A Complete Guide to Sri Lanka During Off-Season

Why Sri Lanka is Amazing

Sri Lanka might not seem like an obvious destination - but it should be! If you don’t have the time or opportunity to dig into the chaos of India (like we didn’t), Sri Lanka is a fantastic way to experience a very different kind of Asian culture than you would find in Southeast Asia. Hinduism is the dominant culture in Sri Lanka, so be sure to take advantage of all the opportunities you have to learn about it.

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Here’s a short list of why Sri Lanka should be one of your top travel priorities:

  • Stunning landscapes - the lush jungle landscapes are easy to experience by train or car, and the beaches are notorious for stellar surfing. The terrain is unique in topography; driving through rolling terraced central Sri Lanka is unlike any landscape we’ve ever seen.

  • Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in Asia to see wild elephants!

  • If you love your tea time, central Sri Lanka is a main supplier for Lipton! Take a tea tour or two, the factories are a great way to learn about a quirky industry and enjoy a steaming array local flavors.

  • AMAZING FOOD. Curry, different curry, more curry, every kind of curry, samosas, the best bananas you’ll ever have (it’s not just hype), and coconut sambal. And lemon cookies! Notably, Sri Lanka is an awesome food heaven for vegetarians and vegans. They rarely use meat or dairy, so naturally there are a lot of options for the diet restricted. 

  • Extremely friendly Sri Lankans always make time to introduce you to their culture and customs.



Our Travel Plan

Our story starts with a disappointed arrival to our train platform as the train pulled out of the station. Slightly frazzled because this never happens to us, we sulked to the tourist office in search of help. Luckily, a very nice Sri Lankan tourism officer took us in, sat us down, pulled out a map, and taught us the real way to see the country. We had done some previous research and definitely recommend you do too before seeking help from a local, but their knowledge is always more in-depth than the internet. Our friendly officer originally tried to convince us to hire a driver for the entire week, but we already planned for the famous Kandy-Ella train ride (see below).

Although it’s not obvious, car hire is actually a great way to see Sri Lanka, especially central Sri Lanka. While the train is beautiful, you’ll miss out on what’s happening in the valleys you pass if you stick to the rails the entire way. A car hire is US$50 per day, which is much more manageable when you split between friends. We opted for a mix of both, which was ideal for us. Here’s what we booked:



Accommodation pickup from airport to our hotel in Negundi the night we arrived.

Hour-long tuk-tuk through city traffic to get to the Colombo train station, which caused us to miss our train. Take a car instead and account for traffic.

Train from Colombo to Kandy.

Train from Kandy to Ella.

Care hire for three days:

    Ella to Sigiriya

    Around Sigiriya and its attractions

    Sigiriya to Dambulla by car, to catch a bus onwards to Negundi


We booked all our transport at the tourism office at the Colombo train station. If you have a tighter budget, there are plenty of bus options all over Sri Lanka. They’re significantly cheaper than all other options, but they’re not always very direct or efficient. 


Colombo/Negundi

Colombo International (CMB) is the main airport for Sri Lanka. The name is fairly misleading, as the airport is actually in Negundi, an hour north of the chaotic city of Colombo. In our opinion, Colombo is an easy skip for Sri Lanka. It’s largely a metropolitan city, which is probably not why you come to Sri Lanka in the first place.

Negundi is much closer, and we found it much more enjoyable to stay in. The beach town is far more busy during peak season (December to March), as it’s known for wonderful weather and international surfing. During off-season, the weather is chilly, grey, and wet. That being said, if you’re interested in picking up Sri Lankan souvenirs, there is no better place or time of the year to get them. Shops cut their prices in half just to move products. The shop owners are really nice and willing to negotiate with you. We both picked up leather duffle bags - high quality and under 50 bucks! Magnets and keychains are abundant too.



The Famous Train from Kandy to Ella

Duh. This is Sri Lanka 101 here. The journey is consistently ranked as one of the best train rides in the world. Do. Not. Miss.

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The famous part of the train ride is between Kandy and Ella, but the railway system extends beyond both of those cities. Assuming you fly into Colombo International, start your trip by taking the train from Colombo to Kandy the day before your journey. An afternoon and a night in Kandy is a good amount of time to see the best parts of the city. There’s not a ton to do, but there are some pretty temples and a fun marketplace. Make sure you grab some Sri Lankan bananas for train snacks - they are LITERALLY the BEST tasting bananas in the WORLD.

