How to Spend 4 Days in Rarotonga

Vision of Love, the Cook Islands Edition.

It has been two months of dead silence on this blog. I am alive, but life got in the way. Or to put it another way, I was not motivated enough to write. March was a busy month, and I spent the better part of April in New Zealand and Cook Islands. The good news is now I have a lot of stories and photos to share with you guys, and this time I will not repeat the mistake I made with the Tibet series—always drafting but never completing. I am full of shame whenever I look at those unfinished drafts.

I visited New Zealand for the first time in April ’16 and fell head over heels in love with the country. When I left after criss-crossing the South Island, I was not sad. Instead, I felt happy because after 20 countries I finally found a place that I love with all my heart. I decided the moment I arrived at the airport on the departure date that I would return as soon as I possibly could in 2017.

And I did.

On this second visit, it was all about the North Island, coupled with a quick jaunt to the Cook Islands, 4-hour flight from Auckland. Sounds easy-breezy, but getting to Cook Islands from Vietnam was genuinely taxing. First I had to fly to Singapore (3 hours), then to Auckland (10 hours), and then to Rarotonga (almost 4 hours). 17 hours in the air, but more than 30 hours in total with all the waiting.

However, it was worth every hassle and penny.

Love the way the pink house and blue trash can interrupt an otherwise perfectly verdant, lush scene.

I wish I could find the words to express the intensity of my love for this sequestered place. It is just inexpressibly beautiful! I have never felt more physically, mentally, and creatively nourished anywhere else during the last few years roaming the world than when I was in Cook Islands. The most wonderful thing is that there was no expensive resort, Michelin-stared restaurant, Internet (well, there was some WiFi, but it happened, like, every 3 days), or any hedonistic shenanigan. I stayed among the locals (and passed by a lot of tombs every night on my way home!) and slowly got to know them. Days passed by languidly; they consisted of reading, writing, yoga-ing, gazing lovingly at the sparkling Pacific ocean, driving a scooter around and letting the sun beat down upon my face and the ocean breeze fill every corner of my lungs, flowers hunting, sunset chasing, and trying to absorb every tiniest detail of the slow yet fascinating island life.

In his book “Me’a Kai: The Food & Flavours of the South Pacific,” which I had to buy because it is so stunning, the award-winning chef and author Robert Oliver describes Cook Islands as “the last frontier of friendliness.” His words hit the nail on the head. The Cook Islands has all the hallmarks of paradise- feel-good climate, drop-dead gorgeous beaches, extraordinary fauna and flora, and an conspicuous lack of tourist traps and bad tourist behaviors, but what truly distinguishes it from all other advertised “paradises” around the world (at least all the ones I have been to) is its people. Cook Islanders are gorgeous both inside and out. Their looks and cultures couldn’t be any more different from mine, but they all made me feel like I was coming home, not an outsider from a far-flung country many of them had very little idea of. They waved, smiled, hugged, said Kia Orana (Hello) and Have A Lovely Day Darling, bought me drinks, and stopped whatever they were doing to help me when I needed it. Their hospitality made me feel good about everything.

*****

For those of you unfamiliar, Cook Islands is a country with 15 islands spreading 850,000 square miles over the South Pacific. The islands are divided into the Northern and Southern group, with the former being more remote and thus sparsely populated. Its capital and biggest island is Rarotonga, which offers you the greatest number of accommodation and activities options.

The nation’s history, for the sake of brevity, dates back to around 800AD when fearless seafarers landed on Rarotonga after crossing the vast South Pacific.

“The earliest records of the Cook Islands can be traced back to the 6th century CE, when Polynesians migrated to the southeastern islands from nearby Tahiti. However, the oral history of Rarotonga, the first island to be inhabited (and the most influential of the group) dates back 1,400 years. Until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, they followed a chieftain system, where power was inherited through mana kinship. Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira sighted Pukapuka in 1595. However, the first recorded European landing on Rakahanga was not until Pedro Fernández de Quirós stepped foot in 1606, calling the island Gente Hermosa. The year 1773 marked the arrival of British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook, who called them “Hervey Islands.” The name “Cook Islands” was not introduced until the 1820’s. Missionary John Williams made the first written sighting of Rarotonga in 1813, but it was in 1814 that the first recorded landing on the island took place. Trouble brewed between the islanders and the sailors, and brought great bloodshed from the warring parties. The islands were freed from Europeans until 1821, when British missionaries arrived to spread Christianity, which was widely embraced and still followed today. Christian churches are well preserved and landmarks like the Takamoa Mission House (built in the 1830’s) and the hand crafted coral limestone structure known as the Cook Islands Christian Church (one of the most fascinating pieces of architecture on Rarotonga) still stand today. After the missions, the Cook Islands came to be a British protectorate. The islands were annexed by the New Zealand Government in 1901 and locals were provided New Zealand citizenship in 1949. Only a few years later, they were granted self-governing status. Islanders were given Cook Islander citizenship, though strong ties with New Zealand are still evident.”

