Around the World in 39 Days; You Say Hawaii, I Say Hawai'i

After our stay in Zambia, we were off to Australia for two weeks of visits with family and friends. We hopscotched across the country taking two days in Perth, a few in Melbourne, and a week in Sydney. This, combined with my previous visit to Sydney, Cairns, and Auckland, you can find in an upcoming blog posting.

After our time in Australia, we took a flight from Sydney to Oahu, Hawaii. We had a layover in Auckland because we wanted to fly with Air New Zealand based on the quality of their long-haul flights. Upon landing in Oahu, we took a quick flight to Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawai’i. We chose to spend the majority of our time in Hawaii on the Big Island for a few reasons. First, we already experienced “honeymoon beach-going” in the Seychelles. Second, we wanted to see volcanoes and do some hiking! Third, we wanted something different. 

A little clarification on Hawaii: The state (Hawaii, with no apostrophe) is made of several islands. The most well-known are Oahu (where you find the international airport, Honolulu, Waikiki, and Pearl Harbor), Maui, Kauai, and the Island of Hawai’i (with the apostrophe), also known as the Big Island. There is some ongoing confusion as to when to use “Hawaii” vs “Hawai’i” but I’m going with what the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has to say about it. Hawaii refers to the state, and Hawai'i refers to the Big Island, nodding to the more emphasized pronunciation by the locals.

Big Island Culture and Beaches

We stayed on Big Island, less known for tourist activity, and also on the lesser-common side of the island. Hawai’i’s popular side is the Kona District, on the western side. There you find famous beaches, manta rays, and Kona coffee. On the eastern side is Hilo, and a bit further south, Pahoa, the town of Volcano, and Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. We positioned ourselves near Pahoa at a bed & breakfast, about 30 minutes’ drive from the park.

Hawai’i is a pretty interesting place, especially on the eastern side. A far cry from the touristy, resort-filled islands of Oahu and Maui, Hawai’i feels a bit like a hippie commune. It’s known for trust fund kids turned bohemian and for retired military vets, both of whom dawn the same unkempt grey beards. The former can be spotted with dreadlocks and flower child garb, typing away on their modern Apple products, and the latter might just be the actual originators of the Hawaiian tee-shirt and "bare foot don't care" look.

In addition to lots of hippies, Hawai’i is also full of really interesting and unique beaches. You can find traditional tan sand, black sand, green sand, rocks, pebbles, cliffs, and on and on throughout the island. The geologic variations alone are a great reason to just drive around and check out the many beaches and literal watering holes that you can find.

Can you see the little spring of lava?

Can you see the little spring of lava?

Because there is active volcanic activity on the island, there is also the opportunity to “chase lava” on foot, by boat, or by air. We were enticed to take a lava boat tour when we were told that “lava was flowing” and able to be viewed from the ocean. One of the most sought-after sights and popular photography shots sold about Big Island is burning red lava flowing into the ocean. I must warn that this sighting is super rare and occurrences happen years and years apart. The locals, proprietors of B&Bs, and boat operators will know full well if lava is flowing to that capacity because the whole town will be talking about it. Otherwise, you can view lava bubbling on land from about two miles off the coast in a boat, where you may at best see some simmering red lava in the distance. The cliffs on the boat ride are pretty, but for me, it was certainly not worth the price of the ride, nor because I succumbed to quite a case of nausea and violently “feeding the fish." There are other ways to catch sights of lava, especially if you are willing and able enough to hike the 6-10 hours out to the flows. Otherwise, your best bet is by air if you can afford it, or likely at the National Park, where we were super pleased with the views.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

The crème de la crème of Big Island is Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. If you like easy-to-moderate hiking with big payoff views, if you have interest in geologic phenomena, or if you are simply interested in seeing unique sights that aren’t available just anywhere, the park is a fascinating place for you.

There is a visitor’s center where you can discuss your preferred activities and sights. We chose the Kilauea Iki Trail, the Chain of Craters Road, and a few other places to pullover and explore. The sights from the Kilauea Iki Trail hike are unmatched, maybe only comparable to spots in Iceland or New Zealand, for obvious geologically similar reasons. There are many payoffs: a giant smoking volcano mouth, walking an enormous crater gorge, solidified lava, and Ohia trees with plumes of pink flowers bursting from the blackened lava floor. 

The Chain of Craters road feels like you’re driving on the moon, through lava fields that look like frozen black cake batter, some of which had previously spilled out over the road and solidified. Here you can also get your steaming crater payoff, and we were lucky enough to have it combined with a rainbow and a bit of bubbling red lava seen from a reasonable distance. Keep scrolling for a few of my favorite shots.

On Kilauea Iki Trail

On Kilauea Iki Trail

Ohia tree, and in the background, some hikers giving an idea of the crater's size

Ohia tree, and in the background, some hikers giving an idea of the crater's size

On Chain of Craters Road

On Chain of Craters Road

Oahu and Pearl Harbor

The view from Diamond Head

The view from Diamond Head

After three nights on Big Island, we got chased away a day early by impending Tropical Storm Darby, so we hopped an earlier flight to Oahu to settle for the last days of our Hawaiian visit. We stayed in Waikiki because it was easy and accessible to the airport and Pearl Harbor, but it is not a preferred destination for me. If we had more time, we would likely have explored the north side of the island to make the most of Oahu. We did have one hike up Diamond Head State Monument, which is basically a conga line of tourists itching to get the same shots from the top, only to have to turn right around and come back down. Admittedly, it’s a nice view.

The main reason for staying in Oahu was so we could experience Pearl Harbor. Anyone who likes history, doesn't like history but respects big events, or wants to know more about history, should visit. We used a travel packager to pick us up, for entry tickets, and to drop us back off in Waikiki. You really don’t need this, though. Just take a taxi to Pearl Harbor and you can buy tickets on site. The USS Arizona is the main “attraction” but I use the word lightly, as it is a memorial built atop a sunken ship where thousands of navy personnel still remain. There is also a memorable dedication with names of survivors who chose to be interred with their shipmates upon their own deaths. We stayed at the site for a few hours, solemnly walking the harbor, and catching an informative video presentation of the historic events that occurred there.

So with that, the Hawaiian portion of our trip was over. Next we would take a direct flight from Oahu to New York City for another stop geared toward visiting family and friends. New York would be our final stop, and we would then complete our around-the-world- trip by flying back to Amsterdam.

Around the World in 39 Days; Second Stop: Zambia, on the Zambezi River!

Prepping for Africa

The Zambezi River

The Zambezi River

Having not known anything about Zambia until planning for our visit, I first did the requisite advance research. This was also after all, my first real visit to an African mainland country. For this leg of our around the world trip, we planned four nights in southern Zambia, on the Zambezi River, which is across from Zimbabwe and a short drive from Botswana and Namibia. A couple months before we left, we headed to the Dutch Public Health Service (or, GGD) to get our vaccinations. There I received my first “yellow book,” an official and globally-recognized immunization record. I wish I received one when I visited Peru eight years ago, or even at birth, instead of getting the little card the school nurse used as reference for my childhood shots. But I’ve got one now!

