The Local Guide to New Orleans

            There are a small number of places in the world where I can see myself spending the rest of my days. Of those places, only two are in the United States, and New Orleans will forever hold one of those spots. My first trip to New Orleans was in 2014 with one of my best girlfriends, and I have been back every year since then. While the rest of the United States (even in Black dominated areas) still struggled with representation of Black folk, New Orleans had Black people plastered on every billboard, in every commercial, and most surprising to me, with their hair in a natural state. The coifs of locked hair were some of the most beautiful that I have ever seen outside of New Jersey, the fros were juicy, and oh, the accents!

When a housekeeper at the Windsor Court Hotel gave me suggestions for where to get good eats in the city, I raised my eyebrow in confusion. “What part of Africa are you from?” I could place most African accents, but this one was different. When she giggled and replied that she had lived in Louisiana all of her life, I found it difficult to believe. Throughout that trip, I found myself whispering, “This is so West African” multiple times, and it is a major part of why I keep returning. The more I ventured away from the tourist areas, the more I fell in love with the city. On to the details, as suggested by the many helpful born and bred women of New Orleans that I’ve encountered on my trips. Without their input, dress code suggestions, and gentle nudges away from food danger, I wouldn’t have seen the true character of the city. Now, I want to share their insights with the CiteASista readers so that you can have a different (and completely accessible) experience than the one commonly suggested online. 

To Eat & Drink

This is why you’re here. My first visit to New Orleans was a major food fail. Most of the business district locations of the popular restaurants in New Orleans leave much to be desired. If you want serious eats, residents make it clear that you will have to bypass the deceptions of Yelp and go into the non-touristy areas. Here’s a list of my favorites:

Eats

Katie’s in Mid City – For brunch and cochon de lait with wait service

Located on 3701 Iberville Street, Katie’s is the one place I always recommend to anyone visiting New Orleans. I was uninterested in beignets until I encountered the meat stuffed version served here, the cochon de lait is tender and juicy, and the specials are always a hit! 

Hank’s Supermarket – For chicken and fish sandwiches to-go

Located on 2634 St Claude Ave, Hank’s is your typical corner store like you’d find in the NY tri-state area. The fried chicken comes highly recommended by residents, but the sandwiches are great as well.

Soul’s Seafood – For seafood to-go

Located on 2732 Lasalle Street, Soul’s is not for the pretentious. These are good eats served out of a no frills outpost in a rather undeveloped area. Just like Hank’s, there is no place to sit so make sure you have a comfy room to take those soft shell crabs back to.

Cajun Seafood – For seafood

The location of choice here is on 1479 N Claiborne Ave. You can find po boys, snow crab legs, boudoin, and you can sit down and eat! Adjust your expectations and don’t come here on a date.

Acme Oyster Bar – for the chargrilled oysters

Located on 724 Iberville St, this is the only food spot on this list that is located in the Bourbon Street area. The draw here is the oysters, but full disclosure, you only get about 6 small oysters for $12. Combine the price with the ridiculous line at this location, and you may end up skipping this altogether.

Emeril’s – High end fine dining

Located on 800 Tchoupitoulas Street, Emeril’s is for the person worried about venturing out but wants reliable food. The food here isn’t cheap, but it sure is good.

Drinks

Superior Seafood – For the pomegranate mojito

Located on 4338 St Charles Ave, the mojito is the draw. While they offer a variety of flavors, the pomegranate will blow you away.

Accommodations

            N.O. is a popular destination internationally, and the types of accommodations reflect that. If you need something ritzy, that is absolutely available, but if you need something on the cheap, New Orleans has hostel options that start at $20 per night. I’ve stayed at the Windsor Court Hotel in the business district and the car-or-Uber-fare-needed Sheraton Hotel Metairie with no qualms. If money is not a problem, then you’ll easily secure a comfortable place. 

My 2016 stay required more budget-friendly accommodations, so I lucked out and landed the last spot at the IHSP French Quarter House hostel in a mixed 12-bed dorm for about $30. This was my first “dorm” stay outside of Japan, and the privacy and cleanliness in the 12-bed dorm was non-existent compared to the capsule hotels in Kyoto. If considering staying in one of these dorms, adjust your expectations. Think along the lines of band camp dorms with a bit of drunken naked 21-year-olds screaming loudly at each other in the middle of the night. The Quisby is a newer hostel option with en-suite bathrooms and sturdy beds, so try to book it before the rooms fill up. Essence Festival is just around the corner!

