Porto, Portugal

Porto was the start of a one week visit to Portugal (which included Lisbon) and we were glad we started from here. Porto is beautiful and we loved it.  We travelled over the Christmas period and it was blissfully quiet.  The downside is that many of the businesses were closed but we found that we were still able to do and see everything we wanted to.  The historic centre is a UNSECO World Heritage Site and we spent a day just strolling up and down the hilly, narrow cobblestone streets exploring the town and its many attractions. It was great not competing with the crowds and the weather was cool, sunny and calm.

We spent a day ticking off the main city attractions including the Clérigos Tower, Livraria Lello bookstore, Porto Cathedral, São Bento Train Station, the Café Majestic and McDonald’s (considered the most beautiful in the world!). We then rested the legs and took the historic tram which provides a slow rickety scenic tour from the city all the way to the North Atlantic Ocean.

If you walk across the Ponte Luizi there are stunning views of Porto from the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.  The Ponte Luizi (or Dom Luis bridge) is only one of the famous beautiful bridges which crosses the Douro over to Gaia.  At its construction, its 172 metres span was the longest of its type in the world.

The 6 Bridge Cruise is also a popular 1 hour excursion but this wasn’t operating while we were there.

We spent a day exploring the famous Douro Valley wine region described as one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.  The landscapes are breathtaking in places. Douro Valley is really mandatory for anyone who visits Porto.  There is nearly 2,000 years of winemaking history in the region so it’s worthwhile going with a tour with a well-informed guide.  Of course, port wine, (one of Portugal’s internationally famous exports) is named after Porto.  Being off-season there was only one other couple so essentially it was as good as a private tour.  The tour includes visits to wineries, a boat tour on the Douro River and a splendid a la carte lunch.  There are various options to explore the valley – by river cruise or by train.  However by land offers you more flexibility for where you can stop and visit some of the historic sites.

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

Liberdade Square, Porto City Centre

Monaco day trip

We had based ourselves in Nice and it was dead easy to find and catch the local bus to Monaco.  It’s an incredibly cheap fare (1.50€), runs every 15 minutes and it’s probably one of the most spectacular coastal scenic rides you’ll ever enjoy anywhere.  Travel time is a short 30 – 45 minutes

Monaco – at 2 km2  –  is the second-smallest state in the world and is the perfect day-trip destination if you want to tick this off your bucket-list.  We had typically perfect French Riviera weather and we just enjoyed walking around taking in the fabulous, abundant wealth,  and the rich architectural and cultural history.  You don’t need to spend mountains of Euros to enjoy the scenery.  It will cost you nothing to see the magnificent Casino Monte-Carlo, made famous in James Bond movies Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye, although there is an entry fee to wander inside.  You can also do casino tours but we preferred to spend our limited time outside where there was so much extravagance to look at.

You can easily take the local bus which circles the city and takes in many of the extravagant sights and spectacular views of the harbour.  We took the Hop-on Hop-off buses which are an excellent way for those wanting to check out the sights at their own speed.   The open-top double-decker minibus offers better views and Geoffrey and I are big fans of the Hop-on Hop-off bus tours wherever we travel.

We topped off the end of the tour with a beautiful seaside lunch where we just relaxed and enjoyed the surroundings.   After lunch we elected to take the slower bus service back to Nice to finish off the perfect day trip.

It would have been nice to have experienced Monaco at night but this will have to wait until another time when time permits and where lots more Euros will no doubt, also be needed!

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

Monaco

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

After spending a few days amongst the hustle and bustle of Taipei it was great to take the opportunity to get out of the city and explore part of the Taroko National Park.

The park was named after the landmark gorge renowned for its canyons, vertical cliffs and waterfalls.  For those interested in geology, Taroko Gorge is a fascinating study.  According to geologists, this part of Taiwan is rising because of the subduction of the Philippines oceanic plate to the east.  However, Geoffrey, a keen tramper and runner was more interested in possible walks in the park and also about possibly returning to run the  Tarako Gorge Marathon one day…

We visited the Gorge as part of a 2 day tour which was great as it saved a lot of time dealing with all the practicalities of visiting the area.  It’s only about a 2 hour scenic train ride from Taipei so it’s an easy and convenient place to visit.

Major highlights were the Eternal Spring Shrine,  the Tunnel of nine turns, and the Baiyang waterfall trail.   There’s a wealth of information at the Part Visitor Centre.

