Saint Martin is an island in the Northeast Caribbean that is split approximately 60/40 between the French and the Dutch. The French side calls it Saint-Martin while the Dutch side is called Sint Maarten. The whole island is about 87 square kilometres. While the French side is bigger in size, the Dutch side is more populated. That said, the whole place only has about 75,000 people on it.
The oldest treaty in effect in the Caribbean is the Treaty of Concordia which was signed between the Dutch and French for the partition of St. Martin in 1648. The partition was based on the economic needs of each state and the proximity to nearby colonies. With this treaty, both parties agreed to share resources, and protect one another. It was violated over a dozen times before truly being enforced and respected. Nevertheless, today both sides enjoy the cultural and economic ties, strengthened over centuries.
The Dutch side has the capital, Philipsburg, on it and is the main entry port for those arriving on cruise ships. The area is highly tourist friendly with shops, bars, cafes aplenty. On the day we arrived there was 5 very large cruise ships (around 15,000 people) that were all in town on the same day. The area has a cobblestone promenade with colorful, colonial-style buildings lining the main street and shopping area.
The French side has one of the most famous airports in the world for the Instagrammer crowds. With international and regional flights landing every 15 minutes, Maho Beach is the only place in the world where the planes quite literally land directly over the top of your head.
While having planes landing directly overhead is impressive enough, it has also prompted a phenomenon that has become known as “fence-surfing.” This is where visitors to the beach line up along the runway end’s fence, hold on and ride out the jet wash from the engines of departing aircraft. The pilots know this so ham it up, overly revving up the engines before taking off.
The surfers white-knuckle through a high-powered pelting of tiny rocks and sand for about one minute. But as you would expect, not all are able to hold on through experience and people have been killed as they are blown backwards. The most recent was a New Zealand woman who was blown backwards striking her head on the concrete blocks dividing the fence and the beach.
We came here the first time when we had the joint 50th birthday celebrations with Jeremy and Claudia. We hopped on a tour to the airport, had a few beers and lunch while we watched the planes landing before having a dip in the cool waters.
Not being idiots, we did not try fence surfing but did get a minor version of being sandblasted as the planes arrived and left. Our meal and drinks were at the Sunset Bar and Grill.Later examination determined that there was a sign that read that “topless women drink for free”. Research tells me that this is true and if the ladies are willing to whip them out, then the bar tab for each round is halved.
I’m not sure if Claudia or Jill saw the sign or not, but I can say that Jimmy and I paid full price for our rounds of drinks.
We enjoyed St Martin, both sides of the island. It had a really nice feel to it, the people were friendly, the streets were clean and safe. The shops, cafes, restaurants and bars were relaxed and there was no angst anywhere you went. And importantly, nothing was particularly overpriced, a fair price was being asked for goods and services without the usual (stupid) tourist markup.
It does have the pay for beach seating (that offends me as an Australian) thing but the prices are not ridiculous. $20 will get you two sun loungers, an umbrella and a few drinks each. This is basically the cost of the beers, so I can wear that cost.
I have found now that I have way more pictures than I do superlatives for how nice St Martin is. So here’s some random pics.
And of course, you are in the Caribbean, so there is the obligatory and ubiquitous rum distillery.
Here they will try and convince you why their particular brew is better than the ones you tried on any of the preceding islands.
St Maarten is pretty nice, on both sides of the island. We enjoyed our time here the first time and did again the second time around. It is well-priced, the people are friendly and for the most part, there is a good time to be had here.
Fiji in an island nation made up of over 300 individual islands. It is a famous tourist destination and has been established and set up with this entirely in mind. It is renowned for rugged landscapes, palm-lined beaches, coral reefs and clear lagoons.
Ever since I was a kid I remember seeing those Fiji package holidays that were always being advertised. They always seemed to include an idyllic resort, flights included and more often than not, they were under a thousand dollars. While the price has gone up (considerably) all of the rest is still available today.
Our trip would take in 3 separate resorts and also include a night at a B&B in Nadi (mainly to avoid a long drive and potential drama on the final travel day). So for the most part we should get a nice spread of what is here.
The first and biggest issue that we had on arrival was getting access to WIFI, and this was our first real introduction to life in Fiji. In order to get access to the mobile data network at the airport, be prepared to hand over your first-born child as the prices are obscene. We had just left Samoa where we got a SIM card with data for 5 tala (about $3) for the month and found that we were now paying $70 Fijian ($55 AUD) for 15 days. And for this amount of money you got a patchy spotty service that kept dropping in and out the whole time.
This got even worse once we got to our second resort, where we were told that if we wanted WIFI in our room then we had to pay an additional $40 Fijian for 3 days access.
This service was slower and even more spotty than at the first place.
Before we go any further, the first thing that must be discussed is Fiji Beer. It is terrible and costs more money than you would pay for beer back home. There are three main options (Fiji Bitter, Fiji Gold and Vonu) and they are all atrocious to drink. Fiji Bitter tastes acrid, while gold is tasteless. Vonu at least borders on passable but if you are given any other choice, I would drink that. I ended up finding Camel (a Hanoi beer) and grabbed that.
Add to this the price. The cheapest that we could buy a stubbie at a resort was $10 ($6.9) and this went up to $17 ($11.75) at the last place. Before we left Australia, we were buying cans for $3.50 at the Emu Park RSL and the beer actually tasted good.
Fiji is full of resorts and they are all pretty similar. The 5 star options offer high end service at high end prices and really don’t give you a sense that you are anywhere near Fiji (you could just as easily be anywhere (beachy) in the world. As for the lower star options, they are all pretty much interchangeable with a limited (westernised) menu and drink and food prices that rival anything that you would pay back home and more in many cases.
