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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Over. And. Out.


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Returning home and wanting to stay, is this normal?

So, yes, after suggesting (clearly stating) that the last post was going to be our last post, here I find myself again - posting this time as a blogger, rather than a traveller.

We have been home for a few weeks now and the reality of stationary life has well and truly sunk in. The joy of not having to worry about where we are sleeping each night, the disappearance of that constant where-is-my-passport-I-must-know-it's-exact-whereabouts-at-all-times feeling is a relief. And, most of all, once again being surrounded by people who we know and love and are happy to pick our broke asses up and drive us to the pub and buy us a beer just because they geographically now CAN is a massive bonus (some even bake us cakes! yum!)

But what of the down-sides? Are we feeling bored now that every experience is not a new sensory overload? Do we miss meeting weird and wonderful people from all over the world on a day-to-day basis? Is it strange not to be spending as much time with eachother? Well, yes and no.
I walked from my sisters place in Angel to a friends place in Camden along the Camden Canal the other day - a walk I've never done before - and it was beautiful. Posh redevelopments merged into grimy and disused building sites and all the while barge boats floated by with families and friends aboard, merry in the sunshine. Yes, there was a dead swan bobbing upside-down in the murky waters, a homeless and clearly drunk man was shouting incoherently at everyone who passed and the closer my proximity to Camden locks the stronger the smell of spliffs. But it was a joy. I loved feeling like a tourist again - looking through the eyes of a traveller in a city I call home. Our friends and family certainly fill up the 'weird and wonderful' quota and as for eachother, actually it's been nice to have our personal space back and luckily we live near eachother so it's still easy to meet up.

And so we look to the future; I have began a job hunt in a less-than friendly climate ("the economy will be better when we get back from our trip" - or not) and Rob is busy geeking up on his IT things before embarking on a similar employment mission. The plan is to job-up, settle-down and begin our life in one place together. But why do we not want to travel more?

This is a question that has kind of been bugging me...we had a great year, we loved travelling, there were no major disasters and plenty of plans for future trips so why would we rather stay in London (image: london met Is that normal? Shouldn't we have been bitten by the travel bug? Isn't it proper that we have itchy feet now? Maybe so, but that's just not us...what we're looking forward to now is stability, building exciting and challenging careers and - dare I say it - an income to enjoy spending after a year of strict budgeting.

I'm interested in what other readers and travel bloggers think about this...when you return home do you ever think 'I'd like to stay'? What drives you on? And - most importantly - are we normal?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

So long, farewell, auf wiedersen, goodbye

It's been almost a week now since we took our homeward flight and since then - apart from plenty of eating and drinking and hugging (other people, not just each other) - we have done all the cleaning and counting and list-making that two people might after 365 days away.
A lot of people have asked how much our trip has cost and so, in the hope that it'll serve to demonstrate how do-able something like a trip around the world really is to others who are contemplating it; here it is ...drum roll please...rounded to the nearest ten; a 1-year RTW trip including flights, insurance, vaccinations and spending was £9,540 per person

I'm not sure if we could have spent much less - we always opted for the cheapest transport, sleeping and eating options (usually much more fun and authentic anyway) and only splurged on once-in-a-lifetime things like tours of the Grand Canyon, scuba diving and - in New Zealand - repeatedly throwing ourselves at the ground from great heights.

Another quested we've been asked is what was your favourite place? This is an impossible one to answer. Or at least impossible to answer in one sentence - there are places that were beautiful but no fun, there were places that were cheap but the food was awful, there are placed we loved but would never want to go to again and places we wouldn't want to return to but we'd recommend that others go. The permeations are endless and so to simplify matters and as a kind of grand finale round-up here is our list of recommendations for 10 Top Travel To-do's

Best places to party
Vang Vieng (tubing, below)

Best places to spend lots of money
Best places to save lots of money
Best beaches & seas
Gili T
Rarotonga (below)
Koh Tao

Best for scuba diving
Gili T
Koh Tao
Best man-made landmark
Taj Mahal
Golden Gate Bridge
Angkor Wat (below)

Best places to motorbike
Best holiday destinations
Koh Tao

Thanks again to everyone that has followed our international escapades for this past year - hopefully this blog will continue to be some sort of helpful resource to fellow travellers and travel-bloggers, being part of this community has been an absolute pleasure.

This will be the last blog post from Three Six Five - with no upcoming travels scheduled and Day 365 reached we're hanging up our blogging boots, but thank you again everyone - it's been fun :)

Safe travels and all the best, love Three Six Five xx

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Day 365: Honey! We're ho-ome!

