Road Trip To Rotorua, New Zealand

The next time you are in Auckland, New Zealand put a 2 day road trip to Rotorua into the itinerary. It’s a rare opportunity to get out of the city, a fairly leisurely drive and just enough activities to get you busy, immersed in both nature and a bit of Maori culture for two plus days.

I love how the Kiwis just get to the point with their quick deals.

This was evident pre-trip, when we headed to JUCY rentals and emerged having rented a car from their El Cheapo range of budget cars.

Our trusty rental was a great deal – a 1.6 litre sedan at about NZ$50 a day. We added on a rental GPS (although you could use your phone if you have data) and we were off out onto the open road with a rough itinerary in mind.

Can you see the rainbow in the distance on our front windscreen?

Day 1

From Auckland to the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves 

The drive to Rotorua is about 3 hours long. Leave in the morning and stop for lunch,  coffee and cake along the way. New Zealand coffees are just the best – perhaps its the weather or the fact that you have enough time to savour your cup of joe instead of hastily gulping it down before rushing to your next meeting.

 

Our first stop was Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. I would rate this a must-go, something you do before it gets dark (closes at 5pm) and a max 1.5 hour stop. Don’t expect a glitzy theme park experience from this nicely set up, modern looking ticketed attraction with a gift shop ensuite. This is definitely all-nature and all about your experience taking a peek into it. You are literally brought into the experience, rather than having it present itself to you so it takes a bit of an open mind to appreciate the visit. First up, you are ushered by a guide into the cave where there is a request for silence or minimal noise. Leave the bawling babies and noisy kids at home. You listen to stories told in first person by an experienced host about the history of the cave and how it was discovered. After a short walk in, you get on to a boat and ride the rest of the way into cave – all mobile devices on silent, in complete darkness – right into the heart of the cave where you see glow worms nesting in the recesses of the cave ceiling above you, their tiny bodies giving off an eerie faint blue light. You look up and it seems that the night has come and all you see above are a million stars. Surreal!

Check into Hotel and have dinner at Food Street

Staying along the Lakeside – would be my advice as the main city of Rotorua is built along the lake. You know that you have arrived when you wind down the car windows and the pungent smell of sulphur greets you head on. The closest description of the smell is rotten eggs. We stayed at the Novotel, Rotorua Lakeside. Very comfortable, has its own mineral spa (think onsen) inside the Hotel which is free for guests and is right next to the pubs and eateries along the next door main dining thoroughfare known as Food Street in Rotorua.

Day 2  

Tepuia Hot Spring Geysers

Tepuia, is the closest hot spring geysers to visit in Rotorua, This is a ticketed attraction with a walking guided tour, a visit to the Maori cultural centre in side and gift shop.

The pools are hot enough to cook food in and most definitely not safe for a swim or leisurely dip of any kind.

After the walkabout, wander into the Maori craftsmanship areas where weaving and boat building techniques are explained and demonstrated.

Expect to spend about 1.5 to 2 hours here. In perfect time for you to drive back down to the Lakeside area and check into the Polynesian Spa which we did not visit this trip as we were already too spa-ed out at the Hotel spa.

Tamaki Maori Village 

Our dinner highlight on Day 2 was boarding the bus arranged by the Tamaki Maori Village which took us to the village, about half an hour away.

The Maori villages are actually run and owned by existing Maori families here in New Zealand.

Here, we were given the works – a Maori traditional welcome ceremony, an explanation of the significance of each tradition. This was followed by an engaging evening of Maori folk songs, dancing and performances which ended in a traditional Hangi meal.

The Hangi is a meal much like the Hawaiin Luau where the food served has been buried in a pit below ground and using the natural volcanic heat and a combination of steam heating, meats and veggies are cooked and served in a large communal buffet style spread.

Day 3 

To Hobbiton and then back to Auckland 

We wanted to get our trip time’s worth so with some Trip Advisor Forum advice, we managed to craft a detour from our original trip to Hobbiton and the Shire, before heading back to Auckland.

Make sure that the day you head to this ticketed attraction is dry as there is a fair bit of walking to conquer around Peter Jackson’s set which apparently was torn down after the movie and recreated again on premises.

