Now that I’ve been on the road for a few years, I find that I rarely share travel stories with friends unless they ask. But there are times when travel memories sneak right into the conversation because some misadventure leads to another and I find myself out to dinner with friends saying,”Hah! That reminds me of this one time when I got totally lost, but found something really cool!”
The other day, I found myself sharing a misadventure that I hadn’t shared on the site. This little anecdote and unexpected side trip was one of my favorite parts visiting Bali. One day, I was riding a motorbike ride through a dusty Balinese town outside of Ubud. My friend navigated the bike while I rubber necked from the back. And though I’d certainly rubberneck for the chance to see the beautiful terraced rice paddies, I was actually searching for signs indicating that we were en route to Gunung Kawi. Gunung Kawi is a gorgeous temple complex carved out from the rock walls. At least, that’s what the guide book said. I never made it that far.
My friend and I searched for an hour for the correct turn-off. We stopped and asked for directions. We conferred with our map and scratched our heads. Then, instead of Gunung Kawi, we slowed down at a nondescript temple smack dab in the middle of this sun-bleached town. The temple wasn’t on our map. And it definitely wasn’t Gunung Kawi. But we heard the call to adventure and followed the steady line of worshipers filing into the temple. On the other side of the doors, Balinese women in the center courtyard delicately balanced large bowls of fruit on their heads.
We had gotten hopelessly lost, but we found a celebration anyhow. I was happy to stretch my legs and even more willing to deviate from our plan. We parked the scooter and joined the snaking line of Balinese locals climbing the temple steps. Inside, the festival ceremony was in full swing. Traditional dancers, music, children, food, and dogs intermingled haphazardly in the inner courtyard. Long tables lined the adjacent courtyard, they held the exquisite, intricate devotional offerings like the one above. After just a week in Bali, I had come to love the Balinese superstitions, beliefs, and spiritual practices. They have a complex set of beliefs that are hard to grasp as a foreigner, but beautiful to take part in and learn about.
I never did make it to Gunung Kawi, not that day nor any other since I left Bali a mere two days later, because I instead found a shady spot in the corner and spent a solid two hours as the sole tourist quietly observing a Balinese ceremony and enjoying the curious smiles from locals.
If you’re keen to read more, I highly recommend picking up Bali: Sekala & Niskalaor Island of Bali for a fascinating look at the complex rituals and beliefs of the Balinese people.
My fifteen hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan was long…fifteen hours in a city is that in-between length of time. Perhaps not long enough to really justify renting a hotel room but an exhausting marathon of site-seeing without a resting spot.
And though my Taipei layover was way longer than I would normally choose, I had little choice in the matter so I embraced the craziness of filling that much time without a home-base and explored the city on the three recommendations from my Taiwanese friend Ben (met him in Belize actually!).
Three top spots for the widest range of experiences:
The National Palace Museum for some history and context
Taipei 101 for the view and national pride
Shilin Night Market for culture and fantastic street eats.
Once I got over the culture shock of Taipei my game plan shaped up nicely. Getting around Taipei is quite easy—the metro system is fantastic and each of these classic tourist destinations is easily accessible from the metro system –transportation and travel tips included in case you find yourself on a long layover in Taipei too!
The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world and sits perched on a green hillside above the nearby mid-level gray city-grid. The museum is vast and it is truly one of those “choose your own adventure” type museums…there was no way I could (or wanted to) wander through every room so instead I picked out those artifacts I most find intriguing.
For me, that’s intricate carved trinkets rather than pottery, and ornate ancient scripts written by the hand of people who have died hundreds of years ago. The museum has an entire room dedicated to delicately carved curio boxes (much like a women’s jewelry box of today). The drawers and doors on these were puzzles and this is where the emperors and royalty stored the valuable trinkets bestowed upon them through the centuries: ivory carved elephants, jade tigers, wooden figurines and precious stones.
