Category: International Travel (Page 1 of 6)

Take a Trip on the TSS Earnslaw: Queenstown, NZ

If I learned anything during my trip to New Zealand last year, it’s that even in what’s supposed to be the beginning of summer, its weather can be pretty unpredictable. Especially in Queenstown, a town in NZ’s South Island, where one day it could be pleasant and sunny and the next, snowing.

We had planned a trip for Milford Sound, a nature cruise in a fjord renowned for its beauty. But as our luck would have it, bad weather had closed the only road in. No tours were running – no buses, no boats or helicopters. We woke up that grey and drizzly morning feeling deflated. All the articles we Googled recommended activities that were inside and we didn’t want to waste our last day. As we lamented over breakfast, our lovely Airbnb host offered us the perfect solution – a trip on the TSS Earnslaw.

The TSS Earnslaw is a nautical marvel – a steamship built in 1912 (the same year as the Titanic) that’s still running today. You do have a book a tour to get on the boat, but it’s worth it, and I would 100% recommend the Walter Peak Farm Tour package (roughly $66 U.S.).

It’s general seating inside the ship, and most of the boat is free to explore. It was EXTREMELY chilly on the day we boarded, especially when the ship got moving across Lake Wakatipu, but being outside the main cozy seating cabin meant spectacular views and some seriously fresh air. (My advice: If it’s cold, layer up and bring gloves and a hat!) Plus, if those teeth start chattering, you can pop into the toasty steam room (think coal, not sauna) where you can actual see the ship’s staff shoveling coal to keep the boat running.

Refreshments also are available inside the cabin, but if you chose the farm tour, save your appetite for the delicious tea and snacks that await you when you dock. Though I love tea, the highlight of the visit for me was getting to MEET and FEED the farm animals. Never before have I seen such an adorable combination of ducks, sheep, cows and more. You also get to see a truly impressive sheep herding demonstration by the herding dogs who work right there at the farm.

On the way back across the lake, enjoy the ride while a charming gentleman plays familiar piano tunes and other ship-goers sing along.

New Zealand is definitely one of my all-time favorite travel destinations and I can’t wait to go back. If it’s not on your list yet, it should be!

xo,
Katie

Four of the Best Spots in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is an idyllic country of windmills, tulips, and a collage of unique culture, art, and nature. There is something for every kind of traveler in there, and we’ve covered our own adventures and itineraries there in our Guide to the Netherlands. But the best thing about traveling is that there are always things that you can’t see in the time you have, so there’s always more to explore next time. In honor of that, some awesome travel bloggers have come together to bring you more information about some of the best spots in the Netherlands.

De Biesbosch

where to go in the Netherlands

(c) Daniela (Ipanema Travels)

De Biesbosch is one of the 20 national parks in the Netherlands and perhaps the biggest freshwater tidal wetland area in Europe. It’s a serene place, where you can detox from the busy city life. Lakes, creeks, marshes and islands form this unique nature reserve. Dutch are really good with water management, so they’ve gradually kind of “tamed” the area and gave a hand to nature by creating this amazing wetland area. De Biesbosch is a real paradise for the birds and the only place in the Netherlands where you can find beavers.

The best way to explore the area is by boat. The smaller the boat, the better, as you will be able to enter the tiniest of the creeks. If you are in De Biesbosch for the first time, then you should visit the Biesbosch Museum. You can learn a lot about the area and the history of De Biesbosch. There are also walking and biking routes in the national park.

I love visiting De Biesbosch as I enjoy the tranquillity of this green oasis. Whether you are spending there a long weekend or go for a short walk, you’ll feel recharged and re-energized.

To learn more about De Biesbosch, be sure to read up at Ipanema Travels To…. You can also follow Daniela’s adventures on Instagram!

The Hague

where to go in the Netherlands

From Pixabay

The Hague seems to have it all – culture, architecture and best of all the beach! Located just a 50 minute train ride away from Amsterdam, the Hague can be a great day trip, or is a good location to spend a couple nights away.

The Hague is the political capital of the Netherlands. Smack in the middle of the city you’ll find the Binnenhof, which is the parliament building. This is just a short walk from the Hague Central station, and also conveniently located next to Mauritshuis, a world famous museum that houses Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. You can stroll through the Binnenhof, and likely you’ll catch a glimpse of politicians, and if you’re lucky, maybe even the prime minister! Things are pretty laid back here, so you might see him arriving to his office by bicycle – there’s no secret service! Besides Mauritshuis, the Hague is also home to the MC Escher museum, also located in the city center. Here you can see Escher’s mind bending sketches up close and personal.

Once you’ve strolled around the city center (don’t forget to pass by the King’s working office on Noordeinde street), head over to the beach by catching tram 1. Scheveningen is the largest beach in the Netherlands, and is hugely popular in the summertime. Head down the beach past the pier toward Zwarte Pad, where you’ll find dozens of laid back beach bars pumping laid back house beats where you can kick back in the sun all day long, or even stay into the night for a beach party.

For more tips on what to do in the Hague, check out Gabby’s post on Boarding Call. Gabby is also on Facebook and Instagram!

Keukenhof

where to go in the Netherlands

(c) Bruna Venturinelli

The world’s largest tulip park, and probably the most colorful place in the Netherlands, is definitely my favorite place to visit in the country.

The Keukenhof only opens for a couple of months every year, so I always make sure to plan my visit ahead. This is essential as people from all over the world go there and the park can be very crowded.

One of the things I love about Keukenhof is that the park’s theme changes every year. In 2018, the theme is Romance in flowers. Isn’t it lovely?

