Isla Mujeres

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IMG_4747Literally translating to “Island of Women”, this colourful fishing village was my favourite stop on our journey through Mexico.  Just a short ferry ride from the mainland, it contrasts immensely to the fast-paced
chaotic tourism that comprises Cancun and I think is an absolute must-visit for everyone. For a set fare (about 80 pesos) the ferry terminal is just a short taxi ride away from the bus station. A return ticket to Isla costs about 136 pesos (with the brightly coloured ferry company Manaja) and the trip takes 25 minutes. For us, getting back to Cancun proved a little more difficult – for some reason (not sure if it is always like this) but the ferry queue was enormous. We were in line and there wasn’t enough space on the ferry, so we had to sit in the queue for another hour until the next ferry arrived.

One of the coolest hostels I have ever experienced is Poc Na. Recommended to us by friends, it was located right on the beach, with a dive school attached, as well as offering free yoga, Spanish lessons, massages, beach volleyball and live music (to name just a few of the options) on a regular basis. It also offers various day trips and has a beach bar, a café, and spacious, clean rooms. The hostel is only a few blocks from Playa Norte. With warm blue water that is shallow for ages and heavenly cabanas (which get snapped up quickly!) it is definitely one of the best beaches on the island for swimming and sunning yourself.
The island itself is tiny, and extremely walkable. There is only about 16,000 permanent residents, basically all of whom which are involved in tourism in some way. IMG_4836The town is condensed at the northern end of the island (where the ferry drops you off) and is packed with bars, restaurants, and shops full of cute trinkets. Isla Mujeres is only about 8km long, and at its thinnest point it is possible to see from one side to the other.

I would definitely recommend hiring a golf cart as a fun and convenient way to see the island, visiting the far spots that you mayn’t otherwise reach, and viewing where the craggy cliffs meet the warm blue tones of the Caribbean. We hired one for 650 pesos (Poc Na has them available for hire, but they were sold out for the day already when we went) and attempted to cover every nook and cranny of the island. We passed Dolphin Discovery, the Turtle farm, explored the ruins at the southernmost point of the island, and stopped for a drink at a bar that overlooked the water (with beer “so cold it’ll make your teeth hurt!”).

Other places we ate at include Velazquez, which had simplistic décor (plastic tables and chairs) that was just perfect for this cute little place, overlooking the pier, boats and setting sun. For some reason, ordering a whole fresh fish felt like a necessity as we sat under the beachfront palapa (thatch roof). It was so delicious. The margaritas were enormous, and also delicious. Another spot overlooking the water is Bally Hoo. This place was a lot more formal in comparison (and its prices reflected that to some extent). The service was incredible – the waiter noted both of our names, and used them generously throughout the night. I had steak fajitas and a large mojito – it didn’t take us long to learn that the drinks in Isla were far bigger and stronger than anywhere else we had been. For dessert, I would definitely suggest indulging in the Spanish classic: Churros. At nham nham churros, a family owned and operated business; I splurged on a Nutella filled churro, and momentarily went to heavy. The place itself is cute too; a little food cart within the shop itself, and you can watch the churros being made from scratch. If your body is craving some vitamins and minerals I would head to Green Verde. Admittedly we didn’t make it here, but it was recommended to us a million times. It was a decent walk from the town centre and when we ventured there with the golf cart it was closed for the hour. I was pretty disappointed not to eat here, but c’est la vie.

I was ridiculously excited (and nervous) to get back into the water and do some diving. It had been almost been a year since I last went, and getting my equipment ready was quite a bit harder than I expected (increasing my nerves ten-fold). The boat was pretty small compared to other boats that I have been on (a few of us felt pretty sea sick), and running on Mexico time we were late in leaving. Isla is famous for whale sharks, however it was the wrong season for these gentle giants, and instead I got offered (if I was adventurous enough) to dive with some more ferocious bull sharks (I was nervous enough about the diving itself so I passed on that one!).

