Now that we have passed the eight month point of our journey, Darren writes about our favorite destinations on our trip… so far.
We recently met a BBC reporter on holiday in the Julian Alps. While talking to him about our expedition, he asked us about those places on our journey that we did not like and would not merit a repeat visit. Well, that is going to have to wait for another article. The focus of this story is on some of the highlights, or our top destinations, of our trip so far. More specifically, we chose the places that we liked so much that we would consider returning to them for a longer period of time. Our criteria for selecting these locations are places that were relatively inexpensive, had nice accommodations, a good selection of restaurants, a variety of activities and were safe. I will cover these locations in the order that we visited them.
Pago Pago, American Samoa
- Beautiful, green, topical island
- Many places to explore
- Relaxed atmosphere
We made a quick stop in Pago Pago (pronounced Pang-o, Pang-o) on our first Princess Cruises voyage, which took us from San Diego, California, to Sydney, Australia. American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the South Pacific Ocean. It is in the Southern Hemisphere and about 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) south of Hawaii. The main island is Tutuila, with several other islands also included in the territory. We found Pago Pago and the rest of Tutuila to be a beautiful tropical hideaway. The absolute highlight of our time in American Samoa was a short visit to the Sliding Rocks (see photos above). With help from a local (thanks Bob!), we hiked to Nu’uuli Falls. Though we did not have the opportunity to do so, there is also a hike to the top of the main island. We found the culture laid back and people welcoming. We definitely want to return to Pago Pago in the future.
- Seaside village with local character
- Phenomenal seafood and baked goods
- Lovely countryside just minutes away
Founded in 1804 as a penal colony, Hobart is Australia’s second oldest capital city after Sydney. We arrived there after hiking the Overland Track (one of Australia’s bushwalks). Between cleaning and repacking our gear, we had the opportunity to spend some time each day walking around this fascinating coastal city. In fact, strolling along the waterfront was the best part of our stay. Here, we found fresh fish being offloaded from the fishing vessels. From the port, there are opportunities to take short day cruises to nearby islands. We walked to the nearby Princes park and then to Battery Point, a cute little neighborhood with rows of heritage homes. We enjoyed the most fabulous baked goods at Jackman and McRoss. Since around one-third of Tasmania has been set aside as reserves or national parks, Hobart is the perfect jumping-off point for many adventures on the island.
- One of the most-modern cities that we have visited
- Excellent public transportation
- Interesting mix of cultures
Officially known as the Republic of Singapore, this city-state is made up of 63 islands and located just off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Being just 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of the equator, it is very warm there, as you can imagine. We arrived in Singapore by sea at the completion of our second Princess Cruises voyage (from Sydney, Australia). The thing that struck us immediately was the excellent public transportation system. We got around perfectly without a car. We never waited more than four minutes for a subway (even late at night). We rode the buses in one instance in order to make our way north to the train station which would take us to our next destination – Malaysia.
Singapore is known for its diversity and the food reflects that. We ate regional food in Little India, Arab Street and Chinatown. Our favorite food experience was the chicken satay market. Here, in a parking lot, underneath a sea of 50-story buildings, was a series of stalls that are set up each night. Another Singapore highlight was our visit to the Botanic Gardens. These gardens, at its present site, were founded in 1859. The centerpiece of the gardens is the orchids, with many of them named after high-profile people. While there, we got caught in a downpour of rain. However, this is normal in Singapore, and after a short time we off again enjoying the large varieties of trees and plants. Singapore is doing many things right and seems to prosper even in slow economic times.
Luang Prabang, Laos
- Authentic city with many cultural sites to see
- Restaurants of every sort, all at excellent prices
- Laid-back vibe
Luang Prabang is a city located in north central Laos, at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. We spent three days relaxing in this peaceful town. While there, we visited several of the Buddhist temples. The former Royal Palace provided a great overview of this UNESCO World-Heritage city. We also took the opportunity to watch the early-morning alms giving ceremony, in which the Buddhist monks walk around the city collecting food from the faithful.
The food in “L.P.” was surprisingly varied and sophisticated for a city with only 50,000 inhabitants. One night, we walked across a seasonal bamboo footbridge over the Nam Khan river to the Dyen Sabai restaurant. We sat (actually, we laid down) on pillows and ate, enjoying the cool of the evening and the views across the river. Though we visited on our way to Luang Prabang, the Pak Ou Caves make an interesting day trip. These caves were used historically by villagers for religious purposes and contain thousands of Buddha statues. In the lower cave alone are over 2,500 Buddhist statues. We did not do so, but many people also visit the Kuang Si Falls. Luang Prabang has easy air access from Bangkok, Thailand, and other international airports.