Online research findings recommended we get Zambian visas at the border, that we be prepared that the fee could change without notice, and that we should use “new, post-2007” US dollar notes (the latter was unofficial information.) We also prepared by having any OTC medications in their original packages and doctors' notes listing prescribed medications and their reasons.  We read that Benadryl was not allowed and that it is illegal to even try to bring it into the country. Did we end up needing all of this information? No. Was all of it true? Maybe most, but not sure.  But we felt better being prepared, and when we actually arrived, the process was much smoother than we anticipated.

Adventures in Intra-African Travel

Zambia, our destination planned as third, was now our second stop, thanks to my traveler’s sickness in the Seychelles. We had planned a two-night stay in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, but after three extra nights sick on Mahé Island, we instead traveled from the Seychelles to Livingstone, skipping our stay in Tanzania altogether. Our new flights were less than ideal, but connections to Livingstone were very infrequent, even with advance-planned travel. Most flights must go through Johannesburg or Nairobi, with long connection times to await the infrequent flights. Moreover, Kenya Airways is infamous for bad service, and before changing our travel plans in-route, we had already suffered with fixing cancellations and automatic rebookings before we even departed on our trip.

As for the flights to Livingstone, I can only describe them as like flying on a Greyhound overnight bus. We had two 3-hour flights, divided by a 12-hour stopover in Nairobi.  Each flight was so hot and stuffy that the air conditioning surely was not functioning properly. After only one hour of flying, the bathrooms smelled like sewers with trash spewed everywhere. I could not eat the food, but was also still dealing with a sensitive stomach.

The overnight in Nairobi was manageable but not exactly glamorous. Having heard nightmarish stories about security waits and danger outside of the airport, we opted to sleep at the airport lounge (Pride). It was crowded and bustling, so we quickly grabbed two lounges in the sleeping room. I was awoken in the middle of the night by the snores of many sleeping men, so I eventually moved myself to the deserted main lounge to get a silent night’s sleep on a counchlike bench.

After our overnight and second flight, we arrived at Livingstone Airport. It was a small but very modern airport, and the customs/ visa purchasing turned out to be quite simple and efficient. We waited for our bags. My husband’s bag arrived, and with a sunken stomach I realized that the same bags were going around, and all bags were unloaded. Mine was missing. I turned around to see a huge crowd in a tiny office surrounding one overwhelmed person. So, I cried. And waited my turn for over an hour, as the last person to file missing bag information. It was here I learned the concept of “TIA” or, “This is Africa,” a quirky way of saying, “Oh well. Expect this to happen.” whenever traveling there. I was not naïve enough to think I could travel in Africa without issue; in fact, knowing where I was made the missing bag hurt more. I knew the odds of its return were small as soon as it was gone. The murmurs of the crowd and the lost-baggage handler amplified my fears that I would never see my bag again because…. TIA. Thus, our adventure had begun even before we arrived at our lodge. 

There was an anxiety-ridden backdrop to our time in Zambia because of my lost bag. On this particular leg, I packed luggage to manage weight distribution, not for potential lost baggage–a huge mistake! I had nothing with me except running sneakers, hiking shoes, the clothes on my back, my eyeglasses on my face, and a fleece.  My summer clothes, toiletries, contacts, sunglasses, newly bought safari gear, necklace from my recently-deceased aunt, bridesmaid’s dress purchased for an upcoming wedding on this trip, and clothes for the other four weeks of our travel–everything was gone.  When we arrived, stores were closed and it was a 45-60 minute drive to Livingstone from our lodge anyway. I would have to wait to buy clothes until the following day, although ultimately decided to wear my husband's clothes instead. Early in our stay, Kenya Airways informed our lodge’s employees that my bag was unable to be located. I was destined to re-wear the same outfit and my husband’s clothes until further notice.

The Royal Chundu

View during breakfast at Royal Chundu

View during breakfast at Royal Chundu

Despite the Plight of the Missing Bag running in the background, our lodge in Zambia was–without question–the most special place I have ever experienced. We spent four nights at the Royal Chundu Island Lodge, a Relais & Châteaux property.  It was also the most expensive place I have ever stayed, but in direct contrast to our Seychelles experience, we truly got our money’s worth here. We booked at the River Lodge, the main property, with nine or ten sleeping lodges. We were upgraded to the Island Lodge, which is a 10-minute ride up the Zambezi river, where four lodges sit in seclusion with their own common area and eating area, chef, and host (a.k.a the director in charge of your stay). To read about the full experience of this lodge, please see my Trip Advisor review. I recommend without hesitation that any people with the means and opportunity should stay at this place at least once in their lives.

The whole property is gorgeous. It is a natural and secluded setting, but the lodge is modern enough to alleviate any squeamishness of a traveller used to more traditional comforts. The lodges overlook the Zambezi, so you can sit inside or on your deck and take it all in. It is simply amazing. Breakfast and dinner is at the island's main lodge, where you can look out over the calm and serene river. At dinner, you hear the "oinks" of the hippos moving upstream for the night, practically under your feet. At Royal Chundu, we felt a great combination of truly being in Africa but also feeling modernized and luxurious. We enjoyed comforts such as morning coffee in our room, brought by an employee ringing a bell, and slipping coffee in a silver pot through a mini dumb waiter so that you can have privacy but drink your morning cup in your PJs–glorious!

The lodge featured nightly sunset cruises on the Zambezi, with cocktails and snacks. Sunset on the Zambezi looks like being on the moon, except with hippos bobbing to the surface. One particularly memorable experience on the cruisesoutside of hippo sightingswas when my husband was served the infamous parrotfish on the boat the evening after inquiring about them. It was a special time of year, as local fisherman hunt this fish for only a few weeks, and it is an important part of the area's economy. The proceeds benefit the community year-roundthe money, the fish themselves as food, the fish oil to cook with through the year. We were delighted that the cycle from water-to-plate was so direct to us!

Sunset on the Zambezi

Sunset on the Zambezi

Notably during our stay, we really felt like we were in an experience that truly (not for show) benefitted locals, and where a glamorous resort from a large hotel chain was in a real symbiotic relationship with the locals and the environment. For example, Royal Chundu gives seeds to locals and buys the products back to boost the economic situation of the villagers (and it makes everything you eat authentic and fresh and delicious). They train villagers and educate them, and I spoke to so many that were so grateful for that opportunity. The villagers take this education to work on site but also have the freedom to then go to Livingstone or other places for more opportunities. It is a beautiful cycle. Royal Chundu also funded a school, and I will come back to that later.

