and started to fall completely in love with this corner of the world and its amazingly affordable adventures.

Hearing the Dalai Lama Speak

I already wrote about this in my Best of India post. It wasn’t a perfect day, and it ended with some severe illness, BUT I saw the real life Dalai Lama in person and heard him speak and I will never forget it!

Wandering off the Beaten Path in Sikkim, India

Sikkim left the best impression of India, and made me yearn to explore the areas nearby – Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal.

I felt like a really intrepid explorer, wandering through a place that had very little written about it on the internet, and entering a province where you needed a permit. This was a bit of a hindrance, because as a solo traveler you need other foreigners to travel the most beautiful areas with, but it was still worth every long Jeep ride and I met a few really amazing people.

Exploring Athens with my parents

Athens is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I LOVE when I get to meet up with my parents on my travels. I flew to Athens, so thrilled to be leaving India, and so excited to be reunited with my parents in the beautiful Airbnb they booked. We had a great time exploring in the heat, eating yummy food and I’m sure they were glad to see me alive!!

My precious backpacker parents!!!!!

Exploring the Greek Islands by Yacht (again)

Honestly, the best thing in the world is living on a yacht. My hair is always full of salt, the beers are never cold, and trying to sleep in a tiny unventilated cabin is a challenge, but man, it is blissful. Add that to the fact that I was reunited with my best little travel buddy Haley, and I get a bit teary when I think about this week.

The islands and sea caves that we moored at were breathtaking and I really couldn’t process that I was there – but that might have been the hangover. Time seemed to slow down and speed up simultaneously, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Hiking in Albania from Theth to Valbona

In the remote northern mountains of Albania, we took one of the most scenic ferry rides in the world and then stayed at a warm and cozy homestay where meals were served lovingly by the matriarch, teaching our new friends cribbage and falling asleep to the sound of pounding rain on the peaks. The next day, we hiked for almost 12 hours through a mountain pass, the views getting more beautiful every second. We passed locals who waved gleefully, including one particular character who was dressed in a full suit and seemingly just doing this hike with no effort while we panted up every incline. The summit was freezing cold and the patches of sun were burning hot, and we snapped at eachother as we got more and more tired, but even our crankiness couldn’t mar our awe. At the end of the hike, we sat at the first restaurant we saw and ordered beers and french fries, and both of them were the most amazing things we had ever tasted. We managed to lug ourselves to a guesthouse, checked into the first room they showed us, and slept for hours and hours after a delectable 7 course dinner. In the morning, a worker introduced us to FOUR PUPPIES and bought us coffee before we headed off back to the nearest city, blissful and relaxed despite our aching muscles.

Really, just all of Albania

The above anecdote pretty accurately sums up our time in Albania. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Every single local we met went out of their way to befriend us and help us and give us countless free beers and shots of raki. The hostels were never more than 10 Euros a night and they were some of the most beautiful boutique hostels I have ever seen. The food is incredible, the beer is less than a Euro, the scenery changes as you travel the country from top to bottom but it is unfailingly beautiful. I can’t wait to share more about my new favourite country, but go now, before everyone else discovers it – as long as you are comfortable with a little bit of chaos any time you try to get anywhere!

I was this happy the whole time I was in Albania

Paradise at the Grove Hostel in Montenegro

There are some hostels that just feel like home. When we arrived at the Grove, we knew this was going to be one of them. We had just endured a very long journey from northern Albania on a very intense hangover, and it was a million degrees. We arrived to a family dinner and a free beer, before we were each given our OWN DOUBLE BED in a dorm. For 10 Euros, you get this bed, you get access to family dinners (5 Eur a night for absolutely incredible food), 1 Eur beers, and get this – the hostel staff rounds up a group to drive off for an activity every day. We went to a beautiful local beach, and I wish we had stayed longer to experience more of the surroundings. As it was, we didn’t need to leave except to walk up to nearby Stari Bar for an iced coffee or groceries. If I ever open a hostel, I want it to be just like this one.

I have three photos from Montenegro. Here is one.

Celebrating my Best Friend’s Birthday in Serbia

Haley and I had been travelling together for about a month before we got to Belgrade, arriving just in time for her 25th birthday. Basically I can sum up our time in Belgrade with the following:

  1. We got tattoos from a guy who….didn’t speak very good English
  2. We bought the cheapest bottle of vodka in the store, which we literally had to open with a knife because it didn’t have a CAP
  3. There was no cap, so we drank all of the vodka (sharing some, of course, with our new friends) and had a truly ridiculous night out.

….this is the only photo I have from Belgrade. And possibly the worst photo of myself ever. So I am putting it on the internet.

10/10, Serbia rocks.

