Sunday, December 30, 2007

Whale Watching, Newport, Oregon

On a trip along the Oregon coast, one of the items near the top of our to-do list was whale watching. After a lot of research, we picked Marine Discovery Tours because they are the official tour company of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, also located in Newport.

Our whale watching trip was off to a great start when, just as we are leaving the harbor, two bald eagles were spotted in the trees on shore.

The trip was great. The naturalist on board was very informative. Although some of the activities were specifically geared towards children (like dropping crab traps overboard) I, too, found them interesting.

Shortly outside the harbor I yelled "Thar she blows. Five o'clock". I had spotted our first whale. We were in a relatively shallow area that the naturalist told us was a good feeding bed. Whether we saw the same whale many times or several different whales I have no idea. I just know we were in the area a bit over an hour and had plenty of sightings.

On the way back to the pier, the boat stopped to retrieve the crab traps. We were successful again, catching dungeness and red crabs. The naturalist showed all of us how to properly hold a crab (by its hind legs) and we all got a chance to try out our new knowledge.

The trip was excellent and I would highly recommend it, particularly for families with children.

see also:
Central Oregon coast info

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, New Zealand

Whakarewarewa is located in Rotorua and is the site of the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and Thermal Area. We arrived early as they have two performances per day of the Maori war dances and we wanted to get tickets for the earlier one. Even though we were there shortly after opening, there already were several empty buses in the parking lot and more buses pulling in. Good thing we arrived early.

Free guided tours are offered and they are well worth the time. Our guide is a Maori gentleman, very pleasant and very knowledgeable. He takes us through the museum, and the craft workshop. We work our way around the various buildings, with explanations of what they are called and what they are used for. There is also a kiwi house. Kiwis are extremely endangered and they have two. We were lucky to see one very active. The tour lasted about an hour and it was a very good overview of Maori life and culture.

You can wander through the Whakarewarewa thermal area on your own. We were very fortunate to see the Pohutu geyser in full force. I had never seen a geyser before so I was fascinated.

Heading towards the Maori performance area, the ticket holders are lined up outside the gates to the sacred area. A tourist was selected to be our ‘chief'. One of the Maori male dancers came forward, making appropriate threatening gestures. When it was apparent our ‘chief' came in peace, an offering was placed upon the ground, accepted, and then we could all enter the Marae, the sacred house, after removing our shoes, of course. There are many opportunities, in New Zealand, to see a performance of the Maori war dances and seeing at least one should be a ‘must do' on everyone's list.

It is now close to noon and we had been told about the availability of a hangi lunch in the café. Hangi is the traditional way the Maoris cook their food. They dig a pit and put in hot rocks, the food and then cover it all up. A very big deal in Rotorua is evening hangi dinners/performances, which can be quite expensive. We just wanted to taste the food so opted for the (much less expensive) lunch.

At the café, we got the last hangi platters. I was glad we tried it but it did leave something to be desired. Basically it was steamed chicken, kumaru (sweet potato), white potato, squash, and some other vegetables. We were glad we didn't spend big bucks for an evening performance.

After lunch we wandered back into the thermal area and got to see the Pohutu geyser going off again. We walked around for another hour, amazed at how much time we were spending watching steam come out of the ground. We were glad we had put Whakarewarewa on our itinerary.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wai-o-tapu (Sacred Waters), New Zealand

Wai-o-tapu, is about 30 minutes south of Rotorua, which is the major thermal area of New Zealand, with volcanoes, hot springs, bubbling mud pools, and active geysers. (And the smell of sulfur everywhere.) Wai-o-tapu has some of the most unusual and beautiful formations in the area. We get there around 3 PM. Last entry is at 3:30.

While my husband loved Wai-o-tapu, I found it creepy. It was really quite surreal, with strange multi colored formations, each one indicative (by the color) of its major chemical component (like yellow for sulfur). We walked all the very well marked trails. At one point I had clouds of sulfur smelling steam just engulfing me. I had never seen anything like this before.

We left around 5 PM. Two hours was plenty of time for me although my husband, who is an avid photographer and was going nuts with the colors and shapes, could have stayed longer.

When we had driven into the area, we had seen signs for Mud Pools. We found them on the way out and this I loved. I was fascinated, watching the mud pop and spit. Almost like watching a Maxwell House coffee commercial. We probably spent about ½ hr there just watching mud ‘boil’.

This area of New Zealand is extremely thermal active. If you have never experienced this, definitely plan on spending some time in the area.

