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Mumbai

Mumbai

Those who have read Shantaram would understand my excitement in visiting Mumbai. I couldn’t wait to explore the sights experienced by Shantaram during his time in Mumbai. Knowing this, you have you to empathise with the distraught I felt when I found out we only had one full day to spend in Mumbai. I was nervous, because if traffic was anything like it had been in Delhi, from experience I knew I wouldn’t get to see even half of what I’d wanted to. Fortunately, there are no rickshaws in Mumbai, so getting around was far easier than I had hoped.

I was fortunate again (in the eyes of Shantaram at least) to be staying in the charming district of Colaba. With a population of 20 million people, Mumbai is the world’s fifth most populous city. The city is lively and exciting, it is a port city, it is India’s financial centre and it is home to the Bollywood film industry. Mumbai is an absolute mecca when it comes to shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Despite all of this, Mumbaikers (as the locals refer to themselves) are notoriously chilled out.

For dinner, we made it to Leopold’s – a Shantaram classic! My mutton rogan josh was one of the best meals I had in India, even if the prices are more expensive than usual. The bullet holes from the 2008 terrorist attacks are still very much obvious, and the shattered glass upstairs serves as a continual reminder of the damage that was caused. For Shantaram fans, if you pay a visit to Leopold’s, make sure you take a trip upstairs to get a real feel for the place; downstairs really just caters for the tourists.

10 of the top things I would recommend in Mumbai (entirely achievable in one day) are:

1 Chhatrapati Shivayi Terminus: also known as the Victoria Building, this train station is a UNESCO World Heritage Site similar in grandeur to King’s Cross.

2 Chowpatty Beach: Not long before travelling to India I read ‘Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga’, which was a fantastic read by a New Zealand author, Sarah-Kate Lynch. The setting for the school of laughing yoga was Chowpatty Beach, so I was intrigued to see it in real life. There was loads of golden sand, grey smog and dull water – I think the locals are far more likely to swim there than tourists.

3 Gateway of India: another architecturally splendid monument, the Gateway of India was built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay. Ironically it wasn’t actually built until after they had been and gone. It is free to visit, and it is also open at night. In 2008 it was targeted in a bombing attack (where over 150 people were killed).

4 Antilia House: this place was most recently valued at US $1.67 billion. It has 27 floors, and houses Mukesh Ambani (the chairman of Reliance Industries, a massive Indian conglomerate holding company) and his family. There is over 600 staff! I thought the place was absolutely ridiculous and just shows the massive difference in rich versus poor in India. He would have had a prime view of Dharavi Slum (and probably others!).

5 Dharavi Slum: With a completely contrasting population density to Antilia House, Dharavi Slum houses between 700,000 and 1 million people in a space of 2.1 square km – making it one of the most densely populated areas on earth. There is massive diversity in religions and ethnicities. We did a tour there and it was absolutely fascinating. Far more industrious and proficient than we are led to believe – we were told slum has an annual turnover of about US $1 billion.

6 The largest open air laundry in Asia: its formal name is Dhobi Ghat, and while it might sound like a bit of a non-event, the size and scale of this place is astonishing. There are just so many clothes and sheets all flapping in the wind; it was so incredibly beautiful to witness. The washers there mainly wash the sheets and clothes from local hotels and hospitals.

7 Mani Bhavan: the residence where Ghandi started his Quit India Movement. The place is very inconspicuous apart from the groups of tourists loitering nearby. The day we went just happened to be Ghandi’s birthday, but we couldn’t work out if that meant it would be busier or not. Entry is free (but donation is encouraged) and there are quite a few different rooms with relics and books from back in Ghandi’s day. The part I found most fascinating was the museum on the top floor; it was very insightful, very easy to read and stay engaged and very informative!

8 Haji Ali Dargah: a mosque and tomb located on an islet off the coast in Southern Mumbai. It is a very distinctive landmark.

9 Nariman Point (waterfront area) and Marine Drive (the Queen’s necklace): Nariman Point is the business district. Marine Drive is a 3.6 km long boulevard in South Mumbai. It has six lanes. It is known as the Queen’s necklace because when it is viewed at night from an elevated point, the street lights resemble a string of pearls in a necklace.

10 Hanging Gardens: a water reservoir located up on the top of Malabar Hill. There are supposedly sunset views over the Arabian Sea, but we actually struggled to find where you could even sight the see. The water reservoirs here source most of Mumbai.

