Tag Archives: solo travel

Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice

DAY 11: January 4th, Vatican City and Rome

Those of us who signed up for the Vatican City tour have to get up early. Because I have my own little cabin the shower is all mine. I call home, and to my delight my Mum is at Grandpa’s, where my aunt and uncle are visiting from Cairns. I get to have a call with four of my family members! I tell them I’m on my way to the Vatican. My staunchly Catholic grandfather tells me to say hi to Pope Francis. If I get the chance, I will.

The weather is so pleasantly mild here in Italy. I don’t even need my thermal leggings. While waiting in line to enter the Vatican, I get to know some of the girls who’ve joined the Winter Spirit tour for the Winter Rhapsody. Jess, Kerrie, Felicia and Rosie are all kinds of awesome.

The Vatican is gigantic, but very secretive and walled off in a lot of ways. It’s the world’s smallest country, with its own embassies, business dealings, post office, you name it. Our guide, Guido, tells us that some areas are so secretive even he’s never been anywhere else except where we’ll be visiting.
There’s many other tours, so each carries a distinct flag. Although I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that we didn’t get the truly badass guide who is literally using a plush Batman toy as his marker. Why didn’t we get that guy?!?

At first, the tour is driving us all crazy. We have to wear earpieces to hear Guido, but for some reason we can’t hear him at all. Therefore, the tour stops so he can change microphones, and finally we can carry on.

The tour takes us through the main attractions of the Vatican, full of statues, paintings and tapestries so delicate you can’t take flash photographs or the colours will fade. Of course, what we really came to see was the Sistine Chapel. Or was that just me? Guido tells us the full history of why Michaelangelo, a sculptor who didn’t care for painting, ended up there. If you don’t know the story, I highly recommend checking it out because Michaelangelo went through absolute agony in the four years he spent painting that damn Chapel, and the least you can do is spend five minutes of your life reading about it.
Photography and cameras of all description are completely banned in the Sistine Chapel. And when I say this is enforced, I am not kidding. Should you so much as pull one out, the guys in black will blow whistles and converge on you like vultures to a corpse. I’m not about to even try that.
All that being said though, no picture could do the beauty of the Sistine Chapel justice. I’d happily stand there for hours gazing up at the masterwork.

The tour ends at the main square, I pick up some holy water for Grandpa and Felicia and Jess ask if I want to get lunch with them. We find a nice restaurant and I finally have my first taste of a real Italian pizza. And this is the moment where pizza is ruined for me forever. It’s that good.
I still can’t get over how crowded Rome is. And this is meant to be the off peak season. I shudder to think of what summer is like.

We meet up with their other travel companions, Rosie and Kerrie. For the rest of the day we explore the Pantheon, the streets, and finally Jess, Felicia and I decide we want to go see the museum of Capuchin monks (and yes, that is where the word cappuccino comes from).

We were told on the tour last night that there were skeletons inside and this was a quirky attraction. I’m not Miss Morbid, but having some bragging rights when I get home sounds good to me.
Oh my, how wrong I am.
I’m all for quirky and a bit of dark humour, but the place is decorated in a fashion that maybe Leatherface would enjoy. And by that I mean there is literally 4000 skeletons, or really, pieces of them, decorating this place. There are literally chandeliers made out of freaking bones, and other skeleton parts lining the walls in patterns and it is BEYOND creepy. Even the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland has more class than this. I hightail it out of there as soon as I can. Sheesh.

Now it’s time for my big test. Can I navigate the Rome Metro and bus all the way back to our campsite? Like the little engine that could, I think I can. And even though I have a bit of trouble going out the right exit at the train station, eventually I’m on the bus and back at the site. A quick stop at the local Coles equivalent store ensures I have snacks for tomorrow’s trip to Venice. And with that, I’m back in my little cabin, ready to have a good night’s sleep.

DAY 12: January 5th, Rome to Venice

Today’s drive has a few differences. For one, a number of people have left and a number have joined us. And we also have a different driver today. Topdeck is really strict on giving the drivers break time. Our driver is also a Venetian native.

Today includes a stop in the city of Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet. The city has its own Colosseum, and you can’t go to Verona without a visit to Juliet’s Balcony. The statue of Juliet has been rubbed smooth by people touching the supposedly lucky breast. Do they not realise she’s mean to be 13?
In the crowded square beneath the balcony, I find a beautiful embroidery shop and have a new bag label made with my name.