A stop by the village pub – The Green Dragon is mandatory.

Definitely a must-visit for all LOTR fan’s.  With that under our belts, we drove back to Auckland back to the safe haven of The Langham Hotel and the comforts of its marvellous Club Lounge.

Below – the round-trip route for anyone who wants to brave the journey.

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3 Mind-Blowing Places to Visit In Prague For the History Lover

The Charles Bridge is a must-see, and one of the most romantic bridges in Europe.

We’ve well crossed the halfway mark for the year, and those of us with kids will soon be hunkering down for the kids’ impending exam season. (My household is in holding position for the IB.) Now’s not a bad time to start planning for the year-end holidays and look out for good deals from the airlines. If you’re planning a private tour, which is something I often do, it gives you and the agent plenty of time to organise a really great personalised itinerary. On one such holiday to Prague, we asked the travel agency — our favourite Chicago-based R.Crusoe & Son — to weave in a few really special places to visit. In addition to the usual tourist sights, this is what we saw and what you should see if you’re heading that way.

It’s rather grisly at Sedlac Ossuary,or the Bone Church.

Sedlac Ossuary in Kutna Hora. Not for the faint-hearted, and indeed, not for every taste, this grisly skeleton church is one perverse piece of aesthetics. Located in the pretty town of Kutna Hora about an hour’s train ride/drive from Prague, it’s a relatively small church whose entire interior is covered in the skulls and bones of over 40,000 people, from plague victims of The Black Death in the 14th century and soldiers killed in the Hussite wars in the 15th century.

The famous chandelier that contains every single human bone in the body.
A family crest.

These bones were made into huge elaborate chandeliers, banners, arches and even a family crest. Look out for display cases which show some skulls of people who died during the past war, sporting great holes in their skulls. Makes you ponder about life and death. But about 15 minutes of morbid fascination is enough. Then we moved on to the majestic UNESCO-Heritage stamped St Barbara’s Cathedral a short walk away, with its gorgeous paintings, stained glass windows, soaring arches and decorated ceilings. After that, stroll around the picturesque town to see its quaint, historic architecture, the public drinking fountain and sit by a cafe and sip some local wines.

The Strahov Monastic Library. Most tourists only see it from the door at the far end, which is cordoned off.

The Strahov Monastic Library. This goes down as one of the top most magical places I have ever set foot in. We saw this in an art textbook some time ago, and the daughter said she would really love to see it. So when we realised we were heading to Prague, we asked the travel agent to see if they could organise a visit there. They did. They made some special arrangements to get is in to see, feel and touch the incredibly old books.

The inner library not seen the public. Look something out of Harry Potter. A corner of the room features a shelf that opens into a ‘secret passage’ behind the books.

On average the books around us dated from the 1500s, all wrapped in bleached pig skin softened with time. The “really old” books are locked away, the oldest being a bible dating back to circa 800AD. The library is stunning to say the least. The globes, the writing tables were what the monks actually used to write or copy the books around us. What’s even more amazing is that when we visited, the library was not actually open to the public. You could take a peek from the door, but we were so blown away that they had arranged a special visit just for us. Now, from what we understand, the library is open to limited numbers. You can get the information here.

The Lennon Peace Wall

The Lennon Wall. Take a leisurely stroll around the city of Prague and make your way to the Lennon Wall near Mala Strana, near the French Embassy. It’s a beautiful wall completely filled with graffitti, many with references to the Beatles, and Lennon in particular. You could spend quite some time reading the graffiti and appreciating the street art, which is really quite clever. But what makes this wall so special is its role in the fight for freedom when Czechoslovakia was still under communist rule in the 80s. Western pop was banned then, including The Beatles, who sang about peace. But the youth were agitating for freedom, and would scrawl anti-communist graffiti on the wall at night — considered subversive to the state and which could have gotten them arrested.

“There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you are meant to be.”