I really enjoyed Mumbai (well what I got to see of it). It definitely has more of an international city vibe than Delhi, and it seems wildly more developed. Transport was far more slick, and the people (or at least the people I encountered) seemed to speak better English. The main thing that got to me was the pollution – it made the whole city seem so grey, and the waterfront views were almost non-existent. Mumbai is somewhere that I would have no qualms going back to.

 

Bundi

Bundi

Bundi is located in India’s northwest, and is most famed for its beautiful architecture. It has several ornate forts, palaces and step-well reservoirs which are known as baoris. I celebrated my birthday here, and wow, what a place to turn 27. I think it was the hottest day we had in India, clocking in at a solid 37°C. No kidding, it was basically too hot to function. Some of us didn’t, and actually bailed on the sightseeing early.

Its smaller size meant it was quite a pleasant town to wander the streets; there was comparatively less traffic to the rest of India, and the building themselves are all quite quaint. The roads are atrocious; there are so many potholes that I actually preferred to walk from A to B – I was scared I was going to crack a rib in a rickshaw.

The two main sites to visit are the Bundi Palace and the Bundi Fort. The Bundi Fort was constructed in 1354 AD and overlooks the city. It contains a step-well that is 45m deep; built in 1699 it was one of the largest functioning step-wells in Rajasthan. The Palace is very beautiful, but it quite rundown. It was quite a way from the city and we had to walk up quite a big hill. The views were amazing but it was pretty hot! There were lots of frescoes and the garden was very well looked after.

We came to Bundi by train from Udaipur (4 hours). Because there isn’t that much to do here it is a pretty easy place to skip from a planned itinerary, but I really appreciated going somewhere that felt less like a big city and more like a large village.

Goa

Goa

Described by Lonely Planet as a cocktail of sun, sand and spices, it breaks my heart to say that I was somewhat disappointed by Goa. I think that the reason for this was not necessarily due to Goa itself, rather it was just a run of bad luck for us (a combination of not enough time, atrocious traffic and poor accommodation choices being the main factors). Although we absolutely tried to make the best of a bad situation, I still don’t think I’ll be rushing back there anytime soon.

We were told that Goa International Airport was about an hour from Goa. We must have struck hideous traffic, because it took us well over an hour and a half to reach our accommodation. Our hotel, Alor Holiday Resort, was subpar, and you had to pay for wifi. We were staying near Calangute Beach, so we headed down there for sunset. Now people say that Goa’s golden sand beaches are the best for miles around. There are many different beaches stretching along the coast, each with its own reputation. Calangute (where we stayed), along with Baga, is famed for its cashed-up tourists (just what I wanted to hear!). It is supposedly a party area and by night the markets are very vibrant and a mass of colour, with vendors selling almost everything you can think of. The beach itself was (surprisingly) lovely though, a great place to watch the sun go down. The night was completed by an absolutely mouth-watering meal at Souza Lobo (the kadai chicken I ordered was fantastic, and the desserts were even better).

Unfortunately for me, our full day in Goa was not spent worshipping the sun at a series of glorious beaches. Rather it was spent sight-seeing. It turned out to be pretty interesting – we visited Old Goa, which is full of rich history and impressive architecture. As the former colonial capital of the state (colloquially known as ‘Rome of the East’), the convents and churches are stunning. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Portugese influence remains hugely prominent in the buildings today. I would recommend about 1.5 hours to explore the area (there are vendors and shops selling ice-cream and coconuts etc) and make sure you check out the St. Augustine ruins – they were superb.

Goa was annexed by the Portugese in 1510 and remained under their rule for 450 years. The rise of Old Goa under the Portugese was astonishing, but the city was abandoned in the 1600s following cholera and malaria outbreaks. From Old Goa we drove maybe half an hour more to do a tour of a spice plantation. You pay 400R and get a tour of the area (it only lasts about 20 minutes, but this is enough in the heat and humidity) and then you get a free buffet lunch. As a regular user of herbs and spices, I like knowing about their origins, but if you don’t care the tour might not be for you.

If I were to go back to Goa I would definitely stay somewhere that was right on the beach, and preferably one of the nicer ones! Unfortunately for Goa, I think there is going to be a fair few places I visit before it gets its second chance.

 

Jaipur

Jaipur

 

About a four hour train ride from Agra, Jaipur (or the ‘Pink City’) is the capital of Rajasthan. It is famed for local artisans; ranging from jewellers, textiles (including block prints and carpets) and general thrift markets. It also plays host to the annual Jaipur Literature Festival (the largest free literature festival in the world). It is certainly an easier city to clock up time in than Delhi; while there is still loads happening it is far more manageable.

