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

Napa Valley Marathon, California

This was Geoffrey’s 12th marathon and his fastest so he’s over the moon!  Over to him then…

17th February came the dreaded news that the 2020 Tokyo Marathon (where I had secured a much converted entry)  was cancelled for the non-elite 38,000 runners who had all trained for months for the event scheduled for 1st March.  This was not totally unexpected (which was of little consolation)  but there was no denying the fact that months of training  may no longer be able to be put to the test.

Our kiwi contingent then scouted around frantically for an alternative event and Rebecca, found a small marathon event in Napa County – amongst California’s fine rural Wine Country.  This was perfect – Elleysen and I both love San Francisco (Napa is just 90 mins drive away) and I had always wanted to visit Napa as I had always heard how beautiful it was.  Of course, at only 2,000 runners it was a far cry from Tokyo, but smaller events have their own unique charms.  Napa is also a USATF-certified marathon course which meant it was a Boston Marathon qualifier.  So going was a no-brainer in the end

The course runs through 500 hillside vineyards following the famed Silverado Trail from Calistoga to Napa.  It’s stunning scenery and some of the wineries are magnificent.  The trail has a number of gentle hills in a relaxing rural environment – a start contrast to the big city marathons like New York or Tokyo.  But there’s no congestion and well organised so together with cool overcast conditions (6-13°C), a slight tail wind and a 75m net downhill from start to finish it was perfect for a fast time. 

I ran a PB (personal best) which was also a qualifying time for Boston next year! Although this was my 12th marathon I still learnt an awful lot about the relationship between course conditions and nutrition, race preparation and strategy.  However I won’t dwell on the event as I want to talk about the charms of Napa

After the marathon our kiwi contingent (we were the only NZers in the field!) celebrated at Ristorante Allegria, probably Napa’s top Italian restaurant.  Napa township is best described as country-casual turned cosmopolitan.  It is Napa Valley’s cultural heart with many small interesting shops, markets and of course, wine-tasting rooms!  We had originally thought of joining a wine-tasting tour up the valley but then learnt that by-laws prohibit the wineries serving food o we decided on the convenience of town.  The shopping is small and quaint but if you’re into more serious premium shopping there’s the small Napa Premium Outlet or the absolutely huge outlet at nearby Vacaville.

All in all it was a perfect trip which was pretty amazing considering the short time we had to plan.  I suspect a bit of luck played a part in the success of the trip but this is just what makes trips like this even more alluring.

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

New PB!!

Big Island, Hawaii

It was great to finally get away from the throngs on Oahu to Hawaii Island – one of the most volcanically active places on earth.  Just a short flight from the beaches of Waikiki and you are in a different world…

We picked up the rental from Hilo Airport and made our way past the massive lava flows to the Hilton Waikoloa just 30 minutes north.  The resort is massive – there’s a tram and a canal system that runs rounds the  complex which includes a dolphin pool, a wildlife sanctuary, outdoor theatre, oceanfront pools, lagoon and beach, golf course, tennis, fitness, shopping and so on.  You could quite easily spend your entire time here but that would be a shame as the island has so much to offer.

We used the car to drive through the middle of the island to Hilo on the eastern side.  The scenery is a constant reminder of past volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  The spectacular lower Puna eruption from Kilauea in 2018 resulted in outbreaks of lava fountains up to 300 feet high and lava flows and volcanic gas in the Leilani Estates subdivision.

There is a Tsunami Museum in Hilo to mark the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis which devastated much of the island’s east coast.  There are interesting shops and a Farmers market in Hilo as well as the nearby Akaka Falls and a number of pretty Nature Parks.

Geoffrey booked a sunset tour to the summit of Mauna Kea.  At 4,205m  he said it was bloody cold but the tour had provided gloves hats and jacket – items usually not taken on a holiday to Hawaii!  At the top are a number of astronomical research facilities and large telescope observatories which take advantage of the dark skies (void of any light pollution).  The tour also included an informative stargazing talk and viewing through a portable telescope

The next day we took a full island coach tour which took in the main attractions:-

  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
  • Halemau’ma Crater
  • Macadamia Nut farm
  • Kona Coffee farm
  • Punalu Black Sand Beach with the endangered Hawksbill turtles and green turtles basking in the sun on the beach
  • Akatsuka Orchid Gardens

This is a fascinating place to visit and definitely recommended especially if you want a break from the crowds in Waikiki.

