Nine Day Namibia Honeymoon Trip

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Our nine-day honeymoon exploring Namibia’s otherworldly landscapes and desert-adapted wildlife.

9 Day Namibia Honeymoon

Choose Namibia for:

  • Seeing other-worldly landscapes unlike anywhere else on earth
  • Spending time in the great outdoors and wildlife rather than cities
  • A longer trip (have at least 8 days)
  • An off-the-beaten path adventure in a safe country
  • A trip that is either 5-star luxury or nomadic camping/road-trip

Why Namibia

Images of vast desert captured my imagination several years ago when a friend posted photos of her Namibian roadtrip.  Namibia is vast and sparsely populated. It’s 1.5x the size of France. Namibia is the 2nd least populated country in the world – only after Mongolia. Namibia stayed on the wait list. Given the sheer size and lack of roads, we knew we would need a good chunk of time if we ever wanted to visit this off-the-beaten path Southern African destination.  So, after a two ‘grueling weeks’ in South Africa for our wedding (aka an amazing week in Cape Town, a very fun Kruger Safari with family and friends, and a beautiful wedding in Franschhoek), we chose  Namibia for the start of our Honeymoon. 

Our wedding in Franschhoek, Winelands, South Africa

Namibia’s Windhoek International Airport is a quick 1.5 hour flight from both Cape Town and Johannesburg. The country’s history is fascinating – a mix of ethnolinguistic groups (Koi, San, Nama, Himba, Herero, German, British, etc.) Namibia regained it’s independence, from the South African Apartheid regime, in 1991.  Namibia’s official language is English, but Afrikaans is widely spoken.  Namibia boasts incredible natural landscapes and very sophisticated tourism – both for adventuresome luxury travelers and for backpackers.  We chose the former and are excited to share the details of this Southern African gem.


Original Itinerary:

  • Serra Cafema (which became Etosha National Park) – 2 nights
  • Hoanib Skeleton Coast – 3 nights
  • Sossusvlei Desert Lodge – 3 nights

Originally, we planned to start our trip at Wilderness Safaris’ remote Serra Cafema camp, set on the Angola border on the Kunene River.   Heavy rains two weeks prior to our arrival caused massive regional flooding and closed Serra Cafema.  We made a game-time decision to start our trip in Etosha National Park.

Etosha National Park

As we mentioned, the roads in Namibia, where existent, aren’t great.  We’ll share logistical info at the end of the post.  To get to Etosha from Windhoek International Airport, we boarded a verysmallpropeller plane which; for one of us (read my new husband), was a trip-defining experience in and of itself.   

One of us was not thrilled about this tiny Wilderness Air propeller plane

Etosha National Park is oft-called the crown jewel of Namibia’s wildlife viewing. Etosha is reputed to teem with wildlife leading to amazing safari sightings against the backdrop of its famed clay-and-salt pans.  Despite our recent safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, we were pretty excited about time in Etosha and this extra, unplanned safari.  We stayed at the beautiful Ongava Private Game Reserve – a giant, luxury wildlife reserve attached to Etosha.  Ongava has lodges onsite. We stayed at Little Ongava, which has only three luxurious suites with private plunge pools and sweeping views of the reserve.  Little Ongava was picturesque. A roomy lodge with first rate amenities and an all inclusive package including two game drives per day.  

The Ongava guides are very knowledgeable and the food in the lodge was quite good.  Ongava is home to many rhinos (and elephants and lions!). Our first game drive in the private game reserve did not disappoint – granting us multiple animal sightings. Since Ongava is a private game reserve, we could stay out past sunset for nocturnal viewings, drive off-piste in search of animals – and even get out of the jeep and track rhino by foot!

Tracking rhino by foot at Ongava Private Game reserve

Disappointment in Etosha

The plan for our second morning was to drive into the national park itself, Etosha.  Unfortunately for us, after 7 years of drought, Etosha had received nearly unprecedented amounts of rain and the “greatest wildlife sanctuary in Namibia,” appeared void of wildlife.  Instead of the geological salt pan surrounded by barren land we expected, we found ourselves in lush green plains.  Animals that usually gathered by watering holes had no need to search for hydration and were nowhere to be found, hidden in the 20,000 sq. km park now covered in grasses.  This led to a very disappointing drive in Etosha with virtually no animal sightings but nearly 4hours of bumpy road.  

Rhino tracking on foot at Little Ongava outside Etosha National Park


Hoanib Skeleton Coast

Rising out of the desert like a mirage, Hoanib Skeleton Coast camp is a sight for sore eyes.  The eco-friendly suites spare no luxury while still respecting the desert-location and remaining conscientious of the natural resources and environment.  The main guest area boasts a plunge pool, bar, lounge area, and dining room.  The food was spectacular and the service was professional and attentive.  With only 12 suites, HSC is an intimate experience in the middle of the wilderness.  The only other accmmodation on the skeleton coast is the more budget-friendly ShipWreck Lodge which is a few hours away, on the beach.  

How HSC manages to have decently strong wifi in the middle of the desert remains a mystery.  HSC is on an all-inclusive basis, which also pertains to the two daily game drives.  Just as in Etosha, the desert is unbearably hot midday, making for terrible game viewing and human movement in general.  Sheltering us from the heat, the daily game drives were just after sunrise and just before sunset. We took daily excursions to the Hoanib River, a dry, ephemeral riverbed; the river only runs a few days a year during flash floods.  After flash-floods,the ground absorbs the water. The result is a dry riverbed with vegetation and trees springing up from the underground life-source – in the midst of the harsh desert.

Desert Adapted Giraffe on the Skeleton Coast


What is most interesting about the desert at the Skeleton Coast is the rare desert-adapted wildlife.  Wilderness Safaris is one of the premier conservation groups in Southern Africa and the host and biggest funder of Dr. Flip Stander and the Desert Lion Project.  (If you’re as lion obsessed as I am, watch this amazingNat Geo documentary Vanishing Kings: Desert-Lions of the Namib. We loved visiting HSC’s research center and, needless to say, our main objective was to see the desert-adapted lions – which was a real highlight of our Namibia trip.

Desert adapted Lion on the Skeleton Coast


Our last day, we took a day trip to the coast itself.  The drive, through the sand dunes, is not for the faint of stomach.  The drive gave us incredible dune views – and we saw real-life desert oases.  We reached the skeleton coast, the hostile stretch along the Atlantic, littered with whale bones and shipwrecks. Native Namibian tribes called this area “The Land God Made in Anger.” Portuguese sailors once referred to as “The Gates of Hell.”  Colonies of thousands of seals stretch for miles…a feast for the local hyena and the desert-adapted lions that come by.  The smell of the seals is terrible.  After sitting in the car for so many hours, we were delighted to hop in a plane for the 15 minute scenic flight back to camp. Viewing the same landscape by air was spectacular.


Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

AndBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge


Saving the best for last, we flew to the magnificent &Beyond property: Sossusvlei Desert Lodge.  Unlike the barren Skeleton Coast, Sossusvlei is the most popular in Namibia. There are a number of places to stay near the dunes.  Sossusvlei Desert Lodge was, perhaps, one of the most luxurious places we’ve ever stayed.  Set on its own private nature reserve, it’s the only private hotel with access to its own star dunes.  The individual villas, which were entirely renovated in 2019, boast private plunge pools with epic views.  All-inclusive, the food and cocktails were excellent (as were the wine selections) – and we loved the activities.  

ATVing in the star dunes outside Sossusvlei

Our favorite Sossusvlei Activities:

  • Climbing the Big Daddy sand dune in Sossusvlei (1. not for the faint of heart 2. lots of water and sunscreen 3. ask for the “short cut”)
  • Walking through the petrified forest of Deadvlei below Big Daddy
  • Gazing at the stars professional astronomer (it borders Africa’s only International Dark Sky Reserve)
  • ATV’ing across the sand dunes
  • Marveling at the sunrise over the desert from a hot air balloon.  

We could’ve easily spent another day or two and not run out of activities.  The luxury of the property was on another level – it was certainly the absolutely highlight of our Namibia trip!  

SosDeadvlei Petrified Forest Wedding
Photo Credit: Clane Gessel

Budget-Friendly Tip: for beautiful inexpensive accommodations, check out the Sesriem Dead Valley Lodge. Bonus, the lodge is located within the gates of Sesriem. This means you get access to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei one hour before the general population – amazing for hiking before it gets too hot. Also great for spectacular photos (see above!). You must check-in before the Sesriem gates close at 6pm. It doesn’t have the range of activities that the all-inclusive lodges have, but great option for two nights.


We were sad to end our Namibia trip, but looking forward to a few days of rest & relaxation on the beaches of Mauritius after such an active start to our honeymoon.  For adventurers and nature lovers, we couldn’t recommend Namibia more highly!


