San Juan – Puerto Rico – May 2014

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. It is about 3.5 hour flight from Atlanta. If you visit Puerto Rico from the U.S., no visa is required.

The most popular place to visit in Puerto Rico is Old San Juan – “The city is characterized by its narrow, blue cobblestone streets and flat-roofed brick and stone buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century when Puerto Rico was a Spanish possession. – Wiki”

Transportation: It’s highly recommended to rent a car in Puerto Rico. Otherwise, be prepared to pay $15 for every single trip by taxi no matter the distance (they don’t run by meters). Public transportation is extremely unreliable (almost non-existent). We made a mistake of not renting a car after reading reviews about how bad the drivers in Puerto Rico are. The truth is: Yes, they are reckless but they are slow. If you can drive in Atlanta, L.A or any other big cities, this should be a piece of cake (statement coming from a bad driver).

Old San Juan

Old San Juan 

El Morro Fort - Old San Juan - the locals like to play kites here

El Morro Fort – Old San Juan – the locals like to play kites here

San Juan has many sandy beaches, clear and warm water, perfect for swimming. However, be ware of rip currents. The waves are strong and unpredictable here. I've lost my Ray Ban and my hubby lost his prescription glasses. When we went to LensCrafter to make new prescription glasses for him, the staff there said that a lot of people lost shades/ glasses too; hence, the 1 hour service for glasses is very popular here.

San Juan has many sandy beaches, clear and warm water, perfect for swimming. However, be ware of rip currents. The waves are strong and unpredictable here. I’ve lost my Ray Ban and my hubby lost his prescription glasses. When we went to LensCrafter to make new prescription glasses for him, the staff there said that a lot of people lost shades/ glasses too; hence, the 1 hour service for glasses is very popular here.

About 1 hr from Old San Juan is The El Yunque Rain Forest. There are many hiking trails to explore within the forests.

About 1 hr from Old San Juan is The El Yunque Rain Forest. There are many hiking trails to explore within the forests.

One of the many waterfalls inside El Yunque rain forest.

One of the many waterfalls inside El Yunque rain forest.

Natural swimming pool inside El Yunque.

Natural swimming pool inside El Yunque.

Famous food in Puerto Rico: Deep fried fish, Mofongo (a fried plantain-based dish) and Lechon (slow roasted pork). The best meals that we had were at "Lechonera Los Pinos (for the roasted pork)" and "José Enrique"

Famous food in Puerto Rico: Deep fried fish, Mofongo (a fried plantain-based dish) and Lechon (slow roasted pork). The best meals that we had were at “Lechonera Los Pinos (for the roasted pork)” and “José Enrique” (be prepared for at least 1hr waiting time)

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Tracking tool – 27 best coffee places in the U.S.

http://www.thedailymeal.com/americas-best-coffee-shops-slideshow#7

DONE:

5. Café Grumpy, New York City – very good with fruity taste, blend of 1 Ethiopian + 2 Colombian beans.

WISHLIST

27. Kaffe 1668, New York City

26. Blue Bottle Coffee, Various Locations

25. Happy Coffee Co., Denver

24. Panther Coffee, Miami

23. Spyhouse Coffee, Minneapolis

22. Verve Coffee Roasters, Santa Cruz, Calif.

21. Ipsento, Chicago

18. The Wormhole, Chicago

20. Boxcar Coffee Roasters, Boulder, Colo.

19. Caffé Medici, Austin, Texas

17. Victrola Coffee, Seattle

12. Milstead & Co., Seattle

16. PT’s at College Hill, Topeka, Kan.

15. Artifact Coffee, Baltimore

14. Peregrine Espresso, Washington, D.C.

13. Everyman Espresso, New York City

11. Commonplace Coffee Co. House and Roasters, Pittsburgh

10. Intelligentsia, Various Locations

9. Joe the Art of Coffee, New York and Philadelphia

8. Ritual Coffee Roasters, San Francisco

7. Stumptown, Various Locations

6. Lamill Coffee Boutique, Los Angeles

4. Courier Coffee Roasters, Portland, Ore.

3. Barista, Portland, Ore.

2. Gimme! Coffee, New York

1. Ultimo Coffee , Philadelphia

DONE

New Zealand – It’s time to say good bye

I’m in the last 8 hours of being in the Kiwi land. It has been a great adventure in the last 6 months. I and my partner have had so many memorable experiences:

... having our first car ...