It’s a long day on the coach and we arrive at the hotel on the mainland after dark. We have a hotel upgrade tonight, which is cause for momentary celebration until we realise that a few of the rooms only have double beds (Tori and I realise our room has two single beds pushed together). Also, the WiFi sucks.
On a happier note, we have the option to get our clothes professionally laundered tonight (which I don’t do, since the minimum amount is 15kg and I didn’t even pack that much) and our trips shirts, which we all had a hand in designing, are ready.
Dinner is included tonight, but it’s quite a long walk away. We now know to to add at least twenty minutes to whatever time Morgan says.

DAY 13: January 6th, Venice

As we leave the mainland for the islands of Venice, one thing is clear: your GPS will not save you. Two people move out of Venice every single day and frankly, it’s not hard to figure out why. It’s almost impossible to get around here.
Venice is made of 118 islands, connected by bridges and the only transport is either gondolas, water taxis or your own two feet. Waterlogged doesn’t even begin to cover it. The buildings are all built on wooden foundations, and every year the city sinks more. Eventually it will be totally submerged.
We get the tour, but sadly there’s a mist over Venice so thick you could hammer a nail into it. St Mark’s Square is of course, full of pigeons and then we’re shown a beautiful lace shop. The delightful ladies inside are…well, hilarious. In between explaining traditional Venetian lace, they’re cracking jokes. “Girls, you marry twice. First time for love, second time for life,”
We all adore the beautiful crafts. I decide to get Mum’s gift in here. She asked for something “beautiful”and here we are.
Mum’s always big on finding things to decorate the table with at Christmas time. They have beautiful Christmas table runners, and I know right away it’s meant for her.

After the lace shop, it’s time for the big bucket list item. The gondola ride. We sail through the canals of Venice and I marvel at the buildings, though what will happen when everything is underwater?

Kerrie, Jess, Felicia, Rosie, Lauren, Kate and I wander around for a while before taking the vaporetto to the island of Burano. It takes well over an hour to get there, but it was well worth the trip. Not only is there a leaning tower here, but the island is covered with cute coloured houses that look even more beautiful in the sunset.

It’s getting dark, so we head back towards the mainland for dinner. And this is where I have the absolute worst experience on my trip.
While the seven of us are trying to figure out where to eat, we’re approached by a friendly local woman outside a nice-looking restaurant. It seems reasonably priced, so we go in.
My six companions are all in their later twenties/thirties, while I carry the mixed blessing of a baby face. I look MUCH younger than my 25 years, even without older-looking company. In short, I’m very obviously the youngest one of us seven. Well, the three delightful waiters don’t even hesitate. They take one look at me and the sleazy remarks start. It’s making me uncomfortable, but sadly it’s not an uncommon occurrence for any woman really, so I try to ignore them.
Then things take a turn for the worse. They continue hounding me with suggestive comments. One asks me my name about five times and gets uncomfortably close, like he’s trying to kiss me. By the time they’re adding extras to our order, which we absolutely did NOT ask for, I’m not a happy girl. For example, in Europe, there’s a charge for table water. We ask for two bottles for our table. They bring seven. And it isn’t over yet.
For the rest of the night, those three morons keep on my back. I can feel them undressing me with their eyes and revelling in my awkwardness. I’m about ready to throw my wine on them. By the time the bill comes, they’ve added enough unwanted extras to bring the total to 193 Euros, when it should have been about eighty altogether. Needless to say, they will not be receiving a tip.
I’m feeling completely humiliated. We’ve been scammed, and we all know it’s not worth even trying to argue. We just want to get out ASAP. And even as we’re leaving, they yell a couple more sexist remarks at me. I may not speak Italian, but I know enough to understand what they’re saying. It’s so degrading.
When we get back to the hotel, I go up to my room and immediately burst into tears. I feel so violated, angry and demeaned. How could I have fallen for such antics? I did all the research on European scams before I came.
Unable to settle down on my own, I call home and talk to my family about what happened. They point out that I’ve gone almost two weeks without getting scammed. These guys were professionals. They knew what they were doing. My mother describes them as “grubs”.
It’s true. There really wasn’t a lot of ways to prevent this. And the fault lies with those creeps, not me.

