My final journey in New Zealand was to visit the one major place I hadn’t yet explored, the capital Wellington. I researched the best and cheapest way to visit the city and chose to travel on the Northern Explorer on the way down and to take the Kiwi Experience bus back up to Auckland.
Kiwi Experience organised this whole route called the Northern Express and it made for a varied and fun few days.
On the morning of my train down to Wellington I hopped on the bus and made my way to The Strand train station, a little used station on the outskirts of the CBD and the home to this famous railway. The journey is a total time of 12 hours and takes in much of the changing landscape across the North Island. The train itself offers customers a great relaxed experience with skyroofs and large windows to offer all customers a great viewing experience.
I was sat in an aisle seat which was a shame but still got a great view of all the amazing sights whizzing by. A bonus is the open carriage which allows you to get a closer look at the scenery. I made sure to go here every so often to get some fresh air and check out points of interest along the route.
Throughout the long journey, the staff keep you informed of interest points and where you are on the map. The first few hours are rolling hills as you go past Hamilton and Taupo. The landscape then drastically changes to marsh and rugged hillside as you enter the National Park. You also get an amazing view of the various volcanos dotting the landscape. This part of the journey is also home to the popular and impressive Raurimu Spiral which allows the railway to make a 139-metre ascent on to the National Park plateau.
After this exciting part of the journey, you continued south past several small towns and over huge viaducts which all overlook beautiful rivers and valleys. As you approach Wellington, the train comes to skirt the coast, giving views of Kapiti Island which is mainly uninhabited to preserve the fragile ecosystem on the island. You approach this part of the journey around dearly evening which in the winter means you get amazing views of the sunset.
Finally, the train arrives in Wellington at approx. 7pm. I walked from the station to my hostel, The Marion which was around a 20-minute walk. There are plenty of taxis and buses in the area though for those who don’t fancy the trek! I stayed in Te Aro, just off Cuba street in a modern hostel. The accommodation looked amazing on Hostelworld and was just as impressive in real life. It seemed to have a few long-termers staying there due to the nice furnishings and social areas.
I stayed in a 10-bed dorm which was unique in that it offered full privacy for all guests. I think this style is becoming more popular now, but the luxury of having a curtain to shut off your bed from the room is great! The downside of this is that people do tend to keep to themselves more in the dorm and not socialise. I didn’t mind this too much and spent the evening relaxing before getting an early night.
The next day I had a relaxed wake up, I was on a little holiday after all! I planned to visit the National Museum, Te Papa and was told this would take up most of the day as there was so much to see. The Museum is free to enter and has some amazing exhibitions to appeal to all ages.
The exhibitions ranged from interactive displays of the country’s formation and geography to Maori history and artefacts. There is even a giant squid! Te Papa is renowned as one of the best museums in the world and is a must-see attraction when you visit New Zealand. I ended up spending around four hours in the museum, but you could do less or more depending on personal preference. I also didn’t visit any of the paid exhibitions.
I then headed back to the hostel to relax a little, finding a cosy spot to chill in one of the social hubs on each floor of the hostel. That evening I had arranged to meet up with a traveller I had met all the way back in December on my tour of the Bay of Islands. Michelle was living in Wellington and we had a lovely night catching up and eating in an amazing Mexican place which served fantastic cocktails.
On my final full day in Wellington I had a planned a busy day. First up was a tour of the Beehive, New Zealand’s parliament. These tours are free but need to be booked in advance. As a lover of history and politics, this was a fascinating insight into other countries politics and how it compares to other nations. I was impressed with their handling of party power and the general success the current political party was having in New Zealand. Sadly, Aunty Jacinda was not in the building but I have since seen her at an All Blacks game in Auckland (from a distance!)
Next on my itinerary was to take the famous Wellington Cable Car and explore the gardens above the city. The cable car is an old staple of the city and although was used for some residents to access their homes on the hill, was mainly created as a Victorian tourist attraction. At the top there is a cable car museum showing this Victorian history, a café and restaurants and many other attractions on the hill. After a bite to eat and a drink in the sunshine I visited the small museum and started my walk through the gardens.
Although the sun had been shining when I first got there and ate, I noticed a band of dark clouds coming in my direction. Making a spontaneous decision, I decided to make a detour to the Space Place Carter Observatory and spent the next two hours exploring the exhibits and watching the impressive light show and cinema story about the Maori story of creation. (I’ve written about this in my previous post on the Bay of Islands)
It was a good thing that I decided to explore the observatory as the weather turned drastically to heavy rainfall giving me an excuse to really explore the Space Place. Once the rain slowed down, I walked back down to the city, abet slightly soggy. I detoured through the botanical gardens which were impressive and varied. In better weather I would have spent more time checking them out, but I was more focused on getting back to the hostel and getting dry! That evening I got comfy and got some pizza from one of my favourite pizza chains in New Zealand, Sals.
I didn’t manage to meet many people in my hostel and as such had very relaxed evenings in but I didn’t mind that after two long days filled with sights. The next morning, I checked out of the hostel and made my way to the Kiwi Experience bus pick up point. The journey back up North took two days as we stopped off in Taupo. This made for a scenic ride back with good company.
