Trip Recap: Best of, Worst of …

Well, we’ve been back about three weeks now and the Round the World trip is fading into memory … What a fabulous journey. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do this trip – it was amazing. Even the (few) parts that weren’t so great were great (if you know what I mean). Time to recap the highlights and lowlights:

Best (non-urban) Beach

Hong Island, Krabi, West Coast of Thailand

Hong Island, the largest of the group of islands in Than Bok Thoranee Marine National Park, is beautiful: powder white sand, glorious green vegetation, turquoise-green water, and towering orange-tinged limestone cliffs. Two small bays are separated by smaller limestone clifflets, through a gap in which we could see boats come and go. See my original post here.

Best Beach (urban)

This is a toss-up between three very different beaches: Jomtien, Pattaya, Thailand, Cancun, Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Jomtien, because the beach is decent, with great restaurants, a lively vibe, great people-watching, and very cheap transportation around the area.

Cancun, because the beach is long and wide, twenty six kilometers of sand. Playa Gaviota Azul, in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, was a favourite spot for us. The large, wide beach was often full of local families, with kids large and small enjoying the day. Because this area of the beach has a sand bar not too far offshore, a shallow pool of ocean water untouched by the big surf is created so it’s perfect for small children. Read more here.

Los Muertos beach in Puerto Vallarta, because it’s sandy, has big waves and great beach restaurants, and the weather was amazing. Read more here and here.

Best Accomodation (apartment/condo)

Our fully-equipped, nicely decorated 4th floor apartment 1/2 block off Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, an incredible deal at Easter for $45 a night.

See my post here for more on Puerto Vallarta’s South Side.

Best Accommodation (hotel, B&B, hostel)

This is a tricky one – in the running, are: Merthayasa Bungalows in Ubud, Bali; Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali; Sabai Mansion in Ao Nang, Thailand; and Hotelito Swiss Oasis in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Each of these was great in its own way. We loved the pool at the Merthayasa and the price was right at 180,000 IDR ($19) a night.

The Blue Star, right on the beach at Jemeluk Bay, had wonderful staff, great snorkelling and swimming, and a pleasant enough room for 200,000 IDR a night ($21.50 – a special price because we didn’t use the air con).

Sabai Mansion was well-located 500 meters from the beach, with a great pool, a restaurant, and nice staff for 855 bht a night ($27.50).

And we also loved the Hotelito Swiss Oasis, 1/2 block from Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, with a pool and small communal kitchen, for 450 pesos night ($34.50).

The Pool and Palm villa in Siem Reap had the best pool, large, beautiful, and clean, very refreshing in the heat of central Cambodia.

Best Recreational Activity (Land-based)

Bali Eco Cycling, a cycle trip beginning at a volcano, then riding downhill through a coffee plantation, village homes and temples, and rice fields, finishing with a Balinese food feast. Read all about it here.

Runner up: Cycling the North Head, in Manly, Australia: wildlife, artillery, ecological projects, golden chariot, cemeteries. Read more here.

Best Recreational Activity (Water-based)

Our private longtail boat trip to the Hong Islands, Krabi, Thailand, a great day out on the water visiting several different beaches, lagoons, and islands in the Andaman Sea. Read my post here.

Best Temple(s) Ancient

This one is no contest – Angkor Wat/Thom in Siem Reap, Cambodia is an epic, once-in-a-lifetime Must See for all you temple and archeological site lovers. Incredibly beautiful architecture and sculpture in a huge and beautiful park setting. See my posts here, here, and here.

Runner up: Uxmal and the Puuc route south of Merida in the Yucatan.

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the Yucatan while in Merida, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. Highly recommended – read more here.

Best Temple (Modern)

Bang Rieng, Krabi, Thailand, a mountain-top temple about an hour and a half’s driving north of Ao Nang along the road to Phuket. It sits atop Khao Lan or One Million Mountain, overlooking the Thaput countryside. The temple and grounds are spectacular, as is the view from the top; green hills and tended fields spread out in a vast panorama below the temple precincts, looking very much like central Italy. Read more here.

