We spent New Year’s Eve in Merzouga, located in the Moroccan desert about 30 miles from the Algerian border. The small village is at the edge of incredible sand dunes, thus it is frequented by travelers and truly makes you aware that you are in the Sahara desert.
Our desert inn was quaint and adorable. A live local band, Moroccan feast, bonfires in the court yard, and celebrating with our new friends made it one of the best new year parties I’ve ever experienced! (And I totally admit I was sound asleep by 11:30).
This 21 day trip started in Sydney, travelled up the east coast to Byron Bay, Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, and Port Douglas, then moved on to the Outback traveling through Alice Springs, Uluru, Coober Pedy, Port Augusta, Adelaide, Grampians National Park, Warrnambool, and Melbourne. That’s a whole lot to see in three weeks, but it’s a perfect introduction to Australia, and I felt like I got the most out of my experience.
I thought this trip was fantastic. It included quite a few fun activities like surfing lessons, yachting, and hiking through national parks, and there were a few really great optional activities like snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef and star gazing in the Outback. I highly recommend all these activities. We also got to see koalas, kangaroos, and emus.
Activity level: although this trip has a physical grading of 2, some days were much more like a 3 (hiking, snorkeling, surfing, sailing) – so keep that in mind – I loved it, but if you don’t want a lot of activity, this may not be the trip for you.
Trip Specifics: Our CEO, Nick, was great. He was knowledgeable, down to earth, fun, organized, and helpful. The hotels were fantastic, especially on the east coast portion. There were more motels in the Outback portion, but that’s to be expected, as the areas are less populated. There were also many included meals that were quite good. This is a “comfort” level trip and you really do feel the added cushiness compared to the “standard” level tours.
There were only 6 of us on the east coast portion and 8 in the Outback. Most travelers were in there 20s and 30s and were from Canada, US, England, and Ireland. It was a really great group that got along well.
My only complaint is that there was too much driving time in the Outback. Driving is really the only way it’s possible to go to all the places we visited, but it was a lot. If I could design my own trip, I would have flown from Uluru to Adelaide and skipped the odd opal mining town of
Coober Pedy – sure, it was interesting in a “been there, done that” sort of way, but for me, it wasn’t worth the drive to get there. The Outback is exactly as you would imagine – vast semi-arid brush, simple roadhouses and motels, but well worth seeing – I just could have spent a little less time checking it out 🙂
Overall, this was an amazing trip. I absolutely loved Australia and the scenery changed so much from region to region, that you really do have to spend a significant amount of time there to see it all. From the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne, to the laid back beach town of Byron Bay, to the breathtaking views in the Red Center, the wine country in Claire Valley, and the unbelievable Great Ocean Road – this is a scenic trip like no other!
Our multi-day drive from wine country near Adelaide, into the Grampian Mountains, through rainforest, and along the Great Ocean Road was incredibly beautiful. The ride really illustrated the diversity of this island, country, and continent.
Coober Pedy is a quirky little opal mining town where people live underground to stay warm in winter and cool in summer. There are many stories here of people who came to Coober Pedy on holiday, fell in love with it, and never left. I am definitely not one of those people!
We drove through the Outback for several days. Although some of it was a bit monotonous, it was a cool experience, and Uluru and the Red Center were absolutely beautiful. I think winter was a good season to visit this region. It was warm in the day and a little chilly at night. There were also less flies and other insects than you would find in the summer.
Also, the night sky was clear, with stars to the horizon. I attended an astronomy lecture in the Outback and even got to view Saturn through a telescope. Amazing!
I consider myself a fair swimmer. I was swimming before I was walking. As a child, I spent my summers at the pool, on the swim team, and in the ocean. Now, I don’t swim like I used to, but even as recently as last month, I was snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming laps in the Thai Islands. In short, I am no stranger to the water. I’m telling you this so you understand my perspective when I describe the Great Barrier Reef.
It was one of those experience where, if I had known what I was getting myself into, I may not have signed up for it – well, no I wouldn’t go that far, I really wanted to experience this, and I’m so glad I did. Perhaps swarms of box jellyfish, deadly shark attacks or cyclones would have stopped me from swimming the Great Barrier Reef, but those weren’t the conditions of the day. So, off we went for what I thought was going to be a leisurely ride on the ocean and some fun in the sun snorkeling – I mean, that’s what all my other snorkeling trips were like.
