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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).

Wright & Co

Wright & Co

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Wright & Co (10 Joll Road)

When Fleur took Jordan out on her home date (a reference to the New Zealand Bachelor show) everyone said to me “oh you must know that cafe!”. I was thinking “no… I do not” – which is most unusual for me. But when I went home a few weeks ago Dad introduced me to Wright & Co – yet another fabulous addition to Havelock North’s ever improving culinary scene. It was light and spacious with a well thought out interior design. The menus were proudly on display behind the counter, which was stacked high with freshly baked goods. Parts of the menu were paleo-friendly, and although I aren’t paleo myself, I always endorse a menu that supports various dietary requirements. I ate there twice in as many days, and I look forward to visiting again next time I am home.

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Pho
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Classic bacon and eggs
Cafe 88

Cafe 88

 

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Cafe 88 (88 Maunganui Road, Mt Maunganui)

If I lived in the Mount, this place would be a muse. Every time I go to the Mount I find an excuse to come here because I will not work my way through their mouth-watering assortment of goodies otherwise. Everything in there excites my taste buds; even food that in normal circumstances I would not have any interest in. Its quite long and skinny, with a courtyard out the back and good wifi. Oh, to spend my days blogging here…

For nourishment, I would highly recommend any of their smoothies (which come in mason jars, of course) and ANY of their cakes. I am a lemon lover, so I always opt for whatever involves lemon – and make sure that others around me order something that involves chocolate.

There is also an actual brunch menu; again, anything can be a recommendation.

A must-visit when you are in the Bay of Plenty.

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Major Sprout

Major Sprout

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Major Sprout (21 Graham Street, CBD)

I actually stumbled across this place by accident, and boy am I glad that I did. I knew straightaway that it was going to be a good decision: their exotic smoothie menu, the mouth-watering plates of food zooming past, the efficient use of space, not to mention the queue of people out the door. Sold. I had a bit of a dilemma deciding what to eat, and after ensuring that everyone at the table ordered something different so that I could essentially get a taste of everything, I was ready to go. The food was served extremely quickly considering how full the place was, and it was presented so beautifully; there was so much colour with the bright orange egg yolks spilling across the plentiful greenery and this was only emphasised by the black plates. Everything was priced reasonably and it caters extremely well for various dietary requests.

Little & Friday

Little & Friday

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Little & Friday 

Yum, this place is amazing! I have  now visited the cafes in both Ponsonby and Newmarket, and both are great – next time I’m in Auckland I’ll be sure to check out the others. Started almost ten years ago by a passionate, talented lady called Kim, it used to only be little, and only open on Fridays. Thus, “Little & Friday” was born. It became massively popular, incredibly quickly and it now flourishes on the Auckland foodie scene. With great coffee, and a fantastic selection of cakes and treats as well as various quiches, sandwiches and other savories, this place is a haven for foodies and coffee fans alike.

Loretta

Loretta

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Lemon meringue pie = to die for!

Loretta (181 Cuba Street, Te Aro)

Hands down, it is one of my favourite places in Wellington. As a sister of Floradita’s, you know it’s going to be good! Whether it is brunch, dinner or anything in between, Loretta does it all, and it does it all extremely well. Tucked away on Cuba Street, I walked straight past it the first time. But once you go in, you see it’s skinny entrance extends into a long and narrow funky restaurant. When you arrive you walk straight past a gorgeous table set up with all of their daily baking; the lemon meringue pie and the hazelnut, pear and chocolate tart are both sensational. Scattered around the place are assortments of fresh produce; whether it be coconuts and pumpkins, or the crazy flax plant down the back – once you start noticing it, produce is just everywhere! If you have to wait for a table you get to sit right in front of the open kitchen, which is an absolute tease to the taste buds because you see all this delicious (and sometimes unusual) food being made right in front of you.

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Best dish: If I’m there for brunch, I seriously struggle to order anything but the waffles. Alongside Prefab, I think Loretta does the best waffles in Wellington; their toppings are such that you never walk away feeling like you’ve absolutely overeaten. The pizza is delicious, and if you are there for dinner I would highly recommend anything involving artichoke or cauliflower.

Price range: If you go for brunch, just your standard $20, but if you go for dinner allow a little more; probably between $25 – $40.

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Miyabi Sushi

Miyabi Sushi

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Beef Soba $13.50

Miyabi Sushi (142 Willis Street, Te Aro)

Located on Willis Street, this little place is extremely close to where I work so I pop down here often. It is tucked away in the Willis Street Village (opposite the Capital Market) alongside other shops such as a Vietnamese place as well as Sweet Release Cakes and Treats (which offers heaps of delicious vegan treats!). Like most Asian places it is pretty cheap, and is certainly great value for money. It fills up quickly at lunch time, but their service is so quick that you never have to wait long for your food or for a table. I have also been to a few BYOs here; they take big groups, and always seem well organised. It features in the Entertainment Book, which is a bonus. If you are ever in the area, I would definitely recommend visiting – it does some of the best Japanese food in the Willis Street area.

Best dish: Beef soba and yakisoba are both hard to go past.

Price range: $15 – 20 for a standard meal.

Auckland – New Zealand’s big smoke

Auckland – New Zealand’s big smoke

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At over 1 million, Auckland is New Zealand’s most populated city, and the country’s business hub. But it is not the capital, and as a Wellingtonian (and therefore undoubtedly biased) I think it lacks the exceptional vibe and culture that Wellington offers. But it is an obvious and almost inevitable stop when one visits New Zealand, and if you don’t know what to do when you visit, it is easy to leave feeling both underwhelmed and unsatisfied. I love visiting Auckland, and have thought up a list of 10 of my favourite things to do there. I have tried to include a variety so there is something for everyone.