Best visual art scene

This category is a tie between Ubud, Bali and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ubud has lots of great contemporary art galleries, as well as a couple of excellent art museums focusing on modern Balinese and Indonesian art. Read more here and here.

Puerto Vallarta also has a great contemporary art scene, with lots of commercial galleries, artists studios and residencies, and two weekly art walks in the old town and centro areas. Read more here and here.

Most Intriguing Cultural Performance

The Balinese Classical Legong and Barong Dance at the Ubud Palace was fascinating and beautiful. See a video of part of the performance here. Read more about Ubud’s cultural scene here.

Best Local Experience

While staying at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali, the owner Iluh, a lovely woman, invited me to join her at a village temple ceremony. She showed me how the offerings are made, gave me her temple clothes to wear, and drove me there and back on her motorcycle – an incredible experience.

Read about it here.

Runner up: Nox’ tours in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji

We did two tours around Levuka with local guide Nox, one exploring all aspects of the town and the other up into the surrounding hills to visit local plantations. Really fascinating! Read more here and here.

Best Food

This category is also no contest – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has an amazing food scene and, remarkably, without even knowing it, we stayed in absolutely the best place for restaurants in KL, Bukit Bintang. Read my post here.

Best Nightlife

While Ty and I are not exactly nightlife junkies (and sometimes I can barely make it to 11 pm), we did enjoy the lively night scene in Ubud, Bali, particularly the great Spanish band at the Smiling Buddha and the jazz at Cafe Luna. Other nightlife options include Balinese dance, the Jazz Cafe, a gazillion great restaurants and bars …

Best transportation experience

The Pattaya/Jomtien baht bus, the song thaew pickups plying the roads in the area. Go anywhere for only 10 baht (30 cents).

And the tuk-tuks in Siem Reap, Cambodia: padded seats, beautiful fabrics, comfortable rides. Go anywhere around the town for $2.

Worst accommodation

None of the places we stayed were really terrible; some were just less good than the rest and a few were too expensive for what they offered. Sometimes the weather affected our view of a place – Fiji in the rain, for example. Janes Fales in Manase, Savaii, Samoa had a wonderful location right on a beautiful sandy beach, but the food was bad and we had a bad experience at their beach bar there that caused us to leave much sooner than we had planned. More info here.

Worst Food

Mostly, the food everywhere was good, if often not spicy enough for our liking. I guess the worst food I had was this terrible lunch at the Hornbill Restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park – blecchhh. Read more about this day here.

Worst Beach

Surprisingly, particularly since the last time we were there it was lovely, the beach at Playa del Carmen was the worst we saw. Almost everywhere in the world erosion is a problem, as is high water and storm surges, all playing havoc with the beaches. One of the last days we were in Playa, after a rain storm, we could smell the sewage that had obviously overflowed the storm sewers and was just gushing out from pipes into the ocean, turning the turquoise water a dull dark brown in places.

Worst local experience

Nadi, Fiji. While in Nadi, we walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seemed dreary, desperate, and depressing – we didn’t miss it when we left. Read more here and here.

Worst transportation experience

Wow – this is a tough category. Once again, it’s a tie, between the crazed maniacal minibus driver in Fiji, whose insane driving drove us out onto the road and into a school bus; the tweaking idiot in Bangkok whose meth-fuelled speed racer drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya terrified me; and the overloaded and top heavy ferry boat back from Koh Laan to Pattaya, almost capsizing a couple of times along the way.

Most surprising place

Siem Reap, Cambodia, a lovely city with vibrant nightlife and proximity to the great Angkor temples and Samoa, a beautiful small country.

And Guanajuato, Mexico, a fabulous colourful hill-top town in the central highlands with loads of museums, haciendas, good restaurants, and a vibrant local scene.

For us one of the most surprising things was Semana Santa in Guanajuato – who knew that Easter would be so fabulous there?

