Koh Lipe is a secret paradise in and of itself, and on the north most tip of the island, practically with its own private beach, is perched yet another paradise – the Mountain Resort.
After arriving to Koh Lipe by traditional Thai longboat in a sudden downpour, I was happily to drag my soggy self into a comfortable room in one of the several “garden villa huts” at Mountain Resort. In my room were two twin beds, both clean and well-made, classically decorated with Thai colors and fabrics. The furniture was minimal and tasteful, and the bathroom and shower were outdoors but walled within my room, separated from my bedroom by a sliding door (which later proved extremely helpful in keeping away unwanted mozzy visitors).
There are a number of different accommodation options at the resort, from hut-style single-bedroom villas to raised huts on stilts down on the beach, through to more condo-style, concrete and glass rooms within a larger cluster. All have nearly equally-stunning views of either the luscious green surroundings, the ocean, the neighboring islands, or all of the above. Some of the rooms would have a fantastic sunset view, along with their own little rooftop balcony areas (romantic getaway, anyone?)
What to do: If you came to the island to lay in the sun and read all day (cough cough), well you’re in luck – the beach is your backyard. If you came to go on wild snorkeling adventures, Mountain Resort provides all the gear you need, just visit the little shack down by the beach, down the staircase from the restaurant and check in building; you can easily float just off the shore and spot various underwater life amongst the coral reefs. The beach next to Mountain Resort is the one that shows up in so many Google images of Koh Lipe – the one that juts out and becomes a bit wider and circular right at the end, lending an oxford comma to the sea. Aptly referred to as “Sunset Beach,” this spot provides an excellent view for amazing, deep orange and red sunsets.
If you for some reason get sick of being at the beach (on a tiny tropical island that you decided to come to)… Mountain Resort has got a lovely, turquoise blue swimming pool that also has a pretty impressive view of the sea, so you have the option to float around here for a while, or alternate between ocean and pool.
What/How to eat: Granted, there’s not tons of food floating around Koh Lipe, even as it is becoming slightly more touristy as time goes on. There are a few warungs and of course, a mix of backpackers’ hostels through to hotels and resorts scattered along the main stretch of beach, but otherwise not the type of place that you can roll up expecting whatever dish may tickle your fancy. Luckily, my laziness for the weekend was reinforced by delicious food, right at the Mountain Resort’s restaurant. The continental breakfast that was included in the room was quite typical for Thailand and Asian hotels, serving up the usual variety of Asian hot and western warm, cold or somewhere in between dishes. Fruit, cereal, coffee… there are plenty of small snacks for those looking to grab a light breakfast in lieu of traditional noodles before hitting the beach. It almost wouldn’t matter what you choose to eat, because the entire experience is made by the simply astounding view from the restaurant, out over the sparkling blues of the water and onto the neighboring Koh Adang.
I came to Koh Lipe for a quiet, relaxing and tropical getaway, unperturbed as possible by traffic, noise and even internet-connectedness. While the resort has WiFi, the vibe (and slow nature of all connection due to the island’s remoteness) gives a perfect excuse to unplug, throw on your swimsuit, grab a book, your flippers and head for the beach. Mountain Resort, tucked away and significantly removed from any other accommodation spots on the entire island, provides just one more added layer of privacy and luxury to an already magical place.
Ho Chi Minh was my first introduction to the beautiful country of Vietnam; as the largest city in Vietnam, I chose to visit HCMC first and experience its hustle and bustle, food, culture, history, and all that contributes to create such a vibrant and interesting city.
I arrived into HCMC Saturday morning after a sleepy 1.5 hour flight from KL, waking up to a turbulent and cloudy landing, just as our plane glided over the rooftops of waves upon waves of houses – my first glance of the city. I had already arranged everything for my visa (online application prior to traveling required) and so I went to the windows to turn in all materials necessary (application papers, 4×6 photo and $25USD) and eventually received my passport back, visa inside. After getting through immigration, I arranged a taxi at one of the many small counters inside, which was prepaid at 220,000 VND (Dong). I had read that a taxi from airport should cost around 160,000, but these counters all charged the same so I assumed the price had perhaps increased since, though in retrospect, as Grab is available in HCMC, it may have been possible to get onto the airport free WiFi and Grab, which would have been presumably cheaper (next time).
It took about 30-45 minutes to drive into the city, and I arrived around 10:30AM at my hotel, the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside. My room as reserved was not yet ready but I was informed that I could already have a 2 bedroom that overlooked the river, so I checked in and got settled. Before heading out to explore, I had a glance at the rooftop pool, which also overlooks the Song Sai Gon river, with expansive views of all the barges, cruises and everything else floating along.
Needing breakfast, I grabbed my laptop and headed just 3 minutes around the corner to The Workshop Café, on Dhong Koi street. I’ve made it my goal to at least find one funky hipster café in each new urban destination that I visit, and was able to immediately check that off my list after a delicious breakkie of eggs benedict and coffee at The Workshop. After walking up a few flights of stairs in what seems like a derelict building, I was greeted by a cozy, creative nook of a space with a central coffee bar and overhanging lamps throughout. Inside is a mix of long communal work tables and separate small tables for ones or twos.
Sleepy, but well fed and happy, I dropped my laptop back at my hotel and was ready to explore. I had downloaded an offline Google Map of the city and so getting around wasn’t a problem – I set off for the War Remnants Museum first, feeling that as such an important reminder of Vietnam’s painful history and a true must-see while in HCMC, I would start with this museum and take as long as needed there. The walk took about 30 minutes, passing by a mix of shanty shops and hole in the wall pho or street food stalls, alongside sky-scraping glass office buildings, already illustrating the diversity of the city in many realms.
The fence outside of the War Remnants Museum sports signs with peace slogans and cheerful emblems – once inside the compound, American military planes, helicopters and tanks already contribute to the discomfort of the place. An adult entrance ticket costs 15,000 VND. Immediately at the entrance is an example structure of the prisons and torture areas utilized during the war; models and explanations of the ranging and many torture techniques employed against prisoners, including “Tiger Cages” and many revolting practices are illustrated through models and information boards explaining. This section as well as the entire museum includes photography, some certainly more graphic than others, so good to come prepared. As would be imagined, the museum itself, through three floors of exhibits, offers quite a solemn and difficult experience. Comparable (experience-wise) to a visit to the concentration camps of Europe or the museums and memorials commemorating the tragedies and atrocities of WWII, the War Remnants Museum offers a sobering glance into the history behind the American war of aggression as perpetrated in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, the lasting impacts, many of which have transcended time, and the worldwide sentiment of solidarity with Vietnam which emerged during that time. As mentioned, some exhibits are more graphic than others – particularly those illustrating photographs with descriptions taken in and around the battlefield, the aftermath of American time bombs, which both during and (many years) after the war, caused many deaths. The exhibit focused on the impact of Agent Orange (and more specifically, the toxic dioxin chemical), is especially grim, showing detailed photos of the effect on many people during and after the war, including four generations of children born showing a multitude of physical and genetic defects caused by the exposure of their parents and ancestors to the horrific substance. An elderly Vietnamese woman, giving a tour in Spanish, explained – “the effects of the dioxin chemical were horrific and long lasting. Eventually, the American veterans that were affected with symptoms demanded from the U.S. government for retribution, and they were helped. The U.S. never helped the Vietnamese people that had been affected and were still suffering.” The museum is noticeably propagandist, but nevertheless an important, necessary and interesting experience to have while visiting Vietnam and HCMC.
After spending about 3 hours scouring the exhibits of the War Remnants Museum, I decided for a change of scenery. I was headed for Ben Thanh Market when after walking for about 15 minutes, I felt the first few heavy drops of rain… not wanting to stand for who knows how long exactly under a random overhang, I decided to keep going and try to at least find a spot to eat; I had read about a Pho restaurant right across from the market and knew I was getting close. In the time it took me to walk only 100 yards, the droplets had turned to downpour, people scattering in all directions to find shelter. Hurrying the last few steps and slipping in my flip flops, I ducked into the “Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf” café, above which was the restaurant I was looking for, Pho 2000. I was pleased to find that I was one of, if not the only non-local in the nondescript spot. I ordered vegetable Pho (Pho Chay) and a Vietnamese iced coffee. Alongside the Pho was served plates of fresh bean sprouts and fresh herbs to mix into the broth, and delicious rich coffee, poured over ice and sweet condensed milk (a Vietnamese specialty – get involved if you aren’t already). Who’s to know how strange they thought I was, sitting alone at my little table, dripping ever so slightly.
After a delicious lunch of Pho, I ventured back out to find that the rain had all but ceased, so I crossed the street between motorbikes and into the Ben Thanh Market. Ben Thanh is one of the largest and most famous markets in HCMC, which translates into most touristy, but it is still an amazing place to see, experience, and get some souvenir shopping done. Selling everything from clothing and bags to magnets, candles and all crazy trinkets in between, Ben Thanh market is home to a constant noisy hum, absolutely buzzing with activity. Vendors shouting out to me from all sides, I wound my way deeper into the market, pushing past bundles of clothing and tables full of collectables. After haggling the price at least in half (and a piece of me thinks I should have done even better), I bought a few things and headed on my way. To give you an idea of price, I was told that a cloth backpack with embroidered flowers (similar to bags in Thailand and SEA) was 800,000 VND – I ended up paying 380,000 for the bag and several smaller trinkets. I was later told that a single scarf costs 1,000,000 – I ended up with 2 for less than 400,000, but the ones that weren’t “100% silk”. The argument for higher prices is always something along the lines of the goods being handmade up in the mountains, or real pure silk, or some other variation; I completely agree with this and also that the goods are amazing works of art, though I also know that no matter what I end up paying, it is still a very decent deal for the vendors and so in the interest of saving money, I bargain to the bitter end most of the time anyway – it is expected and anticipated for in the high first prices that are given, which are always up to double for tourists anyway.
