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There is no other way to put it; The Hostel in The Forest was exactly that.  A hostel, smack bang in the middle of a forest.

We pulled off US 82, and onto a divided highway, turning down a tiny dirt road that led directly into the forest.  We parked the car, and followed a dirt path, which was covered in heart-shaped patterns and peace-signs made out of leaves.  It was immediately clear to me that this was the first sign of trouble.

The short trail led us to a curious compound of raised wooden buildings and tree houses and strange, straw huts.  The architecture was unlike anything I’d ever seen; it was like I’d stepped out of our Nissan Quest and directly into Where the Wild Things Are.  The Forest was a kind of thawed-out Narnia, completely isolated from the outside world and in possession of a strange kind of magic.

We walked into the central hut and checked in, greeted by staff member “Heather”.  Soft-spoken with long red hair à la Florence Welch and bare feet, Heather was the personification of a wood nymph.  We took turns signing various waivers, marvelling at the kaleidoscopic collage of Polaroid pictures that lined the hut’s interior.  The smiling faces of members past and present adorned the walls, alongside incense and feathers and rainbow-coloured woven rugs.  It was hippie paradise.

Heather gave us a quick overview of the hostel’s ground rules and general practice, and showed us around the key communal areas. We were warned of the gong that would sound thirty minutes before the communal (vegetarian) dinner, and left to explore the rest of the environmentally-friendly site.  We wandered the confines of The Forest, which at 105 acres, felt anything but confined.  “Laundry Land” and the “Tub of Tranquillity” were my personal favourite Hostelisms, but there was also a vegetable garden, a pool with a tyre swing and a huge, glass hut used exclusively for yoga practice.

I was amazed by the variety of eco-friendly measures that The Hostel had taken to ensure that The Forest remained a “clean” self-sustaining entity.  However, while I was impressed by the grandeur of the natural beauty that surrounded me, and pleased to be participating in such a green venture, I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of my element.  A city girl at heart, and more than a little obsessive-compulsive when it comes to cleanliness, the prospect of spending the night in the middle of a forest, without flushing toilets or indoor showers, did not thrill me.  Heather’s unironic words hung in the air like an unwelcome smell.

“All our showers are Sexy Showers!”

Sucking up my pride and hygiene-related scruples, I relaxed into the rest of the day, and spent the afternoon drinking herbal tea (made from bio-degradable tea-bags) and reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem while the others played card games and table-tennis.  Dusk began to fall, and we noticed that somebody had lit the campfire outside.

Driven temporarily insane by hunger (where was the gong?), the conversation turned to animals.  Seeing as we weren’t allowed to eat them (The Hostel is an organic, vegetarian affair), we pondered what it would be like to be them, and if we were animals, which species would we each be?

Our discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the food, which looked and smelled incredible.  Home-made soup, freshly baked bread and huge, colourful salads, as well as an amazing sweet potato casserole (appropriately named Bohemian Goddess Surprise) lined the family-style dining table.

Deliriously hungry, we were more than ready to eat.  Alas, The Hostel had other plans.

We were summoned outside, and asked to join the ring of people around the campfire.  A group of about fifty people were standing in a circle, joining hands.

It was time to say grace.

Every single person in the circle was expected to disclose their name, where they hailed from and what they were thankful for.  We quickly realised that this wasn’t a joke, as the people around us described what they were thankful for in painstaking detail.  What might have been a sweet exercise in gratitude was comical, full of cult-like weirdness and bizarre, deadpan, possibly drug-fuelled declarations of thanks.

“I’m from the land of lunar dust, and lost lovers’ lust.  I’m thankful for the pixies, and the fairies, and all of the other magical creatures that live in this wonderful forest.”

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

I struggled to stifle my laughter when Megan announced that she was thankful for hot showers, and aeroplanes, her straight-faced delivery making it all the more hilarious.  The Circle of Thanks was eventually completed, and we finally sat down to eat our much-anticipated vegetarian feast, a welcome change from the many burgers of the days before.

