A secret Greek getaway to picturesque Naxos

Instead of the expensive Santorini, try the underrated Naxos

The island is extensively promoted by the Greek tourism authorities and travel industries around the world, and it seems to be on the top of the list for most when travelling to the Hellenic Republic.

According to most travel magazines, guide books and websites, there is nothing more bright and idyllic than the cliff-side walkways of Santorini.

I beg to differ.

While it certainly has amazing views of the Aegean Sea, I personally find it teeming and bustling.

Instead of spending time meandering along the cobblestoned walkways, you have to fight your way through the crowds.

OVERRATED

The tourist-mobbed island that sees more than half-a-million visitors a year, makes this “paradise” an overrated beach destination, not to mention maddeningly expensive.

And that is certainly not my idea of an island getaway.

It was my pursuit of an authentic experience that prompted me to look towards the less popular islands, and spend just one night on Santorini.

But, there are so many Greek islands that it was indeed hard to choose.

Greek sovereign land includes 6,000 islands and islets scattered in the Aegean and Ionian seas, of which only 227 are inhabited.

Most of them are found in the Aegean Sea and are divided into seven groups (from north to south).

Santorini belongs to the Cyclades, a group of 56 islands that are more commonly visited.

Some of the other islands that fall in this group include Andros, Kea-Kythnos, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos and Paros.

If you are into the party scene, you might want to consider the trendier Mykonos, Ios or Corfu.

But if you are not, Naxos is ideal.

The Portara is an iconic structure on Naxos (above), along with whitewashed houses along the harbour.PHOTO: ASNAH AHMAD

It is rarelyon the must-visit list of travel sites – something I find puzzling, especially after having been there.

I found out about it when I was looking through a map of the Greek islands.

After Googling its name and reading just one or two reviews by other travellers, I decided it would be worth exploring.

The first sight of Naxos from its picturesque harbour made the hours trawling the Internet so worth it.

A quiet oasis, charming and breathtakingly gorgeous from all angles.

Naxos is everything Santorini is not: Private, laid-back and full of local flavour.

It is perfect for those looking for a little Greek culture and nature to go along with their holiday.

There is no shortage of quirky little shops and craft markets in the narrow alleyways of Naxos.

The buildings have a lovely island feel and the Venetian architecture dominates – with hints of blue sky and sea – making them the perfect retreat from the sun.

The Portatara is an iconic structure on Naxos, along with whitewashed houses along the harbour (above).PHOTO: ASNAH AHMAD

The beaches in Naxos are among the most beautiful in Greece, and are located just a few minutes’ drive from traditional villages perched on mountaintops.

Most are great for diving, with their rich coral reefs, wrecks and crystal clear waters.

A commercial centre that does not depend only on tourism, Naxos has a year-round population of Greeks and foreigners, and boasts a good public transport system, making it convenient to get around.

It is also famous for its variety of cultural events and traditional fairs.

The island consists of several mountains separated by green valleys, vineyards and orchards.

Its rich architecture includes Byzantine monasteries, Mycenaean ruins and churches.

Naxos was once conquered by the Venetians so you can also see many Venetian towers there, some ruined and others turned into museums.

There are not many islands with their iconic archaeological site located right on the harbour, and visible even from your ferry as you approach the island.

The rectangular frame is the Portara, the doorway to the ancient Temple of Apollo.

BUILT

Construction on the structure began in about 530BC but it was never completed.

Lygdamis, the tyrant ruling Naxos then, intended to make it the largest and most glorious temple in Greece.

But he was overthrown before it was completed.

The Portara is 8m high and made of four blocks of marble.

The view of the Portara in the sunset against the blinding whitewashed houses on the cliffs is truly a sight to behold.

Naxos’ understated natural beauty will leave you with some of the most magical memories of Greece.

 

 

First published on The New Paper, Mar 17, 2017
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Budget Guide for Scandinavian Cities

Travelling Scandinavia is often not the first choice for budget travellers due to its reputation of being the most expensive part of Europe. It costs about SG$25-30 for a McDonald’s meal and a bottle of water could set you back up to SG$10. Despite the exorbitant prices, with careful planning, you can see Scandinavia without going broke. There are a number of things you can do to make sure you maximise your dollar while you are there.

