Seychelles (Nov '11)

This holiday was our 'baby moon' - the last holiday with just the two of us, while Diana could still travel and before our baby arrives in March. After considering many options (Bora Bora? Maldives? Sri Lanka?), we finally settled on the Seychelles - a large archipelago of 115 islands, north of Madagascar and just south of the equator. And what better way to explore an archipelago than by boat? So we rented a big catamaran and were very much looking forward to a week in paradise.
 Jumeirah Mosque, Dubai
The flight to Seychelles from Singapore was via Dubai, leaving at 1.20am and arriving in Dubai at 4.30am after a 7-hour flight... A good preparation for a day of sightseeing! After arrival in Dubai, we dropped off our luggage in the hotel, had a coffee / hot chocolate and left by 7am. We first went to the small Jumeirah Mosque and then to a beach close to the famous 7-star Burj Al-Arab Burh Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraperhotel. It was Friday, which is the start of their weekend, and it was interesting to see who was on the beach: mainly expats with young kids or older expats. Even though it was the cool season, it quickly became hot by 10am, and we left for some more sightseeing. Next on the list was the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. Burj Kalifa is the tallest building in the world, or at least one of them. In the beginning, we were somewhat sceptical with this game of "my skyscraper is taller than yours", but it turned out to be a elegant building that's actually nice to look at. We didn't bother to go up though, and settled for some photos. Dubai Mall was quite impressive as well, easily the largest mall we have ever seen (and there are many in Singapore!). It had waterfalls, an ice rink, a giant aquarium with the world’s largest viewing panel filled with lots of beautiful fish, and of course shops, shops and more shops. There was an entire floor dedicated to kids stuff, and we bought our first set of clothes for our baby – a bright blue outfit, which Diana just had to buy... By 1pm the jet-lag kicked in, and it was time to head back to the hotel for a nap.
Late afternoon we went for a walk along Dubai Creek, explored the old Bastakiya quarters in Bur Dubai, had dinner in a very charming restaurant there, briefly checked the souks for souvenirs and went back to the hotel for a good night of sleep.
 
On Saturday morning we flew from Dubai to Mahé (the largest island in the Seychelles), and went to Eden Island for the boat. Eden IslaOur boat!nd is reclaimed land in front of Victoria (the capital), and full of luxury villas and a marina. We dropped off our luggage in the boat, and went to a supermarket in Victoria to get some groceries. When we came back, we had a long briefing by Philippe (the owner of the sailing company) about the boat and the itinerary, which was very useful.
The catamaran we rented was even bigger than we expected... 12m long, with 3 cabins, a large living area in the middle, a large area at the back, a comfortable net in front, and all technologies to make life easy, like GPS, autopilot, etc.Breakfast in Port Launay
 
On Sunday morning, we safely stored all our stuff in the catamaran, removed the lines and sailed away. Once out in the open sea, we raised the sails and navigated our way between the small islands in front of Mahé, and south around St. Anne island towards the northwest, to go over Mahé's north point. The sea was rough, with high waves and wind of 20-23 knots (force 5-6). Diana felt sea sick most of the time and we were happy to find shelter in Bay de Ternay where we stayed a few hours before continuing for a short while to our destination for the night, the bay of Port Launay. We anchored in the beautiful and calm bay, and took the dinghy to the beach where we stayed for a while before having dinner in the swish hotel that owns the beach. (This is actually an issue for the Seychellois, as these big hotels are built next to the nicest beaches. While it's still public land by law, the locals don't really have access anymore. And don't get them started about the government, the president who's been in office for 35 years, corruption, and how much locals get to see of the money earned in those $800-per-night hotels…)
 
The next morning, we could really admire the scenery, with bright-blue waters, a long white beach with palm trees, and high green mountains all around the bay. We fed the (big) fish swimming around the boat and saw a large turtle swimming around, while we were having breakfast... Life's good!
But the fun didn't last long, as the sea was again rough on our way back to Victoria (we went back there, as it's a better starting point for the 4-hour trip to Praslin island). The weather quickly deteriorated and Sjoerd was battling 1.5-2m high waves while Diana was sea sick again, laying in the cabin below deck. She didn't see much of the trip (including the couple of dView from Mount Copoliaolphins that swam along the boat for a while). By the time we got back to the marina, the weather was really bad and we decided to not sail to Praslin anymore. Out on the sea, the baby had been kicking all the time. We didn't know if it was because he liked the rocking movements or because he hated it, so we decided not to take our chances today...
 
Or the next day... When we woke up on Tuesday, there was a very strong wind (force 6, also known as "gale" force), with reports of force 7 wind out at sea. Crossing now would be very uncomfortable at least, and possibly even dangerous. So instead we took a taxi to nearby Mount Copolia, which is a giant granite rock towering over Victoria. It was a 2-hour walk through dense jungle to the top and back, and the views from the top were spectacular: a postcard-perfect view on the islands east of Mahé, surrounded by green mountains and the bluest waters you can imagine. Simply stunning. And from up there you couldn't see how rough the weather was at sea level...
Anse Soleil, on MaheIn the afternoon we went to Anse Soleil, a small beach in the southwest that is often described as a "hidden paradise". And it was, with a beautiful beach, large boulders on each side and palm trees behind it. But there were also large waves rolling in, as the wind was still strong and whipped up the waves. We had a good dinner at the small restaurant next to the beach, and made our way back to Eden Island, happy for a great day and hopeful for less wind the next day.
 
We woke up at around 6am and it looked great from our cabin, with calm weather and clear skies. But once we got up, we noticed the storm clouds gathering over the mountain range, and the rapidly-strengthening wind. A quick check on the instruments confirmed that the wind was already at 18-20 knots, with bursts of up to 26 knots. And that was in the sheltered harbour - out at sea it would certainly be stronger.
After a long deliberation, we decided that we wouldn't take our chances any longer, and that we would abandon the plan to sail to Praslin and La Digue. The wind was too strong and unpredictable, and we didn't want to waste any more time hoping it would improve (even the locals said that this weather was unusually bad for the time of the year, and couldn’t predict what it would be for the next few days). So we booked a flight to Praslin, packed up and left the boat behind. We had high expectatioView from our room in Mango Lodgens that this would be an idyllic sailing holiday, but the weather just didn't cooperate. Maybe we would have dared in a normal situation, but now that Diana is pregnant we had to be a bit more cautious...
We took the 15-minute flight from Mahé to Praslin around noon, rented a car upon arrival, drove around the island to the north side, and checked into the lovely Mango Lodge at Baie Volbert. This boutique hotel, owned by South Africans, was as good as described in the guide book: "hallucinogenic view". It had wooden A-frame chalets on stilts with one of the most spectacular views we have ever seen, over a bay with clear-blue waters and Curieuse Island in the distance. Simply perfect. (Oh yes, they also had three dogs, three cats plus some neighbourhood strays, a rabbit and guinea pigs. What more do you want?)
In the afternoon we visited Vallée de Mai, a nature reserve that's home to the famous 'coco de mer' which is a giant nut (weighing up to 20 kg) shaped very much like a woman's buttocks. Its nickname is 'coco fesse' which is French for 'butt coconut'. And the male plant has a 1m long penis-like flower, adding to the steamy reputation of this plant. The park was nice with dense jungle and giant palm leaves, and we walked around for quite a while before heading back to the beach to cool off. We couldn't resist buying some more baby clothes at a souvenir shop there, including cute little shorts and another outfit. Once the sun went down, we drove around the island for a fantastic dinner at Café le Monde where we ate until we couldn't cough anymore.
 
Breeding bird on Cousin islandOn Thursday morning we started with a good breakfast with incredible views at the lodge, and went down to the beach for a day trip to Cousin and Curieuse islands, both close to Praslin. The boat ride was bumpy, and it took quite a while to disembark, as the park rangers pick up all visitors and were struggling to cope with the large waves crashing on the beach (they later told me that the little boat almost sank twice that morning). But it was very much worth the trip – Cousin is a protected nature reserve for almost 50 years now, and has over 300,000 land and sea birds, as well as giant tortoises, giant crabs and the highest lizard density in the world. So there was movement and sound everywhere on the little island: on the ground, in the trees, and in the air... The birds were amazing, often nestling on the ground and not at all afraid of visitors. You could literally sit next to them or next to a baby bird, and they wouldn't even try to move away. A total of 46% of land in Seychelles is protected reserve, as well as 45 square km of sea, and it was great to see these parks in such good state everywhere we went.
 Giant tortoise on Curieuse island
We left around noon for Curieuse, and after an excellent lunch we walked 2km from Anse St José (which used to be a leper colony) to Baie Laraie, partly over a small path over the rocks, partly over a board walk through the mangroves, and partly along the beach. It was a great walk, with so many things to see: wild coffee, cinnamon, coco-de-mer, coco plums, wild oranges and pineapple, as well as hundreds of giant crabs (sometimes over 30cm wide) making deep holes in the sand, lizards everywhere, and dozens of giant tortoises. Sometimes the tortoises were in the Giant tortoise on Curieuse islandmangrove swamp, sometimes in bushes next to the beach, and sometimes right on the beach itself. They can get 300 years old, but the oldest here is ‘just’ 150 years. There are now over 250 animals, all descendants from the 60 tortoises that were brought from the Aldabra island group 1000km away to replace the population that was hunted down to extinction. They flourish here, and are typically larger than their family back in Aldabra. They are actually very rare – the only other place in the world to see them is on Galápagos.
 


The plan for Friday was to visit nearby La Digue island, described as a must-see island. It took half an hour to get from Praslin to the little harbour of La Passe (the only settlement on the island) where we rented some bikes. We first went to the most popular beach, at Anse Source d'Argent. To get there, we biked through a plantation with vanilla and copra (dried coconut flesh from which they extract oil). They also had a tortoise pen with over thirty large and baby tortoises. The beach was a bit furtheAnse Source d'Argent on La Diguer down the road, and was as picturesque as promised – a long stretch of white sand, interrupted by large rounded rocks, and a sea in all imaginable shades of bright blue. Any Seychelles tourist brochure features photos from this beach, and it was clear why...
We had lunch at a small Creole restaurant next to the beach, and saved food for a beach dog we played with earlier – an extremely friendly dog who roamed around the beach, and who clearly wouldn't mind an extra meal, even if it's spicy Creole fish curry!
After lunch we stopped at the Veuve Reserve, a small nature park for the island's endemic Black Paradise Flycatcher (called 'Veuve' or widow by the locals), who almost died out before the establishment of this park. It's a beautiful bird: the males are black with very long tails, and the females are brown/white/black. Now there are at least 300 birds (24 pairs in the reserve and the rest outside), and the birds have been also introduced to Denis (an isolated island without people and, more importantly, no cats or rats...).
The wind picked up and it started to rain, so we didn't bike around the island to visit any more beaches (although many of them were described as not-to-be-missed). We left La Digue at 5pm, went back to the hotel for a shower, and had dinner at Coco Rouge – one ofAnse Source d'Argent on La Digue those small family-run places that opens at 6.30pm, offers six local dishes at a reasonable price, and closes when the food is finished (usually by 8pm!).
 
