Must-do Niue Attractions, Exploring a Hidden Gem in the South Pacific

Must-do Niue Attractions, Exploring a Hidden Gem in the South Pacific

Niue is a small island in the South Pacific (just about 70 kilometers in circumference), about a 3.5 hour flight from Auckland.  It’s a magnet for divers and snorkel enthusiasts, because the lack of sandy beaches mean it has some of the cleanest waters in the South Pacific.  It has a close connection with New Zealand, so they use NZD as their currency and you can find L&P soda and hokey pokey ice cream sold everywhere. I spent four days in the place and absolutely fell in love.  It’s small enough that you can bike everywhere but there’s so many caves and swimming spots, that we barely stopped moving during our trip.  Here’s a list of must-do activities, most of which we were able to squeeze into four days on the island so they are tried & true Niue attractions. 1. Cliff jump at the Limu Pools (ambitious jumpers can ask locals about a more daring jump at the Matapa Chasm)- Limu Pools are one of Nuie’s most famous attractions for their crystal clear water and secluded snorkeling spot.  It’s not just for tourists though- locals head here on the weekends, attempting increasingly brazen jumps to impress whatever females might be in the vicinity.  They’ll welcome any foreigners who are brave enough to join in. 2. Feel at home at Niue Backpackers– Ira and Brian run a three or four room hostel in the house above “the world’s biggest small yacht club”.  It has an awesome central location, airport pick up and drop off and a cozy collection of couches and an endless supply of really dusty books.  They’ve also compiled notes, advice and tips for dozens of travelers… it’s better than Lonely Planet!  Niue Backpackers is a good deal at $25-$30 per night but you’ll have to pay in cash! 3. Have a cup of espresso at Hio cafe- Hio cafe was opened in September 2016 as a container restaurant with a perfect location above one of Nuie’s only sandy swimming spots.  The owner, Victoria, is super passionate about the operation and has an espresso machine with roasted beans from a cafe in Auckland.  It’s the perfect spot to stop for a pick-me-up and they hope to add cabins soon. 4.  Trek to Talava Arches- most of the swimming spots and caves are just 200 meters off the main road but Talava Arches involves a longer walk through a butterfly-covered forest.  It’s one of the most well known images of the island and scrambling through the caves makes the destination all the more impressive.  If you time your visit for low tide, you can get closer to the arch. 5. Find the secret swamp at Togo Chasm- Togo Chasm was my favorite hike on the island.  You meander through some tropical jungle, then take a precarious path through a razor sharp coral “forest”.  That leads to a long ladder where you can descend to a chasm filled with sand and palm trees of a mysterious origin.  But the magic doesn’t end there… if you climb over the boulders, there’s a secret, moss-covered swampy pool.  You’ll definitely feel like Indiana Jones.  On the way back, make sure to climb over some more rocks and check out the waves crashing on the coast.  The coral pools make this view pretty mesmerizing. 6.  Watch the sunset at Sir Robert’s Wharf- The main shipping port is the perfect place to catch an uninterrupted view of the sunset.  (And it’s right in the center of town!) 7.  $5 roti at Gill’s Indian Restaurant- Food in Nuie is pretty pricey (you’ll pay at least $20 for a main dish) so grabbing a chicken, beef or vegetarian roti at Gill’s Indian Restaurant in the main square is a great deal for lunch! Additionally, Gill’s the only restaurant I found with vegetarian options. 8.  Test your strength (or your stomach) at a Village show day- During the month, villages take turns having show days to showcase their local crafts, food and culture.  Usually, a lot of locals show up to catch up with their family and friends so it’s not just for tourists.  It’s pretty entertaining to watch the boys of the village test their strength throwing coconuts or climbing soap-covered poles.  It’s even more entertaining when the adults (women, then men) engage in a canned corned beef contest, where everyone’s a winner with the free lunch. 9.  Make at least one canine friend- Like people, you’ll encounter the same furry friends again and again and most of them are pretty charasmatic!  It’ll be hard to leave the island without befriending at least one dog. 10. Enjoy gourmet sushi at Kai Ika- An Israeli...

