New Zealand is chock-full of gorgeous scenery and with its epic array of road trip possibilities, the lesser known routes are often overlooked in favour of heading straight down the highway to the main attractions. But the winding back roads of this spectacular country are often as amazing as the destination, after all, you don’t want to miss out on quirky roadside stops like a giant bottle of L&P, the world’s most famous public toilets, or the land of teapots now would you?
The Coromandel Peninsular, to the west of Auckland and just north of the Bay of Plenty, is just out of the way enough to often be skipped in favour of heading further north to Cape Reinga or shooting south towards everything else. And although the quaint, quiet town of Coromandel is not particularly exciting, this trip is more about the journey than the destination. Here are 5 things not to miss on your Coromandel road trip!
1. An unusual roadside attraction
When heading along the scenic route towards the Peninsula, you can take a slight detour to visit possibly the strangest roadside attraction around: a public toilet. After reassuring our passengers, a couple of nervous, Spanish hitchhikers in the back seat, that these are in fact the most famous roadside toilets in New Zealand, we decide to take a look. The toilets, based in the sleepy little town of Kawakawa, were designed by the quirky Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and feature a colourful array of tiles, topsy-turvy walls and a tree bursting through the roof. Based on the sheer number of coaches parked outside, and the hoards of tourists stopping for selfies, these must be the most photographed toilets in the world. Which is fine, unless you’re desperate for a wee and the queue is a mile long!
2. Hot Water Beach
Arguably, Coromandel’s most well known attraction is a beach, of which New Zealand has hundreds. But Hot Water Beach is unique. Every day, as the tide changes, tourists and locals alike grab a spade and flock to a small patch of sand between the rocks and the water. This part of the beach is directly above a hidden hot spring deep below the sand and, as you dig, hot water filters up creating your own hot bath on the beach! Pick your spot wisely though, the closer to the source you sit, the hotter the water gets. In some places you can even boil an egg!
3. Cathedral Cove
Not far from Hot Water Beach, at the eastern end of neighbouring Hahei, beach you can take a walking track to beautiful Cathedral Cove for some insta-worthy snaps of that famous arch. (Ignore the signs, the walk takes 10 minutes tops.) You might recognise this spot… the arch was one of the entrances to Narnia in the movie! Bring a picnic, and relax.
4. The legendary 309 road
A local secret, many road-trippers miss this sneaky little route. Technically a ‘shortcut’ if you’re heading to Whitianga, this route winds through the bush on a loose gravel road and is not for the faint hearted. If you aren’t a fan of slowing down for the scenery and cant keep your foot off the accelerator you may want to skip this route. But, you will miss out on some hidden gems.
The road is home to ‘The Waterworks’, a quirky little collection of ‘water powered inventions ‘ which makes for a cute pitstop. From here, follow the winding road, avoiding the local pigs that amble along the roadside, until you reach the signs for Waiau Falls and the Kauri Grove. A short walk through the bush leads to a picturesque waterfall and swimming hole. Great for photos, but tales of eels and slippery things in the water mean it might not be the best swimming spot!
5. The Tui Lodge
The Peninsular is a beautiful stretch of land filled with lush greenery and picturesque beaches, while the town of Coromandel itself is like most small towns in the North Island, quiet and peaceful with not much going on. We set up camp at The Tui Lodge, a friendly, colourful little hostel with a rambling back yard and laid back feel. New Zealand has so many down to earth, home from home hostels like these, filled with like minded wanderers swapping travel tales. This place is definitely worth a night or two, before continuing your journey to see what the rest of New Zealand has to offer!
Steeped in sunshine and mythology, with its thousands of islands dotted around the Mediterranean, Greece is a firm bucket list destination. Each island has its own particular charm, but Santorini is undeniably the star of the show here; the tiny island on every Instagrammer’s travel wish list. A once circular island, now long and skinny after a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, the sea is visible from almost anywhere on the island. Apart from the breathtaking view of the ocean, the island’s centre is not particularly Insta-worthy. The road winds around low, sloping fields of sun-scorched earth and scrubby shrubbery, past half constructed hotels and caves carved into the sides of the huge volcanic rock that lines the roadside. It is the east edge of the island that makes Santorini such a sought-after destination, where the sun-bleached buildings are stacked one above the other in staggered rows, clinging precariously to the cliffside. There are four main towns on Santorini, each one perched, postcard-pretty, overlooking the cobalt blue caldera. Fira is the bustling capital and the liveliest spot on the island for an evening out. The towns of Imerovigli and Firestofani are quieter but just as pretty, with luxury hotels nestled among seafood restaurants with breathtaking views. But the most popular and photogenic spot is Oia. Having seen so many heavily-filtered, over-edited Instagram posts, I was a little worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. Luckily, this was one occasion where the hype was justified. Oia is literally like a picture in a glossy brochure. Impeccably clean, grey and white paved pathways snake down past luxury apartments, each one boasting its own little rectangle of turquoise water. The iconic blue domed churches are dotted about, interspersing the white buildings set against the deep cobalt blue of the ocean. Everything is white and bright, with dashes of pink bougainvillea that wraps itself prettily around everything. If you’ve got a day or 2 to spend in Oia, here are 5 things you must do!
