Just Phuket!

 

SimilanAnyone who’s ever been to Phuket, Thailand knows that it’s anything but “just” anything!  This island is a combination of beach, jungle, city, and water destinations.

I didn’t stay in the typical tourist location, the one that everyone thinks of when thinking of Phuket (if you think of it at all, that is).  I didn’t stay on the west coast on one of the many beaches where the party scene and the noise prevail.  I couchsurfed and my host was on the east coast, in Paklok, where it was peaceful and completely surrounded by locals and jungle.

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Karon and Kata Beaches on the west coast

I didn’t set my destination to the island of Phi Phi or to Krabi, either.  Again, those are notorious party zones even though they are also incredibly beautiful.  I did plot two separate day long water destinations while staying in Phuket (pronounced Poo-ket).  The first was to Phang Nga Bay.

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James Bond Island

The tour made 4 stops:  Panak Island, where we kayaked into a bat cave; Hong Island for more kayaking to water chambers on the interior of the island; James Bond Island (the tourist name for Khao Phing Kan) to wander & take photos; then to Lana Island, where we hopped off the boat for a swim.  The water was so salty that it made floating easy and very refreshing!  This tour departs from Ao Por Pier which is very close to my couchsurfing hosts home.  I didn’t pre-book;  my host dropped me off at the pier and I easily found an affordable tour for that same morning.  I recommend the tour company, JP Andaman Tour Co. Ltd.

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Elephant Rock on Similan Island

My second tour destination was to an island that is only open 6 months out of the year, the Similan Islands.  I made it just under the gun as it closed May 15th and I went on May 6th.  Considering that I was staying on the east side of Phuket and the islands were off of the west coast, the trip was a very long one!  My host drove me 15 minutes to the pre-arranged meeting place for the tour van; the van drove 1.5 hours to our check-in point then another 10 minutes to the pier.  From there, it was a 1 hour speed boat ride to our first stop for snorkeling then a short ride to the other side of the island to debark and hike, play in the water, eat lunch, and take photos.  Soon we were off to the next island for more snorkeling and to another island for more hiking, playing in the water, and photos.  One hour back to the pier, etc.  Whew!  But wow!!  The water was startlingly blue and the sand incredibly white!  Also, watching the boats debarking their guests along the beach, amidst considerable waves, was extremely entertaining in itself!

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Phuket’s Big Buddha

After such amazing water adventures, I decided to do a half day land tour and actually see Phuket!  I found this tour through a friend of my couchsurfing host.   In this case, a taxi (included in the price of my tour) picked me up down the road from where I was staying.  A long drive into town and we met up with the tour van.  After picking up 4 other tourists, we began our adventure at a view point, high above the west coast beaches.  A short trip down the road, we stopped to take photos with a baby elephant (or just to enjoy others feeding and interacting with it) then on we went to see the Big Buddha.  The Buddha is impressive but the views, in my opinion, were more worth the trip.  We moved on to ride elephants and, depending on the tour you purchased, ride ATV’s.

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Elephant trekking was my choice and it was an awesome experience, especially when I straddled my elephants neck to feed her bananas.  The trek itself was comical!  You are led down a short road to an empty lot where you just kind of hang out.  That is the point where I fed my elephant and the handler took photos of me.   After stops at a honey farm, jewelry and souvenir shop, and a cashew nut factory, our last stop was at Chalong Temple.  A beautiful temple and, at that late hour of the afternoon, fairly empty of other tourists.  Once back to where I met the tour van, my taxi was already waiting for me.  She drove me all of the way to the house then she had to turn around and drive all of the way back to Phuket Town, where she lived.  Again, this is a tour I recommend as the tour guide and my taxi driver were amazing but I can’t locate a website for them.  If interested, call 088-1204861 or 062-443271 and ask for Ammy!

Wat Chalong
Wat Chalong

My first night in Phuket, my host and I went to a BBQ at a coworkers home.  The next night, he took me to a lovely restaurant right on the beach.  I didn’t see him much after that as he was out and about doing his own thing but he did want to take me to a hilltop restaurant overlooking Phuket.  Unfortunately, my last 2 days there, I was suffering from Traveler’s Diarrhea so was unable to go.  Apparently, this ailment is very common among visitors to Thailand.

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Mural in Phuket Town
Chang Beer
Chang Beer

I’ve been extremely lucky in my travels in that I’ve been able to eat anything and have been fine.  I believe I got sick from the buffet on my Similan Islands tour.  It just didn’t seem…clean.  Luckily, I barely ate any of it.  I did a little research and found out that Chang beer is made from untreated water and is unregulated.  I drank quite a bit of it while in Phuket, so I think it was a combination of the two.  For my remaining weeks in Thailand, I drank either Singha, Leo, or Tiger beers.  These are all regulated and are also cheap.  They have less alcohol content than Chang but I can actually enjoy the taste without worry!

