New Zealand – North Island

An endless array of outdoor activities and a laid back vibe. Our main mistake was only spending one week there and not being able to explore the south island as well! We went over the week of Thanksgiving, and lucked out with incredible weather. While the wine was excellent, we were not overly impressed with the food.  Tipping is not standard but if service was excellent, we were told that 5-10% was greatly appreciated.  Since we were planning to be both hikers and tourists, we packed one normal carry-on suitcase with our basic needs and then our camping backpacks with our hiking gear.  It was easy to check both bags and be able to leave the stuff we weren’t using in the trunk of our car. One other tip – don’t be fooled by the weather forecasts.  Despite the expected top temperatures being shown as around 70 degrees, when the sun comes out there…it is incredibly hot!  Pack light, breathable layers and lots of sunscreen. Below is our itinerary and a few of the trip highlights!

Type of Trip: Self Planned 

Day 1: AucklandArrive in Auckland, direct LAX-AKL on American Airlines.  We picked up our rental car at Hitch (fair priced and easy to pick up/return) and drove to our hotel.  Get ready for driving on the other side of the road!  We dropped our stuff at the B&B, where they greeted us with a complimentary glass of wine and coffee.  We spent the rest of the day exploring Auckland – stopping at the Wharf for lunch, visiting the bridge bungee jump (didn’t do it though), and popping in a random bar on our walk home.

Hotel: The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel – lovely accommodation with a fabulous breakfast in the morning! Totally recommend this spot.

Day 2: Raglan –  After a restful, jetlag catch-up sleep, we took our rental car and began the road trip down to Raglan.  Beware of tons of road construction with gravel roadways and large trucks.  Our first stop was the famed movie set “Hobbiton”, where the Lord of the Rings movies were shot (The Shire).  While pricey, this turned out to be really awesome!  Either make your reservation in advance (it gets slammed) or go first to the Matamata Visitor’s Center and book your tickets there at the same price.  We ended up doing that and the bus picked us up and dropped us back at the Visitor’s Center.  Before the tour, we stopped for lunch at Redoubt Bar & Eatery.  The waitstaff was friendly and accommodating and the food was the best choice that we found in the small town.

Hobbiton was seriously cool.  Such elaborate art design and the tours are spaced out well so you don’t feel overcrowded.  The tour takes you through the set and provides fun movie trivia along the way.  The tour ends with a complimentary drink at the Green Dragon (yes, the bar from the movie).

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The rolling hills of farmland along the way was gorgeous.  Lots of cows and sheep, which added to the ambiance.  When we finally arrived in Raglan, the vibe shifted to chilled out surf mode.  Our studio hotel room was perfect, and ideally located.  We had an extended dinner at Orca Restaurant…the service was dismal (they didn’t come to the table for 30 min and when we did order, they forgot about our order)…so that turned into a 3 hour dinner of sub par food, but we didn’t seem to mind with the view of the water and it being the start of our trip.

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Hotel: Bow Street Studios – Rachel quotes “this place is amazing to meditate in!”  Two story apartment with lots of space and serenity.  Very enjoyable.

Day 3: Turanji – We woke up early on our own and had a lazy morning, with breakfast at this great cafe called The Shack. Driving out of town, we detoured to the Bridal Veil waterfall. It was much bigger than expected and made for a nice, steep morning walk to stretch our legs during a long day of driving.

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We tried to stop at the Waitomo Glow Caves, however all the main tours were booked up for the day and it seemed a tourist sink hole.  There were people and tour buses everywhere and the cost of the tours were pretty hefty.  We opted to skip it on our trip, though other people have said it’s pretty cool.

We finished up the day by driving to Turanji, where we would be staying for the night before our big hike.  The town was a small trucker town, a bit run down.  We stopped at the local Tavern for bad cheese pizzas and some penny slots.  Rachel was the big winner, so that was decently exciting.

Hotel: Parklands Motor Lodge – simple, no-frills, inexpensive motel accommodation. Lots of truckers and few amenities.  The rooms were clean and it was nice to be able to order breakfast the night before and have it delivered at a certain time in the morning.  

Day 4: Northern Circuit The BEST part of our trip. We got up early this morning, had a big breakfast at the motel and finished packing our backpacks. Our carry on luggage went into the trunk and we began the half hour drive down to Whakapapa Village (our starting point for the Tongagiro Northern Circuit loop hike).

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***

Info on hut accommodations and our hiking route:

We had reserved our camping huts five months before our trip – which is highly recommended since the hike is highly sought after and the beds book up. Booking information and availability is HERE. The huts are awesome and well maintained.  Each has a Ranger that stays overnight and lays out important rules and information. The huts have varying numbers of bunkbeds, situated in a few rooms.  Privacy is limited, but the amenities are great for a camping spot.  There are gas stoves, bunks with bed pads, bathrooms (no showers) and heating/lights.  There isn’t a place to charge devices.  You should bring a sleeping bag, inside shoes (boots are not allowed), food and a pot to cook it in (along with dishware). The water is clean and can be consumed from the huts without treatment.

