In hindsight, I don’t think anyone ever said taking a 6 month old on multiple plane rides was a great idea. That may have been because most people we talked to were more experienced parents than us…
Our journey to Costa Rica started weeks before we left, when we bought checked luggage. No more just carry-ons with Archer. We got to the Montrose airport 2 hours early, which turned out to be a little too early, but we were able to finagle a row to ourselves. Archer is already a pro at ~2 hour flights, and after a good inflight nap we arrived in Dallas without a hitch. After a brief fortification at the Centurion Lounge, we boarded our 4 hour flight to Costa Rica. I did my best at entertaining him prior to takeoff (this means not letting him eat until we start to take off so he can equalize his ears while eating). While playing SpaceX, Archer’s head may or may not have bounced off the ceiling of the plane, causing the flight attendant call light to come on, and eliciting an audible gasp from everyone around us. After getting over his dazing, he was ready to go again and decided to show me by wanting to “party” for the first 90 minutes of the flight. He eventually fell asleep, and we breezed into San Jose.
We landed at 9:54p and we were in a taxi with our astonishingly large amount of stuff at 10:26p. After a brief checkin we were whisked to our $113 Marriott suite, and Archer said that he was not tired and still wanted to party. After some milky he finally acquiesced to falling asleep in his Merlin Suit. He slept for 7+ hours. He hadn’t slept that long without interruption in over a month. Katy and I both checked on him in the middle of the night to make sure his not waking up was intentional.
Our first morning in Costa Rica started without an explosion or pee in the Merlin Suit!!!! Archer and I took the stroller out for a stroll to explore while Katy got some extra sleep. We had a lovely free breakfast at the hotel where Archer was the main attraction for the waitstaff and then headed out for the day.
We started with getting local SIM cards. Katy went in and purchased the Cadillac cell plan for both of us (Katy notes, “You can’t be sure what you’re getting when you only understand 60% of the conversation”). I think that we have enough cell phone data in Costa Rica for the rest of our lives!!!! Riding high on cell phone data, we headed off to coffee country. Now, I have to say that driving in Costa Rica is more like driving in Tonga than the US: you don’t get anywhere fast; people stop in the road for fun; lane markers are suggestions; and the largest vehicle has the right of way.
We had an uneventful trip to Hacienda Alsasia, Starbucks experimental coffee farm. Katy ended up ordering numerous coffees to taste and ended up with jitters so bad that she got a tummy ache. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed the coffee and generally relaxed. We thought we might go on a tour, but decided to leisurely enjoy our coffee instead.
On the way back to town we made a detour to Walmart and bought some diapers and sunscreen. Katy also stocked up on all varieties of snacks not available in the states. While she was doing that I was stocking up on overpriced subpar craft beer. We then headed back to the hotel and decided to grace the hotels outdoor terrace bar with Archer’s presence. The wind had kicked up and it was chilly enough that I put on long sleeves and Archer had a blankie. Archer wanted to play SpaceX again, and to Katy’s delight there was no a ceiling for me to hit his head into. Once even SpaceX failed to delight Archer, it was determined that it was his dinner and bedtime. While Katy put Archer to bed, I used Uber Eats to order papusas and cheese balls for dinner. We actually doubled our order just in case we wanted leftovers for our drive the next day. It really was nice to be able to have food in a hotel without paying hotel prices. We then did a little packing and headed off to bed.
We had a good couple of days in Santo. It was nice having a little more infrastructure compared to the previous week where we were void of hot water and charged most of our devices via a battery pack. Before we left our accommodations, I asked if the ATMs at the airport work, and I was told that they did. The reason that this mattered is that Vanuatu is mostly cash-based and the next island, Gaua, that we went to did not have an ATM and only had a bank that was open a few hours a week. I had about $300 in cash and wanted some more. I did not want to get too much since we only had two days after Gaua, and I wanted to avoid transaction fees transferring Vatu back to NZD or USD.
We had a very informal check-in, and I then went to use the ATM and discovered that both of them were out of service. I instantly got rather grumpy since we needed more cash, and our plane was leaving in about an hour. I walked to the only taxi there, and no one was at it. A man came up and said that he would take me, and we negotiated $9 for the return journey. The first ATM we went to was also out of service, and I ran across the street and the second one was in service, and I withdrew an additional 44,000 vatu, about $400.
I made it back to the airport in time to have a few minutes to relax before we boarded our 20 seat aircraft for the 40-minute journey to Gaua.
We were given boarding passes that had seat numbers on them, but no one followed them, so it was every man for themselves. Part of Katy’s gripe with the plane is that sealing between the Twin Otter’s door and fuselage is a loose connection, and you can see outside and sometimes feel a breeze through the gap. I think it was a perfectly acceptable airplane. Katy’s distaste of the Twin Otter was not assuaged when we lined up to land on a grass runway/soccer field in Gaua. I have to admit that the landing was smooth and a lot less bumpy than I was anticipating.
Gaua is not a heavily touristed island in Vanuatu and is part of the Banks Islands chain. Gaua is connected to the rest of Vanuatu by plane three days a week and a cargo ship about every two weeks. Tanna gets a cargo ship just about every day, Lamap/Maskelyenes get one weekly, and Lakatoro gets about two a week. There are four functioning trucks on the island, along with one broken one, and one working ATV. There is a road that goes about a third of the way around the island. The western and southwest side of the island are the real remote parts. A contingent of people from the western side went to New Zealand for a season to work and were able to purchase a boat with their earnings when they returned. This allowed them to be connected to the rest of the island by a couple hour boat ride instead of a full days walk.
We disembarked, and John from Chez Maureen Bungalows was able to find us easily since we were the only westerners on the plane. John informed us that Maureen was not there to meet us since her mother had passed away at 8pm the previous night. We then walked across the runway and down a road to the ocean and the bungalows. The bungalows were the most expensive place that we stayed at $89 per night, but we were able to use the fourth night free to get them for around $75 per night. The property was gorgeous with a lot of flowers around the two bungalows. There was not a beach, but there were hammocks, picnic tables, and snorkeling right from the property. The sandy beaches on Gaua are on the north and south side of the island, not the eastern side where we were staying.
John told us that the tradition was to have five days of mourning and then a traditional kustom ceremony and feast, all of which were happening at the property. The first day was pretty awkward. We felt out of place, there was a lot of praying and crying, a ton of people around, the hammocks and picnic tables were occupied, and no one really told us what to expect and what was going on. We were served lunch at around 1:30p and around 7pm dinner. We had just about the worse timing possible for our stay, but things happen, and I am grateful that they were still willing to have us stay during everything that was going on. We spent most of the day reading and playing games on our patio. We did go for a walk to explore the area and discovered that the president of Vanuatu was in town speaking. Since our Bislama is rather weak, we decided to not stick around for his speech. We did learn later that one thing that the president talked about was that people are not supposed to grow marijuana. One thing that we did not find were any stores that were open. We found one that was closed, and Maureen also has a store/kava bar, and that was also closed.
That night John came back and described some options for tours that were available, as he was also the guide and Maureen’s cousin. Katy asked him if it was okay to swim and use the rest of the property with everyone around, and he said yes. He also explained the funeral process and that it was going to be a multiday event. The food was a highlight on the first day. The food had a French flair and actually was well seasoning compared to a lot of the food that we have had on the trip.
Our second day in Gaua, we were treated to a lot more clouds than the first day, along with breakfast promptly at 7am. After breakfast, we went for a snorkel, but the tide was too low to pass over the reef. We then tried to find an open store on the island and failed. It is amazing how being at 16 degrees latitude the sun can make a day unbearably hot when shining or rather cold if it is hiding. Katy and I had a conversation about what we thought they did with dead bodies on an island with only solar electricity and generator power. There is no way to keep them cold. The answer is to bury them on your property like we saw in the Cook Islands. They had what sounded like a church service, and then everyone sat down while they built an elevated grave out of cinderblocks (a layer of plaster was later added). That night we had a nice big lobsters for dinner.
