A Travellerspoint blog

Marrakech, Morocco (17th - 21st July)

On Wednesday 17th July we donned our new backpacks and headed to Stansted airport. We flew by Easyjet to Marrakech. Unsurprisingly it was hot, though our 2 weeks in the UK had actually prepared us slightly, which isn't something I'd ever have imagined saying.

From the airport we were planning to take the bus, so made our way to the bus stop. Taxi drivers were keen to offer us taxis but we kept declining. It was only when they offered us a taxi for the same price as the bus that we accepted. Unfortunately, once we arrived at the destination, the taxi driver and his mates claimed ignorance and demanded 100 dirhams instead of the agreed 60. As we didn't have lower than a 100 dirham note it was impossible to get the rate we'd agreed. It was only the equivalent of about £3 extra though, so we chalked it up as a learning experience. The main problem was that we'd been dropped off somewhere different to where the bus would have dropped us off, so we didn't know how to get to our accommodation. Thankfully one of the guys said he'd show us the way. I was slightly concerned he'd take us to the wrong place, but happily he didn't. He did of course want paying for it though, so we gave him a token amount. Maybe not the best introduction to a country, but an accurate one. People will constantly try to offer you things, or even try to force them on you, particularly within the Medina, which is where we were staying.

We stayed at Hostel Riad Fantasia. It was a nice little place and the owner and her dog were really friendly. We had an en suite double room for a good price. There was a small additional charge for use of the air conditioning but we were happy to pay that. The only strange thing about our room was that the doorway to the bathroom had no door or curtain or anything. It's just as well we've been together a while so aren't too shy about such things.

After checking in we went in search of some snacks and some bottled water. That ended up being quite easy. However we then went out to the main square for a bit of a nose around. That's where you find the snake charmers and the people with monkeys. It's also where you'll find women offering henna tattoos; or more accurately where they'll find you. I said I didn't want one but the woman grabbed my arm and did one anyway, making out like it was a free gesture but of course wanting payment for it. As we'd just popped out for snacks we didn't have much cash or anything on us, so we got away without paying, much to her displeasure. But hey, if you grab someone's arm without their consent, what do you expect? We headed back then and I did try to wash the henna off but some had already sunk in quite well on my hand. It's mostly gone now though.

On our first full day in Marrakech we headed towards the new town. You get hassled a lot less once you leave the medina (the old town with all the souks etc.). We popped into the Cyber Gardens briefly, which are what they sound like - gardens with some computers in. The weather in Marrakech was generally in the high 30s and often into the low to mid 40s. That first day was quite exhausting just due to the heat, plus it took a while to adapt to the different culture. We went to the train station in order to book our onwards tickets for Fez, plus we booked bus tickets for a day trip to Essaouira on the Saturday. We then had a bit more of a wander around the new town before we decided we should get some lunch. We found a handy hotel entrance-way with free wi-fi and Jamie looked up possible places on his Tripadvisor phone app. He found a place that sounded perfect, so of course we got there to discover it was closed for renovation. We then looked up 3 alternative places in the hope that 1 would work out. The first was closed, we couldn't find the 2nd, but thankfully the 3rd was open. It was fairly late for lunch by the time we got there, so a lot of things were sold out, but Jamie had a veggie sandwich and I had a chicken tagine which was pretty nice.

After that we went to Jardin Majorelle. The gardens were nice, especially as they were quite shaded, but they were much smaller than I'd expected, which made the entry fee seem a bit steep. Still, we spent a while there before heading back to the medina.

Jardin Majorelle:

For dinner we went to a highly rated restaurant called Un Dejeuner A Marrakech. It has a rooftop terrace which is probably its biggest draw. The food was decent but not amazing and seemed a bit overpriced for the amount you got. I had a tomato and mozzarella tart thing that came with a small bit of salad and a small amount of lemon sorbet (with some basil coulis on top). I wasn't convinced that the sorbet really went with the tart, but I did really enjoy the sorbet.To be honest I'd have been happy to have had a whole load of sorbet and not bothered with the tart! As you mostly can't get alcohol within the medina, I had a virgin Mojito. I wasn't expecting too much from it to be honest, but it was really nice. My only qualm was that there was too much ice and too many pieces of lime in the glass, so you didn't get a huge amount of actual drink. I could have happily drunk about 4 of them, but as they were about £2 I stuck with just the one.