Victoria Falls

victoriafalls

Victoria Falls was our first excursion while in Zambia. You can view the falls from Zambia or Zimbabwe, and depending on the time of year, there are apparently better areas to get better views. We opted to stay on the Zambia side to avoid border crossing time and fees, and we felt we saw everything the falls could possibly offer. Locally, the falls are known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders” and it is for good reason. I really like this description that World Waterfall Database gives to it:

...Stretching for over a mile in width and falling over twice the distance of Niagara Falls, the immense [Victoria] Falls of the Zambezi River are spectacular in every way. The falls play an important role in the economy of Africa, fueling tourism, electrical production and functioning as an effective barrier for fish migration which allows the gorge downstream of the falls to function as a prime food source for all. While the Zambezi River is heavily dependent on seasonal rainfall high up in its basin, the falls flow consistently enough to be considered a global attraction at any time of year–though it’s during the wet season when the indigenous name of the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, or The Smoke that Thunders, really applies.
Imagine standing across a gaping chasm and staring at a 350-foot tall wall of water falling into an impenetrable cloud of mist which hides the ground from view at all times. Victoria Falls is absolutely unique in many ways, but ultimately it’s the power of the river which pushes this one to the gold standard. There is simply no denying, Victoria Falls is an elite waterfall bested by practically no other.

Chobe National Park

Chobe Riverfront

Chobe Riverfront

The other reason we chose to visit this particular area of Africa was because of recommendation from our South African friends to visit Chobe National Park.  Our lodge executed a flawless, well-planned hand-off system to have us escorted over the border to Botswana–a driver to the Kazungula River, where a tiny boat and its captain waited to take us across, and on the other side a Botswanian driver waiting to drive us to the Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane.

The first part of our safari adventure was on a boat ride on the Chobe Riverfront. This was my first-ever safari experience and I was absolutely mesmerized. This particular part of Chobe had beautifully vivid colors where the river contrasted with the grasslands, and the animals were aplenty. We saw water buffalo, crocodiles, pods of hippos, herds of elephants (even swimming in the water!), tons of impala, monkeys, and countless giant, beautiful water birds. The second part of the adventure was a game drive. We road in a jeep through the bumping sand pathways, and we saw sleeping lions (in the distance), warthogs, more impala, elephants after elephants, giraffes, and more beautiful long-necked birds. Surely we saw even more animals than this; there was so much to take in that I have difficulty remembering it all!

Here are some of my favorite shots of this experience:

Water buffalo

Water buffalo

A herd of hippos emerging from the muck

A herd of hippos emerging from the muck

Our elephant friend, before he took a bath in the mud

Our elephant friend, before he took a bath in the mud

A herd of elephants

A herd of elephants

Inquisitive giraffe

Inquisitive giraffe

I know that going on safari is quite popular these days, and I can see why it is so.  This day was my favorite of our entire 39-day trip, and one of the best experiences I have ever had. Perhaps this is because it was so unique and special; I had never done something like this before. I hope I am lucky enough in my life to do something like this again in the future!

Kayaking, Villages, and the School

Reunited and it feels so good!

Reunited and it feels so good!

For our last full day in Zambia, we enjoyed our time closer to our lodge. We had breakfast outside on the banks of the Zambezi after a short hike, along with a mini-kayaking tour back up to our lodge. Upon our return, and before we we set off to our village, I am happy to report that my bag was finally returned to me!! After 4 days, I was reunited, and could not be happier to leave that experience behind me! As a final lesson, always lock your bag with TSA-compliant locks when traveling, especially in Africa. When my bag was finally returned, we could see the lock was tampered with but all my belongings were accounted for.

At our request, our lodge arranged for us to be able to visit the school that they run. I have to say that meeting the children at the school was so amazing and touching.  We were given a small tour of the “building” (a single structure divided by four or five small rooms). The school expands its teaching services each year the children grow older, and continues to accept new children into the earlier grades. After the tour, the kids sang us some songs, and it was the most joyous experience. We were so grateful to get to meet them, and to see how this school was providing such wonderful opportunities to these kids.

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Following the school visit we were given a tour of one of the local villages that grows its food thanks to Royal Chundu. They had obviously recreated some of the village essentials (sleeping rooms, toilets) for “show”, but I do believe they gave a good idea of the real experiences of the villagers. Our village guide was authentic, no doubt chosen for her demeanor and her ability to speak english well, but we found her to be honest and real. We asked her pointed questions like, "What vegetables yield you the most money from Royal Chundu? And, "What are your favorite to grow?" She answered them all with honesty and genuine appreciation for her opportunities to live at the source of water and sustenance of the Zambezi, as well as near Royal Chundu, which even subsidized a drinking water tank for her village.

And with that, this was our experience in Zambia. We were really impressed by the friendliness of all of the Zambian people we met, and the trip has peaked my interest to experience more types of this travel. It certainly had its frustrations, and it took a lot of effort and money for us to get there, which also needs consideration. I think that overall it was easier than I expected, but traveling in Africa is not without its complications. Regardless, Zambia was unique, endearing, eye-opening, and so special to us. We wanted to take the "non-traditional" safari route, to visit a place less common for safari than South Africa or even Kenya (at least, to an American, those are the "easier" places to visit) and we are so very glad we did. We were so privileged to discover this little nook of Zambia and to have had this experience!

 

Around the World in 39 Days; First Stop – The Seychelles!

My husband and I got married in June, in Chamonix, France, followed by taking a trip to Italy with my mom, to show her the region of her ancestors (Abruzzo, Italy). It was a whirlwind two weeks, hosting our family and friends from all corners of the world in this village in the valley of the French Alps that has become a very special place to us. Our multiple times spent in Chamonix and Abruzzo are posts in themselves, and I really should come back to writing about them one day...

For now, this entry starts our around-the-world extravaganza, which I affectionately called "Operation Circumnavigate." Part honeymoon, part visiting family and friends to partake in some associated obligations, we constructed a 39-day trip around the world. It would take us easterly to 4 continents and 2 groups of islands. 5 countries, 10 destinations, and on 15 flights. In total, our toes would touch both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the Indian Ocean. Trip-by-trip, we would accumulate an entire day lost due to timezone changes, to gain it all back again after crossing the International Date Line. 

Tropical Island holidays aren't always so bad...

Tropical Island holidays aren't always so bad...

Our first stop was to commemorate a post-wedding tradition: honeymooning on a tropical island. We wanted to experience an island in the Indian Ocean because we knew the chance was not to come again soon. The difficulty to reach the island and the expense to get and stay there is something we can only allot at present time to a special event like a honeymoon. Plus, we aren't normally "beach people." We appreciate beach views and the serenity of exotic sands and water, but spending a whole week or two reading a book and getting a tan at such a high cost is just not our preferred agenda.  That said, this was our honeymoon, darn it! And we wanted to start with a tropical vacation.  We chose the Seychelles over Mauritius and the Maldives simply because of the time of year.  Seychelles forecasted slightly better weather in late June, so it won out over the other islands.