After visiting the market, I made my way back to my hotel (the whole day I explored by foot, as I felt this would allow me to slow down and take in all the sights and surroundings as much as possible to experience the city better). Nearby my hotel a lady stood outside handing out business cards for the upstairs massage business, and after taking a few steps past, I thought “why not” – and circled back to inquire about a foot massage. I ended up getting a lovely foot massage, though more expensive than I am used to in KL (only by a few USD of course), and adherent to a much more pressured tipping policy. Of course, tipping varies in every country and then further in each massage house, but in this case the lady that I was with followed my foot massage with “so you tip me” – not exactly a question. I had said of course and pulled out the VND I had left, which clearly did not please her. She became a bit flustered, exclaiming how small the Vietnamese money is and that this is nothing, she then said I would pay and tip by credit card. At this point, I didn’t have a choice and followed her down to a hotel lobby (they must collaborate) as she carried my credit card and told the lady at the desk what amount to charge (300 for massage, 100 for tip) – something that just wouldn’t happen in Malaysia, or hasn’t yet to me, but it was a one time thing, so fine. Nevertheless, it was lovely and I returned home lazy and comfy after a long day of wandering, exploring, and was embarrassingly ready to turn in for the evening.
I had heard and read a bit about the backpacker street (supposed Khaosan Road of HCMC), which is the go-to night spot for travelers and locals to have a beer and chill or get wild. Despite my desire to explore and experience the full spectrum of life in the city, after getting back to my room to drop off my stuff, I was feeling so tired from the early morning of travelling and not much sleep the night prior that I couldn’t bring myself to leave again. So, I proceeded to convince myself that I wouldn’t be missing TOO much, and that surely it is similar to all of the other “backpacker streets” in Asia (let me know if I was horribly mistaken and should go back?!) and swallowed my FOMO, to happily curl up in bed.
My Sunday in HCMC started well-rested, and with a lovely continental breakfast at the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside hotel. After eating a leisurely breakfast, I geared up for more exploring (read: highly touristy sightseeing) and headed out. On my way to the sights, my attention was caught by THE MOST AMAZING boutique shop – Thuy Design House. Just from the windows outside, this place looks crazy. Once inside, I was greeted by colors, sequins, crazy patterns galore; just my kind of place! This shop seems to combine traditional Vietnamese styles, patterns and fabric with the insanely eclectic creativity of the designers, who have created some truly amazing pieces! Certainly quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. After dabbling in the store for a while, I continued on my original quest. Here are the places I visited:
Saigon Notre Dame Basilica and Central Post Office
The cathedral, a mini Notre Dame in light reddish brick, sits perched in a well-manicured garden in the center of a roundabout-like square, backdrop to a variety of tourist photos and wedding shoots. I did not go inside actually, as there seemed to be a service going on for Sunday, and the gates were closed. I have also been advised that because this cathedral is so popular, it becomes extremely busy inside to the point of almost not worth seeing around. Regardless, it is indeed a beautiful building from the outside and very photographic, so recommended to at least see. The Saigon Central Post office is a vivid yellow building from the exterior, almost directly across from the Notre Dame cathedral. Designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in gothic style, it began operations in 1886 and still remains one of the most famous and celebrated structures in the city – and is still in full use as a proper post office! The interior of the post office, with stark contrasts across a long, domed roof, is drippingly instagrammable and striking in and of itself – definitely worth a glance inside.
Tan Dinh Market
Having already explored Ben Thanh the previous day, I wanted to see a different type of market, and Tan Dinh was just that; this is a place for locals, truly. I didn’t honestly encounter a single tourist nearby or inside the market, which sells a staggering variety of goods, on a massive scale. The market is most famous for its cloths and fabrics, of silk and any and every variety, color, print, and style that you could imagine. If you seek traditional Vietnamese fabric or any variation thereof, and especially if you plan on designing some of your own clothing, this is your place. One downside is that the fabrics are mostly sold in quite large quantities, which are perfect to buy for the purpose of clothing design etc., but just so happen to be a bit inconvenient for the luggage-bound traveler. Still, an amazing place to have a look around, and the vendors are far less pushy and rather uninterested in visitors, so you can wander through quite peacefully. The glances that I got wandering through were some of the most amusing- some quizzical, some simply bewildered, and some of the warmest smiles I’ve seen. Being in this market, and wandering even to the very back, among the bags of rice and spices and household goods and foods finally felt like a piece of true Ho Chi Minh, if not of Vietnam.
Tan Dinh Parish Church
Where Barbie goes to church. No really, I’m serious. Have a look for yourself. This church was built in the 1880s, during the French colonial period. The church is the second largest in the city (after Notre Dame) and is drenched in the most obnoxiously precious shade of bubblegum pink. Instagrammers, at the ready (ew). What a beautiful church though, pink or no pink – although the color certainly helps its random appeal (you’ll see what I mean when you see the street at which it is situated) – with impressive roman architecture creating a splendid grandeur, smack in the middle of an otherwise rather rough and tumble Asian street. A peaceful garden outside of the church hosts statues of Jesus and apostles, and offers a peaceful, quiet and shaded place for those wanting to pray, reflect or just sit and take it all in. Looking through the windows, I could see the inside of the church is completely whitewashed (it was closed for entry that day, and the gates to view the outer part were closed until 2PM, probably due to services).
Seeing these main sights took me a fair distance through the city, and after I had visited them all it was nearing my time to head back. As I would, I got caught in a total downpour while walking back, ducked into a high end mall alongside many other soggy walkers, and eventually ended up hopping in a taxi for the short ride back to my hotel, as the rain didn’t seem to intend on slowing down anytime soon. The rest of my time before airport was spent in the hotel lobby, happily curled up with a cup of coffee and reading.
My time in Vietnam (the very first for me!) was short but filled with interesting experiences, thoughts and observations. I would like to go back for a longer visit, to get an even better feel of the society, culture, and history.
If you are going to Penang Island for art and heritage, a weekend getaway from city life in KL, or of course travelling through at your leisure, you won’t want to miss the northern side of the island.
Batu Ferringhi beach stretches for miles down the coast of the northern part of the island, and offering soft sand, various watersports and other attractions, is one of the most popular beaches in Penang. Park Royal Penang Resort is perched at an ultimately relaxed, secluded spot along the beach and within a short drive of the more lively Georgetown – read about my visit to the Park Royal here, so you can decide if it’s the place for you!
Batu Ferringhi is about 30-40 minutes by car (I recommend using Grab everywhere in Malaysia) from the airport and about 20 from Georgetown. Penang isn’t too large of an island, and the beach is along the coastal road on the north end.
Backed up right to the beach with its own access, Park Royal Penang Resort is a tropical paradise in and of itself, with expansive lawn space in the back, covered with sun lounges and palm trees. Laying in the sun tire you out? You can get a massage with a view at the small hut in the hotel’s own backyard, and grab a piña colada at the bar afterwards. Not to mention the beautiful pool, with sparkling blue water and surrounded by palm trees, luscious tropical plants and flowers that create a relaxing oasis. Just down the path is a kiddie pool for youngsters – even better.
The hotel has quite a few rooms, bigger and smaller; my room was clean, comfy and lovely. The bed was soft and, while I would have happily done more sleeping, I slept great while I was there.
Park Royal is a 5 minute walk from the Ferringhi Walk, a night market and bazaar with various stalls, selling clothing and trinkets, and food. It is nice to have a glance through while you are on this end of the island, but there is nothing here that you cannot also buy in the shops and markets of Georgetown, which arguably have a larger selection.
In My Opinion: I can’t decide which is my favorite; the beach or the pool. I chose to spend my time back and forth between the two, and just can’t get enough of the sun, so the lounge area all around the hotel is perfect, if you don’t feel like getting sandy. The breakfast is nice and the open restaurant looks right onto the pool. The hotel is clean, comfortable and has a very relaxed and isolated vibe, which I loved to escape to after busier times walking around and seeing the sights in Georgetown.
If you’ve ever observed 73829 stag parties, steadily drinking their way through the classy establishments of Kuta Beach, Bali to the steady hard bass of Sky Garden’s electro lineup or the kitschy but irresistible dance anthems at Paddy’s Pub… you may be a die hard Bali goer… or you might be longing for an ever so slightly more relaxing, low key getaway.
I have two words for you: Nusa Lembongan. Lembongan is one of the many small island getaways just a short boat ride from Bali, but is a bit further from the beaten backpacker path than say, the Gilis or Lombok. This is my third or fourth trip to Lembongan, and I’m already checking my calendar to see when I can fit in my next trip… why do I keep coming back? Because this, my friends, is paradise. Yes there are thousands upon thousands (literally) of remote islands with gorgeous pristine beaches in Indonesia (not to mention Thailand and beyond), but Lembongan just has a special vibe – maybe you’ll love it too, maybe not. But hey, either way, you’ve gotta see it at least once. I first discovered Lembongan while living in Jakarta, and desperately needing to escape to a beach every weekend, away from the deadly traffic (another story). It was love at first sight.
This weekend, I returned to Lembongan for the first time in a full year, and it felt just like home. I chose to do this weekend trip as an easy getaway from my KL workweek, a great beach escape that still has an element of total relaxation and for my second weekend back in SEA, ease of familiarity.
Flying out of KL late Friday evening, I arrived to Bali Denpasar around midnight. After clearing immigration and customs (sigh) I made my way out to the familiar throng of haggling taxi drivers, who naturally triple their prices at the first glimpse of blonde hair. Despite my attempts to go lower, I managed to get a very kind older driver to take me for 80,000 IDR (note on taxi from airport to Kuta Beach: don’t pay more than 100k, though it will likely be challenging to find anything as cheap as a ride in simply because drivers claim the need to pay several additional tolls and fees associated with leaving the airport grounds). Part of my routine, I naturally told him to head to “Grand Barong Resort, Popies dua” (note my extensive knowledge of bahasa…….) The familiar decorative gateway in traditional Balinese style marked my arrival to good ol Kuta Beach, a grimy and horribly touristy, but undeniably charming desintstion in its own right. We trundled down Popies Lane 2, past all of the closed down trinket and souvenirs shacks lining the alleyway, the occasional partygoer wandering his and her way home.. somehow. Eventually, the lights of the Kuta party scene tellingly illuminating the street beyond and the unmistakeable din of the bar next door told me I was back. Amongst countless lovely, cheap, luxurious and anything in between options for accommodation in the Kuta Beach area or surroundings, I continue to return to Grand Barong for a few reasons, which may or may not be totally justifiable. I know EXACTLY where the hotel is, meaning I can even give a taxi driver directions from a certain point in Bali, and I know the surrounding area and where to quickly and easily seek out snacks, water, ATM and so forth.
