Reflections on a round-the-world journey

Several nights into our journey, as we were speeding along dark roads en route to our guest house on the island of Lifou in New Caledonia, I felt a bolt of irrepressible excitement of the sort familiar, no doubt, to most travel enthusiasts. We’d just spent several nights in big, bold Sydney, a bona fide world city, well-organized and self-evident. Sydney was exciting, but, truth be told, not unlike many places I knew well. The quiet island of Lifou, with its hybrid French-Melanesian culture, provided a novel contrast. There were few people around, and few streetlights. The air smelled sweet. Occasionally a car overtook us during our 40-minute journey, and headlights once or twice revealed women in bright clothing walking along the side of the road.

We had made it to an unknown place. I felt myself caught up with that familiar emotion known to all who love travel: teeming excitement, tied to a lack of knowledge of what was to come.

Taking stock of a five-week trip after the fact is perhaps unavoidable, but it’s also fraught. You don’t want to put too much energy into second-guessing what you did on your journey, perhaps in particular because a specific round-the-world itinerary is unlikely to be repeated. Simultaneously, you also want to learn from the experience.

Here’s what we planned well and what we might have executed differently if we had the trip to do over.Good planning.

• Hotels. Our hotels were well chosen, all in the $95-$175 range. In terms of value, we did especially well by scoring a room through Hotwire at the Hilton London Docklands for just under $100 per night. Most of the hotels we chose are well-located, or close enough to secondary attractions to feel central.

• Open-ended approach. Our general lack of planning as far as activities are concerned was also beneficial. This approach gave us time to relax into each destination and pick up inspiration on the spot. Our approach perfectly fit my neighborhood-based strategy of urban exploration. More tourist sight-oriented travelers might find this approach to be less satisfying.

• Variety of destinations. Another plus was the variety of our itinerary’s destinations. By including big vibrant cities and out-of-the-way insular idylls on our itinerary, we were able to enjoy a range of experiences in a relatively short period.

So-so planning.

• Johannesburg. As I detailed in an earlier post, our brief Johannesburg stay suffered from poor planning. In retrospect, it turns out that I’d simply consulted the wrong sources. Several friends and acquaintances popped out of the woodwork following the publication of this blog post with tips. I’ll be better prepared for my next visit to Johannesburg. Lesson: always get feedback from your trusted contacts and carefully contextualize reports of a city’s security situation.

• Tanna Island. I’m a big fan of picking a base and then fanning out to other places. I wish we’d taken greater advantage of this approach to spend a few nights on Vanuatu’s Tanna island. I read about Tanna, an ecological wonder of nature, in Lonely Planet’s Vanuatu & New Caledonia guidebook. It is fairly easy to visit Vanuatu from New Caledonia.

• Rodrigues Island. Nine nights on Mauritius was perhaps two too many. A jaunt to the country’s far flung Rodrigues Island, 350 miles to the east, would have provided a fascinating cultural and physical contrast with the main island.

This is the final Capricorn Route series installment. Check out other stories in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Capricorn Route trip top ten

Later this week I’ll reflect on the ups and downs of our round-the-world trip. I’ll look at what we might have done differently as well as those elements that turned out to be particularly well conceived. In the meantime, here’s a playful top ten list of some of the best things we encountered along the way: best beach; best ice cream; best tourist trap; best breakfast; best market stall; best new subway line; best hotel arrival punch; best rough neighborhood; best flight; and best place to sharpen cupcake decoration skills.

1. Best beach: Châteaubriand Bay Beach, Lifou. The Loyalty Island of Lifou in New Caledonia certainly several incredible beaches. Châteaubriand Bay Beach is the most magnificent of these. The sand is delicate and white, the water is a mesmerizing hue, and there’s plenty of shade for those who burn easily. Locals share the beach with tourists, though in the very pleasant off-season there are few of either around.

2. Best ice cream: violet ice cream at Cutler & Co in Melbourne. The extraordinary tasting menu served at Cutler & Co was devoid of missteps. The parting shot of violet ice cream left a bold final impression. It was also the tastiest serving of ice cream of the trip.

3. Best (that is, worst) tourist trap: Île aux Cerfs, Mauritius. Everyone raves about Île aux Cerfs, an island off the east coast of Mauritius. Visitors pay 1000 rupees ($34) upfront at a tour agency in the coastal town of Trou d’Eau Douce for access to the island plus a barbecue lunch. A boat picks up tourists and deposits them at a jetty on the island, then later ferries them over to another island for a barbecue lunch. The island is packed with tourists and touts selling boat rides and parasailing adventures. Prior to development, this island was no doubt terribly beautiful–and, it must be said, it has no landscape-scarring developments even now–but it’s quite crowded for a destination where it is pretty easy to avoid masses of tourists.

4. Best breakfast: Forbes & Burton, Sydney. A potato cake under poached eggs with smoked salmon and onion jam (AUD$18) was the best breakfast of the trip, hearty and refined at once. Runner-up in the great breakfast stakes: several items on the menu at Il Fornaio in Melbourne’s St. Kilda neighborhood.

