Fun with Kiwis!

I am so excited! I am finally planning my dream trip to Australia and New Zealand. Both countries have been on the top of the list of places to visit for years but they seemed out of reach budget-wise for so long. Finally a flash airfare deal came along and now my dream vacation is within reach and also affordable!

One immediate problem is both counties have so much to do and see that I really have to narrow the focus down to a few main interests and cities.  I am going with a couple of friends so we all agree that beaches, hiking, caving, rainforests, bars and nightlife are a must for the agenda!  The initial thoughts on some of the attractions to see are the  Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest in Australia. Then for New Zealand we are focusing on the North island. Main highlights there are the Mud spas in Rotorua, hiking in Tongariro crossing, the Waitomo Cave tours and Auckland.

So going to two countries in one trip poses a number of challenges. There are too many cities and places to visit!  Narrowing down what we want to see in the time we have is essential. We decided to focus on beaches, hiking and some city breaks.

Here is the initial plan:

 

8-Leave Chicago!

9-Lose a day (where does this day go?)

10 Fly into Brisbane, Australia

11 Brisbane-Check out Brisbane

12 Fly to Cairns-One of the highlights for me is visiting the GBR!

13 Cairns – Head out to the Great Barrier Reef

14 Cairns – Visit to Daintree Rainforest

15 Cairns – Fitzroy Island-Night visit one of the Cairns Night Markets!

16 Fly to Auckland

17 Auckland-check out Britomart!

18 Drive to Coramandel; Visit Hot water beach and cove!

19 Coramandel- Pinnacles hike if we have time.

20 Drive to Hobbiton/Rorotua-Check out my post on my 9-day driving tour of New Zealand.

21 Rotorua -Hot Mud Spas and Hobbits!

22 Rotorua-Drive to Turangi, spend the night and rest up for the hike the following day.

23 Tongariro Hike-Do it 19 kilometers ….

Spend night in Waitomo

24 Waitomo Cave tour

Spend the night in Hamilton!

25 Drive to Auckland…It’s Kristen’s Birthday! Do something super fun!

26-29 Auckland- check out the beaches and islands around New Zealand!

If you are planning a trip to New Zealand or Queensland Australia too and have any questions or comments please feel free to email me!

Mud Spas, Hell’s Gate and Hobbits! 9 Day New Zealand Road Trip!

“Mud Spas, Hell’s Gate and Hobbits! My suggested itinerary for a 9 day road trip through New Zealand’s Northern island”

My friends and I are planning a three week trip to Australia and New Zealand! We are spending one week in Australia at the Great Barrier Reef and the the rest of the trip in New Zealand, based on the time constraints the focus for the driving portion of the trip is definitely will have to be on the North island of New Zealand. The South island looks amazing but we realistically will not have time to drive that far in the 3 weeks we will be on vacation, not to mention the earth quakes that have recently hit the South island making it a little risky. Maybe next time!

Here is the suggested tour we are taking:

Driving day 1-2; Pick up the rental car in Auckland and head to Coromandel Peninsula located about three and a half hour drive from Auckland.  One of the most popular beach destinations on the north island because of  the Hot Water beach, Cathedral Cove, and the Pinnacles Walk.  Spend two nights in Coromandel.

Coromandel

Days 3-5; Rotorua; Mud Spas, Hell’s gate, Maori Culture and Hobbits!

Rotorua is a Three and a half hour drive from Coramandel. But in Two and a half miles we are stopping at Hobbiton!  Experience the Middle-earth at Hobbiton, where you can step into the lush pastures of the Shire.  Learn the Hobbit language and meet real live Hobbits! Ok maybe not….all that.

Apparently you will see Hobbit Holes and step into the world-famous Green Dragon Inn, where you will be presented with a Hobbit Southfarthing beverage.

