California – June 2015

8 Jun
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Torrey Pines Beach, Southern California

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Frittered a few days reacquainting myself with the good and bad of San Diego and its environs whilst Geoff attended a conference in the Hotel Del at Coronado Beach :-).

Despite our many trips to California over the years time seems to have eroded our memories of just how chilly a summer on this coast can be. Having dipped my toes fleetingly into the Pacific for old times’ sake I wondered with awe how all the tourists and locals managed to immerse their bodies fully into the icy waters without the protection of wet suits and a layer of English Channel swimmers grease ;-) …. I guess we have lived too long in the Sunshine State with the balmy Gulf waters at an average temperature of 85F over the summer months compared to 70F in San Diego :-).

Still, the Coronado boardwalk, bordered at each end by the famous naval bases was a beautiful location for a morning run each day – ignoring the wind chill and the frost bite nipping at our ear-lobes ;-).

Wandering the San Diego waterfront and Balboa Park in the sun (whilst Coronado Island froze under its blanket of summer fog less than 2 miles away) was very pleasant, albeit touristy. Over the passage of time, I seem to have forgotten the full horrors of the famous Gaslight District jammed with bars and chain food restaurants and, similarly, I had forgotten just how eerily quiet this city can be in the daytime … dominated as it is by the huge Conference Centre buildings and the fact nobody goes to bars at 11am … it’s an odd place…

We decided to retrace old steps with a weekend at beautiful La Jolla just up the road… home of the ultra well-heeled … boutique stores, posh restaurants and Seal Cove – which is best observed from a  distance; right down amongst the cuddly, lazy lumps themselves sunbathing on the beach, the accompanying odors pervading the air were heady to say the least.

To be fair, I am not sure if the blame for the unholy stench should be laid at the door of the harbor seals playing at the shoreline, the sea lions flopped over the beach rocks or the thick guano dripping down the cliffs – courtesy of the cormorants and pelicans who like to stop there and spread their wings to dry out. Either way, if I had $10 million to invest in a house on the Southern Californian coast I suspect I wouldn’t do it where you could only enjoy cocktails on your sea view balcony whilst wearing a gas mask ;-)

Torrey Pines State Reserve at sunset was as spectacular as ever… the golden cliffs brought to life by the dying rays of the sun and reflected in an almost mirror image on the wet sand. A newly fledged family of Peregrin Falcons soared in the sky at the clifftop – mommy was busily teaching her chicks how to eat in mid-air… all rather idyllic for a sunset stroll…

Whilst we do love California for its wild beauty, quaint, trendy towns and its great hiking climate, we wondered, as we careered up behind a 13 mile tail back on I5 en route to Laguna Beach for the afternoon, how (stubbornly wearing our rose-tinted pro-Californian glasses) we had forgotten about the horrendous traffic, the ridiculously manic way of life and the general overcrowding in Southern California. Luckily, we screeched to a stop before joining the 2-hour queue to nowhere, u-turned and headed straight back in the direction of La Jolla again. By some miracle we managed to find a prized parking spot by Del Mar beach and braved the chilly breeze to absorb some sunny warmth behind the shelter of large beach rocks. We watched the crazy locals frolic in the frigid sea with their equally crazy dogs until we could take the cold no longer… ;-).

Time to head home to warmer climes …

 

Hawaiian Islands – May 2015

27 May
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Tunnels Beach, Kauai

Incredible tropical beaches, playing “ball” with sand crabs, hogs and frogs for dinner at a vegan restaurant, mangoes falling from the sky, canyons, mountains, rainforests, hiking volcanoes, river rock jumping and leaping over waterfalls in the most remote islands in the world :-).

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

11 of the world’s 13 climates in one small island chain – packing for every eventuality was going to be challenging ;-).

Our travels through the Hawaiian islands began on the island of Hawai’i – the Big Island. Not quite what we were expecting of a Hawaiian island although neither of us could quite put our fingers on why.

We felt right at home in our Waikoloa Beach apartment when a kitten strolled past the patio and stopped to say hello as we were sipping tea watching the sunrise (jet lag! ;-) ) over the golf course on our first morning. Fifteen seconds later it’s twin appeared and then mommy appeared from the undergrowth and wandered up for a stroke and a chat. Mommy looked distinctly more bedraggled than her kittens so I whipped down to the local store to get a couple of cans of food in case she was hungry….

By the time I got back the “family” had expanded to 4 with appetites so voracious I had to whip back to the store again… ;-)

After breakfast (not ours, as I hadn’t had time to deal with that yet ;-) ), mommy cuddled up to one of the cushions on my patio chair and the kittens curled up under Geoff’s chair and dozed off.

On our exploratory travels that day we grabbed a few more cans and a box of dry food in case they were back the following morning…

Needless to say, when we returned, mommy hadn’t moved at all after her gargantuan breakfast and she had clearly decided that she was staying for dinner (she could sense a kitty sucker a mile away, obviously). The moment we flipped the lid on the can the kittens also miraculously reappeared with a friend. We asked in reception who they belonged to as when we looked more closely around the pristine resort landscaping there were a number of kitties running loose, catching geckos on the lava rocks. We were told that they had wandered from the cat colony on the beach a mile or so away and while guests continued to feed them contrary to all the rules ( the most heinous of which was letting them enter the apartment… oops ;-) ! ) they weren’t inclined to leave the luxury of the resort…

So, we inadvertently adopted a family of 4 with a daily rotating friend for 8 days … breakfast and dinner…and occasionally if I were lucky enough I was able to sit on the patio chair too enjoying the breeze if mommy could be bothered to move her furry butt. We can only hope the next guests after we left were as kitty silly as we are or they might have had to head back to the cat colony for dinner where the felines were considerably more lazy and similarly well-fed… I did mention in passing to Geoff that maybe we could slip the family into the hand luggage but he didn’t seem inclined… rotter… :-(.

Anyway – Hawai’i – the Big Island – it is the largest island of the chain whose landscape is dominated by 2 enormous dramatic volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Measured from the sea floor base to the highest peak, Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the world. It also snows up there in winter.. whilst a few miles away the coast basks in sunshine…

The island also has one of the world’s most famous volcanoes – Kilauea – which has been erupting constantly since 1983. No helicopter flights to witness the legendary luminous red lava flow into the ocean for us, however! The closest we got was to view the eruption through a long-distance telescope due to poisonous gases blowing in an inconvenient direction… Still, once we’d seen the quite incredible sight of the earth roiling, boiling and churning like the ocean that was probably as close as we needed to get ;-).

We took a hike across the Kilauea caldera – the dormant part ;-). Even so – the crater was still distinctly warm under foot in places, with steaming fissures in the rock which you could stick your hand into if you were a really stupid tourist… With all of that underground activity around us I didn’t want to spend too much time loitering for a photo shoot ;-).

The Big Island is a land of vast diversity – from wind-blown, green, rolling hills in North Kohala with it’s views down to the ultramarine sea rimmed with calm turquoise waters lapping the sandy or rocky shores; to the stark, dry, rugged, black lava and boulder strewn rocky landscapes around the bases of the volcanoes in the center of the island where mongooses and bearded mountain goats roam wild; to verdant, rainforest-covered headlands on the wet northern and eastern sides of the island where wild boar roam the forests and roosters and hens with their families of chicks peck through the undergrowth.

As to the beaches, they covered the whole gamut from wild, black sand volcanic beaches with huge crashing waves to calmer yellow sand coves with warm lapping water where you could watch large green turtles haul themselves up on the sand to rest.

And just to emphasize the difference in climates from one side of the island to the other – it was nothing to register 90F on the car thermometer on the dry sunny, western side of the island, drive through the misty, cloudy hills of Waimea and plunge into 56F en route to the east coast – all in the space of 40 minutes.

On the west coast, where we were based, were the greatest concentration of the most beautiful sandy beaches on the island (which was convenient :-) ). Even from the roads you could see the route of swaths of historic lava flows from the volcano, crossing the farmland down to the beaches. It was a breathtaking sight to see the sun setting on the volcanoes behind us in the centre of the island, and on the colorful farmland at their feet, from the comfort of your beach towel with your toes dipped in the warm, transparent, turquoise waters of the Kekahakai coastline :-).

Our favorite and most remote find was also the most pure white sand beach which we discovered on any of the 4 islands. Fabulous Makalawena Beach was almost always deserted – something to do, no doubt, with a 15 minute off-road crater-filled drive followed by a hot 30 minute hike across steamy (not literally ;-) ) black volcanic rock to reach it’s shores. Clad in bikini, sunhat and hiking boots I wondered why I had thought that the spangly bejeweled beach resort sandals and my collection of embroidered indian silk sarongs would be useful items to pack in my limited Geoff-imposed hand luggage allowance for 3 1/2 weeks ;-).

Whilst Geoff had some work to catch up on (courtesy of our 4 months in South East Asia interfering slightly with our pre-planned summer vacation), I drove through the island checking out the hot-spots for Geoff’s subsequent guided tours. Highlights were the northern wilderness areas such as Pololu Valley with it’s forest trail down to crashing waves on a wild, black sand beach which was breathtaking at sunset; Laupahoehoe Point State Beach; and a tough almost vertical 1 mile hike down to Waipi’o Valley where only local Hawaiians are allowed to enter by car and the secluded valley is one of the wettest and most remote areas on the islands.

The coastal routes on the east coast to the south were punctuated with beautiful sparkling blue coves dotted along winding, tree lined roads with waterfalls and streams at every turn. On the hiking trails bright with hibiscus, wild ginger, gardenia and plumeria flowers, ripe orange mangoes literally fell from the sky onto our heads. The north and south of the island had quaint bougainvillea draped villages (Hawi, Kapa’au and Holualoa were favorites) so I was never far from an emergency latte if needed ;-). On my lone travels I even managed to squeeze in a cultural side-trip to the sacred historical coastal site – Pu’uhonua-O-Honaunau, also known as the City of Refuge. Here, miscreants would be safe from penalty if they made the dangerous journey and arrived safely – benefiting from absolution by a priest for their transgressions – thereafter they could return safely to their villages without fear of death.

The Big Island has some beautiful and spectacular sights but we were still looking for the picture-postcard, quintessential Hawaiian beach…so….onwards to Maui :-).

Wow….Maui certainly ticked all of the boxes when it came to cute country villages, great cafes serving amazing organic, island-grown food, fabulous dramatic coastal drives, cloud covered rainforest mountains, waterfalls, and a handful of pretty beaches where you might get lucky and swim with a turtle.

It is known as the Valley Isle. I, on the other hand, would probably call it the Windy Isle though that may not be so good for marketing purposes ;-). It’s landscape reminded us of a combination of New Zealand, England, the Caribbean and California rolled into one. Obviously, we were going to be quite happy there for a week :-).

Our first afternoon seemed a little blustery (to put it mildly) so it was spent trying to find a beach where we could shelter from the clouds of sand which were billowing down the coast on the south of the island. I thought I had struck lucky with my careful analysis of wind direction and the orientation of the various contenders on my list of must-do beaches so we settled onto the sand at Makena Beach to absorb some rays. Unfortunately, I was disturbed from my afternoon reveries by a very unhappy husband covered in one giant sandblast from head to foot in thick, dark, yellow sand. Whilst he frantically tried to remove a bucketful of sand from his ears, I was tasked with picking sand from his hair like an orangutan grooming it’s offspring. Not quite the anticipated romantic Hawaiian beach vacation quite yet! ;-). Luckily, I survived the worst of the onslaught by the human shield lying next to me but even I was still locating inappropriately lodged particles of sand from various orifices for several days afterwards.

Luckily, the main purpose of our trip to Maui – to hike the Haleakala volcano and to drive the “Road to Hana” – were both infinitely more spectacular than most of the beaches turned out to be in the wind ;-).

Having said that we did find one which we loved – Oneloa Bay on the north shore which was still a little windy but far more beautiful than the others (albeit that it backed onto a golf course community – so it wasn’t winning in the “wild” category). We also saw our first (and last) surfing dog at Oneloa which I am sure was worth the drive to the other side of the island from Paia alone :-).

Clearly, although it has some unbelievably wild and beautiful spots, Maui was still not quite the island of our beach dreams (some might say we are getting very fussy in our old age, of course ;-) ). Many of the well-known ones (Napili Bay, Kapalua and so on) would have been pretty if it weren’t for the 500 beach chairs and kids toys strewn everywhere.

However, to give it it’s due, it was most definitely the Hawaii of our dreams when it came to spectacular coastal drives through lush waterfall fed rainforest and mountains (the Road to Hana and the even hairier single lane cliff edge road to Kahakuloa and beyond); and to crashing waves and cerulean seas; to blowholes and dramatic headlands; and, when it came to volcano hiking.

So we concentrated our efforts on the countryside instead – exploring the highland area villages inland from Paia, and hiking the Haleakala Volcano National Park, the Ohe’o Gulch Valley and the Iao Valley State Park.

