We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.Read More
Explore the Old Town of Hoi An
Rent bikes or scooters and wander around (Tam Coc)
Wander around the Old Town of Hanoi
Explore the lakes around Hanoi
Try egg drop coffee (Hanoi)
Rent a swan boat on the lake (Hanoi)
Train Street (Hanoi)
Best Experiences to Splurge On
Cu Chi Tunnels (Saigon)
Canyoning and jungle trekking (Dalat)
Broma Not a Bar (Saigon)
The Gin House (Saigon)
Whiskey & Wares (Saigon)
The Maze Bar (Dalat)
The BBQ place in Dalat, ask someone at Wolfpack Hostel, they’ll know
Either of the Morning Glory restaurants, they also offer cooking classes! (Hoi An)
**DO NOT MISS** Banh Mi Queen (Hoi An)
Jim’s Snackbar (Hoi An)
Mr Bean Bar (Hoi An)
Bamboo Cafe (Phong Nha)
Paradise Pizza (Phong Nha)
Andy’s Bar and Restaurant (Phong Nha)
Oasis Bar (Cat Ba Island)
Pasteur Street Brewing Co. (Saigon & Hanoi)
Bit Tet Chim Quay (pop up restaurant, corner of Hang Buom and Hang Giay)
The Alchemist (Hanoi)
Mojito Bar (Hanoi)
Polite and Co. (Hanoi)
The Mad Botanist (Hanoi)
Best Places to Stay on a Budget
Bui Vien Hostel (Saigon)
Wolfpack Hosel (Dalat)
Hoa Binh (Hoi An)
Trang An River Homestay (Tam Coc)
Catba Central Hostel (Cat Ba Island)
Babylon Garden Inn Hostel (Hanoi)
Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did
Chu Chi Tunnels
Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, and other southern islands
If you have a slightly better idea of all the places you’re going than we typically do, you already know on your way to Hoi An that this is THE place in Vietnam to shop till you drop. It was by chance that we were traveling with someone who knew that Hoi An is world famous for tailored clothing, so we had some time to prepare before we arrived.
It is absolutely overwhelming how many tailored clothing stores there are in this colorful city. There are hundreds of tailors, thousands of fabrics, and millions of styles for you to choose from, and it’s quite intimidating to navigate without a bit of prep. You typically will need at least 2-3 days to get any one thing done, because clothes need to be measured and adjusted multiple times, and longer than that if you’re getting a substantial number of things (guilty).
Here’s what worked and didn’t work for us throughout our tailoring experience in Hoi An.
Getting Clothes Tailored in Hoi An
Step 1: Know what you want (kind of) and know your budget
PINTEREST my friends. Anyone who knows me, or at least my social media habits, knows that I’m a self-professed queen of Pinterest. I’m addicted. It’s the virgo in me, can’t get enough of lists and folders and folders within folders.
Other than helping me navigate the arduous task of learning how to cook for myself in college, Pinterest served all of us so well in Hoi An. The best way to get what you want out of your tailoring experience in Hoi An is to know what you want before you go. Every tailor will try and sell you on more ideas, more options, this coat, that blouse, but if you know what you want you’re way more likely to get exactly that.
Sounds redundant, right? You’d be surprised at how many people buy things in this city and then wonder why they made the choices they did after they leave. Trust me, explore Pinterest and the wider internet and think to yourself, “what do I want tailored?” AND, “what would I buy designer if I had all the money in world?”
To get you started, here are some ideas we, or someone we knew, started with:
Tailored, two piece suits
Linen dresses and pants
Burberry or Coach winter coat (they will come out EXACTLY the same minus the fancy logo)
Leather jackets & biker vests
Formal dresses & jumpsuits
After figuring out an idea of what you want, figure out how much you want to pay, total, for everything you get. As you go around the shops, you’ll get an idea of what each item you want will cost and you can deduct it from your total budget. This is the best way to not go over what you want to spend, which is easy to do here!
Step 2: Exploring your options
Since we arrived a day early, Sim and I spent a whole just wandering the area around our hostel and checking in on all the shops around our block. I really, really recommend taking this step before you begin getting things made. Prices, fabrics, and tailor skill will all vary A LOT, so it’s worth going around with your budget and your pictures to figure out the best place(s) to get things made.
We took pictures of stores and fabrics that we liked so that we knew which to go back to and what we wanted to get made in each. If they couldn’t give us a price we wanted, we kept going. The tailors will try and convince you to buy something immediately because most of their business happens on the spot. Don’t get roped in! They will be right where you left them tomorrow.
*TIP* The tailor shops on the main streets and in Old Town are bigger, more popular, and comparatively more expensive. We walked around a square block and found everything we wanted for decidedly cheaper than we would’ve found it on the Main Street.
The hostel we stayed at was called Hoa Binh Hostel in Cam Pho Ward and it was great. Amazing breakfast, cheap and clean rooms, nice showers, etc. THAT AREA is great for tailors that will be a little less busy and less pricey than those on Duong Tran Hung Dao (nearby main street).
Step 3: Choosing your tailors
Like I said, there are endless options for you here. We chose our tailors (we used about 5-6 different ones between all of us) based on a couple of criteria:
Fabric (quality, color, texture, etc.)
Price (you can always negotiate but you’ll quickly see it varies quite a bit, especially from material to material)
Time (the whole process can take a while, so always check you have enough time before paying for anything!)
Take pictures and get quotes from a number of places before narrowing it down. It’s the easiest way to get exactly what you want!
Here are a couple of the tailor shops we used that we would recommend. They’re all located on the block around Hoa Binh Hostel.
Babi Tailors (these ladies were AMAZING - we all got numerous things at a great price and the quality was perfect)
Step 4: Negotiating
Now for the fun part…
The entire tailoring process can be negotiated. This is the main reason I recommend shopping around before choosing a tailor. You’ll get a good sense of what something should cost and you’ll be better prepared to negotiate with the tailor you end up going with.
The more you buy, the less each individual thing will cost, like anything else you’d buy in SE Asia. If you can work with a friend, even better!
Here are a couple of things that will affect the price of your tailored clothes:
Size of the piece (a jumpsuit does not equal a romper does not equal a pair of shorts, etc.)
Material (leather and linen will always cost you more than cotton and silk)
Complexity of the piece (fabric covered buttons, complicated stitching, etc.)
Quantity you’re buying
Your own power of negotiation
Always remember that, in SE Asia, negotiating is a way of life. They won’t sell you something if they don’t make a profit. HOWEVER, this does not give you the right to be rude or irritable with the people you’re negotiating with. Be patient, but firm, and you’ll usually end up getting a price you’re happy with. Remember - that Burberry coat could be a couple hundred or a couple thousand!
Step 5: The Tailoring Process
Depending on what you’re getting made, this whole process can take one day or four. It’s a good idea to ask how long something will take (roughly) so you know you have enough time!
The tailoring process, at least our experience with it, goes a little like this:
Choose a tailor
Pick what you want made and the fabric you want (again, pictures help a lot!)
Negotiate the price (it will all be in USD) and work out payment. Some places will ask you to pay upfront, some will ask you to pay half upfront and the rest on delivery, some will let you pay everything at the end. Remember, once you’ve ordered something you will have to pay for it whether you like it or not!
Day 2 or Day 3 (depending on how fast they’re working)
Day 3 or 4
Wrap up and pay OR additional adjustments
We had some things ready on the first go, some things took up to three or four fittings. Some things take longer than others to get right, so be ready to be patient - it’ll be worth it in the end.
*TIP* It helped me a lot to make a schedule in my phone to keep track of all the fittings I had to do and where they were. I had 10+ things made at 5+ tailors, so I had more to work with than most of our friends, but either way this helped out a lot.
*PRO-TIP* In between all those fittings, go grab sandwiches at Anthony Bordain’s (RIP) favorite banh mi shop - Banh Mi Queen! Honestly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten and they’re only $1. I think we ate over 50 of them between five of us before we left Hoi An. If you stay at Hoa Binh maybe you’ll see the tally we wrote out on the locker in our room 😜
Step 6: Shipping Home
Ahh yes, everyone’s favorite thing to deal with while on a backpacking trip (or any trip, let’s be honest). Once you’ve bought all your goodies, and a few lanterns from the night market, you’re probably going to have to get them home by some means other than your own carry on!
