Trains and Boats and Planes


Regulars to these columns will have realised that we here at TravellersWrites have a bit of an obsession with getting about. Every journey we take is a collation of many other mini-journeys within it, and every journey has myriad reasons for being made.

We get a number of communications here at TW, and the ones that aren’t either abusive or selling us something often ask the same question. ‘What is the best journey you’ve been on?’

Now this is a massive question and has given us much cause to debate.  We banged it around and came up with a list.  Whilst the ‘list’ idea is often a lazy one (Ours won’t have Pet Sounds in it!) it does provide for a chance to celebrate some of the best journeys we’ve made without actually having to pick just one.

So here’s our top 10 journeys in no particular order….and as usual, yes we’d love to hear yours.  Travel safely!

  1. The Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong.   Perhaps the most glorious ten minute boat ride you can take. For just over two HK Dollars (around 23 UK pence) the glorious green and white hulks move you back and fore between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island taking in arguably the greatest cityscape on earth. The boats themselves have not changed much in the last forty years and still pound the same waters they did at the end of the nineteenth century, albeit with a change of port from parched English trading outpost to futuristic ‘Bladerunner’ style  steel and glass enormo-maze. Taking the ferry at night allows for some of the most breathtaking photographs of the lit up city, and taking it in the daytime enables you to feel the cool breeze off the waters brush against you as a respite from the intense humidity.  One of Hong Kong’s absolute ‘must-do’s’.
  2. Driving the I-40 across Northern Arizona. Best done in a rented Mustang and started off at Las Vegas and then all the way through to Alburquerque.  Some of the clearest freeways in America, and some of the most enchanting desert scenery on both sides of the road.  Many stop-off points on the way give you a seemingly endless vista and as the sun sets the stored heat off the land dissipates into the sky and makes for a rainbow sunset that we’ve never seen matched anywhere else on Earth.  The magnificent Monument Valley to the North, the graceful stretching Apache lands to the South and a simple rising freeway sloping up to the Arizona heights give you the US desert roadtrip youve seen countless times on the large screen, and it never lets you down.  A short detour between Flagstaff and Winslow takes you to the breathtaking Meteor Crater National Park, and on a perfect day, the isolation of the desert.  Beautiful.  One that stands endless repeating.
  3. By Helicopter low over the Great Barrier Reef, Northern Queensland, Australia.  You’ve either got to to be one of the many who flock to the commercial areas of the reef (thereby potentially speeding up the damage to it) or a multi millionaire who can fly in from anywhere. As we at TW don’t fall into the latter category it was a commercial hire for us….and our conscience held up pretty well once we’d fallen for the green-blue splendour as seen from above. The shape and shadows of the reef inches below the water and spreading out for miles under us is unforgettable, as was the Reef Shark we saw winding its way through the shallows.  Our copter was provided by a company who plough profits back into reef conservation, and our pilot was a retired marine biologist who just couldn’t consign the reef to his personal history, and as we slung over and around the stunning nature below, it was all we could do to breathe. Absolutely breathtaking.
  4. The slow train East across Java, Indonesia from Jakarta. As far removed from luxury as you can get, this spouting spitting 1950’s diesel engine takes 18 hours to get across the Northern side of the Island taking in some of Java’s most remote villages and communities as it goes. It takes an hour first to get to the outskirts of Jakarta, and you leave blackened polluted rivers and trash covered rail sides behind amongst the view of wooden stilted half demolished huts housing multiple families waving as we ride past.  Once we are out into unspoilt Java it’s a trip back through time and as we enter the eastern volcanic slopes it’s as though we are in The Lost World. Lush dark green valleys rise and fall dramatically as the train winds through narrows at jogging pace and eventually we come out at Banyuwangi looking out over the East Java Narrows to the beautiful island of Bali.
  5. The Snowdon Mountain Railway from Llanberis to the Summit of Snowdon, Gwynedd, Wales.  “The best little railway in the world” is how it markets itself and out of sheer nostalgia we at TW won’t disagree. Opened in 1896 (there was an accident on opening day!) this rack and pinion marvel has been taking people three thousand feet up to the summit ever since (apart from a short hiatus in WW2). At its steepest parts the little engine fights its way up 18% gradients whilst the passengers can look out over the stunning Snowdonia scenery, through some of the most beautiful green peaks you could imagine, and down to the sapphire glinting Llyn Padarn lake at the base. In winter Snowdonia comes into it’s own as a rugged, hard, slate skied landscape and the little railway flashes green against the snow as it pushes hard up the heights.  For the best possible day, walk up, and get the marvellous engine down, getting your breath back from the hike and then losing it again when the view as you pull out from the station summit hits you.
