Sep 182017
 

In total, I had arranged for five nights in Sydney, and was really looking forward to this being the relaxing “vacation” part of the trip. Something I promised myself after finishing all the countries is that at least to a degree I’d slow down and explore places a little more in depth. Yeah, so I had to cross the southern hemisphere on this trip “because it was there,” but now that I was in Sydney, it was time to relax.

My first day, honestly, I didn’t do too much that was blog-worthy. Wandered around, saw some of the same sites I’ve posted on here before, and just basically killed jetlag. Lots of great coffee shops, tons of walking, and just overall relaxing…and being on vacation!

Second day, I was ready to do some serious urban walking, so after breakfast caught the bus for a rather long ride up north to the Spit Bridge to begin the Spit to Manly walk. Apparently, there’s a funeral shop just for white ladies…

The Spit Bridge, where the hike starts:

Fishing near the bridge. He was rather bundled up, and it was a bit chilly near the water, maybe 15C, but walking at a brisk pace I was nice and warm.

Lots of boats out today near the bridge:

Next to Vancouver, I can’t think of any city that has as many amazing ocean views as Sydney does.

In several parts, the walk was rather high up on the cliffs, but there were options to descend down to sandy coves for some amazing views:

At once point, there was a site where several aboriginal rock carvings had been found. This fish seemed almost too real to have survived years of weather:

How can you not love a view like this? The waves were really crashing today.

As you got closer to Manly, the trail was actually walking in the sand on the beach at several places. However, during high tide apparently, some parts of the trail aren’t passable and you have to go a few blocks inland and use city streets.

…and in other parts, it was just a nice trail through the woods.

Part of the walk that went along the water (Forty Baskets Beach) that may not be passable at high tide. I can see why based on how high the water already was:

Lots more boats. It seriously seemed like half the city must own a boat there were so many out.

Nearly Manly. Are there seriously Penguins this far north in Australia?!

After finishing the nice long few hour walk, decided to reward myself with a couple of beers and a sausage roll at 4 Pines Brewing Company. It was a weekend, and the place was absolutely packed with locals having lunch and pints.

Some other highlights from the first couple of days include one of many perfect flat whites…

…a pizza with crocodile, kangaroo, and emu at the Australian Heritage Hotel: (which, btw, has an amazing list of beers on draught, and dozens more in bottles.)

…and who needs Starbucks when you have perfect flatwhites at local independent coffee shops everywhere you look, and grumpy donuts to eat!

With that, the first two days in Sydney were done, one fantastic walk down and at least one more to go…along with a lot more relaxing, seeing friends, and just generally having a real vacation!

Sep 142017
 

After landing in Cape Town, I realized that on all of my previous trips I had had someone else in charge of the planning (be it family, work, etc) so I’d never really had to think how I would get to where I was going. No problem, pulled up Uber, directions to the meeting point were very clear, and had a great drive to my hotel with a very friendly driver from Zimbabwe. We had a great chat about how Harare has changed over the past decade or so, and like many Uber rides all over the world it was a great insight into immigrants working hard to make a living in a new country.

Arrived at my usual hotel in Cape Town – the Westin – and was upgraded to a junior suite which was a bit less impressive than previous stays. It was more than fine for one night, but it had been barely a year since my last stay at this property and I was surprised at the complete turnover in staff. My last stay I had booked several hundred room nights for an event, and gotten to know the staff quite well, so was surprised in this short time that everything had completely changed.

Unfortunately, that also included the stunning Executive Lounge with views of Table Mountain. The lounge was closed for renovations, and there were very vague instructions from the reception about alternate arrangements. Unfortunate, as my last stay at this property had made it one of my very favourite SPGs in the world, and now it was decidedly average. Nothing at all wrong, but just didn’t stand out.

After a super quick nap (still tired from the redeye from Brazil) my pre-arranged driver and guide picked me up for a guided hike up Lion’s Head Peak. I was lucky today, as there was absolutely nobody else on the tour, so it would be a solo hike with just me and the guide. My guide today was Nathan from Hike Lion’s Head – who was a fantastic guide the whole way.

