Tuesday, May 28, 2013

New Zealand - Our Adventures in the Land of the Long White Cloud!

Centuries before Columbus sailed the world, in a time when people feared falling off the edge of the earth; the Maori’s travelled across the unknown Pacific to set foot on Aotearoa or present day New Zealand. The Maori way of life – the language, culture and art is still a huge part of New Zealand. The country sits on two tectonic plates – Pacific and Australian. The constant grinding of these plates is the reason we could experience the magnificent mountains, beautiful fiords, and the spectacular glaciers. Subterranean activity has created hot springs and geysers that are found in the North Island in Rotura. Majority of the population lives in the North Island, mainly in the business capital – Auckland. We wanted to stay away from the cities, and are very glad that we picked the South Island as our destination. This is the best place to see the true natural beauty of this country.

We landed in Sydney on the morning of the 26th December 2010. We had about 12 hours in transit, so decided to go out and explore the city. We went to the Opera House first, and had a relaxed breakfast. Walked around in the gardens for a bit, and took the tourist bus and saw the city. The best part was Bondi beach. We had a nice lunch at a restaurant called Brave, near the beach. We had assumed that we would be tired after the 15 hour flight. For not having planned anything, we had a great day in Australia, and were all set for our flight to Christchurch.
We reached Christchurch late at night and took a cab to our hotel. We stayed at Terra Vive - a brand new boutique hotel, just 10 minutes from the airport and the city center. Would recommend this place if you plan to stay in Christchurch. The next morning it was slightly drizzling, but it was so beautiful. I had missed the summer rain for so long! ( December is summer there and the weather was perfect)

It started pouring hard in the afternoon, so we decided to go to the Antarctic Center. New Zealand has a number of research bases in Antarctica. The museum was educational and a lot of fun. They had simulated conditions similar to what researchers face there. We picked up our rental car from the airport in the afternoon, and went to this amazing Italian place called Valentino.

The next morning we started our 6 hour drive to Queenstown. It was a beautiful drive, and we stopped at a small town called Geraldine for lunch. After a number of stops and tons of pictures, we reached Queenstown late in the evening.

Arial view of Queenstown -
Queenstown is very small and touristy. The population is only around 10,000. There are just about four blocks with shops and nice restaurants. There is a special charm to the place. We had dinner at this really nice restaurant called Roaring Megs. The ambiance and the presentation was so wonderful. The ladies who worked there were really sweet, and told us a lot about the place. The next morning we left at 7am for our day trip to Milford Sound, and what a day that was. We had booked our trip with Real Journeys. There are two other options – Mitre Peak Cruises and Milford Sound Red Boats. They arrange similar tours that include a 4 hour bus ride, a 3 hour cruise and the ride back to Queenstown. Real Journeys has buses with huge windows, glass top, and tilted seats to enjoy the views. We drove through Fiordland National Park, with multiple stops. This is where they filmed the Lord of the Rings, and if you are interested they even have tours to the various locations. In case you are up for hiking the Milford Track which is considered one of the best hikes in the world, you could stay at this town called Te Anau. It is about 3 hours from Queenstown. It is a 4 day guided hike, book in advance as spots get filled very early.
Milford sound is just magical. It is actually a Fiord, not a sound. A Fiord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs. It is created in a valley carved by glaciers. I had never seen such a sight. Cruising between magnificent cliffs opening up into the Tasman Sea, hundreds of waterfalls, and light rain - all made it a perfect day. We got back around 9:00pm after a long 14 hour day.

The next day we got up late and got ready for some adventure stuff. I thought I had my adrenaline fix for this year with - Parasailing, Skiing and Snow Biking in Tahoe, River Rafting, Jet skiing, speed boating, Windsurfing (just trying), and tubing. However, there was some more left. We started off the day with a Gondola ride that gives a beautiful view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. From there we took ski lifts to the top of the mountain. We did the luge ride up there. It was just like go kart racing but we were riding downhill. It was pretty nice.

