happiness is anticipation of experiences

We realised this long ago, and the idea is widely shared by others, that experiences, particularly travel, is more important than money. There’s scientific studies that show that anticipation of an experience lead to a higher level of happiness than anticipation of a material good. Cornell researchers Thomas Gilovich and Matthew Killingsworth and PhD candidate Amit Kumar:

You can think about waiting for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or looking forward to a vacation, and how different that feels from waiting for, say, your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive.

Dr Gilovich talks about the Easterlin paradox, which found that money buys happiness, but only up to a point. People who are happy about their purchase of, say, a new iPhone, find that their degree of happiness decreases over time. Their happiness with an experience, say a concert or a holiday, does not diminish at the same rate.

This is true even in the negative. If the iPhone stops working, happiness drops. However if something negative happened during an experience, like if a beach holiday was rained out, people tend to say “we went to the museum instead and still had a good time.”

The researchers found that one of the reasons experiences rate higher than material is because comparison with others is less significant. There is no constant need to buy a bigger car, or earn a higher salary.

The last point is interesting. I have friends and acquaintances who are travelling right now–one couple is on a round-the-world trip and have reached Tanzania where one half did safari and the other half climbed Kilimanjaro; one couple is on extended honeymoon to Italy; an acquaintance is in South East Asia–and while it’s fascinating to see their trip posts, it feels weird because I’m usually the one travelling to lots of places.

So to make me happier, let’s increase the anticipation. With mm’s mum still ill, it’s not feasible in the immediate future, but worth keeping in mind as an option somewhere down the line. I was watching a program where James Martin travelled to Annecy and it looked gorgeous. Research time.

Annecy is located in the Haute-Savoie region of SE France halfway between Geneva and Chambéry. It’s called the Venice of the Alps–it has a river and two canals running through the picturesque city. A blogger called it a real life fairytale town; another said it will steal your heart.

It has everything–a beautiful lake, a well-preseved old town, a river and a couple of canals, a great market. Cycling, hiking, skiing in the winter, boating in the summer. And of course wineries, a local woman-run brewery, boulangeries, restaurants, and cheese, cheese, cheese. Seems to be less well-known and crowded than Chambéry and obviously Geneva, both less than 1hrs’ drive away. I randomly plugged in one week’s stay next April on airbnb and found great looking places for around $70-80.

No wonder it’s a must visit. Just look at these pics. It being in this part of France, the architecture feels very Swiss.

Along the Thiou canal:
Buildings along Thiou canal
courtesy flickr user kosalabandara under cc

The 12th century Palais de l’Isle:
Annecy
courtesy flickr user pug_girl under cc

The lake:
Annecy & alentours
courtesy flickr user lyanna_wolf under cc

What is so attractive is the location. Halfway between Geneva and Chambéry, 45mins to Switzerland and 1.5hrs from Italy. It’s easy to fly to Geneva, pick up a car from the French side of the airport. A trip that can combine Geneva, Annecy and Chambéry, that’s the ultimate in anticipatory happiness.

bbmm at travel agent

okinawa

Met mm at the travel agent’s to get some information about cruises and resorts. Her mum’s doc says she can go on short breaks and it will likely be beneficial. But she can’t go too far away and preferably as little travel hassle as possible. It was the doc who suggested cruises. There are definitely advantages, mostly it’s the minimum amount of travelling and yet she can enjoy going away.

We’re limited by the total number of days, preferably under a week. There are only a few itineraries that fit the criteria. Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan. And the Japan one is only as far as Okinawa. I knew Okinawa is south of mainland Japan but I didn’t realise it’s that far south. It’s nearer to Taiwan. From brief research, it’s mainly a beach resort type of destination.

The Okinawa cruise is on the huge Ovation of the Seas. Over 4000 passengers, 167000 tons. One day at sea, then arriving at Okinawa at 1pm. Stay overnight then leave at 2pm the next day. Another day at sea. Truth be told, it’s an odd itinerary and doesn’t give a lot of time on the island.

We’ll see.

100 trips everyone should take

places086matterhorn

Usual travel bucket lists, the ones that are called something like 101 places to see before you die, incude items like go to the top of the Eiffel Tower or visit Angkor Wat. It’s almost a cliché now.

Here’s a slightly different list of 100 trips everyone should take in their lifetime. Compiled by Business Insider who asked 20 travel writers for their top 5. And it’s all about experiences in the less touristy destinations. I do okay in the more “normal” travel lists, but some of these locations I haven’t even heard of. Not in any particular order, I think they grouped the top 5 of each writer, which is why some places and activities repeat. The Indy warns:

[f]rom off-the-beaten-track hidden gems to well-recognised yet stunning locations, prepare to get hit with some serious travel envy

  1. See mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo
  2. Visit the chocolate box fishing villages of the Lofoten Islands, Norway
  3. Pretend you’re on a desert island at Motu Tiapaa in Maupiti — TIL that’s one of the remote island in the south Pacific
  4. Explore the sci-fi landscapes of Cappadocia, Turkey
  5. Camp in the Caucasus Mountains in Kazbegi, Georgia
  6. Chill out in Levi, Finland
  7. Have a star-gazing sleepover in Tuvalu
  8. Try the nightlife scene in Accra, Ghana
  9. Watch a world-renowned sunrise in Kiribati
  10. Travel back to Babylon in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
  11. Look down into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA — this is the first realistic destination for me on this list, and even then I have to plan a winter trip to the US
  12. Surf at Point Roadknight, Melbourne, Australia — Melbourne I’ve been but I’ll never go surfing
  13. Explore London’s edgy urban scene — I’ve possibly done this. This was on the list for Daniel Houghton, CEO of Lonely Planet, who said:

    Hampstead Heath is a beautiful spot to take in the sheer size of the city

  14. Get to know Hawaii’s islands — I don’t think the one trip to Hawaii when I was 16 with my family counts, I barely remember it
  15. Be inspired by the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia — another realistic location
  16. Take a road trip around Louisiana, USA — been to New Orleans, haven’t done the road trip
  17. Build an igloo at Kamakura Festival in Yokote, Japan — this sounds great, need to do research
  18. Be rendered speechless by Tsingy Rouge, Madagascar — I posted about this recently
  19. Light a candle at Birgufest, Malta
  20. Cycle through the air in the cloud forests of Ecuador
  21. Take on Britain’s toughest trek at Cape Wrath, Scotland
  22. Reach Norway’s peaks, stopping off at Gjendesheim cabin
  23. Venture up the Alps, stopping off in Arolla, Switzerland — that’s in the Matterhorn area and I’ve been there
  24. Backpack through Lairig Ghru’s sub-arctic plateau in Scotland
  25. Stay in the Loch Ossian Hostel, Scotland– the third Scotland hiking destination from Alex Roddie, Sub-Editor of Sidetracked Magazine, this eco-hostel is 85 years old and located in the Highlands
  26. Scuba dive in the Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
  27. Be one with the animal kingdom in the Galápagos Islands
  28. Discover the lesser-known isles of French Polynesia
  29. Road trip through Namibia
  30. Take in some magic—and food and wine—in South Africa
  31. Immerse yourself in the culture of Moscow, Russia
  32. Get to know the different sides of Hi Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  33. Grab a coffee in Sydney, Australia — I haven’t grabbed coffee, but I’ve grabbed breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m glad Sydney is on the list, albeit as one of the more touristy destinations, it has a lot going on and is lovely to experience
  34. Stay in a homestay at Lake Toba, Indonesia
  35. Party with the best at Rio Carnival, Brazil
  36. Scuba dive off of Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia
  37. Visit post-earthquake Kumamoto, Japan — another Japan, adding to research list
  38. Tour the rosy mountains of Petra, Jordan
  39. Take in some history—and sample smoked chocolate—in Lviv, Ukraine
  40. Scuba dive in quiet northern Bali
  41. See the “Big Five”—black rhinoceros, cape buffalo, and African elephants, lions, and leopards—on a South African safari — I’ve seen all these, in Kenya not South Africa, does that count? I’m guessing 0.5 points
  42. Get lost in the tangled streets of Barceloneta, Spain
  43. Attend a whisky tasting in Mechelen, Belgium — so Belgium has beer and whisky, wow
  44. Fly over England’s Wiltshire countryside like you’re in ‘Top Gun’​
  45. Explore local sites in Bamiyan, Afghanistan
  46. Witness the piled-up houses of Palangan, Iran
  47. Trek to India’s best kept secret — Mechuka
  48. Stuff yourself with street food in Lahore, Pakistan
  49. Traverse Goris’ mountain trails and stay in a cave home in Armenia — I have to admit that none of these last 5 from travel blogger Sebaastian Rijntjes hold any interest for me
  50. Hike up Rainbow Mountain, Peru
  51. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Faroe Islands
  52. Observe the wildlife in Chitwan National Park, Nepal
  53. Delve into the hidden side of Madeira Island, Portugal — have to go to Lisbon first
  54. Explore the Arctic Circle, Norway
  55. Unwind in Bozcaada, Turkey
  56. Wade through the Amazon Rainforest
  57. Ride rickety buses through Tunisia
  58. Experience the warm hospitality of Muscat’s locals in Oman
  59. Take part in the masked celebrations of Carnevale in Venice, Italy — been to Venice but Carnevale is way too crowded
  60. Visit the steaming mountain geysers of Kamchatka, Russia
  61. Celebrate New Year’s Eve at Shwegugi Pagoda temple in Bagan, Myanmar
  62. See Tokyo’s cherry blossom season in the flesh — photographer Murad Osmann says:

    Japan isn’t just a country, it’s a whole new universe!

  63. Tour the “true face” of Xingping, China — no
  64. Be transported back in time by Cuba’s capital—Havana
  65. Explore the Cuban countryside in Vinales
  66. Dance around the evening bonfires in Lijiang, China — no thank you
  67. Take a beach trip to Quepos, Costa Rica
  68. Watch eagles hunt amongst the Altai Mountains, Mongolia
  69. Watch the flames of “The Gates of Hell,” Turkmenistan
  70. Sail to Pulau Lapang, Indonesia
  71. Take a dip in the clear waters in Sumba, Indonesia
  72. Sample the street food in Hanoi, Vietnam
  73. Ride the Tha Khaek Loops in Laos
  74. Navigate the sunken pathways of Shwe Ba Taung’s sandstone labyrinth in Burma
  75. Take part a hot air balloon safari over a nature reserve in Tanzania — we had the opportunity in Kenya, but we passed
  76. Take a Robinson Crusoe-esque excursion to Tapuaetai in the Cook Islands
  77. Stay in a designer cabin in Comporta, Portugal
  78. Visit a Thai architect’s edgy cluster of designer warehouses in Bangkok, Thailand
  79. Shop in Het Industriegebouw in Rotterdam, Netherlands — two shopping activies from blogger Pauline Egge, meh
  80. Spend the night in a glamorous bed and breakfast in Knokke, Belgium
  81. Dine in the glass houses of Cape Town’s wine estates
  82. Island hop on an expedition in Palawan, Philippines
  83. Indulge in pintxos plates on a bar-hopping evening in San Sebastian, Spain — two key words here: pintxos and bar, yay
  84. Wander until you’re lost in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Turkey — I’ve seen Grand Bazaar on tv, and visited souks in Tunisia and Dubai, a bit of a tourist trap
  85. Take an Ayurveda retreat in the central jungles of Sri Lanka
  86. Immerse yourself in Oia’s artistic community in Santorini, Greece
  87. Hunt for pirate treasure in Providencia, Colombia — pirate treasure, how fun
  88. Trek through Brazil’s bed sheets in Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
  89. Explore Ireland’s ancient history in the Aran Islands in Galway Bay
  90. Sail through the valley of Tam Coc, Ninh Binh, Vietnam
  91. Go for a cocktail in Yukon, Canada’s ghost town — Dawson City
  92. Watch out for wombats in Cradle Mountain, Tazmania
  93. Stand under the bone chandeliers of Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
  94. Ski through four countries on one trip in Zermatt, Switzerland — the Matterhorn again
  95. Walk through the wild-meets-landscaped gardens of Sintra, Portugal
  96. Explore Carmelo’s quaint horse country, Uruguay
  97. Sit on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat’s beaches in the South of France
  98. Witness the sunset at Goðafoss, Iceland
  99. Heli-ski through Haines’ breathtaking landscapes in Alaska, USA
  100. Fly over Russia and witness the Earth’s curvature

I’ve been to 3.5 (not counting Hawaii) — London, Sydney, Matterhorn and the 0.5 is safari. TBH I don’t have a pressing desire to visit or experience all of these. Some countries are too dangerous; others like the Pacific island of Maupiti is simply too far away; some activites like scuba diving has no appeal. I still have my own travel list to work through. Actually, looking through that 2014 list, I can check off 8, which is…neither here nor there.

tsingy de bemaraha national park

We had very tentative plans to travel later in the year, but nothing fixed. May be Japan again if we only have a week; Europe if we have longer. With mm’s mum’s health situation, those plans are probably out. I may still get to travel before the end of the year, but I’m not sure.

tsingy
© Dave Stamboulis, BBC Travel

I’ve been looking at the bbc photoessay about Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in Madagascar, one of the most difficult UNESCO site to reach. First, it’s in Madagascar, already one of the world’s most remote location. Secondly, the national park is in the northwestern part of the island and accessible by a dirt road that is a muddy swamp 6 months of the year. When it is relatively dry to travel, there are still 2 rivers to cross, both crocodile-infested.

