Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Exploring the South Island: Abel Tasman, Franz Josef and Queenstown

The Travelling Series

We only spent one night in Wellington on the North Island initially before we caught the ferry to the South. This is because we had to do all of New Zealand pretty quickly as we were on a strict time limit of one month and there's a lot of ground to cover! 

Following on from the night out in Wellington for Jasmine's birthday, we headed to Picton on the ferry and then travelled across to Abel Tasman National Park where we spent a couple of days. 

The beach there was absolutely lovely and we stayed at a hostel - called The Barn - with the comfiest beds ever! There were no bunks in sight and everybody had a feather pillow and duvet which was absolutely lush when you're on the move every day and in a different bed every night. 

Another highlight of the South Island was Franz Josef where I got to do something I never thought I would do - climb a glacier! 

First you take a short helicopter ride up to it - I'd never ridden in a helicopter and I absolutely loved it! Luckily it was clear and sunny that morning so the views on the way up were insane. Then you spend roughly 3 hours on trekking on the ice; it was rather challenging for me because I'm not a big hiker and you had to go up and down hills and slippery steps - as well as in and out of tunnels! We had crampons on our boots, of course, but it was exhausting nonetheless! I'm so glad I did it though because it's not very often that you can say you've been on a glacier. Plus our tour guide told us that the glacier will have completely melted in thirty years time, so I thought I'd seize the opportunity while I could! 

The helicopter ride back down was even better than the ride up as I got to ride up front with the pilot - loved it! 

A few days later we ended up in Queenstown which surrounds Lake Wakatipu and is incredibly picturesque with the Remarkable mountains nearby. I've never seen such blue lakes in my life as I saw in the South Island of NZ - apparently it's the glacial powder in the water that makes them so blue when the sunlight reflects off it. They were simply beautiful! 

Kane actually celebrated his 24th birthday while we were there. We had a bit of a knees up with our Stray bus the night before, and then spent the actual day ignoring the fact that we were budget backpackers and embracing the treats in the form of a cinema trip and nice meals out. (The film of choice was Gone Girl which was really good - I highly recommend it if you haven't yet had the chance to go see it!)

Whilst we were in Queenstown we were able to try out the famous Ferg Burger, which is honestly the best burger I've ever had in my life so far. They're huge so you can just have one on its own as your main meal - I wish I could describe just how good they are but I'm struggling to put it into words. Let's just say that it's a party in your mouth!

The only negative I have about Queenstown is that you go past a certain point to get to it - this is the point where you're officially closer to the South Pole than to the equator, so it's a lot colder!

But that wasn't about to change any time soon as it we were then due to travel to Mount Cook. 

Until next time! 

(Katie-xo)



P.S - I haven't yet had the chance to upload my actual photos, so I hope you don't mind that I've just taken a photo of a couple of photos on my camera just to give you a general idea! Thanks, guys!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

LOTR Fangirling: Hobbiton, Wellywood and the Weta Cave

The Travelling Series

One of the main reasons that I chose to travel around New Zealand was the fact that I'm a massive Lord of the Rings fan. Everyone who's anyone knows that the films were shot there by Peter Jackson (the Kiwi director from Wellington) and, as a result, the scenery that features in the films is just stunning. 

I was lucky enough to get the chance to visit Hobbiton in Matamata during my Stray journey around the North Island and it's something that I'll never ever forget. What the film crew have done there is absolutely amazing. Like Elijah Wood has previously said: you don't have to imagine that you're in Hobbiton because you are actually in it. It's inspired by the British countryside and it feels like such a magical place - I was like a big kid running around it! 

I'd heard beforehand that the actual tour is not very good as they rush you around in preparation for the next tour, but I didn't find that at all. Our tour guide let us mooch around in our own time; there were a few occasions where we were lagging behind at the back of the group but we could just make our way back to the group when we were ready - no pressure and no questions asked! I think they understand that every nerd needs to get their fix before they have to leave. 

At the end of the tour we actually got to have a pint in The Green Dragon, the pub based in Hobbiton, and it was such an awesome moment! 

Kane and I took a couple of hundred photos that day but it was so worth it when I look back at them all (even if we did get a photo with every hobbit hole possible and some of them are practically identical)!

A few days later I got to fangirl some more when we visited Wellington for the first time (or Wellywood, as it's now commonly known, due to the fact that Peter Jackson built his post-production studios there). 

We went on a tour that features locations from the LOTR films, including the forest in the shire from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring where the Hobbits set off on their journey, and then we got to go to the Weta Cave and Workshop. This was the place where the props for LOTR and The Hobbit were designed and created so we got to see a lot of super cool stuff!

