Off on a road trip

I’m passing thru Whanganui in a couple of days – heading further north – and we will stop to stretch our legs and have lunch. Here are some notes about the lovely little city.

 

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When planning a road trip to Whanganui www.wanganui.com  you soon realise the Bridge to Nowhere seems to have no road either. To see it requires a long hike or a jet boat trip up the Whanganui River.

However, there are many ways to drive to this river city. So, if you’ve been skiing or hiking near Ohakune, I recommend you use the historic and popular, ‘Rural Mail Coach’ route. This scenic route, narrow, windy and beautiful, takes longer than the 106-kilometres suggests.  Allow 4 hours or longer if you plan to hike or take photographs on your journey.

Leave State Highway 4 at Raetahi, heading for Pipiriki (27ks) where you will join the 1935-built Whanganui River Road.  Pipiriki is the first of many historically significant settlements along the way, each o which have good reasons for you to stop.  A little further on is the Omorehu waterfall lookout and the picturesque Hiruharama (Jerusalem). This was home to both James K Baxter and Sister Mary Aubert whose catholic mission and the church is still there.

A few more kilometres on is the restored, two-storied, 1854, Kawana Flour Mill, only a 100-metre walk off the road. Back on the road, just before Koriniti, is the Otukopiri Marae and in 1840, site of the region first Anglican Church.

If you want to stretch your legs, the Atene Skyline Track has a 1½ hour track that takes you across farmland and up to fabulous views of the region. Returning to your car, you will soon be driving through an old seabed, the Oyster Shell Bluffs, before moving onto Parakino and your destination, Whanganui city.

The architecture here is varied.  Some of the oldest buildings are the 1853 Tylee Cottage (Cnr Bell and Cameron St), the old St Johns post office (Upper Victoria Ave) and the 3-storied Tudor style Braeburn Flat.   It’s also worth visiting St Peters Church (Koromiko Rd), the 100-year old opera house and the award-winning Sarjeant Art Gallery (Institute of Architects Gold medal 1961). This magnificently proportioned building has naturally lit galleries and the steps leading to it are the resting place and memorial to 17 soldiers who were killed in 1865.  The buildings in the Queens Park area around the Sarjeant are considered one of the best formal townscapes in New Zealand.

Alongside the river, as well as cafes and the River Boat Centre, is the must-visit Moutoa Gardens, site of an old fishing village and where an 83-day occupation occurred in 1993.

Wanganui is compact and all attractions are within walking distance. The revitalised Victoria Avenue has gaslights, wrought iron garden seats, plane trees and wide paved footpaths. The Thai Villa (http://www.thaivilla.co.nz/ ) is in Victoria Avenue, river end, and this fully licenced and BYO restaurant comes thoroughly recommended. Then, while you are near the river, take a cruise on the restored paddle steamer, Waimarie.

Whanganui has many festivals including a book one early in the year. Another is the Real Whanganui Festival http://www.realwhanganui.co.nz/  that includes the Wanganui Glass Festival which showcases the talent of local artists www.wanganuiglass.com   in September 2011

Cruising, snorkeling & walking among the flora and fauna of Fiji

The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji
The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji

While cruising the Yasawa Islands with Blue Lagoon Cruises (aboard the catamaran Fiji Princess) I find just some of the flora and fauna of Fiji. Tropical forests, rough mountainous terrain, blue Pacific Ocean waters and uninhabited islands (as well as cities and resorts) sums up Fiji: it’s only native mammal are fruit bats and six varieties are found on the islands and although bird watching in the rainforest is a major tourist draw in Fiji I saw very few while cruising there recently.

Walking through the tropical forest (from one side of one of the Yasawa islands) we saw epiphytes, and a few small orchids. Overall, 10 percent of the native plant life is unique to Fiji.

Underwater, Fiji features one of the South Pacific’s largest coral reef systems and we had a marine biologist come aboard to talk about the value of them. Although they can’t sting us, we can do huge damage to them by touching them: the bacteria on our body can be fatal to them  . . . so, don’t touch is the rule!

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Marine biologist Dan

With no eyes or brains, a centralised mouth and digestive system it would never win an award for complex systems – in fact its mouth is also where undigested matter leaves its body!

Labelled as the Soft Coral Capital of the World by Jean-Michel Cousteau, Fiji apparently offers some of the world’s best scuba diving and snorkeling and the crystal waters of their reefs and lagoons often have unmatched visibility.

As someone who feels almost blind without my glasses I would recommend getting your own face mask with prescription glass so you can enjoy the colourful underwater scenery even more than you will.

Fiji Princess had all the water toys we needed …  such as, snorkels, face-mask, canoe, paddle boards, glass bottom boats etc.

