Why I’d have another Helsinki city break

As someone who errs towards a degree of shabby chic when choosing city break destinations, I wasn’t sure how good a match me and Helsinki would be.

I needn’t have worried. Helsinki managed that brilliant trick of balancing “everything just works”, without being glossed and polished to within an inch of its life. Here’s why I would happily return to Helsinki for city break round two!

Helsinki’s urban planning and infrastructure

I’d like to borrow some of Helsinki’s urban planners, please!

OK, so Helsinki doesn’t have the same space restrictions caused by the (rightly) protected higgledy-piggledy ancient architecture of many European towns and cities. However, the Finns have done a brilliant job of making use of the spaces they have. They seemed designed to be used by everyone – and they were!

The car is not king

Helsinki has whole areas designed around pedal- and foot-power instead of cars – bike lanes and footpaths separate from main roads. The result: loads of people of all ages walking and cycling.

A cyclist on a Helsinki city bike goes past some cool street art

A cyclist pedals past some very cool street art on a Helsinki city bike

Helsinki does have cars, it’s just not over-run with them. So much so that when we were walking around during what should’ve been rush hour, I thought it must be a public holiday.

Helsinki street scene with cars and bikes

Cars – yes. Cars everywhere – no 🙂

As well as being healthier, the lack of cars had the added advantage that I could hear myself think. I could have happily heard both sides of a conversation on my phone whilst walking in the city centre. That’s a very unlikely possibility in the UK.

Public transport in Helsinki

I know Helsinki isn’t unique in having integrated public transport and ticketing, but the fact it does makes travelling and journey planning a whole load easier.

We used the Whim app to get public transport tickets (mobile tickets are cheaper), and also to plan our journeys. Not having to spend half an hour figuring out which bus or tram stop we needed was a welcome change from most cities I’ve visited.

Helsinki’s mobile tickets for Zone 1 are €2.20 and for Zone 2 are €4.20. They’re valid for 80 minutes across all public transport.

[box type=”info”]Disclosure: Whim provided us with App travel credit for this trip.[/box]

We used Zone 2 buses (for the airport), trams and the Suomenlinna ferry during our stay. You can also use Whim for the Helsinki city bike scheme, for taxis and for car hire.

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry on our Helsinki city break

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry

Ticket checks on Helsinki’s public transport seemed irregular, but they do happen so don’t be tempted to cheat the system!

Outside of the city, Helsinki also has several commuter train lines, which we used to get to Lahti for our RedBull 400 ski jump run.

Helsinki has a sense of collective responsibility

The Finns really seemed to care about their environment. And by “their”, I don’t just mean things that just impacted them personally.

Little things I really noticed. Cafes and bars were all self-serve, and everyone tidied up after themselves. If there was a rack for dirty crockery, you could be sure pretty much everyone would use it. Certainly far more than at home.

A more obvious social policy is a bottle deposit scheme, which was easy to use even as a visitor. Simply pay a deposit by default on plastic and glass bottles, then take the empties to a recycling receptacle that spits out a voucher to redeem on your next shop. Simple.

[box type=”info”]We used the Insight Guide to Helsinki for our trip. We also love this foldable coffee cup, to get into the Helsinki spirit of reuse and recycle! Buy through these links to help the site, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Something else that really struck me was an apparent lack of homelessness in Helsinki – was that really the case or was I just looking through the city with rose-tinted glasses? Intrigued, I did a bit of research when we got home.

It turns out that Finland is the ONLY country in EU where homelessness is decreasing. And they do that by … providing the homeless with a home.

Not exactly radical, but in Finland they’ve figured that homeless people are more likely to access support services when they’ve got a stable environment to live in.

High quality … everything!

The easiest example of quality in Helsinki I can think of is the food. There was not a soggy sandwich in sight. Processed food just didn’t seem to be a thing. (hallelujah!)

Outdoor food stalls - a Helsinki city break

Helsinki has plenty of popular outdoor food stalls. Fresh fish soup, yummy bread and coffee were €10.

In coffee shops, freshly made sandwiches on granary bread and plated salads were the norm. On proper crockery.

The coffee was good too, though we’d expected that, as the Finns are apparently the biggest consumers of coffee per person in the world.