This is the “hardest” of the three layover spots to visit and that’s only because you have to transfer from the metro to the bus. But the National Palace Museum is very touristy so once I was on that side of town there was a fair amount of English spoken.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei National Palace Museum Where: Take the red metro line to the Jiantan stop, walk directly out of the building and straight ahead to the curb. Find the bus signs for the Red 30 or 304 – take either of these two buses to the National Palace Museum stop (less than 10 minutes), it stops right out in front of the museum but sit near the bus driver and he’ll tell you when to exit. When: 8:30a to 6:30p and some Saturdays offer free extended evening hours. How Much: Adults: NT 160, Concession: NTD 80 More details: Official site for the National Palace Museum
Taipei 101: Taiwan’s Skyline Masterpiece
Nations around the world compete for the status of owning the tallest building in the world and Taiwan couldn’t stay out of the competition. Taipei 101 is Taiwan’s contribution to the tallest buildings in the world and I think it may be one of the prettiest.
The building is layered in pagoda-like tiers from top to bottom almost like a very Asian wedding cake – complete with a single candle-like point thrusting from the top and bringing the total height to a staggering 1,671 feet. The building dwarfs all of the nearby city buildings and when I exited the metro stop I craned my neck upwards and wove my way through the streets to the slim and elegant building.
Observation floors ring the very top of Taipei 101 and free audio guides describe every the surrounding city buildings, hills and tunnels sharing the evolving history of Taipei and its suburbs.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei 101 Where: Taipei 101 is on the blue line at the “Taipei City Hall” MRT stop. There are free shuttle buses from this metro stop, but it’s actually a short walk from the metro stop (10 minutes or less). When: Open from 10am to 10pm (last visitors allowed up at 9:15pm). How much: NT$400 (US $10+) – student discounts available More details: Official site for Taipei 101
Shilin Night Market
I love markets anywhere in the world and the Shinlin Night Market doesn’t disappoint. This nightly market takes over several city blocks with mazes of food stalls, clothes booths, kitschy plastic knickknacks and people.
An ice cold bubble tea is ideal for wandering the market while you scope out where to start on street foods – the selection of meat, tofu dishes, sweets and fruit are overwhelming and the mingling scents of street eats permeate the market.
The market gets into full swing around dusk so out of the three layover activities, the night market has the shortest time frame of operation.
Quick Travel Tips: Shinlin Night Market Where: The Shilin Night Market is on red metro line, get off at the Jiantan stop and the walk the market (just across the street from the Jiantan exit). The market runs all the way to the next stop on the red line, Shilin so you can take that stop back! When: Head there at dusk or later, once the sun has firmly set the market really begins to bustle. Tips: Go hungry because there is a truly huge selection of foods to sample and make sure your camera’s battery has lasted this long for fun market shots.
Layover’s Over, Get Back to the Airport for Your Flight !
Wherever you are in Taipei it’s now time to catch the metro line back to the Taipei Main Station – this is the same basic place where the airport bus dropped you off and the central point for the metro lines.
Give yourself at least 30 minutes to get lost finding the return bus terminal for international airport-bound buses, Taipei West Bus Station (bus ticket: roughly NT$150). The station is tricky to find – get a map from the information kiosk in the metro before you even head out for the day and keep in mind that it’s near the underground mall K12 and Z3 exits and MRT exit M5.
Then tell the driver your airline and he drops you off right precisely where you need to be to catch your flight to some other exotic location!
How do you spend a long-layover in a city? Sleep through it or sightsee?
My friend Jenn is a long-time friend from Florida who also made the move to Los Angeles after college. Our M.O. was long hikes through the mountains surrounding LA to rid ourselves of the city-angst. When I started talking about my RTW trip we road-tripped it up the California coast to San Francisco to test our travel style compatibility.
With Muir Woods so close to San Francisco we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit the park and see the redwood forest first hand. And like all stories of me hiking anywhere … we got lost for a couple of hours. I say that lightly because we were still mostly on a trail, and we had lots of water, so we knew it was safe enough for us to indulge in the desire to just pick a path and go.
In the end, as with most times I follow instinct and just wander—or in this case hike—it was worth it. Not long after we hiked straight up out of the dark base of the redwood forest we surfaced to the piercingly sunny skies and epic views of the huge trees and hills rolling toward the Pacific Ocean.
Sparkling lakes glistened in the warm evening light as my train sped through England to the far northwest corner, where Lake District National Park sits like a jewel. I had just come from London and the chance to immerse in nature called to me. I admired spectacular rolling hills in rich green hues and the dots of white speckling the creek as sheep wandered their pastures, oblivious to the glorious sunset unfolding over the English countryside.