Given the accident I had had with the car just two days prior in Argentina, I was taking things a bit slow, and given the rain and slippery rocks I wasn’t keep to be moving too fast. After heading up the peak a bit, we stopped for a gorgeous view over Camp’s Bay:

Looking up at the peak of Lion’s Head:

Towards the water as the sun set:

Amazing sunset views of Table Mountain, with the “tablecloth” of clouds covering the top:

We spent a couple hours on the hike, and Nathan was a fantastic guide – especially one on one. Sure, you could definitely do this hike on your own, but given the pricing it was great not to have to worry about transfers and to get a local perspective. Especially after sleeping on a plane the night before and doing the hike jetlagged and a slight bit injured. Highly recommend Nathan to anyone else looking for a hike up either Lion’s Head or Table Mountain!

As we arrived back at the car, a great view of Cape Town just after sunset:

Since I wasn’t interested in a tea or anything before the hike, Nathan insisted we stop at a local restaurant for what he promised was an amazing white hot chocolate. Unfortunately they were out this evening, but the regular hot chocolate was also amazing, and hit the spot after a great chilly hike in light rain.

After getting back to the hotel and showering up, I grabbed the complimentary Westin shuttle to the V&A waterfront to get some dinner. I felt like I needed some serious protein, so headed to the City Grill for some game for dinner. Of course I went with the giant grilled mixed venison skewer…

I apologize in advance for the damage I did to Noah’s Ark….but it was delicious!

I still wasn’t tired, thanks to it only being like 6pm in Brazil, so decided to check out what the local craft beer scene had been up to in the year since I was last in Cape Town. At Nathan’s recommendation I took an Uber to Beerhouse, which had an amazing selection of South African craft beer on tap. I seriously had no idea there were so many craft beers even coming out of South Africa yet!

Of course I had to have the 12 O’Clock wheel of samples…

After sleeping in a bit the next morning, I grabbed an Uber up to Truth Coffee for breakfast. Unfortunately, the nitro potion coffee machine wasn’t working today…

So, I had to settle for the regular cold brew potion coffee. I love the old-fashioned grinders:

A bit of delicious Eggs Benedict to go with the bottle of potion coffee:

Full of a delicious breakfast – and a couple of potion coffees – I decided a walk was in order so walked over to the Bo Kaap neighbourhood to enjoy the bright houses. With the bright blue sky after a light rain, it was a perfect contrast for some photos today:

Got back to the Westin just in time to check out after a long walk, and grabbed another Uber to the airport. Uber was fantastic in Cape Town, and I can’t wait to get back for a much longer visit again soon.

Check in was easy, but for some reason every flight to Johannesburg seemed to be running super late this afternoon. There was no explanation for it, but fortunately my flight seemed to be one of the least delayed. After a quick security experience, it was up to the South African lounge to wait out the delay.

Strangest combination of lounge food offerings anywhere in the world. Marshmallows, blue cheese, pumpkin, feta, and olives. That said, it was quite a tasty snack.

As I was waiting, I was my plane eventually taxi by, so it was time to head down to the gate to board, fortunately only about an hour late.

I’m not sure why, but every time I’ve taken an afternoon Cape Town to Johannesburg flight it’s been filled with loud Americans complaining about everything in South Africa. I know this flight connects to many of SAA’s flights to the US, but it always seems there’s next to no local traffic. Today, we were also joined by at least a dozen people in business class connecting on Delta to Atlanta, who were complaining that South African would be responsible for them missing their flight to Atlanta. Sigh.

South African Airways flight 346
Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 17:05, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXD, Manufactured 2005, Seat 16G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 81,903
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,458,880

Flight was completely full due to the delays, and a sandwich was offered as a snack. I decided the veg option was safer than mystery meat, and it was a cheese pita which was actually relatively tasty:

Landed in Jo’Burg around 630pm, and rather than deal with the Gautrain I decided to see how Uber would do to the hotel. Once again, pickup was super quick, reasonably priced, and a great option. Arrived at my hotel – the Hyatt Rosebank – barely 30 minutes later just in time to check in and enjoy the tail end of happy hour in the executive lounge.

Nearly 20 years ago on my first visit to Africa this was the hotel that I stayed at, and over the years so much has changed but some has also stayed the same. The hotel doesn’t seem to hold the glamour of 20 years ago, but I’m not sure how much of that is me as a jaded traveler now and how much of it is the property simply being much older.

That said, the executive lounge is still quite nice, but I’m not sure it’s worth the value for the money any longer unless it’s a complimentary benefit.

