Auckland, New Zealand

Walking through Albert Park

Having had a few hours to familiarise myself with the area surrounding my Auckland hotel before departing for the Bay of Isles just a few days ago, upon my return to the city, I quickly found my way back to the centrally-located Ibis Styles from the coach station.

Wandering through Auckland Domain

I’d arrived back in Auckland from Paihia with with most of the day still to spare so after dropping my bags and freshening up, I was keen to get straight out and spend the afternoon exploring.

Above, and below, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum

I decided to walk through Albert Park and towards the Parnell district of the city then into Auckland Domain, another of the city’s parks and home of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I spent the next few hours exploring the museum which had an extremely varied collection of exhibits on New Zealand’s history.

Above, and below, at the Sky Tower

After visiting the museum, I walked back to the city centre and bought a ticket for the observation deck at Auckland’s famous Sky Tower to enjoy the views over the city and the surrounding area.

Mission Bay

The next day was my last day in the city and I’d be moving from my hotel near the waterfront to the Haka Lodge hostel in the less-central Ponsonby area of the city as that is where my tour would start from the next morning.

Short on time, I decided the best way to see the as much of Auckland as possible would be on the hop on/off tour bus.

Passing the Parnell Rose Gardens

The bus had 2 routes which crossed over in Auckland Domain at the War Memorial Museum. Route one took me out towards Bastian Point where the bus stopped at the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial. Hopping off, I walked down to the nearby Mission Bay beach then back to the memorial from where there were some pretty views of Auckland city and across the bay.

Crater at Mount Eden

From here, the bus took us through the Parnell are of the city, passing the Parnell Rose Gardens and towards Auckland Domaine for a stop at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I would be switching bus routes here and had some time to kill between uses.

As I’d already visited the museum the day before, I instead took a stroll to the park’s Winter Gardens and had a quick look around before making my way back to the bus stop.

Passing Eden Park Stadium

The route two bus took me out to Mount Eden where I hopped off again to explore. Mount Eden is Auckland’s highest volcanic cone. The bus couldn’t drive to the summit so instead dropped us further down and I made the walk to the top from where there were some great views of Auckland’s skyline.

Back on the bus, we passed Eden Park, New Zealand’s largest sports stadium and home of the All Blacks. Then it was back to Auckland Domain where I swapped back onto a route one bus.

Visiting Parnell Village

The route one bus took me back into the Parnell district where I hopped off in Parnell Village, grabbing some lunch, browsing the stores and visiting the nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral. Then it was back towards Auckland’s waterfront and to the stop I’d got on at in the morning.

It was late afternoon so after picking up my luggage, I caught the bus down towards Ponsonby and found my way to the Haka Lodge hostel.

It had been a busy couple of days in the city and I felt I’d seen quite a bit of what it had to offer but now I was looking forward to starting my tour of the rest of the North Island.

Bay of Islands, New Zealand

After spending an amazing week touring New Zealand’s South Island with small group adventure tour company Haka Tours, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to explore the country’s North Island. Luckily, I had the opportunity to go back less than a year later so immediately booked myself of Haka Tour’s 7-day North Island trip.

Arriving into New Zealand at the end of 5 weeks spent travelling in Australia, the last 3 of which had been mainly spent travelling solo, I was looking forward to joining a group tour and the company it would provide but first of all I had just under a week to spend in New Zealand alone before meeting my group in Auckland.

The beach in Paihia

Seeing as I’d be flying to Auckland, I decided to spend a night there before travelling north to the Bay of Islands, part of North Island I’d not be visiting as part of my tour, for 3 nights before returning to Auckland for 2 nights ready to start my tour.

Looking out from Paihia waterfront

Despite catching a relatively early flight to Auckland from Sydney, by the time I’d got through airport security and worked out how to get to my hotel using public transport, there wasn’t a lot of the day left so I spent the evening familiarising myself with the area around my conveniently-located Ibis Styles hotel and a stroll along Auckland’s waterfront.

Arriving in Russell

The next morning, I was up early to walk the short distance to the coach stop near the waterfront to make the 3 hour bus journey to Paihia. Once there, I found my way to the YHA where I’d be staying in a private en suite room for the next 3 nights.

Russell waterfront, and below, exploring in Russell

Once settled in, I took a walk down to the seafront and around the small town of Paihia. Realising there wasn’t really much to do in the town itself, I made a spur of the moment decision to catch a boat across the Bay of Islands to the town of Russell.

Long Beach, Russell and below, following the trail to Long Beach and back to the waterfront

The crossing, passing all the small islets and islands which give the Bay of Islands its name, took only 15 minutes and after arriving at the picturesque harbour, I took a stroll along the waterfront and browsed in some of its shops before following the signs to the trail to Long Beach.

After spending some time sat relaxing at the pretty bay, I wandered back towards the waterfront to catch the boat back across to Paihia.

Staircase carved into a Kauri tree

The next morning I was up early to walk down to Paihia’s waterfront where I’d be meeting my coach for a day tour to Cape Reinga, the most north-westernly tip of the peninsula. Our first stop after leaving Paihia was at the store Ka-uri Unearthed which, as well as offering a cafe and conveniences, sells furniture carved out of Kauri trees. Highlight of the store was a staircase carved out of a giant Kauri tree.

Above, and below, 90-mile Beach and the Hole in the Rock

Next, it was on to the area’s 90-Mile Beach, a huge expanse of sand (and actually only 88km/55 miles long!) on the northwest coast of North Island leading down to the Tasman Sea. From here, we could see the Hole in the Rock, a rock formation lying just off the coast.

After leaving the beach behind, we drove the short distance to the Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes for part of the tour I was really looking forward to – sandboarding!

Sand boards ready to use!

I had sandboarded before at the Lancelin Dunes near Perth but there we were given long, thin wooden boards to sit on and ride down the dunes whereas here, we were given boogie boards and shown how to lie on them on our stomachs as if we were bodyboarding in the sea and ride down the huge dunes head first, dragging our toes in the sand behind us if we wanted to control our speed.

Climbing the giant dunes to sandboard down

Like with my first experience of sandboarding down the dunes in Lancelin, actually getting to the top of the dunes to start our descent was a huge challenge and it felt like for every one step I was taking up the dune, I was sliding 2 steps back!

Once at the top, it felt pretty high up and the way down looked pretty steep so it took a while to pluck up the courage to give it a go but after watching a few other members of the group give it a go and survive, I finally plucked up the courage, keeping my toes pretty much permanently jammed in the sand behind me as I went!

Coastal views walking to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, and below, the meeting point of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean

It was fun and I’m glad I gave it a go but once back at the bottom of the dune, I couldn’t face climbing all the way back up again and decided to spend the last 5 minutes watching the rest of the group sandboarding down, some at break-neck speed!

A lunch stop was next and we stopped at a local cafe where a canteen style-buffet was provided included in the price of the tour.

Cape Reinga Lighthouse, and below, walking to the lighthouse

Then it was on to Cape Reinga itself, at the tip of the peninsula. Here, we followed the coastal path down to the lighthouse at the end. The coastal views along the way were stunning and looking out we could see the point where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, a different shade of blue on each side of the join!

We made one more stop on the way back to Paihia at Gumdiggers Park, an ancient buried Kauri forest. Here, we followed a looped track past a giant Kauri log and through an old gum field with a recreated ‘gumdiggers village’ to learn about how the resin extracted from the ancient trees.

