Hiking in Madrid – Collado Mediano

Collado Mediano Area Hike and Mountains

After 3 weeks of walking on sidewalks, hearing sirens, seeing mostly buildings, cars and people, and stressing out about finding an apartment, it was time to get out of the city.  I had initially planned on just taking the train up to the mountains when I suddenly stumbled upon a website about Hiking in Madrid.  I hadn’t even thought about hiking here but it turns out there are lots of mountains and river valleys nearby so why not?  It would also be a great way to get some fresh air, meet some more people, and get more comfortable using our great local transportation.

I contacted them to get more information on upcoming hikes and I went to the local bookstore to pick up a copy of their book.  Their Saturday and Sunday hikes both sounded great.  Robert had some work to do on Sunday so we opted for Saturday’s hike.  For 10 euro (plus transportation) we met at the bus station at the pre-arranged time and we were taken to our destination outside the city to hike for 3-4 hours – lunch and a drink afterward are included.  There were 28 people that went that day.  Most of them live in Madrid.  Most of them spoke both Spanish and English.  They were of all ages and from all over.  Someone even brought their dog.  We had people from Israel, Britain, Mexico, Lithuania, the US, and other parts of Spain.

Our Hike Reminded Me a lot of Arizona

This particular hike was about 45 minutes outside the city near the small town of Collado Mediano (which means Middle Valley).  When we arrived in town, we had a 20 minute break to stock up on water, get breakfast, use the bathroom and check out the town before heading out.  The croissants we had was SO good, we should have bought more.

We headed up and out of the village.  There were trails going in every direction (many mountain bike trails), so it was good to have someone point out which way we were suppose to go.  Our hike was pretty much straight up hill to the top.  The rock outcroppings, vegetation and mountains here remind me a LOT of southern Arizona.  It was plenty hot that day too – which also reminding me a lot of Arizona.  Next time we go, I’ll know to bring extra water and another back pack.

View of the valley

We had a great time.  It was exactly what we needed.  Good exercise but very relaxing at the same time.  The views along the way were great.  We could see the world’s largest cross in the Valley of the Fallen off in the distance.  We could see the many surrounding mountains, several reservoirs, and other towns and villages dotting the countryside.  We eventually found a nice shady spot in the pines to have our lunch (which was peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and chips).  We had lots of interesting conversations that day and met lots of interesting people.  Eventually we headed down the mountain – which was easier.  It was mostly a long winding path back down the side of the mountain we climbed.  There were thunderstorms in the area which cooled the temperature a bit and provided us with much needed cloud cover.

When we returned to Collado Mediano, we had to wait over an hour for the next bus to Madrid.  Which was great actually, because we were thirsty.  And here in Spain there’s nothing better than just sitting outside at one of the local taverns and having some drinks and tapas.  And that’s exactly what we did!

For more pics, just click on the photos.

Croissants!

Largest cross off in the distance

 

Our Final Days in Chiang Mai

Worarot Market

Worarot Market

Our week in Chiang Mai flew by.  We only had two days to really relax and just enjoy the city.  One day after a yummy “French-Thai” lunch (and an awesome pomelo salad!), we walked the streets of the neighborhood.  We headed straight for the huge local markets we saw along the Ping river when we were returning from Chiang Dao.  On the map it is called Worarot Market –  it was nearly void of tourists.  This is where the locals come to shop – as most items for sale were practical day to day goods.  The market’s main building, which is over 100 years old is three stories tall.  The first story is all food: meats, fish, vegetables – from fresh to dried, preserved, and packaged.  The second floor was filled with clothing and fabrics, and the top floor looked to be toys, furniture and more clothes (we actually never made it up there).  The “market” however, is not just confined to that building.  All the adjoining streets and buildings house more shops containing all sorts of items for sale:  Electronics, kitchen goods, sewing repair shops, tools, jewelry, shoes, etc.  It’s a maze with little alley walls and halls leading everywhere. I’m pretty sure only a local resident could find the same shop twice around here.  Just when we thought we were out, we quickly realized we were in the flower market.  Adjacent to that was a “food court” and the butcher shop…are you getting the picture?  Finally we did find our way out and ended up at the Chinese Shrine, Pong Thao Kong.  Here I read, that this section of the city is where the largest number of Chinese settlers took up residence and started their businesses, so the whole area is also referred to as the China Town of Chiang Mai.  This whole area was so interesting, we decided to plant ourselves atop a foot bridge nearby and hang out for a while.  It was fun watching the vibrant city below us and the everyday activity of it’s people.