There’s a big range of accommodation options available at Hualien and we elected to treat ourselves and stay at one of the nearby 5 star hotels.  There was also plenty to do at night with the famous Hualien Dongdamen Tourist Night Market (the largest night market in Taiwan) close by.

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

Pagoda in Tiansiang

A Taste of Lake Como, Italy

Our return trip home from Berlin was via Rome and we had allowed ourselves a few extra days in the Italian peninsula dropping by Milan, Florence and Rome.  Having spent some time in these cities previously we concentrated our limited time revisiting old favourite haunts and, where time permitted, trying out a few new places.

Lake Como had been on the to-do list for years and although this would require at least a few days to see the area properly, we couldn’t resist the opportunity for a quick day trip from Milan there when the weather presented itself nicely.

Lake Como is well serviced by train from Milan to the Como Township where it’s then a short walk to the ferry terminal to various points around the Lake.  We opted to drop off at the Bellagio. The town is situated quite centrally on Lake Como at the point where the lake divides into two ‘branches’ towards the south-east and south-west and is often referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Lake’, partly because of its beauty and partly because of this position between the two branches of the lake.  Bellagio is however just one of many stunning beautiful villages along the lake but will provide a good taste for the region which has an incredible amount to offer.

There was time for a few hours of relaxed shopping, walks along the waterfront promenade, the gardens, up the hill and across to the stunning shoreline on the other side,  visiting a number of historic sites before lunch overlooking the water.  We picked up a self-guided walking map of the town which was perfect for our limited time available and which was easy to follow.

After lunch, rather than take the ferry back to Como we opted to take one of the scheduled bus services back and this something we would definitely recommend for day-trippers.  Seated up high on the bus coach, the road back along the high shoreline offers spectacular views of the lake and an opportunity to get close-up to the many smaller intimate villages along the road back.

Back at Como for the 1-hour fast train ride back and we were back in Milan by mid-afternoon in time for our next city tour!

Easy-peazy and a perfect day-trip out of Milan.  Next time however we will visit for at least several days with the hope of bumping into George and Amal…

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

45th Berlin Marathon

This is another marathon blog penned by Geoffrey.  It’s for the runners who will understand it.  This was our second visit to Berlin in 4 years and although the main purpose this time was the marathon event we still had plenty of time exploring the sights of this fascinating city.  Feel free to contact me if you are interested in knowing more about visiting this destination.

Over to Geoffrey …

Half way during my final training run before the marathon I tripped on one of Copenhagen’s famous cobblestone walkways.  As I was going down I thought, “bugger, this may not end well !”.  Ten months of hard training could go out the door with a broken hand or arm.  A few weeks earlier I had a similar clumsy moment which resulted in a bad cut above my right eye and which required 6 stitches and the loss of my $200 eye glasses.  Now, as I was about to hit the ground again, I thought I’d happily settle for that …

There was an air of expectancy leading up to the running of the 45th Berlin Marathon.  There was a lot of talk of the favourite Eliud Kipchoge aiming for a new world record.  Of course, for us mere mortals concerned with just finishing,  all this talk would in no way have any effect on our own runs – or would it ??

The morning of the run was perfect – cool, fine and windless.  Each wave started off with the Iceland Viking Clap which helped the adrenaline flows and greatly eased the nerves before the gun.  The Start is really is an amazing sight – 40,000 runners lined up along the Straße des 17 !

By the time I crossed the start line I was on a high and had long forgotten about the grazes on my right arm that I had sustained from my fall in Copenhagen !

My primary goal was to complete the whole course without having to walk at some point.  I’d only achieved this in less than half of my previous marathons.   This meant being conservative for the first half and trying to finish strong – possibly with a negative split.  The second goal was to run a personal best (“PB”), and finally, if pigs could fly – to run a sub 4 hour time.  I knew that if I ever achieved that I would die with a smile on my face !

I felt pretty good for the first 20kms.  The course takes you along the main sights of Berlin such as the Reichstag, the Siegessäule, Berliner Dom, Brandenburg and Potsdamer Platz in a big loop through the entire city.   I passed the half way mark at 2 hrs 2min and so was on for a new PB (yay!).  However  I would inevitably soon start to tire and so a sub 4 was now likely out of the question.

