A Travellerspoint blog

United States 1

NEW YORK

New York is one of the places that I have been most looking forward to visiting on our trip and it more than lived up to our expectation. Again we were quite lucky with the location of our accommodation, being only a couple of blocks from Central Park. Since the weather was a lot better than in London we started every day with a run around this fantastic park. There were so many others out doing the same thing, sometimes it felt like you were in an organized event.

On our first day we spent time just wandering around Broadway and Time Square, soaking up the environment. This is truly the city of commercial excess. They have a store for everything… including a three story giant devoted entirely to M & M’s product and merchandise. On recommendation we bypassed the lines at the Empire State Building and headed for the Rockerfeller Centre. The line was non-existent and the views from the top were even better. On day two we decided to brave the crowds and head for the Statue of Liberty. This time the lines could not be avoided and over the course of the day we probably spent close to three and a half hours standing one behind the other. We were lucky in that the trip also included a stop at Ellis Island, which is where all of the early immigrants to the US were processed. There was a fantastic museum there and a lot of the original buildings are still standing giving you a great appreciation of what the immigrants must have gone through.

After all the sporting events we have attended so far on our trip, it was certainly time to get a bit cultural. I left the choice of show squarely in Imelda’s court and she chose well. We saw The Chorus Line, which is one of the longest running original Broadway shows. Now I’ll be the first to admit I’m not usually the biggest fan of musical shows, but these guys were pretty good.

(Kel)

WASHINGTON

We only had two full days in Washington so at our usual pace we whirled round to see as much as we could of the main sights...The White House, Capitol Hill and the US Supreme Court. The three big must sees didn’t disappoint. The National Air and Space Museum (my concession for dragging Kel to a Broadway show in New York) was actually fantastic, even for us girls.

You could easily be mistaken for thinking that the centre of Washington solely consists of monuments and memorials. There are so many of them that we booked in for a night tour to see the main ones – Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Vietnam, Korean War and WWII. The Americans don’t do monuments and memorials by halves, these were works of art and they really do give you a good appreciation of aspects of American history. For example, the Roosevelt memorial spans four different sections, each representing one of his four terms in office (and of course four important sections of US history). The war memorials put you in quite a reflective mood. The Vietnam memorial is strikingly simple, a basic wall that follows a curve, but it is filled from start to finish with names. It was particularly moving.

(Imelda)

Posted by twokiwis 21:18 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Ireland & England

-17 °C

IRELAND

Words could not express our delight when we arrived in an English speaking country for the first time in 2 ½ months. Even the smallest things - the customs officer making a joke that we could understand, the bus driver telling us what stop to get off at and ordering food without the need for pointing, caused great excitement all round.

With good Irish names like ‘Hegerty’ and ‘Kelly Roy Sheerin’ there was no doubt we were going to enjoy Ireland and enjoy it we did. The people were friendly, the food was just like your mother would make it and our only regret was that we didn’t have longer there. Four days was nowhere near enough.

We started in Dublin and caught up with my friend Sarah who, as a seasoned veteran, warned us that all food in Ireland (even potatoes) comes with a side of potatoes, that the cows spend all their time lying down, and that after a month there she still giggles when the Irish say ‘Three Thirty’ (aka ‘Tree Terty’). On all accounts she was spot on.

We headed from Dublin to Galway and stayed in a tiny (when I say tiny, I mean teeny tiny) town called Gort where we stayed above a café bunking with a rather rural but friendly father and son team who were there on a ‘nature’ course. Our next stop was the Cliffs of Moher. The scenery along the way was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Misty, dark, vast plains of rocks with hundreds of stone walls and Stonehenge like tombs. With so many tourists the Cliffs of Moher were a bit of a disappointment (yes I know we are tourists too). They had also decided that this natural landscape was in need of some shops and cafes, and just in case you thought jumping would be a good idea their were a million signs warning you against it. Just in case this wasn’t enough to spoil the natural landscape there were at all times just a few more than necessary loud Americans.

The accommodation on our next night was 2 km into the bush, about 10 km from the nearest town. The owners were quite strange (obviously from too much time in the bush) and much to our surprise there was no electricity. Needless to say the owners received quite blank looks from us when they asked us if we knew how to work the gas lamps.

All in all a fantastic road trip, just too short.