When Lennon was murdered in 1980, he became something of a heroic figure to the youth then, and at night, the youth would write tributes to Lennon in the form of lyrics from his songs, even pictures of him, and their own thoughts about freedom and peace. Every time the authorities white washed the wall, new graffiti would appear the next morning, of poems and paintings of Lennon. It became a symbol of the youth’s non-violent rebellion against the regime, and some believe it played a role in inspiring the Velvet Revolution which ended communist rule in the country in 1989. Graffiti still continues to be painted on the wall in tribute to Lennon, and the owners of the wall — the Knights of the Maltese Cross — continue to allow it.

Where to stay: The Four Seasons Prague is perfectly located for exploring Prague, just by the river and a short walk to the iconic Charles Bridge. Get the Renaissance Rooms (at least) which were renovated relatively recently. They are a very decent size (from 40 sq m) and are very tastefully appointed in classic European style with a contemporary restraint. The food is very decent, too, in its all-day bistro, if you’re too tired to venture out after a long day of walking. Sit by the terrace and watch the river in the sunset (if the weather permits). They also surprise you with a small dessert treat every evening at turndown.

Room 408, at the Four Seasons Hotel Prague.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for nor sponsored. )

6 Places to Visit for a Game of Thrones Pilgrimage

A few years ago, Lord of the Rings sparked a wanderlust among fans to make pilgrimages to locations at which the movies were filmed. Now, it’s Game of Thrones. According to hotels.com, there has been a huge surge in searches for Seven Kingdoms-inspired destinations such as Iceland, Spain, Croatia, and Northern Ireland, which featured heavily the show. With the season finale upon us, perhaps it’s time for thronies to plot your own holiday to explore Westeros. Here are some good and affordable hotels that hotels.com came up with from where you can base your explorations.

Croatia a.k.a. the land of Meereen , Braavos and King’s Landing. For history nerds like me, the breezy town of Split is the place to go for its UNESCO Heritage Diocletian Palace, a majestic, walled palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. For Thronies, it is Meereen. Stay at the 4 star Bella Notte Di Spalato (from S$264 per night) within the walls of the palace, and spend hours wandering its alleys and laneways. People still live in there, and go about their daily lives so you also soak in some nice local flavour as well.

Braavos is the lesser known town of Sibenik. Stay at the Heritage Hotel Life Palace (from $227 per night), a quick skip from the famous St James Cathedral. And while we’re in Croatia, how can you miss its most famous jewel, the gorgeous town of Dubrovnik, with its old walls and tenements, palaces and ancient walls on which you must walk. Here is King’s Landing where the Iron Throne is, and Blackwater Bay.

Seville in Spain is the location for the Water Gardens of Dorne. To be exact, the Alcazar Palace, a Moorish castle built in the 1300s. Base yourself at the 3.5 star Hotel Boutique Elvira Plaza (from S$126 per night) just a short trot from the palace.

To sample the life of the Wildlings and White Walkers, head to Iceland and check into the trendy Fosshotel Myvatn (from S$349 per night), with its streamlined interiors, beautiful views and just a half hour’s walk to Lake Myvatn, the location used for Beyond the Wall. While there, check out the Myvatn Nature Baths and Hverfjall Crater. Lots of other sites and experiences to explore in Iceland, like visiting Elf School and walking on two tectonic plates; check it out here.

Morocco’s ancient city of Essaouira is the film location for Astapor, the home of the Unsullied Army. Stay in the 4 star Dar L‘Oussia (from $107 per night), along the old Portuguese fortification by the sea, where most of the filming of Astapor took place. Located only minutes from the beach.

From there, head on to UNESCO Heritage site Ait Benhaddou, between the Sahara and Marrakech, and stay at The Dar El Haja (from S$71 per night). Here is the film location of Yunkai the Yellow City, where slave trading took place in GoT. But in the here and now, soak in the ancient streets of this town and its amazing architecture.

Possibly the Most Kid-Friendly Suites in Hong Kong

Those who have travelled with kids would know a bored and restless child is no easy challenge, whether they are four or fourteen. So we were pleasantly surprised to see the Dorsett Wanchai’s very thoughtful new themed suites which provide the perfect answer. If you’re planning a weekend in Hong Kong with the young ‘uns, this is possibly the best place to stay.

If you’ve got little tots, book the Ocean Park Family Suite. While it might be a bit too ‘twee’ for the grown-ups, consider this: you can sip wine for some peaceful down time while your little tot is immersed in this soft-toy-rich, marine-themed environment, and will be well distracted by the endless delights at hand.