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Our dear friend Emily found a cool AirBnB/hotel called Square Peg that we absolutely recommend. Here’s a link to check it out if you’re staying in Kandy!

Book your train ticket from Kandy to Ella while you’re in Colombo. If you’re having trouble, the tourism office can help you. Don’t underestimate how popular this train ride is, especially during peak season. 

Alternatively, off-season is much less chaotic. Not to say the trains won’t fill up, but you may get lucky like we did and have plenty of space to move around the car and hang out of the windows and doors. As per the fiasco in Colombo, the tourism guide booked us into a second class car which is usually only tourists and much less crowded than the regular cars. Bring water, snacks, and toilet paper.

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Get ready to take some incredible pictures. The railway follows the ridge-line separating valleys in central Sri Lanka. Some parts you’ll pass through mountain forests, some parts you’ll pass through farmland and tea terraces, and some parts you’ll have unobstructed views of the valleys and cities below.

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The train departs multiple times per day. Some people like sunrise, but we opted for a mid-morning departure. Thankfully, the weather gods granted us a gift that day. Check the weather before booking your tickets, but just remember that the weatherman is not always correct.

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Ella

Ella is a famous destination in Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There are a lot of opportunities in the area to appreciate the stunning natural landscape. The trails range from short walks to half day hikes, so you can find an exciting adventure no matter your skill level.

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You can’t miss Ella’s Rock. And by that we mean: you literally can’t not see it. It towers over Ella, and attracts hikers from around the world.

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If you’re not up for the half day commitment (it’s a long hike), Little Adam’s Peak is a fantastic alternative. We spent two hours leisurely hiking the peak for an incredible view of Ella’s Rock across the valley. On the way up, you pass tea terraces and locals selling coconuts. If it’s a sunny day, bring plenty of water and wear sunblock

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While we don’t have first-hand experience with this, we’ve been told that locals hang around Ella’s Rock to give misleading directions in order to encourage hikers to hire guides. You don’t need to, but you might be more comfortable finding the way with a local - especially if you do it for sunrise.


Cooking Class

Our favorite activity, as Girls Who Cuisine, was a 3-hour cooking class we took in Ella. There are a handful of options if you’re looking to take a class. Book well in advance as they tend to fill up quickly. We took our class with Ella Spice Garden, the first established cooking class in Ella. We highly recommend it! The class is small and taught right in the home kitchen of the chef, Chandika. It’s super authentic, and we had a really great experience. You even get a workbook to fill out during the class so you can bring the recipe home!

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After wandering through the back driveways of Ella, up a few hills and around a couple corners, you’ll find Chandika’s home. You’ll quickly make friends with your fellow classmates and tour the backyard garden where all the spices are grown - it doesn’t get more local than that! Then you’ll have a cup of tea in the sitting room with Chandika talking about the history and local use of the different spices before heading to the kitchen.

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Sri Lankan meals traditionally include 4-5 different curries, almost all vegetable based: potato, garlic, and daal curry. Plus coconut sambal (your new favorite base), and rice. Also the explosive and addictive papadams. These are the things you learn how to make in this class.

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Do you know how many cloves of garlic are used in a typical serving of garlic curry? Over 50 cloves. And you’ll learn how to efficiently peel and slice them too - yay teamwork! Have you ever fleshed a coconut? The tool to do so looks a bit too much like a torture device, but this may be your only chance to use it… shredded coconut works just as well. We won’t share the recipes, you’ll just have to learn them for yourself! They’re all delicious and the class itself was a blast! 

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Valley Hopping Drive from Ella to Sigiriya

We were convinced to have a driver take us through this portion of the trip, and we’re glad we were talked into it. It may not come up immediately in your searches, but the valleys between Ella and Sigiriya are full of picturesque landscapes that you won’t get to experience the same way from a ridge-line train. Bus routes in this area are long and require more transfers than it’s worth, so a driver will give you the most out of your journey. There are wonderful stops characteristic to Sri Lanka that you may miss without a knowledgable driver.