My host kindly drove me to the airport and I said goodbye to a wonderful young man and anything but “just” Phuket!

James Bond Island - Phang Nga Bay
James Bond Island – Phang Nga Bay
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Departing James Bond Island
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Kayaking Hong Island – Phang Nga Bay
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Kayaking Hong Island – Phang Nga Bay
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Phang Nga Bay
Phang Nga Bay
Phang Nga Bay
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Excessive cables, a common sight in Thailand
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Ao Por – Launch point for Phang Nga Bay from Phuket
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Wat Chalong
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A Similan Island Beach
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Camping is an option on Similan Island
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A Similan Island Beach

 

 

 

Singapore to Penang

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Singapore, the cleanest city in the world, has no trash cans!  I found myself time and again hauling my empty water bottle, metro and bus tickets, and other trash I’d generated throughout the day for quite a while before finally finding a trash bin!  I imagine that everyone else is doing the same!  I finally asked a security guard at the metro station where a trash can was and he said, “No trash cans”.  What the heck?!  Maybe that is why they are so clean!  No overflowing garbage recepticles and major fines, or even jail, if caught littering!  Hmmm.

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Singapore Garden By The Bay

I was only in Singapore for 4 nights and, though I enjoyed the Flyer and the Gardens By The Bay (the 2 main attractions), the materialism is, to me, appalling!  I’ve never seen so many malls and markets in my life!  I’ve never seen so many seemingly manic shoppers in my life!  The most beautiful and travel friendly airport in the world and yet, still, so many poor locals.  I visited Sentosa Island where Universal Studios is along with a multitude of attractions, live music, restaurants, and beaches.  I simply walked around it all then walked the boardwalk away.  Again, all about making money and much too expensive!

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Pulau Ubin Island

My last day in Singapore, I rose early and doggedly found my way to Pulau Ubin Island, the last “original Singapore village”!  It took 3 metros, a bus, and a “bumboat” to get there.  Just as I arrived at the ferry station, the skies let loose so I had to wait until the rain let up a little bit before heading to Ubin.  Crossing over was so foggy that I could see little.  On arrival, it was still raining so I found a restaurant where I enjoyed the local food & Tiger beer!

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Bicycles for rent!

I rented a bike for $5.70 SGD (that’s all I had except for big bills) and rode out!  I never really knew where I was going at any point (turns out that I can no longer read maps very well!), I had issues with the seat but finally got it to quit sinking as I rode!  THEN the chain came off in the middle of nowhere!!  Three tourists who, like me, were off road, came along and managed to get my bike chain back on so off I rode again!  Along the way, I saw a python, wild pig, a monitor lizard, and some kind of giant tadpole!  At the end of it all, I was soaked in sweat and definitely got my cardio!!

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Pulau Ubin Pier

Penang!  Heat, humidity, art murals, food trucks, and Uber!!  What’s not to love??  Traffic!!  That’s what! LOL  I feel like this blog is so negative!!  I don’t mean it to be but I honestly am not a big fan of either location.

Penang Original

The thing about Penang is that, because I lived there when I was 8 years old, I wanted to see it as an adult.  After 46 years, it’s a completely different place so was not what I expected!  This formula makes for a less enjoyable experience.  That being said, I adored visiting my old school, St Christopher’s International Primary School, and my old street where I actually saw the house I lived in all those years ago!

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St Christopher’s International Primary School

The art murals of Penang are amazing, the people are as well, as are the temples…with the exception of the Snake Temple.  Don’t bother visiting that one!!  It was great back in 1969 but it’s not now.  In the end, don’t take my word on any of this!!  It’s all about your own experiences!!  Asia offers a multitude!!!

Penang Panorama
Penang Panorama
Penang
Clan Jetty
Penang1 Penang Walkway Penang Downtown Penang Downtown1 Penang Temple Penang Art Penang Art2 Penang Art3 Penang fun Penang Fun2 Penang rickshaw Penang-Vespa Singapore trees1 Singapore Singapore1 Singapore2 Singapore5

 

 

 

 

Destination Bali For Peace Or Party

Bali BaturIf you’ve never been to Bali, Indonesia, there are a few things that you should know before arriving.  You’re no where NEAR Kansas anymore; you should never pay asking price; be prepared to hear a litany of “taxi?”, “massage?”; if you’re looking to party, you’re in the right place; if you’re looking to relax, you’re in the right place; and the Balinese are the nicest people you could hope to meet!

I landed in Bali just before 2AM and thought I was prepared to walk to my one night hotel with map in hand.  I soon realized that street signs were only obvious on major streets so I ended up walking probably 3 times farther than I should have, carrying ALL of my heavy bags.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, even at that hour, the heat and humidity was like nothing I had ever experienced!!  I eventually realized that I had missed my turn (way back there!) so turned around and started asking people for directions.  During this journey, I was asked probably 50 times if I needed a ride by taxi’s and scooters.  Oddly, I felt perfectly safe on the dark streets at 3 in the morning!  Yes, I finally arrived at my hotel completely soaked in sweat!

