Thursday, 25 May 2017

Helicopter Over Hawaii: Blue Hawaiian's Big Island Tour


Geologists in the 19th century identified 14 different climate zones across the earth, and on the Big Island, you can find a whopping 10 of them concentrated across a space of 10 000 square kilometres. Exploring on foot is good fun, but there's nothing like going on a helicopter ride to see how the land changes from one breath to the next: the rocky red soil of Mauna Loa (So similar to Mars it hosted a year-long simulation of space exploration) giving way to lush tropical rainforest, or snow-capped mountains tapering off to turquoise water just perfect for snorkelling in. 

It's a truly magical experience, and one that DT very generously wanted to share with J and me, inviting us to join him and N on a tour over the Big Island. We arrived in Hawaii just as Hurricane Lester left it, but lingering storm clouds meant that on the day of our original booking, Blue Hawaiian wouldn't clear their choppers to fly the route we were meant to be on, for safety reasons. The nice thing about an unstructured holiday is the flexibility it provides in situations like these, and DT picked out an alternative date that wound up boasting utterly perfect weather for our flight.

Once we were all kitted out with life vests and safely ensconced in the surprisingly roomy cockpit, introductions were made by our pilot. As us helicopter ride-newbies identified ourselves with waving arms and whoops over the in-flight communication microphones, he chuckled. "Your first time in a helicopter huh? Mine too. But don't worry, I YouTubed it this morning - we should be ok!" punctuating the punchline with a steady lift-off into a seemingly endless expanse of blue sky. The pilots on Blue Hawaiian are all State of Hawaii licensed tour guides, and it seems part-time comics as well. The jokes are a little corny, but if you're anything like us, you'll find yourself in an elevated mood (ha!) and more inclined to laughter than usual. 

The tour isn't just one-way witty commentary though. The state-of-the-art communication system and aerial-quality Bose noise-cancelling headphones that we were armed with, provides guests with the chance to ask their pilots absolutely anything and everything that strikes them. If you're so inclined, you can find out more about the history of Hawaii, its culture, the best places to eat around the island, or the geological forces that created the natural landscape below. 

My first question was this: Who picks the music coming over the headphones?

As it turns out, our pilot did. After all, in the grand tradition of road trips everywhere, driver picks the music. And so it was in the chopper, where we were treated to a delightful soundtrack of slow jazz, traditional Hawaiian tunes, and the theme to Mission Impossible on one memorable occasion, all personally selected to add to the experience. A couple of weeks before our tour, he had piloted a music producer in LA, who promised to send over a curated mix of "better stuff". I don't know if any other playlist could strike the same balance of vaguely-cheesy yet stunningly appropriate crowd-pleasers, but I'd be interested to hear it. 

DT made sure J and I got the plum spots in the front of the chopper, where we were able to gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows for a better than bird's eye view. 

One of the many highlights of our flight was going along the Volcano National Park Coastline, and following the bright orange trails oozing its way from Kilauea to the sea, dipping close enough to get a large whiff of sulphur. It's a space that's very much in flux as the volcanoes continue to alter the landscape, but the snapshot we got to witness was incredible. Watching the creation of new land unfold in front of our eyes made it seem like we'd travelled back in time to when the continents were new. Hot rocks spew into the air, and the water froths and steams where it meets the molten ribbon of lava careening off the cliffs. The coastline is closed off and inaccessible by land, and while boat tours also go out for an up-close view, the only way to get a truly panoramic look is by air. 

Incredible as the lava flows were, I have to say that my favourite part of the tour was over and around the best spots along the lush Kohala Coast. We'd saved the very best scenery for last, flying so deep into the jungle you think you could just reach out and touch a waterfall. This is where scenes were shot for Jurassic Park, and as we flew alongside it, I felt what I imagine is the same thing that drives people to seek out new worlds: that instant of discovering something greater or more beautiful than you'd ever seen before, and your heart is full to bursting with the joy of it. I wanted to crystallise that moment and make it last and last, but that being impossible, I did the next best thing, squeezing J's hand tight. 

After whizzing over undulating rivers and topography laden with every possible shade of green, we stopped for a while at Blue Hawaiian's exclusive landing pad at the base of Punalulu Falls, which for about ten minutes was our own private slice of paradise. J and I clambered over rocks to sit by the pool at the base of the fall, far enough not to feel the spray, but close enough that the air felt refreshingly cool, looking up and up and up to where the mouth of the falls looked like it was coming down from heaven itself. 

