4 Days Roadtrip in Iceland

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Turf Church in Hof

Vikings and Elves of Iceland is a country really worth a visit. With its dramatic landscape with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields, it offers visitors two different kinds of experience in summer and winter.

Located in the North Atlantic Ocean, directly east of Greenland, Iceland is Europe’s western most country. While its neighbor Greenland is considered as part of North America, Iceland is considered to be a part of Europe. The United States was the first country to recognise Icelandic independence from Denmark in June 1944, and surprisingly, it is part of NATO even though they don’t have a military army.

 Volcanoes:

The history of Iceland goes back to the 9th century when Vikings reached the uninhabited island. Since then, living with volcanoes has been a lifestyle for them. There are 130 active and extinct volcanoes and 18 of them have erupted since the first human settlement. The country’s three major volcanoes are Hekla, Katla and Grimsvotn, and the latest eruption was in 2010 in Eyjafjallajokull glacier. On average, an eruption occurs in Iceland every 4 years.

On the positive side, the volcanos provides an endless supply of geothermal energy. Over 90% of housing in Iceland is heated by natural geothermal heat – one of the cheapest and cleanest forms of energy in existence.

80% of the residents of ice and fire country live in the capital Reykjavik, which is a starting point for each visitor to discover the East, West, highlands and The North Iceland. In the recent years, thanks to the football victories and TV series, Iceland has been very popular among travellers.

Religion and Language:

In terms of religion, almost 80% of Icelanders follow Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland is the officially established Christian church in Iceland and it professes the Lutheran faith.

The language spoken in Iceland is Old Norse, which was the language of the Vikings or Norsemen. Iceland has a high level of education so we didn’t have any difficulty communicating in English.

Visa:

If you are not a European citizen, all you need to get is a Schengen Visa to enter Iceland.

When to visit:

Midnight sun and warmer temperatures make summer attractive to visit Iceland. However, if you are interested in hiking and seeing Northern Lights, you should visit in February, March, September and October.

When we visited in July, we were amazed by the lack of dark skies and the beauty of midnight sun. The sun sets right after the midnight and the sky becomes grey until it rises again around 3:00 AM in the morning. The weather was both cold and warm, as you can experience 4 seasons in one day in Iceland.

What to do:

Road trip is a must if you are willing to see the natural beauty of the island. It takes 10 days to drive around the whole island, however you may also take a different route depending on how many days you have. Camping with vans is also very popular among budget travellers, and there are 170 registered campsites all around the country. Camping didn’t seem to be a bad idea for summer as all the hotels were fully booked, and the remaining ones were extremely expensive during our visit in July.

Having only 4 full days, we decided to take the Southern coast route, starting from Keflavik Airport. There are rental car offices in the airport but we suggest you to do it before arriving. After picking up the car, we headed to Grindavik to spend the night there as it is the closest central area to Blue Lagoon.

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Blue Lagoon

DAY 1:

Blue Lagoon is located in a lava field in Grindavik. The geothermal spa containing 9 million litres of water hosts hundreds of people who want to bathe in the unique water and apply the silica mud to their skin. The blue colour of the lagoon comes from the silica and the way it reflects sunlight while the water’s actual colour is white. Make sure to use hair conditioner before and after you enter the water as it makes your hair pretty dry. There are also a hotel, restaurant, relaxing room and bar which you can enjoy while your visit to the geothermal spa. The water is 37-40 C degrees and its deepest point is 1.6 meters.

You need to make an online booking in order to visit Blue Lagoon. Make sure to do it as early as possible as it gets really crowded.

Thingvellir National Park: The UNESCO World Heritage centre is a protected national shrine which used to be an area where the disputes were settled. It is the most important place in Icelandic history as Alþingi – which is one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world – was founded there. It is also one of the Iceland’s most spectacular Game of Thrones filming locations.

You may walk inside the national park, go down towards the little church and the waterfall at the upper side easily by following the walking paths.

After spending a couple of hours walking, we headed towards the Route 37 which led us to Geysir.

Geysir: The Great Geysir is the most famous one in the field, however it spouts only when there is an earthquake. Strokkur, on the other side manages to satisfy most of its spectators by being the most energetic spouting spring in Iceland. It spouts every 6-8 minutes, sometimes to a height of 40 meters so we got to see the amazing view a few times by spending an hour there.

Gulfoss Waterfalls: This was one of the most exciting sights of the trip. Located in the canyon of the Hvítá river near the Geyser area, it is a must-see place if you like the nature. If you are lucky like us, you will see a rainbow when the sun is shining and be amazed by the dream-like views.  Make sure to go down to the lower viewing platform as it offers much better views.

Vik: Finishing the Golden Circle route in one day, we reached to Vik to spend the night after 2 hours of driving. Hotels in Iceland are expensive and Vik is no exception. We stayed at Puffin Hostel which was our only option as all other hotels were fully booked.

The natural beauty of the area is spectacular as it is the most rainy area of the island. Mountains surrounding the roads were all green and you can see many sheep and horses – and of course puffins if you are lucky.

Accommodating less than 300 residents, Vik is framed by a long black volcanic sand beach. Drive up to the church sitting on a hill, head to the amazing Black Sand Beach and Dyrholaey Nature Preserve where you can see puffins. None of them are in a walking distance from the city centre, so we left these sights to the next day.

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Geysir

DAY 2:

Black Sand Beach: There is really no cafes and bars in Vik, except the small restaurant near the Puffin Hotel/Hostel where we had our dinner the previous evening. For the morning coffee, we headed to the petrol station. It seems like petrol stations are very useful in Iceland as not only petrol but also food and drinks supplier. Then we drove towards our next destination – Black Sand Beach.

