Spectacular Queen Charlotte Track Day Walk from Picton

I cannot caption this. I really, really can’t!

I have been traveling for several years, but I’m still not getting any better at remaining calm and collected when I see beautiful sceneries. I still act hysterical, like a 6-year old getting new toys.

It was my second day in New Zealand, and I was taking the Interislander ferry from Wellington to Picton. I had lofty expectations for New Zealand and even saw a short clip of the ferry ride, but I still completely lost it when I came face-to-face with the otherworldly natural beauty surrounding Cook Strait.

(Per Wikipedia, “Cook Strait lies between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and connects the Tasman Sea on the northwest with the South Pacific Ocean on the southeast. It is 22 kilometres (14 mi) wide at its narrowest point, and is considered one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world.”)

Fortunately, the weather was calm and glorious. That, along with the radiant afternoon light, gave every scene a painting feel.

Indisputably the most beautiful way to go from the north to the south. 

New Zealand made my heart stop at every turn.

Picton is a small port town in the Marlborough region of the South Island. It is very, very pretty, but quiet; there aren’t a lot of things to do in town. I had two nights there (stayed at Sequoia Lodge, which is quite decent), but only one full day to explore. I had no complaint, though, because everything I saw exceeded my expectations.

The harbor looked dreamy in the early morning with soft light and floating clouds.

Picton has several short walks that you can do, but as an ardent nature lover, I opted for a half-day Queen Charlotte Track walk on my second day. I am using the word “walk” loosely here, because if there is one thing you should know before you travel in New Zealand, more often than not a walk will require some level of fitness. It definitely is NOT the running errands or in the park kind of walk.

The Queen Charlotte Track is a classic New Zealand track and starts from historic Ship Cove to Anakiwa. The entire length is 70km so it is a multi-day track if you want to complete it. While on the track, you will get to see jaw-dropping views of the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds.

Here is a map to give you a better understanding of the walk. With the amount of time I had, I was able to do the last section of the track, from Te Mahia to Anakiwa.

I booked the Half Day Cruise & Walk with Cougar Line at the recommendation of the staff at the tourist center, who said the 13km Mistletoe Bay to Anakiwa section is spectacular because you can see both sides. I was slightly unnerved by the fact that it is an independent walk, but once on the track, my anxiety dissipated as it is well-marked and there are signs everywhere. There is only one way to go, no left or right turns!

In the instruction hand-outs, the suggested walking times for a slow walker is 3 hrs 45 mins (2 and a half & 3 for fast and average walkers, respectively), but it took me almost 5 hours because…I stopped every 10 minute to take photos. I just couldn’t control myself; the sceneries are so incredible.

I mean, look at these spectacles:


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New Zealand Itinerary: A Spectacular Two Weeks

I climbed many hours for this view. And my heart stopped when I saw it.

As you may already know, I was in Australia and New Zealand for the better part of April. I returned a few weeks ago, and as usual it took me a little while to readjust. Now I am ready to talk about my experience. It is going to be a long series, but since I am not going anywhere at least until the end of this year, I have all the time in the world to finish it. Hopefully, you guys will stick around ‘til the end 😀

NEW ZEALAND…where do I even start?

As I mentioned somewhere on this site before, I usually don’t compare which countries are more beautiful because each offers something unique that others don’t. For instance, last year, I visited Iceland and Morocco. Iceland truly is out of this world, but so is Sahara desert in Morocco. I therefore find it pretty impossible to give a definitive answer.

However, now that I have visited New Zealand, I can safely say that very few countries have higher density of drop-dead gorgeous sceneries. My jaw dropped everywhere I went. Well, except for Christchurch. But I knew beforehand that it was going to deeply impress me so…no complaint. In fact, I love New Zealand so much that I have decided that I will return at the end of this year (or early next year) to visit places I missed this time.

I spent 15 days traversing New Zealand’s legendary South Island. I have traveled long enough to know that it is a silly idea to squeeze everything in one trip, so with that limited amount of time I focused on the east coast of the island. And what did I see? Forests, fields, mountains, oceans, lakes, rivers, glaciers…you name it, I saw it. The best part is autumn was (and still is, I believe) in full swing when I was there, meaning everywhere looked triply amazing.

*****

I will write about each place I went to in details. In this post, I want to give you a quick rundown of my own itinerary, which, I figure, will be useful if you are planning something similar.

Day 1: Sydney – Wellington

– I was in Sydney for several days and flew from there to Wellington and spent the evening and following morning exploring the capital of New Zealand. Wellington is compact and cute!

