Cuba: The Introduction

I’m going to be honest, I’ve struggled writing this blog series on Cuba. This isn’t normal! I’ve thought out this post 100 times in my head – each version different from the next. How do I summarize five incredible weeks into 500 words? Or even 5,000 words? It’s hard to figure out where to begin when writing about Cuba, since the country and culture are truly unlike any other place in the world. Cuba is gritty but romantic, complex but also simplistic. The trick with Cuba is that right when you think you have it figured out, you realize you don’t. Although the country seems like a step back in time, things change quickly. These elements are what make the culture so rich, unforgettable, and inspiring.

While Cuba has breathtaking beaches, great cars and cigars, and perfectly mixed mojitos, the true culture and heart of the country can only be experienced by getting to know the locals. I encourage everyone who visits to learn some Spanish and talk to the taxi drivers, host families, and strangers next to you at Coppelia (more on that later) – get to know the people. That being said, I have to give special thanks to Dachelys, Daniel, Gabby and all of the amazing people I had as guides along the way. Thank you for showing me the most authentic places, teaching me how to negotiate a machina, and putting up with my endless search for the best churro in Havana. Also to my incredible host family, Agustín and Teresita, there aren’t enough words to express my love and gratitude – thank you.

I’ve decided to break this series on Cuba into three parts: 1) Culture, Casas, Cabs, and Currencies  2) Places You Can’t Miss and 3) Beyond Havana: Trinidad, Santa Clara, and Viñales. These posts will provide you with all of the basic information you need to know for a trip to Cuba, plus a guide to authentic spots off the tourist track.

 

 

 

 

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Cuba Packing Essentials

As I gear up to live in Cuba for the next month I decided it would be good to share my packing essentials with anyone that may be traveling this summer! Cuba is unlike any other country, and this packing list caters to what one specifically needs to travel to the tropical island. However, this list can be easily modified to work well for most summer vacations! It also includes several of my favorite beauty products that help me get through the hot summer months. I have compiled this list after doing a lot of research (and a lot of bargain shopping)… Enjoy!

Cuba is a city for walking, so comfortable walking shoes and an easy-to-carry bag are essentials that top this list.IMG_5493.JPG I love this blood orange nylon backpack from Rebecca Minkoff because it is light weight, easy to clean, and has several compartments to keep valuables safe and carry all of the necessities! I snagged my red bag during a sample sale, but similar versions can be found here. As for comfortable walking shoes, I will be wearing my Born August Flat sandals. I love that Born keeps comfortable sandals stylish and light weight. They have several great options available. A packable sun hat and summer scarf is also in my bag, since I will be spending plenty of time in the sun and will need protection.

Layers are the key to a perfectly packed wardrobe when it comes to Cuba. The days are hot but nights can sometimes be breezy. I will be packing my favorite light weight shorts, plenty of plain t-shirts and a light chambray shirt to throw over top of things.

I have been told that Cubans dress to impress when going out in Havana. I will be bringing two breezy-midi dresses as dressier options for my trip! The loose dresses will be perfect for those 80 degree evenings.

The rest of my bag is packed with the typical travel essentials like jeans, sneakers, bathings suits, and a more casual dress.

As far as beauty essentials, it is important to bring whatever you will need to Cuba, since your options are limited and more expensive once there. This includes shampoos, soaps, and all basic toiletries.

These beauty items are my tried and true essentials that are my must-haves for any summer vacation! Mary Kay Time Wise moisturizer provides the perfect amount of moisture without feeling oily during the 90 degree days. I layer that with my makeup and use the Supergoop setting spray to finish off my daily look. This setting spray is my must-have because it contains SPF 50 for ultimate sun protection – and even better, it has rosemary to help keep a clear complexion! IMG_5492I am usually sensitive to most sunscreens on my face, but this one has worked wonderfully. It Cosmetics’ ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ lipstick doubles as the perfect pink and moisturizing lip balm all in one. I am also a huge fan of Hawaiian Tropic sun products! The Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration sunscreen and after sun lotions will both be in my bag. I love that they keep my skin hydrated without leaving a greasy feeling. Finally, my Paul Mitchell Marula Oil. This hair product works wonders as it treats, conditions, and styles all in one. A little in my damp hair makes all the difference and helps protect from summer damage and frizziness. It also makes my hair much more manageable when going natural, which will be great for on-the-go days in Cuba. I can’t travel without it!