Every menu that we came across in our time here had the following options steak, fish and chips, burger, pizza, fish curry, chicken curry and vegetarian curry. And that is what you will have available at almost every resort, for every meal, for your whole time here. There will be a daily special (lunch will almost certainly be a club sandwich or chicken wrap) and the dinner special might be a chicken schnitzel with chips. Every now and then you will get a nod towards something local, like Kokoda (the Fijian version of Oka or Ceviche) but it will be overcooked (sit in lime too long) and made bland.
Don’t get me wrong, the food is nice enough. The options are just extremely limited and over an extended period (more than a few days) they get pretty boring.
Let’s get a few things straight on our accommodation. They were all absolute beachfront, with green grass, swimming pools, palm trees and idyllic locations. All the rooms were private, en-suited, clean and serviced regularly and they all offered similar services and tours. They were all quite remote (far from villages) so you had to get in a cab to see things. Across the board the food was poor and overpriced as was the beer and cocktails (only the level of overpriced changed).
So in the grand scheme of things, all of them were fine. There was nothing stopping you from having a good time at any of the resorts for a week or two. But that said, there was still stuff that put us off some of them.
Our first resort was a cheap and cheerful 3-star number. It was fun and quirky with an open-air bathroom. The place was nice but was completely overrun with free-range dogs. This seemed to be a plus for many but was a bit annoying for us at meal times or when the dogs decided to scuffle with each other. But at $155 Aussie a night, I could not help but imagine all of the coastal towns back home where you would find similar digs with better food and cheaper drinks.
Night Price (AUD)
Beer Price (Fiji)
Meal Price (Fiji)
The big winner here though was the $40 massage. Don’t get me wrong, Fijian massages are terrible if you have anything that needs attention. There is very little therapeutic about them, but if you are looking for a light, easy, relaxing way to kill an hour, then you cannot go wrong. I was there early in the day and the ladies were doing nothing so I ended up with a four hands massage for my $28 Aussie.
The biggest issue that we had here was the staff. They were friendly, but the place was their own private playground and you as a guest happened to be infesting. This meant that the music was at unbearable volumes almost all of the time and if they wanted to talk to each other, they just yelled to each other, across the entire resort. This wore very thin after a while.
Resort number two was a step up in stars, but inexplicably a step down in expenditure. For no apparent reason we went from 3 to 4 stars but saved ourselves $35 a night. The room was bigger and nicer, with indoor plumbing and was entirely lovely. The staff were just as friendly, but without the yelling, the dogs were there but were fewer and much better behaved.
Night Price (AUD)
Beer Price (Fiji)
Meal Price (Fiji)
$40 for 3 days
The beach at resort two was a bit nicer than the first but had the benefit of some lovely blue starfish to be seen straight off the sand in front of your room.
No real snorkelling to speak of but that was the same for all three of the resorts.
In reality, resort two was probably our pick of the three but it was also plagued with the poor food and terrible internet options that all three had. But importantly, it did have a big screen TV that allowed me to wake up at 3am and sit with the security guard watching the world cup rugby Quarter final games between Fiji and England, closely followed by South Africa against France.
This was at the high end, positioned on one of the best beaches in Fiji and upon arrival it was clear that the extra money was for the beach. The room was smaller and less well appointed than Resort two and the prices across the board were higher, in fact all of the prices here were through the roof. But the beach was magnificent.
Night Price (AUD)
Beer Price (Fiji)
Meal Price (Fiji)
Patchy and slow
Jill and I have spent a lot of time talking about Fiji and its attractions and charms. Neither of us have anything adverse or bad to say about Fiji at all. The people are friendly, the location is stunning, and as beach holidays go this is a fine place to come. And sure once upon a time, when it was cheap, this would definitely be the place to come. But the days of a cheap Fiji holiday are mostly gone.
For the prices that you pay here today, you could get as good (if not better) options all the way up and down the Australian coastlines. The food would be better, the drinks prices would be cheaper and you would have saved yourself a plane fare.
Sigatoka is a small town wedged about halfway in between resorts two and three. As we had lain about enough, we decided to hop a bus into town and check out the local markets (being a Saturday and all). Sigatoka is now commonly dubbed as “Rugby Town” due to the local rugby team’s influence on the Fiji national rugby scene.
This is where we got to do some local shopping and mingling with the community rather than being trapped in a resort. I managed to grab myself a Fijian Rugby shirt and a Bula Shirt and we got some reasonably priced beer, wine and snacks. I even managed to grab a few roti wraps (with a chicken and potato curry filling and a tuna filling) for about a buck each.
This will not really be a fair section to write as the food that we had was almost always resort food and it was bland, templated and made for western tastes (at least the perceived ones). I am certain that if we were able to have gotten out and about more then our food experience may have been vastly different.
The food options were a mix of Indian and Chinese with a bunch of local fruit and root vegetables thrown into the mix. Over time the Indian and Chinese foods had both been localised somewhat and did not really resemble their roots. But they were still ok. Particularly the Indian, ignore the lack of chilli, the flavours were good.
Kava is the traditional drink made from ground-up roots of the Piper methysticum. The root is traditionally crushed or ground in water and drunk as tea. Kava has been used in ceremonies and cultural events in the Pacific region.
And it tastes like mud.
Nadi was a breath of fresh air after having spent so much time on the beaches and in the resorts. The beaches were lovely but the resort food was pretty bad and the prices were through the roof. We got a place near the airport (but still on the water) and immediately were happy. The beaches were nowhere near the standard of the resorts and neither was the water.
But the price for a stubbie of beer went from $17 to $5 and the food was better and a ton cheaper and even the cocktails were reasonably priced. In reality the best meals that we had in our fortnight in Fiji was here and not in the flash beachside resorts.
I rate Fiji as a lovely place to visit and we are glad that we came, but in hindsight neither of us think that we would return. There are many more beachy type destinations around that offer as much (if not more) than Fiji at a fraction of the cost.
I have already mentioned the stay at home (in Australia) options, but if you were determined to head overseas then the other options that I would include would be:
Sri Lankan beaches,
even some of the lesser Greek Islands.
