One of the best things about living in Melbourne is the number of amazing places at a reasonable driving distance, the Grampians and the Great Ocean Road being two of those gems.
Why to go: Get out of the city Where to stay: Camp, hostels, Airbnb How long to stay: 1-2 nights at the Grampians and 1 night along the Great Ocean Road Transport: Hire a car, go slow on the winding Ocean Road Don’t miss: The amazing views from the mountains and coastline Go with: A group of friends Food: Make sure to always keep your driver happy and fed Vibe: A breath of fresh non-urban air
Why this road trip?
I studied abroad in Melbourne from 2015-2016 and one of the best things about living there is the number of amazing places at a reasonable driving distance, the Grampians and the Great Ocean Road being two of those gems. I did two Great Ocean Road trips during my year abroad, one with my friends, and one when my cousin visited in March. You can’t go to Melbourne and not see the Great Ocean Road, so when I had visitors there was no getting out of a repeat. However, there are so many stops along the route that you are guaranteed to see something you haven’t seen before. I decided to tack on the Grampians when my cousin came to maximise what she got to see whilst also diversifying the route for myself. I loved the mixture of sea and mountains. We went to the Grampians first as we didn’t want to have to return to the city exhausted from hiking, which meant we were able to make our way back down to Melbourne at our own pace alongside the sea. The drive to the Grampians from Melbourne is around 3.5 hours and once you get to the ocean from the Grampians the drive back along the coast is approximately 5 hours.
What to do at the Grampians?
There are plenty of trails to choose from at the Grampians with varying levels of difficulty. We got to the campsite in the evening and woke up early in preparation to spend all day hiking around the mountains before heading to the Great Ocean Road. Below are three of the best spots not to miss in my opinion.
From the Reek Lookout car park, the walk to The Balconies jaw like structure is approximately 2km. It can get quite full of tourists and it isn’t a particularly big spot so it is probably one to visit first!
The Pinnacle is where I took the feature photo for this post, and it is definitely not a sight you want to miss. We took the easiest route from the Sundial Car Park which is around a 2km / 45 min walk and then spent a good bit of time there taking in the views.
I recommend getting up close to the MacKenzie Falls via the MacKenzie Falls Walk (2km return). There are some narrow steps to get to the bottom of the falls which of course you will need to climb back up, so bank some time to take a breather and chill by the water before you head back up.
Where to visit on the Great Ocean Road?
This is by no means an exhaustive list. I did a Great Ocean Road trip more than once during my time in Melbourne and I liked seeing different things every time to shake up the experience. If I went again I would choose some new spots to continue exploring the area but the below are definitely my three favourites so far.
London Arch is my favourite stop because you get the awe inspiring coastal formations with less tourists and quicker beach access. These stops are all beautiful from the lookouts, there is no denying that, but there is something special about walking on the beach alongside these structures. The experience gives you one of those ‘puts your life into perspective’ moments.
The image of these coastline formations are synonymous with any Great Ocean Road trip and there is a reason they are so famous, but what I love the most is the beaches these formations are on. The lookout gets packed quickly with tourists so I recommend committing the time to walk on the beaches alongside it to take in these beasts.
Split Point Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet
The coastline around Split Point Lighthouse is stunning. Ultimately all of the coast is beautiful but I liked that Split Point was less packed with tourist than the famed 12 Apostles. The greenery around the lighthouse was also a nice contrast from the pale tan of the rest of the stretch of beaches along the road.
How long should and where to stay at each stop?
My cousin and I are quite possibly the fanciest people you have ever met and may or may not have slept in our rental car throughout the whole three nights on the road. Now, if you aren’t on a student budget I fully recommend camping or finding some cool hostels and/or Airbnbs on the way. Our trip was only 3 days and 4 nights given the short time my cousin had in the country but I think it was enough. I would recommend sleeping the night at the Grampians before a full day of hiking. Given you will be tired post hike, stay the night in the Grampians before heading off toward the Great Ocean Road to slowly make your way back Melbourne. Break up your drive back down and the stops along the way by staying the night at a coastal town midway.
Make the trip moments
This being the first time I had driven since passing my driving test at 17 and having to deal with hook turns in Melbourne CBD and the winding roads along the coast
Spending approximately 30 minutes figuring out how to turn on the rental car and proceeding to graze it before leaving the parking lot (thank the travel gods I convinced my cousin we needed full cover)
Using KFC’s Wi-Fi to do an online test for university whilst eating others customers’ leftovers and a tupperware with tuna salad (one of my finer moments in this life)
Our Michelin star dinners of raw carrots and bacon and cheese dip
Getting back to the car to witness a parking ticket being slapped on our hood post a 5 minute stop, then backing into a pole when leaving late to return the rental car
Having our petrol gauge drop from half full to empty on the motorway on our way back to return the car with nearly 0% phone battery (we asked for a car with a USB port for charging, we did not get it)
Bringing a jar or gherkins along as if it was our favourite child, yes, there is a photo album of family pictures
If the sound of hiring a car, and roaming around a place with an interesting past, divine food, and some stunning seaside cliff views is up your street, Malta is for you!
