The earth was swaying, and if there is one word by which to describe what I had just experienced, it would be ¨Wow¨. That word passed my lips too many times to count. My little Russian research vessel, the Alexsey Maryshev, left the port of Ushuaia, Argentina, late in the evening on the 19th of January, 2009. I had arrived in Ushuaia a week before without a ticket for a boat to Antarctica. I knew it would be cheaper to get a cancellation and I had given myself the time to try and find one. Everyday I would visit the tour agent Daniela at Ushuaia Tourism, across the street from my cozy hostel, “Freestyle”. By day three she amazingly found a cancellation on the exact boat I had wanted with only 50 passengers and around 20 staff. I was one of the youngest as these trips are very expensive and cannot cater to the usual budget backpacker. The average age was mid 60´s and one man was 89 years old! There was a large group from Switzerland so everything had to be said twice, in English and French. Passengers were from the U.S., Canada, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Ireland and even one woman from Russia! This was a very well traveled group, and many dreams were coming true on this boat.
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The Drake Passage was rough and took over 2 days to get to the Antarctic. The tiny section one gets to see is astounding; the continent is sooooo BIG! However, the part we see is reportedly more interesting because of all the wildlife, islands and ice formations. I found the boat, food and accommodations quite luxurious, there were even hot showers! The boat has an open bridge policy, and we got to hang with the staff watching the beauty chug by. Everyday we made two, three hour zodiac trips, landing on shore to see penguins, birds and seals. We dressed in multiple layers looking and walking like giant colorful penguins ourselves! We managed to have a couple of sunny days but mostly it was windy and stormy, making the zodiac tours quite exciting!
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This place is teeming with creatures! We saw 3 different species of penguins (Adele, Gentoo and Chinstrap), thousands of them! with their nests and chicks, and they saunter right up to you as curious about us as we were about them. We were lucky, although shocked, to witness a Leopard seal smacking a penguin on the water to strip it of its skin so it can eat it! There were also many Humpback whales waving and breaching and showing off their flukes. Everyday we saw Albatross with wing spans up to 8 feet but they were dwarfed by the most impressive thing of all which was the Ice… seriously an entire gallery show could be done of just the sculptures and the ephemeral blue glow of these massive structures. We also visited a few research areas and old depressing whaling stations. It always sobers me to see man’s creations next to Nature´s, no question as to which is the more spectacular.
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This place is teeming with creatures! We saw 3 different species of penguins (Adele, Gentoo and Chinstrap), thousands of them! with their nests and chicks, and they saunter right up to you as curious about us as we were about them. We were lucky, although shocked, to witness a Leopard seal smacking a penguin on the water to strip it of its skin so it can eat it! There were also many Humpback whales waving and breaching and showing off their flukes. Everyday we saw Albatross with wing spans up to 8 feet but they were dwarfed by the most impressive thing of all which was the Ice… seriously an entire gallery show could be done of just the sculptures and the ephemeral blue glow of these massive structures. We also visited a few research areas and old depressing whaling stations. It always sobers me to see man’s creations next to Nature´s, no question as to which is the more spectacular.
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Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, a three-hour flight from Sydney, Australia, is the most English city outside of England. And, like England, people go punting on the tree-lined Avon River. The city is renowned for its gardens, and a free trolley makes getting to the parks and museums fun and easy.
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Rent a car. In New Zealand, driving is on the left but there is very little traffic and the roads are good, plus the motels are reasonable. It is the only way to see and enjoy the island. Driving west from Christchurch the towns and rolling hills are expected, but then the unexpected happens. The road begins to climb until it clears a mountain pass to present a stunning scene – snow-capped mountains against solid blue skies. A scene straight out of “Lord of the Rings.” The always-changing scenery of the South Island dazzles even the most jaded tourist with its variety: snow-capped mountains, blue lakes, teal-colored rivers, waterfalls, rainforests, rugged coastline, beaches, and glaciers. Just when you think there is nothing more to impress you, you round a corner or come to the top of a rise in the road, and once again you are amazed at the beauty of the South Island.
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New Zealand and extreme adventures are synonymous. The adventures are many and varied. For a thrilling bird’s-eye view consider paragliding over mirror-like Lake Wanaka with the snow-capped Southern Alps as a backdrop. After a hike on the rainforest path to the Franz Joseph Glacier viewing point, you may find you need a closer look. For those who are not into arduous hiking, a helicopter to the top of the glacier is the perfect answer. Walking on the ice field feels like being on top of the world. Returning, the copter swoops down for a closer look at the glacier’s surface, which is fractured into pinnacles creating what looks like a city of skyscrapers.

The West Coastal Road is one of breath-taking scenery at every turn. Take your time. Plan to stop at the uniquely layered Pancake Rocks and check out the seal colony at Cape Foulwind.
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After exploring the South Island head to the North Island. New Zealand is very tourist friendly. They have it all figured out. Just drop the rental car at the dock in Picton, take the modern ferry to Wellington, and a rental car will be waiting. It is all part of the service. In Wellington, don’t miss the Te Papa Museum highlighting the history of the islands.

It is nearly impossible to resist all of the adrenaline-pumping activities. Near Lake Taupo on the North Island is a beautiful place to bungy jump. Just step off a platform into a gorge, touch the blue-green waters of the Waikato River 150 feet below, and a boat will be there to “hook” you in. Jumpers say the walk back to the top is worse than the jump. A tip: “Don’t look down – just do it!”
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The central part of the North Island is a “hot-bed” of thermal activity; there are steam-spewing fumaroles. At Wai-O-Tau near Rotorua, I wandered around a thermal wonderland of collapsed volcanic craters, boiling mud pools, steaming lakes, and fumaroles. Adding to the unworldly look are the hues of red, yellow, orange and purple edging some of the formations, which is caused by the presence of sulfur, antimony, iron oxide and other elements. It is a bit unnerving to hear the earth gurgle and bubble so near the walkways. Geothermal energy is harnessed to provide five percent of New Zealand’s electricity.
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Don’t miss the Waitomo Cave, which at first seems like a typical cave with the usual stalactites and stalagmites. Then visitors board a boat on the underground river – in the dark. And above is a vast Milky Way of blue-green lights from the thousands of glowworms. The glowworm, really a fly larva, produces the light to attract a dinner of insects in its sticky web. Nearby is the do-not-miss Woodlyn Park farm with its “show-stopper” one-man Pioneer Show that relates the history of New Zealand’s settlers with a mix of humor, audience participation, and farm animals that perform on cue. The back of the stage is open to the hilly pasture, where the “header” chases the sheep down the pasture onto the stage. Someone from the audience volunteers to help shear one of the sheep the old fashioned way with a hand-cranked clippers. The farm also has unique accommodations – an airplane remodeled into a modern two-room “motel” with kitchenette. Airplane buffs can choose the bed directly behind the cockpit, watch a spectacular sunset, before dozing off.
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The Maori, the pre-European settlers of New Zealand, celebrate their culture with a show followed by a hangi. At the entrance of the Maori ancestral house the tattooed-faced warriors, after a series of challenges, determine if the dinner guests are friendly. If so, they are invited to enter. There are speeches of welcome and the traditional Maori greeting – hongi – a handshake followed by touching noses. The performance of traditional songs and dances is followed by a hangi – a feast steamed over red-hot rocks for three hours. After dinner each foreign national group was asked to sing one of their national songs.

The Kiwi expression, “Too right,” describes beautiful, tourist-friendly New Zealand where the sights are astounding and the activities varied.

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Palau–we had been here before and jumped at the chance to return. We booked on a cruise from Papua New Guinea which ended in Palau. This was a big attraction, and we decided to stay over for three days.

Not a lot of American travelers know about this unspoiled tourist destination, but just ask avid divers or snorkelers. If they haven’t already been there, they will tell you Palau is at the top of their list of “must go” spots.
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Considered a part of Micronesia, Palau is an archipelago of 586 islands in the South Pacific, a country with less than 20,000 citizens. About 90 percent live in Koror state, where tourists usually stay.