By the time we had hiked down 1000 feet, across the Haleakala crater in the Volcano National Park and back up out of it again at an altitude of 10,000 feet we were probably fit to expire and spend the rest of the week on a beach, albeit a sand blasted one. It was incredible (visually and physically ;-) ) to hike down the scree and shifting sands to the dark red cinder cones, through the surreal, stark moonscapes passing weird and wonderful vegetation. We picnicked on a lava rock (is there any other kind on these islands?) watching the afternoon clouds roll in around the mountains below us…it was quite magical .. as if we were on top of the world :-).

The other 2 hikes we did were barely less physically exhausting.

The first was a hot and humid hike into the valley from the starting point of the Ohe’o Gulch Falls which cascaded into the ocean. The aroma of fermented mangoes which had fallen from the trees onto the flower filled trail was enough to knock us off our feet before the hike even started ;-). Still, we pressed on, passing through fern valleys, pristine wilderness and tall bamboo forests rustling in the wind until we reached beautiful Waimoku Falls.

But the best hike of all on Maui was trespassing at Iao Valley State Park ;-).

I had read about the great hikes around the Iao Valley State Park – with it’s iconic image – the Needle – but I hadn’t got around to picking up a map. We asked at the pay booth for a hiking map and the elderly local selling tickets looked bemused and told us there were no hiking trails and, consequently, there was no map….Umm…great…

On further cross-examination, Geoff managed to elicit that there were actually trails which some brave locals used but they weren’t legitimate as they were all sectioned off behind “Do Not Enter” signs…

Not to be deterred, Geoff took matters into this own exploratory hands when the park ranger had his back turned, leapt over a fence barring our way and scuttled up a slippery slope. Not entirely convinced that we wouldn’t be sacrificed at an altar somewhere deep in the valley for trespassing on sacred land, never to be found again, I was a little bit more cautious until we met a young couple in flip-flops descending the mountain trail covered from head to foot in thick slimy mud. They were the only other people we met for the whole hike to the viewpoint – 2 miles uphill. They mentioned that it was muddy in parts ;-). That turned out to be an understatement. 2 miles uphill doesn’t sound like much but when every step uphill is accompanied with 1/2 a step slipping down the mud slick hillside and the rest of the more horizontally oriented hike we were jumping over streams and traversing wide muddy swamps on fallen logs (at the same time as trying to avoid being caught up and asphyxiated by strangler fig roots) it was actually quite a time consuming and hot and sweaty feat.

Obviously, we had no excuses at any juncture to turn back as we couldn’t be outdone by the two 20 something hikers who had managed the whole route in flip-flops ;-). The view was spectacular… miles of wilderness and mountains with no sound other than the birds in the trees around us :-).

Maui is also justifiably famed for it’s rustic local fruit stands. We stopped at one far out into the boonies on the road back from Hana. I suspect our vendor – stoned to the high heavens – foraged for wild fruit in the forest to sell (and why not?!). He was so excited that somebody had stopped to buy his produce that he insisted that we try every variety of fruit on his stand. Sounds great – but this wasn’t good for my cleanliness phobia. If he had washed his hands anytime in the last 10 years I would be stunned. With these very same bacteria and grime encrusted fingers he cut up chunks of fruit with a rusty old knife (similarly filth encrusted) and handed us the most delicious pieces of mango, papaya and banana we had ever eaten.

(As an aside – even better, of course, neither of us regretted our acceptance of his generous offerings by spending the next week glued to the toilet in our luxurious beach house bathroom on the north shore in Paia … thank goodness ;-) ).

We decided to take a risk on a coconut too as we were thirsty and fancied some coconut water (having already purchased a pile of fruit we would struggle to get through). He hacked the top off and we asked if he had a straw. No – ahh – that might be awkward then…A moment later he grabbed a piece of hollow stem from some unknown forest dwelling plant lying at the side of the fruit stand, cut out a 9” section and said we could improvise with that. Smiling at his impressive innovation – it was perfectly clean he said – running his fingers up and down it with enthusiasm before sticking it into the top of our coconut and handing it over to me. Nothing if not imaginative… As a parting gift he handed me a sprig of rosemary which he had just picked from the roadside. It was for our dashboard to make the car smell nice. Someone less cynical perhaps may not have thought that it would also be ideal to mask the heady smell of cannabis which wafted in the air around him ;-). Nice of him to share the tip though ;-) ;-).

Somewhere along the road to Hana (or maybe dangling over a precipice on the mountain road from Kahakuloa in some of the most drop-dead gorgeous rainforest landscape in the world) we mooted that surely this is what life is really supposed to be… It can’t all be corporate America, art shows and Starbucks coffee….surely…

How does someone drop so far out of the “real“ world that they survive on the spoils of their foraging for wild organic fruit to sell to the occasional passing tourist? And by that I guess I really mean …. how can WE do it?!! ;-).

Would we go stir crazy on a tiny island in the North Pacific where GMO’s are banned, the evil Monsanto is vilified and local food is grown organically and sustainably… and everyone seems so happy because they live in paradise?

Umm… I don’t think so… :-). We couldn’t go the whole hog, give up washing and walk the streets barefoot but so much of the ethos of life there speaks to us….

We loved Maui – for it’s fantastic scenery, for the irresistibly quaint (organically and hippie dominated) town of Paia; for Grandma’s Coffee House (and her depressingly delicious selection of cakes :-( ;-) ) in Kula; for the diversity of hiking terrains from volcano to rain forest; for our nightly coastal sunset run along the beach; for the general ethos of life; and for the peace and tranquility of the highland villages …

But one or two beautiful wind blown beaches wasn’t quite enough to make this our absolute perfect Hawaiian Island…

So… back to the open air hopper flight airport and 40 minutes later we were touching down on the island which I hoped would have it all… Kaua’i – known as the Garden Isle (or Gardner’s Paradise ;-) ).

Certainly on initial impression, it seemed that we had found the most laid-back, chilled out place in the US.

The people were friendly, we found a couple of vegetarian organic cafes (our favorite had a family of wild hogs roaming quite safely in the fields behind it ;-) and giant frogs hopped about our feet in the garden at night catching bugs)…and a great coffee shop…all was looking good…

So, having settled into the hotel in Kapa’a on the central eastern coast, we hit the road for a week in search of what we really wanted Hawaii to be.

And we had, at last, finally found it :-).

We also found some of the toughest hiking we have ever done – the Koke’e State Park, parts of the Kalalau Valley Rim Trail, Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) – around the rim, clambering over rocks in the dark red dust and giant roots to reach our spectacular lunch stop – the Wai’poo Falls which dropped off 800 feet below us and our sandwiches :-).

Whilst Waimea Canyon is dry and desert like (aside from a  few waterfalls), the dramatic pinnacles and steep valleys of the Napali Coast next to it is covered in rain forest…and in the interior of the island (to give you an idea of exactly how damply exotic Kaua’i’s rain forests can be), Mount Wai’ale’ale is the wettest place on earth, receiving on average 450″ (11.43 meters) of rain annually.

Days hiking were often ended with a sunset stroll on the beach…Ke’e or Tunnels…

Days without mountain or canyon hiking were usually frittered with a day on the sand – some obscure beach located down a dirt track perhaps…where Geoff would body-surf or stare wistfully out to sea whilst playing “ball” with sand crabs…rolling seeds (fallen from the trees swaying overhead) towards the crabs on the sand and watching them scuttle off sideways after them … I guess he missed playing with the cats ;-).

The true beach of our Hawaiian dreams, however, was infinitely more accessible.

Tunnels Beach at Haena State Park… at the far end of the North Shore close to where the road runs out and the unbelievably spectacular Napali Coast wilderness begins.

This is the land of “South Pacific”, “Jurassic Park”, “King Kong” and countless other movies. It is everything we could possibly have imagined :-).

….except for the lethal waves, riptides, deadly undertow and a myriad of other watery threats which even the locals don’t seem able to avoid. A constant reminder of possible mishaps are the makeshift shrines dotted along the coastal road – memorials to teenagers swept out whilst chasing their last big wave.

However, I won’t hear a word against Tunnels, of course, because it is my dream beach ;-). It was also calm, peaceful and pristine whenever we laid our towels under the shade of it’s ironwood trees and bobbed about in it’s crystal clear waters staring gooey eyed at the Bali Hai headlands and the towering rainforest covered mountain backdrop :-).

It shouldn’t be a great surprise that anywhere with a coastline as dramatic, wild, rugged, untouched and unspoiled as the Napali Coast might have some large, treacherous and unpredictable waves. We got lucky with most beaches on Kaua’i but whilst others looked gorgeous it was easy to see how their waters might rip you from your perch on a rock or knock you clean off your feet and drag you out into the Pacific…

And so on to the Napali Coast – probably the most stunning coastline in the world. You can take a scenic flight over it, or cruise around it, but the only way to see it up close and personal is to hike in…. so that is what we did…

The first stop was Hanakapi’ai Beach – a small cove with crashing waves and hikers crashed out on the rocks… and most importantly, a warning sign advising visitors to say away from the shoreline. It showed a tally of 88 deaths in that one tiny cove alone… this didn’t, however, seem to stop the family with 3 young kids playing in the surf… Either they were very stupid or actually trying to lose one … unbelievable :-(.

The other hikers began to dwindle in number after the beach stop as we proceeded onwards to the Hanakapi’ai Falls. In total only an 8 mile round trip in picture perfect 78F weather….but it turned out to be one of the most exhilarating and tiring hikes of our trip. We straddled waterfalls running down the mountainside, leapt across streams, jumped from one huge precarious rock to another and negotiated slick boulders and fallen logs over rushing rivers, craggy rock faces, tree roots and muddy slopes…

It was absolutely worth every effort :-).

It is difficult not to wax lyrical ad nauseum about Kauai because it ticked all of the boxes – it even had a couple of quaint towns – not Maui quaint – but Hanalei, Kilauea Town and Koloa Old Town were appealing all the same.

So, I won’t …. wax lyrical…that is.

But I will say that we will be back … maybe for a few months…or maybe a year or 2… :-). Next time we will do the considerably more strenuous full 11 mile overnight hike on the Kalalau Trail … unless we are too old and rickety by then to hike into the Napali Coast again … So maybe we would just fly over it or sail around it instead… either way, we are not done with it, nor the island, quite yet!

Leaving was miserable…but leave we had to as we started our journey home via our fourth and final destination – the island of O’ahu.

Oh boy… I had my reservations when I booked it but our flights home made it inevitable to stop off somewhere – and better another Hawaiian island than Los Angeles  – so we decided to spend a few days on Waikiki Beach.

It is probably the busiest stretch of beach we have ever seen outside of the French Riviera on a sweltering day in August. Ram-jammed with crispy fried and blistered white bodies, blow-up kids toys, loud music, umbrellas and discarded beer cans and cigarette butts…. :-(. With hindsight, Memorial Day weekend may not have been the best weekend to choose to visit this incredibly popular beach destination either.

Aside from an evening walk to watch the surfers in the dying rays of the sun hanging 10 against the backdrop of Diamond Head headland (and a subsequent attempt to body board (me) and surf (Geoff) in the lovely, clear and irritatingly calm, warm and wave-free waters), we decided to avoid Waikiki and make the best of O’ahu by checking out some of the other parts of the island.

The signature tune to “Hawaii Five-O” blaring from my cellphone, and suitably decorated with my first orchid lei of the vacation, we zipped about the streets in a fittingly flashy bright red Mustang which I’ll admit I rather liked :-).

We did find some parts of O’ahu which were appealing. The historic town of Haleiwa on the North Shore where we enjoyed our last lattes of the vacation and a final lilikoi (passionfruit) Aloha bar under the shade of a giant acacia tree and surrounded by papaya trees loaded with fruit was quaint. The mountain ranges en route from the south coast to the northwest were beautiful, as were parts of the coastline past the iconic Diamond Head headland onto which Waikiki Beach backs.

Undoubtedly, the weather is perfect on this island all year round with an average temperature of 80F and it was admittedly relaxing and peaceful to watch the surfers catching their dream waves on the quieter beaches whilst listening to the surf crashing on the shore. Beach life here is all consuming – whether you are walking your pig on the beach or smoking a joint with your school friends – it all happens at the shore ;-). Which I suppose is not much different to life in Florida…except for the pig ;-)

However, O’ahu, for us at least, had a less appealing, less laid-back atmosphere.. it had a far more mainstream US feel to it than the other 3 islands… Honolulu was like a miniature Miami or Fort Lauderdale but set against a mountainous backdrop…and, just like Miami, the streets were noisy and the peace was shattered by constant police sirens. That’s all fine in Miami – we love Miami – but this is Hawaii and we just wanted it to be so much more than that…

So, when it comes to these tiny islands in the North Pacific, the most isolated and remote land masses in the world, none of them will ever speak to us quite like Kaua’i… the island of our Hawaiian dreams … :-)

Vietnam – April 2015

16 Apr
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Black H’Mong Ladies in Sa Pa, Northern Vietnam

Despite spending the night in a freezing swamp on the overnight train from Ha Noi to Sa Pa; enduring a heat wave of 114F with no air conditioning in the ancient city of Hoi An; having our ears de-fluffed and polished by Mr. Hot Toc – a cross-eyed barber; and being marooned in a sea of 200 oncoming mopeds swarming like wasps around us in Ha Noi – Vietnam was the perfect country for the grand finale of our 4 month Asian adventure.

