Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hiking around in Middle Earth

After a relaxing time in Hawai'i, it was time for some adventure.. Off to New Zealand! We took the plane from Honolulu to Auckland with Air New Zealand and it was such a nice plane for once: good comfortable seats, free in-flight entertainment, decent food, and friendly stewards. The safety procedures was shown to us through a little movie based on the Lord of the Rings - really too funny! It was a late flight, we left at midnight, so I closed my eyes after the meal we got and slept for the rest of the flight.  
We arrived really early at the airport and decided to take the bus to the center: 16 dollars per person (which is EUR 10)!! We are definitely not used to those prices :(. In the center we went to Starbucks - I need my coffee, don't judge me please - and had some breakfast, used the free wifi, and relaxed. Then on to another bus (another 9 dollars BTW) towards our airbnb host Melina! The house we stayed in was beautiful, it was almost a villa, with swimming pool, a big garden and stunning views of the city. We felt home immediately. There were some other guests staying over, a couple. And guess what: they were from Antwerp! After talking for a while, it came out that the guy was working in the building next to Claudio's office. What a small world right? 
In the following couple of days, we really enjoyed exploring Auckland. One day, we went on a cruise boat around the harbor and saw different islands and sights. It was really a lot of fun and the views of the city were worth it. We also went to the Kelly Tarlton's aquarium to see penguins, jellyfish, octopus, different types of fish, and even sharks! In general, I am really against any form of captivity of animals but Claudio convinced me to go and it was not that bad. The only thing I thought was really sad were the penguins. The space they had didn't seem big enough and they didn't look that happy. But overall, it was a fun experience. 
One night, we also met Geraldine again. We met in Bolivia, in Buenos Aires and now again in Auckland :-). She brought us to a nice restaurant and we had a delicious meal. We also walked around in the harbor and saw all these amazing yachts of the rich and famous. Auckland is known as the "City of Sails" as sailing is very popular here. So you see lots of sailing boats and yachts everywhere. 

After a couple of days, we took the plane to Queenstown, which is on the Southern Island. The views from the plane were amazing, as if flying of the Alps in Switzerland - but better :). On the plane, we also met a nice Italian guy, Stefano, who was traveling for a couple of weeks in NZ. We agreed to meet up in the next days, and we went for a really nice hike together in Queenstown. We climbed up a couple of hundred meters on a mountain/hill and arrived at a lookout, with great views over the town. It was such a fun day, and it always nice to get to know other people and hang out. Off course it was also nice to practice my Italian a little bit :). 
Queenstown is a really nice town, with lots of young people and a cool vibe. The city attracts lots of tourists not only for its beautiful lake and mountains, but also for its offer of extreme sports! Bungee, skydiving, rafting, climbing, jet-skiing... Anything you can imagine. We were doubting between skydiving and bungee, but in the end we chose skydiving. It was our original plan, and bungee is also really scary because you have to jump yourself. With skydiving, you are attached to another person and have no control over what is happening. So skydiving it is! We made an appointment to go at 1pm. We arrive, get briefed, we all get in the van and are driving to the location, when the driver gets a call: skydiving is canceled, there is too much wind to land! Damn!! So we reschedule for the next day at 10am, and this time no cancellations or problems. Now, we are getting more and more nervous off course. Claudio is also afraid of heights, so you can imagine... We get on the plane and of our whole group, I'm to one who has to go first. Oh my god!!! My heart starts pounding, I'm close to the door, and any second now the door is going to open and we are going to jump out of this plane. I am going to jump. Out of a plane. Aaaaargh!! So the door opens, and 2 seconds later I feel my body turning and falling out of the plane. I scream for a while but then I look down and I see the beautiful mountains, the lake and realize I'm flying in the air! What a sensation... The best feeling I ever had in my life. Then, after 1 minute, the parachute opens and you slowly go down and land. The first thing I thought was: I want to do this again!! Claudio lands almost simultaneously with me and we hug each other. Truly an amazing experience.


