Get off the beaten path » Seeing the world from a different point of view

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  • Get off the beaten path

    It's so easy to stick to the tourist trail, stay in hotels the Lonely Planet recommends, eat where everyone else eats and visit all the famous sights you've seen on telly and in magazines. While these experiences can be nice, you'll have the best adventures if you wander off the trail. Who's to say that just because a sight is famous, that it's actually any good? In fact, as soon as you discover what else the world has to offer that is not in the guide book, you'll realise that most famous sights are astonishingly underwhelming - if you can get through the crowds to see them.

    As well as the fact that the greatest sights you'll see, people you'll meet and experiences you'll have are off the beaten path, it's also much cheaper to get off the tourist trail than to stay on it.

    I realise that as soon as you find a place that’s genuinely off the tourist trail you want to keep it to yourself, but if you share, then others will share, and the world will open up around you. I’m not talking about taking three flights, two boat rides and a lift on the back of a donkey cart just to find an empty beach, I’m interested in the gems that are simply hidden away from the regular tourist areas, be it a lesser-known Thai island, a unique area of a big city, an unusual hotel or just a sight that no one seems to have noticed.

    If you've ever come across anything like this, let me know and I'll share it on this site!

    That's me, by the way, jumping in the air at a sand dune in Punta Gallinas, the most northerly point in Colombia.

Iceland – hot springs, volcano and the Northern Lights

I have a lot of hobbies. I like to skate, I love baking cupcakes, I enjoy dance classes and I’m even writing a book. But I’m pretty bad at keeping them up. I haven’t skated for a year, I haven’t baked since last November and the last dance class was so long ago I can’t remember a single move. And the book is stuck at 70,000 words.

But there are two passions in my life that I will never give up: photography and travelling. And Iceland is the perfect place to take a camera.

You can gaze over a massive landscape that goes on for miles and miles and not see a shred of evidence of human life. Not a house, person or macdonalds to be seen. This country is all about nature. It’s such an active country. I really think that if the world is going to end, Iceland will be the one to see us trash-dropping, deodorant-spraying, tree-chopping humans off. The whole country is bubbling under the surface; it feels like it’s on the verge of just exploding in a great burst of lava! Wherever you go you can see steam filling the icy air, and if you’re lucky you can even go and bathe in the hot water.

If you want to really truly get off the beaten path, go to Iceland.

Now I’m going to share a secret with you. Ok it’s not so much a top secret as a lesser-known thing. But it’s my ultimate travel find and is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

There’s this hot spring. It’s near Reykjavik, it’s free, it’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s HOT. You can bathe in hot water surrounded by snowy mountains and you will most likely have the place to yourself. It’s called Hrunalaug and is close to the village of Flúðir.

You need to drive road no 344 (Hrunavegur) from Flúðir and turn off it towards Sólheimar. Drive past the church and stop when you come to a parking space that has a ‘no camping’ sign. Just over the hill (2 minute walk) is Hrunalaug.

Here’s how to find it:

Drive the ring road out of Reykjavik along the south coast eastwards. When you see a sign for Flúðir, hang a left. Just before you reach the town, take the 344 towards Hruni and  Sólheimar. When you see a cute white church, turn right, go past it, then take the first right, signposted Sólheimar. Right there is a small car park with a no camping sign. Park up, head over the hill to the right, cross the first stream (cold) and jump right into the second stream (hot!). There is a little hut where I’m guessing people used to change before bathing. Jump in naked – usually there’s no one else around. Then enjoy the view from your very own natural hot tub!! Below is a photo map to help you find it:

Here are my top tips for Iceland:
Go there. Don’t even think about it, just buy plane ticket and go
Go there for as long as you can. There’s so much to see and do
Bring a towel, rent a car and submerge yourself in natural hot spring
If you insist on going to the blue lagoon, bring your own towel, wear a swimming cap and go at sunset  ( Im serious about the cap, my hair is ruined)
On  a clear night, keep looking up. Sometimes you can’t see the northern lights with your eyes so take a long exposure photo (15 seconds, 2000 ISO, f2.8 min) and you’ll see it on your camera screen!
Rent a 4×4 – you can explore more
Get off the ring road and get lost among the ponies and mountains
Check out these photos, including the Northern Lights and the volcano that blew in 2010!
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January 26, 2014 - 7:43 pm

{Travel photography} Iceland | Anna Pumer Photography | Alternative | Natural | Fun | Wedding Photography in Brighton and London - [...] I went to Iceland in January for my 30th birthday – here are the highlights (if you want tips on finding a secret natural hot spring near Reykjavik, go to my travel blog Get Off The Beaten Path | Iceland) [...]