Day 2: Wellington – Picton

– In the afternoon, I took Interislander ferry across Cross Cook Strait, and it was the most gorgeous and relaxing ferry ride I have ever had. Hands-down the best way to get from the North to the South.

Day 3: Picton

– I spent the day hiking a small portion of the famous Queen Charlotte Track and got to see part of the Marlborough region in its full glory.

Day 4: Picton – Kaikoura

– From one seaside town to another. Kaikoura is a coastal town on the east coast (Pacific Ocean), about two hours by bus from Picton.

I don’t understand this Kaikoura sunset. I really don’t!

Day 5: Kaikoura

– I spent two nights in Kaikoura and absolutely loved it. Loved waking up to the smell and sound of the mighty Pacific Ocean everyday.

Day 6: Kaikoura- Christchurch

– After Kaikoura, I headed off to Christchurch by bus. I spent the first night there curling up in a fetal position because of stomachache.

Day 7: Akaroa/Christchurch

– I took a day trip from Christchurch to Akaroa, another pretty seaside town. While there, I took a tour of Shamarra Alpacas farm. You guys, alpacas are so freaking adorable.

Day 8: Christchurch – Lake Tekapo

– Lake Tekapo is quite touristy, but its beauty is remarkable.

Day 9: Lake Tekapo – Mt. Cook

– I spent one night in Lake Tekapo and headed towards Mt. Cook, one of New Zealand’s most prized national treasures. Jaw-dropping!

Day 10, 11, 12, & 13: Wanaka

– I was completely smitten with Wanaka.

Day 14, 15, & 16: Queenstown

– I don’t know anyone who comes to the South island and doesn’t go to Queenstown. It is a spectacular place, but incredibly touristy.

I hit the jackpot with the weather during my time there. The weather in Milford Sound on the day I visited was especially glorious, even the people who work there were shocked.

Day 17: Queenstown – Christchurch

– It was a full day sitting on the bus!

Day 18: Christchurch – Sydney

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I’m Off to Australia and New Zealand

Processed with VSCOcam with q1 presetWell, this has to be my most favorite kind of post to write, because I only get to do it when I’m about to travel 🙂

I will be flying to Sydney tomorrow, my first time visiting Australia. A few months ago, I read In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson and was very fascinated with the enormity and quirkiness of Australia. However, after reading the book, I told myself that I would never half-ass Australia, as in visiting for any less than a month. It’s so incredibly huge and diverse that anything less a month would be a disservice.

I’m going back on my promise, though; I will be in Sydney for a total of 5 days this time around.

Really, I’m coming to Australia more to spend some quality time with a good friend of mine than to travel. We will of course by hitting the usual suspects such as Sydney Harbor and Bondi Beach, but I won’t be going all in.

I’M SAVING ALL MY ENERGY FOR NEW ZEALAND, WHICH I HAVE HEARD IS MADLY BEAUTIFUL.

So, I will be away for almost a month. I’m pretty sure I will not do any blogging and would rather not to actually, as I want to stay fully present during my travels. I will update my Instagram whenever I can, so make that follow button green, will you? 😛

Before I sign off, I want to share two photos I recently took. Nothing fancy or preachy, just two outfit of the day photos.

Peace out, guys.

This is my “Business up top, Party down below”, The Sunset Hour Edition look. I obviously don’t know your life so I’m not gonna be able to tell you how to live your best life. BUT, if you want to instantly feel like you’re living the best version of yourself, wear your sunglasses. HAHAHA!

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New York Revisited

This March marks the 4th anniversary of me leaving New York for home. I remember vividly I was tethering on the verge of a nervous meltdown as the plane prepared to take off from JFK. All those years, Jay Z and Alicia Keys kept telling me to have an Empire State of Mind, that as long as I make it in New York I’ll make it anywhere…

No, in all seriousness, even though it was my decision to leave and there was sufficient time before the departure date to let reality sink in, the moment when it eventually happened remained emotional and, to some extent, traumatizing. At that point, I had been living in the States for a number of years, and so it wasn’t simply the act of leaving New York that stirred me up.

I was bidding farewell to the way of life that I had been very familiar and comfortable with. I had no clue then how the future would look like, but I had a feeling New York wouldn’t play a part in it. And that was very saddening, considering that it was the city I had dreamed of and worked hard for since I was young.

Fast forward to now, 4 years later, that decision to leave has turned out to be one of the best I have ever made. It has taken me down an entirely different path, one that has afforded me the many opportunities to learn and grow.

This time last year, I came back to New York for a visit and and realized that back then what I was in love with was the idea of being in New York, of being to tell people that, oh I live and work in the most exciting city in the world, and of following the well-trodden path of others.