Off Koror, the main attraction here is the Rock Islands, approximately 300 islets, protected by a huge barrier reef. An underwater paradise. Fans of the TV show. “Survivor” will recognize this spot as it has been used twice as a location, most recently 2008.

Upon disembarking from our cruise, we arranged for a day tour in order to see spots we might have missed before. The itinerary included a visit to Palau’s largest island, Babeldaob, across a causeway from Koror. With a wide new road and little traffic, the Palau Visitors Authority hopes to increase tourism to this lush green part of the country.

First in Koror, we visited the unique aquarium where the exact environments for marine life have been recreated. This has become one of the country’s most popular land-based attractions for tourists and Palauans alike. We observed exhibits with green sea turtles, nurse sharks, white-tip sharks and groupers. In addition to coral reef inhabitants, the aquarium also exhibits animals and plants found in mangrove and sea grass ecosystems, foremost seahorses .

Next, on Babeldoab, we first took the Jungle River Boat Cruise on the Schimizu River. We set out down the calm water way to our destination, an ancient Palauan Village historical site. We cruised through the lush green rain forest foliage, spotting a variety of birds along the way. We were told there were crocodiles here, and suddenly we saw a big one. We knew the croc was expecting us when the boatman held a piece of meat on a pole, and the animal jumped some five feet out of the air to grab it.

After our river cruise, we sauntered along the pathway admiring the interesting collection of tropical plants before stopping for a typical Palauan Bento Box picnic in one of the two open air “summer houses.” The
Bento comes from the Japanese tradition and usually features a combination of teriyaki beef and chicken, white rice, pickled vegetables, a piece or two of vegetarian sushi, and a chocolate brownie for dessert. Often there’s a fried shrimp and/or fried fish.
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Next,, we went on to see the highly publicized, imposing capitol building, sitting by itself on a rise with nothing around it but rolling green hills. The architect wanted to make something unique to Palau; however, the Palauans wanted it to look like the U.S. capitol. So there it was, its large Corinthian columns with Palauan designs etched on its stone front. Odd, but unique and lovely.

Then we went on the Wonderpool Waterfall where we were scheduled for a 40 minute hike to a spectacular view. Unfortunately, the road was full of mud holes from a recent rain. After getting stuck and having to work our way out, the driver turned around, and a change in plans took us to nearby Tabecheding Waterfall, a lovely spot, easily accessed.

Late afternoon we were back in Koror and checked into the highly-rated Palau Pacific Resort. We took a dip off the wide, sand beach before viewing the beautiful sunset from our balcony.
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The following day proved to be the highlight of our stay–we snorkeled until we dropped on Sam’s Tours snorkeling trip through the Rock Islands. Sam’s picked us up early in the morning at the resort’s dock
and we headed out. These islands are a collection of rounded limestone, foliage-covered formations. Undercut by wave action, many seem to float on the water’s surface. Channels wend their way among them; tunnels lead to secluded lagoons; paths lead to land-locked lakes, fed subterraneanly by the sea.

In a short time, we were in the water overwhelmed by dazzling corals, an artist’s pallette of color–over 500 types of hard and soft varieties thrive here. All in all, we saw fish in almost staggering numbers,
large, medium and small, coming in an array of rainbow hues. With over 1,400 species of fish, Palau was recently named Number One Underwater Wonder of the World by CEDAM–a group of marine scientists and conservationists

Most of the snorkeling spots are given colorful descriptive names–Giant Clam Beach, Lolita’s Coral Gardens and Mandarin Fish Lake, one of the few places the exquisitely beautiful Mandarin is found, decorated in an oriental design of green, blues and oranges.
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A highlight was our stop at Shark Alley which is full of black tip sharks. We saw many four to six-footers, which, thankfully, don’t attack people. Pilot fish swam in front of them and remora fish swam attached underneath with their suction-cup backs–really a sight to see. Also, we saw some cute little damselfish. The sharks did stay away, but my wife was nipped on her ankle by a damsel.

Most snorkel excpeditions take in Jellyfish Lake as we did. Closed off from the ocean, the lake has formed its own environment where jellyfish have no enemies and no need to sting. Swimming among the graceful jellies was like gliding through a porous pinkish-gold curtain. From there we went to Giant Clam Beach where about a dozen up to three-foot clams in various colorful shades are lined up along the bottom of the sea.
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Archaeology is also part of most excursions. At one point we got off the boat and hiked up to a quarry site used where the people of nearby Yap quarried stone to make their unique money known as Rai. Used since ancient times for barter, these large donut-shaped, carved disks, usually of calcite, run up to 12 feet in diameter.

Once quarried, the disks had to be transported back to Yap via rafts towed behind wind-powered canoes. The scarcity of the disks, and the effort and peril required to obtain them, made them valuable to the Yapese. At the site we saw a five foot coin on display. The large hole in the center was used to insert a tree trunk to roll it down the hill. By the way, these discs are still used for Yapese transactions.
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There were numerous relics from WWII to see on the islands. During the war, the Japanese thought that Palau would be a prime target for an allied invasion. Consequently, the islands were heavily fortified. Our captain from Sam’s had been working this area for some 30 years, so he knew all the places. He showed us bunkers and gun emplacements on the shore, and we snorkeled over sunken landing crafts and Zero airplanes. This is the perfect place for WWII history buffs.

On our final day, tired from the previous day’s strenuous activities, we decided to stay at the resort, lie around and snorkel off the beach which we thought should be good. We were correct. Right away, we encountered a good-size octopus out and about and followed him for a half-hour, watching as he changed colors from coral red to rock grey. Among an array of fish, we also came on a six-foot sea snake making his way into a rock crevice.

We spent some time exploring this deluxe international resort.with an international cast of visitors, many from Taiwan and Japan which are only a few hours away. Besides underwater sports, wind surfing,, sailing and kayaking are available to guests. A large swimming pool overlooks the ocean. As well, there are two outdoor lighted tennis courts and a well-equipped fitness center. The resort also has its own PADI five-star dive center.

The resort’s two restaurants feature Pacific Rim cuisine, local fresh seafood, US prime beef and Micronesian food specialties. The casual Coconut Terrace restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Guests have a choice of menu service or helping themselves to the buffet. Evening buffets have a theme such as Palauan, Italian and seafood, while the breakfast buffet includes traditional Japanese, American and international selections.

Practically all Palauans speak English in addition to their own unique language. They went out of their way to be helpful. We took their advice and found excellent Japanese and Indian restaurants in town. The dollar goes far here with taxis and meals a bargain. Tourism is increasing rapidly, so look to Palau while it’s still laid back and peaceful.

After returning to Sydney from a business class – round-the-world trip – on my frequent flyer points – I had collected far too much luggage and needed help at the luggage roundabout. I had come in on a domestic flight from Perth. I asked if any gentleman could help me and a woman said “Why don’t you ask your lazy husband to help you?” As I had travelled on my own – I was completely perplexed.

She was pointing at a poor guy – half asleep – with his arms folded. I said to him “Are you my husband?” “No” he replied. “Would you like to be?” I asked.

The woman continued snarlingly – “How can you have that much luggage when you’ve only come in from Perth?” I tried to explain that in actual fact I’d been round the world but had arrived in Sydney on a domestic flight.

“Some story” she said. “If you can afford to travel first class” (looking at my pink luggage tags) “you can afford to pay someone if your lazy husband won’t help”.

By this time I had a captured audience – all laughing their heads off. Two girls said, “Come on everyone – let’s help her.”

The woman was ready to hit me! I put my arms around her husband who was getting their luggage and said to her – “You’ve got a good one here. Why don’t you take him home and make him feel really special???”

With that I pushed my trolley away to hear her calling me an “f’ng bitch”. Hey ho! It was good to be home!

True story!