Tomorrow, we leave Venice. And I am absolutely fine with this.

Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome

Day 8: JANUARY 1ST 2018 Swiss Alps to Florence 

In the morning, it’s apparent that I’m about the only one not nursing a hangover. And we’re leaving for Italy at the crack of dawn too.
Nobody is happy to be up so early after such a crazy night. The stories filtering in of the escapades (stripping, projectile vomiting, etc) only confirm to me that I would have been very out of place at the party. I regret nothing.
Still, we all hate the accomodation in Switzerland and the less-than-accomodating, slightly kleptomaniac landlady. We’re keen to go somewhere a bit warmer and not having to traipse through the snow to take a shower you have to pay for.
Outside, the snow and ice has melted, making the ground a dance with death to take your suitcase to the coach. Several people stack it in a spectacular fashion.
Breakfast is a subdued affair, with many eating very little. As for me, I can’t get enough of the still warm, fresh baked bread.
On the coach, sick bags are handed out in bucket loads. They are definitely needed. It’s delightful.
Throughout the day, most people sleep or watch The Hangover. How fitting.
For lunch, I have a hot pita bread sandwich. I think I’m going to love the food in Italy.
At dusk, we reach the town of Pisa, famous for a certain tower. There’s a crowd of people all trying to take the same stupid photo. You know the one I’m talking about.
But it’s not just the Leaning Tower to gawk at here. There’s also a very beautiful church. Sadly photography isn’t allowed. It’s a shame. My grandfather would have loved to see this.
We’re in for a pleasant surprise with the hostel in Florence. The rooms are huge, the WiFi is excellent, there’s a pool, great laundry facilities and ensuites. Dinner is in true Italian style, with massive amounts of bread, cheese, pasta, florentine steak and gelato. After Switzerland this feels like five stars. And best of all, this hostel is part of a chain so we’ll be staying at more locations. I’m cool with that.

Day 9: JANUARY 2ND. Florence 

It’s official. I love Italy. When I head to the dining room for breakfast, I’ve never seen such a spread. They even have cake. Cake!!!
First on the agenda today is a walking tour of Florence. It’s a beautiful day and about 10 degrees celcius. No thermals needed here. I don’t even have to put on my winter boots.
Our guide is a wonderfully energetic local woman named Eleanor. She carries a flag so we’ll never lose her as she leads us through the streets of this beautiful city.
The cathedrals are gigantic,  the architecture absolutely exquisite. We see the copy of Michelangelo’s David and learn how he secretly bribed officials to study cadavers at night, which was highly illegal, in order to make the statue as realistic as possible.
Eleanor explains the history of each landmark and finally gives some tips on how to get the best gelato (avoid the stores that have the ice cream piled high in mountains. It looks pretty but it’s mainly ice and air). She finishes the tour in the leather district where Morgan is waiting for us.
We enter this beautiful leather and jewellery store to receive a leather demonstration and learn how to tell the real deal. Afterwards, we go around the store and many of the girls are keen to get puzzle rings. Puzzle rings are interlocking rings which fall apart when taken off and there’s only one way to put them back together. Historically they were created to help men catch cheating wives. Ever so slightly sexist, but they’re still pretty and I simply have to have one. I fall in love with the two-tone style, rose gold and silver.
The woman in the store takes one look at my hands. “They don’t make them that small, dear,” she says. “You’ll have to get the smallest one and wear it on another finger,”
A small price to pay for something so unique and lovely. My puzzle ring will live on my middle finger of my right hand. Now I just need to learn how to put it back together.
After this, we’re free to explore Florence and do whatever we like. A group of us are keen for shopping and gelato. I’m fine with this as I want to see as much of this place as I can. Walking is the best way to do so.
We’re all absolutely delighted with where we go for lunch. It’s a giant fresh food market, filled with Italian cheese, herbs, spices, pasta and other goodies. But upstairs is an array of food stalls with everything you can imagine. I select pasta. I’m in Italy after all. For 6 euros, I get a perfect sized serving of freshly cooked pasta and parmesan. It is without doubt the best pasta I have ever eaten. Sorry Mum.
The day ends all too quickly, but I head back to the hostel because there’s something highly important I need to do.

