We’re experienced world travelers but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally make stupid mistakes. From flushing frogs down the toilet to being mistaken for a dominatrix, here are our top ten travel mistakes, so far: Read more

Christmas in New Zealand and Australia comes in the summertime so it was a bit different for us, northerners raised with visions of a “White Christmas.” In Auckland, we stood on the sidewalk waiting for the Santa Parade and took in the crowd around us; it was the usual mix of families, old-timers and teens traveling in packs. One thing was different though for a December activity, almost everyone was wearing t-shirts and shorts under the watchful gaze of palm trees and sunny blue skies.

Christmas in New Zealand Santa in Auckland parade

It’s beginning to look a lot like . . . wait, what?

Due to the balmy weather Christmas Day traditions include firing up some shrimp on the “barbie”, sailing on the turquoise tinged waters of Waitemata harbor or playing a game of cricket in the park. That may not be much different from warm places in America like Miami or San Diego; but we doubt that the highlight of those cities’ Christmas Parades is a giant balloon of a Kiwi bird wearing a Santa Claus hat.

Christmas in New Zealand Kiwi bird Auckland parade

A Christmas tradition in New Zealand, the kiwi bird.

A “White Christmas” even in summer

We joined the crowd in cheering on the floats featuring beach and surfing scenes. But when it came time for the big guy, Santa himself, the palm trees were just a memory. His float was covered in white with “snow” covered trees and a castle. Even Down Under, the dream of a White Christmas lives on.

Many smaller towns host Santa Parades as well. Dunedin on the South Island featured that old Christmas chestnut, Snoopy and longtime nemesis the Red Baron engaged in a blocks long dogfight down the main drag. We’re not sure what it had to do with Christmas but the kids seemed to eat it up.

Run, Santa, Run

Christmas in New Zealand Santa run for charity

Santas and surfers come together in New Zealand.

A new event is the Santa Run to raise money for the KidsCan charity. The race takes place in seven cities throughout New Zealand. For a donation each runner is given a Santa suit to wear. Race veterans often show up in homemade outfits as elves or reindeer. The run in Dunedin takes place on the beach with the starting line just across from the local pub. It’s easy to find affordable hotels in Dunedin close by. There was clearly a party atmosphere but fortunately the race, if it can be called that, was mercifully short so casualties were few.

Dunedin santa run on beach

Cue the “Chariots of Fire” music. 

New Zealanders also include customs of the first settlers of this land, the Maori. Christmas cards and decorations bear Maori motifs while many dig into a Maori treat called a hangi. Similar to a Hawaiian luau, hot stones are placed in a hole in the ground and then lamb, potatoes and whatever else strikes the chef’s fancy are placed on top of the stones to bake. A warm Meri Kirihimete is wished: that’s Maori for Merry Christmas. Not so different from the Hawaiian Mele Kalikimaka.

Maori float Auckland Christmas parade

A tribute to the original island people, the Maori.

Christmas in Australia

Across the Tasman Sea the Aussies have put a unique spin on Santa’s flight path. Apparently it’s too hot in the Outback for reindeer, so Santa is propelled by six white “boomers,” also known as kangaroos. One bush country resident, innkeeper Deb Wright, said, “It’s so hot that we usually have cold meats and salads for the main meal and much beer is also consumed due to the delirious heat.”  Despite the weather, stores are decorated with snow-filled winter scenes.

Queen Victoria building Sydney Christmas tree

The Christmas tree at the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney is the only one we’ve seen that visitors can walk under.

Christchurch recovers

The holiday season was a poignant time in Christchurch last year. The city suffered a devastating earthquake that destroyed the downtown and killed 181 people. There was talk of cancelling the annual Santa Parade due to the traditional downtown parade route being closed off for safety reasons. However, the parade was rerouted and went on.

Over 100,000 people, one-quarter of the town’s population, turned out for the event which provided a much need lift to local spirits. We spoke with one woman, a nurse who was preparing a patient for surgery at St. George’s hospital when the quake struck. “It’s certainly been a challenging year,” she said. “But we’ll survive and rise above it.”

Christchurch Angel Gabriel

In Christchurch a message of hope for the New Year.

The international symbol of the devastation wrought on the city was the heavily damaged Christchurch Cathedral. At Christmastime last year three larger-than-life sculptures of angels were hung from the rafters. However, due to the quake the building was rendered unsafe and will eventually be demolished. This year the angels are being suspended from construction cranes that are assisting in the rebuilding. The angels represent consolation, comfort and hope. What fitting symbols to watch over the residents of Christchurch during this season of birth and renewal.

Santa Ballantynes Christchurch New Zealand

You’re never too old to pose with Santa Claus, here at Ballantynes in Christchurch.

And if you are planning to visit New Zealand, don’t make the same mistake we did and make sure you have a roundtrip ticket. We almost got deported flying to New Zealand on a one-way ticket.

We’ve been traveling around the world as global nomads since 2011. To receive free monthly updates and valuable travel tips from us sign up here.

The Best Men’s Travel Shoes

Larissa has written about the best travel shoes for women, but now it’s my turn to talk about the best mens travel shoes.

I have only two pairs of shoes with me, both by Ecco. I’ve worn Eccos almost exclusively for about 20 years. They are cut slightly wider in the toe box so they accommodate my size E foot (somewhere between wide and regular).

The pair that I wear almost daily is the Track 5 plain toe low. It’s a brown nubuck style that’s generic enough to go with anything. They were already several years old before the trip started so I thought about getting a new pair. But I figured they’d just get beat up anyway so I decided to wear them as long as they’d hold up. So far they’ve held up great.

best mens travel shoes

The Eccos were great for a steep hike up to the Tasman Glacier on the South Island of New Zealand.

They started their journey in August, 2011 at the top of the Rocky Steps in our hometown of Philadelphia. Some of their adventures so far have included: hiking along the Great Wall of China, climbing to the top of the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat, spending the night in a cave at a Bedouin camp and yet still looking stylish enough to wear on the streets of Paris.  They even survived being left outside during a torrential downpour in Bali where the next morning they were as full as bathtubs. They dried out by evening and were ready to wear to dinner.

For warmer weather I wear their Cerro yak leather sandals. I bought them at The Walking Company store in Philadelphia. The salesman explained that yak leather is soft but highly durable. The Ecco web site sounds like it is describing the latest in fighter plane gizmos with these shoes: full length Receptor Technology and side stabilizer frames. I wondered where the ripcord was. Ecco does not recommend them for water use but they’ve gotten soaked and lived to talk about it.

If you’re looking for durable, comfortable shoes that aren’t so bulky they look like you forgot to take them out of the box, I highly recommend Ecco shoes.

Please note: These shoes were my own purchases and I am not paid to endorse Ecco. (Oh how I wish.)

UPDATE: February, 2017. After a decade I am still wearing the Ecco Track 5 Plain Toe but I’ve been wearing them so long the model is now called Track 6.  The pair I’ve been wearing were made in Europe. I notice that some Ecco shoes are now made in China, so check first on the model you’re interested in. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t pay a premium price for Chinese made shoes.

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28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

blue crabs at sydney fish market

The other day I read an article that highlighted the 12 worst tourist traps in the world. One of them was a place we were due to visit the following day, the Sydney Fish Market. We thought about not going there but were we really going to let something we had seen online influence us? (Said the two bloggers.)

