Just about an hour and a half south of us here in San Jose lies the world famous Carmel by the sea. While we’ve visited Monterey, which is just a few miles north, we had yet to really take in Carmel.
The picturesque location of mountains meeting the sea shore gives no wonder to why it’s such a popular day trip for many in the Bay Area. We had been back in California for a couple months at this point, and I was really itching to get a good coastal hike. After some research I decided I wanted to go to Point Lobos State National Reserve and Briana planned a couple other stops for our time down there such as Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo (better known as Mission Carmel).
We arrived at the Mission just after noon on a very clear and somewhat warm Sunday. It was pretty busy, as it is an operating mission, but we managed to get parking easily enough and made our way in to see the site.
The campus is large, and a perfect example of a classic Spanish Mission: adobe plaster, warm colored brick, and ceramic tile roofs. Mission Carmel had a distinct charm and personality to it, one that I find perfectly characterized by it’s crooked window above the entrance to the church.
The grounds were well landscaped with numerous flowers and fountains. Throughout the compound there were also numerous rooms that we could visit that held various histories and artifacts related to the Mission and surrounding area.
The mission was established June 3, 1770. The mission served primarily to baptize the native Ohlone Indian population. It reached a peak of 927 members in 1794, but had dwindled back down to 381 by 1823.
The missions was secularized in 1833 by the Mexican government and slowly fell into ruin and disrepair until the Roman Catholic Church regained authority of the mission in 1863, with extensive restoration beginning in 1931.
Today the mission serves multiple roles as a museum, working mission, and minor basilica.
We also planned on visiting the Carmelite Monastery on our way to Point Lobos. I had thought this would make for a good starting point to our Point Lobos excursion. I was wrong – but it was still a nice stop.
The Monastery is mostly closed off to visitors. While you can visit, you will need to set up an appointment first. With that being said, you can walk around the grounds and enjoy the sea breeze.
Having parked at Monastery Beach, which sits across the street from the Carmelite Monastery, we made our way along the beach in search for the trail into Point Lobos. The maps online are very misleading, because it appears that you can enter the park via a trail at the far end of Monastery Beach – you cannot do this. As such, we walked about a mile up the road to main entrance to the park. It also turns out this is the only entrance into the park.
Parking costs $10, however, there is no charge for people just walking in as we did. When you enter the park, you are a little bit away from the actual coast. Because of this, we set off for Whaler’s Cove via the Carmelo Meadow Trail.
Whaler’s Cove is the largest cove in Point Lobos, and it offers stunning views the seashore. Upon arriving, we were treated to a fresh breeze and picturesque landscapes. We slowly made our way around the top of the cliff sides until we reached a boat launch.
Here at the boat launch, we were treated to a great surprise: a Sea Otter with her pup, eating crabs. We sat here and watched for nearly a half hour before proceeding on. It was mesmerizing to watch the wildlife here, and we managed to snap a few other pics of the local sea life.
From here, we proceeded up a trail along the cliff edge and continued on the trim around the coastal trail. Here you can find a small whaling museum to visit. The museum features stuff such as the equipment used by whalers, whale bones, and baleen.
Cannery Point offered a great view of the ocean (as did most spots). Artists sometimes will take advantage of the location.
We kept on, passing through Big Dome and Cypress Coves before beginning to head back. While we only saw half the park at this point, we were beginning to get tired and the sun was beginning to go down, and we wanted to get back home before dark (we didn’t).
So when we came to a trail junction near Headland Cove, we turned inward back towards the park entrance. The park was very well maintained, so these trails in the interior were well manicured, paved, or had wooden walkways.
The southern half of Point Lobos is considered phenomenal as well, as we plan on eventually making our way back to see the rest of the park. For those interested, you can also go scuba diving here and if you catch the park in the right season you can see whales and seals as well.
During our week in Bali, we chose to visit one of the iconic temples on the sea. There are seven in Bali, all within eye sight of the next one, but we really were only close enough to two of them, and we chose to visit Tanah Lot and the adjacent Pura Batu Bolong.