Hole in the Rock boat tour in Paihia

The next day, I was off to see another Hole in the Rock, this time the one off the coast of Paihia in the Bay of Islands. The boat took us out past all the small islands in the bay.

Along the way, we spotted dolphins and watched as they swam alongside us!

The Hole in the Rock

When we reached the Hole in the Rock, we took a few trips around it and even through it before turning round to head back to Paihia.

Taking the boat through the Hole in the Rock

On the way back, we stopped off at Urupukapuka Island, walking up to the highest point there to see the view over the Bay of Islands.

Walking from Paihia to Waitangi

Once back in Paihia, I decided to walk up to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, home of the Waitangi Treaty House where the Treaty of Waitangi, the document that establishing the British Colony of New Zealand, was signed in 1840.

A ceremonial ‘waka’ (war canoe), and below, exploring the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

After visiting the museum and exploring its grounds, I followed a nearby trail along the Waitangi River to Haruru Falls.

The next day it was time to say goodbye to Paihia and get the coach back to Auckland.

Haruru Falls, and above, following the trail to the waterfall

I had really enjoyed my few days in the Bay of Islands and was glad I had taken the time to visit this beautiful region on New Zealand’s North Island.

Adelaide and Kangaroo Island

Needing to justify another trip to an already much-visited Melbourne for a concert, I decided to spend a couple of weeks beforehand exploring parts of Australasia I’d not been to before. Travelling alone until I reached Melbourne, I eventually settled on a one-week tour of New Zealand’s South Island followed by a few days in one of only 2 Australian states I hadn’t visited before, South Australia. I’d be spending just 2 nights in the city of Adelaide giving me just one full day and most of the following day with a late evening flight to Melbourne.

Arriving in the evening after a rather bumpy flight from Christchurch via Sydney, I checked into my city centre Ibis hotel accommodation and headed straight to bed ready for an early start the next day.

Upon the advice of an Australian friend back in the UK who once lived in Adelaide, I had decided to spend my full day on a trip out of the city to Kangaroo Island. I had booked myself on a full day escorted tour and just needed to be waiting across the road from my hotel for the coach to pick me up early the next morning.

Seals along the path down to the beach and, below, seal spotting at Seal Bay

Once on board and the rest of the passengers picked up, we were taken on a rather long drive to the ferry terminal to catch the boat across the sea to Kangaroo Island. It was a cool autumn day and with the sea being rather choppy, I mainly stayed inside on the ferry, grabbing some breakfast from the on-board cafe and settling in for the 45 minute ride. Once there, we were met by our drivers for the day and invited on board our assigned minibus to begin our tour.

A seal lazing under the boardwalk

Stop number one was at Seal Bay where we battled our way through the rain and strong winds along the boardwalk and down to the beach for a bit of seal spotting. The seals were everywhere – along the path, under the boardwalk, on the beach and in the sea and despite the weather, I loved spending time on the beach watching the seals clambering out of the sea and waddling up the beach to find shelter under the boardwalk!

Our second stop of the day was Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

A koala high up in the eucalyptus tree and, below, kangaroos on Kangaroo Island!

The weather had thankfully started to improve and we followed the sanctuary’s Koala Walk trail , soon spotting the cute koalas tucked high up in the eucalyptus trees as well as kangaroos lazing in the grounds.

We continued our journey across the island and into Flinders Chase National Park where we stopped at the visitors center and then at Bunker Hill Lookout before continuing down to the coast and the Remarkable Rocks.

Here, we followed the short path down to the strange rock formations and spent some time exploring and taking photos.

Admiral’s Arch and, below, following the boardwalk to Admirals Arch and back

Our final stop of the day was at the nearby Admiral’s arch, also part of Flinders Chase National Park. Here we followed the boardwalk past Cape du Couedic Lighthouse and down to view the naturally created rock arch.

The views of the coast from the boardwalk were really beautiful and we spotted more seals, this time lazing on the rocks as the sea crashed in around them.

At the South Australia Museum in Adelaide

After a busy day, it was time to be dropped off back at the ferry terminal to catch the boat back across to the mainland where we were met by a coach to take us back to Adelaide. Back at the hotel, I was exhausted after a fun but long day.

I’d enjoyed seeing some of the highlights of Kangaroo Island but wish I’d had time to make it a longer, overnight stay there to spend more time exploring what it had to offer.

Autumn at the Botanic Gardens

The next day, I checked out of my hotel and headed off to spend the day exploring the city before catching my flight to Melbourne that evening. After grabbing some breakfast from a nearby cafe, I walked to Adelaide’s North Terrace to visit the South Australian Museum. The museum was free to enter and housed a variety of Natural History exhibitions including a huge collection of Aboriginal Australian artefacts.

The museum is situated right on the edge of Adelaide’s Parklands and after my visit I wandered along to the nearby Botanic Gardens to explore. The park looked really beautiful with the autumn colours of the trees.

The River Torrens and, below, wandering along the river in Elder Park

Next up, I walked to Rundle Mall, Adelaide’s shopping district to browse the stores, pick up some last minute souvenirs and find somewhere to have lunch at then down to Victoria Square with its fountains where I was surprised to see a variety of lawn games including swing ball and skittles set up on the lawn for passers by to play with!

From here, I took a walk up to Adelaide’s Elder Park, taking a stroll along the River Torrens, across the bridge and looping back into the city. Then it was time to head back to the hotel to retrieve my luggage and catch the bus to the airport in time for my flight. I’d enjoyed my day strolling through the city getting a glimpse of what it had to offer and I’d like to return to Adelaide in the future maybe as a base to explore the region further.

Goodbye Trek America

My top 5 memories of travelling with Trek

Regular readers will know I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader for Trek America, a small group US tour company aimed at 18-38 year old solo travellers which I credit with changing my life by quashing my fears and doubts of travelling alone, instilling my love of small group tours and adventure travel in general and leading to me forming many lifelong friendships. So it was with great sadness that I met the news that the company had been disbanded, another casualty of the effects of Covid on the Worldwide travel industry. Trek America wasn’t a baby in the World of escorted touring having started offering its unique adventures across the Americas all the way back in 1972, but global travel restrictions along with the logistics of how to operate group tours which essentially consist of up to 15 individuals crammed together on a minibus for much of the time in a World of social distancing, eventually made the business unviable.

Message breaking the news on the company’s social media pages

At the grand old age of 34, I took the plunge and booked myself onto the 3-week Trek America Southern BLT tour, my first foray into solo travel and group tours and I loved it so much that I returned to the States just a few months later to join the company’s 3-week Northern BLT Trek. Since then, I have travelled with them through Alaska and introduced my sister-in-law the joys of small group travel when I won 2 places on their Deep South Tour. While I’m now more likely to plan my own self-driven road trips with some of the many friends I made on Trek and the news of the company’s demise came *just* as I was too old to join onto any more of their tours anyway, I still felt a huge loss at hearing its fate and especially thinking of all those who now won’t get to go through the experience of touring with them.

So to celebrate its existence rather than mourn its loss, here are my top 5 memories from the 4 tours I took with Trek America!

5. Partying in Vegas

Just three days into a 3 week trip, our stop in Vegas is mainly memorable because, unusually, it wasn’t how I’d ever spent my time in Vegas before.

