Rotorua to Tongariro

Rotorua to Tongariro

5:45 AM and I was awake. After a great night at the Mari village, I thought I would at least sleep until 7 but, nope! I needed to catch up on blogging so I typed away while Ryan made coffee and toast for breakfast. We tried to watch the sunrise over lake Taupo but it was in the wrong direction – ooops!

Before we knew it, we were packed up and ready to head to the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley for our volcanic activity experience! There are two other famous and big volcanic areas you can go in Rotorua, but all of the reviews I read said they were super packed and touristy. We passed both of the other places on our way to Waimangu and they looked more like amusement parks than nature reserves. We were the only car in the parking lot for our Valley walk! Waimangu is a national park with trails through the volcanic valley with no lines or tourist expectations!

We checked in, grabbed a map that outlined the various points of interest along the trail, and took off on our two-hour walk. The trail was hilly but not hard by any means, and we were full of anticipation that kept growing as we saw more and more steam coming out of the forest!

We came across the first big site within minutes. A massive lake with bubbling water and steam everywhere! Frying Pan Lake’s temperature averages 131 degrees fahrenheit! Wouldn’t want to go for a swim in there…

The sulfur smell was almost non-existent, but you could feel the heat from the steam. There was even steam coming out of small holes in the rock formations along the path.

We were totally in awe of the natural formations, spouts, and water colors from the volcanic activity and were loving every second of the unique area.

Apparently, none of this existed before 1886. That year, Mount Tarawera erupted and created huge craters in the ground that, over time, filled with water and became the volcanic lakes we see today. We ended up taking the “extended” trail that led up, up, and away to some awesome views of the lake.

We only ran into one other group the entire time we were on the trail. The secluded nature of our hike made it that much more special.

Eventually, we got to the end of the trail and had to wait 30 minutes for the shuttle to arrive. We snacked on Quest Bars and apples to refuel and watched the black swans dive to get food in the lake. They were so funny because they only dove with their heads, so their butts and legs flailed above the water while they were submerged. So funny to watch!

The bus finally came and we were back to the reception area and into the car in no time. We had about 40 minutes of driving to do before we hit our next stop, Huka Falls. After Marokopa Falls in the day prior and our experience at Krkra Falls in Croatia, we were anticipating a great sight since Huka Falls is so much more well-known. We were slightly disappointed. Huka Falls were really more like really blue rapids. The force of the rapids was pretty astonishing, but it was crowded and we like Marokopa much more.

Huka Falls, New Zealand

It took about 10 minutes to see Huka Falls, so we jumped back in the car and sought out a lake-side lunch spot on Lake Topau. We found a cute little place with a great patio and enjoyed some fish and chips and a lamb salad. Little did we know that we were actually visiting over Anzac Day so all of the patios were packed on the national holiday. Anzac day is Australia and New Zealand’s version of Veteran’s Day in the States. We saw a ton of people in their military / service uniforms.

Lunch by Lake Taupo in New Zealand

After we filled up on lunch, we had another hour and a bit drive to the Tongariro Suites @ The Rocks. The drive was beautiful and went by quickly. I even made friends with some sheep!

Sheep in New Zealand

We were in the middle of no where and almost missed the hotel since it’s street was so off the beaten path. Once we pulled up, we knew we made the right choice! The Suites used to be a cow paddock and a fantastically nice couple turned it into a luxury resort with about 5 suites. It is all solar power operated and totally luxurious down to the tiniest detail! Because the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing hike starts so early, The Suites already had the breakfast buffet set up in our room!

The beds had heating pads, the bathroom was super luxurious with heat lamps for extra warmth and the owner even made a Canadian hot tub from cedar wood for the guests to recover in. The list of amenities and thought put into this place goes on and on and we couldn’t get over our view of the moon rising over the mountain peaks….

The owner recommended a restaurant called The Cyprus Tree for a tasty dinner within a quick drive. You would think, in such a remote area, the food would be average, but you would also be thinking wrong! We split a delicious beet, balsamic, and goat cheese ball salad, lamb sliders (that were to-die for), and cranberry walnut stuffed chicken with risotto. YUM!

