Don’t do the maths

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Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

‘Wow, you’ve come along way,’ is one of the most common reactions you hear when to tell people in Iceland you’re from Australia. Not surprisingly, most of the other travellers you encounter are European or American. Although yesterday a Texan lady broke with tradition and said, ‘Oh, we’re being overrun with you guys.’ To my confused expression she clarified, ‘Our guide is Australian.’ At my even more confused expression her confidence wavered, ‘Isn’t he?’

‘No, he’s from the UK.’

‘Really, you sound the same…’

‘Definitely,’ [and we don’t]. He was from Yorkshire.

There are more and more Australians venturing to Iceland and joining the booming tourist trade. With just over 300,000 people, Iceland’s population is joined by almost 1 million tourists every year, most of whom travel during the peak summer season of July to August.

For me, the appeal of Iceland was the opportunity to explore somewhere far away, to see somewhere that is characterised by remoteness, to find out about Icelandic culture and to see firsthand some of the incredible natural wonders on offer. I also have a teeny obsession with mountain climbing and glaciers. And like many kids, volcanologist was once high on my list of potential careers. So once the initial seed was planted and the idea of travelling to Iceland crossed my mind, it quickly flourished into a firm plan.

The three week itinerary includes three nights in Reykjavik, almost a week trekking the Laugavegur trail and just under a fortnight to travel the Ring Road and circle the country anti-clockwise. This is a lot longer than many people seem to spend. Surprisingly most of the people we have spoken with have been staying for a week or less. And after just a few days on the road I can tell you that it is not long enough.

I don’t mind air travel too much at all. I like air plane food, I enjoy settling in with the selection of movies to pick from and I can sleep a bit. So planning this trip it seemed logical to push through and compete the trip from Australia to Iceland in one hit. I mean once you are in Europe, it is just another three hour flight.

Factor in stop overs and we were looking at 32 hours of travel. Do-able. But then you add in the two hours to get from home on the Gold Coast to Brisbane airport with public transport. And the short delay in London that pushed the stop over past six hours. And the fact that Reykjavik surprisingly turns out to be the busiest airport you’ve ever walked through. And the two bus transfer into Reykjavik…

It was part way through this final bus transfer that I said to Ryan, “I’ve just done the maths. If we arrive at our guesthouse in 30 minutes time it will be 42 hours since we left home.’

‘Don’t do the maths,’ said Ryan.

Iceland itinerary

8 – 11 July Reykjavik

11- 16 July Laugavegur trek

17 July Reykjavik to Bergthorshvall

18 – 20 July Bergthorshvall to Kalfafellstaddur

20 July Kalfafellstaddur to Djupivogur

21 July Djupivogur to Egilstaddur

22 July Egilstaddur to Grimstaddur

23 July Grimstaddur to Akureyri

24 July Akureyri to Drangsnes

25 July Drangsnes to Isafjordur

26 July Isafjordur to Holmavik

27 July Holmavik to Olafsvik

28 July Olafsvik to Reykjavik

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The three year itch

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It has been about three years since Ryan and I had our last BIG adventure, travelling through China before taking the Trans-Mongolian, Trans-Siberian and then spending a busy seven weeks enjoying European winter (see Matryoshka, White Christmas and Reindeer Burgers). We have enjoyed many smaller adventures and a little bit of overseas travel in the meantime time but after much planning, scrimping and waiting, the next big journey has finally arrived – Volcanoes, vans and a haggis.

This trip starts in Iceland with a six day assisted trek through the famed Laugavegur area followed by two weeks exploring the country by car. From there we will head to the United Kingdom to explore England, Scotland and Wales and to do a lot of day hikes and walks. Planned highlights include the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, competing in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Wales and finding out whether or not six weeks is too long to live in a campervan when one person is well over six foot tall. We will close off the trip with a cheeky final chapter at Oktoberfest in Munich.