Each time we’ve shipped things home before Hoi An, we used the local post office (to varying degrees of success). However, in Hoi An, because shopping and tailored clothes are such a big business in this city, there’s a private service you can use that’ll come right to you with everything you need. The price is roughly the same as the local post and they send you updates throughout the shipping process to help you keep track of your box. They even help out with customs!
The service is called Dai Nam Postal Service and they have great reviews. We contacted them through our hostel and they were at our door within 30 minutes.
Shopping in Old Town and the Night Market
Just when you were about to say, “I can’t possibly be expected to buy all this and ship it back home,” I’m going to jump in here with a, “but wait, there’s more!”
Hoi An is a truly beautiful city, and nowhere is this more true than the city’s Old Town. Nestled next to the river running through Hoi An, there’s never a bad time to explore this area of the city. After a few hours strolling through the cobblestone streets under the light of innumerable paper lanterns, you’ll certainly agree that, night or day, this city feels like a fairytale.
Across the river from Old Town, you’ll find the heart of Hoi An’s nightlife in the shape of rooftop bars, clubs, and pubs lining the street, and the city’s night market. Here you can sample the best, and cheapest, of Hoi An’s street food as well as dazzling array of local wares. Stalls overflowing with lit paper lanterns (yes, they collapse!), old school gongs, unique and artistic miniatures that you have just enough room for in your box - this place is dangerous! And you absolutely can’t miss it.
After all, you’ve got to do something in Hoi An while the tailors are crafting your custom clothes.
Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh, is the 24/7 beating heart of southern Vietnam as well as the largest city in the entire country. Home to over 8.5 million people, Saigon has endless cultural and metropolitan attractions and serves as the starting or ending point for nearly every traveler passing through Vietnam.
Before I dive into a passionate description of the best pho in Saigon, I want to touch briefly on the history of the city. The reason I call this city Saigon rather than its actual name of Ho Chi Minh has a lot to do with the locals I met throughout southern Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the former Prime Minister of Vietnam who led the forces of Northern Vietnam against the south during the Vietnam War.
While Ho Chi Minh is the recognized name of the city, I’ve met many Vietnamese people who don’t recognize the new name and still refer to the city as Saigon. In their words, “only someone who wasn’t from the south or who wasn’t Vietnamese at all would refer to that city as Ho Chi Minh, it’s still Saigon to those of us who are from there.” It’s because of this preference that I refer to it as Saigon.
If you visit this city, you’ll have many opportunities to learn about the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam War. I encourage you to take the chance while you’re there to learn as much as you can, especially if you come from the states.
Brief history aside over.
Some people fly through this city in just a few days, some stick around for weeks at a time. No matter how much time you have, here are a couple of highlights for your stay in Saigon.
What to Do
Cu Chi Tunnels
Possibly the most popular tourist attraction in Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense system of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. These tunnels cover much of the country and were used extensively in the south for military purposes, providing everything from shelter, hospitals, dormitories, conference rooms, weapons stashes, kitchens, and strategic military positions to the North Vietnamese army.
Certain sections of the tunnels are open to tourists and it’s extremely easy to arrange a tour to go out and see them. Visitors can enter sections of the tunnels, fire assault rifles, and get a taste of what life was like down in the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels provide a unique take on the Vietnam War and absolutely shouldn’t be missed!
Ben Thanh Market
Who doesn’t love a good market? The Ben Thanh Market is the largest market in Saigon and stands in one of the earliest surviving buildings in the city. If you’re looking to browse the local wares and feast on some fantastic treats all in the same location (or if you’re panicking because you’re about to fly home and haven’t gotten your mom the present that says “I saw this and knew you had to have it”) this is your one stop shop!
The market is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
War Remnants Museum
Brace yourself for this one. The War Remnants Museum is probably the best place in all of Saigon, to understand the impact of the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It's a heavy place, but absolutely worth doing.
Bui Vien Walking Street
On a different note, if you’re looking to party and get to know some of your fellow travelers without breaking the bank, Bui Vien Walking Street is your place. This walking street is lined from end to end with cheap, rowdy, and colorful restaurants, bars and clubs, and makes for a great night out.
Tao Dan Park
If you’ve got a beautiful day in Saigon, Tao Dan Park is a wonderful place to spend it. Home to picturesque manicured gardens, temples, and charming cafes, this is the ideal way to laze away an afternoon before hitting the surrounding area for dinner and sundowners.
Where to Stay
Bui Vien Hostel
We all stayed in this hostel for a couple of nights in Saigon and absolutely loved it. It’s cheap, the beds are wonderfully comfortable, it’s perfectly located right off of Bui Vien walking street, and it sells beer for less than 75 cents. What more could you ask for?
The Like Hostel & Cafe
While in a slightly different part of the city, The Like Hostel & Cafe has a charming rooftop lounge area, is located close to a number of bars and restaurants, and has comfortable rooms and beds.
The Common Room Project
The one that got away…We were so hoping to be able to stay at Common Room before we got to Saigon, but unfortunately it was completely sold out. Don’t be like us, book it early. Just look at the pictures, you’ll understand.
Where to Eat
The Hungry Pig
Awesome sandwiches, breakfasts, coffee, etc. Right off of Bui Vien walking street. I haunted this place so much they gave my a free sandwich after a week.
Great wifi, friendly staff, good food, and great, cheap coffee.
Secret is right. This quirky little restaurant is notoriously tricky to find but an absolute gem. Don’t be discouraged by the many stairs or the strange little alley it lives on. When you’re thinking, “this can’t possibly be right,” you’re almost there. The fantastic Vietnamese food and charming atmosphere is worth the hike up those stairs I promise.
Pho Hoa - The Family Dynasty One
Cheap, instantaneous service, as authentic as it gets, and absolutely delicious, you really can’t ask for more when it comes to a solid bowl of pho in Saigon.
The Workshop Coffee
If you’re looking for fantastic coffee, fast wifi, and an airy, bright space to hunker down and get some work done, then you’re heading to The Workshop. Get caffeinated and enjoy the productive atmosphere.
Where to Drink
Whiskey & Wares
Calling all whiskey lovers - this is the bar for you! Whiskey & Wares offers a laidback, comfortable atmosphere and a wide selection of whiskey drinks to get your night going.
Broma Not a Bar
In a city full of expensive rooftop bars and clubs with entrance fees and dress codes, Broma is an absolute gem. This laidback rooftop bar has amazing views of Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the surrounding area as well as a delicious drink menu.
The Gin House
This one’s for the gin lovers, like me. The Gin House has an intimate and casual atmosphere and offers an incredible variety of gin cocktails as well as a number of infused gin & tonics.
Bui Vien Street
ONE MORE TIME - this street is an awesome place to bar hop without breaking the bank, paying cover charges, or needing to dress to impress. Looking for a casual night out that has the potential to become a "casual night out"? Head to Bui Vien Street.
A breakdown of our favorites!
Best Experiences to Do for Free
Siem Reap Night Market (if you spend $3 on a pedicure, you can watch the drag show)
Wandering Central Market, Phnom Penh
Watching the boats in Kampot
Best Instagram-Worthy Spots
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Golden hour at the Bayon, Angkor
Neak Pean lake in the morning, Angkor
Fig trees overgrowing Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple), Angkor
Phnom Penh's creepy crawly night markets
Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh Post Office
Salt fields and pepper farms of Kampot
Rabbit Island, Kep
Crabbing Market, Kep
Best Restaurants & Bars
Siem Reap Beer Street
Green Dragon Restaurant, Siem Reap
VIBE Asia, Phnom Penh
Mexicano Restaurant, Phnom Penh
Club Love, Phnom Penh
Brown Riverside Cafe, Phnom Penh
Epic Arts Cafe, Kampot
Simple Things, Kampot
KAMA (Kampot Arts & Music Association), Kampot
Best Places to Stay on a Budget
Eighty8 Backpackers, Phnom Penh
Mad Monkey, Kampot
Monkey Republic, Kampot
Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did
Any other Cambodian beaches
The Cameron highlands are best known for hidden hiking trails, expansive tea plantations, and abundant strawberry farms. The little mountain neighborhood is packed with shops and shacks serving cheap, authentic Malaysian food.