We began our day by jumping on a motorbike and heading to the Color Digital Photo Lab to get some film developed, which we later picked up on our way to the Ubud Monkey Sanctuary. After dropping off the film, we then began drove down to Zula Vegetarian for lunch and an opportunity to charge my phone a bit and then over to Tanah Lot, which wound up being about an hour and half’s drive. It really wasn’t too bad a drive to make and we arrived sometime around 2.
When we arrived, I was surprised to find the parking area was quite a ways away from the actual temple and thought that we might be in the wrong spot. However, everything indicated that we were in the right spot. We purchased our entrance tickets for 15,000 IDR each (~$1.15) and began our walk through the numerous shops, stalls, and restaurants on the way to the temple.
There was so much art we would have liked to get, but we just couldn’t. We also got a view of some of the local animals: owls, civets (famous for their Luwak Coffee), and a few Flying Foxes. We really question why the animals were there.
Finally, after about ten more minutes, we found ourselves down at the entrance to Tanah Lot.
The Hindu temple itself is set on a stone outcropping which can only be accessed during low-tide. We made our way across the rocky outcroppings and spent a while watching the surf and tide pools which were teeming with life, as well as trying to get our own space amongst the hundreds of other tourists.
The rocky shore was quite nice.
We then made our way to the actual temple. Before being able to visit the temple, we first had to be purified by the holy water. There were religious men, who would bless us after we washed our hands in the fresh spring water that poured from the island outcropping. We were sprinkled with incensed water and then had rice pressed to our forehead and were given flowers for behind our ears.
At that point, we were then able to proceed up to the see the temple. Unfortunately, there was a gate that prevented us from actually getting inside the temple, but it was nice nonetheless.
Tanah Lot, which means Land in the Sea in Balinese is claimed to be the work of 16th century Dang Hyang Niratha. He claimed to have stopped during his travels and decided to rest on the island. Fishermen saw him, and brought him gifts. The fishermen then told him to build a shrine because they felt the place to be holy. The temple worships Bhatara Segara, the sea god, and it is believed that venomous sea snakes at the base of the rock protect the temple.
In the 1980s, erosion had begun to cause significant damage to the structure, and the Japanese government provided significant aid to renovate and stabilize the temple. Today, the extensive repairs are unnoticeable and allow for the continued enjoyment of the site.
We then walked out from the temple and made our way up the ridge to view the other temple: Pura Batu Bolong. The name means hole in the rock, which is quite fitting as the temple sits on a rock with a giant hole in it, creating an arch as one goes to the temple.
Unfortunately, the temple was also closed off to us at the time. However, there was a large park in the surrounding area for us to enjoy, so we sat for a few hours and enjoyed our time there and watched as the sun sank low.
Some of the locals were quick to take pictures with Briana. We’re not so sure why they wanted pictures with foreigners here (since there were so many). It made since back at Borobodur. In any case, Briana made a few new friends.
Not much is known about the temple itself. It was built sometime in the 14th century, and legends point to it being built by a hermit in meditation and the king’s master Kuturan.
We intended to stay for the sunset, but cloud cover was beginning to make it apparent we would not actually get to the see the sun sink into the ocean. Because of this, I decided we should make our way out a few minutes early so that we could get on the road before dark set in and beat the crowds and traffic out.
The ride home was alright, although my phone ran out of battery and required us to stop at a Circle K for a little while to charge so that we could have GPS.
The temples were great, we just really wish we could have gotten the chance to go inside them.
Much of Sri Lanka is a surfers paradise. There are many beaches with great breaks, especially along the southern shores from Galle to Arugam Bay. The high season is during the winter months from October to February, however you’ll find that some areas are able to be surfed year-round.
We spent our time in Weligama, which is a a wonderful town on the southern tip in the Matara district. The town sits on a neat half-moon bay, with nice sandy shores and consistent waves. There are also a few large rocks within the water, but few if any reefs. It is primarily just a beach break.
