Hawaii: Sandy Beaches and a Turquoise Ocean

Sarah Loughlin’s top tips on where to stay and what to do on two of Hawaii’s most popular islands.

In Waikiki, the relaxing sound of Hawaiian music floats on the breeze. You can hear it as you walk the busy shopping streets, relax on the beach or wait for your next wave surfing in the bay. It has been Hawaii’s most popular destination since the first hotel was built in 1901. Read More…

The House Doesn’t Always Win

There are many ways to enjoy the famous casino town, but there is only one way to do it on a budget. Sarah Loughlin visits Las Vegas to try her luck living on £10 a day.

We had been traveling up the west coast of America for over a month with not a care in the world. Spending the last of our student loans on beer and pizza slices. After paying for a hotel, and a trip to the Grand Canyon I had calculated we had $16 a day to last us our stay in Vegas. This roughly equates to £10, not a lot to feed yourself and provide entertainment. When researching Vegas it was largely $50 all you can eat buffets and $100 tickets to a musical. I was fairly convinced not only would we starve to death, but we would also have to stay in our $7 per night hotel room for the entirety of our visit. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of all the places we visited on our trip, we lived like kings in Vegas!  Here are my five top tips for living it up on a budget…

1.       Free drinks – Whether it’s your morning OJ or your 6pm sun-downers. If you are playing in a casino it’s free. Sit down at one of the many 1¢ slot machines and play away while getting the attention of one of the waitresses; you never know you could end up winning yourself some money while you wait for your mid-afternoon coffee!  Always carry an ID with you and remember to tip your waitress, $1 will do it.

2.       Free gambling – If you sign up as a casino member they give you free money! If it is your first time in Vegas you will want to see everything, including the many casinos that line the world famous ‘Strip’. Every time you go to a new casino find the membership desk and sign up, most casinos will give you a membership card with pre-loaded money on it. This can be anything from $5 – $20 – you can’t withdraw it as cash, but once you have played it all any money you win is yours! One evening I came out of the Cosmopolitan after several glasses of prosecco with $10 more than I started with!

Vegas, Las Vegas, travel, budget travel, gambling, casinos, holiday, usa, america, nevada

3.       Free entertainment – There is so much to see in Vegas that is completely FREE! For example the light show in Fremont Street downtown and the Bellagio Fountains. The thing I enjoyed most about Vegas was walking around soaking up the atmosphere; you will be totally taken aback by the grandiose scale of everything. Buildings not to miss include: a huge pyramid (Luxor Hotel and Casino), a life size castle (Excalibur Hotel and Casino), and the indoor canals with actual gondolas on them (The Venetian Hotel and Casino).

4.       Free food (almost!) – Keep an eye out for food deals and ‘happy hour’ food offers, I can’t tell you the amount of food we found for $1, burritos, tacos, pizza slices, it was incredible!

5.       Free nightlife (one for the ladies!) – As a group of two girls we were given free entry to most of the clubs – but it was midweek – so if you are going at the weekend don’t rely on it. One of the best nights we had started out as a quiet drink at some penny slots, until one of the promoters gave us a flyer for free entry to the nightclub and free Champagne. We sipped bubbly until midnight when the free booze ran out, had a few cocktails at the penny slots, and then went back in at about 1.30am when it got busy to dance the night away!Vegas, Las Vegas, travel, budget travel, backpacking las vegas, gambling, entertainment, cheap vegas

Stay at the AAE Las Vegas Palace Station Casino $7 per person per night based on two people sharing. Free Airport Shuttle. Free Shuttle to the Strip (only until 11pm – taxi’s are about $10 to get back if you don’t want to stay out all night!). We had a huge (by European standards!) room with a double bed each. For the price we paid I expected to come out with bedbugs, but it was really clean. The pool was nothing special, but ideal for a chilled out day reading your book/ sleeping off your hangover.



A Royal Education

Sarah Loughlin reflects on cultural stereotyping after an interesting few hours in the Los Angeles bus station

Standing between an Escalade and a Hummer, I flicker between wanting to laugh hysterically, and die of embarrassment. If only the game of Rock Paper Scissors had gone my way, I would be standing where my sister is now. On the other side of the car park, excitedly waiting for the food our pitiful casino winnings would buy us.

It’s another warm evening in California. The area around the Los Angeles Greyhound bus station is miles removed from the outrageously lavish architecture of the Las Vegas Strip, our home for the previous week. Just a few blocks from the infamous Skid Row, this is the part of the Golden State that they don’t advertise. People shuffle along the sidewalk in ragged clothes, between the run-down buildings, while some huddle in shadowy doorways. I can’t help wondering how they ended up here.