The Bellagio dancing fountains

Playing drinking games in the hotel followed by piling onto a ‘party bus’ on which we spent our time on board hooking up our own ipod and singing and dancing along to the cheesiest of cheesy pop tunes. Then catching the last 2 shows at the Bellagio dancing fountains before karaoke at an off-Strip dive bar until the early hours.

And yet we were still up reasonably early the next day to make the most of everything else Vegas has to offer. Only on Trek.

4. Learning about Civil Rights in Memphis

At completely the other end of the spectrum to the time I spent in Vegas on the Southern BLT but equally unforgettable was the afternoon I spent in Memphis on the Deep South BLT at the National Civil Rights Museum.

At the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

Compelling, humbling and thought-provoking, the museum took us on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Worldwide including a deeply moving look at the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King before seeing the room where he died. A sobering experience.

Who knew Trek could be educational.

3. Monument Valley in the snow

A magical visit to Monument Valley a week into the Southern BLT. After an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit as we visited the Grand Canyon, it was on to Utah where we found the snow getting deeper and deeper.

Staring out at the vast beauty of a snow-covered Monument Valley

Despite the weather making it impossible to do the complete tour of the Navajo Tribal Park site, the snow made the visit even more special bringing a serene calm over the area. And underneath a clear blue sky with the sun shining on it, the famous red rocks poking up from the valley floor looked even more beautiful covered in the heavy, white snow.

Still the moment from the tour we talk about the most.

2. Seeing Mount Denali in Alaska

A glimpse of Mount Denali on a scenic flight over Denali National Park

Not strictly a Trek America memory as although I booked the tour of Alaska with them, I was transferred onto a tour with their sister company Grand American Adventures, but it still felt very much like Trek so I’m going to count it!

The highlight of a trip full of highlights, this expensive tour extra was worth every penny as we flew in a light aircraft over Denali National Park and finally caught sight of the until then elusive Mount Denali.

Only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park get to see Mount Denali and the weather had not been on our side while touring the park so having it suddenly come into view as we flew over the park was an amazing surprise and a strangely emotional experience.

Even without the appearance of Mount Denali, the scenic flight over glaciers and the Alaskan Range, followed by a glacial landing, was a wonderful, once in a lifetime, experience.

1. Wyoming & Yellowstone National Park

Rafting down Snake River, Wyoming and above, hiking in Grand Teton National Park and horse riding in Wyoming. Below, spending time in the epic Yellowstone National Park.

Despite it being a very National Park heavy tour, nothing could have prepared me for sheer beauty and spectacle of Yellowstone National Park. From bison and bear sightings to colourful canyons and of course, the famous geysers and geothermal activity, never has my jaw dropped so may time in such a short amount of times.

If it looks amazing in the photos, they don’t do it even the slightest justice. The park has to be seen to be believed. And as if that wasn’t enough, we continued from the park through its home state of Wyoming visiting the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park where we were met by more breath-taking scenery before spending the rest of our time in old west-style town of Jackson horse riding in the mountains and rafting through the rapids of Snake River. The one state on the tour I couldn’t wait to return to!

There are hundreds of other memories I could have mentioned from my Trek America trips – line dancing the night away in Nashville, listening to a jazz band play as we floated down the Mississippi on a New Orleans paddle boat, spending the day exploring the valley at Yosemite National Park, watching the sunset over Lake Tahoe, hiking in the amazing US National Parks, visiting the studios Elvis recorded at in Memphis… not to mention all the amazing food we ate, fun nights out we had and all the interesting places we stayed in.

Thanks for all the memories Trek America, you will be missed.

Find links to read about my adventures travelling across America with Trek here.

Franz Josef, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a one-week tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group adventure tour company, Haka Tours. The tour had began in Christchurch with stops at Lake Tekapo, Queenstown and Wanaka and now we had 2 nights left and were driving north to Glacier Country.

Beautiful coastal view on the way to Franz Josef

As the Haka Tours bus took us from Wanaka towards our destination of Franz Josef, there was a visible change in the scenery as we entered Mount Aspiring National Park and the New Zealand rainforest and the vivid autumn colours that had dominated our views so far were replaced by deep hues of green.

Coastal drive

Before leaving, we were all advised to invest in some bug spray to use as we reached the tropics and as we got out the bus at our first stop, Fantail Falls, we were all glad to have taken this advice as mosquitos swarmed near the river.

Ocean view

Fantail Falls was a pretty and easy to access waterfall in Mount Aspiring National Parks. After spending some time taking photos, we took a short drive to another waterfall, the taller Thunder Creek Falls.

It was another couple of hours or so drive from here to our motel in Franz Josef, the only other stop we made along the way was a a viewpoint over the coast.

Our limo awaits

That evening, our guide told us there was a surprise night out arranged for us all and after checking into our rooms, we met up to find a limousine waiting outside our motel for us!

The limo took us up and down the high street a few time before dropping us at the Blue Ice Cafe, a bar that was actually just a short walk from our accommodation.

Church in Franz Josef Village

Here, we found a tray of shots lined up for us and after some good ‘pub grub’ food, we spent the evening entertaining ourselves playing pool along with games on the Nintendo Wii set up by the bar staff!

Walking through Franz Josef village, the glacier in the distance

The next morning, we were off to visit Franz Josef glacier. Some of the group had booked helicopter tours and ice-walking trips to get a bit closer to the glacier while the rest of us would be following the walking trail out of Franz Josef village to the base of the glacier.

Hiking to the glacier

After grabbing some snacks and sandwiches to take with us, we set off. It was a mainly easy walk to the glacier over rivers, through the rainforest and past waterfalls with the glacier in view most of the way.

Waterfalls on the way to the glacier and below, nearing the glacier

After taking plenty of photos, we ate lunch near the glacier before retracing our steps back to the path.

With plenty of time to spare before meeting the rest of our group back at the hotel, we decided to follow the Douglas Walk path, hoping it would lead us to a suspension bridge we had glimpsed sight of from the glacier.

In the rainforest

The path took us through more rainforest and to Peters Pool, a small but pretty lake which reflected the surrounding scenery and then on to Douglas Bridge, a suspension bridge across the Waiho River. While not the bridge we had seen from the glacier earlier, it was still fun to cross and we made sure to follow the ‘5 persons only’ instruction written on the bridge’s entrance!

From here, some of the group decided to continue on in their search for the other suspension bridge while the rest of us decided to turn around and walk back to Franz Josef village. Once there we sat out in the sunshine having tea and cake at a small cafe waiting for the rest of the group to get back.

We met with the rest of the group late afternoon and all swapped our stories from the day. All tired after the day’s excursions, we were delighted to find out that we would be visiting the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools to relax for a while.

The suspension bridge across the River Waiho

Then, as it was officially the last night of our tour, we all went out to a local restaurant for one last group meal together.

Arriving in Hokitika

The next morning, we checked out of our Franz Josef motel and boarded our Haka Tours bus for the last time. Our tour of New Zealand’s South Island would be finishing this evening back at where we started, the city of Christchurch.

But instead of taking the tour bus the whole way there, we would be taking the TranzAlpine train for the last leg of the journey!

Above, and below, Hokitka Beach

Before arriving at the train station, we made a lunch stop in the coastal town of Hokitika. After grabbing some food and browsing in some of the town’s jade stores, we made our way down to the beach. Hokitika is home to a large beach full of driftwood and local artists had fashioned this driftwood into various sculptures covering the sand.

