Find and book the best deals in confidence

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

How To Become A Travel Writer

I get a lot of messages from people asking me how to make a living as a travel writer. I was recently interviewed about my career by BossBabe. During the interview, I tried to offer some general advice about how to travel for a living and shared my personal journey as an example. 

Sarah Harvey in the Maldives

Every path is different

In addition to what I told BossBabe, everybody's personal journey to working/living overseas will be different. I began working as a journalist more than 10 years ago (as a news reporter in London) and I'm still working in journalism today, as well as doing travel writing and content creation. It's been a pleasure and a privilege to have made 100% of my income from writing for more than a decade (it wasn't easy in such a competitive industry and I've had my fair share of challenges!).

So in my case, I had a solid trade behind me (journalism) before I started out in travel writing. I began freelancing and managed to get my first travel articles published (reviews of The Zetter Restaurant & Rooms in London, a weekend in Hungary and a gastronomic tour of Alentejo, a less well-known part of Portugal. Combined with my background in news reporting, this led to a job offer in the Maldives to work as News Editor of a travel magazine and news website. So my first foray into being a travel writer was a full-time staff role. After a year I built up the confidence to go solo and founded Manta Media, an association of freelance writers, photographers and other creatives based in the Maldives.

I won't go into the long story of everything I've been doing since then, but that is how I got the ball rolling. And like I said, everybody's experience will be different, whether you want to be a travel writer as your profession, or simply do some travel writing while living overseas. But a common theme in my story and other people's stories is having a solid, transferable skill-set behind you and building up contacts, rather than diving right in and expecting work to come to you.

So, it's hard to say 'this is exactly what you should do' - firstly because there's no guarantee of success for everyone, but also, secondly - the harsh truth of it is that not everybody has what it takes to handle life overseas, even if they think they do...

Sarah Harvey in San Francisco


This harsh truth is something that many people are too scared to tell you. As I mention in the interview, a lot of people love the idea of travelling and living overseas but then find the reality can be much tougher than what they ever could have imagined. Visiting somewhere on holiday (or even shooting through a destination for a few weeks as a digital nomad) is entirely different to actually living somewhere, in all kinds of unanticipated ways. It's definitely not like 'being on holiday forever'!

For example, your mental health can take a hit due to you being away from your support network/social circle, you might struggle to make new friends, you might have unexepected health problems and find the hospitals aren't equipped to help you...

Or even something seemingly less dramatic, such as you miss all the foods from home too much and can't stand the local food (fine for a week, but punishing after a month), or can't continue with your designer shopping habit because there isn't enough selection in your new destination. These examples sound small, but I've seen people leave countries for all of these reasons, and if you'd have told them how much it would get to them before they left home they'd have sworn it would be impossible.

Ponzi schemes

This is all why I don't agree with writers selling courses and books on 'How to be a digital nomad' or 'How to be a travel writer/blogger/influencer'. There's no precise formula and just because one person succeeded one way is no guarantee that you will too.

I'm not trying to sell you anything which is why I'm telling you this. To be honest, I feel like a lot of people trying to sell these kinds of 'courses' are pretty much facilitating a digital nomad/globo ponzi scheme - 'leave your home, come travel, I'll show you how!' (Clue: Their answer is really 'by writing/selling courses that tell others to leave their homes and travel' - just like them!). Is this kind of constant hustle really the 'freedom' you dreamed of?

This kind of reality check is really lacking from social media. Most writers and bloggers I meet overseas are actually working on side gigs too, or the blogging is the side gig, despite the fact they've got thousands of followers and seem to be pretty successful on the surface.

Blogging reality check

For example, very often they might be working as a teacher and make 10% of their income from blogging, but they introduce themself as a 'blogger'. While they're free to call themselves what they want, it's a little deceptive and personally I find it irresponsible, especially when I get messages from people who believe it's an easy and viable way to make a living and you have to explain all the hard work that will go into it. A lot of people who contact me seem to want an easy answer and are disappointed to hear that there isn't one. But morally, I can't pretend there is.

Of course, there are some bloggers out there who make a living solely from being very clever with their blogs (which requires good skills in engaging with people, negotiating sponsorship deals, PPC ads, etc. and a good dose of luck!) This is the unseen stuff that takes up more time than the actual writing...I'm just not a fan of the ones that pretend they sustain a jetset lifestyle from their blog when they usually make their cash elsewhere.

And I'm not writing this as somebody who wanted to be solely a blogger above anything else; journalism is my trade, I've always loved print media (not to mention it pays better than blogging) and I like the fact that journalists are bound by a Code of Ethics that influencers/bloggers aren't bound by (influencers can say anything they like and there's no obligation for the claim to be founded in reality!).