Currency: EUR Why to go: Rich history, good food, & beautiful scenery Where to stay: Airbnbs with parking How long to stay: 1-2 nights at each place Transport: Hire a car, drive on the left Don’t miss: Area around St. Peters Pool and Ras il-Fniek Go with: A group of friends Food: Famed for rabbit Vibe: Easy going, slow pace
Why go to Malta
My cousins and I selected Malta for our first international trip as a group of three slightly disastrous humans. I won’t lie, it was chosen off the ‘Everywhere’ list of destinations on Skyscanner as it met our budget, none of us had ever been, and we were seeking some sun. However, having now experienced the islands in the archipelago, I am a firm fan. From one side of Malta to the other is less than an hour by car, making it perfect for a shorter trip that still feels very much complete. If the sound of hiring a car, and roaming around a place with an interesting past, divine food, and some stunning seaside cliff views is up your street, Malta is for you!
Where to visit in Malta
The Maltese archipelago consists of the islands of Malta (the largest), Gozo, and Comino (the smallest). Given time constraints, we opted to only visit Malta and Gozo stopping at various places on our way round with the car. Below is a selection of our top spots we found on offer during our Maltese road trip.
Sliema works as a perfect base for day visits to Valletta. It is cheaper to stay here overnight than Valletta itself and you get an awesome view of the city which you would not get from inside the walls. There is not too much to call out here in terms of sight seeing but we had the best food of the trip at a restaurant called Ta’ Kris which we could tell was top class due to all the local clientele. It’s a reasonably small place with hard worked staff, so don’t expect speed, but if you get yourself a booking you are really in for a treat. Rabbit is a Maltese specialty and the rabbit dishes here were super tasty!
Valletta was gorgeous to walk around. The city is a unique mix, housing beautiful churches, quirky coloured apartments, and a spattering of some ‘hipster’ bars. It is the ultimate cool city with a laidback vibe packed with a serious historical punch. You want to give yourself time to get lost amongst the streets here but make sure to visit some of the museums to ensure you leave with an appreciation of everything the country has seen in its past. I recommend The Malta Experience for a short movie which explains the history and the War Memorial at the ocean end of the city for some awesome views of the forts surrounding Valletta. Finish your day here watching the sunset from the upper Barrakka Gardens when you are too tired to walk anymore.
Gozo has plenty to offer, so although we only spent one day and night here, I would recommend tacking on a day or two. We started our visit by taking in the megalithic Ġgantija temples to get an understanding of how ancient the land is.
Following our cultural visit of the day we headed to Marsalforn which considering it was March was quite empty. However, during high season a lot of tourists stay around here, particularly those looking to dive, as the town hosts a few diving shops. It was nice to walk around the dock area and I can definitely see the outdoor restaurant spaces packed in summer with tourists enjoying an Aperol Spritz or two.
Next we headed to the Azure Window and Blue Hole site. The Azure Window has actually collapsed now so you can’t see the arc structure which used to stand at this location. Either way this is a breathtaking area at the edge of the island of Gozo with cliffs a plenty to fulfil your sit, stare, and contemplate life needs.
I recommend visiting Victoria at night. It is the main city on the island and boasts the stunning Ċittadella. At night the walls are lit up similarly to Valletta and it makes for a killer view. Walking around the place without other tourists made me feel like I was creeping around a castle in Dorne in Game of Thrones in the dead of night and I was all for it.
Mdina is another of the incredible walled cities Malta has to offer. We started our visit here during the day getting lost around the city streets. At night, once again the city lit up which gave it that important castle feel. The streets are peppered with classy bars and restaurants, so although it is the old capital, you get the sense that people really socialise there rather than just treating it as a tourist destination.
Marsaxlokk is known as the best place to see the famous Maltese luzzu fishing boats. The boats are typically painted bright blue yellow and red with a pair of eyes on the bow. This small fishing village did not disappoint on the boat front and we had a stellar seafood lunch to boot.
My favourite part of the whole trip was our hike from Marsaxlokk to the St. Peters Pool area. The walk is super nice, giving you a bird’s eye view of the village you leave behind from a path bordered by old beige walls, cacti, and yellow flowers. We actually took a wrong turn and happened to find the most beautiful place of the whole trip. We never made it to St. Peter’s Pool but found an area of multiple natural pools which were bordered by the Mediterranean, almost like natural infinity pools. There was no one around seeing as most tourist traffic heads to St. Peter’s, so it became our own little paradise. What made it was the view of the Ras il-Fniek cliffs to the left whilst we bathed!
How long to stay in Malta
Malta is ideal for short trips because it is so small. Crossing the main island of Malta on it’s longest side takes less than 1 hour by road, so if you hire a car you have your independence and can check out as much of the country as you want. We stayed 6 days including our departure and arrival days and we squeezed so much in. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. However, we did not visit Comino. If you have the luxury of time and want to see absolutely everything, give yourself a full 7-10 days and you will leave feeling like locals.
Transport in Malta
Malta does have a public bus system which many opt for to get from place A to B. Many also just visit Malta as a beach destination and spend most of their time in one spot. Our intention was to see as much of the island as we reasonably could and a road trip gave us the freedom to do that. If you have the time, I am sure the bus is cheaper, however, we didn’t want to find ourselves having to wait 1 hour after missing a bus (which would be typical of us). Also, be aware that in Malta you drive on the left hand side of the road!