Weta also did a lot of digital special effects on the films and we were told that they are currently working on the final Hobbit film which is due out in cinemas in December! Exciting!

I loved being in New Zealand as every landscape that you drive past, every mountain and every river, might just have featured in Lord of the Rings. The whole country just resonates Middle Earth in all it's glory. It's absolutely beautiful and, at times, completely breathtaking. 

Next up: the South Island.

(Katie-xo)



Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Blue Duck Station and Tongariro National Park

The Travelling Series

Blue Duck Station is a sheep farm in an amazingly remote location in the North Island of New Zealand. Trust me, when Stray advertises 'off the beaten track' they certainly aren't exaggerating! We had to twist and turn around hills and go up and down mountains for ages before we even reached our destination. 

Blue Duck is a great spot for horse riding, hunting and trekking. In fact, we walked for 3 hours to a waterfall while we were there (a personal best for me as I'm totally not the hiking type). It's so in the middle of no where that it has a relaxing, peaceful vibe to it. I like going places while travelling that encourage you to switch off and forget about the world. We can become so consumed in our every day lives that we often don't take the time to just... be. Travelling reminds you of the simpler things in life and the unnecessary need for materialistic things. 

After Blue Duck we headed to Tongariro National Park at the slightly ungodly hour of 6am. There was a fairly surreal moment, when we were driving down the road out of there, where rocks were falling down from the mountains as Metallica's 'Enter Sandman' played on the sound system. It was one of those moments in life where you think 'I can't believe I'm here and I can't believe this is happening'. 

At Tongariro there was the opportunity to do a full day hike up the mountains which I politely declined due to my undeniable lack of physical fitness. Instead, a few of us had a little hot tub party for American Jasmine's birthday and then abused the wifi at the hostel. If you've ever travelled before you'll know that wifi equals gold when you're a backpacker. 

I also spent a fair few minutes staring at the beauty of the mountains in all their snowy glory - particularly the one that was shot as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Now, that was cool! 

The next day we headed to the capital city of Wellington and had a few drinks in celebration of Jasmine's birthday. It's true what they say - it's called Windy Welly for a reason. I couldn't believe how strong the wind was which also meant it felt extremely chilly. But it was hard to care about the weather when we were about to embark upon a tour around Weta Workshop - the special effects house for LOTR, The Hobbit and many other Peter Jackson movies. 

Let the fangirling commence!

(Katie-xo)



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Learning About the Maori Culture: Mourea and Lake Aniwhenua

The Travelling Series

One of my favourite nights on the North Island came very early on in the trip - it was the Maori Culture Night overnight stay in Mourea. This is where our Stray bus got to learn all about New Zealand's indigenous Maori heritage, the people and their history through staying at a Marae (a traditional Maori meeting house).

As we entered the lands of the people of the local tribe, we had to be blessed and welcomed in the traditional Maori way. This is where you hold right hands with the locals, touch noses twice and say 'Kia Ora' (which literally means 'be well' in Maori, or informally means 'hello'/'goodbye'). 

We were then cooked for before the owners put on a show. This consisted of musical performances of the Haka - the men's war dance made world famous by the fact that the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team perform it before every game - and the Poi - the women's storytelling dance using balls on a string. Then came the time of the night where audience participation was required! The boys learned the Haka, the girls learned the Poi dance and then we performed for each other. It was actually the most fun I'd had in ages and we got some really amusing videos out of it!

One of our fellow Strays, Olly, had brought a guitar with him and so a little jamming session followed between him and the other performers. We were all singing along by the end and swaying - it was great!

After you are welcomed to the Marae, blessed and cooked for, you are then classed as 'farno' (which means 'family' in Maori). I personally think the whole night aided our bus in becoming more of a farno. The whole night was definitely a bonding experience and one that I will never forget. 

The next night we stayed in a lodge overlooking the beautiful Lake Aniwhenua. We were cooked a 'hangi' which is a traditional Maori meal where the food is slow roasted in the ground. The meat literally melted in your mouth - it was so delicious!

We were then treated to a few more performances from Olly where we sang along, held hands and did the Kum Ba Yah. No, not quite, but it did feel a bit like that! One of the German girls, who sings in a band back home, joined Olly at one point and they sang a Kings of Leon song together. KOL are one of my favourite bands and we had no idea this girl could sing so, when they sang together, it was so good - a really special moment with some very special people. 

The next day we went to Taupo and had a mooch around before heading to the famous Blue Duck Lodge, where we were to spend two days.

To be continued...

(Katie-xo)




Sunday, 26 October 2014

Becoming a Stray in New Zealand

The Travelling Series

We flew to Auckland from Singapore on Wednesday 8th October with both flights having gone as smoothly as they possibly could.

