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In Our Element

February 2, 2014

So, what is living in Santa Cruz like?

I don’t want to gush about it too much lest we add to the droves of people already moving here, hiking up the cost of real estate way beyond our current reach. But we feel…how should I put it…extremely overjoyed every single day we spend here.

The population of the city of Santa Cruz is about 62,000, and 267,000 for Santa Cruz County. It’s the smallest town I’ve lived in so far. After living in New York City for 14 and 8 years respectively, Michael and I were ready for a smaller-town lifestyle, and we wanted to live in a place that was more integrated with nature. Santa Cruz has a coastline with lots of good surf spots, mountains nearby, old-growth redwood forests, and it’s bike-able.

There are definitely downsides to the town that might deter some people from living here: the crime rate for a town this size is staggering, there are a lot of homeless people all around, drugs are prevalent (pot as well as the harder kinds), real estate is expensive to rent or buy, and it’s hard to find work if you’re super career-oriented. But this place feels really comfortable to us. We’re used to locking our doors and being careful with our personal belongings all the time (which might seem a little sad to some people, but it’s just habit after living in New York City and traveling in poverty-stricken third-world countries), homelessness is just as visible in New York City, rent seems high for the size of this town but it’s still cheaper than our old apartment, and our priorities are more focused on quality of life and doing work we love and believe in than on building high-powered careers at this point.

But enough about Santa Cruz in general. Here are more of the specifics of what we’ve been discovering over the past two months as new residents:

There are 14 state parks within Santa Cruz county, and we’ve only been to 3 so far. One of them is called Wilder Ranch State Park, and it has easy walking/hiking trails along the coastal cliffs. Apparently 12% of the United States’ brussels sprouts are grown in this state park. The views are immense, and it feels really rugged and refreshing to be out there.

The cliff erosion creates mysterious-looking formations such as sea caves:

wilder sea-cave

and slabs of rock shelf that look like they’re sliding away into the sea:

wilder dramatic-coastline

Harbor seals like to hang out on the rock slabs. When big waves came through, some of these chubbers got washed right off their resting places and into the water!

wilder seals

Rail line running through Wilder Ranch State Park:

train-tracks

There’s a cool, hidden fern-filled cave in one of the sandy coves at Wilder:

ferns

We spotted these beautiful California quail:

wilder quail

We visited the park with friends of ours who live in the greater Bay area. They’re old friends of Michael’s, so there was a lot of laughter and monkeying around:

wilder snake-rassle

wilder monkeying  wilder friends

Another state park we’ve visited is called Natural Bridges State Beach. It encompasses a beach that used to have two stone arches, but one of them has washed away. The other one still stands:

arch wave

natural bridge

arch

coastline

bird-line

A 5-minute walk landward brings you to a eucalyptus grove that attracts migrating monarch butterflies every winter. They cluster so thickly on the branches that they look like leaves at first glance:

monarch cluster

Walkway to the monarch grove:

walkway

Eucalyptus trees:

trees

This fall, there was an epic anchovy run directly off the coast. As a result, whale sightings were much more numerous than normal, and there was an extraordinary abundance of sea life, from birds to sea lions:

wharf and birds

This is Cowell’s, a good surf break for beginners when it’s working:

cowells

There are farmers markets galore here: 3 different locations over Saturdays and Sundays, and one on Wednesdays as well. We make sure to shop at a farmers market once a week.

farmers-market

The traffic light control boxes all around town are painted by artists, commissioned by the city. I love “collecting” each one, and constantly discovering new ones. This is one of my favorites, painted by Studio Margo:

painted-electrical-box

Seacliff State Beach is a nice beach for traditional (ie. sandy, not full of rocky cliffs) beach lovers. The S. S. Palo Alto is a concrete ship that used to be stationary attraction with a dining room, dance hall, swimming pool and arcade before the Great Depression, but then the owners and the ship fell on hard times and it was left to ruin. It’s now used mainly by the local bird population.

concrete ship

The day we went to Seacliff, some whimsical creature had set out rocks with cute messages for strangers to find, like Easter eggs:

rock-happy-dayrock-let-your-lightrock-miraclesrock-soul-shinerock-welcome

Around holiday time, we discovered Santa Cruz’s festive spirit. We attended the 28th annual Lighted Boat Parade at the harbor, where people decorate their boats with lights and crazy accessories and compete for a prize:

boat-parade

On New Year’s Eve, we went downtown to the main street and witnessed the DIY Last Night Parade. The parade is unsanctioned by the city, and there are no “organizers” per se; people are just invited to come down to the main street at a certain time with whatever costumes and non-motorized vehicles they want, and walk up and down the street together. They don’t even get permits for closing off to traffic. The spirit of this thing is so Santa Cruz! A little hippie, a little libertarian, very in-your-face-wacky. I loved it!

