Albania


I dare you to look up “Albanian Beaches” on google image search: they’re breathtaking. Turquoise gems in an untouched land. Secluded sandy coves, long stretches of teal, and Mediterranean perfection. And if that’s not enough to make you hop on a plane to the southern Balkans, then the sweeping expanses of Albania’s Accursed Mountains will definitely do the trick. I saw a photo of Albania 8 months ago and fell in love. How did one of the cheapest and most beautiful countries in Europe not come up on my radar sooner? It was my new obsession. And as fate would have it, as we bounced our way over rocky highways and into long-awaited Albania, I ticked off another bucket list item: to reach 50 countries before my 30th birthday. It was going to be a good day.

Shkoder was the perfect way to begin our stay. The little city in northern Albania is filled with lively cafe’s and bars lined up along a cobbled pedestrian street. The locals were the friendliest people we had met in the Balkans, and the cuisine was exquisite! Just beyond the city is a medieval fortress perched on a hilltop overlooking the expansive plains. To the north, the misty waters of Lake Shkoder serve up freshwater fish served at all the local restaurants in town. The place was wonderful.

We spent a sunny afternoon exploring the fortress on the outskirts of the city. We acquired a stray dog as our tour guide for the afternoon ( a common occurrence for us these days) and he stuck by our side for hours and we hiked around the castle ruins. The view from the fortress was spectacular, you could see the beginnings of the lake, mountains in the distance and the surrounding homes that stretched out across the plains. Sadly, the storms we experienced in Kotor had not escaped Albania. The country just had the worst rainfall since the 1960’s. The plains were flooded and homes were half emersed in the water. Tirana, the capital, had to close their schools due to the flooding in the city centre. It put a damper on the otherwise idyllic setting. 

Unfortunately, despite all my pining for warm white sand beaches, we made it to Albania a little too late in the year. The rains and cold weather meant hiking trips in the mountains were near impossible (and totally out of the question with the clothing we brought). The coastal cities were all but empty, and the beaches were less tropical and more… grey. We decided that Sarande, one of the most popular coastal cities in the South, was just too far out of our way to make the trip in late November. Alas, my dreams were shattered! Regardless, we enjoyed our time in Albania.

Everything was affordable. Food and wine were dirt cheap, and both were excellent! Albania was the first country we had come across in a while that had it’s own unique cuisine. All through the balkans most of the food has been Italian. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Italian food. But there’s only so much risotto and linguine that a girl can eat before going crazy. And the wine? I have been SO impressed with the wine throughout the entire region. Balkan wine isn’t really on my list of “must-try” wine regions, and yet, it is top notch (And you can’t go wrong with a half litre for 3 dollars at a restaurant). 

After a few days in Shkoder we headed south to Tirana. I have friends that have been teaching at an International school in Tirana for a year and a half now. They were nice enough to let Jodon and I stay with them for the weekend. For most of our stay we wandered around the neighbourhood, checking out fun local pubs and favourite restaurants. 

The city of Tirana is strange. It has an unusual combination of modern buildings and communist style architecture: such as the concrete pyramid that used to be the presidential headquarters. An impenetrable looking conical fortress that sits right in the heart of the city. Once an important government building, now an area where teens climb up the steep sides and sit, watching over the city. 

Jodon looked up some sites for us to see while we were in Tirana. 

“It looks like Bunk Art is the number one thing to see on Trip Advisor. It’s just ten minutes from here. Interested?” He asked.

“Sounds super hipster. I’m in.”

I imagined an abandoned old war bunker with graffiti. Something that had once been an eye-sore but that the city had now commissioned for more professional looking spray paint art. Colourful, creative, and a good use of old communist spaces. It was nothing of the sort.

