Wayalailai Island – Fiji

Fiji has always been one of those dreamy, far off destinations that seemed unattainable, especially coming from the US, for so long. Coming from Australia it’s much easier to get Fiji (and New Zealand is even closer)! So as my birthday was approaching Fiji was looking more and more appealing. I knew I wanted to venture off the mainland and explore the islands, but I didn’t have an exact plan. My first island stop was Wayalailai in the Yasawas. 

Going to Wayalailai was recommended to me by someone I had met in New Zealand. It’s about 2.5 hours by ferry off the mainland making it about the halfway mark to where the Yasawa Island’s top point. From the ferry you take a small boat tender to the island immediately the beauty overtakes you. The water, trees, mountain are all absolutely stunning. You’re greeted by the workers singing and ending with a big BULA welcome. By dinner the first night all the workers knew your name and looked genuinely happy to see you around the resort.

On the island you can either do a homestay or at Wayalailai Resort. The resort is 100% Fijian owned and according to the website “all profits are shared amongst the villagers for school, church and village improvements.” I booked into a dorm, but they actually put me on my own in a room for two. It was nice to have my own room and bathroom. One main quirk of the resort are that there’s no electricity during the day. It comes on around 5pm and will stay on throughout the night into the AM and then back off. Not a huge deal, but that means no fans or charging anything during the day. Online it had said that there was Wifi, but there wasn’t and the service in general was sparse. The room was quaint with fresh hibiscus flowers all around, but it wasn’t luxe by any means. The best way to describe it is local islander comfort.

The rate was $140 FJ per day and that included breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. All the meals were started by drums beating and were buffet style. There was always a rice, meat options, and veggies. On the second to last night there was also a traditional Kava ceremony. After lunch local women came for a “craft market.” You could buy goods they were selling or make your own bracelet, anklet, or necklace for $10 FJ. It was suggested that the water wasn’t suitable for drinking and you could buy a 1.5 liter for $5 FJ.

Snorkeling right off the beach was beautiful. There were many hammocks all around to lounge about to read, nap, or just stare out at the ocean. I even woke myself up to watch one of the sunrises on a hammock. They had optional activities like a village visit, sunset or sunrise hikes, snorkeling with reef sharks, or a bull shark feeding dive.

Speaking of diving this is where I got PADI Open Water scuba dive certified. certification takes four dives, quizzes, and a written exam. I completed my dives in two days and the whole process took three days. It was pretty quick, but now I can scuba dive! My third training dive we did the bull shark dive. This was a surprise “bonus” to me. Usually this dive alone is $300 FJ, but as I rocked up for my training they told me we were going to go with the sharks. We ended up seeing a tiger shark (super rare for them), bull, lemon, blacktop, and nurse sharks. I couldn’t really differentiate the sharks apart from the nurse sharks and honestly I was terrified even though they did a really great job making us feel like we were okay.

I really enjoyed my stay at Wayalailai. It was the perfect first stop on this trip. I wouldn’t call the stay glamorous, but it was very special.

Peel Forest & Rafting Take 2

Peel Forest would fall under “off the beaten track” and very on brand for Stray. It is a small community in the Canterbury Region of New Zealand close to Christchurch. It is located near the Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve, the Rangitata River, and part of the Southern Alps. This entire area was used in a lot of the scenery for the Lord of the Rings movies. Flowing from the Alps to the Pacific Ocean the Rangitata River was the main highlight of this one-night stop for us. When we first arrived and checked in we had super sunny weather and headed to the lake. Some people were brave enough to go swimming in the glacial water. I was fine with being their photographer. Only Stray passengers were staying on property so we had the lodge essentially to ourselves. We had a group dinner that night (the last of the trip) and spent the evening playing cards. We were treated to a lazy, sleep in morning as Christchurch was the next stop and only a two-ish hour drive away.

Most of the group drove to Christchurch in the the afternoon, but six of us stayed behind. We were the adventurers and going to take on white water rafting on the Rangitata River! I almost didn’t sign up for this activity as I already had a rafting excursion earlier this trip in Rotorua. One of my friend’s had done this rafting trip a couple of days before I arrived in Peel Forest and the pictures looked amazing. I also had such a great time the first go that I figured I would love it again. And finally, a couple of the people I’ve gotten close with were also doing it so it would be fun rafting with some friends. All of those reasons lead me to try it and I’m so happy that I did.