What to know

  • Logistics:  getting around Namibia is difficult.  Lack of roads + giant swaths of land  = two options.  Your first option is private flights – we took both Wilderness Air and Scenic Air – most of the high-end lodges have their own air fields on-site (all of the above recommended ones do.).  This will certainly raise the cost of your trip.  Often, it will save you hours of time, but if the weather is bad or there’s an issue with the plane – you could be waiting/sitting around for a while.  Your other option is to do it as a road trip.  You must rent a 4WD off-road vehicle – as very few of the roads are paved…some  are mostly sand tracks.  Be very prepared with water + make sure your phone works in Namibia – there will be hours and hours where you won’t pass any people or towns – and you don’t want to get stuck!  Driving will take you hours between destinations, but friends who have had 2+ weeks have loved their road trips.
  • Lodging: Most of what we saw was either geared towards backpackers/campers (very budget friendly) or 5-star luxury.  Because the locations are so remote – and most of what you want to see is in the wilderness, there aren’t “airbnb” or other mid-range options outside of the cities.  
  • Choose north or south: even with a week and a half, it was barely enough time to scratch the surface – and there were many places we wanted to explore, but didn’t have enough time.  Things we would’ve loved to see/do: the ghost town of Kolmanskop, Fish River Canyon (largest Canyon in Africa), the ancient rock engravings at Twyfelfontein, AfricaCat Foundation, etc. If you have a few extra days and want to add in food, culture, and city, tack on some time in Cape Town!

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What to do in Cape Town (For First Time visitors)

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On my second day in Cape Town, I called home and announced to my mom that she was “lucky I hadn’t visited in my 20s because I never would have come home.”

I wasn’t just being dramatic. Superlatives get thrown around with ease on travel blogs. The best this and the top 10 that. What I will say is this: Cape Town (and the surrounding winelands) live up to the hype. It truly is that spectacularly beautiful. There is that much to do, see, and explore. And the food and the wine really is that good. If you go to any website or blog about Cape Town, the options presented are infinite. How can you narrow down the itinerary of what to do?

I could have spent months in Cape Town (and am not-so-secretly hoping to do so in the near future). For a first-time trip to this magical city, I wanted to share some of the must-dos and highlights for a 4-5 day itinerary. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Updated Feb 2020]

What to do in Cape Town:

Recommendations for a first trip to Cape Town

  • Table Mountain: this is a must for what to do in Cape Town. Here’s the thing about Table Mountain: it closes often for weather (clouds, wind, etc.). Try to go your first day – if that doesn’t work, try the next, and the next. The moment it gets sunny & calm, head over. Trust me, you don’t want to be the person who doesn’t make it to Table Mountain. If you’re so inclined, or want some sort of masochistic bragging rights: hike. However, If you’re like me and can’t make it more than one flight of stairs without getting winded: take the cable car to the top and enjoy the sweeping views of Cape Town, the mountains, and the ocean. Buy tickets in advance (like before you head over) to avoid the lines. Bring layers – it gets cold and windy.
  • Cape Point Day Trip: Any Cape Town itinerary requires this! Hire a car service/guide for the day to do this 90 mile loop (or self drive). Start down the famous Chapman’s Drive, past Cape Town’s beaches (Bantry Bay, Clifton, and Camps Bay) under the majestic Twelve Apostles Mountain range; stop for seal watching at Hout Bay; continue to the Nature Reserve at the Cape of Good Hope (the national park where you can check out the view from Cape Point at the end of the African continent). Yup, that’s right – you can go to the end of the freaking continent. Loop north and stop to see the colony of endangered African penguins who have made Boulder’s Bay their sanctuary. Finally, stop in Simon’s Town or the picturesque harbor of Kalk Bay for lunch or a snack, and continue back to the city via False Bay (erroneously considered the point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet) and Muizenberg’s beaches to spot Great Whites.
  • Robben’s Island: take the ferry for a tour led by an ex-prisoner at this infamous political prison, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. Tickets sell out, book in advance.
  • Kirstenbosch Gardens: gorgeous botanical gardens located on the slopes of Table Mountain. If you’re into nature, you could spend all day here; if not, go for an hour or two, or tack it onto the end of your Cape Point day (above) on your way back into town. Don’t miss the colony of cycads above the Colonel Bird’s bath pool – they are one of the rare species to survive since prehistoric times. While I’m generally not not even that into plants, this place is worth a stop. Summer Sundays have sunset concerts!
  • Check out Cape Town itself: Go on a Cape Town Free Walking Tour – we loved the first-hand overview provided by the Apartheid to Freedom tour. Central CPT: Bree Street, Kloof Street, and Long street for cafes and shops. Learn about Cape Malay history (and food!) and go on a walking tour to see the colorful houses in the neighborhood of BoKaap and learn about the Cape Malay culture. Take a street art tour of the changing Woodstock neighborhood and hear from locals about the changes the gentrification has brought in recent years to their community. Feeling like a lunatic? Go to Gansbaai for Great White Shark diving (several hours required). Explore Cape Town’s beautiful beaches (especially Clifton). Check out the Sunset! Hike Lion’s Head (strenuous!).
  • The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art is incredible – go on the free highlights tour (3pm and 11am) and then get an audio-guide to take you through Floor 5, which provokes interesting questions about art, conservation of cultures that have had mostly oral traditions, and the relationship between Africa and its Diaspora.
  • SHOP! Buy crafts and gifts from the vendors at the Watershed at the V&A Waterfront, or from other independent vendors at the Woodstock Exchange or The Old Biscuit Mill (go on Saturday morning for the Neighborhoods Market to eat as well!).

CAPE TOWN: SUNSETS & VIEWS

Cape Town is epically beautiful. You won’t regret watching the sun set every night from a different vista. FYI: darkness sets quite quickly after sunset as you are closer to the Equator.

  1. Roof at the new Silo Hotel on the Waterfront. Reservations are required for the roof (unless you’re a guest), but walk-ins are accepted for the 6th floor bar.
  2. Bloubergstrand – the coastal suburb from which the CPT postcards are photographed; the view is absolutely beautiful; the beach is nice for long walks (the ocean is freezing!); friends recommend Café Blouberg (+27 21 554 4462) and Blue Peter beach pub (right on the beach, popular with locals) will serve you excellent sundowners [colonial tradition – a drink at sunset].
  3. Cocktails at SAS Radisson hotel – a nice terrace by the ocean, close to the V & A Waterfront
  4. Drinks at the revolving restaurant at the Ritz Hotel in Sea Point – probably “the best view and worst food on the Cape Peninsula”

Where to eat

You can’t go wrong with Cape Town’s food scene. I’d be remiss not to mention these gems. Do yourself a favor a make a reservation for at least one during your Cape Town trip.

Fine Dining

  • The Test Kitchen Our favorite meal in Cape Town and possibly my favorite dining experience ever. Consistently on the Top 50 restaurant list in the world. Prix fix. Reservations are a must.
  • The Short Market Club – great ala carte fine dining in the CBD, from the Test Kitchen Team.
  • Pot Luck Club. Same team from The Test Kitchen – but we were sorely disappointed – skip!
  • The Chef’s Warehouse – no reservations taken!
  • La Colombe  Possibly the most internationally recognized and acclaimed restaurant in Cape Town, located in Constantia.
  • Salsify at The Roundhouse The Roundhouse was known for fine dining and some of the best views in CPT. Although the original restaurant closed a few years ago, the team behind The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club has opened Salsify in the space.
  • Aubergine one of Africa’s best and a Cape Town icon, great wine list , east-meets-west menu.

Other

  • If in Bo Kaap: Bo Kaap Kombious Cape Malay cuisine (milder curry). Great view of the cape malay area of Cape Town – great people own it
  • On a Saturday morning: the stalls at Neighborhoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill

Where to Stay:

To make the most of exploring Cape Town, I recommend staying in town or on the beautiful slopes of Table Mountain with the views over the city. Avoid the touristy V&A Waterfront.

Websites to check out for CPT happenings to add to your itinerary:

Check my other posts for travel itineraries in Africa.

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New Zealand Road Trip

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Road Trip Itinerary for Two Weeks: South Island & North Island

How we came up with this New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

When I started traveling, I prioritized my trips by what seemed accessible: geographically, culturally, and financially.  I’d squeeze trips in for any amount of time I had: weeklong vacations, three-day weekends, it didn’t matter. For me, any free time at all was enough time for a trip.   While that early love of travel was imprinting, I began to accumulate a wishlist of trips that seemed just beyond the horizon: trips that seemed too far, too grand/complicated, or required just too much time.

It is those beyond-the-horizon trips that I’ve been pursuing this past year – and plan to pursue well into 2019 and beyond.  And for years, a New Zealand road trip had sat atop that list.

We (brother, boyfriend, and I) carved out two weeks in early December (NZ spring/summer).  Armed with a dozen+ itineraries from friends and others, we attempted to prioritize experiences for a trip that could’ve easily been 4-6 weeks.  We spent ~5 days on the North Island and 1.5 weeks on the South Island. Unanimously, we would prioritize the South Island for a trip of any length.  The New Zealand road trip itinerary below is a suggestion of how we’d do it – if we could do it again.