Perhaps surprisingly, given how much we liked Bali, especially Amed, East Bali, our choice for retirement living in the sun when we’re old is, at the moment, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Why? Well, let me count the reasons:

1) It has a beautiful beach and a long malecon with sculpture and art.

2) It has a vibrant contemporary art scene, dancing, theatre, community centres with classes in language, art, yoga, tai chi, and the like. Lots of artists around the place.

3) It has great coffee shops and restaurants, especially in the Old Town.

4) Although there are lots of gringos, it’s still a Mexican town, especially a few blocks off the beach.

5) Great day trips to small towns and villages are easy by inexpensive local transport. For an example, see my report on Yelapa here.

6) Inexpensive accommodation can be had a few blocks off the beach

7) Rentals are pet-friendly. We can easily bring Brubin and the cat with us when we visit.

8) Easily and cheaply accessible by direct flight in only a few hours.

9) I speak Spanish, albeit not yet fluently.

Cycling Manly’s North Head: Bandicoot Habitat, Artillery, and Sandy Coves

We love Manly! What a great place! Are we ever glad we decided to stay here rather than in downtown Sydney.

Yesterday the weather was overcast so we decided to do the Cabbage Tree Eco-Sculpture Walk from the Corso to Shelly Beach along the waterfront (where we were surprised to see many Blue Bottle or Portuguese Man O’ War jellyfish swept onto the beach from the brisk onshore wind). These are actually colonies of thousands of tiny creatures, none of which could survive on its own. More than anything, they look like used condoms.

From the Manly Life Saving Club pavilion at the end of Manly Beach, we walked along a paved foreshore walkway, along which are fabulous little silver sculptures on the rocks depicting the plants, animals, and humans of the Manly area.

Also, in front of several private homes, is a foreshore swimming pool, graced with two curvilinear bronze sculptures of female neriads.

We had a coffee at the beach bar at Shelly Beach and then climbed the stairs and followed the path leading around the forested headland. It reminded me quite a bit of Piper’s Lagoon in Nanaimo, except rather than Garry Oaks, it had Cabbage Palms and pines.

Today, although we had quite a rainfall early in the morning, it was good enough weather to head down to the Manly bike rental and grab two hybrid bikes for a three day excursion. We headed out down the beach walk, past the Manly Wharf Hotel, and up into a residential area for a ride past the Sydney Tourism School in what looked to be a former Cathedral.

After having checked out this area, we entered into the North Head Sanctuary; once housing a school of artillery where gunners lived and trained, the headland is now a sanctuary.

We stopped to talk to the guide in charge of the Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub Community Ecological Project, in which a group of local ecologists are recreating a habitat for the endangered bandicoot in the North Head area. Strangely, in a nondescript hut behind the presentation centre a gentleman is building a golden chariot for the British Royal Family (!).

We rode down the wilderness pathway, locked our bikes to a post, and headed down the metal walkway that winds throughout the North Head area, part of which travels over the old gunners’ walkway and seating area. We were intrigued with the many unusual indigenous plants here, including the Grey Spider Flower, the Heath Leaved Banksia, the Scrub Oak, the Grass Tree, the Red Mountain Devil, the White Flannel Flower and the Red Spider Flower, none of which we’d ever seen in North America.

These plants grow on wind-blown Aeolian Sand deposited in this area many centuries ago. Also along the walk we discovered the Third Quarantine Cemetery, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with 241 graves from the 1890s small pox, the 1900 bubonic plague, and the 1918 influenza epidemics. A few of these still had legible headstones commemorating the mostly young dead. The site itself has a beautiful view over the harbour and the city of Sydney beyond; the gravesites are mostly tumbled-down, overgrown, and likely hardly ever visited, given over to the snakes and spiders.

Here’s more information about the North Head Quarantine area:

“North Head has long been recognised as the entrance to one of the world’s most picturesque harbours, Port Jackson, and has been portrayed by artists such as Augustus Earle from as early as 1825.