This rafting was completely different from Rotorua’s. Mainly, the length of the tour, in time and distance, was much longer. The distance covered rafting on this trip was almost 10 times as long. The water was also icy blue and wider than the other rafts. It was also colder given that it comes from a glacier and all the layers we wore were needed (swimsuit, undershirt, thermal, wetsuit, wind breaker jacket, and booties). The other rafting experience leads up to a huge waterfall whereas this didn’t have a waterfall, but massive rapids (ranging from grade 2-5).

I sat upfront on the raft and I absolutely loved it. I was the only one in our boat that had rafted before so it was nice having an idea of what I was doing. Our guide was really knowledgeable and the entire team, and there were a lot of them, was so friendly and professional. After rafting we had the chance to shower and were greeted to a BBQ lunch to enjoy as a group. I really would recommend this excursion, especially if you are bored in Christchurch and want to go out for a day trip.

Accommodation – Rangitata Rafts Lodge

The lodge and the rafting is all in one place/company and they are the only operators out here. I think if you have a big group and you rent out the entire lodge that is the way to go, but if you are traveling solo or with just another person camping or just a day trip out here would suffice.

Once in a Lifetime Experience – Bungy Jumping

Would you rather bungee (“bungy”) jump or skydive?

I was shocked by how many people said they would much rather skydive because they thought it was less scary and safer than bungy jumping. This was so wild to me. Bungy jumping is significantly lower than when you sky dive out of an airplane. The argument was then that the only thing preventing you from falling to your death was a cord. Despite the resistance and attempts to scare me out of it, bungy jumping was the one thing I had known I wanted to do coming to New Zealand.  

Bungy jumping was commercialized in New Zealand in 1988 by an infamous adrenaline junkie, AJ Hackett. You can still jump the original bridge jump in Queenstown. My friends and I thought if we were going to bungy we were going all in so we went for the Nevis jump. The Nevis bungy is 3 times higher than the original at 134 meters (440 feet or about a 40 story high building). The days leading up to the jump I was really equally excited and freaked out. This was going to be the craziest thing I’ve ever did. 

The day of the jump that ratio had turned more into freaked out with a tiny bit of excitement. Was I actually going to do this? Why? The why I really couldn’t answer. We were checked in at a shop in town, weighed, and then bussed over 40 minutes to the Nevis Playground. With each passing minute I was internally panicking more and more, but I couldn’t back down! I was the one who had wanted to do this and had gotten my two mates to join. They were so excited particularly Iris, who has learned that she’s a major adrenaline junkie whilst traveling around New Zealand. 

Looking over the jump wow it was high and in the middle of a canyon. Not to be morbid, but if something were to go wrong there was no chance of surviving. The comforting thing was that there hadn’t been any casualties with AJ Hackett ever. So I wasn’t exactly afraid of dying I was more worried about what was wrong with myself to actually jump off the ledge. The operators will not push you so if you want to bungy it is fully your decision and action. 

When we got to the site and were harnessed I started to feel a little better. The harness was sturdy and felt substantial. Then six people at a time you ride over to the middle of the canyon via a little sky gondola. That’s when you really get an idea of how high you are. Once at the station the operators get to work with giving you more equipment, checking harnesses, etc. all while blood pumping music is playing. The goal is to get you hyped. It wasn’t working for me I was still scared and this time I knew I was one step away from my turn to jump. 

All the workers were incredibly personable and fun. You felt like they really did know what they were doing and totally safe in their hands. There was also a lot of equipment and not just “one cord” like the bungy haters would argue. At that point I knew it would be okay and just a matter of going. The best advice I was given when we had first gotten to the station was that when you hear the countdown, “5, 4, 3, 2, Bungy,” just go for it and don’t hesitate. If you were to pause at bungy it just makes it more difficult to actually jump. At the ledge I was waiting for my bungy cue and then I flew. 

It was the coolest feeling and at that point you felt almost weightless. I think the scariest part (besides the jump) was the first bounce back when you finally stop free falling, it kind of brings you to reality and you suddenly feel like a fish out of water, but in the best way. After the third bounce back you release your legs so you are no longer upside down and finally enjoy the ride back up. For that moment it’s just you and nature and you can only hear birds among the stillness of the canyon. 

Then you’re back at the platform area with your friends, the energized operators, pumping music, and you feel on top of the world. You did it! I did it! Conquered something that really scared me and loved it. In addition to the highest bungy jump in New Zealand, the Nevis Playground also has a swing and catapult. After the bungy I was down to do both, but that will have to wait for the next trip. 

I 100% recommend doing a bungy jump in Queenstown. AJ Hackett’s tagline is: Live More. Fear Less. If that’s not advice to live by I’m not sure what is. 

