Two day cruise in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

A 2 day one night trip to Ha Long Bay

Limestone Karsts in Ha Long Bay
Beautiful Ha Long Bay beckons

 

At 7:40am the front door of the Skyline Hotel opened and in bounded the diminutive bundle of energy that was to be our guide for the next two days in Ha Long Bay.

“Martin & Leanne?” and we were off.

Our hotel was down a narrow alleyway. The bus was parked just a little way down the main street so we were soon on-board.

We spent the next hour navigating the blizzard of scooters whilst we collected the rest of the tour group before leaving the city behind.

Hanoi Traffic
Hanoi traffic

It’s just short of 4 hours to Ha Long Bay once you leave Hanoi. Unfortunately the bus was not built for western bodies. We grabbed the front seats, so at least we had some legroom, but the width of the seats did not lend themselves to a comfortable journey.

The trip was made bearable in part by some beautiful scenery but mainly by our excellent guide. And I’m not just saying that because she referred to my Yorkshire accent as being sexy! Now there’s a first.

Quy, aka Cookie Monster, spoke excellent English and was bursting with interesting information about both Ha Long Bay and the rest of the county. She also provided a free language lesson.

The transfer passed remarkably swiftly and soon we were boarding the boat that would be our home for the next 24 hours.

The Oasis Bay cruise ship had 18 cabins spread over 3 decks as well as a restaurant, sundeck and a hot-tub. We were pleasantly surprised by our double cabin which was well appointed with a small balcony a comfortable bed and a decent bathroom with a nice hot shower.

No sooner were we on board we were off to the restaurant for the first of our meals that were included in the price of the tour.

After a very satisfying lunch and a brief return to our cabins, we were off to the first of our activities. A hike to the top of Ti Top island for panoramic views of Halong Bay, and a dip in the ocean at the small man made beach.

Ha Long bay Vietnam
View from Ti Top

The climb to the top of Ti Top was much more exhausting than it should have been. I’m putting this down to the 5 course lunch we had just consumed rather than an indictment of my general level of fitness. The view from the top was definitely worth the effort.

We didn’t bother with the beach. Having had the good fortune to enjoy a number of tropical paradises on our recent travels, a small patch of imported sand liberally covered with a noisy rabble of day trippers didn’t have a great deal of appeal to us.

Once back on the boat a spring roll making competition preceded dinner, which though not as good as lunch was still OK. Afterwards there was karaoke and board games for those who wanted to partake. We retired for the evening and enjoyed a good nights sleep.

Ha Long Bay by Night
Ha Long Bay by Night

We failed to make it to the 6:30 Tai Chi, but did make the early 7:00am breakfast. At 7:40 a runner boat left the main ship and we were taken to the secret cave. Not a very well kept secret it appears, judging by the thousands of people snaking their way through them. The caves were very pretty, and the coloured lighting used to good effect.

Secret Caves Ha Long Bay
Sung Sot “secret” Caves

At 9:15 we were back on the main boat and checked out of our rooms at 9:45. At 10:30 we ate our last, and easily our best meal on the boat, and at 11:45 we were back on dry land.

A hour later our bus picked us back up and we were set of back to Hanoi.

So was it worth it?

The trip cost us $150 dollars each with everything included other than drinks on the boat. We thought was good value considering both the size and quality of the meals, and the impressive accommodation. On the down side drinks we’re excessively expensive to the extent that if you had a couple of drinks with your meal it worked out just as expensive as it would have been for a meal with drinks in Hanoi! This left a bit of a sour taste in our dry mouths.

Once you take into account the time it takes to pick up from all the hotels you are looking at 5 hours each way for the transfer. Ha Long bay is very beautiful, and we did enjoy the tour, but I’m not convinced I would be happy to spend that much time travelling to see it had I been on a short break. For us it’s a little different as our travels are somewhat open ended. That said, as pretty as Ha Long bay is, we probably enjoyed the days we spent wandering about in the old quarter of Hanoi just as much and that didn’t set us back $300.

The more we travel, the less the “must see” attractions are a highlight for us. I have no doubt that this in in part due to invariably having to share them with 1000’s of other people, however, in this case I believe it was more to do with having a regimented schedule. For us one of the best things about being a traveller is being able to set your own agenda…..

And then ignoring it….

 

 

Luang Prabang – UNESCO World Heritage Site

Luang Prabang, Laos

You won’t travel far in South East Asia before hearing about the charms of Laos’ premier destination, Luang Prabang.

We made it as far as booking a flight the last time we were around this way, before Asia fatigue kicked in and propelled us Oz-bound in search of pseudo home comforts.

And having just spent a month in Thailand we almost did it again. “how different will Luang Prabang be?” we asked.

Well if I’m being absolutely honest. Not that different!

But that’s certainly no reason not to go.

If you were to take the best of Thailand’s inland treasures and squeeze them in to one small town you would pretty much have Luang Prabang.

The ancient town lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The sublime natural beauty is augmented by French Colonial architecture, an abundance of sparkling temples and swathes of saffron wrapped monks who parade the streets.