Tsingy is the local language for “the place where one cannot walk” describes the sharp limestone formations in the national park. A series of suspension bridges, steel cables, pegs and ladders together with train guides allows visitors to see the spiky formations up close. UNESCO describes this world heritage site as:

impressive ‘tsingy’ peaks and a ‘forest’ of limestone needles.

I usually do quite well in those global places I’ve visited quizzes. I don’t see this often on those list challenges and it should be. I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to go but looking at the pics is enough. Spectacular.

shortest day

edebed

Flying this way over the international date line means my ‘day’ started at 8.45pm when the plane landed. I was out at luggage claim by 9.10pm when I called mum. Luggage came out quickly too.

Airport express then taxi. Home at arond 10.15pm. Door-to-door 21 hours. I remember there were times when it was over 24 hours.

I was tired. Too tired to eat even though I was hungry. Too tired to unpack, other than food that needed to go into the fridge, which is unusual for me.

Talked with mm for about an hour, eventually I had to cut her short because I was about to fall asleep. It’s good to be back in my own bed.

flight

Left around 12.15pm, got to the airport around 1pm. No wait for bag drop. No upgrade unfortunately but the counter agent said they were having a special offer for premium economy upgrade, only $650. I was like “only” $650, you’re kidding. When I checked in on saturday I saw that the flight wasn’t that full so I passed.

There was a queue at security, nothing unexpected. I wandered around the duty free; I’d decided that I wasn’t going to buy anything no matter how tempting. I have no room at home. I got to sample the standard Jack Daniels and got chatting with the gentleman in charge of the tasting table. He gave me a small sample bottle of brandy!

ordpoke

Decamped to the bar. A glass of wine and spicy tuna poké for lunch. Interesting, this poké trend. I like it, the tuna was marinated, a little spicy which balanced out when mixed with the rice and avocado. There were also two large rice cracker pieces. Felt like I was eating something healthy, most people around me were having a burger.

cx807seat

The flight was definitely not full. My bulkhead aisle seat gave me lots of legroom and the seat next to me was empty. If i’d stuck to my original selection of seat D I would have gotten the whole row but that was always a risk. I was able to sleep for about 5-6hrs in total on the flight. The film selection was one of the poorest in recent trips. Nothing I wanted to watch at all, and the ones that appealed to me were old films like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Iron Man. I ended up watching the two John Wick films and some old tv series. The John Wick films were surprisingly good, mindless action. And surprisingly good reviews too. Food was mediocre, beef stew with potatoes that had no flavour for dinner and chicken stew with mash that had spring onions for lunch. Didn’t touch either potato sides. At least the cup noodles was consistent and there were plenty of snacks.

chicago trip day 27

chi151park

I’ve packed almost everything, just the last minute items to go in before leaving tomorrow morning. For the longest time I thought I was flying on tuesday, because I usually fly on a tuesday. I checked my ticket a few days ago and realised I was actually flying monday, so one less day than I thought.

Went to Aunt C’s house for lunch. So wonderful to see so many family members there! The kids have grown so much. I remember little A when she was a baby and J is now an adult and sporting a beard too (it’s for an event and he said he’ll shave it off afterwards). The spaghetti and salad were delicious as always and I had two generous helpings.

Day 27 of my trip and looking back, I didn’t do a whole lot. Except for the week of the conference it was mostly staying in or doing laundry or going to the supermarket. Went out to the city twice, once to walk around and another was yesterday’s disasterous go fest. I feel rested and not stressed until this past few days when I started thinking about having to go home. There’s a part of me that can’t wait to go home, to see mm, read at my own desk and sleep in my own bed. There’s another part that has been enjoying how laid back staying at Car’s house has been. We went out or called out for meals a few times, to the usual places–steak, mexican, beggar’s, portillo’s, cracker barrel. We also cooked a few meals at home–pasta, potato frittata, cheeseburger. Sometimes I simply made ham & egg sandwich or toasted some waffles. We would be sitting at the dining table reading, and it’d be peaceful. There was no schedule, no anxiety. Grateful to my friend Car and her cat Midi for making me feel so at home (and I’m not saying this because I know she will be reading this, waves to Car).

paris cake walk

pariscakewalk

Keeping this in my food and travel research file, food52’s paris cake walk. The plan:

We’re going on a cake walk, straight through the glamorous heart of the old school 7th arrondissement, steeped in Belle Epoch spirit, stuffed with gorgeous museums set in formal gardens (coucou, Musee Rodin). On the way, we’ll be collecting a grand assortment of the finest pastries, cakes, and chocolates that the City of Light has to offer. Then, we’re going to sit on a specific park bench and enjoy them.

The walk starts at Musée d’Orsay station. The walk itself according to google maps is around 15mins but the actual time taken will be much longer because of the stops. At least 10 pâtissières along the way where we have the option to get macarons, chocolate ganache, pralines, truffles, fruit jellies, cakes, tarts, breads and all manner of delectable goods.

The walk ends at the Square des Missions Étrangères with a marble bust of Vicomte Châteaubriand, politician, writer and who had a steak named after him. One of the best cuts of steak too.

paris055clerpatiss

There are so many great food destinations in Paris that it’s hard to go wrong. Each neighbourhood will have its greengrocer, butcher, cheesemaker and baker. Hope we can take a trip back to europe soon.

conference day 05

The last day of the conference. Brief opening remarks then brunch and goodbyes. A was checking out today so I packed my bags and left them in the main room. I helped break down the vendor table, packing books in boxes. Then I went off with Car to look for a staples to get packing materials.

We were one of the last ones to leave. We packed up official boxes into 2 cars and returned to the storage place–the stuff will sit there until next year.

beggarspizza

Totally pooped so we just ordered pizza. Around 5.30pm my eyes couldn’t open so I took a nap. Turned out I was asleep for 2hrs. I was still able to sleep, just to show how tired I was.

conference day 04

Didn’t really go to any sessions in the morning. Saturday is always a stressful day for me and I spent the morning finishing up the awards presentation.

The keynote speaker was after lunch and we had Lesléa Newman this year, the author of Heather Has Two Mommies as well as a huge portfolio of books. She talked about how she stood on the shoulders of giants to influenced and guided her. She also read from some of her work. I don’t read poetry but I was so moved by her recital of several pieces of her poems. There was a beat, a rhythm, to her reading and I was tapping my fingers following her. I sat next to a friend T at an earlier author spotlight session and she said she always listened to people reading with her eyes closed and I spotted her tapping out a beat with her fingers at a reading too.

The very last session I went to at this conference was moderated by two authors who run a successful writing group. Our group exercise was to talk about setting up a writing group and we had a nice discussion. Our group focused on what we wanted from a group and we agreed that honesty and having common goals were important factors.

While the majority of the conference goers went off to rest and have dinner, our stress started. Rehearsal for presenters went well. I had about 30mins to eat dinner–I asked for a takeout box at lunch to grab some turkey salad I put in the fridge. A had a can of coke zero for me too, it was perfect. At 5pm it was setup time. The helpful staff at the hotel helped us set up computers, sound, video cameras, the stage, furniture and lots more. We had a small team–2 of us at the tech table, 2 at the awards table next to the stage, 3 videographers, 1 photographer and the MC. People tried to come in early but we sorted them out.

gcls2017logo

The awards started and for the 4th year in a row, I was running the deck. Started off well until the first award that was announced. As soon as the presenter announced the winner my powerpoint crashed. Luckily the hotel AV person had set up a dump screen (static screen of our logo) for us so Car switched to it quickly while I restarted and found my place. Altogether we were down for about 20 seconds. People said to me afterwards they noticed the glitch but were amazed we got it back so quickly. It’s not about the glitch or error, it’s about how you recover.

The rest of the presentation was fine. I kept up with the presenters and followed the scripts for special awards. We did away with proxies coming on stage this year and the whole ceremony took only around 2hrs. We had lots of praises, about how smoothly it went and how they appreciated it finishing early.

As usual, I spent the dance in a perpetual state of drunkeness. On our table we had writers tears, port and wine. I wasn’t drinking that much, but it was the relief of getting the awards over with. Someone bought a beer for me late in the evening too. Went to bed at 2am.

conference day 03

ladder

Again, being good students, we woke up early to go to the 8.30am sessions. I was so glad I did. The one I went to, the presenter talked about the ladder of inference. We all do this, we take external data, filter and make decisions or perform actions based on our own experiences and belief system. The trick is to recognise we are doing this and learn how to expand our thinking and be open to unfamiliar experiences. It’s very interesting, so much so that I texted mm about it. We’ll need to discuss it more when I get back.

There was another great session on the intersection of identities, where the panel made up of authors from different ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, nationality, ages. They talked about their personal experiences and how they incorporated their different backgrounds into their books.

At the break I got talking to a new friend and missed the session before lunch. Not sorry at all. My new friend S had lived and travelled all over the world and was in her previous life a tv and film producer. We bonded over our shared view of Cannes (a dump) and shared life stories. I would need to read her books asap as they sounded like they would be wonderful. She gave me a tip, to approach someone I looked up to and who had the closest style to mine (or what I aspire to) and ask for their help. I realised I may have been asking the wrong people or asking the wrong questions. I need to be more focused and targeted.

After lunch was our special speaker. The great thing about this conference is I learn about and meet people who I would never have the chance to. As ever, our special and keynote speakers talked extensively about their lives, their writing and impart great wisdom for us to take away. After the special speaker I went to a session about juggling romance with kids (real life and in books) and one where authors talked about how their faith influenced their lives and writing. I hadn’t planned on going to either of these, but I was glad I did. I also got to sit with my friend Jane who I haven’t had much chance to chat with this year.

chi122gibsons chi125gibsons

A and I decided to go to gibson’s for dinner. It’s in the hotel next door and a short walk. Yes, expensive but we both liked a good steak. We shared half a dozen oysters to start, they were good flavoured and balanced. Shared a bone-in ribeye for mains, which was really good. Not quite as good as hawksmoor because it wasn’t chargrilled enough. I also found it needed a tad more seasoning. For drinks I had a cinnamon infused makers mark 46. Wow, yummy.

The evening social event was karaoke. Good atmosphere this year. My name was even called out but it was because I got the group together to sing “I feel pretty” for our late friend Pam Butler. Stayed later than I expected.

conference day 01

tealiqueur

If I’d thought about it more, I would have bought croissants, yogurt, fruit for breakfast. But I forgot so breakfast was a bagel and cream cheese from the hotel café. Wednesday morning of the conference is usually setup and I found myself in the main room helping with the silent auction, moving stuff, introducing the official photographer to various people. This year’s silent auction has so much stuff. A and I each brought whisky. There were plenty of books, posters, gifts, food baskets. A member donated a lovely bowl she made herself; there was a set of 3 beautiful pics taken at venice; lots of doctor who and xena memorabilia too. Editors offered manuscript critique, writers offered characters in their books, a leathercraft company offered custom made gloves. I have my eyes on a set of miniature bottles of tea spirits from thomas and sons distillery that my friends J and H brought from portland. I wonder if they were one of the ones I could have visited when I was in portland in 2014.

