Saturday, 8 June 2019

Never been on a group tour? Thinking about it? Here are my Pros and Cons.

  I usually travel alone, enjoying the flexibility of making 'on the fly' decisions about what to do and where to go with the luxury of no timetable to keep and no commitments to uphold. However, there are some  countries, where joining a tour group is by far the best way to go.  The first group tour I took was in 1993 when my husband and I booked a 12 day tour of southern China.  At that time China was really only just opening up to tourists, the roads were diabolical, crammed with millions of bicycles and  the language barrier was almost insurmountable. It would have been near impossible to travel from city to city by ourselves. There were twelve on that tour and we had so much fun sharing what was a pretty amazing experience with a very pleasant group of people.  We also got to see far more than we would have on our own.  Since then I have spent a month in Africa, a month in Turkey, a week in Cuba and 12 days in China with tour groups.  I have also organised and led student groups on tours to Japan. Every trip has been fantastic and I have seen and experienced far more than I could ever have hoped for on my own. I still travel mostly alone but will readily join a tour group when I think it's the best option.

Fun times discussing  our experiences over lunch in Namibia

So if you have never joined a tour group before here are a few of my pros and cons:


1. Everything is organised for you from hotel bookings to meals, attraction admissions and all transport, even airport check-ins in many cases
2.  Entry to museums and attractions is preferential. This is a boon at places like Tienanmen Square where thousands queue up for entry everyday and your group can sail past the queues, ignoring the scowls!
3. You get to meet some wonderful fellow travelers.  I have made friends and kept in touch with several over the years
4. Transport and hotels are generally of a good standard. They are not hit and miss
5. You feel safe
6. Your guides are knowledgeable and informative ensuring you get the most out of your tour
7. Tour leaders are always on hand to assist with any problems
8. When humorous occasions arise, like our hopeless attempts to learn the salsa in Cuba, it is so good to share a laugh with the group
9. And most of all, for a solo traveler, it is a special pleasure to be able to share your experiences and meals with others

Exploring the wonders of Turkey with this lovely group of women - started out strangers, ended up friends


1. In order to keep to a schedule your days are full and starts are early (this is no problem for me)
2. There is generally  little free time to do your own thing
3. You are taken to specific retail outlets, not necessarily ones you would choose
4. You can get stuck with annoying co-travelers, although I have never had this happen.  This can be more of a problem if you choose to share a room with a stranger.  I  prefer to pay a single supplement for my own room. It is more usual  that sub groups of like minded travelers gravitate together for meals etc.
5. There is little flexibility
6. Not all attractions will be of interest to you but sometimes you may be surprised that something you would have overlooked proves to be well worthwhile.
7. All or most meals, depending on your tour, are pre-booked so there is no choice as to where to eat
8. You can get tired but with reasonable fitness this should not be a problem.

Doesn't this look like fun?  It sure was, drinking freshly made mojitos on a Cuban tobacco farm.  Something I would never get to do on my own.

As far as I'm concerned the Pros outweigh the Cons.  All that is required to be a good tour group member is a willingness to go with the flow, a bit of tolerance and a desire to enjoy and make the most of your trip.  Give it a go. Join a tour group and sit back and enjoy the experience, I assure you you won't regret it.

I am already looking forward to going on another group tour to a distant, unusual destination some time soon.  I can't wait!

The views in this post are purely from my own experiences.  I do not  work for a tour company

The companies I have traveled with are:
Wendy Wu             
Intrepid Travel      
Grassroots Adventures

I highly recommend all of them.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Classic Cars and Rock and Roll - Beach Hop, Whangamata, New Zealand

 Recently I was invited to stay for the weekend with my good friends at their home in Whangamata and as luck would have it it was the weekend of the Repco Beach Hop. I had heard of the Beach Hop but had never attended it so was really looking forward to seeing what all the excitement was about. I had no idea what a fun weekend it would be.

Above and below:  Many home owners decorate their homes in theme.  They go to a lot of trouble to honour their chosen car

The Beach Hop began as a one day event in 2001 drawing a crowd of 6000. It has grown and developed over the years into a major five day festival of classic vehicles and rock and roll now attracting over 110,000 visitors.  It is such an outstanding event that it won the award as the best New Zealand event of 2017 at the National Events Awards Show, not surprising judging by the numbers it attracts to this small seaside town on the Coromandel Peninsula, around 2 and a half hours to the south east of Auckland with a population of under 4000. Now entrants come from as far away as the United States and Australia to show off their vehicles and enjoy the camaraderie of like minded enthusiasts.

