One of my main concerns about leaving home was the strain it would put on my relationships with people. I remember a wine-induced breakdown that my friends would forget about me, and immediately being scolded for even thinking such a thing. Throughout the time I’ve been away I have been constantly impressed and pleased by the amount I have been able to keep in touch with people. Of course there are ups and downs, but in the end I know that we still have a relationship and that is what matters. It matters so much that I flew from Japan to Arizona to see some of these people who mean so much to me. So when I decided to stay in one place I naturally extended the invite to come here this time. But I still never imagined that my 7 closest girlfriends from San Francisco would all come together. But that’s exactly what happened. And it was amazing.
It was a whirlwind five days that went by too fast. I tried my best to show them my Antigua, and judging by Amy’s enthusiastic “I love your life here!” I think I did a pretty good job of it. From our first lunch at Rincon Tipico to our last lunch again at Rincon Tipico (a crowd favorite) I took them through the local market with picositas in hand, to brunch at the delicious creperie Luna del Miel, to see the carpets and processions of Semana Santa, to the artisan market for souvenirs, to my favorite rooftop at Zoola for happy hour shots with our feet dangling in the hot tub, to the bars where I spend most of my time, Lucky Rabbit and Cafe No Se, and to the La Piscina pool after party where we danced till the early morning hours to house music.
And I took them up Acatenango. We should not have gone out so hard the night before, but we were just too excited to be all together again that there was no stopping the fun tornado. So we sweat out our hangovers on a 6-hour uphill trek. At times it was pretty miserable – honorable mention to Amanda for keeping her and our spirits up the whole climb – but everyone agreed, as I knew they would, that the view from the top was worth any amount of struggle. We arrived at the campsite around 4 pm, which meant we had plenty of time to sit around with snacks and wine and truly catch up on life. Those hours remain my favorite of their visit. I am so impressed by the group of women who came here, and am honored to call them my best friends. They are motivated, smart, beautiful women who have achieved so much already in our young years and I know that they will go far in all aspects of life. I can’t wait to see what happens with everyone.
When night fell Volcan Fuego put on a show better than I have ever seen it do before. In just one lava-spewing mountain-covering burst it proved its strength and outdid any man-made fireworks show. At dawn we watched the sun peek up through a blanket of clouds as Fuego continued to boom and smoke. We took an obligatory jumping photo and started the trek down. The difficult and hilarious trek down. Almost everyone fell as we navigated the steep descent, I tried to learn how to slide down, and by the end we’d mastered the trot. At the bottom we got celebratory Modelos.
When we got home we ordered Dominos, showered, and took a nap. Everyone was exhausted and sunburned, but happy. Acatenango proved its status as one of the top things to do in a visit to Antigua. And if anyone else ever comes to visit, I will happily recommend a tour guide to go with. Twice was enough for me.
The goodbyes came too fast. It was great having my friends around again, and I knew I would miss them immediately. The only thing that tempered the sadness was the fact that I would see most of them again soon in San Francisco. And that Jessi stayed with me until my flight to the States. And convinced me to get a tattoo honoring our time in San Francisco, some of the happiest years of our lives so far. 1851 Hyde is now forever on my body, reminding me not just of those incredible times we shared in SF but also this visit to Antigua.
I don’t know when I’ll see these girls again, but I know that whenever it is it will be just as wonderful as this was, as September was, as Arizona was. I am no longer worried about my relationship with them. I know that this group is for life. I love you all.
I wanted to go to Vang Vieng for the tubing. I admit it. Who doesn’t want to bar hop by floating down a river in an inner tube? But when I got to Vang Vieng I realized just how much more there was to it than the tubing.
For starters, it’s gorgeous. The mountains, the fields, the river – there is no bad view in Vang Vieng. If I had more time (how many times have I said that?) I would have loved to explore more of the area. I heard fantastic things about nearby hikes and motorcycle rides. Unfortunately though we only had two days, and due to a surprising bout of food poisoning (I think?) I was not feeling up to too much activity.
This didn’t stop me from enjoying my time there though. Day 1 was all about the tubing. I would not let my food poisoning take this away from me. It’s true that the bar scene has been severely reduced from the old “tube at your own risk” days, but it’s not totally over. Maybe it’s my old age, but after experiencing it now and then seeing some videos of what it was like before, I think I prefer it how it is today.