 *****

I spent 4 days in Rarotonga. It was not love at first sight; in fact, my initial reactions were along the line of Did I just travel for more than 30 hours for this?!? However, my affection for the island grew slowly and firmly, just like how the pace of life is on the island. I did not get greedy and try to squeeze everything in, but everything that I ended up doing was great in more ways than one. If you are headed to Rarontonga, I hope this guide will be helpful 🙂

(A lot of guides will tell you to do a lagoon cruise. I did not do it in Rarotonga because I stayed in Aitutaki first and did the cruise there. Once you do the lagoon cruise in Aitutaki, no other lagoon cruise will measure up. Even locals affirmed to me.)

1. Pa’s Cross-island Trek

I feel constitutionally incapable of handling the beauties of fern leaves.

This 3-hour trek would take the cake, if I had to rank my most favorite activity in Rarotonga. It was fun, adventurous, (moderately) challenging, educational, and eco-friendly. And judging by the unanimously great reviews the trek has garnered, I am not alone.

This guided trek, as its name indicates, takes you across the island through a lush, tropical landscape of tall trees and plantations, culminating at Te Rua Manga (The Needle), one of the the highest points on the island. Length-wise, it is easy- only 2 miles, but the trail includes some steep, narrow, and slippery ridges and streams that require scrambling and ropes to climb up/down and cross over. Also, since we hike through the jungle, the humidity and heat can be stifling. It takes a decent level of fitness, so if you want something more forgiving but equally interesting and educational, you can try Pa’s Nature Walk, which is about herbal medicines and native plants and led by Pa himself. He led the cross-island trek for many years but has handed it over to Bruce (his nephew) because of age. I wish I had done the Nature walk too, as Pa strikes me as being very interesting, but time was limited. [Read more…]

Style Inspiration from Tibetans

One of the best things I did in Tibet was getting myself a hat like that. Only $10 but forever makes a statement.

For me, this is probably the most fun post about Tibet to write because it aligns with one of my big personal interests. You all know I love colors and fashion, and seeing them during my travels is cherry on top.

Tibetans impressed me greatly with their unique, time-defying, and inspiring sense of style. They have a great eye for colors and patterns, wearing combinations that I myself would never be able to come up with. The best thing about the way they dress is that layering, accessorizing, and wearing bold colors are part of their culture; they most likely don’t stand in front of the mirror for hours mixing and matching to attract attention and be photographed. It’s not about actively trying to express their individuality through clothes like how we justify ourselves these days; it’s about using clothes to convey their history, heritage, beliefs, and social statues. I never got to talk to them to understand more about why they wear what they wear as most of Tibetans don’t speak English and are shy, so I did some googling and found these insightful explanations of Tibetan clothes, jewelry, and ideas. Fascinating read!

Nothing is more visual than clothes, so without further ado, let me show you why Tibetans are easily one of the most effortlessly well-dressed people you will ever come across.

These women are very sartorially adept and can teach advanced courses in mixing colors. Combining cobalt and pink takes a lot of skills.

I posted this on my Instagram a while ago, and everyone LOVES her magenta gloves. I personally think she looks incredibly stylish from head-to-toe. Sneakers with robes are both fashionable and functional.

I met him on the way to Mt. Everest. He tried to sell me some beads but didn’t succeed, as I wasn’t interested in anything but Mt. Everest at that point. However, I succeeded in asking him for a portrait, even though Tibetans are notoriously averse to being photographed. I was sincerely impressed with his characteristically rugged Himalayan look and how he dressed with so much panache. His earrings could easily sell for a few thousand dollars, as they’re made of red coral and turquoise stones, both of which are very valuable. Also, now, the khaki and red combination is in my repertoire. I need to buy red stuff.

It is time that all of us have colorful stripes things in our wardrobe.

mount kailash sunset, confused dasher, How to Spend Two Weeks in Tibet, suggested itinerary for two weeks in tibet, 3 day kora around mount kailash trip reportHis outfit is 200% runaway-ready. Perhaps on the catwalk of Louis Vuitton. Its menswear designer Kim Jones loves the Himalayas.

mount kailash sunset, confused dasher, How to Spend Two Weeks in Tibet, suggested itinerary for two weeks in tibet, 3 day kora around mount kailash trip reportI met them when my entire body felt as if it was disintegrating after I trekked 22 kilometers for the whole day at an altitude of 17,093ft/5,210m to Mount Kailash, the most sacred place in Tibet and one of the holiest in the world. They look small in stature and live with the most spartan of conditions yet put the rest of us to shame when it comes to endurance. These two in particular also have plenty of style and attitude.