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

After traveling most of Southeast Asia a few years ago when I spent a summer based in Singapore, my first week in Vietnam didn’t impress me much. Part of it was my fault because with all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I didn’t have much time to do research beyond familiarizing myself with the typical backpacker route.  Ho Chi Minh City- Nha Trang- Hoi An- Da Nang- Hue- Hanoi- Sapa and/or Halong Bay…. but even after talking to dozens of travelers, that’s all anyone did so it seems like it’s a country where people don’t get off the beaten path.  The cities were crowded and loud, with only a few attractions within walking distance. Most of the things that were worth seeing required a motorbike and luckily, I could ride on the back of a bike with couch surfers braver than myself to explore the attractions of Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi but still it was a lot of temples and wading through Asian tourists armed with selfie sticks. When my trip to Halong Bay got cancelled, I was a bit bummed, especially when the replacement tours felt like something that had to be survived rather than enjoyed. But I was definitely looking forward to Sapa, the land of rice paddies and tribal minorities in the North. This trip also turned into a bit of a debacle, but in the end, quite a pleasant one. Getting picked up from our hostels was the usual hassle: we expected a sleeping bus but instead we got a crowded van with another non-verbal tour guide, so we sat on each other’s laps wondering whether we’d have to endure the 6-hour journey in a massive mosh pit. The man wordlessly checked a couple tickets, kicked two Russian girls on the street then took us down a dark alley where, thankfully, a sleeping bus awaited our arrival. The arrival to Sapa I passed out on the drive and around 4:45 AM, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot. Some fellow travelers confirmed that we arrived in Sapa our final destination. we stopped somewhere which was Sapa according to some people’s GPS but when a brave soul tried to leave the bus, he was blocked by the driver and the assistant. The driver shut the bus doors dramatically and there we sat until 6 AM with no idea when we’d be released from captivity. At 6 AM, they forced us out of the bus into a rainy parking lot where the locals tried to sell us homestays and periodically arrived with signs with names like “Tim Thom” looking for people who didn’t seem to exist. As our group dwindled, about 45 minutes later, a man with a sign with our names on it welcomed us into his van. We drove up to Grand View Hotel, which was positioned to have a great view, but fog obscured our view. To enter the hotel, we had to elbow our way through a mob of Hmong women trying to sell us bracelets and wallets. We piled into a lobby filled with angry tourists trying to change their reservations to switch hotels and alarmingly, the receptionist didn’t even seem the slightest bit surprised. When we asked to brush our teeth in an empty room, we could see why. One of my fellow travelers aptly described the hotel as something out of The Shining. It had it all from exposed pipes, unexplained puddles, punch holes in the door, grimy glassware collecting decades of dust, a funky smell and inadequate lighting. We were invited to breakfast in the next room. A woman “dusted off” our table with a duster that looked like it was designed for breeding dust bunnies and we sat down, exhausted after our night bus ride and asked for coffee. “No coffee,” the waiter abruptly replied, throwing moldly menus like Frisbees at our faces, potentially to distract us from the cockroach running across the checkered tablecloth.  After a bit of squealing, we chose our breakfast based on which food would make us less sick and decided it would be hard to mess up bread with butter and honey. Sure enough, the waiter replied to that request, “no butter”. We meekly munched on our half-roll of bread, avoiding the wilted side of tomato and cucumber, skeptical that it would fuel our 12 km “hike”. The trek After finishing breakfast and another hour of waiting and discovering new reasons to be sketched out about the hotel, we were rallied by a young Hmong girl with a baby on her back who introduced herself as our tour guide. We donned our ponchos and...