Sarah Harvey in the Mexican Caribbean

Making it work

However, going back to my main point: I'm not saying you won't find your own way of making it work - lots of people do. Or you could consider being an ESL teacher, web developer, graphic designer, hotel staff, sommelier etc who does writing on the side.

Working full time for a newspaper, magazine or website overseas, or remotely for one or two content creation clients are solid ways of making it work. If you want to work full-time for a foreign company where you can contribute some skills that they need, you'll need to demonstrate you can do something that nobody else can do, in order to get your visa.

Join Facebook groups such as The Copywriter Club, Digital Nomads Around the World and Female Digital Nomads for inspiration. Sign up to newsletters for remote jobs or join websites for ESL work.

Read up and research how other people do it (with a certain dose of cynicism when required); formulate a plan before diving in, and you'll have a much better chance of achieving your dreams.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Top 5 International New Year's Eve Destinations

New Year's Eve is one of the most over-hyped holidays of the year. That's why I started a tradition of bringing a group of friends to various overseas destinations to celebrate New Year's Eve in totally new surroundings with no expectations*. 

*This is not an arbitrary listicle - being the journalist that I am, I road-tested all of these New Year's Eve street parties myself!

I figured New Year's Eve would be less fraught with stress and disappointment if we plunged ourselves into a foreign country rather than trying to hit up the swankiest clubs in London and then find black cabs home amidst the chaos. We always balanced out the revelry by spending a few days either side of December 31 exploring the cities. Is the formula successful? More than half a dozen New Year's Eve trips down, I'd say so.

There's one rule that unites all of these New Year's Eve experiences: each New Year's party had to involve us joining the city's biggest street party for the countdown to midnight. So here they are...

5 Paris

Better pic than mine - New Year's Eve on the Champs Elysees: Flickr/Falcon Photography
Paris is so much fun for New Year's Eve that we went twice. The main street party is along the Champs-Elysees, between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, so we decided to ring in the New Year by drinking champagne on the Champs-Elysees. The entire street fills up with crowds and at midnight everybody turns to face the Eiffel Tower which has a light display on it and a fireworks show. The crowd was extremely friendly and we ended up dancing the hokey-pokey with them.

Actual evidence of  our hokey-pokey on the Champs-Elysees
I can still remember the British Airways steward on our flight from London City Airport. The cabin was almost empty, being as we were travelling late afternoon on December 31 (London is such a short flight from Paris that we didn't need much time to prepare).

The air steward asked how we'd be celebrating and when I told him we planned to celebrate with champagne on the Champs-Elysees he disappeared then returned with a bag full of mini white wine bottles for my group of 12 friends. "Here you go - this is to make sure you celebrate in style - the flight is almost empty anyway so you may as well take them," he said. Such a nice gesture. Yep, we'll be flying with them again...!

Afterwards we found a nightclub in Pigalle and danced until 5am. The nightclubs open late in Paris (around 1am or later) so the timing works well for anyone wanting to go after counting down to midnight outside. There's an ice rink on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower if you'd like to get some skating in beforehand.

Bonus points for: Iconic views of Eiffel Tower,  number of flight connections to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport/Orly, and the legendary British Airways steward who surprised us. 

4 Berlin

Brandenburg Gate, New Year's Eve: Visit Berlin
This was one the coldest New Year's Eve parties I can remember. The thermometer said -13c but the wind seemed to whistle right through my skull, possibly because of the cold humidity. On the plus side, it's one of the biggest, if not the biggest, New Year's street party in Europe - and one of the best! Being as it's an official street party rather than just a congregation of revellers in the street, it was extremely well set up. There are dance tents and beer and sausage stalls all around Tiergarten, running down as far as the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column, which you probably recognise from movies.

The only problem is no beer is allowed in the dance tents. So you have to run outside to drink a beer then run back inside to warm up by dancing again! It was so cold that the beer got slushy ice inside of it within seconds, which was an incentive to get back in the tent.
We had started the night at a legendary bar called Kumpelnest3000 (one of the kitschiest and entertaining bars in this funky city) before joining the street party, which was so good that we stayed out until the street cleaning trucks arrived at dawn.

Beer, pretzels, live music - street party!

Bonus points for: Providing free dance tents for revellers, currywurst and beer stalls, iconic views of the Brandenburg Gate. 

3 Prague

New Year's Eve in Prague: Flickr/Jan Fidler
The main point to meet on New Year's Eve in Prague is at the astronomical clock in the Old Town. It's a beautiful Medieval clock dating from 1410 and when it strikes the hour, little clockwork figures of the 12 apostles and a skeleton (representing death) move around it. There's a firework show from on top of the hill and live music in the same square as the clock, and a compere from the live music stage leads the countdown at midnight. It gets smokey really fast so you need to take your photos as soon as the fireworks start, but it looks really beautiful!