Mount Phousi

At the centre of town 350 steps scale the 150 meter Mount Phousi, caped by Wat Chomsi the summit offers spectacular views of the whole town as well as the Mekong and Nam Khan. About half way up you will find the Wat Tham Phousi shrine. Make sure you don’t miss the not-so hidden cave.

Kuang Si Falls

Another must see attraction is the Kuang Si falls. Just 30Km south of Luang Prabang the spectacular 50 meter waterfall feeds a number of stunning cascades set amongst beautiful azure bathing pools and tropical jungle. There is a hiking trail to the top of the falls for those feeling adventurous and bathing is allowed in some of the lower pools for those who fancy a refreshing dip. Just how refreshing the water is can be a little bit of a surprise when you first get in and watch out for the slippery stones and the little fish that like a nibble!

At the entrance to the falls is a bear sanctuary where you can see some of the bears rescued by the organisation. You can also buy a souvenir or make a donation to help the good cause. www.freethebears.org/

Free the Bears Luang Prabang
Rescued bear

Entrance to Kuang Si falls is 20,000 kip (£2) at the time of writing and this includes entrance to the bear sanctuary. Our private hire tuk-tuk cost  200,000 kip (£20) for half a day.

No place for a party

Despite the divine beauty, and its well-earned reputation Luang Prabang remains a remarkably peaceful place. The nearest thing to a crowd you will see is at the nightly market on the main road and little noise escapes the restaurants and bars which are bound by a strict curfew that sees their doors closed at 11:30pm. We were told most locals go to bed early as they get up each morning to give alms.

Alms Giving Ceremony

The alms giving ceremony takes place daily at sunrise where a procession of monks numbering in the hundreds collect offerings from locals and visitors alike.

It’s one of those unusual “attractions” that forces you to question the ethics of picture-taking. Is it disrespectful to photograph this ancient spiritual ceremony? Should I be content to witness the spectacle and record it only in memory? Well after the 3rd consecutive night of being woken up at 6am by gong-bonging and bell-ringing I moralised that if they hadn’t woken me up I’d be still tucked up in bed rather than giving them the fat end of a 200mm lens. Karma! They can’t argue with that!

Luang Prabang Alms giving ceremony
Alms giving ceremony

Get Out!

As beautiful as the old town is, and there is no denying its beauty, for us, as is so often the case, the best part of Luang Prabang was to be found outside the tourist epicentre. Across the Nam Khan river via the bamboo bridge lies the real Laos. Endless leafy villages and weathered temples to explore and hardly a farang in sight.

Isn’t Luang Prabang expensive?

The one negative we kept hearing about Luang Prabang was that it was expensive. And I guess this one is subjective. We stay in mid range hotels, and ate in decent restaurants. Decent, not expensive. And we found the prices very similar to those in Bangkok. Sure there are plenty of fancy restaurants on the main strip that will  easily make a hole in $100, but how is that any different to the Thai capital? An evening meal for 2 cost us $15 – $20, which is pretty much what we spent when we were in Thailand. And if anything the beer is slightly cheaper, so that’s a result!

We are glad we went through with the visit this time. Luang Prabang is only a small town, and it’s easily explored in a couple of days. But it’s a small town with a lot of charm, and one of the most beautiful places we have visited in South East Asia.

 

 

 

Phuket Old Town – The cultural gem of Phuket

What to see in Phuket Old Town, Thailand

Phuket.
Jewel of the Andaman sea.
A world-famous playground of white sand beaches, blue skies, and crystal clear water. Resplendent with every modern amenity a tourist could desire.
Welcoming over 20 million visitors per annum Phuket is well and truly on the tourist trail.
But how many of these visitors make it to Phuket Town?
Judging by our recent visit, I’m going to say not many. And let me tell you, they are missing out.
Missing out on the best food.

Braised Pork and Crab Curry at One Chun Restaurant
Braised Pork and Crab Curry at One Chun Restaurant

Missing out on the best architecture.

Baan Chinpracha Phuket Town
Baan Chinpracha

Missing out on the real Phuket.

Phuket Old Town was built on the riches of the tin mining boom. Beautiful Sino-Portuguese buildings house chic coffee shops, boutique stores and excellent restaurants. The mining industry also attracted a large population of Chinese immigrants whose influence is evident. Shop houses and intricate shrines add to the splendour of the town.

Despite being the provincial capital of an island slap bang in the heart of Touristville, Phuket Town is remarkably laid back. A beautiful place to amble around and marvel and the stunning colonial mansions and elegant temples hidden around every corner.
And when it’s time to refuel an extensive array of dining options await. Everything from food carts to opulent restaurants serving 5 star cuisine from around the world. Mostly at very reasonable prices.

On Sunday the main street, Thalang Road, hosts a night market. Closed to traffic this usually sleepy street suddenly becomes a hub of activity. Stalls offering food, beverages, clothing and all sorts of Knick-knacks throng with tourists who materialise out of nowhere to create a cacophony of noise and bustle. Fortunately this burst of life soon subsides, and long before midnight the peace and tranquillity of Phuket Town is restored.

