The hobbit’s journey to Middle Earth

1 07 2017

Growing up reading JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Ring, my childhood fantasy was to act as a hobbit and roaming through my make-belief middle earth (aka my house) carrying the burden of the ring (yes my toy ring became “the ring” lol). When I grew older and the replica of the ring became available in the market all thanks to the great success of the LOR movie, of course I did not fail to get one. So since I have already made my way to the south island, I made it a point to squeeze into my plan a trip to the north to visit my “hometown” Hobbiton. 

The flight from Queenstown to Auckland is no less spectacular. Flying over Mt Cook and the majestic snow mountains, once the plane flew across the sea separating the north and south islands, the whole landscape changed. Unlike the South Island with magnificent mountains, the north island’s green rolling hills are indeed a sharp contrast. 


Known as “the city of sails”, Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city with its iconic waterfront, the Harbour bridge and skyline is often regarded as one of the best places in the world to live. It’s not hard to see why. The beautiful city will satisfy the needs of a “city person” with ample nice restaurants, shopping and other “city life” while a short drive out will take one to the scenic sights. 



From Auckland, it was a 2 hours drive up north to Hobbiton. No words can describe how excited I was to finally stepped foot in The Shire and into my hobbit hole. During the tour around Hobbiton, the guide explained how relativity is used cleverly to give viewers the fallacy that the wizard is much taller than the small hobbit. I was hopping around from one hobbit hole to the other, snapping pictures non-stop as if I was a little hobbit (and I did carry the ring with me lol). Towards the end of the tour, we ended at Green Dragon Inn and have the hobbit’s favourite ginger beer 🙂


From Hobbiton, we drove up to Rotorua, a Volcanic zone famous for its dramatic geothermal character. Te Puia is a must see in Rotorua with the iconic Pohutu Geyser which erupts up to 20 times a day. You can smell the faint scent of sulphur as you approach. I love the colourful Wai-O-Tapu with its beautiful Artist’s Palette and Champagne Pool. Do say hi to Lady Knox Geyser which erupts (though induced) numerous times a day. 


For those who want to witness the destructive power of the volcanoes, head to The Buried Village of Te Wairoa where you can see the houses buried by a volcanic eruption. The volcanic soil is so fertile that vegetation is now growing on the soil, making the area looks really green and hard to visualise that the whole excavated site was buried by the 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption. If you fancy a mud bath, head to Hell’s Gate which has the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere and the only geothermal mud baths in New Zealand.

Rotorua is also the place where you can experience the Maori culture so do drop by the Maori Village to learn more.


An eventful (or actually scary) incident happened while we were in Rotorua. As the weather was very cooling, our hotel decided to open all the windows in our room to air the room. However being city girls, it never occurred to us that we should not leave the lights on with the windows opened before we go out for dinner. So when we came back, our room was filled with insects all over the floor, ceiling and bathroom. It took quite a while for the hotel to clean up the mess. Super embarrassing….

Though it was a short trip to the north island, it was well worth it and I am surely planning another trip back to visit the rest of this beautiful country.

Tips:

– Tour of Hobbiton is by guided tour only. To avoid having to wait hours for the tour, it is advisable to book your ticket beforehand.

– Head to Auckland’s Harbour Bridge for one of the best view of the city’s skyline.

– Unlike the South Island, the North Island landscape is more of rolling hills and hence the roads are mostly straight roads. However, travelling from one destination to another will still take time given the distance and not forgetting that there will be nice scenery along the way that you will want to stop along the way. This is New Zealand after all so do give yourself ample of time.

– Why not explore the South Island as well? See my blog South Island

Food:

Auckland:

– The Crab Shack: This will make crab lovers happy. Before the meal, why not had a drink at its bar?

– Ortolana: I love this restaurant. Had a wonderful brunch here. Food quality is good with good coffee.



Rotorua:

– Ambrosia: Nice restaurant in Rotorua to have a relaxing dinner.

– Fat Dog cafe: A vibrant cafe for a nice brunch or lunch.

– Wai-O-Tapu Cafe: Nothing fancy but good place for a simple lunch.