But soon enough we were ushered back to the helicopter, which did an extra loop around before ascending through the valley, lifting just high enough to clear the cliff face and heading back to the heliport at Waikoloa, and the rest of our lives. Before that though, one last look back, to imprint in my memory: 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Hiking Waipi'o Valley: Journey to the Valley of the Kings


I'd taken charge for most of our Vietnam trip, so for this holiday J was responsible for arranging a majority of our Big Island itinerary. He did an absolutely spectacular job of curating experiences that we'd both enjoy, and thoughtfully left a whole day aside for me to pick out whatever I wanted to do as well. Before we flew over, I found some pictures of the Kaluahine Waterfall in the Waipi'o Valley online, and my heart was set on seeing it in person. J was up to the challenge of heading down then up  the valley with me, so on a sunny Tuesday we drove all the way to the other side of the island, armed to the teeth with our swim suits, sunblock, and bottles of water. 

According to the locals we spoke to, if you ever find yourself in the north of the Big Island, there are two eateries that are well worth a visit: Gramma's Kitchen, and Waipio Cookhouse. The day we headed up to Waipi'o Valley, we decided to check them out. Gramma's Kitchen in Honoka'a was sadly closed for a short break as Gramma was apparently away on holiday, but we hit gold further along the Hamakua Coast. Waipio Cookhouse was quiet, but very much open for lunch. Getting to the Cookhouse is easy from Honoka'a - you just follow Highway 240 west, until you see their little sign. It's also a particularly pleasant drive, involving landscapes so impossibly picturesque they look like CGI-ed screensaver backgrounds. 

Waipio Cookhouse is known for its locally-sourced and freshly prepared meals, served up on cheerful crockery with a side of breathtaking views. From the open air dining area you can take in a stunning panorama, and while we didn't see any on our visit, whales have been spotted by other lucky guests. Here, farm-to-fork isn't just a catchphrase - the fields just by the restaurant are part of a 16 acre farm where the grass-fed Black Angus beef and St Croix lamb on the menu are raised, along with other produce from their garden and orchard. The rest of the ingredients on the menu come from from other local producers, as part of an effort to eat and buy local. We tried the Kanahonua Farms Hamburger with House Cured Bacon added on, which boasted a perfectly juicy and delicious patty. Their sustainable farming project is definitely worth it. The Cookhouse also boasts its own imu, the traditional Hawaiian underground oven, which is used to slow cook the meat that goes into the Island Kalua Pork Sandwich. Once I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to have it. Melt-in-your-mouth tender, the pork is smothered in a tangy papaya BBQ sauce and caramelized onions, and served with a fresh, crisp slaw. 

Dessert was piping hot Fried Banana Lumpia, served with a drizzle of local honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The Singaporean in me can't help but compare all fried banana desserts against our own goreng pisang, which typically uses the sweet and ever so slightly acidic rastali banana. While not quite as good as what we have at home, it was a nice end to the meal nonetheless. These bananas were starchier and a little more like plantains, and would have made for a good breakfast snack. 

We continued down the 240 after lunch, all the way to where it reached a dead end about 5 minutes later at the Waipio Lookout. From the top of the cliffs, the vistas don't capture the entirety of the mile wide and 6 miles deep valley, but it's a gorgeous view nonetheless, and one that draws a steady crowd throughout the day. 

The only way to see any more of this dramatic and lush landscape is by hiking down a steep road to the valley floor, which, let's face it, isn't the kindest thing to do to your knees. If you have the strength for it though, it's entirely worth the trek. There is a difference in elevation between the valley and the cliffs of about 300 m, or 980 feet, and the road that takes you between the two is the steepest of its length in the whole of the US. While most car rentals specifically state that you have to stay off this particular road, 4 Wheel Drives can survive the round trip to the valley, but with a number of hairpin turns and an average road grade of 25% (Peaking at a dizzying 40%!) you're probably better off on your own two feet. 

The valley is historically significant for a number of reasons, not least as King Kamehameha I's childhood home. Known colloquially as Hawaii's Valley of the Kings, it was the capital of many early Hawaiian Kings, and the site of a sprawling settlement before a devastating tsunami hit in 1946. Today, it's home to a number of wild horses that survived the disaster, and people who relish the valley's tranquility, no matter the danger that the elements potentially pose. 

wai-pi'o means curved water, and the valley is named for the river that cuts a swathe down its length. On the side of the river are taro fields left over from the old settlement, now mostly overgrown. While the lookout is often crowded, fewer people venture all the way to the valley floor, making for a particularly peaceful walk. What few people you do see however, become what I call situational buddies. When you're in an unfamiliar place, strangers will often bestow a kindness upon you, that you do your best to pass on. 