… having our first car and taking care of it …

... eating healthy, organic, home-grown products from farmers' markets...

… eating healthy, organic, home-grown products from farmers’ markets…

... growing our own strawberries ...

… growing our own strawberries …

... living in a tree house...

… living in a tree house…

... seeing horses running on 90-mile-beach...

… seeing horses running on 90-mile-beach…

... watching active geyser in action...

… watching active geyser in action…

... exploring thermal wonderland...

… exploring thermal wonderland…

... collecting seashells for food...

… collecting seashells for food…

... digging a natural hot spa on Hot Water Beach...

… digging a natural hot spa on Hot Water Beach…

...trekking 8 hours through active volcanoes...

…trekking 8 hours through active volcanoes…

... seeing some of the most amazing beaches in the world...

… visiting some of the most amazing beaches in the world…

... driving through some most amazing landscapes...

… driving through some most amazing landscapes…

... or simply living it up in amazing New Zealand ...

… or simply living it up in amazing New Zealand …

While enjoying our lives here, we’ve also come to truly realize the importance of having a partner and having our dear friends in our lives. We were fortunate and lucky to have found one another who shares common interests and inspirations in life. Having a comrade  with you really makes it feel like everything is possible. We also missed the fabulous time we shared with our dear friends in Singapore and thought we might have taken them for granted. We’ve also come to realize the ugly truth of our aging process and that reminds us to take better care of ourselves and live life truly to the fullest!

Looking back, we thank God that He have blessed us with this once in a lifetime opportunity and also have kept us safe and sound through this journey.

This is goodbye but definitely not the end. New Zealand, we’ll be back someday!

2012 Christmas in Auckland, New Zealand

Christmas is surprisingly low-key in Auckland. People don’t seem to be interested in spending a ridiculous amount of money on decorations. CBD area is decorated very modestly and none of the houses at Titirangi village hang any colorful led lights outside. Though I am a little sad because of the lack of Christmas-feeling-in-the-air but I’m inclined to think positively that Christmas is not as commercialized here as in other big metropolitan cities. I do believe that Kiwi people do celebrate Christmas and regard it as the biggest holiday of the year since I’ve seen people buying Christmas trees and gifts like crazy. Probably they do it in an exclusive kind of way, within the family, and not in a showy way. That’s also what I generally feel about Kiwi people: shy, gentle and a little conservative.

The only decoration in Auckland CBD and it's the same thing as last year.

The only decoration in Auckland CBD and it’s the same thing as last year.

To top it up, the weather decided to rain and be cloudy for the whole week leading to New Year. So we decided to stay home and have our Kiwi Christmas the mellow style…

Sip coffee and enjoy the lovely view outside our tree-house-window

Sipped coffee and enjoyed the lovely view outside our tree-house-window

Take photos of the lovely flowers inside the garden

Took photos of the lovely flowers inside the garden

...outside our window...

…outside our window…

Harvested our home-grown strawberries...

Harvested our home-grown strawberries…

fed the ducks at the nearby beach...

fed the ducks at the nearby beach…

We’re going to miss this relaxing and peaceful lifestyle very much when we are gone…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Zealand – North Island series 4 – end

The last post in the North Island brings it back home to Auckland. Right in Auckland itself – the biggest city in New Zealand – there’s endless beauty for us to discover.

Auckland city with the iconic Sky tower viewed from a cruise on Auckland harbor

Auckland city with the iconic Sky tower viewed from a cruise on Auckland harbor

Auckland city is also called City of Sails since it has the world highest number of sails per capita.

Sails usually dot Auckland harbor

Auckland harbor is usually dotted by hundreds of sails

It’s not hard to understand why water sports are the most popular in this country since it is surrounded by beautiful beaches. Every weekend, people flock to a nearby beach to enjoy sailing, surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddling, para-sailing or swimming. Besides the two most common names for a relaxing picnic on the beach: Devonport and Mission Bay, there are many more littering around Auckland.