To-Do

If you’re like me, then no vacation is complete without a trip to the beach. Luckily, Biloxi/Gulfport Beach is only an hour away from New Orleans. On the Gulfport side, the water isn’t crystal blue, the sand is unusually sticky, and there aren’t many food options, but this beach will do for a short day trip. You may want to drive further up to the Biloxi side for a more impressive strip of beach, Load up on your chicken and drinks from Hank’s and some seafood from Soul’s and be on your way. 

          If this is your first time in the city, multiple guided bike tours are available for the lone traveler or for a large group. This is the best way to get a look at the contrast between the business district and the rest of the city. During my first tour, New Orleans still bore marks of Hurricane Katrina, complete with large X’s on the sides of homes to signify the result of search efforts in its aftermath. These tours can include cemetery visits, historic churches, and go for an overall “haunted” vibe, so check websites beforehand to find the experience you want. (You will also want to ask what breaking mechanism is used on the bikes. From what I’ve seen, back peddling is not for the unseasoned rider.)

           On my most recent trip to New Orleans, I made a visit to City Park and encountered so many things to do that I spent the rest of the day wandering that area. Upon entrance to the park, you will immediately notice stately trees draped in white. These are most likely live oaks, and the white covering is Spanish moss. I initially found these trees eerie but grew to see their beauty as they shaded me from the intense New Orleans sun. You can bring a blanket and have a picnic here, or take time to visit the New Orleans Botanical Garden and NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden. This was the highlight of my last trip! 

An internet search will suffice if you are trying to find the destinations that many tourists like to visit, (such as the World War II Museum) but if you are specifically looking for nightlife outside of the tourist area, you can get the local experience at the following:

Autocrat on 1725 St Bernard Avenue – The place to be on Friday nights, complete with food vendors waiting outside to fill you up when the party is over

The Hangover on 2101 N Claiborne Ave – Come here for New Orleans bounce and an all-night experience

Club Caribbean on 2443 Bayou Road – The Saturday night move for Caribbean music

I didn’t have the chance to visit Vieux Carres or Bertha’s (the go-to spots for the 30 and up crowd), nor Seals, Primetime, and Arlines, but if any of you get a chance to check these out let us know in the comments! I’ll be posting a second guide to New Orleans for foodies who have a bit more to spend and talking about a pillar of New Orleans and the Black community, Leah Chase, later on in the year, so be sure to check back in with CiteASista during Essence Festival. In the meantime:

What are your must-dos while in New Orleans?

 

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The water-line at Katie’s during Hurricane Katrina.

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The expansive City Park.

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Spanish moss covered trees.

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At the Sculpture Garden.

 

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At the Sculpture Garden.

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At the Sculpture Garden.

 

Sound off in the comments and let us know what you think!?

Out of My Comfort Zone: Four Days & Three Nights in Japan

I never had my sights set on exploring Japan until I spotted an unusually low $600 dollar non-stop round-trip ticket from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (NRT). I knew that my next long weekend would be Labor Day, so I booked the ticket months in advance and downloaded Duolingo to learn some Japanese. I let time get away from me and I didn’t start doing serious planning for my trip until about a week before. This ended up costing me some money, but hopefully you don’t make the same mistake if you are traveling to Japan by following my suggestions below. Everyone else, skip ahead!

Whether you are staying in Japan for 3 days or 3 weeks, you may want to look into purchasing a Japan Rail Pass if you are planning to travel to several areas of  Japan. The catch with the pass is that you can only purchase it outside of Japan. The official website with all necessary information and pricing can be found at http://japanrailpass.net/en/about_jrp.html You will need to purchase an exchange order for your rail pass through a travel agency or the airline that you fly with if they offer it. Japan Airlines offers the exchange order only to customers that are flying with them. Upon arrival at the destination airport, you will need to head to the Japan Rail Pass office to hand in your exchange order. You will get the Rail Pass in return.