New Zealand – The land of the long white cloud

18 06 2017

Kia Ora! New Zealand with its breathtaking scenery is often on many people’s bucket list. There is intense comparison amongst Switzerland, Canada (Rockies) and New Zealand on which country is the prettiest. My Canadian friends will say the Rockies, my Swiss friends the Swiss alps and my Kiwi friends always say that New Zealand wins hands down. Having seen the captivating scenery of the Swiss alps and seen the majestical Canadian Rockies, I decided that I need to make a trip down under to the land of the long white cloud to decide for myself.

As the flight flew into the South Island towards Queenstown, I was mesmerised by the sight outside the window. The sight of the snow capped mountain ridges just wowed me and this is the main reason why I chose to fly into Queenstown instead of the typical Christchurch. What an awesome prelude to the start of my wonderful stay in this country.



Queenstown

Though Queenstown can be touristy, it is a truly beautiful city. Located at Lake Wakatipu with the incredible Remarkables in the backdrop, I would say there are not many cities in the world where you can find such great views. Beautiful lakes with snow capped mountains in the backdrop is my ideal paradise on earth. The city gives me a peaceful and cosy feel and the best thing is that if anyone wants more “civilisation”, the city center with its cosy cafes and shops (for shopping addicts like me lol). For the activities seekers, there are tons of fun and exciting activities to do in and around Queenstown, from mild jet boat rides and canoeing to slightly more exciting activities such as paragliding to the extreme adrenaline rush bungee jumping and sky diving.


Glenorchy

A short 45 minutes drive from Queenstown along Lake Wakatipu takes one to Glenorchy where there are a couple of trials to do. For Lord of the Ring (LOR) and The Hobbit fans, this is Misty Mountain, Isengard, Lothlorien and Fanghorn forest and many more. Do try out Dart River jet boat and/or the canoe to explore the beautiful rivers. There are also plenty of walking trails.


Te Anau

We drove to Te Anau which is 1.5 to 2 hours from Queenstown. The drive is pretty scenic – we are in New Zealand so almost any drive is scenic 🙂 This town is a good stopover for a night before going to Milford Sound to break the long drive and also to visit its famous glow worm cave. The glow worm cave is a short ferry ride from Te Anau and I would say it is one of the most interesting experience I ever had, with the glom worms lighting up in dark caves like starry starry night. Too bad I can’t show any photos as photographs are not allowed as the flash will scare off the glow worms.
Milford Sound

Another 2.5 hours from Te Anau will take you to Milford Sound which is essentially fjords. The drive there is pretty scenic (it’s NZ after all) and you may want to make stops here and there especially at th Mirror Lake and Deer Creek. To explore the sound (or fjords), take the tourist cruise. Having been to Norway and done fjord cruise, I will say I am a little disappointed with Milford Sound as I find the Norway fjords nicer and find that the long drive just to see this may be a little over-rated. Maybe I have set my expectations way too high.Some friends say that Doubtful Sound is nicer but given that its location is more remote, I didn’t have the chance to visit. You may want to see them all and decide for yourself 😉 I was pretty tired and not feeling too well after the Milford Sound cruise that I decided to fly back to Queenstown, all thanks to my friend who is so kind to agree to take the car back to Queenstown. The usual flight back is on a bigger passenger plane. However, as there are too many of us (with me being the last minute addition), I was put on another 4 seater small plane and got to sit as the co-pilot. I was glad to make this decision to fly back. The view of the sound when the plane takes off and the whole flight back is breathtaking and well worth the money.


Mt Cook

Mt Cook is one of the must go place when one visits the South Island. Though it is quite a drive from Queenstown, the good thing is that there are many nice stops in between. Just a short drive out of Queenstown will take you to Gibbston area which has many vineyards. So for wine lovers, this will be your haven. I am the driver so I have to give this a miss, sadly…


After passing Gibbston area, the next nice stop is the Roaring Meg power station in the Kawarau Gorge which is the place of the original bungee jump. Are you daring enough to take the plunge? Haha.


