The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Fun (page 1 of 2)

Living the High Life in Saigon

If it hadn’t been for the Vietnamese on the signs that lined the frenetic streets, I could have mistaken it for New York. High rises towered above, streets clogged with motor and foot traffic, men in business suits bustled down sidewalks, and neon signs advertised everything from Coca Cola to the evening news.

Sure, there were still the markers of a large Asian city: Banh Mi and Pho street carts, alleyways full of stalls bursting with fresh produce, live poultry and very dead, yet-to-be-butchered pigs.

But Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), was a mad mix of it’s Vietnamese roots and it’s love affair with the West. Perhaps because it was home to many American soldiers during the Vietnam War, perhaps because of it’s proximity to economic giant China, or perhaps because Westerners are flocking toward the opportunity in Asia, Saigon was a surprise.

I was lucky to have a host for my time the city, a friend I had worked with in Seattle who had moved here to continue his career in advertising. After two months in Asia, I decided to take a (little) break from Asian food, and so we set out to eat and drink our way through this glittering metropolis.

Where We Ate: 

Saffron
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Price: $20 – $35 USD for appetizer, main, and wine.
Walk into this cozy, tasteful little bistro, and expect an immediate and effusive greeting from either the lovely staff or the French-Vietnamese owner. Upon sitting, you’ll be brought a glass of champagne (gratis!) and an overview of the specials for the day. They take their food very seriously, and have a menu that will leave you struggling to make a decision. I dined entirely off the specials menu, which consisted of a baked brie appetizer (I hadn’t had cheese in ages!) and a seafood paella that was very delicious. I also was finally able to indulge in red wine! To end the meal, a limoncello shot and a fragrant flower bracelet. By Vietnamese standards, it was a ‘splash out’ meal, but for less than $40 USD I was stuffed, tipsy, and definitely happy.

Baked Brie

Finally… CHEESE!

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The roof inside Saffron – clay pots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Urban Kitchen + Bar
Cuisine: Vietnamese-Western Fusion
Price: $12 – $18 for brunch
The interior of this industrial space made me feel tres chic as I sipped my Vietnamese coffee in a desperate attempt to rid myself of a hangover. We had come for their weekend brunch, and I dug into my baked eggs and bacon hash with gusto as coffee after coffee disappeared. This was a locals place if ever there was one – in the heart of Japan Town, surrounded by upper-class Vietnamese and other expats, with a menu to match. It apparently also does a good business as a late-night cocktail and snacks bar, too.

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

L’Usine
Cuisine: French Bistro
Price: $7 – 14 for lunch
The hipster movement hasn’t left Vietnam untouched, if this boutique/home goods shop/bistro is any indication. It’s the sort of place I’d park with my laptop all day, ordering Croque Madames and coffees and pretending I was penning the next great American (Vietnamese?) novel. The shop has all sorts of interesting and adorable trinkets that would make very unique souvenirs or gifts for friends and family back home. Just beware, the price of goods within the shop match American prices – no deals here!

So French! So Creative!

So French! So Creative!

Secret Garden
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price: $10 – $12 for dinner
I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one Vietnamese restaurant in my culinary tour of HCMC. Set in a pretty courtyard on the top floor of an easily-missed building in a laneway, this one is worth seeking out. It’s authentic, it’s not flashy, and the food is delicious. And it’s cheap! Maybe not street-cart cheap, but inexpensive enough to miss on your credit statement.

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Where We Drank:

Glow Skybar
What’s a big weekend out without an evening on a rooftop? Here I started off with a (strong) martini, and the rest of night got fuzzy pretty soon thereafter. If you want to avoid the backpacker scene and see what a weekend out would look like if you lived and worked here, this is place to go. It’s a see-and-be-seen sort of spot where the locals always seem to run into a friend or two.

Just getting the night started...

Just getting the night started…

Chill
Another rooftop bar? These seem to be the the thing to do for the business crowd of this city. This one is a little flashier, and little more colorful, but also with good cocktails and service.

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Lush
I’ll be honest: My memory of this place is pretty fuzzy. I recall a huge bar in the middle of the place, a luxe VIP area and bottle service with some heavy-hitters in the Saigon advertising scene, dancing in a cage for a few minutes, and little else. But I’m assured by my guide that it is indeed one of the more fun places to visit, if you aren’t white girl wasted like I was.

It's a cage. But it's fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night...