An ordinary 7-day rail pass for an adult cost 29,110 YEN ($240). If you take the express train round trip from Narita Airport to Tokyo, and then take an additional trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, the pass will have already paid for itself. I did not do any of these things, and so my travel was very limited and I ended up paying more than the price for the 7-day pass for my 4 days of travel.

On the recommendation of my brother, I decided to not book a hotel until I was on the ground. Japan is a remarkably safe country with reasonably priced accommodation, so my plan was to wander freely and then sleep in whatever city I found myself in for the night. Wandering isn’t exactly luggage friendly, so I stuffed a backpack with all the essentials that I’d need for four days of travel as well as a flat iron for my hair. I’d opted to leave my natural hair straightened for the trip.

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My deceptive “cargo” backpack. More on that later.

This was a mistake. From the moment I landed in Narita until the time I flew back out, I experienced humidity unlike any humidity I had encountered before. My clothes felt sticky, my face looked greasy, and my hair would morph into a lifeless puff within 5 minutes of being of outside. Aside from that, I quickly fell in love with Japan and the people. My companions for this trip were my Lonely Planet Tokyo guide on my phone and a super cool and compact Skross international adapter for charging. I left my laptop at home to prevent myself from trying to work while on vacation, and this was probably the best choice that I made regarding the trip.

All prices below are in Japanese Yen. Exchange Rate: 1 USD to 111 JYP

Saturday
Narita Express train to Tokyo – 3000
Train from Tokyo Station to Shinjuku – 200
Accommodation: Ladies 501 Capsule – 4600
Horrible sushi dinner at place I will not name – 4700
Toiletries – 2000

Approximately $121

I landed in the night time on Saturday evening and knew that I’d need some time to adjust to the +12 hour time difference. I needed a nap immediately. Tokyo was the first place that I wanted to explore, so I took an express train from the airport in Narita to Tokyo proper, and then transferred to Shinjuku. After studying my Lonely Planet guide on the trip, I decided that I’d try one of Japan’s famous capsule hotels just so that I could have the experience. Capsule hotels offer little pods for guests to sleep in and not much else in the way of amenities, but if you just want to sleep, it works. The hotels are typically separated by sex, so I made the trek to the closest “Ladies only” hotel, paid 4600 to sleep there for a few hours (the price changed based on the hours that were needed), left my shoes at the door as required, and anxiously rushed to see my pod.

It was…quaint. The air smelled of stale cigarettes and there was a level of grime within the pod hotel that I wasn’t too happy with, but I was too tired to turn back around.

I expected some minimalism, but I was caught off guard by just how small my pod was. Somehow, my pod was still equipped with an outlet, a TV, and a privacy curtain for keeping fellow guests out of my sight. I hid my charger and phone under my pillow to tour the facilities. The toilets had all sorts of fancy buttons that I didn’t quite understand, but I eventually figured out that one button heated the seat, another button shot water from the toilet, and yet another played music. I had a good giggle before I decided that people were probably waiting to use the bathroom so I moved on to the bathing area. When I entered the showering area, I was confronted with the stuff of nightmares. The showers were communal, and I don’t mean freshman year dorms communal. Everyone showered out in the open and entered into the onsen (similar to a Jacuzzi, but even bigger) in the nude. I hurried back into my pod and considered my options. I could try to find another place to stay close to midnight, or I could get over my fear of being naked in front of people and seeing other people naked so that I could take the shower I so desperately needed after a full day of flying. After more self-talk than a person should need, I decided that I needed to get over it and stick this one out.

I cringe showered for about 30 seconds before I realized that I probably looked ridiculous, so I relaxed and forgot all about the other women in there with me. I then lowered myself into the onsen and discarded my discomfort as an older woman slid in next to me. As the warm water soothed my aching limbs, I decided that I could probably do the communal shower experience again if needed. By the way, if you were considering ignoring the “no tattoo” rules for some accommodations and onsen in Japan, the nudity required in the onsen is a nice way for you to get busted. I suggest looking for tattoo friendly accommodations.