The next day we went for a hike to a waterfall. It was originally described to us as what we thought was the shorter and easier trek of the two main ones on the island. It was definitely a jungle walk. John used his machete a lot. The ground was uneven, and you could not see your footing a lot of the time. You also did have mystery plants, some of which stung, rubbing against your legs as you walked. There may have been bugs too. We made it about seven miles in and caught a glimpse of the waterfall and decided to head back. It was interesting to see how the island had changed over time. In the 1600s there were 25,000+ people living in the region where we were, whereas now ~1,000. That meant that there were not any really old trees since they have been cutting them down for centuries. I think it is often easy to think of remote, sparsely inhabited areas as always being that way and having ancient trees. It turns out people have been in many of these areas for a really long time and have been using the natural resources for centuries.
John said that the local story is that black magic was responsible for the decline in population, but the truth is probably that western disease from explorers was the prime culprit. The worst part of the walk was in an area that was a really large taro field up until the 1980s. The people that grew taro there moved, and the field was left to be taken over by two types of vines. One was called the American vine since it was not in Vanuatu until the US arrived there during WWII. It was just a solid mass of vines with a faint trail that involved a lot of machete swinging and avoiding tripping over the ankle level wines that escaped the machete. The areas where there were trees were a lot easier to walk because many of the vines need the sun and grew over the trees instead of through them. We got back and were thirsty and dirty. Luckily we were greeted with a cold jug of lemonade. Katy took a shower and drank the last of rum.
The next day the weather was medium, and we spent most of the day around the property, and then on Friday, I went for a hike to the volcano on the island. Katy’s jungle tolerance was maxed out, so she stayed back. I went again with John, but his son and one of his son’s friends who had never been to the volcano before came along. John’s son went to the French school on the island and understood English but did not really try to speak it. His friend spoke decent English and was interested in talking which broke up the some of the trip. They also brought their dog along who was a pet and enjoyed eating coconut.
We began Saturday by having eggs with tomatoes and onions accompanied by two hot dogs for breakfast. I would put the hot dogs closer to being spam dogs than all-beef frankfurters.
We then were ushered to a waiting vehicle to take us to water music. One thing on Gaua is that we will tell them we want to do an activity and then we are told when the activity is starting, not that water music will be at 8am. Maureen, her daughter, a Frenchman (who is possibly her husband), and another woman joined us for the truck ride there. Water music is traditional to Gaua and is created by women (men do not make water music) with their hands in the ocean to create different sounds. Sometimes singing is added into the mix.
The water music was surprisingly good, and the sounds that they made were very varied. It is rather expensive at $18 per person, but the money does go directly to a village that does not have a lot of income sources. The group that we saw was one that occasionally is sponsored for international tours but mainly performs in their village for the occasional tourist that wanders up to Gaua.
We got back to our bungalow and packed our bags. The Kustom ceremony for Maureen’s mother’s funeral started shortly after we arrived back. The ceremony was an adults-only event, and in the middle of it, her 10-year-old daughter stopped by to let us know that our flight was canceled. Since the skies were clear and blue, I was not anticipating that. With a rush of nonpositive thoughts, we trudged up to the airfield to investigate. We were having slight SIM card issues, with Katy’s provider not having service on the island, and one of the SIM cards was only working for phone calls while another worked only for data.
I could not find anything online or in my email about the flight being canceled, so we gave them a call. That is, we attempted to call Air Vanuatu, but the first two numbers listed on their website were out of service. We eventually got a human on the third call and were informed that our flight was canceled due to aircraft maintenance problems. The next flight out of the airport was not scheduled until Monday and had us getting into Port Vila at 4 pm, 40 minutes before our Fiji flight was to depart. The agent wanted our phone number and was going to look into things and then our cell phone minutes ran out, leaving the two of us a little red-faced, standing in the middle of the grass airfield, baking under the sun, wondering how we were going to get more money on our SIM card to call back. We asked some people wandering across the airfield (which also is the soccer field and the road to drive on if you want to make your truck go fast), and they pointed down the road. Alas, the store (which was actually open for the first time of the week) did not do Digicel top-ups, so the owner tried to call his son to get it done but couldn’t reach him.
We tried another store, but it was closed. Back on the airfield, I was able to figure out how to add money online. I then realized that I will probably try to do a credit card trip delay claim where you can claim $500 in expenses per person if your flight is delayed more than 6 hours, so 48-hour delays on remote islands should qualify. I trudged the 400 meters back to our bungalow and got the credit card we had we booked the flights with and used that for the top-up. I figured that the cell service is directly related to the delay, so I will submit a claim.
I was then able to talk to someone, and they rebooked us on a 5 leg itinerary to get from Gaua to Port Vila. The itinerary included one connection of 10 minutes that required switching planes and reclaiming luggage and checking back in. I guess that Air Vanuatu does not have minimum connection times for flights. I am not sure if my confidence in the flights working out was misguided, but I was feeling very confident that it would work out. The itinerary got us to Port Vila 140 minutes before our flight to New Zealand via Fiji left, and we didn’t need to check in until 60 minutes prior to departure, plenty of time.
It was then lunchtime, and we had a Caprese-ish salad. We were told earlier in the day by Maureen that we have been served less seafood than normal partly because of the weather, and it not being good conditions for diving and fishing. We then made a trip back to the airstrip to revisit the store since we had planned our snack strategy around leaving the island on Saturday, not Monday, and our stores were rather low. Unfortunately, the shop had closed for the day. We then spent a minute using the internet to take care of some urgent business like downloading more kindle books and checking email.
Maureen’s was a hub of activity during the day with the Kustom ceremony earlier in the day and a feast later in the day. We read our books, I worked on the neglected blog, and we went for a snorkel since conditions were right. We did have to swim through the 10-20 kids that were swimming in a wide array of attires near the steps to the water.
We were served a variety of local food for dinner that was cooked in their traditional below ground oven system using rocks and banana leaves. Chicken was the main dish that was served to us, and it had about 1/4 of an inch pink smoke layer.
Sunday according to Katy’s trusty Norwegian weather forecast was supposed to be miserable and rainy. We awoke at the standard 6am time to sun and few clouds in the sky. We ate breakfast and went for a morning snorkel. Maureen stopped by and asked what our flight numbers were so I gave her them. I also called Air Vanuatu to confirm our flight for the next day. They said it was a go and also sent me a confirmation email, fancy.
We then spent a minute on the airfield getting some internet on. Katy needed to update her Headspace meditation streak and log onto her word puzzle app in order to get a new badge, an animated Mer-lion (obviously it’s a very classy game). The family cleaned up the from the funeral, and one of Maureen’s daughters practiced water music with her friends. You could see one of the girls instructing the correct hand positions and movements.
Later in the day, the weather did turn nasty, but we had already had a great day with really good weather. We played some pirates and some Catan. Maureen came by with the bill which I was hoping to have enough money to cover, and I did, barely. The fee for the first five nights was 45,500 and 30,000 for the last two. Being a cash-based economy, we had 76,740 cash. Literally just enough to pay her and 1,200 in departure taxes, leaving 40 vatu or $0.37 leftover. When I pulled money out to go to Gaua, at the ATM, I was planning on just taking an additional 40,000 out, but decided on a whim to take 44,000 out. I am glad that I did.
We were instructed to be ready after breakfast the following day since reportedly they were putting on a special flight for us with only four seats so that we would make our international connection, and they did not know when that would be other than in the morning. I was rather confused on what was happening since this was not what our confirmation email said.
We got to the airport, and we were told by Maureen that plans had changed, and we were going to Sola (another island), and then on to Santo on a second plane. She then asked Katy if she could take a bag to someone who forgot it at her house during the funeral. We said sure, and then she bounced.
A plane landed, and they unloaded some people and cargo. A large part of the cargo was plastic chairs and mattresses. The airport/airline employee then told me that we were not on this flight and to wait for the second one. I was still rather confused about what was going on, but at least we now had some official directions. About 45 minutes later, another plane landed, and we were told to get on it along with a few other people. That plane then went directly to Santo, cutting out three legs of the trip. I think that they split the airplane schedule into two flights so that we would make our international connection. We had four more airplane rides over the next 24 hours and arrived back in New Plymouth.