It’s a cage. But it’s fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night…

After only a few days in the city, I could almost see myself living there. With so much influence from the US and Europe, many of the creature comforts of home are readily catered to, and with a booming economy, opportunity abounds. Don’t be surprised if Ho Chi Minh City is the next ‘it’ place for city-lovers to live in Southeast Asia.

Koh Samui

“What is that?” I asked to the top of a small head covered in spiky black hair.

“Crocodile!” mischievous brown eyes danced up to mine as a small finger finished carving lines into the sand in front of us. A big smile revealed a smattering of browned teeth and dimples carved into smooth brown skin.

“A crocodile! So it is!” I exclaimed, turning my head sideways to see that he had, indeed, drawn a very good likeness of a crocodile into the sand between us.

I had been sprawled on Lamai Beach in Koh Samui for most of the day, with the latter part of the afternoon spent drawing in the sand with a four-year-old boy named Davon. His mother hovered nearby with the other women who walked the beach peddling manicures and pedicures, observing his unofficial English lesson.

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The little artist

After a week of relaxed lounging in Koh Lanta, Koh Samui’s pace took a little getting used to. We spent four days exploring this island in the Gulf of Thailand, and here’s an overview of what we found:

The Areas We Explored:

  1. Chaweng: This is Thailand at full-tilt Tourist, with a capital T. There are bright lights, heaps of restaurants and clubs vying for tourist dollars, and people peddling everything under the sun on the streets and beaches. One night, while sitting at dinner on the busy main drag of Chaweng Beach Road, a truck with a boxing ring in the back drove by, blaring music while two Muay Thai fighters staged a fight in the back of the moving truck.
    • Food: It’s very hit-and-miss here. We had one Thai dinner that was great, despite the touristy name of the restaurant (Khao San), and we had one dinner where my meat was so under-cooked I had to send it back. Do you research on this one, because an empty stomach is a terrible thing to waste on bad food.
    • Lodging: Everything under the sun, from five-star resorts to cheap and cheerful beachfront places, like Lucky Mother, where we stayed on recommendation from Lonely Planet.
    • Nightlife and Attractions: If you want to party, Chaweng is the place to do it.  The most famous places are Ark Bar and Green Mango. Beth and I split a bucket on the sand at Ark Bar, and the resulting fuzziness led us to agree to a 100-baht photo opp with a clearly drugged monkey, though we didn’t realize it until it was too late. On that note, don’t go to the monkey or tiger attractions that are touted around the island. The animals are drugged and terribly mistreated, no matter what the owners/salesmen say, and you would be contributing to this mistreatment! Beth and I are still trying to forgive ourselves for our tipsy misjudgment.
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  2. Lamai: In contrast to Chaweng, Lamai is smaller and more relaxed, and it seemed that more expats tended to center in this area. There are still salespeople who troll the beaches peddling manicures, pedicures, food and ice cream, but they aren’t as aggressive or as numerous. Many are happy simply to have a conversation with you, or draw animals in the sand!
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    • Food: Most of your options here are restaurants embedded into the hotels/bungalows that line the beach. I found that the food was more consistently good here than it was in Chaweng, and we caught a pretty cool fire show at Swing Bar, which also served passable Mexican food, because sometimes eating Thai food for a month is a little hard.
    • Lodging: Like in Koh Lanta, we stayed in a super simple beach bungalow without air conditioning. On the downside, this place didn’t have a private bathroom attached (there was a shared one at the back of the bungalows), but on the plus side, our bungalow was right on the water. As in, step off our little porch, walk 20 feet, and you are in the Gulf of Thailand.
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    • Nightlife and Attractions: Lamai has its share of beachfront bars, like Chaweng, but they don’t seem to last as late into the night, and they don’t seem to be quite as crowded. It strikes a nice balance between having places to go if you’re keen for a few drinks, and not pushing the party too hard.
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  3. Bophut/Fisherman’s Village: This is honeymoon Koh Samui. The highest concentration of fancy resorts and nice hotels seemed to line the waterfront here. The town was also nicely kept, and had an artsy vibe to it. We spent a day here, since an overnight in one of the fancy hotels was outside of our budget range, but it had a nice feel to it.IMG_20150315_150628
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    • Food: There were several restaurants with all different types of cuisine, but what really lured us to Fisherman’s Village was Cheeseburger Cheeseburger. After two weeks of Thai food, we just really wanted a good ‘ol American meal, and this place seemed the closest we would get. Since they ship their beef from Australia (instead of using the water buffalo beef of Southeast Asia), we knew we had to give it shot. It wasn’t quite In N Out Burger, but it was pretty close. And for that, we were thankful.
    • Lodging: We didn’t stay in Fisherman’s Village, but as we walked along the beachfront we noticed several very nice hotels with lush pool areas, plush rooms, and attached spas. We knew that if this were a different kind of trip, this is probably where we would want to stay. We made mental notes to tell our respective boyfriends about it, in case they felt the need for a surprise trip in the future.
    • Attractions/Nightlife: We didn’t stay out too late here, but it seemed to be the most subdued of the three areas we explored, likely due to the difference in clientele that seemed to frequent the area. There was a pleasant beer garden in a plaza just up the walk from the beach, so we stayed and enjoyed a couple of brews before heading back to the madness that was Chaweng for the rest of the evening.

