Posts from the ‘Driving’ category

Roadtrip Northern Ireland: Giants, Rope Bridges, and a City Divided

by Jacob Aldridge

We’ve hired a car for today in order to head from Belfast to the very top of Northern Ireland. How far north is that? Well we’re going to a stand on a rope bridge from which you can see all the way to Scotland.

And then we’re going to visit the bullet holes that inspired a U2 song.

Today’s Experience

It’s an early start out of Belfast for the the 90 minute drive up the A26 to Bushmills, a town know for its Whiskey and famous for a causeway you could never take a boat on.

A natural wonder, we were disappointed when planning our drive to discover that the Giant’s Causeway is surrounded by cunning strategies to separate you from your money. Access to the park is free, but they don’t make it easy! In this instance, you have several options:

  • Pay £8.50 each for parking at the visitors centre (and entry to the centre)
  • Park in town, either free or a few pounds depending on the day, and catch a local bus out to the site
  • Park for free on a nearby street – except, there are no nearby streets with parking. It’s at least a 20-30 minute walk from the nearest legal and safe park up to the Causeway

Of course, we have a plan even more cunning than the National Trust: we’re going to park at the Visitor’s Centre … before they open.

Walking the Giant's Causeway national park just after sunrise

The other advantage of an early arrival? Avoiding the crowds.

Look, some people are blown away by the forces of nature that have created these hexagonal stones, extruded side-by-side from the earth and calmly treading a path from the cliff face down into the sea. Before your visit, be aware that they call this the Giant’s Causeway not because it’s particularly giant, but rather because in folklore it was built by a giant.

Person standing on top of the Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

Of course, from the right camera angle everything can be made to look giant.

So some people will want to spend hours here, sitting by the sea and watching the changing tide. If that might be you – just pay for parking and enjoy! Others may it find it … underwhelming, and make it a twenty minute experience at best.

If you’re worried that might be you, check the tide times, and go at low tide when these marvels of nature are most visible.

Rope a Dope

The tale of the Giant’s Causeway involves battling giants – Finn McCool in Ireland and Fingal, who lived across the sea in Scotland. Having spent the past days travelling around Ireland, it’s easy to forget just how close these two islands are. How close?

Well from our next spot – the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, ten minutes east of the Causeway – you can actually see Scotland on the horizon!

(Specifically, you can see the Mull of Kintyre – with binoculars, perhaps, you might spot a former Beatle who wrote a song about that peninsula based on the land he owned there.)

This section of Northern Ireland is famous for the salmon fishermen, and the specific position here is dictated by the narrow gap between the mainland and a tiny speck of an island. Salmon swimming close to the shore for protection in this area would force themselves through the narrow gap – and for fishermen, this was like shooting fish in a barrel.

(Metaphorically! That’s a simile people! They actually caught them using nets, it was just as easy as … you know what we mean!)

To tend to these nets and their boats, access was required to the speck of land on the other side. And so every year, when the weather was good, the local men would come here and re-build a rope bridge. Today, fish are not as common in these waters, and the bridge is open all year long for those brave souls who wish to walk across it.

The Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, built by fishermen but now a tourist attraction in Northern Ireland

Looks safe. Right?

If you don’t cross it, it’s still a pleasant brisk walk, and a chance to blow any remaining cobwebs from your mind after our early drive. But it’s not nearly as dangerous as it appears … and if you’ve come all the way to the tip of Northern Ireland, why not cross a small stretch of water and go a dozen steps closer to Scotland?

What do you say? Will you join us on the other side?

Approaching the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Northern Ireland. Don't look down!

You know you want to walk across.

A Town Divided

From the tip of Northern Ireland, our roadtrip takes us south-west – our destination is the town of Derry (often written as Derry / Londonderry). If you’re familiar with the IRA, the actions of the British Armed Forces, or at least the music of Irish super-group U2, then the tale of woe that is Derry’s history may be familiar to you.

It’s an old city, having been granted a Royal Charter by King James I back in 1613 – at which point ‘London’ was added to the name. The original city sits on top of the hill, surrounded by 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) of wall. In fact, this was the last fully walled city to be built in Europe, and is sometimes known as the ‘Maiden City’ because the walls were never breached during the Jacobite wars.

It was those wars at the end of the 17th Century, between forces supporting King James II and those supporting the Glorious Revolution that put William III and Queen Mary on the British throne, that lies at the root of the religious troubles that have plagued Ireland and Northern Ireland.

On one side were the Catholic supporters of James II, who viewed Ireland as separate from England. On the other, ultimately victorious side, were the Protestants, those more closely aligned with London. As these latter men supported the Dutch-born William of Orange, they became (and are still) known as Orangemen.

For Derry, one outcome of the Battle of the Boyne that ended the war in the Orangemen’s favour, was a ruling that no Catholics could live inside the city walls. What followed was three centuries of discrimination – large families being raised in small houses built on the bogmarsh at the foot of the hill and with minimal representation in government. Little wonder it was a spark for the Irish War of Independence, although the Partition of Ireland in 1921 left Derry as a border city – the Catholics, still underprivileged, found themselves living in Ulster and governed by London despite the free Ireland border being located less than a mile away.

The Troubles

This Mural in Derry / Londonderry depicts the events of Bloody Sunday

This Mural depicts the events of Bloody Sunday

It was the simmering tensions that continued which ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, drawing incentive from the American movement of the same era. While a majority on all sides were peaceful, this was the start of the period the Irish refer to (with their typical downplaying) as simply ‘The Troubles’.

Walking through ‘Bogside’, site of these troubles, and looking up at the city walls, we are struck by a feeling of separation. The struggles, the cause, and many of the key incidents are memorialised in sets of murals painted on the ends of housing rows. The most famous of these declares “You are now entering Free Derry” – a protest against the UK and Northern Ireland governments that locals feel is so important that the wall remains, even though the row of houses have since been removed.

You are now entering Free Derry - a protest sign backed up by seige action from 1969-1972

You are now entering Free Derry – a protest sign backed up by seige action from 1969-1972

It was here on 30 January 1972 that protesting Catholics were met with force by British paratroopers. Lethal force.

The Free Derry Museum certainly tells this story from one angle, that of the Catholics. It’s a moving experience to stand in this former tenement house, to hear recordings of the shots unfolding, and to see displayed the memories of the 14 people who died – including bullet holes in clothes some were wearing that day.

Perhaps most moving of all is the Civil Rights Association banner, marked with the blood of several victims.

Derry Civil Rights Association Banner from Bloody Sunday 1972, covered in the blood and dirt of what happened

This banner was at the front of the march when the paratroopers opened fire

While the violence of the ’70s and ’80s is, largely, behind us, differences remain. Legally, the city is still Londonderry – 75% of Catholics support a formal change back to Derry, while only 6% of Protestants support the move.

