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.
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
A quick 15 minute drive from downtown Wellington, Zealandia Ecosanctuary is an oasis amongst the craziness of Wellington city, and a welcome reprieve from the weekly grind. The history and story behind Zealandia is intriguing; as the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary, it has reintroduced 18 species of native wildlife back into the area, 6 of which were previously absent from mainland New Zealand for over 100 years. This all in line with their extraordinary mission to restore Wellington’s valley forest and freshwater ecosystems as closely as possible to their pre-human state.
The fence of Zealandia allows a remarkably rare blend of birds, reptiles, insects and more to thrive and flourish, living wild within a ruggedly gorgeous jungle valley stretching across one square mile. Keep your eyes peeled, and your camera at the ready, as you never know when you will confront a red-beaked Takahē sidling along down the path (I never did, sadly). Don’t get me started on the insects… let’s just say you most likely hope you do not have any run-ins with these knarly dudes (how do insects that big even exist?!)
After being plopped into one urban jungle after another (and loving it of course), I always jump at the chance to immerse myself in some real nature, even if just for a little while. Walking through this wonderland of green, sweet silence punctuated only by breezes and a wild symphony of bird calls and insect humming, watching the sunlight stream through feathery ferns – I could stay here for hours.. and hours. You may want to! Whether you are a seasoned bird watcher or a Wellington drop-by visitor, Zealandia has something for you – there are many different pathways and combinations thereof, so you can make your trek as long, short, challenging or relaxing as you like, and just revel in the pure loveliness of this very true sanctuary.
Find more info about the park at http://visitzealandia.com
STAY WILD xxx
If orange is the new black and almond flat white is the new skinny latte, Burleigh is long overdue to be christened “the new Surfers” – don’t worry, Paradise lovers, I’m not bashing your favorite hangout or suggesting you relinquish evening crawls down the Esplanade; I’m just saying from personal experience alongside tons of local tips, Burleigh is not to be missed!
Burleigh Heads (or just Burleigh to locals) is nestled along the expansive Gold Coast in eastern Australia, punctuating the terrain between Surfers Paradise to the North and Coolangatta (host to Gold Coast airport) to the South. At first described to me as the “more laidback and nature-oriented option if you are looking to escape or avoid the bustle of Surfers,” I quickly came to realize after a weekend at the Gold Coast that it’s not up and coming; it’s here to stay, and it may just be the place to be this summer.
Hipsters on Surfboards
As the name aptly illustrates, the renowned Surfers Paradise at the North of Gold Coast, eastern Australia, is indeed nothing other than a surfer’s heaven on earth, rolling in long, powerful waves of clear blue water, and miles upon miles of powdery white sand. The place is no short of fantastic in my opinion, and I loved every minute that I spent in and around Surfers. This story, though, is of the little gem to the south – Burleigh. Burleigh locals gaze across the waves at a grey skyline, punctuating the otherwise pristinely natural and tropical landscape and sigh; “we call it Gotham City.” If you visit the Gold Coast and you’ve had your look around Surfers and already stocked up on stag-party-accessories galore from the enormous “CONDOM” factory on main street and you happen to be looking for a little tranquility, Burleigh is your place, because while Surfers is indeed awesome, let’s be real-it has no chill. Burleigh has all the chill. From its hipster hole in the wall cafés started by surfing locals to its array of trendy restaurants and boutiques, Burleigh has swiftly replaced the ritzier bars and restaurants of Surfers as the hangout favorite of GC locals.
Be sure to check out:
Justin Lane – glamazon meets hipster in this quircky pizzeria, which is fondly referred to by locals (or maybe just my brand of locals) as “Tinder Lane”- this one’s self-explanatory. Whether or not you are a bit surprised by the level to which people get fancied up to go for some eclectic Italian bites and some craft beer, Justin Lane is certainly a favorite trendy hangout place, with a cozy upstairs bar for hours of fashionable fun.