When we reached the valley floor, we made a left turn hoping to catch a glimpse of the Hiilawe Falls at the very end of the valley, which plunge down 450 m (1500 feet). As the road curved away from the falls though, we came across another couple who let us know that getting there would require trespassing across barbed wire fences onto private property, and where exactly to stop to get a good enough view. We passed this information on to the next set of tourists we met who were likewise heading our way. It was nice that none of us had to waste time venturing too far in with no reward, and when we were once again reunited with our fellow travellers at the black sand beach at the mouth of the valley, we all gave each other a friendly wave. Moral of the story: Be good to each other!

They say that it's important to travel with the person you think you're going to marry, because there's nothing quite like spending whole days together in unknown situations that really gives you a good look at what you're in for. J and I had already survived being pedestrians in Vietnam together, so I highly doubt there's anything else that life can throw at us that we won't be able to get through. But all the same, it was so lovely traipsing with him from mountain to sea. As we picked our way across the muddy valley floor, we laughed and made joking plans about what we'd do in case we accidentally stumbled across killer dinosaurs, and other nonsense things. 

When we finally made it to the beach, we marvelled at how fine and soft and warm the black sand felt beneath our feet. This was where the final scenes of Waterworld was shot, and there's a sense of miraculousness, that such a place even exists. J cheerfully plunged headfirst into the chilly surf, while I was content to dip my feet. 

As it turns out, the Kaluahine Waterfall only appears after heavy rain, and the predicted hurricane hadn't come to pass. On the bright side, our whole trip had been blessed with sunshine-y days, which meant that the Kaluahine Waterfall was nowhere in sight when we visited Waipi'o. But after all the trouble we'd gone to get there, I found that I didn't quite care. After all, I decided, I was already having the perfect day. 

Then, of course, we had to make our way back up to the top. There was a gentleman parked by the river with a lorry, who offered us congratulatory plantains when we made it all the way down the valley. He regularly ferries visitors all the way back to the top of the cliffs for a modest fee, but when we passed him on our way back, he chuckled and said he wasn't even going to try to sell us a ride up. We both looked fit enough to survive the climb it seems, which is possibly the kindest snap judgement anyone has ever made of my physical fitness level. 

Going down took us about ten minutes, but the climb up felt interminable. Every so often, J would remind me to keep my arms up at 90 degrees so my weight wouldn't feel like a drag, and it was almost like having my own drill sergeant. I tried glaring daggers at him whenever he barked "Arms up!" whenever I let them hang limply by my side, but it was impossible to do so when he was being so wonderfully thoughtful otherwise. As the climb wore on, and I felt as though my lungs were about to give out, J remained every solicitous, ensuring I had enough water, and rest, and even offering to carry me up the rest of the way if I felt too worn out. So, I persisted. Eventually, we made it back to the car, utterly triumphant. 

We collapsed onto our seats, and grinned at each other. We'd made it through one adventure, but there were still hours left in the day, and there was only one way to properly celebrate our achievement. 

"Let's go to the brewery we passed on the way here."

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

River Cruising with AmaWaterways: Melodies of the Danube on AmaStella


That old maritime curiosity of sailors not knowing how to swim, was apparently also true for those plying the Danube. With currents so strong that teams of horses had to be deployed to haul boats for miles upstream, and natural barriers like rocks jutting out from the riverbed, navigating Europe's second longest (but most storied) river was once such a dangerous task that captains preferred crew who'd fight to keep a boat afloat than those who were able to paddle to safety at the first sign of trouble. Thankfully, the Danube of today is vastly different to the river of old, and the vessels plying it are likewise changed as well. We got to experience it firsthand on our journey from Budapest to Vilshofen on AmaWaterway's AmaStella. 

The AmaStella only just made its debut earlier in 2016. Featuring the latest advancements in river cruise design, the sailing is extremely smooth, even for people like BB and me who are tragically prone to motion sickness. Case in point: We didn't notice that we'd begun our first inter-city leg until Budapest had slipped out of view over the course of our lunch onboard, replaced first by smaller towns, then long stretches of riverbanks and trees. By the end of our trip, we'd come to think of the AmaStella not quite as a boat, but as five-star boutique hotel that so happened to float. 