All 3 of us atop the Franz Josef Glacier

South Island Itinerary

Abel Tasman National Park

We started our road trip at the top of the South Island, flying into the Nelson Airport (about 1.5h flight from Auckland).  First thing first, we picked up our rental car just outside the one-room terminal of this local airport. We wanted to prioritize the pristinely preserved rugged coastline of Abel Tasman National Park and its inhabitants (fur seals!).

Unspoiled National Park

Where to stay:

We had two options: stay in the town of Nelson (our 20 minute drive through this town confirmed that it was the correct choice not to stay here) or drive the hour north to the Kimi Ora Eco Lodge.  Originally, we chose it for convenience – right outside the National Park (NP), we had an early morning kayaking trip and didn’t want to do big back-and-forth drives early.  Kimi Ora exceeded our expectations. Not only is it conveniently located at the park’s entrance, but it has gorgeous lodge apartments, set above the bay, with magnificent views of the ocean (and decks to sit out on).  Its restaurant is also the best in the area (see below).

What to do:

The National Park is the star of the show – be SURE to book your activities in advance.  We did a full-day kayaking trip with lunch on a secluded beach through Wilsons, one of the most reputable companies.  I quickly learned that I and my motion-sickness do NOT love kayaking, but the views in the National Park were jaw-droppingly beautiful and kayaking through the water with fur seals was awesome.  Kayaking not your thing? Check out 10 activities to do in Abel Tasman.  

Geared-up, before I realized I’d get massively sea-sick

If you’re kayaking: the sun is no joke – you will need more sunscreen than you think.  Be prepared to get wet – wear water shoes. And bring lots of layers – the temps and winds change rapidly.

Where to eat:

If you’re staying in Nelson, or driving through Nelson (to or from), we loved our lunch at Boatshed on the pier.  We did the “trust the chef” menu, which was an inventive, fresh, local assortment of dishes – thoroughly enjoyed.

The Views restaurant at Kimi Ora Eco lodge is the best around the NP (of 5 total options).  It’s a vegetarian restaurant with spectacular ocean views. We loved the mushroom and gorgonzola pizza and it had good local wine selections.  Fun fact: it was also the strongest wifi we had the entire trip.

In Kaiteriteri, just below Kimi Ora, and where all of the NP day trips meet: check out the grocery store – great wines and snacks and was a good place to stock up on road-trip noshes.  Lastly, Gone Burger had very good fish and chips, despite horribly rude staff.

If we had extra time: We would’ve loved to explore nearby Marlborough – the largest wine area in New Zealand and known for the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs.  However, with an entire island to explore, we headed to the Wild West Coast.

 

Road Trip Down the Wild West Coast

The South Island’s west coast is marketed as a whole ‘nother world, and it certainly is – with rugged landscapes filled with Jurassic-Park-esque flora that slide right into the ocean.   Untamed beauty. The drive from Abel Tasman to stop #1 Punakaiki is just under 4 hours. On the way, a must-stop is Foul Winds.  The water walk is a 15-minute ocean vista promenade that rewards you at the end with a fur seal colony. That’s right people – fur seals! Total highlight.  It also is a good rest stop and sells coffee and ice cream.

An hour later driving along the coast on Highway 6, we reached Punakaiki to see the famed pancake rocks.  And while the curious limestone formations were pretty cool, we had missed high tide – and thus the “blow holes” that the area is famous for.  With the territory we needed to cover, there was no way to make the timing work – but for something more impressive than mysterious rock formations, we’d recommend timing to coincide with high tide.

Where to stay and eat:  Punakaiki Resort, set right on the beach, which had gorgeous views of the water.

Notes for road trippers:

Stock up on gas here (we’re talking full tank) as there are stretches along Highway 6 as long as 90+ kilometers without gas stations.  The roads are twisty and full of narrow (read: one lane) bridges. This is the day for your most capable left-side driver.

If we had an extra day: We would’ve done some shopping in Greymouth the next town after Punakaiki, which is known as the best place to get New Zealand greenstone jewelry.   Note: we did stop to gemstone shop, but stores are only open between 10am-5pm here.  What was open was the Nimmo Gallery, which had incredible photography and curated local gifts – it was one of our most successful places to buy NZ presents!  We also would have spent time exploring the funky town of Hokitika, which was a little too far out of the way for the distance we needed to travel.

Glacier Country

Our next day, we continued the down the west coast towards Glacier Country.  A must stop is the Hokitika Gorge, well worth the 1.5-2 hour detour.  It’s about 25 minutes off of State Highway 6.  The gorge itself is a 20-30 minute round trip walk from the car park (which also has a little food stand) and the scenery is….gorgeous.  (C’mon, you knew that pun was coming.) Word to the wise: wear all the bug spray: the sand flies are vicious.

From the Gorge, we drove the straight 2 hours to the Glaciers: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier (30 minutes drive one from the other).  Visiting here is a rare opportunity to access a glacier; we hoped to experience it via heli-hike (a helicopter ride to the top of the FJ Glacier + a 2-hour hike). We quickly learned that visibility in glacier country is temperamental – with the helicopters able to fly only 25-50% of the time. Sadly, we were not in luck that first afternoon – all helicopters to the glacier had been canceled because of cloud coverage.

With dozens of adventure tour outfitters based on the main street of Franz Josef village, we found ourselves on a quad bike tour.  FJ is one of the only glaciers in the world that ends in a rainforest, and so we explored the valley, river, grasslands, and rainforest via quad bike.  While it wasn’t a must – it was incredibly fun, and a great activity in the wake of a canceled heli-hike.

The next morning, we tried again for the heli-hike.  Since the visibility wasn’t clear for the whole 3 hours (to drop us off, hike, and pick us up), they canceled the hike part, but kept the helicopter to the top. Five of us climbed aboard the helicopter for a 30-minute round trip tour of the glaciers with a snow-landing on the top of Franz Josef.  Breathtaking. An absolute must – and unanimously a trip highlight for all 3 of us.  If you have the interest and time (and are in shape), definitely try for the hike – but we were so grateful for the incredible experience of the helicopter snow-landing on the top of the glacier.

You can actually see the ice flowing from the Glacier into the valley

 

Where to stay & eat: we stayed in the Te Wanoui Forest Retreat, which was a beautiful hotel.  We ate at the hotel’s restaurant for its five-course degustation menu. One of the better dining options in town, but not noteworthy otherwise.

Drive to Wanaka

The next day, we drove to Wanaka.  There are dozens of potential stops along the way, including the Fox Glacier area – and plenty of well-known hikes and vistas.  However, the weather wasn’t behaving – and with no visibility for views – and some crunched timing – we waved from the car instead of making all the stops. We stopped for lunch along the way at “The Salmon Farm,” which is well marked on the route; it’s over-priced, yet delicious, and clearly one of the only pitstops along the route as all the tour buses and groups were there as well.  After the Salmon Farm, the remainder of the drive was through Mount Aspiring National Park. A world heritage site, there were, again, dozens of little walking trails and hikes throughout. When the sun finally cleared, we stopped at the Blue Pools, for a 30-minute nature trail. And then finally, we reached Wanaka.

Wanaka

If we had only one place where we could add more time, it would’ve been in Wanaka (yes, I know, we wanted a full additional week in the South Island, but work with me on this).  Unlike the majority of towns we visited in NZ, which were somewhat rundown former mining communities, Wanaka is breathtaking. The town itself is on the shores of Lake Wanaka, surrounded by mountains that drop straight into the water.  Wanaka is known for outdoor activities and has dozens of great gift shops and home goods stores.  Sadly for us, we arrived late Sunday afternoon. Keep in mind that on most days, things in NZ close at 5pm…on Sunday, they close even earlier.  We walked around the town a little as the shops were closing, which left us wanting more.

Where to eat:

Our favorite meal in New Zealand Kika. If we could’ve, we would’ve eaten every meal here for our entire two weeks.  It’s the number one restaurant in NZ for a reason. Don’t miss. For a casual lunch or breakfast, check out the Big Fig (also in Queenstown).

Where to stay:

The Wanaka Homestead – beautiful bed and breakfast on the lake; a 10-minute walk from downtown and only minutes from #thatwanakatree,  also known as the lonely tree (but let’s be clear the tree is never lonely…there are always a million tourists photographing it).

#thatwanakatree

Queenstown

Only a 50-minute drive from Wanaka is Queenstown: New Zealand’s adventure capital.  Sadly for us, the adventure started the moment we got in the car.  Despite clocking in at just under an hour, the drive was one of the most treacherous stretches of roads we encountered (and we thought the bar was low to begin with). Think: terribly narrow, twisting roads with stretches that are only one-lane, and the side is a sheer cliff.  Oh, we also had dense fog, making the visibility quite poor. If you are planning on road tripping make sure at least one driver is not afraid of heights. This drive is not, I repeat NOT, for the faint of heart.

Queenstown is worth it: a properly beautiful small city, nestled into hills and mountainsides sloping into the lake.  Because of the access to incredible outdoor adventures, it’s an adrenaline junkie’s paradise. It’s also hell looking for parking.