diy-parade-1

diy bagpipes

diy-tall-bike

diy-pirate-bike

peace

Even the surfer statue at Steamer Lane got into the holiday spirit. Look closely and you’ll see his Christmas balls.

statue

We had two weeks of straight swell over the holidays, and then another two weeks of swell followed that after a short break. Best Christmas present I could ask for:

steamer-tree

surf-2

surf3

surf4

surfing-1

Every crowded surf spot should have a sign like this:

the-rules

I see Santa Cruz as a kind of bigger-town version of Kaua’i in Hawai’i, but with colder air and water temperatures. It’s incredibly beautiful here, with redwood forests and endless rugged coastline within a few miles biking from our house. The weather’s been great lately, with average daily temperatures in the high 60′s and lots of sun, although subsequently there’s a drought throughout California that was deemed a state of emergency by the governor. There have been endless weeks of swell, and big swell, not puny waist-high stuff. We see any combination of otters, sea lions, cormorants, dolphins and harbor seals within fifteen feet of us each time we’re out surfing.

With the crime, high cost of living, drug culture and tendency toward weirdness, Santa Cruz  may not be for everyone, but we’ve found a place we’re ecstatic to call home. To us, it’s magical.

magic-trees

Happy holidays!

December 19, 2013

surfingrtw-happy-holidays

Coming Home

December 6, 2013

Between August 14th and October 11th, we drove over 10,000 miles through 19 states and 2 Canadian provinces, stopping in various places to visit friends and family, and take in some national parks as well.

It was epic.

Here are some highlights:  

We stopped off at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, to see the 9th deepest lake in the world, as well as the strange little islands in the middle of the lake, Wizard Island and Phantom Ship.

crater lake panoramacrater lake panorama 2crater lake panorama 3

phantom ship

Phantom Ship

crater lake pinnacles

crater lake tree

We boondock camped just outside the entrance, among a grove of redwoods, sleeping in the back of our Prius. Michael found a nifty video that details how to get the most car-camping space in the back of a Prius, and all 6’6” of him was able to sprawl out when we set it up. Lovely!

crater lake boondocking

 

We visited friends Fumi and Zac — who, you might remember, joined up with us for one week of camper-vanning in new Zealand — at their new home in Portland, Oregon.

  fumi and pencil 

We drove to Yellowstone National Park and spent two nights camping and exploring the park, seeing huge wild animals such as buffalo, elk, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep:

buffalo closeup

buffalo herd

bighorn

pronghorn family

Drinking in majestic vistas that just made our hearts soar:

tetons mist

yellowstone vista

And marveling at the geothermal wonders of Old Faithful, and the rainbow pool called Grand Prismatic Spring:

old faithful

 grand prismatic spring

We spent one night in Grand Teton National Park as well. The craggy tops of the Tetons make you feel so small!

tetons morning 

tetons elk

grand tetons

oxbow bend

We spent one week in Iowa with Michael’s mom, his sister and her family. Michael’s mom’s place is always a nice location to recharge.

fran

On our way across the Midwest, we spent more than one night camped for free in Walmart parking lots.

tailgating

We drove to Kingston, Ontario, to visit Michael’s second cousin Elizabeth and her husband Ted. They are always perfect hosts and we love going to spend time with them. We waterskied at a lake near their house. It was only the second time I’d been on waterskis, and unfortunately didn’t get to standing up this time, but the last time we’d visited them and waterskied, I made it up for one turn around the lake! Here’s a photo from that first time, back in summer of 2011. Michael is a talented waterskier and can even go on just one ski.

waterskiing

I was going so fast, the photo’s all blurred! 

We spent a week in Montreal, with my parents and getting to see friends. Montreal is a really great place to visit in the summer.

l'homme qui plantait des arbres

The Mosaicultures exhibition at the Montreal Botanical Gardens

mother ocean

We stayed in New York City for 2 weeks, splitting our time among a few different friends’ places, as well as with Michael’s brother. It felt so good to reconnect with our old hometown. We even got a couple of days of surfing in at Rockaway Beach, our homebreak.

viewfinders

usual suspect

rockawaves

From New York, we drove to Raleigh, North Carolina, to stay with my brother and his family for a few days. There’s always lots going on in their house, with my brother and his wife, four kids, four chickens and two dogs. We watched the kids in their tae kwon do classes (all four of them, as well as their mom, are very involved in it!), went on hikes during the day while they were at school, and played lots of Nintendo Wii with them. 