It’s true that some of this quality does come at a price. However, Helsinki wasn’t as bank-breaking as we’d anticipated. Prices for food and drinks were around 25% more than in the UK. Coffee shops were self-service, so no tipping required. Oh, and reindeer tastes goooood 🙂

For drinking at home (or in your Airbnb apartment), buy stronger booze like wine and spirits from an Alko off licence. Only beer and cider are sold in supermarkets. Alko stores close on a Sunday; and only open ‘til 6pm on Saturdays (8pm Monday to Friday). Not that we fell foul of this when being quite ready for a night in with a bottle of wine after competing in the RedBull 400. Oh, no, sirree!

If you fancy a tipple when you’re out and about in one of Helsinki’s many green spaces, there are plenty of uber-cool bars where you can quench your thirst.

Even the souvenirs in Helsinki were classy

There was not a dodgy fridge magnet in sight in Helsinki. I mean, how fabulous are these reindeer socks?

Reindeer socks - a quality Helsinki city break souvenir

Reindeer socks, €6 from Helsinki airport

For other lovely craft shopping, the Hakaniemi Market Hall is home to high quality goods as well as the ubiquitous Moomin souvenirs, which are something of a national obsession in Finland. It’s also a rather fine place to have a coffee and watch the world go by.

[box type=”info”]We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Kallio, Helsinki (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link) and flew to Helsinki with Finnair from Manchester. Book your flights via Skyscanner. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Take me back!

It’s safe to say my slight worries that Helsinki might be a bit too stale for me were well and truly allayed. This was my first ever trip to Scandinavia, and I’m already asking: when can we go again?

Have you visited Helsinki? What’s made you think “yay” or “nay” to Helsinki as a potential city break destination? Share your views below.

What’s it like to do the Red Bull ski jump run?

“OMG we’ve GOT to do this!” I enthused, simultaneously holding a glass of wine and shoving the screen of my phone in my husband’s direction.

I’d just shown Andrew this … the Red Bull 400.

The Red Bull 400 ski jump run

Red Bull 400. Image by Victor Engström and used with permission from the Red Bull Content Pool.

It may “only” be 400-metres, but the Red Bull 400 involves running UP a ski jump. Yes, you read that right, UP a ski jump.

Oh, and some of the competitors are professional athletes.

At this point, most people would’ve muttered something less polite than, “are you having a laugh?” but not Andrew. To be fair, his infectious enthusiasm for giving things a go is one of the many reasons I married him …

Which Red Bull 400 ski jump should we run up?

As the 2018 dates for the Red Bull 400 were released, we eagerly (nervously) scanned the various European venues, with our all-important “criteria” in mind, namely:

  • Holiday potential – the most important factor, surely?!
  • Ease of getting there for a long weekend – direct flights, not in the middle of nowhere.
  • Relatively low altitude – running up a ski jump would be hard enough without having to battle 3000-metre altitude.

That last point narrowed the options somewhat, what with ski jumps generally being in the mountains 😉 All of which led us to …

Finlanda weekend in Helsinki and a day out to the nearby city of Lahti, home to one rather large ski jump.

How to train for the Red Bull 400

Three months of vigorous training ensued. We even hired a trainer to help us – Gavin of Fitness Framework in York. To say he pushed us hard was an understatement:

Glutes were strengthened, legs lunged, arms pumped and our cores crunched within an inch of their lives.

The Red Bull 400 reality hits home

The weekend finally arrived. Following a direct flight from Manchester and a lovely day or so exploring Helsinki, the Saturday dawned with blazing hot sunshine. After feasting on a carb-and-protein-tastic breakfast of eggs on toast, we crammed some bananas, water and sunscreen into a rucksack, and caught the tram to the station for our one-hour train journey to Lahti.

[box type=”info”]We used the Whim App for city transport within Helsinki itself. An 80 minute Zone 1 journey mobile ticket was 2.20 Euro. Mobile tickets are cheaper than those bought from ticket machines. Disclosure: Whim provided us with App travel credit for this trip.[/box]

The nerves were already kicking in by this point. We knew there were about 700 runners, which meant the chances of us being in the top 160 (80 women and 80 men) to reach the finals were fairly small.

We’d like to say our nerves were steadied after reaching the venue, but … er … they weren’t!

The heats

The heats are 300-metres rather than the full 400. I was in the last of the women’s heats, and Andrew in the first of the men’s, which gave us a chance to watch and see what we were in for!

What we were in for was pain, a whole lot of pain! My speed was pretty good until the steepest part of the hill kicked in; and after then it was a serious but steady scramble to the top.

My calves were burning, and my respiratory system was at full tilt – even drawing breath was difficult. The lactic acid was so bad that when the slope levelled out again, it was practically impossible to move my legs again, never mind run.

