Long Island – Bahamas

Why Long Island?

When I say Long Island, I’m not talking about the one in New York, even though most Google searches and blogs tend to want to steer me in that direction. Long Island is a beautiful untouched paradise full of remote beaches, underwater discovery, and true Bahamian culture. Its population is roughly 2000 and it hasn’t really hit the tourism market yet, so the people that go there are truly looking for some R&R.

I have fortunately been able to see a few of the Bahamian islands and they each have their own flavour. Here is a list of the top 10 Bahamian islands by population. In the past I have been to New Providence, Eleuthera, Abaco, and Exuma, and have made it a goal to see all of them! We came up with Long Island because we did not have flexible dates and were luckily able to get a flight there, and it was an island that we had never been to before.

  • New Providence
  • Grand Bahama
  • Eleuthera
  • Andros
  • Abaco
  • Exuma
  • Long Island
  • Cat Island
  • Bimini
  • Spanish Wells

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Day 1 – A week off!

I took this vacation with my mom as we are both teachers and have the same March Break. The Friday that school was finished, we drove from work to Detroit to stay overnight before our flight the next morning. We stopped at Meijer on the way to stock up on some food to take with us since food in the Bahamas can be really expensive (and sometimes scarce).

We stayed at Springhill Suites Marriott, which was so nice and clean and it included Park and Fly. We ordered pizza from my favourite restaurant near the airport – Leonardo’s, and then went to sleep by 10 since we had to wake up really early the next day.

Day 2 – The smallest airport ever

We woke up at 3 am to get to the airport on time. We flew American Airlines from Detroit to Washington, then Washington to Nassau, then Nassau to Long Island. I was nervous about making all of the connections so we were really playing it safe all day. The first two flights were uneventful and we arrived in Nassau at 3:45 pm with lots of extra time. The views coming into the Bahamas were incredible so it’s important to grab a window seat!

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close to New Providence

We boarded our last flight of the day to Deadman’s Cay, Long Island on Bahamas Air. Bahamas Air is the most popular airline and I thought it was the only option when I booked. When I got to the island I found out about Southern Air, which had better times for departing the island.

I could see Deadman’s Cay airport from the sky and it was by far the smallest airport I had ever seen (literally a shack with one airstrip). At the airport we met Mr. T, who was in charge of our rental car. He charged us $50/day (cash only). It’s absolutely essential to have a car on the island as it is obviously very desolate.

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View of Deadman’s Cay airport from the plane

We drove about 40 mins north to our accommodation in Salt Pond. There is one road that goes up and down the island called Queen’s Highway and then to get anywhere else you have to go on rough dirt roads. Our resort was called Grotto Bay. The owners lived on the second level and they had two units they rented out on the lower level. The unit had everything we needed and was right on a small beach with gorgeous sunsets.

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Grotto Bay sunset

Day 3 – Recharge

After a full 12+ hour day of travel from the previous day, we needed a day to rest and figure out a plan. Our hosts showed us around their property and let us pick some of their oranges and tomatoes. The tomatoes were so good – they were mini ones that I had never seen before and I munched on them all week. We spent the day at our small and quiet beach and I started the trip off with a cute farmer’s tan (not). We also got to know our neighbours, Sheldon and Cathy from Calgary. They had already been on the island a week and had lots of advice to give us.

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Grotto Bay – owners on the top level and two guest units on the bottom

Day 4 – Tour of the north

After a day of sitting around we were anxious to get going and see something other than where we were staying. Our place was pretty much in the centre of the island so the plan was to spend one day driving ‘down north’ (as the locals call it) and one day up south. Going north seemed more manageable since it looked like there were less things to do. Our host was wonderful and gave us a list of all of the points to see on the island.

Our first stop was the Tropic of Cancer Beach in Wemyss. We went down our first of many long dirt roads to reach a huge beach on the Caribbean side. The beach was ok but it was rough so we didn’t spend much time there.

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In one of the next settlements called Millerton’s, I saw a sign for a bakery called Pelican’s Landing Bakery. We decided to stop in and were greeted by the extremely chatty owner, Albert, who was half Bahamian and half Greek. I got a really good piece of lemon cake for only a few dollars.

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Pelican’s Landing Bakery

We decided to drive all the way to the end of the island to the last settlement called Seymour’s. At the end of the road there was a place called Busted Bridge Bar and if you crossed the busted bridge (carefully), and went down a short path, you reached a beautiful protected beach called Newton’s Cay. We looked around the beach and contemplated staying but decided to move on since we had a lot of ground to cover.

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Newton’s Cay at the north tip of the island

We began back-tracking and stopped at the Columbus Monument – where Christopher Columbus first landed on Long Island. It is one of the most touristy things to do on the island and the views were highly recommended by our neighbours.

This was the worst road of the trip. It was 25 long minutes of going slowly over rock, not knowing when it would end. Another family decided to park and walk in after 10 minutes since they thought they were almost there, which they regretted. We drove all the way in to the parking lot and then there’s a little hike up to the monument. There were beautiful views at the monument as it is one of the highest points on the island.

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Columbus Monument

Next we stopped at Cape Santa Maria, which is the most exclusive part of the island. It is home to a very fancy resort and a gorgeous beach. We decided not to stay since it was really windy. As we were leaving, the family that we saw regretting their long walk at the Columbus Monument caught up to us. They told us about the coolest pool in the world at Stella Maris and upon their recommendation we decided to head there next.

And they were right. We drove to the Stella Maris resort and went to the back of it and asked if we could go to the natural pool. A staff member showed us where it was and we saw the crystal clear pool that is filled by the ocean. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring at Stella Maris and had some drinks at the pool bar.