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

First off the plane in Da Nang with Visa Invitation Letters in hand, we spotted a long chaotic line chocked full of Australians filling in paperwork at an office window and 2 much more appealing, shorter lines heading directly to seated immigration officers. I waved our papers at an official looking uniformed member of staff and asked which line we should join.

Yippee – the short one! We were so pleased we had filled out all the papers online :-).

Shame we appeared to have picked the extra sloooooow line though – our overly officious officer was pawing over everybody’s papers with a nit comb. It was even more of a shame that once we had finally arrived at his desk it transpired that we hadn’t actually filled out all the papers we needed after all and we were sent to the back of the, by now, much more chaotic line of Aussies at the Visa desk. Perfect! To make matters worse, the documents we had diligently completed (downloaded directly from the government’s own immigration website, no less) were out of date (seriously people ?!)… sigh…

So, first off the plane… 2nd from last out of the immigration hall ;-).

Luckily, the hotel car was still waiting for us as the driver hadn’t given up and gone back to Hoi An. It wasn’t hard to spot the last lonely, dejected looking driver sitting on the kerb clutching a sign for “Mrs Jennifer and Mr Geoff” :-).

Relieved he hadn’t mislaid his guests and had to return empty-seated to the Vinh Hung Riverside resort, he enthusiastically took us on a guided tour which we didn’t want ;-).

30th April 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War – or the American War if you are Vietnamese. He pointed out the aircraft hangers left by the US troops after the war and a museum of captured wartime planes. He explained that friendly relations had been restored between the 2 countries and bygones were, generally speaking, bygones. As a pacifist, I still found the remnants of death and destruction on permanent display a little disquieting.

He then insisted that we stop at a stone carving store en route in the Marble Mountains. He wouldn’t take no for an answer despite my protestations so we wandered aimlessly for 5 minutes (whilst the owner’s daughter pointlessly tried to sell us a giant 10′ marble buddha statue) before finding him and dragging him unceremoniously from his cup of tea.

Hoi An, a trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries, is a beautiful UNESCO preserved World Heritage City in South Central Vietnam on the coast of the East Vietnam Sea. It is also known as “The City of Lanterns” for reasons which will become obvious. Our visit was carefully coordinated (by the highly efficient vacation planner ;-) ) to coincide with the April Full Moon Lantern Festival. Street lights are turned off in the Ancient City and the streets and bridges fill with tourists and locals who crowd onto the bridge across the Thu Bon River. They buy a colored paper lantern with a candle burning in the centre from one of the women or child vendors. The lanterns are then lowered via a long pole into the river to float downstream. By the end of the evening there are hundreds of floating lanterns drifting along decorating the river. Those even more romantically inclined can hire a wooden longboat which is paddled out into the river for them to lower their lanterns into the river by hand. It was really quite magical – even for a couple of old unromantic cynics like us ;-).

The name Hoi An translates as “peaceful place” … and it certainly is :-). It is a serene city decorated with colorful lanterns hanging from almost every rafter, lamppost and rooftop. It is filled with historical buildings refurbished into restaurants, cafes, shops and 2nd or 3rd generation tailors – dozens of them. It is so famous for it’s tailoring skills that I braved getting measured up for a couple of dresses and tops. And I do mean braved – April is one of the most climate amenable months to visit this part of Vietnam so I was anticipating a sunny, balmy 80F – perfect for strolling the streets for a few days.

However, there was an unseasonable heatwave and the average high for our 4 day visit was 97F with a heat index of 113F. Great if you are on a Caribbean beach but not so good if you are in a city with a preservation order prohibiting air conditioning units.

Being measured up, then returning for an initial fitting, and then following that up with at least 2 more subsequent fittings before the damn things were actually deemed fit to purchase, was purgatory in a building boiling in internal temperatures pushing 115F with nothing to alleviate the misery but a couple of small and ineffective ceiling fans wafting equally boiling air around you.

It is hard to squeeze into a tight silk dress when you are standing in a pool of sticky sweat and perspiration is literally dripping off the ends of your fingers ;-). Still, first world problems etc etc…

How anyone survives in the historic centre in summer I cannot imagine. Luckily our hotel was on the outskirts, a 3 minute walk away from the Ancient City, so at least we could return periodically to the hotel and stand under the AC unit for 1/2 an hour to recover.

But we weren’t there to stare at the four walls of the nicely air conditioned room so there was little choice but to venture out and drip slowly around the city admiring the beautiful buildings, temples, Assembly Halls and the typically energetic market place filled with the usual grim offerings… bowls of maggots, the worlds most repulsive smelling and equally appalling tasting spiky fruit – durian, unidentifiable dead furry animals (which could well have been dog as the Vietnamese have a taste for poor Fido :-( ).

We should have known better than to stand still for more than 30 seconds in the market to catch our respective breaths. Whilst various hawkers around us tried to sell us produce we couldn’t possible have a need for, out of nowhere, a woman on a mission grabbed us from the melee and quite literally dragged Geoff by the hand to what looked like a moped storage space opposite the market. She was busily massaging his sweaty paw (poor woman) and babbling away in a combination of incomprehensible Vietnamese and English. Despite his polite protestations he was dragged into a garage, plonked down on a couple of horizontal planks with a grubby mattress and a flowery sheet (in a cacophony of glowing colors from the 1970’s) and before he could escape he had agreed to a hand and foot massage for 2 in her “spa” for $5 each. For that bargain price I re-negotiated for a shoulder massage which I immediately regretted. A miscellaneous friend was called in from the street, covered a pillow on the adjoining mattress with a dusty threadbare rag (which I suspect was once a towel), whipped off my top and bra, slapped me down on to the bed and proceeded to pummel away at my shoulders. As I lay there half naked staring straight out at the thronging activities of the market in 113F, an old sheet drawn across the garage entrance billowing in the breeze, I had to wonder how on earth I got there… still… she had a fan (!) so the price of the unanticipated massage was worth it for that alone ;-).

The Vietnamese are really, really, really good entrepreneurial salespeople. To give her her due whilst the spa facilities were spartan and far from hygienic they were both spectacularly good massages despite the constant flow of neighbors and friends wandering in for an impromptu chat. Geoff’s was so good he was completely oblivious to the influx of visitors pulling up a plastic stool for a gossip with the masseuses. He was also wholly unaware that half way through my massage, my masseuse had to rush out for an urgent errand so the services of another neighbor were solicited from the market stall next door to finish off. Not one to pass up the opportunity to make a few extra Dong, my number 2 masseuse tried to upgrade my “spa experience” with a pedicure I definitely didn’t want. Not to be put off by that refusal she whipped out a piece of cotton thread from her pocket, twisted it round her fingers and pinged it across my top lip ripping out apparently repulsive and unsightly hairs which I had no idea that I had.

Only in Vietnam ;-).

At the end of our spa treatment we were both given a big hug and the lady owner grinned widely, slapped my butt and said “Big bum, big bum – you come back tomorrow!!”… which was charming ;-).

Still, it can’t be denied that the massages were extremely good value which is more than could be said for the 2 bananas which we intended to buy for lunch from a couple of fruit vendors staggering about under the weight of their bamboo poles and fruit baskets. We didn’t have the correct change for the bananas so instead of giving us change in cash for the $10 equivalent note in Dong we had handed over (having run out of more appropriate denominations of cash in the process of buying other things we didn’t really need from various persistent vendors) the little group kept adding fruit we also didn’t really need until we gave up trying to extract change due to heat and haggling exhaustion. In the final analysis we became the proud owners of 2 tiny bananas, 3 ancient oranges and 2 pears for the princely sum of $10 US which is more expensive than Singapore. No wonder they smiled so enthusiastically for my impromptu photo shoot ;-).

Geoff had read that the Vietnamese are well-known for good cut-throat razor shaves – so he stopped shaving for a couple of days to make it worthwhile and we went in search of a barber. Stopping en route at the tourist information office, we were recommended a barber around the corner, Mr. Hot Toc. Odd recommendation, we thought, when we were greeted by a cross-eyed man with razor blade in hand ;-). Hopeful that he wouldn’t slit his throat by accident, Geoff took a chance and reclined warily in the grimy chair. All went well, no blood was spilt and we thought it was all over until the barber donned a headlamp, picked up some very long pointy instruments of torture and started to prod about in Geoff’s ear canal rather unexpectedly. In an entirely gruesome way it was all rather fascinating – but I will spare the reader the more revolting of the details. Hygiene wasn’t a consideration at all – nothing was sterilized, nor even wiped with a filthy rag. For reasons I cannot fathom even now (considering the paranoid levels of my cleanliness OCD), it all looked rather entertaining so I asked the barber if he could take a look at mine to see if I too harbored winged beasts and prehistoric petrified creatures. As he agreed, he dropped one of the said pointy instruments on the muck covered floor of his shop, picked it up and continued on without missing a beat with his enthralling search of Geoff’s ear canal. Delightful!

Too late to back out, I reclined with fear and foreboding and endured similar internal proddings and feather fluffings until my ears (which didn’t harbor anything even close to interesting compared to Geoff’s ;-) ) were spotless whilst repeating to myself over and over – “this is great OCD therapy… it won’t kill me… I will survive”…etc etc… followed by… a lot of internal screaming and “what on earth was I thinking… seriously… are you nuts girl?”… etc etc…

Our time in Hoi An, albeit hotter than the desert, was lovely, peaceful (until they opened the streets to the mopeds at 11am every morning) and very unchallenging with the exception of the irritating tailors who never really got round to finishing the job off properly until you had re-visited 5 times. As idyllic as it was, it wasn’t quite the adventurous side of Vietnam we were really hoping to see.

I was hoping a quick hopper flight from Da Nang to Ha Noi would put that right :-).

We arrived into Ha Noi in the rain but it was just as hot as Hoi An and considerably more humid. Another unexpected weather pattern it seemed. Still, at least we were in a nicely air conditioned cab as opposed to the thousands of pour souls struggling through the downpour on their mopeds wearing plastic bags which flapped wildly around their legs as the cars flew by narrowly missing getting caught up in their makeshift raincoats. When the rain stopped we girded our loins to tackle the narrow streets of the Old Quarter of Ha Noi which we had already spotted were absolutely manic.

Like Yangon, Myanmar, there are many beautiful colonial buildings (French in the case of Vietnam), mostly decrepit, decaying and embellished by mother nature with verdigris and ferns. The tree-lined avenues are teeming with mopeds and cars – none of which apply their brakes – ever. They glide around in a constant stream ignoring all red lights and pedestrians and apparently never colliding. Amazing, considering that many of the bikers are also simultaneously making calls on their cell phones or texting as they drive. It is an impressive feat of coordinated movement en masse.

Crossing the road involves stepping out into the unrelenting stream of mopeds, cars, and taxis all hooting their horns. The way to survival is to slow down or run according to the general flow as they glide around you in a coordinated symphony. Hesitancy will not end well ;-). As such, it is nothing unusual to be trapped – marooned – in the centre of the road with hundreds of mopeds bearing down upon you, swishing past from all sides whilst you try to navigate safely to the other side without getting mown down or losing a useful body part. The fact that we saw no accidents at all is a testament to the seemingly mild, non-aggressive nature of the driving population. Someone always backs down in the relentless game of traffic chicken. The roads are a giant moving noisy conveyor belt but no-one seems to fall from their dangerously overloaded bikes and the gutters are strangely free of the limbs and bodies of dead tourists.

I hear Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) is even worse. I cannot begin to imagine what kind of treacherous feat crossing the road would be in HCMC.

What is even more impressive is that many of the mopeds are actually deemed roadworthy at all considering that (like most of South East Asia) they are held together entirely with dust, rust and tape. Unsurprisingly, there is a thriving business of moped repair “shops” (any empty patch of pavement and a bag of tools appears to suffice to set up shop).

Again, like Yangon, the Old Quarter is characterized by streets dedicated to specific businesses… there is a gold street, a hat street, a shoe street, a button and haberdashery street, a bamboo street etc etc.

However, unlike Yangon it is also reasonably clean, free of the olfactory delights of open sewers and it is also famous for its street food. For my part, of course, street food remains something to avoid at all cost and even Geoff appeared to have learnt his lesson after the Yangon mahogany seed incident ;-).

We visited Ha Noi 3 times – backwards and forwards to Ha Long Bay and to Sa Pa and back. Initially, in the heat and humidity and utter chaos we weren’t immediately wowed – but Ha Noi is one of those cities which begins to grow on you with familiarity. Once you accept it’s manic chaos, it’s deafening constant horn blowing and having to dice with death crossing the roads it is really an amazing city full of beauty, life and wonderful decaying French colonial architecture.

Famous for its relaxed coffee shop culture – whether you drag up a miniature stool on the pavement with the locals (squashed in between miscellaneous vendors and mopeds) and pay 80 cents for a Vietnamese coffee, or whether you choose to recline in one of the more attractive cafes in a refurbished artsy building and pay $2.00 for a latte – they both have something highly appealing to offer when you finally run out of steam on the steamy streets… which is frequently :-).