I watched a small finger drawing more lines into the sand in front of me. When Davon finished, he looked up at me expectantly. I looked down at a perfect stick-figure likeness of me, reclining under a palm tree and reading my Kindle, temporarily etched into the sand of Lamai Beach. I smiled at him, and he smiled at me, running away wordlessly as his mother called him away to go home for dinner.

 

The Wines of Marlborough

After tasting our way through Waiheke near Auckland and Central Otago near Queenstown, we knew we couldn’t miss the most famous of wine regions in New Zealand: Marlborough.

With an overnight in Picton, gateway to Marlborough and the place to catch the ferry from the south island to the north, we decided our best bet to fill the one day we had there was (once again) wine. So we went to the local i-Site and signed ourselves up for a ferry trip and a wine tour, and off we went!

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Marlborough is most famous for it’s Sauvignon Blanc; you’ll see it on wine menus the world over. We were lucky enough to explore a little deeper than this acidic white. Here’s where we went:

Hunters

This is one of the more famous vineyards in the region, and the Hunter family is credited with putting the Marlborough region on the map. Sadly, Ernie Hunter, who founded the winery with his wife, Jane, died in a motor accident shortly after they ‘made it,’ leaving his wife to tirelessly carry on the legacy. She is now a VIP in the wine world, and her wines are sold all over the world. We made our way through a couple of Chardonnays, a Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc (obviously), and a Pinot Noir that was actually our favorite. But that could partly be because, after living in Australia for 3 years, I was Sauv-Blanc-ed out.

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Drylands

This place was like a wine emporium; a variety of labels lined the shelves. We tasted from Drylands itself, with the Sauvignon Blanc winning the day with its fruit and balanced acidity. The tasting room was nicely laid out for purchasing a variety of wine-related accouterments, and they were in the process of adding more space when we visited.

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Forrest

This vineyard had the prettiest cellar door, and a very knowledgeable staff who took us out into the vines and explained the process they use to grow, trim, and maintain the vines. There are few labels under the Forrest umbrella, and we tasted from Forrest and The Doctors (an homage to the owners’ former profession). At this point, we suffered a bit from overtasting (and we weren’t spitting), so it’s hard to remember what to recommend here, though I do recall being impressed with the reds from the Doctor’s line.

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Eradus

Our final wine stop was a small, Dutch-family run cellar door that wasn’t on the premises of the vineyard itself. We were able to taste their entire range, which was made up of a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Rose, Pinot Noir, and dessert wine called Sticky Mickey, in honor of the owner of the vineyard. We decided to bring a bottle of the Pinot Noir back with us to have with dinner, but the whites were good as well.

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By the end, the older ladies were coming up to us with shining eyes and commenting on how we were tasting everything, and not spitting. We just smiled and admitted that we’re lushes, but I think everyone on our tour was a little tipsy. We’d had enough to think twerking next to our tour bus was a good idea…

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So when our tour guide suggested a stop off at a Chocolate Factory, there was a resounding cheer from the bus. After a serious sampling session, we were dropped back at our hostel with a package of dark chocolate and a bottle of Pinot Noir, and decided that a cheese and meat plate was just what the doctor ordered for dinner.

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And this concluded our wine tour of New Zealand!

Franz Josef Glacier: Walking on Ice

Sneakers crunch over billions of glittering diamonds, throwing rainbow magic into the sky. But these gems have a love affair with the bed of ice upon which they sit — try to remove them, and they melt away, leaving nothing but their tears of mourning at the separation.