Wat Doi Suthep Patrons

Wat Doi Suthep Patrons

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we hired a driver for half a day and went up the mountain 8 miles west of the city to to see Wat Doi Suthep.  A wat that was built because a white elephant caring the magical self-replicating buddha statue came up here, trumpeted, turned around three times and died.  Personally, I think they built it here for the view.  From up here you can also see the whole city of Chiang Mai (which is best right before sunset).  We went mid-morning, so the view was still mostly obstructed by morning rays and haze.  The mountain also has waterfalls, trails, birds, and the king’s palace (which if we had more time I’d come back to explore).  Despite the excessive number of visitors, the wat really is worth seeing.  It’s packed with tourists.  Vendors are lined up all along the streets right to the base of the stairs.  There are tour buses and cars everywhere.  I felt like I was at Disneyland.  Fortunately our taxi driver knew a great spot to park not far from the entrance and we managed to avoid most of the mayhem.  We spent nearly 2 hours here, so obviously there is a lot worth seeing.   The stairs up are pretty cool.  The railing on both sides is a long green undulating serpent dragon with four serpent dragons coming out of it’s mouth.  Local mother’s come here with their young children dressed up in traditional dress who will take their picture with you (hoping for a tip).  When you get to the top, it’s a double bonus.  The outside courtyard is wide open and beautiful…almost worth an hour itself.   The inside is a different world (and totally worth the 30 baht ($1) entrance fee) – ornate and loaded with religious artifacts.  The gold plated chedi, the murals, the emerald buddhas, and religious relics of all sorts.  There is an amazing number of intensely devout subjects who come here despite all the tourists taking pictures.  How they managed to block us all out, amazed me.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Our last stop was Wat Suan Dok.  This is the wat where the famous white elephant (mentioned above) started it’s journey.  From these grounds you can easily see Wat Doi Suthep up in mountain.  The name Suan Dok roughly translates to “Field of Flowers” – how nice is that?  We really enjoyed this place.  There were only a handful of tourists, lots of monks, and it was so different from the others.  It had a huge, long prayer hall that I couldn’t even fit in my camera lens. Instead of the prayer hall being enclosed, it was open on all sides so it didn’t feel confining or too formal.  Next door to the hall was a huge burial ground – a forest of white reliquaries….containing the remains of Chiang Mai’s past rulers/leaders (the national royal burial grounds!).  The whole place is also very photogenic as well.  But, the absolute best thing about this place, was the little restaurant hidden just off the grounds.  Our cooking instructor mentioned it, and I had seen it mentioned in a couple other local blogs, so I was hell bent on finding this gem – and fortunately we did.  Pun Pun was, without a doubt, the best place we ate in Thailand.  It’s all organic yet incredibly inexpensive.  The presentation of the food is impeccable, the service friendly and relaxed, the atmosphere casual and fun, and the food was mouthwatering fresh and flavorful.  I hope this place is still here when we return.  We had an absolutely amazing time in Chiang Mai, and we really weren’t ready to leave.  It’s easy to understand why there are so many repeat visitors.  We barely scratched the surface of everything there is to do here.  We’ll definitely come back here someday.

Day 6 – Doi Suthep & Wat Suan Dok

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao

Our Japanese Tour Experience on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise

We’ve always been DIY travelers, but since it was the off-season in Okinawa and Iriomote Island is mostly uninhabited and operating on skeleton schedules, I really did not want to mess something up and get us stuck on this island.  There was also a lot we wanted to see and do.  We thought it might be nice to actually have someone else do all the planning – so we asked the Concierge to book us on a Japanese Tour.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to understand any of the narration – but that didn’t bother us, we live with that every day.  We were just looking forward to relaxing and being like little ducklings for a day.  They were even going to pick us up and return us to the hotel.