1. Walk the 350 steps down (and back up!) to Ammoudi Bay
This teeny, tiny port is Santorini’s best kept secret and leads to the island’s best swimming spot. After walking through Oia’s main street you will find yourself near the castle ruins, at the top of a long flight of steps that will take you all the way down to a small cove with nothing but a few fishing boats and a handful of seafood restaurants. A rocky pathway leads around to a gorgeous swimming spot where the water is crystal clear. Spend a while swimming and leaping from the rocks if you’re brave enough, before heading over to Sunset Taverna for a seafood lunch with the prettiest view to fuel you for the walk back up the steps. (Just watch out for the donkeys on the way…)
2. Beat the sunset crowds
Everyone wants a piece of Oia, and it is quickly falling prey to its own popularity. The single path that leads up to the castle, and famed ‘sunset spot’, gets extremely crowded at dusk with hoards of tourists battling for a spot to watch the big, fiery ball descend into the ocean. Avoid the masses and watch the sunset in style at a rooftop restaurant. Skala has a direct view of the sunset from its rooftop terrace and the food is delicious and reasonably priced for Oia.
3. Sample Greek cuisine
I’m not ashamed to say I was most excited for the food when I visited Santorini. Greek food is delicious! Start the day with greek yoghurt and honey and grab a gyros stuffed with chicken and tzatziki for a filling afternoon snack. In the evening, begin with a greek salad and then opt for some fresh seafood pasta, washed down with a generous amount of Greek wine. Pair this with an Oia sunset and you’ve found paradise. If you’re still peckish after dinner, Milenio on the main street has a bakery underneath its restaurant which serves decadent slices of cake to take away.
4. Shop for souvenirs and visit the art galleries
Oia is the perfect place to pick up something pretty if you want to recreate the blue and white Santorini vibe back home. The main street is lined with shops selling decorative items, such as these lanterns, which would look gorgeous hanging in a garden. Remember to pick up a blue-eye trinket, to ward off the mati, or evil eye! These make great souvenirs, as does a box of Greek baklava for sweet-toothed family and friends. If you’re an art enthusiast, be sure to pop into the art galleries in Oia too, which are crammed full of pretty paintings of those blue domed roofs.
5. Get THAT Instagram photo
Oia is paradise for the snap-happy; countless pretty doorways, bougainvillea trees and those ocean views. Find your favourite, most photogenic spot and snap an envy-inducing photo for the gram.
EasyJet do direct flights to Santorini (Thira) from London!
Golden East Hotel, Imerovigli – This gorgeous hotel is located near the pretty town of Imerovigli and conveniently located a 10 minute drive from Fira and 15 minute drive from Oia. Arrange car or quad bike hire with Nataly, who will be happy to help!
I hadn’t planned on spending 10 days in Hanoi. The original idea had been to make our way leisurely up the coast of Vietnam and spend a couple of days here before flying home. But a pesky monsoon hit us hard in Ho Chi Minh and, being shameless sun-seekers, we decided to jump on a flight to the sunnier end of the country. This turned out to be a great decision (and not only because of the weather). From the unmissable views of serene Halong Bay to the chaotic, labyrinth-like lanes of the old quarter, there is so much to see and do in happening Hanoi. Here’s a list of the top things not to miss in this culturally rich capital, and they’re all budget friendly!.
1. Cruise your way through towering limestone islands in a junk boat.
Halong Bay had to be top of the list didn’t it really? It is a UNESCO world heritage site after all. Almost 2000 rainforest-topped islands make up this breathtaking place. These little limestone islands were formed by dragons according to legend and Ha Long literally translates from ancient vietnamese as descending dragon.
There are a lot of different boat trips to choose from so take a bit of time to shop around and try to pick one that’s relevant to your age range and interests. (You don’t want to find yourself on a banana-boat booze cruise with a rowdy group of pimply 18 year olds, unless that’s your thing of course.) We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour that included one night on the boat and one on pretty Cat Ba island. The itineraries tend to be very similar, mostly involving kayaking, floating villages and stop-offs at various picturesque islands to find the best photo ops. Our tour included on-board cooking lessons, cycling around Cat Ba island, cave exploring and kayaking trips into deep, hidden lagoons. No matter which tour you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.