          Tibetan traditional jackets do NOT look outmoded at all. I’d wear them, especially the one on the right. The color is so great!

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Tibet Travel Overview: Two Unforgettable Weeks Around the Roof of the World

I don’t know the name of this mountain peak (I forgot to ask and take notes. My brain lacked oxygen so it was slow), but it has such a Paramount Pictures Mountain Logo feeling (that opening mountain rising above the clouds opening credit), right? Except this one is much more magnificent than the one in North America that inspired Paramount, as it’s over 26,000ft/ 8,000m and so in the top 2 or 3 highest in the world. The Himalayan range is the ultimate showstopper!

I feel absolutely awful about disappearing for almost three months. I want to post regularly, but I have severe issues with self-discipline. I’m sick of acknowledging that I can’t overcome my laziness, so I’ll just get right down to telling you about my trip to Tibet.

I had long wanted to visit this secluded region but couldn’t go for all those years because unlike the vast majority of places in the world where if you want to go you book tickets, get visa, and go, Tibet has quite a few travel restrictions in place (imposed by China), the most annoying of which is you have to travel in a group led by a Chinese government-approved travel agency. I always travel independently, but I don’t mind going with a tour group if that’s what I have to do, so two years ago I contacted several tour companies in Tibet and was extremely discouraged by their exorbitant quotes. The best way to cut down the costs, they all advised, would be to gather a group of 5-7 people. Finding that number of people to travel with would be time-consuming and put me in a passive position, so I decided to temporarily give up on Tibet and visit other countries on my list. Tibet, however, remained at the back of my mind.

Near the end of August this year, while attending a painting workshop, I heard a group was about to visit Tibet in October. I jumped at the chance and asked for the contact, though I didn’t expect much out of it. We had back-and-forth discussion, and our plan almost fell through when two of my travel companions still hadn’t got their Chinese visas two days before the departure date. But things sometimes work out in the most last-minute fashion; my friends received their visas at the eleventh hour- one day before our scheduled flight. When the plane was cruising at 30,000ft above the snow-cloaked Himalayan range, I marveled at both the beauty of nature and serendipity. I was about to spend 17 days in a place that I had long wanted to but not expected in 2016 with four lovely people I’d just met online.

The Himalayan range in photo. 


…and in iPhone video.

It was 17 days of awe-inspiring sights, hearty laughters, long and bumpy and dusty bus rides, debilitating headaches and nosebleed, a near death experience, spiritual enrichment, religious skepticism, consistently awful food and toilets, and many memorable moments. I was lucky to be with an eclectic group of people whose professions run the gamut from accountant, economist, business manager to yoga teacher and whose knowledge of religion and politics is much greater than mine so they all filled me in. To me, Tibet seems like it’s in a time warp; it’s compelling to see locals so devout to their religion and lead a lifestyle that seems to defy the modern world. Yet at the same time, it was saddening to realize that what I saw is only a remnant of a culture that is unique, fascinating, but on the brink of disappearing completely as a result of political and religious oppressions. My time there ended up raising more questions than answers, as it got me thinking about the interwoven nature of politics and religion (which I detest), how necessary religion is to our existence, and human greediness and self-righteousness.

As always, I’ll share my experience in multiple posts. Let begin with the essential information about traveling to the Roof of the World.

*****

TIBET’S GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY

I have a lot of negative feelings about what China has done to Tibet, but I’m not mad at how much it has improved the road infrastructure in Tibet. An interesting aspect of traveling around Tibet is buses can only drive at a certain safe speed set by the authority. For instance, if the authority decides that it takes 2 hours from A to B, tourist buses cannot arrive before 2 hours, or there will be fines. There were quite a few occasions when we had to stop and rest in the middle of nowhere so that we wouldn’t arrive before the predetermined time. It was reassuring to know that our driver was driving slowly, as very often one side of the road is a deep abyss. 

I had no idea how vast the Tibet Plateau is until I visited. Its size is 2.5 million square kilometers (965,000 square miles), which is larger than Alaska and California combined or more than 6 times the size of Germany.

The Tibet Plateau is geographically situated in the middle of Asia with a mountainous landscape. It’s nestled in the Himalayas and so home to most of the highest mountain peaks in the world, including the mighty Mount Everest. What surprised me the most about the geography of Tibet, however, is its lake and river system. It’s the largest water tank in the world; all the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong originate in the Tibetan plateau. (Mekong River is indispensable to Vietnam, so it’s near and dear to my heart.) However, this blessing from Mother Nature is actually a curse in disguise; it’s made people greedy and do all sorts of reprehensible things. I was seething with rage when I learned that “since 1959, the Chinese government estimates that they have removed over $54 billion worth of timber. Over 80% of forests have been destroyed, and large amounts nuclear and toxic waste have been disposed of in Tibet.”