Why is that? Well to me the value is in the happy hour (which there’s a 50-50 chance I will miss anyways) and the breakfast. Unless the lounge breakfast is absolutely stunning, I’m usually going to skip it when there’s a relatively new Starbucks right around the corner from the hotel. The first in South Africa. Justin….close enough!

The Starbucks made for fascinating people watching. I’ve been to Starbucks now in probably 30-40 different countries at a minimum, and there was something about this one that still felt much more local and unique. It was an interesting mix of young professionals, students, but surprisingly almost no tourists at all. You can go anywhere in the world and find Starbucks full of American tourists, so it was a bit surprising to see none at all here. Then again, there really aren’t many (if any) tourists in Johannesburg anyways!

Had a bit of time in the morning, so caught the Gautrain over to Sandton for a bit of walking through Mandela Square:

Mandela Square…one of these things is not like the other…

Caught the Gautrain back to the hotel, where I grabbed lunch with a friend before packing up and heading to the airport. It had been a very short two days in South Africa, but given my year away I was really craving the time back. I really need to make a point to get back for a couple of weeks sooner rather than later!

Now, it was back to the airport to get read for my first south Indian Ocean crossing…to Australia!

Jul 092017
 

After enjoying our Starbucks at Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport it was off to the gate for our flight to the Azores. There was a great rooftop cafe where you could watch the planes taking off – which was quite fun on the narrow runway. Do a search on wikipedia for the Funchal airport – it’s considered one of the most difficult landings in the world.

I briefly stopped to check out the SATA lounge which was partnered with priority pass, but while it had a few serve yourself drinks and cookies, that was about it. I had a quick cookie and a Diet Coke before heading back out to join Ian – I would have been better off getting a custard tart from the cafe with the good view!

The gate area was rather packed considering it was a turboprop flight only holding about 70 people, but it looked like most of them were connecting in Ponta Delgada to flights to the US and Canada. Seemed like such a strange place for a connection, but I would be taking that flight myself in a few days.

SATA flight 161
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC) to Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time: 2:05
De Havilland Q400, Registration CS-TRG, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,410
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,440,387

Quick taxi and takeoff, and despite the flight time under two hours we were serve a box snack with a sandwich and some cookies. Take note: I actually not only ate the sandwich this time, but it was tasty and I didn’t get sick!

Nothing else really to say about the flight. It was full, but on time and comfortable enough – about all you can ask for on a short route like this.

Our rental car was a bit strange here, as the agency met us in the arrivals hall, and dropped off the car for us. They told us which spaces to park it in when we returned. It seems the agencies don’t have big lots at this airport, so they just bring the cars in as needed. You actually sit down with the agent in the arrivals hall and fill up the contract while sitting there.

Drive to our hotel was pretty short, but the strange thing is that we couldn’t really figure out where we were supposed to park. Street metered spots we found out were free on weekends, so we would be fine until 7a on our day of departure. We were staying at the Hotel Talisman, and check in was pretty quick and we were on our way to our rooms. Not too much to say about the hotel. Initial impressions were that it was a bit odd in that the rooms had no desk, but the AC was freezing cold and the bed seemed comfortable, so overall I was pretty happy with it on first impression.

It was mid-afternoon at this point, and we decided to go for a short walk around the downtown area and just get a feel for the city the first day. The next full day would be for driving around the island of São Miguel and actually seeing things.

First stop near our hotel was the Church of Sebastian:

As we walked along the coast, lots of locals were out sunning themselves on the concrete “beach.” Did I mention the temp was only about 18C/65F? Maybe that’s warm in Ponta Delgada or something?

Posing for a photo near the water:

The city gates, right by the Church of St. Sebastian:

Huge old tree in the courtyard outside the church of Sao Jose. Does anyone know what kind of a tree this is? It was so big that it actually had support beams holding up several of its limbs:

Not too sure about this statue outside the military museum….

We headed to the Taberna Açor Restaurant for dinner, and didn’t have a reservation, so they didn’t think they would be able to seat us. We asked if we could wait, and after about 45 minutes they did find a table for us. Incidentally, we tried to come back the next night and there was absolutely no way we would get a table. Reservations are essential here.

The wait turned out to be a good thing, as a small local wine producer was tasting his wares outside the restaurant. He had a small winery on the Ilha do Pico, and the wine was actually quite reasonable. It was good enough that we actually ordered a bottle when we got back to the hotel after dinner.

