Monthly Archives: December 2014

Tahiti – Misconception in a Grass Skirt

The Turquoise Lagoon of Tahaa, French Polynesia

The Turquoise Lagoon of Tahaa, French Polynesia

When it comes to Tahiti, there are a lot of misconceptions. The first to be dispelled is the idea that natives are walking around in grass skirts and coconut bras. Aside from the dance troupes that perform for the tourists, I found that I was the only one (just kidding). The second misconception is a bit broader in scope. When people hear the name ‘Tahiti’ they think of a tropical archipelago stretched across wide expanses of South Pacific scenery; with gorgeous natives, white powder beaches, turquoise lagoons and yes, lots of grass skirts. While elements of each can be found on Tahiti, what people are actually thinking of is the territory of French Polynesia, which encompasses not only its principal island of Tahiti – the main island of the Society Islands group, but several other island groups as well. No offense to Tahiti, but the rest deserve some credit too, which is why I’ve decided to set the record straight.

It’s not Tahiti’s fault that everyone just lumps all of French Polynesia together. It is the biggest, most famous, and most-developed island of the bunch. The airport is the main hub for international and domestic flights. It also houses the capital of Papeete – a few square blocks of urbanization dwindling off into the enveloping jungle. While the city itself isn’t much to shake a grass skirt at, the colorful market gives visitors a vignette of local rhythms. The stench of fish is quite powerful, but other than that it’s a pleasant place to visit.

Vaima Pool, Tahiti, French Polynesia

Vaima Pool, Tahiti, French Polynesia

Tahiti is known for its lush, rugged interior as well as its impressive waterfalls. Adventure opportunities abound for those hoping to experience the former, and as for the latter, these are easily accessible with a rental car. Heading east from Papeete are the Faarumai Waterfalls – twin cascades pouring into jungle pools only a moderate hike from the road. This is a lovely place to both work up a sweat then cool off by taking a dip. Nothing much to misconceive here.

Following the coastal road to Taravao, you can either veer off to the smaller section of the island called Tahiti Iti, or continue the circle route back to town. If you choose to head back, be sure to stop off at Vaipahi Garden and Vaima Pool – a tranquil setting right out of Eden. There may not be any dancing girls, but it’s an attractive place all the same.

Once you’ve seen the island of Tahiti, it’s time to explore the other islands everybody misperceives as being more of the same. Within viewing distance is the island of Moorea, which to me offers the best of what French Polynesia brings to the table. It too has a rugged green interior worthy of exploration. But as opposed to Tahiti, it also has a few decent beaches at Hauru Point in the northwest corner of the island. It also boasts one of the best views in all of Polynesia as seen from The Belvedere – a lookout point reachable via a steeply winding road. I strongly recommend coming here by taxi or rental car, as slogging it uphill in a million percent humidity was not as much fun as I thought it would be. The payoff is a spectacular panorama of both Cook and Opunohu Bays and the aquamarine hues of the lagoon meeting the deeper sapphire of the open ocean.

Scenes from laid-back Huahine, French Polynesia

Scenes from laid-back Huahine, French Polynesia

Continuing westward, the next island over is tiny Huahine. Development is minimal in this green gem, with diving, snorkeling and sun worshipping the predominant itineraries. This place is all about relaxing in the kind of scenery that makes the South Pacific famous.

Moving further afield are the islands of Raiatea and Tahaa, who share a magnificent lagoon. Raiatea is bigger with a better tourist infrastructure. This is a popular destination for those with their own yacht (not me), and offers a diverse mix of activities. My own favorite memory from here was renting a scooter and circling the perimeter of this island paradise. The rental agent warned us against taking a particular road, so, of course that was the first place we went. It was a muddy mix of crushed coral and potholes that was tough on the tailbone, but the tradeoff was witnessing an entire mountainside of gushing waterfalls. In view of the tumble over the handlebars I suffered at one point, I’d also like to mention that not wearing a grass skirt does have its advantages.