The region’s history may date back to as many as 2,000 years ago and has been full of tumult, the most impactful and heart-wrenching of which has to be China’s invasion in March 1959 that stripped Tibet of its status as an independent country and eventually led His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tibet’s spiritual and political leader at that time) and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to flee their own country. Now Tibet is recognized as part of China. Tourism has been prospering, but I’m pretty sure Tibetans themselves benefit very little from it. Mr Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington DC, confirmed it this past September.

I also read In the Shadow of the Budda: One Man’s Journey of Discovery in Tibet by Matteo Pistono, another eminent advocate of liberating Tibet (seems like if your name is Matteo, you will likely care about Tibet and stand up for Tibetans on their behalf). It provides in-depth historical context and rare insights into the many instances of injustice that have been committed in Tibet. An excellent preparatory read before you go!

I met these Tibetans when my entire body felt as if it was disintegrating after I trekked 22 kilometers for the whole day at an altitude of 17,093ft/5,210m to Mount Kailash, the most sacred place in Tibet and one of the holiest in the world. These Tibetans, though small in stature and living with the most spartan of conditions, put the rest of us to shame when it comes to endurance. I posted this photo on Instagram, and right after a Tibetan photographer sent me a message complimenting it and explaining that one scientific research concluded that the reason Tibetans have little to no trouble living at such high altitudes is they inherited a beneficial high-altitude gene from archaic Denisovan people. Mind blown! [Read more…]

These Alpacas in Akaroa Stole My Heart and Never Return

Processed with VSCO with e3 presetI have never met a person who does not go nuts over alpacas. I am serious!

This is the last post of the New Zealand series, and I am saving the best for last. This post is cuteness overload; it is possibly the cutest post ever on this site. You’d better prepare yourself to Awww non-stop 😉

Almost a year ago, way before I decided to visit New Zealand, I learned about Shamarra Alpacas Farm when I was reading Legal Nomads, my most favorite travel blog. At that point, I had never seen alpacas in person and was not even entirely sure what kind of animals they are. I do not think there is any of them in Asia. Their peculiar cuteness made a deep impression on me, so I bookmarked the post. (I do it very often, even when I have no immediate plan to visit. Do you guys do it, too?) Around February this year when I chose to go to New Zealand, this farm was featured prominently on my places-to-visit list.

The farm is located in Akaroa, less than two hours drive from the city of Christchurch. Because I did not drive, my only option was to stay in Christchurch for two days and go on a day-trip to Akaroa, where I would be picked up by the farm staff. I thought Akaroa was just a pit stop so I did not do any research about it, and oh man I was in for a fantastic surprise. This small historic French and British settlement is so incredibly picturesque and relaxing, thanks to its stunning nature and quaint colonial architecture.

Mandatory history lesson for y’all: Canterbury’s oldest town, Akaroa was founded in August 1840 by French settlers. It has been suggested that French interest in New Zealand speeded up Britain’s decision to annex New Zealand. By the time French settlers arrived, the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Māori chiefs had been signed. Akaroa has a fine collection of 19th-century cottages and houses. Once a fishing and farm service town, it now serves mainly holidaymakers and tourists. The French associations are evident in street names. The resident population is slowly declining, and now more than 60% of the dwellings are holiday homes.

The town center is tiny, so several hours between my pick-up and drop-off time were the perfect amount of time to explore. There are accommodation options, so you can stay overnight if you want to dig deeper.

The farm is actually located 20 minutes drive from the town center, so if you do not drive the farm offers to pick you up in front of Akaroa i-SITE visitor information center, as long as you let them know when you book your tour. In my case, I left Christchurch at 8.30AM on the Akaroa Shuttle and arrived in Akaroa an hour and a half later. It was a pleasant trip, but the beauty of the sceneries along the way was somehow compromised by overcast skies. However, the clouds cleared up completely when I arrived. It was strange and fortuitous because I am here to tell you that the glory of Akaroa harbor shines most brightly in sunny weather.

The first thing I saw when I arrived at the farm. Almost fainted!!!

 I seriously wonder how it feels to wake up to this view everyday. I mean, if you look at something everyday, however gorgeous it is, you will eventually get used to it at some point, right? Do the people at the farm no longer bat an eyelid?