After we got over our shock at how good the food was and scarfed it all down, we walked across the road to get a bottle of wine and extra water for our hike the next day. We went back to the hotel, grabbed the warm, fuzzy blankets provided in our room, poured two glasses of wine, turned all of the lights out, and sat on our patio to watch shooting stars and look at the amazing array of constellations visible. It was incredible.

Continue on this adventure…

 

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Hahei

Hahei

My mom is from, as the locals say, “Down Under”. While I was growing up, my family and I used to go to Australia to visit my relatives and explore! I am pretty sure those trips were the ones on which I got bitten by the travel bug!  My husband and I have been together for a little over 4 years and he still had not been to see and meet my heritage so, when the opportunity came up in May for some time to get away, we hopped on it!

While I’ve been to Australia a handful of times, I have never been to New Zealand. I wanted to make this trip somewhat new for both of us, so we planned to do a week in New Zealand and a week in Sydney. I figured a week in each would be plenty of time and bought the tickets – little did I know, just a week in NZ is pushing it! The best way to explore New Zealand is to do a giant road trip of either the North or South Islands (or both!). You need a solid few weeks to do all of the attractions in both. Knowing we were going to be jet-lagged upon arrival and we only had 6 full days in NZ, we opted to do a route around the North Island.

We flew out of Houston on Air New Zealand. While our check-in guy told us that our big plane was swapped with a smaller one last-minute, making my 6’2 husband a little nervous for leg space, we ended up scoring the airplane jackpot with an entire row to ourselves! We slept most of the 15 hour flight and I caught up on 4 different movies. While we were delayed about an hour and landed around 7:30 AM in Auckland, customs was a breeze and we were on the shuttle to our rental car in no time.

While I looked into getting a camper van for the trip, the rental, gas, and camp site fees were actually a few hundred dollars more than booking the hotels I looked into. Granted, I was looking at vans with toilets so they were more expensive than the just-bed versions, but still! We ended up going to hotel route and renting a tiny little, beat up Nissan Tilda to scoot us around. It was perfect on the narrow roads and already had so many marks on it we were scratch-stress free. Not only that, but I requested a car with a trunk instead of a hatchback so we could have our luggage in the car while we were in between hotels without anyone knowing (just in case).

Our first stop on our road trip was Hot Water Beach in Hahei. We had about a 2.5 hour drive from Auckland to the coast. The drive was absolutely beautiful with so many hills, sheep and cows, and immensely thick brush, but it was all hard to see considering my eyes were on the windy roads and I was focused on driving on the wrong side of the road!

We pulled up to the Top Ten Hotel Hot Water Beach and were so excited. We were staying in a little bungalow and it was so cute! It had a great porch for relaxing, amazing wake up view, and was only a ten minute walk from Hot Water Beach!

We relaxed for a few minutes and decided it was time for some lunch and exploring. The hotel recommended Hot Waves Café which was hidden in the woods. It was a cute café and we were expecting pretty average food but, boy, were we wrong! I got a lamb burger with capsicum salad and tzatziki and it was probably one of the best burgers of my life! It also had yummy potato cakes. Ryan actually got a sweet potato cake dish with bacon and, again, it was scrumptious!

We filled up quick and decided to walk to Hot Water beach. The beach is named for its underground volcanic streams that empty out into the ocean. You can dig a hole in the beach to access the stream water and create a sand hot tub! You are supposed to dig around low tide for easier access to the steaming water and, though low tide started at 4, people were already digging around 2! Their holes were at least 5 feet deep and we were a little put off by the effort of digging that far down!

We headed back to the hotel, changed into our swim suits, rented a shovel from the hotel, and walked back to the beach and it was even more packed! We decided to start digging a bit over from the crowds. Even though our dig site was the same level as the others with steam coming out of them, our water was not hot! You could be just a few inches away from the stream output and the water temperature was 20-30 degrees different! Some of the water was so hot you could not even step in it! We found that the best strategy was to dig on the edge of the hot stream to get a mix of cool and hot water and make the perfect temp. There was another couple that asked if they could dig with us and we ended up hanging out in our pool and trying not to boil for about an hour. It was such a fun experience!

We ended up heading back to the hotel to change and get dinner around 5. At this point, we had been up for about 15 hours and it was wearing on us. The hotel had a “Fish & Chip” stand so we grabbed that for dinner. It was delicious but there were sooo many fries. Good thing I shoveled so much sand as a work out!

