Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Zealand 2008, highlights by my 12 year old

This is a report my 12 year old wrote of our New Zealand family trip in 2008. Enjoy !

Maori show

Coromandel beach

With my dad at Hot Water Beach - careful, that water is really hot !

Zorbing down the hill; uncontrollable laughter inside !

In January 2008, after visiting Asia and Australia, we traveled to New Zealand for two weeks. Here are some of my highlights of that great trip!

When we arrived in New Zealand we drove to Rotarua where we would we spend the next 3 nights. We went to this place called Te Puia where they have geysers and mud pools, which are pools of boiling mud, which look kind of like small geysers.

After that we went zorbing. Zorbing is where you roll down a hill in a zorb which is like a big inflatable hamster ball. We drove to the top of a hill and the people working there would put water inside the zorb. After that you had to dive into it into the water. Then when they told you to, you would stand up and push against the side of the Zorb to start it rolling. It would roll down really fast and you would be sliding, rolling over and trying to run inside it while it rolled down in what looked like an uncontrollable spin. It was one of the funnest things I have ever done. We did it twice.

Next day we went to the Lady Knox geyser where the ranger put a bar of soap in the geyser to make it erupt. It was kind of disappointing and felt artificial. After that we went on a walk where we saw more mud pools and a steaming lake with lots of different colored minerals in it. It was really cool. On the walk we saw a Pied Stilt, which is a very small bird with very long legs. That night we went to a Maori dinner, a hangi, where we saw a Maori performance, which was fun. They did a great haka, which we’ve seen many times by the New Zealand rugby team (the All Blacks). The next day we drove to the Waitomo glowworm caves on our way to Taupo. We walked into this big cave and the guide showed us the long glowworm strings, which the glowworms use to catch food. Then we went on this little boat inside the cave and saw thousands of glowing glowworms. It was kind of disappointing though because the whole thing was pretty quick and we’d made a long detour to get there. Then we continued our drive to Taupo.

The next day we went on the Tongariro Crossing, an 11.5-mile hike in Tongariro National Park through mountains, craters and volcanoes. We had to take a bus there and back so we had to finish in time to catch the last bus (there are only two). The first bus was scheduled to leave at 3.30 and since we had arrived on the later morning bus, if we wanted to catch the 3.30 bus back, we would have to complete the hike in less time than some of the people who started over an hour before us. The first part of the hike was an hour of flat walking. After that we climbed the very steep part called the Devils Staircase. There wasn’t really a path for that part so you would just climb up the rocks anywhere. My dad was carrying all our water (10 liters) and at the top he was covered with sweat. At the top we passed right next to the volcano that was used in the filming of Lord of The Rings for Mount Doom. Then we walked into this huge flat valley and then we scampered up this slope to the top of the Red Crater. At the top we walked on until we got to this steep drop where we ran down this slope with rocks and loose pebbles covering the path. At the bottom we got to the Emerald Lakes. We ate lunch next to the Emerald Lakes, which are green and shimmery. After that you walked through the Red Crater. When we reached the Ketetahi hut, abut 1-½ hours from the end, there were so many people there that we realized the wait for the second bus would be very long. So we decided to go really quickly to catch the first bus, which meant that me, my little brother and my dad had to run the last part to get our places and keep a place for my mom who was not far behind us. Tongariro crossing was definitely one of the best hikes I’ve ever done!

On the Tongariro Crossing

'Mount Doom'

On the way down to Blue Lake, Tongariro

After reaching Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, we took a two-hour ferry ride to the South Island of New Zealand. The ferry had 10 floors with 2 movie theaters ! The ride, through the Cook Straits, is spectacular, and starts preparing you for the glorious South island. When we got there we drove to Motueka, near Nelson, and then went to the beach at Kaiteriteri, where we played cricket and had dinner. Next morning we went back to Kaiteriteri and did a kayak tour in Abel Tasman National Park. First we kayaked for about 45 minutes to Split Apple Rock, which is a big rock that looks like a split apple. It is one of the most photographed places in New Zealand. We stopped at a beach there and went in this cave where we saw a Fairy Penguin. Then we swam at the beach and started kayaking back. On the way back we saw another Fairy Penguin swimming in the water. When we got back we took a water taxi to Bak beach. On the way there we saw a bunch of New Zealand Fur Seals. At Bak beach we did a walk to this other beach. When we got close to the end of the walk we took the low tide route, not realizing the tide had come in. We had to climb over all these rocks, and then walk through waist high water to get to the beach. When we got to the beach we swam until the water taxi came to take us back. On the way back we saw a pod of about a hundred Bottle Nosed Dolphins jumping and swimming next to the boat. It was incredible! I had never imagined New Zealand to have good beaches, but I was so wrong ! The beaches here, and at the Coromandel were spectacular.

