Never drink whisky on the rocks

The Thirsty Explorer heads to the Scottish island of Islay where he learns the important differences between malt and whisky – and how to order it in a bar.

The first time I tasted Scotch whisky I was a broke student, chugging direct from a £3 bottle, lying outside my tent at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.  It was after a meal of tinned macaroni and cheese – hardly a sophisticated sampling considering I was sipping the world’s most venerated style of whisky. I promised myself that the next time I returned to Scotland, I would drink the best the country had to offer, in great abundance and straight from the source, no matter what it took.

The Caledonian Canal with Ben Nevis in background (Credit: Credit: Simon Butterworth/Getty Images)

Entrance to the Caledonian Canal with Ben Nevis in background (Credit: Simon Butterworth/Getty Images)

That first Scotch whisky I drank was a blend. Of course, I didn’t understand the difference between single malt and blended whisky until I returned to Scotland eight years later; most people still don’t. Blended whisky, which comprises more than 80% of the market, including brands like Johnnie Walker and Dewars, is a mix o­f malt and grain whiskies that come from multiple distilleries. Single malt, which Scottish drinkers often refer to as malt rather than whisky (and never Scotch, like it’s known elsewhere around the world), is whisky created from malted barley at one distillery.

Taking a whisky sample from a cask at Bruichladdich (Credit: Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Taking a whisky sample from a cask at Bruichladdich (Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Single malts aren’t necessarily always better than blends, but most of Scotland’s highest regarded and most expensive whiskies are the former. Blended whiskies are smoother and easier to drink; malt can be almost overwhelming in flavour, a drink most work their way up to.

The vast majority of malt comes from three major whisky-producing regions. The Highlands (roughly the northern half of Scotland) and Speyside (in the country’s northeast) are both easily accessible from major cities, and their whiskies are relatively accessible to the malt novice, characterised by smooth, floral, often delicate flavours.

Then there’s Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, about 32km off the coast of Northern Ireland. As the crow flies, it’s a roughly 113km journey from Glasgow to Islay. But, unless you plan on flying into the island’s tiny airport, it’s about 2.5 hours by car from Glasgow to the hamlet of Kennacraig, and a nearly three-hour ferry to Islay – and that’s if you time the trip perfectly. Many people find Islay’s whisky even less accessible than the island itself.

The rugged coast of Islay (Credit: Credit: Andy Stothert/Getty Images)

The rugged coast of Islay (Credit: Andy Stothert/Getty Images)

If you’re a seasoned malt drinker, chances are you have a bottle from Islay in your liquor cabinet. If, on the other hand, you tried Scotch whisky for the first time and hated it, thought it was too smoky, or tasted like medicine or ashtrays, it probably came from Islay.

Islay whiskies get their signature flavour from smoking peat – the same vegetation that Scots have long been burning to heat their homes – in order to dry the malted barley used to create whisky. The results are polarising; some purists believe the peat takes away from the true flavour of the whisky, others become addicted, perpetually searching for something peatier.

Laphroaig unapologetically overwhelms the palate with peat (Credit: Credit: Emma Jane Hogbin Westby/Flickr/CC by 2.0)

Laphroaig unapologetically overwhelms the palate with peat (Credit: Emma Jane Hogbin Westby/Flickr/CC by 2.0)

The amount of peat used varies widely. Bruichladdich is the only Islay distillery known for its non-smoked whiskies.Laphroaig, on the other end of the island and the other end of the peat spectrum, unapologetically overwhelms the palate with peat. Laphroaig’s recent “Opinions Welcome” campaignreceived feedback that varied from “like chewing on a well-tarred fishing boat” to “drinking the inside of an antique store”. The opinion that resonated most with me reads, “It’s like fighting a peat bog monster that is on fire, but suddenly you both pause, look in one another’s eyes and kiss.”

Wine drinkers like to talk about terroir: the environmental condition, geology and geography that give a wine (and the grapes that make it) its unique flavour. However, it takes a connoisseur of snobbish proportions to know a wine’s exact origin from a blind taste. Even an amateur drinker would probably know in one sip whether a whisky came from Islay.

Pushing a barrel of Bruichladdich whisky (Credit: Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Pushing a barrel of Bruichladdich whisky. (Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I’ve never tasted another drink that has more successfully bottled a place. The whisky truly tastes like Islay, distilled – of the peat bogs that cover the island, of the smoke and fire used to stay warm during a seemingly endless winter, of the salty aftertaste of the sea.

Nothing about Islay is easy. The island is rugged and tempestuous; winds gusting straight from the sea are powerful and unrelenting. Clusters of white-washed buildings make up the two main villages of Bowmore and Port Ellen; the rest of the island is mostly inhabited by sheep and birds, and largely covered in peat. The peat bogs, which take thousands of years to form and require a perfect storm of climatic conditions, spread across the island for miles.

Public transportation on the 25-mile-long island is a nightmare, and driving and visiting distilleries don’t really mix. So for three days on Islay, I held out my thumb and was whisked away by kindly locals, travelling from the windswept shores to the warm and welcoming shelters of the island’s eight distilleries, sampling dozens of whiskies in all their smoky glory.

The only Islay distillery known for its non-smoked whiskies (Credit: Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Bruichladdich is the only Islay distillery known for its non-smoked whiskies (Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

For me, distilleries are near magical places, where alchemy meets science to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. They are also museums of smells, where each room has a beautiful and distinct scent.

Visiting Scottish distilleries is also an incredible deal. Between £5 and £7 generally gets you a tour of the facility and a dram (a small glass) or two of cask-strength whisky (whisky before water is added). Many distilleries also offer pricier warehouse tastings (upwards of £25 each), giving the chance to sample rare whiskies straight from the barrel, including some whiskies that are impossible to find anywhere else and others that you may never taste again.

A sample of Bruichladdich's quadruple distilled single malt (Credit: Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich holds a sample of the distillery’s new quadruple distilled single malt (Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

My favourite Islay warehouse tasting was at Lagavulin, where £12 (combined with the Friends of the Classic Malts free admission) got me a sample of an eight-year old whisky still too young for bottling (the unpleasant flavour highlighted how important those years in the barrel are). I also got to try a double-matured bottle (aged 16 years in bourbon barrels before being finished for a few months in sherry casks) and a 30-year malt that normally costs more than £50 a dram in a bar, if you can find it (most single malts are aged at least 10 years, and generally get more expensive with age).

Speaking of bars, there is a certain protocol to ordering malt in Scotland. First, please don’t call it Scotch. It’s whisky or malt. Second, unless you want to be the subject of ridicule, don’t order your malt on the rocks. Ice numbs the tongue and melts too fast. You either drink it neat or with a drop of water to open the flavours. Drinking it on the rocks is only acceptable if you’re drinking a blended whisky or if it’s scorching outside. But the odds of the latter happening are incredibly slim. In Scotland, summer is the second most famous myth after the Loch Ness Monster.

After having been to Islay – even during Brooklyn’s oppressive summer heat – I still order my malt neat. I carefully pore over the bar’s menu, having forgotten more about whisky than most people will ever know. And even if it’s eight months (or more) until I find myself in Scotland again, I know it will only take one sip of that 16-year Lagavulin to transport me back to Islay’s windy, mountainous, peat-covered shores.

