I looked out of the tiny plane window. Through the low hanging clouds below me, I could see a few of the 300+ Fiji Islands dotted around the ocean. I was excited to start the first relaxing holiday I’d had in years. No early rising or long drives where we would need to squeeze in as much of the country as we could; no, not this time… This time was all about doing nothing.
Moving countries and our hectic work schedules had taken their toll, so Ash and I decided to recharge our batteries on the island of Fiji. There’s no better place to relax than a paradise-like country, where everything runs on ‘Fiji time.’
Upon arrival, a lively band welcomed us. The upbeat tunes followed us throughout the airport, while locals greeted the new arrivals with the customary phrase “Bula!”Bula is most commonly used as a greeting in Fiji.
We spent two days in Nadi, where most international visitors land. We loved our first few days of doing absolutely nothing, sipping from coconuts, partaking in silly hotel games (we won the egg throwing contest!), relaxing in hammocks, and indulging in typical Fijian delicacies. But, we were most looking forward to our next destination: the private Matamanoa Island Resort.
Matamanoa is a two-hour boat ride from Nadi. As we approached the small island, the staff, dressed in traditional attire, treated us to a welcome song followed by a big “BULA!”
Our appointed villa stood at the back of the island, offering its own plunge pool, outdoor relaxation bed, and of course, stunning views of the beach and ocean. “How blissfully peaceful,” I thought, unaware that this seemingly postcard-perfect island would turn into a place straight from hell as soon as the sun went down…
We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool, wandering around the beach and eating a delicious Fijian BBQ. As the sun was setting, giant fruit bats made their appearance. They flew high above us, landing none-too-gracefully on the palm trees. I found their apparent clumsiness quite cute – and nowhere near as frightening as the mainstream media had led me to believe…
As we retreated to our villa for a nightcap, the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks was soothing. While preparing for bed, we heard an odd howling sound outside. “The wind perhaps?” I asked Ash. “Maybe,” he said.
We didn’t give it a second thought until the sound grew louder. “Sounds like a wolf,” I mumbled, confused by the noises we were hearing. We jumped out of the bed and walked out onto the patio… Then, the sounds stopped and it was eerily quiet.
The villa where it all took place
We stood there for a while, bewildered, until the sounds suddenly started again. This time, the noises came from behind us. My heart raced as I turned around. Again, the sounds stopped. Ash checked the side of the villa, while I tried to locate the noise around the back. Unable to find the source of the noise, we went back inside and tried to forget about it.
However, as soon as we turned off the lights outside, the sounds were back. This time they were even louder, and more eery. Suddenly, something dawned on me… “It’s the birds,” I realised.
Earlier that day, a member of the staff mentioned a variety of local bird, currently nesting on the island. “Don’t worry if you hear a baby crying… It’s actually the call of the Matamanoa bird,” she told us casually, so casually that we had completely forgotten about it.
In hindsight, her description was tame… For it started out as the sound of the wind and then turned into the howling of wolves. And as soon as it was pitch black outside, it turned into a full concert of crying demon babies, all around us…
Fiji at night
We stepped back outside, and this time we walked a little further away from the villa. Once our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, we could see giant birds flying all around us. The concert had started up again in full force. It was loud, ridiculously loud. The resemblance of their sounds to those of babies crying their lungs out was disturbing.
As time passed, the cries became more forceful and they turned into devilish screams. “This is how they hope to attract a mate?” I smiled, nervously. A sudden shuffle behind us made us turn. We both stood in slight shock, as a big, black bird clumsily stumbled across our patio and disappeared to the side of our villa. “I guess he found one,” Ash said, as he walked back to the villa. I rushed after him, not wanting to stay behind in the darkness.
Back inside, we tried to drown out the sounds by turning up the air-conditioning. No such luck. Earplugs? Nope. Air-conditioning, earplugs and even trying to wrap my face in blankets and pillows? Nothing worked. We both grew desperate, as the demon babies kept crying.
After a few hours, I just gave up trying to sleep. The birds were relentless, and it didn’t look like they would shut up before sunrise. But, as the sun rose, the cries of the birds dissipated. Relief flooded through me and I welcomed the silence with open arms, as I finally drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, we moved to a villa on the other side of the island where there were no Matamanoa birds. During our remaining island nights, we slept in silence. The only flying animals around there were the clumsy fruit bats, still crashing into the palms… Bliss.
Note: We loved our time on the island. Matamanoa is a beautiful resort we highly recommend if you’re looking for a place to stay in Fiji. The Matamanoa bird breeds on Matamanoa island as well as nearby Modriki island between December and May. If you want to avoid a sleepless night, ask for a villa on the south west of the island.
No matter whom you speak to, when visiting the Mother City, visiting the best wine farms in Cape Town (and her surrounds) are top of everyone’s to-do list… and with so many gorgeous, award-winning wine farms in Cape Town, travellers and locals are well and truly spoiled for choice.
But don’t fret, for, even among the masses, there will always be a select few that stand out above the rest… And these are my personal picks of the best wine farms near Cape Town:
Paradise found at Dunstone Wine Estate
Credit: Wines of South Africa (WOSA)
Wellington is the Cinderella of the Cape Winelands: overlooked (in favour of wine valleys like Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Durbanville and even Robertson) and underrated until it has a turn to shine… and then, it renders one breathless.