So we made it! 365 days have passed and we are now back, a little more learned and a little more tanned, where we started this whole crazy trip; home sweet green-and-pleasant home.

For now there is family and friends to embrace and bizarre sleeping-patterns to fight before some kind of 'normal' might descend on camp Three Six Five so this is just a little post to say thank you for sharing our adventures with us here and - for those reading from England - hopefully see you soon!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Day 361 – 364: Viva Las Vegas

Hello from the buffet hall in Circus Circus where Three Six Five are enjoying the final meal of this incredible adventure. Yes we've come a long way since we departed, pale and considerably wealthier, 364 days ago – but this is not the time for reflection (big plans for that post are afoot though) this is a time to tell you all about our last few days.

Las Vegas is, as it's reputation would have you believe, loud and bright and garish and thoroughly fabulous. We cannot think of a place that is less like the dark and dusty streets of Delhi where we began our trip. Everything here is geared towards spending and everything is being sold by sex, in one form or another. You can't walk around without a guy in a 'girls girls girls' t-shirt snapping a calling card into you hand and a troop of vans with some suitably saucy ladies pictured and the slogan 'hot girls direct to your room in 20 mins' patrols the strip with alarming regularity.

Huge video billboards show adverts for resorts and shows in incredible audio and visual quality at every corner. Some roads cannot be crossed without taking a series of escalators up, over and through a resort's mall or casino – only the most dedicated of pedestrians could possibly pass through all these obstacles without parting with a penny.

Inside the gigantic resort complexes, though some sort of theme prevails (the Venetian has Sistine Chapel-style painting and gondolas, Paris has replicated the Eiffel tower and Circus Circus is full of clowns) basically all the casinos are the same. Once inside the sound of coins falling and slot machines beeping is overwhelming, people perch on stools hunched at their fruit machine or sit with a calm sense of panic at the high rolling tables.

Maybe this post is sounding a bit negative so far? That really wasn't my intention – all of the above is fact, it's true, it's what makes Vegas, Vegas and we were here because we wanted to be part of that, and – believe me – they make it as easy for you to fall into it as they can. We had to pass through two casinos to get to our room and when we did go in for a bit of gambling – we loved it.

Needless to say we were not playing for big money, and after a few gos on the slots (still don't really know how they work) we settled down at a roulette machine. Here we could play for 25c/spin and we didn't have to wait for other people to play – it was great. And it turns out the rumour of free drinks as long as your betting is true too, we were down a few Long Island Iced Teas and up a few dollars when we upped the bets. In the end, as you can see from the overjoyed expression on my face here, we turned $5 into $38.75 – that's a 700% ROI! Surely that never happens in Vegas?! Maybe we should have bet more in the first place..? (no, no, that's how they get you) But these winnings meant we could have a night out, all winning, loosing, drinking, eating and tipping included for a profit of $5. Magic.

Partially to save ourselves from the draw of the next big win and partially because it is one of the things to do here we decided to get tickets to a show & buffet for our last night. We were hoping to go to a variety show but in the end saw a comedy/burlesque show called Sin City which was really pretty good – lots of ass, lots of laughs; what more could two world-weary travellers ask for? How about 70 different dishes (desserts pictured) in a room the size of 3 football pitches that were all-you-could-eat? Yeah – we had that too.

Our walk home took us past the scarily over-sexed Call of the Sirens show at the front of Treasure Island and the infamous dancing fountains at the Bellagio. If we had been burnt before by dancing fountains (see Mysore) the thoughtful choreography and lighting of these fountains dancing to the sweet sound of Celine Dion's My heart will go on (surely the greatest show tune, like, ever?) smoothed them away. This was Vegas – of course it was going to be bigger and better than anything we'd seen before.

And now here we are, a few plates have been cleared since I began typing and there is a sort of quiet mood at the Three Six Five table. This may be because we've reached new levels of full (two buffets in as many days...that basically makes us locals, right?) or because, as Rob just asked me “Can you believe we're getting on a plane to go home today?” Honestly, no. I've regressed back into denial on this one, but believe it or not in four hours we'll be on our way to Gatwick.

Vegas has been a suitably memorable ending to a truly unforgettable year but, really, there's no place like home.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Day 361: The Grandest Canyon tour

I have to begin this post with a massive, brightly-lit, way over the top, Vegas-style thank you to Rob's parents, Mac & Trish, for kindly and cleverly suggesting that our birthday presents this year come in the form of a donation towards doing something extra special in Nevada's party city. Fighting the temptation to cash this in for a 7-day buffet pass (what a way to go) we opted for the Grand Voyager pass to the Grand Canyon. And extra special it was.

