Seattle, Washington State, USA

Our friends met us at Vancouver Airport after the long flight from Auckland and we had time for a good catch-up lunch before our train to Seattle late afternoon.  It’s a fairly leisurely (ie slow) ride giving you more time to get lost in a book or take in the scenery along the way.  However it was fairly late when we checked into our Downtown hotel which was walking distance to everything we wanted to see.

Overlooking the Elliott Bay waterfront on Puget Sound Pike Place Market is one of the oldest continuously operated public farmers’ markets in the United States.  The market is set on several levels, each featuring a variety of unique shops such as antique dealers, comic book and collectible shops, small family-owned restaurants.  The major attractions are the fish market and the first Starbucks founded in 1971 and been in continuous operation ever since.

Seattle’s iconic observation tower, the Space Needle is 184m high and was built for the 1962 World’s Fair.  There are views of the downtown Seattle skyline, the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Elliott Bay, and various islands in Puget Sound.  However the weather was poor so we decided to forgo the elevator ride to the observation deck.

Seattle has one of the best light rail networks in the US so it was so easy to get around the city. There is also the Seattle Center Monorail which provides a fun, quick, and convenient link between downtown Seattle and Seattle Center, home to the Space NeedlePacific Science CenterMuseum of Pop CultureThe Children’s Museum, and a host of theatrical and cultural experiences.  It was a great way to navigate the city without getting wet in the rain!!

We woke to a much better day and made our way down to the ferry terminal and bought return tickets to Bainbridge Island. It’s just a short 35min trip but simply put, the ferry trip offers the absolute best view of the Seattle skyline. The mix of historic and modern architecture, not to mention the iconic Space Needle, tower over Puget Sound. Majestic Mount Rainier dominates the open sky as the ferry leaves the city.  From the Bainbridge ferry terminal it’s a short walk to the  charming city center with great restaurants, shops and cafes.   There are a great selection of short and long walks throughout the island and Geoffrey was tempted but was weary that he had the New York marathon event the following week so we just did some short nature walks through the woods and along the shoreline.

It was a shame that the weather didn’t play its part for much of this trip.  But being frequent visitors to Vancouver a Seattle side trip was a logical excursion being only.  Perhaps next time we’ll take the ferry …

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

View of downtown Seattle from Bainbridge ferry

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels was a 1½ day transit stopover on the return home from Portugal via Hong Kong.  As it so happened it coincided with New Year’s Eve so we were keen to see how the Bruxellois celebrated.

We arrived on a pretty dour day and found the financial and political centres deathly quiet as you would expect during this time of year.  We spent an hour wandering through the EU Parliament buildings before heading over to the bustling main historical square – the Grand Place with the surrounding streets and quaint alleyways.  This was where we were easily able to spend most of our time.

The Grand Place is the main attraction in the city centre and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998.   The square is dominated by the 15th century Flamboyant Town Hall, the neo-Gothic Breadhouse and the Baroque guildhalls of the former Guilds of Brussels. All that I will say is that you will be left awestruck by the architecture.   Manneken Pis, a fountain containing a small bronze sculpture of a urinating youth, is a famous tourist attraction and symbol of the city.  To be honest I felt this was somewhat overhyped as the sculpture and fountain are actually quite small and were dwarfed further by the throngs of tourists surrounding it…

However it was the delights of the cuisine that caught us absolutely.  The endless gorgeous shop displays of chocolate and pastries were out of this world.  We sampled the local beers, the cafes and dined at a couple of restaurants.  Brussels cuisine is pure quality – we didn’t come across a poor eating experience once during our short stay. It was just such a pity that the stomach could only hold so much!

With time being limited we decided to concentrate our visit to the city centre and to leave the more time-consuming attractions to a later (post covid) time.  The exception was a visit to Brussels landmark building – the Atomium which is just west of the city.  The Atomium is a jaw dropping model of an atom which just happens to be a whopping 102 metres tall. The sculpture was made to welcome visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair – to a new and atomic age to Belgium and is an accurate depiction of an iron molecule except that it is about 165 billion times larger!

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t kind for the New Year fireworks and I suspect many people – like us decided to stay in rather than venture outside in the cold wet conditions.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Manneken Pis Statue in chocolate!!

