I had heard all kinds of opinions about Luxembourg – none of which were particularly negative, nor excessively positive – middle of the road statements like “it’s quite small,” or “there’s not a lot to do there.” So, I decided to see for myself.
Hosted by Visit Luxembourg, the tourism agency of Luxembourg, I was able to spend a lovely three day weekend in this beautiful country. My observation? Well, it really is a lovely place, and in my opinion, definitely worth at least ONE visit!! If you really want to delve into the fascinating history and have time to see the surrounding areas (not just downtown Luxembourg City), it would be ideal to have at least one week in the country, or come back for multiple trips. Also, having visited in early December, I am a huge advocate for the pre-Christmas time given the spectacular Christmas markets that Luxembourg puts on, though I would also love to see it in the spring/summer months.
Let me bring you along on my little Luxembourg journey…
Christmas time in Luxembourg is a magical time
I arrived to Luxembourg City by train from Switzerland on a Friday evening and it was just beginning to get dark. As with many European train stations, Gare Luxembourg is absolutely beautiful, and quite unique from anything else I’ve seen thus far. The city is well-connected by public transport (mostly bus in the downtown area), so a quick bus brought us to our hotel – Hotel Vauban, located directly on the Place Guillaume in the heart of downtown Luxembourg City, and the perfect location as a base for exploring the city.
We passed at least two small Christmas markets and tons of shimmering lights just on the short drive from the station to our hotel, and to our very happy surprise, discovered that our hotel was not only situated in the midst of a very lively market, but that it was within 5 min walking distance of two of the other best markets in town!
We dropped our things at the hotel, which was simple, cozy and clean, and bundled up for an evening at the markets. First, we visited the market right across from our hotel, in the partially-enclosed Place Guillaume, which focused on food, drinks and fun loud music, with a gorgeously-illuminated ice skating rink and beautiful Christmas lights strewn over the buildings and sparkling from the tops of trees. We ate a typically Germanic sausage dog for dinner, preceded (and followed) by Glühwein (hot/mulled wine), the staple drink of Christmas markets and European winter season, generally.
We visited one more market before turning in for the evening, just around the corner at the Place d’Armes, which boasts a giant lighted Christmas tree and the “Lights of Luxembourg” sign. This market is significantly larger, with many stalls serving different types of food, drink (also Glühwein, of course – at this market they served it in the cute colorful boot mugs, which we of course took as souvenirs), and knickknacks of all sorts. Towards the back of the market near a carousel was a Christmas tree display featuring a variety of decorations that seem to have been done by local schoolchildren.
All things UNESCO – a city full of history
Our first morning and full day in Luxembourg was dedicated to exploring some of the most famous landmarks and historical areas of the city. The city’s fortifications and historical quarter were recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1994, and it is possible to see nearly all, if not all, of the included attractions in one afternoon of exploring. Visit Luxembourg has a recommended walking route to complete a tour of all the UNESCO sites; my path was a bit different as I wanted to experience the full mix of classic, contemporary and medieval architecture that the city has to offer.
Downtown Luxembourg City and Pont Adolphe
We explored downtown a bit to see the mix of architecture, featuring various governmental-related buildings with beautiful designs and a street lined with remarkable buildings, reminiscent of the French style. Next we visited Adolphe bridge, which is lovely from all angles and has beautiful and intriguing ruins underneath it, and several walking paths.
Notre Dame Cathedral and Casemates du Bock
Notre-Dame’s cornerstone was first laid in 1613, and after passing through various phases and different religious associations, was refurbished in neo-gothic style from 1854. The inside of the cathedral is classic and elegant, with expansive ceilings and richly colored stained glass displays. Even if you don’t have a lot of time to explore or sit inside, it is worth peeking in and open to the public (except perhaps during certain masses).
We walked from the downtown area of Notre Dame to Casemates du Bock, which led us down various quaint cobblestone alleys and past multiple styles of architecture; walking around the city really is the best way to see it properly.
