May 072017

Was nice to sleep in a bit (seriously, what kind of hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 830? that’s kinda awesome) and headed down to meet Ian at breakfast. Only choice offered was coffee or tea, and then breakfast started arriving, one piece at a time. First came porridge, then bread, then a special easter roll, then eggs, then a meat/cheese plate, it was absolutely insane – tried to eat as much as possible not to offend, but it was crazy. Fortunately, they insisted we take the Easter rolls to go, haha. Did I mention how great service was at this hotel?


We hadn’t booked our driver until 11am, just in case we really needed the sleep, so had a bit of time to walk around in the morning first. First stop was the Ministry of Repatriation to try and get the visa, but nope, we did find a security guard outside who told us they were still closed for Easter – try back tomorrow. Hopefully we could get the visa on the way out of town!

Still had some time, so decided to stop for some “real” coffee at the place we went the day before that made decent ice lattes. On the way, we walked by the somewhat odd “Monument to the Victims of Political Repression.” Looked like a rock with some barbed wire around it…but who am I to judge “art”…


After coffee, our driver picked us up. There was a new receptionist at the front desk of the hotel today, but the one from the previous day had clearly filled her in. She spoke excellent English as well, and apologized for not only the visa office not being open, but also for the fact our driver did not speak a word of English. No problem at all – free Russian lessons on top of being a driver!

We told him the things we wanted to see, and we were off. First stop was in the town of New Athos (Novij Afon) where the big attraction is the giant cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s in an enclosed courtyard, which makes getting a good picture of the entire thing a little difficult:


One of the smaller towers around the courtyard:


Back when I was taking Russian lessons, there were those words in the textbook you never knew you’d have a use for. Like “female crane operator” or “old lady.” Well, this nice old lady was soliciting money outside the monastery, so I had to wish her “good morning, old lady!” She just smiled a (mostly toothless) grin back at me.


The monastery was located up on a hill overlooking the town and Black Sea:


Panoramic of the area:


Cat on a hot monastery ledge:


The other big sight in town is a really deep cave complex, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays in the “off season” so we wouldn’t be able to see that. Our driver suggested we go see a waterfall instead:


Soviet era hydropower station on the waterfall:


Nice lake at the top of the waterfall:


Water rushing down from above:


I am king of the waterfall!


After the waterfall, our driver said we also had to go see a nice park nearby. Definitely a nice, calm place that you could sit for hours and read a book on a nice day like today:


…and there were ostriches in the park. Naturally, lol


We got in the car/van, and had driven no more than a minute from the park when we spotted a guy walking with a bear down the road. No leash, just a guy out walking his bear. Because…Abkhazia. We asked the driver to stop, and we asked the guy if we might take a picture of the bear. Fully expected him to ask for money, but nope, he was just happy to let people see his bear. Look at those claws!


We asked, and he informed us the bear’s name was Masha. Hi Masha! “Masha and the Bear” was also the name of a popular kid’s tv program in Russia.


Masha loved having her tummy rubbed too:


She also took quite a liking to Ian. This was definitely one of the most random travel encounters I’ve ever had. You know, just a guy out walking his bear down the street in the afternoon. We asked him what he would do when she gets bigger, and his response was “oh, I already have a bigger one at home.” Of course you do. Abkhazia.


We continued the drive north to Gagra, which was up near the border with Russia. Our driver knew an overlook point on the city, so up, up we went for a panoramic view:


The “beach” in Gagra. Not very appealing, but supposedly packed with Russian tourists in the summer:


Right next to the beach was the Al Capone Pasta, Sushi, and Pizza restaurant. Uhhh, ok. We were getting hungry at this point, TripAdvisor said it was good, so we had to check it out.


We ordered, and then the waitress brought over some props. “You have to take a picture with the hat and guns!” Of course we do. Because…Abkhazia. So incredibly random. Let’s just assume they weren’t loaded…ok?


After a tasty lunch, we headed out on the drive to the final part of the day, the Lake Ritsa park up in the mountains. On the way, there was an “I love Abkhazia” bridge for the obligatory photo op. It was maybe 65 degrees at this point as we headed up into the mountains:


Finally we made it up to Lake Ritsa, and were rewarded with fantastic views:


Lots of snow on the mountains. Stalin also had his summer dacha on this lake, but unfortunately it was also not open to visitors in the off-season. It was much colder up by the lake, maybe 50 degrees or so.