It’s an official collaboration with Ocean Park. Once you have booked the suite, you can buy admission tickets to the Park from the hotel concierge at a special price of HK$900 for two adults and one child, which also comes with free shuttle to the park on weekends. The suite measures a generous 48 sqm, and comes with pantry, sofa bed in the living room, dining area and bedroom with king sized bed. Lots of room to swing a cat.

In the evening, you can call Front Desk to deliver to your room a “specially-designed mobile storybook library” filled with storybooks catering to children of different ages, perfect for bedtime stories before your precious heads off to slumberland.

If you’ve got a teenager in tow, then the Dorsett Wanchai’s Sony 4k 3D Experience Suite is the thing to go for. Says the hotel’s official information: “With Sony’s latest gadgets such as Playstation, blue-ray home theatre system, and LED TV, tech-lovers will be able to surround themselves by the newest electronics and indulge themselves in a SONY paradise.” Nuff said.

Marking the launch of the suites, Dorsett Wanchai is offering a 50% discount on all suite bookings falling between May and September 2017, made through the official hotel website http://www.wanchai.dorsetthotels.com

The hotel is located between Wanchai and Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island, close to loads of shops and food. It’s an 8-minute walk to MTR station, Times Square, but there’s also complimentary shuttle bus service to 16 destinations via five routes. And all rooms are also equipped with the all-important high speed wifi.

3 Hidden Foodie Gems of Hanoi

Since I have already written about the street food in Hanoi and its coffee joints, I might as well add a third — of three miscellaneous eateries all worth a visit.

The first and my favourite is Kem Trang Tien (35 Trang Tien), the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi, and still going strong. After a hair-raising cyclo ride, weaving a hair’s breath away from oncoming cars, Trang, our trusty guide, stopped us at this local institution for a treat.

Located near the Opera House and a short trot from the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, it has little aesthetics to speak of and plenty of empty, sometimes greasy, open space. Two counters inexplicably far apart stood in the corners of this odd looking shop, one selling ice cream lollies on a stick, and another soft serve ice cream on a cone.

Trang explained that the shop was designed so that customers could drive all the way into the shop and up to the counter on the scooters and motor bikes, and buy the ice cream without once having to get off their vehicles. Hence the weird empty spaces within. What’s surprising too is that the shop becomes especially busy in winter when people enjoy the ice cream the most.

Kem Trang Tien makes their own ice creams in local Vietnamese flavours and sells nothing but. The ice lollies were recommended over the soft serve. Forget the chocolate flavour and go for the taro or coconut, or better yet, the glutinous rice ice cream or the mung bean. The rice ice cream made use of newly harvest grains, which exuded a subtle, fresh, green flavour with a slight, pleasing stickiness to it; the mung bean was lovely too – softly nutty, subtle and aromatic. Really good.

Another local favourite is Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Huu Huan), a perpetually busy coffee shop on a street corner that is festooned with a great tangle of overhead electric cables. There is no enticing facade to speak of; it is entirely dominated by a messy open kitchen from where xoi xeo, its famous dish of glutinous turmeric rice, mung beans and fried shallots is prepared.

You’ll find the locals eating at the low tables along the walkway, but there is seating upstairs too if you want a more leisurely meal. Little English is spoken here, so it’s best to have a local friend help you along. As for the food, simple as it sounds, it is very tasty; add on an order of chicken or pork if you are particularly hungry. Locals flock here for breakfast as well as a quick lunch, and is quite an institution.

The final recommendation on my list of three is Koto Restaurant (59 Van Mieu Street). This can be accused of being touristy, but it deserves mention for the cause it supports — it is a not-for-profit restaurant that acts as a hospitality school for disadvantaged young Vietnamese.

Located near the Temple of Literature, the four-storey restaurant was crowded with mainly expats and tourists, but enjoyed ourselves here, with good food and very decent, inexpensive cocktails. We ordered the Vietnamese set menu and had a veritable feast — the banana flower and chicken salad, spring rolls, banana leaf grilled fish, and sweet and sour clam soup with pineapples and tomatoes were memorable. We added an order of banh xeo as well (truly delightful), and a stream of decently done classic cocktails, including two glasses of most enjoyable margarita.

