Friday, 20 July 2012

Singapore and Malaysia

This Trip: FROM 2012.06.15 TO 2012.07.01



You can be really annoyed at times when you need to put off or even call off a trip under constraints of cost, time and distance. If you fancy a dream vacation in an idyllic resort amid the ocean but famous destinations like French Polynesia and Maldives are either too expensive or too far away from your current location, the oceanic island Sipadan located in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah in East Malaysia is a best option as Sipadan has a very rich underwater ecosystem and has been rated by many dive journals as one of the top spots for diving in the world. Time and money spent on planning and making this trip to Singapore and Malaysia were well worth it for the great pleasure we were given, especially for we passed all 14 days under the azure sky.


Singapore



We should have spent at most 2 days, instead of 3, touring such a terribly small country. There were perfect transport networks and diversified choices of food. It's definitely a safe, clean, and advanced country. However, there's hardly anything that really amazes tourists. It's more a desirable place to live, rather than one for travel. We stayed in Singapore from 16th to 18th of June. Interesting places that might be considered a part of the itinerary included the Merlion Park where the Merlion stands and at the same time it's a best point to view Marina Bay Sands; Bayfront Avenue and Marina Bay Floating Stadium also best viewpoints of the luxurious hotel, ArtScience Museum, and the Avalon Singapore; Sentosa Island the giant playground with attractions such as Universal Studios, and Underwater World Singapore and Dolphin Lagoon. The last night in Singapore we had some good times walking around, drinking and dining at a very nice place called Clarke Quay.


Tioman Island



On the 19th morning we headed towards Malaysia. It took 2.5 hours from Singapore to Mersing, Johor by bus and then 1 hour and a half from Mersing Jetty to Tioman Island by fast ferry, not to mention the time spent on getting off the bus with baggage, crossing the border between the two countries, and getting on the bus to continue on our way. Upon arrival on the island in late afternoon, we took the shuttle to Berjaya Tioman Resort. We made use of the rest of this day to rest and plan for activities for the following days. It's a nice resort. We had spa and massage, went jungle trekking, and did sea sports such as snorkeling and kayaking. For meals, we'd purchased only buffet breakfasts served by the hotel. We lunched and dined in some Singaporean or Malaysian style restaurants beside the road that connects Berjaya and the jetty. Two mostly seen animals on this island were lizards and bats on trees that ladies might generally stay away from. We also saw monkeys but beware of some starving ones that could got aggressive. The island and Berjaya Tioman Resort were both nice, but we should have spent only 3 days there. On the 24th we flew with Berjaya Air to Kuala Lumpur. It's the smallest plane I'd ever boarded. There were only 12 rows of seats.


Kuala Lumpur



In contrast to Singapore I didn't feel really secure in this capital of Malaysia, foods were delicious though. We toured around the city by rail. Interesting attractions on our itinerary included the landmark of Kuala Lumpur Petronas Twin Towers which were once the tallest towers in the world; the limestone hill called Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India; and Thean Hou Temple, a landmark six-tiered Chinese temple. A 2-day stay in Kuala Lumpur was just right.



Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort



On 26th very early morning we departed from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau by plane. At Tawau Airport a staff from the resort gathered this whole group of tourists arrived on the same day. We got on the shuttle that then brought us to Semporna, Sabah Malaysia where Pulau Sipadan Resort and Tours jetty office was. Finally around 12 of us went on the speedboat. I had lots of fun during the 1-hour journey as the small boat went so much up and down amid the waves. A fellow traveler on-board suffered from serious seasickness, however, the boat had to slow down for her good. We arrived at Kapalai at around 14:00. We were starving and therefore we all had a nice buffet lunch the first thing before getting briefed about our stay in the resort. Actually the package was all-inclusive, i.e. room rate per person; shuttle and speedboat round trip; and 3 buffet meals plus open snack bar each day. We loved this resort. During our 4-day-3-night stay, we took enough pretty pictures, swam with fishes and sea turtles, snorkeled over beautiful coral reef, went kayaking while immersed in the cooling sea breeze of Kapalai. Accommodation is all in wooden chalets with a balcony which offers the total sought out privacy by lovers of sunbathing. From the windows and balcony of our elegant and spacious room, we had an extraordinarily wonderful view of the crystal-clear green sea in which coral reef and fishes were clearly seen just under our feet.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Chinese New Year in Taiwan