The charm of the Lake District instantly captivated me. It was like entering a Jane Austen novel. After London’s bustle, I welcomed the chance to walk and boat around the Lake District with no set plans, just a series of days ahead that could progress at a pace of my choosing. The country is lush and green and filled with fresh air. With 16 lakes and a number of mountains and hills bubbling over the earth, the Lake District is exactly how I’ve always pictured England from reading books like Pride and Prejudice (an obsessive favorite) and Jane Eyre. If you’ve also read your fair share of books set in Victorian England, then plan ample time here, where you can take long walks from Lake Windermere, cruise to nearby towns like Ambleside, and putter around admiring English gardens just like a page out of Beatrix Potter’s books.
Cruising Lake Windermere from Bowness Bay
I stayed at a cozy hostel in Windermere that was well connected to town and offered me a heap of advice. Since I wasn’t booking much of my trip ahead of time, my hostel was essentially the only one left with just a week’s notice—the area books up quickly! Since my priority was clearing my lungs and getting to know the Lake Windermere area, I bought a boat ticket from the red cruise on Windermere Lake Cruises, and then walked the 20 minutes downhill from Windermere town center to the lakeside town of Bowness. Budget accommodation is all in the town, while pricier places are right on the lake. Although I could have stayed in Ambleside, I liked having a lot of food options, as well as ample places to seek advice on tours and walks.
Lake Windermere heaves with tourists during the summer season, and although the town had a fair number, it’s a crush of people by the waterside. A bit overwhelmed, I bought myself an ice cream cone from the homemade ice cream shops liberally dotting the shoreline, which gave me a focus besides the elbowing crowds as I headed to the docks for the 30 minute boat ride to Ambleside, a smaller and more consumable little town further up Lake Windermere.
The boat ride is stunning.
As the end of my round the world trip nears, I am splurging more on the activities that make a trip memorable. Although the GBP was really strong against the USD, the Lake District is not the place to pinch pennies—small splurges like taking a boat to Ambleside rather than driving are worth the price. Sitting on the water, I was a pinprick of life amidst vast green surrounding mountains.
The scale is incredible and best viewed from the water, where you can see everything rise up around you. The open-top boats allow for fantastic views, and I cruised across the waters with the cold wind pinking my cheeks and the crew sharing a small history lesson about the region.
The boats are also great for people watching. On the way back from Ambleside, I caught sight of a train of children in small individual boats. They were all strung together in a line of four small boats with two eight-year-old-sized children in each boat. An adult headed this parade of children as he motored toward shore. As I watched these small boats glide past me, life-jacketed and enthusiastic kids waved, nearly tipping themselves in the process. But the kids in the last boat weren’t waving. Both little kids were using small buckets to empty water from their sinking boat. Unsure of what to do, a group from our boat hailed the captain to let him know what was happening! Thankfully, the parade of children was close to shore and all made it out. The kids in the last boat were dripping wet and yet, in the careless fashion of children, seemingly unfazed by the fact that they nearly had to swim 200 meters to shore!
Enjoying the Ambleside Waterfall
The Lake District in England is the perfect place for “just a bit of a wander,” as guesthouse owners and locals say. This quaint phrase is just lovely. Framing a walk with the idea of “having a bit of a wander” sets a different mood than, say, “going for a walk”—even going “out for a stroll” just doesn’t have quite the same charming ring to it.
With a wandering mentality front and center after disembarking from my cruise to Ambleside, I hit the ground wandering. Ambleside, like Windermere, is not actually at the water’s edge. Instead the town is a mile inland and a solid 25 minute walk. A small trolley-like car loaded up the families and elderly for a few pounds each, but I chose to hoof it up to the town so that I could explore the local parks along the way, as well as Roman ruins. It’s a perfectly lovely walk for a bit, then it’s rather fenced and decidedly not lovely for about 10 minutes, until you reach the town center. For others, likely just take the trolley.
And since getting lost seems to be the theme of my travels, as readers well know, let’s just say that I have really, really explored Ambleside. The tourist lady in Windermere hooked me up with a map of Ambleside before I arrived and she marked a rough route through town that would take in the best parks, and then cap off my time with a 45 minute walking loop to the scenic Stock Ghyll Force Waterfall near Ambleside.