My wife and I are avid snorkelers. We have snorkeled in various spots all over the world. So, with this in mind, I decided to write about our 10 best snorkeling experiences. Be aware, these selections are very subjective.
What I looked for in choosing these places was not necessarily the quantity and variety of fish, but also the quality of the total experience, including the beach and coral environment. For example, a place with a great stretch of sand might rank over an area we had to painfully tip-toe through rocks to enter the water. Also snorkeling on a boat excursion trip would be chosen only if the experience was particularly unique. Considering this, here is the list.
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NORMAN REEF, AUSTRALIA

When we came to the Great Barrier Reef, 1,580 miles along the northeast coast of Australia, we knew its reputation as having the best diving and snorkeling in the world. We weren’t disappointed. The Barrier Reef is not accessible from the shore. Therefore, in Cairns, Queensland, we took an easy route to reach the reef on a Great Adventure trip in a high-speed catamaran, which took us some 40 miles out to a unique pontoon, a large 135-foot by 45-foot covered platform. It was equipped with tables, chairs and a restaurant. Other amenities included a dive shop and, of course, a souvenir shop. All the comforts of home.
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Once we were there, it was a short swim out to the spectacular coral shelf and the creatures living on it…every manner of tropical fish, including giant clams. To greet us when we returned to the float was “Sammy,” a large six-foot Maori wrasse…a daily ceremony, we were told. We were in and out a couple times, had lunch, staying there for three hours. For those who don’t want to get wet, there is an underwater observatory and semi-submersible submarine to view reef life.

 

 

RED SEA-SAFAGA, EGYPT

For divers and snorkelers, the Red Sea is high on the list of places to go. One of the most famous resort cities is Sharm el Sheik on the Sinai Peninsula. Having been there, we prefer Sagafa, Egypt, to the south. It is not nearly as crowded, and it is much easier to get out to a reef. Also a point for tourists to consider,: It is a few hours, drive from Safaga to Luxor on the Nile, the celebrated destination to see ancient temples and royal tombs.
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At Soma Bay, right outside town, there is a long pier extending about a hundred yards out. We entered the beach through the Sheraton Soma Bay Resort. (For those not staying at the resort, it’s a good deal to pay a small day fee and use the facilities.) Once at water’s edge, a short walk took us to the pier. Here, divers, as well as snorkelers, enter the water and immediately are in a wonder world among coral and exotic sea life. A lot of the same species seen in the tropics throughout the world are here but in different colors. We also saw species new to us

Once in, we were amazed at how clear the water is in the Red Sea. Clown fish abounded. Right away we saw the outrageously bedecked lion fish, a rare sight anywhere, but here he was, swimming languorously among the crowd.

 

 

SEYCHELLES ISLANDS

Whatever your conception of tropical paradise, the Seychelles Islands will more than meet it. These are over 100 islands scattered off the African coast in the Indian Ocean east of Kenya. Stereotypically, wide unspoiled beaches abound, lined with palms, virtually unspoiled and not over-crowded.

Mahe is the capital and the most inhabited of the islands. The two easiest islands to reach from there are Praslin, a 20-minute flight, or three hours by ferry. La Digue is a 30-minute ferry ride from Praslin. Snorkeling is excellent in both places, especially Le Digue which has some of the most photographed beaches in the world. Its surrealistically-shaped granite rocks rising from the shallows like sentinels can be seen in countless fashion ads.
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On La Digue’s Anse d’Argent beach, we took a short swim to the reef. On the way, we saw an octopus wrapped around a pillar of coral, his tentacles flowing in the current. A little beyond, we came on a couple of devil scorpion fish on the bottom and were very wary of not touching their poisonous bodies.

We had our best snorkeling on small Desroches Island, a 50 minute flight from Mahe. Unlike Praslin and La Digue which have a few places to stay, there is only one small resort here. A walk around the island takes only 20 minutes.

We had one of our greatest ever snorkel experiences here about 50 yards out from the main beach. Once there, we came upon a tower of coral with the most varieties of fish we had ever seen in a small area. They included many of our seldom-seen favorites, the moon-shaped marong fish and the oriental sweetlips with its black and yellow polka dot patterned fins. Even a lion fish slowly glided by. We were on a “snorkel high” the rest of the day.

 

 

BONAIRE-CARIBBEAN ISLANDS

Fairy Basslets over Reef
Bonaire is the smallest of the so-called ABC islands in the Dutch Antilles, which include Aruba and Curacao. Long considered one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in the world, Bonaire’s coastline has been designated a marine park, affording protection to the area’s magnificent coral gardens and abundant sea life.

The best place for underwater viewing is on the small off-shore cay, Klein Bonaire. We took a boat for the brief journey from the main island. After jumping ashore, we spread out our towels. Mask and fins in hand, we walked a couple hundred yards down the beach to the recommended spot to enter the water. In a short time we came to the outer edge of the reef and got into the prevailing current along the coral. With the reef on our left and deep water on the right, we floated along, amazed at the rainbow array of staghorn, elkhorn and brain coral and the iridescent sparkle of the fish who swam among it.

 

 

SAN BLAS ISLANDS-PANAMA

San Blas is an archipelago consisting of 365 islands, some 100 miles off the east coast of Panama. Inhabited by Kuna Indians, many of the islands are postage stamp-size, with the biggest only a mile around. The islands are easily accessible after a 20-minute flight from Panama City. Accommodations are rustic here as would be expected, but it’s a place of quiet nights and bright sunny days, with pleasant breezes tempering the mid-day heat..

Kunas welcome tourists and will take them in their boats to a different uninhabited island each day, each with perfect beaches and great snorkeling in the warm, clear water as would be expected in this unspoiled place. )

On the islands people live much as their ancestors did in palm-thatched huts with no electricity. Food and water are brought in from the coast. Of course, a Kuna staple is the plentiful supply of sea life. By the way, the crab and lobster caught in these waters are the best we’ve ever eaten.

Kuna women are known for their multi-colored wear: patterned blue cotton wrapped skirt, red and yellow head scarf, arm and leg beads and an intricately sewn mola-panel blouse. Molas are hand-woven in a reverse applique technique, using several layers of different colored cotton. (Four-layered designs are the best.) These have become desirable art pieces and a principle source of income for the people. Indeed, women follow tourists and set up what we called “mola malls” on the beaches. Part of our daily fun was taking a stroll down the line, viewing these wonderful rectangular pieces. Averaging about 18 by 14 inches, they depict animals, mythic characters and folk symbols, the pieces are as little as $10 each, but some sold for up to $80.

 

 

NINGALOO REEF-WEST AUSTRALIA

The Great Barrier Reef comes to mind when snorkelers and divers consider going to Australia. But some 800 miles north of Perth on the country’s sparsely populated northwestern coast lies Ningaloo Reef. Nearly 200 miles long, it is one of the largest fringing coral reefs in the world. Also, in contrast to the Barrier Reef, it is situated close to the beach, about 100 yards out at its nearest point. Due to its remoteness, Ningaloo doesn’t have the tourist draw nor reputation of its eastern counterpart.
Even beginners can swim in the shallows along the reef and see an amazing variety of fish swimming among the more than 180 species of coral which create a riotously colorful display. However, reef snorkeling is only one of the big attractions here. From mid-March to mid-May snorkelers can swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. Ninagaloo is the only easily accessible place in the world where these gentle giants appear in large numbers at predictable times of the year.
Whale sharks reach more than 36 feet long and weigh more than 11 tons and swim close to the surface, seemingly inviting people to join them. Boats leave daily to seek them, and airplanes scout their location. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.
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HUAHINE-FR. POLYNESIA

All the Polynesian islands have great snorkeling, but we especially like Huahine, 198 miles northwest of Tahiti. The island consists of two volcanic ranges joined by a natural bridge. It is called the “Garden Island,” due to its lush green tropical foliage and jungle-like scenery. A big plus, there are less vacationers here than in neighboring Moorea and Bora Bora, giving us a chance to get away from people and explore on our own. There are many white sand beaches off which to snorkel. The high point here came, however, when we took a dive boat which dropped us off into a slight current at an outer reef. We then leisurely floated through a lagoon, moving effortlessly with the flow, taking time to enjoy the fish. To keep us from being swept away, our boat was cruising slowly at our side.
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JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU RESORT-FIJI ISLANDS