Himalayan views, without the danger

Does a low-altitude Himalayan hike that includes gin and tonics and nights in comfortable lodges offer the same rewards as a more challenging journey?

“Ukaalo, oraalo,” said our guide, Naresh Gurung, describing the three-hour hike we’d just begun toward Three Mountain Lodge in central Nepal. He undulated his hand: “up” and “down”.

I’d been on treks in the Himalayas before and wondered if, in a country where the earth rises to the hypoxia-inducing heights of Mount Everest, a word for “flat” even existed. And yet the trail disappearing into distant orange groves before us looked almost flat.

Pink sunset over Annapurna in Nepal (Credit: Credit: Whitworth Images/Getty)

Pink sunset over Annapurna in Nepal. (Credit: Whitworth Images/Getty)

Nepal’s classic Himalayan treks – the Annapurna Circuit, say, and the route to Everest Base Camp – are arduous journeys that approach altitudes of 5,416m. This trek I’d signed on for couldn’t be more different: a moderate hike in the 1,200m midlands. We would admire the high Himalayas from afar without being in them. There would be no altitude sickness, no bitter cold, and no avalanches like the one that killed dozens of people on the Annapurna Circuit in October 2014. And after our hike, we’d arrive at lodges – two on this trip – with soft beds, warm showers, and even a cocktail hour.

I liked the idea of an easier trek, at least in theory. But I confess to one concern: Did each layer of comfort I accepted insulate me further from the place I’d come to experience?

From Bandipur, a Unesco-recognized village located 80km from the adventure capital of Pokhara, my friend Maria and I set out with our guide. It was a warm January day. We were only 15 minutes into the trek when I peeled off my jacket.

We passed women sifting millet in flat baskets and men goading water buffalo to plow rice paddies. If lolling along this road toward a posh lodge seemed unadventurous, at least I was enjoying the untouched feel of the route. On the jammed-packed Annapurna Circuit, I remembered locals barely returning my greetings. “Namastay,” they’d mutter back, as though they were simply exhausted by the constant influx of trekkers. Here, we were greeted with enthusiasm.

Village near Three Mountain Lodge (Credit: Credit: Christina Ammon)

Village near Three Mountain Lodge. (Credit: Christina Ammon)

We were passing villages that belonged to the Gurung people, one of Nepal’s many ethic groups. Our guide was one of them. Although he travelled abroad and, like many Gurungs, had hoped to join the British army, he was happy to be guiding in his homeland. He pointed to the mountains. “This is panorama,” he announced, sweeping his arm proudly, as if he’d made the peaks himself.

Gurung began to name the mountains – Manaslu, Dhaulagiri, Fishtail, Annapurna one, two and three – but for me the snowy jags all gestalted into a majestic whole: the Himalayan range. I’d seen the Alps, the Sierra, the Rockies and the Andes, but gazing out at this endless chain, I was certain I was seeing the mountains of all mountains.

That afternoon we arrived at the lodge still feeling energized. The dining hall and rooms looked new and were perched on a manicured lawn that offered views on three sides. The grounds were likely a former rice paddy, but it was easier to imagine a cricket match there than women threshing rice.

Gurung handed us lemon drinks and gestured to a couple of bamboo loungers. “Relax chairs”, he said. As I leaned back in one and trained my eyes on the distant farm terraces, it occurred to me that I’d never seen a Nepali sprawl on a lounger. This rugged country cultivates a toughness and strength that most Westerners lack. After a fireside gin and tonic and a dinner of dal bhat, or lentil soup and rice. I settled into my fluffy bed.

I recalled my first trip to Nepal in 1998. It was my first foray out of the US, and with my small budget, I adopted a purist travel ethic: eat simply, take the local bus and suffer nobly. That time, I’d come to hike the Annapurna Circuit, a grueling, three-week odyssey with many nights spent at high altitude.

But before I ever made it to the trail, I witnessed a fatal road accident. My inexperienced soul bore it heavily, and I worry-warted my way through the trek. We crossed avalanche paths, tiptoed over landslides, and went ukaalo oraalo – up and down – and over the Thorong La pass. Would I die of advanced pulmonary edema? Would I be buried by snow? At night I slept in spare lodges, haunted by reccurring dreams of the road accident. But all the anxiety and hardship had a surprising upside: I picked up a copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in a teahouse – a discovery that prompted an interest in Buddhism that continues to this day.

Twenty years later, no such dark worries troubled me. In fact, I was dreaming of a carefree game of duck-duck-goose when I awoke at the lodge to the happy clink of the coffee tray outside my door. I looked out my window at the Himalayan range glowing in pink hues.

Table with a view at Three Mountain Lodge (Credit: Credit: Christina Ammon)

Table with a view at Three Mountain Lodge. (Credit: Christina Ammon)

We ate porridge at a sunny outdoor table and joined Gurung for a walk, threading through rice paddies and every now and then dipping beneath the mist line. Sunrays strayed through the trees; goats wearing bells clattered along our path. In the village of Jyamire, Gurung’s family offered us tin cups of millet wine, known locally chhaang. Time slowed and I felt the onset of pleasant countryside boredom. Grain was drying on mats and chickens pecked the ground. The sun appeared from behind the clouds and then disappeared again. As we got up to leave, our host stuffed our backpacks with oranges.

Back at the lodge, I wondered whether this comfortable trek suited me. With its island-like self-containment, the lodge almost kept the Nepal I’d come to experience at bay. On the other hand, our containment also minimized our impact.

There is an upside and downside to everything, I realized.

We ended our trek three days later at a lodge on the Seti River. I found a copy of a glossy travel magazine and flipped through its pages. I realized that any luxury that travel outfitters offered in Nepal would be mitigated by the incredibly rough landscape. Getting around here could never be easy.

But travel here could be comfortable at times, as it was on this trip. True, you may not be shaken to your spiritual core on a trek like this, but you’ll get a good gin and tonic before bed. And that’s okay. Maybe you have kids, or Grandma is tagging along with you. Or maybe you’ve simply had enough truly challengingukaalo and oraalo in your life and are ready for an easy, midland amble.

The world’s smallest kingdom

When he’s not fishing for squid or gardening outside his squat bungalow, the king of Tavolara lords over this tiny island’s 11 part-time residents and 100 nimble mountain goats.

Just south of Sardinia’s world-famous Costa Smeralda, the lonely island of Tavolara rises wildly from the cerulean sea like a jagged mountain. There are no roads or hotels, and the only inhabitable stretch is a white-sand tongue that’s best measured from end to end in steps.

Tavolara's jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tavolara’s jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Eliot Stein)

This is where I found Antonio Bertoleoni as our ferry sputtered to a float. Better known as “Tonino”, the 83-year-old former fisherman owns Tavolara’s only restaurant and is the reigning ruler of the island, which happens to be the smallest inhabited kingdom in the world. For the past 22 years, Tonino has commanded this 5sqkm mini-monarchy in shorts and sandals.

I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king.