At some point in the night, I realized that Shinjuku (the area where the capsule hotel was located) was in the red-light district. Suddenly, the sketch atmosphere in the hotel made sense, and I decided it was time to move on. Tokyo itself didn’t seem to be my speed, and after a truly awful sushi dinner in the tourist area, I decided to skip town and make my way to Kyoto. I downloaded the Lonely Planet Kyoto guide and took a long peaceful rest for the night.

Sunday

Roundtrip Train ticket Tokyo to Kyoto 27500
Crab Bento Box 1400
Green Tea Parfait 1600
Dinner at Sutadonya 1200
Massage 7500
McDonalds 480
Accommodation – Kyoto Hot Spring Hatoya Zuihokaku Hotel  11000
Accommodation – 9 Hours Capsule 2600
Accommodation – Nagomi Ryokan Yu 7700
Approx. $450

I woke up early to make my way back to Tokyo Station for my trip to Kyoto. This trip took place on one of Japan’s famed bullet trains, among the fastest trains in the world, leading to a total travel time of about two hours. I found another capsule hotel for the night while on the ride and made the booking online. A young woman came through the cars offering food and drinks, so I grabbed a crab bento box as breakfast. The bento box turned out to be somewhat of a normal part of the day for many business people while I was in Japan. During rush hours, mobs of people would quickly grab and pay for Bento boxes on their way to their trains in an automated fashion. I wanted to see what the fuss was about for myself, and it was pretty good for packaged sushi! It was light years better than the food-poisoning-served-with-a-smile that I encountered in Shinjuku.

With my belly full and accommodations booked, I sat back and focused on the scenery outside of my window. Everything looked so green and lush! The architecture on the homes was magnificent and I kept thinking about how lovely it would be to actually live in Japan.

One thing that was prominent throughout my time in Japan was the attention paid to presentation, especially when it came to food. As I stepped off my train and into Kyoto Station, my eyes fell on a poster for the most delicious looking ice cream I had ever seen. I don’t even like ice cream, but the photo was so alluring that I hunted down the shop selling it and asked for “that thing that’s on the poster.” It turned out to be matcha (green tea) and vanilla ice cream, with matcha jelly, matcha mochi, and matcha macaroons. Absolutely yummy!

Upon leaving Kyoto Station to make my way to the capsule hotel, I noticed a stately entrance to a hotel called Kyoto Hot Spring Hatoya Zuihokaku. From my short time riding into Kyoto, I knew that I wanted to stay there for duration of my trip, so I booked the Hot Spring hotel for my final night and set off to find the 9 Hours capsule hotel. As I made my way off the main street, the roads became narrow and were paved with pretty stones. Tiny, unusually quiet cars drove carefully down the roadways and the sounds of bells from bikes politely signaled when I was in someone’s way. Kyoto was undoubtedly charming. I ended up making another booking at a lovely guesthouse that I stumbled upon called Nagomi Ryokan Yu. I’d have my own room and share a shower with other guests, but that was far more privacy than the offerings at 9 Hours hotel.

Kyoto is known for being home to multiple temples, so I opened my map and set about finding all of them. Little did I know, these temples (over 1,000 of them) were still active places of worship. After accidentally interrupting one too many services, I decided to give up on the temples that were embedded within the city. I rented a bike, zipped around town for a while, and then took a much-needed mid-day nap at 9 Hours Capsule hotel. These capsules had doors that could close, not curtains, but they were hot and muggy. The futuristic capsule just didn’t cut it, so I knew that I’d made a good call by booking the ryokan. I dropped my things off in the guesthouse and headed back to the shopping area to look for food.

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Sutadonya in Kyoto.

After eating entirely too much at Grand Menu restaurant, I began the walk back to my ryokan in the nighttime when I saw the.most.amazing.thing.ever.

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THEY HAD WINE IN VENDING MACHINES! Right on the street!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I quickly fed the machine all my coins just to see if this was for real. Wine? From a machine? And you can drink it outside!? Japan is so far ahead of us in the game.