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Tea factories are stationed all throughout the valleys, as tea is the main export of Sri Lanka - they are the main providers for Lipton! Any of the factories will give you the inside scoop of how tea is harvested, processed, and sold. It’s also a great excuse to stop for afternoon tea!

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Sri Lanka also produces an entire market of natural beauty products. Anything from hair products, skin care, to topical ointments and massage oils - you name it, they’ve made it from some sort of plant. We got a tour of the garden at the place we stopped, and were given detailed descriptions of how and why each plant provided the natural benefits for specific products. Were we prepared to buy one of everything? Yes. Luckily, our backpacks prevented us from overspending. However it is a fun and unexpected way to learn about Sri Lankan natural remedies.

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It’s a very long drive. You will pass a lot of magnificent viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop so you can stretch your legs and snap a few photos. A lot of the smaller villages you pass through are charming and picturesque, so take it all in.

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The roads are narrow, windy, and mountainous. If you’re prone to carsickness (I’m sorry), take a Dramamine and claim shotgun. Maybe bring a doggie bag.

Sigiriya

There’s plenty to do in centrally located Sigiriya. Not only is Sigirya part of the cultural triangle so there are lots of opportunities to explore Hinduisum, but it’s also an outdoor adventure hotspot.

We stayed in a hammock haven hostel called Jungle Vista. We definitely recommend it - their adorable dog is reason enough. Apart from the little precious, the hostel organizes trips every day and makes home cooked dinners for everyone at night. The atmosphere is really laidback and you’re sure to meet some awesome people! The owners are super friendly too!

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Dambulla Cave Temple

There’s a beautiful temple carved into a mountainside 10 minutes from the middle of town. You have to climb a lot of stairs to get to it, but the peaceful sanctuary at the top is breathtaking.

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Hindu paintings spread across the cavernous space, and huge diety sculptures reach the ceiling. Golden buddhas fill each cave and glisten even in the dark. It’s quickly obvious why Dambulla Cave Temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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As with any temple, you must cover your shoulders and knees - you can rent a coverup at the entrance if you need one.

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Lion’s Rock

Sunrise at Lion’s Rock should be at the top of your Sigiriya bucket list. Get up early, as in 4am early, to give yourself extra time to make it before the sun comes up - you might get a little lost at the beginning… the trail is not very obvious. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, bring your camera, and bring a flashlight. The hike is short, but steep and scrambly at some parts. Look for the white arrows when you get near the top, it’ll guide you over some big boulders and onto the top of the rock.

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Technically, the hike is a viewpoint to see Lion’s Rock at sunrise. You’re not actually climbing Lion’s Rock itself. Similar to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, we think this hike is more worthwhile because you get a view of the “main attraction” instead of standing on top of it. The panorama of the surrounding area is awe-inspiring, and it’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the pink and orange swirls in the sky as the sun comes up.

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Don’t be afraid to stay a while, people usually leave right after the sun crosses the horizon. You’ll probably have the place to yourself if you stay a little bit longer. Pack some samosas and hot drinks if you’re game for a picnic breakfast in the sky.

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Elephant Safari

Sri Lanka has the largest wild elephant population in Asia, around 4,000 individuals living in protected parts that cover a vast portion of northern and central Sri Lanka. There are a lot of easy options to ethically enjoy their presence. We went with Kalum Jeep Safari and had a top-notch experience. There are other guided safaris that run everyday in the Sigirya area, just do some research on a company’s reputation before booking.

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There are three main protected parks in Sri Lanka. Your guides will take you to the best place depending on the weather and “status” of local elephant herds - trust in their ability to find the giant animals in the jungle.The elephants in the park are happy, protected, and not afraid of visitors. You won’t be able to leave your vehicle, but the driver will get you really close to the elephants anyway.

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Our tour was just our party of three, which was lucky for us. We got to stand through the roof of the jeep and take photos while driving through the park. The whole tour lasted about three hours, and we saw easily over 20 elephants - including babies! Our tour costed US$15 per person, which was a fantastic deal. Book online or through your accommodation, it’s one of the most popular activities in Sri Lanka.

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Keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife! The parks are home to tons of other amazing animals. We saw a beautiful peacock, snakes, and a crested hawk-eagle. Don’t miss out on the tour, it was one of the best things we did!