“I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king,” Tonino said, burying his feet in the sand and looking toward his restaurant. “The only privilege I enjoy is free meals.”

The Kingdom of Tavolara is currently celebrating its 180th anniversary and actually predates Italy by 25 years. Forming your own island nation might sound like the kind of thing you’d dream up when you’re marooned in the Mediterranean, but the story began in 1807 when Tonino’s great-great-grandfather, Giuseppe Bertoleoni, became the then uninhabited island’s first settler. Described as a “half shepherd, half pirate” in the book Tavolara, Island of the Kings, the Genovese immigrant had recently married two sisters and was seeking a safe haven to escape his bigamy charge.

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

Giuseppe and his small harem soon realised that they were sharing their island paradise with a rare species of wild goats whose teeth were dyed a golden-yellow colour by the seaweed and lichen they ate. Word of the gilt-toothed goats eventually spread to Sardinia’s ruler, Carlo Alberto, who eagerly travelled to Tavolara to hunt the animals in 1836. Giuseppe’s 24-year-old son, Paolo, guided the hunting excursions.

“When he landed, Carlo Alberto introduced himself by saying, ‘I’m Carlo Alberto, the King of Sardinia,’” Tonino said. “And so my great-grandfather replied, ‘Well, I’m Paolo, the King of Tavolara.’”

After killing several goats and feasting for three days at Paolo’s home, Carlo Alberto was so delighted that he said, “Paolo, you really are the King of Tavolara!” before sailing off, according to Tonino. Joking or not, Carlo Alberto later confirmed that the far-flung island had never officially been part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and he sent Paolo a scroll from Carlo Alberto’s royal family, the House of Savoy, that certified the monarchy’s status.

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

Paolo promptly created the Bertoleoni coat of arms and painted it on the wall of his home. He also drew a royal family tree and built a cemetery on the island for himself and his descendants. When he died, he insisted on being buried with a crown cemented atop his tombstone – something he never wore while alive.

In the years that followed, news of the island’s sovereignty spread beyond the Mediterranean, and tiny Tavolara even formed a handful of political allies.Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of Italy’s founding fathers, soon became a trusted advisor of the Bertoleoni family; and the King of Sardinia at the time, Vittorio Emanuele II, went so far as to sign a peace treaty with the stamp-sized island’s 33 residents in 1903.

King Tonino's restaurant is the only one on the island (Credit: Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

King Tonino’s restaurant is the only one on the island (Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)


While collecting photographs of world leaders, Queen Victoria commissioned a British naval vessel to stop by the island so that officers could photograph Tavolara’s “royal family”. For years, the gold-framed photo was displayed in Buckingham Palace with the caption “World’s Smallest Kingdom”. Today, a giant copy of it hangs in Tonino’s restaurant, which is appropriately called The King of Tavolara and adorned with the royal crest that King Paolo I first designed.

After 126 years, the installation of a NATO base in 1962 effectively ended the kingdom’s independence, and made a quarter of the island off-limits to its handful of residents. Yet, like San Marino, Tavolara has never been formally annexed into modern Italy, making Tonino the fifth king in a kingdom that the world no longer recognises.

These days, when he’s not fishing for squid or gardening outside his squat bungalow, his majesty lords over Tavolara’s 11 part-time residents, 100 nimble mountain goats and a few species of endangered falcons that live atop the island’s 565m limestone peak. For the past 40 years, Tonino has been personally escorting visitors to his family’s island palace – first by rowboat, and now via a 25-minute ferry that he operates from Porto San Paolo.

“My family may have had a beautiful past,” Tonino said in a soft voice, “but we work hard and live simply, just like everybody else.”

In fact, running the kingdom is very much a family business. While the king and his nephew, Nicola, captain the summer ferry, the prince and princess in waiting, Giuseppe and Loredana, now run the beachside restaurant. Giuseppe’s nephew, Antonio, wakes up early to go fishing every morning and supplies most of the clams, lobster and fish that fly out of the kitchen each afternoon and evening.

Tonino likes to greet guests at Tavolara's dock (Credit: Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

Tonino likes to greet guests at Tavolara’s dock (Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

Thanks to a wave of tourism to the island, the kingdom’s GDP has been strong recently. Ironically, Tavolara is now the crown jewel in a protected Italian national marine reserve that has one of the highest levels of biomass in the Mediterranean. As a result, the island has quickly become one of the top diving destinations in Italy, with visitors flocking to swim with tortoises, sperm whales and basking sharks before coming up for air at the al fresco restaurant.

For me, it’s a privilege just to live here. Who needs a crown when you have a palace.

While Tonino still likes to greet guests as they come from the dock, his favourite part of the day is before the swell of sun worshippers and scuba enthusiasts descend on his empire. Just after dawn, he likes to walk past Tavolara’s handful of sunset-coloured homes and along a dusty path to visit the royal cemetery. Since King Paolo I passed in 1886, the plot has grown to hold every noble member of the kingdom – most recently Tonino’s wife, Queen Pompea, who passed away several years ago.

“I like to bring her plastic flowers,” Tonino said. “If I brought her fresh ones, the goats would just eat them.”

Like most of the Bertoleonis who came before him and the prince who will one day succeed him, Tonino is technically an Italian citizen. He once vowed to make an appeal to Vittorio Emanuele IV, the son of the last King of Italy and the self-proclaimed Duke of Savoy, for the royal family to once again recognise the Kingdom of Tavolara, but then had a change of heart.

A caffeinated return to Florence

Cafe Riviore on Piazza della Signoria, Florence (Credit: Richard I'Anson/LPI/Getty)

In an effort to relive his days as a university student in Italy, the Thirsty Explorer finds that the land of espresso is not as familiar as it once was.

I never really understood the saying “you can’t go home again”. I go home all the time and not much has changed: I lay on my father’s couch, watch mind-numbing amounts of TV, raid the fridge at 3 am, have my aunt do my laundry and generally revert back to my teenage self.

But after returning to Florence for the first time since a four-month study abroad programme in 2006, I realised there are some places that you can’t go back to. I learned this because a loud, ringing bell told me so – but we’ll get to that later.

I arrived in Florence early in the morning for a 21-hour layover en route to Korea; the journey had taken 12 hours, and I was exhausted. But Italy is the perfect country for a weary traveller: there are beautiful churches and benches everywhere and ­– more importantly – coffee is never more than a few steps away.

Italians drink more coffee than almost any country on Earth, which is an impressive feat considering they drink it roughly a thimbleful at a time. Coffee culture here is pretty much the opposite of most of the rest of the coffee-drinking world. While most of us treat a cup as an excuse for hours of relaxing, conversing or using a cafe’s free wi-fi, Italians treat coffee like a drug to be enjoyed quickly but frequently. It’s why sitting with a coffee can cost you roughly three times more than drinking it while standing.

It was in Florence that my love for coffee started to blossom. It began as a relationship of convenience and necessity – the espresso machine just outside my classroom door would spit out double shots of espresso in a matter of seconds. Two of these each morning before my 8 am class became a ritual that – once I stopped getting the shakes – was solely responsible for keeping me awake during class.