The Old Town Square, right next to the astronomical clock
The square is lined with late-night bars so there are plenty of options to choose from after midnight. We ended up at a Cuban bar (randomly) because everywhere was quite full, although the further you are from the square the cheaper it gets. The cocktails were great and it was extremely cosy inside.

Prague is extremely cold this time of year and there was snow on the ground, but it felt less cold than Berlin, perhaps because it was a drier cold.

Bonus points for: Counting down to midnight at one of the most beautiful clocks in the world, excellent Italian restaurants nearby.

2 Salzburg 

Salzburg on New Year's Eve: Pixabay
This was a wild card as a New Year's Eve destination goes. It was actually the first New Years trip I organised, and managed to round up about 10 friends for it. We had no idea what to expect, having never visited before, and it not being a big city compared to Paris or Berlin.

We gathered in Residenzplatz (a square next to Salzburg Cathedral, in the historic centre) just before midnight, where everybody was drinking beer and dancing. Most of the crowd was Austrian but I heard a few foreign accents there too. There were a handful of stalls selling drinks including 'gluhwein' which helped warm us up a lot! The square itself was very picturesque and was overlooked by the castle, which is on a slight hill.

Drinking gluhwein to stay warm on NYE
Everybody was very friendly and we were able to chat in English, French and broken German to strangers in the crowd, wish them "prost" and dance with them. The atmosphere actually got quite chaotic when some revellers started throwing fireworks and bangers around the streets and off the castle hill, and the historic monuments, but it seemed to make everybody even more excited. Perhaps the

Although it was one of the smallest crowds compared to the turnout in bigger cities like Berlin and Salzburg, it was one of the most wild, fun and friendly crowds - despite the Austrian stereotype of being rather insular and conservative. Just goes to show that stereotypes are often wrong!

Bonus points for: The welcoming crowd, proximity to Untersberg Mountain (where The Sound of Music was filmed) for skiing or just enjoying 'gluhwein' at the top of the ski lift on New Year's Day.  

1 Sydney

NYW in Sydney - Pixabay
This one had been on my bucket list for years. Not only because Australia is one of the first countries in the world to welcome in the new year, but also because Sydney's New Year's Eve celebrations are legendary. 

Before I get into how amazing it is, you need to know it takes a bit of preparation because it's such a big event. Something like 1.6 million attend the free public firework show in Sydney on December 31 and over $5 million AU is spent on it. You'll be able to tell that a lot of money was spent on it. But you need to get there early to grab a spot to stand and watch the show. And if you want to sit somewhere with a good view, you'll need to get there late afternoon/early evening (no exaggeration!) and settle in for a long wait... 

Here we are at our spot next to Sydney Harbour Bridge

We found a great spot in Bradfield Park (Milsons Point), right next to Sydney Harbour Bridge, and directly opposite Sydney Opera House. The downside was there are no drinks stalls and strict controls on alcohol, so you can't bring any with you. There are security checks and staff look through your bags, so if you want to be close to the action AND have a drink, forget joining the crowds and buy a ticket to a hotel, bar or casino party instead. 

As you can see, it was getting quite crowded even by late afternoon...

That said, there is lots of live entertainment including an air show, and when the firework show actually gave me goosebumps. It was undoubtedly the best and most dramatic firework show I've seen to date (and I've seen a lot, including Fallas in Valencia!). There was a huge show right on Sydney Harbour Bridge but also one behind the Opera House that we could see at the same time, and many other smaller ones, too. 
The build-up to midnight on New Year's Eve in Sydney was excellent

The size, the shapes, the sounds...I didn't even know fireworks could make some of those shapes - it was clear a lot of money had been spent on those fireworks. It was nothing short of incredible, and by the end of it, my friends and I were literally shaking with excitement! No drinks until after midnight, but absolutely worth it. Check out the video I shot of the finale of the New Year's Eve firework show in Sydney: 

Honourable mention: New Year's Eve in Krakow (similar to Prague in terms of set-up around the Medieval clock - and the coldness!).

A truly great New Year's Eve party can be affected by the company you're with, so you might not agree with all of these choices but I've tried my best to explain what made them such fantastic places to welcome in the New Year. So this is dedicated to all my incredible friends who have joined me for New Year's Eve over the years.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Tiburon: The Most Beautiful Part Of The Bay Area You've Never Heard About

I was lucky enough to spend a month staying with an amazing friend living in Tiburon this summer - a stunning area only five or six miles from downtown San Francisco, with unbeatable views across the Bay of the iconic city skyline, and the added bonus of a warmer microclimate (which feels like a blessing as you watch the fog roll in over San Francisco)! Living 'as a local' gave me some unique insights into this secluded and often-overlooked part of the Bay Area...

