Our Trip

alltrips2

Total countries visited during trip: 40
Total countries previously visited by Sadie: 31
Total new countries for Sadie: 33
Total of countries previously visited by Mark: 29

Total new countries for Mark: 33

Trip 1: Central America
Status:
Complete
Duration: 8 weeks
Dates: October 2016 – December 2016
Countries visiting (in order): Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, USA (New York), Norway (Oslo).
Things we’re most excited about:  Mexican food. Diving. Hiking. The Caribbean coast. Ruins. New York at Christmas.
Central America. It’s one of those destinations which conjures up images of dense jungle, pristine beaches, ancient ruins, chaotic cities… and crime. Sandwiched between the drug cartels of Colombia and the eager recipients in the US, Central America has become the primary  route for drug smugglers, which, when coupled with a turbulent history of civil war, has left crime aplenty in its wake, and an unshakable reputation for danger.

Largely this is unfounded. Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama have all made amazing progress – championing ecotourism and safe travel. There are also large parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and even Honduras which are considered perfectly safe to travel to, with many seasoned backpackers spreading the word that the news reports are to be ignored, the crime rates are improving and with a wary eye and a wise head you will be absolutely fine.

Truthfully though? We are still a tad nervous.

Unlike SE Asia and South America, CA doesn’t tend to crop up in your usual gap year travel route. As a rule it tends to attract more experienced (and Spanish-speaking) backpackers*. I think this is a large part of its appeal though. It feels more “off the grid” than other destinations, even if it isn’t. It also has an incredible history. Amazing nature. Cracking food. Adventure. World-class diving. And rum, lots and lots of rum. We might be jumping in at the deep end with this one, but there are certainly worse waters to paddle in.

*Or Americans, because, really, how could you not venture southwards on your spring break?

Trip 2: The Americas
Status: 
In progress
Duration: 6 months
Dates: January 18th 2017 – Mid July 2017
Countries visiting (in order): Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bahamas, US, and Canada.
Things we’re most excited about: Steak. Wine. Patagonia. Torres del Paine. Machu Pichu. Yosemite. New Orleans. Grand Canyon. Vancouver. Bahia.

South America is big. Like, really, stupidly big. Chile alone stretches 4,270km from North to the South, which is a greater distance than the journey between Oslo, in Scandinavia, and Marrakech in Northern Africa. The contrast between the North and South of Chile is equally astonishing. From empty desert to frozen tundra, the mountains of Patagonia, the green vineyards of Santiago and the surfer-filled beaches of the North-East, Chile has it all…and that’s just one country.

South America’s diversity is unparalleled. You want a wetland the size of Europe? Brazil has that covered. Salt flats which are home to thousands of flamingos? Bolivia will sort you out. Insanely well preserved Incan sites, nestled amongst pristine rainforest? Head on over to Peru. Caribbean beaches? Colombia has a fair few. Entrance to Antarctica? Argentina is ready and waiting. Oh yeah, and then there’s this massive jungle in the middle of it all that you might have heard of. The Amazon? It’s kind of a big deal.

In summary, SA has it all and more. We could quite easily spend a lifetime there. Unfortunately though, we only have enough money saved for 2 years on the road, so once we’ve spent 4 months working our way up the continent, we’re heading over to the Bahamas to stay with family (because all that backpacking is tiring and obviously we will need a holiday*), then on to the US and Canada to bankrupt our pitiful traveler’s budget. It almost seems churlish to try and lump stuff in together, but what are you gonna do?

*We’re actually only half kidding there. How annoying do you find it packing and unpacking on a 2 week holiday? Try 18 weeks of it.

Trip 3: Europe & Asia
Duration: 4 months
Dates: Sept 2017 – Dec 2017
Countries visiting (in order): Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, New Zealand.
Things we’re most excited about: Seeing friends all over the world, rural China, diving in the Philippines, our new home.

Our last trip before settling into our new lives as Kiwis. Well, not really, because we’ll be heading to Italy to get married in summer 2018, but that’s beside the point.

Most normal people would be happy with what we’ve done thus far, but apparently not us. We made the executive decision to try living our lives somewhere else for a few years, and NZ seemed like the obvious choice. It’s beautiful, it’s clean, it’s safe, they speak English, and they filmed Lord of the Rings there – what’s not to love? We also are fortunate enough to have some wonderful friends there who are holding our hands through the moving/job seeking/settling in process, which is a lovely added bonus.