After our first night out “on the strip” the day began with a bus ride to Boulder City airport at a very reasonable 11AM. After a short wait we were flying in a light aircraft over the desert and above the Hoover Dam. This huge structure, so the in-flight commentary informed us, is still the heaviest man-made structure on earth – to withstand all that water pressure it's almost as wide at it's base as it is tall (200m) - and contains more steel than the Eiffel Tower.

It was a bit of a bumpy ride but there was plenty more flying to come because now that we were on the edge of the Grand Canyon, we were taking a helicopter down into it. I was even lucky enough to get the front seat and sit next to the pilot. From this incredible vantage point the greys and reds of the sheer rock face were visible through a window that stretched from the ceiling all the way down to the base of the helicopter, just past my feet. The moment that we flew over the rim and the deep canyon fell out below me is one that I will never forget.

It was a short but breath-taking ride, everywhere we looked looked like nothing we had ever seen before, and deep inside the canyon – thanks to the Colorado River – it was actually much greener than you might expect of a massive crack in a desert landscape.

Here, within millions of years of mother nature's finest handiwork, our incredible list of modes of transportation for the day, then extended to boat. And not just any boat, a small carpeted boat with plush leather seats and (lucky for us) only one other wonderful couple to share it with. With a guide from a local tribe we cruised slowly upstream, able to marvel at the vastness of this natural wonder that reached up to the sky all around us, as he told us of old tribal traditions and the history of this sacred land.

Back in the 'copter (can one be so casual about a helicopter ride after just one trip? Probably not...) we were taken up and out of the Grand Canyon and back to a small base built wonderfully close to the edge for a late lunch. By this time the heat of the sun had been diminished by a thin layer of cloud cover and outcrops were casting long shadows across the canyon walls. After a good feed there was time only for a small bit of clambering over rocks, a final few snaps of a sight there was no way we could possibly forget, and then a flight back to Boulder City.

We were eventually returned to our hotel at just before 9PM – a long but beautiful, awe-inspiring and absolutely unforgettable day. This tour was with Scenic Airlines, who ran the trip like clock work and would come highly recommended from us if you ever find yourself in Nevada.

Huge thank you hugs to Mac & Trish again – not long now until we can do that in person :)

What we've lost (so far)

1. Kat's bikini – to the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools' changing rooms

2. 1 compass – found broken after being dutifully carried around unused for 8 months (sorry Mac)

3. $300 (USD) - to Vietnamese “officials” in visa fiasco #1

4. 3 Stone in combined weight – thank you India

5. 1 of Kat's flip flops – somewhere in the Mount Cook region

6. Both of Rob's flip flops – at a camp ground outside Wanaka, this may or may not have all been Kat's fault

7. Both of Rob's walking boots – in a similar drive-away-while-footwear-is-outside-the-van incident to his flip flops, but following a 200km recovery round-trip they were returned to their owner

8. 1hr 30mins of our lives – watching The American in a cinema on Gili T

9. Rob's bank card – in Bangkok, this may or may not have been all Kat's fault

10. 1 bread roll (Te Anau) & 2 tomatoes (Franz Josef) – we definitely bought these but mysteriously they never made it to Emilio, or our stomachs

11. Kat's new digital camera – to a monsoon in India (sorry girls)

12. The will to continue on this trip – only momentarily, quickly recovered

13. Our way – multiple times while on motorbikes, everywhere

14. Rob's ipod usb & charger and game boy charger – left on our flight into Christchurch, returned to us 4 days later, thank you Singapore Air!

15. Multiple pairs of knickers & a t-shirt – to a monsoon in Hampi, India – some knickers returned

16. 1 of Kat's rings – to the bottom of a swimming pool at about 2AM in Hoi An

17. The desire to ever return to England – in Koh Tao with a Dive Masters course calling, also recovered...eventually

18. Any reservation we might have had about discussing bowel movements with someone we've known for only 5 minutes – thank you India

19. Rob's ipod cable - again, for good this time though

20. Kat's sarong - I have no idea where this one went, but it's with us no more

Monday, 18 April 2011

Day 351-360: San Francisco; New favourite City

Sorry perfectly preened Singapore, apologies gloriously grungy Wellington; you have been beaten, ousted, you have been pipped at almost the very last post by San Francisco; three six five's official new favourite city.

We only had a few days in San Francisco and with so much to see and do we knew it was going to be pretty hectic. What we didn't know was that this would mean a sort of a get-fit-quick retreat to a beautiful city that perches perilously on no less than seven hills. As soon as we arrived we hit the streets, San Francisco is compact enough to walk around most of it – as long as you are wearing comfortable shoes and you are ready to layer up and layer down in accordance with it's ever changing micro-climates and the gradient of the hill you need to navigate through. And you will be passing hills; some so steep that the pavements are actually steps and some so high that the freezing gale force winds you experience at the top are nothing like the sunny little side street you were standing in below.

