Going Dutch

On Saturday afternoon, exhausted from flying and from our chronic lack of sleep in Iceland, Lox and I arrived in Amsterdam. We basically crashed as soon as we checked into our hotel, but the next day we woke up suitably refreshed and decided to explore the city. Amsterdam is one of those places that is unreasonably beautiful without even trying. I took the picture below with no filter, no fancy camera, and no real skills – just pointing my phone vaguely in the direction of the pretty view gave me this result:

🇳🇱 #amsterdam #netherlands #nofilter

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Throughout our time in Amsterdam, we covered basically everything you could want to do there. We’re both John Green fans, so we spent an afternoon scoping out the filming sites from The Fault in Our Stars movie. When we found the bench, there were a bunch of other people taking photos by it, plus some people had attached padlocks to it, turning it into a kind of lock-bridge-bench. Later in the week, we visited the Anne Frank Museum, also featured in the movie. We booked the Introductory Programme because regular tickets were sold out (pro-tip: book well in advance!), and even though it was more expensive, I’m so glad we did. Hearing someone speak about her life instead of just reading about it on the wall was so moving. I’m the sort of person who cries about old teddy bears so I’m a mess when it comes to things like the Holocaust. I can’t really say anything about it that hasn’t been said before, so all I’m going to do is urge you to visit if you ever have the chance, and also to be aware that things like that are still happening and could still happen.

On a more cheerful note, Valentine’s Day fell about halfway through our time in Amsterdam. Neither of us is that fussed with the day, but we decided we should probably do something for it, so we booked ourselves a cruise through the canals (pro-tip: a cruise with a bunch of other people is much cheaper than a private gondola ride). This was a super cheap and convenient way to see the whole city, plus it continued the trend of Amsterdam being unreasonably beautiful. We continued the day by going to Madame Tussauds. It wasn’t highly recommended in lists of things to do in Amsterdam, but Lox had never been to one before and I’d only been to the one in Vegas. It boasted a pretty large collection and was actually a really good time. We finished off the day by wandering around the Red Light District – perhaps not the most romantic way to round off Valentine’s Day, but it seemed like something you had to do while there, and the neighbourhood itself had quite a cool vibe to it, similar to Commercial-Broadway area in Vancouver.

We also visited the Van Gogh Museum, which was probably what I was most excited about. If I haven’t mentioned it enough, I’m a giant art history nerd and adore Impressionism/Post-Impressionism. Van Gogh in particular holds my heart – there is no one whose art compares and whose story rips apart my heart more. He’s often associated with French artists because he spent a lot of time in Paris, but he was Dutch so I was super excited to see how he was commemorated in his own country. The museum was set out in a way that beautifully told his story and contained most of my favourites, and I possibly teared up when I actually saw the Almond Blossoms painting (the header of this blog). We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the art but I did get a picture of his actual paints and palette, as well as a selfy in front of a screen showing his most noted works. Later when we walked around the city, any mention of Van Gogh rendered me slightly useless as I stared at it sadly.

All up, we spent 6 days in Amsterdam which felt like the perfect amount of time. There was nothing that I felt I missed out on or anything that I wished I could have done. I also felt totally safe there, despite its reputation as a place of debauchery. Only one person on the street offered us drugs (which we politely declined), but there was actually very little evidence of anything even vaguely illicit. In all honesty, Vancouver is much sketchier and has a much stronger marijuana presence (read: “smell”) than Amsterdam. Amsterdam is an amazing city and if you ever get the chance, you need to visit it. If you have been before, or want to visit, tell me about it or ask me any questions!

3 Nights in Iceland

When I was working in Vancouver, one of the multitudinous ads from the Skytrain would not get out of my head – the ad offering a free stopover in Iceland when you book a flight with Icelandair. After months of it refusing to leave my brain, I finally looked up prices and found that flights were ridiculously cheap. Getting to Europe from NZ is super difficult (it took me 3 flights & 30 hours flying time to get to England for my exchange) so coming from Canada seemed like the perfect opportunity. Lox and I decided that we had to take them up on the offer, booking a trip to Amsterdam with a 3 day stopover in Iceland for February.