Tiburon is located on a peninsula extending into San Francisco Bay in the exclusive neighbourhood of Marin County. It's only a half hour ferry ride via Blue and Gold Fleet ($12.50 each way) from downtown San Francisco but a world away from the city. I absolutely love the Victorian architecture, funky shops, creativity and intellectual hippy vibe of San Francisco, but Tiburon is the perfect respite if you're looking for a slower pace of life.

You probably won't find a single piece of litter on the ground or see any homeless people. Instead you'll find a compact town centre consisting of perfectly manicured public streets, quaint wooden houses, fashion boutiques, wine-tasting rooms and restaurants. Oh, and the occasional deer just strolling through a carpark or casually crossing the road!

San Francisco skyline in the fog

There's even a tiny bit of nightlife in the form of an excellent bar named Sam's Anchor Cafe which stays open until the last person leaves (believe me, we tested this!). But how is it that Tiburon has gone under the radar to so many for so long for so many people except for those in the know?

Many tourists who want to avoid staying in San Francisco itself opt for the charms of the slightly larger Sausalito, which has a similar Old World atmosphere to Tiburon. Like Tiburon, Sausalito is connected to the city by ferry and cyclists seem to love it because they can do a round trip over the Golden Gate Bridge from there (admittedly with a few scary-looking road sections of the route with no cycle lanes). Being a larger town, it's better equipped for tourists and is closer to the Golden Gate Bridge (although you can see the top of Golden Gate Bridge from the peak of the hill in Tiburon).

Even Tiburon Fire Station looks like some kind of adorable toy-town building

Since Tiburon is smaller it has fewer facilities than Sausalito, and also (deliberately) the town has avoided going down the Airbnb route. There are only a handful of places you can actually stay there, the main ones being an upscale, slightly retro-looking tavern with a large (heated) outdoor dining area, The Lodge at Tiburon (around $224/night) and the Mediterranean-looking Water's Edge Hotel, right in Main Street, (around $299/night). The latter is a popular wedding reception venue.

Catching the ferry
So yes, it'd be fair to say this is an exclusive neighbourhood (I completely geeked out when I learned the amazing Robin Williams used to live here). However, that doesn't mean that the locals are aloof. Everybody I walked past on the road (with the exception of right in the centre, which is packed with day visitors) looked me in the eye, smiled and greeted me warmly. Some stopped to chat and ask where I was from (which is always difficult to explain because I've now lived in seven countries on four continents!). There wasn't an air of feeling unwelcome as a foreigner, everybody seemed pretty relaxed and happy to be living in such a beautiful and safe neighbourhood (crime is almost non-existent here).

In case you're wondering, the name Tiburon means 'shark' in Spanish. The area was named 'Punta de Tiburon' by Spanish explorers in the 1800s. It later became a major rail hub on the North Pacific Railroad. The line has been pulled up since then and turned into a lovely walking route (see below).

The highlights of Tiburon 

Main Street

Every Friday night Main Street is closed to traffic and fills up with live music and al fresco dining from 6pm-9pm. The gorgeous wooden buildings were created between 1870 and 1920. It's a short street but lovely to wander down.

Main Street, Tiburon

Old Saint Hilary's Church at 201 Esperanza Street (on the hillside)

"It looks just like something out of Little House on the Prairie!", exclaimed one of my friends when they saw my photos on Instagram. And it's true - this beautiful, gleaming white gothic church was built in 1888 and looks like it could have been in an old Western, or maybe in WestWorld! It fell out of use and was de-consecrated but the church and surrounding land was preserved by a group of residents.

Old Saint Hilary's Church

Hiking near the church

There are a number of short trails between the centre of Tiburon and Old Saint Hilary's Church, extending up over the hillside behind it. Apparently these beautiful golden hills are under threat because somebody wants to build a housing development here - let's hope that never happens, as it would be a major loss for locals and visitors alike.

Beautiful long grass and wildflowers on the hillside

Ark Row

This is a collection of huge wooden house boats that artists and other bohemian types docked at Tiburon Lagoon in the late 1890s. The inlet and much of the area was reclaimed from the sea, so nowadays these houseboats permanently grounded at the water's edge. Also check out 'the China Cabin', which is an ornate wooden ballroom rescued from a former steamer, the SS China.

Ark Row/China Cabin

Tiburon Linear Park and Blackie's Pasture

This track is much longer and more impressive than the short Shoreline Park, although the tiny Shoreline Park does offer great views of downtown San Francisco and Angel Island. Follow the former railroad tracks right from the town centre along the coastline. There are display boards along the way featuring historic photos and etchings of how the area used to look. It leads to Blackie's Pasture, which is a wide open space with a playground and picnic areas. Blackie's Pasture is named after a horse that was loved by the local community and was always seen standing surveying his kingdom. Despite being swaybacked he lived to the grand old age of 28. A statue of Blackie was erected in the field in his memory, which I thought was rather touching.