Fiji contains some 300 islands, many with top resorts, making it hard to select the right place to visit. High on anyone’s list, though, is the Jean Michel Cousteau Resort, particularly if water sports are a premium. With the Cousteau name, the diving has to be good, and snorkeling, too, is the best. This award-winning, five-star resort is located on 17 acres of what used to be a coconut plantation. (There are warning signs on the premises to watch out for the falling coconuts.) On Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, the Cousteau is surrounded by mountains and reefs, at the edge of Savusavu Bay, a well-protected refuge. Buildings are constructed on the theme of a traditional Fijian village, with 25 bures (thatched-roofed bungalows) in various sizes to accommodate couples or families.
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Every morning the resort boat leaves with a group of divers, while we snorkelers had several options. Coral and fish can be seen by going off the little pier in front. A snorkeling boat is available to take guests out. We especially liked nearby Lighthouse Reef with deep water on one side where we might spot a large grouper; shallow on the other with the usual menagerie of smaller tropicals to be seen. Night snorkeling was also an option. A staff marine biologist would take groups equipped with flash lights off the pier to see the wonders of night time on the reef. We particularly sought out our new “friend,” a rare oriental sweetlips, snoozing under a coral ledge. For information, call (800) 246-3454 or www.fijiresort.com
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KEALAKEKUA BAY-HAWAII

We have been snorkeling off each of the Hawaiian Islands but by far our favorite place is Kealekekua Bay on the Kona coast of the big island of Hawaii. First of all, the bay is historically unique, the place where Capt. Cook, the famous British explorer, met his death in 1779 at the hands of the natives. A plaque commemorating this event is located on the north shore of the bay.
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Another thing that makes this spot special is its isolation. There are only limited ways to reach the bay. First, one can hike 2.5 miles down from the highway. (My wife and I have done this in our younger days. It’s easy to go down the trail, but, believe me, it is tough hiking straight up in the afternoon, carrying your backpack and snorkeling gear.)

People also kayak two miles from the south, or, best for us, come in on a Fair Wind Snorkel and Dive Cruise in a sleek 60-foot catamaran. Fair Wind is the only commercial boat that brings people to this area. The hour-long cruise leaves from Keahou Bay, on the Kona Coast, mornings and afternoons.
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At the base of lava cliffs, Kealekekua waters are normally calm and clear, even on rough-water days along the coast. Everyone, young and old, can have a great time seeing the multitude of fish living on the coral and exploring the underwater lava caves. We particularly enjoy seeing the eels that swim out during the day here-big morays and snowflakes, not to mention the green sea turtles that often swim by. Spinner dolphins are almost daily visitors to the bay and can be seen frolicking close-by. Of course, in late fall and winter migrating humpback whales can also be readily spotted. On the morning cruise, after a couple hours of snorkeling, the captain fires up the barbecue on the back deck and serves burgers for hungry passengers. Fair Wind has another ship, too. The more luxurious Hula Kai brings snorkelers to other places along the lava coastline.

 

 

LA JOLLA COVE-SAN DIEGO

When people talk about snorkeling spots, it is most often about places in the tropics. Great snorkeling can also be found in colder water locations, our favorite being La Jolla Cove on the Pacific Ocean. We make it a point to go to La Jolla in the summer when the water is a comfortable, but invigorating, 68-72 degrees. The cove itself is world famous, a small beach tucked between adjacent sandstone cliffs. Because of its beauty, it is one of the most photographed beaches in Southern California. It is part of the San Diego/ La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve which helps ensure that marine life remains plentiful.
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On our daily soirees into the water, we see an interesting variety of fish, including the bright orange garibaldi, which seems to glow in the water, rivaling the beauty of any tropical fish. Amazingly, it starts out blue, as a baby, and slowly gains orange spots in the juvenile stage. Near the surface, close to shore, schools of top smelt with blue and brown stripes cruise along. Almost as plentiful are opaleyes, with white dots on their backs, brown-patterned kelp bass and grey barred sand bass. Not so plentiful, but exciting to see, are the scraggly red and yellow giant kelp fish and the shovelnose guitarfish.
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Also a big draw during the summer months are the harmless leopard sharks which migrate here to breed and give birth. We swim out in the shallows and see swarms of them. From the cove, there are many directions to take. To the north are the La Jolla Sea Caves, some eight caverns worth exploring. A half-mile south of the cove, we snorkel around Seal Rock where seals will come off their ledges to visit.

Expedition cruiser Roderick Eime had no idea what he was doing when he set out for Papua New Guinea aboard Oceanic Princess. That’s why he went!

It starts as a low rumble, a distant reverberation that could have been a thunderstorm somewhere over the horizon. But it rises as an increasingly ominous crescendo to the point where I am looking up through the palm trees frantically searching the skies for the 747s I am sure are about to pass overhead at about 100 feet.

Rabaul is intermittently the jewel of the New England and New Ireland district, the perfect Simpson Harbour, and the glorious Blanche Bay, but it is also framed by a magnificent but volatile mountainscape with but a scant indication of its tumultuous past.
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Just the day before, with a technicolour dawn breaking behind us, Captain Scotty guided Oceanic Princess to our anchorage in the port of Rabaul. As we cruised serenely up the bay, pastel hued clouds sat delicately atop the high, distant ridgelines beyond Mount Tuvurvur, which loomed on our starboard bow.

As we stared, trancelike, across the mirror-still waters, our gaze was quickly diverted to an enormous, dense grey plume of smoke and ash that rose quickly into the sky, staining and smearing our previously perfect watercolour landscape.

“BA-ROOOMM!”, the thunderclap came several seconds after the appearance of the cloud and quickly brought the rest of the breakfasting passengers out on deck amid gasps and swoons.

“Mount Tuvurvur,” explains Dr Nancy Sullivan, our accompanying cultural interpreter, “has been acting up like that for the last twelve years – ever since the big one in ’94.”
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The “big one” to which Nancy refers was the catastrophic eruption that again laid waste to the town of Rabaul. Again? Yes, Rabaul has been comprehensively flattened by a series of natural and manmade events in the last sixty-something years. Although some semblance of life has returned to the remaining streets, no large scale rebuilding is likely to take place again.

But today I’m disembarking Oceanic Princess after ten days amongst the romantic and superbly isolated islands within and around PNG’s Solomon Sea. It’s been a breathtaking, almost intoxicating exploration of remote tropical atolls and
secluded islets, inspirational encounters with reclusive villagers and wonderful exposure to secret rites and rituals. I’ll always remember our celebrated landing on the island of Kiriwina amongst the Trobriands, where we weren’t sure
for a moment whether we were being feted or prepared for a feast.

This is the new adventure, the 21st Century holiday, where travellers transcend the stereotypical, brochure-inspired, lazy week beside a pool and move into a whole other world. A place where experience rises above star-ratings and
inspiration replaces perspiration.

The unexpected bird-catchers of Egum Atoll, the mesmerising Yam Harvest dancers of Kiriwina and the mysterious spirit geyser of Seuseulina on Fergusson Island blur into head-spinning medley when I try to recount them all at once. But these high points are just a few of the richly rewarding events that occurred en-route from Alotau to Rabaul.

Most of the passengers have elected to stay on for the second leg of Coral Princess Cruises’ “The Place Time Forgot” expedition voyage, and I’m honestly disappointed to be missing the legendary Sepik River, the tropical fjords of
Tufi, and the old colonial glamour of Madang that they are clearly looking forward to over the next ten nights.

