Experience The Old World Charm of Vilnius

What happens when a warm weather person ventures into the Baltics in winter? A lot of complaining about loss of feeling in the extremities of the body. I will never understand how people can live in such horrible temperatures! But I had heard that the old world charm of Vilnius in Lithuania was something that I really needed to experience first-hand. So I put on 20 layers and got myself on a plane.

Experience The Old World Charm of Vilnius – Airport or Train Station?

As far as international airports go, the Vilnius International Airport, or Vilniaus oro uostas in Lithuanian, is a bit on the smaller side. It is still the largest of four airports in Vilnius and sees about 5 million passengers through its halls a year. Upon entering the terminal, you could be excused for mistaking it for a train station.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Airport

The nice lady at the tourist information centre indicated which bus went to the old town and where it left from. Luckily the bus stop was just outside the terminal building. So I waited inside, away from the cold, where I could see the bus stop. It was already dark at 5pm.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Airport Bus Stop

The number 88 bus didn’t take long to arrive. Unlike what I’m used to at home, where you enter a bus through the front door, this bus took passengers through the back door. In my tired state, I just sat down without paying. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realised I hadn’t paid. The driver didn’t seem fussed about this at all and nonchalantly took my €1 when approached later.

The Old Town At Night

Upon arriving at the bus stop near the old town, a short walk from the main road took me to a cobbled street. As lovely and old-worldy as it looked, it really wasn’t easy to walk on. The cobbles were the biggest I’d ever seen. A few metres of walking on that was annoying enough to make me switch to the narrow footpath to the side of the road.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Cobbled Road

I went to the old town centre to search for some food. Almost everything was closed except a small supermarket, that looked like a convenience store, and a Hesburger. Hesburger is like a Finnish version of McDonald’s. It actually outsells McDonald’s in Finland and the Baltic states. As options were running low, I settled on the €1 Cheeseburger. It was as disgusting as I thought it’d be.

I grabbed some supplies from the convenience store/supermarket. I didn’t want to eat another cheeseburger the next day. Most groceries were reasonably priced, which was great for the budget. The old town did have a certain charm about it, but it was also a little boring. At the time I thought it could be because it was night and many things were closed.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Empty Streets During the Day
Maybe it’ll be a bit more lively during the day, I thought. It was not.

Exploring the Old World Charm of Vilnius by Day

I was struggling to get myself out into the cold, but I really wanted to see the city. Just as I was ready to go, it started snowing! I wasn’t going out in that, so I decided to stay inside a bit longer. I ventured out about 20 minutes later to find not one trace of the recent snow anywhere. Where did it go? Did I imagine it was snowing? No, I’m 100% sure it was snowing. Obviously snow works in mysterious ways incomprehensible to the mind of a warm weather person.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Where's the snow?
Where’s the snow?

Magic snow aside, the cloudy skies seemed to accentuate the beauty of some of the buildings. But they didn’t seem to do much for the mood of the locals. I’m quite used to people being friendly and approaching me wherever I travel. Things were a little different in Lithuania. People just didn’t seem to want to talk. I mean, they would interact with me if I asked for directions, but they’d give the shortest answer possible. They would constantly look like they were uncomfortable with the situation and waiting for any opportunity to get out of it.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Cloudy Sky

This happened with just about every Lithuanian I tried to engage with. All except the smoking lady at the bus station. She never actually spoke to me but her interactions with others were quite hilarious. She shamelessly interrupted conversations smokers were having with their friends to get a cigarette.

The hilarity leveled up when she approached a smoking tourist. She didn’t speak English, so she just stood near the tourist and his friend. Then she started nodding her head and looking at them while they were talking. When they stopped to look at her, she pointed to the guy’s smoke and put her hand out in a ‘give me’ kind of fashion. Needless to say, the poor guy was a bit dumbfounded and handed her a cigarette. He then watched her walk off towards her next victim.

Street Art

I’d heard that a famous political mural with Trump and Putin kissing was near where I was staying. I wanted to find it! Of course, things didn’t quite go to plan. All I had was a street name, so I found that street. The mural was nowhere to be seen. I did find some other art along the way.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Street Art

That mural was right across the road from this interesting statement hung on the side of a train..
K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Train Statement

Was it a sign of a dystopian future? Or are the people of Vilnius really not able to express opinions after 10pm? It would explain their stoic demeanors and standoffish ways. Anyway, back to the art. Once I’d given up on finding the famous mural, I came across this in a back street.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Alien Street Art

If it hadn’t been for this, I’d have never noticed the drainpipe next to it. The thing I had been searching for was there. Sort of.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Putin Trump Mural Sticker

As I couldn’t find the original, this was the closest I’d get to seeing it. Then I spotted an embroidered car. I wondered, how many months would that take to make?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Embroidered Car

The last arty thing I spotted, while not strictly street art, was still cool. What’s the best way to make something stare-worthy? Use coloured lights!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Light Art

Bernardine Park/Bernardinų sodas

On the west banks of the Vilnia River lies Bernadine Park. It has an interesting history that has seen it closed and reopened under different names by different regimes. These days it’s mainly full of manicured beds of flowers and fountains. From there you can access two historical monuments. The Trys Kryžiai or Three Crosses and the Gediminas Castle Tower.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Three Crosses K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Gediminas Castle Tower

I had intended to climb the hills for both of these. The path to The Gediminas Castle Tower from the Bernadine Park was closed for repair. This was also the path that was needed to access another path that led to the Kalnų Parkas and the Three Crosses. That meant that both required a longer walk around the outside of the park to reach their other access points. So I chose to just do the castle tower as it was rapidly approaching sunset.