See the thing is, NZ is a long way away from home, so there is a lot of stuff in between on the way. We decided that as environmentally committed travellers (shush you), we may as well hit some stops on the way. From visiting friends in Finland and South Korea, to touring round the fascinating cities of Russia, to the beaches of the Philippines and the temples of Japan, this trip has a little of everything. It will also hopefully sate our wanderlust enough to be happy in one place for a while, and give us a much-needed chance to top up our somewhat decimated bank balance.

 

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Three Months to Go

Today is the 19th July, Mark’s 26th birthday. It is also exactly 3 months until we fly from Manchester to Cancun, leave behind our normal, respectable young professional lives – complete with jobs, a house and even a sodding herb garden – in favour of frivolous, exciting, wonderful travel.

I shan’t mince my words: I am fucking terrified.

When you’ve been (metaphorically) balls deep in planning this whole mad jaunt for what feels like forever, spent countless months working, saving and staring aimlessly at maps, it kind of comes as a surprise when you actually take a step back and realize you have less than 12 weeks of normality left.

Mark and I first chatted about going away together back in our final year at Sheffield University, when, along with the countless other soon-to-be-graduates, we looked bleakly upon the job market and realised we weren’t quite ready to be grownups just yet.

In the end, Mark spent much of the following year working in a surgery back in Lancaster, while I alternated between waitressing full time and solo backpacking trips. As a result of our parents’ rent-free accommodation, we saved up a decent amount pretty quickly, but, rather than immediately run away to foreign lands, we cooked up a different, far more boring plan. We would move back to Sheffield, get proper jobs, buy a house, save some dollar, rent out said house and THEN sod off abroad. So that’s what we’ve done. Admittedly, we did have a few awesome holidays in the meantime.

So here we are, ready to go off on a trip that has been in the pipeline since 2012, which has taken four jobs, a ton of preparation and a healthy dose of bickering, and here I am, bricking it.

I think in part it is because – unlike the average pre/post university gap year, which is accepted, even encouraged nowadays – we are massively deviating from the norm. I don’t have a shitty job with no career prospects. Perhaps not brilliantly paid, yes, but certainly not shitty. I actually enjoy what I do, and were the financial prospects for such a career better, I would probably be a lot less willing to leave it. Mark on the other hand does not adore his job, but objectively speaking it is acceptably paid and does have career prospects. We have a lovely home. Brilliant friends. Close families. We’ve achieved much in a short time, and to a lot of people we look absolutely mad for leaving it all behind.

As much as we may justify our choices, and trust me, we do, it’s hard to face up to that sometimes. Despite the usual insecurities, I actually feel pretty confident about our future, and always have. We’re hard workers who – certainly for a couple – work brilliantly together. We’re not afraid of elbow grease, getting our hands mucky, or any other work-related cliché.

I have no doubt that we will be OK. But when you wander around your overly cushioned house (I have a slight soft furnishings obsession) and imagine strangers living there, sitting at your desk at work, hanging out with your friends, it’s hard not to feel afraid.

But then I think of everything that lies ahead. The strange and wonderful places that we will temporarily call home. The people we’ll meet. The complete change of pace. The food that will make us very happy and probably (at some point) very sick. Most importantly, it’s the possibility that this trip might be the one that makes everything clear – what we want out of life, what we might do to make ourselves useful on this little blue planet. I look at that damn map and I feel hopeful.

We’ll keep you posted how it all pans out.

Sadie

How Are We Doing This?

When I tell somebody new about our travel plans I get asked at least one of two questions: “What are you doing about your job?” and “How are you going to afford this?”

The first answer is pretty straightforward: “I’m quitting.” I’ve written about this before. It’s scary – a big leap into the unknown, but it has to be done.

The second question is a little harder. Travelling, even on a shoestring, is an expensive business. I won’t bore you with a detailed breakdown of our trip budget, but just for reference, to travel for a year on £60 a day (£30 per person) would cost £21,900. Twenty-two grand. Where the hell do we plan on getting that kind of money? And how do we know that will be enough?

There are three pretty simple steps to this: plan, work and save. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? I’ll break it down a little further.

Plan
Planning is where any adventure starts. Naturalist John Muir once said that sometimes a man needs to “throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” This perfectly encapsulates the romantic notion of buying a one way ticket to some far off destination and going where the wind takes you. Unfortunately, if you want to make the most of your adventure in the modern world, you are going to need a bit more than bread and tea.

For me, planning has to be part of the adventure. There is certainly a balance to be struck between having a rigid itinerary and going with the flow, but it is obvious that if you don’t at least have an outline of a plan, you are going to miss stuff. Think of it like a General drawing up a battle plan. You would be mad to send your troops into combat without some tactics, but you can’t tell each soldier what to do in any given situation – you need to allow for flexibility to respond to the situation at hand.