Soon, my days were punctuated with trips to the bar (what Italians call a cafe), elbow to elbow with Florence’s working folks, ordering un caffé. Drinking black espresso with such purpose and speed somehow made me feel more like an Italian and less like a wretched US university student who previously relied on what Italians call acqua marrone (brown water) – weak, watery, flavourless American coffee.

During my brief return to Italy, I was determined to return to my days of espresso drinking. I was determined to feel like an Italian again.

Unfortunately, I spent the first hour of my return wandering around lost, something I normally enjoy when discovering a new city. But this time it was frustrating; I was supposed to know these streets! Eventually, I found my arms reluctantly outstretched with a ludicrously large tourist map in front of my face. Time to get some coffee and regroup I decided. Within 15 seconds I was at a bar – as is always the case in this city.

Before ordering, I stepped into the restroom. Slowly, with my memories returning, I remembered that in Italy, the flush is sometimes located on a string dangling from a wall-mounted tank behind the toilet. I pulled the string expecting the toilet to flush and instead, an intensely loud buzzer blasted throughout the bar. Thanks to my rusty Italian and general laziness, I had ignored the sign marking the box as an emergency alarm.

I panicked, trying to find a stop button before they came in, stretcher in hands, expecting to find me sprawled out on the floor after some unmentionable accident. After a never-ending minute without success, I bolted – the alarm still flooding the bar.

I should’ve legged it out of there, but for reasons still unknown, I decided to go up to the bar and order an espresso, probably to make amends for my error.

But no one took my order. No one even looked at me, save for one barista who gave me a quick smile (which may or may not have been related to the fact that I was the idiot who had just set off an alarm loud enough to disrupt any and all conversation). They were all busy making coffee. These baristas were not apathetic students trying to earn beer money; these were true professionals. Only after they were done making their espressos and cappuccinos did they stop to turn off the alarm and take my order. Good thing nobody had actually had a serious accident in the bathroom.

Of course, it wasn’t until after ordering that I realised I had broken multiple unspoken rules of Italian coffee drinking. I didn’t need to wait until the barista was finished with the current cup – shouting your order to a barista with her back turned is perfectly acceptable, expected even. Oh, and you don’t call it an espresso. You call it un caffé. But my Italian was beyond rusty and my confidence gone.

Thankfully, coffee in Italy is always served at a temperature cool enough to drink immediately. So I quickly loaded a map on my phone, downed my coffee in one smooth motion and – fully embarrassed at this point – made my way back out into the city for a fresh start.

I used to know which narrow streets to take to get shelter from the sun, which alleys to walk to take advantage of cool breezes. I could still taste the flavours of my favourite gelato shop and was dying for my first bite of a panini from Salumeria Verdi after six years of it haunting my dreams. But now I found myself looking at a map, standing on a wide road, baking in the sun like the rest of the tourists. My favourite gelateria, La Carraia now had a second location; and Salumeria Verdi now had a full English menu and even a second, English name.

After lunch, I popped into another of the countless bars and ordered an afternoon cappuccino – a faux pas in Italy, where you’re not supposed to drink anything with milk after your afternoon meal. I was tired and disenchanted from reliving cherished memories with the ghosts of old friends. I was in the mood for a cappuccino and I broke the rule knowingly. I was a tourist here, anyway; it’s not like I was returning home.

How to travel when you’re not rich

“I wanted to prove to others and to myself that our life circumstances should never hinder us from going after our dreams.”

My “how I quit my job to travel” story is different. I’m from a developing country with a “powerless passport” — as a Philippine citizen I can only visit 60 countries visa-free — and I was brought up to believe that world travel is a luxury meant only for the privileged, the rich or the retired. Yet, in my early 20s, I’ve visited more than 15 countries in two years, all while building a profitable and stable online business that funds my lifestyle and enables me to work less than three hours a day.

It all started two years ago in a dingy cafe in Makati, Philippines. I was 21 years old, and was working for a big investment bank, earning very little money as a new graduate and with little to no time for socialising.. As I joined my friends at our usual table, three strangers asked us for directions to their hostel. We started chatting, and ended up talking for the rest of the night. They were full of travel stories, and I was captivated by the way their eyes lit up as they talked about their adventures. They had an excitement for life and a confident aura that I hadn’t previously encountered — they seemed to believe everything was possible.

Meeting those nomads inspired me to take my own leap of faith. That same year, I quit my job to travel the world.

My family and friends thought that I was out of my mind. I had little to no money – definitely not enough to travel through wealthy European countries or in the US – and I’d been brought up to believe that a corporate life was the only way to secure a future. I also knew that getting visas would be a challenge.

The odds looked bad. But that’s what pushed me. I wanted to prove to others and to myself that our life circumstances should never hinder us from going after our dreams.

Adalid poses in front of graffiti art in her home country, the Philippines (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Adalid poses in front of graffiti art in her home country, the Philippines (Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Plan and work smart
With meagre funds, I knew that I had to make smart decisions right from the start, so I spent two months preparing before handing in my resignation.

I made a point to not only do the things that I love, but also the things that I’m good at. I brushed up on my knowledge of graphic design, web development and online marketing. Passion can push us to do amazing things, but without the right skill set, it can prove futile.

Once I was confident about my knowledge, I successfully scoured for clients on freelancing platforms — and I didn’t stop there. I knew I needed a well-paying client that would employ me for an indefinite amount of time. I got testimonials from my previous corporate clients and talked to everyone I knew. Within weeks, a Swedish online branded merchandise company hired me as their marketing manager to promote their brand across the US, UK and Japan; ensure the quality of their product listings; and come up with new product ideas, among other tasks.

Through this, I ensured a steady cash flow for the first year.

Practicing responsible elephant tourism in Chiang-Mai, Thailand (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Practicing responsible elephant tourism in Chiang-Mai, Thailand (Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Have a long-term plan
Worried about my Philippine passport, I started off by visiting visa-free destinations. Thailand and Hong Kong were my favourites, due to their dynamic culture and the complex flavours of their local dishes.

By the time I decided to visit Europe, I figured out how to more easily get a visa while travelling on a developing-world passport. I kept records of my recent earnings, savings and tax documents to prove financial solvency. And I used proof of my previous and future travels to establish that I wouldn’t be at risk to overstay in the country.

After 12 months, I launched my travel blog,, to share my adventures and to garner opportunities through partnerships with tourism boards and travel brands. In exchange for online exposure and promotions, I was invited to all-expense-paid trips or at times, given remuneration.

Next, I started work on a budding online business idea, Adalid Gear, selling outdoor and travel products online. Not a lot of travellers deal with physical products since handling inventory and shipping can be a pain while on the move. But I saw the chance to outsource those processes. I partnered with big providers like Amazon that could handle all processes, which lessened our workload and enabled the business to operate remotely. It’s been so profitable that we have expanded from the US to the UK, and plans to sell in Japan and Germany are underway. I’ve made enough money to rent an apartment in Belgium, and will use it as a home and office base as I keep travelling and expanding my business.