We had a great trip, and it was great to share part of it with my parents. The trip went relatively smoothly for being 25 days long and going to really remote places for about half of the trip. It has been great being able to explore the South Pacific with a three-hour flight.
Vanuatu is an interesting country. The past week we spent on an island that is off the “tourist trail.” We left Lakatoro and headed to Espirito Santo. Santo, along with Port Vila, are the two main cities that tourists visit. Vanuatu is only a three-hour flight from New Zealand and Australia, and is often thought of similarly to how we think of beaches in Mexico, but with more expensive alcohol.
When we arrived at the Santo airport, there was someone with a sign for where we were staying, which had three rooms. I wasn’t expecting this, and I went up to ask him if it was for us (he was one of the owners), and he said that he didn’t know who it was for, but it must be for us. We took the truck ride to the accommodation and were put in a room different than we ordered, which irritated me since it was a less expensive room with fewer amenities. We eventually get moved to the bigger room, but there was a lot of confusion about our reservation. It turns out the transfer was for someone else, and he had overlooked our reservation (his wife who normally handles reservations was out of town) and assumed we were the guests booked in to the smaller room.
After unpacking, we then grabbed a taxi to head downtown, get some lunch, and some groceries. Since our accommodation was a little outside of town, it took a few minutes to get a ride, and we ended up on a “bus.” A “bus” in Vanuatu is a novel thing. It is a 12 passenger van that does not have a set route and travels wherever people want to go. If your destination is far out of the way from the other people on it, the driver will decline the ride. It costs a set price of $1.50 per person (long distances can be a little more). Before we headed back, we stopped at the market to grab a papaya for $0.50 and some coconuts (Katy’s favorite). On our ride back to town, we arranged for our cab driver to pick us up the next day to take us for a tour.
Our driver arrived a few minutes before our 9am meeting time to do a tour of a few sites on the island. One of the reasons that we selected him was that his English was good, and he agreed to what I had seen as the going rate of ~$70 for all-day use of the taxi. We first headed to Champagne Beach. Someone at CNN, who has probably never been to Vanuatu, rated Champagne Beach as the ninth-best beach in the world. The beach gets its name from gas escaping from volcanic rock at low tide causes hissing and crackles like champagne. We did not hear it on the beach, but a few areas snorkeling we heard sounds that sounded like champagne hissing. I thought the beach was crowded, as there were about 15 people on it, with a group every 20-30 yards. I guess that is pretty good for a famous beach but busier than I had grown used to in Vanuatu.
The weather was great beach weather, hot, humid, and cloud-free. We spent two hours swimming, snorkeling, and reading our books on the helix beach chairs that my parents left. We were the only people on the beach that had beach chairs, I guess that most people do not travel with them… We got back in the car, and our driver indulged our multitude of questions about life in Vanuatu. We then headed to Port Orly for lunch. Port Orly had a nice beach, but it was not protected and was really windy. We had a good lunch, that wasn’t the speediest, but was just what we needed.
We then headed to the Nando Blue Hole. Vanuatu is a country that apparently has multiple types of blue holes. They have ocean ones with amazing snorkeling and freshwater ones with super clear, albeit cold, deep blue water. During the drive to the blue hole, we passed our driver’s village and saw his family’s 52 head heard of cattle. There are several blue holes that you can visit, and they all charge between $5 and $10, so we went to the one that our driver said was the best (inevitably it was a $10 one). Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in on our way to the blue hole. When we got there, we were the only people there and were able to get some great photos before people descended into the hole. It was chilly without the sun, but we finally built up the courage to jump into the hole. It definitely was chilly, but not as cold as I was anticipating. A family event soon descended onto the hole. Like the Cook Islands, Ni-Vanus tend to wear a lot of clothes when they go swimming. Men sometimes don’t wear a shirt, but often do. Women frequently wear their entire outfit into the water, including denim. The weather did not perk up, and so we decided to head back to town. The blue hole was fun for a little and would have been more fun if it was hot, humid, and sunny outside.
We came back and had a beer and played another game of settlers. Following the game, we headed into town for dinner. It turns out that even on a Saturday most things in Santo close early. We realized that there were a couple of things that we wanted from the store for our next step, Gaua. We did a quick google search and realized that the last grocery store closes at 6 pm. We wrapped up our game and headed downtown and grabbed the last things that we wanted for the trip. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant for dinner. I was surprised at the cost of the meals, thinking that it was a little expensive at around $12 for a meal. The joke was on us since the meals were really enough food for two people.
The following morning we took a “bus” to the “hardware store wharf” to go diving. It was a little stressful since it took over 10 minutes to get a ride at 7:30 am on Sunday morning, but we eventually got one. We did two dives and were done by noon. I had told the operator that I wanted to do reef dives, not wreck dives so of course, the first dive that we did was a wreck. I thought it was a cool dive, but Katy would have preferred it to just be a reef. A slight bummer was that we went to the area that has one of the best wrecks in the world to dive, The Coolidge, and ending up diving another wreck. We then did a shallower drift reef drive to finish up the day, which Katy loved. The owner of the operation, an Australian, was a stereotypical Australian and definitely was a bit racist with a very colonial world view.
We finished up diving, grabbed lunch, and then took a taxi to Million Dollar Point. Million Dollar Point is where the US military dumped millions of dollars of equipment after WWII when the government of Vanuatu did not respond to a request about the US government selling them the equipment. When we got there, the place was deserted; normally any place that has an entrance fee has someone to collect the fee. It was windy, and the surf was pretty rough. I swam in through a bunch of murkiness and came across a ship. I then swam around and saw jeeps, trucks, forklifts, and a whole bunch of other undistinguishable things that have been on the bottom of the ocean for 70 years. Unfortunately, visibility wasn’t the best, and it was pretty rough, so Katy did not make it out very far. Eventually, someone came to collect our fee, and some more tourists came. We then spent over 20 minutes waiting for a taxi back to town and eventually one came, and it had 4 kids and a women in it already. They were just going a little further, so we jumped in the back and had an entertaining ride for a few minutes (Katy saved one of the kids from leaving her sandals in the car at the end of their ride). We then got dropped off at our accommodation, and a miscommunication between Katy and I caused us to get ripped off, but it only cost us an extra $4.
We had dinner in, eating leftover Chinese, ramen, and some other snacks that we were trying to finish up before we headed to our next stop, Gaua. Katy did do a little snorkeling right in front of where we were staying, but it was below average, and she soon came back in. While Katy was snorkeling, I was trying to swing on the swing they had in front of where we were staying, but whether there was a design flaw in the swing or I have lost some of my swinging skills with age was unclear. We turned in early that night, ready to set off for Gaua in the morning.
Our stay at the Batis Bungalows came to an end, and we began our trek to the northern city of Lakatoro in Malekula. Figuring out the transport was not easy. I tried calling and Facebook messaging several people and could not get anywhere. I attempted to go through an agency in Santo, and they were not able to get anywhere. Finally, about two weeks before we left, I was able to arrange a driver to drive us.
We left the Maskylenes on the boat, and Sethric put on a rain jacket even though the skies were clear. Well, we shortly discovered that the rain jacket was because there were 3-5 foot swells for his little aluminum boat to handle. I have to admit that the boat ride was not that comfortable being tossed around and getting my fair share of sea spray. I was slightly confused when we did not turn into the area where we had previously met the truck and continued on the boat for another 20-30 minutes. We eventually saw some buildings and passed the town of Lamap. We then pulled up to a sand split with a waiting truck and disgorged. I am not sure if we took a long boat ride and a slightly shorter truck ride because Sethric would make more money with a longer boat ride, there was a problem with the road (I read something about a road an issue), or the truck driver wanted a shorter drive.
I was pleasantly surprised when the truck was a quad cab, and we all had the privilege of sitting inside for what was deemed to be a 2-4 hour bumpy rather unpleasant truck ride. We loaded up and headed out.