Tasman Bay, NZ

We arrived into our accommodation Te Koi The Lodge at Bronte late afternoon just as Ali (the host)  was winding up her weekly cooking class which she holds there.  Te Koi lodge sits on the end of Bronte Point looking out over the Waimea Estuary just a 20 minute drive from the centre of Nelson and it’s a blissful spot.  Ali brings a wealth of hospitality experience to the lodge and offers an all round stay experience that will always be remembered.  The estuary is tidal so the scenery changes and Geoffrey spent a lot of time looking through the binoculars during sunset and later on at the amazing night sky.  For dinner we drove the short distance to Mapua which has a choice of restaurants good.  This is another lovely spot and there is a regular ferry service that operates to Rabbit Island.

The next morning after breakfast we hopped back into the rental to explore the local area.  We headed along the scenic road toward the start of the Abel Tasman National Park track stopping along the way at Motueka and Kaiteriteri Beach.  Kaiteriteri is renowned for it’s turquoise water and golden sand beach and can be hideously crowded in summer but in April it was pretty quiet.  From here you can take water taxis up to various points along the Abel Tasman track including a number of luxury lodges.  We then took the short windy road up to the start of the Abel Tasman.  Geoffrey had walked the track many years ago and would have been keen to walk a couple of hours into it if we’d had the time.

Next stop was Neudorf Vineyard  for a short tasting and then to Motuere Hills Vineyard for lunch.  Ali (our hostess from the Lodge) had recommended the restaurant there and I admit to some concern whether we’d get a table at the sight of the full carpark. However we were lucky and we ended up having the most splendid 3 course lunch there.  It was also incredibly reasonable and it absolutely made the day.  Make a note – Forsters Moutere Hills – absolutely devine food!  Next stop was the famous Hoglund Art Glass before the return trip via the pretty Ruby Bay.

The following morning we checked out, thanked our lovely hosts and then headed to Nelson for a long lunch before the late afternoon flight back to Auckland.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Start of Abel Tasman Track

Upper West Coast, NZ

It was drizzling after arriving by coach from Arthurs Pass into Greymouth.  It was typical West Coast weather and Greymouth was not looking its best as we quickly strolled through town looking for a place for lunch.  In the end the best spot was the Speights Ale House right across the street from the TranzAlpine bus station where we had disembarked!  The food there was actually very good…

After picking up the rental car we drove south to our accommodation at Rimu Lodge which overlooks the Hokitika River.  We enjoy staying at these privately owned lodges as they’re a good way to talk and meet small groups of people in comfortable and informal surroundings.  We had to forego all the local activities due to the rain but this gave us the chance to more fully enjoy what the lodge had to offer and to get to know the hosts and other guests.  We had brought our own food for dinner so ate in but most guests head back out to Hokitika (10min drive) where there are a choice of restaurants.

The following morning the rain had disappeared and the sun shone. After a scrummy breakfast laid on by the hosts we headed north again to Punakaiki.  The small settlement is based around the famous Pancake Rocks blowholes.  It’s a relaxing stroll along a well formed path and as it was near high tide we saw the blowholes near their best!  We stayed at the comfortable Punakaiki Resort and watched the sun set over the water.  You are limited to basically eating at the Resort restaurant but as we had our own food we elected to eat in again.

The following morning Geoffrey took some more photos of the Pancake blowholes before heading off again.  The whole West Coast coastline is stunning and dramatic and the scenery is helped by the road hugging close to the shoreline for large parts.   We took in the view at a leisurely pace before dropping into Westport to provision up for the rest of the trip.

After lunch we continued back along State Highway 6 through the scenic Buller Gorge where it’s especially pretty where the road runs above the Buller River.  There are not too many settlements until you reach Murchison where we stopped for coffee and to stretch our legs.

We finally arrived at our next Lodge destination in Bronte late afternoon.  From our start point in Hokitika it was a reasonable day’s drive (around 5 hours)  but it was very pleasant and enjoyable due to the stunning scenery and great roads.  We never felt the need to rush and was probably one of our best ever road day trips we’d completed in New Zealand.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

Hanmer Springs to Picton, NZ

This is one of those classic New Zealand road trips on the north-eastern South Island encompassing destinations on our bucket list, namely, SH7 from Christchutrch to Hanmer Springs and the SH1 scenic coast road south of Kaikoura all the way up to Picton (the end point of the Queen Charlotte Sound).  The trip also includes stop-overs to Blenheim and a number of surrounding vineyards.

