Don’t Leave Batam Without These!

My first visit to Batam was about 20 years ago and I go there mainly for cheap massages, food and shopping. Yes, shopping. Til today, people ask me ‘What is there to buy in Batam?’ Well, after 20 years of visiting Batam, let me share my in-depth knowledge of crazy bargains you can get there. Of course, it’s not Orchard Road but if you are a serious bargain hunter like me, then this list is for you.

1. Facial products

Image credit: Hada Labo

Hada Labo: Hada Labo is one of the mildest facial products around and is especially good for those with sensitive skin.

Sample price in Singapore: Range from $15-50
Sample price in Batam: $2-10

Image credit: Olay and Garnier

L’oreal/Garnier/Olay: These are popular brands among Singaporeans. The products cost about one-third of the price in Singapore.

Sample price in Singapore: $15-80
Sample price in Batam: $2-30

2. Amazing hair products

Ellips: I personally swear by their hair products. Their hair vitamin, in capsules, cost $18 per bottle in Singapore. In Batam, the same product will cost you approximately $5.

Sample price in Singapore: $18-25
Sample price in Batam: $2-8, or $0.50 for the hair mask!

Image credit: Lucido L

Image credit: Lucido L

Lucidol: A typical brand found in Guardian and Watsons, this range is popular amongst both men and women.

Sample price in Singapore: $6-$20
Sample price in Batam: $2-$8

3. Toothbrushes

Image credit: Oral B

Oral B: This brand needs no introduction. We know how expensive their toothbrushes are. So stock up on your supply while you are in Batam (FYI: you should change your toothbrush every couple of months).

Sample price in Singapore: $3-10
Sample price in Batam: From $1, or $4-5 for a pack of 3

 

4. Cosmetics

Image credit: PIXY Indonesia

Pixy: This is a trade secret of several Singaporean and Malaysian make-up artists. I was introduced to this brand by my own wedding MUA. The products from Pixy are as good as most over the counter products in Singapore. With the savings you make from choosing Pixy, you will soon be an ardent fan like those I have converted.

Sample price (of counter brands) in Singapore: $18-50
Sample price in Batam: $2-10

5. Medicine

Image credit: Dokita

Panadol: Who does not need this, right? It is a must-have in every household. So why not stock up on this while you are there? I just get a box of 10 strips each time as the expiry date is usually a couple of years ahead.

Sample price in Singapore: $5 for 10 tablets of Panadol extra (1 strip)
Sample price in Batam: $0.70 for 10 tablets of Panadol extra (1 strip)

6. Stationery

Image credit: Hypermart

I am one of those that can spend hours shopping for stationery. When it is this cheap, it feels like Christmas to me. Everything you’ll ever need like files, notebooks, pens, plastic clear pockets, highlighters and more can be found in Batam. Go to Hypermart (Batam’s version of Giant) instead of independent bookstores for the best bargains.

Sample price in Singapore: $1 for a ballpoint pen, $2-3 for one roller pen
Sample price in Batam: $1 for a pack of 15 pens, $1 for three roller pens

7. Toiletries

Image credit: Dove and L’Oreal

Shower foam, shampoo and others: When you go to Hypermart, you’ll notice the familiar brands that we have here in Singapore. I usually stock up on my favourite products and get three or four of the same products in Batam with what I would pay for one here. What’s not to like?

Sample price in Singapore: $5-10 for a regular-sized product
Sample price in Batam: $2-5 for a regular-sized product

8. Layer Cake

Image credit: Batam layers Cakes

There are so many stores offering these in Batam. Best to go for smaller shops as they sell cakes that are not mass-produced in factories. There is also a wonderful array of flavours ranging from Nutella, prunes to pandan.

Sample price in Singapore: A quarter of a cake for $8-10
Sample price in Batam: About $25-30 for the whole cake

9. Click and Lock-Lock storage containers

Image credit: Lock and Lock

These are great at keeping your food fresh. However, they are costly in Singapore. So when Batam started carrying these products, I was thrilled. Generally, they cost one-third of the price here in Singapore.

Sample price in Singapore: S4-30
Sample price in Batam: $2-10

10. Snacks, candies & others

Image credit: Indofood

In Batam, spices are sold in huge portions and at a fraction of the cost. From black peppercorns to fennel, you can stock up your pantry at a fraction of the cost here. If you prefer instant mixes, the choices are crazy aplenty. Costing just a few cents a packet and being so easy to take with you as they are lightweight, your family will thank you for stocking up on these.

If you are a fan of belinjau crackers, you have to try those they have in Batam. Besides the original flavour, there are also the spicy and sweet flavours. The ‘fishball’ crackers is another tasty favourite. It looks unappealing but be warned, once you pop one in your mouth, there is no stopping. For a healthier option, go for the wide variety of dried fruit and nuts that are sold by weight. If you love are a preserved fruits, you will be spoilt for choice. They have a huge range that includes even rare, preserved fruits like nutmeg.