Returning to Cheers Hostel

I stayed at Cheers Hostel in Istanbul four years ago and I literally have not shut up about it since. I dragged Haley here and she was immediately sold when she heard about the golden retriever. The hostel owner remembered me and my sister, asked how she was doing, and was thrilled to hear she was getting married in the fall. The view from the bar upstairs was even more stunning than I remembered, and the rooms just as cozy. And of course, Zaman the dog is still a sweet pure angel from heaven.

I did have a very different time here – we went out a LOT. It was our last 3 nights together and again, we immediately made some amazing friends.

Pretending I Lived in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv was my first intro to the real Middle East, after a few days in Istanbul. I stayed at Hostel Florentine, and I had a few nights before my friends arrived to join me for our Middle Eastern leg. I was exhausted from our last night in Istanbul, where I literally went from a nightclub to the airport (that’s another story) and I really thought I was going to get a good night’s sleep in Tel Aviv. However, I forced myself to socialize so I headed up to the communal rooftop. I inserted myself into a group of chatting travelers, we started playing drinking games, and the next thing I knew we had a little family. This hostel was another place where you immediately feel at home, and if Israel wasn’t so expensive I would have loved indulging in all of the nearby restaurants and bars – I mean I still loved it, but I also had a pang every time I handed over my shekels.

Tel Aviv’s beach is amazing, and I love how open Israelis are – random groups of friends would come over us to chat, and not in a weird hitting-on-us way, they literally just wanted to chat. I knew I would like Tel Aviv, and what do you know – I was right.

A New Best Friend in Egypt

On my G Adventures tour in Egypt, I got paired with a roommate who I immediately disliked. I have no idea why, because 5 minutes into the next day we were giggling in the souks and buying eachother friendship necklaces. We had an absolute blast ditching our tour to do activities on our own to save money, finding the nearest pool and grabbing a beer, gossiping on the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor (I love overnight trains SO MUCH), jumping off the top of our traditional felucca boat into the Nile, and having Instagram photoshoots at every temple we visited. Andrea was so there for me during a week that I was very emotionally overwrought, and I am so thankful that we were roomed together!

One Last Hurrah in Dublin

I arrived in Dublin sick, tired from several long layovers and redeye flights, and to be honest, I was excited to get home. I had one last night at a hostel before I went back to my family, my dog, my home and the boy I was pretty sure I was in love with. I could have just slept for 16 hours, but I decided I needed to have one last big night: and thus I did. As had become so natural to me after 4.5 months, I met a friend in the common area and Hannah and I teamed up for the hostel pub crawl and headed over as it started to rain. We drank many Guinnesses (I don’t even like Guinnesses), did many free shots, and stumbled home around 5AM – I had to be up at 8AM for a VERY important flight. I made it, passed out for the duration, and disembarked in Halifax to power-walk through the airport and cry in my parents’ arms.

The one photo I took in Dublin. LOL.

My Sister’s Wedding

My older sister Anna got married in October!!!! She lives in Winnipeg, but the wedding was at a beautiful oceanside resort near Halifax. It was literally the perfect day, and I cried a LOT, especially at my parents’ speeches. It was amazing to meet my new brother-in-law’s entire family and we had a lovely few days of celebrations.

My wonderful family!!!

Coming Home

I never would have thought that moving back to Nova Scotia would feel like this much of a highlight, but I am so happy to be back. I returned to a promotion, so I now run my very own travel agency. I also returned to the previously discussed boy, and at the beginning of December I moved into his house. We have a Christmas tree, a chore schedule, and I have never felt so domestic, or so happy.

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

I felt ALL the feelings this year, saw some of the most iconic places in the world and literally circumnavigated the globe. But the biggest lesson that I learned is how to be happy in one place. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll stop travelling…very much the opposite! In the next 6 months I have a work trip to Southeast Asia, and I’m introducing my boyfriend to the backpacker life with 2 weeks in Peru. I can’t wait to see what 2020 holds.

My 12 Favourite Hostels in Europe

EUROPE

PREIKESTOLEN FJELLSTUE: NORWAY

I’m writing about the Pulpit Rock hike in Norway again?! Seriously Bethany, shut up about it already.

Anyway, in my post all about the hike I talked a little bit about where I stayed, but it’s just amazing. Sitting in the lounge, watching the sun set (which didn’t happen until around 10:30PM) and journalling about my delightful hike was worth the absurdly overpriced food.

You could use the word run-down to describe the youth hostel portion of the facility, but I prefer to use the words rustic and charming.

YOHO INTERNATIONAL YOUTH HOSTEL: SALZBURG, AUSTRIA

They play the Sound of Music every night. In Salzburg.

Enough said.

Read a little more about Salzburg here

HOSTEL ANDROMEDA: GHENT, BELGIUM

I stayed at this hostel on what is objectively the worst trip of my life – I got norovirus, I had the worst sore throat of all time, I hit my head, I broke my phone and I hurt my back. However, the trip still has so many great memories, and one of the coolest places I stayed was in Ghent, Belgium – my favourite city in Belgium!