We took a red eye from Toronto and arrived in Iceland at 7am Wednesday morning to apparently the “worst weather we’ve ever had”: heavy rain and gales under a pitch black sky. We had an Airbnb booked but check-in wasn’t until 5pm, so we decided to head into town, hole up in a café til the sun rose and it stopped raining, then explore the city. We found a few cute cafés (I recommend the blueberry pancakes at the Laundromat Café) and after a while, the weather cleared so we could explore outside for more than three minutes (that wind was seriously fierce, and I’m from Wellington, so that’s saying something). We were running on about 3 hours of sleep, but my tired eyes could still recognise how beautiful the streets were. Where there could have been blank walls were glorious, vibrant murals. All of them were awesome but this was my favourite:

Me as a mural 🌈🦄⭐️ #iceland #reykjavik #mystopover

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Eventually we were able to check in to our Airbnb and promptly passed out.

The next day, we went to the Blue Lagoon. I was super excited about this, because I’m addicted to planning trips on Pinterest and the Blue Lagoon heavily features in every single post about Iceland. It was expensive but totally worth it – it was cold outside but not blustery, so being in a huge hot spring was beautifully relaxing.

After the lagoon, we headed back to downtown Reykjavik to properly explore. We were delighted to find that Iceland is home to the world’s only penis museum, so we spent about an hour checking out the Iceland Phallological Museum. It was truly bizarre and a little uncomfortable, but fascinating nonetheless (did you know humans are one of the few mammals without a penis bone? Now you do). We had a tour for the Northern Lights booked that night too, but unfortunately nature wasn’t on our side so we didn’t get a chance. The sunset was incredible though, so I can’t be too upset about it.

Our final day, we went on a day tour of the Golden Circle. This was probably the highlight of Iceland – we saw so many parts of the country we never would have got to otherwise. We saw Geysir, apparently the first geyser in written history, as well as the Strokkur geyser which explodes every few minutes (someone definitely has a video of Strokkur exploding and me squealing in surprise in the background). We also went to the Golden Falls which were huge and so impressive.

Our flight to Amsterdam was at 7am the next morning, so we decided not to go back to our Airbnb that night, and to spend it in town instead. We walked out to the Sun Voyager statue on the waterfront in the hopes of finally catching the Northern Lights. The sky stubbornly remained cloudy, but it was still a beautiful way to end our trip – gazing out to sea and holding hands under the midnight sky.

For anyone wanting to visit Iceland, here are some tips so you can learn from my mistakes and make the most of your time!

  • Book with Icelandair. Totally not sponsored, I just can’t get over what a wicked deal it is to get a free stopover when you fly with them. I paid something like $500 for a flight to Iceland, a flight to Amsterdam, plus return. You’d be lucky to get that kind of deal flying to Queenstown from Wellington.
  • Check sunrise & sunset times. This didn’t affect our stay at all, it was just surprising to realise that the sun rose at 10am and set at 5pm in February. It’s worth finding out so you don’t make plans that make no sense with the sunshine.
  • Be aware of your flight times. We took a red-eye and arrived early in the morning, thinking it’d be no big deal to explore the city til we could check in to our Airbnb. This was a bad idea. I fell asleep in several coffee shops and nearly passed out from exhaustion while walking. If you have to arrive early, book a day tour on a bus so you can see the sights without exhausting yourself, or get to your hotel straightaway to sleep for a bit. Everything is good when you’re rested, and impossible when you’re not.
  • Don’t stay in an Airbnb (unless it’s downtown). Our Airbnb was lovely and our host was really friendly, so this is nothing against that. It’s just really difficult to get around if you’re not staying downtown. The reason we didn’t sleep on our final night was because there was no public transport in our area that would’ve got us to the airport in time for our flight. If you’re doing tours too, the tour bus will pick you up from your hotel, so it’s way easier. The money we saved on our accommodation was probably spent on public transport to get downtown, so save yourself the hassle.
  • Book tours! Easily the best way to get around and see everything without renting a car. It’s expensive, but worth it, so work it into your budget. Without the tours, it’s very likely Lox and I would have slept most of our trip away due to our extreme exhaustion and jet lag. The tours forced us to get up early and actually see Iceland.
  • Bring jandals with you to the Blue Lagoon. After we soaked in the lagoon, we wanted to take pictures of it and GOOD LORD it’s cold out there. You can’t wear your regular shoes past the changing rooms, so you have to brave the cold barefooted. Bring jandals (thongs/flip flops/whatever you call them) so you can stay outside for more than 30 seconds and take some wicked photos.
  • If you dye your hair, don’t wear a white shirt to the Blue Lagoon. You need to condition your hair before entering the lagoon because the silica in the water will severely mess with it. This means you need to rinse it out of your hair once you leave the lagoon. I forgot that my hair was freshly recoloured and that it takes approximately 3 days to dry, and cleverly wore a white shirt. No drama if you have short or non-dyed hair, but my hair is Ariel-red and the stains my hair left on my shirt made it look like someone stabbed me.
  • Don’t pin your trip satisfaction on the Northern Lights. Apparently it’s quite common to not see them, plus no one can control the weather so it’s a gamble. Don’t be too sad if you don’t. It just means you’ve got an excuse to visit again!