A and I planned to go to one of the nearby steakhouses for lunch but we were invited to lunch at the hotel by the awards review committee. I had the burger and a glass of wine. I heard the burger was good, it was okay.

And so after lunch the conference officially started. Over 350 attendees, the biggest yet. After the opening remarks the sessions started and there were so many to choose from. I went to an open mic, a coffee chat and had some ice cream at the meet’n’greet in the evening. They also had hot dogs (we being in chicago and all) but I only had the sausage and some tomato slices; I was calling it sausage salad hahaha.

Had some official things to do afterwards, which didn’t take long.

In the evening, I and a group of others were invited to a dinner celebrating the wedding of our friends L and C. They had officially gotten married a few months ago and wanted to celebrate with us, it was very sweet. The event started with a lovely, loving movie and several people stood up to make short speeches. Very touched to have been invited and I wish the couple the best.

chicago trip day 08

Woke up at 5.30am because we had an early start. We loaded up my suitcase and muji bag of things for people and the silent auction and were off at 7am. It being a public holiday the roads were relatively clear. I took a chance and asked reception if the room was ready and it was. I dumped my bags and joined the group for breakfast and part of their meeting.

chi022wrigley

Very interesting meeting but I and another meeting attendee had to leave at 11am to get a lyft to Wrigley to see the baseball game. A was at a downtown hotel and would meet me at our seats. I’m not sure why we needed to get to the park so early, we got there at 11.45am and they wandered off to their seats. I walked around the outside of the stadium, made my way inside and explored the concession stands. Lots of food–beer,hot dogs, snacks. Souvenir shops too. I got a goose island beer (had to look for it, it was mostly budweiser) and a giordano’s pizza–I asked for cheese and got pepperoni, sigh. Our seats were in the shade behind first base. The game started at 1.20pm, I had over an hour to wait. Again, not sure why the friends took that lyft so early.

chi033flag

It being Independence Day, there was a parade of military personnel, a display of an American flag that covered most of the field, and we stood for the National Anthem.

chi043baseball

To be honest, I found the game boring. There’d be short bursts of action then long periods of waiting around for teams to get organised or change positions or talk strategy. It’s not continuous and makes the game very long, total I think this game was 3 hours.

The cubs were playing tampa bay rays. Cubs took a 1-0 lead but rays in one innings went up 1-6. It wasn’t till the end of the 9th innings that things got exciting. Cubs fought back to 5-6. Two out and two strikes there were people on bases. If the batter hit the ball far enough they’d have a chance to win. But in the end they didn’t so final score cubs 5 rays 6.

We took the red line to A’s hotel, stopping off to get some stuff at walgreens and visit cheesecake factory. Taxi to a blue line station, L to rosemont then taxi to the hotel.

chi113quesadilla

A little tired but hungry. Walked over to the retail park 5mins from the hotel. There was a band and food stalls as people celebrated the holiday. We found seats at a mexican place and I had blackened shrimp quesadilla which was quite good.

chi081fireworks

Had a wine at the hotel bar and joined others to watch fireworks. Long day and tired.

chicago trip day 07

gcls201702storage

Conference starts this week. Today we needed to move the boxes that are in storage to the hotel. We took a few larger boxes and drove over to the hotel, around 30mins away next to the airport. It’s my first time at the hotel.

Just a couple of steps into the lobby and I started seeing familiar faces. Lots of hellos and hugs. Couldn’t talk to someone for long because someone else would coma along and there would be a new round of hellos and hugs. It’s good.

Eventually we rounded enough people and cars to go to the storage place. Total 5 cars. I rode with Brenda since I know the way, BadgerBliss followed us. Good drivers, Brenda always knew where Karen was and Karen followed closely.

When we go to the storage place, we found that one of the cars had gone missing. Yikes!! Luckily everyone had mobile phones so no one is completely cut off or lost. We started loading and were so efficient that we were done within 10-15mins. The lost car arrived, and it turned out we didn’t need it. Clearly it’s a group who knew how to stuff and pack because we got everything into the 4 cars. Great teamwork.

The staff at the hotel met us at the loading dock and helped us unload the cars and bring the boxes to where they needed to be. We were quite tired at the end of the exercise, said goodbye to people and went home.

chicago trip day 03

Carleen had a hair appointment so I went with her to the mall and walked around during her appointment. Didn’t by anything, although towels and a suitcase ($109 only) were tempting.

Mostly, I hit the 4 pokestops in the middle of the mall. Pokemon go is very disappointing here, now I understand what people are saying about suburbs and rural: I can see pidgeys and spinaraks around the house and there is one stop at the now-empty Radioshack store. That’s it. St Walter’s is a gym and there are 2 stops there. There are no chance for raids. I’ll have to figure out a way to go to a stop once a day. That said, I think I’ve evolved all the gen 2 level 2 that I can and for the others I have the evolution item and need more candies. I’ll have to find a way to go into the city one day to try to find tauros.

The salad I bought at the supermarket was nice and the fried chicken too.

chicago trip day 02

I woke up in the middle of the night, as expected. But managed to fall back to sleep and woke up at a decent hour.

Mostly resting today. Went to the supermarket and bought food: ham, bread, eggs, milk, yogurt, snacks, wine. Plus 10 instant rice that was on sale for $10.

Got tired early so went to bed early too.

chicago trip day 01

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Left at 8.15am and should have remembered it’s rush hour. Took around 15mins to get a taxi, I was looking at uber when one arrived. The driver was joking that he was looking for a public bathroom, so I told him about the one in the small park. He was okay, he could wait till we get to the station. Hahaha, TMI.

Check-in was fast. The plane was full, I got upgraded to premium economy. But no lounge access.

Had breakfast in the airport, made an attempt at walking around the shops and sat at the gate for over an hour. Not bored, though. Because it was a US flight, there was secondary screening security theatre. Another queue, and then another to get on the plane. The seats are 2-4-2, so not that much extra width; slightly more legroom than regular economy. I was in seat D and the 3 seats next to me were a group of three colleagues so they never got in my way.

Saw Hidden Figures, Passengers, Star Wars ep 7 and 5 eps of X-files 2016 season. Not sure why they only had 5 eps instead of all 6. Hidden Figures was wonderful, justifying every positive review I’ve seen about it. Passengers was meh, it was the best of the meagre superhero/sci-fi film selection that I like watching on the plane.

Food was okay. Overcooked beef filet for one meal and sea bass with skin still on and bones for the other. Ate everything because I was hungry. Got instant noodles too.

Arrived at around 1.30pm, taxi to the terminal was around 10mins. Got through passport control super fast–the e-passport really works. One suitcase came out relatively quickly but the other one was almost the last one out, after a long wait. Another queue to hand in the custom form at the end. Carleen met me at the carpark and we were on out way soon.

usairspace

Carleen had been tracking my flight. Look at all the planes over US airspace at one moment on a weekday afternoon.

Early dinner at the steakhouse. Then back to the house. Rested, read, washed the sheets.

I lasted till 9.30pm, then my eyes started drooping and it was bedtime. Tired, long day but glad to have arrived.

checked in, packed

I was in the middle of binge-watching bake-off when I remembered I have to check-in. The flight is either completely full or I didn’t put my number in so I can’t see available seats. Anyway, I have an aisle seat because the ticket let me pre-book seats. This is also a 100% mileage flight, so I start accruing miles for a change.

Finished watching all the bake-off episodes and it was time to pack. I was considering whether to bring the large suitcase or two medium. Opted for 2 medium to spread the weight out. One has almost all stuff that I’ll leave behind: whisky, timtams, souvenirs, gifts.

packingcubes

I also used the packing cubes I got from muji. Very neat, the medium cube fits into the bottom of the suitcase and the small one plus the toiletries bag take up the top quarter. I thought about getting compression cubes, but decided these light ones work just as well. The electronics grid-it holder will flip over and fit over the two small items. The large grey plastic bag top left is full of timtams and picnic.

nagoya trip summary

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Finished writing up trip and uploaded pics. This was a fantastic trip, and I’m very glad I insisted on going to a new destination rather than Hokkaido or Tokyo. It was a bit hectic, we tried to cram probably one or two stops too many, but we both agree it was worth the hassle. Having a car really, really helped. Some numbers:

  • duration: 8 days, 7 nights
  • hotels: 4 total
  • distance driven: 882km (548 miles)
  • pics taken: 976 original, trimmed to 696 in 6 sets

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Total spend excluding personal shopping around USD2,200 per person. The package was decent value, notwithstanding the 4 nights that the agent incorrectly booked. They confirmed they will refund my credit card, so it’s all good. Transport was expensive, between car rental, tolls, and the alpine route ticket. Looking a past Japan expenses, transportation is always expensive.

Posts:

flickr sets:

Some more interesting pics. Takayama traditional house:
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Saw a group of customised motorbikes in a car park at Takayama:
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Cannot get enough of the view from our onsen hotel room:
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Koi kites at Shirakawa-go:
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Tilt-shift Shirakawa-go village:
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Sake, sake, sake:
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Trolley bus through Tateyama tunnel felt like something out of a sci-fi film:
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Waiting for the bus, and then two comes at the same time:
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Kenrukuen panorama:
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Lanterns:
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Manhole covers:
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chicago flight booked

Cathay Pacific Economy Class Cabin
image via flickr user lukelai under cc

I bit the bullet and booked my flight to Chicago. There are 2 airlines with direct flight and since one of the is UA, I only have one realistic choice. Been waiting and waiting for CX to come up with offers but no luck. I hate that they’re going the route of other airlines, nickel and diming passengers. The cheapest fare has no points, can’t reserve seats and is generally extremely inflexible. From what I can see, the flight is pretty full and available seats in that booking class are middle seats. Argh. Not for 16hrs.

Discussed with mm and we both agree it’s worth splashing out on the next booking class. 100% points, more choices and can pre-book seats. This is what economy class flying has come to, what a shame.

nagoya trip day 08: flight

Checked out at 10am. We had loads of time, slowly wheeled our luggage across the station to catch the train to the airport. In retrospect we should have left our bags with the hotel and gone looking for chicken wings, but ah well.

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The counter wasn’t open so we took our luggage with us to the food court. Had a decent local fish chirashi, then some shopping at muji and the pokemon store.

Flight was full, but we’d strategically picked aisle seats in the middle section and the seat between us was vacant, so yay. Watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them which was very enjoyable. Too tired to get the bus home, took a taxi.

nagoya trip day 07: suganuma, nagoya

sug021village

Sniff sniff, our last full day. It’d been a hectic trip, we probably tried to cram in too much. But all of the places we visited had been worth it.

Went to a bakery café at the station for breakfast, bought additional bread and doughnuts for the road too. Went to the supermarket to get apples, and bought a small bottle of sake.

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The drive to nagoya was just over 3hrs so we had plenty of time, setting off at 10.45am. Around half an hour in, we saw the signs for gokayama so we decided to take the detour. Gokayama is another world heritage gassho heritage village like Shirakawa-go. Somehow we ended up at Suganuma despite following the signs. No matter, what a revelation. Smaller than Shirakawa-go but so much more peaceful and with only a handful of tourists. All the houses were concentrated around a small area and there were even workers working to replace the roof of one of the houses.

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Lunch was soba, fried tofu, hida beef buns and unfiltered sake. All the delicious food we have been trying on the trip. The other side of the main village, through a short tunnel, were more gassho houses. Completely empty, until we noticed a map that said it was a youth camp. Probably the off-season and it seemed like a great place to camp in the summer. Both Suganuma and Shirakawa-go offered ryokan accommodation; next time it’d be something we will consider. Tha facilities would be basic, no air-con and likely shared bathrooms, but the villages offered tranquility and the opportunity to get away into nature.

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Long drive back to nagoya and the GPS took us to some odd building, not our hotel. Google maps to the rescue, it was just a few blocks out. The hotel was a higher class business class hotel than the no-frills one we were supposed to be booked into. Double the price. Really nice room with large beds, a sofa and a large bathroom. Top floor with floor length windows offering views of the city. Just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We went to the petro station, returned our car (882km total, less than one tank of petrol and an eye-popping ¥18650 in tolls), walked to Jins to get our glasses and did some drugstrore shopping.

