Best Moments of 2016

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On almost every website you surf these days, someone is waiting to convince you that 2016 has been a horrible year. While I’ve experienced my fair share of challenges in 2016, I am a glass half-full kind of gal and would prefer to reflect on my BEST moments of the year instead. Here’s what I have to be grateful for this year:

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One Week in Mexico City

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Hola, Mexico! I’ve just returned from my work and holiday in Australia and am now off to Mexico City for a week to visit my new friend, Andrea. Andrea and I met while traveling in New Zealand and I quickly decided a trip to visit her and explore her city was necessary. Knowing and visiting people in other countries is one of the best parts of making international friends, isn’t it?!

I’ve briefly visited Mexico on family cruises but had not spent any significant amount of time in the country. Mexico has always been a curious one to me. It’s a US neighbor and many Mexicans choose to live in the United States, bringing delicious food and culture with them. I feel as though I am the most familiar with Mexican culture, and yet, my understandings and experiences were limited to my American point of view before this trip. Mexico City is vibrant, busy, and dangerous with pockets of extreme poverty and some of the best street food you’ll ever have. It’s the 8th largest city in the world and the traffic makes this statistic abundantly clear.

I planned a week around the city and made sure that food, lucha libres, and pyramids were at the top of my list. Here’s how I spent the week…

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48 Hours in Chattanooga

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Chattanooga is one of Tennessee’s hidden gems. Located less than 10 miles from the Georgia state border and nestled among the curves of the Tennessee River, Chattanooga is a city made for people. I spent 48-hours exploring this small city and loved every moment of it. With countless hiking trails, a charming downtown, riverside views, and delicious food, Chattanooga is not to be missed.

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Australia’s Strangest Towns

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Australia is well-known around the world as being the country to house the most dangerous animals on the planet but, upon visiting or speaking with the locals, you quickly realize your chances of interacting with these creatures are slim to none. The real story is all of the unique landscapes the country has on offer, including several quirky and strange small towns. And it’s no surprise that these towns can be found deep in the Australian Outback and in the island state of Tasmania. My favorite among them below.

Coober Pedy, South Australia

What do you do when average temperatures range from 35-45° C (95-115° F) in the shade and the annual rainfall is only about 5 inches per year? Live under ground, of course! Or at least, that’s what the residents of this small outback town do. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town and the residents have opted to work and live below ground these days.

The images above show the mining tunnels as well as what the homes looked like years ago and the more modern updates. Coober Pedy residents design their homes with giant tunnel drillers and enjoy regulated temperatures year round. While the only natural lighting comes through the front door, under ground home owners sleep well in total darkness and limited phone service. It isn’t my idea of the perfect house, but for the 3,500 residents of Coober Pedy, this is home.

Woomera, South Australia

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Located approximately 450km north of Adelaide, this town is almost haunting, a town seemingly frozen in time. This town was established as the “closed town” for military families between 1947 and 1982. The name Woomera actually refers to the larger Defense  system testing range. During its heyday, close to 7,000 people lived in the town, including American military. Bowling alleys and movie theaters were built as forms of entertainment and still remain today.

The town is like a ghost town, with a select few military members allowed to live there these days. A museum and a few exhibits are present for visitors interested in learning more about the town with growth and expansion plans that never came to be.

Railton, Tasmania

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Known as the “Town of Topiary”, Railton is located south of Devonport, in the north-central part of Tasmania. Railton is home to over 100 topiary characters and approximately 1,200 people. Most of these imaginative bush and tree creations can be found along the town’s main street, with a topiary walking guide available at the local shops.

Sheffield, Tasmania

Not far from Railton lies the town of Sheffield. Just as the topiary is to Railton, the mural is to Sheffield. Every year the town hosts a Mural Festival and art competition and the winners are prominently displayed in the town. Sheffield’s mural obsession originally began in hopes of promoting art and tourism and now attracts an estimated 200,000 people to the town annually.