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

“Imagine 2000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible” –Lonely Planet Halong Bay: UNESCO world heritage site, the top attractions in the northeast of the country and the sole reason that some people come to Vietnam.  So naturally, one of the first things I did after arriving to Hanoi and dropping my stuff at the hostel, was to arrange a trip there.  All I had to do was return at 8 AM the next morning with an overnight bag, packed to spend one night on a boat on the Bay. After booking the tour, I returned to my hostel where a Polish couch surfer, working at a local hostel, waited for me on his motorbike.  We buzzed around the major city sights in a couple hours, hitting a couple parks, a lame temple, two lakes, the fancy shopping street and Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.  Although the sites were interesting, much of our day was spent darting honking motorbikes, squeezing through Vietnamese ladies wielding long poles carrying their produce and arguing with people about parking.  All of it confirmed my readiness to get out of the city and into some beautiful nature, even if it was on a boat  (apparently the scars from my recent sailing trip didn’t take too long to heal).    As we emerged from a shady seat in the park and blinked in the hot Vietnam sun, I commented, “It’s supposed to be monsoon season but it hasn’t rained on me during the day once.”  He replied, “Monsoons are worse in the South… if you made it through that without rain, you’re probably in the clear”.  Despite both of us sweating a bit in the sun, I smiled, “Maybe I’m finally finished bringing apocalyptic weather on vacation with me”.   [If you haven’t been following my adventures, my February trip to Peru brought rains that contributed to me slipping on a rock and breaking my arm, my April trip brought snow to Jordan and atypically freezing temperatures to Cyprus, my road trip through the United States in late May brought 40 tornadoes to the vicinity of Oklahoma City the night we stayed there and a snow storm that piled 5″ of snow and freezing rain to Colorado Springs and of course, my sailing trip in the Florida Keys brought a whole new set of storms] So after a night in Hanoi, falling asleep a lullaby of roaring motorbike motors, drunken tourists and shop owners trying to sell people things, I bounced out of bed and to the tourist office, ready for the sea.  I arrived early and asked the guy at the desk if I could leave my bag, grab some coffee then come back.  He shook his head no, tried to sputter some things and dialed the phone furiously, but his English wasn’t good enough to explain why he was denying me my caffeine fix.  I sighed and sat down.  Fortunately, a few seconds later, the lady who sold me the tour arrived on her motorbike, and panted as she took of her helmet (as if she had to pedal the bike herself).  “Typhoon.  There’s a typhoon in the Bay.  First typhoon of the season.  Tour is cancelled,” she huffed and puffed.  I asked if I could postpone the trip until tomorrow and she vigorously shook her head no, “all trips for next three days, cancelled.  Big storm”.  Seeing the disappointment on my face, she offered an alternative.  “We switch your Halong Bay tour to two day trips.  Almost the same as Halong Bay”.  She explained an itinerary with boats and mountains that I didn’t quite understand but still half asleep, having been denied coffee, I shrugged in slightly skeptical agreement. Plan B, Part 1: A Cranky Bus of Hot Tourists on a Death March to Trang An & Bai Dinh Pagoda I sat in her office for awhile… waiting 15 minutes, 30 minutes beyond the  supposed “8 AM pick-up time”.  She didn’t seem surprised that the vehicle hadn’t arrived but saw that I was getting antsy so she started showing me some of her favorite music videos.  Apparently this 31 year old Vietnamese lady with two kids had a big crush on the Russian equivalent of the High School Musical Star.  She blushed as she showed me...

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

“Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, A rose red city half as old as time” -Dean Burgon Southern Jordan is a place that deserves to be described in haiku or serenaded with custom-composed symphonies.  Movie directors have discovered its magic and chose its otherworldly landscape to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because who needs a movie set when nature created something infinitely more epic than Disney could ever design?  At the same time, sun rays shining through wildflowers created dancing shadows terracotta rock walls and set rust red sand on fire.  Throughout the years, rain and wind cut incredibly intricate carvings in the walls, creating abstract shapes infinitely more amazing than the man-made hieroglyphs left by ancient inhabitants. To add another layer of mystery and excitement, one of my favorite parts of walking around Petra was imagining what it was like in its hey day.  What is now an abandoned city hidden at the edge of the Arabian desert was once a lively hub for trade caravans. The canyon walls created a naturally fortified rest station for traders and became the crossroads for the people moving spices, swords and precious metals from 100 BE to 200 CE.  The intricate Greek column cravings, massive theaters, Egyptian ornamentation testify to how profitable owning this land was to the Nabataeans.  Even today, archeologists and scientists puzzle over the construction of these enormous city structures carved into rock The well-preserved opulent facades make difficult to imagine having to abandon such a magnificent structure.  During Roman rule, sea-based routes re-routed trade away from Petra.  Multiple earthquakes in 363 and 551 disrupted the water management system which caused many of the last remaining inhabitants to abandoned the area before the Arabs conquered it. Lucky for us (but not people who work here), Petra was relatively deserted so we were free to roam the 250 acre park alone with our imaginations.  We crawled into caves, wandered off the beaten paths to an abandoned temple where a dog was guarding her pups, climbed a lot of stairs to the monasteries and a few more to test out both sites which claim to be, in screaming black letters, “the best viewpoint in Petra”.  Both the nature and the architecture in this park were so mindblowingly beautiful, it was hard to tell what I liked more…. when the two combine, it culminates in creating one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  Then, to add to the natural splendor, you have an exotic parade bedouins wandering around with camels, donkeys decked out in Rastafarian blankets and other trinkets to make them attractive to tourists… I loved every minute of it!  Just a word of warning to the wise: people offer blitz tours of Petra from Israel or day trips which combine Petra and Wadi Rum from Amman, but having just a couple hours for this place is not enough!  We stayed close to Petra and were able to hike all the major trails in the park between 8 AM-5 PM but with more time, I heard it’s possible to hike to Little Petra and further explore the outskirts.  I highly encourage you not to rush your time here! The other must-do is Wadi Rum, a natural protected site and amazing desert.  We explored it through a 4×4 desert exploration and camping tour.  Around every corner, the desert had different epic landscapes.  I’ll let my pictures do the talking since words can not describe how amazing it was. Since the Arab Spring, tourism has decreased significantly in Petra and Wadi Rum, an UNESCO site that many consider one of the 7 New World Wonders.  Our desert tour guide explained that despite it being the high season for tourism in Jordan, the maximum number of people staying in the Bedouin camps are around 70 when a decade or so ago, the camps would have reached a maximum capacity of 200.  While we didn’t mind having the magnificence of the Treasury to ourselves, it was kind of sad realizing how significantly media’s footage of violence in the Middle East can impact the livelihoods of people working in an industry in a place where things are completely safe, the vast majority of the time. Sure, it’s not the best country to hang out in booty shorts.  Amman, the capital city, isn’t the best place to get drunk and dance.  But who needs nightlife when you can take selfies with camels? If you avoid the Middle East based on the media distorting reality or based on the advice from ignorant people, you will be the one missing out. Song of the Moment: Indiana Jones Theme...