As the hotel is also a 3 minute walk from the main party street of Kuta, it’s certainly accessible if you’re looking for a stable place to stumble home to after a good rally at a night out. As I almost always took the last flight into Bali, it became a favorite activity of mine to walk down to this street to sit at one of the bars (playing the loudest music imaginable and with a sign in the back naming their house cocktails, including “Green Fuck, Boom Sex, and Dark at Surfer”. I would order a large still water and spring rolls, and just revel in the hilarity of how perplexed the wandering and inebriated bachelors became at my apparent sobriety, and moreso at the fact that this seemed intentional. They just couldn’t comprehend that I was “only in town for about 10 hours, just here to have a snack and head to bed.” (It’s still funny.)
There are most certainly always cheaper ways to accomplish things in Indonesia, but for the sake of storytelling, I’ll tell you how I’ve arranged my boat trip. If you stay with various hotels on Lembongan, they may offer (and even reach out to you by email, for example) a round trip boat service from various points – including Sanur, the main harbor of Bali – often with car pick up and drop off on both ends of the trip. This is all usually offered (also available directly from Grand Barong) for 500,000 rupiah (about $35 USD). While you could get the boat trip for 300 and negotate a much cheaper version of transport to and from the harbor on your own (perhaps Grab, perhaps a friendly motorist with a scooter; plenty of them offer), the choice is yours simply for price vs. convenience. Arriving to Sanur Harbor, I grabbed some coffee and corn flakes at a nearby homestay-style hotel’s breakfast and waited for the ferry. If you haven’t been, the harbor is lined with many of the same exact shops that you will find in Kuta or other central tourism-heavy areas of Bali, selling swim accessories, batik and various trinkets and souvenirs, in case you feel the need to do some last minute shopping. There are a few different cruise companies that do shuttles to and from Lembongan, including Lembongan Fast Cruises and Marlin Cruises (I have been on both, recently on Marlin). To board the boat, you will throw whatever shoes you are wearing into one big plastic bin, so flip flops are advised. You’ll then hand over your baggage to be kept aside by the crew, sometimes on the roof – if you just have a smallish backpack, they’ll let you keep it on your lap during the ride. Some boats require a metal ladder to board, while others are accessible directly from the water after wading out, knee-deep. The boat ride only takes about 30 minutes as they are quite speedy, and then in no time, you are pulling up to the lovely little island of Lembongan!!
RE: the topic of cheaper transport, the 500k IDR that I have paid for the full return trip including pick up and drop off on both sides; as I never even have more than a small backpack for the weekend and if I stay at Cliff Villas, it is actually accessible from a path that runs up from the main harbor area alongside the cliff, past The Deck (my favorite cafe on the island!) and on up the hill, which I feel would honestly take far less time than the shitshow (excuse my French) that is usually the process of even finding, let alone waiting for, someone vaguely involved with your given tour company until enough straggling visitors are gathered to fill one of their transport trucks, after which they will drive you around the island and drop everyone off at their respective hotels, in no apparent given order (the beauty of Indonesia, my friend). All things considered, I think I’ll just say to hell with it and walk to my hotel next time, to get to my point. Anyway, transport was eventually found and I was dropped at Cliff Villas, to be greeted by a familiar peacefulness and breathtaking tranquility. There are only about 15 villas that, as the name suggests, perch along a lush green hillside with views out over paradise to the harbor, where one can see the small boats lazily making their way around, or dedicated surfers who have paddled out to an excellent spot to catch the rolling waves. There are two swimming pools at Cliff Villas, one down at the reception level (all outdoors) and one at the highest level, all the way up the stone staircase. This infinity pool is the ultimate definition of dreamy getaway, with chairs to lounge and sunbathe in surrounding the blue water, which in my opinion is the perfect temperature and with the same amazing view of the harbor and the rich tropical flora decorating the island. You could certainly make a day (or a week) of lounging by this pool, cocktail or fresh juice in hand. After saying hello to the pool and checking into my room, I donned my island clothes and rented a scooter from the hotel (they say 80k/day but I ended up paying about that much for 1.5 days because it was all the cash I had on me and my host preferred that over taking my card…)
I navigated the familiar rocky paths out from Cliff Villas, which is quite tucked away, to the main road, and turned right – towards dream beach and the yellow bridge. I headed for the famed yellow bridge, the singular crossing connecting Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, its slightly less-developed neighbor but home to equally beautiful sights and experiences. I had read an article several months prior that during a religious festival, so many people had crossed the bridge all at once that it collapsed under the weight – fortunately, it seems to be up and running (rebuilt) again, even stronger than before, and just as yellow! A quick crossing brought me to the Ceningan side, and turning right at the first fork, I followed the small road that winds along the water for some distance, passing by small shops and houses, greeted by locals and passerby with a variety of waves, comments or confused expressions; perhaps at the prospect of a strange tourist riding a scooter in a bikini with a half silly smile pasted across her face. I kept following the road along until it too turned into rocks and dirt, and eventually came to a familiar pull out with a small sign indicating “Blue Lagoon.” Perhaps the spot had become more popular among travelers, or perhaps I just chose a busy afternoon, because the spot I once had gone to sit alone, staring out at the ceaseless waves, was now the backdrop of numerous selfies and snapchats. After spending a few minutes catching up with the lagoon, I backtracked just a way to “Le Pirate Beach Club,” as made famous per Instagram- I’m sure you’ve come across at least one photo of it’s cute turquoise beach huts in a precious row, facing the ocean. As Le Pirate isn’t only a place to stay, I try to stop by for lunch or at least a smoothie bowl every time I’m on Lembongan, because the food and views are too lovely to pass up. I usually sit down on the sun deck overlooking the water, in utter paradise, happily munching away at my hot pink dragonfruit smoothie bowl.
Following my peaceful lunch, I returned to my scooter and rode my way back across to Lembongan, and headed for one of my favorite destinations on the island (and perhaps ever)- Dream Beach. I played around a bit, riding my scooter over the open expanses of dirt and the small ruts and hills across to the point where busloads (literally) of tourists were scrambling across the sharp rocks, taking pictures against the backdrop of ocean spray and sparkling water. I spent the rest of the day reacquainting myself with one of my favorite beaches in the world, and then made my lazy return to the hotel when I could tell the sun would be setting soon. I wanted to walk to my favorite cafe for dinner – The Deck Cafe – it is a perfect walking distance from Cliff Villas along a special path overlooking the ocean and nestled among flowers and shrubs and passing by various hotels, resorts and restaurants. The familiar whitewashed wood and hipster vibe greeted me at The Deck, where I literally haven’t ever had a bad time, nor a bad meal. I always sit downstairs at one of the sofa tables or the chairs along the bench directly overlooking the water and harbor, so I can have the full view of the gorgeous island and water and little boats. From here you can watch the surfers catching their first (or last) waves, watch cruises and fishing boats arrive to the harbor, and watch small private snorkeling and diving tours coming and going. The music, setting, menu and everything about this place creates the absolute best vibe, and I have to say the food is delicious from morning til night; I just don’t think you can go wrong. I munched on my dinner while watching the sun go down across a purple sky, simply happy to be alive. I walked home that night in peaceful quiet, watching the moon reflect off of the calm ocean, and because I had zero other commitments for one evening, I decided to go to bed – at a splendid 7:30PM – it just doesn’t get any more wild than that.
Thanks to my extreme bed time the night before, I was up and wide awake by 7AM Sunday morning, and got to see the first surfers paddling out for a post-sunrise ride on the fresh new waves, with the mists of the night still fading into the rapidly warming morning. After preparing my things to check out that day, I headed for breakkie back at The Deck, which was once again gorgeous in the morning sunlight. After a wonderfully relaxing and delicious breakfast, I came back to my hotel and my scooter to head for a beach day. On my way back to Dream Beach, I stopped by the Leaning Tree boutique, just down one of the side streets near the turn off for Dream Beach. This boutique has an airy, effortless vibe and sells all of your bougie (but awesome) beachy necessities, from Bali style bikinis to clothing for women and men, to accessories, cute Turkish towels, bags, and even kitchen decor! I spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon effectively posted up on Dream Beach, dipping into the strong salty current every once in a while to cool off. Sufficiently salty, sandy and sun kissed, I eventually rode back to my hotel, once more saying goodbye to a place I love so very much, but to be back again soon!
As is the case with Sunday returns, it was the classic ferry to Bali, taxi to airport and flight to KL that eventually saw me into my bed, bleary eyed and already missing my sunny palm-tree paradise.
I was looking for a weekend getaway from KL’s clouds that would include sand, sunshine and beach; I had to look no further than Thailand, of course, and a friend had recently told me about a certain Koh Lipe, which was supposed to be amazing, tranquil and gorgeous – it did not disappoint. Here is my weekend tale to an absolutely dreamy and delicious tropical paradise, an easy ferry ride away from Langkawi, Malaysia!
My weekend started with a short hop with Air Asia from KL to Langkawi island; let me just tell you, they went ALL out for the domestic terminal at KLIA2 (not). If and when you fly domestically in Malaysia… indeed just take all escalators down until it feels as though you’re underground and just keep walking through that hallway… you will actually find your gate eventually, assumptions aside. After properly stocking up on chocolate, I was ready for my flight with all but my earphones, so unfortunately forgotten at home. Luckily enough, I ended up next to AND in front of an entire troupe of kicking, crying and screaming children, which as everyone knows is my absolute favorite. I’m not quite as bitter as I sound, but it was late Friday night and I’m JUST tryna get to the beach, people. Arriving at Langkawi airport was seamless enough; it is a relatively compact arrival hall with just a few convenience shops near baggage claim. I saw a few cars available on my GRAB app, so I went ahead and booked a driver (LOVE GRAB – it’s always my go to, especially if you can swing it from Airports as outbound airport taxi prices are ridiculously hiked up). As is now the routine, I was greeted as always with “only yourself/one person?” Since my most recent arrival in Malaysia (only 2 weeks ago) I have been greeted with a variation of this (“only you?” “You brave girl to be traveling alone”), or even questions as to whether I am scared by being alone. Fortunately I can say thanks to a spotless history of security while traveling to many places in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as a few others in SEA, I do feel perfectly fine, but as all the ladies out here know, it’s a completely different (and highly relevant) conversation; perhaps we can tackle that in a separate post! I arrived to my hotel for the night not quite sure where to go and figuring it was most likely closed for the night, but eventually found a reception that was open to check in. Never having traveled to Langkawi, I had no idea which part of the island was “best” to stay at, or what type of place to look for. Only staying for a few hours overnight I obviously did not want to spend much and ideally would have found a hostel, but by location, the de Baron seemed conveniently close to Kuah Jetty, where I needed to be the next morning at 8am for my ferry to Thailand!!
