QUIET PONDS AND MANICURED TREES: Exploring magical zen gardens in Tokyo

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Traditional Japanese Gardens are great places to relax in Tokyo. They’re usually not very busy and visited mostly by locals.

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KIYOSUMI GARDEN

I decided to visit this place as it was close to where I was staying. What a wonderful surprise!

This is a picture-perfect XIX century Japanese garden, and you can spend a couple of hours taking in the manicured landscape, watching tortoises and carp laze about and having a picnic with a view (tickets Y150). This was the first Japanese garden I visit and one of my favourites.

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KOISHIKAWA KORAKUEN

I visited Koishikawa Korakuen Garden (ticket Y300) at the end of my Japanese adventure, and it was one of my favourite places!

This is a massive Japanese garden full of little gems – waterfalls, red bridges, lakes, fruits trees etc. I visited on a beautiful sunny day in early November, when you could catch the red tint of autumn leaves which made it the perfect time for a visit.

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The place is pretty big, so you can spend an hour or two exploring and having a snack enjoying the view.

Japanese gardens are always amazing, but this one was probably my favourite!

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RIKUGIEN

Rikugien Garden (tickets Y300) is inspired by scenes in Japanese poems. It is a large garden full of little places to explore, including a human-made hill with great views over the garden and a little waterfall.

It’s located in a quiet neighbourhood but definitely worth the trip.

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HAMARIKYU 

Close to Tsukiji Market, Hamarikyu is a nice green area in central Tokyo (tickets Y300). The place is really big, with many ponds (filled with water from Tokyo Bay), traditional buildings and cafes.

As it covers a large area, it’s more like an urban park than a garden, and as you take in the quiet atmosphere you also see the contrasting skyscrapers nearby.

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SHINJUKU GYOEN NATIONAL GARDEN

Gyoen Garden (tickets Y200) is another place to escape the madness. It’s a quiet garden right by Shinjuku with lots of different areas, including a traditional Japanese garden. It’s the perfect place to recharge with a picnic.

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Tokyo doesn’t have many green areas, but its gardens really are the best!

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FLYING FLAMINGOS AND COLOURFUL DRAGONFLIES: Camargue by bus

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The research I did before going to Arles led me to believe that you need a car to visit the Camargue. Luckily this is not the case!

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Camargue is a region close to Arles. It is where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean, creating interesting flooded areas with lots of wildlife.

Following the recommendation of my host in Arles, I decided to visit Pont the Gau, a bird reserve at the heart of Camargue National Park (ticket 7.50€).

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It is a good place to get a taste of what the region has to offer, as it has a little bit of everything. But the main attraction are definitely the flamingos, which are everywhere and spend their time looking like Giacometti statues dancing an awkward ballet. You can even spot them flying from time to time!

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You can also spot lots of other birds, many dragonflies and the occasional horse. And you can catch great views of the surrounding area too.

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HOW TO DO IT:

To reach Pont de Gau, you can take bus L20 from Arles (ticket for 1€), which leaves every few hours. The trip takes about 40min.

Alternatively, the same bus also goes to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which is the main town in the Camargue. There are many walking routes around there. Horse-riding and renting bikes are also popular.

Another option is to head to Salin de Giraud, where you can follow other walking trails. Bus n. 10 from Arles goes there a few times per day (timetable available here).

The links above as well as information centres in the region are all full of detailed information on how to reach the different areas, so it was actually fairly simple to see some of the Camargue just taking the bus. The only thing to be aware of is that the bus can get quite busy, so it’s best to go early.

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HOW TO PLAN YOUR GALAPAGOS TRIP: Tips and reflections

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SPOTTING WILDLIFE:

Spotting tortoises, iguanas and other animals is the main reason why people visit the Galapagos. But still we were often surprised by how abundant and friendly the animals were.

Sea lions rest in benches at the port, rays swim next to you by the shore, sharks can be spotted in any snorkelling trip. There’s so much to see that sometimes you don’t know if you watch a colony of marine iguanas or focus on the sea turtles swimming in the distance.

Unlike any other place I’ve visited, in Galapagos you can always be sure that you’ll see lots of animals close by anywhere you go – from beaches full of sea lions with pups to tortoises grazing next to a main road. Time and again we were surprised by the wildlife everywhere we went.

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PUERTO AYORA:

There are three main towns in Galapagos – we stayed in Puerto Ayora in the island of Santa Cruz. The main road is Charles Darwin Street, which has some souvenir shops, tour operators and a few bars and restaurants.

Charles Darwin Research Station is a short walk from the centre and the main thing to see in Puerto Ayora. At the main port water taxis drive tourists to their hotels while reef sharks and sea lions hang around.

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WHERE TO STAY – Finch Bay Hotel:

Because this was our honeymoon, we splashed out and stayed at the Finch Bay, which is a lovely hotel with a beach at its doorstep.

We booked the 8D/7N package which included boat trips to four nearby islands and land excursions to the highlights around Santa Cruz – you really don’t need to do any planning of your own with this package.

It included all meals (breakfast, lunch either aboard their boat or in the hotel, and a 4-course dinner every night) and not only did they know from the start that we were veggie, but also they were happy to adapt the menu to accommodate for vegans.

In the evening we often had a cocktail by the swimming pool, taking advantage of their happy hour deals on daiquiris, caipirinhas and other drinks from South America. Our room was bright and spacious and had a beautiful view of the bay.

The boat excursions were done aboard the Sea Lion, Finch Bay’s nice yacht. We were always accompanied by a naturalist guide (sometimes two) and travelled in small groups.