A much-loved former Tiburon resident

Tiburon Playhouse

This has to be the cutest cinema I've ever seen. It's a wooden building painted in sky blue with a white trim and has three small screens inside. Although it looks like it should be an arthouse cinema is plays all the mainstream releases.

The cutest cinema in the world: Tiburon Playhouse

Sam's Anchor Cafe

This Tiburon institution was originally opened by Sam Vella, an immigrant from Malta, in the 1920s. Rumour has it that Sam's was full operational even during Prohibition! There's a trapdoor in the floor that they used to sneak whisky through from the boats. It still has an amazing atmosphere and is particularly busy at weekends, when the outdoor terrace is crammed with people enjoying it!

The outdoor deck at Sam's fills up at the weekends!

Ferry to Angel Island

When you're looking at Angel Island from Tiburon it appears as if it's part of the headland but in fact is separated by the sea. Go cycling or hiking here, or maybe check out the museum which explains its history. It used to be where new arrivals to the USA were processed and made me wonder if my great-great-great uncle (is there another 'great in there?) who emigrated to San Francisco during the Gold Rush ever set foot here. I remember my grandmother showing me a letter he wrote from here to relatives back in Lincoln in beautiful hand-writing. There is a regular ferry service between Angel Island and Tiburon.

Angel Island is in the background, and to the far right is downtown San Francisco

There's so much more to say about what makes Tiburon so beautiful but I'm going to leave it here for now. It's definitely worth checking out, perhaps for a day trip from San Francisco, especially if you like a slower, quieter pace of life. Most of the town shuts down by 9pm, which gives you time to admire the lights of San Francisco on a clear night, or watch the fog rapidly rolling in from the sea to completely hide the city from view. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Why You Should Buy A Boat in LA

Wait, I'm not attempting to write the most obnoxious millennial travel blog post in history (admittedly that'd be an achievement!). This isn't a post about people whose dads buy them boats. Just bear with me and you'll see this idea has legs...

The views aren't too bad!

Buying a boat to save cash

The genesis of this oxymoron springs from a conversation I had with a pilot friend at California Yacht Club in Marina Del Ray on July 4th while we were waiting for the fireworks to start. As I munched on a hot dog, sipped a margarita and celebrated my first Independence Day with new friends, she really got me thinking about traditional as well as the abstract concept of what 'home' means. 

I already know that a home is much more than bricks and mortar, and as a travel writer, I'm secure knowing 'home' is a feeling I take with me to wherever I'm sleeping that night, and how I feel when I'm with (or FaceTiming) my friends and family. But what are the essentials (physical and abstract)? For example, I really need to have a good shower. Yes, this could be where I've been spoiled by doing too many hotel views with amazing rain showers, but then again, I found plenty of flats even in Valencia with them). What are your non-negotiables? Are there any more creative solutions for home ownership than the typical options? We've all seen the 'tiny home' concept take off, but what are the alternatives? I love to think outside the box so of course I couldn't resist doing some research on this...

LA Story

As many of you already know, Los Angeles isn't the cheapest city in the world in comparison with many others. Sure, it's more affordable than San Francisco, but certainly not as cheap  as some of the other places I've lived; Valencia in Spain for example (I added the 'in Spain' bit because I met someone on my first day in California from what I'm going to call the 'new' Valencia - a neighbourhood in Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County). 

Pick a room, any room...
As you can see from my Valencia article (link above), renting a room in Valencia costs as little as $350 a month. For that price, you get something quite basic, but tip the budget a tiny bit higher to $460 per month and you'll get a large double bedroom with private ensuite bathroom in a two-bedroom luxury apartment, or even a smaller one-bedroom apartment. It'd be located centrally in a bougie neighbourhood full of cupcake bakeries and craft beer bars, such as Ruzafa (yep, that's my old 'hood). And if you're buying in Valencia, an apartment can be yours for as little as $46,000. 

So, yeah...Los Angeles definitely is pricier than Valencia but no surprise there. Most salaries are far lower in Spain than in the US too (which is why most of my friends in Valencia worked online remotely for foreign companies or were digital nomads who ended up extending their stay in the city because it was so much fun). 

That being said, living in many parts of LA still isn't as expensive as living in London. London is my benchmark being as that's where I'm originally from. 

I used to live in a neighbourhood with the same kind of media and music industry types, plus yoga mums with those prams you can jog with, that you get in Santa Monica so it's not too surprising that I feel at home here. It was *the* place my friends in LA told me I should be. 

While we're talking about comparisons, as I recently wrote in an article for Far and Wide, the rent in Los Angeles is comparable with rent on the opposite side of the world, in Male', capital of the Maldives. (For context, the Maldives is an archipelago in South Asia where the average salary is $250 a month, so a lot of Maldivians end up sharing one apartment together).