We stopped by Great Smoky Mountains National Park after Raleigh. It’s the most-visited National Park in the U.S., and very pretty, but it was hard for me to be as impressed as I had been at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

smokeys vista 2

smokeys vista 1

smokeys drive

smokeys camping 

clingmans dome

shack

waterfall

After the Great Smokys, we drove through Bloomington, Indiana and visited Michael’s grad school friend Gretchen, and her husband Tom. Bloomington is a cute, progressive-feeling university town. 

We then drove back to Iowa to get all of our stuff out of Michael’s mom’s house and send it to Santa Cruz, California, where we were going to make our new home. We had 21 boxes of clothing, books, housewares and oddments. While we were traveling, for some reason, we kept thinking that we had downsized all of our belongings to just 8 boxes. We had a lot more stuff than we remembered!

Michael did some research and calculated that the cheapest and easiest way to move would be to ship all of our stuff to California using USPS. Six of our boxes were books and CDs, so we could ship them via super cheap Media Mail, and the rest we sent via the slowest ground shipping possible. We still had about a week of driving, so the later the boxes arrived, the better. We addressed the boxes to General Delivery, which delivers them to the post office of your specification and holds them for pickup. The last time I’d picked up mail delivered General Delivery was when I used Poste Restante (the term for General Delivery in Europe) as the address where my friends could send me letters when I backpacked across Europe in 1996. Amazingly, the General Delivery system still works!

After Iowa, we traveled the slow route to California via Utah. We spent two nights camping in Utah, and it was gorgeous.

keyhole

red rock mack

utah viewfinder

shadows

utah panorama

Unfortunately, the federal government shutdown precluded our plans of visiting Arches and Bryce Canyon National Parks, but we were able to drive through Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks, since the highway goes right through them.

zion

bighorn utah

We camped at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, and took an early morning hike to look at the petrified wood.

escalante sunset

petrified wood

Then, we drove to Kodachrome Basin State Park and hiked a little. We saw the strange and famous red rock spire formations, and hiked through a cool slot canyon.

slot canyon 1

slot canyon 2

The park campsites were full due to the shutdown of the national parks nearby, so we boondock camped just a couple of miles outside of the park entrance. The sunset view was priceless – and free for us!

sunset-utah

We finally got back to San Francisco on October 11th. We spent a couple of weeks staying with Michael’s sister, Elisabeth, and her family, while we looked for a place to rent in Santa Cruz.

mack-and-elis

There were a few days of fun waves at Ocean Beach,

ocean-beach

and we also had a great session one day at Pleasure Point when were down in Santa Cruz looking at apartments.

pleasure-point

We found a cottage to rent for November 1st, and officially moved to Santa Cruz on that date. Stay tuned for the next post introducing you to our beloved new hometown.

It feels great to be home.

surfing-bridge 

Surf Vagabonding Spirit

September 26, 2013

We’re driving through the U.S. right now, and our netbook containing our latest road trip photos needs some repair. Until then, we won’t be able to post any of the photos of the cool places we’ve been and seen. We haven’t gotten any good days of surf in, just a couple of small days in NYC. We’re itching to get in the water. In the meantime, I’ve been watching and re-watching Cyrus Sutton’s surf vagabonding video, Compassing, and dreaming of the next time we’ll be surfing head-high peelers…

 

Have you seen Stoked And Broke? It’s Cyrus’s full-length film about hitting the road for a surf trip on a budget — surf vagabonding in its purest form:

 

Tales Of The South Pacific

August 14, 2013

We were excited to finally set foot on the South Pacific island of Fiji: big, challenging waves, tropical setting, and legendary friendliness. We were not disappointed. Fijians have a well-deserved reputation for being the friendliest people in the world. Everywhere you go, the locals greet you with warm smiles and genuine interest in who you are and how you got there.