All of these offer the same sort of relaxing beachy feel and will set you back about a half to a third of what you would pay here in Fiji (granted the Maldives does also have the super high-end options that would blow these prices out of the water). And importantly they will all offer good authentic food and drink options at far better prices.
The night in Nadi slightly changed our opinion and softened our view of Fiji, but the cost of the resorts is too exorbitant for it to be a go-to option.
Samoa is a Polynesian island country (officially the Independent State of Samoa) and until 1997 was known as Western Samoa.
Between 1899 and 1915 it was a colony of the German Empire. It then came under a joint British and New Zealand colonial administration until 1962, when it became independent. The nation is made up of two main islands (Upolu and Savai’i), two smaller, inhabited islands (Manono and Apolima) and several smaller, uninhabited islands.
Samoa gained its independence from New Zealand in 1962 after more than a century of foreign influence and domination, but it remains a member of the Commonwealth. The country was known as Western Samoa until 1997. Its capital and main commercial centre is Apia, on the island of Upolu.
Fale is the Samoan word for all types of houses, from small to large. In general, traditional Samoan architecture is characterized by an oval or circular shape, with wooden posts holding up a domed roof.
All of the building elements are ‘lashed’ or bound together, originally with a plaited rope made from dried coconut fibre. The fale’s open structure allows strong winds to pass straight through it, and the complex system of lashing offers flexible movement and strength in the face of ever-changing winds. The roof is curved allowing the winds that hit to move around its surface without meeting resistance.
The population of the Samoan Islands is around 225,000. However, there are another 240,000 in the United States, a further 183,000 in New Zealand and around 100,000 in Australia.
Our arrival saw us land into the airport in the capital, Apia, on the island of Upolu. Apia is not seen as a town but 45 separate villages, but they are so condensed that it would be hard to make out the difference between them.
The overnight flight and lack of sleep saw us napping fairly early on after our arrival.
Thanks to Fiame, a close friend of my sister’s -and now close family friend- we had an offer of accommodation and even an airport pickup (at 5am) and unofficial impromptu tour guide (her cousin Pam).
On our first day after napping, Pam took us on a tour of the southern half of the island.
There is a ring road and a cross-island road so doing loops is a pretty easy and sensible way of splitting up your sightseeing.
OK so meet the Banded Rail. These speedy little suckers are all over the place and while driving along they dart out onto the road, in front of the car and cause minor heart palpitations as you keep waiting for the bump (which never comes).
These cute little suckers are the next to meet as they are ubiquitous as they float around free range throughout the island.
The next thing that you have to meet is the Samoan local bus. These are highly colourful, with locally manufactured (typically wooden) cabins stuck onto old truck chassis. To say these are old clunkers is being very generous, but they do reek of style. To catch a bus, just wave it down – there are no bus stops. And when you want to get off, pull the cord along the roof of the bus. Simple!
All buses are named with their destination, but you may want to make sure and ask the driver if you are unsure. They run on ‘island time’, so using it for the airport run may not be advisable (unless you are leaving plenty of time).
The first among all of the tourist attractions in Samoa has to be the To Sua Trench. This is a spectacular 30-metre deep swimming hole. The blurb tells me that the hole was formed when an ancient lava tube caved in and thousands of years of erosion did the rest. And of course today it is full of bikini-clad tourists and an impossibly steep set of stairs to get down into the pool.
Around the To Sua is an amazingly lush landscaped area looking out onto the ocean. Some of the greenest grass and bluest skies that you will ever see combine to make this place simply amazing.
A short way down the road we found a nice secluded quiet beach near the village of Lotofoga where we were able to have a nice little dip, with the beach to ourselves (and Pam’s grandkids).
We checked the tourism “what’s on” and as luck would have it we were in town on the last Friday of the month, which meant that we were here for the Waterfront Night Market. So we headed on down to check them out. Unfortunately, the markets were not really supported and were little more than a sad bouncy castle, a couple of tents selling lavalavas (the Polynesian version of a sarong) and some carved wooden items (which customs would not let us bring into the country).
We did however get to see a very inventive version of a kid’s train.
The things you can do with a used 44 gallon drum.
The market was held in the heart of town, at the Samoa Cultural Village. The Cultural Village features tapa making (traditional cloth), traditional tattooing (tatau), carving cultural artefacts, and the preparation of the “umu” (earth oven). Here is where you can learn about the Samoan Way (Fa’a Samoa). It is the essence of the Samoan culture and dictates how Samoans are meant to behave and their obligations to their elders, superiors, family, community, church and the environment.
The Sopo’aga viewpoint is similarly easy to access off the Main South Coast Road and is probably the prettiest waterfall – it’s majestic in its dense jungle scene.
Papase’ea sliding rocks is a waterfall that has been worn smooth(ish) by the running water. While it is only 16 foot high, the slide has made it a favourite.
The Papapapaitai (I gave up even trying to pronounce this sucker) viewing spot is just off the cross island road.
These spectacular falls plunge 500 feet into a volcanic crater, surrounded by a lush rainforest. For these reasons, it is one of the most photographed falls in Samoa.
The next morning we were up early and did the schlepp to the fresh fish markets. Advice from the barflies was that this was definitely worth the effort so at 5 am we were up and walking the 2.2 km (each way) to buy ourselves some fresh seafood. Our haul saw us bring home about a 1.3 kg slab of yellowfin tuna, a fresh crab, and a couple of bugs, all for the princely sum of about $22.
A few days after our first trip of the southern part of the island, Pam again picked us up and we did the northern loop. This included a stop at one of the flash resorts for lunch, as nice as it may have been, that sort of thing just didn’t do it for me. The weather the second time around was not as kind with intermittent rain for most of the day (not enough to keep Jill out of the water though).
The Museum of Samoa is housed in a historic colonial building in Apia which used to be a German school. It contains a huge collection of artefacts and images which tell the story of Samoa’s history and rich culture. according to the blurb the museum is home to a pottery and stone adze which was discovered in Samoa and thought to be 3,000 years old. Given my love of old pottery, I skipped this.
