A Travellerspoint blog

BULA!

Mana Island & The Coral Coast

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We were super excited about Fiji and it didn't disappoint!! After a ten hour flight from Hong Kong we were ready to relax. Side note is that Fiji airways is really nice if anyone reading is considering a trip.

We went straight from Nadi on the main island to the smaller Mana Island within the Mamanuca group, an excellent bit of trip planning thank you Lizzie!! As we’ve never been to the Caribbean, the Maldives, Mauritius, The Seychelles or any other oft-mentioned island paradisos, so perhaps we were nicely inexperienced, but this place seemed pretty idyllic from the off.

As boats run like taxis around the islands, we checked in our luggage and got a coffee, in an effort to energise after the overnight flight, we failed. However the boat trip woke us up not only with the wind and sea air but also the gorgeous scenery. Ninety minutes of passing islands, both inhabited and not, and we pulled up (is that right when it’s a boat?!) to the jetty for the Mana Island resort.

The welcome set the tone for our stay with about twenty of the hotel staff singing as we left the boat and headed up to check in. The Fiji word for hello is ‘Bula’ and its more released with joyful force than spoken. It literally means to embrace life and it’s typical to exchange it as a greeting when you pass anyone so you end up saying it with a smile probably hundreds of times a day. In our prep reading we’d read about Fijian hospitality and it rang completely true from the off, Fijian people are happy, smiley warm and generally just lovely. If you say Bula and even more ‘Vanaka' (used for thank you), you’re set to be taken care of.

We’re not going to make this a long post as we pretty much chilled out for ten days in Fiji, plus the photos do much more justice to the land/seascape. What we must do though is note the highlights in case anyone is considering a visit……(we would highly recommend!!)

Mana Island is a biggie compared to it’s neighbours in the Mamanuca group which allows for beaches on both sides of the island, so if one’s windy, you go to the other. It’s also got some easy hikes to lookout points which are especially fab around sunset. As well as the Mana Island resort there is a no-kids resort and a couple of backpackers places on the beach. These were well worth checking out to get out of the all-inclusive resort captivity, meet some local village kids swimming and eat fresh garlic prawns at the backpackers.

From Mana Island we went out for the day to see some more of the area from the water. Our guide Tui summed things up when he said to Scott “I work in paradise”. Yes you do Tui. We got to snorkel, swim in the middle of the Pacific ocean and see several islands in the Mamanuca group as well as stop at a sand-bar where Tui found Ollie a starfish as a temporary pet-in-bucket before we released him back to sea to see his Mummy and Daddy (cue tears…).

Any surf loving readers will appreciate how excited we were to also see Cloud Break whilst there, it was pretty impressive. However as we’re sadly not pro surfers, rather than surf it we stopped at the nearby Cloud 9 instead. It’s a floating bar in the middle of the ocean where you basically park(?!) your boat, paddle up, and hang out drinking and eating pizza (it has a pizza oven aboard, of course). Poser pontoon is no exaggeration, and were we sans infant and five years younger, we would have been posing too. However, today we roll a little differently; with Ollie in full scuba gear, which he loves so much he refuses to remove when on land. We hop aboard and Ollie with that gorgeous three year old’s lack of understanding for ‘cool’, waddles across the deck in his fins and mask, and demands that we put on our scuba gear and jump off the diving platform immediately. So we did. Into the turquoise, fresh, deep, sea for a swim. He loved it and so did we.

Back on dry land we were lucky enough to experience Fiji Day, the annual holiday celebration of Fiji’s independence. This was a window into the way things are done here, with a ceremony and parade of sorts, all outside in the scorching sun. The Guest of Honour received a ceremonial garland, drank Kava* served by Village leaders, and gave a speech. When we say gave a speech, we should note that it was delivered by a representative, whilst the Guest of Honour remained seated. That’s seniority isn’t it, when you’re so special you don’t even have to say your own words!! Joking aside it was a lovely day, and people seemed proud and happy to be celebrating. The school marching band were also very cute and in playful Fijian style, after their serious parade lap, were joined for a second comedy lap by one of the teachers/Mums much to the amusement of the local crowd. The ceremony closed with tea and cupcakes iced in Fiji flag colours, making a very happy Mrs Baker!!