 

First published on TripZilla on May 19, 2017

10 Things That Are Way Cheaper in Batam Than Singapore

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5 Things to Consider When Choosing Your Maldives Resort

Maldives has long been one of the top beach destinations in the world due to its exclusive island appeal.

In the past, those who wish to visit Maldives were limited to resorts advertised on travel agencies. Nowadays, a wide variety of picks are available at your fingertips – you can choose to stay on a quiet island and soak in its rustic charm or be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a touristy resort.

However, with so many options come challenges too. How do you choose a resort that best meets your needs and preferences? To help first-time visitors make this critical decision, here are five important things to consider when choosing which resort to stay in.

1. Cost

Price is obviously one obvious factor to consider. Contrary to popular belief, besides the high-end water bungalows, Maldives has resorts that fit all budgets! There are even accommodations available for backpackers on a tight budget. The backpacker-style guestrooms are located on the five inhabited islands of Maldives –Maafush, Addu City, Thulusdoo, Thulhaadhoo and Isdhoo – you would be immersed in the lifestyle and culture of the locals, if this is what you are after.

Also Read: 6 Tips to Travel Maldives on the Cheap

2. Island features

The islands are grouped into 26 atolls or chain of islands. The capital of Maldives is Male which is pronounced as Maaley.

Most first-time visitors do not realise that every resort sits on an island of its own that has a unique geographical shape and form. This means that the facilities and amenities available on the resort island you choose, especially restaurants, are the only ones you will have easy access to during your stay. So do check if the island where your resort sits on has what you need and prefer during your stay.

For example, if you want to snorkel amongst the coral, check that the house reef (the reef that is closest to the island) is near enough to swim to. This is a very important feature to consider if you are a fan of marine life and if snorkelling is your favourite beach activity. Some resorts have calm, crystal clear lagoons that are perfect for swimming and windsurfing but would require a boat trip just to get out to the coral reef. Each snorkelling trip or excursion come at a cost and would easily add to your expenses. If you want to snorkel any time of the day or every day even, then you may want to stay on a resort island that boasts amazing house reefs. The house reefs on such islands are so rich that you can even spot eagle rays, black-tipped reef sharks and hundreds of tropical fishes in varying colours and sizes. I always describe the feeling as akin to being in a giant fish tank. I would like to strongly state here that even non-swimmers would thoroughly enjoy the experience of seeing the teeming marine life as they are visible even in knee-deep waters. I myself have taken many of my family and friends, even those who cannot swim to save their lives or have a water phobia, but they all ended up looking at the fishes underwater for hours!

3. Accessibility

One of the unique experiences of visiting Maldives is that as soon as you arrive at Hulhule airport in Male, your airport transfers are either by boat or seaplane, unless you choose to stay in Male itself of course; but who does that with the hundreds of islands beckoning you?

Depending on the resort you choose, the transfer can be as short as 10 minutes by boat or as long as an hour by seaplane, depending on the distance. Landing at your island resort on a seaplane is an adventure in itself. The journey is no less impressive with aerial views of the atolls and bright blue sea. Do note that if your resort requires a seaplane transfer, you can only fly during daylight so if your flight arrives after dark, you need to stay one night in Male. Take this into account if your flight home is in the wee hours of the morning too. Therefore, do check with your resort on the transfer schedule and ensure you have an accommodation in Male after or before your flight.

4. Accommodation type

Most of the resorts would have several accommodation types on the island to cater to guests’ varying preference. Usually, they would have both water villas that extends out to the open sea as well as bungalows built on the sandy beach, all at varying costs. The accommodations are single or double-storey at most. You will not find high rise buildings on the island resorts. The building in some resorts are terraced while others are detached, single units to allow for more privacy. They differ in price according to the number of rooms, the exact location of the unit and the view it offers – you can opt for sea view or garden view, beachfront or overwater.  The water villas are built on stilts that extend out over the water would, and for obvious reasons it is at the top of the price range.

5. Meal packages

Another important thing to consider is the meal packages offered by the resort. As all amenities and facilities are limited to what is available on the island, the resorts often have several types of meal plans for guests. The three common ones are Bed and Breakfast, Full Board and All-Inclusive. The standard meal plan will include breakfast only. For Full Board, your stay would include the three meals of the day. The All-Inclusive meal plan includes free flow of soft drinks and even alcoholic ones. The meal plans come at additional cost, of course, but they would often work out cheaper than paying for the meals separately because food on the islands are costly and prices are in USD.

