Dec 012014
 

Quick transfer by shared hotel bus to my hotel the Aggie Grey’s Resort which was less than 10 minutes from the airport. First impression on check-in was that the hotel/resort seemed to be absolutely dead. There were no people around at all, and the staff was moving at about half of normal island speed.

At least things looked promising on the hotel activities board;

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Had to try two different rooms to get one with adequately functioning air conditioning…which didn’t seem like it should be a problem given the low occupancy. The second room had a nice view of the gardens, looking out towards the ocean:

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Beach right outside my room:

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Headed to the hotel bar/restaurant to have a beer before dinner, and watch the sunset…which was stunning. After all the sunsets I’ve seen on this trip, the purples of this one were just stunning and unique:

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Some pics of the room. It was nice-sized, but felt quite empty with lots of open space. Definitely met my “Three Cs” though – clean, cool, and comfortable. No complaints at all.

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Nothing says “don’t drink the water” like endless bottles of bottled water left for you:

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Woke up the next morning, and had a lazy start. Breakfast was included with the room, and there was quite a good spread, including eggs cooked to order. Nobody was going to go hungry! I had booked two dives for the day, and we weren’t going to head out until 10am, so it was nice to have a nice and relaxing start to the day.

Aqua Samoa was located clear across the resort, a 10-15 minute walk from my room. When I got there, I found out I was the only diver booked that day, so I’d have a private trip with just the boat driver, the divemaster, and myself. That was definitely a first for me! With just the two of us we were in absolutely no rush to get going, so took our time.

Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to recharge my camera so didn’t get any pictures from these dives. The most memorable parts were the really cool underwater geography. Both sites featured some really cool 40 meter high coral columns sticking up from the ocean floor, and there were pretty strong currents which allowed us to head down about 25-30 meters and just drift around the formations. We saw a couple of sharks in the distance, but nothing terribly close. The fish life was nothing special, but the dives were definitely unique due to the topography.

Finally made it back to my room just after 2pm, grabbed a quick snack, and relaxed on the beach for the remainder of the afternoon:

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Samoa had an absolutely amazing sunset in store for us again. I think when this trip is over I’m going to need to put a post together with just the sunset pics:

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My last day in Samoa I had planned a daytrip to American Samoa. The flights to Pago Pago leave from the domestic airport in Samoa, which is about a 45-50 minute drive from the international airport and the resort. Once a day, Aggie Grey’s runs a free shuttle into town for guests so they can explore the city. It worked out reasonably well for my departure time and would save a $30 or more taxi ride, so I headed into town with the hotel van. Chatted on the way with a nice couple from New Zealand who were originally from Fiji, and it was really interesting hearing their different perspective on the resort. I was a bit disappointed how quiet it was and how little there was to do, but they were thrilled with how quiet things were and how relaxing it was…while still having nice facilities.

Picture of Aggie Grey in the reception area:

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After about 50 minutes we were in downtown Apia, and I had about an hour to walk around before I needed to grab a short 10 minute cab to the airport. Downtown church:

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Apia harbour:

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Samoan government building:

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Clock tower roundabout:

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After walking around for an hour and having some coffee, it was time to head to the airport for my daytrip to American Samoa!

Nov 222014
 

Taxi driver was quite chatty, which I later learnt was because he was hoping to negotiate with me to be my driver for the entire time I was in the country. Decided to pass on his generous offer, and in no time was at my hotel, the King Solomon. Online reviews of all the hotels in Honiara were rather mixed, so I decided to go with this one since I was told it had the most local character, and met my three C requirements: clean, cool, and comfortable. Well, the lobby was certainly festive at least:

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Check-in was…interesting. No credit card asked for, no nothing, more of a here’s your key…enjoy. Um, ok. Unfortunately, the first room had broken AC and the second I tried was just marginally better. Decided to stick with the second, because the room was at least a bit larger. When I’d booked online, it was very unclear what the difference was between all the room categories, so I decided to book the cheapest one and hope for the best. It seemed based on the AC muck up I might have gotten upgraded, but it was hard to tell since the staff never wanted to say more than two or three words to me.