I was picked up and dropped off by Frank and Anya, the farm owners. They both were lovely, and it was interesting to talk to them in an one-on-one setting and learn a bit about their lives. Which would not have been possible if I had driven up there myself. They went from South Africa to the Caribbean before settling in New Zealand more than a decade ago and starting their farm. And you can tell by the way they talk about and interact with their alpacas that they do care deeply about them. As a dog parent, I always find it heart-warming to see people treat animals right.

I wish the tour lasted longer than just an hour. I literally can spend an entire day observing and photographing them.

They are mother and daughter, I think? I wanted to squeeze them so badly, but as soon as you get near them they will dodge you 🙁

OH.MY.GADDDD!!!

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How To Spend 3 Days in the Photogenic Queenstown

Heads-up: you can witness very ethereal lighting in Milford Sound 😉

I once read somewhere that your travels change when you find out specifically why, besides all the usual- and entirely legitimate- reasons of seeing new places and exploring the world, you want to travel. Some travel for the arts and history, some travel for the food, and some travel for the sceneries. For me personally, after a few years of being relatively “directionless”, I have fathomed out my Why. I travel to document the natural beauty of this world with my camera. I am wholly in my element when I am surrounded by nature. These days, when deciding where to go, I am more inclined towards countries that afford easy access to beautiful landscapes and plenty of opportunities to be in touch with nature.

New Zealand is one of those countries. And Queenstown in particular intoxicated me!

Queenstown was the final leg of my time in the country. By then, I had experienced an absurd amount of spectacular moments in Wanaka, Mt. Cook, Kaikoura, and Marlborough Sounds. Which made me slightly skeptical whether Queenstown would be able to surpass them all, given that it is overrun with tourists. Now looking back, I can’t help but chuckle a little because that was such a silly, unwarranted concern. A place is touristy not for nothing. It would be unfair to say that Queenstown was the most magnificent part of New Zealand I saw, but from a photography perspective it was the peak. I am truly happy with what I was able to capture.

This was what I saw when I stepped off the bus and looked up. I silently told Queenstown, Hey you were made for me!

I should clarify, though, that I didn’t actually spend all my time inside Queenstown. It is a small, compact, pedestrian-friendly resort town that, in my personal experience, does not take a lot of time to hit all the main spots. However, it is the gateway to some of the most unreal parts of the South Island. And those places were where my eyes and camera got such fulfilling workouts.

So, if you are going to spend about 3 days in Queenstown like I did, below are my suggestions. Queenstown is the capital of adventurous activities from bungee jumping, skydiving, to rafting and many others. They unfortunately cost an arm and a leg, so I steered clear of them. You don’t have to if you have the financial wherewithal 😉

Day 1: Arrowtown and Queenstown

THIS MADE ME SCREAM!!!

Listen, if you are in New Zealand during autumn, you MUST visit Arrowtown. I am not being hyperbolic; I am saying it from the bottom of my heart.

I am an autumn person through and through, and ever since I left the States I have been completely deprived of real autumns. I am living in Hanoi, the only city in South East Asia with four distinct seasons. Yet autumns here pale in comparison. When I set my feet in Arrowtown, I felt like I was finally released from an autumn dry spell.

Arrowtown is small and quaint. The detailed history of the town can be read here, the town’s official website. But basically, it was established in 1862, during the height of the Otago gold rush. The settlement grew quickly as pioneers constructed cottages, shops, hotels and churches, more than 60 of which can still be seen today.

To get to Arrowntown from Queestown by public transportation, take this bus, NZD 30 round-trip. The most important tip I have is you should take the earliest bus at 7.35AM so you can get there at 8AM. As a reward, you will have the whole town to yourself, and the lighting will be excellent. I took all of these photos in the span of two hours, from 8 to around 10AM. It is not easy to take photos once throngs of tourists pour in. I left at noon, but you can spend more time there if you want to.

The postcard quality of Arrowntown is top-notch.

Sigh, I am running out of words already.

I already told you guys I rarely feel the urge to shove my face in photos of places that I visit. I’m not young anymore and have come to a point in my life where I don’t feel like I need to prove anything to anyone. (Kidding, I still have a ton of inner work to do.) BUT, I had to wake up at 6AM to catch the bus and wandered around in freezing temperatures. So, I was just kind of like, “Self-restraints, you can go fcuk yourself. I need a photo with this beautiful background, in an au naturel I Woke Up Like This state.” 😀

One of the cheapest yet most enjoyable experiences I had in Queenstown. 

Day 2: Milford Sound

This sight is just too heinous!!!

Even my friends who live in New Zealand commented on my photos that they hadn’t seen Milford Sound this copiously bathed in sunlight for a long time. Yes, I know I hit the jackpot with the weather!