With the above in mind when choosing your Maldives resort, you can be assured of making the best possible choice for your trip. With budget airlines flying to Male available, there is no better time to start planning your trip to this paradise.

 

First published on TripZilla on Apr 26, 2017

5 Things To Consider When Choosing Your Maldives Resort

7 Secret Islands Just Hours Away from Singapore

Looking for a short island getaway for your next long weekend which is unlikely to be swarmed with tourists? Here are seven islands to meet your fancy! The best part is that they are all mere hours away from Singapore and you don’t need to fly. And no, we are not talking about well-known islands like Tioman or Rawa Island.

1. Pulau Tengah

Best for a romantic getaway

Image credit: Phalinn Ooi

Image credit: Phalinn Ooi

Image credit: Phalinn Ooi

For that secluded feel, head to Batu-Batu on Pulau Tengah, a privately-owned island in Malaysia. The island has eight white sand beaches and is a protected marine park because of the rich underwater life in the surrounding waters. Pacific bottlenose dolphins, black-tipped reef sharks and even a dugong have been spotted in this area.

Consisting of only 20 luxurious one- and two-bedroom villas, Batu Batu is ideal if you seek optimum privacy as you sit back, enjoy the first-class service, relax in the stunning spa and dine on top-notch food. If you want to have direct access to the powdery white sands, choose the Beach Villa. It also comes with a large bathroom with a stand-alone bathtub and a balcony with spectacular views.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Mersing Jetty. This would take you about 2.5-3 hrs. From there, representatives from Batu Batu will take you on a 20-minute transfer on the resort’s speedboat to the island.

2. Kapas Island

Best for a laid-back vibe

Image credit: Dave Anderson

Image credit: Dave Anderson

Kapas Island (Pulau Kapas) is easily one of Malaysia’s nicest islands. The shoreline of Kapas Island is dotted with beautiful white sandy strips of sand that surround the pristine clear water. I can confidently say that Kapas can rival any of the amazing beaches I have seen in Thailand. The island is often overlooked as tourists seek the more popular Redang, Langkawi and Perhentian islands. But to me, this only means that Kapas remains a less touristy island with a very laid-back vibe, ideal if you are seeking some quiet place to unwind.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Marang Jetty in Terengganu. It is a long drive so if you are going by coach, it would depart at night, arriving in Terengganu only the next morning. From the jetty, you get on a speedboat for a 15-minute ride to the island. There are several boat operators so do scout around to get the cheapest deal.

3. Pulau Karimun Besar

Best for a range of pristine beaches

Image credit: Zhao

Image credit: Zhao

Pulau Karimun Besar lies west of Batam and to the southwest of Singapore. Its proximity to Singapore makes the island quite an easy reach for a short weekend. Its main town, Tanjung Balai is a bustling port town. Part of the chain islands comprising of Riau Islands, Pulau Karimun Besar is famed for its pristine white, sandy beaches and its wide variety of fresh seafood dishes. The island also presents visitors an ample variety of watersports to choose from, such as snorkeling. On top of that, Pulau Karimun Besar has a range of smaller islands, such as Terkulai and Soreh surrounding it, which you can easily visit! Take an invigorating bath in the man-made pools created by the waterfalls near Pantai Palawan. If you’re looking for a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, Pulau Karimun Besar is the ideal location to be at.

On top of that, Pulau Karimun Besar has a range of smaller islands, such as Terkulai and Soreh surrounding it, which you can easily visit! Take an invigorating bath in the man-made pools created by the waterfalls near Pantai Palawan. If you’re looking for a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, Pulau Karimun Besar is the ideal location to be at.

Getting there: A 1.5 hr ferry ride to Tanjung Balai from Harbourfront Ferry Terminal where you will be picked up and transferred by car for another hour to Kawal Harbour. From there, a short boat ride will get you to the island.

4. Pulau Besar

Best for a cheap family getaway

Image credit: Bambi Corro III

Pulau Besar is easily the cheapest island getaway you could find to take your whole family to.  It is a laid-back island and a good destination for a simple, relaxing weekend. The island is relatively small and hosts a few simple lodgings. The waters are pristine and the beach beautiful but for some reason, most people know about Sibu or Rawa Island, but not about Pulau Besar. This makes it a perfect destination away from the tourist crowds.

Just to be clear, there are several Pulau Besar in Malaysia. Here we are talking about the one off Mersing in Johore. The island is sometimes called Pulau Babi Besar. The few accommodation on the island usually offers a full-board package that would include all your meals. The island is ideal for the whole family as besides its affordability, it is also kids- and baby-friendly. You can choose from the more basic chalet-types or the higher end Aseania Resort for your stay. On average, it would not cost you more than SG$150-200 per person for a 3D2N getaway, all-inclusive.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Mersing Jetty. This would take you about 2.5-3 hrs. From there, the accommodation you booked would have arranged for a transfer to the island. The boat ride should not take more than 20-30 minutes.

