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The big red

Stepping out of the van, I am hit in the face by intense heat, yet I don’t notice it, not really, my attention is elsewhere. My eyes are drawn like magnets to the solitary and prodigious sight before me.

I have just spent the last three weeks traversing the east coast of Australia; snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, sailing the Whitsunday Islands, exploring Fraser Island, Sydney and Cairns. After flying across the top end and spending a few days in Darwin, I embarked on an epic train journey. The Ghan is regarded as one of the world’s greatest rail journeys and gazing out the window at the ever-changing landscape; I could see why. Sitting back in my seat, I took in the tropical greens of Darwin and Katherine and the rusty reds of the MacDonnell Ranges.

After a restless nights sleep, I was awoken by the whistle of the train piercing the silence of the calm exterior as we made our approach into Alice Springs. Disembarking the train, it felt good to stretch my legs. I located my transfer and made my way to my night’s accommodation, a base before tomorrows adventure.

I awoke super early the next morning, way before the sun, filled with excitement. The day had arrived – I was heading out into the Big Red. I lumped my luggage into the back of the van and introduced myself to our driver and guide; Tom. Tom was a typical Aussie bloke, wearing a white t-shirt that was no longer white and a Crocodile Dundee style hat, he had abundant knowledge of the Northern Territory.

After several hours on the road, the first orange hued rays of sunshine kiss the horizon and those on the bus began to stir. It wasn’t long before we made a roadside stop; we split up and like a colony of ants working together to collect wood for that evening’s campfire. Back on board, introductions were made: a family and several friends from Taiwan and some solo travellers from the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Australia. A friendly buzz now filled the van while Tom navigated us deeper the outback.

And then I saw it, the rugged carmine blur in the distance – Uluru.

Our group gathers and we begin our base walk. Following in the footsteps of ancestral beings we pass blackened stripes from channelled rainwater, acacia woodlands, grassed claypans and caves that are roped off from the public, reserved only for traditional business by the local indigenous men and women. Tom tells us stories of The Dreamtime, the Mala people and the incredible rock art.

Before we make our way to the sunset viewing site, I take a moment to stand before Uluru, otherwise known as Ayers Rock, and just be. I block out the noise of the nearby chattering tourists and the distant cricket and allow myself to soak up the spirituality and majesty of Uluru, and as I stand in front of the spectacular natural formation, I realise just why people travel halfway across a continent to see it.

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The Ghan
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The Ghan Carriage
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Alice Springs Train Station
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Collecting Fire Wood
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Thorny Devil/Thorny Dragon (Australian Lizard) Found Whilst Collecting Fire Wood
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Kangaroo Warning Sign Near Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
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Uluru Base Walk
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Uluru Base Walk – Blackened Stripes From Channelled Rainwater
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Uluru Base Walk – Wall Art
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Uluru at Sunset

Call it magic

Pastel-hued deco design buildings, palm-fringed boulevards and sun-kissed bodies on white-sand beaches; Miami – the beating heart of the state of Florida.

During the two and a half years that I spent living and working in North Carolina, I was fortunate enough to experience the variety that the Sunshine State has to offer on numerous occasions; this included two separate trips to Miami. My first time in the aptly named ‘Magic City,’ I travelled with a friend, and we celebrated the New Year, hitting up the key attractions in South Beach and Downtown Miami. The second time I visited, I was by myself; I hired a car and ventured out a little further.

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Ocean Drive
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Ocean Drive

Miami and its surrounding suburbs could almost be a world of their own, a melting pot of ethnicities from around the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America. Miami is one of the few genuinely international cities in the United States – over half the population is Latino and more than 60% speak predominantly Spanish – with so many different facets, it’s hard to believe they all fit in one place.

When tourists think of Miami, they generally consider Miami Beach to be a part of Miami when in fact it is a municipality of it its own. Miami is on the mainland, while Miami Beach is four miles east across the Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach, more specifically Ocean Drive in South Beach (1st to 11th Street) is everything that you see in the movies, white sand, art-deco design, cruising cars and in-line skaters.