You could sit in a street cafe for days on end watching the surrounding maelstrom and never get bored.

Over 2 80 cent thick black Vietnamese coffees with condensed milk one morning (calorie free :-) ) we tallied up the following loads zipping past us on individual mopeds – 6 mattresses (and by this I do mean 6 mattresses on 1 moped) ; a 5’ laminate kitchen work surface (with pre-cut sink hole); 2 25’ bamboo poles clutched with grim determination by the pillion passenger; a 6’ bay window (with glass); approximately 30 folded rugs; 2 5’ x 6” sheets of glass; an office computer desk; a 4’x 5’ oil painting and best of all… grandma riding pillion perched precariously behind the driver on a couple of boxes and wedged in between 2 4’x 3’ hessian sacks to her sides, one in front and one behind her.

Cyclists drift past loaded with fruit, women in conical hats shuffle past under the crippling weight of their bamboo poles carrying huge baskets of fruit. I know how heavy they are – one of these contraptions was unceremoniously dumped onto my shoulder by the grinning owner trying to sell a “photo op”.

As one old lady wobbled past us with 2 giant transparent plastic bags attached to each side of her pushbike Geoff spluttered into his coffee “Good God, look at the size of that woman’s prawn crackers!“. Whilst they weren’t prawn crackers (they were actually rice cakes), I did get his point – they were gigantic – at least 30” diameter each. Still, I suspect it is not a phrase I’ll hear more than once in my lifetime ;-).

Like Yangon, Ha Noi is all about street life, high energy business transactions, food vendors, boiling pots of water and frying pans on the sidewalks, rinsing vegetables in bowls in the gutters and lazy dogs waiting for scraps and strokes.

Unlike Yangon, however, are the dizzying number of mopeds – estimated to be some 4 million in Ha Noi alone… they fly at you at speed – usually from the wrong direction – slaloming across the road. There may well be rules of the road but no-one seems to know them.

Whatever bizarre sights you see on the streets the locals barely raise an eyebrow… whether it be a strange pale foreigner jogging down the centre of the road (more below!) or an elderly woman slowly pushing a long rack of clothes in the middle of the road completely surrounded by mopeds and cars driving in every possible direction. It is a captivating, vibrant city :-). We loved it… in the end…

Still, our first encounter was less than enthusiastic so we leapt onto our “luxury VIP minibus” with gleeful anticipation of our forthcoming tranquil cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay (the less touristy part of Ha Long Bay – another UNESCO World Heritage Site), 3 hours or so away. As often happens, we met a fun and interesting Australian family (the only other people on our luxury VIP minibus) who were heading to the same cruise ship – the Dragon Legend Indochina Junk. The 3 hour trip became a 4 hour trip due to the typical scheduled detour to a giant arts/craft/junk tourist trap somewhere en route where we availed ourselves of the bathroom facilities. We then sat around moaning with everyone else that we were wasting precious time and would rather be out on the water than pouring over trinkets which were more likely from a sweatshop in China than lovingly hand created by a local Vietnamese artisan.

We finally arrived in Ha Long Bay City (thank goodness we were only passing through briefly) and eventually made it onto the much anticipated cruise, listened to the speeches and absorbed the schedule of activities during which time Geoff simmered slowly on gas mark 3 and glowered at me periodically for bringing him on the single most touristy experience of his life ;-).

I’ll admit I was getting nervous too as these types of organized trips really aren’t for us but there is no alternative if you want to visit Ha Long Bay – so we struggled through the introductions and got to sit with the fun family again and shoot the breeze over lunch so it was nowhere near as painful as it might have been :-). We were handed our keys and approached the room with trepidation (particularly given the outrageously high price for 24 hours on the junk). But this was a once in a lifetime experience (so I kept reminding Geoff ;-) ). Thank goodness, it was really very nice… not as we had feared at all and it even came with a large soaking tub by a large picture window so we could wallow in bubbles and watch the limestone karsts and the other junks and fishing boats float by… which is exactly what we did :-).

With hindsight, cruises are unlikely to be for us… we did appreciate the benefits of watching the world go by from the luxury of our cabin but the ethos of group fun and entertainment and operating to a regimented schedule doesn’t suit us well. In addition, huge and lengthy meals were served , seemingly every hour or so, and because the junk was very small (only about 30 people onboard), the nice tour guide (even that concept is an anathema to us), Huang, would have noticed our absence and likely dragged us out of our cabin into the group activities ;-).

So we accepted the inevitable and joined in with the Aussies and had a very pleasant time kayaking around the karsts and wandering about the private island owned by the junk company.

Still, before we relented and joined in whole-heartedly, rebellious to the core, we managed to break free from the gaggle of kayaks when the tour guide wasn’t watching us and paddled like crazy in the opposite direction from the group snaking off around a karst headland. In the distance we could hear “Miss Jen… ees theese waaaay….” drifting across the bay but we paddled on furiously until we were thoroughly out of earshot. We had far more interesting plans than kayaking around a boring ol’ karst which we had already done to death in Thailand anyway.

We had spotted a floating fishing village on the other side of the bay and I wanted to go and photograph it :-).

As we approached in our kayak the toddlers on board waved and smiled as we paddled past and the fishermen, loafing about or mending nets, smiled and waved at the funny foreigners from the ship. It was far more authentic than anything the tour company could possibly have pre-arranged :-). Still, we could ignore the plaintiff cries of the tour guide no longer and re-joined the group before he had a coronary.

The cruise amongst the towering limestone karsts (all 1600 of them) was relaxing and peaceful and stress free but having returned from the kayaking we were instructed by Huang that we had precisely 1 hour and 16 minutes to relax, shower and do as we pleased (the most generous free time allotted so far!) before we had to be back on deck for dinner… 24 hours of being organized was definitely enough ;-).

The final nail in the coffin of organized tours for us was the scheduled stop at a Water Puppet Theatre on the return drive to Ha Noi. According to the literature (which I felt compelled to read) this is a tradition that dates from as far back as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. The puppets are made from wood, painted and lacquered. Water puppetry shows are performed by the puppeteers (hidden by a screen) in a waist-deep pool. They control each puppet with a large rod which supports the puppet under the water so that they appear to be moving over the water. The visuals are accompanied by fairly dreadful music and story-telling.

The tradition originates from when the rice fields would flood and the villagers would entertain each other with puppet plays.

For not the first time during our South East Asian explorations we turned to each other and thanked our lucky stars that we were born British in 1960’s England. It really could have been so much worse ;-) :-).

Both of us would have preferred to endure a dental extraction without anesthetic rather than sit through 40 minutes of Vietnamese puppet theatre but our protestations to the driver of the luxury minivan fell upon deaf ears… there was no changing the plan… so we sat po-faced throughout the entire performance as the locals and tourists with kids shrieked with laughter. As Geoff pointed out at the end of the interminable performance – it was clever – but intensely tedious ;-). Each to his own – perhaps we weren’t fully entering into the spirit of it! ;-).

Back to Ha Noi for another night and day of exploration, Vietnamese egg cream coffee, relentless hooting and moped chaos whilst we killed time waiting to head to the station for our overnight train trip to the northwestern mountain region of Sa Pa, close to the Chinese border.

The Ha Noi to Sa Pa overnight train journey was one we were hardly awaiting with eager anticipation. If there were any other reasonably safe and recommended way to get to this remote part of the country we would have taken it. Unfortunately, I was swayed by a number of online bloggers who I touched base with whilst I was planning the trip and I was warned off the road trip option, and Vietnamese drivers, in particular. There is a newly opened mountain road from Ha Noi but according to bloggers legend it is littered with the bones of deceased bus drivers and tourists. With hindsight, I suspect this was an exaggeration ;-).

Next time we head back to northern Vietnam (which we surely will do), we are taking the road even if it does actually kill us. I am never taking another Vietnamese overnight train… ever…

We were expecting extraordinary chaos with 100s of backpackers and travelers trying to exchange their certified agency ticket for an official train ticket an hour before departure when the station opened. Vietnam is so bureaucratic that you can’t make any transportation arrangements without an agent involved who, in the process, requires details of passports and visas together with written notarized documentary evidence of your mother-in-law’s inside leg measurement. Making travel arrangements here is onerous, tedious and frequently confusing.

Still, in the end it was just mildly chaotic at the station (which was a pleasant surprise) – being sent from pillar to post – from one group of locals with no sign of official capacity to another until we just had to hope that we had all of the correct papers to board the train.

So, we scuttled off in the rain in the direction of our “4 star” VIP 2 berth cabin on the Sapaly Express cluttered up with rucksacks, suitcases and other accumulated paraphernalia.

Our expectations had been quite low but what awaited us failed even to meet those expectations. Frankly, it was awful. I know I can be a little demanding with my accommodations at times but the VIP cabin “a deux” fell well short of the acceptable mark. Battered, ancient and creaky – at least the bed sheets and pillows were spotlessly clean – which is more than you could have said for the floor.

We had made the mistake of clambering on board before the conductor had arrived (mainly to get out of the rain and to deposit our bags) and in a matter of seconds Geoff had managed to break the chain on the top bunk so that it had to be left open with the chain clanking against the wall over my bed all night. Marvelous!

He wandered off to explore the “facilities” whilst I sat with a single tear rolling down my spoilt cheek as I watched dozens of backpackers and locals passing the sleeper carriage (for which we had paid the daylight robbery sum of $400 return) en route to their standard train seats (at a fraction of the price) where they would no doubt have utterly sleepless and even more miserable nights sitting upright for 8 hours.

He returned, pale from his explorations, having gone in search of the toilet. He sat down, took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said I would have to be a big brave girl (for once). The toilet he directed me to was an open sewer – a steel pan, indian squatting style, it’s floor already awash and the only concession to western standards of hygiene was a very soggy toilet roll :-(.

I wouldn’t be getting up in the dead of night to experience that horror again as visions of falling straight down the hole and trapping a leg in the sewer as the train rattled, jolted and clanked along the ancient tracks loomed large in my overactive imagination.

The conductor delivered a can of lager and an identifiable bottle of liquid (which might have been lemonade) with a large friendly smile saying “for VIP” and laughing uproariously. In addition to those finer touches we enjoyed the benefits of a plastic comb each, a toothbrush with no danger of being used as I had no intention of going anywhere near the sinks again, 2 bottles of water which I wouldn’t be imbibing as I didn’t want to get caught short in the dead of night and have to re-visit the open sewer again… and a pair of “slippery” each… which was all very civilized ;-).

I mopped up my single tear, we batoned down the hatches, shut out the horrors of the world outside, turned off the lights and hopped into our beds with the curtains open so that we could watch the train crawl through the streets of Ha Noi. It was compulsive watching as we passed within a few feet of people’s homes… by market stalls and food vendors… and then running alongside a main road clogged with locals on their slow-moving mopeds – conversely watching us like goldfish in a bowl… it was all quite surreal and quite exciting.

That was until a large drip of water landed on my head – I ignored it suspecting the air conditioning unit was above the bed… then another plopped onto my cheek and before I knew it there was a deluge of rainwater pouring in the window like Niagara Falls and bouncing off the bed. Geoff hurriedly went to locate the conductor which didn’t take long as the staff were all congregated on plastic chairs in the “room” next to ours puffing away on cigarettes (another lovely element to add to the overall luxury ambience of the train trip ;-) ). I grabbed some clothes but not quite quickly enough so I sat at one end of my bed wrapped up only in a duvet whilst 2 Vietnamese train staff clambered all over my palatial living quarters with their muddy boots trying unsuccessfully to stem the flow of water. To give them their due they did the best they could to plug up the damaged window frame and seal it with someone’s scarf (as per the photo) from the now copious flood of water pouring down the inside of the window and seeping through my mattress.

Geoff took to the bottle in an effort to pass out unnaturally by way of alcoholic stupor – no wineglasses to be seen anywhere on board – I have never seen him swig wine straight from the bottle before but needs must…

Ear-plugged and generally miserable we must have both passed out due to exhaustion (and in Geoff’s case, alcohol). The only reason we knew we must have had any sleep was because we both woke up at various times of the night with our heads banging against the wooden panelling from the violent jolting of the carriage and the broken chain clanking etc. etc… but all in, it probably didn’t amount to much more than 3 accumulated hours of slumber between us.

During the night the torrential rainwater continued to soak through the scarf and pour onto the mattress and my pillow so that by the morning 1/3 of the bed was totally soaked and I was lying on a swamp…

Just what I had in mind for a VIP “luxury” berth for 2!

We were woken up at 6.ooam with a cheery smile and offers of a cold coffee for $2 each which we declined. By this time I had little option but to re-visit the toilet from hell again only to discover that Geoff is no Sir Ranulph Fiennes after all. A door next to the open sewer was now swinging open and inside was a slightly less repulsive western toilet – replete with dry toilet roll… naturally, I was less than impressed with his exploratory skills ;-).