A few hours later, my driver arrived to transport me to my bungalow in Ubud, Bali.  I had no idea that Ubud was actually where the bulk of the “Love” part of the movie, “Eat, Pray, Love”, was filmed!  I can believe it though!  I fell head over heels in love with Ubud!

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Pondok Bambu Homestay
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Bali Entertainment

My bungalow was 2 story with a front porch.  My double bed boasted a canopy with mosquito netting.  Every morning, there was a thermos of hot water waiting on my patio table along with coffee, tea, sugar, cream, and the necessary cup, saucer, and spoon.  As soon as I had made my coffee and sat back to enjoy, the caretaker materialized to converse (I honestly never understood much of what he said) and to ask me what I wanted for breakfast.  Always, there was a plate of various fresh fruit and I invariably ordered the banana pancakes as they ROCKED!  Please note that all of this and more was for a mere $15 USD a night!!  I completely recommend Pondok Bambu Homestay to anyone looking for a true Bali experience.  Just be prepared to be woken every morning just after 5AM by the neighbors rooster and chickens.

The owner of Pondok Bambu loaned me one of his wife’s sarongs so that I could attend the ceremony across the street at the Hindu temple.  It was nearing the end of a week long celebration and, my last night there, they had the traditional Balinese dance.  With hair down and/or no sarong, I was not allowed in the temple so I was grateful!

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Hindu Prayer

Anyway, from my bungalow, I could walk down the stairs at the back of the complex and wind my way to the rice paddies.  Quite a sight to see!  During my rice paddy wanderings, I met a Balinese man, Wayan, who offered to take me wherever I wanted for a mere $15 a day on the back of his scooter.  I accepted.  We spent 2 days riding all over Bali through rain and sun and my sore behind!  We stopped at a coffee plantation, the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, Tirta Empul, Lake Batur and Hot Springs, and Kitamani, which provided an amazing view of Mount Batur.  We visited Goa Gajah (Elephant Temple), Batuan Temple, a jewelry factory, Lake Bratan, and the Botanical Garden.  Yes!!  I was exhausted and enjoyed doing nothing pretty much the next couple of days!!  I did get a pedicure on my way to get wine, though!  With tip, it cost me about $5 USD.

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Bali Rice Planter

I did also find, thanks to my neighbor, that I could take those same stairs and head off in the other direction to cheap but fantastic restaurants!  The path eventually led to town as well and to the one nearby shop where I could buy wine!  The night I learned of the direction and offerings that it led to, my neighbor and I ambled down it to a little place, Bali Yoga, where we ate and drank and became very merry!  I now have another new, fun friend!

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Bali Shop

Ubud is fantastic for just wandering.  You will pass through hundreds of little shops of local vendors, boutiques, temples, spas, art galleries, restaurants, bars, and accommodations.  Turn a corner and you’re in quiet rice paddies or a monkey forest.  Ubud is a great jumping off point for seeing the rest of the island as well.  I had only booked 4 nights at Pondok Bambu but extended 2 more nights.  I really wish I had stayed even longer!

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Monkey mom & child

My 8th day in Bali, I snagged a “taxi”, negotiated a price, and was driven to my new residence, Matahari Bungalow, in Legian, Bali.  This was a much larger hotel complex which included a pool, swim up bar, and restaurant.  The staff was, again, awesome!  I booked Legian instead of Kuta as I was told it wasn’t as much of a party town.  Well, I think “they” meant to say that it wasn’t as much the 20-something scene as the older party crowd.  After all, you can’t tell where Legian ends and Kuta begins.

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Legian Beach

My first day, I decided to walk to the beach.  It wasn’t far and I found it easily.  I paid for an hour for a lounge chair under an umbrella then was completely inundated by vendors!!  The vendors refused to leave until I bought a few items so, 45 minutes later, and completely stressed and angry, they left me a few dollars poorer.  After that, I pretty well stayed away from the nearby beach.

Bai beach seafood

One night, I took a taxi to a seafood restaurant on the beach in Jimbaran, Jukung Bali Seafood, and had a somewhat expensive but memorable meal with fantastic sunset views.  After arriving back at my hotel, I decided I wanted to dance so I walked down to the bars.  I met a local man and, a bit later, an Australian woman and we ended up having a fantastic time bar hopping and dancing!

A couple of days later, at the hotel pool, I met a British man who completely cracked me up!  He invited me to dinner, so we went.  We wandered back streets and found local bands playing to surfer dudes in dive bars and would stop to have a drink and enjoy.  We went to a favorite locale of his, Alley Cats, where we had a tray of drinks and met several expats!  Then it was time to hit the dance clubs!  I ran into the local guy from 2 nights before and he joined us.  All I can say is, it takes me way too long to recuperate from these fantastically FUN nights!!  I saw the Brit 2 days later and he was still recuperating himself!  It seems he went back out after seeing me safely home around 4AM!!

