Float your boat … sea kayaking in Scotland
Hot weather is better in Scotland. All that gorse and turf gets gently cooked and starts to steam, wafting the smell of hot foliage over water and land.
Stuart and Ben, who met us off the train in Fort William, were our guides through two days and a night of kayaking in the wild.
All I could hear as I glided over Loch Ailort was the swish of my paddle. We arrived at our campsite as the sun began to dip – arms aching, noses peeling. We dragged our kayaks up the beach, pitched tents and slumped on to the springy ground. Out to sea sat the islands of Eigg, Muck and Rum – slowly fading into the gloaming as we chatted about paddling and sunburn. Cocoa sent us to sleep with the darkness; we were woken by a lapping loch, bright light and birdsong.
Gemma doing a spot of housework in Spain. Photograph: Anna Batchelor
When I arrived at my Workaway placement, I very nearly punched the air and hissed “yesssssss!”. I knew a paid-for holiday in the pretty seaside town of Caños de Meca, on the Costa de la Luz in southern Spain, would be a joy, but I wasn’t expecting my own sweet little villa at the foot of a riotiously colourful garden, a long empty beach over the road, and hippyish beach bars a stroll away, (help yourself) meals, beers, the use of a car, regular outings to nearby beaches and villages (such as beautiful Vejer de la Frontier, or the cool surf resort of El Palmar) all for free. In return I spent a few hours a day mopping the floors of my host Simone’s holiday apartments, doing the garden, and playing with her lovely daughters. With the sunshine and gorgeous surroundings, it never felt like work.
The Workaway scheme matches volunteers with hosts around the world: private individuals needing help at home, farmers, tourism business owners – anyone who needs a hand. After paying the €22 registration fee it’s up to you to contact the hosts and make arrangements (the standard exchange is five hours work a day in return for food and board). You could end up helping an eco farming collective establish a “sea gypsy tribe” in Norway; labouring on an agriturismo that makes limoncello in Sorrento, southern Italy; mucking in at a backpackers’ hostel in rural Colombia … the list is wildly varying and massively tempting, and you get to truly engage in the culture and community you’re staying with.
Transylvania’s gloomy literary associations belie the fact that it’s the perfect destination for a summer break with guaranteed sunshine and lively settlements nestling in the foothills of the Carpathians. Interrailing around western Europe is an increasingly expensive option for the skint student but Romanian Railways (cfr.ro) will carry you between the area’s historic cities for under £10 on creaking communist-era rolling stock. Fly to the university city of Cluj-Napoca on WizzAir (from £54 return from Luton) and you’ll find a centre filled with bars and clubs such as Insomnia (Strada Universitatii), a converted apartment attached to a small art gallery. It serves cheap beer to a bohemian crowd who will point you in the direction of the city’s other clubs. A bed at Cluj’s central Retro youth hostel (+40 264 45045, retro.ro) only costs £11 per night. From there, catch a train to Sighisoara, a fantastical walled town – and birthplace of national hero Vlad the Impaler – before completing the return circuit via Sibiu, a recent European capital of culture. Beautiful cities, interesting people and cheap drink – all without running the risk of bumping into a British stag party.
Havana’s glorious crumbling architecture and Caribbean sunshine are obviously a big draw, but it’s the vibrancy of the people that really makes Cuba special. So when the taxi driver pulled over on the side of the road and demanded to teach me salsa, all I could do was go with it. A great way to get a feel for the country and get close to the people (and also travel cheaply and eat good Cuban food) is to stay with local families in casa particulares – cuba-junky.com is a useful site that lists many of them. Our casa provided us with breakfast, dinner and a whole host of recommendations.
Travelling round the island was fairly straightforward thanks to the bus system and men in orange boiler suits whose job it is to flag down rides for hitchhikers. Should you fancy a substitute for the traditional British summer festival, make the 13-hour trip to Santiago, a city vibrating with beats and bands playing on every street corner. Head to Casa de La Trova for a taste of the original son, which inspired the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca on his visit and where the locals were more than happy to teach us a few steps, but only if we could keep up.
Sofya Shahab, student, City University
Szimpla courtyard bar
While many students will associate summer in Budapest with the Sziget music festival, the Hungarian capital itself has more than enough on offer to be a destination in its own right. The city is famous for its ruin pubs with their arty, underground atmosphere in hidden courtyards. Szimpla (Kazinczy utca 1, szimpla.hu) is the most popular. The Corvinteto Club on top of the Soviet-style Corvin department store (Blaha Lujzater 1-2, corvinteto.hu) is well-known for its reggae and dubstep nights and its rooftop bar.
For daytime sightseeing, most highlights are conveniently located along Andrássy út, with the House of Terror (terrorhaza.hu), dedicated to 20th-century Hungary’s fascist and communist regimes, being a personal favourite. Stop by Menza for lunch (Liszt Ferenc tér 2, menzaetterem.hu); though not very cheap, it serves delicious Hungarian specialities.
The tiny, central Budapest Bubble (Brody Sandor utca 2), housed in an old building, is more like a home than a hostel. You’re better off staying on the Pesta side for a relaxed yet vibrant atmosphere that attracts masses of friendly international students.
Secret Garden Hostel
Ecuador is considered one of the best places to learn Spanish in Latin America because of the clear accent and low prices. I enjoyed my stay at Quito’s Secret Garden Hostel, a place that is quite rightly proud of its terrace’s panoramic views over the historical centre and the Andes beyond. It has its own Spanish school and if you have more time you can apply for its one-month volunteer programme, where you work in the hostel in exchange for a bed, food, drinks, 10 hours of Spanish lessons and one night at its sister hostel by Cotopaxi volcano. Demand to work at this eco-aware hostel is understandably high, but it also has links with other organisations in the area, so you can also consider working on local environmental projects or helping conserve rare Andean bears.