TripAdvisor Reviews

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Yellow-Eyed Penquin Colony, Dunedin, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Yellow-eyed penguins are endangered. Several years ago, a farmer on the south island of New Zealand, discovered a colony of yellow-eyed penguins on his land. He and his family took it upon themselves to open up the colony to viewing by the public, as a way to raise money to help preserve it. The site is called Penguin Place.

One of the major problems yellow-eyed penguins have is finding appropriate nesting places. Most of the land along the beaches had been deforested. As part of the attempt to preserve this colony, the family has replanted a lot of the native brush.

To view the penguins without disturbing them, there are ‘tunnels’ (ditches with arched covers) that the tourists walk through. Of course we needed to be very quiet. At times we were within just a few feet of the birds. Most of the penguins we saw were juveniles as the adults were out at sea, feeding all day.

We stayed long enough into the afternoon to see some of the adult penguins return from the sea. We learned a lot about them and enjoyed our visit. It felt good knowing that by visiting this colony we were contributing to the survival of this yellow-eyed penguin colony.

Penquin Place
Yellow Eyed Penquin Trust

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Renting a car in New Zealand

Taking the TranzAlpine express from Christchurch, we pulled into Greymouth rail station exactly on time and went to pick up the car we had reserved through National Car Rental. We were in for a few surprises. On what we thought was the good side, my reservation for an intermediate car was upgraded to a full sized car. How nice we thought. WRONG! If we had any idea, at that time, of the roads we would be on, we would have asked to be downgraded to a smaller car. But more on that later.

Another surprise was that my idea of returning the car to the Christchurch airport before our flight the following week wasn’t a good one. They don’t have a ‘depot’ at the airport. The depot is in the ‘city center’. We had two options. One was that we COULD leave the car at the airport. We would pull into the public parking lot, get a parking ticket, and leave the ticket and the key on the seat of the car. Someone from city center would come out to pick up the car. For this there was an added fee as two people had to come out to get the car. Leaving a car, in a public parking lot, with the key in it, did not appeal to us. Plus, there was the issue of the ‘bond’ on the car.

There is optional insurance that could be taken on the car, which would cover the ‘excess’. This was NZ$2500 that we would be liable for if there were any damage to the car. The daily rate was NZ$12.50 and we declined it. Which meant that the bond, plus tax (12.5%), was going to be charged to our credit card and we needed to get it refunded when the car was returned. So leaving the car in the parking lot at the airport, unattended, not knowing what could happen, really wasn’t an option for us.

So we signed the paperwork (I needed to sign too to be able to drive) and we went out to inspect the car. And I mean inspect the car. We have NEVER had a car inspected pre- and post-rental like we had in New Zealand. There is paperwork with a silhouette of a car on it and ALL scratches/nicks/dents are noted on the paperwork. And the car is similarly inspected when it is returned. (The rental agent rubs a spot that might be a new scratch. Oh, it’s only dirt. OK.)

After loading our luggage, which had no trouble fitting into the spacious trunk, we got into the car. I had to stop myself from reaching for the handle on the right side of the car and walk around to the left side. My husband spent some time familiarizing himself with the car’s controls. We have been to other countries where the cars are driven on the left side of the road. But this is the first time we’ve been in a car where the steering wheel is on the right, with the wiper control on the left of the steering wheel and the turn signal on the right. (This resulted in the wipers getting turned on a lot when we wanted to signal for a turn. Fortunately, the brake and gas pedals are oriented the way we’d expect.)

As for the size of the car, we traveled many narrow roads with hairpin turns. The large car was a definite disadvantage on these roads. Not only did we wish we had our intermediate sized car, there were many times we wished we had a compact.

Was it all worth it? You bet. We loved our self-drive of New Zealand and highly recommend it.

New Zealand Tourist Information
Driving in New Zealand

Monday, December 10, 2007

Adelaide, Australia

We have arrived at Adelaide via cruise ship. Adelaide is a very tourist friendly city, with easy public transportation. In the port terminal are a group of volunteers to greet the passengers and to give directions, brochures, and maps. The train station, to city center, is right outside the port area. We exit the terminal, cross a parking lot and board the train, riding into Adelaide on a rush hour train filled with school children and business people, who were wondering, by the looks on their faces, why their train was so crowded today.

Our train ticket also buys us transportation on all the buses in Adelaide. Upon exiting the train station, we stroll down Rundel Mall, a pedestrian mall filled with lots of shops. We visit the South Australian Museum and are very disappointed. Looking for displays of aboriginal art and information on their culture, there isn’t too much of either. We did learn about their life in the bush and, since it is a very difficult existence, perhaps there is no time for anything else.