I feel like the name “bunk art” is a little misleading. “Bunk,” OK. “Art?” No. But we were pleasantly surprised nonetheless. The place was an old war bunker built sometime after WWII. It was meant to house the government in case of a nuclear or chemical attack. The place was massive. It could hold a community of hundreds for years on end. The bunker was built into the side of a mountain and went deep underground. It was filled with narrow concrete corridors and bare rooms. Imagine the most depressing place to live ever: no windows, no art (ironically) and no creature comforts. This was Bunk Art. The rooms were decorated with photos and information about the communist rule over Albania. The fortress was a maze of small square rooms used as bedrooms or meeting spaces, but also, surprisingly, held a large theatre room for entertainment. We wandered around the bunker for a couple hours, lost inside the monotony of rooms, learning about Albanian history. The whole time I just kept waiting for the “art” part, but it never came. 

Our stay in Albania was nice, but not quite what I had anticipated. The crystal waters and white sand had disappeared with the warm summer months and we were left with rain and grey. It’s times like this that I realize why it’s called an “off season”. Although I still enjoyed Albania, I’ll make sure to make my next trip during the summer!

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Coff’s Harbour

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It seemed as though my timing was all wrong in Coff’s Harbour. The sites, the places, the cravings… Nothing seemed to go as I wanted.
The evening I arrived I just wanted a quiet walk in the botanical gardens before grabbing some sushi that I’d been craving for days. Sadly, the gardens were closed for a private movie showing that evening, and because I’d gone out of my way to see the gardens, the only sushi joint in town had closed 15 minutes earlier. Fail. The following day was the same. Sushi closed on Sundays, botanical gardens closed 3 minutes before arriving… And not just sushi and gardens, but buses, cafe’s, and the entire city center seemed to close just moments before I wanted it. But luckily that didn’t stop me from enjoying my relaxing couple days in the town.
The Aussitel backpackers I was staying at was adorable. It was not too big, had fun social events and quiet movie nights, and offered everything from kayaks, surf boards and paddle boards for free! The first morning I went out with a small group to a town just outside of Coff’s called Sawtell. We hiked the cliffs around the beach, played around in the water and wandered through the bustling metropolis of Sawtell city center (aka. One block of cafe’s and a convenience store).
For the afternoon I went sightseeing. Coff’s Harbour has some beautiful walks. The river walk that takes you from the ocean to the town center, past the botanical gardens is shady and beautiful. The coastal walk along the beaches makes for wonderful sea views, and hiking to mutton bird island and the jetty makes for great views looking back on the mainland! I must have walked around for 15km before finally crashing on the beach to relax. I found a shady spot to ease my recent sunburn and pretended to read a book as I people watched.
After the craziness of my final couple days in Byron Bay, Coff’s was a much needed vacation!
On my third morning in town, I finally got to see the gardens! They were WAY bigger than I had anticipated, and it took me nearly 2 hours to stroll up and down the pathways. Each section of the park had a specific theme: endangered plants, New South Wales locals, the sensory garden, and flora from around the world. They had a North America section, an Asia section, a South American and an African. It was a little bit of a throw back walking through a forest that reminded me so much of the jungle in Brazil and the forests of Botswana. But it was neat to be reminded of how much I’ve seen over the past few years.
By the end of day three I’d pretty much seen everything I could in Coff’s Harbour. I’d stayed one day longer than I’d intended because of a glitch in the greyhound system, and had nothing left to explore. A quiet morning watching the Olympics at the hostel was followed by a journey south to Port Macquarie! Coff’s Harbour: Check!