My result: 101st out of 205 ladies in the heats, in a time of 4:33.

Then it was Andrew’s turn. Andrew’s heat was straight after mine, which meant I was slowly recovering my breath and coughing my way back down (using a staircase this time!), whilst he was bounding up.

Andrew Hill Red Bull 400 Lahti Finland

Was he screaming all the way up? Image by Victor Engström and used with permission of the Red Bull Content Pool.

Andrew managed an impressive time of 3:29, coming 182nd out of 328 men.

We were both a bit disappointed not to make the finals, although our bodies were pretty happy not to have to do it again!

Resting after the Red Bull 400 ski jump run, Lahti, Finland

After all that, we needed a good lie down

What kind of people win?

We weren’t kidding about the athletic competition: podium winners included the women’s world indoor marathon record holder, a men’s Gold Olympic medalist in cross-country ski-ing and a professional ice hockey player!!

Does the Red Bull 400 hurt?

Er, yes! It’s honestly the hardest my respiratory system has EVER worked, and we had to walk backwards up hills the following day and take more buses, our calves hurt that much. Fortunately our glutes, core and arms came through unscathed, so the training definitely paid off (thanks Gavin!)

The pain was worth it though, as with the help of friends, family and colleagues we raised £600 for The Prince’s Trust, a charity that supports disadvantaged young people in jobs, education and training.

[box type=”info”]We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the Kallio neighbourhood of Helsinki (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link). Help the site by using this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

My top Red Bull 400 tips

  1. Train.
  2. Train some more.
  3. Be proud of your slightly crazy British reverse-Eddie the Eagle endeavours 🙂

Have you ever planned a holiday around a sporting event, a crazy one or otherwise? Share your stories below!

A day trip from Campeche to the Edzna Mayan ruins

I love a good Mayan ruin. If they’re of the lesser-visited variety like Edzná, so much the better. With a few days in the colourful Mexican city of Campeche on the western side of the Yucatán peninsula, a day trip to the Edzná ruins was too big a draw to resist.

Edzna Mayan ruins Campeche main plaza

Look up!

Getting from Campeche to Edzná

Being fans of independent travel and public transport, a tour wasn’t an option for us. However, our outdated Lonely Planet guidebook (note to self: buy the new one – details in the box below) sent us in the direction of a bus stop that clearly hadn’t seen a bus for quite some time. Plan B came into force …

[box type=”info”]Don’t make the mistake we did: Get the up-to-date Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico before you go. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Undeterred, and with the knowledge that Mexico is a country that DOES public transport and that there would be SOME way of getting to Edzná from Campeche, we did the only sensible thing possible: followed the collectivos (combi vans). A short bout of out-of-breath-ness later, this led us to a collective of collectivos all painted in red and white, parked up on Calle Chihuahua near Campeche’s market.

Collectivos are a wonder of Mexican transport, and for me, one of my top tips for travelling in Mexico.

Collectivo drivers are pretty helpful, and a few words of Spanish to explain we were going to the Edzná ruins saw us directed to a Bonfil-bound collectivo for the 55km (approx. 1 hr) journey, departing at 11am.

The ruins are a few hundred metres from the main road, but our driver detoured to drop us right at the entrance once we’d conveyed that’s where we were heading. The journey cost 45 peso per person each way (less than £2).

The Mayan ruins of Edzná

Safely dropped off, we paid the 60 peso per person entrance fee (about £2.50) and began our explorations.

The Mayan city of Edzná was a big deal in its day, particularly between 400 and 1000 AD, when it was the powerful regional capital of the western Yucatán. It was eventually abandoned around 1450 AD.

Its buildings reflect its former grandeur, and we happily hauled ourselves up and down the steep steps to towering platforms for a view over what used to be the main plaza.

Edzná's main plaza, Campeche, Mexico

Edzná’s main plaza

The highest structure is out of bounds for climbing, but the rest were fair game, so we gave our hamstrings a good workout as we posed for photos.

main pyramid, Edzna, Campeche

posing in the foreground of the main pyramid

The early buildings at Edzná are typical of the Petén architectural style (Petén nowadays is a region of northern Guatemala), with later structures showing influences of the Tardíos, Chenes and Puuc. Back in the day, the main limestone structures were often painted dark red. Others had facades adorned with the faces of gods and the mythical animals of the Mayan world. You can read more here on Edzná’s history and architecture here.

The Old Sorceress at Edzná

After the main plaza, we ventured off to the Old Sorceress around a ten-minute walk along a grassy track. But not before having acquired impromptu new hairstyles from the surrounding flora!