Our first excursion was to begin the strenuous trend; we decided to view the city from the top of a relatively small Coit Tower which sits on top of the deceivingly high Telegraph Hill. But the views from the top were well worth it. This would be our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, glowing red in the distance over blue waters. From here we could see the city undulating out before us, every winding street, tiny secluded Alcatraz and all the piers that punctuate the coast-line. It is simply beautiful.

San Francisco, we knew, was a city full of artists and you don't have to go far to find a gallery, exhibition or even just some poetry taped to the pavement; passing the latter was a clear sign that we had made it to North Beach; former hang-out of Jack Kerouac and spiritual home of the Beat generation. Now I wouldn't really class myself as a fan of the beat movement (in fact, quite the opposite, but that's another discussion...) but it was pretty exciting for a bit of a lit-geek like me to go to the City Lights Book Store and have a drink in Vesuvio just as they were doing 60-odd years ago.

Further wanderings took us through China Town, Japan Town and to the Haight, where The grateful Dead once lived and the only thing stronger than the prevailing sense of the 60's hippy movement is the sweet smell of joints being smoked at every opportunity. There is even a clock on the corner of Haight and Ashbury that famously always reads four twenty; which will be either a deeply cool or very confusing statement to you, depending on your association with these cult numbers. The streets of Haight are lined with coffee shops, record stores, vintage clothes shops and – no surprises here – some incredible street art. Here the tattoo:person ratio soars and everyone seems intent on keeping the spirit of peace and free love alive. Yeah, I really really like the Haight.

Keen to take in as much of the city as we could, and with the soles of our shoes already notably thinner, we switched pavement for pedal and hired bicycles for a day. Our route took us through the beautiful Botanical Gardens and – not without a fair bit of huffing and puffing – over the Golden Gate Bridge itself. Unfortunately, this being San Francisco, the day had clouded over a bit by the time we made it to the big red bridge but to see it was still simply spectacular. Yes it may have all but killed the shipping trade in the area with its completion but who cares? It looks great – and as it turns out the then-defunct ferry house has now become a hub of culinary greatness.

We cycled along the coast back to our hostel and were more than happy to stop for a wander around the eateries and to admire the skaters and BMXers that strut their stuff aside a huge angular sculpture and below the huge clock tower that actually tells the real time, all the time.

Yes it had been a busy few days but it wasn't over just yet – we had one last thing on our must-do list; prominent in the prohibition era, there are still a few Speak Easy's to speak of. Under a 'Anti-Saloon League' sign, after a knock and uttering of a secret password, we were taken through a bookcase (seriously) to a tiny bar called 'The Library' that served incredible cocktails just like they did when it was illegal. It was the perfect way to end our short but sensational stint in this beautiful, vibrant and historic city.

San Francisco; we love you.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Day 348-350: The Getty and the Gospel

It was a beautiful day that we visited the Getty Museum; sitting pretty high on the hills of Los Angeles it offers not only a stunning view of the sprawling city but far more exhibitions than one could possibly absorb in an afternoon's wanderings.

Much like the Guggenheim before it, the Getty Museum is one of those places where the building itself is one of the biggest artistic attractions. There are wide open spaces, frolicking fountains, great glass windows and sweeping sculpted gardens. And it's free to get in, once you've paid the $15 parking fee.

We wandered abound a small exhibition of Ankgor Gods, which made us realise how long ago it was that we visited Angkor Wat itself (for the record: 237 days) and a wonderful collection of impressionist paintings. On any visit to the Getty Museum, ample time must be allowed for coffee breaks in its numerous cafés.

That evening we had plans (so many plans, so many options...) so we couldn't stay to watch the sun set over LA but it is open late and I imagine it is quite the sight.

The following morning, in varying states of hungover and with a new edition to the British contingent, another friend from home, Claire, we were making our way to the holiest of events down in Hollywood. It was Sunday morning and we had tickets to a Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues.

It was a buffet brunch and any preconceived notions I might have had about the American large portion-sizes were confirmed here. The buffet stretched from one side of the room to the other, almost as far as the eye (in an admittedly pretty dark room) could see and encompassed everything from scrambled eggs, muffins, waffles (plus toppings), macaroni cheese, salads (plural), cold meats, prawns, deserts (again, very plural) to build-it-yourself omelettes and watermelon slices. A feast! The perfect hangover cure – and that was just the buffet bit.