Getting to the Cameron Highlands
Kuala Lumpur has multiple buses per day heading in all directions - it’s easy to grab a taxi to the main bus terminal and book a ticket day of. The ride is a windy two hour journey through the mountains in a big comfy bus seat. Try to get a window seat to gaze out at the passing landscapes, they’re captivating.
You’ll arrive at the Tanah Rata bus station, which is where you can find the local bus or any onward travel. After our adventure in the highlands, we booked a comfortable van that brought us straight to our hostel up north in Georgetown, Penang.
There’s one main road that runs through the Cameron Highlands, connecting Tanah Rata, Brinchang, and Kampung Raja. The local bus runs between Tanah Rata and Kampung everyday - but since there’s only one bus, the times are pretty infrequent.
The bus doesn’t run on a rigid schedule, so make sure to be at the stop a bit early.
Hiking the Highlands
Just by coming to the highlands, you’re obligated to take at least one hike. There are tons of options, whether it be heading down to a waterfall for an hour or up to the top of a mountain for the afternoon.
Hiking in the Cameron Highlands is done by “paths” with numbers. Not all of the paths are well maintained, so it would be wise to check with your hosts as to whether your choice path is in good enough condition.
The most popular option is Path 10 up Gunung Jasar. The beginning of the Path is straight through someone’s driveway, but they’ve curated a little garden for passing hikers to enjoy.
It takes about an hour to get to the power lines at the top, and the view is quite breathtaking. We opted to just return back down Path 10 since we only had the afternoon, but if you’ve got time, you can continue along Path 12 to Gunung Perdah. It takes another hour and a half to circle back around.
An easier option, and very close to downtown Tanah Rata, is Path 9 to Robinson Waterfall. To get to the path, you walk through the town park and along the river. There are signs to guide you towards the path. You’ll pass right by some local homes before heading into the forest. It’s only about 10 minutes until you see the waterfall.
After that, you can either continue down the EXTREMELY STEEP path to the Robinson Power Station (which may or may not be trespassing?). At that point, you won’t want to backtrack back up the cliff you’ve descended, so just continue along the road you empty out on. It’s another half an hour to the main road. The walk is a great way to see what the “real” Cameron Highland farms look like.
Once you get to the main road, you can either hike back for 10 kilometers, hitchhike with a friendly-looking passerby, or hail a taxi for a buck or two. We stumbled upon a taxi before we reached the main road, so we all just piled in.
Path 2 is only for the true adventurers. We sort of stumbled into it without realizing what we signed up for, but apparently it’s the least maintained, most-wild trek of them all.
It begins at the Sam Poh Temple, which is most easily reached by taking the local bus up to Brinchang in the morning. The walk from downtown to the temple is really enjoyable if you go for an early morning stroll. The neighborhoods are just waking up, and it’s a fun way to explore the less busy areas of the highlands.
The Temple is not crowded at all. It’s a nice way to start the day before trekking through the jungle. From Sam Poh, you go back down the main drive and make the first right. Follow that road until there’s a dirt driveway on your left, and a pinkish apartment building on your right. It’ll seem really strange, but the trailhead is up through the lower level of the apartment building on the right.
The beginning is a crazy scramble up a steep hillside until you get to the first trail sign. Fellow hikers have written warnings of steepness, and they’re not wrong. The rest of the trail is a series of ups and downs through some pretty authentic jungle highlands. Expect to cross over riverbeds, duck under fallen trees, and wonder for a few moments which way the path goes.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Path 2 the most. It’s not so much of a hike up a mountain as it is a wander through the woods. There were so many moments that we stopped to sit and listen to the jungle around us. The sounds of water trickling through the rocks, or birds calling in the canopy. It really is a peaceful way to experience how alive Malaysia is.
Near the end of Path 2, you can empty out near the golf course, or fork back into the jungle for a shot at Path 3. Both will take you south towards Tanah Rata, but the path will take much longer. We headed out towards the road and walked along the golf course and through the outskirts of town. Again, a fun way to see the area!
The Mossy Forest was by far my favorite activity. At the very top of a rolling, tea-covered hill, an elevated boardwalk wanders through native highland forest. The dripping wet leaves, glossy palms, moss-coated trees, and drenched brown boardwalk planks will make you feel like you’re in the middle of one big raindrop.
It’s like you can hear the moisture among the silence of the forest. This is what the very highest of the Cameron Highlands were like before the tea plantations.
For a surreal experience, go in the morning before the clouds lift and the crowds arrive. Catch the 8:30 bus and let the driver know you want to get off at the Cameron Square Shopping Centre. He’ll drop you off at the bottom of the very long hill. We originally planned to walk up, but decided it would be way easier and faster to hitchhike up. The couple that picked us up were visiting the Highlands on their honeymoon! Less romantically, there are a number of tour companies in town that offer trips to the Forest as part of a larger package.
There are some areas at the back of the forest that are not a part of the main boardwalk. They are usually muddy, slippery, and dangerous. We chose to stick to the in-bounds boardwalk, but if you choose to go rogue, remember that the rangers will not be able to help you. And if they find you, you might get in trouble. That being said, we bumped into a girl who wandered back there and said it was cool - pretty much the same as the regular forest area, but muddier.
Head up to the top of the lookout tower to really get your head in the clouds. It’s beyond peaceful to be surrounded by the grey, windy, morning forest air up there. Apparently if it’s a clear day, the views of the surrounding plantations are incredible.
But if the wispy clouds are all you get up there, just take a slow meander back down to the bottom of the hill to really appreciate the plantations. It’s a two-hour descent back to the bus stop without stopping. But of course, we stopped at each of the roadside viewpoints to snap pics and get the drone in the air.
Only after landing did an officer scoot up to inform us that it is indeed against the rules to fly drones above the plantations. Oops.
Boh Tea Plantation
If you have the time to pitstop at the Boh Sungai Palas Tea Centre. You walk past the fields on your way up or down. It’s a bit of a ways of the road, but if you opt to go into the plantation, there’s a restaurant/tea house overlooking fields.
Sit for a quick snack or tea. If you can snag a seat outside, there’s a great view off the balcony. We got the blackberry iced tea - worth the walk!
There are a couple of options around Brinchang. We didn’t have time to get to any of them, but it’s a fun activity for an afternoon if you’re already up there! Check out one of the butterfly farms while you’re at it!
Digs in Cameron Highlands
Map Travelodge - Awesome travel-themed hostel with amazing photos lining the entrance stairwell. Plus an entire wall of postcards for sale, all taken by the owner of the hostel! We seized this opportunity to write some hellos to friends back home - reception will even postage and send them out for you!
Cameron Curry House - uh-mazing Indian food on the corner of the main street. Went there 3 times.
Jungle Bar - at the very far end of a small street off the main road. Chill vibes, good old pool table, cheap liquor and even an outdoor fire pit!
Travellers Bistro & Pub - near our hostel, sells Tiger beer towers. And fries.
To date I have yet to find another city in Asia that I love as much as Penang, Malaysia. This island state is just off the northwest corner of the country and accessible by bus, ferry, or plane.
The highlight of Penang is George Town, the capital of Penang and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is city is unbelievably colorful and has a fascinating mix of British colonial buildings, vibrant street art, as well as Chinese and Islamic influences. We spent whole days doing nothing but wandering the streets and taking in the views, it is absolutely stunning.
One of the first things you can do is take a coach (or a hike, if you’re into that) up to Penang Hill to get an amazing overview of the city. We didn’t get a chance to do this, but from what we heard it’s well worth the trek up, no matter how you make it!
If you’re interested in a self-guided tour of the city, here are a couple of suggestions. The street art in Penang is famous, and for a good reason. The city-commissioned art is painted all over the city’s walls and is definitely worth seeking out. A good place to start is the Upside Down Museum and then walk in towards Little India (a conveniently great place to stop for lunch).
