Ha Giang City, Vietnam - Riding the most northern loop

 

Contributor : Milan
Nationality  : The Netherlands
Instagram   : @milan_travels
Age Group  : 19-30
Gender        : Male
Trave Style  : Backpacking by motorbike
Destination :Ha Giang City, Ha Giang province, Vietnam  
Date            : 29th january 2017

Inspiration:  

I was already planning to explore Vietnam by motorbike. Why? To be ultimately free and go wherever I want to go. Explore those beaten tracks not every backpacker has taken yet.

I heard about this most northern loop from another backpacker I met in Laos. After a little google session about the area, I realized where I was about to plunge myself into. I was sold.

Stunned by the pictures of the amazing scenery and roads yet to be discovered. Let's go!

Getting There:

After buying my beloved new motorbike I took off from Hanoi and was heading for my first stop. Ba Be Lake. I would recommend this place to everybody who is heading for Ha Giang. Stunning views and very welcoming people. Plenty of homestays where you can spend the night with the still remaining ethnic Tay people. The road is long and curvy to Ha Giang. Planning ahead and picking your towns to stay the night is crucial.

Local Knowledge:

Still interested? Well, the more north you go the more mystical the landscape gets. You will find yourself driving alongside massive limestone peaks in the mountains and looking down into giagantic valleys people built villages in. The people talk different, eat different and dress different. Ha Giang is the most northern province of Vietnam and the last frontier bordering to China.

Where To Stay:

Bong Backpacker Hostel, Ha Giang City:

Dorm rooms and clean facilities. They organize family dinners where you can eat local dishes with the staff and locals. Most popular in town and great for running into other backpackers.

Thanh Thao Motel, Yen Minh:

Affordable private room with 2 beds so even cheaper when sharing the room.

Lam Tung Hotel, Dong Van:

Private room which I shared with some other bikers. Private bathroom, TV and Wi-Fi included.

After a long day of riding the only thing I cared for was a bed and a shower.

What To Do:

Overall this is about the whole experience of riding the most northern loop of Vietnam.

Getting to know the true north of Vietnam. Enjoying the unreal sights from the edge of a cliff. Interacting with the shy but friendly ethnic groups living in the mountains. Tasting their local dishes. Playing with those colorful dressed children. Wanting to stop every 10 minutes to make a better picture of the scenery than the last one. Because really, the environment seems to change every blink of an eye. From driving in the clouds to braking your way down a steep hill and an endless amount of U-turns until you suddenly drive in the most rural village between massive pinnacles of limestone. 

Eating:

Think about this: Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, McDonalds, milkshakes, pizza, hotdogs, pasta.. 

Now back to reality.

Not there.

Think more like rice in every form (steamed, sticky, noodles, pancakes, porridge).

Look for Bahn Mi. Delicious sandwiches with fillings like pork belly, fish cakes, meatballs and not-messing-around chilies. 

My everyday lunch was Phở Ga. Noodle soup with chicken, herbs and spices, lemon and chili.

Number 1 "Must Do":

A must do is definitely climbing The North Pole. A gigantic tower carrying the flag of Vietnam.

After climbing the staircase to the base of the tower, the views were already magnificent. Climb up to the very top of the tower and you'll have a spectacular 360 degree panorama view over the Yunnan province of China.

If you made it this far. Congratulations! You made it to the most northern part and last frontier of Vietnam.

Number 1 "Must See":

During my trip there was this annual festival down in the valley. A small and simple village was packed with people from all kinds of tribes. All the women were dressed up as colorful as they could with their traditional tribe clothes on.

When I drove a little bit further I noticed the men showing off their strength by competing in games like rope pulling to impress the ladies. Or should I say future wifes?

Top Travel Tip:

Take - your - time. 
Explore, taste, play, see and enjoy your time in the present. Because by the time you have left the north and start heading somewhere else, you are going to think back about this beautiful and remote place.

Excess Baggage: 

Be aware of the weather conditions in the time of the year you're planning to visit Ha Giang Province. It can get pretty chilly up in the mountains in contrast to the warm and tropical south of Vietnam.


Bora Bora, French Polynesia - Honeymoon in Paradise

 

Contributor : Andrew
Nationality  : Australian
Instagram   @andrewmarty_
Age Group  : 30-40 yo
Gender        : Male
Trave Style  : Leisure
Destination  :Bora Bora, French Polynesia.
Date              : July 2016. 10 days

 
 

Inspiration:  
My fiancé had wanted to holiday in Bora Bora since before we were even engaged. I think it had a lot to do with the fact it was so hard to get to, the remoteness and the knowledge if we were ever going to holiday in Bora Bora, this was the opportunity. To be honest we debated over whether our honeymoon should be somewhere unique like Iceland or Norway, somewhere modern like Japan or the more iconic honeymoon beach getaway. The beach won!

Of course we had seen the images of the over-water bungalows and the perfect blue water in magazines and online. We really wanted that exclusive, unforgettable, irreplaceable honeymoon. We looked at a lot of the popular island beach escapes and it was through the world of Instagram that we became more familiar with Bora Bora. Specifically, The Four Seasons Bora Bora was featured in Conde Nast Middle East - from there our minds were made.

Getting There:
Ironically, one of the attractions of Bora Bora for us was its remoteness. In fact, from our home in Dubai it is probably as far away as we could go. There are a few ways to get to Bora Bora, but all will involve an international flight into Vaitape, Tahiti. The airport receives flights from Auckland, Los Angeles and Honolulu. We flew with Emirates from Dubai to Auckland, via Melbourne - although there is now a direct Dubai to Auckland flight. We had a 2 day stop-over in Auckland on the way there, which was enough to experience the city. 

In Vaitape, we stayed the night at a cheap airport hotel due to connections times. It did help to adjust with time zones to get some sleep before heading to Bora Bora. The small domestic flight into Bora Bora offers your first opportunity to experience the magnificence. There is no allocated seating so try and board early and get a seat on the left of the plane (facing the cockpit) for your inbound flight. On this side you will get the best view of the island on your descent - the volcano remnant that is Mount Otemanu on the main island, the magnetic blue lagoon, the surrounding sand atol and the deep blue Pacific Ocean...........its an unforgettable image.

Arriving at Motu Mute airport, we were greeted by staff from The Four Seasons Resort. From the moment you arrive, the Polynesian culture is captivating - friendly, happy, welcoming and accommodating. There is a short boat ride from the airport to the resort, with each property providing its own shuttle service. 

Local Knowledge:
Many people are surprised to find out that Bora Bora is actually part of the French Republic. There are a total of 118 islands and atols spread over quite a large area of the Pacific Ocean that make up French Polynesia. Bora Bora is part of the Society Islands along with Tahiti. French Polynesia is still under French control and inhabitants have French passports. The majority of inhabitants speak French and there is a mix between native Polynesian and French migrants living on Bora Bora and the other Polynesian islands. The islands, including Bora Bora, have a very interesting history of colonisation and interaction with countries that are geographically very remote. In addition to the French influence, Bora Bora became particularly prominent for the United States during World War II, when it became an important supply base in the Pacific. The Americans developed a lot of infrastructure during this time including the current airport, which at the time it was built was the only international airport in French Polynesia. Several of the cannons that guarded the island during the war are still features of the islands landscape.