Experience the Old World Charm of Vilnius – Gediminas Castle Tower at Sunset

The tower is actually a part of the Lithuanian National Museum, the main building of which is a few minutes walk from the tower. The path up to the tower is short, but steep.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Path to the Gediminas Castle Tower

A lot of the path is cobbled too, which makes it a little bit more difficult to navigate. I guess that’s why a funicular has been built to take people to the top of the hill for €1, or €2 for a return trip.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. City View From Gediminas Castle Tower

You can see almost the whole city from the top of the hill. I’ve got to admit that it was a pretty amazing view. The top of the hill was very windy. It was already quite cold without the wind. So you can imagine how difficult it was to take pictures with numb hands. But I just had to get a shot of this amazing sunset!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Sunset View From the Gediminas Castle Tower

Experiencing the Old World Charm of Vilnius at Night

Winter in Lithuania brings about an early sunset. So it starts getting dark before 5pm. The cold seems to really kick in after the sunset too. But that didn’t stop me from checking out the city after dark. Well, that and the fact that I was on the other side of the city from my accommodation and had to walk back.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Vilnia River

The river looked so pretty and peaceful after sunset, even though there was a main road running either side of it. It actually looked quite amazing at dusk.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Vilnia River After Sunset

I walked alongside the river for as long as I could, before heading back into the city via an intersecting road. It wasn’t long before I came upon another park, so it seems like there’s a fair amount of green spots in the city.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Lights in Park

This park was lit up with lights that changed colours at intervals. You don’t want to know how much time I spent staring at them! Let’s just say that I was so distracted by the lights that it took me a while to realise that there was an ice rink right behind me. Complete with a disco ball!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old World Charm of Vilnius. Ice Skating at Night

Luxury Bus

Once it was time to leave Vilnius, I got myself a €16 bus ticket to Riga. I was not at all happy about paying that much for a 5 hour trip. But I guess that’s just par for the course in Europe. I remember wondering, when I purchased the ticket, what was so special about this bus? Was there a reason it cost so much?

Well, it was the most luxurious bus that I took in all of the Baltics. Or anywhere for that matter! The seats were roomy and comfortable. The heating was set at just the right temperature. And there was a hot drinks machine that dispensed coffee, hot chocolate and tea! I tried to drink €16 worth of tea, so I think I got my money’s worth!

Stay tuned for the continuing adventure in Latvia.

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Can I Travel the South Pacific on a Budget?

The South Pacific region in Oceania, which encompasses Melanesia as well as parts of Micronesia and Polynesia, is renowned for pristine beaches, sparkling blue waters and island resorts. Resorts don’t exactly conjure up a picture that seems affordable to the average person, right? You may therefore be asking, can I travel the South Pacific on a budget?

The short answer is yes! In practice, it’s a little more complicated but it’s still very doable. You’ll just have to plan and research more than you would for somewhere like South East Asia. It’s not really a turn-up-and-go-for-it kind of region. This is due to a variety of factors, including limited transport options and the sheer distance between islands.

Imagine an area larger than the whole of the European continent, but with thousands of small islands randomly dotted around it. Then thousands of kilometres of deep water between them. The South Pacific is home to some of the most remote islands in the world. Despite the logistical difficulties it can still be done and it’s more than worth visiting! Let’s look at some commonly asked questions about travel in the South Pacific on a budget.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Boats and Blue Water

I Can’t Afford a Resort! Where can I stay?

There are a surprising amount of choices for budget travellers in the South Pacific. It can get a bit trickier on the less frequented islands but all of the major islands have hostels. Most can be found on Agoda. If you can’t find any on Agoda or similar booking sites, you may need to ask Uncle Google and book directly with the property.

Obviously some islands are a bit pricer than other places in the world. Most still fall well within the budget category though. Expect to pay somewhere between US$10-20 for a bed in a dorm room on most islands. Or US$20-160 when there are no dorm beds available. Below is list of prices valid as of March 2020. Some of these prices have decreased in recent years as some islands have become more popular destinations.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific On A Budget

For the islands of Wallis and Futuna, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Nauru a little bit of research is required. As the third least visited and least visited countries in the world, Tuvalu and Nauru have limited choices for accommodation. There are only 2 places in Nauru! Due to that and the limited international flights serving them, these four islands could be the hardest in the world to travel on a budget.

Travel the South Pacific on a Budget – Couchsurfing

If you haven’t heard of Couchsurfing, you can check out my article about it here. In a nutshell, it’s a platform that allows you to get in contact with locals who are willing to open their home to you. It can be a bit hit and miss on some of the islands, because there are barely any hosts. But in places like Fiji and Tonga there are many hosts willing to take you in.

Couchsurfing isn’t just about getting a free bed. It’s about cultural exchange and giving you a window into local life. It can give you some of the best travel experiences you’ll ever have. Like sitting down to a traditional meal with your hosts. Or insider information on the quiet beaches and best islands to visit. There is also a facebook group based on a similar idea, but only for females called Host A Sister.

Travel the South Pacific on a Budget – Village Homestay

This could be the way to go in places like American Samoa and Tokelau (arranged through the Tokelau Liason Office). It’s a very similar concept to Couchsurfing, but is usually organised by a government department, who will vet hosts to make sure that guests have the best experience possible. As with Couchsurfing, it’s a great way to get a feel for local life.

Travel the South Pacific on a Budget – Volunteering

This could be an option if you intend to stay in each place you visit for several weeks. Sites like WWOOF and Workaway offer volunteer opportunities. For most jobs you are expected to work a certain amount of hours in exchange for food and board. Many engagements require you to stay for a minimum period of 2 weeks to a month.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Beach Hammock

Isn’t it just all resorts?

No. The locals don’t live in resorts. They generally live in simple houses in residential areas. In many cases, they are happy to share their home and food with travellers. There are also volcanoes, hills that can be hiked, lagoons, atolls, reefs to be snorkeled, waterfalls to be seen. The list goes on!

Do I have to Fly Between Every Island?

No. You cannot fly between some countries in the South Pacific. For instance, if you want to get to the Cook Islands, the only place in the South Pacific you can fly there from is New Zealand. No other island chain has air links to that chain. The same goes for Niue. Tuvalu and Kiribati, on the other hand, can only be reached via biweekly flights from Fiji. There is only 1 weekly flight between Tonga and Samoa/American Samoa. If you want to get to any other island chain from either of these countries, you need to go via Fiji or New Zealand. Then Tokelau has no air links at all! You can see now why planning your trip could give you a headache!

When it is an option, flying is definitely the easiest way to go but it’s not cheap. Those biweekly flights from Fiji to Tuvalu are over US$500 for a round trip. The weekly flight from Tonga to Samoa/American Samoa is over US$300 for a one way trip of less than 2 hours. Auckland, New Zealand to the Cook Islands is around US$250 return.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Weekly Flight From Tonga to Samoa
Weekly flight from Tonga to Samoa

If you have a bit of time, it’s also possible to buy yourself passage on any of the cargo ships that visit the islands. They have a small passenger allotment that is never full. This is of course much cheaper than flying but it will take time. A lot of time. You may also not be able to get to the exact island you want on the first try. It will definitely be an adventure though!