I was wondering how a simple fish market could be a tourist trap. To do so it would have to meet certain criteria I’ve developed over the years:

1) It strays from its original purpose to sell trinkets, doodads and “arts-and-crap” items that are usually made in China and can be found anywhere in the world.

2) The number of t-shirt stores outnumbers every other kind of merchant (hello Key West).

3) There has to be at least one chain restaurant whose theme has absolutely nothing to do with the destination, preferably located next to a Madame Tussaud’s outpost, and

4) It’s a required stop on the tour bus route, Pier 39 in San Francisco comes to mind.

tusk fish at sydney fish marrket

I’m pleased to report that the Sydney Fish Market met none of these criteria. Half of the market is taken up by wholesalers who sell to retail outlets in the Sydney area. That seems pretty authentic. The remaining retail side was made up of fish vendors and restaurants. There were a few businesses that were not seafood related, but they would help you put together dinner for the evening. These included a baker, a produce market, and a cheese shop; hardly the stuff of tourist trap legend.

The fish stores were incredible. The goods on display were as fine as I have seen in any fish market anywhere, and we had just been at the Pike Place Market in Seattle only a few months earlier. Part of what makes the Sydney Fish Market so intriguing for a Northern Hemisphere person like me is that there were so many types of fish that I had never even seen before, let alone heard of.  In fact, it’s the largest fish market in the Southern Hemisphere and second only to Tokyo’s in the world.  We had read about Barramundi, the most popular fish in Australia but what exactly are Painted Sweetlips, Blue Throat Wrasse or Venus Tusk Fish?

Sydney fish market Swordfish (800x602)

Each fish outlet had a separate sashimi counter where a variety of sushi grade fish was being delicately sliced for discerning customers. What really caught my eye however was a giant swordfish sitting on a table of crushed ice. A sharp filleting knife was impaled into the ice beside a sign that read “Cut to Size.” It looked just like a steamship round-of-beef carving station that is the signature item at hotel buffets.

We’ve mentioned before how we prefer to rent apartments when we travel rather than staying at a hotel. Touring the Sydney Fish Market affirmed that decision. We wanted to buy everything we saw so we could take it back to our flat and cook it. For our first purchase we settled on Barramundi, a seemingly ho-hum choice but we figured we’d start with the most popular one. The next time though we’ll wade deeper into the depths of the fish market for a more exotic species.
By the end of our visit we decided that the Sydney Fish Market is definitely not a tourist trap. Here’s a link for more information about the Sydney Fish Market.
sydney fish market
We do offer one caveat if you go to the market. If you plan on eating there, then do so inside. Outside there are tables and umbrellas overlooking Blackwattle Bay. The dining area is under invasion by so many seagulls and other flying scavengers that sometimes it appears like a scene out of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. They quickly swoop down on unsuspecting diners to snatch part of their meal, but that’s not the worst of it.
The umbrellas are covered with so much gray guano that you could probably write your name on them. People dining under umbrellas with bird crap dripping off of them is one of the most disgusting sights we have seen; and it’s got to be some kind of health risk. So while we loved the market and would go back, we ate our food inside and recommend that you do the same.

That said, what tourist traps have sucked you in on your travels?

Interested in food? Click the link for more posts about food.

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Australia is often thought of as a laid-back nation whose relaxed citizens seem to be on permanent vacation. Perhaps this carefree attitude is due to more than 90% of the population living within the siren call of the beach. While much of their culture has been formed by an outlook based on surf and sand, the country has also experienced dark days and challenges throughout its history.

Victoria Barracks

victoria barracks sydney
There are several sights in Sydney that highlight the country’s military legacy.  A good place to start is at the Victoria Barracks, located on twenty-nine acres in the neighborhood of Paddington. Built in the 1840s by mostly convict labor, the colonnaded sandstone buildings are one of the finest historic barracks in the world.

Free tours are offered on Thursdays by the Victoria Barracks Corps of Guides, retired veterans wearing khaki Army slouch hats and blue blazers. Our guide, David, started our tour in the Guard House with a visit to the four cells that held “drunken and outrageous persons.” This being an Army base with young soldiers away from home, the cells were eventually expanded into another building.

victoria barracks sydney

David pointed out a metal badge on his cap and explained the significance of the crown in the center of the Australian Army symbol. The current logo has a female crown (yes, male and female crowns are different) representing the reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II. He pointed out that after “Lizzie goes” the logo will be updated to show a male crown for King Charles, or perhaps King William. Loyalty to the monarchy lives on in the Australian Army.

ANZAC  Memorial Sydney

The ANZAC Memorial is located in Hyde Park in central Sydney.  The term ANZAC is a revered one. It refers to the Australia New Zealand Army Corps that fought on the shifting sands of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey in World War I. It turned out to be a disaster; the soldiers were pinned to the beach and under constant enemy fire for eight months, only to be evacuated with tremendous losses.

ANZAC Memorial Sydney

Australians, being the positive creatures they are, view the battle as a supreme example of their soldiers’ gallantry and fortitude. One Korean War veteran explained that even though Gallipoli was a major defeat, “The nation was forged by that battle, it made Australia the nation that it is today. You can’t overestimate its significance.”

The square, 98-foot tall Art Deco memorial is clad in pink granite quarried from nearby Bathurst.  The interior’s main focus is a poignant statue of a soldier, whose lifeless body lies on a sword and shield, being held aloft by three women and an infant representing mother, wife, sister and child; those who were left behind by the brutality of war.

ANZAC memorial sydney sacrifice statue

The cruciform base of the Memorial houses a museum dedicated to Australia’s military history right up to the Gulf War. In the World War II section we were drawn to the display of Warrant Officer GN Milne’s diary; he was stationed at a hospital in Darwin, Australia when it was damaged by Japanese bombing raids.

The Australian National Maritime Museum

The last stop on our personal military campaign of Sydney was the Australian National Maritime Museum; perfect for a nation that is defined by the sea. The exhibition combines the finest aspects of a traditional museum—glass cases chock full of memorabilia—with the hands-on features of a “Please Touch” display.

The interactive displays include one where the visitor plays the role of a submarine sonar technician trying to decipher garbled underwater sounds. The player guesses what each sound represents and is promoted (or demoted) based on their response. We kept at it for some time until we could finally tell the difference between a group of porpoises and a damaged piston rod.

australian mational maritime museum lord nelson figurehead

At this point we had been to enough sobering military displays for one day. Fortunately the Maritime Museum also has an exhibit devoted to the nation’s surfing heritage. This is the Australia that lives on in foreign perceptions of the country. While the typical Australian’s outlook on life is pretty sunny, it is a nation that has witnessed dark clouds as well.

In one day we were able to witness both sides of Australia. A nation that was forged on the sands of Gallipoli was later nurtured on the sands of its beaches to create the vibrant country that it is today.

Visitor information:

Victoria Barracks/Army Museum of New South Wales

Location: Oxford Street in Paddington, a ten-minute bus ride from the center of Sydney. Buses 378, 380 and 382 stop right in front.

Web: Victoria Barracks and Army Museum of New South Wales

ANZAC Memorial

Location: Hyde Park South in the center of Sydney. Pretty much every city bus stops here. The nearest train station is Museum Station

Web: http://www.anzacmemorial.nsw.gov.au/

Australian National Maritime Museum

Location: Darling Harbour in Sydney. Easy access from the city center by foot, bus, light rail, ferry or monorail.