First we visited Musa (aka the Underwater Museum). Put in place by the people of Cancun, the museum was full of statues, grenades, cars and would have been incredibly awesome had there just been a few more fish/wild-life. This was my first experience where some of the members of my group had terrible dive etiquette (which must have been bad, for an amateur like myself to notice), for example pushing past each other (and me) underwater, swimming off without their buddies, and not knowing how to effectively communicate with the team. It was a little frustrating, and made me a bit panicky! Our second dive was along a reef at the south of the island. Again the sea-life was pretty disappointing, although we did spot some lionfish and barracuda. We were encouraged to swim through a long, dark, low cave; and although I almost self-induced claustrophobia, I was proud to say that I did it.

Take home message from this blog post: if you are in the vicinity, visit Isla Mujeres.

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Tulum

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A $7 bus ride and approximately an hour from Playa del Carmen lies Tulum. If you are after a holiday destination that incorporates a pristine beach, a laid-back atmosphere, ancient Mayan ruins (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan) and of course, authentic Mexican food, then Tulum will probably fit the bill. Better still, it’s warm all year around (although rainiest in June, September, and October).

Sleep

We stayed at the Lobo Inn, which was about 200m from the entrance to the ruins. The hostel has the potential to be awesome – however it was quite a way out of town, lacked power-points and lights in general (which reflects Tulum’s lack of a community power supply), and the bathrooms were sub-par. It did offer a delicious free breakfast, as well as the opportunity to borrow bikes – we claimed two straight away and used them to ‘xplore the ‘burbs.

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La Coqueta = top notch. Near the supermarkets (Charmani is the better quality of the two), we were told to expect a wait but that it would be worth it. We crept in to get the last available table. Here I experienced my first Mexican Coca-Cola (they use palm sugar instead of the artificial stuff that America puts in) and a delicious vegetarian wrap. It was so good, had there been time we definitely would have come back.

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Move

Cycling: Unlike New Zealand, helmets are considered a mere accessory – therefore no one wears them. Cycling round the ‘burbs are an inexpensive, fun way of seeing the area and gives you freedom an ability to explore in a way walking and taxi’s do not. The houses in the area were minimalistic, with cheaply constructed washing lines and beaten-up cars outside, often guarded by a dog – probably a stray.

Do

Beach: Tulum’s biggest draw card. White sand that stretches for miles, clean blue water, and for once, more palm trees than people – it was a stereotypical beach-lovers paradise. Cabanas dot the dunes, and occasionally vendors wander past with fresh fruit for sale (to my dismay no-one seemed be selling mango).

Ruins: Dating from the thirteenth century, it doesn’t take long to see why the Mayan’s chose this picturesque spot for their temples. Big grassy spaces dotted with palm trees (it reminded me of a golf course), private beaches (but open to the public within the ruins) and lots of stone ruins. The ruins cost 650 pesos, and are an afternoon well spent.

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Cenotes: A must-do whilst in Mexico. Natural freshwater pools in caves, there are two main ones near to Tulum; Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos. We opted for the latter and for 400 pesos caught a collectivo (about a 25 minute drive from the entrance to the ruins) where we got dropped at the entrance, with a piece of paper that had someone’s name on it. It was all very confusing, but in the end, a driver collected us, drove us through the entrance to the cenote where we got given snorkels, flippers and directions to the ‘baby’ cave. We thought it was strange to be offered wetsuits in Mexico, but after jumping into the water we soon realised why: it was ICY cold. We snorkelled through the cave until we were comfortable, then we headed back up to the equipment area, where we were taken to the more advanced cave. A guide led us through a long cave – it was really dark (we had underwater torches) with stalactites, bats, and lots of beautiful scenery.

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Akumal: A collectivo ride later we found ourselves dropped off at an exit point on the side of the highway. We were unsure where to go, so we thought logically and walked back along the road to the entrance of the Akumal Resort, only to be denied entry, and told to walk back where we came from. Feeling very uncertain we walked along the highway exit, but thankfully it evolved into a commercial boulevard (for the general public). It is about a ten minute walk. A Mexican man latched onto us as we walked and miraculously convinced us into signing up for his snorkelling tour.