Our nearly full tour bus left the hotel at 8:00am.  I had a vague idea what the overall itinerary was, but I never received a detailed schedule.  The bus dropped all of us off at the ferry terminal and we were told to stand in line (along with dozens of other people) and wait for our turn at the counter.  When we got there, the guy said a bunch of stuff in Japanese and handed us some tickets.  The only two things we understood was Gate 6, Boat 1 and return to the counter at the end of tour.  We were hoping for a bit more information than that.  We boarded the completely full ferry, a little nervous.  I think we looked, acted, and sounded as confused as we were.  When we arrived at the island, we headed for another line (that everyone else was in) hoping to get some direction (we didn’t know what else to do).  Fortunately, a gentlemen in a hawaiian shirt approached us directly and said “B Course?  Bus, this way”.  He led us to a bus (we noticed the sign in the bus window had four letters, one of which was B).  Now we were starting to feel a bit more comfortable.   The crowd we were with had finally been narrowed down.  When the bus was ready to go, the hawaiian shirt guy came onboard asking everyone (in Japanese) if anyone knew English (other than us), but no one did OR at least no one admitted they did – in fear they would have to babysit us all day.  That made us start worrying all over again.

River tour in Iriomote

River tour in Iriomote

He said something to the bus driver, and we were off.  The coach ride was actually very nice.  With lots of big windows and seats much higher up than a car – we had a great view of everything.  Right away it became evident that the island is almost completely covered with a thick subtropical primeval forest.  If you are not on a river, a road or some well trod path you won’t be able to go anywhere.  The island’s only main road follows the coast to the other side of the island – and that is where we were headed.  In route, our bus driver did a lot of talking and the passengers did a lot of laughing.  We were able to pick out a few things he talked about (or pointed out): the Iriomote cat (no, we didn’t see one), the kanmuri-washi bird (a crested serpent eagle), the waterfalls, some islands, something about pineapples and mangos, and the hot springs.

The bus did stop once about 1/2 way to our destination and some people got off (happily we knew this was not our stop – unlike one of the other couples).  We arrived at the Urauchi River by 10:00am.  As we exited the bus, we noticed the bus driver had scribbled down on a sheet of paper (just for us):  Bus go 1:00.  Ahhh, I think we can do that!  Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be as difficult as we thought.  We soon boarded a little cruise boat.  Someone handed us a sheet of paper saying 12:40. We figured this must be the time the boat would return.  The boat only had 12-15 people on it, so we had lots of room to move around and get a good view of everything the captain was pointing out.  Aside from the sound of the boat engines when moving, it was ultra quiet going up river.  The further we went, the more tropical and lush the vegetation became.  We passed mangroves, saw some big white birds, a couple kayakers, more waterfalls, inlets, fish, and another kanmuri-washi bird (this one actually dove in and caught a fish).  I was really expecting to see a lot more birds. The other rain forests we’ve been to were full of birds and creature sounds, but here it was so quiet.

River tour in Iriomote

Water Fall seen on River Tour

We docked at the trail head around 11:00.  We confirmed with the captain that the boat would leave at 12:40.  I knew we were suppose to hike to some waterfall 30 minutes away, so we followed the others along the trail.  Off we went, but at a fairly slow pace – Robert’s knee was all of a sudden really bothering him (probably from his swim the night before).  He almost turned around twice, but he stuck with it.  Luckily we didn’t encounter any wild boar or snakes to run away from. 🙂  We made it to the observation tower of Mariyudo Falls and even a bit further, but the path down to the falls had been closed (looked like it was washed away), so we headed back.  We returned to the dock with a few minutes to spare (there was no way WE were going to be late).  The captain almost left a couple of young girls there who were a couple minutes late arriving.  He probably would have left, if it was us instead of them.  The boat trip back was much faster but so relaxing.  It was a beautiful sunny day and we were just soaking up the rays and the scenery.

We boarded the bus at 1:00 and were quickly dropped off for lunch.  The drivers notepad now said: Bus go 1:50.  A yummy Bento box lunch was waiting for us at a lovely little restaurant (which we would have never found ourselves).  One waitress knew enough English to explain to us everything we were eating.  There was a lot of food, but we ate everything – I guess we were hungrier than we thought.

Yubu Island

Yubu Island Warning Sign

Our first stop after lunch was the other star sand beach.  This time, I decided to look for it.  I figured it would be easier to spot them if I put the sand on the black coral – and sure enough there it was!  I showed it to Robert, and he we was able to find some – pretty cool.