Web: http://www.anmm.gov.au/site/page.cfm

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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When we were driving all over the world we saw some unusual animal crossing signs that were different from the typical signs for deer we see at home. As we bounced along some pretty rough roads we took these warnings seriously, can you imagine the damage an elephant will do to your car?

camel crossing sign Jordan

Camel crossing signs are common when driving the Arabian Desert in Jordan. Fortunately all the camels we saw were behind fences.

animal crossing sign deer israel

Who knew they had reindeer in Israel, but it sort of makes sense. This sign is unusual because it’s in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.

horse crossing sign dubai

In Dubai, horseback riding is a popular hobby among the Emirati. Apparently some of them break free now and then.

koala crossing sign australia

At the top of this post is a kangaroo crossing sign that is seen throughout Australia. You really have to take them seriously, particularly at dusk when the kangaroos go bounding across the road as if they are attracted to the car’s headlights and become “roo’d kill.” While the koala pictured above will do less damage, they are so cute that drivers really hope to avoid them.

cow and sheep crossing sign australia

Drivers get two for one on this sign in the Australian Outback as they look out for cows and sheep.

New Zealand bird (575x431)

We’re not sure why these birds in New Zealand couldn’t just fly across the road.

elephant crossing road sign

Elephants were a common sight in Namibia. But they lumber along so slowly we doubt they’d be much of a problem.

warthog crossing road sign

We saw literally thousands of warthogs by the side of the road in Namibia. They are one of the funniest looking animals around. Smart too, unlike the kangaroos in Australia, we never saw a warthog crossing the road.

meerkat warning sign

Meerkats, similar to prairie dogs, are all over Namibia. We stayed at one lodge where a local meerkat was pretty tame and scurried around the restaurant.

zebra crossing sign namibia

A multi-purpose sign for zebras, warthogs and kudu on the Erongo Plain in Namibia.

wild animals Africa two giraffes crossing road (575x440)We didn’t see a giraffe crossing sign in Namibia, but we did have to stop for these actual giraffes.

Larissa crossing road Namibia (575x403)

Namibia is so sparsely populated we never saw a crossing sign for this rare animal.

bull crossing sign in spain

Cattle crossing signs are fairly common around the world but we liked how they rakishly add horns in Spain. Ole!

turtle crossing sign

Watch out speed racers for slow crossing turtles on Tybee Island in South Carolina.

abbey road zebra crossing

Well in London this is called a zebra crossing so it fits here. Can you guess what Fab road this is?

If you have any unusual animal crossing signs please send them to me and I’ll credit you and link back to you blog. Thanks!

With a little planning it’s easy to drive on the left side of the road. On our around-the-world journey we spent more time driving on the left side of the road than we did on the right; doing so in Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. Many North Americans call it driving on the “wrong” side of the road but we’ve never embraced this terminology. That just makes it harder to get used to.  Here are a few tips we learned in the UK for driving on the left:

1)  Go left, young man

Think left. And then think left again. Some car companies put a sticker on the dashboard that says, “Left alive. Dead right.” That’s it in a nutshell. When you’re not sure where to go, just go left.

2)  Avoid a sticky situation

Most rental vehicles in the UK and Europe are manual transmission. For the first time you drive on the left, consider paying extra for an automatic transmission. If you don’t drive a manual transmission at home, this is not the time to learn. However, if you are used to a stick at home, you will find, as we did, that the adjustment to shifting with the left hand is relatively easy.

3)  Remote possibilities

Pick up your rental car in a more remote location. For our road trip in Scotland we started out in Edinburgh. However, instead of picking up our car in that crowded city, we took the train to a suburban location and picked up our car there. With fewer cars on the road it was an easier adjustment to make.

how to drive on the left

With the freedom of a car hire, me met some new friends in the English countryside.

4)  Curb your enthusiasm

Practice driving around the parking lot where you pick up the car and get used to the bulk of the car being on your left rather than the right. Also try parallel parking it against a curb a few times.

5)  Making adjustments

The adjustment to driving on the left is a bit easier to make since the driver sits on the right, opposite to where they are used to. Right away the driver is aware something is different, which makes it easier to adapt. Also, in the UK many country roads where you will go exploring are single-lane, so driving is a breeze.

6)  Do you get my drift?

If you are traveling with a companion, enlist their help to make sure you are not drifting over the center line of the road. That can happen a bit at first. Driving on the left is harder for the front seat passenger as they continually press the phantom brake pedal that they don’t have. At least Larissa does.

7)  Going around in circles

The UK and Ireland are chock full of traffic circles, something Americans are not used to. Visualize ahead of time what you will do in a circle. What’s that? Correct, go left.

Follow these tips and driving on the left will be a breeze. You will also get to see more of the countryside, wandering around at your own pace. And don’t forget, in North America we call it car rental, but it’s called a car hire in the UK.

Just remember when you return home to get back on the right. We drove on the left so much on our journey that it became second-nature. When we got into a taxi after our arrival in New York, I wondered why the driver was sitting on the “wrong” side of the car.

Pin it!

Seven tips for driving on the left

Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Guest Post from Kathryn

I grew up in New Zealand and was always looking for free things to do in Auckland. From nature hikes to museums to contemporary art, here are a few of my favorites.

1)  Stroll the boardwalk between Mission Bay and St Heliers Bay

Auckland boardwalk

Auckland has one of the most beautiful harbours in the world so make the most of it and spend some time on the waterfront. There are gorgeous views of Rangitoto Island from many vantage points on the Auckland and North Shore waterfronts. I love to stroll along the boardwalk between Mission Bay and St Heliers’ Bay. In December New Zealand’s official “Christmas tree”, the Pohutukawa, is in bloom and the waterfront is glorious.

Catch the 750 or 769 bus from the Britomart Transport Hub along the waterfront (Tamaki Drive) to Mission Bay or further on to St Heliers. Cost to St Heliers NZ$4.50. If you get off the bus at Mission Bay you can walk up to the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park for breathtaking views of the Rangitoto Island and the Harbour.

2) Head for the Waitakere Ranges

waitakere ranged park entrance frame

For those who have a rental car, 35 minutes west of downtown Auckland you will find a beautiful New Zealand native forest with mature Kauri trees. There are many bush walks that vary from 10 mins to several hours and it is all free. I recommend the Auckland City (loop) Walk which takes about an hour. It lies at the end of Falls Rd, past the golf course. To get to the Waitakere Ranges from downtown Auckland, take the North-Western Motorway and get off at Swanson Rd and continue onto Scenic Drive. If you want to do the Auckland City Walk, turn right from Scenic Drive into Te Henga Rd and then left onto Falls Rd.

Pick up a free brochure, which include maps, about the Waitakares at the airport when you arrive.

3) The West Coast Beaches

muriwai beach new zealand

A little further north of the Waitakere Ranges are the West Coast beaches Muriwai, Bethells and Piha. Popular with surfers and those that love to stroll along long stretches beach between the thundering surf and the sand dunes. West Coast beaches are famous for their black sand.  At the south end of Muriwai beach is the Gannet (bird) Colony; the best time to visit is between October and February. Adult pairs return to this spot each year to nest. The chicks hatch in November and fly off to Australia 15 weeks later.

There are brilliant views of the main colony from the view platform and I love to watch the adult Gannets soaring on the on-shore winds. It takes 40 minutes to drive the 45 km from downtown Auckland to Muriwai Regional Park. Follow State Highway 16 until you get to Waimauku and then turn left into Muriwai Rd and continue to the park.