2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.
I had heard through the backpacker grapevine that Hanoi had its very own cat cafe, but when I asked around I was met with blank looks. But after finding a vague address online and wandering around the city for hours we eventually found the Ailu cat house. To call it a cafe is generous, they don’t actually have a coffee machine or serve any food. But what they lack in beverage options, they make up for in cats. A lot of cats. The general idea: come in, sit down, wait for a cat to sit on you, relax! It’s meant to be pretty therapeutic apparently. If you’re a cat person anyway.
We spent an unnecessary amount of time here that afternoon, but it’s hard to leave when you’ve got a cute, little furry thing snoring peacefully on your lap…
3. Tickle your tastebuds with a walking food tour of the Old Quarter
(That’s you walking by the way, not the food. Though in Vietnam you can never be sure…)
There’s more to vietnamese food than just phở! The variety of dishes on offer here is huge, but for a truly authentic taste of Hanoi you’ll need avoid the lure of touristy restaurants. Your guide will take you to all the secret places that you’d have a hard time discovering on your own; down a side alley, through a non-descript store front, up several flights of rickety stairs into a hidden restaurant. Be prepared to try such delicacies as deep-fried duck tongue and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. (So much nicer than it sounds.) Awesome travel offer a great food tour that takes you to 8 different places around the old quarter for around £10. The trip involves a lot of walking and takes around 3 hours. Make sure you go on an empty stomach, you’ll be absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening!
4. After tasting it, try making it in an authentic cooking class.
If you’re into the culinary side of things a cooking class is a great way to spend an evening. Blue Butterfly Cooking Class is one of the most popular choices, with the class beginning in the markets with your guide, who introduces you to the different spices and herbs before purchasing the fresh produce to bring back to the kitchen.
At the restaurant you’ll be shown how to make traditional dishes such as pork spring rolls and banana flower salad. Afterwards you’ll sit down and eat everything you’ve just cooked! At around £44 this is a bit on the pricey side, but it was my favourite experience in Hanoi and worth every penny!
5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university
If history and architecture is your thing, you’ll love this temple/university. With the tranquil atmosphere and heady scent of incense in the air, it’s an escape from the hectic city surrounding it. Established as Vietnam’s very first university in 1076, this small temple complex is full of beautiful old architecture and shrines honouring Vietnam’s finest scholars. Entrance used to be reserved for those of noble birth only, but don’t worry, they let anyone in nowadays 😉
Look out for the bushes shaped like animals of the zodiac and the cute miniatures of Confucius and his students scattered around the well-pruned foliage. The temple is not just popular among tourists; often you’ll see recently gradated students in traditional dress having their photographs taken in front of the central pool, known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Admission costs only 30 000VD.
6. Discover the ancient legend of Hoàn Kiếm, ‘Lake of the restored sword’
Hoàn Kiếm lake, the physical and symbolical centre of the city. You can’t miss this huge body of water at the heart of the city, its banks are popular with locals who enjoy a bit of tai chi at 6am and if you’re lucky you might spot a turtle popping up for a breath of air. Legend goes that in the 15th century Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which helped him defeat the Chinese. After the victory, a large turtle swam up to the emperors boat and reclaimed the sword, disappearing into the depths of the lake to return it to it’s divine owner.
You can learn more about the legend at Ngoc Son Temple,( Temple of the Jade Mountain) which sits on a tiny island accessed by an ornate red bridge. It’s only 30,000VND to go inside, where you’ll find many locals come to worship and burn bank notes in a furnace as offerings. (Don’t risk burning yourself, the notes are fake…)
7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe
Crossing the street anywhere in Hanoi is pretty daunting, but this intersection by the old quarter is something else. It’s chaos. There are no lines on the road, no roundabout, no rules of who goes first. It’s every man for himself, you snooze you lose. Our food tour guide tried to teach us how to cross the road without getting squashed with his 3 golden rules:
Don’t stop! One you’ve started to cross just keep going, don’t hesitate, slow down or worst of all stop. The traffic will (hopefully) move around you.
Don’t make eye contact with drivers
Buses rule the road! A bus will not stop if you are in the way, if you see one coming, run…
If you can’t face crossing the road, watch the madness from above instead. You can’t miss the City View Cafe building overlooking the intersection next to the lake. Head all the way up to the top floor and grab a spot overlooking the chaos below with a cold drink.
