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Arriving in Myanmar

We caught a night flight from London to Yangon, via Bangkok, arriving mid afternoon the next day.

Feeling a bit jet lagged and expecting to find long queues for immigration, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Yangon airport is quite small and the process rather swift. Simply go to passport control with your landing card and electronic visa for Myanmar, get a stamp, collect your bags 10 metres beyond, put them through an x-ray machine and you’re done. The whole process took no more than 15 minutes.

There also seem to be no restrictions on the food you can bring in as we had some fresh fruit and nuts which we thought we would lose, but they did not seem bothered by them.

If you want to exchange your dollars you can do so before exiting into arrivals as there are a few exchange services with similar rates. Just ensure your USD notes are crisp and post 2006 or they will be turned down. Also, be prepared to receive a large wad of notes in return!

As soon as you come through into arrivals there is a stand for taxis which operates on set tariffs depending on where you’re heading. They write you a receipt at the kiosk and you then pay the driver. We paid 10,000 kyats to get to downtown Yangon which took around 40 minutes.

We had pre-booked 3 nights in Backpackers bed and breakfast to help us settle in and explore the area. The location of which is really good as just a 5 minutes’ walk from Sule Pagoda, however, the room had no windows and consequently smelled musty as well as being permanently dark.

In the end we spent 2 days in Yangon before moving to Bago.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Myanmar?

Scrolling through my latest emails a couple of months back, I opened one from a travel company who’s aim was to entice me to book an off the beaten track tour. As I scanned through the various places one in particular caught my eye.

Amazing photos of strange looking temples dotted around a jungle surrounding, the sun setting in the distance with a haze shimmering over the backdrop really caught my imagination, and had me thinking Indiana Jones and lost temples! Looking at the article title “Myanmar” I wondered where in the world that was located.

Some may laugh but my geography is only as good as the places I have been to. After all, the only reason I toured Latin America for 9 months was after a TEFL course in Costa Rica – following the same “wonder where that is..?” thinking.

Anyway, I remember turning to my colleague and asking “Ever heard of Myanmar?” To which she replied “Nope but am sure Google has” making me feel slightly better. I quickly learned it was next door to Thailand, had been previously known as Burma and had only really opened up to tourism quite recently.

My curiosity was piqued. I had never really visited Asia, but for some reason decided to do some research on Myanmar and see what it had to offer.

Being the sometimes impulsive person I am, next thing I knew I had managed to book 3 weeks off work and a flight to Yangon for end of December – sorry tour company but thanks for the idea!

Determined to stay true to backpacking and not take the easy tour option, we have decided to wing it, booking only the first 3 nights in Yangon. Sounds fine you may think. However, every blog and guide I have read has warned me to pre book during peak season, which just so happens to be December to January. But am thinking how bad can it be, right?

Well, we leave in less than 2 weeks, have no real itinerary, let alone thought about packing and have only just bought a guide book for ideas…

So here’s to faith and fate!

 

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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A Long Weekend in Porto, Portugal

Portugal, for one reason or another seemed to be the only country I couldn’t quite make it to over the years. I had visited all of southern Europe and Portugal just stuck out like a sore thumb. So when my friend suggested an extended weekend break, I couldn’t resist asking “Have you ever been to Portugal?” Luckily the reply was no.

So without too much planning we set our hearts on Porto and booked our flights for the beginning of September. Just as I had experienced in Tuscany, Italy, I soon found that the hostels on offer in Porto were more expensive than the basic hotels.

Knowing that we would be eating out to fill up on all the fresh fish, we opted to save some money and booked the Residencial Escondidinho. Located just a 5 minute walk from the Bolhao Metro Station, which takes you directly to the airport, and surrounded by places to eat, it offered all we needed. It was a cheap and cheerful place and where it lacked in terms of modernisation, it made up for in the warm and friendly manner of the 2 ladies on reception!

As soon as we landed we headed for the Metro station, in front of the airport, and purchased our Andante cards at the machine. These work in a similar way as to the UK Oyster card, except that instead of loading cash amounts, you load up journeys. The Metro system itself is surprisingly modern and clean, so much so that it was a pleasure to travel on it.

What we really enjoyed about Porto is that everything you need is located on its doorstep. You can amble through the pretty streets of the historic quarter, take a tram ride to the beach, go on a river cruise, sample the many varieties of port and of course hop from one delicious fish place to the next, without having to go very far.