Black Sand Beach is a black pebble beach and it features an amazing cliff of regular basalt columns. The area has a rich birdlife including puffins so make sure to look up if you want to spot a puffin. The waves at Reynisfjara are strong and unpredictable so people are advised to take extra care when visiting the area. You are also not allowed to steal the sand from this mystical dark beach.

Jokusarlon Glacier Lake: After leaving Vik, we hit the road again towards our easternmost point – Jokusarlon which is 2 hours away from Vik i Myrdal. On our way, the surrounding green environment replaced itself with quite extensive areas of moss-covered lava. Depending on conditions, it takes moss around 200 years to grow on lava so make sure not to create new paths while walking on it. (Icelanders believe Vikings and Elves live under the moss)

600 meters deep Jokusarlon Glacier in Vatnajokul Region is a must visit place in Iceland. In summer, icebergs melt and roll down the channel into the sea, so we were lucky to see and even touch the pieces of icebergs.

Additionally, some famous movies such as Batman Begins, Tomb Raider and James Bond: Die Another Day were shot in this area.

Hornafjordur Ice Glaciers: Hornafjörður is a small fjord near Jokusarlon so we didn’t have it in our initial plan but just passed by to check it out. It is also a sight that worth visiting.

Hof: After a long day seeing glaciers, we decided to spend the night in Hof. Hof is a small town with a little cute Turf Church. There is nothing to do in the town other than getting your drinks from the closest petrol station near Skatafell and sitting on the grass, enjoying the mountains view and relaxing.

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DAY 3:

Skaftafell / Vantajokull National Park: The next day, we were totally recharged and ready to climb up the mountains. As we didn’t have much time, we didn’t book a glacier tour and decided to take a walk inside Vatnajokull National Park in Skatafell. After 1,5 hours of climbing, we reached Svartifoss Waterfall. It is also possible to continue walking and reaching the Skaftafellsjökull Glacier Mountain, but we were tired of climbing so we went back down to the entrance.

On our way, we see lava fields again which are covered with moss from 1780s eruptions in Katla Geopark. We suggest you to stop by and take pictures of this amazing landscape.

Dyrholaey: On the other side of Vik, you can visit Dyrholaey, a naturally formed arch in the cliff. If you are visiting in summer, you can watch puffins nest on the Dyrhólaey Cliffs. On the other side of the bird sanctuary, you will see another beach covered with black basalt. It is forbidden to go down to the beach but you can enjoy views from the top.

Skogafoss Waterfall: One of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland, this one welcomes us with another scenic beauty. Thanks to the summer sun, we were welcomed with a vivid rainbow in front of the 60 metre high Skogáfoss waterfall.

Get in front of the waterfall, take pictures and don’t care about getting wet. If you’d like some trekking, climb up to the stairs which are on the side towards the church. In some belief, Vikings have left a treasure in a cave behind this waterfall, and people who found this treasure could only get the ring which is now being displayed at this church.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall: This was our second favourite waterfall in Iceland. One of the interesting things about this popular waterfall is that visitors can walk behind it into a small cave. Just be careful not to fall as the mud is very slippery.

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Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

DAY 4:

We drove back to Reykjavik on our third night so that we could spend our last day in the city. As there were Euro 2016 football games, we spent the evening watching the game at Lebowski Bar, and had a very nice dinner at Sjavargrillo – tasting Icelandic food and beers. After dinner, we headed towards the coast to watch the amazing midnight sun.

The next day, we went to Bjork’s favorite café – The Gray Cat Café to have a breakfast. After getting lost in streets full of shops, we went up to the terrace of the Hallgrimşkirkja Church to view the city from the top. Hallgrímskirkja Church is Reykjavík’s main landmark and its tower can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.

In general, there is a very relaxed life in Iceland. It gave us the feeling that no one works in winter so everything costs double in summer. Still, it was worth every penny we spent there. So thank you Iceland, for giving us the opportunity to see your hidden gems and beauty.

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Midnight sun in Reykjavik
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Paradise in Africa: Cape Town

I finally made it to the continent Africa. With its spectacular views, beaches, nature, food, wine and mountains, it gained my heart in such a short time. I believe it should be on top of every traveler’s bucket list.

Cape Town is a port city on South Africa’s southwest coast. Being the second largest city in South Africa and the capital of the Western Cape Province, the city is located where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Languages spoken in the city are English and Afrikaans which actually sounds like Dutch. Summer is between November and February, unlike the northern hemisphere.

My expectations were high as I got recommendations from my colleagues and friends who visited this beautiful destination before. As the time was passing, my excitement to see the actual city and Africa was increasing as well. It took 9,5 hours flight time from Doha and I was finally there! Our plan was to stay there for 4 days, however one should spare at least 7-8 days to enjoy it properly.

Cape Town is a safe destination but avoid poor parts of the city which are generally in downtown. Interestingly, I’ve seen more elder tourists than younger ones. The couple in their 70s, sitting next to me in the Waterfront were mentioning that it was their 7th visit to Cape Town. Isn’t that amazing? It was probably the first time I got jealous of people of their age.

The city is pretty cheap. You can feel the African culture but feel like you are in a small British town. There are very rich people as well as very poor ones. Jewish people live around Greenpoint area while Muslims live in the colorful Bo Kaap area.

Food & Wine:

The food is de-li-ci-ous! If you are interested in trying game meat such as crocodile, zebra, ostrich or beaver, Cape Town is the place to be.

South Africans love their food. Each dish has an African twist and Biltong (a dried meat cured in vinegar and spices) is on top of it. Exotic food creations are also not limited as you can find yourself eating an ostrich burger or a crocodile meat – accompanied by a Pinotage wine. Braai is African barbecue, but you would need to be invited to a braai party by a friend to be able to experience it. As it is a port city, no need to mention about the amazing seafood offered by restaurants. Wine yards are 30-40 minutes away from the city center, so make sure to leave at least a full day to visit the famous Stellenbosch, Franschoek and Paarl towns. Fancy a bit of luxury stay? Then treat yourself a stay at La Petite Ferme – you will be amazed by the food and views!

