Are you spending 7 Days in Seoul, South Korea? I am green with envy. It is one of my favorite places of all time and I had a tough time trying to get this Seoul itinerary down to only 7 days. After living in Seoul for 3 years these are my very favorite things that I think anyone traveling to this incredible city MUST SEE! That being said, this plan is jam-packed! Feel free to rearrange the days in whichever order you prefer.
1) Gyeongbokgung Palace*
There is no way you could leave the country without seeing a traditional Korean palace. There are several to choose from and with only 7 days you probably only need to plan on seeing 1 or 2 max. My personal favorite is Gyeongbokgung because I think the gardens are absolutely stunning. My favorite is the pagoda that sits in a pond.
Gyeongbokgung Station Exit 5 | 3,000 won admission | Closed Tuesdays
Changdeokgung Palace is also a great option. Here you have the choice to take a Secret Garden or “Huwon” Tour for an additional 8,000 won. The tour is a lot of walking and I personally thought it got to be a little tedious and a lot of the same over and over again.
Anguk Station Exit 3 walk straight 5 mins | 3,000 won admission | Closed Mondays
2) Jogyesa Temple
This is one of the busiest buddhist temples in the city because it is right in the middle of everything. If you are all walked out from your palace tours then it wouldn’t be a huge deal to miss this one in my opinion, just don’t miss Bongeunsa Temple later on.
Anguk Station Exit 6, walk straight cross the large intersection, turn left, temple entrance will be on your right | From Gyeongbokgung walk east along Yulgok-ro, left on Ujeongguk-ro, entrance on your right
This is my favorite place to buy Korean goodies and souvenirs. Best of all, you will get things for a better price than a lot of other places. About 1/3 way up the street there will be a small multi-level outdoor mall on your left called Ssamzigil which always has hidden gems. Continue walking all the way to the end and you will come to some street food stalls! I love the chalbi which is like a hot pocket, macaroon ice cream sandwiches and if you see a hotteok grab it! There are tons of restaurants to choose from for traditional Korean food as well if you prefer a sit down meal.
Anguk Station Exit 6 walk 100m and turn left | From Jogyesa, backtrack back up to Yulgok-ro and continue East. Insadong will be on your right after the large callligraphy brush statue
1) The War Memorial Of Korea
An excellent museum that does an incredible job of explaining the war between North and South Korea. Complete with a field museum of old airplanes and a breathtaking statue out front. I am not normally much of a museum person but this one did not disappoint.
Samgakji Station Exit 1, 11 or 12 or Namyeong Station Exit 1 | Closed Monday
A popular hangout for expats and the local military community. If you ever need a break from Korean food this is the place to go. You can find something to ease your palate from any part of the world. The streets are literally lined with restaurants and bars as far as the eye can see. You can also buy souvenirs here but they are a little more kitschy and pricey than other locations. The nightlight isn’t half bad either!
3) National Museum of Korea Gardens
If you are already running low on energy then skip this one. Otherwise stop by the National Museum Of Korea just to check out the gorgeous gardens.
Ichon Station Exit 2 | From Itaewon I would just catch a cab, you’re in expat territory so most drivers will speak English.
4) Noryangjin Fish Market*
DO NOT MISS THE FISH MARKET. This place is amazing and is such a memorable experience. I hope you didn’t eat too much in Itaewon or that you walked it off at the gardens because you are going to want to stuff your face here. Upon entering go all the way down the escalators to the market area. You will wander around to see all of the catches of the day and the vendors will try to entice you to buy from their stalls. You might also notice you have someone following you, this person likely works for a restaurant on the 2nd level. Pick out the seafood you would like to eat and then bring it upstairs to any of the restaurants and have them cook you up a feast!
Noryangjin Station Exit 1, walk 100m over bridge | Note: if you take the subway from the gardens you will likely have to transfer at Yongsan Station even though its on the same line
5) Jimjilbang: Dragon Hill Spa
An explanation of the Korean jimjilbang (sauna) could be an entire blog post in itself. Things you absolutely need to know before you go: Men and women will be separated, while separated it is normal and expected for you to be totally naked. After the sauna (hot tub) portion you can reunite with your group on the first level to enjoy the saunas in funny little outfits. Do it, you know you want to, it is a large part of Korean culture and its only awkward if you make it awkward. If they ask if you want a “scrub” I would say yes. You will never be cleaner in your life.
Yongsan Station Exit 1, exit right and look up for the “Dragon Hill Spa” sign 12,000 won and up | Open 24 hours
1) Cheonggyecheon Stream
At one point a neglected waterway, Cheonggyecheon Stream was transformed into a little slice of nature that runs right through the middle of the city. Business people come hang out during lunch and dinner time. If you happen to be in town during one of the lantern festivals (spring and fall) then you definitely need to stop by. giant paper lanterns are placed in the middle of the water and smaller ones are strung up in the sky as well. It truly is a magical sight!
City Hall Station Exit 4 will take you to Cheonggye Plaza, where the stream begins
2) Changing Of The Guards Ceremony
Honestly I think this whole thing is a little lame and a definite tourist trap but apparently some people find it interesting. “Guards” with bad fake mustaches march around in traditional clothing. They play music and perform the traditional ceremony to switch out the guard at the gate of Deoksogung Palace. There’s a great little noodle joint in the alley just to the left of the palace gate.
City Hall Station Exit 2, walk straight 100m | Closed Monday | 11am, 2pm and 3:30pm (at the time of this post)
3) Seoullu Walkway
What used to be a highway overpass was transformed into an elevated garden and walkway right in the middle of the city. just opened in July 2017, I am sure many art exhibits and other awesome plans are planned for this super cool location.
Seoul Station Exit 2, exit right and walk 130m, the entrance will be on your right
1) DMZ/JSA Tour*
I am never the person to take a guided tour but in this case you don’t have a choice. A guided tour is the only way you can see the DMZ (the border with North Korea) and the safest way to say you’ve been to North Korea which is pretty darn cool. The whole area is under strict military protection so you must book in advance and they often fill up a month out. You must follow a dress code and bring your passport with you. Koridoor tours is run through the USO of the military base located in Seoul and is a fantastic English speaking option. Book your tickets and get more info here: Koridoor Tours
Meet at Camp Kim USO, Samgakji Station Exit 10, exit left
After 4pm Myeongdong explodes with street food. The streets are literally lined in all directions will people selling literally anything and everything. Since the food on the DMZ our is pretty mediocre you will be able to happily fill your belly with anything you can dream of. If you haven’t already, check out the list of Must Eats at the bottom of the page and fill up on those first! This is one of the best places for egg bread….if you see a fried looking egg sitting on a piece of bread snatch that bad boy up real quick.
