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.

So long Fiji – leaving on a jet plane

Well – sayonara Fiji, hello Oz! We are off shortly to the Nadi airport for our afternoon flight to Sydney. Although we have mostly enoyed our time here in Fiji, the weather has not been great and, since we’re meant to be following the sun, and there’s no sun here at the moment, we’re happy to get on our steel horse and fly away. When we were researching this trip, the various articles we read online all said that Fiji’s rainy season doesn’t start until November. New Flash – it starts mid-September and goes until mid-April, according to the locals to whom we’ve spoken. The last couple of days have started out promising – with sunshine beckoning us at 6 am, but by noon the clouds have descended and the torrential rains come back.

Two days ago, we decided that we’d head out on the bus to check out Denarau, a “man-made” tourist island about 10 km outside of Nadi. This place has been carved out of the extensive mangrove fields and is home to a pier, with shopping, dining, a marina and boats to the off-shore islands, a golf course, several expensive resorts, and canals with large and expensive homes, complete with boat docks and boats out front. It represents a stark contrast to the down-scale Nadi town, from which all the workers take a bus out to their jobs. Denarau pier reminded us of Steveston, a similar kind of layout with fish restaurants and coffee and souvenir shops. This day the action was pretty quiet, since it was rainy.

Yesterday, in the morning sun, we grabbed the local Khan bus, whose driver was texting as he drove (aarrggh), and headed 6.5 km north of Raffles Gateway Hotel to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. Founded in 1977 by the 70s actor Raymond Burr, he of Ironsides and Perry Mason fame (remember them?), to house his own orchid collection, the garden has been expanded to contain Fiji’s largest collection of orchids and other exotic plant species. We meandered through the garden along scenic wooden walkways, past fish ponds with fish whose facial expressions reminded me of my cat Aran when he’s begging for food, and through a tropical forest, enjoying the sights and smells of the foliage. The “Sleeping Giant” refers to the profile of the mountain range that lies behind the Garden, although this can only be seen from a distance.

Since the bus only runs infrequently in this area, we walked back from the Garden to the main Queens Road and caught a bus down to the Smugglers Cove turnoff, hoping to spend a few hours in the sun on the beach. A man in a pickup took pity on us walking along in the heat and gave us a lift all the way down to Smugglers, where we enjoyed some sun until a thunderstorm chased us off the beach, into a taxi and back to the ranch.

See more pictures here.

 

Raffles Gateway Hotel, Nadi – waiting to fly

Nadi, Nadi, Nadi – not the nicest town, I’m afraid, but here we are in any case, for our last few days in Fiji. For the remainder of our time at the Beachouse, Ty and I walked for miles along the coast road looking for a change of scenery and finding it in  the Warwick Fiji resort five kilometers west of the Beachouse.

After a hot and sweaty walk, with no respite in sight, the “Approaching Hotel” sign was a beacon in the wilderness for Ty, dying of thirst.

Much more grand than our humble abode, the Warwick is huge, cavernous, and not unlike the gigantic hotels we wandered through in Waikiki. We made our way to the pool-view deck bar, sampled a couple of beverages, and then headed down along the beach to the souvenir stands run by the Korolevu villagers.

This day, being overcast and humid, the resort’s patrons were not interested in these goodies, preferring instead to consume vast quantities of chips and burgers (that quintessential Fijian dish) and the stands were bereft of customers. After perusing the jewellery and carvings, we strolled back through the village and were lucky enough to get a lift from one of the fishermen back to the ranch.

The last couple of days on the Coral Coast were rainy and we decided that we’d had enough of this particular venue, opting instead to jump in Hari’s van for a lift to Nadi, the site of Fiji’s international airport, and the Raffles Gateway hotel, conveniently located right across the street, literally, from the airport out of which we’ll fly to Sydney on Wednesday. Raffles has two pools, one quite large with a big slide, large enough to do some serious lap swimming which I proceeded to do.

The food, judging from our lunch, is decent and the place is pleasant enough; our room has a great shower with strong pressure and hot water, both of which we missed at the ol’ Beachouse. For dinner we headed into Nadi Town by local bus, about nine kilometers from the hotel. 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 seems depressed, desperate, and depressing – we won’t miss it when we leave.

Today, while overcast, was not raining and the sky seemed lighter so we elected to head out to the beach by cab. The driver dropped us off at the “New Town” beach – no new town was in evidence, nor was any beach – but the Nadi Airport Golf Club, of which the great Vijay Singh was a member and the club’s sole claim to fame, was there so Ty had a beer while we contemplated Vijay’s name on the members’ board as directed by the proprietor.

From there we walked back along the road and noticed a path heading off towards the ocean through a muddy field. We followed the path and – voila – the beach, along which we found, after walking a bit, a few small resorts, including the Smuggler’s Cove, in front of which we plopped ourselves in plastic loungers. Eureka – Nadi paradise found.

The few people on the beach were staying at Smugglers; along with them, the resort boasts three mangy dogs and a guy riding a horse accompanied by a lively cantering foal. As we enjoyed our coronas with lime, we watched two separate speedboats from the small islands offshore come in to the beach and disgorge their passengers; to me, being paranoid, it looked as though they were overloaded, but what do I know …

See a few more pics here.