26 October 2014

Becoming a Stray in New Zealand

The Travelling Series

We flew to Auckland from Singapore on 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...



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 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!



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 the train!

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 three 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...


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