Reaching the Old Sorceress was Andrew’s excuse to go full-on Indiana Jones, as he scrambled off up the steep and jungle-covered un-restored pyramid.

Overall, we spent about 2 hours at Edzná, although if you’re less photo-happy than us then an hour-and-a-half would be plenty. Although not completely untouristed, most visitors to Edzná were Mexican, and we spotted a grand total of zero tour groups 🙂

Getting from Edzná back to Campeche

For public transport back from Edzná to Campeche we headed to the main road, and hung out under this road junction sign to flag down a collectivo.

how to get from Edzna to Campeche

you can hang out under this road sign to catch transport back to Campeche

The road isn’t too busy and waiting here meant transport options coming from two directions. We had to wait about 15 minutes for a collectivo coming from Bonfil back to Campeche but you may get an offer of a lift whilst you wait.

[box type=”note”]In our case, a guy in a pick-up truck stopped and offered us a lift back from Edzná to Campeche before the collectivo arrived. From prior research, coupled with my previous experience in this part of Mexico, this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. However, I politely declined as I wanted to make sure the public transport option worked so I could write this article 🙂 On a previous trip to Mexico, after a public transport fail at Uxmal caused by my then sub-par Spanish skills, I gladly accepted the offer of a lift to Mérida, resulting in a very entertaining journey with some delightful Venezuelan puppeteers!

I’m not recommending hitching with strangers. On the rare occasions I have accepted a lift (typically due to a public transport fail!) my hitching safety factors include: travelling with someone, being confident that accepting lifts is fairly “normal” wherever I am, and having a “this is ok” vibe when a vehicle stops for me. Obviously the latter is subjective, but I have turned down lifts when it hasn’t felt right. This is entirely my personal take on hitching. You’ll have your own view as to what’s right for you. If you do take up a lift in this part of Mexico, it’s customary to offer to pay the equivalent of the public transport price.[/box]

Practicalities of visiting the Edzná Mayan ruins

column at Edzna, Campeche, Mexico

silly photo-taking optional 🙂

Location: Around 55km from Campeche

Transport to Edzná: 45 peso collectivo from Calle Chihuahua in Campeche, tour or drive

Entrance fee: 60 peso

Food and drink: There’s no food at Edzná, although there is a vending machine for soft drinks. You can pick up cheap eats at Campeche’s market before or after your journey – we had yummy pork rolls for the grand sum of 20 peso each.

Take with you: Water, sunscreen, insect repellant in the rainy season, change or small notes for the collectivo and entrance fee (avoid 500 notes if you can).

To learn more about Edzná: Check out the museum under the Baluarte de la Soledad and also at the Fuerte de San Miguel in Campeche. Both have archaeological exhibits.

Where to stay: We bedded down at the Hotel Socaire in Campeche, in a room so large you could’ve had a football game in there (we didn’t). It was a fabulous place to stay.

[box type=”info”]Prices, info and exchange rates researched in January 2018. Some links in this post are affiliate links, which means I get a small commission and a big smile if you use them to make a purchase. There’s no extra cost to you for doing so :)[/box]

If you’re in this part of the world, I’d highly recommend the Edzná Mayan ruins as a day trip from Campeche. Have you been, or are you going? Share your experiences below.

25 (more) experiences I’m going to have before I die … updated!

Three years after first committing this list of my 25 must-do experiences to my hard drive, here’s my light-hearted look at what’s been accomplished, what’s still “on the list”, and what’s been ditched …

Why I put my 25 experiences list in writing

When I was in Bologna, I met Judy. Judy introduced me to the idea of writing down the list of things I wanted to accomplish, to help make it real.

25 experiences before I die

Hiking in the (cloudy) Annapurnas, The Himalaya

I had such a list when I was 14. I’ve since seen the majesty of the Himalaya (that one took 22 years to become reality), scored a goal at Scarborough FC’s now defunct McCain Stadium, and dated a tall, dark and handsome guy. I think I must’ve been sniffing school marker pens when I wrote I wanted to compete in the London marathon.

Still, 9 out of 10 achieved must mean the hypothesis of this entirely unscientific experiment with a sample of 2 (me, Judy) must be true. Writing stuff down helps make it happen. Not least because you’re less likely to forget it.

So twenty-(cough)-something years later, this was my new list …

The ones about new experiences

1. Live in another city or country for at least 2 months – rent a place, shop where the locals shop, absorb the culture, speak – or try to speak – the language.
What I’ve done: I’m currently (December 2017) in Oaxaca, Mexico for three-and-a-half weeks. Half (ish) way there!