When I saw that sleeping on a houseboat was an option on Hostelworld, I couldn’t pass it up. It was so cool to actually stay on one of the canals, and Hostel Andromeda has so many ecological initiatives that make it even better. I’ll admit the place was kind of creepy when I stayed there because it was the middle of off-season, but at least I got a whole dorm to myself! 10/10 for experience.

Read more about Ghent here

MOSAIC HOUSE: PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

Another highlight from the trip of mishaps. Honestly, I spent most of my time in this hostel’s bathroom (thanks norovirus) but let me tell you, it was the nicest hostel bathroom I’ve ever seen. Mosaic House is a dirt cheap hostel, but with the design savvy of a boutique hotel and a really nice bar that I didn’t get to experience. The staff here were so great – my mom emailed them to ask if they could see whether I was alive, and one of them very kindly did so – and I’d love to go back here and actually enjoy the facilities.

The entirety of the Charles Bridge at your feet

Read more about Prague here and here

PERUGIA FARMHOUSE: PERUGIA, ITALY

I’m currently writing an entire post about Perugia, which involves such dramas as being robbed. Most of it centres around the hostel I stayed at, which had the most amazing community feel and farm animals. The word paradise has never been so applicable, and every time I’m talking to someone who is travelling to Italy, I urge them to go to Perugia with the sole purpose of staying at this hostel.

Read more about Perugia here

VILLA FRANCESCATTI: VERONA, ITALY

Verona was a completely unexpected  highlight of my summer in Italy. I went to see an outdoor opera (it was amazing) but was blown away by everything else that I discovered. I even fell in love with all of the Romeo and Juliet-themed attractions. One of the best parts, though, is the fact that I got to stay in a sixteenth century villa.

The gardens are beautiful and authentic and the villa itself feels magical, so I spent most of my time in the hostel exploring and muttering to myself in Italian about how pretty it was, and probably seeming crazy to my fellow guests.

HOSTELSUN B&B: BRUNICO, ITALY

I went to this place because I saw a lake, Lago di Braies on Instagram, and knew I had to go. An au pair friend went before me and recommended this hostel for the friendly and outgoing owner, who had dogs. Obviously I booked it immediately.

I had been sweltering hot for my entire time in Italy, and getting into the mountains was the greatest relief I’ve ever felt. It was so perfect and quiet here and I sat on my private balcony drinking Hugo, my favourite Italian alcohol and looking out at the view. So peaceful, and that wasn’t even the best part – that was Lago di Braies! Highly recommend making your way up to the very unexplored Italian Dolomites.

LAKE COMO HOSTEL: MENAGGIO, ITALY

I booked this hostel because it was basically my only option. It was way above and  beyond what I expected! In my post about Lake Como I described what an incredible and luxurious time I had in this place. The view was more than I could ask for and everything about my weekend here was just impeccable. If you want to feel rich but still stay in a cheap hostel, look no further.

Read more about Lake Como here

CHEERS HOSTEL: ISTANBUL, TURKEY

Me and my sister fell in love with this place immediately and talk about it constantly. Obviously, the highlight is the fact that the sweetest golden retriever ever lives there – his name is Zaman and he has his own Instagram account (@cheerszaman). But the terrace with a view of the Blue Mosque, the wonderfully kind staff whose names I still remember (a rarity considering how many hostels I’ve stayed in), and the unbelievably central location are what really took this place over the top. We could have stayed for weeks!

Read more about Istanbul and this hostel here

GOODMORNING HOSTEL: LISBON, PORTUGAL

When my friend Erika and I got to Lisbon, we were tired. So to be honest, not much sightseeing happened here. We did a hop-on hop-off bus tour (#tourists), went out to the beach at Cascais, and walked around a little bit, but otherwise…a lot of lounging occurred. We were overjoyed to learn that the hostel had an extraordinarily comfortable movie room with tons of DVDs to choose from – we watched Juno one night and it was lovely to take a break.

The breakfast is what stands out most in my mind – I ate Nutella waffles every morning and we had spirited discussions about politics and life and travel with the staff and fellow guests.

KISMET DAO HOSTEL: BRASOV, ROMANIA

As another illustration that yes, I do have a problem, this hostel is on here because I liked the dog that lived here. Her name was Zara and we spent a lovely morning hiking up Mount Tampa. By spent a lovely morning I mean I was dragged up the mountain by a dog who didn’t speak my language or care to listen to me. But anyway, it made me feel very local to walk my dog up a mountain, enjoying the first sunshine in days.

Also, at this hostel you get a free beer every night – more if you walk the dog. The greatest hostel feature I’ve ever encountered.

Read more about Brasov here

PURA VIDA SKY BAR & HOSTEL: BUCHAREST, ROMANIA

I feel like a lot of these hostels are on here because of one thing, while the rest of the facilities were just adequate. Note to self: if I ever open a hostel, it needs some  sort of fancy thing that people will remember and talk about. At Pura Vida, it was the Sky Bar – a rooftop bar with one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen. I don’t have any pictures, because I’m an idiot, but here is one from the hostel website.