Some restaurants I would recommend are:

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La Petite Ferme

Where to Stay:

We stayed at an old but expensive hotel around The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, The Commodore Hotel. As they didn’t allow me to check in a bit earlier than the actual check in time, I put my luggage to the luggage store and went out to stroll around the Waterfront. When I came back to the hotel for check in, my luggage wasn’t there anymore! They found it in someone else’s room, and thanks to that, they gave us a room with Table Mountain view, and a complimentary bottle of red wine.

You can stay around the Waterfront area if you wish to be close to the city centre. Hotels around this area were a bit pricey but I guess security is what you pay for in South Africa. If you’re looking for other options, have a look at my recommendations below:

Getting Around:

Renting a car would give you freedom, however, there are other options which are probably cheaper.

I wouldn’t go for public buses but the hop on hop off City Sightseeing bus takes you to everywhere you would want to see – from Table Mountain Cable Way to Camps Bay.

Uber is another way of getting around, and it is really not expensive at all. The airport is only 20 minutes away from the Waterfront, and Uber costs around 170 ZAR. Sedan taxis are also available but I wouldn’t trust their meters.

Another way of seeing around is to book tours. What we did was to spend two days in a hop on-hop off bus and to take full day wine yard and city tours.

Day 1:

First day was a quite relaxing day. It was the first day and I was waiting for my friend to arrive to start discovering the city. I sat at a Belgian bar called Den Anker and had wine sitting outside with a Table Mountain view. After strolling around V&A and Cape Wheel, I headed to Long Street to check out the night life.

Day 2:

We are not professional photographers, however we were so tempted to book a daily photography tour so that we could get a chance to take pictures of penguins, the Cape Peninsula and the colored beach houses of Muizenberg. So here is the route we followed – in case you’d like to do it yourself with a rental car:

Muizenberg Beach – Muizenberg is a beach-side suburb of Cape Town. The beach is beautiful and unique with its bright colored beach houses and the stunning bay and mountain views. It is a great place for surfers but we haven’t seen any as it was pretty early in the morning.

Kalk Bay Harbour –  Kalk Bay is one of Cape Town’s trendiest seaside villages with a fishing harbour. It is full of seals and seabirds, and the fishermen selling their fresh fish. It is strongly recommended to have a lunch there as we did. The traditional fish& chips was delicious.

Simon’s Town – Located at the east side (False Bay side) of the Cape  Peninsula, this town is more organized than Kalk Bay. If you are looking for a day of sun and sea, Simon’s Town is the place to be.

Boulders Beach – This is the beach where you can watch the cute little jackass penguins in their tailcoat costumes. They are all protected so you cannot touch them and you wouldn’t want to do that as they may bite anyway. As we learned, people used to be allowed to swim and play with penguins previously, however their unique species is dying, and human interaction with penguins is no longer allowed. There is also an entry fee to the beach.

Cape Point – Cape Point is a spectacular sight we reached after passing through Table Mountain National Park. You can get the funicular up and climb up the steps to the lighthouse to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic view. This is where two oceans meet – the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the warmer Indian Ocean waters on the east however the southern-most point of South Africa is actually Cape Agulhas.

Cape of Good Hope –  The Cape of Good Hope is the legendary home of The Flying Dutchman – it is doomed forever to beat its way through the adjacent waters without ever succeeding in rounding the headland.

Chapman’s Peak View Point – Chapman’s Peak Drive on the Atlantic Coast between Hout Bay and Noordhoek in the Cape Peninsula. After passing Chapman’s Peak Drive road, we reached Chapman’s Peak View Point where we enjoyed the stunning view.

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Muizenberg Beach

Day 3:

We took an Uber to the Green Market Square. This square offers visitors a unique and real African shopping adventure. Set between Short Street and Long Street, the historical square hosts African vendors and artists. Make sure to go early and bargain before you buy as Africans believe the first customer of the day brings their own luck.  Most of the stuff appeared to be mass-produced but you can find a good deal to buy masks or a painting for your home. With a good bargain, I bought a mask with a price tag of 3,500 Rand for only 300 Rand.

Later, we walked around and reached the Bo Kaap area where is also known as the Malay Quarter. Designated for Cape Muslims, the rich cultured neighborhood is filled with colorfully painted houses. We took pictures, saw some photoshootings taking place in the narrow streets and then headed back to the Waterfront.

Around the Waterfront, we checked out the Watershed near Aquarium – a market where South Africans sell design products. We had some South African food and beers at The Food Market right next to it. Buying a pack of Bintong and drinks, we started our Hop On Hop Off tour to get to Table Mountain as the sky is bright and the sun is shining. Table Mountain was inaugurated as one of the world’s ‘New7Wonders of Nature’ in 2012. The flat-topped mountain offers visitors a panoramic city views from the top.

Tip: If you’re planning to visit Table Mountain and don’t want to climb it by foot, make sure to head there when the sky is clear as the lifts don’t work when it’s foggy.

After Table Mountain, we continued with the Hop On Hop Off bus tour’s red line which took us to Camps Bay. The beach is very large with white sand, but the sea was pretty chilly to swim. If you’re not into shopping but the beach and a nice promenade with cafes and restaurants, you may prefer to stay in Camps Bay.

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Camps Bay

Day 4:

It was the day to discover wine yards and do wine tasting with another full day tour. Our first stop was Fairview Wine and Cheese. Vineyard and goat farm, offering wine and cheese tasting sessions, also has a restaurant, but we move to our second stop – La Motte. Situated in the beautiful Franschhoek Valley in South Africa’s Cape winelands, La Motte seemed more luxurious than Fairview.