I hope this packing list helps during your summer adventurs or trip to Cuba! Feel free to comment with any specific packing questions! 

HLB: The Perfect Biscuit Spot

About a year ago, after a three hour drive to the city from Hilton Head, I found myself strolling down King Street in downtown Charleston looking for a quick snack spot. At that moment I walked into a narrow shop nestled in a long strip of buildings that smelled like warm salty buttermilk biscuits. This unique shop was Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits, or HLB as the locals call it. Today, HLB resides in both Charleston and Atlanta. My latest road trip back to Tampa routed me through Atlanta, which gave me the perfect excuse to make a quick stop in and grab some hot biscuits.

There are a few things that make Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits different than the typical biscuit. HLB serves up a variety of biscuits, both sweet and savory. The biscuit flavors range from your traditional buttermilk to blackberry to black pepper bacon. Home made accoutrements are also served such as whipped flavored butters, jams, and bacon gravy. The best part is that the biscuits come in smaller portions, perfect for mixing and matching multiple flavors. If you are anything like me, this solves the great sweet vs. savory battle that goes on every time you choose a snack or breakfast meal.

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Cinnamon biscuits are a mix of sweet and savory paired with whipped cinnamon filling. Black pepper and bacon, cheese chive, and plain buttermilk serve the perfect salty bite.

Callie’s HLB are the perfect warm bite – airy on the inside with a perfect buttery crisp top. The biscuits are substantial and will not crumble, while maintaining a delicate fluffiness to them.

Bite size biscuits are not the only offerings at HLB. Full size biscuit sandwiches made with regional ingredients are also a hit. Later in the afternoon, tomato soup biscuit bowls are served up and pimento sandwiches are available freshly grilled to order. Coffee, tea, and juice are also available to sip along with your biscuits.

HLB is the perfect stop for a morning stroll through downtown Charleston, South Carolina. If you are visiting or passing through Atlanta, Georgia you can find HLB in the Virginia Highland area, about 12 minutes off the interstate. Both locations offer quick service, friendly staff, and to-go options!

For those of us that are not on a road trip or within a reasonable driving distance, HLB offers frozen 12-count packs of the classic buttermilk biscuits in gourmet grocery stores like The Fresh Market. Go ahead, grab those car keys and go get some biscuits!

Rainy Day Itinerary: Tampa Bay

Florida is well known for sudden changes in weather and stormy days, which often leaves residents and travelers stuck indoors wondering what to do. Here is my favorite rainy day itinerary for the Tampa Bay area:

  1. Take a tour through the Tampa Museum of Art

The Tampa Museum of Art has an excellent display of pottery and art from the Classical World. My personal favorite displays in the museum were the sports photography and Alex Katz pieces, both of which will be on display throughout April. The Tampa Museum of Art is a great rainy day stop since admission is only $15 a person and free for college students. It also has a parking garage next door for easy parking, which is not always easy to find in Downtown Tampa.

2. Grab Lunch at Oxford Exchange

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Courtesy of Oxford Exchange on Instagram // @oxfordexchange

Rainy days call for a good cappuccino and refreshing lunch. Luckily, OE has mastered the art of both with their Buddy Brew coffee stand and seasonal fresh menu. Grab a book in their book shop and a comfortable seat to enjoy a delicious hand made coffee. Then, take a seat in their exquisite bright dining area to enjoy a great lunch. The clean bright interiors matched with the cozy coffee area make for the perfect rainy day lunch treat.

3. Spend the afternoon at Top Golf

Top Golf is great but also pretty crowded most of the time, which makes it the perfect rainy day activity. Three stories of golfing into color coded holes, great music, and a delicious menu of dishes and desserts makes Top Golf the ultimate outing for friends and families. It is completely covered overhead and each bay has comfortable seating, which allows you to stay dry and away from the rain without being cooped up inside. Top Golf is least crowded mid day and early afternoon, so make sure to golf before prices increase and things get busy in the evening.

One Tank Trip: Tarpon Springs

A 45 minute drive northwest of Tampa, Florida, Tarpon Springs is home to sponge docks, Greek heritage and unique local shops. The town of almost 24,000 people is the perfect destination for a sunny day trip!

