Caves of Hercules in Morocco

One of the interesting sites that we visited during our tour of Tangier, Morocco, was the Caves of Hercules (Grottes d’Hercule). Although the cave itself isn’t particularly fascinating compared to many other caves we have explored, its history makes it worth taking time to visit. It is located on the coast of the Strait of Gibralter and the drive from Tangier to Cape Spartel where the cave sits on the beach is quite beautiful. The cave is partially natural and partially man-made as the Berber people cut stone from the walls of the cave to use to make millstones.

Shape of Africa in Reverse from Within the Cave
You Can Still See Where the Stone Was Cut Away
View from Cape Spartel
Natural Cave Features

There are two openings to the cave, one from the sea and one from land, but the one from one land is the actual entrance to the cave. The opening to the sea was believed to have been carved by the Phoenicians and when viewed from the sea is in the shape of Africa. There are a couple of interesting legends associated with the cave. First is the belief that Hercules, the Roman god, stayed and slept in the cave during the 11th of his 12 labours that were given to him by King Eurystheus of Tiryns. This myth is obviously the source of the current name of the cave complex. Perhaps even more interesting is the legend that the cave was believed to be the entrance of a tunnel underneath the Strait of Gibralter that led to St. Michael’s Cave in Gibraltar. That same legend has the famous Barbary Macaque Monkeys that inhabit Gibraltar having used this tunnel to get from Africa to Europe.

Walking Through the Cave Towards the Sea Opening
Exploring the Caves of Hercules
Cape Spartel Lighthouse
Walls of the Cave

The Africa shaped opening, carved walls, and fascinating legends make this a worthwhile stop when visiting Tangier, Morocco. We also stopped at the Cape Spartel Lighthouse to have a snack and enjoy the amazing views. We also rode camels on the beach nearby, but that was very touristy. The Caves of Hercules remains one of our favorite memories of our tour in Morocco.

Riding Camels on the Beach
Interesting Coloration (and Yes, We Were Leaning Over as We Took This Photograph)
Views from Cape Spartel Lighthouse
Waves Crashing on the Rocky Cave Entrance


Halong Bay Tour in Vietnam

One of the most popular tours to take when visiting Hanoi, Vietnam is to go to Halong Bay. It is certainly one of the most recognizable places in all of Vietnam with the mountains jutting up from the bay, which according to myth is the result of a dragons descending to earth. Halong Bay actually means “descending dragon” and even though the mountains are the result of natural forces over centuries of time, the result is still incredibly beautiful. Halong Bay was recently named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Upper Deck of the Cruise Ship
Absolutely Beautiful Views of Halong Bay

Although it is possible to visit Halong Bay in a single day, we’d recommend taking an overnight cruise to make the most of your time in this wonderous location. There are many different caves, beaches, and mountains that you can visit depending on your tour company. With so many cruise ships on Halong Bay, no matter which caves you explore or places that you stop, you can expect there to be large crowds joining you. We traveled to Vietnam in November, which is the offseason, and even then we were among hundreds of other visitors.

Ships Around Bo Hon Island
Sunset on Halong Bay

Based upon our research prior to visiting Halong Bay, the tour that we took is pretty typical of an overnight cruise on the turquoise waters. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Halong Bay and it was one of our favorite memories of our time in Vietnam. Thanks to the new highway, it was only about an hour and a half to two hours from Hanoi to the docks where hundreds of cruise ships sit ready to take tourists out onto Halong Bay. Our tour consisted of the following highlights:

Hazy Scenery
Standing on the Observation Deck
  1. Titop Island – After enjoying lunch on our cruise ship as we made our way out into the heart of Halong Bay, we took a small boat to visit Titop Island. There is a beach where you can swim in the water to get a break from the heat, but the main reason for visiting Titop Island is for the incredible views of Halong Bay from the observation deck at the top of the mountain. It is certainly worth climbing the approximately 400 stairs in order to get to the covered deck at the summit. You may have to take turns to get to the rails, but you get views of the bay in all directions.
    Mystical Landscapes

    Relaxing on the Ship
  2.  Overnight on the Cruise Ship – Upon returning to the cruise ship, we went to the top deck where we watched the sun set and enjoyed cocktails and snacks during the ships happy hour. Prior to dinner, guests on the ship could enjoy a cooking demonstration, but having done an actual cooking class in Hanoi, we chose to stay on the upper deck and enjoy the incredible views. Since it was the offseason, our ship wasn’t full, but there were about 14 other guests with us on our tour. For those that wanted to, you could fish for squid at night before going to bed to get up early the next morning to do Tai Chi. We chose to skip both of those in order to get a good night sleep as we still had to be in the dining room by 7:00 am to eat breakfast while we watched the sun rise over the mountains. We had a busy day ahead of us.
    The Second Chamber, “Serene Castle”

    Inside of the First Chamber
  3.  Surprise Cave (Sung Sot Cave) – After finishing breakfast, we went to visit Surprise Cave as early as possible. Our guides told us that the later that you arrived at the island, the larger the crowds became. Surprise Cave is a large cavern in the mountain that has been carved out by water over hundreds of years. We saw many different caves during our time in Vietnam, but this was probably the most unique of all of the caves that we saw. With huge stalactites and stalagmites and other rock formations inside of the limestone mountain, it was truly spectacular.
    Monkey on the Rocks

    Luan Cave
  4.  Luan Cave – Whether you took a kayak or let a guide take you on a row boat, going through Luan Cave and going around the inlet with its beautiful water is amazing. There are monkeys that come down to the shore at different times of the day that are as fascinated with the tourists as we were with them. After touring the cave and getting up close to the cliffs, we returned to our cruise ship where we enjoyed lunch and then went back to the upper deck to enjoy the views as we headed back to the dock.
    Halong Bay

    Enjoying Our Time

It is a full, two-day tour that starts by being picked up at your hotel in Hanoi at 8:00 in the morning and drops you back at around 18:00 the following day. Without a doubt, a tour of Halong Bay should be on your itinerary when traveling to Hanoi. The sights and memories of our tour is definitely something that we will always treasure.

Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave on Halong Bay, Vietnam

Of the many fascinating places that we visited during our Halong Bay tour, seeing Sung Sot or Surprise Cave was certainly unique. There are many caves throughout the region, although most of the other ones that we visited were on the water. Surprise Cave is completely different as it is more of what we would consider to be a cavern with large ceilings, stalagmites, and stalactites. It is another very popular location, so the earlier in the day that you can arrive, the better off you will be.

Inside of the First Chamber
Stalactites Hanging from the Ceiling
The Second Chamber, “Serene Castle”
Ships Around Bo Hon Island

From our cruise ship, we took a small boat to the docks at Bo Hon Island where Sung Sot Cave is located. In order to get to the entrance of the cave, you must climb the approximately 50 stairs that rise high above the bay. The walls of the mountain is covered in plants and trees, but even so the entrance of the cave is visible from the docks below. Before you enter the mouth of the cave, you are rewarded with wonderful views of the bay below and all of the other ships that are there to visit the island.

Water Formed Geology
Contrasting Formations
Different Colors in the Rocks
Interesting Formations Around Every Turn

As you start to explore Surprise Cave, the first chamber that you enter is known as the “Waiting Room” with multicolored lights and a variety of stalagmites and stalactites. It is probably known as the waiting room because that is exactly what it is as different tour groups wait for their turn to enter the narrow passageway that takes you to the second chamber. The ceiling of the cave has unique, swirling patterns from the water that created the large caverns hundreds of years earlier. It is an opportunity for your tour guide to give a brief history of the cave and to get an appreciation of the beautiful rock formations.

Inside the Waiting Room
Entrance to Surprise Cave
More Stalactites
Look Carefully to See a Dragon

The second chamber, called the “Serene Castle”, is even larger and more impressive. There is a path that leads you around the various different formations, many of which that have been given different names because of things that they resemble. The most popular is one that looks like a turtle, which is a revered symbol, so people leave offerings as a blessing in order to receive long life. As you finally make your way out of Sung Sot Cave’s exit, you are once again greeted with wonderful views of Halong Bay.

Turtle with Offerings
What Do You See?
View from the Cave Exit
Large Second Chamber

We visited Bo Hon Island on the final day of our Halong Bay tour and it only took us about two hours to walk through the interior of Surprise Cave. With the amazing geological features, it is certainly worth having to deal with the crowds in order to see the cave.

Views of Halong Bay
The Docks
Column from Floor to Ceiling
Giant Formation