The Scandic Region is made up of five countries; Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Here, I will cover the first four as I have already shown you how you can travel Iceland on a budget. This guide is highly relevant if you’d like to cover the four capital cities, namely:

Oslo

Stockholm

Helsinki

Copenhagen  

Transport: Take a cruise, train or bus between cities

The route that makes the most sense, geographically, starts from Copenhagen, Denmark, and up north to Helsinki, Finland – or the other way round. You can cover the countries in this order: Denmark ⇒ Norway ⇒ Sweden ⇒ Finland

Getting there

There are many flights from Singapore that will take you there. If you book early enough and are flexible with dates, you can get a great flight deal which will save you hundreds. I have always managed to get my tickets for less than SG$1,000 by booking 5 to 8 months ahead. So do plan early.

Cruise

Image credit: Sergey Tchernyakov

If you are starting from Copenhagen, take an overnight cruise to Oslo. Generally, if you have an option to travel between these cities by boat or cruise, take that route as it is often the most economical, and makes for amazing photo op too. The cruise in itself is a visual treat. I stayed out on deck most part of the journey as the views were simply to die for. In the summer, the sun only sets past 11pm hence Scandinavia is also known as the land of the midnight sun. So if you go during this season, do catch the sunset from the ship deck; it makes for a memorable moment on the trip.

The overnight cruise cost about 80-90 Euros for a twin room, inclusive of breakfast. The cost per person is a steal, especially since you get to save one night’s worth of accommodation. I promise you an unforgettable journey as you approach Oslo, a city that is sandwiched between fjords and forests. You can imagine the diverse sceneries that the city is home to.

Similarly, book yourself a cruise from Oslo to Stockholm and from Stockholm to Helsinki. From Stockholm to Helsinki is another overnight cruise that will cost you less than SG$100.

Train

If you prefer travelling by train, the Scanrail pass (Eurail Scandinavia Pass) is your best deal. You can pre-book these online or buy them directly from the train stations. 5-days or 21-consecutive-day variations are also available for a similar price at any major train station in Scandinavia. If you’re travelling beyond Scandinavia, consider the Eurail Global Pass which offers unlimited train travel in 28 European countries!

Like the cruise, do plan for an overnight train ride so that you can save on one night’s accommodation. Note that some trains require seat reservation which would be added to the cost of the ticket. To avoid the hassle of doing this separately, head to the ACP Rail Website. Here, reservations are included as standard and you can have an e-ticket sent to you instantly.

Bus

For even bigger savings on transportation, take the bus. For example, if you are from Sweden, a couple of private bus companies – such as Swebus and Nettbuss – run long-distance services between Sweden’s main cities, and also have reliable connections to Copenhagen and Oslo. Book ahead if you can. The buses are second only to the train in terms of comfort, with free WiFi and on-board toilets.

Accommodation: Pick hostels or rental apartments/rooms

Hotels are generally very expensive in this region.  Scandinavian hostels are a good option to save on accommodations. Check out Hostelling International or Hostelworld for more information. Renting apartments and rooms is another option. Thanks to home rental portals like Airbnb, self-serviced apartments would be another viable option. Holiday rentals are very cheap in Scandinavia in the last two weeks of August and early September.

But if you still wish to stay in a hotel, I recommend the Scandic Hotels, a hotel chain that operates in the region. It offers a good balance of comfort and value, and is very friendly on the wallet too. I stayed in the one at Helsinki and Stockholm. The location was perfect, right in the middle of the action. The Christmas Market and main shopping belt were at our doorstep. The one in Helsinki is also a 5-minute walk to Finnair Airport Bus Station, Helsinki Central Station and the National Museum. A short taxi ride will take you straight to the harbour where the cruise to and from other Scandinavian cities berthed.

Food: Make your own meals

Food is generally very expensive in Scandinavia. Small purchases would add up pretty quickly. A coffee and simple cheese sandwich would cost SG$15-25! So the cheaper option would be to cook your meals. It is easy to get supplies from the many small supermarkets and make your own sandwiches or simple meals. If you plan to stay in apartments with cooking facility then by all means, bring your ingredients from home, like I did. I was equipped with my curry powder, ikan bilis sambal, rice and the works!

Sightseeing: Look for free guided tours and attractions

Image credit: Jakob Hurner

Capital cities are notoriously expensive in Scandinavia but going on a free guided tour allows you to orientate and decide which of the sights you want to explore in more detail. The best part is that most galleries and museums in Scandinavia offer free entrance. For those that do not, many offer student and youth discounts, so it’s well worth for those under 30 to pay the SG$25 fee for an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) or International Youth Travel Card (IYTC).