We stayed at the Hotel Bissau Palace for two nights, a place I grew to be very fond of. Three words to describe it are rustic, eccentric and colourful. There was a big courtyard surrounded by what felt like a rabbit’s warren of rooms which actually just comprised a lobby. If you could find your way through from one side to the other, you would come to a pool with a lawn just beyond the restaurant. The wifi was notably terrible. Our room was covered from top to bottom with hideously charming patterns and pictures – it was quite a lot to absorb.

Two days in Jaipur is more than enough time, we also squeezed in a day trip to Pushkar (more below) while we were there. The top sights in Jaipur are:

1. Amber Fort: Receiving over 5000 visitors a day, Amber Fort (also known as Amer Fotr) is the main tourist attraction in Jaipur. It is a 20 minute drive from Jaipur, the fort sits upon a massive hill. We parked at the bottom and caught a jeep up to the top (everyone seems to, I think because the roads are so narrow and in rough condition). The fort is surrounded by a wall that is second in length only to the Great Wall of China. The fort is packed with Hindu and Muslim architecture. My favourite part was the mirror section – you can get some seriously cool photos with the angles! The fort overlooks Maota Lake, which used to serve as the main water source for the palace.

2. Hawa Mahal: known colloquially as the Palace of the Winds. It got this name because it is essentially a high screen wall built so that the women of the royal family could observe the street festivals back in the day, whilst remaining unseen from the public eye. It is basically a building in the middle of town that you observe in passing – you can’t go in.

3. Jantar Mantar: an observatory and astronomical site, which I actually didn’t visit. Specifically, the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is one of five in India (but Jaipur is the largest) and it is a massive sun dial, with the ability to measure the time of day, correct to half a second, as well as the declination of the sun and other heavenly bodies.

4. City palace/old city/nearby markets: it was very easy to wander this area for quite a few hours. I love wandering through the markets, and these markets were pretty fun because they were quite touristy. We noticed that the owners seem to work cooperatively; that is, if you show interest in something at the first stall, all of the owners down the strip would point out that same thing at a cheaper price! So it pays not to buy at the first shop you go into, but definitely register your interest. The shops are all very long and skinny, and the owners tend to sit there in the dark until they see you coming, whereby they jump up and switch on the lights and the fan.

 

5. Local artisans – most give you demonstrations on each thing (and there is usually A/C!). First we visited a gem shop where they showed us how they cut the stones and then embed them into jewellery, and then we visited a block printing workshop where some of our group actually got to have a go with the block stamp to make their own prints. Carpets and other textiles are also very popular there; it is quite the shopping hub!

6. Bollywood film: the Raj Mandir is supposedly a spectacular Art Deco film house, where you can go and watch Bollywood films for an authentic Indian experience. Unfortunately we ran out of time to do this, but would be perfect if you wanted to fill up an evening!

We finished a busy day of sightseeing with a rooftop dinner at Handi. It was funny eating out with the group; we were always really hungry and exhausted at about 6pm, and would note the lack of locals eating at the same place as us. We were informed that it wasn’t so much the places we were eating at, rather the time – Indians tend to eat closer to 9pm – I was often not far off sleep by then!

Pushkar

An activity that my whole group opted to do was a visit to Pushkar for a camel safari. We did it in a day and it was seriously exhausting, so I think a better option would have been to actually stay the night and explore Pushkar a little bit more. It was a 4-5 hour bus ride each way from Jaipur.

Pushkar is one of the oldest existing cities to remain in India and it is extremely popular with tourists. It is nestled over a lake (I would have chosen to stay somewhere near here as it was very cute and peaceful), and has a main street absolutely crammed with Western-targeted markets containing cheap souvenirs and trinkets of all kinds (including clothes, jewellery and leather bound books). There is also a lot of temples in Pushkar, and one of the most famous, Brahma Temple, lies just off the main drag.

A Blue Star is a Mediterranean restaurant in Pushkar that I seriously couldn’t recommend more. It had a lovely courtyard, fabulous wifi and most importantly, delicious food. There was even a pet tortoise! We were fortunate that our group was so big we just had a bunch of different plates brought out to us, so I got to try a wide variety of dishes from the menu. I would highly recommend the deep-fried pizza base topped with olives and mushrooms, as well as the hummus and pita bread, the fried eggplant and the falafel.

 

There is a famous camel festival which happens every November in Pushkar, but we were there in September and just there for the safari. We all got given a camel and people who walked alongside us to guide our camels. Our wee procession of 12 camels made its way into the desert, the landscape lit up by the sinking sun. We trekked for about an hour to where we disembarked from our camels and went up to this cosey little spot that had been set up for us. We watched a magic show, dressed up in saris (punjabs for the lads), watched fire eaters, traditional dancers (we even got involved) and were treated to a delicious Indian meal as we watched the sun go down over the desert. It was spectacular – one of my favourite memories of the trip.

 

 

Afterwards we caught a (car) ride back to our bus and headed back to Jaipur. I know it’s possible to do camel safaris that go for longer than just an hour worth of riding, but to be honest, an hour was definitely long enough! It starts to get quite uncomfortable after a bit – our camel riding was the perfect length to reach that point of having had enough, but still feeling like you’ve been on there for a decent time. I would highly recommend doing a safari!

Agra

Agra

With a population of about 2 million people, Agra is so much bigger than I ever realised. Here I was, thinking that the glorious Taj Mahal was way out in the wops – little did I know there was SO much more to it. Obviously, Agra is home to the Taj Mahal (basically the only reason I think anyone has actually heard of Agra) which is certainly India’s most famous structure, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World… and with good reason. The majestic marble structure sits poignantly and prominently, rising above Agra, allowing its beauty to be appreciated from every direction.

  

As if it’s sheer beauty wasn’t enough, there is actually a wicked love story behind the Taj, just to make it that little bit more awe-inspiring. Without giving too much away, the Taj was built by the emperor Shah Jehan as a testament of his love to his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Every single detail about the Taj is perfectly symmetrical, except for the size of the two tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jehan – an act performed out of spite by the emperor’s son.

 

When visiting the Taj Mahal, I would recommend you go early, early, EARLY! Sure, getting up in the dark sucks, but how many times in your life are you going to experience the Taj Mahal, so why not experience it at its finest?! My group were literally the first people through the gates into the Taj Mahal (make sure you buy your tickets from the counter before you line up outside the gate) and to have our initial impressions untarnished by mobs of tourists was something really special. A bonus too was the photos we got – no-one likes having an otherwise spectacular photo ruined by a stray tourist’s head! When inside the Taj you have to take your shoes off, but you will be given protective booties along with your ticket. If you visit the Taj later in the day you will actually be really thankful for the booties, as they protect your feet from the heat of the marble.

  

Take your time, don’t rush – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that will most likely stay with you forever. Be careful of people offering to take photos and do other random things for money. Also, don’t get too excited about seeing the inside of the Taj Mahal – there is a reason you haven’t seen photos of it already, and that is because it is drastically underwhelming!

There is many a good viewing spot of the Taj Mahal from further afield, which can make really great places to watch the sun set and observe the colours of the fine white marble transition through into darkness. A number of bars and hotels overlook the Taj (including The Oberoi – we went here: disclaimer, it’s astonishingly beautiful but will cost an arm AND a leg. Cocktails sit at a minimum of about $20 each), as well as there being plenty of cute spots along the river. Magnificent but more distant views can be obtained from the Agra Fort.

The Agra Fort is the second of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Agra. It is a fort which more closely resembles a palace, and is made from both red sandstone and white marble. One of the most important battles of the 1857 Indian rebellion happened here, and it resulted in the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India. From many of the rooms and courtyards the Taj Mahal is visible, and our guide showed us this really cool optical illusion showing how perspective affects the apparent size of the Taj. A highlight for me was the anecdote told to us about any attacking army:  they would have to encounter a moat full of alligators, the defensive army, then a pit of starving tigers, bears and monkeys before scaling a 70 foot wall whilst being attacked by the defensive army throwing boiling water down. No wonder the Agra fort never really got attacked!

 

The third and final UNESCO World Heritage Site in Agra is the Baby Taj (or formally known as the Itimad ud Daulah Tomb), and it’s not hard to see how it earned its nickname! We visited here before we went to the Taj Mahal, and I am glad we did because it allowed for maximum wow factor. I suspect that if we went to the Taj Mahal first, the Baby Taj would have felt less impressive. Instead we got to be wowed by the Baby Taj, the distant views of the Taj and then the actual Taj close up the following day. The Baby Taj sits alongside the river (similarly to the Taj Mahal) and also similarly, it has some pretty spectacular gardens.

Not only were the marble inlays at all three structures extremely beautiful, I was also fascinated by the craftsmanship that must have gone into all this handiwork. It is possible to visit the marble workshops and learn how it’s done (or at least get an appreciation) and there is the option of purchasing various marble souvenirs as well. I couldn’t resist a cute wee elephant, but you could buy big chess sets, tables and artworks.

Agra is a must visit when in India, for obvious reasons. We stayed at Hotel Athithi which was in quite a touristy area and had a stunning pool. My favourite place to eat was a restaurant called Maya – which had a nice rooftop terrace with some delicious food.

Delhi

Delhi

Talk about a smack in the face. Or maybe something slightly more pleasant; a bucket of ice cold water tipped over you on a really hot day – an idea which would actually go down a real treat on your typical day in Delhi. This is India at one of its most extremes, and because this is where a lot of tourists begin or end their Indian journey, it tends to have a lasting impression – and often not a good one.

Home to over 20 million people, as well as the infamous Delhi-belly, Delhi is fast-paced, dirty and at times extremely frustrating. Traffic is dense, scams are aplenty and it is extremely hot and crowded. Dig a little deeper however, and you can see that the city is almost certainly underrated. With good food, abundant shopping and a rich culture, Delhi is certainly a well-intentioned capital, and a place that should be approached with an open mind.

 

The city is full of enchanting sights, and below is a short list of some of the must-dos while in Delhi:

Qutab Minar: It costs 500R to get in as a tourist (vs. 30R for Indians!), and at 73m high it is the tallest brick minaret in the world, and the second tallest minar in India. It is about an hours’ drive from the city and I would recommend you allow yourself at least 1.5 hours to explore. There are a few coffee shops at the end of the road if you need replenishing.

Red Fort: A historical fort that served as the main residence of the Mughal emperors for nearly 200 years. It pays to keep your ticket beyond entry at these kinds of places, because there is a tendency to inspect tourists randomly for tickets.

Humayun’s Tomb: 500R entry fee (again, 30R if you are a local). So far, this list is three from three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (these are the only three in Delhi) and this one was by far my favourite. The place is massive; contrary to what the name suggests, Humayun’s Tomb actually consists of massive grounds, with beautiful structures. The tomb of Humayun (a Mughal Emperor) is actually probably the least exciting part of the whole place.

The architectural splendour that is the President’s Residence. Not far from town, and virtually overlooking the India Gate, the residence (formally known as Rashtrapati Bharan) has over 300 rooms. Security is high; as tourists we weren’t allowed to stop and get out of the car, we just slowed to a crawl so that we could take in its beauty and steal some snaps, but we had to keep driving.

The India Gate is a monument (just a monument), but I suppose you can call it spectacular. Fortunately there is no entry fee, but instead you will be greeted by stacks and stacks of vendors – selling all kinds of trinkets and food, from toys to grilled corn, to handbags and sweet potato. There is something for everyone, so prepared to be pestered. The earlier in the day you go, the smaller the crowds will be – by quite a significant difference, actually.

Old Delhi: check out India’s Muslim history and Jama Masjid Mosque – which is the largest mosque in India.

The Lotus Temple is a Bahá’í House of Worship, which serves as the Mother Temple of the Indian sub-continent. This means that the temple is somewhere that anyone can go and worship – the particular religion does not matter. It is absolutely stunning as a structure; it is shaped perfectly like a lotus flower. Unfortunately it was closed on the day we went, so we could only view it from a distance.

Shopping. The Dilli Haat Market offers textiles and trinkets. There is an entry fee, but once inside you will find yourself at a massive open air food plaza and craft bazaar. So many colours, smells, noises and even textures! Something to be cautious of during your Delhi adventures is locals doing anything they can to get you to their emporiums. Probably for a commission, tuk-tuk drivers and chatty people on the street are all about getting you to visit their ‘brother’s shop’ for a ‘quick look’. Unfortunately we had a nasty experience with our tuk-tuk driver, who after about 3 stops at various emporiums we had to make it very clear that we weren’t interested in shopping (it was day one of our holiday and our only full day in Delhi) and he got very grumpy and just dropped us home without taking us to any of the other stops.

New Delhi’s Shri Lakshmi Narain Temple (Birla Temple). A beautiful temple in New Delhi that made me feel as though I was wandering through some kind of candy land out of Willy Wonka- the place was absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photos (but I took one of the outside), and because it is a Hindu temple you are not allowed to wear shoes. Despite a massive sign saying “no tips”, rest assured you will be asked for a tip for the storage of your shoes.

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib: number one place to visit on Trip Advisor, and with good reason. There is a special room for tourists to leave their shoes in (sounds like a scam to me!). We learnt that it was polite to walk in a clockwise direction, and it was certainly easiest to move with the people than against. There is a big beautiful man-made lake right outside the temple itself. Because it is a Sikh house of worship, it is essential that no hair is showing, so don’t forget your headscarf!

 

Give Delhi a chance… but I still wouldn’t recommend staying more than 2 nights there. I think the best way to do it is to write a list of all the things you want to do (using my list as a base is a great place to start) and then hire a tuk-tuk/driver to see them (possible a tuk-tuk for the inner city sights and a driver for when you head further afield).

Changi Airport, Singapore

Changi Airport, Singapore

Singapore’s Changi Airport: not the worst place for a layover. In fact, she’s actually pretty good. And if you are an avid traveller, it is highly like that you will end up in Changi with some serious time to kill at some point.

The airport is absolutely enormous, and with a free sky train connecting each of the three (soon to be four) terminals, it is easy to hop around in the space of just a few minutes. Fortunately there are large maps dotted about the place, which I recommend using sooner rather than later – in order to efficiently get your bearings! The airport is open 24/7 and has more than a few adequate sleeping options. For more info on sleeping at Changi, click here.

If your layover is greater than 5.5 hours, I would highly recommend doing a “Free Singapore Tour”. These tours are only available to travellers in transit, and you must register for the tour before you go through immigration (in other words, it is basically the first thing you do once you step off the plane)*.

The tour runs for approximately 2.5 hours, and there are about 4 or 5 tours each day. They fill up really quickly so I would highly advise that you register as soon as possible. The tour aims to showcase the country that the Singaporeans are so ridiculously proud of. It includes visits to both colonial and cultural districts with short stopovers at Melion Park and Kampong Glam. My first impressions of Singapore were that it was like a massive overgrown resort, with perfectly manicured gardens and people. Everything was pristine, and the streets were so immaculately clear of any rubbish. As a nation, the people from Singapore are very money driven, and experience low rates of crime and unemployment.

Once back at the airport, there is a wide range of options available to pass away the time. A summary of what’s listed in each of the terminals is listed below (only the unique identifiers have been included; I think it goes without saying that each terminal offers bathrooms, food and drink options, wifi and charging points).

Terminal 1

  • Cactus garden (open 24 hours)
  • Swimming pool with Jacuzzi (available 6am – 12am)

Terminal 2

  • Enchanted garden (open 24 hours)
  • Orchid garden (open 24 hours)
  • Sunflower garden (open 4 hours)
  • Hair and beauty services (11am – 9pm)

Terminal 3

  • Butterfly garden (open 24 hours)
  • Movie theatre (24 hours)
  • Zara, in addition to the more elitist Shilla Beauty loft
  • Transit hotels and lounge

 * Location of registration booths for the Free Singapore Tour:

  • Terminal 1: stay in transit, but proceed to Terminal 2.
  • Terminal 2: between Transfer Lounge F and the Skytrain to Terminal 3, near the escalator to Arrival Immigration.
  • Terminal 3: near Transfer Lounge A and Gate A1-A8 (Level 2).
Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan couldn’t be more different than Gili T. Given that we had just jumped from one island to another, we had expected them to be somewhat similar, so it was exciting to see such a massive change. Gone was the party, the hectic streets and the mass of vendors; Nusa Lembongan was all about the scooters, the rural villages and the different spots to explore.

We stayed at Lembongan Hostel. Upon arriving on the island we got into a tuk-tuk which dropped everyone on the boat at their respective accommodation. We weren’t sure whether it was free or if it was part of the ferry ticket, but it sure made our journey hassle free. The hostel was clean and very well air-conditioned. The bunks were incredibly high (the kind that I hate to imagine the damage caused if you fell off the top). The showers were a bit gross, and the breakfast pretty simple, but the staff were so incredibly helpful – they were the real highlight of staying there. The hostel was down a long gravel road which had too many potholes to count.

There are a few different spots you can stay when you are at Nusa Lembongan, although it doesn’t really matter because you basically have to scooter everywhere you go anyway. Down in the village would be ideal, not only is there a good beach, but most of the bars and restaurants are down there too. On our first evening there we hired scooters (70,000 IRD per scooter) and headed to Sunset Point to, you guessed it, watch the sun set. The scenery is certainly spectacular. Not far from there is Devils Tear, which is another awesome spot to watch the sun go down. It’s also absolutely incredible at high tide; it reminds you just how powerful the ocean can be.