May 21, 2014 - 3:21 am

Suki F - I loved all the photos. The place looks so relaxing and beautiful, even romantic.

June 5, 2014 - 1:59 pm

Rebecca Douglas - Eeeeeeeek!! Anna this post just got me even more excited! I think I am going to explode before we go!! xx

Vietnam on two wheels: Hanoi to Ha Giang

The best way to see Vietnam is on a motorbike. For a start, nothing beats being out in the open, having the freedom to take any path you want, and being able to shout hello to all the excited children you pass. Another good reason is because the buses and trains are like hell on Earth. I cannot tell you how much they are Not Fun. The sleeper buses were designed for tiny people with a wild resistance to sharp braking, ear-drum-bursting disco music and painfully bright lights. The sleeper trains, from what I hear, are even worse.

As for being on the back of a motorbike, which is where my bum was parked for 15 days of our 21-day trip to Vietnam, I can safely say that aside from a bit of exhaust burn, it is a hell of a lot of fun.

We started off with a six-day tour around Ha Giang. This is totally possible to do with just yourselves, a bike and a good map, but we decided to take the much safer route of booking a tour. It cost $550 each, but it was the highlight of the trip, without a doubt. There are loads of companies that do this sort of thing, and we went with Vietnam On Trails. The reason I chose them was because after email conversations with several companies, this was the only one who had someone with excellent English and who was understanding of our needs.

“Thomas excelled, whizzing around and then zooming off up and down the main street. I stalled 10 times in a row, gave up and let Thomas be the designated driver”

Our driver was a guy called Tan, and he was excellent in every way. He was the only person in Vietnam who didn’t have a phlegm-spitting habit, he had a Western standard of cleanliness, his English was brilliant and he went out of his way to give us what we wanted. For example, if he heard the shutter of my camera as we were driving along (whenever I was on the back of his bike instead of Thomas’s), he’d slow down so I could get the picture; he gave me his own personal helmet as mine was a bit uncomfortable; he moved tables to the outside of restaurants at lunch (much to the confusion and amusement of the restaurant owners and patrons, who like to eat in dark rooms) because he knew we liked to eat outdoors; and he was an extremely safe driver.

The tour started with a free motorbike lesson the day before, as neither of us had ever ridden any kind of motorbike, even a scooter. The lesson consisted of standing in front of a huge motorbike in a car park, and the company owner Ngoc explaining where the gears, clutch and brake were, then sending us off to do a loop of the car park. Thomas excelled, whizzing around and then zooming off up and down the main street. I stalled 10 times in a row (no exaggeration), gave up and let Thomas be the designated driver.

The next day the tour began. It was really beautiful and so much fun being on the back of a bike. We arrived at our first homestay in Vu Linh while it was still light out, so Tan suggested we head down to the lake for a swim (“don’t worry, it’s clean” he said). We took the bikes there as it was a km or so away, much to our regret, as the path was very steep and sandy, and Thomas came off his bike in spectacular fashion, burning the inside of his right calf on the exhaust and earning himself a permanent reminder of Vietnam. We struggled the rest of the way to the lake to wait for assistance, where we saw a buffalo lower himself into the water and take a massive dump. We didn’t go in for a swim.

“When we got to the lake we saw a buffalo lower himself into the water and take a massive dump. We decided not to go in for a swim”

Getting back to the homestay, we cleaned Thomas’s wound and spent the night in a wooden stilt house with a minority family who taught us “cheers” in their local dialect (“ho me do”) – or maybe that means “bottoms up”, I can’t remember – and made us drink lots of rice wine, which helped with Thomas’s leg pain. We ate dinner in the big communal room that also housed all our beds, sitting on the floor around a delicious selection of homemade food before passing out at around 8pm after way too much rice wine.