The path out of town and to the waterfall is not well marked! But asking the locals for directions, backtracking, walking down the wrong small and tiny winding lanes, and then finally locating the right street was half of the fun. :)
Ambleside is a touristy town. All of the Lake District is touristy in August, as I mentioned, so it’s important to take walks out of town to truly experience the best of the nearby nature. Sidewalks in these small towns overflow with sticky children paying more attention to their ice cream cones than the sidewalk, frazzled moms pushing strollers, and families chasing after the above mentioned sticky toddlers! It’s a fun vibe, but not the immersive nature most people hope for when planning a trip to the Lake District.
Considering the number of people in Ambleside, surprisingly few walked to the waterfall route. Which is a shame! It’s a simple trail and you can pack snacks and eat lunch near the river, which was what I did.
Besides the waterfall, huge parks on the outskirts of the town offer tons of green space for kicking a ball or setting up a picnic, too. After resting in the grass—my “rest” turned into an accidental and impromptu nap—I wandered back through town, past the many boutiques and souvenir shops, and to the docks, which would take me back to Windermere for the night.
Being on a backpacker budget, an without a car, I wasn’t fortunate enough to visit many of the small Lake District towns dotting the region, but a couple staying at the hostel came from the northern Lake District and were quick to share that every town they visited oozed charm and offered its own scenic walks. Additionally, I was staying in Windermere both because I liked being in the city, but also because the region was fully booked. On a future trip, I would love the chance to move around some, staying in different towns and exploring Hadrian’s Wall, too, which is close to the Lake District and well worth the visit according to other backpackers.
Best Walks & Sights from Windermere Town
The green sheep pastures of the Lake District were so stunning that I erupted into spontaneous dances of joy. I mean, if you know that you’re completely and truly alone—with only sheep as witness—how could you not revel in the nature, the clean air, and the solitude?
I made a pact with myself at the beginning of my yearlong trip that I would learn how to cartwheel by the end of the year. It didn’t happen. While I still can’t cartwheel (drats!), I spent a good while frolicking in the pastures practicing, and it was lovely to simply be in this gorgeous area.
Visiting the Home of Beatrix Potter England’s Lake District inspired poets the likes of William Wordsworth. It inspired fits of fancy from Beatrix Potter, creator of the Peter Rabbit stories. Potter so loved the region that she donated all of her land in the Lake District to the National Trust. Today, thanks to her generosity, the National Trust owns huge swaths of land that welcome tourists like me to wander the lightly marked paths, to zigzag the English countryside, and to witness the unparalleled beauty of the lakes. Her home is now a museum, Hill Top Farm, and it’s pristinely preserved. Even if you don’t have kids, you can still imagine Peter Rabbit might emerge the beautiful gardens!
Taking the Orrest Head Walk The Orrest Head Walk offers some of the most stunning views in the Windermere region, and the start of the walk is just a short distance from the Windermere town center. Even though the formal route is short, it’s a nice and moderate hike up to a viewpoint, I packed a lunch and decided to make more of a day out of it. I wasn’t game for a strenuous hike, so I took the recommendation of the helpful woman at the information center, who recommended a lightly signposted path that leaves the peak and heads back to town on a large lazy loop through the surrounding farms.
She issued the six words I love to hate: “Don’t worry, you can’t get lost.”
Well, I assured her that I could and would and that it doesn’t bother me in the least. With an apple, water, and boiled egg and cheese sandwich packed into my daypack, I set off to explore the rolling green hills and gently sloping mountains around Windermere.
The view is all they say it will be. Stunning. Seriously stunning.
I was content to eat my lunch from a small stone bench at the top, and then I had a grand time winding my way back through the green fields while baa-ing at the sheep in their pastures the whole way back to town. Although the Lake District area is crawling with tourists I didn’t see another soul once I hit the pastures.
Word of caution: Although the walk to Orrest Head Walk is short and close to town, carry directions from the your guesthouse or the information center because it the trail is not well marked! Even with directions, I backtracked several times before I found the route. And on the other side of the walk, I now think there’s a chance that I wasn’t even on the right path for most of the time!
