19 February 2014

Exploring the Kingdom of Lesotho

Tucked away amongst the clouds and surrounded by the sprawling magnificence of the Drakensberg lies the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.  One of two independent countries falling within South Africa's borders, the nation exists as the only country in the world falling entirely above 1,000 meters, with it's highest peak reaching 11,320 feet.  Having wanted to explore this unique part of the globe for several years, Jurgen and I jumped at the opportunity when friends suggested we plan a road trip through Lesotho last year.

How to self-drive through the Kingdom of Lesotho.

It's difficult to find words that adequately convey how breathtaking Lesotho is in terms of its raw beauty.  Throughout our entire trip, around every twist and turn there seemed to be a new, indescribable view that somehow rivaled the last.  We spent hours on the side of the road marveling at the pristine setting in front us, trying to contemplate how in the world a place like this could actually exist.

The only real item on our itinerary was to enter Lesotho via the famed Sani Pass and enjoy a warm glass of gluhwein at the highest pub in Africa.  Beginning in South Africa and ending at the Lesotho border, the Sani Pass is renowned for its scenic views and somewhat notorious 4x4 route. Many people make the drive in one day, enjoying a drink at the top and then heading back down without ever entering Lesotho.  This is very possible, although it's essential that you have a properly equipped vehicle and someone who's comfortable navigating fairly tricky dirt roads (certainly not me!).  With the right equipment, the trek is certainly worth it.  The Sani Pass easily ranks as the most beautiful drive I've ever been on.  The atmosphere at the pub is also contagious as seasoned travelers casually swap itineraries and exchange stories.

For the rest of our trip, we simply drove, admiring the views and stopping for picnics where and when we saw fit.  One thing that completely caught me off guard in Lesotho was its remoteness.  Having travelled Africa extensively, I've always been able to find basic amenities such as internet cafes, petrol stations, and cold soft drinks with relative ease.  Not so in Lesotho.  Not once did I come across a wifi connection and we went through our entire trip without tracking down an operating petrol station or a cold soft drink.  We did find warm cokes in glass bottles at one point, but that was just about where the luxuries came to an end.

While this certainly adds to the authenticity of the experience, it also means that you need to be prepared when entering the country.  Make sure you have a full tank of petrol and bring any essential food and toiletry products with you.  Food and drinks are available, but you'll be mostly limited to chips, cocktail sausages, eggs, porridge, bread, and juice.  Luckily, our friends came prepared with pots, pans, cutlery, etc., and we brought a cooler full of meat and vegetables, so we mostly prepared our own meals. We did enjoy a basic dinner at Oxbow Lodge on our second night, but it was overpriced for what we received.  

All things considered, on our next trip I think we'll try to camp.  It would be easy to pitch a tent just about anywhere that strikes your fancy and you would find yourself surrounded by some of the most picturesque views in the world.  That being said, it's also important to point out that we travelled through an undeveloped section of the country where tourism is scarce.  Other areas in Lesotho attract thousands of tourists each year for craft markets, pony trekking, cave paintings, and waterfall viewing.  My guess is that these areas are much more developed.  I'd recommend Roxanne's posts for information on Lesotho's better-known attractions.  Pony Trekking is definitely sitting towards the top of my 'someday' bucket list.

All in all, I absolutely loved Lesotho.  It was like no place I've ever been before - natural, untouched, and unregulated.  The people were extremely friendly and the little villages epitomized rural African charm.  And while I now feel like we've truly experienced the incomprehensible beauty of rural Lesotho, I'm yearning to explore more of what the country is famous for.  In future, places like Katse Dam, Semonkong, Malealea, and Bokong Nature Reserve will definitely make the list.

A few more useful tips...