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Tanah Lot

One of my days in Legian, I hired a taxi to drive me to Tanah Lot, as it was one location Wayan had not managed to get me to.  It’s one of those places that you see pictures of anytime Bali is mentioned.  It is a beautiful place to walk, snap pictures, and reflect.

I had posted an invitation on the Bali Couchsurfing group for anyone who wanted to go to Lovina to see the wild dolphins and ended up finding a ride as well as a new friend!  Two days after my night out, we departed Legian at 2:45AM in order to arrive before sunrise and rented a fishing boat to go out to see the dolphins as the sun rose.  It was amazing and exhausting but the sunrise was awesome and we saw dolphins!!  Upon returning to my hotel, I went to a spa for a 1 hour massage which, with tip, cost me just under $5 USD.  My new friend met me at my hotel pool that night where we enjoyed drinks, laughs, and wonderful new memories!

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Dolphins!

That was my last day in Bali.  The next morning, my new friend drove me to the airport on her scooter (Yes!  It was quite a sight!) and we said goodbye for now.  I REALLY hope to make it back to Bali again SOON!!!

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Bali Colors

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Tanah Lot
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Tirta Empul
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The view of the temple as you leave Pondok Bambuu.
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Tegalalang Rice Terraces

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Balinese Dancer
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What’s better than pure coconut juice??
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Happy dolphins!
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Silver jewelry factory
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Elephant Temple
Bali Lake Batur
Lake Batur
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Lake Bratan
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Lovina Sunrise
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Tirta Empul

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Back to Oz – North to Cairns

I winged my way back to Oz via Melbourne but, with only a 4 hour lay over, I only saw the airport.  Once in Cairns, I found my couchsurfing host at the Pier Bar (thanks to a fantastic, just off-duty, lady bartender who took pity on this phone-less chick!…ie. she called my host for me, no answer, she left, he called her, she drove back to me, we called him, he came out to where I was waiting!)  before dumping all of my bags into his dingy to ride out to his sailboat.  That’s right!  What a unique experience I had while in Cairns!  I had never been on a sailboat and here, I lived on one!!

Cairns Sail
Morning View

My host was very interesting so we had many nights of great conversation.  He drove me to the Crystal Cascades for photos and to cool off in the waters then up, way up to Copperlode Dam.  This is where Cairns’ fresh, clear, drinking water comes from.  Driving back down at dusk, we stopped many times to take pictures of the lights coming on in Cairns.

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Off to Shore

My days in Cairns were spent riding the dingy into port, walking the city, taking a bus to the Skyrail, up the mountain to wander Kuranga, taking the Kuranga Train back down to Cairns, a full day’s trip out on a boat to snorkel and dive the Great Barrier Reef and meeting my host daily at the Pier Bar to go grab groceries or have a couple of drinks before going back to the sailboat in Cairns Harbor.

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Cairns Boardwalk

One night we left the Pier Bar with friends of his to go hear some live blues.  What a treat!!  The Montgomery Brothers were amazing!!  I was honored to hear them as well as meet the incredible singer/guitarist, Ryo! Such talented young (24, 18, & 15 year olds) men!!  Definitely a highlight of my visit!

Montgomery Brothers
The Montgomery Brothers

My reef tour was NOT a highlight of my visit, unfortunately!  I chose the tour I did as it included snorkeling, glass bottom boat, and introductory dive.  As I was in the last group to go out on the dive, it turned out to simply be a photo shoot.  I won’t go into detail on how horrible my experience was but I will never recommend Reef Experience to ANYONE looking to dive for the first time.  It appeared from the photos that the earlier divers had better experiences but how are you going to guarantee not being last?  It shouldn’t matter whether you are first or last, this company needs to manage their quantity & quality better!

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Getting Ready to Dive

One of my hosts’ friends, Phil, offered to take me around one day so I accepted.  He drove me quite a ways north, just shy of Port Douglas, giving me ample photo opportunities!  He also took me to the Botanical Gardens which were not only free but included Pacific plant varieties I’d never seen before!  Afterwards, it was a nice afternoon of grilling and hanging out by the pool then off to meet my host again at the Pier Bar and dancing to a wonderful live band!

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Cairns Lagoon Early AM

Phil had offered up his couch for my last 2 nights in Cairns so that I could make my plans and bookings online (no wifi on the sailboat).  I accepted so I managed to catch up with emails, make my bookings, and relax.

What I will always carry with me from my Cairns visit is snorkeling the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, the unique experience of life lived on a sailboat, and the wonderful, amazing people that I met!