The famous Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, spent the last 4 years of his life here in Samoa and is buried high on the hill overlooking the island.
His former residence has been converted into a museum that is dedicated to his life. On chatting with Pam my question was “is it worth going to or is it just a pretty colonial building”? Her answer was “just a pretty colonial building”. So we did the obligatory loop of the driveway, got a photo or two and left.
Church is at the centre of almost everything that it means to be Samoan. Every village has at least one church, and people actually attend them (religiously). The main show in town is right on the waterfront and is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
But quite literally, there are churches everywhere throughout Samoa. All of differing shapes and sizes. It is estimated that there are over 310 villages in Samoa and every one of these has (at least one) church. Going to church is central to everything that happens here in Samoa. So much so that virtually everything is closed on Sunday. Our chat with our impromptu tour guide Pam informed us that Sunday is for going to church, having a meal with your family and sleeping.
The Palolo Deep Marine Reserve is only five minutes walk from the centre of Apia (head east to Vaiala Beach) and importantly was about 150 m from our accommodation.
After a few days to ourselves and with Pam ferrying us about, our hostess returned from an overseas trip. Up until now we had been just milling about in her house as rather uncomfortable interlopers (being looked after by Utu the chef and Grace the part time cleaner). But after her arrival we were finally able to have a good catch-up (punctuated by amazing food yet again) and all was right with the world.
Talking to our hostess we were told that the Piula Cave Pool was her favourite and that it should not be missed.
So the next day we were up again and Pam picked us up and ran us out to this beautiful crystal clear freshwater spring pool and cave. The pool originated from an old lava tube and is now a crystal clear (if a little cold) pool to swim in.
This was followed up by another nice lunch and another great day was had.
Savai’i is the larger of the two main islands and at it’s centre is lies the volcano, Mount Silisili, the highest point on the island. Talking to the local bar flies (cos that’s where we hang out) they reckon that visiting Savai’i was like going back to the flintstones era.
In Polynesian mythology, Hawaiki is the original home of the Polynesians, before their dispersal across Polynesia. According to legend, Savai‘i island is said to be Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland and is therefore known as the “Cradle of Polynesia”.
So we called on poor Pam once again, who met us at about 4:30am so that we could drive the 1 hr to the ferry terminal in time to make the 6am ferry to Salelaloga. A 90 minute ferry ride and we were on the big island and on the hunt for a rental car. The two main attractions that are on the island are the Lava field and the blowholes. Given that the blowholes were only 45 mins away (and it was low tide) the lady at the rental place suggested a right (rather than left) turn at the only set of lights. this way we circumnavigated most of the island seeing the sights while the tide rose.
Saleaula Lava Fields is a quick and easy stop as you traverse the island. A remnant of the 1905-1911 volcanic eruptions of Mt Matavanu the lava flowed northwards towards the coast destroying villages in its path. The lava flowed over 100 km2 of countryside and the depth of the lava flow in some parts was 400 feet. For a measly WST$10 (about $6) you can walk on the lava flow and see the impact it had on the village (including the swallowing up of the church). There is also a quick and informative history from the ladies on-site.
You used to be able to follow the lava flow down to the ocean but as it was aging the lava was becoming brittle in parts and they could not guarantee your safety so this was discouraged.
The next main attraction was the Falealupo Canopy Walk. I am finding that as I get older, the thought of heights is getting less and less appealing. Unfortunately, this one fit in firmly into that category. While I am happy to admire this, the thought of heading out along this walkway just didn’t tick any boxes for me.
Alofaaga Blowholes – These impressive blowholes are a major treat to see in real life.
Situated in the village of Taga on south-west Savai’i the blowholes shoot a roaring jet of water hundreds of feet up into the air.
They were created by lava flows making a series of tubes connecting a flat clifftop of lava rock with the ocean below.
As the waves break against the lower end of the tubes it sends water at high pressure up through the tubes making fountains that spray every few seconds.
The amazing thing was that there was no safety rails, just a red line spray painted on the rocks saying ‘stop here’. If the red line didn’t stop you then the roar of the water and the power of nature surely had to make you think twice. I am certain that some vacuous Instagrammers will push the bounds but the aussies and kiwis who were visiting when we were there all seemed to follow the very sensible advice provided by the spray paint.
Our accommodation on Savai’i was an issue and it started very poorly. Having booked our room (for 220) and paid our deposit, we were told our room would be 260 as the owner had put the rates up on the 1st of the month. After an argument that was poorly understood, we just paid the extra 40 and headed to the restaurant for a late lunch. At this point we were greeted by a menu of about 25 items to be told that all but 3 of them were not available.
We tried to ascertain whether more food would come before the dinner service (as there were very few restaurant options). After another unsuccessful chat, we ordered a burger and a club sandwich. When these arrived there was some bizarre salmon paste on both of them. Needless to say, salmon paste doesn’t work that well on a cheeseburger and Jill only managed one bite of her club sandwich.
As it turned out, dinner was a steak (that was ok) and the next morning the owner found us and apologised for the mix-up (for the room rate) and refunded us our extra 40. We felt infinitely better in the knowledge that the place did not suck, just that they were struggling with the training and retention of decent staff.
Samoan food is relatively simple on first glance with the appearance of taro, breadfruit, rice and green bananas as staples. Add to this some various local fruits, salads and thin soups and the basics are done. But even the simple stuff is kicked to another level due to the appearance of coconut cream. My first foray into breadfruit and taro were pretty tasteless and were just a starchy filler. But the addition of coconut cream makes them both super yummy and not bland at all. And of course, then the rest kicks in.
Our first taste sensation was Palusami. A simple dish of taro leaves, onion and coconut cream.
Granted it didn’t look like much but the taste is amazing.
The next was Oka which is a Samoan version of ceviche.
It is basically a raw fish salad with the recipe changing from place to place and no two alike.