There are a few hidden gems in Wellington and, in late 2017, we discovered quite possibly the finest of them all: cue, Dunstone Country Estate and Winery.
Credit: Tamlyn Ryan
Protectively sheltered beneath the breath-taking Limietberg mountains and situated outside Wellington, Dunstone is a luxury boutique wine estate and guest farm, equipped with four-and five-star accommodation, a top bistro, award-winning wines and exceptional owners and staff. Here, passion and sincerely thoughtful touches permeate through every inch of this impressive estate.
During our overnight stay and visit, we personally enjoyed gorgeous accommodation, gourmet country fare and of course, delicious wines at Dunstone – so the memory of this gorgeous estate will stay with me for a long time to come…
Credit: Tamlyn Ryan
In so many ways, Dunstone was virtually faultless and, if you can only experience one or two wine farms in Cape Town, then let the Cape’s best kept secret, Dunstone, be counted among them.
For more information on Dunstone Country Estate, contact email@example.com or visit their website
Make a day of it at stunning Spier
Photo credit: Stellenbosch Wine Routes
Spier Wine Farm is one of the Cape’s most recognisable and well-known wine estates. And, rather than this leaving it commercialised or tired as some might expect, Spier stands out as one of the Western Cape’s most spectacular, all-encompassing wine farms.
Here, outstanding wine, food, accommodation, local art and nature reign supreme. At Spier, families, friends or foreign visitors can enjoy the best Stellenbosch has to offer. Especially as it offers one: Cape Dutch history and architecture, luxury food and wine and stunning natural and man-made beauty.
Credit: Spier wine farm
Credit: Spier wine farm
Credit: Spier wine farm
Credit: Tamlyn Ryan
We had a particularly fun day out at Spier, exploring every inch of the farm… This included a visit to their outstanding Eagle Encounters (where we interacted with rescued birds of prey and wildlife); a gourmet picnic by the dam; and browsing the Spier Farm Kitchen, farm shop and outdoor mosaic exhibition.There is so much to do and enjoy at Spier – before you even add their hotel and spa, craft market, artisan studio or restaurants.So, if you’re after a fun day out in the Stellenbosch Wine Valley, look no further than a day (or overnight) visit to Spier.
Beautiful Babylonstoren near Franschhoek
Credit: Babylonstoren wine farm
If ever a wine estate has been name-dropped (in less-than-subtle terms) as one of the best farms around Cape Town in recent years, it’s this wonderful working estate.
Found near Franschhoek, this well-beloved farm – first established in 1692 – has been reinvented into something truly amazing by current owners, media mogul, Koos Bekker and his equally talented, creative wife, Karen Roos. Under their ownership, praises for the estate keep rolling in – and quite deservedly so because this humble, yet ultra-chic, wine estate is one of the most memorable I’ve visited in the past two years – and I’ve been to +30 in that time!
Credit: Babylonstoren wine farm
Credit: Tamlyn Ryan
Credit: Tamlyn Ryan
Babylonstoren is an honest-to-goodness working farm and wine estate that has it all: a farm shop, two lovely restaurants (Babel for chic wine farm dining; Greenhouse for relaxed family meals) and bakery, a luxury hotel and spa, complete with gorgeous farm accommodation, a tasting room, quality wine – and of course, labyrinthine gardens to delight young and old!So, whether you stroll the vast gardens, eat at one of the restaurants or simply enjoy a delicious wine tasting, you can’t go wrong with a visit to Babylonstoren.
Lunch at Babel – Credit: Babylonstoren wine farm
Closing note: I also love that, while Babylonstoren requires on a small entry fee, these funds go towards local child education. (Weekends and public holidays are R20 adults and R10 for children under 12, while weekdays are R10 for all entrants.)
For more information, contact Babylonstoren on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website.
Lovely Lourensford in Somerset West
Photo credit: Stellenbosch Wine Routes
Lourensford was the first Somerset West farm I’ve visited – and it certainly did not disappoint.
This popular estate has so much for visitors to do and enjoy… Not only is it hugely child-friendly (a relative rarity among Cape wine farms) with its sprawling lawns, sprouting water features and delightful garden spaces – but it has plenty to keep teens and adults satisfied with too.
Credit: Tamlyn Ryan
Credit: Lourensford wine farm
Credit: Lourensford wine farm
Think: brilliant wine tastings, the awesome Lourensford Market, a classic Motor Studio and two eateries in The Coffee Roasting Co. and Red Riding Hood Deli, and The Millhouse Kitchen.On the Sunday morning when we visited, we first enjoyed a truly decadent and delicious wine tasting, sampling the Belgian chocolate and wine pairing… This was all kinds of awesome, and one of the most enjoyable and slickly conducted wine tastings I’ve enjoyed in the Cape Winelands to date.
Credit: Tamlyn Ryan
Afterwards, we popped into The Coffee Roasting Co. and Red Riding Hood Deli for a simple, yet delicious meal, before making our way over to the buzzing Lourensford Market and perusing the art gallery and Motor Studio in turn.The Lourensford market and Motor Studio add an element of Cape Town chicness to the estate, while the beautiful gardens and conservation efforts give a compassionate nod to nature…. Something I really appreciated and loved about Lourensford.