Traveling to the Seychelles is much easier from Europe than it would be from the United States, although it still takes time. Via Frankfort, we only needed to take one other flighta very bumpy 9.5-hour overnighter, flying down Africa, over the desert, out into the Indian Ocean.

Mahé Island

We stayed our first night on the main island of Mahé, the largest of the Seychelles islands and where the international airport is located.  We were picked up by our B&B proprietor at the open-air airport with our duty-free goods in hand.  We don't normally buy duty-free, but after reading enough about the horrors of food and drink costs in our tropical paradise, we thought it smart to pick up a few bottles of bubbly and wine.

Our first excursion on Mahé was taking the local's bus to Beau Vallon beach.  This "bus" was the equivalent of $.30 for one ride (yes, that's thirty United States cents).  Let's just say we got our "money's worth" on this ride. The bus had no handles and we were zoomed around a very narrow and very winding road on the "wrong" side of the street.  The bus would slam to a stop and anything not bolted down would go flying around, including people. There were fans with plastic ties holding them to the walls, not even coming close to winning the battle against humidity and heat.  What a ride!

DSCN3901c.jpg

We had our first and last great of meals in the Seychelles on Mahéa delicious shish kabob lunch for about $6/person under the palm trees at Beau Vallon and fresh grilled fish and chicken cooked by our hosts. I can't stress enough that price does not necessarily buy you great food on this remote set of islands, once inside the chic resorts. Make advance plans where you can, or just mentally prepare to part with anything in your wallet for a relatively mediocre meal.

Praslin Island

After one night in Mahé, we were off to our primary Seychellois destination, Praslin Island. There are two ways to get to Praslin: by ferry and by propeller plane.  Due to time issues, we chose the ferry, unaware that we were choosing to be bumped and rocked nauseatingly on the Indian Ocean for over an hour. Apparently this was the windy season, and other times of year yield much calmer seas.  We were prepped by our B&B hosts to sit up on the top deck in the fresh air. This was essential when people started throwing up. Me? I only just barely kept down my breakfast, and was beyond green when we arrived at the Praslin jetty. 

We settled into the Raffles Praslin, a high-end resort with individual villas overlooking the Indian Ocean, each with private mini infinity pools. I am not going to spend much time on the resort itself, but if you want to read my full review about it, you can find it here. In short, the villa was really nice, the location was especially gorgeous, and most of the employees were overwhelmingly kind and helpful. However, we had a few really big misses. The food was less than impressive, especially for the price, and we seemed to just get nickeled-and-dimed from there.  On average for nice places in the Seychelles, it seems that this "is what it is."  Many people like us, are "average" travelers when it comes to price, so when you really go beyond your means, you want to have it feel worthwhile. The cost of entry, for us, should have "bought our way" into a really luxurious experience, all-in. We happily found later in our trip that this was the case (in Zambia), but not on this particular tropical island.

One afternoon, we took a short drive to visit Anse Lazio, currently rated as the 4th most beautiful beach in the world according to Trip Advisor. I have to agree. The perfectly moon-shaped beach has giant boulders scattered on the sand and in the sea that look like they must have been staged there, and the blue-green clear sea water glistens, glitters, and crashes into the boulders, We took a short walk on this beach, splashed around in the water, climbed throughout the rocks, then escaped to the shade after an hour or so to protect our milky skin. 

The world's 4th most beautiful beach

The world's 4th most beautiful beach

Our greatest adventure while in the Seychelles was to Curieuse Island. Viewable from our resort's beach, Curieuse is an uninhabited island, part of "Curieuse Marine National Park," set aside to conserve the nature and its animal inhabitants. We drove the coast around to Cote’D’Or, a beautifully flat seaside “village” where the road and sidewalk seem to just merge right into the sea water and sand.  We stopped in the first self-catering place we saw with a sign offering boat rides across to Curieuse.  After about 30 minutes, we were on our way.  (As an aside, we paid 700 rupees per person, which included the island tax. This was a total of about €90.  By comparison, our hotel was asking €160 for the same trip.)  Our boat captain walked out to the “marina” (which is basically the shallow ocean jutting out for hundreds of feet), unanchored his boat, and coasted close enough for us to wade over and jump in.  We took a beautiful 10-15 minute ride to the island, where we disembarked in the same manner we embarked, and waded our way onto dry land amongst the seaweed.  

As soon we we landed, we saw the turtles. Giant Aldabra Tortoises, brought over to Curieuse in the late seventies from the Aldabra Atoll to enhance their conservation efforts.  Here they roam free, tagged with numbers, chomping on leaves and grass.  They were a sight to see and brought me so much joy.  In the zoos, you see turtles of this size, asleep in the shade.  Here, you can wake them, or approach them with a tuft of their favorite leaves.  They will follow you and reach their necks out to chomp, chomp, chomp!  They are gorgeous and sweet creatures!

I absolutely adored these guys!

I absolutely adored these guys!

After time with the turtles we checked out the shells of the Coco de Mer seed that the island has for show. Highly protected, these are the biggest seeds in the world and can weigh up 30-60 pounds! Then, we started our hike across a piece of the island.  The pathway takes you through a mangrove forest on a boardwalk plank. You can view nature without disturbing anything, like the thousands of crabs running sideways through the mangroves into their holes, as well as so much other nature and small wildlife.  There are even some of the tortoises lurking about further inland. We loved this hike, partially tropical with a light climb up and then back down a medium-sized hill.  After about an hour and a half, we exited on the other beach-side near the “Doctor's House” which used to be the home a doctor who treated a leper colony in the 1800's. On this beach, our boat and captain were waiting to take us back to Cote D’Or. This was a very special experience.  I recommend that anyone who goes to Seychelles finds their way to Curieuse Island.

Our boat, awaiting our arrival after the hike.

Our boat, awaiting our arrival after the hike.

Shortly after our memorable visit with the turtles, I quickly came down with the dreaded "traveler’s sickness."  Laid up for three unplanned nights in the Seychelles, we had to cancel our next destination, to stay in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Maybe next time :(  Instead, I got to experience the medical side of a secondary island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  We visited Praslin "Hospital", an open-air clinic, so small and remote that when women deliver babies there, they can only deliver their second children, where no birthing issues are suspected.  The moms of first-borns and with any potentially problematic pregnancies are shipped to Mahé island a few weeks before their due date to have their babies at its more resourced hospital. 