But let's get back to the point. Rent in Los Angeles starts at roughly $800 a month for something pretty basic in a not particularly great (although not necessarily dodgy) area. If you're bothered about how attractive the room looks and how 'nice' or 'safe' the neighbourhood is, you probably need to pay at least $1,300 and over for a room (most probably in West LA). Again, it depends upon what your essential requirements are. For me, being a female (and a petite one at that), living somewhere safe and well-lit is always my first priority, everything else like the bed and the shower is secondary to that. And then things like being within easy reach of the sea are a huge bonus, but more of a privilege than a necessity...I'm lucky enough to have had a few beachfront apartments over the years.

This is the view from one of my former apartments in Male'

So we're looking at $1,300 plus, and we're still talking about only one room. In a shared house. Maybe with a shared bathroom. Eh. Not so fun when you're in your 30's and used to having your own place. Everyone has their own non-negotiables. Perhaps not sharing a bathroom is one of yours. Because who wants to put on clothes in case you run into anyone in the hallway anyway?!

Well, how about you had your own space to yourself, with its own bathroom, two bedrooms, beautiful views and a nice community? Just one thing; it floats.

The cost

Obviously you need to come up with the initial cost of purchasing your boat to start with, but it's infinitely more affordable than buying a property - you could get a pretty decent one to two cabin boat for around $30,000 to $40,000, or something much swisher for more, obviously. 

You need to take into account the cost of mooring. You could, for example, be looking at $2,371 annually (yes, that's right, per year not per month!), in an open slip for a vessel up to 28 feet long.

A 30ft boat like this costs $29,500

Plus you get access to the yacht club facilities, which, depending on how fancy the yacht club is, can include access to swimming pools, members' bars and tennis courts along with the usual access to a hot showers. (That might actually help to persuade me, being as boat showers usually aren't the greatest, even if you're looking at a very big yacht!)

Obviously there are additional costs like maintenance. And if you actually want to take it anywhere; kerosene! Funnily enough, my friend bought her boat and then learned how to sail it. But then again she's a pilot, so it was easy as pie for her. 

You might not have a huge amount of indoor space, but you wouldn't if you were living in a tiny home either. And you get your very own pad, with the freedom to take it wherever you want to, plus a ready-made community of neighbours wherever you go. There's a very convivial sense of community at the yacht clubs, with people chatting to neighbouring boat owners while they relax in the sun or potter about. There seems to be a lot of pottering going on. But it's pretty nice to dial the pace right down when you're living in a busy city! 

Other benefits: No psycho housemates (hooray), and no lining up to get into the bathroom before work. Yes, there's an initial outlay, but it's considerably less than what you'd have to pay if you wanted to buy even a small studio in LA. And you know what, if money is no object, then why not just treat yourself to a boat anyway! You can't beat being on the water!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Discover Colombo's Hip, Organic, Fair-Trade Market

Boujie farmers markets. They've been spreading like wildfire around the world so it probably wouldn't be a huge surprise to you if I told you that there's also an excellent one in Colombo, Sri Lanka, named The Good Market. Here, you can find fresh, organic produce such as juciy mangoes and strawberries grown in Hill Country, Sri Lankan curries and snacks, plus a range of stalls selling ethical handicrafts, souvenirs and homeware. 

These ladies are benefitting from fair trade. Photo: The Good Market

When The Good Market first opened in 2012, founders Amanda Kiessel and Achala Samaradiwakara were hoping to attract 10 stallholders. In fact, 35 producers and entrepreneurs got behind it and within a year there was a toal of 90 vendors and around 3,000 tourists, expats and locals visiting it weekly. 

Shop til you drop. Photo: The Good Market

Since then, The Good Market has continued to steadily draw in thousands of people each week and there are now 580 approved vendors. The market’s philosophy is to only sell organic, Fair Trade and ethical products - from veggies produced by smallscale farmers to arts and crafts. Frequent live music boosts the ‘cool factor’ plus there is also kids’ entertainment and snacks. 

It originally opened at the Diyatha Uyana market complex near the Water's Edge Hotel, Battaramulla. It's now held every Saturday at the nuga tree carpark next to Colombo Racecourse, which is much closer to the city centre attractions such as Barefoot, the Royal Colombo Golf Club and Viharamahadevi Park. The Good Market organic and natural food shop at14 Reid Avenue (about two minutes away) is open every day from 8am to 8pm too. 

Hand-crafted, ethical, fair trade: tick, tick, tick. Photo: The Good Market

When Amanda and Achala set up The Good Market they wanted to ensure that the products being sold there didn’t have the sky-high price-tags often associated with organic farmers markets, so it would attract shoppers from all kinds of economic backgrounds. The goods had to be affordable for everyone, but they also had to ensure the producers got a fair deal too.