Porto Centre, Portugal

We were lucky enough to have warm days and therefore explored the city mainly on foot, with the odd tram ride (partly due to the fact that I had never before been on one before!) We even took a take day trip to the nearby town of Vila do Conde, which is connected to the city of Porto via the Metro line. Getting around the city is incredibly easy and apart from the trams, reasonably priced.

One of the opportunities we could not pass up on was taking a port tour. The city is naturally divided into 2 halves by the river Douro, with one side dotted with coloured old houses and churches and the other filled with port houses.

River Douro dividing Porto, Portugal

We decided to visit Taylor’s Port house as our guidebook said they offered free tours and tastings. Unfortunately, when we arrived this was no longer the case, however they did offer a tour and 3 tastings for €3 each. A price I couldn’t really argue with.

The venue was very pretty, with a restaurant and shop, but the cellars were quite incredible. If for no other reason than for the amount of barrels actually stored there! There were hundreds of these 500 – 600 litre barrels which formed row after row of walls within the cellar. Amazing to think how much angel share that is!

Taylors Porto Cellars, Porto, Portugal

The area of Matosinhos, just north west off the centre, offers and array of eating places along the coast and whilst in the area we found the open air coastal swimming pool of Piscina das Mares, located on Avenida de Liberdade and designed by Álvaro Siza. It has 2 pools filled with sea water and is located amongst the coastal rocks. A cafeteria and changing rooms are also on site and it makes for a nice place to spend the day. There are 2 entrance prices, depending on whether you spend a full day or if you arrive after 2pm, of €8 and €5 respectively.

Piscinas das Mares, Porto, Portugal

One thing we couldn’t fault was the fresh fish dishes. If you are a fish lover then Porto is definitely the place for you. Although not necessarily cheap, the portion sizes definitely offer good value for money with an average fish dish setting you back around €8.

However, walking around the city you do get a sense of the hardships that the Portuguese people are facing with the recession. From shops closing down to neglected buildings you can’t help but feel for the country. It did leave me wondering what would happen to Porto, and inevitably other towns and cities in Portugal, if the situation does not improve soon. After all it would be a great loss to all if these beautiful and quirky buildings were not saved for future generations…

Run down buildings, Porto, Portugal

Beautiful Old Porto Buildings, Portugal

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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A Tour of Tuscany, Italy

After spending far too long back in the UK since our round-the-world travel I decided to go and tick another dream off my list, Tuscany. Despite having family in Italy and having visited Rome many times over the years I had never quite managed to get myself to Tuscany. As such, I decided it was time!

Using my Avios points I managed to book a return flight from London, Heathrow to Rome, Fiumicino for a grand total of £35. As my aunt was visiting us in the UK she gave me her apartment keys for Rome to use as a starting point, which provided me with a couple of nights of free accommodation.

I had researched going via public transport using trains and buses, but  as I only had 10 days in which to squeeze as much of Tuscany in as I could, I decided to hire car. Being the last 2 weeks of August the rental was not cheap at around 350 euros, but as I had in essence had a free flight I figured it was worth it for the freedom it would give me.

So with a map of Tuscany on the passenger seat I set out for a solo adventure…

The first and biggest challenge was undoubtedly dealing with the driving in Italy. Chaos is an understatement. Not only do drivers seem completely oblivious to anything happening outside of their cars, they also seem to have virtually no traffic laws. Or at least not many they take heed of…

Road lines are used for guidance rather than for actual lanes with cars straddling lines rather than lanes, parking seems to occur at any free space regardless of location or if there is already someone parked there and indicators must obviously be a missing component on Italian cars, making it all the more challenging trying to understand what drivers intend to do at junctions, roundabouts and just about anywhere in general!

Don’t think I was completely naïve to this before hiring a car. I had many years ago in fact hired and survived the rental of a scooter in central Rome. However, a car is a whole other matter, especially when you have never driven a left-hand vehicle and keep forgetting that the other half of the car is on your right and not your left!

So with a slightly higher than usual blood pressure level I ventured from Rome into the region of Tuscany.

Now you really can’t go wrong with just driving around Tuscany, as there are so many beautiful little old towns “borgo” dotted all over this region that every corner brings a new delight.