There are pros and cons to visit Taiwan in the Chinese New Year. On the one hand we did experience the bustling and exciting atmosphere of this big festival of Chinese culture, on the other hand some hard times in transportation were inevitable. We landed in Taipei on the 20th of January. We went sightseeing at some main attractions in Taipei on the 21st before departing at night for Chiayi which was a point of departure for the famous Alishan. We also spent some time in Tainan before heading back to Taipei where we stayed for four more days by the end of the vacation. Worth mentioning was the Taiwan High Speed Rail that brought us from city to city in around 20 minutes. It’s a very advanced and well-developed system opened in 2007. It’s also the most effective means of transportation throughout our trip. What I loved most about Taiwan were still all those palatable foods found in night markets.


The Taipei Metro was adequate, and so we were at ease touring around the city. Main attractions included Mengjia Longshan Temple, National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall, and 228 Peace Memorial Park. There were also Taipei 101, the second tallest commercial building in the world, and Beitou hot springs district, where we went for a private hot springs hotel room instead of the public outdoor hot springs. You don’t want to miss such high quality hot springs! Besides, we had a half-day trip and a 1-day trip in two hot spots named Jiufen and Shihfen respectively. Never once had I see crowded trains like those. We could hardly breathe. If you are fine in an extremely jam-packed train, go visit Jiufen, which is a small town filled with both retro Chinese and Japanese style cafes, tea houses, and souvenir shops, as well as stunning views of the ocean, and Shihfen, where you can see the biggest waterfall in Taiwan. 


Visitors go to Chiayi probably only for the popular scenic spot called Alishan, which is a range of mountains on Taiwan’s spine and from which Taiwan’s highest mountain, Yushan, is easily visible. Since the famous Alishan Forest Railway from Chiayi was under maintenance, we took a bus at Chiayi HSR. The journey took over two hours including toilet breaks. We went sightseeing around Alishan by walking around trails indicated on a map provided by the hotel. We were excited about the view from Jhushan just before dawn, the top attraction in Alishan. The next morning we woke up so early, took Alishan Forest Railway up to this peak, and waited there frozen at 0 degree Celcius. Unfortunately, we saw nothing due to heavy fog. What a disappointing start of the day! Back in Chiayi we shopped and ate again in the big night market. We also had a massage the night before leaving the city.


Tainan City is known as one of Taiwan’s oldest cities and cultural capitals for its rich folk cultures including famous local snack food and extensively preserved Taoist rites. There are more Buddhist and Taoist temples in Tainan than any other city in Taiwan. We particularly loved a big night market in Tainan, as there was a wider variety of mouth-watering snack food. We would have gained some weight if we stayed longer. It’s nice seeing all those cultural heritages too, but again we disliked the messy traffic. There wasn’t a well-developed rail system and there were always long queues at bus stops. We visited Anping Fort which was built by Dutch in 1624 and had been the administrative center of the Dutch regime and the hub for trading, and Chikan Lou, the Chinese style towers built on top of an old Dutch fort called Provintia where some of the original brick foundations could still be seen in certain areas of the site.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Pacific Coast Scenic Route from New South Wales to Queensland

Sydney



Upon arrival at Sydney Airport on the 23rd of December, we caught the Airport Train that brought us to city in 15 minutes. Once we’d reached the City Rail Network, it took only another 15 minutes before we could check in and drop our baggage at the hotel. Already at this point we started to like Sydney as its transport network was so adequate, convenient, and tourist-friendly. After that long-haul flight and a busy morning, we decided to spend a relaxing afternoon lying down at the well-known Bondi Beach where people learn to surf. Unless surfing is a primary goal, however, Bondi Beach is nothing more than a nice clean beach. For those with a tight schedule, Bondi Beach might not be a must-see.

