It’s been nearly 16 years and 45 countries ago since I visited New Zealand, yet it still retains its top billing in my mind as the all-time most beautiful place on Earth. In the spirit of a throwback, I thought a stroll down Memory Lane, New Zealand would evoke some fond mental images of natural beauty in its most compelling state. Turns out I was right.
Destination: New Zealand (South Island circle tour)
What Brought Me There
What Brought Me There
In the 2000’s New Zealand was well on its way to becoming a hip and popular destination thanks to its spectacular scenery being broadcast to worldwide audiences via several blockbuster movies of the time. But even before that I had heard rumor of incredible, natural landscapes that had even well-traveled adventurers gushing like schoolchildren. Somehow I sensed that this would be “my kind of place.”
Using airline miles accrued through a combination of credit card rewards and actual travel, my wife and I joined my parents on an ambitious 3.5 week journey Down Under, visiting Australia and New Zealand’s South Island. While I enjoyed both destinations immensely, it became readily evident that it would take more than just the 1 week allotted to appreciate the ubiquitous splendor of New Zealand’s incomparable scenery.
What I Loved
Our whirlwind tour started in Christchurch, took in an afternoon at majestic Mount Cook, then lingered a few days in Queenstown before working our way up the wild West Coast and coming round to Christchurch again. The highlight was Milford Sound, in Fiordland National Park. Despite the many travels I’ve had since then, I still consider it to be the most beautiful place on Earth.
Another personal favorite was a hike on the Fox Glacier, mostly because of the incredible sense of scale when watching tiny dots clambering their way across a thousand-foot deep block of blue and white ice. In fact there several occasions when the sheer enormity of the landscape I was contemplating literally took my breath away.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
Even though by most accounts the South Island is where the most jaw-dropping scenery resides, there are several places on the North Island that I would like to see firsthand: The geothermal features of Rotorua, Tongariro National Park, and most of all, taking a blackwater rafting trip down an underground river in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Yes, you heard right – glowworms.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to look back and reflect, unless of course, you’re driving. When it comes to travel, those glances into the rear-view mirror can do more than show you where you’ve been, they can bring back the feelings you experienced while you were there. In this first installment of my Bite-Size Destination Throwback series, I’ll be spotlighting my epic trip to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa in the summer of 2014. In it, I will follow a simple formula: what brought me there, what I loved, and what I would do if I ever went back. So let’s get started.
What Brought Me There
The primary reason for my visit was to attend an international convention being held in the capital, Harare. But there was no way I was going to miss out on seeing one of the seven natural wonders of the world (Victoria Falls) while I was in the ‘neighborhood’. As my plans solidified, after a week in and around Harare for the convention, we were off to Victoria Falls with excursions into Zambia, Botswana, and even just barely into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.
What I Loved
Foremost among the things I loved were the people. Despite abject poverty, political insecurity and little prospect for improvement, the Zimbabweans I met were welcoming, courteous and even outright generous. I’d be willing to say that most were actually happier than your average person in a developed land, which is saying a lot in view of the obstacles they face on a daily basis.
I also loved the African landscape, with its abundant wildlife, rugged interior and breathtaking sunsets evening after evening. Africa has an entrancing effect on me, and memories of sipping a sundowner while the sun sinks in a blazing orange sky to a symphony of insects while the stately silhouettes of elephants graze in the distance is truly a mental ‘happy place’ for me.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
My limited timeframe forced me to fly directly to Victoria Falls from Harare. Given another visit to the country, I would rather take the rails down to the Motobo Hills to enjoy the unique landscape of stacked boulders that characterize this corner of the world. I would then make my way back toward Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park, with its healthy elephant populations in full display.
Have you been to Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts by commenting. And if you want a great Zimbabwe souvenir, check out the Zimbabwe Rugged Country Code Collection unisex t-shirt by clicking here.
Sometimes in travel – as in life – it’s not always a question of this and that, but rather this or that. But as opposed to those unpleasant times when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, there are times when you can see or do most of what you’d like, even if it isn’t everything. It may not be ideal, but as the song goes: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.