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Cruising the Yasawa Islands in Fiji

websizedDSCN0112It was in the Yasawa Islands that the 1980 film The Blue Lagoon was filmed and we visited the site after swimming in the Sawa-i-Lau caves. I didn’t like being in the cave, felt very apprehensive, and only stayed in the first cave for a few minutes – later I even forgot to ask the brave ones who dived through and under the rock that joined the two caves. Sounded even more scary to me!

Tourism is growing in importance and apparently permission is required to visit all, or at least many of the islands in the group.

As one of the outer island chains, options to get to the Yasawa Islands is more limited than to islands near Nadi or Denarau; the Yasawa Flyer connects Port Denarau with the Yasawa Islands and is ideal for free independent travellers while The Fiji Princess that I was cruising on is an ideal and easy way to cruise these remote islands.

my first view of the Fiji Princess
my first view of the Fiji Princess

I was very fortunate to be a guest of Blue Lagoon Cruises.

The Yasawa Group is an archipelago of about 20 volcanic islands in the Western Division of Fiji, with an approximate total area of 135 square kilometres. It stretches in a north-easterly direction for more than 80 kilometres from a point 40 kilometres north-west of Lautoka on Viti Levu (the 2nd largest town in Fiji).

Apparently British navigator William Bligh was the first European to sight the Yasawa’s in 1789 following the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, but they were not charted until 1840. The islands were largely ignored by the wider world until World War II, when the United States military used them as communications outposts.

My father was part of a small Fiji Defence Force that had been sent in the last quarter of 1939 and some 3,053 men where there late 1940 and began fortifying Viti Levu. His time there made an impression in him in that Isa Lei (Fijian farewell song -see video below) was one of his party songs  and I he refused to eat the ‘terrible bananas’ we got in New Zealand ‘they are picked green and sent here – they are so much tastier when fresh and ripened on the plant’ he would say. And he’s right, the local fruit tastes great.

Dad bought this home for  his fiancee: they married 1944 after he was invalided out of the army
Dad bought this home for his fiancée: they married 1944 after he was medically discharged from the NZ army

Another family connection to Fiji was recalled by M when she knew I was going there:

“Hi Heather, The Yasawa Islands are where we spent some time way back in 1978 or 79 with S and G. We visited a village on Waya Island and spent a week camping on an uninhabited island which I think must be among the ‘Sacred Islands’ mentioned in your itinerary. I think the Blue Lagoon Cruises may have just been starting up then, though we didn’t see them. Things were very basic back then. I remember G gave some aspirin to a poor woman suffering from tooth ache on Waya. She was so grateful. Have a great trip! I hope the cruises are beneficial to the villager.

 We were on S and G’s little yacht, Spirit of Breaker Bay and the 45 foot yacht, Wayward Wind. Wayward’s crew were (future) Home Port friends and a new friend who worked at the Uni of the South Pacific. We were taking him around looking for a certain type of seaweed which produces heaps of agar jelly. At the time the University was trying to find a location where the seaweed could be commercially harvested. There was also a young Fijian man who said he knew where to find this seaweed near his village on Waya. It turned out he had no idea, he just wanted a free ride home to his village. We never did find a big quantity, but we got to taste the delicious jelly salad the villagers made with the seaweed and coconut milk.- it been fun to remember that time!” M

 

Morning tea on the beach after visiting the cave
Morning tea on the beach after visiting the cave – home-baked goodies for all morning and afternoon teas

Here is a video of the crew sing the farewell song to us as we prepare to disembark at Port Denarau

 

 

Fijian feast is cooked underground

 

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Our catamaran, the Fiji Princess, gets tied to a coconut tree: the Yasawa Islands setting idyllic, and we are to have a Fijian feast onshore, followed by a concert by the local village.

Coconut has a special place in the Fijian diet and, grown in most coastal areas, it’s not only for food, but plays an important role in the economy. It is also used in many ways in the lovo (earth oven); as a basket, as the steam producer then to cover the food.

These photos are of the demonstration we saw of a food basket being made.

Some of the foods cooked in the lovo were Taro (dry starchy root crop), Kumala (sweet potato) whole chicken and a large leg of pork. After the burning wood was removed the meat, and vegetables placed in the hole in top of the hot rocks, covered with banana leaves and cooked for about 3.5 hours. It’s considered a healthy meal because of the lack of oil – it is quite similar to the (Māori) hangi or the (Hawaiian) luau or (Samoan) umu and has a smoky flavour.

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After showering, washing off the salt water we had played in, we return to the island, where a kava ceremony was being held, and before long we watch our dinner being dug up.

