Surfing Spain

When on a proper surf trip there should be little else on the surfer’s mind besides surfing itself and the plotting of future surf sessions. As such I spent my evenings in Portugal making simple dinners at the hostel and trying to figure out where I would surf the next day. After I’d been in Ericeira for 4 days the forecast showed that the high pressure that was bringing offshore winds would breakdown and thus the conditions would begin to be suspect for Portugal’s west facing coastline. However, the Atlantic would continue cranking out plenty of swell… so where would I surf?

 

When one thinks surfing in Europe and especially when one is a goofy-foot who prefers lefthand pointbreaks, there is one place that comes foremost to mind: Mundaka. Without a doubt this is Europe’s best rivermouth pointbreak and when Mundaka is on it produces freight train lefts that can barrel for hundreds of yards over the sand-bottom estuary of the Oka River. Like many good waves, though, Mundaka is known to be fickle. It prefers south winds, low tides, needs big but not XXL swell, and most importantly the sand must be good. Usually these factors align in the fall when the first big Atlantic swells march in from the northwest and the sandbar is built up after the spring and summer months have deposited much sand in the estuary without big waves to wash that sand away.

 

After some consideration of the data I was seeing on WindGuru and Surfline, I made the call that enough of those factors were in place to make the 9 hour drive from Ericeira to Mundaka worth it. Portugal would continue to have plenty of swell but onshore winds, while that same swell would hit Mundaka along with southerly, offshore winds. The “X Factor” would be the sand – whether or not it would be “all time” Mundaka is hard to predict without knowing the present condition of the sand bar, but I was curious and eager to check out a wave I’d dreamed of surfing for many years.

Mundaka forecast looking good: plenty of swell with southerly, offshore winds

 

The following day I got up early and cranked out the 9-hour drive. Having rented the Skoda Octavia diesel Eco-wagon was awesome because I was getting like 50 mpg and cruising at 85 mph in cruise control nearly the entire drive. The border crossing was a non-event and it was neat to see the Mediterranean landscape of Portugal transform into the interior Spanish desert and then transform once again into the temperate forests of Pais Vasco in northeastern Spain. I got into the town of Mundaka around 7pm and checked into Hotel Atalaya, which couldn’t have been closer to the surf break. I had my first Spanish meal at the local pub and was surprised to see that the local language in the region was not Spanish, but Euskara, which is the traditional language of the Basque people. It is not remotely similar to Spanish, but fortunately everyone speaks Spanish as well, so I was able to communicate easily enough.

 

The Skoda Octavia Greenline Edition.  Diesel motor that gets like 50mpg, perfect for long surf trip exploits

The Skoda Octavia Greenline Edition. Diesel motor that gets like 50mpg, perfect for long surf trip exploits.  I’m parked here right in front of the surf break called Roka Puta

The border between Portugal and Spain.  You pretty much just have to slow down for like 100 yards, that's it.

The border between Portugal and Spain. You pretty much just have to slow down for like 100 yards, that’s it.

Snapped this pic while driving as I was descending from the desert highlands of Spain into Basque Country

Snapped this pic while driving as I was descending from the desert highlands of Spain into Basque Country

The drive across Iberia from Ericeira to Mundaka. 9 hours.

The drive across Iberia from Ericeira to Mundaka. 9 hours.

Hotel Atayala, closest spot you can get to the wave at Mundaka

Hotel Atayala, closest spot you can get to the wave at Mundaka

The next morning I got up at dawn and walked across the street to check out the wave at Mundaka. It was clearly working, plenty of size and offshore, and nobody out. Again, this seemed strange to me: from everything I heard about Mundaka, when it is working it is known to be one of the most crowded lineups in Europe, with surfers flooding in from France, Portugal and other parts of Spain. But I saw nobody out and I wasn’t complaining about that! Still I was a little uneasy that there was nobody out there to at least demonstrate the proper way to enter the water, where to sit, and how to deal with the gnarly currents. I hung around the point for about 45 minutes and eventually met two friendly surfers. The first was an older, heavyset gentleman originally from England but a local to Mundaka for the last 30 years who was the owner of the Mundaka Surf Shop just down the street. The second guy was his buddy, originally from Western Australia, who was perhaps a decade and a half younger and lived in the nearby town of Bermeo. These guys explained to me that the sandbar had been funky lately, but that lately the waves had been better on the high tide. Also they said that it looked good and they were about to go surf, so I ran and suited up and followed them out to the lineup.

Among my first photos of Mundaka on the first morning I witnessed the wave. Looks good!

Among my photos of Mundaka on the first morning I first witnessed the wave. Looks good!

Photo taken on day 1 from the exit spot from the water, a little ways down from the entrance. Better view of the whole wave.

Photo taken on day 1 from the exit spot from the water, a little ways down from the entrance. Better view of the whole wave.

 

That first session at Mundaka and all the ones to follow over the next 4 days were awesome. The wave size ranged from about 8 foot to DOH+, with the biggest sets coming in wide and kind of mushing out. Then best waves were the midsized ones that would barrel from the beginning and peel hundreds of yards down the line, offering speed lines and additional barrel sections.   I was 100% stoked on my 7’4” Ed Barbera; many of the locals including the two I met were on bigger boards and the guys riding smaller boards looked undergunned. The offshore winds would smooth out the faces and open up barrels although some days were so offshore as to make it difficult to get into the waves with the wind pushing me back and the spray blinding me. I spent much time in the green room and even found my way out of a few. By far the best part was that there were no crowds. I even surfed alone at various points and the most number of guys out at any one time was only like 10 dudes the entire time I was in Mundaka. And with the swell being so consistent and the rides so long, there was no competition for waves; instead we were all hooting each other into them! The best explanations I could come up with for the lack of crowds was that European surfers think of Mundaka as a fall season wave (I was there in mid-January), or there was a better wave somewhere else, or people were too surfed out from the previous run of surf, or that the surfers didn’t bother to drive to Mundaka because of the deep morning high tides. (But like the local said, the sandbar when I was there was such that the wave was actually better on the high tide.) Whatever the case, I was stoked and in the perfect spot to surf uncrowded Mundaka every morning for the 4 days I stayed at Hotel Atalaya.

 

Morning of Day 2. I was the first one out this morning.

Morning of Day 2. I was the first one out this morning.

Post session photo on day 2.  Still good and uncrowded!

Post session photo on day 2. Still good and uncrowded!  If I wasn’t dog tired after surfing for 3 hours, I would’ve done another lap!

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Looking up the Oka River from the check spot.

 

When you see the Basque flag in Mundaka blowing this way, it means southerly, offshore winds.

When you see the Basque flag in Mundaka blowing this way, it means southerly, offshore winds.

One morning Will snapped photos of me solo surfing for a few minutes.  Finally some scale for the size of the waves out there...

One morning Will snapped photos of me solo surfing for a few minutes. Finally some scale for the size of the waves out there…

Me making a drop

Me making a drop

Here's me making a drop

Here’s some random guy surfing with me way out on the shoulder

Speed run by an unidentified surfer on the morning of Day 4

Speed run by an unidentified surfer on the morning of Day 4

I took this photo as I was leaving from a vantage point above the point.  You can see clearly the Isla de Izaro, which has a big wave spot on the southwest side.

I took this photo as I was leaving from a vantage point above the point. There is a surfer on the wave for scale.  You can see clearly the Isla de Izaro, which has a big wave spot on the southwest side.

Basque Country Spain is perhaps one of the most wave rich sections of coast in the world and Mundaka was not the only wave I surfed.   In the mornings I would surf Mundaka but in the afternoon, when the tide was lower, I would head to a spot called Ogella that was about a 45-minute drive to the east from Mundaka. The setup for this spot was one of the most beautiful surf locations I’ve ever been to: pine forests steeply descent to meet the coast in a crescent bay and right smack in the middle is a rock reef that produces an A-frame wave comparable to Trestles. There are waves way up to the bay to the left and right that I heard are also surfed, but for the days I was there it was all about the A-frame in the middle. The wave needs slightly smaller swell than I would prefer for Mundaka; on the bigger days the currents would make staying in position a pain and cause the wave to close out a little, but with 1-2 meters of swell it was perfect.

Sunset at Ogella

Sunset at Ogella

 

Panorama from the parking lot of Ogella. One of the most pristine locations for a surf spot I've been to.

Panorama from the parking lot of Ogella. One of the most pristine locations for a surf spot I’ve been to.

Ogella is a very nice A-frame wave, reminiscent of Trestles although perhaps with more of an edge to it

Ogella is a very nice A-frame wave, reminiscent of Trestles although perhaps with more of an edge to it

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Splitting the peak.

 

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More waves in the northwest corner of the bay, nobody out. Also, what a spot for a house up on the bluff!

 

I mentioned in my previous post that I had run into Aritz Aranburu a few different times while I was Portugal, including at Cave, Coxos and Supertubos, and I knew I was in the right spot in Iberia once again when him and his same crew showed up at Ogella one afternoon while I was surfing. I left the water a little after the first of them paddled out; I’d already been in the water for a couple of hours and competing for waves with locals let alone pro locals is not my cup of tea. Instead I hung out on the cliffs above and took photos of them ripping.

 

Aritz Aranburu is already out there and here is the last of his crew making their way out to Ogella, with the photographer set in his perch.

Aritz Aranburu is already out there and here is the last of his crew making their way out to Ogella, with the photographer set in his perch.

Pro sufers demonstrate how it's done.

Pro sufers demonstrate how it’s done.

 

One afternoon I called it an early session at Ogella as it was one of the bigger days where the current left me way too tired within short order. I drove east along the coast to check the beautiful scenery and scope a few other surf spots. Along the way I would weave up high cliffs and then down into rustic, centuries-old towns that were distinctively Basque. I made it as far to the east as Roka Puta, a big wave spot that can produce very gnarly waves as evidenced by this video, and I watched a gorgeous sunset. The wave wasn’t really working while I was there, but I could see the potential. During my time spent in Pais Vasco the beauty of the land and the good vibe of the people continually impressed me; this is someplace I would definitely like to return someday.

I snapped this while driving through a hamlet near Ogella.

I snapped this while driving through a hamlet near Ogella.

 

The picturesque town of Leiketio

The picturesque town of Leiketio

Not sure what this spot is called, but I saw it from the highway on my drive east.

Not sure what this spot is called, but I saw it from the highway on my drive east.

Awesome clouds near Roka Puta

Awesome clouds near Roka Puta

Roka Puta, not working

Roka Puta, not working

Besides the limited span of coast and waves that I checked out while I was in Pais Vasco, Spain as a whole has a gorgeous northern coastline that is littered with good waves. More big waves exist a short drive to the west of Mundaka, including the BWWT spot Punta Galea, and then as you go farther and farther west into Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia there are more and more spots, many of them big waves, some of them rivermouths comparable to Mundaka, that are more and more secluded. There is tons of exploring to do. One video that recently captured my imagination is about a section of the Galician Coast known as “The Coast of Death”. Check out this video trailer. These aren’t waves for the faint of heart!

 

While I was in Spain I made friends with an English guy named Will and we experienced waves and classic Basque bar culture together. Will is in his mid-to-late 30s and works as an English teacher in Peru. He was on summer vacation and visiting his family back home in England when, being a surfer, he decided to do a surf trip to Spain and then Portugal before heading back to Peru. It was nice cruising around with Will because he spoke fluent Spanish and would get good intel from the locals. We cruised to Ogella a few times and surfed together at Mundaka and even teamed up to bunk together in the hotel in order to save 30 Euros each for two nights. One evening we headed into Bermeo together to bar hop and ate tapas along the way as our meal. It was cool to have a proper tapas experience, eating one or two and having a beer at each bar and then moving on to the next spot. On another night we did the same in Mundaka and wound up watching a soccer match between Bilboa and Galicia that had the locals super bummed out after an own goal by Bilboa resulted in a loss for the home team. I covertly snapped a photo of the scene upon them losing the game; in classic Spanish style, people were super bummed to loose.

Incognito photo of bummed locals after their soccer team lost by an own goal.

Incognito photo of bummed locals after their soccer team lost by an own goal.

 

Before I knew it was time to leave Mundaka and drive back to Lisbon where I would return my car and catch a flight back to Paris. I spent about 11 days in Spain and Portugal and had a great time. Surfing is awesome.