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Do you see locs in this picture? 🙁

Monday
Sushi off street by Ryokan 1200
Fish Stick 1200
Souvenir bowl and chopsticks 3800
Souvenir tea cups 1500
Souvenir notebooks 1500
Zara 18000 (fuzzy sweater, black cardigan, yellow and black sweaters, blue top)
Dinner at Donguri 3500
Approx. $273

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The next morning, I had what was described as a traditional breakfast at the guesthouse. Rice seemed to be prominent in the morning, and at this point I decided that Japanese people must be distant cousins to Nigerians. Breakfast was centered around a small piece of fish, and there were all sorts of sides meant to be eaten with the rice. I couldn’t identify one of the sides, but it tasted good so I kept at it…until I noticed it had eyes. Anchovies 🙁

I took a walk around the little streets and immediately noticed that the smell of cooked fish was all over. It seemed as though every home had cooked the same breakfast that I had just enjoyed myself. I basked in the smell of morning breakfast being cooked as I headed over to a park full of numerous temples that were open to visitors. Early on in my walk, I ran into a woman and her husband rolling up sushi and selling it out of a shop attached to their house. Although my Japanese was nonexistent, I was able to communicate that I wanted one of their rolls and packed the delicious treat in my bag for the long walk to Kiyomizu-dera.

The first scene I encountered when I reached the park were loads of school children. Children fill my heart with so much joy that I shed a few tears as they sang songs with each other before getting myself together. I watched as they interacted with deities, performed rituals, and laughed with each other before I tried to map out how I would visit the most temples in the park. At the summit of the park’s mountain, gift shops and opportunities for prayer were offered. In one corner, there was a bucket of water with little stacks of paper people off to the side. There were instructions to write a prayer for someone on the paper, and then to dissolve it in the water. I wrote a prayer for myself, placed it in the water, and I truly felt like everything would be okay as I watched it dissolve. Something about being in Kyoto had roused something in my spirit, and I felt incredibly at peace.

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Paper people prayers.

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A deity that gave me slight pause. Lol.

As I descended the mountain in the park, I noticed my exhaustion and headed back to my ryokan to collect my things. After a quick nap, I made my final move to the Hot Spring hotel for my last night in Kyoto. The Hot Springs stayed true to its name as it was equipped with two floors of onsen, separated by sex, and each floor had cold and hot water onsen along with communal showering areas for cleaning off.

I walked one last time to the main shopping area in Kyoto and spent too much money in Zara buying items that I had never seen back in New York. Souvenir shopping and all of that temple walking inspired my appetite so I ended my trip with dinner at Donguri complete with black sesame ice cream for dessert. This ice cream was even better than the green tea parfait! I’ve been looking for this flavor ever since I got back to the United States. Good food is always the perfect way to end a trip.

Tuesday
Bento boxes 3200
Train from Tokyo to airport 3500

After just about every trip, I feel sad when I’m leaving. As I struggled with my now broken backpack (that bag was NOT meant for travel) and several bags of clothes and souvenirs to board the train back to the airport, I didn’t feel sadness as much as I felt like I was leaving home. I literally felt as though I had found my people. Kyoto is a germophobe’s dream, everyone was pleasant, respectful, and considerate, and the city was scenic to say the least. Although I felt large in comparison to just about everyone there, and the prolonged stares and giggles from high school girls made me more than a little self-conscious, I felt like Kyoto was where I was meant to be. Next time, I am staying for at least a month, booking a ryokan in advance, and getting a rail pass to travel all over the country!

Winging It in New Zealand

I found myself faced with a dilemma that is all too familiar to many of us that like to pick up and go. Five days in New Zealand were just a plane ride away and I had already paid for the ticket in full, but I couldn’t spend $1000 on the usual comforts of travel. I’d avoided making any plans for the trip in advance as I was sure that my finances  would force me to skip the trip altogether. Three days away from my flight, most things would undoubtedly be more expensive, but I still wanted to make this work. My doctoral program had been particularly stressful and this getaway was exactly what I needed to recharge, but taking naps in public parks in a place that was completely foreign to me wasn’t exactly my idea of a recharge trip. So, what is a graduate student supposed to do? I could give up the ticket (which was a steal at $250) or I could do some frugal planning and keep my total expenses for the trip (sans airfare) at $500.

Obviously, I went the “keep the cost low” route. I can’t resist traveling to a new country! The exchange rate was on my side at about .70 cents to the New Zealand dollar.