Day 10: JANUARY 3RD, Florence to Rome

I’m really going to miss Florence. But Rome is our next destination and I’m more than keen for that.
On the way, we stop in a lovely small town called Orvieto. It’s truly a hidden gem in Italy. Morgan tells us of a huge church that looks like a liquorice all sort and when licked, the stone actually tastes like mint. Well, we get there and after some people try this out, they realise it was a joke. I certainly got a laugh out of it.
We have the option to try a wild boar sandwich for lunch. I can’t do it. Not with the boar heads on the walls. We instead find a nice restaurant.
In Rome, a new group of people will be joining the tour, doing the Winter Rhapsody. And sadly, some will be leaving since the March To Rome ends here. But first, it’s time for a walking tour. Morgan leads us through the streets of Rome, starting at the Spanish Steps.
I’m struck by how much more crowded Rome is. Imagine how much worse it would be in summer.
Rome has gangs of gypsies and there’s pickpockets everywhere. I’m very grateful for my Pacsafe anti-theft bag. It’s one less thing to worry about. Thanks Mum. Although to be fair, if anyone tries my pockets, they’re only going to find tissues.
High above the Spanish Steps, you can see a glimpse of the Vatican, which we can visit tomorrow. Next stop is the sight I really want to see. The famous Trevi Fountain. It’s tucked away in a backstreet. On the way, Morgan buys everyone a gelato. I choose caramello.
Because the Trevi Fountain is so crowded, tour guides are forbidden to talk in front of it. We’re given the history of the fountain in a street next to one of many drinking fountains. They’re all over Italy. Some even dispense sparkling water.
The Trevi Fountain is absolutely stunning at dusk. But the crowds are something else altogether. I’m beginning to think I’ll never get a decent photo, let alone the chance to throw some coins in, when I spot the fence nearby, leading to a more empty spot in the corner.
I slide through the tourists towards the gap. I duck down and swing myself through the bars, jumping to the lowest section. This is one situation where aiming low was definitely the better option. My pictures are more than satisfactory from this angle. And yes, my coins find their way into the water. The equivalent of 3000 euros is thrown into the Trevi Fountain every day. And it’s all given to charity. Yay.
It’s time for dinner and quite honestly, this is where things went kind of wrong. Anybody who knows me is aware that I’m the size of a rake and have the appetite of a sparrow on a diet. It also doesn’t help that prior to Europe, I’ve somehow lost at least six kilos, making me look even worse. The bottom line is, I’m tiny. Very tiny.
Given that I’ve eaten a lot today, I’m really not that hungry so I go for something from the entree menu. Surely I can handle that, right? Wrong. The plate I’m given is the size of the Soviet Union with enough for two of me on it. I do my best, but there’s no way I can finish this all. And unfortunately for me, two of the waiters are VERY unhappy with me for my lack of appetite. They’re visibly annoyed and telling me off. My dinner companions assure me I’ve done nothing wrong but I can’t help feeling a little upset.
After dinner, the tour comtinues with the remnants of ancient Rome. I’m deeply impressed by the Forum, and the remains of an ancient 6 storey shopping centre. Yes, really. Of course, it all pales in comparison to the scale of the Colosseum.
We take the metro back to the coach, which then drives to the campsite where we’ll be staying. And I’ve really lucked out here, because we have odd numbers and I have a whole cabin to myself. Please and thankyou.

Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps

DAY 4: DECEMBER 28th London to Paris 
The instant I wake up, I know I’ve failed in my quest to keep this sickness at bay. I feel absolutely hideous as I drag myself out of bed and into the shower.
Downstairs, a huge crowd of three Topdeck tours mills around, checking out of the hostel and chattering away.
Our trip leader Morgan admits this is her first winter in Europe. At least I’m not alone. As for our driver Lloyde, his facial hair can only be described as epic.
He gives the safety spiel. There’s seatbelts which we don’t have to wear since we’re all adults, but if there’s an accident we won’t be covered by insurance. Cue sound of everyone reaching for their seatbelts.
I like the coach. The seats recline, there’s a footrest and charging portals at every seat. There’s also WiFi, but we’re limited to 650mb for the whole trip. I resolve to only use it sparingly.
We drive down to the white cliffs of Dover and catch the ferry across to France. We start meeting members of the group. It seems nearly everyone is from Australia, although I’m one of the few from Sydney. There’s a couple of girls from New Zealand and two Americans.
I’m not a fan of sea travel since my experience on the Spirit of Tasmania at age 11, and a lot of other people are getting nauseous from the rocky boat. It’s a relief to get on dry land and start driving to Paris. On the way Morgan gives us a brief history of the French Revolution and Napoleon, all of which I remember from Modern History in high school and all the Horrible Histories I devoured in primary school. The fields of France fly past the windows of the coach.
Since Europe and Topdeck are very strict on limiting driving hours, the coach stops at a rest station.
Happy to find Sprite and mini baguettes, I head to the counter. Time to put my French to the test. I studied it for years, and I remember all the basic words/phrases. This shouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, I haven’t counted on my head being fuzzy from the cold and flu tablets I’ve been shovelling down my throat. I go to say merci boucoup, or thankyou very much and what comes out is merci si vou plais, or thankyou if you please. A second later, I realise my mistake. But it’s too late. The cashier is already rolling her eyes at me. I’m off to a great start. Already managed to annoy the French and I’m feeling sicker than ever at this point.
Next on the agenda is a speed dating of sorts, where we have to spend three minutes with everyone on the bus. I last as long as I can, but I’m getting dizzy and the pressure to actually be interesting isn’t helping. Eventually I have to stop and thankfully everyone is understanding.
The outskirts of Paris aren’t exactly what I was expecting. It reminds me uncomfortably of Los Angeles, with the heavy graffiti, trash lining the streets and signs of squalor. As for the hostel room, it can only be described as a jail cell. The giant cages serving as lockers, the tiny space, the ladders out to the side resembling bars…even Mum comments on it when we video chat.
Dinner that night is in the hostel restaurant. There’s really delicious French cheese and herbs, an abundance of bread and….snails. Even the vegetarians in the group are brave enough to have a few. But I just can’t bring myself to eat them.
After dinner, it’s time to see the City of Light on a driving tour. And it does not disappoint. Paris is lit up like a Christmas tree. To be fair, there’s probably a few extra lights due to the holiday season, but regardless, it is beautiful.
The coach drives up the Champs Elysses, past the Eiffel Tower in all it’s glory, the Louvre (which would take 2000 hours to see everything), Napoleon’s tomb, a military building used by the Nazis still covered with bullet holes, the River Seine, Notre Dame, the Paris Opera….
People either seem to love Paris or hate it. You can count me among those who love it. If only I wasn’t sick….

FUN FACT: In World War 2, the French Resistance cut the cables to the Eiffel Tower elevator so Hitler would have to take the stairs. If you can’t get rid of Nazis, at least inconvenience the hell out of them.

Day 5: DECEMBER 29th. Paris, or Stop the World, I want to get better. 

There is absolutely no way I can leave the hostel today. I know it and anybody who glances in my direction knows it too. My head is spinning like the Rotor at Luna Park, I’m weaker than a kitten and I can barely string a sentence together.
It’s times like this I’m grateful for WiFi. I spend the day in bed, nibbling Cadbury chocolate, drinking water and bingeing on YouTube. I only leave the room to get lunch downstairs and bring it back up.
This is definitely not how I planned to spend my time in France. But there isn’t much choice for me though. It’s either miss this one day and get better, or force myself out in the freezing wind and rain of Paris and be sick for the rest of the trip.

Besides, I have an extra week in London after the tour. And Paris is only a train ride away…

Day 6: DECEMBER 30th. Paris to Swiss Alps

Even though I missed out on Paris, I know I did the right thing. One day in bed was all I needed. I’m so much better and will actually be able to enjoy the trip now.
After a nice French breakfast, it’s time to get on the coach to Switzerland. Today will be a long drive, but with 8 months of touring in 2016 under my belt, I don’t bat an eyelid.
To help pass the time, Morgan has each of us come up to the microphone and give the whole “who am I” spiel. Turns out there’s a lot of teachers on this trip and I’m not the only one from Western Sydney. Nearly everyone is most excited to see snow. For many Australians on the Winter Spirit, it will be their first time.
When it’s my turn, I say that I’m an actress/singer and predictably, everyone immediately shouts for me to sing. I really hate being put on the spot like this, but you only live once, so I sing an excerpt of Satisfied from Hamilton. Nobody seems to mind that I am white as Wonder Bread and therefore can’t rap like Reneé Elise Goldsberry. Before this trip is out, we will be playing Hamilton on this coach.
It’s dark when we finally arrive at Lauterbrunnen (“many waterfalls”) in Switzerland. Morgan promises this is the most beautiful place and just wait til we see it in the morning.
For now, it is FREEZING. The cabins are tiny, there’s only one key per room, one Swiss power adapter per room and the bathrooms are a cold, slippery walk away.
You have to pay for the showers too. And WiFi, if you want to use it for two hours.
I heard Switzerland was expensive but…wow.