Do all the things
Burleigh isn’t only cute cafes and shops; the sheer natural beauty is what attracted me to Burleigh and I’m sure what keeps so many people returning. Towering Norfolk pine trees line the Burleigh foreshore, home to hundreds of screeching birds that roost in the trees every night- this is a funny phenomenon that locals have long become accustomed to and that still startles visitors. Below the trees, people turn out in droves on a Sunday afternoon to set up their picnic blankets, pull out their beers and just relax on the grass, enjoying a stunning sunset. Swimming, paddle boarding, surfing- it’s all possible around the Headland, where the water is always less choppy than it may be along the rest of the coast, and the inlet next to Burleigh Heads National Park is a perfect spot for swimming, beaching and relaxing without the bigger winds and waves found up further along the coast. Burleigh happens to have some of the most renowned surf-related natural terrain in Australia and the world, with parts of the coast recognized as a world heritage site of surfing. This place really is something to everyone, and if you still haven’t found something you love, take a hike – literally – up to the Burleigh Heads National Park! Paved nature trails wind throughout the entire park and bring you to the top of the national park from which you will have an amazing view of the coast in both directions. Take it all in, and if you’re feeling extra adventurous, take a detour over the wire fence (where it says “warning, stay on the path” of course) and climb out to “Cock Rock” (and see if you can see why it has been nicknamed as such). You’ll probably encounter a friendly group of local kids that have claimed this spot as their Sunday hangout, but they certainly won’t begrudge you your obligatory selfie.
I’ll be back, Burleigh – stay wild. xXx
Brisbane’s renowned Gallery of Modern Art is turning 10!! Happy Birthdayyyyy to GOMA! Several striking exhibits are claiming a home at GOMA for the celebration, and they are not only incredible, intellectual and meaningful, but pure fun – I visited GOMA twice within one week in Brisbane and would keep going back and back to see (and hear!) more of this unique museum.
Sugar Spin – You, Me, Art, and Everything
Headlining the celebrations of GOMA’s 10th birthday is the exhibit ‘Sugar Spin,’ featuring over 250 contemporary artworks exploring light, space, architecture and the senses. Large scale and immersive works invite visitors to interact with and appreciate these incredible works of art that fully plunge one into an exploration of our complex connection with the natural world. An effort to reach deeper understanding of the art leads one into meaningful discovery, while the installations themselves are necessarily fantastic and fun even superficially. Here are some of my favorite experiences of Sugar Spin:
Stroke the furry wall:
Entering GOMA, I was immediately confronted by an expansive FURRY WALL-literally. This thing crawls up the wall to a height of about 15 meters, and it looks a bit like Monsters, Inc. exploded everywhere inside the museum. Aka, IT IS F*@#ING AMAZINGGG. Go stroke the furry wall, just get involved. Snuggle it, cuddle it, pet it… whatever you feel like, but just enjoy it! This oasis of happiness is made of multicolored synthetic hair (a lot of it), by Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (Shoplifter) and is titled Nervescape V. Bright, strange, immersive and even grotesque, this fuzzy phenomenon will draw you in and keep you for a while, if nothing else for some of the best insta pics you’ll ever take.
Be a bird watcher for the day:
A room on the second floor of GOMA has been reserved solely for one of the most peculiar and lovely exhibits of GOMA’s 10th birthday- the finch room. This live work is the magic of artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, who initially trained as a musician and composer before turning his hand to the visual art, perhaps the clear impetus for this very sonically-oriented work. The cheerful chirping of colorful finches, flitting back and forth between wire hangars and little wooden boxes, permeates a mellow soundscape, creating a meditative and pleasant sound and surrounding. I could have spent hours in here, mesmerized by the beauty of the birds and the sound itself; this artist knew what he was creating indeed.
