Topping the Bucket List: Doing the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London!

Hey, everyone! My apologies in advance–this post is going to be super photo-heavy, so get ready! The photos were all taken on my Iphone, so they’re a little less high quality than normal, but they’re good enough! In spite of having spent an entire year living in the UK, somehow I never managed to find the time to do two things that I’ve been absolutely dying to do: see Stonehenge and take the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. I still haven’t managed to see Stonehenge, but I have finally got to take the Harry Potter Studio Tour, which was even more amazing than I ever could have imagined.


The tour is about £30 (roughly $45 USD) for an adult ticket, not including food or drink while you’re there. Getting to the tour is the tricky part, though; from London, you have to take a train to Watford Junction, some of which are far less direct than others. There’s one train that takes approximately 15 minutes (definitely the train you’ll want to take), which lists Watford Junction as a waypoint rather than a destination. I made the mistake of taking the train that ends in Watford Junction, which takes closer to an hour–not great when you’re trying to make your allotted tour time on your ticket!


A bus runs from Watford Junction Train Station to the tour approximately every 20 minutes, but thankfully I had my friend and favorite travel buddy Cheyenne to come pick me up at the train station. We got onto the last tour of the day, which gave us plenty of time to explore the exhibits on our own.


We were first guided into a small room by one of the tour leaders, who then explained how the tour was going to work. The tour is self-guided, and though I believe audioguides are available, I found it fun enough to simply wander around on my own and admire the sets. The second stop on the tour is a theatre, which provides a brief video with cameos from actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, after which we’re led into the great hall. At this point we still have a guide with us, who told us more about the sets and then let us wander off to take our ten thousand selfies.




After that we were left to explore the sets at our leisure, which included the boy’s dormitory, the potions room, the Ministry of Magic, the Weasley’s house, and Professor Umbridge’s office. Halfway through, we got our first taste of Butterbeer (which I loved, Cheyenne not so much–its kind of like a cream soda float, if you’re American!), then got to go explore some of the outdoor built sets, including the Knight Bus, Privet Drive, the Hogwarts Bridge (I’m sure that has a more official name, I just don’t remember what it is),  and Hagrid’s Motorcycle.











My personal favorite part of the tour came next (after Butterbeer tasting, of course)– getting to see Diagon Alley. Diagon Alley was incredibly elaborate, and it was super fun to explore! We probably spent way longer than we should have looking into all the shops and searching for the perfect photo op, but that’s half the fun of the tour–getting to really get to know the set and pretend you’ve finally gotten your letter of acceptance to Hogwarts. 










The concluding parts of the tour included a walk-through of some of the artistry and photography that went into the making of the films, and finally into the to-scale model of Hogwarts, which was huge, even in its small-scale size! After that we were ushered into the gift shop, and tempted as I was to get a chocolate frog, I just wasn’t all that ready to cough up £7 ($11USD) for one, so I took a pass and remained content with the memory of my Butterbeer. All in all it was an absolutely amazing evening, and I’d probably even do it again if I got the chance!



Bucket List Traveler Info:

Activity Type: Self-guided tour.

Price: £30 ($45 USD). 

Value for Money: Above average! The tour lasts about three hours and is full of things to do, so I didn’t feel ripped off. 

Suitable for: Everyone! This would be super fun to do with kids or friends, as a couple or as a family, as long as your into Harry Potter or filmography.

Recommend: Absolutely, if you’re into Harry Potter. I loved it an had a great time. 

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Filed under Bucket List, Europe, Tours

Pack With Me! Carry-on Edition

Hello friends!

I know its been a while since I’ve posted anything, but its been a really busy couple of months, what with the holidays and getting settled into my new job. Anyway, I forgot to share with you guys that I’ve booked a trip back to my beloved second home, the United Kingdom, for two and a half weeks! My dream is to expatriate the the UK entirely, but in the meantime I’m taking baby steps, exploring graduate school options and using the resources at my former university to see if they can help me out any.

I’ve got about two and a half weeks in the UK, though, and not all of its going to be hard work! I’m so excited to revisit some of my favorite sites and people, in addition to hopefully meeting some fantastic new people and seeing some amazing places I haven’t been yet! On this trip I am absolutely determined to do the Harry Potter Studio Tour and see Stonehenge, so prepare yourselves for posts about these two legendary attractions! I’d also like to do a few review posts about places I’ve eaten and visited and the like, so I’ll keep you posted on that.

In the meantime, though, I’m currently knee deep in packing, so I figured I’d write up a quick post to show you guys exactly how I pack! Unfortunately I didn’t think about this before I started packing my primary bag, which in my opinion is a bit boring anyway, so I’m going to do an upgraded-fun version: the carry on. This is only a quick trip, so I’ve invested in a lovely black faux leather day bag from H&M, which you can find on their website HERE. So far it looks great; it closes with a drawstring and a snap, is big enough to hold my laptop and all the other goodies I’ll put inside of it. Added bonus: it doesn’t look like its going to fall apart immediately, which is, of course, probably the most important part.

So what do I keep on me for an overseas flight? First and foremost I bring my laptop, pre-loaded with work I optimistically want to get done during my flight. My laptop is definitely the foundation of the bag and always goes in first, as it’s pretty difficult to squeeze it in there with all my other things in the way.

I sort out my cosmetics or body products into two piles before I go: dry products and liquids. Although I know its best for my skin to go naked during flights (face only, thanks, I’m not the resident inappropriately dressed person sat next to you on the plane), but oftentimes I’ll want to have at least a halfway decent looking face on during my time in the airport and during layovers, so I keep my look super simple and skin refreshing. Currently, I’m going to be using my daily skin-clearing products, which will have their own little bag, then build with a non-comedogenic facial moisturizer, the Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer (added benefit of being SPF 20!) in Nude, the Laura Mercier Secret Concealer in .05, a spot of blush (Covergirl, nothing exciting!), a swipe of the Bareminerals eyeshadow in a light color that suits my skin tone,  and the Covergirl Clump Crusher Mascara. Nearly all of those products are clickable, so if you want to learn more about a product feel free to click the link and check it out! I’ll write a related post about my airport and in-flight look, so keep an eye out for that!

I like to separate out all my skincare products beforehand, sorting them into wet and dry. In addition to the makeup I have on my face (and extras for pre-landing reapplication!), I also keep makeup removing/skin refreshing wipes, Estee Lauder Perfectly Clean Toner, some Q-Tips and cotton balls and a travel size of baby powder, to keep my hair from getting too greasy during my flight. I also keep a little gaggle of bobby pins, a bun shaper (for a quick, sleek look!), a clip, a few hair elastics and a brush in a little bag with me. I never wear perfume on a flight because yuck, no one wants to smell you for that long! But I do always keep some deodorant on me to stay fresh. I also like to keep a toothbrush and toothpaste mini, in addition to a mouthguard because I always fall asleep! Keeping a super-hydrating lip balm on hand is my favorite personal bonus!

I always find flights to be crazy cold, so I like to layer up! In the bottom of my bag I always keep an extra sweater and a pair of super-cozy socks, fluffy or wool. A scarf is imperative, and eye-shades are definitely an added bonus. I dont take a neck pillow with me because I think they’re bulky, dumb and they help me approximately zero with regards to comfort, so that saves me a lot of space and hassle!

The most important part of packing my carry on, though, definitely has to be snacks. As most of you know I’m gluten-free, but I always forget to book my gluten free meal (one day I’ll learn. Maybe). So bringing snacks is crazy important to me. I like to make sure I have enough to keep me going throughout the flight, which honestly means bringing a lot of everything and making sure I have something for breakfast the next morning. I’ve been on a massive dates kick lately, so they’re a new addition to the team. Other things in my little lunch bag include caffeine free/herbal tea, green tea, multivitamins/fish oil to keep up my immune system, melatonin if I need to get adjusted to the timezone and fear I won’t be able to sleep, two Kind granola bars, three Trader Joes Organic String Cheeses, a packet of dates, carrots, two pressed fruit bars, some mints and an empty water bottle. Its mega important to stay hydrated on a flight, so I always bring a big one and top it up just before my flight.