Classic cars and rock and roll make for an intoxicating mix of all the good things about the 1950s and 1960s.  The Beach Hop is a celebration of the classic cars, motor bikes, dragsters, scooters, vintage caravans, hot rods and the culture, music and fashion of that golden era. The programme includes rallies to other beaches,  judging of vehicles in their various categories, a Pin Up contest, rock and roll performances, a swap meet and market and, the absolute highlight, the grand parade with 1000 vehicles taking part. Fortune smiled on the event this year and although the weather was patchy it never rained when it mattered so all events went ahead as planned.

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the weekend.  Although I am not what you might call a car enthusiast I do appreciate the beauty of these vehicles and the time, skill and commitment that has gone into restoring and caring for them.  I know that my late husband would have been in car lovers heaven, if he'd been there, as a car enthusiast himself.

It was a pleasure to walk around town soaking up the friendly atmosphere, looking at the cars, admiring the women dressed in their very best rock and roll finery, (and there is no doubt women's style of the era was the most feminine and pretty in recent memory),  listen to a bit of rock and roll  and especially to watch the gob smacking grand parade. In the evening we dined at the Ocean Beach club where we were entertained by a band in Hawaiian shirts playing all the surfing classics.

 Ah, the nostalgia!

Sunday morning saw us at the local Baptist Church for their now famous rock and roll service where the seats are cleared from the centre of the church and attendees are invited to get up and rock and roll. Many rock and roll clubs from around New Zealand come to the Beach Hop and it was fun to watch them doing their thing. ( play the video below for a taste of the rock and roll service)

For me one of the best things about the event was the positivity of everyone around town, how well behaved and pleasant everybody was, even the police remarked on what a great 5 days it had been. The crowd was mostly made up of families all out together having fun. I loved the friendliness of everybody and the love and enthusiasm the vehicle owners had for their cars and their hobbies. The Beach Hop is a great bonus for the local shopkeepers of this summer resort who find business slow and quiet during the winter months. It is estimated the Beach Hop brings around $7 million into the local economy. It is also a great boost to local community services such as surf life saving and the volunteer coastguard who have benefited by more than $500,000 over the years from the money raised.


If you haven't been to the Repco Beach Hop at Whangamata I suggest you go, even if you are not a crazy car buff. Drag out your blue suede shoes or your stiffened petticoat and get right into the spirit of this great event. I guarantee you will enjoy it as much as I did.  You'd better get in quickly, though, I believe a lot of accommodation is booked out a year in advance.  A big thank you to my friends, Diana and Ian, for hosting me for the weekend.

Monday, 29 April 2019

A Jewel in Beijing - The Summer Palace on Kunming Lake

I must confess that I hadn't heard of Beijing's Summer Palace before this trip so it was a delightful discovery for me. It is a jewel of a place and visiting it was a lovely and fitting way to end a tour of some of the best sights of China.

The Summer Palace stretches along the edge of Kunming Lake and up Longevity Hill
Built by Qing emperor, Qianlong between 1750 and 1764, as a summer retreat, the Summer Palace, beside Lake Kunming, has a very colourful history. Originally a reservoir for Beijing's water supply, the 450 acre lake was entirely man made with the excavated soil used to build Longevity Hill overlooking the lake. Despite the fact that the garden contains a number of halls, pavilions, palaces, temples and bridges it did not have the facilities for long term stays or diplomatic meetings so the emperor chose not live there, using it instead for day visits only

The 728 metre Long Corridor,  for a sheltered walk in the rain

As the Qing dynasty declined the Summer Palace became neglected and was looted and burned in 1860 by the British and French during the second opium war. This wanton destruction has never been forgotten by the Chinese, however, in 1884, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu, his mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, used funds intended for the navy to repair and enlarge the Palace to celebrate her 60th birthday.  One of the best features of the palace, and my favourite is the 728 metre Long Corridor, skirting the lake edge, built so that the Empress Dowager could exercise in all weathers.  It is lavishly decorated with paintings of places in China and scenes from Chinese folk tales and mythology. It is stunningly beautiful, I would be more than happy to exercise there daily.