We stayed at the very affordable Bamboo Hostel, across the street from Wailoaloa beach, on the main island of Viti Levu. Wailoaloa beach is about 10 minutes away from Nadi airport. The facilities were clean and comfortable, if not super luxurious. The atmosphere was social, with most guests being backpackers in their early to mid-20′s. The staff, who live on site, are incredibly friendly and helpful in a genuine way. There were daily impromptu beach volleyball games and nightly kava sessions with music.

cafe bamboo

Kava is a traditional South Pacific drink, made from pounding or grinding the dried root of the kava plant, and mixing it with water. It’s served in one large bowl, with a smaller bowl used to scoop out a serving for each person in turn. It’s a social ritual, and there are steps involved, in which you and your hosts clap three times and say bula, which means “welcome” or “hello”. Kava isn’t alcoholic, but it does have a strange numbing effect on your tongue, and it supposedly gives you a stronger buzz the more often you drink it.

We didn’t join in the kava sessions at Bamboo, but we did get pulled into a souvenir shop in downtown Nadi that led us a through a kava welcome ceremony before promptly unleashing high-pressure sales tactics on us. We didn’t end up buying anything as it was all overpriced and probably made in China, but we were basically strongarmed into paying $15 US for two necklaces they put around our necks as “gifts” to us.  Consider yourself warned: don’t bother visiting the “made by locals” souvenir shops in Nadi town! The souvenirs are most likely not made by locals, as they are the exact same things you can find for a quarter of the price at a souvenir store that’s part of a chain (which I won’t name) located on the main street. Don’t get me wrong; anywhere we went EXCEPT Nadi town, people were genuinely friendly and helpful to us without it being a sales scam.

kava ceremony

Drinking cava on the way to getting scammed

The beach at Wailoaloa isn’t like the beaches you think of when you hear the name Fiji. The sand is gray-brown and the water is murky. There’s no snorkelling and there are no waves out front of Wailoaloa beach. There are a few small and medium-sized hotels, but not much else. If you want to stay on a beach with clear blue water, white sand, and tropical fish tickling your toes, you have to head to some of the other islands in the Fijian archipelago. The accommodation on the white-sand islands ranges from a little to a lot more expensive than the Wailoaloa beach options. It made the most sense for us to stay at Wailoaloa, since our main priorities were affordable food and lodging, and being able to catch speedboats to the world-class surf breaks. We’ve seen enough pristine beaches in our travels that we were OK giving them up in Fiji, as long as we could still surf the best waves.

horse

Wailoaloa: not the nicest beach in Fiji, but still pretty in my book.

wailoaloa sunset

To get to the best surf breaks, you have to take a boat out to the reef passes, which are about 40 minutes offshore of Viti Levu. Along the way, you do pass a few of the small islands that boast dazzlingly white sand beaches:

beautiful island

To us, Cloudbreak is legendary, and it was a little daunting paddling out there the first few times. It’s one of several waves in the world, along with Teahupoo in Tahiti, Zicatela in Mexico, and Pipeline in Hawaii, that’s often showcased in surf videos and magazines.

Up until 2010, the three waves located directly off of Tavarua resort island, which charges around $4000 US per person per week, were off limits to non-Tavarua-guests. Tavarua resort had exclusive access to Cloudbreak, Restaurants and Tavarua Rights; if you weren’t able to stay at the resort, and if you didn’t get lucky with a free spot in the lineup on Saturdays when the Tavarua guests normally fly home,  you would never get to surf those waves, which happen to be a few of the best and most consistent ones in Fiji. Surfers on a tight budget like ourselves would never have had a chance. Lucky for us, in 2010, the Fijian government issued something called the Surfing Decree, which opened up all waves to everyone. No more “exclusive rights” to waves for expensive resorts. No doubt the waves may be slightly more crowded than when only Tavarua guests had access to them, but we didn’t find them crowded at all. It was always fairly easy to get waves.

cloudbreak view

The ASP judges’ tower, from which the Cloudbreak event on the WCT is scored each year, as seen from the floating bar called Cloud 9.

We were only in Fiji for 9 days, because with the cost of daily boat rides to the breaks at 120 Fijian dollars per person (about $65 US PER PERSON!) , it was way beyond our budget. However,  there was big swell in the water the entire time we were there.

surf report

big cloudbreak

When Cloudbreak was too hairy for us (as in the above photo) we would surf other breaks that translated the swell into more manageable waves, such as Swimming Pools and Restaurants:

restaurants1 restaurants2

We surfed Cloudbreak on 4 different days. When the waves get big there, the takeoffs are very steep and the water is very shallow. We both bounced off the bottom a couple of times, but luckily, didn’t incur any serious injuries. Michael was surfing with his broken toe the whole time!