In the cities, Copenhagen especially, there are many breathtakingly beautiful castles and architecture that could easily fill up a few days of your time. If you visit in the winter months, you can experience free ice-skating in all of Scandinavia, complete with Christmas music to set the mood. In the summer, you can spend a romantic evening at the many free theatres in the park.

In terms of timing, Scandinavian school term-time, such as the end of August, is a good time to visit as that is when the Scandinavian children are back at school, so places of interest like theme parks and Legoland is empty. You might even get a 2-for-1 deal for the tickets.

Even if museums, parks and castles are not your thing, Scandinavia is known for its stunning scenery, gorgeous fjords and glaciers, and many picturesque attractions. You don’t have to pay anything to enjoy the evening along the colourful Nyhavn Harbour of Copenhagen, explore Gamla Stan in Stockholm or get mesmerised by the breathtaking fjords of Norway.

 

First published on Tripzilla on March 13, 2017

Budget Guide on Scandinavian Cities

Iceland Too Expensive? Here’s How to Travel There on a Tight Budget

How To Travel Iceland on a BudgetIt is no exaggeration when I say that Iceland is a miracle of nature and its beauty is unmatched.

Iceland’s landscapes are shaped by the forces of nature. What you travel for hours to see in other popular scenic destinations like Switzerland, Scotland or Norway, you get to see as soon as you leave Iceland’s airport, Keflavik. After my first trip in summer of 2015, I fell deeply in love with the place and as soon as I came home, I booked a ticket to return in December that same year.

For most, the first thing that would come to mind about this island is the ice and the cold, and how expensive it would be to strike this destination off one’s bucket list. So how can we travel Iceland for two weeks with about SG$3K (US$2.1K) without having to rough it out? It all comes down to planning. After three trips in less than two years, I can tell you that it need not cost you an arm and a leg to see this breathtaking country.

Flight

Like any other trips, your flight is one of the biggest ticket items. Planning for your travels months or even a year ahead can really save you a lot of money.

There is no direct flight to Iceland. You can get to Iceland from any European cities or the UK. So, the trick is to find the cheapest flight from Singapore to Europe or UK. From there, you can choose from several airlines like Icelandair or other budget ones like WOW Air, Easyjet and SAS. The tickets to Iceland via these airlines could cost as low as SG$60–70, depending on when and where you are flying from. The best season to visit when costs are at its lowest would be between November to March.

My first trip there was via Edinburgh, Scotland; my second was via Helsinki, and my third was via Amsterdam. For all my trips, my flights from Singapore to the European/UK city cost me between SG$900–1100 and they were on my preferred airlines, not the cheapest that was available at that time (refer to the table below). So, if you have no preference for which airlines, you could get your tickets for even cheaper than that.

The other option is to just book yourself on Finnair which connects Singapore to Iceland with a transit in Helsinki. Do look out for sale periods as prices can be significantly lower.

Accommodation

The next big ticket item would be your accommodation. There is a whole range of accommodation to suit your needs and budget in Iceland, from hostels to big chain hotels. There are also varying types of apartments including those with cooking facility. This is a good option if you want to save money on your meals as the cost of food in Iceland can quickly add up. There are commercially listed apartments as well as those privately-owned ones on Airbnb. The more you have in your travelling party, the less your accommodation will cost you – basic math.

Hostels cost about US$26–33 per night, and if you are a member of Hosteling International (HI), you get US$5 off. If you are planning on staying in hostels, the US$28 annual membership can easily pay for itself after a couple of nights stay. Most hostels in Iceland are part of the HI group. You can get a membership at any hostel or online before you go.

For my trips, we chose to stay in apartments so we could cook most of our meals.

Food & Expenses

I personally find the most expensive thing in Iceland is the food. A simple meal could easily set you back about US$30 per person. A regular sandwich with a drink would cost you about US$17.

The cheaper option is, of course, to cook your meals in your apartment or buy the many ready-to-eat meals at the supermarkets. Do your grocery shopping at BONUS as they have the cheapest prices (you can find a few outlets in the city and in most other locations around Iceland). You can get whatever you need from there. Avoid 10/11 as they are easily the most expensive and their prices can be as high as two or three times more than BONUS.