Where To Drink Coffee Like The Locals In Hanoi

If there’s a city with a proud cafe culture, it is Hanoi. The locals are immensely proud of their local coffee, and sip it all day in their inimitable style. I wish Singapore was as proud of their own coffee – local coffee that is. (Yes, the one you brew in a sock, while wearing your blue striped pyjama pants.) In nooks and crannies, tucked deep inside narrow ‘tube houses’ or in the upper levels of old French colonial buildings are a hidden world of coffee joints. They are vibrant, happening places crowded with mostly young patrons, and few tourists. They aren’t easy to find, but our guide Trang of Hanoi Voyages brought us to a couple, having found out that we were ardent foodies.

The action is hidden away upstairs at Cafe Giang

Her favourite and a local institution is Cafe Giang (39 Nguyen Hu Huan) — pronounced ‘Jac’, with a soft ‘J’ — opened since 1946 and still going strong. You can easily miss its dark, distressed entrance way, dismissing it as an empty, derelict passage. But that’s because the action is deep down the narrow corridor, and up an even narrower staircase.

The kitchen of Cafe Giant. The cafe itself is up the stairs. Er…do you see the stairs?

As you reach the top landing, suddenly sunlight pours down from a skylight and you’re in a lush, plant-filled landing, crowded with customers. In typical Vietnamese style, seats and tables are low. Don’t wait to be seated – just head to the nearest available.

Typical Vietnamese coffee is served here, so potent it’ll keep you up for the next few days of touring. And it’s good, believe me. ‘Gao’ until cannot ‘gao’. But what most people come here for is its egg coffee – a supremely thick coffee with condensed milk and an egg. It doesn’t sound particularly enticing initially, but you don’t really taste the egg much; it acts more like a thickener, and the texture is rich, ‘puffy’ and somewhat custard-like. It’s really thick, sweet and delectable; rich enough to be a dessert. Definitely a must-try for the food adventurer when visiting Hanoi.

The iconic egg coffee of Hanoi

Another delightful coffee joint we visited was Cong Caphe . A very successful local coffee chain, its name makes reference to the Viet Cong who fought the Americans and South Vietnamese in the American War (Americans calls it the Vietnam War). But it’s all about coffee and a fun experience at Caphe Cong, not propaganda or politics.

Bucket, transistor radio, enamel cups and military style camouflage chairs on the terrace of Cong Caphe
The leatherbound menu; the loud hailer was commonly used to rally the people during the American War in Vietnam

We visited the outlet at Ma May Street, which occupies a narrow colonial building, with a crumbling but still beautiful European facade. Inside, the cafe is decked out in vintage wooden furniture with clever details that play up the military/retro theme — a bucket or wok for a lampshade, a green leatherbound menu, retro photos and posters on the wall. It’s rather worn out and a little dusty inside, but that’s the look. We head to the upstairs balcony, with distressed walls as a backdrop, overlooking the street and a tangled mess of electric cables. It’s a quaint and atmospheric place to wind down after a day’s exploration.

The mung bean smoothie – white fluffy one at the back – was pretty fabulous.

Drinks here are typically Vietnamese in style given a modern yet authentic spin — a delectable mung bean smoothie with coconut milk, a rice smoothie, espresso with condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee and happily, even cocktails. Sit down, relax and let the sun set, casting the terrace in weakening light. With the mess below and the worn out walls around, there is something quite charming about this. And it’s a really nice way to soak in the local youthful pop culture of Hanoi, of which this cafe is very much a part.

For more about Hanoi’s food, read about the food tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter which Trang brought us to as well.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, and nothing written in here was sponsored or paid for in any way.)

Walking Food Tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Despite the organised chaos that prevails on its streets and walkways, Hanoi is a charming, fascinating, delightful city. I am constantly amazed by how you can cross the scooter-laden streets at a steady pace and the wall of vehicles bearing down on you — nevermind that you’re using the zebra crossing — will fan out like a swarm of swallows, then skirt and meander past you like a well-rehearsed dance, allowing you to reach the other side of the road with limbs and life intact. What’s more dangerous to me are the great vats of boiling soup stubbornly straddling the narrow walkways, with low stools and tables scattered nearby, threatening to trip you over if you so much as take your eyes off the pavement for a moment to snap a shot.