After tasting around 10 glasses of wine (it was more for drinking than tasting I guess), we arrived to the restaurant where we fell in love! La Petite Ferme in Franschoek is a relaxed restaurant with stunning valley views. We had our lunch overlooking the valley and wine yards below. The food, service and the view was just amazing and it made us not want to leave there. Good news is you can also stay in this pretty place if you wish to do so.

It wasn’t included in the tour but we wanted to taste champagne as well. So we had our driver take us to Haute Cabriere which was another great experience for us.

Boschendal was our last stop. Being one of the oldest wine estates in South Africa, it is located between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. There is a nice outdoor setting under the trees where we tasted our wines.

After a day of drinking and eating, we were dropped off to Waterfront and had discovered another great spot for dinner in the V&A. Willoughby & Co, the Japanese restaurant had customers queued up in front of the restaurant even though it is in a shopping mall, but trust me – the food was worth a wait.

If you have more time, you can book a safari tour to see the African wildlife, trail up to Lion’s Head to watch the sunset and Table Mountain, go cage diving with white sharks, spend longer time in Camps Bay and long street.

I’d strongly recommend travelers to visit Cape Town and I’m definitely going back there to experience the rest.

New Year’s Eve in The Great Barrier Reef

Our last stop in Australia was Cairns – where we would relax by the sea and spend the New Year’s Eve.

The tropical north, Cairns is a laid back city in Queensland. It is a popular tourist destination because of its access to one of the seven natural wonders of the world – Great Barrier Reef. From Cairns, you can also visit the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat.

There is a growing interest in Cairns from the Chinese leisure market and you can actually see the effect of Chinese people and culture all around the city. As the tourism plays the major part of Cairns economy, we felt like people use this opportunity to charge money for everything. It is hard to plan a budget travel in Cairns if you want to see the sights and attractions.

The airport is very close to the city center. You can watch planes landing and departing from the coastal boardwalk called Esplanade Boardwalk. Unfortunately it is prohibited to swim in the sea as there are seasonal stingers which are deadly jelly fish, and saltwater crocodiles. Instead, you can flock to Esplanade’s spectacular lagoon which is a 4800 square meter salt water swimming pool packed by backpackers, children and families. Swimming is allowed between 6:00am and 10:00pm daily so you can even enjoy the moonlight while you are in the pool at the evenings when the weather cools down. The lagoon is surrounded by free electronic BBQ facilities where families and friends gather around. Having picnic in parks seems like a very common activity in Queensland, however people are not allowed to consume alcohol in public areas.

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The Lagoon

Restrictions and prohibitions such as walking dogs, smoking, consuming alcohol, bringing glass in some designated public areas are valid in Queensland just like New South Wales. So be careful about signs and behave accordingly.

Where to Stay:

You have a few options in terms of accommodation areas in Cairns. If you are looking for luxurious resorts, you may want to prefer Palm Cove or Port Douglas. Port Douglas is around 40 minutes away from the city center while Palm Cove is a bit further on the north. There are designated areas in the sea where people can swim, as stinger nets are designed to protect swimmers from stingers.

Another option to stay at is Fitztroy Island. It is located 29 kilometers south-east of Cairns, with transfers taking only 45 minutes by ferry (75 AUD). You can stay at the beautiful Fitztroy Island Resort or go for Camping. The sea is amazing, and there is no stinger nets in the sea. There may be less of a danger but you should still be careful.

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Fitztroy Island

Having stayed in the center – Cairns Plaza Hotel – I would definitely choose to stay in Fitztroy Island next time. Cairns Plaza Hotel was an old city hotel with a few amenities. The pool is very small and no one really uses it. The breakfast was also below average and there are no safe boxes in rooms. If you want to keep your personal valuables in the safe at the reception, you need to pay 7 AUD/day. Plus, the receptionist told us to call our tour company to confirm our pick up place from our room and we were charged another 7 AUD for 2 minutes of local call while checking out. We would at least expect to be informed about the charges of phone calls – or the help of reception for a simple tour pick up confirmation.

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Cairns Plaza Hotel

The last hotel we stayed in Cairns was Rydges Esplanade Cairns Resort, and it was much better than the Cairns Plaza Hotel which was just next door. It was January 1st, and the hotel restaurant/bar was charging extra 15% on all bills even though you have to go to the bar and order your food yourself.

Cape Tribulation and Daintree Wilderness Tour:

We booked this tour via Qatar Airways Holidays website. We really enjoyed the tour as we finally got to touch koalas during our visit to Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat. Not only holding cute koalas, but also feeding kangaroos were amazing!

After having our pictures taken with koalas, we headed to Daintree National Park and the Daintree River. After a tropical lunch at the Daintree Rainforest, we took a walk along the beach where rainforest meets the sea (Don’t ever think about swimming there as there are crocs). After having a bit more walk in the Rainforest by seeing mangroves, spiders and even ants with green butts (the tour guide said they are tasty!) we took a river cruise to spot crocodiles. Crocs we’ve seen were not really big as we expected but it was a nice tour overall.

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Mt Alexandria Lookout

Great Barrier Reef 

As we like to dive, we thought spending the New Year’s Eve on a boat in the middle of The Great Barrier Reef would be a good idea. So we booked a 2 days/1 night live aboard tour with Cairns Dive Centre, paying 500 AUD.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a backpacker tour rather than a once in a lifetime experience.

First of all, the tour was too expensive for what we got. The rooms were dirty, old and stinky, the boat wasn’t well maintained, dives were chaotic and most importantly, dive masters/guides are not included in the price of a diving tour.

