It’s hard to believe that it’s already six months since we packed up home and left on our second round of world adventures. It seems to have gone really quickly and there has been a lot of things to work through this time around, so we thought we’d do an update of where we are at, and what our next plans are.
This is a pretty long explanation of what’s been going on in our lives and what our upcoming plans are, so grab a cuppa and use the table of contents to skip ahead if you already know the back story from our social media channels!
Our Asian adventures
Our four months in Asia seemed to go in the blink of an eye. Our travel style this time around was very different from our normal blitz through and see everything in a short amount of time. We deliberately slowed down as we knew we’d have to factor in school and work this time around. Plus as we don’t know how long we’ll be gone for, we are making a conscious effort to pace ourselves a little more.
After our chill out time on the beach in Vietnam and trip around Taiwan, we headed to Penang in Malaysia where we spent six weeks at a great beachside condo. It was just what we needed to ease into our new routine of school/work, pool time, exploring and eating all the amazing Malaysian food on offer.
Our next destination was supposed to be Chiang Mai in Thailand, where we were scheduled to spend a month in April. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be due to the horrific air pollution that lingered in the city. The north of Thailand has a burning season where farmers traditionally burn off their crops in preparation for the upcoming rainy season and new crop planting. The season normally runs from around November and is usually finished by March.
This year however there was extreme drought and many farmers illegally lighting fires and the situation rapidly spiralled out of control. The pollution levels were deemed to be hazardous according to World Health Organisation standards – and certainly not a place where an asthmatic should go (Kylie!)
Emergency ‘clean air’ rooms with purifiers were being set up all over the city, protective filtered masks ran out and children, elderly and those with respiratory conditions were advised to stay indoors. After a discussion with our travel doctor back home, who advised us it would be a bad idea to travel there as those levels would almost certainly exacerbate my condition and could end in the risk of hospitalisation, we sadly decided not to travel there.
From there ensued a few frantic days of contacting our travel insurance company who were very cagey about whether they would cover us or not to cancel our plans – despite us having it declared as a pre-existing condition and paying extra for cover for asthma, and a medical note from the doctor advising us not to travel, we then had to figure out where to spend the next month at reasonably short notice. Not great for a couple of avid planners, but maybe good for us?!
(As an aside, it took almost six weeks for the travel insurance company to confirm they were going to accept our claim. Considering it was several thousand dollars worth of expense from our tight budget it was a nerve-wracking time and we’re not overly impressed with their performance!)
After looking at every possible combination of destinations in Asia, we decided to stay put in Thailand and extended our time in Bangkok before venturing down south to the island of Koh Samui.
We managed to find a lovely villa that was available within our budget (even with its own pool) however coming up to the Songkran holiday and Easter bringing lots of international holidaymakers, flights to the island were out of our league. So in a true Kiwi thinking out of the box manner we found it was very cheap to hire a car and get a ferry over to the island. Off we set for the 800km drive south which was an experience in itself!
Our three weeks in Koh Samui were stunning and the villa was such a find. The kids loved jumping in and out of the pool as they wanted and even doing nude night swimming which they found hilarious – their own version of a Thai ‘full moon’ party!
We got to partake in the local Songkran festival – basically a national water fight over three days – which was loads of fun. We also visited lots of local night markets, eating the most delicious Thai food for amazingly low prices. In most instances, it was cheaper to buy some pad thai, larb or green curry from the local street food centre than it was to cook.
We really enjoyed having a car to explore the island and found some off-the-beaten-track parts of the island. Our favourite beach was Silver Beach, around a 20-minute drive from where we stayed at Bophut.
We also went out on a snorkelling trip one day to the islands in Ko Tao and Koh Nangyuan and got to experience the most wonderful coral and fish scenery.
A visit to the Samui Elephant Sanctuary was a highlight for the kids, where they got to learn about the elephants who have been rescued from captivity in the tourist trade and the sad stories of the cruel methods that are used to break the spirit of elephants. We did lots of research before choosing this sanctuary to ensure it was a genuine sanctuary (many will charade as a sanctuary but still allow elephant riding and bathing which is damaging for the elephants). We can highly recommend it if you are visiting Koh Samui, and it also has a sister facility in Chiang Mai.