5. Best market stall: Tisanes N. Mootoosamy, Stall 244, Central Market, Port Louis. The owner’s pitch is hilarious: “There’s one herb we sell here that you can’t use until you leave Mauritius. This is the anti-stress herb, because there’s no stress on Mauritius.” The range of ailments addressed by the herbs on offer here, meant to be imbibed as tea, is broad. It includes menopause, insomnia, cellulite, and anemia.

6. Best new subway line: London Overground East London line. Opened for service in May, 2010, this new line provides a new more or less vertical south-to-north link from West Croydon to Dalston Junction. Some stations are pristine and modern and the trains are gleamingly new.

7. Best arrival punch: Oasis De Kiamu, Lifou. To be fair, this was our only welcome punch, but no matter. It’s awfully nice to be welcomed to a hotel in the tropics with a fruity drink, especially one that turns out to foreshadow well the flavorful aperitifs to come.

8. Best supposedly rough-and-tumble neighborhood: Footscray, Melbourne. I loved this neighborhood of cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a market, an excellent community arts center, and countless specialty shops, many oriented to Melbourne’s various ethnic communities. If you find yourself in Melbourne in desperate need of a grocery that sells both Fijian and Sri Lankan products, Footscray would be a safe bet.

9. Best flight: Qantas Business class Los Angeles-Sydney on the Airbus A380. This is, quite simply, one of the best business-class long-haul routes around. The seats recline completely, the food is quite nice, and there is plenty of privacy. Even the bathroom lighting is gentle. Not cheap, though completely worthwhile.

10. Best place to take a lesson in cupcake decoration: Amandine, London. One of many exciting retail venues in Victoria Park Village, Amandine is a beautiful little café that prioritizes delicious homemade cakes. It also offers fresh produce, good coffee, and free wi-fi. Inside, Amandine is bright and cheerful, like a stylish country cottage gone Boho. There’s also a back garden.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Dodging sea snakes on Lifou

From Sydney we took a two-and-a-half hour morning flight to the French territory of New Caledonia and then jumped into a taxi headed to Nouméa, the capital. We then spent the better part of an afternoon exploring the capital. (Don’t worry. I’ll circle back to Nouméa in a future post.) Ahead of us: six nights on Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s four Loyalty Islands.

Our Air Calédonie flight from Nouméa’s domestic airport to Lifou, arrives just before 6 pm. By 6:30 pm, when we get into the van organized by our hotel, it’s completely dark. We hurtle through the night. Most of the streets have no streetlights. Our driver points various things out: the bank; another bank; the mayor’s office; the post office. It is deeply exciting to be introduced to an unfamiliar place just beyond dusk.

Logistics first. There is a secret to every place you visit. On Lifou, the secret is that you need to rent a car. Distances are considerable. The best beaches are 12 or so miles apart from one another, and there is neither public transportation nor a taxi service.

The other secret, except that it’s not really a secret at all, is that the reefs around Lifou are teeming with highly venomous sea snakes. They are apparently very curious and have a habit of zipping over to snorkeling humans to say hello. Despite their serpentine toxicity, everybody claims that they are harmless. Ne pas toucher says the woman at the reception desk at our guest house, with a shrug. My fears are not assuaged.

On our first full day, we rent bikes built for people smaller than us. We bike along Lifou’s main road in early morning, stopping at little shops to pick up a baguette, tinned sardines, water, and crackers. We bike to Luengoni Beach (see above) on the island’s east coast. A deserted beach, a makeshift lunch. It is shockingly perfect, even with two rain showers. Returning in mid-afternoon we are caught unprepared by yet another rainstorm, this one pretty massive, though by the time we make it back to the guest house it has become very hot. The bike journey, at over 20 kilometers, is pretty arduous in the heat. We quickly came to the conclusion that we need a car and rent one the next day.

The cove opposite Oasis de Kiamu hotel.

Lifou’s beaches are ridiculous. The sand is powdery and white and the bays arc gently. There are two perfect beaches on Lifou’s east coast: Chateaubriand Bay, which cradles the town of Wé, the administrative center of the Loyalty Islands, and the beach in the settlement of Luengoni, to the south. There is a smaller beach further south along on Wiadra Bay, also picturesque although lacking the majesty of the largest beaches. There are also many coves, such as the one across the road from our comfortable guesthouse, Oasis de Kiamu (see above). The west coast is home to Peng beach, described by everyone as the most perfect of all. The road leading to Peng, however, is currently barricaded by locals protesting plans to build a new hotel there.
The view from Jokin’s cliff side perch.

Beaches aren’t the entire story on Lifou. We drive the island from top to bottom. At the northern end is the town of Jokin with its picturesque cliff side vistas (see above) over coral reefs. Inland along the western side of the island are dense forests and a string of villages that feel a world apart. The signs here are in Drehu, the local Kanak variant, not French. At one point a man raises his arm to wave at us and we notice that he is holding a rifle, presumably for hunting. The southern tip of the island is home to spectacular cliffs that permit views of Tiga, the smallest inhabited Loyalty island.