(Imelda)

UK

We kicked off our time in England by spending a night with friends (Lerch and Rachel) in their home town Taunton which is in the South-West. We had a great time looking around their village, doing some hiking in the local woods, having a pint of cider at the local pub and tea and scones with cream and jam at a nearby homestead. It was all very country English and good fun. The next day it was up to Bath to check out the Roman baths and the other quant little things this town had to offer. It was a nice little town, but almost felt like a giant sized Remuera.

From Bath it was on to the big-bad London for a couple of nights. We were lucky to staying quite close to Hyde Park, so we spent a bit of time hanging out there and enjoying what is a magnificent area. Unfortunately our accommodation in London wasn’t up to much, largely thanks to the great value you get for the NZ Paso.

We spent a lot of time just wandering around the touristy spots. Our highlight was the Tower of London which was well worth the time and money. The Natural History Museum is also pretty good and we were lucky enough to get a special after hours, behind the scenes tour from our Kiwi friend Rachel.

From London it was up to the University town of Cambridge where we had a couple of nights staying with Briar and Ivan (friends from NZ). The University pretty much dominates most of this town, but it is not just one entity. It is made up of a number of ‘Colleges’ all of whom have their own spectacular buildings and grounds. The highlight from our time in Cambridge was punting down the river Cam. We hired our own punt and headed off down the river, only to discover that it is actually a little more difficult than it looks. Some picked up the skill a little quicker than others, and all I will say is that some time was spent zig zagging our way down the river.

Another highlight was spending the day catching up with friends Simone and Dan who have just moved over and Gordon, Dan’s brother. We spent a bit of time looking around the small village where they are living south of London before heading down to Brighton (on the south coast) for the afternoon. The major attraction in Brighton is its giant sized pier with a whole collection of amusement park rides on the end of the Pier.

Back to London for a couple more days back in London seeing the sights and catching up with friends and then it was off on a particularly nasty 6am flight to New York.

Although we enjoyed our time in England, it must be said their weather, even in the middle of summer was truly appalling. It is the coldest place we have been in three months. Bring on the US!

(Kel)

Posted by twokiwis 21:15 Archived in England Comments (0)

Belgium

BELGIUM

I did not really know what to expect from Belgium as everyone we have talked to has asked ‘why are you going there?’ Well I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised. We flew in to Brussels for a couple of days staying with my cousin Alana and her husband Nat who are working for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was such a treat to actually be picked up from the airport for once and not have to catch a train or bus and then scour the town for our accommodation. Although there is not a great abundance of things to see in Brussels, what is there is great. The city actually has such a relaxed feel about it that you don’t really feel like dong much but kicking back in a pub and enjoying some of the fantastic food and beer. So we did a bit of that. Imelda actually thinks that Belgium is her spiritual home, with the abundance of waffles, chocolate, beer and fries.

Many of the beers in Belgium are Abbey beers, originally brewed by the monks in the abbeys around the country. On our second day we all piled into the car and headed out on a bit of a tour that ended at the Orval abbey. After a bit of a look round the ancient ruins, as well as where the Monks still live, we headed to the pub down the road to sample their brew. Not bad I must say.

We have got a couple of spare days, as such, before we are heading back to France to catch some of the Tour de France, so we have decided to head up and see what Holland is all about.

(Kel)

AMSTERDAM

Canals, clogs, tulips, windmills, crooked houses, “coffee shops” and prostitutes in shop windows. All the stereotypes about Amsterdam are true and it makes a great place to wander around aimlessly just taking it all in.

On our final day we hired some bikes and headed out of the city towards the Coast. Some Aussie guys were doing the same thing, so we ended up forming a bit of a cycle tour together. Despite the fact it was absolutely pouring with rain for half our journey (yes it has been raining for us too!) it was really good value getting out of the city. Its strange how a lot of people think they have seen all there is to see of the “Netherlands” just by going to Amsterdam. It is a ridiculous, but widespread belief nonetheless. Our short trip outside the city offered everything from a 60’s looking beach town on the coast to enormous mansions with pitched roofs lining the canals. What’s more, it is an absolute dream to cycle in for the novice like me who tends to be a danger to both myself and all other traffic on the road - you can ride absolutely everywhere in your own dedicated cycle lanes. Definitely a country worth exploring more I think.