Then we made the trip back to Salt Pond with a few stops for pictures along the way and made some dinner. There wasn’t much to do at night so we ended up watching Netflix most nights and going to bed early.

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Stella Maris natural pool

Day 5 – Up south & pigs

Sheldon told us so much about what there was to do in the south, we were ready to keep exploring. We drove all the way to the end of the road, which was a lot further than going north. It took us 1.5 hours with no stops, and for most of the drive there is nothing. This part of the island was hit badly (and all of the island) by Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 and almost every local we met had tales to tell of the terrible storm.

At the end of the road up south, there is a beautiful beach called Gordon’s Beach but we didn’t spend too much time since the weather was taking a turn. We headed back north and stopped at the marina in Clarencetown (probably the biggest settlement on the island) and admired the yachts.

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Gordon’s Beach – south tip of the island

We wanted to have lunch there but it was closed, so we continued north to try to find a restaurant. We checked a few places and ended up stopping at the Seaside Grill, which is near the airport and it is owned by a guy named Kenny who takes a lot of pride in his conch salad. We were chatting with some people and Kenny’s cousin, Locksley, ended up inviting us on an eco tour that he was already giving to two other tourists.

Locksley took us 11 miles out on his little boat to a small island where he had put 9 pigs. If you don’t know about the Bahamian pigs, here’s the story : on a different island called Exuma, pigs live on their own deserted island and were apparently dropped there by pirates. In the past few years, it has gained a lot of attention and a lot of tours are going there (too many in my opinion). We were there in 2016 and the tour was really overwhelming because of the amount of people.

Locksley decided to appeal to the tourists on Long Island and set up a pig island of his own. He goes to the island at least every other day and feeds the pigs and takes 4 tourists there at a time. The pigs are extremely happy, social, and well-treated and I liked the tour so much more than in Exuma.

We started by going to the pig island and feeding the pigs. They were so excited and could not focus on anything except for food. We left them to eat and Locksley showed us a few other things. First, he took us to a sand bar where you could find big orange starfish and then he took us to a different sandbar to find more sand dollars than I had ever seen in my life.

After a while, he took us back so we could play with the pigs after they had finished eating. He gave them some sweet potatoes, which they loved, and they came right out to the boat to meet us. Other than eating, they loved attention and would completely fall over when you rubbed their bellies. I was so happy that the pigs were well-treated and it was so fun having an interactive experience. The whole tour took about 3 hours and was well worth it.

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Day 6 – Exploring the grotto

The weather wasn’t the greatest and after two days of driving we decided to explore our own backyard. We started by taking a tandem kayak to a nearby uninhabited island to explore. It took about 20 minutes each way and we didn’t see anything on the island but I was on the look out for sharks as we paddled. Later I tried out a paddle board and snorkelled but still didn’t see anything.

In the afternoon our host took us on a tour of the Salt Pond caves, which were right on our property. She said they were the biggest caves in the Bahamas and that they host geologists that come to do research. There were three different chambers. The first chamber still had light coming through holes in the ceiling but when I moved around my flashlight I could see hundreds of little bats crawling in the dark spots. We moved into the second chamber which was completely dark and I looked at the stalactites and said hi to the cockroaches. We didn’t go in the third chamber since it required more equipment and we had a good enough taste of the cave from the first and second.

Day 7 – Dean’s Blue Hole

Today we drove up south to cover some of the places we missed the first time we went south. Our first stop was Dean’s Blue Hole. It’s probably the most popular thing to do on the island as it is the second deepest blue hole in the world (663 ft). The deepest one is in China.

We drove down a long dirt road and made the typical mistake of parking too early on the side of the road because we thought our car wouldn’t be able to make it through a puddle and ended up walking about 15 minutes into the beach. When we got there, we saw the most tourists we had seen anywhere else on the island (about 6) and some of them were finishing up a diving class.

I watched the diving class and thought about going in the hole. I had this irrational fear that something was going to grab me in the hole and pull me into its depths! After the class finished up, I put on my gear and swam around the hole, and then right into its centre. The drop off from the beach to the hole is the scariest part because it’s really dramatic but really, it was very beautiful. They have an anchor set up in the centre where you can try to pull yourself down into the hole and where they do diving classes. After we were finished swimming, we hiked up a small trail for the perfect photo op from above of the hole.

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Dean’s Blue Hole

After Dean’s, we returned to the Flying Fish Marina in Clarence Town and this time it was open and we had lunch. We had yuca fries, coleslaw, cheesecake, and a gorgeous view. This was my favourite restaurant of the trip. After lunch, we went to Galloway Beach near Clarence Town upon recommendation from Sheldon and it was so pristine and beautiful. It had perfectly calm and clear waters and it was basically empty. We only saw 4 other people all afternoon and two of them were Sheldon and Cathy.

We went to Tiny’s for dinner in Salt Pond, which was a boater’s paradise. The boaters parked their dingys in the shallow water and walked up barefoot to the little restaurant. We had some great rum punch and pizza.

Day 8 – I’m at a mutton festival????

We decided to try Bonacorde Beach today, also recommended by Sheldon. His directions were “take the dirt road after Dean’s at the empty sign” and somehow that totally made sense. When we got to the end of this particularly bad dirt road, we parked and then had to walk along a nice beach to get to the nicer beach that was hidden beyond the dunes. We spent a few hours at this perfectly carved cove but eventually had to leave since there was zero shade. It was too bad because it was a perfectly shaped pool and I could have stayed all day.

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Bonacorde Beach

At night we went to a mutton festival. If you know me, you will know that I’m an extremely devoted vegetarian / mostly vegan and I would never be seen at a mutton festival. Well, today I made an exception.