8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .
Grab a bag of delicious, deep fried pastry ball things from a street vendor, search for the best phở in Hanoi or haggle over the price of a pointy hat that you’ll have to wear on the plane on the way home and which will probably end up in the attic…
9. Discover Hanoi’s secret nightlife
Hanoi has notoriously strict laws regarding bars and clubs and most places will be closed by midnight. A ‘night out’ in the city will usually consist of sipping bia hoi perched on a plastic stool down a bustling lane in the old quarter. But after one evening doing just that, we met a group of Israeli guys who were heading to one of Hanoi’s ‘underground’ clubs.
A 10 minute taxi ride from downtown brings us to the Hero Club, an industrial style nightclub with pulsing music, cage dancers and of course, a selection of fresh fruit on the tables. However we had only been inside for 5 minutes when the music turned off abruptly and the staff starting ushering everyone to the rear exit away from the police out front… we’d have to try our luck another night!
10. Cool off in the rooftop pool at the Apricot Hotel
It’s hard to find a swimming pool in the city. There are only a handful scattered about, mainly on the rooftops of the fancier hotels that are definitely not backpacker-budget friendly. But many hotels will let you use their pools for a fee, such as the ridiculously fancy Apricot Hotel. Just look at those chandeliers in the lobby…
The hotel charges around £10 to use the pool. However, if you’re really low on funds and feeling sneaky, it’s easy to come back free of charge another day. Just act natural and jump in the elevator!
My attempt at a New Zealand road trip didn’t start very well.
In the space of the first week we had unwittingly checked into a hippy commune, bought a car, had all our belongings stolen from said car and then been stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for the car to be repaired. To say the least, it had been an eventful start. I think I took the loss of my luggage pretty well, copious amounts of cheap wine certainly helped. Though admittedly I did mourn the loss of my hair straighteners for a good while. But eventually, with the car back in one piece we were ready to actually start our trip. So we bid farewell to the Fat Cat hippies(read about this amazing place here and here) and headed north through Waipu (got to love these Maori names) and on to Whangarei where we discover the Little Earth Lodge, a tucked away haven of a hostel nestled deep in a kauri filled forest. On the deck we meet a lean, bushy eye-browed guy with hair nicer than mine. ‘I slept in a tree last night,’ he says solemnly, before introducing himself as Ian, a trainee yoga instructor from Florida. Apparently its not a good idea to sleep in trees in New Zealand. You’re likely to be attacked by territorial possums. Ian is either the most zen guy I’ve ever met or the most stoned. Possibly both.
Little Earth Lodge’s best kept secret is the glow worm caves hiding in its back garden. Known as ‘the budget traveller’s answer to Waitomo’ the Abbey Caves can be explored for free, all you need is a head torch and a fondness for claustrophobic, dark spaces. The opening to the caves is literally a hole in the middle of the forest. After the recent rainfall the rocks down are slippery and we land in murky, waist-high water at the bottom. With no idea what might be lurking in the narrow tunnels ahead or swimming around us in the icy water, we head into the darkness. (Cue thoughts of Gollum and those weird things in ‘The Descent’.) After many twists and turns, sloshing around amid frequent cries of, ‘something touched my foot!’ we arrive at the end of the cave where we turn off our head torches to see the glowworms above us, carpeting the ceiling of the cave like a miniature milky way. It’s an amazing sight, and we didn’t have to pay $50 for it…
The next day after a morning yoga lesson with Ian, (it didn’t go down well, I can’t even touch my toes,) we take a walk around the forest where ancient kauri trees have stood for centuries. (These trees can grow up to 50 metres high!) A trail takes us down to Whangarei Falls, described by Lonely Planet as ‘the Kim Kardashian of New Zealand’s waterfalls, not the most impressive but definitely the most photographed.’ The falls look pretty impressive to me, with torrents of clear water tumbling over the edge of a sheer cliff face into a deep pool. This wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical jungle. I can imagine monkeys scampering about the rocks and swinging from vines. The only monkey I see however is Ian, who decides to strip completely naked (to the horror of an elderly German couple) and swim out to the falls where he perches on a rock and does a spot of yoga. Of course.
Despite being a big believer in shoestring travel and hostel life, (I spent the best part of 8 months in a sweaty communal dorm room and loved every minute,) every so often you crave a little luxury. Nothing too fancy. Maybe just a place where you don’t have to race everyone to the kitchen at 7am to get the last scrapings of free jam to put on your toast. Or somewhere I didn’t have to sleep on the bottom bunk with dead cockroaches smushed into the side of the mattress and a pissed Irish guy passed out on top of me. (On the top bunk that is, not actually on top of me. Usually.)