The main thing is fresh raw fish, coconut milk/cream and citrus with the option of chilli and anything else you may wish to add.
Being on an island, the seafood is to die for and by Aussie standards is dirt cheap. It is truly the catch of the day, both at the markets and in the restaurants. It has been clear, from our time here in Samoa, how little of the fish that we get back at home is truly fresh.
The main thing that was eaten was fresh fish, often raw, in a Japanese sashimi style or as oka. And it was magnificent. Then you add the cooked stuff and it too was amazing. For a bloke who has always loved seafood (especially the shellfish) this fish stuff is pretty ok too.
As one of our last meals, we were taken to the other side of the island where we had lunch on the water at a Filipino beach shack. This brought into play the crispy pork goodness that is Lechon and crispy pata. Add this to the fish and selection of dips with taro chips and another fantastic meal was had.
Samoan beer was a bit hit-and-miss.
We only found two real beers and one was good (Taula) and the other (Vailima) we had one and never tried again.
If I was to be harsh, the only real detraction that we came across while in Samoa was the free-range dogs. This was also an issue in Sri Lanka and many parts of Asia. But here we were met with some that were a touch more aggressive than those elsewhere. For the most part, they just wander about harmlessly, but others…not so much. it got to the point that if we were going out after dark, we would have to walk with a stick to protect from the dogs.
The thing that really needs to be mentioned is the Samoan people. At no point in time did we ever feel upset or unsafe (except maybe from the dogs). Everywhere we went we were met with huge smiles and welcoming tones. Our first foray into the bar saw us best friends with almost everyone and when we returned the next day we were welcomed like old friends.
On 31 May 2023 the central bank of Samoa issued the commemorative 60 Tala note, commemorating Samoa’s 60th Anniversary of Independence.
It honours the first Prime Minster and Independence Day in 1962 while embracing the future with the first female Prime Minister 60 years later.
The banknote honors and recognises Samoa’s core strength as its foundation in God.
We enjoyed every second of being in Samoa, and the extended timeframe allowed us to truly embrace the place rather than just dart about seeing the tourist highlights. This is a place we would both (and likely will) return to.
As part of our ongoing monster commute, we headed out of Kuantan and hopped another bus to some random little spot called Jerteh. Happy to report that the bus standard went up considerably back to the standard that we first had. The organisation at the bus terminal however was atrocious.
There are about 6 gates, servicing 12 bays. However all but one of them are closed. So you end up with about 70 people (and their luggage jamming up the only access point listening intently to the guy yelling out which ones can board (in Malay). Even if you happen to catch the call you then have to try and fight your wat through to get to the platform.
Jerteh is a dot on a map around 15 km away from where we were spending the night (Kuala Besut) and we had no idea what transport arrangements were available to get us the last 15km. This was of some concern to me as the idea of walking that far in extreme heat was very unappealing.
As it turned out it was very simple, there was a waiting taxi, who charged a fair price, and dropped us straight to the door. The only real challenge was the absolute shitbox that we drove in. This has not been mentioned yet, but many of the cars in Malaysia are rubbish and should be taken off the road or put out of their misery. The Malaysian local builds are the Proton and the Perodua, and having ridden in many versions of both, they are trash.
The roads themselves are excellent and (for the most part) are of a better standard than we enjoy in Australia. But the cars are crap.
We got to our dodgy little homestay in Kuala Besut (which was ok but super simple) and headed out to find dinner. Unlike the Mersing dramas, it was a very easy and pleasant experience. Having found a nice little restaurant by the water we had a nice meal, well-priced, but with no option to have a beer. So we headed towards our Malaysian default, fresh lime juice.
The next morning we were up, on a ferry and on our way to Palau Perhentian. Another 60m walk from the jetty to our accommodation and another 3 days of beach and snorkelling to look forward to. We grabbed some lunch while waiting for our room to be ready, dropped off our bags and headed out for a snorkel. And within metres of where we were was coral and fish aplenty.
That night we did not do our research properly and thought (wrongly) that there was no beer to be had nearby and that the closest place was the next beach over. The only access to this was to hike a jungle track over a mountain to get to the next beach. We did this, amid much swearing, the emphasis here is more jungle than track. At one point Jill slid down the hill on one of her more fleshy parts while my dodgy football knee hated every second of this. Anyway, we got to the next beach, found the restaurant, had a very poor and overpriced meal (with some beers) and negotiated a boatman to drive us back rather than brave the track at night. The price was double during the evening than the daytime. So we paid our $3.40 and sat calmly in a boat back home.
The next day we mentioned it to our hotel and was told that where we were staying was the only one that didn’t sell beer and that the 3 others happily did so. The jungle track was never seen again. After breakfast we were picked up by our boat at 10am and were off. The trip took us to Coral point, Shark point and Turtle point. No prizes for guessing what we got to see at each.
There is no way that this place could not deliver. Even I got to see and swim with two huge turtles (about a metre in diameter). This time they were not one of Jill’s mythical beasts. This came along with some 3-4 foot black tip reef sharks. The usual fish and coral, a bloody good day.
Importantly we stopped at a restaurant on the way back to have one of the best meals that we have had on the entire trip. Beachbox is a boutique hotel/restaurant that does a single-item menu for each sitting. If you want it you order it, if not, go someplace else. And be sure to book, because everyone wants it, it is that good. But we ended up eating here twice and they were both spectacularly good. Our first foray was a lamb pie and the second (2 days later) was the fish. Absolutely the best restaurant on the island.
The next day we were going to have the day off but instead jumped on the Rawa tour which took in a ton of more snorkelling, to different locations and ended up seeing (surprisingly) coral, fish, baby sharks and the same turtle as the day before. We knew it was the same turtle as it had clearly had an adverse run-in with a propeller. The sharks this time were tiny (50-70cm ) and the contrast with the sand made them a bit tough to get a good picture of.
The one thing that Jill has been doing is identifying and making notes on great places to come back to. And the Maldives, Tioman and here in Perhentian have all made that list. While our commute to get here was unruly, it doesn’t need to be, and with an easy commute these places represent good value and a nice way to amuse yourselves for a week or two.
Mersing is a transit town for those people that are heading to Tioman Island. As a transit town, it is very popular as everyone must funnel through here. We figured that if we were coming that we should spend a day or two and look around.
To be fair, it was in the middle of Ramadan so virtually everything was closed. Perhaps, under normal circumstances, it might be worth visiting. But for us that was not the case. In reality, the place we stayed was fantastic, with great internet and an owner that couldn’t help enough. He even brought us free meals (as everything was closed for Ramadan), on two separate occasions, and would not let us pay.
On arrival (around dinner time) we settled in, found out where the restaurants were, and headed out for a walk. Headed to the restaurants to find that they were closed, and that none, within a reasonable vicinity, were/or would be opening that day or for the next few. So we found where the shops were and aimed for them (about 2-3km away) in extreme heat. We wandered our way to the shops. On the way we came across the dying remnants of street stalls and I managed to purchase the last thing that was available for sale – a roti john.
Now, a roti john is a local dish, unique to the Malay Peninsula, that consists of a long bread roll that is used to soak up an omelette,which is then topped with onion and smothered in a particularly local tomato sauce and mayonnaise mix.
We then found the shops and picked our way through the supermarket landing on some bread, jam, eggs and butter before heading home.
I settled down to my roti john only to find it entirely unappealing, both visually and otherwise. Being the last item available for sale it may well have been sitting there all day before I came along. And it looked and tasted as though that may have been possible. In fact, upon opening of the parcel it looked as if it may have even come pre-chewed and pre-digested.
From Mersing our friendly inn keeper drove us to the pier so that we could make our ferry across to Palau Tioman. Two hours later we arrived on the island to find that our room was about 60m from the pier, facing straight out onto the ocean. It was simple and basic, with a balcony.
In doing her research, Jill found that Tioman was a duty free island and if we went for a (short) walk we could buy some well-priced alcohol (something we had rarely seen since leaving Vietnam). So we set off, in 32 degree temperatures, on a day that felt like 38, in full sun. The short walk was more like 5 km and I had melted and sweated through every item of clothing that I was wearing. It is an island, I tried to dip into the water but the only spot that I could access (along the walk) had sharp rocks and I could not get in.
The path was narrow and was regularly traversed by motorbikes, meaning you had to mount the railings to let them pass – or be run over. Their version of a speed bump was a strip of nautical rope laid and pinned across the path. So we kept walking, eventually we made it to the shop, only to find that nothing was that cheap and that anything that we bought we would have to schlepp all the way home. We grabbed a few beers and headed back.
The next morning we hopped on a tour and headed out to do the round island trip. This involved stops at deep bay, Asah waterfall, Tomok island, Renggis island and Soyak island. Importantly, we got to swim with black tip reef sharks (about 4-5 feet long) and the usual assortment of reef fish. According to Jill she swam with a turtle for about 25 minutes. This was at Soyak Island where the guide told us to do a lap. Being nothing but obedient, I started swimming and snorkelling to do the lap and totally missed the turtle. Jill, who was behind me, saw the turtle and abandoned any thoughts of doing a lap.
This has become a pattern whenever Jill and I snorkel together. We snorkel along and see the usual fare of parrot fish, angel fish etc and when we separate she returns asking whether I has seen the unicorn, the griffon or anything else she can dream up. It seems that all of these magical creatures turn up when I am nowhere around. My response is usually that I missed it and then she raves about how good it was. In the mean time I saw coral and little fishies.
The main issue that we had here on Tioman was that it was the last few days of Ramadan and that almost all of the restaurants were closed and those that stayed open were packed and only had a limited supply of food and an abridged menu. That said, we did not go hungry and were able to have some really lovely meals. The highlight of these was Jill’s foray into what was called a “Shell Out”. Pretty similar to the Philippine “Boodle Fight” but in individual portions. The “Shell Out” was a mass of different seafood (with your choice of sauce mild-spicy) piled in the centre of your table, served with rice.
Backing the snorkelling up day on day we were off on the Coral Island trip. This involved Malang Rock, Tulai Island, Salang Village, Soyak Island (again) and Monkey Bay. Usual story, lots of fish and coral to see and a bunch of underwater shots. Once again others in the group saw the turtle and I missed out (again).
Given that visibility is not always the best for photographing the fish we see I thought I would grab some better photos off the internet of the fish that we regularly see. These include (clockwise from top left) the angelfish, banner fish, barracudas, parrot fish, sweetlip, rabbitfish and the ubiquitous parrotfish.
Leaving Tioman started what was to be a monster transit that took us the better part of 3 days to get to our final destination. The timing and linkage between transport services and our low trust in timetables and scheduling meant that we spent a lot of time transiting. The ferry from Tioman to Mersing was easy and comfortable. The bus station was about a 2km walk but we had 6 hours to kill while we waited for our bus, so we decided to walk it. It was another hot day and we sweated considerably. A few days earlier (when we arrived) we saw that there was a food court at the bus station so figured that food would not be an issue.
Have I mentioned the end of Ramadan yet…well this kicked in in earnest. Virtually everything was shut. The exception was 2 little take away shops selling chips and drinks, any other option involved doing the 2km walk back to near the dock. Having lugged our bags one way we did not relish the idea of doing it two more times. So we sat, read books, did crosswords, listened to music and waited. Finally (6 hrs later), the time came and our bus came to get us.
Having given a rap on how good the Malaysian buses were, we were met with one that shot that idea down in flames. Clearly, not all companies are equal, and we had an almost 4hr crappy ride that saw us delivered in Kuantan at around 9 pm. Given the time, we stopped for the night (taxi from the bus station to a hotel) and steeled ourselves for the next leg.