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While in Rotorua for 2 nights we will visit one of the geothermal mud and volcanic spas:

Hells Gate Geothermal Park and Mud Bath Spa and Polynesian Spa

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Day 5;  Plan on spending the day in Rotorua before the drive to Turangi . Why the late drive? Because there is not much to do in Turangi. Spend the night in Turangi.

Day 6; The next morning we wake up early to take a 40 minute shuttle to Tongariro National Park for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike. Reminder to bring snacks as this is an all day hike!

Described as one of New Zealand’s greatest day hikes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a challenging 19.4 km journey across volcanic landscapes past craters and lakes! Estimated to take about 7 hours.

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Day 6; Right after the hike we drive about 2 hours to Waitomo Caves. and spend the night.

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Day 7; Wake up in Waitomo and do the Gloworm Cave Tour! This looks amazing, right after the tour though we should drive to Hamilton which is only a one hour drive!

waitomo

Day 8; Spend the night in Hamilton

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Day 9 ;Head back to Auckland this should only take about one hour and thirty minutes. Check in at the hotel which is near the airport. After unloading the car we need to drive in Auckland and return the car.  The drive into the city is about twenty five minutes.

The last day of my friend’s vacation is also her birthday, so we need to do something amazing to celebrate! Can we top the birthday she had a couple years ago in Finland at the Icehotel? Can we top the carved from wood deer fur flask we got her? Maybe a Hobbit party might work out better this year.

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Day 9; The driving portion of the tour is over!

Day 10: We are staying in Auckland, but will do some day trips to the beaches and islands nearby.

Destiny Part Five; Chasing Shadows

We had a rough arrival in Athens!  The honeymoon was over, I thought as we were starting to wear on each others nerves or maybe we were just tired, either way we arrived by plane late afternoon and made our way via bus to the city center.  After about a 45 minute bus ride we had finally made it to Syntagma Square. Stepping off the bus I felt as though we had been magically transported to a different world! Athens was the complete opposite of  the serene island of Santorini; horns blared, scooters whizzed by, people rushed through the streets, and all the signs were in Greek, I felt so disoriented. 

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 “Ok which way to the hotel?” I asked.

“I dunno”, Tony said, “you got the map”.  I studied the map and could clearly see where our hotel was but as we walked up and down the street a few times I realized it was hard to tell which direction we were walking. Not to mention the street names were unrecognizable as they are basically just a long string of Cyrillic letters.

“What should we do?” I asked. Tony hailed a cab and we headed to our hotel in Omonia Square, about a ten minute cab ride from Syntagma. The driver dropped us off at a small hotel a few blocks from the square. Later we found out that Omonia is not a popular tourist spot, actually visitors are advised not to stay in this neighborhood. Once inside the hotel manager was friendly enough and notified us of the typical amenities; breakfast, safe options and what to do in the area, before we went to the room to unpack and change.

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Once checked into our room I asked Tony again what should we do today? In a somewhat edgy tone he said, “I don’t’ know, just figure it out. I’m not just gonna tell you what to do Chrissy, Do I have to do everything?”

“You… do everything?” I shot back, ” I have pretty much read all the guidebooks and found all the restaurants and bars up until now.”  Not wanting to argue, I asked; Are you mad at me or what is your problem?

“No of course not-I just feel like you expect something from me, I’m not used to it. Can you just figure out what we should do today?” he said using a slightly softer tone.

I went over by the window and studied the map, pretending to not be bothered by his hurtful comment. “Ok, the Plaka is the main strip of bars, restaurants and shops and is just a ten minute walk away so we should do that”, I said.

Walking in silence on the walk to the Plaka, I couldn’t help but think about Tony’s accusation- that “I” needed someone to tell me what to do, how dare him! My ex-boyfriend would never have been so mean…what is his problem?

