Mexico City

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Last but not least, the capital itself. It was quite a contrast going from an island with 16,000 inhabitants, to a city with a population at least five times as great as my home country.  I wasn’t sure what to expect; like most people, mention the nation’s capital and I conjured up thoughts of pollution and traffic. My flatmate in Italy, Hector, was from Mexico City, and I was so excited to see him again and to be shown around this gigantic city with a local’s perspective.

A fascinating piece of history is that Mexico City has been colloquially dubbed the ‘sinking city’. It was built in a valley many years ago, and since it has been slowly sinking. This is really highlighted in some of the cathedrals; you actually have to walk down stairs to enter the cathedral, and the floors are definitely on slants. Mexico City is split up into a number of districts, each distinct with its own reputation. Hector worked in the Federal District, which was hustling, bustling and full of important looking people wearing suits. Our first meal took place here, and we were pretty excited to have a local ordering for us. At Oaxaca Bistro we launched ourselves into the thick of delicious, authentic Mexican food; and this was just the beginning. We ordered from a set lunch menu, which apparently is the done thing. Also nearby is La Casa de los Abuelos, basically an institution when it comes to classic Mexican food.

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Not far from Hector’s office is La Reforma, the equivalent to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas: it is an incredible boulevard that stretches for 12 kilometres, and is lined with hotels, greenery, office buildings, protests and the famous Latinoamericana Tower (once the tallest building in the city). It terminates in the Centro Historico; cobblestone pedestrian streets crammed with taco carts, street vendors and extremely cheap clothing stores. One of the prettier buildings is the Palacio de bellas artes; an art gallery/opera house that is white with a gold roof. Running parallel to Reforma is Alamadas – the oldest public park in the city, and if you need food Café de Tacuba is not too far away (Mexico City’s longest established café). If I had to recommend somewhere to stay, I would suggest somewhere close to the Reforma (although the closer you get, I expect the more expensive it would be), or in the bohemian Condesa neighbourhood; wide boulevards lined with trees and littered with funky bars and cafes, it was described as Mexico’s East Village (New York), or Notting Hill (London).

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The most obvious downfall to a city with so many people is the traffic problems it causes. It took so incredibly long to get anywhere. Thankfully Uber was were cheap, as I couldn’t imagine having to bus everywhere. As all of the people in Hector’s suburb have their own cars, there is no need for the subway to extend out that far. The taxis around the city are all either pink and white, or red and gold. A great way to see the most impressive sights of the extensive city, without having to drive or taxi everywhere is to buy a ticket for the “Hop on, Hop off” bus. Through this means we saw the Castillo de Chapultepec; a once royal residence, that transformed into a presidential dwelling, and now a museum (65 peso entry, unfortunately everything is written only in Spanish), the Monument of Independence, the Revolution Monument, and of course, the Anthropology Museum. This is Mexico’s most popular museum, and I loved it just as much as the next person. The history of the Mayan’s and Aztecs is absolutely fascinating, and you could lose yourself in the incredibly displayed warren of artefacts. We were fortunate in that a man at the help-desk gave us a ‘highlights’ tour, so we got to see the best of it in about 2 hours.

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On our last day in Mexico City we took a day trip from the Audacio to the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. We left at about 8am, and made a few stops on the way. First up was Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important religious site.  We drove through Tlalnepantla City, which consisted of hundreds of concrete houses covering the hill-side, all painted bold block colours; orange, green, yellow, purple, pink – you name it! At the pyramids we learnt how the Mayans used to obtain pigments to colour their paintings. Climbing up the pyramids was no mean feat; the steps were almost vertical, and there was a fair few of them. The souvenirs sold here were all pretty unique; various ornaments made from obelisk (the mineral that used to be mined in the area), as well as whistles that sounded like wild animals and birds. From here we visited a workshop where we learnt the various uses of the agave plant: soap, paper, needles and thread are just a few of the many uses. We were then given shots of mezcal and tequila, before taken to a buffet lunch where we were entranced by performances of miriacha and cultural Aztec dancers. We then got taught how to play Aztec ball – the throwing up of a round ball and hitting it back and forth to each other through a hoop, using the back-side of ones biceps as a bat.