Words Of Wisdom:
Bora Bora is unique in that it is made up of a central island and surrounding atol (sand islands) - this creates the uniquely protected lagoon that surround the main island. Most of the iconic 5-star resorts are on the surrounding atol and are very independent of each other. A huge appeal of these resorts is that your are quite secluded. The seclusion does restrict your access to shops and services. Whilst the resorts essentially cater for everything you need and can arrange for things to be brought to you, it is better to plan ahead. The main island does have a small, but well stocked grocery store, lots of pearl shops, some restaurants/cafes and other small stores. To get to the island you will need to take a shuttle boat, which isn't a free service! I would recommend bringing anything you think you might need with you!

Always an interesting travel question is the accepted/expected culture around tipping. In French Polynesia it isn't customary to tip staff, which some people find unusual. I think it is a case of each to their own, but it certainly isn't expected or mandatory like it is in some parts of the world.

Whilst both French and a dialect of Polynesian are spoken on Bora Bora, we found nearly everyone did speak see English. Its always nice to learn some of the local greetings and this is even more so in Bora Bora, where the local people are so friendly and always greet you with a smile and the customary "Ia Ora Ana"!

French Polynesia is famous for pearls and it almost seems like there are more pearl shops in the main street on Bora Bora than there are residents. There is a vast range of sizes, quality and prices in the different shops and it can certainly appear quite confusing. We wanted something special to remember the honeymoon and looked around for some time in the different shops. One of the shops stood out in terms of their service and value for money. I would have no hesitation recommending Albert Store Bora Bora. They were extremely patient, gave unbiased advice and their service was excellent. It is a family owned store and they are happy to talk you through the entire process from pearl cultivation to showing you how they select and design strings of pearls. If you are looking for a special momento, definitely visit this store!

Where To Stay:
If you are travelling to Bora Bora, then this is the time to save and splurge the extra to stay in an over water bungalow. French Polynesia was where this concept originated and they have come to perfect the iconic accomodation! When we decided on Bora Bora as our honeymoon destination, we allowed the visual world of instagrm to help narrow our search of where to stay - it was almost impossible to go past The Four Seasons Resort!

From the moment we stepped onto the property, everything was first class. Guests are treated to a tour of the small island and all the facilities, before being taken to their private bungalows. Whilst there was a certain expectation that the rooms would be of a high standard, we were beside ourselves with just how luxuriously fitted out the bungalows were. From the quality amenities, through to the deck that opens out onto the stunning blue waters and views of Mt Otemanu. Each bungalow has complimentary snorkel and fins on your sundeck, so at any time you can simply slip into the water and enjoy the variety of sea life 

The resort staff were amazing, they genuinely are passionate about trying to make sure every guest enjoys their stay to the fullest.

We did find that the resort catered mainly for couples - honeymoon, anniversary, retirees and also to families. It probably isn't the ideal destination for groups of young travellers and the nightlife is relatively quiet. We found this perfect for a honeymooning couple, but did agree that teenagers or groups of young travellers might not enjoy the very relaxed atmosphere.

It isn't a cheap option by any stretch and it might be hard to justify aside from a special occasion. That said, I think if you are going to spoil yourselves, you definitely want to feel like it was worth the expense and this you will get at Four Seasons, Bora Bora. 

There are a large number of activities complimentary at the resort and many others that the concierge will arrange. We didn't feel there was very much at all we needed to do that was outside of what the resort offered or sourced.

The Resort itself has a large private lagoon where guests can kayak around, lay by the water or explore with snorkel and mask. It is a really safe place to learn how to snorkel or get your confidence, children can even float on "pool-noodles" while learning how to snorkel. The resort has a resident marine biologist, Dr Oliver Martin, who has cultivated coral gardens and small reef structures and successfully developed an entire ecosystem. From the smallest invertebrates, myriads of colourful fish, right through to moray eels hiding in small caves, the lagoon is a great place to explore. Oliver also runs educational tours where guests can learn more about the delicate coral reefs and how we can help to preserve them for future generations.

Four Seasons has an excellent fitness and wellness centre. The gym is very well equipped with weights and cardio equipment. It opens onto the ocean side of the resort and its uniquely relaxing to sit on an exercise bike watching the waves of the Pacific Ocean pound into the reef. The wellness centre is absolutely perfectly set up for couples spa treatments - with a wide range of options for massage and relaxation. There are several baths of different temperatures to soak in. The therapists are experienced and a relaxing massage in this perfect setting is a wonderful way to really unwind. 

Four Seasons has a large number of activities at the resort that you can get involved in. We tried out some of the water sports - kayaking and the water bike which are fun ways to explore. There is also volleyball, badminton, tennis, yoga and jet skiing. It is truly hard to explain the difficulty in balancing the want to try everything, yet also take advantage of one of the most relaxing places to simply lounge by the water.

What To Do:
The list of possible activities that are provided by Four Seasons is impressive. Probably the only difficult decision we had for our honeymoon was deciding how we were going to try and fit everything in, especially when its so tempting just to spend hours lounging on the private deck or by the pool. One of the best features of Four Seasons Resort was they gave fantastic advice both before we arrived and after arrival in terms of what activities they thought we would enjoy. The bookings team and then the concierge are great at co-ordinating all your activities and you receive an itinerary each evening listing what you are doing the next day, where you need to be and what you need to take! Like i said, deciding what to do is your only stress!

Scuba Diving: Getting our SCUBA accreditation was one of the best things we have done - it literally opens up experiences into worlds that simply have to be seen. As soon as we decided on travelling to Bora Bora, we talked about the chance to dive with manta rays. In the days leading up to our dive, we were lucky enough to see the incredible rays from the air whilst parasailing and from the boat, as one leapt from the water. We put the pressure on the dive team that we really wanted to dive with manta rays........and they didn't disappoint! What had been a an otherwise nice reef dive, became perfect when we became immersed in a plankton ball. As we sat there, 2 manta rays circled around us feasting on the plankton and seeming not to care at all about the wide-eyed humans in the middle. It is no exaggeration to say we could've stayed there for hours, unfortunately the restriction of oxygen supply meant we had to bid farewell and return to the surface. I would recommend to anyone traveling to Bora Bora or other tropical islands to consider getting their PADI open water accreditation. You can even do the last couple of dives at accredited places whilst on holiday.

Parasailing: Another of the out-sourced activities available is parasailing. This is done from a beach on the main island of Vaitape, so it works in well to pin it on a day you want to spend doing things in the town or one of the other activities on the main island (e.g. helicopter tours) - it just means you will only pay for the shuttle boat once and less time is spent going back and forth. The parasailing was a great experience and a truly unique way to see Bora Bora. The staff were French and didn't speak great English, which was fine, however if you didn't speak French or English as a first language it would've been very difficult to communicate.

Game Fishing: Fishing is a huge part of the Polynesian culture. It is also a very popular past-time for visiting tourists. The waters around Bora Bora are home to some of the most sought after game fish - Mahi Mahi, Marlin, Wahu, Tuna. I booked a full day fishing aboard one of the large ocean fishing boats with high hopes of landing a monster from the sea. Unfortunately it wasn't our day! The fishing trip was extremely expensive compared to the other activities and whilst things like catching fish are never a guarantee, I would have hoped that for $1700.00 you might be provided with something to eat during your 8 hours at sea. I found that itself pretty disappointing. The local knowledge of the captain was fascinating and helped pass the time as we cruised waiting for an interest in our lures. I would find it hard to recommend this activity based on my experience and I think not providing any food at all, was totally unacceptable.

Snorkel Tour: This is one activity we hadn't booked, but that the concierge recommended. We enjoyed this activity so much we actually did it twice when we realised we had a spare half day at the end of our stay! The tour is a really casual boat trip around the island with extremely entertaining staff. They take you to a spot known for having plenty of sting-rays that can be fed by hand. The staff are careful to ensure only rays that have had their barbs removed are handled and whilst it is a little artificial in that the rays come for the free feed, it is still a great experience with these wild creatures! Next you are taken to visit a "coral garden" - an area full of brightly coloured corals and a huge variety of tropical fish. There are usually a few boats of tourists in the one area and quite a few people in the water, so it pays to just spend your time quietly exploring! Whilst most people are attracted to the larger numbers of more common fish, you can spend time on more selective areas of coral and just hover over them watching the fascinating lives of aquatic life. There is an enormous moray eel that inhabits a known hole at one of the coral garden stops and he is well worth stopping to see. The final stop is outside the calm waters of the reef surrounding Bora Bora - swimming with the sharks. The area has a large population of reef sharks and if you are lucky, a few larger lemon sharks. There is something so fascinating about being in the water with sharks - no matter what size and how many times you tell yourself these are not dangerous! Sharks are one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet and stepping off the boat and going into their world is a humbling experience. I absolutely loved snorkelling around just watching how effortlessly they power through the water and looking into their beady eyes as they stare straight back. 

Eating:
For the most part, eating is at the resort as it isn't possible to go anywhere else without taking the shuttle. Four Seasons Resort has numerous restaurants which we found very good. There is a Japanese theme restaurant, The Sunset Bar, on the water that was the best value for money and we felt the best quality also! It is a great place for a few casual drinks at sunset and then some nice sushi. Fare Hoa is a grill restaurant and we had a fantastic seafood platter. There is a fine dining restaurant, which to be honest we didn't try, as we decided to do the private beach dinner instead.

The casual dining restaurant, Tere Nui, does breakfast and lunch which are fantastic. The range of the breakfast buffet is the perfect start to the day. It is a mixture between what you would expect from Tahitian cuisine (fresh fruit, sweet breads) and french cuisine. There is a smaller restaurant that is for adults only for breakfast - we tried this once and to be honest found the atmosphere was lacking, the range not as good and they brought most of the food from the main restaurant anyway. Definitely try as much lots of the fresh island fruit, its incredible.

The in room dining menu is actually really good and pretty reasonable. As unexciting as it sounds, we often do a night or 2 of really laid back in room dining if we are staying somewhere for a few days. Sometimes its nice just to stay in, lounge around and have a really relaxed dinner! I couldn't really fault their in room dining menu or service. When you can literally sit on your own private deck and eat a meal as the sun goes down, you almost have to!

In Vaitape itself, there are several casual restaurants. We ate at Aloe Cafe after being told that the "popular" Bloody Mary's was quite touristy and only popular because it was on the harbour. Aloe cafe was simple and super casual but the food was nice. Really cheap meal too! In addition to Bloody Mary's, there are several other places on the wharf.

The store in Vaitape does sell a range of food. If you are staying in the resorts, there aren't facilities for cooking, so you are really only looking at snacks or necessities. There is a bottle shop in the store, so if you are wanting to buy alcohol, this would be an alternative to buying duty free on the way.

Number 1 "Must Do":
There is an option to book a private beach dinner through the resort - this was without doubt a memory from our honeymoon we will never forget!

We were picked up from the dock before sunset by Herre, a Tahitian native with a smile and personality as big as the Pacific Ocean. He had built the wooden outrigger himself and made it into a luxury vessel complete with couches and sunbed. As we travelled to our private beach, our host provided drinks, nibbles and a local serenade complete with ukulele.

The beach location was our own little piece of paradise for the evening and he had set up a table literally on the waters edge. We were provided with truly traditional cuisine - recipes he had learned and developed from family. All the ingredients were fresh local produce, from the tuna caught by boats no more than a mile from where we sat to the vanilla in our fruit salad from the nearby island of Raiatea. It was actually so incredible to be treated to great local food, personally prepared by someone so passionate about showcasing his culture to people.

Herre played his ukulele while we ate and after the beautiful sunset, he performed a traditional fire-dance routine - a local custom and competitive pass-time. As we sat and enjoyed the evening, he talked us through the constellations of stars that you only get to see when you travel outside populated areas. He explained how his ancestors had used the stars to navigate their way across the vast Pacific as far as Hawaii.

As he drove us back across the water to the resort, we both fell asleep on the sunbed at the bow of the outrigger - that content sleep you have on a full belly after an amazing evening!

Number 1 "Must See":
Nearly everywhere you look around Bora Bora is stunning, above and below water level, but something we both found fascinating was the changing "faces" of Mount Otemanu. We would literally get out of bed excitedly each morning to see what our view from the bungalow deck looked like. From clear metallic blue skies, clouds clinging to the peak, a spectacular double rainbow, through to one morning when heavy rain made it almost impossible to see the mountain at all. Even throughout the day, the view of the iconic mountain would change from hour to hour. It was hard to walk to and from the bungalow and not want to photograph that view.

Top Travel Tip:

If you are going to Bora Bora for your honeymoon, it is well worth getting some great photos to "capture the moment". It is without doubt one of the most visually stunning places to visit and the resort put us in touch with a local professional photographer who knew the area well and how to get some great pictures. Like our wedding, these photos will help the memories of our amazing honeymoon last forever. Our photographer was Damien Gobron (Instagram @boraboraphotographer) and he captured some stunning couple shots for us . In the era of "selfies" and smart-phone cameras, there are times when it is well worth getting some truly professional photos. 

5 Word Travel: 

Luxury. Honeymoon. Water. Perfect. Blue


Chamonix, France - Snow and Bikes

 

Contributor : Ryan
Nationality  : South African
Instagram    : ryanscott.33
Age Group   : 30-40
Gender         : Male
Trave Style   : Adventure, casual
Destination  : Chamonix, France

Chamonix, an impressive French valley, is best known as a bustling Alpine Ski Town visited in winter by a large number of people who make the journey to take advantage of the prolific snow falls and social après festivities. On the other side of winter though, there lies a season just as impressive in what it can offer those who have a taste for summer time mountain living.

In The Dark

Arriving in Chamonix at night set me up for one of the most impressive vistas to wake up to that I have ever experienced.  After a short bus ride from the Geneva airport in Switzerland, and a friendly late night check-in to the well priced accommodation at the International Ski School accommodation, I put my head down to make sure I was fresh to explore first thing the next morning.

First light is gallantly blocked by the many gigantic peaks surrounding the valley. It only manages to infiltrate some time after sunrise, but when it does, wow, the spectacle before you is one of power and awe!

It’s from an incredibly close proximity that the Mont Blanc Massif slopes rise directly from the Southern border of the town and sharply make their way skyward to separate the awe inspiring steep grey slopes, from the bright blue sky forming a canvas for those pristinely snow capped peaks that have lured of so many adventurers over the years.

It’s an exhilarating spectacle to stay in a town that feels so much a part of the mountain and to have such natural beauty so close by… with all this grandeur ready to adventure in, I went in search of ice-cream and beer.

UTMB Extravaganza

I was in town at the same time as the most prestigious trail running event of the global calendar, the famous Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. There are thousands of people in town. They’re here to run the race, or perhaps support a friend or family member who is taking on the challenge. The build up to the weekend’s race sees mountain lovers taking part in shorter iterations of the weekends 160km main-show, but even without the race, there are a huge number of people in the area who are there to experience one of the many mountain activities, or just enjoy the beauty of the bright, fresh, historically rich scenery which presents itself around every turn. With the big crowds though comes the challenge of knowing where best to hang out, fortunately my buddy Kane had been lapping up all Chamonix had to offer and was happy to meet for beers. His local spot, Elevation 1904.  We sucked back some beers to catch up, washed down with a burger and then hit the streets to take in some more local flavors, this time Gelato.

It was a great introduction to the town and it was only the next morning, that I noticed how many healthy looking older people were out and about, mixing it up with the younger lot.  Groups of three or four women in the 70’s were eagerly traipsing their booted legs towards a ski lift or mountain trail with definitive purpose, and a confident, experienced look to accompany the sparkle of adventure in their eyes. It has a lot to do with the ease of access to the mountain that keeps summer revelers coming back in their droves.

Glacial Lakes

My second morning and I decided I had better do something active so I grabbed some fresh fruit, cheese, and bread from a basic super market and headed upward, to the trails.

My first taste of taking on the challenge of the steep and unforgiving single track was as tough as I had imagined, but once through the tree line, with the vistas of the opposite mountain ranges opening up, and eventually, a skinny dip in a glacial lake at the top of my chosen route, and it became all too easy to see why Europeans of all ages keep coming back to what a travelling buddy calls, “the Disneyland of trail running”.

Town Hopping

I loved it in those mountains, but with so much action going on in the town for the UTMB races, and the lure of delicious cheese, heavy artisan breads, and the most glorious ice cream flavors to experiment with at least twice a day, it was as much of an adventure just cruising the streets of Chamonix and it’s neighbouring towns as it was up in the mountains.

Nearby Courmayeur is a charming neighbor to Charmonix. While investigating the twisting streets, I came across a postcard looking chapel. Skulking in for a closer inspection I realised there was a wedding taking place. I love how, in small towns in Europe, many of the residents come to pay their respects and satiate their curiosity at the wedding service.

Whispering old ladies were patiently sitting on the wall of this particular church, until the newly married couple exited via a huge heavy door that looked older than even the geriatric onlookers. The giddy shuffle from the chapel accompanied by bells to announced the joyous occasion, and I moved closer to the ornate piece of architecture to get a closer look at what freshly married French people look like, nobody even raised an eyebrow at my joining the gathering. I thought about moving along with the wedding party to sample some French wine, wedding cake, and perhaps a bridesmaid or two, but I had my own, far less matrimonial engagement to make, as I my buddy Ryan was coming over one of the peaks surrounding Courmayeur and I needed to get him a feed at the aid-station to help him onward in his 160km race.

The race is brutal and it didn’t go well for my buddy, instead of getting too low though, he just vows to come back and do it all again. Ultra distance runners are nutters, and if you know one, I have no doubt you’ll agree.  

Enough Sporty Spice

With my eyeballs filled up to the brim with everything running, it was refreshing to get a message from new friends in Geneva (met Nic and Mel on my stay over en route to Chamonix and that’s another story – include hyperlink to Geneva piece) asking if I would please look up a pair of Parisian living American women who were in Chamonix for the weekend. A couple of brief whatsapps and I found myself walking into the coolest bar in town. In winter it’s the hot spot for Apres Ski vibe, but now it was not nearly as busy, still, it would be interesting trying to pick out my rendezvous deux amongst the rest of the patrons.

After just a handful of darting glances left and right, I was drawn instantly to the two making the far end of the bar counter look a whole lot livelier than the rest. About to happily make my way over to them, I was thrown a curveball after spotting another two women closer to my current path. Dilemma. I wanted to pick the correct two out right away and had not had enough time to social-media-stalk the two beauties. I decided to go deep and was received by two, choice confirming, huge smiles, which welcomed me in warmly for the rest of the night.

Their stories are entwined and fascinating. The one I reciprocated was probably pretty spicy too, I’m not sure what I delivered, but we all got each other, and, as is the case in travelling, a little more time would have been more than welcomed. Definitely not the last I’ve seen of Megan and Maggie though, you might get to see them too if their recent pitching of a series (about their lives and random experiences such as the one I was living out with them in that very moment) makes it to fruition.

How to get there: Lufthansa and Swiss International Airways fly direct to Frankfurt and Zurich respectively and from there it’s a scenic train ride to Chamonix. Or fly Via Duabi on Emirates to Geneva , followed by a short transfer to Chamonix .

Where to eat: Burgers and beers at Elevation 1904 was our staple every evening with friendly staff, fellow travelers, and prices. Gellato from the street vendors and side stalls was an imperative dessert.

Where to sleep: AirBnb is a great option to find a place to stay and has been adopted to great effect by houses, hostels and small hotels in Chamonix so there is a lot of stock available.

Local things to try: Climb the wall, eat a wedge of fresh Saturday morning market cheese, take aski-lift ride to the glacier and camp on the mountain is good weather.


Kuwait City, Kuwait - A 2 Day Stop

 

Contributor   : Andrew
Nationality    : Australian
Instagram      @andrewmarty_
Age Group     : 30-40 yo
Gender           : Male
Trave Style     : Leisure
Destination     : Kuwait City, Kuwait
Date                : February 2017

Inspiration:
We all love to travel for leisure, but sometimes our jobs "require" us to visit destinations. Sometimes it can be a challenge and other times, there is a chance to experience the destination! This was the 3rd time I had visited Kuwait City for work. It is a city in the Middle East that is often visited for work due to its developing infrastructure and industry. Fortunately this time I had a couple of days where I could see some of the city.

Getting There:
Kuwait International Airport receives flights from a number of destinations, especially around the Middle East, but also many European cities, Asia and from New York JFK. Alternatively, it is only a relatively short connecting flight from Dubai or Doha on carriers such as Emirates and Qatar Airways.

Be aware that there are actually 2 terminals that are quite a way apart from each other - when returning to the airport they are actually about a 15 minute drive if you go to the wrong one! The main terminal receives the majority of the flights, whilst the smaller Sheikh Saad Terminal receives flights from carriers including Fly Dubai. The immigration process can be faster at the smaller terminal, however the facilities for phones, exchange, food and transport are more limited.

The visa on arrival process (if required) can be a little challenging if you don't know the tricks. First, take a number from the machine! Next, you need to buy stamps from a machine that does not give change and doesn't take credit cards! It also doesn't accept old currency! The stamps cost 3KD, so it is best to change some money before you land in Kuwait! Otherwise you will need to use an ATM and then try to buy something to get some change. There is a photocopy machine (sometimes attended) where you need to photocopy ur passport. Then fill out the immigration form and wait for your number to be called - from there the process is simple. I can't stress enough the frustration if you don't have those 3KD to buy the stamps, so please save yourself the headache and change some money ahead of time.

If you are hiring a car at the airport, be careful! Some of the companies will rent vehicles that are downright unsafe. The roads in Kuwait are not very good, so hiring a decent safe car is a real priority. I used a company called "Bentley" because it was the only company at the smaller terminal that was open. I cannot advise against hiring a car from this company strongly enough. The cars are unsafe and the service is deplorable. I would rather walk.

There are taxis, but again be cautious that the vehicle is safe for travel. Taxis aren't expensive so choose the better quality companies and only use genuine operators. At the airports there will be people who will offer to drive you to where you want to go but they are not genuine operators. Taxis are probably the easiest way to get around if you don't hire a car. There are not meters in the taxis, rather prices are either printed inside or agreed upon with the driver. As a general rule, short journeys start at 1KD and work up. The drivers will often try to bata for higher rates, but you will come to know quickly what the going rate is and avoid being "taken for a ride". You can also arrange "hotel taxis" which a re generally cleaner and much nicer, but cost a bit more. Relative to western cities, these taxis are still not too expensive!

Local Knowledge:
Kuwait is a relatively conservative city when it comes to religious and cultural practices. Bringing alcohol into Kuwait is forbidden and carries significant penalties. If you are coming for business, don't expect any late nights over bottles of red wine! As in all cultures, respect for local customs should be shown and in Kuwait that is largely focussed around the religious aspects. Like most cities though, its more about common sense and it is much less intimidating than people tend to make out. In Kuwait, women visitors don't need to cover their head, although dressing modestly in public places would be encouraged (covered shoulders and dresses past the knee).

The roads in Kuwait are not great in some areas and the local drivers can be frightening - zooming up the emergency lanes, zipping between cars at speed and not using indicator signals. Exercise caution if you are driving around Kuwait. It is very possible to navigate your way around and Googlemaps works quite well, but be prepared to stay patient and keep your wits about you!

Where to Stay:
There are a number of well known Western chain hotels in Kuwait city. I had previously stayed at the JW Marriott and must admit I found it to be quite dated.

I prefer to stay at the Jumeirah Messilah. It is a little way out of the centre of Kuwait city, which to be honest I don't mind. It has it own beach access and is not far from the airport. The rooms are very nice and so are the facilities. There is a Talise spa, well equipped fitness centre, kids club, pools and several dining options. The buffet breakfast is worth the extra money if you like a hearty start to the day!

If you are staying as a group or family, the villas are an excellent option and they have excellent kitchen facilities and living spaces.

Probably the only detraction is that it is a bit out of town, so walking to any tourist sites isn't an option - you are looking at a 2 to 4KD cab fare into most places.

What To See & Do:
Visit the Mubaraqiya Market at night, especially on a weekend when the crowd will actually provide more atmosphere. It is vastly different from the commercial malls and although not as traditional as middle eastern soul's once were, you will still get the traditional experience. You will find traditional butchers, spice stalls, date sellers, fabrics and tailors, fresh fruit and lots of bright lights and busy people. It's a very pleasant way to spend an evening strolling through the lanes. There are a couple of small traditional "coffee stalls", where local men will be sat around drinking coffee and talking loudly about their day. 

The Central Fish market is definitely a place worth visiting. Not to be confused with the Fish Market Restaurant, this seafood wholesalers is located at the marina near Souq Sharq. It is a large space filled with tables of fresh seafood sold to the public and restaurants. Buyers will bata with the fish mongers and the selection on offer is massive. It is open from 8am through to 9pm. If you go earlier you will see the fish being off-loaded from the many fishing boats that pull into the port. There is also a large population of very well fed cats!

On either side of the fish market is a marina. One side has mainly traditional fishing vessels and the other has a variety of private speed boats.

Liberation Tower is a large telecommunications tower that is a prominent landmark in the Kuwait City skyline. it is not possible to access the tower.

The Grand Mosque is a wonderful piece of architecture and a building visitors to Kuwait City should certainly visit. Outside is really impressive, however walking through the inside is the most breathtaking. You can enter the mosque outside of prayer times and there are local Kuwaitis who will happily take you for guided tours. Modest dress should be worn and women can borrow scarves when they enter to cover their hair. Inside is beautifully decorated with intricate details and lighting. 

Where To Eat:
A nice place to start any from hotel dining options is Arabella Mall. Situated on the water, there are a large number of restaurants in a pleasant atmosphere. There are some well known chain outlets like Cheesecake Factory, Texas Roadhouse and Paul cafe. I had sushi at Katsuya - it was decent without being outstanding, but the view was really nice! Probably a bit expensive for what it was.

Another popular place is The Avenues - the largest of the malls in Kuwait City. In addition to a wide range of shops, there is a huge selection of places to eat, although most are pretty "fast-foodie". The gelato at Moreli' is well worth trying!

I also ate at The Fish Market, which is very close to Kuwait Towers. I wouldnt say the quality is brilliant but its not bad. I was hoping for more traditional middle eastern style seafood, but most of the menu is asian inspired. You can also select seafood from the display and have it cooked to your preference.

The other place I ate was at the Mubarqiya Market - here you will find more of the traditional middle eastern cuisine - mixed grills, hummus, tabouleh, etc in the mostly Lebanese run restaurants that are mostly clustered together. Have a look around but they are mostly quite similar. I always think you can't go wrong with a fattoush (salad), tabouleh, hummus, mixed grill and aryes (minced meat between flat bread). This style of food is really quite cheap and if the market is busy, the atmosphere is really nice with a buzz from the crowd of people.

Must Do:
In almost all destinations, there is the temptation to tick off as many of the known tourist sites as possible. I also like to try and find a couple of things that are a bit more traditional and unique to the local area I'm visiting. a nice thing to do in many middle eastern countries is to take a drive away from the cities and check out some of the smaller, more bedouin towns. The landscape, although it may initially appear arid, can be surprisingly photogenic and spectacular.

I went for a short drive out of Kuwait City passed Jahra to a place called Al Matla. On a nice day or especially at night you will get a great view looking back over the city skyline from the elevated cliffs. Be careful driving off the road as the erosion has created some sharp drop offs. I saw a couple of people doing some rock-climbing. If you drive up the road and use the GoogleMaps coordinates (29.425130, 47.690547), you will turn right off road and drive past a small sheep farm and come to a nice outlook point. I came across 2 local Kuwaiti men who had set up a small fire and were starting to boil a kettle to make tea and coffee. It is a traditional practice in most middle eastern countries to invite strangers to share tea and coffee. If you get an opportunity in the desert like this, it is extremely pleasant to sit and share conversation - many locals speak very reasonable english and my arabic was good enough to at least provide entertainment.

The men told me this is quite a common spot for local people to come and sit. Unfortunately it has also led to a great deal of rubbish being left which does detract a bit. But if you have time and a car, this is well worth the drive out of the city.

Must See:
Kuwait Towers are probably the most iconic landmark in Kuwait City. I think the most impressive view from the ground is at night when they are dazzling with the colours of the Kuwaiti national flag. If you are going to pay to go up to the viewing neck however, i would suggest doing this on a clear day or around sunset - at night, they have lights on in the inside of the viewing deck, which reflect on the windows making it difficult to see and impossible to get good photos! To go up to the viewing platform (at 123m high) costs 3KD/ There is also a small photo exhibition which illustrates the damage done during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait which is well worth seeing. There is also a restaurant at 82m, which was closed when I was there.

Number 1 Travel Tip:
Visiting a traditional islamic country such as Kuwait should never be seen as intimidating, rather it is a fantastic opportunity to experience a different culture. You won't be eating pork or drinking alcohol, but there is a richness to the local customs and the people. Try to experience some culture and interact with local people - you will likely be surprised how welcoming and proud they are to talk about their home.

5 Word Travel:
Middle eastern culture. Small city

Excess Baggage:
Even importing alcohol into Kuwait is forbidden, so if you are having a lay-over this will be an issue if you have any in your luggage. The penalties can be severe, so it is simply not worth the risk!


Dubrovnik, Croatia - Game of Thrones

 

Contributor  : Elise
Nationality   : Australian
Instagram    @elisejbutler
Age Group   : 19-30 yo
Gender         : Female
Trave Style   : All :)
Destination  : Dubrovnik, Croatia
Date              : Middle of July 2016 for 4 days and 3 nights

Inspiration:
We went to many Island around Croatia and thought it was only fit to visit the capital city. Saw many amazing pictures lots of people said how amazing it is. 

Getting There:
We drove from Split which is about 3 hours away, however it is very easy to fly there. However you cant fly to Dubrovnik from Dubai. 

Local Knowledge:
Where Game of Thrones was filmed! 
Beautiful old city surrounded by the a giant wall which was built in the 13th centuary to protect to city. Stunning location on the cliff tops, reasonable prices, great food and amazing views.

Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Rixos Hotel which is just outside the main square/old town, because the old town is extremly busy and hotels are a lot smaller. However it was only about a 10 -15 minute walk. 

What To See & Do:
We did lots of walking around the old town as there is a lot to see. Dubrovnik’s old town is surrounded by defensive 2 kilometer wall and forts which you can walk around. The walls were built to protect the city in the 13th century. The views are amazing and there are many quant shops and cafes to visit. Another must do to get that perfect scenery shot is the Cable Car, which over looks the whole city. There are also many day boat tours out to different islands which is a great way to see the coast, do some snorkeling and swim in the clear blue waters. Driving around the coast is also another great way to see the city and we even drove to Montenegro. For all those Game of Thrones fans there are many tours as it was filmed in Dubrovnik

Where To Eat:
There are so many restaurants to choose from in the main square. The seafood is amazing, very fresh and cheap. 

Must Do:
Visit the old town, could differently spend a whole day there

Must See:
Scenary, panaromic view over the cliffs and old town


5 Word Travel:
Stunning scenary and delicious food


The Palm Dubai, UAE - Sky Dive Dubai

 

Contributor    : Andrew
Nationality     : Australian
Instagram       @andrewmarty_
Age                 : 30-40
Gender           : Male
Travel Style    : Casual, luxury
Destination    : Sky Dive Dubai - The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai - United Arab Emirates.
Date               : February 14th 2014

 
 

Getting There

You will need to pre-book your skydive, especially in the busy months of the year (October to March). Fortunately in Dubai, where the weather is mostly pretty good, your chance of a successful booking is high. There can often be waits of 1-2 weeks, so it can be important to plan if you want a certain time or day.

They have a plane taking off every 30mins through the day.

SkyDive Dubai is at the base of the Palm Jumeirah, with the runway extending out into the water. This gives you the perfect location to skydive over one of the most iconic landmarks and one of the only ways you can really appreciate the "palm" shape of the reclaimed land.

The cost is AED1999.00 (USD730). This includes everything you need for the skydive as well as your video and images.

Local Knowledge

Dubai has a huge number of activities for tourists, from calm cultural experiences to adrenaline rush adventures! Whatever your preference you are sure to find something that suits.

In addition to the skydive over the Palm, there is the option with SkyDive Dubai to do training courses, tandem jumps and simulations at the Desert Campus. Licensed divers can take qualified persons on coached individual dives.

For the most part, you will be booking for a tandem dive, where a licensed instructor is strapped to you, or vice versa!

Where To Stay

SkyDive Dubai is relatively close to hotels on the Palm Jumeirah and also the JBR/Dubai Marina area. I would strongly recommend Fairmont The Palm if you are looking for a Palm hotel - it is especially good for families and has access to a private beach area. Otherwise Intercontinental Dubai Marina is also very nice and sits on the marina, with easy walking distance to mall, restaurants and The Walk promenade.

Another alternative is to look at serviced apartments such as Suhar apartments. This can be a much more affordable option and are in a great location. Buying food or eating out is easy in this area and will easily offset the cost of hotel food also.

What To Do

The operation at SkyDive Dubai is really professional. From the time you check in for your jump to the time you leave. 

There is a bit of a wait between when you are required to arrive, fill out paperwork (the standard health questionaire and liability forms). They take you through all the safety aspects of the jump with your instructor. Each jumper is assigned an instructor and a videographer - this is a great feature that most places don't offer. You will get a personalised video and photos that are taken by another professional jumper, rather than selfies taken by your tandem instructor.

The jump itself is a massive adrenaline rush. Watch the video link to get a great idea. I don't think anything describes the feeling better than the obvious anxiety in my voice and facial expressions pre-jump compared with the excitement post!

On the way up in the plane, they make sure they keep you really relaxed and the guys are great at making sure you're ready to go! There was time for my wife and I to "enjoy" the pre-jump nerves and share the moment we were about to have! I was really fortunate to have a great pair of guys as my instructor and videographer, they made conversation really easy and even during the dive, the interaction was awesome!

The feeling of "falling" out of an aeroplane is indescribable. Fear, excitement, unknown, trust.......its a completely overwhelming combination of emotions that i really cant describe. The freefall goes so fast you don't really have any time to look at anything and it was great to have a bit of fun with the videographer. Once the parachute opens, you have plenty of time to sit back and take in the views. The view over the palm, out to the Burj al Arab, the Marina area and all the way up to Downtown is breathtaking. You can easily see well beyond the city and into the uninhabited desert. It is truly the best way to view Dubai!

After the landing they ask you to wait around for just 10-15 minutes and then provide you with a copy of CD's that contain still images and a video of your jump. As you will see, the video is really well done and whilst I haven't skydived anywhere else, I haven't seen quality videos like this provided to friends who have jumped in other places around the world.

Eating

There is a small cafe at SkyDive Dubai where you can get food and drinks after your jump. There is also a bar associated with SkyDive Dubai - Zero Gravity, that is really popular for staff and jumpers. 

Not far from SkyDive Dubai is the Marina and The Walk which have a number of options for eating out. I can strongly suggest looking at Pier 7 on the Marina, which is a 7 story building, each having a different themed restaurant. A great option is Asia Asia and getting a table outside on the balcony for really great views over the Marina.

5 Word Travel:

SkyDive. Dubai. Adrenaline. Bucket list.


Port Douglas, Australia - A family hot spot

Inspiration:

We went as an extended family for a long over-due family vacation- 2 Grandparents, 3 couples and 4 grandchildren (aged infant to 8 years)

Getting there:

We flew into Cairns airport and hired cars for the short drive to Port Douglas around 1 hour. There are many flights in and out of Cairns from all major cities in Australia.  

Many people also use Port Douglas as a stop as they drive up or down the East coast of Australia.

Local Knowledge:

Port Douglas is one of many locations located along the North-Eastern coast line of Australia that runs parallel to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, The Great Barrier Reef. The Barrier Reef along with the many islands dotted around it are a massive tourist attraction to the area.

Words of Wisdom: 

Port Douglas has a reasonable sized supermarket and othernecessary services pharmacies, etc, although they are a a fair bit more expensive than in Cairns. So if you have time, it might be worth stopping in Cairns to buy some of the things you might need. Getting around Port Douglas would be difficult without a car, there is a taxi service but not many. Most places are within walking distance of the main street, but if you need to get anywhere quickly you will 

need a car. There are places to see within day-trips of Port Douglas, so if you fly in from Cairns, consider hiring a car rather than getting a shuttle bus or other to Port Douglas

Where to Stay: 

Port Douglas has a huge variety of accommodation options from low cost back-packer hostels, 5 star hotels and boutique B&Bs. We stayed at The Sheraton as The Sheraton has a reputation for being very family friendly. The Sheraton rooms were quite dated when we stayed there (2014), however I’m aware they have more recently completed refurbishments which have apparently breathed new life into the property. The facilities at The Sheraton are excellent, especially for children. The large pool/lagoon provides a safe but beach style place for kids to play. There is also direct access onto the beach - some people swim at the beach, however it should be noted that crocodiles and dangerous jellyfish can be an unwanted hazard. The buffet breakfast at the Sheraton is excellent and whilst the restaurants are adequate, there are some really great options in Port Douglas that I would suggest. There is fitness centre and golf club associated with the Sheraton. 

Both are a little dated, with the gym especially in need of some new equipment. The golf course is fun and a highlight is the resident crocodile in one of the lakes – added incentive to not hit in the water

What to do:

Scuba Diving: If you don’t have your SCUBA certification, planning a holiday to Port Douglas, or anywhere along the Barrier Reef, is a great incentive to go and get it! Its no secret that the reef has suffered due to human impact and whilst the diving is still excellent, it may not stay that way and they may look at further tightening up on access for tourists. We booked a days diving with Blue Dive. It was a full day out on the water with everything included. My wife and I had an instructor with us, which is something I always prefer when diving a new location. 

The large boat had many people including sightseers,  snorkelers and experienced scuba divers – with a guide we felt totally looked after the entire time. Without a doubt, the most complete way to experience the reef is scuba diving. You can get a pretty good look at some of the shallower areas by snorkel and mask, but the underwater world opens up the further you go. This dive was the first time I had taken a recently purchased GoPro with me – I really enjoyed being able to capture what we were seeing. 

From talking to other divers and the instructor, it certainly sounded like the 2-3 day “live-a-board” dive tours that allow you to spend more time out there and visit more remote areas of the reef are the best way to scuba dive this area. We simply didn’t have the time, however it has been added to the list and would be well worth looking into if you want to spend more of your time diving.

Yacht Charters:

For people looking to experience the reef, but also have an amazing family experience, I strongly recommend chartering a yacht for the day. It is not a cheap exercise, however when spread across a family it can be economical and the experience was an absolute highlight for everyone in our group. The yacht took us all to an island where everyone could walk around, the children could paddle or experiment with snorkeling and the adults could snorkel deeper or simply relax in sun. We also snorkeled off the back of the anchored yacht with several reef sharks and giant trevally - an amazing experience.

The crew provided a gourmet lunch and were a great help making sure all the children had a fun day.

I think if you are visiting Port Douglas as a large group or family, definitely consider this! We booked through the same company that arranged our Scube Diving, Blue Dive and I couldn’t speak highly enough of how they managed everything from booking to helping the last person off the boat!

Crocodile Tours: 

Tours leave from the marina and take you up the estuary.  It’s a pleasant

Eating:

There is a huge variety of dining options in Port Douglas. As would be expected, seafood lovers will stay happy, with most restaurants having numerous options on the menu. We ate at the following:

Chilly’s Pizza – We had to wait a long time (was during peak holiday season) for our take away pizza, but it was worth it! Really great pizza – we actually went twice it was so good!

LanternFish on Macrossan St serves really good fish and chips. I can definitely recommend the Moreton Bay Bugs!

The Central Hotel does a pretty good chicken parmagianaand is great for large groups, including children. Its very much pub fare! They do a trivia night once a week, which was also pretty good fun.

The Ironbar has cane toad races, live music and authentic Australian cuisine like kangaroo burgers. This is ok for a night out, but they only let you go to the toad races if you are having a meal…….and the steaks are not great!

Salsa Bar and Grill – In my opinion the best place to eat in Port Douglas! It’s a little more expensive than some of the other restaurants and cafes, but the food is fantastic! Its really nicely set up as well, a really enjoyable meal for lunch or dinner! I had a kingfish dish which was amazing!

2 Fish Restaurant– The service here was quite slow and the food only ok. The menu didn’t have a great variety either. Pass.

Lure Restaurant – Fantastic for an afternoon of tapas and drinks. Do great sharing dishes and pretty well priced.

Fresh prawns – Can get fresh seafood directly from the fishermen at the harbor. Strongly recommend a bag of freshly cooked prawns to take home! Cheap and as good as a prawn will taste. We had a night family night at the hotel in the villa with a huge bag of fresh cooked prawns and take away fish and chips that was just superb!

The restaurants at the Sheraton were quite pricey for dinner meals, so we chose to eat at the places in Port Douglas.

Favorite must do:

Spend a day going out to an island. Whether it is as a young couple or a large family group, spending a day on a chartered boat; visiting a remote island, snorkeling with sea turtles and enjoying the ocean is amazing. There are a huge number of options and companies offering these services. Do your research and check the reviews carefully. We could not have recommended Blue Dive any higher. They were a touch more expensive but had much better reviews and they were worth every cent! If you are going to splurge a little on your family holiday to Port Douglas, spend it on this.

Favorite must see:

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Whether its by air (helicopter flights take tourists out over the reef), snorkeling or scuba diving, being able to witness this massive living eco-system is incredible.

If you haven’t got a PADI certification, try and get one before travelling to Port Douglas. Otherwise, you can do your course through companies there, (you will be limited on the depth you can dive).

Number 1 travel tip:

Port Douglas can be quite expensive and crowded during peak holiday seasons and especially during school holidays. If you don’t enjoy crowds, I would recommend avoiding these times. Conversely, if youre travelling with kids, the atmosphere during these times can be a real boost. Choose wisely depending on your situation.

5 word travel:

Great Barrier Reef - Sun - Fun.

Excess Baggage: 

Consider insect repellant as a necessity, not an option. The sand flies and mosquitoes can be unrelenting!

If you are looking for a beach holiday where you can sit on the beach and swim in the ocean, think twice. The beach at Port Douglas is often plagued with box jellyfish (painful stings), can have a strong under-toe and can be frequented by crocodiles. Swimming pools are recommended. The pool at the Sheraton is a large lagoon with beaches for kids to play.

 

Contributor   : Andrew
Nationality    : Australian
Instagram      @andrewmarty_
Age Group     : All ages
Gender           : Male
Travel Style   : Family
Destination   : Port Douglas, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Date                 : September 2014.

 
 

Kruger National Park, South Africa - Bucket-list African Safari

 

Contributor  : Andrew
Nationality   : Australian
Instagram     @andrewmarty_
Age Group   : 30-40 year
Gender         : Male
Travel Style   : Luxury, Wildlife, Leisure
Destination   : Hoyo-Hoyo Kruger National Park – South Africa

 

Inspiration:

A long-term dream had been going on a safari in the famous Kruger National Park. South Africa has a large number of National Parks and game reserves , however Kruger National is by far the most widely known. If you have ever wanted to go on safari in Africa, this is a bucketlist item!

Getting There: 

We flew to Johannesburg International Airport – from here you can either drive or catch small domestic flights. The fastest and perhaps easiest is the flight to Hoodspruit, however be warned, book these flights well in advance because there are limited seats on the smaller planes and the costs can get high! Most of the lodges have shuttles that will pick you up directly from the airport and drive you into the park and to your accommodation. Don’t pack the camera too deep in your bag though, from the time your plane starts its descent you’re a chance of spotting your first wildlife – even the airport has warthogs and cheetah! The drive from the airport to your lodge takes you through the gates and into the park and depending on where you’re staying and what time of day it is, you will almost certainly start seeing wildlife from the time you enter the gates.  I remember we got really excited and wanted to stop and photograph every zebra and buck we drove past on the way to the lodge – don’t worry, this is just an introduction!

Local Knowledge:

There are as many ways to experience Kruger National Park as there are animals within its boundaries. From day trips to luxury tours, from footed treks to bird’s eye views from helicopters. 

KNP is one of the largest parks in South Africa and stretches 360km North to South. It has 9 main gates, 21 rest camps and 15 designated safari lodges.

The Winter/dry season (June to September) is considered the preferred time to visit the park – the weather is milder and relatively dry, there’s a much lower risk of contracting malaria and the more sparse vegetation makes it easier to locate and see wildlife. 

Words of Wisdom:

Whilst you wont need spending money if youre staying at one of the lodges, if you want money for tips etc then you need to exchange or withdraw at Johannesburg.

Most places in the park have very poor phone coverage. If you are reliant on being contacable then take this into account. Hoyo-Hoyo had wifi in the common areas that allowed catching up on emails, social media or messages if you needed.

Where To Stay:

Hoyo-Hoyo Lodge genuinely exceeded our expectations. It was truly luxury in the bush. You will be welcomed by the extremely friendly staff who have usually grown up in the areas around Kruger NP. The accommodation itself is far from rough. Whilst small, the bungalows are more than adequate for the limited amount of time you end up sepnding in your room. One word of warning - the ground squirrels, whilst appearing cute, are highly effective thieves and will likely come into your rooms when you're asleep or not there and eat any food left out. They even went through our cases, chewing into anything that contained food!

The showers were outside, which provided a real “getting back to nature” feel, however it was also brutally cold if you wanted a shower before the early morning safaris in Winter.

The communal areas at the lodge are beautifully set up and overlook a waterhole that attracts a huge variety of wildlife. We found ourselves sitting for hours watching the monkeys annoy the elephants, the small gemsbock sleeping beside the deck or reading away whilst all variety of animal came by for their daily drink.

What To Do:

If you want to be certain of seeing every animal, go to a zoo. One of the greatest parts of a wildlife safari is that there are no guarantees, the animals, time of year, weather and a lot of luck determine what you will see. 

We found that some drives were incredible with a huge varierty of sightings, whilst others went for hours without seeing much at all. For that reason I would definitely recommend spending at least a couple of nights so you can go on a minimum of 4 drives.

Drives are typically done morning and evening to take advantage of the most likely times animals are active.

We probably expected it to be easier to spot things than it was – our guide, Sweety Boy, was beyond incredible. His experience and eyesight was remarkable. Sometimes it literally took minutes and getting hundreds of meters closer until people in our vehicle could see the things he spied. I understand some people like the intrigue of driving themselves around places like Kruger, however the money you spend on an experienced safari driver is worth every single Rand. His knowledge and stories as we drove made the whole experience so much more worthwhile. I would recommend trying to have the same guide for the time you are there if possible. You will genuinely get to know how they work and they will get to know what you have and haven’t seen and try to build the overall experience for you. 

We also did a guided walk through the Park. Whilst we felt safe at all times with the experienced (and armed) guide, it did have an additional element to the drives. Unfortunately we didn’t see a great deal as the area you can cover by foot compared to a car is very small. We did spend time following rhino and leopard tracks and it was definitely nice to get out and walk through such an incredible National Park.

Pack only what you need for the drives depending on the weather. It can be bitterly cold early morning and evening during the winter, so take lots of layers of clothes. 

Most things are provided by the lodge, including morning teas – ours usually consisted of traditional rusk biscuits, biltong, tea, dried fruit and nuts. Cold drinks including wine, beer and soft drinks were also supplied at each small camp stop.

Eating:

The all inclusive food at Hoyo-Hoyo was superb. They have their own chef who prepares restarant quality food from a menu that changes each day. Mostly it is a showcase of traditional South African cuisine – so ox-tail, malva pudding, boerworse and pap are all likely to be on the menu! We both love our food and I consider myself a pretty harsh critic, but the food at Hoya Hoya was excellent! They even went as far as setting up a private candlelit dinner for us on one of the nights. 

If you have any dietary requirements you will need to make this known before you arrive, because it is too far from any towns for the kitchen to change the menu last minute.

Must Do:

Goes without saying, the game drives are the highlight and the main reason to go to Kruger National Park. I think if you lived in South Africa and visiting the park was more regular, then the self-drive option would be great and more flexible – but when you are travelling and perhaps time is short and expectation high, the guided drives are the best. It has the advantage of taking care of everything for you including food, local knowledge and access to areas not permitted in public vehicles.

There is a variety of lodges that offer these services with a range of budgets. Compared to most things in South Africa, game safaris in parks like Kruger are relatively expensive. However I would certainly suggest that spending a little extra to maximize your experience is well worth it.

Must See:

The “Big Five” of African Safari animals are the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo. Seeing each of them is what everyone wants to tick off. Different areas of the park are more well known for different species. We saw lions, rhinos, elephants and buffalo. The leopard is our reason to return!

Get a reasonable book or animal guide for your drives. It is incredible just how many different animals beyond the obvious ones you will see.

5 Word Travel:

Bucketlist. Adventure. Wild. Nature. Animals.

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TravelTip:

These days, taking photos of your travel is a must. But for wildlife and safari drives, it becomes even more significant, because there is another variable in play – the animals! 

Everyone has their preference in terms of photography equipment and some people spend thousands on cameras and lenses for safaris. For wildlife photography, it is nice to have a camera with a zoom lens (at least 200mm) as many animals will be some distance from you. To be honest, we also use a lot of iPhone photography no matter where we go, as it is very quick and easy and can be uploaded immediately to social media etc. It was interesting to notice on our drives that some other guests had a lot of fancy equipment but didn’t have experience using it and became frustrated they couldn’t get the shots they wanted. 

Excess Baggage:

Plan and book early. Compared to most things in South Africa, game lodges can be extremely expensive, especially in peak seasons. This includes internal flights to places like Kruger NP.

The additional costs of staying at one of the many lodges will be well worth the money! The guides are excellent and will significantly improve your chances of having a successful drive.

Choose your photography equipment wisely. Go with familiar equipment, pack your chargers with universal plugs and as always back up your days work.