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Seemed like the Chūbu region is more famed for cooked food than sashimi so we walked around the station looking for chicken wings. This izakaya we came across was cozy and had a great Friday evening atmosphere. Our new favourite drink was umeshu soda and we ordered 10 chicken wings, plus an assortment of other small dishes. Another new favourite was cucumber with miso, this we could make at home easily.

Last minute shopping at lawson’s then back to hotel to pack and rest for the night.

nagoya trip day 06: kanazawa market, kenrukuen, higashi chaya

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At last, a leisurely day with no huge pressure to wake up early. First stop was the fish market, which after more walking than we preferred, we found a place that served sushi. We both got the tuna, ikura and crabmeat chirashi. Some Korean tv crew came into the restaurant whilst we were eating and filmed some tv star eating the restaurant’s largest sushi dish at one of the outside tables. It attracted a crowd, but we were never sure who the star was so we focused on eating our meal. The sushi was okay, nothing special. Had grilled eel and fish at another nearby stall and then we left for our next destination.

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The highlight of Kanazawa was Kenrukuen garden, one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. It had all the elements of great garden design like tranquility, harmony, water feature. Although it was fairly crowded, we never felt bothered and we could always find a quiet spot. There was a beautiful lake, and the trees and flowers were in perfect harmony with each other. A great place to walk around, breathe in the fresh air and take in the features.

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Even the shops outside were nice, we bought even more folders and I got a salty soda which tasted like upmarket fizzy pocari. We saw a group of three women in kimonos, whether they were geishas or just women in traditional costumes we didn’t know.

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From the garden we drove to higashi chaya tea house district. Traditional wooden houses in a pedstrian district, the houses used to be inhabited by geishas, hence the tea house aspect. Lots of picture opportunities and we stopped at a teahouse–iced matcha for me, hot matcha latte for mm and we shared a tea-flavoured chiffon cake. One thing we did resist throughout the day was the gold leaf covered ice cream that seemd to be everywhere. Kanazawa produces the majority of Japan’s gold leaves and these ice cream are supposed to be unique. Problem was, gold leaves are tasteless and we didn’t see the point of trying plain vanilla soft serve. We had green tea and sesame ice cream near kenrukuen and it was much better.

A few minutes from higashi chaya across town was a shopping district. We hadn’t done much shopping on this trip so it was nice to stop by tokyu hands. Bought some stationery and mm bought more cosmetics. Looking at google maps we saw a nearby chicken restaurant. We were early so were the only customers. The chicken skewers and chicken wings were nice, but nothing to write home about, so we went back to the hotel for ramen, bath and dessert in our room.

Our travel agent had been in touch throughout the past two days, trying to find a hotel for us in nagoya. Not successful, so we’re keeping the one we reserved ourselves.

nagoya trip day 05: tateyama-kurobe alpine route

6.30am alarm, we set off before 7.30am. The destination was tateyama-kurobe alpine route 立山黒部, or alpenroute as they shortened it. This region of the japanese alps get huge amounts of snow every winter and the buildings at the top of tateyama are snowed in until they can get snow ploughs going in march. A narrow corridor gets opened along the road up to the hotel at the top and the snow can reach 20m. A few years ago they realised they could turn this into a tourist attraction, and in typical Japanese fashion, came up with a route that goes from Tateyama up the mountain, along the snow corridor, down via ropeway and cable car to Kurobe dam on the other side. Several different modes of transport on one ticket. There are also a couple of companies that lets people drop off their car and then pick it up on the other side. We opted for a return from Tateyama to Kurobe dam and I bought the ticket online earlier, with a specific start time of 10am.

The GPS guidance up to now had been stellar. The navi systems in Japan allows us to enter a phone number of the destination as well as name. There was a hiccup this time round to Tateyama, almost at the end it took us to a steep footpath with an abrupt dropoff on the driver’s side. I shouldn’t have followed it but I did. Luckily we got through and rejoined the road, but it was scary for a moment.

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We had experience with a planned, organised route through a sightseeing area before when we did the Hakone loop, but that didn’t prepare us for the sheer mayhem that was the alpenroute. We joined the queue at 9.55am for the 10am cable car, which was completely full. It took us up a 24% incline to the next stop where we joined another queue for the bus, which was also full. So full that a few people had to sit on the additional tour guide seats that opened up between the regular seats. The bus trip was almost one hour, and it took us from temperate temperatures to snow. Then we drove through the snow corridor, literally a corridor opened up with walls of snow either side of the road.

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We made an executive decision once we got to Murodo, the end of the bus leg and where the snow corridor attraction was. The place was pandemonium, people everywhere. The reason was it was around noon, and people who started their journey on both the east and west points on the route were converging at the same time on Murodo. Since we were going roundtrip as opposed to one way, we decided to get to our end point, Kurobe dam, then make our way back, to avoid the crush. So it was a matter of hopping on even more modes of transportation: a trolley bus that went through a tunnel in the mountain, the ropeway and another cable car.

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It was a good decision. The dam was really peaceful and the weather was good. Took around 15mins to walk across to the other side and then it was time for lunch; I had katsu-don and mm had tempura udon. Probably the most disappointing food on the trip so far, definitely below par and tasting like fast food. Served its purpose, filled us up considering we didn’t have a proper breakfast.

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Went through the clouds on the way back up and down the mountain, which was an interesting experience. By the time we arrived at the snow corridor it was around 3pm and the crowd had thinned out somewhat. The snow corridor was basically a stretch of road leading to the bus stop, with one side of the road roped off for pedestrians. A sign at the end of the roped area showed where the snow was highest, 16m this winter. People queued up for pictures and the gentleman who took our picture tried to get a bus in the background. As it was nearing the end of the tour day, there were plenty of buses along the road, which was the perfect way of showing how high the wall was. To be honest, at that point we were quite tired from all the travelling and found the snow wall a bit underwhelming. The light didn’t give pictures as good as postcards and the snow wall itself wasn’t pristine white. Still very nice and an interesting sight.

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The map showed a trail to a small lake at the back of the building and we thought we might try going there. Problem was the path hadn’t been ploughed and it was slippery to negotiate. We needed boots and poles. Gave up after about 100m and took the bus and cable car back to the bottom of the mountain. I like this pic that shows a bus coming up through the corridor. When we got back down the mountain to Tateyama station we still had a 1.5hr drive back to Kanazawa but it was a good day out and we were back in our room by 7pm.

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The hotel recommended a nearby izakaya, around 5mins’ walk. Unfortunately it was full and everyone was smoking so we left and went to one across the road. It was a good choice. I had a much needed beer and we ordered yakitori, chicken wings, chicken cartilege and a really yummy asparagus-mushroom dish. They were sold out of beef and gizzards, and chicken wings too when we tried to order a second portion. We went back to the hotel, went to the bath and had the hotel ramen. Did laundry too, the washers were free and the dryers ¥100 for 20mins.

nagoya trip day 04: shirakawa-go

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We asked for a window seat at breakfast and were not disappointed. What a view! The server told us that we were looking at umbrella mountain, the #1 mountain in Gifu Prefecture (Fuji is #1 in Japan, he acknowledged). The breakfast was even more satisfying than yesterday’s, if that was possible. The tray was positively brimming with smal dishes and we got to grill our own fish too.

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We set off at 10am to head to Shirakawa-go 白川郷, around 1.5hrs. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage site of gassho thatched cottages, or steep high-sided thatched roofs intended to withstand the heavy snowfalls in winter. The name gassho meant prayer hands, because of the shape the roof made.

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The entire site was quite crowded with many tour groups. There was the inevitable commercialisation of the village, with the main street full of souvenir shops and food stands. Didn’t detract from its natural beauty though; after the region attained world heritage status, the houses had to be maintained using thatched roofs but we could see a few that had been modernised before they got the status. We stopped at one of the shops that had a sake bar and ordered one sake and one unfiltered sake. The unfiltered one was absolutely delicious. The intense taste of the rice that was still present in the liquid, so sweet and so satisfying. We bought a jar to take home with us.

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We didn’t go inside the houses that were open to the public. At the top of the village was a steep path that led to a viewpoint up the hill. Good exercise and worth the walk. Stunning views of the village, surrounded by green mountains and there was still snow at the top of the mountains in the background. I played around with the tiltshift app on my phone, the small lego-like houses were perfect for this purpose.

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Despite the commercialisation, it was still a working village. Away from the main street, villagers were farming the land or in greenhouses. It wasn’t as remote as it seemed–there was no part of Japan that was truly remote–the villagers went about their business, there were plenty of cars around and we saw the post being delivered throughout the day. Lunch was soba with a small bowl of flavoured rice. The cold, refreshing soba dipped in sauce was the perfect lunch, not too heavy and no need for meat.

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Explored the lower end of the village and stopped at a café-shop. I had iced matcha latte and mm had coffee. The matcha latte was just like green tea milkshake and better than ice cream. The shop sold cute accessories and stationery; I bought a couple of notebooks for my niece. We’d been stocking up on folders along the way and I had a good selection already.

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The last stop of the day was the open air heritage museum. By the time we got there we were the last people to enter and the place was completely empty. Didn’t think the tour groups went there anyway. There were around 20 thatched houses that we learned were transported from the village to the museum and faithfully reconstructed. The interiors were large and open plan. We ventured up to the first floor of one but didn’t go to any more because the stairs were pretty steep and precarious. A couple of houses were showing videos of the village’s history and there was one video of how the thatched roofs were made. Very manual and intensive. Takes a lot of skill and knowhow to add the thick layers in the right way to ensure support and protection. Thick ropes and needles secured the bundles to interior beams.

From Shirakawa-go we headed to Kanazawa for the next 3 nights. When we got to the hotel we discovered to our horror that our agent had booked us on the wrong dates (June instead of May). The hotel front desk staff were wonderful, they got the manager’s approval to let us have a vacant room they saved for emergencies even though they were officially full. Additional cost, but we would claim this from our agent. We discovered the next hotel was also booked for the wrong date and the staff called for us, even though it was a different chain. Unfortunately there were no rooms so first thing we did when we got to our room was hit up hotels.com. Pretty full but I was able to find a room near the station. It was nice to have a bigger room for 3 days, the room was probably saved for VIPs as it was on the top floor and larger than the usual rooms.

Pretty tired after the long day so we walked to the station, found a supermarket and bought sushi to eat back in our room. The hotel had a sento, aka public bath. A small indoor pool, an even smaller outdoor pool and a sauna. The water didn’t feel like onsen water, we could smell chlorine. The sauna was great and much needed after a long day’s walking and driving.

nagoya trip day 03: takayama

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Breakfast at this hotel was served in the restaurant, which was a change. A nicely presented selection of small dishes, with fish as the protein. What was outstanding was the miso heated over shiso leaves: a combination of salty, sweet, smoky. Yum.

Drove out to Takayama, parked in town today. Typical efficient Japanese carpark, only a few spaces with automatic sensor. A ramp comes up underneath the car when it senses movement, when we leave we pay at the machine and it tells us how much. The ramp lowers and we have 3 mins to move the car. We had been noticing yesterday, so were on the lookout for cheaper hourly places.

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The destination this morning was miyagawa morning market by the river. Mainly stalls selling fruit, vegetables and some craft. A mix of local and tourists. We bought really huge juicy apples and sake from a sake shop. Stopped at a coffee stall run by an elderly lady. Two things on the menu-coffee and iced coffee–I was even okay with the coffee provided I added lots of cream. There was a sign that the stall had been in business since 1975. We felt proud to be part of its history.

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Lunch was at a butcher shop-restaurant. Weekday lunch special, A5 hida beef that we grilled at the table, this time cut in cubes. The best beef on the trip so far in my opinion. Polished off with a bottle of cold sake.

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There was more time to walk around Takayama old town, and by the end of the afternoon we had covered almost all of it. It being a monday, there were definitely fewer people than yesterday and we were able to spend more time exploring the souvenir shops, sake shops or take pictures of the traditional wooden houses.

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There was even a visit to a miso / soy sauce shop and they were serving samples of miso soup. Discovered the souvenir find of this trip–plastic folders! We’d gotten to the point of not wanting to buy too many souvenirs, and tired of always buying the same mochi or sweets. Folders are cheap, useful and make great souvenirs.

We saved enough time to drive to a drugstore we saw yesterday. Bought tea and mm bought some cosmetics.