Where to stay in Malta
Parking isn’t the easiest in Malta if you are not a confident driver. It is a small place so you can imagine it is a lot of parallel parking situations on small streets. Given the best way to see Malta is by hiring a car, I would recommend trying to secure Airbnbs with some parking space to make your life easier. That said, we predominantly used Booking.com to secure hotels and hostels at reasonable prices. In all honesty, the important thing here is proximity to where you are visiting as once you have arrived, the best thing to do is leave the car close to your accommodation and walk around given the size of the place.
Make the trip moments
My first trip with some of my favourite humans, being the disastrous triplet cousins we are
Screaming on our way to Sliema from the airport after getting volunteered to drive us as the one who is ‘used to’ driving on the left
The flashy lights around the churches all over Malta
The food at Ta’ Kris (R.I.P. the leftover pasta we forgot in the fridge)
Taking photos of us sleeping everywhere to curate a beautiful album for our parents
Falling asleep during The Malta Experience movie – I swear it was good but two thirds of us are pale and the sun hit us hard
So many cats, cats everywhere, cat sanctuaries in the middle of more than one Maltese town
Initiating our cousin into our sleep in the car habits in Gozo
Watching Black Panther in Victoria one evening just because (favourite Marvel film)
Doing everything last minute: renting a car, finding accommodation, you name it we did it
Loving Cisk beer and not loving Kinnie so much (acquired taste)
Fly into Malta in the morning and pick up your rental car (hopefully you are more organised than us and booked ahead)
Argue over who has to drive first in this foreign land, and when that is settled, head off to Sliema to drop off your stuff (once again, hopefully you are not booking accommodation in the car on the way to the town like us)
Make a reservation for dinner at Ta’ Kris and go walk around Sliema and the waterfront, getting a glimpse of nearby Valletta all lit up in the dark
Make yourself comfortable (seriously, service was slow) at Ta’ Kris for the best food of the whole holiday – be sure to try the rabbit dishes
Day 2: Valletta
Wake up early and shake off your food hangover because it is time to drive to Valletta (see if you can find parking in one of the towns in between Sliema and Valletta and walk the rest of the way as you won’t need the car)
Spend the day roaming the quirky streets of the walled city, being sure to make time for some museums (I recommend The Malta Experience for a short film summarising the history of the island) and the War Memorial from which you get a great view of Fort Ricasoli
Watch sunset at the upper Barrakka Gardens accompanied by an ice cream
Day 3: Gozo
Stop at Għadira Bay for breakfast by the sea before heading to the ferry station near Cirkewwa to purchase a return ticket to Gozo
Kill the time until the ferry arrives by taking in the views at Sunset Spot
Enjoy the 30 min crossing to Mġarr and upon arrival make your way straight to the Ġgantija temples for your daily dose of Maltese history
Drive to Marsalforn for lunch and a nosy around the waterfront
Continue on to the Azure Window (collapsed but still beaut) and the Blue Hole and spend some time jumping around the rocks and letting the stellar cliff views sink in
When night falls, head to Victoria to spend the night, but only after wandering about the lit up Ċittadella without the bustle of the day tourists
Day 4: Mdina & Dingli Cliffs
It is finally time for a beach day, up to you where, but I would recommend Ramla which is one of the most popular on Gozo (be sure to pick up ice cold Cisk beer and some crisps)
Get the ferry back to the main island and drive to the Dingli Cliffs for a walk and sunset
After sunset, make your way to Mdina, park up and get lost around the awesome old fortified capital at night
Day 5: Marsaxlokk & St. Peter’s Pool
Drive over to Marsaxlokk and spend some time at the waterfront checking out the luzzus (traditional Maltese fishing boats which are brightly coloured with eyes on the bow)
Leave the car at Marsaxlokk, pack a picnic, and hike over to St. Peter’s Pool and Ras il-Fniek to take in the phenomenal cliffside views
Get a little lost and head just northeast of St. Peter’s Pool to find your own private little paddling pools with infinity style views of the ocean
Day 6: St Julian’s
Wake up and enjoy a farewell breakfast in St Julian’s followed by a walk along the waterfront
Head off to the airport with plenty of time to return the car
Bust out the cards, and enjoy the last moments before you fly off reminiscing about the best moments of the trip whilst absolutely dominating at any and every game
My favourite bits about Croatia were the beautiful drives perfect for a road trip, the national parks, and the awesome festival locations!
Currency: HRK (Croatian Kuna) Why to go: Ideal for road trips, natural parks, & festivals Where to stay: Airbnbs with parking How long to stay: 2-3 nights at each city max Transport: Hire a car Go with: A group of friends Food: Very mediterranean
Why go to Croatia
My friend and I actually decided to go to Croatia for a music festival. Pula boasts various popular festivals such as Dimensions and Ultra. We were headed to Outlook festival for a sunny dose of bass music to finish off summer. My favourite bits about Croatia were the beautiful drives perfect for a road trip, the national parks, and the awesome festival locations!