Inter-Island Transport

Most island chains have scheduled ferry services between other islands in the same chain. Frequency can vary wildly depending on the country though. Some like Fiji have very developed water transport systems to most islands. Ferries to many islands leave throughout the day. The more remote chains, like the Cook Islands don’t have any scheduled ferries. Locals normally have their own fishing boats for getting between the islands. So your options would be either fly or make friends with a boat owner.

Isn’t Food Expensive?

Yes and no. While it is true that most food is imported, there are still a lot of locally produced foods. A traditional meal at a local restaurant can turn out to be quite reasonable. Somewhere between US$4-25. Food at supermarkets can be expensive because it’s mostly imported. Tropical fruits grown on the islands seasonally will also be quite cheap. I honestly can’t think of anything better than eating bananas and coconuts everyday! Check in with locals and see what they’re eating. As most locals receive modest wages, eating like a local would be your best bet for keeping your expenses down.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Coconut

Can I do It By Myself?

Yes! Absolutely! The Pacific islands are super safe and full of caring, helpful people. Don’t be surprised if people in cars stop to check if you need a lift somewhere when you’re walking along a road. It’s really easy to hitchhike on all islands. You could even end up doing it accidentally!

Public transport will also give you a chance to make some new friends. It’s almost impossible to take a bus in the South Pacific without someone wanting to get to know you. It’s also quite a cheap way of getting around, with local buses costing anywhere from US$0.45-2.50.

It’s also easy to hire bicycles and scooters on most islands. Bicycles are a great way to get around the smaller islands and range in price from US$8-25 for a 24 hour period. Scooters are great for the bigger islands and can be hired from US$10-35 for 24 hours.

If you really want someone to share the adventure with, you can check out social media groups to see if anyone else is travelling there at the same time you plan to. It can sometimes be invaluable having someone to share car rental costs with, to make sure you see all the waterfalls and volcanoes you may never get a chance to see again.

Why I should I Go?

Let me answer this one with pictures
K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Cook Islands Calf K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Tongan Coral K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Samoan Calf K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. Cook Islands Beach K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel the South Pacific on a Budget. New Caledonia Sunset

How Do I Get There?

This will depend where you are in the world. The most accessible of all the South Pacific Island chains is Fiji. It has international flights arriving from every continent. It can also serve as a base for getting to other island chains. If you can’t get a flight to Fiji, then New Zealand would also be a great option, especially if you’re planning on going to Tokelau, Niue or the Cook Islands.

Get Yourself Into The Right Frame of Mind For Travel to the South Pacific on a Budget

I wish I could say it was easy but it’s going to take a lot of organising. Possibly months to get an itinerary that works logistically and financially. It definitely requires a lot more planning than places like Asia where you can just turn up. There are so many things to take into account, ranging from flight schedules to intermittent transport options. Once you’re there though, things will get easier as almost everyone speaks English and islanders will always want to help you. You know what? You got this!

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Amazingly Unique Adventures Around The World

Are you an adventure lover? We have compiled this awesome list to help you plan your next adrenaline-filled holiday. On a budget! If you’re tired of the same old boring sights and you’re looking for something to get your blood pumping, you’ll love this list of amazingly unique adventures around the world!

Africa

Let’s take a trip to the little-known, but wonderfully welcoming northern African country of Mauritania. Its location just south of the Sahara makes it very flat and desert-like. What Mauritania has that no other country does, is one of the longest freight trains in the world that allows stowaways! It’s colloquially known as The Iron Train.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Amazingly Unique Adventures Around the World. Riding The Iron Train In Mauritania

The loaded up train runs from the iron ore mines in Zouérat to Noudhibou via Choum, then returns to Zouérat empty. Stowaways can hop on at any of the three stations, but competition for the best cargo car can be fierce! You don’t want to end up with a two kilometre walk back to the station because you got on the wrong end of the train!

Where: Zouérat, Choum and Nouadhibou in Mauritania
Price: FREE!! Yes, you read that right!
Adrenaline rating: 😲
Best time to do it: April to June

Further reading Mauritanian Adventure

Amazingly Unique Adventures Around The World – Asia

The second of our amazingly unique adventures around the world happens in the South East Asian country of Laos. You can hire what looks like an inner tube from a tractor tyre and float for three kilometres down a not so beautiful river. The scenery you’ll see on the way is pretty amazing though!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Amazingly Unique Adventures Around the World. Tubing on the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng

There are a few riverside bars on the way offering drinks and local delicacies. While the pace of Tubing is generally slow and relaxing, there can be patches of water where the flow is faster than the surrounding water. Or even patches of rocks close to the surface that will conspire to not let you pass. Navigating these can lead to hilarity.

Where: Nam Song River, Vang Vieng, Laos
Price: 55,000KIP/US$6 for the tube and 60,000KIP/US$6.70 deposit returned to you if you take the tube back before 6pm.
Adrenaline rating: 😲😲
Best time to do it: December to February to avoid the crowds, or July to September if you want a faster ride and don’t mind competing for space at the riverside bars.

Europe

Do you like drifting through snow and ice with your butt mere centimetres from the ground? Then this one’s for you! When winter really sets in near the northern Estonian town of Tartu, the winter Go Karts come out. You can hire one of these karts to speed yourself around a frozen lake for 8 minutes.

If you prefer the safety of a car, you can try an Adrenaline Drive, Taxi Lap and Rally Experience. These three options are not quite in the budget range though. Obviously, the weather has to be cold enough for the lake to be sufficiently frozen, so you need a bit of luck on your side for this one.

Where: Lake Võrtsjärv, Tartu, Estonia
Price: 15 for 8 minutes
Adrenaline rating: 😲😲😲😲😲
Best time to do it: January and February, if it’s cold enough for the lake to be completely frozen.

Further Reading: Winter On Lake Võrtsjärv

Amazingly Unique Adventures Around The World – North America

Next up on our list of amazingly unique adventures around the world is Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua. Yes, this is exactly what you think it is! Take a rickety wooden board and fly down the side of an active volcano on it. What could possibly go wrong?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Amazingly Unique Adventures Around the World. Volcano Boarding in Leon, Nicaragua

In truth, the volcano is constantly monitored and hasn’t erupted since 1999. The tour operator gives you safety gear and a full briefing on how to control your speed on the descent. They’ll even record your speed with a radar gun. It seems 40-50km/h is about average, but some speedsters have been clocked at over 90km/h!