Backpacking the Lake District is perfect for solo travelers like me, who can enjoy a good party, but are more content to explore the nature, culture, and history of a place. Being an active area of the country, the other backpackers were similarly minded—everyone was visiting for the walking, hiking, and boating. I loved that each night in the common room we all gathered and ended a hard day of walking with hot cups of tea and a fierce games of Cluedo.
Hikers are, by and large, a friendly group. The physical nature of the activity creates a selection process of others keen to take in fresh air and exercise. Everyone on the trails were friendly—they said “hi,” stopped for a chat when I was at a lookout, and generally made me feel less alone even though I walked and hiked solo each day. Hiking is one of the ways that I survived living in Los Angeles LA for two years—it got me out of the city and showed me that there were actually others who needed a break from the sheer LA-ness of the big city.
The Lake District, despite being insanely touristy, is fantastic because you can escape from the bustle of day-trippers and sink into nature. You can explore the bigger towns, and the tiny ones, too. Also, I cannot stress enough the helpfulness of the tourist information offices. Because of the huge volume of tourists coming through every summer, they can sort you on most anything you want to do in the region, from biking to walking, hiking, and even some more daring adventure activities. I used the Rough Guide at the hostel for an outline of what I might most like to see, and after a short visit to the tourist information office, I had guidelines for a handful of classic walks ranging from easy-peasy to walks that really got my blood pumping.
Quick Tips: Plan Your Time in Lake District National Park
Getting around: You’ll be enjoying a national park and as such a delicate habitat. England, in general, has amazing public transportation, and the Lake District specifically has extensive options of buses, explorer buses, trains, ferries, and boats that make it very easy to explore without a rental car (and they deeply encourage travelers to opt for this route). The National Park’s website has links to timetables for public transport in every city and region and is a great starting point.
When to go: Summer is the best time as you have a chance at sunshine, a bit less rain (lowest rainfalls occur between April and August), and the countryside is stunningly green. It can be blustery cold on the walks in winter, and some passes and roads close during heavy rains.
Where to stay: It’s a big area, so depending on your budget and your goals, you may choose to stay in Keswick, Windermere, or the smaller towns. In Keswick, which is the most highly-rated town for tourist-to-nature ratio, the YHA Keswick is both budget and in a beautiful location, while Howe Keld is just an exceptional B&B ideal for mid-range travelers. The YHAs in Windermere and Ambleside are both great budget options, or for midrange opt for Elim Lodge Guest House in Bowness-on-Windermere or The Fisherbeck in Ambleside. (Bonus: If you’re new to Booking.com, ALA readers receive a discount on your first booking.) You could also find a great Airbnb if you’re traveling in a group—this is a fantastic way to have access to a kitchen, and also accommodate a lot of people on a budget.
If Australia’s primary cities were siblings, then Melbourne is the country’s “red-headed stepchild.” The town is unapologetically alternative and has a unique vibe unlike anything else I’ve yet encountered. While Sydney relies on beauty and cleanliness to stay a favorite, my first impressions indicate that Melbourne is an “anything-goes” type of city.
I am still traveling with new friends, so I arrived in Melbourne with Pauline and Linda. The enormous diversity in Melbourne struck us first. A wash of cultures and subcultures filled the streets — Asians, hipsters, punks, businessmen — everyone commingles on the city’s streets.
Shops dot the corners of the CBD (Central Business District), but I found my favorite cafes were all tucked away on the narrow, vaguely European side-streets running between the tall buildings. Linda and I explored together on our first morning in town. We got a bit lost (normal for me) and sat on a tram for 35 minutes going in the wrong direction. Heh. We finally realized that we were in some random Melbourne suburb rather than the CBD.
Once we righted ourselves on the tram, we landed in the center of the CBD. I was starving, so we headed straight to a crowded side-street filled with fragrant coffee shops and petite cafes with tables and chairs spilling onto the sidewalk. We scored cheap but delicious pastries to munch on as we explored.
We also hit up the Queen Victoria Markets. Your random fact for the day: Queen Victoria Markets is the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere! The market expanded in all directions and contained a tad bit of everything possibly interesting. We loved the farmer’s market section and we scored affordable fruits and veggies by choosing the pick of the bunch from the hundreds of stalls. The market also sells clothes, souvenirs, and the such. It was an exhausting thought to see it all, so instead we wandered the stalls for a couple of hours and browsed through all the intriguing offerings.