Cromwell is another nice short stop where you can get nice fruits and juices. After passing here, do look out for the beautiful Lindis Pass. Do park your car at the designated parking area and take some photos. This pass is extremely beautiful and magical in the winter with snow (though the road may be closed if weather is bad) but summer is still nice too.


Driving on, you will reach Omarama. You will recognise this town when you see the merino sheep statute at the petrol station at the entrance of the town. There is nothing much here but it is a good toilet break and grab some food. For gliding enthusiasts, apparently here is a great place to glide due to the wind.


Before reaching Mt Cook, Twizel (which is 45 minutes away from Mt Cook) with the nearby Ahuriri River is famous for its rainbow trout/ salmon. I will recommend planning to have a meal in this town. For geography enthusiasts, you can visit the nearby Paritea cliffs to see the exposed Osler fault line.

You know that you are very near Mt Cook when you see a big lake. This is Lake Pukaki. I will say this is my favourite lake. I absolutely love its turquoise colour and the picturesque Mt Cook behind the lake. I was quite blessed with good weather and can see Mt Cook the moment we drove into Lake Pukaki area. Don’t fail to make photo stops along the way!


Mt Cook stands at 3,755m and is the highest peak in Australasia. To see the Tasman glacier and get up to Mt Cook, do take the helicopter ride or the scenic flight. 


I will also recommend taking the glacier lagoon boat to get up close to the glacier. 


There are also many nice walking trails to trek or just walk around so it is worthwhile to give yourself more time in Mt Cook. Also don’t forget to stare up into the sky at night. New Zealand, particularly Mt Cook area, is the best place to do star glazing and you can even see the Milky Way.
Tips:

– Best time to visit: Any season is a good time to visit New Zealand. However, summer is the high season as you get long warm days which are great for doing activities, though I caution that mid-day can be very warm and hotels are more expensive.

– The best way to get around the South Island is to drive. Do plan your route and give yourself ample time to travel from one point to another. It is rather easy to drive around the island as many times there is only one road but be weary that there are many bends and turns through the mountains. Though the locals are very familiar with the roads are can approach the bends at full speed, let the faster vehicles overtake and go at the speed that you are comfortable with and don’t feel pressured to go faster than you can handle. 

– To save time for Milford Sound visit, consider doing fly-cruise/fly from Queenstown instead of driving. It is expensive but well worth the money given the beautiful view and the ability to save time.

– Interested to see the North Island? See my blog on North Island
Food:

– Fergburger in Queenstown: This place is always packed and be prepared to queue for quite a while (I queue for an hour and I have heard longer queue time). Their burgers are really yummy, juicy and HUGE. This is a must try if you visit Queenstown.


– Rata in Queenstown is super good too.

– Three Sixty in Crowne Plaza hotel in Queenstown surprisingly serves very nice food at good price (I was given a voucher from the hotel which entitles guest to enjoy 3 course meal with wine at a very affordable price).

– Caribre Latin Kitchen in Queenstown is rated number 3 on TripAdvisor. Here is the place where you can quickly grab a cheap bite.

– Public Restaurant and Bar: For simple dinner and drinks, here is a great place to go and provides nice view of the lake.

– Patagonia: I will recommend this place for breakfast and ice cream. Who can resist ice cream right?

– Vudu Cafe: My favourite breakfast place in Queenstown. The coffee is one of the best.

– La Dolce Vita in Te Anau: The restaurant serves good Italian food and my good price. 

– Hermitage Hotel fine dining restaurant: The quality of food is superb. Highly recommended and well worth the price!

– Shawtys in Twizel is a popular Cafe that the locals patronise and it is not hard to understand why once you dine there. Just a short drive from Mt Cook, many locals staying in Mt Cook drive all the way here to have their meals. The food is great and pretty affordable. 


Accommodation:

– In Queenstown, I stayed at Crowne Plaza. There may be cheaper option but this hotel is located right in the city and opposite the tour bus departure point. Novetel hotel is also great place to stay.

– In Mt Cook, The Hermitage is the best hotel that you can get. Activities in Mt Cook all departs from here. I am lucky enough to see Mt Cook clearly from the hotel.