We packed our one full day in Queenstown full of adventure, starting with the Dart River jet boating (be prepared, you’ll get wet), which included a forest walk.  The scenery was beautiful and we learned quite a bit about NZ flora and fauna and also loved the racing jet boats through the Dart River.

Next up: bungee jumping. The Karawau Bridge is the OG site where bungee jumping was invented.  Christian went for it, while we just grabbed drinks at the bar (aptly named Liquid Courage) and watched him plunge headfirst into the gorge. Tip: Make sure to leave yourselves lots of time for those who are hesitant and might need more time before they jump.   

Getting ready to jump…

We did a little shopping around Queenstown (great for souvenirs) and then had our favorite Queenstown experience: relaxing in the private Onsen hot-pools overlooking Shotover River Canyon.  Ten out of ten.

Onsen Hot Pools Spa

Where to stay:

The Dairy Private Hotel.  Gorgeous boutique hotel with funky rooms, a great location in town, onsite parking, and an extremely knowledgeable proprietor who helped us with everything from reservations to shopping recommendations.

Where to eat:

Everyone is going to tell you that you must eat at Fergburger.  And you’re going to.  And the burger is going to be very good, great even.  Will it be the World’s Best Burger, as CNN claimed? Definitely not. But you’re going to eat there anyway.  We also ate at Blue Canoe, which was New Zealand-Polynesian-Asian fusion food– yum and definitely different than anything we’ve had before.

 

Milford Sound

Any way you slice it, traveling to/from Milford Sound (or the smaller Doubtful Sound) is an ordeal.  If you drive (but actually, take a tour bus and leave the car in Queenstown!), it takes forever. If you fly, there’s a good chance you’ll have to get on a bus instead due to weather. But this Fiordland landscape is aptly known as the 8th Wonder of the World.  And it’s a New Zealand Must.  Must. Must. There’s an option to do it as a day trip, which sounds like a nightmare to me because of all the traveling.  Ours was one of two cruises able to stay overnight on the sound – which also guarantees more access to wildlife, especially since the seals are known to hop on the boats late at night, attracted to the light.

Can you spot the tiny boat?  Should give a sense of scale…

The ride to Milford was very long, with many stops.  One of the highlights was seeing the Kia birds, the world’s only alpine parrot – they are giant, mischievous parrots (keep your keys and other valuables in your pockets!).  Super cheeky creatures, they love to ride on cars back and forth through the tunnels.

As mentioned, there are only two cruises that stay overnight on the Sound.  So once the day-trippers offboarded, we settled in and went out on the water.  There were two options for exploring the Sound from the main cruise ship: a kayak or a “small boat.”  See my love of kayaking in the “Abel Tasman” section if you want to know why we chose the small boat. It was an exceptional experience.  While there were no whales that day in the Sound, we got up close and personal with dolphins, otters, and the overwhelmingly giant cliffs that make up the Sound and seem to be a vertical wall with no end into the sky.  The nature guides on board were fantastic – and overall, it was one of our favorite experiences in New Zealand.

We arose the next morning, docked, and began the long journey back to Queenstown, where we picked up the car and then drove up to Lake Tekapo.  Lake Tekapo is one of 13 International Dark Sky Observatories in the world.  We tried to do the Late Night Earth and Sky viewing at 11:45pm that night, but there was 100% cloud coverage …so it was canceled :(.  Needless to say, we were bummed. From there, we drove the next day to Christchurch (3-hour drive), where we caught our flight back to the US.  We all would’ve skipped Christchurch, but if you do find yourself there, the Quake City exhibit was very informative about the 2010/2011 Canterbury Earthquakes and the underlying tectonic plates in NZ and the ring of fire generally.

 

North Island

As we mentioned, if you only have 2 weeks, prioritize the South Island for your New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary.  But if you have more time, it’s well worth exploring New Zealand’s North Island, which has some incredible highlights.

Highlights:

Wine Tasting at Waiheke Island.

This island of vineyards is a 30-minute ferry from Auckland and swells in population from 8k to 40k+ on weekends in the summer months.  Our favorite wine was at Peacock Sky (do the degustation tasting menu and make sure to try the brownies) and the most beautiful property was Mudbrick.

Geothermal Super Volcanos & Maori culture

While the South Island is known for its epic landscapes, the North Island is the best place to experience Maori culture and NZ’s geothermal activity, both of which can be found in Rotorua.

There are three options for the drive to Rotorua, including one through “cute” towns.  Skip. I repeat…skip. Drive the 2.6 hours directly there from Auckland, unless you’re going to the Coromandel Peninsula. (Note to LOTR Nerds: this is where you can stop for Hobbit Town).

What to do:

Hells Gate Geothermal Reserve & Mud Spa.  The mud spa itself was fine, but what made the whole thing worth it was the 2 hours guided walk learning about supervolcano geothermal activity, tectonic plate, and all sorts of other cool stuff.  The guide had a science background and was incredibly knowledgeable. Pack your swimsuit, your own towel, a change of clothing, a raincoat, and good walking shoes and enjoy the access to this otherworldly landscape. For more Ring of Fire vacations, check out our trip to Bali & the Gili Islands in Indonesia.

Maori cultural experience at Tamaki village.  We are generally skeptical of any cultural experiences made explicitly for tourists.  However, this was incredibly informative and well done. Young Maori New Zealanders from the surrounding community share their customs and traditions (and food for a dinner feast!).  Given that Europeans only arrived in NZ ~160 years ago, the country is 15-20% Maori – and the Rotorua experience was a good grounding in many of the modern symbols and cultural aspects of New Zealand that we encountered later in the trip.

Kiwi encounter. We did the behind the scenes kiwi encounter and hatchery to learn how NZ conservationists have begun to release this endangered species back into the wild with a 65% survival rate (up from 5%).  Great for kids, or (if you’re like me) obsessed with kiwis. Otherwise, skip.

Zorbing at OGO.  I had no idea what “zorbing” was.  And once I learned, I had no idea why it would be fun to bounce down a hillside in a giant rubber ball filled with water.  But it was stupidly fun. Bring a swimsuit and towel. Oddly awesome.

Where to stay & eat:

We loved the Black Swan Hotel on Lake Rotorua, and not just for the free minibar snacks. The balcony overlooking the lake was the perfect place to sit with a glass of wine, the grounds and gardens of this boutique were beautiful, and it was the best breakfast we had our entire trip. We also ate dinner one night at Urban Bistro, which was quite good.

Waitomo Glowworm caves

So, this is the real reason we went to the North Island at all: the Waitomo Glowworm caves: a labyrinth of underground caves alight with hundreds of thousands of glowworms.  Book in advance. Massive trip highlight for us. If you’re doing the caves, definitely grab lunch at Huhu café down the road.

Image from: NomadicMatt

Auckland

Generally skippable as a tourist destination.  However, if you’re going to be there before/after flights, the Viaduct is a great place to grab a happy hour drink or a bite to eat. We loved the HH and oysters at Oyster and Chop (expensive) and the boys enjoyed the steak at Botswana Butchery.

Oysters & champs on the Viaduct in Auckland

General New Zealand Travel Advice:

  • For any New Zealand road trip itinerary: Print all your reservations to have with you at all times.  On a near daily basis, we had to pull out and show printed reservations, confirmations and details (computer systems down, things not matching etc,).  It was a huge help.
  • Restaurants in New Zealand are expensive, even for ones that are just decent.  And while we had a few great meals (noted above), in general, the food was just OK.  You go to New Zealand for the landscapes, definitely not for the food.
  • If you’re doing it as a road trip:
    • you’ll love the summer for extra hours of driving – it didn’t get dark until 9:30-9:45pm on the South Island.  As the roads are not lit, you’ll definitely want those extra daylight hours.
    • Leave EXTRA time.  The roads are twisty, turny, one lane, and not what you might be used to.  Safe driving = leave plenty of extra time.
    • Bring a USB cable and a playlist of downloaded (offline) music – you’ll hit long stretches with no radio reception.
    • Always stop for gas when there’s a station – we went more than 90 kilometers at one stretch without any gas stations
    • Make sure at least one driver is not afraid of heights if you plan to drive on the South Island (which you should)
  • Almost every place in NZ takes credit card.  We barely had to change any currency – and usually, it was just coins for parking meters.
  • Packing
    • A few of my favorite travel things (I never leave home without!)
    • SUNSCREEN.  The Ozone layer is particularly thin over New Zealand.  Add in the fact that there’s no pollution and it’s a recipe for a bad sunburn.  Apply often.
    • Bug repellent.  Particularly on the South Island, most hikes/nature will have nasty little buggers called sand flies that will bite you and suck your blood.  And if that’s not enough, the bites are extremely itchy for multiple days. Bring the highest DEET bug spray you can find.
    • Bring a raincoat.  The weather in the on both islands is unpredictable; we often encountered “all four seasons” in one day.  Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places on earth and you’re almost guaranteed to get weather there – but truly everywhere in NZ the weather comes in and out.  Raincoat with a hood is extremely helpful.
    • Covered shoes for the water.  Or at a minimum, covered shoes that can get wet (see above).  I am OBSESSED with these water shoes that look like cute espadrilles.
    • Quick dry pants, aka something other than jeans, for at least one pair of your pants.
    • Really warm layer packable later to keep in a daypack (like a packable down or fleece) for when it gets cold especially if you’re doing outdoor activities (activities on the water can get extremely windy and cold)
    • Bring a small backpack that you can bring with you on day trips
    • Water bottle – I have this adorable fold-up water bottle for traveling, extremely lightweight and space-conscious.  Best water bottle for traveling.
    • No need for high heels or fancy shoes.  Even the nicest restaurants in NZ were rather casual.  Bring shoes that are comfortable and that you can do a lot of walking/driving in.
    • Sunglasses that you don’t mind getting wet (for boats, kayaking, etc.) – not your most expensive pair.
    • Waterproof phone cases (so you can bring your phone/take photos during water activities such as kayaking/on boats without worry of it getting sprayed or wet)
    • Do not bring!!  Selfie sticks and drones are banned lots of places

No matter what you choose to do for your own New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, we are sure you’re going to love NZ’s larger-than-life landscapes and the adventures that await. Questions about creating a New Zealand road trip itinerary for yourself? Just ask below!