Beautiful waters of Abel Tasman

More Abel Tasman

The next day we drove to this place called Buller Gorge where they have the longest swing bridge in New Zealand. First we went across the swing bridge, which swung a lot and was fun. Then on the other side we walked down this little path to the Buller River where we went on a 40-minute jet boat ride. The boat went really fast and sometimes would do spins at a really high speed. We got drenched, which was great fun! Then we went back up the path to this tower where we went on this thing called a Comet Line where you get strapped into this seat and you go really fast down and across the gorge on a zip line. It was really fun.

Fun at Buller Gorge

After that we drove to this town called Hokitika where we spent the night. The next day we drove to Franz Josef glacier where we were going on a hike on the glacier. At first they did not let my brother Benjy do it (because he was only 10) but when we told them he had done the Tongariro Crossing, they changed their minds! We got our crampons and boots and then we walked through a little forest to this glacier carved valley. We then walked on a really steep path up this cliff where we had to use ropes and chains. It was really exciting. After that we got to the glacier and had to climb up these steep ice stairs for an hour. After that our guide found a crevasse and we climbed through it. It was really cool. Then we walked around on the glacier and had lunch. We went higher until we got to this ice waterfall where a meter on either side of us were very deep crevasses. Then we headed back down. On the way back our guide found an ice tunnel, which we went into twice. It was really fun. Franz Josef glacier is one of the only 4 glaciers in the world that is in a rainforest, and one of the others is a few miles away at Fox Glacier.

On the glacier

In an ice tunnel on Franz Josef Glacier

Great shoes, hey ?

Our last great adventure was in Wanaka. My sister and me had asked our parents if we could go skydiving, and we were quite surprised when they said yes! My grandparents, who were with us, were horrified, and they were very relieved when on the day we couldn’t go because it was raining too hard. But the next day was beautiful, so off we went. We went up in a small plane strapped to these professional skydivers that we would jump with and who would pull the parachute cord. When we were at 2,000 feet it looked high, but we were going to 12,000 feet! When we got to 10,000 feet, even the mountains looked tiny! It had been decided I would go first (as the youngest) with my mom next (as the most scared), followed by my sister, and finally my dad. As we reached 12,000 feet me and the guy I was strapped to moved to the edge of the plane and smiled for a camera on the wing. (See my photo). Then we jumped off and it felt like I was going incredibly fast (which I was!). We flipped and then fell for 45 seconds before the parachute opened and we drifted down to the ground. It was probably one of the funnest things I have ever done. After that we went lugeing down a small mountain in Queenstown – that was fun, but not like jumping out of a plane at 12,000 feet !

With my sister, and grandparents before our jump

One, two, three, GO!!

That's me, I promise

Definitely New Zealand is an incredibly exciting destination filled with beautiful places and amazing things to do. You should go there !

Last day, Milford Sound

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Viva Colombia - a memorable family trip, July 2009