Where to visit & what to do in Croatia
We wanted to see some of the country during our trip but knew we would be knackered post festival so we flew in early to the south of the country, Split, and decided to road trip up to the festival location, Pula. The start and finish points of our trip were hugely influenced by flight prices and convenience but we saw a good bit of the country and enjoyed some beautiful drives. Below are the locations we visited and what we did in each.
We stayed in Split for 3 nights, largely because it was the minimum stay at our Airbnb but it worked perfectly as a base from which to do day trips to Krka National Park and Hvar. Split in itself has good nightlife (full of young people from all around Europe making their way up to the festivals in Pula) and a delightful old town to roam. One of our favourite bits was a tiki bar placed in one of the old town squares that transitioned from serving smoothies to cocktails as the sun dropped. Krka National Park is roughly a 1 hour drive from Split and boasts some awesome waterfalls where you can take a dip, which feels well deserved after your walk to get there.
Hvar is known as a party island for the rich. I believe it was featured as a Made in Chelsea holiday season destination. You understand why when you arrive on a ferry from Split to a port with several yachts. The ferry trip takes around 1.5 hours one way but is pleasant. We opted to not take our car and explored the quirky streets of Hvar by foot and hiked to some more secluded beaches away from the port. The water was beautiful here and some of the hotels looked stunning, but personally I was more enthralled by the parties had during the festival!
The drive from Split to Šibenik was only around 1 hour. We found a cute pop art style flat last minute and arrived at night ready to check out the city the next day. Šibenik is an awesome place to roam around in the sun, particularly the old town streets. If you wind your way up through the old town you reach St. Michael Fortress which gives you a great view over the city.
The drive to Zadar from Šibenik was again only about 1 hour (this country is honestly ideal for a road trip). The old town in Zadar is where its at. It is perfect to walk around and has plenty of options for a nice dinner and a cheeky ice cream whilst the sun goes down. One of our favourite spots was the Sea Organ, where you can sit on the marble steps leading into the ocean and watch the sunset accompanied by the sounds created by the waves and the 35 organ pipes under the steps. Next to the Organ was the Sun Salutation which is essentially a massive solar panel which uses the day’s sunlight as energy to light up a series of multicoloured light on top it. These exhibitions are the coolest bits of Zadar so you can imagine they can get quite busy!
Pula was our last stop and I won’t pretend that we saw much more than the festival locations but they were a gorgeous backdrop to the festival. The opening concert was held in the Pula amphitheatre and it was incredible. Imagine the Colosseum in Rome all lit up in hues of blue, green, and red accompanied by the dulcet sounds of Bonobo. Hopefully that image excites you as much as it did me. The rest of the festival was held in Fort Punta Christo. Everyone stayed nearby so it was easy to walk to and from the festival. The Fort was right on the water and some of the stages were in some incredible hidden nooks of the Fort. I cannot recommend a festival here enough!
How long to stay in Croatia
A good 10 days in Croatia is enough for a Split to Pula road trip finishing off in some festival fun. We had a bout of food poisoning so we missed out on some things we wanted to see but we did not leave feeling unsatisfied. If you want to drive less in a given day, consider staying longer. If I were to visit without going to a festival I would tack on Zagreb and Dubrovnik as additional stops.
Transport in Croatia
I am not someone who loves driving or who is a super confident driver. Unfortunately I always end up driving in random countries, here is to hoping soon I will feel like a pro. Regardless of my skills behind the wheel, Croatia was such a pleasure to drive! The roads were easy to follow, with the exception of some one way road drama in some of the smaller towns (but I blame Maps over anything else). Some of the roads we drove at sunset on the coast were stunning and I reckon you would be missing out if you don’t opt to hire a car here in favour of buses or trains.
Where to stay in Croatia
Stay in Airbnbs throughout your time in Croatia, it is more convenient if you have a car. We didn’t experience any much difficulty with booking accommodation same day (we are not plan ahead people) and even got to stay at a quirky pop art themed place for one night (one of my favourite Airbnbs ever). I would say that if you are going to a festival, book accommodation ASAP as prices sky rocket.