The lake from one of the empty cafes overlooking it. You could tell that this place is really popular in the summer, but in the winter there was nobody around, despite the amazing views with the snow-capped mountains:


Obligatory photo op in front of the lake and mountains:


One more shot of the lake with the hills and mountains in the background. Notice the little bit of snow still on the ground:


It was late afternoon at this point, and time to begin the drive back to Sukhumi. It was about a two hour drive back, and we made it back in time to have a relaxing evening. We wanted to make sure that we got to the restaurant from the night before with enough time to have a proper meal and still call it an early night.

I had submitted a booking request with again, and they had confirmed, so it was good to know that our driver would be ready the next morning at 9am right after breakfast to take us back to Sochi and to the airport in time for our flight. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind a 15 minute stop by the visa office on the way so we could get the visa, and hopefully they would be open on time!

Dinner was super tasty with khatchapuri again (only this time, the smaller version) and some beef stroganoff which was rather tasty. The main street was much more happening this evening, with lots of families out strolling around, and the restaurant was packed with people having dinner.

Early to bed after a couple of drinks at the hotel’s nice outdoor patio bar, and ready for the drive back to Sochi.

Sep 262016

After lunch it was back into the SuperJeeps, and off to explore more. Next stop was the Langjokull Glacier, but first, our drivers took great pleasure in charging the jeeps across progressively deeper rivers:

Eventually, we made it to the edge of the glacier, where we stopped for a break before heading onto the worst road I’ve been on anywhere in the world. Africa included. This was some serious off-roading over volcanic rock to get to the glacier. A panoramic with the glacier up ahead on the horizon:


Heading up onto the glacier. The black is from the volcano which blew a few years back, spewing ash all over the glacier. This is actually a really bad thing because the black ash concentrates the sun, and melts the glacier at a faster pace:


Deep crevice in the glacier…many of these go down as much as 100 meters….and there’s no telling where they end up. Possibly in an underground lake under the glacier, from which there would be no way out. Talk about a horrifying way to die!


View across the edge of the glacier:


Standing by one of the ash piles against the bright blue sky:


View down the glacier towards the SuperJeeps:


Melt from the glacier headed down into one of the deep crevices….I keep being terrified the ground would give way and we would tumble down…

After the glacier, we headed off to the Gulfoss waterfall. This is one of the prime attractions on the golden circle, and it was absolutely packed with tourists. Hundreds of people, to the point it wasn’t possible to enjoy the natural beauty. This was really the one place in Iceland I felt the tourist crowds, and it was the one place I would avoid next time. That said, look at that view:


Video of the falls:



Selfie with Phil in front of Gullfoss:


On the way out of the falls, we were treated to not just a rainbow, but a double rainbow. Even nature decided to be a part of this big celebratory trip!


Rainbow selfie!


Amazingly, we were able to even see both ends of the rainbow:


Then, for our final stop, it was off to the Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is closely linked with the history of Iceland and is where the parliament of Iceland was first founded around the year 930. District assemblies were set up with a general assembly, the Alþing, which first convened at Þingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains with some participation by ordinary people. As the site of the first parliament in Iceland, it’s seen as the place where Iceland really became a country. Did I mention it was also gorgeous?


Panoramic shot after a 30 minute hike through the park:


When we got to the jeeps at the end of the hike, our driver and guide Omar was just chilling with the jeep:


One last group selfie from an amazing day on the Golden Circle and Glacier…with Omar chilling out on the left:


After we got back to the hotel, got this amazing handmade wall hanging from mom. The best gifts really are those that people you care about put thought and effort into:


Then, it was off to Kirsten’s Air BnB across the street, where it was time for drinks to celebrate being to every country. Celebratory Veuve with Dewon, Phil, Greg, and Clint:


…because Kirsten and I are classy like that:


Late dinner, and then back to the Foss for more awesome craft beers and craft cocktails with Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. Unfortunately, many people were leaving in the morning and lots of goodbyes were said. It was so amazing having so many people care enough to join me in Iceland for the final country, and was a real testament to the awesome people I have in my life! Off to bed, because there was still one more day in Iceland to enjoy…

Sep 232016

Up early the next morning to head out on our Golden Circle tour. When looking for tour companies to arrange the Golden Circle tour, I’ll be honest that I wasn’t totally sure what all the different options were. I know the Golden Circle has some of Iceland’s “must see” sights, and pretty much all the tours seemed the same. When Iceland Travel suggested the “SuperJeep Golden Circle Tour with Langjokull Glacier Add-On” the price was more than double the other options, but it promised a full day of fun place a chance to visit a glacier, so, I went with it. This was going to be our big splurge tour of the trip.