Pro tip: Make sure you always bring your daily medications in your carry on with you; you never know if you’ll lose a bag or get massively delayed, and being without your medication can be a huge pain. I personally also bring my glasses in my carry on, in addition to an empty contacts case, some solution and a spare pack of contacts.

As far as technology goes, I’ve already mentioned my laptop. I also make sure that I bring my charger and adaptor with me, and if I’m going on a really long trip I’ll bring an external hard drive, which can be great for storing TV shows and movies on! I also make sure I bring my phone and headphones, ensuring that my handy dandy Iphone is updated with great new music and some relaxed playlists for the flight. I also remember to bring a charger and a top-up battery stick, when I’ve got one! A recent addition to my technology regimen is my Fitbit Flex, although I’d really, really love a Charge or a One with a cute little carrying case! I find the wristband to be increasingly irritating, so I’d love to have some better way of carrying it around. If you know anything please give a shout in the comments! I’d love to hear tips or your favorite products.

Last but not least I bring my passport, even if its a domestic flight (you never know what could happen!), my flight documents if necessary, and my wallet, equipped with cash card, credit card and backup credit and cash cards, if I’ve got them. Doubling up on your cards can be an absolute lifesaver, so I’d highly recommend it!

So yeah! That’s everything I keep in my bag with me. I might be a bit of an over-packer, but I’m rarely uncomfortable on a flight and always make sure I have my basics down. What’s in your bag? Tell me your personal favorite, cant-fly-without products or items in the comments below!

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Filed under Europe, My Favorite Things, Packing

The Bucket List Traveller’s Guide to Eating Gluten Free while Traveling


Hey everyone! I know its been a little while since I’ve updated, but I’ve been working on a few posts in the interim that have all taken a lot longer than I’ve expected! This post is dedicated to my readers that have severe food allergies and want to travel. I know it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be hard to know where to start when you’re traveling with special, food-related problems, so I thought it would be a good idea to add a concise, all-in-one guide to planning your trips with a food allergy, specifically gluten intolerance.

Spontaneity and food are two of my favorite things about traveling, but when I found out that gluten doesn’t sit well with my body or my brain, I had rethink my eating strategy while traveling abroad. Having a food allergy in your day-to-day life can be frustrating, tough, isolating and confounding, and having to contend with your food allergy (or its icky symptoms) when you’re traveling can be ten times worse.

Constantly feeling like a pain when your friends want to try some snazzy new restaurant and, if you’re anything like me, having to plan your meals and snacks to avoid some pretty brutal hangries without being able to count on the convenience of fast food isn’t generally comfortable or easy. And while travel is a great experience, I like to think that its a little bit like life on steroids. You’re doing some things you’d usually do, but you never have a routine, rarely have a kitchen and, when you’re away, you don’t want to be wasting your time trying to figure out where and when you need to eat.

Before I went on my most recent big trip I had to completely reassess my eating situation. I had the whole traveling thing down by this point, but I definitely didn’t have the whole gluten-free thing under control just yet. I was great at home, but leaving the house and dining out was always a crapshoot. I was anxious about what my situation would be like when I would have to eat out all the time, when I wouldn’t always be able to pack my own lunch, nor would I want to.

Tasting the traditional dishes in a country is, to me, one of the top travel experiences that anyone can have, but what happens when you can’t eat some of the countries best foods— or worse still, their staples? Bread in France (and, shockingly, Laos), soy sauces in Asia, noodles in Japan and Pierogies in Poland are all off the menu for you, so what now? With a little pre-trip preparation, a lot of your potential food problems can be avoided while on the road. So yes, traveling with a food allergy can be tough, but its definitely not impossible! Read below for my best tips on traveling with food allergies.


Tip #1: Know your trip.

Trip length, destination and budget mean everything when you’re planning your travels, and that counts double for when you’re planning a trip with a food allergy. Depending on the severity of your allergy, knowing these things is a pretty crucial first step, especially if you’re going to need to buy any medications or supplements in advance. I’m going to break this down into three different sections for ease of reading and planning into, predictably, trip length, destination and budget.

Trip Length: Knowing how long you’re going to be gone for is the first step when it comes to planning a trip. If you’re only going to be gone for a week or two, then you’ve got it easy! I know it isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but trips that length tend to require a little more organization and planning than trips spanning, say, three to six months. Chances are you’ll only be in one or two locations, which will allow you to do some research into nearby supermarkets, restaurants and tourist locations. Doing a few preliminary google searches in the comfort of your own home will save you a lot of grief and stress while you’re abroad, so keep a couple of restaurants with gluten-free options on-hand. If you’re going to be out extensively during the day, pick one of your activities or sites and scope out a few places where you can eat in advance.

If you’re taking a longer trip we can segue conveniently into the know your destination category, and I’d advise you to do the above on a much vaguer scale. I know this sounds tedious, but my best advice to you is to write down a list of all of the foods that you know, for certain, that you’re allergic to. For most GF’ers, knowing these foods can become kind of second nature, but if you’re new to being gluten free or have recently found out that you have a dietary restriction it may not come so easily. Then, research traditional foods in your destination country or countries. Make a list of some things you think you’d like to try, then do a quick google search for recipes for said foods. Check to see if any of the ingredients are on your no-eat list, then write down some dishes that are naturally gluten free.

Know your budget: Are you going to be hoteling or hosteling? Will you rent an apartment on Air BNB or will you be staying with a friend (or surfing someone’s couch)? These details, while seeming minor, are actually pretty huge. If you’re in an upscale hotel that does breakfast, for example, make sure you e-mail them in advance to let them know about your dietary restrictions and to see what your options are. If you’re hosteling, make sure you get a hostel with a kitchen and be extra sure to re-wash any and everything you eat off of or cook with. Hostelers are well-known for being shitty dishwashers, and you don’t want to get any second-hand allergy contamination (or old food contamination, yuck) by eating off plates that haven’t been cleaned as well as they should.

Renting an apartment or a hotel suite with a kitchenette can also be a lifesaver (and a money-saver!) for higher-budget travelers (read: not backpackers). Preparing your own breakfast is extremely cost-effective and gives you much more choice when deciding what you want to eat. Even places like Thailand have Western-style supermarkets (usually ten times more expensive than local Asian markets, but sometimes necessary for people with dietary restrictions… or for travelers who are really, really craving some cheese), and can usually be found inside or near large shopping malls. Chiang Mai has an especially good supermarket in their “airport” mall (misleadingly not at all close to the airport, though also not in the walled city center).


Tip #2: Plan for the flight AND the airport.

I had the misfortune of dealing with the problem of plane food first-hand on a 23-hour long flight from New Zealand to Chicago this summer. Booking a specialty meal often needs to be done at the time that you book your ticket and can often not be changed. Flight attendants will tell you that you have until 48 hours before your flight to change your booking, but I have found this, more often than not, to be untrue. So definitely double/triple/quadruple check to make sure you’ve booked a gluten free meal for your flight!

Also, it never hurts to pack a meal for yourself just in case. Bring anything without liquids or gels— so that means no yogurts, sadly, unless they’re mini-sized (under 3oz)— and make sure its going to be enough to sustain you in the event of flight delay, long flight service and/or organizational issues that may come up upon your arrival at your destination. There’s nothing worse than being stuck, starving, at an airport at midnight local time with no place to eat only to find out that your airport pickup didn’t show! Plan ahead and you’ll thank yourself later.

Tip #3: Bring breakfast.

When you arrive at your destination you’re going to be jetlagged, tired, cranky and disoriented. Trying to find a place to eat breakfast or being unpleasantly surprised to find that your hotel doesn’t actually have any gluten free options is going to be a major pain in your ass and, if you’re like me, might lead to a hunger-induced crank-tastic meltdown. Prepare yourself for this in advance by bringing a few gluten free granola bars, a few little carry-on sized packages of nut butters (I highly recommend Justin’s Nut Butters— tasty on their own or on portable fruits like apples and bananas!) and, if allowed, a piece of fruit. Bringing a few tea bags never hurts, either— you’ve got to get your caffeine fix in somewhere!

Tip #4: Use your hotel.

After you arrive, go down to reception and have your receptionist write down the words “No gluten/soy/dairy/peanuts” or “gluten/soy/dairy/nut/food allergy” on a piece of paper in the local language. This way you’ll be able to enjoy street food, or at least be able to ask if some food has wheat/dairy/nuts/soy sauce in it without having to try and mime your illness to them and almost definitely get laughed at in the process without really accomplishing anything. And, even if your food vendor can’t read there’s bound to be someone around who can, so its always a good thing to keep on hand.

Learning the word for your problem food in the language of your destination can also save you a lot of trouble, so make sure to commit it to heart before you go!

Tip #5: Get to know the place.

After you’ve had breakfast take a stroll around your area. Peek into any little food places you find appealing, make sure you mark them down in your phone. Take a different route every time you leave the place you’re staying to find new hidden gems. Go to local markets and buy food to cook for yourself at the end of the day. Ask your hotel/hostel staff or host if they have any recommendations.


Tip #6: Make an allergy-response kit.

This is one of the most beneficial things that you can do to deal with any oopsies you may have during your trip. Make a list of your symptoms and then figure out what helps soothe them; common symptoms of gluten intolerance include skin rash, upset stomach, loose/frequent bowel movements, headache, fatigue, cramps, gas, bloating and cotton-headedness. My personal gluten-response kit includes non-drowsy Benadryl, probiotics, gluten-free antacids, anti-diarrheal, aspirin, caffeinated tea, ginger tea and anti-bloat/anti-gas medication. If you need an epipen, make sure you bring more than one with you! Learn what your particular problems are and pack for them accordingly. Pack at least enough supplies to take one packet a day in the event that you have the misfortunate of getting gluten’d on your first day there!

Tip #7: Take advantage of the global market (and the picnic!).

Buying food in a restaurant can be a great treat and an awesome way to get to know local culture better, but sometimes its just not an option or not worth the risk. Instead of cooking rice for dinner at your apartment every night, go out to the local market (check the area’s market listings online or in a guidebook before you head out for the day!) and pick up some food that you can turn into a meal later. When I was in Australia they even had gluten free  pastas and breads in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, so I could make a great gluten-free gnocchi with locally produced sauce and fresh mozzarella! This goes double in places like Italy or Spain, where local cured meats and cheeses are enough to complete any meal while giving you some local flavor at the same time.


Gluten-free tips and warnings by region:

So obviously I haven’t travelled everywhere in the world just yet, but I can give you all a little bit of information on the places that I have been and what you can expect when traveling to those destinations! If you’re headed to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, The United States, or Southeast Asia or Europe, here’s a handy little guide for things you can and can’t expect when traveling:

The UK: I found it surprising that it was more difficult for me to eat gluten free in England when I was buying food from the grocery store than when I was eating out. Loads of restaurants have gluten-free options these days, so definitely don’t be afraid to eat out! Just make sure you tell your waitstaff that you’re gluten free and you shouldn’t really have any issues.

Australia: Australia has probably the best gluten-free options in the world. Most breakfast places will have gluten free toast (and toasters!), many dinner places will have a gluten-free option that isn’t just salad (yay!), and the grocery stores have plenty of gluten free yummies stocked fresh. Food labeling is especially thorough in Australia, so make sure you’re checking your labels and you should be fine.

New Zealand: Slightly less GF-friendly than Australia but still pretty good! When eating out I found a good number of places that had gluten free options, although eating out in New Zealand is crazy expensive. Still, NZ is the only place that I found that had GF naan, so that was a huge plus!

Europe: Europe is notoriously difficult when it comes to non-traditional diets. Vegetarians in particular have, for a long time, struggled with eating in Europe, and it definitely isn’t any easier for the gluten free! In central Europe it may be easier than in places like Eastern Europe, where wheat products make up a huge part of the diet and the language barriers become more complex.

Eating in central Europe can be done easily if you often get food from markets, but it is definitely a bummer when you have to miss out on some local, traditional yummies, for which there aren’t really any viable alternatives. Going for vegetable dishes is definitely going to be your best option in the East and going for meat (as long as its unbreaded!) is going to be your best bet in the West.

Southeast Asia: I have super mixed feelings about eating GF in Southeast Asia. I love love love SE-Asian food, especially Vietnamese and Thai. But you absolutely have to be careful about what you’re eating to make sure there’s no sneaky imported soy sauce! I’ve found that there’s two kinds of soy sauce available, the imported (adulterated with wheat) soy sauce and a local variety that did not cause any kind of gluten reaction for me, which was great. It is definitely close to impossible to know which kind you’re going to be getting, though, so it may be best to just avoid it altogether.

In Thailand, fish sauce is often used in place of soy sauce, which means that you’ll be able to nom on pad thai, noodle soup and tons of other delicacies!  Curries are almost always gluten free, and the same goes for the infamous papaya salad. I have almost no problem eating GF in Thailand ever, with the exception of at the Elephant Nature Park, where they use meat-substitutes in lieu of meat, which are all made from flour.

Vietnam is similarly GF-friendly, and their spring rolls are absolutely to die for! If you can do a cooking class in either Thailand or Vietname I’d highly recommend it, because it allows you not only to get introduced to some local food favorites but also allows you to see exactly whats going into your food, so you know what will be safe for you to eat and what wont.

In Laos you may run into some problems when trying to grab a quick bite to eat during the day. French colonial influence is still heavy in Laos, and as a result the country is extremely bread-product heavy. Baguettes are everywhere and so are crepes (pancakes), which are all made with wheat flour. As yummy as they may look, definitely know that they are not gluten free! Nighttime food and textile markets are popular, though, and I’d always recommend stopping by one (especially in Luang Prabang, where the night market is amaaaaazing!) for dinner. You’ll almost always be able to find GF options there, so eat up!

Indonesia: I’ve decided to put Indo in a different category from SE-A because I found eating in Indonesia to be incredibly difficult. Access to local markets is limited (you’ll need a motorbike or a tuk-tuk driver that speaks really good English! Or a local guide, which is always helpful but not always an option for backpackers). For the most part, non-locals are kind of corralled into tourist districts, which means eating at overpriced, tourist-oriented restaurants.

The only time I got a break when eating in Indonesia was when I had to go to a hotel because there weren’t any other options for food. I asked what options on the menu were gluten free (salad and more salad were my two choices, awesome), but the waitress amazingly brought me some gluten free bread, which at that point felt almost like a miracle. Finding authentic Indonesian food at a good price is almost impossible unless you venture out of your comfort zone (or ask your hotel staff for directions to a good, authentic market), so make sure you spend some extra time getting to enjoy the Indonesian cuisine outside of the tourist area. Just be ware of the noodles, as I’m pretty sure most of them are wheat based.

So yeah! Those are my best tips and tricks for eating gluten free when travelling abroad. Have any questions, comments, anecdotes or tips of your own? Do you know anything about what its like to eat gluten free in places like South America, Northern Europe, China, Japan, Africa or any other destinations that I don’t have experience with? Fire away in the comments section below!

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Filed under Asia, Australia, Food

The Backpacker’s Mini-Guide for Rotorua, New Zealand



Located a few hours’ drive out of Auckland, Rotorua is a mecca for backpackers, adventure travelers, nature lovers and luxury travelers alike. Situated in the midst of one of the most tectonically active regions in the world, Rorotua boasts thermal parks, hot springs and mud pools, many of which can be enjoyed by tourists on any budget. In recent years Rotorua has become something of a pilgrimage destination for Lord of the Rings fans, eager to see for themselves the locations that director Peter Jackson earmarked as his top choice for the backdrop of his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Adventure junkies can explore nearby glowworm caves or go ZORBING, and in their down time rent bikes and explore the Redwood Forests, which are free and open to the public. Whether you’re interested in BEING A HOBBIT FOR A DAY IN THE SHIRE or getting a healthy dose of culture in the cradle of Maori territory, Rotorua has a little something for everyone. My guide offers advice on where to stay and what to do in the city, offering both budget activities and a few splurge activities for good measure.