After visiting the street art, walk yourself towards The Blue Mansion, an amazing building that you can either take in from the street or catch a tour around the inside at either 11:00am, 2:00pm and 3:30pm. After touring this area, catch the sunset on the water down by the old town jetties (this wouldn’t be a bad time for a sundowner).
Looking to try some delicious & traditional Malaysian food while you’re here? Check out Tek Sen, a low key, family-owned place that’s well worth the seeking out. Absolutely try the homemade tofu and the pork belly - it’s unbelievable!
Looking to go out? If you’re looking to stay and play at the same place, look no further than Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel. This is where we stayed and it was an absolute blast. This is NOT your place if you’re looking for a good night sleep. But if you’re looking to meet people over some cheap drinks and to play a couple of bar games, this is the place to start your night. Plus, the hostel staff will take you on a bar crawl after the place shuts down between 11:30pm and midnight.
PS: late night kebabs or noodles are always a good idea
PPS: at Tipsy Tiger, body shots are free ;) just watch out for their photographer…
Taman Negara AKA Penang National Park
Pack up your sunblock and a swimsuit and don’t miss out on Taman Negara Pulau Pinang. This national park stretches along 3,100-acres of the northwest corner of Penang and is easy to get to from George Town either by bus or cab.
Hire a longtail boat to take you to Turtle Beach and Monkey Beach, where you can laze on the sand or in the water and order an ice cold coconut from one of the colorful beachside shacks. The boat one-way costs roughly 40 ringgit per person, but you can negotiate for a return trip if you don’t feel like taking the 2ish mile hike back.
Penang is sensational. Enjoy George Town, eat until you hate yourself, hit the bars at night, and take a day to enjoy the picturesque national park. While you’re there, don’t forget to catch a ferry to Langkawi, an adventure in and of itself.
I don’t think we’ve met anyone in Asia who hasn’t been or isn’t planning to go to Bali. It took only a couple of years for this small Indonesian island to become a top tourist attraction for vacationers from the North America, Australia, Europe and the rest of Asia.
From the tourist meccas of Seminyak and Ubud to the less explored north and east coast of the island, Bali is full of treasures on and off the beaten track.
I would bet half my backpack (literally half of my possessions right now) that no travelers visit Bali without at least one trip to Seminyak. The southeastern city is packed with unbelievable hotels, sunset bars, backpacker hostels, and enough shopping to leave you broke before you know it. You’ll find people from all over the world in this little corner of the island.
From here, it’s and easy ride to Ubud and the Gili Islands, both of which can be easily booked through your accommodation. Grab some sundowners on the beach at Potato Head and party into the night with fellow backpackers at La Favela. Take a surf lesson from the Bali Cowboys or take a day trip up to the Tanah Lot temple. No matter your schedule, you’re in for a good time.
What you WON’T find in Seminyak is almost any trace of authentic Indonesian culture and ways of life. While there are locals everywhere and they’re typically incredibly friendly and helpful, they are very much there as a part of the enormous tourism industry the island relies on. If you want to get to know the real Bali, you’re going to have to catch a moped out of Seminyak.
BUT, before you leave, here are few places we definitely recommend you check out:
La Favela: a backpacker favorite, two story bar/club that gets going around 11 p.m. each night. Make sure you take another place up on happy hour first, drinks here are $$.
Potato Head: we won’t be the first or last person to tell you to go to this amazing restaurant/bar. Just do it.
Mamasan: absolutely delicious Asian-fusion food
Shopping in the town center
Late night massages on your way home from dinner (or ear candling if you’re into that kind of thing *side-eye at MJ*)
Sundowners on the beach at The W Hotel’s Woo Bar or La Plancha
Catch a ferry up to the Gili Islands. We didn’t get to, but everyone we’ve met who’s done it would do it again. The three islands are very different, so do some research before you pick your location!
Ubud is the tourism industry’s answer to authentic Bali, and that’s not a bad thing. The city itself is packed with delicious restaurants, a wide range of shopping, and hole in the wall places to stay. It’s very walkable and a little less intimidating than Seminyak at night. It’s also conveniently close to places like the unbelievable Tegalalang Rice Terrace, which comes with a convenient walking path.
You will immediately feel the difference going from Seminyak to Ubud in the sense that there is some real Indonesian culture here. The presence and popularity of the rice terraces, the typical food on the streets, and the surrounding areas all speak to the real Bali.
Ubud is also a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the rest of the island. Unlike Seminyak, Ubud is relatively central, making it easier to reach far off attractions like the Mount Batur sunrise hike (get up, it’s worth it) or the instagram-famous Pura Lempuyang temple.
Take our and everyone else’s recommendation and visit Ubud while in Bali. Take a yoga class, a cooking class, or just get more in touch with your inner zen if that’s your thing. You’re in for a treat.
Singaraja & Northern Bali
NOW we’re talking authentic Bali. If you commit to zig-zagging your way to Bali’s northern coast you will encounter the kind of beauty and culture that put the island on the map in the first place.
Rural villages, enormous open air markets, jungle paths that are only accessibly by moped, and the constant need for Google translate await you. Here, hostels and hotels are fewer and far between, but a popular way to stay and enjoy this quieter side of the island is to rent a villa.
This may sound extravagant. That’s because it is. However, if you can get a big group together it’s easy to make this stay both possible and worth it. We did this and it was some of the most relaxing time we’ve had on the road thus far.
Ask one of the local staff (almost every villa will have staff that come to help you out) to take you on a tour of the early morning market. Take a drive across the northern coast or dive into the jungle in search of hidden rice Terrances or Bali’s famous waterfalls.
Visiting northern Bali is an extremely different adventure than southern Bali. It’s unorganized and almost entirely DIY but it’s also worth it. If you’re interested in getting to know and experience authentic Bali culture and way of life, you’ve got to head north.
Exploring Bali’s East Coast
If you’ve got a car or moped, exploring Bali’s east coast is a must. The countryside and roads are dotted with unexplored rice terraces, local villages, and unbelievable temples. MJ and I took this drive after we descended from our sunrise hike up Mt. Batur and spent the whole day getting lost on this side of the island.
Our favorite highlights of this day, other than the unnamed treasures we passed throughout the day were the Pura Lempuyang temple and the Tirtagangga Water Palace (bring a swimsuit!).
Diving in Bali
We chose of dive in Komodo National Park instead of Bali and wished we could’ve done both. Though we didn’t get to explore them, here are some dive highlights of Bali we recommend you check out if you’re looking to dive there:
USS Liberty Wreck
Catch a quick flight to Flores to dive in Komodo National Park, it was unbelievable!
Getting Around Bali
I feel obligated to say a few things about navigating Bali because it truly is a different beast than most places and somehow everyone leaves that out. I’ll keep it simple.
Driving a car in Bali:
DO NOT rent a car in Bali with intention of exploring the whole island unless you are a VERY competent manual driver.
The whole island is incredibly hilly and mountainous, it will take a LONG time to get from one place to another.
Streets and roads are designed for mopeds, not cars, and it is near impossible that you will return your car in perfect condition. Take photos before you leave with your rental.
Keep an eye on that gas tank, as you head north or east they will be fewer and farther between.
Don’t even think about trying to find places like hidden waterfalls with a car, there’s no where to park and no, you won’t be able to get it back up that hill.
Renting a moped in Bali:
*Note that we didn’t do this, this is what we’ve heard/observed*
If you’ve never ridden moped before, this may not be the place to learn. It is crowded, especially in southern Bali, and you do not have right of way, cars do, because they're bigger.
ALWAYS wear a helmet. We met a girl whose helmet saved her life but didn't spare her a trip to the hospital.
Locals know what they’re doing better than you, follow their lead.
Have an International drivers license. If you’re pulled over without one you WILL be fined.
Ask a local at your hostel/hotel about what to do if you’re stopped by the police on the road. They will advise how best to deal with an altercation without getting into more trouble, or paying more, than you need to.
Negotiate the rate before you go anywhere if there’s no meter.
Bluebird taxis are the best as a rule, try and avoid the others.
