Waitomo to Rotarua

Waitomo to Rotarua

Waking up was easy in our airplane in Woodlyn Park! I was somewhat alert because, in the middle of the night, an animal was trying to get into our plane! It was rustling about outside and was probably a sheep but, after that, I was a light sleeper. My body was awake at 7 AM and our Waitomo Black Labyrinth cave spelunking tour was not until 10 AM.

We made toast for breakfast in our plane’s kitchen and got all packed up for the day ahead. We waited until the office was open at 8AM to drop our key off and the front desk guy assured us that we would have no issue hopping on an earlier cave tour. With that in mind, we drove over to the Black Water Rafting Co. check-in and were able to move up to the 9:30 tour. We hung out in the lobby and had some very expensively average coffee while we waited. WiFi has been pretty sparse in NZ so far so I took full advantage of that time waiting!

We were finally called out by our two guides for the 9:30 tour. There were ten of us on the tour and we had to get all suited up with very wet and cold gear before we could go to. Just to give you insight into how it felt, pretend like it is 45 degrees out and you are putting on very thick, wet socks, pants, and a jacket that are also like 40 degrees..and then add rain boots on top of that. We were looking gooood!

After a briefing, we headed out onto the bus to take us to the cave location. We all unloaded by a stream with a platform and the guide showed us how to jump backwards using our inner tube into the freezing water. We needed to practice outside so we could jump OVER WATERFALLS within the cave! So scary but awesome at the same time.

We took a trek down a path with our inner tubes and were at the cave head. There were rocks everywhere so figuring out footing was essential. There was no way I was going to twist an ankle before our big Tongariro hike! We got down into the cave and turned all of our headlights on. It was otherwise totally pitch black. The rock around us was so complex in shape and I was loving every minute of our walk through the water.

We got down to thigh level in the water and the rapid was so strong I almost took off at one point! We climbed up a rock platform and had to jump backwards with our butts in our tube out and down from a 7 foot waterfall. It was exhilarating!

Cave jumping for the Black Labyrinth Tour in Waitomo, New Zealand

After our waterfall jump, we lined up and grabbed the feet of the people behind us to form an “eel”. Little did I know, there were actually eels below us in the water…. But anyways, we turned all of our headlights off and looked up in the dark to see the absolute spectacle of the glowworms. They were everywhere and looked like blue constellations across the cave ceiling. All of the glow worms drop 20ish “fishing lines” that trap insects for the worms to eat. If you are ever in New Zealand, the Black Labyrinth tour is worth every penny and is a must do. You can kind-of see the glow worms in the photo below, but the quick flash camera does not do them justice at all!

Glow worms in the caves during the Black Labyrinth Tour in Waitomo, New Zealand

We were in the cave for about 2 hours and eventually floated our way out. It was cold and slightly drizzly outside but who cares when you are already soaked? We sloshed our way back to the HQ and had hot showers ready and waiting for us, the only trick was trying to get out of our gear when our hands were still totally frozen! Talk about hilariously awkward undressing!

The hot shower was probably one of the best showers I’ve ever had in my life – it felt so good to defrost! After we got dressed, there were toasted bagels and tomato soup waiting for us in the lobby. The soup was soooo yummy and warmed us up even more. What an amazing start to the day!

When we were ready, we hopped back into the car and took off on our two-hour drive to Rotorua for our Maori cultural experience. The drive through the country side was beautiful (as usual in NZ!) and we pulled up to a beautiful Wai Ora Resort right on the lake. We got a tour of the resort and were really happy with the room and the view of the lake. We also had some time to kill so we grabbed a bottle of wine and hopped in the hot tub for some relaxing.

The shuttle picked us up for the Takami Maori Experience at 5 PM and we were transported to the check-in area. We waited for about 15 minutes until our driver, Mark, arrived with a much bigger bus. Mark had a bunch of personality and said hello to us in 59 languages! He named each country and had 4-5 versions of “hello” / catch-phrases from each country in its native language with a perfect accent. He was pretty impressive and it took him all 15 minutes to get to the Takami Maori village to get through it all!