We went out every day with the boat company Island Surf Fiji, located in Smuggler’s Cove resort on Wailoaloa beach. The owner, Ian Thomson, is a great guy whose priority is getting customers to the best surf conditions. He’s knowledgeable and honest about whether the waves and wind will be good on any given day.

The only touristy, non-surfing thing we did was visit the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, a large outdoor garden with an impressive orchid collection, that originally belonged to Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame. We love botanical gardens.

fern head

orchid1orchid pathsleeping giant vieworchid2

frogs

will u marry me

We watched  a few traditional fire dancing shows that are put on almost nightly by the hotels and hostels; for us, the most spirited and entertaining of them, if less professionally polished, was the one at Bamboo Hostel:

fire dancing

In Fiji, we felt like we were short-term travellers. Spending only 9 days in a place was a little strange for us, but we hope to go back to Fiji one day and find the fickle-but-perfect-and-empty wave that we heard about while we were there.

Our last (!!!) destination for our 2-year trip was Kaua’i, in Hawai’i. Back in our home country, if not exactly our home turf.

We chose Kaua’i over the other Hawaiian islands, because everyone we know who’s been to Hawai’i has loved Kaua’i the most, and the several Hawaiian travellers we’ve met during our journey have happened to all be from that island.

Kaua’i has a great small-town feel, and it was so enjoyable for us to spend our days exploring gorgeous beaches and natural wonders,  surfing, driving very slowly (maximum speed anywhere is 40 miles per hour) and sampling the abundance of mouthwatering tropical fruit that grows everywhere. The population of the entire island is only about 66,000, and there is just one main road that doesn’t even run all the way around the island, only about 3/4 of the way around it. The portion of the coast with no roads is the famous Na Pali coast, which is reachable only by hiking or by the sea. It’s a tough 11-mile hike on the Kalalau trail, one that we couldn’t attempt this trip with Michael’s broken toe.

Our friend Monica brought us to visit the peaceful and lovely Hindu monastery. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and conducive to meditation and contemplation:

ganesha

Those blue seeds are rudrakshas, whose hard interior are traditionally used as Hindu prayer beads.

statue

Upon entering the monastery grounds, we wrote our worries on  strips of paper and burned them in an altar. I have to admit, after surfing around the world for two years, I didn’t have too many worries on my mind, but I burned away whatever small worries I had.

flaming worries

Worry-free

Another friend, Freddie, showed us two natural wonders that became our favorite places on the island; the King’s Bath, which is just beside the Queen’s Bath:

kings bath

King’s Bath is a little less sheltered than Queen’s Bath because it’s not fully enclosed by rocks; the unenclosed side isn’t shown in this picture

turtle king

There were lots of big green turtles swimming around King’s Bath. This one ignored me while he was eating his algae.

kings bath d and m

queens bath

Queen’s Bath is fully encircled by rocks but can still be dangerous when the surf is rough.

queens bath warning

The second place Freddie showed us was Turtle Cave, which is a horseshoe-shaped cave that you enter by swimming up to a little cove, and you can walk all the way through the pitch black cave to the other side, which ends in another secluded cove.

turtle cave

In no particular order, here are just a few of the other things that made us fall deeply in love with Kaua’i:

Wailua Falls, to which you can drive right up — no hiking involved:

wailua falls

Spouting Horn, a natural blowhole carved in the cliffs by the power of the sea:

spouting horn

Unreal tropical flowers for sale at ridiculously cheap prices — one of these would have cost at least $10 in New York:

torch ginger

Mount Wai’ale’ale, the wettest spot on Earth:

waialeale crater

10 minutes before we took this photo, there a was a clear view of the crater, something we were told only happens a few times a year!

The abundance of farmers’ markets (there are 2 or 3 markets A DAY at different locations on the island!) selling, among other things, many tropical fruits that were completely new to us:

mountain apple

Sweet-smelling leis made of real flowers sold for $3:

leis

The numerous food trucks, a great option for eating out affordably:

kauai food truck

If you see this truck, eat here! It’s unassuming, but the food’s amazing.