On our second day we headed to Medersa Ben Youssef. It's a student accommodation that's no longer used and can be looked around by tourists (for a small fee of course). We spent quite a while there, exploring the various rooms. We then also went to the neighbouring museum as you just need to pay an extra 10 dirhams, which is less than a pound. That was really good to walk around as well - mostly for the architecture.

Medersa Ben Youssef:

After that we'd fancied a relaxed afternoon in a rooftop bar. We headed to Cafe Arabe, which seemed to be the only licensed bar in the medina with a rooftop terrace. It was a really nice place but drinks were far from cheap. We went for small bottles of Heineken (only 25cl) which were about £3! It didn't seem economically viable to spend the rest of the afternoon there so we just had the one drink and then got some water and snacks to enjoy on the terrace of our riad.

In the evening we went out for dinner - this time to Baganziz Cafe which was also highly rated on Tripadvisor. It was quite a contrast to the restaurant we went to on the previous night. It was pretty basic looking, with wobbly chairs and tables out on the street. However, it was a lot cheaper and the food was really good. For the same price as our drinks were in the other place, we each had a vegetable tagine, which was hearty and really tasty.

On our final full day in Marrakech, we headed out of the city and spent the day at Essaouira. It had been recommended to us by a couple we'd met up Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. It was about 2 1/2 hours each way on the bus, but definitely worth it. It seemed much more relaxed, plus a lot cleaner than Marrakech. You'd still get hassled in the medina, but not as much. There also seemed a lot more tourists around - possibly because it's coastal. Anyway, we had a bit of a wander around the medina before we went for a late lunch / early dinner. We'd researched in advance and had written down 2 possible places to go. Just as well we had as our first choice place was closed for no obvious reason. Thankfully our second choice was open. It was Ginger Cafe, which is currently the top ranked eatery in Essaouira on Tripadvisor. It was a cosy little place and the guy serving us was really nice. I had a 'gourmet' sandwich of turkey, cheese, tomato, basil and a supposedly small amount of mustard (which was rather strong in places). I'm not sure I'd go as far as to call it gourmet, but it was very nice. I also had an espresso which was greatly enjoyable. The coffee we got at breakfast in the riad was quite strange tasting - not bad, just different - slightly cinnamon like. The breakfast in general was decent though - fresh bread, butter and jams, a laughing cow cheese triangle, sometimes a little cake, a yoghurt, coffee, fresh orange juice and some mint tea (a traditional Morrocan thing). I'm not keen on teas that aren't just regular black tea, so Jamie would get double mint tea. He had some at this place in Essaouira too.


After food we wandered around the medina a bit more before heading down to the beach. The temperature was generally a bit cooler in Essaouira, which was nice, plus it was really windy by the sea, which made it even cooler. We walked right along the beach, up to the castle in the sand that apparently inspired a Bob Marley song. Walking back was more of an adventure as we were walking into the wind. Unsurprisingly it's a popular spot for windsurfing, so we watched the people attempting that. One guy was trying to do it without the surf board element, so basically trying to just get lifted out of the water by the wind - mostly unsuccessfully! Weird. The bus then got us back to Marrakech in a fairly timely manner. Only bad point of the day was that I got slightly sunburnt on the backs of my shoulders. On my right shoulder you can actually see the outline of my hand from the part I did manage to put sunscreen on. Doh! I was worried they'd cause me problems the following day (the day I'm writing this) as I needed to carry my backpack to the train station. However they've thankfully been ok - I put cream on them last night and this morning and that seems to have been sufficient.

We're now on the train heading to Fez, which is about a 7 hour journey. Sadly there's no wi-fi, so I won't be able to post this for a while, but we did pay the small amount extra for first class so we've got air conditioning - phew.

