And now, the second and final installment of my “best of” series. While the previous entry focuses on cultural sights and experiences, these categories mainly present our favorite encounters with the natural world.
Best mode of transit by air:
Helicopter in Réunion
Best mode of transit by land:
Electric bike in China
Best mode of transit by sea:
Slow boat to Bagan in Myanmar
Best day hiking:
Best mountain hike:
Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia
Best adventure sport:
Black water rafting in New Zealand
Kuang Si Falls in Laos
Best scuba diving:
Baobabs in Madagascar
A big thank you to everyone who has followed along with our adventures! We have appreciated your encouragement and support. See you out there in the world!
Now that we have a few months of perspective-generating distance from our travel marathon, I thought I’d make an attempt at a recap. In our reunions with friends and family, we’ve found that most people want to hear about our favorites — asking us to make those impossibly agonizing calls about our favorite country or favorite overall experience. That’s tough; my answers to those questions vary by the day! Some places offer savory foods, some have beautiful wildlife or scenic hiking, and others are memorable for their cosmopolitan cities or welcoming people. I can’t choose just one highlight from these 15 months, but since you asked… here are 22 categories of highlights from the 22 countries we visited.
Best world wonder:
The Giza pyramids in Egypt
Best cultural site that really could be a world wonder:
Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Best cultural performance:
Women’s dance in Yap
Best local celebration:
Diwali in Mauritius
Best sporting event:
Taekwondo in South Korea
Best arts and crafts class:
Batik making in Indonesia
Best cooking class:
Shashi’s Cooking School in India
We had long anticipated our visit to New Zealand as the grand finale of our backpacking journey (though we never ruled out the idea of stopping by some islands in the South Pacific on the way home…), and we planned to leave ourselves several weeks for a proper visit. So, when circumstances changed and we made the call to head home a little early, we had to improvise. The challenge: could we see anything meaningful of New Zealand in just three days?
With our flight into Auckland already settled, we decided to look at this long layover as a preview rather than a main feature and focus on places no more than a couple hours’ drive from the capital. Our first stop was the pastoral site of Hobbiton, the well-preserved (and very popular) movie set constructed for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. We were a bit surprised to discover the set’s location — right in the middle of an active sheep farm — but it’s clear to see why the setting works so magically for the films. The picturesque rolling hills capture the mood of the Shire and of New Zealand perfectly, and the attention to detail shown in all the property’s buildings, props, gardens, and landscapes is exceptional.
Having explored the kitschy tourist angle (and not regretting it in the slightest), we hoped to take in something a bit more substantial for our next stop. In the town of Rotorua, southeast of Auckland, people of Māori ancestry make up a full third of the population, a much greater percentage than the national average. Though this indigenous culture was oppressed and brutalized by British colonizers for much of the 19th century (stop me if you’ve heard this one before…), interest in Māori culture and traditional practices has experienced a vigorous resurgence in recent decades.
But the flourishing Māori communities are only half the draw to Rotorua. In fact, the town can be a bit off-putting at first, because of the ever-present smell of sulfur wafting thickly through the air. The area is a hotbed of geothermal activity, with gushing geysers and steaming, technicolor pools fed by hot springs. It’s thrilling to be able to see these features from such close range, but take care not to get scalded!
For a dose of adrenaline, why not try rafting? Not just regular run of the mill whitewater rafting, but the more mysterious variety known as “blackwater” rafting. That is to say, underground, in streams of water rushing through subterranean caves. With constellations of glowworms strewn across all the rock faces.
With a flight to catch, we headed back to Auckland and tried to make the most of the little time we had left. During our visit, we still caught the city decked out in full Christmas decor. We explored the waterfront and ate some delicious farewell meals, and paid a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum just hours before our departure, learning more about how the nation’s history and native culture are related with those of greater Polynesia.
Our preview of New Zealand certainly left us wanting to see more. The whole South Island is still beckoning us, and now we have a much more tangible sense of what we’re missing. We will be back! (Yes, we’re building quite the list of hope-to-get-back-there-someday destinations, but plans for our return to New Zealand are already in the works.)
But… for now, we’re officially back in the States. After 15 months of travel, which sometimes seemed interminable and at other times felt as it though it was racing by, we now find ourselves stepping away from our nomadic lifestyle. We’ll try to collect our thoughts for a wrap-up post in the near future. Thanks to friends and family for your support and encouragement of what has been a dream adventure.