At 30km I noticed one of the thousands of spectators holding out a sign – New World Record 2:01:39 !!   This was an unbelievable time – Eliud Kipchoge had smashed the old mark by 1 minute 18 seconds.  If he could run an incredible time then so could I !  This news was so inspirational for a tiring runner.  I decided then and there to throw caution to the wind and just go for it for the last 12km.  Breaking with my pre-race strategy it was likely to all blow-up in my face.  At best I’d end up limping pathetically through the famous Brandenburg Gate toward the finish.  At worst I’d have a DNF next to my name.  But I realised that this was the Berlin Marathon and it was now or never to give it your best shot.

Miraculously my legs didn’t fall off and my training held true and I crossed the finish in 3 hours 58 minutes.

The smile is still on my face…

Copenhagen, Denmark

We checked into our hotel in Marriott Copenhagen some 30 hours after departing Auckland.  The Marriott is located close to the heart of the city overlooking the picturesque waterfront.  However we weren’t jetlagged but invigorated – keen to get put and explore this beautiful city.  After dropping our bags I headed out and joined my cousin and ventured out into the markets and Geoffrey stuck on his running shoes to jog around the promenades surrounding the canals.

Copenhagen is best explored by foot or even better by bicycle.  It seems that the city is built for cycling – there is an extraordinary 350 km of cycle paths and lanes in the city and has been the best cycle city in the world.  You can rent a bike from the hotel but there are plenty of bike rental shops scattered around the city.

In any major list of top liveable cities in the world you will find Copenhagen in the Top 10. The major reasons why it consistently ranks so high is safety, air quality, urban infrastructure.  The World Bank uses Copenhagen as an example case study for urban planning excellence.

The best thing is that most of Copenhagen’s most popular attractions and sights are within walking distance, running distance (if you’re a runner like Geoffrey) and definitely within cycling range.  A great place to start is the famous Nyhavn district – lined by brightly colored 17th and early 18th century townhouses, bars, cafes and restaurants.

What struck me was the friendliness of the people and it was so easy to interact with them as English is so widely spoken.

It was extraordinary how much of the city we were able to see in just the 3 days we were there.  Of course you would require much longer to more explore all that piqued your interest – but getting around was such a breeze on the bikes.

I’m not going to list every sight we saw as that is for every individual visitor to choose.  But for something out of left-field, perhaps consider spending an hour in Freetown Christiania – a commune of around 1,000 residents.  Look it up here – it’s just something that one wouldn’t normally expect in a place like Copenhagen.

Definitely one of the most interesting cities I have been to – not too big, not too small, just right!

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

The Little Mermaid

Ayres Rock, Yulara, Australia

It’s a long way to go (especially from New Zealand) to literary a place in the middle of a desert.  To travel all that way to see a rock – although admittedly, a big rock!  And yet – when you get there, stand next to it – it’s totally awe inspiring.  As a keen tramper, Geoffrey naturally wanted to climb Uluru but instantly understood why Uluru is considered so sacred when he saw it.  He understood that he was more a guest and a visitor than a tourist. He therefore respected the wishes of the local people not to climb.

We stayed at the Ayres Rock Resort which is a short (free) coach ride from the airport.   That evening we did the Field of Light Uluru tour.  There are a number of variations of the tour.  We did the after-sunset tour and the contrast of the Field of Lights with the clear starry night sky was magical.

The following day it was another early rise for the full day out to the King’s Canyon Rim Walk tour. This was excellent but admittedly we had perfect conditions – cloudless, windless and a comfortable 21 degrees.  40 degrees plus is not uncommon and in those conditions you need to carry at least 3 litres of water with you as well!

The following day it was the 12km cycle around Ularu camel riding and visit to Kata Tjuṯa.

We decided to visit over the long Queen’s birthday weekend but really 3 days wasn’t enough.

Another brilliant getaway trip (but best to avoid the summer).

Ayres Rock (Uluru)

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

 

Hobart, Tasmania Australia

It’s a pity more people don’t visit Tasmania but part of the reason must be that you need to transit from the mainland.  So from Auckland you’re looking at the best part of a day to get there.  It was compounded for Geoffrey and I when the flight from Melbourne to Hobart was delayed so it was near midnight before we checked into the hotel.  Not a great start…

 We stayed around the main Victoria dock area – walking distance to a number of great seafood restaurants and to town.  However we did hire a car as we intended to venture out of town over the 3-day long weekend.  The great thing is that many of the main attractions are close and pretty compact – therefore not involving hours and hours on the road.

 Port Arthur is a day trip but is well worth it (a must see for those with an interest in Australia’s colonial history ).  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its beauty somewhat masks the significance of the area as a penal colony and of the tragic events of 1996.

