26 March 2011


Playing Bocce on the PlayStation 3 

Yonge Street
From Los Angeles, we flew to Boston, slept in the airport (at least Pam managed to) then caught a flight to Toronto, where our friends Rob and Danielle, who have been living there for the last two years, greeted us with open arms. It was so good to see them and catch up over several beers!

Tucking into an Indian take away on our first night together
They were great hosts, striking a perfect balance between sightseeing and stress-free relaxation. On our first day, we quickly realised that shorts and t-shirts were not going to suit the freezing temperatures. We went to Kensington market and frantically searched for some warmer clothes. Browsing the shops was fun, especially trying on the craziest looking clothes we could find in a vintage clothing shop.

Toronto's skyline is famous for the 550 metre CN Tower. Doing the tourist thing, Pam, Rob and I went up to the viewing platform and realised just how sprawling Toronto is. Watching Pam nervously tip-toe across the glass floor was hilarious.

Hotdog stall
During our travels, we have sampled some unusual local specialities, but the classic street stall hotdog is up there with the best. Rob was very efficient at directing us to the best stalls - they were so good, we made several more visits!

At the Steam Whistle brewery
Another memorable moment was our trip to the Steam Whistle brewery. This restored brick building situated in the heart of downtown seemed like a really cool place to work and our suspicions were confirmed when we learned that the workers are entitled to three free bottles from a special beer dispenser - wow! Luckily for us, they extended their policy to customers and we were handed out free beer like there was no tomorrow. Now, that's what I call a good brewery tour!

Downtown Toronto
Toronto is a city which stands out for us on our travels. Walking around it, we saw so much diversity in its surroundings, from the high class shopping district of Yorkville to the bright lights of Dundas Square, Toronto's version of Times Square, and a remarkably safe feeling downtown.

On the way to Hooters - we were both rather excited...
Our fun-filled nights with Rob, Danielle and, of course, Martini (their cat) were filled with games, chat, movie nights and lots of good food and drink. Rob and I also enjoyed extending our nights into the early hours with some quality boy time. Just like when we were at school together, we would take every chance to play ultra-competitive games on the PlayStation 3. The game Move (which uses motion-sensor controls, like the Nintendo Wii) was a favourite for couples matches of Bocce (like French bowls) that usually led to the guys blaming the girls for defeats!

Master chef Danielle
We continued our boy time one afternoon by squeezing in a sneaky lunchtime visit to Hooters. We were like two giggling schoolboys, as we were served sub-standard food by rather pretty waitresses (I'm pretty sure that's the way it's supposed to be, anyway).

Unfortunately, Pam had to cut her time in Toronto a little short after hearing news from home that Maisie, her gran, had passed away. She was our number one blog fan and we loved calling home during our trip to share all our travelling stories with her. She was very much loved by Pam and her family and will be dearly missed.

The Falls on the Canadian side of the border
Flights were altered and plans rearranged, but I was under strict instruction from Miss Lawn (who insisted I didn't mess with her on this one) to enjoy the last few days until I was to follow her route back home to Scotland.

It would be strange to come all this way to Toronto and not make the short journey to see the famous Niagara Falls. So, on my final weekend, the three of us took a road trip there and were blown away by the natural beauty and the sheer scale of the two wateralls (one is in America, which we could see across the river, the other is on the Canadian side of the border).

Niagara Falls
The town of Niagara Falls, however, is as tacky and over-the-top as the waterfalls are beautiful. It felt like being in a bizarre version of Disneyland and was definitely not what I was expecting. The town's fudge shop was a highlight and we parted with a small fortune there.

A stop at Five Guys Burgers and Fries had been carefully planned by Rob weeks ago, following a recommendation from a friend. The old-school burger joint was packed out, and after trying the bacon cheese burger, it was easy to see why.

At the beer market
In Australia, Pam encouraged me to go on a wine tasting tour. In Toronto, Rob and Danielle's suggestion was the beer market. It was so much fun getting the generous samplers and using the guidebook to help pick out traces of flavours. My favourite was the Leffe Blond Ale.

And so ends our round-the-world trip! We hope you've enjoyed following our stories on the blog.

James & Pam

Toronto's CN Tower

10 March 2011

Los Angeles

The famous Hollywood sign
We reluctantly said goodbye to the Cook Islands, and moved from summer to winter in a day as we entered the US of A.