If there’s a meter (there are in all the Bluebird cabs), make them run it and MAKE SURE THEY DON’T TURN IT OFF.
We booked our trip up Australia’s east coast before we even left New Zealand. Our friends at the Travel desk in the Base Hostel in Queenstown advised us to book what we definitely wanted to do in advance instead of waiting just in case anything filled up during the popular summer holidays.
We ended up booking three weeks worth of travel, accommodation and tours from Byron Bay up to Cairns before we even left Queenstown. After finally getting to experience it all, we can honestly say we had the time of our lives. Major thanks to Jules & Nick, who both seriously hooked it up for us. If you’re in Queenstown and looking to book tours in NZ or AUS, we definitely recommend you go talk to them.
The method to our east coast madness was to take a LOKA bus/train tour from start to finish. We took the Kat Tour (pictured above), but there a ton a options to choose from. This is one of the two most popular travel options for people (and by people I mean backpackers) looking for a tour/travel combo, the second is Greyhound. Both companies can book tours for you in each location and give you the flexibility to hop-on, hop-off as you like.
The key difference, as we understand it, is that LOKA makes use of the train system as well as buses, Greyhound operates with just their own buses. We both agreed that, while the trains are very nice and comfortable, the idea of just not having to get on and off constantly to switch from one to the other would’ve been nice. Definitely check out both options to see which you’d like better, but either will get you where you want to go.
If you know your time frame and your budget and you don’t want to rent your own car, another great alternative, these two companies are your best bet. If you can, especially during popular travel times (for us, our December dates coincided with school break in AUS so you can imagine), book your pick-ups and tours in advance and then just show up.
LOKA runs buses nearly every day at all major stops on the east coast and everyday at the most popular ones. Check out their schedule online and make sure you reconfirm your pick up locations a day in advance with your driver. That’s about all you need to do!
When the drivers pick you up they deal with everything between your start and final destination. This includes train tickets, stops, and door-to-door stops at different hostels along the way to collect and deposit people. Everyone we met who worked for LOKA was incredibly nice and helpful with any questions we had. The buses were clean and cool and everything ran smoothly. Yeah, the hours are a little nuts (hello, 4 a.m. wake up), but it’s called budget travel for a reason people!
From start to finish, our LOKA tour included:
Noosa (Fraser Island)
Airlie Beach (Whitsundays)
Magnetic Island (this stop included the ferry to get to and from the island)
We booked through Base Travel, so our tours weren’t booked through LOKA itself, but you can book through most hostel travel desks or just do it yourself! LOKA is a great way to get around the east coast without a car and doubles as an excellent way to meet cool people looking to do what you’re doing.
It was part of our Australian itinerary from the get-go: an epic west coast road trip via campervan up the country’s less explored coastline.
We were ready for deserts sunsets, endless rust colored highway, deserted beaches, and sleeping in the back of a car for three weeks. We weren’t ready for the lack of gas stations, sweltering heat, or the monumental distance between Perth to Darwin.
Many people travel to Australia to embark on this very road trip, and every journey is different. Ours went a little like this.
Finding a Car or Campervan
Where We Rented: Traveller’s Autobarn
Would We Recommend: Yes, but you get what you pay for. The vans are OK, but old, and we had a few customer service issues. We mostly recommend them because when we dropped it off the representative was extremely understanding about the issues we had with the camper and gave us a smaller car for a few days, free of charge, to make up for it.
This is arguably the easy part. Because the west coast is almost exclusively explored via car or campervan, there are many options.
We opted for a campervan because we figured it would be a fun experience. Many people choose a car simply because you can save a lot of money on the rental and gas. The cheapest way to do it is definitely by car, provided you’re using a tent instead of paying for hostels or hotels every night. It depends on your budget and what kind of experience you want.
We rented a campervan from Traveller’s Autobarn, a budget rental company, and opted for their most popular Kuga campervan. For two people, this was perfect. It says it sleeps/seats 3, but from experience that would be crowded unless that third person is a child.
Regardless of what you choose, here are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding your car/campervan:
Gas is EXPENSIVE and gas stations are few and far between. Fill up every chance you get, no matter how full your tank is. You can use the app maps.me to help you find gas stations along your route (it will work without service so long as the maps are downloaded). Keep in mind: the bigger the vehicle the pricier the gas.
Most rentals are MANUAL. We learned this the hard way when we got dealt an old school ’08 manual camper when we expected an automatic. Luckily, MJ is a champ with manual and I knew enough to get the hang of it, but if you need an automatic make sure you’ve signed up for one.
Insurance doesn’t cover idiots who get stuck in the sand. You will be hard pressed to find someone to help you if you drive off road and get bogged down because you wanted that perfect shot of the sunrise (yes, we were those idiots). We ended up taking an hour to get our heavy camper out of the sand after multiple calls to tow companies and roadside assistance told us we were on our own. Do yourself a favor and stay on the pavement.
If you opt for a camper, you will need to charge it, refill the water, and refill the gas. Ask where the hose/charging cables are in your camper BEFORE you leave…(we didn’t find our hose the whole time and had to get creative).
Take the insurance, just don’t get bogged.
Drive during the day whenever possible. Driving at night might be your favorite thing to do (me) but you will never forgive yourself if you add to the roadkill death toll on Australia’s west coast highway. MARSUPIALS ARE NOCTURNAL. You would be too if you lived in the desert, let’s be real.
Knowing how to change a tire is a life skill that’s great to have before you make this journey.
Bring your own charging cable and aux chord and DOWNLOAD your music (a lot of it) before you leave. Maybe even some audiobooks if that’s your thing. You’re in for a lot of driving and not a lot of service.
If they offer you a fan, TAKE IT. This was a lifesaver during the night.
Whether you start in the north or the south, stock up on supplies in the biggest city you’re starting in. Once you hit the road, all the prices go up as the average population goes down. Supply and demand baby.
Stock up on:
Food. Try and stick to the easy stuff. Also a plus if it doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Unless you’re opting for a big camper, you’re going to be very tight on fridge space.
Water and booze. Both get more expensive as you head out of town.
Bug spray and sunscreen. Both are necessary and, again, prices go up.
Here are a couple things we were really happy we had:
Headlamps. Can’t stress enough how many times we’ve been happy to have headlamps on this trip. Endlessly useful.
Ziplock containers (for leftovers) and garbage bags.
Sleeping bags. They provided sheets for us but having to make the bed every night was super annoying. These were just easier.
Table and chairs. We rented these from the rental company. They were great to have when we wanted to get out of the camper for dinner or just to enjoy our beach reads in the shade.
A speaker. I always carry at least two on me because there’s nothing worse than listening to music from an iPhone speaker. Our campervan was so old we didn’t even have an aux plug, so we ended up using a speaker the whole time.
Cameras. We each have one and carry it with us everywhere. If you’re thinking of investing in a better one or are unsure whether or not you want to bring yours, this is the sign you’re looking for. BRING IT. You will see so many beautiful things and it’s worth documenting properly.
Planning Your Route
It’s a little more than 4000km from Perth to Darwin on the shortest route. That’s about 43 hours of driving, which doesn’t cover the driving you do to get to the actual highlights of your road trip. We had an amazing time, but not enough of it. Our last three days of driving averaged about 10-12 hours of driving per day. BE BETTER THAN US.
Give yourself the time to enjoy the west coast properly. Opt for a shorter route, like Darwin to Broome or Perth to Broome, or, if you’re in it for the long haul, give yourself 4-6 weeks to enjoy the trip from Perth to Darwin.
Our Highlight Reel from the West Coast
Many of these stops we’ve written about in more detail, but here is the short list of what we loved about our 3 week adventure.
Perth, Fremantle and Rottnest Island
Where We Stayed: Bambu Backpackers Hostel
Would We Recommend: Yes
Can’t stress this enough. This city and the surrounding areas are beautiful and absolutely worth starting or ending with. Perth is a vibrant city with unbelievable beaches, a great and cheap transportation system, and so much to do.