Once adequately nourished by the culture, heritage and remarkable food that old town has to offer don your comfortable shoes and take a trek up Monkey Hill for some great views of the city, and some interesting company…..

And if you still have the urge to dip your toes in the Andaman you can reach some of the most beautiful beaches that Phuket has to offer for just 40 baht from the South Bus Station conveniently located at the edge of Old Town.

Monkey Hill – Phuket Town

Toh Sae Hill in Phuket Town also known as Monkey Hill

A short but steep walk from Phuket Old Town, Monkey Hill Viewpoint offers impressive views over the whole of town and out to sea. But it’s not the vista that draws people here. It’s the large troupe of cheeky macaques that are the star attraction.

From the Provincial Hall, Toh Sae Road climbs sharply. The road has plenty of shade and a couple of decent look out spots, as well as more than it’s fair share of sleeping dogs. (Just let them lie)

There’s a little Chinese shrine and a small shop about half way up. A good place to take a short break in the company of more dogs, now joined by goats and roosters.

The monkeys have commandeered a small exercise park about 1km up the hill and appear to enjoy using the cross trainer as a swing.

It’s said that several hundred macaques inhabit Monkey Hill and though I can’t vouch for that what I can say is they were certainly not in short supply during our visit.

Monkey Hill Phuket Town
Stacks of Macaques

I’d read some older articles that said that the monkeys were quite shy. Clearly constant human contact is having some impact on this. Though certainly not as boisterous as the muggers at Monkey Forest Ubud, they are far from shy, and will approach you even if you do not have food and think nothing of stealing your bottle of water. Little ******’s.

A little further up the hill just before you reach the TV & radio stations you will see the viewing platform. There’s little point progressing any further as this spot offers the best views available.

Monkey Hill Viewpoint
Monkey Hill Viewpoint

If you are visiting Phuket Town, we would certainly recommend a trip to Monkey Hill. Although the climb is steep, it’s a pleasant walk with plenty of opportunities to rest along the way. But be warned local dogs have already taken all the best spots to relax in.

Doi Mae Salong – The most beautiful Chinese village in Thailand

Santikhiri village, better known by it's former name Mae Salong

Nestled between tea plantations and rolling mountains 70km north of Chiang Rai, a stone’s throw from the Myanmar border, lies the beautiful village of Santikhiri, more commonly known as Doi Mae Salong.

Doi Mae Salong
Doi Mae Salong

Founded by Chinese settlers following the Chinese civil war, Mae Salong has retained much of its Chinese heritage. Yunnanese voices escape shop houses and red lanterns adorned with Chinese symbols illuminate the streets.

In fact there is little to remind you that you are still in Thailand other than the smiling faces and warm and friendly nature of the people.

Mae Salong has been called the Switzerland of Thailand and although I’m not sure I’d go that far, the splendour of the stepped tea plantations did remind me of the rice terraces in Ubud, Bali. Any comparison to Ubud is fine praise indeed.

Tea houses line the undulating streets. Many offering tea sampling with eye-popping views of the plantations.

Coffee Doi Mae Salong
High Tea

The best view in town however requires a little more effort. Accessed via a flight of 700 steps reaching skyward from Wat Santikhiri temple, Phra Boramathat Chedi is an impressive monument in its own right. However that’s not the primary reason to make this pilgrimage. The breath-taking panorama of Mae Salong and the surrounding mountains are what make the heart punishing climb worthwhile.

Back at ground level a small but interesting market marks the centre of town. Distinct from markets to be found elsewhere in Thailand, it has an unusual mix of Chinese and Thai products as well as decorative items made by the Akha, a local hill tribe, who can be seen around the market wearing their traditional attire.

If you’re thinking Mae Salong sounds pretty nice so far, just wait until you sit down to eat! The food is reason enough in itself to visit. A mouth-watering fusion of Yunnanese and Thai flavours, that result in a taste sensation that far outweighs the sum of its parts.

So, in summary, Mae Salong is an exceptionally picturesque village which boasts sensational surrounding scenery, and sublime food. But despite this it appears to be well off the tourist-trail and is almost completely farang-free by nightfall.

And I’m not surprised! Having spent almost 4 months in Thailand including a week in its more famous neighbour, Chiang Rai, we would have known nothing about Mae Salong had it not been for fabulous YouTube vlog by super-foodie Mark Wiens at Migrationology.com a recommendation we are truly grateful for.

White Temple – Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai's number one attractions The White Temple, Wat Rung Khun

The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is unlike any other temple in Chiang Rai and probably in the whole of Thailand. Built by

Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist from Chiang Rai, it is more an art installation than a traditional temple.

Wat Rong Khun The White Temple
Wat Rong Khun The White Temple

The entrance fee into the temple grounds is 50 baht. Once inside, the main temple is reached via a bridge which crosses the sea of suffering, where grasping hands reach up in desperation from below.

Sea of Suffering - Wat Rong Khun
Sea of Suffering

The intricately carved temple is strikingly beautiful. The pure white façade brought alive by light and shadow in the midday sun.

