Wednesday, May 2, 2012

5 Travel Websites I Couldn't Live Without

Travel blogs and websites sparked my wanderlust
 and  inspired me to move to Scotland!
Travel websites are like microwave dinners: there's a million different kinds of them out there, but most of them are unsatisfactory and flavorless.  Still, I've had a lot more luck in my quest for good travel sites than I've had trying to find a good hot pocket. I just had to dig around to find them- a lot aren't nearly as well-known as they deserve to be.

After a good year of browsing travel blogs, transport websites, and tourist forums, I find myself coming back to these five sites again and again:

1. Skyscanner There's a lot of flight aggregators on the world wide web, but I've had the greatest success with this one.  I especially enjoy it's "cheap flights from" feature, which lists the least expensive destinations from your chosen airport- great for opportunistic budget travelers like me who don't have a specific destination in mind.

2. Twenty-Something Travel: A blog by an American college graduate who decided to ditch her desk job to travel the world, this inspired me to start Marie on the Move. Stephanie Yoder writes about everything travel-- accommodation, solo travel, and budgetting are frequent topics-- but she really finds her stride in introspective articles about the philosophy behind the backpack.

3. The Indie Travel Podcast:  A little over a year ago, while planning my great adventure in Scotland, I saved money by working the graveyard shift at a factory.  The only thing that kept me moving through months of mindless, repetitive work was listening to episodes of this quirky podcast. Craig and Linda, the Kiwi-born couple that created it, have produced over 200 episodes.  They cover  every travel topic imaginable, and their website's interactive forum hosts community of like-minded backpackers across the globe.

4. The Guardian’s Backpacking page- For a journalism student with travel writing ambitions I read very little professional travel writing, preferring blogs to newspapers and magazines. It seems so much travel journalism is posh, aimed at the upper middle class-- I can't afford the seaside resorts and fine dining promoted in this type of work.  That said, British newspaper The Guardian’s website has travel articles for every budget- including an entire section on planning gap years and backpacker holidays.

5. Solo Friendly- Every now and then someone will tell me how brave I was to pack up my life and move overseas.  As flattering as this is, the truth is millions of people travel on their own, and lots of these individuals are more daring than me. Take Gray Cargill, this blog's author. She's explored seven countries and 21 US states all on her lonesome.  Whenever I find myself putting off a trip-- whether i an excursion to Ireland or a trip to a new restaurant-- because “I have no one to go with,” I spend a few minutes on this site, which reminds me of the thrill of self-reliance that comes from solo travel.

Of course, these five sites are by no means the only sites I use.  I also rely on old favorites like Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet, and if I blocked Edinburgh International Festival's website from my web browser, I could reclaim hours of would-be study time from imaginary itinerary planning.  So I suppose the internet does have a lot more than microwave meal travel journalism... I'd better up my game if I ever want to measure up to an impressive crowd of online travel writers.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Quirky Travel Tips for Cultural Adventure

The past few weeks I've been giddy and excitable.  Not just because we've had some beautiful weather in Edinburgh (interspersed, in true Scottish style, with some truly disgusting weather).  Nor because it's Easter time, and I've enjoyed enough sweets to quadruple my risk of diabetes.  No, I'm excited because my mom and dad are coming for a weeklong visit starting tomorrow.

After months of missing Dad's weekend pancake dinners, Mom's guilt-induced trips to church, family movie nights, and outings to my brothers musicals, I'll finally get to spend some quality time with them.  What's more, I'll get the pleasure of showing them around my new home- I love playing the Scotland expert and showing off my favorite hangs.

So, in addition to sun bathing and chocolate eating, the past month was filled with planning for Mom and Dad's big visit. Creating an itinerary for them has got me thinking about the way I like to travel.  In addition to typical tourist attractions and cultural hotspots you might expect, I've come up with some offbeat experiences that I think are key to truly experiencing Scottish culture, indeed any culture.  So now, I present you with Marie's weird ways to get know a place:

Public Transportation:  A necessity that's often pushed under the rug and not really talked about, trams, trains, buses, and subways can sometimes be uncomfortable, awkward, or just icky.  However, I think a place's public transportation speaks volumes about it's structure, leadership, and culture.