Exploring St. Kilda, Melbourne
Rounding out the first few days, the three of us repacked our backpacks and headed out of the city center for a bit of downtime. Melbourne has a dead-simple tram system that reaches into every corner of the city. It was a cinch to find a backpackers hostel in St. Kilda, and we landed in Coffee Palace, which my guidebook said was decent. Truth be told, I wish we had taken longer to compare options. The hostel wasn’t clean. In fact, it was straight-up gross. But unfortunately I had prepaid, so I made the best of it. I slept in my sleep sack to protect myself from the rumored bed-bugs, and tried not to touch anything unless it was absolutely necessary! Other backpackers have said good things about Nomads, so I would likely stay there in the future.
Fortunately, what the hostel lacked, St. Kilda made up for in style and spunk. The town’s Sunday market on the Esplanade had cute local crafts and funky works of art. By the time I visited the Sunday market, I realized that my stateside friend had backed out on meeting me in Oz. As a sort of token to this yearlong round the world trip, and a commitment to go it solo if necessary, I bought myself a sterling silver pinky ring. It’s cute and has little etches and the woman who made it was so happy to help me pick out one that I liked.
During my handful of days in St. Kilda, I came to love Veg Out Time. It’s an affordable vegetarian restaurant just half a block from the hostel. They serve a delicious sweet-potato curry over brown rice. After so long cooking basic foods in hostel kitchens, it’s nice to have something so hearty and nutritious and tasty to boot!
After a few days in St. Kilda, I said adieu to Pauline and Linda. They are here on their Aussie work visa for a year, so they need to earn a bit more money before they can continue traveling. They found a farm in a small town a couple of hours outside of Melbourne and they plan to earn money by picking seasonal fruits on the farm! As a fun way to end our time together, the hostel had dress-up karaoke on our last night hanging out. It was so hilarious and such good fun.
I mean, I just don’t think I can truly express the levels of bonding that take place over listening to five drunk guys serenade the crowd with rollicking versions of every hit the Backstreet Boys made. It was priceless! I will miss these ladies and the fun times we had. But I am continuing my own travels around Australia after Melbourne, so parting ways was necessary.
I loved my first long hike through the mountains, which ended at the Giant Staircase in Katoomba. Katoomba is a cute mountain town with stunning views out over the mountains and valleys. It’s also the main town in this area and the starting point for most major trails. After that beautiful trail, I decided to try a different one the next day. As always, I got lost, but that is par for the course for me. My first hike was such fun and such beautiful trail that I knew it would be tough to rival the beauty. The Giant Staircase hiked ended with a glowing ochre sunset over the Three Sisters rock formation. But Ross promised that my four hour hike to see Wentworth Falls would equal the beauty.
The hike to Wentworth Falls is much like the hike that ends in the Giant Staircase. They both have similar forest and pathways, but the Wentworth Falls hike brims with waterfalls and streams at every turn. If we passed a dozen waterfalls on the first hike, we passed two dozen on this hike. The weather cooperated, which is one of the key reasons I visited Australia in the warmer summer months—I’ve read that the Blue Mountains can be very cold, wet, and overcast at other times of the year. But our hike had the weather gods smiling down upon us. The strong bright sunshine fractured in every direction on the mists wafting from the waterfalls. Every droplet of water became a multifaceted rainbow.
My hiking buddy and I found Wentworth Falls within the first two hours of the hike. One of my favorite part of this trail is the structure. The trail forces visitors to hike across each section of the waterfall before you reach the base. When we reached the bottom of the rainforest, we looked up and saw each of the three individual sections of waterfall. These waterfalls align down the cliff face, and the waters from each nourishes and strengthens the one below it.
The waterfalls are quite spectacular. As we stood below, our eyes traced the path our bodies had taken. We had hiked under, around, and behind nearly every part of the waterfall. So neat! The misting spray of the waterfall coated our faces in reflective droplets. We had reached the wider base of the water and allowed the mist to cool our our face as we hopped on stones to get to the other side of the river.