4) Auckland War Memorial Museum

free things to do in Auckland war memorial museum (575x432)

One of the most impressive buildings in New Zealand is the Auckland War Memorial Museum which sits atop a small hill in the Auckland Domain (that’s a park for you non-Kiwis) and offers impressive views of the city and harbour. Despite the name, most of the the museum is not war related. Admission is by voluntary donation.

To use the bus to get to the museum, take the bright green “Inner Link” bus which does a circuit (both clockwise and anticlockwise) around inner city Auckland and costs a maximum $1.9 per ride. Hop off at the bus at 470 Parnell Rd. Take the first right turn and walk down Domain Drive and you will see the Auckland Museum on your left.

If you remain on the green bus you will travel through the popular New Market shopping area, back around past the Domain, up Karangahape Rd to Ponsonby (which is famous for its cafes) and down past Victoria Park to Customs St in the central business district. The buses run every 10-15 mins.

5)    The Auckland Art Gallery

free things to do in auckland art gallery

New Zealand has produced some very talented artists. Many examples of their work are contained within The Auckland Art Gallery. One of my favourite artists is Charles F. Goldie who painted amazing portraits of the Maori, NZ’s indigenous people. The museum is housed in a traditional Edwardian building but just added the recent Maori inspired wing seen above. Admission to the gallery is free but charges apply for special exhibitions.

How to get there? From the bottom of Queen St you could walk or catch the bus up Queens St until you get to Wellesley St East. Walk 1 minute up Wellesley St East and you will come to the Auckland Art Gallery on the corner of Wellesley and Kitchener Streets.

 6) Climb to the top of One Tree Hill for the best view of Auckland

One Tree Hill Auckland New Zealand u2

The site made famous in a U2 song, One Tree Hill offers the best panoramic view of the Auckland area. Try to count the 48 (hopefully) extinct volcanoes in this volatile region. One Tree Hill has a history of its own related to conflicts between the Maori and later settlers. You can read more about that at: Why there is no tree on One Tree Hill.

Guest writer Kathryn grew up in Auckland. She embarked on an open-ended global journey in May 2013 and blogs at RTW Travel Guide. 

Cairns is a popular jumping off point to explore the Great Barrier Reef. There are many free things to do in Cairns, we’ll even give you some tips on how you can scuba for free.

Since Australia is so expensive, you have to take advantage of “free.” Here is a short list of free adventures I went on while living in Cairns recently. Most of these trips can be done in a day or two.

Visit the Botanic Gardens in Edge Hill

free things to do in Cairns botanical garden

The Botanic Gardens are located in Edge Hill, a leafy, quiet suburb of Cairns. Collins Street, where the Gardens are located, is known as one of the prettiest streets in Cairns. Have a wander in the Botanic Gardens and marvel at all the different exotic flowers. If you can, visit early morning or late afternoon to get the best lighting for photographs and to beat the heat.

Take a stroll on the Esplanade

free things to do in Cairns esplanade The Esplanade is one of the nicest I’ve seen anywhere to relax and unwind in Cairns. Take a walk along the beachfront and admire the contrast between rainforest, mountains and sandy mudflats. There are many bbq areas here (although use of the grills costs a few bucks) so bring some friends and food for a relaxing picnic under a shady tree.  There are showers, exercise areas, and a lagoon filled with fresh water so you can take a dip and cool off after all that sunbathing.

Are you into exercise classes? The esplanade is host to a variety of free classes including Beach Volleyball, Pilates, Yoga & Zumba- one night while we were eating dinner we watched over 100 people participate in a Zumba class! Classes are day and night so there is a time that will suit everyone! All you have to do is show up.

Go for a hike up Mount Whitfield

View from Mt Whitfield Cairns

The Mt. Whitfield Conservation Park is located just behind the Botanic Gardens. The entrance is clearly marked on Collins Avenue. Choose from 2 hikes that will leave your heart pumping: The Red Arrow trail, which is a little over 1k and has some steep parts with rewarding views, or the Blue Arrow trail, which is 5.5k and takes about 4-5 hours to complete. Watch out for the snakes and wild turkeys! Pause at the top of your Red Arrow climb and admire the sweeping ocean views.

Take a culinary journey through Rusty’s Markets

cairns Rustys Market

Every Friday thru Sunday off of Grafton Street in the heart of downtown visit Rusty’s, a wet market. With over 180 bustling stalls, Rusty’s has extensive displays of exotic fruits and veggies, organic and allergy- free products, and a wide mix of Asian veggies. Visit the cheese stall for some free samples. A particular favorite is the stall that sells local honey and fresh pizza dough. Explore the variety of products and if you can’t help yourself, splurge on a samosa from the a stall in the back next to the coffee shop, which sells Spinach & Cheese or Veggie Samosas. A special treat that usually sells out by noon! *Double splurge- get the refreshing lemon, lime and mint juice made fresh. Try not to gulp it down all at once.

Get a temp job on a reef boat and go diving for free on the Great Barrier Reef

Cairns great barrier reef clam island

You read that right. We’ve had a few couchsurfers stay with us in Cairns and they’ve done it, so it’s not so much a secret as it is about timing and luck. Head down to your nearest dive shop or the marina and ask for work as a “hostie”- you work a few hours on a boat in exchange for 1-2 dives out on the reef. The work is pretty easy and you get to dive for free! Some dive shops are making hosties buy a $25 t-shirt from the dive company, but $25 bucks for food and a few days of diving sounds like a bargain to me. Make sure to check that out ahead of time.

About guest writer Mica:

Mica Travel this earthMica has been traveling since 2005. Working as a Chef by trade, Mica blogs about food and adventure travel. Obsessions include fried plantains, cameras, cheese, and Pisco. Follow her blog at: Travel This Earth          

Sandwiches are one of the universal foods, they’re cheap and convenient. We ate way too many of them on our trip and offer up the 11 best sandwiches in the world.

1) Shawarma in Jerusalem

Shawarma Jerusalem

A shawarma is a Middle Eastern sandwich made from meats (often lamb or chicken) that are cooked while rotating on a vertical spit. While it may look like a human leg spinning around, the spiced meat is delicious. It is shaved off and placed in a pita bread with a choice of toppings; usually hummus, tahini, tabbouleh, cucumbers and pickled vegetables. The flavors meld together into an incredibly tasty combination. The shawarmas pictured above come from side by side stands in Jerusalem.

2) Ham sandwich in Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland French Market ham sandwich

At the Saturday-only French Market in Auckland, you can try one of the great Kiwi bargains; $4.25 USD gets you a freshly carved ham sandwich on a crispy French baguette with lettuce and dressing. 

Auckland French Market Ham sandwich

3) Chopped rib on weck in Saratoga Springs, New York

BBQsa Saratoga rib sandwich weck

PJ’s BAR-B-QSA is one of our favorite barbecue joints. It’s a road trip of American barbecue offering regional specialties from all over the country. The rib sandwich is served on a weck roll, a western upstate New York specialty that is topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds. 

4) Kapana in Namibia

men eating kapana in Namibia

Part of the fun of kapana, the popular street food of Namibia, is how it’s eaten. You tell the vendor how much you want to spend and he pushes that amount over on the grill with his knife. You then grab it with your fingers and dip it into a communal box full of salt and spices. Tasty yes but not a sandwich. To make it a sandwich do what we did. Walk over to one the vendors selling fresh Portugeuse rolls, split it open and stuff the bread with the kapana. Now that’s a sandwich. It might have been donkey meat, we’re still not quite sure, but it sure tasted good.