 

The drive back was in bad weather, with pouring rain once I was in Portugal

The drive back was in bad weather, with pouring rain once I was in Portugal

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Categories: Pais Vasco, Spain | 1 Comment

Surfing Portugal

I had been in Fontainebleau, France for a only 3 days when it was time for me to go chase some waves. Donna and had flown to Paris on January 1st, still recovering slightly from the previous night’s New Year’s festivities. We arrived at our new house in Fontainebleau on the morning of January 2nd, which was a Saturday. On Sunday we met the landlord and the other roommates and unpacked. Monday was Donna’ first day at INSEAD where she went through the usual college orientation sessions. That day I spent hanging around the house and noticed the surf forecast looked very good for the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco. The Atlantic would be on fire with swell for the next 2 weeks and I found that airfare was cheap to both Lisbon and Agadir. After getting Donna’s sign off, it was surf trip time! I deliberated for about half a day and decided to buy the ticket to Lisbon because a strong high-pressure system would result in good conditions and sunny weather for Portugal. Combined with the large, long period groundswell I knew it could be epic. I pulled the trigger on the airline tickets also rented a very fuel-efficient diesel station wagon, the perfect vehicle for chasing waves.

Now that is a surf forecast to get excited about!

Now that is a surf forecast to get excited about!

 

The Skoda Octavia GreenLine edition... my station wagon for the trip that gets 50 mpg!

The Skoda Octavia GreenLine edition… my station wagon for the trip that gets 50 mpg!

The trip came together fast. My surf bag was already packed from the journey to France and I lugged it from my house to the Fontainebleau train station, then through the Parisian metro and to the airport. I arrived in Lisbon around midnight, got the car, and checked into a cheap downtown hotel and hit the sack. I woke up early the next day and drove straight for Ericeira, the most wave rich stretch of coast in Portugal and home to the first World Surfing Reserve.

The Fontainebleau train station.  I'd be leaving grey skies and cold weather for a sunny and  warm Portugal.

The Fontainebleau train station. I’d be leaving grey skies and cold weather for a sunny and warm Portugal.

Driving through downtown Lisbon early on a Wednesday morning.

Driving through downtown Lisbon early on a Wednesday morning.

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Ericeira is home to the world’s first World Surfing Reserve. We need more of these!

 

My first good glimpse of the ocean revealed solid surf lines stretching across the long point called Ribeira d’Ilhas. The wind was light and offshore, pretty much perfect conditions. The strange thing was that I couldn’t really see anyone surfing! I drove farther north and checked a few more spots, all of which were very conveniently labeled with roadside posts due to the World Surfing Reserve. But nobody was surfing anywhere! Eventually I met a local who was walking his dogs while hiking the cliffs in front of a righthand slab called Cave. He basically told me that with this much swell most all the spots were maxed out, but that I should check a right point in town called Furnas. It took awhile to navigate my way through the maze of small streets in the center of Ericeira but eventually I found the wave and a place to park. The session was good and I was already glad to have brought my bigger 7’4” board al the way from SF because it was very clear there would be plenty of juice on this trip.

 

My first glimpse of the surf in Portugal got me very excited.  Big waves and perfect conditions at Ribeira d’Ilhas

My first glimpse of the surf in Portugal got me very excited. Big waves and perfect conditions at Ribeira d’Ilhas.  Nobody out seemed strange, perhaps because that wave is bigger than it looks.

I ended up surfing Furnas, which is basically in the town of Ericeira.  It was fun and I was the only one out for awhile.

I ended up surfing Furnas, which is right in the town of Ericeira. It was fun and I was the only one out for awhile.

Another look at Furnas.

Another look at Furnas.

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A photo overlooking Furnas point with the town of Ericeira in the background

 

After the session I found a spot to have lunch and then began searching for a place to stay.   The first few hostels I drove to had nobody inside to respond to my inquiry. Eventually I found the aptly named Lone Surfer Hostel and I was able to secure a spot in the communal dormitory room for a mere €13 per night, which was an amazing deal considering there was nobody else staying in the dormitory so I essentially had an entire apartment to myself! This was all good, but I found it strange that Ericeira seemed to be so devoid of travelling surfers at the height of the surf season and with good waves and beautiful weather in the forecast.

 

The aptly named Lone Surfer hostel where I stayed while in Portugal

The aptly named Lone Surfer hostel where I stayed while in Portugal.  I resided in the 3rd story dormitory, which was basically a private apartment for me since nobody else was there!

My morning view from the 3rd story of the Lone Surfer Hostel. Look at those lines!

My morning view from the 3rd story of the Lone Surfer Hostel. Look at those lines!

Outside my hostel this truck would serve delicious churros.  #lucky

Outside my hostel this truck would serve delicious churros. #lucky

Eventually I learned that Ericeira is primarily a surf destination in the summer, when droves of tourists from the UK and around Europe flock to the warm beaches for sun and surf lessons. But the irony is that in the summer the surf on the east coast of Portugal is at its worse: onshore winds and a lack of swell dominate. But the surf shops and learn to surf schools thrive on the influx of vacationers! Meanwhile, in the heart of the winter surf season I encountered only a handful of traveling surfers like myself. My guess for a reason behind this is that Portugal is still somewhat off the map as a surf destination for serious surfers, who would usually prefer exotic warm water surf destinations for their vacations. Another factor is that good waves at many spots are dependent on good wind conditions and, much like in Northern California, onshore winds are much more common.

 

One local I talked to mentioned that their favorite time for surf in Portugal is in the autumn, when the swells are somewhat smaller and the conditions more likely to be good. Again, this is often the case in Northern California as well, and the similarity is not surprising considering both sit at 38 degrees latitude and are west facing. I timed my trip to Portugal to coincide with a late season high pressure system that created gorgeous, warm weather and light offshore winds, but really the big problem I faced was finding surf spots that could handle the 3+ meter, long-period groundswells that were coming. Hence I understood why this particular local said he prefers smaller swells, more in the 1-2 meter range, which hit the Ericeira spots well and create more manageable waves.

I have only ever seen surf spots marked by markers like this on the road here in Ericeira.

I have only ever seen surf spots marked by markers like this on the road here in Ericeira.

My favorite post surf session lunch spot was at this restaurant right on the beach of Ribeira d'Ilhas

My favorite post surf session lunch spot was at this restaurant right on the beach of Ribeira d’Ilhas

 

Over the next 3 days I surfed a number of different waves between Lisbon and Peniche.

The best and most consistently good wave in Ericeira is Coxos point. During my first session a number of locals were out and getting the best set waves that would barrel over the shallow, urchin infested rock reef and then peel far into the cove. Two days later the swell was a few notches larger and Coxos looked more like an intense slab than a point, with a very heavy 50-yard barrel section that would then wash out through the cove. Simply put, that day was too gnarly for me, so I watched and took photos of the guys out there, all of who were professionals, including “Portuguese Prince” Nick Von Rupp and former WCT surfer Aritz Aranburu.

Coxos on the day I surfed it, with a local speed lining the beginning barrel section

Coxos on the day I surfed it, with a local speed lining the beginning barrel section

Another shot from the smaller day at Coxos, this one shows how the wave can peel into the cove or long rides

Another shot from the smaller day at Coxos, this one shows how the wave can peel into the cove or long rides

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Coxos on the big day, surfer pulling in.  On big days it acts more like a slab as after the long barrel section the wave washes through the cove instead of peeling.

 

Coxos on the day I surfed it.  I quickly understood why this point is the jewel of Ericeira surfing

Coxos the big day was pros only.  This demonstrates why this wave is the jewel of Ericeira surf spots

 

And this photo demonstrates why it was basically pros only out there.  15 foot top-to-bottom waves and a shallow and sharp reef below.   This place can produce severe beatings!

And this photo demonstrates why it was basically pros only out there. 15 foot top-to-bottom waves and a shallow and sharp reef below. This place can produce severe beatings!

The morning of that big day at Coxos I surfed alone at a wave called Pedra Branca. Usually this wave is a left, but that morning the swell was too big for the left although a long right was working that would send me a few hundred yards towards Praia do Norte. It was pretty cool being the only one out and able to easily get the few good waves that came through.

 

Pedra Branca the day I surfed it. Nobody else out there!

Pedra Branca the morning I surfed it. Nobody else out there and bigger than it looks!

Besides surfing Furnas, Coxos and Pedra Branca, I spent a lot of time watching and photographing the other waves in Ericeira. The most alluring of them is known as Cave, which is an extremely shallow, dangerous righthand slab. At one point I was watching and taking photos of Cave when Aritz Aranburu and his crew of pros and a photographer showed up and watched it with me for a while. It must not have been properly working or something since they didn’t surf it, but some of the photos I took reveal a wave that is at least perfect for mind surfing. A famous session with Kelly Slater went down at Cave last year (see video here) and even one of the best tuberiders in the world, John John Florence, was injured here a few years back (see this article), which goes to show just how gnarly the wave is.

 

Cave was mind-surfing only on this day

Cave was mind-surfing only on this day

By in large I have been conditioned to think the more swell the better, so it was strange for me on this trip that my wave searching effort was spent looking to find waves that were smaller and manageable rather than big and exciting. On the biggest swell day I had to drive south to Lisbon where the coastline faces south and was thus somewhat sheltered from the large NW swell, which was maxing out all the Ericeira spots. As I drove east from Cascais along the Lisbon coastline I saw swell lines stretching for miles and I took a few nice photos. Eventually I came to the beach of Carcavelos where the waves were still well overhead and nicely groomed by northerly winds. I had a fun session, but the waves were mostly closeouts.

 

Looking west along the south facing Lisbon coastline towards Cascais. Waves for days.

Looking west along the south facing Lisbon coastline towards Cascais. Waves for days.

Carcavelos beachbreak

Carcavelos beachbreak

While in the water at Carcavelos I talked with a surfer who mentioned that Supertubos would also be good. So after my session I got out, ate a quick lunch in my car, and drove an hour north to Peniche to the most famous beachbreak in Portugal and site of an annual WCT contest. Supertubos has an offshore canyon that makes the location a swell magnet, and with northeasterly winds it was offshore. The wave works best on W or SW swells, but with the big NW swell it beheld solid double overhead tubes, despite being sheltered by the bulbous Peniche peninsula.   Most of the surfers in the water that day were professionals, including none other than Artiz Aranburu, who I kept seeing on my trip. I saw a bunch of amazing tube rides. Personally I was mostly worked by the powerful tubing waves; I’ll claim that my heaving beachbreak tuberiding skills are still a bit rusty, but at least I did see a number of beautiful green rooms before being swallowed.

 

Supertubos on the big day.  I wish I woulda taken my good camera and just photographed the pros for awhile, it was a barrel-fest.  But instead I just go this photo with my phone.

Supertubos on the big day. I wish I woulda taken my good camera and just photographed the pros for awhile, it was a barrel-fest. But instead I just go this photo with my phone.

Supertubos on the smaller day I surfed it with my Italian friend

Supertubos on the smaller day I surfed it with my Italian friend

Supertubos has its own flag.  The Portuguese take a lot of pride in their waves!

Supertubos has its own flag. The Portuguese take a lot of pride in their waves!

On my trip I was mostly solitaire but did make a few friends. In my hostel there was staying a German surfer (of Indian descent) who lived in Holland (whoa, pretty random, huh?) He introduced me to two other people also staying on a lower level in the hostel, a German woman who was taking surf lessons everyday, and a mid 40s Santa Barbara guy. That evening we all had a tasty seafood pasta dinner prepared by the German lady, whose culinary skills were amazing. I also spent a day cruising with a young Italian guy who I met while we were both watching the pros surf Coxos. We ended up driving north to Supertubos and had a great session in waves that were much easier to surf than when I was there the day before and the waves were much larger and more challenging. It was interesting listening to the Italian talk about what its like to be a surfer in Italy, which apparently involves skirting all responsibility to drive for hours to surf decent waves the few times a year the Mediterranean decides to flare up. His stories made me appreciate being Californian!

 

An awesome seafood pasta prepared by a German woman staying in the Lone Surfer

An awesome seafood pasta prepared by a German woman staying in the Lone Surfer

On this trip to Portugal I did not make it to Nazare, the famous wave known for producing the world’s largest waves. I’d heard that Nazare is also a great wave on smaller swells too, but it is about a 2 hours north of Peniche and I never bothered to check it because there was plenty of juice where I was. If an absolutely humungous swell would’ve come so that I could witness a Nazare tow session happen, I would’ve made the trek, but that didn’t happen until my last day and I needed to be driving to the airport, not Nazare. Check out this video if you want to see the incredible monsters the bathymetry at Nazare can produce!