– In Te Anau, accommodation is pretty basic and mainly motels. So don’t expect too much. 





St Peterburg: Chasing my USSR dreams

29 01 2017

Though not a fan of cruises for fear of getting seasick, I mustered my courage to go on an overnight cruise from Helsinki to St Petersburg when I found out that this is the only way to travel to Russia without a Visa. As a kid, I used to stare for a long while at the Soviet Union covering a large part on the world map. Stories of Stalin, the Cold War and the KGB always never fail to fascinate me. Hollywood added my curiousity of USSR (and submarines) with movies like The Hunt for the Red October and Crimson Tide. So no words can describe my excitement when I boarded Viking Cruise to sail across the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg. 

The cruise was a little choppy but manageable. Thankfully I was not seasick. But I did get a scare of my life late at night when I was woken up by loud crashing sound as if the ship hit some hard objects. When I drew open the curtains and saw that the sea was frozen and sea ice was floating all around, the first silly thought that came to my mind was Titanic lol. I almost freaked out and thought that the ship was going down. Then I recalled that this ship has ice breaking ability and managed to composed myself to remain calm. Hilarious haha 🙂

The last leg of the journey as the ship cruise into St Petersburg was nothing short of spectacular as the ship broke its way through the wholly frozen sea to the port with snow falling. Of all the cities that I visited, I would say that St Petersburg is one of my favourite. I love the Hermitage Palace and its collections, the colourful churches including the famous Cathedral of the Holy Saviour on blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Issac’s Cathedral and many more. Even the metro stations with elaborated decorations which double up as bomb shelters during wartime are landmarks themselves. 

Given that the Visa free entry is only valid for 72 hours, it is a pity that I can’t spend more time in Hermitage Palace as well as visit Moscow. For my next trip, I will get the visa and spend a good amount of time there.

Tips:

– Cruise from Helsinki or Estonia to St Petersburg will get you to Russia Visa free for 72 hours.  See my blog on Finland and Estonia.

– Do try the local Russian pancake. There is a local fast food chain Teremok which serves cheap and yummy Russian pancakes. 


– Take a ride on the metro. Each stations are decorated differently and to me they are an open art museum.


– Walk around the city. You will be amazed that even non-touristy sites have also interesting architecture.


– Don’t shun away from Russian winter. There are not many places in the world where you can see frozen sea and rivers. 





I finally made it to Stockholm!

27 12 2016


Whenever I met up with a friend, she will keep rattling about how beautiful Stockholm is. Well not just her, many travellers to this city have all crowned this city as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. So when I visited Norway, I intended to make a side trip from Oslo to Stockholm but regretfully, I didn’t manage to find time from my tight itinerary. So a year later when I was planning a Nordic trip, I deliberately put Stockholm as one of my must see destination.

I was glad I did. The city is indeed beautiful, set on hundreds of islands in a lagoon. In the old town, one can find beautiful architecture with yellow buildings and cobblestones streets. Want to understand more on the Swedish history and culture? There are plentiful museums such as Vasa museum and Skansen. I particularly love the Skansen (Open Air Museum) which showcase various Swedish buildings across different periods and is a good place to understand Swedish culture and of course take nice photos. Or why not just take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront and the Old Town (Gamla Stan) where sights such as The Royal Palace,The Parliament House, Gustaf Adolf’s square, King’s Garfen, etc?



Food wise, Sweden is not all about Swedish meatballs. In fact, the locals laughed that Swedish meatball is the invention of a furniture shop (aka IKEA) and not their national cuisine. So what is Sweden national cuisine? Nothing specific but the country does have plentiful seafood so seafood stew and mussels are my top favourite.



Tips:

– Take flybus to Central station which is a lot cheaper than the express train. Savings in terms of time via express train is around 25 minutes but price is almost double.

– There is a changing of guards at the Royal Palace daily at around 12pm. You can check with the hotel concierge for the exact timing as the timing differs depending on the season.