We had been on the Greyhound bus together from Las Vegas for 8 hours and we were ravenous. Our connection to San Diego wasn’t for hours. After walking for a block or two, our eyes lit up as we rounded the corner and saw a fast food joint. Approaching the doors excitedly discussing what we should order I noticed that the restaurant was strangely empty. I pulled the door towards me, but it wouldn’t budge. It was locked. At this point the only way we were going to eat was to stand in the drive-through queue with the cars and hope for the best. After ordering into the microphone I walked up to the window to collect the order. Thinking, why do I always pick scissors?

USA, California, Greyhound, budget travel, local peopleSitting in the Greyhound station with our long-awaited food we started chatting, as we usually do, about what to see in the next town. Over the last month we had travelled all over California, spending what we had saved from our student loans on $1 burritos and lounging on the beach. As usual our strong English accents had attracted the attention of our fellow passengers.

‘’Scuse me Miss, where are y’all from’
‘England, how about you?’
‘Hmmm, it’s funny, y’all don’t look like y’all are from En-ger-land’
‘Ah really, why is that?’
‘’Cas y’all don’t have Princess Diana’s nose’

It transpired Charlene from Texas had been visiting family in California and was on her way home. After the usual pleasantries I attempted to go back to my guidebook and fried chicken. No such luck.

‘So did y’all go to the wedding?’
‘I’m sorry, which wedding?’
‘You know, Princess Kate’s wedding’

I sigh inwardly, and almost roll my eyes. I stop myself when it occurs to me that everything I think I know about Americans, apart from the people I have met here, is from television. And it must be the same for them. I went on to explain to Charlene that although England was a small country, not everyone was invited to the Royal wedding, and unfortunately we were not all descendants of Diana Princess of Wales.

‘En-ger-land’ Interjects Charlene’s friend, ‘that’s near Norway right?’
‘Well, relatively’ I reply.
‘I got a friend out there in Norway, he’s call Bill, d’y’all know him?’

I suppress a giggle, and then remember that until a few weeks ago I would have had no idea where Texas was in relation to New Mexico; and then there was the awkward time in the bank that I couldn’t spell Arkansas. I had arrived in the USA over 4 months ago, thinking that as an English speaking country the culture must be largely the same, but I was wrong. Every place I visited had a unique way about it. Starting out in Louisiana I got to know that people from the Southern state, describing themselves on bumper stickers as ‘Third World and Proud of it’, are the most warm and accommodating of all; never so embodied but in the Litchl family who took me in for a week and showed me New Orleans the local way:

Louisiana, New Orleans, NOLA, talking to strangers‘You don’t know Pat O’Brien’s! What have you been doing here all this time!’ Says Marci as we are seated on a cosy table not far from the Duelling Pianos. ‘Two Hurricanes please!’ she calls to the waiter over the bustling atmosphere of the bar. I stop to take in the audience, chatting away and enjoying the performance. Music lovers in the crowd note down their favourite songs on a napkin and pass it to the front to be played, the musician’s jest that they don’t know the song before breaking into a jazzy NOLA rendition, just for us to hear.

Again it occurs to me that before that evening the only things I knew about New Orleans were from the UK media. In my head ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Louisiana’ would make me think, ‘Katrina’, rather than ‘the jazz bar off Bourbon Street’. In that moment I know that the next time a friendly fellow traveller makes an un-informed snap judgement or makes what seems to me like a silly remark, I will ask myself, ‘what do I know about their country? Could I point it out on a map?’ I bet 9 out of 10 times I probably couldn’t.

I turn back to Charlene and offer her one of my now cold and slightly soggy chips, or fries to the locals, and I ask her what sort of food her home town is famous for; just one traveller educating another.

Getting to Know the Locals

After three months of living in fear, Louisiana resident Sarah Loughlin decides it’s time to face North America’s biggest reptile.

Palms sweaty. Hands shaking. I stand in the midday heat.

‘Pick it up.’

‘No, I can’t, what if it bites me.’

‘You’ll be fine, go on, just touch it.’

‘Ohhh, look at its eyes though, it wants to eat me.’

Standing between two 11 year olds happily stroking their baby alligators, I know it’s now or never. I reach into the pool and pick him up. I am surprised at how soft he feels. Although scaly looking, the under belly of this tiny beast is smooth, almost silky. With his mouth taped shut, so small he fits in the palm of my hand, he looks almost harmless. ‘There you go’, mocks my roommate Steph, ‘Kinda cute, huh’.