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Best Indonesia Itinerary: Bali & the Gili Islands

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It isn’t often that the stars align for a last-minute bucket-list adventure. In October, we hit jackpot with the winning combination of last-minute time-off + award-points availability. And just like that, we put together an itinerary and were off on a last-minute ten-day trip to Indonesia (Bali & the Gili Islands).

For many, the name “Bali” conjures the images of a tropical paradise made famous 20+ years ago. However, we had been amply forewarned that undiscovered waters are far in the past. Only a three-hour flight from Australia, Bali’s southern beach areas are now over-developed and over-crowded with tourists that never leave the resort towns to explore or experience the rest of the island. It’s akin to an Australian Miami. There are plenty of snobs who have claimed that “Bali is spoilt.” Equipped with that warning, we planned an itinerary to find the oasis beneath the tourist façade. And Bali did not disappoint.

Knowing we’d be fresh off of 27+ hours of flights/layovers, we made a game plan for the itinerary; unwind with a few days of relaxation, get active with a few days of exploration, and finish with a few more days of relaxing before journeying back to the NYC hustle.

Nusa Dua

First stop on the itinerary: unwind and relax after too many hours of flying to Indonesia. Luckily, there is no shortage of beaches within 20-30 minutes of the Denpasar International airport. However, we knew the warnings about the beaches in Bali. The beaches in Bali are technically public beaches; most are, therefore, over-packed with throngs of holiday goers and an increasing amount of garbage. So we did our research and realized we had two options: find a great resort with a secluded beachfront or go to one of Bali’s off-the-beaten path options. We ended up doing both, starting with the first option so as not to add additional driving hours after a long-international haul.

Where to stay

We can’t say enough good things about the St. Regis Bali Resort in Nusa Dua. It was the most luxurious stay either of us has had, and an indulgently relaxing place to kick off our trip. When we landed at the International Airport, the St. Regis had arranged for the airport staff to pick us up at our gate and whisk us through both immigration and customs, so that we didn’t have to wait in the hours-long arrival lines for foreigners. That alone is worth it.

The resort is beautiful – with a large open lobby that shows off the manicured resort property all the way to the ocean. The service is second-to-none. The beachfront immaculate and the staff from the swim-up pool bar also serve beach guests. There are two giant pools that snake through the property – a regular pool with giant billowy cabanas and a swim-up bar adjacent to the beach – and a salt-water pool “river” that snakes through the property. The on-property restaurants were good, the cocktails were excellent, and the staff can arrange for any type of activity – we went parasailing. We spent a very-out-of-character two days not stepping foot off the property and loved every minute of it.

Pool & Daybeds at the St. Regis Nusa Dua
Parasailing in Nusa Dua

Ubud: Bali’s cultural center

After settling into vacation mode in Nusa Dua, the next stop on our itinerary was Ubud. Ubud is Bali’s cultural center; it is also the geographical center, making the jungled city the perfect base for the middle part of our trip.

Our very first impression of Ubud was…not great. We took a cab to the center of town, and we were absolutely taken aback by how touristy the city felt. The narrow, decrepit streets (and even more narrow sidewalks) were crammed with backpackers and trinket shops. Our first-impression was uninspired. However, after a few days, we realized that the city’s notorious beauty was quite literally behind the tourist exterior. Once we stepped off the streets, even into a restaurant, the shop would open to the back revealing serene backdrops of rice paddies. Do yourself a favor, when you see the Starbucks, walk through it – the back opens up to the most gorgeous temple on a pond of lotus flowers – almost completely hidden from the view from the street.

Lotus Temple hidden behind the Starbucks…
What to do in Ubud:
  • Visit the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces – breathtakingly lush and green
  • Go on an extreme swing over the rice terraces – not for the faint of heart!
Totally terrified on this swing!
  • Campuhan Ridge Walk – a ~15-20 minute light hike/walk with lush, sweeping hilltop views, that will take you right into town. Artisan shops and cafes dot the path, so give yourself time to meander and shop. Our favorite was Wayan Rana, whose minitature paintings were a must- and he gives art classes from his studio. We loved this!
  • Try the famous Kopi Luwak, the most expensive cup of coffee in the world (definitely worth a taste) on a coffee plantation. Also known as “cat shit” coffee by my family, kopi luwak is made from coffee cherries eaten by wild civet cats…whose digestive systems remove the acidity. A pound of these beans goes for $100-500!  Want to try it yourself: order some sustainably sourced Kopi Luwak.
  • Go to the gorgeous Yoga Barn property for a yoga, meditation, or other holistic wellness class (or stop at the café for some delicious food & great ambiance). If yoga is a must for your Bali itinerary, this is the place to do it.
  • Shop! Ubud is home to dozens of artisans – painters, wood carvers, batik printmakers, sculptors, jewelers, kite makers, etc. We recommended hiring a driver (there is no shortage of taxis everywhere!) to take you to a few of the crafts villages outside of downtown, where you’ll get to see the craft process (and get better prices).
  • We hiked up Batur, the volcano ~2 hours drive from Ubud. Yes, the sunrise views were beautiful. However, each of us had done enough prior sunrise hikes to note that this would be one we might skip. Be forewarned: to arrive in time for sunrise, you will need to leave Ubud by 2am. Bring serious sneakers or hiking shoes – and LOTS of layers, it gets seriously cold. It’s a real hike, but doable. If you’re short on time in Bali (or have done other sunrise hikes in your travels), you’re not missing much by skipping this one.
Sunrise atop Mr. Batur
  • We also went to a Balinese healer in a nearby village. It was a unique experience on our Bali itinerary. Definitely do your research before you go – this is a good place to start.
Eats!

Ubud has no shortage of great restaurants. A few of our favorites:

  • Balinese Home Cooking is a must. Balinese people live in compounds made up of multiple family homes for various generations of kin and several gardens centered around a family temple. None of this is visible from the street, as these compounds are behind high-walled fences. The family-run Balinese Home Cooking invites you into the family compound, where you’ll get a rare glimpse into modern traditional Balinese life, set in the family’s beautiful gardens. The food is incredible and the prices are unbeatable. The owners are keen on encouraging cultural exchange and will come by and answer questions about how Balinese families live.
  • Waring Babi Guling Ibu Oka 3. Made famous by a raving Anthony Bourdain, this roasted suckling pig joint is an Ubud institution. Just the best. Go early as they run out quickly. Once you’ve visited the original, which is sparse, try out Ibu Oka’s sister’s ambient downtown restaurant, Rai Pastis, which opens up to rice paddies, and gets Ibu Oka’s pig daily as well.
Christian beyond excited for this roast pig
  • Mozaic. Everyone told us about Mozaic, and it did not disappoint. This was fine-dining at it’s best. The restaurant tops Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in Asia and is rumored to be gunning for Indonesia’s first Michelin Star. We ordered from the multi-course pan-Asian menu, made from local ingredients, and sat in the heavenly twinkle-lit garden. We loved the inventive cocktails, the top-notch service, and the food (our favorite meal the whole trip!). And while expensive relative to the rest of our meals in Bali, it was worth every rupiah (and let’s be honest, it wasn’t any more wallet damage than a meal in NYC).
Where to Stay in Ubud

Do yourself a favor and stay just outside the city, avoiding the noise and traffic of downtown. We stayed at Villa Saraswati a mile north of downtown and located along the Campuhan Ridge Walk. Owned by a retired Australian couple, Villa Saraswati was heaven – and they thought of everything. It’s a 5-room, adults-only villa, and has won Trip Advisor’s best hotel every single year. The rooms all have outdoor showers, the pool is beautiful, and the staff is helpful and lovely. They provide rides into town or to the top of the ridge walk and were extremely helpful with restaurant reservations. I’ll admit that we daydreamed about buying and living in the property more than once – it’s that wonderful. Couldn’t recommend it any more highly.