Often the subject of unflattering publicity with disproportionate attention paid to the unease in Port Moresby, the rest of PNG, particularly the outlying islands are a bewildering patchwork of languages, customs and diverse ethnic groups. My own brief but thoroughly enriching experience was one of genuine wonder. Even when I pondered the glossy brochure, tracing the route of the voyage, I was in no way prepared for the deluge of experiences in store. When I remarked to Coral Princess Cruises’ Managing Director, Tony Briggs, that the prospectus completely undersold the product, he replied candidly, “I know, I know!”
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The array of so-called expedition products currently on offer to South Pacific and Australasian destinations like the Kimberley, Vanuatu, the Solomons, New Zealand and New Caledonia create a perplexing mix that makes choosing nigh impossible. Yet the innate mystery and tantalizingly unexpected nature of these voyages adds great attraction to each itinerary. Expedition Cruising, in its truest form, offers only an outline of the intended trip. The reality is a
titillating anticipation that approximates the sensations once only experienced by the pioneering seafarers who trail-blazed through these unknown lands many hundreds of years ago.

As Mount Tuvurvur’s latest little eruption subsides and another downpour of fine, gritty ash ensues, I load my bags into the van for the one-way trip to the airport and vow to return and complete my odyssey in the land I’ll never forget.
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Fact File:

Vessel: Oceanic Princess
Cruise Line: Coral Princess Cruises (Cairns, Australia)
Star Rating: not rated
Tonnage: 1838 GRT
Max Passenger Capacity: 76
Entered Service: 2005

 

Itineraries range from 10 to 13 nights and are priced from A$6950 twin-share.

Built by NQEA in Cairns, Oceanic Princess is equipped with zodiacs, a
glass-bottomed boat and a specially designed, high-powered aluminium excursion
vessel with awning and toilet.

 

* 38 staterooms, each with private facilities, sofa, desk, wardrobe, luggage
space and individual air conditioning controls. Serviced daily.
* Australian registered with full SOLAS (international) compliance.
* Large sundeck and Spa Pool
* Internet booth and Comprehensive reference library
* Phone and fax facilities
* Lecture lounge with large plasma screen
* Limited laundry facilities
* Two fully stocked cocktail bars
* Boutique and dive shop
* Air-conditioned public areas

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Fiji : little sandy islands you think you want to be stranded on, especially one of Fiji’s party islands. Flying foxes (big fruit bats), drape themselves over the branches of breadfruit trees, then erupt in a storm of bickering. Frigate birds cruise low over waves that break on offshore reefs, prowling for chartreuse snack fish. Palms dance like swaying hippies along the crests of ridges in the islands’ interior. Shells with designs as intricate as Afghan carpets wobble up on the white sands. People dip coconut shells full of kava to drink on front porches, and sing in three part harmonies. They invite a lone white man to join them to talk and eat. These are important flavors of a Fiji experience that many people never taste.

Some tourists only go to the tiny party islands, and though the heart and soul of Fiji is utterly lacking, they look to be exciting places: like Chuck E. Cheese; like a Singles’ Bar.

Other visitors make it past the party, but seek safe haven in up-scale resorts, insulators from real exploration. Their memories are legitimate, their experience something less than rich.

Then there are places like Sea Spray, and Adie’s Place – the Fijis I sampled – dissimilar, but sharing something. In a way it’s that shopworn and trivialized spirit of “Bula,” co-opted, adulterated,and tirelessly sold by the tourist industry as the national slogan. “Bula” is, in fact, the ubiquitous word of greeting and friendliness in Fiji, and, grudgingly, I must admit that it describes the people well: utterly decent – their friendliness sincere, their generosity beyond question. Where I went, everyone revealed these qualities.

My time in Fiji began in the village of Savsavu on the island of Vanua Levu (Levu means island). I had endured LAX, the airport embodiment of federal lockup. I had eaten every sad meal on board the 747, even when I wasn’t remotely hungry, because eating is an event, a means of squandering time. A peach slice and smear of cinnamon on my pancakes brought me near tears. And just as one meal had become less vocal in my twisted G.I. system, another wave of food would have me excitedly unhooking my little tray.

From Nadi, on Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island and often referred to as “the mainland” by more remote islanders, I rode a 16 seat single-prop to Savusavu. I was to meet three friends (all of us are in what is charitably called middle age), who had sailed the 42 foot ketch, Renicka, from Pago Pago in Samoa to the Copra Shed Marina on Savusavu’s bay. They motored in towards evening, and I could see from a distance that spirits were not high. It developed that the two friends acting as crew had translated the attitude towards them of friend and captain, Fred, in patently negative terms. There was a mutinous mood, a hovering anger asea. En route, a storm had blown a hole in the mainsail and broken a thing called “roller furling,” on which the jib is wound, compounding the ill will and complicating steering the boat from that point on. Joe, an old friend of mine from high school, had dreamed of a South Pacific passage, whetting his appetite in years of sailing Roethke I and II, his own crafts, around Lake Washington and through the San Juan Islands and north into Canada.. Dennis, a close friend for almost 30 years, had made the passage as a favor to Fred, but his true goal, as mine, was to prowl the reefs and beaches, mountains and deep blue atolls of this glut of islands, as far away from organized volleyball games as we could get. We assumed this could be done on a large sailboat, ignoring its slothful eight or nine knot speed limit.

Although the rancor ebbed a bit, the time at Savusavu kept growing, the expected three days stretching into eight while waiting for a new Zodiac shore-craft to arrive. We were docked sailing bums, making impromptu parties wherever we went, Dennis practicing guitar diplomacy and me pulling my alto sax out occasionally. The lovely Japanese family who operated the restaurant at the Copra Shed, tolerated an imposed intimacy with the somewhat unkempt and barbarous four of us. We gave the father a slab of mahi mahi which the boys had caught en route, on the condition that he cook us a gourmet Japanese meal with some of it. He brought us an incredibly varied feast, really beautiful food. The town of Savusavu is appealing, a single main street of shops and restaurants along the bay with a large farmer’s market, a hospital and mostly well-kept homes. The people, as unaffected as ever I have seen, treated us as friends, failing to hate us for having more in our wallets than an annual Fijian salary.
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We drove into the mountains to a national park and short trail through jungle filled with fruit bats, huge “barking pigeons” and basketball-size black globes of fruit growing parasitically on available trees. We explored the island, visiting the East Indian dominated community of Labasa, where a strike of sugar cane workers left at the gates of the mill an endless queue of trucks, loaded with great “afro” hair-dos of cane stalks.

We snorkled at a place called “split rock,” east of Savusavu, sharpening our appetites for well-populated, healthy reefs, and we witnessed the incredible violence of rugby at a field near Savusavu. And we had kava, the national beverage of Fiji. Dried roots of the kava plant are ground to a powder, the powder sprinkled into a piece of cheesecloth. Then water is poured into it, and it’s squeezed and sifted into a mixing bowl, which also contains water. When the kava tea-bag is spent, one person hands out half-coconut-shell bowls filled with the grayish liquid. The recipient claps, then drinks it. It’s a mass sharing of saliva, lip sores, bacteria and back wash. It tastes like dirt, the pure kind from the empty lot you sampled when you were a kid. Good kava numbs the tongue, then distributes good will. Kava drinkers are relaxed; we never saw angry or inebriated kava drinkers.

The four day trip from Savusavu to Vuda Point, near Nadi, where the boat would live for the next year, was one day sailing and three motoring. The only noteworthy experience was a storm at a modest village on Vanua Levu, home to several state-of-the-art windmills and solar panels which, having arrived without instructions or tech support, are just decoration. Three of us were rowed ashore and later back to the sailboat by two fisherman, whom we ironically paid with a fish, a 20 pound yahoo we had caught trolling. The storm was launched while we were ashore, and our return trip kindled some terror, the small rowboat a mere toy in the growing seas. After all-night watches we made a break southwest across the Bligh Water to Viti Levu, a sail of about ten hours.