We waited and waited amongst screaming children and people with oozing bandages, and finally discussed my illness with a very incompetent and rude doctor. After she stated that I needed IV fluids, she said that I was fit to have flown to Tanzania in my state and refused to sign insurance documents (despite shivering fever and other not-to-be-mentioned uncontrollable symptoms). So with that we walked out and down the road to the private doctor originally recommended by Raffles (he was out to lunch when we first passed his clinic).  This doctor was clearly more used to westerners with these classic gastrointestinal issues.  He was sympathetic and confidently said that with a diet of the prescribed antibiotics, apples, bananas, and water, I would be back up and running smoothly in 1.5 days.  This, and he also mentioned no need for an IV, and was glad to give us the “not fit to fly” note that was clearly necessary.

So, I spent three days tucked in at our very expensive resort "infirmary" until we were ready for our re-routed next destination to Livingstone, Zambia via Nairobi, Kenya.  When I was finally up and running, we took the propeller plane (no way was I taking the ferry again after so many days of illness) for 15 minutes over the beautiful blue waters from Praslin back to Mahé to catch our flight to Nairobi. Our particular flight carried about 7 people, which included 2 pilots, my husband, and myself. The cockpit had no door and we sat in the first row.  I felt like I was piloting the plane.

Before take off with our prop plane's co-pilot!

Before take off with our prop plane's co-pilot!

I'd like to say that our first destination had no major issues, but such is the way with travel sometimes. I'll use this as a chance to say that travel insurance is essential.  You never know when you will need it.

Stay tuned for the most fantastic, magical, special part of our entire around the world adventure–in Zambia!

9 Days in Croatia, Part 2: The Road South - Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik, & In-Between

Have you read Part 1 of the Croatia Trip? You can do so below this entry! 

After departing Plitvice, we began our drive west to the coast and due south. We drove roads that were winding up and around the mountains and hills until we reached our destination–caves in a town called Gospić. As we were presented with the option to wait for an 80-person school tour group for 2 hours, we opted to skip it and wound our way back down the mountain, leaving the condensed area of dilapidated housing remnants from the war behind us.

Smiljan

After a guidebook consultation, we found ourselves at the Nikola Tesla Museum in the nearby town of Smiljan, a super-modernized site in basically the middle of nowhere. This is the birthplace of Nikola Tesla, who is a source of national pride for Croatians. Really, the only way to explain Tesla and the deserved complex that his supporters have against the fame of Thomas Edison is to borrow from the Oatmeal.  Take a read. The site notably features the house where he grew up, showing a video that stodgily focuses on, as the Oatmeal calls it, Tesla’s “batshit craziness,” and how his hallucinations basically caused or affected (or both) his genius. The tour and museum were nominally interesting, but you need a proclivity towards electrical and mechanical engineering to appreciate the magnitude of his contributions by the way it is presented at the museum.

Zadar and Šibenik

Old Town Zadar, from Puntamika

Old Town Zadar, from Puntamika

Arriving at the coast was striking. The Adriatic is a unforgettable cerulean blue (thank you, Crayola, for giving me a visceral memory to best characterize this color). For our next stop, we stayed on the peninsula of Puntamika on the water’s edge, which looked across to Old Town Zadar. At that night's bed and breakfast, we encountered more embodiments of authentic Croatian culture–slightly brusque yet extremely friendly and warm owners, battening down their olive trees from the winds, while chattily and animatedly telling us where else to visit on our way south to Split. Our time was characterized by apparently uncharacteristic spring winds blowing in from the south, which were creating unexpected cold temperatures and high gusts very uncommon for that time of year.  For lunch on the marina-front, we experienced more of the delicious simply-cooked grilling practices of Croatian cuisine–chicken and lamb, peppers, zucchini, and onions.  

In April, Zadar is pleasantly devoid of tourists, and I can liken it a bit to getting the best of Capri without feeling generically duped by tourism culture. You potter about (a new Aussie phrase I would  later from a lovely couple in Split), strolling along the stone floors amongst the tall walls with shops built within. As it was so cold and windy thanks to those southerly winds, we only briefly checked out the two attractions for which Zadar is known–the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation–both created by Croatian architect Nikola Bašić. The former is a series of pipes that take in the waves in the sea and create a hypnotic sound, like the sea is making music for you. Less spell-binding but equally as quirky, the Sun Salutation is a series of solar panels built in the ground that collect the sun’s power during the day and release it back in the evening through a display like a disco floor on the edge of the sea.

Just hanging around some old ruins in Zadar Old Town

Just hanging around some old ruins in Zadar Old Town

Croatia is fascinating because ancient ruins coexist right within the living and touring areas. In Zadar, there is an ancient forum much like the one in Rome, except this one appears unassumingly in the middle of the Old Town, with no pomp or circumstance. Local children chase pigeons, school kids loiter and flirt, tourists eat ice cream, and if you didn’t look closely at the signage, you wouldn’t believe that the stone you were sitting atop was built in the first century B.C.  Initially we thought this was unique to Zadar but were delighted to continue to find these types of coexisting ruins throughout the remainder of our time in Croatia.

After just one night in Zadar, we left in a hurry, being chased out by those dastardly winds. At the recommendation of our B&B proprietors, we drove the coastal road south, making stops in tiny waterfront towns with inch-wide "beaches" with little boats parked along the water’s edge. We stopped off in the town of Śibenik for lunch and a quick peek. As described in Lonely Planet, Śibenik is discouragingly industrial until you suddenly hit the Old Town and find yourself inside a walled city of winding walkways, this one made of white stone. Again, unmarred by tourists, we got to steal this town for ourselves and only a handful of other visitors in its gorgeous center square. The highlight of this stop was certainly our lunch at Restaurant Nostaljia. Our deliciously fresh meal was finished with a homemade Smokovača (fig liquor) for which I’ll always be searching again.

Split

In the late afternoon, we arrived at the outskirts of Split. Why is Split not the capital city of Croatia instead of Zagreb? There is big industry and shopping, and congestion and traffic, and the appropriate amount of hustle and bustle, and it seems everything that is happening is happening in Split. After passing through the big city outskirts, you arrive abruptly at the historic Old Town walls. Based on our hotel’s booking reviews, we were prepared not to be able to find our hotel, and the hulking proprietor came to collect us, driving through the little alleyways to park our car.

Diocletian's Palace, Split

Diocletian's Palace, Split

Split is everything, in my opinion. Perhaps we were swayed by the location of our hotel we lucked ourselves into, or perhaps it was the city itself. The air is warm, and the sky is blue and sunny even when the weather calls for clouds. Although busier than the rest of the places we had visited thus far, we felt we were getting a steal of an experience with the calmness and relatively uncrowded streets. Within the Old Town walls, it felt like the big brother of the previous cities we visited and loved, but we could add to that the deservedly famous big-ticket sites like the UNESCO World Heritage Diocletian's Palace, and the big city food culture that represents the best of Croatia. Split thrives on tourism but still has so much of an authentic feel. Yes, there are souvenir stalls and yes, there are a lot of yuppy couples strolling about, and also a few giant tour groups, but all the while, Split manages to hold onto its authenticity.