But all is not dire in this town, which is also famous for the Georgian buildings inside the walls where we stop to take afternoon tea. This year, Derry is the first city to be designated a UK City of Culture – the London Symphony Orchestra played here last night; tonight the city will host Primal Scream.

No doubt simmering historic tensions remain … but it’s uplifting to be experiencing a city united and proud of its future, not separated by a wall and a religion.

And it’s an easy 90 minute drive back to Belfast.

A Derry / Londonderry Mural for Peace - hopefully representing the united future of this city

A Derry / Londonderry Mural for Peace – hopefully representing the united future of this city

Want to go? Need to know!

  • It’s possible to hire a car for just one day, and complete this experience while also seeing some of the gorgeous Northern Irish countryside.
  • We are great fans of the National Trust. If you live, permanently or are spending a year or more, in the UK then membership is a great idea as it gives you free or reduced-price access to a range of important sites. Our only frustration (apart from ludicrous parking fees) is that the same can be said for English Heritage – so half the sites you want to visit are within one group, and the others within the other organisation.
  • In Derry, aim to park in Bogside (on the far side of the city, from the river) as it will make your walking easier. The Free Derry Museum is at 55 Glenfada Park and costs £3.

Have you driven through Northern Ireland? Share your experience and top tips in the comments below, and be sure to like our Facebook page.

Ireland’s Pots of Gold – driving the Emerald Isle

Our Ireland Itinerary:

  • try to find out what Justin Timberlake ordered from the Waterford Crystal factory
  • does chin-kissing the Blarney Stone still give you the gift of the gab?
  • drive the scenic Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula
  • make it back to Dublin for St Patrick’s Day

Ireland is both surprisingly drivable, and well worth it. Dublin, for all of it’s charms, is lacking in certain essential parts of the Irish experience. Green grass, for one.

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Licensed under CC.

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Licensed under CC.

So today we’re headed south in our little rental car. The city gives way gradually and then, suddenly, we’re amongst the fields. The grass truly is greener here, it seems. Thanks, Gulfstream!

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Our first stop is just over an hour and fifty minutes from Dublin. The town of Waterford is home to the famous Waterford Crystal brand, which, having seen some tough times that included bankruptcy, is now seeing a resurgence of the brand.

This is a very good thing – the skill we’re about to see proves that.

Take a look at the incredible detail in some of these pieces, and then reflect that they are made entirely by hand. Every notch, every shape, every part.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

A tribute to 9/11 from Waterford. Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The quality, especially up close on the factory floor tour that we undertook, is palpable. Justin Timberlake had a piece commissioned, and you can see the mould below.

So what was it? Actually – we’ve no idea. It looks very close to the trophy moulds that accompany it, but who can say for sure what is in the mind of a celebrity like Justin. Waterford certainly wouldn’t tell us!

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The tour is fascinating, and is especially enjoyable if you like smashing expensive things into little pieces.

As a part of the tour, you’re able to take the crystal pieces that quality inspectors at Waterford have declared unfit for sale – and smash them! Select a wine goblet, an almost perfect tumbler, even a beautiful vase, and watch it shatter into tiny pieces in their rejects bin. Don’t worry – it all get recycled, melted down and put back into new Waterford crystal pieces.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

SMASH! Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

 

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The craftsmanship is truly incredible. Before the tour we had no idea how much human involvement was needed to produce even something as small as a crystal glass. It really gives a new appreciation for the work put into these crystal pieces when you know that even cut that you can run you finger across in those crystal glasses is made by the firm hand and clear eye of the Waterford master craftsmen.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

There is, of course, an incredible shop at the end of the tour. We steered away from the crystal chandeliers (next time, we said) and instead elected to have some wine glasses sent back to our home. A perfect reminder of this little hidden gem.

Do you actually have to KISS the Blarney Stone?

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

‘Tis there’s the stone that whoever kisses

He never misses to grow eloquent;

‘Tis he may clamber to a lady’s chamber,

Or become a member of Parliament.

“A noble spouter he’ll sure turn out, or

An out and outer to be let alone;

Don’t try to hinder him, or to bewilder him,

For he is a pilgrim from the Blarney stone.”

– Francis Sylvester Mahony.

We’re on the road down towards a place where millions of others have been before. With that in mind, it is a wonder that anyone actually wants to go through with this strange ritual we humans have invented – the kissing of a particular stone in a particular castle, for the purposes of gaining the ‘gift of the gab’.

The things we do…

It used to be that to actually kiss the Blarney Stone, you had to put your life at risk. There was real danger involved. Now, with guard railings and an assistant and even, remarkably, ANTIBACTERIAL SPRAYS, there is little to worry about as you lean over backwards to plant your kisser on this rock.

And for those who are still thinking about those millions of people who’ve done this before, they must be asking – does it still count if you just chin-kiss it?

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

It is quite a strenuous climb to the very top of this tower, so be prepared if your fitness is a little lacking. And it is a long way up as well, so if you’re scared of heights, tight spaces, exercise, and other people’s germs, then you may be happy just to watch the spectacle from the ground below.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

 The Ring of Kerry and the road to Dingle

On Friday evening, we stop in a small village just on the outskirts of Cork. The next morning, we’re on the road through one of the world’s great scenic drives – the Ring of Kerry.

The Ring of Kerry, in County Kerry, located in south-western Ireland, cover some 180 km from Killarney to Killorglin. We pass tiny villages with cobbled streets and lanes, leading to coastal roads with views of a vast and endless ocean.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Eventually, having stopped in for pastries, pies and pints, in nearly every village along the way, we make it to Dingle.

This little fishing village shelters us from the notion that there is a world beyond it’s borders. In the pub, a local band plays half-forgotten tunes from travelling minstrels, beating our a rhythm on a tambourine.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The colours in the water, are, as you can see, beyond compare. Set against the order and rightness of drystone walls and farmers cottages, it is a quiet reminder that no matter what goes on in the rest of the world, life will continue here, and bring order to nature’s chaos.

Back to Dublin for St Patrick’s Day

We’ve found the green grass and blue waters of the Emerald Isle, and we will take these memories back with us as we journey back to Dublin. There’s a big party waiting for us there – but some part of use wants to stay behind and roll in the grass and watch the sun set over monuments that may outlast us all.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

 

Tangier to Casablanca, Morocco

By Jacob Aldridge

Yesterday, we observed how easily you can see Africa from our position in Tarifa, Spain.

