My friends and I drove from Glasgow, up into the highlands to John o’ Groats, and then back down to Edinburgh. During this long road trip, we found some great little spots to stop and break up the drive.
-We visited the town of Oban for a visit to the whisky distillery. While trying to figure out what to do about lunch, we realized that Dunstaffnage Castle was on a bluff overlooking the water not far from Oban. We popped into Tesco, picked up some picnic items, and drove to the castle.
-We took an afternoon to hike to Sandwood Bay Beach on our way to John o’ Groats. The hike was not difficult but was longer than expected. We estimated it to be 4.5 miles from the parking area all the way to the beach. The hike was nice but not as spectacular as the views of the beach. If you have the time, I highly recommend it. Also, here is a link to a video of the beach.
-We stopped in Inverness for lunch at the Kitchen Restaurant which was very delicious and well priced. After lunch, we walked to Miele’s Gelateria which totally hit the spot after an amazing lunch.
-When we visited Aberdeen for the afternoon, we had a recommendation to go to Slains Castle for lunch. While the inside of the bar and restaurant is quite interesting, the food was only mediocre. I would recommend going in for a drink and to wander around but find your meal someplace else.
-We stopped off in Perth one day to stretch our legs and eat lunch. We stumbled across this quaint little French inspired place, the Tabou Bistro. Everything was amazing from the homemade soup to the salmon salad to the charcuterie platter. For lunch under £12GBP, it was a great find.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
-Unless a price is specifically written out (and sometimes even then) know that almost everything is negotiable.
-Before ordering any food, ask the price and make sure that you understand what you are getting for that price. We had many vendors who would show us the bill corresponding with the cost when we would ask “how much?” (bao nhiêu in Vietnamese, pronounced bow n-you)
-We were occasionally quoted a price that was inflated tremendously. When we countered with a lower price they would usually take it immediately. I read that the Vietnamese expect and appreciate a good negotiation. They do not consider it rude. We found this to be true. In some countries, the negotiation seems like a way to try in a rip you off, but here it is seems more like it’s what they think they can get away with. When you press them, they’re fine with a lower price. This is not to say that you won’t run into people whose plan is to try and separate you from your money. Be cautious and always ask questions.
-Most of our taxi drivers spoke very little English, so we were thankful for the small amount of Vietnamese that we had learned. The taxi drivers also do not seem well versed in explaining what they are doing or where they are taking you.
-Only ride in taxis with meters and tell them to turn it on. We used the taxi company Vinasun exclusively as they have a great reputation and an app for your smart phone.
-When researching this trip I came around many accounts of travelers renting motorbikes (motorcycles, Vespas, etc.) even though it is technically illegal to do so. What I didn’t grasp until we were in the country was that motorbikes were the only real option for independent travel outside a city. While I am glad that we did not rent motorbikes as we had no prior experience riding them (and we met far too many travelers with motorbike injuries and accident stories to tell), I did not like that this limited in our transportation options. In Hoi An and Tam Coc, we were able to rent bicycles cheaply, but could not cover the distances that a motorbike could. On Cat Ba, the hills were too much for a mere pedal bike and the only other option for getting around the island was by tour bus. Before I visit Southeast Asia again, I would take the time to become more familiar with motorbikes and how to ride them safely.
– Taking domestic flights within Vietnam was definitely worth the money to save some time. We flew VietJet Air three times with the average price for a one-way flight at $53USD. Beware that the site is buggy and it took me multiple tries to book tickets on each attempt. The trains take too long when trying to cover long distances. The sleeper bus is doable if you’re short in stature and small in build, but if you taller than 5’8” you’ll have a hard time fitting in the reclined seat.
– Consider using a trip to Vietnam as a cheap shopping opportunity. Need new t-shirts and flip-flops…why not get them there? If you’re looking for custom dresses, suits, etc., it might be worth more of a look than we gave it. Even for everyday things (sandals, umbrellas, etc.), it’s usually way cheaper to get them in Vietnam than at home. Also, the pharmacies in Vietnam offer most pharmaceutical drugs over the counter. When we needed Cipro and cough medicine we bought it there and the prices were cheap.
– It was easier to find triple rooms in Vietnam than it has been in other countries. This was great since we could usually split a hotel room three ways and it was only a bit more expensive than all three of us staying in a dorm together (along with others).
– As a traveler you cannot drink the tap water in Vietnam. Thankfully, you can find bottled water everywhere. Just shop around in each town or city you visit to find the going rate. The best deal we came across was 6,000VND for 1.5L of water.
-Vietnam is an amazing country to travel in when you are on a budget. The cost for my husband and I for this three week trip was just under $2,000USD which includes all of our flights, food, transportation, etc. We definitely could have spent even less than we did in Vietnam, but we wanted a few creature comforts once in a while; privacy, a clean bathroom, imported wine, and hassle free transportation in the form of taxis and faster ferries.
– As Americans traveling to Vietnam, you need to have a visa to enter the country and it is advised that you obtain the visa before you get to Vietnam. When we went looking for visa information, we were directed to a website (http://vietnamembassy-usa.org/consular) and email address (firstname.lastname@example.org). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.
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.
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.
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 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.
When we made it to Canberra to visit a friend, we were happy to get out of the car and stay in one place for a few nights. We stayed over a weekend which is probably not the best time to visit Canberra, as most people living there for work leave during the weekends. While the town was deserted, our friend filled us in on all of the events that go on in there throughout the year. Because it is the nation’s capital, many cultural events from all over the globe take place there including art exhibits, sporting events, and cultural activities.
Visiting weekend craft markets is a must when visiting Canberra. The Gorman House Arts Centre (http://www.agac.com.au/) market takes place Saturday mornings. There are craft booths and a few food vendors. My favorite of the food stalls was the little Mexican place. Theirs was some of the best Mexican food I had had in awhile. Each dish was around $7 AUD. Everything was so delicious that I went back for seconds. We also went to the much larger Old Bus Depot market (http://obdm.com.au/) on Sunday but the food options at the Old Bus Depot weren’t as appetizing to me.
While in town, we hiked from the road behind the War Memorial up to the top of Mount Ainslie. It took us about an hour to walk up as we stopped numerous times to watch the birds maneuver through the trees and to watch the kangaroos lounge in the grass. From the top, there is a view of the city below. If you are not up for the hike, you can drive up the back of the mountain and park at the top.
As an American, I would compare Canberra to the many Midwestern cities that don’t seem like they have a lot to offer visitors. But when you meet locals or when you take the time to visit, you find many interesting things to see and do. Visit these websites to check out what Canberra has to offer throughout the year: http://www.visitcanberra.com.au/find/event
We headed out of Sydney and drove down through the Royal National Park. We were hoping to get close to the coast on this route, though that turned out not to be the case. The drive through the park was green and lush, but no sea view was had. I think if we were to do this again, I would take the M1 to the town or Waterfall or Helensburg and then cut over to the coastal road from there. Once we made it to the coastal road, we drove through quaint little towns right on the water. Most had beaches and parking tended to be free.
Enjoying the tidal pool
We eventually made it as far as Wollongong before we looked for a place to stay. Along the way, we searched Airbnb.com and were lucky enough to find Jack’s place right near the beach. At $161 USD per night for four people, the apartment was a great deal. Street parking was free and we were right across the road from not only the water, but also from a public pool and a man made tidal pool. For dinner, we ate at The [M]eatery. We decide that if we couldn’t be home for American Thanksgiving, we would gorge ourselves on multiple meats instead of the traditional turkey. We had been told that is was a pricey restaurant, but I thought it was reasonable for what we received and how full we were when we left. At about $40 AUD per person, we ordered a shareable platter of meats, a few appetizers, desserts, and drinks.
While we weren’t in town long, but we did enjoy some time at the Crown Street Mall. In the afternoon, we stopped in a little bar and restaurant called His Boy Elroy for happy hour. It’s a small joint with great drink options and a diverse menu. We returned to the mall the next morning (a Friday) for a craft fair which was set up right between the two main buildings of the mall. I thought combining a traditional shopping mall with booths for handmade crafts and produce was a wonderful idea.
Also while in Wollongong, we visited the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple. This is not just a single building, but an entire complex of breathtakingly beautiful structures. As I was not dressed appropriately (I was wearing shorts), I did not go into the prayer halls or other buildings. Instead, I peered in from the doorways and wandered the grounds which are beautiful and serene. The visit was free and was a calming change from the hustle and bustle of Wollongong.
Nan Tien Buddhist Temple in Wollongong
Continuing south along the coastal road, we finally made it to our first real destination of this roadtrip-Murramarang NationalPark. This park is off the main road and is not so much a national park as it is a publicly owned coastal area. When driving in, keep an eye out for kangaroos bouncing about. This is one of a few places where you can see kangaroos grazing on or near the coast, sometimes even hanging out on the rocks near the water. Keep in mind that kangaroos are nocturnal so going early in the morning or in the early evening is best. We arrived around 4 p.m. and were able to watch them hangout in a large grassy area behind some homes. We got as close as they would allow (about 50 feet) though we kept in mind that they are wild animals. According to Wikipedia, they don’t tend to be aggressive, but we didn’t want to take a chance.
On the route to Queenstown, we made a few stops to enjoy the scenery. At Lake Tekapo, there is a stone church just on the banks of the lake. It’s a great place to stop for photos or have a picnic lunch. We then drove down around Lake Pukaki and north up its western edge to reach Mt. Cook.
Mountains overlooking Lake Hooker
From the parking lot and visitor’s entrance of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, there is a well maintained trail to Hooker Lake. It takes about three hours and is 5.5 miles round trip. I would categorize this as an easy hike as it’s not very hilly. The trail goes through the valley and not up Mt. Cook. There are a few suspension bridges over a river and wooden walkways built over grassy land. When we hiked this trail, it was cold, windy, and rainy but the views along the way were breathtaking.
After our harrowing hike to Lake Hooker, we needed to find an affordable place to stay for the night. We had not booked anywhere in advance, so I Googled a few hotels while en route to the towns of Twizel and Omarama. We settled on a hotel in Omarama called the Countrytime Hotel. Walking into the lobby and the rooms was like stepping back in time. This was probably THE place to go in the 1960s. Since then, not much has been updated. There was a radio built into the wall near the bed, and the counter top, which held a small fridge, was carpeted. Despite the hotel’s dated appearance, the staff were very inviting and accommodating. There is a dining room for meals and a bar and lounge area where we hung out most of the night huddled around a roaring fireplace. The views from this gem were amazing and at $98 NZD for a double room on www.booking.com, it was a great deal. It was definitely one of our favorite places we stayed during the trip.
In the morning, we went down the road for breakfast at Ladybird Hill Cafe, a place known for allowing you to catch your own fish and then pay $38 NZD for the restaurant to cook it for you. We did not choose this option. Instead, we ordered from their regular menu and were pleasantly surprised with delicious sandwiches options. At around $10 NZD per meal, it was a great deal and awfully filling. We also did a wine tasting while we were there. After breakfast and wine, we headed farther south to the town of Wanaka. We stretched our legs by walking around town and then along the lakefront for a few hours. It’s a wonderful little town to visit. If I had more time, I would have liked to stay a few days to explore the town, the winery up on the hill, and to enjoy all of the water sports they offer on the lake.
On the shores of Lake Wanaka
Later, on our way north back from Queenstown, we detoured to St. John’s Observatory. The observatory has amazing views overlooking Lake Tekapo and houses the Astro Cafe. We did not eat at the cafe, but the views from the top were well worth the slow winding drive up.