Just beyond the leafy green hedge out back and past a noisy lamb next door, our small home in Renwick is besieged on all sides by vines. Hedged to perfection, and now carrying ripening grapes, row upon row makes for a mesmerizing ride every time we drive into town.
When else might we be living in the heart of one of the world’s great wine regions? Ignoring the wineries just down the road would be a crime, akin to skipping sushi during a trip to Japan. So, late one morning, we set off on the two trusty bikes parked in our garage, armed with a vineyard map and picnic lunch.
It was a perfect day for biking. A late summer sun shone down onto infinite vines, the rising temperature tempered by fluffy clouds and a light breeze. It took all of three minutes to roll up to the first cellar door at Gibson Bridge.
There are dozens of small, family-run vineyards scattered across the map, producing small vintages that never make it to the States. Marlborough is famous for its sauvignon blanc, though most wineries offer or even specialize in other varietals: pinot gris, gewurztraminer, chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir. It is all good. A far cry from the ubiquitous box wine we drank in Australia, it is pleasantly surprising to be able to relate to the detailed and pretentious tasting descriptions. Some of this wine actually did have slight flavors of mango and pineapple, while others were peppery or had a hint of citrus. It didn’t take long to be able to navigate the wine lists and figure out our favorites.
We had picked up a wine touring book at the library which included a list of other notes and flavors we might come across on an afternoon of tasting. Thankfully, we have yet to sample wine with hints of leather, cigar box, coffee, or — why not? — manure.
After several months of cheap living, it was wonderful to feel like a tourist again. We parked our bikes next to white limousines, pretended to be interested in $60 bottles, played petanque on a court surrounded by roses. Best of all, there are enough wineries within pedaling distance of our house that several more days could be filled in the same manner.
After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.
First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:
Tent vs. campervan
Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too? Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.
Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.
Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.
Where to sleep
While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.
DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view:
The Fourth of July, in our opinion, might just be the best day of the year. What could be better than a day off in the height of summer to do whatever you please?
This year, despite being on a faraway continent full of people oblivious to the holiday, we were determined to carry out our duties as Americans on our nation’s birthday. Namely: grill meats and get drunk next to a body of water.
We happened to be in Babinda, in northern Queensland, on the morning of the Fourth of July. Babinda is a beautiful town, but also happens to share the dubious and unfortunate title of the rainiest town in Australia. Low, grey clouds unleashed rain with varying degrees of enthusiasm all day.
Undeterred, we took over a covered picnic table and proceeded to make ample quantities of some classic and unhealthy American summer foods— hot dogs, pasta salad, fruit salad, watermelon, baked beans, potato chips, orange soda. At the highly acceptable hour of 1:30 p.m., we added Dark and Stormies to the mix.
We didn’t have any flags or fireworks, but we tried our best to be patriotic:
It just wouldn’t be the Fourth of July without swimming, so despite the weather, we peeled off our rain jackets and dove in. Briefly.
This also seems an appropriate time to pass along some of the things we love about America. Being so far away from home for so long has also made us realize what we take for granted.
Beer. The beer here is an improvement over anything found in Asia, but we would have to commit all sorts of nefarious deeds in order to regularly afford $20 for a six-pack of 3.5 percent pilsner. Americans live in the promised land when it comes to beer. Oh, how we miss our hoppy and affordable IPAs!
S’mores. Imagine a place where the mention of s’mores receives a blank and questioning look. Imagine a continent devoid of graham crackers, where marshmallows are pink and taste like cherry cough syrup. Well, my friends, this land is Australia. With such an outdoorsy population, you would think Australians would have caught on to the wonder that is the s’more. But no. They have never heard of them. It’s a travesty.
Not being foreign. Though it’s not as obvious as when we where in Asia, we are still readily identified as foreigners here in Australia as soon as we open our mouths and talk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just nice to walk down the sidewalk and know that the people who pass share your citizenship and the things that come with it. It’s like you’re on the same team. Even if they’re assholes.
The price of everything. Most things in the States are cheap, but in this context, everything means the essentials: beer (which we’ve already discussed), gas (it costs $5.10 to $7.50 a gallon here), ice cream cones, and McDonalds cheeseburgers (each about double the price). Why do we care so much about McDonald’s prices? Well…
Internet. Fast, free wifi is nearly nonexistent here. The one and only reliable source of wireless is, oddly enough, McDonalds. We’re in one right now. It’s a bit depressing.
Baseball. Sunshine, warm weather, and tropical beaches aside, it just doesn’t feel like summer without baseball. Not to mention our beloved wiffle ball field.
Our friends and family. Not that we don’t like each other, but it would be nice to hang out with someone else for a change. There’s something about a holiday, especially this one, that makes you miss home.
