Archive | March, 2014

Fiji Islands: Nadi and Pacific Harbour

24 Mar

BULA!….And then there we were; on one of the 333 Fijian islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

We landed in Nadi (located on Fiji’s main Island; Viti Levu) and moved to our hostel for the night – where it was very hot and dark (the power had gone off due to a recent storm – and apparently a cyclone was on its way!).  Although it was late, we all jumped into the pool at the BlueWater Lodge (http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Hotel_Review-g294335-d1027278-Reviews-Bluewater_Lodge-Nadi_Viti_Levu.html, where one of the staff members had great fun entertaining the kids with silly water games.

After a pretty bad sleep (Filou was so hot, he slept on the stone-cold floor and I was hoping all night that Anthony and Emile would not fall out of the very, shaky bunk bed – especially as my hubby was passionately chasing the many mosquitos in our room that were attacking us), we quickly moved on.

A local bus took us from Nadi to Suva – at the other end of the island (about 3 hour drive) – where we landed in the Pacific Harbour area. It was here that we stayed at the most idyllic and wonderful place; Nanette’s B&B (http://www.nanettes.com.fj.  This amazing guesthouse, owned by Australian Nanette – was run by two of the most hospitable Fijian ladies named Seria and Saras. We were extremely lucky to have the gorgeous, bright and spacious house with large swimming pool all to ourselves as there where no other guests for the week we were there. It was just what we needed after a period of fast travel!

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Pool at Nanette’s B&B, and great homework spot for the kids 

On our first afternoon in Pacific Harbour, we walked to the grocery store when we encountered a 60-year old, Japanese man feverishly cutting leaves from his property.  He looked up, put his large machete knife down for a moment, and took a break to talk to us. We instantly took a liking to this man who was really funny (he admitted he was a little drunk from drinking a few beers at the golf course that afternoon). He loved that we were Watanabe’s and invited us onto his large piece of land to come and taste the milk of some young coconuts (which he said would make us 1 year younger).  It was delicious!

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Drinking fresh coconut juice from Taro’s garden 

Taro was delighted that the kids liked his “magic potion” and when he learned that they also enjoy Japanese food, he said that for $10 a person, he would make us a Japanese meal that when finished, we would want to pay more for!  We tried to laugh things off and push the dinner to a later date (as we weren’t sure if a meal from this slightly drunk man would actually materialize), but he kept insisting that tonight was the night. So, after inspecting his home – which looked slightly messy but nice enough, we agreed.  He asked us to pick up a few things at the store and return in one hour.

When we came back, he had showered and dressed into a traditional Japanese outfit. He had cleaned his home, had put fresh flowers from his garden on the table and had put on some lovely French tunes.  Filou told him he wanted to eat oyakodon (chicken & egg over rice dish) and we informed him that we would be pleased with some sushi.

For the next 2 hours, Taro became totally focused, and under the watch-full eye of the children, who loved helping him, turned into a Master Chef. He cooked us a meal that can only be described as 5 star -deluxe….It was truly scrumptious and even more tasty as it was such an unexpected surprise!

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Masterchef Taro at work, making fresh tuna sushi 

We learned that Taro had been a civil engineer in Japan and had lived in Fiji for the past 14 years. During his retirement, he now loved to work his land, play the occasional game of golf and cook (he said that his wife was more interested in the grandkids then him, so she travelled back and forth between Japan and Fiji every 3 months). He showed us around his self-built house out of plywood – one that was extremely smartly designed with special water drainage features, multi-purpose sliding doors etc. – all with a Japanese touch. This very smart, slightly eccentric man showed us two of his walls which where full of English & Japanese writings (in red and black marker) – sayings and opinions about life, cooking, politics – all his doing. It was really neat!

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Taro in front of his writing wall 

After a lovely chat and many thank-you’s for the amazing meal we said our good-bye’s…with the realization that it is these kinds of encounters that make our trip so very fulfilling.

What we learned in the coming days was that The Republic of Fiji comprises of 333 islands of which only 110 are inhabited.  The total land area of Fiji is about 18,300 square kilometers (or 7,100 square miles) and Viti Levu or Great Fiji is the largest and most populated island with almost 70% of all Fiji inhabitants.

Our location, The Pacific Harbour area, has the reputation of being Fiji’s adventure capital, offering a wide variety of activities to get hearts racing. The area is famous for its Shark Reef where adrenaline junkies go free diving (no cage!) and can see (and feed) up to 8 different species of sharks in one dive – including encounters with bull sharks and tiger sharks.  Although this all seemed very appealing, we decided to stay safely on land!