Milford Sound needs no introduction. It is legendary; it is the quintessential New Zealand experience. It was sad that I had limited time and didn’t have a car; otherwise, I would have allotted more time for this place and the adjacent areas. There, nature is in its unadulterated glory.

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What Made Me Fall In Love with Wanaka

Processed with VSCO with e1 presetWhat people say about nothing worthwhile coming easy is really, really true. Views like these sure aren’t easy.

To me, Wanaka is the poster child for the power of social media (specifically Instagram) in popularizing a destination. I’m sure Wanaka Tourism Board has used other marketing and promotion channels and I obviously don’t know all the ins and outs, but from my perspective as an outsider its social media campaigns (with influential travel bloggers plugging Wanaka on their accounts and websites) sure have yielded good return on investment. That is how I came to know about this place. I decided to visit Wanaka even before I decided to visit New Zealand, if that makes sense to you.

Before I visit a place, I usually browse through Internet photos, all of which, you know, usually show that place in its best light. With Wanaka, when I visited the spots I had seen in photos, I wasn’t let down. Not even once. The town in real life is just as picturesque and vibrant, if not more, as how it is captured in photos.

Wanaka, thank you for over-delivering.

*****

I came to Wanaka from Mt. Cook by way of Twizel (still with Intercity bus. If memory serves me right, there is no direct bus from Mt. Cook to Wanaka. You will have to stop over at Twizel). The entire journey took about 5 hours, the last two of which were a feast for the eyes, as everything that the bus passed by- mountains, trees, farms, and lakes- was bathed in the afternoon warm golden light. When the bus pulled into the parking lot, I barely could keep my excitement in check.

Wanaka is situated in a glacier carved basin on the shores of Lake Wanaka. It is a small town, but quite lively for its size. For me, that was a very welcoming change, especially after a few days in the sparsely populated Mackenzie region where there wasn’t any real good food or coffee.

I allocated four days in Wanaka. It surprised people I met a little bit, because it’s a tiny town and people usually spend a day or two before moving on to their next destination. Wanaka itself doesn’t offer that many things to see and to do, but the surrounding region is a treasure trove of attractions and activities. Mt Aspiring National Park is a prime example.

The sad reality, however, is I didn’t get to experience a lot during my stay either due to…budget constraints 🙁  I didn’t have a rental car, so my only option was organized tours. I love guided tours in New Zealand, since they can be quite informative, but heaven knows they are also prohibitively expensive. Like, I wanted to go on one of Eco Wanaka adventures, but the prices got me 🙁 Fortunately, everything I was able to see was gorgeous and surpassed my expectations so it remains a memorable experience at the end of the day.

Now, without further ado, let me show you what you shouldn’t miss in Wanaka.

1. Roys Peak Track

Multiple eye-gasms!!!

If there were a contest for the best-est free activity to do in Wanaka, I’d wholeheartedly vote for this. With one caveat!

While it’s free of charge, it will cost you a hell lot of calories. People could describe the hike in the most vivid, flowery words, but the simple truth is you just climb a mountain from the base to the top. It’s not the distance (11 km in total), but the steepness (almost 1,600 meters), that makes this track grueling. You don’t have to be an athlete or a seasoned hiker to complete it, but you have to be in good health.

But the views along the way are sensational and only keep getting better. The climax is when you get to the summit with a panoramic view of Lake Wanka, the surrounding peaks and Mount Aspiring. There are two summits to conquer; most people will stop at the first. I conquered both, and while I felt a tad more accomplished, you don’t have to do the same. The first one already will drive you crazy!

(Remember to bring more than enough water and some snacks. The track begins at the parking lot 15 minutes drive from the town center. If you don’t drive, you can try hitchhiking (which is time-consuming and not guaranteed), or take a taxi for NZD 20.)

They will cheer you on 😀

I always wonder when a track is said to take a certain number of hours, does that duration already take into account breaks? For me, it usually takes 2-3 hours more than what is estimated; I pause a lot. Not because I’m too tired, but because I need to absorb what’s in front of me and take photos. I’m not weird, right?

I genuinely feel New Zealand is one of Mother Nature’s most favorite children

I love this view unreservedly!

Here I am, at the very top. Listen, who looks this stoic and dresses like this going on a steep, knee-killing 7 hour- 16 km long- 1600m high hike up the mountain? I do, haha. Why? Because I’ll be shivering, de-hyrated, and out of breath when I get to the top no matter what, and so I’d want to be all of that (and I indeed was) in something that makes me feel I’m in my element rather than in, say, Northface or Columbia. Not that there is anything wrong with Northface or Columbia; it’s just that I’m not a windbreaker & sweatpants kind of person so I don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not, you know 😀

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20 Photos of the Awe-Inspiring Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook

This, I feel, is one of Mother Nature’s greatest hits! 