Where to Stay:

Crash Palace is my go-to recommendation for backpacker’s lodging in Rotorua. Located just off the main drag, Crash Palace has the advantage of being spacious, comfy, welcoming and quiet. It’s a short five minutes’ walk from the nearest grocery store (where you can pick up ingredients to cook in one of their two fantastic kitchens) and a two minutes’ walk away from the town center, where you can catch the bus to activities located outside of town, including Zorbing and nature walks, or rent a bike so that you can go exploring without having to rent a car.

The atmosphere inside Crash Palace is great; the first floor is open and comfortably appointed, with a combined dining and movie-watching room, a smaller room with a pool table just off reception,  a kitchen, a toilet, a computer room and an outside patio with a hot tub. Guests are given a key code that they can use to get upstairs, where the rooms are located. The owner and manager of the hostel is friendly and happy to answer any questions you have about the hostel, about Rotorua and about the activities accessible from the area. Crash Palace is hooked up with loads of great deals and discounts, including a reduced rate for Hobbiton and $10 off OGO (Zorbing).

The hostel offers free wifi, which is a huge bonus for New Zealand and a major relief for backpackers who are tired of paying out the nose for internet access. I would definitely recommend having your own computer, though, as the computer in their computer room can run a little slowly if you need to back things up or upload images. The hostel also runs a nightly program for its guests, which can range from a free family dinner to pub crawls to movie nights. Pasta and rice are always available from the front desk for free, and alcohol can be purchased from the front desk bar as well.

What to Do:



As a minor-league nerd, I have to say that my favorite paid activity in Rotorua was going to Hobbiton. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbiton tour is one of Rotorua’s must-dos. The tour I did picked me up right at my hostel on the way, giving us bits of information about the tour as we neared the farm on which the movie set is located. The set itself is beautiful, nestled in the rolling hills of New Zealand’s countryside, and the Hobbit holes look cozy enough to live in! Spend some time ambling around the Shire, snap a few shots of Bag End, listen to your guide’s super-informative facts about the set and the creation of the movies, then end your day with a complimentary cider, ale or ginger beer at the Green Dragon. If you’re interested in learning more about exploring Hobbiton, check out my in-depth post about it HERE.



Although I loved everything that I did in Rotorua, Ogo stands out to me as something very quintessentially Rotoruan. Ogo,  better known internationally as Zorbing, was founded in our very own Rotorua, which remains one of the few places where you can actually have an authentic Zorbing experience. So what’s Zorbing, you might ask? Zorbing is essentially rolling down a hill in a giant, soft-plastic hamster ball. It’s crazy fun and a great activity to do at any age, and would be a great activity for families with hard-to-please children. If you’re interested in learning more about Ogo/Zorbing, check out my detailed blog post about it HERE.

Hot Springs:

hot spring

If you’re lucky enough to have a car or know someone who has a car, I would highly recommend driving out to Kerosene Creek or the Hot-and-Cold thermal pools, which are located about twenty minutes outside of Rotorua Town. The hot pools are free and open 24 hours a day, which makes them great spots to lounge around on a lazy Sunday afternoon or on a romantic date night.  They can be a little bit tricky to locate and aren’t maintained to touristy standards, as some other for-profit thermal pools are, but they are absolutely worth the effort! Visiting the thermal pools was one of the highlights of my trip and, when I was there, were enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Pro tip: if you’re visiting at night be sure to bring flashlights and candles with you, as there is no artificial lighting on-site.

Redwood Forest:


Another free activity located just a twenty minutes’ walk from the Rotorua City Center and Crash Palace. The Redwood Forest is an absolute treat, with walking paths for varying levels of endurance and fitness (ranging from 30 minutes to 8 hours, ouch!). The forest itself is beautiful and huge, with massive Redwood trees sprouting up around aquamarine colored creeks. The Redwood Forest is truly something out of a fairy tale and makes for a great natural escape.

Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland:


Tour busses run to the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland several times a day, and I’d recommend going in the morning in order to catch their daily Lady Knox geyser show. The Thermal Wonderland is chock full of amazing, other-worldly geological oddities, including the toxic looking Devil’s Hole, the brilliant orange geothermal pool and the super-hot mud pools. There are three walks available to Thermal Wonderland explorers, ranging from 30 to 75 minutes.

Maori Village:

While I did not personally attend any of the Maori evening shows, I heard that they were absolutely incredible and offer an up-close-and-personal introduction to Maori culture. The buffet dinner is apparently to die for and the shows are said to be fantastic as well. This would be very much worth a look if you’re interested in learning more about the culture of the Maori people.

The Government Gardens:

The Government Garden is a gorgeous, sprawling park just outside Rotorua City Center. It’s a nice place to take a walk, featuring some of its own thermal activity, which you can view free of charge. Best when explored in the daytime, as it can be a little dangerous come nighttime.

Ending Notes:

Even though I only had five days in Rotorua, this little city absolutely won my heart. With friendly citizens, natural wonders and Hobbity delights abound, I found myself getting incredibly comfortable with Rotorua and its surrounding areas. Crash Palace is the ideal place for backpackers to stay given its proximity to attractions, its cost and its closeness to the grocery store, which is key for travelers on a budget. Overall an amazing place to spend a couple days, though I certainly could have spent a lot longer there and am dying to go back!


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Filed under Bucket List, City Guide, new zealand

My Favorite Things: The Bucket List Traveller’s Top 6 Teashops around the World

“Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage…” 

-Catherine Douzel

…and every real voyage deserves a good cup of tea. Tea is one of the few things that is commonly found in all corners of the world, from Yerba Mate in Argentina to English Breakfast in England, from Darjeeling in India to simple yet invigorating green teas in China. In Turkey everyone comes together over tiny shot-sized cups of sweet apple tea or a pure black tea, from ice cream vendors to restauranteurs to shop keepers, uniting locals and tourists alike. Discovering a new teahouse or shop is, for me, a goldmine when traveling. I’ve rarely found a tea shop that I haven’t enjoyed, but some certainly stand out more than others. Here’s a list of my top six tea spots around the world, plus a bonus destination at the end!

#1: The Covent Garden Tea House, Covent Garden, London, England


The Covent Garden Tea House is located on Neal Street right in the heart of Covent Garden, a minutes’ walk from the Covent Garden tube stop. The shopfront is a myriad display of teapots arranged in cubic rows on a backdrop of white and bright red, broken up by a lattice of painted black wooden window frames. Inside, the shop is quaint and full of aromatic goodies, with teas and tea-steeping paraphernalia located on the first floor, tea tins lining the front wall of the staircase and an extensive collection of teapots and mugs flanking the stairs, leading up to an attic that, unsurprisingly, is packed to the brim with more teapots.

The teas on the first floor are arranged by type, with greens typically at the front and blacks typically at the back. The store boasts an impressive collection of herbal infusions as well, including flaky nettles and tiny, beautiful dried rose hips. Unfortunately, teas here can’t be sampled, but they do have small portions available for the customer to sniff before making their ultimate decision.

My personal favorite teas from the Covent Garden Tea House include the Green Chai Sencha, Gunpowder Mint Green Tea, Caramel Black Tea, Vanilla Black Tea and the seasonal Christmas Tea. I also almost always buy at least one small packet of the flowering tea balls located at the checkout counter.

#2: Het Brugge Teehuis, Brugges, Belgium


Another distribution-only tea shop, Het Brugges Teehuis is a small, two-room shop that boasts large tins of unique, flavorful teas. In the back room you can find any manner of tea paraphernalia, from tea towels to teapots, teacups, tea cozies, teaspoons and the like. They have a number of unique designs and an extensive collection of animal-themed pots and cups. The owner is very friendly and helpful, too!

One of my favorite teas ever, a green tea flavored with chunks of real Belgian chocolate, comes exclusively from Het Brugges Teahuis and is highly recommended.

#3: Argo Tea, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Image credit: C Y N 8 N Y C, click for through-link

Image credit: C Y N 8 N Y C, click for through-link

One of my favorite tea distributors and tearooms, Argo Tea, originated in my home city of Chicago, Illinois. Since then, it’s expanded to include locations in many cities across the United States, including Boston, New York, North Carolina and Washington DC. Modern, chic and stylish, Argo Tea not only delivers a consistently high-quality product, but also offers a comfortable and attractive sitting room where you can sip your tea and read the newspaper, work on your computer or chat quietly with a friend or colleague.

In addition to serving teas, they also sell teas both in bulk and in small quantities. Their pre-packaged teas come in cute containers and make for great gifts for any tea-loving friends on your Christmas list! Their teapots are also to die for, offering bright colored traditional-styled pots (which include a removable mesh strainer for all your loose-leaf needs) as well as sleek glass pots, including their new Mono Teapots.

My favorite flavors from Argo Tea include a blueberry white tea, a white peach tea and an Armenian mint tea.

#4: The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, Boulder, Colorado, USA

Photo Credit: USA Today

Photo Credit: USA Today

The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse looks like a work of art from the inside out, decorated intricately with tile work, hailing from as far as Tajikistan. The ceiling is painted and carved, and the entire atmosphere is reminiscent of a sultan’s palace. The Boulder Teahouse is not only a beautiful, atmospheric tea room, but also serves tasty meals and high tea. They also offer teas for sale, all of which you can sample with a meal, over dessert or simply on their own.

Some of my favorite teas include the Boulder Breakfast and the Huckleberry Lime tea.

#5: Dobra Tea, Burlington, Vermont

Photo courtesy of Yelp.

Photo courtesy of Yelp.

A small-scale chain teahouse, Dobra won my heart for being a relaxing, if a little bit hippie-esque, place to have a nice cup of tea and some really, really tasty food. They have gluten free and vegan food items that from appetizers to desserts. Their teas are out of this world, and are served in teapots or cups that reflect the traditional consumption methods from the tea’s country or region of origin. Seating is varied; there’s a handful of tiny tables, but most people choose to sit in the private-ish sections, which boast larger tables that sit only a foot or so off the ground. Pillows and bean bags are the primary places for sitting, and its easy to lose whole afternoons here.

My #1 favorite and most highly recommended tea here is their Masala Chai, which is served with milk and honey. Their hummus plates are also fantastic!

#6: Demmers Teahaus, Europe (Budapest, Warsaw)


Originally an Austrian operation, Demmers Teahaus now functions as a chain that stretches throughout Eastern Europe. The location I visited was in Budapest, on the way from the Parliament Building to the City Center. They had an impressive tea menu, which made it really difficult to choose just one! I had an green tea flavored with orange, which I would highly recommend, and my mom had a basic breakfast tea, which she liked very much as well.

Bonus: The Best Hot Chocolate I’ve Ever Had:

Image Credit: Hernhill Forum

Image Credit: Hernhill Forum

I know it isn’t exactly tea, but if I’m giving shout-outs for my favorite beverage destinations, I cannot ignore the Chocolate Cafe in Canterbury, Kent (UK). Their hot chocolate is thick, rich and creamy, but not suffocatingly sweet or too dense. There are great views of the Canterbury Cathedral upstairs, and quaint views of the medieval streets from the ground floor. This is my absolute favorite destination in the entire city of Canterbury, so make sure you don’t miss it on your next trip!

Do you have a personal favorite tea spot that I haven’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments!


Filed under Europe, Food, My Favorite Things

City Guide: Prague


Location & Atmosphere

A pleasant mixture between modern and medieval, Prague is full of old-world sites, packed to the brim with cultural landmarks and experiences, and home to many, many gastronomical delights, including their famous dumplings and beer, which are always best when consumed together. The atmosphere is relaxed and candid, and there’s plenty of things to do!

What to do:

Whenever I visit a new city, my favorite thing to do is just to walk around and get a feel for the layout and the landmarks in the area. One of my favorite loops circles around the city center, starting at the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, passing through the square and up through the Jewish District, across the river to look at the Charles Bridge, through the park that lines the river and then back across the Charles Bridge and back to the Astronomical Clock.


Old Town Square: The Old Town Square holds such attractions as the Astronomical Clock, the Old Town Hall, the St. Nicholas’ Church, the Tyn Church, Kinsky Palace and the Jan Hus Monument. You can go into some buildings for a fee, but I prefer the views from the ground. Every hour a large crowd gathers around the Astronomical Clock to see the old figurines of the Twelve Apostles on a slow, rotating display.


Prague Castle: The Castle Hill offers great views, but the actual layout of the castle can be a little bit confusing. Make sure you get in line for an audio guide and ticket instead of just a standard ticket, otherwise you might get lost and miss something great! The cathedral is the most glamorous building in the compound and well worth a look.

Jewish District: The Jewish District of Prague is located close to the Old Town Square, and can be reached within five minutes on foot.  The district was beautifully maintained during WWII by Hitler, who intended to turn the entire area into a “museum of an extinct race.” The buildings here are classic and very well-kept, and currently house a variety of luxury brands, if you’re interested in doing some shopping. There are a number of old synagogues in the area, which have all been turned into museums commemorating Jewish life, culture, the Jewish experience under Naziism, and the persistent memory of all those who lost their lives during the Holocaust at the hands of the Germans and the Czechs. Far and away one of the most meaningful and memorable things to do in Prague.


Botanic Garden: Small but free of charge, its nice to get a break from the city while staying within the city. Full of big trees, winding paths and gardens, its a nice way to kill a few hours. There are also a number of greenhouses on site, some of which hold paid exhibitions.

Charles Bridge: Dating back from the 13th Century, the Charles Bridge has long been a part of Czech History and the landscape of Prague. I would recommend walking it twice; once during the daytime and once at night. Its full of art, buskers, statues and beautiful views, but beware: its also full of beggars, tourists and pickpockets. Keep an eye on your belongings while you’re here and you won’t have any problems, but it can be quite congested, day or night!


Visit a local brewery: Prague is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of little breweries, and the beer that comes from them is cheap, interesting and delicious! Pivovarsky Dum, a restaurant that I’ve recommended in my “where to eat” section, has a 12-beer sampler set, with interesting beers such as nettle and cherry flavored. Unfortunately I’m gluten-free and couldn’t sample any of them, I have it on good authority that they’re worth a try!

Day Trips:

Karlstejn Castle: A quick 45-minute train ride out of the city, a day trip to Karlstejn Castle will transport you to the countryside of the Czech Republic. The town itself can be a little kitschy, but is full of restaurants and some cool little shops, selling a variety of things, from local foods and produce to marionettes and war memorabilia. The castle is beautiful and looks strikingly different from most other castles I’ve seen before. They only do guided tours of the castles, which are offered in several different languages so that everyone can enjoy them. I loved the aesthetics of Karlstejn Castle, and would highly recommend it for a day trip.


Cesky Krumlov: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cesky Krumlov is a 13th century town and castle complex. The castle is remarkable for its size in comparison to the town it stands over, with the majority of its architectural structures dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries. It is one of the most popular day trips from Prague, though you have to leave the city early and prepare to return late-ish, as it’s 2.5 hours away form Prague by train.

Kutna Hora: Kutna Hora is famous for its Bone Church, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located only an hour away from the city, its easily accessed by train. The town is small and scenic, and a pleasant place to explore away from the crowds of Prague. The bone church is referred to as the Sedlec Ossuary, and from the outside looks more or less unremarkable, though when you get inside its a whole different story! Its small, but the interior is packed to the brim with bones, all artistically placed and serving as the primary means of decoration of the church.


Where I stay:

For backpackers: I stayed at the St. Christopher’s Prague hostel last time I was in Prague, and it was a pretty stellar place to be. The room I had was big and held a lot of people, but had a beautiful, newly-done ensuite bathroom that made it feel more like a hotel than a hostel. The bar upstairs can be a little noisy, but I found that it didn’t bother me too much. Also, the bar upstairs is a pretty cheap place to get some drinks and food, so have at it!

For non-backpackers: Hotel 16 is an absolute gem. The location is a short walk out of the city center, which I personally enjoyed, and the staff really make the place what it is. They are friendly, eager to chat, like to offer help and will answer any and every question you might have. The included breakfast is out of this world, too! Try a ham and cheese omelette, cooked to order, or any of the a la carte buffet-style options, including a variety of meats, cheeses, breads and yogurts.