The  Summer Palace was damaged again in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when the Eight Nation Alliance looted the artifacts and destroyed the gardens.  Two years later the palace was once again restored. In 1914 the palace was opened to the public but after the revolution of 1949 was used as a meeting place for Mao Zedong and some top ranking communist party officials. Finally, in 1953, restorations and renovations were done to the palace and it was opened to the public once again.
UNESCO have added it to their world heritage list stating that it is "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design".

A serene and beautiful corner of the Summer Palace gardens

I love the names of the buildings and pavilions - Hall of Jade Billows, Hall of Joy and Longevity, Hall of Dispelling Clouds, Pavilion of Precious Clouds, Oriole Listening Hall, Garden of Harmonious Pleasures - to name a few. Overlooking all, from the top of Longevity Hill, is the eight storey high Tower of Buddhist Incense where the Dowager Empress went to pray and burn incense. At one end of the complex is the Marble Boat, a purely decorative 96 metre long western style paddle steamer, built to replace a burnt out wooden one which was used as a summer house and for excursions on the lake.  Needless to say the marble boat cannot float.  At the other end of the complex is the graceful, 17 arch bridge.

The ornate and purely decorative Marble Boat

Above: Exercise class in the palace grounds
Left: Writing poetry in water as a contemplation
exercise. It disappears as quickly as it is written

There is so much to see in this beautiful place.  I could have spent a whole day there.  Apart from the surroundings and buildings I loved seeing the Chinese enjoying the grounds for activities such as exercise classes, dancing, watching magicians and writing poetry in water as a form of contemplation. And, I also found some lovely serene corners of the gardens to just enjoy their beauty on my own.  I highly recommend a visit to The Summer Palace.

Left: The Tower of Buddhist Incense on top of Longevity Hill

Monday, 15 April 2019

The Great Wall of China

The view from the bottom of The Great Wall looked challenging and somewhat daunting  but I couldn't wait to climb it.  This is an absolute "must do" on any tour of China and we were finally here. It is fair to say I was pretty excited, especially since climbing the wall was on my bucket list and something I  never thought I would get to do.    

The Great Wall snakes its way over hills and through valleys
 The atmosphere of excitement on our bus was palpable as we wound our way out through the suburbs of Beijing and through the countryside towards the Great Wall. It took around an hour and a half to get there but it seemed that one minute we were on the outskirts of Beijing and the next minute we were in a mountainous area looking at the Great Wall snaking its way across the hillsides.  Thrilling!

Once again it was a magnificent day with sunshine, blue skies and cool crisp air, perfect conditions for our climb up a restored part of the wall. The 6000km long wall includes parts in good condition and other parts which are derelict. There are several areas where many of the stones were filched by locals to build houses during the cultural revolution.

Two watchtowers on the section we climbed

Construction of the Great Wall began 2000 years ago, firstly as protection from Mongol invading armies and then later as a means of border control for duty collection as part of the silk road.  It has been built and rebuilt many times with the current wall being built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1646).  It is estimated that over 1 million workers died during the construction of the Qin dynasty (221 - 207 BC) period.

Our guide was quick to point out that it is a myth that the Great Wall can be seen from space.  Although this is a widely held belief it makes sense that it can't be seen being only 29 feet wide and pretty much the same colour as the surrounding landscape.

View from a watch tower

We had arrived early so luckily there were few people around therefore no pressure and plenty of time to enjoy the experience.  After staring up in awe for a while I couldn't wait to start the climb. It is very steep and the step treads range from shallow to deep in no set pattern.  It is quite an effort to ascend to the first watchtower but well worth it. The views over the countryside are panoramic and it is breath taking to see the wall meandering its way into the distance over hills and valleys.  I stopped for a while at the first watch tower before heading up to the second one.  

It is steep!

Coming down was more is very steep so I clutched a hand rail most of the way.  Near the bottom a young boy of about 10 was sitting on a step paralysed with fear.  His family could not get him to go up or down.  I felt so sorry for him. One of our group, a fit runner, sprinted up and managed to make it to several watch towers.  Another uses a walking stick, due to knee problems, but was so determined to climb up the wall she did part of it using her hands and feet.  Full marks to both of them! 