They had killer mojitos and the Australian girl from my dorm room who I forced to be my friend was great company. A rooftop terrace always seems to make a place stick in my mind.

Read more about Bucharest here

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The Best of 2016

In my mind, 2016 is kind of broken into three completely separate parts. From January to April I was at university for the last semester, working at a cafe and hanging out with friends constantly. In May and June I went on an incredible whirlwind trip to eleven countries. In July I moved to Toronto and now I have a grownup job and sit in an office staring wistfully at my world map all day.

However, a surprising number of these 20 highlights happened in the school or the work part of 2016. Be forewarned that this is a very long post.

Going on a camping safari in Tanzania

I think in 80 years, my safari in Tanzania will still be the number one coolest thing I have ever done in my life. Sure, there were tsetse flies and both extreme cold and extreme heat, and a lot of time in a car, but thinking back on my 6 nights camping in the wilds of Africa none of that matters.

I watched thousands upon thousands of wildebeest make their way across the savannah, sitting on top of the Jeep and marvelling at how far I could see. I darted back into my tent in the middle of the night after seeing glowing eyes staring at me from the grass. I woke up to the most incredible sunset straight from my tent, and felt at peace.

Overcoming my fear of water by scuba diving in Zanzibar

Every time I think about the fact that I went scuba diving, I am in awe of my bravery. That may sound dramatic, but until literally last year I held my dad’s hand the whole time we snorkeled and sometimes cried into my mask because I was so irrationally afraid of the water. In Zanzibar, I saw a dive shop, marched myself over to sign up for a one day discovery course and then sat on the beach contemplating how afraid I was. I got in the boat, thought about all the ways I could die, and then threw myself backwards into the Indian Ocean with my heart in my throat.

And it was pure magic.

Taking the Sound of Music bike tour in Salzburg, Austria

Despite the fact that I only spent four days in Austria, three of the things on this list happened here. I think I need to go back to Austria…

Since the moment this tour began, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it again and take my mom with me. We LOVE the Sound of Music and the only reason that this tour wasn’t perfect is that my mom wasn’t there to experience it with me. My morning of riding out into the Austrian countryside, singing along to Do Re Mi and dancing around filming locations pretending to be Liesl will always be one of my fondest memories.

Hiking Pulpit Rock in Norway

Have I annoyed you all yet by continuing to rave about Pulpit Rock? Yes? Oh well, I’m going to keep doing it. You may notice that five of the items on this list are hikes; 2016 was the year I discovered that I actually do like hiking and now the first thing I do when planning a trip is check whether I can hike there. Anyway, I already wrote a whole post about this hike and I even used the word magical in the title (so dramatic) – here it is.

Hiking Ben Vrackie in Scotland

Another hike you say? Yep…I started my two month trip this summer with this hike, and it couldn’t have been a better kickoff. This random, not very well-known hike in Scotland was absolutely breathtaking and all it made me want to do was hike all over Scotland. My sister did a 10 day Scotland trip in August and did basically all the things I wanted to, and now we are seriously discussing opening a hostel in the Scottish countryside or trekking the West Highland Way together.

Scooting around Cappadocia

Oddly, my hot air balloon ride was not the highlight of my Cappadocia trip. It was incredible, but the day where my American friend Julie and I rented a scooter and drove wherever the wind took us stands out more in my mind. I was lonely in Cappadocia, the sole backpacker in my cave hotel’s dorm and shocked by the sharp downturn in tourism in Turkey.

When Julie arrived in the dorm I literally walked over and said, “Oh my god I’ve been so lonely, will you be my friend?” Somehow that worked, and we spent the rest of our time together. We climbed castles, feasted on Turkish food, got lost, and later went on the weirdest double date of my life with these two creepy Turkish guys. We also spent an amazing night dancing in a local bar, this time with less creepy Turkish guys.

I often say that Turkey is my favourite country, and I am heartbroken for what has been happening  there. It’s a magical place.

Visiting Anne Frank House in Amsterdam

I had a weird obsession with the Holocaust as a child, and I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary a million times and cried every single time. I managed to find a last-minute ticket through sheer luck (if you’re going, try to get one in advance) and on my last rainy day in Amsterdam I went and cried for a few hours. It’s impossible to describe how impactful this place was; they have set up the exhibits and memorials incredibly well and I believe everyone should know the story of this incredibly inspiring girl.

Spending the evening with the orchestra at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna

It’s no coincidence that two of these favourites happened with the same people. I met two girls from Chicago on my Sound of Music Tour (see above) and we traveled to Vienna together. I told them about a free concert by the Vienna Philharmonic happening at the Schonbrunn Palace, we picked up a French boy from their hostel, and off we went for one of the most special nights ever.