 

Finally it is worth writing a little about my thoughts on Portugal in general. The people were very nice and the little town of Ericeira felt very quaint and traditional, with narrow cobblestone streets winding every which way and old ladies walking around carrying bags of vegetables. The food wasn’t particularly good as far as I experienced, but I didn’t really seek anything traditional out. The country was a great value, food was inexpensive, lodging was cheap and overall I spent a surprisingly little amount of money; this likely has something to do with the recession that hit the southern European economies lately.   I would definitely recommend to my friends that they go and check out Portugal, good waves and good prices make it a worthwhile trip destination!

 

Fisherman casting from atop the cliffs above Ribeira d'Ilhas .  He would send his bait flying about 100 yards into the ocean below!

Fisherman casting from atop the cliffs above Ribeira d’Ilhas . He would send his bait flying about 100 yards into the ocean below!

OK, up next will be my post about Pais Vasco in Spain, home to Mundaka, Europe’s best pointbreak, and many other great waves….

Categories: Portugal | 4 Comments

Family Christmas Time in Florida

 

I want to start off this blog with an apology to our loyal readers. As I write this it is currently late-February and I am completing a blog post about stuff that happened at the end of December. I know most of you would prefer get more frequent updates and for those updates to be about what we did in the very recent past. Well, timeliness just isn’t going to happen because our blog is for fun and we don’t seem to be able to operate by some fixed schedule (at first we tried, and it didn’t work almost immediately). Further, right now I could write about the awesome ski trip that Donna and I went on to Courchevel just this last weekend, but then I’d skip over a bunch of other stuff and leave a gaping hole in the chronology of The Radical Sabbatical, which is, in my mind, much worse than just releasing posts with a longer delay to when they occurred. And thusly we have chosen not to skip anything and to post chronologically late. But at least now that I am in Chamonix staying at nice chalet with good Internet for the next week and a half I will try to push out the backlog of goings on.  Please accept my apology and enjoy nonetheless 😉

 

Christmas 2015 went down for Donna and I in Florida. It was pretty much a no-brainer for us: we were both overdue to visit our respective Sunshine State family members and we had the time to do it before moving to France for Donna to start school at INSEAD.

 

The first half of the trip was to visit Donna’s family in West Palm Beach. There was a kind of mini-family reunion happening as Donna’s aunt Rorrie and her husband Robert had just finished custom decorating their beautiful new home and this was the first time many in the family would see it. Donna’s father Harold came from New Jersey and his parents, the matriarch and patriarch of the Egan clan, also live very nearby to Rorrie. Then many other Egan clan members flew in from various East Coast locations, including Arlana (Donna’s sister), Margaux and Tyler (Donna’s cousins, Rorrie’s son and daughter), Jamie (Donna’s uncle, Harold’s brother), Christine (Jamie’s wife), and Conner (Donna’s cousin and son of Jamie and Christine).

 

Donna and I stayed at Rorrie’s beautiful house and hung out for a few days of relaxing with the family. There was great food, especially the Christmas Eve dinner of Sicilian style pizza prepared by Donna’s grandma and the Christmas Day brunch at the country club. Plenty of quality wine and Scotch was consumed. We also played some tennis and chillaxed by the pool. We downloaded and watched The Interview because of all the hype and we thought it was hilarious. It was a “family time” couple of days and I was happy to meet and get to know everyone.

 

The Egan Clan !  ... and me

The Egan Clan !

Donna and her cousin's Tyler and Conner

Donna and her cousin’s Tyler and Conner

 

The day after Christmas Donna and I rented a car and drove to the Jacksonville area part 2 of the Christmas vacation. Wouter, my father, picked us up and brought us to his new house on Amelia Island. His wife, Malgosia, and him had custom built a new house over the past half a year and so this was the second house debut of the trip for us. At the house Donna and I were greeted by Malgosia (my father’s wife), my sister Jannika, Jannika’s boyfriend Jason and Malgosia’s daughter Agata. Plus Agata’s awesome dog Blake! The first evening we arrived we ate a nice meal and got down to the usual family discussions as we exchanged gifts.

 

The next 3 days with my family were a similar blend to the previous 3 days with Donna’s family: catching up and relaxing with a few activities mixed in.

 

The highlight by far of the activities was the fact that my dad bought himself a DJI Phantom 2 drone for Christmas. He hadn’t flown it yet, actually wanting me to be the test pilot before himself. I quickly stepped up to the task and was actually surprised how easy it was to fly the drone, especially compared to the unsophisticated quadcopter drones that Colin and I had had so much fun flying in China a few months back. Within no time I was hovering all around outside the new house and taking photos and videos. Since there is a golf course right in the backyard, there was plenty of space to practice and the golfers were always very interested in the drone. I also flew the drone at the beach a few times and even brought it to a height of over 1,000 feet; the images I got from the camera were super cool!

 

The gang (but after Jannika and Jason left)

The gang (but after Jannika and Jason left), photo taken from the drone

Good light good lookin, ha!

Good light good lookin, ha!

Agata, Jannika & Jason hanging out

Agata, Jannika & Jason hanging out

Video Trailer featuring Drone Footage!!

 

The below is an album, so click the first photo and you can scroll through!

Categories: Amelia Island, Florida, West Palm Beach | Leave a comment

Tour de Valencia!

After Brandon and I flew back from New Zealand, there were about 4 days in San Francisco to organize and pack for our move to France in January before I would be flying to Valencia for two weeks of full immersion Spanish lessons. Brandon also had a short turnaround as he would be heading to Colorado for a week-long mountaineering course. It would be another whirlwind trips for both of us, but this was something we were now familiar with and didn’t bother us much – living out of a suitcase had become the new normal!

 

I arrived in Madrid on the morning of Sunday, December 7th. Aside from making a flight reservation through my dad’s benefits at United, I didn’t book anything. Since Valencia was a large city, my assumption was that English would get me around, public transportation would be reliable and that hostels and/or hotels would be easy and available to book. In hindsight, it may not have been the most prudent decision to make such assumptions especially when traveling alone. Luckily this time, for the most part, my assumptions were accurate – aside from English being widely spoken. As soon as I arrived in Madrid, I paid 5 euro and took the bus to the center of town where I walked around in circles for about 2 hours until I found the right ticketing desk and platform to take the high speed train to Valencia for 65 euro. I finally made it to Valencia that afternoon and continued to plan my stay there.

 

View of the Cathedral's bell tower in the center of Valencia!

View of the Cathedral’s bell tower in the center of Valencia!

BEACH and just look at that sky

BEACH and just look at that sky

 

The first step was to find a place to stay for the night. I rolled my one piece of luggage around the city until I found an acceptable hostel with availability. I came across the Orange Hostel near the center of Valencia and decided this would be a nice place to crash until I found a homestay to take me in for the following two weeks. I checked in with the receptionist and we started talking – I explained that I was visiting Valencia for two weeks to learn as much Spanish as possible but hadn’t booked anything yet. Her name was Ida and she was Italian but studying at the University of Valencia. Immediately after hearing my story and checking me in, she was on the phone with her friends in Valencia who were launching a new service for tourists visiting the city called Welcome Spanish. She arranged to have her two friends meet me the following morning for a tour around Valencia and to enroll me in Spanish school. I couldn’t believe it! What a hook up.

 

The following morning, I met Rafa and Jorge, who showed me the beaches and marinas in Valencia, the beautiful parks, the massive market in the center of town and other beautiful, historical sites around the city. That afternoon, Rafa and Jorge also helped me enroll in Spanish school. They had done their research and found the best one in Valencia – I just couldn’t believe how friendly and welcoming they were. I also sorted out a homestay in Valencia the following day that happened to be 4 blocks away from the Spanish school.

 

Best tour guides you'll find in Spain, Rafa and Jorge!

Best tour guides you’ll find in Spain, Rafa and Jorge!

surfable waves in what is usually a very tranquil beach

surfable waves in what is usually a very tranquil beach

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My homestay was an interesting and more challenging experience compared to the homestay experience that Brandon and I shared in Bariloche that past summer. The homestay mother knew about as much English as I knew Spanish, which is to say she knew not much at all. In Bariloche, I would use Brandon as my crutch to communicate with the family. This time, I would have to fend for myself, which to be fair, is what I signed up for. I wanted to be thrown into the deep end when it came to learning Spanish this time.

 

View of the dome from the central market

View of the dome from the central market

Fresh Valencia Market

Fresh Valencia Market

View from the rooftop of the escuela

View from the rooftop of the escuela

Meanwhile, I was really enjoying the Spanish school (school name) where I registered thanks to Rafa and Jorge. Luckily, I also met a friend, Margot from Holland, in the class. She and I were on the same page in Valencia – we were in class from 9am – 1pm everyday and immediately afterwards, we would grab a delicious café con leche and explore the center of Valencia. Over the two weeks, we visited the aquarium, climbed the bell tower of the cathedral, shopped at the indoor and outdoor markets, and enjoyed amazing meals in the sun! One night, Raja even invited us to go out salsa dancing with him, which I hesitantly decided to join. It was a good experience, but let’s just say salsa dancing doesn’t run naturally in my veins.

 

Margot and me outside the cathedral!

Margot and me outside the cathedral!

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Inside the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

On one of our last days in the city, Rafa so generously offered to have us over to his house on the outskirts of Valencia to enjoy authentic Valencian paella. He said we couldn’t leave before trying paella from the birthplace of the dish. Margot and I drove over to Rafa’s house where we ate an amazing amount of paella outside in his backyard under the palm tress. I was in paradise. The food was delicious, the weather was perfect and I had met friends that I’d keep for a long time to come!

The intricately detailed and extravagant alter

The intricately detailed and extravagant alter

Alter

Alter

Margot making her confessions!

Margot making her confessions!

A visit to the aquarium

A visit to the aquarium

Looking good, Valencia!

Looking good, Valencia!

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Margot and me in the center of town

Margot and me in the center of town

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Paella de Valencia!! Me gusta mucho!

Paella de Valencia!! Me gusta mucho!

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Valencia by night

Valencia by night

Enjoying an afternoon in the sun with good company and of course, paella

Enjoying an afternoon in the sun with good company and of course, paella

Categories: Spain, Valencia | 2 Comments

Colorado Mountaineering Course

In the fast paced lifestyle of the radically sabbaticaling there is little time to rest. No sooner had Donna and I landed in San Francisco in early December than we were busy running errands and preparing for our next adventures. The plan was that we would once again part ways for the first half of the month.   Learning even more Spanish was beckoning Donna, but this time her thinking was she should be really fully immersed in order to get the most out of another 2 weeks of Spanish school.   Although Bariloche had lifted her Spanish off the ground to a basic understanding, she knew that in order to learn in the most effective way, she would need to travel alone because when we traveled together we would always end up speaking English with one another. Also, my better Spanish often meant I did most of the talking in situations when we were together. Thus Donna decided that she would go to Spain… and you’ll have to wait for her post to read about how it went!

 

My prerogative was to head to Colorado in order to take a mountaineering course with my friend Colin (remember him, from the China trip?). Two years ago the world of backcountry snowboarding opened up for me when I took an avalanche safety course in Tahoe. That experience and my subsequent backcountry tours in the Sierras, Iceland and Argentina, had given me a base level of experience but also reinforced a couple of critical points. The first is that the mountains and backcountry environments deserve the utmost of respect. Avalanches kill, bad weather can move in swiftly and catch one off-guard, and terrain needs to be properly understood. Secondly, the best one can do to pay their respect is to act intelligently and to prepare oneself mentally and physically. Towards that end, constant learning, vigilance, and conservative decision making are of paramount importance.

 

The kind of snowboarding I aspire to do is known as ski mountaineering, which combines backcountry skiing with mountaineering techniques in order to open up the possibility of accessing amazing and uncrowded terrain. The avalanche course I took was just the tip of the iceberg in requisite knowledge one needs for going off piste. In order to actually earn an entrance into the sport of ski mountaineering I would need to learn mountaineering skills: multi-pitch rock climbing, proper use of crampons and an ice axe, and most importantly the experience one gains from actually practicing these skills in the mountains.

 

When I was in the backcountry near Bariloche (see my Refugio Frey post here) I was blatantly unsafe when I went bootpacking up the Principal couloir. The snow just under the thin layer of powder was hard packed and icy and I bootpacked up the couloir, which was 30 degrees in some place, without crampons for traction or a mountaineering ice axe for self-arrest. While walking up if I had slipped it likely would’ve meant I would rapidly accelerate downhill and eventually tumble over rocks with broken bones being almost guaranteed and potentially death if I was unlucky. At the time I knew the danger and took each step cautiously, but I probably shouldn’t have climbed that hill at all. After that experience I told myself I would need to take a proper mountaineering course as soon as possible to learn the important skills I lacked and to better prepare me for ski mountaineering.