The bus slowly made it’s way back to ferry terminal along the same road.  The bus driver didn’t talk much this time, he just played some Okinawan music playing.  Robert took a nap.  Our last stop was Yubu Island.  I really wasn’t interested in visiting this very small island, but it was included in the price, so we went.  It actually ended up being quite fun and funny.  We even got to see the water buffalo family tree.  Our water buffalo cart driver played us some music on his sanshin and we watched all the carts being pulled back and forth across the shallow sand bar.  The water buffalo are really strong, though not very cute.  The island was full of sandy paths going every which direction.  We walked all of them, entertained by all the silly creatures and features along the way.

Before we knew it, we were headed back across the sandbar and boarding our bus for the last time.  We eventually boarded the ferry back and then returned to our hotel.  That was it.  We did it!   We managed to make it through the day without any problems or mistakes.  It made for a very memorable experience and we would consider doing it again.  I wonder if this now makes us professional Japanese Tourists? 🙂

The Beautiful Village of Kurokawa

Kurokawa is an onsen town in the middle of our island (Kyushu).  It is about 40 kilometers north of Mt Aso (Japan’s largest volcano – which would explain why there is an abundance of hot springs).   According to the Kurokawa Spa Association website, the history of the town as a hot springs/spa/onsen destination goes back at least 300 years.  Feudal lords use to come from nearby areas to “cure their wounds” or as a rest stop on long journey.  However, it has only been about 50 years since the town started marketing the area as a resort, and only within the last 10 years that it has become really popular.  Some claim it is one of the best onsen towns in all of Japan. I have no idea if it is or not, but it certainly is a beautiful place.  There is no touristy glitz, no big ugly buildings or signs, no convince stores or fast-food chains, and even a very limited number of shops and restaurants.  It seems to have stayed true to it’s roots.

There are only about 30 ryokan in the area, each with less than 20 rooms, so they tend to book up months in advance.  Getting a room on a Saturday night is nearly impossible, so Robert actually had to take a Friday off so we could go.  Most of the places only have Japanese websites, so I had to get assistance from a co-worker to actually book the place.  The ryokan we picked, Hozantei, was recommended by several people, and each room has it’s own private rotemburo (outdoor bath).  The village is only accessible by car or bus…we took the bus.  The scenery getting there was spectacular.  The bus ride was like a roller coaster ride (but without the tracks).  The roads were incredibly narrow, curvy and built on cliffs.   Our bus driver earned every penny he made by managing to get us there safely.

We arrived in Kurokawa around noon.  After glancing at the map near the station, we proceeded down stairs to a small back street that headed into the heart of town.  I found the restaurant I had read about previously which serves curry, so we decided to have lunch since neither of us had any breakfast.  We then walked around the town and figured out where everything was.  We could have easily walked our ryokan, since it was only about 3 km from town, but we had already set up the pick-up time and didn’t want to confuse them.  Upon arrival, they immediately escorted us to our own little cottage, pointing things out and telling us something (I have no idea what).  We did manage to figure out when dinner and breakfast were and where we needed to go, the rest (I hope) was not important.  We settled in, had our tea and biscuit, and took full advantage of our private hot tubs until dinner.

Dinner was served in a special dining room.  Tonight’s menu was laid out in front of us (in Japanese) and course after course was presented to us.  They did their best to explain what each thing was, but there’s no way I could remember it all.  It was all delicious.  I ate everything, except for the whole fried fish (the bugged out eye, spine and intact stomach just didn’t appeal to me).  Robert, however, ate even that – head, tail and all…which really impressed the Japanese women.  We both had horse sashimi (the speciality of the area) – which is actually very tender and tasty.  I’m not sure what the best part was…so many flavors and textures, all so fresh and each presented as a piece of art.  I’m really sorry I didn’t have my camera with me.

When dinner is over, you can’t move.  You’re so full, you only want to sleep.  We each slept on a single futons with a buckwheat pillow.  This experience is literally one step above camping.  After sleeping like that for one night, it’s no wonder they love their onsens…you get so sore sleeping on the hard ground, you need them to recover.  These cottages (like the Japanese houses) are made very simple, so you hear every outdoor noise.  The river and the rain was wonderfully hypnotic.  But right before daybreak, Robert was sure there was some creature in our room eating the treats I brought.  He had to get up and check it out.  In fact there was plenty of animal activity going on outside that morning…it had me giggling.