Iceland is an absolutely stunning country and I’m so stoked I got the opportunity to visit. If you’ve been or have any questions about visiting Iceland, let me know!

Road tripping around Canada: Quebec City

As you probably know, Lox and I are now road tripping back west, so we’re going to end up at some of the places we’ve already visited again. First on the list of repeats was Quebec City.

Old Quebec ✨💛✨ #explorecanada #explorequebec #quebeccity

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I liked Quebec City the first time we visited, but the second time around I was really struck by what an amazing place it is. It’s old, so much older than a lot of cities in Canada. The architecture is stunning and feels just like being in Europe. Despite all the hills, the cool parts of town are all close to each other so it’s a very walkable city. While wandering, we stumbled into the Marché du Vieux-Port which was gorgeous – there’s something about fairy lights that will make me fall in love with anything.

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Like Montreal, Quebec City has some of the best food I’ve had in Canada. Paillard was a beautiful boulangerie that’s perfect for lunch, Poutineville is now tied with La Banquise for my favourite poutine (pro-tip: get the smashed potatoes instead of regular fries), Casse-crêpe Breton has delicious crepes (sweet & savoury), and we found actually good expresso from Café Maelstrøm.

Quebec City is home to the Musée de la civilisation, which we got a chance to visit this time around. Pretty much every exhibit was interactive, making it much more fun than just walking around and reading information plaques. In a beautiful stroke of luck, there was an exhibit on cats & dogs, complete with features such as cat & dog themed Guess Who and an obstacle course to determine if you were faster than a dog (we were not). There was another exhibit about illusions, where you did a variety of tasks utilising different senses. It was also my first time experiencing virtual reality – one exhibit called “The Library at Night” used VR goggles and transported you to 10 different libraries around the world. It was very cool but also slightly terrifying, as it made me realise that the future of horror movies is totally going to involve being attacked in VR.

Quebec City is going down as another one of my favourite places in Canada, and Quebec itself is probably my favourite province in this beautiful and strange country. Tomorrow we leave Quebec City for Ottawa (another repeat) and I feel really happy with how we spent our time here.

Road tripping around Canada: The Maritimes

After spending over a week in beautiful Quebec, Lox and I headed to New Brunswick. We didn’t have much interest in it, but we wanted to get to Prince Edward Island and to get there, we needed to cross the sparsely populated NB. We only had a couple of days there which we spent chilling out in our Airbnb – the most beautiful old farmhouse with a cat that I fell in love with far too hard.