Day 2 took us to Ha Giang. The town itself was unremarkable, but the village we stayed in was gorgeous – rice terraces, farms in back gardens, local people who liked to touch my hair… The air smelled fantastic too – in fact it smelled great everywhere in Vietnam, like you’ve stuck your face in a big bag of rice.

Day 3 started out well, with gorgeous scenery (of course) and windy mountain roads. Then my stomach started telling me something was very wrong. As I was sitting on the back of Tan’s bike and we were in the middle of nowhere I decided to keep quiet and hope it would go away. Then we had a rest break, surrounded by nothing but beautiful scenery, and my stomach told me that now was the time. I had to embarrassingly ask Tan to undo my backpack from the back of his bike so I could get tissues and wet wipes, and sprint to the nearest rock. This was possibly the lowest moment of my life.

“My stomach told me that now was the time. I sprinted to the nearest rock. This was possibly the lowest moment of my life”

Then it started raining. Hard. We managed to drive slowly to Dong Van, a nothing town with a few other tourists milling about, sheltering from the rain. We realised we wouldn’t be able to go any further that day, so found a horrendous hotel and holed up for the night. We ventured out in the evening, so that we didn’t have to spend any more time in our grotty hotel room than we had to, and were dragged into an outdoor bar by some extremely drunk locals, and force-fed rice wine once again. The good thing is that it’s so strong it doesn’t take long before you’re so drunk you can’t tell how disgusting it is anymore, and you’re past wondering who made it and in what conditions.

Day 4 was the most beautiful of all. We almost missed out on this part of the trip due to the rain nearly forcing us to reroute – but thank god we didn’t. It was all the superlatives you can think of so I won’t bore you with them here. Just look at the pictures:

 

I rode with Thomas most of the time over the final few days. The roads were windy, the drops steep and the conditions ever so slightly bumpy in lots of places. At the beginning all he could hear in his ear was “eeeee” “argh” “oh god!!” as I squealed around every slight corner. So after a few days of him getting used to the bike and me getting used to the fact that the bike won’t tip over when we go round a corner, I jumped on the back and enjoyed the view.

As we had stopped early the day before, we were late to turn up at our next scheduled homestay. It was getting dark by the time we arrived, which wasn’t good because we were staying in a national park with no outdoor lighting, only accessible from this side by junk boat. We arrived as the sun was dropping, but as it had rained recently we had a little bit of trouble getting the bikes off the boat and onto the mainland. The banks were steep (very) and muddy and there was no flat bit – we had no choice but to push the bikes up this swampy slope. Ok I admit, I stood and took photos while Tan, Thomas and the boat driver pushed. If they’d slipped or let go, them and the bikes would have ended up in the lake.

We made it up the hill (ok, they did) and we rode in the dark through the jungle along an unlit two-foot wide path to the homestay. I think I’d rather have slept in the junk boat. The house itself was ok, but the bathroom stank. So bad. The toilet was covered in… erm, stuff, and the bathroom had an unshifting stench that even with the door open it felt like you’d fallen into one of those toilets like they have in Slumdog Millionaire. Needless to say I didn’t drink anything for the whole time we were there so I wouldn’t have to go in there, I cleaned my teeth in the bedroom and spat over the balcony, and in the morning when I had to pee, I “went for a walk” and did it in someone’s farm.

Breakfast there was the best we had, though. Fried bananas with honey and sugar. They made these alongside the tiny fish they were frying, to sell outside the house to a boatload of rich Vietnamese travellers from Saigon, wearing jeans and polo shirts.

We left the homestay by boat, and ended up sailing into Ba Be Lake – a major Vietnamese tourist destination. I went for a swim in the cold water (after half an hour of sitting on the edge of the boat, saying to Thomas, “you’ll have to push me or force me to go in, I cannot and shall not do it on my own! I’m too weak!” He counted to three, I plopped myself in and instantly regretted the wasted time whining on the edge of the boat. Five glorious minutes of swimming later and Tan was calling me in to get moving for lunch.

