A Year Abroad: From Beaches to Wildlife - Our Top Picks.
I’ve used my blog as a forum to write about when shit went wrong on our year abroad– getting lice, speeding tickets, losing my kids, standing on the side of the highway in the middle of the night after a bus breaks down etc. etc.
But, I get the "What was your favourite...?" questions a lot, so I’m laying out Our Top Picks. Ten months, fifteen countries, four continents. We covered a lot of turf on this gorgeous planet. So here's a round up of some of the coolest stuff we encountered.
Best Beach. Whitehaven Beach, Australia.
Best Wildlife. The Galapagos Islands. Visitors get unprecedented access to wildlife. The animals are curious and unafraid of people – sea lions will practically try to shake your hand, you have to step around ridiculously lazy land iguanas. The giant tortoises are slow and big and old, so you can sneak up and scare the shit out of them. JUST KIDDING. You shouldn’t do that, but you can, from a respectful meter away, gaze into their ancient eyes and have a moment. Snorkelling puts you face to face with giant sea turtles, sea horses, rays, sharks and a gazillion fish. We even had a few penguins come swim with us! In this life – go to the Galapagos Islands. Message me if you need tips on how to do it on the cheap! We saw plenty of wildlife all around the world and I've been on African safaris, but what makes the Galapagos truly special is that it's such an intimate experience. And the islands are stunning.
Honourable Mention: The Pampas in the Amazon Basin, Bolivia. You cautiously slip into the murky river, noting there's a caiman staring you down from the shore, and your guide says, “they rarely go after people”. And as you stand in the tepid river, fretting about that caiman, a pink and curious dolphin comes and pokes you in the butt with its nose, letting you know he wants to play.(See the video) In the trees nearby are exotic birds, sloths and monkeys. Later in the afternoon, the guide who told you not to worry about the caimen, takes your kids hunting for anacondas.
Sad fact: The reason the land along the river is so packed with wildlife is because much of their habitat has been destroyed and the animals have nowhere to go.
Best City. Singapore. I ran into people who complained Singapore is too clean and not gritty enough, but I loved this city and I think that’s what made it original and unparalleled. If you want grit, head to South America. Singapore highlights include best zoo in the world - with a Night Safari, light shows every evening downtown to celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday, lovely gardens and public green spaces, great public transportation and delish food. Drawbacks: Singapore is the most expensive place we visited and if you litter or vandalize they'll cane you. I was pretty sure one of my kids would experience a good old fashioned lashing.
Best Island. Bali, Indonesia. East meets West. You've probably have read all about Ubud in Eat, Pray Love. This is one cool little city. (And there's no shortage of 30ish year old women wandering around Bali "finding themselves.") Hip restaurants, funky coffee shops, culture, yoga, temples, beaches and spectular sunsets. Sipping wine on the deck, watching my kids fly kites in the rice fields with the local boys, as the sun set, was one of my trip highlights. Bonus: Bali is cheap! (We rented a two story environmentally sustainable house on the rice fields that came with a pool and people who show up to cook you breakfast for 65$ a night).
Best Food: Penang, Malaysia. Penang has neat outdoor "food courts" around town with a wide variety of some of the tastiest, cheapest food in the world. Georgetown, the main city on the island of Penang, is a destination for food and street art.
Best Camping: Australia. We spent a month meandering up the coast of Queesland, Australia with our campervan and tent. I loved the "freedom" camping system; you could show up to a place called Rainbow Beach and pitch your tent and wake to the sun rising over the ocean.
The kids liked the Top 10 Holiday Parks. They were equipped with amenities like pools, even water parks and decked-out kitchens. While I'll always prefer camping on the oean, it was nice sometimes not to have to cut carrots on a log with a plastic fork.
Pool at a Top 10 Holiday Park /campsite.
Friendliest People and Best Landscape: Colombia. Can’t say enough good things about Colombia. I think I liked it because there weren’t a lot of tourists there and people seem genuinely surprised that we even showed up to their country. I didn’t meet a single un-friendly person. After buying some art at a gallery, the owner asked where we were off to and I explained an eco-park outside of town. We were going to take a bus, but the next thing I knew we were all piling into her truck. That's just how people are in Colombia.
The landscape is soft and green and hikeable. It offers oceans and volcanoes. It’s not a country without issues(apparently there's been some sort of drug problem here. Shhhhhh.) There was a pretty strong police presence and lots of check stops, but I never felt unsafe. You heard it here first - this will be a serious tourist destination in the future. Go there before that happens.
ECUADOR gets and honorable mention. Great, great country if you are into hiking, surfing, hot springs, markets, volcanoes or ayhuaska!