Credit: Lourensford wine farm
All in all, Lourensford Wine Estate is a wonderful place to visit for groups of friends or families, and I can definitely recommend it for wine tastings; their limited release Chardonnay and Lourensford Shiraz with chili-infused Belgian chocolate was particularly yummy!
For more information on Lourensford Wine Estate, contact email@example.com or visit their website.
I was sixteen when I was first introduced to Middle Earth, a world that intrigued me beyond words – in fact, some might even say I was a little obsessed with Hobbits, Elves and Orcs…
But, until I was hired by Weta Digital (the company who worked on the visual effects for all The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies), I never thought I would one day visit one of the movie sets. Suddenly though, I found myself on a plane to New Zealand (aka Middle Earth) and the adventure began.
We visited Hobbiton on International Hobbit Day. Because of this, The Shire’s Rest – where you wait for your bus to pick you up – was buzzing with Lord of the Rings fans, eager to start their journey into Hobbiton.
Luckily, we had bought our tickets in advance, and we were soon driving along the lush rolling hills towards Hobbiton.
Built in 1999, for the first movie in the trilogy, the set was constructed on the hills of Alexander Farm. Construction was done with mainly temporary materials, so, after filming was wrapped up, the set was demolished and the ground returned to being undisturbed farmlands.
However, this didn’t stop people from visiting, eager to catch a glimpse of the Shire. So, when Peter Jackson returned some years later to film The Hobbit, the decision was made to erect a more permanent village.
A walk along the Hobbit Holes
During our visit, we walked along windy paths, visiting forty-four hobbit holes, complete with small gardens, bridges and ponds. We noticed little details throughout: clothing lines in the gardens, farming tools outside the hobbit holes, vegetable gardens with real vegetables… It was easy to imagine a buzzing village with hobbits running around, going about their daily lives.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, telling us stories about the set and anecdotes about each hobbit hole, while allowing us plenty of time to take photos.
“They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green; but seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown.” – Description of the Shire Hobbits.
A drink at the Green Dragon Inn
When we reached the Green Dragon Inn, we were treated to an ale (or, apple cider) exclusively brewed for Hobbiton. While sipping our Southfarthing (love the name!) drink, we walked around the beautifully constructed inn.
Its wooden interior – complete with a fireplace, rounded doorposts and quirky details (such as hobbit coats and wooden staffs hanging by the door) – added to the genuine Hobbiton feel.
“Oh, you can search far and wide, You can drink the whole town dry, but you’ll never find a beer so brown, as the one we drink in our hometown …” – The Golden Hall Drinking Song.
Things to know before visiting Hobbiton
Make sure to book your tickets in advance
Especially during high season because Hobbiton is one of the most visited tourist attractions in New Zealand – and you don’t want to miss out!
Can you visit Hobbiton without a tour?
The only way to visit the set is with a guided tour. If you don’t want to walk around in a group, you can also book a private tour. Those who book a private tour can also enjoy a lunch at the Green Dragon Inn’s Party Marquee.
Where is Hobbiton located?
Hobbiton is located on a family run farm in Matamata, 2h 15 min drive from Auckland, 45 min drive from Hamilton and 1h drive from Rotorua.
Prepare for any type of weather
New Zealand is not known for its tropical weather, so make sure to pack a rain jacket and/or a sweater, as it can rain on any day. Even in the middle of summer, temperatures can drop to 15 degrees or lower, so a sweater can come in handy.
We’re quickly approaching the end of 2017, which means it’s time to have a look back at our year in travels. This year, we’ve been lucky to have travelled to many new destinations, as well as to have moved to a new country!
This year in numbers
In Canada, we explored our own backyard and visited a few new places in British Columbia. I travelled back to Belgium twice to see my family and friends, and, while in Europe, I made a few quick stops in Amsterdam and London.
Our first international trip was to Cuba, a country we were excited to visit, and it turned out to be an incredible experience.
For Ash’s birthday, we took a small plane to Salt Spring Island, not too far from Vancouver, but perfect for a weekend getaway.
Only a few days later, we packed our bags, stored all our belongings and moved to New Zealand – the start of a new chapter in our expat lives.
After settling down in our new home and at our new job, we started exploring our new home country. We travelled around the North Island on long weekends and took a week off to explore the South Island for my birthday.
Finally, to finish off the year, we relaxed in Fiji, before I enjoyed my first summer Christmas!
January is always a little quiet on the travel front. We’re still recovering from the Christmas period and we’re usually busy at work… and January of 2017 was no different.
February was a snowy month in Vancouver. I love the crisp air winter brings – and what better way to have enjoyed the winter weather than a hike at Belcarra Regional Park, nearby the city?
My parents’ birthday falls in March, so I decided to give them a surprise visit and whisk them away on a two-day trip to London. While in London, I also met up with a few of my friends; it was great to see them again after almost two years!
While in Belgium, I wanted to visit something different from the usual tourist cities, so I drove to Doel, a ghost town near Antwerp.