Uninformed little me didn’t realize it was a 50 mile boat ride on very choppy water with highly windy conditions. Brrr! I don’t typically get sea sick, but on this occasion I needed a Dramamine – and thank goodness it actually worked!
After almost two hours on the choppy, windy ride, we finally arrived at our first snorkeling point. I was shivering cold as I put on my snorkel gear and prepared to jump into the water. At least the water was warmer than the air, but perhaps I was shivering too much because I jumped into the ocean with twisted goggles that didn’t fit properly. I tried desperately to adjust them, but the water was rough and splashing over my face and the current was strong and rapidly taking me in the wrong direction. I eventually gave up on the goggles (figuring they were good enough) and put in my snorkel only to receive a mouthful of salt water. I should have known better!
At this point, I’m choking on water, drifting in the wrong direction and can’t see through my goggles – with waves hitting my face all the while. So, what did I do? I decided to have a panic attack and forget how to swim – you know, forget that my body floats and instead flail around exerting all my energy. At least I quickly realized I was in trouble and did the smart thing – I signaled to the fantastic staff in the water that I needed help to get back on the boat. They helped me. I sat down on the boat, took a few deep breaths, threw on a life vest, secured my goggles properly, put the snorkel in, AND THEN I jumped back in the water. Everything was fine after that.
This whole panicked experience was about 5 minutes in duration. The 30 minutes that followed were amazing! The fish were spectacular, but it was the coral, the reef itself, that was unbelievably beautiful. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before!
We stopped at three locations on the journey and each one was better than the last. At the second stop, I lingered at a certain spot because the coral was particularly amazing, then a clown fish wiggled its way out of the reef, and I watched it swim about for a minute – I guess I had been still for so long that by the time I looked around again, I was surrounded by a school of blue fish. I spun around in the water and had a good look at them all before they dispersed. Then, I looked down at the ocean floor far below, and five large black fish swam by together. I remember thinking that those few minutes were some of the coolest of my life.
After swimming around for a bit, it was time to get back onto the boat, soaking wet in the cold wind. After some serious teeth-chattering, I was able to eventually warm up in the lunch room. As we arrived at the finally site, I could barely bring myself to jump back in the water, only to endure the freezing aftereffect once more.
Yet, before I could process the thought, I was back in the water thinking, “wow, now THIS is the coolest thing I ever saw.”
It was an 8 hour, uncomfortable and mildly dangerous day that enabled me to spend about two hours truly experiencing one of the most incredible natural wonders of the world.
This has been a wonderful trip up the east coast of Australia. We started in Sydney, then traveled north to Byron Bay, the Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, and finally, Port Douglas. It was a lot to see in just 10 days, but I feel like I got a good taste of Australia’s east coast.
Even though it’s winter and we had a few rainy, cold days, we’ve really lucked out with the weather. Upon arrival in Sydney, the rain cleared just long enough for us to sail on an America’s Cup yacht in the harbor (although it was very cold!). On the yacht, we received some instruction on sailing, worked hard to put the sails up, and even got to steer for a bit!
The worst of the weather was, fortunately, on our travel days and it was nice and sunny just in time for our surfing lessons in Byron Bay.
Taking surfing lessons was awesome! Although, I probably won’t try it again. It’s not like kayaking or paddle boarding, where you just need to carry the board to the water. Surfing was a constant struggle to get myself and the board back out for the next wave. I did manage to learn how to stand up and ride a few baby waves though! It was so much fun!
The weather warmed quite a bit as we migrated to the Whitsundays. It was so beautiful, I could have vacationed there for a week. We hopped on another, smaller sailboat and enjoyed being in the sun. I even saw my first wallaby there!
After a brief stop in Cairns (ahem, pronounced cans), we moved on to Port Douglas where we learned to spear fish crabs and sift through the muddy mangroves for clams. It was actually a very peaceful experience: wandering with purpose through the shallow ocean waters and maneuvering through mud and mangrove roots in the forest. I’m just thankful we didn’t encounter any angry crocodiles!
Finally, we journeyed out to the Great Barrier Reef for a swim, but that experience deserves it’s own entry…
G Adventures has basic, standard, and comfort level tours. This was a standard tour.