We went sightseeing on Christmas Eve. The iconic Opera House was smaller than expected; nevertheless, it’s the most impressive architecture in Sydney. Royal Botanic Gardens was probably not a main attraction, but from which we got a best view of Opera House together with Sydney Harbor Bridge. We spent most of the day wandering around this prosperous Sydney Harbor where there were street performances, shops, ice-cream and local snacks, and diversified choices of restaurants, before walking to Darling Harbor, which was only 3km away. While we were about to dine in a roofless table in a seafood restaurant beside the Harbor, there was a firework display right over. What a surprisingly wonderful Christmas Eve!


Blue Mountains


On 25th morning we left Sydney and headed northwest by car. We had a Christmas day in Katoomba, the most visited town in the Blue Mountains. First, Scenic Railway, the steepest railway incline in the world, brought us down the valley. It was a very exciting ride. Second, there were a few pretty waterfalls on the way of various walks clearly signposted when strolling along the Scenic Walkaway. I was enthusiastic to boost calorie consumption. Finally, Scenic Cableway took us on a 545 meter ride during which there was a breathtaking panoramic view into the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area rainforest of the Jamison Valley. Three Sisters were magnificent. No wonder they deserved to be an icon of Katoomba. 


Hunter Valley



From Blue Mountains we headed northeast and spent a night in a small town called Gosford. The next day morning we set off to Brisbane Water National Park, which was just a 15-min drive away. Again, it was a day of hike. Resting points were some rocky platforms in front of pretty waterfalls that cooled us off. We really loved the peaceful and beautiful nature in Australia. Likewise, the view of extensive fields in Hunter Valley or Wine Country, the Australia’s premier wine growing district 170km north of Gosford, was another bit of picturesque nature. We sampled some of Australia’s finest wines and enjoy top quality cuisine, before reluctantly leaving this whole piece of spacious green for continuing our journey to the north.


Port Stephens


This holiday heaven called Port Stephens composing of 26 beaches was simply marvelous especially when the clear seawater mirrored the azure sky and shiny sun. The first stop was Nelson Bay. There was lots of parking, but so were the people. Luckily we were able to park shortly outside Nelson Head Lighthouse where we visited the lightkeepers house and the attached light room. Tomaree National Park was the next stop. Instead of seeing pretty waterfalls, it was an exciting adventure into wildlife. Right at the entrance I was frightened as a huge lizard came all of a sudden crawling across the trail just 4 meters away in front of me. It was really huge! It was a pity it happened so fast that we were not able to capture this huge friend. Various animals also showed up to say hi while we were on our way to reach the top. It was quite an exhausting hike at about 28 degree Celsius, but we had no regrets when we were standing at the top enjoying perfect panoramic views over the bay. We then left Nelson Bay for other nice spots such as Shaol Bay and Fingal Bay for the rest of the day.


Last Few Stops in New South Wales



Continuing up the coast, Seal Rocks was another popular area for its many premier surfing beaches. Even though we never surfed, all these nice clean Australian beaches were best spots for a relaxing sedentary day. On 30th morning we were approaching the very north of New South Wales. We didn’t do much in Coffs Harbor, except for getting a photo of the famous Big Banana, in order to earn more nice times in the beachside town Byron Bay and meet our schedule to arrive in Brisbane by New Year Eve afternoon. Unexpectedly, after a 3-hour drive, we could do nothing but shopping in Byron Bay, as the blue sky and sunshine finally wanted a day off. It was the only rainy day throughout the 18-day journey. We settled in a hotel early this night. 


Brisbane



Here we were in Queensland on 31stmorning. After a nice walk at the long Broadbeach and a happy lunch time at one of Queensland’s largest shopping centers called Pacific Fair, we departed Gold Coast for a stop at Tamborine National Park on the way to Brisbane. There were some more pretty waterfalls. It was a bit of a rush. We arrived at Brisbane City Backpackers at 19:00. While we were about to head to South Bank to watch the fireworks display, it was quite an amazing discovery when I came upon the rooftop garden of this hostel where everybody was ready for the 20:00 fireworks tailored for family with kids who needed to go to bed early. It was a full clear view there! We had a very happy New Year.

Nothing was planned for the 1st of January. We wandered around a central district of Brisbane where we came across a big tourist information center. We intended to ask whether there were anything interesting to see in Brisbane city, but then we realized all most featured destinations were about animals. Since we needed to head 300km north and settled in Hervey Bay this night for catching a tour next early morning, we picked Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary which was located only 15-min drive away from where we were. I had already come close to koalas and kangaroos years ago, but this was an unforgettable first time I held a koala in my arms and was surrounded by a mass of kangaroos enjoying themselves freely at their spacious home. 