I quickly let go of the expectation that I’d stay in a hotel. Lodging can take up the majority of a travel budget, so who needs all the amenities that hotels offer anyway? This trip would be about exploring, not sleeping in my room all day. I knew I’d have to go the hostel route, so I adjusted my expectations, put my germophobia in check, and tried to find an available bed three days prior to my arrival.

Nothing.

Panic quickly began to set in. Where was I going to sleep? How would I eat? From my previous travels, I knew that rooms tend to open the night of, so I decided to hop on the plane with a bag full of fruit snacks and figure it out once I landed. I don’t recommend that you do this. (Lol.) I packed nothing more than a rolling carry on to make movement around the country and hostel changes easier. In exchange for $150, I was able to get NZD 216 for emergencies. The remaining $350 from my budget would be placed on my debit/credit card. I couldn’t risk the possibility of losing all my travel budget to robbery or some other unforeseen circumstance.

Saturday

  • $26 – Round-trip Skybus ticket
  • $10 – Overly expensive burger at Wendy’s for dinner
  • $88 – 14 hour Inter-City bus pass

I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand on a Saturday and quickly began calling hostels to ask for openings. I was in luck! A bed opened at Nomads Auckland for that night and it was only $26 for a mixed 4-bedroom dorm! Victory! Skybus service from the airport serviced the hostel as well as many others in downtown Auckland, so I purchased a round-trip ticket online for $26.

Once I arrived at the less-than-cleanly hostel, I knew I needed to make some immediate decisions. I still needed to find somewhere to sleep for the next few days, but Auckland wasn’t my speed. It was cold, crowded, and I just didn’t feel like it could provide the recharge that I needed. I didn’t have enough time in New Zealand to travel to beautiful South Island, so I decided to stick to the small towns of North Island. Rotorua is well-known for Maori culture, natural salt ponds, and volcanoes, and it happened to be experiencing some beautiful weather. New Zealand has several bus services similar to Megabus and Greyhound that connect travelers between cities, and the trip from Auckland to Rotorua was only 4 hours. I settled on an Inter-City pass as it offered flexible bookings. My time of travel would be reduced from the pass, and I could switch my departure up to an hour prior to my original trip. I was able to purchase and manage a 14-hour pass online. With my next destination set, I grabbed a burger at Wendy’s that was way more than it should have been, but food is expensive in New Zealand.

Sunday

  • Morning run around downtown Auckland
  • $7 – Breakfast at bus station: Ham & Cheese, Pork Bun and drink
  • Bus trip from Auckland to Rotorua using 4 hours from Inter-City pass
  • $45 – Polynesian Spa, free smoothie with entrance
  • $64 – 3 nights at Rock Solid Backpacks in Rotorua
  • $20 – Groceries at Pak-N-Save (Water, sandwiches, cheese, toiletries)
  • $32.94 – Dinner at Japanese restaurant (I splurged)

I woke up early on Sunday to take a run around Auckland and locate the Inter-City bus stop. During my run, I realized that Downtown Auckland reminded me of lower Manhattan, another place that I am not fond of. I knew I made the right decision to head to Rotorua.

After four hours on the Inter-City coach (no bathroom on board, eek!) I arrived in Rotorua. My hostel, Rock Solid Backpackers, was clean, inviting, and had lockable storage, internet, and water.

Perfect.

I decided to spend this day unwinding at the sulfur ponds that make Rotorua famous. Polynesian Spa is home to multiple indoor and outdoor pools with varying levels of sulfur. I went for their deluxe offering of access to multiple pools and began my experience outside.

Oh. My. Word.

This was definitely the sort of experience I needed to recharge! The pools are naturally heated, the scenery resembled a movie set, and the seagulls (while obnoxiously loud at times) were charming. As I stretched out over the beautiful rocks within the pool, I completely forgot where I was and placed my head and hair into the water as well…

Yes, I placed my hair into a pool of sulfur water. After I realized my mistake, I concluded that the experience was worth the potential loss or bleaching of my hair. Goshdarnit I’d do it again!

Monday

  • Morning run at the Redwoods
  • Redeemed my free smoothie at Polynesian Spa
  • $82 – Mitai Maori experience with dinner

Rotorua is home to a beautiful forest filled with California Coast Redwoods. I thought that this would be the perfect place for my morning run, so I filled up a water bottle at the hostel, put on my running shoes, and began to walk the two miles to Whakarewarewa Forest. An hour and a few poor directions from Google later, I finally made it to the entrance of the Redwoods with the help of friendly locals. I went with the moderate hike as it had an estimated two hour complete time and I’m not the outdoorsy type. By the time I completed the trail, I needed several hours of sleep if I wanted to be awake for the Mitai Maori tour.

Visiting the Mitai Maori was the highlight of my trip to New Zealand. Although the Maori are the original inhabitants of the land, they currently make up approximately 14% of the population in New Zealand. This tour was one of the few tours that was owned by the Maori people, so the $82 price seemed worth it. The evening started with a traditionally cooked (and delicious) meal and then progressed into performances, storytelling, and a walk to see the glowworms hiding in the trees. The tour included drop-off back at area hostels and hotels.

Tuesday

  • Bus trip from Rotorua to Taupo using 1 hour from Inter-City pass
  • $41 – All day mountain bike rental
  • $24 – Emergency taxi back to Inter-City bus stop
  • Bus trip back to Rotorua using 1 hour from Inter-City pass

My big plans for Tuesday included visiting Huka Falls and watching the dam open at Aratiatia Rapids. This meant that I needed to take an hour bus trip from Rotorua to Taupo. The problem with this was that I still needed to make it to both sites despite being two hours walking apart. This was doable, sure! But to spice things up, I decided to rent a mountain bike for the trip. First stop, Huka Falls.

This is where I remark that New Zealand is beautiful. The greenery in New Zealand looks unreal and is complete with loads of flowing meadows atop hills. Those beautiful hills are what nearly killed me on this trip. After inching my way down a treacherous trail called “Acid Drop” (!?) and walking the bike up what felt like millions of steep inclines, I no longer felt that renting the mountain bike was such a good idea. Toward the end of the journey, those difficult inclines gave way to beautiful, leisurely descents that placed the water flowing from Huka Falls in full view. Finally, I had made it. The rush of the water underneath the viewing bridge was so breathtaking that I quickly forgot all about pushing a heavy mountain bike the majority of the way.

Next stop, Aratiatia Rapids.

What should have been a quick, 30-minute beginner’s bike ride between the falls and the rapids ending up being an hour of pushing the mountain bike along a (clearly not beginner’s) trail in the wrong direction, amused but mildly panicked snapchats and tweets to loved ones so that they’d know my last location, sunburn, and some temporary moments of just wanting to turn back around and go home even though I was finally headed in the right direction. However, the unexpected meadows, ponds, and Narnia-esque views along the way kept my spirits up and my legs moving. Finally, I made it to the rapids just in time to watch the release!

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Aratiatia Rapids in Taupo, New Zealand

I then made a desperate call for a cab back to the bike rental place. The lesson here is to pay close attention to signage. Also, no more mountain biking ever.

Wednesday

  • $46 – Gondola ride up to Skyline Restaurant. Price includes buffet lunch.
  • Bus trip from Rotorua to Auckland using 4 hours from Inter-City pass
  • $24 – Lodging at Oakland Lodge Backpackers in Auckland
  • $30 – Dinner at El Sizzling Chorizo in Auckland

For my last day in Rotorua, I knew that I no longer had the patience for getting lost somewhere and instead opted for wine tasting and a nice lunch at Skyline to relax. A scenic gondola ride must be taken to the restaurant and the views of Rotorua as you dine are unparalleled.

When I got back to Auckland and settled into Oakland Lodge Backpackers, my final lodging while I was in New Zealand, I wasn’t ready for my trip to end. I had spent right around $500 (YAY!) so I allowed myself a nice dinner at El Sizzling Chorizo to end my trip on a high note. This place is a carnivore’s dream!

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Thursday

  • Return trip to airport using Skybus

As I boarded my plane back to the United States, I felt a bit sad that my trip was so short. Even when I was lost, tired, and dehydrated, I was surrounded by so much beauty that I knew I needed to return to New Zealand. Next time, I’ll skip the mountain bike.