- An entry visa is not required for the United States, South Africa and most other countries. -
- The Lesotho currency is the Loti, but the South African Rand is also universally accepted. -
- Bring plenty of cash with you as ATM's are scarce. -
- Fill up on petrol before entry as well - gas stations are few and far between. -
- Make sure you're equipped with a proper vehicle.  4x4's are recommended. -
- Double (or even triple) the time it would typically take to drive a given distance when planning your trip.  Roads are generally in bad condition.  It's slow and easy going. - 
- Make sure you purchase a good map in advance. -
- Pack food, drinks, and cooking utensils, particularly if you'll be heading off the beaten path. -
- Bring warm clothes, even in summer.  It's chilly in the mountains, especially in the evenings. -
- Be prepared for one of the greatest adventures of your life! -

Have you ever been somewhere completely different from anywhere else you've ever been?
Was your experience positive or negative?

If you're planning a trip to Lesotho and have any questions, feel free to email me here!

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11 February 2014

A Guide to Greek Island Hopping

Last summer, Jurgen and I spent ten idyllic days island hopping in Greece.  Our time there was absolutely blissful… magical even.  But Greek love stories aside, today I'd like to share a few tips and tricks I picked up in the process of planning our trip.  Because it definitely wasn't as intuitive as I imagined it would be.  I found there to be a general lack of information online regarding everything from navigating the Greek ferry system to visiting virtually any island outside of Santorini and Mykonos.  So, while I'm certainly not an expert, here are a few words of advice that I would have found helpful during the planning process.

1) Determine which island group(s) you want to visit.  Before visiting Greece, I had absolutely no idea how many Greek Islands there actually were… over 6,000!  227 of which are inhabited.  To assist in narrowing down the choices, the first step is to decide on which island group(s) you want to visit.  The Cyclades are easily the most popular as they're close to Athens and include the islands of Santorini and Mykonos. However, there's also a host of other groupings that often go unnoticed.  For instance, the Dodecanese Islands are located near the southwest coast of Turkey and contain the islands of Rhodes and Kos.  Typically, islands falling within the same groupings are located along the same ferry routes and depart from the same mainland port of call. If you're heading to the Cyclades, you'll likely depart from Piraeus in Athens.  If you're on your way to the northern Aegean Islands, you may need to travel to northern Greece and depart from Kavala.

2) Determine your island hopping route.  Once you've decided on an island group, you'll need to determine which islands you're going to visit.  This will largely be dependent on ferry route.  The ferry system in Greece is surprisingly difficult to navigate. Basically, certain islands are located along certain standard routes departing from and returning to the Greek mainland.  If you choose three islands located on three different ferry routes, you could be looking at days of travel time trying to get from one ferry route to the next. Certain connections also only operate on certain days of the week.  For instance, we knew that we wanted to visit Sifnos and were initially also looking into Santorini, but would have had to stay on Sifnos for 4 nights before a direct ferry to Santorini would have become available. Because of this, we decided to visit Milos instead. This is why it is absolutely essential to book your ferry tickets prior to confirming your accommodation.

3) Book your ferry tickets.  There's several reputable online sites where you can book your ferry tickets in advance.  Personally, I would recommend going through GreekaPetas, or Danae.  Once you've booked tickets to your first island, you can play around with dates and times between that island and other islands along the same route.  If you have time to spare, you can obviously also hop from one route to another.  When you're booking your tickets, you'll notice that a variety of different types of ferries are available at varying prices.  The slower the ferry, the lower the price.  We used the high speed ferries {referred to as speedrunners} and really enjoyed them. Remember that your online booking receipt is not the same as your ticket.  You'll have to pick these up at your port of call.  Since we left on an early morning ferry, we picked our tickets up the day before.  This worked out well since we were able to familiarize ourselves with the port area in advance. 

4) Getting to Piraeus.  The vast majority of island departures leave from Piraeus, the main port of call in Athens.  To get here, you can either take a taxi or use the metro.  From the city center, a taxi will cost you roughly 15 and from the airport you can expect to pay around €40.  If you're traveling via metro, a single trip from the airport or city center will amount to €1.40.  We used the metro and actually found that we preferred it to above ground transport.  Piraeus is the terminating stop along the green line, you really can't miss it!

