Auckland and the first wonder of the trip: the Waitomo glowworms

This was a trip that I had been dreaming about for years, one of those epic adventures on the same scale as hiking in Nepal, driving through African reserves, backpacking across Southeast Asia, or sailing in Polynesia. Landing in Auckland, the largest city of New Zealand (though not the capital, that honor is reserved for Wellington), I looked ahead to an unforgettable road trip. The plan was simple: get in through Auckland, near the north tip of NZ’s North Island, get out two weeks later through Queenstown, neat the south end of the South Island.


We picked up a rental car a spent a few hours checking out the highlights of Auckland. My favorite spot was Mount Eden, a volcanic cone with gorgeous views of the entire city and the harbor. I was surprised to learn that this city was built on field of volcanoes. We headed downtown for a stroll and lunch. The city didn’t feel like anything to write home about, it was quaint and had some noteworthy buildings, like the Sky Tower, but don’t expect a Sydney. In the lively wharf area, we found a nice restaurant where we enjoyed our first NZ lamb. And then we drove out, towards Devonport, for a final panorama of the city across the water.


After a quite efficient first day, we pushed ourselves to make the 2.5 hour drive south to Waitomo, so we could also make the most of our second day. We woke up early and went to the office of Spellbound, the company we had picked for a tour of the glowworm caves – probably the best choice if you care more about the views that about having and adventure experience like inner tubing. While waiting for the tour to start, we had time to gobble some delicious lamb pie for breakfast from the Waitomo General Store. At 9am, our small group gathered and we were directed to a van that would take us to the cave. After a short walk, we entered the dark cavern and waited for our eyes to adjust. As we walked in deeper, we started to see patches of shinny teal dots.

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The worms are a type of fly larvae, and their bioluminescence is caused by protein manufacturing process in their renal glands – not very sexy if you put it like this, but it is magical if you just look at it. There are several colonies throughout the cave. The coolest part of the tour is when you get on a raft and slowly and quietly drift on the river, under a dome of rock covered in glowworms. I really enjoyed the tour, and if anything, it felt short. I was also disappointed that I didn’t get to capture any decent pictures, it’s basically impossible without a tripod and more time to set up. But at least the tour operator sent us some professional photos (like the one above).


Partially to justify their high prices, they then took us to a second cave, this one lit up and packed with stalactites and stalactites. The guide shared some interesting stories, and we saw the skeleton of a moa, an extinct flightless bird. And if anything, it was a nice walk, which we would always appreciate in this trip full of driving. Next stop, Rotorua!

The 10 most breathtaking US West Coast National Parks (2/2)

Picking this epic list back up for 5 more breathtaking views and hikes – check out my top 5 here.

6- Arches

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Its incredible what nature can create. More than 2,000 red sandstone arches are said to be found in this park, and although I only saw a couple dozens, these are the other bizarre geological formations make this park a natural wonderland. Two hikes that are absolute must dos: the 3-mile / 2-hour Delicate Arch hike, and the 8-mile / 4-hour Devil’s Garden hike through Landscape Arch to Double-O Arch (including a detour to get behind Partition Arch).

The Windows section was closed for road construction when I visited, but I’ve heard great things about it too. And there are a few other viewpoints that are worth stopping by: Park Avenue, Balance Rock, Fiery Furnace,… We had such a blast hiking Arches with my baby niece 🙂

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The 10 most breathtaking US West Coast National Parks (1/2)

I always say that for the highest concentration of breathtaking views and mind-blowing adventures one doesn’t need to look further than the West Coast of the US. Sometimes we travel far seeking picture-perfect landscapes and epic hikes, and forget to explore our backyards. For those lucky enough like me to live in the West Coast, our backyard happens to be packed with world wonders.

This is my list of top 10 sites – I tried to balance best views with best hikes, depending on what you’re looking for, you will want to prioritize differently. But you might not need to choose, all of the below can be tackled in a 3 week ultimate road trip! If you go for this, get the National Parks Annual Pass.

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Mt. Kinabalu and the world’s largest flower

We arrived at Mount Kinabalu late at night, in a bus from the Sepilok Orangutan Center. This was our last leg of the trip, and much to my disappointment, we had to discard hiking up the tallest peak in Malaysia (4,095m), because it required two days and MYR 1,800 ($400). The independent one day option that we had read about in other blogs was no longer permitted. We still wanted to do some short hikes and enjoy the landscape, and we had gotten excited reading about the possibility of seeing a rafflesia, the biggest flower in the world, native of this area. We woke up early and surprised by the low temperatures (we were under-prepared, coming from diving in Sipadan and hiking in the rainforest), and what followed was one of those days that make me love traveling.

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Close encounters with orangutans

Seeing orangutans was one of our main goals in our Malaysia trip. We weren’t able to do it in the wild, at Kinabatangan, but the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center offered a semi-wild setting with guaranteed sightings. The reserve is a large area of protected forest, where 60-80 orangutans live free, and also contains a nursery for 20-30 orphan orangutans. It’s a great initiative to protect these extraordinary animals, which are under huge pressure due to deforestation and trafficking.

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Kinabatangan on our own

A Kinabatangan river cruise is one of the most typical activities in a Borneo trip, one of the few remaining real opportunities to experience the jungle and its wildlife. The most common way to do it, and at first glance the only one, is to join an organized tour from Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan. But we were coming from Semporna (from our diving and island hoping adventure), and we prefer to travel independently… and as cheap as possible. The basic 2 day / 1 night tour to Kinabatangan goes for over MYR 1,000 (over $300) per person! There had to be a better way.

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The best view in Sabah, Borneo

Back from our unforgettable liveaboard in Sipadan, we found ourselves in the harbor town of Semporna, Borneo, with no specific plans. The area is known for its paradise islands, with white sand beaches and turquoise waters, but unfortunately, most of these have been taken over by all-inclusive luxury hotels, like the spectacular Kapalai. The weather was also not looking particularly good, but we were resolved to explore at least a bit of this rather unknown area.

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Top five things to do in Kuala Lumpur

Ok, let’s be honest: Kuala Lumpur is not all that interesting. Despite being one of the hubs of Southeast Asia, the capital of Malaysia doesn’t have the buzz of Bangkok or Singapore, nor the charm of Yangon or Phnom Penn. It might be a good place for an expat to live in, but in terms of places to visit, I would put it near the bottom of my list, probably below Manila, tied with Saigon and only above Vientiane. Having said that, there are a few sites to keep a traveler occupied for a day or two…

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