Our first big trip happened in April. Cuba had been high on our list, and, after months of planning, it was finally time to board the plane and spend almost three weeks on the Caribbean island.
We were excited to visit Cuba, and it turned out to be an incredible experience. Then, on the way back to Vancouver, we had a full day to explore Toronto. It wasn’t nearly enough to see the city – so I’m sure we’ll be back!
This was a time to explore a little more of our own backyard. Spring was in full swing and warmer weather meant we could enjoy some sunny hikes.
First up was the Abbotsford Bloom Tulip Festival. With acres upon acres of various coloured tulips, it was such a beautiful sight! We walked around for a few hours taking plenty of photos.
Later in the month, we visited White Rock. This city by the ocean lies only 30 minutes south of Vancouver.
At the end of the month, on a hot day, we hiked around Pitt Meadows and Pitt Lake. It’s a great spot for water activities and walks. Interestingly, the location was also used for the latest season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (a great series by the way).
In June, we received some exciting news and something I especially had been working towards for years. In April, we applied to Weta – one of the most successful VFX companies in our industry – and received a request for an interview in May. By June, we had been offered the job, which we soon accepted. This meant we only had 1.5 months to get ready for a move to New Zealand, where Weta is based.
In an attempt to visit a few more places in Canada before leaving the country, we used our free Discovery Pass and travelled to Fort Langley, a 19th-century fur trading post.
At the end of the month, we drove to Harrison Hot Springs, a resort community popular among British Columbians. Nearby were the Cascade Falls; this ensured that another waterfall was ticked off the list.
Even though I visited Belgium in March, I wanted to see my family again before moving to New Zealand, so I travelled to Amsterdam on a direct flight from Vancouver (no direct flights to Belgium unfortunately) and spent the day in the Netherlands’ capital city before taking the train to Belgium.
I arrived right in the middle of ‘De Gentse Feesten’ – an extremely popular festival in Gent, Belgium’s most fun city (in my opinion :); it offers ten days of festivities.
Then, when I was back in Vancouver, we boarded a small seaplane to Salt Spring Island for Ash’s birthday. We spent two days on the small island, eating, drinking and enjoying the last summer days.
Once home, we packed our bags, put most of our belongings in storage and said goodbye to our friends. We boarded our plane to New Zealand on the 30th of July, arriving in Wellington on the 1st of August.
There was no time to acclimatise to the new time zone, as we started work the day after our arrival. Luckily, we were put up in a hotel for two weeks, and were given plenty of time to sort out our lives; which, among everything else, included setting up a New Zealand phone number, finding a car and a place to stay and setting up a bank account.
We didn’t lose time exploring the area either, as, in the first weekend of our arrival, we visited the Rivendell set, Rimatuka Hill and Castlepoint.
The next weekend, we were on the road again. This time to Putangirua Pinnacles, a spectacular landscape of ‘badlands erosion’, and another of the The Lord of the Rings sets. After driving a little further on some dodgy roads, we visited Cape Palliser, the southernmost point of the North Island.
For the remainder of August, most of our free time was spent exploring Wellington’s many cafes and restaurants, as well as visiting Te Papa (museum), the Zoo and botanic gardens… It was easy to fall in love with Wellington.
Milford Sound is regarded as one of the top destinations in the world, so while planning our South Island road trip, we didn’t think twice about booking a cruise on this popular fiord. We embarked aboard the Milford Mariner, operated by our hosts Real Journeys, on a spectacular trip across this remarkable fiord, surrounded by towering peaks, stunning waterfalls and the opportunity to see wildlife, truly a must do New Zealand experience.
Shaped by ancient glaciers over hundreds of thousands of years, Milford Sound has a rugged beauty stretching for 16km in length and opening out into the Tasman Sea. Our cruise with Real Journeys took us on a two hour journey, passing impressive rock faces and right up to the magnificent waterfalls all around the fiord.
The route to Milford Sound alone is worth experiencing, with epic mountain roads, sweeping vistas, mirror like lakes and incredible forests, allow a few extra hours to stop along the way and take it all in.
There are several stunning view points and hiking trails to enjoy, and keep an eye out for the Kea, a cheeky bird who loves the rubber on your car!
When it rains, hundreds of small waterfalls make their way down the steep cliffs. Apart from these temporary ones, there are 2 permanent falls, Lady Bowen and Stirling Falls. Lady Bowen Falls is the highest at 162m.
The ships venture as close as possible to the Stirling Falls, so make sure you have a waterproof camera and rain jacket with you!
When we received our offer to work in Wellington, we only had two months to sort out our lives in Vancouver before flying to New Zealand’s capital.
We were excited for this new chapter, however, we didn’t have the time to find out more about our new home before landing. As a result, there were a few things we did not expect or were not prepared for!
Wellington LOVES brunch (and so do I!)
Brunch in Wellington
I brunched regularly in Vancouver, but most brunch menus were only available over weekends. In Wellington, it almost seems a way of life, throughout the week!
Breakfast/brunch menus are available throughout the day, seven days a week, with eggs benedict, bircher muesli and buttermilk pancakes featuring on almost all menus… It’s heaven!