We then had one day to kill in Auckland before getting on our Stray bus tour around the North island.

My first impressions of New Zealand were through Auckland - it was chilly and could have been any old city in England. The river front was nice but, other than that, there was nothing special to look at. When we came further out into the suburbs, I got a feel of San Francisco with the hilliness and fancy multi-coloured housing. Then, as we ventured further from the city, I saw mountains and cabin-like housing which reminded me of my time in Calgary (Canada). Maybe Auckland was a little more interesting than I initially thought!

We were extremely jetlagged that day so we ended up mooching around the city, having a Nandos and then going to bed. I should mention that Nandos in New Zealand doesn't have Creamy Mash as a side, nor does it allow you refillable drinks. Disappointed is not the word.

The next day we got picked up by our Stray bus driver, Leftie, at the crack of dawn. Having not slept much of the night, I was looking forward to hopping on the bus and getting a nice bit of kip before the first stop. Wishful thinking, Katie. 

We had to do an icebreaker on the bus where we sat down facing everyone at the front, put on Leftie's headset and explained a little bit about ourselves. I felt so ill from jetlag, I wanted to die. But I'm so glad we did that initial icebreaker because it forged an immediate bond between us all that became the foundation of some beautiful friendships!

I was so pleasantly surprised to learn that there was a lovely lady on the bus from Rothwell, which is very close to my hometown of Wakefield. There was also a funny American, the sweetest girls from Germany, a guitar player from Carlisle and a humble chef from the Midlands - amongst several other amazing people from all around the world. 

The first stop was Raglan, a surfing town, where we stayed in a lodge overlooking the sea. We watched the sun go down on the inspiration point whilst eating fish and chips, which was a great way to start the Stray journey!

I remember thinking that if the rest of the trip was as good as that first day, then I was in for the trip of a lifetime! 

To be continued...

(Katie-xo)

Sunday, 19 October 2014

For the Love of Singapore

The Travelling Series

If I had to describe Singapore in one word, it would have to be: wow.

Singapore is one hell of an amazing metropolis - the city is so clean and so so SHINY. I've heard people say that you can lick a bin and you wouldn't catch anything and now I fully understand why. 

Singapore is like a cross between America and England in many ways - there are American roads, signs and skyscrapers, combined with English streets, back alleys and buildings. Of course another bonus is that English is widely spoken as it's one of the country's official four languages. I think that's why I liked it so much as I love America and I'm also rather fond of England due to it being my home country. 

There's plenty to do as well - anyone who says you only need a few days in Singapore is LYING! There are the typical touristic activities, like slurping on a Singapore Sling in Raffles Hotel, but a variety of other things on offer as well - such as a trip to the zoo, a walk around Clarke Quay (a thriving hub of restaurants and bars) or you can visit one of the many shopping malls that the city inhabits.

Singapore seems to have tried very hard to put a shopping mall in every place imaginable. In the airport? Check. In each train station? Check. On the corner of every street? Check. I'm definitely not complaining though as everyone who reads this blog knows that shopping is my favourite hobby! (Come to think of it, perhaps this is another reason why I fell in love with Singapore.)

We were also incredibly lucky to stay in the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel for one night (Kane and I's birthday present to each other for this year). Now, Marina Bay Sands is something else entirely. It might have been the orchestra playing in the lobby upon arrival that has made me think so, or the view of the city from our room; it might have been the gigantic bath tub in the bathroom or the extra large double bed; it could even have been the spectacular sights of the surrounding skyscrapers from the observation deck. But, actually, it's more likely to have boiled down to the fact that we got to watch the sun go down from the incredible infinity pool that trickles off the edge of one of the towers. 

If you're ever fortunate enough to go there, make sure you also check out the helix bridge and the shopping mall surrounding the hotel. Our stay in the complex was outstanding and it's something that I'll never forget!

You might be wondering how much Marina Bay Sands set us back and the answer is TOO MUCH! Almost everybody comments on how expensive Singapore is but, the truth is, standard price rates are okay. They are practically the same as England. But it's the fact that they put GST on top - plus a service charge of 10% in bars and restaurants - that can make it rather sneaky and all the expense soon adds up. 

I do not regret going to Singapore at all though, even if we are on a bit of a tight budget, and would definitely recommend it to fellow travellers. It's one of my favourite places that I've ever been to and I hope to go back there one day! I think I could even live there if I really wanted to. We shall see!

But for now, next stop: New Zealand!

(Katie-xo)





Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Last of Vietnam: Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang

The Travelling Series

At the end of my previous post I briefly talked about how I was embarking upon a 13 hour train journey to Hue (which is halfway down the east coast of Vietnam).