It was to these street side food stalls in the Old Quarter that we went to taste and explore on a recent trip to Hanoi. Our private tour with Hanoi Voyages included a walking food tour on our first night, led by our guide Trang Ta. It was a dizzy, three-hour trek to a number of food stalls and small restaurants – I have lost count – to taste various dishes. A plate here, and nibble there all came together nicely to form a very filling and stimulating feast.

Banh xeo, at restaurant Mr Bay Mien Tay

First, we popped in to Mr Bay Mien Tay (79 Hang Bac), a buzzy little restaurant well known among the locals for its excellent banh xeo. Cooked at the front as you order, it was a sizzling crisp-edged egg pancake filled with prawns and beansprouts, eaten with fresh herbs and rolled in rice paper.

A dessert stall next door caught our eye, run by this cheerful young lady. We bought some of her rice mochi balls filled with peanuts. Sounds quite familiar indeed, but it also carried a sprinkling of coconut shreds which is a little different to how we eat it back home.

Then it was on to another stop for salad. This eatery (38 Bat Dan Road) could do with a bit of a clean up, and touch of aesthetics; but the beef jerky salad with fish sauce dressing — the only thing on the menu — which they sold was really delectable. With the jerky, there were green papaya, cucumbers, carrots, coriander and mint, beansprouts, and some peanuts which gave light, bright flavours, and crunchy textures. According to Trang, people would drop into this eatery early in the evening for a pre-dinner salad before heading home or moving on to their dinner venue.

Then it was on to Countryside Restaurant (29 Bat Dan Road) for two unusual dishes. First, fried snakehead fish with dill, beansprouts, crisp fried onions which you had to assemble yourself, wrapping it in rice paper with coriander, mint and peanuts. The fish was just nicely cooked and moist, lifted by the aromatics, resulting in a complex marriage of flavours in each mouthful, and a delightful mix of textures. The other was a juicy, hearty dish of fried frogs legs served with peppery betel leaf. It was certainly not among the usual suspects in Vietnamese cuisine and absolutely more-ish.

Snakehead fish with dill and rice noodles at Countryside Restaurant

We were to move on to a famous pho shop (49 Bat Dan Road) down the same street but the queues were ridiculously long, snaking down the road. So Trang decided to give it a miss and move us on to other options which Hanoi’s Old Quarter offered. As an alternative, she brought us to another pho shop but unfortunately, it wasn’t that great.

Our last stop made a fine finale — a well loved hole-in-the-wall dessert stall (95 Hang Bac) run by a cheerful aunty. It was packed, but we managed to find some plastic stools, squeezed them into the nearest empty spot we could find – nevermind that it was right in the middle of the entrance way — and ordered up her icy specialties. Without a table, we ate our desserts off a metal tray which we perched on our laps.

The hole in the wall dessert shop

They are quite similar to what we have at home in Singapore, but yet a little different — such as a creme caramel with black glutinous rice (like our pulut hitam) which was quite good, but I’m no fan of creme caramel in general. Surprisingly, as unexciting as the black bean soup with coconut milk sounded, it was excellent. The soy ice cream with glutinous rice was also most enjoyable. That brought us to the end of the food tour. By the time we meandered back to our hotel, it was close to 11pm.

At this point, I must give a shout out for Hanoi Voyages (pronounced with French flair – “voy-A-es”) who organised our entire four-day private tour, of which this evening was only one part. The company is run by a young staff who are pretty intuitive about what we were looking for. Beyond just taking us to these places to eat, Trang, who spoke fluent English, also filled us in on the background about the different foods, and told us about the individual eateries’ histories, and local food and cafe culture. She was also great fun to be with. Best of all, Hanoi Voyages specialises only in private tours and pride themselves for bringing guests off the beaten track, which means that for some part of your tour at least, you will be assured of a more unique Hanoi experience.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for, simply that we want to share the great finds.)