Where: Cerro Negro, Leon, Nicaragua
Price: US$25 + $5 park entrance fee
Adrenaline rating: 😲😲😲
Best time to do it: December to February

Further reading: Love and Volcanoes in Nicaragua

South America

A tiny little town in Ecuador provides us with our next unique adventure. The Swing at the Edge of the World. It sits atop a 2600m high mountain overlooking a valley. Legend has it that a grandfather who worked at the seismic monitoring station inside the treehouse at the top of the hill wanted to encourage his grandkids to visit by adding a swing to the treehouse. It worked and eventually word got around.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Amazingly Unique Adventures Around the World. Swing at the Edge of the World. Casa del Arbol, Banos, Ecuador

Where: Casa del Arbol, Baños, Ecuador
Price: US$1
Adrenaline rating: 😲😲
Best time to do it: Any day! Be prepared for a small line.

Not to be outdone by a smart grandpa, another entrepreneurial soul decided they could ‘one up’ the Swing at the Edge of the World. Hence the Swing to Heaven was created on the other side of the mountain and it’s not for the faint of heart! Sure, it swings but it also rolls and turns. It’s probably best not to eat before trying this one.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Amazingly Unique Adventures Around the World. Swing to Heaven. Casa del Arbol, Banos, Ecuador

Where: Casa del Arbol, Baños, Ecuador
Price: US$4
Adrenaline rating: 😲😲😲😲😲
Best time to do it: Any day!

Further reading: Baños – A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador

Oceania

Last, but not least, it’s time to head to the land down under, to climb its tallest building, Q1. This climb takes you up 300 stairs to an external observation deck with a 360 degree view of the Gold Coast and the sea below. Normally the climbs start fairly early in the morning to beat the harsh Australian sun. Sunset and night climbs are also available. Ugly jumpsuits and harnesses are provided.

Where: Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
Price: From AU$69. Night and sunset climbs cost more.
Adrenaline rating: 😲😲😲
Best time to do it: Spring (September to November) or Autumn (March – May)

Which of these unique adventures would you choose to do? Have you done any already? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Discover the Real Vanuatu

Growing up, I had always heard that Vanuatu was a resort paradise reserved for the ridiculously rich. I was sure that there had to be more to Vanuatu. Since no one I knew had ever been there and I was in the area, it was my duty to pop over and discover the real Vanuatu. I’ve got to say that what I found was pretty amazing.

A 1.5 hour flight on a small plane had taken me from the French territory of New Caledonia to one of the youngest independent nations in Melanesia; Vanuatu. The difference between the two places was immediately visible upon landing in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila. The airport in the New Caledonian capital of Noumea was a modern, multi-level building, whereas Port Vila’s was more like a shack.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Airport Shack

That wasn’t particularly a bad thing. There was a very homely feel to it. A short walk on the tarmac brought me to the terminal building. Inside, I was instantly drawn to two signs. One claiming that Vanuatu was ‘the planet’s happiest country’ and one about the country hosting the Pacific Mini Games several weeks beforehand. I was very intrigued by the first sign. My first contact with a Vanuatuan, or ni-Vanuatu in the local pidgin language Bislama, seemed to confirm the first sign’s claim.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Airport Signs

Discover the Real Vanuatu – Smiles at Immigration

At the immigration desk I was greeted by a very friendly officer in traditional clothing giving me a very toothy smile. I couldn’t help but smile back as I handed him my passport. His next words surprised me, “Welcome to Vanuatu, we’re happy to have you here!”. I had to have a quick look around me to check that I was in fact at the immigration desk and hadn’t taken a wrong turn somewhere. Have you ever had such an enthusiastic welcome from immigration before?

The small airport basically just consisted of a strangely named one-stop-shop kind of store.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Strangely Named Airport Store

A police post adorned with a picture promoting the Pacific Mini Games.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Airport Police Post

Then my stop, the tourist information desk. I stopped to find out some bus information. I was confused when the woman said there was no bus and I would have to get a taxi if I hadn’t already booked a transfer. She then tried to convince me that I needed to take a taxi. I let her know that I wanted to take the public bus. She then pointed to the road beyond the car park outside. She indicated that I should wait there for a bus with ‘B’ on it. “Make sure it has a ‘B’ on it!”, she reiterated as I walked away.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Airport Car Park

Smiles on the Side of the Road

A quick walk across the car park brought me to the road but I could see nothing that resembled a bus stop. I did see a helicopter next to what looked like a garden shed, a contradiction that seemed to describe Vanuatu perfectly so far; expensive stuff near sheds. With no indication of where I should be, I just stood on the side of the road. I figured I’d be able to flag down the bus as it drove past.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. View of the Airport from the Bus Stop
View of the airport from the ‘bus stop’

Within Minutes, people had started gathering around me. Of course, they weren’t gathering around me, they were waiting as I was in fact at the bus stop. I checked with one of the locals that was now standing near me and he asked where I was going. When I said I was going to Pango, just south of Port Vila, he advised that the bus could take me close. He then gave me a big smile.

As I waited, he decided to give me a bit of a history lesson about Vanuatu. I was already aware that the country has only been known as Vanuatu since it gained independence in 1980. My new friend Itu wanted to make sure that I knew it. “We used to be French. We used to be British. We called it New Hebrides”. I presumed that he was referring to the 74 years of joint French and British rule. He continued, “Now we are ni-Vanuatu!”.

He went on to explain that the word Vanuatu came from the joining of ‘Vanua’, meaning land and ‘tu’ meaning stand. For the ni-Vanuatu, it is a strong word that indicates they are independent on their land.

Discover the Real Vanuatu – The Bad Side of Tourism

When the bus arrived, Itu spoke to the driver and indicated that I should hop on. I paid the 150VUV/AU$1.90 to the driver and sat down. It wasn’t long before another local, Isa wanted to chat with me. She was relieved when she found out that I wasn’t staying at a resort. Although she admitted that they do bring money into the country, Isa believed that the resorts were taking advantage of the locals. “Nearly everyone I know works in tourism jobs, but the resorts are bad. Their money goes back to their big foreign company, not to our country”, she informed me.