5. Pulau Aur

Best for diving and snorkelling

Image credit: Nicolas Lannuzel

Image credit: Paul

Pulau Aur is located in the east of Mersing and is part of the Johor Marine Park. Its abundant corals, lagoons and offshore pools make it a diver’s attraction. There are about twenty diving spots around the island as it is home to numerous unique sea creatures and coral reefs. This makes Pulau Aur excellent for scuba diving and snorkelling. It is set in a scenic landscape fringed with lush tropical rainforests. Do not expect luxury here. The island is rustic; there are no roads and it is typical of a traditional village. This is to retain the simplicity of the island and provide for an authentic island experience. So if you need creature comforts, this may not be the island for you.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Mersing Jetty. This would take you about 2.5-3 hrs. From there, take a 3-hr ferry ride to the island.

6. Sugi Island

Best for a romantic getaway

Sugi Island, Batam is home to a beautiful private beach getaway Telunas Private Island. Void of modern distractions, it is where you can take time off from your busy schedules and have a quiet time with your better half, girlfriends or family and kids. The easy accessibility of the island makes this resort a perfect choice for that short getaway.  There are only 15 luxurious over-water villas on the island which means the island is never crowded – and that is an attraction in itself.

Don’t let the simple, rustic exterior of the villas fool you. As soon as you step into the villa, it is nothing short of spectacular opulence. The huge king bed faces the glass-panelled verandah where you get an almost 180-degree view of the ocean. The exclusive vibe of the island can be felt right from the moment you step off the boat and walk along the wooden jetty towards the Grand Lodge where you will be led straight to your villas. No formal check-in necessary (they do not even have a check-in desk).

Opened in 2015, this new resort is located on a small island just a mere 2-minute boat ride across the older Telunas Beach Resort. While Telunas Beach Resort offers rustic accommodations with a community vibe, the private island offers the same authentic appeal but with more comfort, grandeur and exclusivity.

Getting there: A 1-hr ferry ride to Sekupang from Harbour Front & then a 1hr 30 mins transfer by the resort boat to the island.

7. Gem Island

Best for longer breaks

Image credit: HuiChieh

Image credit: HuiChieh

Located in a Marine Conservation Park, Gem Island or Pulau Gemia boasts crystal clear waters, spotless white sandy beaches and spectacular underwater seascape of marine life. It is a privately-owned island. Surrounded by lush greenery and facing the vast blue ocean, it is a superb getaway for a relaxed holiday. Like Pulau Kapas, the island is often overlooked as tourists seek the more popular Redang, Perhentian and Tengah islands.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Marang Jetty in Terengganu. It is a long drive so if you are going by coach, it would depart at night, arriving in Terengganu only the next morning. From the jetty, you get on a speedboat for a 15-minute ride to the island. There are several boat operators so do scout around to get the cheapest deal.

 

First published on TripZilla on Apr 3, 2017

7 Secret Islands Just Hours Away from Singapore

Budget Guide for Scandinavian Cities

Travelling Scandinavia is often not the first choice for budget travellers due to its reputation of being the most expensive part of Europe. It costs about SG$25-30 for a McDonald’s meal and a bottle of water could set you back up to SG$10. Despite the exorbitant prices, with careful planning, you can see Scandinavia without going broke. There are a number of things you can do to make sure you maximise your dollar while you are there.

The Scandic Region is made up of five countries; Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Here, I will cover the first four as I have already shown you how you can travel Iceland on a budget. This guide is highly relevant if you’d like to cover the four capital cities, namely:

Oslo

Stockholm

Helsinki

Copenhagen  

Transport: Take a cruise, train or bus between cities

The route that makes the most sense, geographically, starts from Copenhagen, Denmark, and up north to Helsinki, Finland – or the other way round. You can cover the countries in this order: Denmark ⇒ Norway ⇒ Sweden ⇒ Finland

Getting there

There are many flights from Singapore that will take you there. If you book early enough and are flexible with dates, you can get a great flight deal which will save you hundreds. I have always managed to get my tickets for less than SG$1,000 by booking 5 to 8 months ahead. So do plan early.

Cruise

Image credit: Sergey Tchernyakov

If you are starting from Copenhagen, take an overnight cruise to Oslo. Generally, if you have an option to travel between these cities by boat or cruise, take that route as it is often the most economical, and makes for amazing photo op too. The cruise in itself is a visual treat. I stayed out on deck most part of the journey as the views were simply to die for. In the summer, the sun only sets past 11pm hence Scandinavia is also known as the land of the midnight sun. So if you go during this season, do catch the sunset from the ship deck; it makes for a memorable moment on the trip.