And that herd mentality- rather than the emotional immaturity- is what I find most funny about my early 20s. If you asked me what officially marked my entry into adulthood, my answer now wouldn’t be the jobs, the number of savings accounts, or the ability to afford this or that. I used to think they were the answers, though, because at the end of the day they are what grown-ups do. But for me, personally, I never felt mature for the first half of my 20s. However, coming back to New York and looking back on my thoughts and actions four years earlier, I realized the moment I became a grown-up was when I decided to carve out my own niche instead of mindlessly doing what other grown-ups do.

That I don’t have to live in any specific city to be happy is the most liberating realization.

*****

All that said, I had a great time in the city with my college friend who flew all the way from Chicago. None of the places we went to are completely foreign to me, but they were the ones I really took for granted when I lived there. I hardly ever paused to appreciate and capture their quirks and charms. So, this time around, I learned from my mistakes and took about 200 photos. I only sorted them out last week and posted some on my Instagram. This short post thus is a combination of both the photos I shared and didn’t share on that platform.

I hope you enjoy them 😉

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

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Instagramming Singapore in 48 Hours

This is perhaps my most favorite photo of Singapore I have ever taken. I understand people will never know it’s Singapore if I don’t tell, as there’s nothing to indicate here. However, for me, personally, it manages to capture the essence and aspect of the country that I most appreciate. While it lacks the blessings of Mother Nature, it more than makes up in human resourcefulness.

When I was 14, my parents took me to Singapore for holidays. It was my first time flying and being abroad. We were in a tour group and so squeezed in a lot of activities during our 4-day visit. Except for Sentosa and Night Safari, I don’t remember anything else. I was too young to grasp such concepts as fast-paced living, innovative urban planning, old and new architectural juxtaposition, or soulless shopping malls. However, I remember clearly something in me shifted; I realized that the world out there is quite different from where I grew up and lived, and I wanted to see more.

In the following 12 years, I stopped at Changi Airport many times on my way to the US and Europe. But that was it; I never got out of the airport to explore the country on my own. So, even though I had visited, I didn’t consider myself even remotely familiar.

So when planning my trip to Maldives, I made a conscious decision to squeeze in some time in Singapore. And in the 48 hours I had, I wandered around pretty much aimlessly and chanced upon many delightful, quirky, photogenic backstreets and alleyways as well as hip restaurants and coffee shops. Coupled that with a meet-up with my new Singaporean friends and a sushi dinner with my cousin, my short time there couldn’t have been more well-spent.

I’m still not a Singapore travel expert so I’ll hold off from giving you advice on what you should do. In this post, I want to share the snapshots taken with my iPhone of the less popular yet still very charming sights around the city. I already posted some of these on Instagram, so I’m going to embed them here. I also try to include the locations where I took the photos as accurately as I possibly can so that you guys can go if you feel like going 😉

(As for accommodation: I stayed at River City Inn, which is even cleaner than my own house and I can heartily recommend if you’re on budget.)

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

Changi is the best airport in the whole wide world. I’m not paying lip service at all; I have been to about 50 different airports across 4 continents so I believe I’m qualified to judge in a way 😀

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

This is Neil Road, a one-way road in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar in the planning areas of Outram and Bukit Merah. The architectural simplicity and the white and yellow color combination are so pleasing to the eyes.

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

Now we’re talking real business here. These colorful apartment buldings are part of Rochor Centre, which, I believe, has been demolished to make way for the construction of the North-South Expressway. So I was fortunate to pay a quick visit in January. 

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

This was taken in the famous Chinatown pretty early in the morning. You know Chinatown is hardly ever this empty. To me, the whole structure is very LEGO-like; incredibly vibrant and uniform. 

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

I’m not sure if even a local Singaporean can identify the exact spot of this because it’s the back of some building somewhere in Tanjong Pagar. I remember I sweated like a whore in a church and was bitten by mosquitoes when trying to take this photo. Really, it’s not Singapore’s lack of natural sceneries or its architectural uniformity that is most challenging for a photographer. It all comes down to the heat. Debilitating heat and humidity!

A photo posted by Khoa (@confuseddasher) on

Incredibly vivid mural near Bugis Junction Shopping Centre. It delighted and surprised me because Singapore is one of the most restrictive countries when it comes to street art and graffiti. I did some googling and learned that this is the work of talented and prolific Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic. His works can also be seen in Penang, Malaysia and other parts of the world.

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The Eye-Catching Colors of Maafushi

There are two beaches in Maafushi. One is Bikini Beach for tourists, and the other is on the opposite side and a little rougher and frankly less beautiful. However, the sunset on that side can be very nice.