We opted to take the route counterclockwise, which is not the normal direction most hikers take.  I opted for this for a few reasons: less people, flatter first day (elevation wise), and hut availability.  Our original plan was to stop at two huts for the nights, the Oturere Hut and the Mangatepopo Hut. This plan would make our first day the longest (distance) at 23.5km, but our legs would be fresh.  The second day would have the most elevation/climb (~1900m, and 12km) and the last day would be a short out back to the Village (9.4km).  Our hike ended up going a little differently, as described below.

PACKING LIST

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Once in Whakapapa, we checked in at the Visitor’s Center and got our parking pass. We left our car in the designated lot and got on the trail about 9:30am.  It was easy going and gorgeous from the start.  We felt like we were all alone for many aspects of it.  Given that we had a long day ahead of us, we only made two specific stops.  The first was a side trip to the Tama Lakes (worth it).  We dropped our bags and trekked to the lake with just our water bottles, making the extra distance a little easier.  The second stop was for a late lunch at the old Waihohonu hut.  “This was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park (1904) and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It was the base for the first recreational skiing in New Zealand. It was in active use for over 60 years and remains standing on its original site. The hut was registered as a category one historic place by the Historic Places Trust in 1993.” Pretty cool stuff! You cannot camp there but it’s neat to check out. We also made a brief stop at the new Waihohonu Hut to check out the amenities and use the bathroom.  This hut was by far the newest and nicest!

Convincing ourselves to keep going after that first 5.5 hours was tough, but we pushed on to try and make it to our hut with a few hours of daylight left. The scenery begins to darken and become more volcanic.  Really cool…especially when you realize that you are hiking through Mordor (Lord of the Rings) and circling Mt. Doom! Absolutely stunning and we barely ran into anyone along this stretch.  Arriving at our campsite around 6pm, we immediately began an evening of easy dinner and endless gin rummy games.  I think we were hard asleep by 9pm!

Recommended items to bring: sleeping aid and ear plugs!  There are other campers at the hut with you, going to sleep/waking up at very different times.

Food we brought for the trip:

  • Snacks: Clif bars, individual peanut butter packets, gushers/fruit snacks
  • Breakfast: Oatmeal, instant coffee/tea
  • Lunch: Tuna packages (with little mayo packets collected from fast food restaurants beforehand) and mixed nuts
  • Dinner: Easy mac, instant mashed potatoes, hot chocolate

Hotel: Oturere Hut – best camping accommodation I have stayed in! Obviously, it’s a no-frills scenario but it was super nice to not have to lug thermarests, extra layers, stoves, etc.  They have a campsite there that you can book for less money, but we found the hut to be totally worth it…and warm! Our main complaint was that the hut was shared among many people so sometimes you had to wait to use the stove and sleep still was difficult, given all the different sleep/wake-up patterns.  

Day 5: Northern Circuit We were woken up at 5am, when another guy in our bunk room decided to hit the trail at sunrise and needed to pack his stuff up.  Once up, we just decided to get a move on as well. I don’t do well on limited sleep and our legs/hips were sore, so we made an executive decision to skip our second hut reservation and push through for another long distance day.

The first few hours were a gradual uphill climb with a few beastly ups that kicked our butts. The scenery was stunning though, as we were now totally immersed in the volcanic land.

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We came across the first of the Emerald Lakes and took a lunch break before ascending the steepest climb of the circuit.  These is also where the one-day “Alpine Crossing” intersects the main circuit.  Hence, people of varying hiking experience levels were everywhere! It was a bit chaotic and frustrating to navigate the traffic, but it definitely solidified our decision to NOT simply do the Alpine Crossing and instead hike the full loop. Since we hiked counterclockwise, we were forced to climb the uphill in volcanic ash…which gives a bit with every step (like walking in sand).  That was challenging but I preferred that to the opposite, where there were serious lines/waits to climb up the rocks. The view from the top was perfect, below shows “Mt. Doom” in the backdrop.

Once we came down the other side, we stopped at the Mangatepopo Hut to check it out and have a bite (it was around 1:30pm). This too was a nice set-up, perhaps a little cleaner than the hut we overnighted in.

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The final hike out was deceiving.  We noted that the signs said 3.5-5.5 hours, depending on weather conditions.  We quickly realized why that was – most of the final few miles is an uneven and not-maintained trail. There are challenging rocky areas and trenches dug in, making it difficult with boots and a pack.  We commented that if it had been raining, we would have been screwed.

We finished the 26 mile loop at around 5pm that afternoon, back in Whakapapa Village.  After picking up our car, we made the hour drive up to Taupo, where we reserved a last-minute hotel room.  Embarrassingly enough, as true Americans, we stopped at Burger King for a much needed fatty, delicious burger and fries. The hotel was perfect, with an excellent (well-needed) hot tub and free LAUNDRY!  We threw our entire backpacks into the washer and were good to go. The hotel owners were really sweet and had excellent restaurant recommendations.

Hotel: Gables Lakefront Hotel – highly rated on TripAdvisor and worth the reviews.  The rooms were very clean and substantial, with comfortable beds.  Most rooms have private hot tubs, though those were booked up.  So we settled for the communal hot tub, which we had to ourselves anyways!  The rooms have home-made cookies and all the coffee, tea, etc you could ask for. It was also right on the shore of Lake Taupo, so this made for a beautiful sunset view. The laundry was an excellent addition.