Where we stayed was just a 10 minute walk from the festival grounds. The festival had been advertised all week and they were blasting music all day. Nothing seems to really happen on the island so this was a big deal for the locals and we decided we had to check it out. We arrived in the evening for the opening ceremonies which began with the national anthem, a prayer, and school kids doing the may pole. There were several food vendors and there were options other than mutton (although I didn’t eat anything). They also had really cute games like conch racing that everyone got really into.

Day 9 – quick stop in Nassau

Today was the last day although our plane didn’t leave till 3:30 pm so we had lots of time to get ready. We went to the farmer’s market (on Saturdays) and got some bread and jam to take home. Bahamas Air typically does not run on time and when we got to the airport, they said our plane wouldn’t leave until 5:30 pm.

We went to Max’s Conch Bar that is near the airport to kill some time and I had some coleslaw and mac n cheese. Mr. T found us at the bar and gave me back the deposit and told us to leave the car at the airport when we were finished. While we were waiting at the airport for the plane in the hot sun, a local older guy named Maxwell started talking to us and told us that he just comes to the airport to watch the planes every day.

We finally got to Nassau and took the pricey $40 USD cab ride to downtown to our Marriott hotel. The hotel was nice but before it got dark we wanted to look around Nassau and find something to eat. We were near Junkanoo Beach, which wasn’t the nicest area but we found a really great sushi restaurant for dinner.

Day 10 – back to the cold

I took my time this morning and went for a swim and the gym, enjoying the last day of vacation. When it was time to go I asked some people if they wanted to share a cab with us and they said we could just come with them in their friend’s car, which was so nice of them.

Everything went really smoothly at the Nassau airport and we were able to go through US customs at the airport instead of when we arrived in the US, which was an added bonus. We flew American Airlines to Philadelphia and then to Detroit and took a huge step back into reality!

Thank you for reading if you made it this far. I wrote this post because I found very little information and blogs when I was researching Long Island before my trip. Please comment if you are going/have gone to Long Island because I would love to hear your story.

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A week in LA – Hollywood & Venice

Hollywood

We arrived at LAX at 2 AM from Honolulu and got an Uber to our AirBnB in Hollywood. The AirBnB I found was a one of the best I had ever seen. It was right on Hollywood Boulevard, a 2-minute walk from all the Walk of Fame action. At the same time it wasn’t too loud and it was incredibly clean, well-decorated, and had a pool.

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AirBnB in Hollywood

On the first day we got up at a normal time even though we were tired so we could make use of the day. We looked around the Walk of Fame area, which is basically like the Time’s Square of LA, including the creepy Mickey Mouse costumes. After we had had enough of that, we took a bus to the Grove, which is a really popular and upscale mall and I tried to spot some celebrities – no luck!

We also did a hike in the nearby Runyon Canyon, which had a lot of fancy people but no one that I knew. The hike was fun and had a beautiful view of the city at the top.

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Runyon Canyon view of downtown LA

Jimmy Kimmel Live

After standing in line for two hours in the hot sun, we were lucky enough to get tickets to Jimmy Kimmel! If we had signed up earlier we could have had priority tickets and waited for less time but we just had general tickets which weren’t guaranteed entry.

His studio is right in the centre of Hollywood Boulevard, which was convenient for us. The guests were Zach Galifianakis, Lake Bell, and the band Midland. It was really cool to see how the show operated and how many takes they had to do for some things.

During Zach’s bit, he made a joke to give the whole audience donuts to help him win an award and then they actually started handing out donuts. They put one in my hand but then Zach said “I take it back!” and the assistants took them right out of my hands. My favourite part of the show was the Midland concert at the end. They brought us out of the studio and into a different room so it would feel like an actual concert and the band did a few songs. After the show we went to the Yamashiro Night Market upon a recommendation but there wasn’t a lot there.

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West Hollywood

The next day we woke up early and walked all the way from Hollywood to West Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. It doesn’t look far on the map but it is! Even though I was so tired, we experienced the city in a different way and got to get a good look at the famous LA houses (or their gated driveways).

On the way we looked in the Chateau Marmont – a famous LA hotel and then did another long walk through Beverly Hills to Rodeo Drive. Rodeo Drive was very shiny and obviously expensive. It was cool to see once but I wouldn’t return.

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Rodeo Drive

We took 2 different buses back to our place in Hollywood to meet a friend from home that was also visiting LA. She had a car and drove us to Paramount Studios to do the studio tour. We were in a little golf cart and rode all over the lot to see different famous spots and sets. We saw the set for Grace and Frankie and Dr. Phil. This Is Us was filming when we were there so unfortunately we couldn’t see its set, but I did see tons of football equipment loaded in a truck for the show. After the tour, we went to a really good Mexican restaurant across the street.

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Long walk on Sunset Boulevard

Venice Beach

Our time in Hollywood was over and I was sad to leave the AirBnB. We took an Uber carpool from Hollywood to Venice with all of our stuff after 6 weeks of travel. This was the last leg of a long trip! We stayed in an AirBnB in Marina del Rey close to the Venice canals and the beach. The AirBnB was not one of our better ones – it was in a great location and the house was beautiful but it needed a lot of updating and cleaning. It did the job and we were mostly outside anyway. On our first day we walked from Marina del Rey along the Venice boardwalk to the Santa Monica Pier. We shopped a little bit and then took the bus back. The buses were really confusing and we ended up getting off at the wrong stop and walking halfway back.