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Suddenly I realized, maybe I am used to someone telling me what to do, I haven’t really been alone or single in at least 10 years! I had been in 2 serious relationships, one right after the other since I was 18 years old. Quickly scanning through the past 5 years of my ten-year relationship with Mark I saw how dependent on him mentally and emotionally I was. Of course it happened gradually, I always considered myself an independent person but somehow I began to rely on his input, his perspective until mine somehow got lost…maybe even disappeared. This bothered me. Who am I by myself? I wasn’t quite sure.
A disturbing thought dawned on me, am I doing the same thing now?  Following Tony around, expecting him to provide direction, be who he wanted me to be. I had a sinking feeling of disappointment in my stomach…in myself. Even this trip-was just me going along with Tony’s vision and plan. Anger welled up inside me- what the hell am I doing? Am I just going to blindly follow someone around my whole life-an interchangeable figure or can I figure out what the hell I want to do for myself? Isn’t that what I have been doing the past few months that I have been single-trying to replace him because I cannot think for myself or don’t want to be alone.
Tony interrupted this disturbing train of thought, “ What do you want to do?” I don’t know I answered honestly. Maybe, I was being a little hard on myself but still; this is not who I wanted to be. I suggested that we eat some place in the Plaka where I could read through the guidebook and put a plan together for the next week.

Athens From our hotel we headed down Athinas Street, past Central Market over to the Plaka. The walk was quite an experience, most of the walls were covered in graffiti-this might be concerning to some but the grafitti and street art is my favorite part of Athens.  A photographer’s dream in fact! I could walk around for hours and days photographing graffiti, and it was so much more creative than that in Chicago. Athinas Street heads straight into Monistiraki  Square where we could then cut over to the Plaka to get something to eat. But once in Monistiraki, I didn’t want to leave, the energy is captivating. Sitting under the watchful eye of the Acropolis, Monistraki Square is the center of activity with people-watchers, dancers, street performers, trendy shops, and the ever popular flea market on Sundays. I wanted to sit there every night. Not to mention you can get a Frappe for 1.50 euro and a Souvflaki or Veggie Pita sandwich topped with French fries for only 2.00 Euro.  This turned out to be our favorite lunch-every day in fact, Tony would get the souvflaki pita and I got the veggie and sit in the square.

But that night Tony insisted we get some food and dragged me off reluctantly, to head to the Plaka.

Monastiraki Market

Ouzo, Ouzo, Ouzo!

Rows of Greek Taverna’s along the Plaka made it difficult to make a final choice of an eatery, each one looked better than the next, each one the host outside insisted had the best food, eventually we found a quiet little place near the end of the strip. After a delicious meal of Mousaka ( a rich casserole of baked eggplant, zucchini and potato topped with béchamel sauce) and a Greek Salad I started to feel better. Tony got Pastitsio; a baked dish made from ground meat layered with pasta and usually topped with white sauce too. We hadn’t eaten all day! The waiter must have noticed that we were not talking as I poured through the guidebook and Tony looked at his camera, he tried to cheer us up by slamming down two shots of liquor onto the table and yelling Ouzo! We all started laughing and I reluctantly swallowed the whole thing, he cheered and we all laughed!

After dinner I carefully planned out what Tony and I would do the next day, which was New Year’s Eve. We would start early in the morning with a visit to Central Market to take photos, and then in the afternoon visit the Acropolis, then at night celebrate New Year’s Eve in Syntagma Square with fireworks and drinks.

After dinner the tension between us died down, we wandered around the Plaka, taking photos and looking at paintings for sale and evil eye bracelets, it turned out to be a fun evening.

Part 6; An Athens New Year!

Monastiraki

Top Five Most Memorable Moments In Rovinj

 Venice, with its old-world charm and lively St. Mark’s Square, was always my favorite place in the world until I visited Rovinj, Croatia. The winding narrow passages, the quaint shops, the delicious seafood and wine, all reminiscent of Venice but without the extravagant prices and throngs of tourists. After my visit, I discovered that the Republic of Venice once governed Rovinj, hence the similarities.