‘Opaeka’a Falls, which we would see every day on the way to and from one of the places we stayed:

opakaeaa

Fun summer swells at Pakala’s:

pakala 1pakala2 pakala3pakala4 pakala5pakala6 pakala7pakala8

The big, mysterious wet and dry caves on the north shore of the island:

man cave

Hanalei Valley:

hanalei valley collage

The Kalalau Lookout in Waimea:

kalalau lookout3 kalalau lookout collage

Hawaiian time:

hawaiian time

The grilled wahoo burgers at the Fish Hut, in Kapa’a:

fish hut sandwich

The wild chickens that run loose everywhere on the island (even the shopping centers!):

chicken

Aloha everywhere:

ai

aloha rock

We loved every minute of time we spent in Kaua’i, all 18 days we had there. It was like being on our honeymoon all over again. There’s just nowhere that’s not easy on the eyes anywhere on the island, and there are endless fun and outdoorsy, active things to do that are all free.

dusk

We returned home on August 2nd, although “returned” and “home” are both misnomers. Before leaving on this incredible adventure, we decided that we were going to move from New York City to Santa Cruz, California. In October of 2010, we departed on our adventure from New York, and at the end of our voyage, we “returned” to California.  We currently have no permanent address until we find our new apartment; right now, “home” is just where we happen to be at the moment. For the next six weeks,  “home” will be the 2008 Toyota Prius we just purchased a few days ago, because we’re heading out on a cross-country road trip to visit our friends and family whom we haven’t seen for the past two years. There won’t be much surfing involved apart from couch surfing, and perhaps a few days in New York if we get lucky with swell. For this portion of our travels, we’re focusing on reconnecting with our loved ones.

Road-Tripping The Land Of The Long White Cloud* In A Campervan

July 13, 2013
*New Zealand is called Aotearoa in the Maori language, meaning “land of the long white cloud”.

One of the first things we did upon arriving in Auckland was to visit an orthopaedist to get a second opinion on Michael’s broken toe.

x ray

No surgery was necessary, and the doc told him he was OK to surf on it three weeks after the accident, as long as it didn’t cause any pain. Michael got the green light to surf!

And then ahhhh…Back to the bliss of living in a campervan and the freedom of the road. We rented an awesome Volkswagen T5 with a permanent high-top roof (nearly, but not quite, tall enough for Michael to stand up full height inside), from Wilderness Campers.

A couple of days after we arrived in NZ, our friend Fumi and her boyfriend Zac met up with us and rented their own camper from Wilderness as well.

campers at shippies

We had a super fun week of tooling around the North Island with them, eating yummy foods, soaking in some hot springs and being awed by incredible landscapes.

pohutukawa couples tree waikite 2 waikite 1

oysters mussels oysters

coromandel drive 4coromandel drive 2 coromandel drive 1coromandel drive 3

coromandel view 4coromandel view 3coromandel view 1coromandel view 2

We all got to Raglan, a world-famous surf town on the west coast, in time for a fun-sized swell.

del raglan 1del raglan 2 del raglan 3del raglan 4 del raglan 5del raglan 6

After one great week, it was time for Fumi and Zac to head home. Michael and I took to the road after the swell died down, but not before sampling some tacos and arepas from the Juantanamera taco truck down Volcom Lane.

juantanamera

Juan makes the best tacos and arepas we’ve had since Mexico! His truck (soon to be renamed West Coast Tacos) is not to be missed. Make sure you visit for a meal if you go to Raglan.

One of our first stops after Raglan was the town of Hamilton, just 45 minutes east. It’s got an outstanding farmer’s market.

hamilton market 1

hamilton market 2

sausage eater

hamilton market 3 hamilton market 4

Hamilton also hosts the excellent  Waikato museum:

waikato museum

and the beautiful Hamilton Gardens:

hamilton garden 2hamilton garden 1hamilton garden 4hamilton garden 3

The Waikato Museum and Hamilton Gardens are both free!

Next, we drove the East Cape, along part of the Pacific Coast Highway:  a slow, coastal road from Opotiki to Gisborne. It’s a wonderful drive, with lovely vistas and lots of small towns to stop through, with fun things to see, such as NZ’s biggest pohutukawa tree:

big pohu Collage

20 meters high, 40 meters wide and over 350 years old, this pohutukawa tree is named Te Waha O Rerekohu.

a quaint seaside church:

church

many beautiful marae gates (marae are traditional Maori village meeting houses):

marae gate

and the longest pier in the southern hemisphere, at Tolaga Bay:

longest pier

660 meters long!

We got lucky with some fun surf on the east coast as well.

barrel 1barrel 2barrel 4barrel 3barrel 5barrel 6

te awanga

It was then time to head back to the west coast, to meet up with Michael’s old college friend, Tim, who was flying in to meet us and renting a camper as well for ten days. On our way to meet him, we stopped for a glimpse of the pretty Huka Falls:

huka falls 1 huka falls 2

We  stuck to the west coast with Tim, surfing Raglan again, and exploring and surfing Taranaki.

tim and michael

Here’s Tim ripping it up at Raglan:

tim 2tim 1tim 3tim 4

man o war

kelp

coast

double rainbow 

stream

Lion rock Collage

For the last few days of the trip, there was a big swell predicted to hit the west coast. We were hoping the conditions would line up to deliver fun waves at famed Northland point break Shipwreck Bay, so we started heading north.