The overnight cruise cost about 80-90 Euros for a twin room, inclusive of breakfast. The cost per person is a steal, especially since you get to save one night’s worth of accommodation. I promise you an unforgettable journey as you approach Oslo, a city that is sandwiched between fjords and forests. You can imagine the diverse sceneries that the city is home to.

Similarly, book yourself a cruise from Oslo to Stockholm and from Stockholm to Helsinki. From Stockholm to Helsinki is another overnight cruise that will cost you less than SG$100.

Train

If you prefer travelling by train, the Scanrail pass (Eurail Scandinavia Pass) is your best deal. You can pre-book these online or buy them directly from the train stations. 5-days or 21-consecutive-day variations are also available for a similar price at any major train station in Scandinavia. If you’re travelling beyond Scandinavia, consider the Eurail Global Pass which offers unlimited train travel in 28 European countries!

Like the cruise, do plan for an overnight train ride so that you can save on one night’s accommodation. Note that some trains require seat reservation which would be added to the cost of the ticket. To avoid the hassle of doing this separately, head to the ACP Rail Website. Here, reservations are included as standard and you can have an e-ticket sent to you instantly.

Bus

For even bigger savings on transportation, take the bus. For example, if you are from Sweden, a couple of private bus companies – such as Swebus and Nettbuss – run long-distance services between Sweden’s main cities, and also have reliable connections to Copenhagen and Oslo. Book ahead if you can. The buses are second only to the train in terms of comfort, with free WiFi and on-board toilets.

Accommodation: Pick hostels or rental apartments/rooms

Hotels are generally very expensive in this region.  Scandinavian hostels are a good option to save on accommodations. Check out Hostelling International or Hostelworld for more information. Renting apartments and rooms is another option. Thanks to home rental portals like Airbnb, self-serviced apartments would be another viable option. Holiday rentals are very cheap in Scandinavia in the last two weeks of August and early September.

But if you still wish to stay in a hotel, I recommend the Scandic Hotels, a hotel chain that operates in the region. It offers a good balance of comfort and value, and is very friendly on the wallet too. I stayed in the one at Helsinki and Stockholm. The location was perfect, right in the middle of the action. The Christmas Market and main shopping belt were at our doorstep. The one in Helsinki is also a 5-minute walk to Finnair Airport Bus Station, Helsinki Central Station and the National Museum. A short taxi ride will take you straight to the harbour where the cruise to and from other Scandinavian cities berthed.

Food: Make your own meals

Food is generally very expensive in Scandinavia. Small purchases would add up pretty quickly. A coffee and simple cheese sandwich would cost SG$15-25! So the cheaper option would be to cook your meals. It is easy to get supplies from the many small supermarkets and make your own sandwiches or simple meals. If you plan to stay in apartments with cooking facility then by all means, bring your ingredients from home, like I did. I was equipped with my curry powder, ikan bilis sambal, rice and the works!

Sightseeing: Look for free guided tours and attractions

Image credit: Jakob Hurner

Capital cities are notoriously expensive in Scandinavia but going on a free guided tour allows you to orientate and decide which of the sights you want to explore in more detail. The best part is that most galleries and museums in Scandinavia offer free entrance. For those that do not, many offer student and youth discounts, so it’s well worth for those under 30 to pay the SG$25 fee for an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) or International Youth Travel Card (IYTC).

In the cities, Copenhagen especially, there are many breathtakingly beautiful castles and architecture that could easily fill up a few days of your time. If you visit in the winter months, you can experience free ice-skating in all of Scandinavia, complete with Christmas music to set the mood. In the summer, you can spend a romantic evening at the many free theatres in the park.

In terms of timing, Scandinavian school term-time, such as the end of August, is a good time to visit as that is when the Scandinavian children are back at school, so places of interest like theme parks and Legoland is empty. You might even get a 2-for-1 deal for the tickets.

Even if museums, parks and castles are not your thing, Scandinavia is known for its stunning scenery, gorgeous fjords and glaciers, and many picturesque attractions. You don’t have to pay anything to enjoy the evening along the colourful Nyhavn Harbour of Copenhagen, explore Gamla Stan in Stockholm or get mesmerised by the breathtaking fjords of Norway.

 

First published on Tripzilla on March 13, 2017

Budget Guide on Scandinavian Cities

Who Says Perth Is Boring?

I remember the very first time I wanted to take a trip to Perth. Almost everyone I knew who had been there told me “Perth is boring!” and that “There’s nothing to do there!” Boy, am I glad my stubborn-self decided to go ahead with the trip anyway despite all the negative reviews.

I ended up having the best road trip ever and fell head over heels with this ‘boring’ part of Australia. Needless to say, I have been back for several more road trips since and I’ll be visiting Perth again for the sixth time this June.