Saturday morning, I was up and around at 7:30, donning only my bikini and a perhaps ill-advised neon yellow-embroidered sundress (but my favorite BIYA). Armed with my trusty Patagonia Black Hole backpack, GoPro and Canon (and chocolate), I was out the door and ready for weekend adventures. Somehow, I had what seemed the only Grab car awake on the island to my door within 4 mins, and he easily took me to Kuah Jetty (note: type in “Kuah Jetty Point” to apps like this for best recognition. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from this so called “Jetty”, but what greeted me was a full on ferry terminal complete with the works of retail shops and travel agents. After conceding to just drink Sbux today I began wandering (aimlessly, no – purposefully), in search of international departures. I had already booked my return ferry trip to Koh Lipe online and had my print out confirmations (probably not necessary to print btw) – so I was thinking to head straight for the ferry. I was directed to return to the entrance and go upstairs one floor to where “bowling” is (classic Malay directions…) lo and behold, this upstairs hallway (floor one, by entrance to ferry terminal) is indeed the office of Bundhaya Boat Co. (you can also ask for Tropical Cruises). At the office, I filled out my Thai arrival card and got all of the necessary paperwork and tickets squared away. Eventually, the time came to board our boat and off we went to Thailand!! The ferry trip went by quickly and comfortably enough – again, tip for quickness: if you just have a small bag, hang on to it and sit nearer to the front, which has more leg room and ensures that you’ll de board first as well, meaning you also arrive to said tropical destination sooner than later. The ride was about 1.45 hours long, which I passed with a mix of reading (What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School – highly recommended), ‘napping,’ and staring aimlessly at the passing waves through a tiny window at my side. Part of the way into the ride, a classically strange movie was turned on and I couldn’t help but pay attention at parts… it was one of those “so bizarre, weird and pointless” things that I just had to, you see. If anyone happens to know the name and/or origin of this film, they should be awarded with something – it was properly sporting computer imaging capabilities firmly set in the 80s and the plot revolved somewhere along the lines of a mortal living in Egypt who, after some tie-ins with the demigod Horus (among several others), was on the quest to rescue his (already dead) beloved from (death) walking through the nine gates of the underworld… even Anubis was involved – it got real. Sooooo, let’s just say that I was embarrassingly attached to this plot line and still never know what happened, as before I knew it, we had pulled up about 100 meters offshore from the most picture perfect tropical drop of an island I could imagine.
Classic Thai longboats with colorful ties on the fronts docked alongside our ferry to charter small groups of passengers to the island, and once we arrived, we were charged with the task of picking up our passports from the ferry company, who keeps them in transit to hand over ashore, then obtaining an immigration stamp from the border check. Did I mention, it started POURING rain as soon as we hit ground, which only escalated into a truly Thai monsoon-style deluge. Let me just take this moment to say, those travelers hanging around with dry bags have either just done a lot of snorkeling and kayaking trips or are brilliant and well prepared. Either way, get involved with that. I got lucky, still traveling only with my Patagonia Black Hole backpack – a life saver. It zips, then folds down, then clasps… and I think it’s either waterproof or pretty damn close to it, but everything inside – including all clothing but also passport, book and camera – stayed dry!
Somehow, a kind woman from Mountain Resort singled me out and asked if I was going there; indeed I was. I followed her to a waiting pickup truck, into the front seat of which I was invited. Upon researching (albeit barely) Koh Lipe prior to my trip, I read several reiterations of the recommendation to bring cash with you, as there are no ATMs on the island and basically no place that accepts credit card. I awkwardly kept assuming that there would be somewhere between KL and Koh Lipe, surely, where I could either withdraw or change money… false. Perhaps because I flew domestically from Langkawi and/or just wasn’t searching that hard, I never did find a place to actually get my hands on some Baht. This luckily turned out fine for me in the end, because it also turned out that the longboat trips to and from the island and our ferry were either complementary, or included in something I had already paid for, and I was able to eat all meals at my hotel, which I added onto my room bill (and they take card at reception!) Problem solved, though if you are wanting to eat at some fun local places or purchase any souvenirs or anything, really, from the shops, bars and locales along the Walking Street or at the harbor, it would indeed be helpful to have some cash.
Though my driver could barely see and had to continuously wipe down just one spot big enough to look out of on his windshield, we somehow made it to the other side of the island to the Mountain Resort. By the time we arrived the downpour had more or less calmed to a steady trickle, and I made my way soggily into reception to check in. I was given a lovely and typically Thai welcome drink, then ushered away to my room, which was one of the “Garden Suites,” aka small hut to myself with 2 twin beds and an open-air bathroom with shower and sink in the back. Once I had settled in, which didn’t take long considering my level of luggage, I decided that the best way to explore in good old Thai rain and humidity is in a swimsuit! On went the one piece, out came the GoPro, and out I went. First I had a quick walk around the grounds of the resort to see the different style of rooms and the swimming pool. I had a quick dip in the pool but let’s be real, the reason I came was for the beach. Down I went, to one of the most tranquil and lovely beaches I had ever visited. The hotel has a few hut rooms right on the beach, as well as several lounge chairs lined up for sunbathing. I kicked off my flip flops and decided to just have a walk and see where it could take me. I walked and walked, in and out of the beautiful clear water and happy to have my toes in the sand, stopping for the occasional photo with my ridiculously long extendo-selfie stick. My walk took me down the beach, eventually past more frequent beach huts, resorts, massage huts, bars and little snorkeling, diving and adventure outposts. I continued this walk as long as I could, but came to find that it couldn’t take me clear around the island, which I figured may even be possible at first. (Later realized I’m sure it would be possible at low tide!) By the time I returned to my beach at the north tip of the island, the sun had gradually started peeking through the clouds, and the day was getting hotter by the minute. I went to the upstairs restaurant for a lunch of Thai Green Curry and Vietnamese spring rolls, overlooking sunset beach. As the clouds cleared out overhead, the hot Thai sun illuminated the island’s beauty and everything just sparkled. Different hues of blue glittered in the channel between Koh Lipe and the mountainous Koh Adang, framing the sputtering longboats as they glided along – Locals and fishermen going about their daily lives. After finishing lunch I was headed for the beach. I lathered up with my good ol 50SPF (Southeast Asian sun is something else) and plopped down in my little claimed piece of beach a few meters from the crystal clear waters lapping at the shore. There were hardly any people at all on the island to begin with, and especially not towards the north end. It was magically relaxing to have a beach more or less all to myself and just not have to worry or care about sharing space or breathing room for once with hundreds of tourists. My afternoon didn’t evolve much from there, as I only took breaks from baking in the hot sun to take a swim. I read, napped, thought… all day until eventually, noticing more and more people joining me on this particular section of beach, I realized exactly why this tip is known as sunset beach. Travelers and locals alike straggled their way over to the beach to find their spot to watch a gorgeous sunset, some just sitting contentedly, some setting up their tripods for time lapse and breaking out the selfie sticks and even a drone – it was a fantastic sunset. After everyone has meandered back home and the sun had disappeared below cotton candy clouds, I picked up my beach things and headed back home. Considering Koh Lipe isn’t exactly party central, I was completely content with an (early!) night in, after having a quick shower spent dodging mosquitoes, moths and all of the bugs that had decided to make my bathroom their evening abode, I stretched out in bed for a bit of reading time before heading to sleep.
I either slept really damn well or my body was just revolting against “too much” weekend sleep, because I was wide awake before 7am. Greeted by warm rays of sunshine, I dragged myself out of bed and back into my bikini. I went to the hotel breakfast at Mountain Resort, and once again ate a lovely meal overlooking a surreal and idyllic scene of sparkling blue water, luscious green islands and soft white sand. After breakfast, I was back on the beach to soak up a morning of sun, and by noon I was feeling pretty crispy (my favorite, I won’t lie). Knowing that I had to show up early for passport check at the isIand’s immigration center, I packed up and arranged to be dropped off at Pattaya Beach. Once I arrived, I was given my boat ticket and told to wait about 2.5 hours to get my passport stamped and then board the ferry back to Langkawi. The strip of perfectly soft white sand was imminently tempting, so sure enough I unrolled my beach towel, lathered up with another layer of sunscreen and claimed a spot right there in front of the ferry and immigration offices. After about ten minutes and after two boatloads of new tourists arrived, it became apparent that no amount of my nonchalant reading and actively “fuck off” attitude would deter random tourists from including me in their “arrival” selfies and kicking sand as they shuffled past in chattering hordes. Ok fine, time to move. Here I was anyway, at 3pm Sunday on the most picturesque, perfect sunbathing paradise imaginable and too crispy to even stay in the sun any longer. I claimed a small patch of sand in the shade and read until our ferry arrived, and a small disheveled group of us were ushered onto a Thai longboat. Sputtering slowly out across the crystal clear waters, we pulled away from beautiful little Koh Lipe, and it was difficult to even imagine I had actually been there, and I wished I didn’t have to leave yet!
The ferry ride back to Langkawi took a bit less than two hours and was relatively seamless, spent chatting with a cute pair of American ladies who had known each other since childhood and had vowed to take at least one fun trip together every year after their children had grown up. Upon arrival, I must have been a sight because I certainly had every security officer looking me up and down like something rather strange that had washed up on shore, and the nice Malaysian man in charge of the ferry tours gave me an incredulous look as I exited security still wearing only a sarong around my waist and bikini – after being quizzed only on Katy Perry songs after the guard discovered my home is California, rather than about the contents of my bags or purpose of my visit. Get used to it. After stopping off to get the utmost basic caramel macchiato (ugh), I jumped into a taxi with surprisingly no need to haggle, and headed for the airport. I’m sure you can guess the way the rest of my weekend proceeded – it included flight, taxi, shower, email, sleeeep. What a dreamy weekend!
You must do this
If you happen to ask any Aussie, particularly a Melburnian, about what things are good to do or see during your time in Oz, you’ll hear about the Great Ocean Road. Firsts things first: the GOR is in no way overrated and is perhaps even a little underrated… the views, the activities… just the experience of seeing and traveling along this magnificent stretch of Australian coastline – is unforgettable and simply unlike anything else you’ll ever see! Driving the GOR was undoubtedly one of the best road trips I’ve ever made, and one I would do again in a heartbeat.