Posted by chantalpatton 14:39 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Hemel Hempstead, UK (30th June - 17th July)

We've been back in the UK since 30th June and mostly staying at my Mum's in Hemel Hempstead. Not much of a tourist destination, but a welcome bit of rest and relaxation. Well, partly at least - we've also had to sort out visas and other such like things for our onwards travels. In fact Jamie's just picked our passports back up from the Real Russia office in London today (possibly a bit of a clue as to one of the countries we'll be visiting).

It's been really nice to catch up with family, plus we've managed to see a few friends as well, including Verity who we met on the Moose Bus in Canada, plus Maria, a school friend of mine I'd not seen in about 10 years. I also got home to a big stack of post (mostly CDs I'd ordered during the year away), so it was a bit like Christmas!

The last 2 weeks have flown by and we're now down to the last 2 days before we head back to the airport (the 17th one of the year so far). On our travels so far we've been weighed down by our suitcases filled with all the stuff we'd had for our year of living and working in Toronto. Happily we can now leave behind a lot of that stuff and travel relatively lightly. We've bought backpacks, so we now just need to decide which things to pack in them and which to leave behind. We're almost entirely going to be visiting countries during their hot seasons (if they even have cold seasons at all), so we don't need a lot of bulky coats or jumpers, which is good, though we might be craving a bit of cold weather in a few months' time (neither of us are that great in high temperatures, so it should be pretty interesting).

Also as part of our need and desire to travel light, I'm not going to be taking my laptop with me. I'll take my tablet, so I'll still have internet access and I'll keep blogging, but it'll be a bit strange to not have access to any files, programs or music I might want during the next 6 months. I'm copying any essentials and desirables on to my tablet or in to my online storage, but I'm sure I'm going to forget stuff.

Anyway, I should get on with the preparations. Thanks to my Mum for putting us up and being an awesome host. And to those people I've not managed to see during my time back here, I'll catch up with you in 2014 - it'll be here before you know it.

Posted by chantalpatton 06:30 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Reykjavik and Akureyri, Iceland (24th - 30th June)

Our flight from Boston got us into Keflavik just after midnight. We then had the bus journey into Reykjavik, which takes about 45 minutes, so we arrived at our hostel quite late and ready for bed. Unfortunately it wasn't as nice and easy a check-in as it should have been. The hostel was Hotel Floki and the general checking in process was fine, but we had problems when we tried to enter the dorm and our keys didn't seem to work. As our fellow dorm-mates were all trying to sleep, they probably didn't appreciate us wrestling with the door for about 5 minutes. Eventually someone in the room just let us in, but as it seemed like we'd been given the wrong keys, we went back to the guy at reception to tell him. It turned out that the keys were the right ones, it's just a rubbish lock and you need to get it in exactly the right position in order to open it. Slightly annoying, but at least we could go to bed now right? Nope, our beds were lacking in any bedding. We thought the receptionist had just forgotten to give it to us, so we went back to him again, but no, bedding's just not included, you have to pay a daily fee to rent it! This turned out to be commonplace in Iceland as they expect you to take your own sleeping bag for some reason, but it's not something we'd known about in advance. We'd booked through Expedia and there'd been no mention of it on their website, so we did manage to wrangle ourselves some bedding for free, though they didn't have much available (despite the fact you'd usually have to pay a hefty fee), so we ended up with a sheet and a duvet between us (I took the duvet and Jamie made do with the sheet). Not the greatest introduction to a hostel. Plus we were in a 5-bed dorm and one of the other people in there (who was there for the duration of our stay) was pretty weird and slightly creepy and snored incredibly loudly and in a variety of ways. Obviously you can't blame a hostel for the other residents, it's just something you have to put up with in dorms, but it still didn't help our overall hostel experience. On the plus side though, the free breakfast was pretty good.

We had 2 full days in Reykjavik before we headed up north for a bit. The weather wasn't brilliant, sadly, it was overcast and we had some rain spells. Still, it's a really nice city. Our first day was spent exploring the city itself, including going up the tower of the Hallgrímskirkja church which was quite an iconic sight to me, but only because Jamie's had it in his Facebook profile photo since he first went in 2006 (I think). You get a good view over the city, though it was a shame it was so cloudy.