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Exploring Bagan During Off Season

Bagan is fairytale land where hot air balloons drift through the sky as the sun rises over hundreds of ancient temples… but not during off-season (May-September). We found out in the arrival hall of Mandalay airport. 

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The best part about Myanmar hot air balloons is the way they look floating above the temples. Riding in them won’t quite give you that picturesque perspective. If you’re interested in hopping in the basket, the price is over $350 per person. Out of your shoestring price range? Go to Vang Vieng, Laos for the cheapest ride in the world at around $80 per person.

If you can’t make it to Myanmar during peak season, do not despair. It’s always a beautiful place to visit, and you’ll appreciate the temples being less crowded than they would be otherwise. 

Getting There

Long story short, Myanmar public transport leaves something to be desired. Your best bet is to fly into Mandalay and take a bus or private hire to Bagan. DO NOT TAKE THE TRAIN. There are multiple reports of the train crashing or flipping. Nightmarish. The buses are much easier, but they only run at certain times. If you don’t want to wait, splitting a private hire from the airport is a reasonable option and the journey will only take 3 hours opposed to 5 on the bus.

PRO TIP: Get your visa before you leave. You can do it online, and you’ll need at least 24 hours to get it. Cheaper if you do it further in advance.

Ostello Bello

FREE PASTA SNACKS! Need we say more?

If you’re not convinced yet, here are some more reasons to go: cheap beer, chill vibes, great food, a/c in the dorms, friendly staff, organized day trips including free ones around Bagan! 

There are two locations in Bagan. One has a pool, one has a more social atmosphere. We meant to stay at the pool one, but accidentally ended up at the chill one. We were happy about it anyway. Ostello Bello also has locations in Mandalay and Inle Lake if you’re continuing on to other spots in Myanmar. 

Sunrise Temple Touring on an E-Bike

What’s an e-bike you ask? Basically just a tourist-friendly scooter. We wish every country in SE Asia gave these to tourists instead of regular motorbikes. They’re safer, cheaper, quiet, but only intended for short distance putting around. You just won’t need more than that in Bagan. You can rent them basically anywhere, but there’s a convenient place just outside Ostello Bello. It costs less than $2 per day.

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So here’s how it goes:

  1. Plan your route the night before. Consult someone who knows what they’re talking about (hostel employee, seasoned backpacker who’s been there, or a local). Pick your temples before you leave.

  2. Wake up at 4am before the sunrises. Tear yourself from your pillow, you’ll get back in bed for a nap later.

  3. Rent an e-bike. There will be someone there at 4am, they know what the deal is.

  4. Caravan with fellow sunrisers to your temple of choice (make it a good one!)

  5. Take your shoes off before entering any temple. Pick a spot along one of the top tiers to wait out the sunrise. Don’t climb on the temples, even if it’ll give you a better view. Be respectful, always.

  6. Enjoy the sunrise and take cool pictures.

  7. Go back to bed until it cools down:)

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Tips -

  • You will need respectful clothing. Cover your shoulders and cover your knees.

  • If you can’t decide on where to go (or if you get lost along the way), you’ll see locals out and about. Just ask someone for help and they’ll point you in the right direction.

  • There will be locals selling souvenirs at the temples, even at 4am. Bargain if you want to buy, but be respectful if you don’t. It’s their job and their home.

  • Don’t do stupid things and be on your best behavior. Don’t forget that you’re in an ancient temple, it’s not a playground.

  • Watch your step, watch your head, and bring a flashlight.

  • There will be other people there - you’ll have to get up earlier than 4am if you want the best spot at one of the more popular temples.

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Monkey Mountain

If you’re looking for something to do outside of the Bagan temples, Ostello Bello will organize it for you. We spent a day at Mount Popa, or more aptly called, Monkey Mountain. It’s a stunning view, if you’re willing to climb 777 steps while being harassed by monkeys. They are not friendly. They will steal your food. They will attack if provoked, or not provoked. Just breathing near them angers them. Look down. Don’t run. Be alert. Hide your belongings. Good luck.

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The view of Mount Popa is better scene from the hill across from it. Tell your driver that you’d like to see a good view of the temple and he’ll know where to take you. 