Lunch was amazing too. We ate at the homestay we should have stayed in the previous night, if it hadn’t been too dark to reach it. It was an amazing place. The bedroom overlooked rice paddies on the lake and the toilets were clean to the standard of a person with OCD.

The last night was spent in a small village where the homestay was a bit more contrived. Less a local family and more a travellers’ hostel, the accommodation was clean but the food and company was seriously lacking.

“We were back to reality. Back to crossing a road with a 50% survival rate”

The last day of driving took us through a bunch of ugly towns and highways, before reaching Hanoi. I was still on the back of Thomas’s bike and he had never driven in traffic – and Hanoi traffic is like nowhere else on Earth. I resumed screeching into his ear, telling him about every car or bike that was within a mile’s radius of us. I’m sure that didn’t irritate him at all. We were dropped off in a cab at a hostel we’d booked, a world away from the quiet, scenic countryside we’d got used to. We were back to reality. Back to crossing a road with a 50% survival rate. Back to being ripped off by shops and restaurants. Back to being “just another tourist”. Bah.

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My Amy Winehouse interview: found!

I admit, the only thing this post has to do with travel is the fact that I travelled from Surbiton to Camden to do the interview, and that we’re now travelling back in time by nine years to a lost-now-found interview I did with Amy Winehouse. But I’m so excited, I had to share it with you. The website I wrote this article for went down years ago, and my clever, investigative boyfriend just found it for me. I haven’t read it since it was published in 2004. I thought I’d lost it forever! I probably would have transcribed it and saved it carefully if I’d known she’d get famous and die dramatically, of course. But at the time she was just another 20-year-old newbie trying to make it in the music business, among the dozens of other 20-something wannabes I’d interviewed, so I didn’t think it mattered… Plus, she sucked.

Anyway, here it is, my short but sweet interview with Amy Winehouse…

Great place, great atmosphere, not such great company.

Amy Winehouse has a fantastic voice, there’s no denying it; she puts on a sexy accent, her songs are exciting and she sings with soul. But it’s deceiving; for such a tiny person, she doesn’t half have a gob on her – she’s brash, rude and very easily distracted, as I found out last night.

While interviewing her, Amy looked over the side of the balcony and said, “I hope one of the guys walk past so I can gob on them.” Nice girl. And that’s the most interesting quote I got from the whole interview, and probably the only full sentence she offered me.

When chatting to her I thought ‘Okay, I’ll just do a review of her gig I’m attending in a couple of hours’ time. That’s bound to be amazing’.

With such high hopes, I was bitterly disappointed. Yeah so her voice was amazing, without even a slight hitch – but the lack of problems with her voice was more than made up for in her organisation. Slowly losing the audience, she made sure we knew it was her and us – secret chats with her pianist, winks between the boys in the band, and shouts to her brother and her ‘girls’ made the audience look very much like inferior outsiders to the Great World of Amy.

Looking like she had no clue as to what she was singing next, and actually having no clue as to how to actually entertain an audience, the only thing she really said to us was “I’m in the Jazz Café!” Yes, you are, well done.

She’s 20 years old, well done Amy you’ve made it, but do you really have to put down everyone who’s doing a degree to get themselves somewhere in life (yes, that was another dazzling quote)? We’re not all blessed with voices like angels y’know.

*Note from 2013: Even though I didn’t keep my transcription of the interview, there is one cringey thing I remember very well from it: I told her I liked her lip piercing, and when she made a weird “er, yeah, ok” response I spent the rest of the interview so embarrassed, convinced I’d just complimented her on a zit…

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Travelling with a toy camera

Travel and photography are two of my favourite things in the world. So of course I mix the two at every opportunity. This time, I jetted off to Holland to see my partner, Thomas, where I bought my first ‘toy’ camera, a Diana F+ (in a Dutch pattern of course) and took it out on a road trip…

Unfortunately the film got exposed to the light when it was taken out (not my fault!). Anyway, maybe the burn marks are kind of cool in their own way. My absolute favourite is the horse picture. It is a double-exposure taken in the Hague, Holland. I took a shot of the grounds of Binnenhof (the Courtyard), then turned around and took a picture of a statue of King Willem on a horse – as luck would have it, there was a seagull perched on his head! You can see the clouds in the sky, it looks like smoke, and the horse statue has gone beautifully opaque so you can see the building in the first picture inside it. I love it! This is what film is all about.

