Rome has a rich history pertinent to western civilization. There are three different aspects of roaming in Rome, namely, architecture, history, and religion (Catholic – Christians). I was profoundly interested in history and to some extent, in architecture, and that influenced my itinerary.
A day in Venice
Compared to Prague, Rome, Vienna, and Split, Venice is a tourist trap. The city is made up of a collection of 100+ islands. Bridges connect most of them, and you can walk throughout the city. All the public transport is using water buses called Vaporetto. A single trip costs 8 Euros. If you are planning to use Vaporetto, buy a 24-hour pass worth 20 Euro which covers unlimited trips on Vaporetto.
Budapest, pronounced Budapescht, consists of two cities, hilly Buda in the west, and flat Pest in the south. The city structure is similar to Prague.
Start your day with a walking tour. While there are many specific ones like focusing on Jewish quarters etc. I chose the generic one which covers the history and the culture of the city. After the tour, spend time checking out the castle before heading down to the Hospital in the rock. It was a hospital built during the cold war to survive a nuclear attack. The guided tour at this place is subpar though.
And then before crossing over to the Pest side, take a bus to Citadella for a few more views of the city.
Start the day with St. Stephen’s Basilica. There is a hand of Stephen, the first king of Hungary, inside. It is illegal to construct a building taller than this in Budapest. The Hungary Parliament building is precisely the same height.
Next, head to Shoes on the Danube Bank, which are placed by Hungarians in the memory of the Holocaust victims.
Note that Budapest is famous for the thermal baths as well. I felt that they are glorified hot water pools with high prices and decided to skip them.
Vienna is a historic city. First, a pivotal battle between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe was fought in 1683 and then, during the second world war, significant support to Hitler came from Vienna.
Some tips for the first timers
- The dominant spoken language is German, but it is not hard to find English speakers.
- Public transport is great and a 24-hour pass costs 8 Euros.
- Most of the good spots are near the city center, so, don’t stay too far away.
- Toilets inside shopping malls, big grocery stores, and restaurants are usually free. Outside ones charge 0.5 Euro.
Which museum to see
Vienna is full of museums, and one can spend a week just checking out the museums. Entry cost varies from 4 Euros to 20 Euros. I would recommend deciding what you want to see and make a decision based on that. I was not interested in checking out natural history or art museums since they are similar to the museums I have seen before. Therefore, I picked “Museum of Art Fakes” and “Museum of Abortion and Contraception.” Both unusual and unique to Vienna.
Start your day with a tip-only walking tour which gives you a good understanding of the history as well as the culture of this city. After the tour, spend time checking out St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a 13th century 444-ft tall Church which was the tallest building of its time.
An old Nail Tree with nails nailed in for good luck is nearby and easy to miss.
Next, head to Danube riverfront for a walk, it is a bit overhyped, so, feel free to skip it as well.
Then head to the Open air market, Naschmarkt, prices are competitive, and it is a great place to grab fresh fruits.
Next, head to the Museum of Abortion and Contraception. It is small, it takes about an hour to see the full museum, and it has a good audio tour in multiple languages. Most writings on the wall, unfortunately, are only in German. The museum covers the legal, technological, and social battle fought for birth control rights.
Head to the Republic of Kugel Mugel, a micronation inside Vienna. There isn’t much except a ball, so, don’t raise hopes.
Then head to weird houses designed by Hundertwasser.
And next door is the Museum of Art Fakes which covers the art forgery in great detail. The museum is small but has an unusually high-quality collection of both samples and anecdotes to learn from.
Prague, or “Praha” in Chezch, is probably the most famous city in Eastern Europe. The city boasts medical castles, museums, and quite a few quirky attractions.
Maui is a small but beautiful island of Hawai’i. Here is a recommended 4-day itinerary for Maui. This is a slightly modified version of what I was able to do. The public transport on the island is poor. For solo travel outside the rainy season, I would recommend renting a moped to go around. Otherwise, rent a car.
The island has a much more developed western part consisting of Kaanapali which has major resorts and Lahaina which area.