One memorable night on our way north, we camped at a Department of Conservation campsite called Trounson Kauri Park, located right next to a forest reserve that contains many kiwi birds. Kiwis are nocturnal, flightless birds unique to NZ, and aren’t often seen in the wild. We took a nighttime kiwi-spotting walk through the forest, but were unlucky. We could hear them around us, but just couldn’t spot them!

We spotted kiwis! Behind a glass case in a museum...

We spotted kiwis! Behind a glass case in a museum…

We did spot a big eel in a stream, though:

eel

The next day, we stopped along the way to visit Tane Mahuta, the biggest kauri tree in New Zealand:

tane mahuta Collage

I love the fact that they name their trees!

When we got to Ahipara, the town where Shipwreck Bay is located, it was raining cats and dogs and blowing strong onshore winds, and the swell didn’t seem to have shown up. We hermited in our campers to stay dry and went to bed early with our fingers crossed. The next morning, we woke up to blue skies, offshore winds, and head-high waves wrapping around the point!

shippies

It was the day before we were to fly out of Auckland, and we’d finally scored Shipwreck Bay. It had been high on our NZ surfing priority list, along with Raglan.

New Zealand is a special country with many unique and quirky aspects. Here are a few examples:

New Zealand has more sheep than people:

sheepies

The beautiful pukeko is as common as the pigeon:

pukeko

They sell kiwi fruit by the truckload:

kiwi truck

Delicious, tangy-sweet tamarillos, also known as tree tomatoes:

tamarillos

Famous New Zealand green-lipped mussels, nice to eat steamed:

mussels

Impressively designed one-handed-squeeze ketchup packets:

catsup

A surfboard company named after me!

del surfboard

New Zealand has a real campervan/caravan/RV culture. Everywhere we went, we saw some kind of rolling home parked in many driveways and even on the lawns of traditional houses.

funny camper 2funny camper 1nz bus

The RV campgrounds all around the country (called “holiday parks”) are very well-equipped with nice facilities like kitchens, hot water showers, and play areas.  It costs between $10 and $20 NZD per person per night to park your vehicle in a holiday park. In many of the holiday parks, there are permanent caravans owned by New Zealanders as holiday homes.

Our campervan rental came out to $25 NZD per day, since we rented it for a duration of 30 days in the low season. This made it a very affordable way to rent both a vehicle and accommodation. We mostly stayed in holiday parks, but were able to freedom camp a few times in designated freedom camping areas, cutting our daily accommodation costs down. We cooked most of our meals in the van.  I would highly recommend renting a campervan if you’re planning on visiting New Zealand; it will allow you to see and do more during your stay, and to get to a lot of places that just aren’t as accessible by public transportation. The feeling of discovery and freedom is beyond compare!

A few reasons why we chose Wilderness Campers:

  1. They don’t take a $2500 to $5000 NZD security deposit on your credit card, the way most other campervan rental companies do. This charge is sometimes treated as a cash advance, depending on your credit card company, and thus incurs interest charges up until you return the camper and the rental company takes the deposit off the card.
  2. All of Wilderness’ campers, including the lowest end one, which we rented, are certified self-contained, meaning you’re provided with a portable toilet and can therefore “freedom camp” wherever district councils allow. Without this certification, you won’t be allowed to freedom camp anywhere without getting a fine if you’re caught. Some district councils are a lot less flexible than others with respect to allowing freedom camping (even with certification of self-containment), but if you were determined, you could map out locations to legally camp for free the whole time you were touring around. Check out Camping Our Way for more info on freedom camping, and Rankers’ campground listing for an exhaustive listing of holiday parks, campgrounds, and known freedom camping spots.
  3. Wilderness got great reviews from other travelers on Rankers, a well-known New Zealand travel review site. We found their customer service to be exceptional the entire month we were on the road.