After an epic quest to find the only store in Vienna that was open (I think it was a public holiday) we bought a crap-ton of wine, bread, and cheese and made our way to one of the most beautiful palaces in Vienna. Obviously, it was packed, so we made our way to a hill behind the actual orchestra, ignoring signs that said we wouldn’t be able to hear.

The signs were in fact correct, but it didn’t matter. We got tipsy, talked about our favourite international misadventures, chatted to random strangers around us, and I kept having those moments of perfection where I stopped to take it all in.

Near the end of the concert, we decided to leave and avoid the rush. We ended up walking by the orchestra at the perfect time to hear AND see the final flourish – that’s right, there were fireworks.

Amazing.

Hiking Lion Rock in Hong Kong

If you had asked me during this hike if it would ever make it to a highlight list, the answer would be a firm no. This hike was REALLY HARD and I thought I was going to die. I actually hiked to Amah Rock first, which was a waste of time, then up to Lion Rock, and it was so hot. I’m much better at handling cold than heat (thanks Canada) and I have never sweat so much in my entire life. I considered giving up about 7 times but when I made it to the view, it was all worth it.

Hong Kong itself was a highlight, just like I expected it to be – it’s an unbelievably cool city with so much to do and see, and the cute Swedish boy I met certainly didn’t hurt.

Hiking Daimonji Yama in Kyoto

Japanese temples and shrines are gorgeous, but I find when I travel solo, going to these kinds of places means walking through in half an hour and leaving. In Kyoto I felt kind of listless after hitting the major highlights in a day, so I googled ‘hiking in Kyoto’ and found this gem. It was extremely confusing to find because there were no English signs, but if you use these directions you’ll be set.

The hike isn’t too hard, especially compared to some of the others on this list. At the top, there’s a very convenient area to picnic, chat, or read and journal – I did all of the above. I was the only foreigner for most of the time, and tons of Japanese families and groups were there. The atmosphere was great and the view was just incredible.

Hiking Mount Tampa in Brasov, Romania

When I arrived in Brasov, it was raining. When I left three days later, it was still raining. I napped and hung out in the hostel lounge much more than I would care to admit, because I couldn’t motivate myself to get out and do anything.  Luckily, the one time I dragged myself out of bed was great enough to make it to this list.

I booked my hostel (Kismet Dao) solely because a dog lived there, and when I got there I learned that if you walked the dog you got free beer. Um, win-win situation much!? I put on my sneakers and leashed up Zara for what I expected to be a light stroll around town. However, Zara had a mind of her own and since all I knew in Romanian was  thank you and no, controlling her was a challenge. She led me to what appeared to be her favourite path and we ended up climbing a mountain.

Going on a pub crawl in Edinburgh

I loved Edinburgh in general, but one of the highlights was the pub crawl I went on. I may not have thought so the next morning, but the girls I met were so fun and the pub scene so buzzing that the hangover was totally worth it. The hostel employee running the pub crawl was also a riot, with the most Scottish accent ever and the most Scottish beard ever.

Strangely, one of the highlights of the pub crawl did not happen in a pub. I only took one piece of photo ID with me because I didn’t want to lose my passport three days into my trip. At one spot the guy refused to let me in without another piece, which made me sad because the drinking age in Scotland is 18, and I was 20. I look sixteen.

Anyway, I had to run back to the hostel to grab my passport and the walk took me down the most charming little alleyways and streets I’ve ever seen – and the fact that I was already a pint of beer in just made me more pleased with my surroundings. It was strangely lovely and I will never forget how happy I was in that moment!

Visiting Iceland

The only country which is itself a highlight on this list. Iceland was the last destination on my insanely packed 2 month trip so I was worried that I’d be so tired (and maybe even jaded) that it wouldn’t impress me. Not so. Yes, I was exhausted, but Iceland is so COOL. I wrote about the logistics of planning a trip to Iceland already, and still need to sit down and try to remember the details of both tours I took.

But suffice it to say that there is a reason everybody gushes so much about Iceland. The sights are beautiful, the people are beautiful, the prices are horrifying, and you will never forget your time here.

Touring the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg

Totally never thought something in Winnipeg would be on this list. My sister moved to this fairly remote Canadian city for work. I had visited on a layover just to be able to say I’d visited all ten Canadian provinces, but hadn’t explored the city in depth. We found a cheap flight, split the cost and I was off to visit on a packed weekend.

Most of the time was spent snuggling doggies and eating junk food, because dogs and junk food are two of our favourite things, but we also made time for some sightseeing. The only must-see on my list was the Human Rights Museum, which I’ve heard only amazing things about.

It lived up to my expectations: the design, exhibits and educational value of the museum is stunning. I learned a ton. I was very moved to see Malala Yousafzai’s bloody school uniform on display; I have so much admiration for Malala and loved her book.