All set to head up.  Excited!

I was fizzing when I arrived back at the bottom. It is always a thrill to achieve a long held goal and get some pretty hefty exercise into the bargain, maybe that would make up for some of those  dumpling dinners! 
At the bottom.  The wall can be seen on the ridge behind

When I arrived back in New Zealand I told someone I had walked on the Great Wall, she asked if I had walked all of it!  As if!

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Beijing - The Heavenly Temple and locals at play

One of the things I love most about travel is learning about and experiencing another culture.  I enjoy seeing locals go about their normal lives and, if possible, joining in, which is why dancing with the locals at an exercise class in Xi'an was such a thrill.  In Beijing we were making a visit to The Temple of Heaven and our approach through the Long Corridor located in  the 267 hectare (660acre) park which surrounds the Temple gave us the perfect opportunity to mix and mingle with the locals and see them enjoying some leisure time. 
The Long Corridor
The long corridor, originally built as a passageway for the delivery of offerings to the gods, is now a favourite hang out for elderly Chinese as a place for them to play cards, listen to the radio, play instruments, sing or show off their pet birds.  It is my kind of place.  Our guide told us that since the retirement age for women is 55 and for men 60 and most Chinese, despite the abolition of the 'one child' rule, have one child only, older Chinese find they have a lot of time on their hands so enjoy the camaraderie of joining together in the park to share their hobbies. They seemed like happy souls and we were greeted warmly by everyone we passed.  Some of our group admired pet birds and their proud owners were only too keen to allow the birds to perch on my fellow travellers arms. 

There were clearly some very serious card games going on but since gambling is illegal in China players were simply playing for pride and satisfaction.  The large park also contains a Marriage Market where people can advertise for a spouse and a marriage broker will then try to find them a suitable partner. Some of the singles in our group joked that there might be an opportunity there!

But onto the point of our visit, the stunning Temple of Heaven.  Originally built between 1406 and 1420 during the reign of the Ming emperor, Yongle, who was also responsible for the building of the Forbidden City,  The Temple of Heaven consists of three main buildings with the stunning  Hall of Good Harvests as the centre piece. The Hall of Good Harvests, built entirely of wood and without any nails, was struck by lightening in 1889 and burnt to the ground. It was rebuilt to the original plan soon after. It is here the emperors came to pray each year for good harvests, good weather and prosperity. The Hall is 36 metres (118 feet) round and 38 metres (125 feet) high with three tiers and boasts absolutely beautiful, brightly coloured, painted decorations. 

Part of the complex of The Temple of Heaven, the Hall of Good Harvests in the centre
(Photo by Maros, edited by Thegreenj)
In Chinese tradition earth is square and heaven is round and the hall reflects this being built on a large square. Ornate marble terraces lead up to the hall which is a high point of the surrounding area, so it does give the impression of climbing up to heaven.  The large courtyard below houses two large oblong halls and there are many other ceremonial buildings within the complex which covers a greater area than The Forbidden City, because in Chinese tradition no man could have a greater estate than that dedicated to the gods. The Hall of Good Harvests is certainly a show stopper and with its view out over the city, countryside and out to the mountains it has a position befitting its status.

Above: The Hall of Good Harvests

Right: A Glimpse inside

We had had a full and amazing day sight seeing around Beijing so were looking forward to free time in the late afternoon and evening.  A few of us decided to find a shopping centre near our hotel and set out to walk there.  Although furnished with instructions, albeit sketchy, in the end we couldn't find it, however we did see some interesting street life along the way, like the roadside hairdressers who set up chairs on the footpath, add mirrors to the street fence and seem to have a busy time with clients judging by the amount of hair at their feet.
Roadside hairdresser, Beijing
(Photo by Dan Hartley)