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Time for onsen before dinner, and a little time to sit at the rest area to have a cup of tea or coffee too. The rest area looked out onto the deck, if we had more time at the hotel it would be so peaceful to sit out there and absorb the mountain view.

Kaiseki dinner started with a really refreshing yogurt liquor. The starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling. Hida beef was cooked as a shabu shabu, and the soup was used to make udon at the end. We were both full by then but the udon was so good we managed to eat a bowl each.

Time to pack and sleep.

nagoya trip day 02: takayama, onsen

Our hotel included breakfast. It was pretty much a mad scramble with around a hundred people in a canteen-like dining room with long tables and everything self-serve. Curry, rice, scrambled eggs, sausages, heaps of salad, fruit. I made tea from hot water. Even though it was a mad scramble, everyone was well-mannered and organised. No shouting, no pushing, no cutting in line. There was even a queue to return dirty trays and people wiped the table after them using the cloth provided. This is what I love about the Japanese people.

We checked out and crossed the street to pick up our rental car from the toyota rent-a-car office. Spending time on research means picking the correct location. Our car was a blue Aqua, which is the local equivalent of a Prius C so basically we were renting Ryan for a week. Added ETC card rental because we knew there would be lots of tolls.

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Attempted to go to the central market but it looked closed so we headed straight onto the motorway towards Takayama. Easy 1.5hr drive. We drove around the town, through the middle of the mass of tourists at the old town area and ended up at a shopping street 10-15mins’ walk from the station. Parking there was free, ostensibly for the shopping street only so we made sure to visit there first. Already we saw stuff we love: Japanese sweets and local sake. The nice lady gave us samples and we tried valiantly to communicate with each other using broken English and copious domo arigatou gozaimasu.

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We walked around the old town quickly to find lunch. We knew we wanted hida beef, the local speciality that has similar marbling to kobe and matsuzaka beef. We chose the grilled thin-sliced A5 grade hida beef rice set. It was served hitsumabushi style, with condiments and broth. Fantastic. Tender and juicy beef and everything so well balanced.

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We had around 2 hrs after lunch to explore around town. Saw part of the old town main street, bought cute ceramic ornaments, sampled more sake. Ate green tea ice cream that was disappointing (too icy). Bought fruit and tea at the supermarket. Walked back to the shopping street to buy souvenirs and a bottle of sake from the nice lady.

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We were on a schedule. It was around 1hr’s drive to the onsen hotel and we wanted to get there before 5pm. It’s a big sprawling hotel with several wings. Luxurious lobby and an entire shelf of yukatas so we could pick the pattern we liked. We found out our dinner slot was at 8pm so that meant we had time to rest. Our room was absolutely wonderful and totally exceeded our expectations. It was a suite! The bedroom was tatami, with low mattresses and more than enough room to lay our suitcases out. Then there was a sitting room with sink and fridge, and a massage chair. The view from the sitting room out to the garden was spectacular, there was a small stream and daffodils just beginning to appear. Best of all, we had our own onsen bathtub, wow. Everything was clean too, so it wasn’t a case of not wanting to touch or use the tub.

There was time before dinner to go to the onsen. There was a large indoor pool, a couple of tubs outside and an outdoor pool. Not too crowded and all very nice. Oh, a low temperature sauna too. We needed the relaxation of an onsen, it was great to just soak in the hot water. Fresh milk was available for free in the small sitting area outside the baths, we shared one bottle so as not to ruin our appetite.

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The restaurant was quite posh and as usual the kaiseki menu had lots of courses. Started off with an alcoholic aperitif, then starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling before the main course. It was the local attraction, hida beef, which we grilled ourselves at the table. Really yummy. Finished off with beef pot, rice and dessert.

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Even though we’d already used the onsen, I wanted to wash my hair because of the grease and smell from dinner. So I used our private onsen tub. It was okay, took a long time to fill, by then I was bored so I only soaked for a few minutes.

Long day travelling, picturesque traditional town and an outstanding hotel room. Totally worth it.

nagoya trip day 01: flight, nagoya

Early start, 5am alarm because mm was setting off before me and I wanted to make sure she got up. I was planning on catching the 6.30am bus, managed to catch the one before that. It was standing room only! Seemed like I was sharing the bus with airport workers going to work and a few travellers catching early flights. Since I was early I went to get the pocket wifi before meeting mm. Check-in was easy and we were inside quickly. Breakfast was eggs I made yesterday (perfectly soft boiled if I may say so myself) and sandwiches mm made. The alternative would have been Mcdonalds and we only got tea and coffee from them.

The flight was almost full. I got us adjoining aisle seats when I checked in, on purpose. Watched La la land which, for all the hype, was a little disappointing. Not the sort of film I watch on planes.

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The plane was a litte early. We checked the transportation board and confirmed that the limited express train was the best way. The information centre had a helpful hand-drawn leaflet too, so cute. Only 30mins to Nagoya main station. Our hotel was around 10mins’ walk and the only difficulty was figuring which direction. Pocket wifi and google maps took care of that. We were only there for one night, so the no-frills business semi-double room suited our purpose.

ngo003tower

The area around the station was full of modern buildings and posh shops. Our first destination was Jins glasses shop. My research showed us it was at the station mall and we found it easily enough. Quite comical, trying to get my eyes tested and barely able to communicate with the optican there. I have the frame which I bought in Tokyo and it’s ¥5000 per feature–I needed graduated lenses and I added UV-sensitive coating. Economical price, and I’ll get the new glasses in 1 week.

ngo017hitsumabushi

More research told us foodwise we should be trying the unagi hitsumabushi. The eel in Nagoya are fatter and tastier river eels and they grill the entire fish instead of steaming then grilling in other locations. The idea is to add flavour and smokiness. Hitsumabushi means to sample three ways: plain, then with condiments, then dipped in a dashi broth. We found a restaurant in a mall next to the station and gave it a go. It was definitely tasty, as expected from well executed unagi. Plain, with wasabi and with broth were all great. I ended up mixing the eel and rice with wasabi then eating with the broth.

On the way back to the hotel, we visited drugstores we noticed earlier. Bought snacks and a 2l bottle of tea for travelling. We only started noticing drugstores last time in Tokyo, turns out they have an enormous selection of toiletries, cosmetics but also snacks, household goods, gadgets and interesting stuff.

trip research: food

For our nagoya-takeyama-kanazawa trip (read the first post, there are beautiful pics) there will be the usual sushi, sashimi, seafood, ramen, izakaya food but on top of that the region has speciality food that we will want to try.

hida beef

hidabeef

Kobe and matsuzaka beef are famous all over the world for their tenderness, marbling and, well, high prices. Hida beef, or hida-gyu, is lesser known but have the same high quality taste and marbling. In order to be labelled hida-gyu, the meat must come from black-haired Japanese wagyu cattle bred in the Gifu prefecture and fattened for at least 14 months. The meat must be certified to be graded 3, 4 or 5 by the Japan Meat Grading Association. They take their meat grading very seriously in Japan.

Gifu cattle first started being reared as meat as opposed to use for work in the 1980s. Hida beef has won numerous awards in the Wagyu Beef Olympics. Yep, they do take their beef seriously in Japan.

The onsen hotel in Takayama where we will spend 2 nights includes the typical kaiseki dinner. The dishes page has numerous pics of hida beef and we think we’ll be able to enjoy at least one meal with hida beef shabu shabu or grilled. I’m sure we’ll want to try it more than once ao I’ve been doing research on other restaurants in the area that also offer hida beef and have a list.

There are also street stalls selling hida gyu-man or hida beef buns. These will be nice snacks. Or we may even be crazy enough to buy some to bring home.

hitsumabushi

hitsumabushi

Nagoya is one of the top regions for producing river eel. Hitsumabushi is a style of unagi-don that is ubiquitious to the nagoya region. The difference is in the preparation: the eel is grilled vs in other regions it’s steamed then grilled. I can just imagine how much more smoky flavour there is in the grilled eel.

The most well known hitsumabushi restaurant in nagoya is atsuta horaiken; they have been preparing eel over charcoal grill for 140 years. And being Japanese, they have suggestions on how to savour the meal:

  1. taste the eel as is
  2. taste the eel with condiments served (spring onions, ginger, nori)
  3. add green tea
  4. eat as you like — ie whichever favourite from the last 3 methods

Unagi has gotten expensive over the years, especially wild river eel which is fattier and more tasty than ocean eel. We’re thinking this will be dinner on our first night.

gold leaf ice cream

goldice

Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan’s gold leaves. The latest craze is wrapping soft serve ice cream in gold leaf.

Seems more of a gimmick. To me, edible gold is one of the Stupidest.Ideas.Ever because it’s literally flushing money down the loo. Gold leaf ice cream is around ¥1000, or US$9. Normal soft ice cream is probably 1/4 or 1/3 the price.

But we may still give it a try, if only for the instagram moment.

p.s. again, not my pics. Google image. No copyright infringement intended.

next trip: nagoya region

alpenroute

We just finalised our next trip. Mid-May, to Nagoya. We’re excited because it’s a new destination in Japan. We’ve been to the Kanto area (Tokyo), Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto) and Hokkaido; the central Chubu area is a natural progression to add to the list.

We only have 8 days and poor Nagoya is basically going to be overnight stops at the beginning and end of the trip so we won’t get much chance to explore the city. We will be spending most of our time in the GIfu prefecture, at Tateyama 高山 and Kanazawa 金沢.


There are a number of absolutely stunning attractions in the area. In the Mt Tateyama area is the Tateyama Kurobe alpine route 立山黒部. This area is called Japan’s northern alps, and it gets a massive amount of snow because of the winter monsoon phenomenon. Atlas Obscura explains:

Frigid Siberian air streaming south and east across the relatively warm waters of the Sea of Japan generates snow clouds, which unleash their flakes as they approach land. The phenomenon is similar to lake-effect snow in the U.S. But while the Great Lakes can freeze over, effectively shutting off the snow machine, the Sea of Japan stays open all winter long. Coastal mountains such as Mt. Tateyama amplify the snow.

Parts of the region gets up to 40m (1500 inches) of snow a year. During winter, the area is closed. Every March, they start the arduous job of clearing the mountain road. Heavy machinery is employed and snow blowers blow snow off the road. By mid-April the road is clear, with a narrow path wending its way up the mountain surrounded by very tall snow walls. A few years ago, the enterprising local council had the brilliant idea of making this snow corridor a tourist attraction. In true Japanese fashion, the visit to the national park is well organised and there are a series of connecting transportation across the area: cable car, ropeway, bus. The stopping points include Murodo, which is 5mins walk from the snow corridor and also has great views of the surrounding mountains. The route ends at the eastern end at Kurobe dam, and there is the opportunity to walk across the dam to view the reservoir.

shirakawago

Another must-see destination in the area are the remote villages of Shirakawa-go 白川郷 and Gokayama 五箇山, famous for their distinctive farmhouses constructed gassho-zukuri styled, which means “like hands in prayer.” The sturdy structure and steep thatched-roofs means the houses can withstand large amounts of snowfall. They are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites:

The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances.

kenrokuen

The third notable attraction would be #1 on any other trip. Kenrokuen has been described as one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. Set in what was the grounds of Kanazawa castle, its name means “garden of the six sublimities” or spaciousness, tranquility, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and magnificent views. According to traditional landscape theory, these are the essential attributes of a perfect garden design.

We realise we do not have enough time. The trick is to enjoy the trip, try not to rush and spend more time in fewer places rather than trying to hit everything.

p.s. these are not my pics; I haven’t been there yet. Gakked from tourist information sites.

cruise refund

cruiserefund

I emailed my travel agent chasing the cruise refund; it’s been over 2 months since the day of the azipod failure. She emailed back that NCL has processed the cruise part of the refund as well as the future credit. I have a suspicion that she forgot to follow up and only after I prodded her that she contacted the cruise department; or the cruise department dropped the ball. Anyway the refund is for the value of the cruise, just over USD1,000 per person. The disappointing thing is that they didn’t refund port fees, which to me smacks of corporate greed. We didn’t go to those ports, so why do we have to pay the fees? My travel agent agrees too, but short of a class action, there isn’t much I can do about it.