Standing in Antwerp's Central Station, one of Europe's most famous railway stations (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Standing in Antwerp’s Central Station, one of Europe’s most famous railway stations (Credit: Aileen Adalid)

How to make success happen
My advice to being successful is to simply follow three important principles:

First, take advantage of the online realm because there are tons of web opportunities that you can earn from. By freelancing online, I was able to compete with my global peers and avoid being paid developing-world prices for my skills. And by building my business online, I was able to expand rapidly in a short amount of time. There are many online platforms that optimize traditional processes like shipping and logistics; it makes sense to make full use of those.

Second, always think long term to create your own sense of security. Volunteering in return for free accommodation or food, although a common traveller approach, is not a sustainable way to travel. Think about how to own a remote business that will keep you going on the road for years. I’ve met travellers who run yoga classes and plan to set up their own school, or teach English and are developing it as a remote career.

Third, connect with experts – and always do proper research. I’ve made sure to proactively network with relevant entrepreneurs and travellers. When freelancing for the Swedish company, I talked not only with my manager, but also with the CEO himself. This gave me more knowledge about the industry – which led to the idea for my remote business. I’ve also made full use of online forums to chat with knowledgeable and experienced people in my field.

Today, I am no longer working for anyone else, and the way I see it, I have truly secured my future. I have built my own dream, no matter the odds!

Paragliding in Annecy, France, with views of the French Alps (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Paragliding in Annecy, France, with views of the French Alps (Credit: Aileen Adalid)


Scotland’s wee but wild road

A 516-mile route that passes through spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention distilleries.

Locals call it the “wee mad road”: a looping ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline between the fishing hamlets of Inverkirkaig, Coigach and Achiltibuie in the northwestern Scottish Highlands. “These single-track roads can take you to some wild places,” said Lesley Crosfield, the proprietor of nearby boutique hotel and restaurant The Albannach. “That’s why it’s always worth taking the slower road: there’s so much to learn around here.”

Crosfield runs Britain’s northernmost Michelin-starred restaurant, 85 miles northwest of Inverness. It’s exactly where she wanted to be. She first fell in love with Scotland’s northwest coast in the 1980s – and is now gearing up for more changes in the next year than she has seen in the past 25.

Achnahaid Bay (Credit: Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The view from Achiltibuie of Achnahaid Bay on Scotland’s northwest coast (Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The road that runs right past her front door now forms part of the North Coast 500, launched last summer by the North Highland Initiative. Taking its cue from one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems, (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles by The Proclaimers, the 516-mile itinerary climbs north from Inverness into the wild counties of Caithness and Sutherland, skirts the northern edge of the country, then drops south along the mountainous western coast. It runs past a sort of greatest hits of Scottish icons: spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention whisky distilleries.

At first, the road winds through lands of corn, sheep farms and grain distilleries: quiet places where puffy sheep and cattle grids bring traffic to a standstill.

Beach near Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Sham/Alamy)

The North Coast 500 cuts past wild sand beaches, like this one near Cromarty on the northwest coast (Credit: Sham/Alamy)

But when turning west at the village of John O’Groats in Scotland’s northeast corner, zigzagging across the largest rolling expanse of peatland and blanket bog in Europe, the circuit turns up the Highland drama, looping past ancient lochs and the denuded glens of Ross and Cromarty. Here, it veers into remoter parts of the Highlands that only those with more fertile imaginations care to call home.

Ross and Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

At the glens of Ross and Cromarty, shown here, the route turns up the Highland drama (Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

Such risk-takers include people like Danish sculptor and ceramic artist Lotte Glob, who – between hiking trips into the wilderness – attracts buyers from across Europe to her studio. Or Paul Maden and James Findlay, who left Glasgow for Durness to found Cocoa Mountain, the UK’s northernmost chocolatier – now located in a Cold War station built in the mid-1950s to warn in the event of a nuclear attack.

“The traditional crofting life doesn’t tend to match up with espresso and artisan chocolates,” Maden said while boiling cream for a batch of single malt whisky caramel cappuccinos. “But business is booming.”

These are the kinds of success stories that the North Highland Initiative, which was inaugurated by Prince Charles to stoke interest in the area’s off-grid attractions, is aiming for.

Loch Eriboll (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

A stop along the North Coast 500 at Loch Eriboll in northwest Scotland (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

Already reaping the benefits are Martin and Claire Murray, who began distilling Rock Rose gin in a copper still at the Dunnet Bay Distillers, eight miles northeast of the town of Thurso. Thurso is the improbable tip of another new Scottish touring route, the Scottish Gin Trail, launched in January by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

The botanicals used by the Murrays – 80 different kinds, at last count – have all been foraged and stocked from the surrounding wetlands with the help of local herbalist Brian Lamb. They include sea buckthorn, juniper, mint, hawthorn, bog myrtle and the Murrays’ signature ingredient, the flowering herb rhodiola rosea, which flourishes on brackish cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

To some extent, all of the historical romance of Scotland can be tied to this coast. At its halfway point sits the Cape Wrath Lighthouse, poised on the barren north-westerly corner of mainland Britain. Then there is Ardvreck Castle, a rectangular keep on Loch Assynt supposedly plagued by devilish mermaids. Pictish sculptures at the town of Portmahomack represent some of the great puzzles of medieval archaeology, while the holly-topped islands of Loch Maree shelter the remains of a forgotten graveyard and ancient druid hermitage.

The town of Thurso (Credit: Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

The town of Thurso is now a stop on both the North Coast 500 and the Scottish Gin Trail (Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

Even Loch Maree, like Loch Ness, has its own fable as a refuge for the Muc-sheilch: a cross between an eel and a muckle-headed sea monster.

Given that the road could scarcely be more isolated, it’s surprising to find so much life off of it. Beyond the road is the territory of the majestic red deer, where stalkers’ paths weave through swathes of Scots pine and forest oak. Muscular stags can often be seen surveying the roadside from a rocky outcrop.

The mountain pass to Applecross (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

The mountain pass to Applecross, the end of the North Coast 500, in the Scottish Highlands (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

Near journey’s end, toward the town of Torridon on Scotland’s west coast, the mountains create a shoulder of castellated tiers in red and chocolate sandstone. The highest and most imposing is Liathach, its great terraced wall dwarfing Upper Loch Torridon and the crenelated towers of theTorridon Hotel. Starkly beautiful, when wrapped in mist, it sends out a beautiful, welcoming impression. If only the mountain could speak, it would tell even better stories.

The empire the world forgot

Ruled by a dizzying array of kingdoms and empires over the centuries, the former regional power of Ani is now an eerie, abandoned city of ghosts.

Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

An abandoned city of ghosts
Ruled by a dizzying array of kingdoms and empires over the centuries – from the Byzantines to the Ottomans – the city of Ani once housed many thousands of people, becoming a cultural hub and regional power under the medieval Bagratid Armenian dynasty. Today, it’s an eerie, abandoned city of ghosts that stands alone on a plateau in the remote highlands of northeast Turkey, 45km away from the Turkish border city of Kars. As you walk among the many ruins, left to deteriorate for over 90 years, the only sound is the wind howling through a ravine that marks the border between Turkey and Armenia.