(Imelda)

GENEVA

Two things worth mentioning about Geneva. First it is absolutely gorgeous, like a bigger city version of Queenstown. I hate to think how beautiful the rest of Switzerland must be if Geneva looks like that. Secondly, it is most possibly the most expensive place in the world (think $10 euro…yes that is NZ$20 for one Big Mac combo). Luckily we only had one night there and found the supermarket in time to do our official tour dish of pasta, tomato, capsicum and salami. It gets rolled out quite a bit believe me!

I must admit we were still feeling a little bruised post Americas Cup and tended to take great exception (quietly to ourselves of course) whenever we saw people wearing Alinghi merchandise.

(Imelda)

TOUR DE FRANCE

We picked up a rental car in Geneva so that we could follow a few days of the Tour de France as it went through the French Alps. It is the first time we have been independently mobile, so that was a bit novel. However we were a little disappointed to discover that the car they had assigned to us was a particularly ugly silver diesel van thing. However, once on the motorway we discovered that half of France actually drives these.

After a brief familiarization to driving on the wrong side of the road we managed to find our way out of Geneva, through the toll gates and on to a small French town called Borg en Bresse to catch the finish of stage 6. We managed to positioned ourselves about 450m from the finish to watch the final sprint. For those who are unfamiliar with the Tour only have of the spectacle actually lies in the watching of the riders come through. For the couple of hours preceding the riders there is the procession of the ‘caravan’ which can only be described as a mobile circus that roles by and gives away all kinds of free stuff. We were pretty buzzed by the caravan and with the crowd that had gathered, but it was even more exciting when the riders flew by and we saw that Julian Dean (the only Kiwi in the race) was leading the sprint. He didn’t go on to place in the stage, but we didn’t care. That night we stayed in a ski lodge in a small alpine town.

Now we have been to quite a few different places so far on our trip, but we both agree that the French Alps trump them all. Everyone says that NZ is a beautiful place, and I wouldn’t disagree, but this place is something else. If you haven’t already had the opportunity to visit this area of the world, make sure you add it to your list of places to go.

Day two we went to see the finish of Stage 7 in a small village down the road. We decided that it would be a good idea to head up and see the top of the final climb (not knowing how far away this was). Although we could have stopped and watched from any point, once we had set out it was the top or bust. Well bust we almost did… in temps of 30+ we hiked up hill for over 13km. It was worth it though to see the riders come over the top and then start their decent down the other side.

That night we stayed in the shadows of Mont Blanc… another magic place.

The next morning we headed off into the tunnel that goes through Mont Blanc. We had heard about this previously and were looking forward to it, just like you do when you’re a kid. However, our excitement was quickly dispelled when we had to pay the 32 Euro (NZ$64) toll to go through the 13Km tunnel. I think I could have come up with a more exciting way to spend that money.

On our way to watch another hill climb on the Tour we passed over the most amazing mountain passes. At one stage getting up to 2770m. Driving up on what to me was the wrong side of little winding single lane mountain roads with camper vans coming the other is one sure way to test your nerves I can tell you that.

On our final day of watching the Tour the race was actually passing right through the village where we were staying, so we decided to just wander down the road and hang out in a pub watching the race on a big screen until they arrived. This was a nice way to chill out after a few days of some pretty full on driving.

I must say that even if you have no interest in cycling, watching a few days of the Tour de France as it passes through the French Alps is something that I highly recommend. We actually have no idea what is going on in the race itself, it was much more interesting just to go and watch the race for the spectacle that it is and take in some of the amazing scenery.

(Kel)

TORINO

I think we will probably go in the Guinness Book of Records for admitting that we had a not so great experience in Italy. We had a day off from the Tour de France and decided to head just across the border to Torino (home of the 2006 Winter Olympics). The fact that I was navigating (and am very bad at it) was only part of the problem. Once we eventually made it into Torino (past several very unremarkable towns) we were faced with the most chaotic and frightening driving I think I have ever seen in my life. Kel was forced to swerve like a rally car driver. There were no less than 50 sets of traffic lights in and out of the city, hardly any lanes and of course no indicating. By the time we found the Olympic stadium we were so tired and rattled we decided just to get the hell out of there. We were both quite relieved when we found our way back into the tranquility of the small French mountain villages in the Alps.