Fraser Island



Fraser Island is considered the largest sand island in the world. It was also Queensland’s largest island, and the largest island on the East Coast of Australia. Shortly after arrival at Fraser Island at around half past nine, we boarded a big four wheel drive that brought enough excitements as it drove along bumpy roads. The first stop was the well-known freshwater lakes called Lake McKenzie at which the beach sand was nearly pure silica. I loved the beautiful water color of this lake. Also noteworthy was the Seventy-Five Mile beach running along most of the east coast of Fraser Island. We had a long ride on this beach. It was fun! Other spots included Central Station, Wanggoolba Creek, Pinnacles, the wreck of the cruise ship Maheno, and Eli Creek. 

Fraser Island is definitely a holiday paradise. Joining a tour, however, isn’t the best option for us lovers of freedom. We woke up very early just to catch the tour bus that spent lots of time detouring around Hervey Bay to pick up everyone at different hotels before departing for the pier. Also, we were obliged to follow a schedule. For example, we could spend only one hour at the paradisal Lake McKenzie, but too much time at spots that we didn’t find extraordinary. We always prefer individual visit to tour group, but visiting Fraser Island without joining a tour sounds quite hard. Individual visitors on the islands were mostly Australian vacationers, but not overseas travelers.


Great Keppel Island



Most time of the next day we were on the road, as Hervey Bay and the next stop Rockhampton were 400km apart. We did understand the advantages of being on a coastal scenic driving route in Queensland, so we stopped at coastal towns and beaches on the way for lunch, tea time, and relaxation. On 4th of January, we headed to the ferry pier where we departed for Great Keppel Island. Passengers were deposited at the island’s main beach that didn’t appear exceptional. We hiked for more than half an hour before arriving at the beautiful Shelving Beach best for snorkeling. Seawater there was clean, clear, and baby blue. We had lots of fun swimming with fishes over coral reefs. There was no tour schedule to follow. We just needed to be very aware of time of departure of the returning ferry, because the ferry did only one round trip to and from Great Keppel Island each day.


Whitehaven Beach



The next morning we arrived at Meridien Marinas Abel Point of Airlie Beach, a popular point of departure for Whitsunday Island. As we realized how clear the seawater right at the marina was, we were expecting much more at Whitehaven Beach, Queensland’s cleanest beach well-known for its distinctive white fine sands on which we walked barefoot comfortably on that hot day. Water was clean, clear, and perfectly blue. We were certain it’s the most beautiful beach we’d ever seen. I always appreciate how successful Australia government is to protect nature. Dogs are not permitted on the beach and cigarette smoking is prohibited. It was a great day. What a pity time was quite limited as it took a long time to travel to and from Whitsunday Island.


Paronella Park



While we were looking for something to do on 6th of January, we were told that Paronella Park, located exactly on our way towards Cairns, was worth a visit. The park was built by a Spanish man named Jose Paronella in the 1930s with diverse facilities inspired by Spanish castles. The spectacular Mena Creek Falls attracted my attention the most. The pretty waterfalls, fountains, bridges, and plants in the gardens were all best choices of shooting background. It was fun feeding the starving fishes too. Regarding wildlife mentioned in the tourist brochure, we hardly saw anything else except for lizards, animals found almost everywhere in Australia. We were happy we didn’t miss this nice park, though the entrance fee was AUD38, fair enough.



The Great Barrier Reef



The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system composed of over 2900 individual reefs. In order to minimize chances of disappointment caused by adverse weather conditions or even just cloudy sky with a little rain, we’d booked separate tours to two coral cays, Michaelmas Cay and Green Island, for 7th and 8th of January respectively. It turned out to be two perfect sunny days, yet we were right anyway to go on two tours, firstly because the two cays themselves were different beauties, secondly with the long way from and to Cairns time allowed at the Cay was just not enough for scuba diving, snorkeling, and sightseeing all in one day. It was an unforgettable experience to swim with sea turtles and abundant fishes over the beautiful coral reef.