For two more days we motored along the coast, notably devoid of beach or reef fun. At Vuda Point, Fred was consumed with repair, docking, and insurance concerns. Over curried chicken necks and mutton and goat bones in Nadi, the three of us decided to ride a tourist boat called the Yasawi Flyer to the Yasawi Islands, a line of dots that look like they spilled off the brush when painting Viti Levu on the map. A day later, as the three-story power boat wound through islands for several hours, dropping off and picking up passengers at resorts, anxiety’s hold weakened – this looked like the magazine Fiji.
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At Nanuya Lailai, a small island near the north end of the Yasawas, Seaspray resort’s greeter and emcee, ‘Queen,’ showed us to our bura, a simple, clean elegant grass hut. Over lunch, Queen regaled us with stories of his happy times with John McCain, Liz Taylor and Oprah when he worked at the Turtle Island Resort on the adjoining island of the same name. Turtle does cost some $1,500 per night and attracts celebrities, so who knows? Nanuya Lailai is less than a mile across, and a trail over it’s spinal ridge is a lookout over soft forests of palms and mangroves and adjacent islands. The path connects the island’s less elegant east side resorts, run by a single family, with Blue Lagoon Beach (as in the movie) and the Nanuya Island Resort. Your own personal beach can be chosen from a host of little niches separated by volcanic outcroppings. Happy Hour is at Kim’s Place, a neighbor resort where lovely Annie and her beautiful mother, Andy (or maybe the other way around), serve beer at what looks like a kid’s lemonade stand.

At Seaspray, dinner follows a prayer and precedes music. We are served with a flourish – the second night some very fresh rooster we had heard a little too early that morning.
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Then comes guitars, a lightning-fingered ukulele player, clapping. Voices, quickly adjusted to pitch and fell into very tight harmony. The songs bounce along smoothly like Hawaiian music, but have something else, a plaintive quality and raucous shouting mode, evoking maybe African influence. Queen and La, a woman who also worked at the resort, soared in song. Seabreeze’s manager, Frank, and the rest of the staff, Luci, Kefi and David found the necessary alto, baritone and tenor slots.

Scones and pancakes with a side of pineapple and papaya are often breakfast. After that, there’s a lot that needs to be done. One needs to read by the beach in the sunshine, swim in warm, crystal blue waters, dive on the reefs, explore the island, and prepare for lunch. One might watch women fishing in water up to their chests with hand lines, biting the heads off their catch before flipping them into a bucket. Octopus hunters poke their quarry with sticks, then wait for at least six tentacles to engage their arm before extracting them from the rocks. Off shore, small boats carry teams using 40 foot hand nets surrounding small schools of fish.

I figured there probably was a way to tap the cistern at Seaspray, but I didn’t know how, so I went to get the shower bucket La had explained. Walk next door to the well, drop the bucket into the well, pull up water and pour into the shower bucket. Then take the shower bucket back to the shower stall, dip into it with the shower cup and pour the water over your body. The well bucket dropped and came up empty – several times. Finally I tried dropping it upside down. It filled and I began the process. So it goes at Seaspray. It’s not all that fancy.

At Seaspray we were managed. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel quite as anonymous as I like. At meals, I often felt compelled to make small talk, although it was easier when Peter and Jelena(of Belgrade) and Frank and Wolfie, from Germany showed up to absorb some of the attention.

Approaching Waya, our second arbitrarily chosen island, I felt as though we had really made the pivotal turn in our rambling pursuit of Fiji perfection. A small village sat behind a white sand beach, rolling into lush forest, then feathering into grass and jungle-covered mountains, topped with great crags of basalt. It looked like a fairy tale, it evoked “Shangri-la,” no obvious flaws. Farmers tended fields of eggplant, casava, kava in small plots on the hillsides. As we entered the wide bay in a skiff piloted by John, who would be our designated on-water guide, we reflected on the fact that we had just noticed in our guidebook that our destination, Adi’s Place “might not be your first choice.”

Oh so wrong. Adi’s Place was exactly my first choice. Adi’s daughter, Tema, welcomed us pleasantly, without fanfare, then served a hot lunch of stir-fry. She was good-natured and helpful, a great and accommodating cook (just-caught fish for dinner, hot homemade bread at breakfast), but let us make our own discoveries on her large island. Even an introvert like me enjoyed connecting with the local people in this secure environment.
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While Joe prowled the village of Yalobi and became a local celebrity, Dennis and I cast our fates to Mob, a grim last minute stand-in for our scheduled guide, to climb above the village on Batinariba, a peak of computer-generated lush green and basalt and the highest point in the Yasawa Islands. Mob’s syntax was spare and basic. He seemed certain that he’d landed a quick and effortless $30, and he looked genuinely surprised each time we answered his question, “You go down?” with “No, we go up.” At a saddle, 1200 feet above the ocean, with an expansive view of Loto Point stretching out in a thin spine to the West, Mob said, “More peanuts,” which we quickly relinquished. Mob had a very big and sharp machete.

Later, after a short snorkel, as we fought over the shiniest shells on the beach, we watched people from the touring Captain Cook Cruises schooner, being rowed ashore to a formulated authentic native dance and trinket sale event.
We explored and relaxed alone or collectively, Joe visiting a church service on a neighboring island, Dennis beach-combing, me holding the hammock down. We ventured along the beach and around Loto Point and “reef walked,” an activity Dennis had envied of local seafood gatherers on our sailboat passage. Small black and spiny starfish waved at us like long lost loved ones and runt-sized octopusi inked our feet as we trespassed on their private rocks. The following day, John would motor us all ($10 Fiji money each) back to the same area to dive with legions of reef fish among huge mushroom corals and through dark canyons. We would later ride with John to a reef on an adjoining island where brilliant white and lime green cauliflower coral joined the silly colored fish.
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Sipping tea or Fiji Bitter on Adi’s deck at the margin between lawn and beach in the late afternoon, we watch children, out of school for winter break, play happily on slides made of logs, or sit for hours in a game that requires only a few seed pods to toss. They collect shells to sell and have little meetings on the beach. Next week, all the children of school age will be in boarding schools, doing lessons in English, away from their parents between the coveted weekends.

This is how we Fijied. You may do your own Fiji. Just go there and make it so.

Kenny Rodgers broke the spell, his sage poker advice resounding on all levels, inside and out, of the Yasawa Flyer. Fellow passengers came into focus, most of whom were probably just trying to have a good time like we were. But my selfish condition painted them crass and unenlightened. A very tall shark fin behind the boat galvanized the group. We had all been in those waters for several days. My stern posture softened and I let a little more Fiji soak in.
The rest is a ride home. Yes, Fred felt abandoned, which I dispute, and I did vomit spectacularly on the LAX tarmac, but we returned to our respective problems. We can reflect forever on how we’d do it differently, but, had fate offered another scenario, would Mob ever have said, “More peanuts?”

In April of 1993 I spent a month in Australia, a couple of weeks with friends on the east coast, and then I took the train from Adelaide to Perth to visit friends I’d met on my trip to Scandinavia in1985. The train ride was exciting, memorable, and long.

 

As the train slowed and entered the station at Perth, I looked out of my window. Standing on the platform early that morning were Jean and John, who had very graciously invited me to stay a few days with them.

 

The car I was on very conveniently stopped just a short distance from where they were standing so I quickly gathered my things together and stepped off the train.

 

“Hello” I smiled. “It’s good to see you again.”

“How was the train ride?” John asked. “We used to take it when we were younger, but it’s a bit too tiring now for us old folk. We really have no reason to go back east. We like it where we are.”

 

“Let’s get your luggage,” Jean chimed in. “We’ll go have a cup of tea and then we’ll show you our lovely city of Perth before we go home, and you’ll see for yourself why we’re very content to stay here.”

 

Driving around the city I had to agree with them. Situated on the Swan River, with beaches on the Indian Ocean close by, Perth, with its many parks filled with flowerbeds, ducks waddling in the ponds, and its estuaries with bobbing sailboats and cruisers, is a charming city. It is also the most remote English-speaking city in the world, and is closer to Singapore than to Sydney.

 

I was enjoying visiting with them, and pleased they showed me some of the sights such as the Cohumu Wildlife Reserve, where I saw many emus, kangaroos, wombats and flocks of wild pink and gray cockatoos, known locally as galahs. While a person never really gets close to the koalas, perched high up in a eucalyptus tree, its leaves their only food, by craning my neck I did get to see them here.