Saturday was our last day here, and reserved for lazing around on the beach... We first went for a walk along Anse Volbert, then drove down to Anse Lazio which is said to be the best beach of the island. It certainly was splendid, in typical Seychellois style: a long white beach fringed by palm trees, clear blue water, and large rocks on each side of the bay as a nice background for photos.
After a good lunch at our hotel and a nap, we made a long walk along 'our' beach at Anse Volbert, which we decided was the best on the island. And then it was time to pack up, and prepare for the return trip.
 
The Seychelles is a splendid archipelago and a great holiday destination. The people are cheerful, the weather is (usually) great, the food is delicious, and life generally seems less hurried here. We will definitely be back one day!

Click here for more photos.

Phuket (Oct '11)

Diana’s best friend Viki was her for a few weeks, and we decided to go with her to Phuket for 5 days. Mid-October is generally a good time to go, as the weather is good but it’s not yet peak season. And even though Diana is pregnant now, it’s her second trimester and her energies are back! Time for a perfect and relaxing holiday…How many people can fit on a small scooter?
 
Phuket has many different faces. On the one hand are the busy beaches and tacky tourist areas, but there are also very calm and stunning beaches, such as Karon and Kata in the south of the island. Our choice this time: Karon. We managed to find an almost brand-new hotel, not too far from Karon beach, with a good deal. The rooms were very clean, everything looked new and we had a beautiful sea view from our room.
 
Jump!The first day we took it easy and spent almost the whole day on Karon beach. The weather was great, the beach had perfect sand, and the water was clear with occasional waves. We loved jumping in them! ... and we thought that our future baby might be enjoying it as well :-)
 
The next day we visited the gibbon rehabilitation project, which we always wanted to visit but never really had time for. It is an absolutely fantastic project, where they are working hard to rehabilitate gibbons that have been used in illegal animal trade. It’s also used to educate tourists and locals about gibbons in Thailand.
 
The sad truth is that many gibbons are removed from the forests of Thailand every year, to work in the tourism industry or be used as pets. Poachers go after the babies, but often have to kill the whole family to catch one. And 2 out of 3 baby gibbons die when poachers pull them out of the tree (falling 10-15 meters to the ground), making the whole slaughter useless. So for every gibbon in captivity, around 10 have died.
 
Many gibbons are forced to have their photos taken with tourists. Using gibbons in tourism is illegal in Thailand, but unfortunately the police sometimes closes an eye (or both). So if you are reading this blog, please make sure you never take a photo with a gibbon (or any other monkey or animal, for that matter). We haven’t seen any gibbons during our stay, but they can often be found in and around Patong beach (the busiest beach).
 
This centre is giving a second chance to gibbons who are lucky enough to end up here. Most of them are released into a protected area after 5+ years of rehabilitation – the ones that can’t be released will spend their lives in this sanctuary. It's possible to adopt a gibbon and we adopted Tam, one of the permanent residents (due to her physical disabilities of only having one hand and one foot). She was born in the wild in 1994, caught and beaten so brutally by her owner that they had to Wow...amputate one arm and one leg. She was then put in a cage with other gibbons without introduction and they bit off all but two fingers on her remaining hand. Despite all this, Tam is gentle and friendly and is still able to play and move around in her cage. It is true that she will never be rehabilitated, but at least the suffering is over for her. This is another great organisation that needs to be supported.
 
After our visit to the rehabilitation centre we visit the nearby waterfalls, which provided lots of wet entertainment for the locals.
 
Sjoerd & Diana on Kata beachWe spent the next two days just relaxing on Karon beach, shopping and enjoying the good Thai cuisine!
 
The last day we spent on Kata beach which had crystal clear water. We have also discovered a great drink: a mix of coconut water and coconut flesh with ice. Delicious!
 
So overall, not much can beat this holiday when it comes to relaxation…:-) 

Europe (April '11)

Diana started the holidays a bit earlier, and spent a couple ofEverybody in the snow! days in Hungary and Romania visiting friends and family, eating her mum’s home-made meals the whole day (together with Viki). In between the meals, we did a couple of trips in the mountains around Oradea, before going back to Budapest. After a few very relaxing days there, she flew to Paris on Wednesday.

Sjoerd arrived the next morning, and we enjoyed Paris in a very traditional way: breakfast with croissant and 'pain au chocolat' followed by 'un petit café' at a local brassérie, a long walk through Montmatre and the beautiful Sacre-Coeur, and dinner with our friends Carole & Eric in a small restaurant at St Michel close to the Notre Dame cathedral.

The next day we decided that we didn't yet have enough of the touristy attractions, so we went for a long walk from the hip Marais area to the classy Place des Vosges, and then via Ile St Louis and the Rive Gauche area to the Eiffel Tower where we laid in the grass to work on our tan for a while. Does it get better than this? We realized that we felt somewhere between a local and a tourist - we knew all these places very well from the time we lived here, but we also enjoyed walking around and admiring the city like visitors.
Forest walk near Zutphen
Picnic by the river on a lazy Sunday afternoon!On Saturday, we left Paris for the Netherlands, which took much longer than expected due to long traffic jams in the south of the Netherlands (for some reason they just closed down a highway for half an hour...). But when we arrived in Zutphen it was great to again see Sjoerd's parents, Nicky & Frank and little Nora.

The next couple of days we spent with long breakfasts, picnic lunches and nice dinners, and by driving around the beautiful country side - all in all a nice couple of days 'en famille'

On Tuesday we had a long drive from Zutphen via Luxembourg to Annecy in France. We arrived quite late and checked in at the Hôtel du Chateau, which is right below Annecy's castle and has views over the city. In the evening we had fondue Savoyarde (cheese fondue) which is the typical local food - it was quite unhealthy but tasted great! After dinner we made a nice walk through this beautiful city and along the border of its lake, including 'le Pont des Amoureux'.

The next morning we drove down to the Provence, where we visited several small villages north of Nice, including Digne, Entrevaux and Puget-Theniers. It was interesting to see how close these places are to the famous Côte d'Azur but are still quite laid-back. Many houses have their own olive trees and one family even gave us a bottle of home-made olive oil (the best we ever tasted!). In the evening we drove to the village  of Castellane, which is the gateway to the famous 'Gorges du Verdon'. Village near 'Gorges du Verdon'

Gorges du VerdonThe Gorges du Verdon is one of France's most impressive natural wonders and one of Europe's deepest and longest canyons. The green river cuts through the rocks and was sometimes 700m below us. The next morning, we first drove along the right bank, and made a few short walks (stopping every other minute for photos). It was very impressive, with massive rocks, sweeping views and many eagles soaring overhead. The river ends in the deep-blue Lac St Croix, where we turned and drove back along the (less impressive) left bank, on our way to Aix-en-Provence further south. Once there, we checked into the  characteristic Hôtel Cardinal - a good choice with antiques and tasselled curtains everywhere...
Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence lived up to our (high) expectations, as it was a beautiful old city with romantic little streets, fountains at every corner and lots of bohemian chic. From the classy Cours Mirabeau in the center you can enter in any of its small streets and enjoy yourself getting lost in a beautiful maze...

The next morning we followed the walking trail in the footsteps of Cézanne (the famous painter who was a local here), which allows you to see where he lived, drank Gorgeous cat in St Marie de la Mer, a seaside town in the Camargueand painted. Afterwards we packed up and drove to Arles, another extremely charming city in the Provence and the residence of Vincent van Gogh. Once we got there, we first visited Les Alyscamps - a beautiful cemetery which was painted by both Van Gogh and Gauguin. Unfortunately the bad weather caught up with us, so we made aFlamingo reserve in the Camargue quick escape to the coastal town of St Marie de la Mer in the Camargue region (a popular sea resort) where people were  swimming and sunbathing. It was nice to see the Mediterranean again :-) After soaking up the sun for a while, we went back and visited a bird park along the way where we made some great photos of local flamingos. We were surprised to see hundreds of flamingos here, as we thought they only live in the tropics... We also saw many of the local white horses, some used for rides and others roaming free.

Back in Arles, we checked in to the lovely Hôtel du Musée, and spent a few hours exploring the old city, with its Roman amphitheater and arena, and its medieval city walls, cathedral, small streets and squares with bars and restaurants. Really nice...

Ancient Roman amphitheatre in Arles












The next morning we drove via Nîmes to the Bourgogne region, about 4-5 hours north. We started at the northern part of Bourgogne, in one of most beautiful towns of France - Vézelay. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of France's architectural gems. It's built on top of a hill around a beautiful cathedral, and is surrounded by a patchwork of vineyards, sunflower fields and fields with cows. View on VezelayVézelay has a long history - it was the starting point for pilgrimages to Spain and was also the starting point for several medieval crusades.
Sunrise view on Vezelay
After we checked in to the nice Hôtel Compostelle, Sjoerd started to chat with some of the locals in the downstairs bar, asking for a good spot for scenic photos... And before we knew it, we were in the car of Jean-Yves, who drove us around for more than an hour, showing us all the best spots for great views on a sunset on Vézelay. Sjoerd repeated the same trip the next morning, for some sunrise shots of Vézelay above a misty valley. Spectacular

Bourgogne was a great surprise for us - especially the national park of Morvan. It was one of the most beautiful areas we have seen, with rolling hills, endless forests, rivers, lakes, white cows grazing in large fields, and beautiful villages dotted around the landscape. We couldn't get enough of it (but fortunately it was a very large national park!). In the evening we ended up in the village  of Chateau-Chinon, on top of the hills in southern Morvan, with wonderful views from our hotel room. 

Tours, in the heart of the Loire valleyOn Monday it was time to leave Bourgogne for the region of La Loire, famous for the gorgeous castles spread out over the region. After a long but beautiful drive through the smaller roads of Bourgogne and La Loire, we ended up in Tours. For the next few days, we drove around the Loire region around Tours, Saumur and Angers, where we visited some private castles. Some of these needed serious renovation, but some where in excellent state with beautiful interior design (often those were used as hotel or for weekly rental). There were some amazing places, sometimes in a private park of over 100 hectares... But the weekly rental is often at least €4,500 :-(

We stayed a few nights in Saumur, which is a beautiful city at the Loire river with a huge castle, a famous equestrian school and many restaurants and bars. On Thursday morning we enjoyed the feeling of being 'free & easy' and only started making our plan for the rest of the holidays during breakfast... On the advice of the hotel manager, we decided to stay another day in Saumur to explore the Loire region a bit more. We visited it over 10 years ago when we lived in Paris, but only saw the highlights here - today would be a good opportunity to see some lesser-known castles. And it turned out to be a great decision!
Abbaye de Fontevraud - Europe's largest medieval abbey
While driving along the Loire river, we noticed houses built into caves in hills along the road. The spaces were left after people dug out blocks of white troglodyte stone to built houses and castles, and the caves are now used as secondary homes, for wine storage or for mushroom farming. The first place we visited was Abbaye de Fontevraud (of course built with troglodyte stones), which is the largest medieval Azay-Le-Rideauabbey in Europe. It was an impressive and very well preserved complex (started as an abbey for both monks and nuns, and converted into a prison by Napoleon) and we enjoyed walking around for a while.