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

Sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea

Siem Reap, Cambodia

We visit Guangzhou and Hong Kong several times each year so the side trip to Siem Reap has been on the cards for many years.  It is a major tourist attraction and you can see why it is so popular.  The nearby Angkor Wat is probably one of the most well-known and visited UNESCO World Heritage sites on the planet.  But there is so much to see and do and Siem Reap is the perfect place to base yourself to see all the attractions.  We visited in September so we experienced a couple of heavy rainfalls but September is not as crowded as other months.  It was very warm and humid and this is the norm whole year round.

Cambodia is an incredibly inexpensive place but you have to be aware that this is a poor community heavily reliant on tourism and there is a level of underlying corruption so it’s important that you bear this in mind with all your dealings with some of the local people.  Local guides are everywhere and we found one who provided us with transport and local advice and was brilliant.  There was no set price for his services and at end of a couple of days we gave him a US$150 as he refused to name a price.  There is so much to see and do and part of the trick is having a good local guide to take you around avoiding the crowds, traps and forever offering you tips and tricks.

These are the list of places and activities that we covered off in the couple of days:-

  • Angkor Wat (including the sunrise) and Angkor Thom
  • Old Market and the Night Market  (must try the street food!!)
  • Kampong Phluk Floating Village  (this is one of several villages, and a must do)
  • Tonle Sap great lake tour
  • Wat Thmey (Killing Field) (a dark chapter in recent Cambodian History)
  • War Museum  ( I passed but Geoffrey so Geoffrey saw this on his own)
  • Traditional dinner and dance show
  • Traditional Body Massage
  • Shopping (Markets great for looking but better to actually buy souvenirs from established shops.

We also visited one of the many orphanages in the town.  Geoffrey donates to one of the orphanages and the staffs were incredibly generous with their time in showing us around and explaining the workings of the orphanage. 

On our way back home at the airport the immigration officer requested a “donation” before stamping our passport.  It was a great informative trip up to then so this was an unfortunate way for it to end.

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

Angkor Wat at dawn

Zurich, Lucerne & Jungfrau, Switzerland

From Hong Kong to Florence required a connection and we decided on Zurich where we also took the opportunity to stopover for a couple of days.  Being December we were expecting it to be old but it was actually quite pleasant and of course quiet at this time of year.

We did our usual hop-on, hop-off bus tour and tested the local transport which proved easy, convenient and efficient.  We strolled around the Old Town and lakeside and generally just explored the city’s sights.

In the afternoon we took the train to Lucerne and spent a few hours there.  The train ride is less than an hour and cheap and leaves frequently so no need to book.

The following day was the full day trip to Jungfraujoch – one of Europe’s highest-altitude train stations, set 11,333 feet (3,454 meters) above sea level in a UNESCO-listed wilderness, and dubbed the Top of Europe.  The tour starts with a scenic coach trip leaving from central Zurich and journeys south through Switzerland’s scenic Bernese Oberland to Lauterbrunnen.  You then board the train to Jungfraujoch where you disembark and enjoy the many activities and attractions there. The Alpine Sensation is a visual-experience moving walkway that transports you past presentations showcasing the Jungfrau Railway’s history and an Ice Palace glacier walk to see ice sculptures. Then head to the Sphinx Observatory for stunning panoramas over the Aletsch Glacier, and the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.

It was actually incredibly impressive and a must do if you have a day to spare in Zurich.

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

Train to Jungfraujoch station – 3,454 m

Villages of Provence, France

The only way to properly see the famous lavender fields and the historic villages of Provence is by car which we picked up from Marseille.  As it was May we knew it would be relatively quiet as the lavenders don’t start to bloom until late June.

The first stop was Aix-en-Provence, a university city of around 140,000.  Our hotel was close to the Cours Mirabeau which is the heart of town and adjacent to the old town.  This is a beautiful historic area and we spent several hours just strolling the markets and shops, checking out the numerous cafes and restaurants. Especially stunning was the old Town Square  with its 16th-century clock tower and the nearby St Sauveur Cathedral.