The last two highlights of our trip were back on the mainland where we spent four nights. First; meeting Emosi, who in the course of driving us around a bit, taught us about the sugar cane industry, why houses are built on stilts (hurricane paths), stopped so we could buy Papayas on the roadside, showed us the Sleeping Giant mountains (Google image, mountain with boobs) and gave us chapter and verse on the natural medicine favoured by the Fijian rugby team (who won the Gold Coast Sevens series whilst we were there, just sayin’).

Second was the Kula Eco Park, apparently the only such park in Fiji. This small park provided the opportunity to see a whole lot of native plants and animals, again photos will show more than words. Mildly amusing thing that happened here though was that we asked the Park Ranger if the massive toad we’d seen on our verandah was poisonous or not. “Oh yes”. Yep turns out toads were introduced to kill beetles on the sugar can plantations. It didn’t work as the beetles simply scuttled up the canes away from the toads. However the toads then preceded to kill (i.e. poison) lots of indigenous species including snakes who ate the toads, including the poison-filled glands on their backs. Cue nervous laughter as Scott and I recall the conversation with toad-on-verandah which went “shall I move the toad?”, “no just shut the door”, “yep good idea, it might be poisonous”….I hope you are proud of me Mother Dear, your Zoology teachings were not in vain.

We wish we’d had more time here, we didn’t get to go to the old Colonial Capitol Suva or spend more time sailing around the other island groups. Fiji is lovely though, so we will be back when we do our Pacific Island sailing trip, currently under deliberation. Bula Vanaka lovely people.

  • Kava - when we first heard people saying Kava we (Anna) thought “surely not the Spanish sparkling delight our Lisa Loo loves so much all the way over here?”. Correct Bakers. Kava is a local brew that apparently tastes and smells like dishwater made from pounded crops. It’s the drink of choice especially ceremonially and has a numbing effect on your tongue and after some volume, most of your body. We stuck to the Fiji Bitter given we had to be parentally comps mentus!!

Posted by Bakerfam 16:00 Archived in Fiji Tagged #bula #fiji #bakertravels2014 #manaisland Comments (2)

THE LIGHT

HK ALL DAY

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Our next leg of the trip was a relatively simple three hour flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong. A smooth evening taxi ride via Kowloon into the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong Island allowed us to sample the stunning HK light show that was in store for us. We were greeted at our next (air B'n'B) apartment in HK's Mid Levels area by a super friendly Aussie called Emma and her Mum who settled us into our new home for the next few days (skateboard on wall, nice TV with lots of DVDs…and even a copy of Pharcyde’s ‘LabcabiinCalifornia’ on CD…we knew that this place would suit us!). A few floodlit basketball courts and football pitches sat directly opposite our apartment and were a perfect remedy from the day of transit as the three of us took a football and basketball out for a night time run around (side note - night-time Hong Kong felt similar to Japan, very safe, well lit, lots of locals out playing sport etc..a really nice vibe!).

The following morning we took at a very chilled pace - Ollie and I watched some local guys play football (Ollie greeting them all with a friendly wave and smile, which was nicely reciprocated) and after about 20 minutes of me explaining to Ollie why he couldn't run on and play with the team (!) much to his frustration we picked up Anna and went for a morning stroll and breakfast.

The rest of the day was quite spontaneous, first we went to investigate taking the Peak Tramway up to view the sights of HK, however upon arrival the queues were not looking much fun and with Ollie getting a bit tired we hopped on the first bus tour of the city. As touristy as this is, it was a great way of getting our bearings and learning some local facts. The bus route was about one third shorter than normal as a result of the protests which we otherwise saw nothing of. We then took the famous Star Ferry from the Island to Kowloon to spend the rest of the day exploring all there was to see, Avenue of Stars, Kowloon Park and another local game of football (Ollie and I had a quick kick around at half time and when Ollie ran off the pitch some of the players were high fiving him all the way off......the smile was stuck to his face for a long while!). Onwards to the night market for a mender before looping back to check out the light show across the harbour and witness one of the best city skylines at night (see pictures). Stunning!