Inside the temple colourful artwork contrasts sharply with the exterior. Swirling clouds and demonic faces juxtapose pop culture imagery including Neo from the Matrix, Bumble-Bee from the Transformers and the scary tricycle riding doll from the Saw movies.

The stylistic clash of old and new continues in the temple grounds, where the pretty manicured gardens are home to a semi buried Predator and the decapitated heads of movie characters hang from trees, alongside Buddhist shrines.

Wat Rong Khun Gardens
Temple Gardens
Predator - Wat Rong Khun
Predator
Head Tree - Wat Rong Khun
Head Tree
Wat Rong Khun Gardens
Wat Rong Khun Gardens

Even the toilets had gargoyle guardians.

Wat Rong Khun Gargoyles
HIs and Hers Gargoyles

Getting to the White Temple

You can take a non air-conditioned bus from the old bus station in Chiang Rai, for 20 baht. Leg room not included.

Songthaews are also available on a private hire basis from the bus station. We found the cheaper option was to flag down a taxi. Reluctant to use his meter the driver agreed a still very reasonable 150 baht fare.

A word of warning. Our driver tried to take us to the wrong temple. Make sure you’re heading for Wat Rong Khun, not Wat Rong Suea Ten. The latter being the blue temple, despite our drivers initial insistence to the contrary.

When your visit is over skip the lurking tuk-tuk and taxi drivers directly in front of the temple and walk to the main road where you can flag down a songthaew, for a 20 baht return journey.

Even if you’ve explored all of the traditional temples in Chiang Rai and are feeling “templed-out” you should make the effort to put this one on your list. Its only 15 KM from town and is different enough from the others to make it worthy of your time.

 

Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, Sun Moon Lake

Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan

Hidden from Sun Moon Lake by mountains lies the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village.  You can take one of the regular buses that circle Sun Moon Lake, however as the park entrance ticket (NT$780) includes transfer from Ita Thao on Sun Moon Lake via a rope-way (cable-car), we recommend you choose this option. The cable car offers panoramic views of both the lake and mountains and is an attraction in itself.

Formosan Ropeway

The park consists of nine authentically reconstructed tribal villages displaying traditional homes and architecture of the nine principal Taiwanese aboriginal tribes. As well as exploring the villages you can see aborigines making traditional handicrafts, carrying out cooking and weaving demonstrations or performing one of the excellent traditional dance shows that take place throughout the day. You can also try your hand at Blowpipe Archery, Seediq Archery, pottery making or one of several traditional games.

Blowpipe Archery Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village
Leanne shows she is deadly with a blowpipe
Traditional Game Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village
Traditional Game
Tribal House Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village
Tribal House

In addition to the traditional villages there is a theme-park area with thrill rides including the UFO an 85 metre free fall ride, Caribbean Splash a themed log flume where you will get soaked, and the super aggressive, vomit inducing, spine shattering, 4.5G roller-coaster the Mayan Adventure. This thing really should come with a safety warning. I kid you not!

Caribbean Splash Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village

The European Palace Gardens, make up the final area of the park. Claiming to be the finest European-style garden in Taiwan. We decided to take their word for it and skipped this area. It’s a bit of a shame really as judging by the high quality of the rest of the park I’m sure it would have been lovely, however, the park is enormous and we were already starting to feel the effects of the blistering heat and excessive humidity, before the roller-coaster tried to rattle us into an early grave.

We really enjoyed our day out at The Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, and were staggered by how quiet it was. Unbeknown to us we visited during the Taiwanese school holidays, and despite this we almost had the park to ourselves.

For more information click here to visit the official web page for Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village

 

Is Disneysea the best Disney theme park?

Disneysea, Tokyo, Japan

It’s been said that Disneysea is what you get when you give the Imagineers an open cheque-book , so we couldn’t wait to check it out when we recently visited Tokyo.

DisneySea consists of seven themed areas: Mediterranean Harbor, Mysterious Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront. The park loosely follows the spoke and wheel pattern, popular at many of the other parks, with the hub in this instance being a 100 foot volcano.

Turning left as you enter the park you enter Mediterranean Harbor, the first part having a Portofino Bay feel, the second part is distinctly Venice. How Venice? Well, Venice enough to fool a Venetian (we tweeted a photo whilst we were there and did just that!)

Mediterranean Harbor Disneysea Tokyo

Mediteranean Harbor - Disneysea
Mediterranean Harbor

The detailing is extraordinary. Forget what you’ve seen at the other Disney Parks, this really is another level. The canal walls have water marks and moss on them, there are imperfections and erosion on the brickwork, and the buildings are individually detailed and convincingly aged. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s perfect, you truly are transported to Venice.

And this exceptional detailing continues throughout the park.  Continuing clockwise the next “land” is American Waterfront where the SS Columbia resides, an exquisite replica of a steam liner, well I say replica, I’m still not 100% sure, even after boarding it and wandering around tapping on the surfaces I can’t say if it’s a real liner or not!

SS Columbia - Disneysea
SS Columbia

And so, it continues. The park is a visual marvel. A masterpiece. The piece de resistance of theme parks.

Or is it?

Isn’t there more to consider here than aesthetics?

What about the attractions?

When the rope dropped we headed straight for Mysterious Island, and jumped on one of the subterranean vehicles at the parks No.1 attraction “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. As the vehicle trundled through unimpressive tunnels adorned with glow-sticks, our enthusiasm started to dip, and then the finale, a short drop at a relatively mild speed and it was over….

Unfortunately this was not a one-off. It was very much a taste of things to come. I get the distinct impression the Imagineers put so much effort into the detailing of the park, that they were all burnt out when it came to the rides. It’s the first park I’ve ever been to where the queueing area is better than the attraction it precedes!

And what have you done to Tower of Terror?!

Tower of Terror Disneysea Tokyo
You are not entering the Twilight Zone

The Disney classic has been reimagined, without the Twilight Zone theme, and when I say reimagined, I actually mean ruined.

It really is a shame. I can’t over emphasise how special the park is visually, but the attractions are unforgivably poor, beautiful but entirely uninteresting.

And there’s one other thing.

I thought this was a Disney Park!

Where’s Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto, and what’s this Duffy bear meant to be??

Everywhere you look, Duffy this, Duffy that, Duffy Cupcakes, Duffy T-shirts, Duffy backpacks. What the hell is a Duffy?

So, is Disneysea the best Disney theme-park in the world?

The attention to detail is unsurpassed, and it’s a beautiful park to walk around, and enjoy the sublime detailing. But the rides are hugely disappointing, and it just doesn’t feel magical. Maybe that’s the bears fault, or maybe it’s something else, but Disney without magic, is just not Disney.

For us the best 3 Disney Parks are all still in Florida.

What do you think? Which is your favourite Disney park & why? Leave a comment below.

The Great American Road Trip – Part 3 – Louisiana and Florida

Mandeville, Destin, Seaside, Crystal River, Orlando, St Pete Beach, Key West and Miami

  • Louisiana

Our first stop in Louisiana was at Breaux Bridge, the self-proclaimed Crawfish Capital of the world.  We chose the crawfish platter at the “Crazy ’bout Crawfish Cajun Café”, a festival of all things crawfish.

It turns out Crawfish isn’t that nice.

If you’ve not tried them, they are a bit like a tiny prawn (shrimp), that has grown up in a swamp, and that’s exactly how they taste.

So all Crawfished out we moved on to our overnight destination. We we’re lodging just outside Mandeville, a town just across the bay from New Orleans. We had chosen Mandeville for our Louisiana stop rather than New Orleans as we wanted to experience a real Louisiana town, rather than a tourist hotspot, and definitely not because we were intimidated by the appalling crime rate in the Big Easy.

Mandeville.

Mandeville was beautiful and made all the more spectacular by the dense fog that blanketed the town on the morning we arrived. The old plantation style houses, Spanish Moss covered Cyprus Trees, and waterfront were transformed into a perfect horror movie setting. It looked like a scene from “Silent Hill”, which is ironically anything but a perfect horror movie.

Mandeville Louisiana
Mandeville Louisiana
Mandeville Louisiana
Mandeville Louisiana

The Tammany Trace, a scenic biking and hiking trail, connects Mandeville with the nearby Fontainebleau State Park, an attractive 2,800-acre park located on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. A nice spot for a tramp through the wilderness occasionally interrupted by alligators, snakes, and various creepy crawlies.

Lake Pontchartrain Louisiana
Lake Pontchartrain Louisiana

Having survived the state park we popped back into Mandeville for a bite to eat before heading on, with a slight regret that we hadn’t allocated more time to Louisiana. If Mandeville is anything to go by we’d definitely sold ourselves short here. 

Florida

Destin

Destin was neither of our first choices, we actually wanted to stay in Seaside, but the budget said otherwise.

Actually Destin turned out to be a pretty nice place, with a fantastic unspoilt and uninhabited beach partnering a crystal clear sea and a pretty Harbour Walk area, sporting plenty of places to eat and drink. We also got very lucky on the accommodation paying just $70 per night at the Hilton Home2 Suites. We don’t often give a shout out to hotels, but this place was incredible for what we paid, a real suite with a kitchen and sofa, and immaculately clean. Do bare-in-mind however it was off-season and the place had only just opened, so you may struggle to grab the same deal.

Destin Florida
Destin beach Florida

Seaside

Seaside is every bit as cute and quaint as it looks in the movie “The Truman Show”. The quintessential seaside town; but how could it not be with a name like that? Seaside hosts shops, bars, restaurants and more than its fair share of art galleries, all impeccably clean and manicured and if that’s not enough, it also boasts what was probably the whitest powder sand beach, and crystal clear water, we have seen anywhere on our travels to date.

Truman's House Seaside Florida
Truman’s House Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida

Crystal River

Our only reason to visit Crystal River was to see the Manatees, and it’s clear that this is the towns major draw. Personally I’m not really sure why these docile sea cows are such an attraction, they don’t do a great deal. For the most part they just hang about at the bottom of the water, looking a lot like big rocks. But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, we both wanted to witness this, so we bought our passes to the 3 Sisters springs and boarded the tour bus (the only way to get there as there is no parking at the springs). The tour bus passes though the centre of Crystal River before reaching the springs. As it happens Crystal River has a pretty old town area, which we were quite unaware of when we booked our accommodation on the outskirts of town.

3 Sisters springs features a boardwalk area around 5 natural springs where Manatees visit to warm themselves during the winter months, as well as a large wetland walking area. As it happens we had fallen lucky with the weather, that is for the rest of our trip, not for Manatee spotting purposes. The sun was blazing and the temperature was in the 80’s. That said we did see a couple of adults and a calf. Apparently on colder days the springs are teaming with them.

Crystal River Florida
Crystal River Florida

The springs, and surrounding wetlands are pretty, and even Manatee free they are worth a visit. Just watch your step, there are alligators in the wetlands, and having almost tripped over one before he hot footed it into the lake, we counted our wildlife-spotting excursion a definite success.

Universal Studios

Well actually International drive, but there’s only one reason we’re here, and that’s to visit Orlando’s second best Theme Parks. Soz Universal, but we both know it’s true.

That said, since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, the divide has reduced significantly, and we were keen to see if the expansion into Diagon Alley had made up further ground.

It had, but only a little. As it happens Diagon Alley is very similar to the Wizarding World, and the Gringot’s Mine train, a similar experience to the Forbidden Journey, just not as good. I guess you’d have to experience the Hogwarts Express to know for certain, unfortunately its another $50 to do this, not something we could justify on a travellers budget.

One thing we did like was Knockturn Alley, a dark and spooky area tucked away right at the back of Diagon Alley.

Diagon Alley Universal Studios Florida
Diagon Alley Universal Studios Florida

I’m not going to go cover the parks on this posts, there’s already a ton of stuff out there on both Disney, and Universal, besides we’ve already covered our favourites in a previous blog “5 of the best at Orlando and Walt Disney World”

St Pete Beach

We stopped off at John’s Pass for lunch on our way to St Pete Beach. The area consisted of a small village of gift shops shouldering a waterfront boardwalk hosting several restaurants. The whole area had an air that perhaps it had seen better days, or perhaps it had just lost its way, with a Hooters restaurant sitting uncomfortably with a turn of the century fishing village theme.

St Pete Beach itself was one of the bigger disappointments we experienced during our road-trip. The resort was entirely unremarkable, a little run down and the beach was more shell than sand. The not so appealing water was divided from the beach by a border of red seaweed, and an abundance of dead molluscs, and crustaceans.

Everglades

Accommodation options for the Everglades appear to be Everglades City on the West side, and Florida City or Homestead on the East. We choose Florida City as we wanted to get an early start for the next leg into the Keys.

The plan was to drive the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades stopping off at the Shark Valley Visitors Centre en-route. Then do the “Flamingo” trails on the second day. However this plan was scuppered when we reached the visitors centre only to find the car lot full and vehicles filling the grass verge as far as the eye could see.

Had we done a little more research we may have chosen a different base. As we approached our hotel the local scenery inspired Leanne to check out the crime stats for the area, something we immediately regretted. This unease did not dissipate when we checked in to our hotel and found the door limiter latch had been broken off! No doubt having been kicked off by an Uzi wielding meth-head.

Having survived the night we were keen to get into the relative safety of an Alligator infested wilderness. We pulled back the curtains to be greeted by the perfect manatee spotting weather, just one week too late. So we donned our winter clothes and set off. As it happens, the sharp drop in temperature and accompanying drizzle turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As we pulled in to the Royal Palm Visitors Centre we were one of only 5 cars in the car park. The weather had not dissuaded the vultures however, who eyed our rubber bits with eager anticipation, fortunately we had been tipped off about their penchant for car munching and grabbed one of the complimentary tarpaulins.

The Anhinga Trail, was definitely the trail for gator spotting. Not 2 minutes out of the car and we were face to face with a 13 foot beastie. This was the first of 12 alligators we saw along this short trail, as well as a couple of turtles and a huge number of birds including the Anhinga from where the trail gets its name.

Everglades Florida
Alligator at Everglades National Park

Working our way along highway 9336 walking the majority of the trails along the way, we eventually arrived at the Flamingo Visitors Centre, and the end of the line. By this time we were both a little beat and the weather had taken a significant turn for the worse. We grabbed something to eat and were just about to head home when we spotted a small crowd gathered at the waterfront. Reluctantly we decided to brave the weather and investigate.

Manatees! A decent group of them, including a mother and calf, were at the surface of the water’s edge. It looked like they were trying to suck the barnacles off the harbour wall, though I couldn’t swear to that.

Manatees Everglades National Park Florida
Manatees

The Everglades had been a great success, though not a beautiful day in the traditional sense, I doubt we’d have enjoyed the same peace and serenity if the weather had been better.

Key West

Florida City served its primary purpose of being convenient exceptionally well, and less than an hour from check-out we were in the Florida Keys. If you’re like me you’ll probably have visions of a stunning beach side drive rivalling that of the Pacific Coast Highway, I’m here to tell you the drive to Key West is nothing like this. Unless you are on one of the bridges that connects the islands the only giveaway that you are in the Keys is the fact that you are on a single carriageway. The drive is one of the least scenic, and most gruelling we had come across.

Our guesthouse in Key West was a quaint little place, just off Duval Street. And when I say just off, I do mean that. The property was accessible from Duval Street via a tiny driveway that was generally occupied by a ticket booth. The man in the booth had to secure all his wares and wheel his booth out of the way every-time someone wanted in or out. I think he may have just set up on the morning we left, as he did not look happy….

I think out of everywhere we visited Key West was the most like we had expected. We really enjoyed just ambling around the beautifully manicured streets enjoying the Caribbean style buildings. The place has a really nice vibe, as well as plenty of restaurants and bars, many hosting live acts.

Key West
Key West

The sunset celebration at Mallory square was the only let-down, being punted as some kind of evening extravaganza, with live entertainment, and dining options abound, it was a bit of a lame duck. There was live entertainment, but certainly not up to the quality we had enjoyed elsewhere in the States (including elsewhere in the bars in Key West), and with dining options limited to nuts, popcorn and hot dogs it’s not going to winning any culinary awards anytime soon. Add to this that the fact that you can’t see the sunset from Mallory Square due to the cruise ships that dock in the harbour and you’ve got 3 strikes.

Miami

We stayed in the heart of the Art Deco district just off Ocean Drive in South Beach. The location was perfect for exploring the pretty old buildings and close to bars and restaurants without being noisy. Our first stop was the beach. Perfect baking bodies littered a beautiful stretch of sand boarded by beautiful clean blue waters. We took a couple of pics of including the obligatory lifeguard tower shot, before moving on. Beaches aren’t really our thing, Leanne is a prismatic ginger-nut and if I lay in the beach too long, Greenpeace come along and push me into the sea.

We pulled a map off the web and ticked off the iconic landmarks, all of which can be visited on foot in a couple of hours. As a bit of a film buff the highlight for me was seeing the building from the famous chainsaw scene in the film Scarface. It was undergoing refurbishment and had construction boards up, and despite being flanked by 2 far more iconic hotels, I took more photographs of this than anything else in Miami.

Miami Art Deco Buildings

Miami Art Deco Buildings
Miami Art Deco Buildings

From a distance, evenings on Ocean Drive look like the place to be. Café’s line the pavement bathed in a neon-glow from the elegant historic buildings, smartly dressed folk sip wine and munch seafood, and live music escapes numerous bars, covering everything from salsa to rock. However walking down Ocean Drive you soon start to notice something, it’s subtle at first. “Wow, Margarita bowls are popular here”, then “isn’t the food at this place very similar to the last place” and then “hang on a minute isn’t this the same “special” as the last place had?”

I’m not sure if they are all owned by the same company or if it’s some kind of cartel, but it would appear the vast majority of the establishments that line Ocean Drive share the same menu and the same prices!

I guess it’s kinda funny that I loved the Scarface connection but this didn’t sit very well with me.

Last stop Disney.

No visit to Florida would be complete without a stop at the home of the world most famous rodent, and it was a fitting finale for our trip across America.

There’s no way I can relegate the happiest place on earth to a few lines at the bottom of a road-trip post. I’m not an animal! Disney deserves it’s own dedicated post, and guess what, you’re in luck.

http://www.lategapyear.com/5-best-orlando-walt-disney-world-florida/

So that’s it then. 5,000 miles, across 9 states, crammed into a Hyundai Accent along with all our worldly possessions (sure “Dollar Rent a Car” it’s clearly “similar” to a Ford Focus. Oh, apart from it being considerably smaller of course!) We’ve seen sublime scenery, eaten magnificent food, enjoyed stunning architecture, visited historic sites, and we’ve experienced clear blue skies, dense fog, snow, hail, rain, and blistering sun, and that was all in one day on route 66 between Kingman and Seligman!

The USA is an incredible country, so beautiful and so diverse and I know we only scratched the surface. Tell us about your favourite places, and what we missed out on. If we get enough suggestions we might just do it again….

And if you haven’t read them already don’t miss the first 2 parts of the road trip.

The Great American Road Trip Part 1

The Great American Road Trip Part 2

 

The Great American Road Trip – Part 2 – New Mexico and Texas

Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Antonio, Houston and Galveston

New Mexico

Our first stop off in New Mexico was in a town called Truth or Consequences. We knew little about it, but with a name like that we were expecting a proper wild-west outpost. The truth is, the consequence of our stopping here was a feeling that perhaps we should do more research. It wasn’t bad, bad, just a little run down, and unremarkable.