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Shark diving in Fiji

The population of Fiji is mostly made up of native Fijians (54.3%), and Indo-Fijans (38.1%), descendants of Indian contract labourers brought to the islands by the British colonial powers in the 19th. century.

Saras, of Indian descent, was kind enough to cook us a traditional chicken & pumpkin curry, complete with freshly made rotis. So very tasty! And Emile spent a wonderful afternoon in the kitchen with Seria who taught him how to make Fish Lolo; a Fijian style fish in coconut-tomato sauce with Aibika (green, leafy vegetables).

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Saras & Seria at work in the kitchen; making us some traditional Fijan dishes

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Emile spending the afternoon with Seria in the kitchen. Result: delicious Lolo fish dish & pumpkin pie

We took a local bus to the nearest market, where we purchased two very large parrot fish (total $10) for this traditional Fijian dish. The coconuts, taken from Nannette’s garden, where cut open and scraped by Emile, with a special tool.  He then took the coconut flesh and hand-squeezed it into milk (this yummy fresh juice was definitely the secret ingredient). Last but not least, Emile mastered to make a delicious pumpkin pie with lemony topping. He loved his time with Seria in the kitchen and we were all happy to taste his delicious creations!

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Buying fish & other fresh ingredients  at the local market

Besides chefs and musicians (Filou spent several afternoons, enthusiastically practicing his music with Papa), we also seem to have builders in the family!

Our beautiful, nearby beach was filled with large bamboo logs, twigs, leaves and other fun items that inspired the Watanabe boys to build a fort. With the help of a sweet, local boy named Tanuk – they crafted what they called was “the best creation out of natural materials they ever made”.  Complete with artillery (bamboo logs), bombs (coconut shells), a victory flag (Emile’s pink t-shirt with a lizard on it), a bell & a light…the fort was a masterpiece. They even gave it a name (EFTAL – Emile, Filou, Tanuk, Anthony, Lizard) and made a victory song. What an amazing afternoon; seeing boys being boys, and creativity flowing in abundance!

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Beach fun; building a fort with Tanuk

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After some super relaxing days, we said good-bye to the men in sulus (a type of skirt, traditionally worn and regarded as the country’s national dress), the beautiful countryside, the refreshing pool at Nanette’s and the warm Fijian people. It was definitely Seria, with her inviting smile and wonderful hospitality that made our stay in Fiji one to remember!

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Men in traditional Fijian skirts called sulus

And now we are flying back to the Americas where we are excited to reunite with YiaYia and Nuno in Los Angeles.

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NEW ZEALAND – AUCKLAND, ROTORUO, LAKE TAUPO and TAURANGA

13 Mar

Kia Ora or Welcome to New Zealand, the youngest country in the world! This beautiful, far-away land of rolling hills, gorgeous lakes & mountains, volcanoes, aboriginal culture and lots and lots of sheep, has always intrigued me.  Perhaps this is because I grew up with a Dad that was surrounded by wool and sheep all his life. Being the director of a woolen cloth manufacturing plant, he so much idealized the little lamb (as they gave him the quality wool for his yarn), he vowed never to eat one (and so neither did we as a family!).  When our travel agent told us that the cheapest way to get from SE Asia to South America, was via New Zealand and Fiji Islands, I was thrilled.

Auckland

We arrived in the capital of Auckland after an 11.5-hour flight from Malaysia. Following an eventful night (where I miscalculated the time difference which landed us on the street without accommodations at 2:00 am in the morning!), we were ready to explore the city.

Auckland seemed so very modern and sophisticated to us, after 6 months of China & S-E Asia…as well as incredibly expensive! But thank goodness for the fabulous big kitchen at Attic Backpackers (www.atticbackpackers.co.nz/), that not only provided us with the opportunity to make our own meals again (although weird being back in the kitchen after almost 8 months), but also gave Filou the chance to repeatedly play the 4 songs he had just learned (to the delight of the young backpackers, some of whom even wanted to learn his cool tunes!) on the wonderful blue piano that was housed there.

On our first day, we took in the crisp, sunny air and headed towards Auckland’s well-designed and colourful waterfront area. From oversized chairs to stunning boats and brightly painted crates and silos – the area was delightful to stroll along.  We even took in a free video-arts exhibition in one of the silos, where we sat down in beanbags and lied on oversized cushions while seeing the most stunning nature scenes of New Zealand pass by on screen (each video was accompanied by an original piece of beautifully crafted music).