After all the excitement of Queenstown it was time to relax and head towards Te Anau. We rented a car and drove up to the little town further down south.The town is literally 1 street with a handful of restaurants and shops and off course, a lake. The whole Southern Island seems to be like this. Just land, sheep, mountains, and once in a while people and shops - but for sure we saw more sheep then people! The reason we went to Te Anau was as a base to explore the Milford Sounds. We decided to go on a 2 hour cruise to see the Sounds. We drive up to the cruise took us three hours, and we stopped in different places along the way. We saw the most beautiful nature, there was absolutely nobody there and we could enjoy it in silence. It was for sure one of the highlights of the trip, and one of the most beautiful nature I have ever seen in my life. It is so unique, we have never seen anything like this before.
After visiting the Milford Sounds, we drove up again to Wanaka. This is a town similar to Queenstown but a bit more relaxed. The weather was really bad in these days so we didn't do that much. 
The next stop was Mount Cook. For me, the best we have seen in NZ. Just driving up to Mount Cook was so amazing... With a beautiful lake on your right side, and the reflection of the mountains in the water. Beautiful colors everywhere. When we arrive at the national park, we hiked up to the Hooker Valley (sorry but I didn't choose that name) for a couple of hours and then hiked back. It was such a nice hike. The only pity was that there were so many tourists - including many annoying Germans. I don't know why, but Germans are not such friendly travelers. But we didn't let it ruin our experience, and had a wonderful day. That night, we slept in Fairlee, and the next day we left for Nelson! We drove around 7 hours to get to Nelson. We stopped many time to take pictures because the landscape was so beautiful. You just cannot find nature like that in Europe! The views are just breathtaking. Once arrived in Nelson, we had a great welcome from our airbnb hostess: barbecue, wine, mussels, great conversations and beautiful views of the city. What more do you want from life?

View going to Mount Cook

From Nelson, we went to the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi national park. More hiking. To be honest, we were getting a bit sick of hiking. It is the best way to see all the national parks and the stunning nature of NZ. But after 2 weeks of non stop hiking we were longing for a break. We booked a nice room in a really remote place in Anakiwa, at the Marlborough Sounds. We had to bring food with us because there were no shops in the neighborhood. Just a couple of houses, hostels, and a lake :). We were basically alone in the hostel, it was as if having our own apartment. There was a big kitchen, garden, and a living room with TV and lots of games. One night we even played the Lord of the Rings version of Monopoly!! So much fun :D.
After our relaxing days in Anakiwa, we left our rental car in Picton and we took the ferry to Wellington. Back to the Northern Island! Wellington is the capital city of NZ, but has less inhabitants than Auckland. It rains a lot there, and it is really windy. You can see the clouds moving really fast, it seems unreal. We were lucky though, and had sunny days, no rain at all :). We visited the city, hiked up Mount Victoria, took the cable car to the botanic gardens, and went to the national museum to learn about NZ's history and fauna and flora. 
In the meantime, we were able to book a relocation car. This is a great concept: as lots of people who rent a car in NZ leave this car in a different location than they rented it from, the car needs to be returned to the original location. Rental car companies therefore offer you the rental car for free for a couple of days. You just need to drive it back to the original location. We found a relocation car from Wellington to Auckland: 2 free days + 1 full tank of petrol included! Awesome!! Since we could use the car 2 days, we could stop at the Waitomo Caves on our way to Auckland. 

Wellington - view from Mount Victoria

We decided to go visit the caves to see the glow worms. We booked an excursion in the caves called black water rafting. You basically go in the cave, which is filled with ice cold water and go through it in the dark. You jump of 2 small waterfalls on a rubber tire, which is lots of fun. The only thing that was not fun was the huge spiders in that godd*mn cave! When we just arrived in the cave, I see two people next to me pointing to the wall and saying: "Oh that's a big one". Then other people: "No that other one's really big!!". Off course, I don't dare to look and start freaking out cause I just KNEW they were talking about spiders! Claudio comes close to me, looks in that direction and tells me it's better not to look, there is a huge spider. I start hyperventilating. Did I really just pay 150 EUR for this? I go to the instructor and ask her if there will be lots of spiders. She assures me just a couple and really small ones. So I try to stay strong and just go further in the cave. I don't need to explain you that I was sooo scared in the following 1,5 hours in that cave. But somehow I survived ;). 

After this crazy adventure, we drove back to Auckland. We returned to Melina's place since we had such a great time there. We used these 2 days to book and plan our trip in Asia a bit better. And the 27th of February we were off to Singapore. 