Hallgrímskirkja church:

We also discovered some nice cafes and bars during our first couple of days. Micro Bar's a fairly new place that serves microbrews and where you can get samplers of the beers (which we did!). It had a nice atmosphere too and we got chatting to various patrons as well as the barman. Another really nice place is Stofan Cafe, which is a cafe/bar with lots of old furniture and a really laid-back vibe. We went there a few times for both coffee and beer (though not simultaneously).

On our second day in Reykjavik we did the Golden Circle tour which takes in Gullfoss waterfall, the geysers at Haukadalur and the Þingvellir National Park. It also randomly included a trip to a tomato plantation, which wasn't quite so exciting, but it was a really good tour overall. The highlight's probably the geysers, just because the novelty of water shooting straight up in the air doesn't get old.


On the 26th we had an internal flight up to Akureyri. We didn't want to lug our suitcases all the way up there (or pay to take them on the plane), so we'd arranged to leave them at Bus Hostel, where we were going to be staying on our return to Reykjavik. We then walked from there to the airport, which wasn't too far and would have been quite nice if it hadn't been raining pretty heavily. We got there quite early, but it gave us time to dry out a bit. As we were just taking hand luggage with us, we'd had to leave behind our toiletries and I had to wear my glasses for 3 days, which was a little bit annoying. What made it more annoying was when we got to the airport and discovered that there aren't any security checks for domestic flights and we easily could have taken our toiletries with us. Oh well. We did buy a few basic things while we were there - we weren't completely disgusting or anything - but my contact lenses would have been quite nice to have.

The flight itself was mostly fine until it got to the descent. It was a pretty small plane and as we approached Akureyri, I saw the runway out of the right-hand window. It was parallel with us, but we were still pretty high up. I figured we'd have to circle around quite a bit so that we could slowly descend. Oh no - this wasn't necessary. We basically did an aerial u-turn, whilst also diving downwards very quickly. I'm used to ascending at quite a steep angle, but not descending at one - it was slightly terrifying! Although I say this as someone who's scared of rollercoasters and stuff, so my terror level is quite a bit lower than most peoples'. Still, I was relieved when we were safely on the ground, which was pretty damn quickly. Jamie was amused that I kept instinctively reaching my arm out to grab on to the seat in front - like that was somehow going to save me if we ploughed into the ground. I wasn't even aware I was doing it. Still, we did arrive safely and walked for about half an hour into town.

Akureyri itself is a nice little town - quite quirky, like Iceland seems to be in general. We stayed at Akureyri Backpackers, which was really nice - the dorms were nice and clean, there was a decent kitchen and the communal area was a cafe/bar with a good atmosphere. Again you had to pay for bedding, but this time we'd known in advance and the fee was for your entire stay and not per night. We were in a 6-bed dorm and were sharing with 3 guys from America (one of whom was originally from Canada) who were really nice, so it was a big step up from Hotel Floki. On the day of our arrival we went for a walk around town, including up to the church (which is quite similar to the one in Reykjavik - it was the same designer) and the botanical garden. We also went and bought some groceries so we could cook our own meals. Iceland's not cheap! With the excursions we did and the general cost of food and drink, we spent more money there than anywhere else by far.

For our one full day in Akureyri we'd booked on to a bus tour. It was a nice and small bus tour, on a minibus, so quite a different experience to the Golden Circle tour. The tour was this one. It was a long day, but a really enjoyable one. We saw some beautiful landscapes and the rain even held off.


Dettifoss waterfall:


We then had the majority of another day in Akureyri. That's because the cheapest flight back to Reykjavik was an evening one. In retrospect it would have been better to have booked the flight back for the previous evening, so we could have finished the day tour and then flown back and had another full day in Reykjavik. Nothing against Akureyri, but there's not a huge amount to do, particularly for free. We hung around the hostel for a while, playing cards and chess and using the kitchen to make lunch, then we went out for a walk. We found a slightly overgrown path up a hill and followed it to a cool hidden-away lookout over the town, next to a waterfall. It was like our own little secret discovery - very cool.