- Amazing capital city with a variety of things to do
- Greatest number of European buildings with Art Nouveau style
- One of the best values in Europe – half the cost of other capital cities
Founded in 1201, Riga was an important trading junction between Russia and the rest of Europe. Ruled by Sweden, and then occupied by the Russians, Nazis and Soviets, the country of Latvia became independent in 1991. We found the city to be delightful to wander around with several beautiful parks and a canal running right through the heart of town. We explored old Riga with its cobblestone streets and 14th century buildings. With its unique spire, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church is in the center of the old town. It is about 800 years old but has been rebuilt several times. From the spire, we had a perfect view of the city, as well as the Daugava River which empties into the Baltic Sea.
We spent another day wandering through portions of the city known for its art nouveau architecture. In fact, Riga has more art nouveau structures than any other city in Europe. We saw classical statues, mythical beasts, screaming masks and grotesque gargoyles – all carved in stone. While some people take a guided tour, we used a guidebook to better understand what we were seeing. Another highlight of our visit was the central market built inside and around four huge zeppelin hangers. Each hanger features a different type of food. We knew we had reached the seafood hanger before we entered the building as the smell of fresh and smoked fish was almost overwhelming. Outside, around the hangers, are fresh flower, vegetable and fruit stands. The variety of fresh berries made our mouths water. Tallinn, Estonia (another delightful stop on our journey), is only a three-hour bus ride away.
- Beautiful and historic city
- Many of the major sites are within walking distance
- Krakow has hundreds of excellent restaurants and some regularly have live music
Considered Poland’s academic, artistic and cultural capital, Krakow is also significant because it suffered very little structural damage during World War II. Our train arrived at about 7:00pm, and, as we walked out of the station, the sun cast a magical glow on the buildings around us. We decided that liked Krakow right away and that feeling only grew in the three days that we spent there.
One day we walked all over the city. We visited the historic Old Town, Wawel Castle and Kazimierz (Jewish quarter) areas. These three areas were included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978. We enjoyed wonderful meals in the Old Town Main Square, crowded with tourists from around the world, for the equivalent of around $30.00 USD for the two of us. Our studio apartment, with kitchen and laundry facilities, cost the equivalent of about $72.00 USD per night.
While in Krakow, we visited the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum. Opened just two years ago in the former factory building, this place celebrates the efforts of Oskar Schindler, who saved an estimated 1,200 Jews from death by employing them in his factory during World War II. The room that was his former office contains a display of the ‘list’ of people employed by him. The story of Oskar Schindler was made famous in the movie “Schindler’s List”.
- One of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen
- Fantastic public transportation system
- Many excellent restaurants
If money was no object, we would immediately recommend Stockholm. We arrived there from Helsinki by overnight ferry. Coming into the city by ship in the early morning was a spectacular experience. We would have to say that Stockholm was the most beautiful major city we have ever seen (sorry Paris). While in Stockholm, we saved money by staying at the Petit Rex Hotel, which has very small basement underground rooms (no windows). But, it had free Internet, free breakfast and a great location.
One of the highlights of our visit was the Vasa Museum. It is the most-visited museum in Scandinavia and it is easy to see why. It tells the amazing story of the Vasa ship, which sank in Stockholm’s harbor in 1628, and sat at the bottom of the sea for 333 years, until it was raised in 1961. The ship is 95% original and can be seen from several vantage points. The exhibits about the people who were on the ship and the restoration efforts were fascinating and held our interest for three solid hours. This was just one of 80 museums in Stockholm! Afterwards, we walk around Djurgarden Island, enjoying the fantastic views of the city, as well as the extensive stretches of forest and meadows.
When we were wandering around the Gamla Stan (or old town) we unexpectedly found the Nobel Museum. To our delight, we noticed that it had free entry the following night, so we returned then. We had a blast looking at the exhibits which told the story of each of the winners of the prestigious prize from 1901 to present. Afterwards, we enjoyed a “big spurge” dinner at the nearby De Svarta Fåren (The Black Sheep) restaurant. There are over 1,000 restaurants in Stockholm.
Do you have a favorite destination that you would like to share with others? If so, feel free to use the comment box below!