These otherworldly caverns, shimmering with blue pinpricks of light, are known as one of the world’s most dazzling natural wonders.
Before we descend into the caves, let me tell you more about my trip with Contiki, a tour group company for 18-35 year olds. They lead journeys all over the world — Southeast Asia, Europe, South America and more — in different lengths and styles.
Above is a pic of my NZ “Sun and Steam” squad! Most people came on the trip alone, and quickly made friends. I found my Contiki group to be very inclusive, especially thanks to the friendly tone set by our tour manager Monique and driver Dyson.
We traveled about three hours from Auckland to Waitomo, with rest stops and lunch. Instead of agonizing over routes and directions, I could just sit back, chat with fellow young travellers, and enjoy this mystical view from the Contiki bus.
After seeing this misty mountain view, I’d say New Zealand lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s most scenic countries.
I didn’t even have to waste time on checking in; tour manager Monique simply handed us a key. In Waitomo, we stayed in this cute treehouse-style hotel. (When you book the tour, you can opt to share rooms, or have a single to yourself.)
Every Contiki tour has a mix of included and optional activities. Before arriving in each destination, Monique gave us an entertaining overview of the various activities we could add on. She’d then make the bookings for us (once again, I had nothing to stress about).
Waitomo is considered one of the world’s “1000 places to see before you die” because of its glowworm caves. I joined the Ruakuri cave tour since you’re allowed to take photos inside. (In Maori, “Rua” means den and “kuri” means dog… making my blue puppy-faced bag an unintentional match!)
This cave was first discovered about 500 years ago by a young Maori, who was chased by a pack of dogs living inside (hence the name Ruakuri). Today, visitors can join a two hour walking tour that takes you deep inside.
We started by going down this spiral staircase: a scene straight out of the apocalyptic Silo novels. In the dim light, the people around me seemed like ghosts fleeting by.
Before entering, our guide encouraged us to take part in a Maori purification ritual: you run your hands under the falling water, and then touch your head with it, as a gesture of respect. Photographer Salima Remtulla shows how it’s done.
The further we walked, the more we felt like we had entered a subterranean alternate universe. Our guide pointed at underground waterfalls and explained the spectacular natural formations. He taught us a heuristic to differentiate stalactites and stalagmites; the former hangs “tight” to the ceiling!
These cave curtains look like they were sculpted by Michelangelo. In fact, they are calcite formations made over millennia, from water running down the roof of the cave. It’s remarkable how much these “speleothems” look like wavy sheets of fabric.
On the right: we got our first glimpse of the glow worms. The insect, Arachnocampa luminosa, is unique to New Zealand and dots the walls of the caves. In certain areas, you’ll see thousands of these creatures radiating blue luminescent light.
These “worms” are actually fungal gnat flies in a larval stage. Our guide shone a flashlight on a ledge, and we saw that each had dozens of long, sticky threads hanging down. These fascinating creatures emanate a blue light that attracts flying insects, which then get stuck on the lures and eaten.
It’s hard to capture the astonishing glow in photos, especially in the dim caves. To the human eye, they look like pinpricks of blue light, almost like constellations.
The glowworms produce “cold” light (with no generated heat) as the result of bioluminescence, a biochemical reaction using the energy-rich protein, ATP.
While I was on my walking tour, other Contiki friends signed up for Black Water Rafting, which also takes place in Ruakuri cave. In this adventure activity, they donned wetsuits and explored the caverns on rubber tubes. (Above photo by John Contompasis)
The Blackwater Rafters trekked and climbed through the passages. They took leaps over small waterfalls, and linked up to float through while looking at the glowing worms. (As mentioned before — Contiki has options for every type of traveller, including more adventurous folk).
Waitomo’s glowworm caves are a dazzling experience, and truly must be experienced in person.
If you come to Auckland, I encourage you to make the trip to Waitomo — an easy journey, thank to Contiki.
From the photo above, I think you can tell that my Contiki group bonded quickly! We still keep in touch regularly through a Facebook group; Contiki’s website also has meetup forums so members can connect before and after a tour.
Everyone was between 18 and 35 years old, and came from various parts of the world. Most of us were citizens of Canada, UK, Australia, and the US.
Most of the travellers came alone, and had different reasons for joining the trip to New Zealand. Some had just finished university, or were on a gap year. Others were going through life changes, and this was their opportunity to try something outside their comfort zone.
The Contiki motto, #NoRegrets, sums up this mindset — and is proudly plastered on the side of the bus.