Where We Stayed: RAC Cervantes Holiday Park
Would We Recommend: Yes
No one is entirely sure how this natural wonder happened, but boy is it beautiful. Just off the road near Cervantes, the Pinnacles are a must stop for those looking to get that perfect sunset picture. Drive your car through the park or get out and walk among the thousands of stone pillars.
Where We Stayed: Linga Longa at Lynton Station
Would We Recommend: Yes
Instagrammers - DON’T MISS THIS ONE. I saw pictures of Australia’s pink lakes years ago when planning and knew this wasn’t something we could skip. We had a blast doing our cheesy little photo shoot at the pink lake near Hutt Lagoon. Definitely worth the stop (you’ll be happy you packed that camera).
This was so cool. A 45minute drive in from the coastal town of Kalbarri, Nature’s Window is one of the main attractions in Kalbarri National Park. This iconic attraction is a literal “window” in the rock that perfectly frames the river behind it. It’s a short 1km walk into the Loop, which is a larger walk you can opt for to see more of the beautiful national park.
Sharkbay World Heritage Site
Where We Stayed: Denham Seaside Tourist Village
Would We Recommend: Yes
We camped out here for a few days because we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave this little slice of heaven. Perfect beaches, natural wonders everywhere and a great place to take your first break on your crazy road trip. Enjoy a trip to Monkey Mia to visit the dolphins, stop at Shell Beach for a quick dip in crystal clear water, and take in the Hamelin Pool Stromatolites that give Shark Bay its World Heritage title.
While you’re in Shark Bay, take the time to learn about the community’s fascinating initiative to combat community waste.
Where We Stayed: Potshot
Would We Recommend: Yes (in high season, BOOK EARLY. The town triples in size.)
Divers! You already know you need to stop here. We missed the whale shark season (March-Sept), but we were just in time for sea turtle mating season, which definitely made up for it. The diving here is out of this world, so if that’s your thing DON’T MISS IT. Navy Pier alone was worth the extended stop.
We dove with a company called Dive Ningaloo and they were EPIC. Definitely recommend.
Broome & Cable Beach
Where We Stayed: Tarangua Caravan Park
Would We Recommend: Yes
Broome is amazing coastal city. Unfortunately, when we went it was hot and so, so humid that we spend our entire time there doing one thing and one thing only: Cable Beach. This beach is worth the trip alone. It’s massive and is perfect for lounging the day away or watching the camels walk buy with some sundowners.
Tip: Skip the camel ride, they smell bad and the pictures you’ll get with the camels in it are cooler than the ones you’ll get from the camel’s back.
Tip: If you have a car (NOT a camper), you can drive it down to the beach! It’s very flat and the sand is packed down, very low risk of getting bogged.
Where We Stayed: Lake Argyle Resort & Holiday Park
Would We Recommend: SO MUCH.
Our final stop before Darwin, this resort of Lake Argyle was everything we could’ve hoped for. Not only is a lush and green, a welcome break after weeks in the dust and sand, but it has an unbelievable infinity pool looking out over the lake. We camped out here until they literally had to kick us out when it got dark. You can take a tour of the lake by boat as well, but we didn’t have time.
Where We Stayed: Darwin YHA aka Melaleuca on Mitchell
Would We Recommend: Yes, if you’re looking to party
We weren’t prepared for how much we would love Darwin. It’s not a huge city, but if you’re a backpacker looking to meet some cool people and party/celebrate the end of your insane three-week road trip, it’s everything you need. Don’t miss out on this hostel, we had the time of our lives during our weekend in Darwin.
Get Up for Sunrise, Make Time for Sunset
It doesn’t get more beautiful than it does on the west coast of Australia. We started our longer driving days at 4am so we could enjoy sunrise out in the middle of the desert. Highly recommend it.
What We Wish We’d Had Time For (AKA Our Regrets)
No trip is perfect (unless you have 6-7 weeks to do it), so here are some places we’re going to have to come back for (and some super fun ideas for you when you go cause we’ve totally sold you on this road trip!!).
Karijini National Park
More Time at Lake Argyle
Diving with Whale Sharks in Exmouth
Diving in Coral Bay
Gibb River-Wyndham Road (southwest of Darwin)
Emma Gorge (southwest of Darwin)
Kununurra (near Darwin)
Kakadu National Park (near Darwin)
Wine Tasting at Margaret River (south of Perth)
Serpentine National Park (near Perth)
Lancelin Sand Dunes (near Perth)
Beware: this is a story of extreme badassery.
Nelson Lakes National Park is centrally located on the northern half of the South Island, only an hour or so from the Marlborough region. Many people know it for an iconic postcard shot of the dock on Lake Rotoiti, but I know it as an epic mountain-lovers playground. Last time I was in this country, three good friends of mine came back from our spring break with a harrowing hiking tale of their near-death experience en route to the Angelus Hut.
Here in New Zealand, DOC has over 950 huts dispersed throughout the wild lands of both the North and South Island. They’re a great option for those who want an explorative experience among the stunning landscapes. Many huts have helpful amenities like running water and a wood-burning stove (used for heat, not for cooking). Although, some are just basic shelters and don’t have such amenities, so check online if you’re planning an adventure! Most areas of interest have a DOC information centre in the main town, so you can even check with a professional before heading out into the bush.
We rolled up to Nelson Lakes on a recommendation from one of those three friends (thank you Alex, my love) but with the explicit instruction to be weary of the wintry conditions - as per the avalanche threat that made their experience so treacherous. Alas, we stopped at the DOC visitor centre in St. Arnaud to approve our plans with an official, and the unnamed officer confirmed that we would be fine without winter gear, and no, we did not need crampons. “The ice broke last week,” he said. “You’ll be fine,” he said.
You can see where this is going.
Day 1 of our “tramp” went exactly according to plan: we rose 1,280m to the Bushline Hut for our first night. The first half of the trail stretched along the flat bank of the Lake Rotoiti before abruptly inclining up through the forest. The serenity of the trail is hard to ignore, and before long you emerge out of the trees to a breathtaking view of Lake Roititi and Lake Rotoroa. The second half of the trail is a string of switchbacks up the bald mountain face, blindly ascending until the very last moment when you crest the last switchback and the hut finally comes into sight.
The hut was relatively full, as some kiwis from Christchurch chose to have an extended family reunion in the national park that weekend. Note: make sure that if you’re planning on going to a hut, book your bed early to make sure you’ll have a space once you finally get up there! And bring ear plugs… But before then, dinner!
Using my nifty little MSR Whisperlite International, we heated up some tortellini and tomato soup to enjoy on the mountainside as the misty fog settled among the peaks for the night. Followed by, of course, bedtime tea and BANAGRAMS.
The next morning we were due for another 4h30 on the trail, south to the Angleus Hut. We headed out mid-morning, just after breakfast, and quickly made it to the trail junction for Robert’s Ridge. We were greeted by warning signs and exclamation marks, but the DOC officer back in town said winter was over and we’d be fine. We expected to be there for a late lunch.
NOT. EVEN. CLOSE.
We were straight up mountaineering. Tight rope walking ridgelines. Hurdling piles of alpine boulders and rocky junk. Scuttling along scree slopes. Tip toeing icy stretches of “trail” above cliff faces. This was some BAD. ASS. SHIT.
Our packs were way too heavy, given that we lugged ALL our valuables up into the alpine zone with us. We were wearing Timberland boots, and while our New York selves do love the shoe, they were far from adequate for winter hiking. But we kept our cool (haaaa) and trudged on through the majestic peaks of Robert’s Ridge. For 8 hours.
The last stretch of the route — actually, I’m going to use this opportunity to clarify something. APPARENTLY, here in New Zealand, the name of the trail discerns the skill level for the hike. I thought a “route” was just like, you know, the route that you take to get there. Like, as in, a synonym for “trail.” NOT EXPERT LEVEL TERRAIN.
Okay so, the last stretch of the ROUTE was just honestly a sledding hill. There was no way we were going to make it down on our weary little legs - especially not after 8 hours of scrambling along a cold, windy ridgeline. So obviously we took our pack rain covers and sat on our pretty little asses, recklessly flying through the wet snow until we reached the bottom. We hurdled into the hut, simultaneously prying off our wet boots, and introduced ourselves to the only occupant of the hut: our new best friend, David.