Writing about my trip around New Zealand has become increasingly difficult. Every place that I visited lived up to, or even surpassed, my expectations; my reactions were essentially always the same, “This is too much.” I can only rave about its otherworldly beauty.

The wildest, most pristine, jaw-dropping, and formidable place I went to was Mount Cook National Park, which is part of the MacKenzie Country. This region is situated in the center of South Island and based around the Mackenzie Basin, a expansive intermontane basin in the eastern shadow of the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain (3724 m). Water from the melting glaciers fill three large lakes: Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau, which feed the Waitaki River and the country’s largest hydroelectric scheme.(Wikivoyage)

The region’s history is a intriguing read as well. In short, it was named after James Mackenzie, a shepherd from Scotland. He was accused of stealing sheep from a large farm with the aid of his dog (stories with dogs always hit my sweet spot!) and captured, but then escaped and recaptured. This Catch Me If You Can game happened several times before he was acquitted. People admired his rebelliousness and audacity and honored him that way. Here is the unabridged version for your reading pleasure.

The two most prominent spots to visit in the MacKenzie Country are Lake Tekapo and Aoraki/Mount Cook Village.

1. LAKE TEKAPO

It was a blessing that the weather at Lake Tekapo was mostly cooperative on the day I visited.

What sets Lake Tekapo apart from the many lakes you have seen and will see is its striking turquoise blue water, which is created by “rock flour” – the glaciers in the headwaters grind the rock into fine dust. The color is amplified on a clear, sunny day.

When I stepped off the Intercity bus, I was stunned. A vast, menacing body of water in the shade of blue that was unlike anything I had seen before. The vast majority of Lake Tekapo photos and postcards shows stands of purple, pink and white lupines in the foreground and the turquoise blue lake and snow-capped mountains in the background. I visited in autumn so there was not any lupine, but I still had multiple eyegasms with the golden brown grasses.

Behind every nature photo of New Zealand you see are a hell lot of hoops I had to jump through to be able to take it. Lake Tekapo looks very calming, bucolic, and photographer-friendly in this photo, but goodness knows I was almost knocked down by the raging wind in the process.

After checking in the YHA, I immediately headed back to the lake. The radiant light lasted for about two hours before apocalyptic-looking clouds almost engulfed the sky. The wind grew stronger. I made it back to the hostel in time before it started pouring and spent the rest of the day hanging out with fellow travelers in the common room, in front of the fireplace. With the rain rattling against the windows, it felt so cozy.

The one thing I did not enjoy about Lake Tekapo (and New Zealand in general) was the food. And I am only saying it as a matter of fact; I am not disparaging the food scene there because I understand that this is a far-off and sparsely populated region.

When I arrived, I was starving and had an intense craving for Asian food. It is such a tiny town that the number of places to eat can be counted on two hands. I went into Jade Palace (the only Chinese restaurant) and ordered the wonton noodle soup. Everything else on the menu is so damn overpriced (considering how basic it is). The soup itself turned out to be a pitiable embarrassment. It definitely was the worst wonton noodle soup I have ever tasted in my life, but I would not consider it a complete waste of money, as thanks to it, I was full for a few hours. Oh and the people working in the restaurant were not very hospitable. No surprise that it has mostly appalling reviews. I would never go back!

In the evening, at the suggestion of Jo’di, my new Singaporean friend, I braved the rain and wind with a borrowed headline  to get  Japanese food at KOHAN, which is within walking distance from the Chinese one. True to form, everything about it is superior, from the manners of the staff, the ambience, the prices, to the quality of the food. I recommend without any reservation!

A quick glimpse of the gentle sunrise before I departed at 7.30AM the following day.

2. LAKE PUKAKI

Not too far away from Lake Tekapo and on the way to Mount Cook is Lake Pukaki, the largest of the three alpine lakes mentioned above. Most buses will make a pit stop here for people to take photos. 

Morning cloud orgy 😀

3. AORAKI/ MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK

Mount Cook is often covered in clouds, and my first day was no exception. 

Mount Cook is the place that defies the “It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey” maxim. It is the place that makes me acutely aware of how inadequate my writing abilities are, as I cannot put into words its magnitude and magnificence.

The route from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook is the most scenic I have ever been on. But as I was on the bus, I could not take any photo. I was intensely jealous of people in cars because they were able to stop anytime they wanted along the way. For the sake of brevity, just look at this photo.

However, nothing really prepared for the moments of officially entering the zone. Words to convey thoughts and feelings started to fall short.