Quite ironically on our way out we drove past an accident scene where a guy was being carried into an ambulance on a stretcher, which I cant say I found surprising the way they drive. No doubt the rest of Italy is fabulous but I think it is going to have to work harder to get my vote after my very short experience of it.

(Imelda)

It’s now off to Ireland and England to have a look around and catch up with some friends.

Posted by twokiwis 02:50 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

Spain 2

BIARRITZ

Well our first beach stop in Europe was Biarritz, a seaside town in Southern France. I have heard reports of terrible weather in NZ so I am going to stick to an abstract topic about Biarritz and omit any discussion about sea, sand or sun.

We’ve had our fair share of culture shocks on our trip so far, and the beaches France and Spain were no exception. No amount of convincing would ever make me to go topless at the beach, however in France and Spain they regard it as normal as eating breakfast. What is even more shocking is the ages of the “topless” – mothers with their small children, mothers and daughters baking topless side by side and grandmothers who have obviously spent so many years sunbathing they look positively orange. There seems to be minimal swimming that goes on, what you would hope is sunscreen is actually tanning oil and a fair share of sunbakers combine this with having a smoke or two.

(Imelda)

SAN SEBASTIAN

The highlight (for want of another description) of our stay in San Sebastian was definitely our accommodation. So far on our trip we have stayed in a wide variety of accommodation options. Some great, others not so much. Most of what we have stayed in through Europe has been hostels and this is what we thought we had booked in San Sebastian. As it turns out we were actually staying in a Hospetaje (sp.) which is a Spanish home. We were greeted by our somewhat strange, but very lovely, non-English speaking, Spanish hosts on arrival and were shown to our room which contained bunk beds for 6 people. We soon discovered that they had also converted their lounge next door into another room to host another 7 guests. The rest of the apartment was made up of the hosts’ bedroom, come living room, a kitchen, a small bedroom for their adult son and the smallest bathroom I think I have ever seen. Yes that’s 15 people in total and 1 bathroom.

Despite our interesting accommodation we loved San Sebastian and ended up staying there one more night than we had originally planned. On our final night the Rolling Stones were in town to perform so the town was buzzing and there were more people on the beach than I could have ever imagined possible.

(Kel)

BARCELONA

To be honest I was a little disappointed with Barcelona. Don’t get me wrong it has some absolutely fantastic architecture and sights, by they are largely surrounded by a rather unremarkable city which tends to swamp them, rather than show them off like they deserve. Having said that, we had a most enjoyable time wandering around the Olympic Park, admiring the famous Sagrada Familia (which had its foundations laid in 1882 and is still very much a work in progress!) and watching a fabulous light and water show in the central city fountain.

Aside from the sights, I think I will probably most remember Barcelona for the worst food we have had at a hostel on tour so far. It was so bad in fact that we flagged the free breakfast on our last day and just brought our own. Turning down free food is the worst crime you commit on tour, short of loosing our passports, so it was quite a concession for us to make.

(Imelda)

VALENCIA – AMERICAS CUP

After Barcelona we headed back to Valencia to join the largest collection of Kiwis outside of New Zealand for race 5 of the America’s Cup. I am writing this having just returned from watching Team NZ lose their final match of the Cup. As disappointed as we are that the team didn’t pull through we have had the most amazing time watching the racing here in Spain. It’s hard to put into words, but neither of us have ever been a part of any kind of event that has had as many ups and downs as this and I truly believe we have had an experience that will never be repeated.

We have met many great people here, both young and old. Each day we went down to the Cup Village we would chat away to other Kiwis who have come from all over the world to support Team NZ. It was quite sad seeing the disappointment on everyone’s faces and saying goodbye to a great bunch a people. It is not often that Kiwis get that excited about anything and there were a few occasions where the crowd broke into impromptu renditions of the national anthem which is almost unheard of.

(Kel)

We are a little bit sad to be leaving Spain as we have spent enough time here now to really start to appreciate Spain’s vibrant and fascinating culture (we would like to think our Spanish may even have improved a bit too). Nevertheless we are quite excited about the destinations to come and fly out to Brussels on Thursday to spend the weekend drinking beer and eating Belgian chocolate with our hosts Alana and Nat. It is going to be quite a novelty being picked up at the airport and having the comforts of home for a few days. After that it’s off to Amsterdam for a couple of days before we are back to France to catch a couple of the mountain stages of the Tour de France.