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The cobalt sky boldly steals all color from the lack beneath. A mechanical heartbeat is the only sound to break the silence, and breath is seen rather than heard. The valley merely tolerates the presence of these interlopers, having looked on at passerby for millions of years and seeming to know that this, too, will pass. Time means nothing, it is simply the passage of the sun, sometimes building up and sometimes taking away.

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The mountain peak, given the name of a man by man, ignores it all and stands sentry to this treasure trove, towering above all with forbidding beauty. There is nothing soft here. The wind whips snow and ice into razor-sharp peaks, black basalt elbows it’s way through a hard crust of ice, the mountain pushes itself into the sky in sharp, jutting movements. All is right angles and a contrast of color — here, there are no shades of grey.

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I flew here on a wave of trust, borne on by the goodwill of strangers, and found myself here among the diamonds, cowed by the artistry of nature yet again.

A Vintage Mode of Transport

Have you read On the Road by Jack Kerouac? Of course you have, you little hipster you. If not, it’s a manic love story about life on the highways of America. Jack was the OG travel blogger, and the book will make you fall in love with America, traveling, or both a little. Or at least make you go on a roadtrip.

Either way, in much of the novel, the protagonist is flat broke and manages to get across the country through a series of intense moochings – crashing with ‘friends’ he met once at a party, hopping on and off moving trains, and… hitchhiking.

This was obviously pre-Ted Bundy, when hitchhiking around the US was a common occurrence. But throw in a few serial killers and the modern, sensationalist network news machine, and hitchhiking in America went the way of gluten. Nobody does it anymore.

Hitchhiking was never something that was on my bucket list, nor had I ever really considered it a valid mode of transport. It was from a different time, Jack’s time. When people inherently trusted each other, which is definitely not right now. But somehow I found myself on the side of the road outside Queenstown, New Zealand, holding a cardboard sign that said “Wanaka” while my sister held up her thumb and smiled at every passing car.

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And so began a 523 km/325 mile journey up the west coast of the south island of New Zealand without paying a dime for transport. My friends who were living in Queenstown convinced me I needed to at least try it, with even the ‘cheap’ buses that ply the route being super expensive thanks to summer and last minute bookings. And in a total of five trips, we found ourselves in Greymouth, where we had our very first paid drive.

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Saving some money was nice, but want to know the best thing about it? The people we met!

Frieda and Emma – Queenstown to Wanaka – 67km/42 mi.

Two Dutch (Swedish?) girls picked us up just outside Queenstown, promptly repacking their campervan to make room for my sister and me and our bags. We made the typical traveler idle chat for a while before we tuned into the iPod as we wound over the mountains. We only spent an hour together, but we reveled in the fact that we were sharing our first hitchhiking experience (theirs as drivers, ours as riders) together!

Day 1: Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier

Allan – Wanaka to Haast – 142km/88 mi.

We owe a huge debt to Mr. Alan – he was by far one of the best people that could have picked us up. A Kiwi in his early sixties, he not only waved off our offers to pay for gas, he actually stopped at popular hikes and waterfalls in the area and let us explore a bit, all while giving us a rundown of the history of the place. It was like being on a guided tour, but without the price tag.

I Can’t Pronouce, Let Alone Spell (2 Israelis) – Haast to Fox Glacier – 121km/75 mi. 

These two were Israeli friends from outside Jerusalem who had just finished their turn in the Israeli Army. They loved the fact that we were American (thus I learned firsthand the impact of controversial foreign policy) but weren’t so fond of Obama. Loved Bush, though. We had lots of talks about American films, television, and music, and I told them to YouTube the Hannukah Song by Adam Sandler after we had a long conversation about his films. I kind of wish I could have seen their faces when they listened to it.

Lee – Fox Glacier to Franz Josef Glacier – 23km/14 mi.

The day was getting long and we were worries that we might have missed our chance to catch a ride the short distance between the glaciers, but like a knight in shining armor, DUDE and his cute golden retriever showed up to save the day! He was a construction worker originally from Manchester who had been in NZ for the better part of 20 years, and we squeezed into his tiny two-seater. Beth happily shared the hatchback trunk with NAME, the dog for the quick drive.

Day 2: Franz Josef to Greymouth

Olly and Mom – Franz Josef to Greymouth – 173km/108 mi.

We owe our greatest debt of gratitude to this hilarious pair, a young Maori guy and his chain-smoking, opinionated mother who cursed like a sailor. They happened to live in Greymouth, and had been in Franz to do some painting, which was the family business. Listening to their banter was like listening to a comedy routine, and Olly was an awesome DJ for the stretches between conversations.