With the jet lag hitting us strong, we went back to the room and were fast asleep by 6:30 PM!

Continue this adventure to Waitomo, New Zealand…

Rome, Day 1

Rome, Day 1

Today was “explore Rome via bike” day! After such an amazing breakfast spread in Split, the breakfast was pretty underwhelming the Spagna Royal Suites, though it was good to eat lightly after such a big meal in the night prior. We had some coffee to pick us up and were off to the bus stop to ride our way over to the Coliseum. Taxis are very expensive in Rome and the public transit in is amazing so we decided to give the bus a go. Our hotel actually gave us a phone with free calling, wi-fi, and location services to help us get around without using our data and that basically saved our lives. We were easily able to find our way to the bus, the right station, and then over to the TopBike Rental & Tours shop.

Check-in for the bike tour was quick and they had a wide variety of bikes. We had electric assist motors on ours just in case the 4-hour trek got difficult, but I ended up turning that off for the majority of the ride (maybe all of those cycle classes were paying off?). Our guide, Muana, was from the Netherlands, and we had a New Zealander, two Australians, and an American guy in TopBike training also accompanying us.

Muana guided us out of the shop and to the Coliseum first for a quick recap of its history. We had a detailed tour of the Coliseum scheduled for the next day, so her quick overview was perfect and a nice rest before biking over to the “Wedding Cake” building, aka the Altare della Patria, nicknamed after its opulence and resemblance to a massive, tiered cake.

We then rode over to one of the most famous fountains in the world, the Trevi Fountain, for another pit stop. The fountain is massive and the sculptures are breathtaking. So much talent and effort went into its creation.

We then biked down to the Pantheon and got to go inside. If you have never been, it has a huge dome with an open center. I can’t even begin to describe how large it is and how astonishing the architecture to stabilize such a dome is.

We then rode across the Tiber river to Piazza Navona, which used to be a horse racing stadium. It is now a massive square surrounded with shops and restaurants and has another gorgeous fountain of Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi).

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After some gelato in the square, we ride around the Roman Forum and to the Coliseum. Overall, we had 4 hours of scenic views, interesting factoids, and perfect biking weather. If you are heading to Rome for the first time, TopBike is a great way to see the city and get the lay of the land before doing other sections in-depth.

Our tour was over around 1 PM and we were famished! The area around the Coliseum has pretty expensive restaurants, so we took Muana’s suggestions and walked deeper into the city. Ryan was in the mood for pizza and we were starving, so we stopped at the first place with pizza we came across – Urban 47. It was cute outside and ended up being quite large and cool inside with a very modern kitchen and appetizer room. I had some delicious ravioli with shrimp scampi and Ryan had another perfectly delicious pizza.

After lunch, we wandered through the streets back to the hotel, took a quick nap, and reemerged to find a place for Ryan to do laundry. After 1.5 weeks in a suit case, it was time for some freshening up! The nearest laundry mat was right by the Spanish Steps in the most expensive shopping area of Rome with stores like Gucci, Channel, Louis Vuitton, and tons of other glorious designers that make closet sing and my wallet weep.

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We strolled down the shopping mecca until finally coming to the laundry place where a really nice Canadian couple taught us how to use the machines. Ryan decided to risk his laundry so we could take a walk to the North entrance of Rome. We walked to and around the square, and up to a look out point with an amazing view and some live music courtesy to the street musicians. The path at the top lead back to the top of the Spanish Steps, so we walked to that and back down – boy was it packed! When doing tours, I always recommend going to sites early in the morning because the crowds just keep growing as the day goes on.

Thankfully, Ryan’s laundry was still there 30 minutes later and we swapped it over to the drier, took another walk around the town, visited some shops, and returned to great smelling, clean clothes! We dropped those off at the hotel and set out to find a spot for dinner.

After walking 10 miles already today, Ryan was not wanting to go on a journey to find the perfect restaurant, so we walked up to the first one we saw. The restaurant’s “hype-man” out front was in top-convincing-mode. He walked us through the menu, showed us where they were making the fresh pasta, and offered us free champagne, so we were fully enticed into dining there.

We were the only patrons so far, so the host sat us right in the window so other passers-by could see the restaurant had people in it – talk about strategy! Within a span of 5 minutes, the entire restaurant was full. Ryan ordered fettuccine alfredo and I got a mushroom sausage dish with thick pasta noodles.

