New Zealand: Oh, The Places You'll See!


February 2018 - Mt. Cook, New Zealand


When I try to pull New Zealand from memory, I am lost for words on how to best describe it. That's just how ineffable its natural beauty is. I still have a vivid image of it to this day: a broad green farmland spread out in all directions punctuated by a flock of sheep and a herd of cows with mountains at the backdrop. I thought of nothing but this scene passing at the back of my mind. With long, winding roads to drive, snow-capped mountains to hike and the bluest lakes to marvel at, it far exceeded what I have always envisioned New Zealand would be like.

If you want to explore this incredible country, be sure to prepare your body for long drives, your feet for tedious hikes and your eyes for the painting-like views during the journey. New Zealand will definitely test your endurance and tire you out first before you will be rewarded by its beauty.


New Zealand is comprised of two islands namely - the North and South Island. With only two weeks to explore this amazing country, below are the places I managed to get a glimpse of.

The North Island

Mt. Manganui, Tauranga 

Drive: 2.5 Hours from Auckland
View:  Beach and Mountain
Hike:   Yes, 2 hours return


The best viewpoint will be no doubt from the top. With a challenging steep hike trail (some with stairs) it can take about an hour or so to reach its summit at 232 meters. I wasn't prepared nor dressed to hike and a lot of times almost gave up convincing myself that the view is beautiful enough even not from its peak.




After allowing myself to recuperate a couple of times, I finally reached the top with two of my friends! The view of the sandbar from above was just absolutely stunning. All the sweat and calories burnt were definitely worth it. 


Reached the top!


A dip at the gorgeous beach will be a great reward after an hour's hike!



Cathedral Cove Beach, Coromandel

Drive: 2.5 hours from Tauranga
View:  Beach
Hike:  Optional, 2 hours return

The hike down to the cove beach was a bit intense since it was inclined. It can take about 45 minutes to 1 hour to reach the shore. Alternatively, you can take the water taxi from Hahei beach and reach the beach within 10 minutes for NZD 30 return. What we did was hike it down and took the water taxi on the way back. I wouldn't really recommend to hike it either way up or down since there wasn't any nice view to get you going, just mostly trees and shrubs.



The Cove



The beach and the cove didn't disappoint. With a great weather that day, I was able to take a dip on its cool water and play with its waves. If you opt to stay here a bit longer, be sure to bring food and drinks with you.







Rotorua

Drive: 3 hours from Auckland
View:  Geothermal Fields
Hike:  None

This place smells like rotten egg due to its active geothermal fields. It reminds me of Iceland's Namajfall Hverir.




Hell's Gate is the most popular place to check out geothermal fields and even take a mud bath. For an entrance fee of NZD 35, you get to walk around a massive area of geothermal fields. I recommend to visit this during late in the afternoon to avoid the flock of tourists in the morning. We arrived there at about 5 PM and we had the place all to ourselves. If you do not wish to pay an entrance fee, do some research as there are several other spots where you can see a geothermal field for free.








On the way to Rotorua, you might chance upon the popular tourist trap Hobbiton where some scenes from the blockbuster movie Lord of The Rings was filmed. I am a huge fan of this film and wanted to see it but I was utterly disappointed. For an entrance fee of NZD 79, surprisingly the place was a bit run down. There are a lot of other places where the film was shot across New Zealand (for free) that might be even more interesting to see than this.


Checking out The Hobbit's home






The South Island


Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki

Drive: 3 hours from Christchurch
View:  Lake, Mountain
Hike:   None

Flying from Auckland to Christchurch, we drove ourselves to Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. It was not a typical roadside scenery - an endless blanket of blue,  spread out under the sun lay before us. It was the bluest lake I have ever seen, as if it's part of the same sky. 

If you have more time to spare, bring some packed lunch and enjoy the scenic view or better yet book an accomodation overlooking this lake. Depending on the time of the year, it could get filled up easily. We only managed to get an accomodation at Twizel, which is another town about a half hour drive.


Enjoying the scenic view at Lake Tekapo


Its colour shone with an exceptional clarity under the sun

Lake Pukaki is approximately a 30-minute drive from Lake Tekapo.

Lake Pukaki


Tasman Glacier

Drive: 3.5 hours from Christchurch, 1 hour from Twizel
View: Mountain and Lake
Hike: Yes, 1 hr return

The hike to the viewing deck is tolerable, with wooden planks to guide you on the way up. You don't really have to climb it straight away as there are several spots to take a breather and enjoy the post-card views. 







Hooker Valley Track

Drive: 10 minutes from Tasman Glacier
View:  Mountain Ranges
Hike:   Yes, approximately 3 hours return


Perhaps the most challenging hike we have done for the whole trip, we didn't manage to finish it up to the end. There is a signage to warn visitors that the hike can take 3 hours return approximately. We were hiking for 2 hours and we were still about 15-20 minutes away (probably 30 minutes with our pace). We decided to return and though we didn't finish it til the end, the view of Mt. Cook from afar was still worth it.