Not too long ago I was faced with one such situation. Our ship was docking in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang (technically Chan May), and from there we had a choice of visiting two of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites within striking distance of a one-day tour: The ancient capital of Hue, the ancient ruins of My Son, and the former trading village of Hoi An. With limited time available, we opted for the latter two on a whirlwind tour that gave us a taste – though not a full mouthful – of all that’s on offer in central Vietnam. It wasn’t an ideal way of visiting this fascinating region, but as I said before, two out of three ain’t bad.
My Son (pronounced mee- sahn) is an ancient site of worship tucked well inland from the emerald waters of the coast. Though a good portion of the site was reduced to rubble courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, there are various temples, halls and other religious buildings that either escaped bombardment or are in the process of reconstruction.
At the entrance, you’ll need to take a stretch golf cart up the winding road to the visitor center proper. I wasn’t looking at the odometer but I figure it was at least a mile if not more. Given the fact that we were experiencing a full-on torrential downpour, the golf cart seemed the best option.
The cluster of ruins that awaited us looked like a scene right out of every adventure movie ever made. There were artifacts, strange writing carved in stone, and various figures represented – not to mention the most gigantic centipede I’ve ever seen scuttling through the undergrowth outside. Surrounding the complex is thick jungle, and on the day of my visit there rivers were swollen to capacity and at times our feet were underwater. So if it’s a rainy day, I recommend that you wear foot gear that you wouldn’t mind getting wet. Don’t let that discourage you though – sloshing through the jungles of Vietnam really fleshed out the experience.
Unless you really care about every temple and building, a few hours here will suffice. And if the weather is clear, it should be a photographer’s playground.
The ancient trading post of Hoi An is a colorful amalgam of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese culture and architecture. Once a major port for international trade, the town has been reborn as a tourist destination for its scenic riverfront and charming ambiance. In town you can busy yourself with a visit to the intricate Japanese Bridge or even more elaborate Chinese Temple. But most of all, take some time to wander the vibrant side streets which are filled with souvenir shops, a small museum and some of the most delicious Vietnamese food to be found anywhere. On the day of my visit, they were gearing up for a festival, so the streets and trees were decked out with colorful lanterns of all colors, shapes and sizes. Not only did I leave wishing I could see what it looked like at night, but also wishing I had at least five to seven days to fully explore the town and all the activities around it.
The Marble Mountains are close to the coast and not far out of the city of Da Nang proper – which, incidentally, is a city undergoing rapid modernization. These five mountains rise almost vertically from the relatively level coastal plain, and host a number of temples that can be visited by those who have more time at their disposition. Below are numerous artisans that sculpt the marble into all sorts of beautiful figures, fountains and statues. If you’re on a guided tour, you can be certain that you’ll be making a stop to see ‘how things are made’ which is code for: tourist trap, please buy something. Despite the obvious commercialism, this would be the place to buy that giant marble elephant you’ve always wanted.
The most obvious observation of a day tour from Danang is that you really need more than a day tour to do the area justice. With the royal city of Hue not too far away, and one of the largest cave systems in the world within range, you can easily spend an exciting week of discovery in this Southeast Asian playground. So if you can do so, stay for awhile. If you’re on limited time like I was, content yourself with the wonders you’ve seen, and accept that in reality – you guessed it – two out of three ain’t bad.
The world is a crazy, unsafe place. At times I too wish I could just bury myself in a hole in the ground and shut out all the insanity and insecurity. But the inherent problem with holes in the ground – the Grand Canyon not withstanding – is that they usually don’t offer a very good view. For that, it requires the courage to get out there and explore. Below I’ve listed 8 steps on how to travel safely and still maintain relative peace of mind.
