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


Overview:

IMG_0679

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:

Hobbiton:

IMG_0369

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.

Ogo:

IMG_0491

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:

IMG_0471

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:

IMG_0293

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!

IMG_0438

Leave a comment

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

416064_2556368785591_326281755_o

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

476457_2556379985871_1035496858_o

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)

IMG_0378

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!

2 Comments

Filed under Europe, Food, My Favorite Things

City Guide: Prague


IMG_1275

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.

Attractions:

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.

IMG_1247

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.

IMG_1415

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!

IMG_1288

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.

IMG_1462

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.

kutnahora1

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.

IMG_0201

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.

Lokal:

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.

IMG_1318

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.

Leave a comment

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.

IMG_0490

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.

IMG_0532

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.

IMG_0587

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!)

IMG_0491

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Bucket List, new zealand

Ginger Kitty by Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic


IMG_1429

Leave a comment

October 9, 2014 · 12:03 am

Hobbit for a Day(trip)


IMG_0352

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!

IMG_0449

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.

IMG_0351

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.

IMG_0420

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!

IMG_0326

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.

IMG_0436

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!

IMG_0438

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Bucket List, new zealand, Travel

City Guide: Budapest!


City Guide: Budapest

IMG_1581

Overview:

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:

Tours:

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. 

IMG_0297

Activities:

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!

szechenyibath1

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.

IMG_0343

 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:

IMG_0389
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.

KisParázs:

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.

IMG_1625

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!

IMG_0294

Terminal:

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!

IMG_0385

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:

IMG_0386

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.

retox1

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.

IMG_0334

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.

IMG_1502

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under City Guide, Eastern Europe, Europe

Astronomical clock in Prague, Czech Republic


IMG_0196.JPG

Leave a comment

September 26, 2014 · 6:58 am

Volunteering at The Dog Rescue Project at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand


IMG_9707

About the Program and the Park:

Anyone who knows me knows that my absolute favorite and most highly recommended tourist activity in the entire world is the Elephant Nature Park, located north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I first visited the park in 2011, when its herd was slightly smaller and fewer tourists were coming through. Since that initial visit, which I wrote about HERE, a lot has changed! And almost all of it for the better. There’s more tourists in the park, which is great for animal welfare and has definitely helped this sanctuary to thrive by providing the money and volunteer hours needed to keep all of the animals happy, healthy and safe. There’s also a lot of new volunteer housing, new options for daily and over-night stays (including the Pamper-a-Pachyderm option, which wasn’t available before), and a whole lot more staff running around. One of the biggest (and my personal favorite!) changes, though, was the addition of the Dog Rescue Project, which houses over 420 rescued dogs.

IMG_9606

The Dog Rescue Project was started in 2011, just after my first visit to the park. The autumn of that year saw major flooding throughout Bangkok, which left many people and animals out of home and shelter. Many dogs were either separated from their owners, drowning, or otherwise in trouble, and The Elephant Nature Park took them in and created a new home for them at one of the far ends of the park. Today, the Dog Rescue Project has grown from the initial hundred-and-some dogs who were saved from the floods into the cohesive, 420+ dog program that it is today.  The dogs come from many different circumstances; some come from abusive owners, some from the streets, some are saved from the dog meat trade, and some have been poisoned. Regardless of their background, each dog is considered carefully before being placed into his or her new run, is provided with good medical care, and is given an opportunity to live a long, happy life, free from abuse and hunger.

IMG_9655

So, what’s it like to be a dog rescue volunteer?

I arrived at the park not really knowing what to expect this time around, but was integrated pretty quickly into the routine. The first few hours that I had at the park were spent with a combination of dog and elephant volunteers. My group and I were given a tour around the park, introduced to a few elephants, and learned a little bit more about how and why the animals had come to the park. After lunch, all of the new visitors to the park watched a video about the phajaan, or the centuries-old system for “crushing” an elephant’s spirit and molding it for human service. The phajaan is the backbone of the current elephant tourist trade, without which elephants cannot be ridden. Even though this blog post isn’t about the treatment of elephants or even about the elephant-y part of the park, I have to put it out there once again: if you’re ever traveling in Asia, please, please, please, please, please! don’t ride an elephant. Its cruel from start to finish, and only serves to hurt the gentle giants that most tourists love. On a lighter note, the elephants that have been lucky enough to find a home at the Elephant Nature Park get to live out the rest of their (hopefully long) lives eating fruit and freely roaming around, and will never be forced to perform for tourists ever again.

IMG_9923

But anyway, back to the dogs! After the video I was introduced to my fellow dog volunteers for the week, Izzy, Rebecca and A.J. We also met several longer-term volunteers, all of whom welcomed us and were thankfully very patient with us while we learned the ropes. Big thanks especially go out to Carolina, Ryan, Sabrina and Pedro for making us all feel welcome! We were thrown into the swing of things straight off the bat, which was a little bit overwhelming at first but became normal surprisingly quickly.