The biggest question of course is whether Ryan can be persuaded, cajoled or bribed to try haggis? If there was a vegetarian version that saw a medley of vegetable off cuts mixed with oatmeal and stuffed into the skin of an eggplant I would happily take this one for the team, but alas….

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Beach hopping in paradise

After a few nights of ‘resort and relaxation’ it was time to head out on our own in what can only be described as the king of touring cars, our very own Ford Festiva. Having had a taste of the spectacular coastline when we took a 4×4 trip on our first day, I was itching to have the freedom to stop and explore at will.

We collected the rental car a hit the road – the wrong side. For the driver the responsibilities of driving on the other side are endless… make sure you give way properly, choose the correct direction on roundabouts, don’t drive into oncoming traffic and kill everyone. For the passenger it is much simpler… get in the correct door and resist the urge to grab and readjust rear view mirror in panic. Just because you are in the seat you would normally drive from doesn’t mean you need to be able to see out the back.

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Confusion and panic in the Festiva

 

In case you are not familiar with Tahiti, the island is roughly square shaped and on the bottom, right-hand corner there is a narrow isthmus that connects it to a smaller section of island called Tahiti Iti. Confusingly if you take the road along the top of the island (the northern section), you are officially driving on the east coast road and if you drive along the bottom (what you might correctly assume was the south) you are driving on the west coast road.

It is also worth noting that there is just one road that rings the entire island. I had a nagging feeling that this could become quite claustrophobic as you would literally be on the same road everyday with nowhere else to go.  I also fantasised about some weird sci-fi or King-esque scenario that would see victims trapped in a bizarre , torturous loop of never ending, car advertisement-worthy, scenic driving. For those without hyper-active imaginations, you will simply enjoy the fact that the single road means you will be treated to spectacular views of lush tropical rainforest on one side and stunning beaches on the other for almost your entire journey.

We selected the southern route along the west coast (yep, it hurt my brain too) based on the advice of our favourite ebullient visitor centre guide. He had marked many ‘must-see’ stops on the way to our destination. He had also marked heavy crosses through attractions that he didn’t approve of.  The first was the aquarium which he dismissed as being inferior to popping on a pair of goggles and sticking your head underwater at any given beach. He also ranked it below the Sydney Aquarium which is underwhelming at best so I was happy to take his advice on that one.

The second site that was scratched with a flourish was the Paul Gauguin Museum.

“There are no originals anyway. You might as well get on the Internet and you can… click, click… see them for free!”

Whilst I appreciated this brutal honesty, I again questioned whether this was the official Tourism Tahiti line.

Our first stop was the beautiful white sand beach, Plage de Toaroto to enjoy a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, cold meats and pineapple juice and a relaxing swim. We exercised our new found freedom less than a kilometre down the road to stop at the next amazing beach we spotted, Plage de Vaiava, for another dip.

Picnic lunch at Plage de Toarato

Picnic lunch at Plage de Toarato

Swimming at Plage to Vaiava... worth bringing a snorkel or goggles.

Swimming at Plage to Vaiava… worth bringing a snorkel or goggles.

Tahiti signposts sights of interest for tourists in the ‘standard international brown’ colour and with just the one road it is exceptionally easy to find them. Several times throughout our trip we weren’t even sure what we were heading to… we just spotted the sign with the camera and thought it was worth pulling in and to take a look.

The first non-aquatic mystery stop was at the ruins of the Arahurahu Marae. The Marae were spiritual spaces for social, religious, ceremonial and meditative activities for ancient Polynesians. The site also housed to replica stone statues of two ti’i from the Austral Islands, the gods Moana and Heiata.

Arahurahu Marae

Arahurahu Marae

Heiata and Ryan at the Arahurahu Marae

Heiata and Ryan at the Arahurahu Marae

We continued to wend our way along the coast toward Tahiti Iti and our final destination of Teahupoo. We stopped at some water-filled caves at Mara’a to admire them and to soak our hot feet in their icy goodness.  From there the trip basically consisted of oohing and aahing as each bend and passing kilometre presented us with gorgeous beach after gorgeous beach, each more beautiful than the last.