5) Pastrami sandwich in New York

Katzs deli pastrami best sandwiches in the world

We both grew up in New York where the love of pastrami was drilled into us at an early age. Our favorite is still the classic with pickles and an egg cream at Katz’s Deli in Lower Manhattan. It’s where Meg Ryan loved the food in a famous scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” or maybe she was just faking it.

6) Pulled pork sandwich in Cincinnati, Ohio

Findlay market best sandwiches in the world

The award-winning barbecue team from Velvet Smoke plies its trade at the historic Findlay Market in Cincinnati. The pulled pork offers the right combination of tenderness, flavor and bite.

7) Bahn Mi in Hue, Vietnam (Winner: Best value)

Banh Mi sandwich

The sandwich is called banh mi but that is just Vietnamese for bread, in this case, a delicious crusty French baguette. The stuffing is typically grilled pork, perhaps compressed pig ears, liver pate, cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots and a spread such as mayonnaise or spicy chili sauce. These bahn mi were 35 cents each, feeding us a delicious lunch for two for only 70 cents. The baguettes alone were worth more than that.

8 ) Hog roast and haggis sandwich in Edinburgh, Scotland

Hog roast haggis sandwich Edinburgh

Nothing like slapping on some haggis before the roasted hog. Haggis, the national food of Scotland and something they are oddly proud of, is sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, oatmeal, onion, oatmeal, suet and spices wrapped in a sheep’s stomach. Seriously. When combined with roasted hog it is pretty intense.

Pork and haggis sandwich castle terrace market edinburgh

Hard to beat the setting just below Edinburgh Castle. For a video of our haggis taste test check out “A Fistful of Haggis.”

9) Porchetta in  Assisi, Italy

Assisi porchetta best sandwiches in the world

You know your sandwich is going to be fresh when the head is staring at you. We have to admit though, it did make us feel a bit guilty.

10) Philly cheesesteak in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Philly cheesesteak Cambodia

Yo, we’re from Philly so we had to include at least one cheesesteak. After a tiring day touring Angkor Wat, Little Rocky approved of this one at the Warehouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Gotta love that French baguette.

11) Kokorec in Istanbul (Winner: The best sandwich in the world)

Kokorec best sandwich turkey

And the winner is, the kokorec sandwich in Turkey. It’s so delicious it even earned its own blog post: Damn, that’s good sheep intestine The title sort of gives away one of the main ingredients.

The world’s worst sandwich: Vegemite sandwich in Australia

Vegemite sandwich

Men At Work made it famous, but the world’s worst sandwich is the Vegemite sandwich. For those who haven’t tried it, Vegemite tastes like salty, fermented toe snarf. Straight from Australia’s Bush country, here’s a video of our official vegemite taste test. Watch it at your own peril.

What is your favorite sandwich?

Here’s our review of pizza on 6 continents: The best pizza in the world, it’s not in Italy

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Pizza is our go-to food on the road, our favorite is New York-style. And when we return from a trip it’s usually the first meal we eat. On our year-long journey we tried pizza on six continents, including at its birthplace in Naples, to seek the best pizza in the world. But what surprised us most was where we found the best and the worst pizza.

 Pizza in Asia

best pizza in Hong Kong Paisanos

Paisanos in Hong Kong served up pizza that was very close to New York style.

pizza in North Korea

We hadn’t expected to see pizza in North Korea. But our guides kept referring to their own version of Pizza Hut. While it was a bit undercooked, it wasn’t bad for pizza in, well, North Korea. (Photo courtesy Russell Ng)

Pizza Chiang Mai Thailand

The owner of Pulcinella da Stefano in Chiang Mai, Thailand hails from Italy so his pizza was almost Neopolitan in style. 

best pizza dessert pineapple bali

A pineapple and banana dessert pizza in Bali. What a great idea!

Pizza in Vietnam

We were surprised to find an upscale Italian restaurant in Hanoi, complete with marble columns and tuxedo-clad waiters. This being Vietnam though, it was still really cheap.

Pizza Siem Reap Cambodia

Pizza in Cambodia? Why not, we even ate an authentic Philly cheesesteak there.

Pizza in the Middle East

In the Middle East we ate authentic pizza along with an Arabic version that while not pizza, sure had a lot in common with it.

Pizza in Dubai

No one affiliated with this restaurant in Dubai was Italian, but they put out a pretty good product. 

Israel food Arab zatar flatbread

In the Arab market in Jerusalem we tried zatar flatbread. It was ‘pizza-ish” enough to be included here. Also, we really liked it.

Pizza Tel Aviv

We almost walked right past this pizzeria in Tel Aviv because we thought it was a Dominos. But look closely at the logo, it’s Pizza Domino and no relation to the American chain. It may be the closest we came to authentic New York style pizza.

Pizza in Africa

best pizza in the world Namibia

We don’t surprise easily but were gobsmacked to come across a pizzeria in Swakopmund, Namibia. It was pretty good too. 

Pizza in Italy

Many people have a love/hate relationship with authentic Neopolitan pizza. The type served in Naples is different than what many expect. (Particularly if they were weaned on New York-style since childhood.) It turns out that authentic Neopolitan pizza is kind of soupier than expected. Some say it’s due to using fresh buffalo mozzarella. Either way, it takes some getting used to.

Pizza Naples Italy tomato

A plain  pizza in Naples, a bit soupy for our taste. 

Pizza Naples Italy rocket

Larissa’s favorite topping, fresh arugula or rocket.

Pizza Italy french fries

This is what happens when a self-proclaimed world traveler can’t admit that he doesn’t speak his grandparents language and orders a pizza that he thinks comes with potato slices on it.

Pizza in Australia and New Zealand

best pizza in the world Auckland New Zealand Sals

Sal’s in Auckland, New Zealand boasted of authentic New York style pizza. It came pretty close, even with Wisconsin mozzarella.

Best pizza in the world Australia Clare Valley Stone Bridge winery

Craig from  Stone Bridge Wines in Clare Valley, Australia manages to serve up delicious  wood fired pizza and award-winning wines. This was the runner-up for best pizza.

best pizza in the world Perth Australia

The pizza from Embers Wood Fired in Gooseberry Hill outside Perth, Australia. Although no one working at the place seemed to be over the age of 12, the pizza was the best of our entire trip. This is the Pizza Siciliana  with fresh ricotta, cacciatore sausage & marinated eggplant. That’s right, our top two pizzas were both from Australia. What an upside down world we live in.

The worst pizza we had

worst pizza in the world Pizza Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is known for being half-Italian (just like Michael) so we were disappointed in this gooey mess. Three fist-sized hunks of mozzarella were placed in the center of the pie before going into the oven. Since they’re too big to melt properly, the chef just smears them around the pie after it’s baked where it turns into a gelatinous clump.

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Tasting pizza on six continents--which is the best?

On the flip-side, Argentina did provide us the greatest taste sensation of our trip: Read “Is dulce de leche the best flavor in the world?”

Is a coal mining town in Pennsylvania the “Pizza Capital of the World?”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at finding the best pizza in the world in Australia. We may have found the best gelato in the world in New Zealand, where it’s made by a mad scientist from Italy.

What type of pizza do you like? Do you eat pizza with your hands or a knife and fork? To us, a knife and fork for pizza is just plain wrong.

To follow our journey around the world in search of the tasty and quirky and receive valuable travel tips subscribe here.