The refund goes towards the additional hotels, car rental and other expenses in Melbourne and New Zealand. I can do the calculation to see if we came out ahead, since I kept track of our spending. But I can’t be bothered. Money spent is money spent. I also have a bunch of credit card points from the original payment; I wonder if I’ll lose them because of the refund.

Mum and I have USD500-ish each to spend on a future cruise, valid for 5 years. It’s not a huge amount, in the scheme of cruise cost. No point booking a cruise just to use it up. We’ll see. I will likely never go on the Star and will recommend no one else does too. Other NCL ships, may be. The service was good, the food was good.

They are still processing the Auckland flight refund, hopefully that will be soon.

hotel hunting in japan

I’m helping out a friend who will be travelling to Japan for 2-3 weeks. Tokyo–>Hakone–>Kyoto–>Osaka. Her first time in Japan so I’m sharing my notes of places to visit, things to do, food, markets, transportation. I hope it’s useful.

The current focus is hotels. Budget is €80. What we found out, and are advised by frequent travellers to Japan, is to consider business hotels, or bizunesu hoteru. Seriously, read that out loud and marvel at the Japanese language. These business hotels, quite a number are part of a chain, are not only for business people. They’re no frills, reasonably priced and well located (next to a train station for instance). No frills means no gym, no room service, and some only change bedding every 3-4 days. The rooms will be functional and, since it’s Japan, quite small. But also since it’s Japan, they will be clean and the service polite and efficient.

tok093hotel

We stayed at a Tokyu Stay hotel last time and there was a small kitchenette and a washing machine in our room. A small seating area in the lobby served simple breakfast in the morning and a coffee machine served free coffee the rest of the day; there were also the ubiquitious vending machines for drinks and snacks. A helpful notice board showed nearby restaurants. The front desk helped us book a taxi for 5am check-out. The trip several years ago we stayed at a Superhotel and they had a daiyokujo hot spring bath on site. Next time I’ll also include Daiwa Roynet and Dormy Inn when searching for hotels.

That’s in cities. What we are finding is that Hakone hotels are much more expensive, €100 rooms are really basic. Not a big surprise because hotels there are mostly hot spring resorts that also include dinner.

hak077lake

Sigh. Hakone. Now I want to go there again. Go to Moto-Hakone, stare at Mount Fuji, go back to the hotel and have a full course kaiseki dinner, soak in the onsen and sleep on tatami mats. Heaven or not.

cruise trip posts and pics

the cruise trip is written up and posted.

  • day 01: singapore gardens by the bay, east coast food village
  • day 02: singapore to sydney
  • day 03: sydney farmers market, harbour, barangaroo, watsons bay
  • day 04: sydney fish market, darling harbour, harry’s
  • day 05: sydney fish market, embarkation
  • day 06: at sea, eating
  • day 07: melbourne cbd, qvm
  • day 08: melbourne: fitzroy gardens, mcg, docklands
  • day 09: adrift at sea with no propulsion
  • day 10: on tow
  • day 11: st kilda festival, beach, melbourne riverside
  • day 12: melbourne city circle tram
  • day 13: yarra valley fruit farm, winery
  • day 14: melbourne to auckland
  • day 15: rotorua lake, kuirau park
  • day 16: wai-o-tapu geothermal area, waimangu volcanic valley
  • day 17: hobbiton
  • day 18: waiheke island
  • day 19: auckland mission bay
  • day 20: long flights home

flickr sets:

some of the more unusual pics. The markings on this tree at gardens by the bay in singapore looks like a human face:
sg028treeface

door 5, sydney carriageworks market:
syd045door5

sculpture on waiheke island:
whk032sculpture

penguins taking a selfie, waiheke island:
whk105penguinselfie

trip pics uploaded

I deliberated whether to upload pics and write posts at the same time but decided to tackle one task at a time. All pics are sorted and uploaded. Trimmed 1923 to 1059, including 8 videos.

Trip reports up to day 13 are posted, ie all Australia days.

cruise trip day 21: home

sydpost01timtams

Got home tuesday, or rather, wednesday 1am. By the time I showered and put the perishables in the fridge it was 2am. Woke up around 6am for a bit, finally woke up 11am.

I usually unpack the minute I get home, but last night was an exception because I was simply too tired. I made up for it this morning as I was having my tea and my suitcase is already back in the wardrobe. Mum’s stuff is naturally everywhere, all over the dining table and sitting room. Lunch and dinner were food I’d cooked and put in the freezer before we left, I thought it’s a good bit of planning on my part. Two loads of laundry, Mum did some cleaning, I sorted letters that had accumulated in the postbox, paid bills.

There are a total of 1923 pics to sort and upload. Trip posts beyond Sydney have to be typed up. I’ve kept track of spending, so may be I’ll put it all in a spreadsheet if I get past the fear of finding out the final actual cost. The travel agent says the cruise refund may take 6-8 weeks, but in the meantime there’s the flight, hotels, car rental and additional spending to pay for.

The NYT had one of those short meaningless interviews with Chris Hemsworth about Australia. When asked which one souvenir travellers to Australia should get, he answered

Tim Tams

as it should be. I bought 16 packets of TimTams in total, including 2 of the larger value packs. They are selling special Gelato Messina flavours–salted caramel, coconut & lychee, choc mint and black forest–and I bought at least one packet of each. I also got dark, mango and of course original. Most will be gifted as souvenirs. I also got vegemite and NZ marmite for my niece.

hellyersroad

The one thing I bought for myself was an unexpected surprise. I knew before we flew out that the ship will miss Burnie, which was a disappointment because Tasmania is a huge bucket list destination and also because there would have been a visit to Hellyers Road distillery. I was over the moon to see the whisky on sale at Melbourne duty free. The choice was between full-sized bottles of 10 or 12 year or a box of three 250ml bottles: 10, peated, pinot noir cask. I decided on the 3-bottle pack.

cruise trip day 20: flight

Checked out at 9.30am, drove to airport, returned car. Total 701km driven this trip.

Finished the remaining fruit we had and did some shopping. Mum bought eye serum and I made friends with the people at the whisky counter. Tried aberfeldy 12 and 18, craigellachie 13 and 19. Bought a 1l bottle of craigellachie 13 for NZD99. Bought some more chocolate.

The only lamb we ended up eating in NZ was the turkish sandwich at the airport. Ah well, we have plenty of NZ lamb at home.

auck155middleearth

This was at the airport. The sign says, “On loan from Middle-Earth, Do Not Touch.” Heh.

First flight was almost full. We asked for 2 aisle seats and luckily had empty seats next to both of us. I watched thor 2, edge of tomorrow and a bunch of rizzoli & isles. Food was okay. Chicken thingh and lemon shortcake ice cream for lunch and chicken curry and panna cotta for dinner.

We landed at singapore at 6.40pm. Our next flight is 7.55pm so it’s tight. But of course the gate is at the other end of the terminal! And of course mum’s foot is hurting. We got there during final call, but luckily weren’t the last ones to board. The entertainment system isn’t as extensive as the previous flight, they didn’t have the entire season of rizzoli & isles so I watched veep and part of suicide squad. Dinner was seafood pasta and magnum ice cream. Kept falling asleep.

Arrived 11.45pm, thank god our luggage came out quickly. Taxi home, fruit in fridge, will unpack tomorrow.

cruise trip day 19: auckland

Drove out to the fish market in the morning but only one or two shops are open. Someone told us the market’s closed for earthquake strengthening. That’s a disappointment, we thought we’d have brunch there. The good thing was I got a refund of the NZD4 I paid for parking by buying something — a $4 bottle of apple juice.

auck121bay

For want of somewhere to go, we drove east towards mission bay. Beautiful views back to the city skyline at okahu bay. Mission bay itself is pretty nice too, a beach with long stretch of sand and plenty of restaurants. Quite hectic even for a monday, can’t imagine how busy it can be at weekends.

auck144mussel

Lunch was mussels. Took longer than expected because they forgot mum’s order of steak. By then we were full from my pot of mussels so we just ordered a smaller pot of mussels. The one with cream sauce was better, and the sauce was perfect for dunking chips. Dessert was ice cream from the movenpick next doors.

Back to the city and we found newcastle, a local shopping area. Walked around, again trying to find somewhere to eat. Not finding anything good, and still full, we went back to our room to finish up all the food we have in the fridge.

cruise trip: day 18: waiheke island

whk006waiheke

Since trains aren’t running and there is a lot of parking in the city, contrary to what the motel receptionist told me, we drove out in the morning and parked near the harbour. Long queue to get on the ferry to waiheke island, one of the most popular outlying islands in auckland. The ferry ride was 45mins and apart from a brief heavy shower that got everyone on the ferry soaked, the rest of the day was bright and sunny.

After some faffing around, we got on the #1 bus towards onetangi. I have no idea what to expect or do on the island. There’s a hop-on-hop-off bus, bikes, scooters and car rental. Public transport seems to work better for us.

whk042onetangi

Onetangi is a long beach with one café restaurant. I’m glad I bought pies at the ferry terminal and mum brought nectarines. We walked along the beachfront admiring the beautiful houses, then took the bus to the nearby winery district.

whk084pinotrose

Found a nice secluded table in the tasting area of one of the wineries. Nice views of the vines and olive trees in the garden. Mum ordered sorbets and I had a taste of the rosé and pinot noir. Not earth-shattering. Ordered a full glass of the luna negra malbec. May be the sorbet affected my palette, found the wine too tannic.

whk116oneroa

Stopped at oneroa village near the ferry terminal. A few shops, a small grocery and good views.

Ferry ride back to auckland and quickly walked around the cbd. Souvenir shops and saw the sky tower. Not a lot of places to eat though. Either fast food or asian food, neither of which interest us. Went to countdown and bought roast chicken, cooked prawns and ingredients to make dinner back in our room.

cruise trip day 17: hobbiton

tl;dr: I originally planned on missing hobbiton. Big mistake; it was so fantastic.

Originally I wasn’t planning on going to hobbiton movie set because we didn’t have a car and there were only a couple of days in auckland. But with the revised schedule, it was the perfect opportunity to go. One hour from rotorua and 2 hrs from auckland, on the way back to auckland. When I was booking online last night, I was only able to get a slot on the 12.40pm tour. Just as well, it gave us leeway. We had time to stop by a blueberry farm outside of rotorua for frozen yogurt and to sample their stuff. I bought blueberry wine, mum bought chocolate and a punnet of fresh blueberries.

Once we got to hobbiton we asked if they had an earlier slot and found ourselves on the 12pm tour, yay! We joined our guide on the bus for the short journey from the visitor centre area they call the shire’s rest. We quickly learn that the site is part of the alexander farm, still a working farm, and was rebuilt after the film crew left. When filming, the props were made of disposable materials like polystyrene. When they rebuilt, they used permanent materials. Peter Jackson asked the NZ government for financial assistance, but the government wasn’t able to provide $$$ however they sent in the army to help construction. The site attracts an average of 2000 visitors a day and everyone had to join a tour.

Our guide was Nathaniel from the US who is a superfan and extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the entire middle-earth universe. Our group was around 20 people and we discovered 2 fellow Star survivors.

hob072shire

From the first step into the shire, it was magical. There were plenty of other tour groups so lots of people but it never felt contrived, for want of a better word. So realistic, so obviously a labour of love.

hob112blue

There were so many hobbit holes they seemed like real homes. Any minute now a hobbit would come out and go about his business. They were built to 75% or 100% scale depending on the needs of the films, to fit the actors in order to emphasise the small stature of hobbits. Most are just façades or with a small empty space behind the door so no, the hobbit holes aren’t real homes. There was still a lot of attention to detail placed on windows, doors, chimneys and gardens. The fishmonger has fish drying outside the door, the baker has loaves of bread, we could see blocks of cheese through the window of the cheesemaker. Real fruit and veg grow in the garden and there are even hobbit-sized clothes lines.

hob103bagend

At the top of the hill is bag end, the baggins residence. Property taxes in the shire are calculated based on number of windows and bag end has the most windows. This is the most complete home because they filmed around its exterior a lot. A little further down is Sam’s house with its yellow door.

hob195mill

We stopped at most homes, took pictures and imagined living there. The end of the tour went past the mill and onto open views back to the shire.

hob205dragon

There was enough time to stop at the green dragon inn for a complimentary (as in, included in the NZD79 admission) mug of beer or ginger beer. I had the stout, which was very nice. The tour was 2hrs and time totally flew.

