Land of the Long White Cloud, Part One

In 2016, we traveled to New Zealand’s North Island, after a brief stopover in Tahiti.  Arriving in Auckland, we rented a 24 ft RV to make a circuit of island highlights – starting with a visit to the Coromandel peninsula.  I thought a couple of nights along a beautiful beach would be just the right way to start out trip – Google maps says it’s only a couple of hours from the airport.  What I didn’t think about was the road to get there.  In a right-hand drive big box, driving on the left-hand side of the road.  Over the mountains, on twisty two lane roads with no shoulder.  Two years later, I still apologize to my dear Hub for how badly I planned the driving.

We had a campsite in Hahei, a nice quiet beach town, not far from Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach.  This was a very different type of camping from our experience, but it was great to be spending so much time outdoors.  Here’s the ginormous rolling home we rented.

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The beach was gorgeous, and we had this lovely sunrise.

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Like most of our trips, we planned at least one trip on a boat.  We drove over to Whitianga, and booked a tour with Captain Les of Sea Cave Adventures.  We were his only passengers and he took us on a great tour of Mercury Bay and the surrounding coastal area.  It was a small Zodiac style boat – very fun to ride, and able to access some really cool places.

Since New Zealand is volcanic in origin, there are a lot of caves along the coast, and it was so interesting to see how the lava cooled and formed.  Captain Les was born and raised in the area, and was a fountain of knowledge.  He also asked around and learned where the latest dolphin sightings were and took us out to see.

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I hope to one day return and spend more time exploring the rest of the Coromandel – such a beautiful part of New Zealand.  But on to more adventures!

Tahiti Time Out

As part of our airfare to New Zealand, Air Tahiti Nui offered 3 nights in a Tahiti hotel. Having spent a vacation on Moorea in 2009, we were happy to take advantage of this offer and enjoy the warmth of the Polynesian people again.  I decided to purchase an upgrade to an overwater bungalow at the Le Meridien resort – and was able to tick off an item on my “bucket list”.

However, flight schedules meant we would arrive very late at night, and only enjoy two full days at our resort.  But two days to relax in a tropical bungalow would be enough to jump start our trip and help us deal with the jet lag from long flights over several times zones.

We landed in a heavy rainstorm and strong winds, and later learned that Tahiti was feeling the fringes of some cyclone activity.  Despite waking to heavy rains, the day eventually cleared, and we were able to enjoy the view of the lagoon and mountain.

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You can borrow the resort’s two man kayak, or use their snorkel gear to explore the coral heads.  Due to heavy rains, the water was too murky to snorkel the first day, but I did do a brief snorkel the second day – and was chased off by the fish with the blue eyeliner who didn’t want his picture taken.  There was a pretty strong current just off the beach, which pulled you toward the lagoon opening, so I didn’t spend much time in the water. As I was walking on the boardwalk from the bungalow to the shore I did spot a ray gliding underneath.  You could also look down from the bungalow veranda and see a lot of the yellow and black fish in the clear water.

Le Meridien has a really nice pool with a sandy bottom.  It was enjoyable to relax on a lounge chair under an umbrella and feel the tropical breeze.  It was more than a breeze, but it certainly was balmy.

Although the grounds aren’t large, they were nicely landscaped, including fish ponds with plenty of water lily plants and koi.  One of the ponds was built directly above the restaurant on the lower level – each time we sat down to eat, we would wonder how much weight the columns had to support?

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Our first sunset was nice, but nothing as dramatic as the sunset on our last night.  By then, most of the cyclone activity had moved past, but there were plenty of dramatic clouds, and just enough rain for a brief rainbow over the resort.

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It was nice to be able to have the overwater bungalow experience for our three nights, but I don’t know that I would recommend this resort for anything other than a short layover.  If you are going to travel to French Polynesia as your destination, I would look into one of the other high islands, or the atolls (or a combination of both) to have a truly Polynesian experience.

 

 

 

 

 

Thingvellir National Park and Reykjavik

Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage site, in addition to being a National Park in Iceland.  Thingvellir was the site of open air parliamentary assembly (or Althing) of Iceland, which was held there annually from around 930 AD to 1798.

Thingvellir National Park is located in an active volcanic area, east of Reykjavík. Its best-defined feature is a major rift, which has produced dramatic fissures and cliffs between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate. The National Park is enclosed by a varied belt of mountains on three sides,  and Lake Thingvallavatn lies at its southern end.

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Christianity was adopted in Iceland around the year 1000, and the church below occupies the same site that the earliest churches were built.  This building was consecrated in 1859, and the spire contains three bells, with the most recent made in 1944 to ring in Iceland’s independence.

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Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, and is the most northernmost capital city in the world, at 64°08′ – less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle.  It’s a very walkable city, with a lively arts scene.  The Hallgrimskirkja is a landmark in downtown Reykjavik, and an excellent place to get a true bird’s eye view of the city from the tower.

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You can see a 360° view of the city from the four sides of the tower, and it’s worth the wait for the elevator.  The city has so many colors on its roofs and walls, and the tower is the best way to appreciate how colorful the city is.

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Of course there was a rainbow visible too!  Not only did we see a rainbow from the tower, but one of the streets is painted in a rainbow, and at least one of the buildings.

 

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If you do plan a visit, be sure to pack a good waterproof jacket and pants, because you never know when the weather is going to change up on you.  In the photo above, we were pelted with sleet, but less than 5 minutes later, it stopped and the sun returned.

I hope to go back to Iceland one day to see more of the country.  I would allow at least 10 days to make a trip around the island – more if spending any time exploring the fjords in northwestern Iceland.

Geysers, glaciers and getting around

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Right around the mountain from our cabin was the geyser, Strokkur.  With careful planning, and shooting on “burst mode” I was able to capture this blue dome just prior to the main eruption.  Strokkur erupts quite regularly, so if you are patient, you can get a wide variety of shots in the area.

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You can also walk around the area and look at the steam vents, old geysers and pools of 100 degree Celsius water, too.  87% of buildings in Iceland use geothermal to provide heat and hot water, and 25% of all energy produced in from geothermal.

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We also tried to go up into the Highlands to see the glacier Langjökull, but found the road too rough and too slow going.  We did get a very brief glimpse off in the distance.  Look hard – it disappears into the clouds.

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You can get close to and actually take a guided walk on the Sólheimajökull glacier.  It’s just a short, easy hike to get to the terminus of the glacier, although you really don’t want to get too close.

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We also got a glimpse of volcano, Hecla, which was dormant at the time of our visit.  This volcano has erupted over 20 times over the centuries. It’s off in the distance, and the cap is shrouded in clouds.

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Next post:  Thingvellir National Park

Aurora borealis

There were a number of reasons for visiting Iceland in October, but having a greater chance of seeing the aurora borealis was certainly one.  I have seen them in northern Michigan, but I don’t think Hubs and C ever had the opportunity.

The first two nights were so overcast, there was no chance of seeing anything.  But by the third night, the skies started to lift, and we saw the first of the 3 nights of the aurora.

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It was really dark in the valley where our cabin was location, and with very few large trees, the viewing was spectacular.  I found it interesting how the color temperatures of the exterior light changed, depending on where I stood.

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What is so amazing is how the lights move across the sky.  They will shimmer, or radiate, or drop like a curtain, or swirl out in long ribbons.  The colors will change from green to purple to even red at times.

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One night we didn’t even pick up the cameras.  Instead, we filled the hot tub with piping hot water and had a soak, drinking sparkling wine.  Talk about a bucket list item!

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We spent two night in downtown Reykjavik, right behind the Hallgrimskirkja and about 4 blocks to the waterfront.  As soon as we started to see the lights, we  grabbed our gear and high-tailed it down there to watch the lights.  Unfortunately, the strongest display was occurring as we were hustling down to the water, so we missed out on those captures.  This photo below is the cover of the 2016 calendar.
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Hubs woke me from bed one night to come watch the lights from inside our apartment.  It was nice being able to shoot in pajamas!

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I found a couple of great websites to help show predicted activity, and will bookmark it for future us here in Michigan.  They don’t often travel this far south, but you never know.
Next up:  Geysers and glaciers and getting around

Waterfalls waterfalls waterfalls! Rainbows, too.

And more waterfalls!  I thought Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was cool with its 500 waterfalls, but Iceland has to easily bypass that amount.  Little waterfalls/rapids along the road to roaring torrents to one that can be walked behind.  If you’re visiting on a sunny day, there will be a rainbow, too.

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This is Godafoss, or Golden Falls on the Hvita river..  It was about 10-15 minutes up the road from our cottage.  It is  one of the most popular attractions in the Golden Circle tour of south Iceland.  We could see the tour buses heading up and back across the valley.

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This is a really beautiful falls, with the two tiers of cascades running at right angles into a narrow chasm.  Very misty, very loud.  We were so lucky to catch it in between rain squalls, and with the sun at our backs. We did remark that if it was in the US, there would no doubt be all sorts of guardrails and signage and liability waivers.

On another day we drove along the south coast and visited several more waterfalls.  Sjellalandfoss is easily visible from the road, and has a path that passes behind the falls.  I didn’t make the climb, but C did and said it was a bit treacherous.  Instead, I walked along the face of the escarpment and saw two more waterfalls.

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From here we had a short ride to Skogafoss.  This is also a very accessible waterfall, and visible from the Ring Road.  You could walk very close, although we didn’t to keep our cameras dry.  There is also a trail that leads up to the top, and continues upstream where there are many, many more falls.

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More good luck with rainbows at the falls! The tiny little people in the distance show how close you can get and what the scale really is.  Skogafoss is 197 feet, and is on what used to be the old coastline.

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We even saw this glorious double rainbow stretched across the coastal plain.

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Next installation – aurora borealis!

The land of fire and ice

At the beginning of October 2015, we took a trip to Iceland.  We being myself, my spouse and our friend C.  Since we all live in the Detroit area, our flight connections were through Washington DC, Boston or New York.  And all three of those choices meant a night in a hotel on our return, due to the lateness of the flight.  So we decided to fly direct to Reykjavik from Toronto International. The airport would normally be a 3.5-4.5 hour drive, but rain and a freeway closure slowed us down.  Finding parking was another story, once we got to the airport – a story I’d rather not relive.  But we checked in on time, and went off to find food and drink near our gate.  After a round of tequila shots, we were ready to board and nap our way to Iceland.

Actually, flying from Toronto had a number of advantages, the first being that it was non-stop redeye.  Only five hours – five bumpy hours, due to the weather.  Secondly, when you depart Iceland, the Immigration lines going to Canada were much shorter.  Third – price.  Next time, we leave from Windsor, or take the train.  And I will get a Nexus trusted traveler card.

After a very bouncy landing and deplaning onto the tarmac into a sideways downpour, we exchanged some money, bought some bottles of wine and a SIM card, and waited none too patiently for our car rental shuttle driver.  Collected the vehicle, loaded up and headed off to the Blue Lagoon; tiredness and nerves about nagivating navigating, driving, and foul weather made for a tough start.  Getting to the check-in (after another walk in the downpour)  and finding out the lagoon was too cold for soaking was almost enough to get us on the next plane outta there!

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We drove about an hour and a half to reach our rental cottage near Geysir.  It was one of a group of cottages situated in a lovely valley nearly around the corner from the geyser Strokkur.  There was a mixup regarding which cottage we were booked into, but once that was sorted out, we all crashed for a nap before heading around the mountain to Geysir.  Rest and food helped to restore us, and an early night to bed meant we could begin our adventures the next day – hoping to find some sun!

After checking the forecast, I decided we should head our toward Akranes and Bogarnes – the west coast had the best weather forecast that day.  If you’re from Michigan, you’ve heard the saying “Wait five minutes, and the weather will change.”  Well, in Iceland that is just a fact of life.

Our route took us through Thingvellir, a National Park situated near the junction of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We could see a large waterfall, and decided to go take a look.  We found Oxararfoss, where C and I took a short walk for some photos, while hubs stayed out of the drizzle.

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Still chasing the sun, we kept driving to the northwest, until we got Akranes, where the sky lightened and the sun made a brief appearance.  So thankful it finally stopped raining!  We enjoyed a delicious lunch and then a little walk about town to admire the architecture and stretch our legs.

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Icelandic towns are very colorful, with metals roofs and bright paint jobs. You need some lively colors to brighten up long dark nights, and dreary days.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a purple house?

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We drove through Borgarnes and out onto the Snaellfesnes peninsula.  There was no particular destination, except for someplace with a great view, or something interesting to photograph.  If I ever do get back to Iceland, I want to spend more time exploring the northwest.

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