Parking is very easy to find in a lot near the downtown water front area. The shops line the street running parallel to the sponge docks. Once parked, you can stroll the wide sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants. If you are wondering what to eat and where to stop for lunch the answer is pretty obvious. This area was established mainly by Greek immigrants that worked at the sponge docks, so authentic Greek food is the way to go.

Tarpon Springs is filled with wonderful Greek restaurants all having similar menus filled with traditional gyros, spanakopita, dolmades, and of course, baklava. My favorite of the many authentic restaurants that reside in Tarpon Springs is Hellas Bakery & Restaurant. Hella’s menu is best enjoyed family style since the plates are pretty large. A Greek salad is always my first go-to at any Greek restaurant and Hellas does not disappoint. Salty feta and Kalamata olives, creamy Greek potato salad, crisp veggies, and a tangy oil and herb vinaigrette makes this salad delicious and perfect for any warm day. I also recommend the assorted spreads platter – warm fresh pita bread and home made hummus, tzatziki, and feta dips. An order of dolmades, grape leaves filled with rice and ground beef, and spanakopita pie makes for an excellent shared meal for four people.

Once finishing off a family style meal at Hellas, you must your way over to the bakery section to grab a bite of baklava. Layers of filo dough, chopped nuts, and honey make for a sweet ending to the meal. Hellas combines bright flavors with the fresh healthy ingredients of a delicious Mediterranean diet.

After completing lunch at Hellas, a beautiful Florida day lends itself to shopping and sightseeing around the rest of the town. Look all around the area and the waterfront offers views of beautiful birds, sponge boats, and Florida wildlife.

The main street (Dodecanese Boulevard) is home to unique boutiques and sponge shops perfect for picking up hand made soaps, local sponges, and great gifts. Outside of the waterfront area there are several neat antique and home shops including Tampa Bay Salvage, which offers a neat collection of vintage and architectural salvage pieces. Tampa Bay Salvage is a great place for anyone looking to update or decorate a room in their home.

A quick drive to Tarpon Springs unlocks a day of great food, neat shopping, and unique finds – all while being able to enjoy a beautiful day on the water!

The Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that you put on the bucket list but typically don’t expect to cross off. For me, swimming in open waters and snorkeling were not high on my to-do list. However, I knew I could not pass up this opportunity to see something that may one day die off.

Getting to the GBF should be a bucket list task in itself. In order to snorkel or dive the reef you must depart and boat from one of the two local ports – Cairns or Port Douglas. These small beach towns survive mainly on the tourism cruises and include small airports that host arriving passengers from major Australian cities. We opted to fly into and stay in Cairns to take the Reef Experience snorkel tour. From Sydney the flight was around 2.5 hours.

Our tour started off by departing around 8 am with a breakfast and lunch included in the cost of the tour. We boarded the boat, slipped on a stinger suit and held our fins and masks with expectations running high. Around an hour and a half later we anchored to our first location for snorkeling. The water was deep and from the surface seemed dark, unlike what I imagined it would be like. We jumped in – then the fun began. And by fun, I mean a panic attack in open water trying to decide if the Great Barrier Reef was worth it. It was, and once my breathing regulated I was glad to have made the trek to see the incredible reef.

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We went to two sites to snorkel, both of which were different but beautiful in their own way. Bright corals and tropical fish covered the sea floor with intricate detail and color. It was stunning, and no picture serves the real view justice. We saw several different types of beautiful fish in all sizes swimming in and out of layers in the reef.

Unfortunately, parts of the reef are dying as water temperatures continue to increase and cause organisms to leave the coral rendering it lifeless. But for now what is left is magical. The Great Barrier Reef is the only living creature visible from outer space. I was grateful to the staff aboard who explained the dangers and life of the reef, which led to my appreciation of the beauty in front of my eyes.

If you have the chance, take the extra day to visit the beautiful Great Barrier Reef. It is a once in a lifetime experience that you won’t forget. You may even encounter a reef shark or two like my group did. Be sure to reserve your tour at least a month in advance to ensure your ability to do a guided snorkel or drive.

 

Sydney, Australia

My first impression of Sydney, Australia was that of New York City on steroids with a beach vibe. The CBD (Central Business District) is packed with skyscrapers and busy side walks that mark the hustle and bustle of any major city. Sydney felt much larger and more crowded than New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or any other major city I have visited. Tourists walk amongst business women and men as they make their way around the city. The tourists and locals shop high fashion and often crowd around to view public displays for the holidays. The windows of David Jones were the main attraction around the previous holiday season, which falls in their summer months. Sandals mixed with Santas weren’t anything new to this Floridian girl.