In the evening we went for the Shotover river Jet Boat ride. It is the only jet boat that does 360 degree turns. Was amazing to go between narrow canyons and do the turns between them. We had a quite dinner in our balcony overlooking the lake with burgers from the very popular Fergburger and watched fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

The next day we drove to Fox and Franz Josef Glacier. It is about a 5 hour drive from Queenstown to the Glacier area. Living in California, few places in the world can take your breath away; New Zealand and this drive in particular, was one of them. We stopped a lot along the way and reached Fox Glacier around 6 in the evening. We went for a walk before dinner. The area is a thick rainforest. We went to a restaurant called Plateau for dinner. Fox Glacier is a very small town, and this is pretty much the only fancy restaurant. The food was great and we went back again the next evening. We stayed at this really nice bed and breakfast called Te Weheka in Fox glacier. I highly recommend this place if you plan to stay in this area.

We were booked for the Heli Hike the next morning. The plan was to take a helicopter to the top of the glacier for a 4 hour hike on the glacier. Book with Fox Glacier Guiding. They have a number of options depending on your fitness level. The entire valley is carved by the glacier and it is amazing to see the power of ice. These glaciers are still moving away from the ocean and growing since 1984. The next day it was raining heavily and our heli hike got canceled. They do not allow an unguided hike in Fox Glacier since the area is highly active and unstable. We drove up around 40 minutes to the Franz Joseph Glacier where we could hike a couple of hours to see the terminal face of the Glacier. This was a great hike with magnificent mountains all around, light rain, and waterfalls everywhere.
The next morning we drove from Fox Glacier to Greymouth to take the TranzAlpine / TranScenic train across to Christchurch. A must do on a visit to South Island. You can book online here.
We stayed at Copthorne Hotel Commodore for the last night in Christchurch. Again, loved it!

Overall, the NZ trip was one of our best experiences. I recommend the hotels we stayed in – very modern, comfortable and the best part was that each one had a great in room spa. That was the best way to relax after a great day out. The restaurants were amazing with fresh ingredients, great ambiance, and wonderful service. Yes, the journey was very long, almost 20 hours each way, but well worth it!

PS. Sorry about the quality of my pictures. The sister is the Photographer in the family! She was surprised that I could make a place like New Zealand look like this:)

- Yam

Friday, May 17, 2013

Lake Tahoe in Summer

For the longest time, Lake Tahoe used to be our Winter vacation spot. We could not really think of much else to do other than skiing. For many years, we used to go there to ski/ snowboard every other weekend during peak season. It is only in the last 2-3 years that we started visiting Tahoe in summer and it is equally beautiful, if not more. I love Tahoe in spring and early summer. All the snow has melted off the hiking trails by then. The waterfalls are filled with new snow melt, and  you could enjoy the snow if you get to the top of the mountains. It is the best of both worlds. 
Heavenly Resort: During spring and early summer, tubing is available at heavenly. The viewing gallery is open at all times, so do not miss to take the Gondola to the top. One summer my dad was here for a couple of weeks for a work trip, and we went to Heavenly and tried tubing. It was so much fun. Dad loved it.

Eagle Falls: We have been to the Upper and Lower Eagle falls in Spring. It was filled with fresh snow melt.

Biking and easy hikes: For easy to moderate hikes, you can choose the walking trails along south lake tahoe. Most of it is flat and you get fabulous views of the lake.

There are bike rentals in South Lake Tahoe. There is a huge biking path that can keep you occupied for an entire day. Stop along the way and enjoy the beautiful beaches.


Cave rockTraveling   from South lake Tahoe towards Reno, you will pass through the Cave Rock tunnel. Just before the tunnel is a pathway that leads to the Cave rock. It is easy to miss, so look out for signs. It looks the best during sunset. The spring bloom adds to the beauty.

Cave rock tunnel - on Hwy 50 (towards Reno)

Emerald bay: This is my favorite hike in Tahoe. I love it as much as the Vernal falls hike in Yosemite and the River hike in Zion. There is a steep descent from the starting point to the base that is around the lake. After that it is a very easy hike. There are places where you can get off the trail and reach the lake shore. The path is so green, it is like a dream walking through it!

This is the view from the starting point, and it keeps getting better!