Spent my first afternoon just walking around central Honiara, and taking it all in. There really wasn’t too much to see it appeared, but it was one of those places where people watching was the highlight. Unfortunately, it was late Sunday afternoon so everything was closed, and that combined with the sweltering heat and humidity cut the afternoon short. I decided to decamp to the hotel pool, which seemed to be where all the local long-term expat residents congregate on Sunday afternoons and get absolutely trashed. I mean fall down drunk. It was a rather depressing example of expats behaving badly. I mean, I’m far from a teatotler but it always surprises me in some of the more developing countries just how much drinking / partying / smoking goes on in the expat community. Is it a case of “nothing else to do” or something else? Observations?

After pool time and a drink at the hotel bar, decided to stay in for dinner as I was advised nothing was open on Sunday evening really, and safety is a concern. Plus, I was told the food at the hotel was probably better than anything I’d find outside anyways. Seems some nights, the hotel does dinner and a performance. I was seated right next to the stage:

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The King Solomon restaurant. I sat down for nearly ten minutes before I realized the staff had no interest in waiting on me and if I wanted anything I was going to have to go up to the front counter and order. The choice was some meat and potatoes dish, or pizza. The pizza was recommended online as being pretty good, so I decided to go with that:

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Chicken satay pizza and a SB beer. Pretty darn tasty:

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Gee, I wonder where the hotel stole…I mean got…their napkins from…

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An observation on dinner..I was getting the impression that the Solomon Islands are kind of like Australia’s Thailand. There were two tables in the restaurant where groups of heavyset middle-aged Australian men (40s-50s) were having dinner with the Solomon Islander “girlfriends” who looked to be barely 20, if that. The poor girls were eating like they’d never seen food before, until in a few cases the men informed them they were done and going back to the room. Ugh. Honestly, it made me really uncomfortable and was rather depressing.

I ended up chatting briefly with an American guy who was having dinner alone, and he said that in many cases people come here for a few months for work, live at this hotel, meet local girls, and then end up staying for years in some cases. He said that the majority of the people at the hotel were long-term residents, several months minimum.

Onto more interesting topics, did I mention the hotel had a funicular for getting to the rooms? Awesome!

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Slept in slightly the next day before going diving. The visibility wasn’t all that great, but dove two different World War Two wrecks that were easy dives from shore. Both gradually sloped down to between 110 and 130 feet, and were really cool to see. The first wreck was the Hirokawa Maru, also known as Bonegi I. It’s a Japanese transport ship of 6860 tons with an overall length of 508 feet. The bottom sits at about 160 feet, although we didn’t go that far down.

The second dive was the wreck of the Kinugawa Maru, also know as Bonegi II. This was a 436 foot long transport ship as well, with part sitting just above the water line. The stern sits in about 90 feet of water, so was really easy to explore. Overall they were both great dives, and I’m bummed I forgot to charge my camera battery so didn’t manage to get any pictures.

After the dives, grabbed lunch at a local cafe which seemed to be where all the wives of the local expats hung out. It was seriously like a ladies who lunch convention.

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Back to the hotel, where I chilled out for the evening, had more pizza, and just relaxed since I was leaving rather early the next morning. The entrance to the hotel. Welkam!

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Posing with the goofy lobby statue:

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The next morning, settled the bill…which took nearly 30 minutes partly because the staff weren’t interested in moving quickly and partly because there were so many slips of paper to sort out and add up. Finally got things sorted, and it was off to the airport for a few relaxing days in Brisbane and Auckland before continuing with more island hopping!

Nov 192014
 

By the time I finally got to my hotel, it was after 8pm already, and I was tired from a long day. Managed to resist ordering room service, and fortunately there was a “sports bar” across the street that TripAdvisor said served reasonable pizzas. They also had their own craft beer, which was surprisingly good:

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The upside of having two nights in Vanuatu is it meant another country I’d get the opportunity to dive in…however, that meant getting up early. Based on online reviews I paid a little extra for a “panorama view room” and it was well worth it in the morning to have a 270 degree+ view of the harbour. The Grand Hotel and Casino was well-located, and a good choice. Comfortable, cool, and clean, my three basic requirements as well as a decent location:

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…and THIS is how you get ants:

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Since I had the whole day and wasn’t flying until later the following day, I had the whole day to go diving. I chose Big Blue since they appeared to be the largest operator in Port Vila, and were willing to do a hotel pick-up. They changed the plan the day before, and said they’d send a boat to pick me up at the jetty next to my hotel. Cool! It was about 15 minutes late, but hey, island time!