South East Asia is top of the list for backpackers looking for an exotic adventure on the cheap, the usual itinerary being the easy-to-navigate loop around Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. But as any Aussie will tell you, your SE Asia trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Bali. Not only is the country breathtakingly beautiful, it’s also a great budget destination for thrifty travellers looking for 5 star surroundings on a 1 star budget. Many standard hostels offer dorm beds for less than a fiver a night and if you’re travelling as a couple, a double room between 2 costs about the same. Since arriving in Bali I’d barely made a dent in my budget, choosing tasty street food over restaurants and staying in great value accommodation. (Click to discover some great Bali hostel options in Kuta and the Gili islands.)
Whatever Aussies may tell you, there’s more to this country than Kuta and it’s Magaluf’esque strip of party bars and cheap booze. Bali’s real beauty lays inland, away from the beaches. Winding jungle roads past crumbling Hindu temples will take you to the dreamy, cultural town of Ubud. The Puri Saran Agung palace dominates the main street, where traditional dances are held every evening. Down narrow lanes bustling markets are filled to the brim with exotic goodies; silver jewellery, pretty trinkets, colourful throws and countless spices. Make sure you grab a bag of the ultimate Balinese souvenir, some Kopi Luwak coffee. Considered a delicacy, this coffee is made from beans that have been swallowed, partially digested and then pooped out by a small animal called a civet, similar to a weasel. Sounds disgusting, but this is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
Just outside of Ubud centre we check into the Sankara resort, a luxurious, spa style hotel tucked away in the midst of rice paddies and sprawling jungle. When we checked online at Booking.com the rooms in this hotel appeared very much outside our budget but after calling the hotel directly we were quoted half the price. Don’t be fooled by online prices! Often contacting a place directly or just walking in without a booking is the best way to get a cheap deal on an otherwise expensive room.
The hotel offers free activities, such as a guided walk around the neighbouring village. We have to edge around a few growling dogs who, we are informed casually by our guide, may or may not have rabies… We pass a dark, arena style area where the local villagers pay to watch cockfighting and our guide shows us some of the caged birds that are used to fight, huge birds with vicious looking claws and beaks. These birds can sell for millions of rupiah, just to be forced to fight to the death for people’s amusement. Poor things. On the way back we pass two men carrying a live pig tied to a pole, ready to be slaughtered and cooked. They’re not too concerned about animal welfare around here! The village is a stark contrast to the luxury lodgings just up the road and despite the strange customs and relative poverty, the locals seem happy and friendly, greeting us and our guide with smiles and waves. Balinese are very religious people, and as we head back to the hotel our guide tells us about the dvarapala, fearsome statues of warrior like creatures that guard temples and homes.
A short scooter ride from the hotel takes us to the Sacred Monkey Forest. This is a beautiful, open sanctuary filled with crumbling shrines and lush jungle where wild monkeys roam free and are fed unlimited bananas by eager tourists. It’s a pretty surreal experience if you’re not used to being surrounded by hungry monkeys. These guys aren’t shy. They’ll try to mug you (literally, they will go through your pockets and try to open your bags!) and will happily scramble on top of you and perch on your head for a banana. (Cute if it’s one of the little ones, terrifying if you’ve got a big, alpha male charging at you.) And don’t try and fool them by being stingy either. Holding out an empty banana peel will result in a very annoyed monkey. As one of the wardens says, laughing as a monkey bares its teeth and takes a swipe at me, they don’t like to be tricked!
About a 20 minute scooter ride out of the town are the Tegalalang rice terraces, a giant, sloping valley of staggered rows upon rows of green rice paddies. Small walkways weave around the terraces, up and down like a crazy maze. Be prepared for a lot of steps and quite a long climb to get to the top, in the midday heat it can be a struggle. You’ll need to take some change too, as there are a couple of ‘donation points’ along the way (if ‘donation’ means compulsory payment or you’re not getting past…) Also, try not to slip into the actual paddy as you take photos, these things are like quicksand and you will lose a flipflop….
On the road back to the hotel we spot a sign for ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ pointing down a side road. Ketut is the real life medicine man from ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and his house is where the famous scene with Julia Roberts was filmed. (See you later, alligator!) Though it’s late in the day we decide to pop in and are greeted by Ketut’s son who tells us that unfortunately Ketut is too tired for visitors. He is, after all, 100 years old. We take a look around the house grounds which have been made into a pretty guesthouse and take a few pictures in the same spot Julia sat.