Our days went just about the same way for the entire week; we were up and at the main building for breakfast by 7:00 am, then met up at the dog clinic at 8am sharp to start the morning duties. The dog clinic is where dogs are taken if they get injured or get sick while living in their runs, with stay lengths varying between a few hours to longer than a month, depending on the problem. The clinic is divided up into a few different holding pens; in the back there’s the “Gallery,” which has both individual cages for dogs and a tiled, fenced-in area out back for the dogs to play and relieve themselves in when they aren’t being fed or given medicine in their cages. In the front there’s a row of cages with access to dirt-and-grass runs out the back. There’s also a number of cages that don’t have access to the outside, and these dogs were always our first priorities in the morning, as they needed to be walked.

Dr. Yan and Bear anxiously awaiting a walkie in one of the gallery cages!

Dr. Yan and Bear anxiously awaiting a walkie in one of the gallery cages!

When there were enough volunteers available we had people working together to make sure that the dogs were fed, watered and walked as efficiently as possible. Another volunteer would stay back to clean the cages and areas where dogs made messes so that the dogs could return back to comfy, clean cages. This could take anywhere from an hour to several hours, depending on how many volunteers we had on hand and how many elephant volunteers were able to come by to help us with the walking. After we finished walking, feeding and caring for the clinic dogs, we went out to the runs, which can hold anywhere from two dogs to thirty dogs, depending on the size of the run. Here we checked the dogs for ticks, bite wounds, gunky eyes and ears, for white gums and for unusual skinniness. Blood parasites from ticks are common in the tropics, they symptoms of which include weight loss and light-colored gums. Most of the dogs in the Gallery were being treated for the parasites, and treatment lasts for about a month.

De-ticking one of the more lovey dogs in one of the open runs.

De-ticking one of the more lovey dogs in one of the open runs.

At 11:30 or so we’d break for lunch, and when we came back at 1:00 the process starts all over again. We take all the dogs out for their walks, and when we’re finished with walks we could be doing any number of odd jobs; some days we’d go back to the runs to do more tick checks, some days we’d be put in charge of moving dogs from one run to another, and some days we’d just be bathing or playing with the dogs. There was never a lack of things to do, and by 4:30 pm, our clock-out time so to speak, we were always exhausted.

IMG_9638

Even though I was only there for a week, I found myself getting super attached to some of the pups and it was definitely hard not to take one home with me! The ENP offers a super-easy dog adoption program for people living in the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, and they’ll make all the arrangements for you to pick up your new best friend at your nearest airport. As fantastic of a home as the park is, some of these furry friends would definitely benefit from having a forever home with humans instead of a big pack of dogs.

IMG_9609

The Dogs:

And now the fun part! Let me introduce you to some of my absolute favorite furbabies that I got to know. Most of these dogs were in the clinic when I visited, but some were living at the dog volunteer house, and others were just dogs that made a significant impression on me when I met them in their runs.

Bear

IMG_9701

IMG_0050

Bear is a super-sweetie staying in the clinic while I was at the park. He’s affectionate, walks well on a leash, and loves! giving hugs, even though he’s probably a little bit too big and heavy to be giving so many hugs. Some people might find his size and weight a little intimidating, especially when he jumps up to give his hugs, but I couldn’t love him or his hugs more! Bear also walks well on a leash and loves other dogs.

Ayo

IMG_9822

Ayo, the legless wonder dog, is another super-sweet dog. Ayo lives at the volunteer house, and was always amazingly affectionate and agile in spite of having three legs. For the most part she gets along well with other dogs, but apparently has been known to get jealous about her people. All-around very loving and energetic, and definitely very handsome!

Mocha

IMG_9716

IMG_9726

Mocha is another dog who lived at the dog rescue house, and is probably the sweetest of them all. Affectionately nicknamed “princess” during our stay, she has an adorable habit of sitting with paws crossed and looking very regal. She also gets along well with other dogs, and is not skittish or afraid of people in the least. Total sweetheart!

Castor

IMG_9782

Castor was one of the dogs in the runs who absolutely stole my heart. He lived in the run closest to the dog volunteer house, and I always made a point of saying hello before I went home. Castor was just all-around super friendly, loving, and always excited to see people. Another gentle giant, he’s an absolute doll!

Nom

IMG_9712

Nom lived with Castor in Open Run 9, and was another treat. She loves attention and giving kisses, and would sometimes poke her head all the way through a hole in the chain-link just for a little petting. An absolutely gorgeous sweetheart and gets along well with other dogs!