Day 7: DECEMBER 31st Switzerland 

Morgan wasn’t kidding. Once the light hits Lauterbrunnen everyone is absolutely blown away by the natural beauty of this place. There’s waterfalls tumbling down the gigantic cliff faces, and snow everywhere. I haven’t seen snow since the school camp to Canberra when I was twelve and definitely not this much. The buildings remind me of gingerbread houses covered in icing sugar.
Today, New Year’s Eve, we have the option of either skydiving or going up the Jungfrau railway.
I chose the train.
Jungfrau is Europe’s highest train station. It’s a scenic route that takes about 90 minutes, changing at the town of Grindelwald (yes, really!) to get to the top. Us Topdeckers have a reserved train just for us.
Jungfrau is so high, we’re warned about altitude sickness. And at the top, I can definitely feel it. Once I get some water and Lindt into me though, I feel better. There’s also some good WiFi up here, so I call a few people at home. Everyone is staying up in Sydney.
We spend the day snapping pictures everywhere, despite the freezing sub zero temperatures. The mountains are more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen. It seems cheesy, but their size makes me realise what a small place I occupy in this world.
We walk through a gigantic ice cave filled with sculptures. It’s a miracle nobody slips on the ice floor. We visit the highest Lindt shop in the world to stock up on Lindoor balls. At lunch time, one of the American girls discovers the joy of chicken salt. I sprinkle it on my chips too. It’s nice. It tastes of home.
It’s hours before we’re ready to stamp our special passports and head back down the mountain. Sorry to everyone who entered, but no New Year’s Eve will ever top this one.
It’s a ten minute walk back to the hostel, and we stop at a tiny store to look at Swiss Army knives and Pandora charms.
Before the night’s festivities begin,  there’s something I have been itching to do and I don’t care how lame it is.
I fill up my water bottle at the stream and take a sip. It is the cleanest water I’ve ever tasted and I love it.
At dinner, those who went skydiving are raving about their adrenaline inducing experience while the Jungfrau crowd compare Instagram pictures.
But what the crowd really wants is to get wasted for the New Year. I can see that the alcohol levels are rising fast and frankly it makes me nervous. Even in high school and uni, I was never a party animal. I’m out of place here.
By about 8pm, everyone has headed to the coach for a party like none before. And I really don’t want to be part of it. It’s just not me.
So I ring in the New Year on my own in the cabin, with Lindt chocolate. There’s a final few tears over the horrors of my life in 2017. I honestly can’t believe I’ve survived everything the year threw at me. But I have.
2018, watch out because I am coming for you.

Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London

Since the age of 15, I’ve wanted to travel to Europe. This year, I decided it was time to stop thinking about it and actually do it. For the next few weeks I’ll be blogging my journey through 11 countries on Topdeck’s Winter Spirit. Enjoy!

DAY 1: DECEMBER 25TH. Sydney to Hong Kong. 

I can’t get over how crowded Sydney Airport is. But somehow I manage to make it through security without any trouble. The journey ahead is daunting, a solo trip to the other side of the world, a trip I am unexpectedly taking alone. My emotions are mixed. A few tears saying goodbye at the famous departure sign only fuel the feelings. Am I doing the right thing, going alone? But in my heart I know this is what I need. I have to do this by myself. I have to.

Thankfully, I’m much better prepared for the long flight this time around. The last time, on my trip to America, I was not ready. I wore the wrong clothes on the plane, I got my liquids confiscated at security for being over the 100ml limit, I took a VERY strong sleeping pill way too early in the flight and barely lived to regret it….well, not this time. This time I’ve done my research. I know what I’m doing.

First stop, Hong Kong. 9 hour flight.

