John o’ Groats, Scotland

We stayed in a collection of pre-fabricated, albeit poshly decorated, holiday rentals right in John O Groats. Natural Retreats has a great location right near the coast, though their website makes it seem like there are far less of these rentals than in reality. This means some of the rentals don’t have the best of views but being so close to the water was a perk nonetheless. The rental was $58USD per person per night and though that is a little higher than my average nightly budget, it was a lovely apartment with everything we needed.

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Sunset on holiday rentals at John o’ Groat.
There isn’t much in John o’ Groats other than tourist shops (knicknacks, a coffee shop, and a fish n’ chips shack), but the scenery was lovely and it’s a great base to explore the area from. There is also a ferry dock within walking distance that can take you to the Orkney Islands. There are a handful of ferry ports near John o Groats so make sure to pick the one that fits your needs and schedule best.
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We visited Skara Brae while on the Orkney Islands. Note the beach in the background. This place is stunning in so many ways.
While at the top of the Scottish mainland, we toured the Queen Mum’s castle, sampled some local gin at Rock Rose distillery, and chatted up the locals at the Seaview Hotel bar.
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We sampled some tasty gins and one vodka at Rock Rose distillery.

 

John o’ Groats, Scotland

Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast

We really wanted to rent a car and drive to the coast, so after getting screwed by Europcar we went to Alamo. We had car rental insurance from our credit card company and had proof that they covered car rentals in Mexico. But this concept doesn’t seem to exist in Mexico. Multiple car rental companies wanted us to have a specific document that no one would give us. And when we asked where to obtain this document, no one could or would tell us. I would advice others not to believe the cheap rental car prices that are advertised for Oaxaca as the insurance is not included in the price advertised. A six day rental at Alamo was $200USD. We wanted to be on our own schedule and while the rental car was not cheap, the cost was offset, for us, by the five nights in Oaxaca City that were free on hotel points (thanks Holiday Inn).
We were nervous to take the bus after hearing so many horror stories of people getting sick and it being such a long drive up and down mountain sides (hence paying for the expensive rental car). But in hindsight, and after being on the twisty-turny mountain road all the way to the coast and back (and with all of the other experiences that I have had with twisty-turny mountain roads), I don’t think that we needed to have a rental car. The roads were not as treacherous as people had suggested. While it was a long drive, around 5.5 hours each way, the roads were in good condition and there was not a lot of traffic. If you do drive yourself, definitely beware of all of the topes (speed bumps) that are not always marked on the roads. Also, the buses that make the trip to and from the coast are the smaller colectivo-sized buses that only seat about 14 people not the massive tour buses that I would have expected.
The first stop on our roadtrip was Monte Alban which was lovely. It was also a lot larger than we expected so it was wonderful to be able to take our time and not feel rushed.
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We then drove to the ruins at Yagul. These were just as interesting and informative (both sites have informational plaques in Spanish, English, and a local language). Yagul was completely empty when we arrive and it was lovely to have the place to ourselves. At $65MXN per person, it wasn’t much cheaper than Monte Alban ($70MXN), but still a great stop to make.
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The ruins of Yagul.
We stayed the night in Mitla so that we could get to Hierve del Agua early the next morning. We found a few hotels in town including a brand new place called Hotel Carmelita. We had a double room with a private bath, hot water, tv, and wifi for $500MXN a night. The staff was very helpful and friendly. We asked for a dinner recommendation and were pointed towards a restaurant on the main square. We had a mole dish which was very tasty and the best chile rellano I’ve ever had. Our total bill for two entrees and one mezcal was $220MXN with tip.
The next morning we drove to Hierve del Agua. We paid the local entrance fee of $10MXN per person and then paid the federal entrance fee of $25MXN per person. Check out this blog for more information on driving there.
Once we parked, we hiked down for 20 minutes to the pools of sulfery water. We then hiked around to the top of the other petrified waterfall, the one in most of the photos. The path was mostly made of stone steps and was not difficult. It probably took us 25 minutes to get there and the views along the way were definitely worth it. There are free changing rooms as well as bathrooms ($3MXN) near the pools. If you can get there on your own, I would recommend getting there early. It opens at 9a.m. and from what we heard, the tour buses start arriving around 1p.m.
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A view of the pools.
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Hierve del Agua
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A view from below on one of the hiking trails.
We left Hierve del Agua and headed south. Because we were getting a late start, we decided to stop somewhere along the road for the night. With a little bit of research we found a place which was just perfect for us; La Puesta del Sol. They have a little collection of bungalows and rooms for rent just a one-minute drive outside the town San Juan del Pacifico. The room we stayed in was nice and cozy with satellite TV, hot water, breakfast, and a lovely view of the mountains. Wifi was extra and we opted to be off the grid for the night. At $400MXN for the night, we couldn’t have been happier.
Along the road to the coast, there were a lot of small hotels and posadas that are not listed on the internet. I felt confident that if we couldn’t get a room at La Puesta del Sol, we could have found a room somewhere else along the way.
For our first night on the coast, we stayed in Zipolite. When we arrived, we parked in town and walked up and down the beach price-checking a handful of different hotels. We found prices ranging from $200MXN to $1200MXN and finally settled on Hotel El Paraiso which was $500MXN per night which included a private bathroom, hot water, wifi, parking, and a balcony that overlooked the ocean. It was definitely the best option for us.
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The view from our balcony.
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The beach was clean and not overcrowded while we were there. But be warned, or informed, that Zipolite is a nude beach.
The next morning we drove down the coast to the town of Mazunte. We had booked a room at Posada Ziga Playa for two nights. It was definitely the nicest place we stayed on the trip ($1000MXN per night) and our room included a private terrace with a hammock. But in hindsight, I think I would have rather stayed somewhere that was not as upscale but had beach chairs and umbrellas down on the beach (as Posada Ziga Playa had neither of these). Also, the hotel is situated up on a small hill so you have to walk up and down stairs to get to the beach.
My advice while visiting this part of the Pacific Ocean in Mexico is to be careful when swimming in the water. When we first checked into our hotel in Zipolite, we were given a full briefing of the undercurrent and the water conditions that day. And I’m thankful that they took the time to warn us. After our first slightly treacherous day in the ocean, my husband walked up and down the beach to find a less rough spot to swim in. We lined ourselves up with a few large rocks about two hundred meters out into the water. These rocks were able to break up most of the waves coming in and therefore the current and waves were not as forceful.
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The view from a hiking trail starting on the western edge of Mazunte.
While in Mazunte, we went to the turtle sanctuary which was very interesting though there didn’t seem to be an option for a guided tour. And while we enjoyed looking at a lot of different turtles, we did not learn very much. But for $32MXN per person, it was a nice little outing. We also went out for dinner and drinks in town a few times including a great little Italian place called Alessandro’s where I was able to get a $9USD steak that was delicious. We also came across a handful of small bars and restaurants that had live music and offered two for one drink specials.
After a few lovely days at the beach, we made the long drive back to Oaxaca City starting out early in the morning. Traffic was light which was a blessing on the winding roads. I was concerned that we would have to pay a lot of tolls to and from the coast but we really only drove on one toll road near Mitla. My suggestion would be that if you are going to rent a car know that everything will take longer than you expect. Also, I would not recommend driving at night due to the twisting roads and all of the speed bumps. Finally, the gas stations we went to did not take credit card but there was always a gas station attendant to pump the gasoline for you.
Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast

Driving in Bulgaria

I drove a rental car for seven days in Bulgaria and in those seven days I saw a lot of different road conditions. Some of the highways were well paved and well marked; others were a collection of patches, dips, and potholes big enough to destroy a small car. I also saw the recklessness of Bulgarian drivers; passing on a curve or when there is oncoming traffic, riding the center dividing line, and rarely using a turn signal. I took strides not to drive at night and to avoid driving around in cities when I could help it. Renting a car was a great option for us. For around $100USD plus gasoline, we were able to explore the country and access trail heads that we would not have easy access to without a car. I would advise to proceed with caution at all times. You never know what lies ahead of you on the roads of Bulgaria.

Road hazards come in all shapes and sizes in Bulgaria.
Road hazards come in all shapes and sizes in Bulgaria.
Driving in Bulgaria

Rangeley, Maine

Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I visited friends in the small town of Rangeley, Maine. Before we made the drive to Rangeley, we started our tour of Maine in Portland. We picked up some friends at the airport and then grabbed drinks and snacks at The Thirsty Pig, where we were greeted by happy hour and an extensive sausage selection.

Happy hour at The Thirty Pig
Happy hour at The Thirty Pig

Afterwards, we piled into the car to make the 2.5 hour drive to lakes region of Maine. We stayed with friends in the village of Oquossoc, just a ten minute drive from the town of Rangeley. Both town and village are on beautiful Rangeley Lake and are a great base for exploring the region. While in Oquossoc, we visited a few bars in town, including the Four Seasons. It was a casual, laid back place with friendly bartenders and great deals. We had high hopes of checking out Moose Alley, the local bowling alley in Rangeley, but we never made it. We’ll have to go there next time as we heard good things about the friendly staff and great food.

The beauty of Lake Rangeley
The beauty of Lake Rangeley

While in Rangeley, we were introduced to the owners of the Farmhouse Inn. They have  hostel-like accommodations for hikers trekking the Appalachian Trail as well as private rooms with kitchen facilities. The entire property is so lovingly built and maintained by the owners. They are remodeling the existing structure and building new structures with reclaimed materials when possible. For photos and more information, please check out their Facebook page. Though we did not stay there, I cannot express how impressed I was with the projects they are working on and their warm hospitality during our visit.

We also enjoyed the outdoors as much as we could and took in all of the natural beauty Maine has to offer. We hiked up Bald Mountain (worth the climb). We also hiked Cascade Falls (also locally called The Cascades) and crossed paths with a young moose! Both locations are part of a local land trust and therefore are free of charge.