Planning is also key to how you budget. You can set a budget then plan around it, or you can plan and then decide on a budget that you need. That’s entirely up to you. Just make sure you plan. If you find yourself in an airport on the phone to your parents asking them to send you some money for a flight home… you haven’t planned properly!

Work
You’ve done your plan. Well done, I’m proud of you. Now to put it into action, unless you have a trust fund from daddy, you’re going to have to do some work.

Nobody likes work – well, I don’t. Luckily, herein lies the absolute beauty of having a fully formed travel plan. It doesn’t matter what your job is, you can go home at the end of the day knowing you have worked one day closer to doing something extraordinary. You might have waited a hundred tables, been bored to tears in meetings, been shouted at by an angry customer…but no matter how hard it may seem you can rest safe in the knowledge that it will all be worth it in the end. You also have the schadenfreude of knowing that in however many months’ time, your poor colleagues who don’t dream as big as you will still be waiting the same tables, daydreaming in the same meetings and being shouted at by the same angry customers, while you are on a beach having the time of your life.

Save
Unless… you plan, work and then blast your money on E’s and Whizz. This last section is actually the hard bit. Assuming that you aren’t earning a fortune (why are you reading this if you are?), you are going to have to make some sacrifices along the way. We work two jobs and rent out the spare rooms in our house. I drive an old banger and take a hipflask on nights out. I turn down gig tickets and wear clothes until they have holes in them. I’m not asking for sympathy (although any donations are welcome), it’s just an unfortunate fact that if you have big plans and a not-so-big salary, you have to make a cut somewhere along the way. Patronising saving tips include making a spreadsheet to keep track of what goes in and what goes out, buying discount laundry detergent (it is literally the same) and remembering that it will all be worth it in the end!

 

 

Confessions of a Type A Traveller

Every time I wander over to the departures board in an airport, I play the same game. What if I just ditched my meticulously planned holiday, bought a ticket to the first place that appeals, and sodded off? I could go anywhere. Do anything. Wing the whole thing.

Then I check my perfect itinerary, look at my perfectly packed bag and walk my control freak self on to the plane I booked 9 months in advance.

Your average dorm room is generally divided into two separate groups of people – the ones who booked months in advance, and the ones who dragged their world weary selves from door-to-door looking for a room, any room. The latter may not know how long they are staying for, where they might go next or even when they will finally return home, if ever. The former might be more restricted by money, time or various obligations. They might want to cram everything in, rather than leave things to chance. The question is, which group has got it right? When it comes to travel, as with life, should we be flexible, or rigid? Should we be spontaneous, or prepared?

I am a self-admitted control freak, with slight OCD tendencies (the tidy “I like my cushions at right angles” kind, not the Howard-Hughes-locked-in-an attic kind). I create meal plans and cook my lunches for the week every Sunday. I share a meticulous calendar with Mark, which details our seemingly endless daily tasks. I bought and wrapped my family’s Christmas presents in June, because I knew I would be away over Autumn and I didn’t want to manic buy the day before Christmas. I have spreadsheets, many, many spreadsheets.

I could blame our horrendously busy lives on the above list of craziness, but I won’t. As much as being organised is imperative to our lives, the truth is, it is in my nature. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, having a brain that thinks so far in advance, but other times I am perfectly happy writing my to-do-lists, thank you very much.

It comes as no surprise then, that when it comes to travel, I really struggle to find a balance between when to plan, and when to let go.

I’ve read countless travel bloggers who are quick to advise people of the dangers of “long-term, travel burnout” – the feeling you get when you’ve been on the road for a while, packed in too much, tied yourself down and become *gasp* a bit bored of being on the road. The main solution it seems, is to be as flexible as possible with your trip. Give yourself the chance to stay still, regroup and regain your love of travel.

They lament the importance of leaving yourself open to opportunity, whether it is meeting new people, staying somewhere you love a bit longer, or even jetting off to an entirely different destination. It’s great advice. The problem is, when you’re on that big, once-in-a-lifetime trip, with a limited budget and a list of places you want to visit, how flexible should you be? Is it better to spend that extra week on the beautiful Caribbean island, but spend a fortune on last minute, high-season accommodation? Is it a more fruitful experience to spend months getting to know one country, or catch glimpses of an entire continent?

I think the answer, predictably, is that it has to be up to the individual. There are definite advantages to planning in advance – you can choose better, often cheaper accommodation, go to the best restaurants and avoid countless hours spent trying to find transport, or wasting money on crappy tour companies. But maybe you also lose something valuable, too. Why do we travel, if not to break away from our usual routine, in favour of something entirely different?