It was VERY hot in Thailand however with April and May being the hottest months of the year, we really struggled some days being out and about in it. Consequently, we racked up a large electricity bill in our three weeks from air-conditioning running 24/7 which we didn’t realise would be quite so large – anyway you live and learn.
From Bangkok, it was back to Malaysia and off to the island of Borneo which we were all incredibly excited about. We spent 10 days exploring Kuching and Kota Kinabalu and it exceeded our expectations.
In Kuching, we visited the wonderful Sarawak Cultural Village to learn about the different tribes of Borneo. We saw the amazing longhouses they traditionally live in, watched a cultural show and got to try some great activities like “poison” dart blowing!
We spent an incredible day exploring Bako National Park. We hired a guide to take us through the jungle and ancient rainforest where we saw proboscis monkeys and bearded pigs which are endemic to Borneo, along with a pit viper snake to everyone’s delight/horror.
We learned about the importance of the rainforest and the plants of the jungle. It was an absolute highlight, and we’d highly recommend a trip to the park for anyone visiting Kuching.
In Kota Kinabalu, we visited the Semenggoh orangutan sanctuary which was the most incredible experience. It’s a national park that was set up specifically to give orphaned orangutans and those rescued from captivity a life that’s as close to one they would live in the world as possible.
Their food is supplemented as the protected area they live in is too small to feed all of the orangutans that live there, so twice daily they are left the fruit to feed if they wish. Sometimes they will come every day, other times when the forest is fruiting they may not be seen for weeks.
These beautiful creatures who are so humanlike get to live protected in a jungle area, safe from poachers or their home being destroyed. It was incredibly depressing to see the kilometre after kilometre of palm oil plantation as we drove in Borneo, the place is really destroyed in that aspect and it’s shameful that humans have done this.
We also took a boat ride out on the Klias wetlands around 2 hours south to look for more proboscis monkeys at dusk and watched the most fabulous display of fireflies that made the trees look like it was Christmas!
For the last days of our Borneo adventures we opted for a bit of luxury and for Mike and Sophie’s birthday present we booked a few nights at the wonderful Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort. It certainly didn’t disappoint and we were treated like royalty with an upgrade to a family room, so much cake, drinks at the Sunset Bar to watch the famous Borneo sunsets, a lovely Mothers Day massage and a day trip out to one of the beautiful islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. You can read more about our stay here.
More challenges on the horizon
By now it was mid-May, and while things were going well from a day-to-day perspective, there were more challenges to come our way and brewing underneath.
Firstly was our plans to obtain a long-stay visa for France, so we could stay there for a year, put the kids in school and generally just enjoy life.
French bureaucracy is legendary and coupled with scant information available about obtaining this visa we were becoming increasingly anxious about what was actually needed under the terms and conditions of the visa.
We had booked a flight back to New Zealand for mid-May for a stay of a month as the only way to obtain the visa is to attend an interview at your country of residence French embassy – which is in Wellington for us.
But we were worried about what the definition of work was under the terms of the visa. It clearly states “you may not work” under the long-stay visa but in real terms what did this mean? Did it mean taking a job from a French person (which is understandable), however we work online remotely for New Zealand companies and earn money off this website, did that count?
Also, they would not talk to us prior to our ‘interview’ and we would need to pay the application fee for the visa – several thousand dollars by the time we paid the fee and the mandatory three months medical insurance – for them to turn around at some point during the month and reject our application. And as we haven’t won the lottery or have a large trust fund, we need to work to fund our travels, so not working isn’t an option!
It was proving so difficult to get a straight answer out of the embassy, and then we learned more about what would be involved. Even if the embassy in New Zealand gave us the green light for the visa, we would be subjected to another round in France where the officials there could then reject our application even though it had been approved by their New Zealand embassy.