 

And so I flew to Denver to meet up with my friend Colin. The course would begin the next day, a Saturday, and was 5 straight days. Colin lives in Boulder and we’d stay at his house, driving 40 minutes each day to Estes Park where the Colorado Mountain School is located. The real learning would happen in the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), just outside of Estes Park. Another plus of taking a trip to Denver is that my grandparents live there, so after the course I’d get to spend a few days with them.

 

Colin walking towards the entrance of the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park

Colin walking towards the entrance of the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park

The Intro to Mountaineering Level 1 course was great beyond my expectations. Our instructor was a guy in his early 50’s named Bob Chase, but he looked at least a decade younger than that. I really think being a mountain guide may be one secret to the fountain of youth; it makes sense that being outside everyday doing what you love would keep one young and healthy! Bob was also the most experienced guide at the school, having worked there for over 20 years, and he was an awesome treasure trove of information whom we could ask endless questions about anything related to mountaineering. Over the course of those 5 days I learned an immense amount from Bob, who would patiently explain every detail of what we were learning and ensure I was practicing the skills correctly. There were 5 students total, and the 3 others besides Colin and myself were all 20-something dudes whose experience varied from very little (in my case) to some rock-climbing experience. We all had much to learn.

 

Here’s a quick breakdown of how we spent each day, along with photos from each of those days:

 

Day 1 – First we grabbed our rental gear: climbing harness, hard plastic mountaineering boots, crampons, and backpack. We spent 3 hours discussing our backgrounds and gear. Mountaineers depend 100% on gear and having a good system down to each little detail is crucial for success in hostile alpine environments. After the discussion we left and spent the afternoon climbing a simple rock formation near the school. I learned how to top rope climb (in crampons, no less) and how to belay. It was my first time rock climbing with a harness and ropes.

First time rock climbing with ropes and I'm wearing crampons!

First time rock climbing with ropes and I’m wearing crampons!

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First time repelling

 

 

Day 2 – This day was about learning how to multi-pitch rock in an alpine environment. We snow-shoed into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and did a 5 pitch climb in terrain that was relatively simple. We probably didn’t really need to be roped up for the climb, but this was all about practicing rock climbing techniques. After climbing up we did a big and serious belay down a vertical rock face, which was pretty cool.

Colin at the top of our objective on Day 2

Colin at the top of our objective on Day 2

Me at the top of Day 2 objective.  You can see Longs Peak in the background, the highest mountain in RMNP and the only 14'er in the park

Me at the top of Day 2 objective. You can see Longs Peak in the background, the highest mountain in RMNP and the only 14’er in the park

This was the big repel we did after the climb up

This was the big repel we did after the climb up

 

Day 3 (December 8) – For my 31st birthday I went ice climbing! In RMNP we walked to Hidden Falls where Bob setup a top-rope system where we could safely practice ice climbing. For me ice climbing was really difficult. I became very familiar with getting “pumped out”, which happens when climbers’ hand/wrist muscles are completely fatigued from gripping extensively. My climbing was slow, mainly because I wouldn’t trust my crampons to hold onto the ice, but the reality is it is amazing how such a small point of contact on the crampon can secure one to the ice wall. I want to practice more! It was a whole lot of fun and a great way to spend my birthday.

Colin at the base of a frozen Hidden Falls

Colin at the base of a frozen Hidden Falls

Me embarking on one of my first ice climbing experiences

Me embarking on one of my first ice climbing experiences

Of course i took a selfie when I was half way up the ice falls!

Of course i took a selfie when I was half way up the ice falls!

Day 4 – This was kind of a rest day in that we did not climb anything, instead practicing snow skills. We spent the day learning about ice and snow anchors, learning to use an ice axe to self-arrest and practicing beacon searches.

Bob demonstrating how to use ice screws to create an anchor in ice

Bob demonstrating how to use ice screws to create an anchor in ice

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Snow anchor with 5 guys pulling on it to demonstrate its strength

 

Dominic looking stoically out towards Longs Peak with a frozen Bear Lake in the foreground

Dominic looking stoically out towards Longs Peak with a frozen Bear Lake in the foreground

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Colin taking a lunch break siesta

 

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These white jays were super smart and would literally swoop down and grab stuff out from your hands if you weren’t paying attention. It even happened to Bob after he warned us!

 

 

Day 5 – The final day we would climb a route affectionally called “Bob’s Route” to the top of Flattop Mountain in RMNP. The day began with an alarm at 2:30am so that we would be at Estes Park no later than 4:30am and on the trail in RMNP for a late “alpine start” at 5am. Usually when climbers attempt mountain ascents it behooves them to start the day well before dawn because snow conditions are usually firmer and safer earlier in the day, hence the concept of an alpine start. After snowshoeing towards the base of Flattop, at daybreak we watched the alpenglow hit the crest of Notchtop Peak and simultaneously the moon was setting over the mountain, which made for an awesome photo. The first several hundred feet of the climb was over semi-steep talus but by around 11am we reached grade 5 terrain and it was time to begin rock climbing. We roped up and Bob led the route up for myself and 2 other students, with me being the last climber so that I would collect the gear Bob placed for protection. Colin and the other more advanced student went with a 2nd guide up a more difficult route. There were parts of our route where without a rope for safety, a fall would’ve meant certain death after tumbling hundreds of feet. Even falling with the ropes would’ve been painful as you’re going tumble down rocks for at least 10 or more feet before the rope saves you. The photos really don’t do it justice, this was terrain unlike anything I’d experienced before and I was scared but exhilarated at the same time. Rock climbing is pretty rad! We made it to the top around 2:30pm and then descended by walking down a snowy slope on the not-so-steep part of the mountain.

 

An Apline Start means your day begins before the sun comes up.  Here we're snowshoeing towards the base of Flattop Mountain

An Apline Start means your day begins before the sun comes up. Here we’re snowshoeing towards the base of Flattop Mountain

Alpenglow hitting the crest of Notchtop Mountain

Alpenglow hitting the crest of Notchtop Mountain. You can see the moon hanging high in the sky.

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About an hour later was the epic shot, the moon hanging right above the Notchtop peak

 

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When I got back to Colin’s house, which he is renting fully furnished, I noticed this photo on the wall of his study… and realized that it was pretty much EXACTLY the same photo that we had experienced in person (and took a similar picture of) that day!

 

Climbing

Climbing

Colin after making his ascent

Colin after making his ascent

This photo has the camera pointed basically straight down.  It's hard to tell, but this was some STEEP terrain we were climbing.

This photo has the camera pointed basically straight down. It’s hard to tell, but this was some STEEP terrain we were climbing.

Selfie.  I'm worse than a teenage girl.

Selfie while in a critically steep location. I’m worse than a teenage girl with selfies, apparently.

Dominic and John just before we finished our ascent.

Dominic and John just before we finished our ascent.

The view from the top of Flattop

The view from the top of Flattop

 

Colin and I were super amped from the course and decided we wanted to head back to RMNP with the objective of skiing down the Dragon’s Tail Couloir. We spent Thursday relaxing going shopping for necessary gear and I bought a harness, crampons and an ice axe.

 

On Friday we yet again woke up well before dawn and drove straight into RMNP. The walk to the base of the couloir took about an hour and a half, but we really didn’t get started climbing up the couloir until nearly 10am. Three other skiers started climbing up a little before us and there was a nice bootpack trail for us to follow up. Early on we knew we wouldn’t be needing rope to climb up, but we were fully prepared with rope and harnesses just in case we felt they needed more safety. By 1pm or so we reached the highest point we felt comfortable going. To ascend the last one-third of the couloir it would’ve been necessary to rope up in order to get over a rocky section, but we were running out of time as the snow, which had been in the sun earlier in the day, was stiffening up as the couloir became shaded. At one point we did use the rope down-climb a steep section, but going up and down that short section was really just for getting in some rope practice. The view from our highest point was pretty awesome but I was worried about the snow quality for the descent, as it seemed super crusty and potentially icy. In the end my edges held fine the descent was fun although the snow was not good. Colin and I were stoked on the trip and I envision future adventures for the two of us!

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Colin just before we started on the trail to Emerald Lake

 

Our first view of the Dragons Tail Couloir, which is in the center of the pic.  Notice the moon setting towards the left just above the ridge line.

Our first view of the Dragons Tail Couloir, which is in the center of the pic. Notice the moon setting towards the left just above the ridge line.

Me hiking up Dragons Tail

Me hiking up Dragons Tail

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Colin hiking up Dragons Tail

 

View of Emerald Lake and the valley from the highest point we went up the couloir

View of Emerald Lake and the valley from the highest point we went up the couloir.  I think we hiked up about 1800 feet from the lake below.

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If we wanted to go all the way up the couloir, we would’ve taken the route you see in this photo. The rocky band presented a difficult obstacle and we didn’t feel we had enough time to complete the full objective to the top.

 

CHEESY VIDEO I SLAPPED TOGETHER OF DRAGONS TAIL + THE COURSE

COLIN SKIING DRAGONS TAIL

 

The next day was Saturday and I was more than ready for some rest & relaxation when my grandpa came to pick me up that morning. That weekend I hung out with grandma and grandpa, sleeping well, eating well, and talking with them about anything and everything. They’re always so stoked when I come to visit and it makes me happy to see them. I watched the Broncos clinch the AFC West division, which made gramps happy. Grandma is getting a little loopy as she suffers from Alzheimer’s but sometimes she cracks me up with her ridiculous comments.

Me and Grandma & Grandpa

Me and Grandma & Grandpa

 

On Monday morning I headed back to the airport and flew back to San Francisco. Donna and I would arrive within an hour of one another and would spend a few days in SF before heading to Florida for family time through Christmas. Thanks to Kelsey for letting us stay in her room!

 

 

Categories: Colorado | Leave a comment

New Zealand, Part 3: The South Island

Donna and I spent about 2 weeks on New Zealand’s gorgeous South Island.  We drove nearly 3,000 kilometers but afterward still felt that somehow we had only scratched the surface of  what one Kiwi I met called God’s Country because of its extreme beauty!  The key decision point for us after arriving on the ferry to Picton late on Monday afternoon was which way to drive south to Queenstown: along the west coast or along east coast.   We ended up taking the eastern coast route mainly because it meant we’d be partaking in more wine tasting the following day. This also would mean that when the time came to head north back to Picton in order to catch the ferry back to the North Island, we’d take the western route, which was said to be a more grandiose drive as the Southern Alps rise starkly from the Tasman Sea and the cliffside roadway looks akin to Big Sur — saving the best for last!   Really, either way would’ve been awesome and most of all we were stoked to start exploring the South Island.

Our route through the South Island

Our route through the South Island

 

Marlborough

The town of Blenheim is only 30 minutes south of Picton in the heart of Marlborough wine country, a region that produces most of New Zealand’s finest Sauvignon Blanc wines.   Donna was very excited to check out the winery of her favorite white wine, Cloudy Bay, so that was the top of our “to do” list.  Meanwhile, I went on the hunt for some mountain biking trails.  There was no disappointment for either of us!  Right near the town center we found an inexpensive hostel that we stayed at for two nights and that afforded us beds to sleep in and a large kitchen to make a few meals.  Next door to the hostel was a bike rental shop, where I learned that Blenheim, like any respectable New Zealand town, had a mountain bike park.

So by mid-morning on Tuesday we had mountain bikes rented and set to hit the mountain bike park. It was a clear but very windy day and it felt like we were biking uphill along a flat riverbed just to reach the mountain bike park.  Once at the park the trees and hill itself sheltered us from the wind and we did a few laps up and down through some fun trails without ever encountering any other riders.  After the ride we found lunch at a Thai restaurant and then back at the bike shop we decided it would be fun to swap our mountain bikes for a tandem bike that we could ride through the vineyards.  I am bummed we didn’t get a photo of the two of us on the tandem bike, but I can attest that riding a tandem bike is an awesome way to check out flat wine countryside with your favorite girl.  Our goal for the ride was to find Cloudy Bay and hopefully squeeze in a tasting before the winery closed, but our cell phones were out of batteries and without the navigational aid I got us hopelessly lost and we never found the vineyard.  It would have to wait for the next day…

The following day was a the real-deal wine tasting experience.  We started off with the main event: a tasting at Cloudy Bay, where we also came away with a good compliment of whites to take back to America with us for holiday sharing purposes.  After that we headed to Sherwood Estate, but the tasting room was closed for renovations, although there was a consolation prize: an open cheese tasting room.  We walked away with several cheeses, including an incredible aged bleu and a musty cheddar.  Next up was a taste of some incredible sparkling wines at No1 Family Estate followed by a visit to the Moa Brewery, where I tasted some great beers and walked away with a few hard to find IPAs.  We lunched at the posh Allan Scott vineyard and received a free tasting with meal.  Finally — and at this point I was feeling a little buzzed — we headed to the first and largest of the Marlborough vineyards, Bancroft Estate, where we enjoyed a scenic overlook of the Marlborough valley and tasted a few more kinds of sauvignon blanc.  What a day in the vineyards!