New Zealand is probably the last country on earth you can safely hitchhike (that could also be entirely untrue), and I’m glad that we pushed ourselves to give it a try. Not only did it save us nearly $300, but we got to have contact with local Kiwis in ways we never would have otherwise. Afterward, we lamented our failure to take photos with each of the people who drove us, but they will live on in our hearts forever.

Disclaimer: The south island of NZ is safest for hitchhikers; buses or car rental are recommended for the North. As usual, common sense and your intuition are your best guides. Never get in a car with anyone who gives you a creepy vibe, and be especially careful if you are a solo female. 

The Wines of Central Otago

Continuing our trend set our first few days in Waiheke, we decided a wine tasting of the Otago Valley was definitely order. Because Pinot Noir. Because it’s our favorite red, and it grows like no other in the cooler climate of southern NZ. Because the country outside Queenstown is some of the most beautiful in the world, and what better way to see it than with a glass of wine in hand?

After a little investigation into pre-organized wine tours, we discovered that the cost for the three of us would have easily been nearly $200, so we hatched a plan. Amanda posted on a Facebook forum for Queenstown locals to see if anyone would like to supply a vehicle and sobriety for a day. We would supply $100 NZD, lunch, gas, and sparkling (if slurry) conversation. In no time, we had dozens of offers.

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We were picked up in time to make it to the first winery by the time the tasting room had opened. Our itinerary was as follows:

Peregrine:

The wine here was good, but not memorable. The huge barrel room directly behind you as you taste certainly is, though! After a wander through the barrels and a careful consideration of two Rieslings, a Sauvignon Blanc, and two Pinot Noirs, we picked up a bottle of their easy drinking 2013 Saddleback Pinot Noir to drink later, because it was both our favorite and the cheapest! Those two things weren’t linked, I promise. Okay, maybe they were.
Tasting Cost: Free; bottle purchase recommended

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Wooing Tree: 

The wines here were all enjoyable. We started with a chardonnay that didn’t win any fans, then tasted our way through three Pinot Noirs, 2013, 2011, and 2010. We finished with a dessert Rose made from Pinot Noir grapes that we all absolutely adored, so much so that we bought a bottle. It’s cutesy name Tickled Pink was adored when tipsy, but groan-worthy once sober. Either way, it was delicious!
Tasting Cost: $5 without bottle purchase; free with purchase.

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Mt. Difficulty:

We stopped here for lunch, a couple of meat and cheese platters that had us swooning (though I rarely meet a meat and cheese platter I don’t like). We did a tasting to see what glass we should have with lunch, and opted for a delicate, light 2014 Chenin Blanc. The view from the vineyard was also stunning, looking out over several different vineyards that populate the Bannockburn region of the Central Otago Valley.
Tasting Cost: Free

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Chard Farm:

The drive to this vineyard is pure New Zealand: a dusty, one-lane road carved into a mountainside, falling steeply to a fluorescent blue river. Across the highway, bungee jumpers are braving a free fall off an old bridge. After a few nail-biting minutes, rows of vines cradle you until you arrive safely at the tasting room. There, you’re rewarded with some of the juiciest pinot noirs in the area. Try them all, but stick to the reds if you’re trying to avoid getting wine drunk. My favorite is the Mata Au, but i haven’t tried the single vineyard varieties yet. They also have great deals on pre-selected boxes of their favorite bottles. Not to be missed!
Tasting Cost: Free

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Magical Queenstown

There’s a certain kind of magic that hangs around Queenstown that’s apparent from the moment you step off the plane and gape at the Remarkables mountain range towering overhead. Scratch that, it’s apparent before your plane even touches down, as you see the mountain peaks approaching and can see the deep blue lake stretching out in the valley, with a small town hugging one end.

Since I had been here before, I held back on any remark after our arrival, to see if my sister felt the same thing I felt any time I was here. As we trudged through the airport parking lot, I heard a ‘Wow…” and turned to see her snapping photos of those same mountains that had stunned me the first time I laid eyes on them, and at every subsequent viewing since.

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The feeling doesn’t stop once you’re in town – cafes, bars, shops, and beautiful hotels line the streets of ‘downtown,’ if it can be called that. It’s a perfect-sized town; enough variety to keep things interesting, small enough for you to get your bearings within 24 hours. It’s clean, beautiful, and full of happy people. Because how can anyone be surrounded by those mountains and that lake and not be happy?