Lastly, there’s the only island that could contend with Tahiti for worldwide renown – Bora Bora. Yes, this is the place with all those over-the-water bungalows with prices ranging between $300 to sell-your-firstborn a night. Some may contest that it’s worth the cost to experience up close one of the most beautiful sights anywhere on the planet – Bora Bora’s incredible lagoon. If you don’t have the cash or a kidney to spare, there are many tour operators ready to take you from your over-the-ground accommodations into this wonderland shaded in a million hues of blue. You can wade in the most impossibly clear and inviting water in existence, followed by a snack and some snorkeling with swarms of colorful tropical fish; likely this will include stingrays and reef sharks as well. The truth is there’s nothing to be afraid of here, but I thought you’d like to know.

Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia

There isn’t a whole lot to do on land or after dark on the island other than the aforementioned watching natives perform in grass skirts. It is all about the lagoon here – whether from the powder soft beach at Matira Point or one of the outlying barrier islands, or ‘motus’. I can tell you from experience that witnessing the island’s distinctive silhouette looming over the most incredibly blue water you can imagine is an image that will remain with you a long time. That’s not a misconception; that’s a fact.

You might be wondering how to get between the islands and around. Well, keep your coconut bra on, I was just getting to it. The quickest, most direct way would be taking small puddle-jumper flights on Air Tahiti. This is also the most expensive option. Ferry service is available, but not always practical (especially from Tahiti to Bora Bora). If your time and budget permits, I’d recommend seeing the islands via cruise ship. It’s less expensive, still allows for plenty of time ashore, and the air conditioning will refresh your weary body as you come inside from the soupy air.

When it comes to getting around, a rental car or scooter is fine for short stays. Taxis will cost a bit more. If you’re staying in or around Papeete you also have the option of using le truck – open-backed cargo trucks that serve the purpose of buses everywhere else. They don’t cost much and taking at least one trip to various locations on Tahiti is all part of the experience.

I hope I’ve been able to clear up some confusion about French Polynesia and Tahiti in particular. No, the islands are not all the same. No, they’re not all named Tahiti. And no, despite being available for purchase, people aren’t walking around in grass skirts and coconut bras – even if they do lift and separate. The truth may not always be as glamorous as fiction, but at least you’ll know what to wear. Now excuse me for a minute while I find someplace to change.

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I Never Knew I Suffered from Skyline Envy Until I Went to Hong Kong

When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?

When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?

Having grown up just fifty miles outside of Manhattan, I took a certain pride in knowing that when it comes to skylines, my city had everyone beat. Then, in 2003, on the return leg of a trip to Thailand and Singapore, I had a three day layover in Hong Kong, where I was forced to re-think my earlier assumptions. I also had to concede – begrudgingly – that Manhattan may have met its match.

For any major modern city, its skyline is a source of pride and a veritable status symbol on the world stage. Long an economic hub, it’s no surprise that Hong Kong would be a contender. What surprised me was that when it comes to height and sheer impressiveness, the skyline lining the southern shore of Victoria Harbor might just be the world champion.

But first things first. Getting to Hong Kong is no sweat (if you don’t count the 15-19 hour flight time from the US east coast). Serviced by most major airlines as well as its dominant carrier, Cathay Pacific, there are plenty of flights that will get you there from all points on the globe. Getting into town is also a breeze, with arguably the most efficient dedicated rail service from the airport (on Lantau Island) to the center of town (appropriately called Central) that I’ve ever seen.

Historically a British outpost before its return to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kong is considered a Special Administration Region within the People’s Republic of China, which grants them certain levels of autonomy and freedoms under the One Country, Two Systems policy. What that means is that for fifty years after the handover, the citizens and businesses operating in Hong Kong would remain under a capitalist system instead of the socialist state of modern day China. For this reason many consider Hong Kong to be its own ‘country’ and for all intents and purposes it would seem that in many ways it has been business as usual.

With exorbitant real estate values, the trend in local architecture has been to build up instead of out. The result is a forest of narrow, gleaming towers standing like a grove of pines nestled along the northern slope of rugged Hong Kong Island. The hilly backdrop gives the skyline a sense of scale, and I can only imagine what Manhattan would look like if smushed against a mountain. Regardless, the effect is impressive, and it is here in Central that you’ll find the territory’s biggest players.