Next time we decide to head to the northern hills we WILL brave the road, we will send up a few words to St Christopher and take our chances with a Vietnamese driver on the winding mountain pass instead. It isn’t up for negotiation… ;-).

Arriving distinctly the worse for wear we located our driver and headed off for an hour long drive across the mountain pass to Sa Pa. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see any of the mountain pass whatsoever (which may have been a good thing, of course). Our driver entertained himself (and a guide he had picked up at Lao Cai station who had hitched a lift home to Sa Pa in our “luxury car service” ) by playing a game of chicken with another driver returning to Sa Pa with his equally innocent passengers. Whenever they reached a particularly hair-raising bend one would try to overtake the other and the inside driver would slam his brakes on or speed up to prevent the maneuver. They both seemed to find this highly amusing – by this stage I didn’t care if I lived or died anyway ;-). To make matters worse, the mist was so dense it was, in fact, an all-encompassing cloud which hung freezing and wringing wet over Sa Pa for the first 2 days of our 4 day visit :-(.

Rather unfortunately, when we had packed our bags 10 days or so earlier the forecast had indicated glorious blue skies and warm 70F weather. So I turned up in the cloud with a useless collection of shorts and string tops. We had also sacrificed our proper hiking shoes for running shoes as it would be less to carry. Oh dear!

Near hypothermic upon our arrival in Sa Pa we tried to buy a fleece for me (Geoff wasn’t quite as optimistic as I had been in the packing department so he was slightly better prepared for once). The town, basically a place which has expanded exponentially (from its original roots) around the tourist industry consists mainly of massage spas (I use the term loosely), a few cafes and restaurants, and store after store of fake hiking gear – The North Face in particular. Each store claimed to be the original authentic supplier of The North Face products but it was obvious that it was all freshly shipped over the border from China. At least we didn’t need running shoes as well… but if we had we could have scooped up a pair of “Nikes” for $20 instead of $120 ;-). Rather freeze to death than invest in something destined to fall apart before we left Vietnam, we retreated to the hotel room where there was another beautiful, shiny, new and huge soaking tub screaming out to to be filled with bubbles to warm our bones… even if we had to sit in it all day to defrost.

I rushed into the bathroom, teeth chattering, turned on the faucet and adjusted the temperature whereupon the large shiny chrome faucet was propelled 2’ into the air, clattered down into the bath tub and I was showered with steaming hot water along with the rest of the bathroom. I was rescued by Geoff who had the foresight to turn off the water flow (my brain had already shut down due to cold) and went to call reception.

So, for the second time in 12 hours I was wrapped up (this time in a bathrobe at least) whilst 2 hotel maintenance staff stomped all over the suite trying to reconstruct our previously luxurious bathroom so that we could warm up in the bath :-(.

I was just starting to wonder if Vietnam was beginning to wear a little thin or whether we were just exhausted with the various challenges of traveling in South East Asia for almost 4 months – and then the maintenance guys amazed me by repairing the faucet with reasonable efficiency and speed. Obviously they hadn’t needed a translator to interpret my mood – one glance at me would have been more than enough ;-).

The following day the cloud lifted far enough to see 3 feet ahead so we braved the cold and headed out and downhill to the nearby village of Cat Cat. We didn’t believe the concierge when he told us to just keep going downhill through the thick cloud and we would break free of some of the bad weather… but he was right… and we finally saw the terraced rice paddy fields for which the area is famous :-).

Like several of the indigenous villages in the area, there is a small entrance fee to visit and although it is a very touristy village with terrace to terrace art and craft shops, limestone carvers and indigenous clothing weavers it was worth the trip to see how villagers would have lived (the vats for producing indigo cloth which the villagers – the Black H’Mong – wear). Piglets were snuffling in the undergrowth, chickens, roosters and their offspring were swimming in the terraced rice paddy pools and grubby, half naked kids played on the pathways chasing ducks whilst their beautifully attired mothers with indigo stained fingers were plying their wares to the tourists.

We could have taken a motorcycle taxi ride for about $1.50 each back up from the base of the village rather than hike back uphill to Sa Pa but we rejected the various persistent offers in favor of exercise. Back-up bikes were strategically placed at various bends in the road uphill to catch anyone who had bitten off more than they could chew until even the entreprenerial youth of the village realized the die-hard hikers really were going to make it all the way back under their own steam ;-).

Still, we weren’t there to see the touristy villages – we wanted to hike in the lesser traveled indigenous villages so we hired a guide, Su May, for a couple of days from the Red Dao tribe to take us on a hike through the paddy fields, mountains and villages. The first day we hiked for 12 miles – not bad in a pair of mud clogged running shoes ;-). The sun finally came out and all was, as hoped, stunningly beautiful after the mists had cleared. We clambered over rocks and rice terraces, paddled through streams, slipped down muddy pathways, hiked through bamboo forests, passed through villages of tribes where women sat in groups embroidering clothes whilst gossiping with their friends, babies in laps and a family of pigs truffling about at their feet. We saw village wells and rain water powered rice grinding mechanisms. It is a very physically hard life and like much of rural South East Asia is an entirely alien world where life seems stuck in a time warp from 200 years ago.

We were surprised to learn that the endless hill and mountainsides covered from ground level to their peaks in terraces produce only enough rice to feed the families who own them for the year. I had assumed, with thousands of rice terraces as far as the eye could see, that Sa Pa was one of the rice bowls of Vietnam supplying the vast export industry of Vietnamese rice but the weather is harsh up in the northern mountains and the residents make only a subsistence living from their rice terraces. Anything more is made from the tourists buying local handicrafts and batik indigo-dyed clothing, scarves and multi-colored hats and bags – the usual tourist offerings.

The second day hike was a considerably more sedate 8 miles (albeit mainly uphill) during which we stopped for a drink in a lonely, wooden hillside shack which turned out to be the village sweetshop, cafe and social gathering centre. Our stop coincided with the arrival of a group of 6-8 year olds who had just finished school for the afternoon. Geoff, not known for his benevolence when it comes to gaggles of snot covered kids, bought lollypops for all 2000 of them. I was requisitioned to distribute them which was really a task well beyond my remit because I was pretty much trampled to the floor in the stampede ;-). Child crowd control is not my forte… it seems that children are like piranhas when it comes to free sweets. The tray was stripped bare in no more than 7 seconds and the shopkeeper had to round the kids up and shoo them out of the door before I came a cropper underfoot ;-).

Give me a cat to mother any day ;-).

We have never hired a guide to hike anywhere before – preferring to find our own way – but it would have been impossible to have weaved across the fields and through streams and obscure village paths without Su May. In any event, there are apparently no maps available showing anything useful like roads, paths or villages so there really isn’t much alternative but to “rent a local” if you actually want to make it home in time for dinner ;-). Thanks to Su May, they were probably two of the most interesting, spectacular and culturally enlightening hikes we have ever done :-). Even better – we only bumped into 3 other tourists all day following a similar route with their various tribal guides – and two of them were from Geoff’s hometown in England… small world…

Next time we will entrust the lovely Su May to take us on a 4 or 5 day home stay hike out into the villages and mountains further afield… if we (I) can ever face the trip back out to Sa Pa again ;-). If only they would build a nice, shiny, new airport there it would be so much more convenient to get to…. but then it would probably never be the same again…

In order to kill a bit of time and recover from our energetic explorations we decided to test out the local “spas” – with no great hopes, if I’m honest. They really haven’t quite got the concept of a recuperative spa massage right in much of South East Asia.

Our first attempt in Sa Pa – and probably our worst massage ever anywhere in the world – was at the Black Rose. It shouldn’t have been too challenging for them – 2 60 minute foot massages. We were the only customers there when we were guided to the large reclining armchair seats typical in this part of the world. Soon it was jam-packed full of backpackers who hadn’t seen running water in a week. The “spa” owner was making loud and frantic phone calls and various Sa Pa teenagers were arriving in droves on mopeds, pulling up a stool and getting stuck in to their clients various limbs. The arriving masseuses brought with them their screaming toddlers who darted about all over the place playing amongst the boiling herbal foot baths and hot stones which were to be applied to our weary legs. To make matters worse Geoff’s masseur took no less than 8 phone calls whilst half-heartedly dabbing at his muscles with his spare hand until he finally propped his grubby cell phone up on Geoff’s sweatshirt so that he could continue his important phone calls hands-free ;-).

I am surprised we risked another massage in the town at all but Geoff didn’t feel quite as rejuvenated as he would have liked so the following day we tested out a different recommendation. This time, we were led with trepidation through a curtain strung up on a piece of string across the “doorway” to a makeshift wooden cell behind the reception counter. I’ll admit it was a step up from the garage in Hoi An – but only just. A TV was blaring the dreadful warblings of a Vietnamese singing talent show at full volume. We were sharing a room with 2 massage beds which wasn’t designed with any flow of movement in mind so my masseuse had to physically clamber over me and my bed to move around the room.

Being a full body massage we whipped off our clothes and were handed a couple of frayed towels – not much larger than a face-cloth and frankly nowhere near enough to preserve any modesty whatsoever… perhaps it is fortuitous that we don’t have much modesty to preserve ;-). In addition the AC was set to “arctic”. As ethnic as the environment was, I was amazed to find my masseuse was really quite brilliant and I drifted out of the spa on a warm, fluffy cloud of air… Geoff wasn’t quite as lucky ;-).

The return train trip was only marginally less awful than the trip out to Sa Pa 4 days earlier. With the usual Vietnamese business enterprise we weren’t directly dropped at the station in Lao Cai as expected to exchange our voucher for a ticket. Suspiciously, we were deposited by our non-english speaking driver at a cafe in town, 2 and a half hours before departure time. Our bags were grabbed by a waitress and dumped in the corner of the cafe despite our protestations and confusion, our voucher was whipped from my sweaty paw and in exchange we were handed menus we didn’t need. Finally, we managed to extract an explanation which revolved entirely around the opportunity to eat and drink dinner (which turned out to be awful as expected) and, in exchange, the owner promised she would run up to the station (which could have been anywhere as we had no clue where in the city we had been turfed out of the cab), she would get our ticket for us and then return to walk us and another 4 groups of equally confused tourists to the station. The train departed at 8.20pm. Ticket collection was promised at 6.30pm, 7pm, 7.05, 7.15, and 7.25pm by which time we were getting fed up with the staff running around trying to fulfill emergency food orders by which time we had 45 minutes to get our tickets and board the train. Rather than maintain passive dignity for a moment longer and risk missing the train, Geoff expressed his distinct displeasure, grabbed our voucher from the counter and we followed a couple of Italians and their guide up to the station schlepping our heavy (niece and nephew gift-laden bags) across town to deal with the anticipated station chaos ourselves… sigh…

The opportunity to squeeze every last cent from departing tourists is never passed up in South East Asia ;-).

Luckily, it wasn’t raining this time on the long train journey back to Ha Noi so I didn’t have to lay my locks on a soggy pillow again but we did have to contend with rock solid 3” vinyl covered mattresses which were perfect for sweating onto all night.

Still, as Geoff kept reminding me, that was undoubtedly abject luxury compared to the standard seat carriages filled with poverty stricken backpackers so I should really be more grateful ;-). He was keen to point out that in addition, this trip, we had a photograph of a temple to brighten the place up and make it feel more homely… and… as if that weren’t luxury enough, there was also a bowl of plastic flowers on the table… even if they looked distinctly wilted ;-).

We jolted, bumped and bounced south all night again until the train pulled in to Ha Noi at 5.00am after another sleepless night. The outskirts were even busier at the crack of dawn in the darkness than the centre of the city is at midday. We trundled slowly past a huge all night market and food vendors were already doing a thriving business. Do they never sleep in this city?

On our final day in Ha Noi we had to concede that, despite its cluttered craziness (or maybe because of it), we did rather like it once the city felt more familiar. Our last morning in South East Asia was a slightly melancholy one.

Geoff went for a final run through the streets (an act of insanity in my view). When he returned to the hotel huffing and puffing some 40 minutes later, it transpired that the run had taken longer than anticipated because he had got caught up in the middle of a mechanized peloton of mopeds. When 3 whipped up his left side – he thought he’d dart over to the right but – impossible – there were 10 bikes on that side already and when he turned around there were the usual 200 behind – so with 50 in front he was literally stuck in the middle running along with them caught in their slipstream – drivers, passengers and small kids alike waving and smiling at the lunatic foreigner running down the centre of their road in rush hour ;-).

Final immortal words as we wandered back from breakfast at our favorite cafe (The Hanoi Social Club)… and tripping up for the last time on the treacherous, uneven, crater pocked pavement (narrowly missing toppling headfirst into a bubbling pot of Pho)… “Oh my God, what is that horrrrrrendous smell??!”

Durian or the South East Asian drains? Who knows… but we will kinda miss it ;-) !

Vietnam – what an extraordinary, dynamic finale to our Asian odyssey :-).

So… after 4 months, 10 countries (Geoff had a work day trip to Jakarta, Indonesia which I thankfully escaped), 2 job offers, 36 flights, 2 overnight train journeys, 1 cruise, 2 cars, 1 motorcycle, tuk-tuks, kayaks, speed-boats, longtail boats, the Singapore MRT, the Tokyo subway and dozens of cab rides and hikes later we are exhausted, broke but infinitely wealthier… what an amazing ride :-).