We spent the evening hanging out in one of the common areas, playing Trivial Pursuit while Ciarán strummed a broken guitar.  Mobile phones and laptop computers were banned.  We relished the enforced electrical items ban, listening, wide-eyed, as our new friends “Parish” and “Sage” told us about how they’d dropped out of school and were really “living”.  Hearing the boys talk about their experiences of lo-fi living was intriguing, alien, and straight out of the mouth of Christopher McCandless (although we all know how his life turned out).  If I wanted the road trip to feel like a film, this was surely one of the most memorable scenes.

We groped our way through the darkness, and back to our tree-house.  Megan and I winced at the mention of bugs, trying our hardest not to think about the many cockroaches crawling the forest floor.  The walls that lined our room were wire-mesh screens, protecting us from The Forest’s wildlife (including, but not limited to wild chickens).  Unfortunately, they did nothing to combat my genuine fear that Bob from Twin Peaks was lurking in the shadows somewhere nearby.

In the morning, Clare collected blueberries from a wild patch, and made blueberry pancakes for breakfast.  Sunshine, pancakes and the best coffee outside of New York; breakfast in The Forest was nothing short of perfect.  After clearing up, we walked down to The Forest’s resident lake.  I sat on a wooden swing and looked out at the untouched expanse of water, soaking up the gorgeous natural scenery.

Weird and wonderful in every way, The Hostel in The Forest was one of my favourite East Coast pit-stops.  But, of course, most of the best things in life have an expiry date, and so we jumped in the car and hit the road once again, turning our back on the David Lynch-esque cult that sooner or later, would surely have tried to steal our souls.

*Photographs by Clare Anderson.

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After our two-day stint in Orlando, it was time to hit the road again.  As it turns out, New Orleans, Louisiana is pretty far from Orlando.  640 miles far, and kind of intimidating, considering there was only one of us driving.

Being the only member of the gang who was over 21, Carl had agreed to take on the task of designated driver, a noble feat which had him driving a cumulative 4000 miles over the span of our three-week trip.  Thankfully, Asher and Clare had devised a plan which split the journey up into driveable chunks, laid out in a perfect, pristine spreadsheet.

Day Three, or Day Six for the others, who had flown out to Miami a few days before, had us headed for Brunswick, Georgia.  Clare’s dad (cheers, Alan!) had stayed in a hostel in a Georgian forest back in the 1970s, and had recommended we check it out, it being relatively en-route.  We’d booked one night’s stay, with no knowledge of what the place would be like.

As we drove, I attempted to combat the moody Floridian rain with a mixtape titled “Sorry boys”.

Funnily enough, Carl and Ciarán were less than impressed.

To take the edge off, I began what was to soon become a kind of spiritual practice in the car; using the Yelp for Android app to find food that was a) nearby and b) cheap.  Yelp led us to the nearby Soul Food Bistro @ The Potter’s House, in Jacksonville, Florida.  Thrilled by the possibility of authentic soul food with a four-and-a-half star rating from Yelp and by this point, pretty damn hungry, we pulled up to the parking lot of the restaurant excitedly.

However, what Yelp had neglected to mention, was the fact that Soul Food Bistro @ The Potter’s House was located in the middle of a giant Christian mall.

Bemused, we sat down in the bistro (which turned out to be a cafeteria rather than a bistro), and found ourselves pleasantly surprised to discover that the food was pretty good.  Fried chicken with gravy, cornbread, “collard greens” (kale, slow-cooked with bacon), mac-n-cheese and a syrupy peach cobbler were delicious, and big hits with all members of the team.  After lunch, we had a quick wander around the mall, where we found, I shit you not, a Christian bowling alley.

Sadly, there was no time for bowling, and so it was onwards to the forest we headed.


*Photographs by Clare Anderson.

Universal Studios is where our adventure begins.

To prove it, please see the above photo of my delightfully deadpan Aussie bestie, Megan, standing beneath Orlando’s fervent proclamation that Universal’s Islands of Adventure® Theme Park is in fact, where *the* adventure begins.