In particular, the Manly headland marks the site where ships carrying passengers with infectious diseases were isolated; an important means of defence for an island-nation. North Head was the first site in Australia to be used for quarantine purposes when the Bussorah Merchant was detained in Spring Cove in 1828. Some passengers were found to have both smallpox and whooping cough and were kept onboard the ship while the healthier voyagers were housed in tents on shore.

Soon after, in 1832, the whole area of North Head was set aside for a permanent quarantine station by order of the Governor of New South Wales. The move was in response to the cholera epidemic in Europe at the time, as authorities feared the disease gaining a foothold in the Australian colonies.

For almost 150 years North Head Quarantine Station helped protect Australia’s island nation from disease. Returning soldiers during both World Wars, prisoners of war, evacuees from Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and refugees from Vietnam in 1975 all passed through the station.

From its beginning until 1977 when the facility was closed, a total of 580 ships were detained and about 13 000 passengers, including generations of convicts, war veterans and free immigrants were quarantined for periods of up to 40 days.

Like the Point Nepean Quarantine Station, the facility at North Head is situated in a strategically isolated location. The major groups of buildings, although of a similar age as surviving complexes in other states, are rare in terms of their range and relative integrity. For instance, the Superintendent’s Residence at North Head, built in 1854, appears to be the earliest surviving, purpose-built, quarantine-related structure in Australia.

The layout of the station, including its buildings, roads, fences and cemeteries, was designed to separate the quarantined passengers on the grounds of health, as well as social and cultural background. For example, the first, second and third class passengers were separated into barracks-style accommodation in different areas.

Separate areas were also developed for Asians and in this respect North Head is an expression of the gradual implementation of the White Australia Policy during the 1880s.

The station’s facilities show how the area developed according to scientific responses to disease outbreaks. The smallpox epidemic of 1881, for example, resulted in new facilities such as a hospital, and stricter zoning by fences. The Quarantine Station was added to the Sydney Harbour National Park in 1984.”

Further into the Headland we found the Memorial Walk commemorating Australia’s participation in the Boer War, WWI, WWII, and more recent conflicts, as well as peace-keeping initiatives.

We also investigated the Number One and Two gun placement areas, with the remains of gun and shell areas from the Second World War.

Here’s more information about the site:

“North Head Sanctuary occupies the land of the former School of Artillery. The famous promontory of North Head contains Aboriginal rock engravings, rock art, campsites, burials, middens and artefacts. The island and landmark qualities of the area made it especially significant to the indigenous people of the Sydney region.

The military presence on North Head began in the mid-1930s as part of the coastal defence network established in the build-up to World War II. A battery of two 9.2-inch guns was installed in 1936. The main barracks complex and grand red gravel parade ground were completed in 1938 and today are a feature of the site. During World War II North Head (or North Fort) was one of the most heavily fortified sites in Australian history.

The Army School of Artillery, formed after the war, was based at North Head and remained there until its relocation to Puckapunyal in Victoria in 1998. The site hosts the Royal Australian Artillery National Museum, established in 1990.

Today, the former School of Artillery is being transformed into a sanctuary for flora and fauna, and a place of relaxation and enjoyment for the people of Sydney and elsewhere.”

Having ridden through most of the North Head we arrived back at the Parade Grounds and ate our peanut butter sandwiches while feeding the local birdlife.

Back on the bikes again we headed down to the Spring Cove, the trail to which required us to hoist our bikes over our shoulders and pack them in and out, the Little Manly Gas Works and Cove,

and the Manly Quay beach next to the harbour from which the Ferry to Sydney departs.

Here we had a front row seat at the Manly Wharf Hotel’s bar while consuming a Heffeweisen beer, after which we returned to the bike store, traded in our hybrids for city cruisers, and headed off to the Manly Market and the Coles Supermarket, before returning to the Waterfront Apartment in time for a pasta dinner. This was a really fascinating ride.

See more pictures here.