Middle-Earth is everywhere
Troll at Weta Cave
“Middle of Middle-earth” is the sign you see as soon as you arrive at Wellington airport. We were welcomed by Gandalf flying the eagle upon entering the food court, and a giant Smaug lying down at the check-in area. Wellington is home to Weta Workshop and Weta Digital (the company I currently work for), both of whom played integral roles in the making of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
Miramar is the hub of ‘Wellywood’, where you can visit Weta workshop and marvel at all the props and artefacts created for movies, including The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and District 9. I walk past the Weta cave (the entrance to the workshop) daily and based on the number of people visiting, Middle Earth is still popular around the world!
Windy Wellington sign
Before arriving in New Zealand, I knew Wellington was the windiest capital in the world – but you can only fully comprehend how windy it is after spending a few months here. It’s not always that bad, but when your flight gets cancelled/rerouted due to 100 km/h gusts; your hair gets blown into knots (which are impossible to comb out), and your house creaks heavily under the constant battering, you start to long for those cities where you never gave a second thought to wind. Forgo the umbrella, tie your hair, invest in a good windproof jacket, and you’re good to go!
The earth shakes frequently
Earthquake near Wellington which woke me up in the middle of the night
Wellington lies on the Wellington fault line (and three other fault lines around the Wellington area), which means the earth shakes frequently here. So far I’ve felt six moderate earthquakes, which were magnitude 4+ (shaking desk, windows and doors)… However, New Zealand experienced over 32800 quakes in 2016. Safe to say, there’s a lot of shaking going on here!
Go to the counter to pay at a restaurant
In almost all restaurants and lunch places, you pay while ordering or pay the bill at the counter after finishing your meal. You won’t feel pressured to finish your drink and leave the restaurant. Just leave the table and pay when you’re ready!
Sushi is expensive and the size is big
Sushi in Wellington
I love sushi, so I was a little disappointed to find out sushi isn’t a big thing here. I was spoiled in Vancouver, where sushi is popular. I now rarely eat sushi as there aren’t many sushi restaurants or lunch places around. We have found one sushi place recently with an extensive sushi menu: Origami. The prices are still expensive, but the sushi is fresh and delicious.
Supermarket sushi is also nothing to write home about. It not only comes in huge sizes (it’s impossible to put those gigantic rolls in your mouth!) but they’re not tasty to begin with.
There are many beautiful bays
Scorching Bay in Wellington
Wellington boasts six bays around the city, with stunning beaches and delicious lunch spots. Wherever you are in the city, you’re never far away from the ocean. Swimming, diving, and surfing are popular activities around the bays.
I love driving along the bays, especially Scorching Bay and Shelly Bay, on the Miramar peninsula. You’ll never guess that the city is just a 15-minute drive away when you’re sitting on the beach, watching the ocean waves lap against the many rocks.
Wellington is hilly
Hills in Wellington
Wedged between the Cook Strait and the Rimutaka range, Wellington’s landscape is shaped by many hills. The slopes encompass the city’s many suburbs, providing Wellington with many green spaces, hiking and biking trails.
I love hiking the many trails around the city, as well as enjoying the stunning scenic views from the different tops. It’s also a great workout walking all these hills right on your doorstep!
There’s no central heating
Luckily, temperatures in Wellington don’t drop below 0 in winter, but when there is no central heating, double glazed windows or insulation, it can get pretty cold inside! I arrived in the middle of winter, and a fleece blanket, portable heater, and a few warm sweaters were amongst the first purchases I made.
Some houses do have central heating. However, most homeowners are put off by the installation cost, so they instead install heat pumps to keep a room warm (these also function as air conditioner).
Wellington is not a shopping paradise
Shopping around Lambton Quay in Wellington
Every time I move to a new country, the quest begins to find my new favourite clothing store. Unfortunately, I have yet to find that store in Wellington. Choices are limited, and there are not many brands you’ll recognise from overseas.
On the other hand, Wellington has a great selection of outdoor and boutique stores! I just need to dig a little deeper to find that gem…
You can bring your own wine/beer to restaurants
If you find alcohol too expensive in restaurants, there are a few places in Wellington that are Bring Your Own (BYO)-friendly. Perfect if you are on a budget, or you are desperate to enjoy a particular drink with your meal.
The sun is pretty strong
Chocolate Fish cafe on a sunny afternoon in Wellington
Slap on that sunscreen because you will get sunburned quickly in New Zealand! There are a few reasons why the sun is stronger in NZ: The ozone layer, which blocks UV rays, is thinner; the earth’s orbit is closer to the sun during the southern summer compared to the northern summer, and there’s less pollution to block out the UV rays. (Source: https://www.enz.org/new-zealand-sunshine.html).
When the sun is shining, 14-degree weather can feel substantially warmer here in Wellington than 14 degrees in Vancouver or London, where I used to live. I don’t tan quickly, but the New Zealand sun has given me a nice colour after a few weeks. I make sure to wear makeup with SPF 20+ and use sunscreen when we go walking outdoors.
People walk barefoot
Walking barefoot in Wellington
Not everyone walks barefoot but there are quite a few people walking around the city, in shops or at work without shoes, even when it’s cold outside. Not just kids but adults too. A quick Google search didn’t provide me with a straight answer as to why… Maori culture? Convenience? It just feels good?