Crystal Cascades
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Near Port Douglas
Cairns Koala
Koala World in Kuranda
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Cairns Lagoon – public pool
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Kuranda Train
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Kuranda Village Rainforest View
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Cairns Home
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I contributed…top rock on closest stack is mine
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Cairns at dusk

 

New Zealand – South Island Addiction

 

South Island

There are no words to aptly describe the South Island of New Zealand!  The beauty is everywhere!  The activities are endless!  Trying to decide where to go next, how to get there, falling in love at first sight so then having to find accommodation for more nights.  These were constants for me on the South Island and why, of my six and a half week New Zealand trip, I spent 4 weeks of it there!

I now have the task of summarizing the places, the oh so amazing places, that I visited while on the South Island of New Zealand.  Just know that one month just wasn’t enough time!!

Picton
Picton

Picton:  The tiny port city that you arrive at if taking the ferry from Wellington.  It’s very small, picturesque, and quiet.  This city does not offer much in the way of touristic activities so it’s a relief for those looking for simple peace and quiet.

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The beach in Nelson

Nelson:  I arrived in this town and expected to stay only a couple of nights but not only enjoyed it and it’s atmosphere but needed some down time to just relax!  So I stayed 5 nights!  I had planned to use it as a jumping off point to go camp and hike Abel Tasman National Park but I guess I just got lazy.  I wandered the town, I rented a bike and rode to nearby towns and back, I went to the movies (tiniest movie theatre ever!), I went out to hear live music, I went dancing, and I recharged by just being there!  If I’d had more time, I would have revisited it and made that Able Tasman hike.

Pancake Rocks & Blowhole in Punakaiki
Pancake Rocks & Blowhole in Punakaiki

Punkaiki:  A tiny beach town known for its Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes but that also offers not only the beach but some great hikes as well!  Be warned though!!  The sand flies are horrendous and WILL scar you so use DEET insect repellant for any time spent on South Island beaches!!!

Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier & Valley

Franz Joseph:  A very quaint town that is, obviously, dominated by Franz Joseph Glacier.  It is made up of restaurants, hostels, motels, a grocery store, a gas station, and tour groups.  Since the glacier is actually melting a little over 3 meters a day, you can no longer hike up to and onto the glacier.  You can hike the valley until it ends about 50 meters from the glacier and the views along the trail are beautiful.  The only way now to actually get on the glacier is by helicopter.  There are a number of options for heli-tours.  I had wanted to do the heli-hike which included the flight up to the glacier and a several hour hike around the glacier but it was booked.  So I decided on just flying up to and landing on the glacier.  I honestly don’t recommend it as it wasn’t worth the price I paid.

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Queenstown Wharf

Queenstown:  What a jewel!  I had planned on staying only 2 nights but as soon as I saw this gorgeous little town I decided more nights were necessary!  The problem with that is it is a highly popular location so finding affordable accommodation was extremely difficult!  In fact, a fellow couchsurfer and I couldn’t find anything so we ended up renting a car for half a day (crazy ridiculous pricing but we were desperate) and driving out to Moke Lake to camp.

Moke Lake
Moke Lake

What a beautiful lake and what fun to have the freedom of our own car!  This is a multi-season go to location for romance and relaxation, shopping, extreme adventure (bungee jumping, skydiving, jet boating, and canyon swinging), scenic cruises, and snow skiing…to just name a few!  Queenstown is a good base for day tours to Milford Sound (which I did), Fox, Franz Josef, and Cook Glaciers helicopter tours, and Lord of the Rings scenic flights.  Be sure to check the weather before any tour, though, as my Milford Sound cruise was in the rain.  The night scene is good as well with live music and no cover charges.  I absolutely love Queenstown!

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Mural in Dunedin

Dunedin:  A very hilly city (8th largest city in NZ) that is very endearing.  There are murals all over the city buildings, the rail station is beautiful, and the shopping is top notch.  All high end brand stores are there as well as second hand and vintage clothing shops where amazing buys are made daily.  I don’t shop as I have no room for more items or weight in my backpack! Dunedin also boasts the World’s Steepest Street!

Christchurch Cathedral
Christchurch Cathedral

Christchurch:  A city ripped by the February 2011 earthquake and with little in repairs made.  It’s been 5 years but, due to insurance companies fighting claims, moving forward has proved slow and difficult!  The tourism here revolves around the sites most affected by the earthquake.  It’s sad to see the devastation to the Christchurch Cathedral and know that it most likely won’t be rebuilt.  Then there is the Arts Centre that IS being rebuilt at a cost of $209 million NZD!!  A new building that came out of the devastation is the amazing Cardboard Cathedral!

Cardboard Cathedral
Cardboard Cathedral

I was disappointed that tourism surged around the terrible event and also sad to see so many empty, unused buildings.  Like Dunedin, there are murals in abundance as artists were invited in to revitalize this broken city.  While in Christchurch, I did experience an earthquake!  It was considered a moderate one at 4.4 on the Richter scale.  I was in a bar and the place actually rolled!  For me, it was a pretty cool experience!