Fortunately this was not an omen for the rest of New Mexico, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Albuquerque

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that everything we knew about New Mexico we had learned from the TV show Breaking Bad. If it hadn’t been for the exploits of the rolling meth lab, we would have been unaware of the beauty of the area, and there’s little chance we would have visited.

The majority of our ABQ tour was around the various Breaking Bad locations. Walt’s house, Jessie’s House, the building next to Saul’s office (easy mistake, it looks so different without the inflatable). The highlight was eating at Los Pollos Hermanos. It’s actually a “Twisters” restaurant now, but they still have some of the décor from the TV Show.

Breaking Bad Tour
Breaking Bad Tour
Breaking Bad Tour
Breaking Bad Tour

We did make it to the downtown area, despite this being off the BB trail, and despite waking up to a winter wonderland on our second day. The old town is really quaint and charming. The snow really added to the beauty of the adobe buildings.

Old Town Albuquerque
Old Town Albuquerque

Santa Fe

We took the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe on the advice of a man who sold us some blue meth. The meth turned out to be candy, but the advice was good. New Mexico is truly breathtaking, the scenery is just stunning. Desert plains with rocky outcrops, and perfect blue skies. The vibrancy of the colours were amazing.

New Mexico
New Mexico

We stayed in a lovely little B&B in Santa Fe called the Inn on the Paseo. Fortunately it was only a 5 minute walk from the centre of town, as it was freezing cold, and the snow made it slippery underfoot.

Santa Fe is a truly beautiful city. Despite being the capital city of New Mexico, it had a cosy small town feel. Adobe buildings surrounded a picturesque square in the centre of town, where Native Americans gather to sell unique hand-made trinkets. Santa Fe also hosts the oldest house in the USA and the oldest church, as well as some great restaurants, museums, and a cool art district.

Santa Fe
Santa Fe
Oldest Church in the USA
Oldest Church in the USA

Route 66

We followed the oldest alignment of Route 66 from Santa Fe to Amarillo, which took us though more awesome scenery, before we joined back up with the freeway, reaching Tucumcari. Tucumcari was nothing like Seligman. The depressing and slightly unnerving town, acts as a very stark reminder that route 66 essentially hosts towns that were left behind when the highway was built.

Texas

Our first stop in Texas was just over the border at The Cadillac Ranch. Not an actual ranch, an art installation of several Cadillac cars semi buried nose-first in a field, where visitors are encouraged to add their own mark to the paint-work.

Cadillac Ranch
Cadillac Ranch

The eye-popping rugged scenery soon gave way to barren flat plains, and the crisp clean air was replaced by the whiff of cow poo and crude oil.

San Antonio

We overnighted in Abilene before arriving in San Antonio. Another city we knew little about (does anyone see a pattern here?)  We booked in to the Menger Hotel, next to the Alamo, reputed to be the most haunted hotel in the USA. The room did contain evidence of past lives, but that was more to do with poor housekeeping than supernatural forces.

The Alamo, originally a mission, is most famous for the historic battle that took place here during the Texas Revolution. The Mission is well-preserved and the grounds host a number of interesting exhibits and talks. For more information visit the official site http://www.thealamo.org/

The Alamo
The Alamo

The majority San Antonio’s attractions can be found  in the vicinity of the pristine and beautifully manicured river walk, an epicentre of restaurants, and bars lining the banks of the San Antonio River.

Riverwalk San Antonio
River Walk San Antonio

Houston.

We stayed on the outskirts of Houston rather than in the city centre as we luckily discovered that there was a marathon running through the city on the day we arrived, and many of the roads were closed, including the one that the hotel was on that we almost booked! Phew…

We couldn’t really visit Houston without visiting the space centre. A working facility as well as a museum, housing real space crafts, and spacesuits, as well as a number of educational displays and a large screen cinema showing short films.

The only slight negative for us was the tour of mission control. They do still have the real, actual mission control from the moon landings on site, but that’s a different “special” tour. We got to see the brand new mission control that was about to go live. I have to say if you have worked in an office you could probably afford to give this a miss. It wasn’t that dissimilar to the offices I used to work in when I sold waste services (except we didn’t have a picture of the bin-men on the wall)

Space Shuttle at Houston Space Center
Space Shuttle at Houston Space Center

Galveston

50 miles south of Houston you will find Galveston Island. But let me save you the trouble of visiting yourself.

In fairness the downtown area on the north of the island isn’t too bad. It’s not an unpleasant place to amble around, and boasts some half-decent restaurants and bars, but it’s a real working harbour blighted by oil platforms. It’s hardly the most picturesque resort. The south of the island is much worse. The sea is brown, and the beach, uninviting, and what could have been the one redeeming feature, the Historic Pier, charges a $10 entrance fee just to set foot on it. Trust me, it wouldn’t be worth going out of your way for, if it was free.

So Texas had been something of a mixed bag. The scenery had certainly been less impressive than that of New Mexico, and Galveston was a total flop. But San Antonio was really lovely, and we had a great time there.

Next stop Louisiana, and then we’re on the home straight………

If you have enjoyed this blog make sure you check out Part 1  If you haven’t, check it out anyway, it’s much better, we promise…