Late lunch in the café of sandwiches and we got on the road again towards auckland. We got to the motel around 5.30pm and I was pretty tired by then. If I had to drive another half an hour I would have needed to rest. The receptionist told us not to drive out to the city but to take the train. When we got to the train station we found out trains were being replaced by buses this weekend. The bus got to britomart just in time for us to see the Star depart for the next cruise to singapore. So they had made it from melbourne.

auck077clam auck081crab

Dinner was at the crab shack next to the pier. Chaotic waiting process which involved putting our names down then being shunted to the bar. Eventually someone came up to lead us to our table. Long wait to get served too. On the other hand, the food is good. The daily special crab is mud crab, and we also had a small pot of clams and mussels to start. There’s enough crab there for 3 people, they gave us 3 sets of claws and legs. Total silence as we each worked on our portion. Just steamed, nothing fancy, nothing needed.

It was quite late when we finished. We took the bus back and I recognised the location enough to know where to get off. Don’t have a map on me aside from google maps.

cruise trip day 16: wai-o-tapu, waimangu

Torrential rain meant the 20min drive to wai-o-tapu geothermal area was more like 30mins. We timed our arrival to coincide with the 10.15am eruption of the lady knox geyser. Organisation can be better. Everyone got back in their cars to drive over to the geyser carpark at 9.30am, splashed through the mud, watched the geyser and drove back to the main carpark. A mini-traffic jam in the making.

waio005ladyknox

I would describe the geyser show as underwhelming. A park ranger poured some surfactant into the hole and some steam splurged up. May be 20m high and 10 seconds duration.

The rest of the park made up for it. Wai-o-tapu has the largest area of surface thermal activity in the taupo volcanic zone and we followed the guidemap that showed us 3 walks. Craters, sulphur caves, mud pools and boiling springs could be seen everywhere.

waio023palette

Artist’s palette is a flat pool with mineral deposits showing different colours at different spots. Green, yellow, orange, grey, white. We could walk on a wooden boardwalk through the area which gave a different perspective. There is sulphur in the air, not overpowering.

waio035champagne

Probably the highlight of wai-o-tapu is champagne pool. 65m in diameter and 62m deep with surface temperature at 73-76ºC. The name comes from bubbles of CO2 that break out on the surface. There are gold, silver, mercury, arsenic, antimony, thallium, sulphur in the water and the distinctive orange deposit at the side is from arsenic and antimony sulphide. And since it’s been a while since I wrote out compound formulae: orpiment As2S3 and stibnite Sb2S3.

waio092oyster

We followed walk 2 down the sacred track to the frying pan flat and oyster pool. Another boardwalk let us close to the natural features. We didn’t stray from the marked paths; signs for 100ºC water warned us of the danger. There were parts where the path met water and when I stuck my hand in the stream the water was cold. Left a sulphide deposit on my fingers though. Told mum not to touch it. I can pour conc H2SO4 from one bottle to another without gloves and without spilling, but it doesn’t mean lay people should do it.

waio113devil

We completed part of walk 3 and headed back to the visitor centre. The last interesting sight was devil’s bath, a crater filled by excess water from the champagne pool. It changes colour from yellow to green depending on light and cloud cover. Today it was green and quite sickly.

We walked for almost 3hrs and every single minute was worth it. The rain had abated somewhat although we were glad we wore our waterproof coat and I borrowed a large umbrella from the motel that acted as walking stick for mum. They charge NZD32.50 for entrance, we had a 10% voucher from the motel and it was well worth it. I was skeptical when I was trip planning, all the geothermal areas charged hefty admission and I realise it’s for maintenance, to keep the area pristine. I also realise that had our cruise went ahead per the original itinerary, we would be stopping at tauranga today and I had booked our own excursion to wai-o-tapu, so we made it.

Lunch was at the café. Pies and I had L&P lemonade.

We had the rest of the afternoon. The option was to go back to rotorua or go to another geothermal area. We found ourselves at waimangu volcanic valley. They offered senior discount, so NZD30 for mum and NZD37 for me.

wmgu016fryingpan

The straight route from the visitor centre to lake rotomahana is supposed to be around 2hrs. We made it to echo crater and frying pan lake faster than recommended. May be the same people explored the region, the craters and lakes are all named the same.

wmgu023cathedral

Cathedral rock was originally named Gibraltar rock because of its resemblance to the latter. There was an eruption in 1917 that changed its shape so they renamed it. Steam coming out all around it makes it look like it’s magic.

wmgu043inferno

Mum didn’t take the steep 60+ step climb to infernal crater lake. It claims to be the largest geyser-like feature in the world even though the geyser itself is hidden beneath the depths. The lake empties and refills every 35 days or so. There’s a hiking trail from inferno lake to other craters but the trail is closed due to mud.

wmgu063terraces

To save time and energy, we took the bus part of the way to warbrick terrace, formed from silica flowing from the stream. The green colour is due to algae formation.

wmgu081lake

The walk to the lake was unremarkable and would have been more pleasant if we hadn’t walked for hours already. Mum rested while I explored around the lake. We waited for the last bus of the day to take us back to the visitor centre.

Overall, if we had only visited waimangu we would have been disappointed in the area. I didn’t think the entrance fee is worth it and much preferred wai-o-tapu.

Back in rotorua we stopped at a petrol station, hit a souvenir shop (12 kiwi keychains for NZD9.90, and we have a 5% off voucher), and dinner back in our room finishing off the food in the fridge.

cruise trip day 15: rotorua

auck033bfast

Homemade fry-up for breakfast. I didn’t want to leave the b&b, it’s highly recommended.

But onward we go.

It’s three hours to rotorua and it rained the entire time. I’m driving without a map, hahaha. Only have handwritten instructions I copied off google maps. It was pretty straightforward, just follow roadsigns. Thing about A roads in NZ, they don’t have a lot of places to stop. Not talking about service stations, there weren’t even villages on the way with shops or petrol stations. We did stop at around the 2hr mark and arrived in rotorua at around 1.30pm. Stopped at the tourist information centre to get a town map and various leaflets.

Checked into our motel, definitely several grades below the b&b. The whole strip is full of motels, I guess it’s the luck of the draw whether we get a good one. It’s not bad, I’ve stayed in worse but mum clearly wasn’t impressed.

It hadn’t stopped raining but we decided to go out, find something to eat and sightsee a little. Nando’s is following us so we had chicken again; the other options were pub food or asian. NZ nando’s don’t have sweet potato fries, the portugese roll was good.

rot018lake

Rotorua is situated on lake rotorua, there’s a viewpoint 5mins’ drive from the town centre. It was still raining and hard to distinguish between the sky and the water. Can imagine how pretty it looks when it’s sunny.

rot031museum

The museum is closed; the building itself an impressive tudor building. It overlooks government gardens, which will be worth visiting in better weather.

On the other side of town is kuirau park. We drove past it on the way in and spotted pockets of steam coming out from behind the trees. There are several hot springs and mud pools in the park. These look the same no matter the weather and we happily walked around looking at each one. To have hot springs and mud pools in your local park, that’s something.

Dining options are limited, or may be we weren’t looking closely enough. We decided to go to countdown and get food to eat in our room. Bought rocket salad, avocado, peach, two flavours of wraps, hummous, pâté, brie, pear paste and wine.

cruise trip day 14: melbourne to auckland

The hotel is separated from the airport terminal by a multi-story car park, but it’s a weaving 10mins walk so we took the hotel shuttle. For some reason I thought the flight didn’t provide food so we bought sandwiches before boarding. I think it’s because I booked via virgin australia which is a sort of budget airline and the flight was operated by air new zealand. Air NZ has the best safety videos, including one set in middle-earth; the newest is called summer of safety.

Arrived at auckland 5.15pm. We breezed through e-passport but it was pandamonium at the luggage belts, there was a long queue and bottleneck to get through customs and we had to fight to even get to our belt. The long lines was for biosecurity, which is even stricter than australia. The agent grinned when I said we bought timtams, and waved us through.

It was great to drive the SUV yesterday, but it cost almost the same as one day’s rental to fill it up when I returned it so I’m glad I opted for a more economical yaris this week. Our b&b hosts had emailed me detailed driving instructions which I wrote out for mum. The drive from the airport through the city to the northern suburb of hillcrest was around 45mins, took us longer because we turned the wrong way and had to go back on the motorway, take the next exit and google map to the destination.

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The b&b is called birdwood house and it’s run by Barbie and David Scott. Absolutely wonderful. Our room is on the 1st floor and comes with its own lounge. Such a romantic setting. The living and dining room downstairs is also beautifully decorated. Very English, down to the bottles of port which we were encouraged to partake.

The hosts gave us a list of places to eat so we headed to the nearby village of birkenhead, found a pub and had the special small plates for dinner: chicken wings, pork belly, arancini, cheesy garlic bread. Many of the shops were already closed and most other eating places were asian or italian food.

To get some peace and quiet, I escaped to our lounge to read. If I could find spare blankets I would have slept on the sofa. Sigh, I really need my own space.

cruise trip day 13: yarra valley

We aimed at getting the 10am shuttle to the airport (5am and 7am were simply too early). A bunch of other people had the same idea so it was a group of anxious people queuing up. The bus was late but it didn’t matter. We all managed to fit on it and we were cheering and clapping as we left the port. Someone said, “we’re free!” It’s been stressful, but it could have been a lot worse if the weather was poor or if they had problems towing the ship. The frustraion is the slowness and lack of communication from NCL. I still don’t know how we’ll get the 100% refund, how the future cruise credit will work and how to get reimbursed for the flight. Plus the Star is now known as the unluckiest cruiseship at sea.

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We got to the airport at 11am, picked up our rental car and headed to yarra valley. The drive itself is around 1hr, but the area is large so it took us a while to find a destination and drive to it. I found a leaflet for rayners orchard and that’s where we headed. Luckily we just missed a coachful of visitors so the place was empty. Peach trees could be seen from the car park, and peaches too, very tempting to just pick them.

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It was that in-between time between lunch and tea. Their café is quite basic, mum had ham sandwich and I had scones. The ham sandwich was really delicious, must be the butter. The scones were great too, normal cream rather than clotted cream. The best part of the meal for me was the tea that was strong and came in a proper teapot. We bought peaches and nectarines from the shop.

Seems to be off-season, several of the other fruit farms we visited were closed. We bought strawberries from a stand and made a few scenic stops. I didn’t have a detailed map so we muddled along. It’s okay, I was driving a big SUV and the valley is very pretty.

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We wanted to go to a dairy farm and ended up at a winery. There was time for some tasting while mum shopped. Tried the sparkling wine, pinot noir and riesling. Tiny portions, and I spit most of it out. Quite nice, but not nice enough to buy.

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The last scenic stop was near kangaroo grounds cemetery. Pretty farmland and rolling hills. I was looking in one direction and when I looked in the other, I spotted a group of wallabies. I think they’re wallabies as they are smaller. Mum was in the car so I dragged her out to see them. There’s a fence between us so I wasn’t worried. They were quite a bit away anyway. Such a nice bonus to end the visit.

Drove back to melbourne airport, checked into the hotel and returned the car. Not too many choices for dinner so we had nando’s again. This time I remembered to order sweet potato fries instead of regular fries.

cruise trip day 12: melbourne

The golden princess in in port, embarking passengers, so we can’t go into the terminal until after 10.30am. Pity the people who were planning on leaving the ship today. We took it easy, I spent the morning reading. It was nice to see the golden princess again, our alaskan cruise was on her.

Finally ventured out at noon. Got the tram and visited the tourist information centre to ask about airport bus. Have to figure out how to get from the port to the airport hotel tomorrow. Taxi of course, but the lady at the counter suggested we taxi to the city and catch the bus, which will be cheaper. In the end, it wasn’t needed. When we got back to the ship they told us there will be several free shuttles to the airport.

Not much to do; we’d seen all of melbourne that we wanted to see. Did some shopping at daiso, of all places. Got the hob scouring pad that worked so well, and some other ¥100 type stuff. Lunch was at nando’s. Shared half a chicken with fries. I got a beer and a ginger beer for mum.