Perth City

Image credit: Mark Ireland

To begin with, Perth city itself is not very big. But even if you stay within the city itself, there are plenty of things to do. The shopping areas including Watertown (previously known as Harbour Town), the white sandy beaches, wildlife parks and many other attractions are certainly worthy of your visit to Perth. My favourite would be Caversham Wildlife Park. Here, you can take selfies with the kangaroos basking in the sun and cute koalas munching on eucalyptus leaves – a real treat for city dwellers like us.

Along the way from Rottnest to Perth 

You can easily head out to Freemantle or take a day trip to Rottnest Island. Rottnest Island is rugged and raw, different from the tropical islands we are used to in Asia. All the above could easily fit into a 3- to 5-day trip.

But if you do have longer than that, to have an even more awesome time, take a road trip along its coastal roads. I promise you will return for more.

Road-trip to the South

Perth, Western Australia (WA), is the nearest destination in Down Under from Singapore. The flight there will take you just a little more than four hours.

Once you are in Perth, you can choose to do a road trip down to the South, or up to the North or a combination of both, if you have the time. My advice is if you have limited number of days, head to the South as the North would require longer drives to the towns and the places of interest you want to explore are further apart. So save the North for when you have at least 10 days or more. Anything lesser than that, I think it makes more sense to explore the South. The route provides for ideal driving time of between 2–3 hours to each stopover town – very manageable for even the most anxious first-time visitors.

Western Australia is made of many small towns, each with its own landscape and characteristics. You will also find very different accommodation in each town and this is what makes the journey interesting. You can stay by a river in one, and right smack on the beach in another, or be surrounded by vineyards in one and high up on the meadows in another. The accommodations to stop for the night are plenty and it is easy to find one that suits your needs and budget.

Penguin Island | Image credit: Leo Suarez

Begin your journey to the South towards Rockingham. You can do a short stop here to enjoy the coastal views of this seaside town and take pictures on the white sandy beaches. During the summer months, this is also where you stop to take a tour to Penguin Island.

 

Mandurah | Image credit: Eren A. 

Mandurah

From here, head to Mandurah which is about 40 minutes away. The second largest town in WA, Mandurah makes a good stopover for the night. A picturesque waterfront town, this is also where you can catch amazing sunsets and enjoy watersports like jet skiing. The sailing boats that dot the waterfront add to its beauty. The next day, you can go on a cruise from the Dolphin Quay and more often than not, the Mandurah dolphins will make their appearance. If you venture out to the Yalgorup National Park, you can see the amazing Thrombolite living fossils. Besides exploring the waterways and national parks, you can head out for a bushwalk along the trails through the Jarrah Forests. Due to its geography and location, Mandurah’s accommodations offer one of the most scenic views. This is why I highly recommend you stay one night here for your road trip.

Busselton Jetty | Image credit: 周小樹

The next town to drive to is Busselton. Here, you will find the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere, stretching almost two kilometres out to sea. You can choose to take a slow walk right to the end, or if you are a bit of a lazybones like me, hop onto the jetty train. If you are there during the summer months, it is worth paying to go down the Underwater Observatory, a viewing gallery that is eight metres below the water surface. Through the glass-panelled gallery, you can see some of the 300 different species of marine life in Geographe Bay.

My favourite stop for accommodation is just a few minutes from the jetty, at a small beachside residential area called Peppermint Grove Beach. You can select from several self-serviced apartments through Stays.au. The houses are so close to the sea that you could be lulled to sleep by the sound of waves crashing, and the view is simply to die for.

Road along Margaret River | Image credit: Gord McKenna

From this point, continue along the coastal road to Margaret River. Margaret River is famous for its wine region. Contrary to what most travel sites say, I personally do not find much excitement in Margaret River. It is probably a haven for wine lovers; free wine-tasting every few minutes is surely a wine lover’s idea of a perfect day. I usually do not stay the night here and just make a few photo-stops along the way. Yallingup is probably my favourite area in Margaret River because of the breathtaking beaches. The vast white sands make for incredible pictures and are an awesome sight in itself.

There is an amazing little town called Denmark that I stay at instead before heading to Albany. Not many tourists would have this in their itinerary but it is worth not giving this town a miss. Denmark is a coastal town located on Wilson Inlet in the Great Southern region of WA. This is where you find Green Pools and Elephant Rocks, two spectacular sights you must see if you are in the area. Green Pools is just on the other side of Denmark going towards Walpole in the William Bay National Park. You will find lovely calm, crystal clear water here with big granite rocks to jump off. It is a nice natural lagoon protected from the waves so it’s very safe for kids as well. It’s a bit of a hike down the track to get to but well worth the effort. Together with Elephant Rocks, Green Pools is a hidden gem in WA.