For me, I guess that means being open to the fact that at some point, I’m going to have to throw my perfect itinerary away…

Sadie

 

 

Pre-Tour Fears

Travelling, particularly to the developing world, is scary. Below are just some of the things that I’m scared about and I don’t even get on a plane until October. I’m hoping this is therapeutic, I suspect it will just make things worse seeing it in black and white.

  1. Getting robbed. Every book, every website, every blog, every damn piece of travel-based media keeps on telling me that everywhere I go is dangerous as hell. Helpful tips include “don’t be white,” which as the world’s most Caucasian man is not particularly helpful. Horror stories vary from a simple pickpocketing, ranging through to the delightful Central American practice of kidnap, dragging you to every cashpoint in the vicinity, robbing you blind until your account is empty, then killing you for the trouble. Which leads me onto;
  2. Getting killed. Specifically by some ne’er do wells. The murder rate in Guatemala is 66 (Sixty-six!) times greater than that of London. Not going to lie here, London scares me. People get popped off here like the Made in Chelsea cast pop champagne corks. Making matters worse, only 2% of murders result in prosecution, let alone conviction. Basically, there are some not-so-lovely chaps in Guatemala who pretty much do what the fuck they want and there is nothing you can do about it. Luckily, before the murderers there is…
  3. Rabies. Zika. Dengue Fever. Malaria. Tick-borne encephalitis. Typhoid. Cholera. Polio. You name it, the rest of the world has it. And as a couple we consist of the world’s most delicious person to mosquitos (Sadie), and the world’s clumsiest, unluckiest idiot (ahem, me). I await the hospital scan telling me that I am only alive due to having all the diseases at once, cancelling each other out Mr Burns style.
  4. Thankfully, it may never get to the stage of vomiting my spleen out of my eyes. That’s because of the array of transport I will be taking around the bloody planet. Frankly, the price of some of these flights does not exactly fill me with confidence. And that’s before we even start on buses that get hijacked by gangsters, taxis that rob you blind, tuk-tuks driven by drunks, coaches on roads too narrow for the Hairy Bikers, trains designed by (and not funded since) the Empire and god knows what else we’re going to have to do to get around this bloody rock.
  5. Last but not least, it would be foolish to discount the likelihood of my short and ultimately unimportant existence being wiped out by an accident. I am somewhat accident-prone (see point 3). I once broke my toe in the Philippines because I was staring at a pig and kicked a rock. While cliff jumping in Tenerife, I hit the bottom of the sea when my friends didn’t even get close. I concussed myself playing football by climbing on somebody’s shoulders and falling onto my head. I recently ruined my back for a week or so getting some chicken out of the oven. Combine this level of sheer life-incompetence with cliff edges, riptides, zip lines and mountaintops and I’m pretty sure we’ve got a fool-proof recipe for disaster.

So yeah, I’m crapping my pants. Not even going to mention that we’re quitting out jobs and have no discernible income for the next two years. It’ll be fine. Right? Right? Anyone?

Mark

Giving It All Up

Until the launch of this blog, there were very few people to whom we could divulge our plans. Aside from a certain amount of discrete disclosure – after all, it is quite difficult to rent out a house without advertising it – our travel cards have been held very close to our chests. This has been for one reason – work.

Announcing your intentions to leave a workplace in advance of a particular date can be a potential nightmare. Aside from being obviously ignored for any potential promotions or pay rises, you run a very real risk of being mistreated, ostracised and outcast. Is there a hugely boring, monotonous task to be done? Give it Mark, he’s leaving soon.  Is there a work related trip somewhere exciting? Mark isn’t going, why would we waste our money on taking someone who is quitting? You get the picture. A combination of realism, resentment and jealousy do not a healthy working atmosphere make.

However there remains a delicious irony in the reason we have to keep our silence being the very same as the reason behind the whole adventure in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I would have wanted to see the world without the monotony of a 9-5 grinding me down for 40 hours a week, but a leap into the unknown can sometimes need a little encouraging push. My 9-5 has given me just that.

Now here I think it is only fair to throw in a disclaimer. I don’t have a bad job. It isn’t overly stressful, my manager is good, I like my colleagues. It has good days and bad days like any other job, but I haven’t been driven to despair by it. The simple fact is that it is just, well, a job.