We flew into Bogota on July 4th. Lots of activity at the airport and we were glad we'd asked the hotel to have someone meet us at the airport. Especially if you're staying in La Candelaria as we did, this is something to consider, as no taxi driver seemed able to find our hotel over the next few days.Stayed at Abadia Colonial. Hotel is pleasant in a wonderful area. By day La Candelaria is buzzing with great atmosphere, but at night it’s completely closed. The hotel has decent sized rooms, lukewarm shower water and a forgettable breakfast. If you’re travelling with kids, as we do, you’ll probably have to supplement breakfast (a piece of fruit, eggs and coffee or hot chocolate) with something else. Luckily within the next 3 blocks, there are all sorts of tasty treats available either in cafes or being sold on the street. And if you’re not that excited by the coffee (usually very weak with a lot of milk) there’s a Juan Valdez cafe (a Colombian Starbucks-like establishment) nearby.Our first day, being a Sunday, we strolled around the Plaza Bolivar area. If you’re going to Bogota, you must be there on a Sunday, as most city streets are closed to cars until early afternoon and are taken over by walkers, joggers, families, cyclists, roller bladers and the likes. It’s an awesome sight, especially combined with vendors of every type hawking just about anything imaginable (or not).Next day we went to Zipaquira. Although tourists go there for the Salt Cathedral which is an incredible sight, you should not miss the actual town which is absolutely charming and has a fabulous central plaza. The bus however is a little bumpy and our 11 year old felt really sick.Last day in Bogota we first visited the Gold Museum . It has a great collection, but for kids it can get quite boring quickly. Our son far preferred strolling through the streets and markets outside. Afterwards we went up Montseratte from where you can get a wonderful view of the city.We loved Bogota. It feels very safe, there’s something to see everywhere, has a great atmosphere, and looks like a thriving city. I’d really recommend it for a surprisingly good family experience.
From there we went to San Andres. Talk about paradise ! Yes there are loads of beachfront hotels, jewellery, suitcase and duty free shops, but the water is beautiful and once you’re in the water you’ll struggle to get out ! Just a great place to relax and have a real Caribbean experience.
Our final destination was Cartagena. This is a truly beautiful, magnetic city. We stayed in the San Diego area which is perfect as you’re in the middle of everything. Other than the constant, blazing heat and humidity, this would be one of my favorite cities I’ve visited (the others would be Barcelona, Hanoi, Prague, London, San Francisco, Boston and Rome). We stayed at Tres Banderas and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular – it’s relatively inexpensive in a superb location. Again rooms are minimalistic (although they do have the strongest air conditioning imaginable) , breakfast is very ordinary (our son supplemented it daily with Yogurt – Kumis – from the giant Exito supermarket close by), but there’s free internet and they’re very friendly. We walked everywhere, but took taxis when the heat got too much. Be warned that the restaurants in the central area are expensive – much better to go to Gethsemani for a very satisfying, cheap lunch.One thing you must do in Cartagena is go to Volcan Totumo, the mud volcano. This is an incredibly bizarre and memorable experience. You strip down to your bathing suit and climb a few steps to the entrance. From there you’re eased into this bubbling mud pool (reputedly over a mile deep) and given a massage by one of the attendants. Someone else takes photographs with your camera that you’ve entrusted to him. You cannot sink even if you try and eventually you have a strange mud substance all over you (I could not get the residue mud out of my ears for a few days). Then you charge down to the lagoon to wash off; actually another (female this time) attendant washes you off, including ordering you to take off your bathing suit for rinsing. All in all it’s great fun.Another excursion we took was to Playa Blanca, a fabulous Caribbean beach. Be warned that the beaches and sea immediately off Cartagena are dirty and ugly so for a real Caribbean experience you must take a boat out 45 minutes to get to Playa Blanca or another beach.But most of all we loved strolling the streets, teeming with people, vendors, food and an amazing atmosphere. At night when the heat cools off somewhat to a more tolerable degree, the city is just magical. It’s just a great destination, and I’d go back tomorrow if I could !I’m also going to add some observations and tips, especially relevant if you’re travelling with kids.
1. We felt totally safe all the time. The reality we saw and experienced was worlds away from all the terrible things you hear about Colombia. Just be sensible as you would in many other places.
2. Unless you’re in an expensive hotel, breakfast may well be insufficient so be ready to stock up.
3. The weather in Bogota is much the same all year round. Mild to cool so pack accordingly. My son wore 2 of my light sweatshirts as well as his coat. In Cartagena, it’s always blazing hot.
4. The street food is excellent although there was a lot of things we did not try.
5. In Cartagena drink a lot of water all the time. I can’t stress this enough.
6. Don’t try mailing a letter in Colombia – they have an odd mail service, half privately run, so finding a post office is not worth the effort.
7. For lunch, have the plato del dia. It’s an incredible deal including soup, main dish and drink for only about 3 dollars. We went to GCB (Gethsemani Cafe Bar) 5 days in a row for lunch ! Also in Cartagena, try as many of the different fruit drinks as youcan. It’s worth it. Our favorite was maracuya – passion fruit.
8. In Cartagena, DO NOT take the package tours out to the Rosario islands. It’s a total rip off. Instead, get a boat out to Playa Blanca. Otherwise, you’ll sit on a very crowded boat for hours (as we did) instead of the beach.
9. Taxis within Cartagena cost about $2.50 everywhere so don;’t let yourself be ripped off.
10. Make sure you give yourselves plenty time to stroll the streets of Cartagena and Bogota. You’ll take in the great Colombian atmosphere.
11. In Cartagena, the big Exito supermarket in El Centro is a good place to duck into to escape the heat. Because it’s so close to almost everything, it never feels out of the way. They have a cash machine, deli, international phone station and lots of cold drinks !
12. A good chain restaurant for families is Crepes and Waffles – big selection, not too expensive.
13. Every internal flight we took was excellent and on time, including Avianca which I know has a mixed reputation.
14. In Cartagena, especially with kids, it’s worth staying in a hotel with a pool, even a small one. One can feel pretty desperate about the heat.
Overall, what we saw of Colombia we loved and I’d strongly recommend it. Let me know if you have any questions.