Point number one…they are Mal deeves, not Mal dives, regardless of the spelling.
The Maldives are a nation that is 99% water, with 1192 individual islands (about 200 of these are inhabited). The islands extend more than 820 km from north to south and 130 km from east to west. All the islands are low-lying, none rising to more than 6 feet (1.8 metres) above sea level.
The geography naturally divides the country up into 26 atolls (chains of islands) but for administrative purposes, the government has divided it into 20. Added to this there are many sandbanks however these tend to change locations with the tides and are not usually mapped.
Maldives has a very friendly and welcoming population. The official language is called Dhivehi (or Maldivian) which is a sort of hybrid version of Arabic, Hindi, and English but most Maldivians can speak English with no problems.
Islam is the state religion and our timing put us here right in the middle of Ramadan (the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, when the new crescent moon can first be seen). During Ramadan, Muslims worldwide fast from sunrise to sunset. And Jill and I in the middle of it. No alcohol allowed and no food during daylight hours. Forced detox it is.
Now let’s not be silly here this place is stunning…and we have only seen a minuscule amount of it. Warm, open waters of every shade of black, blue and green that you can imagine and white sandy beaches everywhere you look. Even walking out of the Male Airport you are not met with the usual grey bitumen cab rank, you are greeted by pristine blue waters and your taxi is invariably a high-powered water taxi.
This place is also hot. The numbers don’t show it (28-32 degrees) but the feels like is always reported around the 38 mark. This is mainly because there is no avoiding the sun. It hits you on the way down and reflects off the gleaming white sand and hits you on the way back up. The up side to this is that you are just a quick dip in the water away from dropping your body temperature considerably.
Some of the islands and atolls are named using local names while others are merely known by the particular resort that has been established there. Eleven of the Islands are serviced by airports with the remaining 1181 islands being serviced by boats (of varying quality and standard). Male is the main international airport with other islands having smaller local airports, and seaplanes servicing many of the other islands.
Important Note: your flight time and the boat/ferry times are unlikely to match each other. This will be a critical point when planning your trips, particularly for arrivals and departures. The local ferry is cheap as chips, the fast ferry is around $25 USD/head and a private boat could be any number they think of.
We set up camp on a little island called Guraidhoo, which was about 36km south of the capital Male that we got to on a high powered jet boat (for $50 USD each way). It is small (about 700m by 500m but has numerous shops, dive and tour operators, and a few restaurants.
80% of the Maldives’ GDP is generated through tourism with over 1.5 million people visiting annually. Other than that there are is boat building and a few cottage industries (handicrafts, weaving, embroidery etc).
There are over 130 resort islands, including almost all of the top hotel chains. As with everywhere, the accommodation ranges from the top of the line to the cheap and cheerful depending upon your budget. These numbers also go up and down depending on the time of the year and season.
I found 5 star rooms and villas on offer for between $2200 and $4500 USD per night. Needless to say, these were pretty bloody nice. The place directly opposite our island had bungalows over the water for $1500 a night and the ones with pools were more than double that.
I also found some all-inclusive deals that started for around $400USD a night and they went up from there. Oh, the other factor here is that you can get booze on some (if not all) of the resort islands.
Our place, by comparison, was a meagre $60 Australian a night and included breakfast. When we go out for dinner we hit one of the few restaurants on the island and our general spend is between $20-25 USD for our meals. This includes a restaurant where your feet are in the sand while you eat. Bear in mind that there is no alcohol included in this price as we are in a Muslim country.
The streets are not paved but are made of a sandy/coral mix, which means you are virtually on the beach 100% of the time. The Bikini beach was a 3 minute walk for us and was stunning. Jill got into the pattern of heading out to the beach after breakfast and lazing under one of the cabanas (with regular dips into the ocean) and returning at around 5 pm. I on the other hand would pop in once or twice a day for an hour or two to get my swim in and chat.
The funny thing was that each day a boat would arrive from one of the resort islands and drop off a bunch of people to laze on our beach, because it was nicer.
After a few days of lolling around on the beach we decided to do a day trip. These are available for about $500-700 USD per day, but the price per person drops the more people that go. We managed to get on one that was $100USD / head. It was meant to include dolphins, turtles, sting rays, sharks, snorkelling, lunch, sandbank and manta rays. We were warned in advance that it was the wrong time of year for Manta Rays and given that it was Ramadan, lunch did not happen.
As for the rest though…they seriously delivered on all fronts.
Neither of us were that thrilled with the dolphin idea as we have seen them often. In fact, in Perth there is a local pod that lives in the river and swims past regularly. And then we saw a pod of about 100+ dolphins and they were magnificent. The little ones were leaping out of the water and spinning and generally just having a good time.
The boat dude handed out snorkels and said, jump in…in the middle of the ocean. Everyone stared at each other not too sure, but someone had to make a move so in I went. That was basically the last that I saw of dolphins. They did not come within 20 meters of me and my GoPro.
Jill on the other hand had them swimming all around and underneath her (with no GoPro). I had the ability to capture the images but didn’t get near one, she did not and was surrounded by them.
The next stop was the snorkelling and the turtles. Now this has been on my bucket list for a long time. I have always wanted to swim with turtle and am happy to say that this has now happened. More importantly both Jill and I got to get VERY close to it. From here we hit a local island (Fulidhoo) where we saw the sting rays right on the beach. In fact we can see this every evening at our own island but is was still ok.
From here we headed over to the next stop, which was the sharks. Now this was impressive and terrifying at the same time. We pulled up in the boat and the dude immediately started chumming the water so that the sharks would come to the boat. When there was around 20 sharks under the boat he told everyone to jump in. People were nervous enough in the middle of the ocean with dolphins, needless to say nobody rushed to do this. Jill and I filmed from the boat while I decided that I did not really need to swim with sharks.