We passed many small villages along the way. One interesting thing is that most of the villages had been visited by the Red Cross or USAid (in this area) with an attempt to provide drinking water. The Red Cross drilled wells and tapped springs to provide at least one water tap per town. It was interesting to see the benefit that these programs provided in real life. The clam sanctuary overseer did say that it is not without politics on where the well got placed and who got the water tap near their house.
The ride only took 2.5 hours, and it was bumpy, but not as bumpy as I anticipated. We passed a couple of “taxi trucks” and were glad that we were not one of the 10+ people in the back. Several people did try to wave down our truck for a ride, but we did not end up licking anyone else up. The driver did a friendly honk to everyone he knew, and I think that he knew most of the people on the island. One thing that I read was that in the 1600s there were a lot more people in Vanuatu than there are today. Supposedly there were about 200,000 people on Malekula which is hard to believe compared to the several thousand that are there now.
We arrived at the Lakatoro Palms a little after noon and were met by Jennifer, the host. There was a miss-communication between her and me, which resulted in only one bungalow being reserved, not two. Accommodations were at a premium because it was the middle of the Vanuatu Arts Festival. I asked Jennifer if she would be able to find a room for Katy and me to stay in, and she said that she would. We ended up next door in a transit room of the Christian bookstore. I was impressed that that was our only hiccup during our more off the beaten path adventure (I would guess that less than 100 groups of tourists make it to the Maskylenes every year, not counting boats that sail through).
We then headed off to the festival to try to grab some lunch. The Arts Festival started in 1978 and has happened roughly every ten years. The goal is to prevent Vanuatu from losing their culture, which started to happen when they modernized. Each of the six provinces sends multiple groups to perform their traditional dances. One impressive thing is that I would put the number of western tourists at the festival at less than 5% of the festival-goers. We were told that there were about 2,000 people there each day and I don’t think that there were more than 50 westerners there on a given day.
We were told there was food, and we walked past a range of stalls that were not selling food and walked to the market next door looking for food. We found a couple of stalls behind the market, selling some food and grabbed food from various vendors for $3 each. We were at the end of the lunch period, so pickings were slim, and it was not straightforward. My dad ended up with chicken, Katy fish, and my mom and I had a ground beef dish. When we went back into the festival, we discovered that the one row of huts we did not visit before leaving the grounds to look for food were the food stalls.
The day was hot, and the sun was bright, and it was humid. We went and sat under the shade of the bleachers and started to watch some of the dancing. Each group was given a time slot, but it appears that they used the schedule as a rough guideline for the performances. At first, we did not think there was a schedule, but then we saw someone with a program and we quickly acquired one for ourselves.
Before we headed back to Lakatoro Palms Bungalows for the night Katy and I made a pitstop at the store and grabbed four Tuskers, the local beer. Tucker comes in at least five varieties, lemon, regular (5%), bitter, extra malt (6%), and OP (7%) surprisingly my favorite is the OP, followed by the bitter. Many remote places will have the OP for sale and not the regular version. At the grocery store the OP costs roughly 10% more.
We headed back and put an extra coat of bug spray on and discovered that we were locked out of our bathroom in our accommodations, but still had access to the shower and sink. I then attempted to figure out my SIM card issues. My original SIM card worked on the first day, but the data stopped working after that. I then bought a second one and loses data onto it, but couldn’t get that to work. I finally got the second one to work by trying to verify the phone number with Apple and it failing, but then showed a data connection. All I know is that my SIM card frustrations were greatly reduced after that. We played a game of settlers and then went down for fish for dinner. They even had some cold beers there to refresh ourselves with.
The next morning we had breakfast consisting of freshly baked bread and papaya. One interesting thing is that Fiji and Vanuatu refer to papaya as pawpaw, which is a completely different fruit. Katy and I then started the ten minute walk down the road to the stadium. We did make a quick stop at the ”supermarket” to see if they sold beer, they did not. Most stores not on Santo or Port Vila are 70% empty shelves and 10-30% actual products. It is kind of depressing to look at. The three staples in stock at all shops are Coca-Cola, cooking oil, and canned tuna/meat.
We got seats in the stands and started to watch the exhibitions. The stands were partially facing east so we ended up on the cusp of sun and shaded seats and baked in the sun until the sun got high enough for the roof to provide shade.
It is amazing how varied the outfits and dances are among the different islands in Vanuatu. At a Hawaiian luau they sell each island country as having a distinct dancing style, but the performances we saw were as varied as a Hawaiian luau. One thing that they could do to make the event better is to have a smaller venue or allow people to get closer to the dancers. Some of the dances it was hard to really see some of the details.
After the Big Nambas finished up we headed back to Lakatoro Palms, cleaned up, and played some settlers. We had a couple Tuskers and enjoyed our last evening together.
The next morning we got already for a 630am departure to the airport, but they said the driver said not to get there that early and we had another 30 minutes to eat breakfast. Vanuatu does have a 0.5% tourism tax and in their constitution it is written that 1/3 of the tourism boards budget will be paid directly by the tax and the 2/3 provided by the general budget of the government. In addition to providing Facebook adds, it appears that they provide some training to operators with what tourists expect as part of their experience, an itemized bill, rain water or boiled water to drink, a trashcan, etc.
We headed off to the airport and had an uneventful flight on a roughly paved runway to Port Vila. We then hung out at the cafe for an hour, playing a game of settlers, before we had a flight out and my parents headed into Port Vila for one night before their flight home via Fiji.
After a truck ride to the Tanna airport, where a pilot was casually waiting for us, our transit to the Maskelynes started. We were weighed and then walked to the tarmac and were positioned in the aircraft, the smallest aircraft I have ever flown in. I was designated the copilot and told not to touch anything, with a special emphasis on the yoke and lever that controlled the fuel flow to the engines. Katy was not a happy camper at this point, which is understandable given her well-verbalized distaste of flying in commercial jets, let alone planes that they allow me to be the co-pilot of.
This is how our travel day started in Vanuatu. Our goal was to get to a small group of islands off of Malekula, another of the larger outer islands, where commercial flights only touch down on the grass airstrip twice a week. Our plan was to take an Air Taxi and then a boat ride to get there.
The first flight lasted about an hour. We flew at about 120 mph, at 2,000 feet (under the clouds where it was smooth), and used 16 gallons of fuel per hour of flight. We stopped at the main airport in Port Vila to refill fuel. Katy and Libby used that opportunity to run to the international terminal and grab a cappuccino. Katy also used the opportunity to get a coffee-flavored liqueur cordial, since flying on small planes is not something she enjoys. She had her choice of several varieties and went with the chocolate-coffee flavored one, not only because of the flavor, but because it had the highest ABV of all her choices.
We then had another 40-minute uneventful flight to Malekula. The landing was not a typical landing. Mainly due to the fact that the airport consisted of a freshly mowed grass field and a small gazebo-like building. Landing on the grass field was a little bumpy, but less rough than I anticipated. Amazingly at the small pavilion, a pickup truck was waiting, and it was our transfer. Booking travel outside of the main tourist areas in Vanuatu is a little challenging. I tried using google voice a couple of times to call ($0.78/minute) and was never able to get through to anyone. My mom was able to get one message on Facebook in May, but no follow-through. The main travel agency Malampa Travel, which didn’t have great reviews, was not answering their emails. Luckily about a week before we were due to travel, I noticed that another website, Vanuatu Island Adventures, which had most of the same information as Malampa Travel appeared. I think it is the same people, and they chose to change the business name. They said that they could arrange transport from the south of the island to the north, and that they could also arrange for someone to meet us at the airport, and for lodging. My confidence in everything working out was about 60%, which is one reason I paid the 5.3% service fee to pay with a credit card. I figured that if things went wrong, at least I could get back some of the $400 for lodging (3 nights in 2 bungalows) and $250 for transport (4-hour truck ride, truck will have to make a roundtrip).
We hopped in the back of the truck at the airport and drove through a coconut plantation to a bay where a boat was parked. We then waded through shallows to the ship and took a 30-minute boat ride to where we were staying at the Batisse Bungalows in Pellonk Village in the Maskelyne Islands off of Malekula Island in Malampa Province, Vanuatu; they don’t have a webpage.