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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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Gettin’ chilly in Canada

If a Canadian greets you with ‘Bonjour’ it is more than just a hello; they are testing whether your preference is to speak English or French. Therefore only respond with ‘Bonjour’ if you want to continue speaking in French, otherwise you might start seeing some annoyed Canadians!

Vancouver

Vancouver’s suburbs are extremely condensed, and all so unique. I was staying in Yaletown; a somewhat stylish and sophisticated area, with lots of delicious eateries. From Davie Street (the gay district with rainbow banners, and pink bus stops and rubbish bins) to Robson Street (shopping), Gastown (quaint, cobbled streets with lanterns) and NOT Hastings Street (I made a hasty retreat); there were so many nooks and crannies to explore. It struck me as an extremely liveable city, probably one of the most liveable cities I have ever been to (and probably the reason it continually wins awards for being one of the most liveable cities in the world).

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Transport: Most of inner Vancouver is highly walkable. I didn’t really use the public transport system that often, however what I did experience was great. Buses are in abundance, and there are also two metro lines running within the city, one of which goes out to the airport. A taxi to or from the airport costs about $30, and takes about half an hour. Vancouver Airport is extremely user friendly, with a built in aquarium, and kind old men in green t-shirts ready and willing to answer any questions one may have.  It is possible to catch buses from Vancouver Airport directly to various destinations, including Whistler, however it is quite expensive (Pacific Coach= $75/one way, and it pays to book in advance). I got to Whistler by catching a Greyhound bus from within Vancouver that had both free Wi-Fi and power sockets ($60 return).

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Stanley Park: Vancouver thrives off a health buzz. Just five minutes from the heart of the city is not just the waterfront, but also an entire Sea Wall – a lengthy track for walkers, runners, bikers and the like, which follows the water right round past the 10km loop that is Stanley Island. I walked right the way around, past beaches, nature, wildlife and plenty of other people exercising. There are a number of tourist attractions on Stanley Island, including the totem poles, aquarium, mini rail-way and Christmas lights.

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Granville Island: Just across the water from where I was staying, it was a much longer walk (you had to overshoot the island, and walk back to it). I had been warned to go hungry, and to save myself for Siegel’s Bagels; naturally I had salmon and cream cheese. It was to die for, and I didn’t know it yet, but it would be the best bagel I had the whole time I was away. A great place for souvenir shopping, I left with my pockets empty and my arms loaded. I was too lazy to walk home, so jumped on the water-ferry; $3.50 to cross the canal.

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Lynn Canyon: all the tourist hype is on Capilano Canyon Park, when really the spotlight should turn to this little gem. First I bought an all-day Transit pass for $9.75. Using a fellow traveller’s blog from the Downtown Station, I caught the seabus (aka ferry), bus #228 and rode for about 30 minutes more, where I jumped off and walked the final kilometre to the park entrance. It was free entry, and the suspension bridge was incredible. It was about 50m long, and there was only enough space for 2 people to pass by each other, just. Other highlights of the park include the Twin Falls, and then to the 30ft deep pool, which was an eerie crystal blue colour. It was what I would picture a stereo-typical Canadian river to look like; minus the salmon and grizzly bear.

Eat. If you aren’t on Gramville Island, visit Meat & Bread. ‘nuff said.

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Whistler

Getting to Whistler took a little longer than anticipated. We arrived in Squamish (40 minutes later) to be informed that instead of the expected 1 hour drive from Squamish to Whistler, the road was blocked indefinitely, due to an accident blocking the highway. Six hours later we arrived in Whistler, after joining the ‘Whistler Crawl’ about 5km out. Without any exaggeration, it was like arriving in a magical wonderland. There were Christmas lights twinkling in almost every tree, and the snow sparkled under the street lights. Let the fairy-tale begin.

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Where to stay

I would recommend anyone and everyone stay at the HI-Whistler. Home to the Olympic Athletes back in 2010, it was modern, clean, spacious and private. There were two bunks in my room, each with an individual shelf, power socket and locker. The bathroom facilities were shared with next door (so another four people) and the shower, toilet and sink were all contained in different rooms. The main disadvantage is that it’s not right in the town centre, however jump on bus #15 or #2 (so long as it isn’t bound for Whistler Creek) and it will take you from outside the hostel, right into town (stops at both the shops and the chairlift).