Escape from the heat in the Grotte de Mara'a

Escape from the heat in the Grotte de Mara’a

Many guide books will tell you to get off of Tahiti and head to another island as fast as you can, and if you were planning to stick to a resort near Papeete for the duration, this is probably not the worst advice in the world, (I would still argue that Papeete and surrounds is worth a night or two). All that said, if you have the inclination to hire a car and get out on your own, Tahiti is magnificent. Take several days and enjoy it. There are  much worse ways to spend your time than beach hopping around paradise.

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Prisoners on the motu

His eyes widened as he threw one hand across his mouth in horror. The lights flickered and thunder rumbled in the background as he gasped the prophetic warning;

“Then you will be prisoners on the motu!”

Okay, maybe the lights didn’t flicker and if there was thunder we didn’t hear it. But it might as well have (complete with thematic music to underscore the drama of this pivotal plot point), for all the shock and horror displayed by the Papeete Visitor Centre officer when we told him we didn’t have a full meal plan for our upcoming visit to Bora Bora.

“How will you eat!? You know Tahiti is expensive one time. Moorea two time. Bora Bora three time,” he admonished us. (I wonder if Tourism Tahiti knows about this subversive element in their midst).

“You must get cereal bars and Tupperware and then at breakfast you know,” he mimes slipping food from the breakfast table into the imaginary Tupperware container on his lap. “You must!” he declares with an emphatic nod and another dramatic wide-eyed stare.

Enjoying a pre-prison breakfast in only "1x expensive" Tahiti.

Enjoying a pre-prison breakfast in only “1x expensive” Tahiti.

We had just popped into the tourism office to find out if they had any advice or a good map for our self-drive trip down to Teahupoo the next day. It turned out the visitor centre officer, who transformed from portly bored desk worker to flamboyant best-friend in a matter of seconds, did have some advice for us; quite a lot to be precise.

The unsolicited, but highly entertaining, feedback claiming that we had pretty much made the wrong decision at every step of the way also included a scolding over the choice of car rental.

“You did choose Eco-car didn’t you!?”

Umm, no we chose Avis. Because we’ve heard of them and they have a website that comes up when you google ‘car rental Tahiti.’ Unlike Eco-car.

Once we advised him that no, we were not rich, his focus shifted to the doom and gloom we could expect as prisoners of a five star resort. We left the visitor centre with the assurance that we would definitely be coming home short a kidney each… because we would either need to sell them or eat them due to not being able to afford lunch and dinner (I gather he was not confident about our breakfast stealing abilities).

With the exception of the roulottes, this highly entertaining stop was probably the highlight of our time in Papeete itself. As a lot of tourist information will tell you, there is not much to see in the city of Papeete. It made for a nice half day look-around but you don’t need to put a lot of time aside to explore the town area.

We did enjoy a lovely picnic breakfast on the waterfront in Papeete. One of our favourite things to do while traveling is to pick up a French stick, cheese and other picnic bits and have a relaxed meal somewhere awesome. And in all seriousness, it is often a nice alternative to a $60+ breakfast or lunch.

Papeete also offered an enjoyable walk around its lively public markets. Set just back from the waterfront, the markets offer everything from souvenirs to fresh produce and flowers. The town itself is bustling without being overwhelming and can easily be walked in a couple of hours.

Papeete Public Market

Papeete Public Market

Although the French Polynesian capital  doesn’t offer days and days of excitement, it is worth considering spending a couple of days in a resort or pension in that part of the island. There are stunning views across to the island of Moorea, and in our case a lovely pool to enjoy them from. There are also lots of options for day tours from the area including 4×4, snorkeling, island circle tours as well as boating, fishing and more.

Plenty of ways to relax once you have exhausted all Papeete has to offer.