I spent a day and half there and did not feel physically great enough to tackle long walks, so on both days I chose the Kea Point track, which takes about 2 hours. I skipped the popular Hooker Valley Track this time, as it takes longer. But I do not feel like I missed out, because I know I will return.

Visual stimulation!

The rewards for finishing the track are insane views of the Southern Alps (in this photo, obstructed by clouds) and Mueller Glacier lake. 

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3 Lovely Things to Do in Kaikoura. 2 of Them Are Free!

My exact reaction when I saw this sight (you guys will have to excuse the profanity. I was truly overwhelmed): “Fcuk fcuk, NZ IS MAGIC.”)

Kaikoura is not the place that immediately springs to mind when it comes to New Zealand’s South Island. Many fellow travelers I met along the way skipped it, as they either did not know where it is or deemed it not special enough. I myself had not had any idea in the beginning, either. However, when I saw this beautiful seal photo, I quickly made a mental note. The seal is so adorable, and I had never, ever seen seals before. Upon further research, the town turned out to be conveniently located between Picton, where I would begin my South Island tour, and the next stop, Christchurch.

Kaikoura and me, it really was meant to be 😀

Initially, I planned to get there by taking the Coastal Pacific train with KiwiRail, which promises unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean. But digging deeper into the reviews, I learned that the journey itself would not be as amazing as it is touted to be. Plus, it costs more than a hundred, so in the end I opted for the InterCity bus (only NZD 25).

Now, I did not take the train so I am not able to give you a final take-it-or-leave-it verdict, since just being on the train is an experience in and of itself. For me, however, I care about the views and the affordability more than the romance of traveling by train. If you are like me and on the fence about what to take, bus is your answer. Rest assured, what you see from the bus is still quite decent.

Kaikoura is a small coastal town on the east coast, about 2 hours and a half away from Christchurch by car. It is blessed with the most spectacular landscapes, high mountains on one side and the mighty Pacific Ocean on the other, and a diverse range of marine life. Most notable are whales, dolphins, seals, and crayfish (rock lobster). If you have always dreamed of coming into contact with those mammals, your dream will be realized here!

I had a slightly better time in Kaikoura than I did in Picton. Partly because Kaikoura is a little more vibrant and there are more things to do, and partly because the accommodation was better and I met some lovely characters. (Picton is really eerily quiet at night. It’s safe, but I can never feel wholly at peace walking around to find a place to eat at 7PM, and there already is no other human in sight.) I stayed at YHA, which boasted a beach front location. For two mornings, I woke up to the soothing sounds of waves crashing, the pungent salty smell of the ocean, and the dazzling colors of sunrise. In terms of views, it was unsurpassed; I did not have anything more wonderful during the rest of my time in the country. (The Mt. Cook YHA offers incredible views, too, but I’m more of an ocean person than a mountain one.)

I am not lying. This was the view from the window. If this were what I get to see every morning when I wake up, I’m sure I wouldn’t be as high-strung and restless as I usually am 😀

Unfortunately, one week after I left, it was permanently closed due to rockslide threat. After 50 years in operation. It was shocking and saddening, perhaps even more so for the staff there. YHA said it would build another one in town, but where and when remains to be seen.

Hopefully, it will still be beach-front like this. 

*****

Kaikoura offers a fair share of cool activities, but they all come with a price. And since it was only the second stop of my trip around the island, I could not let myself partake in all of them. I had to pick and choose, and so two days was the perfect amount of time.

Now, allow me to share with you the three activities I enjoyed most.

1. The Peninsula Walkway

It was really, really hard for me to remain composed when I saw this.

This is, without any question, the most amazing thing I did in Kaikoura. I did the whole walkway, which takes about a little more than 3 hours to complete. You don’t have to walk the entire track, of course!

It is free, easy (compared to other walks I did), not crowded, and the views along the way are so violently eyegasmic. The formidable Pacific Ocean, the rugged cliff formations, the tidal platforms, the multi-colored grasses, and the forest…GLORIOUS!

The weather was quiet cooperative as well, with intermittent and timely sessions of sunshine and clouds. I am generally not a fan of cloudy weather, but the clouds ended up lending some of the sceneries a beautiful, foreboding vibe.

It couldn’t have been any better. Number 1 on your Kaikoura must-do list, if you ask me!

I, for the record, believe Mother Nature is the best artist.

This is what I consider a front-row view.

I do not know the technical terms to describe what I photograph here, but it is for sure million years old. I love the extraterrestrial feel of it. 

I had goosebumps. SOOOO GORGEOUS!!!

Pacific Ocean in its glory. 

There is nothing more formidable yet therapeutic and calming than oceans. Agree or disagree?

I had a very Into The Wild moment passing through this forest on the way back to town. 

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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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