Keukenhof is a perfect day trip from Amsterdam and if you want to see it for yourself, reserve a whole day for it because the park is huge! It has around 7 million flower bulbs, just so you can have an idea of how big it is! One more tip: don’t forget to ride a bike along the tulip fields around the park. You won’t regret it!

Discover more from Bruna and MapsNBags on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest!

Maastricht

where to go in the Netherlands

(c) Jenn The Solivagant Soul

My favorite spot in the Netherlands is Maastricht. It is a little town in south of the NL, really close to Belgium. It is very hipster but without reaching that annoying level found in some neighborhoods of bigger cities. Filled with bike shops turned into coffees and boutiques the like of everyone, it is the perfect place to go for a shopping spree any day of the week. The center of the town is just made out cobblestone streets, old bridges and a church here and there. If you want to do something out of the ordinary, you can visit St Peter’s Caves or St Peter’s Fortress, visit the oldest working watermill in the Netherlands or take cruise through the Limburg province. You will love it!

From Jenn at The Solivagant Soul! Also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Five Great Things To Do in Santo Domingo

 

things to do in santo domingo

Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic. It is also the largest city in the Caribbean, and has a population of 3 million people. Santo Domingo is the oldest continuously inhabited European city in the Americas, and was once home to Columbus’ family. It’s a city full of history and mystery, with beauty around every corner. All the being said, tourists hardly visit the capital compared to Punta Cana and Puerto Plata. If you want a taste for some of the places that make the Dominican Republic special, Santo Domingo is not a city to be missed. When I lived there for a summer, these were the five things to do in Santo Domingo that I enjoyed the most (not arranged in any particular order).

Contemplate the Mystery of Columbus at Faro a Colon (Or Columbus Lighthouse)

things to do in santo domingo

The Dominican government began construction on this massive, cross-shaped monolith in 1986. El Faro was completed six years later on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first journey to the Caribbean. The memorial houses a museum with artifacts from all over the region, and what is said to be Columbus’ remains. There is some debate about this, however, as DNA tests have proven that Columbus is housed in the Seville Cathedral of Spain. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic did not allow its own holdings to be tested.

things to do in santo domingo

When I visited, I marveled at the stark building. I have read that its cross shape is in reference to the coming of the Christian religion to the New World. The bulky, grey mass of the monument wasn’t cheerful in aesthetic or in its meaning… at least not to me. The Caribbean (and many other regions of the world) are still recovering from the colonialism that this symbolizes. Even so, I don’t think this is a place to be missed. History, even regretful history, is something that we should never forget. And there is no arguing that Columbus played a major role in shaping the world we live in today, for better or worse. There is no where else like this in the world.

Walk El Malecon

things to do in santo domingo

The Malecon is a stretch of Santo Domingo that runs along the water. If you enjoy the ocean, this is about as close to a beach that you will get in the city. Rocky cliffs are otherwise the norm in this area. There are some shops and food to be had here, as well as some more of the city’s monuments.

things to do in santo domingo

The Malecon is a public space, and its somewhere just as enjoyed by local residents as visitors. With large swaths of grass areas and small places to eat, it was full of families and weekend festivities when I went. It’s one of those unique things to do in Santo Domingo that is the perfect place to mingle with city residents.

Ponder the Past in La Zona Colonial

things to do in santo domingo

La Zona Colonial is a part of Santo Domingo that has a very high concentration of historic buildings, and which is honored on a global scale as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you can visit Christopher Columbus’s son’s home, as well as colonial forts and churches, and museums full of antiquities. Santo Domingo was the first major bastion of European influence in the “New World” and that is still preserved in this beautiful part of the city.

things to do in santo domingo

There is really something very enchanting about La Zona Colonial. It encompasses so much Dominican, Caribbean, and European history in one small area. Colonial buildings, carefully preserved and protected, are nestled between traditional Caribbean architecture. The colorful store and home-fronts are sometimes interrupted by the result of garrish Western architectural fads, and tragic evidence of past conflicts in the region (such as the US occupation of the Dominican Republic).

Enjoy Nature at Los Tres Ojos

things to do in santo domingo

Being that I am both a nature and national park lover, Tres Ojos was by far, my favorite place in the city and I visited it multiple times. Here you climb down into an interconnected system of three lakes which I would describe as cenotes or sinkholes, although I am not sure that that is technically correct. Most are accessible on foot, but one you can pay a little extra to see the final after a short boat ride. It’s worth the fee just for the ride, in my opinion, but the view after is pretty unbelievable as well.

things to do in santo domingo

The Dominican Republic has some of the most beautiful caves that I have ever seen, and I was lucky enough to explore a few of them. Even so, Tres Ojos was probably one of the most captivating of all of them. The expanse of the park, with its twisting trails through the forest and subterranean world was a great place to mingle with other travelers, or find little spots to contemplate the beauty. The sparkling blue water, ringed by capes of green, or made utterly clear by encapsulating stone was unforgettable. If you see nothing else in Santo Domingo, Tres Ojos is the place to go. You would never expect somewhere so beautiful to be in the middle of a thriving city.

Eat and Drink Amazing Things

things to do in santo domingo

The capital is home to some extremely amazing food. So, exploring its restaurants is one of the best things to do in Santo Domingo. In La Zona Colonial, you can get anything from traditional Dominican dishes to global flavors. Artful chefs who put their own unique spin on all sorts of culinary delights also call this part of the city home. I’ve never heard of the Dominican Republic being known for its assortment of perfect restaurants, but it should be. Santo Domingo might just be one of the best places in the Caribbean for foodies (up for debate!).

things to do in santo domingo

Some Notes on Safety

things to do in santo domingo

Santo Domingo isn’t without its dangers, and I think (like any big city) travelers would be well advised to be wary and careful. Theft and violent assault can be common in some areas, and travelers are always a target for scammers no matter where you go. That being said, I never had a bad experience here. Not even when a bus dropped me and my friends off in a bad neighborhood, and not when a friend of mine got dropped off at the wrong building by a taxi when she came to visit. The worst I got was a taxi driver who thought he could charge me more than standard fare. Even so, here are some tips to keep in mind (which could honestly be applied to any city, but nonetheless).

Hide Your Valuables (Especially Your iPhone)

iPhones were in demand among thieves when I was living in Santo Domingo due to the extremely high price of these phones on the island. However, flashing any valuables is something I would suggest avoiding. It just gets the wrong sort of people interested in you.

Avoid Problem Areas

There are some parts of the city that even local people prefer to avoid. Stay in touristy and highly developed, vibrant areas, and you should be safe. These things change over time, so be sure to do a bit of research before you start your trip. Worst come to worst, hotel staff should be able to help you figure out where to stay away from. And trust your instincts, if something feels off, just turn around, flag down a cab, or call an Uber.

Expect to Get Attention

The Dominican Republic is a musical, romantic place. People are not afraid to let you know if they find you attractive. Sometimes the attention is more than just a fascination with foreign visitors, however. The Dominican Republic has a notably large sex tourism industry. Again, not something I had an issue with.  These sex workers did harass a friend of mine, though, so it happens.

The Roads Are Crazy

The Dominican Republic is known for being one of the most deadly places in the world to drive. Be aware that driving there is nothing like the US or Europe. The infrastructure is present (traffic lights, stop signs, and nice roads), but people don’t follow rules that they find inconvenient. This is especially bad at night. Even if you are on foot, don’t expect cars to stop for you. Don’t trust that everyone will stop at lights or signs.

If you want to find out about more off-the-beaten path destinations in the Dominican Republic, be sure to look through our guide to the country!

Learn About Seven Namibian Cultures

Namibian culture includes many traditions, ways of life, art, and more. To talk about all of them in detail would take a few books at best, and I can’t hope to cover all of that information here. However, I want to give you a taste for some of the interesting facts about the people of the beautiful nation of Namibia. They are organized alphabetically below, and cover only some of the larger groups. I tried to vary the kinds of information, and provide further resources for you to learn more.

The Damara

(1) Unlike many groups in Namibia, the Damara did not traditionally have a chiefdom, but rather chose wise people for consultations in decision-making processes.

(2) Traditionally, the Damara people bury their dead far from their villages, because spirits are thought to have the power to take a loved (or hated) person with them into the next world if they can find their way back to the village.

(3) The traditional Damara religion believes that the next life is similar to this, but with more success in hunting and gathering.

You can learn more from the Damara Living Museum tourism project by the Damara people.

The Herero

Namibian cultures

A beautiful Herero woman (c) Pixabay.

(1) The Herero can trace their roots back to Angola in semi-recent history. It is believed that severe drought forced their ancestors to move into Namibia.

(2) The Herero people are well known for the Victorian style dresses that the women wear, along with their characteristic headdress. Although this style comes from German missionaries in the 19th Century, it is now a unique part of Herero tradition.

(3) Christianity is common among the Herero people, and they developed their own Christian church in 1955.

You can learn more about Herero dress on this article accompanying a photographic installation.

The Himba

Namibian culture

A Himba woman (c) Pixabay

(1) The Herero and Himba people were once one group, and they only split shortly after their ancestors entered Namibia. The Himba have maintained more of their shared, traditional belief systems.

(2) The Himba people are well known among Namibian cultures for their unique dress. They wear ochre colored butter that people use to stain and protect their skin. Hair styles and jewelry have particular meanings.

(3) Ritual fires are traditional to both the Herero and Himba, and most Himba villages still maintain them. Ritual fires have complex meanings, but are a connection to the spirit world and must be carefully maintained.

You can support and learn more about the Himba people from the Otjikandero Village.

The Kavango

(1) The Kavango people have five different and distinct tribes that are believed to have moved onto the land they live on currently between 1750 and 1800.

(2) Matrilineal descent is used among these tribes, and people of the same generation often refer to eachother and brothers and sisters.

(3) Subsistence farming is a common way of life among the Kavango people, and it is traditional to only grow enough food for a year. Trust is held in Nyambi (the creator) to provide for the people year to year.

The Kavango people run a cultural center called the Mbunza Living Museum.

The Nama

(1) The Nama are the descendants of Herero prisoners of war that developed their own language and culture.

(2) Traditionally, the women of the Nama people had power among the people, and the household was considered to be owned by them. In that way, they developed a partnership with their husbands.

(3) Like many people that were introduced to Christianity, the Nama people practiced a mix of traditional religion and Christianity.

You can learn more about the Nama cultural group, Suide Maak Vrede.

The Owambo

(1) There are eight different Owambo tribes and each has its own dialect.

(2) Traditionally the Owambo traced their families through their mothers. More recently, this has slowly changed, with more assets being passed from a father to his children.

(3) The traditional religion of the Owambo people has a supreme god called Kalunga, although this entity is not actively involved in people’s lives. Ancestral spirits are believed to play a great role in the world of the living, however.

You can learn more about Owamboland!

The San

Namibian culture

San people (c) Pixabay

(1) The San are the first people of southern Africa, and the lands encompassed by Namibia. They are also most likely the longest continuous line of humans on the planet, and their ancestors appear to have given rise to the rest of the humans on the planet.

(2) The San people have maintained a hunter gatherer lifestyle for thousands and thousands of years.

(3) Although they were the first to live in this part of Africa, the San have been discriminated against by other African groups and Europeans that migrated into their traditional lands.

If you’d like support the San people, check out Naankuse.

Namibian culture

The Perfect 5 Day Netherlands Itinerary for Nature Lovers

For anyone used to roadtripping in the US, the Netherlands will make for a very relaxing place to explore. Getting from one end of the country to the other on their very nice highways won’t take long at all, and this country has so much to offer the nature-lover. If you’re wondering what the perfect Netherlands itinerary is for us outdoor folks, this is where it’s at. Tulips, beaches, farmland, Van Gogh, deserts and mountains, this is the dream Netherlands roadtrip.

DAY ONE: TULIPS AND THE SEA

I loved spending time in Lisse; it is the perfect small-town Netherlands experience, If you are looking for a refreshing break from crowds, staying here outside of tulip season is extremely nice. On the other hand, if you are in the Netherlands for tulip season, Lisse is the perfect place to be. It is situated right in the middle agricultural fields, some of which are devoted to the Netherlands’ favorite flowers.

netherlands itinerary

Downtown Lisse (c) ABR 2017

After spending the day relaxing among downtown Lisse’s restaurants and shops, or marveling at a colorful sea of flowers, the beach is just a short drive away in Noordwijk. We took a nice stroll through the sand, and when we got tired, we retreated to one of the beach-side restaurants for mussels and wine.

netherlands itinerary

Noordwijk beach-ish area (c) ABR 2017

Small town Lisse and the beach are a great way to spend your first day in the Netherlands, whether or not there are tulips. Having a restful day before a roadtrip really kicks off is always a good thing, especially if you just stepped off a 10+ hr plane ride.

DAY TWO: SOUTHERN NETHERLANDS

On the way down from Lisse to the southern tip of the Netherlands, stop by the Dunes of Loon National Park. I have already talked about this beautiful little arid spot in my post about the Netherlands national parks, but this is a wonderful place to stroll through a bright forest of tall trees, which gives way to a sudden island of sand dunes. It is a quiet little spot that locals and visitors enjoy alike.

netherlands itinerary

Dune of Loon National Park! (c) ABR 2017

The Netherlands isn’t known for its mountains… mostly, because it doesn’t have any. Vaalserberg, the highpoint of the country, is a bit of a surprise then, because while it is more of a hill than a true mountain, it can actually make for a nice uphill climb (or drive if you prefer). There are plenty of trails crisscrossing the Netherlands side of this mountain. They are easily accessible from the road that weaves its way up to the top. Vaalserberg is also where the Netherlands meets both Germany and Belgium. So, even if you aren’t a big fan of hiking or highpoints, this is a neat place to get a glimpse of three different countries at once and frolic in some very verdant forests.

netherlands itinerary

(c) ABR 2017

Finally, finish your day off in Eindhoven. The village has a very nice downtown area with tons of restaurant choices to enjoy. Once the sun goes down, go check out the little Van Gogh trail nearby. This beautiful section of a longer bike trail passes through some beautiful fields. It has grown famous for its glowing Starry Night depiction. Eindhoven a great place to end a busy day and watch the stars, both real and artistic.

netherlands itinerary

Van Gogh trail (c) ABR 2017

DAY THREE: AMSTERDAM (OR ROTTERDAM)

Even for us nature lovers, I would be remiss to have a Netherlands itinerary that left out the major cities. Amsterdam is the capital of the country and is (in my opinion) erroneously known for pot smoking and prostitution. I didn’t see any more of either than I would anywhere else, because I stayed out of the red light district. It is totally up to you if you want to confront this stuff.

netherlands itinerary

Amsterdam (c) ABR 2017

The capital is a beautiful city with tons of canals, great food, and lots of different things to do. There are a ton of museums to enjoy, as well as the tulip market and the Ann Frank House (get reservations ahead of time if you want to do this one).

If you aren’t one for crowds, we had Rotterdam suggested to us as an alternative. So you might consider spending the day there if you want to experience the Netherlands urban landscape without the bustle of Amsterdam.

DAY FOUR: THE VILLAGE OF GEITHOORN

I’ve heard of Geithoorn being referred to as the Venice of the Netherlands, and the little town with no roads. There are a few caveats that I’d like to add to this, because I think it is good to go with the right expectations. The idea of a little Venice is a good fit, for one section of the town, and there are definitely roads. You will need one to get there. Pedestrians might even have to dodge a few cars while you walk around. You should also know that this village has become very popular with big, organized tour groups. I would suggest getting there early to avoid some of the crowds.

netherlands itinerary

Giethoorn (c) ABR 2017

Even though I absolutely loved the town (it looks like it belongs in a fairy tale!), the best part about visiting Giethoorn was taking a boat through the nearby wetlands. It was nice to get some isolation and I think being on the water is so relaxing under those conditions. Taking a boat out on the water and through Giethoorn would be a great outing for anyone. When you are done boating around there are some very original shops in the town and delicious food as well.

DAY FIVE: BIKES AND ART IN DE HOGE

I have covered my love for and experience with De Hoge in detail in my National Parks of the Netherlands post. I think anyone who loves nature should make this park a priority. This is the perfect place to go bike riding. There are two amazing museums here as well. It is a full day of activities at De Hoge and a great place to end your Netherlands roadtrip.

netherlands itinerary

netherlands itinerary

Four Tips for Auckland Day Trips

So dear reader, you’re telling me that you’re having a grand old time in Auckland, New Zealand, but you’d like to venture outside of the city a little bit.

Do you have time to drive to NZ’s south island? It could be an 8-12 hour trip depending on where you go. No?

Well, luckily for you, I have some wonderful day-tripping options for you to choose from. Keep on reading, you intrepid traveler.