Due to the nature of the bay, the waves tend to not be quite as big as they may at be some of the other beaches, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The bay protects the waves from being blown out during high winds, but also allows in decent swells. This allows for ideal conditions for a beginner or intermediate rider, with waves ranging from 4 – 9 feet on a typical day.
This was good for me, because I am a beginner surfer. I’m quite comfortable in the water and have gone before at Cocoa Beach in Florida, USA. My experience here was quite different though.
If you want, you can get surf lessons for around 1200 LKR (~$8) or you can opt for the route I went and just rent a board by the hour. Because it was the off-season here (June), I was able to just walk up to the beach, look for a guy with a surf board and rent it for 250 LKR (~$1.70). Not a bad deal (usually it’s 300 LKR / $2). They offered advanced or beginner boards, I decided to just go with a beginner board.
Then I went off into the water to give it a shot. Briana stayed behind on the beach to photograph and read – she wanted to see how I fared before giving it a shot herself.
The current was pretty strong, but not too difficult for me to fight. What I found most difficult however was actually paddling out. I kept fighting the waves, as soon as I ducked under one wave, another one was atop me. I spent quite a few minutes before I managed to get to the first break and try to actually catch the waves. The waves themselves were around 4 feet that day.
Once I got into position however, the waves were perfect to ride. They were long, had a slight curl, and decent size and power. If you were better than me, you could certainly ride them pretty well. I managed to catch a half dozen, and miss a dozen or so more. My biggest issue was paddling out, which would exhaust me and then I’d get impatient and try to ride the wrong waves.
I’ve since learned you should look for the outflow of water and follow that so that you don’t have to fight against the waves. Rip currents = bad for swimming / good for surfing. Lesson learned. Towards the end of the hour, exhaustion was getting to me and I was getting quite sloppy with my riding and thrown around by the waves.
At one point, I somehow got rolled by a wave and then came up facing the beach to see another huge waves crashing atop me. I’m really not sure how a wave came from shore, but it did.
When I came back, I had to take a rest before going on with the day. Briana decided she didn’t want to fight the waves that much. I would have liked to go again on a different day, but my arms were so sore I was out of it for a few days, and then things just didn’t work out with all the other things we did.
But for surfing, you should definitely head to Weligama and give it a shot. For those looking for bigger waves, just head a few miles down the road either way. Mirissa, Matara, Koggala, Unawatuna, Dikwella, and Tangalle all have great breaks. There are waves for all kinds of riders here.
Our trip through Vietnam had been quite tiring and overwhelming. The cities are huge, bustling, and crowded. The air is smoggy and hard to breathe. We were getting quite ready to cut our stay within Vietnam short of our 3 month Visa, but we still had a few things we wanted to check out. Ha Long Bay was on our to-do list, so we decided that we would do that, then figure out what we wanted to do after that.
Upon a little research, Briana found a much better way to experience Ha Long. Typically, most people will shuttle onto a junk for 2 or 3 days and explore the bay this way while paying upwards of $150 per person. What Briana managed to find, was Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the largest island in Ha Long Bay, residing in the southwestern edge of the bay, and has several small towns on the island. Upon checking it out, we realized that we could spend over a week on the island and still take a boat trip out from the island – for a cheaper price than the standard Ha Long excursion.
With a little work, we managed to figure out the journey to the island. It required several buses, and a ferry to get there, as no planes service the island.
Upon arriving to the island, you immediately feel like you’re visiting Jurassic Park. Tall limestone karst cliffs rise from the sea, and dense, lush jungle clings to every surface. Swifts zip across the sky. We came in the off-season, at the end of February, and it was quite chilly upon arrival with a mist obscuring parts of the island – adding to the mystique.
