How to spend a winter weekend in Malta

With its gorgeous weather and picturesque spots such as Comino and the Blue Lagoon, the Mediterranean island of Malta, sitting unassumingly between Southern Italy and the tip of Libya, attracts thousands of sun-seeking tourists in the summer months. However, winter is also a great time to visit if you want to skip the beaches and explore the island while avoiding the crowds.

Visit the Silent City of Mdina

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Pretty alleys make for cute photo stops

Mdina is a photographer’s dream. The entrance, an impressive stone archway, was used as a filming location for Game of Thrones and leads through to a fortified medieval city filled with winding passageways with cute doorways and balconies around every corner. While these narrow alleys are crammed full of tourists in the summer months, in January the ‘Silent City’ is just that, making for people-free photos!

Fontanella is the perfect spot to take a break for a coffee and enormous slice of cake. In summer, the terrace has beautiful views across the island to the ocean, but in winter you can head inside and find a cosy spot next to the log burner. The cake menu is huge, but be sure to also grab a couple of pastizzi, a savoury Maltese pastry filled with either crushed peas or ricotta. Delicious and cheap at only 65 cents!

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Turquoise doors set against sun-bleached walls
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Lose yourself in the medieval passageways
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Pretty doors for days

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Recognise this arch? Mdina was used as a filming location for King’s Landing in GoT
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Love the soothing, neutral tones
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Mdina’s labyrinthine passages
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Cake and Pastizzi at Fontanella
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Can I move in?!
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Pretty shutters and balconies overhead
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Hidden corners

 Meander around the pretty little capital of Valletta

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The beautiful Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta

No visit to Malta would be complete without a trip to its tiny capital city. Valletta is set on a hill and its steep, sloping roads lead down to the water, lined with enticing shops and restaurants. There is a church or a palace seemingly around every corner and the tall walls draw your eyes up to the intricate carvings on the corners of buildings or the little balconies and colourful shutters overhead. At the pretty Upper Barrakka Gardens, take in the panoramic view over the harbour and the Three Cities, before heading down a bustling side street for some lunch. Streat Cafe is a central spot that serves up tasty burgers and enormous salads!

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View over the Three Cities
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Colourful little streets in Valletta

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 Visit picturesque Popeye village

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This slightly surreal attraction was originally a film set for the Popeye musical back in 1980 starring the wonderful, late Robin Williams. Perched on a cliff top above the turquoise waters of a secret cove, the set is now open to tourists and is perfect for a family day out. Even without entering the village, the views across the bay are worth the drive over!

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Even in January it’s tempting to jump in that turquoise water!
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Can you spot Olive Oyl?
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This place has an  almost other-worldly feel!

So if you’re planning a quick weekend away for culture, views and some winter sun, Malta should be top of your list!

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Why you should include the Coromandel Peninsular on your New Zealand road trip

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 

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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

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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!

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3. Cathedral Cove

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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.

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4. The legendary 309 road

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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!

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5. The Tui Lodge

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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!

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Top 10 budget-friendly things to do in Hanoi

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.

93Halong 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.

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Time to top up the tan between islands
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On the way to some bat caves in the middle of dense rainforest we bumped into these ladies, who shared their tasty sugar cane with us

 

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Almost walked face first into this guy…
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Exploring caves in the jungle on Cat Ba island
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Interesting hotel name…

2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.

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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.

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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!

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There is a slight chance you’ll set yourself on fire

5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university

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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.

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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…)

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Group of friends playing a checkers style game in the temple grounds

7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe

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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.

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8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .

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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

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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

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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…

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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!

Hidden graffitied laneways, a concealed coffee culture and chic night spots: the secret side to Cairns

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.

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Cairns Lagoon

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.

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Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’

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.)

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Don’t miss a trip to the Curtain Fig Tree! One of the largest trees in North Queensland. Head towards Yungaburra where signs will point you in the right direction.

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.

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Image from Google: Caffiend on ‘Graffiti Lane’

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.

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Cocktails and ambiance at chic Salthouse

 

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…

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The Lagoon by night

 

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Don’t miss the Coconut Man at Rusty’s market

 

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Get your fortune told at the Gypsy Shop in Rusty’s market

 

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand’s faded party paradise

Thailand has always had a special place in my heart. For years I had dreamed of visiting this enchanting land of elephants, jungle fringed beaches and spicy noodles and when I finally did visit, it was my first taste of somewhere truly ‘exotic’. The first time I had ventured, completely alone, into the unknown. I was 22, fresh out of uni and keen to start teacher training. I knew I wanted to take a course in teaching English as a foreign language. I also knew I didn’t want to do that at home when there were so many CELTA courses on offer in countries all over the world.. Of course, I chose Thailand but instead of flying off to bustling Bangkok I chose a school in Phuket where, I reasoned, I could island hop and bum around on the beach on my days off.