Seventy minutes and 300 pesos later we had our own private guide who pointed out eel rays, fish, squid and sea turtles. And not just one sea turtle, we saw several. They were enormous, and were not at all afraid of humans. Every so often they need to come up for air, and when they mission it to the surface, you almost feel that if you don’t get out of their way they will swim straight through you. It was fascinating, and the water was so warm I could have stayed in there forever.  We left all of our clothes and valuables in plastic containers on the beach, and although they were ‘supervised’ we were still pretty relieved to see everything there upon our return.

After returning our snorkel gear, and being given a sea urchin as a gift from our guide, Hailee and I went and found a spot in the sun. It started raining and Hailee went for lunch; I accidentally fell asleep and somehow got really sunburnt (which sure makes carrying a backpack painful). My day was made when I found a man selling fresh mango on sticks with chilli and lime for just $3.

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Playa Del Carmen

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$250 bought me my flight from New York to Cancun. The airport in Cancun was pretty basic, and to our frustration every single one of the ATMs at the airport was broken. Thankfully, the machine didn’t eat either of our cards (others weren’t so lucky), and Hailee was carrying some leftover US dollars. The conversion rate was easy; basically 10 pesos equalled $1. At the airport we jumped on an ADO bus for 68km to Playa del Carmen – it took about an hour, cost $16 (prices fluctuate depending on the season) and was extremely spacious and cool (which I was already grateful for, after only 10 minutes in the mild Mexican heat!). There are two bus stations in Playa del Carmen – the ‘old station’ is on the corner of Juarez and 5th Avenue and the ‘new station’ is essentially at the opposite corner of the town, right next to the big supermarket MEGA, and Walmart.

We stayed at Tres Mundos Hostel – which was clean, friendly, and quiet. It was within close proximity to both the beach and 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) and the weather was so warm that the cold showers were welcomed. The main street, 5th Avenue, is one row back from the beach and has fancy all-inclusive resorts at each end. It is incredibly festive, crowded with high-end shops, souvenir stalls and over-priced bars and restaurants. The streets are thick with American accents, and little Mexican men promoting their souvenirs by telling you it will help you find a Mexican boyfriend.  The souvenir shops run by these cheeky Mexicans are a source of entertainment on their own. You can find everything from sombreros, ceramics, blankets, leather, food, magnets and of course, tequila. As soon as we set foot in one of these places, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I gave into the temptation of these colourful delights.

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Venture two streets back from the beach, and you are already hitting local territory – with street food, carts, and houses. So it is relatively small, and doesn’t take long to explore by foot, which I loved. Running perpendicular to the beach is Avenida Juarez – which has lots of smaller shops, where prices tend to be more negotiable. There are also lots of food stalls, and a small food market. It has an entirely different vibe to 5th Avenue, and feels far more authentic. At the south end of 5th Avenue I located a bunch of shops I’d adored in Europe – such as Pull & Bear, Zara and Bershka and at the northern end were more shops, including Forever 21.

The beach was fine – but for a New Zealander (inherent beach snobs) it was overcrowded and a little bit dirty. We spent a few well-needed days by the beach. We were craving sun, sea and sand after our week in New York. The weather was very temperamental – always hot, but there were numerous patches of rain throughout the day. This was fine; it provided opportunity to pop up into town for a quick bite, or to browse the shops.

Our first Mexican meal we wanted to be authentic – therefore we had to find somewhere selling Mexican food amongst all the Italian, French and other touristy cuisines on offer. We settled on a place called La Fisheria – which at the time I didn’t find too expensive (given the exchange rate) but I soon learnt it was more of an upper-end restaurant, definitely targeted at tourists. Despite that, the menu was mouth-watering, and the food fantastic; my yellow fin tuna tostada with mango guacamole was almost worth dying for.