So, you’re on a tight schedule
It’s ok. So was I. In fact, I only had the weekend! I’m sharing my 2 day GOR itinerary with you and what I was able to see and do, so you will at least be able to get a feel for how long everything takes and hopefully, be able to better plan your own Great Ocean adventure! I have met people that have driven down (usually this means as far as the 12 apostles or partway there), and back in one day, although I do feel that this would make for quite a rushed trip. I would recommend making at least a 2 day trip out of it, and this is certainly doable, though I also think the more time you have along this fantastic route, the better.
But… they’re on the wrong side of the road??
Don’t worry, we all go through this at least once. Believe it or not, I drove the entire weekend for the first time being on what is for me the wrong side of the road – and the wrong side of the car! Fortunately, with a little extra care, everything was absolutely fine, though the driving was of course an adventure in and of itself. In the interest of safety, it is of course best to only drive the route if you feel completely comfortable with driving generally, regardless of the side, as it can get quite curvy and narrow in parts. The road is completely modern and very well maintained in all areas, and quite nice to drive, with plenty of pull outs for “slow” cars, aka to let the locals pass, and well-marked corners and speed zones – keep an eye out for the well-known kangaroos ahead signs!
*A note on the drive: There are tons of pullout spots, so don’t worry about getting in someone’s way, and better, there are even more pullout spots at amazingly scenic spots for quick photos or leg-stretches, and the reason my trip actually took a bit longer than the prescribed times or distances you will see on Google Maps is because during the first day of our trip, I stopped at almost, if not every single one of these pullout spots, addicted to the amazing views of the powerful ocean, majestic coastline, and amazing peacefulness of the road itself. You’ll have plenty of opportunities for these, so if you miss one, don’t worry – there will be a next soon!
My two-day GOR itinerary
Melbourne to Torqay (approx 1.5 hours) – Though it is debated where exactly the Great Ocean Road “begins,” Geelong is typically referenced as the real starting point. Given the time constraint, we decided to skip Geelong and head straight for Torqay, a seaside town most well known as the home to the National Surfing Museum, and Bells Beach. We went out to Bells Beach to a very windswept, though breathtaking, view, just long enough to watch a view hardy surfers braving the winds and cold waters, before we continued on.
Torqay to Lorne (45 min) – Even smaller than Torqay, Lorne is a quaint seaside town along the route, but a convenient and favorite place to stop, as well as home to a must-see; Teddy’s Lookout (about 5 min beyond Lorne center, searchable on Google Maps). Just a short drive to the top end of George Street (it may seem like you’re driving to nowhere) takes you to an amazing and majestic lookout with views of bass straight and the Great Ocean Road, winding around the cliffs. Just after visiting Teddy’s Lookout, I came across a sign for “Sheoak Falls”; as waterfall-obsessed as I am, I pulled into the designated parking lot and hiked for about 30-40 minutes down a small path, up a gulley and into the forested area until I reached a small trickling waterfall. Another 15 minutes or so beyond this and another waterfall section, visible between golden rays of sunlight and draping trees. Nothing out of NatGeo, but a beautiful and relatively easy hike. If you have the time, I would recommend doing ALL the waterfalls of GOR, but sadly I was quite short for time, so I chose my battles, but just had to follow this little path. We turned back after a while, still trying to make the 12 apostles by sunset.
Lorne to Apollo Bay (1 hour) – There are several key lookouts, vistas and attractions nearby to Apollo Bay, just on the eastern side of Cape Otway (lighthouse). A nice place to take a break, pull over and take some pictures along the way. We stopped for a quick lunch of grilled fish in the small town, before continuing on down the road.
Apollo Bay to Lavers Hill (1 hour) – this is a good route to type into Google Maps if you need to shave a bit of time off your trip or are hurrying down to the apostles as we were; this route goes inland and cuts off the Great Otway National Park portion of the GOR. To make sure you’re on the right track in case of signal loss, follow signs towards “Lavers Hill”.
Lavers Hill to Princetown (40 mins) – this last stretch of the drive (also up North of the Otways getting to Lavers Hill is incredibly magical, as the inland portion away from the coast takes you through an incredible jungley, rainforest-like overhang of dense, luscious greenery and tall, tall trees of all kinds, Eucalyptus included! (You are supposed to be able to spot koalas at a few key places along the GOR, though unfortunately this was one sight I missed). We were still on the approach to Princetown as the sun was rapidly descending, and wanting to make it in time to see the 12 apostles at sunset, we hurried to the parking lot (well marked) for the attraction, parking and heading out to the main viewing area. We were right in time, and caught the magnificent formations in the moody hues of a cloudy sunset. Of course, some nights are 1000% better than others, so unless you are a professional photographer waiting to get the photo for the yearly GOR calendar, you may be counting on a hit or a miss here. Of course, any sunset at the 12 apostles is going to be unforgettable and magical, so I would still recommend it. Alternatively, you could opt for sunrise, which arguably does light up the apostles themselves much better, as the sun is then shining from the proper direction.
Overnight: as I decided upon and booked the trip rather last minute, there was not an overwhelming abundance of accommodation options around the area. I figured in the end that if anything, the trade off between comfort/amenities and access to the apostles may be a worthy compromise, so I found the “hotel” as close as possible to the apostles; it turned out to be down a driveway actually connected to the viewing area parking lot! The Twelve Apostles Motel & Country Retreat is an intriguing experience, to say the least, and was one of the many pieces that made for an absolutely unforgettable (and at times, laughable) weekend. Driving down Booringa road seems like you’re just trying to find an abandoned barn and then get lost even more, but have faith and functional car headlights, and you’ll find it eventually. The small yard we pulled into seemed only slightly out of a horror film, with only slightly creepy dwarves and figurines jutting crookedly out of the grass amongst the sparse trees, a sign on the “office” door telling new visitors to pick up the phone receiver for service after hours. This is one of the those places I suppose you would joke about never wanting to show up after dark, and then of course when do you think you show up…? Eventually, a slightly odd but friendly woman bustled out to greet us and hand us our room key, with directions to one of the rooms behind the tree line. We drove out further, parked the car and made our way into our little abode for the evening. If retreating into the countryside – way, way into it – is the kind of vibe you’re going for, this is the place for you. Each little bungalow thingy forms a glorified trailer park, with worn out amenities but still, I couldn’t complain at a shower (actually with hot water), a warm blanket, and a functioning heater (it gets cold out here at night!) We made our camp for the night, snuggling into the strange little house and laughing at the circumstance, simply happy to be in the experience. Luckily, we had brought plenty of leftovers from our dinner the night previous in Melbourne, because the best that this motel can offer at the time was a sadly worn cup of microwave noodles (I think), and the area itself is not exactly popping. Note to self, bring food in and don’t rely on having much more than a microwave, and/or make dinner or accommodation plans in a bigger town on ahead, like Port Campbell.
After a morning visit back to the apostles to see them in stronger daylight, we continued our journey, knowing that this time it would take us back to Melbourne. Wanting to see a bit more of the coast and a few key attractions, we headed first down the road towards Port Campell, stopping a short 10-15 minutes away to see the Loch Ard Gorge. The gorge is named after the clipper ship “Loch Ard,” which ran aground on a nearby island in 1878, nearly at the end of a 3-month long journey from England to Melbourne. Supposedly this particular passage was so dangerous that it claimed many ships during those years. There were only two survivors from the Loch Ard; a 19 year old ship’s apprentice and a 19 year old Irish woman, emigrating with her family, who was stuck in the waters and rescued by the ship’s apprentice, who then climbed out of the gorge to call for help. Being inside the gorge is both eery and impressive, with massive waves crashing thorugh the narrow entrance and swelling into the gorge. I couldn’t imagine having to climb out, so I was definitely glad there is a well-built staircase to enter and leave the gorge. Since my visit, I have seen a few photos of people swimming and sunbathing down in the gorge; it looks simply magical when the sun shines down and lights up the clear blue waters – if you’ve been to my insta page, you can see that it is a bit more dismal when cloudy, but still impressive. Driving the GOR in middle of hot, sunny summer is definitely on my bucket list, with plenty of time to pull over and swim, sunbathe and explore.
We next drove along the coast south of Port Campbell and stopped to have a quick breakkie (of smashed avo toast with feta and rocket, of course), at a little café overlooking an inlet. A few brave visitors were gearing up for a morning swim, which I felt was far too brave for my style of only swimming if the water, or weather, or both – are quite warm. After breakfast we drove on a bit further down the coast to see London Bridge, a popular scenic view over another “apostle-like” rock formation out in the ocean which used to be connected to the other rocks by a small bridge-like formation. Aka “London Arch,” the formation used to form a complete double span bridge, until in 1990 a sudden unexpected collapse of the span connecting the rock to land left two surprised tourists out on the water-bound section, to be rescued by helicopter. During our visit, it was just a tourst hot spot, with loud groups of Chinese tours vying for the best photo op. Needless to say, it was lovely, but we didn’t hang around too long after taking a few photos and admiring the view, as once again we wanted to conserve time when possible.
Back to Melbourne: We continued back the other way, counting the “kangaroo ahead” signs that we passed and once again, admiring the amazing variation of landscapes along the impressive coastal stretch. Knowing that we wouldn’t have time to do everything we wanted along the route, we decided to see two main attractions on the way back to Melbourne while we still had the daylight:
Otway Fly Treetop Adventures: Just north of Cape Otway National Park along Colac Lavers Hill Rd, Otway Fly is a park offering hiking along a metal, 25- meter high treetop walk that stretches for 600 meters throughout the dense canopy of the leafy green trees. It only takes about an hour to complete at a comfortable pace and is easily accessible for all ability and fitness levels; some people even brought their strollers along. Otway Fly also offers an “Eco Zip Line Tour,” which takes about 2.5 hours, during which you zip from tree to tree for a more exhilarating experience of the diverse unique flora and fauna in the Otways! Sadly, our time was too tight for the zip line, but maybe someday. Random tip, look out for the trees along the road on the way into the park that totally look like broccoli.