My home city of Rochester's flaws are evident in their disgrace of a public transport system.  Like the city itself, the RGRTA buses are outdated, messy, and a bit dangerous (in my younger, stupider days I had a few harrowing experiences on Rochester buses). When I think about Lothian Buses in Edinburgh, I feel proud of my how my adopted home values cleanliness, friendliness and efficiency. That isn't to say Edinburgh structurally supreme- the debauched efforts to build a tram system illustrate the City Council's obliviousness to the needs of its people.

Grocery Shopping: How do they sell their milk?  What are the popular varieties of breakfast cereal?  How many flavours of ice cream are there? You can learn heaps about a culture walking down the aisle of a grocery store. Even after living in Edinburgh for 7 months, every "quick trip" I take to Tesco, Morrisons, or Waitrose turns into a lengthy journey of culinary discovery.  Unlike tourist-packed High Street restaurants that cater to the perceived needs of international customers, grocery stories give an accurate illustration of what people actually eat.  And nothing says "You're in Scotland" like the logo on a Scott's Porage box. 

Bookstores:  Similarly, you can get an idea of what locals actually read at a bookshop-- and I'm not talking about Waterstones. Indie bookshops are full of personality, and because these small establishments can only afford to carry a limited selection, the books you see there are an accurate reflection of what locals enjoy.  I've also found that a lot of wee bookstores here have a "local interest" section, filled with books-fiction and nonfictions- about Scotland and Edinburgh.  Better yet, indie book shops are always hosting book groups, lectures, and author events- tonight, I'm going to The Edinburgh Bookstore for a book signing by newly-published local author Jen Campbell!

I'm also a big fan of hanging out in public libraries- one of the first things I did when I arrived in Edinburgh is get myself of local library membership.  Besides the free book loans, libraries are a gold mine for book recommendations. Librarians tend to be some of the most helpful, knowledgeable people around, so if you want to find the perfect local interest read, find the nearest library.

Fast Food: As a vegetarian, I'm no fan of McDonald's and Burger King, but stepping into a fast food joint while travelling can be an enlightening experience. Even the biggest multinational companies localize their products to meet the needs of various populations, and it can be really interesting to see how the Big Mac changes from one country to the next.  Did you know that in Japanese Pizza Hut you can get nori (seaweed), fish flakes, and mayo on a pie?  Or that in a French McDonalds you can have mini baguettes for breakfast?  In Scotland, the fast food chains aren't  wildly different from their US equivalents (although McDonalds here does has donuts and doesn't do Shamrock Shakes), but I don't think a trip to Caledonia would be complete without at least one stop at a chippy.

The lowest common denominator in my favorite places to explore in a new country is that they're all places where actual locals hang out.  As majestic and fun as Castles, Monuments, and Museums can be getting out and interacting with people is the best way to get a sense of place- I've argued it before and I'll say it again.  And again, and again.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off for a cultural experience at the grocery store- I need to stock up on porridge and breakfast tea before my parents arrive.

Monday, March 26, 2012

London on Limited Time

I’m a big fan of getting comfortable in a new place when I travel.  I’m all about spending chilling in coffee shops, seeing what the locals do for fun, and wandering aimlessely until I lose and find myself again; I like to acclimate to a new environment, break in a new city like a pair of running sneakers (speaking of which, sightrunning is a great way to experience a new place!)

The only problem is, I’m on a student budget and a postgraduate schedule. Lengthy holidays are luxuries I simply cannot afford.

This is why I’m honing on my speedy travel skills.   A couple months ago I I practiced express sightseeing during a day and a half in Dublin, and a few weeks ago I got the opportunity to do the same in London.  I was on a weekend trip to the capital for a magazine conference with coursemates, but I was determined to squeeze some sightseeing in as well.  And I was successful.

I think the key to a short trip is not to pressure yourself into running doing the high-octane scavenger hunt of going to all the “must-sees.”  There’s no point in rushing from one attraction to the next just because somebody else says it’s important to see.  Besides, my mostenduring travel memories were made in parks, public transportation, and locals’ pubs, not in tourist stuffed museums.

