An introduction to France: Reims

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Hanging on the steps of the Cathedral.

Reims was the first French city we visited and it did not disappoint. We scored a coveted carpark in an aire just outside of the CBD and rode in on our bikes to roam around. The place was buzzing with people rushing everywhere, all going about their business not at all concerned with two Australian travelers standing in the middle of the tram line, breathing it all in. 

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The architecture in Reims super impressive, from the gargoyles on the gothic to the streamline angles of the modern. Maybe it’s charm had more of an effect on us as it was our first introduction to the country of love.

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Glorious Gothic architecture.

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Better than the architecture, was the music festival being set up nestled under the Notre Dame cathedral. The sound test was blaring out of the speakers as crowds gathered, curious to see what all the noise was about. While watching on, we also witnessed a rather hilarious (for us anyway) situation where a man’s dog soiled the middle of the busy street and he had a lot of trouble awkwardly trying to pick it up while his large pooch pulled eagerly on the lead while continually walking through the mess making it much worse. Poor guy.

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The lineup.

We felt it was going to be a serious party later that night, so we headed back to Sassy to eat, change and enjoy some French wine and cheese before we came back to see the live performance in full swing from our free vantage point outside the barriers, standing on rubbish bins, much to the security guard’s disapproval. After our legs wore weary, we wandered towards a hot chocolate on our way home and crashed for the night keen to head off early the next day.

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I love gargoyles!

 

-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble

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The Maldives: Thulusdhoo II (Aug 2015)

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As we flew through the clouds, snippets of the turquoise water and sandy island atolls confirmed we had made the right decision. After the stress of the previous week, I could not wait to lay on the beach in my bikini, soak up the sunshine and sip on a cocktail until I remembered that the island Rhys and I had chosen was a surf camp on an inhabited island. This meant no bikinis and definitely no alcohol due to the strict Muslim culture. My visions of decadent resort living with manta rays swimming under the glass floor of my private bungalow began to quickly disintegrate.

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No decadent beach bungalows and swimming pools but this did happen, so close enough for me.

As we walked out of airport, we noticed a distinct divide between the type of travellers arriving. There are those that arrive in large groups trailing designer luggage who have booked lavish packages through Maldivian resort companies. They dash quickly from customs to their air-conditioned glass boxes for refreshments often involving cocktails and canapés as they await the arrival of their seaplane so they can be promptly whisked away to their island utopia.  And then there are people like us. We look for directions to the local ferries, then stand in line in the humidity holding our backpacks and boards just hoping to catch the right one for a budget price. We are travellers on the hunt for surf, sea life and adventure trying to get wherever we can for as cheap as we can and that is just the way I like it.

Our ‘fancy’ waiting area.

We paid for the ferry and settled in for the short ride to Male (from Hulhule) in order to catch a connecting ferry to our island of choice Thulusdhoo. All up our trip would take around 2 hours but only cost a couple of dollars. Little did we (or the other Australian couple we met on the ferry going to the same place) know, the ocean had been deemed ‘too rough’ for the ferries and an expensive speedboat was our only other option if we wanted to arrive on the island that day. We tried to wait out Mother Nature in the hope that the last ferry of the day would run if the weather calmed. Meanwhile, we walked around town, purchased some very cheap thongs to replace a plugger blow out, surfed in rough, sloppy waves while watching planes land on the runway as our backdrop and then waited some more until it was confirmed: no ferries would run until tomorrow. Mother Nature had won yet again.

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Our choices were: stay on Male and catch the ferry the next day which meant we would be forfeiting our accommodation or, split the cost of the speedboat between the four of us. We bartered a little and managed to get the US$200 cost down to US$160 but it still hurt the hip-pocket. I tried to console myself with the image of the four of us, bikini and board short clad standing on our sleek, black and white luxury speedboat as the wind swept my hair and we raced across the waves to our destination and the shirtless, handsome captain waved at me. Thirty minutes later we were indeed making our way across the waves but at more of a mild speed in our fairly average fishing boat with two scrawny but smiling locals at the helm as we sat in the back getting splashed in the face with sea water. Finally, we arrived at Thulusdhoo and departed the boat with our luggage ready to try and find the guesthouse we had booked just the night before. Unfortuantely for us, the clouds began to roll in and looked a little angry.