Triplet Falls: Very near to Otway Fly Treetop park, Triplet Falls is recognized (according to my research, anyway) as one of the most beautiful and popular falls to visit along the GOR. Of course, I would love more than anything to spend time hiking out to each and every one, though by looking into it a bit, I discovered that some of the very best are indeed a several hour-long hike in and out, so given the time availability and proximity, it made the most sense to visit Triplet for this trip. Follow Google Maps and signs down a shaded curvy road into beautiful dense forest, and eventually you will reach a small parking lot with the entrance to the falls. There are actually several ways to hike down of course, and separate paths leading to different falls and destinations. I hiked the loop, which entails turning slightly left from the parking lot and following signs to Triplet Falls; if you start out by going down a TON of stairs, this is the right track. Alternatively, you can go down by the way I came back up, which is behind the parking lot down to the right- this will take significantly less, even half the time of the other path and gets you directly down to the falls. If you have time and are willing to hit some stairs for the exercise (nothing too bad, I promise), I would recommend the loop anyway because you go through the most beautiful forest and honestly, you just feel like a little magical rainforest jungle fairy – ok, I did. You will start seeing small streamlets and offshoots of the falls before you actually reach them, so keep going – and once you get there, the only sad bit is that there is a viewing podium quite far from the falls themselves, and it would take a fair bit of time to figure out how to make it down any closer to the falls themselves. After spending some time observing the beautiful falls, we continued hiking, following a steeper set of stairs (but fewer), passing by even an old abandoned steam engine! Amazing to think that loggers used to frequent the area, and somehow pull out huge pieces of timber from the steep hillside.
A1 Princes Highway to Melbourne: After visiting the falls, the brightest part of the day was already speeding past us, and so we made the decision to head up inland a bit to shave some time off of our trip home, thinking that driving along the coast would lose most of its charm in the dark, anyway. We headed towards Colac as a maps destination in order to connect to the A1, or Princes Highway, which is basically a straight shot back into Melbourne. During our drive home, I made the lovely and rather hilarious discovery that wearing my glasses at night magically allow me to see properly (DUH), after struggling to read the fuzzy street signs at night (I’m a safe driver, I promise). After an adventure and beauty-packed weekend of driving, we pulled back into Melbourne to reminisce about all of the amazing sights we had experienced, and revel in the pure beauty that Australia relentlessly surprises us with.
I’ve recently been told (albeit by local Melburnians) that Melbourne has not only the best coffee worldwide, but has food that is unrivaled in Australia and elsewhere. For me, Melbourne seems to evoke a sort of Portland, even San Fran at times city vibe, but when it comes to the food space, we are definitely talking Chi town Michelin star level, San Fran’s Marina district, Manhattan’s foodie hotspots… this place knows how to eat. With only a few weeks under my best roaming Melbourne’s art-drenched alleyways, let’s be honest… I’ve been mostly concerned with where my next meal is coming from, and tried to eat my way around some new corners of the city. Here I share with you a few of my favorites from my recent wanderings.
Queen Victoria Night Market
While during the day, the Queen Victoria Market is a permanent installation, selling a range of things from tools to fresh produce, the night market only emerges in full force on Wednesday evenings throughout the summer. My visits to Melbourne have fortunately been during February and March, right in the middle of a lovely, warm summer. The night market is absolutely one of my favorite things to do during the week, and a wonderful way to experience some of Melbourne’s true local color and culture. The market is huge and offers an insane variety of food (and trinkets, for after-dinner browsing), so bring a BIG appetite. You will find cuisines at the market ranging from thai street food to greek, to BBQ. Just get involved in everything.
*All time faves: you must try the Running Bull Sangria (it’s a market favorite), and the mixed meat platter from the BBQ place (I forget the name, but you’ll know what I mean; it’s a booth that sells nothing but BBQ meats, including ribs, pulled pork, and sausage). If you only eat one thing at the market, you must must must get Taki’s Balls. As their slogan states, “we don’t break em, we make em!” Taki’s hot, delicious balls are covered either in sugar or Nutella, and trust me, you want them in your mouth right now.
Moroccan Soup Bar
This is an absolute MUST visit while in Melbourne. Nestled along St. Georges St, in an inconspicuous corner of Fitzroy, the restaurant peeks out from behind an unassuming façade, with a few tables and chairs bordering the sidewalk outside. MSB opens most days of the week at 6:00PM sharp, and trust me, you want to arrive at 6, or a few minutes earlier. I made the mistake of taking a stroll down St. Georges as I had arrived too early for opening to a still and quiet restaurant, completely closed… but when I returned around 6:02PM, the entire restaurant was already packed. By the time I had finished dinner and left, there was a waiting que actually bunched up in hipster clusters down the sidewalk. After 6pm, a small section of St. Georges in Fitzroy teems with life, happiness and laughter as friends and families come together to share in the joy of good food and vibes to be had at MSB. If you expect that you will need some time with the menu because it is simply too difficult to decide; everything looks so delicious… you’re wrong. You’re in for a surprise, or several. One of the restaurant’s defining characteristics is its renowned verbal menu; yes, spoken. You either choose the big buffet, or the bigger buffet, and they bring you the food after accommodating for any food allergies you may have. As you’ll notice from the signs, décor and overall ambiance, the restaurant is a fierce defender of all things just, right and fair and brings these messages to each and every visitor. If you have an open mind and are hankering after some of the most delicious Moroccan food (probably outside of Morocco and in the world), make time for MSB, and bring a big appetite!
YUM. Located smack in the middle of Fed Square in Melbourne’s bustling CBD, Chocolate Buddha boasts a view of the open section of fed square, including the outdoor TV screen, amazing architecture in all directions, and is less than a 5 minute walk from the riverbank. Chocolate Buddha offers a delicious Asian fusion menu, and I would simply recommend ordering as much as you think you can eat; everything is delicious so try some of your comfort favorites and something new on this fun menu… In retrospect, perhaps the restaurant gets its name from the chocolate spring rolls which are simply a must-try (is that even a question).
Five Points Specialty Coffee and Bagels
This cozy little café is centrally located and is a convenient and perfect spot for coffee and bagel lovers (ME!) to grab a bite for breakkie or a midday coffee to and from whatever the day in Melbourne CBD may have in store. A wide array of bagel options, from healthy and fresh to bacon and egg style, all the way through to Nutella, peanut butter, banana… you get the idea. The coffee, as most is in good ol’ Melb, is of course delicious.
Riverland Urban Beer Garden
“Urban beer garden” is an excellent way to describe Riverland, as it captures the essence and vibe of a picturesque waterside café, along with the funky menu and comfort food offerings (think delicious BBQ, pulled pork sandwiches and plenty of fries) of one of your classic favorites. It is a fabulous go-to for a nice meal with a view, a good place to relax from the hustle and bustle during a long day of exploring, or a lovely place to simply sit and catch up with a friend or loved one as you watch the boats float by.
The Fair Trader Café & Bar
This funky eatery in downtown Melbourne is for the lovers of all things healthy, fresh, and organic. This is not to say Fair Trader is some vegan-exclusive, hippie dippie establishment with lamas out front to greet you; businessmen and fitness freaks sit side by side in this bustling café/restaurant, and it is a great place to meet friends, have a friendly and chatty lunch, or get some work done, if you don’t need absolute quiet. The menu offers quintessentially delicious Aussie (Melbourne) fair, featuring the classics like smashed avo, salads, sandwiches, with a menu variety that should suit just about anyone.
Disclaimer: Degraves Street should simply have its own category as “best places to eat in Melbourne” – straight up. All of the cafés and eateries along this fabulously cozy laneway off of Flinders Ln downtown Melbourne are amazing, delicious… need I go on. If you are looking for a place to eat, drink, (shop), chill… whatever – my go-to is the Flinders Lane area, and Degraves St. must have every possibility for yummy food options. RMB sits at the entry to Degraves, so has an open view down the lane and the tables outside provide an optimal perch for people watching. The menu is classic, with a wide variety for both breakfast and lunch options, ranging from a delicious take on smashed avocado toast, featuring a little spice and smoked salmon, to salads and sandwiches.
How could you not love Mockturtle. Not just another hole in the wall on Degraves St., Mockturtle is funky, unique, and just plain cute. From its tiny two-person booths inside the café, to its menu scrawled in chalk along the boards outside, to its delicious coffee, Mockturtle is a solid go-to for coffee and food along Degraves. Brunch here is fantastic, with both traditional fare, as well as fun and sugary-sweet items that you should probably just go ahead and try… because there’s always tomorrow to start your “diet.”
Indeed, another classic of Degraves Street, but it is one to even give Doughnut Time a run for its money! (You should still go get a doughnut, anyway). Delicious coffee, quaint vibes… baby cupcakes. What more could you possibly want on an afternoon stroll through downtown Melbourne. Hit up Little Cupcakes before your next weekend tea party, girls night in, or perhaps even your snuggly picnic in the park!
(Yes, Hash). Officially “Hash Specialty Coffee & Roaster,” # is a vibrant and quirky café and restaurant on Hardware St. The menu offers a classic range of delicious meals and snacks, with a beautiful and funky twist. For example, # porridge is adorned with a lovely array of flowers, nuts, and seeds so that it really looks like the porridge fairies would eat. You MUST try the fairy floss hot chocolate; as it sounds, a tall plume of sugary fairy floss (cotton candy, for us Americans) is served in a mug, looking a bit like one of those 90s troll-dolls fell in too far. Alongside in a chemistry beaker comes hot, silky rich chocolate liquid. Now, get your cameras at the ready and go ahead! Watch the fairy floss melt away as you pour the chocolate over, and try not to get too distracted as to miss the mug!
Oli & Levi Café
This is one of those places that truly embodies the Melburnian culture (or one of the cultures, anyway) of taking coffee really, really, seriously – but delivering it with an air of effortless sophistication in a rough and tumble atmosphere. To outsiders, the café appears to be a hipster hotspot, but it’s so much more than that. This place has transcended hipster, or was hipster before hipster existed, however you may explain it. There is one wooden table inside where you are welcomed to sit and enjoy your small breakfast snacks and expertly-crafted coffee over the but it may be reasonable to not expect a seat at any given time, simply because the place is so small.
Naked for Satan
This. is. a Melbourne CLASSIC. Dark rooms with antiquated wooden furniture drenched in red velvet, curated heurs d’oeuvres on toothpicks, and yes I’m getting there… a certain level of nudity. I’m not going to tell you where, or how. Just go and see for yourself. Don’t worry, it’s nothing too crazy; in fact, NFS is arguably the coolest hangout spot (shoutout to the epic rooftop with a complete view of the Melbourne skyline) in the city! It is a favorite of locals and visitors alike, and you must spend at least one (hopefully sunny!) avo sipping a craft local beer or one of the Naked for Satan specially-flavored vodka infused teas up on the roof.