Next was Azay-Le-Rideau, one of the most famous castles here, which we had visited the last time we were here. It was great to be back and admire this elegant castle built on a small island in the Loire. It was a 'pleasure palace' only lived in during the summer.

After a leisurely lunch on the banks of the Loire, we continued with Langeais - a real fortress castle built for defense, including draw bridge and portals to throw stones and boilinThe stunning gardens of Villandryg oil. The interior is in very well preserved medieval style (one of the best in France) and it's famous as the location of the arranged marriage between Charles VIII and his child bride Anne of Bretagne in 1491, which gave France rights over the previously independent Bretagne.

The next castle was Villandry with its stunning gardens. We first visited the interior, which was well-restored but mostly offered good views over the gardens. Those were restored in the early 20th century, and the restoration work is still continued by the grandson of the owner. There are several different gardens, all with beautifully designed and maintained geometric shapes, such as the Ornamental Garden, the Water Garden, the Maze, the Herb Garden and the Vegetable Garden (with Chateau d'Ussé, better known as the castle of Sleeping Beautyvegetables arranged by their color). They need a whole team of gardeners to maintain the 1200 lime trees, 250,000 flowers and vegetables and 52km of hedges, all with organic treatment. It was very impressive.

The last castle was Chateau d'Ussé, better known as the castle that inspired Charles Perrault to write 'Belle au Bois Dormant' (Sleeping Beauty) in the 17th century, while staying here. It was a beautiful castle with a strong 'Disney Land' look and the owner (who still lives here) clearly takes real pleasure and pride in restoring it and telling the Sleeping Beauty story (e.g., in the main tower, there were exhibits in every room with scenes from the story). It was very well done. The drive back to Saumur along the Loire was beautiful - we love this region!

Puy de Sancy in Auvergne, the highest peak in central France
On Friday 6 May we finally left the Loire region to head south towards Auvergne. After a couple of hours on the auto route through boring landscapes, we drove around Clermont-Ferrand into the volcanic national park  of Auvergne, which was much more hilly and interesting. This area has seen many volcanic eruptions (the last one 7000 years ago) and it still visible in the sharp peaks and mountains, and black volcanic stones used for the houses. We first visited the Puy de Sancy, which is the highest peak in central France. It's a popular ski area, and we took a ski lift to get close to the peak. After a short but steep climb we were rewarded with great 360' views over this mountainous area. Afterwards we continued to Lac de Guéry a few kilometers north, where we found a nice 'auberge' (hotel) right next to the lake - this would probably give great views in the morning! We made a walk around the lake, up to a hill with great views on the lake and the surrounding hills, and walked around nearby Mont-Dore, which looks like a typical ski resort. We were surprised to see that they were selling piles of sausages and cheese at every second shop, and that every third shop was a pharmacy... Could there be a connection? :-)

In the morning (after admiring great views on the lake), we drove south via the curvy and scenic D36 roadView on Lac de Bourget, next to Chambery in the Savoie region, and enjoyed spectacular views at every turn. We slowly made our way to the south of Auvergne, driving through nice villages along the way. By mid-afternoon, it was time to leave for our next destination: Chambéry in Savoie (in the French Alps). We arrived late but found a delightful 'chambre d'hôte', on a hill overlooking the valley at 10 minutes walk from Chambéry's center. Eric, the owner of this B&B, is a musician really knows how to enjoy live, e.g., in the summer he travels around small villages in the region as 'Eric le Troubadour' with an accordion and a donkey, to entertain the kids. Oh yeah, and he also offers homemade croissant and jams for breakfast in the morning :-)

On Sunday we went for a long drive around Lac du Bourget, which is the biggest natural lake of France, right next to Chambéry. We started with Mont Revard, which is a nearby mountain with magnificent views on the lake and the French Alps (including Mont Blanc). We could see boats sailing on the lake, and we could Lac de Bourget... can you see the Alps in the distance?imagine how people here could have real 'joie de vivre' with sailing, skiing and good food...Mont Revard, next to Lac de Bourget

We then slowly made our way down to Aix-les-Bains, from where we took a boat across the lake towards the Abbaye Le Hautecomb. The views from Aix on the lake and mountains were spectacular! Afterwards we drove around the lake to Chanaz, an old village close to the lake, where we bought some delicious nut oil and nut jam from the local mill. Diana much enjoyed being back in this area, where she spent a year studying (and skiing) more than 10 years ago - it was still beautiful!

AnnecyThe next day we woke up on time for a trip to Annécy, Evian and Yvoire. We started with Annécy, where we made some walks around the old city and the lake, before driving around the lake to visit some small picturesque villages. The water was clear azure blue and there's views on the mountains everywhere, but we still prefer the Lac du Bourget as it's less touristy and bigger. Yvoire, between Geneva and Evian

Next we drove to Evian, home of the famous mineral water next to Lac Leman, which is shared by Switzerland and France. Lac Leman is not as nice, as it's not surrounded by mountains, but we enjoyed walking around the old city and topping up our bottle with water from the spring! Later we drove to Yvoire, an extremely picturesque village between Evian and Geneva. We truly felt that time had stopped somewhere in the Middle Ages, and we spent quite some time admiring the views on the village, castle and the lake.
In the evening we went back to Bourget-du-Lac, to see Diana's business school and for dinner with view on the sunset over the lake. It was beautiful, quiet and amazing...

O
n Tuesday we drove back to Paris to finish our 'Tour de France'. After 6,500 km in three weeks, we safely returned our dirty and dusty rental car at Gare du Nord, and took the metro to our hotel. The hotel was close to the famous Rue de Mouffetard, which is blocked for cars, has a street market in the day and transforms itself into a dining street in the evening.

Inside the Louvre museum - Venus of MiloOn Wednesday morning we had a coffee in the exclusive Plaza Athenee hotel, in a Dinner with friends: Carole & Eric, and Christelleside street from the Champs-Élysées, and spent the rest of the day walking around Paris to soak up the atmosphere. On Thursday we went to the Louvre museum, to admire their 17th century Italian works, as well as the highlights like 'Joconda' (as the Mona Lisa is called in Italy) and the statue of the Venus of Milo. And of course the building itself - magnificent! In the evening we met Carole & Eric and Diana's old friend from Chambéry Christelle and her new boyfriend Yoann. It was an extremely nice evening in a great vegetarian restaurant.

On Friday we walked around Paris (can't get enough of it) and in the evening we met Marcus (from Diana's AIESEC France team), Barbara and their two daughters for a 'soirée crêpe' at their place just outside Paris. With a special machine, we prepared 'crêpe salée' and 'crêpe sucrée' and together with a couple of bottles of cider it made for a great evening. Laura (3) and Julie (1) were really nice kids, and especially Laura impressed us by dancing and posing the whole evening, insisting that we take photos of her and seriously reviewing the photos to see if they came out well :-)Lunch with Morgan, Simone, Noah and Emma, in the best picnic spot in Paris

On Saturday we met Morgan, Simone and their kids Emma and Noah for a picnic lunch at the best spot in Paris: Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. The weather was good, the company great and everybody was out in the sun - what a great way to spend an afternoon! Afterwards we took the Bateaux-Mouches for a one-hour boat trip over the Seine, to see the city from a different vantage point, then walked over the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, which we climbed to get stellar views over Paris. With the sun setting over the city, we had magnificent views all the way to Sacre-Coeur, all the 12 boulevards radiating from the Arc and of course the Eiffel Tower. Wow!

After a quick dinner on the Champs-Élysées, we went to see Midnight in Paris, the latest film by Woody Allen which was the opening film for this year's Cannes Film Festival. It was a perfect movie to watch in Paris, and it put us in the mood to walk around Paris for a couple of more hours :-)

View on Paris from the Arc de TriompheWe walked along the Seine, admiring the glittering Eiffel Tower, until the magnificent Pont Alexandre III in front of 'Hôtel des Invalides' with its golden statues. Close to the bridge, we saw long long queues in front of the museums of Le Grand Palais and Le Petit Palais. It was the European Night of The Museum, and all of Paris was spending Saturday night in museums, even queueing up for an hour in the middle of the night to see some exhibitions. We skipped the long queue and went to see a smaller exhibition in Le Grand Palais about the life of Picasso - sometime after midnight. This city is unbelievable!

We have always been in love with Paris, and this trip only made it stronger.
Paris je t’aime, and we’ll back!


For more photos, click here.

Back to Koh Yao Yai - Thailand (Feb '11)

For Chinese New Year we decided to go back to one of our favKoh Yao Yaiourite places: Koh Yao Yai, next to Phuket.

It’s just about 1 hour away from Phuket by boat. We like it,as it has beautiful beaches and a very nice resort: Elixir. The resort has quiet villas, nice food and great massages at the pool side.

Koh Yao YaiAs planned, this holiday was just about 'dolce fare niente' (sweet doing nothing) - so just relaxation and not many activities. Originally we planned for some dive trips, but in the end we decided not to go this time.

We were very lucky as we got upgraded to a deluxe pool-villa and it was really great to jump in our own pool to cool off! Thank you Elixir resort for this upgrade! :-) We will be back!

Click here for more pictures.

 

 

 


Tasmania (Dec '10)

Tasmania had been on our list for quite a while already. And after we read a book about the world's greatest trekView over Tasmanias describing Tasmania's Overland Track as one of the best, we decided that the time had come to prepare our backpacks and head into the bush!

We arrived in Launceston, Tasmania's second-largest city, on Saturday afternoon, and quickly went into an outdoor shop to buy some additional equipment (shops close early here!). We thought we were all set, but we underestimated the volatile Tasmanian weather. Saturday's sun was quickly replaced by a chilly night and pouring rains on Sunday, and we had to go back to the outdoor store to buy more stuff (backpack liners, rain trousers, better sleeping bags, more fuel, gloves, etc.). It started to dawn on us that this track may actually be quite a bit tougher than we expected...

Overland Track - about to get started!Fully packed with backpacks that weighted a ton, we left Launceston on Monday morning with a TassieLink bus to Cradle Mountain - the starting point of the Overland Track. After getting our passes at the Visitor Centre, we took a shuttle bus to Dove Lake to take some of the postcard-photos of Dove Lake with Cradle Mountain in the background. From there, the track started. The weather was still nice and sunny, and we were hoping to have a dry trip to Waterfall Valley... But those hopes were destroyed halfway up a steep hill when it started to rain (and didn't really stop for another four hours).
Overland Track - close to Waterfall Valley Hut
We finally made it up the steep hill to reach Marion's Lookout, and we were rewarded with stunning views, with a lake in front and mountains as far as we could see. And all through today's track, we had great views (though often hidden by clouds). After a brief stop-over at Kitchen Hut, we prepared for the last two hours. The last hour was grueling - the backpacks were already heavy, and they soaked up the rain to add another few kilos... It was tough, but we finally made it to Waterfall Valley.