Up for a unique experience? Let the tiny fishies eat the skin off your feet at Dr. Fish! Here is another blog post with in-depth direction on how to find the location: Dr. Fish and The Foot Shop
Myeongdong Station Exit 6
1) Bongeunsa Temple*
My favorite temple in the city, it is a paradise in the middle of the concrete jungle. While wandering through the back paths you miraculously can’t even hear the sounds of traffic nearby. Take your time exploring and be respectful by talking quietly and not taking photos of people praying. It is also best practice not to enter buildings where others are praying and take your shoes off before entering any building. If you have a couple extra days you might want to look into one of their Temple Stay Programs.
Bongeunsa Station Exit 1, walk straight 150m
2)Lotte World Tower
Another new edition to the Seoul tourism scene is the opening of the Lotte World Tower Seoul Sky located on the 117th-123rd floors of Lotte World Tower. It gives you incredible views of the city and allows you to really see how sprawling and dense it really is. There is a section with glass floors which, if anything, provides entertainment as you watch other people freak out.
Jamsil Station Exit 1, 2, 1o or 11 | 27,000 won
3a) Lotte World Amusement Park
I doubt you will have time for Lotte World and Gangnam so pick your favorite! Lotte World is the largest indoor amusement park in the world but it also has an outdoor portion. If you have kids they will enjoy it but it is limited in its adult offerings. The parades and shows are ridiculous and over-the-top in true Korean fashion! They often have discount on their website so check it out before paying full price.
Jamsil Station Exit 4 | Adults 52,000 won Children 41,000 won
3b) Gangnam (underground shopping)
Gangnam has a huge reputation because of Psy’s song Gangnam Style but as far as tourism, the area doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. Take literally any exit and be rewarded with some seriously epic underground shopping without ever leaving the subway station. I highly recommend stocking up on ridiculous socks and poorly translated shirts. Outside of Exit 5 you can find a very silly tribute to the hit song that took Psy all the way to the top!
1) Bukchon Hanok Village*
A hanok is a traditional style Korean home and Bukchon is full of them! Some are refurbished and others are completely re-designed in a more modern style. It can be a little touch to find where you want to be but I find this walking tour to be fairly easy to follow and very descriptive.
Anguk station Exit 2
2) Samcheongdong & Samcheon Park
The neighborhood of Samcheong is right below Bukchon and is chock-full of great restaurants, cute shops and interesting alleys. It’s an easy stroll from your Bukchon tour. If you love parks and dont mind a bit of a walk to get there Samcheong Park is absolutely stunning during cherry blossom season and fall when the leaves are changing. If you are walking north along Samcheong-ro, make a right on Bukchon-ro at the Maple Tree House restaurant. Continue walking to the top of the hill and you will see the park entrance.
Walk from Bukchon (thick dotted red line on map) |Gwanghwamun Station Exit 2 (consider a taxi to the park)
3) Seoul Tower
Also known as Namsan Tower and one of the most iconic places in Seoul. You will likely see it off in the distance as you explore other locations around town. You must either take a bus or hike to the tower. For locals and expats alike this is a regular hiking trail. It is absolutely breathtaking during the cherry blossom season. This is a fantastic place to get a full view of the city, there are tons of restaurants at the top in case you get hungry. There is also a cable car option but I have found that the hour(s) long line to ride it for 5 minutes just isn’t worth it.
Ride the Free Shuttle #2, 3 or 5 (bright neon green) from Chungmuro Station Exit 2 (outside Deahan Cinema), Seoul Station Exit 9, Itaewon Exit 4, Hangangjin Exit 2 or Myeongdong Exit 3
1) Dongdaemun Design Plaza
The art, design and fashion center of Seoul. The building itself resembles a spaceship that has landed on top of the city. There are tons of art displays set up both indoors and outdoors at all times of the year so definitely check out what they have going on when you are going to be there. If you like photography or architecture this place should be on your list. Across the street are some tall buildings like Doosan and Migliore that have midnight shopping from 12am-4am!
Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Exit 1
A super popular place for the hooligans! There are restaurants, stores, street performers and one hell of a nightlife. Interesting murals are also common and its generally just a cool place to see the culture and vibe of the city. Oh and also the below ridiculous activities:
Hongik University Station Exit 9, walk 150m and cross the street, turn left at Hongik-ro, continue 500m straight towards Hongik University, turn right to arrive at Hongik Children’s Park
Trick Eye Museum:
A museum full of paintings that you can interact with to create optical illusions. It is actually a super fun time and if you have kids or teenagers (or you’re just a cool adult) I imagine they would find it pretty entertaining. Its a pretty unique thing and a fun way to spend the afternoon.
Hongik University Station Exit 9, walk 150m and cross the street, turn left at Hongik-ro, continue 500m straight towards Hongik University, turn right at 2nd street between TonyMoly and Holika Holika, another 100m and the museum is on your right
In the same building as the trick eye museum and definitely for open-minded adults only. It’s a strange but very amusing place. Korea is a bit obsessed with sex museum’s and this one won’t disappoint. If you have a sense of humor and some time to kill I would go for it and share a laugh or two.
The most popular cooking and comedy show in Korea. A major tourist attraction, It has been running for years and is very well known. It is slap-stick style comedy which I don’t love but my husband thought it was a riot. It is an interesting insight into Korean culture and a nice activity that will keep you off your feet for 100 minutes!