Today, we prove it as we catch a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, from Europe’s most southern point to the city of Tangier (Tanger), Morocco – gateway to our weekend in Africa.

Ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangiers Morocco to Tarifa Spain

Ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Photos are copyright the author unless otherwise noted.

This Weekend’s Experience

We deal with immigration on the boat, so as soon as we arrive we’re onto our day in Tangier.

For a settlement that pre-dates the Roman Empire, Tangier is a modern, vibrant city. In fact, the population here grew by almost twenty times during the twentieth century, and its economy (as its reputation as a spy town during the Cold War) is maximised by its proximity to Europe.

Arabic stop sign photo, in Tangier Morocco

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

We’re here to explore the older parts of the city, however.

Rock the Casbah

The Casbah (or Kasba) is connected to the former Sultan’s palace, and creates a protected zone at the highest point of the town.

Entrance to the Casbah (or Kasba) in Tangiers (or Tanger) Morocco

Crowded entrance – we’re definitely going to Rock this Casbah!

As Westerners, here is the first place (at least, since we left Japan) where we have felt out of place. That’s in no way reflective of the locals here, who are particularly welcoming; it’s just recognition that the culture here, from architecture to religion, is more heavily influenced by the Middle East than it is by Western Europe.

English is very much a minority first language here. Even beyond the official languages of Arabic (more specifically, Darija – or colloquial – Arabic) and Berber, Morocco’s history includes governing by both France and Spain and therefore education in either French or Spanish. Compensating for this is the importance of tourism to the Tangier economy. Despite the uncertainty, here once again we found that English is today’s lingua franca and will generally suffice (when combined with patience, respect, and a smile) in most locations you’re likely to see as a traveller.

Whether it’s the welcoming disposition of the locals, or that importance of tourism, wandering through the Kasba feels safe and spacious. There is time and opportunity to breathe in the new sights and sounds that make this an experience.

We duck through an opening on the other side of the Kasba, and find this!

The Strait of Gibraltar - you can just see the Rock of Gibraltar

That’s the Strait of Gibraltar – you can just see the Rock of Gibraltar in the distance on the left

Of course, it makes sense that if we can see Africa from Europe then we would be able to stand on African soil and look over the Europe so easily.

Still, this is a breathtaking view – being able to witness two continents at once.

View from Africa to Europe.

As I said: Breathtaking.



Off to Market

Tangier is a popular daytrip from Tarifa, and a key stop is the markets. Everything from spices to leather-goods can be found here – and while the prices aren’t ridiculously cheap, there are plenty of bargains to be had for those willing to haggle as aggressively as the merchants.

Better still (at least for those daytrippers) is that almost every shop here will take Euros.

Our tip for market haggling?

  • Come in at 10% (yes, 10%!) of the price they suggest.
  • Recognise that this is natural, and part of doing business – you’re not being rude.
  • Never, ever regret a purchase. You are unlikely to find the lowest price the merchant will accept, but you will still do very well. Be happy with your price or don’t buy it, and if you buy it then forever be happy with your price!

For those of us who aren’t returning to Europe tonight, there’s even more opportunity to get horribly lost in these markets. Feel like refreshment? You’re unlikely to find a beer (easily) in this Muslim nation, but the hot mint tea is a must!

And then there are abundant opportunities to enjoy the local Moroccan spices as part of your evening meal.

Olive merchant at the souk market Tangier, Morocco

And olives! Wow are there abundant opportunities for olives!



Cave of Hercules

Saturday offers us a roadtrip day, as we head by car from Tangier along the 3.5 hours of coast road to Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca.

But our first stop is just out of town, where the ocean empties into a cave through an opening exactly the shape of Africa!

The Cave of Hercules, just outside of Tangiers / Tangier / Tanger, Morocco. Looks exactly like a cut out map of Africa.

Looks like Africa to me. Right? Photo by Alex Lomas, CC Licence

The Cave of Hercules – in mythology, the location where Hercules rested when his 12 labours were completed – is certainly large enough to contain his enormous strength.

With the tide rising, there’s opportunity (having followed necessary precautions) to swim here or jump from the ledge that forms part of the famous silhouette. In fact, the hardest part of the stop is finding a moment to photograph the cut-out cave so that Africa is obvious but the many other tourists are not!

Once we’re back in the car, there’s no need to rush – and plenty of reasons to stop and take in the water views. The nearby hills of Europe are gone – replaced with a seeming infinite ocean, North America not even imaginable beyond it.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, from Rabat Casablanca between Tangier and Casablanca.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, from Rabat Casablanca between Tangier and Casablanca. Photo by David Stanley, CC License



Play it Again, Sam

Casablanca may be the African city most famous in the west, but for all the wrong reasons. While the film Casablanca is legendary, the tale of Rick’s Café Américain and its love triangle (mirrored by the political triumvirate of neutral USA, independent France, and Nazi Germany) bears no relation to the modern city of 3.5 million people.

The Lighthouse in Casablanca Morocco, by night.

The Lighthouse in Casablanca, by night. Photo by Palindrome6996, CC license

Chief among today’s things to do in Casablanca Morocco is the Hassan II Mosque. The tallest building in Morocco and one of the largest Mosques in the world, a guided tour inside (and in English) is an opportunity to better appreciate and respect Islam. Sadly, the tour references but doesn’t show us the glass floor out over the ocean – this mosque was built largely over land reclaimed from the sea; 25,000 worshippers can here appreciate the Qur’anic verse “the throne of Allah was built on water”.

Hassan II Mosque - the tallest minaret in Morocco. One of the largest mosques in the world, the Hassan II Mosque can fit 25,000 inside and 80,000 in the courtyard.

Hassan II Mosque – the tallest minaret in Morocco. Photo by Papa Lars, CC License

There are plenty more souks to visit – if markets are your thing, head over to the Habbous District of town for even more shopping. You’ll find us enjoying yet another Moroccan tea in the Square of Mohammed V where the traditional flavours of modern Morocco blend with the historical colonial buildings.

No doubt, three days is only just enough to taste Morocco – and barely to scratch the top end of Africa. Based on what we’ve seen here, however?

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • How quick is the ferry between Europe and Africa? With FRS (http://www.frs.es) it takes literally no time at all! (Which is to say, you arrive in Tangier at the same time you leave Tarifa, given the 1 hour time difference.)
  • The cave isn’t exactly Africa, but it’s pretty close. Africa also looks a little like the human skull – is that a coincidence for the continent that was the birthplace of humanity?
  • ‘Play it again, Sam’ is the most famous line Humphrey Bogart never said, a misremembering collective audiences have popularised through the 70 years since Casablanca was released. Perhaps the greatest movie of all time, Bogart’s final speech is now about 70% cliché – but the original source of all those incredible sentiments and sentences!
  • Had a chance to practice your French in Casablanca? You’ll need it this week…

Have any fabulous Moroccan memories? Share them for all our readers in our comments below, or over on our Facebook page.