Lucky for us, our new best friend brought extra gear with him and was also planning the same exit route as us. Needless to say, our group of two became a group of three - or rather, his group of one became a group of three. That night, we figuratively slept soundly knowing we would be attempting the exit with our new friend. But in reality, we didn’t sleep at all due to the railing winds pounding on the sides of the hut, whistling through the stove chimney. Kim was certain the windows were going to implode and end our trip right there that night.
We woke up the next day with no intention of leaving the hut. Surely we would wait until the weather cleared before wandering into winter wonderland again. Plus, between our two 40-pound packs, we had plenty of toys to keep ourselves occupied. We watched the clouds play among the peaks outside the window, and also three episodes of Game of Thrones. David taught us a new card game, and we all re-taught ourselves how to play Gin Rummy. The day flew by.
Our best friend and fire-tender kept the hut warm all night, and we woke up ready to roll. Kim strapped on David’s extra snow shoes, I was equipped with an ice ax, and it was time to scale the sledding hill. What would’ve taken us maybe three hours in Timberlands only took us one with our friendly guide. Bless.
We were just about to reach the exit trail junction when the wind whisked away my camera case. I watched the thing sink right over the edge of the ridge. I let the disappointment set in for only a few minutes before the fluffy sac came spiraling back up towards us. Without missing a beat, our Lord and Savior set off to retrieve it.
So here I am today, safely on level ground, with my beloved camera case. The rest of the descent went well, if only exhausting. We trekked eight hours along the Speargrass Track through tussocks and snow melt. We succumbed to the rivers and quickly gave up on keeping our boots dry.
Long story short: we embarked on a journey far more challenging than what we were prepared for, spent an entire day among the towering peaks of Nelson Lakes National Park, and survived the hike out with the help of our guardian angel David. Of course we celebrated with beer and pizza immediately upon returning to town.
But like, also, we were super badass heroes too.
Never try to plan your birthday when you’re on the road…
I had the perfect plan for my 22nd birthday:
We would wake up early and spend a full, fabulous Tuesday on the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I would finally be able to knock it off my bucket list after leaving it behind last time I was in New Zealand. Sunshine and smiles for year twenty-two.
Except that’s not what the weather forecast was thinking. Not only would my birthday bring rain to Tongariro, but being that it’s still kind of winter, there were also warnings for a dangerous cornice [kor-nes • an overhanging mass of windblown snow or ice usually on a ridge], making the already expert-level adventure too treacherous for us to pursue. Though disappointed, I agreed that we would have to pass on the crossing this time around. If I have made it across the Pacific three times already, what’s a fourth? This just gives me one more reason to come back to the great NZ - to finally do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing once and for all.
Alas, we suddenly had an extra three days to fill and the world right in front of us!!!!!! So we spent the day in Taupo hashing out the details for a suitable backup plan. How about instead, we plan a road trip and drive the East Coast Road like the nice guy on Mount Maunganui recommended? We could go all the way to Gisborne, and then spend two days hiking one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, Lake Whakaremoana! I’d still be able to wake up on a trail for my birthday - another perfect plan!
And yet, our plans were foiled again. We were to hit the trailhead early after spending the night in Gisborne, but against my will, my body had decided to shut down. I woke up with excruciating stomach pains and body aches - thank you jet lag, exhaustion, and dehydration. While my will power told me to do the hike anyway, uncontrollably crying into a cup of tea told me that I would have to take another pass. Time to take a rest day.
We grabbed a “world-famous” pie from Osler’s bakery on our way out of town, and headed straight for Napier. Neither of us knew anything of the place, but it was the nearest city en route to our next destination in Wellington. We arrived midday and splurged for a private room. If we were going to be taking a rest day for my birthday, we were damn sure on getting the optimal amount of rest possible. I literally slept the day away.
So finally, we woke up on my birthday with one last perfect plan. We would take a walk down the beach and spend the day at the National New Zealand Aquarium. How could we go wrong?
Needless to say, it went swimmingly.
I love aquariums. They had an interactive seashell display. They had a coloring station (thank you Kim for the beautiful birthday card). They even had a TUNNEL through one of the tanks. A TUNNEL.
As if the day could even get any better, we went to a killer restaurant for dinner. We got all dressed up - lipstick, heels, and I even straightened my hair. All I have to say is that if I dedicated space to it in my pack, I better be using it.
Napier is apparently known as an art deco capital of the world, so we made a reservation at Masonic Hotel’s 1930s themed restaurant called The Emporium Eatery & Bar - the only place in New Zealand to have made it on the world’s 100 best bars!
They make a mean Old Cuban. AND WE EVEN FOUND PIZZA.
After a delightful birthday dinner, we strolled back to our 2-bed private for dessert: that apple, pineapple, passionfruit pie from the cafe of tears the day before. Kim even got some candles :)
The next morning, on our way out of town, I found an intriguing brochure. Not just any brochure though, a treasure map to murals around the city. Each mural spoke to a different theme of ocean conservation, featuring larger-than-life paintings of marine creatures crawling around urban community spaces. For more information, click on the following image!
Marine conservation + art + urban community planning = literally the coolest thing ever.
So of course, I dragged Kim around the city for another two hours while I gawked at paintings of seabirds, turtles, fish, whales, sharks, and even penguins.
I wouldn’t have been able to come up with a more suitable birthday surprise than an urban treasure hunt for ocean conservation themed murals. Good thing we ended up in Napier.
Our first stop, after picking up some coffee and our rental car that we’ve fondly dubbed The Cherry, was far north in the Bay of Islands. This far flung string of islands goes around in a curve on the northwestern side of Northern New Zealand and makes for a very scenic four hour drive from the airport in Auckland.
We weren’t originally going to go this far north, but we got lucky and a family friend offered us the use of their lovely vacation home in Russell, so we took it (duh). We took the drive from Russell to Auckland and back and stopped many times along the way. Here are a few our highlights and favorite discoveries we made.
The Gallery & Cafe Helena Bay Hill
We pulled over at this gallery & cafe because we were driving through what we thought was the middle of nowhere and were just surprised and intrigued enough to stop. Once we got out of the car, we were really glad we did.
This little treasure is located along Old Russell Road and is featured in The Lonely Planet. Upon getting out of the car, we were greeted by both a stunning view over the hills to the sea and two giant newfoundlands. Having just left home and Brandy, my family’s newf, this was a crazy amazing thing to see.
We got to meet the owner, who told us a little about the place and how it started, and walk through the amazing sculpture garden he’s created outside the gallery. The art inside the gallery itself is also beautiful. Lucky for us, and our wallets, it was a little out of price and size range for us. I simply settled on a little, silver lily ring (as a birthday present to myself, of course).
Our desire to walk to Russell from where we were staying a little further north died about a mile into our trip. This wasn’t before we managed to find a tiny foot track next to the main road which was called Jim’s Walkway. It’s a riverside trail that’s inhabited by a surprising number of kiwis, the elusive national bird of New Zealand. We didn’t see any on this walk, since they’re nocturnal, but it was fun just knowing they were around.
This town is, in a word, charming. It’s a small, oceanside town that reminded me a bit of a town in the Hamptons (New Yorkers, you know what I’m talking about). It’s mostly a summer attraction, so since we were there in winter there were many places that were still closed, but that didn’t take anything away from it.
We visited the main dock, which is old and beautiful, walked along the beach and got some of the best crab sticks we’ve ever eaten from a place called Crusty Crab. We also got to explore the oldest church in New Zealand: Christ Church. It, like the town, is both small and beautiful.
Strolling into an intriguing woodworking shop had me trying to play the guitar again, for the first time in a long time, and MJ dying to buy everything in sight. She didn’t, but only because we’re a tad pressed for space in our bags.
We got lucky with perfect weather the whole time we were there and got to watch two spectacular sunsets over the bay. The best part? As we were headed out of our home around 8 a.m. to head back to Auckland, we caught a 10 second view of a kiwi crossing the road into Jim’s Walkway. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a picture, you’ll just have to take our word on it!