The few people who knew in advance of our plans all questioned what would happen with our jobs. The look on my nana’s face in particular, when I told her that I was quitting, was something to behold. However I don’t find it difficult to justify. There are many jobs – there is only one world to discover, and I won’t get another chance to do it. It wasn’t the hatred of my job that made me leave, it was the realisation that I could never find my job important enough to keep me where I am… or was.

Quitting is difficult and scary. There is no denying that. The only thing scarier than giving everything up though, is staying exactly where I am

Mark

Koh Lanta: Travel Guide

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We only had a very limited time in Thailand, and had to choose just one destination. We looked long and hard at what seemed like hundreds of Thai Islands – Koh Tao, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui, Phuket… the list is endless. We settled on Lanta after a recommendation from a friend that it was that bit quieter than many of the other Kohs (it simply means “island” in Thai), and that the diving off the coast was stunning. He wasn’t wrong. Here’s how we did it:

Getting There

Like most people, we flew into Krabi airport from Bangkok. The flights go all the time with Air Asia and cost very little. Then from Krabi Town we took the water bus to Lanta, although we were a little blindsided by our options in the airport. The bus into the town cost us BHT180, and the ferry BHT900 each. It is cheaper and probably a little more straightforward to get a shuttle bus, which goes direct to Lanta from the airport, via the passenger ferry. The return leg from Lanta-Krabi airport cost us BHT800 by this method. (Note: this may have changed by the time you read this – a bridge is under construction to connect Lanta to the mainland.)

Getting Around

Lanta isn’t big, but it is far too big to walk around. You have a few options: tuk-tuks, vans or renting a moped. Tuk-tuks are everywhere and come in various colours and sizes, but have one thing in common – they will try and rip you off if they can. Drive a hard bargain, there will always be another one nearby! Vans are similar but much less common, however if you are in a larger group it will be cheaper. We got a van transport from Saladan Pier to Klong Nin – about half the length of the island, for BHT200, along with a few other backpackers.

Your other option is renting a moped. They are really cheap – the rental shop in Klong Nin rented a bike and 2 helmets for BHT300 for a day, and they get cheaper the longer you rent them for. A few words of advice though. The roads in Lanta, though not busy, can be dangerous. Cars have not been on the island for a long time, and there are no driving licenses at all. Cars overtake bikes overtaking tuktuks overtaking pedestrians, and speed limits and road markings are treated more as guidance than actual rules. Secondly, more and more tourists take to the roads under the influence of alcohol and other substances. The owner of the rental shop we used told us that only the week before someone had died on Lanta by drunk driving their moped into a tree. Finally, in the heat you may be tempted to not wear a helmet. Do not do this! Not only are the roads dangerous as previously mentioned, but the few police on the island are prone to stopping tourists and issuing them with “fines” (read: “bribes”) for not wearing a helmet while on a moped. It isn’t worth the hassle.

Accommodation

Lanta has an impressive array of accommodation, from budget backpacker hostels to upmarket hotels. As we were only on the island for such a short time, we pre-booked, which was a little more expensive than it otherwise could have been. We stayed in Nik’s Garden in Klong Nin, in a private room with an en-suite and air conditioning for about £10/BHT500 per person per night. Klong Nin was nice and quiet but still had a good choice of bars and restaurants on the beach, and a 7Eleven nearby.

Other slightly busier options are Klong Kong and Long Beach. “Busier” is a relative term on Lanta though – don’t expect a Koh Phi Phi style rave!

Activities

Diving – We chose this particular part of Thailand because of the diving. There are dozens of diving companies on Lanta, some more highly rated than others. I did my PADI Open Water with Lanta Diver, who have two offices, one in Saladan and one in Klong Nin. I absolutely cannot fault them, my instructors were phenomenal and the dive sites they took us to absolutely beautiful. Open Water courses cost BHT13,900. Dive days cost about BHT3000.

Beaches – I’m not a good enough writer to describe how beautiful the beaches on Lanta are. The sand is white and soft, the water warm, green and beautifully clear. Just look at the photos instead!

Sunset Watching – Again, my descriptive powers fail me. Having a drink on the beach watching the sun set into the Andaman is one of the best experiences of my entire life.

Rent a moped – Despite my earlier warnings, this was one of the most fun things we did on the island. It was a great way to see different parts of it. We went to the Old Town on the East coast, and sat and had a fresh coconut with a local man and his family. We also stopped at the Viewpoint café in the middle of the island, and it is worth it for the views alone, which are absolutely stunning.

Lanta Animal Welfare – We didn’t get chance to go here, but I am reliably informed that it is a great experience to go and visit the animal rescue centre on the Island. Your admission fee helps to run the charity.