We used Queenstown as our base to explore the surrounding area, and stayed with our friend Dan, who I met through Amanda, who I met when I hosted her in Sydney through CouchSurfing. They had chosen to settle down in Queenstown for several months to work, replenish bank accounts, and just enjoy the awesomeness that is QT. Needless to say, Dan and his roommates were all awesome, especially Toa, the sweet Staffie who shared the couch with me on a particularly cold night.

My Amazing Hosts

My Amazing Hosts

Toa, My Love

Toa, My Love

We spent a few nights getting acquainted with the bars of Queenstown. Since we were with ‘locals,’ we skipped the touristy attractions such as Ice Bar and instead made for places like Rhinos, The Find, and Vinyl, where we rocked out to a band that specialized in early 2000s pop punk with a mini guitar as a prop. And of course the famous Ferg Burger factored in as a dinner once or twice as well (Insider tip: you can call in your order and skip the hour long line at the window). The first time I came to Queenstown (on a slightly bigger budget), Eichardts and Botswana Butchery topped the list of pricier places to eat and drink.

Getting Cray with the Ukelele

Getting Cray with the Ukelele

FERG!

FERG!

We also visited the gondola and downhill luge at Skyline on the mountain above town, and even hiked up to the Ben Lomond saddle behind the tourist complex. What we thought might be a relatively easy 3 hour hike turned out to be a grueling 4 hours up a steep incline that left us sore for days. But what a view from the other side!

Luging

Luging

Before We Knew What We Were Getting Into

Before We Knew What We Were Getting Into

Struggle Street

Struggle Street

We Made It!

We Made It!

The Payoff

The Payoff

When it was time to say goodbye, my sister and I both didn’t want to leave. But who wants to leave such a beautiful place? But glaciers, national parks, and other adventures beckoned, so off we went!

The Wines of Waiheke

The first time I went to New Zealand, I visited Auckland for a couple of days. Everyone told me to get out as quickly as possible, that there isn’t much in Auckland worth sticking around for. But since we had an overnight there anyway, I went exploring and found Waiheke Island.

On my second round of New Zealand exploring, I knew it was the best place to spend the couple of days we had on either side of our flights. Why do I love Waiheke? A few reasons: The relaxed beachy vibe, the beautiful vistas from the hilltops, the friendliness of the locals. But the biggest reason? WINE. There are vineyards all over Waiheke (pronounced WAI-heck-ay), which appreciates a little warmer and more stable climates than Auckland.

We spent a total of four days on Waiheke Island between the start and end of our trips, and we had a very good sampling of the vineyards on the island. I have outlined our experience below:

Mudbrick:
http://www.mudbrick.co.nz/

This is my hands-down favorite. It’s not necessarily the wine that’s my favorite, but the vineyard is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever set foot on. It looks a bit like a French country home, with a vegetable and herb garden out front, beautiful flowers blooming out of wine barrels, bougainvillea climbing the walls, and a showstopping view of downtown Auckland over the water. When you think of a vineyard wedding, you think of a vineyard like Mudbrick. The wine is decent, but nothing that’s ever made me swoon. But that view… now that is swoon-worthy.
Tasting Fee: $10 / 5 ‘standard’ wines, $15 / 5 ‘premium’ wines
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Cable Bay:
http://cablebay.co.nz/

I’d venture that this is the most famous vineyard on the island, and it’s just a 5 minute walk from Mudbrick. Thus, it boasts a beautiful view as well, but not as good as the view from Mudbrick. It’s a sleeker and more modern building, which to me makes it feel like it lacks a little bit of soul. But to each his own! We tasted a very good sauvignon blanc here, but the reds that were on the tasting menu didn’t leave an impression.
Tasting Fee: $10 / 5 wines
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Stony Ridge:
http://www.stonyridge.co.nz/Home 

This is one of the oldest vineyards on the island. It’s tucked into a valley, with the tasting house and restaurant surrounded by it’s vines. It was very busy when we got there, but since we were getting lunch we decided to take our tasting in the restaurant. It’s famous for it’s Bordeaux-style reds (the Larose being the most famous), and they are certainly delicious! The food here wasn’t too bad either, fresh oysters and a cheese platter stacked with yummy trimmings.
Tasting Fee: $3 – $18 NZD per tasting, depending on the wine. Often have sets of reds or whites for $15 – $25, depending on the season.
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Te Motu:
http://www.temotu.co.nz/