M booked our Melodies of The Danube River journey with AmaWaterways through Prime Travel's cruise division, after doing a great deal of online research. Beyond the timing being just right to gel with our Northern Lights expedition, plus an itinerary that featured all the cities and towns she wanted to revisit or discover, AmaWaterways also happens to be one of the top ranking European cruise liners. Since they were established in 2002 they've scooped up travel industry awards from Berlitz to Travel + Leisure as well as heaps of glowing reviews - all of which, we're happy to report, are very well-deserved indeed. M now counts our trip on AmaStella as one of her best ever holiday decisions, and I'm inclined to agree. 

Everything was taken care of throughout our voyage down the Danube, making for a wonderfully stress-free experience. This began with a seamless private coach transfer from Budapest's Ferenc Liszt International Airport to the ship, where everything was ready, waiting, and fully decked out in tinsel, overseen by our hotel manager Attila and his team. We were thoroughly pampered over the course of our cruise in numerous small and pleasant ways, with soft scarves and roses for all the ladies on the first evening, chocolates on our pillow at turn-down, as well as small Christmas presents left outside our door. The only major decisions that lay ahead of us for the next 7 nights were which excursions we wanted to join, what we'd like to have at meals, and whether to say yes to another glass of wine at dinner. 

Ours was the last cruise of the season, but the AmaStella still feels sparkly and brand new. On the whole, the ship's interior is tasteful and elegant, but splashes of bold accents in the art and stateroom furnishings add a charmingly retro touch. Every space is maximized to good effect. With a wardrobe roomy enough for us both to fully unpack and stow away our suitcases, BB and I were able to move with ease around our room. The most pleasant surprise was the bathroom, which had cleverly designed shelving to hold my various lotions and potions, a shower big enough to stretch in, and fantastic water pressure. 

You'll be surprised at how much there is to do on trips like this. As best we could, we took part in the on-board activities. From decorating Christmas trees and hunting for the Christmas pickle, to ooh-ing and aah-ing at appropriate points during the strudel making demonstration, we dutifully showed up and found our days very full indeed. I wish I could say we explored every inch of the ship and tasted all it had to offer, but we left some stones unturned. The massage parlour we missed only because everyone else had booked it solid within the first two days, but the gym, the running track, and the pool we deliberately gave a wide berth - there's no shame in fattening up over Christmas. There was also little need for us to head to the sun deck with everyone else when we sailed during the day: In stateroom #315 we had our own balcony, where I would sit under a pile of blankets and watch the world go by, armed with fortifying cups of tea or hot mulled wine from the lounge. 

Like all the journeys designed by AmaWaterways, this cruise down the Danube allowed us the opportunity to be immersed in the cultures and histories of the people and places we visited along the river. Whether we were taking part in a 15 mile bike ride or a wine tasting tour, all of the local guides impressed us with their insider knowledge, and some were particularly talented story tellers too. If you're the sort of person who balks at anything remotely "touristy", you may think that some of the activities aren't quite for you. But be open-minded - how different is dancing along to the merry tunes of Schrammelmusik at a Viennese heurige (wine tavern) to taking in the art at the butter yellow Melk Abbey? Culture can be dynamic, social, and performative. You just need to look at it in context for the experience to feel enriching. And like the case of Salzburg and The Sound of Music, it's fascinating to see a whole new culture form out of projection and expectation. 

There are so many different highlights and things to see along the Danube, so if you're having problems deciding which tours you'd enjoy more, just go with your gut - all of them are well-organised and very compelling. We were exposed to major landmarks and off-the-beaten-track gems alike: opulent baroque architecture, crumbling ruins, magnificent cityscapes, and the natural beauty of the Danube's shoreline. All of the main excursions leaving the boat each day have options for the more energetic, as well as those who'd like to move at a gentler pace. It's perfect when you're travelling with family - everyone gets to pick what suits them the most, and you meet up again over meals with new adventures to share. 

On a river cruise, which works on a far more intimate scale than ocean-faring ships, strangers become familiar faces very quickly. It's hard to stay annoyed at the children who race across the running track as you're having a post-lunch snooze when they're also the ones winsomely telling you to go "try this bakery, we think you'll love the pastries there!" while you're on the same tour. And after an evening trading terrible jokes over glasses of wine, people who'd gotten polite nods the day before can suddenly become your new best friends - for the duration of the cruise at least. Most of the travellers were Americans with roots in the region, coming back for a glimpse of their heritage, and a smattering of Asian families like ours wanting to see Europe in comfort and style.  

