A stopover on the island of Kauai on our way home from New Zealand at pretty much the same cost in flights? You don’t have to ask me twice. And so we found ourselves back in Hawaii for the second time in our lives, something I would never have predicted during our first visit. Back when we visited Oahu, the Big Island and Maui on our honeymoon, Hawaii was pretty much the most exotic place we had ever been. We spent much of our honeymoon soaking in the differences. Now, as the grand finale to our trip around the world and the first time we were back in the United States in over a year, we couldn’t help but notice the similarities. We were bombarded with signs we were back in the United States right away: things like refillable Cokes, free ice water, incessant news coverage, BBQ, and a whole aisle dedicated to just cereal. The signs continued: warning signs at every overlook, a plethora of channels but nothing on t.v., bumper to bumper traffic, chain restaurants galore, big enormous vehicles, and a big ole’ WalMart (albeit with chickens in the parking lot).
What epitomized the differences between the United States and some of the places we visited was our scuba diving experience. Although we had gone as far as to get our advanced scuba certification, we felt like we hadn’t really experienced a great dive due to poor weather conditions and the general distractions of diving as part of a course. Pounding rain storms and flooding threatened our chances at a good dive in Kauai, but we managed to sneak awesome two dives in close to shore. Kauai isn’t known for its diving like the Big Island, but we thought our dives were pretty fantastic. Swimming in between narrow caverns along side giant sea turtles ranks as one of our favorite experiences from our whole trip. Aside from raving over our turtle friends, we couldn’t get over the difference between diving in Thailand and Malaysia on the one hand and Hawaii on the other. First of all, the cost of just two dives was half the cost of our whole certification course! But you get what you pay for – our equipment was all set up nicely for us on the dock, right next to the boat. We didn’t have to climb through five other dive boats to get to ours, or carry our own equipment on a mile long walk, or wade through swelling waves to climb on the boat. Everything was cleaned for us and our instructors spent time going over safety tips in advance of our trip. Our instructors seemed amazed that we were advanced certified divers but had only been on ten dives; meanwhile, no one in Asia would bat an eye.
Our diving trip turned out to be the highlight of our time in Kauai. The aforementioned weather thwarted many of our plans. Kauai is known as the wettest Hawaiian island, but these weren’t ordinary tropic rains. Flooding closed roads around the island from time to time, and thick fogs obscured our views of scenic overlooks. The rainy cold weather meant we only got to spend one(!) afternoon at the beach. We tried to make the best of it. While we didn’t get to view the awesome Na Pali Coast, we cruised around in our HHR as much as possible and tried to sneak in views around the island during breaks in the rains. We pretty much stalked The Right Slice pie company at various sunshine markets around the island, with the added bonus of picking up the last local tropical fruit we’d have in a while to savor back in our condo. We relished in the comfort of our ocean view condo after a month in a campervan and discovered that Blockbuster didn’t go out of business in the year we were away. Overall, while the finale wasn’t as grand as we anticipated when we booked our Hawaiian stopover, it was a pretty darn good end to The Trip.
A couple of weeks ago, Akila and Patrick from The Road Forks (who, by the way, just took off on extended European travels with their two dogs in tow – check out their blog to follow along) kindly nominated Surrounded by the Sound to take place in Tripbase’s My Seven Links Project. The goal of the project is to dig out some old posts and bring them to the light of day. Since I’ve got over a year’s worth of posts from the trip’s beginning to end, and I’ve been pondering various trip wrap-up post in my head, I was happy to participate. So here goes:
Most Beautiful Post: Kodachrome
How to narrow down the most beautiful post out of all of the posts about the stunning places we’ve visited this past year? I could pick any of the posts about New Zealand, our last (foreign) destination and consistently the most jaw droppingily beautiful place we visited, hands down. But choosing New Zealand feels like cheating and besides, you’ve seen all those posts lately. I could pick natural wonderlands like Plitvice National Park in Croatia, Kruger National Park in South Africa, or the Antrim Coast in Northern Ireland. Or, how about a little village in Japan, the month of April in Paris, or beach paradises in India and Thailand? I mean, I have a whole category dedicated solely to pretty things covering the gamut from cities to flowers to ruins to people to beaches to sunsets. But I think my most beautiful post may be this early one from Marrakesh, Morocco. One of the most amazing parts of travel is the way it opens your eyes to beautiful little things in everyday life. When I look back at this post, with nothing more than pictures and a song running through my head, I am catapulted back into the early days of our adventure amidst Marrakesh’s calls to prayer, scooters, dust, tourists, souks, spices, and, most of all, colors. It didn’t take long to figure out that travel and Kodachrome are one and the same.
Most Popular Post: Random Lessons From a Year Abroad
My most popular post by far is Random Lessons From a Year Abroad (which got even more attention after a little old stumble from Jodi at Legal Nomads – thanks again, Jodi, for sending your many readers my way). Which is kind of funny, because I wrote this post off the cuff. It was one of those posts that I could have kept adding to forever and ever but for once I didn’t overanalyze it and just posted it. I’ve always felt appreciative when others wrote about what it really is like to travel, especially all of the conflicting emotions that percolate behind the surface, so I was happy to share what was on my mind after one year on the road and even happier it seemed to hit a chord with some.
I don’t really do controversy, per se, but this category winner has to go to the two part series, Adventures in Eating in Japan, Part One and Part Two. I started noticing an unusual amount of traffic on these two posts coming from some Japanese websites. Now I’m not certain, you see, because the websites were all in Japanese, but I’m pretty sure the Japanese were up in arms about me mentioning that Japan is a rather expensive country in which to travel. Their beef (literally) was that we spent $143 on a rather touristy (and ultimately unfulfilling) meal of Kobe beef. True, but even minus ridiculous splurges, Japan can be a budget-buster. At least they didn’t seem to mind that I exposed their love of whale meat. : )
Most Helpful Post: The Slooooooooooow Boat to Luang Prabang
In reading other travel blogs, I’ve learned that reading a blow by blow of the logistics of someone else’s travels is only interesting if you happen to be going to the same exact place and need more information. So I avoided writing too many posts specifically about logistics and instead tried to weave tips into our stories, like in this post about budget accommodations in houses of Croatian Grannies or this one about visiting Petra. There were a few times – usually when I couldn’t find specific information I needed – that I dedicated a whole post to logistics, like this one about Tips for a DIY Safari in Kruger National Park. My most helpful post is a bit of a hybrid; it’s about our experience on the slow boat from the Thailand/Laos border to Luang Prabang down the Mekong. It’s a common trip, and judging by the outside interest this post has received, I think people are curious (like I was) to see what they are getting into before they commit to a two day adventure.
A Post Whose Success Surprised Me: Tom and Jerry, Sun-Lit Scenery and Porn: Just Another Trip to the Desert
Why, oh, why do people want to find porn with Tom and Jerry in it? Are there some sort of male porn stars named Tom and Jerry that I am not aware of? I am still surprised to see this post about spending September 11 in Wadi Musa, Jordan getting hits day after day. Sadly, it is not because people found my post to be full of insightful social observations or beautiful desert scenery; nope, they just have a fetish for a cartoon cat and mouse.
A Post I Didn’t Feel Got the Attention It Deserved: Hog Tales, Vietnam Edition
I don’t know that any of my posts deserve to get attention, but there are many that I write and then don’t hear much about. One example is my recent post about returning home. I’m guessing by disappearing for a few months after our return I answered the question in the post title. I am not going to be posting as often now that our trip has ended, but I like writing. At the very least, I still want to wrap some things up on here about the trip. So if you are still inclined to read what pops up from time to time, make sure you subscribe by email or add the RSS feed to your Google Reader. But since my last post is not really part of the archives that this 7 Links project is designed to unearth, let’s go with Hog Tales, Vietnam Edition, the story of our three days riding around Vietnam’s Central Highlands on the backs of the motorcycles of two Easy Riders. Sean and I had a lot of fun seeing Vietnam through the eyes of My and Mr. Pepperman, and I think this post captures the quirkiness of the experience.
A Post I am Most Proud of: Impressions of India by a Type-A Personality
India is complicated. It took me a long, long time to put together my thoughts about India down on paper (well, on screen). When people ask now what my least favorite country was I’m tempted to say India. But it’s not exactly true, because even though India was challenging for me while we were there (in essence because it is so radically different from the American society I’m used to), it is the country that lingers with me the most. When I look back at my posts from Calcutta, the Andaman Islands, Fort Cochin, and the Kerala backwaters, in particular, a smile breaks out. So I am most proud of my introductory post about our time in the country because I think I finally captured, in words, my jumbled emotions about India – by far the most fascinating country we visited.
Thanks for indulging my trip down memory lane. Hope you found some posts you may not have seen before to give you some more reading. To continue on with the My Seven Links Project, I nominate these bloggers. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what they write.
Oh, North Island. We wanted to give you a chance, we really did, even though we heard you pale in comparison to the South Island. And you turned out to be perfectly lovely, if a tad less dazzling than the South Island, with interesting features and scenery of your own. But it’s hard to love you when you insisted on rainy weather for almost our entire stay. And not just some rain here and there. Days of nothing but downpours.
After getting a glimpse of the sunshine in Rotorua, we didn’t want to lose it. We consulted with one of New Zealand’s very handy i-Sites (invaluable information centers in every town) on the day before we left Rotorua and they showed rain all over the North Island for days. The next morning, things were looking up and the i-Site told us it looked like it was supposed to be a nice weekend in Northland. So we headed to Northland, which is the region north of Auckland jutting out into the ocean. One coast is the wild Tasman Sea and the other is the Pacific Ocean. Our reason for going far north was to try to fit in a decent scuba dive after our disappointing conditions in the Perhentian Islands. The Poor Knights Islands off the Tututaka Coast in the Pacific have reportedly some of the best sub-tropical diving in the world, at least if you believe the likes of Jacques Costeau.
As we headed north, the darks clouds rolled in, and the rain started pouring down. So much for sunshine. We held out hopes for diving anyway, but when we finally reached Whangeri and checked in with the dive company, we learned they anticipated not being able to go out to the islands until Tuesday – the day we were leaving New Zealand. Quite disappointing, but at least I wouldn’t have to freeze my butt off on the dive boat.
Since we were all the way up north, we tried to make the best of it. We drove up to the Bay of Islands and then over to the Kauri Coast using mostly the scenic routes, trying to fit in as much beautiful scenery as we could. Mother Nature had other plans and threw some fierce winds at us for our final days. As I mentioned here, the winds were so strong it was a constant struggle for Sean to keep our campervan on the road. It’s hard to convey wind in a photograph, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the wind lifted me up and blew me away when I was taking the picture above. Turns out winds reached up to 80 miles per hour; there was a tornado the day we left just outside of Auckland. Mother Nature, please give New Zealand a break.
By the time we left New Zealand, we were glad to ditch the sailboat/campervan. But we absolutely loved our month in New Zealand and were quite glad we tacked it onto the end of trip after all (even if our bank account isn’t). You’re a beaut, New Zealand, you really are – even when covered with fog or rain.
I admit, I wasn’t overly excited to go to Rotorua. We went mainly because it seemed to be the most popular attraction on the North Island and it is conveniently located towards the middle in a good spot to break up the drive north. Let’s face it, Rotorua stinks. It’s the hotbed of geothermal activity in New Zealand, giving off a sulphur smell as soon as you roll into town.
I ended up really enjoying our days in Rotorua. Finally, we had sunny, blue skies. And all of the geothermal activity created a different type of landscape we hadn’t seen before. Upon the recommendation of Rod and Lizzy, who had been there earlier in the month, we checked out Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Park. The geothermal activity there results in concentrations of minerals in the ground, making it the most colorful place around Rotorua. While you can see geothermal activity for free all around Rotorua – even driving down the street in town reveals steaming earth – the Wai-o-Tapu park was a beautiful sight. Upon the recommendation of Akila and Patrick over at the Road Forks, we stayed at the Cozy Cottage Holiday Park. Since they didn’t have our internet plan, we might have passed this park by had Akila and Patrick not highlighted its cool (or really, its hot) features on their blog. I love when wise people travel to our destinations shortly before we do.
The hot feature I was most excited about trying at Cozy Cottage was their hangi steam cooker. The native New Zealanders, known as the Maori, traditionally cooked their food by burying it underground. The geothermal steam (yes, the same stuff that stinks!) slowly cooks the food, making it tender and flavorful. You can try hangi cooked food at a Maori cultural performance. We weren’t planning to partake in one on this trip, so I was eager to try my own hand at cooking Maori style. The one at Cozy Cottage is modernized insomuch as it is above ground, but it still utilizes the cooking method of natural steam. As Sean put it anytime we discussed things we wanted to do on the North Island, you want to go to some town to cook some potatoes. He made it sound so un-fun, but he was glad we went to Rotorua when he reaped the benefits.
Cooking in a hangi oven is very simple. Cozy Cottage provided the necessary pot. In the pot I threw chopped carrots, beets, parsnips (only because I never had tried one) and red, orange and yellow kumaras (New Zealand grown sweet potatoes) on top of the drumsticks of a once happy organic free-ranging chicken. I added a couple of garlic cloves from one of our farmer market bounties, sea salt, crushed peppercorns and some dabs of New Zealand butter, placed the pot in the steaming cooker, and left it there for about three and a half hours. Just enough time to explore the other hot features – namely three different hot mineral pools – as well as take a walk to the beach by Rotorua Lake. There, if you dig a little hole, warm underground water rushes in to fill the place where the sand once occupied. We also made a quick stop to Rotorua’s Thursday night market, where we would have dined on all of the delicious food on offer had we not had our hangi meal cooking away. At the market we scored some delicious passion fruit desserts for later.
When we returned to the hangi oven, we found our dinner ready to eat. The chicken and veggies were so tender they melted in our mouths. Everything, especially the chicken, had the faint taste of sulphur, which, strangely enough, was a good thing. I know you don’t believe me, so why don’t you cook some up yourself and try it? Geothermal steam is a necessary ingredient, however, so if you don’t want to travel where the earth is so hot it boils, you’ll just have to take my word for it!
Between our time in Nelson and Marlborough, we were starting to feel like lushes. These regions are heaven for beer and wine afficianados. Marlborough produces world-renowned sauvignon blanc wine, which, with its aromatic scent, crisp, clean taste and fruity notes is my favorite type of wine. While we were there, it was rainy and foggy – of course – but the fall scenery is gorgeous. I didn’t realize that leaves on the grape vines turned fall colors, so the golden hues were a pleasant surprise.
We learned the hard way during our South African wine tasting experience that maybe driving ourselves to the wineries is not the best idea, so we signed up for a wine tour. Basically a glorified DD (or at least the one we took), a driver takes you and others around to local wineries in a minivan. Like South Africa, the tastings are free. We visited six wineries: Cloudy Bay (good but expensive), Vavasour (pretty good), Spy Valley (also good, one of the last locally owned wineries in the area), Grove Mill (meh, too sweet), Highfield (good views) and Bouldevines (who knows by then?!?!)
I suppose I have to disclose that somewhere around the fifth winery, I made a complete ass out of myself. I was sitting next to Sean in the minivan’s first row of seats, which was next to a large open space by the door. I used to be an automatic seatbelt buckler, but months of none-existent seatbelts in Asia broke that habit. As the van rounded a bend rather sharply, I completely flew out of my seat and landed, hard, on my butt on the floor. I could hear the American and British girls who we’d been chatting with all afternoon stifle a laugh in the row behind us, and the Aussies in the way back let out a giggle. Sean tried to contain his laughter, but he didn’t do a very good job. After that, I felt like I should cool it on the tastings; I wasn’t anything more than a little tipsy but I didn’t want to feel any judgemental eyes labelling me as that girl on the wine tour.
The tour ends with a stop at the handmade Makana Chocolate Factory – a rather perfect way to end. We picked up some chocolate Easter eggs to go along with our newly acquired bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from Vavasour and Spy Valley for further tasting and evaluating.