The tasting room of Te Motu is set in a casual garden full of edibles for the restaurant’s kitchen. Cats laze about, glasses clink, and olive trees stretch out in the distance. This is just a short walk from Stony Ridge, so if you visit one, you should visit both. Te Motu is small, and the limited production is reflected in the prices for a glass or bottle, or even a tasting flight. But the wine is good, the food is adventurous, and it’s a great little spot to spend a couple of hours educating your tastebuds.
Tasting Fee: $20 / 5 ‘Heritage’ wines, occasionally flights of their less expensive label, Dunleavy for less.
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Casita Miro:
http://www.casitamiro.co.nz/

This pretty spot is an homage to the Spanish artist Miro, with mosaic tiling reminiscent of his style found all over the grounds. On this side of the island, they say there is a ‘wine trail’ that allows you to hike between Miro, Obsidian, Stony Ridge and Te Motu. We tried to take it and ended up getting lost and traipsing through some fields of wildflowers and sharp pricklers. But perhaps you might have better luck! Either way, you can walk between Miro and Obsidian. There is a beautiful little terrace above the restaurant that has a beautiful view out to sea, and the restaurant serves tapas.
Tasting Fee: $15 / 5 wines
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Obsidian:
http://www.obsidian.co.nz/

Last, but certainly not least, is Obsidian. This tasting room is no-frills: there are no glasses for sale (they don’t the license), there is no restaurant, but this had my favorite wine on the island. They had a 2012 Tempranillo and a 2010 Cab blend that I couldn’t say no to. I bought a bottle of each, and an extra Cab for a wine loving friend. Everything we tried from this small vineyard was delicious, but those two stood head and shoulders above everything I tried in our grand tour of the vineyards of Waiheke.
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If you’d like to have your own tour of Waiheke, there are no shortage of tour operators who would be happy to drive you around on a scheduled tour. If you prefer a little more freedom, the transport company Fullers offers hop-on-hop-off Vineyard Hopper bus tickets, and you can get a deal on these if you take the Fullers ferry to the island. Just purchase at the ferry terminal in Auckland.

If one day just isn’t enough (it seriously isn’t!), there are lots of really cute AirBnB listings all over the island. It’s a popular place for weekend & holiday homes, which means plenty of options that aren’t in a hotel! You’ll likely want to stay closer to Oneroa, the main town on the island, but Onetangi beach on the other end is a beautiful day trip, especially if you combine it with a visit to Obsidian!

Naviti Island: Manta Ray Resort

Manta Ray Resort was a bit of a disappointment.

First, the good:

The one saving grace of our experience on Manta Ray was the absolutely incredible snorkeling available directly in front of the resort. From the moment you put your mask into the water, another world teeming with life of all kinds greeted you. Thin, zippy, trumpetfish flashed past, curious zebrafish swam up close enough to touch, turning themselves onto their sides so they could eyeball you, and giant, fluorescent parrotfish bobbed toward the bottom, their thick lips gaping at everything in sight. So many varieties of fish I couldn’t name darted amongst an equally staggering variety of coral. Lavender flowers snuggled up to chartreuse bulbs (I had never seen chartreuse in nature before this day, but it’s actually a real color!), bursts of reddish-brown tendrils looked like pom poms waving in the current, and everywhere was azure, turquoise, cerulean. Sea cucumbers and cobalt starfish lazed on the sandy sea bottom between plumes of coral, with a few large and lazy mottled brown bottom feeders, mourning their plain appearance in contrast to the beauties that danced over their heads. The reef was alive with sound – little snaps and pops to accompany the ever-present silvery thrum.

On my last day out, the tide was low. Inexperienced swimmers (read: people who don’t appreciate a reef and would touch, stand, or otherwise kill it if they were allowed too close) were expressly forbidden to snorkel at low tide, but I sweet talked the dive shop guys into letting me go before the ferry arrived. After getting out, I was so lost in the world below me that I hadn’t realized I was nearly at the farthest buoy, the point which I wasn’t to swim past. As I turned to head closer to land, a 2.5 foot reef shark lazily slid from her place 8 feet below me and headed out for some privacy beyond the buoy while I was paralyzed with fear. She was gone within a moment, but it was the first time I’d swam by a shark I could actually see. I considered heading back to shore (sharks can smell fear, right?), and as I kept one eye on the murky place where the shark has disappeared, a 3.5 foot reef shark entered from nearer shore and passed just beneath me, entirely unconcerned by my presence. I was both terrified and awestruck – it was so close, so beautiful, and I was SO unprotected from sharp shark teeth. I headed closer to shore and stayed there for the rest of the morning.