So I spent the best part of my weekend just sort of galavanting around the South Bank, drinking pints with some real-life Londoners, and only visiting the sites I thought were really worthwhile (by the way, the Tate modern was a bit of a disappointment).  Even though I missed some of the attractions on my check list (I still really want to go on the Jack the Ripper tour), I don’t regret a second of the trip.

And besides, all those missed attractions are an excuse to visit London again soon.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Down on Dublin

I didn't love Dublin.

To me the place seemed dreary and bleak; the architecture was uninspired (with a few exceptions, of course) the weather was poor (and this is coming from someone who spent the last 6 months in Scotland), the booze was expensive (6 Euros a pint? Ridiculous!)and the folk music pub scene, while energetic, seemed phon, obviously catering to tourists.

This was pretty sad. I really was looking forward to exploring the viking city, as it's the setting of some of my favorite books- if you haven't read Ghosts and Lightning or In the Woods yet, get on that right away- and a place of great historic significance to Irish independence.  Who doesn't love a place chocked-full of memorials to freedom fighters?

But it all felt a little blah to me.  Maybe I didn't give Dublin enough time to grow on me. After all, I was only there 2 days. Maybe I was just put out because the Book of Kells exhibit happened to be closed for refurbishment the weekend I chose to visit.  Rather than dwell on the all that failed to impress me during my visit, though, I'd like to share a few highlights- things that really impressed me about Dublin.

Dublin's Pride in Irish Artists  I really enjoyed Dubliners' enthusiasm about great Irish musicians, actors, and writers.  In my short visit people constantly informed me that, for a small country, Ireland produces such a great variety of creative people.  Dublin's esteem for the arts is manifest in the Wall of Fame in the Temple Bar district,  an outdoor mural depicting 12 of Ireland's most influential musicians.

National Museum of Archeology
(Free!) National Museums- Like my adopted home of Edinburgh, Dublin is full of free museums to impress visitors when the weather won't.  After being turned away from the Book of Kells at Trinity college, I enjoyed stroll through the Archeology Museum and it really cheered me up.  With over 2 million artefacts to look at, the 45 minutes I spent browsing their collections only gave me a taste of Ireland's rich history.

Saint Stephen's Green-  As I said, bleak weather dampened my Dublin experience, but it definitely didn't prevent this public park from impressing me.  On a nicer day, I could have spent hours exploring its winding winding pathways and admiring its sculptures.

Famine memorial in St Stephen's green
So maybe I'm being too harsh on Dublin.  It certainly had some good points, and I might be wrong to judge without experiencing a wider variety of it's attractions (I never made it to the Guinness Storehouse!)  Perhaps on my next visit, I'll really fall in love with Ireland's capital.  But for now, I'm glad I visited, and even more glad I live in Edinburgh.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ireland Impressions

So far, this "travel blog" has shown a pathetic lack of range.  I wrote exactly 29 posts about Scotland, and while these entries show many diverse and wonderful experience this country offers- if I do say so myself- they've failed to even touch upon the rest of the world.

But that's all about to change. This weekend I made my first international excursion since moving to Edinburgh in May, and spent 4 days in Ireland.

"Well?" you ask. "How was it?"

For starters, it was exhausting.  With flights to and from Dublin at 8am and 6:40am respectively, and late pub outings each night in between, I have to whinge about my severe lack of sleep (I'm getting too old for such shennanigans!).  More importantly though, the trip was an exciting and exhilarating change from my adopted home in Scotland.

I'll give specifics  soon, but today I'd like to share a few initial impressions from my mini-holiday on the Emerald Isle:

1.  Ireland is wildly different from Scotland.  Back home in the USA, a lot of people seem to think that these nations are oh-so-similar (or even worse- the same country), but within a few hours of landing in Dublin, I was able to name distinct differences between these Celtic siblings. Ireland's culture, weather, architecture, even in pub food, constantly reminded I was outside of the UK.

2. Where are all the trees?  I rightly expected to see miles and miles of green fields journeying through the Irish countryside, but I didn't think all this open land would fill me with a sense of loss.  Throughout its history, Ireland has seen greater deforestation than any other European nation; while rolling Emerald hills were lovely, I couldn't help but imagine the lush forests of Ancient Erin, which can never be fully restored.