That is, if we could even get an appointment in the first place. Brexit has put a huge strain on some immigration offices in France with Brits all rushing to get their permanent residency, and we’ve heard of backlogs of months for people waiting to get an appointment (we’ve since heard from our friends that they aren’t even processing families together but on an individual basis. So our friend has his residency card but his wife is still waiting for even an appointment).
Legally we would be required to complete the second part of our visa process – an interview, possible medical examination and another stamp in our passport within three months of entering France. But who knows when that would actually be if we were unable to get an appointment.
That would leave us completely stuck with a half completed visa application. It would mean we couldn’t leave France and come back in, or travel anywhere else in Europe which defeats half the purpose of us wanting to be there to be able to visit other European places. There would be no knowing when our application would be processed and for how long we would be stuck in this land of limbo.
In the end, it was just all getting too hard, and there were other uncertainties going on in the background that made us think now is just not the time for us to pursue our living in France dream. So sadly we said goodbye to that plan. The dream hasn’t died, it will just have to be done at another time!
It turns out it was fortunate that we’d booked that flight back to New Zealand, as one of our parents had a recurrence of melanoma cancer we learned when we were in Koh Samui. The surgery and recovery were going to be more intense than the previous time last year, so it was amazing timing that we were able to be there and able to support him and the rest of the family while that was happening.
There was another bereavement that happened in the family at the same time sadly, so we were able to share that with members of our extended family. Sometimes things really do happen for a reason….
So with all of that going on, our time in New Zealand was focussed on family and figuring out what our Plan B might look like. It was also a very busy time for work, so not a lot of exploring went on. However, Mike and the kids did make it down to Queenstown to catch up with his sister and family. They did an amazing visit over to Milford Sound and managed to catch some snow while they were down there.
What we’re doing now
So with a ‘making lemonade from lemons’ attitude, we’re excited about continuing on our travels again, and what our new journey looks like now we won’t be staying put in France. We have some of it planned, but with the world being our oyster we haven’t yet finalised what our journey will be. And that’s ok with us!
In mid-June we flew straight from Auckland to France in an epic 2 day 42-hour journey that involved a 17-hour flight from Auckland to Dubai, 3-hour stopover, 7-hour flight to London, overnighting at an airport hotel, a one hour flight to Bordeaux in France then a hire car and two-hour drive to our final destination in Issigeac.
We were SO happy to be back three years on and it really felt like walking into a second home. We spent the week reacquainting ourselves with the local area, attending the wonderful Sunday market, visiting some of the local towns, eating all that amazing food and catching up with friends. We are returning again for 10 weeks at the end of August and can’t wait.
After a week it was back to the airport for another mega-journey, this time a 20-hour door-to-door from France to our home for the next month in the small town of Kas in Southern Turkey (via London because that was the only cheap and reasonable way to get there!)
We stayed in a lovely apartment on the hill that overlooks the sea and spending our spare time swimming in the complex pool and the Mediterranean, exploring the gorgeous town with its ancient history, eating lots of healthy delicious food, marvelling at the cheap prices.
We enjoyed time out on the ocean, taking a water taxi over the bay to stunning beaches, and a day trip on a boat to visit pretty towns, ancient underwater ruins and swim some more in that gorgeous water.
We also took a day trip to Greece (as you do) with the small island of Kasterllorizo (or Meis in Turkish) sitting 2 miles offshore from Kas. Despite the closeness, it’s still entering back into the EU as we’re technically in Asia here, so full passport and immigration formalities are needed.
We loved our day exploring the picture postcard town, and we took a boat ride to the Blue Cave, the second largest grotto in Europe. We thought the boat driver was joking when he told us to lie flat in the boat, but we all literally had to flatten to squeeze through the tiny entrance to the cave. Inside was a magical blue light and we loved sitting in the boat marvelling at the cave.
Afterwards, the driver dropped us to a tiny island with a simple church, sun loungers and a small restaurant. We spent the afternoon swimming and enjoying delicious Greek food.
Mid-July saw us pack up and hit the road again. The next month sees us moving around a fair bit as we return to our backpacker routes and explore some of Eastern Europe.
We spent 4 nights in Istanbul, the Turkish capital, before taking a bus across the border to Bulgaria to explore the town of Plovdiv. Where you might ask?!
Plovdiv is actually the oldest inhabited city in Europe – that’s right, it’s older than Rome or Athens – and has a treasure trove of ancient ruins, including an amazing looking Roman theatre.
It’s also a European Capital of Culture in 2019 and has a beautiful old town with a chilled out vibe (and the longest pedestrian street in Europe).
From Plovdiv, it was off to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital which had some great museums for kids, parks and plenty of things to do and eat.
We absolutely loved Bulgaria, and it was so budget-friendly! We’ll update more about it soon in a blog post.
From there we took an 8-hour bus ride to Romania and the capital city Bucharest. We’re really enjoyed learning more about this city and its communist past, and seeing all the stunning buildings – we can definitely see why this is known as “Little Paris”.
We’ve now picked up a hire car and are spending a couple of weeks driving through Romania. First stop is Transylvania and the town of Brasov where the kids are highly excited about visiting Dracula’s castle!
The old towns in Romania look stunning, so we hope there will be lots of wandering amongst the quaint streets.
We then head north almost up to the Ukranian border to visit the famed UNESCO painted churches.
From there it’s off to the countryside in the Carpathian Mountains where we’re renting a mountain chalet for a week.
We’ve read that this is a very traditional part of Romania where horse and cart on the roads are common and many old traditions still are commonplace today. Then another cute town visit to Sibiu before heading back to Bucharest.
The cheapest way back to France was via Berlin which we’re very happy about as we last visited in 1998. We’re staying in the Potsdamer Platz area which was in the midst of being rebuilt only 7 years after the fall of the wall when we were there (showing our age here!) and was a complete building site, so it will be fascinating to see it 21 years on.
The kids are very excited about visiting the Spy Museum and learning more about the Berlin Wall, lots of YouTube videos about it are being watched by us all!
Then it’s back to Dordogne in France where we have 10 weeks to enjoy one of our favourite places in the world, slow down and take in the beginnings of autumn.
We’re also thrilled to be partnering with our friends at Peugeot Eurolease and will be picking up a lease car on our arrival back in France that will be our wheels around Europe for the following six months. It’s such a great, hassle-free and economical way to get around Europe, and the longer you rent the car for the lower the rate. Look out for our review coming later on in the year once we’ve got our car!
We had considered purchasing a second-hand car, but by the time we factored in insurance, maintenance, road taxes and depreciation, plus the hassle of having to sell it onwards it’s really not comparable. Plus who needs a nightmare scenario of an expensive breakdown on a European motorway in freezing conditions?!
The rest of the year
So what’s in store for the rest of the year? Our time in France will take us until the start of November, and we’ve decided to travel over to the UK.
We were a little on the fence as to whether to go as it’s right when a no-deal Brexit could happen (at the time of writing, but does anyone actually know what will happen??!) but we found an amazing accommodation deal thanks to a sale by Premier Inn, a mid-range budget hotel chain that’s huge in the UK, and have booked 3 weeks accommodation for only $1,000 USD ($1,500 NZD / 890 euros).
We will be visiting the south coast, Devon, Cornwall to take in some family history, Bath and Bristol to show the kids where we used to live, Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon for a bit of culture (the kids are really into Shakespeare at the moment!) then up to Yorkshire and the Lake District before coming back down to London for a spot of Harry Potter and museums before taking the ferry back over to Europe.
That takes us to December and wow are we planning on going to go all out to experience the festivities and make the most of our first family European (hopefully) White Christmas.
We’re kicking off the season by travelling over to Graz in Austria which is famous for its incredible Advent Fair and we will be there for the procession of “Krampus and Perchten” that’s unique to Salzburgerland where over 500 St Nicholas and demon-like characters (kind of like naughty Santas) gather to parade through the town.
It’s an ancient tradition in this part of the world and the story goes that the good kids get presents from Santa, and the naughty kids get punished by the naughty Santas. It’s also said that the demons scare away the dark spirits of winter.
We’ve been before many years ago and it’s an amazing spectacle so we’re looking forward to taking the kids (who will surely be SO good for the rest of December to avoid naughty Santa after seeing them in action…!!!) You can read more about the tradition here – https://www.graztourismus.at/advent/en
Graz also has 12 (!) Christmas markets, an iced carved nativity scene and a giant advent calendar that gets projected onto the town hall, it’s the perfect place to get into the Christmas spirit.
From there we are travelling to the Black Forest region of Germany where we’ve booked a gorgeous looking traditional chalet on a farm for most of the month of December. We picked this area because it’s a great base to travel to many of the Christmas markets in the region, including some of the best in Europe in Strasbourg, Colmar, Freiburg and Heidelburg.
With any luck, we might be in proximity for some snow as well. We will be spending Christmas Day here so are looking forward to cooking up a big feast and cosying up to experience what a cold family Christmas is like.
And that’s as far as our planning has got for now!
What about visas?
So if you know anything about European visas and non-EU passports you may be wondering how we are managing to spend so long in Europe without a visa? The norm is a 90 day limit for visiting countries within the Schengen zone of Europe, which would mean we could only stay for three months (and why we were going to apply for a French long-stay visa).
Some of the countries we are visiting are non-Schengen and have their own immigration rules such as Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and the UK. But the remainder of the places we’re visiting fall under Schengen rules.
Well luckily for us, there is a little known anomaly with the New Zealand passport (and Australian too in some cases) that allows you to stay for longer. When the Schengen agreements were signed back in the 1980s abolishing many European borders, no-one thought to check the existing agreements that little old New Zealand already had with many of the countries.
Turns out there was a “bilateral waiver” signed in the 1950s that legally overrides the Schengen agreement, that allows NZ passport holders to stay for 90 days consecutively in EACH Schengen country. So that’s 90 days for France, 90 days for Germany, 90 days for Spain…you get the picture.
Not every country still abides by it, so you need to pick and choose and do your research as to which countries you do it in, but it’s a great little tip if you’re wanting to stay in Schengen European countries longer than 90 days on a Kiwi passport.
Some of the embassies have confirmation printed on their websites that the waiver still stands, others say as long as you can show proof of your route eg accommodation and spending receipts as proof of which countries you went in and out of that will suffice. You basically need documentation to be able to convince a border official who may think you’re an overstayer of the existence of the bilateral waiver!
If you’re interested, here’s a great article that explains it in more detail – https://brenontheroad.com/new-zealand-bilateral-visa-waivers-schengen/
Another little announcement
We’ve been beavering away behind the scenes on something special – we’re putting together all our expertise, lessons learned, hints and tips we’ve gathered from travelling with our kids over the years into an e-book called “The Ultimate Guide To Family Gap Year Travel”.
It’s over 70 pages of basically everything we know and has been a labour of love to put together, but something we wish existed when we were first starting out four years ago planning our extended travel with no idea of where to start.
It also includes the low-down on all our travel hacks and includes some discount codes and links to use to save you money when you’re booking your own travels. If you utilise them all, you’ll get back the cost of purchasing the book and more!
The book will be launched in September, and we will be having an introductory offer for our friends and followers. If you can’t wait until then, here’s a link to all the details, and you can fill out the pre-launch form to indicate your interest and get notified when the book is available!
So if you’ve made it this far and are still here congratulations! I guess the summary is that we’re still really enjoying our life on the road and though it looks like we swan about and spend a lot of time hanging out on our social media channels, don’t forget that it’s a highlights reel!
Behind the scenes there’s a lot going on – we actually spend a lot of time working and doing homeschool in amongst our travel, parenting goes on 24/7, we still have to do the laundry and cook food and balance the bank account and remind the kids to eat vegetables just like at home.
As I said to someone when I was back home it’s really just living life a lot like we do at home but with a different backdrop! But we’re incredibly grateful that we get to live this extraordinary life at this point in time and for as long as we get to continue it.
Do you have any questions about our travel lifestyle? Feel free to ask us in the comments below!