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While the pork was dry, the crackling on the pig was fabulous (I think it had been grilled somehow after being cooked in the lovo) and my favourite dish was the entre. It’s a ‘raw fish’ dish made up of Walu (sometimes called Spanish mackerel) with ‘miti’ – a coconut-based sauce. The fresh fish is marinated in lemon juice and left to “cook” for several hours. The thick coconut milk is added after it is “cooked” together with finely diced tomatoes, chillies and salt – this is the ‘miti’.

the pork is carved
the pork is carved
Raw fish (kokoda)
Raw fish entree (kokoda)

Dinner over, we move to seats in a clearing among the coconut palms – by now it’s very dark and before long we are entertained by beautiful singing and dancing at the ‘meke’. I often feel uncomfortable joining in traditional dancing anywhere, but the Fijians seem to love a conga line, making it easy for all, including me, to join in!

 

NOTE: Kava is used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social purposes throughout the Pacific.  In Fiji a kava ceremony often goes together with social event and while on ‘the Princess’ it happened three times – including a ritual presentation of the bundled roots as a gift and drinking the ‘grog’ is accompanied by hand-clapping before and after drinking from the coconut shell. It is made by pounding the sun-dried kava root into a fine powder, straining and mixing it with cold water.

Apparently the effects of a kava drink vary widely depending on the kava plant used, and amount drunk. Most on board didn’t drink it but for those who did their eyes became droopy or sleepy looking it seem the active ingredients have a half-life of about 9 hours.

New Zealand is concerned about the risk of driving after mixing of alcohol and kava. On the other hand, it seems a national league team uses it after games to unwind.

Note: the KiwiTravelWriter was a guest of Blue Lagoon Cruises

 

The princess comes home – it’s a shock

It’s hard to wake up at home after being treated like a princess on the catamaran, Fiji Princess. It’s a shock to the system.

Having a whole crew look after you (and a personal smoother-of-the-way as well) it seems a sense of entitlement sets in!

How do you want your eggs, scrambled, poached, omelette, whites only? No problem, take a seat and I’ll bring them over. And so you sit, in a lovely salon on the back to the boutique ‘cat’, to eat fresh tropical fruit, bacon, eggs, pancakes and, or baked beans along with your toast and coffee.

The crew catch their prefered breakfast when they can
The crew catch their prefered breakfast when they can

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Now, back in my fabulous apartment, I have to make my own breakfast; make my own bed, clean my own bathroom, and wash my own towels.

No more smiling, friendly, Fijian faces to greet me with a cheerful ‘bula‘, and no warm sun and sea – the three hours flying north – on Fiji Airways – had made a big difference to the New Zealand autumn weather: flying south has made the same change, but this time, negatively.

Guess I’ll just have to adjust to no attention, no-one asking if I want a croissant, more shade, massage, water?

I’ll have to return to being the person providing all the attentions I want and all the things I need like clean linen and great food – being my own supplier of princess-like attention, and dream of the fabulous four nights  and five days aboard the ‘Princess’. (#fijiprincess)

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Would I recommend the Blue Lagoon Cruises … yes, in a heartbeat.

More blogs and photos will follow about local food, resorts, sun and sand, Yasawa Islands, snorkeling, paddle boards, and the volunteer programme that supports these isolated villages and schools – and for now, I will go and prepare some dinner for this disposed princess.

As ‘they’ say ‘toughen up Princess.’

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Life on the ocean waves

Well actually, there have been no big ocean waves – just blue skies, good company,  great Fijian staff, and fun activities. I even managed to get myself upright on a paddle board. So, lots of tales to tell about this Blue Lagoon Cruise on the Fiji Princess over the next couple of weeks – so come back soon and read all about it. In the meantime here are some pics to whet your appetite.  #fijiprincess #cruising #travel Well image image image image image image image image image image image

Sushi for Breakfast

websizedfiji princess cruise (236).jpgWith sushi as my breakfast I sit in the departure  lounge at Auckland International Airport. Virgin Air apologises for the late departure of its plane while Fiji Airways tells it’s passengers to ‘relax’ and we’ll be boarding soon: I obey.

Chillaxing is on my agenda for the next few days – I have been invited to Fiji for 4 nights on the catamaran Fiji Princess. Sometimes it’s hard being a travel writer.

‘Yeah right ‘ I hear you say and I must concur … a free trip like this (often called a famil ) is  a bonus: however, most of my travels are self-funded.

However the only difference you will see with a self funded trip and one like this, is I will tweet  (and other social media ) about it more. The information and story about my experience will remain the truth. No photoshopped pictures or embroidered words.

So sit back and relax … Welcome to a few days chilling on a Fiji adventure with me.