Devonport - looking from mount Victoria

Devonport – looking from mount Victoria

Peaceful French Bay in Titirangi village - just meters away from our rental house

Peaceful French Bay in Titirangi village – just meters away from our rental house

Karekare beach in Waitekere range - about 30 minutes from city central

Karekare beach in Waitekere range – about 30 minutes from city central

Karekare beach is a black sand beach that glitters under sunlight

Karekare beach is a black sand beach that glitters under sunlight

Karekare water falls

Karekare water falls

Piha beach - also in Waitakere range - the most famous surfing beach

Piha beach – also in Waitakere range – the most famous surfing beach

New Zealand – North Island series 3

Coromandel Peninsula 

Coromandel is only 55kms to the East of Auckland, so exploring Coromandel can be easily done in one weekend-get-away. It features numerous beautiful beaches, green rolling hills and fun walking tracks through temperate rain forest. The most famous attraction is Cathedral Cove and the most fun and bizarre one is Hot Water Beach.

The drive from Auckland, as usual, is very winding with many twists and turns. It offers awesome vantage points of the Peninsula.

Coromandel Peninsula

Coromandel Peninsula

Coromandel Peninsula

Coromandel Peninsula

Cathedral Cove can be viewed by foot or by kayak. The later would offer exclusive access to hard-to-reach areas of the Cove. Regrettably, the weather didn’t permit us to do this.

To view Cathedral Cove by foot, ask the GPS to bring you to the end of Grange road at Hahei on Peninsula. Turn left at the end of the road and keep driving a short distance till you reach a car park. This car park has very limited parking spaces so try to avoid popular hours. From the car park, it is a short and easy track of 45 minutes going down to Cathedral Cove.

Cathedral Cove from the car park

Cathedral Cove viewed from the car park

It was gloomy when we got there which offers an unusual mysterious look of Cathedral Cove.

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove

A small stretch of peaceful beach with soft sand, good for a quick picnic

A small stretch of peaceful beach with soft sand, good for a quick picnic

Leaving the peaceful Cathedral Cove, we headed to our next action packed destination – Hot Water Beach to dig up our personal hot pool on the beach!

Hot Water Beach is on Mercury bay. There are two hot springs running through a small stretch of the beach. Usually, the hot springs are covered by tide. But during low tide, these two fissures issuing water as hot as 64oC to the beach surface.

Steps to a personal spa pool and bizarre fun:

– It’s important to time your arrival to be within 2 hours on either side of a low tide (tide timing is here).

– Rent a spade at nearby coffee house at $5 and get a cold beer there as well.

– Feel with your feet to find a spot with warmer sand. It can get frustrated to see others already settle in their pools and you are not.

– Dig crazily. Be careful, the water can get scalping hot when you dig. Just mix it with cold sea water. Some seasoned goers bring their pails with them, borrow their pails.

– Enjoy your beer and natural spa. The thermal water is rich with minerals.

Hot Water Beach craze

Hot Water Beach craze

On the way back to Auckland, drive along Thames coast to enjoy its breath-taking scenes. Thames is a very cute little seaside town which is a great spot for lunch.

Beautiful beach along Thames coast highway

Beautiful beach along Thames coast highway

… to be continued…

Zealand – North Island series 2

The North Land

The North Land (north of Auckland) offers too many things to explore! We were too ambicious to squeeze everything into 1 weekend getaway. Consequently, we had to skip the most important highlight of the trip, the iconic Cape Reinga lighthouse, the Northern most point of New Zealand. Words can’t describe how regretful I am feeling right now. In all fairness, it would take at least 3 days to really explore everything that this region has to offer.

Suggested itinerary: The idea is to drive from Auckland to Whangarei following the east coast, visiting all the interesting little towns/cities along the way like Puhoi, Warkworth, Waipu… Spend a night in the exciting Whangarei before reaching Cape Reinga on the next day. From the lighthouse, turn back south, but this time, follow the West coast line… Spend another night at Ahipara and you’re ready for next day full of fun at 90-mile-beach. Indeed, this is called a Twin coast discovery route which would clock almost 1000 kms. Be ready for some seriously fun driving time.

As usual, what can be seen while driving through New Zealand amazes me everytime. Am I lost in the Shire of the hobbits?