Cable Beach, Torndirrup National Park | Image credit: Lawrence Murray

The Gap

The final stop that would complete a 10-day trip nicely is Albany. It is the biggest town along the Southern Region. You should allocate at least two nights here as there are countless things to do and sights to see here. The main draw in Albany is Torndirrup National Park. Located 10 kilometres south of Albany, this 3,906-hectare national park is one of the most visited in Western Australia. All park roads are suitable for two-wheel drive vehicles. There are some awesome viewpoints of cool landscapes but the coolest to me are The Gap, The Blowholes and the Natural Bridge. The Gap is a natural rock formation carved by the waves of the Great Southern Ocean crashing against the granite coastline forming a spectacular sheer drop of almost 25 metres. The Blowholes are crevasses in the granite stretching down to sea level far below. With each wave, the holes blow air and water up the channel, a stunning visual proof of the surging power of the ocean. Depending on the size of the waves and direction of approach to the sea cliffs, the Blowholes may or may not be blowing. When they do, the noise is quite impressive and this attraction should not be missed, especially on a day when the waves are high. The Natural Bridge is a granite formation that looks just like a giant rock bridge! This ‘bridge’ is caused by the gradual wearing away of the granite rock by the Great Southern Ocean. It gives you epic views of the great Southern Ocean.

From Albany, you can take the new highway straight to Perth City. With a couple of coffee stops, this 420 kilometres journey should not take you longer than five hours.

Besides countless chocolate and toffee factories, vineyards, fruit plantations, berry farms and treetop walks along the way, the round trip drive takes you past unreal viewpoints of untrodden beaches and landscapes. You will find yourself making plenty of stops to get that awesome selfie or to check out the viewpoints and beaches. And I have not even started talking about the road trip to the North.

So, do you still think Perth is boring?

 

 

First published on Tripzilla on Feb 13, 2017

Who Says Perth Is Boring?

 

Iceland Too Expensive? Here’s How to Travel There on a Tight Budget

How To Travel Iceland on a BudgetIt is no exaggeration when I say that Iceland is a miracle of nature and its beauty is unmatched.

Iceland’s landscapes are shaped by the forces of nature. What you travel for hours to see in other popular scenic destinations like Switzerland, Scotland or Norway, you get to see as soon as you leave Iceland’s airport, Keflavik. After my first trip in summer of 2015, I fell deeply in love with the place and as soon as I came home, I booked a ticket to return in December that same year.

For most, the first thing that would come to mind about this island is the ice and the cold, and how expensive it would be to strike this destination off one’s bucket list. So how can we travel Iceland for two weeks with about SG$3K (US$2.1K) without having to rough it out? It all comes down to planning. After three trips in less than two years, I can tell you that it need not cost you an arm and a leg to see this breathtaking country.

Flight

Like any other trips, your flight is one of the biggest ticket items. Planning for your travels months or even a year ahead can really save you a lot of money.

There is no direct flight to Iceland. You can get to Iceland from any European cities or the UK. So, the trick is to find the cheapest flight from Singapore to Europe or UK. From there, you can choose from several airlines like Icelandair or other budget ones like WOW Air, Easyjet and SAS. The tickets to Iceland via these airlines could cost as low as SG$60–70, depending on when and where you are flying from. The best season to visit when costs are at its lowest would be between November to March.

My first trip there was via Edinburgh, Scotland; my second was via Helsinki, and my third was via Amsterdam. For all my trips, my flights from Singapore to the European/UK city cost me between SG$900–1100 and they were on my preferred airlines, not the cheapest that was available at that time (refer to the table below). So, if you have no preference for which airlines, you could get your tickets for even cheaper than that.

The other option is to just book yourself on Finnair which connects Singapore to Iceland with a transit in Helsinki. Do look out for sale periods as prices can be significantly lower.

Accommodation

The next big ticket item would be your accommodation. There is a whole range of accommodation to suit your needs and budget in Iceland, from hostels to big chain hotels. There are also varying types of apartments including those with cooking facility. This is a good option if you want to save money on your meals as the cost of food in Iceland can quickly add up. There are commercially listed apartments as well as those privately-owned ones on Airbnb. The more you have in your travelling party, the less your accommodation will cost you – basic math.

Hostels cost about US$26–33 per night, and if you are a member of Hosteling International (HI), you get US$5 off. If you are planning on staying in hostels, the US$28 annual membership can easily pay for itself after a couple of nights stay. Most hostels in Iceland are part of the HI group. You can get a membership at any hostel or online before you go.

For my trips, we chose to stay in apartments so we could cook most of our meals.

Food & Expenses

I personally find the most expensive thing in Iceland is the food. A simple meal could easily set you back about US$30 per person. A regular sandwich with a drink would cost you about US$17.