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What to do

  • You mean besides ski? I would have to say walk. The whole of Whistler Village is entirely walkable. Everything is close together, people are a plenty, and snow is everywhere. Words can’t describe how magical this place was – it was peaceful and sleepy, yet so alive. It got dark so early, but it was still so colourful.
  • Skiing /snowboarding is the obvious reason why one visits Whistler in the winter. IMG_3094With two enormous ski fields, it would be entirely possible to do a new run every time, all day long. The bus drops you right at the bottom of the chairlift, which is right next to the ticket office, and also adjacent to the gear rental and ski-schools. It cost me $125 for a one-day pass, and $65 for skis and boots. Once kitted up, I jumped into the fully-enclosed gondola, and settled in for a 35minute ride up the mountain. There were powder-junkies everywhere – I quickly learnt that turning was much harder than back in NZ – I ate snow a few times! Aside from the powder, the main difference was that in Whistler you are skiing amongst trees – my favourite run was called the ‘Enchanted Forest’. The two ski fields are connected by a gondola called “Peak 2 Peak” which is the highest and longest in the world. A few of the gondolas have a glass bottom, so you can see the trees in the distance below – spectacular, but eerie. A complete run from the top to bottom of the mountain took almost an hour, which is incredible given it takes about 5 minutes in New Zealand.
  • The Whistler Public Library is just off the town centre; it is a snuggly place to cuddle up with a book and pass the afternoon away. Next door is the Whistler Museum (admission by donation) which illustrates the Olympic history of the township.
  • Garfinkels. The place to go, the place to be seen at. Especially after 11pm.
  • Whistler Creek Athletic Club is a great place for a work-out or a spa and sauna on that day off from the slopes ($11.50). There is also a cosy wood-fired pizza place next door.

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Where to eat

  • El Furniture Warehouse. It doesn’t sell furniture, and it should be number one on everyone’s list. With a queue out the door (yes, we waited approximately 20 minutes in the cold) the place is pumping from about lunchtime. One of the main reasons – every single thing on the menu is $4.95. From nachos, to salads, to burgers to drinks – it has everything. And everything is delicious (and of a normal sized portion).
  • Naked Sprout. Delicious treats, smoothies and salads, it’s located right in the village centre. I ended up being a repeat offender, despite my intentions to always eat somewhere new. The place is modern, healthy and has great Wi-Fi, which is always a bonus! I can highly recommend the Date Smoothie (with dates, banana, almond milk and ginger).
  • Green Moustache. Not far from the IGA, it is another café specialising in vegan and organic food. I had beetroot soup, and it was one of the best soups I have ever had in my life. Attached is a gift shop, which has lots of handmade arts and crafts.
  • Supermarkets – there is a super expensive mini-supermarket right in town, which usually wins out because of its absolute convenience, however there is an IGA on the outskirts of town (a massive chain supermarket).

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New York, New York

Running out of petrol on Manhattan Island? Sounds like somebody’s worst nightmare. Good story though… Right?

We knew we needed to fill up the rental car before we returned it to JFK Airport, but to avoid topping it up more than once we were putting it off until the last minute. Having driven about 10 hours continuous from Detroit we were well aware of the rest areas that were located every 20km or so along the highway. Until we reached New Jersey, that is: and then there were none. All of a sudden (after a million tolls later) Siri was directing us through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan (which completely defeated the purpose of us selecting JKF as the drop off point in the first place) and as I turned to Hailee to inform her of this semi-bad news, she turned to inform me that the petrol light was now on. We entered the tunnel (2.4km long, 2 lanes only, and bumper-to-bumper traffic) for what seemed like the longest journey ever. Riding in neutral where possible, Hailee was a bundle of nerves and I couldn’t use the GPS to locate the closest gas station as there was no reception. When we finally got out of the tunnel, we made it to the side of the road; Hailee burst into tears and I did my best to stay calm. I told Hailee to wait with the car while I went to locate a gas station. Fortunately for us, there was one just down the road. I would have made a funny sight, lugging a petrol tank down 35th Avenue, to our dinky little car. We poured the 2 litres of petrol into the tank, which gave us enough time to plan an extended route (taking into account the massive number of one-ways) around the block and back to the gas station to fill up. From there, it was smooth sailing to JFK (almost anything would be!), and we arrived at Belinda’s only about three hours behind schedule.