From a kitschy throwback hotel in North Korea to a nudist B&B in Portugal, we found a few unique places to stay in the world. Here are some of our favorites:

1) Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Jordan


Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

The Little Petra Bedouin Camp is so named because of its proximity to Little Petra, a smaller cousin of the world-renowned site of Petra. Just like the name implies, it’s little, but worth visiting as it gets less than 1% of the visitors of Petra. When we visited there were only three other people there. The Bedouin camp offers accommodations in tents. However, we were a little concerned at check-in when the owner cheerfully told us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” So we spent a rather cold night in the cave but it was filled with blankets and pillows and ended up being quite cozy.

Website: Little Petra Bedouin Camp

2) Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel, Beijing, China


Unique places to stay Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

Keen observers will notice that while Larissa is waiting for the next performance she is engrossed in a game of Solitaire.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of small alleys and courtyard homes in Beijing that are rapidly being bulldozed over for new developments. While the hutongs are becoming a shadow of their former selves, will an art based on shadows help revive them? The Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel is in an old hutong neighborhood and showcases the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, shadow puppetry is being revived by another Mao, this one an artist.

Unique Places to stay Shichachai Hotel Beijing

The man behind the curtain is puppet artist Mao.

Mao makes his own hand painted shadow puppets as he revives the lost art. A theater was built into the hotel lobby to showcase regular performances for guests.. Staying here provides the visitor a unique opportunity to experience life in an old hutong while watching an ancient art.

Book a room at the: Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

3) Belar Homestead, Dubbo, Australia


Unique places to stay Belars Australia

The Belar Homestead sits in Australia’s bush country on a 3,000 acre ranch owned by 4th-generation cattle farmer Rob Wright and his wife Deb. In fact, the house was built by Rob’s great-grandfather. The setting off a mile-long driveway is perfect for someone seeking solitude with the only neighbors being a few cows, some chickens and the occasional kangaroo. The remote location provides a spectacular night sky for stargazing. It’s so clear that the Parkes Radio Telescope, which received the video of the first Apollo moon landing, is nearby.

4) Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge, Namibia


Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Namibia has become a popular destination in Africa for independent self-drive safaris. Aside from the big game viewing, there are many areas with prehistoric cave art paintings. Ai Aiba sits within a 12,000 acre reserve boasting over 150 of these paintings. On a pre-breakfast hike we spotted some ancient artwork of giraffes while looking over our shoulder at real giraffes munching on the acacia trees. It was a sublime experience.

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Website: Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge

5) Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea


Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Okay this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly wasn’t Larissa’s choice, but the Yanggakdo is the place to go when visiting the monolithic country of North Korea and experience some retro-70s style. There’s even a highlight of that era, a revolving restaurant on top. The rooms were nicer than we expected, although coated somewhat with several decades worth of tar and nicotine. The only way to visit North Korea is via an authorized tour operator. We recommend Koryo Tours. Extra bonus: There’s a two-lane bowling alley in the basement that comes with your own cheerleader.

Website: Koryo Tours

6) Casa Amarela, Algarve Coast, Portugal


Casa Amarela Naturist resort Portugal

If you’re seeking a vacation where you can pack light, really light, the Casa Amarela may be what you’re looking for. The guest house run by Brits Jane and Stewart is clothing optional. The feeling of diving into the pool and then drying off au natural in the warm Portuguese sun is so … well, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. And while you’re relaxing just think of all the money you saved on baggage fees.

Web site: Casa Amarela

7) Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali


Unique places to stay Munduk Moding Bali

If you’ve dreamed of waking up to a view of a coffee plantation on the island of Bali then this is the place. True coffee addicts can hike the plantation then retire to the lodge for a fresh cup of Kopi Luwak. Made famous as the java of choice for Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List,  it’s brewed from beans that have first been eaten and shat out by the civet cat. Despite that history, Larissa tried it. Fortunately for Michael he’s not a coffee drinker. As an added bonus you can visit the civets in cages and watch them prepare the beans for roasting.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Website: Munduk Moding Plantation

What unique places to stay can you recommend?

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There’s a reason Peter Jackson selected the South Island of New Zealand to film his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. The landscape with its snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rainforests and sweeping vistas lives up to the dreamland created by author J.R.R. Tolkien. The countryside is so jaw-dropping that the tourism board created an official Southern Scenic Route (SSR). The road lopes along for almost 500 miles, beginning in Queenstown then skirting the southern half of the island before ending in Christchurch.

Our New Zealand road trip began after a flight into Queenstown. The South Island was a culture shock after two weeks in the urban setting of Auckland. From the air we saw snow-capped rocky peaks, known as the Southern Alps, spreading to the horizon, punctuated by the occasional lake of vivid turquoise and a fleeting glimpse of the Franz Joseph glacier. As the plane descended, alpine meadows blanketed with yellow wildflowers appeared. We half expected to see Julie Andrews twirling around singing The Sound of Music.

New Zealand Milford Sound road

The ride to Milford Sound provides stunning scenery.

We headed south for the town of Te Anau, headquarters of the Fiordland National park and a convenient base for exploring Milford Sound. A two-hour drive takes visitors to the Sound, the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of the fjords in Norway. (That’s no typo, New Zealand and Norway do spell the word “fjord” differently.) Milford Sound is the only one of New Zealand’s fiords that can be accessed by car, making it a popular destination. Even Rudyard Kipling described its rugged grandeur as “the 8th wonder of the world.”

The route to Milford is one of the world’s great driving destinations. The steep and winding road passes through a remarkable series of microclimates, including farmland, alpine meadow, dense forest, desert, rainforest, snow-capped mountain ranges and waterfalls. It’s a journey best taken in summer as the winter brings a severe avalanche risk. After barreling through the one-lane Homer Tunnel, the descent back to sea level is negotiated through a series of hairpin turns slickened by mist spraying off nearby waterfalls. Although it was summer, snow drifts still caressed the side of the road.

Milford Sound boat ride

Even on a foggy, rain-soaked day, Milford Sound was impressive.

The popular boat ride on Milford Sound requires some strategic planning. Four tour companies operate from the single pier; boats chock full of day-trippers depart about every 15 minutes for the 90-minute ride through the narrow fiord. However, by afternoon the crowds have departed, the boats are almost empty and fares are lower. Just after we boarded, the overcast sky let loose a gentle rain that eventually turned into a downpour. After getting drenched we headed indoors but much of the scenery was no longer visible through the foggy windows. Fortunately, near the end of the trip the sun reappeared to cast a warm glow on the sound, revealing double-arched rainbows created from the mist of the waterfalls dashing against the rocks. At that point, we finally got the spectacular view that had excited Kipling so much. The lesson here is to time your trip with at least some dry weather

From the fiordlands and mountains the SSR heads due south, passing the almost tropical looking beach at Florence Hill. Along the coast the trees are angled sharply away from the water, their roots struggling to retain a firm footing against the unrelenting onslaught of the gusts whipping off the ocean.

New Zealand Florence Hill Point lookout

The scenic overlook at Florence Hill, near the southernmost point of New Zealand.

The city of Invercargill is home to possibly the world’s quirkiest hardware store, or perhaps the world’s quirkiest auto museum. At Hayes Hardware, vintage cars (including a few mint Thunderbirds) and motorcycles nestle among the aisles of generators, hammers and paint. The big draw at Hayes is the customized 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle raced by local Burt Munro to set several world speed records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1960s. It was the subject of the film The World’s Fastest Indian, starring Anthony Hopkins.