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Venice
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Santa Monica

On our second morning for breakfast, we walked all the way up Washington – one of the main roads – and went to a place called Joni’s. It was packed and really good. After, we looked at the Venice Canals (which is why it’s called Venice) and then went to the beach near our place. The waves were pretty big and it was so fun jumping in them. Later we tried to find somewhere for dinner on the boardwalk but everything was so busy. We tried Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which was full of trendy boutiques but no restaurants. Finally we found an Italian place on Washington with amazing garlic knots.

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Venice Canals

The next morning we walked to IHOP and I started the day off with some cupcake pancakes. After, we took a ferry around Marina del Rey for only $1 and saw seals lying around on the boats and the docks. We spent our last full day at the beach and were sad that this trip had finally come to an end. Time to go home and start planning the next one!

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cupcake pancakes at IHOP
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Seal in Marina del Rey
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Marina del Rey beach

Kauai, Hawaii

We arrived in Hawaii from Rarotonga, Cook Islands. In Rarotonga, I said goodbye to Spot the dog and Petra drove us to the airport. It was hard to leave the Cook Islands but having Hawaii in the near future made it a little easier. It’s always been a dream of mine to go to Hawaii, so this leg of the trip was my pick. We took a flight from Rarotonga to Auckland and then a longggg flight from Auckland to Honolulu. After that we had one more short flight from Honolulu to Kauai. This travel day was so long, I felt so out of it when we finally arrived in Kauai.

The day wasn’t over yet. Because of the time change, we arrived in the morning and had a whole day ahead of us on no sleep. We picked up our rental car and got few groceries and then drove 45 minutes to our place on the North Shore in Princeville. Our place was a VRBO condo that was basically like a hotel room that needed some updating. It was fine because we didn’t spend much time in the room and it was well-priced for its location.

We had dinner at a taco shack in a town 10 mins away – Hanalei. Hanalei was my favourite town on the entire island and I would definitely stay on the North Shore if I returned. I really enjoyed staying in Princeville as it was quiet but close to everything, but you definitely need a car for your entire stay.

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highway views

We woke up early and went to yoga by donation on Hanalei Beach. It was really relaxing and the perfect way to start the day. We drove to the end of the highway on the north end to Ke’e Beach. What no one told me about Kauai was the difficulty of parking! Ke’e is a really popular beach and if you don’t go early, you won’t get a spot. It’s also the trail head for the popular Na Pali Coast trail – the Kalalau Trail (more on that later).

We drove a bit further back towards Hanalei and luckily found parking at Tunnels Beach, which was nicer anyway. This is the beach where Bethany Hamilton survived a shark attack. The water was pretty rough and I did some snorkelling but stayed pretty shallow.

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Tunnels Beach

On the way home, we stopped to check out the Westin, which was my favourite resort that we saw. It had a beautiful pool and they had cool torches. At night we drove back towards the airport to Lihue to get some things at Walmart. There wasn’t much to do in Lihue so we got some dinner at a sports bar and went home.

Kalalau Trail – Na Pali Coast

The Kalalau Trail is the most popular trail in all of Hawaii and is famous because it covers a stretch of protected land called the Na Pali Coast that can only be accessed by foot, helicopter, or boat. The entire hike is 18 km long and you need to camp and have a permit. The popular day hike is only 6 km long round-trip and your destination is the beautiful Hanakapiai Beach.

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Kalalau Trail

The hike has a steep incline at the beginning and then follows the cliff’s edge for the rest of the time. The view looking down at the water is incredible and the hike was really rewarding. It’s really important to go early, #1 for parking and to avoid crowds and #2 for the heat. We finished around 12 and I tried the snorkelling at Ke’e Beach, which is in the same parking lot as the trail. I didn’t think it was that good and there were tons of kids. We returned to Hanalei for some shave ice at Wishing Well.

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Wishing Well in Hanalei

We tried to spend the afternoon at Sea Lodge Beach but couldn’t figure out how to get parking there. Our second choice was Hideaways Beach and we got lucky with parking. There were only about 10 public spots and we happened to be there when someone was leaving. We didn’t expect that there would be another big hike down to Hideaways Beach (but we should have, given the name). We had to climb down a really steep rope while carrying all of our stuff! I definitely fell a few times. When we finally made it down, the snorkelling and beach were well worth our climb.

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Hideaways Beach

Boat Trip – North Shore Voyagers

We decided we wanted to see the Na Pali Coast one more time before we left Kauai. We took a tour with North Shore Voyagers on a zodiac that started near Princeville and went all the way down the coast and back. It cost $155 per person for a half day and was completely worth it. It was so amazing to see Na Pali from a different perspective after hiking it the day before. We could see people in the distance hiking as we started our trip.

The trip was on a zodiac with about 15 people on it and 2 crew. It was so rough that it felt like I was going to fall off half the time. I got completely soaked from the spray but it was so fun. On the way back we had to hold on so tight so we wouldn’t fall off and our captain would slow down every 20 minutes and give our hands a break from what he called ‘the death grip’.

They took us in and out of sea caves that could only be accessed by boat and took us to the most amazing snorkel spot at the end of the Na Pali. There were so many fish and I swam with two turtles. Swimming with the turtles was truly one of the most surreal and special moments I have had in nature – the turtles were so peaceful and actually wanted to swim alongside me.

On the way home we saw two pods of spinner dolphins right off of our boat that did tricks for us. They were jumping and swimming under our boat and popping up everywhere. I asked to swim with the dolphins but our captain said that a lot of tourists have ruined that in Hawaii and you’re not allowed to engage with them anymore. Too bad.

This day was one of the most amazing experiences with nature I have had and it was such a beautiful way to experience Hawaii. Unfortunately I do not have pictures since the boat was so rough and I didn’t want to worry about my phone.