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10 Reasons to Do the Ha Giang Motobike Loop

1. You can get from Hanoi to Ha Giang on an $8 overnight bus.

The bus leaves from My Dinh bus station in the morning and in the evening. The ride takes 8 hours, so opting for the sleeper bus is a good way to pass the time. However, they drop you off at 3 in the morning so you'll either have to stay awake until you can catch a local bus, or grab a cheap motel room if you can find one.

 

2. You can do the loop in 3 days and be back to Hanoi in no time.

The loop can be extended/shortened depending on how much time you have to complete it. The minimum time it should take is at least 3 days - 3 full days of riding. Our route was:

Day 1 - Ha Giang to Hung Ngai (near Dong Van) - this was our longest day.

Day 2 - Hung Ngai up to Lung Cu in the morning, then back-tracked down to Du Gia.

Day 3 - Du Gia to Ha Giang to finish the loop - some roads aren't safe depending on their seasonal conditions, so a longer route could potentially be better.

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3. Renting a bike only costs $10 per day from QT Motors!

QT is absolutely amazing. They have great prices and lots of options for motorbikes. The owner briefs all customers individually, explaining the hazards and challenges of doing a motorbike road trip. QT also provides a clear map of the area with updated route conditions, plus a list of recommended food and accommodation stops! 

QT also has an efficient roadside assistance team. My bike fell victim to a nail in the road only 20k into our trip, and they sent someone out immediately to change the tire. All included in the insurance! 

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4. The landscapes are breathtaking...

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5. You’ll drive through authentic Vietnamese villages.

The Ha Giang Loop continually rises and falls between mountain passes and river valleys. Sometimes you get to ride along a ridge-line or through a pine grove, but you can always rely on descending into a valley with gorgeous terraced fields and homely villages.

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Kids will scream and wave at you, hoping for a honk of your horn in return. Even along the mountain passes you'll see locals carrying crops in baskets, or a cheery cowherd herding his cows. 

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6. Staying in home stays is really, really fun!

Home stays are a much more intimate way to experience local life! They're owned by families who convert some of the rooms to house guests, with one big common room for everyone to hang out. Most home stays make family meals so everyone can eat together, so it's also a great way to try local food! 

Ma Le Homestay is 10 minutes north off the main loop towards Lung Cu, and it was the BEST experience ever! We didn't arrive until after dark, but our hosts rushed us in and filled us with home-cooked food and rice wine - granny drank me under the table. Plus, the guest room we stayed in had our own fire pit! Careful not to smoke out the whole house though...

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Du Gia Guest House (Du Gia Homestay) is another great place to stop for a night. Du Gia Guest House started as a local family hosting bikers on their way around the loop, but they became so popular that QT Motors helped fund a second location! Still run by the same family, but now there are two Du Gia Homestays. They're right on a beautiful river, and they have awesome backpacker vibes! A lot of people like to stay more than one night in Du Gia to explore the nearby areas if you're not rushing to get through the loop.

 

7. You can go to the northernmost town in Vietnam and look across China!

If you venture off the loop and head up to Lung Cu, there's a giant tower with the iconic red Vietnamese flag waving at China. There are a lot of stairs, but it's totally epic to stand in Vietnam looking into southern China.

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8. You can sneak into China… or just look at it extremely legally from Vietnam.

I'm not the one who told you, but there's a spot on the border that you can grab a China selfie. ..

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9. It's a great way to get the "Vietnam Motorcycle Experience."

A lot of travelers opt to travel the entire length of Vietnam on a motorcycle. For obvious reasons, this isn't everyone's choice. But if you're still itching for a taste of the biker life, spending a few days on the Ha Giang Loop will give it to you without having to commit to a cross-country road trip.

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10. You look like a total badass.

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The Best of Australia

A quick breakdown of our Aussie favorites:

Best Experiences to Do for Free

  • Pink Lake (Port Gregory, WA)

  • West Coast National Parks (Karijini, Katamutu)

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  • The Rocks Discovery Museum (Sydney, NSW)

  • Botanical Gardens (Sydney, NSW)

  • MONA Museum after 4pm (Hobart, TAS)

  • Walking around Fremantle (WA)

  • Shark Bay World Heritage Site - see the dolphins at Monkey Mia (WA)

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Best Experiences to Splurge On

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

  • Bay of Fires (TAS)

  • Wineglass Bay (TAS)

  • Russell Falls (TAS)

  • Rottnest Island - get that Quokka selfie (WA)

  • Fremantle waterfront esplanade (WA)

  • Pink Lake (Port Gregory, WA)

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  • The Pinnacles (Nambung National Park, WA)

  • Shell Beach (Shark Bay, WA)

  • Cable Beach (Broome, WA)

  • Lake Argyle infinity pool (Kununurra, NT)

  • Anywhere in the desert for sunrise (WA)

  • The entire Outback (NT)

  • Sydney Opera House (NSW)

  • Any mural in Byron Bay (NSW)

  • Great Sandy Dune National Park (Rainbow Beach, QLD)

  • Lake McKenzie (Fraser Island, QLD)

  • Whitehaven Beach (Whitsundays, QLD)

  • West Point for sunset (Magnetic Island, QLD)

  • Underwater on the GBR (Cairns, QLD)

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Best Cities to Hit

  • Hobart, TAS

  • Melbourne, NSW

  • Fremantle, WA

  • Exmouth, WA

  • Broome, WA

  • Darwin, WA

  • Sydney, NSW

  • Byron Bay, NSW

  • Noosa, QLD

  • Airlie Beach, QLD

  • Cairns, QLD

 

Best Restaurants & Bars

  • The Source at the MONA (Hobart, TAS)

  • Cascade Brewery (Hobart, TAS)

  • The Croft Institute (Melbourne, NSW)

  • The Swamp (Melbourne, NSW)

  • The Brass Monkey (Perth, WA)

  • Little Creatures Brewery (Fremantle, WA)

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  • Pot Shot (Exmouth, WA)

  • Wisdom Bar (Darwin, NT)

  • Monsoon’s (Darwin, NT)

  • Elixiba (Byron Bay, NSW)

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  • Legend Pizza (Byron Bay, NSW)

  • Woody’s (Byron Bay, NSW)

  • Malaya (Sydney, NSW)

  • Chin Chin (Sydney, NSW)

  • Doyle's on the Beach (Watson’s Bay, NSW)

  • Lumi (Sydney, NSW)

  • Chinese Laundry (Sydney, NSW)

  • The Jam Factory (Sydney, NSW)

  • The Rail Friendly Bar (Byron Bay, NSW)

  • The Bean Drop (Noosa Heads, QLD)

  • Lillipad Cafe (Cairns, QLD)

  • Rattle N Hum (Cairns, QLD)

 

Best Places to Stay on a Budget

  • The Nook Backpackers (Hobart, TAS)

  • The Art House (Launcester, TAS)

  • Bambu Backpackers (Perth, WA)

  • Linga Longa (Port Gregory, WA)

  • Pot Shot (Exmouth, WA)

  • Lake Argyle Resort and Holiday Park (WA)

  • YHA Darwin (NT)

  • Jump Inn Alice (Alice Springs, NT)

  • The Art Factory (Byron Bay, NSW)

  • Noosa Nomads (Noosa Heads, QLD)

  • BASE Magnetic Islands (QLD)

  • Gilligan’s (Cairns, QLD)

 

Best Things to Bring With You

  • AUX cord

  • Bluetooth speaker

  • Headlamps

  • A dry bag to keep your valuables dry and sand-free!!!!

  • Sleeping bag liner

  • A hat and sunnies

  • Multiple bathing suits

  • Two towels (one for salt and sand, one for suds and soap)

  • Ladies - hair oil… your hair will take a beating between the salt and the sun

  • Divers - your own mask and snorkel

  • LOTS of sunblock

  • maps.me for the West Coast drives

 

Things We Didn’t Get To, But Wish We Did

  • Cradle Mountain (TAS)

  • Great Ocean Road (NSW)

  • Adelaide, NSW

  • Cage diving with Great White Sharks (NSW)

  • Margaret River (WA)

  • Karijini National Park (WA)

  • Diving with whale sharks (Exmouth, WA)

  • Gold Coast (QLD)

  • Camping in the Whitsundays (QLD)

  • Daintree National Park (QLD)

 

Things to Remember in Australia

  • Drive on the left side of the road

  • Gas stations are few and far between

  • The heat is intense… like really fucking intense

  • HYRDRATE HYRDATRE HYDRATE

  • Humidity gets worse as you travel north

  • Australia is more expensive than you think

  • It’s a HUGE country. Give yourself more time than you think.