The dishes were as they looked… OK. They did not have a ton of flavor but they weren’t bad. I probably should have stuck with my traditional favorites and not branched out to try something new but. .. when in Rome right?

We got our fill pretty quickly, especially after I accidentally poured out ½ of the bottle of balsamic vinegar on my bread plate and tried to cover it up by eating a ton of balsamic soaked bread.

After dinner, it was a quick walk back to the hotel and early night for our big walking day tomorrow.

Continue reading this adventure…

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia

We slept in a little bit this morning – I mean who doesn’t need 11 hours of sleep per night on their honeymoon?! Today was a day at leisure, so we were able to explore. We grabbed complementary breakfast at the hotel and then packed our back to set off on the beautiful walk from our hotel to the water taxi area to catch a ride to the island of Palmizanga.

 

Palmizana island was recommended to us by our travel agent, Andrea, and is supposedly home to the best beach around Hvar. We walked to the water taxi area and Ryan was in a bit of a hurry to get on a boat so he hustled us onto the first taxi we saw. I kept thinking that I should ask the driver if he was, in fact, driving the island we wanted to visit, but Ryan kept reassuring me he was and I couldn’t remember the island’s name in time before we motored out to sea.

P.S. For some reason, and despite by best persuasion techniques, my new husband would not buy me the multi-million dollar yatch in the background of this photo as a wedding gift. I mean, I wasn’t even asking for THAT much. It’s not like that was the biggest one we saw (it was just the second biggest). Hehe!

Anyway, we eventually stopped at an island where the driver gave us our tickets. The tickets showed two islands on his route, neither of which were Palmizana. I kept kicking myself – I knew I should have asked! If you ever get the “I need to ask directions” instinct, always follow it!

We got off at Carpe Diem island. It had some fun tree sculptures of pirates and lots of cabanas looking over a very rocky beach. The island club was pretty empty, I really wanted to go to Palmizana, and the staff wanted $15 per lounge chair (which was basically all seating), so there was no use getting a drink and investing in chairs if we were going to just transfer to another island. Ryan wasn’t too happy that I was making us move but I was determined to check out the “perfect island”, so we hopped back in the taxi and said good-bye to Carpe Diem. I mean, who wants to seize the day when you can seize an island that’s name sounds like parmesan cheese?

We journeyed back to the water taxi station and decided to hit the ATM before getting on the boat – rookie mistake. The woman at the ATM in front of us tried 4 different cards, all of which got declined, and we ended up missing the boat to Palmizana by 1 minute! We had to wait another 30 minutes for the next boat to take off, so we filled that time with some scrumptious ice cream.

Finally, it was our time to jet off to Palmizana. It took about 20 minutes in the water taxi to get there and we had a marvelous view of all of the sail boats around! We had to walk from the boat dock across the island to get to the beach area, but there was a beach! Most of the water fronts so far had been super rocky with very choppy waters, but this was an actual beach with sand and calm, clear waters for us to hang out by. We laid our towels down and Ryan napped for about 1.5 hours while I “people watched”, soaked up the sun, and took in the view.

Eventually, we wanted to grab a drink, so we walked across the rocks to this awesome bar called Laganini where all of the furnishings were made out of cool, white tree branches. It even had a tree house lounge! I was in heaven. The prices on the island were a bit much, we so opted for the house wine at $5 a glass. It was surprisingly really tasty! We were only going to have one glass each but then we got to talking with our NYC neighbors and, three drinks later, it was time to brave the rocks back to the water taxi.

We left around 4 PM and sat in the middle of the boat to avoid getting soaked on the way back. Ryan was really hungry so, instead of doing dinner at a restaurant, we grabbed two slices of pizza in the harbor and ate while we watched people in the square. I tried to Snap my pizza with a clever “Dinner of Champs” title but my wine-influenced spelling led to a pretty funny typo that I thought was too hilarious not to reference the entire rest of the night…

As we sat, a random dog came over  and hung out with us for a while we ate. Somehow, he got quite a bit of my pizza. I guess missed our puppy too much not to indulge in some puppy love.