Hongik University Station Exit 9, 300m straight then left on Yanghwa-ro 16-gil Rd, 100m straight and Nanta Theatre will be on your left | 40,000-70,000 won
Korean karaoke! Don’t worry if you don’t like crowds like me. In Korea you karaoke in a private room with just your friends and family. This is what Korean people do and you should too while you have the chance! They always have American songs for you to sing along with. Just be sure to buy a bottle of water and have one of the workers explain how to use the giant remote. Look for any building with 노래방 on it or try to hunt down Luxury Su Noraebang
Hongik University Station Exit 9, walk straight until you make a left on Hongik-ro, make a right on Hongik-ro 3-gil which will turn into Eulmadong-ro
Korean BBQ, Beef and Leaf, Kimbap, Pizza School, Tteokbokki, Street food, Hotteok (winter), Pajeon, Dumplings (dumpling soup), Soju, Bulgogi, Bibimbap, Egg Bread
Getting Over Jet Lag in Auckland
We landed in Auckland bright and early at 8:00am. We took a shuttle from the airport for $23 NZD each that dropped us off right at our hotel. AJ had not slept at all on the plane and was not interested in taking a cheaper option where we would have to walk and roll our bags. We were not expecting to be able to actually get into out room so early but the people at the Quest Auckland Serviced Apartments where we stayed were very generous and let us in right away.
Our hotel was right on Queen Street so we didn’t have to walk far to find The Café where we ate breakfast. I had avocado on toast and AJ indulged in French toast with bacon and bananas. If there was any hope for the rest of the day, or the trip for that matter, we had to catch up on sleep and get on a normal schedule so we went back to the hotel and napped for several hours.
Seafood And A Stroll
In the evening we walked up Queen Street towards the water. We had dinner at a place called Depot that was very tasty. Our starter was a plate of very fresh clams followed by some snapper sliders that were on point. Depot is located on Victoria and Federal right near the sky tower complex. After dinner we continued walking until we hit the wharf. We stopped for a bowl of seafood chowder and another scoop of clams and mussels from the Crab Shack on the way. It wasn’t very late in the evening maybe 7:00 or 7:30 but most things were already closed. Jet lag started to set in anyways and we were both getting sleepy at our table so we decided to walk back and call it a night.
Day 2: Buses, Mount Eden and Ponsonby
We slept in and got a slow start to the morning in preparation for the intense schedule the rest of the trip. On our way to the bus stop we got breakfast from Remedy Coffee on the corner of Queens and Wellesley. AJ had a super tasty bagel with bacon and avocado and I had an acai bowl. The highlight was definitely the amazing and creamy chai tea lattes that we both devoured. Having gotten a LINK bus schedule from our hotel we took the outer line bus to Mt. Eden. We found out later that we could have taken a metro bus and gotten there MUCH faster and cheaper. We had trusted the hotel people who apparently just gave us the only map they had.
The bus system is not hard to use at all but it is hard to find a comprehensive map of all the bus lines so you can actually figure out the best way to get places. The outer link bus took about 30-40 minutes to take us to Mount Eden and it cost us $5.50 NZD each to ride. If you intend to stay in Auckland for more than a day and use the buses you should definitely get an AP HOP card which is rechargeable and reduces the cost of a ticket by quite a bit.
How To Climb Mount Eden With No Plan At All
I had not actually planned this “exploring Auckland” portion of the trip so we were definitely just “winging it”. We got off the bus at the “Mt. Eden” stop and could so the volcano in front of us so we just walked in that direction. After about 15 minutes we got to a park entrance where we walked uphill until we miraculously reached the top. The hike was pretty steep but was not very long, maybe a 10-minute walk.
The view from the top is fantastic. Mount Eden is the tallest volcano in Auckland sitting at 643 feet and providing amazing panoramic views of the city. I had no idea how big and sprawling Auckland actually is until we saw it from the top of the volcano. The crater in the middle is about 164 feet deep and impressively large when you are standing right on the edge. The most impressive thing to me was the large expanse of bright green grass on rolling hills! Maybe its because we have been living in the concrete jungle of Seoul for too long but I absolutely loved the beautiful expanses of green grass and trees. I so badly wanted to sit down and have a picnic under one of the knobby old trees.
When Good Friday Makes Friday Less Good
Because we had wandered and not gone back down the same path we went up we ended up on another side of the mountain than we began so we had to walk back. It’s a good thing that AJ has a good sense of direction because I had no idea where we were. We walked back through the little town of Mount Eden because it looked like there were cute stores but because it was Good Friday most of them were closed so we just took a bus back into town. This time we rode the metro bus which was half the price ($3.50 each) and only took us about 20 minutes.
When All Else Fails Find Queen Street
We did not actually know the name of a station near our hotel but I did remember that Britomart was near the water so we just decided to go there. We stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant called The Lobby off of Queen St. A meatball sub to share, some pork belly cubes and cheesy bread made for a tasty treat! Here we learned about the strange laws regarding serving alcohol on Good Friday and Easter Sunday in New Zealand. On these two days restaurants are not allowed to serve alcohol unless you buy a meal. How strange is that? The restaurants are not impressed with this outdated law as you can see:
Blood Pumping Action Packed Adventure Time
As we walked to our next activity we gave ourselves a pep talk and really pumped each other up. What we were about to do was so nerve racking, something I had been thinking about and worrying about since we booked the trip. They do call New Zealand the place for adventure and we were about to jump in headfirst. After signing all of the necessary paperwork we walked outside and immediately made a fatal error. We walked to the wrong side of our rental car because in New Zealand they drive on the right side of the car and the left side of the road!!!! HAHAHA!
AJ is so much braver than me when it comes to these things so he got to drive first. We purchased the highest level of insurance and according to our GPS only had to drive .8km to our hotel. “Ok here we go, just take your time”. It actually went fairly well to start and the streets in Auckland aren’t really that busy. Other than turning the windshield wipers on instead of the blinkers and reaching for the shifter on the door instead of with your left hand we were good to go. There was some definite line hugging on the left side but overall AJ did excellent. I am still nervous for my hand at driving tomorrow. AJ amazingly parked the car (un-crashed) in the ridiculous excuse for a parking garage at our hotel. We went upstairs to recover from the stress of this blood pumping adventure.
Ponsonby And Good Eats
In the evening we took the inner link bus line to Ponsonby to find something for dinner. There were tons of cute stores and boutiques but most were already closed. We went to Ponsonby Central, which is a really cool little place with unique restaurants all under one roof. We ate at Chop Chop and had rice bowls, AJ;s with pork belly and bacon and mine with fried pumpkin. They both also had kimchi so no one has to worry about us going through withdrawals.