The staff at the Finch Bay were absolutely fantastic – not only was the service very good, but they were genuinely friendly and helpful. The Finch Bay is very expensive though, so it’s definitely a choice for special occasions. We booked it through Metropolitan Tours, a travel agency that manages the hotel.

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GALAPAGOS BY BOAT:

We chose to stay in land as a week on a boat seemed a bit much for us, but visiting Galapagos by boat is the best way to see more islands and cover a bigger distance. There are lots of options to choose from with many different itineraries.

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MONEY:

Galapagos is an expensive place to visit, and no matter how you do it, you need to be prepared to spend. Everything is quite expensive, as places are full of tourists and there aren’t many options around.

Tipping is welcome at tours and for services, but it’s not mandatory. Although the currency of Ecuador is the US Dollar, you should take small notes only, as it’s hard to change larger notes. Tours are usually all inclusive, so once you’ve paid for those there isn’t much else to spend.

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FOOD:

Ecuadorian food is definitely not veggie, but in the Galapagos they are used to vegetarians. Even in Ecuador mainland people are always happy to adapt dishes and keen to ensure that you have a proper meal, so there are always good alternatives (and speaking Spanish goes a long way).

There’s lots of exotic fruit which is great, and of course Ecuadorian coffee and chocolate are world-famous.

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GETTING THERE:

Getting to the Galapagos from the UK is quite the journey: firstly, there are no direct flights from the UK to Ecuador (we flew via Miami on the way there and Madrid on the way back). You can get flights to Galapagos from capital Quito or the country’s largest city Guayaquil (most flights from Quito have a short stopover in Guayaquil), and it’s safer to allow at least one day each way in Ecuador in case there are problems with flights. Flights from the UK to Ecuador start at £550 return; from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos it’s about £250 return.

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Our Galapagos adventures are here: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4; day 5; day 6; day 7.

IGUANAS ON A PRISTINE BEACH: Honeymoon in the Galapagos, day 7

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For our last day in the Galapagos we went to nearby beach Tortuga Bay. From Puerto Ayora the beach is accessible by a mile-long trail through a dry area covered in cacti. Along the way you spot lots of lava lizards and mockingbirds.

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Arriving in Tortuga Bay is amazing, the beach is picture perfect by itself, but there are also marine iguanas walking around, which makes the scenery even more remarkable.

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Walking to the end of the beach we reached Playa Mansa, a quieter beach which is good for swimming and snorkelling. We rented a kayak ($10 per person per hour) and went exploring the mangroves. We spotted herons and marine iguanas, a few fish, and a shark. Just as we were leaving on our boat, we saw a sea turtle in the distance!

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This really was the trip of a lifetime. Galapagos is a unique place and it was a great choice for our honeymoon. Every place we visited had something different to offer, and tourism restrictions mean that most of the time the only people you see are those in the same (small) tour as you.

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More on our Galapagos trip: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4; day 5; day 6.

DOLPHINS FOLLOWED OUR BOAT: Honeymoon in the Galapagos,day 6

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We were back aboard the Sea Lion for our last trip – this time we sailed to Bartholomew.

On the way there we passed the small islet Daphne, where we could see Nazca boobies nesting. The boat continued its journey and we were soon joined by dolphins that swam right next to us and jumped out of the water – amazing!

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After a couple of hours we reached Bartholomew, a young volcanic island that looks very impressive, with jagged rocks contrasting with the deep blue sea and sandy beaches. We were greeted by sea lions on landing as per usual.

We followed the steps up to the highest point of the island, where we had the most breath-taking views.

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We then went snorkelling around the Pinnacle, an impressive rock formation which is also an ideal home for lots of fish. We spotted starfish, a colourful parrot fish and – as usual – a reef shark! This was a unique site for snorkelling, a fitting place four our last island trip. And so it was back on the boat and to the hotel.

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Our Galapagos adventures are here: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4; day 5.

ALONE WITH A SEA TURTLE: Honeymoon in the Galapagos, day 5

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We got back aboard the Sea Lion and headed to South Plaza for a hike. We were greeted by playful sea lion pups swimming by the pier.

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We walked across this small island stopping to look at sea lion and iguanas along the way.

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We stopped near the cliffs on one side of the island where we could see lots of birds: Nazca boobies, shearwaters with chicks, pelicans and frigatebirds which were manoeuvring impressively trying to get some food off the cliff.

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This is a small but very pretty island, and the day was just beautiful! We went back to the boat to find a good place for snorkelling in Punta Carrion. We were a small group this time, which was good because we could do lots of exploring by ourselves.

We saw loads of colourful fish, some in large schools, spotted a shark, and were greeted by a sea turtle swimming nearby – amazing! Then it was back on the boat and to the hotel.

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More on our Galapagos adventure is here: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4.

WATCHING MARINE IGUANAS SWIM BY: Honeymoon in the Galapagos, day 4

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Our fourth day in the Galapagos started with a trip to Divine Bay in Santa Cruz. We hiked across lava terrain to find a colony of marine iguanas. There were loads of them nesting, and we also saw a few of them swimming which looks quite awkward.

In the distance we spotted sea turtles – Galapagos is hard work like that.

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We then went snorkelling in an area that was full of whitetip reef sharks – nearby we also found a sea turtle that was happy to swim near us!

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After having lunch back at the hotel with finches coming to watch us, we went to Puerto Ayora to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. There was saw lots of tortoises which are part of conservation projects, and a land iguana from another island. There’s also a small museum where you can learn about conservation projects and management of invasive species.

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We went back to the port to get a water taxi to the hotel.

In the few minutes we were waiting we saw sea lions, white and blacktip reef sharks, a large school of golden rays, marine iguanas and lots of birds!

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You can see more of our Galapagos adventures here: Day 1; day 2; day 3.