These sharks ranged in size from about 2m to 3.5m and google tells me they keep going over 4m. The dude who kept urging us to get in, made the comment not to touch the sharks. I’m not sure how stupid I look but I am pretty sure that this is advice I probably didn’t need to be told. Jill (who is obviously over my company by now and knows the value of my superannuation) kept encouraging me to jump in.
After the first 2 people had gone in with no incident I made my way to the front of the boat and prepared to jump. Just as I was about to leave a shark emerged directly below me, that I would have landed on. Now I don’t know a lot about sharks, but I am pretty sure a fat bugger landing on your back while you are happily swimming along, might prompt you to bite. Anyway, long story short, I jumped in, while my bride watched and filmed from the boat.
I spent the next 20-30 minutes getting bumped into and shoved by sharks. Don’t touch the sharks, bloody well tell them that.
Uninhabited Islands – there are more uninhabited islands in the Maldives than there are inhabited ones, they are the closest you can get to ‘truly untouched’ natural environments. And virtually every resort, guesthouse, hotel will have a day trip to private sandbanks and uninhabited islands. They almost all have powdery sandy white beaches and pristine lagoons. However, a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ experience comes at an expense, both financially and physically. There is often no escape from the heat, and the shifting tides and currents can drastically change the formation of the sandbank throughout the day.
The traditional Maldivian cuisine is known as Dhivehi Cuisine it is a fusion of Indian and Sri Lankan food (more so the Sri Lankan) but heavily influenced by the seafood and coconut that is in abundance. Obviously fish is a staple and many nights during our time here did we eat a lot of fresh whole fish. These varied greatly, depending upon what had been caught that day.
On our last morning before leaving we even tried the Maldivian traditional breakfast. This consisted of a mix of tuna, coconut flesh and onions served with a boiled egg and some chapatis.
Extras – There are some extra hidden costs that sneak up on you, particularly that you are subject to a 10% Service Charge plus a 16% Goods and Services Tax (GST). The GST is applied after the service charge has been added on. In addition, there is a green tax applicable of USD $6 per person per night.
Leaving became a bit of an issue as we had a 10:30am flight out and the ferry that came at 7am was a slow one (for $1.50 each) that takes 3 hrs to do the 36km trip. The fast one (for $25 USD each) that takes 30mins came at 9:45 and a private one would have cost us $200 USD. So a last minute scramble saw us heading out from Guraidhoo back to Male and getting a night’s accommodation at Hulhumale. However the hotel helped with all of this (including transfers) and it generally worked out well.
This place is heaven on earth and we will definitely be coming back. This time we had 10 days on the one Island, with the tour taking us to 2 others and our departure to a third (due to boat and ferry times). Next time we may split this to 5 and 5 moving to another island to get a bit more variety. Besides, there are another 1188 islands that we haven’t been near yet. But Jill has already got a travel alert set up for when there are cheap flights.
While I am certain that the resorts are lovely, so too was our little cheap and cheerful. And regardless of where you stay, you end up swimming in the same crystal clear waters and seeing the same fish, dolphins, sharks and rays.
We came to Danang last time around and really liked the place, although there was very little really to do here. Well, that has changed considerably since our last visit. In 2017 the golden bridge was built and has quickly become one of the most visited and photographed things in all of Vietnam. I saw the images and decided that this was something that I really wanted to see.
Being up in the hills, and incredibly popular I have been warned that the bridge may well be shrouded in clouds or packed with people. Anyway, that is why we are here, more about the bridge a bit later on and we will see which version of the bridge we will get to encounter.
The other thing that we saw when we were here last time was the dragon bridge. This was a bridge that had its curves painted and styled to resemble a dragon. It didn’t particularly do anything but was an interesting enough oddity.
Well, this too has changed, the bridge has had a heap of lights added to it and of an evening it cycles through a range of colours, however, I still think that the original yellow is the most striking.
Oh yes, they added a couple of other features. Every Friday and Saturday night, to coincide with the riverside night market, at 9pm they put on a fire and water show.
The dragon literally spits fire…
and water, while thousands watch on with awe.
All in all, it is an excellent way to bring people to the city and have them in a central location. From here you have the markets with tons of fresh seafood on offer, along with the usual tourist fare of trinkets. The area is full of restaurants, vendors and performers. All in all it is an excellent evening and is highly recommended.
After this we organised a day trip out to the Cham Islands which is a 15 square-kilometer island cluster consisting of 1 main island and 8 surrounding small islands. It is about 20km from Hoi An and 45 from Danang. We actually tried to go the day before but strong winds meant that the government banned the tourism operators from taking people out.
As we got our tour pulled we decided to walk down to the beach and check that out.
Having gone out the next day, which was dramatically calmer, we were glad they stopped the trip. The seas were brutal. You are in a high powered speed boat, that holds about 30 people, and you belt across the straights at full tilt being bashed and bounced every inch of the journey. And that was on a calm day. Having arrived, the main island was pretty stunning as was the seafood lunch on offer.
Unfortunately, most Vietnamese people cannot swim. This means that they get loaded up in life vests and floatation rings, with goggles on, and tramp all over the reef and coral. So that which is left has been and continues to be pummelled.
And now on to the reason we came to Danang again, the Golden Bridge, situated in the Ba Na hills. On our way to the mountain, the guide told us that there had only been 4 good days of viewing over the last 30, so our expectations were suitably low.
The Ba Na hills area was once a mountain retreat for French emigres, back in colonial times, but had been long since forgotten due to limited road access. The solution to this was to join with European engineers and build the world’s biggest cable car at 5,801 meters in length. Additionally, this cable line has the largest height difference between the upper and lower stations in the world.
This was the introduction that you have, as you ride the almost 6 km cable car up to the French Village and La Jardin D’Amour Gardens. I had only ever seen the images of the bridge online. I did not realise that it was actually part of some massive, artificial amusement park akin to a Vietnamese version of Disneyland, known as Sunworld.
The bridge itself is 150m long, 12.8m wide and is made up of 8 arches and obviously has the two main supports sculpted to look like two giant stone hands.