The following day we drove to Gordes, considered as one of 7 most beautiful villages in France.  Built on the foothills of the Monts of Vaucluse, its houses and buildings of white stone root themselves into the sharp cliff of the mountain.  We spent a couple of hours here strolling  through the narrow streets and taking in the views of the surrounding countryside.

Close by is the 12th century Abbaye Notre-Dame de sénanque – a Cistercian abbey well worth a visit especially when the lavenders are in bloom.  It is still an active monastery.

The village of Roussillon is renowned for being sited in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world with its magnificent red cliffs and ochre quarries. There are a couple of informative short walks through the old ochre quarries which Geoffrey raced through!  However we spent most of our time there just having a relaxing drink admiring the surrounding views.

Our next village Sault was our most disappointing stop.  It was getting towards the end of the day and the weather began to turn.  There are stunning views of the lavender fields to be had when in bloom, but it was April, and the village was cold, wet and largely disserted.

First stop next day was Lourmarin village and the local market was open which was a bonus.  There was a 15th Century castle nearby set within a large poppy field which is was stunning sight so typical of Provence.

The road to Valensole Village travels through the picturesque lavender countryside and where you will find some of the best photo opportunities.  The Plateau of Valensole is also famous for its truffles. The village itself is yet another example of beautiful old houses set in the colours typical of Provence.

You hear the phrase the most beautiful village in France so often in Provence but Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, in my opinion takes that accolade.  The village is built on platform terraces a hundred or so meters up the side of a limestone cliff and there are amazing views of the village from the road.  I would have loved to have spent more time there to take on the challenging walk up to the 12th century Chapel Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir. It was probably not as far or difficult as it looked, and as well as seeing the chapel you also get lovely views across the rooftops of Moustiers.  But it was getting late in the day so it will have to wait for next time!

Our final stop was the Lake of Sainte-Croix.   This is actually a man-made lake that was formed by the construction, between 1971 and 1974 of a reinforced-concrete arch dam by the name of Dam of Sainte-Croix.  But you would never know – the waters are a beautiful emerald-green and it is used extensively for swimming, windsurfing, canoeing and kayaking, catamaraning, pedalo boating and fishing.  You can get some great photos of the Gorges from the Galetas bridge at the Northern tip of the lake.

I would love to return to Provence in July / August but I’d be fearful of the crowds.  The very narrow countryside roads could make driving a nightmare and parking at the villages almost impossible.  But the scenery would be totally out of this world.

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

Valensole Plateau

Lyon, France

The car trip from Avignon to Lyon was virtually all motorway so it wasn’t a particularly interesting road trip – albeit it was quick!  They have these large service centres every 25km or so you don’t have to exit the motorway if you need a comfort / fuel / lunch stop.  This saves travel time but it does mean you may miss an interesting town en route and instead end up eating at some over-priced, mediocre and crowded pit stop.   Still, it does the job…

The obvious highlight was the ornate Basilique Notre Dame sited atop of Fourviere hill with its majestic views of the city.  On a clear day, Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, can be seen in the distance.   We then took the funicular down to Vieux Lyon (the old city) and spend a few hours exploring the interesting winding alleys, restaurants and shops.

Once we arrived in the city it took us a good 40 minutes to return the rental due to the traffic congestion so it wasn’t a great introduction to the city.     However our hotel was located in the heart of Lyon, a stone’s throw from Place Bellecour.  As we usually do when we first arrive in a new city we purchased a hop-on, hop-off bus tour.  These are inexpensive and a great way to quickly orientate yourself as well as having great views from the double-decker.  They also serve as great transport to getting around the city especially if you have the time.

Geoffrey, fresh from his London Marathon a couple of weeks earlier, also explored the city by running along the banks of the Rhone and Saône rivers while I explored the premium shops around Rue de la République.  There are also a number of interesting markets around the city and Geoffrey mentioned the utterly modern, cool Confluences Mall situated near Lyon’s revamped docks area that he ran past. 

Although Lyon is the 3rd largest city in France you can easily cover its main attractions over a few days and it is only 2 hours by fast train from Paris and even less from Marseille. 

Definitely worth a visit.