Food & Drink

Street food is common enough in the towns and is pretty reasonable, about BHT50. You can easily do a decent lunch for BHT150 and dinner for BHT350, even with a beer or two. If you wanted to go cheaper you could. Large beers are about BHT80-100, cocktails similar. Water costs about BHT10-15 for a big bottle in a 7Eleven, don’t pay more if you can help it.

Tips

There are plenty of ATMs on the island, but they all charge – even if you have a charge-free card. Either take cash with you, or take as much out as you can in one transaction. Some of the bigger establishments, and all of the dive schools, take credit cards.

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New Zealand North Island: Travel Guide

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New Zealand is one of those countries where you could spend unlimited time. Its natural beauty is world famous, and for good reason. While the South Island is arguably more rugged in terms of its scenery, we chose to stay in the North for one reason – we have a friend who lives there. Luckily, we weren’t shy of things to do. The North has an incredible array of mountains, beaches, geothermal activity and the only “large” city in New Zealand, not to mention a certain famous movie set or two.

Getting there
We flew in from Sydney to Auckland, which is the main airport on the island. There is also one in Wellington should you wish to start at the bottom and work your way up. A little note about flying into New Zealand — Air New Zealand are probably the best airline I have ever flown with. Their planes were really comfy, the staff helpful and they even contrived to make the safety video worth watching by letting Peter Jackson guest direct it.

Getting Around

New Zealand doesn’t look very big on a map. However, public transport isn’t really a very good option outside the main cities and, away from Auckland, there are no motorways on the North Island at all. Thus, getting around takes some time.

We were very fortunate to be able to use our friend’s car (thanks, Rob). However, if we weren’t we would have rented one of the thousands and thousands of campervans famous for backpackers throughout NZ. I found myself a bit envious of the people cruising with the freedom of New Zealand’s beautiful and largely empty roads in front of them. They are pretty cheap and obviously save massively on the cost of accommodation.

One point we did find out about driving in NZ is that there are possums everywhere. If they wander out into the road in front of you, you must not stop. They are viewed as pests in NZ and people swerving around them cause countless accidents every year — it isn’t worth it.

Things To Do

It’s a little disingenuous to write a North Island “to-do” list. There is something for everyone and honestly you need to do more research than this. Instead I’ll just put the highlights of what we did and saw and let you fill in the blanks. We had 10 days and filled them all – we could have filled them again without any hesitation. A disclaimer – we didn’t have the time or means to go any further South than Tongariro so Wellington was missed out, something which we would obviously have seen should there have been time.

Tongariro Crossing – This was the personal highlight for me. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known as New Zealand’s best one-day walk, and in a country as beautiful and diverse as NZ that is one hell of a compliment. Situated just to the south of magnificent Lake Taupo, the crossing is a 19 and a bit km walk taking you up to the mountaintops which Peter Jackson imagined to most resemble Mordor. We went in April and caught the snow, making the bubbling emerald lake even more other-worldly. There are active volcano vents, luminous sulphurous lakes, breath-taking views, perilous ridges and lush, green forests. The weather for us went from about -10 and snowy to 20 degrees in the plus throughout the walk. It is simply stunning. Stay in the National Park the night before so you can get a good early start.

Hobbiton, Matamata – Ok sorry about the continued Lord of the Rings mentions. It’s quite hard to avoid when you are in NZ. Hobbiton is a massive, unashamed tourist attraction, there to fleece you out of your hard-earned cash, no apologies made. That said, with Sadie being the world’s biggest Tolkein geek it was unavoidable and, despite being pricey it was actually completely worth it. The guides are knowledgeable and you get endless photo-ops, and the price includes a locally brewed beer in the Green Dragon. If you like the films or the books you absolutely have to go.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves – The first non-LOTR related thing on this list, but it is so surreal you would think it was a film set anyway. The caves do what they say on the tin, they are caves full of glow worms. Your tour takes you deep underground, into a boat where you wold expect total darkness, only for the roof of the cage to be lit up by tens of thousands of tiny blue white lights, all caused by the glowworm Arachnocampa luminosa (cheers Wikipedia). Like a lot of things in NZ it isn’t cheap but I have never seen anything like it, before or since.