I was glad I made my little trip down south to Wellington and was even happier that I did it with Kiwi Experience and not by plane. It isn’t the traditional Kiwi Experience one usually seeks out, but I enjoyed the journey by road and rail and the added bonus of a stop off at Taupo.
Wellington was vibrant and I really enjoyed my time there. Part of me wishes I had explored New Zealand before I settled so I could have got a flavour for all parts of the country but as I headed back up to my little home in Auckland’s suburbs I realised how lucky I was to have the opportunity to explore so much of what new Zealand has to offer.
In April 2019, my parents made the trek across the world to come visit me in New Zealand. The excitement I felt when I made my way to their hotel lobby to have a tearful reunion was immense.
After they spent some time on the North Island, we met back up to fly down to Christchurch and start a 10-day adventure on the South Island.
The flight to Christchurch from Auckland was just over an hour and I was amazed by how flat the landscape was around Christchurch as we landed. This area of the country is also known as the Canturbury plains and has very few hills or elevation. This made for a very dramatic landscape difference over the span of the 10 days.
We stayed in a sweet air bnb in Christchurch which was only a short walk away from the main city area. As we approached autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, the change was more apparent on the South Island with beautiful turning trees and a clear temperature difference! I was freezing with only a light coat on me. My first task was therefore to find a suitable coat to last me the next few days. I found this quickly on Regents Street, which had several boutique shops and restaurants.
The city is compact and had a British feel to the numerous parks. Of course Christchurch suffered earthquakes in 2011 and the damage is still evident to see. Many buildings have external damage and some are even held up by storage containers. The Christchurch Cathedral has a lot of damage and is a clear reminder for the city of what happened nearly a decade ago.
We made a visit to Quake City, Christchurch’s museum all things earthquakes. The museum had some great scientific info and demonstrations of how earthquakes happen and are formed but the main takeaway for me from this experience was the staffs real life experiences. Every one of the staff had a story to share and it made the facts and information that much more real.
For a day trip out of the city, we decided to spent the day in Akaroa, a small community which is located in the crater of an ancient volcano. Much of the crater is filled with water with the town sitting on the shores of this dramatic scenery. The town has French colonial history and therefore had a lot of French inspired shops and restaurants.
We didn’t have the best weather when we went so chose to not head out onto the water in search of dolphins. Instead we walked up the lighthouse and a waterfall near the town centre. This was a nice day out but the weather was a shame as it limited what we could enjoy in this area.
After three nights in Christchurch we continued our journey south. Orignally our plan was to drive to Greymouth on the west coast of the south island. Here we would have continued down to Fox Glacier and then onward to Queenstown. However, a few days before our trip, a bridge near Fox Glacier collapsed. This bridge was crucial in allowing us to continue driving south and without it meant retracing our steps in a drive over 10 hours long.
This didn’t sound too appealing and we decided to change our plans and instead stay in Wanaka for three nights before going onto Queenstown. This meant we had the chance to visit Mt Cook and the famous Hooker Valley Track. Driving out of Christchurch we noticed mountains start to appear on our right with the ocean on our left. As we turned into the Southern Alps and made our way towards Mt Cook we came across Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. These lakes are supplied with glacier water and are the most incredible colour. We drove all the way along Lake Pukaki to the head of the Hooker Valley Track. Along the way I was desperate to stop off and take in the view of this amazing lake.
Once at the Mt Cook car park, we realised that the Hooker Valley track was sadly only partially open due to maintenance work on the three bridges on the trail. With no other alternative tracks we chose to walk what we could of the route and enjoyed a slightly closer view of Mt Cook and the glacier lakes.
We also drove a little further on to a viewpoint of the glacier. Since it was only just autumn, the glacier had melted slightly into a lake and photos showed how the ice had reduced in the past few decades. Although this sobered the view a little knowing that one day it wouldn’t exist, we still enjoyed getting as close as we could to the highest peak in New Zealand.
After our quick journey to Mt Cook, we drove onto our second stay at Wanaka. This town is on the shores of Lake Wanaka and is a real beauty spot. Our last minute accommodation here was lovely and was a house close to the lake and town.
During our time here, we went to the famous ‘That Wanaka Tree’ which is a natural phenomenom of a tree which sits in the middle of lake looking very picturesque. We also hired bikes to explore the lake side, and a few of the other towns around the area. Hiring bikes was a great way to explore and I loved cycling along the river which was flanked by beautiful autumnal trees. We cycled to Albert Town where we had the BEST donuts of my life at a local bakery called Pembroke Patisserie.
Our last big outing in Wanaka was to hike Mt Iron, a small mountain on the outskirts of the town. This was the best compromise to hiking the formidable Roy’s Peak Lookout which was at least a day long and was known for being an extreme hike. Although it has amazing views which I’d seen all over social media, my parents weren't as keen to try it so this was the next best option.
The hike was gentle but gave us good views of Wanaka and the lake. We also took a walk through the Highstreet after this hike. The Highstreet is small but I was able to find some good hiking books for any treks I would be doing in New Zealand and beyond.
Wanaka was our favourite collective destination and there was a lot to do here over our three day stay. On a rainy day, the Puzzling World of Wanaka is a popular tourist stop. In the winter there is also the famous Treble Cone ski resort. We drove past this and were amazed at how out of the town it is but Wanaka is the best base to visit this resort.