This was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Upon arriving in Phuket, I coincidentally connected with a French friend who was working on a nearby island. Ignoring my jetlag, we met up and immediately hired mopeds to explore historic Phuket Town and some nearby beaches. Sitting on the sand, watching the sun set with my first ice cold Chang and a bowl of something spicy and delicious I had a pinch me moment. Here I was, finally, in this beautiful, otherworldly  country that had been on my wish list for so long. And I was here for 5 weeks.

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Pinch me, I’m in paradise
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You can’t visit Phuket market without sampling a pick ‘n’ mix bag of fried insects!

My French friend assured me that the place to party in Phuket was Pattaya, an infamous party province. By this point I was ready to crash, my jet lag well and truly set in, but not wanting to miss a chance to party we took the mopeds along the winding coastal road to Pattaya. 10 hours later, after a blur of buckets, ladyboys and promises of ping pong shows, not to mention almost hammering a nail through my hand and a moped crash which involved a smashed set of front teeth (luckily not mine) I finally staggered into my hotel room and passed out. I had survived my first night. I managed to behave myself for the next month, settling for a couple of cold Changs in the evenings with my fellow trainees. But at the end of the course there was still a week left until Christmas and I was in no hurry to rush back home. And so, with my straight talking, Californian classmate Sara, we took a boat to the island on every backpackers itinerary, Koh Phi Phi.

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Phi Phi was my ultimate destination of choice. I too wanted to follow in the footsteps of so many over-excited teenage girls and find the exact patch of sand where Leo DiCaprio had sat in The Beach. I wanted a piece of the paradise. I also wanted to party and had been informed that Phi Phi was the place to do it.

The island did not disappoint. From the moment I jumped out of the boat into the crystal clear water I was in love. The narrow streets were hectic, backpackers fresh off the boat hauling their luggage through throngs of people. A guy cycled past with a monkey dressed in a suit on his shoulder. Vendors called out to us, beckoning and smiling. I had never been anywhere like it. We spent the day exploring the island, taking in the lush scenery and lazing on the beach. A longboat trip took us to neighbouring Phi Phi Leh where I finally visited Maya Bay, snorkelled with turtles, fed wild monkeys, had a beach party in a private cove and swam with bioluminescent plankton. I was drunk on sensations (and a copious amount of cheap alcohol) and convinced that this island was paradise.

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Pattaya had somewhat prepared me for the party scene of Phi Phi, but I hadn’t quite become hardened to the buckets. (Basically a small slug of energy drink mixed with an entire bottle of vodka in a bucket with a party straw.) And so it came to be that on my last night on the island we made our way to Slinky’s beach bar and from that point on the night became a blur. When I eventually sobered up enough to realise where I was, I found I was sitting waist deep in the sea with a South African guy talking about the meaning of life and watching the sun come up. I had a nasty gash on my foot. I had also lost my bag, (which I later found empty and discarded on the beach) and, undoubtedly, my dignity. I managed to drag myself up to our hilltop hostel where I found Sara asleep on a pool lounger. I had managed to lock us out and lose the keys. After breaking into our room we passed out and woke up with the worst hangovers known to man. I still don’t know what I got up to that night, and thats probably a good thing. But I was young and wild and if you can’t be stupid and irresponsible when you’re 22 then when can you? I’m still eternally thankful to Sarah for lending me money for a hotel room and cab to the airport the next day, not to mention some weird medicinal powder for my bloody, infected foot. And so I bid farewell to paradise and fly home for Christmas, dazed, hungover and with a doctor’s appointment for my foot (and probably my liver.)

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4 years later, I come back to Koh Phi Phi. This time I am older, wiser and I’m not going anywhere near a bucket. I’m excited to show my boyfriend this crazy island eden where the waters are clear turquoise, the beaches beautiful, the people friendly and the nightlife wild. But the island is not as I remember it. Far from being an unspoilt backpacker’s haven, the beaches and streets are strewn with rubbish and evidence of last night’s debauchery. It is pouring with rain and the locals glare at us, not a hint of the famous Thai smile here. I locate the notorious Slinky’s beach bar which had been the starting point of our wild escapades, where I first saw a tattooed teenager walk a tightrope while juggling flaming batons, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer simultaneously. The relentless rain has put a stop to the fire shows and the bar sits, dark and dingy, on the polluted beach. I realise that the island probably hasn’t changed that much at all, but that the younger me was seeing everything through rose tinted glasses, not to mention bucket goggles.

We leave the beach and hike up to the famous viewpoint, passing a sour faced woman at the bottom who snatches our proffered money as we pass. Giant, ugly hotel complexes have popped up around the island, large areas of bush bulldozed to make room for these monstrosities trying hard to ruin the once breathtaking views. I am confused and saddened. It seems Phi Phi really has lost its charm. Maybe, as many will tell you, it lost it decades ago. We don’t linger on the island, heading instead to Koh Lanta which, we are told, is still truly unspoilt. But as the boat speeds away from Phi Phi I still feel a familiar pang in my chest as I watch the island recede into the distance. It may not be what it once was, but the island will always remain special to me as my first taste of paradise, of reckless abandon and, when I’m old and grey, a reminder of what it felt like to be young, free and completely, wonderfully irresponsible.