2. Climb a volcano
What I’ve done. I kinda did this in Guatemala in 2013, but it was so cloudy I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, never mind that I was on a volcano. So I decided it didn’t count, and I’ll be volcano-climbing in Nicaragua in January 2015 instead. Yay!
What I’ve done: I went volcano-climbing in Nicaragua in early 2015, went up Mount Etna on Sicily in April 2016, and saw first-hand the Colima volcano in Mexico in October 2016. We’ll put this one down as accomplished 🙂

25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - Julie Sykes at Mount Etna crater - The Gap Year Edit

At the top of one of Mount Etna’s craters, April 2016

3. Take the train over the Copper Canyon, Mexico. What I’ve done: Finally ticked this one off in October 2016, and it was worth every penny!

Julie Sykes Copper Canyon train - 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

All aboard the Copper Canyon Railway!

4. Drink a cosmopolitan in a fancy New York bar. I’m good at drinking cocktails. I just need to move the venue from York to New York.
Update November 2016: In light of the US election result, I’ve decided not to undertake any personal travel to the USA for (at least) the next four years. Update December 2017: Nope, still not going!

The ones about learning

5. Become fluent – or pretty much, so I can at least talk around things if I don’t know a word – in another language
What I’ve done: My Spanish improvement was slow, but went up a notch in early 2015 when I went to language school in Nicaragua! In late 2016 I took some private Spanish lessons, which ended when my teacher moved back to Spain – boo! However, I’m now (December 2017) in Oaxaca, Mexico, enrolled again in Spanish language school for two more weeks – hurrah!

reading Hemingway on the Florida Keys - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

reading Hemingway on the Florida Keys

6. Read a book by Hemingway. Cos I feel as though I should.
What I’ve done: The Florida Keys were an awesome place to fulfil this one in January 2015!

7. Learn to take fabulous photos of moving water
What I’ve done: Back in March 2015. I got some tips from a photographer guru and put ’em into practice. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to go to Iguazú Falls in Argentina on honeymoon in March this year, and now also own some filters. Sorted!

long exposure photo at Iguazu Falls - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

I used an improvised filter to help take this pic – aka my sunglasses 🙂

8. Learn to ride a motor-scooter, so I have options beyond a push-bike on future Asian adventures
What I’ve done: After finding out where to take classes in my home city, Andrew and I decided we’d buy each other lessons as our wedding (yup, wedding) gifts to each other. Update December 2017: We have singularly failed to do this as yet, but it is definitely still a plan for Summer 2018 🙂

The one about love

9. Fall in love … with someone who loves me too. All together now, aaaaahhhhhh!
What I’ve done: After re-joining match.com, reading lots of books women of a certain age read when they are singletons, gone out, got phone numbers; things finally came together in August 2015 when I braved Tinder and met Andrew. We got engaged a year later, and married this February. He’s fabulous 🙂

Outside York Minster in a tuk tuk on our wedding day - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

Just Married! We had a quick photo stop after our wedding outside York Minster.

The ones about achievement and challenge

10. Hike more than a week of the Camino de Santiago, Spain
What I’ve done: Sussed out some routes and figured the Portuguese Way from Porto looks good. This is one for 2016 or beyond, I reckon … make that 2018 or beyond 🙂

11. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
What I’ve done:
Er, yeah, not even looked at this one!

The ones about lifestyle and fitness

12. Run 10km in less than 55 minutes
What I’ve done: Ok, this one’s frustrating the hell out of me. After joining the almost-as-cheap-as-chips gym near my house and managing to speed up by a few minutes, I entered a 10k in August 2015, in part inspired by Sir Ranulph Fiennes! My racetime was 55:21 – a race PB but 21 seconds short of my target. Since then, I’ve consistently managed to do training runs around the 54 minute mark, but race times of 56 minutes. Grrrr.

However, a bigger achievement was that, in May 2017, Andrew and I each completed an Iron Man triathlon over the course of the month (2.4 miles/3.86km of swimming, 112 miles/180.25km of cycling, 26.22 miles/42.2km of running), raising >£300 for Macmillan Cancer Support in the process. Meanwhile, the 55-minute 10km running goal WILL be achieved in 2018 🙂

Askern 10k, May 2017 - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

May 2017, another 56-minute 10k at Askern (Andrew was a lot faster!), but we raised over £300 in May for Macmillan

 

13. Do a regular yoga practice
What I’ve done: My yoga practice has been patchy, to say the least. I have gone to the occasional class, but occasional is the operative word. Best have a word with myself.