An avid blogger myself, I always take enjoyment out of visiting places that other people recommend on their travel blogs. In Playa del Carmen, we had been advised to eat at El Fogan, which is on the far side of town by the supermarket (only about 5 blocks). We arrived, and it was buzzing with people. We sat down to find the entire menu was in Spanish. Unfortunately, I was not as bilingual as I’d thought, so we had to piece our way through the menu, still being a little unsure of what we actually ordered I got tacos el pastille; the beginning of a trend, and certainly, the beginning of the end. For about $1, I got two tacos, with the meat coming off the rotisserie (commonly seen in kebab shops in NZ). Another restaurant recommended by a blogger was Le Cororela. This place was located near the south end of 5th Avenue; cheap, authentic and delicious, we shared tacos, enchiladas and a quesadilla – washed down with a green smoothie (had to get my nutrients from somewhere!).

[Nearby is the Xcaret Eco Park, which is a popular tourist destination, especially for families, and is home to many activities (for example cenotes, snorkelling), wild-life, beaches and eateries. Also, just a ferry ride away is the island of Cozumel, which although we didn’t have time to visit, Hailee spoke highly of it – a great opportunity to hire quad bikes and do some exploring, as well as a world-class destination for snorkelling and diving. It costs approximately $25 and takes 45 minutes to reach by ferry.]

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Hawaii: The Aloha State

Hang loose, or as they say in Hawaii, ‘shaka’. A chilled American state that is rich in Pacific traditions and culture (due to its strong identification with Polynesian history) and combined with its classic American tourism, it seems to be a holiday destination common with travellers all over the world. Time constraints meant I only had enough time to visit Oahu, but I was determined to make the most of it.

Landing in Honolulu airport, I walked outside and located myself a shuttle into Waikiki for $US16. It took about 45 minutes to get to Waikiki – and this was at about 10pm at night. My return trip to the airport only took me 25 minutes, although I would allow at least an hour if you were travelling to or from at rush hour. I got dropped at the Polynesian Hostel Beach Club Hostel which was pretty cheap by Hawaiian standards (US$25/night) and had not much going for it except its location (very close to the beach and the main Waikiki strip). The ventilation was minimal, the bathrooms were revolting, and the staff seemed clueless – but I guess you pay for what you get, and we didn’t plan on spending any time there.

Indulge

One of my favourite things about visiting tropical countries is that I know fresh fruit will be a plenty – and I was not to be disappointed. Everything from strawberries to papaya (which I’ve since learnt is the first tropical fruit I can take or leave) and of course pineapple (unsurprising given Oahu is home to the Dole plantation). Diamond Head Cove Health Bar radiates energy; fresh, colour and healthiness are all in abundance. Further, Tucker and Bevvy’s have a delightful array of nourishing choices, all made right in front of you (and located a mere 2 minute walk from our hostel).

While it is hard to escape the inherent commercialism that is Waikiki, it is definitely still possible to excite ones taste buds and indulge in some delicious food. My first fruit indulgence came at the Hula Grill, which is attached to the Outrigger Resort. It came as a delicious fruit platter with a pina colada dipping sauce, and a view to die for. It had a pretty varied menu, with something to suit all ages.

My flatmate had recommended Island Vintage Coffee for their acai bowls (delectable bowls of healthy goodness) but I would have been at ease eating anything off their menu – it is a must visit for brunch. It is located upstairs along Kalakaua Avenue; a wide boulevard lined with trees, shops and of course, tourists. Island Vintage Coffee also has a wee gift shop with lots of beautiful hand-crafted treats, that I would have stocked up on had I been going back to New Zealand sooner.

We decided we couldn’t be in America and not visit the institution that is the Hard Rock Café. Decked out in guitars, TVs, and other rock’n’roll memorabilia, the place was massive, and a lot of fun. We were forewarned about the portion sizes, so we shared the fajitas as a main, followed up with dessert. Delicious, classic, and the walk home was well-needed to ensure that we didn’t go to bed feeling sick!