Ani’s city walls

(Credit: Linda Caldwell/Alamy)

The toll of many rulers
Visitors who pass through Ani’s city walls are greeted with a panoramic view of ruins that span three centuries and five empires – including the Bagratid Armenians, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Georgians and Ottomans. The Ani plateau was ceded to Russia once the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. After the outbreak of World War I, the Ottomans fought to take back northeast Anatolia, and although they recaptured Ani and the surrounding area, the region was given to the newly formed Republic of Armenia. The site changed hands for the last time after the nascent Turkish Republic captured it during the 1920 eastern offensive in the Turkish War of Independence.

Ancient bridge over the Akhurian River

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A hotly contested territory
The ruins of an ancient bridge over the Akhurian River, which winds its way at the bottom of the ravine to create a natural border, are fitting given the vexed state of Turkish-Armenian relations. The two countries have long disagreed over the mass killings of Armenians that took place under the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and Turkey officially closed its land border with Armenia in 1993 in response to a territorial conflict between Armenia and Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan.

Ruins of Ani

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A bid to save the ruins
Although the focus on Turkish-Armenian tension preoccupies most discussion of Ani, there’s an ongoing effort by archaeologists and activists to save the ruins, which have been abandoned in favour of more accessible and less historically contested sites from classical antiquity. Historians have long argued for Ani’s importance as a forgotten medieval nexus, and as a result, Ani is now on a tentative list for recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site. With some luck and careful restoration work, which has begun in 2011, they may be able to forestall the hands of time.

Exterior wall of The Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

‘The City of 1,001 Churches’
At its height during the 11th Century, scholars estimate that Ani’s population reached as high as 100,000 people. Artistic renderings based on the site’s archaeological findings show a bustling medieval centre crowded with myriad homes, artisanal workshops and impressive churches scattered throughout.

Known as “The City of 1,001 Churches”, Ani’s Armenian rulers and city merchants funded an extraordinary number of places of worship, all designed by the greatest architectural and artistic minds in their milieu. Although the nickname was hyperbole, archaeologists have discovered evidence of at least 40 churches, chapels and mausoleums to date.

Cathedral of Ani

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

An imposing cathedral
A rust-coloured brick redoubt, the Cathedral of Ani looms over the now-abandoned city. Although its dome collapsed in an earthquake in 1319 – and, centuries later, another earthquake destroyed its northwest corner – it is still imposing in scale. It was completed in 1001 under the reign of Armenian King Gagik I, when the wealth and population of Ani was at its peak. Trdat, the renowned Armenian architect who designed it, also served the Byzantines by helping them repair the dome of the Hagia Sophia.

Ani's Church of the Redeemer

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

Half of a church
Only one half of the Church of the Redeemer remains – a monument to both the artistic prowess of the Armenian Bagratid Dynasty and the inevitability of time. Propped up by extensive scaffolding now, the church was an impressive architectural feat when it was built. It featured 19 archways and a dome, all made from local reddish-brown volcanic basalt.

The church also housed a fragment of the True Cross, upon which Jesus was crucified. The church’s patron, Prince Ablgharib Pahlavid, reportedly obtained the relic during a visit to the Byzantine court at Constantinople.

Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A church fit for a prince
Built sometime in the late 10th Century, the Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrentsis a stoic-looking, 12-sided chapel that has a dome carved with blind arcades: arches that are purely for embellishment instead of leading to a portal. In the early 1900s, a mausoleum was discovered buried under the church’s north side, likely containing the remains of the church’s patron, Prince Grigor Pahlavuni of the Bagratid Armenians, and his kin. Unfortunately, like many of the sites at Ani, the prince’s sepulchre was looted in the 1990s.

Ani’s “underground city” of caves

(Credit: Linda Caldwell/Alamy)

The remnants of an underground city
Opposite the Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrentsare a series of caves dug out of the rock, which some historians speculate may predate Ani. The caves are sometimes described as Ani’s “underground city” and signs point to their use as tombs and churches. In the early 20th Century, some of these caves were still used as dwellings.

Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents arch

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A church that keeps watch
The Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents stands vigilant over the ravine that separates Turkey and Armenia. Commissioned by a wealthy merchant and built in 1215, it was constructed when the then-controlling Kingdom of Georgia granted Ani as a fiefdom to a bloodline of Armenian rulers, the Zakarians. During the winter, the lonely church makes for a striking sight against the endless, snow-covered Armenian steppe in the distance.

Frescoes in the Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

Frescoes cover the walls
The Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents is one of Ani’s best preserved buildings, adorned with remnants of paintings depicting scenes from the life of Christ and St Gregory the Illuminator. Detailed fresco cycles did not ordinarily appear in Armenian art of the era, leading scholars to believe the artists were most likely Georgian.

Ani's mosque of Manuchihr

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

An Islamic minaret still stands
The Seljuk Empire – a Turkish state in Anatolia that drove out the Byzantines and eventually gave way to the Ottoman Empire – controlled the greater area of what is today northeast Turkey and Armenia beginning in the mid-1000s. However, in 1072, the Seljuks granted control of Ani to an Islamic dynasty of Kurdish origin, the Shaddadids. The Shaddadids, in turn, left their mark on Ani with buildings like the mosque of Manuchihr, which is perched precariously on the edge of the cliff. Its minaret is still standing from when the mosque was constructed in the late 1000s; the rest of the mosque is most likely an addition from the 12th or 13th Centuries.

View from Ani's mosque of Manuchihr

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

Origins up for debate
The original purpose of the mosque of Manuchihr is debated on both the Turkish and Armenian sides. Some contend that the building once served as a palace for the Armenian Bagratid dynasty and was only later converted into a mosque. Others argue that the structure was built as a mosque from the ground up, and thus was the first Turkish mosque in Anatolia. From 1906 to 1918, the mosque served as a museum of findings from Ani’s excavation by the Russian archaeologist Nicholas Marr. Regardless of the building’s origins, the mosque’s four elegant windows display spectacular views of the river and the other side of the gorge.

Ani's once formidable city walls

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

The trip that transformed me: The student at sea

Rebecca Isaak attended the same study-abroad program as her mother – but her experiences were uniquely her own.

In January 2014, 21-year-old Canadian Rebecca Isaak boarded a ship in San Diego, California, eager to start what would be a five-month journey around the world. She was embarking on a Semester at Sea – a program where university students live and learn while stopping in ports across the globe – just like her mom did in 1981. And in many ways, she set sail expecting to have a very similar experience.

The author's mother on a Semester at Sea trip (Credit: Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

The author’s mother on a Semester at Sea trip (Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

“I wanted to hug the same statue she did in China, get a little too tipsy in Japan, make the same lasting friendships,” Isaak said.

But as she voyaged across the sea, she realized that her journey was bound to be very different.

A personal moment at the Taj Mahal
One of Isaak’s most memorable stops was India. As she slipped on her protective white slippers to enter the Taj Mahal, a realisation dawned over her.

“At the time, I was very conscious of the fact that my mother’s one regret from her travels was not getting to see the Taj Mahal,” she said. “And here I was.”

The palace looked just like it did in photos, but the experience was nothing like she imagined. The environment was chaotic as people stood outside and tried to sell trinkets to her. “They yelled and pushed, and grabbed your arm,” the Canadian student said. While listening to families scream and shout around her, she felt overwhelmed and “not at all serene” as she had presumed she would.