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

La Saone River

Marseille, France

Marseille was our starting point for our visit to road trip through Provence.  Being early May we would miss the crowds and the heat (great!) but also the famous lavender fields that Provence which start to bloom from mid-June.  That would be for another time…

We stayed within walking distance of the Vieux-Port (Old Port) which is the Marseille’s cultural heart and main focal point.  It’s a great place to stroll along the markets and restaurants and bars.  On the north side stands the modern and hugely impressive Museum which houses exhibitions considered world-class.

The city’s most striking landmark is the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, which is visible from all over the Marseille.  If you’re fit you can walk there.  We purchased a hop-on hop off day bus pass which included a stop at the basilica with breath-taking views.  We then spent the several hours just slowly walking back down and through the interesting neighborhoods back to the Port.  Lunch was had at one of many well-priced seafood restaurants surrounding the port.

Island hopping half day cruises are also a popular activity but we decided to leave that for our next visit when we had more time.

Unfortunately we were somewhat limited in our options during our short stay as it was May 1st (Labour Day) and virtually everything (including all public transport) shuts down in the city.  This also coincided with the very noisy yellow vest protest which we stayed well away from.

The next day we picked up our rental car from the airport (which is 24km from the city)  to start our main road trip to Provence and Lyon.

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

May 1st Labour Day Yellow-Vest protest

39th London Marathon

This was Geoffrey’s 10th Marathon and undoubtedly his most memorable to date.  London is quite different from the other large marathons in that the major sponsor is Virgin Money Giving, meaning that the event is so charity focused.  Around 75% of the nearly 43,000 runners raise money for charity.  In total, more than £1 billion has been raised since the first London Marathon event in 1981 and it is now the largest single one day fundraising event in the world.   Over to Geoffrey …

What a fantastic event.  The crowd support along the route was incredible and the thousands of volunteers made this an enjoyable experience for the athletes.  The weather dawned perfectly cool to start with temperatures rising only slowly during the run.  The world No.1 Eliud Kipchoge was also running which was a good omen for me.  His last event was Berlin the previous year where I also ran and where I broke the 4hr mark for the first time.

I felt good right from the start but often this is due to the excess adrenaline.   It can sometimes catch you out as you run too fast and then pay for it dearly over the last 10kms.   But the training had gone really well so I wasn’t too concerned.  There’s also a marathon mantra which you repeat to yourself time and time again during the run – Trust Your Training!

At the half-way point I still felt great but I was a little concerned that I was now more than 3 minutes under my goal time and I prayed that I hadn’t overdone it.   At 25km the first signs of leg cramp hit me and I immediately cursed myself for ignoring my pre-race strategy.  From this point to the end would all be about management now just to get me to the finish.  I immediately slowed down by 20sec / km and concentrated on improving my hydration and nutrition intake.

The last 17km were probably the hardest I’ve ever run in my life.  I hardly noticed the screaming crowds after that – the fantastic sights – Canary Wharf, Tower of London, Whitehall Gardens, London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace were just a blur.  But the total concentration meant I was able to manage a steady consistent pace – and to cross the finish line in a new personal best, Boston Qualifying time.

Absolutely magic.

Undisputed Marathon GOAT

Geneva, Switzerland

Our France itinerary had allowed for a day trip from Lyon and as we considered the many temping options it was soon obvious what our choice would be.  Although the train trip was a little longer (2hrs each way)  we could take in the relaxing sights from our carriage before our arrival into Geneva, Switzerland.  We just couldn’t resist the opportunity to see this most famous of cities – a powerhouse of numerous international organisations (the UN, Red Cross), and a huge global financial centre.  What makes Geneva tempting for a day trip is that it is so compact – you get off the train and you can access the main sights, the waterfront and Old Town by foot.  Geneva also has an excellent bus and tram system so you are able to easily tick off many other main attractions in a few hours.

Highlights were St Pierre Cathedral and the views of the city from its north tower, the European headquarters of the United Nations and the symbolic Broken Chair sculpture nearby.  The Jet d’eau is probably Geneva’s most famous landmark – this massive fountain (situated on the left side of Lake Geneva) jets 500 litres water per second to a height of 140 meters.  Don’t miss the nearby L’horloge fleurie or the outdoor Flower Clock.

It was a beautiful day so there was time for a relaxing lunch along one of the many lakeside restaurants as well as some shopping in some of the many interesting shops.    Probably more browsing than actual shopping though as Geneva is ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world!

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

View of Jet d’eau from St Pierre Cathedral North Tower