I really enjoyed this trip, but it was hard travel during the India portion – 118F/45C degrees, dirty and chaotic cities, Delhi belly, and the bumpiest, craziest van and tuk-tuk rides of my life (even though I’ve traveled extensively through Asia). Yet, there was something really great and memorable about each city: the temples and Red Fort in Old Delhi, the markets and amber palace in Jaipur, the Taj Mahal in Agra, a hindu blessing in Orchha, and the ceremonies on the Ganges in Varanasi. I’m glad I experienced all of that even though I do not have a desire to return.
On the other hand, I absolutely loved Nepal! It was still hot and more humid than India, but it was bearable. Chitwan National Park and Pokhara were beautiful and full of really wonderful outdoors activities: jeep safari, jungle walk, canoe, boat, hike, etc. I would definitely go back to Nepal.
Tour manager: our tour manager was good. He was especially funny when teaching us how to bollywood dance! My only complaint is that in the beginning, he did not set the expectation that we would go long periods with out an opportunity for food. It was common to go 8-9 hours without a proper meal. I am not the type to fill up on cookies and chips (ok, I do love the Pringles), so this was difficult. I would strongly recommend to G Adventures to break for lunch in between the Amber Palace and City Palace in Jaipur. 5-6 hours in the oven like outdoors without a break is too much. I didn’t get to enjoy the second palace at all.
After a few days, I started buying bananas for the long trips and I also had a box of Larabars (all natural fruit and nut bars) that I wouldn’t have survived comfortably without! So bring some substantial trail mix type food!
Length of stay: If you can arrive a day early to explore Delhi and leave a day later to explore Kathmandu, I would highly recommend it. We hired a private city guide in Old Delhi upon arrival and it was well worth it! The private guide was helpful and enjoyable because it would have been difficult to navigate Delhi on our own, and we got a good history of the places we visited without the inconvenience of a large tour group. Also, If I had stayed an extra day (or left in the evening) at the end in Kathmandu, I would have been able to take a plane ride around Mount Everest.
Accommodations: the hotels were basic, but perfectly adequate. Delhi and Kathmandu were a bit dingy but clean – and the rest were really good with comfortable beds (a few roaches and spiders, but that’s to be expected).
Remember, this is a budget tour that’s relatively inexpensive for 14 nights of accommodations. Each place had a restaurant with a decent selection. The staff was incredibly friendly at most places. This is the only tour I’ve ever taken where breakfast was not included, so keep that in mind. Still, the hotels had breakfast for no more than 4-5 USD/person.
Packing advice: bring antibiotics, pepto/Imodium, and electrolytes for the Delhi belly – I’d say 80-90% chance you will need it. Also, visit a travel clinic before departure to get malaria pills and vaccinations. Bring sunscreen, deet, and Lysol for your shoes and make sure you have a bag to separate your shoes from your clothes in your luggage. you sort of have to embrace the germs – you can’t avoid them! Also, bring a universal adapter – different settings worked at different hotels – it wasn’t consistent.
A carry-on size roller bag is ok, but a backpack is better. I only had a few times when it was awkward to have a roller bag – getting on and off the overnight train and getting to the hotel in Kathmandu – but not a big deal – I did have to have someone carry my bag up the stairs at the train station in Varanasi.
Tour demographics: This trip of 15 travelers was a very mixed group with an age range of early 20’s to early 60’s. It was mostly female, which is typical for tours, but there were three males. Countries represented: England, America, and Denmark. Everyone was friendly and got along well. We all had a really good time together!
Overall: We had a wonderful, although exhausting, experience. What I really like about G Adventures is that you have the convenience of a tour with a guide, accommodations, safety and companionship in the group, and mishaps taken care of for you, but it doesn’t have a typical touristy feel to it – no tourist traps or hokey “authentic experiences” forced on you!
I would not recommend this as a first trip to Asia – try Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam first! But if you are an adventure seeker and interested in culture, customs, and world religions – and don’t mind sacrificing some comfort to have an immersed experience on a budget – then this trip is for you!
We had another amazing day in Nepal when we arrived in Pokhara. We woke up early to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas. Next, we paddled a boat across the lake and hiked to a Buddhist stupa (shrine) at the top of a steep foothill (the little dot on the hill above the lake, pictured here).
The hike was a bit challenging, but the gorgeous stupa and breathtaking views made it well worth the climb. It also felt great to get some exercise and to get out on the water for a paddle. Perhaps I’ll find a career as a ferry-woman!