Best Tourist Destination: Machu Picchu, Peru. It's a bit of a gong show over at Machu Picchu being one of the most visited places in the world, but it’s just one of those places in life you’ve got to see to believe because it’s just so f’ing unreal. How they managed to even build a hidden city that high in the mountains, why they built it, and the fact that the Spaniards never found and destroyed it makes it worth the trek. It’s well run, although it takes a bit of effort to access and it's somewhat expensive. But when you set eyes on this ancient city – you cannot help but be awed. HOT TIP: Skip the tours and make your own way there. Stick around till the end of the day and take the last bus down. Most of the tours have left and you will practically have the entire place to yourself!
Best Place We Stayed: Taufua Beach Fales in Samoa. I’ve always dreamed of sleeping in an open shack overlooking the ocean. This place is beautiful and off the beaten track, with sunsets to die for. They feed you well three times a day. It's rustic, and probably not for everyone but so is the entire country of Samoa. We'd stayed in a couple of 5 stars and I will always prefer this. Taufua has a backstory about a tsuami that will break your heart. Part of the love for the place stems from watching my kids play on the beach with kids who survived a Tsunami.
Best Hike: Taranongo Alpine Crossing, New Zealand.
This hike was a treat because we ditched the kids with my mother-in-law and got to take on this killer 20 km day hike - without anyone once asking "how much longer?" It's an alpine crossing, a World Heritage Site and scenes from The Hobbit were filmed there. Enough said.
Best Airline: Air New Zealand.
I shit you not, go to NZ, just so you can fly this airline. Their regular economy cattle class feels like first class. Tons of seat room, 100 movies to choose from, video game consoles at every seat, non-stop food and booze. They even took the kids into the cockpit for a while. Would that be considered free babysitting?They are consistently ranked the best airline in the world.
Best Adrenaline: Wipe Out Course. Thailand. There was a lot of adrenaline on our trip – zip lining, surfing, parasailing, trapeze lessons. Doing a wipeout course was a Bucket List thing for Oskar. Isla was the youngest kid ever to complete the red balls! And I fell off them 70,000 times. Thailand hosts a lot of activities that are insane - like the Slip and Fly slide. Check out this video on my instagram
Best Nature Experience: Mulu National Park, Borneo. Every night at dusk, three million bats fly out of a cave to eat. That's a hard show to top. One night we went on a guided hike after dark and saw bugs, snakes, tarantulas and rodents that still give me nightmares to this day.
Honourable Mention: Chalalan Eco Lodge, The Amazon, Bolivia. It took a bus ride, a really sketchy flight and a 5-hour boat trip up the river to get there. (Leonardo Di Caprio, the environmentalist, flew in with his private chopper.) But it seriously felt like Chalalan was one of the few places on earth where you are in the middle of nowhere and off the grid. We hiked and swam, were woken by howler monkeys, wild pigs and toucans. Oskar went fishing (sustainably, with a guide) and caught 3 piranhas – which were delicious.
Best Amusement Park: LEGOLAND, Malaysia. I'm only including this on the list because it'll probably never happen again in this life that we were practically the only people at an amusement park. The place was huge and there wasn't a single line up for anything. In fact, when it was time to leave I had to haul Isla off the roller coaster. She’d ridden it 8 times in a row and she was the only passenger. As we were leaving, all the workers were waving and giving her hugs, “Bye, Isla Blue! We love you! Come back and visit!”
Best Cocktail: Pisco Sour. It involves whipped egg whites and pisco. Yum.
Best Wine: Martinborough, New Zealand. For my birthday, I was given a day to tour vineyards and sample some fine pinots. It was great until my kids showed up.
Best Overall Experience: We arrived in the Yasawas, Fiji, at a lodge called The Oarsman with our tent. Yes, we are those people who showed up in Fiji with a tent. But they gave us a cabin on the beach for practically the same price as tenting. I loved them already.
We stayed about a week and a half (a long stay for us anywhere) because we really liked the place and the people who ran it. The location was stunning. The lodge was run by and supported a local Fijian community. We visited the village, we tagged along to church one week for something to do. I even wore a tradtional dress that was NOT flattereing. They showed us how feasts were prepared. Tourists were always coming and going as part of their packages. In Fiji, you jump on a catamaran and go island hopping. Many people found this place a bit rustic, compared to the 5 stars they'd come from.
The day before we were leaving, the people running the lodge offered to let us use to their private island for the day. Wait, let me understand you? You have a private island? In Fiji? And you’re going to let us use it for the day? (Normally, they would rent it our to people for lots of money.)
They packed us a picnic (that included beer), boated us out there and said they would pick us up at the end of the day.
Lying around on your own island in the South Pacific, reading Harry Potter with your kids, sipping beer, was a pretty special experience! Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Rob noticed that there were baby turtles in the sand. They were hatching, surfacing all around us and making mad dashes for the ocean.
For me, this was one of the best experiences of our trip. It was such a gift that resulted from connections we forged with people. It blended together some of my favourite things in life: friendship, family, nature, the ocean, an island, reading...and beer. It was a perfect day.