The pastel shaded heart of South Beach is the world-famous Historic Art-Deco District. Stretching between 5th and 23rd Street, along Ocean Drive, Collins Drive and Washington Drive, the whimsical pastel buildings evoke the beauty of Miami and were, in the early 20th century, meant to arouse the future and futuristic modes of transport. Today, the 800 plus 1930s and 1940s art-deco structures have National Protection. Ocean Drive has some of the most striking art-deco architecture in Miami Beach. Between 11th and 14th streets you’ll see some of the best examples: the Congress Hotel  shows pristine symmetry in it’s three story exterior. The Tides is one of the most beautiful nautical themed hotels, and the Cavalier (pictured below) flaunts its seahorse theme, in stylised depictions of the sea creature.

Avalon Hotel, Ocean Drive
Cavalier Hotel, Ocean Drive

Dotting the shores of South Beach itself are the brightly coloured South Beach Lifeguard stands. Each stand has a unique art-deco design and features an array of bright colours. The stands were introduced after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida’s shores in the early 1990s and became a hallmark of Miami’s revival after the devastation. Today, there are 31 chimerical stands scattered along South Beach, and besides providing support to the Miami Beach Patrol Lifeguard staff, they’ve become a cherished symbol of Miami. Each lifeguard stand has its own charm, but my personal favourite is the lifeguard station at 13th street, (pictured below) painted red, white and blue, it depicts the beloved American flag.

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5th Street Lifeguard Stand © fotomak
shutterstock_512234701 (c) Alexander Demyanenko
13th Street Lifeguard stand © Alexander Demyanenko
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South Beach Aerial © Miami2you

South Beach offers much more than just white sand beaches and beautiful buildings. It is home to some of the best bars and restaurants in the whole of Miami, if not the world. Whenever I travel, I attempt to eat local cuisine that is low-cost. Nonetheless, I will always treat myself to at least one meal from an acclaimed restaurant. In Miami, I chose Hakkasan. Located on the top floor of the Fontainebleau Hotel’s spaceship-like tower, Hakkasan is a Michelin star, award-winning restaurant that offers modern Cantonese cuisine. Hakkasan has been rated within the top 20 restaurants in the world by Restaurant Magazine, and after dining here, it’s not hard to understand why. It’s as close to a perfect dining experience that one can have; from the 1930s Shanghai setting to the attentive waiters to the flavour infused food. My recommendation: Crispy Orange Chicken.

Another noteworthy restaurant in South Beach is the Sugar Factory. Located on Ocean Drive itself, Sugar Factory is an American Brasserie famous for its celebrity-inspired Couture Pops. Having dined at another of their locations in the Meatpacking district of New York City, I knew the standard of food would be high and the selection extensive. I wasn’t disappointed. After much contemplating, I ordered a S’mores Martini (non-alcoholic) and the Banana-Split waffle. The waffle was cooked perfectly, and the fruit so fresh and juicy. The martini, however, was unrivalled. The star of the show.

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Sugar Factory Banana-Split Waffle
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Sugar Factory S’mores Martini

Across Biscayne Bay is Downtown Miami, the beating urban heart of Miami. The bustling epicentre is packed tightly with fluorescing skyscrapers, modern art galleries and a wealth of shops, bars and restaurants. Downtown Miami is a mix of old and new, a neighbourhood of layers and unlike other parts of Miami, you don’t need a car. Free public transport is available to shuttle you from place to place, and parts of downtown are walkable.

It was downtown, from the Bayside Marketplace, north of the Miami river, that my friend and I embarked on our cruise around the Miami Islands. A 90-minute narrated tour past the Downtown Miami skyline, the Port of Miami, Fisher Island, Miami Beach and Millionaires Row – an exclusive area of Miami known for its billion-dollar, star-studded homes. I found our cruise not only enjoyable but informative and marvelled at the grandeur of the houses sprinkled through the Miami islands.