As we got closer to Port Vila, which is only about 6 kilometres from the airport, the roads were falling into disrepair. Almost as if someone was trying to illustrate Isa’s point, we hit a pothole in the road while she was comparing the Port Vila’s pretty resorts to its less than well-maintained roads. “If the resorts are so good, why are our roads breaking? Why we have no power?”. I was not that surprised to learn that so many ni-Vanuatu were living below the poverty line. A lot of families still choose to live off the land, grow their own tropical fruits and catch their own fish. They’ll normally cook their food on hot stones or boil it.

Getting a Feel For Island Life

As you’d expect from a South Pacific Island, there is a lot of greenery and water everywhere. In fact, at one point in our drive, we were 300 metres from both the west and east coasts of the island.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Coast

I walked along a very simple looking side street, barely wide enough for one car. This road was actually a lot better than some in the area. Can you guess why?
K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Local Street

I was near the southern tip of the island, so there were quite a few resorts in the area. Like this one.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Resort

At that point I was hungry and there were no other food options. So I popped in to see what this resort had on offer. I was pleasantly surprised by the reasonable prices. I was able to get a full breakfast for around AU$10 and the service was amazing.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Resort Breakfast

Discover the Real Vanuatu – Unexpected Interactions

As I continued along the road towards the corner where I could catch the bus to the airport, a child walking from the other direction approached me. He tried to talk to me in his language, which could’ve been any one of the hundred spoken in the area. Obviously, I didn’t understand, so the child took the Cricket bat he was holding and raised it above his head with a big smile on his face. Like he was making some kind of offering. I think this was his way of saying, “Let’s play!”

Rare moments like these are what make travelling so worth it! How awesome is it that this child just came up to me, with no concern about who I was. Or no thought of how I was different. He didn’t see a foreigner, just that I was a potential Cricket buddy. If only more adults in the world acted like this. I was so pleasantly surprised by this young boys actions that I just had to play some Cricket with him!

Discover the Real Vanuatu – Local Insights

Not long after that an older man came along and said something to the child. That made the boy grab my hand and take me over to the man. The man introduced himself as Jim. I’m not sure if that was his real name or just a name he thought would be easier for me to say. Jim asked if I had some time. I did, so we chatted for a bit. He was happy that I was interested in finding out about life in Vanuatu. He showed me an interesting article in the local newspaper that he was carrying.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Discover the Real Vanuatu. Vila Times Article

Jim also expressed some worries that many foreigners, mainly Chinese, are buying Vanuatu citizenship. With an investment of $150,000 they can get a passport. This is actually a major revenue maker for the country. Unlike most of the money from tourism, this money stays in the country. Jim lamented that although he doesn’t like it, it may be a necessary evil. He then changed the tone of the conversation with his rendition of the ni-Vanuatu national anthem, “Yumi Yumi Yumi”.

Final Thoughts

When I first had the thought that I wanted to discover the real Vanuatu, these kinds of random interactions with locals were exactly what I had in mind. In the end, I think I got much more of an insight into local life than I ever thought I would. As for the poster that I saw on the way in claiming that Vanuatu was the planet’s happiest country. I think I would have to agree. Despite all their troubles, ni-Vanuatu are happy with their simple lives always have a smile ready for you.

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New Caledonia – A Piece of Europe in the South Pacific

After an awesome time on the Cook Islands followed by a short stopover in Auckland, I was on my way to the mysterious land of Noumea in the French territory of New Caledonia – a piece of Europe in the South Pacific

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Aircalin Plane

When I boarded the small Aircalin plane bound for New Caledonia, or Nouvelle-Calédonie, I knew this trip was going to be a little bit different. As Aircalin is the national carrier for New Caledonia, the onboard announcements were in French. I was glad to see that the plane wasn’t very full and I had a whole row to myself. It would’ve been great if the flight was longer than three hours, so I could’ve really enjoyed the extra space.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Empty Row

Once the sparkling waters we’d been flying over gave way to land, I became mesmerised by New Caledonia’s beauty. I was glad to see some hills on our approach to Noumea because that meant there would be opportunities to see some great views!

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Approaching Noumea

New Caledonia was unlike any South Pacific island chain I’d seen so far. From the time I landed at the slick, new-looking La Tontouta International Airport, the place felt more like somewhere in Europe than a South Pacific island.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. La Tontouta International Airport

Upon exiting the airport, I found the bus stop where I could catch a bus into the city. Or at least I thought I did. I couldn’t tell because everything was in French!

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. La Tontouta International Airport Bus Stop

Getting to Noumea in New Caledonia – A Piece of Europe in the South Pacific

I used the only phrase I know in French, ‘Parlez vous Anglais’, to check if the other lady at the bus stop spoke English. She didn’t. When the bus came, I tried to talk to the driver, but she also didn’t speak English either. Uh oh.

Luckily, another lady was approaching the bus who spoke a little English and was able to indicate to me that I was in fact in the right place and this was the correct bus. Phew! I paid the 400 CFP Franc (US$3.60) fare to the driver and got a small ticket in return. The ride into the city was long as the airport is 50 kilometers out of the city. That gave me some time to sit back an enjoy the view.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. View on the Way to Noumea

The New Caledonian Capital of Noumea

The bus dropped us off at a station that was almost straight across from the waterfront. A military vessel was docked to the righthand side but it was too far away to read the writing on it. Sunset was fully underway by that point, so can you guess what I did? Took pictures for your viewing pleasure ;o)

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Waterfront Sunset New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Sunset at the Waterfront

Looking back towards the town from the waterfront a casino could be seen. It may have been there for the use of the many cruise ship passengers that visit the place. Further on from that there were some decidedly European looking buildings. I was really starting to wonder if I was even in the South Pacific anymore! Aside from the crystal blue waters, there was nothing about this place that felt like a Pacific island.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Waterfront Casino

The level of development on New Caledonia was different to other South Pacific Islands. All of the colourful buildings and the roads looked shiny and new. I even noticed several buildings that were over 10 stories tall! That is a bit of an anomaly in the South Pacific where things tend to be low rise.

The roads were immaculate and set out in an easy to navigate grid system. This meant that I pretty much just needed to walk up one street to get from the waterfront to the top of the hill where my accomodation was.