The island has a few main settlements: Cat Ba Town, on the southern tip of the island; Viet Hai Village on the eastern tip of the island, accessible by boat; and the floating village, off the eastern coast of the island. Along the few roads that cross the island, you can find small homesteads and communities. Some of the larger valleys have rice paddies and small farms.
But all in all, the island remains a forgotten paradise. Although there is some tourism, the crowds haven’t really hit Cat Ba yet – but we recommend checking out the island soon, it’s bound to be found out sooner or later. Coming in the off-season, there were very few people here, and it wasn’t exactly beach weather. The water is pretty cool, and it’s overcast a lot, but it’s actually really good for exploring the island. During the summer, it can get sweltering and hiking could be miserable. As well, the waters in the bay can get very rough during the summer, while the off-season has very calm waters making for a more enjoyable tour of the bay.
A majority of Cat Ba Island remains undeveloped jungle and wilderness. It’s really not surprising either. Once you start to explore the island, you realize just how easy it is for the island to remain remote – steep, jagged, limestone karst mountains raise from floor throughout. It’s truly a scene that will send you back a few million years.
Most of the island in fact, is a part of Cat Ba National Park, with some communities living within the park itself. Established in 1986, the park covers 263 square kilometers, with 173 being land, and 90 of inshore water. The park is a special-use forest, as one of the world’s biosphere reserves. The park is home to 282 species of animal, comprising of 32 mammals, 78 birds, 20 reptiles, and 11 amphibians. The most famous of these is the Golden Langur, which is highly endangered with only about 60 individuals left in the world. The likelihood of running across one of these though is highly unlikely. The park is made up of three zones: a visitor zone, a research zone, and an off-limits zone. Most people visiting will only be able to go through the visitor zones, which encompass the hiking trails, zoo, and various other locations throughout such as the frog pond or the jungle village. The research zone can be accessed by rangers, researchers and some students, and it is here that park officials conduct preservation experiments and probe the jungle for more information. The off-limits zone, which is located in the north-east of the island, and very difficult to attempt to reach, is off-limits to everyone and only accessed by officials and researchers in a strictly observational setting. These protocols are established to help ensure the integrity of the forest and the park. Entering the park will cost 40,000 Dong per person, and parking (if you drove) will cost an additional 5,000. You can hire a guide as well for some excursions (recommended for some) but it is not necessary.
There is plenty to do within Cat Ba National Park and you could easily make a week of it if you so desired. Some of the most notable items you can participate in are: Specimen House, the zoo, Trung Trang Cave, Butterfly Valley, Frog Pond, Cang Viet Hai Trail, Hospital Cave, Waterfall Sunset Trail, and Lookout Tower Trail. While we did not do most of these, I can give a little explanation to them.
Specimen House: Almost immediately upon entering the park from it’s headquarters, there is a large two storied building to your left. Within the house are restrooms for you to use as well as several rooms displaying preserved or stuffed animals endemic to Vietnam. The specimen house seems to have seen better days, it is a bit in disrepair, and there are no signs in English. However, it is still worth a look for some interesting views.
The Zoo: There is a zoo at the end of a 30 minute trail. We began our way down it at one point, but as the day was getting on, we decided to turn back. Near the entrance to the trail however is a cage for rehabilitating monkeys as well as a large field for deer.
Trung Trang Cave: This cave you will actually come across the entrance to on the main road before you make it to the park headquarters if you are coming from Cat Ba town. However, the gates are locked and you will need to check with a ranger at the gate to get them to open it for you. Sometimes the cave is flooded or may need to be closed for various reasons. It’s recommended that you bring a flashlight as well.
Butterfly Valley Trail: This trail leads to superb rock climbing on the island. Prices vary, but you can rent the equipment from park officials at the cliffs and they will assist you in climbing the difficult faces. We did not do this, but overheard at dinner from someone that did that the gear is in top shape, and they know what they are doing. The trail is a 3 hour hike from the park headquarters. You can ride a bike down the trail as well, but as of this moment in time, construction is taking place on the road where you would normally access it via this route, thus it is not really possible to go this route. It is recommended to just organize a tour if you want to do this.