As usual, what can be seen while driving through New Zealand amazes me everytime. Am I lost in the Shire of the hobbits?

traffic jam...

traffic jam…

One of our favorite little gem in this trip is Puhoi village. It’s one of the two ethnic historic villages in New Zealand. The village was settled in 1863 by immigrants from Bohemia, an area which is now the Czech Republic.

everything in Puhoi is so cute! even their gravel little road

everything in Puhoi is so cute! even their gravel little road

When you are in Puhoi, don’t forget to visit Puhoi Cottage, the oldest tea room in New Zealand that serves delicious home-made scones, cheesecakes and the world famous Devonsire cream teas. The recipes are handed down from owner to owner. They even have a website and a facebook page.

pretty garden of Puhoi Cottage tea house

pretty garden of Puhoi Cottage tea house

 yummy home made berry cheese cake complemented by Earl grey tea

yummy home made berry cheesecake complemented by Earl grey tea

Another favorite is 90-mile beach. It is technically 55 mile (88km) long. The most interesting activity is not to swim in the clear water or dip your feet into its soft sand but to drive on this gorgeous beach with your car window down, head out, tounge out.

4WDs lining up, waiting for low tides to drive on this beautiful beach...

4WDs lining up, waiting for low tides to drive on this beautiful beach…

... it's my turn...

… it’s my turn…

photo taken while driving on the beach

90-mile-beach…driving to the sky

another one, so gorgeous!

…there’s no end to 90-mile beach

just as I thought I was the coolest kid, driving on this beach...something came up from a distance

just as I thought I was the coolest kid, driving on this beach…something came up from a distance

EPIC!

EPIC!

Besides driving and riding horses, catching seashells is so full of fun. The trick is to find seabirds! Where there’re seabirds, there’re seashells. There’s a limit of 50 pieces per person.

pipi

pipi. We collected about 50 of them. Cleaned and steamed them with beer. Delicious!

… to be continued…

New Zealand – North Island series

People usually say South Island of New Zealand is more interesting compared to the North Island with more dramatic sceneries and a wide range of activities that could fill anyone’s Bucket list. That is true. But North Island is definitely not boring. During my 6 month stay in Auckland, I’ve got chances to explore some of North Island beauty gems which totally convince me that it is actually hard to find a place in New Zealand that is not picture worthy. OK, I exaggerate! But North Island really deserves more honorable mentions that it currently receives.

Here are some of the short trips that could be made during weekends from Auckland to explore the North Island.

Rotorua

Rotorua is 250 kms to the Southeast of Auckland. The city is known for its geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools. It took us more than 4 hours to drive from Auckland with stops for snapping along the way.

Every road in New Zealand is picture perfect!

Every road in New Zealand is picture perfect!

When we were almost reaching Rotorua, the air was filled with rotten eggs smell. At first, we suspected and looked at each other with disgusted glares. It almost broke our relationship!

But the smell lingered still and even got stronger as we got closer to Rotorua. Finally we figured it out it’s the natural smell of the city that is filled with volcano activities. It’s very interesting to see smoke coming out of people’s back-yards like the most natural thing on earth.

Of course, one of the Must-Do activities here is to visit of the geothermal activity park. We chose Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland.

Champagne pool, one of the highlights of the park

Champagne pool, one of the highlights of the park

The park also features an active geyser that is called the Lady Knox Geyser. It erupts at 10am sharp everyday. You may wonder how on earth it can operate so accurately. Yes, that’s right. It functions so with human’s help. Everyday at 10am, some guy will put a bag of chemical into the geyser to help it erupt. Hmmm, after seeing it, it kinda feel like being cheated a little bit.

Lady Knox Geyser at work, shooting water as high as 10 meters

Lady Knox Geyser at work, shooting water as high as 10 meters

Next to Waiotapu park, there’s a hidden spot for dipping yourself in natural hot spring. It’s called the Secret Spot (since not many know about it) or Hot n Cold since the water bath is actually where two streams (1 hot and 1 cold) meet.

the Secret Spot - it was mid winter but the water was really hot. It's up to you to go nude or with shorts on

the Secret Spot – it was mid winter but the water was really hot. It’s up to you to go nude or with shorts on

Tired of bubbling mud and foul smell, we decided to explore other areas. We chanced upon the Redwoods (the Californian trees) walking track

Redwoods track

Redwoods track

and a natural Hamurana spring with water so clear

Hamunara springs, the water is so very clear

Hamunara springs, the water is so very clear…

... perfect for skinny dip...

… perfect for skinny dip…

... looking like a fairy tail in sun set

… looking like a fairy tail in sun set

… to be continued…

Road trip driving

I am an idiot on the road!