Where I eat:

U Kroka:

A casual, comfy restaurant, U Kroka offers amazing food at pretty cheap prices. After eating heavy Czech food for a few days, the opportunity to have salads and lighter fares was a welcome break. I personally loved the warm goat cheese and walnut salad, and my parents were fond of the chicken schnitzel and the duck with cherry glaze and mashed potatoes. Everything was great, and we went back more than once! They’re almost always fully booked, though, so be sure to make a reservation before you go.


M Emy Destinnove

This was one of the best restaurants located within short walking distance of our hotel, and we ate there twice. Owned by an American chef, the restaurant offers both Czech and other international cuisines. Their wild boar tenderloin is to die for! The prices are a little steeper than other places, but not as expensive as prices are in the city center.


Located near the Charles Bridge, Lokal is a small restaurant with a focus on healthy, sustainable and local ingredients. The food was primarily Czech, and heavy on meat and potatoes. All and all made for a very satisfying lunch.

Pork belly at Lokal

Pork belly at Lokal

Pivovarsky Dum

Also located in the vicinity of our hotel, Pivovarsky Dum offers Czech foods almost exclusively. They’re also a brewery, and offer some great local beers! They also have a beer tasting tray, which includes interesting brews that include nettle and fruity beers.

Getting around:

Taking the trams and the metros is the easiest way to get around Prague. Our hotel had tickets available for purchase and that could be sold back if they weren’t used, which meant that we were never without one when we needed them. You can also buy tickets at the metro stations.

You can also take taxis if you need to, but taxi drivers will usually try and rip you off. Generally speaking, a taxi trip should not cost you more than 170-200 koruna, though most drivers will tell you its 300-500, especially if you’re near a train station. Don’t be afraid to haggle, but know that some drivers will not be talked down. Your best bet is to have someone call a cab for you, as they’ll usually give you a fair price, or to hail a cab that’s driving around looking for customers instead of parked near an attraction.


Prague is a great introduction to Eastern Europe, full of medieval wonders, beautiful architecture, a lovely city center and close in proximity to numerous interesting and rewarding day trips. Be sure to leave yourself enough time to explore and enjoy all that Prague and its surroundings has to offer, as the best parts are often located off the beaten path.

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Filed under City Guide, Europe

Bucket List Item: Zorbing in Rotorua, New Zealand!

New Zealand is commonly renown for being the adventure capital of the world, and they’ve gone to great lengths to earn the name. One of my personal favorite offbeat adventure activities was invented in Rotorua, New Zealand, and predominantly involves two things: a giant, human-scaled plastic hamster ball and a hill. The premise behind the activity is pretty simple; you get the ball up to the top of the hill, get inside and then roll down the hill. Its called zorbing, and it’s actually super awesome.


When going on my Zorb adventure, I decided I’d go straight to the source. I went with a company called Ogo, whose founder was the inventor of the Zorb ball. I guess I was oversimplifying the balls by just saying they were giant plastic hamster balls; they’re actually pretty complex inventions that involve an inner and outer chamber and a lot of cushy spokes that probably are the thing that are keeping the whole contraption together. The balls are made of a thick but soft industrial-strength plastic, strong enough that it won’t puncture if it hits rocks or other small objects on the ground. The balls also ensure that the Zorber never hits the ground as they’re tumbling around, which my bum was very grateful for! The track itself is also a little more advanced than your average hill, but its still not a whole lot more than a glorified hill. The Sidewinder track has some man-made moguls dug into it that force the Zorb ball to change directions every fifteen-ish seconds, while the straight hill just has a simple, straight track dug out, with up-raised sides to keep the ball from veering off path.


After convincing my friend Marie, who was staying at Crash Palace with me, to come with, we went down to the reception of our hostel to book the trip and pick up a 10% off discount voucher. (Tip: If you’re considering going Zorbing, check with the staff at your hotel or hostel to see if they offer any discounts, as it can save you a load of money with minimal effort!). Even though we were going at the tail end New Zealand’s winter, we were slated to do the water Zorb, where the instructor fills the ball partway with water to give you a waterslide-esque ride. It was a little bit chilly out, so we made sure to wear warm clothes to the Ogo location, knowing that we’d want to be warm after our rides. We also packed a small bag to take with us, containing a t-shirt/tank top, a bathing suit, shorts, a towel and a pair of flip flops, then we were set to go! From Rotorua city center we caught the bus, and rode it for about ten or fifteen minutes before we were dropped off at Ogo.


When we got to Ogo we made our way over to the little reception building, which was surrounded by some changing rooms, two full-size hot tubs, a few bean bags and a functional stove, provided for the comfort of those who were there to give moral support to the Zorbers, but didn’t want to go Zorbing themselves. We approached by a friendly member of their staff, who gave us a full introduction to the Zorbing experience and gave us some information about our options.

We could choose to do any number of rides, which are admittedly a little bit steeply priced. The straight track cost NZ$45 per ride, and the Sidewinder track cost NZ$65 for a ride, but the combined price for a Sidewinder and straight ride is NZ$80. The video was another NZ$30 on top of that, but we were pretty happy to pay the price to chronicle our first Zorbing experience! I probably wouldn’t pay the money to video it again, but having one photographic account of our Zorbing adventure was definitely worth it. (Note: you’re allowed to take pictures with your own camera as well, and they’d probably even let you take your own GoPro if you asked nicely. Not 100% sure on that, but it’s worth asking either way!)


We ended up deciding that we wanted to do two rides each, and chose a solo ride on the straight track, then a joint ride down the Sidewinder. We quickly changed into our bathing suits and spare tank top and shorts, then headed out to the platform in front of the Zorbing tracks. Marie went up first while I waited down below, equipped with my camera and my curiosity. Finally, she came down the hill and I handed off my camera to her, and she couldn’t stop talking about how awesome it was! Excited, I followed another staff member into a truck, which was thankfully coated in plastic to keep the seats from getting wet. We drove up to the top of the hill and the instructor filled the ball up with water, then told me to dive in.

Pre-zorb and ready to go!

Pre-zorb and ready to go!

Getting into the Zorb balls is definitely kind of an awkward experience; you literally have to dive in head first, like you would into a swimming pool, except that you’re generally dry and end up getting stuck on the damp plastic, forced to wiggle your way through like a beached whale. I imagine the Zorb instructors probably get a good laugh out of it sometimes, though mine was nice enough not to laugh outright at my awkward struggles, at least not loudly enough that I could hear him.

After a little finagling I finally got into the ball and the instructor handed me my GoPro, showing me how to use it briefly before closing up the ball and rolling it onto the track. And then I was lurched into motion, spinning and slipping and sliding around, all while trying to smile and look presentable for my video. It didn’t work, and I ended up just laughing and squeaking and being an all around messy nightmare as I tumbled down the hill, video be damned. And it was so much fun! Unfortunately I don’t have the video on new new computer, but I might be able to upload it for posterity at a future date.

After my first Zorb ride grinning (and posing) like its my job.

After my first Zorb ride grinning (and posing) like its my job.

When my ride was done I was rolled back toward the unloading area, then birthed my way out of the ball feet-first, plopping ungracefully on the ground with flailing legs like a baby giraffe. Marie had made that part look easy, but it definitely was not! I gathered myself up again all the same and posed for a few photos before heading back over to Marie, where we finally gushed together about how much fun it was. We took a quick break to jump in the hot tubs to warm up while the staff got busy setting up the next ride. After a few minutes we got back into the truck and were driven back up to the top of the hill, bringing the camera with to snap a few shots of the amazing view from the top of the hill before we piled awkwardly into the double Zorb ball. We repeated the GoPro process, but I let Marie hold the camera this time, as I was pretty terrible at doing it the first time, then shuffled our way onto the track.

Marie and I just before our Sidewinder ride.

Marie and I just before our Sidewinder ride.

Even though I thought the ride couldn’t get better than it had the first time, it did! It was way more fun doing it with another person, and the Sidewinder track was longer and more interesting than the first one. All in all we went for about a minute and a half, getting thrown around and laughing together the whole time. Thankfully we didn’t ever bump heads or anything equally traumatic, though we were a little bit dizzy by the time we got to the bottom.