Our final destination was Queenstown. This is where I was most looking forward to visiting before our trip. The town is a backpackers paradise with many high adrenaline activities on offer as well as a thriving pub and bar scene. Of course, it was a little more relaxed going with my parents but we still made sure to try out lots of things that were on offer.
The first thrilling experience we tried out was a speedboat experience on Lake Wakatipu. This was a freebie I managed to score from a coupon for our Milford Sound trip. The speedboat ride was short but a lot of fun and was a great and fun start to our time in Queenstown. It also gave my parents the adventurous bug and they were more open to other thrilling activities over the next few days. So much so that they signed us up for zip lining at AJ Hackett. Not quite the bungy jumping I tried to convince them to do nor the canyon swing I was hoping to do but it was something!
This was still great with them and it was nice that we could do it all together at the same time. We took the time to watch some bungy jumps and despite my encouragement, neither of the parents were sold on the idea.
One thing I had signed up to do whilst in Queenstown was a skydive. Each morning I anxiously headed to the skydiving shop wondering if today would be the day I would jump out of a plane. Since skydiving requires exact conditions, I couldn’t jump unless there were few clouds and little wind. This took three mornings to make happen and by the time I could finally do it I was a nervous mess!
I jumped in Glenorchy, the town over from Queenstown and connected by a stunning drive. Once at the small runway, we were shown the safety video and waited our turn to jump. I chose to jump from 15,000ft and was told I may need to take oxygen at the top altitude since in reality you are more like 16,000ft in the air due to not being at sea level. This is one of the hidhest skydives you can commercially do in the world and didn’t help with my nerves!
Luckily I shared my experience with a lovely fellow backpacker and we were able to hype each other up as we waited. Both Mum and Dad came to watch and even Mum was tempted to give the 9,000ft jump a go!
It finally came time for me to go up. My skydiving instructior started an introductory video and we were then seated in the small plane. I really got 2 in 1 with this experience as the plane ride was incredibe. It was a true scenic flight and my instructor pointed out various peaks, even Mt Cook out the window. Taking oxygen at the top wasn’t as scary as I thought and next thing I knew I was on the edge of a plane ready to jump.
I have done a bungy jump and now a skydive and can say a skydive is a lot easier. Whilst with a bungy you have to jump yourself, with a skydive you don’t have to do anything. My bungy jump was a real physiological challenge as you have to go against all natural instincts and jump. With the skydive I let the instructor tell me what to do and had no say as to when we left the plane. Before you know it, you’re in the sky and experiencing amazing G Force. I free-fell for around 60 seconds and loved every second.
My worry of the parachute not opening was unfounded as it all happened without a hitch. The time in the sky with a parachute is arguably the most relaxing part. Being in the air and just floating is so relaxing and allows you to really take in the amazing scenery. My instructor allowed me to try steering us and doing a turn is the most intense but fun thing to try. I was elated as I touched solid ground once again and was so happy I had done it and was still standing!
I think my parents were equally relieved and thankful they didn’t have to worry about it anymore!
After an eventful morning, we chose to stay in Glenorchy and try out some of the local walks in the area. We found one which ended at a lake with the path going through the forest. After getting slightly lost in the forest we found the hidden lake and reflected on where we were in the world and how stunning and varied this part of the world was.
Heading back to Queenstown, other notable activities we did during our time were visiting the Kiwi Birdlife Park close to the cable car. This was my first time seeing Kiwis and it was great to see how well they were looked after. They were part of a breeding programme and we could view them in a special ultra-red room. They are bigger than I thought they would be and a given activity to do whilst in New Zealand.
After our speedboar trip in the lake, we then tried out the Shotover Jet, which jets you over a river which winds through a tight canyon. It’s thrilling and amazing how well the drivers of these vehicles can control their movements.
Our final big activity in Queenstown was a trip to Milford Sound. This is a long day out as the journey to the Sound is an eight hour round trip. As we got on the coach for the day though, I soon realised this wouldn’t be so bad as our driver and guide was well versed in how to entertain a bus load of people for eight hours.
She first started by telling us some more of the history of Queenstown and the Milford Sound area. This included Moari tales of the landscape and the human history of the land. Midway through, we stopped at Te Anau for a coffee and break and then continued on where we were treated to some amazing scenery through impressive mountains. This even consisted of an epic tunnel which came out at the crest of a mountain, the view of untouched forest and mountains was spectacular. On our way to the sound, our bus also stopped off at Mirror Lakes and a few other points of interest.
Finally at the sounds themselves, we settled onto our cruise where we had a light lunch before we headed out to the mouth of this famous area. Milford Sounds is a beautiful location with mountains on either side. Waterfalls adorn these cliffs and are particularly prevalent after a heavy rainfall. The cruise takes you along the large estuary to the mouth of the sound which opens to the Tasman sea. At this point the cruise turns around and allows you to enjoy the pristine scenery for a little longer.
On the way back from the sounds, our guide put on a Kiwi movie and allowed us to take a little nap and relax. A trip to Milford Sound or Doubtfall Sounds is a must-do on any trip to Queenstown and although may sound like a daunting long day, is surprisingly enjoyable and very well planned.