Our own private hot spring bath

Amazingly we didn’t wake up still full, thus enabling us to enjoy our wonderful multi-course Japanese breakfast (mainly a variety of fish, tofu, vegetables, rice, egg) which was also fantastic.

We didn’t have to check out until 11am so we spent a leisurely morning watching the ducks and heron from our spa.  We were both so completely relaxed at this point we didn’t want to go.  We finally checked out and decided to walk to town.  We did some shopping, had some coffee and ice cream and eventually caught our bus back to the city.  The drive back was equally as beautiful on the way back, but fortunately it wasn’t nearly as frightening since we now had the inside lane. 🙂

I’m already looking for another place to stay there….maybe in the spring.

 

 

Montana Summer 2011 – A Reminiscence (nice word, thanks spellcheck!)

Cow on the way to the butcher.

Death Next Door – but Tasty!

We had a great, but very dramatic summer.  We returned to floods all over Montana, record snow fall, a deer that took up residence in our backyard and a leaking pipe in our basement.  Shortly after getting everything back in good shape, we had a long, violent thunderstorm with golf ball size hail that wrecked havek on our yard, house and truck – which now requires us to get a new roof, new gutters and our deck repaired.

The events kept piling on.  There was lots of drama on the family side of things, including fires threatening family homes in AZ, a dear uncle dying, and a cousin who shot his 40+ dogs and now is dealing with the law.

On the positive side of things, it was absolutely wonderful to see our families, friends and pets (which we missed very much) and we spent lots of time outdoors and doing some great hikes.  Rose got to fly down to AZ to see and spend time with her mother and a couple of sisters.  We enjoyed having friends visit and we got to eat some really great meals (sorry Japan, we still prefer American beef) and drink some fantastic wine.  It was the fastest two months we’ve ever had.  I can’t believe it came and went so quickly.  Hope you enjoy these pictures highlighting our summer (click on a picture to seem them all).

4th of July in Luther (Parent's House)

Spending Time with Family & Friends

I’m not sure either of us were really ready to leave our beloved Montana yet (as fall is also spectacular here), but at the same time, we were both excited to get back to Japan and the adventures of teaching and travel.

Rock Creek Valley

Our Playground

NZ: Milford Sound

6am Cordrona Pass

The Crown Range Summit at Sunrise

We woke at daybreak (5:00am), showered, packed and left our B&B at 5:45am.  The worst part about leaving that early was we wouldn’t have time for our wonderful breakfast. 🙁  Amazingly, Blythe was up, had the table set, and was ready to make us breakfast even though we told them not to bother since neither of us have an appetite that early in the morning.  Besides, I had at least 5,000 calories worth of chocolate the night before which prevented me from sleeping very well.  Fortunately, Robert did all the driving (apparently, my driving scares him even when I’m well rested).

It was an incredibly clear, crisp morning as we started our 4 hour drive to Milford Sound.  As the bird flies Milford Sound isn’t far at all (just over the mountains), but by road you have to go way out of the way to get there.  Most people take the bus-cruise-bus option, but we both preferred to be on our own time schedule so that didn’t appeal to us.  This was a truly interesting and amazing drive.  We stopped briefly at the top of the Crown Range for a spectacular sunrise view of the valleys below.  We weren’t the only ones up that early driving to Milford but it sure looked like it most of the time.  We encountered areas where the winds were literally howling…making me very thankful we didn’t rent a high profile vehicle or camper van.  We drove through huge expanses of uninhabited (and uninhabitable) land.  We made it to Te Anau by 8:00am (which is the 1/2 way point), filled up with gas, got some coffee, and picked up a sandwich from Subway to take with us for lunch.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

As we headed out of Te Anau the landscape gradually turned from semi-arid to rain forest.  The road followed Lake Te Anau and then the Eglinton river valley deep into the canyon.  All of a sudden it felt as if we were in another world.  Thick dark forests and snow capped mountains covered with waterfalls.  The road steadily climbed in altitude until we came face to face with a solid granite mountain.  It was here that we waited for our turn to use the one-lane Homer tunnel.  This 3/4 mile long tunnel looked very primitive with it’s solid rock walls and no lighting.  Without any turns, it descended steeply into the Milford Sound canyon, where we then followed a series of switchbacks that took us back down to sea level and the entrance to Milford Sound (which is really a fiord).  The first sight of the fiord was pretty spectacular, mainly because of the sheer size of the mountains rising straight out of the water.  It was also completely still with the mountains being reflected in the water.  The clouds sure didn’t hurt the view either.