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At Auckland’s harbourfront area

Guided by the brilliantly crafted questions from the book Living on the Loose (www.familyontheloose.com), the children had 2 fabulous hours of art discovery at the Auckland Art Gallery – Toi o Tamaki (http://www.aucklandartgallery.com). To properly discover a few of the 15,000 visual arts pieces there, Emile and Filou went on a mini-art scavenger hunt and skillfully answered questions and made art drawings – visiting a museum this way was great fun! And this free gallery, located in the World Building of the Year 2013, houses such an eclectic collection of art pieces, that we all had an informative and enjoyable afternoon.

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Fun explorations at the Auckland Art Gallery

To further explore the North Island (unfortunately we did not have enough time to also see the South Island during our 2-week stay), we bought ourselves the handy Volcanic Explorer Pass from Intercity (http://travelpass.intercity.co.nz/itineraries/North/7), and travelled by bus from Auckland to Rotorua to Taupo to Tauranga and back to Auckland.

Rotorua

Rotorua (the Maori name for “second lake”) is a city on the southern shores of Lake Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty area (2.5 hours south of Auckland). The city is well-known for its geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools, so one our our first visits was to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (www.waiotapu.co.nz). We rented a cute little Mini for the day (appropriately named Little Blue by the boys), and travelled along Thermal Explorer Highway (SH 5) to reach this scenic reserve & thermal area.

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Filou in “Little Blue”, our cute Mini rental car 

This conservation zone is literally covered with collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud, water and steaming fumeroles (opening in a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge).  Wanting to take it all in, we started off by witnessing the Lady Knox Geyser erupt. Although helped a little by a small, eco-friendly soap deposit, it was pretty spectacular to experience as it reached heights of 10-15 metres!

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The eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser

Before we set off on our exploratory walk through the park, we visited the fascinating Mud Pools; violent, boiling, plopping mud that smelled of rotten eggs (due to the hydrogen sulphide – H2S).  After a quick look, we moved on and soon after reached the Artist’s Palette and Champagne Pool – undoubtedly the favorites, due to their innumerable colours (which are all natural tints; there because of the numerous minerals).

The Champagne Pool, which apparently is unique in the world (as it has a fifth of a hectare of bubbling, hissing water), has a beautiful, ochre edge. And the Artist’s Palette, a panorama of hot and cool pools and steaming, hissing fumeroles had an amazing variety of ever-changing colour (yellow, green, orange, red-brown etc.) which we could observe up-close as our walking path went right over it. Thank goodness nobody veered from the path, as beneath the ground we would find a system of streams which are heated by magma left over from earlier volcanic eruptions; temperature: 300C!

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Family by the Champagne Pool

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Ochre red edge at the Champagne Pool

The most bright and colourful of pools was Devil’s Bath, located near the end of our park-journey. The water was so incredibly green – almost fluorescent; it seemed like it had walked away from a movie set, where someone had wanted to use some enhanced colouring to make for a better scene – WOW! The sheer beauty of Mother Nature was evident in the sizzling earth, rising steam, colourful springs and huge volcanic craters at Wai-O-Tapu.  Emile was most impressed with the huge craters – well over a dozen, some formed by eruptions, others by internal chasms.  They were certainly impressive, and after our exploratory morning, we all understood why Wai-O-Tapu (sacred waters) is known to be New Zealand’s most colourful and diverse volcanic area.

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 Devil’s Bath at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

In the afternoon, we took our Little Blue and drove along the many gorgeous lakes in the area. Our first stop was Blue Lake, a stunning deep blue lake – a favorite local hotspot for boating and swimming (although it was very windy there, the water was particularly warm).  The lake also boasted a fantastic large climbing structure and play-park, where the children had great fun climbing into the sky and making friends with local Kiwis. From there we continued our trip and ended up on another lake where we saw black swans, and Emile and Filou gave a fun dance performance on a local dock. Following some tea and scones at the coffee shop of an excavated Maori village (buriedvillage.co.nz/), we were ready to head back to our wonderful home-base: Rotorua Central Backpackers (www.rotoruacentralbackpackers.co.nz).

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Some cuddles at the Lake with the black swans

  

Mitai Maori Village

To learn about New Zealand’s indigenous people & their way of life, we spent an evening at The Mitai Maori Village (www. Mitai.co.nz) – a sacred and spiritual place that was created by the local Mitai family. As this Maori tribe had no means of written language, all their history is passed down through story telling, songs and carvings – means by which they teach the younger generations, and educate the “outsiders” – while offering a unique, cultural experience.

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Filou with Maori carving

Our evening started off by a brief introduction about the Maori people and some impressive welcome words by our evening’s host (he welcomed all 27 nations present in their native tongue!). We were then invited to the unveiling of our traditionally cooked hangi meal.  Large trays of lamb, chicken, stuffing and kumara (sweet potatoes) that were all steamed in a hangi pit, were lifted from the ground and shown to us. We were totally salivating already (the smell was so good), but our show was first.   

We walked through a natural bush setting and reached a small body of water; the Wai-o-whiro stream. Warrior chantings became more and more audible, and slowly a hand carved waka (war canoe) with 5 traditionally dressed and menacing looking warriors appeared. What a unique experience!  We then, moved to an open-air theatre were we were welcomed by the Maori Chief.  He taught us that the Maori originate from Polynesian, particularly from the Tahitian Island. That they are related to the people of Tahiti, Cook Islands, Hawaii, Easter Island, Samoa, Tonga and many more. Their language is similar, although their culture is different. The Maori tribes have inhabited New Zealand for over 2000 years and in this country, they all speak the same language although they are made up of over 70 main tribal groups.

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Maori warriors in their waka

The Mitai family then captivated us with displays of weaponry and combat, and with the beauty of their songs and dance. Filou’s favorite was definitely the poi dance  (poi dancers swing weights or balls on a taura – cord, and move them in a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns). In Maori, poi is practiced by women only, although its first use was by men who developed wrist flexibility for the use of weapons, by repeatedly hitting the inside of their wrists.

Last but not least, the Maori Chief explained the significance of the Ta Moko to us. The Maori people are decorated with the Ta Moko or tattoo art that covers large parts of their faces and legs. On their faces, the men have 4 birds; the bat (wisdom), the parrot (skill in speech making), the owl (protection) and the kiwi bird (protection of Mother Earth). The women only wear the owl on their chins.  The men’s tattoos, located on their legs represent ocean waves that mean power and speed.  The spiral on their backsides represent Mother Earth and energy patterns of Mother Nature found in the wind and waters.

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Emile with one of the Maori’s girls, decorated with the Ta Moko

To show off their tattoos and scary facial expressions (wide eyes and menacing looks; the scarier the Maori warrior looks, the more beautiful they are considered to be), the Mitai family gave us a final expressive dance full of quick, determined movements and loud screams. Then, with this appropriate farewell message: Ma te kaihanga kotou e tiaki e manaaki i roto I nga haerenga katoa (let the creator guide and protect you in all your travels), the performance was concluded and we were on our way to a scrumptious dinner (I promised the kids I would try the lamb – sorry Dad – and I have to say that it was quite tasty.  They thought it was “outta this world”).

On our way back to the bus we walked once more through the bush where we saw glow-worms in their natural habitat and observed crystal clear water full of trout.  All in all, we had a very informative and fun evening with the Mitai Maoris.

Redwood Forest

The diverse range of exotic tree species and panoramic views, have made The Redwoods (http://redwoods.co.nz) one of Roturua’s great treasures. This forest is well-known for its network of superb mountain biking, walking trails and of course the incredible Silver Ferns (New Zealand’s national symbol) and Californian Coast Redwoods (wow, are these trees ever impressive!). We love to take in the outdoors, so for our last afternoon in the city, we decided to head for the woods for some hiking.  Our 2-hour hike just gave us a glimpse into the magnificence of this spectacular forest – but we thoroughly enjoyed it.  However, there were some envious eyes towards the mountain bikers who were flying by and having fun on the expertly created and exhilarating mountain paths. A shame it was so expensive to rent bikes here, but the determination of my 3 boys is there now; let’s take up the thrilling sport of mountain biking once we are back!

The delicious smells of pine and fresh forest air, the beautiful towering trees and the overall tranquility of The Redwoods really invigorated us all!  And with this last outing we said good-bye to Rotorua and hello to Taupo.

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 Little break on a Redwood

Taupo

Beautiful Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake, and the city of Taupo sits at the edge of this body of water, besides the Waikoto River. Taupo is known for its watersports, fishing (one of the last wild trout fisheries in the world) and adventure tourism. As soon as we drove into town, we were mesmerized by the views – there was this stunning big blue lake, with snow-capped mountains in the distance!  Over the lake, there were red helicopters providing what I can only imagine were stunning aerial views, white parachutes dropping from the sky – providing the dare-devils with a thrill, and numerous sailboats and colourful parachutes (para-sailing).