We arrived at our $45 half over-land, half over-water (at high tide) bungalows, and they were great. Katy and I got two trash cans and a toilet that flushed without issues. My parents’ room lacked a trashcan and had a toilet that you needed to turn the water on to use, but their shower had a showerhead where ours was just a tube. There were even solar-powered lights.
We settled in and then had some lunch which consisted of a fish with unique anatomy, giving it three backbones, with rice and a curried cabbage. The food was very well cooked and better than anything that we had on Tanna.
We then spent the afternoon attempting to walk around the island. The island has two main villages and a large school that has a boarding area. We encountered several (Katy: hundred) mosquitoes on the walk and needed a bug spray reapply a little of the way in. We made it to the second village, and the path petered out, so we turned around and headed back. By the time we got back, the tide was coming in, so we read our books on our high tide overwater patio (over mud flats at low tide). We were given the choice of lobster, fish, or octopus for dinner. Without knowing the price we picked lobster and asked for some beers. We were amazed when the beers arrived cold. It turns out that Sethric, the owner of Batise Bungalows, is one of six people in the village with a refrigerator. He uses it to store lobster, fish, and other items for guests and to sell. The lobster was previously caught large lobster tails with the meat taken out of the tails. It turned out to be the priciest meal we had at Batisse with each lobster costing $13, compared to other meals costing $5.50. We turned in early, which is easy to do when electricity is limited.
The following morning we had our standard wake up, with my dad waking up first, and breakfast around seven. A sunny day greeted us, and we were planning on going snorkeling at 930 am, but left earlier since we were ready. One slight negative about the bungalows is that they open into a very shallow bay, and so you cannot snorkel directly from them. You have to take a boat out to the reef to get your snorkel fix.
We hopped over the side of the boat, and within two minutes, a couple of kal fis swam by. If you say kal fis out loud, it sounds like cow fish and is the Bislama name for a dugong (which is very much like the other, better known sea cow, the manatee). We had a great snorkel in two spots, taking a break when we got cold. Katy and my mom had wetsuits on, and I had on my wetsuit shirt. The coral was medium quality, but the fish was really good. We did see the dugongs one other time and saw a turtle on the second part of the snorkel.
We headed back and had octopus along with kumala (sweet potato) for lunch. In the afternoon, we napped, read our books, and my mom and I walked around the island again. We started the walk in the opposite direction and got to the village which flummoxed us last time and missed our turn. We walked by a group of women who were making mats out of leaves and a group of men that helped us find the right path to continue our loop. Most people in the Maskelynes are primarily subsistence-based farmers. They can make cash by selling copra, the dried white inside of a mature coconut ($250 per ton), selling cocoa ($50 per bag), making mats and bringing them to market, and selling produce to the local boarding school.
After our walk we played a game of settlers and went to the kava bar next door. Kava is a plant; the roots are dried and then made into a tea. The tea is strained and has a very muddy appearance and a distinctly unpleasant taste. The first thing you do at the kava bar is purchase a ticket for your desired amount of kava. We chose to purchase $1 tickets ($0.50-$2). You then go over to the man with the biscuit bucket of kava and exchange your ticket for your bowl of kava. You then chug your bowl of kava in one go and go sit and wait for it to take effect.
After we did our kava bowl my mouth felt numb, but I did not really feel a whole lot of effects from the kava. We waited about 30 minutes and then got another bowl. This time along with the mouth numbing, I think that I felt a little more relaxed. Not a huge difference. We then headed back for some fish for dinner.
Our second morning in Pellonk we went to the giant clam reserve. The gentleman who owned the reserve was the principle of the local school and was selected years ago to do a tour of the world learning about sustainability, conservation, and recycling. One take away was creating the giant clam reserve. We went snorkeling, and there were a bunch of different colored clams. The water was pretty shallow so it was a maze between the coral.
After lunch we took two of the traditional outrigger canoes and tried to paddle them around. I have to admit that an outrigger canoe is not like a normal canoe, and the tendency of my canoe was just to go in a circle no matter how I paddled it. We gave it a go for awhile and came back in and played a few more games of settlers. When the kava bar opened again we went back and this time went for the $2 bowl. This time I felt the “high” associated with kava. It definitely reduced some inhibitions and made me more talkative. We had lobster dinner again for the last night. This time the lobster was cooked with ginger and a cooking green.
We had a good stay, for the right amount of time, in the Maskelynes. You can read about the first part of our Vanuatu adventure here.
Katy and I had an uneventful 90-minute flight from New Caledonia to Port Vila, the largest city in Vanuatu. It was operated by an ATR-72, which is a large turboprop plane. A weird thing about the plane is that you usually enter from the rear, so we reserved seats in the back and were some of the first people off the plane. We breezed through immigration (they did want to see our return ticket, but I was prepared and had it downloaded). Customs was a little more chaotic. Since we said we had packaged food they wanted to see it, and we went to a counter and showed the women some stuff, and finally, she said that I didn’t need to unpack my entire bag to get all of the food. It was very disorderly with agents that showed very little interest in their jobs. We then finally entered Vanuatu.
We took an airport taxi with a preset price to our hotel to meet my parents who were getting in a couple of hours later. Our driver was a great tour guide and even pointed out that the largest supermarket was 100 yards further down the street from where we were staying.
We settled in and made a trip out to the Chinese owned supermarket to buy some snacks and a couple of beers. The supermarket was trying to be a Walmart with all the assorted goods that they sold. We dropped off our treasures in the room and then headed the opposite direction of the supermarket towards the center of town. You can tell that Vanuatu is a developing country that is not on the same economic footing as New Caledonia. Things looked a “little rough around the edges,” where functionality was desired over aesthetics.
Part of our strategy while walking was to withdraw cash from as many ATMs as possible. Vanuatu is still a cash-based society, and very few ATMs outside of the two main cities accept foreign cards (I know of two). Coupled with the fact that most ATMs have ~40,000 vatu (roughly 1,000 vatu is $8.70) withdrawal daily limit, it meant that I needed to stop at my fair share to get money for the next week. Before we made it to the first ATM, we arrived at the central produce market. It is actually a 24 hour, six-day a week market, closing at noon on Saturday and reopening at noon on Sunday. We purchased a bag of taro chips ($1.30) and a container of raspberries. The raspberries were not normal ones. They had smaller kernels and slightly larger seeds with a less sweet taste and were a brighter red. After utilizing several ATMs, and Katy purchasing a new pair of harem pants, we headed back to happy hour at the hotel bar to await the arrival of my parents.
While we were marveling at the cheapest mixed drink that we had purchased since moving to New Zealand, my parents arrived, roughly 40 minutes after their plane landed (including a 15-minute taxi). We enjoyed another beverage and then headed out to dinner. I had a steak for dinner. Yes, that sounds odd. Vanuatu is actually known for its high-quality beef. I guess life in the tropics agrees with cattle. After dinner, we headed back to the market, and many of the venders were doing karaoke; it definitely had a unique feel to it.
After an early morning wake up we took a taxi to our 8 am flight to Tanna. Our aircraft was a Dash-8, which is a small one, and one Katy does not approve of (Katy: the seats are like a school bus, and you can see a crack of air around the closed door that you must sit by 😬). After getting weighed, we were assigned seats out of the roughly 24 seats on the plane and began our 50-minute plane trip to Tanna.
Tanna is on the standard tourist track and is known for two things, volcanoes and a movie of the same name. We took a truck ride (in the quad cab) to our accommodation and booked a volcano tour for that evening and then went out for a snorkel. The snorkeling was done in what is called a blue hole, which is basically a sheltered section of reef. The coral was fantastic and so were the fish. Lunch consisted of spam and egg sandwiches and was less fantastic than the snorkeling. The three cats that roamed the dining room were given roughly 12 ounces of spam from our sandwiches in an attempt to fatten them up.