I have decided after my trip to Maldives that I will go to the beaches more often from now on.

In this post a few weeks back, I shared with you guys the real reason I had been beach-averse for the longest time was I didn’t know how to swim.

The other (less important) reason was I consider myself a pretty “voracious” traveler. I don’t get to travel as often as I want to, so whenever I visit a place I just want to see as much of it as possible. The thought of seeing nothing but ocean, lying on the beaches, reading and listening to music, and then dozing off day in day out is a tad scary to me. Everyday life is mundane enough, you know; I don’t want to be bored on my holidays 😀

But you know what? Seeing nothing but ocean and lying on the beaches reading, listening to music, and sleeping were exactly what I needed and essentially all I did day in day out for almost a week.

And it felt truly FANTASTIC.

The relax mode didn’t come to me naturally, though, because like most people I have been trained to always have something to do and think about so well that slowing down and staying present would feel weird. We all know slowing down is essential to our well-being yet how many of us can say with confidence that we know how to do it and do it frequently?

I now appreciate the beaches for that very reason. I’m forced to do things that are emotionally and mentally healthy. No laptop, no WiFi, no TV…just endless beautiful ocean in front of you and a copious amount of sunshine and breeze.

As I mentioned, I spent most of my time in Maafushi island and was very pleasantly surprised with its playful vibrancy, which reminded me of Europe. I haven’t been to many islands in Asia yet so I’m no authority, but all the places that I have visited in South East Asia pale in comparison when it comes to vivid color palettes.

Another part of Maafushi that I greatly appreciated is it knows how to throw a New Year’s Eve party. There was a open-air dance party for everyone on Dec 31st, followed by fireworks. When I and a Japanese friend of mine arrived, it was mostly just foreign visitors dancing. The locals were shy and just stood on the side watching and giggling and occasionally grooving to the music.

However, in the span of 30 minutes, something happened and they went in and started showing off their moves. Let me tell you this: some Maldivians are beasts on the dance floor 😀

Here’s a short Instagram video I made:

Now, allow me to show you guys the colors of Maafushi.

The person who decided on these colors must have a very sunny disposition, and I’m not complaining.

This legitimately is a good color combo.

So is this!

I’m no flower expert and so can’t tell what this is. But I know it looks delicate and beautiful.

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How Two Italians Saved Me From Losing Hundreds of Dollars in Fulidhoo

This guy was posing for his friend. I think he knew he was posing for me, too 😀

I first learned about Fulidhoo on Never Ending Footsteps, the travel blog I perused extensively before I visited Maldives. I was impressed with what I read but slept on it, as I wanted to have some flexibility in my schedule. When I double-checked with the staff at Summer Villa Guesthouse which local island I should go next and the unanimous agreement was Fulidhoo because “it’s even more beautiful than Maafushi”, I immediately booked two nights at Thundi Guesthouse, one of the only two guesthouses there.

The ferry from Maafushi to Fulidhoo and back only runs 3 times per week (here is the schedule), so at noon on a Monday I packed up my bags and said goodbye to Maafushi. Scanning fellow passengers on the ferry who were mostly locals, I knew the destination I was heading towards would be different from what I had experienced so far. After two mostly uneventful hours on the wide Indian Ocean, the ferry pulled up to the dock and I literally went bonkers when I saw this:

confused dasher, How to Travel Maldives on Limited Budget, breath-taking photos of maldives, where to stay in the maldives, where to stay in fulidhoo the most beautiful local island in maldivesYOU GUYS, I HAD NEVER SEEN OCEAN IN THIS SUBLIME COLOR!!!

In the span of 5 minutes, I snapped 50 photos on both my DSLR and iPhone and was the last one to disembark the boat. As I got off the boat, I was greeted by the guy who works at the guesthouse (I forgot to write his name down and now I can’t remember it).

It was a 5-minute walk from the dock. Upon arriving, I was a little taken aback by its smallness and austerity. It has only three rooms, each of which is exceptionally basic for a price of $80 per night. During check-in, the guy offered dinners and day tours, all of which were about 20% more expensive than in Maafushi. I politely declined and headed out to explore after putting my belongings in the room.

Fulidhoo is a tiny inhabited island of Vaavu Atoll, about 58km away from Malé. To put tiny and remote into perspective for you, its length and width are only 0.675 and 0.2 km respectively, meaning it probably takes you 10 minutes to walk from one end to another. Its population in 2011 was 490 people. I tried to find a more updated number to no avail. Which only goes to emphasize the paucity of information about the island.