Daytona 500: Race Weekend in Florida

This weekend finds us heading down to Daytona Beach, Florida, once called ‘The World’s Most Famous Beach’. These days there are plenty of other contenders for that title, but Daytona Beach has something they lack.

Specifically, a whopping great big race track, and 200,000 screaming motorsport fans in town for a good time.

We’re here for the Daytona 500, which lives up to it’s name as a 500 mile long (805 km) race held on the speedway racetrack of Daytona Beach.

So Ladies…start your engines.

This Weekend’s Itinerary:

  • Simple – don’t miss the action at the Daytona 500 NASCAR race!

Wait – ladies?

That doesn’t sound right coming off the tongue. Traditionally, the drivers of these speed machines (they reach speeds of around 200 miles per hour – that’s three hundred and twenty one kilometres per hour!) are men, and certainly the winner of the Daytona 500 for the last half century has been a man.

Will we see that change this weekend?

Go Danica! Photo by scott mecum, Licensed under CC.

Go Danica! Photo by scott mecum, Licensed under CC.

Danica Patrick is the most successful woman, ever, in open-wheel racing in America. And on February 17th, 2013, while we were swanning around Santiago Chile, Danica Patrick won pole position in the Daytona 500.

Said Patrick;

I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl.

Starting from pole position, Danica will be leading a field of around 43 other drivers, featuring teams from across America. Even the Army is involved.

No matter the outcome, Danica has already earned her place in history – but we’re rooting for her to take the famous Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Come meet the fans.

Photo by Sam Howzit, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Sam Howzit, Licensed under CC.

It’s an enormous event, backed up with extensive caravan and camping accommodation just next to the racetrack. That’s where we’re staying, hoping to get involved in the tailgate party spirit that forms amongst the massive RVs and trucks that fill these lots. It’s not cheap to park here (up to $2,500 for a spot for an RV!) so everyone here is making the most of the occasion.

Your name here. Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

Your name here. Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

We spend the morning getting to know everyone around us and working our way into a few barbecues or two – as long as we bring beer, all is forgiven. As we approach lunchtime, the buzz begins to build. The Daytona 500 is the largest and most prestigious race on the Sprint Car circuit, unusual given that it happens so early on in the race season.

We could easily stay in the carpark and watch the match on a TV embedded in the back of someone’s truck, enjoying some amazing barbecued foods, but we came all this way to see the race. We join the growing crowds and enter the enormous complex to take our seats.

The famous racetrack. Photo by Jeff, Licensed under CC.

The famous racetrack. Photo by Jeff, Licensed under CC.

Photo by tequilamike, Licensed under CC.

Photo by tequilamike, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

The race kicks off at 1 PM, but all morning there have been presentations, musical acts, and celebrity spotting. Tom Cruise, Keith Urban, Tim Tebow, Brooks and Dunn, even Chubby Checker, have all been spotted attending the Daytona 500 in the past. We’re excited to see who’s going to show up this year.

Engines Started. Time To Race.

Unlike Formula 1 racing, the Daytona 500 Sprint Cup has a rolling start. Rolling starts have some interesting consequences, as do the style of racing that suits looping around a giant circle at 200 miles an hour, drafting the car in front of you.

Consequences like crashes.

Lots of crashes.

Do yourself a favour and watch this video of the 2011 Daytona 500, and see just how many crashes, with the screech of tyres on asphalt and acrid smoke polluting the air, engulf what seems to be almost half the field. In fact there are two major wipeouts in the first couple of minutes.

This is what we’re in for today.

Time to grab a hotdog and a beer, and kick back and enjoy the action.

And go Danica!

Last year's winning NASCAR. Photo by Scott Calleja, Licensed under CC.

Last year’s winning NASCAR. Photo by Scott Calleja, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Freewheeling Daredevil, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Freewheeling Daredevil, Licensed under CC.

Is racing your kind of thing? What other amazing races should we experience the thrill of?

Tell us in the comments!

Little Dune Buggy, in the Punta Cana Sand

By Jacob Aldridge

Think Caribbean island, and you’ll think fabulous beaches and luxury resorts. Flying into the Dominican Republic last night, that was exactly what this chain of islands looked like peeking their sandy beaches out from the greenery.

Flying into the Dominican Republic. Photographs from airplanes are hard to take - a beach holiday in Punta Cana is much easier to take.

Flying into the Dominican Republic. Photo by Krawiec, CC License.

But Punta Cana, on the very eastern edge of the Dominican Republic, is definitely not a poor man’s substitute for Barbados, or Richard Branson’s private island. Nope – this is the adventure capital of the Caribbean, and we’re here to rip it up!

Today’s Experience

The sun rises over the ocean in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

The sun rises over the ocean in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Photo by Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire, CC License.

Don’t worry – you won’t be expected to jump off a bridge (again) today. In fact, we’ve got a quiet drive from our hotel to the beautifully named Lemon Lagoon Bay.

Assuming a 4WD Dune Buggy fanging it off road could ever be considered quiet!

Little Dune Buggy is a song by POTUSA (Presidents of the USA) - and it seems appropriate for this photo!

Little Dune Buggy, in the Sand; Little blue dune buggy, in my hands! Photo by Raleigh Woman, CC License.

Yeee Haaaaa! It’s the only thing we can think to say as we finally get the hang of these controls, and open up the throttle.

Can you smell the sea air as it whistles through the open cabin of the dune buggy? Our destination is Laguna del Limon, to the north of the island. It’s an amazing, 90km journey – plenty of chances for everyone (who wants, and can handle a manual stick shift) to have a drive, and also loads of time to stop and explore the island – and the ocean that surrounds it!

Our first stop is Uvero Alto, a beach resort town. Wide sandy beaches fringed by palm trees – this is the tropical island lifestyle; we’ve arrived too late in the year to be bothered by Hurricanes, and early enough in the day to beat the ‘crowds’.

The beach at Uvero Alto, Dominican Republic. Peaceful and not crowded, perfect for a beach holiday.

The beach at Uvero Alto, Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaime W, CC License.

That’s a sign of a good holiday destination, by the way. At the really crowded beaches on the French Riviera or the Caribbean, tourists are out before breakfast to claim their preferred spot. When you find a beach mid-morning that’s not full of towels, you know it’s unlikely to be full of people later in the day. If you’ve had enough of a buggy joyride for today, you can probably siesta on a sunbed here and we’ll collect you on the way home. But you’ll be missing out on…

…the inland experience, as we swing through Nissibon. There are workers in the fields (it is Monday, after all!), and most don’t even look up as we coast by. Crazy tourists in dune buggies are obviously a regular thing in the Dominican Republic!