Make the trip moments
A red mess (guess what you will)
Our unfortunate laughing fit when returning our hire car with a dent from reversing into a pole (the guy at the rental place called us legends for being in such a good mood, but obviously we were so chill because we know ourselves and got full cover)
The amazing Catalans we met and hung with throughout our time at the festival
Morning sunrises at the beach post dancing all night
Never waking up before 2pm during the festival
All the amazing stage locations around Fort Punta Christo
My friend Vedran from the Airbnb
Having to make the long bus and train journey to Italy to get our flight out the day after the festival ended because we left everything last minute (naturally we had slept about 30 minutes and were absolutely destroyed)
Arrive at St Thomas airport and get a taxi to the port
Enjoy your first of many Painkillers of the trip at the bar until the ferry arrives
Relax on your 20min ride to Cruz Bay on St John whilst breathing in the sea salt air
Pick up a rental wranglers (literally all rentals are wranglers on this island) if you are old enough to (i.e. 25 or above)
Have dinner at one of the restaurants near the Cruz Bay port
Get a taxi/drive to your accommodation (try not to leave it too late if it is a hard to find Airbnb)
Day 2: Hawksnest Beach & Cruz Bay
Drive down to Cruz Bay for a lazy breakfast at Cruz Bay Landing (the best company will get two things and share with you)
Head to Hawksnest Beach for your first taste of the island’s beautiful waters
If you have enough water (and no car) walk back on North Shore Road towards Cruz Bay to see the sights from the viewpoints on the way whilst the sun goes down
Wander around the Cruz Bay shops and galleries follower by dinner in one of the many restaurants in the Bay before calling it a night (the sun will have you worn out, truuust)
Day 3: Trunk Bay
Head to the grocery store in Cruz Bay before heading out to pick up any drinks and snacks you need for a full day at the beach
Drive to Trunk Bay with your snorkel gear in tow
Spend the day snorkelling and enjoying the Bay
Enjoy sunset on the beach and then get a taxi back (we left too late and ended up hiking it – perks was seeing Cruz Bay all lit up from the top of North Shore Road and a hell of an appetite for dinner)
Have dinner at The Longboard in Cruz Bay for some amazing Painkillers (amazing with nutmeg grated on top) and even better poké bowls
Day 4: Snorkelling at Waterlemon Cay
Get in a good breakfast in Cruz Bay (we just went back to Cruz Bay Landing because it was the best breakfast in the Bay in our opinion)
Drive to the start of the Leinster Bay trail and hike towards Waterlemon Cay (about 20min walk)
Spend some time snorkelling in Waterlemon Bay to see rays, turtles, barracuda, and nurse sharks
Following this, finish the trail towards the end of the Bay where the Cay sits (a couple was just leaving as we arrived leaving the spot fully to ourselves)
Snorkel around the small island just off the Cay to see a beautiful array of ocean life (you can spend hours here)
Tip: there is a slight current between St John and the small island, nothing very strong but it’s better to be aware of before you set off
Walk back on the trail (might find some donkeys) as the sun sets for beautiful views across the Bay
Dinner at another of the fine choices in Cruz Bay (fully guilty of returning to The Longboard again as it was so good)
Day 5: St Thomas & Magens Bay
Head to Cruz Bay to get the ferry over to St Thomas
Pick up a rental car (we went back to the airport as we had booked one here)
Drive to Charlotte Amalie for lunch and a wander round (mostly jewellery shops for all the cruise traffic so not too much to see)
Head to Magens Bay for sunset
Day 6: Coki Point
Have breakfast and head to Coki Point beach for the day in the company of the day’s DJ
Spend the day snorkelling around the coast and stay until sunset
Drive to Red Hook for a sushi dinner with some very fresh fish
Day 7: Mermaid’s Chair & Lindquist beach
Have breakfast at Barefoot Buddha (amazing sweet potato and goat’s cheese wrap)
Head to the Mermaid’s Chair and park up near the estate which you must hike down (we got caught in a downpour so bring a cagoule)
Clamber around the rocks at the literal end of St Thomas
Stop for some lunch and margaritas before driving around the island to reach Lindquist beach
Spend the rest of the day time at Lindquist before heading for some amazing sushi
Day 8: cheeky bit of beach & depart
Grab takeaway at Buddha again because it was just that good and head to Lindquist beach for a few hours before heading to the airport (absolutely don’t back into a pavement just before returning the car like we did)
Drop off your car and say goodbye to paradise
Note: This itinerary is based on not being able to rent a car. If you can rent one, I encourage you to explore much more of the island! I’ll have to return when I’m old enough to rent one! The renting age is lower in St Thomas but you are not supposed to bring your cars over on the ferry if not a local.
There were essentially two reasons we decided to extend our trip to include Jordan, the Petra archaeological site and a night’s stargazing in the Wadi Rum desert, and let me tell you they were definitely worth it.
Currency: JOD (Jordanian Dinar) Why to go: Petra & Wadi Rum Where to stay: 5* hotels (cheap comparative to western Europe) How long to stay: 3 nights to not pay anything at the Wadi Arab border when crossing from Israel Transport: Taxi Go with: A partner or friend Food: Disappointing but I mostly had hotel food to be fair
Why go to southern Jordan
I combined seeing southern Jordan with a trip from Tel Aviv to southern Israel I did with a friend. In Eilat, Israel there is a border with Jordan which is conveniently positioned to allow you to visit the most well known tourist attractions in the country. Click here to learn more about what to expect at the border. The border is around a fifteen minute drive from Aqaba (opposite Israel’s Eilat), a two hour drive to Petra, and around a one hour drive to the Wadi Rum desert. There were essentially two reasons we decided to extend our trip to include Jordan, the Petra archaeological site and a night’s stargazing in the Wadi Rum desert, and let me tell you they were definitely worth it.