 

Hectors Dolphins
Hector’s Dolphins in Akaroa Harbor

Akaroa:  I only knew about this place from other travelers who told me that I HAD to go there!  I’m very glad that they did!  It’s an incredibly cute town nestled in the heart of an ancient volcano on Akaroa Harbor.  The thing to do here is to take a harbor cruise to view the unique Hector’s Dolphins and blue penguins.  Hector’s Dolphins are the rarest (next to the Maui Dolphins also in New Zealand) and smallest dolphins in the world!  I did a cruise and absolutely enjoyed seeing the dolphins, a couple of penguins, and seals, despite the cold and rain! There’s also the option to go swimming with the dolphins.  It’s nice to wander through the galleries and shops and enjoy the cafes along the harbor when back on land.

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Kaikoura

Kaikoura:  Yet another jewel of the South Island!  This coastal town offers incredible views as you hike above or along the Pacific coast.  It also allows close viewing of seals!  The surrounding hills, Kaikoura Range, amaze as a backdrop for the beautiful coastline.  Crayfish and seafood here abound and whale watching cruises are the prime tourist draw.

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Wither Hills

Blenheim:  I didn’t really visit the town so much as the outskirts as I was wine tasting!  If you are a wine fan, you’ll recognize Marlborough Region as a major player!  I visited 4 vineyards around Blenheim and was blown away by Wither Hills’ Pinot Gris and Chardonnay!  Luckily, they ship worldwide!

I didn’t make it to some of the places I had planned but again, 4 weeks is just not enough for this amazing island!

Wither Hills
Beautiful view from Wither Hills’ tasting room
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Mirror Lake in Fjordland National Park
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Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki
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Near Kaikoura
Kaikoura Seals
Seals in Kaikoura
Kaikoura's Pacific Coastline
Kaikoura’s Pacific Coastline
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Atop Franz Josef Glacier
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Atop Franz Josef Glacier
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Murals in Dunedin
Christchurch Mural
Christchurch Mural
Blenheim
Marlborough Region Grapes
Milford Sound
Milford Sound…a rainy day!

 

 

Saving Money in New Zealand

Travel

I must say that New Zealand was not a good place for my budget as, due to the sheer quantity of visitors to the islands, accommodations charged high rates and I had little with Couchsurfing on the South Island.  Saving money pretty much went out the window!  However, thanks to staying in hostels, I found ways to save on travel and tours from other backpackers.  So, for those of you planning to go to New Zealand on a budget one day, here are the best money saving tools to use while on either island:

Cheapest Bus Tickets:  The bus line is NakedBus but if you go to their website, you won’t find their best deals.  You must go to WhyNotWander, it’s a word of mouth site only.  If you can’t find the place you want to go (very rare), use Intercity.

FREE Rental Cars and Campervans:  That’s right…FREE!  New Zealand and Australian car rental locations have found it cheaper to allow drivers to relocate their returned vehicles rather than pay to ship them.  Go to TransferCar!  The rental companies all have their own rules and options, such as the number of days you can have the vehicle, whether they include insurance, fuel, etc, if you have to pay a small fee (typically this is on campervans and is only around $5 NZD), or if they allow extra paid days (if you want the car longer, you pay a higher daily rate but, overall, the rental is still much cheaper).

Deals:  I found that I could get cheaper bus tickets to remote areas, such as Akaroa, by going through the premiere New Zealand deal company, BookMe.  It offers deals on much more than that too!  It’s the Groupon of New Zealand so find the deal you need there!

Accommodation:  NakedBus has an accommodations option called NakedSleep that allows you to book a hostel at 40% off!  I used this in Queenstown and ended up in the same hostel that I’d previously stayed in but at a much lower rate!

Of course, there is also always hitchhiking to get around which is very common and very safe.  I hitchhiked twice and it was thrilling but I am not very likely to do it in any other country.  If you have a car or are hitchhiking, you can always freedom camp.  Please be sure to clean up after yourself when you freedom camp or it will no longer be available for the rest of us!  I camped a few times but always had to pay as I primarily traveled by bus.

I hope that this is a help to any travelers visiting New Zealand now or in the near future!  We all want to get there but we also need ways of saving money in order to reach our next destination!

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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My Italian driver, Davide, and I set our destination to Rotorua but then decided to continue on to Taupo.  Taupo was only 1 hour away from Tongariro Alpine Crossing by automobile.  We found a hostel and settled in to wait out the rain so we could hike the crossing, as were the bulk of other backpackers at the hostel.  I stayed 2 nights at the hostel then 3 nights Couchsurfing with a wonderful Kiwi gentleman.