Dune Buggy Tour, from Punta Cana to Laguna del Limon via Uvero Alto and Nissibon, Dominican Republic.

Dune Buggy Tour, from Punta Cana to Laguna del Limon, Dominican Republic. Photo by Rob Wiss, CC License.

Our final stretch takes us back to the coast, along the Playa La Vacama and 15 kilometres (9 miles) of beach driving. If you thought Uvero Alto was quiet, then you’ll reckon this place is a silent monastery. Sure, there’s the low rumble of our various engines, but it barely resonates above the sound of waves lapping onto the shore. The hum of the wind in our ears and the wheels on the sand creates a trance-like state. You want to scream some more yaaa-hoooos to break things up – and before you know it they’re echoed by the passengers in the other buggies.

Yahoo! Yahoo! Yahoo!!! What a way to feel alive!

Lunch is served at the Hotel Limon, next to the Laguna del Limon. We’ve got plenty of time to experience the freshwater lagoon … by kayak, as we move ourselves around the inland body of water and observe the variety of birds feeding and nesting among the mangroves.

There’s a moment as we find ourselves in the middle of the lake where civilization feels like a work of fiction. The great cities of the world are calling to us, appealing to our traveller and cultural instincts, but right here, right now … it’s hard to believe anyone ever chose to leave their waterside community and go build a skyscraper. Who in their right mind would trade a kayak for the subway?

A bird takes to the air, mangroves and a sunset in the background of this Dominican Republic wildlife photograph.

A bird takes to the air, mangroves and a sunset in the background. Photo by Barbara Walsh, CC License. If you love this photo, visit Barbara Walsh’s photography site and buy a copy for yourself.

No doubt we’ll see some of them on our return dune buggy drive to Punta Cana. Those tourists at the end of their travel, heading back to the grind. Tomorrow, we’ll be at the beach and they’ll be in the office – hopefully they’ll do what all good travel lovers do, which is subscribe to Every Daydream Holiday and enjoy everyday with their morning coffee break.

For now – wherever you may be reading this – let out a few more loud yahoos, to let the world know you’re alive!

A beach sunset in the Dominican Republic. Beach sunsets are easier to photograph than beach sunrises.

A beach sunset in the Dominican Republic. Photo by JDN, CC License.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Remarkably, it’s possible to organise this whole experience for about $150 each – and half day tours are also available.
  • Punta Cana is best known as an all-inclusive resort destination – as we’ll discover tomorrow, that’s missing half the story!
  • We craft these experiences every day so that travel lovers who might be stuck at work or on their daily commute have a chance to escape – even just for ten minutes. Are you receiving your daily dose of travel escape? It’s free, click here.

What travel experiences have made you feel alive? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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Embarking to the Jesuit ruins of la Santísima Trinidad

By Jacob Aldridge

The more you travel, the more you encounter destination names that demonstrate a shared history. New York used to be called New Amsterdam – the change coincided with the English, not the Dutch, taking control of the city. Colonial powers often impart familiar names on new towns with similar attributes – both Newcastle, England, and Newcastle, Australia share a coal-mining tradition.

And sometimes these names spread far and wide, only for one of those locations to become larger or more famous. Tell your friends that you’re visiting Antigua, and chances are they’ll visualise the Caribbean island – not the “toast marshmallows over lava” volcano centre of Antigua, Guatemala.

Tell your friends you have a day trip to Trinidad, and their heads will fill with reggae music, rum, and cricket. Yet our day trip today is to Trinidad, Paraguay – we can play some reggae on the bus down from Asuncion, but it won’t fit in with the immense ruins of the Jesuit Missions of La Santisima Trinidad.

Overlooking some of La Santisima Trinidad, Paraguay, one of Paraguay's 7 Cultural Treasures.

Overlooking some of La Santisima Trinidad, Paraguay. Photo by David Holt, Licensed under CC License.

Today’s Experience

The Catholic Jesuit missionaries were on the ground in South America less than a century after the New World was ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus. Of course, this discovery came as a surprise to the millennia-old cultures that inhabited the region – and religion formed an essential part of colonial Spain (and later Portugal, France, and England) imposing their will on those indigenous inhabitants.

In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to pass judgement on the colonial missionaries. And while there were undoubtedly a few gold-hungry psychopaths among them, for the most part these were genuine men who believed the only way to eternal happiness was through the Catholic god, and that it was their responsibility to leave the relative comfort of a monastery in Spain with a one-way ticket to a continent filled with souls that could be saved with God’s love.

One of the original inhabitants, still on display in the Santisima Trinidad complex, Paraguay.

One of the original inhabitants, still on display. Photo by Paul Arps, Licensed under CC License.

They sacrificed themselves (and, let’s be fair, a large number of locals) to that aim. It’s worth viewing the Santísima Trinidad del Paraná Mission through that noble vision – there will be time for post-colonial judgement over beers in an English pub tonight.

Santisima Trinidad was founded in about 1706, and our guide takes us first to the museum on site where a scale model of the mission gives a view of its grandeur.

The ceilings and grand domes have long since fallen in, but the ruins that remain are still impressive. This is not a church, this is a village – from the central Plaza Mayor that forms a common central point in all colonial Spanish town planning, to the native houses, workshops, and cemeteries that are indicative of the Jesuit’s practical approach to spreading the word of God.

In the absence of ceilings, do these churches take us closer to God?

In the absence of ceilings, do these churches take us closer to God? Photo by Laembajada, Licensed under CC License.

Inside the church we can even see evidence of its decoration. Though worn by exposure to the weather, when they are pointed out by the experts it’s easy to note key elements of Christian art – crosses, for example – being combined here with native art. While little was done to respect the indigenous deities, effort was clearly made to put the Christian God into the social and cultural life of the original inhabitants, not just forcing them to change their entire way of life in order to conform.

No doubt for many thousands this imposition was unwelcome, undesirable, and lethal. Having accepted that, it is still possible to admire these buildings and this village – and consider what the local Guarani people, used to a semi-nomadic lifestyle in harmony with the land, must have felt when they first saw the brick church rising out of the ground.

Santisima Trinidad translates from Spanish as “The Most Holy Trinity”, and it’s not surprising that a name at the core of the Catholic faith can be found elsewhere across the colonies. There was even a ship Santisima Trinidad – at one time the heaviest in the world, it was sunk after surrendering to the English at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Football - passion of the future Paraguayan generation.