Where to visit in southern Jordan
We crossed into Jordan from Israel around midday. After two hours driving to Petra, we arrived at our hotel at 2pm. The transport from the hotel to the archaeological site had already left and Khaled, who drove us to Petra, offered us a deal to drive us to and from Petra and to Wadi Rum the following day, allowing us to get straight to the site to make the most of our time. We didn’t go to the site prepared at all. We did not have enough water or any food and had bought Petra by night tickets before going in. We ended up staying at the site for around five and a half hours. The plan had originally been to return to the hotel or to eat something next to the site and go back for Petra by night. However, as closing time for Petra by night came and the crowds thinned, we didn’t want to miss the best time to roam around the site. Although the famous instagram photo is of the treasury at Petra, I urge you to walk around more. There are so many stunning structures and the site is huge. Walking beyond the treasury also leaves behind the tourist fanfare which I frankly found annoying.
Petra by night is very much a tourist trap. You walk the same path to the treasury (the first structure at the site) lit up by candles in paper bags only to sit down in front of the treasury lit up in various colours for 20-30 minutes. The event consists of a story by candlelight and some music played all whilst you sip on a small glass of tea. I’m not saying don’t go but I just think Petra is much more than this. There was no roaming around and seeing different structures lit up. Also, it was very cold, bring a jumper if you are going!
Wadi Rum became our desert stay destination thanks to my friend’s research. She had found a bubble hotel online and it became what she was looking forward to the most out of the trip. I had never stayed the night in a desert before but being in the middle of nowhere with minimal light pollution means you get a beautiful view of the night sky, the main attraction in my opinion. The hotel offered stargazing which we took advantage of, following which we just sat and stared at the stars on our bubble patio. It was a very romantic setting, hence most of our fellow travellers were couples. Although we decided we weren’t that fussed, the hotels in the desert also offer tours around the place to see various sites.
Aqaba wasn’t really an intended destination. We always knew that on the fourth day we were going to have to get a bus from Eilat and travel the five hour trip back to Tel Aviv. As such, the decision was to either stay the night in Eilat or Aqaba and set off in the morning. We decided to spend the night in Aqaba for two reasons: the hotels are cheaper than Eilat and if we stayed three nights in Jordan we saved 10 JOD each in exit fees at the Jordanian side of the border. Following our night in the desert, we got a car to Aqaba and had a relaxed beach and pool day. Rumour had it that easyJet is going to start direct flights to Aqaba, and I see why, the beaches were pleasant and for a cheap 5* stay with a nice beach, it worked well.
How long to stay in southern Jordan
This will differ depending on how you entered Jordan. If you are doing an extended full country tour of Jordan, you may want to stay longer and explore additional archaeological sites. However, my friend and I had limited time to explore southern Jordan and we found that three nights was the perfect amount of time to see what we really wanted to whilst avoiding Jordanian border costs and even getting a day of relaxation before commencing our long bus journey back to Tel Aviv before our flight out. Our three nights consisted of a day and night in Petra, a pool day in Petra and night in Wadi Rum, and a beach day and night in Aqaba before heading back to the Wadi Araba border.
Transport in southern Jordan
We didn’t look into hiring a car in Jordan but to be honest with the little time we were planning on spending in the country, as well as what we were planning on getting up to, it didn’t seem like it would be that worth it. After crossing the border into Jordan from Israel at the Wadi Araba border you are met by the taxi mafia. They do not like you grouping up to pay less on taxis and they charge more than the standard fare posted on the billboard right next to the border office. We didn’t actually take any of these taxis as we’d met a Brazilian couple who asked if we wanted to share the trip to Petra. Their hostel owner was picking them up and agreed to take us along which did cause a bit of an argument with the taxi leader but we just got out of there as quick as possible and all was fine.
The best way to travel across the country conveniently was taxis. I warn you they are not cheap. We got the name of the hostel owner who had taken us to Petra who basically agreed to ferry us around during our time in Jordan for a good price. He took us from our hotel to Petra, picked us up from Petra and took us to our hotel, took us from Petra to Wadi Rum, and arranged for a friend to pick us up from Wadi Rum to take us to Aqaba on our last night. We ended up using the same driver to take us to the border on the fourth day too.
To give you an idea of prices:
Border to Petra = JOD 35 for two (two other passengers paid the same) Hotel to Petra & back AND Petra to Wadi Rum = JOD 55 for two Wadi Rum to Aqaba = JOD 25 for two Aqaba to Border = JOD 10 for two
Where to stay in southern Jordan
Whilst taxis are expensive, you can stay at 5* star hotels here for a cheap price relative to what I’m used to in western Europe. Bear in mind that in Wadi Rum and Petra you are going to be roaming around desert so you may be in search of a bit of luxury when it comes to accommodation. Admittedly I’m more of an airbnb and hostel gal. I’m down for anything that has a good vibe, is convenient, and is well priced. On this trip I was with a friend who prefers a nice hotel so we both compromised, and frankly in a destination where you’re weary post hours in the desert, I was happy to change my usual habits. The most expensive stay was in Wadi Rum where we stayed in a luxury bubble. It was a once in a lifetime stay and well worth it for the experience. We ate in our hotels during our whole stay in Jordan and I must admit I wasn’t very impressed, but hey, I didn’t go to Jordan for the food!
We bought just enough dinars (around 13-15 JOD) on the Israeli side of the Wadi Araba border to get us a taxi to Aqaba. We only exchanged this much because the rate was pretty bad. The original plan had been to get a bus from Aqaba to Petra to save some money but of course we were lucky in bagging a car straight to Petra. We told the driver we needed to exchange more money which he did for us in the car at a better rate than the border. We kicked ourselves a little bit when we got to the hotel though, as it had a near perfect rate which usually isn’t the case at hotels. Lesson learned: change just enough for a taxi first chance you get, and then exchange the rest of your money at your hotel in Jordan.
Make the trip moments
Sunset from our bubble’s patio in the Wadi Rum desert (the most beautiful I have ever seen)
Stargazing in the Wadi Rum desert (we saw Saturn!)
Contemplating life whilst staring at all the stars from our bubble patio accompanied by a good stargazing playlist
Roaming around Petra in that sweet spot close to closing for Petra by night preparations, it was a lot less busy and made the experience all the more magical
Going on a “frienymoon” after my friend had just got married and come back from her honeymoon
Read about the procedure to cross the Wadi Araba / Yitzhak Rabin border when you enter Jordan from Israel.
Think American hospitality and service coupled with the relaxed laid-back vibe you would expect of an island paradise with turquoise waters, plus sea turtles.
Currency: USD Driving: Left side To do: Beach, snorkelling, hiking To stay: Airbnb for affordable quirky stays How long to stay: 5-7 days Food: Fish or Barefoot Buddha’s sweet potato wrap! Vibe: Chilled Why to go: Beautiful beaches, good vibes, and sea turtles! Transport: Get a car if you can afford it for convenience and the freedom to explore Best of: The beaches and the snorkelling Worst of: Disorganised airport rental companies and cruise tourists Go with: Partner, but works for friends or a family beach getaway
Why to go to the USVI
The USVI in the Caribbean, I ignorantly didn’t even know they existed before a friend suggested we go. To be fair I live in the UK, and for me the British Virgin Islands stirred up thoughts of private islands and Richard Branson, but I never thought to question why the British was in front – turns out it’s to distinguish. So how did I come to go to a place I’d never heard of? Long story short my travel companion couldn’t leave the US whilst waiting for a visa but we wanted to go on a trip and we wanted sun, so he did some research and it came down to Hawaii or the USVI. He’d just been to Hawaii (without me, how dare he) so we settled on the USVI as it offered sun, beautiful waters, snorkelling, and a good size for exploration, which in my opinion are all the reasons to go.
Which islands to go to in the USVI
There are three main island in the USVI: St Thomas, St Croix, and St John. Each island is different and which you visit will depend on your budget, time, and preference. For us the limiting variable was time. I have made the mistake of not spending enough time somewhere before and it is not one I wanted to make again. The cheapest flights we’d found flew into St Thomas and we had a little over 7 days to play with. St John is right next to St Thomas (a 20 min or so ferry ride), so it was the natural choice for us. St Thomas is the main island and significantly large than St John, with a “people actually live and work here” feel. St John was far quieter but also noticeably more touristy in the main town due to its size. It’s less built up as it’s a national park and this is one of the reasons it was my favourite of the two. St John fits the secluded island paradise criteria without being too secluded. Although there was a large amount of tourist traffic, it all felt pretty relaxed, no one harassing you to do a tour or anything of the sort. One of the most off putting things of St Thomas was the large amount of cruise traffic. There is a strip mall full of souvenir and jewellery shops dedicated to these visitors and the beaches are jammed with them. Tourism is important to the economy of the island but in an ideal world I’d selfishly have them skip the USVI to prevent the crowds.
What to do on the USVI
I’d call out the snorkelling. You can dive, fish, etc. on the islands but snorkelling is the one thing you see everyone doing, mainly because its cheap and convenient, as long as you can swim you are good to go. If you are looking to get your diving license, make sure you factor in the time as it will take you a few days. I’ve heard there are some cool dive sites though, including some ship wrecks which I’ve always wanted the chance to dive!
How long to spend in the USVI
I spent seven full days in the USVI, arriving on Thursday afternoon and leaving on Friday afternoon. I split this into four nights on St John and four nights on St Thomas. The decision to spend the first four nights on St John was down to our Airbnb’s minimum stay, although I am grateful we did as it was my favourite island and as it’s smaller, we had originally thought to spend only three nights there. I wish I’d spent fewer nights in St Thomas, particularly as our Airbnb ended up having bed bugs. Flying from the UK (with an atrocious eight hour overnight stopover in JFK during the arctic cold front at the end of Jan 2019, followed by a four hour wait for my friend’s delayed flight) I wanted to spend at least a week on the islands to justify the travel time, however, you can definitely make the trip shorter if you live closer. Without a car I would suggest staying less time because it’s harder to get around to do things. Equally, if you quickly get bored of beaches and snorkelling and want a greater variety of things to do, you don’t need to spend longer than 5 or so days.