A bit of history about the Casemates from Visit Luxembourg: In 963, Count Siegfried built a fortified castle on the Bock promontory, which was soon to become the cradle of the city. In the course of the centuries, on the western side, mighty ring walls were added, which, however, did not foil the Burgundians in their attempt to conquer the city in 1443. The best builder-engineers of the new masters (the Burgundians, the Spaniards, the French, the Austrians and the German Confederation) eventually turned the city into one of the most powerful emplacements in the world, the “Gibraltar of the North”. Its defences were bolstered by three fortified rings with 24 forts, 16 other strong defensive works and a unique 23 km long network of casemates: these could not only shelter thousands of soldiers and their horses, but also housed workshops, kitchens, bakeries, slaughter-houses etc. In 1867, after the declaration of neutrality,the military withdrew from the fortress and during the following 16 years 90% of the defences were demolished. In 1875, the superstructure of the Bock, a tremendous construction, was razed. However, it proved to be impossible to blow up the casemates, without also demolishing part of the city, so the entrances and the key connecting galleries were sealed. In spite of this, 17 kilometres of tunnels remain, often on different levels and tremendous stairways penetrate up to 40 metres inside the rock face.
As per the tourism website, the Casemates are open for visitation from February through November, so I had just missed the window to go inside, though even from the outside, these ancient walls and fortifications are truly fascinating to see, especially when one imagines just how old it all is, and the history behind its making.
A city of history and art
From Casemates du Bock, there is a walking route to the hill, atop which sits MUDAM, the modern art museum of Luxembourg (Musée d’art moderne Grand-Duc Jean). The strikingly modern museum sits on the site of the historical Fort Thüngen in Dräi Eechelen Park, and was inaugurated in 2006. Most of the original fortress (Thüngen) was demolished after the 1867 Treaty of London, which demanded the demolition of Luxembourg City’s numerous fortifications. The three towers and the foundations of the rest of the fort were all that remained. During the 1990s, the site was reconstructed in its entirety, in parallel with the development of the site for the construction of MUDAM. After being fully restored, the building was reopened in 2012 as Musée Dräi Eechelen.
Outside of MUDAM can currently be seen an exhibit titled “Wind Caravan” by Japanese artist Susumu Shingu, whose art is dependent upon wind to exist. His elegant sculptures are animated by the slightest breath and thereby reveal the intangible but omnipresent nature of air. Outside the museum are a set of 21 such sculptures, and inside, his “Water Tree” and various other works driven by the harmonious interactions of wind, water and light in his dedicated exhibit room.
Very near to MUDAM is the Philharmonie, an architectural marvel in itself and really beautiful to see at twilight or after dark, when it is illuminated against the night sky. We stopped by on our way to the bus stop, which took us back to our friendly neighborhood of Christmas markets for the evening.
Our last day in Luxembourg was dedicated to exploring the historical area around Casemates du Bock a bit more thoroughly, and From our hotel, we took the back way through the small alleys down towards the Grund. The Grund is technically a neighborhood of Luxembourg City, and has a very relaxed, historical (cobblestoned streets dating from the 10th century, walls from the 14th) and village-like feel to it; perfect for a quiet Sunday stroll. The path winds downhill along a very scenic route, passing by colorful and quaint houses with lovely views out over the river, Neumünster Abbey (a UNESCO building), and the river, bridges and the Casemates du Bock further in the background – the places we had explored from a new angle!
Near to the Grund is Luxembourg’s National Museum of History and Art, which typically hosts an eclectic variety of classical and historical artwork and artifacts, alongside a selection of contemporary art. This is a good museum for those that are interested in history and other cultures. At the time of my visit, the headline exhibit was about ancient Chinese civilization, a fascinating journey from the beginning of the oldest civilization in the world, through to modern times. There were also some amazing exhibits including paintings and even an exhibit dedicated to the evolution of the national currency of Luxembourg.
I am so glad that I was able to visit Luxembourg myself and experience some of its fascinating culture and history. I honestly expected to come to yet another postage stamp-sized nation with a sort of Liechtensteinien vibe – small but cute, pretty but really not much that you cannot see and do in one day. I was pleasantly surprised at the vastness of Luxembourg’s national history, its present mix of cultures, beautiful architecture and absolute mastery of the Christmas spirit… I would absolutely return for another visit, especially to see more of the surrounding countryside and villages outside of Luxembourg City.
Getting around: The Luxembourg Card, like the one I had provided by Visit Luxembourg, a travel pass which allows travel by all forms of public transport within Luxembourg and entrance into most tourist attractions and museums, is an excellent thing to have for your visit. They are available for 1, 2 or 3 days for individuals or family passes. More info and prices here.
Money: most places around the city accept credit card for typical purchases, but if you want to make smaller purchases or especially, if you visit during Christmas Market season, you’ll want to have some cash – there are plenty of ATMs around the city and Luxembourg’s currency is the Euro, so if you’re already traveling around Europe, you’re in luck!
