Archive for December, 2009

“All Weather Attraction”…Indeed

December 28, 2009

One activity we chose in Rotorua, New Zealand brought back some childhood memories of the Alpine Slide in Vermont. In NZ, they call it a luge, and it’s billed as an “all-ages, all weather” attraction. I think the reason they have to call it “all-weather” is because the climate in Rotorua changes so rapidly, that there’s a good chance all types of weather roll through the area on any given day.

The morning we chose to go luging was brisk and sunny, but we knew there was rain in the forecast at some point. We were essentially in a race against the clouds rolling across the lake to fit in some fun outdoor activities, so we drove the few miles from our B&B to the Rotorua Skyline Skyrides (redundancy much?), and took the gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha (487 meters).

A nice gondola ride up Mount Ngongotaha leads to a relaxing cafe and not-so-relaxing luge ride!

It was pretty desolate at SkyRides – we were the only people buying tickets, but we enjoyed the private gondola ride and on the way up tried to point out our B&B on the lakefront.  At the top of the mountain, the view is incredible.  You can see clear across Lake Rotorua…but that was also the point at which we realized the bad weather was closer than anticipated, and moving rapidly.

Lake Rotorua in the distance...and then the clouds.

Since we already purchased a package of luge tickets, we proceeded to the (also empty) launch area.  From there, we select a (smelly) helmet from a bin as protection during our death-defying ride down the mountain. We watched as grey clouds loomed and then felt the first rain drops while learning how to brake in our luge carts.  Below, we are still in denial as the sun’s rays are actually still shining in the very spot we happen to be:

Soaking up the last rays of sun before the deluge.

We shove off onto the “Scenic” luge track – the easiest – and begin to feel pricks of rainwater on our faces.  The faster we go, the harder the rain falls.  I’m in limbo deciding if I like the ride or if the cold rain is ruining it for me, and also wishing I brought gloves.  After I beat James to the bottom (haha), we reconvene on the chairlift on the way up and decide we better finish the luge before the deluge.  So the next time down we pick the “Advanced” track, which is much steeper and very curvy.  I think I even got some “air” when going down one hill.  The ride down took less than a couple of minutes, though, and then we were subjected again to the sloooow, windy chairlift ride back up the mountain – this time being pelted with rain.  The only thing that got us through this miserable part of the experience was the promise of hot chocolate at the top – which was worth the suffering!

Luging can be really fun in the right conditions, but also very dangerous!  It’s easy to go too fast and lose control of your cart – the brakes are pretty rudimentary (just pull back on the handlebars).  I was actually surprised they let us luge in the rainy conditions because the track was getting pretty slick, but then again Kiwis are known for being crazy daredevils.  I’d be interested in trying this again when it’s warm and sunny, and until then luging will definitely fall below skydiving and bungee jumping on the list, but still above white water rafting!

Truly Paradise…Minus a Few Distractions

December 24, 2009

The longer it is sub-freezing and windy here in New York City, the more I am thinking back to one of the most relaxing, warm and stress-free days of my entire life – at the gorgeous Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands. The Whitsundays are a cluster of small landmasses about 560 miles north of Brisbane, reachable by plane to Hamilton Island (Exhibit A. – minuscule landing strip below):

With Hamilton Island as our hub, we explored the Whitsundays and its unique offerings…one of them being close-ish proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. But we can’t go to the reef everyday (it wouldn’t be as special, and well frankly, it’s just expensive), so an alternative excursion is to spend the day at beautiful Whitehaven Beach.

If you do a Google image search of Whitehaven Beach (I’ll wait…go ahead), two things you’ll notice right away are bright aqua water and glowing white sand. The contrast between these elements is what makes the 7Km strip so famous. That, and the fact it is located on an uninhabited island (Whitsunday Island) make it all the more exotic. Also, no palm trees…kind of weird!

Approaching Whitehaven Beach....with no dock, also wondering how we get from our large motor catamaran to the beach.

But back to reality! What these pictures don’t show…is that getting to Whitehaven Beach is not always a picnic. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite – especially when there’s high wind in the open seas, as was the case when we were in town. The FantaSea Cruises trip to Whitehaven starts out with a delicious BBQ on the boat, during which the captain explains that there’s a “bit o’ wind” and that it “may be a rough go” for about “30-40 minutes.” The quotes are meant to imply huge understatements.

Cue Karen and James sharing a booth with a young family whose children probably ate more than their weight in chicken kabobs and then, surprise, are feeling a bit woozy from the rocking of the boat. (Rocking? I mean, Perfect Storm movie-type thrashing in the water.)

Cue the staff handing out barf bags to everyone. Oh fun! I don’t usually get seasick, but even this trip bothered me a little after 45 minutes or so. It was hard to accept that the beautiful ocean could be so brutal when it was hot and sunny outside. But unfortunately, it was a bad scene for the kiddos. The FantaSea staff rolled with the punches and were super personable, acting as though it was just another day for them (one of them commented that the boat that went all the way to the reef that day would be dubbed the “vomit comet” – oh…haha!).

James and I left the indoor cabin for some fresh air (a few older folks had even made good use of their barf bags by this point) and we were enjoying the approach to Whitehaven when we heard a splash and I felt a little spray on my leg. Yup, a little kid had puked up his BBQ right next to me and down the back of FantaSea’s pristine catamaran. Sigh.

But then there was this, and it was all better…

Well…until the ride home. But sometimes you have to suffer for beauty, though when that expression was coined I don’t think they were referring to this particular situation.

*******

Anyhow, we spent the day at Whitehaven taking photos of the beach, of ourselves, of James’ muscles, of my toes in the sand, of the beautiful yachts in the bay, and then of the beach again. We read a little, went for a walk in the perfect sand, dipped in the clear blue water while praying we didn’t get stung to death by jellyfish, and overall just relaxed (except for the worrying about jellyfish). It was probably one of the most prefect days ever!

I wasn't kidding about the pictures of James' muscles! Meet Booth and Oswald, "two deadly assassins."

Some people think all beach photos look the same, but this particular beach is by far my all-time favorite…the pure-white silica sand was so soft, it acted like a pillow. It was so fine – almost like dust – that it blew in crazy formations on the ground (and OK, got stuck to everything in sight, but it was pretty).

Our own private beach for the day...sort of!

Another thing I should mention, which we didn’t get to see because of the tides, is that on the other side of Whitehaven Beach lies Hill Inlet, one of the most famous landscapes in Australia. This aerial shot from Google shows how the water forms beautiful designs in the sand as the tide recedes. If your timing is right, a helicopter over this sight is worth it!

Hill Inlet

Travel Scrooges!

December 16, 2009

Gearing up for the holidays over here, so unfortunately very little time to reminisce about New Zealand / Australia…but seeing the news of the potential British Airways strike really hit a chord with me.  What happens if the flight you’ve been waiting for – that special trip to visit family or see a life-long dream destination – is derailed by striking cabin crews and canceled flights?  CNN offers some advice to travelers who may be affected by the strike, but in reality there is nothing you can do except pay through the nose for a flight on another airline, or just wait and see if you may be able to take your long-planned trip at the last minute.  And who really needs that added stress right around the holidays?

We are at the mercy of the airline gods…again!

Are the airline crews trying to have their cake and eat it too? We're all suffering right now, but does that mean they have to ruin the holidays for millions of hopeful, high-paying travelers? Wow, I'm so fired up about this!! Let's hope both sides come to an agreement and the drama subsides.

Keep an eye on CNN for updates, if this affects your travel plans.

OK…stepping off now…