Football – passion of the future generation. Photo by Arcadius, Licensed under CC License.

We return to Asuncion after a long day trip to discover that the evening here has only just begun – it’s just too hot to enjoy a party while the sun is out. So after dinner, we head to the Britannia Pub, where english can be heard (but spanish remains the majority language). Our intention was simply a few quiet drinks, but this is not a quiet location even on a Tuesday night. Asuncion, Paraguay is a young people’s city – almost two-thirds of its 500,000 inner-city residents are under the age of 30.

As we have a chance to meet and talk with some of the locals, our choice becomes clear. We can say goodbye to this cultural immersion now, mindful of our flight in the morning. Or we can embrace it, dive into the night and consequences be damned!

I know which one I’m choosing. Who’s staying out with me?

The city of Asuncion rises behind the Palacio de los López, one of Paraguay's 7 Cultural Treasures.

The city of Asuncion rises behind the Palacio de los López. Photo by Arcadius, Licensed under CC License.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • La Santisima Trinidad is one of the 7 Cultural Treasures of Paraguay.
  • Long day tours are available from Asuncion, or a self-drive option sticks mostly to the main roads of Route 1 (to Posadas) and then Route 6.
  • This trip takes you to very edge of the Paraguay-Argentina border. It’s possible to keep going from here to southern Brazil, Uruguay, or rural Argentina.

What do you think about colonial ruins – can they be properly appreciated without taking into consideration the less savoury aspects of colonisation? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Roadtrip: Nashville, Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Experience

Did you have that dream last night where Keith Urban and Elvis Presley announce their wedding? No? Just me?

Must have been something to do with yesterday’s musical road trip, and knowing that today would start with a Platinum tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame here in Nashville, Tennessee.

Wall of Gold Records at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Tennessee

Gold, Gold, Gold for Tennessee! Photo by Cliff 1066, CC License

Our driver Dan is beside himself with excitement. As a real country music fan, the celebrity audio guide… His tastes are more modern, but the rest of us with varying degrees of Country music appreciation still find plenty to enjoy – from the Patsy Cline exhibit to the RCA Studio guided tour where we are walked through the studio that birthed more than 1,000 top ten music hits (and around 150 recordings of the King himself).

Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Tennessee

Classic exhibits inside the Hall of Fame. Photo by NOLA Agent, CC License

We’re on a road trip to Atlanta, which involves a whistle-stop lunch in Chattanooga, Tennessee – the halfway point of today’s drive. We follow the Tennessee River to 212 Market Restaurant, at the north end of a town made famous by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the 1940s.

After 21 years in business, these guys know how to make a sandwich – are you going to choose the Pecan chicken club or the Chattanooga cheesesteak wrap? Something to chew chew on while we head back to Interstate 24 overlooking the choo choo train tracks!

Atlanta is a city steeped in US history, from it’s importance during the US Civil War, to the Civil Rights movement a century later, and today’s corporate success as home to CNN, Coca-Cola and MailChimp (you may have heard of them?). It’s also the fourth Summer Olympic host city we’ve visited on our everydaydream holiday so far (Link to Destinations).

Centre for Puppetry Arts

Fun – and not just for children! Photo by Ayleen Gasper, CC License

Our first stop ignores all that – we’re here to have fun at the Centre for Puppetry Arts! Where was this place when I was planning my birthday party as a kid? We’re doing the Jim Henson: Life and Legacy tour, with all its background information on the man behind the Muppets and Fraggle Rock.

Jim Henson was there when Kermit the Frog cut the ribbon to open the centre in 1978. Since then they’ve been impressing adults and children alike – yes, in addition to children’s birthday parties they also host adults-only Puppetry Theatre! (No, not the adults only puppetry you’re thinking of!)

Which segment was The Muppet Show's best?

Pigs in Space – one of The Muppet Show’s funniest segments. Photo by Moria, CC License

From there it’s to the World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta’s most famous export (and, some say, the reason they were awarded the 1996 Olympic Games). Unless you’re a real Coke head, there’s a lot to learn here, and the immersive experience of the ‘Vault of the Secret Formula’ is part of the fun. The taste-testing, we concede, is not quite as impressive as the similar experience at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

Inside the World of Coca-Cola

Inside the World of Coca-Cola. Photo by Bob B. Brown, CC License

We part ways with Dan just outside the Martin Luther King Jr historic site, on Auburn Avenue. Roadtrips can’t help but bring people together, and we’ll miss him … His taste in music, on the other hand? We’re kinda glad to see that go.

Besides, we’ve got movie tickets tonight. While we’d never heard of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (“Atlanta’s largest film festival”), when we heard they were showing Lore (Australia’s official entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) with a Q&A afterwards we jumped at the chance to grab tickets.

Music, Movies, and Coca-Cola – there’s a lot to love in the American South.

Wish you were where?

Of course, you are here with everydaydream holiday. Photo by Quinn Anya, CC License

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Want us to feature your town, or want to feature yourself as a local expert at your favourite tourist destination? Head over to our ‘Local guides’ page and tell us where you take your visitors when they’re in town.
  • The Platinum package to the Country Music Hall of Fame is only $33, and includes the guided tour. But book in advance as places are limited.
  • Atlanta is the fourth Summer Olympic Host City we’ve visited. Can you name the other three?
  • The United States of America are currently memorialising the sesquicentennial of the US Civil War (that’s the 150 year anniversary). We’ll be returning later in the year when the Battle of Gettysburg anniversary events connect with the Fourth of July celebrations.

So what are your favourite roadtrip songs? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

We’re Going to Graceland (Graceland)

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

How did we find ourselves in this car, listening to a country and western mix-tape?

NOLA Bridge

The Huey P. Long Bridge, named after the assassinated governor. Photo by Ken Lund, CC License

The final score of last night’s game is irrelevant – it was always about the Super Bowl experience, and amazingly New Orleans is planning on rolling that atmosphere straight into week two of the annual Mardi Gras. (Let’s hope there are no more black outs! And for the record, the Ravens beat the 49ers 34-31 … which travel website had a “Ravens Champions Cap” featured last week?)

We’ll be back for the Mardi Gras mid-week, but we needed a few days of quiet first. So when southern local Dan said he was planning a road trip to Atlanta, and had room to spare … well, we were in. What Dan failed to mention was that he is Country. Music. MAD.

Dan needs to be in Atlanta by tomorrow night but (maybe this was the first warning sign we should have seen) he’s planned a stopover for us in Nashville. So it was an early start … far too early (don’t you think?) for Kenny Chesney or Brooks and Dunn. (Though Dolly Parton did remind us that the everydaydream holiday beats working 9 to 5.)