But then, if tiny and extremely quiet are exactly what you want, Fulidhoo is the place to be. I don’t know how crowded it gets in high season, but when I was there, there were a total of 9 visitors and we all knew each other by face.

I believe people living in Fulidhoo don’t lock their doors.

When it comes to painting their houses, though, inhabitants don’t hold back. Which I greatly appreciate.

The rest of my first afternoon was spent hanging out on the beach with a Norwegian couple…

and watching local kids playing football on the beach. It was such a feel-good scene because they get to spend their free time exactly like how they’re supposed to, you know. I didn’t see any iPhone or iPad even on their parents.

One of my most favorite sunset photos I have ever taken. It wasn’t a dramatic, leaving-you-breathless kind of sunset, but I love the warm golden light as well as how this Muslim lady was very engrossed in her no-frills Nokia phone. It’s rare to see a basic mobile phone these days.

Afterward we went to have dinner at- I believe -the only restaurant on the whole island. I ordered some kind of pasta, which was so abysmal that I stopped eating after a few bites.

Remote and non-touristy do come at a price.

*****

The next morning, during breakfast, I received the most unexpected, unpleasant news of my entire trip: The ferry back to Maafushi the next day had been cancelled for maintenance purposes. I couldn’t process the information at first, so I went to the dock and asked all the locals I saw. They all confirmed it, to my absolute horror.

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10 Practical Tips for Traveling the Maldives Independently

Honestly, this view has completed me in a way.

If you have ever shrugged when people talk about the Maldives and silently told yourself it really is not the kind of destination for you (or more correctly, your budget!), you’re not alone. I used to react similarly!

This is, after all, the place where resorts that cost hundreds to thousands of dollars per night are the norm. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes honeymooned there. David Beckham and his entire family spent their Christmas holiday there. The list of filthy rich celebrities vacationing in this far-away Indian Ocean nation goes on and on.

Thus, it’s very normal to be intimidated.

However, after spending a week there last month, I realized Maldives is NOT as prohibitively expensive and impossible as people usually make it out to be.

There’s no denying that it’s more expensive than, say, the Philippines, Indonesia, or Thailand. But you still can have a hell of a good time on a budget, and I’m here to testify that what Maldives lacks in affordability it more than makes up in natural beauty.

Otherworldly, drop-dead gorgeous natural beauty.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most beautiful places you will ever see in your life in terms of beachside destinations.

The reasons Maldives is no longer exclusively catered to the upper echelon of visitors are that the government has permitted locals on inhabited islands to open guesthouses and hotels and that budget airlines like Tigerair and AirAsia have launched direct flights from Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur.

And I feel like the timing of my trip couldn’t have been any better. The country has been increasingly hospitable to budget travelers and there are more of them there than ever, but not to any extent that sends off negative vibes. I wouldn’t say that I had the most authentic, immersive experience, but I’m glad that I still got to observe and have conversations with local people and learn a thing or two about their lives.

The flip side of not that many young, independent travelers visiting Maldives yet is the dearth of travel information on the Internet. I personally prefer to read travel blogs to guidebooks when researching, and if you google you won’t find a lot of travel bloggers talk about this destination. However, the two excellent ones I used extensively pre-trip are Never Ending Footsteps (Lauren spent a few weeks in the country in 2014) and Expat of the World (Sarah taught English there for quite some time so she had some very interesting experiences and stories).

Before I offer some practical advice based on my experience, I want to share with you a breakdown of my expenses for your reference. I didn’t skimp or splurge, as it was a short vacation after more than 6 months straight of staying put and just working and I didn’t want to think too much. However, I did a quick comparison with other travelers, and our numbers appeared roughly the same.

  • Flight: $550 ($250 for Singapore <-> Maldives, and the rest was Vietnam <-> Singapore)
  • Hotel: $506/ 6 nights (it would have been $70 less if I hadn’t had to cancel a part of my trip)
  • Food: $130 (I didn’t have to pay for breakfasts; they were included in the hotels’ charges)
  • Activities (1 snorkeling day trip and 2 resort trips): $170
  • Transportation (ferries, speedboats, and taxis): $32

TOTAL: $1388/7 days

(compared to the $2-3,000 tour packages…yikes!)

My snorkeling trip in the middle of Indian Ocean wasn’t a very pleasant experience because of the rain (taken with iPhone)

*****

1. The most budget-friendly way to get in is to fly from somewhere in Asia

If you’re traveling around India or Sri Lanka, perfect. Flights from these two countries to Male (Maldives’ capital) are short and inexpensive and frequent. I met people who booked their tickets from Colombo, Sri Lanka ONE day in advance.