 

Besides enjoying my visit with Jean and John, I wanted to go north to Monkey Mia to see the dolphins. I’d booked a three-day trip with Australian Pacific Tours. I’m not one some might call an “animal lover” though I do enjoy seeing them especially in their native habitat, but I was fascinated when I first read about the wild dolphins at Monkey Mia, and their daily performance for humans. I began to realize this was not your normal everyday occurrence. When my friends invited me to stay with them, I knew I would now be able to see these dolphins, as Shark Bay was only 800 miles north of Perth.

 

The train ride across Australia, and my visit with the dolphins, turned out to be one of the most memorable of all the many trips I have taken.

 

Jean let me borrow a small bag for the short journey, and John drove me to where I would board the tour bus. We were a small group, just thirteen, having traveled here from South Africa, Canada, Japan, Italy, and England. I was the only American.

 

Soon after leaving Perth, we drove through miles of nothing-no towns, no villages, nothing but scrub trees and dirt. It looked like the miles of “nothingness” I’d seen from the train window. At Billabong we stopped for a tea break. The heat was so much more intense here than in Perth. Not only did Perth have an ocean breeze to help keep it cool, but we were now heading north toward the equator. I had to keep reminding myself that Australia was “upside down” to what I was used to, or perhaps we were “upside down” to them.

 

We arrived at the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort in time for supper. Right away I noticed the hotel’s slogan: “The only resort in the world where wild dolphins come to visit you.” After locating where I would be staying, Room No. 3, I joined the rest of the group for a typical Australian dinner of pumpkin soup with shrimp, snapper, potatoes, salad, and cheesecake.

 

The next morning, very early, before breakfast, we walked the few yards from our rooms down to the beach. Though still dark, the path to the ocean was well lit. We stood around, a mismatched group of young and old, men, women and children and, from the various dialects I heard, we’d come from many countries, all wondering when this event was going to happen.

 

Soon a park ranger joined us.

 

“Mates, can I have your attention. There are a few things I need to tell you before the dolphins arrive. They come just about every day, with only a couple of days a year when they are not seen. Let’s hope this isn’t one of those days.” The crowd tittered. “It’s okay for you to touch the dolphins. That’s what they swim into shore for, but be sure you pat only their sides and back, not their faces or blowholes.

 

“You will find the dolphins at Monkey Mia are unique in that they come together into shallow water for their human contact, and even bring their babies with them. None of these dolphins has ever been captured. You will often notice when I offer a small fish to a dolphin it will be taken, but soon dropped back into the ocean. Their purpose for swimming into shore is not food–there’s plenty of fish out yonder–but solely for human contact. Monkey Mia is the only place in the world where this phenomenon occurs.”

 

At first, standing in very shallow water, we were too far back, and the ranger suggested we walk into the ocean up to our knees. Together we looked like some kind of odd chorus line, all shapes and sizes, most in shorts or bathing suits, some with rolled-up pant legs. We stood there without speaking, watching for movement in the water. (Dolphin #1)

 

The dolphin sightings at Monkey Mia began in 1970 when a fisherman’s wife at Shark Bay threw some of her husband’s catch to a dolphin swimming off shore. The next day the dolphin came looking for more, and brought a friend with him. The locals began to notice the dolphins really weren’t interested in the fish, but seemed to enjoy the human contact more.
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“There they are. I can see them,” someone shouted.

 

“Where, where?”

 

swim with dolphinsI noticed movement in the water. At first the dolphins were too far away for me to reach them, but then they came closer and actually swam right in front of me. I reached out and with the back of my hand gently stroked. The body was much smoother than I had imagined. I expected it to be rough, like sandpaper, but it felt more like velvet. My dolphin swam away, then joined by another one, and together the two came up to me again and nudged my bare legs. I had never before been so close to such a large sea creature. (Dolphin #3)

 

After coming into shore the dolphins performed for us, just like they do at marine shows. They glided back and forth, often nosing in for a pat. Two of them swam side-by-side, leaping up and breaking water together, and one of them performed a half leap and reentered the water upside down. No human had taught them these tricks. There was no charge for our “water ballet show.”

 

I remember reading that dolphins are known to be the most highly intelligent mammals next to Man, and I wondered what they were thinking. They had certainly acted in an intelligent manner. Of the six dolphins that visited us that day, I’m sure the same one kept coming back to me almost as if he had singled me out as his very own. Perhaps others were thinking the same thing. (Dolphin #2)

 

As a youngster I always had cats as pets, and they became very special to me. I know this sounds strange, but as I look back on that experience, I am sure the one dolphin that nudged me and looked up at me had a smile on his face as he swam by.

 

“Wasn’t it wonderful? I actually touched one,” I said to a woman standing nearby. Whether or not she understood me I don’t know. It didn’t matter. Her grin was as big as mine.

 

As the sun now shone on our backs, forecasting another hot day, I climbed up the small sand hill toward my room to change. I hated to leave, but the dolphins had already returned to the open sea.

 

They would be back tomorrow morning to once again give pleasure to another group of wide-eyed onlookers.
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In New Zealand, a country that embraces tourism like no other, the outdoor loving Kiwis have made nature’s treasures accessible to all. A network of trails from mild to wild, are well marked and maintained by the Department of Conservation. Numerous outfitters are happy to take visitors hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, whale watching, birding and more. Just bring a fit body, plenty of sun block, and a sense of humor to the other land down under. You will be amazed at the variety of terrain from the snow-crowned Southern Alps with glaciers descending into lush rainforests, to rugged valleys carved by wild rivers rushing to sun-washed shores.

New Zealand consists of two major islands -the North and the South- and many smaller islands, including Stewart Island, recently given National Park status. Three-quarters of the not quite four million people that call themselves Kiwis live on the more temperate North Island. The South Island has the most spectacular scenery with nine National Parks dedicated to preserving the splendid native forests. The isolation of the landmass that split off from the South Pole eighty million years ago has engendered flora and fauna that is totally unique. Over 250 birds species are found nowhere else but New Zealand. Giant trees, ferns and mosses endemic to the region seem other-worldly.

The best time to visit is in spring (November) through fall (March). The temperatures these times of year are mild, averaging about 70 degrees with a tantalizing breeze, and the days are long with sunlight until about nine at night. I met Kyle, my guide from Active New Zealand, in Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. This London knockoff is the start and end point for most outfitters and independent travelers as well. He picked me up in the van that would be my home away from home for the next two weeks. We collected the other five guests; a telecommunications whiz kid from Dallas, a systems analyst escaping from the deserts of Qatar, and a mature gentleman with his “thirtyish” daughter and son-in-law. Soon we were barreling up Highway One, a two-lane road that makes a giant loop around the South Island with unlimited opportunities for side trips to adventure.

I chose this moderately priced Kiwi owned tour group, because they offer the closest thing to independent travel available with the comforts of lodging, food, toys and transport in an all-inclusive carefree package. The popular multi-sport adventure I selected from their list of options is an action-packed holiday. It proved to be so eventful I can only detail a few of the highlights of my incredible journey that included trekking, kayaking and biking through magical terrain filled with beautiful surprises.  It’s wonderful to be chauffeured, especially when everyone is driving on the “wrong” side of the road. The panoramic windows of our van brought the magnificent scenery closer to view as we cruised past golden pastures sprinkled liberally with sheep along a rugged windswept coastline. We averaged a couple of hours of driving a day between adventures. Each evening brought us another lovely setting to explore while Kyle prepared a home-cooked meal for us. Our lodgings were a mixture of small motels with self-contained units, bed and breakfasts and even a shearer’s lodge on a remote knoll overlooking Mt. Cook.

It’s tough to choose from the fine experiences I had in the incredible terrain of the South Island, but my top four outdoor adventures on this whirlwin holiday are as follows:

Trekking in Nelson Lakes National Park

There are eight great walks on the South Island that require several days to complete. They are challenging, but the reward is the solitude of the native bush and genuine outback experience. Active New Zealand is one of two commercial outfitters with permits into the less-traveled Nelson Lakes National park at the northern tip of the Southern Alps. The Cascade track we were to take to the summit has a 3,500-foot elevation gain in thirteen miles. Throughout our journey we were given many choices in activities and on this leg of the trip we were offered a less strenuous track or kayaking while those who chose to do the more demanding trek were away.