Day 6: Taupo & Rotorua Our trip was beginning to wind down and we were exhausted from the hike, with sore legs and bruised hips/collarbones.  Hence, this day was more of a relaxing endeavor.  We stopped by a few of the tourist attractions on the way out of Taupo, including the Craters of the Moon geothermal area.  This was actually pretty cool ($8/person) and provided a nice excuse for a short walk around the grounds.  There are meteor craters, geothermal hot springs steaming, and lots of cool colors in the landscape.

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We decided to relax the rest of the day and drove up to Rotorua.  We booked 3-hour massage treatments at our hotel (yes, this was overindulging for sure).  They have an in-house spa and it was fabulous.  One hour massage, followed by a honey scrub/mud wrap and then a facial to end it.  Our bodies felt totally rejuvenated afterwards! We ordered great pizzas from Pizza Imperfetto in town and were in bed by 9pm. Perfection.

Hotel: Silver Fern – lovely accommodation with private hot tubs in the room and an in-house spa with reasonably priced treatments.  The hosts are lovely people! Short walk into town. Highly recommended.

Day 7: Rotorua It was nice to stay in the same hotel for two nights in a row. We spent this last free day completely chilling out.  We took private hot tubs sessions in our room, and ventured out to the Redwoods Forest and walked along the treetops.  That was cool and an educational experience.

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Hotel: Silver Fern 

Day 8: Back to AKL The roadtrip back to the airport!  Car return was easy, as was airport check in.  The American Airlines lounge was a nice stopping point in the airport, where we enjoyed our final class of local Sauvignon Blanc.

Next on the list…the south island!

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Oxford, England

I’ve taken 5+ trips to Oxford this past year for work, and each time a little more charm rubs off on me.  I adore this scholarly college town, and the history that comes along with it.  If you are planning a vacation to London, and want to include the countryside, I highly recommend including Oxford in the itinerary.  I always think of Oxford fondly as the place which inspires me to sit by the fire at one of the small pubs, write my life’s masterpiece manuscript, and then throw it in the fire and walk away smiling.  There is so much academic inspiration in this small town, I simply adore it.  Below are a few of my highlights.

HOTELS: I’ve stayed in a bunch of different hotels in Oxford, each one with its own benefits.  I booked through hotels.com so as to receive rewards.

  • Malmaison – Really cool ambiance.  Old prison turned into a hotel.  I have stayed in the main building (“cell” rooms) and the detached building.  I prefer the main
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    Malmaison Entrance

    building as the rooms are larger and layout is better.  The hotel is a short walk from the main drag in town, but everything is walkable.

  • Old Bank Hotel – LOVE this hotel.  Great room setup and excellent location.  It was hard to get to driving myself (I am not familiar with high street traffic regulations).  The restaurant in the hotel was a nice surprise and I enjoyed the free walking tour that the hotel was able to set up for me (tip your guide!).
  • Old Parsonage Hotel – beautiful, high end hotel.  It has an intimate charm to it and is close to most of the campus and some historic bars.  A must visit, even if you don’t stay there.
  • Macdonald Randolph Hotel – I loved the bathtub in my room.    Afternoon tea is wonderful and the hotel has a vintage feel that is welcoming.
  • Vanbrugh House Hotel – My first room was too noisy due to a campus event, but the hotel moved me without an issue.  The reception desk was very friendly and accommodating.  Good location and less expensive than the others.img_4729

RESTAURANTS: Most of my meals were on the run there, but here are a few spots that stood out to me:

  • Turl Street Kitchen – wonderful farm to kitchen food.  Everything is seasonal and the menu is changed constantly.  Warm atmosphere and in the heart of campus.
  • The White Rabbit – great pizza and bar scene.  Lots of college kids having beers and pizza.  I ordered for takeout and was happily surprised by the pizza.
  • Isis Farmhouse – lovely outdoor seating along the Isis River (River Thames).  You have to walk down the river path a bit to get there, and their hours can be funny (check online first), but worth the adventure.

BARS: A good drink is always appreciated.

  • Eagle & Child – a cozy, quaint pub, deeply rooted in Oxford’s history. This rustic little pub dates back to the 17th century. It is best known as the meeting place of the Inklings, a literary group including J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who would regularly meet in the Rabbit Room at the back of the pub to discuss their own and other works of literature.
  • Turf Tavern – tricky to find (down a narrow winding alleyway) but another fun spot to have a drink and some fish & chips. The pub has a long list of famous patrons, from the fictional, (Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse), to the real, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Bill Clinton.
  • The Head of the River – excellent place for a casual meal and pint on a sunny day.  They have an outdoor beer garden facing the Thames River.
  • The Bear Inn – simply cool place to have a beer.  The ceilings are low in Oxford’s oldest surviving pub, whose history can be traced back as early as 1242. It’s in a dark
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    The Bear Inn

    corner along some side streets. The spot is also known for its bizarrely large collection of old ties, representing sports teams, colleges and university clubs, etc.  Their Sunday roast is awesome too.