We then started on our volcano tour. Mount Yasur is one of five volcanos in the world with an open lava pit. You can also walk on the rim of the volcano and watch the lava explosions. We started with a two-hour truck ride, half on paved roads (Australian and Chinese aid paid for the roads) and half on dirt roads. Almost all the vehicles on the island are trucks. People fly to Port Vila to purchase their truck and then have it shipped on a boat to the island. I was surprised that typically they could get their truck the next day, nothing like overnight mailing a truck (~$350-500 depending on the island).
We arrived at the volcano your later than the 4 pm check-in time and were hurried to join the 80 people that were waiting for us to arrive to start. It sure beats getting there early. After a short program, we loaded up in the back of pickup trucks and headed to the volcano. There were so many people that they ran out of hard hats for everyone to wear. I am not sure that a cheap, thin hard-hat would stand up to raining lava anyway.
We then walked 10 minutes to the edge of the crater and realized our mistake, lack of eye protection. I thought that it might be a little sandy, so I had grabbed my sunglasses, but I should have grabbed my snorkeling mask or wrap around glasses. The wind at the top would kick up fine ash and sand particles and fling that at your eyes, which was distinctly unpleasant. What was pleasant was seeing the volcano. There was a general red glow accompanied by the roar of the volcano. The volcano would then occasionally spit lava into the air in a spectacular faction. I had only packed my phone as my camera, and this was a time that I wished that I had my real camera. The iPhone’s camera does not do a good job at nighttime lava explosions (hopefully someone from Apple reads this and addresses this issue in the next version of the phone). Some nice assorted volcanic fumes also accompanied the lava explosions, which led to a cacophony of coughing. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience with the sand and wind, but it is one that I won’t forget.
We then had our two-hour ride back to where we were staying and were served some of the most overcooked fish that I have ever paid for. Needless to say, we figured out why the cats always hang out near the tables.
The following day Katy, my mom, and I went to see the Kustom village that the movie Tanna is based on. The Kustom villages are villages that largely keep to traditional ways and have chosen not to partake in many modern conveniences. The village that we went to was in the interior of the island and was a “highlands” village. Our guide was a 51 year old man, and one of three people in the village that spoke English (one also spoke French).
Vanuatu has three official languages: English, French, and Bislama (a pidgin English/French language). If you see something written down in Bislama and say it out loud, you can often figure out what it means, but when spoken by a fluent speaker it is hard to decipher. Everyone also speaks their own native language, of which there are 120+. Bislama is the most commonly spoken second language and is spoken by almost everyone, then English. The school system does not have a lot of money and often how they teach changes based on foreign countries providing funding. This can change the language that the curriculum is taught in. Currently, many of the schools are taught in English.
Our guide showed us around the village, and it did not feel obtrusive like I was imagining I would. They eat a vegetarian diet except for special occasions, and his grandfather lived to be over 100. They had brought a pig from Port Vila on the boat to slaughter for a circumcision ceremony that was happening that evening. I never did figure out why they imported a pig from another island instead of sourcing one locally; maybe the Tanna pigs are second rate.
One improvement that the village did accept was water lines so that they no longer have to trek to the river for fresh water. One thing that they did not accept is western religion. It is one of the few places that we have traveled in Vanuatu that does not have a church.
We returned for lunch and discovered that they were out of bread and eggs. This does not normally sound like a problem, but when your lunch choices are omelets or sandwiches, this does create some issues. They recommended that we walk 20 minutes to the resort next door for lunch. The walk was rather miserable. This was due to the road having a couple of inches of dust on it. You got a free entire body dust tan, minus where your sunglasses tried to block the dust from assaulting your eyes. Luckily, the delicious lunch at the fancier neighboring resort made the dust-bath worth while.
After lunch, we had another snorkel in the blue hole. Dinner was beef. Dinner really was cat food. It was the most overcooked slab of beef I have come across recently, and there was some general consternation when my dad fed one cat a sizeable chunk, and the cat immediately began to gag on the amount of gristle in the meat. We saw the cat the following day, so it did survive.
We had an excellent stay in Tanna, and the following day we began our adventure off the beaten path.
Pelotons of lycra-wearing men riding their $5000 road bikes down the main drag in Noumea at 6:30 am was not what I expected from a South Pacific island. It turns out you can’t keep the French from enjoying a good cycle, even if you plop them in South Pacific. We saw over 100 riders, some solo, some in groups of 15+, on a random Tuesday morning while we were waiting for the bus. New Caledonia is weird.
Unfortunately, our second full day did not bring great weather, even though my parents in Fiji had good weather. We started with an AM snorkel. Since it is winter in New Caledonia, the water is cold. With my wetsuit shirt, I lasted about 30 minutes, and Katy lasted a little longer in her summer wetsuit. The clouds were still there after we finished our snorkel, and we decided to go for a walk. The town was a lot more alive than the day before, a rainy Sunday. We ended up at the same supermarket, Casino, as the first day and restocked on some staples (including a selection of local beers). Just in case anyone cares about my opinion, Casino is a stupid name for a supermarket, especially in a city that actually has casinos.
Since we are experts, we grabbed another bus back to our hotel. There are taxis in Noumea but very few of them. It is next to impossible to just flag one down on the route. Uber has not yet reached most of the Pacific islands, including New Caledonia.
We ate a mixture of olives, cheese, cured meats, and baguettes for a late lunch. The weather was still not very nice, but we were determined to be outside, so we hung out on the beach chairs and read our books. The towels ended up migrating to on top of us since it was a tad chilly. We then cleaned up and went out for some beverages. Food and beverage in New Caledonia are not cheap. I would put prices a little higher than Hawaii. A beer pint of beer costs $9-12. We first went to the local brewery, 3 Brasseurs, and got a beer. We then migrated next door to another drinking establishment and got another round of beers. It was one of those places that calls itself a brewery but doesn’t actually brew any beer.
We ordered an appetizer plate, which ended up being enough food for dinner for the two of us, and they provided such an excess of cured meats that I probably took 1/3 of a pound home. It cost ~$75 for four drinks and the appetizer. We had an early night since we had early diving plans the following morning.
Booking a diving excursion was like pulling teeth. First, we tried calling all of the dive shops, and they would not answer their phones. Then we attempted to ask the concierge for help arranging diving, and no one was there the three times we inquired. The next day we found the concierge, and he turned out to not be helpful. We then walked to a booking office for one of the operators, and they were closed (even though the hours said they should be open). Then the next day I tried calling again, and one place said no dives until the weekend, and finally, one place said they were going the next day and to meet at the boat dock at 7 am, she even took my first name as a reservation.
We took the 6:27 am bus, which disgorged us a few minutes early, and so we had time to explore the local market. Eventually, the operator arrived a bit after 7 am, and we processed through. We then had to wait because the cook didn’t know we were going out that morning. Eventually, we headed out to Amadee Island, which is an island with a lighthouse built in France in ~1850 on Napoleon’s orders and shipped to New Caledonia in pieces, then assembled on the island. We went for two dives and explored the island. Luckily the sun came out for parts. Lunch was a very French experience. We were told that lunch was going to be fish. I immediately thought it was going to be an overcooked white fish. It turned out to be marlin cooked medium rare with a French Rochefort sauce.
We were pretty hungry by the time we got back to the port, and we decided to head back to the hotel for some more cheese and baguette, albeit with a fresh baguette.
I had forgotten to rent a car the previous night for the last day, and we were unable to do it that close to the rental time when we got in. The last day we did a combination of riding bikes, snorkeling, walking into town, and hanging out at the beach. It was a windy day with windsurfers and kiteboarders out in force, but a little sun did pop through which was welcomed.
We grabbed an airport shuttle at 8:30 am our last day which got us to the airport excessively early. We arrived well before check-in for our flight even opened. The Noumea International Airport was not a hopping place. Two early morning flights had already departed, our flight to Vanuatu and an Auckland flight we’re departing around noon, and a Tokyo flight left at midnight (it turns out New Caledonia is rather popular with Japanese tourists, but not Chinese tourists). Luckily we got near the front of the line for security when it opened, and it was a slow process. I got selected for explosives screening, which added five minutes to the process. We then made it through immigration and were on our way to Port Vila, Vanuatu after a short delay.