However, I had selected a few key places I wanted to see and in the end I spent my days exploring; Capalbio, Magliano in Toscana, Scansano, Saturnia thermal pools (free access), Grosseto, Volterra, Siena, Florence, Pistoia, Vicopisano, Pisa, San Miniato, Monteriggioni, Monticiano, Certaldo, San Quirico D’orcia, Montalcino, Bagno Vignoni (free access) and Bagni San Filippo (free access) thermal waters.

My favourite places were:

  • Magliano in Toscano: a picturesque village of only 3,000 odd inhabitants with intact fortress walls surrounding the small community.

Magliano-in-Toscana, Tuscany, Italy

  • Siena, a beautiful old city, full of history and yet surprisingly well maintained and welcoming, with plenty of pedestrian only winding cobbled streets. Siena is divided into “Contrade” or districts, and there are 17 in Siena, each represented by a symbol along their walls, such as the fish. I loved Siena so much that I went through it again on my way back.

Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, Duomo of Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Siena Piazza by Night, Tuscany, Italy

Siena Contrada Parade, Tuscany, Italy

Siena Contrada Festival, Tuscany, Italy

  • Volterra, I admit I originally went as I thought Twilight had been filmed here and wanted to see the pretty town that was used in the film. However it turns out they had actually filmed in Montepulciano! Nevertheless, the sleepy town is known for its alabaster stone work and is the perfect place for a lazy afternoon.

Volterra, Tuscany, Italy

  • Florence: the most known city in Tuscany along with Pisa and probably the biggest. Although beautiful in its own right and full of culture it felt it has less charm than its neighbour Siena, but definitely still worth a visit.

Florence by Night, Tuscany, Italy

Florence River by Night, Tuscany, Italy

Cobbled Streets, Florence, Tuscany, Italy

  • Monteriggioni, although a little touristy, the main plaza and surrounding cobbled streets are extremely picturesque and it feels like stepping into a postcard.

Monteriggioni, Tuscany, Italy

Monteriggioni Piazza, Tuscany, Italy

  • Saturnia and Bagno Vignoni, although very different from each other, with Saturnia being busier and more interesting in terms of pool formations, and Bagno Vignoni being quieter and smaller, they both offer a great free spa experience complete with muds!

Saturnia Thermal Pools, Tuscany, Italy

Bagno Vignone, Tuscany, Italy

If you were stop at every little village around Tuscany you could happily spend a couple of weeks exploring as each place has its own unique attraction.

For accommodation I booked each place a day in advance using various sites such as booking.com, trivago.com etc as I was never too sure of my itinerary. This worked out better than just trying to find a place on the day, as despite finding numerous “agriturismo” places in the countryside; they were not only fully booked but also extremely expensive. Something I did not anticipate as I had expected them to be similar to the chambres d’hotes of France. I also noticed that hostels were only available in the main cities such as Florence, Pisa etc but they were not necessarily the best value for money.

One thing to bear in mind when travelling in Italy though is cost. It is not a cheap country to visit and prices in general are on par or higher than the UK, so budget accordingly. For example, a double room can start from 40-45 euros, a plate of pasta will set you back around 7-8 euros, a salad can be about 6-8 euros and a slice of pizza is 3-4 euros.

However, this is the one country where you are pretty much guaranteed good food anywhere you go, and can happily ask for the house red or white and get a decent wine with your meal!

In fact if you visit Tuscany you have to make it a must to sample all the varieties of wine that this region alone makes, whether via a wine tour or simply trying out the wine menu along with your meals. You really can’t beat sipping a glass of gorgeous wine while having lunch in a quiet plaza under the blue sky…

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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A Very English Afternoon Tea

People have long since associated England with tea drinking and afternoon tea, a practice started by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the early 19th century to help her reach dinner time.

These days you can still experience “Afternoon Tea” at many hotels nationwide, usually between the hours of 3pm -5pm where you have your tea and are presented a selection of small sandwiches, scones and cakes, all served on tiered trays.

With my aunt visiting us from Italy, I thought it a great excuse to treat my mum and aunt to an afternoon tea at our nearby Cliveden House Hotel, in Berkshire.

Cliveden House

The beautiful stately house is set in in over 350 acres of gardens and dates back to the 1600’s. Nowadays, the house is used as a hotel and event venue with the gardens being part of the National Trust, making it an ideal place for afternoon tea.