The city had much to offer from delicious restaurants to a cathedral light show and almost anything in between. We stayed at the Hilton downtown in order to walk around the city to explore. The Hilton housed the Glass Brasserie which made for wonderful fresh breakfast each morning during our three day stay.

Our first two days included exploring the surroundings and checking out Christmas displays such as the fun light show at St. Mary’s Cathedral. We arranged to to take the ferry to the Taronga Zoo in order to find out more information about the unique wildlife that Australia has to offer. The cheap high speed ferry allowed us better viewings of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge! At the zoo we had the incredible opportunity to interact with koalas up close and personal. This was great, but I must warn that you cannot touch the koalas and you must have great self control to keep from hugging the adorable little bears. Although it was an up-charge to get to see the Koalas up close, I would absolutely recommend it, since the free Koala exhibit is very large and can be hard to see. The lemur exhibit was also neat since we were able to walk in the lemur enclosure and see them up close for free! Even if you have been to the zoo before, this one is a great experience if you are looking to understand Australian wildlife!

Unique neighborhoods surround the CBD which made for great markets and delicious eats. One of my favorite stops during my time in the city was at The Rocks Friday Foodie Market! If the words “foodie” and “market” weren’t enough to draw me in, the delicious truffles and beautiful fresh flower bouquets did. The market, which we visited on our second day, was full of friendly vendors that led to streets full of great lunch spots like the Pony Lounge and Dining. Our meal at the Pony Lounge was delicious! I ate the lamb kabobs, which were full of flavor. It was obvious that this trendy area was popular with the young adults. If you have a weekend in the city be sure to check this unique area out.

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Fresh flowers greet market goers as they enter The Rocks Friday Foodie Market.

Our final day in the city we purchased tickets for the hop-on and hop-off double decker bus that took us out to Bondi Beach and the Bondi to Coogee walk. Like the postcards, Bondi was full of tourists and locals looking for a spot to sun-bathe. We opted for a walk instead of a surf as the waves were a bit rough that day, which led us to the Bondi to Coogee walk. The coastal walk in full runs about 7.6 miles, but you can turn around at any point to make your way back. A great workout and beautiful coastal walk, this path leads you past the famous Icebergs Club and over crashing cliffs. It serves as a great way to see the famous Bondi beach!

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Swimmers lap the pool at the Bondi Icebergs Club, which marks the start of the Bondi to Coogee walking path.

After spending your days walking and shopping, finding restaurants in Sydney can be a little tricky. Brunch and lunch takes priority over the traditional dinner meal here in the United States. Often, restaurants and shops close in the early afternoon to allow employees to spend time with their families. Not only does the early day tradition make eating meals somewhat difficult, finding restaurants does as well. Sydney has an abundance of great restaurants that cannot be beat. However, many of them are tucked hidden within the city. A favorite of mine from the trip, Graffiti, was tucked within a larger building called the Galleries off of a side street. Graffiti was open for dinner, and it was good. I opted for the goat cheese croquettes and seared tuna tacos for my meal, both were excellent. I wish I could remember all of the ingredients in the decadent croquettes so I could continue to make them. They were delightful.

The three days in Sydney were fabulous and honestly the perfect amount of time if traveling around the country. The brunch dishes will make your mouth water, the views and attractions are incredible, and the city is so large you should never run out of things to do.

South Island, New Zealand

Following our adventures in Rotorua and Waitomo my travel partners and I headed back to Auckland to catch an early morning (and very bumpy) flight to Queenstown in the South Island.

Queenstown and the surrounding areas are home to scenic mountain ranges (including the Southern Alps), fiords, and beautiful blue bodies of water. It is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Upon arriving in Queenstown we picked up a rental car and headed to Mt. Cook National Park to attempt a hike on the Hooker Valley Track. The drive to Mt. Cook is around two and a half hours, and proved to be worth every single minute. The drive took us past lavender fields, sparkling blue lake views, and even some sheep crossings.

Unfortunately the Southern Alps often trap storms, so while your drive there may look clear, once you make it to the mountains it may be very rainy. Our arrival to Mt. Cook proved just that. We checked out the information center but decided to head to our AirBnB  in Twizel and try the hike the following morning hoping for better weather.