Singapore – March 2015

31 Mar
Little India, Singapore

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Our final days in hot, steamy Singapore… tying up some loose ends; sadly waving goodbye to our favorite old haunts; my birthday “weekend”; a boys (with honorary girl) weekend of gluttony, crocodiles, hideous spiders, gigantic monitor lizards, getting marooned way out in the boonies in the torrential rain… and (hopefully) avoiding contracting Mr Fu’s plague…

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

After all the excitement of recent trips we decided to take it relatively easy in our last weeks and enjoy the rest of our time in (now) horrendously hot and humid Singapore. There were a few things we still wanted to see and do… the night lights at the weirdly futuristic Gardens by the Bay… a trip out of the city to the northern reserves and, for old times sake, Geoff wanted to revisit the remains of the village of his toddler years (before Changi Airport was built on it!).

During our absence for most of February it seems that someone turned on the sauna in the city. Apparently it hasn’t reached its worst yet so our imminent departure is, frankly, fortuitous! It makes a summer in Florida look positively chilly…

I managed to catch up again with a girlfriend, Sally, from Melbourne – both of us out of our native territories this time around – and I got to see the inside of a luxury suite at Marina Bay Sands which is undoubtedly as close as I am ever likely to get ;-).  The views from her room and the world renowned infinity edge rooftop pool over Marina Bay and the city were quite fabulous as per all the hype.

My birthday “weekend” was an extravaganza of lattes, cakes and other miscellaneous delicious food gluttonies.

We re-visited all of my favorite places :-). It is so much better to have a whole birthday weekend rather than just one sad lonely birthday “day” ;-).

So… it started with Saturday morning curry for breakfast :-) (which is actually a first) at Lau Pa Sat hawkers stands, we then latte-crawled our way through my favorite various cafes and coffee shops in Kampong Glam (I shall miss this place the most :-( ), endured a long session of Chinese massage (more on the horrors of that below) and finally staggered up to the old refurbished army base, Dempsey Hill, for dinner at my favorite Euro-Asian fusion restaurant, PS Cafe. We will miss Dempsey Hill too with all of its trendy bars and restaurants… but that can only be a positive for our now bulging waistlines ;-).

The same again in reverse on Sunday morning… back to Kampong Glam for more European influenced latte, cake and crab cakes equally as good as any we have enjoyed in Maryland (the centre of the universe for crab lovers), we then braved the wet market in Chinatown for lunch and finally back up to Dempsey Hill for curry with Geoff’s old ex-pat pal from Bristol…

Not surprisingly, we spent the intervening weekday evenings running vigorously around Fort Canning Park trying not to keel over from heat exhaustion…

Our final weekend was passed doing more boy-related activities. I managed to squeeze in one posh final peranakan dinner at Violet Oon’s Kitchen and rather wished we had discovered it earlier in our culinary explorations.

Because Changi Village was still on our hit-list we thought a boys weekend extended beer session might be best preceded by something a little more peaceful and restorative before the booze started to flow… so we took a quick trip out to the northeastern tip of Singapore. Changi Village is a curious mix of 1960’s style lower income housing and trendy coffee shops and bars. From the Boardwalk there you can see Malaysia across the Straits of Johor. As anticipated the beaches were still singularly unappealing re-confirming our decision to take various expensive trips to southern Thailand to get our sea and sand “fix” rather than waste time on the Singaporean beaches. It was definitely more appealing as a sailing bay… unless the thought of swimming in murky waters amongst the floating debris and a large tractor tyre is your thing, of course. Still, although the walk was very pleasant, the air-conditioning in the lunch cafe afterwards was infinitely more delightful ;-).

Thereafter, the weekend was all beer, pizza, beer, curry, beer and beer with Geoff’s old friend Paul (the same friend of previous blog photos and several previous curries and beer nights ;-) ). We all decided it might be advantageous to work off some of the calories of the day before with a brisk walk through the Sungei Buloh Reserve on Sunday. Naturally, none of us could get started without another round of emergency breakfast lattes, cakes and sandwiches just in case we got lost and didn’t make it out of the swamp and back to civilization for lunch ;-).

Without cars in this city you have to travel everywhere by subway, buses and cabs. For us, it is an alien world… it is, however, what 82.5% of the Singaporean population must do…

We are just about used to some of its benefits (speedy, cheap and clean transportation all over the city) but there are occasions when it is just a massive inconvenience not to have your own car. Sunday was one of those days.

So… cab to Paul’s house… emergency food… cab to the wilderness for our walk.

In order to convince me to leave the air-conditioning for the second time in a weekend after our Changi Village excursion, I was tempted to Sungei Buloh Reserve by Paul’s promise of crocodiles, lizards, snakes and mangrove views over pristine waters…

What I actually got (and Paul and Geoff may object all they like!), is 1 long distance croc (perhaps that was for the better, on second thoughts), 2 gigantic monitor lizards (one of which was none too thrilled when it got bashed on its head by some idiot swinging her Gucci handbag about (not really territory for handbags and heels but you do see some unusual sights on this island), a collection of nasty spiders (yuck), mangroves, a lot of tidal mud, copious numbers of mud skippers (difficult, but not impossible to see in the mud of the same color ;-) ) …and quite a bit of scattered trash lodged into the tidal flats… Had it floated all the way from Thailand or was this of Malaysian beach origin? ;-).

Couldn’t believe it was Singaporean as the rest of the island is almost spotless…

Returning to the matter of public transport… the sweaty heavens opened just as we were finishing our walk… not that we could have got much damper anyway… so Paul tried to summons a cab using his cellphone app. This is a fantastic cab calling system with GPS and all the bells and whistles including being able to watch the approach of your designated cab and the license plate of the cab – love it – works wonderfully in the city.

However, it doesn’t work quite as well in the wilderness. Not a problem – a bus was waiting at a stop by the entrance to the Reserve so we hopped on assuming it was going to the Kranji MRT station back out in civilization. I am not entirely sure why we assumed this and the alarm was only raised when Paul (native here for a full 15 years) thought we “might” be traveling in the wrong direction… and, in fact, further into the wilderness…

Perfect. Hot, sweaty, awful hair, starving and thirsty and we had leapt onto a bus without checking where on earth it was going. Still, it was nicely cooled and none of us were quite sure what to do other than sit there trying to dry out for a while and delay the decision for as long as possible. It took us some while to make a decision as to a course of action whilst the bus meandered slowly through obscure park areas and tourist facilities, none of which Paul had ever heard of. It finally pulled up at “Bollywood Veggies – Welcome to Paradise”. The bus driver was vaguely amused that we thought he was heading to the MRT station but did kindly tell us that if we alighted here, the bus for the MRT would be along in 45 minutes.

Bollywood Veggies turned out to be a family destination (perfect again!). It is a hot, sweaty, humid organic farm in the middle of nowhere with exciting diversions for kids such as picking vegetables, walking through muddy paddy fields and cuddling the farm dog (I am NOT joking). For all this fun, there is an entrance fee of $2 per person.

Not feeling inclined to pay $2 each to watch vegetables grow in the rain, we sat in the entrance for the full 45 minutes watching a solar-powered plastic butterfly fly round and round in circles while Paul persevered in vain to use his cellphone app to call a cab to come and find us miles out in the boonies ;-).

Eventually, as Paul’s cellphone battery must have begun to die with all of the repeated SOS cab requests, the 2pm bus finally arrived. Great :-).

None of us could quite believe that it was actually the same driver and the very same bus which had dumped us out in “Paradise” to fry 45 minutes earlier when he might actually have taken pity on us and just let us sit on the bus in the freezing AC until he had finished his circuitous route and returned. Naturally, to add insult to injury, the bus route took us right back to where we had started hours earlier at the entrance to Sungei Buloh Reserve ;-).

It’s a good job we all have a sense of humor :-).

Having said that, this performance would never have happened under my watch ;-).

Note to self… in future maintain strict control over all tourist and travel related activities and never trust 2 grown men to get us where we need to be in a timely fashion using public transport ;-).

So, to end the “car free” return trip from Kranji to Hillview – we then stood outside a hot subway station waiting for a cab to take us back to Paul’s to recover with more food, beer, food and beer until we all passed out with fatigue at 10pm.

It was without doubt interesting and diverting to get out into the island’s north western swampy parts for some fresh air and to stretch our legs and chew the cud with Paul for another day (which was a lot of fun). I had determined, however, from the moment of being deposited in Bollywood Veggies’ alleged Paradise, literally dripping in sweat, bright red and sporting the very latest Hair Bear Bunch affro hair-style, that I would not leave the air-conditioned luxury of our apartment again until we wave goodbye to our host city of the past few months ;-).

In between the food-related activities of our final 2 weekends, we squeezed in a final Chinese foot massage at our “local”. We will very much miss the various delights and torments of a decent Chinese foot massage. Nobody else does it like the Chinese…

I was looking forward to being pummeled by my “usual” ancient torturer at the Lao Fo Ye Wellness Centre in Bugis. However, one look at him perched on a stool in the back of the shop was enough to suggest I opt for an alternative masseur for once. I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that the Chinese appear to be generally quite a sickly race. It is just an observation from our many close encounters with cab drivers, shop assistants and trips on public transport. For reasons unknown they just suffer from a LOT of really stinky colds, coughs, sniffs, sneezes etc. etc. which seem to spread like wildfire.

Barely sick in Florida at all for the best part of 9 years we have both, during our South East Asian odyssey, contracted nasty irritating colds from our various Chinese-related excursions and interactions – most notably – Hong Kong and any time we have used a cab to get to the airport and have been sneezed on and sniffed at for the entire 30 minute journey by the cab driver :-(. It has got to the point where our obsessive compulsive disorders have reached quite dramatic levels of paranoia and we now sani-wipe our way through the the entire travel experience from the cab door, to anything at all that the sniffly driver may have touched with his plague-ridden hands (including but not limited to credit cards, receipts, luggage handles etc. etc.), to wiping our passports down after check-in, immigration and the endless passport and ticket control checks which are made when you depart Changi Airport if anyone at all has sniffed, or sneezed at us… to the airplane seats, seat belts, arm rests… head rests… you name it….

It used to just be me…now I think poor Geoff will also soon need OCD therapy ;-).

Anyway.. Mr Fu (name changed to protect the guilty) sat for the entire time on his stool, wearing his incongruously labelled “Wellness Centre” yellow t-shirt, sniffling into his equally ancient and greying handkerchief. Then he proceeded to rub it and its contents vigorously and enthusiastically all over his face, mopping at his eyes, forehead etc. etc… sniff, blow, rub… repeat. I thought the horrors could get no worse but then he lodged this piece of bio-hazard cloth firmly between his nose and upturned top lip and there it sat balanced precariously for minutes on end until he repeated the whole grotesque sequence all over again.

Luckily (and I do mean this in the nicest possible way), Geoff was in considerable pain during his own massage (I wish I had been too if the truth were known) so his eyes were clenched shut for the entire massage and, thus, he was saved the full horrors of Mr Fu’s stinking cold…

I wish this were the first and last time I have witnessed such bizarre behavior… but it isn’t… ;-).

With that, I knew that as much as we have loved our time here in South East Asia (and neither of us would have swapped our once-in-a-lifetime experiences here for anything in the world)… I, at least, was almost ready to head home before I caught another cold ;-).

So we leave with some great memories of a beautiful city – with lovely historic buildings and cutting edge modern living side by side. We have had some great meals and piled on the pounds in appreciation :-).

Geoff will be very sad to leave his co-workers here with whom he has built some strong relationships… he has throughly enjoyed working with them all and working for an extended period in a number of entirely different countries and cultures. Geoff’s blog on the topic of working in the APAC region has been getting a lot of attention too. On the matter of Geoff’s blog, I was mildly irritated to see he’s had almost 1,200 views! ;-)  There I am spending hours writing about my “fascinating” insights into and observations of cultures, food, landscapes etc. etc. and there he is waffling on about boring old timezones and conference calls and he has three times as many followers! ;-) Typical!!!!! ;-)

Anyway, it has been a unique opportunity for both of us :-).

Only one more country to go… adios Singapore… it has been an absolute blast :-) !

Macau, Taipa and Coloane, China – March 2015

20 Mar
Click here for the photos!

Taipa, China

From Macau’s casino chaos and smog to Portuguese architecture overlaid with Chinese color, Portuguese food (egg tarts :-) ) and the far more peaceful and appealing enclaves of Taipa and Coloane…

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

I am pretty much game for being drop-shipped and semi-abandoned in many places in the world to fend for myself whilst Geoff works but never, ever, EVER drop me alone in the middle of 120,000 noisy, excitable mainland Chinese tourists in the largest casino resort in the world.

Whatever lies beyond the gates of hell cannot conceivably be worse than fighting your way through the riotous, chaotic, smoky (allegedly non-smoking) casino floor of The Venetian Macau en route to our room. Geoff was here on business for a few days at a conference and I actually contemplated the pros (numerous) and cons (not so many) of holing up in our rather nice suite (with a view over the mini-golf course which the check-in clerk was enthusiastic to share with us on arrival) and hide until the conference was over and we could fly straight back to Singapore.

During our stay here I witnessed bus after bus load of tour groups streaming in for the day – weaving in long dragon lines behind their guide and mowing down anyone who inadvertently crossed their path. Such was their desperate rush to get to the casino floor they clearly had little or no awareness of the bodies and bags flying in all directions in their wake…

The Venetian Macau is the sister hotel to the Las Vegas Venetian which we also stayed in many years ago. The rooms are reasonably luxurious which was a bonus as the decision to stay put and order in room service for 3 days was far more tempting than wandering out into the 24 hour a day rabble and the general coughing, hacking, sneezing, throat clearing and hawking endemic to this part of the world :-(.

Bearing in mind that The Venetian is one of the most expensive hotels in Macau, we might have expected a certain level of clientele to frequent it (perhaps with the exception of the bus loads of day-trippers arriving in droves to play on the slot machines). The part of the hotel dedicated to conferences run by big businesses in which Geoff was spending his days (without fresh air and natural light) might, one would have imagined, have had the most educated and refined of the guests… Nope… en route to deliver his sermon on risk management and project management best practices, 2 Chinese suits approaching him were busily and enthusiastically clearing their throats and, right in front of him, they leant over a trash can at the side of the corridor and spat vertically side-ways in unison into it… I’m surprised he didn’t pass out on the spot as he’s not well suited to bodily functions at the best of times ;-). Very sophisticated…

The Venetian is 39 stories high, cost around $2.4 billion and is the centerpiece for the seven major hotels on the Cotai Strip in Macau. Unless you are a fervent gambler I cannot think of any earthly reason as to why you would want to come here. It covers 10,500,000 square feet and is the seventh-largest building in the world by floor area. It is the largest casino in the world and the largest single structure hotel building in Asia.

The resort has 3000 suites, 1,200,000 square feet of convention space (I hoped I didn’t need to find Geoff in an emergency – you might think that our cellphones, text or messaging would work in this enormous commercial megalopolis… but… no… nothing worked… that includes the internet which was patchy and sporadic at best) …1,600,000 square feet of retail, 550,000 square feet of casino space – with 3400 slot machines and 800 gambling tables together with a 15,000 seat Cotai Arena for entertainment and sports events… blah… blah… blah… Apparently these are the advertised highlights.

It is, frankly, hell on earth. It has none of the class, style or finesse of the Vegas Venetian which are not words I would normally use in describing a casino resort (as I’m hardly a fan of the Vegas experience either), but this is just so, so, so much worse…

Night and day literally blend into one in these places… no daylight… no air… just a claustrophobic cacophony of chaos and tension – security guards on high alert waiting for something dramatic to happen to make their night (or day..who knows what time it is ? ;-) )… waiting for some disappointed gambler to react badly to losing his game or for an under 21 to try to sneak in…

It is gigantic… an entire terrifying, disorientating indoor “world”… the stuff of science-fiction movies… a world you don’t need to leave for any of your worldly needs (other than a real life). If this is the future we have to look forward to as a race when the earth is so polluted we can no longer breathe outside… or we have moved on to another planet after this one has imploded under the weight of Thailand’s discarded plastic water bottle problem… please just shoot me now… it would be the kindest thing to do :-(.

It is also the worst run hotel we have ever stayed in…

They had us booked in for 2 nights when we actually had a confirmed reservation for 3… then wanted to charge the third night at rack rate ( I don’t think so!!)…

They refused to give Geoff breakfast vouchers to which he was entitled under the conference agreement… and unsurprisingly refused to give me any breakfast vouchers even though the booking was clearly made for 2 people…

Later, they delivered 1 voucher for 1 person for 1 day which Geoff donated to me as he was joining the team for breakfast anyway…

The voucher said in half a dozen different languages (but presumably not Cantonese) that the buffet was between 6.30am and 11am. However, when I arrived at 10am the restaurant was already closed and preparing for lunch :-(

I trotted off to the concierge (having no faith left in the check-in staff whatsoever) and she spent 15 minutes of frantic high-pitched squeaking at A.N.Other on the phone (who didn’t seem to understand the basic problem) before she escorted me across the complex to another buffet restaurant whose staff argued for another 5 minutes as they realllllly didn’t want to honor the voucher for the closed restaurant (who knows why as the $$$$$$ is all going into the same coffers at the end of the day). Eventually they relented, just a fraction before I totally lost my temper, and informed me I then had 20 minutes to gannet as much as I could before they closed too…

First world problems I know, but it wasn’t even greatly appealing by the time I settled in anyway… basically a sticky mass-feeding frenzy… pretty much like Vegas really but without the interesting colored donuts ;-) !

And then there was the weather to add to the general misery… at least Vegas has year-round beautiful blue sunny sky – even if it is pushing 110F in the summer.

We were here in Macau’s spring months – reputedly one of the best times of year for good weather… before the hot, muggy, smoggy, oppressive, summer starts.

Day 1 – forecast to be partly cloudy and sunny – I know the sun was up there because I could see it round and glowing, desperately trying to burn through an eery grey haze… if you looked closely enough you could actually see puffy white clouds and pale blue sky on the other side of the haze… never seen anything quite like it… like someone had drawn a grey gauze veil over a sunny blue-sky day… you know it’s up there but it’s not quite there…

Day 2 – forecast to be cloudy – but I know smog when I see it! The gigantic hotels opposite and the glorious view of the mini-golf course have entirely disappeared… I decided I wouldn’t be going out in whatever that haze was anytime soon as I forgot to pack my respirator :-(. By midday the sun was out again (but not at ground level). I could see the puffy clouds way up behind the grey curtain but at ground level it was thick, dark and filthy… yikes… Having little else to do I surfed (slowly ;-) ) a couple of web sites to see whether it was likely to improve… the only honest one I found did at least concede that it was “severely polluted” outside rather than inaccurately and optimistically “foggy” and would remain so for the next few days… :-(.

…2pm… the sun strained through the smog just about enough to tempt me to wander into the hot, muggy streets of nearby Taipa. I wasn’t holding out much hope that it would be a long excursion into reality but I surprised myself and actually enjoyed wandering through the backstreets of the old town ;-) :-). It is an interesting mix of east meets west… courtesy of Macau’s roots as a former Portuguese colony which makes the architecture a fascinating blend of European and Chinese… The streets are paved with Portuguese style black and white tiles depicting various images… crabs.. .fish… wavy lines… all quite attractive really. It is also almost spotlessly clean and no-one spat in the streets! Things are looking up :-). Could be, of course, because littering and hawking comes with an equivalent $75 US fine ;-).

…7pm… it no longer mattered whether we could see further than the ends of our respective noses… we weren’t going to breathe in any more of the recycled smoke fumes at the overpriced Venetian restaurants so we left the Cotai Strip and headed to Old Town Macau to check out the Portuguese restaurants and the UNESCO World Heritage protected architecture around Senado Square. Still spotlessly clean but with the benefit of really good European food – it was almost like being back in the Med :-)… aside from the gaudy flashing lights of the glitzy hotels…

…10pm… back at the Venetian we got caught up in the “authentic True Venetian Carnevale experience ”. We were amazed to find 2 rather excellent Chinese singers performing opera songs on the balcony overlooking the entrance to the hotel… as Geoff pointed out… it was the first authentic experience in an entirely fake world ;-).

Day 3 – I decided to carry out a different kind of photographic experiment for once so I photographed the view from our room of the weather outside:

9am – the gigantic hotels opposite on the Cotai Strip have been swallowed up again;
10am – thick, dark smog;
11am – the forecast was saying currently “partly cloudy” …outside there was, if I’m being generous, slightly lighter smog… I could just about see the bottom floors of the hotels opposite and the mini-golf course in all of its splendor;
12pm – the sun is shining way, way up… I saw a glimmer of it… I could just about see the top of the hotels opposite… still not desperate to wander out into it though… ;-);
2pm – forecast “sunny”… I couldn’t see it even way up in the sky and the hotels opposite were slowly disappearing again :-(;
3pm – spoke too soon… the sun came out… if you look really hard at the photo you can see the outline of the clouds and some pale blue at the top of the photo… under the gauzy layer of atmospheric grime;
3.30pm – spoke too soon again!… ghastly AGAIN!… gave up and went back to hide under the duvet ;-).

If anyone is any doubt by now that the future of our planet is totally and utterly doomed unless China does something about its pollution problems, then they aren’t really absorbing this… :-(. N.B. it might look like a freezing cold day in winter in the arctic north but it’s actually hot and humid outside…

How do people live in this? I really want to go home now…

Day 4 – forecast sun – and it WAS vaguely visible :-). Geoff managed to squeeze in a few hours away from work before the flight home so we hot footed it around the hot spots (such as they are in Macau). Away from the grungier parts of town we did locate some areas of peace with a European feel overlaid with the more colorful parts of Chinese life and architecture. Warming to Old Town Macau, a few hours checking out the backstreets around St Lazarus Church, St Paul’s Ruins and Senado Square was diverting, as there was plenty of street life and activity to observe. Still, no time to lose (having to make up for time lost to the smog) we scooted down to the fishing village of Coloane (of Lord Stowe’s Portuguese Egg Tart fame). Naturally, we had to visit the original home of the top purveyor of egg tart in Macau as I’d been sampling the competitions egg tarts for days and it was time to do the ultimate taste test ;-). Lord Stowe won :-).

The fishing village of Coloane would undoubtedly have been our favorite part of the environs of Macau if we had had more than an hour to run around it and absorb the most interesting parts of  back street life and the stilted fishermen’s houses. Not quite as immaculately clean as Old Town Macau (probably because the warning signs about the fines for littering and hawking were more sporadic here) it was at least thoroughly authentic. It appears that some of the residents do seem to need a fairly constant reminder not to spit in public :-(. As soon as we stepped out of the cab in Coloane I knew we would like it for its attractive architecture, narrow winding lanes, beautiful back street houses and potted plant gardens and the attractive square in front of St Francis Xavier Church… all of which was a pleasant relief from the plastic nightmare of The Venetian ;-).

I have no doubt that the countryside of China has its stunningly beautiful parts. What I do doubt, however, is that either of us will be rushing to add any of it to the top of the Gardner travel “bucket list” anytime soon. I think this is probably a great shame because China is a fabulously colorful culture, a photographer’s dream and a fascinating world – an entire cultural universe away from our gilded lives in the west… which is the perfect reason to want to go and experience it…

However, neither of us stopped coughing (and certainly neither of us saw real blue sky or the sun in all its un-muted glory) until we got back to Singapore. Whilst I sincerely hope the awful air quality and pollution hasn’t drifted too far from the big cities to impact the countryside too (certainly our experience of China is only limited to Hong Kong and Macau), I suspect I may be hoping in vain…

I wonder whether we can sign up for tickets on the next space ship out to our future planet yet?…

Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, Thailand – March 2015

17 Mar
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Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Yippee – Geoff remembered to pack his driving license this weekend so, in addition to the fabulous beaches, we also got to enjoy the grimiest rental car in Thailand and to share the winding, narrow, hilly roads with mopeds driven by kamikaze women in black burkhas, their black abayas flapping wildly in the wind around them!

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Sun, turquoise sea, flour-soft white sand and Thai curries …. we just couldn’t leave South East Asia without saying a quick goodbye to the Krabi province.

This time we headed to the slightly more remote island of Koh Lanta reputed to be “old Thailand”… not quite as touristy as Railay, slightly more gentrified and (allegedly) with some of Thailand’s best beaches. Certainly, it took longer to get there ;-). The usual quick hopper flight, followed by an hour crossing southern Krabi province through the countryside to a rickety bamboo boat dock in the middle of nowhere. We crossed the hot, swampy coastal waterway by ancient speedboat and spent the final half hour being hurled about in what would pass in any other country for a sun-shaded cattle truck. We were chucked in the back of it with our bags and trundled and bounced from the port town of Saladan to the southwestern coast. For $250 for the round-trip transfer from and back to the airport I was hoping for a little more luxury …silly me ;-) :-).

Expecting to sit in the sun and spit-roast and, more importantly, not move a single muscle unnecessarily for the entire weekend, we decided to splash out a little on The Houben, a thoroughly european, contemporary boutique hotel – the closest thing we have come to home since we left Florida 3 months ago. And we COULD very well have sat in the infinity edge pool overlooking the glistening sea and been happily plied with cocktails, Thai curries and crepes with Belgian chocolate sauce and ice cream… but we didn’t… because we just find it almost impossible to sit still for more than 15 minutes when there are so many other things to do and see ;-).

Having spotted the not insignificant number of bandaged limbs and scabby knees on far too many of the other tourists who were scooting around the island on mopeds we decided against joining the ranks of the injured and opted instead for one of the filthiest rental cars we have ever had to sit in.