 Another must-see is a drive to the top of Mt Wellington where there are magnificent views of Hobart and the surrounding area.  It’s a scenic drive to the top (1,271 m) and there is an enclosed lookout which offers protection in case it’s windy or too cold (which it was!!).

We also visited the Museum of Old and New Art  (pretty cool), Cascade Brewery (famous for the purity of the nearby waters) and the historic village of Richmond which included a miniature model village and which, was really well done.

Our hotel was close to the famous outdoor Salamanca Market.  Around the markets are a number of historic buildings housing interesting craft shops, art galleries and small restaurants.  We found this was a good escape from the crowds and bustle of the market.

There’s a lot to see and do and we had a busy 3-day schedule.  Geoffrey is a keen outdoors man and he’s vowed to return for a longer stay to experience some of the renowned Tasmanian walks around the island.

Salamanca Market

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Our group ran form the tour shuttle to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the local town serving as our base for our much anticipated visit to this world-famous the Incan citadel for the following day.  We were late departing Cusco and if we’d missed the train we didn’t really have a Plan B.  (walking the 43km Inca Trail to the ruins wasn’t an option!)

 “We’re not going to be able to see a thing!”, cried Geoffrey as we pulled into the station.  “Why did we have to come in the raining season?”   Later in the afternoon Geoffrey’s face was as dark as the weather as we sat in our hotel room.  He had earlier slipped on some tiles outside a local restaurant and badly cut his left shin which required stitching.  I told him he was lucky he wasn’t on crutches…

But our luck changed – the next day was perfect.  There was enough high cloud and mist to provide the dramatic backdrop for the ruins and the mountains.  The rain stayed away and never threatened.

We left early to beat the inevitable crowds, to get the best photo opportunities and to beat the heat for later in the day.  As with the train trip the previous day, the landscape scenery during the bus ride from the town to the ruins was spectacular.

Viewing Machu Picchu for the first time is mind-blowing.  You see all the photos beforehand, do all the reading, but it is nothing like seeing it for yourself.  After the very interesting and informative tour there was the opportunity to do some walks within the valley before lunch.  Some of us elected to hike the Sun Gate hike.  This is final part of the Inca trail and takes around 3 hours (return trip).  It’s a steady climb on a good path and requires average fitness.  Those who may have been struggling with the altitude will find it tougher.

There was a welcoming buffet lunch at the end of the hike and then the bus back to town, and then the long trip back to Cusco.

The following day it absolutely bucked down in Machu Picchu.  A couple of days later continual heavy rain caused a nearby bridge to collapse and 16 people were swept away.

So, all in all, I’d say we were very lucky …

Machu Picchu

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.

Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

“But just how interesting can 11,000 sq km of flat salt possibly be?”  Geoffrey asked when going over our Peru / Bolivia itinerary.

As it turned out it was the highlight of the whole trip.  A case of “less is more” especially when you’ve come from the massive cities of Lima and La Paz and the crowds of Machu Picchu.

Salar de Uyuni, amid the Andes in southwest Bolivia, is the world’s largest salt flat.  To get from one part to another involves a lot of driving so you need to be prepared for the conditions.  It can be hot, cold, dusty, and bumpy, the reflections from the salt will blind you without sunglasses, and of course the altitude (nearly 4,000 m).  You also need to brace yourself for very long days including early starts if you want to stargaze or catch the sunrise.  So it will be hard work, you need to go with a reputable tour guide otherwise you could be in a lot of trouble very quickly in the middle of nowhere if something goes wrong…

However the rewards are massive.  There was one area where you drive through the vast desert and there are these dramatic 5,000m + volcanoes around you.  Geoffrey thought it was like travelling through the South and Red Craters of the Tongariro  Crossing x 100 fold and 3,000m higher!

There is Incahuasi Island –  a beautiful cactus-covered island – a totally bizarre sight in the middle of the flats.

The thermal activity including mudpools and geysers – another sight apparently in the middle of nowhere.

Native wildlife – flamingos around the colourful lagoons, vicunas, flamingo, vizcacha and domesticated animals such as llama and alpaca – just so much to look out for.

There are the stunning sunrise and sunsets and of course the opportunity to take some amazing perspective photo shots to show off to your friends back home.

If I had one regret – I wish I’d brushed up my photo-taking skills before I arrived.  This place is a photographer’s paradise… but the altitude can make it hard physically.

Lunch on the Salar de Uyuni

If you would like more information about this destination please contact me.