Cozying up on the beanbags post-Zorb.

Cozying up on the beanbags post-Zorb.

We snapped a few more photos at the end of our ride before headed back into the hot tubs to warm up one last time, then went to get changed while our photos and videos were being loaded onto the computer. When we were finally warm and dry, we came back out to watch the video and to look at the photos, then decided we only wanted to buy the video pack. We caught the bus back into town not too long after, still giddy from how much fun our little outing had been.

Bucket List Traveler Info:

Activity Type: Adventure/Fun

Price: NZ$80 for two rides (Sidewinder and Straight), NZ$65 for Sidewinder only, NZ$45 for Straight only, NZ$99 for three rides. Photo/video is NZ$30. 

Value for Money: Average. Its a must-do at least once, but the price is still pretty high for the activity/how long it lasts.

Suitable for: Everyone! This would be super fun to do with kids or friends, as a couple or as a family!

Recommend: You definitely, absolutely have to do this if you’re in New Zealand! Maybe not so great if you’re prone to motion sickness, but I didn’t have any problem with it when I went.


Filed under Bucket List, new zealand

Ginger Kitty by Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic


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October 9, 2014 · 12:03 am

Hobbit for a Day(trip)


Years before a trip to New Zealand was in the cards for me, I knew that I wanted to go explore the now-preserved movie set depicting The Shire, or the place where Hobbits live, in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. I was always a big Lord of the Rings fan as a kid, and getting to explore the Shire and have a drink at the Green Dragon was basically my nerdy dream come true. I wasn’t dedicated enough to put together a costume for the affair, but a surprising number of people did!


My trip to Hobbiton started in Rotorua, where I was staying for a couple of nights at a hostel called Crash Palace, which I highly recommend. I booked my tour at reception and was told they were going to come at 1:10 to pick me up. Unfortunately, I thought they’d said 1:30 and missed my bus, but the driver was amazing and came back around for me on his way out of town (even though this definitely made me feel like “that girl,” but it was nice that I was able to go to Hobbiton on my planned tour all the same). The drive to Hobbiton was about 45 minutes long, so I got a quick nap in on the way there.


When we arrived, we reassembled our tour group and were introduced formally to our guide, who told us all about the history of the set and some little notes and anecdotes about the set throughout the filming experience. We ambled along the dirt paths around the clusters of hobbit holes for a little while, learning about the props, which have all become permanent fixtures of the Hobbiton-area experience. The set has been built and re-built multiple times; Peter Jackson is something of a perfectionist, and it definitely shows! The first time the set was dismantled was after the release of the final installment of the Lord of the Rings movies, and was put back into action in 2010, when the new Hobbit trilogy was in the works. The second re-build of the set took two years to complete, and Bag End was rebuilt several more times on top of that.


The hobbit holes are all different sizes, craftily constructed in order to force perspective— that is, to make the hobbits look small and Gandalf look large. Bag End was repeatedly rebuilt in the same location in order to accommodate the height differences between Gandalf and the hobbits. When one of my fellow tourists asked why they had to rebuild Bag End so many times instead of just making two differently sized holes in comparable locations, our guide explained that it was actually the movie’s super-fan base that had forced them to do it, in an effort to prevent nitpicky fans from creating websites citing inconsistencies or flaws with the set design or sequencing in the films. I don’t want to ruin all the fun facts for anyone who’s interested in doing the tour themselves, so I’ll leave you guys with that!


We took a brief pitstop at Bag End, long enough to re-enact a scene from the movies and share a little more trivia. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go into the hobbit holes, as most of them were only two or so meters deep and had been closed off when the crews finished filming. We could, however, go into the recreated Green Dragon at the end of the tour, which definitely made up for not being able to see what the holes had been like during filming. The interior was beautifully done, and our tours included a free drink of ale, cider or ginger beer at the end. I opted for a cider, and lavished in the idea of getting to have a pint in the idyllic pub from my favorite childhood stories.


After a few more minutes we left the Green Dragon and went back to the bus, which drove us out to the visitor’s center and souvenir shop (and one last opportunity to go to the bathroom) before we drove the 45 minutes back to Rotorua. Even though it was only a short day trip, it was one of the coolest/nerdiest things I did in New Zealand, and I had so much fun learning about the production, the set and the films. All in all it was a great way to spend an afternoon, and I would probably even do it again if I get the chance!


Bucket List Info:

Activity Type: Tour

Price: NZ$110

Value for Money: High value for me because I love the books and film, but maybe less so for someone who isn’t as interested.

Suitable for: Everyone!

Recommend: I would highly recommend this activity for anyone who loves The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, movie sets, and/or people who want to experience something a little bit different in the New Zealand countryside.


Filed under Bucket List, new zealand, Travel

City Guide: Budapest!

City Guide: Budapest



Its no secret that Budapest is my favorite city in the entire world. Brimming with trendy, tasty restaurants, great cultural and historical landmarks and tours, amazing bars and clubs, and a very picturesque downtown area, Budapest really gives the traveler the whole package. Its also extremely affordable, and you get a lot for your money! Whether you’d rather spend the day touring museums, eating your way through the city or relaxing at one of the many beautiful thermal spas, Budapest always has something great on offer, and you’ll find yourself wanting to come back again and again.

What to do:


Budapest offers a lot of free walking tours, hosted by the Free Walking Tour company (no surprise there). These tours are super high-value, and last for 2.5-3 hours each. They offer a city walking tour, a communism walking tour, a Jewish Quarter tour, a pub tour (which is apparently different from a pub crawl), and a variety of private paid tours as well. These tour guides work for tips only, so make sure to toss them a few thousand forint for their effort (1,000-2,000 ft or US$4-8 is an average tip, and a good bargain to boot). The guides are friendly, funny and extremely knowledgable, and their tours are both educational and interesting. The free tours start at Vorosmarty Ter, which is near the Jewish Quarter and the river and marks the end of the Yellow Line of the Metro. 



Szechenyi Baths and Spa and City Park:

Going to the baths is an amazing way to spend a day. The baths offer a ft 4,000 (~US$16) day pass to go into the spas, though they will try and get you to take a tour for a much, much higher price (~US$40/day and upwards). These baths are beautiful, relaxing and you can choose whether you want to experience the outdoor baths, the indoor baths or both! You can also choose to add on massages or other services while you’re there, and its a great way to spend the day. Pair it with a nice walk around the surrounding park and you’ve got your morning/day sorted!


Click through for source of image.

Cruise along the Danube:

Tons of boat companies offer cruises and tours along the river. My personal favorites are the night cruises, where you can see Parliament and Buda Castle lit up at night. Most tours include a free drink. During the day time you can take a trip to the Margit Island, where you can go walking or biking. Your boat should come back to pick you up around an hour to an hour and a half later.

Castle Hill:

Take an afternoon to go explore Castle Hill and the surrounding areas and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the city. There’s also an open-air exhibit about what Castle Hill looked like after the bombings during WWII, which you can take a casual stroll through free of cost. There’s a funicular that can take you up and down the hill, but there are also stairs, which are free and only take seven or so minutes to climb up.You can also take a look at Matthias Church, which has some pretty cool features and might be worth the entry fee. Hint: the views of Budapest from the pavilion by Matthias Church can’t be beaten, and you can see them for free!

Hero Square:

Free and open-air Heroes Square is one of Budapest’s must-see sites. It sits at the end of Andrassy Boulevard, and can be seen on the way to the spas and the park.

House of Terror:

A moving museum about the history of Hungary during and after Nazi and Soviet occupation. Sobering and well worth the look, but sometimes a little bit difficult to follow for English speakers.


 Caving under Budapest:

A good activity for those who like caving, but not great if you’re claustrophobic or afraid of the dark.

Seeing an Opera:

In Budapest, you can get Opera tickets for as little as $3, which is great if you’re on a budget but interested in getting a bit of culture. Other tickets can be more expensive, and if you really want a comfortable seat and a good view, its worth it to pay a little more for your ticket.