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Byron Bay

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The morning after Cheekie Monkeys I woke up sick as a dog. Big surprise. It doesn’t take long partying and living in a hostel before you ultimately get a cold. But Byron Bay awaited and I wasn’t about to miss out. So I grabbed a quick bite and set off to the beach.
The long stretch of main beach was full of swimmers and surfers alike. I found a shady spot under a tree and read and people watched until my nose stopped running and I had the energy to explore. Someone along my way down the coast had said the hike to the lighthouse in Byron is an absolutely must see! From the beach, I could see the lighthouse sticking out above the crest of a little hill. Couldn’t be more than 20 minutes or so, I thought to myself, might as well wander over.
Well, 20 minutes was a little bit of an understatement, and “wander” isn’t necessarily the verb I’d use to describe the hike. The lighthouse was significantly further away and much further up than it looked like from the town of Byron. The hike took close to 2 hours to complete, and the elevation change was slightly more than I wanted to endure with a cold… But it didn’t matter. The lighthouse hike was my favourite hike in Australia to date! The beaches and the coastal hikes were stunning! The path to the lighthouse takes you to a lookout point that is considered the easternmost point of mainland Australia! From there you can watch the sunrise before any other person in the country. Although I didn’t see any, the surrounding waters were home to pods of dolphins and whales and all sorts of sea turtles! The following day, Keelie and Laura (two girls from my hostel room) raved about all the sea creatures they had encountered on the trip. But my favourite part about the hike was stumbling across Tallow Beach.
Just after the lighthouse I came across a lookout to a breathtaking stretch of white sand beach. The windswept land stretched way off into the distance and, to my surprise, there was not a human soul on it.
I MUST get to that beach, I thought. Finding a deserted beach on the east coast of Australia is line finding a needle in a hay stack: especially during the summer months. How could this beach, that was so beautiful that people were stopping in their cars to gape at it’s views, be completely void of people?
I had just discovered my newest mission.
So the following morning I google mapped the area of Byron Bay and found a small road through a national park that would take me there. I grabbed a picnic lunch, my bikini, my book and a beach towel and set out. 45 minutes later I came stumbling out of the jungle and onto paradise. Tallow Beach.
I had found it! All on my own, I found it!
I walked along the surf until I found a spot to lie down in the Sunshine. I watched the waves for a few minutes while I tanned, then rolled over to start reading. All alone. On my private beach.
Not a half hour later I felt a drop of water, I turned around to see a massive black cloud that had snuck up somewhere from the South.
Nooooooo, I thought. I was prepared to camp here for the day!
Too late.
It began to rain. Before I had packed up my backpack it was pouring!
I was an hour from shelter and stuck in shorts and a tank top. This would happen to me.
I sprinted back into the shelter of the trees and popped out into the back of a random parking lot. There was a single car parked there and a young couple that I hadn’t seen before packing up some fishing gear.
“Hey, are you guys headed towards Byron Bay?” They looked at me, startled to hear a persons voice I think, and even more startled to see how soaked I was.
“Ya! Jump in! We’ll give you a ride!”
They were life saving. Every kilometer closer to Byron Bay we drove the more I realized how miserable I would have been trudging through the rain. They even went as far as dropping me off right outside my hostel doors, despite my insistence that the edge of town was just fine!
The rains didn’t stop for the rest of the afternoon. My cold had gotten so bad, that I was forced to go to the chemist for some drugs. I took it easy that evening, grabbing dinner around the corner and heading to bed early: envious of my roommates who were headed out on the town once again.
“Have a drink for me!” I said as they wandered into the night. And then I passed out as my head hit the pillow.