Cliveden House Main Room

We booked ourselves in for 4.45pm on a Friday and were shown to our table in the main room. As we settled down and each ordered our preferred tea from an extensive list, we were greeted by the very friendly marketing manager who gave us a wonderful tour of the various rooms of the house and explained the extensive history of the house.

Cliveden House Library

As we returned to our table our trays of exquisite looking food started to arrive. Having ordered 2 vegetarians and 1 vegan option I was impressed to see that this did not mean a lack of selection on the cakes offered!

Afternoon Tea Vegetarian Cakes

Afternoon Tea Vegan Cakes

We were also graciously treated to a flute of champagne each and happily spent the next hour feeling thoroughly spoilt. The sandwiches, scones and cakes were lovely and we struggled to finish them, despite not having had lunch! Nevertheless, we left feeling very satisfied with the food and refreshed from an afternoon spent being waited on and generally very well looked after.

The experience is definitely one to class as a treat, but all the same I think if you are visiting the UK and really want to experience something different from the usual tourist attractions then you should consider it.

Afternoon teas can be found at many London hotels, however why not make a day of it and choose one a little further afield where you can also spend a few hours strolling through their gardens?

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Returning from a Year of Travelling

So it’s now almost 2 months to the date since we arrived at Heathrow airport with our backpacks firmly in place following an almost 12 month round-the-world trip. The initial shock of arrival, made worse by the last week of our trip being spent on the beaches of Bali only to land in freezing UK temperatures, has started to wear off.

Our first 2 weeks back in the country were literally spent floating around the house and re-adjusting to the cold, something we have still not managed to accomplish. The following 2-3 weeks we ventured out to see friends, ex-colleagues and generally try to re-integrate back into society on this side of the planet. Having said that, we both agree that some things we will never be able to adjust back to.

The most shocking thing for me when we returned was the realisation of how much “stuff” I still owned. Prior to the trip we had undergone a massive clear out of our belongings, and because we were unsure of our intention upon our return we had boxed everything up ready to go. Opening boxes and discovering just how many items we still had was a revelation, especially as I always prided myself in being fairly minimalistic. With the feeling that my backpack was pretty much all I needed still firmly in my head, I decided to undergo a further clear out and was surprised at how easily I could “part” with items. I was able to easily discard things without the emotional attachments or what if scenarios, and as such the local charity was especially pleased to see us when we started hauling box after box into their shop.

Despite the reduction and now half-empty closets, it still took me almost 3 weeks to wear something from this new collection of mine. It felt strange to have such a choice of clothes, and let’s not forget shoes! Bit by bit I expanded my daily wear to include a couple of the items from the half empty wardrobe. However, despite the occasional use of other clothes there are many which still just sit there looking at me and I still feel slightly guilty about that.

The next big adjustment came with the inevitable food shop. Throughout our travels we had shopped on a daily and sometimes bi-weekly basis, depending on where we were staying and for how long, so thinking about purchasing food for longer than a few days took some getting used to. The mere thought of having a freezer and being able to batch cook with more than just a half broken pan and an actual sharp knife felt totally surreal.

As such the first 3 weeks we simply shopped for a couple of days at a time, slowly getting used to having such commodities and gradually expanding our choice of foods as well as amounts. 2 months on and we are now back to buying on a fortnightly basis, however we have not reverted back to the wasteful ways of the west.

Instead we plan what we will eat and buy accordingly, then with our “menu” firmly in place on the fridge we simply tick meals off as we go until we have eaten everything in store. Only then do we re-stock for food. Unfortunately, my mother does not see this as beneficial, but rather that I have been permanently scarred by budgeting and my travels, and therefore keeps trying to give me money so that “I can eat what I want, when I want”. I doubt she will ever see the point of our planning.

A key part of travelling is budgeting, and if you learn this, it will serve you well in the future. With my partner waiting for his work visa for New Zealand and me looking for work, something totally surreal in itself after not setting foot in an office for over a year, we have to manage what little funds we have left. So, until we have an income we are still living with a set budget and accounting for all costs, something we never did before in the UK and which has not been that difficult to do.