At the time, there was no need to complain as I was sat comfortably staring out of the window at the beautiful Vietnamese countryside. However, when the sun went down and darkness hit, out came the mice and the cockroaches. I cannot tell you the pure terror I felt when I saw the shadow of a small creature shoot past my bag on the floor - and then when I realised what it actually was I just couldn't wait to get off!

I'd heard from a couple of friends who had already been there that Hue was worth stopping off at on the quest to Hoi An.

After being in the hustle and bustle of the capital city for so long, Hue was quite a refreshing change as there were less people, less traffic and less going on. However, this also meant that there was less of a vibe. At times and at certain places during the day it actually felt like a ghost town. This meant that companies and salesmen approached us even more than they did in Hanoi (and, dare I say it, Bangkok). But in Hue, because they are so desperate for business, they don't leave you alone or take no for an answer - which I didn't like. You can only be so polite for so long before you have to tell them where to go. It's brutal but it's the only way they will stop following and harassing you! Some of them are seriously borderline stalkers.

Other than seeing the Citadel, the place where the Royals used to live, there isn't much to do around Hue. There's a couple of cool restaurants and bars - including DMZ where you can sign the wall and play Jenga - but other than that, it's slim pickings! We got a really nice hotel on a deal so I think we actually ended up spending more time inside there than outside. (Sad I know!)

I was happy to be moving onto Hoi An via a half day bus tour where we got to go over the Hai Van Pass. This road is famous for it's views of mountains and beaches and I have to say - it didn't disappoint! I got some stunning photos before we cut through Da Nang and got to Hoi An itself.

Now what can I say about Hoi An, apart from it's absolutely wonderful. It's a town built on the river and made up of little streets and back alleys. It's so quaint and got a really nice feel to it - it reminded us of a holiday resort you might find in Spain or the Balearics. 

There are tons of cute independent shops, including hundreds of custom made tailors. It's a well known thing to backpackers travelling around Vietnam that the best (and cheapest) place to get clothes made is Hoi An. 

Kane and I went to a highly rated shop on Trip Advisor called Khoi Tailors to get me a cotton dress made that I could wear through the day then dress up with accessories to take it through to night. He ended up walking out a day later with a full cashmere suit. We couldn't believe the quality that they can give you in a short amount of time for the money you are paying - so it's well worth it! 

We also went to the beach, which is truly gorgeous; there's white sand that stretches out at each side as far as the eye can see - and then beautiful turquoise water that sparkles in the sun. 

The only negative I have is just how hot and humid it was. The temperature made it impossible to walk around outside for longer than 10 minutes. Sunbathing was also a no no unless you wanted to shower in your own sweat.

The night times were cooler though - it even rained once - and there were plenty of bars, restaurants and caf├ęs that you could explore once the sun had retired for the day. 

The bridge over the river has lights and lanterns on it that illuminates it at night, which made the town even prettier than it was during the day. 

It was honestly an amazing 3 nights in a perfect place and in hindsight I wish we'd have stayed there for longer. It'd definitely be a good holiday destination for the future! 

We thought we'd spend a little time in Da Nang as it looked nice when we initially drove through it to get to Hoi An. However, on closer inspection, there's not a lot to do. We thought we could just have a series of beach days but it was too hot to sit out in the sun and you couldn't even swim in the sea to cool down as the waves were too strong. 

It's also very expensive compared to Hoi An, because it's classed as a major city. The only good thing about Da Nang was that I discovered my love for Highlands Coffee. 

This is a Vietnamese coffee shop chain that has a similar feel to Starbucks or Costa Coffee - and they do a special type of frapuccino called the 'Jelly Freeze' which is pretty awesome! You could also get the most amazing tuna panini for less than a quid that makes you feel like you're winning at life.

When it was time to fly to Singapore via Ho Chi Minh City, a sense of relief that we were leaving Da Nang washed over me. But then I realised that it would also mean we were leaving Vietnam and that thought made me feel incredibly sad.

Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited and it's a shame we couldn't spend longer there. I would have especially liked to have done Sapa in the North and then Ho Chi Minh City on the way out, but it wasn't meant to be! It's a good excuse to go back though!

We ran into a little trouble when we got to the airport and realised that the costs of our flights hadn't included check-in baggage, so we had to pay for it then and there at a higher expense. Moral of the story: if you're booking through Skyscanner, who use another third party agency to book your flights, then make sure the reason that they're advertising the cheapest flights isn't because they don't allow you to have check-in baggage unless you pay an add-on fee. I wasn't going to name the agency but people should be aware of this for future reference - Bravofly are sneaky you-know-whats!

Anyway, other than that, we got to Singapore without a hitch. 

More on the fabulous Singapore later...

(Katie-xo)


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