Auckland was great but we are definitely ready to get on with our adventure and get out of the city. Wish us luck driving tomorrow!
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. Glowworm Failure
Our tour with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. at the Waitomo glowworm caves began at 11:30. We left Auckland at 8:00 giving ourselves plenty of time for any driving confusion. The drive ended up taking about 2.5 hours and was through beautiful country. AJ did great driving on the highway where you don’t have to think much about turning or using your blinkers! We had some light rain showers and tons of rainbows along the way but mostly rolling green fields filled with sheep and cows. Everywhere you looked, once we got out of the city, was a postcard perfect scene.
Upon reaching the Black Water office we were informed that our tour had been canceled. Because of all the rain they had the last 2 days their cave system was flooded. We were also informed that their other glowworm tours were completely booked. They told us our only option was to walk through a cave that didn’t have any glowworms. We decided to do the lame-o Aranui Cave tour, we had no idea what else to do.
Aranui Cave Is Kind Of Cool
Aranui Cave is a pretty cool cave. It is well preserved and has tons and tons of stalactites and stalagmites. Since we were VERY excited for the tour we had booked we were disappointed and cranky making it seem lame at the time. Not knowing what to do when we were done, we went to nearby Chubby’s Bar to get some lunch and use the Wi-Fi to come up with a new plan. I was still really disappointed about the cancelation. This was one activity I had been looking forward to since I found and booked it months ago.
What Black Canyon Didn’t Want Us To Know (Jerks!)
With no luck on the Internet or making calls we walked over to a gift shop nearby. They had a big sign out front stating that they could make tour booking so we walked in and they got us booked with another tour on the spot!!!!!!! This tour was about double what we were originally going to pay but we decided it was worth it so we didn’t have to be sad anymore. The tour begin in 30 minutes so we had to drive there right away! Our new tour was with Haggas Honking Holes (I know that is a weird name…I have no idea) and it would be a total of 4 hours long.
Haggas Honking Holes and The Best Day Ever
First up was a 15-minute drive to the cave, which is on private farmland and owned by the farmer. The farmers get paid by the tour companies to lease their cave and also get a cut from every booking made. Those must be some RICH farmers!! The land was beautiful and had super cute sheep! Our group of 10 people and 2 guides got changed into very thick wetsuits and jackets, helmets, tall rain boots, and harnesses with swimsuits underneath. Outside on a nearby hill we practiced with our abseiling equipment learning how to weave the rope through and lock it in place. Then it was time to enter the cave…
AJ and I ended up at the very back of the line so we had to wait outside the cave while everyone in front of us did their thing. To enter the cave we had to squeeze through narrow passageways. There were some absolutely terrible, large spiders on the rock ceiling above our heads. I tried my best to ignore this fact but AJ was no help.
The first activity was a 20meter abseil, which means our harness was hooked to a rope on the ceiling of the cave and then we slowly lowered ourselves down the rope into complete darkness until we hit the ground. It was awesome and exhilarating. It was crazy to only be able to see whatever your helmet light lit up and you could just barely see the ground from the top of the cliff. I found it more difficult than I was expecting to keep my feet on the wall because the wall was rocky and uneven so you would end up swinging to a side and running into the rocks with your shoulders. In conclusion…it was awesome.
Non-Stop, Action-Packed, Adrenaline Pumping Madness
At the bottom of the abseil everyone turned their lights off and we could see some glowworms above us. We were all standing in about 1 foot of cold water as we walked through the cave to our next abseil, which would be over a waterfall. Mind you, it had been raining HARD for a couple days so this was no small waterfall. This abseil was not as long as the other one, maybe only 7-10 meters but you got drenched. The water was hitting you in the face and splashing everywhere and it was even harder to keep your feet on the wall. This time if your feet slipped and you hit the wall you also got completely drenched in freezing cold rain/river water!
Once you hit the bottom and got your bearing straight you were standing in 1.5 feet of water and they told you to crawl through a teeny tiny little hole that did not look like it could fit you. What else is there to say in the bottom of a cave but “That hole? Are you sure?…..OK!” So there we went head first on our bellies into a very tiny dark hole.
The Part Where You Question What You Signed Up For
Ok now shake off that ridiculousness and finally stand up and gather yourself again and here comes another rushing waterfall. One of poor guides was literally standing in the middle of the waterfall completely soaked and getting splashed in the face and almost washed away. We had to stand on the very edge of the waterfall, then lower one foot onto a rock ledge that was in the waterfall so you couldn’t see it. We just had to trust the guide that the hidden ledge was there and we would in fact have a place to stand.
Once on the hidden ledge, holding on for dear life as the rushing waterfall tried its best to wash you away, the guide hooked a rope to our harness. We slid down the waterfall a little ways, then had to step off the drenched rocks and dangle in the air. As if we weren’t already frozen, she lowered us through the waterfall, through a deep dark hole to land in another deep dark hole.
When You Find Yourself In A Deep Dark Hole And Other Such Things
So where were we? Oh yes, a deep dark hole full of cold water. Once all 10 of the people got through the epic combo we got our next instructions. “Sit on this ledge and keep your legs straight with feet together, place your hands on your helmet and you’re going to slide down this waterfall/hole. It’s a very small hole so make sure you keep your elbows in”. What’s at the bottom of the hole you ask? Just complete darkness, definitely some rocks and a lot of super cold water.
I think everyone screamed a little when they got pushed down this hole. The guide even turned our helmet lights off so you really couldn’t see where you were going. The drop wasn’t far at all, maybe 10 feet but since you didn’t know what to expect it felt scary. It dropped us into a very tiny hole that was barely big enough for 4 people. Next up? Cross under the waterfall you just slid down (Brrrrrrrr) and then a nice walk and crawl into a larger room.
All About Glowworms
This is where we all turned our lights off and saw hundreds of gorgeous glowworms on the ceiling above us. One of our guides taught us about the worms explaining that they are the larvae stage of a fly and can remain as glowworms for up to 9 months. They create tiny thin strings that hang from the ceiling. Their light attracts insects that get caught in the slimy strings allowing the worm to consume them. They were absolutely beautiful and it was a pretty magical experience to be sitting in a pitch-black cave looking up at these guys.