It’s easy to lose track of time in Ubud. You’ll find yourself completely taken in by the serenity of the surrounding jungle, the mysticism of the ancient temples and the cultural hub at it’s centre. You may find that you never want to leave. And that’s OK. Relax, you’re on Ubud time!
Ubud Travel Guide
Where to stay:
Sankara Resort and Spa. It’s not hard to see why this stunning hotel has 5 star reviews, check it out here on trip advisor (but remember, book directly for the best prices!): https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g297701-d5279694-Reviews-Sankara_Resort-Ubud_Bali.html
What to do:
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Entry: 20,000 IDR Buy your bananas inside, but don’t be stingy!
Tegalalang Rice Terraces, Free Entry but there are compulsory ‘donation points’ along the way if you want to go higher up
Cultural Arts and Dance performances at the palace, 80,000 IDR, tickets are sold outside the palace
Visit Ketut Liyer, the medicine man, For a fee you can have a chat with Ketut and have him read your palm, if he’s awake! This guy is seriously old and may not be around much longer to entertain tourists…
Visit the markets dotted around the town, make sure you take home a penis keyring and a bag of Kopi Luwak!
Book a few nights in a luxury hotel, go on, treat yourself
Take a scooter and explore! The winding roads are beautiful and will take you past deep ravines filled with temples, shrines and vines for swinging monkeys! Immerse yourself in the jungle, just remember your mosquito repellent!
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of Cairns. In fact, for the first few weeks I actively despised it. In fairness, this was mainly due to me coping badly with Sydney withdrawal symptoms and working in an English school hopelessly stuck in the 90s (I’m talking tape cassettes, actual tape cassettes…) run by a troll faced, miniature dragon lady who hated my guts. Let me explain… Sydney is my home from home, imo the best city in the world. It has everything, gorgeous beaches a stone’s throw from the city centre, cheap and efficient transport, a varied cluster of interesting suburbs and with it’s happening nightlife and cheap hostels it’s a backpacker’s haven. But I couldn’t stay in Sydney forever (as much as I wanted to). I was still an impostor in this faraway land of barbies in the arvo and if I wanted to stay here I had to do it the hard way, which meant leaving the big city and venturing into the back of beyond to work on a banana farm where I could trade my sweat, tears and sanity for a second year visa. But, due to a bad bout of banana disease and a hellhole of a hostel this plan didn’t work out and so, penniless, I was forced to head to the nearest ‘big’ town and desperately search for work. This big town was Cairns.
Cairns is an odd place. It has the feel of a once promising town that tried to go all out to become party central but lost heart halfway and just gave up. And so there is a curious mix of rowdy backpackers, bored locals and a heavy aboriginal population. Most of the action in the town happens around the lagoon, a pretty, saltwater pool complete with artificial sand, that tries its hardest to make you ignore the vast expanse of muddy estuary beyond it. (Note: even at low-tide do not venture out onto the estuary, you’re in croc country now mate. And it’s probably stinger season too.) Along the esplanade are an array of overpriced restaurants and cafes geared at holiday makers rather than backpackers, the latter sticking to the hostel bars or backpacker faves, Woolshed and Down Under Bar.
The main attraction of Cairns is actually what lies all around it; the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the sprawling Atherton Tablelands and Daintree Rainforest on the other, which spreads all the way up to Cape Tribulation over 100km north of Cairns. (See here about some of the brilliant trips you can do around Cairns.) A cute day trip closer to the town is a visit to Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’. The village is tiny, and very touristy, but it’s worth a visit just for the lush rainforest views and driving up by car is cheaper and just as scenic as taking the train or the cable car.
Don’t get me wrong, Cairns has got its fair share of tourist trips and activities, and is definitely worth a spot on any Aussie road trip itinerary. But it is a town to pass through, not to linger in. Friends came and went, heading north to Darwin or south to the Sunshine Coast, or taking advantage of a cheap flight and heading straight to Bali. I had exhausted all the activities on offer and was now extremely bored, lonely and trapped working here in the sticky, tropical heat of a Queensland summer. (All while trying to teach hyperactive Japanese teenagers how to conjugate verb phrases when all they wanted to do was play volleyball and go off for a BBQ in the sunshine. I feel your pain guys.)
But then a strange thing began to happen. The more time I spent here I started to notice a secret side to Cairns, a low-key, quirky vibe away from the touristy bits. And I liked what I saw. Art exhibitions, market stalls selling homemade oddities, stands serving spicy curries in the enormous Botanic Gardens in North Cairns. I hadn’t even realised Cairns had a Botanic Garden, or a market, until my housemate took me with her to go garden gnome hunting. (A hobby of hers, she gives old gnomes a bit of well-needed TLC and restores them to their former glory. I guess it’s one way to keep yourself entertained in Cairns.)