Our flight back to Reykjavik was much less scary than our one to Akureyri had been, thankfully. We got back and headed to Bus Hostel, where we'd left our suitcases. It was a strange location for a hostel, being on an industrial estate, but it was just a short walk into the city, plus handy for the bus station and domestic airport. It looked like it used to be offices, but they'd done a good job in turning it into a really nice hostel. The communal area was particularly cool as it looked like an antique shop. The dorms were also a really good size, plus we were the only people in ours for the 2 days we were there, so it was like having a private room. There were also lots of funny and quirky signs and quotes about the place. The only slight annoyance was that you couldn't properly lock the bathroom doors. As everything had keycard entry, you could unlock all the bathrooms with your keycard. It was best to assume that if the door was closed there was someone in there.

Our last full day in Iceland was also Jamie's 30th birthday. He wasn't exactly excited about turning 30, but we had a really good day. We headed to the Blue Lagoon for the afternoon, which is a fun and surreal experience. I knew it was all naturally heated, but for some reason I'd not expected the ground under the water to be quite so natural - you have to walk quite carefully so you don't stand on any pointy rocks. Not that they're jagged, they're pretty smooth and coated with something, but still a bit pointy in places. It just adds to the experience though.

The Blue Lagoon:

In the evening we met up with a friend of Jamie's from his previous visit to Iceland, plus some friends of hers. She runs a Reykjavik blog (this one) and as part of that she's set up the aim to visit all bars in Reykjavik before the end of the summer. We pulled a few out of a bag and visited those. It was a fun night and in one of the bars they got the musician to play Happy Birthday for Jamie, hee hee. We headed back to the hostel at about 2am, which usually wouldn't be too late, but we then had to get up at 4:15am in order to get to the airport for our flight back to the UK. Ugh. That part wasn't so much fun, but Iceland in general was great.

Posted by chantalpatton 02:56 Archived in Iceland Comments (2)

Boston, USA (20th - 23rd June)

We got the Yo! Bus from New York to Boston. It's another bus company owned by Greyhound that's cheaper and better than Greyhound itself. We got to the bus stop pretty early, but that turned out to be a good thing as they seemingly over-sell the buses so if you're not there early enough you'll have to wait for the next one instead, which mightn't be for hours. The journey was a lot longer than expected, mostly due to the amount of traffic getting out of New York. I think we arrived about 2 hours late.

Finding cheap accommodation in Boston was pretty much impossible. We ended up booking a mystery hotel through Hotwire, which still wasn't cheap, but it was a nice little treat for our last few days in North America. The hotel was Club Quarters and it was as central as you could get. It's mostly aimed at the business crowd so there's free wi-fi and free wireless printing, which was really useful as we had a few booking confirmations for Iceland that we needed to print out. The only slight downside with the location was that the area it was in would all shut down at about 6pm, so finding somewhere to eat when we arrived was pretty difficult. There's a pub attached to the hotel, which was still open, but it was rammed. We ended up just going to Subway, as nowhere else seemed to be open.

I'd been to Boston before, but way back in 1997 and only for a day or so, so it was really nice to return and see some more of the city. I really like Boston, it's got a relaxed kind of atmosphere. We only had 2 full days there and it was really hot, but we still managed to see a decent amount. On the first day we walked some parts of the Freedom Trail, plus had a walk around the Beacon Hill area with its cobbled streets and gas lamps. As the Boston Bruins (Ice Hockey team) were in the upcoming final, there were quite a few statues around the city that had been given Bruins shirts:


We also went to see the Cheers bar, which was used for external shots in the show. Then we went for a drink at the replica studio bar at Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

On our second day we went to the Samuel Adams brewery for their free tour. That was brilliant - I can't recommend it enough. It was a good length, the guide (Jess) was really good, it was very informative and it ended with tastings of 3 different beers where you got to pour your own measures and then keep the glass. And all for free!!! They weren't even allowed to take tips - any donations went towards charity. If you're in Boston and have any remote liking of beer, you've got to do it.

After that we went to the Tea Party boats. Back in 1997 we went to the Tea Party boat, so it was really interesting to see how it had all changed in 16 years. Unsurprisingly it had changed a lot. Back in 1997 there was just the one boat, whereas there are now 2 and a 3rd is due once it's been renovated/maintained. I think the one we went on in 1997 might have been the one that was now missing, as that's the largest boat. Back in 1997 there was a brief bit of role-play and re-enactment, but mostly you just wandered around the boat for yourself, pretending to throw tea overboard and such like things. It's now a lot more controlled as you go around various areas as part of a group. It's all done as re-enactment and you're given the name of someone who was at the tea party. There's a lot of interaction with digital displays and it's much more elaborate and informative than it used to be, but it did also seem slightly over the top at times and a little boring. It's not cheap either. It was still enjoyable and there were some nice additions, but I think I probably preferred the low-key approach of 1997.

The tea party boats:

Posted by chantalpatton 03:45 Archived in USA Comments (0)

New York, USA (16th - 20th June)

We took a bus from Washington DC to New York. We'd had enough of Greyhound so took the Bolt Bus. Granted it's owned by Greyhound, but it's cheaper and it claimed to have wi-fi and extra legroom on all buses. It did have the wi-fi, but the legroom was barely adequate and could only be described as 'extra' if it was in comparison to having none at all. Still, the journey was fine, as far as I remember.

From New York we took a bus over to New Jersey where we were staying in our third consecutive Airbnb apartment. It was only just in New Jersey, so we could get to Manhattan in about 15 minutes, which was brilliant, plus we got a great view of the Manhattan skyline from the end of the street:


The apartment was another basement one, though not a studio this time - we had a separate bedroom and everything! We only briefly met the guy who owned it when we were leaving, but he'd left detailed instructions for everything. The only thing missing, weirdly, was a tin opener; which was only annoying because we realised that after we'd bought some tins!

On that first evening we headed back to Manhattan and went to the cinema. We went to see 'Before Midnight', which was ace - I love all of the 'Before...' films and it was great to have a new one. Then on our first full day in New York we had some practical things to sort out, like booking bus tickets for our onwards journey to Boston, plus finding a new camera for Jamie. His had been playing up, so I said I'd get him a new one as a birthday present. In Chicago we'd spent ages in a Best Buy, trying out different cameras and finally deciding on the one that seemed the best, only to discover it was out of stock. We tried a second Best Buy in Chicago, but that was out of stock too. We then tried various places in Washington, none of which had it either. But, finally, we tried a camera shop in New York that actually had it. Hooray! They even had a choice of colours and it came with a free case and memory card. Awesome. After that we went to Central Park for a while before we then went and met up with my friend Cary and his partner Joe. The four of us headed to the East Village for dinner and then a coffee and some cheesecake. It was great to get to see them.

The next day we'd planned a lot of outdoor activities but woke up to discover a forecast of rain. We decided to postpone the Staten Island ferry, but we still managed to visit the 9/11 Memorial before the rain started. As that whole area's still under construction, you need tickets to see the memorial (which are free) and there's a ridiculous amount of security you have to go through, but once it is all done it'll be freely accessible. The memorial itself is all really nicely done with the 2 fountains in the outlines of where the towers used to be.


We then went to Other Music for a bit (yay record stores), then for a coffee, then for food in a random pub (as the Mexican place I'd scoped out in advance was actually just a take-away and it was raining), then on for drinks at a cool bar with a jukebox (which Jamie had actually been to on his previous trip to New York in 2008).

On the 19th the weather was better, happily, so we did the free trip on the Staten Island ferry. It meant we got to see the Statue of Liberty - yay! I went to New York in 1997 and 1998, but only for a day each time and we didn't make it to the Statue of Liberty, so it was great to finally get to see it. We couldn't take the ferry over to Liberty Island though as it was still closed following Hurricane Sandy. It should be re-opening today actually - 4th July. After that we went over to Brooklyn for a bit of a wander around and some dinner. We came across a cool little place called Siggy's, where aliens eat for free. Only the green-skinned type of aliens though, apparently (racists!). We then walked back to Manhattan over the Brooklyn bridge, which was really cool. Then we headed to Times Square and walked around a bit more, marvelling at how bright it is with all the lights and how many people there are.

Like the other US cities we'd been to, we could easily have filled a few more days there, but it's also somewhere we're bound to go back to at some point.

Posted by chantalpatton 02:34 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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