What Goes Down Must Come Up
When we turned our lights back on we learned that we were about 80meters underground and that we would now start to head back up. The exit began with a rock scramble and a climb up a wet wall. Next we had to walk on top of a ladder and then jump down and duck under an arch. At the top of a 10 meter ladder the guide told us to “just follow the rope”.
When I saw the rope it looked like it was just sticking out of the wall. The hole it was going through, that I was supposed to climb through, was SO TINY!!!!! I did it anyways and also made it through the next 4 tiny holes. Every time I swore I was stuck and would have to wriggle out and try again from a different angle. In a large cavern they had spread out some chocolates and cups of Gatorade to snack on while we waited.
Always Say Yes To Caving, It’s Worth Every Penny!
Just a couple more squeezes and a walk up a 20m ladder and we were back outside where we started! It was absolutely exhausting! All of the climbing, crawling, ducking and trudging and my arms and legs were exhausted! It was such a fun experience and something completely different than anything we have done before! I found it to be a very unique experience and something I will remember forever. If you ever get the chance to go on a caving tour DO IT!!!!
We stopped at a little pizza place in Waitomo before heading out on a 2-hour drive. Our next hotel would be base camp for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!
Howards Mountain Lodge At Tongariro
Based about 20-30 minutes from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing trailhead is Howards Mountain Lodge. Through them I was able to book a package deal including 2 nights stay, breakfast before our hike, a sack lunch and water for the hike and shuttle service to and from the hike site. The trail ends at a different location than it starts and it is quite a ways away so a shuttle service is definitely the easiest and most convenient option.
We ate a simple breakfast (including hard boiled eggs, Happy Easter!) at 7:30 before boarding the shuttle at 8:00am. Once we arrived at the trail head the shuttle driver provided some safety information to us. The weather was forecasted to be rainy and windy and definitely not ideal for his hike so we were given the option to turn around at the 1-hour mark and he would be there to pick us up. Otherwise he would be at the end of the trail at either 3:30 or 5:00pm. We were also told to not do any of the side hikes and to try to make it over as quickly as possible.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is supposed to be one of the most beautiful day hikes in New Zealand and perhaps the world depending on who you talk to. The crossing is a trail that doesn’t actually go to the summit of Mount Tongariro but you can go to the summit from the top of the trail if you desire. It normally takes 6-8 hours and is quite strenuous. We were advised to pack a first aid kit, waterproof clothing and plenty of layers as the weather on the volcano can change abruptly. The hotels also track the tourists that take the hike so they can come rescue you if you don’t come back in the evening.
It was disappointing to wake up and see how foggy and poor the weather was because the views are part of what makes the hike so appealing. This was our planned activity for the day, however, so we were determined to do it; especially since the alternative was to sit in our hotel room.
Getting To The Summit but not the “Summit”
The hike starts out fairly flat for the whole first hour. We were mostly just walking along perfect, flat walking trails. It was definitely not indicative of the rest of the hike and I can’t imagine many people taking the driver up on his offer to bail. Unfortunately, for those that maybe should have bailed, we then started to go up hill quite abruptly for the next hour and 15 minutes (keep in mind that we actually kept a very fast pace and finished first in our group by far so everyone else was going up hill for much longer than this). The weather also began to deteriorate quickly and the wind picked up to the point of nearly blowing me over a couple of times.
About 10 minutes from the top of the crossing the rain began. Combined with the strong winds, the rain was really coming at us. We spent only enough time at the top for AJ to add a layer of pants. We couldn’t have even taken a picture at the top if we wanted to because it was so incredibly windy and we were getting pelted in the face with rain. The fog was also so thick that you couldn’t see anything, a big disappointment. From here we had the choice to summit Mount Tongariro (1 more hour of up hill hiking and another hour back down) or to skip the summit and continue on the Alpine Crossing Trail. Because the weather was so terrible and we knew the view would be non-existent we decided to skip the summit. This turned out to be an excellent choice for many reasons.
“I’ve Got Good News and Bad News” – Mother Nature
The great news (read sarcasm) was that the way down from this terrible spot was to literally slide down a rocky, sandy, slippery, steep path. There was no getting your feet set at all you literally had to just dig your heels in with every step and try your best not to fall. In reality, after having climbed up for so long it was a great feeling just to finally be going downhill.
At the bottom of the slippery shale we were finally rewarded for our troubles with the absolutely breathtaking Emerald Lakes. AJ even got a couple photos with slivers of blue sky! The Emerald Lakes are 2 bright opaque blue round lakes that are so beautiful. I had seen photos of them before and they were a huge part of the reason I wanted to do the hike. There was also Blue Lake in the distance that we could not get as close to. We only admired the lakes for a short time before heading further down. We desperately wanted to get to warmer, dryer weather.
When The End Is The Worst Part
The trip down for the next 2 hours wasn’t bad at all. The walk was fairly easy and the rain had subsided. The fog and clouds even cleared for a while and we got to see a beautiful view! At a small hut we had a rest stop and ate snacks. We did not stay long because we started to get cold and sore as soon as we stopped moving. The sign at the hut said we were 45 minutes from the exit, great news!
Unfortunately it was the longest 45 minutes of my life and also much closer to an hour. This last hour was BRUTAL to put it lightly. Part of the problem was that we were just ready to be done. The only thing left to look forward to were warmth and dry clothes. The steep climb to the summit was also rough but at least we had a goal. At the end it just felt like we were just walking and getting nowhere. It also started to rain much harder and although we were in a more forested part we got really wet.
Miraculously we did make it to the end after 4 hours and 53 minutes of wet, cold hiking. On the downside it was 1:40pm and our shuttle would not be departing until 3:30. Luckily our bus driver showed up early so we could wait on the bus out of the rain and cold. I actually got the coldest during this nearly 2 hour waiting period. I was no longer moving and just sitting in my damp clothes and I got cold very fast. AJ had not used all of his layers so he still had a dry shirt to change into allowing him to warm up faster.
We were the first in our group to complete the hike with the next pair about 30 minutes behind us. No one else from the group got to the bus until about 3:15pm. We were super speedy! The drive back to the hotel took about 45 minutes. It took me all of 5 seconds to hop in the hot shower. Despite the weather it was a successful day. We still got to see the glorious Emerald Lakes and got a great view on our way down. And don’t forget about the bragging rights we have! We can say that we successfully completed the hike in less than 5 hours!