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Helicopter that flies over Lake Taupo 

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Harbour at Lake Taupo

Huka Falls

The Waikoto River flows over a spectacular waterfall called the Huka Falls. As Emile and I were in the mood for a hike, we headed a short distance north of Taupo, by bus, to reach these Falls. There, the water is forced through a narrow rock canyon and then thunders 11 metres down into a circular pool. Appropriately, the Maori name for Huka means “foam”.  We wanted to take a “selfie” at Huka and had fun doing so, although unfortunately the sunglasses that were sitting on top of my head made a plunge into the roaring water (thank god they were only the $5 kind from Cambodia)!

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Our selfie at Huka Falls

From this spectacular water scene, we took the Haka Falls Spa Park; a track that follows the Waikato River above the Huka Falls.  Emile and I enjoyed over 2.5 hours of fantastic views (unique trees, beautiful birds and the bluest of waters) and a great chat, while hiking back to town. On our way, we came across Anthony and Filou, who had decided to rent some mountain bikes (www.gordononline.co.nz/) and were doing their best to master the hilly path. A little further on, we all came across a natural hot stream that flows into the cold river water. It was here that Emile and I bathed for a bit – a real unique feeling to sit in spa like hot tub in the middle of a cold river amidst the most beautiful of scenery. Y.O.L.O!

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Enjoying the natural hot stream

We continued along and near the end of the walk, came across the Taupo Bungy Site (www.taupobungy.co.nz/). Here we stopped for a bit to enjoy the marvelous views down into the river’s gorge and see one brave soul plunge into the deep-end (my knees were shaking, just standing on the bridge watching him!).  Emile thought he could do it, but I moved him along quickly….All in all, a great active hike and mother-son bonding time.

Tauranga

For our one night in Tauranga, we checked into the Taipororo Mansion Guesthouse (http://www.bayofplentynz.com/main/product/?product=taiparoro-mansion), an absolutely lovely place that surprised us in every way. Memphis, the owner, was a friendly, bubbly artist whose works were displayed all over the gorgeous, well-kept mansion. After a very, restful night in a large poster bed, we took a nice walk along the water and realized how very beautiful Tauranga was (we thought it to be just a large port town but o, were we mistaken!!). While enjoying breakfast on the beach in the morning sun, I got chatting with two lovely, local ladies; one of whom was Panilla. This Swedish-Kiwi could not believe that we only had a few hours in Tauranga and was determined that we would not leave her town without seeing the “Mount”.  As the kids were having too much fun, playing in a local park – Anthony stayed behind and I went off for a drive with this wonderful stranger!

What I learned from Panilla was that “The Mount” is what the locals call Mount Maunagui, a lovely beach town that occupies a peninsula at the southern end of the Tauranga Harbour. The peninsula is a huge sandbar with a sheltered bay on the inner harbor side and a wonderful beach (fantastic for surfing apparently), on the Pacific ocean side. At the tip of the peninsula is Mauao, a dormant volcano, which looked like a large, green mountain full of sheep and lovely walking paths to me!  Panilla told me that Mauao had just been given back to the Maoris, but that the walking paths were still open for everyone to enjoy.  How I wished I had more time to take in this beautiful little harbour and lush greenery.  But I enjoyed a lovely chat and coffee with Panilla in the lively area of “The Mount”, and hen raced back with her, in time to catch our bus to Auckland.

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Mount Maunagui at “The Mount” in Taranga

And so after a last quick overnight stop in Auckland, we said good-bye to the 4 million Kiwis and 40 million sheep!  I have tasted good lamb for the first time in my life and have enjoyed the superb Kiwi hospitality (thank you stranger Sylvia for driving me back from the Taupo Pak ‘n Save so I didn’t have to walk back to our hostel with 5 bags of groceries in the burning sun, Neil from Roturua Central Backpackers for letting us download tons of movies and giving Emile and Filou extra money for special chocolate drinks, when they didn’t have enough on them and Panilla for showing me her beloved “Mount” ).

New Zealand, we have taken in your immense natural beauty; mud pools, volcanic craters, fumeroles , Ta Moko, hangi meals and L&P Whittaker’s chocolate; they were a first for us all!  We hope to be back one day to take in your South Island, which many believe to be even more beautiful…  E noho ra – Good-bye!