The transport issue hasn’t hit as hard as I thought it would. Not having had a car for nearly a year has not made us suddenly crave one. In fact, we are happier to walk around and use our natural form of free transport, known as legs. Alternatively, if we must go further afield then neighbouring villages, we take public transport, which is an adventure itself, or if available borrow a car.

One of the hardest things to get used to has to be the weather. If you are from the UK you will know what I mean. If not, then imagine grey skies, and this year in particular a very cold and long winter, and no sun. The hardest part is the lack of daily sunshine. Yes the tan is fading because of it, but that is not my main concern. The fact that day-in and day-out you never see and feel the sun on your skin has a rather depressive feel on the brain. You actually feel your body craving sunlight and slowing down as a direct response to the constant greyness, especially after almost 12 months in the sun.

The overwhelming challenge since we returned has to be resisting being sucked back in. Obviously travelling opens up your eyes to new things and ways of life, but as to how much it will impact you is dependent on you. If you do allow it to alter your perception then your challenge is to keep that perspective alive, even when you are the only one with it and there is nothing around you to reinforce it.

It is not a cliché but reality that travelling opens up your soul to the larger world around you. The hard part is keeping this openness when no-one around you understands it. As such, my advice would be, travel and see what you can. Absorb local cultures and let your views change, but don’t then store it away as just “experience” in life. Keep it alive in the little things you do and don’t lose your new found perspective.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Leaving New Zealand

After 2 months in New Zealand our time finally arrived to leave. We had enjoyed the country so much more than we thought we would and had many happy memories of the places we visited. In fact, on the way to the airport it felt more like leaving home than heading home.

One of the reasons we had decided to travel to New Zealand was to scope out the country for a possible future there. We had heard numerous stories of people emigrating and supposedly having dream lives, so much so that we thought they can’t all be lying!

Although I have to admit the scenery is not as impressive as South America, and the beaches and water are not as hot (or even warm really) as Central America, the country does have its own charm. The expansive lands of the south island remind me of Chile, where you can drive for miles before seeing another car. Whilst the north island, where most of the population is based, still retains its small town feel and people appear to work to live rather than live to work.

On a like for like comparison to the UK, the cost of living and salaries seems to be the same; however what makes the big difference, apart from the warmer climate, is the cost of housing and land. With only 4 million odd people in the country properties and land are not premiums and your pound can go a very long way.

Feeling the pull of the country we delved further into the possibilities of returning. This was made considerably easier knowing my partner was on the migrant skilled worker list, which is a list of all the people they need to fill the gaps within the job industry. Details can be found on the New Zealand immigration website.

We tested the water and he put his CV out there and as luck would have it he got an interview and later a job offer. We were thrilled, and although we knew there were still mountains of paperwork to get through, we also knew that this was not goodbye for us.

So we boarded the plane and left New Zealand, heading for Sydney, Australia. And as we looked out of the window we realised that we were actually leaving home, and that we would soon be returning to start our new life together in the country that had charmed us.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Auckland and around

During our 2 months in New Zealand we ended up spending just over 3 weeks in Auckland, partly due to cyclone Evans impeding on our plans for Fiji and partly because we actually quite liked the place. Auckland itself is a very large district with many smaller areas and villages, however we spent most of our time in the CBD, the name for the city centre.

Auckland Central Business District

Despite it being a city and the largest in New Zealand at that, it still feels more like a large town. With only 1 and 1/2 million people the district of Auckland feels more like a London borough then the cosmopolitan centre of New Zealand. Yet it is for this very reason that we ended up spending so much time there.

I have never been a fan of large cities and even though in the UK I live less than hour’s train ride to London I rarely enter city. In fact the only city I have ever managed to enjoy is Barcelona, Spain. The main reason being that it, like Auckland, is coastal and so despite the traffic and people you still have a clean air feel to the place. Plus, with its many winding streets you feel more like you are in a town than a city.

Now Auckland may not have the historic charm and winding cobble streets of Barcelona, but it does have an abundance of spaces for people to relax in. Whether you want to sit by the harbour docks, lounge in the crowd-less parks or enjoy a picnic on a beach, there is a place for you.

Devonport beach and view of the Auckland's CBD

There are also numerous islands you can visit on a day trip, such as Rangitoto the volcanic island, or you can just as simply take the ferry across the water to one of the many little villages such as Devonport or Birkenhead for a day of strolling on a beach or eating at one of the many little sidewalk cafes.