We decided to stay in the hut rather than in our tent, as it looked a lot warmer and more comfortable - and in addition, our soaked clothes had a chance to get dry... We prepared a delicious freshly-prepared dinner, and we got some envious looks from other trekkers who were spooning up some freeze-dried meals - it was worth carrying it after all! When we went to bed, it was still light as it only gets dark in Tasmania at around 9.30pm.

After a good night sleep and a big breakfast of oats with nuts, raisins and maple syrup, we left for the 3-hour trek to Windermere Hut. The views along the way were again stunning, with views on Barn Bluff, Cradle Mountain, and rolling hills as far as we could see. The weather was alright, but we kept on our rain gear as it snowed/rained occasionally (yes: it is summer here!) and it aOverland Track - little wallaby at Windermere Hutlso protected against the strong winds. Diana managed to step in several mud pools, leaving her shoes soaked. Combined with the opccasional snow fall, you can imagine that she needed some rest & relaxation when we arrived in Windermere hut. Luckily there was still space for us - we didn't feel like a tent tonight... We prepared a big lunch, had a nap, took some close-up photos of the resident wallabi, quall and mother-and-baby possum, and spend the afternoon talking to the other trekkers.

After a good night sleep and a big breakfast, we left at around 8.30am for the long trek to Pelion Hut. This was a 14km trek that would take us at least 6 hours without breaks, so we expected to arrive at around 4pm. The trek itself was beautiful, with perfect weather and a nice variety of buttongrass swamps and dense forests. We stopped at River Forth Lookout for views across the valley, and 1.5 hour later we stopped for lunch at Pelion Creek. Here we caught up with a couple of other trekkers who also used this shielded spot for a break. But quite soon we got cold and continued for the long trek uphill to Pelion Hut. This was very tough indeed, and we spent a long 3-4 hours climbing uphill through muddy trails in a rain forest (we got our shoes soaked again, of course). When we finally arrived, we saw a helicopter with a couple of park rangers (probably to drop off fuel for the heater, pick up toilet waste, or leave some rangers who typically spend a few days at a hut for maintenance or track repairs).

Pelion Hut is rather new (from 2001) and large (sleeping 60 people instead of the usual 24). But rather than spending the night in the hut, we put up our tent (so we used it at least once). The weather was nice and it didn't look like it was going to rain, so we decided to take a chance... Let's hope it's not going to be too cold!

Well... As it turned out, it wasn't cold but it was wet. Sometime during the night the clear afternoon skies got replaced by rain clouds and it didn't stop raining since. And as we also discovered, our tent was great for fine-weather camping but not for a Tasmanian downpour - the result was a wet tent (inside and outside), some wet clothes and partly wet sleeping bags. Not great.
Overland Track - Kia Ora Hut
Rather than taking it easy and waiting for the sun to come out and dry things, we decided to just pack up and quickly make the 3-hour journey to Kia Ora Hut. Kia Ora is a Maori word that means 'happy, laughing and playful', and it seemed like a great place to relax for an afternoon, dry our stuff, and sit in the sun (which is exactly what we did!). But first the track itself: it started with a muddy trail, rain and snow, and a steady uphill climb, but later it got better and we had some of the best views along the way at Pelion Gap (a small platform in the middle of a wide plain): Mt Ossa on the right, Mt Pelion East on the left, behind us Mt Oakleigh in front and Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain in the distance, and ahead of us Cathedral Mountain and the Du Cane Range. It was great.

Overland Track - soaking up the afternoon sun!We arrived at Kia Ora just before lunch as one of the first, claimed a good place in the hut, put our stuff out to dry and just lazed around for the rest of the day. The weather was great, and we spent quite some time getting a tan on the tent platforms near the creek. It was great talking to the other trekkers, as most of them are like-minded people, from all over the world and well-travelled. We also talked quite long to the park ranger, who told us that normally the summers are hot and dry here, with dusty tracks. Only this summer was different, and the wettest in six years - just our luck!

The next morning we packed up early and left Kia Ora for the 3-4 hour walk to the Bert Nichols Hut at Windy Ridge. This part of the Track is known for its side trips to waterfalls Overland Track - old trekkers hutand we reserved a few hours to see those as well. After 1.5 hours through nice forests we arrived at the first junction, where we left our backpacks and descended to Fergusson Falls. This was a very powerful waterfall, and standing right next to it we could really feel its energy. The next waterfall, Hartnett Falls, was 700m further and was great as well. We couldn't get very close, but then we had to be far away anyway to see its full height... We had a nice lunch on the river bank, before climbing back up to the junction and continuinOverland Track - Hartnett Fallsg our trip to Bert Nichols Hut at Windy Ridge. We got there by mid-afternoon after a long hot climb uphill, and put up the tent (yep, another try!) on a tent platform with great views on Mount Acropolis. We spend the rest of the afternoon in the sun, had dinner with an excellent view and generally had an great time. Overall, today was a beautiful day with clear skies, temperatures of 25-30 degrees, a nice track to walk and a fantastic place to sleep - we loved it.

After a very good night of sleep, we left Bert Nichols for the recommended 3-4 hour side trip to Pine Valley (not on the main Overland Track), which was an easy walk with just one highlight - four venomous tiger snakes sleeping in the sun next to trail, until Diana nearly stepped on top of them to pose for a photo. After a quick lunch we left to climb Mt Acropolis (640m high). It was much more difficult than expected, steep and rocky with little support, and we sometimes literally had to Overland Track - view from Mt Acropolisscramble over huge rocks to continue. But the views were more than worth it - it had extraordinary 360 degree views over the Overland Track, the Labyrinth, the Walls of Jerusalem, the Du Cane Range and many other mountains as far as you could see. It was fantastic, breath-taking, and well-worth the hike! The way down wasn't easy but not as bad as we feared, and we got back to the hut by around 7.30pm. For dinner we shocked everybody by preparing a nice big salad with fresh vegetables and olives (on day six of the trek)..Overland Track - view from Mt Acropolis. Most people had been eating dehydrated ready-made meals for a week, and the sight of a big fresh salad was nearly too much for some - but to their delight, we shared... :-)

The next morning we walked back from Pine Valley to the Overland Track, where we completed it by walking to the Narcissus Hut, taking the ferry across Lake St Clair, and taking the bus back to Hobart for a well-deserved and much-needed hot shower!

Kangaroos at the Tasmanian Devil SanctuaryAfter a great night sleep (in a real bed!) we left Hobart in the morning and stopped along the way at a fruit farm near Sorrell, where we picked our own fruit - nearly 2.5 kg of cherries, strawberries, raspberries, logan berries, and redcurrants. It was delicious!

The next stop was at a Tasmanian Devil conservation centre, where they had several kinds of animals. We first hand-fed some kangaroos, and then went to see the Devils. They are now an endangered species, with 80% of the wild population wiped out since 2000 due to a contagious face cancer that spreads easily whenever they fight and bite each other - and they fight all the time over anything, with loud screams that earned them their name. They are small black animals that are built a bit like hyenas (strong shoulders, big head, small hind legs) that are meat-eating marsNow you know how the Tasmanian Devil got his name!upials (with a pouch, just like kangaroos). They're not hunters but rather scavengers, eating anything that's left behind by others, and they're not picky eaters - we saw them swallowing some pieces of meat with skin and bone... two bites and it was gone. The people are trying to isolate some Devils on a peninsula, to keep some healthy animals in the wild. We hope that this will be successful, and that they won't go extinct in the wild.

Port ArthurWe camped at the idyllic Fortescue Bay, walked around the great beach there, and went down to the Port Arthur Historic Site. This is the former high security prison of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania's old name). Van Diemen's Land itself was already a prison for British criminals, and they were sent to Port Arthur if they committed further crimes (such as being disrespectful to a prison guard). It was supposed a grim gloomy place but we found it lovely, with beautiful old buildings and landscaped gardens like in the English country site. There was a beautiful sunset that evening, and the place was actually very nice - probably bad in winter, but definitely not gloomy today!
Fortescue Bay, on Tasman Peninsula
On 28 December we started with a healthy breakfast of yoghurt, cereals and the fruits we picked yesterday. Now Beautiful cliffs near the sea around Tasman Peninsulawe were ready for the Tasman Island Cruise, which is a 3-hour trip by speedboat around the cliffs of south-east Tasmania and Tasman Peninsula. Nothing is between these cliffs and Antarctica, and the shores are beaten continuously by huge waves. But we were lucky and didn't encounter any 14 meter waves - instead we had a smooth sea, clear skies and sunshine.

The coastline was amazing, with 290 million year old cliffs going up to 306 meter high above the sea (highest in Australia), with Seals cooperate to round up and devour huge amounts of fish... and the seagulls join the party!huge caves and blowholes everywhere. The boat could squeeze into the caves, so we could really get a close look. On the cliffs there were countless bird and seal colonies, and we could watch them from close by fighting for a place in the sun. Later on, we saw a special spectacle at sea, whereby seals work together to round up fish, and then start a feeding frenzy. Lots of birds enthusiastically participated in this, and it was great to watch this show for a while. Especially the albatrosses were very impressive, and we saw it from just a few meters away - better than a documentary!

Towards the end, we sailed around the lighthouse on Tasman Island (three families lived up there, and sometimes had to survive for weeks without supplies, which had to be hauled up by cable from a boat to the top of the high cliffs - impossible in bad Wineglass Bayweather). The lighthouse is a welcome sight for sailors in the Sydney - Hobart race, which would be passing by in the next day or so. We returned to Port Arthur (with some good views on the Historic Site), and went for lunch at a restaurant with a great view over the bay and soaked up the sun in the afternoon, before driving north for a few hours to Coles Bay near the Freycinet National Park. We were planning to spend two nights at a camp site at Wine Glass Bay, which is an hour walk from the car park. But we were quite tired, and looked for a hotel along the way to Coles Bay, but everything was fully booked :-( So we parked, packed up, and started to walk...

IWineglass Bay, in Freycinet National Parkn the end, this turned out to be a great decision, and better than any hotel or B&B could have been. By 8.30pm we got to the beach, and found a protected site right on the bay (the official camp site was actually behind a dune we realized later, but we stayed on the beach anyway as it Wineglass Baywas a much better place). It was a great spot, and we decided to just stay there the whole next day, lazing on the beach, getting a tan, and watching the tour boats come by. We even dared to 'swim' in the sea - very cold, but quite nice for a short dip.

The next morning we walked back, and took the car up north along the splendid coast to Binalong Bay in the famous Bay of Fires (named after the fires of aboriginals that sailors could see while sailing by). After getting a tan on the beach for a while, we drove on through Tamar Valley to Beauty Point in the north. Tamar Valley is a beautiful area with a mPenguins groomingediteranean climate, and therefore also lots of vineyards, olive plantations and even lavender farms (one of which, as it turned out, is one the world's premier suppliers of lavender oil). In the evening, we joined a penguin tour at Low Head at the bay of Tamar River. We saw hundreds of small penguins (there are a total of over 5,000) climbing out of the sea, over rocks and into small bushes where their babies were waiting to be fed. They made a lot of noise, but were so used to people that they literally walked over our shoes.