Istrian Charm

Croatia…a paradise where every city visited is better than the last! During a recent visit to Croatia, we traveled Northbound from Dubrovnik along the Adriatic sea, hitting a different port every few days. It was after a two week  journey  involving almost every type of transportation;  boat, train, car, scooter and bus, that we arrived in Rovinj, a small seaside city that sits on the Istrian Peninsula, along the Adriatic.  Some of the most amazing experiences of our entire trip we found in Rovinj.

Here are my top five favorite moments in Rovinj!

1. Sunset Cruise on the Adriatic Sea.

After a long day of driving we finally made it to Rovinj. We had just texted Boris our temporary “landlord’ to meet us at the apartment we rented. But on the way we had to stop and pullover by the harbor. The intense orange and crimson  sunset took over the evening sky; it’s warm glow hung low over the crisp blue sea. I wanted to take photos of every amazing moment. There is something magical about the sunset in Rovinj, something so amazing that compels you to want to witness every single minute of it.   Sunset cruises are available every night to check it out from every vantage point.

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2. Shopping for Art!

I love shopping for paintings and artwork. There is no shortage of shops or street vendors carrying a variety of paintings ranging from mass-produced to more expensive unique paintings produced by local artists. Sunsets, boats, or buildings;  whatever you are looking for it is easy to lose hours perusing the stacks of paintings searching for that right one ( or two or three).

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3. Sipping cocktails at a seaside lounge!

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and Champagne at this sophisticated cliffside lounge…

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4. Shopping at the local markets for everything from honey to…

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to fresh produce…

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        to truffles…

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to towels! ( Don’t ask me how I fit a full set of beach towels from Croatia in my luggage)

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5. Romance & Love; There is a saying that the most dangerous thing that will happen to you in Croatia is falling in love!

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Rovinj; a mix of old world charm and European sophistication, has replaced Venice as my favorite place in the world!

 

Hot Chocolate and Rich Mole Negro! Indulge Your Sweet Tooth on a Chocolate Lovers Holiday to Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a lively colonial-style city located in central Mexico that boasts many grand churches, trendy restaurants, and hip Mezcal bars! But it is also the producer of the best chocolate in Mexico. Rich Mole Negro, Mexican Hot Chocolate and freshly-made chocolate treats are consumed at almost every meal in Oaxaca. Chocolate lovers will be in heaven!

Oaxaca Chocolate makers!

Oaxaca Chocolate Makers!

The Birthplace of Chocolate

Not many people are aware that Oaxaca is the birthplace of Chocolate. The Aztecs believed chocolate was the food of the gods. At one point it was such a valuable commodity that they even used it as currency. The Aztecs and Mayans were the first consumers of chocolate although not in its current familiar form. A popular drink among the Aztecs was Xocolatl; a bitter chocolate concoction made from ground cacao beans, vanilla, chili peppers and spices. The famous explorer Hernan Cortes introduced chocolate to Europe in the 1500’s when he brought it back home from his journey to Mexico. The Spaniards created their own version of the Aztec’s chocolate beverage by adding sugar and removing the chilies. This creamy hot chocolate beverage became a hit that spread across Spain and then throughout the world. As it turn out the Aztecs and Spaniards were onto something in their obsession with Chocolate! Many people now believe that chocolate has proven health benefits; it is shown to be rich in antioxidants, have anti-aging properties and is a mood enhancer.

Traditional Mole and Chocolate in Oaxaca

Chocolate is a main staple of the cuisine of Oaxaca. Chocolate is not just used in beverages and desserts but to make a variety of dishes as well. Rich chocolate in its raw form is used to produce a delicious traditional dish in Oaxaca called Mole Negro. Most are familiar with Mole; a sauce typically served over pork, chicken, turkey or enchiladas, but Mole Negro is a rich sauce made from dark chocolate, garlic, sesames seeds, cloves and many other spices and ingredients.