Here’s how it works: you go to the one place in town that still does tubing (it’s not hard to find), rent your tube for 55,000 kip plus a 60,000 kip deposit that you get back when you return your tube before 6 pm, then they load you and your fellow tubers into a tuktuk and drive you upstream to the launching point. From here, you can already see the first bar.
The distance between bars is much smaller than I thought it would be. In reality, we spent maybe 10% of our day in the tubes and 90% at the bars. To get to the bar, guys threw strings with weighted water bottles on the end in our direction and then dragged us in. The bars are more than simply a place to get drinks: the first one had volleyball, the second had a balance beam over a water pit and a water-spraying basketball net, the third was a huge dance floor, the fourth had more volleyball, ping-pong, and a stick of fire you could limbo under. I opted to not try that one. It’s like recess with alcohol. By 5:00 we were at the last bar and out of time to make it back by floating – it takes an hour and a half back to town by the river this time of year – so we jumped in a tuktuk and returned our tubes before 6. It was a fun day for sure, my only sadness was the lingering sickness that took me out of it a little. If it was me in full healthiness, and maybe with my San Francisco friends, things probably would have gotten rowdy.
Along the way we’d made friends with some other travelers and had a good group. After dinner together we decided to push through and experience Vang Vieng nightlife. Moral of the story: the fun is the tubing, not the nightlife. Although drinking beers down by the river after the bars closed at midnight was nice.
Day 2 Simo went rock climbing, but I opted to stay in town and hang out with some friends from the day before. Dan, Michaella and I had an active day of breakfast and Vang Vieng’s famous shakes, followed by a hike up a small mountain with a beautiful view of the area, and chill time at Smile Bar. Definitely go to Smile Bar. Michaella relaxed in a hammock while Dan and I floated in anchored tubes in the river for I don’t even know how long. It was a great day. Then I cut my foot on a rock walking out of the river. Why was I so beaten up in Vang Vieng? It wasn’t even because of tubing.
We left on the night bus for Luang Prabang, happy to have made this stop. Good scenery, good activities, and good people combined for a positive impression of Vang Vieng, even if it is a town made entirely for tourists. But at least that means they show Friends at dinner every day.
When asking for suggestions for what to do in Sydney Josi adamantly told me I had to visit the Blue Mountains. More than once. So from the beginning of my time in Sydney I planned for a day trip out there. She was right to tell me to go.
As I’ve mentioned before, I love cities that have easy access to nature. This adventure, in addition to all the beaches, solidified Sydney’s place in that category.
The Blue Mountains are so easy to get to from Sydney, contrary to what it may seem like from the tourist information center. When I asked the Sydney info center about going there I was presented with day trips that would take me and a bus full of other tourists around to the highlights for the reasonable price of about AUD 100. No thanks. When I asked about taking the train out myself they said it was possible and my best option then would be to do a AUD 40 hop on hop off bus to the sites. I didn’t do this either.
Here’s how to do the Blue Mountains the backpacker way: take a train out to Katoomba and walk about half an hour to the information center at Echo Point, at the edge of the Blue Mountains. This info center is actually super helpful – the woman there helped me plan my day, showing me the different routes on maps and explaining how long they would take. If you want to continue in my footsteps, from there, hike your way to Leura, a small town where you can take a not-so-cheap lunch break (your most affordable option is a $7 gourmet bakery pie), jump back on the train heading in the Sydney direction for no extra cost, and get off at the next stop, Wentworth Falls, for a short walk. Then back on the train to return to Sydney. (A good thing to know: you can go back to Sydney from any of these stations with your return ticket or just use your Opal card.) It’s as easy as that, no tour needed. And this way you can hike at your own pace, choose to stay on the Katoomba/Leura side or go to the Wentworth side like I did, and just have a wonderful nature day without spending an exorbitant amount of money to be herded around with the rest of the tourist cattle.
As for the Blue Mountains themselves: gorgeous, of course. There really is a blue sheen over the treetops, which look like a foresty blanket stretching for miles over the valley. The surrounding cliffs add to the majestic appearance. At almost every viewpoint I stopped and let out a jaw-dropped “wow,” occasionally accompanied by “so fucking pretty.”
I definitely recommend hiking down into the valley. The views are amazing, but descending 1,000 steps into the forest surrounded by towering cliffs, giant trees, and random bird noises made the whole experience even better. The only problem with descending 1,000 steps into the valley is that you have to climb back up to get out. At least the trail planners were nice in putting these paths next to waterfalls, providing a pretty and cooling distraction.
The whole hike down, up and around from Katoomba to Leura took about 3 hours and was just strenuous enough to feel like I got in some good exercise. The decision to do a short Wentworth Falls hike again came from Josi’s suggestion. She said it was her favorite side because it was quieter; she was right. I did a simple 2 hour return hike out to the top of the falls and back for one final view. It was easier but a pleasant way to end the day.
I went back to Sydney happily tired and a little sunburnt from a great day in nature.
At Colgate we have something called the Colgate Hello. It means that when you walk around campus everyone says hi to each other. This may not actually happen all the time at Colgate, but it definitely does happen on any outdoor trail in New Zealand.
Therefore I’m calling this the New Zealand Hello.
Every hiking trail we walked on, every single person you passed said hello. Sometimes they would ask how your day was going or make a comment on the weather. It was like everyone on the trail was instantly your friend because you both decided to walk outside.
At the end of the Abel Tasman track we had to walk back into town to get the car. We weren’t on the trail any longer but were walking on a path on the side of the road just past the park entrance. People still said hello as we passed. Frank turned to me and asked, “When do we stop saying hi?” “No idea.” It was a gray area: no longer hiking trail but not yet city street. Is this still NZ Hello territory?
The default answer is yes, because really everywhere in NZ is NZ Hello territory. Those friendly Kiwis.
It is unfortunate that the weather on the West Coast is so bad. The drive between Hokitika and Franz Josef was mostly strong winds and rain. A few hours after we arrived there was a break in the rain so we raced to see Franz Josef Glacier before night fell. The combination of being the only people there and the dusk light created a peaceful viewing. It’s a good thing we made it that first night; we had hoped to do one more short Franz Josef hike on Wednesday morning before we left the coast but the weather was so terrible that we just hit the road.
This meant that we had one good day in Glacier Country. Tuesday morning was consumed with the excitement of skydiving, but after the celebratory drinks we still had half the day left to explore – even if we were a bit tipsy for the first hike.
Hike 1 was to a viewpoint of Fox Glacier. The 1 hr 30 min return hike was a fun challenge: it started with an uphill climb through forest that led us to a rocky terrain, where we had to figure out how to traverse a glacial river before we could continue through more trees to the lookout. We ran into an Aussie duo and together the five of us figured out the best rocks to jump across and hopefully not fall in. We were successful. The trail ended at a wooden platform with a view of the whole Fox Glacier.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are both in beautiful settings, but unfortunately they have receded a lot in the past 100 years. Having been lucky enough to see some impressive glaciers in the Alps in Austria and Switzerland, I can’t say that these were the best to me. I think of them more as part of a larger spectacular mountain range.
Hike 2 was around Lake Matheson. This loop stroll is recommended for the mirror-like lake that reflects its backdrop of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook. It was now late afternoon and our adrenaline had calmed down, so this was a tranquil walk with plenty of viewpoints to stop and take in the surroundings. Just your usual gorgeous New Zealand landscape.
We made it back to the hostel, Chateau Franz, in time to have the free vegetable soup for dinner. This hostel had some great perks: it included soup at 6, breakfast till 10, popcorn all afternoon, unlimited wifi, and international phone calls, plus a hot tub. We were hoping to relax in the hot tub that night but it was unfortunately more of a luke warm tub so we opted for a movie night instead. The next morning Frank and I said bye to Josi; she was going to hang out for a couple more days and hopefully get in another hike or two. It was more of a see you later than a goodbye though: we would reunite in Queenstown that weekend.
However our back seat did not remain empty. We met our new travel buddy JB at our hostel in Franz Josef. He was on his way to Queenstown and we were going to Wanaka, which is 3/4 of the way to Queenstown, so we offered to take him there. Typical New Zealand travel story.
Our original South Island plan was to wake up really early and make it to Abel Tasman National Park in time to do a walk, stay one night there, and move on to the coast the next day. After rushing through the North Island we decided it wasn’t necessary to keep moving at such a fast pace so we enjoyed a leisurely morning in Picton before hitting the road. It was a great call; we were able to sleep in, enjoy the drive, and get to Abel Tasman in the afternoon, a place we soon discovered deserved more than just a quick trip.
Leaving Picton we made a very important stop for the rest of our road trip: we got 5 tapes at a thrift store. Why so important? Fez only had radio or a tape player, and we accurately guessed that most of the drive through South Island wilderness wouldn’t have any radio signal. The selection was not the best, but we walked away with a few options: 60’s Chart Toppers (surprisingly good), Hooked on Rock and Roll (surprisingly bad), Interstate Truckers Original Artists (imagine Johnny Cash as a long haul truck driver), The Best of M People (the Brit chose this one, I had no idea who they were), and Bruce Springsteen (obviously the winner). The songs on these tapes will forever remind me of New Zealand. There were some moments where the fates aligned and the song was absolutely perfect for the situation, some where it was totally wrong, and some where we were just a bit delusional and the song became intertwined with our loss of sanity. For example: it was very rainy this day and 60’s Chart Toppers decided to play “I Can See Clearly Now the Rain is Gone.” Rude. Or when Frank and I sang a duet to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (yes I do have that on video). There will be more of these as I continue posting…
After a short lunch stop in Nelson, made even shorter by the unwelcome downpour we got stuck in, we got our first taste of hilly South Island roads. We decided to pass Moteuka in favor of staying in Marahau, which is at the entrance to the park. The approach was a winding downhill road with views of forest as far as the eye could see, until we reached the bottom, came around the bend and were greeted with the most perfect turquoise sea. We pulled off to marvel at the ocean and spotted a rainbow in the distance. That’s it, South Island, you’ve got us hooked.
We drove through town – if you can call it a town, it’s more like a hamlet; no traffic lights, one convenience store, a smattering of hotel and housing options – and ended up at The Barn. This hostel must be incredible in summer: it has an outdoor kitchen, pool table, BBQ area, tent and campervan spaces, and a ring of two person huts. It still was great for spring though since the indoor lounge and kitchen has a wood burning fireplace to keep everyone warm. Just to give you an idea how cold it still is here, we woke up to see fresh snow on top of the hills behind us. Don’t be deceived by the sunny beaches in the pictures, it’s not quite summer yet. We opted to stay in one of the huts even though it wasn’t heated (it was cheaper for 2 than the dorm rooms); just two beds and a light, so serene.
On the ferry ride we had decided to go on a wifi detox when we got to the South Island and The Barn was the perfect place for it. It is one of the most chill hostels I’ve been to so far. As soon as we arrived I had one of the most enjoyable showers of my whole trip, with a panoramic window looking out at the quiet beginning of Abel Tasman park and the ocean, and that night we cooked dinner and hung out with some of the other guests.
The next day we took a water taxi to Bark Bay, about halfway up the coast of the park, and walked back along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. When I say water taxi you probably imagine a nice little dock with a catamaran sort of boat. At least that’s what we were imagining. We were very wrong. We boarded the little 20-person speedboat in a parking lot and then were actually pulled into the water by a tractor. I have never seen this before. Crazy Kiwis.
The trek we did is one of the Great Walks and you can easily see why. It’s stunning. We started at a peaceful horseshoe bay with tan sand and vibrant blue water, then climbed up and around through forest before getting back down to another perfect beach. The scenery changed with the elevation and all of it was just beautiful.
Before we stopped for lunch at yet another perfect horseshoe beach at Anchorage we had to cross the ocean floor, literally. The tide changes so much here that at low tide you can actually walk across an area that is covered in water the rest of the day; our boat had driven over this area that morning to drop some people off. We tramped across tons of shells and traversed a freezing cold ocean water river to get to the other side, the whole time marveling at what we were doing. I had encouraged bringing a traditional American hiking lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches; apparently they don’t eat these in England, and now Frank has had this combination at least half a dozen times and will probably bring it back home with him. You’re welcome England.
The last leg of the walk led us to a viewpoint overlooking the coast. It was all hills covered in green trees descending to the blue ocean, separated by thin lines of sand. It was like we were in a postcard.
The hike took us around 5 and a half hours. We were happy to just chill at the hostel that night, enjoy a few beers, and chat with more fellow travelers. A few of the people we met meant to only be in Abel Tasman for a day or two and had decided to stay a week or more. It’s the kind of place that people don’t want to leave. As I soon discovered, most of New Zealand is that kind of place.
This day will forever be a highlight of my time in New Zealand, not just because the scenery was the definition of beautiful, but also because for hours Frank and I just walked and talked. We covered a whole range of topics from social to personal, political to cultural, and everything in between. Considering we had met for about 15 minutes when we decided to spend 2 weeks together, things were really working out. After a whole day just hanging out the two of us I could see that we would have a great road trip, and more importantly a great friendship. Writing this now, after our road trip has ended, I can say I was right.