 A few of us walked back in the opposite direction to a big, glamorous shopping mall, not what we were after but it proved to be another insight into modern China. The multi level mall was glossy, modern and crammed with expensive shops.  I was astonished at the prices, pretty much everything was far more expensive than they are in my home town. The shops were not the high end lines that you would expect to see at an airport, these were the same type of shops you would see in any modern mall, obviously catering to the wealthy middle classes who were shopping there in numbers and clearly indulging their only children.  China has certainly changed over the last few years.  The mall was an eye opener and an entirely different world from that of the road side hairdressers.
Modern China - congested traffic and glamorous shopping malls
Later we spent a sociable evening enjoying the company of our fellow travellers and full of anticipation for our next great adventure and one of my 'bucket list' items - climbing the Great Wall.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Beijing, China - a fascinating mix of Modern History, Politics and Ancient Grandeur

A thick orange coloured smog greeted us on arrival in Beijing, luckily,  by the next morning, the city was boasting beautiful sunny weather and the clearest of blue skies which remained with us for our whole visit.  It was a pleasant drive from the airport to our hotel  along pretty park like boulevards, the result of the controversial demolition of many houses, despite residents' protests, in order to beautify the city for the  2008 Olympics.
A smoggy welcome to Beijing
Beijing has a population of around 21.50 million and as the capital city of China is a draw card for millions of tourists from both overseas but mainly from within China.  We were pumped with anticipation, there is a lot to see in this ancient city.

In Tiananmen Square, General Assembly Building behind me
Next morning we set off for Tiananmen Square.  This is where I strongly recommend being part of a tour group.  Since Tiananmen Square is a bucket list place for many Chinese they arrive in their thousands on a daily basis and stand in interminable queues waiting to get in. We, on the other hand, led by our guide clutching pre-booked tickets, sailed past them, oblivious to the scowls and bemused stares of the crowd. 

Built by Mao Zedong, Tiananmen Square is the centre of the General Assembly of China and is said to be one of the largest public squares in the world with a capacity of  more than 1 million people.  To one side of the square is Mao's mausoleum, where a never ending queue patiently waits their turn to pay respects, and a large monument to the People's heroes of the revolution. The General Assembly building takes centre stage and on the other side of the square is a massive portrait of Mao.  Prior to our arrival we were warned not to mention anything about the student and workers' uprising of 1989 while in the square or to ask anything about the tanks etc.  Discussion of the military crackdown is prohibited in China and there are plain clothes, secret service agents with English speaking skills located around the square whose job is to listen to conversations and make arrests if necessary.  The Chinese are clearly very twitchy about potential subversion. Actually, the agents were pretty easy to spot as they fiddled with their cell phones and lent on railings but we stayed true to the advice and just drank the whole scene in. 

Monument to the "glorious heroic workers of the revolution"
We were also told that since the square is a place of pilgrimage, which many Chinese save  their whole life to visit,  we would be a curiosity to back country Chinese who had never seen Europeans before.  Our guide even went so far as to suggest they would think we were film stars.  That's as close as I'll ever get to being one! My fair hair  and blue eyes attracted attention and I can't tell you how many photos I am in. It was amusing to notice people surreptitiously posing behind me for a shot with the strange foreigner. We had a good wander around the square, time for a quick group photo and then made our way to the entrance to The Forbidden City, right beside the square.
Inside the Forbidden City. The size of the crowd is an indication of how vast it is.
The Forbidden City, so called because entrance was forbidden to commoners, was built in 1406 and was home to 14 Ming Emperors and 10 Qing Emperors until the last emperor abdicated in 1912 when China became a republic.  Also known as The Palace Museum it is vast, covering 720,000 sq meters (7,750,000 sq feet). It contains 90 palace quarters and courtyards, 980 buildings and at least 8728 rooms. It is known as a masterpiece of Chinese architecture and boasts the worlds largest collection of well preserved wooden, medieval buildings.  
Intricate detailing on the buildings and  tiers of marble balconies.

A view across the city. The buildings on the hill are included.  The large bronze vats were kept filled with water in case of fire.
I found it an intriguing step back in time, imagining the emperors in  glorious robes walking through the vast treeless squares with servants and officials scurrying about them. 

Inside one of the palace rooms, little changed since ancient times.