If you’re traveling around South East Asia or anywhere else like Korea or Japan, it’s still easy, though it will take longer and require some coordination.

Wherever you fly from, rest assured that the views from your airplane windows will be INSANE (taken with iPhone)

Like I mentioned, Tigerair and AirAsia have direct flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur several times per week. The round-trip ticket is around USD250 if you’re lucky. Your itinerary will look like this: Somewhere -> Singapore or Kuala Lumpur (you can always find cheap tickets on this route) -> Male.

For me, it was Hanoi-Singapore, Singapore-Male, all with Tigerair. I did have to stay overnight in Singapore on my way to and back from Maldives, but I didn’t mind. Changi airport makes spending a night in airport such a breeze with free WiFi, 24/7 cafes and restaurants and even places to rest. I also got to explore Singapore a little bit, so it was the best of both worlds.

The most delightful boarding pass of all time. OF ALL TIME, Y’ALL!!!

2. Local islands offer the most budget-friendly accommodations

This is surely a game-changer for both Maldives tourism and all of us, budget travelers. And it’s not just about costs because staying on local islands allows us to get a glimpse into daily Maldivian life, which is circumscribed, relaxing, peaceful and involves a lot of hanging out on the beaches and watching sunsets. I loved it and wouldn’t have traded the experience for resorts (I mean, I wouldn’t deny myself a night or two at a resort with over the water bungalows, but I wouldn’t spend my entire vacation. Too boring!)

Guesthouses and hotels on local islands usually cost USD 50-100 per night, depending on seasons and types of rooms. Very reasonable if you split it with your travel partner.

3. Have realistic expectations about Maafushi

There’s a score of inhabited islands in Maldives, but Maafushi is probably the most vibrant, easy to access, has great infrastructure, and offers a variety of excursions. It’s located in South Malé Atoll (an hour and a half from Malé by public ferry), with a population of less than 3,000. These days the island has more than 40 different guesthouses. I was even more impressed when I learned that it was heavily damaged in the 2004 tsunami. Talk about resilience!

Here’s the thing: Except for resort-goers, everyone and their mother will stay at Maafushi at one point or another. Thus, it’s been commercialized. Also, the beaches there are not the most pristine or heavenly, so adjust your expectations. Some of the reviews on the Internet are so negative, but let me tell you from my personal experience that those people can’t be satisfied and will complain no matter what.

Maafushi is clean and beautiful enough. Full stop.

Can you argue with this?

Or this?

I was in Maafushi for the most part and stayed at Summer Villa Guesthouse, which was affordable, clean, and friendly. I enthusiastically recommend!

Dramatic sunrise on Maafushi.

Some lesser-known islands include Gulhi (very quite and peaceful according to fellow travelers I talked to), Hulhumalé (an artificial island near Male; the reviews are mixed), and Fulidhoo (pretty remote. I went so I’ll talk about it in a separate post).

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These 10 Photos of the Maldives Will Make Your Jaw Drop

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We were greeted by this boat and this water when we approached Fulidhoo, one of the inhabited islands. I literally went out of control, snapping about 50 photos on both my DSLR and iPhone in the span of, like, 7 minutes.

It’s funny that just three months ago I was adamant that I wasn’t a beach person at all. Whenever I was asked whether I preferred to go the beaches, the answer was always a resounding NO. Growing up, my family rarely went on a beach vacation, so I didn’t develop an affinity for it. I also said I needed constant visual and auditory stimulation when traveling, and while beaches are beautiful, they wouldn’t be able to assault my all senses the way cities do.

I didn’t lie to people, but it wasn’t the real reason.

Back in September, I received a promotional email from Tigerair about special deals from Singapore to the Maldives. The round-trip fare was $250. I didn’t really know anything about the Maldives then other than they have beautiful beaches and are a dream honeymoon destination. However, the fare was too good to pass, so I booked my ticket and went on with my life. I even thought that if I had to cancel the trip because of work, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

And it almost became a self-fulfilling wish when a week before the departure date, I had a motorbike accident.

Fortunately, it wasn’t serious and I recovered in time. This view healed my body and soul completely and is currently my iPhone wallpaper.

Anyway, the real reason I was beach-averse for practically most of my life is that I didn’t know how to swim. For me, it was an awfully embarrassing thing to admit to. All the more so when it was entirely my fault. I didn’t have any traumatizing experience with water when I was a child and thus wasn’t naturally jumpy in the swimming pools like many people. And I already took two swimming courses in the past.

YET at the age of 25, I was still swimming-illiterate. And goodness knows swimming is an IMPORTANT life skill to have!