Gregory of Nin, Split

Gregory of Nin, Split

We took an hour or two to traverse the whole Old Town, snapping pictures of my most favorite statue, Gregory of Nin, and his big golden toe), and opting to pay to walk through the underground Basement Halls of the palace instead of the cathedral or Temple of Jupiter. The ancient basement was vast, empty, and damp, but fascinating nonetheless. We also rang the bell of the tiny synagogue and were greeted by the congregant mentioned in Part 1, who takes care of the building. Two girls were already paying a visit, so the five of us stood inside the tiny structure and talked about Jewish life in Croatia, the history of that particular synagogue, its traveling rabbi, and of course some of his opinions on the rest of the country (remember, “Ehhhh why visit Zagreb?” from Part 1 of this series).

For our first full dinner in Split, we chose a large airy restaurant called Bokeria. Taking the waiter’s advice, we selected a Zinfandel red wine, despite my aversion because of the association to cheap California swill wine in America. In Croatia, Zinfandel is nothing of the sort–it is a full-bodied and fantastic red wine.  As pattern would have it in most of Croatia, we had a delicious meal.

Split – Šolta Island and Solin

Olynthia's olive trees

Olynthia's olive trees

The following day, we had breakfast and chatted up a lovely older Aussie couple who would become our breakfast buddies for the duration of our time in Split. We pulled ourselves away only to catch our ferry to Šolta, where we would partake in an olive oil tour. I'm not sure how they run the ferry in the summer, but in April, it was not chaotic but it was quite disorganized. The boat stalls have no numbers, cars mix with people on foot, and there is no discernible place to line up anywhere. This was not an issue when we were some of the only tourists on a half-full boat of what seemed to be local commuters. But in the summer full of tourists, come early and come prepared, unless perhaps they decide to roll out the organization when the temperatures rise. ;-)

We were picked up from the ferry port and treated to a ton of information by our guide, Frane, who is the owner of an olive oil company called Olynthia, located on the island. Frane was very friendly, answering all of our questions not only about the island but also about Croatia and anything else we could conjure up. We learned the detail about olive oil production and the chemistry of the make-up of oils. At the mill, we learned about the machines and the processing steps, and were give a nice lunch after our oil tasting lesson. The tour was special because it was given by a real family of real people with gorgeous groves who really know their trade.

Ancient ruins junkyard

Ancient ruins junkyard

As our last activity in Split, we drove to the nearby area of Solin (Salona), the previous capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia, founded in the 40’s B.C. The ruins of the area appear out of nowhere, and if you did not know better, it looks like building construction behind an unassuming roadside cafe. You are greeted with a few opened-hole dirt pits and peering down, you then see that some stones and rocks are being unearthed.  Here, you start to realize the magnitude of what is being excavated, and the casualness at which it is left in progress.  You have stumbled on a secret–the significance of Rome’s Forum, but here, it is just a part of everyday life.

Proceeding to the starting point, there is a small museum set behind what we called a “ruins junkyard.” Pieces of ancient stone, baths, sculptures, and columns are scattered in a grass field, as an old Croatian guy runs a weed whacker between the pieces.  Are we really seeing this?  Inside the building, a man shows us a map and lets us know where to find various sites, including a full-sized colosseum.  The experience really speaks to how understated Croatia is, especially the area around Split But understated certainly does not equal insignificant!

Dubrovnik

Headed back into Croatia

Headed back into Croatia

For the last leg of our journey, we drove south from Split to Dubrovnik.  Little did we realize, unless we drove off onto the islands, we would need to pass through Bosnia in order to get to the last southernly piece of Croatia.  As we drove the cerulean blue coastline–one of the most beautiful view of the trip–we had our passports stamped at the Bosnian border.  Our drive through Bosnia was perhaps 30 minutes of more gorgeous blue waters and coast, before we found ourselves again at the Croatian border, awaiting our stamp back in.

If Split is the big brother city to Zadar, Śibenik, and the other cities of our trip, Dubrovnik is of course the granddaddy of them all.  Overrun by tourists, the city walls are massive, and a sight to be seen.  There is a reason it is the most popular town for tourists in Croatia, but something is certainly taken away because of it.  The city exists for tourism, and while there are shadows of its former authenticity, it feels like Croatian Disneyland.  

Dubrovnik, from Srđ mountain

Dubrovnik, from Srđ mountain

We didn’t spend much time inside Dubrovnik’s Old Town.  I ran the Dubrovnik Half marathon (a primary purpose of this whole trip), and a few hours inside the city walls and amongst the tourist stalls was enough for us.  For the rest of our free time we took the cable car up Srđ mountain. There are incredible views here of the city walls and the island of Lokrum.  At the top of the mountain, we toured the Croatian War for Independence. Located on the ground floor of the Imperial fort, I was hoping here to learn more about the war, but the museum was so tedious, biased, and poorly written in English, that I was soon happy when we had finished with it.  If you do take the cable car up the mountain, be sure to take it both ways, and do not attempt to walk down. Someone thought that a miles-long switchbacked hill would be better-traversed covered in stones and rocks that dirt, and it makes for a painful and slow journey, even for the most fit of hikers.

Lapad Bay, Dubrovnik

Lapad Bay, Dubrovnik

We stayed in the residential suburb of Lapad, on the cliffside with unbelievable views of Lapad Bay. This is the best decision we could have made. I think it saved our time in Dubrovnik to stay away from the touristic Old Town.  Behind our hotel, you can walk the coastline path north where ladders into the sea sprinkle the rock line, or you can walk the residential areas to pop in a cafe or just observe life passing.

We escaped the touristic and terrible meals we had in Old Town (one failed attempt was enough for us) and dined the rest of our time at the restaurants dotting the cliff side instead. We were happy to end our time in Croatia with the best-of our experience–deliciously grilled food served by brusque but friendly people that were authentically real; and a gorgeous cliffside walk to say goodbye to the country that we were so glad to have met.

9 Days in Croatia, Part 1: Zagreb, Plitvice Lakes, & the North

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

As my travel partner/hubby and I have been veering more and more towards experiential and immersive travel, we knew spending a week exploring Croatia would fit the bill. Our trip would take us from the North in Zagreb, to the renowned Plitvice Lakes, and across to the Dalmatian coast from Zadar to Split to Dubrovnik.

Before taking this trip, I didn’t know much about Croatia the people, the recent history, or the ancient roots. It was refreshing to start somewhere without many (or even any) preconceived notions; to see what 9 days in the country could teach me just by experiencing the culture firsthand, asking questions, and taking it all in. What a novel idea.