This time (at least) Geoff had actually remembered to pack his driving license since the debacle in Tasmania ;-), but in true Thai laissez-faire style nobody bothered to ask to see it – typical ;-). Apparently, because it is still height of season we were told that they don’t have time to clean the cars properly before turning them over to the next poor client. Clearly they must have been swamped with bookings for quite some time as we found a previous unlucky driver’s receipt in the glove box dated 1st October 2010 ;-). I have never seen sand stuck in lumps to the roof over the driver’s head before, nor quite so many ingrained sandy footprints on the backseat of a car but …what the hell… there are far more disturbing sights in Southeast Asia than a few misplaced sandy footprints ;-).

Not wanting to delay enjoyment of our battered lime green Nissan runabout for a second, we hopped in it and covered most of the southern part of the island (the only bit we were interested in seeing) in about an hour and a half – including Lanta Old Town which had some attractive stilted houses, cute wooden shops and cafes and a distinct odor of sewage. This came as little surprise after Geoff spotted a fully plumbed in open-air toilet at the back of a shack which emptied straight down into the marshy tidal area below the deck… presumably the tide hadn’t quite washed everything out to sea…

Across the island we saw the usual combination of rustic Thai architectural charm… bamboo and wooden shacks… potted flowers and the ubiquitous incongruent piles of trash … lodged in the undergrowth … caught in tree limbs billowing in the breeze etc etc. By now you might think we would be oblivious to it all but – no – that would be difficult for a couple of OCD’ers like us. We have neither de-sensitized nor become oblivious, but we have come to a more worldly acceptance that this is just how it is here. It is far better to look past it, endeavor not to trip over any of it or wedge a toe into a rusty coke can than let it impact our enjoyment of the myriad other benefits of the country.

Still, all it takes is a bit of community pride in the environment, some (obviously extensive) general re-education and a government or localized trash collection system to deal with it… hopefully before Thailand sinks into the sea.

We had been told not to miss the attractive sea gypsy village, Sang-ga-u, at the southernmost point of the island on our brief exploration. We drove past it 3 times before we found the narrow side track leading down to the fishermen’s stilted huts… with hindsight we probably should have given up our attempt to locate it on the second pass ;-). But we persevered and were greeted with even more abandoned trash – literally ankle deep in parts but with the interesting addition that every tree was decorated as if for Christmas (unintentionally, in case anyone is confused) – adorned with plastic bags, broken lumps of polystyrene, lengths of old rope, discarded crisp packets and endless water bottles…

How they make a living fishing anything edible out of the local surrounding waters defeats me! As we wandered past one stilted hut we saw plastic bags being unceremoniously dropped from a window above fluttering down to the rocks below… delightful… Where on earth would you even start with tidying this lot up??!!

That was quite enough sightseeing of the Koh Lanta highlights for one day, so we returned to the “posh” side of the island to check out the secluded bays and beaches and tried desperately to ignore the (at least less numerous) old broken flip-flops and scattered water bottles in the undergrowth and instead chose to enjoy the lovely warm waters of the Andaman Sea. The beaches here are very rocky, the sand is much darker and the water not quite as calm as in the Railay area of Krabi which made for some interesting stubbed toe moments ;-). Nothing a few cocktails watching the sun set from the hotel pool or from a hilltop bar (washed down with a delicious Thai curry on the beach with our toes in the sand) couldn’t mend, of course :-).

However tranquil and blessedly undeveloped the beaches are on south-western Lanta (which I don’t deny)… and however picturesque… they just aren’t my kind of “perfect” beach… so poor Geoff was dragged out of bed far earlier than he anticipated for a Sunday morning speedboat ride out to the Phi Phi islands :-). The peace of the morning had already been somewhat shattered in any event by the 5am call to prayer from the local mosque which was loud enough to wake the dead, so no need to linger in bed after that ;-). We probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by the early morning alarm calls as the island is predominantly moslem – obviously very tolerant moslem by the number of thonged foreign butts and bikini tops which are paraded about on the streets in front of the eyes of the locals who barely bat an eyelid. It is certainly the first predominantly moslem place we have been where women in burkhas zip about on mopeds – it is a breed destined to die out however as they exhibited absolutely no driving skills whatsoever and had no regard for life nor limb – their own or anyone else’s.

It has been 20 odd years since we last stood on Maya Beach (of “The Beach” movie fame) on Phi Phi Leh. It is just as beautiful as ever although I am relieved we got an early start because by 11am it was deluged with boats, bikinis and life-jacketed tourists… so we were relieved to wave a fond farewell and head out to Monkey Point for some better than average snorkeling… then off again at speed to Bamboo Beach – equally as fabulous as Maya but without the surrounding towering limestone karsts. Frankly, Bamboo Beach was exactly the sort of beach we wanted to spend the day on… white sand, crystal clear turquoise water etc etc… Bliss :-).

All was going so well until the boat trip moved on mid-afternoon and the driver decided to make an unscheduled stop at Monkey Beach… a tiny strip of sand surrounded by sky high limestone karsts. We were greeted by about a dozen scruffy looking voracious monkeys waiting eagerly on the sand for the boat staff to feed them crisps and give them cans of coke to drink – apparently for the entertainment of the other tourists who thought it was all hysterically funny while Geoff and I, and one or 2 of the others, looked on in abject horror :-(. Thankfully, it was all over in 10 minutes before we hoisted anchor and moved on…

Things didn’t improve much, however, when they dropped us at Phi Phi Don for the longest hour of our lives – to go shopping – our least favorite activity on a hot sunny day… or any day really… ;-).

We would have far preferred lolling about in the Andaman Sea working on our sunburn but instead we got to wander about the market stalls amongst the cheap Chinese imported t-shirts and the roughest looking bunch of tattoo decorated 20 somethings – mostly from Russia and the Baltic states it seemed… all of whom were staggering around bleary eyed as they recovered from the previous nights debauchery ;-). Tragically, it seems that in the last 20 years things have gone somewhat downhill on Phi Phi Don. Now more renowned as a drink and drugs fueled party destination than the area of outstanding natural beauty which it always was. We couldn’t wait to get off the island as quickly as possible and obliterate it from our memories so that it didn’t spoil an otherwise almost entirely wonderful day ;-).

Phi Phi Don was devastated by the 2004 tsunami which was horrendous. But it seems that more long-lasting devastation has been caused by the ghastly, hastily re-constructed hotels and bars and the expansive building site in the centre of the island – all of which is entirely unsympathetic to the natural beauty of the surrounding islands. This is a tragedy. Perhaps even worse is the human devastation to an otherwise gorgeous part of the world caused by the particular demands of the traveling clientele… Needs must, of course, when it comes to making ends meet for the local Thai people but, frankly, wild horses couldn’t drag us back there :-(.

Thank goodness the Thai government had the foresight to designate Maya Beach and Phi Phi Leh as a National Park area. It is one of the few places we have visited in Thailand which is devoid of trash – a miracle given the number of visitors. Perhaps if we had ventured more into the interior we might have found it all piled up in the middle like an Egyptian pyramid – but we didn’t… so we are holding on to our good memories instead :-).

So… our view of Thailand remains largely unchanged since it’s reprieve in January when we visited Railay and Phra Nang :-). It is a beautiful country with, in parts, too much rapid overdevelopment to cater for the boom in tourism and, worse, too much tolerance and encouragement of the “wrong kind” of tourism. All, it seems, at very apparent cost to the culture and the natural environment.

In spite of this, we still absolutely love Thailand, but rather fear that if we leave it another 20 years before we re-visit the Phi Phi islands and the Krabi coast that it will all have imploded under the ever-increasing weight of discarded plastic bottles and coke cans :-(. I do hope not because there are a large number of, as yet, undiscovered islands with crystal clear turquoise waters and floury white sand beaches which we would really love to sail around before it’s all too late!! :-).

Tasmania, Australia – March 2015

13 Mar
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Friendly Beach, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Tasmania – Australia’s southernmost island state. A land of 4 seasons in one day ;-).

Our weekend in the wilderness didn’t start entirely as planned. 10 minutes before landing in soggy, grey and rainy Hobart (forecast to be gloriously sunny), Geoff turned a whiter shade of pale and muttered that we might have a problem with the car rental…. In many ways it would have been less painful for him if he had just headed straight for the emergency exit door at 15,000 feet rather than admit that he had forgotten to pack his driving license ;-).

Unsurprisingly, the poor man behind the Avis counter was unable to change company policy for us which, again unsurprisingly, required sight of a valid license as a prerequisite for driving away with one of their prized possessions.

I am sure he had some sympathy with the stupid Brits who had flown all the way to Tassy for the weekend leaving their driving licenses safely stored in a hotel safe in Melbourne.

Still, he remained unmoved by our plight – marooned without a hotel in the height of season miles from our destination. We should have been crossing the island en route to Coles Bay in Freycinet National Park on the east coast of the island. This clearly wasn’t going to happen.

With true Aussie optimism he did mutter that we might also be hard pushed to find a hotel at the weekend in the middle of summer in Hobart… which came as no surprise at all to the designated vacation planner as it had been a challenge finding accommodation on the island in the first place :-(.

Obviously we were stuck up the creek without a steering wheel and had no option but to grab a cab, head to Hobart, and hope we could find a bed without fleas (or any bed) for the night as we are a little beyond sleeping on our suitcases in the airport waiting for the next flight “home” …

Happily, it turned out that Hobart is a foodie’s destination city which took some of the pain out of the unscheduled detour to the capital so we cheered ourselves up with lunchtime bakery delicacies to rival any great English teashop, and an innovative restaurant for dinner to rival any great city :-).

The sticky matter of the missing driving license remained to be resolved, however, if we didn’t want to spend the entire weekend in rainy Hobart (whilst, of course, we were still paying for a rental house in the National Park).

Let it never be said that miracles don’t happen.

Miracle number 1: a huge and very comfortable bed was finally located 200 yards from the centre of the Hobart universe (Salamanca Place) … from which we could, at least, watch the summer rain pour down the outside of the window rather than stand outside in it like a couple of miserable, drenched Dickensian orphans :-(.

Miracle number 2: the receptionist back at our Melbourne hotel agreed to rifle through our safe, search out Geoff’s license and overnight ship it to our unanticipated abode in Hobart … which really went far beyond the call of duty…

Miracle number 3: the license actually arrived by motorcycle courier, no less, first thing the following morning :-).

The 4th and perhaps the most miraculous of all miracles: the courier actually managed to locate us even though the street address on the business card for the hotel (to which we had requested the license be sent) didn’t really exist… don’t ask… ;-)

Steering wheel finally in hand, we crossed the eastern part of the island at great speed.

When we finally arrived in Coles Bay, gateway to the Freycinet National Park, we discovered 2 things: firstly, Tasmania has 4 seasons and from our, albeit limited, experience of a typical Tasmanian summer’s weekend you will likely enjoy all 4 in 1 day; secondly, most people out in the Tassy boonies appear to favor living in flat-packed, corrugated steel modular homes – the rental properties are the same and they just don’t look quite as appealing in the flesh as they do online.

Consequently, we weren’t altogether delighted with our similarly flat-packed modular “romantic hideaway” on the beach ….perhaps it was a good thing that we had spent a night in considerably more luxury in Hobart after all ;-). We were also less than enchanted by the interior wildlife. There was some consternation when I spotted a crab-shaped spider the size of a logger’s hand scuttling across the wall of the living room. It turned out to be a huntsman spider – apparently it won’t kill you – I didn’t care – the psychological damage had already been done…

And so … the real Tasmania ….rolling hills; vineyards; warm breezes; miles and miles (and miles) of beautiful farmland; blue sky and sunshine; summer berry farms; grey sky and rain; tea shops; howling, freezing wind; seafood so fresh we ate it overlooking the waters of the bay where it had been happily swimming only hours before ;-); puffy white clouds; wilderness trails; dark stormy skies; sparkling, transparent turquoise waters (just about warm enough to dangle our Floridian toes into); red and pink granite rock coastlines; bright orange, red and yellow lichen growing on the coastal rocks; yachts and fishing boats bobbing in the crystal clear harbor waters; secluded bays; fabulous dramatic sunsets; the world renowned Wineglass Bay; the jagged, granite Hazard mountains; and….best of all….flour-soft, white sand beaches stretching for miles with barely another soul on them :-).

If we hadn’t retraced our own footsteps in the sand on one of the beaches back to the car park trail we may very well still be there now trying to find our way out of the never ending dazzling white sand dunes…. which wouldn’t be such a tragedy ;-).

I hadn’t known it at the time I booked our weekend trip to Tasmania but it transpired that the whole island is a big foodie destination. This was excellent news for us – courtesy of their reasonably mild weather and small-scale production, self-sufficient, eco-friendly, organic farming with an ethos of sustainability. We didn’t consume or imbibe a single calorie which wasn’t absolutely worth it – everything was top-notch :-).

Obviously it would have been ideal had we had more time to explore our intended destination (the least said the better as Geoff has only just been allowed to poke his snout tentatively out of the dog house ;-) ). But I guess now, at least, we have a reason to return to the island to spend more time driving and exploring the backroads, beaches, rivers and mountains…so long as one of us remembers to bring a driving license along! :-).

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