Seals napping

We put on our rain gear and had a bite to eat to hold us over until we returned from our 2-hour cruise (hoping to avoid a Gilligan’s Island experience).  Although it was not raining when we left the dock, we didn’t want to risk getting soaked in this place which receives over 275 inches a year.  We chose to take a smaller boat that could get closer to the waterfalls and wildlife and also took us out into the Tasman sea for a view of the entrance from the ocean.  Due to all the recent rains there was no shortage of waterfalls.  Watching the other boats in the distance gave us a good perspective on just how large the waterfalls and mountains really are.  We were lucky to get a few breaks of sunshine allowing us to view the fiord in sunlight.  We saw two colonies of seals and a couple of ‘tree avalanche’ areas (which were caused by heavy rains).  I was a little worried about the swells we would experience out at sea, but they actually turned out to be quite fun.  A few passengers were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and got drenched, others chose to be drenched when our boat moved under the waterfalls.  This whole experience was simply a ton of fun and unlike anything we’d ever done before.

After the cruise was over, we finished the rest of our lunch and stopped a few more times on our way back to Queenstown to take more pictures.  Robert even let me drive for about 1/2 hour (but no more after that).  We made it to Queenstown by 6pm and checked into our apartment.  It was located on Lake Wakatipu and had great views of the lake and mountains.  It also had everything we would need for the next two days.  We could walk to town in about 20 minutes along the lake trail.  We drove to the grocery store and picked up stuff for our breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the next couple days.  It was so nice to have a place completely to ourselves and a washer and dryer to do some laundry. 🙂

NZ: The Elusive Mt. Cook & Central Otago

Road to Mt. Cook

Lake Pukaki – on the way to Mt. Cook

Our quest on day 4 was to see Mt Cook, but waking up to rain was not a good sign.  After packing our bags we headed south and eventually the rain stopped and the skies cleared up.  We came to Lake Pukaki whose color is (I kid you not) a fluorescent Carolina Blue.  Even on Google Maps this lake looks freakishly light blue – and fake.  But WOW is it incredibly beautiful!  We drove the full length of the lake into the canyon that houses the access points to Mt Cook.  The closer we got, the windier it got and clouds were forming quickly.  By the time we got into the National Park it was mostly cloudy, and by the time we got to the end of the road it was pouring rain so hard we couldn’t see anything.  We hung out at the resort and drank a cup of coffee and checked out the museum and shopped, hoping the storm would pass, but no such luck – this thing was going to stick around all day.

Shrek the Merino Sheep

The Shrek’s Wool

We left the park and the skies gradually cleared as we continued our way south into Central Otago.  We stopped in the incredibly cute and tiny town of Tarras for a long lunch and to check out the shops. We also learned to appreciate just how crazed people here are about their mountain bikes.  We saw a guy who had his bike attached to the side of his motorcycle – still not sure how he got on and off.  We also got to see raw wool from Shrek (the famous sheep that eluded shearers for six years) which was pretty cool.

We then headed west following a huge river toward the town of Wanaka which is situated on another huge lake.   This is a beautiful and well planned mountain town – with lots of parks and open spaces so everyone can enjoy the views.  Bike trails and walking trails make it very conducive to outdoor activities.  And plenty of shops and restaurants for us to check out on another day.

B&B in Cardrona

Waiorau Homestead – our B&B in Cardrona

Our next B&B was in Cardrona which was 20km outside of town.  This particular B&B is ranked #1 on Trip Advisor for the South Island (so I just had to find out why).  It quickly became obvious as we drove down the driveway.  Not only is it in a beautiful secluded location across from the Cardrona Ski Mountain, but they greet you with a glass of wine and a platter of cheese and fruit.  The house (circa 1928) was restored, retaining it’s charm, yet it is fashionably decorated.  The hosts are extremely pleasant and helpful and they make you feel as if the place is all yours….so we pretended it was and just hung out enjoying the beautiful grounds and views for the rest of the day.  They offered to cook us a lamb dinner, but we decided to check out the historic hotel and pub in Cardrona instead.  Being the off-season for the ski mountain, we pretty much had that whole place to ourselves too.