Bimbo is at least a must-see, if not a must-visit, during your time in Melbourne and is an obvious destination if you find yourself in Brunswick. Just up the street for our fave Naked for Satan, Bimbo is its very own brand of weird- you’ll quickly see why. From the giant plastic baby doll suspended from the façade of the building high above the heads of wondering passerby, to the famous $4 PIZZA after 7pm, and all day on Sundays. Shit gets a little weird (what am I saying, it was already weird to begin with) in Bimbo… in a good way.
Go-to foodie areas for when you’re in town:
Queen Victoria (Night) Market
Degraves St, off Flinders Ln
Hardware Lane (and Street)
Brunswick (walk the length of Brunswick St.)
Go on people, the coffee isn’t going to drink itself!!
The inspiration for my trip to Rottnest Island began with a single jaw-dropping Instagram post of a bubblegum-pink lake, geotagged to be somewhere in Western Australia. My initial disbelief spiraled into an obsession to find the pink lakes of western Australia myself. After a few internet searches, I quickly discovered that the only pink lakes within reach of Perth existed to the north and south of Perth, each about 6-8 hours away by car. Knowing that I would only be in Perth for one week and unable to take a day to drive, I realized visiting these spots would have to go on my bucket list for another time (alongside tons of other amazing spots along the coast of WA – will definitely be back!) Eventually, a Google Maps search showed a pin on a small island off the coast of Perth; there seemed to be a “pink lake” on Rottnest Island! While countless blogs and travel websites mention the pink lakes of WA that I had found initially, I could not find any such description of those on the so-called Rottnest Island. Regardless, photos online of the island itself convinced me that it would be a gorgeous place to visit for the day, and so I decided I would go.
Lo and behold, Monday morning I woke up to a clouded and gloomy gray sky which only got darker by the minute. Despite the looming clouds, I made up my mind to not let a little bad weather get in the way of my adventures, so I headed out to the ferry terminal at Fremantle, one of three possible locations from which ferries leave to Rottnest (Fremantle being the shortest trip). I was questioning my decision to go ahead when some Perth locals on my ferry lamented what horrible weather they were having and what a shame I was seeing the island on a day like this… and when we caught air, bouncing clear off of our seats when we hit some of the bigger waves. The locals next to me told me a bit about the island, and about a local annual swimming competition, which runs 20km from the harbor to the island, through the open ocean!
Once I arrived to Rottnest, the day had already begun to brighten, with some of the clouds parting to allow little rays of sunshine through. I was instantly happier and so glad that I went ahead and chose to visit the island. I immediately headed for “Pedal and Flipper,” the most commonly-frequented bike rental shop on the island with a large garage full of bikes of all sizes. Once I had grabbed a helmet and bike, I was on my way. Not knowing how much of the island I would be able to cover before I had to turn in my bike by 5:00, I figured I would just explore as much as possible. The hope of seeing a pink lake was still fresh, so I went ahead and set off on my bike, with Google Maps pointing me somewhere towards the middle of the main part of the island. Once I headed down the central Digby Road, I didn’t have to bike very far before I came across a stunning sight: on my right, a deep blue body of water with – PINK around the edges! I had suddenly been plopped right into a fairytale, with wispy palm trees and cotton candy lakes, and I was loving every minute. The beginning of Digby Road is where I took most of my pictures, and as I continued along this road, the lakes only got pinker! As I learned from an oh-so-helpful billboard, the lakes get their (crazy) pink color from microscopic algae that grows on salt crystals, containing beta-carotene, a reddish orange substance that is partly responsible for the color. The pink lakes (also known as the salt lakes) are four times saltier than seawater, which reasonably attracts such a high concentration of the beta-carotene-bearing algae.
Tearing myself away from selfie upon selfie, I continued my ride and had an amazing day riding all over this beautiful little island off the coast of Perth. As I came to find out along my ride around Rottnest (Wadjemup to the local Noongar people, or simply “Rotto” to most locals), is well known for its significant population of quokkas! In case you don’t know, quokkas are (THE CUTEST AND CUDDLIEST) small native marsupials that appear to be something in between a large rodent and small cat-rabbit? The little guys of Rotto are either quite accustomed to visitors or just not shy, because they will indeed come right on over to check you out for any leftover snacks or just for a bit of a snuggle. Other wildlife of the island consists of many rare species of birds (you will see many trails indicating good places to spot these from, often pathways where bikes cannot go), and both Australian sea lions and southern fur seals, which you can spot frolicking and fishing off the shore of Rotto along the rocky coast.
Once I had ridden into central island in hot pursuit of the pink lakes, I decided to head to the north and skirt the border of the island counter-clockwise and try to make it all the way around to the east coast by the time I needed to return my bike. I passed bays, cliffs, beaches and rocky outcroppings by what seemed the dozen (there are something around 60+ bays surrounding the island!) and stopped to take pictures or wander down to most of them. Each and every place was spectacularly unique, and I could just imagine claiming a spot of the soft white sand for my very own during one of the hot hot days that Rotto is known for. A good book, the beach and crystal clear turquoise waters create the perfect recipe for an amazing vacation, staycation for Perthites, and anything in between. The second half of my day was filled with a bit more huffing and puffing, as I tried to cover as much ground as possible in between stopping to admire the views. Once I made it out to Cape Vlamingh, I only had about an hour left. Cape Vlamingh is at the westerly tip of the island and is home to a wildlife/eco sanctuary, which remains protected by a 200 meter boardwalk running out to the point, allowing visitors to enjoy the breathtaking views beyond the edge of the island.
After soaking in the amazing views at the west end, I took off again down the coast and made my last main stop before turning back to the central path back to the east coast; The Green Island. I am not entirely sure where this beach bay got its name, perhaps from the small rocks lining the coast. I was greeted by a group of five exuberantly jumping Indonesian bikers, all dressed for the occasion in neon yellow biking gear. I had missed this typical and familiar photo-on-a-tropical-beach-somewhere experience in Indonesia, where anyone with remotely blonde hair is bombarded for group photos with up to thirty people at a time. After we took our peace signs and smiley photos together and wished each other well, I enjoyed the peace of the beach and full force of the natural beauty of this remote paradise before jumping on my bike and pedaling my way back to the other coast.
I cannot even describe my experience at Rotto adequately… and I went on a cloudy, dreary day in comparison! I know that I simply must go back someday, and I would love at least one week to explore; just getting on my bike every morning, and riding where and when I want, seeing, feeling and experiencing the raw beauty of the happy little island. I recommend you do the same, and don’t forget to cuddle a quokka!
Stay wild xxx
I’ve been told time and again that the South Island is the best place to be in New Zealand; it has the best views, the prettiest scenery… the greenest grass. Well, I haven’t made it down there yet (it’s on my list), but I can now happily say I’ve seen a pretty good portion (at least geographically speaking) of the North Island, and it’s still amazing.
If like me, you happen to find yourself on North Island and want to explore but are a little strapped for time, hopefully my adventure will provide you with some helpful inspo for a quick, but action-packed trip across the north.
Starting in Wellington, NZ, I needed to arrive in Auckland by Sunday night and wanted to see as much as possible. Originally, it was my plan to do the Alpine Crossing hike in Tongariro National Park, just outside of Taupo. After a bit more research, I learned that not only does the hike (as it should of course) take a comfy minimum of 8 hours, one should (must) also be properly geared up, prepared, etc. Equipped only with lifestyle Nikes (lol) and a frattagonia, I figured I’d at least need to rent some gear. While this was most likely possible, I came to the conclusion that in order to enjoy the weekend to the fullest without being rushed nonstop, it would be smarter to save the hike for another visit to NZ, when I have plenty of time to immerse in the nature, hike around as much as I want and actually spend a few days around Tongariro. (It looks amazing though, if you have a little more time in this area- I’ve heard great things!)
After realizing the extent of my time crunch, I looked for activities and stop-offs that would be fun to explore but wouldn’t necessarily take the entirety of a day, and ended up with a fabulous itinerary; here’s what I did over the weekend.
The drive from Wellington up to Taupo is lovely in and of itself, winding in between cute little towns, one-street villages and rolling green hills. Be sure to stay focused on the road, because the beautiful views can get distracting. I chose to rent a car in Wellington, which could be dropped off in Auckland – a car allowed me to go wherever I wanted, whenever… it was absolutely worth it to me for this kind of trip, and unless there is a major barrier to renting a car, it’s the way to go. It took a little over two hours to reach Taupo, where I had booked a one night stay at the Hilton Lake Taupo. I first saw Lake Taupo from the road, which is the major lake for which Taupo is famous. A monstrous blue gem, the lake is gorgeous and home to all manner of fun activities.
Since I hadn’t pushed to leave super early Saturday morning, I arrived late afternoon into Taupo and began looking for things to do still that evening. I had heard about the Maori rock carvings on Lake Taupo, and found an evening sunset cruise still available to visit them. Having a few hours before the cruise, I asked about any hot springs nearby, since the area around Taupo is renowned for its geothermal activity and plethora of hot springs. It turned out that Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort is right next door (a 5 minute walk) from the Hilton, so I walked just down the road to the public hot springs. There is a small entry fee for unlimited day access to the pools, which are well-maintained in a lovely landscaped area, including trees, plants, waterfalls and even waterslides, for kiddies and adventurers. I spent at least an hour soaking in the warmth of the vividly turquoise-green pools, amazed at the natural temperatures (allegedly cooled down by necessity to make it possible for people to swim!)
Later, on to Lake Taupo for some evening exploring: It is easy to drive down to the harbor (Redoubt street), and park along the water where all of the boats are docked. There are many ways to see the carvings throughout the day, including by several types of boat or even kayak. I went on the sunset cruise with a company called Ernest Kemp; a relatively small group of people is taken out on the lake in an adorable little green tug boat, and the sunset cruise included pizza and (seemingly unlimited) beer or wine, tea or coffee… pretty fancy stuff, folks. The cruise takes about two hours total, reaching the carvings just in time to catch the last of the daylight and circling back with a gorgeous backdrop of the setting sun, painting streaks across the evening sky.
*I was not able to fully explore the Taupo area, but it is most famous (apart from the lake itself), for its geothermal attractions, including hot springs, pools and waterfalls. According to my own quick research, top picks for the area include Haka Falls, Wairakei Terraces and Thermal Health Spa, and Otumuheke Stream Spa Park. Unfortunately my trip was too quick to explore all of these, but they are on my list for next time; I would love to do a relaxing hot springs crawl of sorts around Taupo; if you are looking for more tips, the Great Lake Taupo website is quite helpful.