– Sweden uses Swedish Kroner. However, you do not need to change to any local currency as credit card can be accepted almost everywhere even if you are making a small purchase. For public transport (eg bus and tram), just buy the tickets from the ticket machine which accepts credit card.

– For hotel, I was staying at Radisson Blu near the bus/train station. A very decent hotel in a good and continent location.





Copenhagen – In search of the Little Mermaid 

1 08 2016

Many children would have read the story of The Little Mermaid or watched the Disney cartoon version of it. So it is no surprise that seeing The Little Mermaid has always been on my bucket list. However, many times that I wanted to plan a trip to Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark, friends would say that there is nothing much to see there apart from the “little statute” and hence all these years, the city seems to always got dropped off my travel plans. Finally I just decided that I just have to see it no matter what and planned a 2 nights stopover in this city.

This city does have more to offer than The Little Mermaid. If you have ever been to Copenhagen, you will understand why Lonely Planet has described this city as “the coolest kid on the Nordic block”, “edgier than Stockholm and worldlier than Oslo” and that this Danish capital “gives Scandinavia the X factor”. 


The Old Harbour with its striking colours commonly seen in the Scandinavian countries exhibits an old world charm and reminded me of Norway’s Bergen Harbour.



The walk along the Old Harbour to the royal Amalienborg Palace, the Christiansborg parliament building and the Renaissance Rosenborg Castle (which has a museum containing royal artifacts and beautiful gardens), and of course the famous Little Mermaid statute. Tivoli Gardens is also a famous amusement park and pleasure garden that attracted many tourists and locals but as I was visiting in early spring, it was not opened yet 😦



There are also a lot of museums and nice restaurants for the foodies to indulge in but yes Copenhagen is on the top list of the most expensive city in the Nordic region so budget for this 😜

Tips:

– Transport to/from airport: Airport to city via train or metro (need 3 zones m). May be more worthwhile buying 24 hrs tickets which costs DKK 80 (one way already cost DKK 35).

– The metro doors close pretty quickly so be prepared 🙂

– Denmark uses Danish Kroner. However, you do not need to change to any local currency as credit card can be accepted almost everywhere even if you are making a small purchase. For public transport (eg bus and tram), just buy the tickets from the ticket machine which accepts credit card.

– There is a parade and change of guards every afternoon marching from Rosenborg Castle through the streets and ending up Amalienborg Palace around 12pm. 


– If you are catching a late flight into Copenhagen or an early flight out, you may want to stay in Hilton Hotel which is located just beside the airport. I would say that this is not the most luxurious hotel but I love the convenience of not having to drag my luggage to the city center.





Tallinn ~ Capital of Estonia

31 07 2016

For a girl from the “Little Red Dot” in a land far far away, I would never imagine that I will one day step foot in Estonia. To be honest, my only knowledge of this country before planning this trip was that it was part of Soviet Union. I chanced upon this country when I was planning on what I can do in Helsinki and realized that this mysterious ex-USSR state is just a short cruise away. 


So off I went across the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. There are a number of cruise operator but I decided to choose Viking Line Cruise as it has the timing that I like. The cruise is good (though not the luxurious cruise) with clean toilets and many restaurants serving decent food. 

After 2.5 hours, I arrived in Tallinn, the capital and largest city in Estonia. This city was founded in early 13th century and is well known for its mediaval Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


I could not help but fell in love with this quaint and charming Old Town the moment I stepped foot into it. The well preserved fortresses and turrets, the old mediaval churches with spires constrasting with the orthodox churches showing influence from Russia and the small little shops and cafes lining along those maze of narrow cobblestone alleys made me feel as if I was transported back in time to the mediaval period.

Well, people say pictures day more than a thousand words so here they are.

Tips:

– Unless you are a big eater, it may be much better not to go with the buffet but rather eat at the food court where you get to choose and pay for what you like to eat. It is rather decent and price is not expensive at all. If you join the Captain’s Club, you get discounts on the food too.