After picking up the rental car at Christchurch Airport we made the leisurely easy 1hr 40m trip to Hanmer Springs passing through a number of small towns.  Hanmer Springs is renowned for its thermal hot pools which it is indeed an impressive complex encompassing a wide range of pools to cater for all types of experiences. However the attractive township has a lot to offer – smart accommodation and restaurants and a lot of adventure activities like cycling, mountain biking, walking trails, bungy, jetboating, rafting, off-road buggy, skiing in winter and many others.  It’s a great holiday destination over a couple of days.

We then drove back east to SH1 via Ferniehurst to maximise the scenic coast road experience to Kaikoura.  The coast is spectacular although currently still subject to road works following the December 2017 earthquake.  It’s hard to keep your eye on the road when you are constantly distracted by the views.  Thankfully there are many viewing areas with great facilities to rest, take photos or lookout for seals on the rocks.  Kaikoura is a large town and the stopover for the famous whale watching tour.  North of Kaikoura township is Nins Bin – a food caravan specialising is serving local crayfish, mussels whitebait and of course fish ‘n chips.  You devour the food on outside picnic tables so you need to be aware of the seagulls that will snatch your meal in seconds flat if you walk away.  Karaka Lobster is another option a little further north.

We rolled into Picton around 3pm to a rather dull looking afternoon.  Picton is a large town with plenty of options for eating and accommodation and of course has the large ferry terminal which runs to and from Wellington.  It is the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds with the main attraction being the Sounds themselves and the surrounding landscape.  On our boat cruise the following day we saw an astonishing variety of sealife (including numerous dolphins and seabirds) plus other birdlife on the Motuara Island sanctuary.  Given more time Geoffrey would have walked part or all of the renowned Queen Charlotte Track.

On the trip back to Blenheim airport we stopped over at a number of vineyards for wine-tasting and lunch.  There are over 30 vineyards within a 24km circuit close to Blenheim so we select just a few –  Cloudy Bay, Alan Scott,  Saint Clair (with lunch).  Geoffrey also couldn’t resist trying out The Moa Brewing Tap Room which was a pleasant find and I was delighted to discover the Matakana Chocolate factory.

All in all a great 4-6 road trip for as active or relaxing as you want to make it.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Eating mussels & chips at Nins Bin, Kaikoura

The Catlins, Southland, NZ

The Catlins is one of the hidden gems of New Zealand.  Located on the remote south-eastern corner of the South Island it includes the South Island’s southernmost point, Slope Point.

What’s remarkable about this area is that it is so assessable by car and small or big enough to see on a longish one day itinerary or more thoroughly over several days. A day trip is very possible with the long daylight hours available over summer period.   Its comparative remoteness means that you’re never going to see lots of people and the roads are gloriously free from traffic. The main road of the region forms part of the Southern Scenic Route which undoubtedly is one of the best drives in New Zealand.  Best of all the Catlins offers so much – stunning rolling green farmland, coastal landscapes, shipwrecks, sandy beaches, numerous marine mammals, temperate rainforest, numerous waterfalls, many endangered species of birds, and all within easy walking distance.

If you’re a more active person there are numerous longer walks through coast, bush and heritage trails, horse riding, cycling, golf, sea or river and estuary fishing and surfing to name just a few.

Unsurprisingly the Catlins is very exposed and therefore open to frequently wild and changeable weather.  However in summer you have many long hours of daylight to make the most of your day.  The region generally has a temperate climate and average annual rainfall of 1300mm. There are many small settlements in the region – the largest being Owaka which has a petrol station (get my drift?).  But we found most settlements offered good coffee and eating to cater for the tourists

In our day trip our highlights were Waipapa Point (where Geoffrey nearly walked on a sleeping sea lion on the beach!); Slope Point – southernmost point of the South Island (where Geoffrey lost his cap over the cliff from a sudden gust of wind and dropped his phone trying unsuccessfully to retrieve it but luckily didn’t also go over the cliff!!);   Curio Bay – lovely beach coastline with a petrified forest and amazing ocean waves crashing over the rocks, plus a new cafe with an attached interactive museum.  A lovely find was the Blue Cod Blues – a quirky takeaway shop run out the back of a caravan at Waikawa where the fresh blue cod was amazing.  There are numerous scenic lookouts along the route and lots of short walks to view the waterfalls dotted along the route.