We've been warned!



Tiring but the views are rewarding...


There are several hanging bridges you would have to cross. 



The farthest we have reached before we head back. It seems like it's still a long way down.



The Lone Tree at Lake Wanaka

Drive: 2.5 hours from Hooker Valley
View: Lake with the lone tree, mountain ranges 
Hike: None


Although the waters are not as blue as Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, it still holds its own charm by having a lone willow tree deeply rooted on its waters. This is quite an attraction and perhaps the most photographed tree across New Zealand. There are no signs around the lake where it is situated so you have to keep your eyes peeled for flock of tourists in one area of the lake that are for sure photographing this tree. 


Alone with the tree


Apart from the tree, you can take a dip on the lake which most of the locals do, or just sit by the shore and enjoy the scenic lake.



Queenstown

Drive: 1 hour from Lake Wanaka via Crown Ridge 
(Option 2: Take a domestic flight from Auckland or Christchurch)
View:  Lake, Mountains
Hike:  Optional

Perhaps the most popular part of the South Island, I was not surprised to see tourists flock in here for the spectacular view of Lake Wakatipu set against the dramatic Southern Alps. This is also every adventurer's paradise - from the thrill of doing kayaking to bungee jumping, to hiking, to white water rafting, to skiing - you name it, they got it. No wonder this resort town is well renowned to be the Adventure Capital of the World.


Taking it all in. Watching the Sunset at Queenstown.
This town is not fitted to be just visited for a couple of days. To make it all worth it, I suggest you to stay for at least a week. But then there's the compromise of having to pay more. Queenstown, like any other part of New Zealand, is expensive. 


Balcony view from our accomodation at The Remarkables Retreat.

Trying to squeeze in our three nights, we only managed to do bungee jumping, took a stroll at the town centre and rode up the skyline gondola.


Specifically chosen to jump at Nevis Queenstown for the amazing view.
At 134 M, this is the highest bungee point in New Zealand.

The view from the Skyline Gondola. 

If not for the ferries passing by, the lake would have been too beautiful to be mistaken as some painted background in a movie. Everything was at rest, placid and tranquil.



The famous TSS Earnslaw ship about to set sail at Lake Wakatipu



Milford Sound

Drive: 10 hrs return from Queenstown (Option 2: take a charter plane from Queenstown. This is faster with a scenic, aerial view)
View:  Fjord, Tasman Sea
Hike:   Optional

It was a long travel from Queenstown so it is more convenient to sign up for a tour on this one (if you are only doing a day trip). There are several tour operators that can pick you up from almost all accomodation areas around Queenstown. We have chosen to go with Juicy Cruise. For NZD 145 each, we got a pick up/drop off from/to Queenstown, a pita lunch, and the cruise.


Our Juicy cruise ship.

The cruise lasted for nearly two hours. With the fog and low lying clouds surrounding the fjords, the scene looks like some beautiful allegorical painting, with the rippling waves of the Tasman Sea adding to that effect.




There are several waterfalls that can be spotted as you cruise along and if you get lucky, you might catch a glimpse of dolphins and seals along the way.



Milford Sound is usually wet all year around, so be sure to bring in a hoodie. We were blessed with an overcast weather that day so we were able to enjoy the view up on the open deck of the cruise.



Travel Tips

The total maximum budget we have allotted for the trip is NZD 2,000 each (excluding air fare, for a group of six adults, traveling for two weeks). I managed to spend only about NZD 1,400 (excluding the bungee jump). If you will be planning on taking a trip to New Zealand, do take note of these travel tips that can save you a lot of money.

1. Pack your own food. 
   Dining out in New Zealand is expensive. I live in the most expensive city in the world (Singapore) and I still find New Zealand expensive (imagine that).
    One of the perks of traveling with a group of friends is that you can share the expenses of grocery and just prepare good old home-cooked meals. We always made sure we have packed food with us when travelling. We even had porridge by the beach!

2. Bring a water bottle
   Tap water is safe to drink in New Zealand. During long drives you will definitely need to keep hydrated. It won't hurt to save a few dollars for free water.

3. Rent a car.
   You will definitely need a car to get around New Zealand. Although you can sign up for tours, driving at your own car gives you more flexibility on the time and pace of the journey. Some people opt to drive camper vans and that's another option you can consider too.
    

4. Stay at Motels.
   If you are not a fancy traveler, check in at motels. They are relatively way cheaper than hotels. Most of it are equipped with a kitchen so you can still prepare food rather than dining out. We only did a splurge on our accomodation at Queenstown because we wanted to have the lake view.


5. Research, research, research for Free Sceneries!
    Most of the places we went to didn't need an entrance fee. New Zealand itself is already an open free museum! Driving around, be sure to look out for some viewing points along the way where you can easily pull up and marvel at the amazing free views.