Once we arrived, we had to pick a tribe chief from our tour group who then led us to the entrance of the village to greet the Takami chief. The Takami villagers came out in a boat from the river and performed the Haka in front of us

Then, each of our selected chiefs had to accept the offering from the Takami chief so we could enter the village. Once that process was over, we were invited in and led to 5 different stations throughout the village where we learned about the traditions, houses, Haka dance, face tattoos, and how the Maori came to New Zealand. It was pretty interesting and worth going to.

After the learning stations, we were moved into the area where our food was being cooked in the ground. There was a huge hole in the ground where our food was placed, covered with burlap sacks and dirt, and left to cook for 3-4 hours! They pulled the food out and smelt so delicious!

While they were preparing our food, we were taken to watch and listen to traditional Maori singing and dancing. The songs were very catchy and the performers were excellent. The singing and dancing, traditions, dress, and even people looked very similar to Hawaiian people and culture. Apparently, the Polynesian people (including the Maior) all came from the same island that was separated / destroyed by tectonic plates. The people ended up on multiple islands across the pacific, like Hawaii and New Guinea, so they all come from the same ancestry! I had no idea!

Once the dancing was over, it was time for dinner! There was so much food consisting of 3 types of potatoes, carrots, chicken, lamb, muscles, and bread. It was pretty tasty too! We sat across from another couple from Texas and chatted with them about traveling with kids for the duration of dinner. It is always nice getting to know people from other walks of life while traveling.

Traditional dinner at the Maori Village in Rotorua, New Zealand

By this point, it was 9 PM and I was exhausted. As soon as we got back to the resort, I was in bed and asleep within minutes.

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Alaskan Cruise 101

Alaskan Cruise 101

Thinking of embarking on an Alaskan cruise? Before you book, ask yourself, do you love incredible views? Can you appreciate nature in its rawest form? Have you dreamed of soaring with bald eagles or watching whales launch out of the water? Are you ready for a life changing trip?! If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, Alaska is calling!

Humpback whale in Juneau, Alaska

A few things you should take into account before you book:

  • You are only fully on board the ship for 2 whole days that are spread apart. The other 5 have some sort of stop, so don’t worry about getting too cooped up!
  • Alaskan cruises are much more laid back than Caribbean cruises. There is less of a “party” scene and the actives are a little further apart / aimed at an adult crowd. With that said, if you are ok with the relaxed vibe, you are good to go! You can also make the cruise as jam packed as you want by taking advantage of all of the on-ship activities, even the ones that may not peak your interest at first.
  • Expect to spend about double the cost of your cruise ticket. From transportation, hotels, excursions, dining, and cruise fees, cruises can cost quite a bit more than expected. More detail on this is below in the Booking Fees section of this post.

Booking Your Cruise

  • Booking through a major travel agency can have a lot of perks.
    • Make sure the agency books a lot of cruises so they have buying power first. Those agents can get you the best deals on your cruise price.
    • You can get room upgrades on better floors or locations. You do not want to be the floor beneath the treadmills or food courts! Agents can also help book multiple room parties close together.
    • They will ensure you have the best dining options like restaurant preferences and getting tables next to windows.
    • They can get you on ship credits between $25 – $100 per room and can help you get any booking specials that might be running.
  • Interior vs. exterior rooms are up to you. Exterior rooms are about double the cost so it really depends on your budget.
    • Interior rooms have big mirrors so they seem larger than they appear. You will not be in your room too much since there are so many days off of the boat. We booked an interior room and it was fine with us!
    • Balcony rooms – Go big or go home right? If you do want a view, go with the balcony instead of the window. You will have a great view and have a high likely hood of seeing whales right from your bed if you are an early riser. It is also nice to have the privacy while viewing the glaciers from your room. This is a great option if you don’t mind spending extra and you can potentially qualify for a free drink package if you book at the right time and check the ongoing deals page!
  • Expect extra fees on your trip.
    • Not only does the cruise cost $800+ depending on the room you pick, but there is a daily “tip” fee for your room cleaning team of $25+ per room.
    • Excursions are not included so plan for $50 – $500 per port for excursions depending on what you want to do.
    • For any use of the gym facilities outside of do-it-yourself, there are fees. $20 to use the upgraded saunas, spa treatments (for which I am a sucker), $12 per yoga class… these things also add up if you do them.
    • Gratuity is automatically added to any additional food / drinks you buy from bars / restaurants not included in the base price of the cruise.
    • Don’t forget transportation from the airport to your pre-boarding hotel or to the docks. In Seattle, this can be about $40 to downtown and another $20 to the docks. Multiply this by two for both ways.
    • If you don’t want to be risky and fly in the morning of your cruise, you will also need to account for the hotel on either side of your trip. I highly recommend the Maxwell hotel in Seattle as it is not too expensive ($137 per night), has amazingly comfy beds, and lots of personality.