If there was a highlight it would have to be Nugget Point – an easy walk from the car to view the 360 views from the lighthouse overlooking the rocks shaped like gold nuggets.  We spotted a number of elephant seals looking down from the well-sealed path to the lighthouse

Definitely one of my favourite New Zealand destinations. If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Nugget Point

New Plymouth, Taranaki, NZ

This was our first trip away from home for 7 months and our first during the new age of the global pandemic.  Amazingly this was my first trip to New Plymouth although Geoffrey had visited several times previously during his various tramping trips on Mt Taranaki

I had wanted to see the mountain which required good weather so we made the arrangements last minute when we saw that the forecast was promising.  It’s a leisurely 5 hour drive from Auckland which included a relaxing lunch stop at Otorohanga  township.  We also stopped at Waitara to visit friends.  It was great to see renewed activity growth and development in the small town after decades of economic stagnation.

New Plymouth is a great weekend getaway trip with many attractions but it helps significantly if the weather is good.  We were blessed with stunning views of the mountain for the 2 days.  The major attractions are Pukekura Park – a stunning 52ha botanic park close to the centre of town,  the eye-catching Lye Centre and his various artworks, and the well-constructed 12km coastal walkway alongside the Tasman Sea running from the Taranaki Port to Bell Block.  It’s a well maintained promenade suitable for walking or cycling. Or you can what Geoffrey did and run it both ways!  It’s a varied and interesting route and as it was whitebaiting season we saw a few fisherman were trying their luck on the estuaries.

There’s a good choice of cafes and restaurants in the city although we struggled to find any Chinese places so we ended up eating at the Novotel where we stayed.  There are a couple of famous bakeries / pie shops (Andres Pies and Smoko Bakery in particular) but note that they are closed weekends.  You must try Smoko’s Garlic Prawn pie!!)

On the return trip back home we stopped at Mokau at the Whitebait Inn famous for its whitebait fritters and at Te Kuiti  to see the new Sir Colin Meads bronze statue situated in front of the renovated train station.  The train station also houses an excellent cafe with tables on the veranda beside the tracks.  The steamed mussels there are highly recommended.  

It was a fast trip back home until we struck peak-hour traffic on the Auckland southern motorway and the immediate reminder of the disadvantages of living in the big city.  We were already missing the clean ocean airs, the uncongested roads, the lower prices, the easy access to the fantastic outdoors, and the majestic Mt Taranaki which one will never ever tire looking at.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, Coastal Walkway

New Orleans, USA

We were really looking forward to this 3 day excursion but it turned out to be one of those trips where circumstances conspired against us. Geoffrey was running the Chicago Marathon and then 4 days in New York before our first visit to New Orleans and Houston before flying direct back home.  Firstly, Geoffrey strained his right calf early in the marathon and then had to endure the most painful 5 hours of my life to get to the finish line.  Then a routine bike ride in Central Park a few days later almost totally ruined the trip when I had an unfortunate fall and broke my arm.  After some deliberation we decided to carry on with the itinerary and managed reasonably well all things considered.  We all the prior distractions we had forgotten that the weather would play a big part in the activities we could do.  It was warmer and more humid than expected and the cast on my arm uncomfortable and distracting.

Our hotel was adjacent to the historic French Quarter (The Vieux Carre)  and we spent a few hours exploring this neighbourhood.  There is a huge variety of restaurants from 19th century Creole cuisine to contemporary fusion fare. Likewise there are many quirky independently owned shops from haute couture to voodoo dolls to browse through – lots of local art, jewellery, antiques, you name it!  At night the Quarter is a hive of activity with clubs, bars, restaurants and night markets.   One of our bucket list places was Cafe du Monde renowned for its creamy cafe au lait and crispy beignets covered with mountains of powdered white sugar which gets everywhere and makes eating respectably impossible.  The place is totally chaotic but this is its charm.  Buying a few orange tins of their Coffee and Chicory coffee is a must souvenir.

A must do is dinner and live music at one of the many establishments to listen and dance to live music (especially jazz).  New Orleans music is the city’s beating heart – especially true during Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and other celebrations.

On a limited stay in New Orleans most people will spend most of their in the French Quarter.    However a bus tour (or just hop on the public streetcar) through the famous ornate home streets of the Garden District and Uptown New Orleans is a must do.  There are also the Riverboat tours along the Mississippi River and bike tours to save your legs.  A lot of the outdoor activities will be governed by the weather however.  If we had additional time we would have ventured a short way out of the city to visit one of the plantations with their beautiful mansions and grounds offering windows into a bygone past.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Cafe Du Monde

Chaozhou & Shantou, Guangdong Province, China

Despite going back to check on family Guangzhou many times over the years this was our first excursion to the renowned delights of Chaozhou & Shantau.