Our boat dropped us off at Anini Beach, which is another good place to swim with turtles. We tried to find them for a bit but it started to storm so we went home. Later we got dinner at a place in Hanalei called Bouchon that overlooked the mountains. They had great sushi and they gave me a free fancy drink.

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Dinner at Bouchon in Hanalei and the daily rainbow

From North to South – Trip around the island

We took a day to leave our beloved North Shore and drove to the other end of the island. Our first stop was Wailua Falls near Lihue, which was worth a quick stop early in the morning. We looked at the beautiful falls for a few minutes and continued on our way.

We stopped at Kauai Coffee Company, which had a lot of free coffee samples to wake us up in the morning and then carried on to Hanapepe, the town that Lilo and Stitch is based on. It was a complete ghost down and the only reference to the movie was a painting on a wall. They had a cool hanging bridge you could cross and a few little shops. The town had an interesting vibe and is worth a look around.

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Lilo & Stitch tribute in Hanapepe

Next we drove the highway as far west as you could go. There wasn’t much to see other than a military base. The south end of the island was so much dryer and desert-like than the north.

We drove inland to the Waimea Canyon, which looks a lot like the Grand Canyon. There were lots of lookout points to the canyon, and as you got higher, to the Na Pali Coast as well. After this trip we had seen the Na Pali three different ways – next time I’m in Hawaii I will have to get in a helicopter! In Waimea, it’s worth it to continue all the way to the Kalalau Lookout for the best view and less crowds.

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Waimea Canyon
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Kalalau Lookout

We spent the afternoon at a popular south beach called Poipu Beach. There was a little island a 2 minute swim out that had two really cute Hawaiian Monk seals having a nap. It’s illegal to disturb them but I got a pretty close look. After a little while, the current became very strong and they closed areas of the beach. If you swim out to the little island, make sure it’s safe. The currents can be really dangerous in Hawaii.

We packed up at the beach and decided to look around the Grand Hyatt Resort because we had heard it was beautiful (it was) but we couldn’t afford anything except for the free cucumber water, so we left. We had dinner at a nearby Asian fusion restaurant and then made the trip back up north.

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Poipu Beach monk seal island
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Grand Hyatt Resort

On our last full day in Kauai, I went for a swim in the pool at our condo early in the morning before it got crowded. We headed to Hanalei and had some amazing tropical pancakes for breakfast (coconut, banana, and mac nut). We decided to go to a traditional church service since it was Sunday and it’s a good way to experience culture. The service was half in Hawaiian, half in English, and it was interesting to experience the language and the music. I definitely want to get ukulele after this trip.

We spent the day at Hanalei Beach and I did a few jumps off the pier. Hanalei Beach was so perfect, I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more people there. The water was sheltered and completely calm and the beach was huge and flat. In the evening we ate at Hideaways Pizza Pub and watched the sunset.

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Sunset at Hideaways Resort

On our last half day we woke up early and did a difficult pack of all of our stuff after 6 weeks of travelling. We left early and walked around Kapaa to check out the town and then returned our rental car. Our flight to Honolulu was calm and uneventful and then we flew back to the mainland – Honolulu to LA.

The Cook Islands – Rarotonga

In Rarotonga, there are definitely a lot more options for accommodations to suit your budget and preferences. We stayed at a farm stay AirBnB in the Matavera District that was a little up from the beach. It was about a 10 minute bike ride away from Muri Beach, one of the more touristy beaches on the island.

Petra, who was looking after the AirBnB picked us up at the airport and she showed us around. The farm had goats, chickens, cats, a pig, and lots of fruit trees. We stayed in a small guest house separate from the main house that was perfect for what we needed.

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Smoothies at the AirBnB

Independence Day – August 4

We were lucky enough to be in Rarotonga on their Independence Day and Petra took us to the community centre for celebrations. We saw a traditional dance competition where a dance group from each Cook Island competed. Their costumes were beautiful and the skill of the dancers was extremely impressive. This was my favourite part about Rarotonga. We weren’t allowed to take photos or videos so unfortunately I can’t share any but the songs were so catchy (it’s mostly just singing and drums) that I can still sing one from memory even a few months later. If you can be there around the week of August 4, I would highly suggest it.

Activities

On our first full day we took the bus to the other side of the island. It costs $5 per person one way. There is one bus that runs clockwise and one bus that runs counter-clockwise and it takes about 40 minutes to get around the whole island.

I wanted to do some hiking so we tried a medium-level hike on the west side of the island. I don’t even remember what it was called but it was very steep and unkempt and I would not recommend it. A dog joined our hike and followed us the whole way up that I named Raro. After the hike we got a ride to the Rarotonga Hotel, which is one of the original hotels on the island and had a drink. It looks very traditional and reminded me of the Polynesian Hotel at Disney – except real!

I really wanted to do the Cross Island Trek, which takes about a whole day but the weather was pretty bad while we were there and I was advised not to go alone. The hike runs through the whole island and you hike past some waterfalls

Something you’re supposed to do in the Cooks is go to church on Sunday to hear the beautiful music. We went to the local church in our area and were welcomed but we stuck out because we weren’t wearing white (I didn’t know that all the women wore white on the first Sunday of the month). It was also pretty fancy and I didn’t really have any nice clothes with me. The service is given in their native language, Cook Islands Maori, and their singing was so passionate.

We attended a few markets – the first was the Sunday Market in Avarua, which has really great shopping for souvenirs and food. It seemed like everyone on the island came out on Sundays and the markets had better food than any of the restaurants.