  • Old Bookbinders Ale House – Another traditional pub – cozy yet quirky, full of character.  Located in Oxford’s trendy Jericho area, the food is french-inspired and quite tasty.
  • The White Horse – GREAT English pub food.  The bar is full of nooks and crannies and the menu is very reasonably priced.  Yet another must-visit!

ACTIVITIES/SIDE TRIPS: Just a few fun things to do around campus and in the neighboring towns.

  • Christ Church Cathedral Choir Sing – a must.  The music is heavenly and completely captivating.  oxford
  • Old Bank Walking Tour (contact the hotel for details and signup).  There are a number of other free walking tours there as well – just google.
  • Harry Potter walking tour, if that’s your thing.  Here’s one: TOUR
  • Tours of other film locations (you can explore any of these on your own too). LOCATIONS
  • Drive to Bath.  This town is adorable to explore for a day and there are roman baths to enjoy.
  • Stonehenge – because you sort of have to if there.

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    Stonehenge

 

Kyoto, Japan

Continuing on from my TokyoHakone posts…Day 6 marked our arrival in Kyoto, Japan.  Kyoto, the old capital, is full of religious sites and quaint neighborhoods.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part III: Kyoto (4 days, after Tokyo and Hakone)

Hotel: Guesthouse Sanjyotakakura Hibiki – very simple guest house in an AWESOME location (prepay via paypal), booked through Booking.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Odawara to Kyoto on Shinkansen Bullet Train), then taxi to guesthouse

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Kyoto in mid-afternoon.  Our hotel was simple but the location was fabulous.  Lots of little bakeries, coffee shops and boutiques.  I tend to prefer spending less on hotels during vacations, as we are never in them.  Location is preferable for me.
    • Samurai show and class!  Based on one of my client’s recommendations, we signed up for a show and full-costume lesson at the Kembu Theater.  Worth every penny.  The show was entertaining and showed us a glimpse into traditional samurai culture.  Afterwards, we got to pick our “costume” and learn a simple routine to perform.  The teachers were patient and funny – they took pictures and video with our phones.  Seriously so fun.img_7742
  2. DAY 2: Tour eastern Kyoto by foot – the best way to explore.  The trains are not as accessible, compared to Tokyo, so we ended up taking cabs a lot.
    • Fushimi inari taisha: the famous red gateway of the Shinto (God of rice) shrine.  The torii gates are a beautiful work of art, though I am terrible with crowds and this one was slammed with people.  That made the whole experience rather
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      Torii Gates at the Shinto Shrine

      claustrophobic for me.  My recommendation is to GO EARLY (we went around 11am).  Another observation, the area surrounding these sites offer tons of kimono-rental shops…so you see hundreds of foreigners dressed in traditional kimono dress.

    • Kiyomizu-dera Temple: the views of Kyoto are excellent from this spot (as it is at a higher elevation).  Too many people for my taste though.  Pick your arrival time wisely.
    • Shopping: in this whole area (Higashiyama), there are lots of cute shops selling tea sets, pottery, etc.  We spent a few hours exploring this part of “old Kyoto”.
    • Gion: the Geisha District.  I LOVED this neighborhood.  Lots of wood-paneled facades on the private tea houses, lanterns dimly lit in the evenings, excellent restaurants.  Walk down Shijo Avenue and then alongside the canal that runs parallel.  Go around dusk (6pm-ish) for the best chance to see a Geisha heading into one of her appointments.  We were lucky enough to see one in a taxi!
    • Though we didn’t go out after dinner, we did have a local bartender tell us that Pontecho Street is an excellent place for food and Kiyamachi Street for drinks.
  3. DAY 3: Continued exploring the sites in Western Kyoto.
    • Ryoanji Temple & Zen Gardens: This was a highlight of the trip.  We woke up early so as to arrive to the gardens by 8am, when it opens (we took a taxi).  fullsizerender-3It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  Super peaceful and a great place to meditate and reflect.  The landscaping is something to be admired as well!
    • Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion): you can walk here from the gardens above.  Still a great idea to get there early – we arrived around 10:30am and there were tons of school tours.  Still enjoyable with the crowds though.  The pavilion is stunning, especially reflecting on the pond.  We stopped at the tea house here, paid 500 YEN to enjoy traditional matcha tea and a small cake.  fullsizerender-1
    • Arashiyama: the bamboo forest.  This place was super cool and a free tourist activity.  The overhead bamboo made you feel like you were walking through a fairy land.  It was crazy crowded by the time we got there though
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      Bamboo Forest

      (so a lot of sudden stopping when people decided to take a photo).  If you have an additional day, I would suggest doing this first thing that morning.