Start with Road to Hanaa, it’s a day-long activity and you do want to do this early on when it’s not raining.
Don’t forget to eat Aunty Sandy’s Banana bread on the way.
Wake up early to get to Haleakala National Park to watch a beautiful sunrise. You can hike down in Haleakala National Park afterward. Its interesting flora and fauna but not a great hike.
In the evening, head to Kaanapali, the beaches are great and do jump off the Black Rock cliff into the Pacific ocean.
Head south to Makena State Park, Big beach is another beautiful beach there. Do note that it is very similar to Black Rock beach, so, you can skip this entirely. In the evening, head to Lahaina to check the largest Banyan tree in the United States.
Head to Iao Valley State Park for hiking. Spend rest of the day checking Wailuku and local delicacies.
We sailed on the Windstar cruise in French Polynesia. On a 7-day cruise, we stopped on six different islands including two days in Bora Bora.
The cruise ship has a crew of 99 and 74 staterooms for~150 passengers. This ensures extremely personalized service, and you get to know pretty much everyone else on the ship. The crew members learn everyone’s name pretty quickly and, specifically in our case, we got custom orders for vegetarian food of our choice on a regular basis.
Day 1 – Papeete
We reached Papeete airport early morning and took a local bus to Papeete. We left our bags with Windstar while we checked the local market in Papeete. Nothing outstanding but it is an excellent way to kill time. Also, Papeete markets are most reasonably priced compared to the other islands. Therefore, if you want to buy something, buy here. One can easily rent a scooter or a car (some automatic transmissions are available as well) and do a trip around the island. Given the small number of passengers on the ship, onboarding was an extremely smooth experience.
Day 2 – Moorea
We did a half-day Kayaking tour which included Kayaking to a motu (islet) and snorkeling in the coral garden around it. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, we could not kayak further until the Stingrays & sharks. The coral gardens were amazing. They are much better than the ones in Hawaii and similar or better than the ones in the Caribbean. Transparent Kayak further adds to the charm of being able to sneak peek what’s under you while Kayaking. The Kayaking spot is a bit far from the docking spot (Cook’s bay) and therefore, do book transportation.
On our way back we checked out the local market in Maharepa. Feel free to skip a visit to Maharepa. The local tourist office does provide free Wi-Fi access (password: E6DC5D69B8).
Day 3 – Raiatea
We rented a scooter and went around the island. We visited a few pearl farms which were closed due to the weekend. We checked out the Marae Taputapuatea, an ancient Polynesian temple which is also a UNESCO heritage site. In hindsight, we should have gone to the three waterfalls hike, but by the time we finished driving around the island, it was too late in the day.
Note: Raiatea was the only island in our trip where the ship docks. So, unlike a 10-15 min tender, one can go in and out of the ship.
Day 4 – Motu Mahaea (Tahaa)
We spend the day at Motu Mahaea, a private island experience with tons of coral gardens nearby for snorkeling. This was the first of the Windstar’s two private motu experiences which included beach chairs, beverages, lunch, and water activities (kayaking and paddle boating) on the motu.
Day 5 – Bora Bora
We rented a motorboat from La Plage and steered it around the island doing snorkeling and watching stingrays. Boating gives you a good view of the island and you get to learn to boat as well. I would recommend getting a boat license online beforehand, so that, you can rent a more powerful boat and go faster.
Back on the ship, we checked out the water platform. Apart from swimming, one can do kayaking, paddle boating, wakeboarding, and water skiing here.
This was the Christmas eve, and the crew sang Christmas carol.
We returned later at night to check the Bora Bora island; it is mostly dead apart from a few small shops serving the locals.
Day 6 – Bora Bora
Earlier in the day, we did a part of the hike to Mt. Pahia for the views. The full hike is hard to navigate without a guide.
We spent the rest of the day at Motu Tapu, another private Motu rented by Windstar for their destination discovery event which included dinner and cultural shows.
The show was mesmerizing and in case you are not doing this cruise, I would highly recommend that you find an alternative way to have this experience as part of your itinerary.
Day 7 – Huahine
We did a half-day long Safari Expedition of the island which included a visit to Vanilla Farm, Pearl Farm, native fish traps, and a visit to the local sacred blue-eyed eels of the island.
Growing vanilla requires hand-pollination and makes it a labor-intensive activity. That’s why Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after Saffron.
Pearl farming involves putting a small piece of the membrane from the donor shell which along with a mollusk, an irritant, is inserted into the gonad of the host shell. the membrane grows and covers the mollusk forming the pearl. It takes about 18 months for the formation of a full pearl. And on every success, an even bigger mollusk is used to form a larger pearl from the same shell.
Tahitian fish traps are set up in the river, so, fishes flowing with the flow of the water enters the trap and gets trapped. The traps are porous enough for the water to leave but the pores are not big enough for the fishes.
The locals believe that the sacred eels of Huahine are supposed to be reincarnations of their dead loved ones. They don’t kill or eat these eels.
We checked out the bridge (commanding room) of the ship in the evening.
Alas, all good things do come to an end, and so did our cruise. The captain and the crew came and bid farewell in the evening.
Getting to French Polynesia
Getting from the US to French Polynesia used to be hard and expensive with Air Tahiti Nui being the only option from the Los Angeles airport (LAX). In 2018, French Bee and United Airlines started direct flights from San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete (PPT). Papeete, the main island, is relatively dull and there is nothing much to do on it. The two best islands are Moorea and Bora Bora. Alternatively, one can take a 10+ day-long cruise from New Zealand or Australia.
Do check whether you need a TOM visa or not on the official website. For some nationalities like Indians, a French Schengen visa suffices.
Traveling between islands
A ferry runs between Moorea and Papeete multiple times a day. Bora Bora is much further, and the only practical way to access it is to fly or take a cruise. If you are planning to fly then consider taking a multi-island pass which allows you to access multiple islands. If you are planning to cruise, Windstar and Paul Gauguin are your two options for week-long leisure cruising and Aranui for a longer adventurous cruising beyond the society islands. I, eventually, decided to go with Windstar.
Traveling on islands
On almost all islands, except Papeete, public transport is non-existent. One can rent a scooter, rent a stick-shift manual-transmission car, or take a cab. Do note that for the taxis, prices are closer to Europe than the Caribbean.
What to do
- Snorkeling/scuba – good coral gardens are accessible on most of the islands. Stingrays and lemon sharks visit shallow sandy areas, and one can snorkel there as well.
- Visit a motu (islet) – there are tons of small motus around most islands, especially, Bora Bora. Spend some time on one. Do note that beach access is not public in French Polynesia. And very few motus are public.
- Visit a pearl farm – to see how Tahitian black pearls are made
- Visit a vanilla plantation – to see how vanilla, the second most expensive spice after saffron, is extracted
- Watch Tahitian dance
What not to do
- Visit a marae (Polynesian temple) – they are not worth it. They are hyped, and unless you are an archeologist, they do not make much sense. Avoid them completely. And if you want to visit, get a guide, so that they can tell you the historical significance.
- Visit local markets – most stuff in the local markets is imported from China, France, the US, and New Zealand. Don’t visit a local market for the sake of it; you will be disappointed to see the lack of locally produced goods.
- Everything you can do elsewhere – French Polynesia is an expensive place. Don’t do anything which is not unique to French Polynesia.
Some useful Tahitian phrases
French is the official language, and everyone speaks French, some local phrases are still useful.
- La Ora na – Hello
- Maururu – Thanks
- Maeva – Welcome
Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah is a National Park consisting of three natural bridges. One can spend ~1-3 hours hiking nearby each of the bridge. The hikes are short and require ascent/descent. Even without the hike, one can drive around to see the views.
While one can hike to the bottom of Sipapu Bridge, Kachina bridge can only be seen from a distance. And that too after a hike. If you are short on time, skip this one.
Owachomo bridge, the last one, also requires a hike down to the bottom. The hike is easier than the hike to Sipapu bridge though. There is a strenuous climb to the top of the bridge on the right.