A few other highlights: the super fun sunset floating cruise and free kayaking.
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Now, the bad: 

On paper, Manta Ray was the least expensive of the three resorts we stayed in, but the lack of quality far outstripped the savings. And when we totaled up the costs, they had managed to charge so much for things that other resorts offered for free (i.e. snorkel gear), that it wasn’t even the cheapest place we stayed.

The fact that there was no real beach, I could deal with. A tradeoff for the incredible marine reserve just offshore. But it was a letdown after the gorgeous sand of Blue Lagoon. The fact that the food wasn’t amazing, I could also deal with – it was edible and didn’t poison me, and that’s all I really ask for in a meal in a foreign country.

What I couldn’t deal with was the sleeping situation.

The dorms were stiflingly hot long after the breeze had cooled down the evening due to poor ventilation and no air conditioning units, and the one paltry wall fan that was meant to service two sets of bunk beds was more torture than relief. The moment you got a tiny bit of a breeze on your sweaty forehead, it was gone into another rotation, leaving you desperate and irate. When you’re marinating in 90 degrees at 10 p.m., all you want is a damn steady stream of air.

Add to this the fact that the sheets smelled like DEET, which immediately brought to mind visions of bedbugs. I have two fears while traveling on the cheap: Dengue Fever and Bedbugs. I sat up late, paranoid that every little tickle on my skin was a bug chomping on me. The mosquito nets that hung over each bed to make up for the lack of window screens kept tangling up into my arms and legs whenever I rolled over, and were hung so close to the beds that if I sat up, I’d be playing an adult version of my brother’s favorite childhood game, Caper. The one where he smothers me.

When I compare what we got for our money from Manta Ray to the other two resorts we stayed in, it just doesn’t measure up.

My recommendation: If you are a diver or very avid snorkeler, stay here for only night and snorkel your little ass off the entire time. Then get out, get far away, and get yourself into a resort where they have screens and an AC unit on the wall. Fortunately, our stay at Octopus Resort more than made up for it.

Trekking the Outback

I lurched forward at an impossible angle, leaning back as far as I could and clinging to the metal bar in front of me, desperately trying to keep myself from lurching into the red dust below. With another jerky movement, everything evened out again, and I was successfully astride a standing camel.

As a line of camels with human cargo began plodding forward, I was told that my glorious steed was named Bonnie, and that she was getting on in years but had been one of their best racing camels. I gave her a pat and whispered, “Let’s keep it below a trot today, okay Bon Bon?” Bonnie silently chewed her assent.

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Our girl, Bonnie

Behind me, a very large camel named Jack thrust his face dangerously close to my knee. Having been warned that he was a ‘proud camel’ and not to be overly affectionate, I tentatively scratched behind his ears. He impassively looked on, like this was the most boring thing in the world.

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This is Jack

And then we were off – trekking through the bright red sand as the sun slowly lowered itself toward the western horizon. Riding a camel was a surprisingly comfortable experience. Having learned to horseback ride as a child I expected the same necessity to squeeze/kick to get the animal going, but really our stirrups were just there for comfort. Once the lead camel started going, they all went. No sore legs after this trip!

We slowly slumped our way towards the border of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and were awarded with a phenomenal view of the sun setting behind Kata Tjuta and reflecting off of Uluru.

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We stopped for a short photo shoot (Bonnie out-posed us), and Jack thrust his head toward my knee again, baring his very sizable teeth and making me shrink away from him (well, as much as you shrink away with your leg pinned onto a 200-pound animal). I said a silent prayer that he wouldn’t take a fist-sized chunk out of my leg for daring to pet his proud head, and the guide laughed and said he was probably just barfing up his cud so he had something to chew. Charming.

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Glamour shots with Bon Bon

After about an hour and a half of trekking through the lands bordering the national park, we were treated to a couple of glasses of champagne and some ‘bush tucker’ snacks. My sister and I cheersed to another successful tick on the bucket list, gave Bonnie a farewell pat, and hurried back to our beds.

What: Camel to Sunset Tour
Website: http://ulurucameltours.com.au/ 
Cost: $125 per person
Booking Tips: If you’re in Uluru for a couple of days, call and book directly and ask how many are scheduled to be on the tour for the evenings you will be there, so you can potentially get a smaller group. If you want to splash out, you can trek via camel to the Sounds of Silence dinner too!

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