Rangitoto Island panorama

Auckland itself has numerous attractions from the Sky Tower where you can see the city and bungee jump, to the museum where you can experience a Mauri show first-hand. The heart of Auckland is not very big and because of this if you are situated in the CBD, the centre, you can easily walk everywhere.

It also seems that Auckland always has something going on, from events to concerts, for example at Christmas they had a big outdoor concert in the main park and it was free for all.

Personally, I think you could easily spend 2 weeks in Auckland casually exploring the area and nearby islands. However, if you’re looking to spend time in a truly cosmopolitan city crowded by hoards of people then Auckland isn’t for you. But if you want a miniature version of a city still packed with cuisines from all the world, cafes and shops, but without the crowds then go and explore Auckland!

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Highlights of the South Island, New Zealand

After our 2 weeks in the North Island of New Zealand we took the 3 hour ferry from Wellington to Picton. We spent 16 days in the South Island, making it as far south as Queenstown, and as far north as Cape Farewell.

We unfortunately had the bad luck of getting stranded overnight in the middle of nowhere due to a massive flooding, which made us change our route, and then had the bad weather for the whole time we were on the West Coast. Despite this we still managed to travel a fair bit and these were our highlights of our mini-tour:

Cape Farewell – Wharariki Beach

As we had spent a couple of days around Abel Tasman we decided to go all the way and drive to Cape Farewell. We had been advised to visit the beach of Wharariki, and so we went. From the car park it’s supposed to be around an hour an half there and back, however we got confused with the signs and ended up on a different trail through farms and going much further before realising we weren’t on the right track. Heading back we finally found the beach and despite the fact that the wind that had picked up and the tide had come in, something worth checking before you go, we still went for a wander as it was a very pretty area.

Wharariki Beach at high tide

Kaikoura

Kaikoura was easily one of the nicest areas we visited in the South Island. Apart from offering dolphin and whale watching tours the area has penguin and seal colonies. The seals inhabit the rocks and shores along the whole coastline of Kaikoura and you can park up at almost any of the colonies to take photos. In one particular place we found you could freedom camp alongside them! In fact we had not gotten so close to seals since seeing them in the Galapagos Islands and it was truly refreshing to see people respecting the animals’ territories.

Okiwi Bay - seal colony with day care facilities

The fact that there are no restrictions, barriers or charges to see either really surprised me. I was amazed at how respectful locals were to their wildlife and how trusting they were of visitors. In my mind this was another big plus point for New Zealand.

Christchurch peninsula

We didn’t spend much time in Christchurch itself as a lot of the centre is still closed off to public access following the devastating earthquakes. As such we headed south east to the Banks Peninsula. With its little coves and beaches dotted along the coastline it makes for a pretty area to spend a few days. The weather seemed to be best we encountered in all our time in the South Island and there were plenty of little villages to explore.

The best thing we found was a free camping site on Lake Forsyth where we could spend the evenings watching the sunsets over the water and the mornings feeding the ducks and roosters, not sure where they came from but we had 2!

Lake Forsyth sunset

Oamaru

On a wet and cold afternoon we stumbled into Oamaru looking for the blue penguin colony we had heard about and were pleasantly surprised to find the centre of the town in full Victorian mode. From the buildings to the markets it felt like stepping back in time to the Victorian ages.

Oamaru - Victorian style street

Oamaru - steampunk building

After a walk around and with a hot coffee in hand we headed off to the blue penguin colony centre. Unlike the other penguin colony in Kaikoura this was a paid entrance as the centre basically looked after the penguins by providing them with nesting boxes and a safe area to lay their eggs.

So we paid our NZ$12 entrance fee and went in for a look. The blue penguins are the smallest in the world and at just 30cm tall they are also the cutest! Although again we had turned up during the day and the penguins weren’t due back until evening we got lucky and were able to see a couple hiding under the pathways along with a few nesting with their eggs.

Oamaru Blue Pinguin Colony - hiding under footpath

Duntoon’s Vanished World Centre

On our way to Queenstown we happened to stumble across the Duntoon’s Vanished World Centre, which promised a journey back in time. We didn’t have high hopes when we pulled up to the small little centre but thought as we’re here let’s take a look. The entrance was NZ$7.50 each and we learned that the centre was staffed purely by volunteers.