What to see and do:
get more ideas for your trip from Visit Luxembourg!
Feeling cooped up with city life, or simply craving some crisp mountain air? Mount Rigi is the perfect getaway that you can do in one day (or even just a morning/afternoon), and without any special planning or gear. Trains from Zürich HB leave every hour straight to Arth Goldau station, from where the Rigi train departs. Ride the tiny blue train for about 40 minutes uphill at a snail pace, taking in some truly gorgeous views on the way up.
I decided on a whim to visit Mount Rigi one afternoon and took the 2:09PM train from Züruch HB, so I arrived at the end station (Rigi Kulm) just before 4PM. This gave me a few hours to walk around the small peak grassy area and take in the stunning panoramic views of the hills and lakes below, and alpine peaks in the background, before sunset around 6:30PM (in October).
At the top of Rigi Kulm there is a full restaurant that is part of a hotel and it seems to serve proper hot meals all day (it was closed by the time we went but again, it was close to 6PM) – but you can still buy sandwiches, chips, drinks and snacks. We sat on the outdoor patio built like a jetty to jut out over the hill with a beautiful view of the mountains and facing the setting sun.
After having a snack, we made our way down past the wooden lounge chairs to the edge of the fence to witness the stunning golden glow of a magical sunset.
I took this opportunity to test out a few different DSLR settings, but because I struggle with technology, I think some of my iPhone pics might have turned out better – I’ll let you be the judge of that.
The views from up here – and the sunset – are things I could never ever get sick of and it makes me think twice about city life. This is a perfect place to getaway from the hustle and bustle for a bit, even just for a few hours. Take your mind off things, breathe some fresh mountain air and let your soul drink in the beauty of this amazing planet. If you want to make it a longer trip, even for several days, there are several hotels in the area and plenty of daytime activities to keep you and your family busy!
Golden hour at Mount Rigi
There are several trains down for those of you that wish to catch the sunset (highly recommended if you’re already there during the afternoon!!!) I took the 7:00PM train, which sadly no longer connects directly to Arth Goldau, so the way back to Zürich HB involves two middle of nowhere bus connections and then a train, but as with all trips in Switzerland – my recommendation is to simply trust the SBB app to plan your trip, and make sure you have decent phone battery on the way down!
When I visited Zürich two years ago from my base in Germany, I can’t say I was all that impressed with the city. Perhaps it was the rainy, cold gloom that had descended across all of Europe at that time, or the fact that when we went bar and restaurant hunting in the rather quiet and old neighborhood we were staying in, we were greeted with a lot of “closed” signs.
Fast forward two years, when I am calling Zürich home for a few months… and I really only have good things to say about this city! I have been here for a few weeks now and this place is nothing short of lovely. Here are are few things that I have enjoyed most about Zürich, and reasons it should have a spot on your Eurotrip list.
Swiss people are friendly.
Whether you are stopping to ask directions or purchase a Laugenbrötchen from a local bakery, you will find that in general, Swiss people are cute, friendly and overall cuddly – interacting with them is pleasant and you may just want to adopt some of them as your temporary grandparents. As with many European cities, I would say the English level is generally strong, but if you know a few words of German (Hochdeutsch is fine!), they will love you for trying.
It is very Instagrammable.
AKA, the modern way of saying it is simply a gorgeous city with lots of very aesthetically pleasing spots. Photographers love it, but even if you aren’t part of the Instagram game and don’t care to be, there are numerous spots around the city to enjoy a cup of coffee, glass of wine or good book with an absolutely stunning view.
There is a lot of nature.
The fact that downtown Zürich wraps around Lake Zürich automatically gives this city a very unique outdoorsy and water-based vibe. I love being around water and for those of you that miss beaches, oceans, rivers and lakes terribly when living in/visiting cities, Lake Zürich provides the perfect remedy. Swiss people have a strong reputation for loving the outdoors, which is evident by just how packed the waterfront is every evening, really rain or shine – but especially during the long sunny summer days and golden autumn evenings. Nature in Zürich isn’t only limited to the lakeside – there are many green parks throughout the city where you can go for a jog, do some yoga, or again park yourself on a bench with your journal or a good book.
It is an easy walking city.