Queenstown Reigns Supreme

Wow, Queenstown was incredible. It’s not necessarily a place or city I would live in, but if I lived in New Zealand this would be my go to vacation spot. This is a hot spot destination to most people visiting NZ.

Actually, side note I haven’t seen a single bachelor or bachelorette party since coming to New Zealand (and actually I don’t think I saw any whilst in Australia either). Are they just not a thing on this side of the hemisphere? If this Queenstown was in the U.S. I think it would overtake Miami/Vegas/Nashville for popularity of bach parties. There was just so much to do here.

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital. It started as the birthplace of modern bungy (NZ spelling) jumping in the late 80s and now has spread to any activity you can think of to get your blood and adrenaline pumping. Of course there are bungys – including the OG bungy site from the 80s and a higher 134 meter one into a canyon (my personal pick); skydiving; jet boating; paragliding, sailing, and hang-gliding; gondola rides; a luge down the mountain; hikes; relaxing cruises; and so so much more. That was just scratching the surface. I think you could just go to Queenstown as a single stop if you were really limited on time for your holiday. 

So besides having a blast activity wise the scenery is gorgeous in Queenstown. The main center of town is positioned on a majestic lake. During the day there are a lot of water activities (although the lake was chilly) and at night you’ll find crowds on the lakefront hanging around drinking, maybe eating Fergburger, and watching the sunset to live music. I’m here during the middle of summer so the sun was setting around 9:30pm nightly so it was a great way to kick off the night.

Be aware of the weather because it’s pretty deceitful. During the middle of the day it was warm and sunny and as soon as the sun starts going down the winds start and it becomes extremely cold. Dress accordingly if you go out and especially if you go and watch the sunsets.

I realized I loved how Queenstown felt because of the low buildings and open sky. You can tell it has an après ski/ski village vibes and I think that was exactly what put Queenstown on the map. You pretty much come here or Wanaka (or both) to ski in the winter. I really cannot wait to go back here.  

The food scene was top notch. The nightlife was constant. I haven’t met more Americans in one spot then I did in Queenstown – they were everywhere. I also stayed in three different hostels whilst here. I thought four nights would be enough time (the longest I stayed at any Stray stop in NZ) and it really wasn’t. I could have easily stayed at least a week, but maybe my wallet is thinking otherwise. Look out for more posts about bungy, the food, and my hostels view on Queenstown. 

This has moved up on my list as #1 place I want to come back to in New Zealand. Ski season, anyone? 

Overwhelmed in Rotorua

Thursday Night Market Treat

Rotorua is the first stop I will be spending a longer chunk of time – four nights to be exact. It’s known for the highest percentage of Maori (indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) and having a sulfuric (rotten egg) smell.

If you know me, you know I am a major participator. This made Rotorua very challenging for me. There was too much to do and see and not enough time. I had to keep telling myself to chill out and really pick and choose my activities. There was no need to do everything and still plenty of New Zealand to see. So I definitely missed out on some things, but it’s an excuse to go back, right?

Redwoods

Here are some of my highlights from Rotorua:

Redwood Forest. I haven’t been to the California version so I can’t compare them, but it was really magical. The trees somehow grow and mature 20 years faster than in California. It’s actually not “somehow” it’s totally because of the volcanic soil, but they are massive. I went with our whole group for a short loop on our first day, but then I returned and did a longer loop myself. They have a treetop walk with suspension bridges (for a cost) and in the evenings they are lit up with lights and projections. It was absolutely beautiful and worth going.

Hobbiton. Not in the city, but an easy bus ride away. A must for all Lord of the Ring fans, but being a fan isn’t a requirement.

Rafting. Sooooo cool! This was my first time rafting and I’m obsessed. Such a cool feeling and the company did a fantastic job making everything run as smooth as possible.

Polynesian Spa. A geothermal hot springs spa with natural pools and spa therapies. I went on a rainy evening and enjoyed jumping between the mineral hot pools (four alkaline and one acidic between 36-41 degrees Celsius). It was truly a relaxing experience.

Ready for her close up

Cat Cafe. Yep, I went to a purebred cat cafe and I don’t regret it. I would say I’m definitely more of a dog person, but it was still a nice experience. These are resident cats so not up for adoption and they thrive here. For $15 NZ (under $10 USD) you have a choice of a coffee drink and an hour with the cats.

Night Market. I am a sucker for markets/fairs/festivals – anything outside of the traditional shop. On Thursday nights there is a night market in town complete with tons of food vendors and music acts. I couldn’t have asked for a better first night.