When we arrived at the airport, we were like two little lost sheep, but somehow managed to find a bus to take us to Beverly Boulevard where we were staying.

Los Angeles has been far from our favourite stop (it is just not Rarotonga) and we were underwhelmed by the lack of glitz and glamour Hollywood is said to possess. Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame is full of tacky tourists shops and countless weird and wonderful street entertainers eager to woo you into a photo shot with them.

The Terminator!
Hollywood's saving grace is the beautiful Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the famous hand and footprints of various A-list celebrities. The square featured many icons from the 1920s till the present day. We almost phoned my gran to find out all about the stars (she is an expert in this field) but I decided she might not have appreciated a call at 5am!

Home of the rich and famous
With only a few days to enjoy on the West Coast, we chose to skip the many surrounding theme parks (although we were tempted) and explore this concrete jungle. Without a car, it is nearly impossible to get around the city, so we jumped on a tour bus and saw many of the sights including Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive and Sunset Boulevard.

We stopped at The Grove for a hot chocolate (I hadn't quite adjusted to the cold weather) and a wander... then James found Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap. The flip-flops and t-shirts were ditched to make way for jumpers and jeans ahead of our stay in the sub-zero temperatures of Toronto and Boston.

The Grove: a shopper's paradise
We spent the rest of our time exploring the Downtown area. The sky-scrapers and palm-tree lined roads felt like the real L.A. and we enjoyed spending time in Pershing Square where we sampled some delicious strawberries and sugar-coated almonds at the market.

Luckily, we stumbled upon a great little area called Alameda. The charming streets pulled in the crowds with Mexican food stalls galore and numerous craft shops. The nearby Chinatown was also a great little spot for meandering in the afternoon sun.

Our hostel was situated in Korea Town so we tried eating like the locals at a barbecue restaurant on our first night. This didn't go very well! As soon as we sat down, we were brought an abundance of dishes (many of which we didn't recognise) then pointed towards the hot plate in the middle of the table. We battled with the chop sticks and worried over the wok but we somehow managed to cook some of it and, although I am sure it did not taste as it was supposed to, we enjoyed it all the same.

The following day, we decided to try something a little easier. Alan and I always used to request a Taco Bell stop on our family holidays to America, so I decided it was time James was introduced to this American institution! I think it's safe to say he's joined the fan club!


7 March 2011

The Cook Islands

Rarotonga's Black Rock

Kia orana! Our week on the laid-back island of Rarotonga has been perhaps the best we've ever had, so brace yourself for a rather lengthy blog post!

The Cook Islanders are renowned for their love of music, so we began our week with a church service to sample the traditional acapella hymns. Of the Cook Island's 13,000 population, 90% are Christian, so 'island time', which is relaxed on any given day, slows right down on a Sunday. The singing was incredible - our ears were ringing after each song because the locals sing so passionately and with beautiful harmonies.

On the scooter
After enjoying a lunch provided by the church for its visitors, Pam and I waded across the shallow, blue lagoon of Muri Beach to Koromiri - one of the four palm-tree covered islets set before the reef - and I decided to do what every guy should do at least once in their lifetime: open a coconut on a rock. The process took ages, and I'd like to say it was worth it, however, the warm coconut milk left a lot to be desired!

Snorkeling in the lagoon
Rarotonga is so small that the bus service runs either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Virtually all the locals travel instead by scooter, so we decided to follow suit. To hire one, we had to do a practical test (literally drive up and down the street) and obtain a Cook Islands driving licence from the police station (which, I think, is more a souvenir than anything else).

With the local rowing team
The person beside us on the flight had told us about the local rowing club meeting at 5pm most evenings to practise in the Muri Beach lagoon. We went down to watch them one evening, where we met the same guy from our flight. The coach asked if we would like to join in and, of course, we jumped at the chance. However, by the end of the second race, I was happy to jump out of the boat and give my muscles a rest!

This guy ate the pawpaw in our garden!
At night, a kind Frenchman working in Rarotonga for six months, who also took part in the rowing session, invited us to dinner. We were treated to tasty French cuisine and wine, whilst also being shown how to open a coconut with a machete (it's a lot easier than on a rock).

The massive Boogie Burger
The following day, we hopped on the scooter and went to Black Rock on the West coast of the island, where we paddled among the brightly coloured fish. Afterwards, it was time to act on another tip we were given on our first night and try the island's famous boogie burger - it definitely lived up to the hype (we went back for another a few days later!)