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Kangaroo Explorer – where we spent 2 days in The Great Barrier Reef

We felt like they constantly cared about making more money on us rather than providing a good service. They charge extra for Go Pro hire, pictures taken under the water (20 AUD/picture), dive guides (15 AUD per person even if you dive with 8 people with a single guide) and courses if you want to get an advanced license during your trip. The instructors didn’t seem to care too much, which didn’t give us the feeling of truly being welcomed there. It was like a commercial boat causing hectic for boat residents as new divers arrived/left every morning.

The food was good and plenty. You would have to pay extra for soft drinks and alcohol.

Once we arrived the boat by a smaller one, we were a bit disappointed by the fact that we were stuck in that boat on The New Year’s Eve. Well, we went to sleep on our plastic covered beds at 10:00 AM anyway, but you’d expect a bit of quality after paying such an amount of money for such a tour to one of the seven natural wonders of the world right?

Still, sitting under billions of Southern stars with no phone distraction on the last evening of 2016 was still enjoyable and special. At the end of the day, it is not where you are but who you are with!

When it comes to the reef itself, we were also a little bit disappointed with what we saw. It might have been the case because either we were not on the outer reef, or we were too spoiled by having dived in other countries such as Maldives and Indonesia (Gili Islands). We saw some sharks, turtles, coral gardens but not as plentiful as expected. The visibility was also not great but that can of course change with seasonality.

On our return back to Cairns, they couldn’t organise the drop off shuttle, so we had to wait for the second bus, sitting on the pavement at the harbour. It proved one more time that the 4 stars level payment was for only a tour with backpacker standards.

Tip:

If you are not into backpacking style travel,  we don’t suggest a live aboard tour to Great Barrier Reef with Cairns Dive Centre. Instead, you may consider taking other options as below:

1- Taking a helicopter tour for a good view from top of the reef (300-350 AUD from Cairns)

2- Taking a daily diving/snorkelling tour (100-150 AUD)

We flew back home the next day, leaving Australia with crazy memories – and the curiosity to see more of it.

Uluru: The Spiritual Heart of Australia

After spending 4 days in Sydney, we flew to Ayer’s Rock(Uluru) to see the famous rock formation and have once in a life time experience ‘Sounds of Silence’ dinner under the stars.

Known as Northern Territory’s Red Centre, Uluru (Aboriginal and official name) is sacred to indigenous Australians and is thought to have started forming around 600 million years ago. Located in the heart of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the rock originally sat at the bottom of a sea, but today stands 348m above ground.

The spiritual heart of Australia, Uluru is notable for appearing to change colour at different times of the day and year, most notably when it glows red at dawn and sunset. We were so excited to have a sparkling wine and Christmas dinner watching the amazing sunset and billions of southern stars, however, Uluru welcomed us with a heavy rain and damaging flash floods, described as a once-in-a-half-century weather event! It was unbelievable while we were warned about the really hot desert climate before planning our travel.

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Getting Around:

First of all, if you are flying to Uluru-Ayer’s Rock from Sydney, sit on the plane’s left side so you can see the rock from top before landing.

Arriving at Ayer’s Rock airport, we were welcomed with a few buses ready to take us to our hotels for free. As there are 4 hotels which were all managed by Ayers Rock Resort, it was a hassle free transportation from the airport to the Outback Pioneer Hotel.

Check in was smooth but the room we had was pretty far from the reception area. After settling in, we received a letter from the tour organisation company for the cancellation of Sound of Silence dinner which was supposed to take place on the same evening. The biggest highlight of our Australia travel was ruined as it was going to take place indoors in a hotel instead – not under stars in a romantic set up. That was the only reason we flew to Uluru and arranged a transportation to Alice Springs.

Knowing that we are leaving Uluru and heading to Alice Springs the next day, we headed to the town centre to check if there is any other tour or even a rental car so that we could drive to the national park and see the actual rock. But it was impossible, all cars were rented out and tours were fully booked. We headed back to the hotel with the free shuttle, on our bare feet as it was raining like crazy.

Tip: If you don’t want to be limited with tours and free shuttles, it is better to rent a car in Uluru. Also, Uluru tours don’t include the entrance fee to national park (25 AUD) so make sure to ask this to your tour organiser beforehand.

Where to stay in Uluru:

There are only 4 hotels/campgrounds in the area, all managed by Ayers Rock Resort. Sails in The Desert seemed like the most popular one, however Outback Pioneer Hotel was more affordable even though it was 200 Euros per night.

Outback Pioneer Hotel was below average as it was very old and has only a few amenities. There is a free shuttle that goes around all hotels and the town centre where you can book tours, shop souvenirs or buy groceries. The hotel has a bar and an open bbq area, and it is the only place visitors of Uluru can take away alcohol. Alcohol consumption is prohibited for locals so you have to buy your alcohol yourself.

The reception was so crowded and there was a chaos. Imagine a small reception hall with towels on the ground so that people can dry their feet. Luggages on the other side – waiting to be transported to the rooms and of course people waiting for their tour buses, shuttles or check in/out times.

It wasn’t worth the money as we ended up leaving the spiritual centre by not even managing to approach the rock, and waiting in the hotel wasn’t really fun as well because of all the chaos and limited number of facilities.

Sounds Of Silence Dinner:

We were picked up by buses and taken to the Sails in The Desert Hotel. There was unlimited sparkling wine, cocktails and aboriginal dance show in the cocktail room, however, we were so disappointed by being stuck in a closed area while it wasn’t even raining outside at that moment. While searching for options to see the actual rock, we met a hotel employee who offered us his car for the next morning after hearing our stories, and we agreed to come to the hotel to pick it up first thing in the morning.

Later on, we were moved to another room for dinner. The food was good but it wasn’t worth 230 AUD per person. Well they credited 50 AUD of it back to the hotel stay but the dinner was not worth 130 Euros at all.