First two dives were wreck dives, the first being the deepest dive I’ve ever done going straight down to 140 feet before gradually swimming up the wreck:

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It’s dark down at 140 feet…

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Nov 152014
 

In order to boost my stay count with Starwood, I used my iPhone to book the two unexpected nights in Fiji one at the Westin and the second back at the Sheraton again. The properties are right next door to each other, so figured I would compare them. Caught a taxi to the Westin, where the bellman was nice enough to drive me over to the Sheraton to retrieve my bag of scuba gear I’d left there, and then checked in.

They were rather reluctant to upgrade, and offered an ocean-view or such standard room at first…but only with two double beds. I pushed a little harder, and the agent agreed to go consult her manager. I reminded her it was just one night, and I was staying to compare them to the Sheraton. I thought maybe a bit of friendly competition might help. Well..ended up with a “one time only” upgrade to a royal suite, which I guess isn’t usually available in the standard upgrade pool. Took the buggy to the room with my bags, and the buggy driver mentioned to me that both John Travolta and Mel Gibson had stayed in. SCORE!

Living area:

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Oct 292014
 

My ride was waiting for me when I exited immigration, and we were off to dive! Volker, one of the owners of Dive Timor was there to pick me up, and took me straight back to their dive shop / guesthouse / restaurant. I was staying at their guesthouse, which consisted of around ten different rooms/apartments/etc. It seemed the convenient option given my limited time, plus would help me to maximize diving time. In addition, one of the most popular restaurants in town was listed on TripAdvisor as being above their apartments, so seemed a win win.

Got to their location, and quick lodging check-in. They weren’t too full, so I ended up on a two bedroom apartment. Unfortunately, the air conditioner in the common area didn’t work, but the two in the bedrooms were quite strong so kept the whole place reasonably cool. For the price, it was a fantastic choice!

After about 30 minutes waiting for everyone to arrive, we packed up the scuba gear in the van and headed to the first dive site, Dili Rock West.

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I hadn’t been diving since St Kitts back in July, but really wasn’t nervous. I had my gear, etc, and the only nervousness was that this would be my first short dive. I’d never gone into the water from the shore before. Plus, being on the other side of the world was kinda cool. I guess after diving in Seychelles it shouldn’t have been a huge deal, but hey.

Plan was to walk about 10-20 meters into the water, and then try and get the fins on and head further out. Unfortunately, the waves kept crashing down on us, and I panicked a slight bit. Eventually managed to get things sorted well enough that we could descend, and once underwater things were zen and peaceful. Unfortunately, I’d wasted quite a bit of air at this point. Fortunately, I’d decided not to take my camera on the first dive, so I could really just focus on getting used to the water again and enjoying the coral.

I’d used a full 1/3 of my air at this point, and we were only 6 minutes in. I was kind of nervous I was going to be the reason we had to come up early (especially since I often am the first one out of air) but once I calmed down I started using the rest of it really slowly. There were only four of us diving, and two divemasters. Two beginners with one, and me and a guy doing his advanced certification with the other.

It was a good 45 minute dive, and I was excited for the second. We walked about 1/2 mile down the beach to “Dili Rock East” and got ready for the second dive. This one was much easier, because I knew what I was doing a bit better and how to fight the waves when getting into deeper water.

Almost right after descent was a cool lionfish hanging out:

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The reef dropped down to about 60 feet pretty quickly, and it was a cool view:

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Cool coral:

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Jul 262014
 

Woke up again at 630am after another solid 8+ hours of sleep feeling fantastic and went back to Rituals coffee for breakfast. Another great triple iced espresso, but instead of the bagel sandwich today they had amazing double chocolate chocolate chip muffins….yum!