Wondering at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

I am SO obsessed with libraries. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred in our local library and I read a lot, so anywhere with books is a draw. When a library is historic and stunning, I can’t resist but to stop by. That’s why in Vienna, my very first stop was the Austrian National Library – I saw it on Instagram and immediately knew I had to go.

Did I wander the library pretending to be a Hapsburg princess? Perhaps. I was totally captivated by the amazing room, the exhibits on Hapsburg royalty, and even the smell of old books. I could have spent hours here.

Spending a solo Thanksgiving at the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario

I love plays and solo travel. I couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, and it’s never been a huge deal in my family anyway, so I decided to take a weekend trip in my new province. When I realized that I could get youth discounts on tickets to shows at the Stratford Theatre Festival, I was sold!

I stayed in the weirdest hostel ever (it was attached to a hospital and I was the only one staying there) but at least it was cheap. I saw incredible productions of Shakespeare in Love, MacBeth and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!

My emotions were all out of whack in October; the three-month mark was one of the toughest adjustments in moving and starting a new job. Solo travel always centres me, and this quick trip was exactly what I needed.

Pretending to be rich in Muskoka – Ontario’s cottage country

One of my best friends, Nicole, was working at a swanky resort (the JW Marriott) in Muskoka, which is the gorgeous lake country 2-3 hours north of Toronto. I headed up to visit her and see if I could take advantage of the resort facilities without staying there. The answer – yes. During Nicole’s shifts I walked in like I owned the place, plopped myself down by the pool and tried to put on my best snooty rich person face.

It was so relaxing to pretend to be rich for a day, and having my every whim catered to was just delightful. Top it off with the chance to see one of my best friends and the gorgeous surroundings of the resort and it was the recipe for a much-needed escape from the blistering heat of Toronto.

Visiting New York for the fourth time

It never gets old. My friend Emma was in Toronto, so of course we decided to travel a 10 hour bus ride south to NYC and spend like 36 hours there. Because we took Greyhound and Greyhound is the worst company in the history of capitalism, our bus was delayed almost five hours and we were stuck in Scranton, Pennslyvania for EVER. We did make it, though, and once we made it we had a blast.

Our hostel had the comfiest beds known to man and we took in two shows: Fiddler on the Roof and An American in Paris. I literally go to New York just to see Broadway shows…no regrets. It was HOT and EXPENSIVE and TIRING but would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Graduating university!

Somehow, this milestone pales in comparison to all the other amazing things I did in 2016. While during my third year of university I travelled more than I went to school, in my fourth year I think I only left the province twice, and it was all job interview-related. Despite this, I had the most incredible time during my last semester of school.

I worked at an Italian espresso bar, finally falling in love with the community vibe of my small university town. I finally made the close groups of friends I’d been searching for, spending my free time with so many people I absolutely love. Since I was also finally legal drinking age for the whole school year, I took advantage of that a bit as well..and by a bit I mean all the time.

I also barely had to put any time into school because I had completed most of my courses. I may have skipped classes every now and then (or all the time), but by fourth year I had mastered the art of getting good grades while putting in very little work.

I never understood why people say your university years are the best years of your life, but now I get it. I will remember how happy and free I was during my last semester of university forever.

Extending a work trip to Boston

My second week at my new full time job in Toronto, I flew off to Boston for a work trip. I felt very glamorous and everything about it was very exciting to me. I think it’s funny that my superiors, who travel all the time for work, are so jaded about it while the hotel bed is enough to make me clap with glee. I guess that’s what happens when you have a spouse and children to come home to!

Anyway, I wanted to extend the trip for a weekend and managed to get my way. I stayed in a lovely Cambridge Airbnb and powered through the Boston heat to sightsee. A highlight was ordering a cocktail at the Cheesecake Factory and not getting ID’d (I was 20). After my whirlwind weekend I was off to a paid-for Marriott and a packed week of meetings and orientations, which at the time was fun and exciting!

I completely adored Boston, but the highlight here was the fact that my flights were free 🙂

It has been the most incredible year and it has felt like an entire lifetime of experiences. I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings – in the first two months, I already have trips to Boston, London and Colombia booked!

Islam in Istanbul: The Blue Mosque

Neither I or my sister had ever been to a Muslim country before. We had never seen a mosque, and didn’t really feel like we knew very much about Islam at all. Istanbul was our introduction to this world, and we were instantly hooked. The mosques we visited were insanely beautiful, the people were so friendly, and we loved diving into such a foreign culture (albeit in such a tourist-friendly place).

I’m not planning to share my opinions on the whole refugee issue and all the shit going on in the world right now because I really don’t feel like I know enough to have an informed opinion. Although I will share these:

10703864_10154609925315367_4370687824943614296_n 12274295_1098262080208492_4257883078781838597_nSuffice it to say that nothing improves your tolerance of other religions and cultures like travelling. I would learn so much more about Islam in Morocco, but even in Istanbul our eyes were opened. We watched a young Muslim couple wander around the Hippodrome, the woman in a full burqa and the couple so clearly in love. We wondered how she would drink her fresh squeezed orange juice and watched covertly as we discovered there was a flap that lifted up.

We sat people-watching and were approached by two different groups of students, doing video interviews with tourists to practice their English – the young boys giggled as they asked us the same questions, and the older girls seemed genuinely curious to hear about our lives.

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We entered the Blue Mosque and I was almost brought to tears by just how beautiful it was. How could people say an entire religion was evil when it created unbelievably gorgeous buildings like this? We watched how worshipers went about their business and stared agog at the ceiling, wishing we could stay forever.

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When we walked out, one of the most special moments of my entire summer happened. I was struggling with my headscarf, which I had donned for the mosque, when a group of older Muslim women walked over, none of whom spoke English. One gestured for my permission, then removed my headscarf and showed me how to tie it, murmuring in Arabic all the while. Another woman came over as soon as she was done and showed me a different way, the two women lightly arguing about which way was better. We tried to convey our appreciation with the absolutely zero Arabic that we had learned, settling for big smiles and the small bow characteristic of the culture. Walking away, I felt like I had just had a spiritual experience despite being super Atheist. It was magical and they were just so kind and welcoming and warm – we had fallen in love with Istanbul.

 

The Perfect Weekend in Istanbul

I visited a lot of cities and a lot of countries this summer, but Istanbul is one that stands out the most. At least once a week, my sister and I text each other something to the tune of “ugh can we go back to Istanbul plz”. I think part of our love for the cultural capital of Turkey may have been partially due to the fact that it was quite early in our trip that we visited. However, that’s definitely not the only factor – I have heard so many other travellers rave about this totally unique place. It was also our first time in a Muslim country, and my sister’s first time in a really exotic place! I had been to China, but otherwise our most jarring cultural experiences were probably in the Caribbean.

No matter what the reason we loved it so much, we are both desperate to revisit Istanbul. We spent three nights in our favourite hostel of all time and wandered around the city for two full days; not nearly enough time despite the amount of stuff we managed to pack in. Read on to discover how to spend the perfect weekend in Istanbul – keeping in mind the fact that we definitely didn’t have enough time to explore in depth!

DAY 1

We arrived in Istanbul super late at night, and despite my usual preference for getting myself lost and confused on public transport with all of my belongings, we decided to book a private pickup for once. This wasn’t too expensive at 30 Euros from Ataturk Airport – it’s a lot more if you’re flying into the airport on the Asian side.

Our transport was arranged through Cheers Hostel, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Obviously, the best part was the dog who lives at the hostel. He is named Zamon (I have no idea if I’m spelling that correctly) and I love him so much. He would snuggle with us at breakfast and greet us enthusiastically every time we came back in: it was hard to tear ourselves away. In my mind, any hostel with a cute resident dog is automatically leaps and bounds above the dogless options.

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What’s the best thing to do upon entering a totally foreign city? Throw yourself into one of its most overwhelming sites. We first headed to the Grand Bazaar, which was everything we had dreamed of and was totally magical and, like I said, overwhelming. Over the coming months I would get used to the insanity of Morocco, but the Grand Bazaar in Turkey was an amazing introduction to the vibrant world of Muslim countries. We bought scarves, gifts, sampled snacks – and discovered the sales tactics of the salesmen. At least four men asked if we were twins (NOPE) as a way to drag us into conversation.

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On our way to the Spice Market, we got ourselves a little lost (intentionally) and stumbled upon Istanbul University and the New Mosque. If you’ve never been in a mosque before, prepare yourself – they are seriously incredible. I never wanted to leave, and the Blue Mosque would prove even more amazing. Make sure to follow mosque rules (cover your hair, shoulders and legs, and remove your shoes) and be respectful as most mosques are working and people are praying.

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Next up, visit the Spice Market: it doesn’t sound that exciting, because what traveller really has enough room to buy a bunch of spices, but the smells alone are enough to justify a visit.

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Then, we made our way down to the water and decided to hop on the ferry to Asia. One of the coolest parts of Istanbul  is the opportunity to hop back and forth between Europe and Asia, so I absolutely recommend you make time for this: it’s so cheap and although we didn’t have time to explore much of the Asian side, it was fascinating to see how different it felt despite the short distance we had travelled. The views from the ferry are also stunning:

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Now, I have discussed many a time that I am not exactly a museum person. However, my sister wanted to visit the Archaeology Museum and I decided that while in such an ancient city, I couldn’t really say no – and it had pretty good reviews. We had a lot of fun taking very mature pictures and my sister helpfully explained the history of Istanbul to me as we explored the exhibits.

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You have even more to see tomorrow – try to get a good night’s sleep!