Chaozhou

It’s a 4½ drive from Guangzhou but it’s all highway so fairly easy drive but it’s a world apart from the modern metropolis that is Guangzhou.  Chaozhou is known as one of the greatest cultural centers in China and is known worldwide as a unique part of world heritage.  This is more the China that many visitors to China want to experience.  The city is a delight for the local cultural experiences (the arts, local cuisine, architecture, history etc.).  It is a magnet for local tourism and you won’t come across many tourists from outside of China here.

The Ming city wall surrounds the Ancient City where many of the historical buildings have been restored and integrated into modern life.  Paifang St is a great place to sample the traditional foods and where you can admire the ancient architecture.  We took a stroll along the Han River and on the ancient city walls past the city gate, and the famous Guangji Bridge.  Geoffrey was tempted to put on his running shoes and jog the entire city wall.

We only spent half a day here but obviously could easily have spent considerably longer in this beautiful city and would have loved to experience the city at night, especially during the more popular summer period.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me. 

Peanut nougat – a Chaozhou specialty

Shantou

Shantou is just a further 1 hr drive south of Chaozhou and lies at the mouth of the Han, Rong and Lian Rivers.  We stayed at the Sheraton which is close to the shopping district and the People’s Square.  Being close to the seaside Geoffrey immediately put on his running shoes and jogged along the waterfront catching the locals doing their tai chi  and the fishing boats heading out.  We wandered around the Shantou Old Town District which is a work in progress with considerable ongoing renovations but it will be a huge drawcard when completed.  As there are few businesses operating during the reconstruction it’s largely deserted except for visitors.  However it’s still well worth a visit with the old European architecture a throwback to the origins of Shantou’s history.  The completed renovated Post Office is well worth a visit as this was one of the first in China to operate the modern postal service.

We also looked around one of the local wet markets.  These markets are not everyone’s cup of tea but they are undeniably interesting and give the visitor an insight into what the locals shop for.  Obviously sampling the local specialties are a big attraction of any new destination and we did not hold back trying out everything from the small street restaurants to the renowned top-end restaurants.  

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get to Nan’ao Island – probably China’s best island destinations but we’ve saved this for the next time!

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sampling the local Shantou street vendor specialties

Dubai & Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

For some reason we had delayed visiting UAE – passing up many opportunities over the years to stopover for a few days to check it out.  However our trip in late December was perfect – not intolerably hot and also a chance to see in the New Year in Dubai with their famed fireworks display.

First stop was the capital Abu Dhabi and its financial district skyline of futuristic skyscrapers.  This is best viewed from the Emirates Palace luxury hotel which is located beside a dazzling bay and is pretty much magnificent in every way.  The visit is an experience – from wandering the interior and the stunning grounds to the latte with its’ amazing gold leaf mosque artwork!

Next stop was Ferrari World indoor theme park with the renowned Formula Rossa – the world’s fastest roller coaster.  From 0-240kph in 4.9sec  Geoffrey passed up the opportunity to trying it out – or perhaps passed out would have been the result if he had.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened to much acclaim in 2017 and is an art and civilization museum.  We enjoyed the visit – the exhibits were interesting and the complex wasn’t so large that we weren’t able to appreciate what the museum was trying to convey to the visitor. 

Of course the highlight was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – especially beautiful from sunset.  It’s construction included artisans and natural materials from many countries including New Zealand.  It was an unforgettable and moving visit.

The drive to Dubai is around 140km but it’s all highway and with petrol at around $1 / litre it’s a fairly quick taxi ride!   Unlike Abu Dhabi, Dubai has a great rapid transit rail network making getting around the city a breeze. We did the city tour visiting the main sights including a sand-bashing activity, a rock-rolling 4WD ride over and around sand dunes.  Dubai’s shopping malls are inescapable and the massive Dubai Mall is probably one of the largest in the world which includes an aquarium and underwater zoo.  The nearby Burj Khalifa – the world’s highest skyscraper at 830m was the perfect structure to produce the most amazing fireworks display that we had ever experienced.  And Geoffrey and I have seen a few.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are unique places in the world – unreal cities in the middle of the desert and nothing like you will experience anywhere else on the planet.  Certainly a  bucket-list destination visit but would we be keen to go back there anytime soon.  Probably not.

If you would like more information about this destination please do not hesitate to contact me.

Abu Dhabi financial district skyline