Unfortunately, I can’t post about all 420+ dogs here, but I can say that most all of them are worth getting to know. Working with the dogs is an extremely emotional experience, and one that’s hard to forget (I even have ENP dog rescue dreams weekly!). Its hard when you fall in love with a dog or two or ten and then have to leave them, and its hard not knowing what their lives are going to be like once you leave. But its also extremely rewarding work, and even when you’re stressed or understaffed or emotionally drained, the dogs’ positive reactions always make it worth it in the end.

IMG_9673

How You Can Help

There’s a lot of different ways you can help! Obviously the most rewarding way would be to go and volunteer yourself. The dog rescue project does not get nearly as much attention as the elephant program, but the work is, in my opinion, more meaningful and allows you to directly connect with the animals in a way that you don’t get with the elephant program. But if you are planning a trip to the park and don’t know if the dog project is for you, or if you’re really, really set on doing the elephant program, you can still take an afternoon and come help out with the dogs, or even come just after lunch to help with walking. The dogs (and volunteers) need all the help they can get, and working with them is really underrated.

You can also opt to adopt one of the park dogs, and there’s no shortage of dogs for you to choose from! The park’s website has a small “meet the dogs” section, which you can find HERE. Obviously these are not all the dogs at the park, nor all the dogs available for adoption. Its a good place to start, though, so its worth a look!

If you want to help out but aren’t ready to book your ticket to Thailand just yet and don’t have the time, money or capability to take on a new fluffnugget in your life, you can also SPONSOR A DOG for 1,000-2,000 baht, or about $30USD. You could fund-raise with a charity or group to purchase an expensive item (listed below), or donate money to buy less expensive items. You can also donate any of the following (taken from THIS PAGE on the ENP website):

Expensive $$$ items:

  • Xray machine
  • Xray processor
  • Blood machine
  • Centrifuge
  • Surgery lights
  • Power generator

Mid range $$ items:

  • Cat scales (table top)
  • Various medical supplies
  • Durable dog kennels
  • Small fridge

Small $ items:

  • Medium size dog collars
  • Durable and long leashes
  • Durable toys
  • Stainless steel bowls (lg, med and small)
  • Towels
  • Blankets
  • Bleach
  • Iv extension sets
  • Soffban bandaging
  • Thermometers
  • Dog bedding
  • Dog blankets
  • Cat litter and litter trays

IMG_9747

The Low-Down:

Fees & Whats Included: One week’s stay at the Elephant Nature Park with the Dog Rescue Program costs ~$155USD, and includes accommodation, food & water, a t-shirt, a water bottle and a water bottle holder.

Accommodation: Accommodation is on-site in stilt houses. Each room can house 2-3 people, with double and single beds available. The beds all have mosquito netting and there are fans in the rooms.

Working hours per day: 8:00 am until 4:30 pm, with break for lunch.

Food: Buffet-style vegetarian food. Lots of options, very very tasty, but hard to eat gluten free, which was an issue for me. Celiacs beware of the fake meat, or “wheat meat,” as it is most definitely not GF.

Dogs on the dog rescue volunteer's porch.

Dogs on the dog rescue volunteer’s porch.

Bucket List Info:

Activity Type: Volunteering

Value for Money: High value! The food and accommodation alone is given at a pretty cheap price for traveling, the park is gorgeous and you really feel like you’re doing something. Its extremely rewarding and I can’t wait to do it again.

Suitable for: Able-bodied people who love animals and are willing to work hard.

Recommend: Definitely, to anyone and everyone who will listen! Its an amazing experience and the whole ENP set-up is legitimately one of the best non-government organizations (NGO) I’ve ever seen. An amazingly good cause that’s well-executed and extremely thorough in organization.

IMG_0056

Leave a comment

Filed under Asia, Bucket List

Skydiving in Queenstown, New Zealand!


As some of you may already know, I’ve been dying to go skydiving for a very long time! Having done a lot of rock climbing, zip lining and other adventure and thrill-seeking activities in my past, I wanted my skydive to be beyond exceptional. So I went out of my way to save my first skydive for the adventure capital of the world: Queenstown, New Zealand. Luckily for me, the weather in Queenstown was fantastic when I was there in late August, so I had my pick of nice days to dive on.

IMG_0746

On the day that I ended up doing my dive, I didn’t actually intend on throwing myself out of an airplane at all. I was meant to be going on a relaxed tour of Milford Sound, but my tour company failed to pick me up. So instead I booked myself in for a skydive, with the takeoff time scheduled for one  hour after deciding I was going to be diving. Even though I wasn’t exactly mentally prepared for the dive, it worked out better for me in the long run; having more time to think about what I was about to do would arguably have sent my anxiety sky-high (pun a little bit intended), and I was almost guaranteed good weather conditions, so my dive would both be beautiful and safe.