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A WEEK IN NEW YORK

This portion of my blog is modelled directly after my journal, which I don’t normally do, but because I felt like my six days in New York were perfect, I felt this was the most accurate way to portray my own experience. (Obviously such an itinerary is easily amended – let me know if you would like any help.)

We were staying at my friend Belinda’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; currently one of the funkier areas in New York. A definite hipster vibe, the vibrant bars and cafes seemed to be open round the clock (of course, it’s the city that never sleeps) and it also felt like a really safe area. We were fortunate to be right by the Bedford metro stop, meaning Manhattan was just a short ride away.  Tip number one: Buy a 7-day metro pass, if you are there for longer than 3 days. You will save money doing so.

IMG_3779Day One: Making like Gossip Girl, we met my friend Anna on the Met steps, before heading off for a walk around Central Park. We saw various movie filming locations (including the boat house, the castle, the great lake and the Alice in Wonderland statue) before making our way to Grand Central Terminal (don’t say ‘Station’). On the way, Hailee introduced Anna to the beauty that is a Starbucks Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. Grand Central is absolutely breathtaking. We stood on the steps mesmerised, just watching hundreds of people go about their daily lives, at what felt like a million miles per hour. Our stomachs calling, we walked through the dining concourse, past the Campbell Apartment (Gossip Girl fans will remember this as the site of Nate and Serena’s illicit affair) arriving at UrbanSpace Vanderbilt. Such an expansive range did nothing to help my indecisiveness. Between us we sampled a range: Anna had a mocha-almond crunch donut from Dough! (five stars for sure), Hailee had a scrumptious baguette, and I opted for a chickpea and tomato stew.

After lunch we headed to the Rockefeller Plaza. It had a beautiful tree and decorative IMG_3667lights, but it was certainly one of the most crowded places I’ve ever been in my life. We literally had to queue to even have a peek of the ice-skating rink. The sheer number of people skating reduced any margin for error – no hope for an amateur! Like a pack of herded sheep, we shuffled past the bottom of the Rockefeller Centre, and resurfaced near St. Patricks Cathedral (gothic style, with a nostalgia-inducing resemblance to Milan’s Duomo). Loving the festive season, we floated past the Christmas windows at Saks, and along 5th Avenue until we reached the New York Public Library. We soon saw why Carrie Bradshaw wanted to get married here – the architecture is absolutely stunning. Tip number two: Audio guides (free of charge) will enhance your experience ten-fold.

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Entirely caught up in the magic of the movies, Anna guided us to Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment, before we met Binz at The Meatball Shop for dinner. The place was fabulous- delicious food at delicious prices, and the ambience was great. On the way home we ventured down to the Williamsburg waterfront for a panoramic view of Manhattan – one of Binz’ favourite spots in the city, and we could see why.

IMG_3759Day Two: Owned by a bunch of Aussies, Bluestone is a terrific place for brunch. Fresh, buzzing and delicious, there is a few dotted about the city. The one we visited (for easy access to the Met) was built into the side of an old cathedral. Despite the avocado smash supposedly being where it’s at, the green smoothie and mushrooms on toast were also fabulous. The Met’s entry fee is a donation – as a pretty broke traveller concerned about my potential under-budget for New York – this was a comforting start! The place was astronomical. You could spend days here – although most of our time was spent combing through the Ancient Egypt exhibition. Once again, our stomachs let us know it was time for lunch, so we walked through Central Park to LevaiIMG_3785n Bakery – world-famous (not sure if it is, but it should be!) for its cookies. The queue spilling out onto the street informed us we’d arrived, and we were stoked to find ourselves in line next to a local – one way to know the place is a goodie, and not merely a tourist trap. After this pit-stop we visited the Museum of Natural History (again admission by donation), where we were entranced by the dinosaur exhibition.