The best part was definitely the gospel itself; a choir lead by a woman with a voice like Aretha Franklin and an outfit like a wedding cake being attacked by a swan belted out hymns that were as funky as they were soulful. They also sung perhaps the coolest possible rendition of happy birthday I've ever heard to lucky birthday attendees.

It was all over too quickly and with full stomachs and an extra (if painfully out of time) skip in our step Natalie's house-mate Blake took us on a bit of a sightseeing tour around the city, stopping of course, for the obligatory Hollywood sign snap (you can see it behind us if you get your face really close to the screen and squint)

Our time in LA was coming to an end, it had been a crazy whirlwind of a week – certainly nothing like we'd experienced before and, probably, like nothing we'll experience again. A massive thank you here to Natalie for making so much of it possible.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Day 345-347: Ya'll wanna get legal? some more from LA...

Honestly I don't really know where to begin with this post; this past week has passed at a frenetic pace. Fast certainly in comparison with the laid-back lifestyle of the Pacific-islanders but, I get the feeling, not to the locals here. I mentioned in my last post that we are staying with one of my best friends, Natalie, and she has been an endless source of entertainment options. There's always options. “Guys” she'll say “tonight we have options” and then she'll reel off more things than could be done in a week that have come via invitations from more people we could possible hope to meet, maybe ever.

She has also gifted us the use of her car – not just any car of course, darlings, a convertible and so while she's been at work in the day we've been able to try and tick a few things off the ever-growing to-do list.

Our first excursion was to Venice beach, a beautiful strip of white sand that plays host to a busy boulevard and a whole host of outdoor sports facilities. There are basketball courts where guys in vests play to an audience of pouting girls and passers-by, an awesome skate park, crazy mini tennis courts where players use over-sized ping-pong bats (really need to find out the proper name for this sport) and a gym with the obligatory massive guy with arms equivalent to tree trunks.

There are street performers, street artists and lots of 'doctors'. As I'm sure you're all aware California has recently legalised the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes...and subsequently there are many men in green scrubs with infamous leaf motifs that wander the streets offering “walk-in appointments”. You won't go far before somebody will ask you if “ya'll want to get legal?” - so much more fun than a stroll past the Stables Market in Camden.

And so very different from our next must-see destination; Hollywood Boulevard. Yes! After much driving around in circles desperately trying to find a parking space we got to wander down the street that is lined with stars. And really there are so many more stars than you may imagine. In fact when we first pulled into Hollywood Boulevard we thought we'd read the sign wrong because it looks just like a normal suburban is just around the famous Chinese Theatre that all the big names have their stars.

It's really funny to see everyone wandering down the street (sorry, sidewalk) looking at their feet, spinning 180 degrees every now and again to read the names on the stars that are facing the other way. But apart from star-spotting and the learning of important facts like Jack Nicolson has really small hands, there's really not that much on this famous road.

But that didn't mean we were out of options.

That evening Natalie has managed to bag us free tickets to see a screening of the new Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth which was really really good and ended with a 3D performance of their new album. I would definitely recommend anyone who is a fan of the band, and even those who aren't really, to watch this documentary – it is funny and charming and seeing a band play in 3D from the comfort of a seat in a cinema is definitely an experience.

That evening it was back to Hollywood for a few drinks with some friends in a beautiful bar...and it was only Wednesday! There's more, much more to write about LA but in a bid to avoid overwhelming (boring?) you with any more in this post I'll leave it at that and write again soon.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Day 344: Let's go Dodgers let's go!

The last leg of our trip, the home-stretch, the 3 weeks that we'll spend in America before returning home began – as all things should in LA – with a bang. One of my best friends in living here now and she came with a friend to pick us up from the airport and whisked us out to a small and incredibly busy cafe with one of the most vast array of pastries I've ever seen (but as it turned out, this is more a measure of the short time I'd spent in LA than the actually vastness of pastry goodness available)

Following our brunch, almost as quickly as we could take our bags out of the boot of one car we were sitting in another and were on our way to one of America's most iconic sporting stadiums. It was Sunday afternoon and we were weaving our way through 6-wide lanes of traffic, through wide palm-lined streets and past high-rise blocks to the Dodgers Stadium for one of the first games of the season.

The car park was huge – a sea of shining bonnets filled the grounds right up to the hills where “think blue” was written in the “hollywood” style and everyone around was certainly thinking blue, and wearing blue, and waving blue, and buying blue under the clear blue skies. Our first task was to find tickets and, once we'd found the vendors, decipher the seating code; was outfield better than reserve? Where was the pavilion? And what did loge mean? In amongst all of this a very friendly man gave us a set of tickets that he wasn't using that would allow us, once inside, to upgrade seat right behind the batter. Awesome.