Finally, we made sure to check out Queesntowns expansive high street and the various shops. There is of course a lot of tourist shops as well as traditional clothing stores, many activity stores and some great food options. One of these is Fergbuger which is a cult classic in Queenstown. The queue was large as it always is but was well worth it as the burgers were indeed very good.
On our final day, Easter Sunday, we had a nice breakfast, complete with a little kiwi Easter egg and took the flight back to Auckland. The weather was clear the whole way ansd made for an amazing view of Fox Glacier and Southern Alps. I was very glad I got the window seat!
Our trip of the South Island was really memorable and was made better in that I was able to experience it with my parents. This route is a very popular one and allows you to explore a variety of landscape and many activites.
Of course, the South Island, being the larger of the two islands, has so much more to explore than what can be done in 10 days so there is definitely unfinished business.
Over my year in New Zealand, I made sure to make the most of days off to explore the amazing scenery and attractions that the country had to offer. One area that I spent some time in was central North Island, including the popular areas of Rotorua, Taupo, the Coromandel’s, and National Park.
Rather than speaking about each individual trip, I thought I would instead talk about each area, where there is to see and do there and my thoughts.
Situated in a peninsula east of Auckland, the Coromandel’s are technically not in central North Island but I decided to include it because… why not? The area is known for its amazing beaches, spectacular views and laid back lifestyle. I visited for three days and was able to visit the two most popular attractions here as well as a few more.
The first is Cathedral Cove. I had seen this beach on many Instagram feeds and knew it was somewhere I wanted to visit. The walk to the beach itself is surprisingly long and full of up an dows making for quite the trek. There are a number of smaller coves to visit along the way though, including some great spot for snorkelling.
When you finally make it to the beach, it is quite busy but with enough room for everyone to spread out. The famous archway and rocks are all on display and make for a great photo backdrop. The highlight for me was the walk to the cove as the beach was little to busy to fully enjoy.
If the walk isn’t suitable for you, there is a boat which you can pay and reverse which will take tourists back and forth to the beach. We didn’t account for how long the walk would take and with it getting later in the afternoon and not fancying the long walk back, we decided to take the boat back to the starting point. Make sure to book it in plenty of time though as you will not be the only one having this idea!
Hot Water Beach is also another popular spot along the Coromandel’s and is famous for the hot spring running directly underneath it. In a certain spot along the beach, you’ll know it when you see it, you can dig a hole and enjoy a DIY bath. Be careful to not choose a spot that is too hot though or dig too deep, you might find yourself getting burnt! You can bring your own spade or hire one from the local café. However, if you prefer, you can hop in a previous visitors make shift bath and borrow another groups spade to reinforce if needed. We went here in the evening and loved watching the sunset as we relaxed in our little spa.
The Coromandel’s is also home to many more amazing beaches, some so white that I was amazed we were still in New Zealand! The peninsula is full of fantastic rainforests to hike through as well as a number of scenic drives complete with twisting and turning roads. Be careful to not drive too fast on these! The area also has several sweet towns which cater for the tourists as well as locals. Thames, the main town of the area, is a fantastic example of an old colonial settlement and has a lot of interesting whaling and logging history.
This part of New Zealand is a must see and well worth a few days to week of your itinerary. It can get very busy and crowded in the summer months so do be prepared to join the crowds. It’ll be worth it though!
This popular tourist destination situated in the North-east of the North Island is an adventure playground. The area is renowned for its thermal activity with a number of spas and attractions all allowing you to experience the magic of the earth yourself. As well as this, slightly obvious attraction to Rotorua, you also have an abundance of adrenaline activities to try out including zorbing, ziplining and skydiving. The area surrounding Rotorua is also beautiful, with clear lakes (free of sulphur) to swim in the popular Bay of Plenty not too far away.
On the one occasion I explored this part of New Zealand, we stayed one night and two days and tried to fit in as much as we could into our time there. We first went zorbing. This adrenaline activity is unique to New Zealand and I believe was founded in Rotorua. They have three different routes you can take with your zorb ball, the straight and relaxed, windy route and finally the extreme route which includes a jump with a decent amount of air! We decided to be brave and try out all three.
Since we went in summer, our zorb ball was filled with a small amount of water and once in the zorb, you are zipped in and pushed down the hill. It is a unique feeling and very fun! I’d say the windy route was the most dramatic as you are being tossed from side to side and have no idea which way is up or down. The zorb company even has a hot tub which you can relax in after your turns are up. I would recommend this unique thrill to those seeking something new.
The town of Rotorua is very touristy and has a lot of gift shops and fun bars. The town also has a popular park which features some of the thermal activities underground. The smell of sulphur is prevalent throughout the town but after a few hours you’ll get used to it. The lake which Rotorua sits on is very sulphuric and is not safe to swim in. A quick walk around the river front will show you why as you’ll notice mud bubbling away a short distance from the walkway.
The area is also well known for it’s Maori heritage and culture. There are a number of culture shows to attend in the area but we chose to visit Tamaki Maori Village. You are first greeted by the chief of the village, your tour groups chosen leader sent to demonstrate you that mean no harm with the offering of a fern leaf. Once welcomed onto the land, you follow a series of short demonstrations which show the various ways of life still adopted by Maori people. This part was really interesting and we also got to try the Haka and other dances. What made this portion a shame for us was that our tour group happened to have a large number of German tourists. This wasn’t a problem, but due to things having to be translated into German, our group often overran the time allotted for each demonstration which meant we missed quite a bit of information.