IMG_3824We met Binz at Union Square and walked to a delightfully cheery Mexican restaurant called Tacombi for dinner. I was incredibly over-excited for Times Square, and my expectations were met – the experience tainted only slightly by the scaffolding and preparations for the New Year’s Party in a few nights. Fun fact of the day: the main building in Times Square (the one from which the ball drops) is actually empty besides the first three floors due to insufficient natural light for tenants – however, the landlord still rakes in a massive $22m per year, from advertising alone. Captivated by the bright lights, I was reluctant to leave – but we were due at the Amsterdam Theatre, for my first Broadway experience. To say Aladdin was incredible is an understatement; the lights, costumes, dancing, singing and effects were all out of this world. When the show ended I teared up – I’m still not entirely sure if it was out of joy for the magic I had just witnessed, or sorrow for the show being over. We headed home past Saks, and watched a Christmas light show that was of a standard you could only find in New York. It was an insane night. Tip number three: if you don’t go to Broadway, you are mad.

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Day Three: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I ensured an early start to beat any queues for the Statten Island ferry (…there were none). Tip number four: for a free way to see the Statue of Liberty, take a return trip to Statten Island; sure beats lining up for 2 hours and paying to see the statue. It was approximately an hour return; so it didn’t take long to tick that one off the bucket list. I meandered through Battery Park, and along the water front, where it was possible to sneak another distant glimpse of the statue. I then headed into town, past the infamous Bull, down Wall Street, eventually winding up at Trinity Cathedral where it was an idealistic spot to soak up some beauty.

As one of the biggest historical events in my lifetime, I have always been fascinated by September 11. The Memorial was absolutely heart-breaking; all the names of the victims were engraved in plaques that formed the perimeters for two large infinity pools where the towers once stood. To my disappointment, there was a 2.5 hour wait for the Museum. A lack of time meant I instead opted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and into Dumbo – where I had a rushed explore of this funky ‘burb before racing to catch the ferry ($4/one way) and  sprint to the subway in order to meet the others at Union Square for lunch. Gramercy Bagels presented my first opportunity to indulge in a New York style (salmon and cream cheese of course), and I regret to report that I preferred the Montreal style that I’d experienced in Canada. Afterwards we explored the Union Square Market (indulging in $1 hot apple cider) before going one up and visiting the extremely festive Chelsea Market. Tip number five: Go hungry. The place was buzzing; it was an absolute people hub, with so many delicious sights, smells and tastes. The Market also provides easy access to the High Line walkway, which is essentially an abandoned, elevated train track, winding its way round part of the city’s waterfront. The views were absolutely gorgeous. Dinner saw us venture down the road from Binz’ house, to an Asian place called Snacky on Grand Avenue. It was really cheap, and unsurprisingly (given all of our eating experiences so far) really delicious.

Day Four: Far less populated than the Brooklyn Bridge, jogging across the Williamsburg Bridge makes for a beautiful way to start the day. It wasn’t designed with photographs in mind however; so the Insta-worthy photo is slightly harder to come by.  We visited the United Nations, where my friend Anna was currently undergoing an internship with the NZ Mission.  After signing us in and passing through security, we were lucky enough to get a personalised tour; exploring the main plaza and viewing the various gifts that countries had donated to the UN; some as extravagant as an entire lounge (with Long Island views – thanks to the UAE) and some as authentic as paintings by the country’s indigenous people (New Zealand, of course!).IMG_4002 The place was magnificent, and I remain highly envious of Anna’s experience. From the UN, we made our way back to Union Square, where Belinda substituted in for Hailee and we jumped on the subway out to Harlem. We explored our way through some of the project housing, before reaching Columbia University – which, as an Ivy League school, was just as pretty as one would expect. Lunch was at Nussbaum and Wu and was humming with people, variety and atmosphere. The food was also well-priced – yay! We walked home through Central Park – which was a solid walk, but some well-needed exercise. Tip number six: Central Park is so enormous that each experience is unique, so many little spots to see and explore. It is a great place to get some exercise and escape from the big city life.