1) The World is Just as Crazy Where You Live
Crime, terrorism and natural disasters are not limited to those on vacation. Sadly, such risks are part of the global human experience. This goes for visiting popular tourist attractions and traveling by air just as much as going to and from your job or school. Yes, it is possible something bad might happen while traveling, but statistically it is far more likely that you’ll have a car accident on the way home from the store than experience a terrorist attack while traveling abroad. By gaining some perspective on the risks involved, you can ease your worries and take comfort in knowing that you’re likely not at any greater risk than you are in your own hometown. That is, unless you’re visiting Syria.
2) Be Shrewd, Dude
Taking practical precautions before embarking on your trip can do much to allay anxiety. Travel insurance is an increasingly good idea, not just for its practicality but also for the peace of mind. Thoroughly researching your intended destination can alert you to potential threats or dangers, both health and safety-wise, and buying a money belt or similar products can help lessen your odds of becoming a victim.
3) Here’s Looking At You, Punk
Imagine for a second that you’re a pickpocket or any other variation of street criminal. Would you rather target the oblivious tourist that’s so engrossed in looking at the sights that they don’t even notice you’re there, or the wary tourist with the shifty eyes that are constantly scanning their surroundings? If you didn’t choose the former, then maybe you’re just not cut out for a life of petty crime. Yes, criminals prey on the easiest targets, and nothing says “I see you, punk. Try someone else” better than being aware of those around you and making eye contact. Sure, you might come off as paranoid but at least your message won’t be missed.
4) You’ve Got A Brain. Use It.
What you wear, bring, do and say can all have a direct bearing on your safety. Wearing expensive jewelry in poor cities is an invitation to potential muggers. Flashing costly electronics and camera equipment at inappropriate places and times can have the same effect as well. Even traveling through relatively safe areas and neighborhoods after nightfall may increase your risk, as might talking loudly in your native tongue, as nothing screams “tourist!” more than asking for directions. This is not to say that you should stay in your hotel room and not speak to anyone. Just use your head and the risks will be much lower.
5) If You’ve Got It, Don’t Flaunt It
Standards of dress and conduct vary wildly worldwide and to keep things on the up and up with the local populous, it’s a good idea to learn what they are and then follow them. In many places in Latin America and India for example, women will at times draw unwanted male attention in direct proportion to the amount of skin they show. So ladies, be prepared to cover up if you don’t feel like being stared at by often not-too-subtle men. And don’t get me started on the Italians….
6) Make Friends, Not Mistakes
One of the best things about travel is the possibility of interacting with so many different people. While I heartily encourage all to mingle with the locals, this doesn’t mean drop your guard. Be mindful that some in bars and restaurants frequented by tourists may have their own agenda and be wary about what it is in – and how much – you drink. And sometimes that friendly local that just happens to strike up a conversation with you, will eventually reveal that they want to take you to a “friend’s” shop where you can get bargains unheard of elsewhere. Again, you’ve got a brain, and don’t be afraid to say no. Most of all, don’t let the few bad eggs ruin the joys of cultural exchange.
7) Don’t Forget What Your Mommy Told You
As it turns out, your mom was right about a lot of things. While traveling, many of her adages still hold true if you want to come home safely: Look both ways before crossing the street (especially in London), be careful after dark, don’t walk through the woods by yourself and many more I’m sure. About the only one I would openly contest is the prohibition on going swimming for at least an hour after eating (An hour. A good hour).
8) Face Your Fears & Get Out There
With all the rampant insecurity in today’s society, it may be hard to overcome your fears to get out there and explore. But identifying your fears is a necessary step if you’re to experience peace of mind in travel or anything else. As I said in my 2015 humor/travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper, “finding the root of your fears is like giving a prostate exam–uncomfortable even if you do manage to put your finger on it.” But once you do, and you’re willing to challenge yourself, enjoying the world – risks and all – will become a whole lot easier.
Of course, despite taking all these precautions you can still get hit by a bus, but hey, a meteor strike is a possibility as well. My point is that it is impossible to eliminate all risk in this world, so you’ll just have to do your best and relax. By taking practical steps you can lower your risk of danger while traveling, and I say that if you have to accept a level of risk, it might as well be on vacation.
Do you have any safety tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!