We spent a while looking for a place to drink, and eventually learnt that if you just walk through one of the copious numbers of resorts, beach bars basically dot the length of the beach.

Culture and History

It is hard to say no to doing a Luau when in Hawaii. We signed up with Germaine’s Luau – a cringe-worthy, but totally worthwhile experience. For $US70 we got picked up from our hostel, driven out to Kapolei Beach, where we took part in a full back-yard style luau, watched a cultural performance by some incredible dancers, indulged in a full American-style buffet (with 3 free cocktails) and got dropped at our door at the end of the night. Our “escort” for the night was an elderly lady called Georgie, who was so full of enthusiasm that we almost couldn’t cope. The bus trip was about an hour long, and we were pretty relieved to see it end. We received shell lai’s and had our photos taken before we found seats at the picnic style tables set up in front of the stage. We watched some local men dig up the ENORMOUS pig that had been slow roasting under the ground all day, and which we were about to tuck into as part of our dinner. The show consisted of approximately 5 female, and 4 male dancers, a female host and a band. They were extremely rhythmic, colourful, interactive and their energy was highly contagious. There was ample opportunity for the crowd to get up onstage and learn various types of dancing. Through dance they showed various island cultures; Taihiti, Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands, and interestingly, New Zealand. For dinner there was so many things to try – we had to be extremely tactical about stacking our plates. There was pineapple slaw, rice noodles in broth, fish, chicken, pork, beef, macaroni and potato salad, fruit salad, taro paste (“poi”), coconut haupia (dessert), chocolate cake and much more. We were so full afterwards, that we wanted to sleep the whole bus ride home (unsuccessful, thanks to Georgie). I won the most beautiful, authentic lai when I answered a question during a pop quiz, so the bus trip wasn’t all bad!

I was extremely excited for Pearl Harbour. After reading Unbroken and watching the Pearl Harbour movie, it is a piece of history which I find extremely interesting, and was looking forward to seeing in the flesh the remnants of the events of December 7, 1941. We had been given conflicting advice about our desired time of arrival – apparently the queues can be astronomical, tickets sell out (there is only a set number per day) and everyone says to get in early. We left at 8am and travelling on the local bus, we arrived 1.5 hours later. It was SO slow. I would recommend hiring a car, finding a cheap tour, or walking part of the way before getting on the bus. We hadn’t taken bags as we were told the queues to check them in tend to be massive (they weren’t), but it meant we could head straight in and get our (free) tickets for the Arizona Memorial. We explored the site; plaques described the weapons, and other equipment used during the war, before we got in line for the ferry at our designated time. First we watched an extremely well-made movie that retold the story of that horrific day, although it was slightly one sided in that it left out crucial historic events, such as the Hiroshima bombing. Incredibly interesting regardless though, and afterwards we stepped onto the ferry which took us to the memorial where we could get off and check it out. It was essentially a big white platform (partially funded by Elvis Presley) which looked down onto the overturned ship. A room at the end contained inscriptions with the names of the 1,777 people who had died there, as well as any later deaths of people who had been left to rest at the memorial. It was a highly touching experience, and it can be further enhanced by the hiring of audio guides and visiting the other memorials at the site. Fun fact: the name arises because oysters were once farmed there.

Explore

Waikiki Beach is nothing short of crowded. Once we fought for and won ourselves a spot, we kicked back in the sun for a few hours. The beach is steep – one of those situations where everyone looks uncoordinated as they clamber out of the water, but the water was cool and refreshing.

There is high-end shopping available at your fingertips, as well as all of the usual American chains. About a half hour walk away is the Ali Moana Shopping Centre, an enormous indoor/outdoor plaza with levels and levels of shops. It is just across the way from the Ali Moana beach, which is slightly less populated than the main Waikiki strip.

Diamond Head is a crater located at the far end of Waikiki Beach. It is about a two to three hour round trip walk from Waikiki, but you can catch buses to the crater itself, from which it is about 20 minutes to the summit. We opted to walk the whole way, and although the views were beautiful, the number of people on the track really diluted the experience. The earlier you get there the better I think, unless you don’t mind bumper-to-bumper foot traffic, and queuing for a picture of the view.