My new hobby is having photoshoots with the cats at our Airbnbs 📸🐱 #cats #airbnb

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After chilling out in NB, we headed to Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island. PEI was similar to Tofino, in that I assume it’s glorious in the summer but kind of irrelevant during the rest of the year. There were some fantastic coffee shops and the farmers market was very cool, but so much of what could have been on offer was closed. Canada has this weird thing where during “winter” – really from October to April – everything shuts down. I was pretty disappointed the Anne of Green Gables house was closed – we drove to see it anyway, thinking we could just take a look around the outside, but no such luck – there were NO TRESPASSING signs everywhere so we really didn’t want to risk it. PEI was very pretty, but I can’t say I’d recommend it to anyone or want to visit it again.

We hadn’t originally even planned to visit Nova Scotia – I may have forgotten that it existed – but our hosts in PEI asked if we were headed there, so we decided we may as well knock out all of the Maritimes. Halifax surprised me – I wasn’t expecting much but it’s actually a really beautiful city. We were treated to stunning weather and it was actually pleasant to be outside for a change, so we spent our time wandering the city. The Halifax Harbourwalk was especially beautiful and made me forget that it was still winter.

Hitting the east coast means that we are officially halfway through our road trip, and only a couple months away from heading back to NZ. Now we’re slowly headed all the way back to Vancouver, hopefully stopping at some new sites – and stopping again at places we loved! – along the way.

Voyage au Canada: Montréal

I can’t speak French. Parlo un po’ d’italiano and entiendo un poco de español, but my French is limited to parlez-vous anglais? and inappropriate lines from Moulin Rouge. The only French part of the world I’ve spent much time in is Paris, and in all honesty, most people speak English anyway so it’s no big drama being monolingual. I knew that I shouldn’t expect that same level of comfort in Montreal, so I was prepared to flounder. Before arriving, all I had been told was that it was freezing and that the drivers were very aggressive. That combined with my lack of French made me a little apprehensive about visiting Montreal.

So I was pretty surprised to discover that I loved Montreal. It was super snowy when we arrived so the car skidded around a bit, but we didn’t notice drivers being any worse than the rest of Canada (fun fact: Canadian drivers, especially those in Vancouver, are the worst drivers I’ve ever come across – I’ve had Canadians confirm this with me so I promise I’m not being unfairly judgemental). Our Airbnb was really lovely: we stayed with a vegan couple who gave us awesome restaurant suggestions and they also had two adorable cats. There we brought in the New Year, joining the NYE party our hosts threw. Despite being the only non-French speakers and the only monolingual people in the room, we had a really great time. Everyone spoke at least a bit of English and the language barrier was less of an issue the drunker people got.

We spent most of our time in Montreal eating and wandering the streets, though we did stop in the Underground City and I finally bought myself a hardier winter jacket on sale – they really weren’t kidding about Montreal being cold (one day it took us about 20 minutes to dig Cindy out of the snow). The city itself has such a cool vibe. It reminded me a little bit of Vancouver’s Commercial-Broadway area mixed with Gastown, mixed with a bit of Wellington’s Cuba St and Newtown, mixed with the picturesque parts of Paris. Old Montreal especially feels like you’re actually in Europe, and is one of the prettiest places I’ve been.

As well as being beautiful, Montreal is home to some of the best restaurants I’ve tried in Canada – amazing breakfasts at L’Oeufrier, a huge portion of Indian food for only $8 at Chand Palace, authentic poutine at La Banquise, and the best Montreal bagels from Fairmount. I still haven’t found any coffee shops to rival Wellington, but our Airbnb had an espresso machine that made a pretty wicked long black. Luckily, Lox loved Montreal just as much as I did, so we’re planning to visit again in early February – hopefully then we’ll find some good coffee shops! I never expected to fall in love with Montreal, but now, along with Vancouver and Banff, it’s one of my favourite cities in Canada.

Nobody likes you when you’re 23

The title of this post is purely because I just turned 23 and I love making somewhat relevant musical references, not because I feel unloved. If there is another song referencing being 23, please let me know so I can expand my age-related references!