The sculptures made great backgrounds for our photos and with it being the last day of our tour, we made sure to get a few photos of the group together.

Above, and below, driftwood sculptures on Hokitika Beach

From here, we continued on until we reached the train station. We waved goodbye to our tour guide for a while – he’d be driving the bus back to Christchurch and would meet us at the other end with our luggage for a proper goodbye – and waited for the train to arrive.

Above, on board the TranzAlpine Train to Christchurch, and below, views along the way

The TranzAlpine is supposed to be one of the World’s greatest train journeys and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The journey took us past amazing scenery passing river gorges and through the Southern Alps then across the Canterbury Plains before arriving in Christchurch. Here we were met as planned by the Haka Tours bus and it was time to say goodbye to some members of the group who were leaving that night to catch flights.

The rest of us would be staying over at the Haka Lodge hostel on the outskirts of the city before departing the next day.

It had been an unforgettable week and I’d enjoyed my time in New Zealand so much, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned, next time to explore its North Island!

Queenstown, New Zealand

Day 2 of my 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island from Christchurch with Haka Tours and we were waving goodbye to beautiful Lake Tekapo to drive to Queenstown.

Stopping at a Lake Pukaki viewpoint en route from Lake Tekapo to Queenstown

Our first stop along the way was at a viewpoint over the nearby Lake Pukaki, the largest of the region’s Alpine lakes glimmering under the sunshine and backed by snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Random stop along the road

From here, we continued on stopping at High Country Salmon, a salmon farm and one of the more random stops on our tour! We got to feed the salmon, find out a bit about the salmon farming business and make use of the cafe before continuing on our way!

At High Country Salmon

Our journey through the mountains was slowed down briefly as we suddenly found a herd of sheep running down the road towards our bus.

It was great fun watching them surround the bus as they squeezed their way past us and on down the road to their new field!

Scenery on the way to Queenstown

We made another stop at a view point along the mountain pass before arriving at our Haka Lodge accommodation for the next two nights in Queenstown. The cosy Haka Lodge was a hostel owned by the Haka Tour company. I once again had a private room although this time it wasn’t en suite.

Enjoying the scenery along the way

After checking in, some members of the group had activities booked for the afternoon including the Shotover Jet boat ride and, for the more adventurous group members, the Canyon Swing – a bit like a bungee jump except you sit in a chair to swing from the cliff! Having not signed up for any of the activities on offer, the rest of us walked to Skyline Queenstown to make use of our free ticket to ride the gondola to the top that was included in our Haka Tours package.

Above, and below, the views from the top at Skyline Queenstown

The cable car ride to the top of Bob’s Peak is the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere. Once at the top, we spent a while enjoying the amazing views over Queenstown and the surrounding area before taking the chairlift further up the mountain to ride the Queenstown Luge back down to the viewing platforms and cafe.

Riding the luge at the top of Skyline Queenstown

After catching the gondola back down, we walked into Queenstown to meet up with the rest of the group at a local bar to share our stories over drinks and pizza.

The following day, the group once again all had different activities booked. Five of us had booked a full day’s coach trip out to Milford Sound.

Stopping to enjoy the view on the way to Milford Sound

Our coach drove us through Fiordland National Park making stops along the way at various lakes and mountainous viewpoints before we arrived at Milford Sound harbour early afternoon to enjoy a 2-hour cruise past waterfalls and stunning tropical scenery. This was a really amazing experience!

On the water at Milford Sound

After our cruise, we were met by our coach for the long journey back to Queenstown. It had been a long day but was definitely worth it.

Despite the late finish the night before, it was up early again the next day for one last tour before leaving Queenstown. Along with a few other group members, I had booked onto a Lord of the Rings tour of the area to see some of the locations used in the films.

Kawarau Gorge, one of the filming locations used in the Lord of the Rings films

Our tour was in a four-wheel drive vehicle and took is out of Queenstown to Kawarau Gorge, the location of the Pillars of the Kings in the film then out to the nearby Arrowtown where the autumn colours of the trees were just breathtaking.

Here, we went off-roading into the woods and down to the Arrow River.

Down by the river in Arrowtown

We made a stop by the river to give panning for gold a go. It was a lot harder than it looks and we came away with just one miniscule piece of gold between us!

Getting ready to go panning for gold

The final part of our tour took us high up into the mountains for more dramatic scenery and stunning views over Queenstown. Even without an interest in the filming locations for the Lord of the Rings films, this tour would have been worth taking just for the amazing views along the way!

Heading up into the mountains, and below, stunning views from the last stop on our Lord of the Rings locations tour

At the end of our tour we were dropped back at Haka Lodge to meet up with the rest of our group and climb back aboard our Haka bus to begin our journey to Wanaka.

It had been a fun few days in Queenstown although looking back on it, I feel I hardly seen any of the town itself being so busy with tours and activities. Definitely somewhere I need to return to one day!!

A weekend in Rome

Taking a European city break in a pandemic

I thought I’d pause on recounting my memories of a pre-pandemic trip to New Zealand for a one off post on an unexpected trip I took to Rome last weekend. Not unexpected because it was unplanned – quite the opposite in fact – but unexpected because having had various other trips I’d had planned for this year cancelled, I never once thought this one would actually go ahead with the way things currently are.

On board my Jet2 flight to Rome

The trip had been planned many months ago as a long weekend away for my friend’s 40th birthday. We’d booked return flights from Birmingham airport and a hotel a just a few metro stops out of Rome city centre but as the situation with the global pandemic continued, we became less and less confident of the trip happening so decided against booking any tours or attractions in case we didn’t have time to cancel and get refunded.

As September came to an end, Italy remained on the UK’s travel corridor list, meaning we’d not have to quarantine upon return from a trip there. But in the week leading up to our Friday departure date, as Covid cases in Italy continued to steadily rise, rumours began to circulate in the media that it was sure to be added to the UK’s quarantine list when it got it’s weekly update.

As the list is updated on a Thursday evening, this would not give us much time to cancel or rearrange things and it was a stressful day waiting to find out whether our early morning departure the next day would go ahead or not.

Luckily, Italy was saved for another week and I had to rush to pack for a trip I never thought would actually go ahead!

Outside the Colosseum and below, going inside the Colosseum on a previous visit to Rome.

Friday morning we were up early and at the airport the standard 2 hours before our 8am departure. It was the first time I’d travelled abroad since the World began to lock down in March and only the third trip abroad I’d taken this year following two February half term trips, one to Milan and one to Disneyland Paris. Little had changed about the airport experience except for having to wear face coverings everywhere unless sat down at the restaurants and cafes and despite less flights meaning less people, the queues through security didn’t move any quicker as there were a lot less lanes open.

Once in the departure lounge, I just had about time to munch down a bacon sandwich from Costa and buy a bottle of water from Boots before we had to make our way to the gate for boarding.

We were flying with Jet2, an airline I’d never flown with before. We were all on the same booking but despite being sat in the same row, had been given the middle and aisle seat on the left of the row and the seat across the aisle on the right meaning my friend in the middle seat was sat next to someone she didn’t know in the window seat and I was sat next to a couple I didn’t know across the aisle. I was surprised that with things as they are, that more effort wasn’t made to seat parties in the same bubble together rather than next to random strangers.

Roman ruins at the Forum
View of the Roman Forum and below, visiting the Forum on a previous trip to Rome

Our masks had to be worn throughout the 2.5 hour flight unless eating or drinking and we were encouraged to stay in our seats as much as possible with queuing in the aisle for the toilet no longer permitted. I was surprised to see that there were magazines, menus and safety cards tucked into the pouch in front of each seat as usual for us to flick through during the flight especially as no sanitiser was being provided by the airline.

Luckily I’d taken my own bottle on board in my handbag which I used regularly throughout the flight.

Even though signs up around Fiumicino Airport said arrivals would be subject to temperature tests, we only had to clear passport control once we’d landed. We had had to fill in a declaration form on the plane saying that we hadn’t tested positive for Covid in the last 14 days but this was collected in by the flight attendants to hand in upon arrival on behalf of all the passengers.

Above and below, visiting Palatine Hill on a previous trip to Rome

We had booked a private taxi transfer to our hotel and the driver was waiting for us at arrivals. We had to gel our hands before touching the seat belts and like in the UK, our masks had to stay on for the journey. As we travelled, the driver informed us that due to rising Covid case numbers, from noon that day it had been made mandatory in Rome and the region of Lazio to wear face coverings at all times, inside and out, and it would be enforced by fine from midnight.

Throughout the weekend, we saw police and military out in force on the streets of Rome blowing their whistles and shouting at the few people who may have removed their masks but overall, there was 99% compliance everywhere we went.

The National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and below, getting a bit closer on a previous trip

Our hotel was a bit of a hidden gem. A bed and breakfast hidden on the seventh floor of an apartment block in the Garbatella suburb, we were mildly worried when we pulled up to a slightly run down looking side street. But after following the instructions we’d been sent to navigate our way through the rather high-tech, keyless and contactless locking system, we found ourselves in a really lovely, clean and spacious hotel room.

The room lead out into a common area which we assumed would normally be where breakfast was served. Instead, breakfast was a selection of pre-packaged goodies in our room, such as croissants and cookies, which were topped up daily when our room was serviced. We had a coffee machine and coffee pods in our room and a kettle lay out in the common area next to a bottle of sanitiser and wipes although, despite teabags being provided, as I often find the case in Europe, there was no sign of any milk for my tea and I had to buy some from the local convenience store!

A quiet Trevi Fountain

After settling in and freshening up, we headed straight out for the afternoon walking straight down the main road to Garbatella station. The area seemed very authentically Italian with office workers and locals filling the tables at pavement cafes and shopping at the neighbourhood stores and market stands. It was a 10-15 minute walk to the station where we bought a 72-hour travel pass for 18 euros and then caught the metro just 3 stops to Colosseo, the stop for the Colosseum.

Crowds at the Trevi Fountain on a previous visit to Rome

As we exited the station, the impressive, ancient Colosseum building immediately loomed in front of us. Having been to Rome twice before, the first time spending almost a week properly exploring and the second time spending 24 hours just passing through, I had toured the Colosseum before. That time, we had walked to the quieter and less visited Palatine Hill to buy tickets allowing us entry to three sites (Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum) and were then able to skip the line upon visiting the Colosseum later that day. The building was just as impressive from the inside as the outside and I found it fascinating to find out about what it would have been like to be there all that time ago attending a huge event.

The Spanish Steps

This time, we admired the building from the outside taking plenty of photos and fending off ticket touts and tour guides trying to convince us to buy from them, eventually replying to them all with a standard “we’ve already toured it” in order for them to leave us alone!

Aperitivo in Testaccio

From the Colosseum, we walked past the ruins of the Roman Forum. Again, having visited before, we didn’t venture in this time. On my first visit to Rome, it had been an extremely hot August day when I had visited the Forum straight after spending a few hours wandering through the sun-drenched ruins of Palatine Hill. Tired, hot and in need of shade and water, I’m not sure I had fully appreciated what I had seen there with one ruin starting to look like the rest and I’d like to go back sometime and maybe tour both of these places with a tour guide rather than wander through myself. Today, we just took photos of the ruins from the viewing point before continuing on towards the Vittorio Emanuele II National Monument.

Cacio e Pepe at Felice a Testaccio restaurant

This monument is one of the buildings that stands out the most to me from my memories of my first visit to Rome. Taking the open top tour bus from our Termini area hotel, I always remember rounding a corner and suddenly seeing this white, marble building glittering bright in the sunshine and everyone on board simultaneously gasping at the sight of it. Relatively modern compared to the ancient Roman buildings scattered around the city – construction didn’t being until 1885 – it’s classical architecture and sheer size still stands out as a beautiful must-see building in the city. It is free to enter the building but with the current restrictions there was a long queue so we didn’t stay on this occasion.

Hugo Spritz cocktails

Next, we walked along Via del Corso, eventually turning off the main road to follow signs to the Trevi Fountain and grabbing a sandwich and drink from a small cafe along the way. The last time I had visited Rome, the Trevi Fountain was covered with scaffolding while restoration work took place and the first time I had visited, it was difficult to get anywhere near it with the huge crowds of tourists filling the square. Today, I was please to find it was a lot quieter and we were easily able to spend some time admiring the beauty of the sculpture and getting our photos.

Our final stop of the afternoon was at the Spanish Steps as we passed through to get to the metro station. Deciding not to climb the steps today, we took a few photos then caught the train back to our hotel to get ready for an evening out.

The Pyramid of Cestius

We began our evening by meeting with a friend who lives in Rome near her Piramide area flat, one metro stop from where we were staying in Garbatella. From here, we took a short walk to Piazza Testaccio, a small square surrounded by bars and cafes where locals would purchase their ‘aperativo’ – drinks served with bite size snacks – and sit out in the square socialising while their children played in the centre of the square!

There was a great atmosphere and the pizza bites, small sandwiches crisps we were served with our drinks were all a delicious appetiser before the meal we had booked for later!

Murals adorn the buildings in the Ostiense area and below, my friends’Sandwich of the day’ at Marigold Cafe and my gelato from Gelateria La Romana in the same area

For our main meal, our friend had booked a highly recommended nearby restaurant, Felice a Testaccio. Here, the most menu item, and the one ordered by us all, was the Roman pasta dish Cacio e Pepe which literally translates as cheese and pepper. Our pepper-sprinkled Tonnarelli pasta was brought out to us in a bowl absolutely covered in parmesan cheese. We then watched as the servers skillfully tossed together the contents of the bowl and a thick cheese sauce was formed. Delicious!

After dinner, we walked back towards Piramide station, stopping for drinks across the road at the Tram Stop bar, my friends particularly enjoying a ‘Hugo Spritz’ – an elderflower flavoured drink – as a change from the usual Aperol Spritz.

Another Aperol Spritz!

After a big night out the day before, we were late up the next morning. Walking back towards the Piramide area (so called because of a huge, first century-built Pyramid-shaped tomb in the area), we met up with our friend at her nearby apartment before going for brunch. She took us to a small cafe/micro-bakery called Marigolds in the nearby Ostiense. There was a half hour wait for a table during which time we wandered through the local streets before returning to be seated.

Pizza at Sorbillo

Marigolds bakes all its bread on the premises but despite this, I found it’s 11 euro charge for a tiny grilled cheese sandwich and 4.50 for a pot of tea to be a bit on the expensive side. My friends did really enjoy their orders of Shakshuka – eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce – and the sandwich of the day – a huge pork and coleslaw filled sandwich on sourdough.

An almost deserted Spanish Steps in the rain and, below, at St Peters Square in time for a Papal address.

After brunch, we stopped for dessert at Gelateria La Romana – I highly recommend the Biscotto della nonna (like a cookie and cream flavour) and Crema di nocciola al cacao (hazelnut and chocolate) flavours! – then walked from Ostiense to Circo Massimo. We wandered through the grounds of Circo Massimo, the remains of an ancient chariot-racing stadium and continued on to the Jewish Quarter, passing the ancient Roman Theatre, Teatro Marcello which influenced the architecture of the much more-famous and later-built Colosseum. After drinks sat out a a cafe in the Jewish Quarter, we walked back to the Colosseum and caught the metro back to our hotel to freshen up ready for the evening.

That evening, we had decided to dine at Sorbillo, a popular restaurant in the centre of Rome specialising in Neapolitan-style pizzas. I had eaten at Sorbillo’s in Milan in the past and really enjoyed it so was looking forward to eating at the Rome branch. Sorbillo operated a no booking in advance policy so we arrived early at 8pm, just half hour after opening. The restaurant was already busy and we were told it would be a 45 minute wait for a table to be available. Putting our name down, we went for drinks at a bar around the corner and returned to find our table ready.

For starters, we ordered a highly-recommended potato croquette each. When they arrived they were huge and did not disappoint in their taste. Mains was pizza’s all round and although I went for a basic margherita, it was one of the best I’ve ever had! We stayed at Sorbillos late, having drinks at our table after our meal and then walking back towards the Spanish Steps to catch the metro back to our hotel. It was pouring with rain as we left but this did mean that the Spanish Steps were almost completely deserted making for a rare photo opportunity!

Castel Sant’Angelo and, above, touring the Vatican Museums on a previous visit

We had one full day left in Rome and had decided to spend it revisiting, or rather whizzing past, the sights we hadn’t yet seen on this visit. We started in Vatican City where we planned on visiting St Peter’s Basilica. I had taken a tour of the Vatican Museums, which included access to the Sistine Chapel, on a previous visit to Rome, making sure I pre-booked to avoid the huge queues that tend to form there on a daily basis.

View of the River Tiber from Ponte Sant’Angelo

That time, we had arrived back at St Peter’s Basilica just as a mass started meaning I didn’t get to see as much of the church as I would have liked so I hoped to explore a bit more today. However, as we got closer to St Peter’s Square, there was a heavier than usual presence of security and police as well as large crowds of people. We were redirected to a front entrance to the Square where we had to go through a security check to be allowed into the Square itself.

Crossing the River Tiber

Moments after clearing security, we realised that with it being midday on the first Sunday of the month, the Pope was about to make an appearance on the balcony to say a blessing. This was a completely unexpected coincidence and we stayed to watch him address the crowd.

The Pantheon

With the square being so busy, we abandoned plans to stick around after to visit St Peter’s Basilica and instead walked from Vatican City back to Rome past Castel Sant’Angelo and across the Tiber River. On my first visit to the city, I had taken a river cruise along the Tiber which had been included with my hop on/off bus ticket but had found there wasn’t really a lot to see.

Pistachio Tiramisu from Pompi

Today, there seemed to be kayaks and boats for hire along the riverside which would have been fun to take advantage of if we’d had more time! Instead, after crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo, we wandered the back streets of Rome ending up in the beautiful Piazza Navona. Despite being hungry for lunch, I had learned my lesson from a previous experience of sitting out in one of the restaurants in the Piazza only to be met with inferior food and a hefty charge for service and bread so instead, we found a side street with some quieter tucked away restaurants and had lunch there.

Twin churches in Piazza del Popolo
Above, and below, views from the Spanish Steps

Passing the Pantheon along the way, we joined the short queue for the temperature check to enter and had a quick walk around. We had walked into a few churches for a look around over the weekend and it was always worth it no matter how unassuming they looked from the outside!

Next stop was Pompi, a tiramisu store near the Spanish Steps which we had been assured sold the best tiramisu in Rome. We then wandered along Via del Corso for some last minute shopping and down to another pretty square, Piazza del Popolo, flanked by its twin churches, one of which had it’s doors open so we wandered in for a look around.

Realising we’d not yet climbed the Spanish Steps despite passing them more than any other sight over the course of the weekend, we walked back to rectify this and visit the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. On my first visit to Rome, I had walked from here along to Villa Borghese, a huge and extremely pretty park with landscaped gardens, sculptures, museums and a boating lake and I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to walk there today.

The church at the top of the Spanish Steps, and below, walking from the top of the Spanish Steps to Villa Borghese on a previous visit

Instead, we found another back street bar for drinks before catching the metro to Cavour and walking to the Monti area. It was early Sunday evening by now and the cafes and bars in the area were already busy with tourists and locals out for drinks and aperitivo. We had drinks from Antigallery bar, where we were given complimentary tortilla chips and popcorn to munch on as we sat out in Piazza degli Zingari then moved down to Grazie a Dio è venerdi bar where we got a delicious pizza with every 2 drinks!

After seeing an almost constant queue at the neighbouring Fata Morgana gelateria, we decided to sample some for ourselves. The store offered some of the most unusual ice cream flavours I’d seen and while I enjoyed my scoops of chocolate chip gelato and Nutella swirl gelato, it wasn’t quite up there with the ice cream from Gelateria La Romana the day before.

The Colosseum at night

We finished our evening with a walk back to the Colosseum to see it lit up at night before retracing our steps from our first day’s sightseeing to grab photos of the illuminated Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and Trevi Fountain. Then it was time to wave goodbye to Rome’s city centre and ride the metro back to our hotel one last time before catching our flight back to Birmingham early the next day.

Despite the mandatory face coverings and general restrictions with travelling amid a global pandemic, our city break in Rome had felt like a breath of fresh air and a taste of normality in what has been a far from normal year. I certainly had my reservations about going ahead with our trip despite Italy remaining on the UK’s travel corridor list but if anything, my experience has made me more likely to plan similar breaks and, where possible, travel as I would usually.

Have you had any experiences of travelling on holidays or city breaks during the pandemic? Let me know in the comments!

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

South Island Tour Day 1

Above, and below, mountain views on the way from Christchurch to Tekapo

After a few days exploring Christchurch by myself, I had joined a small group tour of the South Island of New Zealand with the award-winning adventure tour company, Haka Tours.

Having met the group for dinner the previous evening, this morning, after a quick breakfast – our tour guide had a breakfast box full of cereals, bread for toasting etc just for the group – it was up and onto the bus to begin our South Island adventure.

More beautiful scenery on the road to Lake Tekapo

Most of the group had been travelling together a week already touring New Zealand’s North Island and although everyone was super friendly, with bonds having already been formed, we straight away fell into the pattern of us newbies pairing up to sit together on the bus which did make it a bit more difficult to get to know the rest of the group at first.

Today’s destination was Lake Tekapo but first we had a very scenic drive from Christchurch.

The mountain-backed Lake Tekapo

We made a few stops along the road to hop out of the van and take photos of the stunning mountain scenery and Mount Cook in the distance and then a lunch stop at a middle of nowhere cafe for a delicious toasted sandwich.

View from the lakeshore

Arriving at Lake Tekapo late afternoon, we stopped lakeside on the way in to take photos along the lake shore near to the Church of the Good Shepherd, a small chapel built on the shore that has become an iconic landmark.

On the lakeshore, and below, the Mackenzie Sheepdog Statue and Church of the Good Shepherd by the lake.

The views across the lake with the turquoise waters backed by the snow-capped Southern Alps were just stunning and we spent longer than planned wandering along the shore and sat on the rocks taking it all in.

Motel accommodation by the lake and below, the view from my room

From the lake shore, we were taken into the small town where or accommodation for the night was situated. Those in shared dorm accommodation were staying at a lakeside hostel while the few of us who had upgraded to private rooms were staying at a lovely lakeside motel. My room was comfortable, well-equipped and had a patio with stunning views across the lake.

As the sun went down, the mountains across the lake were bathed in a red glow.

Managing to drag myself away from the view from my patio, I met with the rest of the group early evening for surprise trip to Tekapo Springs Hot Pools. The sun had gone down and we relaxed in the hot pools under a spectacularly star-filled sky – Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve and is well-known for it’s starry skies!

Sunset at Lake Tekapo and below, watching the sunrise the next morning.

From the Hot Springs, we were taken back into town for dinner. Our guide had made reservations at a local Japanese restaurant but there were a coupe of us who were not fans of this cuisine so instead, we went to an Italian restaurant next door for a delicious pizza before wandering back to our accommodation.

The next morning was an early start but I couldn’t complain when it meant being up in time to watch the sunrise over the lake! Taking one last look at the beautiful view, I waved goodbye to Lake Tekapo and joined the rest of the group on our Haka Tours bus ready to continue our journey through South Island, New Zealand to our next stop, Queenstown.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Having decided upon taking a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group tour company Haka Tour, I set off on my journey from London Heathrow to Christchurch via short stops in Dubai, Bangkok and Sydney before finally landing 35 hours later. While I was not looking forward to such a long flight, I found it went a lot quicker than the longest flights I had previously taken to Australia, maybe helped by all the stops breaking the journey up; but I was still exhausted when we landed and the last thing I needed was to find my suitcase damaged and split open as it came round the conveyor belt at Christchurch airport!

The earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral

Customer services were very apologetic and offered to loan me a temporary case while mine was sent to be repaired but said that as it was a holiday weekend for ANZAC day, I would have to return to the airport in 2-3 days to collect it once it was fixed. I explained I was departing on a tour of the island and wouldn’t be in Christchurch then to be able to return to the airport and after a few calls, they agreed to give me a similar suitcase there and then.

A Christchurch tram passes by

It took me a while to repack and transfer everything from one case to the other and by the time I was ready to leave the airport, I’d abandoned all my plans to use public transport into the city and instead hopped straight into a taxi to take me directly to my Ibis hotel.

The temporary Re:Start Mall

It was afternoon when I arrived and with my room ready to check in straight away, I set my alarm for a quick nap before dragging myself out into the city. Finding my way to the Cathedral Square, I had my first glimpse of what was left of the cathedral, severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

An autumn stroll along the river

Hoping to find somewhere to eat in the city, I continued to wander through Christchurch but the city was like a ghost town with little about and failing to find anything I wanted to eat, I returned towards my hotel via a walk through Re:Start Mall, a temporary shopping area replacing stores damaged in the earthquake with stores in shipping containers, then along the river and once back, ordered room service before having an very early night to catch up on my missed sleep.

The Chalice sculpture in Cathedral Square

Having seen a leaflet advertising it in the reception of my hotel, I decided to take a walking tour of the city the next morning. There tour was free and there was no need to book, I just needed to be in Cathedral Square, by the Chalice sculpture, at 10am to meet the guide. 7 of us turned up for the tour, a mixture of solo travellers and couples and we were taken around the city hearing about it’s history and the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 quake.

The eerie, ghost town feel to the city made much more sense having heard the stories of the city’s struggles to rebuild and how many people and businesses had moved out to the suburbs to restart.

Above and below, art work covering up earthquake damage in Christchurch

There was still uncertainty about what would become of the damaged Cathedral and we were taken past the temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ being used int he meantime as well as shown the 185 Chairs earthquake memorial with one chair standing for every life lost in the earthquake. The city was also covered in street art and murals trying to cover up the damage and we had plenty of examples pointed out to us.

Rebuilding, art work, car parks and empty space – Christchurch still recovering from a devastating earthquake

Mentioning to the guide that I had struggled to find anywhere to eat in the city with even cafes serving snacks and breakfast being thin on the ground, he took the group to the C1 Espresso, a cafe with a quick bites menu of sandwiches, fries etc., for lunch.

The cafe had an interesting way of serving fries to the tables sending them through pneumatic tubes rather than the serving staff bringing them over!

Above and below, autumn in the botanic gardens

After lunch, I said goodbye to the group and took a walk to the city’s Botanic Gardens then visited the Canterbury Museum before collecting my luggage from my hotel and moving to the nearby YHA to meet my Haka Tours group. Having arrived from completing their tour of the North Island, the group were just checking in to the YHA and the few of us joining just for the South Island leg of the tour were introduced before we all went out for food at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

Above and below, visiting the Canterbury Museum

The group was made up of mainly Brits, a few Canadians, an American and one Australian varying in age from early 20s to mid-30s and despite most of the group having already spent a week together travelling the North Islands, I felt immediately included and knew we were going to have a good week together exploring the South Island.

Glad to have upgraded to a private room for the trip, after dinner, I headed back to the YHA and my room to again catch up on my sleep before our early start the next morning to begin our South Island adventure starting with a visit to Lake Tekapo.

Sydney

One of my favourite cities to visit in Australia; so what are my tips for what to do and see in Sydney?

Sydney Harbour

Looking across to Sydney Opera House

Pretty much the first place I always head to on a visit to Sydney is Circular Quay, the area surrounding Sydney’s famous harbour. From here, you can walk to its famous Opera House on the one side of the Harbour or around to The Rocks area by the Harbour Bridge on the other side of the harbour.

The iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge

On the Opera House side, the sea wall doubles as a seating area where you can relax in the Sydney sunshine taking in the stunning views or grab a drink at the Opera Bar sitting out at one of its tables overlooking the harbour watching the local ferries roll in and out and the occasional huge ship dock across at the Sydney Cruise Terminal.

A busy Opera House Bar

Circular Quay and The Rocks area are full of a variety of cafes, bars and restaurants although they are mainly in the more expensive price range due to their location but if you can afford it, its a great place to sit and watch the World go by.

Taking a ride on the Sydney Jet Boat

Its also the place to go to catch one of the many commuter ferries or to take a cruise on Sydney harbour. We took an exhilarating ride on the Sydney Jet Boat which is great fun if you don’t mind getting drenched!

Sydney Opera House

Touring the Opera House

While I have never seen a performance at the Opera House, no visit to Sydney is complete without a photo outside the iconic building. On my first visit to the city, I took a guided tour of the building to learn more about the building’s design. While the tour was quite short, it was really interesting to go inside the building to see and hear about where the performances take place.

The Opera House ‘sails’

Outside the building is the Opera Bar where you can get a drink and enjoy the views of the Opera House and across the harbour. If you are lucky enough to ever spend New Year’s Eve in the city then a highly recommend the Opera Bar’s new Year’s Eve Party right in the thick of the action!