One of the things that many tourists are not aware of is that water in Iceland is perfectly safe for drinking and there is no reason to buy bottled water. A bottle of water costs about US$3, so bring your own water bottle with you and refill from any tap. It will save you a lot of money.

Note: Beyond the city of Reykjavik, supermarkets are harder to find. Make sure you stock up on supplies and pack some food for your trip when you are going out of town.

Transport 

The first transportation you would need is to get you from Keflavik Airport to the city, Reykjavik. Do not take taxis as the cost is exorbitant. There are private bus companies that would take you to the city for a lot lesser. They have very visible booths by the terminal exit. If you want to book ahead of your arrival, you can do this online. Though this is slightly pricier than the public bus, it is certainly more convenient. They even have an option to drop you at your accommodation for a little extra charge.

Note that if you opt to be taken to your accommodation that is located in the Old Town, you will be switching to a smaller mini-bus/shuttle at the main terminal because the roads there are too narrow for the big buses; a small inconvenience for a huge saving.

Here are the rates and links to their websites:

FLYBUS (one-way)
To Reykjavik BSI Terminal: EUR 20 (ISK 2500)
To your Hotel: EUR 24 (ISK 3000)

GRAYLINE (one-way)
To Grayline Terminal: EUR 15
To your Hotel: EUR 17

There are also other companies like Reykjavik Sightseeing who could take you straight to your hotel without stopping or switching vehicles because they use a smaller shuttle all the way for ISK 2990 (EUR 24).

Note: ISK refers to Icelandic Króna and 100 ISK ~ S$1.24

Car rental 

If you are planning a self-drive road trip during your visit, an obvious need would be car rental.  They cost between US$40–70 per day but of course, you need to also factor in the cost of petrol and insurance.

Besides ice-caving, glacier walks and whale-watching, almost all other famous sights in Iceland are free, and you can easily visit them on a do-it-yourself self-drive tour.

However, I have to say that while this is generally fine for summer months, it may not be a good idea during winter. Iceland roads are unlike any other. As many have repeatedly mentioned, “driving in Iceland has nothing to do with driving wherever you are from”. The varied and rugged terrains make travelling in a regular car a challenge, if not a risk. According to the locals, sometimes even with GPS, some tourists end up in ditches or get stuck somewhere isolated and in the long dark hours of winter, which can be frightening. But if you still decide to drive, please get a 4×4 regardless of what the rental company tells you.

Note: Iceland’s weather can change very quickly. Do check for updates on road conditions at Road.is every few hours, especially in winter since roads may be icy or closed.

Also Read: The Ultimate 10 Day Iceland Road Trip Itinerary

Tours & Activities

While there are enough activities and sightseeing to fill your time within and around Reykjavik itself, the best part of Iceland is what lies beyond the city.

If you can’t drive and you don’t want to wrap your head around bus timings, you can join a group tour or a private tour with a local guide. Even though we have a valid driving license, we opted for the latter. We chose a local guide, Arctic Shots Iceland and had such an amazing experience with them on all the three times we were there. You can check them out here.

The advantage of going with these private guides is that they can customise the tour to your preference and take you to places that most tourists may not be aware exist. More so if you want to try catch the Northern Lights. Chasing the Northern Lights is an experience in itself. Due to the vast and rugged terrains of Iceland, it is best to go with an experienced guide to ensure your best chance at seeing this mind-boggling phenomenon. Besides, these locals who have been hunting the Northern Lights for years can help you find the best spots for potential viewing.

What my trip to Iceland cost me (I still have all my trip itineraries & costings so the figures are based on those):

ITEM Cost Per Person in SG$
1 Flight from SIN to EUROPE/UKFlew by:

Trip #1: Swiss Airline
Trip #2: Qatar Airways
Trip #3: Qatar Airways

$980
2 Flight from Europe/UK to IcelandTrip #1: Easyjet
Trip #2: Icelandair
Trip #3: Icelandair
$160
3 Accommodations for 14 days $840
4 Airport transfers (to accommodation via Flybus Plus) $45
5 Cash for food & other expenses $1000
TOTAL $3025

The type or tours you want to get on and how many, is within your control, depending on your budget. We budgeted about $1000 for our private tours. If you want to save on this further, you may want to go for the group tours as this will naturally be cheaper.

First published on Tripzilla on Feb 6, 2017
How to Travel Iceland on a Budget