After the demonstrations, you are invited to watch a cultural show which included the haka and other native dances. It was great to see and really is so important in keeping the culture alive for more generations. After the show you are treated to a feast which we happily indulged in. This evening is a great way to experience the culture of the Maori people and help connect to those who keep New Zealand as culturally vibrant as it is today.
Around an hour away from the town is a series of freshwater lakes all surrounded by amazing rainforests. We decided to drive to one of these on a hot afternoon and enjoyed a sunbathe and swim. There are quite a few to chose from so you’ll hopefully not have any trouble finding parking.
The highlight of our stay in Rotorua for myself was our trip to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This attraction showcases the huge array of thermal activity in the Rotorua area and allows you to watch a geyser erupt, walk alongside the famous thermal lakes and take in some of the more unusual sights such as a bright green pond! We spent most of a day here and loved the well-marked route around the attractions.
I would have loved to have stayed another day in this part of the North Island, mostly to try out some of the other attractions on offer in the town such as the cable car and zip lines. I would have also maybe have been tempted to try out a spa which are popular for the healing properties of the mud used. Overall, Rotorua is a great and varied destination with something for everyone and a must do in New Zealand.
Located slap bang in the middle of the North Island, this small town and its magnificent lake are well worth your time. I have been able to visit here twice but felt that I didn’t make the most of my time here each time I visited. Both trips to Taupo were fleeting but I was able to visit the popular sights such as Haka Falls and see the lake. Lake Taupo was formed by a huge volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. This left a large crater which over time filled up with water creating the aquatic playground we see today.
The lake is huge and is perfect for sailing, kayaking or simply swimming in. You can find hundreds of spots to relax in around the lake, make sure to hire a car to get the most out of the area or hire a boat and explore the lake this way.
The popular sight of Haka Falls is also close to Taupo and is a great stop for a photo and a walk. This impressive waterfall rushes along at a huge speed and the colours of the water are fantastic. The falls are free to visit and have a series of walks alongside them to explore the surrounding area. If you want a slice of adrenaline, there is a jet tour of the falls which gets you crazy close to them, some might even say too close!
The town of Taupo is very touristy and is home to a few shops and fun restaurants and bars. It is also the home of the only McDonalds in the world which has an airplane one site, which you can sit in! I mainly ate and slept whist in the town of Taupo itself, but it is a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the lake, skydive, or make a worthwhile stop on your trip.
The final area of central North Island which I was lucky to visit is the amazing National Park. After driving past the majesty of Lake Taupo the landscape changes, with flatlands making way to awesome mountains and volcanic peaks. This area of the country has seen a lot of volcanic history and was the setting of the mighty Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.
We stayed in this area for two nights in a rustic hostel. The temperature dipped when we entered the National Park and we swapped our shorts for fleeces and long leggings. The purpose of our trip to National Park was to hike Tongariro but it is also popular for skiing in the winter months. The mountain Whakapapa is well known for having some of the best skiing conditions in New Zealand and is another volcano.
Our full day in National Park was spent hiking. Tongariro is a famous 19km hike which crosses varied terrain to the peak of the Tongariro volcano. We walked past flatlands, marshes, craters and finally at the peak were rewarded with the amazing view of the volcano’s lakes, all with their own unique colour. Next to these lakes rises puffs of steam from thermal vents. The walk is challenging at parts but was so worth it. The worst part was the walking down as it is very repetitive and made our legs very shaky by the end. As soon as we got back to the hostel we went straight to sleep and left early in the morning for the long drive back to Auckland.
If a 19k walk doesn’t sounds appealing to you, there is a large variety of walks available in the National Park area and it is well worth a stay to take in the amazing volcanos, especially in the shoulder seasons as they often have snow covered peaks.
As you can see, Central North Island has something for everyone and is varied from its beaches to its volcanos. Although some may be tempted to fly from Auckland to Wellington before heading to the South Island, I urge you to spend some time in central North Island to discover some real hidden gems.
Those who know me will know that I’m a serial planner. When it comes to planning trips away there is no exception. I envisioned spending the summer of 2020 exploring new European cities and swimming in the med. Of course, all of our plans were uprooted this year and it gave me the opportunity to take a step back and take life one day at a time.
The pandemic has thrown plans out of the window and made ruin of my carefully laid out two year plan. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and I believe it’s opened up new opportunities and ideas to me that I never thought of before. It’s also meant I’ve explored places a little closer to home.
Over the strict lockdown period, I spent months exploring bike rides and areas close to me and was amazed at how many areas of beauty were accessible by foot from my house. I also started to appreciate what beautiful scenery we had here in the UK and I started thinking of where else I could explore in the country.
This led to conversations with my roommates from Sydney, Katherine and Stephanie about a trip together in the UK. We decided to head to Scotland and the west coast country of Ayrshire for a week. With little knowledge of what was in the area, we took advantage of accommodation at Brunston Castle and set off.
I decided to get a plane to Glasgow from Birmingham since it was the cheapest mode of transport to Scotland. I only paid £45 for the return flights which felt like an absolute bargain! The airport experience was pretty similar to what it was like in the past and I felt safe, comfortable and happy. Everyone in the airport was social distancing and complying with wearing masks.