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After several attempts over the past few days we finally got ourselves on a #35 city circle tram. Melbourne has a free tram zone and this one that goes around the central area is completely free. One circuit takes 1hr, we’d already travelled on more than half the route so it was kinda boring.

Tram back to port. I packed quickly and went upstairs to read while mum did her packing. I have a whole bottle of wine to finish today so I sipped while reading. The deck was almost empty, people had either left or still out in the city.

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Dnner at Le Bistro. Escargot, rack of lamb. Huge portion of lamb, 6 chops in total. The most I usually have is 3 chops. No dessert in the restaurant, tried the trifle at the buffet. No good so switched to watermelon instead.

Last task of the day is to settle the bill. Nothing to pay, I get US$89 OBC refund.

cruise trip day 11: st kilda

We woke up to a ship safely docked at melbourne. Seems like déjà vu to walk into the terminal and get a map. A volunteer greeter gave us lamingtons and told us about the st kilda festival. St kilda is the beach alongside port; the town centre is about 2-3km away. Except to get there on public transport means going on the tram to the city and changing to another tram.

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The festival takes place everywhere in the town. Various stages where bands played music, lots of food stalls, craft stalls, kid’s playground and amusement rides. All spread out along the entire beachfront so there was plenty of walking. The best part of the walking was I caught a porygon. I had the app open for some odd reason and it popped up suddenly, wasn’t on the nearby list. The beach is beautiful, a long stretch of white sand. There was a group of people playing beach netball and another group playing beach volleyball. And on the stretch of sand in between the two groups, a woman doing yoga.

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Lunch was free sweet potato fries from the nando’s truck and gozleme with lamb, spinach and cheese filling. I’ve been wanting to try gozleme, saw it at various places in sydney and melbourne but never have the appetite or time to try. It’s very nice. The flatbread crispy and the filling tasty and hot.

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I wanted to slowly walk back to port, so we started off doing that. It was very windy and lots of people were kiteboarding. Looks like it’s a lot of fun, probably takes considerable upper body and leg strength.

Took a couple of videos. Can hear the roar of the wind. Keep watching till around 28s, he gets lifted up above the water by the kite.

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In the end, the wind was too much and when sand started drifting everywhere including all over our faces we called it a day and took the tram back to the city. It was still early so we walked along the yarra for a bit. Riversides are always pretty.

Tram back to port. Late lunch / high tea at the buffet. It’s bavarian night so they had roast pork, cabbage salad and I was dying for a beer. Proper dinner was at Le Bistro, I cancelled the other restaurant reservations and we’ll focus on Le Bistro for the rest of our dining package. Mussels with cream sauce, crevette and crème brûlée. The mussels were so-so, although the sauce was great. The crevettes were meh, I still hanker after L’Ecluse crevettes after all these years. the crème brûlée was okay. Finished the 3rd bottle of wine.

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Full moon tonight.

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Played around with the camera. Hit the shutter as it was trying to autofocus, to get some nice bokeh-like effect.

Got a notice that the ship will leave melbourne on the 14th. We had planned to stay onboard till the 15th so now we have to find somewhere to stay on the 14th. The best option is airport hotel, so I quickly went on hotels.com. Not many choices, got holiday inn at the end. I also booked a hotel at rotorua for a couple of nights so we go somewhere other than auckland.

cruise trip day 10: on tow

It’s just like another at sea day, although we’re moving a lot slower. At least we’re moving.

Breakfast at the buffet, we’d given up on going to the restaurant. Egg white omelette with vegetables, bacon, black pudding, mushroom. Mostly spent the day reading at a table by the pool. I recognise a few regulars there already. A woman in her twenties with large headphones at a window seat, a couple quietly doing sudoku puzzles and a blind lady with her seeing-eye friend.

Queued up for phone and internet again. Since we have a car, I cancelled the original auckland hotel in city centre and booked a motel in the suburbs. Cheaper room rate and free parking. I spent the day worrying about getting my three simcard topped up and finally gave up trying. I need a credit card with UK address to purchase a top-up, argh. Either I change my credit card back to the UK or I’ll have to find someone to help me if I want to continue to use this number. It’s been working fine so far, no problems roaming in sydney or melbourne. I may even keep it as my primary phone because i can still use whatsapp and this way I don’t get junk calls.

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Lunch was from the grill: a burger (no bun), braised cabbage salad and paella that was the result of the poolside competition. Dinner at the restaurant: beef gnocchi, mahi mahi and bread pudding that looks like chocolate mousse. I’ve never seen bread pudding presented in a glass before, it’s like in masterchef or mkr when something doesn’t work they switch to a deconstructed version served in a glass. I’m on the 3rd bottle of wine. Left around 2/3 at Cagney’s last night and when I sent for it tonight they said the bottle broke so they’re giving me a fresh bottle.

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By this time there are 3 tugboats rescuing us. The Hastings is still doing all the heavy work towing us. There’s another one behind with a loose cable, to ensure we don’t roll and to steer, I’m guessing. A third is stuck to our staboard side, also for stability and steering? The captain says we’ll be docking at melbourne sometime after midnight and there’s a shallow dangerous part of the bay to negotiate beforehand. All credit to the tugboats, they’re doing a great job.

We made the news and there are even videos of us being towed; helicoptors were seen hovering above us.

edit: after I got home, I found this video of the ship arriving at Melbourne and the two tugboats docking us. What an amazing feat. The tugboats look so tiny compared with the ship, which at that point was an immovable monolithic object. The pilots are unsung heroes.

cruise trip day 09: adrift

Had to wake up early for NZ passport control, we were the first group.

Finished and there’s an announcement from the captain. The remaining working azipod suffered a breakdown during the night and we have no propulsion system. No wonder the ship isn’t moving. Apart from propulsion, everything is working. We spent the entire day adrift, dead in the water. We hadn’t gone far, around 75 miles from Melbourne, which is a blessing. The weather is also good, and the sea calm. The plan is to get towed back to Melbourne for repairs which may take 4-5 days. The rest of the cruise is cancelled, ie all NZ stops.

Everyone is in a state of shock. We all know about the azipod problems, which has caused missed ports since mid-December. Unlike the previous trip, there was no riot and people seemed relatively calm. The captain announced that we’d get 100% refund and 50% future cruise credit. I guess the full refund defused the situation somewhat but most of the passengers are from north america or europe and it’s a long way to come. Plus the refund doesn’t cover airfares, hotels and other spending.

Another announcement later gave us options:

  • stay on board, explore melbourne and continue with the ship to auckland
  • disembark, fly to auckland — they’ll reimburse up to US$350 airfare
  • disembark, go home — they’ll reimburse up to US$300 for flight changes

We discussed the options and decided we should make the most of our time and disembark. We can either stay in australia so it means changing our flight home; or fly to auckland and take in as much of NZ as possible. Mum has never been to NZ so it’d be nice for her to see more than just auckland.

They turned a couple of conference rooms into internet rooms and let us use their laptops to get on the internet. Long queue though; I put my name down and managed to get a workstation 2hrs later. They want us to limit our session to 20mins but the connection is so slow and there’s so much to do that it’s impossible to adhere to the limit. A quick search and we decided to stay in melbourne for a couple of days then fly to auckland. Auckland hotels are really full (I already know this weeks ago when I was planning the trip) so I’m relieved to find a reasonably priced one outside the city. Got rental car, got the flight from melbourne and we’ll go home on our original flight.

Pretty stressful day, although I wasn’t panicked. Worst case scenario, we stay with the ship. I’m also used to, and quite adept at, travel planning. I could see some other people not doing so well in rearranging their trips. I went back to the internet room later to email sis and mm, belatedly realising we should let them know we’re safe in case we make the news.

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Lunch was at the restaurant. We realise the lunch menu doesn’t change so our choices are limited. I had shrimp & rocket salad, salmon burger and berry sorbet. For dinner we went to our second speciality restaurant, Cagney’s steakhouse. Mum had the rib-eye and I opted for the huge 29oz tomahawk steak, which is enough for 2 people. That said, between the bone, sinew and fat there was a lot of waste. Too full for dessert.

With that steak, I went and did 5k on the treadmill. Long time since I ran, and I was very slow. Only managed to make up the time by doing intervals.

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Something like 16hrs after we suffered the breakdown, our rescuer finally made it out to us at 8.30pm. The tugboat Hastings looks tiny compared with the huge ship, and yet it’s capable of towing us back to port. We started moving ever so slowly around 9pm; I was at the bow watching and we all gave a cheer when someone noticed we’d started moving.

cruise trip day 08: melbourne

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Tram out to the city, got off at the parliament area. Picture opportunities at St Patrick’s cathedral, parliament building, hotel, theatre and the former treasury building turned into a museum. We headed towards Fitzroy Gardens, since it looked pleasant and interesting on the map. It’s quite compact, with a pretty conservatory, Cooks’ cottage and nice walks. Cooks’ cottage is the exact building that belonged to Captain Cook’s parents in North Yorkshire that was dismantled and shipped to Australia.

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I saw on the map that the MCG is only 10mins’ walk from Fitzroy Gardens so we headed there. Mum took a rest on a bench while I explored. The national sports museum needed entrance fee and I didn’t want mum to wait too long so I didn’t go inside. The shop was a gigantic disappointment. Boring t-shirt and expensive football shirts for sale.

Outside on the grounds were statues of sporting greats. A sculpture commemorating the first game of australian rules football played in 1858, Olympic champion Betty Cuthbert (I’d never heard of her before) and quite a few cricketers. I saw Neil Harvey, Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne. Should have walked to the other side of the stadium to see Don Bradman.

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Met up with mum again and planned on getting the #35 circular route tram but it didn’t arrive for ages and ages. Took a regular tram to docklands. In terms of feel, pretty similar to canary wharf. Lunch at black cod, a nice semi-casual fish restaurant. I had grilled barramundi and mum had the seafood platter of fried fish, prawn, scallop.

Tram back to CBD and discovered the tram to port isn’t working so walked across the river to find the bus to get back to the ship before 4pm.

Blueberry ice cream from the deck, read a bit. I found my favourite place, outside by the pool. Usually not that crowded.

The ship was supposed to leave at 5pm but there was a delay until 6.30pm because two passengers didn’t come back. I wonder what happens to their stuff. On a plane, missing passengers’ luggage is offloaded, do they do the same for cruise passengers? What if they manage to make their way to the next port and their stuff was offloaded at the last port? Do their cabin get sealed?

Dinner was at the Asian restaurant, no charge. Steamed dumplings, fried rice, pepper shrimp, tapioca pudding. Honestly, not very good. Needed 2 glasses of wine to finish the meal.

Walked 2.5 laps of deck 7, more reading.

cruise trip day 07: melbourne

Breakfast at the buffet, they have omelettes, eggs benedict and I discovered different sections. The American section has crispy bacon, sausage links, waffles, biscuits & gravy. The British/Aussie section has proper bacon, bangers, black pudding and kippers. Well impressed. There’s also congee.

Walked 4 laps on deck 7.

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Began seeing land late morning and people crowded at the bow to see the Melbourne skyline get bigger and bigger.

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Lunch was bbq by the pool of chicken and seafood. Have to say, food so far has been good. Not excellent, it’s hard to serve excellent food for thousands of passengers.

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We got clearance to go onshore at 2pm. There was a long queue at the terminal for the myki card and an express shuttlebus took us to the national gallery just south of the river. I remember the gallery and the eureka tower next to it although it’s been too long since I’ve been in Melbourne to remember directions clearly. What I do remember is the city isn’t very big so I found Flinders Street station, Federation Square and the CBD easily. Walked around the busy shopping areas and ended up in a Woolworths. Really hot day with the sun beating down.

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Took a tram to queen victoria market. By then it was almost 5pm and I was half afraid the market will be closed. And indeed the day market was closed, but we were lucky to find the wednesday night market just starting. Lots of food stalls and some souvenir and craft stores. There were lamb, bbq, porchetta, paella, pasta, turkey legs, sausages, pavlovas and lots more. We planned on having dinner back on the ship so we just bought lemonade and ate the strawberries we bought at the supermarket. The lemonade was expensive, AUD8 for one.

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Took the tram back to port. Dinner was really good: lamb shank and hazelnut soufflé. A part of me wanted to eat at the market, because I love street food. But the restaurant meal made up for it, and it’s included.