Frog Pond: Normally this pond is accessed via the Cang Viet Hai Trail, but for those who do not wish to partake in such a strenuous hike, there is an access road that looks like it can be mostly ridden by motorbike. The road is just beyond the headquarters on your right.
Cang Viet Hai Trail: This is the shining jewel of the hikes available on Cat Ba, but it is very difficult. It is 18km and climbs up and down the mountains multiple times. It is recommended that you take a guide, but it is possible to go it alone. With a guide, you begin at 8am and hike up to Frog Pond and enjoy the many frogs there. You will then continue on until you reach a native village deep within the jungle. Here you break and eat lunch. If you are going alone, you may rent a bed for the night at their bungalow (a mattress on a wooden deck with a mosquito net). After lunch you will proceed on until you reach the ocean on eastern tip of the island. There is a small town here, accessed on via boat. The guide will arrange for a boat back to Cat Ba town from there. If you go alone, it is difficult to get a boat back and if you do they are likely to over charge you, so you’ll most likely be hiking the whole way back to the park headquarters.
Hospital Cave: I’ve already covered Hospital Cave in another post, but you can access the cave via a hiking route from the park headquarters. The hike takes around a half day to get there and back at a length of 4 km. Or you can take our route and just stop off on the side of the road.
Waterfall Sunset Trail: This trail can be accessedfrom the park headquarters and makes a steep 40 min climb up and down each. The trail is one of the shorter ones you can take, but will apparently give you a great view of some select waterfalls.
Lookout Tower Trail: This is the trail that we took, and we highly recommend it. For a more detailed look at this trail just go to the link here. This trail is very steep, and moderately difficult trail. You should allot yourself about 3 – 4 hours for this to thoroughly enjoy it. The trail winds its way through the jungle from the headquarters and culminates at the peak providing spectacular views of the park from a lookout tower. Be warned, this trail is hard on the knees and is not for those who aren’t fit.
Overlooking Cat Ba Town you can visit Cannon Fort – a Japanese installation from WWII as well as a monument dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. Cat Ba Town waterfront offers a nice selection of hotels and hostels to choose from, as well as many affordable restaurants and cafes. We frequented the Buddha Belly everyday – a wonderful Vegan restaurant. From the town you can also book excursions on the island or out in the bay. We booked ourselves a day trip of Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and kayaking from Cat Ba Ventures.
The best way to really see the island though is to rent a motorbike for the day and go exploring. The roads are practically deserted, and in good shape. With a tank of gas, you can easily traverse the entire island all day and explore the mountains and valleys in the most fun way possible. Don’t bother with a Xe Om, just get on and ride – and if you’ve never ridden, there’s no better place to learn.
Cat Ba Island means – Sandy Woman Island. According to legend, three women washed ashore upon the island having drowned. The islanders were saddened and built a temple to commemorate each one. Over time, the island came to be known as the sandy woman island – Cat Ba Island. There are three beaches on the island, aptly named Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2, and Cat Co 3. All the beaches are located on the southern tip near the town. The beaches have been dominated a bit by the only resort style hotels on the island, but they are still public access. If you want an even more secluded stay, you can make the jaunt over to Monkey Island. It’s just a ferry ride away, if you’ve made it as far as Cat Ba, it shouldn’t be a problem to figure out how to make it there.
We enjoyed Cat Ba immensely. It has probably been the highlight of our time in Vietnam. It was here that we got our taste of rural and secluded Vietnam. We got to traverse jungle, and see life outside the city. It was mostly quiet, and the air was fresh. People also seemed generally happier here than they did in the city – the dogs certainly were, they loved running up and down the streets. We liked it so much here, that we almost immediately extended our stay on the island by several days.
The island truly is beautiful, and we can’t recommend it enough. There is so much to do here, and it’s a much more relaxed Vietnam than you’ll find in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi.