Diary Posts, Study Abroad Advice, Travels

The One With A Guide On How (Not) To Roadtrip America

Road-tripping across a decent portion of the United States in the summer following my year abroad in Ottawa was a pipe dream of mine from the start.

Bumping along a road closer to resembling a dirt track than any highway, music blaring, the windows rolled down, with Monument Valley looming on the horizon; I’m not quite sure where this image came from, but by gosh, the idea stuck. It stuck, gained roots, and grew, branching off into a whole, insane, ridiculous vision. I wanted to see not only Monument Valley, but the Grand Canyon and the Valley of the Gods. I was also desperate to visit San Francisco, which I’d heard so much about, and hike through Yosemite National Park. I also thought, as an added bonus, it might be quite lovely to take the iconic coastal road up from California to Seattle, but these, I thought, were all pretty fanciful ideas. My family,  friends, and even I doubted they’d actually happen.

Except, when dates began falling into place, and Emily and my best friend from home expressed an interest in joining me for parts of the journey, the dream gradually grew into plan. We could rent a car, stay in airbnbs and hostels, and actually do this.

In the end, my road trip comprised of two parts, over 4 weeks. The first section was an insane cross-country trek, from Colorado Springs to San Francisco, via the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Las Vegas and Yosemite. The second, after a few days recovering in San Francisco, was north up the coast – largely sticking to the famous 101 coastal road. This section of the trip took us through the famous Redwoods, past beautiful ocean overlooks, into Portland, and finally up to Seattle, which was my final stop. I kept track of the mileage counters of the three cars we travelled in, from Colorado to Seattle, and the final distance clocked in at 3,896 miles. I know. Mental.

If I’m honest, nearly one month on from the end of the trip, it still feels like a dream. I still can’t talk about it at any length without grinning from ear to ear. It was the most epic, incredible, challenging and freeing experience of my entire life, and capped off my year in a way like no other.

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Living a ‘pinch-me-this-isn’t-real’ moment

It was also an adventure that required (and certainly benefitted from) an extensive amount of planning and research. I think we were about halfway through Death Valley, having cracked into our second water gallon jug and discussing how grateful we were to have invested in them, that I started a list on my phone of roadtrip hints and tips – inspired by our good decisions, and less good ones. I thought I’d share them here, as a starting point for anyone considering their own road trip adventure, especially in the States (because honestly, I can’t recommend it enough.)

13 of Tess’ Top Roadtrip Tips

1. How to get started – it’s all in the planning.

Faced with an enormous list of things we wanted to do, an indefinite amount of time and a fairly decent budget (goodbye lifetime savings, this was what you were being saved for) – the world was our oyster. Which was terrifying. Cue roadtrippers.com, which was a fantastic way for us to start our planning. You plug in your start and end destination, and then can add things you want to see on the way as detours. Even better, once you’ve got your basic route, you can filter suggestions of other things near your route that might not have come up in your research. Our next stage of planning was one mega Google Doc, with shared editing accessibility. That way, we could add independently ideas for food, things to do, and potential accommodations. Accommodation incidentally, was decided in a very simple way; find a town, roughly every 2-3 hours of driving, unless there was an exception, and find somewhere to stay. This meant our driving wasn’t unreasonably insane each day, though we did break this rule on some occasions, to allow for a full day at the Grand Canyon and in Zion National Park.  Continue reading “The One With A Guide On How (Not) To Roadtrip America”

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Diary Posts, Travels

The One With a Reading Week in Boston

It’s been just over two weeks since Emily and I ran away from our reading and responsibilities for a 5 day trip to the states and I am here to tell you was it EVER worth it.

Reading weeks are an important time for the year-abroader. There are a treasured week or so of scheduled freedom, a break from classes and deadlines and readings, where our fellow Canadians go home to see family or go camp-out in the library while our fellow internationals (at least in our case) jet off to Cuba or New York. Emily and I are both due to go to New York and Washington later on this year, but were keen to plan something fun to keep us motivated through the dreariness that is January. Last semester saw us taking a 5 hour train up to Quebec City which we loved, and we wanted another city break but perhaps one that was a little more ambitious. With Toronto and Montreal under our belt, we stretched our horizons to across the border.

Boston, which looks deceptively close on Google Maps, seemed like a good option. A busy, cultural, historical and Instagram-worthy city, that could be properly explored in several days and wasn’t too far. Plus, it seemed like a ‘gentle’ enough American city for a good first experience for me in the U S of A. BONUS PLUS: it just so happened my very, very good friend Ellie (who I coincidentally met on her year abroad in Exeter in my first year) would be in Boston too for some of the days, and bearing in mind I hadn’t seen her for over two years, this seemed like a fantastic opportunity to do so.

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And here she is! It’s been far too long Ellie ❤

With all this Valid Reasoning justifying us depleting our savings accounts yet again, we booked our flights and hostel before Christmas, and put the date on our countdown apps. The trip served as a great motivator through the stress of deadlines and midterms, and honestly, the fact we’re no longer working and that the weather was so gorgeous would probably have been enough for us. But as it was, Boston is also a very cool city, and I thought I’d give a rundown of our highlights and thoughts here:  Continue reading “The One With a Reading Week in Boston”

Canadian Life, Diary Posts, Travels

The One With Québec City

Thursday was a very exciting day here for us year abroaders in Ottawa.

It was our first snowfall! On the 27th October, 4 solid days before Halloween, fluffy white flakes fell from an ominously grey sky and covered the autumn leaves still scattered everywhere you go.

(You heard that right. October 27th.)

Although I was a bit shocked (I’d been hedging my bets for the first snow being in mid-November – I realise now this was a bit naive) it was also super cool. Heading to Walmart hoover-shopping in the ‘freezing rain’ (decidedly not snow according to Natalie) and then walking out of the store half an hour later to a genuine blizzard was an awesome experience.  Selfies were taken. I had a frolic in the park opposite our apartment and Natalie took photos. The excitement at the start of my first proper Canadian Winter was real. The snow was just enough to settle on the ground and trees and was still there on Friday morning, but quickly melted after that.

A brief first encounter with the proper white stuff, but it certainly won’t be the last. Still, it was more snow than I’ve seen in about 4 years (a fact that left the basketball team aghast), and Emily and I have amped up the urgency to go winter coat shopping.

Winter coats we definitely would have made use of in Québec City last weekend because oh my GOODNESS was it cold. Continue reading “The One With Québec City”

Canadian Life, Diary Posts, Travels

The One With a Weekend in Algonquin

It’s a 9:30pm on a Saturday night and I am in bed; scrambled eggs for tea, groceries reorganised, washing done, loo bleached, teeth brushed, the whole schabang.

This is not standard of a Saturday night I might point out, but apparently in Canada there’s these pesky things called midterms and I am slapbang in the middle of them. As a result the studying procrastination is strong and my bathroom smells divine.

Reading week is a week away and it can’t come soon enough. This past week has, unfortunately, not been an easy one. Essays and essay proposals and revision on top of standard readings and reading responses on top of a very gruelling 7:00am hike through the rain to basketball – it hasn’t been my favourite time, and I’ve struggled to weigh up the responsibilities to my academics and to myself.

It’s staggering to think that this time last week I was standing on a lakeside in the bone-shuddering cold of a Canadian autumn night, with fog drifting eerily across the water Harry-Potter-Dementor-scene style. Around me, the most diverse group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, joking and teaching each other insults in their native languages, our necks cricked looking up at the endless stars.

Despite the fact that it literally was freezing and I definitely could have done with a proper thermal, I’d give quite a lot to be back on that lakeside right now. Because although the past week hasn’t been fun, last weekend was quite comfortably the absolute highlight of the past 50 odd days I’ve been in Canada.

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Continue reading “The One With a Weekend in Algonquin”

Canadian Life, Diary Posts, Travels

The One With a Weekend in Montreal

It’s a lazy Sunday in September and we are 3 full days into Fall (I’m just about getting used to this North American lingo at this point.) The leaves are definitely starting to change now, and there’s a slight chill in the air that threatens a new cold front.

That being said we’ve had a couple of beautiful sunny days this week, which has meant a fair amount of sitting outside around on campus soaking up the vitamin D while I still can. Classes have been cool, from the obligatory Brit-bashing crash courses on colonialism in my Indigenous studies class, to lectures on the development of 19th century psychiatry and asylums in my Medicine and Modernity course. I celebrated my month anniversary of being here in Canada with a Birthday Cake themed ice cream from my fave shop, and finally bought all those random useful things I’ve been meaning to get for a while (wash basin, nails to hang up my mirror, stamps, etc.) I’ve Skyped family and friends and managed to keep the homesick moments to a minimum. Most importantly, I had a private meeting with the basketball coach about the year ahead and I honestly feel so much better about the whole thing. He took a lot of pressure off while also giving me a much needed confidence boost about my ability as well. And then, to end the week I got to watch our first pre-season game win against a very strong cegep side from Montreal, and headed home to co-host with Natalie our first flat party (90s themed) – during which I heard that my good friend from home had given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy!

All in all, it’s been a pretty busy and pretty good week.

Which was appropriate, as it followed a pretty fantastic weekend. Continue reading “The One With a Weekend in Montreal”

Canadian Life, Diary Posts, Travels

The One at the Lakeside

I’m writing this on my Canadian flatmate Natalie’s backyard deck, overlooking the slope of their garden down to the lake. They have a wooden dock and a small sailing boat; I can just see the mast bobbing in the waves over the trees. It’s nearly 6pm so the sun is starting to set, but it’s still pushing 30 degrees, even with the lakeshore breeze. It is, to put it mildly, idyllic.

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Can this please be our student house

I’m staying for two nights in Prince Edward County, which is about two hours north of Toronto and 3 hours south of Ottawa. Tomorrow morning Natalie will drive us and my two astonishingly heavy suitcases up to the capital; from there I will be officially moved into my new apartment. My new home for the academic year.

Natalie’s family have been very welcoming from the start. Her mum sent some very friendly emails to mine which I know have reassured her no end that I am in fact not actually moving into the flat of a 50 year old internet perv. The offer for me to come and stay before travelling on up to Ottawa was one I felt would be pretty dumb to turn down, and it’s been lovely to take some down time and to recover from Toronto too. Continue reading “The One at the Lakeside”

Diary Posts, Travels

The One With Immigration and Toronto

Written: 28/8/16

So I made it! I’m actually now just shy of a week in Canada, but I have yet to make it to Ottawa. Instead I’ve been lucky as hell tourist-ing in Toronto for a couple of days and then getting a lift to my flatmate’s place in Prince Edward County for the night before heading on to the capital. So much has happened I’m already questioning how on earth I’m going to fit it into a blog post – but I’ll do my best!

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First glimpse of Ontario!

The flight was pretty smooth sailing; I hadn’t booked an extra leg-room seat (which would have cost a tidy £100 extra) but fortunately an Air Transat air hostess took pity on lil-6-foot-3 me and upgraded me to an emergency exit seat about 5 minutes into the flight. From there not much happened for the next 7 hours apart from a dodgy plane panini and me getting super involved in watching The Martian (probably not a good idea in public.)

Flying in over Toronto I experienced the slightly-petrified stomach lurch feeling of ‘holy crap, here it is, here’s my home country for the next year’. The view was quite something; I am in continual awe of how long and straight the main roads are here. They’re like tramlines – cutting through the countryside into the distance as far as the eye can see.

Continue reading “The One With Immigration and Toronto”

Pre-departure, Travels

Interrailing Part 2: Wunderful Vienna

Vienna was originally just meant to be a stopping point between Prague and Budapest (we’d been advised that it was more interesting than Bratislava) but having been to the city saying that feels like verging on blasphemy now. As you’ll gather from this post we loved Vienna, and I honestly feel that it is very underrated amongst interrailers, particularly those in their 20s who don’t see it as a ‘happening’ place.

We had a very pleasant and efficient 4 hour trip for €24 each from Prague via OBB trains which I would whole-heartedly recommend. Second class is unreserved seating so make sure you’re on time to grab a spot, but we got a table with minimal rushing and definitely made the most of it. There’s free wifi on the train, a handy electronic screen letting you know which stop you’re approaching and ETAs, and the fact our tickets were checked twice by two different conductors was the only indicator we’d crossed the border from the Czech Republic to Hungary.

Hostel Experience

We booked 2 nights in Wombats City Hostel, opposite the Naschmarkt, the main market square in Vienna. Location wise was pretty good, but our experiences in Prague and Budapest were better – it was about a 10 minute walk to the Opera house and National Galleries, and near the Museum quarter, but probably closer to 20 minutes to the centre of town. To be honest though, I think anywhere would be far from something due to the fact that Vienna is huge, and there is so much to see you have to walk. We were however right next to a ‘Hofer’ supermarket which was ideal for 50 cent croissants in the morning.  Continue reading “Interrailing Part 2: Wunderful Vienna”

Personal, Travels

Interrailing Part 1: Czeching out Prague

(Please forgive the pun – I couldn’t help myself.)

So, here is the first of 3 posts on my interrailing trip from Prague to Budapest via Vienna. I’ve been compiling things I would put into my travel guides of the cities in my head as we were travelling (I enjoy doing things like that) and thought I might as well write them up and share them here in case anyone else benefits from my experiences.

Hostel Experience

We booked 3 nights in Ahoy! Hostel (and no, it wasn’t pirate themed – ‘Ahoy’ is a colloquial greeting in Czech. Honestly) and it suited us very well. Our main requirements were price and location, and it ticked both of those boxes at under £20 a night each and in the centre of Prague, about 10 minutes walk away from the main square (plus opposite an underground Tesco which was ideal.)

Ahoy! probably ended up being the middling hostel of the three we stayed in (as in, not too big, not too small) and was possibly my favourite. It was definitely small, about 40 people in total could stay, and up a flight of stairs from an inconspicuous door on the street, but the staff were friendly and full of recommendations, and it was busy enough that we met and chatted to plenty of people. I don’t know what it is but personally I’m such a fan of arriving in a hostel and the person behind the reception desk getting out a map and circling all the big things while giving us a rundown on the city – it starts the trip off on a really good stead for me. Continue reading “Interrailing Part 1: Czeching out Prague”

Travels

Adventures in Interrailing: The Planning

The day after Brexit happened,  I popped round to our neighbours’ house. They are very good family friends (my brother and I grew up playing games with their children on a practically daily basis) to the extent they are more like extended family than anything else. The oldest son, Tim, is one of my oldest friends and even though we went to different universities and he’s a good 2 years older than me, we still get along like a house on fire whenever we catch up.

It was at this epic catch-up session, in between bemoaning Brexit Tim suggested something.

“You know, we really should go on holiday together at some point.”

And so, it was the day after the complete collapse of the pound to a 31-year low, the day after the UK had firmly given the middle finger to European collaborations – we decided on a trip to Eastern Europe, and within 24 hours had booked the entire thing, exchange rates be damned.

Continue reading “Adventures in Interrailing: The Planning”