As you can see, Contiki has top-of-the line buses. The interiors are new and clean, there’s great air conditioning, and even WiFi and charging stations.
Our tour manager Monique and driver Dyson made the trip a blast. They’re full of passion about New Zealand, and gave insight into every place we visited — along with a “dad joke” or two!
I’ve been on some tours where the guides keep to themselves, but Mon and Dys were the exact opposite. They joined our group dinners and nightlife excursions, and knew every single person by name. We shared a lot of laughs and bonding moments on our week-long road trip together.
Time flew by, as we rode from one destination to the next. Everyone chatted, played games, and listened to the music piped over the speakers.
Since we were all around the same age, it was easy to connect over shared interests. Quite a few had done Contiki trips before, and loved the experience so much that they were back for more.
Here’s a closeup on my Gothic dress. Black Milk also makes this in a Game of Thrones style.
My spooky rings and bracelet are from Alex Streeter, my favorite jewelry maker. His designs are inspired by outer space, animals, dark culture; perhaps you’ve seen his pentagram ring, worn by Marilyn Manson and J-rocker Hyde.
Alex Streeter is a legend in Japan, where he travels every year, and has a storefront in New York’s Lower East Side. I asked Glam Nail Studio (based in Vancouver, Canada) to create starry nail art inspired by his works.
I leave you with a close up of my Black Milk dress and cape.
What do you think of my Contiki trip so far? Would you join a group tour with young travelers, like I did?
What will we humans wear, in the year 2100? My bet is on this Alien Botany dress, designed by my talented friend Zoetica Ebb!
I’m excited to reveal that her futuristic dress collection is back, in a limited quantity run. I’ve been wearing mine like a second skin — this truly is wearable art, designed with the body in mind.
Artist Zoetica Ebb and I have known each other for years, and I’ve long admired her multimedia work.
Her Alien Botany collection reflects her fascination with the cosmos and alternate history. Tentacles and alien flora slink over the fabric, creating a form-flattering effect.
The Alien Botany dresses are made with a breathable heavy spandex. Zoetica’s hyper-detailed drawings are custom printed in ornate, dazzling detail. A square collar and dip hem add to the elegance of the design.
I love the versatility of the garment: I’ve worn it at a crazy underground party, a family wedding, and a gathering with friends. Bonus for travelers: the fabric doesn’t crease, so it’s easy to pack in a suitcase.
I’m always looking for unique fashion that reflects my love of the future, technology and subcultures. Alien Botany’s “neon space punk” is unlike anything I’ve seen in stores.
(Joey Wong shot these photos of me in Brooklyn, NY. My hair is colored and styled by Stephanie Hoy of Vancouver, Canada).
With my purple hair, this dress seems to be made for me. Here’s a close-up of the stand-out detailing and colors.
Happy news: these Alien Botany dresses have re-launched today, in two styles! You can find out more on Zoetica Ebb’s web shop.
I have the Venenum (left), and it also comes in the Theca (monochrome).
On May 3rd, you’ll be able to see Zoetica’s editorial for the Spring 2016 issue of Auxiliary Magazine. She styled and art-directed a showcase of her Alien Botany dresses, for this alternative fashion magazine.
Zoetica is an independent designer, and her collections are released only in small batches. If you like what you see, I encourage you to act now — once pieces are gone, they may not be available again…
The Alien Botany dresses are available internationally at www.zoeticaebb.com, along with Zoetica’s original prints and art. Let me know what you think of my friend’s designs, and it would be fantastic if you can share this post to support her!
Since this post has to do with the future… it makes sense to continue our adventures in Hong Kong.
I still have photos to share with you, from my last trip to this tech-happy, pop culture city.
Hong Kong’s malls always have life-size displays for people to pose with. I came across these fighter robots and a special merchandise pop-up.
Outside iSquare mall, I found circus statues starring B. Duck, the rubber ducky.
I’ve photographed most of Hong Kong’s streetwear malls for you, but never got the chance to showcase The One in Tsim Sha Tsui until now.
Causeway Bay remains my favorite shopping district, but TST is a close second. It has several malls dedicated to Chinese streetstyle, all within walking distance of the subway.
I could easily spend several hours in The One, a mall with dozens of levels. (Address: 100 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)
I walked in, and immediately saw rocker fashion featuring Hello Kitty! I’d wear that leather jacket and clothes with all-over graphics.