Plenty of ways to relax once you have exhausted all Papeete has to offer.

Will Bec pawn her newly acquired wedding ring to survive? Will Ryan become embroiled in the black market organ trade in return for a chip sandwich? How will they survive as prisoners on the motu? Stay tuned to find out.

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Not all about Brando

I have a long held belief that while travelling you should ‘get it over and done with.’ The practical application of this means frontloading your initial day/s in a particular place with as many of the activities, excursions or things you want to see and do as early as possible. This gives you enough time to offset any unforeseen hiccups along the way that might see you miss out on that ‘must see’ thing that you saved till the very last day, (it is also practiced with much more enthusiasm that ‘get it over and done with’ might suggest).

A midnight arrival at the Manava Suite Resort in Tahiti, saw us sleep in until 10.00 am on the first morning and decide to break with tradition and relaxing day first. We tried to book a 4×4 tour of  Papenoo Valley for the final day but the travel Gods decreed that would should not break with tradition… the only availability was that afternoon. Get out there and get it done.

A quick swim in the divine infinity pool (stunning views across to the island of Moorea) and a resort lunch (where I discovered that French Polynesia has a fetish for goat’s cheese of which I highly approve) and we were off to explore. It was just the two of us in the open back jeep as we cruised through the capital of Papeete and along the coast road. It was such a nice atmosphere to be sitting the open air, soaking in the stunning aquamarine lagoon that rings most of the island and the black sand beaches that line the north coast of the island.

Papenoo Valley

Papenoo Valley

 

We turned inland at Papenoo to explore the volcanic crater that forms Papenoo Valley. In addition to boasting more than 1000 waterfalls, the valley has the dubious distinction of being home to a tradition akin to a real life Hunger Games or The Running Man. The entire valley once belonged to the king who would use it to put a twist on the traditional human sacrifice. The sacrifice would be released into the valley followed shortly after by the hunter. If the sacrifice could stay alive until sunset, the hunter would become the sacrifice instead.

Not only did we learn about human sacrifice, we were also presented with a ginger flower that produce a natural hair shampoo and  got to eat guava straight from the tree. From there it was back to the resort pool for a sunset swim. It was in the swim up pool bar that I made the pleasant discovery that I am a Jack Daniels fan… provided it is mixed with a bucket load of frozen strawberries and lime.

Strawberry Jack Sour

Strawberry Jack Sour

We taxied back into Papeete to try out the famous roulottes or rolling food trucks. Every evening twenty plus food trucks pull into Vaiete Place on the water front and set up plastic tables and chairs for diners and cook up a storm. The food here is much cheaper than eating in the resort restaurants (meals for under $20) and arguably much nicer. The many choices include Chinese, pizza, crepes, burgers, ribs, poisson cru, and steak and chips.

And the winner is….. [extended drum roll to reflect how long it took to choose between all of the scrumptious delights on offer]. Gourmet burgers with uru (breadfruit ) fries from Burger Machine!! The only disappointing thing about it was that I couldn’t fit in a second dinner despite my willing taste buds and eyes that are, as always, too big for my stomach.

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Assisted bathing

Not an official Turkish bath

Not an official Turkish bath

The Turkish bath or Hamam is, according to many, a must for a visit to Turkey. I investigated a couple in the Old City area while we were staying in Istanbul but most of the reviews I found about them online suggested that they were fairly touristy in the worst kind of way – ie. instead of being tourist friendly and easy to use, the price was relatively high and the service perfunctory with a big focus on hassling for tips.

I was still quite keen to try the Turkish bath so I had two; the first at a hotel in Cannakale and the second at our hotel when we returned to Istanbul. Both were similar in style and are a variant on the traditional bath experience.

The bath begins by spending a few minutes in the sauna or steam room in order to open up your pores. You then enter the main bath room. Marble benches run around the outside of the circular room with marble sinks or bathing stations spaced around the edges. In the centre of the room there is a large, heated marble slab.