On Friday morning we started with a visit to the Platypus House and Seahorse World. The Platypus House is a combined research facility and tourist attraction, where you can see these unique animals from close by. The platypus and the reAn echidna - close relative of the platypuslated echydna (shown in the photo) are the only members of the monotreme family, and they have characteristics of mammals, birds and reptiles (they have a beak and webbed feet, lay eggs but suckle their young, and males have a poison gland that can knock out a human being for six months). Having said that, they're adorable little animals... The facility had four platypus, but hasn't been successful in breeding yet. The Seahorse World is the biggest exporter of seahorses for aquariums in the world, and they had a great variety of species. Seahorses are very special, as the males are pregnant and carry the eggs around for weeks. The facility is successful in breeding them, with a 95% survival rate (compared to 5% in the wild), but they are not allowed to place any seahorse back in the wild as they may have developed a disease while in captivity.
 
New Year's Eve in HobartIn the afternoon we drove south to Hobart, to celebrate New Year's Eve together with some people we met on the Overland Track (Andrew & Jasmijn, and David & Catherine). Hobart was bustling, with hundreds of yachts that had just completed the Sydney - Hobart race, and there were concerts, shows and activities everywhere. After a fantastic dinner in vegetarian restaurant, we went to the harbor to watch the fire works at midnight. The atmosphere was great, the fireworks long and impressive,View from Mt Wellington, near Hobart and all in all it was a great way to celebrate New Year's Eve!

Hobart turned out to be just as much fun the next day, when we visited the weekly Salamanca Market. It was a busy area, with hundreds of stalls, great food, buskers, etc. and we loaded up on local goodies such as honey, chocolate fudge, and cherry wine... In the afternoon we drove up to Mt Wellington for spectacular views over Hobart, the river, the bay and the surrounding mountains. We were somewhat sad that our holidays were coming to a close, but happy that we discovered a new place that we could (should!) come back to!

For more photos, click here.


Kerala (Nov '10)

We wanted a holidays of 'blissfully doing nothing'... just sit back and relax. And what better place than God's Own Country - Kerala?
Chinese fishing nets in Kochi
After a hard week of work, we took a flight on Friday evening to Kochi in south India (Silk Air upgraded us to business class - nice way to start the trip!). We arrived late, took a taxi to Fort Cochin (Kochi's old town) and crashed in bed at our small hotel, which was a former Portuguese mansion.

The next morning we made a short walk around the old town, and were surprised by its distinctly European feel - a mix of Portuguese, Dutch, and English countryside, located in south India... quite incredible!

Houseboat trip on Kerala's backwatersWe walked by several churches and nice villas, when we got to a shore lined with large constructions called Chinese Fishing Nets. They were still actively used and there was a bustling fish market in front of them - a great photo opportunity...

We left Kochi for a two-hour drive south to Allepey, where we boarded the houseboat that we'd stay on for the next two days. Houseboats are a popular way to see the famous backwaters of Kerala, and Count the ducks...we heard many good stories about it. But we didn't expect it to be this nice and comfortable! It was a beautiful boat with two bedrooms, three staff, upper deck, dining area, etc... all just for us - yeah!

Shortly after we left, we stopped for lunch and were served the most delicious Indian food we ever had, and Diana just couldn't stop eating, and eating and eating... Blissful relaxation had started!

The rest of the afternoon we slowly cruised down the river, and watched life unfold on the river banks. It seemed very peaceful and truly showed a different face of India - far from the usual crowds and noise.
Great food on board the houseboat
In the evening, we made a sunset walk to a nearby village and rice paddies, and bought some 'toddy' (local drink made from coconut milk) on the way back. After a nice dinner, we played cards, drank toddy, and rolled into bed early.

Houseboat trip on Kerala's backwatersThe next morning, the light was great so we took many photos of life on and around the river - birds everywhere (including countless kingfishers), some fishermen in tiny boats, houseboats, villagers with their cows on the shore... It was a beautiful morning.

For breakfast we could choose between toast with jam or a local speciality of rice noodles shaped into small bundles, and egg curry with vegetables. Needless to say we didn't eat any of the toast!
IMG_7175
After breakfast we took some more photos on the sun deck - the coconut trees reflecting in the water with subtle morning light was a great backdrop, and not to be wasted.

We slowly went down the river again and stopped a few times for sightseeing. First was a Christian church where some children were baptized (it was Sunday) - with enthusiastic singing and chanting in Malayali (the local language), which was quite a funny combination. The second stop was to check out a 'snake boat' used for the annual snake boat race - this rowing boat fits over 130 people, of which 100+ rowers.

Houseboat trip on Kerala's backwatersThe rest of the afternoon went by very relaxed, we stopped at a nice and quiet place for the night, had another delicious dinner and listened to the rain pouring down on the boat - a great end to a great day. All in all, the house boat trip was truly divine.

The next morning we left on time, to be back at the jetty by 9am from where we took a taxi to Kumily, next to the famous Periyar National Park. We checked into the lovely Jungle View Guesthouse, which is right next to the park and to the Tamil Nadu border, and which truly lives up to its name - in the first hour, we saw several monkeys and giant squirrels in the garden, and there was a porcupine and a civet in the night.
Giant squirrel in the garden of our guesthouse
In the afternoon we visited one of Kumily's many spice gardens, where there was an amazing variety of spices and medicinal herbs (pepper, cloves, cardammon, cinnamon, sandalwood, tea, vanilla, chilies, coffee, cocoa... you name it, and it was there). We bought quite a lot in their well-stocked shop, of course

Next was a viewpoint, high on a cliff overlooking a huge waterfall and a valley (which was already Tamil Nadu). We returned to the guesthouse, and prepared a pineapple for the porcupine - we were hopeful to spot it, but the next morning the pineapple was gone and no sight of the porcupine. But there was a sign of the civet (he left his coffebean-filled poo on the veranda)...

Periyar National ParkOn Tuesday morning, we entered the park for a day of trekking and bamboo rafting. This was billed as the best way to spot wildlife, so we were very hopeful - maybe this time we'd finally see wild elephants! But it would be though, as this park is 777 square kilometers, there are less than 750 elephants and 40-odd tigers, and it was the rainy season (so less chance to see animals at the lake).

It started well with a beautiful deer at the entrance to the bark. For the trip itself, we had four guides and an armed guard (for what, we don't know). Their English wasn't great, but we trusted their skill to spot wildlife (many guides are from forest tribes and used to be poachers, before the 90's when they were hired as guides - a better way to make a living and better for the park). Poaching is rare nowadays, and you can see that in the abundant wildlife throughout the park.Black langor monkey (with baby) in Periyar National Park

We started with a two-hour walk through wide plains and dense forest, where we soon spotted a group of black langoor monkeys, playing in the canopy. The scenery was spectacular, and we soon arrived to a large lake (26 square kilometer, man-made by the British in 1895). There were a couple of basic bamboo rafts, on which we's slowly paddle over the lake.

To our delight, as soon as we got to the rafts, we saw six wild elephants across the lake (one male, three females and two babies)! After looking for Asian elephants in the wild in Thailand, Borneo and Nepal, we finally had our luck.. We were delighted!
Elephants in Periyar National Park
We paddled across the lake, got on the land, and managed to get quite close. We could watch them walk around and graze for a while, until they decided to retreat into the forest. It was great looking at them grazing peacefully.

We also enjoyed a comic side-kick, a mangoose, who dashed across the grass in front of the elephants - apparently, that's also quite a rare sight.
Elephants in Periyar National Park
After lunch, we paddled back, and walked back for two hours to the camp HQ. We saw a big family of wild boars by the lake, and a bison with calf in the bushes, and of course several black monkeys. All in all, we were very lucky to see so much wildlife!

The next day, we took it easy (Diana got an ayurvedic massage), and we relaxed around the guesthouse (trying to spot more wildlife in the garden) until it was time to leave for the airport.

Kerala is one of the most relaxing parts of India, and we'll definitely be back one day!

For more photos, click here.
 


Ladakh (Sep '10)

Ladakh from the sky
Ladakh had been on our to-see list for a long time. Situated in the Himalayas in North-India, it's a remote area that's also called 'Little Tibet' due to the similarities in topography and culture. The region is part of the province Jammu & Kashmir and close to the disputed borders with Pakistan and China, so there's a fairly heavy army presence everywhere.

A few weeks before our trip, on 5 and 6 August, we heard the devastating news of massive flooding in and around Leh, the main city of Ladakh. This is very rare, as it hardly ever rains and only the elderly can remember another flooding like this. Over 200 people died and 800 more are still missing, and the affected areas showed lots of destruction. But we asked for advice from local travel agents, and they said that we could still come - in fact, they want tourists to come or else the area would be affected by an economic tragedy as well... So we packed our bags and prepared to go!

Leh
We left Singapore on Friday evening, and after spending the night in New Delhi's airport, we arrived to Leh in the early morning. The mountains around Leh were nearly barren - it looked like a scene from the moon, and quite different from other parts if the Himalayas we have seen before. Leh is situated at 3,200m and we could really feel that we were at high altitude - the air was very dry and thin, and we felt a bit tired and dizzy.Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, above Leh Palace

Friendly donkeys in LehWe spent most of the day relaxing and acclimatizing, and only went for a short walk to the centre to arrange our trips for the next few days. While talking to our travel agent, we heard the sound of a crying dog, clearly in agony. We rushed out and saw a dog with his leg stuck in a grid, hanging from that leg down in a ditch. Everybody tried to help, but the other dogs were defending the dog in the ditch, not understanding that people wanted to help.

One strong western woman suddenly appeared and pulled the dog out of the grid with one arm. Diana was standing between her and the dogs so she could rescue the dog without being harmed, and unfortunately she got bitten badly by one of them. We rushed to the hospital to get tetanus and rabies injections (probably the dog had no rabies, but we wanted to take no chances). When we arrived there we realized the size of the flooding tragedy that had happened - the old wing of the hospital was washed away and all patients were moved to the unfinished new wing in a hurry. The hospital had tents outside, was understaffed, lacked medicine, and was struggling to keep things going. The staff was very friendly, but we had to go to a pharmacy across the road to buy our own medicine. They helped with the injections, but this experience made us understand how difficult it is to run a hospital in this kind of remote areas. We also realized that rabies doesn't require just one injection, but four over a period of one month, and that Sjoerd would have to learn how to do this...
Thiksey Gompa in Leh Valley
Leh valley
On Sunday, we visited some of the monasteries south of Leh: Hemis, Thiksey and Shey. We started with Hemis Gompa, around 45km south of Leh, which was founded in the 17th century. It's one of the most-visited monasteries here, and it contains a three-story statue of Padmasanbhava. We started with the small museum with lots of ancient artefacts, and then we went in to see the prayer hall where we met a very friendly old monk. Afterwards we climbed up to see the main statue, where we listened for a while to a monk who was rehearsing some Buddhist text, in their typical singing / chanting style.

Thiksey Gompa in Leh ValleyNext was Thicksey Gompa, a beautiful monastery built on a hill, with several temples. The first temple housed a huge frightening statue of a mahakala with many arms, the second temple hadInside Thiksey Gompa a two-story statue of the Maitreya Buddha (future Buddha), and we were captivated by the large golden head with a smile of inner knowledge. Near the exit was a Tibetan traditional medicine shop where we did a consultation and bought some horrible-tasting herbal pills to speed up the acclimatization.