Here are some pictures from the hike:


Water activities: There are lots of water activities to try on the gorgeous lake. If you like to go slow and enjoy the views, rent a kayak. You could also rent a motor boat and cruise along. If you are looking for more speed, our favorite water sport is jet skiing. The Zephyr Cove marina  is the most famous for rentals. Camp Richardson is another such spot. I have also heard of Meeks Bay marina, but have not been there.

Some photos of the water activities at Lake Tahoe (from the web):
Parasailing is very popular too. The views of the lake from Heavenly ski resort are gorgeous. You can say the same other way round as well. Heavenly at 800 feet above the lake looks majestic. The dip into the ice cold water is very exhilarating. I would highly recommend it.

Here is a pic of sis and I parasailing:

Stay: There are a lot of options for stay along the lake. You can book vacation rentals through Home away, Vacation home junction, Airbnb, Vacation Rentals by Owner, or Vacation Rentals. We like to rent a house or a big cabin if going a large group. There are some good hotels as well. We like Harrahs as it is close to the South Lake Tahoe ski slopes, and also because we can play Poker all night! We have stayed a couple of times at High Country Lodge when looking for places to stay at the last minute. The rooms are decent, and the best part is the outdoor Jacuzzi. The cabins at Heavenly, Sierra Tahoe, Northstar etc are also great.
- Yam

Monday, May 13, 2013

Lake Tahoe - The Winter Paradise!

Our favorite destination during winter is Lake Tahoe. We usually go to South Lake Tahoe as it has our favorite ski resort - Heavenly. On occasions we have stayed at North Lake Tahoe and visited the North Star and Boreal. If finding accomodation near lake Tahoe is difficult or expensive, you can try Carson City and Reno too. If I am going for multiple days, I prefer Reno as you can go to either of North or South lake Tahoe depending  on weather conditions. You can enjoy the Casinos too at night. An added bonus right!

The drive to Lake Tahoe is beautiful. The snow capped peaks are enchanting. 

This winter the snow was pretty severe. When we visited the temperatures were around -15 degree C. What I love most about winters are the icicles on  houses. They look so beautiful!

We went up to Heavenly to do tubing, but by the time we bought our tickets, stopped at the lower level to see the views and enjoy a hot chocolate, and reached the tubing spot - it was closed for the day. I would suggest you go tubing in the mornings. During the afternoon, people complete skiing and then stop by for a few rounds of tubing, and it can get really busy.

So we ended up taking a  walk along South Lake Tahoe. All the pathways leading to the lake were snowed in and really slippery. People had made this their own sledding area. They were zipping down the stairs. It looked great fun. There were a couple who zipped down so fast that they could not stop and landed in the ice-cold water ;). Was fun watching.

The drive back to our hotel after the fun time at Lake Tahoe was rough. During winters, It is preferable to drive a 4xwheel drive and carry snow chains. The main highways are constantly cleared of snow and driving is not very difficult, unless it is snowing very hard. We experienced a lot of snow and visibility was poor. We even saw a few SUVs skid. It is always safe to drive slow and have chains on.

We neither had 4xwheel drive nor snow chains. We had to buy the chains from a gas station and as it was our first time, we tried to put them on by ourselves. We failed miserably at it and finally had them on with the help of a friendly couple who had stopped next to us to put on their chains. Remember to carry with you a small tool box and flashlight. It came in very handy. We later found out that if you have your own ski chains, there are professionals along Hwy 50 who can do it for you. I would say that would be the best way as it is fast and easy.

The next morning was clear again. Hwy 50 still had a few restrictions though. We were staying at Reno as we had made last minute plans and had a hard time finding a good place in Tahoe. We decided to go to North lake Tahoe. We went snowmobiling near Squaw Valley. It was great fun and the views were amazing, but I must admit that the  ride was scary. We went for a 2 hour ride to the peak of a mountain and at most times were close to the edge. Was glad I wasn't driving!

We also tried ski-biking. It was super fun. It is just like a bicycle but with skis instead of tires. The only hard part is carrying them up the ski lifts.

That was Lake Tahoe in Winter:) It is equally beautiful in the summer, will tons of fun adventure activities. Stop by to check all that out in our next post!