One sweltering afternoon I found myself at the entrance to Graffiti Lane, a tucked away alley that wouldn’t look out of place in Melbourne. Here I found one of Cairn’s ‘secret’ coffee shops. Caffiend is a funky little spot filled with an eclectic mix of furnishings; think skateboards on the wall, a graffiti covered coffee machine and various art works for sale on the walls. The colourful alley wall serves as a backdrop to the outside seating area. You can even buy a t-shirt with the Caffiend logo splashed across the front. The place is pretty teeny and, despite its out of the way location, is constantly buzzing with locals. Unsurprising though, given the cool setup and the amazing menu. ‘European frittata on rocket salad’, ‘Balsamic, strawberry and goat’s cheese bruschetta’, ‘Poached eggs with wilted spinach, bacon and chili jam’ are just some of the options on offer here.
Further up the alley, what appears to be a dead end is actually the courtyard and back entrance to La Creperie. This French inspired cafe serves up a great selection of sweet and savoury crepes and unmissable milkshakes. As for the evenings, tired of the same old bar crawl along the ‘strip’ I ventured beyond the brightly lit lagoon and found Salthouse perched at the end of the boardwalk by a little harbour. This became my favourite spot, drinking coffee, marking homework and looking out over the harbour on sunny afternoons and working my way through the cocktail menu in the evenings. It seems that the backpacking crowds haven’t descended onto this spot yet and it retains a chilled, chic vibe that is one of a kind in Cairns.
4 months later, and a year after arriving in Australia, I was finally able to leave my shitty job and fly off to the sunny shores of Bali for a much needed holiday. But I realised that I would miss the strange little bubble that is Cairns and all it’s tucked away places waiting to be discovered. Look hard enough and you might just find them…
I have been wedged between my boyfriend and a sweaty stranger, my bare thighs sticking uncomfortably to a plastic seat, for almost 3 hours. The window nearest to me stubbornly refuses to open more than a crack and the colour of most of the passengers faces combined with the relentless rocking of the stiflingly hot boat explains the pervasive smell of vomit. A wooden dock comes into view finally, and the overloaded boat slows down to moor beside it; exquisite turquoise water lapping at its sides. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief before the captain calls out, ‘Lombok.’ Around half the passengers scramble to the exit, leaping from the side of the boat into the cool, clear water, bags in tow as the rest of us groan in our seats, reluctantly moving over as a new load of passengers embark. Apparently this is not a direct service to Gili Trawangan island I grumble to my boyfriend reminds me of that classic paradise found, paradise lost movie The Beach. Remember the beach was a bloody faff to get to, but it was worth it in the end he points out. I decide not to mention that most of the characters in that movie ended up dead.
Another sweaty hour later the boat finally docks at Trawangan. As we walk up the jetty and onto the island I forget all about the hellish journey that seems to have brought us to another world in another time. Colourful horse-drawn carts, or cidomo, trundle down dirt tracks, carting tourists and supplies past open store fronts and beach bars, passing under decorative umbrellas suspended overhead. There are no proper roads on the island and so no motorised vehicles. It’s a relief from the chaotic mess of taxis and motorbikes back on the mainland in Kuta, however we soon realise Gili T has a madness all its own. We dodge cyclists and jump out of the way of the horses, their drivers incessantly honking their little plastic horns. But as we venture away from this bustling drop-off point the crowds disperse and the ‘road’ becomes practically empty save a few locals.
We discover our hostel tucked down a dusty side road, the Woodstock home stay, where we check into a wooden bungalow nestled in greenery by a shady pool. This place is a peaceful haven, away from the bustle of the harbour, run by a super chilled German lady and a handful of friendly locals. Each bungalow is named after a classic band or singer: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or in our case, The Who. We try a plate of delicious mie goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and fresh watermelon shakes as we sit by the pool, petting the resident cats.
The quickest way to get around the island is by bike, with the island only 3km long and 2km wide you can get from one side to the other in less than 20 minutes. The Woodstock home stay offers free bike hire and we head inland, over dusty tracks and scrubby, undeveloped patches of land. The locals eye us curiously as we pass. It seems that unlike other popular island hot spots, such as Koh Phi Phi which has been all but destroyed as a result of over-development, pollution and too many tourists, the Gili islands still remain relatively obscure and untouched, though sadly this is bound to change. For now the tourist scene is confined solely to the beaches on the edges of the island. But venture further inland and the heart of the island lies quiet and unexplored, reserved for the locals leading a simple life, unmoved by the steadily growing tourist presence and building sites cropping up around the tiny island.
