Acadia National Park

We embarked on a gps-said 4.5 hour drive to Acadia National Park. Friday’s drive included a caramel macchiato for each of us and a playlist named ‘lobstah races.’ En route to Portland, ME we go!

Having been to Portland only once on a day trip for my recent birthday, I had a few things I wanted to see and revisit. One of them includes walking in Old Port and the other includes Holy Donuts – We left with a sweet potato ginger and a sweet potato lemon glazed donut and ate it on the remaining 2.5 hour drive up the state of Maine.

By the time we arrived in our little beach efficiency, we’d been traveling for a little over 8 hours. The mixture of pre-4th traffic, Portland stop, and grocery shopping wore us out. Instead of recapping the trip by day, I’ve broken it out by categories of what we did.

Hikes

  • Beehive Trail (1.3 mile loop) – this was our ‘warm-up’ hike, and little did we know, it was the most strenuous of the trip. Reviews warned us about the steep rocks and the metal rung scaling, and reminded me of my fear of heights. Going in, we knew we had somewhat of an advantage from living in Arkansas. Length-wise was quite short, and after some rock hugging and eye-closing, we made it to the summit. Thankfully, the way down is through another loop called Bowl Trail – much less intense and manageable. You’ll get plenty of Instagram-worthy images in throughout the trail. In summary, we went on a cloudy/foggy day, and given a sunny day, I would do it again.

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  • Great Head Trail (1.4 mile loop) – we actually did this as our back-up hike when we found out Precipice was closed due to falcon nesting (don’t ask me what that truly means). The park did not have good direction towards this trail head, and we wandered around twice before finding the entrance – go us. However, when we actually got on the right path… we saw the clouds lifting and we were able to catch some cool breezes. Descriptions of the trail say it’s a quick loop or whatnot, but we stopped at countless places to admire all that Maine had to offer, and we easily spent 2+ hours there. Overall worth doing if you have the time and can catch a good day at Sand Beach (connected to the trail).

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  • Bubble Pond Trail (1 mile) – this is the epitome of low effort, extremely high reward. This was our last hike of the trip, and it was the easiest of them all. We were given tips to head North vs. South for ‘better views’ and looking back, I don’t think we even finished the summit because we were so in awe of the views we’d already seen. Nevertheless, it’s worth going for down time and proximity to places you’ll already be in.

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Food (all in Bar Harbor)

  • Thirsty Whale – this restaurant came up on both Beth and my research, so it naturally had to be the first restaurant in Bar Harbor we’d try. Beth really wanted to test if she were allergic to lobster, and I just wanted food? Historically, I’ve not been a fan of fried fish, but I saw ‘Famous Fried Haddock Sandwich’ on the menu and I may have caved. In addition to the sandwich, I added on a cup of New England Clam Chowder, which I can never resist. Service was friendly, food came out fast, and we weren’t allergic to anything we ordered. Fabulous. Would recommend.
  • Thrive – the new thing nowadays is smoothie acai bowls and salad bars, and this was one of its kind in the town. Post yet another hike, we cooled down with vegan muffins and peanut butter cocoa smoothie bowls. Very filling, semi expensive, worth the try.
  • McKay Public House – Beth found this while I was napping one day and the selling point was cheap wines, cute patio, and decent appetizers. Truth for all three points. I find this place worth it if you’re not super hungry and just want a nibbler + wine. Extremely date-like location and not fully in downtown.

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  • Finback Alehouse – this was our last night in Acadia and we just wanted some Thai food or comfort food (which is one in the same). A great selection of beer, signature pulled pork, and walking distance to the harbor sold me on this place. Since it was the Sunday before the 4th, there was a 30-minute wait (oh no), but we were able to walk around for sunset and we were promptly seated. Very recommended if you plan on getting a food coma.
  • Mount Desert Ice Cream – many odd flavors and very large servings should be two solid reasons to point you to an ice cream shop. Thankfully, the servers respected my many indecisions of trying spicy chocolate along with 6 other flavors before deciding on cookies & cream (how original). Walking distance to the square and semi hidden from the main street, so go for the mid-day treat in the midst of souvenir shopping.

Scenic Points

  • Otter Cliff – came here twice: once on a drive around Park Loop Rd and second time on a Milky Way stargazing adventure. We saw people laying out and picnicking during the day, but I’m pretty sure we were the only ones out there at 2am. One of two life changing moments.

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  • Cadillac Mountain – some pamphlet said that this was the most visited summit? Highest summit? Again, we came here twice: once on a foggy afternoon and second time at 4:40am on our last day. We were maybe ¾ up the mountain before we pulled over, but this was two of two life changing moments.

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  • Jordan Pond – I just realized that we did Otter Cliff at 2am, Cadillac Mountain at 4am, and Jordan Pond at 5am… Nevertheless, this came up on my research multiple times and naturally, we waited till the last morning to go see it. It’s not much of a walk, but it’s definitely a photo opportunity and potential hammock spot.

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Key Recommendations

  • Stay on Mount Desert Island – it’ll make your life a lot easier. We stayed in Seal Harbor (South), and it was 15 minutes from Bar Harbor and 15 minutes from the park itself. That being said, plan early! We booked ~4 months ahead.
  • Prepare for 0 cell signal throughout the park – it’s not easy to get directions or meet up with people, but you’ll find a few bars on the top of summit or in Bar Harbor.
  • Catch all the sunrises, sunsets, and stars you can – Acadia is perfect. That’s all.

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Costa Rica | December 2016

Happy forecasted 6-10″ snow day in Boston! Hence, the best time to recap on my most recent trip to Costa Rica. I went with my family and two other families from LA.

Below is a detailed version of our itinerary, for any of you wanting to plan a trip soon:

Day 1: San Jose, Costa Rica

  • Direct flight from Houston via Southwest – 3 hours 30 min, easy
  • Reserved a car from Hertz ahead of time via Priceline
  • Checked into our hotel for the night at Hotel La Riviera – a little bit southeast of the airport in a quaint neighborhood

Day 2: San Jose –> La Fortuna

  • Picked up 3 cases of water, fruit, and miscellaneous supplies for the three families at Walmart in Alajuela before heading out to La Fortuna
  • Windy drive & fog made it a 2:45 hour drive of 44 miles to our Hotel Vagabondo
  • Lunch @ Chifa La Familia Feliz ($ – Peruvian/Chinese Fusion)
    • Found out later it was the #1 Restaurant in the area, cha-ching!
    • Chef himself made a curated menu for us with Peruvian Ceviche (appetizer), Calamari/Shrimp (appetizer), Curry Chicken & Potato w/ Rice, and Surf & Turf
  • Spent 4:30pm-8:30pm at Baldi Hot Springs enjoying powerful waterfalls and 8+ pools of varying temperatures
    • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED; I think Dad wished we stayed at that resort…
    • the buffet portion isn’t really worth it, so I’d say eat at the restaurant or eat beforehand
    • $6 locker rental + $10 towel deposit

Day 3: La Fortuna

  • Booked a Mistico Hanging Bridges tour (~2 hours) for the morning – great for families with kids and a different way to take a walk in nature
  • Hiked to the 1992 Lava Flow (1.5 hr RT)
  • Accidently skipped lunch, oops.
  • Coffee tasting at North Fields Cafe ($) – with the intention of doing a coffee tour, but it was going to be $30 PP for 2 hours and with the amount of time we had, we didn’t see its ROI.
  • Christmas Eve dinner @ Restaurante Mi Casa ($$ – Typical Costa Rican food)
    • Guaro Sour x2
    • Ceviche
    • Rib-Eye Steak for Dad
    • Churrasco Steak for me
    • Sea Bass w/ Avocado Sauce for Mom

Day 4: La Fortuna –> Santa Elena/Monteverde

  • 10am-noon: After packing up, we went to the Rainforest Chocolate Factory Tour ($25 PP):
    • Extremely informative tour and we got to walk through the cacao tree plantation before we sat down to unpeel cacao fruit –> taste the seeds –> roast the seeds –> taste them again –> drinking chocolate tasting –> melted chocolate tasting
      • Spoon 1: plain sea salt
      • Spoon 2: hibiscus flakes + orange extract + sea salt
      • Spoon 3: almond flakes + almond extract
  • Drove a rough, car-sick filled 4 hours to our lodge Hotel el Atardecer
  • Spent the afternoon settling in and checking out potential excursions
  • Ate dinner at Treehouse Restaurant & Cafe
    • by this time, everyone was craving pizza…so the table ordered 3 pizzas in addition to Costa Rican plates
  • Booked our excursions for the next day at the Tourism Center downtown

Day 5: Santa Elena/Monteverde

  • 8-11am: Started the morning with the most intense ziplining I’ve done in my life at 100% Aventura, home of the longest zipline in Latin America
  • Really worth the $50 per person ~ we had about 30 people on our tour, but it never felt like it because the guides were so efficient and the lines were long enough to not get clogged before/after
  • Had lunch at Taco Taco Taqueria ($), which we were all disappointed that we didn’t have tacos until this point…but it was great.
    • Order everything one size down of what you think you’d consume…I normally eat 3 street-sized tacos, but ordering 3 was a mistake.
  • It’s safe to say everyone passed out for 2 hours afterwards – well-deserved, really.
  • 3-6pm: Embarked a 2 hour horseback sunset tour ($35 PP)
    • Best valued horseback tour I’ve been on
    • Really captured the movie-esque sunset scenes of Central America
  • Had dinner at Trio Restaurante ($$) in Downtown Santa Elena
    • Empanadas + Ribs for Appetizers
    • Sea Bass + Coconut Chicken for Entree
    • Rice Pudding + Mango Trio for Dessert

Day 6: Santa Elena/Monteverde –> San Jose

  • Drove another 4 hours on rugged roads to San Jose (by then, I was so over the terrible road conditions)
  • Had an extremely late lunch at Tenedor Argentino ($$)
    • White Sangria (MUCH NEEDED)
    • Spinach Empanada
    • Beef Tenedor Milanese (essentially a giant chicken-fried steak, Argentinian style, with a fried egg + salad, and you bet I ate it all)
  • Walked around Downtown San Jose (extremely 3rd world) and drove back to our Hotel La Riviera for the night, where we stayed the first night.
  • We took an UBER! After we returned our car at Hertz, we needed some way to get back…and here we are, a $5.27 uber with the Zeng family.
  • No dinner necessary thx to the giant Milanese steak.

There you have it, our itinerary in detail. Now see below for overall recap…

Pros:

  • Easy & cheap, non-stop/direct flights from Houston to San Jose
  • Relatively low-cost
    • accommodations
    • meals/alcohol (and huge portions)
    • tours/excursions
  • Mild-climate year-round, with dry season Feb-July and wet season Aug-Jan
  • Full of nature: Arenal volcano, beach parks, rainforest, mountains…etc.

Cons:

  • Extremely rough road conditions – prepared to take 3 hours to drive 60 miles and get really carsick
  • Expensive car rental (due to above) & necessary full-coverage insurance + third party coverage = ~$550 for mid-sized SUV for 5 days

Overall: If you can survive a week of low-maintenance living, enjoy adrenaline-packed activities, and can stomach some rough roading… Costa Rica can be a cheap and easy vacation. Just make sure you mentally plan enough time for travels between towns, if you choose to explore more than one area.

Day 9 | Mount Aspiring National Park + Wanaka

HIKING. What everyone tells you to do in New Zealand and one of the biggest parts of our trip! I’m so excited to be able to share this post with everyone, finally, after putting it off for half a week (hey, I needed the rest).

Mount Aspiring National Park; The Blue Pools

We drove out 2 hours to head to the Blue Pools (something that’s been on my Pinterest travel bucket list). Every scenic drive is worth staying awake for, even at 8am, and we stopped twice to take some pictures before heading into the park. Below is a 10am picture of Lake Wanaka:

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The Blue Pools track itself only takes about 25-30 minutes each way. I had such a hard time staying on the correct side of the road (the left side) and kept running into people who were heading out. The air quality was so pure, and one could hear birds chirping and the nearby waters rushing. It was truly a peaceful and calming experience!

There were two bridges we needed to cross before getting the view of the final destination, and I AM NOT A FAN OF SUSPENSION BRIDGES! First off, the max number of people that could be on one was 10…so I kept counting us and making sure there wasn’t another 5+ people coming behind or ahead of us.

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After two wobbly bridges, we made it!! The scenery was so rewarding, and it was everything I’ve seen from online and more! The water was so blue due to the glacial waters and since it hasn’t rained in a few days, nothing has been tossed around and it was so icy and clear. We saw a group of German boys do bridge jumping into the waters, and it reminded me of the (once in my lifetime) experience when my friends and I cliff dived in Hong Kong.

Lunch Break in Wanaka: Kai Whakapai

Our first time in the little town of Wanaka was rewarded with a sunny, outdoor lunch, and unique food many of us have never tasted! Our group does the whole “5 people share 4 plates” kind of thing, and I make the decisions 99% of the time, so I always get full say in what we eat. This is what I ordered for everyone:

1. Kumara Fritters with Saute Spinach, Haloumi, Poached Eggs, Roast Pepper and Tomato Salsa
2. Turkish Lamb Skewers served with warm flat bread, spiced Moroccan style couscous, beet root, feta salad, and tzatziki dip
3. Ciabatta French Toast with Central Otago roasted stone fruit, vanilla mascarpone, and sweet, raspberry, and almond toasted dukkah
4. Soft Tacos with chimichurri marinated fish, black bean & quinoa salad, coleslaw, and tomato chili & lime salsa

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It isn’t over until we get dessert! Black Peak Gelato is pretty popular in the area, and we opted for the Chocolate and Tim Tam flavor, while our friends chose Central Otago apricot and chocolate.

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Mount Iron Track

We figured we would squeeze in a short 1.5 hour hike before heading back for the day. The first 10-15 minutes or so of the hike was zig zag, gaining elevation, and it was so tiring! The trail was very dusty, the weather was extremely hot that day, and we were wearing winter clothes…that combination made the first half of the hike almost miserable, but the views = always worth it! Recommendation and note to self for future: wear short sleeve shirts and cotton pants along with the outwear. Otherwise, your wardrobe will forever be in winter mode.

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Extremely thankful to have had great sleep that night…and onto the next one the next day, Mount Cook!

Day 8 | A Day in Lake Tekapo

Before I get in depth for the next few posts, I just want to prelude with the fact that I did A LOT of research before we arrived to New Zealand. We didn’t magically know where to go all the time and where to see, so I mainly read up on TripAdvisor, Pinterest (yes) and fellow avid travelers’ blogs. That being said, I had a very good idea of what I wanted to see and do and how to allocate our time wisely. Though, I did not have an itinerary (for all of you that are wondering and asking if I can send you mine); we planned day by day according to weather and availability of excursions. 

We woke up early at 8am on the 19th (and I can’t even tell you which day of the week it was) to drive ~an hour and half to Lake Tekapo. There were plenty of things to do – from the hot springs to hiking to horseback riding. Our first stop was at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Of course, it was filled with tourists, but it remained so serene even with all the background noises while it sat on Lake Tekapo.

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Then, we walked around the lake, took some pictures with the selfie stick, and enjoyed extremely good weather. These are non-filtered photos!! What you see is almost as breathtaking as what we saw in person. The Lupin was already starting to bloom (apparently full bloom by April) and I wish we could’ve stayed here a bit longer!

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For lunch, we headed to the #3 ranked restaurant by TripAdvisor, Reflections Restaurant. 1) The view was one of THE best! 2) I had no idea what to order, so I just ordered all their lunch specials… It was really nice to soak up the sun while sitting outside by the lake and waiting for our food. I don’t quite remember what we ordered…except I remember the sirloin steak on top of waffle fries. THAT WAS DELICIOUS.

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Then, we headed off to Mackenzie Alpine Horse Trekking, ranked #2 in Lake Tekapo to-do! We picked the 2-hour Mountain Top trek, that took us to the top of Mount John (perfect – we were going to hike it anyway) and downhill to the lake, and finally through the forest back to the stables. I heard plenty about it being a phenomenal view and trek, but WOW my pictures did not capture the full effect whatsoever!

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BTW all 5 of us woke up really sore the next day…also a little bit about my horse: his name is Jeff. He apparently is their ‘cheekiest’ horse…he loved eating and being distracted and he could never keep still. Everyone else’s horses were just chillin’ and mine was running around the stables before we even began. He pooped all the time on the trails and slowed me down while everybody went ahead.Thanks for being my friend for 3 hours, Jeff.

We headed home after what became a 3-hour trek, and the men cooked for us that night! Dad’s fried rice and Mr. Huang’s stir fry brussel sprouts (a close rendition of mine). Starved and exhausted, we ate and rested early for the next day: Mount Aspiring National Park!

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Day 4 & 5 | Auckland, New Zealand

After three days in Tahiti, we decided to trade in paradise for a bit cooler weather. We landed in Auckland, essentially skipped 23 hours ahead and straight into a typhoon. Oh, and then there was the getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road…

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During the three days, we stayed with my mom’s college friend and her maid of honor. She and her husband picked us up met us at the airport and took us to eat Chinese noodles (yay Auckland!) before heading to One Tree Hill. To me, it was the Twin Peaks (SF) of Auckland. Sadly, the rain was already hitting and we were being blown away at the top of the mountain. Nevertheless, checked off the bucket list.

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Then, we met one of Dad’s past colleagues from China, and his family invited us to eat with them in SkyCity (the sky tower in the middle of downtown). The SkyCity had a bunch of restaurants on the 1st-3rd floor and the Orbit 360 dining at the top; I particularly enjoyed stir fry lamb and the firecracker prawns. We were just making up for the lack of Asian food from Tahiti, heh.

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Afterwards, we walked on Queens St., where most of the things were ‘happening,’ but it just seemed like everything was closed by 9pm and no one was really out and about like they were supposed to be…

Our second day in Auckland was brightened by a few hours of sunshine. We woke up early to steady rain and marmite for breakfast. WOW. I don’t know that I have words to describe it…but you’re supposed to put it on toast, and it’s pretty similar to Australia’s Vegemite.

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We were able to locals and do some grocery shopping with the family and have lunch at home. Before that, we went house hunting (for fun) with the family! They took us to Long Bay, where a new subdivision of houses were being built / ready to be designed. I’m a huge fan of the glass balcony stuff! Here are some pictures in case anyone feels like investing in a million dollar home in Auckland…

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Everything is measured in KG and that threw me off! The fruits and vegetables were super colorful, and the seafood/meats were extremely fresh. The lunch menu included fresh mussels, salmon sashimi, tomato and egg, and bak choy.

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By mid-afternoon, the sun was out and we headed to Devonport, the small town across the bay. The views are incredible, and the grass is lush, and the waters were so blue! The little town had a European boardwalk vibe and I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon before the clouds and rain came back.

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We finished the day by having some steak, Blue Cod, and red wine at home before calling it early for a 5am wake up tomorrow for Rotorua!

Day 3 | Final Day in Tahiti + FAQ/Reflections

Our days in paradise were slightly dampened by incoming storms throughout the day, but we visited the nearby beach for the morning to round out the trip. Following the day’s recap, I’ll answer some questions I got while I was here as well as personal reflections!

9:45 am | picked up by a taxi to be taken to Plage Vaiava (aka PK18 to the locals). Unfortunately, the sky was full of clouds, so the blue waters could not be shown as clearly, but it was still beautiful nonetheless! Spent the next 2 hours or so walking around, getting a dip in, and laying underneath coconut trees.

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12:30 pm | picked up by the taxi again to be taken back to the hotel, where we cooked spaghetti and sausages for lunch. for the rest of the afternoon, parents napped as I wrote in my journal on the balcony.

3:30 pm | the family went down to the infinity pool for one last swim, and little did we know, the storm would hit in 2 hours.

5:30 pm | dad and I went out to the food truck to order some food, but the storm was at its worst! here’s to experiencing rain in tahiti…very similiar to Hawaii’s.

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6:30 pm | picked up our food and enjoyed a final tahitian dinner at home over steak, swordfish, and a tahitian-fied nutella/coconut crepe.

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our visit, and three days IS enough between two islands! We did not get to go to Bora Bora this time (which means we’ll come back!), but I’ll answer some questions below:

  • What languages do the people speak? Tahitians are fluent in Tahitian and French, since their grade school education is received in those languages. In their high school years, they can choose to add a 3rd language: either Spanish or English, which most of them pick English.
  • What’s their economy like? Agriculture and Tourism drive their economy – with a pineapple farm and a distillery on Moorea and transporation and tours for tourism. Their taxi fares are expensive, which has to do with gas prices being so high. Their groceries are way off the charts expensive with a kilo of lettuce at $8.10.
  • What do they eat? Lots of raw fish (poisson) and barbeque! We can see smoke going up nearby because people are cooking outside.
  • *Do you like Tahiti or Hawaii better? I got this question…about 4 times. For those of you who don’t know, my family used to live in Hawaii back in early 2000’s, and those of you who talk to me often know how much I miss Hawaii with all my heart. It was actually hard arriving in Tahiti at first, especially the first 24 hours or so, because everything made me think of Hawaii – the sunrise, the people, and the laidback island culture. I’ll always prefer Hawaii, because it’s always the most beautiful place on earth in my heart. Locals have described Tahiti as “Hawaii 500 years ago” and it’s evident in the architecture and economy. Of course, I recommend Tahiti! Make sure you’re ready for cooking your own meals a few times and lots of $$ for activities.

Observations:

  • There are no red lights!! The islands are either one-road only or traffic is conducted with roundabout circles, which means there’s no room for road rage.
  • Pedestrians ALWAYS come first. Cars will almost always stop and let you go first.
  • People are extremely trusting here – ex. when I was buying postcards, I picked up 20, and I told the shop owner that the stack had 20. He just said okay and charged me for the amount. In America or anywhere else, they would’ve counted once or twice. Ex2. when we went to pick up the food tonight at the truck, the guy didn’t make us pay beforehand, and he just handed us the bag and said thanks, bye! Dad and I looked at him and paid him, and he was thoroughly surprised!
  • There are a ton of stray cats and dogs here – luckily for them, they’re not prone to rabies, which makes it great for animal lovers! I’ve played with the strays a few times, and we heard one can adopt them back to America since they’re pretty much disease-less.
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  • People are just so much nicer here – everyone smiles at you on the streets, the kids say hello at the beach, and taxi drivers are always ready to give recommendations and tell you about the island life.

Au revoir, Tahiti!