Next morning, we woke up early so that we could walk to the hotel to pick up the nice guy’s car. But leave walking on the road to reach the guy aside, even getting out of our room was almost impossible. The shuttle also starts to run at 10:00 AM so we had no other choice than forgetting about the rock.

After checking out, we sat outside at the bar for hours, and waited for our shuttle to Alice Springs. Everywhere was wet, and we were sitting on the tables trying to protect us from the rain – wishing it also washes all the disappointments away from us.

As the roads were flooded, the bus driver skipped to pass through Kings Canyon and we reached Alice Springs after 6 hours at the evening. On the way, we stopped at the Middle of Australia and saw some emus at Erldunda Roadhouse onsite emu enclosure.

 

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When to Visit Uluru:

If you want to avoid the rain and experience the real Uluru, visit between May and September.

Where to stay in Alice Springs:

After checking in DoubleTree by Hilton at Alice Springs after a long and wet journey, we went downstairs to eat at the The Deck Eatery & Bar. We were almost declined to be seated as we didn’t have a reservation even though we were hotel guests. Disappointment followed us when the waiter didn’t get the order properly and showed up with something else after minutes of waiting.

There was another hotel next to ours, Lasseters – you may want to prefer this one if you are interested in casinos. Next to DoubleTree, there is also a hotel called Desert Palms which seemed more affordable and family friendly.

Alice Springs is known as a popular gateway for exploring the Red Centre and Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve is one of the main point of interests in the city. Some people prefer to stay in Alice Springs and take tours to Uluru while we preferred the other way. Visitors can also climb to the top of Anzac Hill for sweeping views over Alice Springs and the distant MacDonnell Ranges.

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During our day visit, we walked to the centre and Telegraph Station. The road was empty and we were expecting to see some kangaroos on the way – as the bus driver from Uluru suggested. Taking the Riverside Path along the Todd River, we’ve seen one kangaroo and a snake around the bush grounds. Rivers in Alice Springs and around are generally dry, but they still call them rivers.

If you are interested in riding bicycles,  there are bikes available for hire at the Trail Station Wi-Fi Café, when you reach the top at The Telegraph Station.

The day was over, and we were ready to take off to Cairns to see our second highlight of our trip – The Great Barrier Reef.

Christmas in Sydney

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Hello 2017!

I feel like I am one of the luckiest people in the world who gets to travel and see all the amazing places, cultures and even various natural habitats in the world.

I’ve spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Australia – or Down Under as some call it. It required a lot of planning as we had must-see locations in mind such as Uluru, Great Barrier Reef and of-course Sydney. Considering three of them are in different states in Australia, we had to book a few internal flights and stick with our plan. Australia is a huge country and you cannot just drive around the continent in a short time.

In this post, I will write specifically about Sydney and how to get the best out of it. 4 days were enough to see the main sights of it but you can do more if you want to spend more time on beaches or learn how to surf.

But first of all, here is our itinerary for those who wish to experience the same:

  • 4 days in Sydney (New South Wales)
  • 1 day in Uluru or Ayer’s Rock (Northern Territory)
  • 1 day in Alice Springs (Northern Territory)
  • 4 days in Cairns (Queensland)

Located on Australia’s east coast, Sydney is the most populous city of Australia. Despite being one of the most expensive cities in the world, it is one of the most liveable ones.

Visa:

You will need a visa depending on your nationality/passport.

For application and details, click here.

When to visit Sydney:

Summer starts with December, and thanks to Christmas and New Year’s, December has been the best time to visit Sydney. It attracts many tourists this season but you won’t regret visiting the city during the peak time thanks to the summer joy and lively atmosphere.

Australians are friendly, and the city has a lot to offer to its visitors and residents. Looking for a beach? Select one of the amazing beaches like Bondi, Manly or Coogee. Looking for a place for a Sunday picnic? Head to Royal Botanic Gardens or Chinese Garden of Friendship. Sights? From Sydney Opera House and The Rocks to Darling Harbour, the city itself is a sight!

As it was Christmas time, the streets were surrounded by Christmas trees and people wearing short sleeved Santa suits and hats. There was a huge Christmas tree in Martin’s Place and Christmas Carols as well as light shows in St Mary’s Cathedral. Even though Christmas was celebrated all around the city, new year’s eve seemed like a bigger deal.

Rules of Sydney

Not only Sydney but the whole country has a set of rules like no smoking and drinking in public areas, parks and beaches. Tobacco is extremely expensive and cigarette sale is done secretly in shops. As we heard, one pack of cigarette is around 25 AUD so it’s better to bring your own if you are a smoker.

Is it expensive?

The city is indeed very expensive. Alcoholic drinks at bars are starting from 8 AUD (for a 0,3 lt beer) and 10 AUD (for a glass of wine). If you fancy a traditional fish and chips, you pay at least 20 Australian Dollars. Speaking of traditional fish and chips, the city and people has such a British influence. People dressing up, girls showing a lot of skin while going out for clubbing reminded me a lot of London streets at nights.

Getting Around:

One thing that amazed me about Sydney was the nicely designed cafe and bars, and company office building entrances! There is an impressive architecture with modernist high rise buildings and the mixture of old and new. The city is very easy to navigate and the good public transport helps you not to get lost. If you cannot afford traveling around by taxis or Uber, you can get an Opal Card from any supermarket – top it up with 10-20 AUDs and use busses, ferries (not all) and trams.

Where to Stay:

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on transportation to see around, select a hotel from The Rocks area where you can walk around and to Circular Quay where all ferries leave. We stayed at The Grace Hotel which was a bit old but a convenient one. We could walk to Darling Harbour in 10 minutes, to the Circular Quay and The Rocks area in 15 minutes.

So here is what we’ve done in the full 4 days in Sydney:

Day 1:

After taking a 30 minutes bus ride, we arrived to the famous Bondi Beach. The beach is huge but you can swim only in the designated areas as there are surfers everywhere. You may decide to sit on the grass area or on the sandy beach but smoking, eating and drinking are not allowed even though we saw a few people drinking beers and smoking weed.

There is not much to see on the northern end of Bondi Beach, but if you walk towards the south, you will see a huge pool in the Bondi Iceberg’s Club, where people can swim for free. I would suggest passing by the cafe upstairs and having a sip of sparkling while watching the view from the top.

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After resting at the Iceberg’s, we headed to the cliff top coastal walk (6 km) which took us through stunning views, beaches, parks, cliffs, bays and rock pools. Walking around 2 hours, we reached to The Coogee Beach after passing through Tamarama and Bronte Beaches. The board walk also takes you past Waverley Cemetery, the most scenic burial ground in the world and it is impossible to be impressed by the views of it.

When we reached The Coogee Beach, we had fish and chips at The Coogee Pavilion and had some drinks on the terrace. When it started raining, we headed back to the city centre.

Day 2:

It was the day to see Australian animals! We were so excited!

Taronga Zoo – the city zoo of Sydney is located on the shores of Sydney Harbour. 28-hectare zoo is a home to 4,000 kinds of animal species but you get to see them only if they are awake or if they decide to show up. All Australian animals were present but seeing only a few koalas was a bit disappointing. As we were informed, touching Koalas is prohibited by law in The New South Wales. So we thought the spectacular views of beautiful Sydney Harbour from the zoo was more impressive than the zoo itself.

The transportation to the zoo is not very difficult. All you need to do is to arrive the Circular Quay and catch the ferry to Taronga Zoo wharf.

Tip: If you are planning to celebrate your birthday at Taronga Zoo, have yourself registered on Taronga Zoo’s website and enter the zoo for only 1 AUD. You will receive a birthday batch at the entrance but don’t expect more than this.

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After we went back to the city centre, we changed and headed to a dinner at The Bennelong Restaurant at The Opera House. Bennelong Restaurant offers lunch, pre/post theatre, supper and dinner menus. We had the pre theatre menu as there was no availability for dinner time but the food we had was AMAZING! I probably had the most delicious food I’ve ever had in my life! So here is our favourites for the 3 course pre theatre menu:

Entree: Grilled Tasmanian Octopus

Main: Macleay Valley suckling pig confit

Dessert: Five textures of Queensland mango or chocolate cake.

When we were done with our dinner, we moved to the bar and continued with drinks, and ended the night. If you are planning to dine at Bennelong Restaurant, make sure to make your reservation weeks-even months before so that you can enjoy your food at the time of your choice.

Day 3:

Day 3 was another day full of walking and discovering the city. There is so much to see in Sydney and you can’t get enough of it.

After leaving the hotel, we walked around The Darling Harbour, then headed towards The Rocks area. The close proximity to Circular Quay and the views of the iconic Harbour Bridge, as well as the historic nature of many of the buildings, makes the Rocks very popular with tourists. The Rocks Market operates each weekend, and you can buy some Australian arts and souvenirs from there.

Following the way from The Rocks area, we entered in The Contemporary Art Museum. You have to pay to see some of the exhibitions but don’t miss the view from the terrace.

After the museum, we walked to The Royal Botanical Garden to rest a bit and headed towards The Pitt Street for some shopping. In Australia, streets with shops are called ‘malls’, and “Pitt Street Mall” of Sydney is Australia’s busiest shopping precinct.

After a long day walking, we went to see the Christmas Carols in front of St Mary’s Cathedral in The Hyde Park. We sat down, listened to the chorus and watched the amazing light shows on the cathedral with hundreds of other people.

Day 4:

We spared the last day for Manly Beach. To reach Many Beach from The Circular Quay, you have 2 options to take. The fast ferry costs 8,60 AUD and it takes 20 minutes while the normal ferry costs 7,50 AUD and it takes 30 minutes to get there.

After arriving the Manly Wharf, walk towards the beach from the shopping street full of surf and sports clothing shops. If you are hungry, eat in one of the restaurants on the coastal road and then head to the beach to relax. The sea was cold and there were surfers so we didn’t swim.

For the evening, we had dinner at Jamie’s Italian which didn’t meet our expectations at all. The food was Italian interpretation rather than real Italian. It was’t very expensive (60 AUD for 3 course dinner on Christmas) but it was not at international star chef level. Not recommended, but make sure to make a reservation online if you are willing to have a dinner there.

Next morning, we flew to Ayer’s Rock which was another adventure. So I will write it all in my next blog post.

The World’s Richest Country: Qatar

Katara Cultural Centre

Qatar – a country that has the highest GDP per capita thanks to a rebound in oil prices and its massive natural gas reserves. The country has been pouring money into construction for the 2022 World Cup, and you can clearly see it if you visit the country these days.

I’m not sure if anyone would ever want to visit Qatar as a tourist unless they have families and friends living there at the time being but here comes my next post about Doha, the capital of The State of Qatar.

Doha is located in The Middle East and it is only 45 minutes flight away from Dubai. It is not as popular as Dubai but it is a perfect place if you are looking for relaxed and quiter environment in The Middle East.

The currency being used in Qatar is Qatari Riyals, and you need a taxi or a private car to get around the city. In terms of dress code, you don’t need to cover up but you are expected to respect the locals. Women should cover their shoulders and knees in public areas, however this rule is not valid in hotels. Forget about swimming with your bikinis in public beaches like Katara Beach, and use hotel beaches by paying 300-400 QAR entrance fees on weekends.Or just stay in a hotel, and your beach access would be covered.

Cost of living in this under-construction city is expensive but one can always benefit from happy hours and ladies nights offered by hotels. If you are considering about finding alcohol in markets or even bringing to the country – forget about it too. The alcohol is sold only in hotel bar and restaurants, and a liquor store called QDC for those who hold a liquor license.Pork is also not permitted and you can’t even find it in hotel restaurants.

When it comes to lifestyle, Doha offers visitors some Michelin star restaurants like Hakkasan and Nobu, pretty good art scenery at Museum of Islamic Art, Al Riwaq and Modern Art Museum of Qatar, and cultural experiences in Souq Wakif and Katara Cultural Centre. There are also fun activities for attraction seekers such as desert safari, camping and kite surfing. Hotels’ friday brunches and outdoor/beach parties are like a tradition for expats living in Qatar.

As the weather gets really hot in summer, I would recommend visiting Qatar in winter when the weather gets cooler. You may even swim from March till June, and from September till November. Life may get a bit difficult during Ramadan as there is almost no activity during days, restaurants and malls are closed and alcohol consumption is strictly forbidden.

Things To Do In Qatar:

MIA: Museum of Islamic Art is a very special architecture offering very nice photography scenery.

Al Riwaq Gallery: Just next to the MIA, this gallery hosted a lot of famous exhibitions. It is a must-visit place if you are into arts.

Souq Wakif: You may have a nice shisha in the Souq Wakif while tasting local or Arabic food for a reasonable price. Walk between narrow streets until you reach the Falcon Souq. You will be amazed by the number of falcons there!

Corniche: Take a walk along the cornice towards the Sheraton Hotel.

Katara: This cultural center offers exhibition halls and an amphitheater. There is also a Karak & Chapati café where you can taste the local Karak tea.

The Pearl: This man-made island offers lots of shops and restaurants. There is a marina where the yachts are docked and you can take a walk around it while enjoying luxurious stores. If you want more, take a walk towards the Madina Centrale area where you can find more restaurant and cafes.

Aspire Park: Located just next to Villagio Shopping Mall, this park is beautiful with the huge torch tower view.

Malls to visit (In case you visit Qatar in summer):

Mall of Qatar: The newest mall in Qatar. Even though it’s a bit far from the city centre, it holds the biggest mall label in the country.
Villagio: Inspired by The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, this mall’s ceiling is painted as clouds and blue sky.
Landmark: Surrounded by other malls such as Ezdan and Gulf Mall, this mall offers good shops and a cinema saloon.

There are daily tours offered by some companies in Doha, so try one of them if you are transiting through. If not, take your time and it will not take more than 3 days to see everything in the city.

And of course, thanks to Qatar for being home for a few years already!

Thailand: Phuket and Phi Phi Islands

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It was my first trip to Far East and Thailand is probably one of the best destinations for ‘Far East For Dummies’kind of a trip. I still haven’t been to Bangkok but from what I‘ve seen in Thailand – I can say it is a natural beauty with its hidden treasures and crystal clear waters.

We arrived Phuket early in the morning and took a ferry to get to Holiday Inn Phi Phi. The top floor of the ferry was full of foreigners from different nationalities, with stickers on their chests stating which hotel they are heading to. After 3 hours of a sea trip, we finally stopped in the middle of the sea so that long tail boats could take us to our hotel- Holiday Inn Phi Phi. When we were getting closer to the land, I said to myself ‘This must be the heaven on earth!’

Phi Phi is known with its beach fire parties, crazy fun and bars, however, where we ended up was a quiet paradise on the northern side where all honeymooners were staying at. It was not what I was expecting but just an eye candy! With the hotel upgrading us for free, we would‘t complain that we are not in a crazy place anymore. To be honest, it is a place to go with your loved one – not with a friend.

The red and blue colours of the sky during sunset, long tail boats and swings on the beach, flower arrangements for a beach wedding, the white sand and green sea were just unforgettable.

When the sun set and it got dark, all bars on the beach were closed and we were stuck at the hotel as we didn‘t arrange any transportation to lively parts of the island at night. So I made a decision to discover the island the next day – on foot! I was pretty successful about that after walking for an hour toward the south. I reached Loh Bagao Bay, which was a bit more lively than our place. I found a local guy to take me back to the hotel with his bike and told him to come and pick us up at night again. What a mistake to trust people, he didn‘t show up and we walked another hour right before the sun set. It was worth it though, as we met lots of people and had fun! The Thai girl working at the bar followed us back to the hotel as she was interested in my friend, what a courage.

The Beach Bar Koh Phi Phi

The next day, we arranged an islands boat trip at the hotel. After checking out, we visited the famous Maya Bay (from Leonardo Di Capri’s The Beach movie) Then went for snorkelling at Loh Sama Bay and swam in Bi Leh‘s crystal waters with the fish. The last stop was Monkey Bay, to watch monkeys from our long tail boat. The whole trip was 1,600 Baht, and we were dropped back to Phi Phi centre to get a fast boat back to Phuket! Luckily it took less than an hour instead of another 3 hours. It was also a fun one.

Tip: If you plan to go to Phi Phi from Phuket, take a fast boat instead of regular ones. They are cheaper if you get on the boat with other 10 people or so.

Phuket:

We stayed at The Holiday Inn Phuket at the famous Patong Beach in Phuket. Unfortunately the beach was not even comparable to Phi Phi‘s, but we had fun. Lots of people, shops, bars, lady boys and crazy stuff! The famous Bangla Street was full of bars with strippers and prostitutes. It was amazing to see how many old men were there to be with asian chicks and lady boys. It was sad to see all those people in need of money but that’s the reality of Thailand.

The way back was easier as we were already in the town, relaxed.

Thank you Thailand, for showing us both of your hidden treasures and the crazy fun. I will make sure to visit you once again to discover more!