The last place to visit today was Shey Palace, the former summer palace of the kings of Ladakh. The palace was nice, but more remarkable was the 12-meter high Sakyamuni Buddha statue inside - the largest in the region. 


Pangong Tso
On Monday, we left Leh for a three-day tour of the main lakes in Ladakh - Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri. We shared a jeep together with a Polish couple, who were just as enthusiastic about photography as us... The journey to Pangong Tso took us through some incredible landscapes, mostly barren mountains with green valleys between them. In the valleys were small villages and sometimes a monastery, and each Pangong Tsovalley looked like a self-sustainable area. This is no surprise, as it may take a few hours to reach them by car nowadays, but a few decades ago it must have taken days or weeks to get supplies. There were also lots of grazing animals everywhere (cows, horses, donkeys, goats, yaks), and we could see the people working in the fields to prepare for the long cold winter that would soon come.Pangong Tso

The journey to the lake took over 5 hours and suddenly there it was - a deep turquoise blue lake of 130km long, surrounded by beautiful mountains. We arrived just in time for some nice photos of the landscape and later of the sunset. We made a long walk along the lake, and there were no other tourists - it was just very relaxing to sit by the side of the lake and breathe in the fresh mountain air. We slept in a little guesthouse that was owned by a local family, with the kitchen and dinner area in two large adjacent tents.

Pangong TsoIn the morning we woke up to spectacular views of the lake, which compensated for the sleepless night (we had ascended quite fast to 4,500 meter and were still suffering from that). We had a last look at this stunning lake - we hope that the photos show its full beauty, but it was hard to do it justice.

We left quite early, because we had long journey ahead of us... 370km along small winding mountain roads, which would take us over 10 hours to complete.

As soon as we had left the lake, we came to Marmot Land: a green field next to the road with a dozen fat and happy marmots running around, as well as horses and several large birds. We stopped and hoped to take a few photos, but the marmots turned to be so friendly that we could even touch them! It was a delight to play with them, and it was tough to leave them behind. Half an hour later while driving across a high pass, the weather changed completely and we found ourselves in the middle of a snow storm, which luckily didn't last long.Marmots
Marmots




Tso MoririLake on the way to Tso Moriri
After a couple of hours, close to our next destination Tso Moriri, we drove by a herd of hundreds of goats and a little later we saw the tents of the nomadic Khampa people who owned the goats. During the summer months they live up in the mountains, and it was good to see that these people still keep their traditional lifestyle. Finally by 6pm we arrived at Tso Moriri, tired after long drive but happy to be at another great site in Ladakh. There was a little village at some distance from the lake, where we found some pretty basic accommodation - but still good, considering how remote it was... And we slept very well - probably exhausted from a long day.

Blessing ritual in Korzok, next to Tso MoririOn Wednesday morning, Sjoerd woke up early to take some photos, and it was nice to see how the village was slowly waking up (including an old woman who came to milk a few of her goats to prepare for breakfast). The views on Tso Moriri were quite dramatic due to the heavy clouds, but it was hard to capture the atmosphere in a photo. During breakfast we saw a puja (blessing ritual) with women wTso Moririearing traditional costumes - this was to say farewell to the head lama, who left to spend the winter in Darjeeling and who'd only return in May when the snow is gone. We felt lucky to see this, as it's rare to see people wearing these traditional outfits – it was a true delight for photographers.

After breakfast we went for another long walk alongside the lake, trying to capture its beauty in a photo. The lake was calm, but unfortunately we didn't see the black-neck cranes which are occasional visitors.
On the way back we briefly stopped to see the nomads and their goats, before embarking on the long drive back to Leh. The road was mostly along the Indus river, which was very high and wild - normally there’s rafting on this river, but it was too wild now.Tso Moriri

 





Leh
On Thursday we decided to take it easy and do the Heritage Walk in Leh. We started with some nice herbal tea and homemade cake at Lala Cafe, and then did a tour around the Old Town up towards Leh Palace, which stands dominating over the city. It was tough to see the poverty everywhere here – like elsewhere in India, Ladakh is also full of contrast, between rich and poor, between beautiful landscape and ugly cities, between clean mountain air and air pollution on the roads, etc.

Leh PalaceThere are some improvements however: a German charity is funding the restoration of the World Heritage buildings in the Old Town of Leh, people run eco-shops and eco-tours, and there is one dog charity - Ladakh Animal Care Society. We went to visit their centre at Saboo, a few kilometres outside Leh. There were a couple of Australian women (including the one who pulled the dog from the grid!) and some local staff. It was very encouraging and heart-warming to see their operations. It was started by a local man a few years ago, expanded with help from the Brigitte Bardot foundation, and now sterilizes over 1,000 dogs per year (around 7-10 per day). Since this year, there is a partnership with the local government, who understands that sterilization is a better alternative than culling dogs every year. It will probably take a few more years to really see the results (as there are so many dogs here), but we're confident that it will work in the end.


Nubra valleyDiskit Gompa, in Nubra Valley

On Friday we left for Nubra Valley, to the north of Leh, which is another highlight of the region. The road there goes via Khardung-La, supposedly the world's highest motorable road, with a pass at 5,600 meters. The views along the way were stunning and we stopped often to take photos. The view over Nubra Valley was unique, with a large river flowing through a broad green plain, surrounded by high barren mountains.

Diskit Gompa, in Nubra ValleyShortly after lunch we stopped at the monastery of Diskit, which was a 600-year old monastery with over 100 monks and students. It was situated on a hill and we could see sand dunes in the distance. It was a unique sight to have these sand dunes next to fertile grass land, with steep mountains on both sides. Our driver knew a shortcut that took us right through the sand dunes, so we had the chance to take some nice photos. We also saw a large group of camels, which were used for rides. We didn't do that, but we did admire these gorgeous animals lazing around in the late-afternoon sun.
Dunes in Nubra Valley
Our guesthouse was in a village called Hunder, and it had a beautiful flower garden. In the evening we made a long walk around the village, looking at the sunset and the slow pace of life, and feeding some hungry dogs.

Nubra Valley is Y-shaped and on Saturday morning we left for the northern leg of the valley. Nubra means green in the local language, and it is indeed much greener than other areas. This makes it a hospitable, liveable area. In the other part of the valley we visited a gompa Nubra Valleyin Sumur, but it was less impressive than Diskit and Hunder. Then we started our long journey back to Leh, again via the highest pass in the world with stunning views and blue skies. We were impressed to see a group of South Africans who were cycling up the mountain - unbelievably tough people!

On Sunday morning we left Ladakh, looking back at another memorable holiday in the Himalayas, and looking forward to the next opportunity to spend some time in this beautiful part of the world.

For more photos, click here.
 


Bali diving trip (Aug '10)

We have been talking for a very long time about going to Bali to see the mola-mola and finally it was time to do it! To see the mola-mola, it is important to be in the right place in the right season, which is between August and October.

Before going into more details of our weekend trip we would like to give a brief introduction of the Coral Triangle (of which the waters of Bali are a part). The Coral Triangle has the highest coral diversity in the world. 76% of the world’s coral species are found here. The Coral Triangle has more coral reef fish diversity than anywhere else in the world: 40% of the world’s coral reef fish species. The Coral Triangle is frequented by different types of whales, dolphins, porpoises, the endangered dugong and six out of the seven marine turtles.

The Coral Triangle supports livelihoods and provides income particularly for coastal communities. Resources from the area directly sustain more than 120 million people living in the area.

The Coral Triangle’s economic value is nothing short of phenomenal:
- Tuna spawning and nursery grounds support a multi-billion dollar tuna industry and supply millions of consumers worldwide
- Marine resources contribute to a growing nature-based tourism industry, valued at over US$12 billion annually

The fast economic growth and big demand for fish have fuelled unsustainable coastal development and boosted demand for expensive marine resources such as tuna, shark fin, turtle products and live reef fish.
The big challenge is to ensure that the growing needs of the region do not make the wonders of the Coral Triangle something of the past…and for this reason the WWF is working together with local communities and politicians. We really hope this will work as this treasure should not be lost. On this particular trip it was very good to see that the coastal communities were relying not just on fishing , but also on cultivating seaweed (which is very healthy and extremely popular in Japan and conquering the world because of its health benefits).

Now a bit more about our trip... We flew out on Friday evening and checked into a hotel which the dive company arranged for us. We didn’t like the accommodation, so the next day we got upgraded to a very nice place called Sriphala in Sanur.

On Saturday we woke up early, fitted the gear and off we went to Nusa Penida (where the main Mola Mola dive site is). The reef has a lot of soft corals, and also many kinds of fish, such as Moorish Idols, Sweetlips, Lionfish, Moray Eel, Scorpionfish, Napoleonfish and Mola-Molas. Chrystal Bay off Nusa Penida is famous for the mola molas. They come to this place because here the cold water current and the warm water current meet, which the mola molas like. By speed boat, it takes about one hour to get here from Bali (Sanur beach).
Manta ray
We did 3 dives on Saturday. Our 1st dive was at Chrystal bay searching for the mola-molas and we weren’t lucky on this occasion. The corals and the small fish were very beautiful, and we thought even if we only see these we'd be happy already... Our dive master suggested that for the 2nd dive we should go to Manta Point about 20 minutes further  by speed boat, as it was the manta season as well! This dive proved to be one of our best dives ever, as we had 6 mantas swimming around us - it was incredible!!!

Manta ray & Diana at Nusa PenidaUsually when diving with mantas we have seen them just for a short time, but on this occasion they stayed with us. It was like they were checking us out. The feeling was exhilarating. We really had to stop ourselves from touching them as they were so close. I was right under one of them and it felt like a plane taking off just above me. It was a dream come true! As soon as they disappeared they reappeared again. This dream dive lasted about 40 minutes. We will always cherish this moment!Manta ray at Nusa Penida- Manta Point

We have even seen a 2 meter long sea snake, really a big one.

The 3rd dive was back at Chrystal Bay, we had lots of beautiful coral and fish again, but no sign of mola-molas.

In the afternoon we went back to Bali/Sanur and checked into the nice Sriphala hotel. We were exhausted, had an early dinner and went early to bed to be prepared for the next day’s dive.

After a good night of sleep and a big breakfast we were ready for a new dive day! We will try to see the mola-mola again! Hopefully with a little bit of luck we will see them this time.

We took the boat to Chrystal bay at Nusa Penida again. We put on our gear and off we went for our 1st dive of the day. In order to see the mola-mola (also called sunfish) you have to dive to about 40 meters deep - that's how high they come to get cleaned, bMola-mola & Dianaefore going down again. It started nicely with a pleasant water temperature of about 23-24 degrees, but all of a sudden it got terribly cold at about 17 degrees. We almost told the dive master that we want to go back again to the warmer parts as we couldn’t take this cold anymore. Just when we were about to give up from the distance we saw our 1st mola-mola!!! He was coming very slowly towards us, clearly not bothered by our presence. We forgot all about the cold, we were just focussed on watching the mola-mola getting closer and closer.