After our early dinner, we walked back to the Amfora Hvar Grand Beach Resort  to rest for a few minutes, eat the rest of our candy form Dubrovnik, and figure out the plans for the rest of the night. I took a power nap and awoke to a knock on our door with fresh towels. We popped open the prosecco bottle that the hotel gave us and we decided to check out the spa.

In my robe and hotel provided, cardboard hotel slippers, we walked to the top floor where I thought the spa was. Instead of a spa, we found huge, drab, dirty room divided into two segments. One had a lack-luster gym with maybe 4 pieces of weight training equipment (and that is being generous), and the other had a ping-pong table without any ping-pong balls.

Disappointed that we couldn’t play ping-pong, we followed the “spa” signs down to the pool level and, after talking to a pool worker, learned that the spa was at a “sister hotel” in downtown. Like, what?! We couldn’t walk there with our champagne or in my hotel slippers that were falling apart, so we went back to the room to finish our drinks and watch movies instead. The Amfora Hvar Grand Beach Resort was beautiful and in a great location, but was definitely skimpy on some key amenities.

Continue reading this adventure..

 

Seina, Italy

Seina, Italy

I don’t know what is worse news; waking up to heard that your travel guide is MIA, or waking up to hear that your guide is missing who has the breakfast vouchers! Apparently, our guide was out and about with some of the group until 5 AM and slept through endless knocking and texts until we broke into his room to rouse him! With Dario in tow, we scarfed down some nibbles and took off our Siena.

Siena is just beautiful. Rolling hills, gorgeous old buildings…  stereotypical Italy that any painter would want as their subject. In trend with all of Italy’s other cities, it also has a massive basilica dedicated to St. Catherine, however, it actually had St. Catherine’s remains on display inside which was a little different. The streets in Siena are very hilly and lined with various flowers and flags from all of the different districts that make up the city. Every year, these districts participate in two-horse races in the track in the middle of Siena, called the Palio di Siena, which people from all over the world come to see! Unfortunately, we were not there at the right time of year to watch, but if you visiting Italy between July and August, you should definitely check it out!

We stopped for lunch and sat outside of a little restaurant on random street we wandered down during our free time. As we progressed through our meal, dull thuds reverberating through the streets started getting louder and clearer to hear, and it turned out that the district we were having lunch in was having a parade! There were about 50 people dressed up in their traditional garb with their district flags flying high! It was so neat to see the locals traditions in-person like that.

Eventually, we made our way back to the main square where the horse races take place, the Piazza del Campo, and hopped on the bus for Assisi. About 20 minutes into the bus ride, we realized we were missing to of the more wondering-off types in our tour, and we had to go back to Siena to pick them up. Major bummer from a timing perspective, but at least they were OK.

I took a nap on the bus to Assisi. We arrived and took an escalator up to the top of the steep hill on which Assisi stands, and walked to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi; yet another astonishing catholic building filled with incredible art and sculptures. We quickly toured the church as a darkening sky and the rumbling of distant thunder warned of the impending downpour. All of a sudden, we were in a race against the rain and huge gusts of wind to get to our hotel and unload our bags from the bus before getting soaked! Thankfully, my bag was one of the first to get unloaded, so I was able to remain somewhat dry during the luggage battle up to our room on the 4th floor. What a sight it was watching the rain run over the beautiful view we had from our hotel window!

Once the storm dissipated to an acceptable umbrella level, a few of us ventured off into the streets of Assisi to find a spot for dinner. We ended up finding this French-ish Italian restaurant that was decorated like the inside of a doll house… That should have been our first warning. I got sat in front of some really creepy dolls that wouldn’t stop watching us and a TV near by was playing a very dramatic, old Italian soap opera show. Not only was there a creepy factor, but we could see the waiters SMOKING in the kitchen! Unfortunately, we had already ordered at that point and my scrumptious sounding meal came out as a soggy, truffle, mushroom, and bacon mess. How do you screw those ingredients up so badly?! We paid way to much for our meals, I guess entertainment was included, and left to find a market to buy Pringle’s to fill us up and wine to finish off the night.

Creepy dolls in the French / Italian restaurant in Assisi, Italy

Siena Tips:

  • Watch the Palio di Siena horse races in July & August.
  • Explore the different districts to encounter surprise parades, see the differences in the decorations and flags, eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and stop into enchanting little shops.
  • Take silly pictures with scenic views!