To be honest we were slightly disappointed when we entered the room, despite having a nice collection of artefacts and letting you get really close to them we thought, this is a bit small.

Inside the Duntroon Fossil Centre

We were just about to leave when I ventured into a side room with tables and chairs and what seemed like little plastic trays. Moving closer I took a look and saw sandy rocks and little picks beside them, I thought I wonder what this is for?

To my complete amazement it turned out that you could literally dig out your own fossil from a rock and then keep it as a souvenir! All of a sudden I had taken off my jacket grabbed a rock and pick and set to work. I turned to see my partner hard at work in a tray next to me and after a couple of failed attempts we started to dig out some shells.

We got so engrossed in it that before we knew it they were closing for the day. Having only gotten half way with my rock I was a little reluctant to leave as I thought, how am I ever going to finish digging it out? No sooner had I voiced my concern that one of the lovely guys gave me an old tool to take away with me. Pick in one hand and rock in the other I felt like the new Indiana Jones and spent the whole of the day trying to convince my partner to pull over so we could dig for fossils!

Wanaka

I had read about Puzzling World in a leaflet and decided it would be worth a stop. Consisting of a maze and several mind bending puzzle rooms we thought it a good way to spend an afternoon. You can choose to visit either or both together and we opted for both at NZ$16 each.

Wanaka Puzzling World

There are several different puzzle rooms from 3D optical illusions to a tilted room which plays havoc with your sense of balance and perception. Should these rooms not be enough to exhaust your brain you can always spend some time in the bar area where there are numerous puzzles laid out on the tables to entertain visitors, or should I say frustrate?

Wanaka Puzzling World - water going upwards

Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier

We had planned to do a walk on the Fox glacier and booked ourselves in, however as was the case with all our trips on the west coast the rain did not seem to want to relent and as such we ended up having to cancel, despite waiting 3 days in the area. The nice thing about booking with Fox Glacier is that you can cancel your trip up to an hour before, probably due to the fact that the weather there is so unpredictable.

Fox glacier

Franz Josef glacier

Nevertheless we did manage to go for a wander at the base of the 2 glaciers and as such decided to include them here, maybe next time we’ll get a chance to walk them…

Arthur’s Pass – Death’s Corner Viaduct

Ever since I saw a photo of the bridge leading to Arthur’s Pass I wanted to see it in person and it really is an impressive sight. The best view of the structure is from Death’s Corner Viaduct, a left turning view point just after the bridge when heading to Arthur’s Pass. From here you get to see the whole bridge in its amazing surroundings.

Death's Corner Viaduct near Arthur's Pass

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Highlights of the North Island, New Zealand

There are many places of interest in the north island of New Zealand and if you remove Auckland from this list you can easily spend a month travelling around. We had 2 weeks in the campervan and during that time we travelled from Cape Reinga to Wellington and from New Plymouth to Gisbourne, in other words the length and breadth of the island, and for us these were our highlights:

Hawke’s Bay

The east coastline of the north island, with particular emphasis between Napier and Gisbourne, had some of the best weather we encountered anywhere in New Zealand. The area is divine with beautiful beaches, numerous vineyards and it seems they can grow just about every fruit imaginable.

If you like your architecture or just fancy seeing a snapshot of the past, then Napier is a must. This beautifully rebuilt town makes you feel like you are stepping back in time to the 1930’s. We had heard that it was a one of a kind, but didn’t really believe it until we saw it.

Hawke's Bay Napier Movie Theatre

Hawke's Bay Napier Daily Telegraph building

Also as its situated on the coast it has miles of beaches stretching out in either direction, making it an all-round perfect little town!

Tongariro National Park

We didn’t know much about the Tongariro National Park except that there was a walk which seemed really cool. Arriving in the evening we headed out to the i-Site and discovered that the walk we were interested in was indeed the Alpine crossing trek. The normally 8 hour walk was however, partly closed due to recent volcanic activity. Nevertheless, we would still be able to get to the crater and the lakes.

We arrived back at the i-Site at 9am the next morning and were informed that we can not get to the car park where the trek starts as it’s closed to public traffic and we would have to take a return shuttle for NZ$35 each.