The pool at Villa Saraswati – perfect after a long day of touring in the sun

Up North: Amed

The Gili islands are only accessible from by boat, so we knew our Bali itinerary would need to include a coastal town as the launchpad for this leg of the trip. We spent an evening in Amed, in Northeast Bali, which has world-renowned diving – and is especially famous for a Japanese WWII shipwreck, only a few meters from shore – one of the only wrecks accessible for beginner divers. If you’re going through Amed, we recommend the 25-minute drive to the Lempuyang Temple to see the Gates of Heaven, an awe-inspiring “split gate” style of Hindu Balinese architecture. We stayed and ate at Baliku Dive Resort, which is clean and well-appointed, with terraces that overlook a magnificent sunset over the sea. Be warned: there are dozens of steps to get to any of the rooms – not for the faint of heart.

Gates of Heaven at Lempuyang Temple

The Gili Islands

We settled into the last leg of the Bali itinerary in the picturesque Gili Islands, situated just off the coast of Lombok Island, Indonesia (not technically Bali). There are three islands in total: Gili T (the largest and party island full of young backpackers), Gili Air (quieter with a mix of nice bars and restaurants) and Gili Meno (the smallest and quietest of the three). We choose Gili Air to get a mix of seclusion with options for grabbing a bite or a drink. The speedboat took ~1.5 hours from NE Bali to the Gilis, which are only about 3-5 minute boat one from the other.

Gili Air was off-the-grid paradise. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. No cars – and no motorbikes. To get around the island, your options are a bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The island itself is tiny – it took us about 10 minutes to bike the diameter from one side to the other – and would’ve only been about 45 minutes to go around the entire perimeter.

In Gili Air, we found the white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters that many mistakenly attribute to Bali. And while it took a little additional traveling, it was absolutely worth it.

Gili Air is off-the-grid paradise (and see how close it is to Lombok in the background?)
Where to stay in Gili:

The Mandana Suites and Villas is Gili’s only boutique hotel. Newly constructed, it was a breath-taking accommodation. We took full advantage of our room’s private plunge pool and outdoor shower. The Mandana also had the best breakfast we had the entire trip.

The Mandana was a gem
Where to Eat & Drink:
  • Warung Sunny – the best Indonesian food we had on the Island, and different from the Indonesian food we had in Bali (like the rest of Indonesia, the Gilis are Muslim, and so the food traditions are slightly different). The chef also does cooking classes here!
  • Mowie’s Bar for sunset drinks and live music
  • Pockets & Pints – if you need a break from Indonesian food, this new pita-pocket sandwicherie is a must. They also have dozens of fun games to borrow during your meal.
  • Musa Cookery – Baja-California-style vegan café, perfect for coffee, bowls, and light fare
Sunset drinks in Gili Air
What to do in Gili

The Gili part of our Bali itinerary was designated R&R for us. We mostly took this time to recharge but if you are into SCUBA diving or interested in getting your license, being in Gili is the perfect place and time to do it. We recommend 3WDive; the highly professional instructors were lovely, helpful, and just a lot of fun (I had no interest in doing scuba and ended up LOVING it!). The diving here is spectacular and this is a fairly inexpensive place to get your PADI. While we didn’t get certified we were able to go on a few dives to “discover SCUBA diving.” We spent an afternoon under the sea with a dozen giant turtles. Simply incredible.

Final stop: Seminyak

The final stop of our Bali itinerary. We spent a full day traveling from Gili to Seminyak (speedboat to a bus…a LOT of traffic near the coast), but we wanted to stay near the airport our final night to break-up the traveling. Seminyak, one of the more luxurious resort-towns, is filled with great restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. We had no shortage of recommendations from friends. As our luck would have it, I came down with a virus, and so we did none of the aforementioned. The silver lining is that we were staying at the majestic Oberoi Hotel & Resort. If ever there was a place to spend your final 24 hours doing nothing but unwinding and relaxing before a long international flight, that hotel would be a top contender. Not quite what we had planned, but no complaints from me (And if you’re looking for Seminyak recommendations, send me a note and I can pass them along!).

All in all, our 10-day itinerary had just a little bit of everything from relaxing to exploration- and we got to explore Bali & the Gilis beyond the standard resort-only trip.  While Bali wasn’t entirely what we expected, we fell in love with some of its more-hidden charms, and were so thankful for this last-minute escape.

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Road trip along the Coast of Portgual: One Week in the Algarve + Portuguese Riviera

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An indulgent week of wine, cheese, fresh seafood, and coastline, at clearance sale prices…and only a short flight from the US.  Sound like a dream vacation?  Read on for our itinerary for a road trip through Portugal.

Ponta de Piedad, Lagos

The Inspiration

In 2008, I’d visited Lisbon, Portugal with my brother on our way to southern Spain.  After exploring the lovely, yet unremarkable, capital, we traversed the coast by bus, eventually crossing the border into Spain.  The views were breathtaking.  Watching the sun set from the bus window, I promised myself I’d return to explore the Algarve coastline.

Fast forward 9 years: Boyfriend and I are brainstorming week-long vacation locations.  We were attempting the impossible:

  • not too far for just one week
  • good food/wine/weather
  • beautiful scenery
  • A balance a relaxing and refreshing: so as not to feel as if we were just going down a Fodor’s checklist. 
  • Oh, and our first international vacation together.  Ante upped.

I offered up the idea of a road trip through Portugal. 

  • Quick, inexpensive flights from NYC. Check.
  • Sunny, not-too-hot days in May. Check.
  • Avoid the summer season descent of European tourists.  Check.
  • Seafood, cheese, and wine to our hearts’ content. Check.
  •  Small enough to visit multiple locations without spending alldayeveryday in a car.  Check
  • Oh, and Portugal is seriously inexpensive. The best of Europe, on clearance sale. 

After some quick Facebook crowdsourcing, we had our itinerary.

The Itinerary

Our road trip spanned one week in Portugal, flying into Faro and out of Lisbon; this itinerary could easily be done in reverse, or as a roundtrip in and out of the same airport.   In the Alrgarve, we stayed in Albufeira, Lagos, and Sagres; we finished our trip with two nights in the Portuguese Riviera (Estoril/Cascais). We spent ~ 2 nights in each town.  If we were to do this again, we would spend more nights in our favorite towns and just add in day trips to other places – which is what I’ll recommend below.

PRO TIP: If you know how to drive a manual car, rent that for your road trip.  We paid ~100 Euro for the week (which included the “one-way fee”), instead of 4x that for an automatic car.  If you don’t know how to drive stick shift: learn.  For Portugal and for life. And if you don’t know how to navigate a roundabout…don’t worry you’ll get plenty of practice on this trip.

Cliff Beaches: Albufeira, Portimao, Praia de Rocha, Falesia

We flew into Faro and began our Portugal road trip with a quick drive to Albufeira, ~45 minutes away from the airport. Albufeira served as our base for our first few days to explore the cute fishing village of Portimao, the beach resorts of Praia de Rocha, and the dramatic “Cliff” beaches of Falesia. We would recommend driving the extra hour on day one and base-camping in Lagos.  All of the sights can be visited as quick day trips from there.  Must: eat at Os Arcos in Portimao.  You’ll need a reservation.  And you’ll need to get the seabass and the garlic shrimp.  You can thank us later.

Our recommendation:  Spend the majority of your Portugal road trip in Lagos and Sagres as your base-camps and take day trips from there East/West.

Lagos

 Lagos is a quintessential ancient port city with a small, cobblestoned “old town,” which is great for gift-buying. Lagos’s central location, great restaurants, bars, beaches and abundance of resorts & Airbnb options make it a perfect base-camp for your Portgual road trip.

Where to stay: Cascade Wellness Resort.  Out of the center of town (quick drive), beautiful pools and great food. Or – lots of great Airbnb options for houses with pools!

What to do: DO NOT MISS: sunset at Ponta de Piedade.  Rent bikes from Praia Dona Anna and bike to Ponta de Piedade, which we would’ve done with more time.  Go on a boat and explore the caves (we did this elsewhere).

Where to eat: Get the fish of the day at Dom Sebastiao, which is an old-school restaurant in town. At Cascade: order the tapas (black pork and Serpa cheese with pumpkin jam); we’ve talked about this dish for years.

Sagres

Sagres, sits on the end of the continent.  At the tip of the continent of Europe, surrounded by sawgrass, is the tiny Portuguese surfer village of Sagres.  It feels like the end of the earth in the most delightful way.  A real highlight of Portugal and our road trip.

Where to stay: Memmo Baleeira Hotel, incredible location, short walk into town and right on the water.  Great views.  Value pricing.

What to do: Spend part of the day at Cape St. Vincent, aka end of the continent. Watching the waves crash against the giant cliffs is simply breathtaking. Did I mention we took a tiny boat + a marine biologist for dolphin watching. Dolphins!!!

Where to eat: Eat at Vilha Venha – shrimp in piri piri, drumfish with coriander and garlic. Our friends have raved about Carlos, which is across the street.   Our personal favorite: the local grocery store, which had insanely good wine and cheese; we bought some and climbed the hill next to the hotel – which overlooks the port – to watch sunset there.  According to our hotel’s concierge, the views are just as good as those from the fort (which we skipped).  It did not disappoint.