So, a month before my trip, I registered for a swimming course. Thanks to the combination of a competent instructor and me really wanting to overcome my past failures, I was able to swim (the breaststroke) in less than a week. I’m not a good swimmer yet, but now swimming has now become a part of my exercise routine.

It’s unquestionably one of the best things I did for myself in 2015.

Here is the truth: Knowing how to swim made a world of difference to my time in the Maldives. My experience was so, so much better because what I could do was no longer confined to sunbathing and watching sunsets, even though I did a hell lot of both. I was able to partake in fun, beach-exclusive activities like snorkeling, something I had never ever done before.

(Technically, you can go snorkeling without knowing how to swim. But if you know how to, you’ll be more relaxed and able to snorkel in deep water, which is where all the out-of-this-world amazing-ness is.)

Bottom line is it’s fine if you swim well but genuinely dislike the beaches. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to; we all have our preferences. But if you don’t enjoy the beaches because you don’t know how to swim or are not very good at it, just be honest with yourself and fix that issue. There’s no reason to let it hold you back 😉

I’m in the process of finishing up my epic post about things you need to know if you visit the Maldives independently and on budget. Before it goes live, I want to share with you 10 of the best photos I took during my time there. I guess we can call this post a teaser, but I hope you find it a visually pleasing teaser nonetheless.

The water really, really looks like this in real life. CRAZY!!!

With this photo, I want you to know that you could still potentially look tan and chill AF when you get old, just like these two Europeans 😀

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Falling Head over Heels in Love with Stockholm

Gosh, Gamla Stan is so crazy beautiful!!!

“…I stood in the lobby, a vertical puddle, wiped the steam from my glasses with a corner of shirt tail and realized with a touch of horror, as I hooked my glasses back around my ears, that this was much too grand a place for me. It had potted palms and everything. For a moment I considered bolting, but I noticed a reptilian young reception clerk was watching me narrowly, as if he thought I might roll up a carpet and try to carry it out under my arm, and I became instantly obstreperous. I was damned if some nineteen-year-old pipsqueak with zits and a clip-on tie was going to make me feel loathsome. I marched to the front desk and enquired the price of a single room for one night. He quoted me the sort of sum that would necessitate a trip to the bank with a wheelbarrow if paid in cash.”

Neither Here nor There- Bill Bryson

As soon as I finished chuckling, I put the book down, turned on my laptop, and started composing this blog post.

Bill Bryson is my most favorite travel writer. At that point in Neither Here nor There, Bill is recounting his experience arriving at Gothenburg in Sweden and walking into the first hotel he saw. Even though our circumstances are different (he visited Gothenburg in 1990 while I visited Stockholm in 2015), his experience- or the way he describes his experience- is uncannily similar to mine. It gives me goosebumps!

—–

I came to Stockholm in the middle of April this year after spending two weeks in Morocco. It was my very first visit to Stockholm (actually, to any Scandinavian city for that matter), and it couldn’t have been more cursory. I had about 15 hours to spare before my next flight to Reykjavik, Iceland.

(A 15-hour transit time is inadvisable, but I did a lot of that in the past when I flew back and forth between the US and Vietnam so I…don’t find it excruciatingly painful.)

My Ryanair flight landed at Stockholm Skavsta Airport at 11.30PM, which is 1.5 hours away from the center of Stockholm. The distance is ridiculous, but the flight was only US$25. (I’m a beggar and am not allowed to choose!) Since my flight to Iceland the following afternoon departed from Arlanda, the main international airport of Sweden, I had no other choice but to stay overnight somewhere in downtown Stockholm to catch the airport shuttle.

My plan was to stay inside Stockholms Centralstation (Stockholm’s equivalent of Grand Central in NYC or Gare du Nord in Paris) for the night and explore Stockholm just a little bit the next morning with my luggage kept in the station’s storage room.

However, the plan fell flat on my face when I arrived at 2AM. Stockholm is not like New York or Bangkok where people are willing to be overworked, underpaid, and undersexed. Well, don’t quote me on this last part. You need to verify with the Swedes 😀 The point is a lot of places that would otherwise be open throughout the night in other cities are closed in Stockholm.

Know in advance where you’ll stay at least the first night.

Within minutes, I was there almost by myself, as fellow bus passengers either got picked up by their families or took taxi to their hotels. Despite Stockholm’s reputation as one of the safest cities in the world, I was still quite unnerved, to be honest with you guys. I knew absolutely no single soul in Stockholm. I had no Swedish Krona, no map, and no 3G on my iPhone. The streets were vacant, and the night was quite chilly. There’s something about a combination of emptiness, darkness, and cold that really sends shiver down my spine.