At the Tandanya Aboriginal Art Institute there is a noon digeridoo performance which was very enjoyable. We learned how the digeridoos are made (look for a termite mound and, therefore, hollow tree branches nearby) and how to create different sounds.

Time for lunch and time to head to the Central Market. Central markets are great places for browsing. And for sampling. We buy sandwiches and join a local gentleman at his table, where we learn more about Adelaide and things Australian. Adelaide is a beautiful city, easy to get around and very friendly. I wish we had more time there.

Adelaide links:
Tour Adelaide - for loads of information
South Australian Museum
Tandanya Aboriginal Art Institute - as of Dec 10th, website under development

Auckland Museum, Auckland, New Zealand

We are in Auckland with a free morning. The Auckland Museum has a Maori performance at 11:00 AM and, although we had already seen one, I wanted to see another one. We use The Link bus, which stops a ten minute walk from the Museum.

We arrived just in time for the performance, which was excellent, the best we've seen so far. Afterwards, we walked around their display of Maori artifacts. They have a fantastic display, including things like a whaka (canoe) and Marae (holy meeting house). We spend more time here than we thought we would, as it was most impressive. If you are interested in Maori art and history, plan on spending a few hours at this museum.

Auckland Museum
The Link bus

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A day in San Diego, California

We wanted to stay near Old Town and, based upon price and location, we picked the La Quinta Inn. We would be in San Diego a few days before a cruise and, since we didn’t want to rent a car, being near public transportation was important. The La Quinta is within walking distance of the Old Town Trolley Transit Center.

On our first full day in San Diego we visited Balboa Park. We had learned that across from the Park is a rose and cactus garden which doesn’t get many visitors. The rose garden was right by our bus stop and some of the flowers were absolutely beautiful. We strolled around there and the adjacent cactus garden. These are lovely gardens worth visiting.

Our first stop in Balboa Park was the Natural History museum. They had a special display on chocolate which I found particularly interesting. And, of course, I had to stop in the special chocolate shop where there was something I’ve never seen before: single source cocoa bean chocolate bars, each from a different country. Of course we bought some and, yes, they did each taste different.

We ate lunch at an outdoor café and then strolled around Spanish Village, a crafts area filled with beautiful items. Whether you are in the market to buy or not, this is a worthwhile place to spend some time.

Next on the list was the Science Center, where our membership at our local science museum gave us free admittance. The museum is mostly hands-on and we had fun with some of the displays. If you have children, this is a great place to take them.

Balboa Park is huge and also has a Green House. If you are interested in plants, don't miss it. Our final stop was the Aerospace Museum. I was impressed by their having one of the original Apollo capsules. Also impressive is the number of original items they have on display versus replicas.

Finally, using public transportation, we made our way back to our hotel. A great day in San Diego.

San Diego links:
Metropolitan Transit System - for information on public transportation and help with routes
Balboa Park

Aquas Caliente, Peru

Aquas Caliente (hot water in Spanish) is the overnight stopping point for trips to Machu Picchu. For those that do not want to hike the Inca Trail or the Lares Trek, the only way to reach Aquas Caliente is by train. There are several train options from the backbacker train to the luxurious Hiram Bingham. They all travel the same route though the Sacred Valley and beautiful countryside.

If you would like to visit Machu Picchu in the early morning, before it gets crowded with the day trippers from Cusco, it is necessary to spend a night. There is a very wide range of accomodations available in Aquas Caliente, from very cheap hostels to very nice expensive hotels. Be sure to spend time researching your accomodations before booking.

There are no shortage of restaurants in Aquas Caliente and almost 100% of them offer some variation of stone oven baked pizza. Lots of shopping is also available here with a large market place near the train station. Everything is town is within walking distance but be aware that most of that walking is either up or down.

Some people come here expecting to spend time at the hot springs from which the town gets its name. Members of my group who went to check it out quickly returned to the hotel as they felt the area was not clean.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, just north of the border with Panama. It is considered a surfer haven with loads of big, rolling waves. It is a small town, well off the beaten tourist route.

I stayed at El Escape Caribena. It is about a 15 minute walk from town. The accommodations were lovely, with beautiful grounds. It was well kept and clean, with a hammock hanging in front of each room.

The town of Puerto Viejo is very small and it doesn't take very long to explore. Not too far away is the Gandoca-Manzanillo Reserve which can be reached by taking a public bus which stops in front of the hotel. (Be aware, though, that the bus leaves VERY early).