Lastly, don't rush - take it all in, enjoy every minute of the journey to marvel at all the amazing sceneries. New Zealand for sure never runs out of it. All the long drives and tedious walks will be all worth it in the end.



 
  

Battle of the Cities: Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi?

June 2017 - Ho Chi Minh City Hall


I have always been asked which city would I recommend to first time travellers to Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Hanoi? These are the two most visited and popular cities of the country thus ending up always being compared. 

Hanoi is one of the places I have always wanted to see while HCMC has never really made it on my travel list until the occasion to go there finally came last June 2017.

Now that I was able to visit both cities, I can now lay down the scorecards. 



1. Things to Do/See

The Old Quarter in itself is already a great start to get a glimpse of Hanoi. You only need to walk it to experience the fullness of it which makes it a lot easier for first time travellers. I never actually needed a map to explore it. Curiosity has led me to see most of its well visited sites. 


Take a stroll at Hoan Kiem Lake



Watch the Water puppet show.
(The theater is located right across from Hoan Kiem Lake)

Visit St. Joseph's Cathedral

Ho Chi Minh on the other hand was like any other busy cities - full of skyscrapers which are a bit modern to my taste.


Saigon Notre-Dame Basillica


Ho Chi Minh City Hall at the backdrop.



Rooftop bars offering a view of Ho Chi Minh City 

Day Trips

Hanoi is well known for Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although a bit far from the city centre (about 4-5 hours drive), it is still possible to see it even for a day's tour and definitely not to be missed.


The beautiful Halong Bay



inside the Tien Cung Cave


Ho Chi Minh offers a lot of day trips too but we opted to spend one night at Mui Ne. It's about 4-5 hours train ride from HCMC giving tourists such a refreshing scenery from the hustle and bustle of the city.



It has vast sand dunes and stunningly beautiful beaches to explore, something I never thought Vietnam has.





Waiting for the sunset at the Red Sand Dunes.

But concentrating on the cities alone, I prefer the old vibe of Hanoi.

HANOI 1 HCMC 0

2. Food

As I have mentioned in my previous blogs, I am not really a foodie when traveling and would gladly settle for cup noodles if need be. But somehow, Vietnamese cuisine has piqued my appetite. 


Beef Pho Noddles & Beef Wraps at Cafe Notre Dame, Hanoi

I find Hanoi has a lot more places that offer local cuisines compared to Ho Chi Minh. Every little alley I walked into the Old Quarter has something delicious to sell. 

                                                         


One of personal favourites - Banh Mi at Banh-Mee, Hanoi
                                           
Ho Chi Minh on the other hand has a lot more fusion of Western cuisines to offer to tourists who may not find the local cuisine that appealing. I even saw a Jollibee outlet (a popular Filipino fast food chain) in the heart of the city.

Beef Skewers and Rice at The View Rooftop Bar, HCMC 

Salami and Vegetable wraps with peanut sauce at The View Rooftop Bar, HCMC


HANOI 2  HCMC 0

3. Accommodation

Both cities have a great variety of accommodation type to choose from. I traveled solo to Hanoi and still managed to get a reasonable room for a reasonable price. Its location was very convenient and everything was within walking distance.


Tucked in one of the little alleys at the Old Quarter, Hanoi


I traveled to HCMC with two other friends and the room that we shared was nothing fancy but it was on a good location. It was walking distance to Ben Than Market and Street Food Market which was pretty convenient.


Located at District 1, HCMC.
(photo from Tripadvisor)



HANOI 3 HCMC 1

4. Accessibility

Both cities have international airports which make them easily accessible. Direct flights from Singapore to Hanoi are more expensive compared to Ho Chi Minh. Other travelers usually fly to Ho Chi Minh first then make their way to Hanoi (either by domestic flight, train or bus) to make the fare cost lower.


Ho Chi Minh City from above

Hanoi from above

In terms of going around, I didn't find the need to grab a cab to explore both cities. The key is to get an accommodation on a good location where you can just walk to explore the city. 


HANOI 4 HCMC 2

5. Shopping


I don't really splurge in shopping when traveling (except for souvenirs). Both  cities offer night markets selling clothes, shoes, paintings, food, coffee and a variety of other souvenirs. Although I find shopping in Hanoi cheaper than in HCMC, I have enjoyed checking out the night markets on both cities thus giving both a point on this category.

HANOI 5 HCMC 3


These are all based on my travel experience and preference and it may have varied from the date and timing that I have traveled as well. Overall, I was more impressed with Hanoi's sites and its simple quaintness- giving it a bit more character than HCMC.

If you prefer the big cities and modern sites - go to Ho Chi Minh City. But if you prefer a little peculiarity and a feel of some good, old vibe - visit Hanoi.


>>> Read more about Hanoi

An Impulsive Solo Trip to Hanoi


>>> Read more about Mui Ne

Exploring Mui Ne, Vietnam