Noumea At Christmas

When making my way to my accomodation I stumbled upon Noumea’s main park, the very tropically named Coconut Square.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Coconut Square Tree Lights

It was alive with lights, Christmas decorations and a 2 metre tall Santa. With a trusty snowman at his side.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Santa and Snowman

As if that wasn’t Christmasy enough, there were speakers throughout the park playing Christmas songs really loudly.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Coconut Square Light Tunnel

This was the kind of Christmas fanfare I would’ve expected leading up to Christmas, but it was several days after Christmas! So either nobody told Noumea that Christmas was over, or they just didn’t care. Needless to say, the atmosphere was very festive. Even the local Museum was lit up.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Museum at Night

Coconut Square By Day

When I ventured back to the square during the day, I came across a very deflated Santa. As well as a tent claiming to be the North Pole. Which of course seemed very apt for a tropical island where it’s was around 30°C.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Deflated Santa New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. The North Pole Tent

The sheer amount of decorations in this park didn’t really hit me until I had a chance to see it during the day.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Coconut Square Christmas tree and Baubles

I can’t imagine how long it must’ve taken to make and place all these man-sized baubles throughout the park. It seemed like more of an art installation than just festive decorations.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Coconut Square Christmas Baubles and Statue

Street Art of New Caledonia – A Piece of Europe in the South Pacific

The park wasn’t the only place in Noumea that had a bit of art happening. There was a mural on the wall just before I entered my hostel. I figured it might be a one-off because I was staying in the area where all the cool kids were.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Mural in Noumea

But I did find a few other walls in the area that had been used as canvases. I’m not sure these would qualify as art though.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Graffiti on a Building New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Graffiti Wall

It was a little bit surprising to find a couple of other pieces of art around town. Like this.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Wall Art in Noumea

I even found this skeleton boat down near the port. I actually spent a crazy amount of time near this boat trying not to look dodgy while I searched for a geocache hidden there. At least one of those things was done successfully.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Skeleton Boat Near The Port

Down By The Water in New Caledonia – A Piece of Europe in the South Pacific

Although New Caledonia doesn’t receive a huge amount of tourists, most that do visit get there via cruise ship. Almost everyone I spoke to thought I’d come over on a cruise ship. They all seemed genuinely surprised when I advised them that I’d flown in.

As most people getting off cruise ships tend to hang out near the waterfront, there were a few restaurants near the port area. They were not the cheapest places to eat, but they were nice. And mostly closed. It seems island time had struck again! I walked along for a little while before I managed to find the only restaurant in a row of several that was open. That became my lunch destination.

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Restaurant Near The Port

Ordering was interesting due to the language barrier, but we got through it with a lot of hand gestures. I ended up being served some raw meat that I had to put on a hot stone to cook. Is this some kind of Melanesian twist on a sizzling plate?

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Sizzling Stone Near The Port

That was followed by a refreshing no waste desert, in the best flavour of all!

New Caledonia - A Piece Of Europe in the South Pacific. Choc Mint Icecream Near The Port

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The Captivating Cook Islands

What trip to the South Pacific would be complete without a visit to a remote island that tourists never really hear about? The often overlooked, tiny South Pacific nation of the Cook Islands had always been somewhere that I’d wanted to see. With under 30,000 visitors a year from outside Oceania, it’s one of the South Pacific’s best-kept secrets. The captivating Cook Islands are about as close to paradise as you can get on this earth.

Travelling to the Captivating Cook Islands

As amazing as the Cook Islands are, their remoteness makes them a bit of a challenge to get to. The only option to get there from Samoa, a mere 900km away, was to fly 3250km to Auckland. Nearly four times the distance! From there I had to fly another 3000km to Rarotonga, the biggest of the 15 islands of the Cook Islands Chain. That’s over 6 hours flying to get to islands that should only be an hour’s flight away.

Booking a flight from Auckland to Rarotonga requires a little more planning than normal. There are only 12 flights a week. Those flights are split between Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Jetstar. If you want to fly out of Auckland on a Monday, you’re outta luck. On Sunday, a morning flight with Air New Zealand is the only choice. But Tuesday to Friday you’ll have a choice of a morning or afternoon flight. Saturday is the busy day as all 3 airlines fly the route that day. There are also flights to Rarotonga from Sydney and Los Angeles, but they only run once a week.

To make matters even more complicated, flights to Rarotonga cross over the international date line. That means that most flights land in the Cook Islands the day before they left Auckland. Conversely, flights back to New Zealand land two days after they left Rarotonga. Are you confused yet? Things can get quite complicated so extra vigilance is required to make sure you don’t end up cutting your time on the Cook Islands short by mixing up your days.

Arriving in The Cook Islands

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Kia Orana - Welcome to the Cook Islands K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Welcome Serenade

The displeasure of all that extra planning fades away as soon as you land in the Cooks. Who could help but be captivated by the cute little neon sign that welcomes you the islands? Immigration officers greet you with ‘Kia Orana’, the local way of saying hello, then quickly and painlessly process your entry into the tiny country. When you enter the baggage reclaim area, you notice a man in the middle of the luggage belt. He’s performing a slightly upgraded version of the serenade received on other South Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga; with laptop accompaniment instead of guitars.

The Captivating Cook Islands At Night

On the way to the Cook Islands, I had crossed the international date line for the third time during my pacific adventure. That meant I had once again gone back in time, to land in Rarotonga on the eve of the day that had just passed. Of course, everything was closed and there were no transport options besides taxis and airport transfers. I’m not a taxi kind of person and hadn’t booked an airport transfer with my accommodation because I thought that NZ$15 was a bit extreme for a 5 minute drive!

My accommodation was just behind the airport, a mere 200 metres away from where I stood. Unfortunately, I had to walk all the way around the airport perimeter to get to it. That made the walk a little bit longer but also gave me time to really take in the awesomeness of my surroundings. I was awed by just how dark things got once I hit the suburban road that would take me to my lodging for the night. I must admit that I stopped many times to admire the amazing amount of stars in the night sky. It was actually an exhilarating feeling knowing that just a few minutes walk from an international airport had taken me far enough away from all light sources to see the full glory of the heavens after dark.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands at Night
Rarotonga at Night. Yes, it was actually that dark!

It’s Christmas Time Again!

After a good sleep, I woke up to Christmas Day, for the second time! The Cook Islands are a majority Christan country. So as you would expect, Christmas is a big deal there. With an island twist..