Take the tram to Victoria Peak

Take the tram to Victoria Peak

Rising above the dense vertical development is Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island and a choice location for unparalleled views of the skyline and bustling Kowloon just across the harbor. Getting there is half the fun if you take the Peak Tram – a funicular that runs from Central up to a mall and viewing platform perched at the top. Considering the views and novelty of a city with a working funicular, this should be a must-see on any visitor’s itinerary.

While the skyline gets most of the attention, visiting the lesser-known towns on the south side of the island – many still with soaring towers – is a worthy day trip. Here you’ll find a few beaches along with the Stanley Market, a fun place to sharpen your haggling skills and procure items of all sorts.

Just as one can easily ‘not see the forest for the trees’, to truly appreciate Hong Kong’s towering skyline, you’ll need to view it from an outside perspective. The best place to do this is in Kowloon, located at the tip of a peninsula that makes up the northern shore of Victoria Harbor, and would be akin to looking at Manhattan from Brooklyn or Queens. With some interesting museums, a historic clock tower and a lovely promenade, this is the place to take your pictures of the city rising from the waterline to cover the imposing mountain backdrop. It is also here where you can best witness the world famous light show called A Symphony of Lights, where the cast of skyscrapers pulsate swirling beams of light and lasers synchronized to music at 8PM daily.

Kowloon itself makes for an interesting destination, especially for those who enjoy shopping along busy Nathan Road. At dusk the city comes alive with vendors and stalls popping up to cater to the crowds at the Temple Street Night Market, where you’ll find snacks and souvenirs aplenty. This is a far less-corporate section of the territory and therefore much more authentic. But if you don’t mind a little corporate influence, Hong Kong is now one of only three sites outside of the US that can boast a Disneyland.

Star Ferry, Hong Kong

Star Ferry, Hong Kong

Besides the convenience of getting to and from the airport, getting around the city is easy as well. The MTR – a.k.a. subway system – is cheap and easy to navigate, linking various parts of the island as well as Kowloon. But if you’re going to be in town, you should take the Star Ferry – a ferry service that has been in use since 1888 – at least once. Not only is it an inexpensive and legitimate option for getting across the harbor, but it also offers a great vantage point to gawk at the skyline that could rightly be considered numero uno, or whatever that translates to in Cantonese.

It’s hard for me to admit my skyline envy, but maybe it’s a good thing. Skylines aside, comparing Hong Kong and New York is like comparing apples to oranges (or mandarins to big apples?). Each has its own strengths and reasons to visit. Besides, whether or not New York still boasts the most amazing skyline in the world, I know it boasts the most impressive one in my hemisphere, and that’s good enough for me.

 

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Surf & Turf in the Real Outback Without Fork or Knife

The Great Barrier Reef - One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

The Great Barrier Reef – One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank whomever it was that invented the dish called surf and turf. I mean, the brilliance is just astounding! Hmm, what can we possibly serve alongside a succulent steak to make it taste even better and cost even more? I know! Lobster! And there you have it – the best of both worlds right there on the same plate.

In terms of travel, you can go with the straight up entree of just one destination (beach, mountains, whatever) or you can insist on having a little more variety (beach and mountains and whatever). There are several places that come to mind where you can do so, but if you really want the best of both worlds – the metaphorical surf and turf of travel – a trip to the Australian state of Queensland is the best choice on the menu. You won’t even need silverware.

Speaking of metaphors, the term surf and turf also lends itself to the nature of Queensland’s attractions. There’s the surf – some lovely beaches to go along with the incomparable Great Barrier Reef – as well as the turf – a broad spectrum of land-based features ranging from the lush Wet Tropics to the arid Outback. Not only does this offer you a great deal of variety when it comes to activities, but much like that steak and lobster tail, the elements – though wildly different – complement each other. Think of it as Jacques Cousteau meets Crocodile Dundee.

Chances are you’ll be looking for a place to stay on the ‘turf’ portion of our metaphor, and there’s perhaps no better base of operations than the small coastal city of Cairns. From here you can have your surf, turf or a little of both, all accessible through easy day trips. The town itself isn’t terribly noteworthy, though there are some decent restaurants and shopping malls geared to tourists. But there are lots of affordable lodging options in and around town, and it is a convenient launching point for the area attractions.