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The views from the top are still spectacular
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Feeding the locals
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Artist at work in his studio on Phi Phi

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An (almost) untouched paradise: the gorgeous Gili islands

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.

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Aerial view of the Gilis: Air, Meno & Trawangan

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.

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Making friends with some little locals
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A couple of dollars for a huge plate of food at the popular night market
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Local fisherman at the harbour

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. 

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Street to the moon anyone?

 

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.

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The Lombok Sunset Swing (We had to queue up to get this shot!)
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Pina Coladas with a view over to Gili Meno

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.

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Toro Toro Bungalows

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.

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Gili Cooking Classes

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…

 

Travel Guide

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
  • Take a photo on the famous Sunset Swing
  • Do yoga on the beach
  • Try a mushroom shake… (this one’s optional!)
  • Relax, you’re on island time!

Getting the Bali Bug: Kuta, Legian and Seminyak

There are places that have a certain allure to them, countries that seem impossibly exotic. Hawaii for example. Fiji, Bora Bora. And Bali. Bali has an irresistable appeal, the name conjures up images of pristine beaches, delicious food, monkeys and jungles, rice terraces and temples. I tell my Sydneysider friend that I’m heading to Bali as soon as my Australian visa expires expecting her to be green with envy and beg me to take her with me. Her reaction is unexpected. ‘Why would you want to go to Bali?’ she snorts, ‘it’s horrible. Full of drunk Aussies getting into fights and pissing in the street.’ Apparently Bali is the Aussie equivalent of a cheap holiday to Magaluf. In other words, a hellhole.

Determined to keep an open mind however, I jump on a plane from Sydney, boyfriend in tow and land a few hours later in Denpasar. Sticky heat envelops us as soon as we walk out of the airport and are immediately accosted by insistent cab drivers. Our cab weaves through Kuta’s late night mayhem, narrowly avoiding mopeds, pedestrians and stray dogs, passing busy bars with flashing neon lights. I worry that, maybe, my Aussie  friend was right…

We have booked a room at the great value Island hotel in Legian, the halfway point between the two hotspots: crazy Kuta and posh Seminyak, hoping for a mixture of the two. Our cab stops at the top of a dark, narrow alley. ‘Your hostel, down there’, our driver points into the darkness before speeding off. We exchange concerned glances before heading down the alley where we find ourselves at a dead end. Eventually we realise, after a few frantic phonecalls, that the hostel is right next to us, the entrance hidden behind a huge bamboo curtain. The website wasn’t kidding when it said this place was tucked away.

In the morning, we wake up to brilliant sunshine and the thick, sticky humidity that is typical of SE Asia. Our room looks over a small courtyard with a pool and beanbags dotted around. Tucked away in a corner sits a sacred shrine, flowers and offerings at its base, filling the courtyard with the sweet scent of incense. There are hundreds of these shrines scattered around Legian, hidden down narrow streets, tucked unassumingly into corners or holding pride of place in gardens and at shop fronts. Each morning, the locals place small offerings on the shrines and in the doorways of their homes and businesses, small woven baskets of incense, flowers and some form of food (often, for some reason, packets of mentos.)

During the day, we explore the streets of Legian, peering down the many little alleyways, or ‘gang’ and stepping over countless offerings scattered over the ground. We walk until we find ourselves on Seminyak beach, a long stretch of white sand sprinkled with chilled out beach bars and colourful parasols. We pick a spot and try the famous Bintang beer and fresh coconut milk. Later, in search of food, we try hiring scooters. Originally we decide to take one each but it becomes very clear, after I almost crash into a sunglasses stand and at the insistence of the very concerned shop owner, that this may not be the best idea. So instead I hop on the back and cling to my boyfriend as he navigates the way through the narrow, bustling streets that seem to have no traffic rules whatsoever, (overtaking from any direction, 4 people and a baby squeezed on a moped, no helmets etc…)

It’s chaos, but everyone we meet during our brief stay here, especially the hotel staff, are smiling, open and friendly and despite the traffic madness and the night life, I wonder where Kuta’s unsavoury reputation has come from.Give me Kuta over Magaluf any day…

After exploring our Balinese starting point we go to sleep early in our hidden away little hostel. We wake up at dawn the next day to board a hot, stuffy bus to Padang Bai where we board an equally hot and stuffy boat that will take us to our next highly anticipated destination, the enticing Gili islands…

 

Where:     The Island Hotel, Legian    

http://theislandhotelbali.com

 

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Colourful beach side bars in Seminyak

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In case you forget…