Tasmania is home to some of the world’s cleanest air. You feel, on arrival from the mainland, that it has the familiar Aussie vibe and is also a world unto itself. Knowing that this was the last hurrah of our Australian adventures, we set out to track down a few more odd and awesome creatures and to savor the experience to the fullest.
Visiting during the peak summer growing season certainly made the latter goal easier. You’ve got fresh fruits and veggies everywhere, and lots of venues offer tastings. And I must admit to being a certified sucker for factory tours as well as pick-your-own opportunities and really anything that feels like a glimpse behind the scenes. Tasmanians seem to understand this. In the northern region, around the Tamar Valley, the concentration of farms and dairies and orchards and vineyards is so dense that the whole route has been dubbed a “tourist trail” and you can find thick pamphlets comparing the relative merits of these establishments. We took full advantage, coming away with enough treats to turn our humble camper van meals into multi-course feasts.
Cute towns in the foodie region vie for attention with various eye-catching superlatives. One town has made itself into a topiary wonderland, transforming hedges into sharks and emus for the novelty and the inevitable cheesy photo ops. Another community has commissioned murals with scenes of local interest on many of the buildings. Of course, there are also some genuine historic draws in Tasmania, including St. John’s, the oldest Catholic church in Australia, built in 1836.
But, the most important historic site in Tasmania is found in Port Arthur. Part of a World Heritage Site including 11 penitentiaries around Australia, the penal station at Port Arthur helps to tell the story of the country’s colonial period. Beginning in the late 1700s, Australia became a convenient answer to England’s musings on what to do with its sizable convict population. Penal colonies such as Port Arthur existed to punish those criminals who were unfit to serve as indentured laborers on cattle ranches or farms throughout Australia. Through Port Arthur’s informative exhibition center and guided tours of the site, visitors come to understand some of the harsh realties of life as a prisoner there. Each visitor is given an identity card upon arrival, which highlights the life of one real prisoner, with detailed information on the man’s background, criminal offense, and incarceration available in the exhibition galleries. For example, my prisoner card led me to the story of Charles Tossante Brown, an educated man who was ultimately sentenced to hard labor in a chain gang for the crime of stealing nine shillings. He died at Port Arthur in 1841.
While the history of civilization on Tasmania is fascinating, though often grim, it’s the wild country that makes the island so unique and mesmerizing. I know that I’ve already gushed about Australian animal sightings on the mainland, but in Tasmania, it’s the density of wildlife that’s so impressive. And after nearly nine weeks on the mainland, we still enjoyed some unique finds — from wombats and spotted-tail quolls to the endemic pademelons and Tasmanian devils. Also, don’t get me started on the monotremes! Our few hard-won sightings of platypuses and echidnas on the mainland soon seemed quaint after a couple of weeks in Tasmania. On one hike, we actually saw three (three!) echidnas casually going about their business searching for ants. We stood very still, and one of the spiny little (nearsighted) oddballs crossed the path just inches from my feet.
And the scenery playing home to all of these interesting creatures? It’s spectacular. From the Freycinet Peninsula to the Bay of Fires to Cradle Mountain, Tasmania easily ranks as one of our most beautiful travel destinations in 15 months full of superlatives.
With family circumstances calling us home and our big endeavor drawing to a close, the time we spent in Tasmania felt precious and meaningful. It’s the kind of place where you can hit pause for a while and still come away with rich new observations. And, with only a brief stopover in New Zealand as our final port of call, Tasmania gave us a chance to process the transition we would soon be making. It wasn’t a bad way to celebrate a birthday, either!
Our experiences on the south coast of Australia were so epic and diverse that it seems almost a crime to shoehorn them into one massive post… but I’m still going to try. I had long been eying this region as the Holy Grail of our already highlight-strewn quest to discover Australia. And, truly — not to shortchange any of our other destinations in this sizable country — but if I had to recommend just one pocket of Australia to wildlife lovers in particular, I think it would have to be the great stretch of coast between Port Lincoln and Wilson’s Promontory. More than 1,100 miles of rugged seascapes studded with national parks and nature reserves, it may not be the outback, but it has plenty of terrain to house the wild things (and what varied wild things they are!).
Let’s start with the most fearsome of the bunch, by reputation, at least. Around the Neptune Islands, just offshore from Port Lincoln, great white sharks patrol the waters in search of fur seals and other prey. We decided to join an expedition to observe these impressive beasts from the relative safety of a shark cage. Often depicted as ferocious man-eaters, great whites are indeed responsible for most of the shark bite incidents on humans, but, fortunately, the vast majority of shark bites do not prove fatal. And a preplanned encounter with these awesome predators need not be a terrifying event. Incredibly curious, great whites move in the water with speed and grace and a much more assertive presence than your average reef shark. Like us, our fellow divers mostly came away from their shark encounters feeling awed and inspired rather than fearful.
If I haven’t managed to sell you on the idea of sharks, maybe a smaller, frillier creature with a crustacean-based diet would be more to your liking? Those who are wowed by natural camouflage will love the leafy sea dragon. We spent a day seeking these seahorse-relatives around the pilings of the Rapid Bay Jetty located off the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide. The area offers rich and interesting sealife, from rays to cuttlefish, but when I finally caught sight of the first of several “leafies,” my attention was locked. Larger than I expected, around eight to nine inches, sea dragons cannot coil with their tails as seahorses do. Instead, they slowly propel themselves by means of small pectoral and dorsal fins, seeming to undulate with the currents like floating seaweed.
Maybe you’d rather ogle the storied creatures of Australia’s history. East of Adelaide, the main highway eventually leads to Naracoorte Caves, a national park and South Australia’s only World Heritage site. The spectacular limestone formations in the cave system are only a fraction of the draw. Visitors to the Victoria Fossil Cave can see a remarkable cache of skeletal remains from Australia’s extinct megafauna. Species such as the marsupial lion and the wombat-like diprotodon are thought to have gone extinct after the arrival of humans to the area many thousands of years ago.
In the Grampians National Park, the wildlife is very much alive and thriving. The natural beauty of this area is astounding, providing some of my favorite hiking trails in Australia. Long days gave us many hours of mellow afternoon light and a long awaited encounter with an echidna! I kid you not, we saw this spiky oddball (after many weeks of fruitless searches in other supposed hotspots) when we politely requested info from a grazing wallaby. As we laughingly asked about any recent echidna sightings, we turned our heads in time to see the skittish monotreme rustling in the undergrowth and hunting ants. And, with that, the hike instantly earned near-legendary status in our eyes.
Back toward the sea, we found more stellar hikes along the Great Ocean Road. This ultra-scenic stretch of rocky coastline offers postcard views of famed rock formations like the Twelve Apostles and London Bridge. A variety of short walks, like the Tramway Track, and longer treks, like the Great Ocean Walk, provide opportunities to stretch your legs and feel the ocean breeze.
I was certainly anticipating the natural attractions of the southern coast, but I wasn’t expecting a foodie mecca! From the small shops in the German settlement of Hahndorf to the farms and dairies of Timboon on the Great Ocean Road, we made ample stops to treat our tastebuds and stock up on camping supplies. Our trip through the region coincided with early summer and the peak growing season.
Ok, I’ve covered sharks and echidnas, but in my intro I did advertise quantity and variety…. And I’ve got the stats to back it up: emus and kookaburras at Mount Remarkable National Park, adorable koalas and peeping marsupial possums at our campsite near Brownhill Creek, vibrantly-plumed parrots at Kennett River, a field of kangaroos at Wilson’s Promontory, and the nightly parade of little blue penguins on Phillip Island! Convinced?
We became so accustomed to our daily wildlife sightings that a pit stop in Melbourne almost seemed exotic. It’s a fun, energetic city always in a bit of a competition with larger rival Sydney. Staid architecture like the Royal Exhibition Building and the Town Hall near Federation Square represent Melbourne’s history, while less formal artwork showcased in the lanes and alleyways throughout the city has earned it a cutting-edge reputation internationally.
What a way to conclude our time on mainland Australia! Finishing with South Australia and Victoria, we visited every state except the tiny Capital Territory of Canberra. But why stop? From Melbourne, it’s just a short flight over to Tasmania! Why not head a little further down under and delay our departure from this big, beautiful country? See you in Tassie!
The first thing you notice when you’re flying into Sydney is the water. Lots of it. The constellation of neighborhoods comprising the city stretches along miles of waterfront on the twisting shores of Sydney Harbour. And if you look closely enough you’ll spot the instantly recognizable Sydney Opera House, its sails poised to lift it straight out of the scene below. It’s an iconic view.
One nice feature of any city on the water is that beaches are often just a short distance away, and in Sydney you’ve got your pick. There are dozens of beaches in the city’s vicinity, with the closest (and most infamous) being Bondi Beach. That’s also the starting point for an enjoyable walk along the rocky coastline past Tamarama and Bronte Beaches, and onward to Coogee Beach. Aside from surfers and sunbathers, we saw plenty of locals enjoying outdoor swimming pools and fitness equipment or bowling along the greens opposite the beach. With colorful birds peering out to survey the whole scene, we were struck by the allure of nature so close to cosmopolitan life.
Sydney’s CBD (that’s Central Business District, which is the downtown area) is also where some of the city’s finest museums can be found. Among the most well-known is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, founded in the late 19th century with collections ranging from Australian Aboriginal and Pacific Islander artworks to pictorialist photography to ancient bronzes from East Asia. For a more interactive museum experience, though, the Museum of Contemporary Art has a variety of more exotic takes on art. One particularly creative display involved light-up neon tubes and strains of classical music triggered by the movements of passersby.
Certain elements of Sydney reminded us of home, as if we had wandered into an alternate-reality version of America. We were passing a local restaurant when the enticing smells from the kitchen gave us pause, and an effective advertisement poster for their burgers lured us inside. By the time we hit Australia, burgers had begun to seem a little exotic to us. Sydney’s offerings turned out to be the best burgers we’d had (of an admittedly small set) since leaving home, and probably near the top of the all-time best list. On the healthier side, a farmers’ market inside an old warehouse impressed us with stall after stall of fresh produce, farmer’s cheese, and locally baked breads (with free samples!). It was a scene that would not be the slightest bit out of place back home in New England.
In the end, the opportunity to have a somewhat familiar experience in a new and exciting destination was exactly what we wanted. We felt completely at ease staying in a beautiful and well-located Airbnb apartment, cooking for ourselves, and transiting across the city by metro. Sydney’s exceptional livability makes it natural to envision as an alternate home. But for this visit, we couldn’t linger in Sydney forever… next on the agenda: Australia’s south coast!
After enjoying a few weeks exploring some of Australia’s more remote, arid regions, we were curious to see a different side of the land Down Under. We ventured over to Queensland next and discovered quite the contrast. This corner of the continent resides firmly in the tropics, with a much wetter climate and beautifully verdant landscapes.
We started by spending some time in the Atherton Tablelands, where the high elevation ensures that the hilly countryside remains cool even in the thick of summer. Farmland abounds here amongst the lakes and waterfalls, and it’s possible to stop for tasty fresh cheese and produce in between viewings of the region’s unique wildlife. The highlight of our visit? Within walking distance of our lodging in the town of Yungaburra, a small stream has become well-known for its resident platypuses, which can be viewed close-up with a dose of patience. We had been told that these weird creatures can sometimes congregate by the dozens here, but we were content to spy one furtive platypus at dusk and then another, bolder one at dawn the next morning.
One of Queensland’s best-known attractions (on land, at least) is the Daintree Rainforest. With an age comparable to that of the Danum Valley in Borneo, it’s among the oldest rainforests in the world. Though the Daintree lies only a few hours away from the city of Cairns by car, it feels much more remote; it’s reachable only by a ferry crossing of the Daintree River, and on the other side, the narrow road wends its way underneath lush tree cover. A night walk through the jungle is one of the best ways to appreciate the abundance of fascinating life hiding in the foliage.
And, of course, no diver’s visit to Queensland (or to Australia) would be complete without checking out the Great Barrier Reef. We were a bit apprehensive about what we would find there, as the headlines of widespread coral bleaching and massive die-off did not paint an encouraging picture. But, in our experience, there’s still room for optimism. Though the extent of the damage is staggering, it’s still possible to visit reefs that look healthy, populated by families of anemonefish along with the occasional sea turtle or bumphead parrotfish. We spent several enjoyable days exploring shallow reefs via liveaboard and had to conclude that it’s an area well worth protecting.
Queensland’s inviting climate and sprawling coastline make it a magnet for Australians on holiday, but we found a lot more to the area than its stunning beaches. From ancient rainforests to rolling pastures, Queensland deserves a close look. In fact, if we find ourselves in Australia again some day, it’s the region we’d most like to revisit. (Maybe next time we’ll see a cassowary itself and not just the droppings!)