5) Pack Light!  I flew to Greece with only a carry-on and it really and truly turned out to be the best decision ever. Having to lug a large suitcase on and off the metro, through Piraeus, up and down narrow ferry stairwells, and through the island port cities would have been nothing short of a nightmare.  I also took a small backpack and used this for day trips around the islands.  It worked out perfectly!

6) Island Tips. The single largest recommendation I can make regarding actual time spent on the islands is to rent a scooter or quad.  We rented a scooter at a rate of 10 per day and had the time of our lives zipping from one beach to another according to our own itinerary and schedule.  Also keep in mind that the Greeks really only start to consider eating dinner at around 10pm.  Expect plenty of late nights and late mornings.  Oh, and also don't forget to enjoy plenty of souvlaki and ouzo. Olay!  

During our trip we stayed on the islands of Sifnos and Milos. On Sifnos, we stayed at ALK Hotel in Kamares. It was basic, but offered great service and value for money and was really well located with ocean views and within easy walking distance of the beach. On Milos, we stayed at Tania Milos in Pollonia, and absolutely loved it. It's a seaside villa located right on the ocean with the most incredible breakfast spread you've ever seen included in their rate. 

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If you have any other questions, I would be more than happy to try my best to answer them!
You can email me here

04 February 2014

{Cape Town}: The Grand Daddy Hotel

Cape Town has always been a city that's quick to conjure up feelings of nostalgia for Jurgen and I.  We met there, went on our first date there, said many tearful goodbyes at the airport there, and had just as many warm reunions there after spending months apart.  We've developed our own favorite cafes, running paths, coffee shops, and cocktail bars.  We know just the spot if you're looking for the best Kurdish cuisine in town, and we can tell you exactly how to avoid the crowds that tend to flock towards Table Mountain.

In short, Cape Town feels like home.

... Which is exactly why we've made it a tradition to spend a night or two in the city whenever we find ourselves in the area visiting friends or family.

On our last trip, I was thrilled when Jurgen recommended that we book ourselves into the incredibly swanky Grand Daddy Hotel.  Arguably Cape Town's trendiest place to get some zzz's, the Grand Daddy's been sitting towards the top of our list for awhile now and is renowned for it's upmarket Afro-centric decor as well as the famed airstream trailer park and sky bar that sit on its roof.

Located on Long Street, the hotel is perfectly situated in the equivalent of Cape Town's Soho district.  Virtually any university student or young professional will flock to this part of town on the weekends, as it's home to a host of popular bars (my favorite of which is The Dubliner) and restaurants.  While a number of backpackers are located on Long Street, to my knowledge, the Grand Daddy is the area's only boutique hotel.  This makes it especially appealing to mid twenty and thirty year olds like myself, who are still drawn to the allure of Long Street, yet aim to avoid the once-cherished joys of bunking with drunk strangers.

Although the airstream trailer park was fully booked over the weekend of our stay, we still loved all of the little touches that made our room feel uniquely African.  The lamps were my personal favorite, with major South African cities outlined around their perimeter, and the headboard also stood out with its vibrant African pattern.  Even the mini shampoos and conditioners were locally produced.  Add to this a fantastic city view and our borderline obsession with the historic elevator in the lobby and you are left with two very happy Jo'burgers.

For all twenty'ish to forty'ish travelers planning a visit to Cape Town {especially if this will be your first time in the city}, the Grand Daddy is pretty hard to beat in terms of its rates, location, and overall vibe.  The hotel is within walking distance of a ton of major city attractions and also offers a daily shuttle to and from the Waterfront free of charge.  The Sky Bar is ideal for evening sundowners and the hotel even hosts frequent rooftop movie nights at their Pink Flamingo Cinema.  Awesome, right!?

What's the trendiest // quirkiest hotel you've ever stayed in?

By the numbers:

Room rates: R1,410-R2,200 ($125-$200) per room per night
Airstream Trailer Park: R1,410-R2,500 ($125-$225) per trailer per night
Breakfast: Included in the above rate
Wifi: Included in the above rate
Waterfront Shuttle: Included in the above rate

To book a stay at The Grand Daddy Hotel, see here.
For other accommodation in the area, see here.