So to start off with the surf, north of town there are some lovely beaches – such as Trinity Beach – an easy drive away. This is a great place to unwind and take a dip so long as it isn’t box jellyfish season (particularly January-February). But while the beaches (jellyfish aside) may be appealing, the main reason people come to northern Queensland is located some thirty miles offshore – The Great Barrier Reef.

I'd like to be...Under the sea...on the Great Barrier Reef

I’d like to be…Under the sea…on the Great Barrier Reef

Though technically beginning just north of the town of Bundaberg, it is here near Cairns that most visitors will access this gargantuan natural wonder. Just for the record, the GBR isn’t one contiguous reef, but rather a coral reef system that spans some 1,400 miles. Besides its fame as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and status as one of the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of the World’ (right up there with Victoria Falls and the Grand Canyon), for lovers of marine life and scuba divers in particular, this is the Holy Land.

Getting to the reef is possible via high speed catamarans and other watercraft, allowing for day trips for both snorkelers and divers alike. But if you’re serious about your fishes (like me), the best way to see the reef is on a live-aboard dive vessel. Not only do you get to spend more time on the reef (usually 4-5 dives a day including night dives) but you can also access more remote sites that are beyond the reach of day trippers. It’s not cheap, but then again, surf and turf never is.

Moving on to the ‘turf’, there’s a wide variety of ‘cuts’ that can be sampled from your base of operations. The easiest (and most touristy) is the mountain town of Kuranda, maybe a half hour drive from Cairns. Set inside the rain forest of the Wet Tropics Heritage Area and nearby to Barron Gorge National Park, the main attractions are the flea market and the Kuranda Scenic Railway, which has daily service to Cairns and sums up the whole “life’s a journey, not a destination” cliché.

If that’s not enough Wet Tropics for you, less than two hours to the north is steamy Daintree National Park, offering more lush greenery and the lovely Mossman Gorge. Considering the high levels of humidity, be aware that it may at times feel more surf than turf.

Undara Lava Tubes National Park, Queensland, Australia

Undara Lava Tubes National Park, Queensland, Australia

No trip to Australia would be complete without a visit to the Outback – a general term for the sprawling, largely untamed and arid interior of the country. From Cairns, a long but scenic drive over the Atherton Tablelands will bring you right into the sort of scenery everyone associates with the Outback; mostly-flat terrain; red soil; massive termite mounds and packs of kangaroos lounging about the savannah. A great destination is Undara Lava Tubes National Park, where you can see the aforementioned geological formations and wander a landscape right out of Crocodile Dundee (both 1 and 2). This is authentic Australia, and I can honestly say that my time gazing at this brittle landscape to the sound of cackling kookaburra birds is perhaps my greatest memory in what is an already very memorable country.

Getting to Cairns is quite simple. You can either spend long tedious hours (I mean, really long) driving up from Brisbane, or you can hop on one of any number of daily flights from most major Australian cities and even New Zealand. While the town itself is walk-able, the attractions farther afield are not, so plan on renting a car for at least a portion of the time.

As I implied earlier, the best part of surf and turf is not having to choose. The same can be said about northern Queensland. You can enjoy some of the greatest ‘surf’ this planet has to offer, and sample a gamut of ‘turf’ rarely found in such close proximity. I’m sure that’s something both Jacques Cousteau and Crocodile Dundee could agree upon – with or without silverware.

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Help Me Choose My Cover Art

Which do you prefer? Right or Left?

Which do you prefer? Right or Left?

Greetings Dear Readers,

I have some exciting news to share and also a favor to ask. For those of you who don’t already know, I’m nearing completion (on the writing portion, anyway) on my first travel eBook entitled You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper! I will have more about the book’s contents for you later. But for now, I need your help picking my cover art from the top two finalists. Which one do you think has greater shelf appeal and would better inspire a prospective reader to want to know more? Left or Right?

 

Your assistance is greatly appreciated. For those who have seen this same post on my Instagram (@tripaccomplice) account and the Trip Accomplice Facebook page, I apologize for what must seem like a bombardment. Once a final decision is made I will post the results.

 

Thanks in advance for your input, and be sure to look for updates as the project reaches its final stages (including a detailed preview already in the works). Hope to hear from you!

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