Malls like The One are in my “sweet spot” for price and quality. The designs are unique (found only in Asia) and well made, but not overly expensive.
Here’s my old favorite, Hyoma x Mini Cream. The sale prices are truly insane in Hong Kong. For example, I paid $26 US for a pair of metallic shoes from this brand — originally, they were over $200.
The label’s black devil cat with round googly-eyes is irresistible.
Other boutiques in The One had collaborations with characters popular in the 1980s and 90s. The streetwear shop Ginger teamed up with Mr Happy and friends.
This mall seems to be dedicated to mascots. Garfield and Rubber Ducky are the faces of the label B. Duck.
The One is also home to the Gudetama theme restaurant, which serves dim sum that looks like the Sanrio egg character.
And then, there’s the one who rules them all: Miffy the bunny! The purse with her crying face and plush dangling ears… yes.
I got a black and white graphic sweater at the Miffy x Two Percent store. She remains my favorite cute character.
Hong Kong’s TST district is home to another favorite shopping plaza: K11 Art Mall. As the name suggests, the boutiques all have an artistic bent.
As I walked in, I bowed to the smiling dog by Japanese artist Murakami. (More photos below after the jump…)
I still have a few tales to tell from mysterious Marrakesh. (Doesn’t it look like I am searching for Aladdin’s magic lamp?)
In this photo diary, I’ll share our photos from the Square of the Dead (Jemaa el-Fnaa), which has a dark history to match its name.
We’ll also take a stroll in Jardin Majorelle, the garden of French couture designer Yve Saint Laurent.
Anyone who comes to Marrakesh must see the ancient marketplace, the Square of the Dead (Gemaa el Fna). The name likely refers to the public executions that took place in this plaza, around the 11th century.
During the daytime, the Square of the Dead is not as crowded. Vendors begin to set up their food stalls in the afternoon.
Even during this less busy time, the Square of the Dead can feel overwhelming to the senses. You’ll encounter monkeys performing tricks, snake charmers sticking out their tongues at cobras, and water bearers in traditional Moroccan costumes.
(Be aware that if you take photos of them, they’ll ask for about a dollar, and won’t let you go until you pay up.)
You’ll come across rows of friendly orange juice vendors. The citrus fruits are extremely tasty in Morocco, and refreshing on a hot day. The price for a large, freshly squeezed cup is also a fraction of what you’d pay at an American juice shop.
Many readers asked me: is it safe in Marrakesh, especially for solo female travelers?
Yes. The medina is clean and well policed. Just exercise your usual caution (such as giving a firm no to touts, and keeping your belongings secure). Even if you cover up your limbs, you may encounter some cat-calls — simply move on, and don’t let it take away from your experience here.
The marketplace is a bit touristy, but still conveys the feeling of time standing still. Incredible that the medina has been the center of activity in Marrakesh, ever since the 11th century!
We couldn’t resist filming the snake charmers in action. They coaxed the reptiles with music, and put their faces close to cobras who reared their heads and hissed. (Photography by Borderless Media.)
This slithering snake is non-poisonous. This man draped the animal around our heads and shoulders, and encouraged us to stick out our tongues.
There’s a lot to see and shop in the medina. I loved these little tagines, or triangular clay pots that can hold spices or other belongings. Each is only $1 US , so I got some for my cat to use as food bowls!
One of these magic lanterns has a genie inside, I’m sure of it…
Night falls, and the Square of the Dead lives up to its spooky name. From a restaurant high up, we took in this fascinating view of the medina. The food stations are open, and smoke wafts over the hoards of people. (Here’s my Vine video of the action.)
The glowing tower is Koutoubia Mosque, which dates back to the 12th century. From the minaret, we heard the muezzin singing the call to prayer — and felt like we had time-traveled back into time.
The souk was filled with strange and mesmerizing sights. We saw locals gathered in a circle to play a game, which involves using tall fishing poles to grab a soda bottle. Like in amusement parks, very few participants succeeded.
As I explored, I felt like I was in a tale from 1001 Arabian nights. We passed Chleuh dancing-boys (who crossdress as women), storytellers, musicians, peddlers and magicians.
The energy levels are especially high in the food and drink areas. Vendors set up stations in closely-packed rows, and offer everything from mint tea…
… to snails and sheep brains. For the less adventurous eaters, there are grilled meats, dried fruit and nuts, and the ever-present orange juice carts.