The Cathay Pacific plane is packed. There’s not one empty spot. But I’m pleased to discover that the seats are VERY comfortable. Almost like an armchair. Unfortunately my recline doesn’t seem to work, and lucky me, I get the seatmate from hell.

She’s an entitled teen who takes pleasure in elbowing my armrest constantly, sticks her legs into my space and feels the need to snicker at and criticise my movie choices. Even her mother joins in. Well, I’m 25 years old and if I want to watch Muppets Christmas Carol/Harry Potter then I will, your opinions be damned. However, it’s 10:20pm and soon I drift off to sleep.

DAY 2: DECEMBER 26TH. Hong Kong. 

My flight was meant to land at 5am Hong Kong time. But the plane has landed at 3:55am.

Hong Kong airport is almost deserted. Immigration takes about 5 minutes and soon I’m in the arrivals lounge. It’s so early, the train station is locked behind a heavy metal grate. Looks like I’m going nowhere until it opens. I snap a few pictures and settle in a seat. Everyone else is sleeping in chairs, waiting for the trains.

At 5:30am the gate is open. But first I head to the bathroom to freshen up a bit. There’s a little area in the ladies’ room dedicated for makeup application. Thanks Hong Kong.

The MTR train from the airport to the city takes on 24 minutes. The train is spotless, fast, and smoother than any ride I’ve ever had on public transport. At Hong Kong Central, screens show the airline schedules. You can check in for your flight at the station. I follow the excellent signage to the Island line. I haven’t even been outside yet and Hong Kong is already finding its way into my heart.

Every train is behind a glass wall, the door only opening when the train has stopped. How many lives must be saved because of such a simple measure? I want to take this whole system home to Sydney.

I’m meant to meet my friend Brooke a bit later, so I kill time at Sheung Wan by getting hot chocolate at Starbucks, searching endlessly for WiFi to contact both Brooke and home, and then I go for a walk to the famous Star Ferry pier.

At 10am Brooke arrives. My flight leaves at 3:05pm so we waste no time heading straight to Hong Kong’s iconic Peak Tram, much like Australia’s Scenic Railway. The view is stunning, though unfortunately partly obscured by smog.

We head back down and catch a cab to the Star Ferry. There’s another item ticked off the bucket list. On the next island Brooke shows me the Garden of Stars and the performing arts centre. It’s a shame the museum has closed for renovations. But I’m very keen to find one place in particular. A jewellery store I promised Grandpa that I’d visit. He went to Hong Kong regularly for business trips and every year since the mid 80s, this particular store has sent him a Christmas card without fail. We do find it, although the pieces are a little too much for my taste. Still, mission accomplished.

With only a couple of hours til my flight leaves, I head back to the airport. The train journey takes less than an hour (are you listening, Australia?). No need to check in, since I did it online but I need to find what gate I’m meant to board at. Apparently it’s Gate 65. Before I know it, I’m on another train to a different section of the massive airport, only to find there’s been a change. To gate 63.

Today I’ve managed to navigate a foreign city, alone, without getting lost once. I can’t help but feel proud.

When the flight to London boards, I’m thrilled to see that there is nobody in the row in front of me, nobody behind me, I have a whole row to myself and the flight is almost empty. Forget first class. I have a great setup here.

I pull up the armrests, grab a few spare pillows and blankets, and manage to sleep soundly for 10 of the 12 hours. Best. Flight. Ever.


It’s 8:20pm but Border Control has a ridiculously long line. While I’m waiting, I log into the Topdeck App and discover that one other girl from the tour group is here in line for Border Control. Her name is Sophie. We make plans to meet up at baggage reclaim. Five minutes later, we realise we’re practically next to each other in line. Apparently her flight from Melbourne was delayed eight hours so if that hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have met up. We both decide it’s fate.

After more than an hour waiting, Sophie gets a real grilling by immigration, while the man checking my passport doesn’t even mind that I made a mistake on my landing card.

It’s close to 10pm, so we head to the taxi rank. We’re greeted by a massive line and precisely zero taxis in sight. We head back inside to find the Tube.

Unfortunately for us, the Heathrow express isn’t running. Thankfully the attendant is helpful (despite mistaking us for students) and tells us how to get to the hostel. Or so we think.

It’s a long trip to the station and neither of us a phone reception to call the hostel. Mercifully, Sophie manages to get some data roaming once the tube is above ground. She contacts the accomodation so we don’t lose our reservations. It’s getting close to midnight.