The average size of an adult Mola-mola is 1.8 m from snout tip to the end of the "tail" fin and 2.4 m between the tips of the dorsal and anal fins. Nusa Penida’s sunfish can get over 100 years old and their favourite food is jellyfish. The average weight is up to 1000 kg. This was a smaller one, but still big enough to be very impressive!!! We were absolutely delighted to have seen it!!!!

Mola-mola at Nusa Penida - Chrystal BayA few hours later we went for our 2nd dive. The temperature of the water was slightly warmer, but the current was much stronger. We went to the edge of the wall and we were hanging there for about 15 minutes. And again just when we were about to give up the mola-mola appeared. This one seemed even bigger and it came even closer. It was an amazing moment! It was all worth it, the wait and the cold water!

We spent the afternoon recovering from the cold, sunbathing on the roof of the boat.
Scorpion fish at Nusa Penida-Ped Point dive site
For the 3rd dive we went to Ped Point, another dive spot off Nusa Penida. The water was crystal clear, but there was a rather strong current. There were plenty of colourful small fish and corals, the most interesting was a huge scorpion fish. The photo doesn’t really show his real size about 35 cm, but it was really one of the biggest scorpion fish we have seen. We appreciated that the coral was intact. The locals are specializing in seaweed production rather than fishing, the seaweed is exported to Japan. It was nice to see them at work.

We spent the evening relaxing and have a nice dinner on the beach not far from our hotel.

The next morning was dedicated to relaxation at the hotel’s spa and in the afternoon we took a flight back to Singapore. When we booked this trip we were hopeful to see mola-molas and mantas, but not entirely counted on it. It turned out to be one of our best dive trips! We are also thankful to the dive company that we used and our dive masters!

For more pictures, click here.
 


Bonaire, Saba & NY (May '10)


Last May we went for a long holiday to the other side of the world, to visit Sjoerd’s parents in the Caribbean, and Diana’s aunt and uncle in New York.Trip to the West coast of Bonaire

The travel to Bonaire was long, very long – it took us nearly 40 hours, with stopovers in HK, NY, Aruba and Curaçao. We left on Friday evening right after work, and finally arrived on Saturday night with a 12-hour time difference. Surprisingly we were still quite energetic, probably because we were just happy to see my parents again after more than a year. And probably also a bit because of their huge one-year old dog, called Spok, who kept jumping around, enthusiastic about the new visitors…

Bonaire is a small island just north of Venezuela, of close to 300 square kilometers and 15-20,000 people, with hot and dry climate (unlike the rest of the Caribbean). Bonaire is one of five island of the Netherlands Antilles, together with neighbor Curaçao, and Saba, St Eustatius and St Maarten much to the north (close to the Virgin Islands). Under current plans, the Netherlands Antilles will be dissolved on 10 October 2010, and each island will Former slave huts near salt operation, Bonairereceive a new constitutional status: Bonaire, Saba and St Eustatius will become special municipalities of the Netherlands, while Curaçao and St Maarten will become independent states within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (nearby Aruba is already a separate country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands). There’s a lot of work required to prepare the island for the 10 October deadline, and Henk has been appointed to manage this transition.

The morning after our arrival we tried to sleep in, but woke up early due to the jetlag – we were often totally awake by 3 or 4am… In the afternoon we went for a nice lunch and a drive around the south of Bonaire, where there’s still extensive salt operations. There are large pink lakes (due to the algae in the water) and huge hills of pure sea salt. To our surprise we saw plenty of flamingos in the lake, because the Bonaire Tourism Board had specified on their website that the flamingos were only in a non-accessible national park. There were also little slave huts near the salt lakes, which used to house two people each a long time ago. The slaves were kept there for six days a week, after which they walked back 30km to their village where they spend one night. The next morning they had to attend church, and then they could walk back again…Flamingos in Bonaire

We had heard lots of stories about Spok, and he turned out to be a great dog indeed – always friendly, playful, and happy. He has a great life there, as he’s free to run around the house, onto the beach and into the sea. He’s just not allowed to run away, but luckily his friends Daisy and Bronco come by every day, for another feeding and some playtime… It’s a joy to see the three of them having fun on the beach!

My parents had two full sets of diving gear and the sea right in front of the house, so we used the opportunity to make quite few dives. While the biodiversity of the Caribbean is not as high as in the Coral Triangle between Indonesia and the Philippines, it was very nice. There were many familiar coral and fish, but there was one new discovery – a 1.5m long fish called tarpon. During the day we could see 10-15 swimming together at around 20m Donkey Sanctuary Bonairedeep, but in the night it was even more impressive: out of the dark they suddenly appear next to you, attracted by the light of our torches, and they stayed with us for more than half an hour each time. It was one of our best night dives ever!

We also visited the Donkey Sancturary (www.donkeysanctuary.org) together with Linda, where a Dutch couple takes care of over 400 donkeys who were rescued from around the island. Many used to be in bad shape, often from abuse or car accidents, and they now have a peaceful life in a protected area. It was amazing to see all those donkeys together, especially around feeding time when they nicely lined up in front of the trough. They had a couple of baby donkeys, but we decided to adopt an older one since the bBig waves in the east of Bonaireabies usually get adopted anyway.

One day, Henk took us on a tour to the Washington Slagbaai National Park in the north, which is a rough and dry area full of cactuses and some waterholes with more green and wildlife. Afterwards we went to a beautiful bay on the west coast for some snorkeling and flamingo watching.

On another day, we went for long tour of the island with Henk and Linda, to see both the east coast and Washington Slagbaai National Park in Bonairewest coast, which are really quite different. The east coast is quieter as it’s protected from the ocean, and it has nice blue sea with a beautiful bay just inland. The west coast is rough, and continuously battered by the Atlantic waves – in certain areas the huge waves splash up 5-10 meters high against the rocks. It’s a hostile landscape, but still beautiful.

The last day we went for a great trip with a speeds boat along the coast of Kralendijk (the island's capital) and over to Klein Bonaire (a small island in front of Kralendijk). It was a great way to see the island from a different angle, enjoy the sea and do a bit of wakeboarding!



Linda and Spok during our boat trip in Bonaire

It was difficult to say goodbye after a week, but we look forward to seeing them again soon. We went on to spend a couple of days on the small island of Saba, which is a few thousand kilometers to the north. It’s a tiny island with high hills and hardly any flat land – the airport has the smallest commercial runway in the world, and that’s the longest flat area of the island. There’s just a couQueen's Gardens Resort , Sabaple of thousand people living there, some of whom are descendants of pirates and who seem to be all related to each other in some way– the cousin of the taxi driver was also the brother of the girlfriend of the hotel manager, etc.

Henk had advised us to go to Saba, and we’re happy that we did. The nickname of the island is “Unspoiled Queen of the Carribean, and our hotel was called the Queen’s Yellow Frog Fish during our Saba diveGarden. Needless to say that it was a great place, with a jacuzzi in the large rooms, overlooking the green hills of the island. We loved it!

We took it quite easy for these few days, making a long jungle walk one day and going on a diving trip the next. Saba has a unique climate, with seven different ecological zones, including some rainforest. This is due to its height – it’s almost a mountain in the sea. We were happy with the cool breeze in the evening!Diving through tunnels in Saba

The next day we did three dives just off the coast of the island. Saba is known for its good diving spots, and we were not disappointed. There were lots of corals and colorful fish, but some of the highlights were a beautiful swim-through and a bright yellow frog fish (with a face only a mother could love).



 

After the Caribbean we headed to New York. The flight didn’t seem too long and we were delighted to be in a colder climate! Spring is a wonderful time to visit New York. The temperature is just perfect to make endless walks through Manhattan and that’s exactly what we did every day.

 New York was all about shopping, family visit, museums and great vegetarian restaurants.

On the first day we visited my aunt, who we haven’t seen for too many years to mention. It was great to see her and her husband Richard again and to realize that they hardly changed in all these years.

Time Square New YorkWe visited them first in New York and later in Ringwood , which is a small town in New Jersey about two hours away from Manhattan. Ringwood is a big contrast to the hectic New York, if you are lucky in Ringwood you can even see deers, bears, raccoons …They have the best of both worlds :-)The Metropolitan Museum in New York

In New York we have done so much shopping every day that we weren’t sure if we'd be able to take everything with us in the plane, which we managed of course.

We were lucky to be in New York exactly at the same time as the Picasso exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum. Some of these paintings we had previously seen in Paris, but it was amazing to see them again. The exhibition featured three hundred works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and ceramics by Picasso—never before seen in their entirety—as well as a selection of the artist's prints.

Kati and DianaThe next day we made a very long walk from 29th street all the way to Central Park, where we have spent almost all afternoon relaxing. There is so much to do, but in New York there is so much diversity that a great activity could be just sitting somewhere in a coffee place and watch all the people passing by.

On our last evening we went for drinks on top of the Marriott HoteA nice break in Central Parkl, which is just next to Times Square and it is the only revolving roof top restaurant in the city. Needless to say the views were stunning!

We were wowed again by New York and we will be back much sooner this time!


For more photos of Bonaire and Saba, click here.
For more NY photos, click here.

Western Australia (Feb '10)

Shell Beach
For Chinese New Year, we chose to go for a long week to Western Australia, starting in Perth and going north to Exmouth, in search of dolphins, dugongs, turtles, manta rays, wallabies, emus, thorn devils and whatever other wildlife Australia has to offer! 
 
When we checked in, we realized that our visa application hadn't been approved yet - which was not surprising, considering that we applied for it just two hours before (rather than the required two weeks!).
But the lady at check-in was helpful and somehow managed to get it approved on the spot. We arrived late in the evening on Saturday, and were welcomed by a suspicious customs officer who went through all our bags, looking for something that wasn't there. Then we picked up our rental car, and didn't get the free upgrade we were promised. So all in all, an interesting conclusion of the Year of the Ox – hopefully the Year of the Tiger will start better...

Dolphins at Monkey Mia beachWe left at around 8am for a long drive north to Monkey Mia (around 860km). Most of the trip was through an incredibly empty landscape – no houses, no people, very few cars... Just the bush land as far as the eye could see. And we could see very far, as the land was mostly flat, with low hills every now and then. But the emptiness was beautiful, and we enjoyed watching the barren land for hours and hours - it made us realize how large this country is. Dolphins at Monkey Mia beach
 
The east coast of Australia is much busier and more densely populated, and also attracts more tourists. On the west coast, the only big city is Perth and most tourists actually go south to the Margaret River area. Few people go north to Shark Bay and Coral Bay, while these places have extraordinary untouched nature parks - so we found ourselves almost alone among some of the world's most beautiful places!
 
Our destination for the first day was Monkey Mia, and on the way we passed by Shell Beach - a beautiful long beach made of small shells, up to 5-10 meters deep. There are so many shells, that they even collect them for construction projects! Dolphins at Monkey Mia beach
We arrived in Monkey Mia at around 6pm, and went for a walk on the beach to watch the sunset and met a fat and happy pelican, which gave us some idea of what tomorrow would bring! 
 