The first bath I went to was mixed. There was a man in there washing himself (no problem) and another man who seemed to be there in more of a spectator capacity (pretend he’s not there – no problem). You have the option of wearing a small towel or a bikini into the bath – I wore my bikini as they suggested that this is less awkward to manoeuvre around.

After laying down on the slab, the attendant pours tepid water over you from a bowl filled from the marble sinks. From there they proceed to massage and exfoliate you from head to toe, front and back with a rough mit.

Relaxation is the name of the game, but the next bit is mostly fun. The attendant dips a pillow case style towel into a soapy mixture and then swings it around several times till it is filled with foam. They then squeeze the foam over you, refill and repeat until you are a foamy mountain atop the marble slab. The attendant then lathers and massages the foam all over you before rinsing you off till you are squeaky clean and super soft.

At the first bath I followed this up with a one hour traditional massage – absolutely divine.

The second bath followed the same format but there were a few differences. The first was that the laid a couple of towels onto the slab for comfort, the second immediate difference was that there were no hairy observers sitting in the corner.

No tepid water and T.L.C at the second bath however – all of the rinses were with icy cold water. Refreshing and invigorating once the initial shock had worn off.

The second attendant was also nothing if not thorough. She scrubbed me down from head to toe with vigour – the same pressure and enthusiasm was applied to my face, décolletage and all the other soft and sensitive bits as was given to my feet and elbows. I had to check my back when I returned to the room to make sure I hadn’t lost skin along my vertebrae – scratch marks yes, but no significant grazes!

The first attendant thoughtfully started the exfoliation with my face, the second started from the toes up – I tried not to dwell on the fact that the mit that was now removing the bulk of my epidermis had already paid the same attention to my three-month travel-worn feet! (Hopefully the majority of the stank had been removed at the first bath!)

Where the first attendant had work around my bikini, moving the straps to one side where needed, the second unceremoniously turned by bikini bottoms into a g-string in order to maximise exfoliatable surface area.

She had just plunged her hand under the bikini while exfoliating my front but indicated that I should take the top off altogether while she was doing my back. This was tossed into a corner and remained there throughout the foam treatment resulting in the first time the girls have ever been massaged in a professional capacity.

With due credit to my firm handed and not remotely shy friend, she did spend a great deal more time of the foam treatment not only rubbing the foam into my skin but also massaging out the squillions of knots and ropey areas through my back and shoulders.

Another icy rinse off and we were done. Although the second left me a little more bruised and battered, both treatments were incredible. I have never felt so soft and smooth in my entire life… I think the only way you could replicate the same effect at home would be to fill your bath with cocoa butter and sleep in it.

A firm convert to the Turkish bath, whether it be super friendly or of the tough love variety, you can add me to the list of those selling it as a must-do for visitors to Turkey!

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New year, new place, old friends

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I subscribe to a couple of blogs. One of these sent me a New Year—New Beginnings themed blog a couple of days ago and invited to reflect on how I had used the first few days of the new year and if my actions were setting me up for a good 2013.

The first week of 2013 was spent in Greece and I think it was a great place for to spend the first few days for a couple of reasons.

The first and most obvious is that I can’t really think of a better way to spend New Year than on a dream holiday (note: not “trip of a lifetime”, because I intend to have many more!!) On 31st December we spent the day exploring the Roman Agora and the Acropolis.

We stayed in Athens with an old friend, Gregory, (whom I met on a Japanese youth program Ship for World Youth or SWY in 2010). For New Year’s Eve, his family kindly hosted us at their home for a big family dinner – starting at the way-too-trendy time of 10:00pm. So as the New Year ticked over, we were; overseas, catching up with old friends, and on the receiving end of some incredibly generous hospitality which included gorgeous food and beautiful wines – big tick for doing New Year right I think!

From there we returned to Gregory’s to continue the evening (or morning) with cards, cheese, and much more wine!

