Thursday, October 08, 2009

Not life changing, but certainly the best experience of my life

Home... so now what? It's been a few weeks since I've been home. When I first got back... I was really relieved. The last few days of my travels were not the best of my trip, so I ended on a bit of a low note. Initially I was just sort of like... oh, that's it. It wasn't as amazing as I thought it was going to be... I'm not sure it was worth it.

But already, just a few weeks later, I'm realizing how truly amazing my trip was. How 100% worth it it was. I look at some of my pictures and my jaw practically drops, knowing that I took that picture, that I was there. You become so used to seeing incredible history and beauty while you're traveling... you don't even realize what it is that you're looking at, and how lucky you are to be there.

I think the biggest thing that disappointed me on my trip was the people I met. There are definitely a few people that I know I'll keep in touch with, and some that have become fairly good friends. And my trip was not without romance, I did meet a guy that I quite like (Aussie, of course), and he's already come to visit me in Ottawa. But for the most part, the people I shared hostels and buses with were incredibly immature, ignorant and annoying. I know this is mostly because the methods of travel I used were aimed at budget travelers and young people. And I've learned my lesson. I can guarantee you that I will never do another Topdeck tour, and I wouldn't even consider a Contiki. I might do another Radical Travel trip... but probably not. And I definitely regret doing Busabout. A lot of the best parts of my trip were when I was completely on my own.

I also realize that I should probably have done a shorter trip, or one that included solid chunks of time in places where there's nothing to do but relax. By the end of my trip, I was burnt out. I was tired of walking. Tired of sightseeing. Tired of meeting people. Tired of drinking. I still saw some incredible things in the last couple of weeks, but I probably would have enjoyed them a thousand times more in May. All that being said, as long as it sometimes felt at the time, it went so fast! Probably the fastest four months of my life.

The one last negative thing from my trip... I am still sick. It turns out the sickness and horrible tiredness and lethargy from the last month of travel was mono (glandular fever). It took a few weeks at home before I was properly diagnosed... my doctor had narrowed it down to mono or tuberculosis. Neither were great options, but I guess it's better that it was mono.

Anyways, on a more positive note. Getting back to reality makes you truly appreciate how awesome traveling is. Every single day you're traveling, even if something goes wrong, people are annoying you or you sit in the hostel all day... it's far and away better than even a good day in your real life. I already have a thousand ideas about where I want to go next. I'll never do a four month trip again... unless it includes working abroad... but there are places to see, people to meet! Top of my list are New Zealand and Australia, especially since I now have friends in pretty much every inch of Australia. Turkey is still at the top, after seeing Bosnia I'm all the more gutted about not experiencing Turkey. Russia is now up there as well. And Morocco has jumped quite high up the list. And other parts of Africa. As well as South America. So basically, I still have the travel bug! Stay tuned... I'm sure I'll be doing more traveling very soon.

In summary... I had the experience of a lifetime. I met a lot of amazing people (mostly Aussies... they're taking over Europe!), I saw all the sights I wanted to, I drank way too much, I spent a fortune (but about as much as I expected) and I came back a slightly different person. It wasn't lifechanging, but it was certainly the best experience of my life. No regrets. :) Do it if you can.

And finally, to end this gigantic post, some of my top fives:

Five places I know I'll return to
1. Ireland
2. Bosnia
3. Norway
4. Switzerland
5. Hungary

Five places that really disappointed me
1. Rome, Italy
2. Croatia (both Split and Dubrovnik)
3. Prague, Czech Republic
4. Nice, France
5. Klaipeda/Nida, Lithuania

Five biggest surprises
1. Paris, France
2. Poland
3. Riga, Latvia
4. Munich, Germany
5. Vilnius, Lithuania

Lived up to/exceeded expectations
1. Ireland
2. Bosnia
3. Budapest, Hungary
4. Venice, Italy
5. Norway

Best Hostels
1. Vilnius Old Town Hostel – Vilnius, Lithuania
2. Naughty Squirrel – Riga, Latvia
3. Rowan Tree Hostel – Ennis, Ireland
4. Hostel 99 – Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
5. L' Imbarcadero – Venice, Italy

Worst Hostels
1. Klaipeda Travellers Guesthouse – Klaipeda, Lithuania
2. Plus Alba D'Oro Camping – Venice, Italy
3. Ullapool Youth Hostel – Ullapool, Scotland
4. Plus Prague – Prague, Czech Republic
5. Valley Hostel – Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

Five Best Foods
1. Italian gelato – Italy (duh)
2. Stroopwafels – the Netherlands
3. Ćevapi - Bosnia
4. Burek – Bosnia
5. Paulaner weissbier - Germany

Five Best Nights Out
1. Berlin
2. Munich
3. Stockholm
4. Amsterdam
5. Ullapool (it's what you make of it haha, right Kaitlyn? :P)

Also, to rank the tour operators I used
1. Shamrocker Adventures (7 Day All Ireland Rocker)
2. Eastern Trekker (Balkan Trek > Classic Rhapsody Trek)
3. Haggis Adventures (Island Explorer)
4. Busabout (3 Day Italian Adventure > North/South loops)
5. Topdeck (Northern Exposure)

If you're curious about other top fives, or have any questions about my trip, feel free to comment!