Posted by twokiwis 13:34 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

France 1

BULLFIGHT

On our final night in Valencia we decided to head down to the bullring and check out what the local custom/sport of bull fighting is all about. I have never really thought too much about it, but I had a rough idea of what took place, but Imelda was not really up to speed. “They just tease the bull round the ring with a red cape, don’t they?”

Well that was a small part of it, but with the teasing came a whole lot of stabbing in a series of bazaar ritualistic patterns that over the course of the evening eventually led to the death of six bulls. Without going into too much detail, each bull is finally dragged out of the ring by its horns by a couple of horses and the entire process is repeated over and over.

For all the foreigners in the crowd (which wasn’t that many by the end) this was a very strange and quite cruel insight into Spanish culture. We stayed for the whole spectacle, but even after two hours neither of us could really understand the point of it all.

Now I enjoy watching pretty much all sports, but I can’t say that bullfighting is one of them. This is of course not the case for the locals who are totally mad about the whole affair. There was much cheering and jeering, as you would expect from any rugby game on a Friday night. The matadors themselves are superstars and got mobbed for photos and autographs outside the stadium at the end of the evening and there are many magazines in the book stores dedicated to bullfighting.

If you’re ever in Spain, I would still recommend you head along for the experience, but make sure you know what you’re getting into. The stadiums are fantastic venues and I would hate to think how old the one in Valencia is. The whole spectacle was a small window into what life must have been like in the gladiatorial days and certainly a contrast to the sailing we have been watching.

(Kel)

PARIS

We now have a bit of a gap before we head back at the end of this month to Valencia for the Americas Cup final. The original plan (I use the word “plan” in a very loose sense) was to trip round Germany, Austria and Switzerland during the gap. Unfortunately we had to bin that idea when we realized how much it would cost and that all we would have time for is a hop from city to city. I am gutted not only because I really wanted to go there but also because I had read the entire sections of the Lonely Planet for those countries. Kel has used this to prove his point that reading ahead is a waste of time and that random traveling is far more fun. Plan B was to head up to Barcelona and Northern Spain until we discovered that every single budget bed in Barcelona was taken that weekend (I mean really, what are the odds when you try to book the day before). Plan C was made in desperation and involved flying to Paris and working our way down western France and Northern Spain. We are just lucky that some airfares in Europe are insanely cheap… even when booked one day in advance.

Because I hadn’t anticipated going to Paris until much later I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like. We ended up wandering round like country kids that had never seen the city before, it blew us both away. There was of course far too much to see and far too little time, but we got some absolutely fantastic highlights including a trip up the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre museum and the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Paris was by far the most touristy place we have visited so far, there were thousands of people there, but with all the history and architecture it is easy to see why. We will certainly have to come back again and spend a lot more time there.

(Imelda)

TOURS AND NANTES

After Paris we headed down to Tours in the Loire Valley. Tours and the surrounding area is just delightful. It is exactly how you would stereotype France - cobbled paths, old stone buildings, vegetable and flower markets, chateaus and cheese.

My highlight would be the day we hired bikes and cycled out through farmland and a tiny village to the Villandry Chateau. It is not the most magnificent chateau in the Loire Valley but it has gardens to die for and real character. The cycle followed a river for 21 km, so after the ride there and back and walking around the gardens all afternoon we were both pretty tired.

We then headed over to Nantes (pronounced “Nanties” by me and “Nance” by the rest of France). We have managed to make the most of Nantes but it is not exactly awe inspiring. It has had a very varied history and reminds me a bit of Malacca in Malaysia in the sense that it is a bit of a hotchpot of everything which makes it interesting but not great in any one particular sense.

We have had a few “technical difficulties” with the Two Kiwis tour and managed to get stuck in Nantes, unable to find a way out within our budget by train, plane, car or bus. We have now realized that Europe does not operate like Asia where you can arrive at the bus station at 2.25 to find six people trying to sell you a bus to the place you want to go for 2.30. We are sorted now though….off to Biarritz near the border of Spain on the west, then to San Sebastian just below there in Spain, then to somewhere else we haven’t worked out yet, Barcelona and then back to Valencia.

(Imelda)

Posted by twokiwis 10:52 Archived in France Comments (0)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 16) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 »