914c0800Bent on having the quintessential Kiwi tramping holiday, I strapped on a backpack, even though I’d never worn one before, and followed the others in my group just as eager to get into the bush as I was. After a mellow march along the shore of sparkling Lake Rotoiti we spent a night at Lake Head Hut. It’s oddly peaceful to bed down with about twenty strangers on a communal mat like sheep in the meadow.

91adc930Next morning found all six of us rested, standing in tall grass spiked with purple foxglove beside the Travers River. Kyle pointed to the slate gray, snow-streaked peaks in the distance and said “That is where were we will sleep tonight.”  The under-thirties sprang like jackrabbits up the trail and were soon out of sight. I followed behind Lutz, a fit 64 year old Californian, whose stocky body was dwarfed by his pack. He picked his way through the root-strewn trail that led us through the towering red and silver beech forest. Three-quarters of the amazing variety of plants growing in this preserve are endemic.
Spreading fronds of giant tree ferns, and thick layers of moss, lichens and epiphytic vines converge to create a symphony in the key of green. Birds like the tomtits, robins, the tiny rifleman and the flashy fantail twitter from the depths of the cool forest. The friendly gossip of the energetic Hukere Stream churning over black boulders kept us company all along the challenging climb to its headwaters.

91c70a80Kyle, whose father is a Maori chief, unfurled a palm frond for us to examine. The tendrils of the mother fern hide thousands of fern pods that the Maori people saw as children of the forest. Soon the pods will propagate and this world will be rejuvenated with new life. The fierce looking faces of the Polynesian people, ancestors to the Maori, who sailed here in large canoes about 1200 years ago, became gentle to me with this knowledge. The swirling tattoo patterns that covered their faces and bodies were simply imitations of the ferns in the lush rain forest they lived in. No wonder the fern is the national symbol of New Zealand.

When we reached Angelus Hut, the hub of the Nelson Lakes trail network, we were greeted by an international array of hikers. Kyle whipped up a pasta dish for us that made the rest, eating from freeze-dried packets, envious. I fell asleep to a cacophony of snores that did not betray an accent. The hike out of the park from Angelus Hut across Robert’s Ridge involved a scramble up a steep face, followed by boulder hopping on a goat trail, to reach an undulating easy romp across the top of the world. For several hours, Lutz and I walked the spine of the mountain enjoying outrageous vistas of serrated peaks and the gold and green patchwork quilt of farms far below. Warm sun tempered by an intoxicating breeze kept my engine purring. Once down from the mountain, we cooled our “dogs” in glacier-fed Rotoroa Lake where Kyle waited for us with an ice chest full of cold drinks.

Kayaking in Okarito Lagoon on the Wild West Coast

We spent a couple of restful days in Okarito, a laid-back beach community, a few miles north of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the windswept west coast of the South Island. At the Royal Motel, a cluster of cozy cottages framed in flowers, Kyle grilled up lamb, sausages, chicken and fish fillets and served them with mounds of fresh fruits, salad and vegetables to fortify us for our kayak outing in the morning.

916c0800The Okarito Lagoon is home to the only white heron rookery in the Southern Hemisphere and locals are proud of the 150 species of bird that breed in the region. It is the largest undisturbed wetland on the South Island and home to one of the last stands of the Kahikatea tree, the tallest of the native trees that takes hundreds of years to mature.

We were greeted with a perfect paddle day; glassy calm water, a mist hanging over the shoulder of the snow-frosted Southern Alps in the distance and a couple of promising patches of blue overhead. Wet suits, self-guiding maps and kayaks were provided by Okarito Nature Tours. Pole markers placed in the lagoon form a water trail to deep channels and the best birding spots. The estuary is a network of protected waters lined with flax, bright orange flowers, stalks of shimmering gold pampas grass (toitoi) and cabbage trees that look like a cross between a cactus and a palm. Tui, black birds with a puffy white ball at their throat, chortled as they plucked seeds from the purple seed stems of the flax. The thrum of cicadas filled the air. A flock of black swans drifted in the reflection of the shaggy Rimu and Kowhai trees, famous for yellow dripping flowers lining the shore.

Biking through Eglinton Valley to Milford Sound

No trip to the South Island is complete without a jaunt through Fiordland into moody Milford Sound on the southern tip of the Island. We did ours riding mountain bikes on the two lane road winding through bewitchingly beautiful Eglinton Valley. We pedaled past jade green Gunn Lake, stopping to admire the snowcapped spires reflected in Mirror Lake. Just before the Divide, the highest point on the route, we made a detour to hike Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. This switchback to the heavens provides staggering views of the Hollyford Valley. Once aloft, an undulating nature trail wraps around a sapphire glacier cirque, framed in low-slung alpine shrubs and ground hugging white flowers. On this plateau, I felt very close to the gods.

91887cb0From there we did a glide to our lodging in Milford Sound on our mountain bikes. The corkscrew descent through this spectacular valley takes you past a dozen waterfalls sliding down slick steep granite walls shimmering in the sun. We made a quick side trip at the Chasm where turbo-charged water has carved holes in huge boulders that look like great skulls with water gushing from the eye sockets. We spent the night in moody Milford Sound that reclaims its haunting majesty at the end of the day when all the tourist buses have gone back to Queenstown or Te Anau.

Jet Boating in Pristine Wilkin’s Valley

The jet boat, that rides on a cushion of air at about 60 MPH, was invented by a New Zealand farmer who wanted to get his sheep to market via rivers plagued with shifting gravel beds, snags and other obstacles. With veteran guide Brent at the wheel, we blasted up the Wilkin’s River Valley at the foot of white-caped Mt. Aspiring. A warm wind teased the sun-spangled water into small ripples. Cows munching peacefully on green grass on the shore made fun targets for Brent who swerved the boat sharply sending a rooster spray in their direction. He handily sideswiped trees growing on islands in the middle of our path. I shrieked with delight, as we charged up the river in a series of serpentine moves designed to provide maximum thrill. Brent revved the engine to power our way up a set of rapids and capped off the maneuver with a 360- degree spin that left me wet with spray and screaming at the top of my lungs. It was grand!

920dd930The sheer volume of soul stirring vistas and heart-thumping adventure on this journey was amazing. With the shackles of daily life put down for a time, my mind was free to roam unfettered. I felt soothed, as if I’d soaked in a tranquil lagoon for a century or two. Now that I’ve gained an overview of this fun-filled country, I hope to return for more of the “other land down under” where there are “no worries mate.”

New Zealand – If You Go

The best time of year to visit New Zealand is from November (spring) to March (fall).

Clothing: A light shirt, fleece jacket and hiking pants are best. Be sure to have a good rain slicker in your daypack.

For a complete listing of trip options and itineraries offered by Active New Zealand go to (www.activenewzealand.com) They have tours of the North Island and Aussie Walks, as well as the unusual policy of allowing travelers to join them on portions of their trips on a pro-rated basis.
Air New Zealand is the national carrier. (www.airnz.com). My flight arrangements were made by Down Under Answers (www.adventour.com) including strongly recommended travel insurance.
A world of information about tracks and national parks may be found at (www.doc.govt.nz) the Department of Conservations website.
For general information and deals offered in New Zealand go to (www.tourism.net.nz) New Zealand Tourism Online

My initial contact was World Outdoors, a Colorado based tour company arranging off-the-beaten path adventures. For over 15 years The World Outdoors has offered Multi-Sport and Hiking vacations throughout the Americas and South Pacific. Featuring small groups, local guides and personalized itineraries and Best Value in Active Travel Guarantee 1-800-488-8433 or (www.TheWorldOutdoors.com)

Note – If you are traveling independently you may take advantage of Tourist Information offices found in most cities to locate accommodations on short notice. However, they close at 5:00 pm daily. Online reservations may be made at (www.accommodata.co.nz)