Amanda says: “We definitely have some products that cater to an international market but we also try to keep a large number of stalls selling things which appeal to everyone at affordable prices. We have a committee to ensure that the vendors all meet our organic and ethical standards. It’s a good platform for new vendors to launch their products.”

The committee ensures that a wide range of products are available at the market. So if organic veg holds no appeal, you could pick up items such as spices, ethical handicrafts, essential oils, hand-woven placemats, wooden carvings and beauty products such as body-scrubs. 

Local cheese, cakes, juices and rice is very popular at the market too. Many families bring their kids along and for face-painting and kids activities. 

When The Good Market first opened, Amanda and Achala were hoping to attract ten stallholders. In fact 35 producers and entrepreneurs helped to launch it. There are now 90 vendors and around 3,000 weekly visitors.

Delicious home-made food too. Photo: The Good Market

As you wander past the rows of stalls the first thing that strikes you is the laid-back atmosphere. Whilst so many more traditional markets are crammed with shoppers and the stallholders use high-pressure sales techniques (shouting at you until you buy something), The Good Market never feels too congested and the vendors don’t yell at you to attract your attention. Instead they smile and are happy to chat about their products (without being too pushy), which makes it a much more enjoyable experience.

If you want to make a day of exploring the area, you can also go for a stroll in Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park), which is the oldest and largest park in the Port of Colombo area. You could also play a round of golf at the beautiful Royal Colombo Golf Club, which allows access to visitors on weekday evenings for $47 or full days for $73.50. And if you haven't had enough of shopping, drop into Barefoot's flagship store in Galle Road - it's also an incredible historic building with an excellent cafe in the courtyard, staffed by super-friendly waiters who'll tell you the best cakes to pick!

Nope, not Washington D.C. This is Viharamahadevi Park, looking towards the Town Hall

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Little Fish That’s Scarier Than Sharks

Triggerfish: One of the most dangerous fishes in the ocean that you’ve never heard of.

I'm ready for my close-up: Triggerfish

If you’re going scuba diving, there’s a good chance you’ll see some sharks. For most divers like myself, that’s something really exciting and to be honest I get a bit disappointed if I don’t see any. I won’t pretend my heart doesn’t beat a bit faster when I see that distinctive fin and see how powerfully they move in the water. But in all honesty, it’s triggerfish that concern me more than sharks when I’m diving. 

Triggerfish have strong jaws and teeth designed for crushing shells and can be very persistent and very aggressive, but strangely they’re a little-known marine hazard in tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world. Maybe that’s because a movie about something that looks like this (below) wouldn’t be half as scary as ‘Jaws’...

Triggerfish come in all shapes and sizes, this is a Clown Triggerfish

Triggerfish come in all kinds of colours and sizes but all triggerfish share a few common characteristics. These include a compressed oval body-shape and small eyes set far back from the mouth. The mouth is small but they have a very powerful jaw. Strong enough, in fact, to be able to crush shells and crustaceans. While Picasso triggerfish only grow up to 30cm in size, titan triggerfish can grow up to 75cm/30 inches, and so a bite from a titan triggerfish can cause more damage. They are most aggressive during nesting season, but attacks aren’t only limited to this period.

Wait, I’m not here to try to scare you about triggerfish! I’m fighting in the shark corner,  and trying to explain why there are other species that get fewer headlines but are more of a concern. It’s good to put concerns into context, plus it doesn’t hurt to be clued up on potential marine hazards so you know how to deal with problems if they arise.

The first time I was attacked by a triggerfish

The first time I was attacked was when I snorkelling in the Maldives. I was blissfully unaware of any problems until I suddenly felt a sharp, deep bite on the end of my finger. “Shark!” I thought to myself. Then turned around to see a pretty little blue, yellow and white fish looking at me. I could hardly believe it was the perpetrator, but I recognised it as a Picasso Triggerfish (I see where the name ‘Picasso’ triggerfish comes from: it looks like the colours are splashed across them like a piece of modern art).

Picasso Triggerfish: Looks innocent enough

The second time I was attacked by a triggerfish was while I scuba diving with my then-scuba instructor boyfriend, when a Titan Triggerfish started chasing me. He pulled off a fin to bat the fish away and gestured to me to move away, then it started trying to attack him for several minutes until we managed to get away by swimming backwards whilst facing it and kicking our fins at it. 

I've had a few more run-ins with triggerfish since then too, which has left me with a healthy degree of respect and caution.

Warning behaviour and what to do if you're attacked

Typical indications that a triggerfish is getting upset with you is that it holds its first dorsal spine erect or possibly rolls onto its side to take a better look at you. The best thing to do if you come across and agitated triggerfish or get attacked by one is to kick it away with your fins and try to move horizontally as far away from that area as you can because triggerfish are very territorial (particularly, although not exclusively, during nesting season). However, they never stray far from the nest site, no matter how narked they are. Their territory is a cone-shaped area stretching all the way from the seafloor up to the surface, so trying to escape to the surface is not a good idea (and let's face it, it’s never a good idea anyway if you’re scuba diving!!).