End of the Continent, views from Cape St. Vincent, Sagres
Dophin cruiser!

The Portuguese Riviera: Estoril, Cascais, and the castles of Sintra

For the final days of our road trip in Portugal, we drove up the coast and explored the Portuguese Riveria resort towns of Estoril and Cascais and the UNESCO world heritage center of Sintra. 

Estoril and Cascais are located about 25 minutes outside Lisbon. Technically, this makes them suburbs of the capital. These coastal towns first gained popularity in the late 19th century as vacation spots for Portuguese royalty; during WWII, they became the residences of European royalty-in-exile.  The towns are beautiful – the architecture charmingly 19th century – and the two are connected by 3km beachfront promenade.

Walking along the promenade that connects Estoril & Cascais

What to eat: try a pastil de nata custard pastry (we had several!).  MUST: Get reservations at Conceito Food Store, one of the best meals we had in Portugal.  It’s a creative, curated tasting menu and experience, based on Portuguese cuisine. Epic meal.  Advanced reservations are a must.

If you have friends who have visited Portugal, chances are you’ve seen photos of Sintra.  Known for its Romantic architecture, photos of places like the multi-colored cake-topper known as Pena Palace have been the constant subject of Instagram photos.  Located in the Sintra Mountains/Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, a winding 20-minute drive from Estoril/Cascais (car sickness is essentially guaranteed), Sintra should be a must on your road trip itinerary.

Touring highlights included the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. Shopping! We found some of our favorite gifts in Sintra.  We shopped and we walked and we ate. Recommendations include Cantinho Gourmet (16 euro for a to-die-for cheese and meat board, see photo!), chocolate shot glasses filled with sour cherry liqueur (found in every chocolate shop in town) and Port tasting in the wine store across from the Nacional Palace.

Pro tip: hire a driver for the day; Sintra is packed with tourists, making it hard to grab a cab outside the main sites

Could not have dreamt up a better itinerary for the first international trip w the boyfriend…which has only served to create a major case of double wanderlust.  More trips and itineraries to follow!

For other European Road Trip Ideas, check out our Balkan Road Trip through Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia), Mostar (Herzegovina), and Montenegro.

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7 Secret Passenger Rights

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We already feel like airlines are screwing us enough. Add long delays, overbooked flights, lost bags, and it turns into hell on runway. But there’s a silver lining, if you know what to ask for. Here are seven ways to get even.

Get refunded for bumping It’s hard not to freak out when you’re bumped off an oversold flight. But remember this: you can get paid back. According to the Department of Transportation, if you get to your destination between one and two hours of your original arrival time on a domestic flight, or between one and four hours on an international trip, the airline owes you 200 percent of the one-way fare (up to $675). If you arrive more than four hours later than planned, you’ll pocket 400 percent of the ticket (up to $1,350). Still can’t believe it? An AirHelp study found that the average payout is $643.

Ask for cash not flight vouchers Don’t let an airline ever give you a voucher for a bumped flight, or any other inconvenience. Vouchers are like Monopoly money. They look good on paper, but they’re not as useful in reality. Your best bet? Ask for cash or a check because credits almost always come with strings attached (i.e. blackout dates). So before you pass go, collect your $200 — in cash.

Opt out of a tarmac delay So you’re stuck on the runway, forced to watch Taken for the fifth time as the hours tick by. (No offense, Liam.) Lucky for you, you can’t be held on a delayed plane for more than three hours on domestic flights or four hours on international routes (if you don’t want to be at least). Airlines are also obligated to update passengers every 30 minutes, and serve food and water after a two-hour wait. Pass the pretzels.

Cancel tickets for free Got a bad case of buyer’s remorse? Don’t worry, most airlines allow you to cancel or change your ticket within 24 hours for a full refund. In fact, on some carriers (like Southwest) you can even change plans until right before boarding at no charge. But there are some exceptions. Take American Airlines: You can hold a ticket up to 24 hours, but once you book, you’re locked in. Also, keep in mind that third-party sites like Kayak and Expedia have their own set of rules, too.

Pay back for itinerary changes When flights are delayed, rescheduled or canceled, many passengers are forced to rearrange transportation. In situations like these, the airline must either cover all the expenses and fees to reroute you or give you a full refund — even if you bought a non-refundable ticket or were rebooked on a different carrier. So, if the only seat left on the next flight out is first-class, it’s yours without costing a cent. More champagne, please.

Snag a hotel voucher This will be the last time you’ll ever have to sleep at the gate, or worse, on the terminal floor. Airlines are required to offer free accommodations if you’re stuck overnight involuntarily. Just don’t expect the Ritz. These hotel vouchers can be claimed at any time, meaning if you decide to stay with friends instead of a Holiday Inn, you are still entitled to the coupon. It’s also worth asking if they’ll cover meals as well.

Cash in for lost luggage If your checked bag is lost, delayed or damaged, don’t settle for the small $50 sum you’re usually offered. Depending on how much your items were worth and how long your bags are MIA, you could be repaid up to $3,500 per passenger in liability for a domestic U.S. trip, and up to $1,675 on international flights. Hello, shopping spree.

 

By Chelsea Bengier reprinted from Smarter Travel

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Costa Rica: Volcano, Cloud Forest, & Beach

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One Week Itinerary for a Taste of Costa Rica

There are few things I like more than a warm escape from the NYC winter.   The usual fix is a weekend in Miami, but this past December, a few of us traveled down to Costa Rica for a real getaway from Christmas to New Year’s.

Not only was it one of the easiest places to travel that I’ve been, but the range and diversity of places to go and things to do — even in such a small country — meant that we were never bored!

We planned our trip with an adventurous start – beginning at the Arenal Volcano and then off to the Monteverde Cloud forest – and a relaxing finish – ending at a surf camp in Tamarindo for a few days at the beach.

Here are my recommendations

Arenal/La Fortuna

We flew into the Liberia airport — and boy are we glad that we hired private transport for the 2.5-3 hour drive to La Fortuna, the town outside the Arenal Volcano.  The roads were horrendous and poorly marked.  Thank you, blogs and friends, for that good advice. We spent 2.5 days in Arenal, which was great – there certainly was more to do – particularly with outdoor activities, but we felt like we got a great overview.

 
Top photo: In front of the volcano…before we began the hike…
  • Hike the Arenal Volcano National Park and go to the Arenal Observatory.  Arenal is one of the ten most active volcanos in the world.  Note to the non-athletic (like me): the Cerro Chato hike is the devil.  Awesome, but the devil.  Caveat hiker.  You only have to pay an entrance fee to the park, there are free tours at 8:30am.
  • Go to the Tabacon Resort geothermal springs – total luxury.  Spend the whole day and get lunch.  If you want to book a massage, do it ahead of time.  Also, get on line EARLY – check-in is very slow.
  • Other things we didn’t do but heard were awesome: La Fortuna waterfall hike, ATVing, hiking around the lake, bungee jumping, horseback riding, and more hiking (sensing a theme here).

Where to eat in Arenal

  • Mediteranneo had very good Italian food (I know!) in La Fortuna, though terribly slow service
  • “Sodas” are small, family run restaurants that are a great place to eat local cuisine and offer amazing value – pricing is usually half of that at other destinations.  Meals ran at $2-5  each!
  • Local food: Casados: you pick a protein (or vegetarian) and get a plate with rice, beans, salads, and plantains.

Where to Stay in Arenal

  • Luxe: We wanted to stay at Tabacon, but alas, we booked too late during peak season
  • Budget: We stayed at Selvita Lodge, a Costa Rican B&B run by an adorable family. Located in La Fortuna

Monteverde

From Arenal, we took a van to the MonteVerde Cloud Forest (we used Anywhere Costa Rica for transportation – far and away the safest drivers we found and nicest vans).  Note: bring layers for Monteverde, it was much cooler (much!) and windier than anywhere else we were in Costa Rica

Cloud Forest Monteverde Costa Rica

What to do (everything in Monteverde centers around nature) – our top highlights:

  • Incredible guided tour of the cloud forest.  Well worth it to have a knowledgeable guide who can point out the different animals hiding and the flora, as well as explain what, exactly, a cloud forest is (I still don’t know).  There’s also an adorable humming bird sanctuary on the premises and a great coffee shop.
  • Ziplining.  Errrrmagad.  The scariest thing I’ve ever done (and I’ve zip lined elsewhere).  We used Sky Trek for walks along the hanging bridges (can skip, particularly if you do the cloud forest walk).  And then we went zip lining.  High Winds. Insane Heights. Not for the faint of heart. Only in Costa Rica.

Tamarindo

Tamarindo was quite the experience. Because we traveled to Costa Rica during Christmas week (and booked last-minute), all of the “normal” hotels were booked.   So we ended up “Glamping” at the Dreamsea Surf Camp, which was a hilarious (and awesome) adventure.  While next time I’ll plan to stay at a hotel on the beach, we definitely had the best food of our trip at the Surf Camp (the chef there is amazing) and had built in surf lessons every day (well, some of us) – and even some yoga.  Pack DEET.