All of these picture were taken in the Hague, Scheveningen and Brussels. The last picture was taken inside this awesome multi-themed cafe in Brussels, far from any tourist spot. My local friend, Laura, took me there. It’s a real hidden gem. Each room has a different theme, from music to travel and even an England theme. Each had tables to eat at, a library, and lots of memorabilia related to the theme. I can’t remember the name of the place though – hopefully she’ll read this and leave a comment on the page! (Update: It’s called Cook and Book).

Anyway, here are my Diana pics – enjoy!

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New Year’s Dive, Scheveningen, the Netherlands

I hate New Year’s Eve. Normal pubs charge you money to get in, people seem to think they can act like complete idiots and the night is almost always a total letdown.

For years I’ve stayed home with a movie, a bottle of champers and my cats. This year, I had a new boyfriend and no fixed abode, so I decided to do something different. I was in the Netherlands over Christmas, visiting Thomas and his family, and our plan was to stay in and watch telly for New Year’s Eve. But when I woke up that morning, the first thing I thought was, “We have to do something fun for new year’s! We must go to the New Year’s Dive!” I excitedly told Thomas this the moment he woke up, and he sleepily agreed, so we booked a hotel in Scheveningen, jumped in the car and headed north to Scheveningen, a beach town near The Hague.

As soon as we got there, I felt ill. It was the worst timing. I had a fever, I was hot and cold and my bones hurt. Midnight was creeping closer and my desire to get out of bed was getting lower. But I was determined. So I downed a blackcurrant Lemsip, dragged myself out of bed and put on all my clothes. I looked like the Michelin man.

Realising that a taxi was a very expensive, and at that time, unavailable option, we got in the car on the off-chance there’s be parking somewhere within two miles of the beach. We drove around for ages, but all the parking meters had a 30-minute maximum. But our luck was in. Thanks to the fireworks maniacs of the Netherlands (they’re only legal between 10am and 2pm on New Year, no other time of year, so people go a bit mental) a parking meter had been obliterated by fireworks. No one would know how long we’d been there!

We got out the car and crossed the road. Right behind us there was a massive bang, as if someone had shot a gun right behind our heads. We looked back at the smouldering firework in the middle of the street – right where we’d just crossed. I felt like I was in Afghanistan, dodging landmines. I could have lost my legs! And it wouldn’t have even been for the good of my country!

As we walked to the beach, kids threw fireworks in our path and massive explosions were going off everywhere, the sound reverberating off the tall buildings and along the roads trees and trash were on fire. It was terrifying.

We got to the beach at about 11.15pm, and in contrast to the streets, it was completely dead. Hardly any people, bars were closed, no big bonfire as promised by YouTube videos of past years.

We walked up and down, disappointed, until I suggested we go sit on the sand and have a glass of wine from the bottle we’d brought. As soon as we hit the sand, we noticed a massive lit-up 2012 sign facing the sea. No one knew it was there! We sat facing the water, bracing ourselves against the odd sandstorm and discussing whether we would tell people that, while we’d spent NYE on the beach, it was actually pissing down with rain, freezing cold and not, in fact, in Thailand, as people might assume.

At 11.45pm we turned around to see if anything was happening. The beach was packed! People were playing with sparklers, the 2012 sign was flashing, and everyone was in a great mood.

As midnight struck, loads of previously unassuming white vans opened their doors and thousands of white balloons filled the sky. Fireworks went wild and a huge bonfire started up down the beach. What a difference 45 minutes can make!

 

 

The next morning was the famous New Year’s Dive. It involved 10,000 people wearing orange bobble hats and running into the ocean at midday. When we got down there the beach was heaving – it was taking place on the exact spot we’d been sitting the night before. The atmosphere was electric. A band played onstage, jollying up the crowd, and the originator of the dive was there too, although he’s about 100 now.

At midday, they counted down and everyone ran into the water and out again. It looked like fun and I cursed my sickness for stopping me from joining in. Next year I swear I’ll do it… Brrrrr…

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