 

There are two spectacular day trips to be had from Nusa Lembongan and I don’t even know which one I would recommend more.

The first is doing a snorkeling trip. There are so many cool spots to snorkel at, including swimming with manta rays. This was one of the coolest things I have ever done, even though I felt the execution of the trip was nowhere near as good as it could have been. We were picked up from our hostel at about 2 pm, and taken to Mushroom Beach were we climbed aboard a pretty small boat. There were six of us snorkeling, and just the one driver (who only spoke limited English). We set off, and about half an hour later pulled into the first of our three snorkeling spots where we were told to ‘jump in’. It was my brother’s first time snorkeling, and he looked at our driver as though he was joking. Upon realizing that he was deadly serious, he questioned where the life jackets were. And understandably so. The swell was huge, and we were surrounded by sheer cliff faces that didn’t look all that pleasant to crash into (in fact, they looked deadly!). What was worst though, was that right next to where we had stopped the boat,there was a floating, bloated dead DOG. It was awful. We spent our time in the water taking ‘dog shifts’, because we wanted to stay as far away from that thing as possible. There was a stack of rubbish in the water, which was actually really sad to see, because the ocean in those parts of the word is so painstakingly beautiful, and receives next to no TLC from its people.

However, the real purpose for jumping in the water was to see the manta rays. The moments that weren’t spent watching for a certain dead dog were spend with our heads underwater, absolutely in awe of these massive creatures that were so majestically gliding about. Occasionally they’d pop up for air, and if you happened to be looking at the right spot at the right time, you could this massive animal launching itself about the surface. It was quite scary when they came close – they are so big (and quite ugly!) but they certainly lived up to their gentle giant reputation.

After our time with the mantas we headed to snorkel spots #2 and #3. Firstly we snorkeled on a coral reef, and lastly on a mangrove reserve. I was actually feeling pretty sick and contemplated sitting the last stop out, until the others jumped in and stressed just how much I was missing out on this spectacular mangrove reserve. So in I got, and man I did not regret it. The mangroves growing underwater formed a thick grassy terrain, which provided the most spectacular backdrop for some pretty interesting fish. It was definitely one of the best snorkeling sites I have ever visited.

The other day trip well worth making is one across to Nusa Penida. It is possible to stay on this island, and I daresay we would have if there was any more time. Instead we got up early and headed down to the Yellow Bridge where we negotiated our way to a return fare to Nusa Penida. The boat ride took about an hour, but felt so much quicker because the whole way we were entertained by the smallest puppy I have ever seen. Once we got to the island we hired two scooters and we were off (80,000 IRD each).

The island is actually pretty big, and so much bigger than I ever realised. From the get go we were going to be pushing to make it to all the places that we had talked about, but we decided to give it a crack anyway. Our first stop was Ahtu Beach. We headed off around the island through villages and along the coast, up and down hills; boy it was even further than we realised. We got to the top of the biggest hill yet and noted that Andy and Summer’s scooter was almost on empty. Because we were basically in the middle of nowhere, we thought we should make filling up a priority. After about half an hour I think we found what must have been the only petrol station on that side of the island. Half an hour behind schedule, we continued on.

Following the signs to Ahtu Beach we made our way onto a gravel road, which got increasingly bumpy and narrow. Summer and Andy kept suggesting we park up and walk the rest of the way but Jamie and I wanted to press on as much. Well, until we saw Summer and Andy’s scooter hit a rock and slide out sideways beneath them. Summer was a bit grazed, but the worst part was that the scooter wouldn’t start. Panic set in, and Jamie and I helped the other others drag the scooter to the side of the ride and park it. We fiddled for a bit and realised that it definitely was not about to start. Jamie and I managed to convince the others (I’m not kidding when I say it took some serious persuasion) to lock the scooters and just head along to the beach anyway. It was quite a trek down, and everyone was pretty tense. Unfortunately it made the beach trip a little less enjoyable, as the others would pretty worried about how the afternoon was going to play out. It wasn’t entirely unwarranted, given that we were literally in the middle of nowhere. The beach was beautiful to look at, but average for swimming as the undertow was full on. I thought it was far too hot not to swim; but I was the only one.

We were so incredibly thankful to get back to the scooters after the hike up the hill (it felt like forever!) and then a miracle happened when both scooters started on first attempt. We were keen to get out of there pronto and back to civilisation… just in case. We stopped at The Gallery on the way back for lunch – even though it was such a hot day the curry sounded too good to resist; it was definitely the right decision by moi!

Up next was the iconic Klung Klung beach – or more famously known as the T-Rex beach. Another long scooter ride (and in the opposite direction) saw us bouncing over many a pot hole, topping up with petrol (AGAIN) and all getting rather a lot of sun. The views at this beach were absolutely incredible. We didn’t go down to the water’s edge (it was a very long way and it looked so hard and steep that we didn’t know if we would have the energy to climb back up!) but we did manage to get some epic photos.

In the end we had to forego the waterfalls we had planned to visit, because we were just too pushed for time. If I had the option, I would probably choose to stay two nights on Nusa Penida, just to ensure a more thorough exploration of the island.

 

Canggu

Canggu

The first place we stopped off in Bali, Canggu is essentially Australian owned and Australian based. Canggu isn’t a patch on Kuta or Seminyak when it comes to drunk Australians though, and the Australian influence sure creates a good recipe for brunching options. It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that with so many Australians around, good surf is inevitably not far away.

We stayed at the Lay Day Surf Hostel. For only $16/night it was pretty decent, although you could probably get somewhere cheaper if you wanted. The hostel was supposed to be a ‘party hostel’, it wasn’t at all – but our jet-lagged selves were somewhat relieved to see that it didn’t live up to its name. To describe it as ‘incredibly social’ would be entirely accurate; everyone tended to lounge around the pool area making it a fabulous way to meet new people. The facilities were decent, and the location wasn’t too bad either.

Canggu is definitely a beach town. There is one main street, with stacks of cafes, bars and shops that touch on both rustic and boutique. There are a fair few stray dogs (my least favourite part), and stacks of scooters. If you are in Canggu predominantly to surf and you stayed close to the beach, you could almost get away without even a scooter (although a scooter does allow for better exploration). Nearby is Echo Beach, which also has good surf. The beaches themselves weren’t particularly nice for swimming though, so if you don’t actually intend to surf, you really only need a couple of days here. My favourite thing about Canggu was the vibe and the food – brunching was 10/10 (you can read about it here)

Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island

Only a short ferry ride from Auckland itself, Waiheke Island can feel like a world away. Remove the traffic, the crowds and the bustle that is the big city, and you’ll find yourself in the serenity of Waiheke Island. It’s not completely deserted though, it is far more commercialised than Rangitoto Island for instance. There is so much to do and see there, yet there is actually so little at the same time: we only had a day, which was enough – but I can see how it would be easy to spend a whole week there.

Jump aboard the boat from Auckland’s Queens Wharf, it costs $36 for a return ticket and leaves half hourly. The trip takes about 40 minutes. On arrival, it is possible to hire a car, or you can just head outside where you will quickly spot the abundance of buses. My family and I jumped on a hop-on hop-off bus which I think is a very convenient way to see the island if you only have a short period of time. The hop-on hop-off buses come every half hour to a number of stops across the island, so it is really easy to fit everything into a day.

First stop was Oneroa, which was only 5 – 10 minutes from the ferry terminal. This town was definitely the most touristy on the island. There are lots of cute cafes, boutique shops and gift shops. I was surprised at how affordable all the shops were – I certainly had an expectation that the prices would all be bumped. The beach is also right there, so everything is basically at your fingertips. Make sure you check out the Island Grocer for fresh produce and other supermarket goods (the prices here are definitely inflated) and also Hot Shot Espresso for your caffeine fix.

  

Back on the bus, this time to Ostend. This area could be described as the local hub. The industrial area is nearby (which includes home-ware shops, gardening shops and also a recycling station) and every Saturday there runs a cute wee market with arts and crafts, knick-knacks and a few food stalls. Typical me, I couldn’t go past the fudge stall without stopping, trying and eventually buying – the pineapple lump fudge is to DIE for.

 

The last main area that is worth a mention is Onetangi. A beautiful sandy beach, with clear flat waters, this is definitely one of the prime spots on Waiheke. It would be so easy to spend a week away here, and judging by the number of baches dotted about the place, I’m not the only one who thinks so. It was certainly limited for food options though; due to winter closures we literally had the choice of just the one (Charley Farley’s) – thankfully it was good.

There are stacks of wineries on the island, including Stoneyridge, Cable Bay Vineyards and Wild on Waiheke to name a few, but note in advance that a number of them shut down across winter for scheduled maintenance. Waiheke Island is a fantastic trip from Auckland. You can either glam it up and taste around the wineries, or do as we did and set out on more of an exploration of the island. Too easy!