The walled garden in the Forbidden
City - note the paving between
the trees

I was very taken by the beautiful, painted detailing on the buildings and the elaborate marble railings on the tiered balconies leading up to the palace buildings but, as someone who loves trees and gardens, I thought the vast paved squares with neither tree nor flower a bit soulless. Trees were not planted since they would have been good hiding places for assassins and would also interfere with the squares' primary purpose of holding grand and solemn ceremonies.  However, we did stroll through a walled garden containing large ancient trees within the city complex.  Now a UNESCO World Heritage site the Forbidden City is definitely a "must see".  It's vastness is a bit hard to take in and despite the fact that there were many thousands of other visitors there we never felt bustled or as if we were in a crowd, there is so much room.  

As with so many grand palaces around the world you can't help but ponder the narcissism and entitlement of those who built them and lived in them but on the other hand you can delight in the extraordinary treasures they have left which many millions of people can now enjoy.  I thought it was amazing and am so glad to have seen it. 

So far it had been a fascinating day with a mix of modern history, politics and ancient, dynastic grandeur.  There was more to come which I will write about in my next post.

Right: She looked so darned cute, I had to get a photo, with her mother's permission.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

I loved Xi'an, China - It's way more than the Terracotta Army

After our gob smacking experience this morning viewing the Terracotta Army we were feeling pretty content with our day but there was so much more to come.

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda
Firstly we were off to view the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.  It is set  in a lovely tranquil park and with the late afternoon sun dappling the pagoda through the trees it was a lovely place to stroll, relax and spend some reflective time.  The pagoda is itself impressive. Built between 707 and 709 it is 43 metres tall with 15 tiers, the top tier having been crumbled by an earthquake in 1556.  It is said to be one of the most well preserved Tang Dynasty pagodas. The adjoining Jianu Temple originally housed a large Buddha, sadly destroyed in the cultural revolution.

The tranquil park

Right: This large bell is a replica of the original which is 800 years old and is located in the temple. Tourists swing the pole to strike the bell while praying for good fortune.

As part of our tour we were ushered to a nearby calligraphy work shop for a demonstration of the art, the idea clearly being for us to buy.  I don't think anyone did, though, and most of us thought it would have been better to spend more time exploring the pagoda and the surrounding park.

Our next stop was fantastic, albeit not long enough.  We were visiting the Muslim Quarter, a web of streets where the 50,000 Hui Muslims of Xi'an make their home.  Muslims have been part of the population of the city for 1400 years, having arrived in China via the silk road.  I love local markets so was once again in my happy place.  The street of blue stone pavers and shady trees is a vibrant, colourful, exciting corridor of food vendors selling all sorts of interesting food - squid, pomegranates, bread, fruit, pancakes, all types of skewers and candied nuts. Vendors calling out, silver smiths hammering jewelry, nuts being ground and pummeled, lots of people milling around, chatting and eating and as the day turned to dusk, lights coming on, all added to this wonderful joyful, noisy kaleidoscope of liveliness. All the vendors are Chinese Muslim and most wear traditional dress. I loved it and was really sorry we couldn't spend more time there.

But, places to go, food to eat!  We were having a pre show dinner at the Xi'an Chinese Cultural Centre.  Xi'an is proud of its dumplings and, boy, do they put on a display. We were served plate after plate of the tastiest, cutest dumplings I have ever seen. They came out in all shapes - ducks, frogs, hedgehogs, etc., an instagramer's  delight but I was so busy admiring and eating them I forgot to photograph any.

Our final activity for the day was the cultural show, something Xi'an is famous for and a great insight into Chinese theatre. As a tour group we were given VIP seats right up the front so we all had a great view.  The show tells the story of a ruthless, ambitious empress from the Tang Dynasty and draws on traditional Chinese folk dances and music with the whole cast, including the orchestra outfitted in elaborate Tang dynasty costumes.   At one point a chubby man playing the rather shrill Chinese flute  had a solo in centre stage.  He was flamboyant in his performance and looked incredibly proud of himself, you could see him thinking "I am the star of this show".  I'm always interested in cultural performances and found this fascinating, if a little over the top, but I think that is the typical dramatics of Chinese theatre.  I was so exhausted after this big exciting day that I found it hard to stay awake through the performance despite the noise and colour.  (Below is a tiny snippet from the show )

Back at the hotel I fell into bed with a happy smile on my face.  What a great day, and then I reflected on yesterday as well - walking the city wall, the night illuminations,  dancing with the locals in the street and I decided, yes, I have loved Xi'an.