The Tamarindo beaches get very crowded – and it’s a young crowd.  It’s a bit of a party town with a strong bohemian, surf vibe.  If that’s not your thing, check out some of the other beaches in Costa Rica. During the day, the one street that runs along the beach is wall-to-wall with cars.  Despite all this, we were able to post up for free on beach chairs outside La Palapa restaurant every day.

What to do

  • Take a surf lesson – it’s probably why you came to Costa Rica!
  • Those sunsets though

Where to eat

  • Tamarindo Diria for dinner. Al fresco on water with hanging lamps under tree. Great fish dishes.
  • Noguis for pie.  All of the pies.  Seriously though.  Fish tacos are also great.
  • Mandarina for make-your-own smoothies
  • La bodega for fresh, healthy lunches and breakfasts

For other itineraries in Central America, check out my post on Guatemala

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August 19, 2015 · 11:46 pm

6 Google Flights Tricks That Are Better Than Any Travel Agent

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Chances are you’re familiar with Google Flights. The flight search engine does everything you assume it would, like locate flights based on your ideal outbound time, inbound time and number of stops. After all, it’s the same technology that powers both KAYAK and Orbitz.

The site also includes a whole host of features that aren’t so easy to imagine, probably because they’re so unimaginably amazing. In some cases, this online tool can beat out any human travel agent. Don’t believe us? Check out these six tricks below.

1. Don’t know where to go? Search for a general region, and see a map of specific flight prices.

Just Google “flights to Europe” and click the Flights tab below the search box. A map of the entire continent will pop up, along with prices. You’ll be able to compare how much it would cost to fly to London versus Paris — and you can even filter the options by type of airline, duration of flight and price you’re willing to pay.

2. Or go with “I’m feeling lucky” to let Google plan your dream trip.

What “I’m feeling lucky” does for search, it also does for flights. Click on a map within Google Flights, pick your departure spot, and click the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button tolet Google choose a destination based on your search history and what’s popular. You’ll also see a bar graph letting you know when flights will be at their cheapest.

3. Google will tell you which flight is the best bang for your buck.

The “Best flights” box tells you which flights are the best combinations of price and speed, so you won’t have to decide whether a layover is a good idea or if a nonstop is worth the extra buck. Google also highlights its top pick in green. It’s like having your very own travel agent say, “If I were you, I’d do this.”

4. It’ll also show you the lowest price for any given day on the calendar.

You can see prices for your trip on every day of the month, with the cheapest days highlighted in green. A bar graph at the bottom lets you know how prices will likely drop or rise over time.

5. Automatically see swaps that will save you money.

If you search for a flight that has a similar yet less expensive option, the “Tip” bar lets you know how much money you’ll save if you’re willing to fly earlier, later or from a different airport. Then you can weigh the cost and decide!

6. Once you find a potential flight, let Google monitor the price for you.

If you find a flight you like, then hit the “Save This Itinerary” button and let the Google Now app track its pricing. You can hit the app on your phone to see how prices are changing, and Google will email you if they dip dramatically.

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The Fall ’14: 14 Things to do in NYC this Autumn

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It’s my favorite time of year in New York: the moment between summer-weekends away and the Holiday season.

If you blink, you might miss it.

Here are my 14 top things to do and places to go, eat, and drink for Autumn 2014 in NYC.  (A broad @ home)

Am I missing anything? let me know in the comments

Do

1.  New Yorker festival  (October 10-12)  In its 15th year, covering a range of topics, with some of the most notable people.  I’m thinking Lena Dunham or Mindy Kaling — any takers?

2. DONE! Barry’s Bootcamp  – I’d always been too intimidated to try this workout, but thanks to a few fit friends (ahem, AD), I now worship at the altar of the Barry’s Bootcamps.  Layla Luciano’s 12:45 pm Saturday workout is, hands down, the best workout I’ve ever had.

3.  DONE! Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney (until October 19th)   “Jeff Koons is widely regarded as one of the most important, influential, popular, and controversial artists of the postwar era…This exhibition will be the artist’s first major museum presentation in New York”  How I didn’t make it this summer is beyond me

One of the best-curated exhibits I’ve been to in a long time. Do not forget to use the free “ipod-touch”-esque guide given out in the Lobby to hear Koons’ own thoughts on the different exhibits and pieces.  Do not miss!

4.  DONE! The Moth – This open-mic-put-your-name-in-a-hat-and-get-called-up-to-tell-a-story-in-front-of-hundreds-of-strangers-event was one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time.  Cannot wait to go back. – True Stories. Told Live.  H/t to CK for the suggestion.  (October 6 StorySlam, Theme: Hunger)

5.  Celebrate Oktoberfest  Ok, so it’s not quite the same as going to Germany, but in the spirit of A broad at Home, I want to check out some of the newer beer gardens that will be celebrating Bavarian brews & pretzels.  Particularly this one at Zum Schneider (October 3-12). 

6.  DONE! Jay Z @ Global Citizen Festival, (September 27 ): If you want some snark, ask me what I thought of this event.  Luckily, it was a beautiful day spent in Central Park w one of my favorite people.

7.  Upstate Escape: Daytrip to Cold Spring.  Thanks, Sosh, for the inspiration. 

8.  Greenwood Cemetery.  I’m having a total Baader Meinhof moment with the Greenwood Cemetery.  I’d never heard of it and now it seems to be everywhere.  478 acres of p ublic green space from a time before New York had public parks.  Apparently, it is filled with famous residents and has a ton of wild parrots that live over one of the gates. Seems like a good adventure around Halloween while the weather is still nice.  

9. DONE! Matisse Cut-Outs Exhibit at the MoMA.  Totally joyous, beautiful exhibit of Matisse’s ahead-of-his-time “drawing with scissors.”  Didn’t hurt that it was free with my CUID. (Oct 12-Feb 8)

Eat & Drink

10. DONE!  Ivan Ramen  My obsession with ramen only increased after my 2013 trip to Japan and this sraight-from Tokyo LES notable newcomer has a vegetarian-broth base on the menu that will make it one of my first stops this fall 

11.  Barcade  $0.25 arcade games  (Ninja Turtles!) + tator tots + 20+ microbrews… in my neighborhood?  Sign me up.  The Williamsburg bar just opened up an outpost in Chelsea. As long as my brothers aren’t hogging the NES console, pretty much sounds like my happy place.    

12.   DONE!  Dear Irving  this cocktail parlor on Irving Place is the newest creation from the team behind Raines Law Room.  Rumored to be inspired by Midnight in Paris, I’m just having trouble deciding whether to start with The Godfather Part 2 or the Whiskey Business  — 

Possibly the best new date spot in the city — reservations are highly recommended.  Oh, and all of the whiskey-based drinks are awesome.  A particular favorite is their pear-infused take on the Gold Rush.

13. Attaboy  The crisp air makes it easy to trade in rooftop summer nights for cozying up in one of NYC’s many, many speakeasies.  Nope, that’s right, we here in Manhattan are still not over the cocktail + speakeasy craze.  Attaboy is in the original Milk & Honey LES space (brought to us by that very same team!), with the same knock-and-buzz entrance and mixologists-extraoirdinaire.   

14.  Miss Favela – now that I live downtown & venturing to brooklyn is no longer such a schlep, it’s time to visit Miss Favela, the Brazilian comfort food spot in Williamsburg, known for its caipirinhas as much as live Samba music on Saturdays  

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Balkans Road Trip Part V: Montenegro & the Adriatic Coast

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It’s hard not to be enchanted by the coastline of Montenegro.  It is what I imagine Croatia was 15 years ago, on the cusp of becoming a highly touristed destination, but still a hidden gem.  Montenegro is the only country we visited that is on the Euro, making it pricier than Serbia and Bosnia, but still quite inexpensive as compared to its neighbors Croatia and Italy.  The food is the best of all worlds: excellent Mediterranean fish,  pizzas, pastas, and, of course, bureks.

Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)

Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)

Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)

Highlights:

  • The only ‘fjord’ in the Mediterranean, the Bay of Kotor, and all of the little towns along the Bay.
  • Don’t miss: make a dinner reservation at Galion Restaurant in Kotor and sit out on the water for the sunset.
  • The walled old city of Budva (which is like a mini Dubrovnik) and 3 miles down the Coast, the (now) private island resort of Sveti Stefan, famous as the vacation destination of Elizabeth Taylor and Sofia Loren

Sveti Stefan, private island resort

View of the bay of Kotor from Galion restaurant (town of Kotor)

 

Word of warning:  Montenegro’s “undiscovered” nature lends it to be a tough place to drive/navigate.  The roads are unmarked, unnamed, sometimes unpaved, un-railguarded on the sides of cliffs, and one lane for two ways of traffic (particularly in Lovcen National Park).

25 Hairpin turns up a mountain later…

Ari & Pierre in the old town of Kotor

 

 

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