I look into the little gator’s eyes and he blinks sideways, ‘whoa, that’s weird,’ I say.Louisiana, USA, America, alligator, swamp, boat, adventure, water ski, lake, honey island swamp, insta gator Our tour guide Andy, attempting to stop the kids from using the alligators as weapons, shouts across the group, ‘They have two sets of eyelids, but that is not the most interesting fact about them. During the 63-day incubation period, the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the babies’. Looking at them up-close, maybe they aren’t all that bad; I think back to my first conversation on the subject.

‘You know there are alligators there, I don’t think it’s a good idea,’ Dad reasoned with me. ‘Why can’t you just stay in London this summer and live at the lake like last year.’  I had heard this every week since I booked my flight. ‘Dad, stop trying to scare me, I told you this is a great opportunity.’ Silence. ‘I looked it up, one third of Louisiana’s population are alligators!’ he said. Perhaps he had a point. As the weeks went on I thought about nothing but alligators; I even started dreaming about them. By the time my plane touched down in Baton Rouge a month later I was convinced I would be facing a daily battle for survival against these huge prehistoric monsters.

Arriving at my new home I mentioned my fear of the deadly reptiles, ‘Alligators?’ Jay, the owner of the lake laughed, ‘We haven’t seen a gator here for years. They only come here as a last resort, if there is a real drought. They can walk for miles to find water you know, but they’re lazy, they won’t come here unless they need to.’ Despite being a seasoned sun worshiper I instantly began to pray for a stormy summer.

Following Andy around the working alligator farm, the first thing I notice in the sheds is the offensive smell. Not all that surprising for a small shed filled with hundreds of alligators. One thing I had always assumed after watching Hollywood movies was that an Alligator would attack you instantly. Andy attempts to prove this theory wrong as he throws a live mouse in to one on of the pens. To my surprise the alligators do not move. As the tiny mouse swims around in the pond he passes next to an alligators mouth, the alligator makes a vague attempt to snap it up, but just misses it, unfussed he goes back to relaxing in the cool water. ‘Alligators can be very gentle,’ says Andy. ‘The babies can break themselves out of their eggs, but if they struggle, the mama gator will take them in her mouth and chew them a little to help them out.’ Not convinced by this coy act they were putting on I wonder if they simply aren’t hungry. It’s 3pm and we are the last tour of the day, maybe this nonchalance is the result of a full stomach. As I mulled over my supposedly irrational fear of alligators, I couldn’t help thinking that in the event that I come across a starved alligator, it might be a different story.

After getting up close and personal with some of these reptiles, it was time to see them in action. Just outside New Orleans in the wetlands of the Honey Island Swamp, we take to a small boat and make off through the narrow waters. ‘I’m not sure if this is safe you know,’ I say worriedly to our boat driver Billy, ‘I read that alligators can jump their whole length out of the water! What if they get in the boat?’ ‘We’ll be fine,’ says Billy ‘No one’s died…this week,’ he laughs and continues to take us further into the swamp.

The swamp, only a few miles from the bustling party town of New Orleans, is peaceful. Louisiana, USA, America, alligator, swamp, boat, adventure, water ski, lake, honey island swamp, insta gator, travel featureBirds fly overhead, and two racoons chase the boat along the bank, diving in and out of the leafy foliage play fighting with each other. A thin layer of green moss stretches out across the water in front of us, so still and un-disturbed it seems as if you could step out of the boat on to it. The trees grow upwards from this meadow mirage creating thin corridors splitting off in all directions. Passing by a Cajun village, only accessible by boat, two locals sitting on their deck wave hello to us. I notice their alternative to air-conditioning: a sprinkler system spraying cool water on the corrugated iron roof of their hut. Out of the corner of my eye I notice where the decking meets the water, on a small branch, three little tortoises sunning themselves.

Louisiana, USA, America, alligator, swamp, boat, adventure, water ski, lake, honey island swamp, insta gator, travel featureBilly introduces us to some of the local Alligators, coaxing them toward the boat with hotdog sausages on a long wooden stick. One of the larger animals approaches us, snorting and snuffling like a dog. ‘This is Broke-Jaw-Betty, poor little lady near on lost her life in a fight with another gator, she still likes marshmallows though!’ he says as he squashes two fluffy pink marshmallows on to the end of his stick. I made a mental note to always carry marshmallows as we carried on drifting along the calm waters of the bayou.

Louisiana, USA, America, alligator, swamp, boat, adventure, water ski, lake, honey island swamp, insta gator, travel feature

Fact box:

Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery $16 per adult (+$5 for baby gators) http://www.insta-gatorranch.com

Cajun Encounters $49 per adult with transport from your New Orleans hotel http://www.cajunencounters.com