We also went to the Night Market in Muri, which was absolutely packed and somewhat sold out so I would recommend getting there early. This market had only food – I got some vegetarian curry and cheesecake. It was pretty hard to find vegetarian food in the Cooks as their dishes are mostly centred around chicken and fish. I told someone I was vegetarian and they laughed.

I would suggest cooking your meals besides the night markets. There were very few restaurants and they seemed to be there mostly for tourists. We did our activities in the day and stayed in at night since we didn’t have a vehicle but it seemed that’s what most people did – wake up with the sun and go to bed with it.

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1 week old goats at the farm

The Cook Islands – Aitutaki

Aitutaki is truly an untouched paradise and has some of the clearest waters and cleanest beaches I have ever seen. It is the second most visited island in the Cook Islands and the attraction is a shallow lagoon with unbelievable snorkelling and several small islands outlining the perimeter.

How to get there

We got a really early flight from Christchurch to Auckland and then almost missed our flight to Rarotonga, Cook Islands. I have never run so much in an airport and luckily our flight was delayed or else we would have missed it. We flew Air New Zealand, which is a lot better than our airlines here in North America. They served amazing vegetarian meals and they didn’t care about the random and heavy luggage we had.

From Rarotonga, we took a 1-hour domestic flight to Aitutaki. This flight was very expensive (around $500 pp round trip) but we had no other option to get there. We booked several months ahead but I read if you’re willing to wait until last minute, they will release cheap tickets in order to fill the flight.

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Aitutaki Airport 

Kia Orana

Kia Orana – Welcome to Aitutaki! Make sure that you have arranged a pick-up at the airport as there are no taxis and it’s the smallest airport I’ve ever seen – I’m not even sure if there is a phone. I should mention that there is no free WiFi anywhere on the island. We did without it for a week and it was great to unplug.

We stayed in beach bungalows called Paradise Cove, about a 5 minute drive from the airport. There are no major hotels on the island, only small cottages and fancy resorts. Our place was more rustic and basic compared to others but met all of our needs. We were met with beautiful fresh leis at the airport and our place was right on the beach.

Don’t be surprised when you see chickens everywhere – you have to wake up when they wake up. There are also a lot of goats and stray cats. A cat that I named Coco slept outside of our cottage every night and waited for us to come home every day.

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Paradise Cove beach bungalow
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Beach at Paradise Cove

Cruising the Lagoon

The main attraction in Aitutaki is the lagoon and I was particularly interested because it’s where a season of Survivor was filmed. We booked a tour through our accommodations called Aitutaki Adventures. We picked this one because another guest recommended it to us and we liked that it was a relatively small boat (only 12 people). There are several companies that all cost about the same ($110) and they each have a slightly varied itinerary.

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Aitutaki Adventures boat 

Puna was our tour guide and picked all of us up at different resorts in a van. He dropped some of us off at our first snorkel spot and we saw beautiful reefs and the biggest clams I had ever seen. He had gear for the people that didn’t have any.

Our next stop was Honeymoon Island, which was completely deserted except for a windsurfing school. After exploring the island we had bananas and homemade donuts that Puna’s wife made.

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Honeymoon Island windsurfing

Next we took the boat around several surrounding islands and he told us about each one and on which islands Survivor was filmed. He told us all about his experience with Survivor and said that he worked with the camera crews when they were filming.

Our next stop was One Foot Island, the most popular island in the lagoon, where we had an amazing local lunch that was vegetarian for the most part – coleslaw, bananas, breadfruit, etc. On the island you can get your passport stamped at the post office for $2 with a pretty unique stamp and you can buy a beer at the post office if you want to.

Puna took us out snorkelling one more time and there were these huge black fish that circled under the boat. He said they like shiny things and you should make sure you’re not wearing any jewelry when snorkelling because once they ripped out a girl’s belly button ring!

A really bad storm came in and we all took shelter on One Foot Island for about 30 minutes until it passed. A local guy told stories about the island while we waited to go back to Aitutaki.

What to eat…

There are very few restaurants on the island and they are very expensive. We found a restaurant right near our place called Puffy’s that had cheap, simple food that was really good – her fries were the best.

I suggest making sure that your place has a kitchen and making your meals for the most part. The selection in the grocery stores is very limited and also very expensive so I would even suggest bringing some non-perishable items in your luggage. That said, I did find some great local items like ice cream, pawpaw (papaya), coconut, and bananas.

What to do…

Aitutaki is very sleepy and relaxed. Besides the lagoon tour, there are not many organized things to do if that’s what you’re looking for. One day we rented bikes and biked the entire island in about three hours. We also climbed to the highest summit of the island Maunga Pu (only 124 m but still had a beautiful view), which was right across from where we stayed. We mostly spent a lot of time on the beach and snorkelling. There were so many sea cucumbers and I even found a blue starfish.

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Maunga Pu hike

Aitutaki is truly authentic and preserved and the locals are proud of their culture and heritage. It is relatively untouched and it’s refreshing that everyone is happy with their simple lifestyle. I did not want to leave this paradise in the middle of the Pacific!

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New Zealand South Island in Two Weeks

We had two weeks on the South Island to see as much as we could and we only scraped the surface! We were there in the worst month, July, and lost a few days to winter storms. The North and South islands are very different – the South is much more rugged than I expected and definitely a lot colder.

Picton

We took the ferry from Wellington at 9 AM and it took about 3 hours to cross the Cook Strait. It was too cold to go on the deck but I was able to spot some seals out the window as we were pulling into Picton. Picton was WAY smaller than I expected. There were no taxis, so we were overcharged by a shuttle that took us to our accommodation about 10 minutes away. We stayed in a holiday park cabin that was nice but very basic and there was not much to do nearby. I was told that in the summer stingrays will come right up to you at the marina but we were there in the wrong season.