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

One reason I avoid traveling Europe is because of the price tags. I arrived in Vienna, Austria and stopped at a souvenir shop pretty early on as I tried to do my daughterly duty by picking out a magnet for my father’s collection. Seeing that it cost 5 euros confirmed all of my intentions to avoid Western Europe like the plague. However, luckily for me, I had two knowledgeable locals to give me a blitz tour of the city, and beyond the 7.60 euros I paid for a 24-hour transportation pass, I was pleased to find most of the attractions didn’t cost anything at all! Entrance to most of the city’s churches, markets, gardens, parks and galleries are free. You don’t need to spend money like royalty to feel like it in Austria, just visit these free attractions in Vienna.  From nature to classic architecture to more modern buildings, there’s something for everyone especially if you time your visit to coincide with free concerts and events. 1) Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace (Free open-air concert in June!) You will have to hop on the metro to get here but make sure you visit this sunshine yellow palace, Austria’s most visited site. Colossal, cheery and picturesque, I was surprised to learn these are only the summer residences of the Austrian royal family, including empress Sisi, whose beauty started wars. While you need to pay to tour the inside of the palace, you can easily spend a day exploring its vast gardens which are so big that people go jogging here! If you zig-zag up the hill, you will also find a beautiful view of the city. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna in June, the palace hosts a free concert by the world famous Vienna Philharmonic. Although I couldn’t experience it myself, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting to listen to a symphony than surrounded by roses, pruned bushes and fishponds. 2) St. Stephan’s Cathedral & Surrounding Downtown St. Stephan’s is the symbol of Austria’s capital city and is located in the heart of the downtown. Its towers soar high over the city and it contains one of the biggest free-swinging church bells in Europe. I found the interior to be a little dark and dreary but I loved the building’s colorful roof tiles, which were laid to depict the royal coat of arms of the city. I also enjoyed the costumed interpreters in knee socks, wigs and velvet jackets who try to invite you to the Opera. Nearby, explore Vienna’s famous shopping streets that emanate out from the cathedral and Hofburg, the imperial palace. You can peek at some old ruins and walk under its impressive entrance… just don’t get run over by the horse-drawn stage coaches that regularly pass through! While you’re here, stop at Demel, one of Vienna’s oldest bakeries, and splurge on a slice of sachertorte. Desserts are a highlight of Austrian cuisine and this chocolate cake with apricot jam is its crown jewel. You’ll feel like royalty especially when you enjoy it in this elegant setting. 3) Opera Vienna is a city with a rich musical heritage that works hard to maintain its reputation. Partly by housing one of the most famous and busiest opera houses in the world, with shows changing almost weekly. The building is massive and something to marvel at from the outside. However, with 3 or 4 euros and a little extra time, you can actually see an opera for yourself! If you show up 90 minutes before the show, you can buy standing room tickets, high in the balcony but the acoustics are good everywhere. 4) Parliament & Rathaus (City Hall) Walk through City Hall park and find yourself in front of the mammoth, neo-Greek style Parliament building. I’ve seen many parliaments and I’m not sure why Austria’s needs over 100 rooms but it sure is impressive. Speaking of grand buildings, just down the road is Rathaus, the most extravagant City Hall you ever will see. It has gothic towers that make it look like a cathedral and outside, you will find rotating exhibits. When I was there, there was a miniature circus (and even one of the nearby statues wore a red nose for the occasion) but I hear it has excellent places to get Gluhwein, mulled spiced wine, in the winter.  Because of these rotating attractions, it’s even fun to visit after dark (I never thought I’d say that about a City Hall)!  According to my host, the hall has also hosted free Playstation 4 video-game-a-thons but if you aren’t in town to catch something like that, you can go on a free City...