IMG_0749

Tip: the best time to do a skydive is in the morning, as weather tends to change in the mid-to-late afternoon, which means your dive could be cancelled or delayed. Its also best to book your skydive early in your trip, if you’re traveling, so that you don’t hit a patch of bad weather and end up not getting to dive at all!

IMG_0747

The company that I jumped with is called Nzone, and their office was conveniently located on one of Queenstown’s main drags, Shotover Street. I arrived at 9:00 in the morning for the 9:30 am jump, which was really the 10:25-ish jump. We spent the first half hour going over basic safety protocol, video and picture options, and learning a little bit about what our dive experience was going to be like. You also get to choose whether you want to do the 12,000ft or the 15,000ft skydive at this time. I would recommend knowing your weight approximately before you go to dive, as there are weight limits in place for safety reasons. They do have a scale in the office, but it seems like it might be a bit embarrassing to weigh yourself in front of a room full of people, especially if you find out you dont make the cut. The weight limit is 100 kg, or 220 lbs.

NZON_NZQT_2014_08_30_C1041_4675

At 9:30 our van came to pick us up, and we were driven about 20 minutes to the dive site. It was situated ideally, with mountains flanking both sides of Queenstown’s big, blue lake. The air was clean and crisp, and it was chilly in spite of the sunny weather. Our group of 12 or so was broken up into two groups of 5-6 people, and sent out on two different airplanes. My mini-group was sent out on the second airplane, so we got to relax in their heated lounge and prepare ourselves as we watched the first group go up and down before us.

NZON_NZQT_2014_08_30_C1041_4677

Fifteen or so minutes later we went to the bathroom one last time, then headed out to get ourselves dressed. Our uniforms were very unfashionable grey jumpsuits, secured at the wrists and ankles with velcro and cinched tight with an oppressively thick harness, which made walking incredibly uncomfortable. We were introduced to our dive instructors, who attached a soft helmet, a pair of goggles and a pair of gloves to us, and then introduced us to our photographers before setting out on the plane.

NZON_NZQT_2014_08_30_C1041_4656

The plane ride up was easily the most horrifying part of the entire experience. Before getting into the plane, I’d been relatively calm and collected, moreso than I would have thought knowing I was about to throw myself out of an airplane to freefall for 7,000 ft. But as soon as that plane began to reach altitude, I lost my cool. I was even thinking of backing out then and there, but fortunately was one of the first people out of the plane. Before I knew it my dive instructor was showing me his altimeter, and it was time to suit up. My photographer snapped a picture that does not do my level of panic justice, and then my helmet and goggles were put on.

NZON_NZQT_2014_08_30_C1041_4660

Within seconds I was shimmied to the side of the plane, and after a super slow count to three, I was suddenly careening out the door of the open aircraft. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been quite as close to passing out as I was right then, looking down at the 12,000 ft between myself and the ground. After getting to the edge, I was shoved out of the plane face first and spend a few horrible seconds summersaulting weightlessly through the air, which was the worst and most disorienting part of the whole experience. After that it was all smooth sailing, without any more flips or other disorienting motions. After a few seconds it didn’t even feel like I was falling any more; instead, it felt like I was floating in an anti-gravity chamber, and the ground was coming at me. Mostly, things just got bigger, and I wasn’t feeling much of anything at all, except for the pressure in my ears from the sudden altitude change.

NZON_NZQT_2014_08_30_C1041_4670

The freefall lasts for about 45 seconds, until the drive instructor pulls the parachute and you slow down. Once you slow down, you get the opportunity to really take in the scenery around you, which is absolutely amazing! The altitude makes it a little hard to breathe, but unless you have breathing-related illnesses, you might not really be all that bothered by it. After a few minutes of gliding toward the ground with adrenaline pumping, I finally made it safely back to earth. I was shaking hard from the adrenaline, but that went away after about twenty minutes. My dazed smile, on the other hand, wouldn’t budge for almost an hour. I couldn’t stop! It was an absolute amazing experience, and the pictures definitely do not do it

NZON_NZQT_2014_08_30_C1041_4672

Useful Info:

Activity Type: Adventure!

Price: $339 for 12,000 foot dive (45 second freefall), $439 for 15,000 foot dive (60 seconds freefall), $189 for photos or video, $229 for photo/video combo. (Note: Photos are 20 hard copies from dive in a cool little book, digital images on a USB stick, internet-accessible key code, and 7 postcards. Video is on USB.)

Value for Money: Good, if you’re into that sort of thing. Of course you want to pay a lot of money for safety, but its still hard to stomach paying $500 for anything.

Suitable for: Anyone with a thirst for adventure without bad panic-reactions.

Recommend: Definitely! Probably the best thing I did on my entire trip.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bucket List, new zealand, Photography