Sydney Harbour Bridge

The harbour bridge dominates the views around Circular Quay and there’s a multitude of places to get the perfect photo of the structure. But it’s also possible to get a lot closer to the bridge. Cruises sailing both past and under the bridge can be booked leaving from both Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. I taken ferries heading back into Sydney at dusk to see the bridge under the red glow of the sky as the sun sets behind it.

Walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge

To get closer still, it’s free for pedestrians to walk across the bridge. I took a route through The Rocks area and up to the Sydney Observatory before crossing the bridge to Milsons Point and visiting Luna Park, a small amusement park on the Northern shore of Sydney Harbour before catching the ferry back to Circular Quay from Milsons Point ferry terminal. There are some great views of Sydney Harbour looking across to the Opera House from the Bridge but unfortunately, for safety reasons there’s a mesh fence up along the walkway stopping you from really taking a photo in front of this view. It is possible to hold the lens of your camera against a gap in the fence to take photos of the view though.

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous and have the money to splash out, the most exciting way to see the bridge is from the top of it. On my first trip to the city, I took part in a Sydney Harbour Bridge climb in which small groups of people are taken on a guided walk up to the highest point of the bridge.

At the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge on the bridge climb experience

We were given a special suit to wear and equipped with all the gear we’d need to attach ourselves safely to the bridge and move along it before being give a quick training session on a practise ‘bridge’ inside the bridge climb terminus before setting out on our adventure. The hardest part was climbing the vertical ladders onto the bridge but after this it was more like a walk up a hill than a climb and was a lot easier than I expected it to be.

As you’re not allowed to take your own cameras, our guide took pictures of us when we reached the top and we were provided with the group picture for free on our return. Copies of individual photos taken were available to purchase upon our return to the centre after our climb. This was a really fantastic experience and I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone visiting Sydney!

As part of our Bridge climb experience, we were given free tickets to visit the Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylon Lookout. As the name suggests, this allowed us to enter the Pylon on the south side of the bridge where a small museum is located detailing how the iconic bridge was built. After looking around the museum, we made our way to a viewing deck on top of the pylon which offered stunning views across Sydney Harbour and – unlike during our bridge climb – allowed us to take our own photos of and with the view. You don’t have to have participated in a bridge climb to access the Pylon Lookout, anyone can buy a ticket and visit.

Darling Harbour

Spotting Dugong at the Sydney Aquarium

The other well-known harbour in Sydney is Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour is home to a range of tourist attractions including Sydney Aquarium and Sydney Wildlife Park, the Chinese Garden of Friendship and the World’s largest IMAX screen.

Darling Harbour at night

Darling Harbour is a great place to head for an evening out. It’s Cockle Bay Wharf area houses a variety of restaurants, and bars and clubs line both sides of the harbour.

Botanical Gardens

A bird on a palm tree and, above, exploring the Sydney Botanic Gardens

Lying to the rear of the Opera House, Sydney’s pretty Botanic Gardens are the perfect place for a stroll or to sit relaxing in the sunshine.

I like to follow the sea wall along the harbour to Mrs Macquaries Chair for great views and the perfect place to get a photo with both the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the same shot!

Beaches and coastal walks

A surfer at Bondi and, above, visiting Bondi Beach

The most famous of Sydney’s beaches is, of course, Bondi Beach. Bondi is in a suburb of Sydney and I’ve always caught the public bus out of the city to get there and back.

Bondi Baths, an ocean swimming pool

Whenever I’ve been in the sunshine, the beach has been busy with tourists and locals sunbathing, surfing or soaking up the atmosphere but on my last visit, I arrived to torrential rain, finding the area unsurprisingly, almost deserted!

Not sunbathing weather and, below, views walking from Bondi to Bronte

As sunbathing wasn’t an option, I instead took the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk, following the coast path from next to the Bondi lido. It was a really pretty walk and if I had time, I would have continued to follow the path to the beach at Coogee, catching the bus back to Sydney city centre from there but instead, I turned around once I reached Bronte and returned to Bondi to meet my friends.

Walking from Manly to Shelly Beach

Manly Beach is another beach easily accessible from the city. We took the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, walking down its Corso, lined with shops and restaurants, to reach the main beach.

We spent a fun day sunbathing and swimming in the ocean but again, if, like me, you can’t stay in one place for long, you can take a coastal walk past the Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve to Shelly Beach.

The lighthouse at Palm Beach

Fans of Australian soap Home & Away might want to head to Palm Beach in Sydney’s North Beach district. Palm Beach doubles as Summer Bay in the soap and is instantly recognisable to fans of the soap with its lighthouse and golden sands. The first time I visited, we took a guided tour of the North Beaches which had Palm Beach as its main stop and were lucky enough to find filming was going ahead that day.

Peninsula views from the lighthouse walk

The cast were more than happy to chat and take photos with fans between takes. Since then, I have returned taking a long bus ride out of Sydney to get there and while no filming was happening that day, I still had a great day walking up to the lighthouse for beautiful views across the peninsula before relaxing on the golden sands.

On my last visit to the city, upon the recommendation of a Sydney-sider friend, I took the ferry out to Watsons Bay.

The Gap at Watsons Bay

While the beaches there were not the best Sydney has to offer, I followed the South Head Heritage Trail, a pretty walking track that loops round past the Hornby Lighthouse and back.

From here, I walked up to The Gap viewing area on top to watch the ocean crashing into the rocks below the cliffs, continuing on along the coast to Macquarie Lighthouse. From Watsons Bay, I caught the bus back to the city, hopping off at Rose Bay for a stroll down to Rose Bay Beach.

Day trips out

Apart from heading to one of the many beaches, its possible to take a range of organised tours out of the city.

On a cable car across the Blue Mountains and, above, stopping to say hello to the wildlife at Featherdale

I took a fun day trip out to see the highlights of the the Blue Mountains. Leaving Sydney, we stopped off at Featherstone Wildlife Park to meet some friendly kangaroos and wallabies before driving through some of the pretty Blue Mountain villages and stopping off at some stunning viewpoints.

About to ride the World’s steepest railway and, below, beautiful views of the Blue Mountains

We spent the main part of the bay at the Scenic World attraction where we rode on the glass-bottomed scenic skyway, the World’s steepest railway and the scenic cable car for more beautiful views. Our tour stopped at Sydney’s Olympic Park on the way back before we took a sunset ferry ride back to Sydney.

Other tours you can take from Sydney include day trips to Jervis Bay and to Canberra, the country’s capital city, both of which I plan on doing on my next visit!

Getting Around

Walking is the best way to see Sydney!

While I’ve never stayed any further south than the Museum/Hyde Park area of the city, from here at least, Sydney is a pretty walkable city with both Circular Quay and Darling Harbour in easy reach. On one of my first visits to the city, I made use of the city’s hop on off bus but while the commentary was occasionally interesting, I didn’t feel that it took me to anywhere I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get to. I have also made use of the city’s efficient rail service with trains running regularly to Circular Quay from Central Station. From here you can connect to the city’s airport service too. Sydney Opal cards can be purchased from convenience stores and used on public transport including local rail services and the buses out to Bondi Beach. It’s even possible to venture out to the Blue Mountains on public transport rather than driving or using an organised tour if you are so inclined!

Sydney is definitely a great city to explore with plenty of things to see and do. Let me know if you’ve been by sharing your tips in the comments!

Find my other posts on Australia here!