Being born in Vietnam, I didn’t have the luxury of having a car as a sixteenth birthday present. I rode a bicycle in secondary school, a scooter in high school and bus/train in college. I came to learn driving very late in life, when I was 23, fresh out of college. Got the license but I never drove since I didn’t have a car.

My first real driving experience was my 10-day road trip in South New Zealand when I was 25.The second real driving experience was my 20-day road trip along East coast, USA when I was 27. And the third one was exactly 1 year later during 20-day trip along West coast, USA. I always prayed every time I drove: God, please don’t let me run over innocent people! I only started driving frequently since 5 months ago, when I moved to New Zealand.

My first car

My first car – which I’m selling… sobz sobz..

Though my time on the road is short, as it increases, my love for human being slightly decreases. I need to pray more earnestly.

I haven’t been to many places much, but here are some big stereotyping that I’ve garnered about regional driving styles:

1. Atlanta drivers: move fast and always in a hurry. Might get honked or overtaken for driving at speed limit

2. California drivers: “appear” to be more patient because they don’t honk much but they just quietly overtake or simply don’t give way

3. Singapore drivers: HATE motor-bikers (will squeeze them) and LOVE to tailgate (hence no courtesy giving way)

4. New Zealand drivers: generally more patient and generous with giving way but LOVE to change lanes without signaling; drunk driving is normal

5. Vietnam drivers: “what lanes? what traffic lights? what laws?”

6. My style: idiotic!

I thought of having a big decal at my rear window with words like “Sorry in advance”; “Bad driver alert” or “Please be nice to one another – Ellen Degeneros”… but I’m afraid that would gather more honk and unnecessary over-taking. In the mean while, I should improve my driving skills and pray more fervently.

Why do you think people are less nice on the road?

How to see New Zealand?

Some of my friends are interested in visiting New Zealand after seeing our photos. Happy!!! They also ask how they can move around in the country. Here are some of the options for transportation to tour and see amazing New Zealand.

Listing in the order of the most to the least expensive

Rental car: Obviously, it’s the most expensive option but it gives you peace of mind and the convenience of going everywhere you want and whenever. There are many many car rental companies to choose from. Jucy rental offers some very sexy camper vans.

Jucy camper van

Jucy camper van

Coach/ public buses: New Zealand has an extensive network of public buses that cover every places of interest that you possibly want to reach. The two most popular ones are Intercity Coach line and Nakedbus. Nakedbus offers very cheap bus tickets with a promise of one seat of $1 in each bus going anywhere. However, the quality of their buses is questionable. On my recent trip to Tongariro, the buses got into troubles in both legs. The one going from Auckland had the baggage door dislodged, causing 30 minute delay. The coming back bus had a gear stuck at sixth gear, causing a 15 minute delay and a transfer to the rescue bus. One of the guys on this bus with us also said that his bus coming down from Auckland had a front door dislodged. Talk about bad luck!

Nakedbus

Nakedbus

Van: Many backpackers buy a small van around NZD2000-NZD3000 for their trip in New Zealand. The van is usually equipped with mattress and cooking equipments so you actually save a lot of money on accommodations and food for an affordable amount of initial investment. After completing their trip, they would recoupe back some of their money by reselling the van to other backpackers. Van selling notices are often seen in backpackers’ lodges.

Car sharing: If you don’t have a car or don’t know how to drive but still want the comfort and mobility of travelling in private cars and more importantly want to make new friends then car sharing is for you. Find people who drive to the same destination with you and ask if they would care for you to share part of their gas money. Usually, you can make arrangement by asking around people who stay at the same lodges with you.

– Bike/Bicycle: I’ve seen it many times. It’s possible! New Zealand is zealous about cycling. There are many scenic cycling tracks connecting beautiful places. Cyclists are Kings in Auckland. They ride along side with cars. They weave in and out of traffic. Once, I’ve seen a cyclist riding in the middle of two lanes, holding off traffic and yet nobody dared to honk, being afraid that would make him panic and fall.

Hitch hiking: It’s popular and it’s FREE. It would be easier if you hold a sign telling your destination. That would increase your chance of being picked up.

wearing a bikini would also increase your chance - photo from www.trippytraveler.com

wearing a bikini would also increase your chance – photo from http://www.trippytraveler.com