Even though the city is relatively well-connected by public transport including trams and buses, walking throughout the city and from place to place (even if you have somewhere to be) is both convenient and pleasant. I have simply walked from my home to the Central Station several times, even though it takes 30-45 minutes, simply because it is such a nice walk! Pedestrians always have the right away on crosswalks and drivers are cognizant and courteous to let you cross. When the weather is nice, tons of people have the same idea, and you see more people walking or on bikes than on public transport.
The food is delicious.
While Swiss food is excellent (hello?!, land of CHOCOLATE AND CHEESE!!!), there are so many options if you’re not into more traditional German-esque fare (think sausage, spätzle, bread, cheese, etc.). Zürich offers quite a range of international cuisines and there are many hip restaurants downtown and slightly on the outskirts that seem to be open on weekends (even Sundays) and late into the evening. Even casual restaurants serve mouth-watering food; aka, you don’t have to worry about going hungry in this city, and you will likely love what you eat – it comes at a price though, so be prepared to spend a little more than you likely would at home. Plus, there are COOP, Migros and Denner stores all over the place that sell lovely fresh fruits, veggies, fresh bread and healthy pre-made meals (salads, etc.), fresh bakeries everywhere, and most importantly, LINDT is the mainstream chocolate option… it only gets BETTER from there *drool*. Don’t plan to go on a diet when you visit Zürich.
Fresh salad, Mamarita pizza & wine at STRIPPED PIZZA
There is a lot to do.
If you get tired of long walks by the lakeside (or if the weather prevents these), there are plenty of other activities to keep you entertained during your time in Zürich. In my case, such activities revolve heavily around EATING, but there are many cultural and social things to keep you busy as well! Here are some favorite must-do’s:
Have you been to Zürich? Let me know some of the reasons you enjoyed this city in the comments below!
Set deep in the beautiful green canton of Bern, Switzerland, a little red train car chugs its way up and down a treacherously steep track – adventurous hikers can have the ride (and views!) of a lifetime on the one and only Gelmer Funicular (Gelmerbahn).
The funicular was originally built in the 1920s to haul heavy materials and equipment up to the top of the mountain for the construction of the Gelmersee reservoir and dam. Now, the car shuttles 24 people each time, approximately 30 times per day, with the first ride up at 9:00AM and the last one down around 4:00PM (see the official schedule and book tickets here). The Gelmerbahn only runs in summer/autumn months, usually late May-late October.
The ride takes 8-10 minutes one way (so the videos you have seen on Instagram making the ride look like an insanely fast rollercoaster are on hyper-speed!), and you have plenty of time to enjoy the breathtaking views of the valley and mountains. There is only a drop-down bar (think Ferris wheel style) to keep passengers safe, but the car neither jolts, tilts, nor goes fast enough to worry about safety.
Once you reach the top, it is an absolute must to hike around the gorgeous turquoise lake (Gelmersee). This must be the Swiss-Banff equivalent; I swear, I have never seen water of such a stunning color. The hike around the lake takes approximately 2 hours, though if you are in the habit of pausing frequently or taking 23720 pictures (like me), you may want to allow yourself significant extra time, as this is not a place that you want to feel rushed.
Some important facts and tips for your Gelmerbahn trip:
How to get there:
By foot: if you are staying at the closely Handeck Hotel/Naturresort, you will only need to walk 5-10 min, either down the road, or over the hanging bridge (much more fun option) to get to the lower terminal of Gelmerbahn.
By car: there is a parking lot out in the grass/meadow just down the road from the Gelmerbahn (follow signs)
By public transport: 5 min walk from nearby bus station Handegg, Gelmerbahn
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.
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!
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
Alexander von Humboldt is quoted as once saying: “I consider the areas of Salzburg, Naples and Constantinople the most beautiful on earth.” After my first visit to Salzburg on a crisp, but clear and sunny October weekend, I must say I agree with his statement (at least as far as Salzburg is concerned).
Salzburg is an enchanting place indeed, combining classic architecture, history, music, culture and style. Edges of a refined urban city meet the gentle touch of ruggedly beautiful terrain, striking a unique balance between urban and natural space.
Granted, I decided to take this trip to Salzburg about one hour before leaving, so planning did not exactly happen. This resulted in my choice to stay rather far from the Old City (historic center, where everything is happening and where most everything is that is worth seeing) … but it was hardly a negative, as it only forced me to get a little extra exercise- in fact, it turned out that my hotel was right at the base of Kapuzinerberg, a small mountain, which, if you’re up for a short hike, provides an excellent view of the city! One must not necessarily be outdoors, nor athletically-inclined to do this hike, but to my nature-deprived self, it was an amazing way to start the day and weekend, get some fresh air, and see the beautiful Austrian terrain in all its glory. Towards the top of Kapuzinerberg, there is a small church as well as restaurant, should you wish to stay longer.