Speaking of dinner, the amazing local sausages and cheese plate. Super tasty with local honey and condiments. It was huge, and more than enough to make a dinner for two people.

Next morning we were up to enjoy what TripAdvisor reviews described as the incredibly generous breakfast buffet at the Hotel Talisman. It was ok, but honestly nothing super impressive. The usual fare, but what struck me were the people going back for plate after plate. I got the sense this was a bit of a group tour budget destination, and people were stocking up on the free food to keep costs under control.

We headed out in the car, and finally we figured out where all the people were hiding. See, other than the restaurant, the whole island felt eerily quiet. No people anywhere. All the stores were “fechado” – closed. It just seemed weird and empty. But the Sete Cidades “twin lakes” had tonnes of cars parked at it and lots of tourists.

The name of the lake is actually a misnomer, because it’s really one lake with a road that divides it into parts. The different colours are because of different depths, so when the sun hits it it reflects are green on one half and blue in the other:

There was an old abandoned five star hotel next to the lakes, which was a great vantage point for taking pictures of the lakes from a higher perspective. Apparently the hotel opened about 25 years ago, and was in business for less than a year before closing. Seems it was just close enough to the city that nobody wanted to stay out there and be isolated, so it didn’t have enough business to keep going. They kept guards around for a couple of years, hoping to reopen it, but even that was given up on. The place was complete abandoned and looted now.

Except for Pokemon:

We only saw the one above, but the walls made sure to let us know we should be on the lookout for more:

View from the roof of the abandoned hotel:

From the top floor, looking down into the atrium lobby:

Couldn’t get enough of the view from the roof:

King of the Sete Cidades!

Standing in a heap of rubbish in the atrium of the hotel, looking up:

The lifts had long since been looted, and decaying concrete towers were all that remained:

We kept driving across the lakes to the northern part of the island and the Ponta da Costa vantage point. I’ll admit I planned most of our stops based on where google maps indicated there seemed to be vantage points, and this one was pretty awesome. View from the top of the long winding path down to the ocean:

We walked about halfway down, and this was the view looking west across the northern part of the island:

Just me and the North Atlantic Ocean:

After driving a bit more we stopped in the town of Ribeira Grande for lunch. We chose the Restaurante O Silva which was said to be very popular with locals, and was packed with families having a sunday lunch together. I don’t remember what kind of fish I ordered, but it was absolutely delicious:

We headed back inland after lunch to stop at the Caldeira Velha – which actually turned out to be hot springs. There was a nominal fee to go into the park, and it seemed the thing to do was to bring your bathing suits and sit in the various hot springs and relax. This one had such a high mineral content it was an orange colour…and so hot that it was actually boiling in places:

We drove on to the next Miradouro (I told you that word would keep coming back over and over on this trip) – the Miradouro do Lagoa do Fogo – the lake of fire. Another great view:

Climbed halfway up the steep path overlooking the lake. We were pretty high up on the island at this point, and there was a light mist we were so close to the clouds:

View from up high:

I should note there was also a cycling race going on on the island, and despite them reaching impressive speeds of over 40 kph most of the time, we found ourselves in a line of cars behind the racers at several points which had slowed us down. We were making good time, however, so weren’t too concerned about making it all the way around the island.

As we worked our way around to the eastern side of the island, I found a lighthouse on google maps which looked neat to see. Nobody else was parked there, but we decided to see it. I found it strange that it was a lighthouse, yet we were very high up on a cliff at this point, but still had to park at the top. Where could the lighthouse be?

This sign should have been a warning. Walk down to the lighthouse, don’t drive….35% incline down…

Yup, it was a pretty steep road…we did see one or two locals in pickup trucks doing it, but they clearly knew how to drive this road from experience:

We were rewarded with great views:

Finally, at the bottom, we were rewarded with the lighthouse:

Starting back up the 35% incline, I instantly regretted coming down to see it:

Walking almost straight uphill:

Amazing views.

Back to Ponta Delgada, parked the car, and as it was almost 8pm at this point we headed back to the same restaurant to have dinner. No luck tonight as I mentioned above, and almost everything else was, yes, closed:

It was odd. The only place in the city you saw people were at restaurants, otherwise the streets felt absolutely empty. Pretty much every restaurant, however, was either closed or packed full on a Monday night. It was the strangest thing. We eventually ate at the Calçada do Cais around the corner. Despite being out of several things on their menu it was a reasonably tasty dinner al fresco, which was perfect for the last night of the trip.