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

 

Making our way to Queenstown 

With Donna behind the wheel late that afternoon, we drove south without a clear destination in mind.  After a few hours we made it to Kaikoura and along the way we were treated to a gorgeous coastline that in many places was a brilliant aqua color and groomed by light offshore winds.  We passed many surf spots along the way, but there was absolutely no swell in the water, it was Lake Pacific.  Kaikoura was a sleepy beachside town and thus fish-n’-chips was our call for dinner and it was a delicious experience.   During the meal we discussed where we wanted to end up that evening and after some Google-ing we decided that a small town called Hanmer Springs would be worth checking out the next day, where we could do some mountain biking in the forests surrounding the town and then afterward soak our bones in the hot spring park.  The drive was long and we took an inland scenic route that afforded great vistas as the sun was setting.  I snapped a few pics of cute lambs too and by just after 9pm we made it to our campervan park and relaxed. 

In Hanmer Springs the next morning we rented bikes and contemplated which trails we’d want to find and ride.  The mountain bike shop offered a package that included a van ride to the top of the mountain behind town and then you’d get to ride back down to Hamner; it seemed like a great ride but was way overpriced, so we decided we’d just ride up and down ourselves!  A gruelling 8km climb of over 2,000 feet on a dirt road brought us to the high country behind the Hamner Range where we followed a road along the Clarence River until we forked off to descend back into Hamner.  The trail ride down on yet another logging road was not that awesome; Donna and I had clearly been spoiled by the awesome tracks at places like Rotorua, but it was a long ride with fantastic views of the Hanmer Valley.  Overall the ride took us just over 4 hours.  Oh, and then the hot springs awaited us and they were fantastically refreshing and relaxing.  I even snuck a ride on the waterslide!

We spent the rest of the afternoon continuing south and we freedom camped at a random site along the road.  It was a quiet place by a river, but both Donna and I got a little eaten by mosquitos in the short time we spent outside.  Amazingly, this was our first and only encounter with man-eating insects in New Zealand; they are usually not something to be concerned about.

We completed the final leg of our drive to Queenstown that Friday.  We passed through more epic scenery and even passed through the pasture land where our favorite merino wool clothing, Icebreaker, comes from.  We took a break from driving at the head of Lake Tekapo and made some reservations for adventures in Queenstown: rafting, mountain biking, and ATV riding.  One trick we learned was to check www.bookme.co.nz for discounted activites; we saved a couple hundred bucks by doing this for rafting and ATV riding.   By the time we made it to Queenstown it was dusk and after a brief foray in town it started raining so we drove to a campground about 10km south of the town.  We’d been tracking the weather closely and it looked like it’d be tricky partaking in the activities we wanted to do for the next week given a few systems forecasted to be moving through, but we were optimistic for periods of favorable conditions.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

 

Milford Sound 

At the campervan park south of Queenstown it rained most of the night.  It wasn’t raining when we drove back into town to the rafting guide meeting spot, but we were informed that because of the torrential downpour the previous night, the Shotover River was too high and therefore it was unsafe to raft that day.  The normal flow for the Shotover River is about 20-30 cubic meters per second (m/s), the max flow they will still allow rafting on is about 75 cubic m/s but because of the rain the previous day the river was flowing nearly 150 cubic m/s!  We had to come up with a new plan so we hung out at one of the adventure planning stores and the friendly guides helped us figure out a plan.  We had heard that checking out the Doubtful Sound in Fjordland was a worthwhile trip, but the availability for trips to Doubtful was non-existent, so instead we booked a sea kayaking trip for the following morning in Milford Sound.  Even though Milford Sound is only about 50 miles away from Queenstown as the crow flies, to get there via car one must instead drive all the way around Lake Wakatipu to the town of Te Anau and then follow Lake Te Anau north into Fjordland, through the epic Homer Tunnel and then down into Milford Sound.  We left immediately and the entire journey took well over 4 hours, but it included spectacular scenery as we weaved through glacier carved fjord valleys.  We made frequent stops along the way to take photos and gasp at insanely high waterfalls gushing from all aspects of rock; the recent rain ensured all waterfalls were gushing near their fullest.  At one stop we also encountered a number of rather tame kea birds.  I commented to Donna after first seeing one that it looked kind of like a parrot and it turns out that these highly intelligent birds are the world’s only alpine parrot.  By the time we made it to Milford Sound it was dusk and we were lucky to secure the last two bunk spots at the Milford Lodge.  After getting settled we went on a jogging tour of Milford Sound; the area was so small that we basically checked everything out, from the airport to the docks to the expansive wetland park, within about an hour of running around.  It felt great to stretch the legs after being in the campervan for so many hours over the previous two days!

 Sea kayaking the next day was an awesome experience and the weather was perfect.  We woke early and were on the water by 8am.  Being on the water early was worthwhile because early it was completely glassy and later on during the trip a seabreeze kicked up that made the kayaking much trickier.  I brought my GoPro and snapped a bunch of pics of the tranquil setting.  Highlights included kayaking through “tree barrels” that hung over the water and seeing 2 penguins walking around that were nesting in the sound for the winter. I’d recommend the trip we did with Roscoes Sea Kayaks to anyone visiting Milford Sound.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

 

Queenstown Adventures

We drove back to Queenstown and this time took up residence in a private room at a hostel called The Southern Laughter that is very close to the main drag.  We ended up spending 3 nights in a row here and it was worth it to relax in relative luxury and be able to cook meals in the kitchen.

The next day was an epic one with fantastic blue skies.  In the morning we went rafting on the Shotover River.  The river flow had fallen to about 50 cubic m/s and the rapids were super fun.  The drive in was also very interesting and sketchy as it was a old gold mining road that was narrow and wound down along steep cliffs lacking any kind of safety guardrails.  The road was used during the big gold rush in the 1800s by thousands of prospectors seeking fortune.  Apparently the stretch of the Shotover River we were about to float down had produced more gold than just about any river in the world and our guide told us that even to this day some of his friends had found small gold nuggets while panning for gold!  The highlight of the rafting trip was a tunnel we floated through that ended in the biggest rapid of the day.  The tunnel was created by gold miners who sought to divert the entire river so they could easily get gold from the riverbed, but they miscalculated so only half the river was diverted.  At least their efforts now provide tourists like us with a novel experience!

That afternoon we went 4-wheeling in the hills overlooking Queenstown.  Donna was tickle-pink with excitement, as she always is whenever we do any type of motorsport like jet-skiing or ATVing, and she raced along the hills with a huge smile on her face the entire time.  The guide was impressed with our riding skills and took us along some more advanced tracks, where we got to speed through huge mud puddles that splashed up enormous amounts of dirty water.  The bigger the splashes we made, the more the guide was impressed.  The vistas included the spectacular range of The Incredibles, which the guide informed us was the inspiration behind the Coors Beer logo; I kind of saw what he was saying but also felt like this was a classic Kiwi joke to tell Americans. 

The next day we had scheduled a mountain biking excursion at Rabbit Ridge, which was in the Gibbston Valley near Queenstown.  We had a lot of fun biking the deserted park.  We paid for a package that included 5 rides up to the top of the park in a van, which minimized the amount we need to pedal uphill.  The trails were rather technical with lots of banked berms on steep terrain and it was good practice for improving our riding.  At one point I totally slipped out and ate crap, my first real fall of the entire trip, but luckily I rolled it out and avoided any injury beyond a few minor scrapes.  The guide also got a fantastic photo of Donna coming around a berm that I am guessing may be in their next brochure or something.  After the ride we stopped by the Gibbston Valley Winery for a tasting of their Pinot Noirs, but we didn’t really like their wines all that much, the first time I’d actually been disappointed by New Zealand wine during the entire trip. 

Back in Queenstown by early afternoon, the rain started to come down.  We fuelled up at the infamous Fergburger. Anyone who has visited Queenstown has probably checked out Fergburger and I can attest that the taste of the burger really does live up to the hype: it is super good and by far the best burger in town.  There is also always a line out the door so expect a wait!  We spent the rainy afternoon playing Blackjack at the local casino and after over 2 hours of play we wound up making about $25, which felt like a great outcome.

During some of the gaps in our time I managed to get 2 rounds of frisbee golf in.  There is an 18-hole course in Queenstown that was pretty good, weaving through a forest and with a few “ace holes” and I was stoked to get to toss a few rounds.  Donna played with me during the first round and she definitely has a natural talent for throwing discs, although I wonder if I’ll ever get her to become passionate about the sport like I am, haha.

The next day was Wednesday, November 26th.  We’d been in the South Island for well over a week at this point and we knew we need to start making our back north before too long, but there was still one more major adventure to be had in Queenstown.  When we arrived, I challenged Donna that if she wanted to try either bungy jumping or skydiving I’d happily pay for it, my thinking being that given her inability to jump off a 20 foot high rock into the sea back in Cabo a few years back, that the likelihood of her wanted to do either of those former activities was pretty low.  But I wanted to encourage her risk taking side and I was stoked when we woke up that morning and she said she wanted to go bungy jumping!  In the Queenstown area there are several bungy jumps to do, but my philosophy is “go big or go home”, so there was no doubt in my mind that we’d have to do the Nevis Bungy, which at 134m is one of the top 10 highest in the world.  There was nervous excitement for both of us as the time for our jumps approached but in the end we both charged out there for the most thrilling 10 seconds of our entire trip.  The photos and videos speak for themselves!

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!) 

VIDEOS OF THE BUNGEE JUMPS

DONNA — we bought this one from the bungy company

http://www.youtube.com/AxL2FqLqFIA

BRANDON — self made from his GoPro camera

http://www.youtube.com/prSUO3iEIPs

 

 

Wanaka 

We had heard from multiple people that Wanaka was their favorite town and definitely worth checking out, so after the buzz from bungy jumping wore off, plus another round of Fergburgers, we made our way to Wanaka.  We arrived late in the afternoon and found a campervan site using the ever convenient NZ Campervan app.

The next morning we went and played the Wanaka golf golf course in Lisborn , which was brand new and I had learned about from a posting I found at the start of the Queenstown disc golf course.  The course was rather boring as it mostly covered treeless, hilly terrain, but it was kind of fun for its simplicity and I took down a solid 3-under par.

Afterward I rented a mountain bike in order to check out the Wanaka’s Sticky Forest mountain bike trail network.  Donna wasn’t feeling well, so she opted to stay in town and work on a blog post while I checked rode.   Overall I was impressed with the trails and spent a solid 3 hours exploring Sticky Forest.  There was some very advanced riding to be had and I found two runs that had awesome medium sized jumps that gave me a good thrill.  I came back thoroughly exhausted, but our plan was to start driving north so we left Wanaka after I returned the bike.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!) 

 

Driving North 

Based on conversations we’d had with a number of people while in Queenstown, we decided we wanted to check out Able Tasman National Park, which was way up on the northwest tip of the South Island.  This meant we needed to really get moving and drive well over 1,000kms from Wanaka along the west coast in order to get to the park and still make our ferry ride back to the North Island.  We wouldn’t have much time to do any real sight-seeing, but we hoped the views from the road would be as spectacular as people had said.

From Wanaka we ended up making it to about 30 miles south of the Fox Glacier before we ran out of light and found a campervan park to spend the night in.  The next morning we decided to check out the Fox Glacier, which was a short drive off the main road and then about a 30-minute hike to an overlook where the glacier terminated in a spiky mess of calving ice.  I think this was my first time seeing a glacier like this and it was impressive, and even more so when one considered that the entire huge valley we were in was carved by the slow moving ice.  The Glacier has been retreating quicker every decade since measurements had begun in the mid 1800s; in general the world’s glaciers seem to be humanity’s most stark reminder that climate change is happening.

From the Fox Glacier we pretty much bee-lined straight up to Able Tasman in an epic 8 hour drive.  The weather was somewhat cloudy and gloomy for most of the ride, which is actually fairly common for the area given the west side of the South Island consistently receives more rainfall that just about anyplace in the world.  We did stop for dinner in a small town called Murchison where I had one of those classic “it’s a small world” moments when I saw two lady kayak guides at the restaurant we had just walked into.  I was curious about what kind of rafting was in the area so I struck up a conversation and it turned out that these two girls knew a friend of mine from the U.K., Sara James, who had come through New Zealand a year and a half prior for a few months of kayaking.  I sent the picture I took with Sophia and Meg to Sara and she was stoked!  Once at Able Tasman we stayed in campervan park right on the beach and got a good nights rest in preparation for the long hike we planned to do the next day.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!) 

 

Able Tasman

The Able Tasman National Park contains another one of New Zealand’s “Great Treks”.  The park butts up against the Tasman Bay and is known for gorgeous white, sandy beaches and aqua blue water.  The hiking trail runs along the coast from the hamlet of Marahau in the south to about Wainui Bay in the north with a total length of about 50 kilometers that would take 2 or 3 days to hike in its entirety.  The following day we needed to catch the early ferry from Picton to the North Island, so we’d only be able to complete one stretch of the trail, but this wasn’t a problem because water taxis run to ferry people to and from pretty much any point along the trail where they need to go.  So we signed up to be dropped off near Bark Bay and planned to hike about 20 kilometers back to Marahau.  Compared to the gruelling Tangiriro Alpine Crossing, hiking in Able Tasman was a pleasant walk in the park.  The views were gorgeous and the beaches amazing and we were able to shave off 5 kilometers of the hike by taking a shortcut afforded us due to an unusually low tide.  Along the trail about every 100 meters or so we would see an animal trap designed to catch sloats or possums; these invasive species would devastate the indigenous bird’s nest’s and so conservation groups in New Zealand work tirelessly to try to remove the predators in order to induce the native birds to return o the mainland bush from the coastal islands where they only live now.

After the hike Donna enjoyed a glass of cider and myself a refreshing beer.  We were actually fairly tired after the hike, I guess we were working harder than we realized as Donna set a furiously fast pace.  We drove towards Picton and stayed one last night at a campervan site on the way.   The next morning we quickly made it to Picton and onto the ferry back to the North Island.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

THE END

 

And with that our New Zealand adventure quickly came to a close.  Back on the North Island I was stoked to get at least one surf session in before we caught a plane back to SF.

 

WE WILL BE BACK TO NEW ZEALAND, IT IS THE MOST AMAZING COUNTRY WE’VE BEEN TO.  EVERYONE SHOULD CHECK IT OUT FOR THEMSELVES !!!   And we hope that by reading our blog posts about New Zealand, you can learn from our experience and craft your own epic adventure!

 

Categories: Able Tasman, Marlborough, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Wanaka | 4 Comments

New Zealand, Part 2: The North Island

 

For much of November 2014 Donna and I were two adventurous and outdoors minded people living out of a van with 54,000 miles of New Zealand’s two lane roads ready to take us wherever we thought fun and excitement awaited.   We didn’t have a concrete plan because we thought a stiff itinerary would stifle us. Instead we had a rough idea that we wanted to mountain bike in as many places as possible while driving from Auckland to Queenstown and back. Of course we also knew that there would be much more than just mountain biking to do and part of the fun of each evening in the van was planning the next day’s route and adventure. I have to praise technology for making everything so easy: on our phones we had GPS + Google maps to ensure we’d never get lost, we had the Camper NZ app to ensure we’d find a campsite to safely park the van, we had the Internet to discover activities, locations, and for checking weather, and we could always use the local phone number to call business owners and inquire about when conditions would be best for their adventure offering. Some of our best recommendations actually came the old fashioned way, by talking to locals and fellow travelers about the awesome stuff they’d done. Below I describe the week or so of our travels through New Zealand’s North Island in the small campervan Donna described so well in our previous post.

 

Our route through the North Island

Our route through the North Island

Matamata

 

We left Auckland on a Monday afternoon after obtaining the campervan and picking up a few items downtown. While in Auckland I had at first imagined heading to the tip of Northland in order to surf a large incoming SW swell at the right points of Shipwreck Bay, but at the last minute scrubbed that plan as the incoming swell would be ripped apart by onshore winds from the very storm responsible for the waves. A second idea was to head to Coromandel for gorgeous beaches and mountain biking, but upon talking to a bike rental shop in that area, he recommended to me that the best mountain biking in the North Island was in a place called Rotorua. Donna’s ears perked up upon hearing this and so we decided to head southeast toward Rotorua.

 

After a few hours we found ourselves in the hamlet of Matamata. Being our first day on the road we desired to find a place to park the van before it was dark and so Donna fired up the NZ Camper app and found a place nearby. On our drive through town we saw a very hobbit-like building with a sign reading “Hobbiton Tours” and so it was that we’d struck upon our first activity for the road trip: a tour of The Shire setting Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie trilogies.

north island-1

This very obvious building in Matamata perked my interest that we may be close to The Shire.

 

The tour seemed pricey at NZD 75 each, but it was worth it. The clouds parted during our tour, which made for nice photos, and it was a hoot checking out how intricately the Hobbiton set had been created. Plus it was pretty cool to randomly post onto social media a few pictures of ourselves in such a recognizable location. My roommate Trevor identified The Shire location within seconds of seeing the photo.

 

Donna and I posing in front of a Hobbit hole.

Donna and I posing in front of a Hobbit hole.

Hobbiton, straight from the movies!

Hobbiton, straight from the movies!

The site of Hobbiton is on the Alexander's Farm.  This is pretty much a sheep paradise!

The site of Hobbiton is on the Alexander’s Farm. This is pretty much a sheep paradise!

In the Green Dragon Tavern I sampled both the Hobbit Stout and the Hobbit Ale, double fisting

In the Green Dragon Tavern I sampled both the Hobbit Stout and the Hobbit Ale, double fisting

Posing in front of the hobbit lake and Green Dragon Tavern

Posing in front of the hobbit lake and Green Dragon Tavern

When Donna is really happy, she does cartwheels!

When Donna is really happy, she does cartwheels!

Rotorua

 

After the Hobbiton tour we drove straight to the mountain bike park near Rotorua. We were not disappointed, this was by far the best mountain bike park I’d ever been to and overall Donna and I agreed it was our favorite in all of we visited in New Zealand. The cost was only 45 NZD for each of us to rent full suspension bikes for a half day. The shop owner gave us a map and showed us few good routes through the park, explaining that each trail was marked as one-way, either up-hill or downhill, so that you are assured never to have to deal with oncoming traffic. I wonder why I haven’t seen this anywhere in the US?!  The trails flowed wonderfully though the Whakarewarewa Forest of mixed of fern and pine groves. Dirt logging roads often made for easy ascents. We biked hard for several hours and returned exhausted but stoked.

At first Donna was abhorred that logging was so prevalent in the pine forests we saw while mountain biking in Rotorua and throughout New Zealand. But to our surprise we learned pine trees are in fact an invasive species in New Zealand, introduced in the time of English colonization because pine trees grow quickly and are perfect for harvesting wood for construction.   The invasiveness of the pines means that to the Kiwis it is not so sad that large swaths of pine forests are routinely planted and cut down in a largely sustainable forestry industry. The forests native to New Zealand look different: there are no pine trees and instead you’ll see a more Jurassic looking fauna dominated by ferns and more twisted, smaller trees. In some places you can find a dramatic line of demarcation where a pine tree grove meets a native forest, both seemingly edging out the other for dominance. In other locations naturalists even poison pine trees in an attempt to rid restore the land to its original state! Once we learned this we were less alarmed by the logging, athough for us it was still hard not to be sad when seeing land scarred by cut down pine forests.

Pine tree logging in New Zealand is not viewed as too environmentally unsound since pine trees are an invasive species, but nonetheless leaves the land looking scarred

Pine tree logging in New Zealand is not viewed as too environmentally unsound since pine trees are an invasive species, but nonetheless leaves the land looking scarred

At a great lookout point in the Rotorua Mountain Bike Park.  Lake Rotorua and the town are in the background.

At a great lookout point in the Rotorua Mountain Bike Park. Lake Rotorua and the town are in the background.

 

At a coffee shop in town the next day saw a painting of a beautiful lake and learned from an employee that this was Lake Tarawera and that it was nearby. In this way we decided to set off on a drive to find Lake Tarawera, and we also found two other beautiful lakes, called the Green and Blue lakes. At some point I learned of the Tarawera Waterfall and I became intrigued so Donna and I decided to check that out too. To get to the waterfall we had to drive to the small town of Karewua and then the next morning drive into the national forest and to do a short hike to the falls. The site of the waterfall is a sacred place to the Maori people, who were especially fascinated by the waterfall eminating directly from the side of the large rocks.  This is caused by underground lava flows having carved tunnels that the stream descends into just before coming to the rock ledge.

Donna and I selfie overlooking the Blue Lake

Donna and I selfie overlooking the Blue Lake

 

Balancing on the shore of the Blue Lake

Balancing on the shore of the Blue Lake

Donna in front of Tarawera Falls

Donna in front of Tarawera Falls

Lake Tarawera

Lake Tarawera

After the waterfall hike we couldn’t resist the temptation to go for another half day in Rotorua’s mountain bike park. It was so fun! Immediately after finishing the ride we hit the road towards our next destination.

 

Tongariro Crossing

 

The next adventure we set out for ourselves was to make the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  I first heard about the trek at Hobbiton, where it was pointed out that the alpine landscape of Tongagiro National Park was used in Lord of the Rings as the backdrop for the evil land of Mordor. Later I found out the trek is one of New Zealands 7 “Great Hikes”: read about them all here at this link.   The single day Tongariro hike is a 20km route that weaves up, over and between volcanic peaks in an alpine environment. As the highest part of the North Island the vistas are awesome and you encounter unique sulfuric lakes that are a brilliant blue color as well as areas of active volcanic acitivity.   We linked up with a tour bus company that dropped us at the foot of the trail and picked us up 7 hours later after we made the crossing. The weather was far from perfect as it started off cloudy and with strong, icy winds just before we passed the highest point.  Fortunately, things cleared up as soon as we arrived to the lakes and for the second half the weather was mild and pleasant as we descended from the alpine into the temperate forest below. The tour operated told us we had actually been lucky with the weather, as few had made the cross the past 5 days due to snow and bad conditions. We were stoked!

During the ascent it was windy and there was poor visibility

During the ascent it was windy and there was poor visibility

The sulfuric lakes were a brilliant blue/green color.

The sulfuric lakes were a brilliant blue/green color.

We love alpine environements!

We love alpine environements!

The vista on the descent was fantastic

The vista on the descent was fantastic

This is just before the fog cleared

This is just before the fog cleared… we were lucky that it did, as it revealed the fantastic scenery

From the highest point

Panoramic vista of the red crater

Areas of the mountain harbor active volcanic vents

Areas of the mountain harbor active volcanic vents

 

After the hike we treated ourselves to our first night in a hotel, where we took long, hot showers, and relaxed after a long day. Donna made friends with Queenie, the resident mouse-killer of the hotel, while I had a beer at the local pub where I learned more about New Zealand from the owner and bartender.

When Donna first met Queenie while we were sizing for boots to rent for the Crossing

When Donna first met Queenie while we were sizing for boots to rent for the Crossing

Donna and Queenie getting along well

Donna and Queenie getting along well

 

Wellington

 

By this point we were four days into our road trip and we’d only made it half way down the North Island, so it was time to make some way south. That morning during breakfast Donna and I met two ladies our age, one from Norway and the other from Spain, who were trying to catch a bus that day to Wellington in hopes of catching the Rugby League Final* that night, with Australia challenging New Zealand for the title. Donna’s friend Prashant encouraged us to check a game out and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, so we came up with our next plan: drive down to Wellington to watch our first rugby game.

 

Nice sheep-y landscape on the drive from National Park to Wellington

Nice sheep-y landscape on the drive from National Park to Wellington

Everything worked out perfectly. As soon as Donna and I showed up we drove straight to the stadium and bought our tickets. Once in town we found a campervan park, literally right in the downtown waterfront area – only in New Zealand! We explored the downtown scene a little then headed to the game. The pre-game show included the Kiwis doing a Haka dance, which is a Maori war chant meant to instill fear into the Kangaroos. The game itself was fast-paced and we were both amazed with what momentum the players would hurl themselves with at one another.   In an exciting game that came down the last minute, the Kiwis won! So we headed back into town with the crowd and checked out a few bars before calling it a successful night of New Zealand culture.

 

Just after we bought our tickets for the Rugby League Finals.

Just after we bought our tickets for the Rugby League Finals.

 

Wellington reminded me of SF, with a reminiscent downtown are just adjacent to a beautiful Bay.

Wellington reminded me of SF, with a reminiscent downtown are just adjacent to a beautiful Bay.

 

Hordes of Kiwi Fans heading to the rugby match.

Hordes of Kiwi Fans heading to the rugby match.

It was impressive checking out how fast these guys collided with one another, not even wearing any pads

It was impressive checking out how fast these guys collided with one another, not even wearing any pads

Stoked that the Kiwis won!

Stoked that the Kiwis won!

The next morning before heading out to wine country, we grabbed fresh produce at the Wellington farmer's market.

The next morning before heading out to wine country, we grabbed fresh produce at the Wellington farmer’s market.

This Sea Shepard boat was parked in Wellington Harbor. We talked to a crew member who told us their most potent weapon against the Japanese whalers was hurling rotten butter onto the poacher's ships

This Sea Shepard boat was parked in Wellington Harbor. We talked to a crew member who told us their most potent weapon against the Japanese whalers was hurling rotten butter onto the poacher’s ships

Martinborough

 

While in Wellington we purchased a ferry ticket to take the van and ourselves to the South Island. However, our ticket was for Monday afternoon, so we had a day to kill, so we decided to head to the North Island’s premier Sauvignon Blanc wine country.   We learned that there would be a wine tasting festival in a famous wine town called Martinborough, only about 2 hours drive from Wellington. When we arrived we saw that the event was clearly awesome, the weather was nice and everyone was dressed up for wine tasting with buses to shuttle people to the various wineries. However, Donna felt the price was too high at NZD 75 just to attend, plus at least another NZD 100 more in “tasting tickets”, so instead Donna led us off to visit a few wineries in the nearby town of Masterton instead.  Near Masterton we found 2 quaint wineries: Gladstone Vineyards and Johner Estate. The experience at these wineries was better for us because not only were they completely, but also in both cases we had the undivided attention of the wine representative who enthusiastically took us through any wines we wanted to taste from their winery. We walked away a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Gladstone and a Pinot Noir from Johner, both of which we drank in the van through during the road trip.

 

Fantastic New Zealand wine country: Martinborough & Masterton

Fantastic New Zealand wine country: Martinborough & Masterton

Gladstone Vineyard

Gladstone Vineyard

In front of the vines at Johner Estate

In front of the vines at Johner Estate

That evening we pulled into a freedom campsite at a park in Carterton. We walked around the large lake and observed a huge variety of waterfowl, including white swans, black swans (yes, they exist!), ducks, and various types of ugly geese. The next morning while we made breakfast we fed the ducks and I got some cute photos Donna feeding a mother duck and her four ducklings – so precious!

 

Swan mother with 3 chicks on her back in the pond

Swan mother with 3 chicks on her back in the pond

Big time duck feeding went down this morning.  Donna couldn't resist the cuteness.

Big time duck feeding went down this morning. Donna couldn’t resist the cuteness.

Duckling shot #1

Duckling shot #1

Duckling shot #2

Duckling shot #2

A baby ... something ... that we found in the grass

A baby … something … that we found in the grass

After the duck-feeding morning, we drove back to Wellington and drove our campervan onto the Ferry to Picton. For our small van plus us to cross to the South Island with us cost about NZD 250. The Ferry ride was on an overcast morning but I enjoyed a breakfast IPA and couldn’t keep my eyes off the scenery as we we glided through the Sounds towards the more spectacular of the islands of Aotearoa.

Looking towards Wellington over the stern of the large ferry that brought us and our campervan to the South Island

Looking towards Wellington over the stern of the large ferry that brought us and our campervan to the South Island

Double Hopped IPA for the ferry ride

Double Hopped IPA for the ferry ride

Gliding into the Sounds near Picton

Gliding into the Sounds near Picton

 

Raglan

 

At this point in the narrative, I’ll skip over all of the South Island, which will be covered in the next post, but in keeping with this being the “North Island” post, I will pick up once we returned to the North Island after spending nearly 2 weeks on the South Island.   We were back on the North Island for less than 48 hours, needing to drive back north to Auckland in order to return the van and catch a flight to San Francisco.

 

Epic rainbow (with a hint of double rainbow in the upper left) that we found during our long drive north from Wellington to Raglan

Awesomely brilliant rainbow (with a hint of double rainbow in the upper left) that we found during our long drive north from Wellington to Raglan

Nearing the last day of our New Zealand trip I still hadn’t surfed, but I finally saw a good window of weather and swell for New Zealand’s most famous break, Raglan. For pretty much the entire time we were on the road, New Zealand was in a weather pattern that would see a low sweep to the NW across both islands, dropping inches of precipitation and bringing strong SW winds, so that most any west coast spot would be blown out. After the storm and rain we would see a day or two of decent weather before the next system moved in. Meanwhile late spring is the worst season for east coast waves as there were no storms below Fiji, in the Coral Sea or in the Pacific west of New Zealand.   The window of good surf I saw meant I’d be surfing in the morning and heading to the airport that afternoon and I was stoked of the idea of leaving on a high note.

 

We crossed from the South Island back to the north island and spent all day driving straight north to Raglan. We parked our campervan for its final stop right in town and spent the early morning packing all our gear and cleaning the van in preparation for leaving that afternoon. On the way to Raglan I stopped by a surf shop and rented a fun looking fish and a wetsuit. We pulled off onto the first vista and I had my first view of the perfect point-break setup that produces such good waves at Raglan. I could see surfers dotting the lineups from Manu Bay all the way and well over a mile though Indicators.

Looking over the entirety of Raglan.  Manu Bay is the first point and then there are several more as you continue west

Looking over the entirety of Raglan. Manu Bay is the first point and then there are several more as you continue west

 

Because I didn’t have much time I just opted for the easiest to find but also most crowded lineup at Manu Bay. Donna was happy to be by the beach and took a few photos with my big SLR camera. The weather was bring and sunny and the waves were small and eventually blown out, but still I got some fun, long rides.

 

Suiting up for a surf!

Suiting up for a surf!

It was crowded and required some aggressive surfing

It was crowded and required some aggressive surfing

Fun cutback

Fun cutback

Down the line way on the inside

Down the line way on the inside

 

We drove back to Auckland, dropped the van off and got a ride to the airport. With that our epic New Zealand road trip was over … but you haven’t heard many of the best parts yet, so stay tuned for the real meat of our adventure: The South Island and Queenstown!

Categories: Martinborough, National Park, New Zealand, Rotorua, Wellington | 2 Comments

New Zealand, Part 1

Auckland

Brandon and I arrived in Auckland on November 7th to begin our last adventure traveling together before we move to France in January. We agreed to go big in New Zealand for the next four weeks, and aside from our “budget” campervan, we followed through with that promise.

Brandon and I spent the first 4 days in the trendy Ponsonby area in Auckland to tour around the country’s largest city by population and roughly sketch out our plan to tour the rest of NZ. NZ has a total population of about 4.5 million and about 1.5 million are living in Auckland. The number of sheep in NZ, on the other hand, tops over 60 million – approximately 13 to 1. One would think that wool is NZ’s greatest export, but it’s actually dairy! As we witnessed firsthand while driving some 5,000 kilometers throughout the country, the livestock in NZ live happy lives in large green pastures they can roam freely. I can’t help but share these stats because we had just come from Shanghai (city population 24 million) and Singapore (city population 5.5 million). Compare NZ’s landmass of 100,000 square miles to Singapore’s of 277 square miles, it was like night and day to what we experienced a few short weeks ago.

 

NZ aukland and campervan-1

Prashant and me jumping for the camera to capture an INSEAD moment in Auckland!

 

View of Auckland

View of Auckland

 

NZ aukland and campervan-3

Marina in Auckland near the location of the America’s Cup in 2000 and 2003.  Some big nice yachts in there!

 

NZ aukland and campervan-4

Another part of the marina housed some beautiful sailing yachts … these are more Brandon and my style!

 

 

In early October, while spending some time in San Francisco, I was able to meet the only classmate going to INSEAD from New Zealand as he just happened to be passing through the city before embarking on an epic road-trip around the US. His name was Prashant. It was over dinner in the Mission with Prashant and a few other INSEAD classmates that we planned to meet up again a month later in Auckland, where Brandon and I didn’t know anyone. How lucky is that?? Call me biased, but INSEAD is proving to admit very personable, friendly, intelligent, fun and sharp candidates from around the world. 😉

 

Brandon and I met up with Prashant on our second day in Auckland where we went on a tour to check out the views from various vista points around the city. It was absolutely beautiful. We took an obligatory INSEAD moments photo to let our class know that there were at least two of us celebrating our pre-INSEAD days in NZ! Prashant also brought us to a marina that held some incredible yachts and sailboats docked in the same location that had been the center of the 2000 and 2003 America’s Cup races. Later we stopped off along a beach to have a couple of drinks and to enjoy our first (of many) NZ burgers. I was pretty quickly falling in love with NZ. We had a great time with Prashant and learned a ton about NZ. He left us with many ideas of things to do and must-see places both in Auckland and around NZ. I’m still trying to convince him to start the program in France, but unfortunately my time is running short and I may just have to wait until Brandon and I move to Singapore the second half of next year.

That night, Brandon and I walked over to the Sky Tower in the center of Auckland to check out sunset views over the cityscape. We topped off the night with about as romantic a dinner as I could ever squeeze out of Brandon, a bottle of wine with an amazing meal on a slowly spinning platform overlooking the city. Many brownie points were earned that evening (thanks for the rec Prashant!!).

 

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Dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of the SkyTower overlooking Auckland!

 

 

Life in a Campervan

 

The next day, it was time to pick up our campervan, which would act as both our transportation and home for many nights around New Zealand. We settled on a budget that would cost ~$1,150 for 23 days, including unlimited mileage. It was a cozy, trusty, eye-sore of a vehicle which we would come to love. It had a huge sticker of an Australian rugby player, obvious due to the yellow shirt and green trousers, stuck to its side which more than once arose the playful contempt of the Kiwis. The van was minimally stocked with sheets, pans, plates and few other essentials. When I say cozy, I mean it was a tight squeeze for us both to sleep in the back … when we put the cushions down, only one of us could comfortably lie on our backs, while the other would have to sacrifice and sleep on his/her shoulder until the other was ready to flip onto his/her side. After the first few nights, we grew accustomed to sleeping in the van and it became natural and surprisingly, comfortable. This would be a first for us – living out of a minivan on the road for over 3 weeks. The best part of living out of a campervan was the freedom that it afforded us; we woke up in a different part of NZ every morning until we reached Queenstown.

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Our home on wheels – the Amazing Campervan!

 

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Roadtripping to Milford Sound in the camper van!

 

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GoPro selfie during a stretch of the NZ drive!

 

Seeing that many visitors in NZ choose to roadtrip around the two islands via car or campervan, NZ has made roadtripping very easy and convenient. Brandon downloaded a Camping NZ app to his phone, which gave us all the information we needed to find a place to park our van and crash every night no matter where in NZ we were. The campsites ranged from full service motels offering basic private rooms for about ~$80 to so-called “freedom camping” sites that were more like free picnic sites on the side of the road. Most nights, Brandon and I posted up on what they call “unpowered vehicle sites”, which simply meant we paid for a flat square patch of grass to sleep in our van. The price for the night ranged from $20 – $40 per night, which gave us access to a communal kitchen, bathroom and hot showers. A handful of nights, mainly when Brandon and I thought one more elbow to the face might cause a physical fight between us, we decided to get a small motel room for a few more inches of sleeping space. A couple of times we also chose to “freedom camp”, but this was a little risky in our budget campervan because in order to legally freedom camp one is required to have a “self-contained” sticker on your vehicle, which certifies that you have a working toilet on board. Overall, after experiencing campervan roadtripping around NZ, I can vouch that traveling by campervan is a great way to see NZ; the roads are great and there are campsites/motels every few kilometers along most roads and anyplace remotely frequently by travelers.