  • Marsupials are nocturnal, don’t look for them during the day and…

  • Drive slowly and carefully at night - you don’t want to kill anything

  • Wear close-toed shoes and bring a headlamp to the Outback

  • Bugspray.

  • Book everything on the east coast in advance

  • New Years in Sydney is very chaotic, plan accordingly

  • If you miss whale shark season in Exmouth, you’ll still make it for turtle mating season:)

  • Go to the outer parts of the GBR if you can!

  • You will make some really amazing friends, especially on tours! <3

Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

Highlighting the best routes for the ultimate roadside views.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry red hyundai would be home.

Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

After a quick two weeks in the North Island, we hopped on the Interislander Ferry in Wellington for the beautiful cruise to Picton. It’s a very enjoyable cruise, with lots of available snacks on board and lots of opportunities to see stunning landscapes and maybe even some wildlife - especially going through the Marlborough Sounds when you get closer to Picton. If you’re planning a double-island road trip, make sure you look into prices and timetables for the ferry! It’s always easier to book in advance, especially during the busier months.

Once we landed in Picton, we headed dead south to Blenheim for a weekend of well-deserved wine tasting. Next we darted over to Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of hiking and camping. After that, we zipped to Kaikoura for a day of whale-watching, and then up into Arthur's Pass for a night. Then we headed down to Tekapo for a night, and onwards to Wanaka for a few days. We ended up doubling back north to spend a night in Mount Cook National Park, and then looped south again to Queenstown. We spent the last week based out of Queenstown, venturing out to Glenorchy for a day, and to the Fiordlands a few times too.

 

Kaikoura

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Unfortunately, we drove this route at night and can’t provide any proof of the pretty views. BUT I’ve driven it before, and if you like winding through mountains and across river valleys, make sure to take SH 76 to Kaikoura. (Depending on when you visit, you might not have a choice… both main access roads to Kaikoura were heavily damaged in a recent earthquake…). Make sure to check road closings before you head out!

 

Arthur’s Pass

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Depending on whether or not you plan on going to the west coast, you can choose to go through Arthur’s Pass, or just into the village and back out. Both are great options, as there are plenty of viewpoints along the way. Just north of the main village, there’s a cool part of the road with a rock slide shelter and aqueduct that’s well worth a quick visit before leaving even if you’re not headed to the west coast!

 

Road to Wanaka

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Another beautiful pass through farmland and rolling hills. We went on a moody day, bringing out the exceptional rustic colors around us.

 

Road to Blue Pools (Haas Pass)

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Haast Pass is aa exceptional drive along the isthmus between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are plenty of lookouts to stretch your legs and snap a picture, or for the more adventurous, stop along the way for a day hike up to Isthmus Peak for even more incredible views. Continuing towards the west coast, you enter Mount Aspiring National Park with recreational pull-offs every few minutes. Plenty of things to do!

 

Road into Mount Cook National Park

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There’s only one way in, and one way out. The entire approach to the National Park will be one big tease of Mount Cook staring right at you, waiting for you.

 

Paradise Road

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The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy will put you in a trance, slowly meandering along the east side of long Lake Wakatipu. But, even better, if you continue north after Glenorchy you will find a secret backroad called Paradise

 

Queenstown to Fiordlands

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The first time we followed this road was on a big bus on our way to a Doubtful Sound Cruise. For the first part of the drive, you follow parallel to the Remarkables - which frankly, are quite Remarkable. Once you get into the Fiordlands, it’s all open spaces and distant peaks. Quite peaceful. 

 

Bonus road: Up to the Remarkables

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On the way back from hiking the Key Summit Track, just a few minutes outside of Queenstown, we found a very steep drive up to the Remarkables ski area. Do not do this drive in the winter. If the roads are clear, and you’re confident driving twisty, windy, switchbacks at high elevations - you will be rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Remarkables and greater Queenstown area. 

 

Interested in the North Island? Check out our other road trip post!