This birthday felt like a lot of firsts. I’ve never had a birthday anywhere other than Wellington, NZ. Every birthday has been prefaced with a prayer for clear skies, which was usually answered. This year, for the first time, I had my birthday in winter, complete with an opaque white sky and even snow (snow is still so exciting to me – you can’t understand how exciting snow is unless you’ve grown up in a place where it doesn’t happen). Lox and I are currently in Winnipeg, Manitoba, so we spent the day at the Assiniboine Park Zoo where I saw polar bears for the first time ever, as well as arctic foxes, sloths, and sleepy red pandas.

For my birthday dinner, we went to Boon Burger, a vegan burger place, which was exactly what my heart craved. In keeping with the theme of first times, it was the first birthday I’ve spent as a vegetarian, and I’m still totally happy with this new-for-me lifestyle. We finished the festivities with ice cream, which wasn’t new, but it was perfect.

As I’ve always been home for my birthday, this was also the first year where I didn’t spend it with my family. My parents FaceTimed me while visiting my grandmother with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece, so I still got to see most of my family. I also usually spend the day with friends – being a kiwi with a December birthday means classes are usually done, so my friends and I are nearly always free – so it was also a little different to not see anyone other than Lox (fortunately, I’m a little bit fond of him, so it wasn’t a bad difference).

I don’t know exactly what 23 holds for me, but I’m looking forward to the vague plans I have for it. I have a few months left in Canada, a whirlwind European holiday, and then back to reality in NZ – where I will continue figuring out what on earth I want to do with my life.

Road tripping around Canada: The Prairies

Whenever I told anyone that Lox & I were going to drive across Canada, every person said to get out of the prairies as soon as possible (as well as “Oh, it’ll be cold!”, as if we were unaware that Canada gets cold in the winter). Everyone had sold the “flat, boring” prairies as the worst part of Canada, so much so that I was actually really excited to see them.

We left the beautiful Banff for Calgary, and noted along the drive that everything seemed to vanish around us. The hills slowly flattened and sunk into the ground, letting us see hundreds of kilometres into the distance. The flatness was so absolute that my first impression of Calgary was a vague sense of feeling unsettled, though I got used to it pretty fast – you kind of have no choice, as there is nothing else around. The highlight of Calgary, aside from the three cats at our Airbnb, was going to Studio Bell, which is like a museum dedicated to Canadian music. As well as learning a ton about Canadian musicians (Alanis Morissette is Canadian?), they also had a few different pianos on display (including the white piano that Elton John composed “Your Song” on!) and tech stations where you could practice mixing tracks.

We then headed to Drumheller, population: 8000, and known as the Dinosaur Capital of the World. We went solely to go to the Royal Tyrell Museum because we are both mentally 8 years old and dinosaurs are still so exciting. It’s a fantastic museum with a lot of really astounding fossils, so if you’re a dinosaur nerd/were ever an excitable child, you’d absolutely love this place.

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Drumheller was also great because it had hills. Dinosaur Valley is obviously not flat so I immediately felt much more at ease. I didn’t realise just how much hills meant to me ’til we were surrounded by them again. NZ is mainly mountains and volcanoes, so evidently I need some variation in the landscape to feel at home. But we didn’t stay in the hills for long – Edmonton was calling our names.

We spent most of our time there at the West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America. Often being in a big city will highlight to me how little NZ is, and this mall really brought the message home. In my experience, a mall is a place with lots of clothing stores, a foodcourt (just one), the odd café, and there might be a movie theatre if you’re really lucky. The West Edmonton Mall has all the normal features of a mall, plus a theme park, a waterpark, an ice rink, two mini golf courses, an aquarium, a bowling alley, a mirror maze, and a hotel. We got two-day passes and managed to see pretty much everything the mall had on offer, including riding the world’s largest indoor rollercoaster, which we later learned crashed in the ’80s – pretty glad I didn’t know about that beforehand.

Saskatchewan was next, so we spent the past few days in Saskatoon doing very little, other than see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (non-spoiler thoughts: overall it was very good, I loved the costumes, Eddie Redmayne was great, disappointed in the Grindelwald casting, also I would like a niffler please), and we’re now in Regina. The prairies have definitely not been terribly boring like I was led to believe, but I wouldn’t want to stick around for long – I’ve discovered I really love my hills.