278. When Life Became “The Amazing Race”

The task was simple. Fly from Amsterdam to London, pick up campervan, drive through Euro-tunnel to France, begin awesome camping adventure around Europe.

Well, that turned out to be the biggest false assumption of summer. Within about 5 minutes of setting off on this adventure, it had began to be a very difficult mission, and began to resemble an episode of “The Amazing Race.”

The first hurdle was getting to the airport at 5am. As we left with all our packs, waddling down to the tram stop, we waited a wee while for the tram that was supposed to come by to take us to an airport train, but anxiety levels were on the increase. With no trams in sight, it was time for a quick check of travel times, in which we decided our plans were probably far too ambitious and we weren’t likely to make it to the airport. Time for a Detour, or maybe a fast forward, depending on how you look at it! We opted to grab a taxi, though the next hurdle was finding one at 5am on a weekday in the suburbs! We spotted a hotel down the road and asked the concierge to call us one. I don’t think he saw us walking in the door so probably assumed we were staying there, which proved handy, as he started carrying our bags around! When the taxi driver arrived, he was definitely on the conservative side with his estimate of the distance to the airport, which made for an anxious ride, but in the end we made it just in time, and the price was less than that of a new flight.

Once at the airport, a bit of a “road block” as he dropped us in completely the wrong place! A bit of sprinting around like headless chickens later we managed to get to our check-in desk in the nick of time.

Once arriving in London (with a major grilling at customs, despite heading back out of the country less than 24 hours later!), the next task was navigating through the underground system and finding the rental company. The underground was a total mess, as they completed the last of the pre-olympics works. The timetables were pretty much no help at all, and we took forever, getting beached at a few stations to finally get where we wanted to go. Once we eventually got to the right station, we were really in the middle of nowhere. Once again waddling around with all our bags,  trying to find a street sign so we could correctly orientate our terrible map!

Finally, around midday, we found the tiny, barely marked office of ‘Spaceships UK’ and went through a very long process of paperwork, and probably really annoyed the poor man as we asked a million questions and got them to show us everything from how to set up all the awnings etc to how to check the oil. Better safe than sorry! To be fair, they also left as waiting as they were trying to add a whole bunch of stickers with their logo etc to the van and slogans like “traveller’s adventures.” We had a bit of a debate with them over that, saying “Don’t you think that kind of screams out ‘rob me I’m a tourist’?” As they assured us it would be fine, we eventually got them to cut back on some of the tacky branding. We later learned we probably should have been a bit more adamant on that front…

Next stop, driving. As I pulled out of the carpark and set off, it was incredibly stressful – who would have thought that only 6 months of driving on the right side of the road would cause me to have to think twice about everything when driving on the left! So we switched drivers – Claire would drive on the left, and I’d take over when we were on the right in France!

What should have been a simple drive down to Dover also turned out to be quite complex! When I’d looked up prices to get over to France, the Eurotunnel and ferry were about the same, so we opted for the tunnel as it was faster. After plugging it into the GPS, we then discovered she was pretty free and easy with her direction giving, often telling us to turn left after we’d gone past etc. We got there in the end, only to find out that even though it is a tunnel, you actually have to book in a time to drive across and purchase tickets in advance, or they go up in price. Who would have thought? Though of course it took a long time to work this out, as we pulled up to a whole bunch of unmanned gates that did everything electronically. After literally driving around in circles we managed to find one where we could press a button and ask for help, and a woman appeared from God knows where. After informing us of the rules, she then told us it would cost almost £250 to drive through the tunnel and the next opening wasn’t for another few hours! Ummm no thanks.

So we opted to take the detour down to the ferry, and hope we could get on one that night. As we neared the town of Dover and the harbour, there were actual roadblock and detour signs everywhere, and the odd one that simply said “Event !” We had no idea what was going on, but we couldn’t get to the ferry. We decided to head toward the town, find a petrol station and ask what was going on. As we got closer there was a lot more sign-age and advertising and we realised that the olympic torch was arriving off the ferry, touching down in the UK for the first time. Well we could hardly be annoyed at being held up if it meant we had the opportunity to see the Olympic torch! So we parked up and headed in to town to join the crowds and check it out. It was about 6pm by this stage.

Once all the crowds dispersed, we head to the harbour and tried to investigate the ferry. We definitely had some deja vu as we drove around a massive complex, following arrows and lanes and signs, having to go through what I like to call “car customs” where they looked around with torches to make sure we weren’t smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants, walked through a huge empty office complex and finally found a little wee building before we could even enquire about tickets, let alone get on a ferry. Luckily the different companies had desks in the same building, and we managed to get a ticket to the 9pm ferry. The whole day had been cold, miserable and rainy, we’d been up since 5am, and finally at 11pm we touched down on French soil!

The next problem, which we’d been a bit preoccupied to work out, was where to park up and sleep. We decided to head into the town centre of Calais, and we found a big, well lit car-park  Problem was there were some bars around, and we didn’t fancy the safety factor of trying to sleep where there were drunks about! There was some sign-age to a campsite/campervan park so we headed there and at last we could relax. Definitely made us think a bit of advanced planning of where to actually sleep each night was a very good idea!

All in all a marathon of a day, including 3 countries, 4 cities, a taxi ride, a flight, 5 trains, and a ferry ride. I just wish there was a prize! Getting a photo with the Olympic torch was a good bonus though I suppose…

78. Accidental Cruise Ship

One of the benefits of using a Eurail pass is that there are often associated discounts, for example, ferry and bus rides where trains don’t go. After I decided on a whim to extend my Stockholm trip and head to Helsinki, I quickly discovered it would take days to take the train from Sweden to Finland, and the stretch across the border would require a bus ride as well. Plan B was to check out my ferry options on the Eurail website. There were two, and one of them (the Viking Line, no less) had an option that was overnight, and cheaper than a hostel (with the Eurail discount). Sounded like a good money saver to me!

Maybe it was because I booked in a bit of a rush, (I’m unsure why I completely missed all of the warning bells), but when the “ferry” had options for cabins, I should have realised it wasn’t your average passenger ferry. It wasn’t until I was hopping on and was greeted by dancing girls in tiny, sequinned, vegas style bikinis, with Cuban music blasting that I realised it was actually a cruise!

I went straight to the information desk to find out where I could set up camp and was handed a program of events for Cuban Night onboard, with dancers, DJs and drink deals in the multiple bars. My first stop was the cafe to find some space and take advantage of the free wifi.

Cuban night in full swing

And what a sight it was! I was at least 60 years younger than most people there, and there was some kind of bingo/quiz thing going on. It was all in Swedish or Finnish, I’m not too sure. But when the old crooner came out to sing classics, sinatra style, the hilarity escalated exponentially. His rendition of the Pussy Cat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” was a particular highlight of the evening.

Later on I decided to check out the “nightclub” scene. I wasn’t expecting too much, so I was pleasantly surprised to walk in and find a full Cuban dance spectacle unfolding before my very eyes! Most entertaining. The costumes seemed more like they were from Rio, but that was fine. All adding to the novelty. From that moment I decided I needed to take up cuban dancing. From the look of the dancers it is a very good exercise program! Not too sure if I’d be found in those costumes though. I can tell you on very good authority that they are every bit as unsecure as they look.

I figured the best way to get festive and embrace the mood was to have a gin and tonic – clearly the most cruise appropriate drink. So clear, in fact, that it was the “cocktail” on special.

Unfortunately when the dancers were gone, some truly grotesque (as in, toothless grotesque) drunk Russian sailors quickly realised I was the only female in the bar (it was a very quite Tuesday night) and it seemed they didn’t understand English when it came to the words “F*ck” and “off” or any other variations implying they should get out of my face ASAP. So my Cuban night adventure was over as quickly as it started and I went back to the seating area to set up camp.

The reason the ferry was so cheap (45 euro return), aside from the Eurail discount, was that I hadn’t paid for a cabin, but instead just the passenger fare, which meant a small room with aeroplane style seating. There were a few people who had pushed chairs together in the cafe to make beds, and when I retired to my lodgings I found the better option was to use my jacket, a couple of jersey’s and my pack to make myself a little bed. Worked pretty well! There was one other person asleep down the back so it was nice and quiet. Unfortunately, when the bar closed it turned out the creepy sailors were also stingy like me, and came stumbling in to the little wee room. With one other person out cold down the back, and no-one else anywhere nearby, suffice to say I didn’t feel like I would be having a relaxing and quiet night’s sleep in that room. Even if I was worrying unncessarily about any sketchy behaviour, it was a prime moment to recall some helpful travel advice from my mother along the lines of ‘if in doubt, get out.’ So I packed up my bed and found a nice patch of carpet near the couple sleeping in the cafe and felt far better about the situation!

I was woken up fairly early in the morning, not so much from the sun rising, but from an almighty crunching noise coming from below. As it turned out, it was the sound of the ship forging its way through icy seas. Another fascinating experience to add to the list! As the sun rose, I went to the restaurant on one of the upper decks where they had a Nordic Breakfast Buffet for 9 euro as I watched the sun rise and the shores of Finland get closer. It was a bargain, mostly because I managed to sneak a packed lunch of sandwiches, cake and boiled eggs out of it. Win.

All in all a pretty hilarious way to travel! The entertainment was a laugh, I’ll sleep on the floor for a bargain any day (so long as there are no creeps near me) and the cafe’s and bars weren’t too bad a deal either. Sadly on the way back it was Cuban night again which made me feel a little cheated. Had my cruise been later on in the week and in peak season, or even just with some travel companions, I reckon it would have been a pretty awesome “night out” whilst also getting from A to B.

No shortage of scenic views of Stockholm and Finland along the way

36. BYO Bus

In episode one of my Copenhagen extravaganza, my Australian accomplice and I decided it was only fitting that we make our bus ride there a BYO one. We were, after all, leaving at 7pm to arrive at 10pm, just as everyone else would be heading out to town. We also managed to lure in a poor, unsuspecting Canadian which magnified the fun!

The Danes appear to be a darn sight less PC about drinking in public places, and no-one batted an eyelid when we whipped out our booze stash. Perhaps it was because we were dressed for town and drinking a delicious Moscato…

In fact, we seemed to be the only people surprised on our journey to the capital city. Five minutes after the bus took off, it stopped again and everyone was getting out. As it turns out, the bus route is faster and cheaper as the majority of it is actually a ferry ride. A delightful (and obvious, on reflection) surprise as we got to a) steal drinking vessels from the cafe, and b) enjoy a ride with far less spills than a bus. Given the ferry terminal is just around the corner from the bus station, it seems strange that we wouldn’t just meet there, but I suspect it is a convenient way for the bus company to clip the ticket. Yes, pun intended.

I also discovered Somersby Cider – a Carlsberg innovation, despite going for the English Cider vibe. I can definitely recommend the blackberry cider, and will have to try the Elderflower one at some point!

For anyone planning the journey from Aarhus to Copenhagen, I definitely recommend catching the Line 888. Breaking the journey up with a ferry ride makes it go a lot faster, and it was much nicer to sit round a table and chat. There are higher rates for Friday nights and weekends though, so if you can go during the day on a Friday it will save you some krone.