Things I recommend for day-trip travel:

  • A vehicle, preferably a car (if you’re looking for a place to rent a car, I recommend GO rentals)
  • A good sense of direction OR access to GPS navigation
  • PocWifi – so you can use wi-fi at any time, at a relatively affordable price
  • Cash, just in case
  • Snacks??? I mean, it’s up to you, I just very snacky when I roadtrip.

I’ve given you some one-way travel times from Auckland to all of the listed destinations below, but take these with a grain of salt. Traffic, road work, your own driving speed, etc. will all flex these times.

Hobbiton

Travel time from Auckland: About 2 hours

If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan or even if you aren’t, Hobbiton is beautiful venture in the countryside to the movie set where scenes from the Shire were filmed for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

During the tour, you’re able to walk through the actual set and take photos, while a guide tells you all sorts of movie trivia (a delight for any nerdy heart). If you’re lucky, the weather will be sunny and light up the green hills of the Shire, making you feel like you might ACTUALLY be a little hobbit. (Shoot for summer or maybe late spring.)

I recommend that you book your ticket online in advance, because the time slots can sell out and you can only visit the set if you’re on a tour. Also, since you book a time and they ask you to check in 15 minutes before your tour, you should give yourself enough time to get there. Even if you arrive early, they have a gift shop and a cafe where you can kill time.

Rotorua

Travel time from Auckland: About 3 hours

Rotorua is an excellent place to visit for nature and culture fans.

Whakarewarewa Forest

The Whakarewarewa Forest is only about 5 minutes from downtown Rotorua and is a great place to stroll, hike, bike and even ride on horseback. For travelers from the U.S., the huge trees that the forest is famous for might look a little familiar, and that’s because they’re actually California Redwoods!

Geothermal Activity

Rotorua is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone resulting in a ton of geothermal activity! We visited Hells Gate – both a geothermal park and spa. When you visit and find yourself encompassed by the warm steam and surrounded by volcanic rock, you’ll understand how it got its name. I recommend choosing the tour and spa package, so you can take a self-guided tour through the sulphur and mud pools that make the naturally-heated spa pools possible.

Lake Taupo

Speaking of Taupo, if you have a little more time in Rotorua, Lake Taupo is just about an hour’s drive away. It also has a lot to offer! Apart from a HUGE natural lake that you can take boat and kayak tours on, there’s also Huka Falls, known for its beautiful icy blue water. Huka Falls has a few different hike trails of its own – including the Spa Walk, which actually leads you to a natural hot spring.

Maori Villages

If you’re interested in learning more about Maori culture, there are a couple different Maori villages that you can visit in Rotorua. If you’re not sure which one you’d like to visit, ask the locals. Some of them are actual living Maori villages and others are a bit more… tourist-y. We had planned to visit the living village, but after freezing our buns off on a brisk Lake Taupo boat tour, we opted to warm ourselves up at a local pub.

Waitomo

Travel time from Auckland: About 2-and-a-half hours

One of the big attractions in Waitomo is their cave system. You can visit Ruakuri, Aranui or their Glowworm Caves – all of them offering a different experience. Feeling particularly adventurous? Try black water rafting or tubing through the caves (we were a little too chicken to try this – plus, it was already pretty chilly OUT of the water)!

However, if you’re finding yourself short on time like we were, I would make the Glowworm Caves your Waitomo stop. When you’re in the sitting in the darkness of the cave, only illuminated by the soft blue lights of the thousands of glowworms – you forget you’re in a cave. It’s almost like looking up at a bunch of little stars. It’s truly beautiful, and honestly, my words do do it justice. You can’t take photos in the cave because the glowworms are very sensitive to lights and sound, so it’s really something you have to see for yourself.

Tauranga

Travel time from Auckland: About 2-and-a-half hours

Tauranga is for lovers – beach lovers, that is. The Mt. Maunganui Main Beach has been voted New Zealand’s best, and I can totally see why. The long stretch of beach is a great place to stroll, relax on the soft sand and swim.

If you want to get a hike in, the beach is also conveniently located at the base of Mt. Mauao. If I recall, there were a couple main hiker trails – one that loops a bit more gently up the mountain and one that’s a shorter, but steeper climb up to the summit. We took the steeper climb, which was QUITE the haul, but we were rewarded with gorgeous views along the way and at the top.

If you can believe it, I cut this day trip round-up short for you, dear reader. There’s just SO much to do and see in New Zealand. That’s why I’m definitely going back in the near future and why I’m creating these helpful guides for travelers. If you’re looking for a place to start in Auckland, check out my budget traveler’s guide.

Happy travels to you!

xoxo,
Katie

Bloggers’ Favorite Spots in Japan

If you are thinking about traveling to Japan, you probably know about some of the most famous places in the country, like Tokyo and Kyoto. (Or perhaps you want to know more about Japan’s famous cherry blossom season? See the Blessing Bucket’s Everything You Need to Know bout Cherry Blossom Season.) You might still be wondering about the specifics of what to do in Japan or just looking for more travel inspiration. Either way, we’ve gathered a list of six travel bloggers’ favorite spots in Japan. From urban delights, to spectacular cultural locations and beautiful nature, these highlights are sure to inspire you and enhance any itinerary that you might be planning for this exceptional country. If you’d like more tips for traveling to Japan, be sure to check out our guide!

Fushimi Inari Shrine

what to do in japan

(c) G. Isabelle

by G. Isabelle of Dominican Abroad

For two weeks, I traveled throughout Japan from Nikko to Osaka. I enjoyed and came across gorgeous architecture, traditional Japanese rituals, delicious food, cozy streets, lush mountains, and bucolic countryside views. But what captivated me the most was my experience at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. One quiet night, on my e-bike, I peddled through zigzag streets of Kyoto until finally reaching this shrine. I was immediately awestruck by its quaint ambiance and beauty at first sight. I was one of only three people there. Unlike most other shrines, Fushimi Inari is open 24 hours, which many travelers are unaware of. It was the first shrine I was able to fully take in and enjoy peacefully and without the pressure of crowds and camera flashes. The deep orange-red hues of the torii gates temple contrasted beautifully against the night’s darkness. It was one of my most memorable experiences of Japanese spirituality, beauty, and culture and I strongly recommend it.

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Kamikochi National Park

what to do in Japan

(c) Sarah Carter

by Sarah Carter of ASocialNomad

Kamikochi National Park is a free to access National Park in the Japanese Alps.  It is quite simply a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains.  The day hiking here is easy, with short walks and a combination circular trail that crisscrosses the river running through the park.  There are stunning views throughout the park and trails are a combination of boardwalks, paving and reinforced track.  Kamikochi NP has toilet facilities, café’s, a souvenir shop and a very helpful information centre.  You won’t find any trash facilities in the park, so pack it in and pack it out!

The park is most easily accessed from Matsumoto via a combo train and bus ticket, which you can buy from Matsumoto train station.   A combined return transport ticket will cost around USD$38, the views are spectacular on the bus.

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Little Edo

What to do in Japan

(c) Noel Cabacungan

by Noel Cabacungan of Ten Thousand Strangers

Little Edo is a small district of Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture.  It is one of the many areas in Japan that has preserved most of its architecture which dates back from the old Edo Period (1603-1868). Kawagoe is just a 30-minute train ride from Central Tokyo and if you happen to be in the capital, a short day trip to this district should definitely be on your itinerary.

Some of the must-see attractions in Little Edo includes the old clay-walled warehouses popularly known as the Kurazukuri no Machinami (Warehouse District), the centuries-old Toki no Kane (Bell of Time Tower) which still functions to tell the time at several intervals throughout the day, the numerous temples around, and  the popular candy street where you can buy traditional Japanese candies and snacks.

If you’re really in for the experience, wear your traditional Japanese costumes and ride one of the jinrikishas (pulled rickshaws) which will tour you around Little Edo for only ¥6,000 for an hour.

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Osaka

(c) Patrick Muntzinger

by Patrick Muntzinger of German Backpacker

Competing with famous tourist destinations such as Tokyo and neighboring Kyoto, Osaka is often overlooked by travelers. However, I had a wonderful time exploring this city and there’s much to do and to see. Make sure to visit the famous castle, which offers you some culture, history and a great view on the city. Plan a stop at the world-famous Aquarium if you’re interested in marine wildlife. Make sure to visit the popular and hip neighborhood of Dotonbori – the touristic center of the city. This place is especially great in the evening, with millions of lights, LED screens and people – the Time Square of Japan! For the best view on the skyline, get on top of the Umeda Sky Building. This place with its unique architecture and its breathtaking panorama is another highlight of Osaka. Enjoy your visit!

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Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

(c) the Travel Sisters

by Matilda of the Travel Sisters

One of my favorite places in Japan is the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. Shinjuku Gyoen actually consists of three different types of gardens: Japanese traditional, French formal and English landscape garden. Tokyo can be hectic so this large and peaceful park is a great place to spend a few hours exploring the garden or enjoying a picnic. Home to a large number of cherry trees, it is also one of the most popular spots in Tokyo for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) during in the spring. Even during the busy cherry blossom season, the park is not as crowded as most places in Tokyo making it a relaxing oasis in the middle of the city.

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Takayama

Autumn scenery, Hida-Furukawa (c) Ingrid Truemper

 By Ingrid Truemper of Second-Half Travels

Nestled in the heart of the Japanese Alps, Takayama preserves Japan’s traditional culture in its photogenic historic architecture, legendary handicrafts, and intricately decorated temples and shrines. Wander the narrow streets of Takayama’s picturesque merchants’ quarter, lined with wooden houses dating from the Edo Period. Don’t miss the colorful morning markets, which sell local snacks and crafts in addition to fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The Takayama Festival, held in spring and autumn, is ranked one of Japan’s best. If you can’t make the festival, be sure to check out the gorgeous floats at the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall.

Takayama also makes a great base for exploring the Japanese Alps. The Unesco World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go, famous for its unique thatched-roof houses, is a popular day trip from Takayama. Better yet, spend the night at a traditional inn to experience the tranquility after the crowds of day-trippers depart. Hida-Furukawa is a charming village 20 minutes by train from Takayama. It’s strikingly similar in layout and architecture to Takayama, but much less touristy. Stroll the peaceful streets of its lovely canal district, where beautifully preserved white-walled storehouses overlook waterways teeming with colorful carp.

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Japan Travel

japan travel

View of Auckland from One Tree Hill

Budget Traveler’s Guide to Auckland

View of Auckland from One Tree Hill

Auckland has a lot to offer – and many of its great attractions cost little to no money to see. This humble guide will help you explore the city without breaking the bank.

First things first, though. If you weren’t thinking about renting a car in New Zealand, I urge you to reconsider. There are so many places to explore and driving will give you the most freedom. If you haven’t driven on the left side of the road before from the right side of a car, I promise you, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. Just drive carefully (and more slowly, if you must) and follow ALL road signs/rules. Roundabouts and one-way bridges are kind of a doozy, but you’ll figure it out – you’re smart people.

If you’re looking for an affordable and reliable rental place, I can’t recommend GO rentals at the Auckland Airport enough (I swear, I’m not a plant, I just had a really good experience). They’re conveniently located just about five minutes from the international departure terminal, they have long hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to accommodate almost any pick-up or drop-off time and they have a shuttle to get you to and from the airport terminals. Plus, they’re just NICE. And if you’re driving in an unfamiliar country, you don’t want a crap car. Don’t forget to ask them about their GO Play discount card- it comes with a map of attractions around NZ that you can get discounted prices on.

Once you’ve gotten all settled, here are my recommendations of places to go:

Cornwall Park/One Tree Hill Domain

In the heart of Auckland, Cornwall Park has it all – you can drive through it, jog or walk. You can marvel at all the precious sheep just wandering around without a care in the world (don’t try and approach them though, they are not a fan).

Basically, the most adorable sheep.

Basically, the most adorable sheep.

And if you make it to the top of One Tree Hill, you can see some great city views, as well as the obelisk put in place to honor the Maori people

This One Tree Hill is NOT the American TV drama series – so if you were hoping to see Chad Michael Murray, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But not really, because this One Tree Hill and surrounding Cornwall park is SO much cooler (sorry, Chad).

Mission Bay

If you’re a beach person (like I am), then you’ll definitely want to take a trip to Mission Bay. Like most beaches, it will get crowded as the day goes on and the temperature rises, so if you want peace and quiet, I would go in the morning.

Here you can stroll along and enjoy the beach views, go for a swim and have a fish-and-chips picnic on the sand or the park grass. Once you’re done having fun in the sun (maybe, depending on the time of year – we went at the end of spring/vert beginning of summer, so weather was cloudier and cooler), you can head into the City Centre. It’s only about a 15-minute drive, depending on traffic.

Central Business District/City Centre

I like checking out the downtown areas of each city I visit, so for me, visiting the City Centre was worth that alone. But it’s also a good place to go for food and shopping – both luxury, local and tourist gift shops are all located here. It’s also close to the University of Auckland if you’re curious about that, and it’s an easy way to hop on a boat tour or ferry and get to Viaduct Harbour.

Viaduct Harbour

The harbour is right smack dab in the middle of the City Centre. With a bunch of bars/restaurants to choose from right on the waterfront, it’s an excellent place to wind down your day. Ferries seem to come in and out of here, if you’re interested in a ferry trip. Plus, there’s a park down way for kids and apparently a summer movie series shown here, as well. It’s also home to the New Zealand Maritime Museum – free entry for Auckland residents and about $10-$20 for visitors.

Botanical Gardens

Let it be known that I love gardens – so naturally, we ended up going to THREE botanical gardens here in Auckland.

The Auckland Botanic Gardens is just under 15 minutes away from the Auckland Airport and admission is completely free. The crazy thing is not only how beautiful the gardens are, but they span over 150 acres of land. If you go, prepare to get a little lost inside – which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Eden Garden is a much smaller, but equally gorgeous botanical garden located on the side of Mt. Eden and just a stone’s throw away from the City Centre (about a 7-minute drive). For only $6-$10 (children 12 and under get free admission), you can wander around these stunning blooms to your heart’s content. You may see some goofy-looking chickens also mucking about. And if you’re feeling ambitious, one of the trails in the garden leads you further up the mountain to a great city view.

If I had to pick a favorite, I think it would be the Domain Wintergardens. I had never seen or been in Victorian-style greenhouse gardens before, and honestly, I couldn’t get enough. The flowers inside are ridiculously pretty and enhanced by the pool/fountains set in the middle of the two greenhouses, surrounded by statues. It almost made me want to pop on a corset and bustle and sit down for high tea – ALMOST. Wintergardens also is free to see, just outside of the City Centre and across from the  Auckland War Memorial Museum.

So really, this barely scratches the surface of things to see in Auckland, but it’s a quick round-up of some of my favorites! And I know traveling isn’t cheap, so I hope this guide helps you jump-start your planning and save some dough, so you can treat yo’self in other ways. New Zealand is worth it!

With Much Aroha (Love),
Katie

Nightborn’s Essential International Travel Checklist

My latest trip to New Zealand really challenged me to use all my travel-planning skills and know-how that I’ve acquired through my own (sometimes haphazard) experiences and advice from more-seasoned travelers. I thought I’d do you a favor, dear readers, and compile a checklist for you here to help tick off the boxes when you’re planning your next great adventure.

1) Save yourself a lot of trouble and look up any specific travel requirements for the country(ies) that you’ll be visiting.

  • Agriculture/Souvenirs- Many countries are very strict about what you can bring in and what you can bring back.
  • Visas – Do you need to apply for a visa to travel here? No joke – some countries require a visa just to pass customs and enter the country to collect your baggage for a connecting flight.
  • International Driver’s License – Pretty self-explanatory. Check if you’ll need one to drive in your destination.
  • Passport – DON’T FORGET IT. Also, make sure you’ve given yourself enough time, in case it needs to be renewed.

2) Put some thought into where you’re going to stay.

This is really at the traveler’s discretion and depends on what you have planned for your trip.

  • Affordability – Hostels are often the cheapest, and are a good choice if you don’t plan to spend much time in your room and don’t mind communal spaces.
  • Experience – I really can’t recommend AirBnB enough. You can find some really neat spaces for a excellent prices if you do your research ahead of time. If it’s your first time AirBnBing (or really, every time), you should check the reviews that people have left about the location and its host(s) and make sure that you review the amenities included, house rules/guest requirements and refund/date change policy.
  • Location – It’s a given that if your accommodation is in a city center/downtown, it’s going to be pricier. I find that being 10-15 minutes out puts you close enough to most attractions, without paying the same prices. But once again, it’s traveler’s choice – just think about how much walking/driving/using public transportation you want to do.

Speaking of which…

3) Know how you’re going to get around.

Planning ahead will help you get to places safely, on time and also use the most affordable mode of transportation. Is there:

  • Reliable public transportation – Do they have buses, train, light rail, etc. and are they safe/clean/easy to use? Remember that with public transportation you’ll either need to carry a good amount of cash with you or purchase a transportation pass.
  • Rental cars – When renting, consider more than just getting the cheapest car. Is it automatic or manual? Does it have USB/other outlets to charge your devices if you really need to? How old/reliable is it? The last thing you want to do is be driving in a strange place and break down.
  • Planes – I know people don’t always want to hop on another airplane after they’ve taken that big international flight, but sometimes domestic flights are cheaper than driving, and they’ll definitely save you the time.
  • UBER/Lyft/Taxis – Useful option when it’s not feasible or unneeded to to use the other options above. Just always use your discretion and be safe – know where you’re leaving from and where you need to go.
  • Good old-fashioned walking – If areas are walkable, always an enjoyable way to see your destination. Wear those comfy shoes and be prepared for weather.

4) Know your mobile device options before you leave.

Traveling to another country no longer means being completely cut off from communications (which can be both a great and terrible thing). Here are a few things to consider:

  • What your carrier already offers –  Do you have free/unlimited texting? How much do calls cost? Do you have data usage without an extra charge for roaming?
  • Purchasing an international data plan – find out if you can and if it’s worth it.
  • Mobile hotspot – if you already use your phone as a hotspot, this is a good and secure substitute for wifi, plus you won’t need to rely on another device for internet. Check the rates out with your carrier.
  • PocWifi – It’s a basically what it sounds like – a pocket wifi device you can carry with you for internet access. We were able to rent one at the Auckland airport for a pretty affordable rate, with unlimited data usage. Like any wifi device, connection got fiddly at some points (especially in high mountain areas or on the outskirts of town) but we were always able to connect and it was life-saver when it came to connecting to the internet to use our phones to navigate.

5) Annnnd most importantly, be flexible!

Weather, flight changes/delays/etc., and other unforeseen challenges will pop up when traveling. And yes, it is a bummer when your day doesn’t go as planned, but you’ve come all this way, so try to make the most of it. It’s not a bad idea to do research some ideas for what to do on these off-days, and, you can always ask locals for their advice.

Travel well,
Katie

Nature in the Netherlands: Three National Parks That You Have to See

When you think of Netherlands’ nature, what do you envision?

Netherlands Nature

Tulips, windmills, canals, and rolling fields of agriculture? I did not imagine National Parks and wild spaces. But if you have followed this blog for any amount of time, you will know that I almost always try to visit national parks in the countries that I travel to. The Netherlands was no exception.

netherlands nature

Loonse en Drunense Duinen (c) ABR 2017

There are 20 national parks throughout Holland, and I would be surprised if you didn’t enjoy visiting any one of them, but here are my three favorites.

netherlands national parks

De Hoge Veluwe

netherlands nature

Biking in the park (c) ABR 2017

 

If you only have time to visit one national park in the Netherlands, this one should be it, because it exemplifies Netherlands’ nature. It has just about everything you could want to do in a day. De Hoge Veluwe has it all, from hiking and biking, to art and natural history museums! We went early on a cold, foggy morning. After paying for our tickets, we picked up some free bikes at the entrance. For there we went to De Hoge Veluwe art museum, which has the second largest collection of Van Gogh in the country. I found this to be a relaxing place to enjoy the art, because this museum lacked the crowds of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum.

netherlands van gogh

Van Gogh in the park (c) ABR 2017

In the middle of De Hoge Veluwe is another museum where you can go underground, and learn about the history and ecology of the park. The museum is also right next to a little cafeteria that has really delicious food. Once we had our fill of museums, we spent a few hours pedaling around. The trails here are very nice and paved, and there was a whole suite of different landscape types that we got to enjoy while exploring.

netherlands nature

(c) ABR 2017

When we were exhausted from biking and exploring all day, we stopped by a food truck for some ice cream, and when we finally got back to our car we were shocked to see that all the bikes were out for the day and the parking lot was full. Due to this, if you visit on the weekend, be sure to get in early so you don’t have any issue parking and getting a bike.

 

netherlands nature

(c) ABR 2017

De Loonse en Drunense Duiden

netherlands nature

(c) ABR 2017

This little park is a great place to take a relaxing walk through a flatland forest, but the center of the park is where the real surprise is. We took a stroll through the trees and found ourselves in the middle of little sea of sand dunes. Even when I didn’t know a thing about the Netherlands, I never would have associated anything desert-ish with the country. The dunes here are even more special, due to the beautiful forest that surrounds the sand. In the shadow of the trees, small green plants and flowers carpet the sides of the dunes.

 

Weerribben-Wieden

netherlands nature

Boating through the park (c) ABR 2017

If you are planning on visiting the “little Venice” of the Netherlands, Giethoorn, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you to make some time to stop by Weerribben. The best way to see the park is to rent a boat in Giethoorn. Just be sure to get a map from your rental company, and give yourself enough time to see the park.

netherlands nature

Bird’s eye view! (c) ABR 2017

Despite being in the middle of a developed European country, Weerribben has the magic that made me feel like I was on an adventure in the wild. There is beautiful, calming water and a seemingly endless expanse of green in all directions. Cows graze along the shore, and people tend verdant fields. And there is a little tower that we climbed up to get a bird’s eye view of all this. Finally, we ended our beautiful journey by coming back to Giethoorn and floating through the village.

netherlands nature

(c) ABR 2017

So, if you are planning a trip to Holland, be sure to break up your cultural experience with a little bit of Netherlands’ nature in some of the country’s beautiful national parks.

 

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