Excursion Planning:

Don’t book on the ship because you will be going in a huge group and paying too much. Also, don’t worry about booking early!

  • We booked all of our excursions off the boat and in advance of our cruise to save money and to ensure we got what we wanted. Little did we know that at every single port, there are tons of excursion booking booths with discounted rates for basically every tour offered on the ship. Not only that, but almost all places guarantee you will be back in time before your ship leaves.
  • The excursions we did and highly recommend are below:
    • Juneau – Harv & Marv’s whale watching. Not only did we see tons of whales, we had a personal boat for the 6 of us for about $20 more than what we would have paid for a huge group boat ride.
    • Skagway – Skagway Shore Tours Hike and Float picked us up right from port and took 9 of us total to the Chilkoot Trail for a two-mile rainforest hike and then float down the Taiya River. It cost $95 for the 4-hour experience and included snacks and two great guides!
    • Ketchikan – Southeast Sea Kayaks took us on a 4-hour kayaking adventure through Orca Cove. There were a total of 6 people on our tour, including us, and the tour was $169 per person. We spent 2 full hours kayaking and it was our favorite part of the entire trip.

Kayaking in Ketchikan Alaska

Packing Essentials:

  • Forms of identification: Passport and ID are a must so don’t forget them! Also, you may want to bring a lanyard for your cruise ship ID card so you do not lose it while walking around.
  • Warm stuff: I read mixed reviews about how warm it gets in the various ports in Alaska and packed mid-warm jackets. I wish I had a heavier jacket, especially for the days we were onboard the ship.
    • Warm gloves, a beanie, scarves, warm socks, and a waterproof jacket are must haves.
  • The right shoes: I wore my hiking boots or my rain boots the entire trip. Seattle was very rainy so my rain boots were a total hit (and I jumped in quite a few puddles). My hiking boots were warm and great for the long walking days ashore.
    • Have the right socks and waterproof / warm walking shoes.
  • Rain gear: It rained at least once 90% of the days we were on our trip. My rain jacket, rain boots, and umbrella were life savers. Don’t forget them!
  • Personal products:
    • For every trip, sunscreen is a must have.
    • Bring lots of hydrating moisturizer and lip balm as well since the dry weather will get to you.
    • If you have finicky hair, the 2-in-1 shampoo / conditioner on the ship isn’t great so make sure you pack your favorite travel sized hair product. Also, the hairdryers are low powered so, if you have thick hair like mine, bring a hairdryer that won’t take 45 minutes of your cruise time to dry your hair.
  • Day-pack: I bought a North Face Flyweight foldable backpack that zips itself into a tiny bag that takes almost no space in my luggage. This bag became my go to for all of our excursions. It held my water bottle, was my wallet, had space for my rain jacket, umbrella, camera, and any other gear I could need for the day. It was so much better than carrying a purse around and was one of the most convenient things I had on the trip. A day-pack is a must for any active excursions.