Discover the North Shore

We hired a car from the Outrigger Resort to do our own exploration of Oahu Island. To get out of the city,  Belinda navigated; I drove, and we eventually made our way onto the highway. We reached Hanauma Bay which is renowned for snorkelling. It is supposed to be extremely sheltered due to being formed within a volcanic cone. Unfortunately for us, the entire reserve is closed on Tuesdays. So we continued onwards and upwards towards Makapu’u Lighthouse. It was no longer than an hour walk (return trip) and provided us with impressive panoramic views of the landscape and ocean surrounding the Hawaiian coastline. Between December and May it is also a popular spot to watch whales migrating, at times there can be hundreds! Continuing on, we followed directions given to us by a friend, and we hit Lanikai Beach – which was the epitome of a tropical beach: crystal blue water, white sand, palm trees, next to no people, and a reef to snorkel on. After our tummies reminded us that they had been neglected, we continued driving until we found Giovanney’s Shrimp Truck. For $13.50 we indulged in a shared feast of steaming hot, creamy, garlic shrimp – upon which I quickly mastered the art of de-shelling. This was followed up by some shaved ice, which seems to be everywhere in Hawaii. Next stop around the coastline is Turtle Bay; numerous movies (including Forgetting Sarah Marshall) have been filmed here, and it is easy to see why. We were immediately greeted by immaculate grounds, golf carts, and palm trees. We parked up and wandered around, through the bar, past the pools, spa, wedding set-up, along the beach, until we had done a complete circuit of its exterior. It oozed romance, and perfection.

From here, as a surfing enthusiast, Belinda knew her way well to the beach that was home to the Banzai Pipeline. On this particular day the waves had been determined to small for the competition to run, however there was still heaps of surfers in the water (and the waves were certainly not small by normal person standards) so we sat and soaked up the vibe for a while. Behind us were the sponsors’ houses, so the likes of Volcom, Ripcurl, Red Bull etc all had big beach houses built just beyond the sand dunes where the pro surfers stayed during the competition. Beyond this beach is Waimea Bay, which is where another of the pro surf tournaments is held earlier in the year. A little further along you hit Haleiwa, where we beached until the sun went down, before I had my first fish taco at a cute little place called Cholo’s and a gelato from IL Gelato (next door) for dessert. Reluctantly we headed back to Waikiki where we dropped the car off (we had opted to drop it off after hours, meaning we were under no rush to bring it back).

Other things to do

Museums and galleries are plentiful, as well as the Honolulu Zoo being located at the end of Waikiki Beach (closest to Diamond Head end).

Other things to look out for include the licence plates with the rainbow on them as well as the ABC convenience stores which are located approximately every 4 shops in Waikiki. These shops sell everything from fruit and souvenirs, to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. You won’t actually need to look out for one, as they are pretty hard to miss!

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Hola to Happiness

Sangria + Tapas + Beaches = Inevitable Happiness. I was very excited to come here after the unexpected coldness that the UK presented, and couldn’t wait to return to the sand and sunshine. Similarly to Portugal, everything is cheap, the culture is alive, and both the people and the language are cheerful and beautiful. Would three weeks be long enough?

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Malaga

After getting off the bus to my hostel a stop early, I had to wander around in the dark for about half an hour before eventually finding my hostel. I fared better than Danielle though, who got super lost and didn’t arrive at the hostel until after 1am! We were staying at the Melting Pot Hostel, which wasn’t right in town, but we did have the beach literally on our doorstep so we were very happy girls.

We intended on doing a walking tour but we ended up conducting our own; walking down the main street, through the cathedral courtyard and then back along the beach to the hostel. We spent the afternoon on the beach before we met my friend Midori (from the Sahara Desert trip) for dinner. We then caught a bus to Feria (one of Spain’s largest festivals – conveniently on at the same time we were there) where there were rides, clubs, side shows, tapa places, performers, and people of all ages – everywhere! To my disgust on the way home, a middle aged lady riding the bus by herself puked everywhere, including on my feet.

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The next day James’ girlfriend Alex arrived at the hostel and we spent the day at the beach for some rest and relaxation before heading out into town to explore the nightlife. Being from clean, green New Zealand wouldn’t have helped; but there was rubbish littering the streets everywhere, and we were absolutely appalled! We located a cute little tapas bar where we enjoyed some inky squid and sangria before Alex and I befriended three mutes and then caught a taxi to Feria. To my delight Alex was also a bit of a thrill seeker so we eyed up the two scariest looking rides and had an absolute blast. The next morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed we set off up to the castle to get some views of Malaga. One last stint at the beach and then Danielle and I were Seville-bound!

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Seville

Hostel Boutique was officially the flashest hostel I have ever stayed in. it was so modern, clean and spacious we felt like we were staying in a hotel. With a free breakfast that included waffles and crepes, as well as a gym (to burn off that breakfast) we were in heaven. Seville itself was also hard not to love. We saw the cathedral, castle (Alcazar), beautiful river, had a guided tour of the bull-fighting arena (free Mondays 3 – 7pm), watched a flamenco show at a local bar (Le Carboneria, on Calle Levies 18) and ate dinner at La Huenta Mediterranea (Plaza de la Terceros 9) which specialises in vege tapas – divine! Later that night we visited Bar Garlochi (Calle Boteros 26) which is a must-see; the entire place is decked out in paintings, photos and statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other religious figures. The interior is lavish, chintzy and holy all at once. The drink to try is the ‘Blood of Christ’, comprised of Granada, Whiskey and Vodka. We also explored the Jewish Quarter (known as Barrio Santa Cruz) and sampled delectable gelato at La Florentina (C. Zaragoza 16) – I had Crema de Flor de Azaha (orangeblossom) and Dule De Pestino (Caramel Pastry from Holy Week).

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Granada

Yet another gorgeous Spanish town, we stayed at a hostel (Sweet Albayzin, essentially a guesthouse) right by the Alhambra. Here we learnt to appreciate tapas the traditional way; buy a drink (Tinto de Verano became our firm favourite, basically a summer wine) and get a free tapa with it. Bonus that drinks were usually only €2! We established a local; just down the road ‘La Bella and La Bestia’ had a bagel menu with 84 differently flavours!

The main tourist attraction in Granada is the Alhambra. We were informed that because we hadn’t pre-purchased tickets we would have to get up at 6am and join the queue with the thousands of others who also didn’t have tickets. We thought we’d go for a wander and have a look at the situation before committing to the early morning, and we managed to fluke two tickets for the afternoon session! There were so many palaces and gardens to look at; it actually made for a really exhausting afternoon. The Alhambra was spectacular however; I now understand all the hype.IMG_2788

Time for a morning stroll(which soon turned into a half-day excursion); we walked up to the Alhambra and thought we’d come down an alternative route. Somehow we got lost, and ended up way out on the hills overlooking the Socromonte region. My main concerns were being attacked by snakes and getting chased by wild dogs; Danielle got to see her first real-life toad, but still came to the conclusion that “this walk makes the 500km walk look tame!” In the heat of the day, with no water or protection from the sun, we were exhausted, sweaty and just wanted to get back to civilisation. We could not find a way down the hill side and we refused to contemplate turning back, so we bush bashed our way down and ended up in someone’s backyard – a grandma with at least six children. They looked at us as though we’d just rolled in with the circus, however they kindly let us through their front gate and pointed us in the right direction. We stuck to the road walking back – passing through Socromonte (where there are house caves, and an excess of flamenco dancers) and through the historical, Moroccan influenced area of Albayzin.