Bayside Market Place © oneinchpunch
Shaquille O’neal’s House
Liz Taylor’s House

Little Havana is Miami’s vibrant Cuban heart and is the most prominent community of Cuban Americans in the United States. The district is a living, breathing, immigrant enclave and was one of the neighbourhoods I was most excited to explore. Cubans began migrating to Florida in the 1950s, but their numbers swelled after Castro came to power in 1959, and in the 1960s the area was named Little Havana. Its main drag, Calle Ocho, attracts tourists for authentic Latino food and music, however when I wandered off the main track, I saw the neighbourhood unfold.

My first time in Miami, I found a hole in the wall take out (Pinolandia, 119 NW 12th Ave, Miami) and in broken Spanish, I ordered the best Cuban/Nicaraguan food I have ever sampled. Strips of succulent steak, rice and beans and the most delicious Cuban toast. Upon returning to Miami a few years later, I visited the famous Versailles Restaurant, featured in one of my most loved movies, ‘CHEF.’ Versailles restaurant is ranked the number one restaurant for Cuban food in Miami year after year. Be sure to try the celebrated Cuban sandwich if dining at Versailles.

Located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Avenue is Maximo Gomez Park, or as the locals call it ‘Domino Park.’ Named after the famous Cuban revolutionary commander, Maximo Gomez, the park is a quintessential hangout for Cuban veterans and families. It is where you’ll find the real Little Havana locals smoking Cuban cigars, talking over the latest headlines, all while playing a game of dominoes.

Calle Ocho
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Murals painted on the exterior wall of ‘La Esquina De La Fama.’
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Versaille’s Restaurant, 8th Street
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Domino Park

When I visited Miami solo, I rented myself a car as it allowed me the freedom to explore further. If you head north, away from South Beach, you’ll find the Design District, a mecca for interior designers and home to dozens of galleries and furniture showrooms. Wynwood, the former warehouse district, has quickly become the standout arts hub of southern Florida. Starting with murals, street art and graffiti, today there are more than 70 galleries and museums housed in abandoned factories and warehouses. This thriving district centres around Wynwood Walls, a collection of murals and paintings laid out over an open courtyard. Wynwood walls is as unique as it is creative. Embellished in everything from life-size murals and graffiti quotes to abstract paintings and larger than life sculptures and although the galleries are significant, Wynwood is an outdoor art exhibit, and some of the best art can be found by simply wandering the streets.

Wynwood Walls
Wynwood Walls
Wynwood Walls
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Wynwood
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Wynwood

Miami is a city of layers, and after visiting the city twice I feel that I have still only scratched the surface. I hope to return one day and explore Little Havana and Wynwood further but also venture to new neighbourhoods, including Coconut Grove.  Miami’s oldest neighbourhood; it is an upscale, leafy neighbourhood with relaxed sidewalk cafes, chic shops and bayfront views that exudes bohemian vibes. Little Haiti, steeped in the complex and rich cultural histories of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants that reside here, the neighbourhood is known for its global restaurants, colourful street murals and fruit stand. Nonetheless, Miami, the Magic City, truly offers something for everyone.

Chasing the sun

When you think of Greece, you’re probably thinking of Santorini. Multi-coloured cliffs that soar 300 metres above sea level, white-washed Cycladic houses with azure blue-domed roofs clinging to the cliffside and donkeys ferrying slothful tourists back and forth.

The village of Oia from aboard a sailboat.

Santorini sits in the middle of the sapphire Aegean Sea, halfway between Athens and Crete. The island spoons the vast crater left by one of the largest volcanic events in history. The Minoan eruption was a major catastrophic volcanic eruption and devastated the once circular island of Strongili (Round One) 3,500 years ago. The colossal eruptions caused the centre of Strongili to sink, and the sea rushed to fill it, leaving the east caldera that we today know as Santorini.

Perched on the northernmost tip of the island is the village of Oia, pronounced EE – AH. Built on a steep slope of the caldera, the village’s whitewashed lodgings nestle into the volcanic rock and reflect the renaissance of Santorini. Although most parts of the town are only accessible via foot, Oia still draws enormous crowds and at sunset is a magnet for tourists from across the island. Witnessing the spectacle that is the Santorini Sunset is unavoidable. The beauty of the setting sun painting the sky, the colours bouncing off of the whitewashed dwellings, producing a palette in variant shades simply cannot be missed.