In general, I think that New Zealand was really beautiful. The nature is just from another world! But I don't think it's for everybody. The Southern Island, where you have the most beautiful scenery, is really remote. We like to relax, but we also like the city life. Driving hours and hours and not seeing one person is really weird. You don't really have anything else to do there than relax and enjoy nature. In addition, NZ is not budget friendly at all. A bunk bed in a hostel costs 20 EUR, and for a double you pay minimum 45 EUR. Luckily you have airbnb :-).Going out for dinner is also not really an option, as it's comparable to Belgium. It's a pity because food is really good in NZ. Lots of organic food, good quality meat, and locally grown fruit and veggies. 
So to conclude, we had a great time... But we were happy to fly to SE Asia to enjoy 15 EUR hotel rooms and 1 EUR dinners in restaurants again! ;-)

Sorry for not adding a lot of pics... we are in Bangkok right now and the internet is slow. For pics of NZ you can check my Flickr account:

See you all next time with some stories on Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia!!

Cheers :-)
Marj and Claudio

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hawaii - paradise on earth

So I have two hours  to kill at the airport in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. What best to do than to write about our amazing 2,5 weeks in Hawai'i? :)

The idea of going to Hawai'i started a long time ago. We were thinking of an exotic destination for our summer holidays in 2011 and thought of Hawai'i. We started looking up flights and hotels, but it was so expensive that we quickly aborted our plans. That summer we went to Sardinia instead, which cost about one fourth of what we would have spent going to Hawai'i. 
When we were planning our trip around the world, we initially didn't include Hawai'i, still with the idea it was going to be too expensive. Which backpacker goes there anyway? Only honeymooners or Americans during their holiday break. But, somehow, I was not really satisfied with our first list of countries and I wanted to add another destination: Brasil, Cuba, Miami, or Hawai'i. Miami would be easy because we had a transit flight through Miami so we could stay there a couple of days. Claudio didn't want to go to Cuba, so we doubted between Hawai'i and Brasil. I asked for some quotations through our travel agency to have it included in our round the world ticket and Hawai'i was A LOT cheaper than Brasil! So the decision was made, we were flying to Honolulu the 14th of January :-)

Hawai'i is still really expensive, especially Oahu, which is the island on which most people live, and where Honolulu is situated. We decided to spend 7 days in Oahu and 10 days on the Big Island, which is - as the name already explains - the biggest island of Hawai'i. To avoid high hotel prices, we booked our accommodation already before we left, and used airbnb again. This saved us really a lot of money! 
When we landed in Honolulu (Oahu), we picked up our rental car and drove to the first place we were going to stay in. It was a beautiful house on the hills, with a magnificent view of the city and also Diamond Head, which is a crater in front of the sea. There was also a lanai or terrace with a table and chairs where you could enjoy the views, so we often ate there at night with our take-out food from Whole Foods to enjoy the sunset. Truly breathtaking views!  We also had a car so it was no problem not to be in Waikiki center itself. We were only 10 minutes from the  center and the island is really not big at all. You can easily drive around it in 3 hours. 

The lady we stayed with, Phyllis, was friendly, but in this 'American' kind of way. Smiling and polite, but not really interested in you as a person. We had our own private bathroom and room so we never really saw her. But it was a pity we couldn't hang in the living room or talk with her a bit about life in Hawai'i. She also had all these crazy rules about doors that should be open or not, and had stickers everywhere with info,... a bit too neurotic for our taste ;-). But still, the place was really clean, safe and we had a big room with amazing views, and we didn't pay a lot, so can you really complain? 

Views from our lanai in Honolulu
Hanauma Bay

In the 7 days that we were in Oahu we visited a lot of different beaches. We went to Waikiki and Diamond Head in the south. We also visited the North Shore, famous for it's huge waves in winter! We followed the forecasts on local websites and went the day that the waves were up to 25 feet (which is approximately 8 meters)!! We saw surfers trying to catch waves and risking their lives. Some couldn't exit from the sea with their boards and there were life guards with special jet ski's to help them. We saw some surfers just abandoning their boards because they couldn't get out of the water with them - totally crazy! People who were not surfing were prohibited to go near the water. We saw some children playing so close to the water we got scared brrrr. One wave can take you and you're gone... But it was so cool to see these waves. The sea is so powerful and beautiful. 
We visited other beaches in the East as well, such as Lanikai and Kailua. The water was so clear and the beaches sandy and bright. At both beaches, you had little islands in front of beach, so it was a lovely view. The waves were a lot calmer on the East and South beaches, so it was nice to swim and relax. One day, we also went to Hanauma bay, famous for it's corals, turtles and fish. We snorkeled and saw such big turtles, they were huge! We didn't see a lot of fish though, because you couldn't step on the coral and that is where they were swimming around - so it was difficult to reach them. The bay itself was one of the best places we have been in in Hawai'i. It is really touristic, but you understand why. It is absolutely beautiful. 