Waitomo Caves. You can do a day trip to the caves if that’s something you’re interested in.

Rotorua is a must stop while on the North Island. Just prepare yourself for the smell.

Rotorua YHA Review

YHA is Xmas Ready

I’ve become pretty familiar and comfortable with YHA’s so I pretty much knew what to expect going into it with this one. Spending four nights at a hostel you better like it. I walked into my room and there was an older gentleman on one of the beds….umm okay I thought I was in a female dorm. Guess not. He didn’t realize either and actually commented and then said he didn’t speak much English. Okay let me sort this out. Well I went downstairs and asked nicely if there was another female coming into the dorm or if there was a female only dorm I could move into. The reception worker says, “you’re in luck” and hands me a new key. Well I was moved to a glorious double bed private room. Thank you!

When we returned from Raglan I stayed at the YHA again, but alas no private upgrade this time. One of the best parts of this hostel is the central location and the fact that almost all buses pick up directly from here so no schlepping your stuff. The kitchen/hang out area is also really nice. Even though I’ve had a top bunk (which I hate) for three nights I’m still enjoying my stay.

I’ve mostly heard horror stories about the other hostels in the area. I don’t know firsthand so I won’t name them, but from what I hear the YHA is the way to go in Rotorua.

Waves & Caves

A small group of us Stray travelers broke off to do the Waves & Caves excursion. This trip went west to Raglan stopping at Waitomo and then looping back to Rotorua. Waitomo has about 50 residents, but lots of tourism pouring in daily to visit the underground caves in the area. When planning my trip to New Zealand (“NZ”) going to the Waitomo Caves was highly recommended to me. The pictures looked stunning and this seemed like a once in a lifetime experience. I went with a caving adventure that included tubing called Tumu Tumu Toobing. Beyond knowing I would see glowworms I didn’t know what to expect.

We had a very small group: me, a female Kiwi guide, and four german boys (and yes I mean boys they were 18-19 years old). We drove from the main building/check-in center over to the cave site and had to get geared up. Thick wetsuits with knee and butt pads, jackets, rain boots, and helmets with lights created a very stylish ensemble. We looked legit, but how cold was it down there if we needed all of this? Eek!

We walked along the rolling greens and our guide, Deni, gave us a bit of history. She said that Waitomo is covered with thousands of caves and they were usually discovered when an animal or person fell into one. They really became a nuisance and farmers wanted the NZ government to fill them, but this turned out to be way too costly so instead the government gave the farmers the ownership. Now a handful (about twelve) are commercialized, which is great for those farmers, but the rest just have these “annoying” formations on their land that they may not even know about. You would never be able to tell that caves existed under the green land. In my head caves were reserved to cliffs, rocks, and around oceans not in the middle of a green field with sheep.

When we got to the cave opening we had to climb down 10ish meters – well here goes nothing. Of course as soon as we were all down and waiting for our guide Deni one of the boys had to say, “if there was an earthquake right now we would all die.” Eye roll and thanks for that. Okay literally no turning back now and we start right away by crawling through tight spaces in a couple of inches of water. The cave ranged in width, height, water level, etc. every second there was a change. At some points we had to crawl on our hands and knees, others we could stroll easily, then we would have to balance while walking on sharp, thin rocks. The scenery was changing every step of the way which was cool and because we were a small group Deni let us do extra squeezes/tunnels.

Without a doubt my favorite part were the glowworms. They were so pretty and really glowed like crazy. It was like millions of a pretty blue pinprick lights. Of course we didn’t have our phones on us and because it’s so dark a normal camera wouldn’t be able to actually capture what we were seeing. Glowworms are actually pretty wild. They let thin strings down (similar to a spider web) which paralyzes insects that accidentally fly into them. They then go down and eat them. After nine months they bring the string back up and make a cocoon for two weeks. Once they emerge as an adult gnat they won’t feed any more and only live 2-3 days with the only purpose being to mate and lay eggs. They are also pretty much cannibals and will eat another glowworm if it gets too close or if it gets trapped in the string. Seems like a lot of work to only be a gnat for 3 days. So what makes them glow? Well not to be gross, but that beautiful bioluminescence is essentially glowing poo. TMI I know.

We were in the cave for 2ish hours. So it was a long time to be in the pitch black, cold water, and tight spaces. Don’t get me wrong it was totally awesome, but I was happy to finally see sunlight at the end of the tunnel.

If you’ve never been in a cave I highly recommend checking it out. It’s cool seeing our world from below and now knowing there’s a whole system just below our feet.