We had been warned that it would be windy at the top but we thought with our layers of Icebreakers and light snow jackets we would be fine. To be fair we were ok, even after it rained and it felt like our combats were made of ice and stuck to our legs, we still felt ok to carry on. 3 hours into it and nearly there, we had even dried off from a little sun, we hit the edge of the crater. We could barely see what was in front of us due to the clouds and the wind was really picking up.

Tongariro National Park Alpine crossing - South Crater

Despite it we made it across and were welcomed by a break in the weather and even managed to get a look at the crater we had crossed. Feeling inspired we started to climb out of the crater and in essence towards the last leg of the journey – the Emerald Lakes. Big mistake.

As we made our way up the ledge the wind was so strong it was literally pushing me towards the drop on the other side. But it wasn’t so much the wind as the temperature that was the killer. It felt like being in a freezer with a wind turbine behind me. I can honestly say I have never felt so cold! Despite my gloves, albeit thin ones, I could not feel my fingers and I could barely bend them!

Tongariro National Park Alpine crossing - South crater ridge

I knew then I could not carry on, despite being just half an hour away from the lakes we had to turn back as I could feel my body temperature dropping. As such it took me nearly the whole walk back down to warm up sufficiently to get some feeling back in my fingers.

Tongariro National Park Alpine crossing - view of Mount Ruapehu

Having said that the scenery was really beautiful and I will definitely return one day to do the full trek, just with proper gear!

New Plymouth

The town itself may not be as pretty as either areas but what stands out about New Plymouth is its location. Built on the north side of Mount Taranaki, the town has the coast and mountain range on its doorstep, giving visitors the chance to relax on the beach or explore the forests of the national park.

New Plymouth - view of Mount Taranaki

A great drive is the surf highway which follows the coast around from New Plymouth to Hawera taking in surf beaches along the way.

Lake Taupo

The largest lake in New Zealand is a must for everyone. Not only for being in an active geothermal location but also for the numerous activities available. Lake Taupo for us was one of the nicest areas of the north island.

Lake Taupo Panorama

Along with its neighbour Rotorua, Taupo has an abundance of thermal pools and spas. However, for a more budget option try the DOC pools in Tokaanu at only NZ$6 per person or NZ$10 per person for a private pool.

Other highlights to the area were Orakei, NZ$36 per person and Wai-o-Tapu, NZ$29 per person. Again, there are many options available between Taupo and Rotorua to see geothermal activities such as sulphur lakes and geysers, but we thought these 2 were best in terms of value and offerings.

Orakei Korako - overview of sulphur lakes

Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Rotorua

By the time we reached Rotorua, north of Lake Taupo we had already seen our fair share of geothermal activity. As such we opted to do something different and spend a leisurely afternoon in the redwood’s forest, which is free to access. If you opt for the “yellow” track and go to all the lookouts you can actually get a bird’s-eye view of the Te Puia geothermal complex, including the geysers.

Rotorua - The Redwoods forest

The town of Rotorua is also a good place for Maori culture shows and villages, and there are many options available from just a show to a full evening with Hangi, food cooked in ground oven pits.

Coromandel Peninsula

If you’re a beach person you will love the Coromandel region. Not only does it seem to get the best weather in the area but it also has some of the best sandy beaches too.

Despite our rental agreement we took our campervan off-roading and drove the extra hour from the town of Coromandel through the winding gravel roads to the tip of the peninsula – Port Jackson.

Coromandel Peninsula - Port Jackson beach

This lovely little bay had a large DOC site literally on the beach and on the off-chance you ran out of the basics, a small food van came by everyday with bread, drinks and of course ice! The place was an obvious favourite with locals as there were hardly any tourists there, probably due to the rental contracts, and in the true good-natured spirit of the Kiwis, we even got given a giant fillet of Snapper on our last night – delicious!

Cape Reinga

At the very tip of the north island stands a little white lighthouse in the area known as Cape Reinga. This cape is not only famous for being the furthest point in New Zealand, but also for the fact that the Pacific Ocean on the right meets the Tasman Sea on the left, making a lovely backdrop for sunsets.

Cape Reinga Lighthouse

The ninety mile beach also ends here and tours can be taken to drive along the beach and reach the lighthouse.

Although, if you visit Cape Reinga independently I would advise arriving in the evening after all the tours have left so that you have the whole place to yourself!

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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