It would be up relatively early the next morning to start the trek home, and to enjoy a new aircraft type I had never flown before!

Mar 022017
 

This one is going to get a little long. Yes, it’s only two days in Australia, but there’s just that much to see and enjoy that I can’t do it justice without at least a few dozen pictures.

Australian immigration is super easy now that ePassports can be scanned at the gate and you don’t have to deal with an immigration officer. Through the gates, straight to customs, and hand my slip to the customs agent. After asking how long I was here for, and hearing three days, he asked why so far for three days. Told him it’s been a rough few months at work, so decided to take a bit of a trip around the world to get away from all the drama in Washington DC lately. His response was so typically Australian: “yeah, that President’s a bit of a wanker, isn’t he?” Perfect welcome to Australia!

On to the Airport Express Train and off to my hotel – the Westin Sydney. I’ve always stayed at the Four Points Darling Harbour before, but it’s in the process of rebranding so it was time to check out a new part of the city. I’m very glad I did, because although it wasn’t on the water I was very happy with my stay here. Yes, I had the perfect storm of problems with my room (bad air conditioning, a door lock that froze in the locked position and needed a manual key to open, etc, etc, etc) but major kudos to hotel management for doing their best to make things right in the end. Suffice to say, for a stay with so many problems, I will definitely be giving them another chance.

Check in, quick shower after sleeping on a plane, and given it was already mid-afternoon it was time for a walk. Strolled down to The Rocks, and on the way stopped at a small pub I like for a couple of beers and an emu, crocodile, and kangaroo pizza. Lunch al fresco, ahhh….

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Got down to the waterfront just in time, while it was still full daylight, and enjoyed playing tourist a bit. The Harbour Bridge:

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Sydney Opera House just as the sun was beginning to set:

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Bridge selfie:

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Harbour panorama:

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Opera House just before dusk:

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Late afternoon Harbour Bridge:

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I definitely stayed around the water for a couple hours just walking around and people watching. Even after having been to every country there’s something I really enjoy about going to the World’s great cities and just tourist/people watching. It’s amazing to see people who are still excited about the vacation of a life time, and watching the joy as they discover new places.

Opera House just after sunset:

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The next morning, I ended up sleeping in a bit later than planned (thanks jetlag and finally catching up – I think this was my first full night of sleep since I left DC) so by the time I headed out it was just afternoon and already approaching 40C / 105F. I was convinced it would be cooler by the water, so decided to head out on my planned excursion regardless.

My friend Ryan had suggested heading to Coogee Beach to do what is known as the Bondi to Coogee Walk. He suggested, however, doing it in the reverse direction, because finishing the walk in Bondi has great views and drops you in a much more happening area where you can celebrate and enjoy a long walk better. Bit of googling seemed to agree with this, and a couple pages suggested actually starting the walk even further down the coast in the the town of Maroubra.

Only problem was – how do I get there? Those of us over 35 remember when traveling meant maps, guide books, etc, but now things are easy. You tell google maps where you are, you tell it where you want to go, and it gives you bus directions. It works like a charm. I had already purchased a local transit card and loaded fare onto it, so it was an easy matter of finding the bus stop, waiting for the bus, tapping on, and getting off and tapping the card in the right place. Couldn’t be easier!

Even the busses in Sydney are sports-crazed:

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Near the bus stop in Maroubra, getting read to head down the South Coogee Stairs towards the water:

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After about 15 minutes of walking Coogee Beach appeared:

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Fantastic view of the water against the beach:

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After Coogee Beach I had to stop. I was already baking 30 minutes into the walk, and severe sunburn was imminent. Fortunately every little corner store sells 100 types of sunblock, so after stopping for a can of spray-on SPF 50, water, and red bull, I was back on my way. A short while later, I rounded the corner again to Gordons Bay:

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Looking back towards Coogee:

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Next up was Clovelly Beach, with an ocean pool. Didn’t get pics of the pool, but did manage a selfie up against the small inlet:

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After walking around Shark Point, with some serious elevation gain and fall, I came upon Waverley Cemetery. The main walk along the water had been washed out in storms the pervious summer, so a detour straight through the cemetery and a bit inland was in order.