Katy and I are off on another adventure. We have spent over 50% of our nights not at ”our house” since the wedding, traveling a ton. I was excited about the honeymoon, but there was so much going on around it. Getting married, trying to spend as much time as possible with everyone in Boulder during the wedding weekend, and moving were minor distractions before the trip that took my mind off it. This trip I am genuinely excited for and felt the excitement for several days before leaving. The goal of the journey is to take advantage of being a three-hour flight from tons of pacific islands and to explore the South Pacific for a few weeks. I have to admit that before this trip I don’t think that I could tell you that all of the places we are going to were countries. The trip starts with five nights in New Caledonia, then eight nights with my parents in Vanuatu, and then ten nights in Vanuatu just the two of us, a quick one night in Fiji, and then back to New Zealand.
New Caledonia is officially a special collectivity of France, which is just another name for being a territory. New Caledonia had a referendum in 2018, and ~53% of the population voted to remain part of France and ~46% voted to become independent. The turnout for the vote was over 80% with very high participation among young Kanaks, the indigenous population. There will be another referendum in 2020 and 2022 according to an agreement signed by France in 1998. Since it is part of France, there is a large number of European expats and French tourists, especially this time of year since it is summer holiday time in France.
We had an early morning, catching a 5:35 am shuttle for our 6:40 flight to Auckland. When we got to Auckland, it actually took a while to get through immigration, and we only had 10 minutes to grab breakfast and a few Bloody Marys (Katy). We had a very uneventful flight to New Caledonia. Despite being in row 14, we had about an hour wait for a cursory immigration passport stamping. The wait turned out to be a moot point since our bags were two of the twenty last bags off the plane. It was at that point where I was starting to hope our bags actually had made the flight.
We took an expensive, disorderly shuttle bus to our hotel. It turns out that since New Caledonia is part of France, they drive on the right-hand side of the road, and this is the first time in about nine months that I’ve seen drivers not on the left.
The only reason we are in New Caledonia is that the Le Meridien hotel was offering any room in the hotel for 4,000 more points per night (than the base rate) and the fifth night free. That means for 160,000 points (fewer points than opening one credit card and making two referrals) we booked the 2,000 sq ft presidential suite. I assume it was a glitch, but who knows. It priced that way for several months, so I am not sure if it was intentional or just a very long price mistake.
We arrived at Le Meridien, and I have to say that I was slightly disappointed. This is the only time in my life that I will have reserved the presidential suite beforehand, and they didn’t even mention it upon check-in. It was a very French, very efficient, check-in. Upon arriving at the end of the corridor, we had a slight hesitation since the room numbers ended, and there was a door without a keycard blocking the hallway. We pushed that open, and our terrace was to the right, and the room was to the left. During their recent renovations, they had turned five rooms into the suite we have for five nights.
There is a dining room table for eight, with place settings for eight, including a stove and dishwasher. One thing that was lacking was a single piece of cookware. Enough silverware for a seven-course meal, but not a single pot or pan. Hmmmm. I think that there is not a positive correlation between having the only stove out of 250 rooms and actually using it. We were slightly bummed since that meant either getting aluminum foil to cook eggs on or forgoing eggs for five days. Luckily, I have experience with attempting to use aluminum (please pronounce this in your head al-you-min-EE-um) as a cooking surface and recognized that that never ends well.
We then discovered our rather large couch (Katy: perfect for cuddling!) with a good-sized TV (so far this space makes up 2 of the previous five rooms). Then we had a desk, and a media room with a larger TV equipped with a remote containing exploded batteries, which made the tv permanently stuck on. I halfheartedly tried to remove them and failed. There was also a half bath off the media room.
Then we had the bedroom (size of two rooms) with two chaise loungers and a circular couch. Behind the bedroom was the bathroom, which was approximately twenty feet long and only had one upholstered chair in it.
We had about 60 feet of balcony off the room and a private terrace across the hall. It was acceptable. We unpacked and went to the pool and beach for a bit. Even though we woke up early, it was nice to be settled in our room by a little after 2 pm and only to have traveled one-time zone, making us 15 hours later than EST instead of 16.
Our first activity was to cook in the sun at the beach/pool for a little bit. The beaches in Noumea are public (which is not the case for many Pacific Islands) and being a Saturday, and there were a fair number of people out. We then went for about a two-mile walk along the beach and walkway to a grocery store. New Caledonia/Noumea is “weird.” It is the first beach destination that I have been to that doesn’t cater to English speakers. The design aesthetics are a mix of French, island, and pseudo-Soviet block concrete buildings. It is by far the most prosperous South Pacific island that we have been to. There are Porsche’s and Audi’s. Buildings seem to be recently painted and in good repair. It has a very functional bus system. The main town is sort of a mix of Waikiki, Cancun, and France without the crowds. Since it is part of France, French wine is cheap, and there are a ton of specialty wine stores. Bakeries plying people with freshly baked baguettes, and grocery stores with a large, cheap cheese and cured meat selection (imported from France) are abundant. It is a cool place. We are just staying in the main city since we are doing outer islands in Vanuatu, but there are a ton of smaller islands that you can visit too.
My feet had some rubbies from my sandals after not being used to wearing them (during winter in New Zealand), and we had groceries, so we decided to take the bus back. We waited 20 minutes, paid our $2, and hopped on the bus. We then ate ramen, cheese, cured meats (only me), and baguette for dinner. I drank some IPA that I had brought, and Katy drank a French Bordeaux. After we finished eating they surprised us with a cheese platter and a bottle of champagne, which reaffirmed our happiness in the hotel room.
The next day was forecast to be the worse weather day of the following five. It was sprinkling in the morning, and we decided that we should do a morning snorkel. We asked the towel guy where we should go, and he said between the wharf and the restaurant on the pier. Katy put on her wetsuit, and I put on my 1mm wetsuit shirt, and we headed out. We saw some huge stingrays, but no coral and few fish for the first ten minutes. We started to think we had been led astray when we started to swim back to the shore and discovered the coral. The coral was some of the least bleached coral that I have seen in years, with a lot of fish. Unfortunately, it was approaching low tide, so we swam around the edges since it was too shallow to go over and visibility was less than awesome.
We then rinsed off and put on some sunscreen on and took our rain jackets and headed to town to go to the cultural center. Luckily they offered Katy an umbrella to borrow at reception, and I had a well worn, rather sad, pocket umbrella that is half-collapsed and turns inside out with the smallest of wind gusts (it is about 23% effective). We grab the first bus and deftly get off where we aim to and then discover the next bus we need doesn’t come for 40 minutes. We start walking around town and discover that Noumea shuts down on Sundays, and everyone hibernates when it rains.
After some consternation about where to wait for the next bus, we get the line 40 and head to the cultural center. It is a very impressive building with a lot of potential, but it lacks some of the background history on the Kanaks that Katy and I would have liked.
During the week the buses run every twenty minutes, but since it was a Sunday, it was down to every hour. We then headed back to the center of town and waited for line 10 back to our hotel. We waited and waited. Line 90 came, which would have taken us halfway, but we passed since it was raining heavily. We waited. Eventually, a little soggy, our bus arrived after thirty minutes. We took the bus to the stop before the hotel and grabbed an ice cream and a fresh baguette from the store. We decided to repeat the dinner from the previous night in the room, albeit with the bottle of champagne we didn’t drink the night before. I won both games of Catan.
July is not summer in New Zealand; it is the heart of winter. New Plymouth likes to celebrate winter by being 50 degrees and overcast. There is also a healthy dose of rain to make sure the weeds grow even faster than in the summer. Fiji, on the other hand, is a warm island that has abundant cheap beer to drink.
Katy worked overnight and got home from work at 8:30 am and was planning on going straight to bed, but she was too amped up from leftover work endorphins coupled with the excitement of the beach. We grabbed a 12 pm flight to Auckland and after visiting our favorite Auckland airport lounge, Strata, and getting fortified with a few beverages we boarded our plane for an uneventful three-hour flight to Nadi, Fiji. It is pretty crazy how close New Zealand is to the Pacific Islands, closer than even Australia. It also has the same time zone as New Zealand.