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  1. Ponsonby. Less than a 30 minute walk from the CBD and waterfront, it has shopping and delicious eateries in abundance. If you are feeling a bit indecisive, Ponsonby Central allows you to prolong that decision with its huge array of choices – ranging from Mexican and Italian to South American and Japanese. Mekong Baby specialised in modernised Vietnamese food, which was so incredibly fresh and tasty; although I would recommend making a booking. For those who need a health kick, the Little Bird Unbakery has an Insta-worthy cabinet and a shop with some of its delicious treats for sale. Ponsonby is also home to Orphan’s Kitchen and Little & Friday – two classic brunch eats.
  2. Eat. When in doubt, eat. Auckland’s culinary scene has evolved so dramatically in the past few years, it almost rivals Wellingtons. Depot by Al Brown sits firmly at the top of my list for fine dining, but if you want Al Brown on a casual basis head along to my absolute favourite spot at City Works Depot. Not only does Al’s Best Ugly Bagels feature, but so does The Food Truck, Odette’s and The Botanist – and not one will disappoint. Also nearby is Scratch Bakers and Major Sprout – both options are almost worth dying for. In Britomart my vote lies with Amano, although this is still relatively fine dining – great for brunch though.
  3. Shopping. If you want the chain stores then Queen Street and Britomart are where you should head. Otherwise, Ponsonby offers some exceptional boutique shopping, and with Newmarket thrown into the mix it’s hard to go wrong.
  4. Markets. There is an abundance of themed markets dotted around Auckland. One of the best is La Cigale; a French themed market on Saturday mornings in Parnell, as well as the Matakana market located about an hour north of the city.
  5. Rangitoto Island. A return trip will set you back $30, but it’s money well spent. It takes about half an hour to get there, and it is essential that you take food and water because there is nothing available on the island. The ferries head over a couple of times a day, and there is emphasis on making sure that you make it back to the wharf in time to catch the last ferry back; unless you want to spend the night on the island! It is a relatively easy walk to the summit (about an hour) and there is plenty of other tracks available, including past some historic baches, and lava caves (take a torch!).
  6. Auckland Zoo. I love animals, and I love the zoo. Auckland Zoo never fails to please either; it has basically everything – including a hippo! Located in Western Springs it is pretty easy to get to; buses run frequently and there is free parking if you want to drive. Definitely allow at least a few hours and there are plenty of picnic spots to break for lunch.
  7. Sky Tower. No trip to Auckland is complete without one to the Sky Tower. At 328 metres high it is the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Dine at Peter Gordon’s The Sugar Club, or if you are feeling slightly more daring, feel free to through yourself off the side by doing the SkyJump. Adrenaline rush, need I say more?
  8. Catch a ferry somewhere. Whether it is for a mere harbour cruise, or across to Devonport, it can be extremely liberating escaping the big city life for even just a day. Devonport is pretty amazing; I stayed in an Air BnB there recently and it is such a cute spot. The views looking back to the city are also unreal. A prime destination is Waiheke Island; which is one sweet getaway. About a 40 minute ferry from Auckland’s CBD it is a great place to unwind. Whether you want to swim at the beach, bike the vineyards sampling wine or just kick back in in the sun Waiheke has it all.
  9. Rainbow’s End. The pot of gold at the end of my list, Rainbow’s End is New Zealand’s only real theme park, and is sure to provide a great day for the whole family. If you can go there on a week day, there will like be next to no-one at the park (meaning you don’t have to queue up for anything, and you can ride things multiple times in a row!) Or visit Kelly Tarlton’s for some Antarctic fun.
  10. Beaches. The one thing that Auckland has which Wellington doesn’t is the beaches to go with its improved climate. Visit Mission Bay, Omaha, or if you feel like a drive make your way north. The further you go, the better it gets.

 

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A local encounter in Naples, Italy

A local encounter in Naples, Italy

I had been warned of three things in Napoli: pizza, scooters, and petty theft. My understanding of the city was that it was one of those places that travellers tended to love or hate; probably influenced by their experience of the combination above. I had time to ponder such thoughts, as I sat for three hours in the police station. I was massaging my bruised neck and shoulders, straining to catch any snippet of the English language. Here I was, only five hours into my stay in Naples, and I had already experienced pizza, scooters and petty theft, in that exact order.

I arrived on an overnight train, approximately twelve hours after leaving Milan. My shower needs were outweighed by my desire for pizza, and being in the birthplace of pizza I wasn’t about to waste any time. I left the station with my backpack in tow and was instantly hit with the vibrant energy that defines Napoli. The grit of the city was undeniable; scooters weaving through crowds of people who were moving everywhere and nowhere at the same time, the all-encompassing aromas of pizza that overwhelm at every corner and the passion that somehow saturates the entire city.  It was intense, and I intended to embrace it.

A pizzeria was not hard to locate (in fact, nothing would prove to be easier), and after satisfying my belly with what can only be described as some of the best pizza ever, I headed off in search of my hostel. It didn’t take long to learn that merely crossing the road would be an accomplishment in itself; it’s astounding to watch the locals’ just barge right on through and somehow emerge without a scratch.

I stepped out to cross the street, when I saw a guy on a scooter zooming towards me. It was too late to get out of the way. He was going too fast to stop. I stuck my hand out in an attempt to fend the scooter off. He reached out too, but instead of it being a protective gesture (don’t be so naïve) he yanked my handbag from around my neck and put his foot on the gas. The straps of my bag snapped instantly and less than twenty seconds later I was without my passport, wallet, camera and phone. I gave chase, but I soon realised this was pointless and began to panic.

Fortunately, like anywhere, there are always good people amongst the bad; a lovely couple stopped and directed me to the police station. A series of communication breakdowns later, my bruised, aching body emerged and I tenderly made my way to the hostel (and shower) that I had set out for so many hours before.