The atmosphere can be a bit intense, especially for women traveling alone. Be prepared for stares, and for the vendors to approach you and yell out names (I got called Lady Gaga and Barbie).
Just ignore the words, keep on walking, and don’t let them grab you (as the more aggressive sellers might do).
It’s all part of the Marrakesh experience, and I never felt unsafe. (Watch our travel video to see these scenes in action.)
One of the best decisions we made was to travel with Plan-It Fez Tours. I spoke with friends who did Morocco on their own, and they told me they felt stressed by logistics such as public transportation. They told me about taxi drivers who tried to scam them, and touts who constantly approached them.
Thanks to our friendly driver and guides, we encountered none of these complications.
With a car, we got to visit off the beaten path places — such as Berber villages several miles from Marrakesh. Our Plan-It Fez guides introduced us to locals and translated Arabic, making immersive activities such as a henna workshop possible.
We visited Jardin Majorelle, which was designed by artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 30s. Our guide Mohammed told us about the fascinating history of Marrakesh, from its earliest days through the French protectorate and independence.
The red paths are surrounded by cacti plants and calm pools dotted with water lilies. Birds call out from under the palm canopies.
The winding garden pathways lead to the French artist’s house, built in Moorish and Art Deco styles. The bold cobalt blue color, which brightens up the entire property, is called Majorelle Blue.
Since 1980, Majorelle Garden was owned by fashion legend Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. I visited the gravestone of YSL, who died in 2008.
To be honest, I wasn’t blown away by Jardin Majorelle. There were a lot of tourists around, and I was more impressed with the lush landscapes at our Royal Mansour hotel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed spending time here with the jovial Mohammed, and seeing St Laurent’s illustrations in a special art display.
Sometimes, the best travel moments are not from visiting famous attractions — but merely sitting back and enjoying the ride. Nowhere but in Morocco can you see views like these: the High Atlas mountains and argan trees.
We originally came to North Africa by taking the ferry from Algeciras (southern tip of Spain) to Tangier (northernmost point of Morocco). Plan-It Fez picked us up, and we began a road trip along the coast.
From these first moments, we were fascinated by the contrast of ancient and modern. We saw glitzy nightclubs pumping with music and women in sequined headscarves on the boardwalk… and then turned into the Tangier medina, which looked like scene from Medieval times.
The sun set over the waters, turning the sky blood red.
As the hours on the road passed, we drifted into semi-sleep. The car zipped by this alien-esque Arabic poster, and I wondered if I was in a dream.
I leave you with this image of the lively Square of the Dead, at dusk.
Is Marrakesh what you expected it to be? I hope you enjoy our Morocco travel video – please take a minute to watch, and let us know what you think!
New Zealand local fashion boutiques: Britomart, Auckland! Cassia modern Indian restaurant & cocktails.
Kia ora… from Auckland, NZ!
If you’ve been following my social media (@lacarmina), you’ll already know that I’ve been travelling with Contiki — a tour company for 18-35 year olds — in New Zealand.
I joined about 30 young travellers on their Sun and Steam tour, and it felt like a big road trip with friends. We went all around the North Island, stopping to take in the spectacular nature, nightlife, and a daredevil activity or two.
My Contiki trip started and ended in Auckland, NZ. In this first post, I’ll take you to a hip fashion district, and one of the city’s top restaurants: Cassia!
It was my first trip “down under” and I flew 14 hours to get here (direct from Vancouver to Auckland). I was rewarded with the perfect sunny weather and a pristine view of the harbour, with the Sky Tower hovering over the central business district.
Why was I was excited to travel around New Zealand with Contiki? Let me count the ways…
– The tours are for millennial travellers. Everyone was my age, and the itinerary was tailored to our interests.
– There’s lots of “Me Time” and optional events, so you can explore at your own pace.
– Contiki takes care of all the logistics: transportation, hotels, activity bookings, most of the meals and entrance fees. I could just relax and pose in front of the bus!
I’ll introduce you to my Contiki crew in the next posts — but let’s begin in Auckland, where we had a free day to spend however we wished.
– I’m wearing a witchy dress and hosiery from Black Milk. They also make this dress in a Game of Thrones map print!
– My bag is from Japan, but you can get this similar blue faux fur purse here. Or this blue handbag, which also looks it has a face on it.
– My jacket is from Hong Kong. It’s very similar to this blue cropped leather jacket, or less expensive Elie Tahari one.
First stop: Britomart, the best area of Auckland to browse local, indie fashion.