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Path right through the cemetery:

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Gravestones with Ocean backdrop:

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Rounding the next corner after the cemetery brought me to Bronte Beach. Time to stop for a bit, reapply sunblock, before continuing on my way.

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Local kids contemplating some cliff diving:

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Tamarama Beach – the last beach before Bondi, and the fourth beach I’d passed on the walk already:

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Rounding Tamarama Beach to Mackenzies Point:

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Coming around the bend, Bondi Beach was in sight:

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Rock overhangs on Mackenzies Point:

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Bondi Beach:

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Great view of Bondi:

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By this point I was starving, and found a great little Italian place for a late lunch/early dinner thanks to Tripadvisor. Highly recommend checking out Bondi Trattoria if you’re in the area.  Burrata, figs, and balsamic. Outstanding.

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Angel hair pasta, raw tuna, and chili oil. Again, outstanding, and makes me wonder why such simple, fresh dishes are so hard to find in the US:

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After stuffing myself post-walk, headed back to Bondi and sat down on the hill overlooking the beach to watch the sun go down:

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Sunset:

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Found a fun little Star Wars-themed bar near my hotel when I got back, which had several great local NSW craft beers and was a fun way to close out the evening. All the walking had tired me out, and it was a relatively early night. I had nearly a full day the next day, but wanted to be sure I could get up at a reasonable hour and make the most of it.

Despite that, slept in a bit longer than I wanted, so hurried back towards the water to catch the ferry to Manly. Great view of the Harbour Bridge heading out:

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After docking in Manly, a quick shot of the beach. It was a gorgeous, although slightly hot, morning:

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Manly’s fierce and fearless avian inhabitants:

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Still wasn’t really hungry, but decided to stop by the 4 Pines Brewing Company to sample their beers. Definitely a great selection!

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The clouds were starting to gather, so I rushed back to the ferry to head back to Sydney and get my bags before the weather looked too bad.  Of course, a quick stop at Starbucks first to re-caffeinate for the long night ahead. About five minutes into the ferry ride the clouds started looking ominous, so I went to the railing and put the camera on rapid fire mode, hoping that I would catch something exciting. Just a few minutes out from Sydney, I got this amazing shot! Perfect way to end the trip!

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Had to wait about 30 minutes at the pier for the super torrential rains to let up, and grabbed another crocodile pizza on the way back to the hotel and then it was time to check out and catch the train back to the airport. It had been an amazing few days in Sydney, and I can’t wait to go back.

But first, the Qatar A380 in first class to Doha…

Feb 092015
 

Woke up way too early just after 6am, and met my friend from DC for breakfast before getting ready to head out on my tour. Driver picked me up as planned at 7:30 on the nose, and of course I got distracted catching up over breakfast so was running a little late. No worries, we headed out just before 8 to head to the east part of the island and find some lemurs! Traffic getting out of Tana was quite bad, and the joke the driver had was that it was the Lycée Français – not sure why this was so funny, but every time he encountered traffic that’s what he’d say. Pretty sure you can’t blame ALL the traffic on the French!

Soon we were clear of Tana, and winding our way over the hills/mountains towards Andisibe Park in the east of the island:

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Stop one was the Pereyras Reptiles Farm. After a short trek through the woods, we spotted our first lemurs, who came down from the trees…because we had bananas. Clever.

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Who wants a banana!

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After playing with the lemurs and taking pics, we headed to the chameleon enclosure. It was a bit too zoo-like for my tastes, but at least it guaranteed we’d get to see them since the chameleons can be really hard to spot in the wild. First up, a Parson’s Chameleon:

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…and a tomato frog…gee, I wonder how it got that name!

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BATS!

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I’d had enough of the zoo at this point, so it was back in the car to drive a bit further. We stopped at the edge of the park to get lunch, since it was already after 1pm at this point. Zebu in madagascar green curry…it was pretty tasty…especially the onions! …not to mention cheap. The entire meal with a beer was hardly $8.

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After lunch we kept driving, and our next stop was the Vakona Forest Lodge, where I’d be spending the night. Lanai to my hut:

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It was pretty basic inside, but much better than I’d expected. There was no AC, but the temperatures outside were reasonable enough that it wasn’t needed. The big downside, however, was the 99% humidity in the park. Everything was instantly damp, but hey, that’s what you get when you come to the rainforest! It had warm water on demand, was very comfortable, and all in all, for being in the middle of a tropical rainforest was all-around excellent!