– The different cruise operators operate from different ports from Helsinki and Tallinn. Do take note of that so that you don’t get to the wrong port. The two most used operators are Viking Line and Tallink Silja Line. Viking Line operates from Katajanokka Terminal in Helsinki which can be accessible via Tram 4 from Helsinki city center. Tallink Silja Line operates from the West Terminal. Both cruises arrived at different ports in Tallinn too with Viking Line’s one nearer to the city center.

– Helsinki is just 2.5 hours from Tallinn so if you are visiting and staying in Tallinn, you may want to consider popping by Helsinki https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/helsinki-and-its-many-islands/





Helsinki and its many islands

31 07 2016

Finland is known as the land of thousand islands and it is not hard to understand why when you step foot in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. The beautiful city sits on the peninsula in the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki is a coastal city consisting of many islands.  

It is rather sad to see that the typical package tours to “Scandinavia” or Nordic tours mostly cover Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and other cities in Norway but somehow Finland and its beautiful capital seems to be off the radar. All thanks to my fascination over “Santa Claus land” (Rovaniemi), I got a chance to stopover in Helsinki and was glad that I did. 

In the city center at Senate Square, you will not missed this magnificent white colour building with green dome towering over the surrounding square. This is Helsinki’s giant cathedral. There may be many cathedrals in Europe but I would say this neoclassical one is one of the nicest one in Nordic and a contrast to the Uspenski Cathedral nearby.


My favourite site in Helsinki is Sommerland, an island accessible via a short and scenic ferry ride from the harbour in the city center. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this tranquil island is pretty cool and beautiful to walk around. It was first constructed by the Swedes in 1748 as a defense against the Russians. For history lovers, you will enjoy being immersed in the history of how this little island changes hands and purposes from being a defense fort to a garrison when the Russians took over in 1808 to a park in 1918 when it became part of Finland.



For music and art lovers, do visit the Sibelius park and monument. The park is really beautiful even in Winter! The statute of Sibelius and the pipes was very unique. Apparently when it is windy, the monument will play a beautiful sound. Too bad I wasn’t lucky enough to hear it 😦

Right down by the harbor is the Central market where you can do lots of souvenir shopping and eat some local food.


There are also a lot of other museums in Helsinki which I didn’t have the time to visit.
Helsinki tips:

– You can get to/from Helsinki airport to the city centre (stops at train station) via the airport bus (Bus 65). It takes around an hour and you can get tickets either from the bus driver (in cash) or from the ticket machine at the bus stop (which takes cash or card). Cost is €5 which is much cheaper than train (and train is not much faster).

– Sign boards & tourist information booths are not that easily found. It will be better if you do some research on your own beforehand.

– Finland uses euros and most places accept credit cards.

– You can take a day trip to exotic Tallin in Estonia. A charming old town, Tallin seems to be a movie set transporting one back into time which I covered in a separate blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/tallinn-capital-of-estonia/

– If you are interested to visit “Santa Claus land” in the Finnish Lapland or just want to catch the Northern Lights, it is just a short flight from Helsinki. You can refer to my earlier blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/merry-christmas-all-year-round-rovaniemi/

– Ever want to visit Russia but was put off by Visa requirements? There is a way to get to Russia Visa free fro Helsinki on an overnight cruise to St Petersburg. I will blog on this separately so look out for it!


Food:

We know food in Nordic countries is not cheap but I would say compared to the other countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the pricing on average in Finland is slightly cheaper. Here are some of the decent price restaurants:

– If you want to try some Finnish cuisine, I will highly recommend Zetor where you can get some special Finnish fish (not sure the name but you can refer to the picture below), reindeer meat sausages and other Finnish delights. This is quite a hip restaurant somewhat like Hard Rock Cafe.

– Morrison’s which is located in the city center offers lovely set lunches and affordable dinner. Below is a simple set lunch of cheap and yummy grilled salmon.


– If you are tired of Finnish food, pop by Rosso an Italian restaurant which is highly popular with the locals. You can see that this is one of my favourite too 🙂


– For those on a tighter budget, Vapiano is also a good choice. It serves pizzas, pastas and other grills with a meal costing less than $15! I love the pastas there particularly when you have a good looking cute chef cooking that lol 😝