The Islands of Adventure side of the park is home to a vast expanse of famous rides like The Incredible Hulk Coaster, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (love Universal’s unabashed use of superlatives in the names of their rides) and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, but let’s be real, I was there for one reason and one reason only.   Yep, you guessed it.

THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER.

Those who know me are well aware of my mild-to-moderate love for the franchise.  And by mild-to-moderate love, I mean burning, passionate, undying obsession.

As we stepped into fake Hogsmeade, we were transported, quite literally into an incredibly realistic and detailed reconstruction of J.K. Rowling’s fictional town.  Never mind the fake snow, incongruous with the twenty-eight degree Florida weather, WE WERE IN HOGSMEADE.  Naturally, this reduced my mental age to that of a seven year-old, and I ran around squealing, fawning over the chocolate frogs in Honeydukes, clapping animatedly at the puking pastilles in Zonko’s Joke Shop, overawed by the huge barrels labelled Butterbeer that lined the streets.

“YOU GUYS, THIS IS LITERALLY THE BEST THING EVER!”

I shouted, unable to contain my excitement.  After five minutes of me running around like a headless chicken, my friends and I headed to Hogwarts, to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  My roommate had visited the park over Spring Break, and assured me that my mind was going to be blown.

We stowed our bags and joined the short queue, wide-eyed as we made our way through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, the Astronomy tower, Dumbledore’s office and a room in the castle’s ‘dungeons’, which I recognized as a perfect reconstruction of the notorious Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom.  We wandered the moving portrait-covered walls and stood in awe as hologram-versions of Harry, Ron and Hermione chatted to us.  These holograms were not unlike the TuPac hologram at Coachella.  And would you believe it, this was all before the ride had even started!

I don’t want to spoil the fun of the ride itself, as it was the surprise element that made it, for lack of a better word, truly magical.  What I will tell you is that the moving cart coupled with 3D simulation and incredible set-pieces worked together to create the best ride I’ve ever been.  Even Harry Potter naysayers like Megan and Ciarán were awed by the experience, and desperate to do it all again!

While I would normally abhor the pervasive consumerism that American institutions such as Universal inflicts upon its visiting public, I couldn’t help but love the plethora of Harry Potter-related rubbish.  We were all sucked in by the sheer novelty of it all; I ended up buying a Marauder’s Map mug (which sadly, didn’t make it all the way to San Francisco and back in one piece), Clare a Deathly Hallows keychain and Megan Dumbledore’s hat (albeit for a friend).  Satisfied with our purchases, we made our way around the rest of the park, riding literally every ride on offer, and stopping frequently to reapply sunscreen and refill our water bottles like the responsible adults that we were.

It being early May, we were able to enjoy the glorious Florida heat without any of the peak-season queues.  We rode rides like the Dragon Challenge, The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man multiple times, drank frozen Butterbeer in The Hog’s Head and giggled as 23 year-old Swedish friend Carl visited an arcade for the first time in his life.

The girls maintain to this day that the only ride that disappointed was Poseidon’s Fury, “a spectacular, special effects-laden interactive show that makes excellent use of water projection screens, fire pyrotechnics and water effects”.  As it turns out, Poseidon’s Fury was a crowded walking tour of a fake temple, with some really terrible acting.  I didn’t think it was that bad.  It was fun!

In fact, the only real low point in the day was being subjected to forty minutes of the most irritating music in the universe as we queued for Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls; in short, it was magical.

However, the magic seemed to end where the park did; the moment we stepped beyond the bounds of the Universal lot, we found ourselves caught in a typical, tropical Floridian rainstorm.

I didn’t mind.

Tiny brown lizards whizzed across the shiny, rain-soaked pavements, before the rain eventually cleared to make way for a balmy summer’s evening.  We sat in our hotel room, cross-legged and slightly damp, drinking red wine out of polystyrene cups and eating take-out from a nearby Thai restaurant (the first of many Yelp finds!).

Surrounded by five of my best friends, I couldn’t help but already feel oddly wistful.  I was nostalgic for something that hadn’t ended yet, for something that had barely even begun.

*Photographs by Clare Anderson.