Sleep with giants:
WOAH- wait, what?! This was more or less my initial reaction when walking into the exhibit room hosting In Bed, by Ron Mueck. A life sized (psh-NO-bigger, much bigger than life-sized!!!) woman lies in a bed on the floor and I swear she just watches you as you approach her. Is she content, tired, troubled… even pained? Not quite sure, and neither is anyone else. The plaque explaining the work actually examines these very questions, and comments on how the realistic nature of the work allows the viewer to perhaps interpret the work as they will, but leaves the true nature of the woman’s mood a mystery. Let’s just say it’s incredible, but I wouldn’t want to be alone with this one after hours… let’s not relive Night at the Museum.
Wheeeeee! Meet you at the bottom!
Slide down one of two tube slides that connect the third floor to the lobby – c’mon, you know you want to. Just don’t be carrying your cameras or pet poodles- they won’t let you on with too many loose objects. Artist Carsten Höller is behind this installation, with a purpose to reexamine expectations about art, i.e. what place does a giant slide have in a serious art museum?? Well, who cares. It’s awesome.
Stare into the depths of Anish Kapoor’s works – either the giant red circular piece, occupying its own room on the gallery floor – or his more minimal blue piece in the same room as a giant dragonlike snake skeleton, alongside several other striking works.
Dance with magical horses:
Immerse yourself in Herd, the fantastical group of horses brought to life in a backdrop video and through human performance. This vibrant room is brought to life by sculptor and performance artist Nick Cave, and is one to spend some moments in. Walk down the rows and look closely; each horse is so unique and beautiful, and just from a short glance, I experienced so many different observations of the art, from interpretation to feeling and even noticing how the different fabrics of the horses’ headdresses are reminiscent of several specific cultures.
Revisit your childhood love of LEGOs!
On the top floor of the gallery, thousands of white Lego pieces have been joined by visitors to form and reform an imaginary and spectacular cityscape; you can place the Legos however you wish and can build any shape or structure that you want, thus creating and re-creating the idea of cities in Olafur Eliasson’s interactive The cubic structural evolution project.
Go on, check out GOMA and wish it a Happy Birthday while you’re at it! Summer is a fantastic time to visit, but Sugar Spin is amazingly worth the visit. (Ok, ok, I am indeed overly obsessed with the giant technicolor fuzzy wall, but WHO ISN’T?!) This place is on Trip Advisor’s top ten list for a reason, but that doesn’t make it a tourist trap. If you are remotely interested in art or just want to have some fun with a few hours in Brisvegas, I would highly recommend a visit.
I would love to hear in your comments below about your own experiences at GOMA or how you feel it compares to other modern art houses, and what your favorite aspect of art and museum viewing in a foreign place is; what is the meaning of traveling to see art for you? Is it meaning, experience, visual, or something else?
It’s a hot hot summer here in Brizzy and I’ve been roaming in search of even hotter eats. Tourist, yes-absolutely, but I’m not just settling for any fish n’ chips, people. I’ve done the research and tried the tucker around Brisvegas, and am bringing to you some of my faves. Whether you’re in search of a quick coffee, nice dinner or just to satisfy your sweet tooth, this list is a good place to start.
If you are looking for a (slightly crazy) yum and fun restaurant where you can eat “little bundles of happy” (the famous gyoza), Harajuku is your spot. Modeled after a traditional Izakaya (old skool Japanese bar with food), Harajuku incorporates all things yum, fun, and happiness. The wait staff greets you with an enthusiastically happy greeting (war-cry?), and you will hear it if someone is having a birthday… so will the neighbors. Big appetite? No worries, as they say at Harajuku, if you are like the Japanese salaryman with “appetite big like Godzilla,” you are invited to order again and again, and share with a friend. J
Insider’s tip: all the gyoza are actually delicious- the lemongrass chicken is particularly flavorful, and you MUST, I repeat must, try the NUTELLA gyoza with vanilla ice cream. Whoever invented hot Nutella wrapped in dough is my hero.