On the plane, Easyjet made sure to leave a space between each separate passenger so no one was squished up against someone they don’t know. The flight was only short so I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all and the experience made me much happier at the thought of longer flights in the future under the same restrictions.
I had a few hours waiting at the airport for the girls to arrive from Luton. The only place serving food before security in the airport was the wetherspoons so I braved the busy restaurant for a seat and a bite to eat.
The girls finally arrived and we set off to the car hire to pick up our chariot of choice for the trip. We had booked a Ford Fiesta but lucked out on an upgrade to a chunkier and larger car which was perfect for the windy and bumpy roads we drove on over the week.
Brunston Castle was around an hour and a half from the airport. It was nestled in a large valley and each property on the sight offered seclusion and privacy. We loved our little cottage for the week which was fully self contained and comfortable. That evening, after making a curry for dinner, we set off for a quick walk before the sun went down. The sunset was beautiful and the rolling hills around us felt very different to the landscape down south.
We decided to split our days between packed and relaxed. Our first full day edged on the more relaxed side. We headed to the main town in the area, Ayr. This small town has a unique location on the edge of a river running into the sea. There are historic bridges crossing through the town with views out to the ocean. We walked along the beachfront here and bought some items that might make our stay in Scotland a little more comfortable.
We headed to bed fairly early for a rousing 5am wake up call. Our ferry to the Isle of Arran, an island off the coast of west Scotland was booked for 7am and we were over an hour away from the port. We set off around 5.45am and got to the port with around 10 minutes to spare. Once on the ferry, it was masks on the whole way unless you were sitting outside. Since the morning brought with it such lovely weather, we decided to brace the wind and cold and sit outside. The island is mountainous and as we approached we caught sight of the highest point on the island which we planned to hike that day. It is called Goatfell and is over 700m above sea level.
The ferry ride took just under an hour and we arrived just before 8am. Of course not much was open so early in the morning so we strolled along the boardwalk of the main town until we spotted a bakery. Armed with fresh goodies and hot chocolate, we found a beach to sit and eat on overlooking the beach. We sat here until 10am and decided to start our ascent.
Although the guides online told us to take the bus to the starting point of the hike at Brodrick Castle, since we missed the bus by a few minutes we chose to walk it. It was less than a 20 minute walk and there was pavement along most of the road, making it perfectly safe. The hike to the top of Goatfell was long and uphill consistently. The first half is through forest and heather, but once past the tree line you are exposed and following a rocky path to the top. Much of the last ascent is bouldering over rocks but with lots of rest stops it is doable for most hikers.
The view at the top is spectacular, with amazing views down to the sea and a surprising mountain range on the other side. We chose a great day in terms of weather to attempt this hike and could see the coast of Ireland in the distance. We made sure to get lots of photos at the top, making the hike worth the while! The descent was the same way back down and tiring on the legs. We were all relieved to make it to the bottom of the mountain where a pub is located. We stopped here for a drink and some well deserved food.
A surprising addition to the day was the introduction of midges. These small little flies seemed like nothing, but after hiking up and down the mountain I was covered in little bites that resulted in days of scratching. Do make sure to take insect repellent with you!
Our day on the island was long, with our return ferry at 7pm, but at no point did we feel we had outstayed our welcome. Hiking up Goatfell was a fantastic day activity and the quaint town of Brodrick was also lovely to walk around and explore. The island does have more to offer, so for those with more time, do consider a stay here.
This was our longest day in Scotland and as a result we spent the next day relaxing and recovering at our cottage. Although we may not have done much physically, it was lovely to spend some quality time with Katherine and Stephanie just enjoying each other's company.
The next day we left early for another adventure day, this time to the city. We drove the hour trip to Glasgow and spent the day mostly walking and checking out the sights. Due to Covid-19, a lot of attractions were pre-bookable only and had already sold out of allocation. We therefore couldn’t visit any museums or art galleries but we did walk from the downtown area to the university which was a lovely walk. It took around 40 minutes and crossed through traditional streets and expansive parks. The University of Glasgow has been compared to Hogwarts many times. Although none of Harry Potter was filmed here, it is said that JK Rowling did get her inspiration from here and you can see why.
Around the University Campus is a series of sweet lanes filled with art and boutique shops. We spent a fun afternoon exploring them and picking up some local artwork and pieces. That evening we had set our eyes on a Korean restaurant in the city but when we got there realised they hadn’t updated their google info and they were closed. We were there on the last day of the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme and many restaurants were either booked out or had lines down the street. Luckily I spotted a Dim Sum restaurant which were able to squeeze us in and we had an amazing meal here. Glasgow really impressed me and was a nice day out in the city.
We headed back to our little haven in the valley for the night and the next day spent a rainy and wet afternoon in Galloway Forest. This Forest is the largest in the UK and had many loches and waterfalls to explore. We chose a mid-lenght walk in the forest to shield us from the rain and despite the cloud got some nice views of the scenery around us.
Our last day was spent at Culzean Castle which is a 16th century castle and home surrounded by the beach and cliffs on one side and expansive grounds on the other. Although the house wasn’t open to explore, the grounds were large enough to keep us entertained all day.