So, I’m back in England, and I’m writing this from my bedroom, listening to Galaxie 500, hardly able to believe that I’m home.  My American adventure is finally over, or at least, this chapter of my American adventure is finally over.

But fuck me, it was amazing.  That’s not to say that this trip was without its challenges, but believe me when I say, the five months I spent in the US have been the best five months of my life.

And while all of it has been new and shiny and exciting, my three week-long road trip has to be the highlight.  It was everything I could have ever wished for and more, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

I have left the love of my life indefinitely, but it doesn’t mean that we’re broken up.  Let’s just say, we’re seeing other people.  Or, I’m seeing other people.  After all, they say the best way to get over somebody is to get under somebody else.

That’s right; New York and I are on a break.  I’ll be back sooner or later, but in the mean time, I’m going to be cheating on New York City with Orlando, New Orleans, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

I’m going to be spending the remainder of May road trippin’ across the country with five of my favourite people.  I’m flying down to sunny Florida and meeting the gang, and then, after visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we’re driving to the jazz capital of the world, New Orleans.  We’re flying from New Orleans to Las Vegas, where, after one wild night on the strip, we’ll be camping in the Grand Canyon, rollerblading down the Venice Beach boardwalk and ending our trip in San Francisco, a city I’ve had a crush on for years.

I spent my teenage years obsessing over the transformative road trips I’d read about in books (On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson) and seen in films (Magic Trip, Little Miss Sunshine, Thelma and Louise, True Romance, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries, Badlands, Into the Wild).  I can’t believe that after all those logged hours of wanderlust, I’m finally going on my own road trip.

This three week-long trip is going to be the grand finale of my great American adventure, and I think it’s safe to say, I have never been more excited for anything in my entire life.

I’ll be sharing my adventures with you on my return.  In the meantime, I invite you to join me in spirit by pressing play below.

Last Friday was my last day in New York.

I took the bus into the city with my roommate, Sunny, and we talked about our shared love for the city all the way into Manhattan.  What are your Top 5 New York Moments?  Where’s your favourite place to eat downtown?  Which museum do you like the best?  Do you remember when you saw Madonna inside Macy’s?*

We arrived at Port Authority, and headed straight to the Chelsea Market, one of Sunny’s favourite spots in the city.  I’d never been before, and was suitably impressed.  I found myself marvelling at the plethora of delicious-looking food and drink and flowers, annoyed that this was my first and last visit.  We decided to eat lunch at The Green Table, one of the market’s many sit-down restaurants.  We opted for comfort food; Sunny went for mac and cheese, I had soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, and we laughed and talked and tried not to talk about our impending goodbye.  We had dessert to-go, a brownie from the Fat Witch Bakery.  It was good, of course, but not the best brownie I’ve eaten in the city .

We had planned to visit the 9/11 Memorial, and so we headed downtown to the Financial District.  Unfortunately, neither of us was aware that in order to enter the site, you had to have tickets.  We made our way over to Vesey Street in an attempt to procure tickets, but the next available viewing slot was 4PM, a time that didn’t concur with either of our schedules.  We had a brief look around the Vesey Street’s photo exhibition, but were somewhat unsettled by the amount of 9/11 Memorial related merchandise available for purchase.  To make money off such a tragic event seemed distasteful, inappropriate even.  It was a disappointing visit, a rushed debacle of an afternoon.

Frustrated, I left Sunny and headed back up to Midtown to grab a goodbye coffee with Jenan, who among her many other talents, works part-time in the PR department at Victoria’s Secret.  We went to Starbucks and talked about the trials and tribulations of studying abroad.  Jenan studied in England last semester, and completely related to my experience.  Studying abroad isn’t all glamourous weekends in New York and exotic spring break vacations in Puerto Rico; it’s dealing with a completely different system of education, it’s not seeing your family for five months or more, it’s trying to find people in your near-vicinity who will support you.  We talked about being screwed over by so-called friends, and finding solace in travel.  It was exactly the kind of cathartic, reflective conversation I needed to have.  I hugged Jenan goodbye, sad, but confident that I’d see her again soon.

After saying goodbye to Jenan, I walked over to Penn Station, to meet another friend.  Will and I studied film together this semester, and I’d managed to coerce him into coming along to a rooftop film screening with me.  As much as I love exploring the city alone, some things are better with friends.  This seemed like one of them.  We spent the afternoon wandering the Lower East Side, trading stories and talking about our families.  After having dinner in an upscale diner called Alias, we walked over to the Open Road Rooftop, a public space that sits atop the New Design High School.

I’m serious; I watched a movie on the roof of a high school.  I’d read about the event in TimeOut New York a while back, and knew that I had to go.  I was smart to book tickets; the event sold out, and the evening did not disappoint.  The venue was incredible; a huge, covered rooftop with amazing views of the glorious Manhattan skyline I’m so in love with.  A band called Crinkles opened up the evening with a half-hour set, just as the sun was setting.  The atmosphere was perfect.

The film programme itself however, a series of short films, was somewhat hit-and-miss.  Some were excellent (A Brief History of John Baldessari, as narrated by Tom Waits), others were less so (Aaron Burr, Part 2), but the venue’s dreamy backdrop more than made up for it.

And so, the programme finished, and the evening came to a close.  Will was taking the train and I was taking the bus, so we took the subway together and parted ways on 34th and 7th, outside a flower shop.  As I walked through Midtown, back to Port Authority, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a movie.  But, of course, all good movies end, and so I stepped on the midnight bus for the last time with a heavy heart.

But, it’s like Will said:

“New York’s not going anywhere.”

And he’s right, the city isn’t going anywhere, even if I am.  But who knows, maybe I’ll be back. After all, New York City is the perfect place for a sequel.


*True story.


I can’t imagine getting sick of this city.

No matter how many times I see that Manhattan skyline, it never gets old.  I have had some of the most magical, memorable experiences of my life, let alone my semester abroad, in New York City.  Last time I wrote about New York, I wrote about how an ordinary, insignificant day was turned into something special by nothing more than the New York air.  Little did I know that that small, special afternoon was a primer for the next trip I would take into the city; a trip I’d been planning for weeks, a trip that Clare and I had been referring to for several weeks as “Big NYC Weekend”.

I arrived in New York on Friday afternoon, pressed for time and anxious that I wouldn’t make my manicure appointment.  First World Problems?  Perhaps.  I made it downtown to the Lower East Side in record time, to find the nail salon calm and serene, a quiet oasis in this bustling city.  A sweet girl gave me the most thorough, precise manicure I’ve ever had, and it only cost me $10!  After 45 minutes of affordable luxury, I headed to my favourite bookstore in the city, McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in NoLita.  For dinner.  Of course, left to my own devices, I would end up eating in a literature-themed café.  I shared a table with a native New Yorker, who gave me some useful subway directions, and one soup/sandwich combo later, I made my way back up to Midtown.

A couple of weeks prior, my friend had informed me that writer-director Jason Reitman’s L.A.-based “Live Read” project was making its way to New York.  I immediately booked a ticket, but unfortunately said friend wasn’t quite quick enough, and so I ended up going alone.  I joined the queue inside the TimesCenter, giddy with excitement. I spotted Olivia Wilde (who, despite being a Famous Person, didn’t get to skip the queue!), looking blonde and perfect.  I sat in the front row, next to a friendly, dreadlocked screenwriter called “Damien”, and discussed teenage clichés and collegiate experiences and terrible movies.  How is it that all of the New Yorkers I’ve encountered are such great conversationalists?

The Live Read itself was fucking cool; a plethora of Famous People, including Emma Stone, Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis, Greta Gerwig, Tom Cavanagh, Cara Buono, David Wain and James Woods performed a dramatic reading of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.  Greta Gerwig’s impeccable comic timing was my highlight of the evening, and comedienne Emma Stone’s performance proved surprisingly emotive and measured.  It was a one-off event and a pretty memorable New York experience, especially for a self-proclaimed cinephile like me.

I walked across the street to the bus terminal, wondering if this weekend could get any better, convinced that such a feat would be impossible, shaking my head at my own good fortune.