  6. The Hornblower River Boat, Canadian side of Niagara. It’s not the view that hits you most as you approach the wall of water on the Canadian side, but the cacophony of noise and the thunderous roar as four million cubic feet of water hits the river below and it’s rising mist spreads all over you as you stand on the top deck of the little cruiser making its way against the current. It’s one of natures most enduring and most breathtaking sights and getting this close is one of the truly exhilarating travel experiences. The three falls make for a horseshoe basin that the boat bobs into, getting as close as a couple of hundred feet so you get the noise, you get dwarfed by the scale, and you get that moment of anxious adrenalin as you see the eddy swirling at the base of the fall and only yards from the prow of the boat. Touristy…yes…unforgettable and essential…absolutely.
  7. The Maglev Train from Shanghai Airport into the city.  One of the most unique ways to enter a city from any airport, and a joy as profound as the first fairground rides you can remember as a child. It’s 70’s sci-fi looks belie the incredible electro-magnetic technology as the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) hurtles  above the rail covering thirty kilometres in only seven minutes. That means it can reach 430 kph. and yet inside you ride  effortlessly as though you were moving serenely on ice.  No time to settle down with a book then, as the outskirts of Shanghai fly past your window almost in a blur. Exciting and intoxicating, in this exciting future world you’ll never want to use an airport taxi again.
  8. The Staten Island Ferry, New York, New York. Still perhaps the best free journey you can take and one that traps you into nostalgia, Americana, and twentieth centurt history liek arguably no other journey can.  I can still remember the awe as it pushed out from underneath the now gone twin towers of the former World trade Centre and the skyscrapers of Manhattan loomed up stark above me.  Unlike for many people, New York is not one of my favourite cities in the world, but this boat and it’s location push buttons I can’t explain, to the point that it’s always the number one recommendation I give when asked about New York.  A friend’s wife (who is a notable cynic anyway) said to me…”I don’t get it…it’s just a boat”, seemingly managing to avoid noticing it’s path out of Manhattan, and then past Ellis Island and Liberty.  Many years ago I was lucky to be skipjacked around the harbour from Newport Yacht Club on an eighteen-foot yacht, getting as close as possible to the statue, and loving every minute of it, but there’s something almost primal about being on that ferry as it sails past her, and especially on the way back from Staten Island as you see her proud in the water as many, many saw her as they arrived here for the first time a century and more ago. And it’s FREE for ****’s sake!!!!
  9. A Tuk-Tuk Through Mumbai. Almost impossible now, as these litle vehicles are being more and more restricted from the roads of modern Mumbai, but I remember the first time I was in this beautiful metropolis and I hired one for a few hours whilst killing a day before I flew out.  The put-put noise of the tiny engine is still easy to recall, but most of all I remember how close it took you to the sights, sounds and smells of the City.  In the days when you could still get a tuk-tuk South of Bandra Creek, you could zig-zag through the maze of streets around the beautiful old-stone university and even stop off to watch cricket in Cafe Mondegar while the driver waits outside and pointlessly wipes the city from his plastic windshield.  There’s so mucn to Mumbai, and you are only ever minutes from both ends of the wealth spectrum, as millionaires race past you in their supercars, and you didn’t notice the child’s begging hand come through the window.  But in those days when the tuk-tuks could move all over the city like roaches across the tiled cafe floors, it really was the only way to travel.
  10. The Convertible ‘Coches Americanos’  journey around Havana. Depending on who you speak to, the open top 1950’s American wagons that act as both transport system AND iconic image of Havana are on their way out, to be washed aside by the inevitable crushing impact of American tourism and investment that is on its way. Another view is that just like in Thailand, the indigenous transport sytem will never go away. To become a working museum piece and a glorious hint of Havana’s decadent past. Riding the shoreline highway from the Nacional Hotel to Havana’s beautiful Spanish centre is a joy, harking back to the days when Hollywood, the Mafia and the US Government all called this their playground.  Riding around the Capitolio and the Stock Exchange and stopping off at any number of Hemingway’s haunts is one of world travel’s most exciting and indeed fun ways to spend a day, and sitting on the wide white leather bench of an open topped 1962 Cadillac 396 is the only way to do it.  long may they last.

There are so many others we could list…….driving a trabant around Berlin, that skipjack journey I mentioned around NY harbour, the lakeside train from Oslo to Lillehammer and on, and on and on…and there’s the ones we are still to do…..the cable car up to Table mountain in Capetown, the Hovercrafts around the Florida Swamps, the flight into Kathmandu airport.  Getting there, and moving around when you’re there, all just seems part of the joy of it all to me.  Now……how do I get to BaseCamp?





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