SuperJeep is a separate company, it turns out, and Iceland Travel merely did the booking for us. When they showed up to pick us up, I was thrilled. Each SuperJeep seated five of us comfortably, and we had five jeeps for the day. The drivers were absolutely hysterical, and had a radio system so they could chat between the jeeps all day. We headed out of Reykjavik, and soon we were already seriously off-road. One of the worst trails of they day, we were getting thrown around pretty seriously as we headed up the trail, but the SuperJeep was handling it like a champ. I was a bit nervous that once we got to the top a few people in the group might not have been really thrilled with the pretty serious off-roading. Fortunately, everyone loved it. Our driver, Omar, loved getting a bit crazy, and made no attempt at all to avoid rough spots of the trail!

Eventually we stopped, for a short hike up the rest of the hill for a vantage point over Reykjavik. I hung back to get a shot of the group hiking up the hill against the blue sky:


View from the top, looking down over Reykjavik:


First group shot of the day. I love how the bright colours stand out in contrast to the sky and ground!


We drove a bit longer, and stopped to take in another valley:


I love how this shot of Ted against the green hills turned out:


Picture with mom and my brother:


Part of the group enjoying the view:



Done admiring the view, we continued on and stopped by a lake. I love how this pic of Jen checking how cold the water is turned out:


The lake:


Next stop was at the Faxi waterfall. Most Golden Circle tours don’t do this, and there was almost nobody there. It was another huge plus of booking with SuperJeep that they kept adding stops that a big bus full of people wouldn’t have time for. Kirsten posing with the SuperJeep:


Faxi Waterfall:


Faxi waterfall selfie:


We walked the path down towards the falls, and got this shot from below:


Shot with John, Kirsten, and Ted by the Faxi waterfall:


There was a salmon ladder next to the falls, so we walked up the narrow sides of it. Love this shot of Kirsten on the way up:


Jen and Ingo taking a rest at the top of the falls, I love how the colours just jump out in this pic:


Getting read to leave Faxi, group pic in the SuperJeep:


Final stop before lunch was the Geysir hot springs area. Geysir is mostly dormant now, the the Strokkur geyser still regularly erupts every 5-10 minutes:


Srokkur erupting:



The great thing about the Geysir area is that all the tour busses stop here along the Golden Circle tour, so there’s a great rest stop with lots of restaurants in it and great places to grab lunch. We stopped for about 30 minutes at this point until our drivers started herding us back to the SuperJeeps. We still had much more to see in the afternoon and needed to get a jump on it! The afternoon of the SuperJeep tour in the next post…

Sep 212015

We were up early the next morning, and met up for breakfast. I went to the front desk to check on the status of our driver for the day, and they still hadn’t heard anything…but promised to let us know. No clue why it was so difficult! Went back 30 minutes later and it was confirmed. The price was lower than we expected, so it turned out to be all good in the end.

Unfortunately our driver spoke no English, so I got to chat with him and play translator. I felt semi-bad for Ian and Jordan, but he was a good driver so it worked out. He was happy to share his version of the recent troubles CAR has been going through, and his insights into how things are now. The one word he kept using over and over to describe the current situation was “calm.”

Turns out the reason for the delay is the hotel has one driver they use, and he was sleeping/unavailable when we originally made the request. When they finally got in touch with him, he was happy to take us and he decided the price he would charge. We were headed to the Chutes de Boali waterfalls, about a two hour drive out of town. The roads turned out to be pretty good for the most part, and I’d guess it was a roughly 120-150km drive each way through pretty typical African countryside with wide open spaces:


After about two hours of driving, we got to the turnoff point to the falls, where the road was gravel and quite a bit rougher:


Headed to the waterfalls:


When we got to the falls, we were swarmed with local kids insisting on playing guide. There was no way we were getting rid of them, and they only wanted a few dollars, so we decided to play along. It was worth it in the end because they were happy to show us around. First stop on the overlook, the falls were much bigger than I had expected!


Our driver turned out to be a pretty good photographer too!


Wide angle view of the falls:


The kids asked who wanted to go down to the base of the falls, and Ian and Jordan decided to go. I decided that with the semi-recent shoulder surgery it was better that I passed on it, and in the end I think that was a good call. I don’t think Jordan went all the way down, but Ian did:


Unfortunately somewhere near the bottom he slipped pretty badly and banged his jaw on a rock. Fortunately nothing cut or broken, but he was definitely pretty sore for the next few days!

Our driver taking a selfie at the falls:


After that, the kids took us to the top of the falls, maybe 100 meters  from where they plunged down below. Of course there was a bridge across the river, which given how it looked I decided to skip again. Ian was a bit braver:


…as was Jordan, with the kids making sure he was safe:


After the bridge we headed to the final viewing platform at the top of the falls. There were a few UN types hanging around there, and they’d brought their own personal bodyguards to make sure they were safe. I still don’t know if this is just typical UN overcautious, or if the situation was really that volatile that things could have gone south at the drop of a hat. Either way, at no point at all did I feel the least bit unsafe:


After the falls, our driver asked if we would like to see the small city of Boali. Absolutely! He took us to the house of the local pastor, saying we would be safe with the pastor walking us through the town on a Sunday…nobody would mess with the pastor!