And as much as I loved the hike, I was jibing with my hiker partner again and I really loved having a chance to chat and swap stories. In fact, we were both so engrossed in the conversation that we got lost again! But this time was worse than the previous disorientation. This time the trail had disappeared. Since we hadn’t left a breadcrumb trail, we had no idea how we would retrace our steps back to the main trail. Our first clue that all was not well started when we began to hike through, under, and inside of waterfalls. We thought there was a faint trail in evidence, but really it wasn’t until the trail led us to a slippery, steep cliff face that we turned around. The teetering—it was a near miss that I didn’t slide over the edge. Seriously.
We tentatively started charting a course back along the “path.” As we passed back through the drenched rocks, I slipped and fell down hard. I have two huge mottled-colored bruises on my thigh to prove it! At this point we slowed our pace because we both realized that we were definitely not on a marked trail. Things were getting a bit out of hand.
I own up to my lack of direction, while I can always retrace my steps, I can’t usually orient myself within a larger setting. I argued with him a bit as I looked out at the vast swathes of green valley and dense trees in every direction. But he made a compelling case for the way to get back to the hostel. Couple all of that with the fact that I was shaken by this time, and I asked Christian to completely take over the navigation to get us back on track. He was right about the direction of our path home, and he got us both safely back to town, onto the train, and safely back to the hostel—all with deep darkness slowly encroaching.
By the time we got back, we both acknowledged that it was a good thing we had heeded the warnings. On my first day in town, Ross explained to me the two cardinal rules of hiking in this area: never hike alone, and always tell someone your planned hiking route, as well as when you expect to return. Also, I just might carry a compass next time I head out on a long hike!
The Blue Mountains takes its name from the blue haze that hovers above the mountain range in every direction. You can’t actually smell the sweetly mentholated scent eucalyptus in the air, but the blue haze stretches as far into the distance. The blue haze is created by the oil released from eucalyptus plants—there are so many eucalyptus plants releasing oil that it tints the entire mountain range blue!
Several backpackers at my last hostel warned me that the Blue Mountains was best done on a day trip from Sydney, not as a four-day excursion. On the one hand, I see their point. The train system makes it easy to spend a mere two hours from downtown to Katoomba. But the photos looked beautiful, and I figured that staying overnight would give me a better chance to do a solid hike while I visited. It was so tranquil and lovely that my overnight turned into four days. Once I arrived, the hostel maps and guides showed several gorgeous hikes—like the Giant Staircase, Three Sisters, and Wentworth Falls—far too much to do in just two days.
I am not a city person, so I’m not sure why I initially felt that I should rush this time in the mountains. I love hiking (most of the time), and decided that time outside of Sydney would clear my head and give me some breathing space from the close quarters of my hostel. The hostel in Sydney was loud and cramped, so I was thankful for the new digs. What a wonderful, well run hostel. The Flying Fox hostel in Katoomba is independently owned and completely charming. It was still chilly when I arrived, and they offered hot tea on arrival and mulled wine next to a warm fire each evening.
The entire vibe at the hostel is indie and right up my alley. Ross, the hostel owner, is committed to helping tourists take responsible hikes that create a low-impact on the environment. He’s also knowledgeable about all the trails. On my day in town, Ross talked with me about my skills and hiking level, then he handed me a laminated map. The hike was moderate difficulty and three hours long on the outside. I don’t think he was counting on me getting lost. Or, perhaps he realized that the truth would have kept me rooted to the hostel couch and warming myself by the fire.
The hike got off to an ominous start. Within minutes of leaving the hostel, I was lost. No matter how I twisted the may, I couldn’t locate the correct trailhead. Hiking this region is popular, so the trails are mostly well-marked, but for some reason this one was more elusive. I lucked out when an equally lost Swiss guy wandered by in search of the same hiking trail. We decided to pair up for the afternoon and together we found the trailhead to begin our three hour hike.
I’ll give Ross this—it was a beautiful trail. With so many options, he picked well for me. Once I made it to the trailhead on the edge of town, the trail rapidly descended into the rainforests on the floor of the mountain range. Round and round on the switchbacks, but at least it was downhill. Hundreds of steps led down the mountain. And while some were metal and had handles, many were carved right into the rock. Iur path wound around dozens of waterfalls and vast vistas into the distance. The landscape in the Blue Mountains changes rapidly. Gone was the whooshing of cars passing by overhead. Instead, the dense rainforest created a non-silence that sent shivers up my arms.