Zagreb

We started our trip by flying into the northern capital city of Zagreb. I quickly described the town as "meh," as it is a pretty underwhelming place for a tourist. We would come to find later that most Croatians we'd meet would volunteer opinion that Zagreb is indeed pretty "meh" for them as well. Even the congregant who gave us a mini-tour of the tiny synagogue for the 100- person "secular" Jewish community of Split, said of Zagreb, "Wat is there to see there, eh? Nothing! Nothing draws you into Zagreb."

One issue is that Zagreb feels like it is not sure what it should be, that it can’t really be described as anything particular. We came across a few churches and a parliament building, a few generic shopping streets, and one somewhat lively street with outside cafes --presumably why the guidebooks list the city as having a “thriving cafe culture." We walked from lower town to upper town, gazed over the lookout point for the city "view," and opted to skip taking the mini-funicular.

Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb

The lack of any obvious tourist sites or culture spots led us to two off-the-path museums: 1 -The Museum of Illusions (can definitely be skipped) and 2 -The Museum of Broken Relationships (MOBR), which happened to be on my list of notable places to check out. The MOBR is badly in need of an update, seeming like a science fair in a grade school gymnasium; however, the content was unique, quirky, and powerful. It contains articles submitted from people around the world (a piece of clothing, a memento, a household item) with a coinciding story on display about the broken relationship. It reminds you that people all over the world make the same mistakes, hope for the same things, and hurt the same. I recommend it if you do find yourself in Zagreb.

In Zagreb, we experienced a notable food culture that is different than Dalmatia and the south of the country. For example, we had a lot of well-done cottage cheese. Two standouts were a traditional bread spread made of cottage cheese, Worcestershire sauce, onions, mayo, and black pepper, and the Strukli a specialty across Hrvatsko Zagorje and Zagreb, which was a fluffy, doughy, baked cottage cheese dish. It wasn’t until we finished our trip in the south that we could really appreciate our time in Zagreb. If not anything else, it gave us a source of comparison for the North versus the South of the country to juxtapose the changes in the accents of the people, their attitudes, and appearances, and their food.

Plitvice Lakes National Park and Surrounding Area

a home in the plitvice area

a home in the plitvice area

Another worthwhile reason to make sure to visit the north of Croatia is to simply drive the roads. Especially from Zagreb to Plitvice, the after effects of the Yugoslav Civil War of the 1990s can be seen in plain site. There has been an obviously concerted effort to fix many of the houses, but my estimate is that 20% are burned out, bombed out, and/or riddled with bullet holes. Our private guide in Split would later tell us that the area was significant during the war, and many homes were indeed abandoned permanently. For those that did return, you can see new homes being built right near the old ones, and the owners seem to just not yet have  dismantled the bombed-out remains. I can’t attest to any expertise or real knowledge of this war, even after spending time in Croatia, asking questions, and seeing things first hand. I would strongly recommend a book, Girl at War by Sara Nović which gives a fictional, but powerful depiction of the war from a Croatian child’s point of view.

plitvice lakes national park

plitvice lakes national park

Our next destination was Plitvice Lakes National Park. Much of our desire to visit Croatia was built around seeing this UNESCO World Heritage site. The park consists of 16 lakes, divided into an upper and lower portion, feeding into each other as countless waterfalls drop into each of the lakes. We stayed at a lovely inn down the road from Entrance Two, and arrived around 9:30am at the park. Due to the snow yes, the snow and freezing temps in late April we had a nice and serenely quiet morning inside the park. We walked the winding wooden plank walkways throughout which fed through waterfalls of various sizes that pop up around every corner.

We covered both the upper and lower lakes at a nice pace in about 4.5 hours, which included a stop for lunch. As our morning broke into afternoon following our lunch, the snow cleared and we got to see the true magnificence of the colors of the lakes. There was a small section closed leading to the Big Waterfall, but we didn't feel we missed anything because you still get the full panoramic view of it when you wind up the mountain to the scenic viewpoints.

plitvice lakes national park

plitvice lakes national park

I have to say I'm not sure how this walk can be done in the summer. We passed plenty of tour groups in the afternoon and we were glad to be leaving at that point. People must walk single file on each side of the narrow walkway in order to pass each other. And if you would want a secluded empty photo of the waterfalls... forget it. So, despite some muted colors in the morning from the weather, we're grateful to have gone in when we did in April.

At the location we stayed (Plitvice Miric Inn), we also got to enjoy another staple of Croatian eating simply grilled meats and vegetables, heavy on the zucchini and peppers. This is a welcome change from travelers’ normal fare, and one of my favorite things about Croatia. You can have your hearty Italian-influenced risottos, pastas, and pizzas, but they also appreciate cleanly-cooked meats and vegetables, and they know how to use a grill!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our trip to Croatia, featuring Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik, and stops in-between!

An Extra-fjord-inary Time in Norway!

Fjords of Norway

Fjords of Norway

The fjords of Norway are a literal breath of fresh air from the city-fatigue that can sometimes creep up on those that spend a lot of time exploring historic city sights, or for those that are overworked from day jobs and need relaxing time away. The main attraction of Norway is Norway itself, and there are many routes you can take to discover its natural beauty and landscapes amongst the fjords: Stavanger to Bergen, Bergen to Oslo, into-and-out of Oslo, and so on. The options are endless!

For years, I’ve been tracking my travel adventures against Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights, a book that lists well-known and less-known places to see around the world. In this book, there is a full color photo about Preikestolen, or the Pulpit Rock, a cliff at the fjords of Norway. Ever since I first paged through this book, I’ve been pausing on this image, marking it in my head as a place I’d one day like to visit. It previously seemed like a random and off-track place, but the Norwegian fjords are an increasingly popular destination to visit, and for good reason.

The best time to travel to travel to the fjords is May through September, with Norway temperatures at their warmest in July and August. Tourist season is at its peak during this time, but we traveled there in August and managed to avoid large crowds for the most part.

Stavanger

My husband’s brother was on a travel holiday from Australia, and the fjords were on his list to visit as well, so he joined us for this trip. We met up at Stavanger Airport (Sola), rented a car, and drove about 15 minutes to our hotel in Stavanger city. Stavanger is the third largest city in Norway, although it is quite small, surely far behind Oslo. I am sure that the sprawling towns around Stavanger city itself are included in this statistic. It is at the center of the oil industry, and previously an old fishing town, it basically grew into this larger city because of the boom. I know that the world needs this energy source, but the focus on capital-O-Oil, and the act of depleting this nonrenewable resource, in turn creating the booming industry that this town is built upon, gave me a bit of a weird feeling inside. I found it fascinating to learn that the country stows away profits from oil into a country fund, and basically distributes the interest-profits to its citizens, thus helping it to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world (among other reasons).