They had a small walled garden, a swan lake, a deer park and of course a long line of coast to walk. We also found caves in the cliffs which were used by smugglers to get to the castle. This was another great and varied day out in the Ayrshire area and we felt we had made each day different to the other.
On our last evening, me and Katherine set off to pick up some Fish and Chips and stumbled upon an amazing sunset over the beach in Girvan. We attempted to eat some chips on the beach but the seagulls amassed very quickly so we hid in the car. The sunset was incredible and really was an amazing day to round off the trip.
On the final day our flights were early in the morning and before 10am I was back home in Lichfield. Our trip to the West Coast of Scotland was fantastic and really showed the variety on offer. Although I had never heard of the area before, we were able to make each day different and I learnt a lot about the area, it’s history and people. Although it wasn’t the sunny summer holiday I expected this year, it was a great break from reality.
I hope your UK break experiences were equally interesting this year and that you learnt a little more about what is available in our varied and beautiful country.
Last October, I took a trip to Los Angeles which I had dreamed of doing for years. Armed with a new-found confidence for solo travel, I decided to test the waters by exploring Santa Monica and Hollywood on my own.
In my previous post I detailed my time in Santa Monica and how I cycled along the famous Venice beach, hiked canyons, shopped and caught up with old friends. This was a great introduction to LA and after four days, I packed up my bags and headed to Hollywood.
I chose to split my stay to add more variety and to make sure I made the most of the eight days there. I was warned before I went that I wouldn’t be able to fill eight days in LA and with this in mind it made sense to make my trip a twin centre to keep it varied. I stayed in USA Hostels Hollywood, which had great reviews on Hostelworld and was well located from the main Hollywood strip. Some had said that they felt uncomfortable with the area around the hotel as there was a car park which seemed to be popular with the homeless community in the evenings. I never felt unsafe so don’t let this deter you from this location.
I was staying in the hostel over Halloween so there were a number of activities laid on with this theme in mind. The hostel also ran several trips to the Hollywood sign and Beverly Hills and I eagerly signed up to these. These trips are usually inexpensive, allow you to have local guides and are a great way to meet fellow travellers.
I checked in in the evening, after a packed day in Santa Monica so simply got myself situated in my mixed dorm room and found a local pizza shop for a slice for dinner. My dorm mates here were mostly male and also quiet, a few from neighbouring states with their own agendas for their time in LA.
On my first day in Hollywood I joined the Beverly Hills tour. This was a quiet affair, with only two other travellers signed up. We enjoyed our time regardless and our guide was great, showing us all of the main homes in Beverly Hills and the stories behind them. Beverly Hills is a stark contrast from some of the other areas in LA. There is a huge disparity in wealth and it is quite a shock to see it so brashly. Once you enter the Beverly Hills area, you are straightaway taken back by the size of these homes and the seclusion and secretly behind each one.
It is also amazing to see how many famous people lived side by side but probably had no interaction with one another. For example, on one street was the home where Miley Cyrus grew up and Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson lived. Each home has strict security and looks quite lonely, separated from the city and the outside world.
Our guide took us down the most famous streets and we also were able to get a photo with the infamous Beverly Hills sign. After this we took a trip to Rodeo Drive and walked down the streets filled with some of the most expensive and lavish shops in the world. It wasn’t really the place for me since I’ve never really been into designer shops and clothes but it was fun to walk amongst it all for the experience.
This was a great introduction to Hollywood and after this morning tour I spent the rest of the day walking around the main Hollywood strip and popping into Trader Joes to prepare for the evening. Bre, my friend who lived in LA, had graciously invited me to her pumpkin carving evening with her friends. Not one to say no to an opportunity to partake in a famous American pastime, I headed over, armed with the best pumpkin I could find.
On my walk back to the hostel with a pumpkin under my arm, a passerby commented on the odd item and shouted back to me ‘Yes girl, go get that arm workout!’. This gave me a chuckle as I continued walking.
That evening was lovely and it was so nice to meet her friends in LA. We all got creative and made unique styles. I went for an owl design that in the end came out quite well, I was pretty proud and sad to have to throw the pumpkin away after carving it, I didn’t have any need for a pumpkin whilst backpacking!
After a fun night with great company I headed back to the hostel, ready for another busy day. I got up and joined a hostel tour once again, this time to the Hollywood sign. This was a more popular tour and I was joined by around 10 other travellers. We took a local bus to the bottom of the hill and then walked the rest of the way. Once at the top, we had great views of the sign and took the standard tourist photos.
I was surprised that the tour wouldn't be making the trip to the top of the sign. I was told that this would take around an hour or so to do and no one else seemed up for the climb. I therefore said goodbye to the rest of the group and started the ascent. I had always wanted to see the sign from the top and get a shot of just the Holly part for laughs.
The hike in the end wasn’t too hard, although it wasn’t well signposted and you really had to rely on either knowing where you were going or trying to follow the trails on googlemaps. Eventually I got there and got the desired photo, all worth it for the gram!
I then pondered on what I wanted to do next. It was still early and I had the whole day to explore. I could see the Griffith Observatory in the distance and wondered if I could walk there. After a quick search it looked like a hike of over an hour but it was doable. I still had a lot of water and was also armed with snacks so I decided to try it out.
