Thursday, 18 March 2010

North Island

 The Bay of Islands

After our escapades in South America, we were ready for our stint in New Zealand - I must admit it took us a day or two to remember that everyone speaks English and so no need to attempt a poor translation. Although its a similar size to the UK (but with less than a tenth of the population) it does feel quite different from home. Their “cities” are more like small towns, motorways are very rarely more than one lane wide and can abruptly turn into gravel tracks, and bizarrely in comparison to South America they haven’t quite got the hang of wifi. However in terms of natural beauty they’ve got it spot on! We spent a fortnight in the North Island, arriving in Auckland which is definitely “the city of sails” and departing from Wellington, the country’s capital.
We spent a couple of days in Auckland, making the most of the international food courts dotted around the city, we headed north to the Bay of Islands. Having been to NZ nearly ten years ago(!!) with my mum I remembered the Bay of Islands as one of my highlights. It was just how I pictured it...
A friendly dolphin with baby in tow

Lighthouse on the northernmost tip of NZ

Waves of the Tasman Sea meeting the Pacific

The great expanse of the Ninety-Mile Beach
From the far north, Cape Reinga, we drove back south and eventually arrived in Rotorua, a town famed for its geothermal springs and sulphur pools – it stinks!
Sulphur pools (what a smell!)
From Rotorua we headed west to the Waitomo caves. We spent the afternoon abseiling, caving, black-water rafting and admiring caves filled with glow-worms (which again were a highlight from my last visit).
Next stop was Lake Taupo, the largest lake in NZ. On our second day I realised there was nowhere to hide and ended up throwing myself out of a plane at 15,000ft (much to Tom’s insistence!)
To calm myself down (and celebrate my survival) we ended up spending the rest of the day in a lovely mosaic cafe further round the lake chatting to another English couple, sipping NZ wine and munching on the best antipasto plate we’ve ever had (still the food and wine plays a big part in our trip). The next day in Taupo we went tramping (hiking) along a famous route and around Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings film. It was foggy for most of the day but very atmospheric and spooky.
Eerie atmosphere at the base of Mt Doom
From Taupo we drove to Napier on the east coast - the city was devastated by an earthquake in the 30s and was subsequently rebuilt in an Art Deco style which made strolling around feel like we were on the set of an old film. From Napier we travelled south to Wellington and spent our last days on the north island in a lovely beachfront guesthouse which felt very much like a stay at a grandparent’s house and was a nice break from the usual type of hostel.
We ventured into Wellington, visited the fascinating National museum and went to see Avatar in 3D – appropriate as it was filmed in NZ.
Just one type of NZ scenery on the way to Wellington
We’ve now picked up a campervan ready for the second part of our NZ adventure...
Sunset from our final hostel in the North Island

Monday, 1 March 2010

Sometimes the French do get it right!

I’m sat writing this in the departure lounge in Tahiti waiting for our flight to Auckland after a bizarre end to our stay in French Polynesia. We should have left yesterday morning but awoke early to be greeted by Cisco, our guesthouse owner, “Thoma, problemas...tsunami...”.

We were shocked and amazed to hear that a tsunami was en-route to the islands after a devastating earthquake in Chile had sent shockwaves through the South Pacific. All flights were grounded for the day (the airport is right next to the sea and only a metre above sea level) and I watched the last Air France plane in Tahiti make a sharp (passenger-less) exit at 8am yesterday morning, just 30 minutes before the tsunami was due to hit, from our guesthouse balcony. What was all the more chilling was watching scenes of wreckage and destruction in Santiago on the news – a city we stayed in just under two weeks ago, including scenes of the badly damaged airport which we flew out of to Easter Island.

As it happened the tsunami was a lot smaller than predicted and there were no big tidal waves or any real damage to the islands. We are both fine and have managed to get the next flight out (which as it happens they are now calling). Below is the original blog post I had written pre-tsunami on our last night.

Our lagoon

We are now back on the main island of French Polynesia after a great stay on Moorea, another smaller more tropical island in the archipelago. Although its a cliché thing to say I think that out of all the stunning islands and beaches I’ve ever been to in the world – Thailand, Fiji, the Caribbean etc none can compare (in fact none even come close) to the beauty of French Polynesia.

This place really is like paradise on earth - bright turquoise lagoons filled with coral and tropical fish, green tropical mountains and colourful flowers, fruits, birds and other wildlife. The locals are all very friendly and there’s amazing (French) food. We've had BBQs on the beach every night and spent hours just lazing in warm waters. That’s this place in a nutshell. It’s incredible.

After arriving from Easter Island we spent a night in Tahiti (the main island) and set off for Moorea the following morning where we were to spend our time. Arriving at our accommodation we were impressed to say the least. We had a Polynesian-thatched bungalow on the beach overlooking a lagoon and given that there was rarely anyone else around, we pretty much had the lagoon to ourselves! Very different to our usual fare of backpacker hostels and guesthouses!
The local "chicks" on the beach

Each morning we would wake up and have breakfast on our balcony and watch the stingrays and sharks(!) swim past. Every night I would light the BBQ and we’d have huge fresh tuna steaks for dinner after the sun had set. We spent most of our days lazing around on our beach and eating all kinds of French cheese, pate, parma ham, baguettes and the other things that come in a place formerly a French colony.

One of the best things about our lagoon was a small deserted island (called a motu) 100m or so from the shore. One morning we swam out to it and had a bit of an explore. We sat on the far side of the island and watched the waves come from the ocean and slam into the coral ring around the island (this is what forms the lagoon). It was amazing - we had an island to ourselves!

On our third day we hired a scooter and drove around the island exploring different places - the two bays of the island (one of them named Cook’s bay after he arrived at that point) and another stunning beach overlooking a crystal clear lagoon. We also drove up to a high vista point that had views of the island and mountains. Several trips to numerous black pearl shops also featured in our stay – on Elizabeth’s request!

During our time on the island we also visited a local ‘village’ to sample the traditional cuisine of the islanders and watched a traditional show with music and dancing after dinner. Elizabeth got called up to the front to dance with the grass-skirted local girls (which she thought was great and has been practising her moves ever since!).

French Polynesia has been an amazing highlight and given us lots of memories we will never forget. We’ve made a deal with each other that we’ll come back to explore more of the secluded islands and atolls by chartering a yacht (obviously once we’ve made our millions). Tomorrow morning we’re boarding a flight for New Zealand that will take us across the international date-line and to our half way point around the world (in terms of distance). I only wonder what experiences the second half of the world has to offer us!