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Marina restaurant in Picton

Christchurch

We took a bus for 8 hours from Picton to Christchurch. All I remember is that my feet were freezing the entire time because there’s no heat on the buses and that I had the best lemon muffin of my life. I should mention that all the food in New Zealand was amazing. It was expensive but really high quality and never disappointing. Sushi and bakeries were my favourites.

I would not recommend taking the bus Picton to Christchurch. It’s actually cheaper to fly from Wellington or Auckland to Christchurch and unless you’re really set on taking the ferry, it’s not worth it the long ride.

Christchurch was our home base on the South Island because that’s where my brother lives and goes to school. We invaded his dorm room for about a week and got to know his city and his roommates pretty well. To thank them we had a few dinners for them – a spaghetti night and a pizza party.

Christchurch still has a lot of visible aftermath from the devastating earthquake in 2011 that killed 185 people. A lot of the buildings in the city centre had to be completely reconstructed and it’s evident that they’re still working on it.

My favourite thing that we did in Christchurch was the Port Hills hike. It’s a range of hills on the edge of the city that overlook Christchurch on one side and the ocean on the other. Once you get to the top there are lots of different routes you can take and a lot of people do mountain biking up there. Other than this day in the Port Hills, we mostly had terrible weather in Christchurch and were grounded for a few days due to road closures.

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Port Hills in Christchurch

Queenstown

We grabbed another rental car from Rent-a-Dent and were finally on the road after the winter storm passed. On our road trip to Queenstown, our first stop was Lake Tekapo – a very beautiful and touristy glacier lake. We stopped and took some pictures but a few kilometres later we stopped at Lake Pukaki, which I thought was much more beautiful and there was no one there!

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Lake Pukaki – a picture doesn’t capture its beauty.

Outside of Queenstown we stopped at a vineyard and had a wine and chocolate tour. There are tons of vineyards along the way and there is something to be said for NZ wine! I also got really into their chocolate and went more than one time to a chocolate shop in Queenstown called Patagonia.

Food was a highlight in Queenstown! Some other recommendations are Fergburger (I had the most amazing falafel burger) and The Cow Restaurant – this one is hidden in an alley and you will probably have to ask for directions.

In Queenstown we stayed at Adventure Q2 Hostel. It was just average when it comes to hostels but there were not very many options. Queenstown is very glam and expensive and it wasn’t in our budget to do AirBnB or another rental here.

In Queenstown we each did different activities. My mom did a boat tour on the lake and my brother went skiing at Cardrona. I ended up doing a really lame zip line that I thought was going to be more exciting than it was. Before I came to Queenstown I really wanted to do the bungee jump because bungee was invented in Queenstown but I chickened out when I realized it was $300 to jump of a ledge. Since coming home I really regret not doing it and will have to make a return trip one day!

My brother and I also did the Tiki Trail that takes you up to a lookout of Queenstown. We asked for a free ride down on the gondola but they said no. On the trail there isn’t much of a view but it’s beautiful when you get to the top and a few goats crossed our path on the way down.

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Tiki Trail Lookout in Queenstown (top of the gondola)

Wanaka

On the drive to Twizel/Mount Cook we stopped in Wanakawhich is like a mini and less touristy Queenstown. In Wanaka we did a hike called Mount Iron and at the top you could see a 360 view of the mountains. The hike was easy and really beautiful at the top. We also saw the famous Wanaka tree.

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The Wanaka Tree

Twizel / Mount Cook

Our goal while in Twizel was to do the Hooker Valley Track at Mount Cook, another really popular hike in NZ. Unfortunately we got rained/snowed out on our first day there and we spent the day at our cabin accommodation that was actually really nice. There was not much to do in Twizel but we drove around the small town anyway and went to the local bakery.

The next day was cold but the rain had stopped. We drove into Mount Cook on a small road that was covered in snow. When we got to Mount Cook, the trail was covered and I was not very well-equipped for the weather. I did a 3-hour return hike in a lot of snow in just running shoes and my feet were frozen by the end. When we got to the view of the mountain it was covered with clouds but the hike was really beautiful, with a couple suspension bridges and tons of mountains.

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Hooker Valley Track – Mount Cook

After the hike we drove back to Christchurch for a couple days and packed up. We visited a great market called the Ricarrton Market that had tons of great food, books, and antiques. We spent our last few days in NZ doing local things and preparing ourselves for some heat!

If I had more time on the South Island I would have liked to see Milford Sound in the south and take the train across the mountains to the West Coast. My number one thing to do in New Zealand was to swim with the dolphins in Kaikoura but Kaikoura was badly hit by the recent earthquake and I was there in the wrong season. I’ll have to come back one day!

New Zealand North Island in Two Weeks

New Zealand is a really small country with a lot to offer. Well, actually it just looks small on the map. The roads have so many switchbacks and are mostly only two-lane, so you can usually count on double the time to get from A to B. We had to cut back on how much we could see after we realized this!

Auckland

It’s the hub of the country and boasts the biggest population, but I wasn’t overly impressed. We stayed here our very first night because were extremely jet-lagged and needed to crash for a while and we also stayed for one night in the middle of our trip as a layover before a long bus ride.

We spent the first night at Holiday Inn Auckland Airport which we had reserved well in advance using Aeroplan points. It’s expensive to stay around the airport. The hotel was overall very nice and had a great outdoor pool and gardens (which we didn’t get to use since it was winter).

We rented a compact car with Rent a Dent – a Kiwi car rental company that rents great cars with minor dents in them for a cheaper price.