We left New Zealand reluctantly. The landscapes are magical, and we really love travelling by campervan.

tree silhouette

But we definitely can’t complain. Our next stop is Fiji!

weightlifter

Wild, Wild West Sumbawa

June 22, 2013

After three weeks in Lakey Peak, we had to renew our Indonesian tourist visas, so we decided to do it by returning for a few days to Singapore. My mom was still there, and we were guaranteed access to good food (we hadn’t had enough Black Pepper Crab!), so we went back for another week in the wacky, mall-filled, very clean city-state in which my parents were born. A few of the highlights of this, our second, stay there:

An afternoon eating Black Pepper Crab and other delicious seafood dishes at Long Beach Seafood, then walking around Dempsey Hill with our NYC friend Michael B., who recently moved to Asia with his wife and daughter:

two michaels

Hanging out at a small family gathering with many of my aunts, uncles and cousins. My Aunt Judy cooked up a storm for us all, including Black Pepper Crab (we just can’t get enough!):

family feast my family

Courtesy of my Uncle Raymond, a night at one of Singapore’s trendiest hotels, the Marina Bay Sands, which has a rooftop infinity pool with the best view over the city:

hotel tycoon infinity

view marina bay sands

View from our hotel room balcony

Then it was off to West Sumbawa, home of many fun breaks such as Yo Yo’s, Supersuck and Scar Reef. We stayed there for three weeks and were able to surf every single day. A couple of huge swells came in and we saw Supersuck working its perfect overhead barrel magic – we shoulder-hopped the mellower end part!

supersrycraike

Ry Craike getting a super long barrel at Supersuck. Photo: Indra

Scar Reef also saw some big, clean swell.

Unknown dude at Scar Reef. Photo: Indra

Unknown dude at Scar Reef. Photo: Indra

I liked Yo Yo’s when it was small enough to break nicely. It’s a fun wave with long rides when you pick the right ones.

yoyosdelcollage1 yoyosdelcollage2

yoyosmichael yoyosmichael2

There are a few other activities available  besides surfing, but the waves are the main draw to the area. We went snorkeling  in the next bay over from Yo Yo’s. It’s a beautiful, pristine, isolated beach with good coral right off the sand. People jump off that rock jutting out over the water on the lefthand side of the bay, but we didn’t do it.

snorkelling bay

There’s also good spearfishing in the area. The local surf photographer, Indra, is a super friendly guy who can arrange spearfishing outings. He’s also available for hire to photograph your surf sessions at any of the local breaks. His number is +62 81805728687 or you can look him up on Facebook under indra_cula(at)hotmail(dot)com.

Yo Yo’s beach is even less developed than the Lakey Peak area. In the time we weren’t surfing, we read a lot, hung out in our hammocks, and played ping pong and pool in the common area of Santai Beach Bungalows, where we were staying.
Santai

bird friend

A bird in the hand is worth…

gromsbungalow

kiwi artkitty

adi

Adi, one of the guys who works at Santai Beach Bungalows, is a gem of a character.

leaf fedora hammock

Aerial view of Rantung Beach and Yo Yo's surf break (all the whitewater on the righthand side of the bay). Photo courtesty of Indra

Aerial view of Rantung Beach and Yo Yo’s surf break (the whitewater on the righthand side of the bay). Photo courtesy of Indra.

On our way back to Bali, we stopped in Kuta, Lombok, to surf and eat at Ashtari. We’d been there back in 2009, and the chocolate-coconut-milk shakes (as well as their fresh, tasty vegetarian meals) remained forever in our memory, so we made a return trip and it was worth it!

astari ashtari food

If you are ever in Kuta (also spelled Kute) Lombok, I fully recommend staying at LaMancha Homestay. Our room was airy and large, and cost $15 US a night, with fan, private bathroom and nice front balcony. They also have single rooms with private bath and balcony from $8 a night.The grounds are large, tree-filled, and set away from the road. The hostess, Min, was the nicest host we’ve encountered in Indo so far. She has the biggest smile and is extremely kind. If you ask around, everyone in Kuta will be able to direct you to LaMancha.

Our time in Indo was finally up. We were heading to New Zealand next. The day before we flew out of Bali, we were coming back from a surf at Serangan, when Michael caught his baby toe on the wheel well of the taxi that had just dropped us off at our hotel, and he broke it! It was pretty gruesome, the toe bone was shattered and his baby toe was sticking out basically at a right angle to the rest of his toes. We went directly to the hospital, where the doctors said they didn’t think he needed surgery and all they could do was tape the last two toes together, to stabilize it.

So we left Indo on the wrong foot (wah wah wah). What would New Zealand hold for a traveller who isn’t able to surf or go on long hikes? Stay tuned for our next instalment to see…

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