The ones about being creative

14. Design and sell something artsy.
What I’ve done: Yeah, not done that. Yet.

15. Own a Sulca weaving. He’s a weaver based in Arequipa, Peru, who I visited back in 2007. One day one of his works will be mine. One day …

16. Do cool textiles things in Oaxaca, Mexico. Cos I love Oaxaca. And all things Mexico. And textiles.
What I’ve done: Well, I’m in Oaxaca at the moment (December 2017), so that’s a good start! I’m doing a very good job at window-shopping for cool textiles … but this trip’s all about the Spanish.

The ones about how I earn money

17. I will continue to work hard, take pride in what I do, be decent to people no matter who they are, and live my values. How people respond to me is up to them, but I’m hoping it’ll be good 🙂
What I’ve done: I set up my Limited Company, specialising in marketing and communications, back in June 2015, and interesting work is still coming in. I also have some cool business plans to develop in the early part of 2018.

18. Publish a book
What I’ve done: Got an idea, learnt from an author at a book-publishing talk. Not much else.

19. Get a travel / travel-related article published in a national magazine or newspaper.
What I’ve done:
Hmmmm, this one’s not a priority at the moment – one to revisit in the future.

20. Develop sources of active or passive income
What I’ve done: Errr, compiled a reader offer page and included affiliate links (where I get a small commission) in some of my posts. If you want to use them, that would be awesome! I have a few other irons in the fire too – linked to #17 and my business.

The one from Bologna

21. Have the courage to follow and act on my gut feel earlier and not succumb to some British “being polite and nice” thing I seem to do, even when there’s no need. This doesn’t mean be rude to people, rather that I don’t have to extend the hand of friendship to people whose actions deserve only civility.
What I’ve done: Put it into practice in Bologna (and since)

view over Bologna - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

Bologna – it’s inspirational just to look at it!

The one about getting up early (I am NOT a morning person)

22. See the sun rise over Bagan, Myanmar.
What I’ve done:
The current treatment of the Rohingya population in Myanmar means this one’s on hold.

The one about development

23. Volunteer abroad for at least a month, in a capacity-building role (not “voluntourism”).
What I’ve done: Since November 2015 I’ve been mentoring young people volunteering in Zambia and Uganda in all things business and marketing, via the Challenges Worldwide ICS programme. I’ve also started volunteering on a local community project in York this year (2017).

The ones about my family

I can’t completely influence these, but I can certainly offer my emotional support:

24. For my Cambodian sponsored child to fulfil his dream of becoming a policeman.
What I’ve done: In September 2015 I learnt that my sponsored child’s family had moved away from the area – I suspect for economic reasons, so I will never know if this one comes to pass. Since then I’ve been sponsoring a little girl in Bolivia.

25. For my mum and dad to go abroad. Neither of them have ever left UK shores. Getting them passports will be a challenge, getting them on a plane nigh-on impossible. I’m thinking Eurostar. Maybe Bruges?
What I’ve done: In hindsight, I’m thinking this “must-do” is more about me than it is about my parents. Mum, frankly, isn’t interested; and I’m not convinced Dad is anymore, either. I’ll play it by ear!

So, there you have it … some progress made in 2017! These experiences have already made my life richer, and I hope some of them have made – or will make – others’ lives even just a teensy bit richer too.

Why experiences are important to me

When originally writing this list three years ago, I was thinking about how my abiding memories have all been about the experiences and feelings I’ve had and shared, and the people I’ve met along the way. They’ve not been about anything I’ve bought, with the possible exception of the hangover I had when I was 19, resulting from the fact I’d bought about 16 vodkas 😉

In my view there’s no need to wait until New Year to make a list of what matters to you. If this post touches a chord, why not write your own list, and – where you can – see what you can do to make it happen …

What experiences have been your most memorable? Have you accomplished something you’d previously put in writing? Will you make your own list? Share your ideas and thoughts below.

How not to spend more than £400 on a mirrorless camera and accessories

“All I want is a half-decent camera that can take great holiday photos, isn’t so big it needs its own luggage, and won’t bankrupt me. How hard can it be to find a camera and some accessories for less than £400?”

mirrorless camera and accessories for less than 400

Read on to find how you can buy a mirrorless camera, camera case, spare battery, SD card, tripod and a range of filters for a grand total of £376.64 (prices on Amazon.co.uk, 19/11/17).