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After 4 days of waiting, Saturday morning arrived and everyone descended on Tongariro bright and early!  One important thing to think about when going to Tongariro to do the hike is that you must figure out how to get there and back!  For 60-65 NZD, a shuttle will pick you up from your hostel or hotel, drop you at the north gate (considered the starting point) then pick you up at the south gate (which means you are on their schedule and must complete the hike in their time frame).  Another option is to drive to the north gate and park then pay 30 NZD for the shuttle to take you from the south gate back to the north.  Some of the backpackers with cars joined up and parked one car at the south gate and everyone climbed into the other car and drove on to the north gate.  Once done with the hike, they just drove the south gate car back to the north to pick up the other car.  We (Italian driver, 3 German hikers, and me), had 2 keys to the car so we dropped 2 people off to hike from the south gate and then we parked at the north gate.  Once done with the hike, the 2 reaching the north gate drove the car back to the south gate where the rest of us were waiting.  There is always the option to park at the north gate and attempt to hitchhike back to it from the south gate but you would be taking a risk at the end of a very tiring hike!

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Tongariro Crossing is amazingly beautiful and foreign!  Moonscape is a common description as it is volcanic landscape with an active volcano.  Black volcanic rocks with delicate white flowers growing from them; red mountains adorned in clouds; flat expanses of tan sand; hills of green moss and gold bushes; eerie mists the hikers disappear into and the rising sun dissipates; steam rising from hot pools and rock walls; valleys of black, copper, and gold; lakes of gold, emerald, and teal blue; and waterfalls and babbling brooks. Not to mention the incredible views once you’re at the top!

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The trail is 19.4 km (12.05 miles) long. There are various offshoot trails that you can hike, other than the main one.  I stuck to the main trail which took me 9 hours to do.  I stopped a lot to take pictures and rest breaks are a must.  I found myself stripping down to my tank top early on then putting my sweater back on and finally my coat too.  As you climb, the winds are cold and strong!

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From the north gate, Mangatepopo Valley near Whakapapa, the trail is fairly level with a slight incline then becomes steep and rocky.  From the flat land of the valley to the side of mountains, winding around and up as you go.  Finally, flat again, mountains appear in front of you along with a lake of gold.  Pushing on is an immediate steep climb, Mangatepopo Saddle between Mount Ngauruhoe (also known as Doom Mountain on Lord of the Rings) and Mount Tongariro, and the wind becomes more evident.  When you reach the top of this section, you’re on the South Crater and there are large rocks to navigate and other trails to wander down (including the narrow ridge along the top of Red Crater).  Continuing on, the trail descends to the beautiful hot and colorful Emerald Lakes.  This section is fairly treacherous as the black sand is loose and slippery and the descent is very steep.  The trail then leads you to Central Crater and  Blue Lake which is an old volcanic vent.  The rest of the trail is downhill…winding downhill for 2 or more hours through fields and rainforest.  My bad knee slowed me down considerably but I was in no hurry as my travel mates were busy exploring Doom Mountain.

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Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage site.  It is also the Land Of Mordor (for you Lord of the Rings fans).  The hike, the views, and the people I hiked along side blew me away!  If you make it to New Zealand, this is a MUST DO!!

* Please note that the photos are not in any particular order.  I took over 200 and have grabbed some to show the beauty and diversity!  Enjoy!

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Blue Lake

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New Zealand – North Island Wanderings

Auckland

I am now among the Kiwis!  New Zealand is absolutely beautiful and the people I’ve met here are all so nice! The shuttle driver that delivered me to downtown Auckland informed me that Kiwis are lazy at heart so I wouldn’t need to worry about my safety. He said that, because of their laziness though, theft was possible so I would need to watch my belongings. So far so good!

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Auckland from Sky Tower

Checking in for my flight from Sydney to Auckland seemed like it was going to be a breeze!  However, I quickly found out that it wasn’t going to work out that way!  I had researched visas for most places I intend to visit and there was nothing where New Zealand was concerned.  It turns out that you must have your departure flight booked before you can even check in to your flight going TO New Zealand!!  Thankfully, Sydney International Airport has good wifi so I bought a coffee and surfed til I found the cheapest and quickest flight to Cairns, my next destination!

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Auckland skyline

My shuttle driver delivered me to Sky City where I was to meet my Couchsurfing host once he was done refereeing soccer.  That same night, there was a Couchsurfing get together at TwentyOne Bar on the third floor of Sky City so I left my backpack with the concierge and went up to meet whoever I would meet and have a couple of drinks.  I adore Couchsurfing and the people on it!  If you haven’t tried it and are a traveler, DO IT!!

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On Oneroa Beach in Waiheke Island

 

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Somewhere on Waiheke Island

I spent my first day wandering Auckland then met up with another Couchsurfer for dinner and a visit to the Sky Tower for sunset.  The next day, I caught the ferry to Waiheke Island to wander and take a wine tour.  Waiheke Island is absolutely beautiful and I plan to go back before I leave if at all possible!!  Of course, the wine was amazing as were the views!!  Before I left, I went down to Oneroa Beach and the water felt like absolute silk on my feet!!  The sand was so fine and felt like silk too!!  Yes, I want to go back for more!!