Stavanger Old Town

Stavanger Old Town

In Stavanger, we strolled the pier, checking out the tons of giant jellyfish that gather in the docks’ warm waters (I’ve never seen anything like it before!). We also walked through the unique-looking old town that reminded me of a retirement community area —all white wood-paneled homes surrounded by colorful gardens.

We also visited Øvre Holmegate, the street full of colored buildings. The homes and shops on the street banned together to paint their facades in order to to draw more attention and uniqueness to the street, and it worked. It is a quirky, sweet little street bustling with cafes and shops, and people strolling to check out the scene.

At lunch, we were hit with our first experience of Norwegian alcohol taxes. It is my understanding that in partnership with the already high cost of living in Norway, the government slaps a punitive tax on alcohol to discourage drinking. So, when traveling the countryside, a glass of house wine or bottle of beer will cost you the equivalent of $10-$14 (depending on current exchange rates), and buying a six-pack of basic beer at the grocery store will set you back about $25-30. By the way the price of each beer is individually listed, despite buying a “six-pack”.

Pulpit Rock and Driving North

Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock)

Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock)

After spending the night in the Stavanger area, we got our first glimpses of the cliffs scattered throughout the sea inlets, when we rode a ferry on our way to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock). After about two hours of driving, we arrived at the starting area for the hike to the mountain plateau 604 meters (1982 feet) above ground that I have long since dreamed of seeing. The hike took about one hour and 45 minutes (for three adults, relatively in shape), and involved mostly uphill “stair” climbing and sometimes scaling giant stones and rocks. There were two very steep areas to climb —it wasn’t difficult to find proper footholds, but it was like climbing stairs three times as high as normal, with uneven giant stones. 

When we reached the rock, we stood in awe at the view over the Lysefjord. Because of crowds, you don’t necessarily get to perch peacefully on the rock’s edge for very long, but instead you wait in line to creep to the edge and get your photo taken quickly by your traveling companions. The wind was blowing hard, and it was not a ledge anyone wanted to spend a ton of time teetering over anyway. We took in the views, and headed back rather quickly, knowing we were hungry and had a two hour hike ahead of us. The crowds were getting thicker, and we knew we also had a very long drive to our hotel.

Waterfalls everywhere!

Waterfalls everywhere!

The next leg of our trip was about 4 hours long, including another ferry ride to the Hardanger Fjord. The ride was adventurous, as most of the road was narrow and completely comprised of winding bends and curves. Not for the faint of heart, when another car would approach head-on, there was barely enough room for two cars to pass at the same time. Each car would need to slow and move to the edge to allow for enough room. We stretched our necks and peered around every bend looking for oncoming cars, all the while driving alongside the beautiful waterways. We saw many waterfalls within the cliffs, dripping and cascading throughout the fjord area, and a few quite impressive ones, well worth pulling over to take photos.

Hardanger Fjord and Driving North

The next day, after checking into our hotel (which was more like a hostel, and acts as a boarding school in the winter), we were feeling quite sore from our big hike and decided to have a leisurely day exploring the fjord by boat. We found a local option where we boarded a boat to tour the fjord, and spent time in a small fjord-side town for a few hours. At the town’s pier, we unfortunately encountered the cruise ship culture that we were unhappily expecting to meet at some point. A massive eyesore of a ship parked itself in the middle of the best view between land and fjord, and out from it dumped hundreds and hundreds of European tourists. The town was tiny, with not much to do except to enjoy the views. So after lunch, we sought solace from the hoards of tourists, and relaxed for a few hours waiting for our return boat back to the hostel.

Upon our return, we hit the road for our next leg, which would set us up right outside of Flåm. After about an hour on the road, we started seeing signs for road closures, so we pulled over to call the hotel and determine the situation. It was then that we learned the only way into Flåm —a 20km tunnel— had been closed for a week due to a major fire, and would be closed for several more weeks or even months. After some diversion discussion, we knew we would not be making it to our planned hotel for the evening, so we reversed course back to the larger town we had just passed —Vossvangen, or Voss— to find a place for the night.

Accepting our adjusted fate, we spent the evening in this town where Voss water originates (think, those fancy water bottles "in da clubs"). We found a burger joint, had some dinner, and had some cocktails in a Mexican cantina, where a group of drunk Norwegians gifted me with a sombrero and poncho (yep… in Norway.) When road-tripping, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Kayaking and the Flåm Railway

As part of our diverted plan, we had to get tickets from Voss to Myrdal by train. This was our only way into Flåm, and still we would arrive an hour past our scheduled kayaking time; but, we thought we'd try our luck us. The rail ride was gorgeous from Voss to Myrdal —even prettier than the Myrdal to Flåm leg of the infamous Flåm Railway. It just goes to show that even with the best-laid plans, the most memorable moments might be in your journey, not the destination!

Kayaking in Flam

Kayaking in Flam

In Flåm, although late for our kayaking tour, we were able to join a later group. The guests had double kayaks, while the guides had singles. The rain was pouring as we received instructions on how to set up the kayak, get into the skirt, right yourself in a capsizing situation, etc. After about an hour, we were finally in our kayaks, paddling out into the fjord in the rain, soaked to the bone. It was gorgeous, nonetheless, and the guides treated us to a few stories about how the fjords were formed, and the sunken ship we were paddling over. There was even a Norwegian birthday song involved. Towards the end of our paddle, the sun finally came out for us.

Bergen

After we were back on land and in dry clothes, we returned to Voss via the railway to get our car, and drove one and a half hours southwest to Bergen, back on our original course.

Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after Oslo and my favored city over Stavanger. It is large enough to feel livable and dynamic, but still maintains aspects of its quaint and storied origins. It boasts fjord- and port-side living and the UNESCO Bryggen area, and is the sister city of Seattle —a fun fact that gives a true idea of its style and feel.

Once we arrived, we set off for dinner, first asking our hotel’s front desk attendant for a recommendation. A local Bergenite overheard our query and offered to take us the kilometer down the hill into town in his car, and to point us to some restaurants. We ended up at the local college’s Swedish spot with pub grub fare. After a few drinks, we went to our local friend's other recommendation, a beer bar with 54 beers on tap, where I settled in with a cider.

Hiking in Bergen

Hiking in Bergen

On our last day, we ventured towards the wharf area (“Byrggen,” in Norwegian). We strolled the shops and took photos of the old-style commercial building area that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We walked the fish pier and saw the largest king crab legs (and live king crabs in tanks) I’ve ever seen in my life. We then found our way to the Fløibanen funicular that took us up Mount Fløyen. After a bit of a wait with other tourists, we made it to the top for some great views of the city. We meandered our way back down the walking trail, encountering magical elements planted along the way, like signs warning of trolls and invisible witches. The nature of the area truly felt like it was out of a fairytale, where we might find a troll under a bridge or Shrek peeking out from the trees.

After our trek back down the mountainside, we collected our bags, and boarded airport-bound bus, marking the end of our amazing time in Norway.