Three years ago, I was ready to upgrade from my trusty little Canon Powershot. I did a LOOOOT of googling. It turned out I needn’t have bothered, as a photographer friend (and finalist in the 2017 Landscape Photographer of the Year competition) answered all my questions at once:

[quote]“Buy yourself the a new Canon EOSM mirrorless camera. You can pick one up for less than £300. There are fancier models out there, but the Canon’s a brilliant deal for what you get – it’s a great little camera. Another mate’s just bought one for his travels after I recommended it: he loves it!”[/quote]

“Ooooooh”, I thought. Trusted recommendation + already happy with Canon + not too bulky + no second mortgage required + sounds like it’s aimed at someone just like me = perfect! The Canon EOSM mirrorless camera it was!

Is the Canon EOSM the best mirrorless camera for less than £300?

I have to admit, I love my little Canon EOSM. I raved about it so much that hubby – a previous DSLR user – sold his DSLR and bought one too! His is the latest version, the Canon EOS M10.

The M10 comes with a 15-45mm interchangeable lens and integrated WiFi and flash. It also has a flip-out screen, which I have to admit I’m slightly jealous of.

best mirrorless camera for less than £300

this is Andrew’s Canon EOS M10, the latest model in the range. Mine’s the earlier Canon EOS M.

Here’s the main features we use on our respective Canon EOSM mirrorless cameras:

  • The good news is, there are loads of settings and adjustments, but you don’t HAVE to use any of them. … the Auto setting is pretty good on its own, particularly for indoor photography.
  • I use the “P” programme setting a lot, especially for landscape photos and in cities.
  • I’m also a fan of the “TVshutter speed priority setting, which is good for ghosty pictures and moving water (a small tripod can help with these – more on that later).
mirrorless camera for travel photography

Slow-moving water, taken with my Canon EOS M mirrorless camera at Iguazu Falls, Argentina. To take this pic, I put the TV setting on a low number for a long exposure, and used my sunglasses as an impromptu filter.

  • Hubby primarily uses the “AV” aperture priority setting so he can control what’s in and out of focus in his pictures (aka depth of field).

We also love that …

  • We get really good pictures
  • Resolution and size of images are great – you can crop to get the same effect as you would by using a larger zoom lens.
  • The integral flash is brilliant (!) on the EOS M10. My older EOSM came with a separate external flash, which I’ve honestly never used. Even at night.
  • It’s not too big!
  • It doesn’t scream: “hello, I have a huge fancy camera. If you’re looking for someone to rob, pick me!”
  • It has a decent battery life. One spare battery is certainly enough for a long weekend with lots of photography. By lots, I mean spending at least a couple of hours every day solidly taking photos (Porto, I’m looking at you!)
  • Accessories are mostly generic and won’t break the bank.

Speaking of accessories …

Our essential travel photography accessories for less than £90

Here are my must-have Canon EOS M / M10 mirrorless camera accessories. They range in price from just under a tenner to just less than £20. I don’t pack for a trip without them!

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Spare camera battery

Does what it says on the tin. A spare battery is highly useful if you’re off-grid for a couple of days, or forgot to pack your travel adaptor.

Camera SD card / WiFi SD card

My Canon EOS M doesn’t have WiFi, so I use a WiFI SD card. However, Andrew’s current EOS M10 model includes integral WiFi, so he has a 32GB regular SD card.

best mirrorless camera accessories - Canon EOSM retro camera case

my retro camera case – rockin’ the 70s vibe

Retro camera case

I’ve gone totally retro with my camera case. I chose this 1970s-style design as it’s snug-fitting, is designed specifically for the Canon EOSM mirrorless camera, and makes it look like I have an ancient camera inside it (read: “if you’re looking for someone to rob, you’d be better off picking someone else. Or, preferably, no-one at all …”)

UV filter

A little bit of kit that protects the lens from scratches and dust. It’s worth spending a tenner on. If it gets damaged, you only have to replace the UV filter, not your whole lens.

Mini tripod

Mini camera tripods these days have bendy legs that yogis would be proud of. I use a mini tripod on self-timer mode when I want to be in the picture myself (when I’m travelling solo), or for pictures of us as a couple. I’ve also used them for night photos and other scenarios where the camera needs to be totally still, like a long exposure water photo.

best travel photography accessories mini tripod

self-timer + mini tripod = pic of Julie & Andrew at the stunning Copper Canyon, Mexico

Filters

I’d always thought filters were for mega-serious photography types. You know, the sort who lie in a field for three hours before dawn awaiting that perfect shot. That’s definitely not me!