Zoo and Botanic Garden:

The Budapest Zoo and Botanic Garden are a single item that are definitely worth a look if you have an extra morning or afternoon. It costs 2500 HUF, or US$10. There’s a lot of cool species in there, some of which I’d never even heard of before! Bonus feature: they have an Australian-themed petting zoo with wallabies and emus.

Holocaust Memorial Center:

The name of this site is essentially what it is, but the museum itself offers an in-depth look at what happened to Hungary’s Jewish population during the second world war and the Holocaust. Its a little far out on the Buda side of town, but worth a look if you’re interested.

Where to eat:

Eating in Budapest is always a treat, with hundreds of fantastic restaurants, food stalls and pubs to eat at. The city itself is multi-cultural and enjoys the gastronomical rewards. Authentic Hungarian food cooked in lard, The following are a few of my tried-and-true favorites, and will accommodate most tastes and dietary restrictions.


KisParazs is a Hungarian-run Thai food restaurant with some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had, superseding even a good amount of the food I had while actually in Thailand. Fresh, flavorful and cheap, this is one of my favorite restaurants in the entire world. I recommend the Tom Kha Gai soup, which my dad claims is the “best he ever had,” as a starter, followed by any one of the curries. If you like spice, I’d recommend the Lap Gai (minced chicken salad). My go-to dish there is their rice-noodle soup with chicken or pork, and their peanut sauce for chicken sate is out of this world as well.

Köleves Vendéglö Stonesoup Restaurant:

Located in the Jewish District on Kazinczy Utca, this restaurant was an absolute gem! The interior sports a cozy vintage look, and the menu is smallish but jam-packed with gluten free, vegetarian and kosher-friendly options. The food itself is fantastic, starting with a complimentary basket of homemade bread with a garlicky spread. I can personally and wholeheartedly recommend the farm chicken with fresh sheep cheese and roast pepper salad, which also comes with potatoes (but I’d order the mashed potatoes instead, which are out of this world!). The portions are good-sized and I even had some to take home with me for lunch the next day.


Arriba Taqueria:

Another great choice, especially for lunch. Arriba has a variety of Chipotle-esque Mexican dishes, including taquitos, burritos, chips and salsa and quesadillas. They also have a margarita happy hour, which accompanies the food fabulously.

The Central Market:  The ground floor of the market has a variety of sausages, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, spices and sweets, and the top part has knick-knacks and some really tasty prepared food stalls. A good place to pick up ingredients for a picnic lunch!



Located in Elizabeth Square/Park, Terminal now stands where a communist-era bus station once stood. The food is a little pricy, but was some of the best food we ate on our whole trip! I had the duck breast with quinoa and pomegranate beetroot, which I’d highly recommend, and had their sparkling rose wine as well, which was equally fantastic. They even had a gluten-free raspberry cake for dessert, which was right up my alley!


Decor inside Terminal.

Where to stay:

For backpackers: I will always and forever recommend the Budapest Party Hostels. When I first came to Budapest in 2013, I’d booked four nights in at Retox Party Hostel and made myself at home. Two weeks later I was still there, and two months later I came back for more. The staff at the hostels are amazing, inclusive, informative and most definitely know how to have a good time. The hostels run events nightly, including pub crawls, party boats down the Danube, and spa parties at the beautiful Szechenyi Baths. Retox itself can be a little rough around the edges and very full-on when it comes to partying, but there are other hostels in the chain, including Grandio and Vitae, that may offer tamer experiences. If you’re not looking to go out at all, I’d suggest Wombats or somewhere a little more low-key.

For non-backpackers: The 7Seasons apartments are a great choice for a stay in Budapest. The apartments are fairly spacious, and include full kitchens with dishwashers, ensuite bathrooms, an in-room washing machine, large, plush beds, fast and free wifi, and televisions, though we weren’t able to figure out how to get them to be dubbed into English instead of Hungarian. The apartments are conveniently located in the Jewish Quarter, a five minute walk from Erzsebet Ter, a 0-10 minute walk away from some amazing restaurants (including Köleves Vendéglö, which I talk about in more detail below), a 10 minute walk from the river and Chain Bridge, and short walks to many other attractions. Relatively inexpensive and a great value.

Nightlife & Going Out:


There are literally hundreds or thousands of places to go out in Budapest, so I’ll just name a few of my favorites. Most of my going-out experiences were with Retox Party Hostel, and they definitely did things right!

Ruin Bars: Szimpla is one of the bigger and better-known ruin bars in Budapest, but there are apparently more than 50 in total. You can do a ruin bar pub crawl with a group or simply create your own. Another one of my favorite ruin bars is Instant, which is decorated with some out-there, funky art installations.

Morrison’s 2: One of a series of bars that does brutally strong cocktails and

Akvarium Club: Located near Terminal in Elizabeth Ter (metro stop Deak Ter), this is a nice, retro-themed place to get a drink. You can sit outside on the stairs or inside if its cold, but its definitely a nice place to hang out.

Retox Bar: Probably an obvious recommendation, but Retox has a nice bar, English-speaking bar staff, yummy cocktails and good prices.


Corvin Tetö: A kind of generic club that usually does some pretty decent music. All in all not a bad night out, especially as it gets later!

Vak Egar: A fun little bar/mini-club in the Jewish District.

Budapest’s Special Nights Out:

SPArty: The Szechneyi Baths host a spa party on Saturday nights in warm weather. Its like a massive pool party rave and its pretty unreal, definitely recommended for backpackers and young people!

Party Boat: Cruise down the Danube with a bottle of champagne! Its a good time and an absolutely beautiful boat ride.

Going out tip: this tip is probably more pertinent to men than woman, but I don’t judge! Strip clubs in Budapest are a massive scam; the girls will try to get you to buy them drinks, then will essentially have bouncers trap you in there until you pay them upwards of 50,000 HUF (US$200). Hungarian bouncers are not people to f**k with, so just stay away!

Going out tip #2: On a similar theme, don’t be an a**hole. As I said before, Hungarian bouncers are not people you want to mess around with, and they will be firm with you if you’re being problematic.

Going out tip #3: Be sure you know how to get home before you go out! Budapest can e a confusing city, so keep your wits about you enough to get home. Also, refrain from taking your valuables with you, as you likely won’t have them any more by the time you stumble home.


Decoration at Instant Ruin Pub.

Tips & things to be aware of:

1. Budapest is a very safe city. All the same, it’s always a good idea to be aware of yourself and of your surroundings, so stay alert and you should be fine! As always, don’t keep phones or wallets in your back pocket and count your change carefully.

2.  Taking public transport in Budapest makes traveling in the city a breeze, but it takes a little getting used to! If you have a big day planned, its best to buy a day pass instead of single tickets. A day pass (and the single tickets) are appropriate for any of the city’s public transportation units, including the metro, trams and busses. If using a single ticket, you will need a new ticket for every stop you make, and will need to validate a new ticket every time you make a stop or change trains/trams/busses. If you get a day pass you only need to validate it once, but be sure to keep it on you the entire time you’re traveling. You can get fined for not having a valid ticket, and it’s not a scam!

3. Watch your zeros! Any time you get a bill, make sure there’s the proper number of zeros at the end of the prices listed for your purchases. Adding zeros is a super sneaky way to get a lot more money out of you, and its an easy way to prevent being scammed.

4. Check your restaurant bills to see if service has been added. Customary tipping in Budapest is about 10%, and a lot of the time it will be added to the bill in advance. If it has, you do not need to tip extra.

5. Do the free walking tours! They’re super informative and the guides are all great. Just be sure to tip your guides at the end!

6. Eat in the Jewish Quarter. The food there is amazing and a little bit cheaper than some other more touristed areas.

7. Don’t cross the street on a red light! Always wait for the little green walker dude, he’ll save you from getting any pesky USD$50 fines.


Hopefully this guide gave you some good basic information about what’s what in Budapest! These are obviously just recommendations, but I think they’re all pretty solid. I can personally attest to the awesomeness of all these things, and if you have any questions please fire away in the comments section! I’d be happy to help you out and hope that someday soon you’ll be enjoying Budapest, too!

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