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Meri Kiritimiti Sign
Merry Christmas – island style!

Most places on the island were closed for the Christmas holiday, so I’d decided to hire a bicycle from my hostel, (NZ$10 for 24 hours), and ride around the island. The island of Rarotonga, or Raro as it’s affectionately known locally, is only 32km in circumference. You can circumnavigate the island comfortably in less than four hours on a bike. Additionally, it’s an easy ride because the road around the island is completely flat. The middle of the island, on the other hand, is not so flat.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Centre of Rarotonga

Cycling Around The Captivating Cook Islands

The main road around Raro hugs the coastline, so you are guaranteed spectacular views no matter where you stop along the road.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Coastal Views in Rarotonga

Even the dead get great views!
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Graves with Coastal Views in Rarotonga

Cycling around the island is a great way to get a feel for island life. You’ll also learn that islanders are not only a caring bunch, they also have a great sense of humour. The only ‘stop’ sign on the whole island is a shop sign!
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Shop Stop in Rarotonga

And obviously this is a joke, right?
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Humour

There are no busy roads in Raro! In fact, there’s a good chance you won’t see another person on the main road for hours. But you’ll see plenty of this.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. More Coastal Views in Rarotonga

And this.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Coastal View

And maybe even a bit of this.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Rocky Coastal View

Seafood With a Side of Safety

After a few hours of cycling around the island, I had decided that it was time to escape the heat and grab a bite. Seeing as it was Christmas Day, my only option was to eat at a resort. I felt like I was the centre of attention when I walked in. All the staff were waiting to serve me. I was given the option of dining inside or outside. The decision was easy.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Resort Tables On The Beach

Owing to the season, the tables were looking quite festive, in that island kind of way.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Festive Table Setup

I’d opted to try a local dish called Ika Mata. It consists of raw fish marinated in lemon and coconut milk.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Traditional Seafood Dish Ika Mata

To be honest, I wasn’t holding high hopes for this dish as I’m not a huge fan of fish, but it was actually quite delicious. Once I’d finished my feed and admired the beach for a bit longer, I headed back to the main road where I saw this sign

Interestingly, the law on the Cook Islands when I was there only required people between the ages of 16 and 25 to wear helmets when cycling or riding scooters/motorbikes. I could probably guess why that was the particular age group chosen but it’s still a little weird that it wasn’t applied to everyone.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Coastal View Through Trees

After a few more roadside stops to look out into the mesmerising blue sea, I found my way to a small local shop where I’d planned to buy some refreshments. That should’ve just taken a few minutes, but I left the store three hours later.

Local Celebrities on the Captivating Cook Islands

You may be asking how I could’ve spent three hours in a small store. Well, part of the reason was that the lady behind the counter was a chatterbox. I also never shy away from a chat. Especially when it’s with a well known and respected local. Aunty Mei, who was the local lei maker, was happy to give me some insights into her life on the island.

Many are familiar with the Hawaiian lei, generally slipped onto the neck as a symbol of friendship when welcoming visitors. The idea is similar in the Cook Islands, but they also have many other uses. There are two main types, Lei Kaki, which are similar to Hawaiian leis, and Lei Katu which are wreaths placed on the head. Aunty Mei specialises in the second type. Locals will place orders with Aunty Mei for all kinds of events, like graduations and weddings.

Aunty Mei’s Leis

All flowers used for Aunty Mei’s creations come from her own lovingly tended garden. The impression I got was that Aunty Mei had enough lei orders to keep her going for several months at least. She did say she had noticed a slight downturn in business in recent years as the younger generation were becoming disinterested in traditions. That’s something that unfortunately seems to be a bit of a trend around the world.

Despite being busy making a lei at the time I had walked in, Aunty Mei stopped what she was doing to chat to me. That’s one of the things that make islands so endearing; everyone has time for everyone. It’s always enlightening talking to locals, but as it was getting late, I had to continue my ride. Aunty Mei said I was welcome to come back and chat any time, then offered some flowers from her garden as a parting gift.

The Cross Island Trail

After seeing the flat coastal parts of the island, I was ready to tackle the rugged, hilly interior.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga's Interior

I had asked around town about the Rarotonga Cross Island Trail and most responses indicated that I shouldn’t try it without a guide. Looking at the hills I had to scale, I didn’t think it would be too difficult. Plus with my experience trekking around the world, I was sure I’d have no problems.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga's Cross Island Walk

At the beginning, the trail was more like a road. Quite flat and easy to walk along. The surroundings were very lush and green as well.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Starting The Cross Island Walk

I even spotted a few animals just hanging around, trying to shade themselves from the harsh Cook Islands sun.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Mother Boar and Kids On The Cross Island Walk K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Cow and Chicken On The Cross Island Walk

The trail stayed relatively flat for a while, then it started narrowing gradually.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Narrowing Trail On The Cross Island Walk

The Challenge Begins

A little bit further along the trail, I entered the forest. It was there that the trail became considerably thinner and started looking a bit more like the trails I’m used to. I found this a little exciting as I was looking for more of a challenge.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Start Of The Forest Trail On The Cross Island Walk

Perhaps I should be careful what I wish for! It wasn’t long before things got decidedly harder.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. The Trail Gets Difficult On The Cross Island Walk

Now I could see why everyone was suggesting that I do the trail with a guide. It was definitely not an easy hike. Even as an experienced hiker I was beginning to get annoyed with parts of the trail. It seemed to wind back on itself and cross streams a crazy amount of times. It was a relief when I finally made it to the mid-point of the hike.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Halfway Point Of The Cross Island Walk

From there you can take a side trip to The Needle, which is a rock jutting out from the hill. People think it looks like the eye of a needle. It can be seen from many places on the coast of the island.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. The Needle On The Cross Island Walk

From the mid-point, the trail became slightly easier, although there was one particularly muddy section where locals had tied a rope to a tree to help people on their way down. I was excited when I saw this sign
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. The Last Sign On The Cross Island Walk

It meant that the trail was coming to an end and I would soon be able to reward myself with a cool-down at the Papua Waterfalls!
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Papua Waterfalls At The End Of The Cross Island Walk

Getting Back to the Other Side of the Island

The Cross Island Trail had brought me out to the main road on the south side of the island, but I needed to be on the north side. Luckily there were buses that ran regularly along the main road. They run clockwise at certain times and anticlockwise at certain times. Unfortunately, I had looked at the normal schedule and thought they would run until 4pm. But as it was a public holiday, service stopped at 3pm. Whoops.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Palm Trees On The Walk Back to Town

I still had several hours before my flight departed, so I started walking. It wasn’t long before someone stopped to pick me up. He worked at the next resort, a few kilometres up the road. He told me he’d take me there and I could get another lift into the town from there. I actually didn’t mind walking, so once he dropped me off, I continued along the road.