New Caledonia is a part of France, and Lifou is unmistakably part of the French-speaking world. That said, it is truly on the outskirts of the French state. Almost everyone speaks French, and emblems of the French government are omnipresent, yet the blending of contemporary and traditional forms of clothing among women, the presence of traditional Kanak huts next to modern houses, and the sharing of power between tribal and French jurisdictions makes for a place that feels like both an outpost of France and an emerging Pacific nation.

Lifou is not a budget destination. With the more or less obligatory car rental, costs come to about $160 a day per person for accommodations, meals, and transportation combined, assuming a double room share. By staying in tribal accommodations, getting meals from supermarkets, and eschewing a car rental, costs would plummet considerably, though probably not below $75 per day per person. Our costs included a nightly dinner at Oasis de Kiamu, our friendly little guest house. Three-course dinners, prefaced by an aperitif and an amuse-gueule, came to around 3800 francs (about $42). Our room cost 9000 francs per night, which is around $101.

Finally, back to the dreaded sea snakes. While terribly poisonous, they are, according to the research Matt did online, famously meek. They’re so agreeable, in fact, that fishermen apparently toss them by hand back into the ocean when they get tangled in nets.

I never saw one.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

How to take a round-the-world trip

An open-ended round-the-world trip can be led by whimsy and happenstance and benefit accordingly from extremely loose planning. A more structured, time-limited round-the-world trip necessitates figuring out transportation in advance. With five weeks to play with, we fell into the latter camp.

I emailed AirTreks in the spring and dutifully submitted an itinerary through their global map booking request system. AirTreks prices round-the-world itineraries, for fares well under what one would pay for each individual stretch.

Around this time, we made another decision, one personally radical. We would fly business-class the entire way. Such a choice certainly isn’t unusual for many frequent fliers, but for a budget traveler like myself who travels in coach barring those rare times I’m upgraded or am flying on someone else’s dime, this was a big shift in approach. This choice amplified the unusual nature of the itinerary, underscoring the fact that this trip wouldn’t be repeated or emulated anytime soon.

Once we nailed our itinerary down and decided to go with business-class tickets the entire way, we requested a new estimate from AirTreks. Then Matt started to play with the oneworld Explorer round-the-world booking engine. This is where things got interesting. The oneworld Explorer fare was several thousand dollars cheaper than the AirTreks fare.

There was really no decision to make. Even our patient AirTreks consultant urged us to go for the oneworld fare. We made the purchase. Though shockingly expensive by my own personal standards and customary budgetary constraints, the entire journey in business-class turned out to cost a few hundred dollars more than a single first-class round-trip ticket from New York to London.As far as subsequent planning is concerned, things have been pretty low-tech. We’ve got a handful of guidebooks (all Lonely Planet, though this is simply an accident of timing and availability) and a few downloaded iPhone apps, which I’ll comment on if they turn out to be at all helpful.

Other planning focused on the tips of friends and acquaintances. My sister, a food writer, recommended some Sydney restaurants. Melbourne chef Tony Tan, who I’d had the good fortune of meeting on my previous visit to Melbourne, passed on a must-visit list of new Melbourne restaurants. A friend of Mauritian background provided contact information of a villa rental company with beautiful properties that were simply too expensive for our budget. The exchange that followed didn’t help us with accommodations, but it did allow us to clarify our focus for Mauritius.

For hotels we scanned our guidebooks for mid-range accommodations and then searched online to get a general sense of how hotels were reviewed. I’ve always taken TripAdvisor with a massive grain of salt, as I’ve found on several occasions that I don’t mind the sorts of hotels pilloried by TripAdvisor contributors. But we did use TripAdvisor this time as a kind of quality control verification source. In one case, we nixed an otherwise appealing hotel choice based on a number of reviews that suggested an ongoing cockroach infestation.

We poked around online to find low rates at good hotels. In both Sydney and Melbourne, location was the key consideration. In Sydney we wanted a central neighborhood, and we ended up with a boutique hotel in Potts Point booked through Venere. In Melbourne I lobbied for a stay in St. Kilda, an area I remembered very fondly from my last visit. There we found a furnished studio apartment.

For our single night in Johannesburg, we decided to stay in a guesthouse in Sandton, a Johannesburg neighborhood with good restaurants. In New Caledonia, Mauritius, and Réunion, we focused on well-priced guesthouses and hotels in areas beyond built-up coastal tourist strips. In London, we opted for the Hilton in Canary Wharf because we found a good deal for it on Hotwire. The most expensive nightly rate we’re paying for a hotel is $165. The least pricey is around $82.

We made most of our hotel reservations in advance, leaving a few nights free in New Caledonia (to give us some freedom if we decided to change accommodations) and Réunion (a by-product of our inability thus far to find an inexpensive guesthouse in one of the island’s inland Cirques, or calderas.) We wanted to put logistics to bed as completely as possible in advance. More open-ended itineraries would probably benefit from fewer advance reservations.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Vinni123)