On Board Your Cruise

Boarding & Debarking:

  • Airport to dock or hotel: We took an Uber from the Seattle airport to our hotel. There should not be surge pricing at the airport since there are tons of transport options. Almost every car service goes to the airport so getting to your hotel or the port should be easy. Expect about $40 to downtown for two people.
  • Downtown hotel to port: Surge pricing can occur close to the boarding time so check what your Uber fare is from your hotel to the port. If it is surge pricing, check with your hotel. They should also have shuttle / car services at set prices to take you to the port. This will help you get a good gauge for how much you should pay.
  • Boarding: Our boat started boarding at noon and we got there right when it started. There was a minimal line and it only took us 15 minutes to board! Once we were on ship, we were free to grab a celebratory drink! In short, get there early to avoid lines and start your cruise quickly and stress free!
  • Debarking: There are two options; carrying your own bags off the ship or letting the ship do it for you.
    • Recommended: Carrying your bags off early will get you off the boat by 8AM and you will not need to wait for your luggage. Our de-board time was 7:55 AM and we were off the ship and in an Uber at 8:15 AM. It can’t get much easier than that!
    • For those letting the ship deal with your luggage, it gets collected the night before you debark. Then, you have to be out of your room and in a holding area by 8 AM where you must wait until your group gets called, which may not be until 10AM. The process is relatively quick from there but then you also have to find your baggage. On top of all of that, the traffic to get out of the port and the prices for transport go up drastically since it is peak hour. By the time you are back in the city, you have missed out on at least 2 hours of prime tourist time!

Cruise Food 101:

Breakfast:

  • For when you aren’t in a rush in the morning, a great breakfast option is breakfast in bed! While the menu is a little more limited to mainly baked goods, cereal, and fruit, having breakfast while looking out your balcony / window in bed it an excellent start to the day! Not only that, but its complementary.
  • The buffet open as early as 6 AM and restaurants at 9 AM for all other breakfast options. The food it’s the same pretty much where ever you go.

Lunch:

  • Typically, while at sea, the formal restaurants are open for lunch. While they take longer than the buffet, the food is typically a bit better.
  • One of the buffet restaurants on board usually has a rotating menu of different cuisine. Look for the daily updates in your cruise itinerary for new options like “A Taste of Alaska”, Mexican, Indian, or Chinese food.

Dinner:

  • Book the 5:30 PM (or early) dinner reservation for your evening dinners. The food and menu is much better in the restaurants (included in the price of your cruise) than the buffets. Also, booking the early dinner will ensure that you are done in time for any of the fun shows or evening activities that the cruise provides.
  • Try a celebratory dinner at least one night in one of the other restaurants onboard that you have to pay for. We had a delicious 4 course steak dinner in the Crown Grill for only $29 a person. Considering we are from Texas and have good taste in steaks, I can say with confidence that it was a great deal and a great meal.

Alcohol / Beverage Options:

Before buying the alcohol package on the cruise, which can be over $50 per day (about 5 drinks a day), consider the following:

  • Look for / ask your travel agent about free alcohol packages if you book a suite or balcony room.
  • You can bring a bottle of wine per person in your luggage which can save you money. Also, if you go with friends who bought the alcohol package, get them to bring your extra bottles of wine in their luggage.
  • There are happy hours onboard almost twice a day (around 3 PM and 10 PM) which have deals like buy one, get one for $1.
  • You will be off the boat for multiple days so you will be paying your alcohol packages on those days even if you don’t use them.
  • Overall, we did not buy the drink package and faired just fine.

On-Board Tidbits:

  • On-ship communication:
    • Most blogs will recommend walkie-talkies to talk to your other cruise buddies. On Princess cruises at least, there is no need for them! Princess has an airplane-mode website that is free on their Wi-Fi. The site lets you message anyone else on the cruise. You can even have group chat! While it is not an app so there are no pop-up notifications, it is still a good way to communicate with your buddies without paying for anything extra.
    • The Princess website will also show all of the day’s activities so you can check them out / add them to your personal calendar while on the ship. You can even share events with people through
      the messenger function as well!
  • Movie nights: A must do at least once! The ship shows various movies each day on the outside movie screen. Find one you want to watch, grab a hot chocolate, and pick a lounge chair to relax in on deck. Too cold? Don’t worry, the staff provides fleece blankets and warm popcorn for an incredible movie watching experience.
  • Art auctions: Do not buy art on board the ship without doing your internet research first. A lot of times the prices are high and the value is low. What you should do, however, is attend the high-speed auction and watch people spend tens of thousands of dollars on pieces in seconds and the funny auctioneers try and get people to buy. It was quite an entertaining part of the trip!
  • Get involved in the axe-throwing, karaoke, trivia, or dance competitions. It will only make your trip that much more fun and will make you an on-board celebrity!
  • Attend the Alaskan speaker events that come onboard. A word of warning, their stories are inspiring and will make you want pack up and move to Alaska as soon as you return home.

Alaskan Cruise

Booking Ski Trips 101

Booking Ski Trips 101

When your travel buddy has 4.5 days of vacation left for the year, it’s basically a crime not to take advantage of them. For that reason, I suggested that we embark on a ski adventure. It took some elbow grease to get the idea set into motion, but one hour on the couch and a great deal on New Year’s travel later, we had a 4 night stay booked at a highly reviewed resort called the Cliff Lodge in Snowbird, Utah!

You know the saying “hindsight is 20/20”? Well that really applies to this trip. Immediately after booking, I clicked into the mountain reviews. They were extremely positive but I started noticing that very advanced skiers were the ones writing the reviews and they were raving about how fantastically challenging the mountain was. That is fine and good but Ryan, my travel buddy boyfriend, was a first time skier and I hadn’t thought to look up things like “best places for first time skiing”. (Duh…) I was basically having an “OMG, what did we do?!” moment on the couch approximately two minutes after booking! After researching more about the amazing ski school at Snowbird and learning that about 30% of the runs are green, I felt better about our decision, considering it was basically non-refundable.

Snowbird Mountain Trail Map

Unfortunately, I then had another thought. “What about the nightlife / other activities outside of skiing?”. Ryan and I planned a 4 day stay over New Years Eve and I wasn’t sure exactly how many days we would actually ski. What if Ryan didn’t like it or one of us got hurt? Snowbird had a spa but outside of that and snowshoeing, it didn’t seem as though there was much else to do for an entire day. Also, while its only 30 minutes to Salt Lake City or an hour to Gorgoza Park for snow tubing, the cost of transport to those places was a few hundred dollars – a big limiting factor. Again, our trip was booked so we couldn’t change the reservation, but this still made me nervous.

Fortunately for us, the Snowbird trails ended up being completely amazing and we were able to find plenty of slopes to fit our skill levels. Ryan’s ski class went exceedingly well and he picked it up like a pro! As you will read in the next round of Snowbird posts, we ended up skiing for 3 of the 4 days, but were also able to find things to do at the resort to fill our time off of the slopes.

Things to consider when booking a ski / snowboarding trip:

  • Proximity of the slopes to the airport – depending on where you choose, the slopes can be hours away, meaning lots of travel time through potentially snowy roads. Utah has a bunch of options within an hour drive of the SLC airport which is why we picked Utah in the first place.
  • Cost of lift tickets and gear rentals – prices vary from place to place so do some research before you book if you are on a budget.
  • Local area nightlife – each ski town has its own personality and size. Some places, like Snowbird, are pretty isolated so you stay on the premise. Other places, like Park City, have a much bigger “scene” with lots of options.
  • Non-ski activity offerings – consider the length of your stay vs. the days you will actually be on the slopes and if all of your party wants to ski / snowboard the entire trip.
  • Ease and cost of travel to other places – if you do want to explore other areas for skiing / snowboarding or for other activities, look up how far the distance between the areas is and call and ask local transport (your hotel will have this information) for costing. Snowbird’s slopes actually have a ski-in, ski-out connection to the neighboring Alta Ski slopes, so for $30 more a day, you have the option to ski either range. An awesome perk for a longer ski trip.

Skis on the lift - Snowbird, Utah