Friendly Locals of the Captivating Cook Islands

I had probably only been walking for 10 minutes when another car stopped and motioned for me to get in. They were a middle-aged Australian couple who had made the Cook Islands their home many years ago. They told me they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The island life had won them over and I can definitely see why. A short while later, they dropped me off at the pub across the road from airport.

I had left my backpack there before I’d done the Cross Island Trail. As most places were closed by 4pm, I’d figured that it would be a good place to hang out before my 9pm flight back to Auckland. I sat myself down to enjoy a local beer with a view, when some locals came to join me.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Beer And Sunset At The Pub

They insisted that I shouldn’t be sitting alone and that I needed to drink more. Once I mentioned that I was flying out that night, they tried everything in their power to convince me to stay. “Don’t worry, you can get a flight out tomorrow”, they said. As amusing as my new friends were, I knew what I had to do. Get myself on that flight back to New Zealand so that I could continue my South Pacific adventure in the French territory of Nouvelle-Calédonie.

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Surprising Samoa – An Undiscovered Gem in the South Pacific

I’d always known that time moves differently in the South Pacific, but I wasn’t aware that it was possible to lose a whole day! That’s exactly what happened in the hour between taking off from Pago Pago, American Samoa at 10:30am to landing in Apia, Samoa at 12pm the next day. Time gymnastics aside, Surprising Samoa is an undiscovered gem in the South Pacific, just waiting to be explored.

If you’ve read some of my other South Pacific posts about Tonga and American Samoa, you’d be aware that flights between island states in the region do not come cheap. The 45 minute flight from Pago Pago, American Samoa to Apia, Samoa was no exception, although at US$85, it may have been the cheapest in the area. We landed at the tiny Fagali’i airport, which only had a 600m long runway. As of 1st January 2020, this airport has been closed down and all of it’s flights have been redirected to the bigger Apia Faleolo Airport.

Super Small Airport in Surprising Samoa

The Fagali’i Airport was only a few kilometres from the town of Apia on Samoa’s second largest island, Upolu. All I needed to do was walk the short distance down the airport road to the main road to catch a local minibus for 2 Samoan Tala (WST)/US$0.75. As I was walking, a local guy started talking to me. This local guy, let’s call him Bruce, (not his actual name), was also going into town and said he’d help me find the bus.

It actually wasn’t that hard to find, it just required waiting at the intersection of the airport road with the main road. Bruce was saying that we may have a long wait but the minibus arrived soon after we reached the intersection. On the bus, the driver had a coin tray placed between his seat and the passenger seat, where all passengers were expected to place their fare. The driver would give change if needed but clearly preferred correct change.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Seaside Bus Station

Interestingly, the driver was on the lefthand side of the car, even though we were driving on the lefthand side of the road. Samoa changed from driving on the righthand to the lefthand side of the road back in 2009. The main reason for this was the high price of continually importing American lefthand drive vehicles in a region where righthand drive cars were more readily available. Although the change happened over 10 years ago, it is still possible to see quite a few lefthand drive vehicles, like this old-style American school bus that is now used for public transport.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. American Style Bus

Surprising Samoa Seaside

The bus dropped us off at a seaside bus station right near the local market. Bruce suggested that I might want to walk along the waterfront for a while. It was rather peaceful. He pointed out some points of interest to me while we walked along. Of course, there were palm trees but Bruce couldn’t tell me if they were naturally occurring or introduced.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Seaside View With Palm Trees K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Seaside View

Bruce then said he would help me find the place I was staying at. The problem was that the building at the address I was given was not the place I was staying at. We stopped and asked at places along the way but no one had any idea where my accommodation was. I eventually found the main building for the flats quite accidentally. My host had left a key there for me. I was relieved to finally be on my way to where I was staying!

The Sleepy Capital of Surprising Samoa

With a population of less than 40,000, Apia is one of the smallest capital ‘cities’ around. I had arrived in the early afternoon, but by the time I got to my host’s place, everything was quiet. Super quiet. There were barely any cars on the road. All the shops were closed. By 3pm! Wow. That could’ve presented a problem because I was hungry at that point. Imagine the relief I felt when I spied a small cafe that had people inside. I happily went inside only to find out that the people inside were staff and they were closed. Feeling sad, I started walking back towards the door when a worker asked if I wanted to take any of the food they had left on the counter.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Meat Salad

I was able to have quite a hearty meal with the cafe’s leftovers. Including this interesting take on a salad. That was great because I’d planned a hike to a nearby hill, Mount Vaea. I had no idea what would await me on the top of the hill that stood 472m above the town. I just wanted to get a good view.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. First Part of the Hike

Hiking To The Highest Point Of The Island

For the first part of the hike, I had to walk along some suburban roads to get to the trail. The initial part of the trail was more of a dirt road running behind some local farms. The road may have still been in use, but not that often. Except maybe by the occasional cow.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Baby Cow on the Trail

About halfway up the hill, I met a local named Seb who was on his way down. He stopped to chat with me. He seemed surprised that I was on that trail, because it is the hardest way up to the hill. I thought it was weird that he would say that because I was finding it quite easy. I just shrugged it off thinking that other people’s ideas of difficult are different to mine. He was also worried about me going up by myself, so he decided to accompany me to the top. Even though he was already on his way down. I assured him that I’d be okay but he insisted. So now I had someone to talk to on the way up, which was lovely.

The Fun Way up Mount Vaea

We had actually come up to the hill next to Mount Vaea. I had noticed that on my map, but the second hill looked so close that I was sure I could find a way through the bush. Luckily Seb knew where the trail joining the hills was. That was where things got fun. Despite the trail being dry all the way up, this connecting trail was very slippery and muddy. Almost like there had been a recent downpour.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Surprising Samoa. Muddy Forest Trail