Met Jeff in the lobby again, and Dive St Kitts picked us up right on time for another morning of diving. When we got to the shop, we learned we were the only two people diving today so we could get going as soon as all the gear was set up. Sweet!

Out first dive site was called “The Rocks” and the coolest feature is that the last couple of months a reef shark had been hanging around the site, and we’d try and find it. Strategy was to try and find a lionfish to spear, and then dump it on the ground and wait for the shark to smell blood. The dive was in a fairly narrow “channel” between two reefs, and dropped from about 50 feet where we entered to about 75 feet further down where we turned around and swam back on top of the reef.

It didn’t take long to find a spear a lionfish, and no sooner was the divemaster chopping it up, than this guy started circling:

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A couple of slow circles around us and the dead lionfish, and he darted in a snapped it up and swam away. ¬†For maybe the next 5-10 minutes he followed us around as we swam down the reef, probably hoping we’d feed him another easy meal. ¬†Laziest shark ever!

Along the reef:

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Jul 252014
 

Woke up a bit before seven after more than nine hours of glorious sleep, despite the fact the room was slightly on the warm side – it never got much below 71/72 in the room despite the air being on full blast. Just cool enough to be sleepable, but barely. Headed straight out the hotel and down the main road to grab coffee and breakfast at Rituals Coffee Shop right when they opened at 7am. Rituals is a caribbean chain, and sort of like the starbucks of the Caribbean. Nothing fantastic, but a good reliable source of caffeine, which is just what I needed. They had no trouble making a triple shot over ice, and also got a ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich on the bagel.

Walked the half mile or so back to the hotel, and packed up the dive gear, since the dive shop was picking me up at 8am sharp for a morning of diving. While waiting in the lobby I spotted another person with diving gear, and we started chatting, and turned out he was there with the family and lived just a few miles away in Virginia. Small world indeed – and lucky for me because he helped me remember I’d forgotten my dive computer in the room so I ran up and grabbed it quickly.

We were picked up just a few minutes late by Dive St Kitts, which operates complimentary transfers for their divers between hotel and the the dive shop. Nice added bonus! They do a two-tank boat dive every morning, and I’d signed up for just one day to start since I figured I might want to use the second day to play tourist. The ride to the shop was maybe 15 minutes, and when we got there we sorted out paperwork while the crew prepared the boat. This was a full service operation, with them doing all the work for you. They hooked up BCDs, regs, and tanks, and all you had to worry about was diving – quite nice!

We did a very thorough dive briefing in the shop before heading out – and it was definitely the most comprehensive briefing I’ve had anywhere. Details about the dive sites we’d be doing, details on the boat including entry and exit to the water, etc. Although the shop is basically a older one-room seaside building, the quality of the crew was definitely amazing to see. Our divemaster for the day was also fantastic, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their infamous boat captain, known as Captain Crabby. We got him to crack several smiles, however, so I’m pretty sure there’s a softy under that sarcastic exterior!

One more note…Jeff, the guy I’d met earlier in the lobby, turned out to be a fantastic photographer. I’d decided to dive without a camera since it had been nearly 18 months since I’d been diving, and I really just wanted to focus on enjoying it as opposed to fussing about pictures all the time. Turned out to be the right call, because Jeff was an amazing photographer and more than willing to share photos…so thanks to Jeff, I got these great shots from the first day of diving:

Wreck of the MV Corinthian:

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Turtle just hanging out:

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Marine life on the wreck:

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Staring contest with the world’s laziest turtle:

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Jun 062012
 

Arrived at the resort just a bit after 8pm, and mysteriously was invited to have a seat in the reception area because my room was not quite ready…odd, but ok. While I was waiting, the manager on duty came over and introduced herself, apologized, gave me all the details, so that when my keys were ready in a few minutes I wouldn’t have to wait. That was nice. About 10 minutes later they were set, luggage was loaded into a golf cart, and got a short ride to the room. It was very walkable (300m or so max?) but the ride was nice with luggage. Once inside, I forgot about the wait – the suite upgrade was amazing, and came loaded with a giant fruit basket, bottle of wine, and plate full of snacks.

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