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-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Maldives: Thulusdhoo I (Aug 2015)

It wasn’t until the The Great Indian Visa Debacle (read about that shmozzle here) that we seriously considered the Maldives as a possible destination of our around the world trip. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are practically neighbours and after some intense researching, Rhys and I decided it was going to be worth our while booking a new adventure after the stress of missing our flight to India and connecting flight to England.

Funnily enough, we had entertained this idea only a week before while feeling a little silly after a couple of cocktails. The weather forecast began to look bleak for our remaining time in Sri Lanka, so we began daydreaming about alternative plans. As the rain remained (mainly on the plane of Spain?), we fantasised about spending a couple of days on a scenic Maldivian island basking in the warm sun, but after our alcoholic haze wore off, we realised it would be an expensive venture for only a couple of days and not really the best use of our time or money. We hadn’t given Sri Lanka the chance it deserved to impress us. Fortunately, the weather cleared and we enjoyed the rest of our Sri Lankan escapade. Little did we know, the Mystical Fate God’s of Destiny (depending on what your beliefs are) worked their magic and we ended up there anyway. Theose celestial beings do work in mysterious ways.

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This was my  imagined ‘happy place’ while on hold. Turns out it does actually exist.

During The Great Indian Visa Debacle, it became clear that we couldn’t simply change or cancel our flight to England (that would just be TOO easy), so we attempted to forget about the money we were rapidly losing and instead booked a flight to the Male airport on Hulhule with Korean Air for less than AU$200 (Score!). We then secured a connecting flight for seven days later with Qatar Air to England so we could land on our original date and enter the United Kingdom on our working visa as we had hoped. We arrived at the Sri Lankan airport (again) after spending six days hanging around Negombo. We had wasted our week calling customer service representatives, sitting on hold to multiple airlines (while freaking out about our credit running out before we got through with every passing moment) and our travel insurance company trying to get answers and information. After all the stress, I’d say I was truly ready to depart for my impromptu island paradise escape.

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Our future island home.

When people mention the Maldives I tend to conjure images of underwater playgrounds teeming with amazing, aquatic wildlife. The Maldives are an array of stunning islands surrounded by bountiful reefs and recently the government permitted locals to open their own guesthouses removing the elitist resorts-only mantra of previous decades and instead providing a plethora of affordable options for those of us with a more ‘sustainable’ budget. With hundreds of islands to choose from, there are a numerous possibilities for every traveller’s style. Islands inhabited by locals contain schools, mosques and corner stores, whereas others are man-made for the sole purpose of hosting fancy pants 5 star resorts with multiple restaurants, cocktail bars and seaplane airstrips.

There are a variety of ways to plan your Maldivian trip too from surf camps, surf charters, luxury live-aboard boats, to long term stays in local guesthouses or resort hopping by speedboat and seaplane. Due to the misconception about affordability, the Maldives had never really made it onto my possible travel list (which gets longer every day). A flight from Australia is particularly expensive and arduous and I was under the presumption that it was well outside my monetary limit, but if you have an opportunity to visit the Maldives as a stop over or final destination, you won’t regret it. It is truly as stunning as any scene you can imagine.

– rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Maldives: Thulusdhoo Part III

The thing I noticed first when we stepped off the boat is the unbelievable, turquoise water lapping at the white sandy shores, the second thing I noticed was the rubbish in the water and strewn across the beach. It is such a pity that nature’s beauty can so easily be scarred by mankind’s touch.

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After walking across Thulusdhoo (it isn’t very big) to the surf side and desperately asking people of they had ever heard of our accommodation name, it became clear that there had been a double booking and we were out of luck as an older couple had already moved into our room. Thankfully, a lovely local called Thol (from Isola Maldives) saw us looking a little distressed and took pity on us as the rain began to fall from the clouds overhead. He ushered us into his guesthouse for a cold drink and to help sort out what had happened by ringing the owner of our guesthouse. Our fears were confirmed, we had been double booked but fortunately Thol did have a spare room available and it was the best decision we made. Thol’s new guesthouse has four rooms with ensuites for US$80 a night including all meals. It was a little more expensive than our original place, but by this stage we were thankful for a bed! The facilities were brand new and quite luxurious (if luxury had a slightly tighter budget) and Thol made us feel very comfortable.