Being in Spain (home to both Zara and Mango) we thought we’d better hit the shops. We also discovered ‘Lefties’ – last season’s Zara stock at ridiculously reduced prices. Somewhat successful we left Granada with our bags a lot fuller than when we arrived. Before we left we met up with our gal pal Lorena, who we hadn’t seen since Milan. She had just moved to Granada to learn Spanish, and we had a wonderful catch up over dinner and drinks.

After talking up my overnight train experience from Napoli to Milano, I was dismayed that the train Danielle and I were to catch to Barcelona firstly had no air-conditioning and also had a rocking motion that left us both feeling rather sea sick! I can vouch for us both when I say it never felt so good to arrive at our next destination.

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Barcelona

I was very excited for Barcelona 2.0. Danielle and I were joined by my friend Lisa (who I’d seen in Ireland) for a few days of fun in the sun, as all of our times in Europe were slowly coming to an end. Our first moment of fun was when we were photobombed at the cathedral by a headless man, who then proceeded to chase us wanting money – and when we refused he pulled the fingers! Typically, Danielle was forbidden entry into the cathedral (inappropriate dress) and Lisa snuck in, but then got kicked out. I showed them my favourite spots from last time, visited some new ones (Olympic stadiums + Montjuic), and gave them a personalised Gaudi walking tour – which was extended when we visited Park Guell as well as the Sagrada Familia – perhaps Gaudi’s most famous, and definitely one of Spain’s biggest attractions. We had pre-purchased tickets, which were €25 and included entry, climbing the tower, and an audio guide. It was genuinely one of the best things I did in Spain.

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We indulged in some divine food; we were told that the 1.5 hour wait at Barcelona’s best tapa bar was well worth it, and we were glad we did: we had a range of tapas, the most interesting being “angry eggs” – French fries with a smashed egg on top! Danielle and I introduced Lisa to Haagen Dazs after dinner, a new-found love for Baz. The next night we walked down to the waterfront for dinner, and enjoyed delicious burgers and fresh juices at Makamaka Burger Bar – vibrant and delicious, I would highly recommend.

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Menorca

Danielle and I walked down to the port where we caught an overnight ferry to Menorca, creating makeshift beds for ourselves in the on-board cinema. We were potentially in for a difficult morning; we had to walk to the car-hire place where we’d hired a car (despite neither of us having an International Drivers Licence, contrary to Spanish law) and we wanted to arrange for the deposit to be made on Danielle’s card, even though the terms and conditions strictly required the card used must match the name of the designated driver (me). Somehow we glided through this without difficulty, and I drove on the wrong (right) side of the road to San Parco where our accommodation details had been provided to us solely in Catalan. Thankfully we found an information centre where the lady translated for us, and we made it to our apartment in high spirits, and in good time! We’d used Air B&B to score an apartment to ourselves; splurging on our last weekend!

We began the beach hopping almost immediately; first up was Sant Tomas. We had been warned it was touristy, but we were early enough to avoid the crowds – the white sand and turquoise water made us feel like we were in Fiji. We crossed the island and visited Ciatudella, on our way to Cala d’Algaiarens. The beach was beautiful, and we both swam before we realised there was jellyfish – that were stinging people! That night we enjoyed chicken burritos on our deck, after swimming in one of our two pools, and exploring the beach nearby.

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The next morning we visited Pregonda (highly recommended by locals) – being on the northern side of the island the beach had red soil which contrasted beautifully with the blue sky and green surrounds. We stopped for lunch at Platja de Cavalleria (where people were doing DIY mud-masks with the clay on the beach) and headed back across to Cala des Talaier, which featured lots of nudists, turquoise water and white sand.

Menorca was one of my favourite places for beaching the whole time I was in Europe. A car is essential, but it had a real holiday feel – and you could stay there for two weeks, visiting a new beach every single day! Neither of us were ready to leave, but I don’t think we ever would have been. Danielle was headed for the UK, before leaving Europe for the USA; and I was off to Paris to meet my mum and my aunt before beginning my journey back to Aotearoa.

Adidos for now Spain; but do not fear, I WILL BE BACK!   IMG_3348