Oia at Sunset
Oia at Sunset

Santorini’s main town and modern capital, Fira, is a vibrant place. Fira derives its name from an alternative pronunciation of ‘Thira’, the ancient name for the island itself. Built on the western edge of the caldera, Fira is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets full of shops, bars and restaurants. The town offers views over the multi-coloured cliffs and out to the volcano, and at night the caldera edge is a multitude of frozen fairy lights.

The whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets of Pyrgos.
Ekklisia Panagia Platsani Church in Oia
Working donkeys transporting slothful tourists.

If you head down the 600 stone steps from Fira, you’ll reach Ormos, the old port. The small, typical harbour has restaurants, tavernas and a handful of shops. Alternatively, if you do not fancy the climb, you can traverse the 600 steps via donkey or take the island’s only cable car.

The coastal hike between Fira and Oia was a highlight of my time on the Greek island. Taking you along the Caldera edge, through the villages of Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia, the hike typically takes between two and four hours however will depend on your physical capability and, how many stops you make – it took me around three hours. The trail itself is just 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) and varies from footpath to cobblestones to dirt tracks. Some sections of the trail are signposted, yet others are not; therefore I suggest following the crowd to stay on track. In the peak of summer, the temperature is uncomfortably hot by 11:00 so setting off in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the midday sun. I chose to set off late afternoon from Fira. This meant I finished my hike in Oia just in time to watch the sunset, the icing of top of a wonderful cake!

Note: Take enough water to last you the duration and be sure to take your camera as there are endless photo opportunities!

Santorini’s capital on the Fira to Oia trail.
Santorini’s capital on the Fira to Oia trail.
Small traditional Greek Orthodox church in Oia.
A painter painting the landscape using acrylic paint.
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Oia at Sunset

However, Santorini is not just about its caldera edge. The island slopes down to sea level on its eastern and southern sides, with volcanic beaches in the popular resorts of Perissa and Kamari.

Perissa is a seaside village on the south-east coast of the island and is where I based myself. I chose this resort as it is much less crowded and more affordable than the villages on the north side of the island. After much research, I discovered a quaint property set only 300m back from the beach and 200m from the resort centre. The comfortable yet straightforward property was perfect.

Our accommodation in Perissa – Athina Apartments
Perissa Beach
Ferry Landing, Perissa Beach

The main blue flag beach is the long stretch at Perissa. The beach road is closed daily for pedestrians between 17:00 – 05:00 from May to October, allowing tourists to stroll the beachfront promenade undisturbed by the many mopeds that buzz past during the day. It is easy to rent a scooter or ATV for yourself in Perissa – my friend and I did this one day and spent our day exploring the island; this spontaneous decision turned out to be one of our most memorable days.

For great Gyros, a Greek staple and a must-try for any foodie when in Greece, drop into Pepito’s along Perissa Beach. My friend and I ate here almost daily; not only were the staff welcoming and the food delicious but the costs friendly to my wallet.

Kamari is another seaside village on the southeast side of the island; however, the beach here is more shingle than black sand. The town has a wide choice of taverns, bars and clubs as well as an outdoor cinema. Approximately a 20-minute walk from Kamari Beach, each night at 21:30 the charming cinema opens its doors to tourists and locals. The movie changes every few days, information of which can be found locally or via the cinema’s website: http://www.cinekamari.gr/. Before wandering to the cinema to watch none other than Mama Mia, we ate at ‘To Pinakio’ after reading some overwhelmingly great reviews on TripAdvisor. Our meal did not disappoint; we sampled some authentic Greek meze, all of which was simply mouth-watering. Because of the restaurant’s popularity – booking is essential.