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My next surprise came when we were heading out the door in just our swimwear and Thol kindly pulled us aside and explained that because we were on an inhabited island with locals, we would need to cover up a little more unless swimming in order to adhere to the strict Muslim standards. Whoops! I had researched enough to realise that the Maldives is a Muslim country (and the call to prayer which goes off multiple times a day was a friendly reminder) but the pin never dropped that I would not be able to lay on the beach in my bikini and soak up the rays without dishonouring their values. I felt a little ashamed of myself for not observing this simple guideline and hurriedly wrapped myself in a sarong and Rhys put on a t-shirt before we went off exploring. It did turn out that there was a 15 metre strip of beach near the boat moorings that tourists were ‘allowed’ to wear bikinis and board shorts. It is acceptable to freely wear togs and boardies on uninhabited islands (or in resorts) or while out on the reef in a boat. The final shock was when Rhys asked if he could purchase beer anywhere on the island and Thol smiled and explained only if he swam out to the surf charter boats that moor off the points during the day. It was like a mini detox from the Australian lifestyle and I was happy to oblige the conservative dress rule in order to be a respectful traveler. Thulusdhoo is a whole community with almost everything you need (except ATMs which are very scarce, bring plenty of cash) and the locals were friendly and curious. They are only just growing used to seeing tourists regularly appreciating the beautiful island they call home as the industry expands.

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Heading out to the reef for a day of snorkeling on the Isola boat.

 

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Spotted something good.

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Chasing a school of fish.

Our time on Thulusdhoo was mostly spent doing one of four things. Surfing, snorkeling, relaxing or eating. There are two close proximity surf spots just off Thulusdhoo. Many of the surf breaks are named after the island’s main industry. So ‘Cokes’ is a right hander with a quick take off which works best with a bigger swell. It is named after the Coke factory that still functions on the island. They encourage recycled bottles and use desalinated water in their recipe. A short boat ride away (around US$10) or a decent paddle across a channel is ‘Chickens’ a slower, but fun left-hander which has long runs and an easy paddle out. Finally, a couple of islands away is ‘Jailbreaks’ named after the old jail, which is not in use and now hosts a unique accommodation experience instead. Rhys surfed both breaks most days depending on the tide and conditions or until his arms gave up. I spent my days reading, writing, relaxing or exploring.

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Exploring ‘Chickens’.

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The bridge to ‘Cokes’.

Isola Maldives organised and ran snorkeling trips so we booked with them the two times we went. The trip cost us US$15 per person and included multiple locations and underwater GoPro footage of us. The first location was only a short distance from our island and offered a stunning underwater display.  ‘Coral Garden’ boasts an array of sea life including huge schools of colourful fish, eels and turtles.

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Can you spot ‘Terry’ the turtle?

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Observing ‘Terry’ during our manta ray hunt.

One of the other spots we tried was a little further away just off one of the resort islands and I even got to glimpse two reef sharks while snorkeling there which was pretty exciting, albeit a little terrifying. I was pretty keen to see if we could find a manta ray even though it was out of season. It is a big selling ticket of the Maldives with video footage and images everywhere. Thol and his crew tried hard to help me out by stopping in known manta spots in deeper water, but to no avail unfortunately. I guess I will just have to go back when it is season to get my manta ray fix next year.

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Working the camera.

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I’m a merMAN, not a mermaid.