A few years ago Diana had seen a documentary about Monkey Mia, and learnt that it's one of the very few places in the world where wild dolphins would come to the beach and meet people. We always refused to visit dolphins that are in captivity, forced to swim in endless circles - these animals are often deeply affected, and sometimes even commit suicide (to learn more about this, we highly recommend watch this year's Oscar winning documentary film "The Cove", check out www.thecovemovie.com). These animals must be free as they need to be able to swim for many kilometers a day, even the biggest enclosures are like a bath tub for them, too small! But in Monkey Mia, it's different...
 
It started in the 1960's when local fishermen gave fish parts to the dolphins that came close to the boat. One of the local women started feeding them as well, and now it's a unique wildlife encounter in a World Heritage Park that attracts up to hundreds of visitors a day in peak season.
 
Nowadays, the feeding is done by park rangers, and very well controlled. They only feed adult females (males are too aggressive while young ones need to learn to fend for themselves), and they just feed a little bit in the morning - not by far enough to survive, so the dolphins have to continue to hunt. 
  Dolphins at Monkey Mia beach
Tourists wait on the beach outside the water, while the rangers stand in the water with the dolphins around them. There is a strict 'no touch' policy, and not even the rangers touch them. They call some tourists into the water to feed.a fish to the dolphins, and Diana was one of the first to volunteer, of course!
 
There were about 15 dolphins, and it was amazing to see these wild animals so close to us! They are free to come and go, and yet they come to this beach every morning...Of course they come for the fish, but still they can choose not to come and sometimes they do so.
 
The rangers explained that there are 'regular' and 'occasional' dolphins. But sometimes female dolphins disappear for days or weeks - this is when they get taken away by a group of male dolphins for mating. And sometimes they never return, and it's presumed that they fell prey to a tiger shark.
 
After the feeding, the dolphins stayed close to the shore, and we could get very close to them. It was amazing! 
  Emu... a 6-foot bird!
In the afternoon, we went with a catamaran in search of the elusive dugong - a 500kg sea mammal that feeds exclusively on sea grass. Previously, we tried to find one in the Philippines, but were unsuccessful.
Apparently, there are over 10,000 dugongs in this area, so we had a better chance now. But unfortunately, despite many hours of searching, we didn't get to see any! That's the thing with looking for wildlife - sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't... It was disappointing, though.
The trip itself was nice, on a large catamaran sailing around a beautiful bay with occasional turtles and many groups of dolphins. We'll certainly be back here, to see the dolphins again and hopefully, as some point, a wild dugong... 
 
The next morning, we woke up early to see the dolphins again, who were already waiting near the beach. It was a great sight again, to see almost 15 dolphins so close by.

Kangaroo, in the shadow on a hot dayWe left on time, as we had a long drive ahead of us, all the way north to Exmouth. Unfortunately, all along the highway we saw the dead bodies of wallabies / kangaroos who were killed by speeding cars in the night, when the animals come out to feed. It's quite disappointing to see that a country as developed as Australia doesn't take better care of its indigenous wildlife and put in place laws to prevent this, even if kangaroos are not endangered species. We also saw termite mounds next to the road - literally thousands of them, for more than 50 km in a row. Quite an incredible sight! It took us about 8 hours to get to Exmouth, and after a break we went to look for turtles laying eggs on a nearby beach. They come out at night from the sea, to lay their eggs on the beach. We roamed about in total darkness (as you cannot use torches near them), but we didn't manage to find any turtles.

We did, however, see plenty of wallabies on the road to and from the beach - a total of 21 furry friends standing next to the road! We learnt that wallabies are active from dusk until dawn, and sleep throughout the day, so most wallabies are in danger at night when speeding cars and trucks see them too late and can't avoid a hit.
 
However, in Exmouth we found out about an organization that rescues injured wallabies and orphaned baby wallabies, which they give good care before releasing them back in the wild - far from any roads. They have put collectioWhite beach and azur-blue waters at Turquoise Bay (Ningaloo Reef)n bins throughout the region, and ask people to be aware and drive carefully. 
 
On Wednesday morning we left for the beach and the Ningaloo Reef, which is one of the longest fringe reefs in the world. We first went to Turquoise Bay, which is exactly that - a bay with a white sand beach, crystal clear turquoise waters and great coral just offshore. The idea is that you let yourself drift with the current down the beach, walk back and jump in to do it again... It was really beautiful.
 
The next destination was Oyster Stacks, another great snorkeling site, but this time without the sandy beach so it was not obvious to get in and out of the water. 
 
Trekking through Cape Range National ParkAfter a nice lunch by the seaside, we went to the Cape Range National Park (which is the long mountain range a few kilometers inland from the beach). We chose to go to Yardie Creek, which is a large creek from the hills to the sea, where you can walk along the edge for an hour or so. It was very hot but there was a nice breeze from the ocean which cooled it down a lot. While walking up along the edge of the creek, we saw a very sleepy wallaby under some bushes. We could get really close, within 2-3 meters, and it was amazing to see how this animal was trusting us. It only didn't like the sound of the camera, so we left him after a while.
Sleepy Rock Wallaby in the mid-day heat
At the end of the trail, there was a good view on the deep blue waters in the creek 20 meters below. The trail itself was along rough rocks, which clearly used to be at the bottom of the sea at some point – we regularly saw the shells and fossil imprints along the trail.

On the way back we saw, to our delight, the same wallaby and a bit later another younger one, sleeping under a bush. The second one was ready to jump up and hop away, but was so hot and lazy that we could get very close without it moving away.
 
After this trek, we visited one more beach on this part of the Ningaloo Reef, called Sandy Beach. This was clearly a local secret, as it was stunning but not advertised by the guidebooks or the information center... We walked along the beach for a while, but didn't stay long as we wanted to be on time in Coral Bay, where we would go on a snorkeling trip the next day. On the way south, we made a detour to Shothole Gorge, a large gorge with a road down in the valley. 
 
Bottle-nose Dolphins in Coral BayOn Thursday morning, we left for a wildlife adventure tour out on Ningaloo Reef. We started with snorkeling around the reef, and besides nice coral we saw stingrays, white-tip reef shark, turtles and lots of colorful fish. When the boat left for the next site, we saw dozens of bottle-nose dolphins swimming around and under the boat. But the highlight ofSnorkeling with 5-meter wide manta ray (Coral Bay) the day was the opportunity to snorkel with manta rays. It was hard to find them, but when we finally spotted one we quickly went into the water, and started swimming to keep up with the manta. It was a 4-5m wide female manta, and she didn't mind our presence – we swam with her for over 15 minutes! It was one the most amazing experiences, to be swimming right behind such a large animal that's gracefully 'flying' through the water. It was a real privilege!


Bottle-nose Dolphins in Coral BayOn the way back to shore, we were lucky enough to see another type of dolphin - the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. Again there were many of them, swimming alongside the boat (they're a bit shyer, and didn’t interact as much as the bottle-nose dolphins). There were also many leatherback turtles, briefly surfacing to get some fresh air. When we got back to shore, we went for a walk on the beach at the manta sanctuary near Point Maud. We were surprised to see that we were the only people on a beautiful beach over 20km long, and having a gorgeous sunset all to ourselves - it was fantastic!
We saw one manta swimming close to the beach, but we didn't go in as there are also plenty of tiger sharks swimming in that bay... We had a picnic dinner on the beach, sharing the beach with just a couple of seagulls.
 
After a great breakfast by the beach the next morning, we left Coral Bay towards Kalbarri to the south. It was a blazing hot day, much hotter than the previous days... When we stopped at a gas station, the owner happily informed us that it was 49 degrees Kangaroo in Kalbarri National ParkCelsius! Closer to the beach the temperatures were much lower, thanks to the cool breeze from the sea, so this heat was a bit of a shock to us. Around noon, we made the mistake of having lunch outside in the shade of a tree, but after half an hour we felt exhausted from the heat and we rushed back into the car to continue the trip. By mid afternoon we made it to Kalbarri, and after a short break we drove into Kalbarri National Park via a 25 km dirt road. To our delight, we saw several wallabies relaxing in the afternoon sun, and they lazily hopped away when we stopped to take some photos.

Kalbarri National Park - Nature's WindowIn the park the first site was Nature's Window, which is a wind-blown hole in a rock high above the gorges. From up there, you can see a gorge on the left and one on the right, curving their way through the landscape. As most things in Australia, it was bigger then expected... The second sight was the 'Z Bend' where we arrived just before sunset. This is a large gorge with surprisingly straight canyons, at almost straight angles (hence its name). This is caused by natural fractures in the rock, which the river followed when it carved its way through the stone. All in all, the canyons were very impressive - nature at its best. 
  Pelican-feeding in Kalbarri
On Saturday morning, we started the day with pelican feeding at the beach - this popular attraction shows that the best experiences are sometimes the simplest... It started, like in Monkey Mia, with a local fisherman who fed fish remains to the pelicans every morning. When this fisherman sold his house, he included a clause that the new owner has to feed the pelicans every morning - so for the last 35 years, volunteers have been feeding the pelicans every morning, often only a few but sometimes as many as 40!
The feeding is regulated and there's maximum 2 kg of fish each day (not by far enough for these big birds, so they have to continue to fend for themselves). It was great fun to feed them, and we were happy to see these beautiful birds from so close by.
 
Afterwards, we left Kalbarri and went to see the cliffs at the rugged coast line - completely different from the white sandy beaches up north. We were very impressed with all the diversity of the landscape. Later on we continued our trip to Jurien Bay, where the temperature was only 24 degrees with a very strong wind (brrrr!). In the late afternoon, we made a side trip to the Pinnacles Desert near Cervantes.
Pinnacles Desert near Jurien
We didn't expect much as the photos in the guidebook weren't very nice, but it certainly beat our expectations. It was a large yellow sandy desert, with literally thousands of stone pillars dotted on the landscape as far as you could see. In the soft afternoon ligh, it was a beautiful sight. The pinnacles were formed out of solid rock, by the wind blowing sand and gradually grinding away the stone to leave just these pillars.

And we kept for the last day of our Australia trip our most favorite activity: swimming with the sea lions! We did this once before in New Zealand and it was amazing. We knew there are some places in Australia, where we might be able to swim with the lions again.
Swimming with seals in Jurien Bay
The Australian sea lion is the world’s rarest sea lion species – it’s believed there are less than 12,000 remaining along the southern coastline. One of their main breeding grounds lies on the islands offshore from Jurien Bay. When we arrived most of them were lazing in the sun, but some immediately approached our boat and were ready to play with us!

Swimming with seals in Jurien BayThe reason we love swimming with them so much is that they are very curious and happily interact with people, they just swim around you and show off all their acrobatic skills. The best is when they come so close that you are nose to nose with them. They check you out and they continue the game. They have big friendly eyes and it is just impossible to imagine that anybody would do any harm to them.

We could have continued to play with them for hours and it wouldn’t have been enough, but unfortunately as with all good things it had to come to an end and we had to leave them behind. One thing is certain we will come back one day to visit them again and enjoy their company :-)

For more pictures, click here.