It ended up being a good thing that we stuck it out and did the hike despite the weather. We found out during checkout the next morning that the summit got snow overnight! All of the hikes that day had been canceled, what a huge bummer!
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
A late morning and a good hearty breakfast before setting out on our 2 hour drive to Rotorua was exactly what we needed. Our first stop was the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland! Rotorua is a crazy unique place because of all the geothermal activity. Everywhere you look there are areas of steam coming out of the ground.
Wai-O-Tapu is the largest area of thermal activity in New Zealand! We took a 75-minute walk through the grounds looking at tons of craters full of bubbling mineral water and steaming brightly colored ponds. The whole place smelled of sulfur but it was really cool to see all of the different kinds of thermal waters all in one place. At the farthest point on the map was an absolutely gorgeous view of a bright blue mineral pond against a backdrop of green hills and bright blue sky.
Waikite Valley Thermal Pools Springs
About a 5 minute drive down the street was the Waikite Valley Thermal Pool Springs where we got to soak in 5 different temperature pools. We stayed for quite a long time because we really needed a good soak after our 5 hour hike yesterday. It rained pretty hard while we were there but luckily we were in a covered pool at that point.
From the springs it was only about a 25-minute drive to our Rotorua hotel BK’s Rotorua Motor Lodge. The nicest couple owns the motel and it is a very nice place. If you are ever in Rotorua check it out. For dinner we walked about 20 minutes to Eat Street, which is a long walking mall with restaurants on both sides. Everything else in town was closed due to the holiday, we were happy to find anything open. It was such a nice relaxing day, which was exactly what we needed after the last 2 adventure-filled ones. An early night in was the icing on the cake.
Te Puia Has A lot To Offer!
Our Wai-O-Tapu tickets from the day before included a trip to a geyser. The geyser goes off at 10:15am everyday so we had planned to start our day today with that. We got an early start with plenty of time so we stopped at a Starbucks. When we realized that we also needed to stop for gas we got behind schedule. We were going to miss the 10:15 geyser show but luckily we passed Te Puia on the way out of town and stopped to see what it had to offer. Te Puia is another thermal park that also has Maori cultural experiences and Kiwis!
Just a short walk inside the park and we could already see the steam coming off the geyser. The Pohutu Geyser erupts every hour for 20-25 minutes so we didn’t have to worry at all about missing it! Neither AJ nor I have ever seen a geyser and it was a really cool experience. The amount of water and steam coming out is just amazing. It was also sitting next to a beautiful clear blue pool of water making the experience more memorable.
After we had our fill of the geyser we set off to find the elusive Kiwis. I did not realize they were nocturnal until we walked into the viewing area and it was pitch black. They were also a lot larger than I expected and their beaks are super long and pointy!
We were excited to see some of the Maori buildings and to watch them weave and create baskets. The gift shop was full of different Maori arts and crafts that we were sure to stock up on.
Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest
We had to return back to the hotel to do some laundry. We had breakfast at a delicious little café called Capers and then made our way to the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest.
The forest is about 10 minutes outside of Rotorua. The trees were planted in 1901 when they brought several species of Redwoods to the area, planting them all to see which would grow. The California Redwoods were the most successful and now there is a huge forest full of them! We did a 30-minute tree walk along several suspended bridges. The bridges allowed us to walk over areas of the forest that are untouched and also provided great aerial views of the area. Afterwards we took a 30-minute stroll on the ground through a different part of the forest. It was very relaxing, quiet and cool in the trees. There was an interesting little stream that must have been filled with some kind of minerals because the water was crystal clear. You could see all of the fallen ferns and branches perfectly. The fallen leaves were completely covered in moss.
Ferns are very plentiful all over New Zealand and are actually the national icon. There are literally hundreds of different species and you see them everywhere. There was no shortage here, especially from the bridges you could see ferns filling in every little nook and cranny of the forest.
Mitai Maori Village
At 4:45 the folks from Mitai Maori Village picked us up from our hotel. This was another activity that we had been looking forward to for quite some time. Upon arrival at the complex several women dressed in traditional clothing greeted us. We entered a large tent, were seated, and drank some delicious Maori wine called Tohu. A very funny man gave us an introduction to Maori culture and the events of the evening.
We were led outside to a covered pit where the showed us how they had prepared the Hangi or traditional Maori meal for the evening. The pit was filled with hot rocks, the food was placed on top and then it was all buried. There were about 20 chickens and large pieces of lamb as well as some potatoes, sweet potatoes and stuffing. From there we went to see a waka or boat. Waka is actually the word they use for any from of transportation but in the case it was a riverboat hollowed out from a tree capable of holding 18 men.
A short walk down to a river is where the real show began. We got to see a group of 8-10 men row a waka down the river right at us. Lights had lit up the river and there were fiery torches on the boat. The men were all dressed in traditional Maori clothing including the iconic facial tattoos and were chanting and singing. They paddled passed us and then paddled backwards and forwards a couple of times in tune with their chanting. It was so cool! From the research I did, Mitai Maori Village is the only one that does this waka entrance; it was very unique!
The Maori Performance
Next we were led into a staged area so we could watch a performance. There were several Maori men and women all dressed in traditional clothing and sitting amount a replica of traditional houses. They showed us all of the traditional weapons and how they were used. Several instruments were also shown and played. They performed many songs for us, which included dancing and chanting. A pair of men performed a choreographed fight and the chief told us all about Maori culture and taught us some words and phrases.
At the end they performed a haka, which is a dance, originally used to intimidate their enemies. Hakas are now used at celebrations, funerals and sporting events all over New Zealand. It is easy to see why enemies would have been intimidated by the dance. The men bulge their eyes and stick out their tongue to imply that their enemies look delicious and they will kill and eat them. The chief made several jokes about the Maori having been cannibals in the past.
One of the most interesting parts to me was when the chief explained the facial tattoos. The tattoos on the right side are dedicated to their fathers’ story and the left side to the mothers’. Everything in the center is personal; the chief had wings representing a bat (wisdom), a beak on his nose representing a parrot because he was the orator and large circles around his mouth to represent the Kiwi! The women have smaller tattoos around their mouths. The women’s tattoos are smaller because they are in charge of the household and children. The men’s are bigger because they are in charge of the village.