The lodge has it’s own private island, which serves as a refuge for lemurs which had either been in captivity previously, or were in endangered areas. (ie, logging companies were destroying their land, etc.) Got in a small boat to cross the moat onto the island (literally 20 meters across), and I hadn’t been out of the boat for two seconds before this happened. This little brown lemur leapt right at me and jumped on my head. No warning at all, lol, I can see how this wouldn’t go over too well with some people…

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5 seconds later, he was joined by this guy:

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Apparently, they thought I was a tree.

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Lemur kisses!

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What are YOU looking at!

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After managing to pry the lemurs off me we got back in the boat to go down the moat a bit and look for more species. Next up was the golden sifooka:

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…and finally, the ringtailed lemur:

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Right after the ringtails, a torrential downpour started, and we paddled back to the car as quickly as possible, but still got soaked. That’s what happens in the rainforest I guess!

After relaxing at the lodge for a couple of hours, using the wifi in the main lodge, and having a couple espressos, it was time to head out on the night walk. We saw the two smallest species of lemurs – the mouse lemur and the dwarf lemur, but unfortunately they were too far away (and it was too dark) to really get pictures of them. We did get a few cool frog pictures, however:

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After walking in the dark for about 90 minutes I was exhausted, and had had enough, so it was back to the lodge for dinner. More Zebu stew and wild forest mushrooms. Every time I had Zebu, I kept thinking back to that old Simpsons episode where Lisa is trying to teach Maggie the alphabet, and Z is for Zebu…see Maggie? Zebu? With a hump and a doolap. Dooooolap.

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Slept reasonably well, although it felt like sleeping in a swamp the humidity was so high. Up early, decent breakfast provided by the lodge including eggs, bread, and fruit, and then it was off to the National Park to go lemur spotting. Our goal this morning was to see the Indri Indri which was the largest species. About an hour in, we’d seen a few more common brown lemurs and a couple of bamboo lemurs (so named because they eat bamboo) but no Indri Indri. We did, however, see a massive snail:

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…and another Parson’s Chameleon up close and in nature!

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…and this frog!

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After nearly four hours of walking, and consulting with other guides we ran into, we still hadn’t seen any Indri Indri. My guide (a local guide, not the one from my tour company) was growing visibly frustrated, and kept wandering into the forest for 30 minutes at a time looking for them and leaving us behind to stand around. It was pretty frustrating. I told him several times it really wasn’t that important we find them, but he refused to give up. Finally, he was really frustrated, and got out his cell phone and started calling around to all the other local guides.

A friend of his had spotted some Indri Indri at another Park about 10 minutes drive away, so he rushed us out of the National Park, into the car, and off we drove to another park. Another 15 minute or so hike into this park, and finally, there it was….way up in the trees. I needed the binoculars to get a good look at it, but he seemed happy since we could at least tick the box that we’d seen it and he could do his job. It was really cool, but probably not worth all the stress.

At this point it was after noon, so we piled back in the car to begin the drive to Tana. We weren’t hungry when we reached the restaurant we’d eaten at the day before, so I agreed we’d stop at a “clean local restaurant” which was really the only other option on the way back to Tana. I ended up having “steak” which was actually pretty good grilled in some sort of a sweet sauce with a side of fries for a whopping $4. Including a large bottle of water. Hah!

View on the drive back to Tana:

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Pretty bad traffic, and finally made it back to the hotel around 6pm. I rested up a bit, and it was pouring rain outside by this point, so decided to just have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, since it looked like it had a decent menu. Tasty fois gras starter:

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Grilled fish with blue cheese sauce and veg:

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Moëlleux au Chocolate with ice cream:

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Three courses and two beers? Yes, $21. I think Madagascar is by far the best value for food and lodging of anywhere I’ve ever visited. Every meal was under $25 and high quality, lodging was under $100 a night for solid three star standard, and everything was clean, comfortable, and most importantly all the employees seemed happy and well-provided for.

By this point I was seriously about ready to pass out having been up since 5:30, and crashed early, since we had one more morning tour before flying out.