On the drive back to Aremango Guesthouse, our home for the week, we stopped at an outdoor island dance class. Such is the hospitality of the locals (or their desire for a cheap laugh?) that they practically begged us to join in. We did, and it was good fun dancing to the pounding drums, but really difficult to keep up with their super-quick moves.

Bashing open a coconut
Just five minutes from Aremango Guesthouse is the island's best snorkeling spot: the Fruits of Rarotonga. We snorkeled in the lagoon, amazed at just how many fish were in there with us! The zebra fish, in particular, were happy to swim right up to us (we were happy that the larger fish kept to themselves).

On the cross-island trek
The tiny brewery of the island's local beer (Matutu) was conveniently located nearby the lagoon, so we stopped in for a tour and a tasting. Later that afternoon, we decided to get the blood pumping and hired a double kayak and rowed to the reef then to the volcanic islet of Taakoka.

At Wigmore's Waterfall
Our final energetic activity of the week was the mountainous cross-island trek. Using our arms as well as our legs, we climbed steeply up towards the 413 metre Te Rua Manga (also known as 'The Needle') using the tangled tree roots as much a possible. When we stood under the huge rock at the top, we had a great view of the North and South of the island. Heading back down, the thin trees either side of the slippery track saved us several times from spectacular falls! We were tired and muddy by the time we reached Wigmore's Waterfall, but the swarming mosquitos hurried us into the cool water, which was exactly what we needed after the four-hour trek.

My facial expression didn't change for hours after this was taken
At night, we went to Te Vara Nui Village for a traditional meal and cultural dancing. The food was delicious, especially the baked fish in coconut marinade and the chicken cooked in an umu (an underground oven). The show itself was fantastic. The women danced in very fluid movements, while the men stomped across the stage. The live band looked like they were having so much fun as they played their drums and ukuleles and the fire-jugglers were simply mind-boggling!

Ta Vara Nui Village
On our final full day in Rarotonga, Pam and I cooked dinner for our fellow travellers before taking the bus into Avarua to sample the local nightlife at a beach hut bar and club.

After very little sleep, we drove to the Saturday morning market, which was a highlight of our week. It is a major event on the island and we loved hearing the live music, browsing the stalls and trying the delicious fresh fruit on offer.

Partying in Avarua
You'll have noticed that this blog entry is much longer than normal - that's because we've loved our time in the Cook Islands so much! The memories of our time here will definitely stay with us forever.

Next stop: Los Angeles!


25 February 2011

Bay of Islands & Auckland

At the Haruru Falls
Our last two stops in New Zealand could hardly have been more different. The Bay of Islands, close to the northern tip of the North Island, was relaxed and scenic - a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the country's largest city.

Haruru Falls from our campsite
The Bay of Islands was also Barney's last stop before we returned him to his Jucy campervan clan (which we're both still quite emotional about!) We stayed in a gorgeous campsite in Paihia overlooking the Haruru Falls which, we were told, had been completely submerged in water from a cyclone three weeks previously.

Bottle-nosed dolphins swimming by the boat
Of course, the main attraction of the Bay of Islands is exactly that - the islands (144 of them, to be exact) - so, from the numerous different ways of getting out onto the water to see them, we decided on the most energy efficient option and took a cruise.

After passing several of the beautiful little islands, we were fortunate enough to come across a school of bottle-nosed dolphins who were happy to swim and play alongside the boat. Within minutes, they were performing in front of several boats.

From there, we went to Piercy Island, more often called The Hole in the Rock, before stopping off at Urupukapuka Island for lunch.

The Hole in the Rock
When we returned to Paihia, we saw that all the cafes and bars were showing news programmes and learned of the earthquake in Christchurch. Having been there only six weeks ago, and the fact that people around us were trying to phone friends and relatives to see if they were alive, certainly impacted on us.

Friendly graffiti
Our last night in the campervan was spent just outside Auckland in Long Bay Regional Park - a gorgeous place next to a huge flat stretch of sand only half an hour from the city centre. When we woke up the following morning, we felt a strange mix of relief and sadness. Barney had been our comfortable home-on-wheels for nearly seven weeks, but we were looking forward to being able to get dressed standing up and sleeping on a real bed!