We set off on the walk, and everyone we passed was smiling and waving to us, and greeting the pastor. It was a super cool experience. A little girl with her mother, playing in the wreckage of a burned out car:


Street shot of the town of Boali:


The walk was super interesting, and the pastor was happy to share his views on things. Seems the Seleka rebels had come to Boali because of the hydroelectric plant there, and they wanted to cut power to the capital. People resisted him, but he said they brutally killed hundreds of townspeople. You wouldn’t know it from the friendliness we saw, but apparently Boali had seriously suffered as recently as just six months ago.

I wanted to keep walking and talking to him more, but the sun was also super strong and we were getting pretty hot, so it was time for the long drive back. On the way, we passed a group of women in very colourful outfits just walking down the road:


We also saw several men transporting wood on carts like this:


Very overloaded car…this guy didn’t seem happy to have his photo taken:


We made it back to the hotel late afternoon, and grabbed a snack, hanging out for the rest of the day. We considered wandering the city, but given we didn’t really have the lay of the land and darkness was just over an hour away decided it probably wouldn’t be the best of ideas. It was time to fly out early the next morning and continue the adventure!

Feb 282014

Had no trouble finding the rental car shuttle from the commuter car terminal, and thanks to the fact we arrived at a different time from the mainland flights, there was no line to get the car. Thanks to the same website we were renting from Alamo again, and they tried to up-sell us from a “standard convertible” to a Camero for over $100 a day. Um, no thanks. When we got to the lot, we were extra thankful – the standard convertibles were Mustangs, which were just fine…although the choice was only black or white. We picked the white, and off we went.

The drive to our hotel, the Sheraton Maui in Lahaina, was about 30 minutes give or take, and soon we were there and valeted the car. The wait to check in was only a couple people, and soon it was time to play let’s make a deal…I mean check in. No, there were no rooms ready, but we’d been upgraded to a “standard ocean view” near the back of the property with two beds. I asked about a suite, and yes, we could have an Ohana suite near the back of the property with a “partial ocean view” but only with two beds again. I pressed, and she said there were also “deluxe ocean view suites, and let’s see if I can give you one.” She came back from the back room, and said unfortunately it would be an upcharge of $250 a night…but I can do it for $200. She could sense I was less than thrilled, and I asked if that was all she could do…then she offered it for $100 a night…given it was nearly 1,000 sq ft, a corner room with a view of the beach and ocean, I decided to go for it.

It would take about an hour to get the room ready, so she gave us a 35% off coupon for the poolside bar as well as welcome drink coupons, so we could grab lunch while we waited. Some tasty nachos were definitely on order, but we asked the waitress what she’d recommend. “Oh, you can get doubles FYI with those drink coupons…and I highly recommend the Old Fashioned Mai Tai.” I decided to give it a go….and drank nothing else for the next three days. Make with top shelf rum and shaved ice, it was absolutely delicious.


After about an hour I got a call that the room was ready, so we finished off our drinks and headed up to check in. Except, the line was now 30+ people deep, and when we tried to go to the platinum check-in line it nearly started a riot. The agent tried to explain to the people in line, but when they’ve been waiting on line for a long time, it’s understandable they were upset at the fact there were no more agents. They told us we could go around the corner to the valet to check-in, so we did.

It turned out not to work so well…he only could see the original upgrade, and not the suite we’d been waiting for. We had to come back two times, because he gave us keys to the wrong room. Nearly 45+ minutes later, however, we were finally to the room…with an amazing view:


The rest of the afternoon, we relaxed on the beach and just took it easy, enjoying the hotel and taking it easy.  That evening, we met my friend Rita for dinner.  I hadn’t seen Rita in over 20 years since she’d moved to Maui, and it was a real treat getting to catch up over some delicious beers at the Maui Brewing Company:


The next morning we got up fairly early, and after grabbing some Starbucks we headed out to drive the Road to Hana. It’s a nice drive on some pretty winding roads, and the frustration is you spend a good deal of time stuck behind people who might not live up to your driving skills.

Our first stop was at Twin Falls, maybe 30-40 minutes into the drive, where we were told the hike in to the falls was maybe 15-20 minutes. We stopped first at a small overlook:


Then, about ten minutes later, we were approaching the falls. The final part was maybe 50 meters or so through knee deep quite cold water, but it was gorgeous and refreshing:



IMG_3266 Continue reading »