The cheaper option is, of course, to cook your meals in your apartment or buy the many ready-to-eat meals at the supermarkets. Do your grocery shopping at BONUS as they have the cheapest prices (you can find a few outlets in the city and in most other locations around Iceland). You can get whatever you need from there. Avoid 10/11 as they are easily the most expensive and their prices can be as high as two or three times more than BONUS.

One of the things that many tourists are not aware of is that water in Iceland is perfectly safe for drinking and there is no reason to buy bottled water. A bottle of water costs about US$3, so bring your own water bottle with you and refill from any tap. It will save you a lot of money.

Note: Beyond the city of Reykjavik, supermarkets are harder to find. Make sure you stock up on supplies and pack some food for your trip when you are going out of town.

Transport 

The first transportation you would need is to get you from Keflavik Airport to the city, Reykjavik. Do not take taxis as the cost is exorbitant. There are private bus companies that would take you to the city for a lot lesser. They have very visible booths by the terminal exit. If you want to book ahead of your arrival, you can do this online. Though this is slightly pricier than the public bus, it is certainly more convenient. They even have an option to drop you at your accommodation for a little extra charge.

Note that if you opt to be taken to your accommodation that is located in the Old Town, you will be switching to a smaller mini-bus/shuttle at the main terminal because the roads there are too narrow for the big buses; a small inconvenience for a huge saving.

Here are the rates and links to their websites:

FLYBUS (one-way)
To Reykjavik BSI Terminal: EUR 20 (ISK 2500)
To your Hotel: EUR 24 (ISK 3000)

GRAYLINE (one-way)
To Grayline Terminal: EUR 15
To your Hotel: EUR 17

There are also other companies like Reykjavik Sightseeing who could take you straight to your hotel without stopping or switching vehicles because they use a smaller shuttle all the way for ISK 2990 (EUR 24).

Note: ISK refers to Icelandic Króna and 100 ISK ~ S$1.24

Car rental 

If you are planning a self-drive road trip during your visit, an obvious need would be car rental.  They cost between US$40–70 per day but of course, you need to also factor in the cost of petrol and insurance.

Besides ice-caving, glacier walks and whale-watching, almost all other famous sights in Iceland are free, and you can easily visit them on a do-it-yourself self-drive tour.

However, I have to say that while this is generally fine for summer months, it may not be a good idea during winter. Iceland roads are unlike any other. As many have repeatedly mentioned, “driving in Iceland has nothing to do with driving wherever you are from”. The varied and rugged terrains make travelling in a regular car a challenge, if not a risk. According to the locals, sometimes even with GPS, some tourists end up in ditches or get stuck somewhere isolated and in the long dark hours of winter, which can be frightening. But if you still decide to drive, please get a 4×4 regardless of what the rental company tells you.

Note: Iceland’s weather can change very quickly. Do check for updates on road conditions at Road.is every few hours, especially in winter since roads may be icy or closed.

Also Read: The Ultimate 10 Day Iceland Road Trip Itinerary

Tours & Activities

While there are enough activities and sightseeing to fill your time within and around Reykjavik itself, the best part of Iceland is what lies beyond the city.

If you can’t drive and you don’t want to wrap your head around bus timings, you can join a group tour or a private tour with a local guide. Even though we have a valid driving license, we opted for the latter. We chose a local guide, Arctic Shots Iceland and had such an amazing experience with them on all the three times we were there. You can check them out here.

The advantage of going with these private guides is that they can customise the tour to your preference and take you to places that most tourists may not be aware exist. More so if you want to try catch the Northern Lights. Chasing the Northern Lights is an experience in itself. Due to the vast and rugged terrains of Iceland, it is best to go with an experienced guide to ensure your best chance at seeing this mind-boggling phenomenon. Besides, these locals who have been hunting the Northern Lights for years can help you find the best spots for potential viewing.

What my trip to Iceland cost me (I still have all my trip itineraries & costings so the figures are based on those):

ITEM Cost Per Person in SG$
1 Flight from SIN to EUROPE/UKFlew by:

Trip #1: Swiss Airline
Trip #2: Qatar Airways
Trip #3: Qatar Airways

$980
2 Flight from Europe/UK to IcelandTrip #1: Easyjet
Trip #2: Icelandair
Trip #3: Icelandair
$160
3 Accommodations for 14 days $840
4 Airport transfers (to accommodation via Flybus Plus) $45
5 Cash for food & other expenses $1000
TOTAL $3025

The type or tours you want to get on and how many, is within your control, depending on your budget. We budgeted about $1000 for our private tours. If you want to save on this further, you may want to go for the group tours as this will naturally be cheaper.

First published on Tripzilla on Feb 6, 2017
How to Travel Iceland on a Budget