Hangi Dinner And A Night Walk
Back in the large tent we had dinner! We ate the chicken, lamb, potatoes, sweet potatoes and stuffing shown before. We also had seafood chowder, bread, salad and rice. There was plenty to go around and we got stuffed. For dessert they had fruit salad, pavlova, steam pudding, custard and a chocolate log cake. The food was pretty tasty and definitely hearty.
To end the night we took a walk through the forest at night. We walked to a natural fresh water cold spring that the Maori see as sacred. At the end we walked through an area that had glowworms! Nothing like what we had seen in Waitomo but it was cool to see them out in the open instead of in a cave. We learned so much about Maori culture and it was an awesome experience to get to see everything up close and personal.
Note To Self: Rotorua Airport Is Teeny Tiny
We had to drop off our rental car before our flight to Christchurch. We gave ourselves plenty of time at the airport because we weren’t sure what the layout would be like. It took us 10 minutes to drive to the airport and another 5 to return the rental car. There is one counter at Rotorua airport, there was no line and there was no security area. What I am trying to say is we ended up being at the airport about 2.5 hours early for no reason. At an airport where there is 1 gate, 1 restaurant and 1 check in counter. On the upside, the view was great, the restaurant had options and the wifi was free and unlimited.
It was only a 2-hour flight to Christchurch and the view out of the window was lovely. Upon arrival we had to catch a shuttle to the Jucy car rental location. We had to wait nearly 20 minutes for the shuttle and when we arrived the line was ridiculously long! We waited in line for over 1 hour to rent a stupid car! Our car was also nothing to write home about. It was an older model with tons of dents, dings and scratches. Random things would break on the inside also like the USB outlet. The lesson learned is that you definitely get what you pay for.
On The Road Again
Next up was a 2.5-hour drive to Kaikoura, located on the east coast of the south island. I was very excited for this drive because I had heard it was very pretty. Because we were now running nearly 2 hours alter than expected we would be driving right at sunrise so it wasn’t all bad. The regular route to Kaikoura was closed so we had to take another that was 15-30 minutes longer. The first 2.5 hours were really nice and the view truly was incredible. Just like when driving on the north island it seemed like every direction we looked could have been a postcard.
I drove the last 1.5 hours after the sun had gone down. We did not know that this was the part where we would be driving on windy mountain roads as well. There was also tons of construction so there were cones and lane shifts quite often. All of that while driving on the opposite side of the road and car made for an interesting drive. We made it around 7:00pm and completely exhausted.
A Quick Night In Kaikoura
We checked in at The Bella Vista Hotel and the immediately left for dinner. Our front desk clerk had recommended a restaurant called The Zephyr. We were so hungry that we didn’t even question it but when we arrived it was not quite what we had in mind. It was a beautiful modern place and a little pricey. It was somewhere you would go for date night. We were ready for something fast and easy and cheap so that we could go back to the hotel and rest up. The food was delicious but it took much longer and was more formal than we were prepared for.
By the time we were done eating everything else was closed. Our first tour of the morning began at 6:45am and we were out of luck for breakfast options. We stopped at the only open gas station in town and got an unfortunate breakfast option that we hoped we would not have to eat.
Whale Watch Kaikoura
It had been a long night so we were very tired for out 6:45am Whale Watch Kaikoura Tour. Nevetheless we were still very excited at the prospects of seeing a whale in real life! The first thing they told us when we checked in was the captain had put a “sea sick watch” on our tour meaning the waters were going to be rough. I was not excited that! After a safety video we took a short bus ride to the bus. They meant business when we left the dock going at full speed ahead! We were inside at this point but hitting the waves hard. They were not lying about the rough waters!
At the first stop we walked outside to the lower decks and saw several huge albatross flying around. Meanwhile the crew was using a device to listen for whale vocalizations under the water. We stopped at a total of 4 locations over 2 hours and saw absolutely nothing! It was so disappointing! The waters only got rougher and the longer we were on the boat the harder it got to stave off the seasickness. A lot of people got seasick but I am happy to report that neither AJ nor I were one of them!
Normally whale watching is incredibly successful at this location and the website for Whale Watch Kaikoura boasts a 95% success rate. They also offer an 80% refund if you do not see a whale. The refund was nice but it would have been nicer to see a whale.
A Seal Swim That Never Happened
We were supposed to go on another tour a few hours later where we would swim and snorkel with seals but that also got canceled! What an epic fail of a day for seeing marine life and a major bummer. These were both tours that we were very excited about.
Kaikoura Peninsula Walk
We got some much needed breakfast at a local café in town and then left for a scenic walk along the coast. It was only a short 10-minute drive to reach the end of the road aka the ocean. We walked along the rocks near the waves. There were tons of seashells so we did a little searching for that too. We also walked up along a hill to get an aerial view. When we came back down to the parking lot several large sea lions were laying out sun bathing and napping. We took a couple selfies with them yawning in the background.
On the way back into town we stopped at a tiny shack on the side of the road selling fresh seafood. We got an order of mussels and oysters to share. They were very good and cheap too!
The Last Long Drive…. For A Couple Days
The drive back through the windy mountain roads as made a little more bearable by the fact that it was light out. It is much easier to drive on those roads when you can see what is coming next. It is also more interesting to be able to look at the mountains than pitch-black nothingness. Unfortunately driving during the day meant that the construction was active so we often had to stop where they were working on the road allowing other cars to pass.
Kiwis Don’t Speedies
Things got really interesting when we were about 1 hour from Christchurch. You know when you are on a one-lane road and you are stuck behind a slow driver and you get more and more irritated the longer you are stuck. You finally get to a straight part of the road where you can pass and you just go for it! It feels so great to finally be able to go the speed limit again!
Well this happened to AJ except the car he passed turned out to be a cop and he might have been a little too rambunctious with his passing speed. So yes, we got a speeding ticket in New Zealand. Not only that but if you exceed the speed limit by too much your license gets automatically and immediately revoked for 28 days! These Kiwis don’t mess around when it comes to speeding! So AJ got kicked off the rental agreement, license revoked in New Zealand and a big old whopper of a fine! How exciting is that!? I guess it was time to switch drivers permanently.