What beaches to go to on the USVI
You can’t really go wrong with any beach on these islands as they deliver the white sand and turquoise water ideal that everyone hopes for in “paradise”. I’ll continue to sing the praises of St John as it was so clearly my favourite. Quite simply St John is a smaller island, harder to get to and less populated (the cruise ships don’t directly dock there), meaning the beaches are emptier without being totally deserted. This is the same with the snorkel spots – in St John you find a few fellow friendly snorkelers rather than the larger groups on St Thomas. Magens Bay in St Thomas is famously known as one of the world’s best beaches, but precisely because of that it’s packed and was my least favourite beach. On St Thomas my favourites were Coki Point, a small beach where all the rastas hang out, and Lindquist Beach where you got the secluded feel of St Johns as it’s a large beautiful beach without too many people. Also check out the Mermaid’s chair – you have to hike down but you literally find yourself at the end of the island with the opportunity to clamber amongst some awesome rocks. We did this when it was pouring down with rain but it sure made the hike back cooler. On St John my favourite was Trunk Bay due to the beautiful setting. You’ll have to pay parking and entry to the beaches on St Thomas beaches whereas on St John you don’t have to, another perk in case I hadn’t banged on enough about St John!
The vibe of the USVI
The USVI definitely has that relaxed and chilled island vibe. At times I still felt I was in the mainland States rather than the Caribbean due to all the tourist influence (particularly on the restaurants) but the pace was definitely different. The island paradise feel definitely makes it a couples destination but it’s suitable for family and friends too. Just don’t go there expecting to be bouncing off the walls all day, you go there to chill. Think American hospitality and service coupled with the relaxed laid-back vibe you would expect of an island paradise with turquoise waters, plus sea turtles.
What to eat at the USVI
Unfortunately I didn’t try any local food on the island but I got a recommendation for Gwen’s Place on St John that I will pass on to you to try! There is all sorts of food on the island but I’ll give you my top recommendations for each island I visited. In St John it has to be The Longboard which had absolutely bomb poke bowls, so good that we went back twice. Definitely try their Frozen Painkillers which in my opinion are made by the grated nutmeg on top of them. I had a couple of days with an upset stomach (not because of any food, I think it was just my natural reaction to the different bacterias in the water) but once I got my appetite back in St Thomas I had a real craving for Mexican food and loved the nachos and quesadilla we had in Bonita’s Cantina, particularly as Mexican food in the UK is notoriously rubbish, I’m glad we found it. Another favourite we repeated in St Thomas was Barefoot Buddha which aside from having great coffee had a sweet potato spinach and goats cheese wrap which was the stuff of dreams.
Transport in the USVI and getting there
The cheapest option is to fly into St Thomas and then get ferries to the other two islands. I paid £700 for my return ticket from LHR which I was pretty happy with considering the distance.
Once on the islands there are plenty of taxis, most of them being safari taxis. The local buses aren’t exactly timely or reliable so it’s best to travel by taxi or rent a car. Unfortunately for us, we were slight disasters, didn’t plan our trip, and there were no rental cars available when we arrived to St Thomas, so we made a reservation to pick one up on the Monday, the day we got back from St John. We tried to rent a car in St John but all the companies only rented cars (I should say Wranglers because that is literally all there was on the island) to people older than 25, criteria we unfortunately didn’t meet. Luckily for us our Airbnb host provided us the number of Nellie, a local lady who is St John’s “uber”, i.e. if you call her she’ll pick you up. This was super useful as we sometimes irresponsibly went far away from town and stayed after dark, past when any taxis were returning to town from the beach, and we wouldn’t have had a way to get home without hitchhiking if we didn’t have her number. People are super nice on the island so someone will pick you up if you are really stranded. This happened to us the day we left, the one time Nellie hadn’t been available and a kind local took us to the port after he took pity on us hiking down with our backpacks. Prices vary but our standard fare was $10-15 for two people, with our most expensive fare having been the taxi from St Thomas airport to the ferry station to get over to St John which was around $30 for two of us. In St Thomas we had a car after a long wait at the rental office (they’re not the most organised bunch) and it was worth it to have the freedom to do what we wanted when we wanted. The island isn’t pedestrian friendly if you really want to see it all (something I had to get used to as a Londoner) and although the car rental was relatively expensive and we had to pay for parking at beaches, it isn’t something we regretted, I just wish we’d had a car on St John.
Where to stay in the USVI
Accommodation at hotels can be expensive on the islands, particularly on smaller ones like St John. I’m not a fan of hotels as I find them impersonal so I always opt for Airbnbs anyway and was pleased to find there were some reasonably priced places on both islands. Thank God for that because I can’t afford a £2k a night hotel room which seemed to be the alternative.
Make the trip moments
Seeing the turquoise water beaches for the first time
Walking back to town in St John in the dark, with my speaker blaring my anthem at the time, Nice for What – Drake
Our first dinner at The Longboard
The outdoor shower at our St John Airbnb – super peaceful
Getting absolutely drenched at the Mermaid’s Chair
Snorkelling at Watermelon Cay – such diversity and no-one around!
Seeing my first sea turtle whilst snorkelling in St John and having it come up to take a breath next to me
Norma, a lady we met on our last day who couldn’t walk well. We spoke with her for a while during which I offered to help her get into the water, an offer she refused. Norma tried to go in herself but started to retreat when she felt unsteady. Everyone on the beach went running to help her get in and we got her a noodle so she could hold her balance in the water. I loved seeing how caring the people on the beach were, and that day Norma was my hero for pure determination and stubbornness, YAS Norma