I was lucky that the ones that attacked me weren’t too big but Titan triggerfish can grow up to 30 inches in length (and almost that in width) which is why they give me the heebie-jeebies. That and their creepy eyes, which have independently-rotating eye sockets!

Ugly Titan Triggerfish: No swipes right

However, it’s worth noting that sometimes they will just charge aggressively and not actually take a chunk out of you. And some of them do look very nice (just maybe not the Titan Triggerfish!). Titan triggerfish are much less attractive than the other varieties, and they are best identified by their yellow face, fins and body set against a background of blue-grey, with a blue-grey throat and prominent eye area.

Other varieties of triggerfish

Triggerfish varieties have all kinds of colours and patterns, including the red-toothed triggerfish (which is deep blue with a scarlet mouth) and the beautifully-patterned orange-lined triggerfish. The fact they vary so much in appearance can make it a bit hard to separate them from just a normal reef fish.

Just act natural, OK: Orange-lined Triggerfish

The Picasso triggerfish is another a very eye-catching variety (see the third pic in this article). If you’ve never seen one before you’ll know it when you see it - they seem as though they were decorated by the great Spanish artist himself, with bold flashes of turquoise and yellow contrasting with muted tones of brown, black and grey.

Another striking variety is the clown triggerfish (not to be confused with the cute orange clownfish from ‘Finding Nemo’. As with the Picasso triggerfish, it’s pretty clear to see how they got their name. With bands of yellow and white around a clown-like mouth; large round spots on the belly and leopard-like spots around the first dorsal fin, this fish certainly is the most amusing-looking fish of its family.

Yellow-spotted triggerfish go by several alternative names including blue triggerfish, rippled triggerfish or blue-and-gold triggerfish. If there were an inappropriate juvenile beauty pageant for triggerfish, juvenile yellow-spotted triggerfish would probably be the winner. The juveniles are a yellow-gold colour with a beautiful pattern of bright blue lines running across them, and electric blue fins. These lines merge as they grow older, resulting in adults with a predominantly blue appearance. 

Juvenile blue triggerfish: If there were an inappropriate juvenile triggerfish beauty pageant, these would win the crown

Habitat and Diet

Triggerfish are carnivorous bottom-dwellers which prey on things like worms, crabs, crustaceans, small fish and even sea urchins (which they flip over in order to attack their bellies which are covered in fewer spines). When attacking prey, they flap their fins and squirt water from their mouths to waft away debris. 


Although triggerfish are largely solitary creatures they come together at traditional mating sites at certain times. The males prepare nests on the seafloor where the females lay thousands of eggs. Whilst the eggs are developing in the nests both sexes blow water on them at intervals in order to keep them well-supplied with oxygen. 

And finally, back to sharks!

I’m not here to tell you there’s no risk at all from sharks (they are apex predators and you accept that when you venture into their territory) but if you look at the statistics, shark attacks are extremely rare, especially compared to triggerfish attacks. Especially when you think of the millions of people every day who swim, snorkel, dive, fish and wash in the oceans around the world every day.

You’re actually statistically more likely to die from taking a selfie, being hit by a champagne cork or falling out of bed. Sharks are thought to kill about eight to 10 people per year. That’s less than hippos (500), snakes (50,000), other humans (475,000) and the number one killer in the animal kingdom, mosquitoes (725,000).

And if you crunch the numbers on shark-related deaths, scuba divers are the least likely to be victims: 8% of shark-related deaths compared to surfers (51%) and swimmers or waders (38%). A marine biologist told me sharks can get confused occasionally by surfers because surfers look like turtles from below, but that divers are safer because they don’t spend much as time on the surface (sharks like to attack prey from beneath). She added that blowing bubbles is a sign of aggression amongst marine creatures, and since we have a constant stream of bubbles from our regulators, it makes us seem more badass. I've spoken to various other diving instructors and marine biologists about this too and they all reflected the same sentiments.

 Some Random Triggerfish Facts

  • A group of triggerfish is called a harem. This is because in some species, the males have been observed keeping a ‘harem’ of female mates. (Not much changes then).

  • Triggerfish can rotate each of their eyeballs independently.

  • There are about 40 species of triggerfish around the world 

  • Triggerfish take their name from the two sets of dorsal spines which have two purposes: The first set is to deter predators and to ‘lock’ themselves into holes and crevices. They then depress the smaller ‘trigger’ (spine) to ‘unlock’ themselves.

  • Scientists have noted a level of intelligence in triggerfish which is not usually observed in other fish. They are able to learn from previous experiences. (Watch out, they’ll be taking over when the revolution comes!)