It was a bright sunny, spring day when we arrived in Queenstown, adventure capital of the world. So far, our road trip about New Zealand’s South Island had been packed with hikes and lots of driving, so we decided to slow down and relax with a cruise on Lake Wakatipu.
Our first stop was Queenstown harbour, where the historic TSS Earnslaw was waiting for us. We had booked a boat trip and BBQ lunch through Real Journeys. This would allow us to see Queenstown from Lake Wakatipu.
A trip on a historic ship, combined with a delicious BBQ lunch buffet at Walter Peak Farm, sounded wonderful. And if you’ve ever tried a BBQ buffet in New Zealand, you’ll know they do them pretty well!
Lake Wakatipu Cruise on the TSS Earnslaw
After boarding the steamship, we set off on an hour-long journey to the Walter Peak Farm. We settled outside, in front of the ship, taking in the scenic beauty around the lake. At times, the wind was brutal; it was spring after all, but we never left our post, the scenery was too beautiful to miss.
The cruise with BBQ lunch at Walter Peak takes around 3h 30 minutes and can be booked here.
Stepping inside the TSS Earnslaw will transport you back to its Edwardian past. Built in 1912, the 48-metre-long ship is the only remaining coal-fired steamship in the Southern Hemisphere. You can visit the engine room and see the impressive engines at work; it’s mesmerising to watch.
A pianist on the main deck set the mood, playing classic tunes in the background. The promenade cafe and bar offered drinks and snacks, but we decided to wait because we didn’t want to spoil our lunch by filling our stomachs beforehand!
Walter Peak High Country Farm
As we approached Walter Peak Farm, the impressive Colonel’s Homestead Restaurant came into view. Originally built in 1902, the structure oozed grandeur and history. After disembarking, the local staff seated us on the outside terrace overlooking the lake. Soon after taking our drinks order, we were called to the buffet, where a stunning array of dishes was waiting for us
On offer were a variety of New Zealand’s local produce: with a selection of succulent meats, such as chicken, lamb and beef, cooked on the grill, a vegetable and salad bar and, to finish, delicious desserts and New Zealand cheeses… I couldn’t wait to tuck in!
We were not rushed and could enjoy lunch at our own pace, sipping wine with Lake Wakatipu as our backdrop.
Glimpse into life on a sheep farm
After our meal, we were invited to a farm demonstration. Walter Peak, founded in 1860, functions as a high country sheep station, with around 18,000 Merino and Perendale sheep. A highly entertaining and knowledgeable staff member showed us the most interesting aspects of life at a sheep farm: sheep herding and sheep shearing.
I loved this little glimpse into life on a sheep farm. Sheep farming is a significant industry in New Zealand and since arriving in New Zealand, we’ve noticed how many sheep are found across the country.
When the demonstration ended, we walked back to the shore and took our last few pictures of the gardens and farm before embarking back onto the TSS Earnslaw.
The ship took us on a peaceful trip back to Queenstown harbour, where we continued our whirlwind road trip around the South Island…
We were invited to the BBQ lunch by Real Journeys, however, all opinions are my own and you will always read my genuine thoughts and experiences.
One of the things we love when visiting a city is diving into its culinary scene. After dining at a few more traditional restaurants in Wellington, we were excited to try out something different: a 360-degree VR (Virtual Reality) dining experience at Wellington’s oldest pub, Thistle Inn.
Thistle Inn – built in 1840 – is New Zealand’s oldest surviving tavern and restaurant, operating from its original site. The Inn looks much as it did in the 19th century, its wooden floorboards and sash windows a reminder of its Victorian past.
Where does the 360-degree concept come from?
On a trip to Europe, general manager Richard Walshe was introduced to the concept of VR. He thought it was an excellent idea to combine VR with dining and decided to create the VR dining experience at Thistle Inn for Wellington On a Plate, a food festival held in Wellington during August.
This unique dining approach was a success and, after the festival ended, Richard decided to continue the experience. This means visitors can now book a table for the 360-degree dining experience every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
We were shown to our table, which was situated in a quiet section of the pub. I was surprised to see there was no cutlery, glasses or plates – and, instead of normal seats, we were seated at swivelling chairs. “To make sure you can look around for a full 360-degree experience,” our waitress told us. She handed us two VR headsets and guided us through the setup before telling us to press the play button. The experience could begin!
We were first shown the history of the pub followed by a journey through the makings of a local beer.
Apart from the 360 experience, all our senses were engaged, including touch and smell. Throughout the movie, we could see, hear, touch and smell the different aspects of brewing beer – even the smells of hops and barley reached my nose. And, when taking off the headset, we were presented with a selection of ingredients and a can of the locally brewed beer we had just witnessed being made from start to finish.
After enjoying our drink, it was time for part two of the dinner. We put our headsets back on and found ourselves at sea… I could feel the wind brushing my face, and the smell of sand and saltwater placed me right by the ocean.
We followed artisan fishing and wild food supply company Awatoru on a day at sea. After catching tuna on their small boat, the fish was then transported to Wellington where Thistle Inn started preparing the meal. I could smell the appetising tuna dish teasing my already grumbling stomach. I couldn’t wait to take off my headset… As I did so, an enticing looking plate was there waiting for me. The whole table had been transformed into a work of art, with a fishing rod placed in the middle, surrounded by stones, seashells and sand. The food was as tasty as it looked, and was one of the best tuna dishes I have eaten so far.
The experience set us off on a proper farm-to-table journey. We loved being able to familiarise ourselves with the local suppliers, the procedures and the work that goes into bringing all the ingredients to our plate. A unique approach to eating out!
We were invited by Thistle Inn, however all opinions are my own and you will always read my genuine thoughts and experiences.
After two months in New Zealand, where we settled into our new home and job, we were happy to find some time to explore part of the North Island. Our first long weekend away saw us exploring the heart of geothermal landscapes, and Maori culture in and around Rotorua.
Volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs were the main theme throughout our trip and we found plenty of things to do in Rotorua. But our first stop would be something entirely different; a place I had been dreaming of visiting since 2001: Hobbiton!
Hobbiton – The Redwoods – Maori Village
Around 8am on Friday morning, we flew with Air New Zealand from Wellington into Hamilton. We picked up our car from the budget rental office inside the airport – and off we went on our adventure!
Hamilton airport is small and only services domestic flights. If you only have carry-on luggage, you can arrive 15 minutes before departure.
Hobbiton Movie Set
We drove for 45 min along windy roads, through lush green hills, until we arrived at our first stop: Hobbiton. Unbeknown to us, we had arrived on probably the busiest day of the year: International Hobbit Day.
Luckily, we had purchased our Hobbiton tickets in advance and were able to join our tour soon after arriving. Hobbiton was everything I had expected and more. The set is enormous, with its myriad of colourful Hobbit holes dotted around in the hills. The gardens are maintained by professional gardeners throughout the year, and real food and drinks are served at the Green Dragon Inn.
After our 2-hour tour and filling our camera memory cards with hundreds of photos, we relaxed at the Green Dragon Inn. Its interior resembles true Hobbit craftsmanship. After sampling an ale and cider, brewed exclusively for Hobbiton, we continued our journey towards Rotorua.
Arriving in Rotorua
The trip to Rotorua took us just under an hour. The landscape changed on the way to the city, with puffs of steam rising from the surrounding land. Rotorua is surrounded by geothermal systems, which appear almost otherworldly. We couldn’t wait to start exploring the many features in the next few days.
Upon arrival, we first checked into our boutique hotel, The Regent of Rotorua, an elegant luxury hotel in the centre of town. After dropping off our bags, we ventured into the town. Wafts of sulphur followed us throughout our walk, a constant reminder of the volcanic activity in the area.
We first walked through the Government Gardens, beautifully landscaped in front of the Museum of Rotorua. The museum – formerly a bathhouse – is housed in a heritage building over 100 years old.
Unfortunately, after the Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016, the museum closed as a precautionary measure after cracks were found in the building. For the foreseeable future, the museum remains closed, as the building is renovated according to earthquake safety standards. For now, you can admire the exquisite architecture from the outside while strolling around the gardens.
Redwood Forest Rotorua
Up next was the TreeWalk at the Redwoods, Whakarewarewa Forest, just outside of Rotorua. The TreeWalk consists of 21 suspension bridges among the impressive, stately redwoods. We walked 12 metres above ground on this very peaceful walk through the forest.
Tamaki Maori Village
Late afternoon, we made our way to Tamaki Maori Village, a Maori cultural experience 20 minutes from Rotorua. Upon arrival, we were treated to an ancient ceremony of welcome. Afterwards, the Maori showed us aspects of traditional Maori way of life in a recreated Maori village and performed traditional dances and songs.
At the end, we enjoyed a Hangi buffet meal. It was an interesting experience to learn more about the Maori. However, a few aspects felt a little too forced and I’m not sure if I would recommend it on a visit to Rotorua.
After the Maori feast, we made our way back to the TreeWalk at the Redwoods, to see the trees illuminated by thirty suspended lanterns. It was a completely different experience than our daytime walk, and a great way to end a busy day.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a delicious cocktail at the bar before turning in; we had another busy day ahead of us!
White Island – Polynesian Spa
White Island, or Whakaari, is an active stratovolcano located 49km north of the north coast. It’s the most active cone volcano in New Zealand, with an almost constant volcanic activity of steaming fumaroles and boiling mud. And yes, we walked on the surface of this volcano…
We boarded our boat, with White Island Tours, in Whakatane, after getting the all-clear that the tour would go ahead. They only confirm either the evening before or on the morning of the tour, if the weather and volcanic conditions are safe enough to venture up into the volcano.
The journey to the volcano takes roughly 1.5 hours, where you have a chance to see wildlife, such as dolphins and whales, along the way. Unfortunately, my stomach doesn’t agree with smallish boats, and I felt ill the entire route. Once on the island, I felt much better and could finally enjoy the experience.
Armed with a helmet and gas mask, we made our way through the crater on a 1.5-hour guided walk. We learned about the geology and the history of the volcano and marvelled at the surreal, out-of-this-world landscape.