With each footstep, water droplets fell from the heavy branches. Each bend in the path brought us in alongside pretty tinkling streams. Birds chirped their joy at the clear, cool day. And the sound of our shoes made a slurping noise as we walked through shallow mud puddles.
Christian, my Swiss friend, and I walked for hours. Sometimes we swapped stories, other times we plodded along lost in our own thoughts and happy for the companionable silence. After a couple of hours, it was Christian who realized that we hadn’t hit some trail signs in a long while. We decided to backtrack a bit to the last slight split in the trail with hopes that it would lead to a more defined path. Also somewhere along the way we had gone into a section of lightly maintained trails. Once we believed were back on track, we thankfully spotted another hiker. They shared their route since they were hiking our trail in the opposite direction. With their guidance, we stayed on the right trail and soon after we encountered what is affectionately called the Giant Stairway.
After four and a half hours descending into the rainforest, the Giant Stairway is more than 900 steps back up the mountainside. Just as the stairs started, the sign gave an estimate. It will take 45 minutes to summit the staircase if you stop along the way. More or less depending on fitness. For us, having taken so many detours we knew that it would take a bit longer. The final count as 70 minutes on the Staircase and 4.5 hours on the trail. That’s fairly terrible! But we had fun, and the views were spectacular, so that’s something.
The reward for braving the 900 steps of the Giant Staircase is an epic view of the Three Sisters and the long valley. The Giant Staircase edges around the Sisters, and you can’t see all three rock formations as a single unit until you reach the top. The hike wiped us both out, but we both returned to our hostels exclaiming over the beautiful views and stunning natural beauty.
How to Independently Explore the Blue Mountains
Visiting the Blue Mountains is one of my favorite memories from my time traveling Australia. It’s a gorgeous spot and worth at least a day trip from Sydney, though most people will enjoy anywhere between an overnight trip to even a five nights. There are plenty of interesting trails and relaxing evening activities to keep you entertained. And since you’ll be hiking, be sure you have good travel insurance (full review here) in case you need transport all the way back to Sydney for treatment.
Getting There: The Blue Mountains are a surprisingly easy trip from Sydney—you don’t have to book a tour. You might see more viewpoints and such on a tour, but taking the train is far cheaper.
At Sydney’s Central Station train station, purchase a train ticket toward Katoomba. This is main trainline into the Blue Mountains.
The trains run all morning from Sydney into the Blue Mountains. At least one train an hour throughout the day and you don’t need to book ahead, just show up. Then, on the return just make sure you catch the latest train back, which leaves usually no later than 10pm.
On the train, the best seats are on the upper level on left hand side. With a seat here you’ll get a beautiful look at the Blue Mountains the entire trip.
Getting Around: Katoomba is small enough to walk on foot, but for families with young kids, or those who want convenience, there are still independent options once you get to Katoomba. (Also, the Lonely Planet Australia details some other hikes and adventures that I would consider if I returned).
After two hours on the train, you end in Katoomba, the main town. If you’re staying overnight, head to your hotel. If you’re doing your own day tour, consider the “Blue Mountain Explorer Bus.” This is a hop-on-hop-off experience that takes you through the major spots to see the gorgeous views. If you’re in town for a few days, however, the Blue Mountains Bus Company is the public bus service and is much cheaper.
Most hiking trails start from the Jamison Valley lookout not far from the Katoomba train station. This is also where you’ll find the stunning lookout for the Three Sisters. Plan your hike and walks through this government and National Parks site. Also, take precautions on the longer hikes. Always hike with a buddy and always tell your hotel your planned route, as well as when you expect to return.
Scenic World is much cooler than it sounds and the caged railway is a thrill for families to solos — it’s just stunning.
Eat: I am a coffee fiend so you can find me at Cassiopeia Specialty Coffee in Katoomba in the mornings to fuel up for a hike. Other than that, there are heaps of options at every price point. Leura is a good spot for dining, but every town has something to offer. I recommend cruising through the reviews at True Blue Mountains as I love the ease of navigating and they keep everything nicely up-to-date.
Shop: Leura has a charming shopping street and makes for a nice afternoon wander. All of the main mountain towns are connected by bus and train, so you can get there even if you’re staying in Katoomba.