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In the “bush”…somewhere around Coromandel.

My Couchsurfing host, Roberto (a transplanted Italian), had plans to go camping over the weekend and invited me. I had my camping gear so said yes!  We headed to the “bush” on Friday but the campground he always stays at was booked up for a wedding so we made a leisurely drive up toward Coromandel and ended up camping in Hahei.  Absolutely beautiful beach, campground, and hiking (to Cathedral Cove).

Hawei Beach kayaker contemplates the waves
Hahei Beach kayaker contemplates the waves
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Hot Water Beach..dig a hole and get comfortable!

I’m loving what I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and the journey so far!  One of the backpackers at the campground is headed my way so I’ll move forward ridesharing for now (ie. he has the car and I’ll pay for the gas).  So far, North Island wanderings have been fabulous!!

I eventually left the North Island and spent quite a few weeks on the South Island.  Then I traveled to the North Island’s west coast and back to Auckland.  Before departing lovely New Zealand, I visited the Waitomo Caves to see the glow worms.  What a sight!!  It shouldn’t be missed if you can fit it into your schedule!!  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed.

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First time camping in NZ! Hahei Holiday Resort.
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Rock at Cathedral Cove
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Girls having fun at Cathedral Cove
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View from a cave at Cathedral Cove

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A Texan Down Under in Sydney

DSC_0152Cheers from Oz!  Australia goes by a few names including Down Under, for any of you not in the know.  It is probably on most people’s bucket list and for good reason!  It’s absolutely beautiful and the people are some of the nicest that I’ve ever met.  An added bonus is that they speak English.

It’s not cheap but I’m lucky that the US dollar is strong right now.  I’m also lucky in that I have a friend to stay with while I’m in the Sydney area.  Catching the hour long bus ride into the city is a matter of walking around the corner to the bus stop.

Once in Sydney, expect to walk a lot!  Besides the obvious sights to see, you’ll find no shortage of bars and restaurants, modes of transportation, and parks.  It’s very easy to get around though as you’ll pretty much run into a body of water and have a view of at least one of the recognizable bridges to help guide you…specifically, the Sydney Harbour Bridge  (Sydney Harbour) or Anzac Bridge (Darling Harbour).

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Sydney Harbour Bridge

The first thing I did on my first day in wandering Sydney was to walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The views are amazing even without doing the bridge climb.  From there it was a short walk to the harbor itself and the magnificence of the Sydney Opera House.

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Sydney Opera House

Surrounding the Opera House are a multitude of bars and restaurants and the Royal Botanic Gardens .  There are excellent views of the harbor, the opera house, downtown, and the harbor bridge as you walk through the gardens.  You’ll come up on a huge screen set out in the water and seating facing it.  Apparently, they have  outdoor movies during the summer months.

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St George Open Air Cinema

During my time in Sydney, I also visited The Rocks, Sydney Tower, St Mary’s Cathedral, Wild Life Zoo and Sea Life Aquarium.  I recommend going to ExperienceOz.com to find online deals.  Instead of paying $80 AUD for the zoo and aquarium OR their online discounted price of $56 AUD, I only paid $48.50 AUD.  Always shop around when traveling!

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St Mary’s Cathedral

I’m staying in Newport Beach which is beautiful and offers scenic hiking along the coast and a beautiful beach.  I’ll likely spend my last couple of days just enjoying it.

This weekend, though, a drive to the Blue Mountains National Park one day and a drive to Morisset National Park the next.

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Koala
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Dugong (Sea Cow)

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A Texan Down Under
A Texan Down Under

Affordable Travel – A Common Journey

Flying1Broke, on a budget, on the cheap…for some of us it’s all about the same thing when it comes to traveling.  Searching for affordable travel options is a common journey.  For travel addicts like me, it’s not only about the journey or the destination but also about how to make the journey possible.

I’m simply here to say that if you want it…anything…badly enough, you find a way.

Thanks to today’s technology, we have unbelievable access at our fingertips for every mode of travel, communication, and connection.  You can rack up air miles using your credit cards, get to your destination by crewing on a boat, ride a bus, train or even a bike.

I wanted to fly first class on my flight from Texas to Australia, so I utilized the bulk of the air miles I had accumulated.  Now that I’m down here, my next flights will be a compare and save event.

When it comes to flights, my favorite site to utilize, at least for international travel, is skyscanner.com.  They also offer hotel and car rental comparisons but I have not used those services as I’m now and forever on a “budget” (ie. I’ll primarily be camping, couchsurfing, and staying with friends).

Ferry, bus, and train fares have to be researched locally…by city, country, or continent.  I have no knowledge of a universal comparison site for these modes of getting there.

Getting there is a common journey for us all and is more important than what you’ll do once you’ve arrived.  What?  Yes!!  To do what you want, you have to get there first!!  There are a multitude of options for living, dancing, and breathing once you’re there but I’ll leave that for another conversation.

Ciao