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At home we recharged our batteries for the forthcoming party that would celebrate the incoming New Year. Significant delays on the subway saw us arrive in drips and drabs to Panna 2 in the East Village, for what was to be a New Zealand based party, with some delicious Indian food. God save the Queen evolved into God save Abe (Abraham Lincoln) for the benefit of our favourite American (Hailee!), in what was a highly NZ dominated party. Dinner was a laugh, it cost $30 for corkage and a set menu, and Belinda even got a free dessert to celebrate her ‘birthday’. After we walked through Washington Square Park, past NYU to the Fat Black Pussycat. $20 got us through the door, where the place was so full it was actually hard to move. Somewhat incredibly we bumped into a friend I’d made in Whistler, and his Australian crew soon formed connections with the Kiwis, and the night was made. The ball drop in Times Square was live streamed, and there were helium balloons on string covering every inch of the bar’s roof. A great night was had by all, and not anywhere near as expensive as I’d feared.

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IMG_4118Day Five: A sleep in and mini-workout session at McGarren Park fended off any potential hangover. Excited to make my debut at a “bottomless brunch” – we went to an Italian place called “Caroll’s” near Soho, and paid $24 for a scrumptious meal and unlimited cocktails. Belinda went home unwell, but Matt (her flatmate), Hailee and I sampled a few cocktails, sucked some helium and then decided it would be a good idea to go shopping. My bank balance suffered from spontaneous buys, but a few months down the track I think my work wardrobe benefited from the colour injection induced by drunk shopping. We were pretty exhausted so on the way home we stopped at Joe’s Pizza (New York style slices) and grabbed some Ben and Jerry’s to devour whilst soaking up the sites in Maid in Manhattan.

Day Six: Having ticked off almost all of the cliché tourist activities we were pretty happy to have Binz, our almost local, show us some of her favourite places. We headed out to Prospect Park for a wander (on the G Line, through Brooklyn Heights) – it is a great place for dog-lovers to get their fix. We headed to a place called Cheryl’s Global Soul for brunch – I had a delicious salmon platter, accompanied by a free mimosa and coffee. It had fab décor (highlight = fairy lights), and spritely staff. Walked past the entrance to the Brooklyn library (beautiful) and then caught a metro to One World. IMG_4430Tip number seven: Booking tickets in advance will allow you to turn up at a designated time, meaning you can avoid the seriously lengthy queues that loom. The lift ride was phenomenal – New York through the Ages. Tip number eight: if possible, position yourself so your back faces towards the elevator doors to enhance your view of the presentation. There was another presentation at the top, which was again sensational, and then we got to wander around taking in the panoramic view. After coming back down to reality, we found Binz and Anna before walking to the ferry terminal where we climbed aboard the free ferry, bound for the Red Hook IKEA. It was both Anna’s and mine first experience in an IKEA and upon leaving we were both pretty shell shocked. From here we headed to the Brooklyn Crab, IMG_4459 which is an incredible seafood restaurant, decked out accordingly, and with a mouth-watering menu!
Between us we saw seafood chowder, popcorn shrimp, fish and chips, and calamari served and devoured, and not one bad thing could be said about any of it. Full, but on a mission, we google mapped our way to Steve’s Authentic Pies, where we bought a Key Lime Pie (a local specialty) before slinking our way through some serious ghetto areas and heading home to demolish this delicious pie. Waved a reluctant goodbye to Binz, and headed across to Anna’s in the Upper East Side to sleep. Booked our shuttle to the airport (early start at 4.10am!) with Super Shuttles ($20)- who were prompt, and seemed organised, however the driver drove like a maniac- we were both a bit shaken when we arrived at Newark Airport (about an hour from the city). The airport lines were astronomical, however there proved to be a slick system which kept the queues moving quickly. Tip number nine: Give yourself a day that isn’t jam-packed with sight-seeing. It is such a big city with so many places to explore; it is nice to have a day to just soak up the glam that is NYC.

Tip number ten: if you haven’t been to NYC already, put it on that bucket list. I know for sure, that I will be back.