Sure, Brizzy isn’t quite as coffee-obsessed as Melbourne, but it does take its joe seriously. Aptly named Espresso Garage is a rustic hole in the wall serving up a variety of delicious coffees; a great place for your morning caffeine fix, and while there’s no room for seating inside, they have plenty of tables outside to relax and enjoy a snack. A plus: the food options, ranging from buttered raisin toast to “The Big Breakfast,” are oh so slightly-more reasonably-priced than what seems to be the typical for Aussie cities, so you’re not leaving with a hole in the wallet. EG is right in the heart of South Bank, nestled in between the vibrant and quaint Stanley Market and Little Stanley streets, and a 5 min walk from the South Bank boardwalk along the river.
Insider’s tip: (applicable to all Aussie coffee stop-offs)- if you order an “ice(d) coffee,” don’t go thinking pike place on ice; there is a 90% chance you’ll wind up with a dollop of ice cream in your joe. If you want to avoid this, just add “without ice cream, please” to your order – to be sure because hey, ya just never do know.
EDEN GARDEN INDIAN CUISINE
If you happen to be craving Indian and you are nearby South Bank, look no further than Eden Garden. I found this place by a rather circumstantial google search, and though there are many Indian restaurants throughout the CBD and even several in close proximity to Eden Garden, it was rated with the most stars, and the food was true to the ratings. Boasting delicious traditional “home cooked” style food, this place claims the “best naan in town” (they surely must have the most flavor options), and to top off the experience, is themed in a fun cricket décor, with cricket balls wedged into one entire wall of the restaurant.
Insider’s tip: try the veggie ‘chaat’ samosas, and the garlic naan!
This chic and fun Italian restaurant with a view of the Brisbane river lives up to its name; “Popolo” means people, and this place is all about friends, good food, and good vibes. A mix of indoor and outdoor seating creates a warm and friendly vibe, and creatively delicious Italian fare tops off a pleasant evening. Though an excellent place for people to come together, it is cozy to visit as a solo traveler and diner, and you will feel completely at ease. The menu strikes a balance between innovation and “the good stuff” that you know and love, and expect to find on a vaguely Italian menu.
Insider’s tip: for a simple dose of goodness, try the pumpkin ravioli!
Whether to stuff something sweet in the mouth of a whining toddler, impress a tinder date, post to your snap story or simply revel in the magical sugary overload that is Doughnut Time, this place is sweeping Oz – and it may not be a coincidence that they are serving up some of the easily most instagrammable bundles of sugar (and joy) in the nation (world?) Where do I even begin- there’s too much goodness here and in an effort to not get carried away, let’s stick to the basics. Amazing doughnuts, covered in deliciousness, with even more craziness materializing in the form of oreos, crumbles, sprinkles, M&Ms and other goodies atop these little monsters. You could probably close your eyes and play doughnut roulette and still walk away with a grin on your face. Don’t forget, D.T. does milkshakes as well! Sadly, I was informed that they stopped topping their shakes with mini doughnuts (sniff), but they still load them up with an excessive amount of sugary fun to get you through whatever it is prompted you to intentionally seek out that much sugar in the first place.
Insider’s tip: Don’t go too soon after dinner, so you can maybe order 2? … idk, you know the drill, people.
JIMMY’S ON THE MALL
If you get caught wandering Brisvegas well past sunset, or maybe even going for a late swim at Street Beach pools and you suddenly get hungry, what are you gonna do? Head on over to Jimmy’s on the Mall for your late night (or even early morning!) fix. I am actually not too well versed in the late night eats scene of Brisbane, but I was personally struggling to find a place to eat dinner one evening after I was told by restaurant after restaurant that they had long closed their kitchens or were only open until 10:00PM. A few places keep their doors propped until midnight, sure, but Jimmy’s? OPEN 24 HOURS!! This is no haphazard solution to your Thursday night drunchies, though; Jimmy’s is a lovely two story stand-alone restaurant in the middle of the Queen St. Mall, close to the heart of Brisbane’s CBD. Think comfort food, with a short but sweet menu offering a happy range of plain ol’ good tucker that will keep you happy and of course, save you from going to bed hungry!
So go on… start munching!!!