New Zealand road trip Worlds fastest indian motorcycle

Maybe it’s because New Zealand is so remote, but they really like planting those multi-directional signposts that indicate the distance to faraway destinations. On the SSR one is placed just beyond Invercargill, in the small town of Bluff, to mark the southernmost point on the South Island. The marker displays the mileage counts to places like Sydney, London and even the South Pole. Despite feeling like we’re almost at the bottom of the world, the southern tip of New Zealand is only about halfway between the equator and Antarctica.

The northeasterly portion of the SSR winds through hilly pastureland with occasional glimpses of the bluffs over the ocean. Hillsides and meadows are covered by so many grazing sheep it appears that a giant dandelion sprayed its wispy white tendrils everywhere. The pace is leisurely; sheep-related traffic jams are common as farmers herd their flocks down the main road.

New Zealand South Island toad trip sheep

Drive carefully, farmers and their sheep have the right-of-way.

Dunedin on the southeast coast is a university town, reflected in its superb used bookstores and cafes. The flamboyant Edwardian-era railway station, where no surface is left undecorated, is also the home of the nation’s sports hall-of-fame. Railroad buffs can admire the architecture and trains while sports fans reminisce about Olympic athletes and the All-Blacks, New Zealand’s 2011 world champion rugby team. True devotees can push a button on a wooden box near the entrance which emits the aromas of a rugby match. For those who prefer to sniff something sweeter, Cadbury’s offers tours of its chocolate factory a few blocks away.

Driving northward the SSR hugs the coast before gradually climbing back into the mountains. There are many interesting side trips: we followed a small sign leading us to a remote ocean bluff where a family of seals frolicked on the nearby rocks. The hills and roadsides are covered with a kaleidoscope of colors from wild lupine that sprouts with abandon. The bottle-brush shaped flowers grow in a dazzling array of purples, pinks, yellows and whites. The lupine and bright mustard-colored gorse bushes combine to put on a daytime fireworks display.

New Zealand road trip Twizel lupine

Colorful lupine sprout up almost everywhere.

The sleepy town of Twizel serves as a prime base for viewing Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. Soaring over 12,000 feet, it was the “training ground” for Edmund Hillary as he prepped for his legendary conquest of Mount Everest. The greatest Kiwi ever is showcased in the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, a free museum located in the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village.

The nearby Tasman Glacier is accessible via a steep 20-minute hike up a rock-strewn path. We sweated and grunted our way to the top to look out over…not much. There was a beautiful blue river with a few ice floes, but the glacier itself looked like the contents of a gravel quarry. A nearby sign echoed our thoughts as it stated, “Where’s the glacier?” The sign explained that glaciers are covered with rocky stubble called “surface moraine.” The ice, which we expected to see, hides beneath it.

New Zealand Road trip man overlooking glacier

The view over the Tasman Glacier.

Massive sights such as glaciers are best viewed from the air. So we went for a barnstorming ride in an open-cockpit biplane, outfitted in leather flight jackets and goggles for the full Snoopy fighting the Red Baron effect. Pilot Chris flew by the Ben Ohau mountains and nearby glacier before swooping low over the meadow used by Peter Jackson to film the Pelennor Fields battle scene in The Return of the King.

Larissa Michael Milne Changes In Longitude biplane cockpit

Even Little rocky pumped his fists over the biplane flight.

Flying out of Christchurch a few days later we were rewarded with a last glimpse of the vistas we had seen from the ground. Our road trip revealed that there was even more than the “greatest hits” of mountains and glaciers and fiords. Seeing the South Island at our own pace enabled us to experience not just the majesty of the Lord of the Rings scenery, but also the natural beauty that exists around every bend in the road. New Zealand is a perfect destination for an independent road trip.

If you go

Here’s the link to the official website for the Southern Scenic Route. It offers maps and trip planning tips. Plus a link to the official New Zealand tourism website.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

U2 fans will recognize One Tree Hill as the name of a song off The Joshua Tree album. It refers to One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand also known by its Maori name of Maungakiekie. The song was dedicated to Greg Carroll, a Maori roadie for the band who died in a car crash while running an errand for Bono. The hill is a volcanic cone that, before the arrival of European settlers, was the strongest fort in the area due to its commanding presence and 360-degree view.

What you won’t find on One Tree Hill is a tree. In 1852, the authorities knocked down a Totara tree that was sacred to the Maori and eventually replaced it with a Monterey Pine. About fifteen years ago a Maori took a chain saw to the pine and cut it down. The land is disputed which is why there has been a holdup in replacing the tree. Today even planting a tree has become political.

There is an obelisk at the top that marks the grave of John Logan Campbell but it’s not another example of a colonizer usurping the indigenous people. He asked that the obelisk be placed there to represent the Maori. In front of the obelisk there used to be a stump of the last tree on One Tree Hill but even that’s now gone.

One Tree Hill in Auckland view

Approaching the summit of One Tree Hill.

It’s a pretty steep 600 feet to the summit. I had already taken a bus to the wrong stop and gotten off two miles beyond the park so I wasn’t enjoying the climb as much as I might, ah who am I kidding?, I’d probably never enjoy the climb. For the last part it got practically vertical, at least it felt like it, so I did something I hadn’t done since high school: I stuck my thumb out and hitched a ride.

I figured New Zealand is a nation of hikers, which they call tramping, so it must also be a nation of hitchhikers. And where there are hitchhikers, there are hitchhiker picker uppers. The country seemed so idyllic I figured “stranger danger” hadn’t yet washed to these shores, so maybe someone would take pity on me.

The first few cars passed me by. Maybe my thumb was pointing in the wrong direction. I tried again with a smile, which if you’ve read about my grotty passport photo might not be a good idea, but within three seconds an old station wagon came to a rolling stop. Either my smile worked or they thought I was somebody who shouldn’t be walking around on my own.

Walden and Zoe were twenty-somethings who likely saved me from a bout with CPR. I asked where they were from and Walden proudly proclaimed, “We’re Kiwis!” Zoe’s dad was originally from Wisconsin and, in a story I heard repeatedly, had fallen in love with a Kiwi and moved to New Zealand.

Zoe and Windon One Tree Hill in Auckland

My saviors, Zoe and Windon.

We made it to the top of One Tree Hill and joined  a few other intrepid trampers taking photos of the spot where the tree would be, if in fact there was a tree so the hill could live up to its name. The sweeping view is stupendous, even better than from atop the famed Sky Tower in the center of Auckland.

One Tree Hill in Auckland

It's difficult to capture the 360-degree view. This is just part of it with volcanic cones in the distance.

Geographically, New Zealand is an unsettled land. From the summit we counted the cones of volcanoes but stopped at about a dozen. All that molten lava churning just beneath the surface is reflected above ground where a simple act of replacing a tree has become a seismic event. I hope the next time I visit One Tree Hill in Auckland the view also includes a recently planted tree.

“The moon is up over One Tree Hill

We see the stars go down in your eyes

I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky

And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill”

— by U2

Click the link for our New Zealand road trip.

One of the more sobering aspects of our journey has been the environmental abuse we’ve seen, sometimes in the least likely places. Although we’ve traveled all over the world and written about some incredible sights, the story that resonated the most with readers is the one we wrote about the plastic trash on the beaches of Bali.

The tropical paradise of Bali was anything but. We visited during what some locals call the “trash season.” This coincides with the rainy season as garbage-filled storm drains flow rivers of plastic into the ocean, which then flings the trash back in waves onto the beach. It’s not exactly the recycling program that they need. Despite all the pretty pictures we have posted, the one below has garnered the most worldwide attention to our site.