Our first roadtrip stop is breakfast in Jackson, Mississippi. Dan exits just off the I55 and takes us to Broad Street Bakery. It’s the perfect first stop on a road trip north from New Orleans, and not just because they’re playing different music! These breakfast burritos are only $3.95 each. Plus tip, I’m still eating two of them and a coffee for ten bucks.

How very nice of Tennessee

The Volunteer State – who knew? Photo by jbcurio, CC License

So our breakfast conversation with Dan about music seems to have worked. After all – Nashville might be tonight’s destination, but it’s not our next stop. Oh no, our next stop is royalty. It’s rock and roll. It’s the jungle room.

We’re going to Graceland (Graceland), Memphis Tennessee.

Front entrance to the King's palace

We’re going to Graceland (Graceland) Memphis Tennessee. Photo by Maha, CC License

So Dan has acquiesced, and we’ve now got some classic Elvis Presley coming out of the stereo. Have you ever noticed how everybody knows the words to at least some Elvis songs?

And Graceland itself kind of feels like that too – inclusive, no boundaries. In parts, it’s a preserved relic of 1960s and 70s America – when you were the King of America in that era (and Elvis certainly was), then living like royalty meant a mansion full of kitsch and a pink Cadillac in the garage. But it’s also very much about Elvis the man – the audio-guide features commentaries by the King himself, and also daughter Lisa-Marie. In the Jungle Room and the Car Museum, it’s Elvis all the way. And in the Meditation Garden at the end of the tour, we see where Elvis was laid to rest after his unexpected death aged just 42.

The pool room inside Graceland

That’s going straight to the pool room. Photo by Kees Wielemaker, CC License

Down in the Jungle Room

Where’s the pretty little thing waiting for the King? Photo by SD Rebel, CC License

We put Paul Simon’s Graceland onto the iPod when we get back into the car. The tone of that classic feels more connected to the venue now that we’ve been there – Graceland, indeed Elvis’s legacy, is not just gyrating hips and bad Hawaiian movies. There was the upbringing in a two-room shack in Tulepo; the military service; and then the descent into the caricature of himself, overweight and addicted to pills as he struggled to cope with this famous life. Graceland was his refuge, as Neverland Ranch was for his similarly ill-fated son-in-law Michael Jackson.

Tiger print!

Part of Graceland’s display. Photo by Betsy Weber, CC License

What's inside?

Elvis was moved here (along with his mother) after thieves tried to loot their original resting places. Photo by Mark Gstohl, CC License

Paul Simon sings “We all will be received in Graceland”. Elvis would certainly hope so.

“That’s if he’s actually dead”, Dan points out.

And then he turns the radio over to Keith Urban. As we drive through Jackson, Tennessee, and then into Nashville we give in to the rhythm. Having found acceptance, there’s nothing more enticing than heading down to The Printers Alley – a collection of music venues in part of Nashville originally made famous by their printing prowess. We take in open mike night at Lonnie’s Western Room – who knows, maybe we just saw a future Grammy Award winner in action.

Nashville used to be famous for its successful printing businesses.

Nashville used to be famous for its successful printing businesses. Photo by Chris H Connelly, CC License

Lonnie's Western Room, Nashville Tennessee USA

All music is better live! Photo by Denise Mattox , CC License

As midnight approaches, Dan lets us in on a dirty little secret. He also like the Blues! It’s a long drive from New Orleans to Nashville to take in the Blues, but the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar is open until 3am – and we intend to make the most of it!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Don’t have a friend who’s willing to drive you from New Orleans to Memphis? Catch the train and make a weekend of it!
  • New Orleans, Louisiana, is often abbreviated to NOLA. It’s never pronounced ‘NOLA’ – and it’s rarely pronounced “New” either – try to roll straight from the N into Orleans instead.
  • The biggest Elvis fans stay at the Heartbreak Hotel, next door to Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
  • The Country Music Awards are held in Nashville each November – and have been running for just one year less than the Super Bowl.
  • And you can stay up to date here with the latest Country Music hits.

So what are your favourite roadtrip songs? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

All the Small Things: Hobbiton Tour and a Kiwi Bird

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Since arriving in New Zealand last week, we’ve come so very close to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In Queenstown, our local guide pointed us in the direction of some Lord of the Rings tours – and then helped us jump off a bridge instead! Yesterday we even experienced the same train journey where Peter Jackson first conceived a Lord of the Rings film!

And so today, led by Hamilton local Hamish, we will actually do it: we will set foot in Hobbiton!

Tour of Hobbiton New Zealand

Hobbiton Tours! Photo by Jeff Hitchcock, CC License

Hamish explains that New Zealand, and particularly the North Island, was always the most likely place to film this six-film series. There were early discussions about Iceland – closer, perhaps, to JRR Tolkein’s personal vision; but as soon as local-boy-made-good Peter Jackson imparted his preference, New Zealand was a shoo-in.

Less of a dead certainty was the booming tourist industry that has followed in the films’ wake. As we arrive in Matamata, 45 minutes east of Hamilton, Hamish explains that after filming on LOTR finished, the sets – many of which were built on local farms – were handed back. Half of Hobbiton was bulldozed! And it was only the foresight of farmer Russell Alexander that saved it.

And wow – what an industry it has produced. Matamata used to be home to 6,000 people and about 7 times as many sheep. It now features in a Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook that has sold more than half a million copies.

Tour the Green Dragon Pub, Hobbiton

Outside the Green Dragon Pub, Hobbiton. Photo by Jeff Hitchcock, CC License

Walking around the Alexander farm, it’s hard to picture life here before Hobbiton. At the same time, we don’t ever really feel like we’re in The Shire as we explore. Even grabbing our complimentary drink at the Green Dragon pub (rebuilt here – it was actually filmed in Wellington) provides a novel experience, but surrounded by fans (and a few fanatics, poor Martin Freeman!) this is more of a tourist spot than a piece of film (or gosh-golly, ‘literary‘) history.

If Hobbiton Tours are a story of preservation, there’s a similar tale at our next destination as Hamish takes us an hour south, past Lake Karapiro, to the town of Otorohanga and its Bird Sanctuary.

New Zealand prides itself on being the last nation on earth to be settled by humans – while there’s some contention about dates, and whether the Maori were the first to settle here, it’s still remarkable that until about 800 years ago there were no people anywhere on these idlands. William the Conquerer settled in England before that!

The lack of humans – and the pests we have introduced since then, including rats, rabbits, and that most recent NZ scourge the possum – created several evolutionary quirks. Most famous of these was the flightless bird species, biological diversity that declined fairly quickly: the Moa, a flightless bird related the Australia’s cassowary, was extinct just two hundred years after humans arrived.