DAY 2

If I have one practical tip for Istanbul, it is to arrive at the Topkapi Palace as early as possible. We went right at opening and I would recommend doing the same – when we went in there was no line, but as we were exiting around lunchtime the line was insanely long. While we had a little bit of trouble understanding the history of this place as signage was lacking, the complex is breathtaking and completely worth the visit.

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A visit to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without the Hagia Sophia – this gorgeous building used to be a mosque, was converted into a church, and is now a museum. While there was a lot of construction and the building has clearly gone through a lot of wear and tear, nothing beats the amazing way the light comes in through the windows. Don’t miss it! LrMobile0811-2015-06181619505353971

Next, the Blue Mosque, which is conveniently right across from the Hagia Sophia. I could have sat in this place for hours. I have genuinely never been somewhere so beautiful. The ceiling was a work of art, the building shockingly massive, and the people inside fascinating and warm and kind. If I go back to Istanbul, this is the first place I’m stopping.

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End your busy stay with a trip to a local hammam and prepare for a ton of culture shock – read about my experience and tips here.

 

 

What to Expect at a Turkish Hammam

The Turkish woman gestured for me to remove my bikini top, something I thought I had gotten away with wearing. I shouldn’t have felt weird about semi-nudity at this point, considering the other women of all shapes and sizes scattered around the room were mostly totally naked, but my North American upbringing shone through and I gave my sister a ‘HELP ME’ look. She shrugged – I just had to do it. Glaring at her until she turned away, I did as instructed and my half hour hammam treatment began.

Before going to a Turkish bath, I was quite nervous: if theres one thing I can do, it’s research, and dozens of articles had mentioned that it was a totally jarring experience. However, everyone also said it was totally worthwhile, so my sister and I manned up and asked our hostel to recommend a local hammam for us. A hammam, if you’re not familiar, is a traditional Turkish bathhouse that has become popular as a tourist attraction. They are still very much used by locals, so you can easily find a very authentic place!

If you’re in the same boat and trying to figure out what you’re in for, here’s another personal account of what to expect at a Turkish hammam – and first let me say that you should totally do it. We were sent to Gedikpasa Hammam, but there are tons that are fairly similar. Side note – there is another article coming about a hammam experience in Marrakesh, which was possibly the most amusing experience of my entire life as apparently there is such a thing as a COED HAMMAM. I can’t wait to write about that.

The first choice you have to make is what type of treatment you’d like. Of course, the options (and everything else) will vary based on what hammam you go to, but at mine we went for the most basic, which included a soap massage and then a scrubbing. You can add things like an argan oil massage or a fish footbath, but we are poor backpackers and therefore could not. Once you’ve selected your treatment, you’ll be led to either a locker room (single-sex) or a private cabin – we got a cabin. We were instructed to change into our bathing suits and then wrap the provided towel around ourselves.
A common theme of our experience was confusion – we were constantly wondering if we were supposed to stay in our cabin, what we were supposed to wear, where we were supposed to go, how we were supposed to act – but rest assured, you’re a tourist and you’re supposed to be confused. The locals won’t judge you, so just go with the flow and laugh at your stupidity!

Eventually, after lots of the aforementioned confusion, we were led into the actual bath section, past lots of naked women (#cultureshock) and into a sauna. We spoke French with a few locals and laughed uncomfortably with an Australian woman until finally we were brought outside the room – it was our turn.

If you’re uncomfortable with nudity, a hammam is GOING to be an awkward experience. I eventually got over it, but for the first little while I forced my sister to look the other way and I’m sure my cheeks were bright red. Just accept that none of these other women are judging you, this is normal, and you’ll relax a bit. The next twenty minutes were a haze of soap in my eyes, buckets of water dumped over my head, and lots of dead skin being sloughed off my body. The attendant kindly led me around by the elbow, understanding that I had no idea what was going on.

At this hammam, at least, the basic procedure was as follows:

• Cool water is dumped over your head, which feels glorious after too long in an obscenely hot sauna.
• All the dead skin is removed from your body with a sponge. This is gross and you will wonder where it all came from.
• More buckets of water rinse all the dead skin off of you, and you will then marvel at how soft your skin feels.
• You get a glorious soap massage on a hot marble slab, where the attendant will touch you in places you didn’t expect to be touched. She’ll crack every bone in your body and you will marvel at how relaxed you can somehow feel while a stranger is getting to know you so well.
• Another rinse, and then you’re set free to wander in confusion and try to figure out what you’re supposed to do. If you’re me, you’ll dip into the plunge pool, get scared because the water is dim, then take a shower and head back out to wait while your sister follows the correct procedure. If you’re not an idiot, you’ll alternate between the sauna and the plunge pool, THEN take a shower.

We paid around 30 dollars for our hammam experience, which in my mind is pricey, but you’re getting both an awesome spa experience and some nice cultural immersion. There’s a huge range of prices depending on whether you go to a super local hammam or a super touristy hammam: ours was in the middle but closer to a local venue.