Exploring some of the many urban and rural regions has been one of my favorite pastimes in Australia and I imagine this list is just the beginning of the strange and beautiful found throughout the country.

Photo Diary: The Great Barrier Reef

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Purple starfish, sea slugs, blue spotted fantail rays, clown fish, and coral-chomping parrot fish are a few of the many colorful locals you’ll meet among The Great Barrier Reef. While it’s true that some of the reef is dying, a greater portion is still teeming with life. I had the privilege of snorkeling in two spots along the Reef: Hastings Reef and Michaelmas Cay. Both were filled with colorful coral and curious sea life, both sparkling under the sunshine.

This photo diary only scratches the surface of this amazing underwater world. Everything was wonderful, from the various types of coral – Stag Horn, Plate, and Brain Coral – to the playful Clown Fish swimming through the anemone, and the sound of Parrot Fish munching on the coral. Thankfully my mind was able to better capture the richness of it all, an experience I won’t soon forget.

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Thanks to Passions of Paradise for a beautiful, educational day on The Reef.

Photo cred: Bethany Gaffey

Your Hit List for Australia’s Capital Cities

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With a country this massive, any visit to Oz requires prioritization. In just 8 short months, I’ve traveled all 7 states and explored 6 of the 7 state capitals. Looking for suggestions of what to see and do in each? I’ve got you covered with all my favorites!

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East Coast Adventuring: From Brisbane to Cairns

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While not quite half way, I’ve split my East Coast Adventure into two parts: From Sydney to Brisbane and Brisbane to Cairns. After 48 hours in Queensland’s capital, Beth and I began the second half of our journey, which included all of our day trips and overnight tours. The scenery between Brisbane and Cairns changes dramatically as rain forests and sand islands are gradually introduced into the tropical landscape. We had much to look forward to and several more stops ahead. First up, the beautiful Noosa!

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Home to one of the two Everglades in the world (Do you know where to find the first one?!), Noosa is a beautiful beach town with much to explore. The essentials includes a ritzy strip of shops close to the beach and the “backpacker” part of town just over the hill. Everglades kayaking tours, sunset cruises, and trips to Fraser Island are typical here.

1. Shop along Hastings Street

Window shopping is a must here or, if you have a little extra cash, spend an afternoon browsing the clothing boutiques, high end retailers, and local artist shops. Beth picked up a collection of beautiful Australian animal prints in one of the stores. A perfect memento for her trip.

2. Noosa National Park Coastal Walk

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Stretching for 10km along the stunning coastline, this walk is essential for visitors and locals alike. It is here where we spotted our first wild koala, a white bellied sea eagle, and a sea turtle surfing the waves of Hell’s Gate. The path hugs the coast with multiple lookouts and perfect clearings between the trees to admire the sparkling blue waters and hoards of surfers down below. The walk even takes you through a nude beach where you’re sure to see your fair share of naked old men enjoying their moments of freedom. Complete the walk or turn back when you’d like – either way, it’s worth the views!

RAINBOW BEACH

Barely even worthy of being called a town, Rainbow Beach is the main jump off point for Fraser Island. Quite literally, this stop has one block of cafes and shops, with limited dinner options and nothing open past 8pm. Although we were treated to a beautiful sunset the evening we returned from Fraser, there wasn’t any need to visit here. Do yourself a favor and start your Fraser tour from Noosa or Hervey Bay, skipping Rainbow altogether.

HERVEY BAY

We booked our stop in Hervey Bay in an effort to break up the 17 hour bus ride between Rainbow and Airlie Beach. While we only scheduled a less than 24 hour stay, we wished we had booked more time here! Hervey Bay is another jump off point for Fraser Island and famous for whale watching.
This town is much larger than both Noosa and Rainbow and is filled with charming bays, a harbor, fishing jetty, cafes and shops. It is also decorated with whale statues throughout the town as a reminder of what you’re really there to see. Unfortunately for us, we were just shy of the start to the season. I think the first sighting was actually the week after we were there! With more time we would have joined a twilight kayaking tour at the very least. Lots of great bird life here, too!

AGNES WATER and the TOWN OF 1770

And I thought Rainbow Beach was tiny…This was second addition to the itinerary to break up the trip and was only good for a bed to sleep in rather than a bus seat. Agnes Waters is barely more than a simple block of shops and cafes, all of which were closed by the time we arrived. It is well known for a few unique tours though, and with more time, we would have been happy to join either. If you’re there for more than a night, check out the cheap surf lessons (3 hours for under $20!) and Scooteroo, a motorbike tour around town. No joke.

AIRLIE BEACH

Ahh, paradise! Airlie Beach is where you really start to see the change in scenery. Palm trees line the white sand beaches with views of docked sailboats, catamarans, and yachts in front of you and lush green rolling hills behind. Airlie is made for tourism with a variety of surf shops, restaurants, backpacker bars, and cafes. A beautiful spot of cool blues and warm greens, feeling like a tropical island.

1. Sail the Whitsunday Islands

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…THE reason to stop in Airlie! Beth and I joined a 2-day/2-night sailing and snorkeling tour of the Whitsunday Islands, a truly unique and memorable experience with gorgeous beaches and colorful underwater sights. Read more about our trip here.

2. Beaches and Lagoons

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Airlie is all about the water. When you’re not on a boat, you’re likely hanging out at either the beaches or lagoons. This coastal town thoughtfully offers visitors the best of both worlds with lagoon pools and sandy beaches to relax. Take your pick!

CAIRNS

Our final destination along the coast and jump off point for our bucket list destination, The Great Barrier Reef. Most travelers journey to Cairns for their reef trips but there is much more to see and do here. Another destination that I would have liked more time, Cairns is a busy backpacker spot with options to explore both the surrounding rain forest and reef.

1. The Great Barrier Reef

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A place of milestones, Beth completed her 50th dive on The Great Barrier Reef and I overcame my fear of snorkeling! All the pictures in the world cannot compare to the firsthand views on the reef. Our day tour took us to two destinations along the reef and granted us the opportunity to explore the reef in wind, rain and waves as well as the warm sunshine. Check out my photo diary from the trip here.

2. Atherton Tablelands

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We’re officially tree huggers thanks to On the Wallaby. Our final day along the coast was spent exploring the peaceful Tablelands, less than an hour outside of Cairns. We visited giant strangler figs, towering twin Kauri trees, waterfalls, and freshwater lakes. It was the relaxing end to a tremendous East Coast adventure!

3. Cape Tribulation, Daintree Rainforest, and Port Douglas

And for my next visit, I’ll hit these awesome spots, too!

EAST COAST ADVENTURING IN SUMMARY

Traveling up the East Coast from Sydeny to Cairns
  • 9 Greyhound bus rides with 2 overnight trips for a total of 45 hours spent on board
  • 2,415 km (1,500 miles) traveled along the coast
  • 9 different hostel stays
  • 22 days of traveling up the coast
  • 5 adventure tours booked
  • 11 towns/cities visited

Sailing the Whitsunday Islands

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From the first time I caught a glimpse of Whitsunday’s magical, pristine beaches and its famous heart reef, I knew I would be prioritizing a visit. And as I sat with my travel agent to plan the East Coast Adventuring, I was most excited for this tour. I booked a two-day/two-night sailing and snorkeling trip with Explore Maxi and arrived for the tour with very high expectations. Is this ever a good idea? Yes, the trip was beautiful, adventurous, memorable, and eventful, but not quite in all the ways I had imagined.

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Dingoes and Drop Bears on Fraser Island

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As part of our East Coast Adventuring from Sydney to Cairns, my sister and I planned a 3-day/2-night beach camping trip on Fraser Island. We joined a crew of 21 others and our Drop Bear Adventures tour guide for a getaway on the world’s largest sand island. While many know this east coast island as Fraser Island, the Butchulla people’s traditional name is “K’gari” meaning “paradise”, and after our beautiful visit, I can’t think of a more appropriate name.

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