The beds on the AmaStella are too cozy, and emerging from my nest of duvets each morning was a trial and a half. Of course, while there are tours set aside for late risers, I was invariably drawn to the ones that demanded an earlier start. Each morning, the dulcet tones of our Cruise Manager Frederico would filter in over the ship's speakers, detailing the departure times for the various shore excursions and wishing us a good day ahead. This announcement, usually 15 to 20 minutes prior to the designated tour departure time, was always my cue to roll out of bed, have a hot shower, snatch up my headset, dash to the dining room to grab breakfast and down a glass of sparkling wine, then pick up my excursion ticket and scamper off to the waiting tour coaches. By the third day, I had streamlined my process so efficiently that I found myself the first person up the bus. I took this as my cue to stay for an extra glass of bubbly the next morning, which made for a rather unforgettable hike up the Dürnstein castle ruins.

Our holiday packet contained detailed itineraries of each shore excursion, but the AmaWaterways team still managed to spring delightful little surprises on us along the way. On Christmas day in Vienna, they thoughtfully arranged for all of us to receive a voucher for a drink and a souvenir mug, which we were able to redeem at any of the beverage stands at the main Christmas market. We loaded up on piping hot glühwein, sweet, spicy, and perfect for keeping off the damp chill. 

AmaWaterways organizes a number of Limited Edition Tours at certain ports of call, to better allow you to explore the hidden gems of that location. Unlike the rest of the tours which are booked on the boat itself, these tours can be booked pre-departure on their website, and are available on a first-come-first-served basis. The four of us learned more about the city on our three-hour Hidden Vienna walking tour than we ever had on any of our previous visits, while M had a taste of the fruits produced in the Wachau Valley on her Apricots & Sweets tour. 

Each guest has a Personal Audio Device to use for the duration of the cruise, a marvellous little piece of equipment that's reset with each new tour you go on, and allows you to hear your guide's commentary even from afar. That way, we could still indulge in our curiosity and peer around interesting looking corners, without missing out on whatever bits of trivia or folklore the guides had to share. 

There were also a number of specially curated experiences that made the trip even more special. Lively local musicians played in the restaurant and lounge on some evenings, the first time I'd ever been serenaded over grilled sausages and strudel. We downed liquid warmth in the form of heavily floral schnapps on the top deck while admiring the lights of Buda and Pest on a private illumination cruise, something I won't be forgetting in a hurry. And even though we missed the main event, we got to indulge in our very own mini-Oktoberfest in Vilshofen, where the newly-crowned Beer Queen led us in an evening of drinking and dancing. Taken all together, it was a perfect taster of the diversity among the different countries along the Danube. 

There was fast and free Wi-Fi on board if we wanted to connect to the wider world, but also a snail mail service for those of us who wanted something a little more personal. Apart from being all smiles each day and ensuring everyone made it on and off the boat in one piece, Andrea and Alexandra down at reception also helped BB and I send out a series of postcards to our friends completely gratis

The AmaWaterways group has a reputation for providing a better standard of food and wine than your usual river cruise, and we certainly enjoyed ourselves at every meal, which was whipped up by Chef Thorge and his kitchen crew. Ever so often, we'd try the signature dishes of whichever region we were passing through, but world food also made an appearance as well. The day pho came on the menu, even M had two whole bowls. There was also the chance for everyone to dine at the Chef's Table on at least one night of the journey, which featured a different degustation menu each time.

There isn't fixed seating in the dining room, allowing for a touch of fluidity and the opportunity to sit with new people each meal, but we're creatures of habit, and whenever possible, we'd sit in a corner we came to see as ours, where the wonderful Mihai and Silvijo would take care of us. 

It's the service that makes all the difference, and everyone we met was so very kind. You wouldn't have guessed that it was the very last cruise of the season before they all went home - everyone was at the top of their game, making sure us guests had the very best holiday experience. Even Captain Wijnand welcomed everyone who went to visit the bridge, patiently answering any questions we had.  

We've been thoroughly converted to river cruising thanks to AmaWaterways, and beyond exploring other legs of the Danube, we're now looking to sail perhaps down the Mekong, or doing a wine cruise through France one autumn. Ah! So many different possibilities, so many places to go.