Finally, we arrive at the station. There’s free WiFi at the station so I connect and pull up Google maps. The guy said it wouldn’t take long to walk from here. And that’s when we realise the horrible truth. I told the man we wanted to get to Tower Bridge Station. He’d told us to get on a train to London Bridge Station. The genius has sent us in the wrong direction.

At this point it’s almost 1am, we’re both tired and a 26 minute walk from where we need to be. It’s also freezing cold and we have suitcases.

The London Bridge station staff tell us where the taxi rank is, and we get there to find it almost deserted. Though neither of us say it aloud, Sophie and I are seriously doubting whether we’ll make it to the hostel before sunrise.

Sophie spots a man hanging around near a fancy looking building. I assume he’s security because he looks like someone the mafia would hire. He sends us to the main road and within minutes, we’re finally in a taxi towards the hostel.

Unfortunately the driver sees fit to give us a PHENOMENAL lecture on how we could have gotten a cab at Heathrow if we’d just XYZ….maybe he thought we were insulting the taxi industry. I don’t know. And I really don’t care. I just want to get warm.

It’s well after 1am when we finally get to the room. After a shower I’m finally feeling human again. The bed is pretty comfortable too.

It’s taken us 5 hours to get from the plane to the hostel room. I tell Sophie that someday we’ll be laughing. But for now, sleep.

DAY 3: DECEMBER 27TH. London.

When I wake, I can feel a cold starting. Drat. Last thing I need is to get sick. But it figures. More than 21 hours on planes which are just massive bacteria breeding zones. I’ll have to take something for it.

Sophie’s already up. She says she couldn’t sleep. I suspect jetlag, although I’m feeling a bit groggy too. But I’m not sure if it’s jetlag or this stupid cold.

We head down to breakfast, where there’s a great spread of all-you-can-eat food and we meet another girl from the Winter Spirit tour. She’s from Perth. While we’re chatting away, I happen to glance out the window and see the snow.

I jump up from the table and run up the stairs, through the foyer door and start snapping pictures. Everyone is laughing at me.

“What are you so excited about?” Someone asks me.

“I’ve never seen snow fall from the sky!” I explain with the air of a child in a candy store.

The guy looks at me like I have three heads. “Where are you from that you don’t see snow?!?”

“Australia. I haven’t seen any since I was twelve and never falling from the sky,” There’s one item off my bucket list. And on my first morning too.

Sophie and I decide to head out to the Christmas market by the Thames. It’s raining so I take the umbrella I packed.

Neither of us have ever experienced such cold. Even layered up with thermals and down coats, the wind chill hits you. Within minutes my stupid umbrella is broken. It kept out the rain but it’s no match for the wind. Damn it.

We cross Tower Bridge and find that it was worth braving the temperatures for what we find. The stalls are in cute wooden shacks, beautifully decorated for the holidays. At one stall, we find a great umbrella built for London’s weather and big enough for both of us. And it’s only £10. Sold!

We pass a chemist and head inside, partly so I can pick up something for this stupid cold and partly to get warm. Everything is so well heated here. I quickly find some cold and flu tablets. Better to nip this thing in the bud.

Sophie is really starting to shiver and I have to admit we need a break. We decide to head back to the hostel to get warm, (in Sophie’s case) get some thermals on, and figure out our next move. Our city map didn’t hold up so well in the rain either. We need a new one.

Back at the hostel, I discover my socks got slightly wet from the deep puddles. My boots are a little damp on the inside too. Sophie offers her hair dryer which does the trick. Not even 24 hours since we met and we’re already a great team.

We both want to go to the Tower of London but we’re also keen for lunch. We set out to see if Britain’s fish and chips live up to the legends. But Google maps can be deceptive as the place we were looking for is closed. We resign ourselves to pizza instead. May as well get some practice in for Italy.

After we eat, Sophie says she’s feeling tired and I’m quite relaxed too. We walk back to the hostel to figure out what to do next, but Sophie’s so tired she decides to get some sleep. It’s probably best I take it easy today as well, with this ridiculous cold threatening me. Besides, it’s not even 4pm and the sun is setting.

Tonight, the tour group plans to meet at the bar for drinks. Tomorrow, we hit the road. First stop, Paris, the City of Light.

Stay tuned!