On entry, everyone was handed a dodgers blanket that turned out to be a slanket (they call them snuggies here – a blanket with sleeves) which was of no use in the glorious sunshine of the first innings but absolutely vital in the closing stages of the game. Everyone around us was chanting and cheering and balancing huge trays of natchos/chips/”dodger dogs” (foot-long hot dogs) and in between innings music blared and the big screen scanned the audience for “smile cam” “dance cam” and “kiss cam” - it was basically, just like the movies.

We all stood for the second rendition of the national anthem and the “7th Innings Stretch” - which is kind of like half time...but with a stadium-wide rendition of the apparently well-known Take me to the ball-game which everyone waved their hands and belted out like a kind of second-national anthem. People-watching aside the game was great too; luckily Natalie had brought along a few friends to help explain exactly what was going on...and the Dodgers won!

What a day! We'd been on America soil less than 12 hours and already we'd been part of a truly American experience, and it felt good. Who knows what's ahead of us if we carry on at this rate...

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Day 338-343: Hello from unplanned paradise

Hey, so, remember that post from Fiji last week when I was all like “Preparation is key”
And you were like “What?”
And I was like “Yeah, you so can't treat 1 week away the same as a RTW trip”
And you were like “Err, well it seemed to work out alright for you in the end”
And I was like “Nooo, no no, preparation is key. Trust me”

Well. I was wrong. Despite bold statements from yours truly about “learning lessons” etc. we arrived in Rarotonga even less prepared than we did for Fiji; and it has worked out even better.

Let me start with our accommodation. ­We are staying in the best accommodation of this whole trip. And we are here by total fluke after speaking to the owner, Auntie Adriene as she is affectionately known, at the airport after arriving and asking the first person we saw at the 'accommodation' kiosk if they had a room.

Our spacious self-contained unit (meaning we have our own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom) in Tiare Village sits in green lands where guava, avocados, coconuts, bananas and chilis are literally ripe for the picking and our room looks out onto the pool. Where there is a BBQ. And lots of friendly fellow guests who, as I type, are hatching plans for a BBQ by the pool this very evening. And all for $55/night (about 27GBP)

Such. Good. Times.

And it turns out that, outside these grounds, Rarotonga is absolutely incredible too. Life on the island breezes past at an enjoyably relaxed pace while we cruise around at an equally slow pace on our hired scooter. Rob even had to pass a practical exam for the privilege, but he now has a Cook Islands drivers license to show for it - so the $20 was well worth it.

Almost wherever you are on the island, look over one shoulder and you are looking out at a spectacular seascape. Just past the white sandy beaches, shallow waters filled with coral and exquisite fish twinkles in an inviting shade of turquoise. Cast you eyes a few hundred meters further out and the waves break, white and frothy, at the reef wall and then the sea stretches out into a darker blue infinity beyond.

We've passed our days driving and stopping wherever looks good (which is everywhere) and loved peering in on the sealife below through masks and snorkels. There are more picasso trigger fish than you could imagine – some smaller than a little finger, some the size of a hand – each as colourful and intricate in design as the next. There are bright butterfly fish in abundance, box fish that hover like tiny fat seals, flounders that hide in the sand, flying fish that leap like salmon into the sun for split seconds before splashing back into the sea and many more that I couldn't possible hope to namecheck. We also learnt the trick of bringing banana in with us which causes quite the aquatic stir, but alas, not any photos that quite do it justice.

And for those who've had enough of snorkelling (if anyone has ever actually reached this point, do let us know) there's also the lagoon at Muri beach. Sheltered by two tiny islands just off the coast, it's perfect for swimming without the worry of banging into coral or drifting off with the tide. It's also perfect for lazing in the shade with a good book and a pina colada. So we hear...

One morning we even took a break from this deeply strenuous routine to partake in one of our favourite past times; scuba diving. Which was, as you might imagine, bloody fantastic. It felt great to be 18m-under again and we were lucky enough to see a Hawksbill Turtle (yes! A turtle! Favourite favourite!) and spend some quality time with Tommy the friendly 25 year old trigger fish. Usually quite an aggressive species, Tommy is so tame now he often joins the dive trips. It was crazy to be so close to this big blue fish, face to fishy-face with his big hill-billy lips and buck teeth, Quite amazing to think that he'd been lurking down here for about as long as I'd been walking around on the land above. Massive thanks is needed here to Paul and Charles and everyone at Dive Rarotonga; highly recommended dive company.

What else to say? There's a inland mountainous walk that we heard was brilliant (bit too much like hard work for us this time round) and plenty of shops and great bars and restaurants to keep you busy here too.