Feb 232014
 

One problem I was having when booking this trip was the price of rental cars. They were absolutely outrageous, coming in at well over $100 a day for a compact car. Ugh, and that was on the cheapest sites. I spent some time on google, and eventually came across Discount Hawaii Car Rental dot com. Checked their rates…and it seemed too good to be true…plus they weren’t even asking for a credit card to confirm it!  I booked, they told me it had been booked with Alamo, and I checked Alamo’s website…and it was there.  Wow.

Fast forward to Kona, and I get to Alamo to pick up the car.  As promised, it was a two door jeep, and the price was as promised as well.  Wow…score another win for teh interwebz!

Short 20ish minute drive, and we were at our hotel, the Kona Sheraton.  Parking was an absolute bear, with no spots at all in the lot.  Eventually I just gave up and gave the car to the valet…which turned out to be good, because when I checked in it turned out valet was complimentary for Starwood Platinum members.  Something they should probably alert you about in advance maybe?

There was good news, however.  We’d been upgraded to an “Ohana Suite” which was an amazing room with an oceanfront view.  Found out one other disappointing thing at check-in:  it was 9:15pm and all the hotel restaurants were already closed.  Seriously, I know it’s a resort and it’s Hawaii, but no food after 9pm?!  We ended up ordering room service (which delivered only until 10) and had two outrageously priced burgers and beers for like $60.  At least they were quite tasty.

Then, it was time to brush the teeth…or so we thought.  Turned on the faucets…and a stream of brown water came out for like 30 seconds.  What is this, Sochi?  I know well enough to avoid “dangerous face water” but it was running clear after a minute, so figured it was at least good enough to shower in.  Called the front desk, they apologized profusely, and sent up several bottles of water for drinking…and then we passed out.

Woke up reasonably early, maybe 8a and the view outside the room of the pools was amazing:

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The hotel had a great little coffee shop/stand, and we grabbed some great kona coffee and small snacks for breakfast.  This is something I wish more hotels had:  a local coffeeshop with great food and drinks so you don’t have to have a giant breakfast in the morning.

The pool looked awesome out our room, so we opted to spend the rest of the morning being completely lazy and sitting by the pool until check-out time.  It was fantastically relaxing and just what I needed to start the trip off.  Yes, I said check-out.  We were in Kona for three nights, but ended up booking each night at a different hotel.  When I booked, the Sheraton was only available the first and last nights, and the King Kam Courtyard was only available the middle night.  Odd, but at least I’d get two Starwood stay credits!

We checked out at exactly noon, and drove to the King Kamehameha Hotel to check in.  It’s right in the middle of the city, and I’d stayed there many times 15+ years ago when I used to go to Kona each fall to volunteer at the Ironman.  The hotel was in much rougher shape than I remembered, but maybe that was partly to do with the lack of the festive atmosphere I remember from Ironman…who knows.  They did give me a free box of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, however, for being a Marriott Gold Member.  Heh. The hotel was so-so and really musty smelling, and I don’t know…I just had really good memories of it and it was a bit of a let down.

Walked to lunch at the Kona Brewing Company, about a 10 minute walk from the hotel:

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Very tasty Cuban sandwich with Kailua Pork, and even tastier samplers:

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Mar 212013
 

By the time we’d grabbed a small snack, the drizzle had turned into a steady light rain…not a good sign for our afternoon at Machu Picchu.  Let me back up here and talk about tickets a bit.  You can in theory buy tickets from the government website, but when we went the website’s payment portal was down for two straight week so we had no way to get them in advance except through our hotel.  The hotel arranged them for us by credit card, and we were able to pick them up along with bus tickets when we checked in.  There was approximately a $10-15 surcharge per ticket for this service, but it definitely beat being caught out in the rain with no ticket when we’d gone that far!

We took the bus up the very very windy road to the top of Machu Picchu, and the steady rain continued.  It was actually pretty miserable, but we did manage to walk around for about 45 minutes until the rain let up a bit.  A few views from the very top of the site, looking down over the valley:

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May 312012
 

Up early to check out of the hotel to drive back to the town of Paro for our big day hike to Taktsang Monestary. The monastery is at approximately 3,100 metres above sea level, and the hike up starts somewhere around 2,200 metres so it’s a pretty steep hike! We drove the one hour from the hotel in Thimphu pretty quickly, and soon were at the base of the hill to begin our hike.

It was approximately a 2.5 hour hike pretty much straight uphill, with a stop at the canteen halfway to buy water, etc, and take a brief rest. A few pics from the hike up:

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