The AirBnB in Twizel was our best BnB location on the trip, sitting on a beautiful piece of land that reminded me of lush areas of the Pacific Northwest. Our friendly hosts lived nearby on the property and recommended that we try Poppies Café for dinner.

At Poppies, although hesitant, I decided to give lamb a try. The lamb dish, which was comprised of locally sourced mustard encrusted lamb, beetroot, and potato cake, was excellent. It was easy to see why the dish had won so many local awards. If I could sum up the flavors of the region into a locally sourced dish it would be this one. The lamb was tender and flavorful and a must try for anyone that visits the area. Thank you Philipa and Blair for the recommendation!

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The next morning we headed for Mt. Cook in order to tackle the Hooker Valley Track once more. On arrival we were caught in a shower storm but decided to wait it out and hope for a break. Within 30 minutes the showers ended and gave us just enough time to make a decent dent in the track. The Hooker Valley Track sits at the base of Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps and takes around three hours to the end and back to the parking area. It gives views to the incredible snow capped mountains and includes bridges suspended over rushing glacier waters. We were able to do about two of the three hours of the track before more rain clouds came rolling in. I am still trying to find an accurate description for the type of beauty the scenery displayed, but I am not so sure it can be put into words that would do it any justice. This hike was the highlight of my time in New Zealand. I think the pictures speak for themselves.

After exploring the incredible Mt. Cook National Park we hopped in the car back to Queenstown for the evening and following day. It should also be noted that all throughout this region adventure seekers are able to find great places for bungee jumping and skydiving. For me, the walk over the two suspension bridges was plenty of adrenaline for the day.

We again stayed at an AirBnB in Queenstown that overlooked the beautiful water and was a short five-minute drive to the cute wharf area in the middle of the downtown. This area is great to park and walk around and has a wide variety of dinner options to choose from. We settled for Coalfire, an upscale barbecue restaurant. I ordered the brisket, which was accompanied by the mac and cheese, house pickled veggies, and slaw. The brisket and slaw were a little dry for my taste, but the rich mac and cheese was creamy and full of a decadent three-cheese blend. It goes on my list for best mac and cheese I have ever had, which is pretty competitive. It was so rich in fact, that it could probably be its own meal.

As if the mac and cheese was not enough, we stopped at a local gelato shop for a dessert. Let’s just say the gelato was so good we went back again the next night. They had several great flavor options and the shop was conveniently located next to a grassy area near the water where we sat to eat the gelato. One of the many things I love about New Zealand is that the days in the summer are very long and allow you to soak in the great views well into the evening.

The next morning we headed back to the airport to catch a small eight-passenger plane to Milford Sound where we then took a scenic boat ride. This is another attraction that needs to be booked in advance since it is very popular with tourists. If you are staying in Queenstown there are two main ways to get to Milford Sound: bus or small plane. If you take the bus it is about 12 hours round-trip including the two-hour boat tour. If you fly over the mountains it is about four hours. Both are scenic, but I highly suggest flying as I found the flight better than the actual Milford Sound boat tour. The plane takes you over scenic snow capped mountains ranges and really gives you a gorgeous aerial view of the Fiordland National Park. The flight also allows you to view glaciers, waterfalls, and mountain top lakes.

The boat tour of Milford Sound was very beautiful, but compared to what we had previously seen hiking Mt. Cook and flying over the beautiful mountains it did not really stand out. A note about Milford Sound – it rains almost 200 days of the year in that area so tours can be very hit or miss. Make sure to plan accordingly and allow extra time in case your tour needs to be rescheduled or have a back up plan in place. Luckily, for the most part weather was on our side during this trip and we were able to fly and tour the sound.

 

The next morning we headed to Sydney, Australia. More on that later…

 

 

Glow Worms and Geysers

The second day following my arrival in New Zealand I ventured to Rotorua with my travel companions, which was a three-hour scenic drive from Auckland. Rotorua is home to several attractions that give the history of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The town is also built on a geothermal valley, and the many geysers and mud pools in the area also make for great attractions.

Rotorua is not a very large town, but it boasts being the most visited tourist attraction on the North Island, so be sure to book your stay ahead of time as sleeping accommodations get filled quickly. Like most of New Zealand, the climate in Rotorua changes rapidly so bring layers and always carry a light jacket (even in the summer months).

We chose to stay in an AirBnB outside of town on a large lake that was very scenic, peaceful, and even offered a small café to dine in. Later that first day we hit the town center to get a feel for the area and decide what local tour we would like to do. We settled on the Te Puia tour, which included highlights of Maori culture, geysers, a look at the mud pools, and sights of the native Kiwi bird.

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Te Puia’s Pohutu sits in the center of the Whakarewarewa geothermal valley. The two large geysers sit side-by-side and go off almost every 45 minutes.

A ticket to the Te Puia center includes a guided tour, or you can do a self-guided tour around the easy to navigate park. We opted for the one-hour guided tour that was led by native Maori guide, Milly. The one-hour tour was a great way to get a look at the geothermal geysers and mud pools, especially if you have never seen them. The main geyser can be seen in action about every 45 minutes. The tour also included a brief overview of Maori culture and history.  A dark habitat room housed a nocturnal native Kiwi bird. Overall, the tour was a great way to learn about Maori culture and Rotorua’s geothermal landscape. I will say that I found the overview too brief and would have liked to learn more about the indigenous people and their culture.

After our tour of Te Puia we headed back to the AirBnB and relaxed poolside before dinner. Dinner for the evening was at the local café, where I had the cranberry chicken pizza with Brie – simple and delicious!

The following day we headed on a scenic drive to Waitomo to visit the glowworm caves. The drive to Waitomo ends up being around two hours of very curvy isolated roads so do not forget to fill up on gas before leaving Rotorua.

Although glowworms can be found all over New Zealand, in caves and throughout the bush, they are best seen in the Waitomo caves. The worms glow as a sign of hunger and create thin threads to catch insects to eat, similar to a spider. The caves are home to thousands of worms and the dark ceilings help you to see them easily, whereas if you were to do a bush night walk you may only find a few worms here and there. Unfortunately, you can only do the caves through guided tours (walking, tubing, or boating) and they are a major attraction, so also book this tour in advance. Make sure to research your options before booking as some tours focus more on the cave formations and may not have the best glowworm viewings. Also, while tubing seems like a neat option the tubes are about the size of a lifesaver and require a lot of climbing through small cave formations in the dark… So maybe give that a serious thought before booking.

Unfortunately I speak from experience, as we made the mistake of not booking the tour ahead of time so the options were limited. My travel companions and I had already driven out there and many of the available tours did not have openings for a few more hours. Luckily, right before giving up on the glowworms, we stumbled upon a CaveWorld tour and within ten minutes we were on the way to the Footwhistle cave. A local family operates the company after they discovered the Footwhistle cave had glowworms when doing a land survey.

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A look back at the entrance to the cave. A view of a small waterfall and two steep flights of steps lead into the entrance.

Our very knowledgeable and friendly guide, Ross, led us on our tour of the privately owned cave. Lucky for us, we received a private tour since we were the only visitors in the specific time slot. That was a nice plus since we were able to view the caves and worms at our own pace. Ross filled us in on the history of the cave, the local plants and animals, and also detailed information on the glowworms.

The CaveWorld tour was excellent and I would highly recommend this specific tour to anyone that visits the area. The cave had hundreds of glowworms hanging from the ceilings to view.  Ross gave us an excellent tour full of facts, humor, and even brewed us locally sourced tea at the end. While our tour ended up being private, this particular company limits the group numbers on all of its glowworm tours. Ross really added something special to the tour by presenting his knowledge of the area and also teaching us more about the Maori culture in Waitomo. Unlike most of the tours, this one also allows the use of cameras. Unfortunately, the caves are so dark and the worms’ glow is so faint to a camera that it is very difficult to capture photos of them.

And for those of you that may be wondering – no, the glowworms cannot not fall off of the ceiling onto you. For some reason, I was the only person on the tour that seemed worried about that happening.

To view images or gather more information on the glowworms found in New Zealand visit: http://www.backpackerguide.nz/6-places-see-glowworms-new-zealand/

 

 

 

 

 

48 Hours in Auckland

After 20 hours and three flights (brutal, but so worth it) I found myself at the start of a two week journey through New Zealand and Australia.

The trip started and will end in Auckland, which is located in the North Island. I was told not to expect much more than the typical bustling working city. I was delighted and surprised to really enjoy it, even on the rainy days.

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Auckland and the surrounding islands combine some of the best elements of many places that I have visited. The buildings are close and compact and sit on hills edging the water that is home to hundreds of sail boats and ferries, much like Seattle, Washington. It even has the Sky Tower, similar to the Space Needle. The clean streets are intertwined with green parks, much like Portland, Oregon. The surrounding islands are outlined in crashing cliffs like those in Ireland, and covered in tropical green trees like those found in Hawaii. Like Ireland, Portland, and Seattle, the overcast days covered the city in a blanket of mist.

The restaurants are tucked away in city corners and along the Princes Wharf, and the nightlife at local bars seems to be lively with young professionals on any given night.

My first day in the city had no agenda, so I walked along the water looking for a place to grab something to eat. I made my way to a trendy area further into the city, the Britomart. The Britomart had a West-Coast vibe with unique  local restaurants and high end shops. Professionals took their lunch break at the various healthy artisan restaurants, ladies walked past with shopping bags, and friends gathered on bean bags in a nearby park.

The Store is based mainly on local Kiwi food, a delicious cuisine consisting of locally sourced food created into healthy dishes. Fresh pressed juices, coffee with buffalo or macadamia milk (unfortunately I did not see the milk options until after ordering), and fresh dishes filled the menu. I ordered the ricotta hot cakes with green tea and lemon curd. Adorned with delicate flowers and artistically designed, the plate was almost too pretty to eat… almost.

Run, don’t walk off of the plane straight to The Store. It is that good.

My only negative comment is that they close in the afternoon! Good news, their sister restaurant, Ortolana, next door is open for dinner. Also, if you cannot stay for a full meal be sure to grab a snack at their to-go counter.

After grabbing brunch I walked around to get a feel for the city. I made sure to stop by the Nespresso shop where you can sample free espresso (yes – free espresso!!) I opted for the chocolate and berry blend espressos, which were equally delicious.

Auckland does not have a wide variety of tourist attractions, but the restaurants and city life are great to explore and immerse yourself in for a couple of days. I really enjoyed the “City of Sails.”

For dinner I tried DeBrett’s Kitchen, another gem I found while researching the trip. The restaurant is tucked down a side street in the DeBrett Hotel, near the University of Auckland. Although it is very hard to find, it is worth the effort. Again with local Kiwi cuisine, the food is fresh and delicious. I had spinach ricotta ravioli topped with crusty parmesan cheese. Well worth the walk from Princes Wharf!

After the long flights and rainy weather I called it a night.

The following day I took the ferry for a 30 minute ride over to Waiheke Island. It was hard to believe that an island so close to the city could be so drastically different. Waiheke boasts a tropical village vibe. It is best known for the many vineyards that rest on the hills of the island.

Before my trip I booked a small group food and wine tour of Waiheke, which was led by David, a Waiheke local for over 20 years. The tour began with a visit to a local farm that produced olive oil. We tasted various award winning oils and local Manuka honey, which were light and flavorful.

Next, we visited our first winery, Thomas’s Bach, and tasted a few wines paired with local raw oysters. The wine was decent, but the view and local food was the real treat. The dining room opened to beautiful green rolling hills lined with grape vines.

We later made our way to the second winery, Peacock Sky, which incorporated small pairings with each wine. This was the least favorite of the three wineries we visited, but still good. Finally, we stopped at Stoney Ridge for more wine and lunch. This was by far the best winery stop and we were given lunch, which was a delectable assortment of locally sourced dips, cheeses, and charcuterie items.

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Freshly harvested oysters accompanied our wine tastings at Thomas’s Bach.

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The view from the Thomas’s Bach restaurant and tasting area. The winery sits atop one of the highest points on the island allowing you to see the beautiful beaches and vineyards.

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For lunch we were served a delicious assortment of fresh cheese and charcuterie tastings which ended up being the best part of the tour.

I would highly recommend the food and wine tour. If you cannot schedule time for that, given it is a good half day at the least, I would absolutely take the ferry to Waiheke to see the tropical village town. The tour was great, but our local guide David really made it special offering a great history and insight to the island’s culture. We ended the day on Waiheke with some hand made gelato, per David’s suggestion.

If you only have a day or two in Auckland be sure to ferry over to Waiheke. Also make sure to stroll around the Britomart to grab brunch or just hang out on one of their bean bags while sipping coffee (and be sure to try that buffalo milk for me).

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Cheers!