A similar fate could have faced the iconic Kiwi Bird. Now rare, the nocturnal bird is hard to see in the wild – so for tourists who definitely want to see a kiwi bird Otorohanga is the place to visit: in fact, they guarantee you will see one!

See a Kiwi Bird up Close

Not a life size kiwi bird. Photo by Natalia V, CC License

And just moments after we enter the nocturnal enclosure, we do indeed see a kiwi up close. The first thing that surprises us is their size – known as a tiny creature, they are in fact the size of a chicken! Hamish tells us that if that size is impressive, we should also know that the kiwi lays the largest egg, in relation to body size, of any bird in the world.

Hamish gets us back to the city of Hamilton, where there’s time to grab a local beer (order an Epic Pale Ale or a Steinlager, and you’ll be right) at one of the many bars along Victoria Street before he bids us farewell.

New Zealand Beer is Epic

We won’t repeat the joke about New Zealand beer and canoes. Photo by epicbeer, CC License

If you thought we were taking the train onward to Auckland, then you’re in for an unexpected journey. The Northern Explorer only runs 3 days per week, giving us the option of a 3 hour bus journey north … or a personal limousine service. Given this is an everydaydream holiday (and with thanks to Lincoln Limousines in Auckland), which choice do you think we’re making?

Lincoln Limos Auckland

Missed the train? We have a backup plan! Photo copyright Lincoln Limos Auckland

Want to go? Need to know!

  • If you love, love, love Lord of the Rings (and/or The Hobbit) then it is possible to tour almost all of New Zealand moving from film set to film set. Ian Brodie’s excellent Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook is sadly out of print, but there are a treasure trove of websites dedicated to the topic.
  • If you thought the films failed to live up to the books, it is also possible to tour New Zealand without experiencing Hobbiton – just expect, for the next few years while the Hobbit trilogy is released, to see plenty of advertising targeted at people who aren’t you.
  • In fact, if you really want to get off the beaten track in New Zealand (or just find your way around much easier), download the free itravelNZ App for your iPhone or Android device.
  • The New Zealand government notes that the sheep-to-person ratio in New Zealand peaked at 22-to-1 in 1982. We are fairly confident more than 22 Hobbits can fit into our limousine, but weren’t able to test this theory.
  • Matamata is pronounced MAW-da-MAW-da. If you think that’s funny, let’s detour our cars through the township of Whatawhata!

Have you been to Hobbiton? What did you think – worth the experience, or overblown? And how big are those kiwi birds! Please share your experience in the comments below.

Marlborough Wine Tour New Zealand

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Not long ago, a list of the world’s best wine tours would have been very Euro-centric – and western Europe at that, with France and Italy featuring heavily while fantastic wines like Hungarian Bikavér continue to be ignored.

Slowly, so-called ‘New World Wines’ began to emerge, forced somewhat by marketing money out of California’s Napa Valley. South American wines, in particular Chilean reds such as the Carménère (an old Bordeaux varietal now extinct in Europe), had a rush of popularity. And the, begrudgingly the old world was forced to acknowledge the quality produced by the antipodean wineries of Australia and New Zealand.

Wine, drunk the best possible way - with friends

Enjoying Marlborough Wine while cruising the Marlborough Sound. Photo by Peter Burge, CC License

Having experienced – and enjoyed – wine tours of Australia’s Hunter Valley we must now admit just how much we love the Marlborough Wine Region in New Zealand. And today, we have a Marlborough wine tour so we can all find out why the wines, in particular the whites and specifically the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, are as good as any that the world has to offer.

Given the choice of wine tours, we have elected to embark on the ‘Marlborough Icons Tour‘ which combines wine tasting with the other local icons – a cruise of the Marlborough Sound and a feed of Greenshell Mussels.

Just after 10am, our guide and mini-coach collect us from our Blenheim accommodation. Our first destination is Johanneshof Cellars, where the local conditions are combined with German wine heritage. The Gewurztraminer (an aromatic, slightly sweet, white wine) is the agreed winner here – a lesser known wine grape, it’s guaranteed to be a conversation starter when you take one to your next dinner party.

No wine tour of New Zealand is complete without our next stop, Cloudy Bay, where the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc is the main attraction – though the Pelorus brut (“Champagne” is now a protected geographical indicator, so we can’t use it here) is well-received by those who prefer a glass of bubbly.

As befits a jam-packed wine tour, our final tasting stop is The Vines Village, where we sample a range of boutique wines in one place, as well as some of the local produce and clothing from the region.

The spectacular Marlborough Sound

The spectacular Marlborough Sound. Photo by AceNZ, CC License

If the wine’s gone to your head (and if it hasn’t, have another glass!), you’ll enjoy our relaxing afternoon cruising the Marlborough Sound by boat. Our group naturally divides into those who want to hear the history of the Pelorus and Kenepuru Sounds, and those who simply want to sit on deck and watch them pass by. A stopover at the Greenshell Mussel farm provides more than just afternoon sustenance – there’s recognition of the region’s pioneers, and an opportunity to sample the green and gold delicacies of this native New Zealand shellfish.

Come 5pm, our Marlborough wine tour drops us off at Picton, on the edge of the South Island. We have a 7pm ferry booked to take us across the Cook Strait to Wellington.

Beached at Picton

The small beach at Picton, New Zealand. Photo by Sid Mosdell, CC License.

Which gives us plenty of time to partake in this suggestion, from NZ local and expert traveller Megan Singleton (on Twitter as @bloggeratlarge). We’re down to the beach front in Picton for some fish and chips – and the combination of good grub and a nice view means not a single one of us makes a comment about how New Zealanders pronounce this authentic meal.

Cook Strait View

View from the Picton-Wellington Ferry. Photo by Chris Murphy, CC License

Want to go? Need to know!

  • You can catch the train from Christchurch to Picton, and then (via the ferry) all the way on to Auckland.
  • Exactly which wineries are featured on specific tours will vary. The full day Marlborough wine tour will give you tastings at more locations.
  • Global travel tip: Most tours start and end in the same location, but it’s always worth asking your guide if they can be flexible. We saved the time and expense of getting from Blenheim to Picton by choosing the tour we did.
  • Create your own Marlborough wine tour New Zealand – there’s a great map and more info here
  • There are 2 ferry services to choose from – Bluebridge and the Interislander will take you from Picton to Wellington (or Wellington to Picton). Timetables are a more important factor in your choice than any price or amenity differences.

What’s your favourite New Zealand Wine? Have we been unfair in promoting the Marlborough region so heavily? Please share your experience in the comments below.