In fact, filters can be both cheap and easy to use – the ones I have just screw onto the front of my camera lens.

Graduated filter

best travel photography accessories - graduated grey filter

my graduated grey filter – the best £9.90 birthday present ever!

If you only invest in one camera filter, pick this one – a graduated grey filter. It’s my new favourite piece of kit, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used it since Andrew bought me it for my birthday in July. OK, I can … I’d estimate about 40% of my photos.

I use the graduated filter when I can’t for the life of me work out how to get the right light in my photo – either the sky is too bright or the foreground is too dark. I’ve used it a lot for landscapes like this one …

best travel photography accessories - graduated grey filter

my graduated grey filter in action in Westerdale, North Yorkshire. I’ve got the colour of the sky and the detail of the landscape – hurrah!

Neutral density filters

My other recommended filters are of varying shades of grey to darken the picture (“neutral density filters” in camera-speak – the higher the number, the darker it is). Again, you can use them if it’s really bright, or if you want a really long exposure but don’t want to let too much light into the picture. For the latter, team with the mini tripod.

This may all sound like a lot of kit, but it really is travel photography with minimal gear, as you can see from the earlier picture. You have no fear looking like the BBC’s World Service as you’re out and about, and you won’t be weighed down either.

All in all, it is possible to get this Canon EOS M10 mirrorless camera and accessories for less than £400.

Taking it to the next level: interchangeable lenses for the mirrorless Canon EOS M / M10 camera

Occasionally, just occasionally, we’ve found that the interchangeable lenses you can buy for the Canon EOS M / M10 have been an absolute boon. You can spend a fair chunk of cash on extra lenses (from around £150-£300 per lens), so make sure you’re likely to get good use out of them first!

It’s worth noting that the lens supplied with the Canon EOS M / M10 is really good already, so you might get less use out of additional lenses than you think.

I have a zoom lens, Andrew has a “pancake lens” – we swap them between us as and when we need. We also have a wide-angle lens on the wish list!

Canon EF-M 55-200mm zoom lens

best travel photography accessories zoom lens Canon EFM 55-200mm

Zooming into the village of Staithes, North Yorkshire, with my Canon EF-M 55-200mm lens

On my first trip with my Canon EOSM I went to Nicaragua. If only I’d known just how incredible the wildlife there was … incredibly shy wildlife. A zoom lens would’ve been handy.

I splashed out before my next trip, which was a month-long journey from Budapest to Athens. I used my new spangly zoom lens a total of twice, at Krka national park in Croatia. I’ve had more use from it on a recent trip to the North Yorkshire coastal village of Staithes.

Don’t get me wrong, the Canon EF-M 55-200mm zoom lens is brilliant, when I use it. I just don’t use it anywhere near as much as I thought I would.

Canon EF-M 22mm “pancake” lens

This is Andrew’s lens of choice. It’s a fixed 22mm fast lens, which he uses in low light, for example when inside, at night, or when taking portrait photos. Because the lens has no zoom it fits easily and inconspicuously in his coat pocket, which works well at night when he doesn’t want to carry a man bag around with him.

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Canon EF-M 11-22mm wide-angle lens

This wide-angle lens one’s on my wish list, ‘cos I take quite a lot of landscape pics. Plus, it’ll be ideal for city architecture that’s hard to fit in the frame ☺

Pros and cons of our travel photography gear

For us, this is our essential gear for travel photography. As with any kit, it has pros and cons. Here’s our summary of both …

Pros

  • Neither the mirrorless camera or the accessories are too heavy or bulky to carry
  • Not too conspicuous
  • Takes good photos!
  • Great value for what you get.
  • Will be covered – or very nearly almost covered – through single article limits on travel insurance policies (on many policies this is £250 – check your small print and/or options on your home contents insurance policy)

Cons

  • Neither the original Canon EOS M or newer Canon EOS M10 mirrorless camera has an additional viewfinder. Sometimes I really miss peering into a viewfinder!
  • If you want the extra flexibility of additional lenses, you’ll need to spend more; although many comparable cameras at this budget don’t have the option of different lenses.
  • It’s a relatively entry-level mirrorless camera – its great value for what you get, but some competitors have higher specifications, albeit with a fancier price tag to match.
  • If you’re a pro photographer, you’re likely to want a higher specification. And possibly fancier filters than those costing a tenner!

If you’re looking for a camera and accessories for great holiday photos, I hope this article’s helped you find what you’re looking for ☺

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