The walk from the Hollywood sign to the Griffith Observatory turned out to be lovely, quiet and peaceful. Walking along the canyons ridge with an amazing view of LA below felt like I had really stumbled upon a hidden gem. There was hardly anyone else on the path and I listened to music and just enjoyed taking in the view I had seen so many times before in movies.
Finally at the Observatory, I explored the various free exhibitions and was reminded of the Space Observatory I had been to in Wellington not more than a month before. The view from the observatory is also spectacular and I made sure to take some photos which took in the downtown area of the city and went all the way to the coast.
I was amazed that the Observatory is free to enter and only had a few paid attractions. This makes it a must do in LA and is the perfect way to spend a morning or afternoon. I took an Uber back to the hotel from here and had the typical Uber experience in LA. My driver was an actor and artist as well as an Uber driver on the side and asked if we could listen to his mixtape in the car. After the journey he was keen for me to add him to Instagram to see how he processed in the city of dreams. This was the LA I had read about and seen in movies and I wished him the best with his dreams in this competitive city.
That evening was a relaxed affair and I ate in the hostel and went to bed early, unable to really meet anyone to hang out with in the hostel.
On my third day in Hollywood I was really looking forward to experiencing Universal Studios. I found a great deal online which was two days for the price of one and decided to take my time exploring all that the theme park had to offer. I took the subway to Universal which was easy to navigate and then took the Universal tram to the entrance of the park.
I chose Universal over Disney as it seemed easier to get to and also had Harry Potter world. The first thing I thought when I went through the gates was wow! The park was huge and had almost every theme imaginable. From the elaborate Simpsons set to the many country themed areas, there were hours of fun to be had here. Hearing that the Studio tour would become busy later in the day, I opted to head straight there.
This is an hour long tour of the Universal lot and was so much more immersive than I expected. The tram is guided the whole time and takes you through live lots, old sets and amazing example lots of special effects used in the past. It was so good that I decided to go on it again the next day. Thinking I would have a different guide and therefore a brand new experience, I was surprised to jump in the car and have the same guide again!
Next up was the Simpsons lot which is very realistic (for a cartoon show) and has lots of restaurants and buildings from the famous TV show. I had lunch here at Krusty Burger. The food wasn’t anything to write home about but the novelty of sitting in a bright burger restaurant whilst Simpson episodes ran on the TV was quite something,
The main attraction in this section is arguably the Simpsons ride. Universal operates a single rider line which was great for me as it meant I could skip quite a lot of the queues. This was not the case for every ride though and I spent around an hour waiting to try out this attraction. The rides at Universal were new to me in that they didn’t really move at all but instead relied on special effects and simulation to replicate the movement of a ride. This was still very effective though.
The park also had a section for Jurassic Park, Stranger Things, Transformers and more. The highlight for me was of course the Harry Potter World. This featured a realistic Hogsmeade complete with shops, a train station and a huge model of Hogwarts. I was in awe of the scale of this model and how amazingly immersive it was. I spent the majority of the first day going around the shops in Hogsmeade, trying out Butterbeer and grinning like a kid.
There are two rides in the Harry Potter world in LA. The first is the Flight of the Hippogriff which is a relaxed roller coaster, usually short queues here and not worth queuing for if the line is long. The second is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This ride takes you on a tour of Hogwarts with a plot line featuring dragons, spiders and broomstick rides. It isn’t a roller coaster but it does have some amazing special effects that make you really feel like you’re flying with Harry and the gang. This ride does have a single rider line and it meant I skipped a queue of around an hour for the ride. Pleased I could do so, I then proceeded to go on the ride another three times until the motion of the ride made me feel a little queasy.
Universal was well worth a day and a half of my time in LA and despite going alone I was never made to feel unwelcome or out of place. It was one of my favourite things I did in LA because of this.
My final day in LA after spending half in Universal was spent seeing the famous Chinese theatre and other hotspots in Hollywood. I didn’t particularly enjoy the crowds filled with promoters and dress up actors so I didn’t stay too long but was able to look at all of the hand prints and signatures immortalised outside the Chinese Theatre.
In the evening, I headed a few blocks away to the Hudson Theatre where I would be watching Starkid Productions perform their newest musical, Black Friday. I was there for opening night and was so excited to watch a Theatre Company I had watched for years in real life. Starkid was a group I got into 10 years ago during my musical theatre kid days and I had casually supported from afar for many years. To see them perform one of their shows in real life, knowing I was one of the first to see it was a privilege and another highlight of my time in LA.
I also met some lovely people in the audience that evening and didn’t feel at all left out. After the show, I stayed for stage door and was lucky enough to meet the majority of the cast and get into conversation with a few. This led to me being one of the last to leave the venue and as I walked with the other fans I had befriended towards their cars I felt like I had really cemented my LA experience.
The night of Black Friday was also Halloween and I was glad I had spent it in the company of Starkid and not at a party. I have never been a fan of Halloween so this felt like the perfect way to spend it. The next morning I packed my bags and headed to the airport, ready to say hello to Mexico.
My time in Hollywood was packed, had lots of variety and boosted my confidence in my skills solo travelling. Although I didn’t meet many people in the hostel, I found comfort and enjoyment in my own company and got to do everything I wanted to do with no compromises.