Britomart, a former industrial area, underwent a transformation in the 1980s and 90s. Today, it’s a hip shopping district that mixes old (heritage buildings, Maori art) and new (mod green spaces).
You can find international clothing brands in Britomart, but I went straight to the local designers. New Zealand’s Karen Walker has been making a splash worldwide, particularly for her fabulous eyewear and bags. (I own a pair of her round sunglasses.)
Below are my favorite Karen Walker designs (click photos for more info.)
A local friend encouraged me to visit Taylor Boutique. Everything here is 100% designed and made in New Zealand.
Taylor uses leading-edge fabrics to make experimental, yet wearable garments. Love their oversized sleeves and peek-a-boo layers.
These NZ stores were advertising winter fashions, since the seasons are reversed down under!
Local designer Juliette Hogan is another must-visit. Her contemporary fashions are notable for their cut and craftsmanship.
(You’re probably noticing that Britomart is eco-design heaven… gorgeous greenery everywhere.)
For fabulous dressers, World is your destination. I could have spent an hour in this store, a treasure-trove of peacock taxidermy, exotic perfumes, dapper hats and other oddities.
In addition to Britomart, it’s well worth taking a stroll in Auckland’s Posonby district. You’ll find many of the same local designer stores here, as well as shops dedicated to home decor, coffee, raw food and more.
(Photography by Salima Remtulla and me.)
All this shopping worked up my appetite. I walked over to Cassia, a modern Indian restaurant that is racking up all the top dining awards in Auckland. (Address: No 5 Fort Lane, Auckland, NZ)
Inside, there’s a mural of the Hindu festival Holi — a perfect summary of how Cassia’s menu mixes creativity and tradition.
Chef Sid Sahrawat (famous for his fine dining establishment SidArt) wanted to break away from the stereotype of an Indian restaurant. At Cassia, he fuses the authentic flavors from his childhood with the seasonal, local produce of New Zealand.
Before we talk about the food… let’s start with a drink! Cassia has an exceptional gin and tonic menu that made me re-think the possibilities of this “basic” cocktail. Mixologist Prateek Arora made me a Tanqueray Tan with grapefruit and East Imperial Burma tonic — fine ingredients that elevated the flavors. On the right, he prepared The Herbalist, a perfect balance of Domaine Canton French ginger liquer, kaffir lime, cucumber, Angostura white rum and Benedictine.
I encourage you to chat with the friendly Prateek; I enjoyed hearing him talk about the inspiration for these drinks.
I’m a fan of anything ginger, and adored the Ginger Monkey (an infused whisky sour with egg white foam). The Kashmiri Dragon above is exceptional: a hit of chili powder, vodka, fresh lime, and Six Barrels feijoa syrup.
A quick aside… if you’re in New Zealand, you can’t leave without trying feijoa. This green fruit tastes a bit like guava, and is found only in NZ and parts of South America.
Cassia’s exposed bricks and lightbulbs create a hip dining space. The industrial design once again breaks away from one’s expectations of an Indian eatery.
Head chef Lesley Chandra prepared a selection of dishes designed for sharing. I recommend the starter of roasted carrot, cashew, leek, cavolo nero (kale) — the rich colors point to the careful choice of ingredients.
Next up: venison tartar, beetroot, cabbage. Once again, he prepared a vivid dish infused with authentic spices. I confess that I scraped up every morsel of the sauce!
One of the most popular main courses is the free-range pork with vindaloo, apple and ginger. Tender layers, perfectly cooked, in a spectacular balance of sweetness and heat.
Dessert was this deconstructed beauty: blackcurrent sorbet, raspberry and hazelnut. I was blown away the intensity of the berry flavors, which unfolded on your tongue. An outstanding, clean finish.
Cassia deserves its reputation as one of the best restaurants in Auckland. I encourage you to come by for an innovative meal and cocktails, which will change your perceptions of Indian cuisine.
I leave you with this night-time scene from Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, a reclaimed area by the waterfront with over a dozen international restaurants.
Coming up, I’ll show you more of Auckland and the North Island, on my Contiki journey. Their motto, #NoRegrets, is in line with my approach to travel: challenge yourself, see new places, meet people, and never look back.
On that note… Would you like to go on a Contiki trip to New Zealand, like mine? They’re offering my readers a discount code for 10% off all NZ trips, if you book with Contiki Asia by May 30! All details of the voucher are here; just be sure to reserve your place before it’s too late.