Auckland skyline
After an emotional parting of ways, we wandered aimlessly around the city, taking in the sites before deciding to chill out in the hostel. Other travellers we had spoken to had been pretty negative about Auckland, and I can kind of see where they were coming from - there's not a great deal on offer for backpackers. However, we enjoyed our two days here, particularly having plug points in our room, a kitchen to cook in (as opposed to one gas stove!) and some good wine to get us in the mood for our next stop: the Cook Islands!


20 February 2011

Rotorua & Coromandel

Kuirau Park thermal springs in Rotorua - too hot for swimming!

After a relaxing spell in Taupo, and a dose of the cold for the two of us, we began our journey north to Rotorua. This place is a major draw for tourists because of its unusual volcanic activity. I had been  given a warning from Doctor Faye that the mud baths were smelly and unhygienic, so we decided to give them a miss, however, we did go and look at the thermal pools and bubbling mud of Kuirau Park. There were a lot of volcanic attractions on offer but having seen the craters and the mud pools, we thought it would be more appealing to spend our time elsewhere - at the luge circuit!

At the luge circuit - so much fun!
After a refill at Fat Dogs Cafe and a much-needed ice cream (it was just one of those days), we set off for the race of our lives. The luge, which is like Cool Runnings without the snow, was so much fun. After my appalling attempts at video games and golf buggy driving as a child, my family have been naturally worried about my driving abilities ever since. On the luge, though, I didn't crash once and even managed to overtake a couple of boy racers!

We continued our games day with a game of Yahtzee (which is still a sensitive subject for James) at our campsite, then it was onwards and upwards as we set off for a stop I had been really looking forward to - the Coromandel Region.

James could have stayed here all day
Just picture clear blue sea and white sand beaches and that pretty much sums up the majority of the region. Every corner we drove around provided another reason to stop and absorb the beautiful views.

Hard at work!
Our first night was spent in the Kauaeranga Valley on the outskirts of Thames (where our van was invaded with sand flies, as James' legs can now testify). Our road trip continued up to Whitianga and Hahei for the Coromandel's ultimate attraction - Hot Water Beach.
The area is a major geothermal tourist attraction or as James said when he looked down on the beach - a 'rugby scrum'! Hot springs filter up through the sand two hours either side of low tide and the water can be as hot as 64 degrees Celsius!

Hot Water Beach: a Coromandel tourist hotspot
We hired our spade (as you do) and followed the crowds to the steaming sand. The masses were densely populated around two areas with a free spot the middle. Thinking I had found the perfect place for our man-made jacuzzi, I instinctively walked towards the empty patch of sand and reacted by flapping my hands and jumping up and down in search of some cool water as I darted across the 64 degree Celcius sand, oops! The pain subsided quickly and I have to admit that I took a little pleasure in watching others make the same mistake!

After embarrassing myself with my Scottish squeals, we set about - or rather James set about - digging the (and I quote) 'best sand hole on the entire beach'. No, we couldn't settle for a small, shallow area in which to relax and enjoy the bubbling water, don't be silly! This was a mission not to be messed with! The digging began. I stood and took in the views, but before long a task had been set - to protect the fort... I suspect there is some history of competitive sand-castle making in the Tulloch household, am I right? Dutifully, I set about my task, and as the beads of sweat began to pour off James's face in his quest for success, our sand jacuzzi began to take shape. It was quite simply a work of art and something we finally got to relax in!

In our homemade jacuzzi!
We now have just one week left in our campervan with only two stops left to conquer - the Bay of Islands and Auckland. We'll be sad to leave Barney, but we're both very excited about staying in the relative luxury of a hostel!


15 February 2011

Tongariro National Park & Taupo

At the highest part of the Tongariro Crossing (the Blue Lake in the background)

The Red Crater
Often described as the best one-day walk in New Zealand, we couldn't pass up the chance to walk the Tongariro Crossing, especially when we found out that the unpronounceable Mount Ngauruhoe was used as the setting for Mount Doom in Lord Of The Rings.

At the Emerald Lakes
The first few kilometres of the walk were a gradual climb by the side of a little stream that opened out to the Soda Springs waterfall. After that, the track became extremely steep and we had to take rest stops every five minutes. The climb was made even more difficult because of the loose rocks underfoot (in winter it is covered in snow and apparently easier to walk on) but we carried on, despite a couple of moments where turning back felt more preferable.