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Negombo Beach

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Our first stop in Sri Lanka was a city called Negombo. Only 16km from the airport, Negombo is a two part city: town and beach. We opted for beach: clearly. At the bus stop we paid less than a dollar to catch a Tuk Tuk to a guesthouse at Negombo Beach.
The beach was beautiful! White sand, palm trees, warm water: it was paradise. There were little fishing boats with huge sails scattered across the horizon and locals and tourists swimming in the waves (in bathing suits might I add. Completely opposite to India). We headed immediately to the beach to lie out on the sand as relax in the late sunshine. We’d been in the country only a couple hours and I was already in love.
The guesthouse we stayed at was called Marshall’s Beach Guesthouse. Marshall, the owner, was so lovely. He was also a tour guide around Sri Lanka, so he had a million suggestions on places to visit and stay for the night. When I asked him about guesthouse recommendations for Anuradhapura, he gladly flipped open a huge binder with guesthouse business cards all in alphabetical order according to city. So helpful.
But although Marshall himself could not have been any nicer, the man that ran the guesthouse when Marshall was away wins as my favourite person in Sri Lanka. Although his English wasn’t perfect, his hospitality and his constant concern about our happiness made him the sweetest person we had met in ages!
“You happy?” He would ask us with a huge grin. “You happy then I am VERY happy!” He would genuinely ask us this after every meal, or showing us our room, or after we’d come home from the beach. We wanted to stay forever!
The town of Negombo Beach was small but lovely. It was a single street with a mix of restaurants, souvenir shops and beach guesthouses. All the restaurants served delicious fish curries or traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Everyone in town wanted to say “Hello” but no one seemed pushy about coming into shops and buying their wares.
“Do you hear that?” Asked Kelsi when we were walking down the street.
“No, hear what?” I asked.
“Exactly.” there were no honking, screeching, deafening car sounds. It was amazing. I don’t understand how two countries, right next to each other can be so different! But I’m not complaining.
We wandered the town, relaxed on the beach, and spent a whole lot of time doing nothing. It was great.
That night I met an English guy named Max that had been traveling Sri Lanka by motorbike for three months already. By luck, he was able to offer us the best places to see in Sri Lanka. With his suggestions, we tweaked our original plan and had an epic 5 days ahead of us. Next stop: the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura!

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Colonia Del Sacramento: Three Days in Paradise

Wow, where do I start?  Colonia is amazing! A little beach town in the West of Uruguay, Colonia is the perfect mix of touristy relaxation and local flavor. We came to Colonia on the 1hr boat from Buenos Aires and planned to stay for 1 night… Now here I am, three days later, writing on the bus to Montevideo! 
 Our first afternoon in Colonia we spent walking through town and checking out the long stretch of quiet beaches on the southern coast. Finally a taste of REAL ocean and not the decaying fish-infested waters of Buenos Aires.  After a stroll in the surf, it was wine time!  We chilled on the patio of this quaint little pub, looking out onto the ocean and watched the sun set on our first evening. 
 After a late sleep-in from too much vino the night before, we decided to have a beach day.  We walked through the cobblestone streets, checked out the more historical side of the town, then found a nice beach to suntan, read and listen to tunes.  What could be more relaxing?  It was such a great way to spend the day after the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. After the beach, we found a trendy lounge that had a beautiful shady deck out back that hung over the water, and we worked on our wine log once again – a Uruguayan Sauvignon Blanc that totally hit the spot after escaping the heat! 
 We then grabbed a late afternoon snack of cheese and baguette, picked up a few litros of beer and spent the evening playing cards on our hostel patio.  After several too many beers and being destroyed by Nikki at 27 holes of “Golf” (cards), we figured 11pm was an acceptable time to eat dinner.  So we dressed up and stumbled our way to a local all-you-can-eat Uruguayan BBQ where we stuffed our faces with all sorts of food for the next couple hours.  
Day 3 in Colonia was arguably better than the other two combined.  We met some fellow British Columbians at our hostel who had met a young local guy named Mattias who wanted to show us Colonia from a local point of view.  So we rented bikes, grabbed some cold Pilsen and trekked 4km out of town to a beautiful, and essentially deserted, lagoon. The cool water was MUCH needed in the heat!  We then found our way to a secluded little beach just a short walk from the lagoon and spent HOURS lying in the sun, playing Frisbee and getting to know our new-found friends. When I finally turned into a lobster around 6pm we decided to head back to town. Apart from the burns, we couldn’t have asked for a better day! We enjoyed our last evening over a couple drinks and our first home (hostel) cooked meal of the trip! 
It was definitely bittersweet checking out this morning, but it’s time to check out what the rest of the country has to offer 🙂