 

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Hooray for Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam was the country that the majority of our group had been most excited for, and it was not likely to disappoint. We knew relatively little, but had heard so much about the enchanting land where we would spend the better part of the next two weeks – and we could not wait.

After AirAsia delivered us safely from Bangkok, but first we had to collect our visas. Thanks to Vietnam-visa.com we already had our approval letters and completed entry forms – all we needed to include was a passport photo and US $45. As you arrive at the immigration hall (before going through customs and collecting your baggage) to the left is a “Landing Visa” window where you submit your documentation along with your passport and then take a seat until your name is called. The officials will then call your name out once your visa has been processed. It pays to have a look at the faces of the people before you in the queue, because if my experience was anything to go by, they will pronounce your name almost 100% wrong – I wouldn’t actually have known that my name was called had it not been for my friends laughing at my lack of response when my name was (apparently) called and my unconscious recognition of those in the queue before me.

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We had been repetitively warned to only use Mai Linh taxis (coloured green and white) as they were one of the few reputable companies around town. So after leaving the international terminal (currently/conveniently suffering a green taxi famine) we headed along to the domestic terminal – not surprisingly, we were far more successful. Our taxi dropped us at our hostel Vietnam Inn Saigon in District One – which had reasonably spacious rooms, adequate facilities, and to our delight, a rooftop bar.

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Early the next morning Kelsey and I got picked up to begin a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels through the Saigon River Express. It was pretty expensive, however I would happily pay it again for the experience we had. From our hostel we got taken down to the waterfront where we climbed aboard a speedboat and began our journey down river. We boated for about an hour, enjoying the scenery (lots of trees and reeds floating in the water) as well as an on-board breakfast before eventually arriving at the tunnels. The tour was predominantly above ground, and was so incredibly interesting. I’m pleased we arrived early because it was inundated with tourists by the time we’d finished exploring. We were given the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into what used to be one of the tunnel entrances; as my claustrophobia grew, so did my respect for what the Vietnamese endured.  We then travelled 40m underground through a reconstructed tunnel: the darkness combined with the stale smell and the uncomfortable half-squat/half-stooped over position we were forced to adopt meant that 40m was more than enough – and to think that these tunnels were three times larger than what they had been back in war time. It was a relief to see daylight, and after trying taro with peanut and sugar, and having the chance to shoot a real machine gun I was pleased to finally sit down with our tour group for an unexpected feast on the waterfront. There were spring rolls, morning glory, sweet and sour vegetables, marinated pork soup – and that was just the beginning. Needless to say, we were all sleepy characters on the boat trip back.

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The tour company kindly dropped us at the War Remembrance Museum, but because it was lunchtime we had to wait for it to reopen. The wait was definitely worth it; it was probably one of the more memorable museums I have ever been to. Start at the top of the building and make your way down; it’s actually arranged in chronological order, but poorly signposted so most people don’t actually know where to begin, and end up just drifting. The highlight for me was the photo exhibition – the saying couldn’t be truer that a picture speaks a thousand words. To read some of the captions of the photos (for example, one photograph depicted a family in a row about to be shot, and as the photographer walked away from the scene he heard the gunshots fire – but didn’t (couldn’t) look back) was absolutely heart-wrenching, and then to go on and learn all about Agent Orange and the far-reaching damage it has caused was enough to numb all of us for the rest of the day.

With the size of our party growing (Jimmy had arrived the night before) the following morning saw us set out on a self-guided walking tour (thanks to Lonely Planet), whilst Cam attended a cooking school. We visited the Ben Thanh market – which was huge, crazy and overwhelming at times. We had some delicious food, got into some terrific arguments and collected some great bargains that we were expected to somehow squeeze into our already overflowing backpacks. Before our departure that night we popped up to the 48th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower – panoramic views of Ho Chi Minh, which were made all the more spectacular by it being night time. We made our way back to the hostel where we climbed aboard our first overnight bus. Set out like bunk beds, we had all been allocated top row beds. I was relieved to be by a window, and after knocking back a sleeping pill I slept pretty darn well. Good night Ho Chi Minh, good morning Nha Trang.

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