After 5 days of amazing beaches, it was time to leave for the Big Island! We took a flight, as you cannot take a ferry, it just doesn't exist. We also had some trouble booking our flights from Belgium, as you can only book it when you have a US credit card. So we had to book it through a travel agent (we used Kilroy). It was really annoying because they changed our flight time like 10 times, and we always had to confirm, else they would cancel our ticket... But it was the only way we could do it unfortunately. 
On the Big Island we stayed with the best host ever, Jeanie. She had a beautiful house in Captain Cook, and lived there together with her cat and a friend, called Tiger :). We had such nice talks with Jeanie and Tiger, and we loved to hang out in the house and just relax. It was so nice to be in a big house and feel at home, cozy and comfortable. We also had a huge king size bed - better than all these small 140 cm beds we have slept in during this trip ;). We also cooked several times, in an attempt to save money, but actually groceries are really expensive in Hawai'i so it was a failed attempt ;). 

Koma the cat :-)
Tiger, me, and Jeanie - miss you guys 

On the Big Island, we had two days of bad weather. When it rains, it rains hard, and all activities are on the beach or outdoors, so your options are limited. We tried to make the best of it, and decided to go to the movies. We saw the Wolf of Wall Street, what a good movie! Leo is the best :). On sunny days, we went to several beaches in the East and North of the island. The beaches however, are not as beautiful as in Oahu. There are a lot of rocks, and the surf was high, so the beaches are really short. One days we also attempted to body-board and rented two or them, but we failed miserably. At least we tried right  :D? 
We also visited the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and did a hike. We first walked into the rain forest for a while, with a view of the crater, and the lake of hard lava. The volcano erupted and spit lava, creating the lake. This happened during the 20th century. The volcano is still active now, and sometimes parts of the park are closed due to possible danger. Afterwards, the hike led us to the lake itself and we walked around in it! That was a fun experience :)
The last day on the Big Island, we went to Jeanie's workplace. She is stationed at the beach (DREAMJOB right?) and her team rents out snorkeling gear to tourists. The beach doesn't seem that much when you first get there, but once you get in the water and starts snorkeling.... Wow! We saw the most amazing fish, every color that you can imagine, blue, purple, yellow, green,... and different patterns such a polkadots and stripes. Even fish that looked like snakes. It was a pity we couldn't take pictures.
For us, the highlight of our days on the Big Island were the amazing sunsets we experienced. It was so perfect, it didn't seem real. We would stop our car if we would be driving, go to the beach, sit there in silence, and take in the views... Just like paradise...

Dreamlike sunsets @ the Big Island
Amazing views

So after 10 days of relaxing life on the Big Island it was time to head back to Oahu for another 2 days! I was not feeling so well in these days. Claudio had caught something in Cancun, a weird cold that lasted for 2 weeks, including fever and a sore throat, and now I was having the same symptoms. I was a bit weak but we still tried to have fun. We went to Makapu'u beach, which was really beautiful. The views were spectacular. The sea was pretty wild that day, but we went into the sea anyway. The waves were huge, and you have to go under the water when it arrives because if it takes you, you just stay under water and you can drawn. So we went under water, again and again, the waves were so huge all of the sudden and there was no time in between the different waves! It was difficult to get out of this cycle, and out of the water and for one moment it was a bit scary. But we managed fine, and luckily we can swim well, so we made it back to the beach. And didn't go in anymore! Lesson learned: don't mess with the sea....

Makapu'u beach

So this was our 2,5 weeks in Hawai'i. The weather was good, the beaches spectacular, the food expensive, the people super friendly, and the sunsets amazing. We would go back there in a heartbeat. Mahalo Hawai'i, for the amazing time. We miss you already...