We have dinner at a beach restaurant, nestled on cushions in a little wooden hut. The restaurant is almost empty and we see only a few other tourists wandering around. Peaceful though it is, I am confused. Isn’t Gili T supposed to be the party island of the 3? I wonder. This is high season, where is everyone? All becomes clear after dinner when we follow the road further around and find ourselves suddenly in the hustle and bustle of Trawangan’s main ‘strip’. Here, there are heaps more restaurants, bars, gelato stands and many a painted sign freely advertising ‘Bloody good magic mushrooms.’ It seems islanders have taken liberty with Bali’s strict drug laws. We decide to skip the shrooms and opt for the open air beach cinema instead. Tonights movie is, of course, The Beach.
We wake early the next day (hard to sleep in with the island’s only mosque so close by, the reverberating call to prayer can be heard all over the island) and head off on a snorkeling trip. The clear, warm waters around the islands are perfect for spotting fish and turtles, just be careful if you opt for a lunchtime cocktail. Pretty wobbly legs after a Gili island ice tea, they don’t muck about with their measures! In the evening, it’s time to to see if Gili T deserves its title of party island. After a delicious plate of cheap eats at the night market we head straight to the infamous Sama Sama bar where we get talking to English Sam, who dreams of living a nomadic life in the Peruvian hills and Nora, his statuesque (6ft2), Californian girlfriend. After making the most of the ridiculously cheap cocktails the night passes in a blur of beer pong and pulsing music and we spend the next morning sweating out a pretty heavy hangover by the pool. But hey, there are worse places in the world to deal with a sore head! By the afternoon we have recovered enough to cycle over to the other side of the island where we perch on the famous Lombok Swing and watch a spectacular sunset over distant Mount Rinjani.
The next island on our itinerary is just a hop across the water. Gili Air is Gili Trawangan without the party, a favourite spot for couples. (Fun fact: ‘Air’ actually means ‘Water’ in Indonesian.) We check into the tranquil Toro Toro bungalows, tucked away down another little side road near the beach.(Of course, everywhere here is near the beach! Air is even smaller than Trawangan) This island is much quieter, sparsely scattered with tourists and here the roads are lined with seafood restaurants and beautiful hotels rather than bustling bars. The gorgeous white sand beaches are almost empty and the water is clear and unpolluted. Huge turtles swim lazily beside you in the shallows, only a few feet from the sand. Here, the locals go about their daily business, hauling their fishing boats out or loading building supplies onto the cidomo.
This time we skip the bikes and explore the island on foot. It’s become second nature now to dodge the cyclists and horses charging down the tracks. We stumble across a cooking school and decide to try our hands at some Indonesian cuisine. We start with kelopon, sticky, coconut based desert balls which look like playdough (and kind of taste like it too.) We make delicious fried noodles, or nasi goreng, and a spicy peanut dipping sauce with crushed peanuts, palm sugar and chillies. So simple, but so tasty.
The days here are spent in typically indulgent island style, sunbathing, strolling around, taking lazy swims and eating everything we see; refreshing coconut gelato and the local specialty pepes ikan, spicy fish wrapped in banana leaf with fragrant rice.
On the last night we have dinner on the beach, the tables sat inches from the ocean, the surf lapping lazily around our ankles as we eat. One thing is certain, these idyllic islands were definitely worth the journey and I’d happily stay here another week, or a month, or maybe just build myself a little beach shack and live on island time forever! I’m sure I’m not the only one with the same idea though.. so word to the wise, check out the Gilis sooner rather than later. Something tells me this little patch of paradise won’t stay this way for long…
Getting there: We booked through The Island hotel in Kuta, this included the bus to Padang Bai and the (very) slow taxi boat to the Gilis. Fast boats are available if you don’t mind spending a bit extra. Boats between the islands are quick, cheap and run often.
Where to stay:
Woodstock homestay, Gili Trawangan – super cheap, super chilled and in a great location. Definitely on my list of favourite hostels.
Toro Toro Bungalows, Gili Air (also confusingly known as Limitless hostel.) Good value, lovely bungalows, no pool but with the beach so close you won’t miss it!
What to do:
Anything that starts with an ‘S’: sunbathe, snorkel, shop, swim…!
Gili Cooking classes, from 275,000 Rupiah (about £14)
Eat at the night market
Watch a movie at the open air cinema next to Villa Ombok, for a couple of dollars you get a beanbag, free popcorn and drinks service