 

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-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble #rocketandramble

 

The Sri Lanka Series: Arugam Bay (July-August 2015)

Arugam Bay

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

We chose to visit the upcoming surfing spot of Arugam Bay as friends had been in previous years and bragged about how great the surf was. It tends to work best in the off season meaning the surfing season is from June – October.  Arugam is a very laid back strip that sits on a large bay with a range of point breaks both north and south. The bay is beautiful for swimming, boasting calm water with rolling waves that break onto a sandy shore. The locals all come down in droves on weekends where whole families scream with glee, jump on each other and play in the shallows. Arugam’s main point is gentle most of the time but does have a bit of a rocky shelf which can attract the odd sea urchin. Some surfers wore booties, but my partner and I both didn’t bother and chose instead to just try and avoid the bottom as much as possible.  My partner was a little disappointed with the surf when we were there, as it didn’t really get bigger than 4ft and there is a minimal tide difference (so it just stays the same) and the wind was howling from about midday. There were also a lot of people (and beginners) trying to do their thing in the shore break which is not ideal when you have come specifically to surf and you have to worry about avoiding them as they bob around on huge foam boards.

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A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

I chose not to bring a board with me (my partner bought two), but hired both a mini mal and malibu on different days and had an awesome time while getting a great tan. Upali is the accommodation and cafe which sits right on the main point and provides a perfect (and shady) reading or blogging spot when my partner was surfing for long hours. Once we were all surfed out, we would walk back to the main strip and score a cabana (usually at Funky de Bar) that looked out onto the water. Funky de Bar was also home to a litter of puppies and anyone who knows me knows how much I LOVE dogs. We would eat, drink, play with the puppies and be generally merry which isn’t hard to do in a place as beautiful as Sri Lanka.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller. We hired this 9ft mal for a couple of days.

We stayed at The Hotel Paradise for 10 days and it catered to our needs really well. Not only is it right in the middle of town, it was clean and cheap plus the staff were very accommodating. I would definitely recommend an air-conditioned room though as it was still quite hot at night and nice to escape the heat in the middle of the day. The Hotel Paradise also do a curry buffet for 400 rupee which was so tasty and filling. You can’t really beat that.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

The food in Arugam has a lot of variety and can cater to all budgets and taste buds. Some days we lived off roti and Sri Lankan curries (the one from Munchies Shack was the best in my opinion) and other days we would splurge a little more and eat BBQ whole fish done over a fire, delicious burgers and cocktails from Zephyr, and real coffee and breakfast paninis from the Hideaway cafe during the day and fruity cocktails with reggae at night from the bar. There are a few touristy shops if retail therapy is your thing, but I wouldn’t dedicate too much time to it.

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay is the perfect location to make your ‘base’ so you can do day trips north or south and see all that the area has to offer. There is also an elephant gathering place west of Pottuvil near the big waterhole. The two times we went past, we were a little too early and then a little too late. Get a local to take you and time it for late afternoon to witness a spectacular sight.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

North of Arugam Bay are secluded accommodation options away from the bustle of the main strip. There are a couple of surf points and I spent two very relaxing mornings at the Whiskey Beach cabanas and cafe. It takes about 10 minutes by tuk tuk and costs around 1000 rupees return (or 1500 rupees to the Lighthouse point) and usually the driver will wait for you, or come back and collect you at an agreed time. Pottuvil Point is worth a look if you are up that way already, but probably not as an individual trip. Most drivers tag on an extra 500 rupee for the trip.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

South of Arugam there is Okanda and two national parks. Okanda is a dusty 40 minute drive south and we visited on two separate occasions. The first time was a part of our local led ‘safari tour’ just to have a look. The second time was early in the morning on a surf expedition but there was also a week long Hindu festival on. (Check out Tangent Time below for my story about my ‘celebrity status’.) Okanda beach is beautiful, the surf was little bigger but still quite messy.

The view from the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

The view from the rock near the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

One of the local tuk tuk drivers (we called him ‘No Teeth’ for obvious reasons) drove us to various points a couple of times and we discussed with him the possibility of us taking a safari tour to check out some of the wildlife in the area. We paid 3000 rupee (plus we gave a large tip at the end as we were stoked with what we did and saw) for a couple of hours driving. No Teeth promised we wouldn’t pay if we didn’t see any elephants or were unhappy with the quality of the tour in anyway. It sounded like a pretty good deal to me. He picked us up from our hotel at 1:30pm and we set off. Not even 15 minutes had passed when we spotted peacocks (as plentiful as pigeons in Sri Lanka), a herd of buffalo bathing in a pond, a mongoose and witnessed our first elephant sighting. A large bull was standing just outside of the bush line and was visible from the road. We watched him for about 15 minutes before moving on with No Teeth promising we would see plenty more on his ‘special tour’. We hiked up to the Okanda Kudumbigala Forest Hermitage Shrine and fed the monkeys biscuits we bought from a local stall. They were mischievous and naughty, just as monkeys should be, and I have developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with monkeys. I find they are very sweet one minute being all friendly and cutesy, but as soon as you are out of food, they turn on you (and each other) going feral and vicious in the blink of an eye. Once we climbed to the top of the temple, we were treated to breathtaking 360 degree views of the whole area and it is definitely worth the walk up the stone steps (if you can call them that, they are more like strategically spaced rock grooves). Ladies, don’t forget to enter the shrine you will need to take or wear a long skirt and cover your shoulders. I took two sarongs with me so I could take it all off afterwards.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

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Monkeys and crocodiles.

Monkeys. How cute is this guy?.

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These guys you can see, the others not so much.

I knew what was underneath the water...eek.

I knew what was underneath the water…eek.

No Teeth then showed us crocodiles up close (and a little to close for comfort) in a nearby creek. They didn’t do much, just lazed about on the banks, but I was more afraid of what I couldn’t see under the water as we stood on the edge of the river watching them. I didn’t really want to test fate. We visited Okanda, to see what it was like and saw that they were setting up stalls and shops for some kind of festival which we discovered to be a Hindu event later on. Finally, we went on the hunt for more elephants. We spotted a group of four adult elephants quite far off in the distance opposite a large (and mostly dry) waterhole. Eventually, we found a family of about 7 adult elephants and a baby. We were apparently getting too close as the bull began throwing dirt, grunting and stamping. Needless to say, we backed away slowly. It was amazing to see this whole elephant family out in the wild living (mostly harmoniously) with the villages. The fence in the image actually goes around the village to keep the elephants out rather than to keep them in captivity. I felt honoured to witness these beautiful exotic creatures in their wild habitat roaming freely.

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Daddy elephant. Not so happy to see us.

Elephant family roaming freely.

Elephant family roaming freely. The little baby is too much!

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This male was by himself near one of the roads to Okanda.

Tangent Time: When my partner and I returned to Okanda for the second time to surf it was early morning and the sun had just risen. No Teeth was supposed to pick us up from the front of our hotel at 5:30am but he didn’t show. We found out later that he had slept through his alarm. Instead, we waved down one of the many other tuk tuk drivers. No point getting up this early for no reason! Okanda beach was mostly secluded except for a couple of towels and bags left on the beach by the other 5 surfers who were already out in the water. My partner paddled out and I sat on the beach on a towel in a dress and hat with my camera at the ready. After an hour of taking some snapshots, I noticed that there were a few small groups of locals dressed in their best saris and suits making their way down the beach towards me. As they got closer, there was a lot of pointing and talking (that I couldn’t understand) as they all moved closer and stood around me. The kids waved and said hi excitedly. Some spoke a few words of English and asked questions about my name and where I was from. A lot of the boys stared or asked to take my picture, some wanted to touch my blonde hair or shake my hand. For approximately 3 hours this went on with each group that passed by. Most were polite, others not so much and some started taking pictures without asking or doing anything else. Just waltzed right up and started snapping. I began to understand a little more how celebrities feel. I was reading a book on my ipad mini and many of the children wanted to look at it and touch it as they had never seen anything like it before. I had to explain to a couple of boys that my ‘husband’ was out in the water so they would back off a little and move out of my personal space. One man who spoke excellent English explained that many of the locals were from very small villages far away and had driven for days just to attend the festival. He outlined that most of them would not have seen a white person in the flesh before either and that was why there was so much commotion.  It was such a bizarre experience that I won’t soon forget and I now have an appreciation for what it must be like being an animal in a zoo.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble