The Beautiful Island of Brač

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Brač is gorgeous. The sun hits green shrubs and flowers, turquoise blue water, and white cliffs. It’s far enough away from the mainland that it lives in its own little bubble, and while we were there it almost felt like we were alone on the island. It’s large enough to explore and hike for days, but small enough to be able to see much of it during just one visit – the perfect size for a day trip.

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We woke up early and hit the docks to catch our ferry. It’s fairly inexpensive and the trip lasts an hour or so. We caught the one to Supetar.

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On the island, the options are walking, biking, or driving. Biking would have been fun but we wanted to see a village on the other side of the island, so car it was. There’s exactly one rental agency so it’s a good thing the owner is a nice guy.

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Our first hike was a pretty short one – just a few minutes’ drive to the east of town. There wasn’t really a place to park so we pulled off on the side of the road in a gravel patch and walked up.

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The goal of this trek is to see an ancient Roman carving of Hercules that was found in an abandoned quarry on the island.

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And there his is! Hercules himself. The carving shows signs of aging but it’s remarkably well preserved for something so old. The other cool part about this quarry is the abundance of tiny fossils in the rocks. It’s not a good idea to take any, but hunting them down is a treat.

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And while we were hunting we saw an old friend! Jumping spiders are cute, and live literally all over the planet.

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Our next stop, sort of unintentionally, was in Splitska. We hadn’t planned on it, but there were signs for a winery that caught our eye and we stopped by. There’s a whole post coming on that tomorrow!

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Next up, a drive across the short axis of the island. This took about 45 minutes and had some nice stretches of curvy road. The speed limit is pretty slow on the island, and there are slow vehicles on the roads. Still, our car zipped around in a fun drive.

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We arrived in the town of Bol seeking a monastery that supposedly made delicious dessert wine. It still might, but when we went it was pretty closed. To make up for it, the beach nearby was clean and relatively warm.

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The town is a standard touristy beach town, but it is very pretty. Everything is fairly expensive so we ate a small pizza – acceptable but not great. Don’t come to Brac for the food. The drinks however, are great.

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We ordered a glass of prosecco from the major winery in town. I enjoyed the dryness of it, but Natalie wished it were sweeter. By the winery is a dock, and we watched the fish swim around in the placid waters.

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These are pipe fish – skinny, long, and quite elegant. There was a big school of them right next to the shore, probably attracted by all the food waste from the town.

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It was getting late and we still wanted to see the peak of the island, so away we went.

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Along the way we stopped at a lookout to take in the ocean.

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Sailboats!

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Our camera doesn’t have a great zoom, but it can still make out the detail.

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In the middle of the island away from the cliffs and beaches, we drove down a forest road.

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All the way at the top of the road was this massive comm tower. This is not quite the peak of Brac, that was up a few minutes walk.

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We gazed on the landscape as sunset came.

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That stub of land is the famous Zlanti Rat, the premier beach near Bol.

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Away from the ocean was the wide span of cliffs we had just come up.

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At last the sky began its orange glow.

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Around us were some buildings, probably an old watchtower.

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One of the more beautiful sunsets on our trip. We stayed until the sun went down, then drove back to the ferry. We were lucky we made it when we did – apparently we caught the last one back for the evening!

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Ha Long Bay and the Tourism High Life

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A lone karst formation and a boat in Ha Long Bay.

The appeal of Vietnam for many tourists is the luxury-level vacations at middle-class prices. You can get an all-inclusive trip here for only a few hundred dollars here thanks to economic disparity, and one tourist’s bargain price is a Vietnamese citizen’s income boon. The result is a vast network of tour agencies, guides and drivers and middlemen, all pushing to cash in on the tourism boom. And nowhere is that more apparent than Ha Long Bay, a bay of thousands of karst islands off the northern coast of Vietnam that now serves as one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

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The Vietnamese flag waves from a sunken beam on the way to Ha Long Bay.
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Visitors arrive at an island resort in Ha Long Bay.

Though there are backpacker guides to the area, we booked two nights at an island resort through our hotel to save time. This included transport to and from the islands, so we were picked up from our hotel, driven in a bus to the port, and took a boat to another boat that finally landed us on a small beach nestled in one of the karsts off the coasts of Cat Ba. With raised bungalows, soft sand, and palm frond parasols, it looked like quintessential island getaway.

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Beachside bungalows at our resort.
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A praying mantis explores my computer.
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Moonlight over the bay

The primary draw of Ha Long Bay is its jagged beauty, with knife-sharp, rain-weathered limestone karsts jutting from the ocean, crowned with lush greenery that clings to life among the rocky crags and flourishes in places where weathering has formed dirt. Scattered everywhere, the karsts form a maze navigated by the locals in junks, motorboats, and rowboats, all moving people or goods or livelihoods. While many people seem to have switched to servicing domestic and foreign tourists looking to get around the islands, others get by fishing squid and farming shellfish as they have for hundreds of years. From wooden houses built on moored docks, they catch fish, tend to baskets full of shellfish submerged underwater, or wade through the shallows collecting snails and augers for market. They sometimes stare at tourists as the float by in boats or kayaks, but they don’t like the stares they receive in return.

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Coming home: two men disembark from a boat at a floating home. The wires above it are strung between the karsts and carry electricity.
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A man gathers snails during low tide.
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A man paddles a boat with his feet.

The most stunning thing to me at our island resort is the tide. The afternoon we arrived, we swam to another nearby karst with sandy beach and back. The next morning we woke early to find the channel we swam the previous day had become a mud flat, the tide out so far that we could walk to the same beach. We picked our way across the mix of mud and sharp limestone rocks, curious of what we’d find: buried plastic bottles here, bike tires once tied to boats to act as padding against the docks there. But there was surprisingly few signs of life. Besides some scattered anemones that turned inward to stay moist at the low tide and small scattered augers burying themselves in the mud, there was nothing. No coral, no sponges, no algae. If there was anything that once lived here, it might have died out with the coming of the resorts. Their construction brings silt, and silt blocks out the light and chokes out life. It’s the price paid for tourism, for the beautiful waterfront bungalows and (artificial) soft sandy beaches.

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Low tide from the beach in front of our resort. We swam to the middle karst yesterday afternoon. Now, we can walk.
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Augers scattered in sediment at low tide.
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Bike tires, lost from a boat and colonized by shellfish and sponges, now exposed at low tide.

In the afternoon of our last day, we borrow a kayak from the resort and head out onto the water, camera precariously wrapped in a plastic bag. We paddle around the karst islands, looking for something interesting, and stumble onto sites where local tour agencies run rock climbing excursions. Then we make a wrong turn and we find ourselves at the edge of a deep, wide channel. This is the shipping lane in these parts, and we’re not allowed further. We return to our island and circle it to discover an inlet between two limestone towers on the other side. Our island is actually a crescent shape, with a secluded lagoon in the middle, where the more stagnant water forms pond-scum like bubbles we paddle through to reach a rocky, pebbly shore. It’s silent here except for the occasional cry of a raptor circling overhead. This is the draw of Ha Long Bay for us: to feel like you’ve found a secret that even if it’s been discovered before, you alone have for the moment.

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Setting out in the kayak.
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Looking up at the erosion on the karst walls.
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A hidden lagoon on the other side of our island.
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A small, pebbly beach in the lagoon where we made landing.

We board a large junk the next morning, bound ultimately back for Hanoi. Surrounded by chattering tourists, we occupy ourselves in watching the karsts and other boats slip by, a tapestry of blue dotted with white clouds, beneath which the green and gray angles of karsts jut upward and slip downward into the jade-colored water.

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Our junk’s mast.
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Karsts make many areas of the bay impassable for large ships.

As time passes, the islands become less frequent and the clouds thicken overhead to a uniform gray sheet. We hear the crew muttering, and the boat picks up speed to try and beat the storm. We arrive early, but they keep us on the boat for an extra hour—there aren’t any boats available to transfer us from the junk to the mainland. Meanwhile, the sky portends trouble, with whisps of cloud drifting over the mainland and peals of thunder. Just as we’re given the clear to disembark to the mainland, thick droplets begin to fall onto us and the waters of the bay. We scramble into the transfer boat, huddling under its awning to stay dry. Once on the mainland, we hear from a waiting attendant that we’re lucky; with the approaching storm, the government has temporarily halted all water travel to and from Ha Long Bay. Bound for a bus back home, it’s easy to worry about the details of what Ha Long Bay will look like after another decade of tourism. But given Nature’s power, it’s hard to imagine its beauty will disappear entirely.

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A crewmember stares out at the water as the weather turns dark.
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Lightning strikes in the mountains as the storm rolls in.

Our 14 best landscape photos from the Galapagos

This is the end of our time in the Galapagos, which despite tourism has been one of the wildest, most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. Here are the fourteen best landscape shots we took while on the islands:

 

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Salt water is dried to create salt crystals in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

 

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Waves crash on the rocky shore of North Seymour Island

 

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A frigatebird flies in the early evening sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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The moon rises over the Palo Santo trees at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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Green lowland scrub and Palo Santo trees against the backdrop of blue sea and cloudy sky at Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

 

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Ripple patterns in the sea in Tagus Cove, Isabela Island

 

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Ripples in a hardened lava flow reflect the afternoon sun at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island

 

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Silhouttes of Palo Santo trees against the cloudy sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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A volcanic hill overlooks the marsh at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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Isabela Island rises behind the Santa Cruz II at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island

 

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Champion Island, an extinct volcanic cone, rises from the ocean off the coast of Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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The sun sets over Fernandina Island

 

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Ancient volcanic hills and vents in the sunset at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island
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Sunset on the beach at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

Now we’re off to Cusco, Peru! See you there.

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Natalie flaps farewell to the Galapagos