The actual chocolate is locally produced in Oaxaca, but the seeds come from the Theobroma Cacao tree that grows in the Tabasco and Chiapas regions of Mexico. The cocoa beans are then locally produced into a variety of chunky bars, slightly different than what Americans may be used to. This pure dark chocolate has a grainier texture and is semi-sweet. Popular bars are made with Canela (cinnamon), Vanilla, Mezcal, con leche (with milk) and sin azucar (without sugar).

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Calle Mina or Chocolate Street

The best place for you to sample this rich delicious chocolate is on Calle Mina; coined Chocolate Street because of the concentration of chocolate shops located on it. Within a couple block radius of Mina you will notice the scent of richly ground chocolate that fills the air. It is intoxicating! Their are three main chocolate purveyors located on the same block; Mayordomo, La Soledad, and Guelaguetza.

If the scent doesn’t lead you to this chocolate strip-here are some directions; start at the corner of Calle 20 de Noviembre and Mina at Mayordomo- the biggest chocolate producer in Mexico. They have a multitude of shops in Oaxaca including a large one in the main bus station. This large shop located on Calle Mina produces chocolate right in the front of the store. They sell a large variety of rich chocolate products including Mole Negro. People can bring in their own family recipe and wait for the chocolatiers to grind and prepare it for them. This large shop also has a chocolate bar where visitors can indulge in a frothy Mexican Hot Chocolate or other snacks.

The fun part is watching the chocolate makers make the chocolate right in the front of the shop! Groups of visitors frequently crowd to watch the production of freshly made chocolate at the first shop they come to but you can see this process at all three shops. First they grind the roasted cocoa beans in large grinders then they mix in vanilla and nuts or cinnamon. The result is a pure dark chocolate paste that can be made into bars or mole.

Chocolate Lovers Vacation

Chocolate fanatics can overdose on all things chocolate at La Soledad, located at Mina 212. This bustling Chocolatier produces chocolate on-site but also has a hotel and restaurant specializing in the decadent treat! Plan to have breakfast or lunch at the Chocolateria Restaurant de Soledad where they specialize in many chocolate-filled desserts, moles and beverages. Need a quick burst of natural energy? Soledad sells a delicious product called Choco-energetico; a fresh chocolate treat made with chocolate and honey guaranteed to kick you into high gear. Still need more chocolate immersion? Stay above La Soledad at the Chocolate Posada Hotel. This cute little bed and breakfast has 15 rooms centered around a courtyard. The best part is waking up or going to sleep to the delicious smell and taste of chocolate.

After chocolate street, head over to Oaxaca’s central fresh food market; 20 de Noviembre Market. This is a lively market to shop and have an authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate beverage. Mexican Hot Chocolate can be made with aqua or leche (water or milk) and is served in a small bowl with a side or pan or bread for dipping. Vendors sample and sell a variety of traditional Moles such as Rojo or Negro to try or to prepare at home.

Chocolate Vendors at the Market

How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate

If you can’t make it to Mexico try this recipe for authentic Mexican Hot chocolate at home. You will need a Mexican molinillo; a whisk used to froth hot chocolate. In a medium sauce pan melt 2-4 squares of dark chocolate such a Mayordomo or Abuelita. Slowly mix in 4 cups milk (almond milk or water). Stir constantly using the molinillo or wire whisk until the mixture is frothy and the chocolate is melted. Add sugar, cinnamon or vanilla to taste; serves four.

For a thicker and creamier hot chocolate try a traditional Champurrado. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, mix 1/4 cup masa flour (light corn meal) and 1 cup hot water. Stir with whisk constantly to remove all lumps. Slowly add 4 cups milk and 2 squares of Mexican chocolate (or amount desired). Stir with a wire Wisk until all chocolate is melted and allow it to reach a boil. Reduce heat until it reaches desired consistency. If it is too thick add more water or strain. Serve immediately.

Visitors to Oaxaca fall in love with this charming colonial-style city rich in culture and tradition, but its the prevalence of rich chocolate treats that will draw them back time and time again!

Yummy Hot Chocolate!

Yummy Hot Chocolate!