The mountain that sits between the towns of Perissa and Kamari – Mount Voluno is home to Ancient Thira. Ancient Thira is an old city on the ridge of Mount Voluno. Named after the mythical ruler of the island, Theras, it consists of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine ruins.

Although not signposted well, it is worth the one hour hike up the dusty ‘path’ from Perissa (appropriate footwear is a must.) The summit offers rewarding views across both Perissa and Kamari.

Mount Voluno
A grazing donkey by Mount Voluno.
The seaside resort of Perissa from Mount Voluno.

Other notable sights on and around the island of Santorini are the square Akrotiri Lighthouse, one of the oldest lighthouses in Greece, constructed in 1892 it sits on the islands southern peninsula.
Red beach, named for its blood-red sand and gently crumbling burnt-umber cliffs, is located in the village of Akrotiri and is the most scenic and interesting beach on the island. Akrotiri, the spectacularly well-preserved remains of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was destroyed in the Theran eruption and buried in volcanic ash 3,500 years ago. The most famous Minoan site outside of Crete, the buildings are spookily intact.
Santorini Hot Springs, located on the tiny, uninhabited islet of Palia Kameni was formed by ongoing volcanic activity deep underground. The orange streaked pool reaches temperatures of between 30–35°c and contains sulphur which has healing and softening properties for the skin.

For more information on where I stayed in Perissa, click here.

50 shades of stingray

“Legend has it that if you kiss a stingray, it will bring you seven years of good luck.” I don’t know how true this statement is, but it’s what I was told as I dipped my toes into the still-warm waters of the North Sound right before I touched down on the sand bar known as Stingray City.

Stingray City is a series of shallow sand bars found in the North Sound of Grand Cayman of the Cayman Islands. Southern Stingrays can be found in abundance here, and it was the local fishermen that first attracted the majestic marine animal to the area. At the end of their working day, the fishermen would set anchor on the sand bar and clean their catch, disposing of unwanted carcasses and unused bait overboard. Before long, they began to notice dark clouds floating across the seabed. The dark clouds were, of course, Stingray. The stingray started to associate the sound of a boat motor with food, and today the fishing boats have been replaced by tourists looking to interact with and feed these regal creatures.

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From a young age, I’ve been intrigued by life under the sea, and I believe that’s down to my father and his love of diving and aquatic animals alike. At the age of 11, I was introduced to scuba diving, completing a PADI Seal course in a swimming pool in my home town. Since then I’ve sought out a life of a different nature in multiple countries; Australia, (The Great Barrier Reef) Egypt (The Red Sea) and Belize (The Hol Chan Marine Reserve) to name just a few. So when I uncovered “Stingray City” whilst visiting the Cayman Islands, I, of course, signed myself up for the half-day expedition.

We sail away from the jetty, cruising the calm Caribbean Seas, the sun is shining, warming my face. I listen to the waves lapping against the side of the boat, and I feel quite at peace with myself;  however, it’s not long before I feel an excitement swelling in me as we near the sand bars of the North Sound.

Up ahead I see dark shadows crawling across the sea bed like lost souls who only come into clear view as we draw closer – dozens of Southern Stingrays.

After the standard safety briefing, I’m standing waist-deep in water, which is uncommonly bright. I feel something brush my leg; however, the perpetrator has disappeared; this happens several times.

I’m living in the moment, taking everything in, enjoying this unique experience when our tour guide effortlessly picks up a stingray out of the azure blue sea. He chaperones him towards my face, and it is now that I am supposed to kiss this Southern Stingray.

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In some ways, I feel like I’m reliving my first kiss all over again, I close my eyes, clench my fists and lean in. My lips are pressed up against the underside of a Stingray; my brain is trying to digest what is happening. It feels smooth and soft against my lips but also a little hard. The slime coating rubs off on my lips; the mucus that protects them against bacteria.

I have kissed a stingray. That’s not something I ever thought I would hear myself say: ‘I kissed a stingray.’ I imagine it’s similar to what it would feel like to a kiss a frog, except there is no handsome prince when you open your eyes or happily ever after. I’m also quite certain I didn’t get my seven years good luck.