I trudged on toward the more brightly lit streets and began to see sleek club-goers and swanky hotels. Knowing they were not made for me, I kept walking around until I saw the word Hostel a few streets away. But when I arrived, it was closed with a little note on the door telling guests arriving late at night to use the key code provided in their confirmation emails.

Before I had time to let my heart sink to the pavement, I heard a shout. Turning back, I saw a car heading toward me with three men in it, two of whom were looking out of the windows and yelling something indiscernible.

OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!

Me (and my luggage. How helpful!) versus 3 guys with a car in some dark corner of Stockholm at 2 in the morning? What the actual fuck?

I ran like madman in the opposite direction, toward the crowded crossroad. I could hear the car’s engine running, but didn’t dare to look back to see how close they were to me. I was so scared that if I had stopped, they would have jumped out and got me.

I had never been that petrified for my life.

When I came to the crossroad, I turned back and didn’t see any car tailing me. Relieved, I went right into the first hotel I saw, Elite Adlon Hotel, and gave the receptionist my credit card to get the US$120 single room without blinking.

I plunged straight to bed when I entered my room. It was the best sleep I had during my one-month crisscrossing the world.

—-

I woke up the next morning to shafts of sunlight penetrating through the window curtain. I looked out the window and squealed with delight at the glorious beauty of Stockholm.

Again, thanks to Instagram, I knew exactly what I wanted to see in the 5 hours I had: Gamla Stan and Stockholm’s legendary metro stations.

But first, let me have my Swedish breakfast. You guys! This part of my experience at Aldon completely justified the $120 I had paid. It was the most sumptuous, decadent breakfast I have ever had in the last 4 years roaming the world. Cheese, bread, salmon, tuna, salami, prosciutto, fruit, coffee…there was everything. I gorged myself on salmon and fruit to compensate for two weeks of eating poorly in Morocco.

Aldon’s central location made it easy for me to go to where I wanted to go. Just after 10 minutes, I arrived at the strangest, most jaw-dropping and evocative metro station–Rådhuset.

(Some background information for those of you who don’t know about Stockholm’s subway system yet, courtesy of Visit Stockholm: The Stockholm subway system is said to be the world’s longest art exhibit – 110 kilometers long.Traveling by subway is like traveling through an exciting story that extends from the artistic pioneers of the 1950s to the art experiments of today. Over 90 of the 100 subway stations in Stockholm have been decorated with sculptures, mosaics, paintings, installations, engravings and reliefs by over 150 artists. The Kungsträdgården subway station looks like an archaeological excavation, with the remains of the old Stockholm Makalös palace. At Östermalmstorg the artist Siri Derkert highlights women’s rights and peace and environmental issues.)

Rådhuset is located in central Stockholm, on the T-Centralen blue line. It was designed by Swedish artist Sigvard Olsson and “uses organic architecture, which leaves the bedrock exposed and unsculptured, appearing to be based on natural cave systems.” When I posted this photo on Instagram, the prevalent comment was “wow, look like staircases to hell” 😀

T-Centralen is another favorite of mine. It’s the heart of the Stockholm metro system, designed by Finnish artist Per Olof Ultvedt in 1975, and “features boldly painted blue silhouettes of vines and flowers on the walls and ceiling, giving the impression that you are passing through a large forest.” I’m here to testify that the blue silhouettes of vines and flowers really do have some calming effect.

I didn’t have much time so the last station I paid a visit was Kungsträdgården. According to Stockholm Our WayKungsträdgården was designed by Swedish artist Ulrik Samuelso in 1977 and features “art and special creepers” and “is known to be the home of spiders that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Sweden.” I didn’t encounter any spiders, but that’s one chilling fact.

Because its platform is located 34 metres below ground, Kungsträdgården is the lowest situated metro station in Stockholm.

A visit to Stockholm wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Gamla Stan, also known as The Old Town. I only had an hour before I had to head back to the hotel to pick up my bags, so I barely scratched the surface of Gamla Stan. But it was an incredibly lovely morning stroll, not just because Gamla Stan itself is so enchanting and atmospheric but also because I had it almost to myself and thus had the silence and solitude to absorb what was in front of me.

As you can see, most of the shops weren’t even open. I thoroughly enjoyed the quietness, but next time I come back to Stockholm, I want to see how lively the area is when it’s business time.

I have to be honest and admit that before I came to Gamla Stan, I was feeling ambivalent about Europe. After 5 countries, the continent had started to lose its luster. I found it homogeneous and repetitive. Gamla Stan and Stockholm truly have resurrected my affinity for the Old Continent.

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