Walking down the other side of Kapuzinerberg brought me close to Mozart’s house, which has since been converted into a full museum. Being on this side of the river, I took the opportunity to stroll around this area, passing the Mozarteum (Mozart-inspired academy of music) as well as up through Mirabellgarten to Schloss Mirabell. It is in these very gardens that you can find the steps from the “Do-Re-Mi” scene in The Sound of Music!
In order to properly acquaint myself with Salzburg, I figured I would try to see it from as many different angles as possible, and so decided to take a river boat tour; the tour began with a cruise up the Salzach, passing many of Salzburg’s beautiful buildings and views. It then continued with a short bus-ride to Hellbrunn Palace, which itself a destination. Built in the 1600s by Marcus Sittikus, Hellbrunn Palace stretches over a vast expanse of land and combines beautiful nature with the art and imaginings of a man with a truly eccentric sense of style, and of humor. Hellbrunn translates closely to “clear water”- the name aptly comes from the fact that within the designated ground of Hellbrunn are at least 7 freshwater spring sources. Water itself plays a hugely important role at the palace, especially in the Wasserspiele, or Trick Fountains. One of the Archbishop’s apparent favorite pastimes involved not only designing and constructing various works of entertainment and decoration that harnessed the power of gravity and water (a remarkable feat of physics for his time,) he also enjoyed playing tricks upon unsuspecting guests during their visits to his grounds. This you really must experience for yourself, though I’ll just say it involves a LOT of hidden water jets- hidden in plain sight as a matter of fact, and right where you’ll be walking. A word to the wise, move quickly, or perhaps aim for a visit during the summertime.
After completing my exploration of Hellbrunn, inside and out, and learning a bit more about the history of Archbiship Sittikus and Salzburg, I made my way back into the heart of the Altstadt (Old City). My evening took me in and out of cute little shops, down cobblestoned streets, past Mozart’s birthplace, and all around this charming area. The Old City really is the place to be, playing host to all manner of restaurants and cafés, shops, and of course, sights. Here you will find some of Salzburg’s most iconic structures: Mozartplatz (Mozart Statue in outdoor plaza), Residenzplatz (another impressive statue) and open square), the Salzburg Museum, Dom zu Salzburg (domed Cathedral as well as museum) and Stiftskirche Sankt Peter (St. Peter’s Church).
I would highly recommend seeing a musical performance while in Salzburg, as you are in fact in the city of music!! Various concerts of classics by Mozart and much more are regularly put on in various locations throughout the city- many of these can be found in conjunction with a river cruise, dinner, or a combination thereof. I chose to attend a piano concert of Mozart music, performed in the “Roman Hall” of St. Peter’s Church. Even if classical music isn’t your thing, there is still nothing quite like the feeling of experiencing the music of Mozart in his city.
Once I had taken care of the whirlwind adventure exploring on my first day, I had an entire Sunday to explore more thoroughly, at my leisure. If you’ve spent much time in Europe, you will sympathize when I say be careful making too many plans on Sundays generally, because there is a European spectrum of Sunday activity (or lack thereof), from slightly-less-busy, to “I hope you went to the grocery store because we might not eat today,” depending on the area of the city you are in. Salzburg isn’t that bad, but all shops, except for the occasional chocolate or souvenir shop, were closed. Take the opportunity to avoid the usual throngs of tourists and enjoy a more peaceful stroll through the center, and perhaps sit in a service at the great dome cathedral.
My last adventure before bidding farewell (for now) to Salzburg was to take the railcar up to the Festung Hohensalzburg (high fortress). Once atop the mountain, I was greeted with an amazing panoramic view of the city, land and surrounding mountains (I had the wonderful luck of visiting on a clear day, and seeing as far as the snow-capped alps!) There are several museums and exhibits throughout the rooms of the fortress, and even a restaurant, with open seating and arguably unbeatable views as far as restaurants go.
Full of crisp, clear Austrian air, interesting tidbits of history and (as always) plenty of chocolate, I bid adieu, adieu to Salzburg, a truly lovely place to which I hope to return very soon.