There is also a botanical garden that is about a 30 minute walk on the other side of town. I headed there and found a lovely garden that I was able to tour on my own with a brochure, made even easier by the well labeled plants.

A 15 minute walk from the hotel, in the direction away from town, brings you to the beach. With warm water, breaking waves and a hard sandy bottom, it is a great beach. And for an afternoon snack, you can head to the restaurant right across the street for one of their delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies.

For a midday light lunch, an excellent option is Pan Pay (try their chocolate croissants) and for typical Costa Rican food, the soda Miss Sam can't be beat.

Rara Avis, Costa Rica

Two nights of a recent trip to Costa Rica were spent at Rara Avis, an isolated rainforest lodge located in jungle bordering the Braulio Carrillo National Park

A visit to Rara Avis starts at the base camp where you pack, in your backpack, enough clothes for your two night stay and leaving the bulk of your luggage until you return. You then pick out a pair of rubber boots to wear during your stay, as the area around the lodge is very muddy.

If you want to ride to the lodge, you ride in a covered cart that is pulled by a tractor with huge wheels. The huge wheels serve a very real purpose as the road to Rara Avis (3 hours if all goes well) can be relatively smooth but mostly is either several inches of mud or boulders. The other alternative is to walk, a very difficult hike, through the deep, slippery mud and over/around the 18-24" boulders.

Arriving after dark, we need our flashlights as the only electricity is in the main dining room. No matter what building we enter, we leave our VERY muddy boots outside.

Our rooms are comfortable. They have a kerosene lantern, clean linen and screens on the windows. We have a private bathroom with a shower (no hot water but the water here doesn't get all that cold anyway.)

Our visit gives us an opportunity to learn about the rain forest and conservation efforts. We have guided hikes through the surrounding rain forest, swim in a natural pool at the base of a waterfall, visit their small farm and greenhouse, and partake of locally produced food for our meals. It was a great experience.

Rara Avis links:
Rara Avis home page
Rara Avis fact sheet

Manual Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Manual Antonio National Park is located on the western coastline of Costa Rica. It runs along the seashore, with beautiful coves, and is a tropical rain forest. It opens at 7 AM and closes at 4 PM. The park has excellent beaches, beautiful foliage and a lot of wildlife.

The park is small and can be managed in a one day visit. However, two full days would be better to take better advantage of what the park has to offer. Be sure to pack water and food as there is none to purchase within the park.

The trails are clearly marked. We saw black iguanas, capuchins, raccoons, and lots of sloths. We hiked to Cathedral Point, the end of which landed us in the midst of a troop of capuchins. We lunched on one of the many beautiful beaches and then finished our self-guided tour of the park.

Just outside the park are shops, restaurants and street vendors selling everything from typical tourist items to full plates of grilled chicken with vegetables (dinner) and cut pineapple (desert). As we enjoyed our meal we were treated to a beautiful sunset. This park was a definite highlight of our Costa Rica trip.

Park link:
Manual Antonio National Park

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal is a wonderful city. It is very easy to navigate on foot. For the few times we needed, the taxis were plentiful and cheap. We did all of our touring self-guided, with information I had brought from home.

Lisbon is built in a valley, with many of the older sections rising up along the adjoining hillsides. We started our day by taking a taxi to the top of the Alfama district and walking down. This is a very old part of Lisbon with a lot of Moorish influence. The Castle of St. George is well worth a visit for the spectacular views of the city and surrounding area.

After working our way to the central area, we continued to wander past monuments, through pedestrian streets, and along the waterfront. We made our way to the Gloria Elevador, which would take us up to the Bairro Alto district. Finding it closed for repair, we did what everyone else was doing....we walked and, at the top, discovered the Lisbon Port Wine Institute. After our long day, it was delightful to sit in air-conditioned comfort and sip port wine.

On our second day, we visited the Belem district, a historical area to the west of Lisbon, easily accessible by bus or taxi. Our first stop was the National Coach Museum. I found the different styles and decorations of the coaches quite interesting. Other worthwhile stops in this area are the Belem Tower and the Monument to Discovery. At the Jerónimos Monastery we visited the chapel which has the crypt of the explorer Vasco de Gama but the high point here are the Cloisters. This is an absolutely magnificent setting and, like the city of Lisbon, well worth visiting.

Lisbon links:
Portugal Official Tourism Website
Tours For You - they arranged a wonderful custom tour for us