White water rafting, Rotorua – NZ is of course well known for its extreme sports and general outdoorsy stupidity. White water rafting on the Kaituna River ticks both of these boxes, as it takes you over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. It is nerve wracking and ridiculously good fun. A nice touch before you start your rapid adventure is that the guides give a Maori blessing, as the Kaituna River is sacred in Maori culture. It might just be for the tourists but it felt genuine to me…

Geothermal activity, Rotorua – As well as the limitless extreme sports you can do all over the area, there is one feature that you simply cannot miss about Rotorua — It absolutely stinks. It smells like rotten eggs and, despite lots of people’s assurances, I didn’t “get used to it.” This is because of the countless bubbling pools, geysers and other such sulphur-emitting shenanigans all over the place. It does however make for some pretty nice baths. We went to the Polynesian Spa right on the Lakeside and, despite some traditional New Zealand weather combinations (it rains out of blue sky here), it was a great way to chill out for an afternoon and I felt fantastic afterwards.

Auckland – It’s quite hard for me to give you a one paragraph overview of Auckland. You could easily spend a few days there, we had about a day and a half, spent a good chunk with some family friends and another good chunk nursing a hangover. On that note, there are some really cool bars and a great craft (read: hipster) ale scene in Auckland – Ponsonby was a great little stretch within walking distance of the city centre (although taxis are really cheap too). Other stuff to mention: You obviously have to check out the harbour — it’s like a mini-Sydney really; the SkyTower is iconic and if you are sort of mental you can do an abseil off it; Mount Victoria is in a really nice area of the city with stunning views right over the city and the art gallery has a really interesting mix of modern, classical and Maori art.

Food & Drink
There’s no getting around it, Kiwis love their food. They are also miles ahead of the UK on environmental concerns regarding their food and where it comes from — you see a lot more locally sourced, in season, sustainable, organic stuff in their shops, restaurants and cafés. They are famous — rightly so — for their lamb, but they do good, simple food very well indeed.

It also turns out they aren’t bad at wine either — we went up to a vineyard in the Coromandel peninsula to do some wine tasting (it’s free but they do kind of expect you to buy some…) and it was fantastic. I’m not a wine writer and I’m certainly no sommelier, so I can’t tell you what was good about it, but I assure you that it was pretty bloody tasty. Throw in their famous coffee scene and countless craft beer breweries and you can have a pretty exciting gastronomic experience just about anywhere you go in the North Island.

Tips
Something I’ve mentioned a few times already here — I hate to break it to you but NZ isn’t a cheap country. Its cause isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of the best things about NZ are the activities which you can do there, and unfortunately these cost even more. It’s one of those places where you simply have to budget and stick to it. I would recommend doing some thorough research and decide on the things that you absolutely must do, then fill the rest of your days around them as best as you can afford.

Secondly, I always assumed Kiwis spoke English. I was wrong. They speak New Zealand English, which is kind of like English with some weird words thrown in there. For example, flip-flops are “jandals,” peppers  (the kind you put in a salad) are “capsicums” and if something is good, it’s more often than not “sweet as, bro.” They also (and this is really weird for me, maybe not for you) call rugby “football,” and when they talk about “the World Cup” they mean the one with the egg-shaped ball. It can catch you by surprise in a conversation with a load of Kiwis when you realise mid-way through that you’ve only caught about a third of what they have said.

Lastly, and I really mean this, Kiwis are by and large unbelievably welcoming and friendly.  There is next to no crime in New Zealand and you can see why — people are happy with what they have. I can’t say I blame them.

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Sydney in 36 Hours

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DISCLAIMER: 36 hours is probably not enough time to “do” Sydney. That said, I can’t help but feel we did a fairly good job of it. We had such a short timeframe as we were only in Sydney on a layover on the way to New Zealand, and we were determined to make the most of it.

You don’t need me to tell you about Sydney, if you are reading this you already know about it. It is beautiful, full of great sights and world-famous landmarks. It is also really bloody expensive. Here’s what we did:

Getting there
Simple really, fly into Sydney airport. There’s only one.

We were fortunate that our hostel offered a pick-up service from the airport. It was AU$30 for a return. There is also a train to the city centre which costs AU$17 one way.

Getting around
We mainly walked around Sydney. The CBD is pretty small and you can walk to the Harbour, the Opera House, the Bridge and the Botanical gardens.

The bus network is pretty good too. One thing to note is to buy your tickets in advance at a newsagent – you can’t buy them on the buses themselves.

Accommodation
There are obviously thousands of hotels in Sydney. However if you, like us, are on a budget, hostels are much more limited. The WakeUp Hostel where we stayed – excellent though it was – was nearly AU$50 per night. AirBnb is another option, particularly if there is a larger group of you.

Things to Do
Do I really need to list these? I will just note that it is free to walk across the Harbour Bridge if you want to, and that the Darling Harbour – just round the corner from Sydney Cove – is worth a wander. We also thoroughly enjoyed Bondi, a half hour or so AU$7.50 bus ride away – it’s famous for a reason!