Bali Kuta Beach trash

A lonely mermaid washed up from a sea of trash in Bali.

A week before our visit to Bali we saw the result of an aggressive trash awareness program. Perth, Australia boasts miles of spotless beaches that were cleaner than any we’ve seen. The local Waste Authority, with the catchy slogan “Too Good to Waste,” promotes an active recycling program. But recycling alone won’t solve the problem. The main issue is the abundance of plastic being produced.

In the US alone over 40 billion plastic water bottles are used each year. And that’s in a country with a potable water supply. Reusable containers are gaining in popularity but as yet are not as ubiquitious as disposable plastic bottles.

Plastic shopping bags are being eliminated in many communities but are given out with abandon in much of the world; as if the cashier made a commission on every bag used. Sometimes this has led to comical situations where each piece of fruit is nestled in its own plastic bag. Even when we showed the vendor our recyclable cloth bag at markets in the Middle East, they would wave it away and shove our purchase in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, just halfway across the Mediterranean, the island of Malta charges for plastic bags so shoppers are diligent about bringing their own reusable bags with them.

Israel plastic recycling cages

This container on a street in Tel Aviv promotes plastic recycling. Unfortunately, due to security concerns it has to be an open cage.

After we published our story about Bali we became aware of an Australian group called “The Two-Hands Project.” Founded by Paul Sharp and Silke Stuckenbrock in 2010, the volunteer organization focuses on cleaning up the world’s beaches and making people aware of the dangers of plastic. They’ve used social networking to encourage clean-up efforts in over 35 countries. Their Facebook page highlights photos of successful clean-ups from around the world.

We asked Paul what primary message he’d like to get out to readers about their mission:

 “Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Cleaning up is important and helps protect wildlife, though it will not fix the problem. Manufacturers need to move away from disposable design and implement reusable packaging and refund systems to ensure near 100% recovery of packaging and end-of-life products.”

He’s got a point, all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent in the huge amounts of plastic trash being produced daily. Until the plastic trash generation is cut off at the source, groups like theirs will be fighting a losing battle with their clean-up actions.

Thailand temple plastic recycling

This Buddhist temple in Thailand promotes biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

Part of the mission of the temple in Chiang Mai that is pictured above is to increase awareness of alternatives to plastic. Food containers made of compressed banana leaves instead of styrofoam are becoming more popular. We’ve also seen biodegradable “plastic” utensils made out of corn and other plant sources. While not a perfect solution, at least they won’t be floating onto the world’s beaches for decades after their use. Perhaps by then Bali’s “trash season” will become an unwelcome vestige of the past.

Click the link for more information about the Two Hands Project and see how you can lend a hand.

There could hardly be two more disparate Australian films than Mad Max, the post-apocalyptic tale of a policeman trying to survive in a world without water, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the story of three drag queens driving a lavender bus across the country to put on a drag show. Priscilla is the name of their bus, by the way.

What Mad Max and Priscilla have in common, other than being road movies, is that they were both filmed on the outskirts of the Australian Outback, in and around the ghost town of Silverton and the nearby village of Broken Hill. Silverton has become the Australian equivalent of those fake towns that appeared in Westerns in the 1950s. Yet this town is real, it’s just not very populated.

Mad Max Australia Outback Silverton

Rush hour traffic in Silverton.

We had left Sydney two weeks earlier seeking the Outback but every place we stopped the locals told us, “Ah, this isn’t the real Outback yet. You’ve got to keep driving a few days more.” Finally in the orange haze we spied a sign that said “Welcome to Broken Hill – Where the Outback Begins.” At last we had made it.

Broken Hill is an old mining town that now hosts the School of the Air for students living on far-flung ranches and the legendery Royal Flying Doctor Service. We visited those sites and used Broken Hill as a base for exploring the Outback.

The next day we were tooling around when in the distance a handful of old buildings rose up out of the tumbleweed strewn plain. Two cowboys staring each other down before a gunfight in an old Western movie would not have looked out-of-place.

The idea of a movie filming there is not so farfetched. The ghost town of Silverton has been the site for many film shoots. We ventured into Silverton and even ended up meeting the man who supplied the weapons for the first Mad Max film.

Click to read the rest of this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer

I’m usually not much of a nature boy, saving the passion of the outdoors for my forester brother. But in the Southern Hemisphere I couldn’t help take pictures of trees that are really different from the ones at home.

The tree picture above is planted near One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand, the site made famous in the U2 song. Ironically, the actual One Tree Hill is treeless due to a dispute between the native Maori and the later arriving Kiwis about what type of tree should be planted there, a native one or a colonizing intruder.

Here are a few photos of some other unusual trees we’ve seen along the way:

Pictures of trees

Alongside the road in the Australian Outback people place bottles on this tree, probably to relieve boredom.

tree pictures

These trees at Angkor Wat reminded us of heart-shaped lollipops.

Pictures of trees

We try to make like Lara Croft and climb this tree at the Ta Prohm temple.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm Angkor Wat Lara Croft (444x525)

At the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat the trees have sort of taken over.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm hidden statue (422x525)

The only remaining Buddha statue face at Ta Prohm barely peeks through an overgrown trunk.

The Buddha statue pictured above is the only one at the Ta Prohm temple of Angkor Wat that still has its head.  Through decades of political turmoil and strife, including most recently the Khmer Rouge regime, the tree has protected the little Buddha.

Tree pictures Ta Prohm Angkor Wat

Imagine planting this tree next to your house?

My Lai tree

This tangled tree at My Lai reflects the area's tortured history.

Tree picutres

Wispy branches reach for the sky in Australia.

Pictures of trees

The trees in Auckland are huge and gnarly. Larissa makes like a Keebler elf in this one.

Pictures of trees

Thailand suffered from huge floods last year. This tree soaking in the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok shows the waters have not fully receded.

Picutres of trees

A 750-year old Boab in Perth, Australia.

Pictures of trees Clare Valley sunset (439x525)

Sunset filtering through branches in the Clare Valley of Australia.

This is our very first black-and-white photo essay. We’re curious, what do you think about it? 


We’ve come across some unusual signs in our journey. Some funny signs caution people about not doing things that would seem to be self-evident. Like the sign posted above. It’s in the bathrooms at the Adelaide Airport in Australia. Not that we’ve ever been tempted to drink from the toilet, public or otherwise, it’s nice to know they care enough to give us another reason not to. Here are a few more funny warning signs:

Sign Bangkok taxi no humping (515x402)

These no-nos were posted on a taxi in Bangkok. We understand no animals, we didn’t realize the other one was such a major problem.

Dubai metro fish warning sign

Apparently people carrying fish is a real issue on the Dubai metro.

funny signs

I guess in the land of the hopping kangaroo, Aussie drivers need to be reminded that not everything bounces.

Spit Junction Sydney

An actual Metro stop in Sydney, it can’t be good for property values.

Sarah Palin passport

There was something about the face in this photo shop in Australia that looked familiar but we just couldn’t place it.

A clean toilet seat costs about 60 cents at this Kuala Lumpur Mall. If you’re not so particular you can go down the hall for free.

Squat toilet sign

Okay, in Asia there are Western style toilets and there are squatters. This sign in Cambodia warns against combining the two concepts.

durian warning sign

Durians, also known as stinky fruit, are banned from most hotels in Asia. Their stench is noted for its quite remarkable lingering effect.

What unusual signs have you seen in your travels?