    • Togetsukyo Bridge: Walk over from the bamboo forest and check this out.  Magnificent views of the mountains and river.
    • Shiatsu massage: we needed massages after all the walking over the past week so we opted for a traditional massage, walking distance from our hotel.  We found this gem: Hiyoshido.  The women at the front were welcoming and the massage was fabulous – 90 minutes for 7,500 YEN (around $70 USD).  We were able to get the massages in the same room, as you wear traditional Japanese pajamas.  Totally worth it – we thought about gong back the next day for the 3 hour option!
    • Dinner: We were hoping to get a traditional kaiseki dinner (belated Thanksgiving celebration) but had trouble finding a restaurant that could accommodate us on the spot on a Friday evening.  We realized that this is because most of the restaurants are very small (sometimes just a bar) and the meal can take a few hours.  I suggest making a reservation in advance (this was the place we wanted to try but needed a reso: KARYO)  We ended up finding a place in Gion, and ordering the expensive chef’s selection.  I didn’t particularly care for the majority of the dishes, but we did try everything (including snails).  They brought out a sushi platter as one point with a lobster head on the plate.  It was still moving, which totally freaked us out.  Totally bizarre experience, but one that I was glad we tried. fullsizerender-4
  4. DAY 4: Depart back to airport
    • Our flight wasn’t until the evening, out of Tokyo…so we spent the morning walking and shopping in our neighborhood.  We bought silk kimono robes that I am pretty sure I live in 24/7 now.
    • Our reserved bullet train from Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station left around noon.  Easy commute to Tokyo Station with views of Mt. Fuji along the way (~2.5 hours).  Once at Tokyo Station, take the local train (5 or 6) to Hamamatsucho, then catch the Haneda Airport train (<1 hour).  The JP Railpass covers these trains too.

That’s it for our trip!  We departed on a morning flight on 11/17 and departed on an evening flight on 11/26.  It was the perfect amount of time to see everything we were hoping.

じゃあね (See ya, Japan!)

Hakone, Japan

Continuing on from my Tokyo post…Day 3 marked our arrival in Hakone, Japan.  Hakone is famous for its relaxing onsen (Japanese hotsprings) and close proximity to the sacred Mt. Fuji.  We needed some downtime after all the commuting and chaos of urban Tokyo.  Hakone proved to be the exact oasis we were hoping for.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part II: Hakone (2 days, after Tokyo)

Hotel: Mount View Hakone – ryokan with private onsen (cash only), booked through Hotels.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Tokyo Station to Odawara on Shinkansen Bullet Train)

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Hakone in mid-afternoon
    • Commute: First, we took the bullet train from Tokyo Station using our JR Railpass.  We got off at the Odawara stop (~45 min).  From there, exit the station to the bus stop (on the East side).  Take the Tozan Bus Route (“T”) to the “Sengokuhara-bunka-center-mae” stop (~1 hour).  It cost us around $10 USD. The buses are easy to navigate and the stops are shown in English in the front. If you are going to Hakone for 2-3 days total…I highly recommend getting the Hakone FreePass at the Odawara station.  This would cover that part of your transit (bus) and you will use it again for the tour loop.  
    • Ryokan – we reserved a Superior Twin room with a Tatami area (make sure to order the breakfast and dinner for at least one night – the “half board” option!).  The room was gorgeous and simple.  A separate big-claw bath in the room and traditional Japanese sleeping arrangements.  When you check in, they provide you with traditional Yukata (a casual kimono) to wear during your stay.  When you get the “half-board”, you also get one free private bath session for your room (45 min, great for couples).  Most go nude in the onsen…the water was SO hot, but completely relaxing!  The hotel also has a public onsen for women only, men only and coed.  You do not need a reservation for these and you can choose to go nude or with a swim suit.  This was exactly what we needed after all the walking around Tokyo!

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      Private onsen at ryokan

    • After enjoying our private bath session, we got ready for our traditional kaiseki dinner in the hotel.  I was not expecting how awesome it was!  There were about 15 plates set up in front of each of our chairs, in a private dining room.  You serve yourself, order sake as you please, and enjoy a traditional kaiseki meal.  TRY EVERYTHING! fullsizerender-3
  2. DAY 2: Hakone Loop Tour – in search of Mt. Fuji.  Pick a clear day so you can see it!  We woke up to the earthquake in Fukushima, thankfully it didn’t result in the tsunami that was anticipated!
    • Breakfast, like dinner, was epic.  Another billion courses…including a crab claw miso soup that was boiled in front of us.  So awesome and flavors I had never tried before!
    • We purchased the Hakone Freepass (mentioned above) at a local stop near our ryokan.  We bought the 2-day for 4,000 YEN.  It covers all of your day’s transportation and comes with a comprehensive bus map that is easy to follow. fullsizerender-5From there, we hopped on the bus to Gora (where the loop begins).  LOOP
    • We loved the loop adventure…four modes of transportation in one day (bus, cable car, ropeway, and boat).  The first epic views of Mount Fuji arrived on the ropeway.  You are inside a gondola…try to sit on the right side of the car (right side if you are facing uphill).
    • We ate black hardboiled eggs in Owakudani (where the ropeway drops you off).  This volcanic site was interesting but we didn’t find it appealing to stay long.  img_7691
    • Pirate ship across Lake Ashi to end the loop – sit on the top level.  It gets crowded but the views aren’t anything new.  fullsizerender-4We found it a great time to chill out, instead of fighting the crowds of tourists with cameras. 🙂  The Fall foliage is simply gorgeous.
    • The bus took us back to the ryokan and we had a late lunch at the Petite Prince (french restaurant).  We were craving some bread after days of fish and Japanese fare.
  3. DAY 3: Depart Hakone…on to Kyoto!

Tokyo, Japan

Japan…what a fascinating culture and country.  We spent nine amazing days exploring in November 2016, during the gorgeous Fall colors.  One overlying observation…I was surprised how many of the venues (hotels, restaurants, etc) were cash only.  So be prepared!  I will break this blog into three separate entries to cover the cities we visited.  Below are a few of my highlights:

Type of Trip: Self planned…9 day itinerary including Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto

Hotel: Citadines Shinjuku – booked through Hotels.com

Transport: American Airlines non-stop LAX-HND, then JR Railpass

Pre-trip Advice: Download the following Apps on your phone: maps.me (maps downloaded to your phone to use without cell data plan), currency xe (current exchange rates), HYPERDIA (train routes and planning), and Travel Japan (free wifi in many areas).  Use ATMs in Tokyo to pull out money (you get the best exchange rates and there are 7-11 ATMs everywhere).

  1. We took a 12 hour non-stop flight from LAX to Haneda Airport (recommended – much closer to the City compared to Narita Airport), and landed in the evening. We took a taxi to our hotel in Shinjuku, which cost us around $50 USD.  The Tokyo Monorail picks up in the Haneda Airport and takes you just about anywhere in Tokyo and is very easy to use…we were just exhausted and wanted to get to the hotel. We crashed early to get ourselves ready for the next few days.  Our hotel was similar to a small, efficient apartment with a little kitchen.  The location was excellent too, for exploring the various neighborhoods on foot!  I debated between Shibuya and Shinjuku and found that I preferred Shinjuku – seemed a more 30yr+ crowd and less chaotic.
  2. DAY 1: Due to jetlag – wake up at the crack of dawn and attempt the Tsukiji Market.  You will need to get there SUPER early (some say 3am, depending on the time of year) in order to get a vest to witness the world famous tuna auction (free).  They only give out 120 vests each day…it will be over in the early morning, when you can eat some of the freshest sushi ever for breakfast. 🙂 AUCTION DETAILS.  We then spent Saturday walking around the city.  It was a rainy day, which actually turned out to be a blessing as the streets were empty and we were fortunate to experience some of the sites with few to no tourists (rarity in Japan).
    • Shinjuku neighborhood – largest train station, entertainment center (bright night lights)
    • Stumbled upon the AWESOME ramen chain: Ichiran  img_7434You order at a vending machine (cash) and take the ticket into a little bar area.  You leave the ticket on a dish and they bring you your order.  Each seat at the bar is closed off to the others, so you can eat semi-privately, if desired.  We saw many solo Japanese business people come in for lunch. Theoretically, you could go there and never have to speak to anyone the whole time…wait staff included!
    • Gyoen Park (Shinjuku) – there is a small entrance fee to this magnificent park and gardens.  Again, we had bad weather so it was empty…which made it a little more magical.

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      Gyoen Park in the Fall

    • Shibuya Crossing & Takakini Street (Shibuya) – crazy amount of people.
      Largest intersection crossing in the world and a must see!  Takakini Street was slammed with people but made for epic people and fashion watching (shops line the street).
    • Dinner at one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever tried.
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      Sushi Chef and our dinner

      The quality is on par with those of the elite restaurants written up in our Foodie magazines and documentaries…  It was definitely still expensive (cash only, around $100USD/person), but totally worth it for the experience. You must make a reservation if more than two people. The owner is the only sushi chef there, and the restaurant only accommodates 10 people at a bar.  He is super friendly and welcoming, along with his wife who called herself the “mega boss”.  It was awesome.  HIGHLY recommended.  SUSHIRYORI INOSE

  3. DAY 2: This was another day to continue our walking adventure…and happened to be a Sunday.  We were pleased to find out how accessible Tokyo is by train too!  There are English translations on the ticket machines, as well as on the trains.  Google Maps and maps.me helped us navigate a lot!
    • JR Railpass Activation – we purchased the 7 day railpass, so we needed to be conscious of when we activated it.  We chose Sunday so that it would be able to cover our trips to Hakone, Kyoto, and back to Tokyo (Haneda airport).  You must purchase the rail pass well before your departure date (order from the US).  There are many sites selling them, I found these guys to be the most affordable and the order process was easy: RAILPASS .  Bring the vouchers they send to Japan with your passport to any one of the local EXCHANGE OFFICES to activate it.  You can activate it to start on a future date (if you want to go to the exchange office a few days prior to your first use day).  Using it is easy – the information centers have English-speaking staff.  I would highly recommend pre-reserving seats on the trains (it’s free)…if you know your travel dates and destinations in advance.  For instance, when we activated our passes, we also reserved tickets for the bullet trains to 1) Tokyo – Hakone, 2) Hakone – Kyoto, and 3) Kyoto – Tokyo.  The clerk gave us a print out of all the train options for each day for the routes we wanted.  It was nice to have this out of the way and know that we had seats.  It also gave us a more concrete schedule to plan around.
    • Meiji Shrine – there must have been a wedding or ceremony as most of the women were in formal kimonos, along with their daughters.  It was beautiful to watch and experience this traditional dress.
    • Yoyogi Park – Shibuya.  HUGE open park…similar to Central Park in NYC but felt more active.  Families everyone, playing frisbee and picnicking.  There was also an Elvis-impersonation sock hop dance situation happening near one of the entrances.  They sell grapefruit beers at the beverage tubs as well.  Really entertaining.
    • Robot Show – a must do, and an equally indescribable experience.  We did it as a dinner and show option.  I found discounted tickets through Veltra.com (around $60USD/each).  Book early to ensure availability.  ROBOT SHOW

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      Robot Restaurant – Waiting Room

  4. DAY 3: Last day in Tokyo.  Get up early to explore more before checking out of hotel at noon to head to the next city.
    • Tsukiji Market – sushi for breakfast and $20 strawberries!  Yes, $20 is ridiculous for strawberries…but they were the best we have ever tasted.  Not kidding.img_7626
    • Train to Tokyo Station – Shinjuku stop to Tokyo station for 200 YEN…from there we caught the JR bullet train (Shinkansen Line) to head to Hakone (off the Odawara stop).
    • Arrive in Hakone (known for its traditional onsen (mineral hot springs/baths)…see my next post for details on Hakone.

 

 

Iceland

Visiting Iceland was an experience unlike any other for me.  I cannot say enough about this incredible country. The natural beauty and vastly different landscapes as you drive through is astounding.  It’s the only place that I have been in the world where we would drive for a half hour and not see another person, car, animal, house…anything.  Just remote countryside.  Below are a few of my highlights:

Type of Trip: Groupon Getaway (yes, I actually tried this!)

Hotel: Best Western, Reykjavik 

Transport: Iceland Air (via a fun weekend layover in NYC), and car rental through Budget (via Kayak)

  1. We took a redeye flight from NYC to Keflavík, thus landing super early in the morning.  Since the famous Blue Lagoon is only a half hour drive from the airport, and on our way to Reykjavik, we decided toIMG_7648 stop there forst for the experience.  This turned out to be a brilliant choice as we were some of the first ones in (it gets crowded).  Freezing air, and warm sulfur baths with mud masks.  Absolute heaven and well worth the price tag.

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2. We headed north to check into our hotel.  Pretty basic accommodations, but worked well for the two of us, plus breakfast was included every day.  It was October, so the daylight hour were relatively short and the temperatures pretty cold (frost in the morning, definitely ski coat weather for us).  However, it was sunny every afternoon.  We photo 3spent a day exploring town and had a brilliant time at a local (though touristy) English pub – http://www.enskibarinn.is/en/ .  Lots of travelers during the week and locals on the weekends.  The bar/club scene picks up tremendously over the weekend (it goes all night), when the locals come out.  We also had trendy, wonderful (though expensive) dinners at the following:

Fiskmarkadurinn (Fish Market) – the mussels were a favorite.

Grillmarkadurinn 

3.  We spent the remainder of our time waking up early and simply driving to explore.  The first day, we drove the famous Golden Circle Route, stopping at the Gullfoss Falls, Þingvallavatn, and Strokkur (Geysir).  The next day, we drove the southern portion of the Ring Route (circling the entire country perimeter).  This was my favorite as we stopped at various waterfalls (Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss), IMG_7751glaciers, lava fields, etc.  When I make my return to Iceland, I am certainly going to plan for a full week of driving the Ring route, and staying at the various B&Bs along the way.  Another day, we drove north to some of the coastal towns.

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4.  The Northern Lights – a must!  It was FREEZING outside in the middle of the night, but we did get to see some of the lights.  Very cool when we did see them, but the cold was a bit much for us to handle.  Learn how to take night photos (no flash) before going – you only get a few moments to capture it!

5.  Our final day, we drove back to the airport, stopping at some of the sulfur springs/lavIMG_7916a fields in the south.  This adventure was an expected joy, as it was essentially void of people.  It seemed that we had the whole world to ourselves, and the landscape looked what I imagine Mars to look like.  Simply cool.

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Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang (and Laos, in general) is an absolutely fantastic destination and I highly encourage everyone to try and make it there…I only expected to stay a night or two and ended up staying almost a week!  As I write this, I am stuck in Hong Kong, trying to fly home.  So here goes…my top five highlights from Laos:

Type of Trip: Self-planned

Hotel: Villa Laodeum (HIGHLY recommended and was only $35/nt…the owners were so accommodating and with me as a single female traveler, they made sure that I made it home each night before closing up) – http://www.villalaodeum.com/

Transport: Lao Airlines from Hanoi, Vietnam (HAN – LPQ); 1 hour flight

1.  The local people of Laos and the lovely, quaint Luang Prabang

I know I raved about Cambodia and the friendliness of the people, but I was blown away by Laos.  Everyone is genuinely warm and welcoming, always greeting you with huge smiles and the friendly “Sabaidee!” (Laotian general greeting similar to Aloha).  It rolls off the tongue quite nicely, and as everyone is so encouraging, I found it easy to pick up bits of their language.  I spent most of my mornings In Luang Prabang at a local non-for-profit “Big Brother Mouse”, tutoring and reading with young Laos kids to help them improve their English.  I worked with a teenage boy, named Thong, on three separate days, and it was wonderful to watch his improvement as he read and had me help him with pronunciation and definitions.  Most of the kids in the program are behind their classmates in English, but they are trying extremely hard to catch up.  Often, I would be exploring the city alone and a local resident or novice monk would strike up a conversation.  They seemed to particularly enjoy practicing their  English with you and helping to immerse you in their culture. Laotians are very traditional people, but they do not make you feel as an outsider when your customs are different.  It was easy to fall into their way of life though – conservative dress, shoes off in homes and restaurants, starting the day early and similarly, ending it early (generally everything shuts down at 11pm), sincere spirituality, etc.  Also, no haggling at the markets, the shopkeepers are honest and asked for fair and reasonable prices, with slight bargaining generally accepted.
Luang Prabang, now a UNESCO World Heritage city, is a wonderful blend of traditional Lao wooden houses as well as those infused with European influences – particularly french, as Laos used to be a part of the French colony Indochine.  The city is very clean and the many golden temples shining down on the roadways create an unspoken spirit in the town, you cannot help but to fall in love with its serenity and charm.  The Mekong River meanders gently through the city, and allows for some fantastic sightseeing boat-trips.  There are lots of french bakeries scattered throughout the town, and the food is exceptional. There were quite a few tourists, but more so than in the other cities I visited – a smorgasbord of languages being spoken on the streets. The town tended to draw a lot of older couples for a romantic getaway as well as young hippie/bohemian backpackers, looking for some R&R. One unfortunate occurrence that happened while I was visiting – there was a noticeable and irritating layer of smoke hovering in the air on the last day I was in town. Illegal deforestation by fires is becoming a huge issue in Laos, and as a resuIMG_0708lt, the air quality is sub par and the gorgeous forests are disappearing.

2.  The temples and the monks

It seems as though you cannot walk a block in Luang Prabang without running into a temple of some sort, ornately decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha.  The temples are rather modern, in terms of when they were built (1800/1900s), but the religious history runs deep.  The temples (wats) are immaculately tidy and peaceful, with young men training to be monks roaming the grounds.  They spend their day in classes, studying language and Buddhism, as well as working on meditation, art and maintaining the temples.  I spent some considerable time speaking with one such novice monk, and found IMG_0733how far he had come to Luang Prabang to study, leaving his family far behind and knows not when he will see them next.  It is a honor and privilege to be training and these young men carry themselves so maturely (even though some seem as young as 8!).  Every morning, the monks from the various temples walk a specific route around the city and collect “alms” from the locals, who bow on mats on the sidewalks and offer sticky rice and other food gifts to the monks. I participated one morning and found it to be a nice start to the day.  After you give alms, you sit and meditate/pray until all the monks have passed.  It becomes a nice time to reflect.

3.  The waterfalls

There is a gorgeous, cascading waterfall about 30km outsidIMG_0792e of the city, called Kuang Si.  I spent an afternoon there, taking pictures of the local flora (learning to navigate my new camera like a nerd) and swimming in the clear, aqua pools at the various stages of the waterfall.  There were quite a few tourists, but it became a fun time to meet new people and challenge one another to a rope swing contest over the falls.  Never one to back down to a challenge, I had a lovely red mark on my back following a failed flip.  Nice move on my part.

4.  Elephant riding and bathing

In a word, amazing!  Spent one day learning to ride elephants bareback and bathe them in the river.  Incredible, to say in the least!  The animals are so powerful and I must admit, I feared constantly that I was going to be thrown forward as we descended the steep mountain to head into the river.  IMG_0901However, my wise elephant (61 and blind -which they informed me of afterwards, thank goodness) took great care of me and thoroughly enjoyed the bath.  She was spraying me with water from her trunk and submerging her head under for minutes at a time.  She especially liked it when we scrubbed her ears with the thick bristle brush.  It was awesome, though I think I had to bathe for days to get the smell of elephant off of me.

5.  Motorboating with helmets and cruising around the city on a motorbike

Another day, I took a speed boat trip down the Mekong…boating policy that, due to the speed of the boat, helmets were required.  Enough said.  After that, I rented a motorcycle for the day and explored some of the outer parts of the city and visited some neighboring towns, stopping to enjoy a fresh mango shake and play some pick-up soccer with the local kids.  Cruising around on a motorcycle was turning out to be the best idea in a while, until my bike broke down on a side street.  I immediately had a plethora of young girls running to my assistance, and then having me buy things from them afterwards.  I am now the proud owner of about 8 plastic/faded Buddha bead bracelets…but it was worth it to get my bike started again.  I continued to explore, without ever turning the bike off again (including when I returned it to the shop).  I have to admit, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to get used to the ebb and flow of traffic and try to adapt to the seemingly non-existent traffic rules.

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The trip was a great one, indeed!  I wrapped up my adventures in Bangkok and realized the truth behind the statement – “one night in Bangkok, and the world’s your oyster”.