After a relaxing arrival to Taupo and a lovely evening, I got a good night’s rest and woke up for a delicious fresh breakkie at the hotel, overlooking a misty Lake Taupo in the distance. I got around early to make the most of the day, heading out from Taupo and up north towards Rotorua. A little over two more hours north of Taupo along the “Thermal Explorers’ Highway” lies Rotorua, another area famed for its volcanic and geothermal activity. There are plenty of fun things to see and do around Rotorua, but if you only have a few hours, you must go to Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland. Waiotapu is a Maori word meaning “sacred waters,” and is an active geothermal area at the southern area of the Okataina Volcanic Center in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone. I spent close to three hours total at Waiotapu, taking the long path (of three options based on which thermal attractions you would like to see and how long you wish to take) to see all of the thermal craters and lakes, and then afterwards stopping by the boiling mud pool. For more detail on Waiotapu, see my blog post about it here.
After exploring Waiotapu, I was back on the road towards Rotorua proper. On my way through, I stopped at Polynesian Spa, a developed and fully landscaped geothermal spa that sits directly on the banks of Lake Rotorua, with amazing views across the water. The pools in the spa come from various natural sources in the area, some of which are exclusively sourced by Polynesian Spa and are only accessible there. For example, the “Priest’s Bath,” which for centuries served as the bathing site for local Maori, who long acclaimed the therapeutic benefits of bathing in the acidic water. Information about the baths claims that people have long traveled to Rotorua and to these baths specifically to reap such health benefits as relief from arthritis and rheumatism, or even to seek “eternal beauty,” which is said to grace those who bathe in the nearly magical water.
Refreshed from my R&R stop at Polynesian Spa, I headed on down (up) the road for what is basically the middle of nowhere in the north island to nowhere other than The Shire, of course. I debated as to the real importance of visiting the famed Lord of the Rings filming spot, but in the end decided that if I was going to be so close, I simply couldn’t and shouldn’t miss saying hello. So, a few hours and many luscious green rolling hills later, a tiny country one lane road brought me to the parking lot of Hobbiton. I did question Google Maps every once in a while, especially when the road became narrower and the hills became more dense. I had a feeling I was on the right track, however, when pulling around a corner I happened upon a (honest to God) wizard (?) with a small horse (?) seemingly taking photos alongside the road (WHAT). Hobbiton is – well – quaint, and as expected, a bit on the touristy side. For the die-hard Lord of the Rings fan, the tour guides invite you to reenact any scene you like from The Hobbit, and a video playing inside the tour bus on your short jaunt out to the hobbit houses explains a bit with footage about the making of the film and how the land was originally found by the director, in the middle of a beautiful New Zealand farm. It was interesting to learn about the film and its history, and about just how much of a production it became for the countryside farm; instead of monetary backing from the government, the director was instead offered help and manpower from the military, which assisted in building roads on set and through the hills of the farm. This eventually drew (unwanted) attention to the ongoings on an otherwise unassuming property, and eventually the surface tales would no longer satisfy curious neighbors; once people found out what was really going on, the project had to even establish a no fly zone above the farm to avoid the occasional helicopter trying to get a peek from showing up on camera! After the tour of Hobbiton and plenty of selfies with Bilbo’s house (although don’t expect to see a fully-furnished Hobbit hole… the insides of the houses were all constructed and filmed in Wellington), we were taken to the Green Dragon pub, set in a shockingly idyllic valley, where the golden sun dances across the verdant hills and plays magic on the small lakes. How can you not feel like you really are a hobbit, or living for real in this fantastical world? After enjoying a leisurely beer at the Green Dragon, we were escorted back to the entrance and of course exited through the gift shop, where available for sale you will even find the Ring, inscription and all, and an “elvin cloak,” as made famous by Gandalf in the movie. While I consider myself somewhere in between a die-hard fan and ambivalent aficionado of the movie series, it was still very enjoyable to visit Hobbiton, and definitely something that I would recommend once. You can decide for yourself if you cant live without a second trip back.
The rest of the drive up to Auckland was done as the sun went down, painting the sky with streaks of vivid purple, orange and red – theres just nothing like a New Zealand sunset. Unless it’s an Aussie sunset, but still. From there, I cant say too much about the scenery but it was a good drive up, pretty soon made it to the city and checked in for a much needed snooze. Overall, choosing to drive across the North Island was a fantastic decision and I saw some amazing things. My only wish is to spend much more time in each place, and perhaps explore much more along the way! Several weeks spent just exploring NZ is definitely on my bucket list.
My roadtrip at a glance:
Wellington, NZ to Auckland, NZ (2 days)
Wellington to Taupo
Maori Carvings, Lake Taupo
Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort
Taupo to Auckland
Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland & Mud Pools
Polynesian Spa at Lake Rotorua
Hobbiton Movie Set, Matama
Have YOU ever fallen down the rabbit hole? How about one that ends in boiling pools of neon yellow goop? If this sounds up your alley, head on out to Rotorua, New Zealand. Let’s talk about Waiotapu – what does it mean? Waiotapu is a maori word meaning “sacred waters,” and is an active geothermal area at the southern area of the Okataina Volcanic Center in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone. Thermal – indeed, quite self-explanatory. Wonderland – aptly titled, because between the unsettling and unnatural (but 1000% natural!) colors, the 100 degree+ temperatures (Celsius) and the crazy landscapes, this beauty will have you feeling like Alice for sure… perhaps after the “eat me, drink me” encounter.
There is no shortage of beautiful wonders to see at Waiotapu, so I would allow at least 2 hours for your visit, if not a bit more. If you’re up for an early start, the Lady Knox Geyser (allegedly) awakens every morning at 10:15AM (unfortunately I visited in the afternoon, so cannot confirm this lovely experience but am hoping to see it next time!) The park is well-landscaped with clearly defined paths for visitors, and plenty of signs indicating where really not to step or leave the indicated path given the high temperatures of the ground and steam coming out of the thermal caves. Visitors are able to choose which path (of three main options) they wish to follow, namely a shorter track (walk 1) that takes you to the main attractions of the Central Pools and Champagne Pool, a middle ground (walk 1 & 2) offering some additional sights, and then the full extended trek (walk 1, 2, & 3), which, while not at all more difficult or arduous, provides so many surprises along the way and an unforgettable end view. Estimated lengths and times of walk 1 is 1.5km, 30 min; walk 2 is 2km and should take 40 min, while walk 3 is 3km and should take about 75 min. I was unsure which path to take at first because the guides in the welcome center sound rather ambivalent but say of course it’s all very interesting, may as well go all the way for some additional nice photos… but if you take away anything from this writing, do the full circuit walk!!! It. Is. Amazing. And so SO worth it. My last minute decision to do the entire path because (why not, I was already there) turned out to be an excellent choice, and once you complete the first half with main attractions, a significant chunk of tourists with their impending selfie sticks have already circled back for the entrance, leaving you alone to wander amongst the nature alone with your thoughts, camera (ok, perhaps a selfie stick of your own), and some really breathtaking views.
What you’ll see
Along any walk you choose, you will pass a huge variety of wonders, including thermal caves spewing steam, bubbling ominously from their depths, and a lovely sulfuric smell… yum. All of these caves and pools you will see throughout the course of the day are results of time, and location in one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. Here are some of the park’s highlights, and my favorites:
Artist’s Palette: After earthquakes caused the Champagne Pool to tilt, mineral laden water flowed over the flat, causing this multicolored display of chemical beauty. Orange, bright yellows and surreal greens and blues paint across the water as mineral deposits are spread around by the wind.
Champagne Pool: arguably the most famous attribute of Waiotapu, the Champagne Pool occupies a crater that was formed during an eruption 700 years ago! Purportedly the most violent eruption that the world has seen in the past 5,000 years, ash was seen as far away as the skies of Europe and China. What’s going on to make it these crazy colors, you may ask… let alone the “champagne”-esque bubbles? Well, let’s just say there’s some knarly chemistry going on, to say the least.
For my science buffs: the water enters the pool at a temp of 230 degrees Celsius and cools within the pool to around 74 degrees, with a pH of 5.4, making it slightly acidic. The gas bubbles rising to the surface are C02, the orange colored edge containing arsenic and antimony sulfur compounds rich in minerals including gold and silver.
Lake Ngakoro: This is the enormous, stunning lake that greets deserving visitors at the end of their trek (on the long walk). Crisply turquoise, the lake lures one into its beautiful depths. Take your time just looking, soaking in the beauty, and enjoy life for a moment.
Devil’s Bathtub: The most intriguing (perhaps most disturbing) feature of Waiotapu may in fact be its most tranquil (in terms of chemistry and volcanic activity, anyway). Also sitting in a crater caused by eruption likely centuries ago, the stagnant liquid of Devil’s Bathtub is an astonishingly (anyone have a better word?!) neon yellow/green, resulting from sulfur deposits that rise to its surface. LOVELOVELOVE. Stay wild, Waiotapu- seriously.
Ok, you’ve seen all the craziness that nature has to offer. You’ve seen 100 degree steam rising from a bright green pool, a small lake properly comparable only to Gatorade, and wonder upon wonder of geothermal amazement. Stop right there. You simply cannot drive away from Waiotapu without first driving just beyond their main parking area… back towards the signs pointing out “Mud Pools.” A visit to Waiotapu simply would not be complete without seeing Rotorua’s famous boiling mud. It’s just as magical as it sounds, I promise. Go ahead, I dare you to jump in (just kidding, please don’t. As one of the kind fellows that welcomed us implored, “if you want to keep your legs, please refrain.”) The mud occupies the site of a once-volcano which eroded in the 1920s, leaving a rather mysterious and captivating pit of bubbling and boiling goo (which, by the way, is the source of many luxurious cosmetic products including a killer face mask!). Laugh, point, take some pics… try to predict when the next big bubble will come- that’s all, folks.
Whether you’re traveling NZ solo or bringing the whole fam damily, this place is MAGICAL, and you need to go. Now. Go see these whimsical wonders and feel your jaw drop- dayum, Mother Nature.
*Getting there: Waiotapu is more or less smack in the middle of New Zealand’s north island, and nearly equidistant from Taupo and Rotorua. I visited Waiotapu en route from Wellington to Auckland via a night over in Taupo- a quick drive down “Thermal Explorers’ highway” is accessible and easy the next morning. From my experience, having a car to see around NZ is simply preferable, because you avoid uncertainty, get to see all of these tucked-away places, and of course, can see what you want, when and how and you travel on your own terms. J