After an uneventful flight we arrived in Nadi and did some line cutting to jump the immigration queue. Well, we didn’t really jump the line, we just ducked under a rope to a shorter line… Katy left immigration with a giant smile since she got a passport stamp and the agent did a very orderly job of stamping her passport in a spot she approved. We then took a 30-minute van ride and a 20-minute boat ride to our island, Serenity Resort. Katy was a trooper all day, but by this point, she was exhausted after less than a handful of hours of sleep in the past 30+ hours.
We arrived at Serenity Resort and transferred to a launch to take us the last 100 yards over the reef surrounding the island. One of the staff was standing, waiting for us while playing a nondescript cheerful song on the guitar. We then scampered down some movable stairs, trying to avoid the incoming waves and keep our shoes dry, we were successful. We checked into our room and went for a night walk on the beach. Unfortunately, it turns out there were sandflies on the beach, and Katy ended up with about 20 bites, which would lead to a lot of triamcinolone use over the next four days.
The next morning we had a 7 am wakeup call thanks to some beautiful music being played by the gentleman sweeping the sand off the boardwalks around the island. After our morning wakeup, we walked to the restaurant for some breakfast. The resort is pretty small with less than 30 rooms, but since they are all separate bungalows the resort is rather spread out. I was warned that breakfast was going to be $9 USD for a continental breakfast and $18 if you wanted hot food. We were pleasantly surprised that the continental breakfast was actually more expensive than the hot food, with my staple of grilled fish with hollandaise costing $6, $9 if you got two eggs with it.
I was worried that the nine beach bungalows were going to be snagged early, so I made a beeline for them, only to discover that only three were used all day. We transitioned to a beachfront bungalow with a hammock and lounger after the first night, and it turns out that everyone with a waterfront bungalow hangs out in their own area, leaving the beach cabanas largely unused.
After heating up in the sun, we went for a snorkel, and it was okay. There were lots of fish, but not a lot of coral. We later learned that the best snorkeling started about 50 feet from the farthest point down current that we went. We took a break from the snorkeling to go and “feed the turtles” that they were “rehabbing.” It turns out that there was not any feed to give to the turtles, so it turned into a turtle cleaning sessions which consisted of toothbrushing their shells to remove any algae that had built up on the shell. We then grabbed some lunch and headed back to the beach.
It was a good day on the beach with good weather. The next three days were much of the same, but with varying amounts of clouds. We had many great snorkels. The dry season in Fiji also corresponds with their winter. The water was slightly chilly, but I brought a 1 mm neoprene wetsuit shirt that actually worked and kept me warm. I normally freeze in water, but I actually got cold after Katy with the shirt. A side bonus was that it protected me from the sun and the amount of sunscreen that we needed to use. We are currently in rationing mode since we only have so much of “the good stuff” and about a month of South Pacific trips planned. The air temperature was warm, but unless you were in the sun it was not so hot that you started sweating.
The food ranged from great Fijian food to them running out of fish and not being very good. I have to say that overall, the food was not the best part of the trip. Drinks were expensive on the island, ranging from $5 for a local beer to $12-20 for a cocktail. We did spend $58 at the duty-free store in the airport for 2 liters of rum and a dozen beers. We drank all the beers, but not all the rum. During our trip, we had four local lagers Vanu Lager, Vanu Export, Fiji Bitter, and Fiji Gold. Vanu Export was my least favorite, followed by Fiji Gold (Katy’s favorite). Fiji Bitter was my go-to since it was cheap and had slightly more flavor than the other ones, but Vanu Lager was a better beer, and if it was the same price, it would have been my go-to. The water on the island was desalinated and tasted salty. It tasted gross. Luckily we had brought some sugar drink mix to make mixed drinks. If we mixed that with the salty water we ended up with gatorade which worked in a pinch.
We attempted to go diving one day, but it did not work out and resulted in us sitting around for almost an hour. The resort was great but definitely had some issues. Our last day on the island we were planning on leaving on the 1 pm ferry, but it rained the entire night before we were leaving and it was still raining in the morning. We decided to attempt to change to the 9:30 am ferry and were successful. We first walked up the ramp onto our resort’s launch and in the rain headed out to the catamaran ferry. We then deftly stepped from one boat to the other with the waves and successfully made it onto the ferry. We had a very uneventful ferry ride that stopped at about five other islands to pick people up before we arrived at Port Denarau. It rained the entire journey, and the boat went from pretty empty to completely full. When we arrived at the port, it was an unorganized mess coupled with rain. We eventually grabbed our bags that we rather wet and headed to a bus for the ride to where we were staying. After waiting for 15 minutes on the bus, they said that we were waiting on another ferry to arrive. I was frustrated at this point by the rain and waiting and went to explore getting a taxi. The bus driver was actually really helpful and called one for us, and it was well worth the $3.50 taxi ride.
We used a “free night certificate” at the Westin. The credit card costs $99 a year, so it is a prepaid $99 hotel room, in my opinion. When we checked in, we were offered an upgrade to a one-bedroom suite, but it turns out that the room had a leak in the roof, so they gave us a room with a private outdoor plunge pool. It would have been great, but the rain put a damper on enjoying our private pool and all the pools of the resort. Katy did get her swim on, but I was a little too chilled so I turned the room into a giant clothes driving cave so our bags would be dry for the plane ride home the next day. The rain subsided in the evening, and we were able to watch the sunset without getting a tropical soaking and enjoyed a beer. Katy then enjoyed a massage. We then headed out to the airport the next morning and flew back to New Zealand.
It was a great trip. It was not sunny the entire time, but the weather was still good and our bad weather day was on the best possible day.
The third part of our trip to Australia was the Great Barrier Reef, one of Katy’s bucket list events. Katy had wanted to get certified to scuba dive for the past 15 years and thought this was a good time to get certified. We decided to do an e-learning class, pool day, and a three day liveaboard on the Great Barrier Reef. Since I had not been scuba diving in the past twenty years, I decided to do the class with Katy. It was also cheaper to redo the class than do a refresher dive along with the liveaboard fee.
The first day of our class was pretty uneventful, and there were only three of us which made it go pretty fast. The van pickup in the morning was pretty amusing, and they seemed to do the pickup in order of the cheapest accommodation to most expensive accommodation. Naturally, we were picked up first, and the couple staying at the Shrangra-la was picked up last. That evening we wandered around Cairns some more and discovered a giant lagoon pool in the center of town. Cairns for being the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, actually does not have a beach in town, and this giant pool is what they do to compensate. Katy was rather bummed that she was wearing sneakers, so she was deprived of the privilege of stomping through the shallow section. We stopped by Hemmingway’s Brewery, which was better than the average microbrewery we have encountered in Australia/New Zealand.
We had a nice and early 6:10am pickup and were transferred to ScubaPro, our boat for the next three days. We were given one of the three cabins that had a window, but not one of the two double bed cabins. Katy immediately chose the top bunk since it looked out the window. The boat headed out, and we were advised to not hang out inside for the four-hour cruise to the reef due to the prevalence of people getting seasick. Since Katy has a solid history of getting motion sick, she was the among the first that headed out to the sundeck. I waited a quick minute to grab our reef safe sunscreen and headed up with Katy to put a solid application on to try to avoid becoming a lobster, something I am genetically predispositions to become in the sun. After a peaceful, uneventful ride, with only one victim of seasickness, we arrived at our first dive site.
The first day we did two training dives and one snorkeling trip. The coral on the Great Barrier Reef is more impressive than I remember other coral that I have seen. Plus there are a ton of fish and more than a few sea turtles hanging around. The second day involved two dives as part of the class, and the rest were on your own. We had the privilege of having a rather annoying gentleman join our lesson on the boat, and we were rather excited not to have to dive with him anymore. The day ended with a guided night dive where I saw sharks and Katy saw giant spheres of light. Her night vision is not good yet for night diving we discovered.
Our last day, we had two more dives before we headed back to Cairns. It was a great learning to dive experience. It was also a great cap to our trip. We had one night in Brisbane and then we flew back to New Zealand.