After a laughably low-class week harvesting citrus, it was time to blow some of our hard-earned cash in one of South Australia’s famed wine regions.
McLaren Vale lies just an hour south of Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Row upon row of grapes stretch from rolling hillsides and across yellow-green plains until they meet the ocean. Narrow, tree-lined roads thread the countless tasting rooms together, and simply driving around town is a worthy afternoon activity in itself. It is just as pleasant as it sounds.
Dressed in our finest clothes (which for Nathan, meant the jeans he worked in all week), we headed for picturesque Coriole Vineyards. Despite our efforts, the employees seemed to realize we weren’t going to order a case of wine—probably from my lack of fancy handbag and leather boots— and didn’t spend much time on us. Oh, well. The wine was very, very good.
We took a bottle of Sangiovese and headed to a table surrounded by blooming gardens, shaded by an old tree, and frequented by the resident cat— a green-eyed and extremely soft fellow who thankfully spent a fair amount of time hanging out with us. From there we sipped wine, nibbled on cheese and crackers, and laughed at the overly fancy crowd in cable-knit sweaters and designer sunglasses swirling their wine and commenting on the elegance of the vintage. It was pretty hilarious, and quite a contrast from the orange picking crowd.
Sitting there soaking up the last of the winter sunshine, we realized we lacked only four things for a perfect stay in McLaren Vale: time, money, friends, and bicycles. It was easy to imagine an excellent long weekend of riding bike paths and back roads from vineyard to vineyard with some good company.
Early the next morning, we drove south to Victor Harbor in the hope of spotting some of the many southern right whales that swim into the bay in the winter. Sadly, we were apparently a week or two early, but a walk around the surprisingly lovely Granite Island more than made up for it.
Not to mention some hot, fresh, very unhealthy cinnamon doughnuts.
It was a short but satisfying goodbye to the ocean. The next few days took us straight inland— towards the Outback, Uluru, and the dry, empty country that to many means Australia.
Warm, sunny days, waterfront eateries, good beer, and beautiful parks are the recipe for a perfect city experience. And that’s exactly what we got during our two days in Sydney.
After an unappealing drive in through the suburbs, we checked into a hostel in Glebe, a lovely residential neighborhood lined with cafes and large trees. Leaves fluttered down and collected on the shaded sidewalks in crisp, cool autumn perfection.
Sydney’s harbor is as beautiful as we’ve always heard. We wandered along the docks in Darling Harbor in the morning—taking note of upcoming happy hour specials—and made our way out onto the Harbor Bridge.
Midway across, the sun cast the bridge’s shadow onto the sparkling blue harbor, and illuminated boats of all sizes that ply its waters. Scalloped dark green shores extended into the distance and the city’s iconic Opera House lured wandering eyes directly below.
We expected the Opera House to disappoint. Synonymous with Australia, slapped on a million postcards, and featured in many a token travel photo, the Opera House is victim to the kind of overexposure that often ends in letdown upon seeing the real thing. But it’s awesome. As we walked further across the bridge, the differing angles changed the shape of the sails entirely, giving it a totally new look. Up close, it’s even better. The tiled roof— actually, those of three separate buildings— soars into the sky, sloping gracefully away from your eyes, with the harbor and bridge as an unbeatable backdrop.
Landmarks aside, Sydney’s incredible Royal Botanic Gardens were by far the highlight. The 75-acre gardens hold countless plants from all over the world, arranged aesthetically for maximum pastoral enjoyment. Enormous fig trees spread shade over swaths of grass, their thick branches almost skimming the ground. Vegetation of all shades and shaped is scattered around, while birds and flying foxes twitter from the treetops. At a turn of the trail, you can find yourself in a different environment— from the Oriental Gardens to the Rainforest Walk to the Fernery and the succulents. It’s just incredible. And it’s free.
After three hot, wonderful months in Southeast Asia, we’ve landed on Australia’s southern coast, where winter is just beginning to set in.
Before we begin exploring this vast country, we wanted to share a few things we are thrilled to be leaving behind, and some things we will desperately miss.
Things we will not miss:
1. Riding in any variety of public vehicle.
2. Prevalence of hard-boiled eggs on said vehicles.
3. Being treated like an ATM.
4. Watching people throw garbage on the ground.
5. Toilet paper being replaced with a butt washing spray hose.
6. The beer selection.
7. The lack of cheese.
Things we will:
1. Fresh fruit on every street corner. Especially mangos!
2. Paying $3 for dinner and $10 for a hotel.
3. Wearing flip-flops all day.
4. A spring roll appetizer at every meal.
5. The feeling of being very far away from home.
6. A change of scenery every few days.
7. Thai curries and Lao sticky rice.
8. El Nido’s tropical beaches.
9. Rice paddies.
10. Excited children yelling “hello.”
Our first post from Australia is coming soon!