We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.
We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.

We also took a boat tour on Rangeley Lake with Kevin Sinnett, Captain of the Oquossoc Lady (rangeleylakecruises.com). Lounging on the boat while taking in all the beauty was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Mr. Sinnett also offers a few private suites right on the lake. Check out the website or you can use Airbnb.com to book a suite. When we visit Rangeley again, I know we have lots of options of where to stay to enjoy this awe inspiring part of Maine.

The view from the boat.
The view from the boat.
Rangeley, Maine

Renting cars in New Zealand and Australia

In Australia and New Zealand, cars are driven on the left hand side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car. For those of us who are not already use to this, it takes a lot of concentration to drive. Even if you think it’s bothersome or not necessary, I recommend having a passenger be a backseat driver with reminders. Having an annoying backseat driver is better than the alternative of causing an accident. During my visit, there was an ongoing debate amongst locals about tourists renting cars and causing devastating accidents. See one article here
Four of us and all of our luggage fit into our Toyota Corolla.
New Zealand has a website which offers helpful information for anyone driving in the country. I have looked for this kind of information from other countries when I have rented cars abroad I and never found a site so thorough. 

Taking all of this into account, I would still recommend renting a car to travel around either country. If you have room in the budget (in November 2014, a gallon of gasoline was $8 USD) and if you are pressed for time, it’s the way to go. I spent a total of seven days on the south island and am so glad that we had a car to get around quicker than using public transportation. We would routinely pull off the main road to explore the parks, hiking trails, or other natural beauty that these amazing countries have to offer.
We found this river after pulling over in one of the many National Parks in New Zealand.
Over the three weeks of my visit, we rented four cars. The majority of the time, we rented from Budget. We were happy with their service and pricing. We were also interested to find out that Budget does not charge extra for additional drivers. We also rented one car from Hertz. Hertz allows additional drivers who share the same address as the primary driver to be added without an additional charge. Do beware that in Australia both companies charge a fee for a mandatory toll transponder for the rental car. We were not allowed to opt out of this charge.
Renting cars in New Zealand and Australia

General Notes on Australia

–While in Australia, keep in mind that pedestrians do not always have the right of way in crosswalks. Cars will not stop for you when you crossing in a crosswalk unless it is striped. If driving there, be aware that the driving lanes seem to be more narrow than in the U.S. I felt like we had a few close calls with semi-trucks while on the highway.
 
–Lunch is served from around 11:30am – 2pm in most towns and cities. As you get into smaller towns, most restaurants and cafes close or stop serving food after these hours. We ran into this more than once. Thankfully, we had snacks in the car to sustain us. Also, Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.
 
–Alcohol is quite expensive in Australia. I recommend bringing some with you. Allotment information can be found here.
 
–Pharmacies (chemists) can provide you with many over-the-counter options for basic medical issues (colds, aches and pains, etc.), but these remedies are not cheap. A bottle of cough suppressant can cost around $20 AUD. Obviously, illnesses cannot always be predicted but taking a basic first aid kit and OTC medicines with you can save you some money.
 
–Each state has its own tourism website which has lots of helpful information. Be aware that each Australian state is rather vast, so sometimes the site will recommend towns or attractions that are nowhere near your chosen location. Still, it was a great resource for National Parks, accommodations, and attractions. Here is the website for New South Wales.
–For those of us with credit cards issued by American banks, beware of Australia’s rules regarding credit cards. Most credit cards have a chip and a PIN making them more secure for the credit card companies, the merchants, and the users. Currently, the United States does not offer chip and PIN cards, rather we use a signature to validate our use of the card. While visiting Australia in November 2014, I had multiple merchants deny my credit card because I did not have a PIN. It seemed as though this was a new rule change because I did not encounter it everywhere. Eventually, I began asking if my credit card with signature would be accepted before the purchasing process began. U.S. banks are slated to offer credit cards with chips by October 2015, but most will be chip and signature, not chip and PIN. Check with your bank prior to travel and be prepared to use cash. Click here for a news article discussing this issue.
General Notes on Australia

General Notes on New Zealand

–While we were excited to visit a country where English was widely spoken, there were still a few things that tripped us up and that we had to learn along the way. We found that most causal restaurants did not have servers, but instead, customers ordered at the bar and meals were brought to your table. Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.

–Pedestrians do not have the right of way when crossing at a crosswalk unless there is a traffic light indicating your right of way. There may be some crosswalks where pedestrians can cross safely but we didn’t find them. Once we figured this out, we were much more cautious and only crossed the street at a traffic light. Also, cars drive on the right side of the road so I tried to train my brain to look both ways whenever I crossed a street. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

–Finally, most lakes in New Zealand have a pathway around the perimeter for wonderful views of the area. It’s also a great way to take in the beauty and get a little exercise.

Enjoying one of New Zealand’s beautiful lakes
General Notes on New Zealand