The next morning we headed for Bannockburn and Cromwell – which some argue has the best pinot noir in the world, so we had to check it out.   Neither of us are wine experts, but we were not disappointed.  As for the best in the world?…well, we still have lots of places to check out before we can make that call. 🙂

The Kea Bird we saw on the way to Milford Sound

We headed back to Wanaka where it was drizzling on and off.  We checked out the shops and Robert was finally able to get his hair cut by someone who could speak English.  The spring rain storm moved out revealing snow on the mountain tops in the distance.  The forecast was calling for some ‘fine’ weather over the next 3 days so we decided to venture into Milford Sound tomorrow.  This meant we’d have to get up pretty early in order to make the long drive.  We ate an early dinner in Wanaka and headed back to our B&B where they had a large plate of desserts waiting for us.

An interesting tidbit I learned is that four National Parks on the South Island comprise a UNESCO World Heritage area (Westland National ParkMt Aspiring National ParkAoraki/Mt Cook National Park and Fiordland National Park.)   Two-thirds of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Park is covered with forest – beech and podocarps – some of which is over 800 years old. The only alpine parrot in the world – the kea – also lives in the park, as well as the endangered flightless takahe, and a myriad unique marine animals.  What an amazing place.

 

NZ: The Drive to the Southern Alps

Sorry about the delay in posting to our blog…we were so busy (having fun) we didn’t have time to write in our blog.  But now that we are back in Japan, with a few days to just relax, we can catch up.  It’s also wonderful to be able to ‘re-live’ the experience again by writing about it.

Road to Lake Tekapo

The Road to Lake Tekapo

After two wonderfully relaxing days in Blenheim drinking great wine and eating great food, we began our 600 kilometer drive to Lake Tekapo in the Southern Alps.  The south island of New Zealand is not very populated.  All the main highways are just two lanes (one lane each way) with many roundabouts and one-lane bridges (which you take turns crossing).  They are curvy, back-country roads with few cars (except around the main cities, but even then a two-lane motorway is very uncommon and stop lights are rare).  The countryside on the northeast part of the south island is green rolling hills with mountains in the background.  It looks like a combination of Oregon and Washington.  The range of plants and flowers that grow on this part of the island is incredible, and everything blooms profusely.

As we drove south, the vines and orchards were soon replaced with farms: crops, sheep, cows and deer.  We crossed several gigantic river beds which made me imagine just how much snow melt/water run-off this island has accommodated….it’s both mind boggling and scary.  We drove through a lot of little country towns, saw very little traffic, and tractors on the road became a common obstacle.  By the time we were in the foothills, the terrain started looking a lot like Montana.  We had great views of the mountains and the alpine meadows were covered with lupine.

We arrived at Lake Tekapo around around 5pm, but, since it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, we had five more hours of sunlight to enjoy the area.  We were lucky to see the lake on a sunny day.  Glacier formed lakes have remarkable colors that keep changing as the day progresses.

Church at Lake Tekapo

The Church at Lake Tekapo

It’s frustrating that camera’s can’t truly portray what a place is really like.  We walked along the lake taking pictures of the various views as well as the infamous church that sits on its shore.  We had dinner at a casual Japanese restaurant with a fabulous view of the lake.  By 10pm the clouds had come in, so night-time sky viewing at the observatory wasn’t going to happen, but we were so tired from the days events, it was a probably a good thing.

Our B&B was great too. It had nice views of the lake and lots of friendly dogs and cats to play with.  We slept well, since it rained all night, and it was still drizzling in the morning.  Steve and Jenny made a fabulous breakfast for us which included local sausage, bacon, honey, with scrambled eggs and roasted tomato, mushrooms and onions.  All this was in addition to muesli, freshly sliced fruit, homemade yogurt, tea, coffee and juice.  While all our breakfasts were wonderful, this one was the best.  After this one, we knew that we were both going to have to diet after our trip was over.