Anonymous said...

hey sarah, i have loved your blogs from beginning to end. I am slightly concerned now though about my topdeck tour in December!! Also why did you not like plus prague coz im staying there?!

Sarah said...

Hey Christina,

Cheers. :)

A lot of my problem with Topdeck was my group... the places I saw were beautiful, but the people were the worst group I've experienced. I also found Topdeck was a little bit... uptight? My best tour guide was with Eastern Trekker and while he had information for us and organized us, most of the time it was like he and the driver were just one of the gang. Very easy to talk to, whether it be trip stuff or life stuff. Topdeck on the other hand, the tour leader and driver were really nice but there was a clear divide between us and them. The cook however was incredibly nice, and he often came out with us. There were also a lot of enforced activities that I just wasn't into (i.e. "Viking Olympics").

Just all in all, I felt that Topdeck was a little bit summer camp for me. I'd also been traveling for two months at that point, so I didn't need or want someone to hold my hand... Topdeck seems to cater to people who want a very structured and fun way to see Europe quickly, and there's nothing wrong with that, just not for me. I also thought it was a bit expensive.

Plus Prague... one of Europe's many purely money-making machine hostels. There's nothing wrong with the accommodation itself, only issues being with the poor room layout (nowhere to put your bag except in the locker... most people stop with the locker after about a week on the road) and really noisy beds that are super painful on the feet to get into (top bunk).

But the main problem with the hostel is that there's absolutely NO character. The first night I was there, there were like two Contiki coaches, one Topdeck, one Busabout and one Eastern Trekker. It caters very much to the party hardy coach tours... and has the massive capacity to do so. Kitchen is pathetic (prime place to meet people), lounge is very impersonal, and overall it just sort of feels... clinical or something.

It depends what you're looking for though. They do check all the boxes and more... there's a bar, restaurant (don't eat there though...), swimming pool, fairly easy to get into town... it's just not a real traveler's hostel.

Anyways, that was a very long-winded answer but hopefully that explains it. I wouldn't be that concerned! It's mostly just personal preference and a really lame group of people! The fact that you're traveling in December will also change up a lot of that... hostels will be less crowded, and will definitely have fewer tour groups.

Also, which Topdeck tour are you doing? :)


Anonymous said...

hey sarah thanks for your reply, im doing the winter waltz which starts in prague and does prague, berlin, amsterdam and quick stope in bruges before getting boat back to uk.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, this is really great to read!

I'm thinking of doing the Northern Exposure tour with Topdeck next year, but I'm not sure about the age-groups or party atmosphere on the trip. As I only have limited time, going on a tour is the easiest way of doing things, but I don't really want to spend 20 or so days not enjoying the trip. What sort of people were on the trip and what was the general age-group?
Thanks very much, Emma

Sarah said...

Hey Emma,

Sorry for the delayed response. Blogger doesn't tell me when there's a comment.

I really did not like my Northern Exposure group. It actually put a significant damper on three weeks of my trip and what could have been some of my favourite places.

But! It's really all luck of the draw. My group had a few really obnoxious, irritating people that were just the type of personality that I hate. A friend of mine did the same tour earlier in the year and she had a great group.

As for the drinking atmosphere... I'd say it's significantly less than other Topdeck groups. Drinking definitely still occurred... but there are a few things that limit the party hardy atmosphere. 1. The average age of my group was quite a bit older. The trip is very expensive and goes to somewhat off the beaten path places, especially if people are on for the whole Red Star Special. Both those make it appeal to older and more experienced travelers. There were very few people on that trip that hadn't already "done" Western Europe and many other places as well. 2. The places it stops in... most of the time you're staying at campsites in the middle of nowhere Norway... the only drinking that can be done is in your cabin. Fun, but not an every night thing. There is a "punch party" where everyone pools in to make a huge vat of alcoholic punch, but even in my group not everyone participated. 3. The cost of alcohol in Scandinavia. It is ridiculous. Getting drunk costs a small fortune. People might drink every night, but it's usually not to the point of being stupid drunk haha.

Anyways. I had quite a bad experience with Topdeck, but I don't think it's the norm. I can't really recommend it per se, I personally would never do another Topdeck tour, but they are really the only option to go that far north in Norway. The places you see on this trip are really incredible.

Don't know if that's any help!


Anonymous said...

I'm doing a topdeck tour next summer. It will be my second time in Europe. I can relate to the damper mono can put on a trip, I got it last time I was in Europe, definately not a great way to end the trip!

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