We kept on inching our way up the mountain, until - thank goodness - we reached a plateau and realised we were standing close to the South Crater underneath the summit of 'Mount Doom' (whose seven-note motif from Lord Of The Rings was hummed most of the way up). Staring up at the conical volcano - which is still active - I was relieved there were no imminent eruptions expected!

Mount Ngauruhoe
Although we were feeling physically drained at this point, we knew it would be foolish to turn back when we were just one more steep climb away from seeing the Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes, so we carried on over the exposed ridge (thankful for the lack of wind).

A bargain at just $1380 (£650)!
When we finally made it to the top, what we saw blew us away. Below us were the three Emerald Lakes which appeared almost fluorescent green. The contrast of the dusty Red Crater nearby and the serene Blue Lake in the distance completed an unforgettable view.

At Honey Hive
By the time we had walked back to the campervan, we had been on our feet for seven hours, walked over nine miles (mostly uphill) and had sunburnt faces to prove it!

The next day, we headed towards New Zealand's largest lake and relaxed at a holiday park in Taupo, where we recharged our gadgets as well as our weary bodies!

Not quite a hole-in-one but pretty close - honestly!
On our second day, we saw the roaring Huka Falls and stopped in at Honey Hive, where we tasted and tested loads of honey products. We also went to New Zealand's largest underground wine cellar and walked past the expensive bottles with great care.

I also tried my hand at the Lake Taupo Hole-In-One Challenge. I had a few near-misses and unfortunately didn't manage to get my hands on the $10,000 prize. If it had been free to play, I would have been there for days on end!


12 February 2011

Wellington & Napier

View of New Zealand's capital from Mount Victoria lookout
Our North Island stint started when we sailed into windy Wellington.

Our first port of call was the Mount Victoria lookout to get a bird's eye view of New Zealand's capital city (and felt really guilty as we drove past a rugby team running up the steep hill).

In the futuristic Te Papa museum
After spending five weeks driving on the South Island's desolate country roads, my driver took a while adjusting to the sudden boom of city traffic. After ending up in the middle of rush hour, getting lost several times and a little temper tantrum (said driver had not eaten breakfast yet), we gave a sigh of relief after dumping Barney for the day in a multi-storey car park, showering and tucking into some poached eggs on toast... then our day could really begin!

Wellington's famous cable car
Te Papa Museum was first on the hit list; a place we ended up spending hours wandering around as we got a taste of New Zealand's heritage. We particularly enjoyed the exhibition of Brian Brake photo journalism.

Having spent the previous summer in the North Island, Faye was our tour guide extraordinaire. With two recommended eateries from her stay in Wellington, we decided it would be rude not to check them out! Sweet Mother's Kitchen caught our attention, partly because it was full to the brim with people sitting in the afternoon sun, but mostly because of the delicious smell wafting out onto the street - Faye's first tip got the thumbs up. We then tackled Tulsi the following day, enjoying the delicious Indian cuisine as we watched the Cuba Street crowds go by.

Playing mini-golf in Napier
Our first North Island faux pas was on the Wellington cable car. The train was built in 1902 to make better use of the city's hilly landscape and attracts lots of tourists who make their way up to the botanic gardens. I thought it was a circular route, until the carriage started reversing back towards the station - oops! Luckily, the driver was in a good mood and allowed us a second shot!

The colourful Clive Square in Napier
Following our stay in Wellington, we went a little off the well-travelled backpacker route and drove east to the city of Napier. Faye spent most of her summer here, so she was well equipped with some recommendations. The town was booming with people when we arrived and we soon realised why - Sting was in town for the annual Mission Winery concert. Unfortunately, we were a year too late to buy a ticket, however, we did enjoy the lively atmosphere of this idyllic Art Deco city. We stayed in our first ever Top 10 Holiday Park (the Disneyland of camp sites) where we were kitted out with a swimming pool, bar, Sky TV room and a big kitchen.

The disgruntled runner-up
Although we weren't quite brave enough to ask the children for a shot on the holiday park's jumping pillow, we did manage to squeeze in a very competitive game of mini-golf. James likes to insist on giving me a handicap of 12 shots to 'even things up'. I agreed, then made a mental note to try really hard to beat him. You will need to trust me that seeing his face as he counted the half time scores and realised I was only a couple of shots behind him (without the handicap, that is) was priceless! Ice-lollies were on James afterwards! Tee hee!