Before we update you on our time here in the tropical perfection of the Philippines, we present a haiku poem dedicated to one of the most delicious things money can buy:
Here in Vietnam
I spy an orange bag of chips
Crunchy snack from home
Assorted varieties of Kettle Chips have surprised us several times in the most unlikely locations, and they are always a friendly reminder of home. These guys turned up in Sapa, Vietnam.
Immediately after purchasing our plane ticket out of Laos, we felt a surge of regret. We suddenly felt like idiots for leaving a country we loved so soon. Here are seven things we will miss most.
The overall atmosphere
Immediately after setting foot in Laos, you notice a change, and breathe a sigh of relief. Everything is a bit calmer, slower, more laid back. Tuk-tuk drivers wait for you to come to them, people pause to say hello to you on the street, and foreigners are not the center of attention. Tourism hasn’t seemed to change Laos as much as its neighboring countries— or maybe it’s just the way Lao people are. It’s hard to put a finger on it exactly, but there’s just a feeling here that makes you want to stay.
Sticky rice (and new Lao dishes)
After eating it with every meal during a trek through Nam Ha, we were hooked on sticky rice. Chewy and flavorful, a perfect finger food for dipping into anything else on your plate, it is the standard accompaniment for Lao cuisine. And though dishes here are not as boldly flavored or expansive as the more familiar Thai food, they do include delicious flavor combinations we had never tasted before. A particular favorite is chicken laap—minced chicken bursting with flavors of lime, mint and ginger. The fried spring rolls in Laos also seemed unusually tasty.
Lazy days in Nong Khiaw
Some of our favorite memories from Laos will be of the times we did nothing at all. Our shady deck had a commanding view over the Nam Ou river valley, and the constant activity on the opposite bank made long-term lounging an entertaining pastime.
After a steady stream of tasteless, colorless beer in the rest of Southeast Asia, Beerlao Dark is a shining ray of hope in a gloomy tunnel of beverage despair. It’s an impressive 6.8 percent and it actually tastes like something. Something good.
Biking is an excellent way to explore a new place, and it was especially nice in Laos, where drivers are a bit less maniacal and tons of locals also ride bikes. It’s slow enough that you can appreciate the details in passing scenery, respond to hellos and palms outstretched for high-fives, yet fast enough to cover a lot of ground. Plus, you can feel like you’ve earned those spring rolls.
by Stephanie Choate
The town of Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos is perched along the fringes of Nam Ha National Protected Area—2,224 square kilometers of rolling jungle-clad mountains. Many companies offer guided treks through the jungle, and though we had avoided the more popular trekking scene in Thailand, we wanted to get further into this amazingly beautiful countryside.
Surrounded by an old moat and the crumbling remains of a city wall, Chiang Mai is the cultural capital of northern Thailand. Narrow cobble-stoned soi lead to small cafes and glittering wats, the sun gleaming off their mirror-tiled walls.
An overnight sleeper train journey from Bangkok—and, we realized shortly upon boarding the train, there is no other way to travel—Chiang Mai is cooler, cleaner and less hectic than the capital city. We spent five enjoyable days there, running out the remainder of our visa.
A willow-lined canal crisscrossed with bridges, kimono-clad visitors hopping between the town’s seven onsen, a rainy beach walk, an amazingly friendly innkeeper, fat flakes of snow, and king crab fresh from the Sea of Japan. There was nothing not to love about our 24 hours in the coastal town of Kinosaki.
It isn’t until you look at it from above that you get a feel for just how big Tokyo is.
Wandering the streets, the buildings don’t seem excessively huge, the views aren’t especially impressive—in fact, the only remarkable thing seems to be how many people are riding the subways. But from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, it’s a different story. Buildings, large and small, stretch off in every direction, disappearing into the horizon. Literally. You can’t see the end of them. We could go on and on trying to describe it, but…it’s big. Very big.
Four days in Furano have treated us well. Though the skiing was lacking in comparison to Rusutsu, it was well made up for in food. Days centered around sushi, pastries, and hot drinks proved quite enjoyable. And we did manage a trip up nearby Asahidake, thanks to a chain of emails and two American expats, for the deepest turns of the trip so far.
Tomorrow we are bound for six days of backcountry skiing and soaking at an onsen (hot-spring) on Tokachidake, an active volcano across the valley.
If we had to describe Rusutsu in one word it would most definitely be “snowy.” It seemed to fall almost constantly here—big fat flakes, tiny wind-driven needles, fluffy swirling snow. In fact, there were probably only a few hours in each day when it didn’t snow.