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Gardens at the Holiday Inn

Matamata

It had been a long-time goal of my brother’s to visit Hobbiton, one of the main sets for the Lord of the Rings movies, so our first real stop was Matamata for a few nights at an Airbnb. Our Airbnb was a guesthouse of some Kiwi hippies and they recommended a beautiful hike for us to do called the Wairere Falls. It was about an hour of steep incline up to the first look-out. We didn’t have time to make it up any further and we almost got caught in the dark at 5:00 pm (a common occurrence on this trip!).

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Wairere Falls

The next day we went to Hobbiton – about a 15 minute drive from Matamata. I’m not a huge Lord of the Rings fan – I’ve only read one book and watched one movie. This tour was way better than I expected and there’s something for everyone, no matter what your LOTR knowledge level is.

The set of The Shire is entirely preserved from the 2009 movie and a LOTR expert toured us for an hour and explained in detail how a massive amount of effort was put into a 5-second shot. He asked trivia questions throughout and if you got it right, you got to keep an artificial leaf from a famous tree in the movie (it sounds kind of dumb, but in the moment all you want is that leaf!). At the end of the tour you get to have a complimentary beer at The Green Dragon Pub in front of the fireplace.

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Hobbiton

The afternoon after the Hobbiton tour, we decided to take a drive up to the Coromandel Peninsula, which a cousin had recommended to us. This is where we learned our lesson about driving distances! It looked short on the map but actually took 3 hours to drive one way. When we got there, we wanted to go to the hot water beach but it was high tide and we couldn’t go. Make sure you check the tide times before going!

We decided to check out Cathedral Cove, which is a major landmark of the North Island. It’s one of those places that you see on default computer backgrounds and always wonder where it is. Since it was going to get dark soon, we didn’t get to spend as much time as we would have liked. Danny and I ran the 3 km walk in and my mom checked out the beach. It was worth the run but I would definitely recommend spending more than a few hours in the Coromandel area.

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Cathedral Cove

Tongariro Crossing

Next we visited the mountain town, Ohakune, for the sole purpose of conquering the Tongariro Crossing – New Zealand’s best one-day hike. One of our main issues was that there were very few options for accommodations in this area and it was too cold to camp. We ended up staying at a Holiday Park in a very small cabin. It was over-priced and smelled like pickles but it did the job.

Our second issue was weather. It rained almost every day and we were travelling in July, which is New Zealand’s worst month. Since the forecast predicted rain every day, Dan and I decided to go on the hike anyway. I rented boots and gloves from a great shop called Ski Biz and we got dropped off at the trailhead.

The hike took us about five hours but we were powering through and running at some stages. We were faced with blizzard-like conditions, which were pretty amazing to see, but also made the hike really challenging. I can see how it would be beautiful in good weather but I didn’t really get to see the major landmarks (the emerald lake and the crater) because I was too focused on not slipping off a ridge. I’m definitely really proud of finishing it and would highly recommend it in good weather.

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trailhead at Tongariro Crossing

Oakura / Mount Taranaki

We picked the Oakura area because we heard it was a great beach town and I found an amazing Airbnb. We stayed with Alan and Helen in their guesthouse, which had a view of Mt. Taranaki in one direction and a view of the Tasman Sea in the other. They loved to tell us that people come to ski and surf in the same day in Oakura. We went to the beach and saw that Alan and Helen lived the lifestyle that most people only dream about.

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On our second day in Oakura, we wanted to do a hike around Mount Taranaki. We did a hike called Wilkies Trail. It was in the Goblin Forest, which was full of really mangled and mossy trees that gave it a kind of creepy feel. It only took us an hour so then we headed to the nearest city, New Plymouth, and went to Pukekara Park, which had amazing botanical gardens – tons of trails, greenhouses, and a petting zoo.

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Pukekura Park – New Plymouth

 

Whangarei 

My mom and I had to stop and drop my brother in Auckland so he could go back to school in Christchurch. The two of us drove north to a small community called Poroti outside of Whangarei. I had booked an Airbnb farm stay but OF COURSE, we got stuck in the dark and lost our way. After a few moments of panic, I had to turn on my data (for a $20!) and figured out that we were only two minutes away from the farm.

Diane was our host and she let us pick fruit off her trees and help feed the chickens. She also had cows and even a day old lamb! Our places was a guest house off of the main house and was definitely the best part of our stay in Whangarei.

In town, we did the botanical gardens and did a hike at Whangarei Falls. We also drove about 30 minutes to see the Tutukaka Coast. It looked beautiful but seemed like it was mostly closed up for the winter. On the way home we tried to go to the Abbey Caves but they looked too dangerous and we didn’t have any equipment. Whangarei was a great town but I was mostly sad to leave the farm.

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Wellington

We dropped our rental car in Auckland and spent the night there. The next morning we got on a very long bus ride to Wellington. Our bus was delayed for two hours due to winter road conditions and the ride ended up taking 12 hours. I couldn’t wait to get off and I would not recommend taking the bus. We thought we would see more of the country by taking the bus but I slept through a lot of it and we saw a lot of ground we had already covered.

We rented an Airbnb room in David’s apartment, a 40-something year old British guy who had a pristine apartment, heated blankets, and a 3-legged cat named Honey. The apartment was near the botanical gardens so we walked to the centre of the park and took the cable car to downtown Wellington.

Wellington reminded me of San Francisco or Vancouver. It’s very cultured and really well-maintained. We checked out some interesting markets and mostly spent our day in and out of pubs with fireplaces. We went to a night market with amazing cheap Indian food on Cuba Street.

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