The Constant Hunt For Food And Christchurch First Impressions
We arrived at the Southwark Apartments around 5:00pm. Our lunch had been small so we were hungry and headed straight out in search of food. You immediately notice two things about Christchurch, the artwork and the destruction. Two large earthquakes hit Christchurch, one in September of 2010 and the other February of 2011. Back to back destruction and the city center still showed the very obvious signs of the damage. There are construction projects happening everywhere but still a lot of empty or abandoned buildings. In the midst of all this sad damage is tons of gorgeous street art. Huge murals coat the plain and crumbling walls and it is really quite an interesting mix.
We actually had a bit of a hard time finding a restaurant as it seemed like most things were closed. The only thing you can ever count on being open is a Chinese restaurant so that is where we ended up. We don’t get much American style Chinese food in Korea so it hit the spot just fine.
Beijing Is Not Beautiful! Or Maybe It Is…
The smog was the first thing to notice upon our arrival in Beijing. While landing in the airplane we couldn’t see the ground until about 5 minutes before we touched down. It was kind of disappointing because I love to see a new city from the sky! We arrived in the afternoon and took the train into the city. It was actually very simple and much cheaper than a taxi. After checking in at the hotel we got lunch at Din Tai Fung in a nearby mall. We purposefully went to Din Tai Fung for the soup dumplings, which were absolutely delicious. We also had chocolate dessert dumplings that were like warm chocolate pudding inside a dumpling and therefore pretty life changing.
By this time it was only early afternoon and we had lots of exploring to do. Beijing is not very tourist friendly, transportations is very hard to come by. The subway stations are VERY far apart and unfortunately the stations aren’t very close to the major tourist attractions either. There are very few taxis and if you do get one to stop the drivers are quite rude and often wont take you where you want anyways. The buses are packed to the brim but as long as you aren’t claustrophobic I would imagine they are the best option. For all the above reasons we ended up walking a very long way the first day.
How To Get Scammed in China
We were trying to get to Tiananmen Square and after walking for about 30 minutes we got caught in a tourist tuk-tuk scam. We did not realize that tuk-tuks are actually illegal in Beijing so we asked for a ride and hopped in after agreeing upon the price of 30CNY (about $4.30). The ride was quite nice after having walked for so long. Red flag #1 was when the driver dropped us off in a sketchy apartment parking lot and told us to walk straight and cross the street to get to our destination. He then asked for his 300CNY ($43) which was NOT the agreed upon price.
Here is the best way ever to get out of a tourist scam. What they are doing is illegal anyways so I just created a scene which the driver did not want since he was doing sketchy stuff. So I told him loudly that I would pay him the 30 or nothing…. those were his choices. He argued for a second but as soon as I started yelling he shut it down pretty quickly and we walked away. Turns out the price should have been more like 3CNY than 30CNY anyways but hey, you do what you can!
Finally we were at Tiananmen Square! Everything is completely blocked off, there are fences along the roads so you can’t cross the street or stop your car. There is really only one way in and out and you have to go through security before entering the area. We passed the mausoleum that holds Mao’s body but were unable to go in which left us with the square. Now listen, I understand that this place has huge historical importance but if we are being totally honest, there is not really that much to LOOK at. The area itself if huge and there were some military formations walking through which was interesting. There is a huge police/military presence in the area and somber armed guards are standing all around.
Peking Duck Is Delicious
We made the LONG walk back to the hotel and had them give us directions to a famous Peking duck restaurant nearby. The restaurant was packed and we had to wait for a table. The decor was very fancy and the menu was huge. They carved the duck tableside and it was so delicious, see a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY6MSehlk5Q
Want to see a recap video of our China adventures? Check it out here: https://youtu.be/KF7oCvpTvok
A Private Great Wall Tour Because We Are Fancy and Can’t Play Nice With Others
Today was a very exciting day! We had a private tour scheduled to see the Jinshanling section of The Great Wall with Catherine Lu Tours. I specifically researched and chose this portion of the wall because I wanted a crowd-free area. I am normally not a guided tour type of person but because Jinshanling is a 2.5-hour drive from the city it was a huge relief to have the details taken care of by someone else.
We got an early start to the day with a private driver and our guide picking us up from the hotel. We were in a nice car and the driver let me control the music, which was a big plus. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot about China, Beijing and The Great Wall on the way.
The Great Wall Is Incredible
We arrived and parked in a small parking area and then walked about 30 minutes up to the wall. It is so much bigger and taller than I imagined it would be and makes for an impressive approach. We walked along the wall for 2-2.5 hours and saw only a handful of other people. Exactly what we wanted! The coolest part was the beautiful views of the mountains and the wall snaking along for as far as the eye can see. It was also great to see that the air was clearer so far from Beijing, so we could actually see off into the distance.
Not For The Faint Of Heart
The hike along the wall was much harder than we were expecting. It gets incredibly steep at a lot of points and there are A LOT of stairs! We were also at altitude for the first time in months so it is safe to say that we were quite winded. I cannot believe that there is a Great Wall Marathon where people run the section of the wall that we walked! That must be the hardest run of all time! Not only is it steep but the ground is uneven and crumbling in places. This portion of the wall has only been refurbished occasionally so it is falling apart more than popular sections closer to Beijing. I actually like the fact that is was a little more rundown. I felt like we were getting to see the REAL thing instead of the fake façade put on for tourists.
See more about my final thought on The Wall here.
Street Food And A Hot Pot
Back in Beijing we checked out Wanfujing Food Street for a pre-dinner snack! This is the place to go for Chinese street food and other strange things. We tried several things but most importantly we ate scorpions. They are cooked to a crisp so they honestly just taste like any other overcooked meat. The street food was actually pretty disappointing. Usually eating local food, especially random street food, is my favorite part of traveling. Unfortunately in Beijing the street food is incredibly bland. It looks like it is going to be so delicious but then it just tastes like nothing… We actually threw a lot of what we bought out.
Thank goodness we had a reservation at a local hot pot restaurant for dinner! The food here was absolutely delicious! We paid extra for a special “noodle dance”, check out the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ec1saZlIpnk