Basically, Rarotonga is the perfect holiday destination; just come here. Don't plan it, just do it – because you will love it.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Day 334-337: Adventures on a tiny island

And then it rained. And rained. No, that's not fair, on the afternoon that we arrived in Taveuni and checked into a little wooden hut at Beverly's Campground the sun was shining and we were soon scraping ourselves over the coral in low-tide. That evening the owner of Beverly's insisted we have dinner with the family...and then it rained.

For the best part of 2 days.

Fortunately also staying at Beverly's was a lovely Spinnish [Finnish/Spanish] couple who eased the disappointment of constant wind, heavy rain and no electricity and provided some much-needed direction. They even had a guide book! Preparation indeed! And so just as the rain was clearing we jumped on the bus to Lavena.

A note on the buses; before coming to Fiji we'd heard a lot about “Fiji time” an expression that basically means (I think); we'll do it some time but there's no telling exactly when and it'll probably be later than you think. A kind of nice, acceptable expression of inevitable lateness. So when our flights arrived bang on time, early even, we figured the aviation industry might be apart from this trend...but then the 10:30 bus arrived at 10:30 and the 2 o'clock return was waiting patiently at 1:50 … what's happened to Fiji time?! It's not going strong on Taveuni I can tell you that much.

Anyway, the bus rumbled through small villages, crossed swollen rivers on very dubious-looking bridges and climbed steep hills through lush greenery and along coastal paths to deposit us, about an hour later, into the little village of Lavena. There is only one guest house in Lavena and – to be honest – if there was another it would have a tough time taking custom from The Lavena Lodge. With turquoise walls, super friendly staff and a breath-taking view out to see the lodge also provides tour-guides and conservation assistance to the local sight-seeing spots.

It was here that we learnt of the cyclone that had been bringing all the lousy weather our way – fortunately it was in Tonga and heading away from us so, we were told through a high whooping laugh that it seems is the birthright of Fijian women, that though it was windy “you won't blow away from here!”

Another day of mostly-indoor relaxing with Kimmo and Fatima (the Spinnishes) before Friday morning greeted us with blue skies! There were ominous looking clouds lurking over the mountain but it was time to seize the moment and take the beautiful Lavena Coastal Walk to the Wainibau waterfall. And boy was it worth the wait! The walk there was fantastic but the real highlight was sliding down the fast-flowing waterfall into the whirling plunge pool. It took a bit of a tricky climb up the rocks next to the fall but what a rush!

The rain even held off and allowed us to enjoy the walk home – via a short serenading session by some of the outrageously adorable local kids - and some more snorkelling too.

Such is the way with fate sometimes, that the day we were to leave Lavena the sun came out and lit up the bay in that picture-postcard kind of way that you might expect from Fiji. It was a shame it didn't look like the first pic (above) all the time we were there but it did give us the opportunity to take some great pictures. Actually, because Robs camera died in Suva, we have to say a big gracias to Fatima for sharing her snaps with us.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Day 331-333: We're on Fiji time now (we were before we set off)

If preparation is the key to success then the beginning of our excursion to Fiji is probably most akin to locking yourself out of the house in your pants, just as it begins to rain. We could see that shiny key of forward-thinking and thorough itinerary-making but it was just out of reach.

Never on this trip have we arrived in a country with such a vagueness of intentions or lack of research. We had in our possession a short message of recommendations from a friend – but even that was only recovered from the internet and scrawled into a notebook (from which we could regurgitate our intentions to disappointed-looking airport attendants later) at the last moment - thank you Auckland Airport for 15min free internet.

When we touched down in Nadi we were greeted by a 4-piece band in bright Hawaiian shirts that broke from their cheery tune only to shout the traditional Fijian greeting “bula!” as one passed. Oh how the false sense of security warmed us. Once through baggage and customs we were directed by a very large Fijian man towards a his smaller female counterpart to “help us with our holiday” - hang on! we'd only shook his hands and already he knew we were British and we were here for a week from New Zealand...these guys were good.
The disappointment in our assistant face was clearly visible when we confirmed that we intended to go to Taveuni – a small island to the West of Viti Levu - and not to the Yasawas Islands – the usual holiday hotspot.
“We'd like to get there as soon as possible, maybe today?”
[broad smile] “Ooooooh no, not can go to Yasawas today”
“We really want to go to Taveuni – what would be the best way to get there?”
“Why you want to go to Taveuni?”
[white lie] “We're meeting a friend there” - if India taught us nothing else; you always have a friend already waiting for you in the hostel / bar / town you want to go to. Eliminates so much hard-sell.