Many mornings we made our own breakfasts directly from the back of the van or kitchen (if the campsites provided one) and enjoyed a cup of coffee together to kickstart our day. Brandon learned to master the art of on-the-road gourmet coffee using his Jetboil plus its handy plunger press accessory. Our meals were basic: scrambled cheesy eggs with veggies and toast or oatmeal with local honey and bananas. I have learned to love camping for the way it temporarily strips complexity from daily life: cooking basic meals with your partner, enjoying the art of conversing without distractions from the internet or TV and sleeping as much as you want!

 

 

 

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Enjoying one of Brandon’s morning brews from our freedom camping site!

 

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Breakfast of champions from the back of the van!

 

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Living the good life from our camper van!

 

On our first night with the campervan after departing from Auckland, we pulled into a small museum’s parking lot, which allowed campers to crash overnight. Brandon and I were hunched over trying to pull the sheets over the seat cushions while swatting flies off our legs to make our bed for the night. Not even 10 minutes later, a McMansion on wheels decided to drive in and park right next to us! The Britz was a luxury self-contained mobile home with the bed on the roof, stovetop and microwave, power outlets, a bathroom, and even a primitive shower. This thing was fully stocked, putting our little guy to shame! What our guy had was character, 340,000 km of experience on the NZ roads and most importantly us, so after a good laugh and a hint of jealousy, we settled into our sleeping bags and crashed for the night.  Later on we couldn’t resist the temptation to analyze the pros and cons of our budget campervan decision against the other, more luxurious campervan options. It turns out that a decent motorhome like the Britz would run more like $150+ per day in the high summer seasons versus the $50 we were paying. A bigger campervan would comfortably sleep 3 or maybe 4 adults.   You’d get the option to save some money by freedom camping (legally), but my guess is most nights you’d still end up at a campground and thus paying $30-50 per night for a powered site. Also, gas would cost more and the vehicle itself would be slower and less maneuverable to drive, which is an important consideration in the harsh and windy road conditions that NZ can present. In the end we were happy with our decision to go budget for the two of us on this trip. Doing so incentivized us to spend more time away from our van to explore the beautiful country and the extra money spent on the luxury of a big van would’ve been wasted. If we come back to tour NZ with other people or a family, the bigger campervans will make much more sense.

 

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We took turns driving, here is Brandon doing his thing…

 

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… and here I am putting some KMs on the van!

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Our sleeping area in the van was overly comfy, but we learned to love it. And those Curtains!

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Brandon drinking a local brew one fine evening in the van

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After picking up some tasty sauvignon blanc in wine country, we got to enjoy it in the van

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At another freedom campsite we had some pleasant morning company in 4 ducklings that were eager for my bread gifts

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I included this pic because who doesn’t want to see baby swans on their momma’s back!

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Just us and one “self-contained” motorhome freedom camping somewhere in the South Island

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Our campsite lakeside near Queenstown

 

The next few posts will chronicle our adventures around the North and South Islands of NZ !!

Categories: Auckland, New Zealand | 2 Comments

Visiting an old friend in Brisbane

Brisbane

 

After our brief Singapore stopover for INSEAD’s Admit Day, Donna and I caught a flight to Brisbane in order to pay a visit to my longtime friend, Kevin Sevilla, and his girlfriend, Andrea. Kevin and I go way back to middle school days and as soon as I heard about him moving to Brisbane for postdoc work in Engineering Education with Andrea, who is also a PhD in the same field, I knew that I’d have to pay them a visit. Kevin and Andrea went out of their way to roll out the red carpet for Donna and I, taking nearly the entire week off of work to show us around, donating their bedroom for us to sleep in, and opening up many awesome bottles from their wine collection for all of us to enjoy. It was a lesson in hospitality that I hope to have the honor of returning to them someday!

Our stay was only four days, but we packed a lot into the short time. Immediately upon arrival on Monday morning we went on a walking tour of the riverfront area of Brisbane and had a quality champagne lunch. Over the last couple of years Kevin’s sophistication has grown and it is clear that he knows how to enjoy the finer things in life. I was glad that he would always know what wine to order at restaurants and which cafes to grab a coffee; I was never disappointed with what I tasted!

 

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Champagne lunch along the Brisbane River

 

The following day was more of checking out Brisbane. The Kentucky Derby of Down-Under, known as the Marlborough Cup, was being run that day so the girls donned derby bows in their hair and we ended up watching the race at the Brisbane Casino.   Afterwards we meandered the streets and found ourselves at a bowling alley where Donna utterly schooled me, including finishing her round with a Turkey – that’s 3 strikes in a row. I had no clue she had those bowling skills and will have to practice more in order to compete with her. We finished the day with a free ride on the Brisbane River public boat ferry, sampling a drink or two more on the way home.

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The ladies all dolled up for the Marlborough Cup

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Donna on her way to bowling a Turkey to finish her game.

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The score card. She crushed me by 56 points!

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Kevin and Andrea, surrounded by beer and sangria — just the way we like it!

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Cool photo of the Brisbane ferris wheel. The white dot is the moon.

 

On Wednesday we planned on heading out of Brisbane. Kevin left it to me to decide where to go and although I had hoped to check out the surfing mecca of the Gold Coast, there was no swell so the surf spots I’ve seen in magazines and videos wouldn’t have any waves. Therefore I opted to head north towards the Sunshine Coast and take in some of the less crowded Australian beaches. First we stopped to do some SUPing in Caloundra. We rented paddleboards and planned for a relaxing journey across an estuary to make get to Birbie Island, but there was a raging tidal current that we could only beat by doing some walking along sand banks that had built up in the estuary. We ended up reaching our goal and hiking across the sliver of an island to the sea; the return was super easy and quick thanks to the current being with us. After SUPing we continued driving north and stopped at Peregian Beach for some fun antics and photos. By mid afternoon we made it to the chill beach hamlet of Noosa Heads. We went for a hike around the headland and Donna and I got our first look at a Koala that was hanging out high in a eucalyptus tree. Donna immediately fell in love with the cute and cuddly looking animal!

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SUPing the estuary at Coloundra. An intense tidal current made it difficult for us to make progress towards our destination.

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After 40 minutes of paddling we thought it’d be easiest to cheat our way to the island by walking along the huge sandbars that lined the estuary.

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Goofing around at Peregian Beach

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Donna handstand

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Brandon handstand

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1st Point at Noosa Heads

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The Crew, shot #1

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The crew, shot #2

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We spotted this Koala high in his tree in the Noosa Heads National Park

 

Our last day was a highlight for Donna: checking out the Brisbane Koala Sanctuary. Donna was able to hold a Koala and we both had our first sightings of kangaroos, wallabies and many other animals unique to Australia. The bird show was especially cool and I enjoyed trying to capture images of the birds in flight.

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Donna posing with a koala at the Sanctuary. She wanted to take him home, but they wouldn’t let her.

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The granddaddy boss kangaroo in the petting area. I was surprised how tall and what big biceps these guys had!

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Lots of kangaroo feeding went down

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The ladies were super popular that day. Mainly because they had kangaroo food.

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I was popular too!

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Australian barn owl in flight

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Barking owl

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Peregrine falcon. This guy was too fast for me to get a good shot of in flight!

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We watched a demonstration of how Australian border collies herd sheep. This was one technique I didn’t realize the dogs used: climbing on top of the sheep!

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One last cute and cuddly koala shot

 

That evening was our last and Kevin was stoked that the time had come for him to drink a bunch of good wine from his collection. But first Kevin and I needed to go to his favorite bar called The Cobbler for some whiskey tasting, where we sampled some fine Tasmanian and Japanese single malts. Dinner was had from a food truck gathering right across the street from Kevin’s apartment and then we started the wine drinking. First Kevin opened two bottles of sparkling wine, one from Tasmania and the other (I think) from France (which would make it champagne), then we drank two bottles of full bodied red wine from southern Australia, and once happily buzzed we though it a good idea to finish the evening off with a fine Spanish sparkling wine. We went to bed late and had to catch a flight early the next day, but Donna and I’s slight hangovers were well worth all that tasty wine!

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The crew again, this time hanging out at Mount Coot-tha overlooking Brisbane

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The first 4 wines Kevin decided to pop open

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This particular wine is from a winery called “Scott”, so we dedicated our consumption of said wine to our good friend Scott

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Looking good and feeling good later in the night with a fine bottle of Spanish sparkling wine

 

Our stay was short and sweet and again I have to give credit and thanks to Kevin and Andrea for making everything so wonderful for Donna and I. You guys are the best!

 

 

Categories: Australia, Brisbane | Leave a comment

Weekend in Singapore

I was already super excited about INSEAD after connecting with a handful of classmates and alumni over the past few months in the US.  Then Brandon and I visited the INSEAD campus in Singapore for Welcome Day, which verified what an exciting year we have ahead! There were about 120 INSEAD’ers from my graduating class there from all over the world.  Everyone had a unique background. For example, we shared a lunch table with a classmate who was born in India but raised in Singapore and worked for a start up in South Africa. Turns out, this is a typical description for those who will be attending INSEAD!

 

INSEAD 2015D Singapore Admit Day group shot!

INSEAD 2015D Singapore Admit Day group shot!  (can you find Brandon and me)

We checked into the Residences on the Singapore campus on Halloween and began exploring Singapore, beginning with their delicious and cheap street food. Immediately after getting some sustenance, Brandon was seeking out the electronics mall (Sim Lim) to shop for camera lenses and drones. We took subways everywhere – they are clean and easy to follow in Singapore – and quickly learned that Singapore is not a place to break rules. For one, there was signage everywhere that fines of $500 – $1000 if you ate or drank in the subways! As a result, Singapore was spotless, which also made it more enjoyable for us as tourists. We called it a night relatively early since the next day would be a full day of networking and meeting my future classmates at the INSEAD Welcome Day.

Flying into Singapore, one of the largest ports in the world

Flying into Singapore, one of the largest ports in the world

Singapore has basically a semi-authortarian government, and the penalties are stiff for transgressions of their laws

Singapore has basically a semi-authortarian government, and the penalties are stiff for transgressions of their laws

 

The next morning, I made plans to finally meet JK, who was generous enough to lend me her room/apartment in Shanghai for 3 weeks this past summer after a quick WeChat conversation! Since I essentially lived her life in Shanghai, I filled her in on what she missed during her summer months in Argentina where she was learning Spanish. As suspected, she was awesome and it was great to meet her.  After JK, Brandon and I enjoyed our first coffee and then the Welcome Day kicked off with networking and more coffee (thankfully) and then a mock MBA strategy class. Unlike undergrad classes, this one kept my attention for the full 1.5 hours – hopefully all of INSEAD’s classes will follow suit! We also had a chance to hear a panel of alumni talk about their experiences at INSEAD. They unanimously agreed that one of the most beneficial aspect of the program were the people they met throughout their experience.

 

My first masters class

My first masters class

 

In front of the INSEAD Singapore campus marquee with Bryan and Mudit

In front of the INSEAD Singapore campus marquee with Bryan and Mudit

The Welcome Day wrapped up with a nice dinner before we all went out to the rooftop bar of the Marina Bay Sands, Ku De Ta. With mixed drinks priced at $24 and beers at $18, I learned how important apartment pre-parties must be at INSEAD.  Brandon also learned, the hard way, that dress codes are enforced. Unbeknownst to Brandon, Ku De Ta’s dress code did not permit slippers, which are sandals to those of us from the US. We quickly devised a plan with one of the guys from INSEAD. We would all head into the bar together, leaving Brandon outside temporarily. I would then sneak my classmate’s shoes back out of the bar in a purse, rendering him temporarily shoe-less and voila, Brandon would be let into the bar. It worked! I foresee more good friendships forming along these lines next year!

 

The nice dinner INSEAD put on for Admit day joiners.  Nick Hsu with Brandon and me

The nice dinner INSEAD put on for Admit day joiners. Nick Hsu with Brandon and me

View from the top of Marina Bay Sands at Ku De Ta overlooking the Singapore cityscape

View from the top of Marina Bay Sands at Ku De Ta overlooking the Singapore cityscape

The next day, Brandon and I were invited to play beach volleyball with one of my classmates and her friends. We ended our trip to Singapore on the beach playing volleyball and eating refreshing watermelon to cool off! Next up would be Brisbane to visit Brandon’s friends, Kevin and Andrea.

 

At the beach on Sentosa Island

At the beach on Sentosa Island

Playing some beach volleyball with new friends

Playing some beach volleyball with new friends

Categories: INSEAD, Singapore | 1 Comment

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