Food & Drink
Can be as expensive or as cheap as you like. If you go for an upmarket meal overlooking the Opera House you can pay, well, anything. However we went to Chinatown to a food court and had some of the best Asian food I have ever had (bearing in mind we had come straight from Thailand!) and it cost about AU$10 each. For comparison, a Subway is about AU$9 and a pub lunch about AU$20, with a beer.

Drinking can be pricey, and NSW has some of the strictest (and strangest) alcohol restrictions I have ever encountered. It’s worth being aware of these before embarking on a night out, especially as they are wont to change frequently. Essentially though, once you are in a venue after 1.30am that is you for the night – if you leave you can’t go back in or get in anywhere else – and not a drop of alcohol is sold after 3am.

A last note on drinking. Beer, confusingly, isn’t sold in pints except to obvious tourists ripe for a mugging. It’s sold in “schooners” (the “ch” is pronounced like the “k” sound in “school.”) They’re about 2/3 of a pint, and they are always sold ice-cold even if the beer would be (in my humble, British opinion) better served at slightly above Absolute Zero.

Tips
If you are visiting from the UK you need an e-visa. This is free but you have to apply online before you go. Somewhat ironically, if you have a criminal record they won’t let you into Australia.

Finally, free Wi-Fi is as rare as rocking horse shit. It can be found in McDonalds and… that’s about it. Even in the expensive hostel we only got 30 minutes of internet included!20160904_152655

Piran/Portoroz: Travel Guide

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GettingAroundAccommodationActivitiesFood&Drink

Slovenia only has a tiny bit of Adriatic coastline – about 30km of it sandwiched between Croatia and Italy.  Luckily, What it lacks in size it makes up in personality. We settled on Piran because the old town looked really cool, and it had the resort town of Portoroz on its doorstep. We had 3 days here and wished we could have had more.

Getting Around

Little boring this – again we had a hire car. Our real problem was that driving from Croatia our sat-nav got a little excited and took us through the middle of nowhere. We arrived at the Slovenian/Croatian border and the officials there looked gobsmacked that 2 English tourists in a French hire car had appeared from the woods. If you use a sat-nav to get there, make sure you check which way it’s taking you first. The motorways might look a lot longer but take it from someone who has done it – the lanes through the mountains are not worth the stress.

On the peninsula itself, the roads are pretty tiny but they’re quiet and there’s plenty of parking knocking about. To go to the beach we just parked in the hotel car parks – they’re supposed to be for guests only but there is (or was at the time of writing) no way for them to check, and the barriers weren’t down at any point.

Accommodation

Afraid it was an AirBnb job again for us, by far the cheapest option for a short stay. We stayed with Daniel at a place Google identifies as Nastanitve Jeselnik (nope, me neither). It was fantastic. The view from the balcony was worth the price alone – we enjoyed sitting and eating our dinner there while watching the sun go down over the Croatian headland on the other side of the bay.

Activities

Hotel Park – We treated this little spot in Slovenia like a mini-break. There is plenty of seaside to relax by – our preferred spot was the private marina (I don’t call it a beach because there was no sand, just grass) behind the Hotel Bernadin. Not only was it quiet, hassle free, safe and had parking, but on site there were a few restaurants, bars and shops to cater for the hotel residents. We spent at least one entire day here doing very, very little. Perfection.

Piran Old Town – The other great attraction in the area is Piran old town. I don’t think our photos do justice to quite how nice this little place is. It is only tiny, a few hours’ walk at most, but it’s well worth it for the views from the church and the old city walls, not to mention getting lost in the winding old streets. We stumbled across a market in an old town square where we bought fresh cherries for next to nothing, perfect on a baking hot morning.

Food & Drink

This little peninsula is well sorted for food. It has the influence of Croatia from the south, Italy from the north and of course Slovenia itself from the east, and all of these influences can be seen.  Somewhat shamefully, on arrival we were a bit too tired to go out for dinner, following the aforementioned cross-mountain trek, so we got takeaway pizza. Our host rang them for us (funnily enough I don’t speak Slovenian) and they delivered it to the door, and I can honestly say it was the best take-out pizza I’ve ever had. Proper Italian fayre, none of this cheese-drowned American rubbish. The place was called Cenik and they were cheap as well as delicious.

We also had a beautiful seafood platter in Portoroz at a little place called Fritolin, right next to the Mercator supermarket in the middle of town. The place was packed – always a good sign – but our waiter was great and the food was brilliant.

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