And so, to cut a long story short we ended up almost buying plane tickets to Taveuni for the next morning, then deciding they were too expensive and so reverting back to our friends original suggestion of getting an overnight boat from Suva to Taveuni. Then we missed a bus to Suva. We eventually caught another bus to Suva about an hour later, arriving in the total darkness of 8PM to be told that we'd also missed the overnight boat. I had remembered one guest house's name in Suva from a glance in the Lonely Planet book in an airport shop (thus completing 365's Fiji research) and so we were dropped at Raintree Lodge, about 7 miles outside of Suva centre.

Fortunately, when we woke up in the morning, as has seemed to often be the case on this journey; everything – somehow - fell nicely into place. Raintree Lodge is a beautiful guest house; our room looked out onto a lily pond, there was a lovely swimming pool and the super-helpful staff pointed us in the direction of the best way to get the most out of Taveuni.

We were to fly the morning after and then fly directly back to Nadi on Sunday to catch our flight back to Auckland. Though the more expensive option, it turns out the boat is both long and fairly unenjoyable and since we'd only a week in Fiji we didn't really want to spend 4 days of it in transit. Plus, this meant we got to spend the day in Suva...which is no bad thing.

The town is a crazy kind of mix of traditional and modern. We caught the bus into town, a beautifully ricketty ride with perpetually-open windows and cramped seats that deposited us into a dusty bus stand. Food stalls, drink vendors ( cold juicy) and people everywhere – so far, so familiar from Asia BUT turn the corner and a huge silver building plays host to flashy coffee shops, designer clothing outlets and Liquid nightclub.

Predominantly a harbour town, the views out to sea are just incredible. Take a wander through town and some fairly tired-looking gardens and you'll reach the Fiji Museum [canoe above, clock tower, left]; a wonderful way to catch up on the history of the country that we now found ourselves so unprepared and standing in. Thanks to the large Indian population, we even managed to find ourselves a delicious Thali lunch. Yes, it had been a bit of a stressful start but I could tell we were going to love it here in Fiji.

Moral of the story here? A one-week holiday cannot be treated the same as the kind of lengthy and relaxed jaunts around countries that have become our habit these past 11 months...some planning is advisable.

Or is it? What is the least prepared you have ever started a trip? And did it make or break your trip?

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

10 reasons you MUST visit New Zealand

1. The art & architecture

With landscapes and history like this it would be a crime not to record it.
Where? Check out the mural-covered walls of Katikati and the Sea to City bridge designed by Māori artist Para Matchitt in Wellington

2. The feeling of freedom

270,000km2 of land a population just smaller than Liverpool's (4,500,000); you do the maths. Sit on a secluded beach, climb a deserted mountain at sunrise or gaze at the incredible array of stars from one of the best vantage points in the world – feel tiny, feel amazed, feel free
Where? Golden Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, St John's Observatory at Mount Cook

3. It's not all liquefaction

I was lucky enough to see beautiful Christchurch before Feb 22 and while it may need support more than it needs tourists right now, the rest of NZ would make a trip across the Pacific more than worthwhile
Where? Almost everywhere

4. The adrenalin rush

This is the nation that invented the bungy. Two blokes got bored and a little bit tipsy and bang! the world had zorbing. Where could possibly be better for getting your heart pumping in simply stunning surroundings?
Where? Bungy in Queenstown (we're the little dots just below the platform) Sky Dive in Franz Josef, Zorb in Rotorua

5. Beer is cheaper than milk

Any country that endorses those kind of priorities is OK by me
Where? Everywhere

6. Everyone in your brother

“haaaaws it goin, bro?” “yeah yeah yeah yeah sweeeet as, bro, sweet as” No sentence is complete without the affectionate “bro” suffix
Where? Everywhere

7. It is breath-takingly beautiful

Want white sandy beaches? Snow-capped mountains? Crystal-clear seas? Rolling green hills? Steaming waterfalls? Ominous mountains? Emerald lakes? I could go on...but you name it, NZ has got is
Where? Everywhere [Tongariro Crossing & Rotorua above]

8. You can do it on the cheap

NZ was made to be explored – and driving around doesn't have to cost the earth. We think it's the best way to see all NZ has to offer so we weighed up the costs in this post
Where? Everywhere

9. The burgers are MASSIVE

Probably the most famous independent burger joint in the world, no trip to NZ is complete without tackling a Fergburger
Where? Fergburger in Queenstown

10. The cultural variety

Maybe it's the friendly Kiwi spirit? Maybe it's the spectacular landscapes? Maybe it's because everyone – and I mean everyone – owns a kick-ass BBQ. Whatever it is, people from all over the globe call NZ home and really add to the flavour.
Where? Wander around Wellington