3. Goodness, these houses are colourful! In the 1970s, Ireland faced abundant economic, social, and political hardships.  Apparently, many architects and designers thought they could brighten people's spirits by painting buildings with bright colours.  Loudly coloured buildings look strange in Dublin, where they're often adjacent to historic sites. However, I found them most amusing in wee villages that would otherwise have a quaint, Tolkein-esque look.  And this exterior design choice wasn't limited to student bars and hippy coffee-shops, the maroon building pictured on the right is a dental practice!

4. There are so few vegetarian options in Ireland. In Scotland, I've never had problems finding  vegetarian meals which appeal to me on pub menus.  I assumed, then, that my dietary preferences wouldn't pose a problem in Ireland either.  Boy, was I wrong.  The Irish love their meat, whether it's Beef and Guinness Stew, cottage pie, fried fish, or the Full Irish Breakfast (quite similar to the Full Scottish). I ate a lot of a potato side dishes on this trip- they were delish, but I can't say how glad I am to be back in the land of veggie haggis.

5. You drink your Guinness how fast, now? In a pub, it only takes the typical Irish man 3 lifts of his glass to finish a pint of Guinness.  I tried drinking the stout this way, and found it nearly impossible. Even though I will say Guinness certainly does taste nicer drank a bit more quickly, I will not be chugging one again in the future.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sandwiches at the Summit

Psst... guess what!  I discovered something important  the other day. No, I didn't learn what Scots wear beneath their kilts.  And no, I didn't meet the Loch Ness monster. But it was a major revelation, something you should know if you ever visit Bonnie Scotland.

I discovered the best place to eat a sandwich in Edinburgh.  Here it is:

No offence to all the lovely delis and cafes I've patronized throughout my time here, but no restaurant could ever compete with the atmosphere of Arthur's Seat.
View of Arthur's Seat from the Meadows (park).  The "seat" is the highest part in the middle.  The cliff face on the right, the one that looks a bit like a wall is called Salisbury Crags.
On a melancholy and I'll admit it, slightly hungover day, this 822 foot (250.5m) volcanic mass offered me a perfect midday escape from twiddling my thumbs, waiting for University to start back up, and complaining about how I miss all my Erasmus friends.  It was steep enough to burn some of the previous night's excesses, but gentle enough for me to tackle safely with a slight headache. The climb was precisely the kind of cathartic hard work my lazy body needed, and it helped me rid myself of all the restlessness brought on by a 6-week holiday.  By the time I reached the top and unwrapped my sandwich (brie, grape and chutney), I had a better sense of zen than any yoga session had ever given me.

Fun fact: Although many people believe it to be named after King Arthur, experts say the hill's name is likely a perversion of Ard na Said, Gaelic for "Height of Arrows"

At this point I could waffle on about the majestic, world-shattering view at the top of Arthurs seat, but if you follow this blog, you've heard me say this in my posts about Craighouse, Blackford Hill, The Scott Monument, and The Pentland Hills.  I realize that my trumpeting on about the city skyline is becoming meaningless, perhaps even annoying. Suffice it to say any high-up view of Edinburgh is wonderful, as Edinburgh is a wonderful city.  End of story.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Happy Burns Night!

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit

Tonight all over Scotland people are raising glasses of whisky and reciting poems like this- It's Burns night!  Like Saint Andrew's Day a few months ago it's a day of National pride, but instead of Scotland's patron Saint, today we're celebrating Scotland's favourite son.

Rabbie Burns was an 18th century poet from Ayrshire, and is one of the only Scots language poets to have been celebrated abroad.  Most famously he wrote Auld Lang Syne, A Red Red Rose, and To A Mouse, in addition to loads of patriotic pieces that have been converted into folk songs.

January 25th is Burns' birthday, and in addition to singing and reciting his songs, many Scots celebrate with Ceilidhs (folk dance- more to come on that!) and dangerously large portions of haggis. I'm not going out tonight (honestly because I'm still feeling the effect of last night's "class meeting" in a pub), but this weekend I'll have loads of Burns-themed events to choose from (I'm hoping to go to this one).  I can't wait!