The Mermaid Pools, Matapouri
THIS was incredible. I mean absolutely stunning. We didn’t even know about the mermaid pools until the day before we left Russell. We found them while looking up things to do along the drive back to Auckland and decided we had to check them out.
This drive along the coast took us through some beautiful bays and beaches which were hard to resist stopping for. But once we got there, we were glad we hadn’t.
To get there, you have to drive to beach at Matapouri Bay, which is beautiful in and of itself. Bring good walking shoes because the pathway to get to the pools is steep and rocky. We’re talking literal ropes strung along trees so you can pull yourself up. But once you’re over the hill, it’s a sight to see.
These shallow pools are an incredible turquoise color, which contrasted against the dark blue ocean and the clear blue sky we had was amazing. It was COLD and we didn’t bring our swimsuits (why?!), but we couldn’t resist. After our first, seriously COLD, skinny dip of this trip (amazingly timed between 3 groups of people coming and going) we hiked back to the beach and set out again.
Whangarei Falls, Whangarei
This was our second stop on the way from Russell to Auckland. These famous falls are beautiful and there are many ways to view them.
You can view them from the top, from a bridge that’s perfectly placed a little ways back from the falls, or from right at the base. I think you could even swim, if you really wanted to. We opted out since we were still cold from the mermaid pools.
There’s a longer track that you can take that goes back along the river away from the falls. MJ had seen it before on a previous trip to New Zealand and we were both itching to get in to town, so we skipped out.
If you ever find yourself flying in or out of Auckland, consider making the trip up north to the Northland. A place we hadn’t even considered visiting turned out to have some of the most beautiful places we’ve gotten to see so far.
Well, we’re not quite sure if we figured it out, but here’s what we’ve got:
Solving the Climate Crisis
What does New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, India, the Mediterranean, and Northern Europe all have in common? Not their climates.
To solve this problem, we have set up a very particular solution - with the help of our loved ones back home (thanks moms!). Aside from what we brought on flight NZ 5 (pictured below), we additionally packed three more boxes of clothes/gear to be shipped to locations along our path. First, a box of tropical wear will be shipped to us for muggy Southeast Asia. Second, a box of dresses and sandals will be shipped to us for the sunny Mediterranean. Lastly, a box of sweaters and socks will be shipped to us for wintry northern Europe. With each box, we will swap out what will no longer be needed for the next leg of the trip — i.e. that Patagonia nano puff will not be needed in Southeast Asia.
But until those swaps happen, enjoy a peak into our 70L packs:
The Overflow Part
Lo & Sons camera bag
Lewis N Clark day pack - compacts down into teeny pouch
Generic black purse
Nat Geo baseball cap
The Gear Part
First Aid Kit - ace bandages, neosporin, band-aids, aquaphor, various meds, dramamine so as MJ does not puke on boats, etc.
Outdoor Master ground tarp
Screen cleaner rag
Luggage scale - we’re looking at you, budget flights
Black Diamond headlamp
Build & Fitness pack towel
Collapsable coffee mug
Collapsable water bottle
Sea to Summit UltraLight sleeping mat
Sleeping bag in a Sea to Summit stuff sac
Cocoon Mummy Liner (silk)
Eno double hammock and straps
MSR Whisperlite International with cooking pot - thank you #SteveRahr for teaching me how to use it
Hydroflasks x2 - one for hot, one for cold
Good ole Nalgene
Sea to Summit collapsable food container
SOL survival kit - thanks mom
Black Diamond headlamp
Tesalate beach towel
Cocoon Mummy Liner (silk)
MPOWERD Inflatable Solar Lantern x2 - hooray for solar energy
Sleeping bag and pillowcase
Sea to Summit UltraLight sleeping mat with air stream dry sack pump (not pictured) - so much easier than exhausting my asthmatic lungs before bed
MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person tent - IT’S ONLY 3 LBS 13 OZ!!!!!
The Please-Don't-Steal-These Part
BUBM electronics organizer - assorted cords and accessories
Nintendo DS - Pokemon is a religion for me (see toiletries below)
Bose bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones - f*ck you airplane turbines
GoPro Hero 4 with underwater housing unit and float accessory
iPhone camera attachment
Canon EOS Rebel T2i
Apple earbuds x2
MPOW rugged portable speaker
Divoom portable speaker - yes, we need two
Skyroam - useful portable wifi and service generator (look it up if you’re interested)
RAV Power iSmart battery pack
Matador camera case
Assorted chargers and car charger
Universal outlet converter
Apple MacBook Pro
Bose noise-cancelling headphones - thank you Mama Walker
POWERADD solar battery pack
MatadorUp camera case
Altura padded camera lens case
Canon EFS 24mm "pancake" lens
Canon EOS 80D - represented by the empty space
Commander hand strap for camera
TIMEX Expedition analog watch
NZ outlet converter
Extra camera battery and charger
A/V camera battery car charger - we are road tripping after all
FitBit Flex 2 - ask me about it, I will rave for hours
Port converter - honestly Apple, you’re getting on my nerves
ZOOP dive computer
GoPro Hero 4 with underwater housing unit
Phone charger - sticker on it to distinguish my own from the 50 other ones in a hostel
Micro SD card reader
Extra SD card
SD card reader
Seagate external hard drive - I’m taking A LOT of photos
Apple MacBook 12” in gold - I know, it’s super cute :)
The Bulky Part
Mime et Moi black leather sandals with two pairs of heel attachments - because I couldn’t bring just one pair of heels..
Columbia lightweight rain jacket
Pink Tevas - we don’t have to talk about how cute they are, but we can
Croc sandals (they’re cool, okay)
Patagonia fleece - SUCH a classic
The Hard Part
Black v-neck wool sweater
Patagonia hat - it’s MJ’s. She loves Patagonia. Ask her about it.
Long-sleeve base layers x2
Short sleeve purple dress
Tank tops x3
Encircled multi-way infinity scarf
Black leggings x2
Bikinis x2 - BEACH PICS
Rash guard - for diving
Black Patagonia mid-layer
I <3 Pizza hat - shoutout to Picasso in Stowe, VT
Grey infinity scarf - RIP American Apparel
Long-sleeve base layers x2 - one of them is Patagonia…
Tank tops x3
Patagonia shorts x4 - I honestly didn’t mean to do that
Jean shorts x2
The Fun Part
Toiletries - just what you’d expect
Pokemon face masks - I told you it was a religion
Inflatable neck pillow and eye mask
Mini plastic bags - I have a sand collection, it’s really cool
Mystical Fire color packs x2 - keepin’ it colorful
Waterproof phone bag thing
iPhone powered fan - #selfie game strong
Mini spray bottle with peppermint oil - spiders hate it, and that’s what matters here.
Twist ties and locks
Sunblock and tattoo guard
Journal - thanks Sarah
Harry Potter playing cards - I’m a Slytherin. My patronus is a hummingbird, since you asked
Flask - thanks Dave
Pencils n pens
Business cards - gotta work bitch
Snazzy hair clips x2
Mase & a taser - fuck with me.
Sunglasses with croakies
Gold switchblade with roses on it - definition of a badass babe
Inflatable neck pillow that I forgot to use on the 12hr flight
Extra Ziploc bags
Waterproof phone bag thing
Leatherman Juice CS4 - literally the best thing I’ve ever owned
DIY travel candle and matches
Sudoku book - I’m not a grandma, I just like to stay sharp
Polaroids from home <3
Makeup bag with 50 shades of lipstick
Toiletries - just what you’d expect
Mase & a taser - fuck with me.
Oh, and paracord. The blue thing running down the middle.
The Thoughts Part
We’re guessing here. This is not a science. We had limited space, and this is how we filled it. Yeah, it’s pretty heavy - around 42.5 lbs each to be exact. But right now, we can’t imagine getting rid of any of it. Maybe we’ll change our minds after carrying them up a few mountains. We’ll keep you posted.
* * *
“What is the weirdest thing you brought with you?”
Kim: Pokemon face masks and Mystical Fire color packs.
Fun fact: between the two backpacks, we brought a whopping 17 Patagonia items. SPONSOR US PLEASE. #girlswhoexplore