The second reason, that I think Greece was an apt place to spend the New Year, and a slightly more philosophical one is to do with new beginnings. When the topic of the crisis came up, almost all of my Greek friends talked about moving forward, the need to keep moving forward with positive energy where possible and saw 2013 as a time for new beginnings.

As far as signs of the crisis goes – it is hard to say whether you only notice things because you are looking for them or if you would have noticed something askance if you didn’t know how the country is suffering. There was certainly a noticeable amount of graffiti (particularly politically motivated) around Athens, and more homeless people and beggars than I have seen in a major city. I think the most telling thing is that almost all of my Greek friends, who are incredibly dynamic, well educated, and community minded young people are either unable to find work or have moved overseas for short or long term to find work.

From Athens, we caught the bus up to Kalambaka. This area is better known under the umbrella of Meteora. Meteora is very impressive with sheer rock towers looming over the villages of Kalambaka and Kastraki. The Meteora are currently home to half a dozen monasteries but once housed 27, with a monastery perched atop each of the cliff tops in the area. (If you are not familiar with Meteora, I strongly recommend a google or quick visit to Wikipedia – it is very hard to describe how magnificent this area is!).

We avoided minor disasters here (not of the climbing variety) on a couple of occasions. In the first instance we arrived at the Hotel Meteora (which we had booked online) – a clean but fairly daggy little B&B that was, when we arrived staffed only by a grandma of about 80 and two small children.

After heading out for some dinner we returned to the hotel to find a fairly irate lady who was adamant that we didn’t have a booking (and didn’t seem interested in charming us to stay despite the very quiet tourist season) and was very confused as to how we had obtained a key.

We eventually established that there was another Hotel Meteora in the much smaller village of Kastraki and her, much friendlier, husband kindly offered to take us there. Our stress levels were pretty high at this stage, and I had no small amount of nerves about staying at a similar establishment in a place that might not even have eateries or similar in the area.

This brings us to the second near-fail – upon visiting the tourist office before dinner we had been advised that the only way to visit the Meteora and the monasteries was to catch a taxi up. They also advised that we probably wouldn’t be able to find taxis up there so that we should arrange, with our nonexistent Greek, to have the taxi wait for us ie. hire them for the day.

Our arrival in Kastraki quickly put aside the fear that our best laid plans were going to pot. The Hotel Meteora in Kastraki was a far cry from its Kalambaka name sake. It was a beautiful 5 star hotel with incredible views of the Meteora and gorgeous big balconied rooms.

Meteora

Meteora

While we were waiting to check in our lovely driver also informed us that ‘yes, you can climb the Meteora,’ ‘No problem at all’ and proceeded to direct us as to the best walking paths on our map.

The next day was the highlight of our time in Greece, we spent an amazing six hours walking around the Meteora, admiring its incredible views and marvelling at the beautiful monasteries. Having a very nice hotel room to return to, we decided to spend the evening at home relaxing with another wine & cheese picnic while we watched For Your Eyes Only (in order to see the places we had just visited!).

From here we travelled to Thessaloniki to catch up with more SWY friends – Maria & Konstantinos. Maria’s family graciously hosted us in their home. Ryan felt the full extent of Greek hospitality when we attended a family lunch. Nothing makes a Greek mother happier than having a young man to feed, they told us as one of the four mothers at the table piled his plate up for the third time. By the end of the meal Ryan was hunched forward with his arms crossed over his plate and refused to turn sideways to talk to anyone for fear that another monster serving would be slipped onto his plate while his attention was diverted.

Apart from the enjoyment of being able to catch up with old friends, Thessaloniki was also very special for me as my great-grandfather, is buried in the Allied Military Cemetery, having died in Salonika in 1917 while serving with the British Army. I was very, very touched to have the opportunity to visit.

I will certainly be heading back to Greece in warmer weather to experience their famous island culture and more of their beautiful food & lovely people!

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