The interior of the structure was a surprise as well, but in a more aweing way. Isaak recalls seeing all the intricate and delicate details inside of the memorial, like the stone carved pattern found on the walls. She remembers thinking that the building massive, and quite ornate as she walked across the marble floors.

The Taj Mahal is enveloped in pastels as the sun sets (Credit: Credit: Thinkstock)

The Taj Mahal is enveloped in pastels as the sun sets (Credit: Thinkstock)

However, Isaak was more impressed by the other parts of India. She preferred immersing herself into the country and experiencing the liveliness found in everyday people. In fact, Isaak said, it was her interactions within the community that had the greatest impact .

On her first and only night in New Delhi, India, a funny and earnest tour guide showed Isaak and her friends around a Sikh gurdawara. The guide stayed late to show Isaak and her friends the “holy place” where Sikh scriptures are kept. Followers go to the building for ceremonies and to hear readings, or to share meals with people of all denominations in the soup kitchen. They planned on staying for five minutes, but didn’t leave until an hour later. The students were learning about the gurdawara, but the tour guide also had the opportunity to learn about their respective cultures.

“It definitely stands out for our time in India, probably because I had the chance to authentically interact with someone from the country,” Isaak said.

Meeting the locals
Making an effort to interact with the locals became a theme for Isaak. Without some element of that, she felt like she was missing out on a core part of the experience. “I think it made me feel like I hadn’t actually experienced the country, I had just seen it,” the Ontario native said.

In Vietnam, another country her mother had never been to, Isaak discovered Couchsurfing, a website that connects travellers with locals that are looking for cheap accommodations and new friends, Isaak said. She spent three days in Ho Chi Minh City, just learning about her surroundings from the people who actually lived there.

First, she met a local English teacher. He took her to the first McDonalds that was built in his native country, and they sipped iced coffee on the side of the street. Isaak then returned the gesture by attending his class. “I had thirty Vietnamese students nervously and hilariously ask me questions about Canada and how I feel about Vietnamese boys,” she said.

Making friends in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Credit: Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

Making friends in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

She met two girls—best friends—who also took the initiative to show her around. Isaak thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but also became nostalgic for her friends back home. Ngan, another new friend would let Isaak stay at her home for two nights. She introduced the Ontario drama student to her housemates, showed her around her university and played badminton with her in the alleyways.

“I would run back to the ship to shower, drop off things – but I felt like I lived in the city,” Isaak said. Her program highly suggests that students do not embark on excursions by themselves because those experiences wouldn’t be covered by their travel insurance. The program also wouldn’t push couch-surfing or riding motorbikes, but Isaak revels in the fact that she “did all three”.

The boat would also stop in Myanmar for six days, another place Isaak’s mother did not visit on her voyage. A civil conflict had plagued the region for decades, which probably disallowed her mother from visiting, she said. Instructors made sure to remind the students that the country was still adjusting to having outside visitors.

Exploring Myanmar (Credit: Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

Exploring Myanmar (Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

Some friends joined Isaak and visited the ancient city of Bagan for four days after docking in the capital of the country, Yangon. The Semester at Sea program allows students to enjoy “in-port” time, giving them the opportunity to explore the country as long as they return by a specific time.

During this particular trip, they would “find the pagodas with wide open tops and dangle our legs over the side to watch the sunset”, she said. In moments like this, Isaak remembers feeling as if something was “burning into her soul”, because she was overcome with emotion. “I [felt] joy at the overwhelming beauty, and a comforting sense of peace,” Isaak said. “Like somehow this beautiful moment could settle all the worries I had ever had.”

She and her friends would have small interactions with the community, but it was more of a bonding experience for the group of students. Vietnam will always be special, Isaak said, simply because she treaded a new territory all on her own.

“No other country rivalled Vietnam for me,” she said.

Replicating another’s amazing adventures
Over the course of the four months, Isaak would also visit China, Hawaii, Japan, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana and London. The Semester at Sea program taught her how to step outside of her comfort zone, and be okay with being frightened about the unknown.

“Slowly, I began to realize that even if I was traveling in my mother’s footsteps, her shoes don’t fit my feet,” Isaak said. She needed to start living for herself – not in her mother’s shadow.

Before her semester at sea, Isaak had set expectations. But the trip revealed to her that she was different than her mom – it was time to live her life, and have her own adventures.

“When I arrived home, tan and quite bald, and hugged my mother, I knew that I had stories just as wonderful and unique as hers,” Isaak said. “And the best part is that they are all mine.”

The world’s most visited cities

What is it like to live in a place known for its sights… and crowds? Residents of 2014’s most visited cities spill how they find solitude – and why they love living there anyway.

The same attractions that prompt people to love visiting a city – top-ranked restaurants, vibrant nightlife, diverse neighbourhoods, iconic sights – can entice them into staying longer term. In fact, many of the world’s most visited cities, as ranked by 2014’s Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index released in July, are also popular destinations for expats.

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But being a resident of one of the world’s most visited cities is not without its unique set of challenges. “Coming from a smaller city in Canada, I was overwhelmed at first by how crowded certain areas of Paris were,” said Erika Belavy, who moved to the City of Light from Calgary, Alberta, seven years ago. “When I first moved to the city, I made the mistake of choosing an apartment right beside the Arc de Triomphe. No matter what time of day, or which month of the year, there were so many tourists it was a nightmare getting on the nearby metro.”

Still, it does not take residents long to learn how to navigate the crowds and find secluded spots. We talked to expats and natives to learn what it’s like living in some of the world’s most visited cities – and the secrets to steering clear of the constant crowds.

Great Britain’s capital came in as this year’s number one most visited city, with 18.7 million international tourists estimated to arrive in 2014. (Mastercard combines tourism board statistics, flight schedules and expected passenger loads to project the year’s arrivals.) London native Sophie Loveday said she hardly notices the influx. “You just get used to so many people being around,” she said. “It’s what gives the city such a buzz!”

Trafalgar Square (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Many of London’s visitors find themselves at some point here, at the city’s iconic Trafalgar Square. (Amanda Ruggeri)

Even so, she said she always tries to avoid the West End’s Leicester Square because the pedestrian plaza is too commercial – with or without tourists. However, she will brave the crowds of Covent Garden, a shopping district in the West End, thanks to its quirky shops and hip vibe. East London’s Brick Lane is also a must-visit, despite being “heaving full of people”; the neighbourhood’s Indian curries are considered among the best in the UK, and the restaurants and food stalls make finding a good meal easy.

Shopping in Covent Garden (Credit: Stuart C Wilson/Getty)

Shopping in Covent Garden, shown here decorated for Christmas, can be crowded — but rewarding. (Stuart C Wilson/Getty)

To escape the city, Loveday travels to the southwest suburb of Richmond. “You can see deer running through the park or take a boat down the Thames river,” she said, then finish the day off with a meal at a waterfront pub like the Bavarian beerhouseSteins or the popular restaurant Gaucho, which serves Argentinian food and wine amid cowhide-fabric furniture.

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There are no shortages of neighbourhoods (called districts) to fit any vibe. Loveday lives in the southwest district of Tooting, which she loves for its multicultural vibe and influx of young professionals who keep the area lively. She also recommended Angel, in northern London, due to its “cool and friendly” vibe.

Due to political protests and the Thai government shutdown in 2013, Bangkok slipped to number two in this year’s global rankings, yet is still expected to draw 16.4 million international visitors in 2014. Thankfully, residents say, the influx is seasonal, with most visitors coming November to February. Ketsara Chocksmai, a Bangkok native and tour director for Thailand’s smarTours, said she especially finds the city pleasant from June to September. “It’s our rainy season, so not many tourists come to visit this time of year,” she said. But since it usually does not rain all day, locals can still enjoy being outside.

Tourists in Bangkok (Credit: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty)

Tourists pose with sculptures at Bangkok’s Grand Palace. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty)

Despite its reputation for wild nightlife, Bangkok also has its fair share of quiet spaces for people to get away. Locals often seek peacefulness in one of the city’s many Buddhist temples, such as the old town’s Wat Phra Kaew, considered the most sacred in the country due to its 6.6m-tall “Emerald Buddha”, carved from a single piece of jade. Lumpini Park and Benjakitti Park, downtown, can also be peaceful escapes – aside from early morning and late afternoon, when they tend to be popular with joggers and yogis.

The French capital is expected to attract 15.6 million of visitors in 2014, many of whom are drawn to its iconic landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Louvre. But those same icons are exactly the areas that locals generally avoid. “There is no amount of money you can pay me to go to the Champs Élysées in the middle of August,” said Christina Tubb, vice president of a French technology firm who moved from the US in 2009.

The Louvre line (Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Visitors wait outside the Louvre’s main entrance on a summer day. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Still, when she does visit the tourist destinations, she knows the local secrets – like getting a friend’s season pass to hop the line at the Musee d’Orsay or using the “secret entrance” at the Louvre (at Porte des Lions). “I’ll still bite the bullet and do a lot of touristy things because it’s half the reason I live here,” she said.

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While crowded in the summer months, the Latin Quarter also has its fair share of restaurant refuges if you know where to go. “There are certain streets that can be very touristy, but right around the corner there will be a restaurant or café that is considered an institution of the neighbourhood and hasn’t changed its menu since the ‘20s,” said Belavy. Both Tubb and Belavy also frequent the Marais for its specialty shops, where, Belavy said, “the charm outweighs the stress of the crowds.”

The Marais (Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Visitors and locals relax outside a cafe in Paris’ Marais. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Despite its size, each of Paris’ 20 arrondissements (municipal districts) have a neighbourhood feel. Once run-down, the 10th arrondissement in the city’s northeast is now undergoing a revival, attracting a young crowd with its hip bars, art galleries and tree-lined Canal St Martin; the 3rd and 9th also attract bohemian residents. Those looking for something quieter can explore the 15th, a residential area just south of the Seine which is home to upper middle-class families, or the 16th or 5th, which are known for having particularly good schools.

An island, nation and a city, Singapore attracts residents and tourists from around the world, and also benefits from being the hub for many visitors travelling onto other Southeast Asia destinations. Both international traffic and local crowds can contribute to congestion in the city. “Even Singaporeans are crazy about shopping and eating out,” said long-term resident Jayant Bhandari, who grew up in India. “I prefer not to go to [the shopping district Orchard Road] much, not so much because of tourists, but because they are too busy.”

A selfie in Singapore (Credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

A visitor snaps a selfie with Singapore’s skyline from the Marina Bay Sands resort rooftop pool. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

The clean and efficient Changi Airport makes it easy for residents to escape to more than 200 international destinations at a moment’s notice. Singapore is truly the best airport I have ever been to, and I have been to more than 60 countries,” Bhandari said. “It is cheap and easy to fly in and out.”

The Singapore Botanic Gardens also provide a pleasant escape for locals and tourists said Amy Greenburg, an editor ofExpat Living Singapore who moved from Los Angeles two and a half years ago. “It’s like Singapore’s own Central Park,” she said.

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The city has 28 districts, and an expansive mass transit system makes living in any of the districts a viable option. Greenburg lives on the Singapore River in Robertson Quay. “It has a lovely, relaxed vibe and a great variety of restaurants, bars and coffee shops, many of which are dog-friendly,” she said. Other popular expat neighbourhoods include River Valley, Holland District and Tanglin, which are central and have lots of shops and businesses, and the more residential East Coast.

National Day (Credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

Fireworks burst over Singapore on the city’s birthday, called National Day, on 9 August 2014. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

Robert Shen, a VP of business development for luxury design firm Wilson Associates, who moved here from Los Angeles seven years ago, lives in the newly gentrified Geylang area, located in the northeast. “It’s considered ‘city-fringe’, so it’s close enough to town, the beach, public transit and lots of great local food,” he said. “The Geylang enclave is slowly becoming more and more hip for both locals and expats.”

The biggest city in the UAE saw the largest year-over-year increase in visitors of the top five cities, attracting 12 million visitors in 2014 – 7.5% more than the year before. At that rate, the city will overtake Paris and Singapore, potentially becoming the world’s third most visited city in less than five years. As for the crowds, residents simply build their schedules around them. “We have our routines at the weekend that ensures that we are out of the malls by early afternoon, but this is to avoid residents as well as tourists,” said Emily Christensen, director of recruitment service at H30 International, who moved to Dubai from the UK 14 years ago.

Burj Khalifa (Credit: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty)

A sunset silhouettes Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower and one of the city’s main attractions. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty)

Downtown Dubai, with attractions like the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) and the Dubai Mall, gets congested in the afternoons and evenings, so locals avoid it unless they’re going out for a meal. To get away within the city, Christensen heads to Safa Park, just 6km southwest of downtown Dubai. “There are playgrounds, a cafe, pedal-karts, a boating lake and just acres of space – and rarely tourists, unless they are visiting a resident,” she said. Locals also go to throw barbeques, play cricket or practice yoga. Andrea Anastasiou, who has lived in Dubai for seven years and writes the Scribble, Snap, Travel blog, also said those looking for “authentic Dubai” should explore the historic Bastakiya district, 12m north of downtown Dubai. “Its labyrinth of narrow streets hail to a Dubai of humbler times,” she said. “This area is full of character; the buildings are from a bygone era before electricity and air conditioning, and used to be cooled by wind towers.” The bohemian area also has restored homes and charming cafes.

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Christensen and many other expats live in Arabian Ranches, 24km south of downtown. As one of the first places where expats were able to buy property, it tends to be populated with families and kids. Those looking for an area with more singles and young couples should seek out the Dubai Marina, which has plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants. That said, “parts of the Marina can still be filled with the sounds of construction, so you need to be careful when looking for a place to live,” said Carrie Brummer, an American artist who lived in Dubai from 2007 until 2013.

Many of those living in Dubai have limited work visas and it is nearly impossible to become a citizen. This can make it hard to feel an enduring sense of belonging in the city, but locals said it is easy to find friendly people looking to connect.

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