We came up close to steam vents, which literally took our breath away (thank god we had the gas masks!), and the subsequent coughing fits made us realise how dangerous this place can be. Walking around the volcano and the crater was an exceptionally unique experience that Ash and I will not forget anytime soon.
Photo Credit: Polynesian Spa
The drive to Whakatane takes around an hour and the trip itself around five hours. We were exhausted when we got back to Rotorua, so we decided to unwind at the Polynesian Spa, a mineral bath and spa retreat in the town centre.
It was the perfect place to relax our tired muscles before heading to Atticus Finch for a delicious evening meal.
After that, we switched hotels and checked into the Prince’s Gate Boutique Hotel: a beautiful historic hotel, with a classical style, dating back to the late 19th century.
Wai-o-Tapu – Orakei Korako – Lake Taupo – Wairakei Terraces – Waikite Valley Thermal Pools – Rotorua gondola
Day Three proved to be a very busy day. We left Rotorua early and drove to Lake Taupo, visiting several geothermal parks along the way. The first one was Wai-o-Tapu, an exceptionally colourful park, with unique features found throughout the diverse landscape. One of the more popular park attractions is the Lady Knox Geyser. At 10:15 am each day, you can see the geyser erupting in all its glory, reaching a height of up to 10 – 20 metres.
Orakei Korako Geothermal Park
For the next park, Orakei Korako, we had to take a short detour from the main road but it is definitely worth the extra kilometres. We took a quick boat ride across the lake to reach the stunning geothermal wonders. We set off on a walk around the features, passing thermal pools, geysers, a cave and mud pools, which are weirdly satisfying to watch.
After a quick bite at the MudCake Café, at Orakei Korako, we drove to Lake Taupo. Huka Falls was next on our itinerary. Apparently, it is one of the most visited – and photographed – natural attractions in New Zealand.
As we walked up to the waterfall, we could see why this natural display of force was so popular. The 11-metre waterfall carries 220, 000 litres per second and is a vibrant blue colour. There are several hiking and biking trails around the falls.
If you have some time, you can take a jet boat up to the base of the waterfall. We decided to stay on dry land and admire the falls from above.
Lake Taupo is the biggest lake by surface area in New Zealand and lies in the caldera of the Taupo volcano. There is plenty to see and do around the lake, but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to explore the area. After deciding to come back for a weekend around the lake, we made our way back to Rotorua.
When people ask me where my favourite place in the world is, I can never give a definitive answer. There are, however, a few places, which always spring to mind, Colca Canyon in Peru being one of them. Colca Canyon truly takes my breath away for more than one reason…
Colca Canyon 2-day trek
Colca Canyon - Photo Credit: Lucy A Travellers Footsteps
My journey began early in the morning, as we boarded a bus from Arequipa, Peru. It was a long and bumpy bus ride before we arrived at our first stop, the Cruz del Condor lookout where you can watch the condors soar around the top of the Canyon. I was in complete awe at the size of these birds and the way they can fly so effortlessly. I could have watched the condors all day, but I decided to take a tour of the Canyon, which meant running on a schedule.
Condor - Photo Credit: Lucy A Travellers Footsteps
We drove a little further into the canyon before starting our two-day trek. As a keen hiker, I was off straight into the canyon and far ahead of my fellow hikers in no time. The hike was super steep and slippery, following a series of switchbacks along the side of a steep cliff, which made it important to watch my step, but this was difficult to do, as the views were just so unbelievably beautiful!
Lucy - Photo credit: Lucy, A Travellers Footsteps
It wasn’t long before I reached the bottom of the canyon, where I raced to the flowing river to cool down. As it turns out, I made it down about an hour ahead of everyone else, so I had time to sit back and relax. We went to the very bottom of the canyon, then back up the other side to a local house where we stopped for lunch. By this stage, I was starving and couldn’t have been happier to arrive. We talked to the family living there and enjoyed a beautiful, home-cooked Peruvian lunch before the final – and hardest – stretch of the hike.
Condor - Photo Credit: Lucy A Travellers Footsteps
I must admit, during the final hours of the hike, I was struggling (not as much as some). It was nightfall before we arrived to our lodge in the base of the canyon; Day One was our longest day of hiking.
” This is one of the most breath-taking moments of my life and it’s one I will treasure forever “
After getting my shoes off and showering, I went outside and soon found myself in a state of admiration at what I saw next because never in my life have I never seen so many vibrant stars filling the night sky! This is one of the most breath-taking moments of my life and it’s one I will treasure forever.
Colca Canyon - Photo Credit: Lucy A Travellers Footsteps
Another early morning was on the cards, with us starting the hike back up the canyon wall at 5 am. I arrived at the top of the canyon at 9 am, after four hours of constant stairs. Despite being completely exhausted I was on a mission, determined to be the first to the top… and isn’t the power of the mind crazy? Because I did it – and was the first up and the first to have breakfast – and a well-deserved breakfast at that!
For me, there is nothing better than hiking in complete nature as I did in Colca Canyon; it clears my mind and makes me feel grounded. While this hike was very challenging at times, it is one that I am proud to have done because I can now say I have reached the depths of one of the deepest canyons in the world!