For two more days we basically hung out, it's easy to feel at home quickly here it seems. We walked pretty much everywhere as HK seems relatively small, and for some reason in our prep reading, we hadn't picked up how hilly it is. Edinburgh/Bristol hilly, with flights of stairs linking parallel streets and steep hairpin bends. The crazy (crazy levels of) humidity give rise to tropical plants and palms here and there. To get the gist of both features, the tram up to The Peak is the one. It's pretty touristy, but we didn't fancy the hiking option to get to the same spot with our massive toddler to carry. The tram goes at what feels like a 45 degree angle at points, and you pass cityscape and tropic fauna at intervals. But the view from the top, (once you're out of the tacky shopping mall) is pretty impressive.

Back from the tourist traps we indulged in a long walk around SoHo which was a treat. Street food, locals, good looking stylish folks, more shopping than we have luggage space for, and only a short walk back to 'our' basketball court/football pitch for Ollie. Happy days indeed. Little geek moment here; which is to say how cool is it that in NYC and HK there is a SoHo district, but in each one SoHo stands for something different, and in London it doesn't stand for South of - anything?

Anyway...after only three nights, we were off again, a bit sad to leave after such a short stop. We really liked Hong Kong, and would definitely like to go back. 24/7 as it seemed to be, we're pretty sure we barely scratched the surface here.

Posted by Bakerfam 02:00 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged #bakertravels2014 #hongkong Comments (2)

VOTE WITH YOUR WALLET

Completing the Golden Triangle

sunny 26 °C
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After leaving Beijing, we enjoyed the train ride to Xi'an which at five hours meant a look at a fair amount of China's countryside. For the most part we saw field after field growing corn with piles of it drying on many a rooftop. Reminded us of the film 'Food Inc.' and the huge reliance on corn derivatives that underpins a lot of mass produced food. Anyway, boring, sorry.

Xi'an was sadly a bit of a non-event as we'd gone there primarily to see the Terracotta Army. Long story short-ish we didn’t go. This perhaps requires explanation;

Although not noted when we booked tours with local guides, when we embarked on said tour, we were told that as it's a long journey, there would be a couple of stops en route. On our Great Wall tour we were supposed to stop off for a foot massage, a tea ceremony, and a visit to a bangle factory. Anyone who's spent time with a three year old will know this on top of a few hours hiking along the Great Wall (or any wall) and a long return car journey is a recipe for tears if not disaster!!

For each stop off, the tour company (apparently) receives a government subsidy equivalent to ten pounds. So we bought our way out of the bangle factory and foot massage by paying the subsidies to the tour company ourselves, and agreed to visit the tea ceremony venue. After being instructed to try five flavours of tea we were shown to the shop area. We made a pressure purchase of twenty quids worth if tea; a tenner for the shop, a tenner for the tour company, in a fifteen minute visit.

After the above, when we arrived in Xi'an, we asked when booking the Terracotta Army trip if we'd have to make any stop offs. Assured that we would not, we excitedly handed over our deposit. Too good to be true; when our tour guide arrived and we double checked about stop offs on the lengthy return journey, we were told we'd just be stopping at a factory where they make Terracotta Army souvenirs. So we bolted, deposit forfeited, but no more good money after bad. If you can't vote with your electoral vote, you can vote with your wallet.

That was Xi’an. On to Shanghai. Which was excellent, thank goodness.

We stayed in another air B’n’B apartment in the French Concession of Shanghai, which apart from a total lack of wifi, was really good - we’d recommend www.airbnb.com. Immediately we noticed a more relaxed and happy atmosphere, children running in parks, lots and lots of people dancing, and smiles. We actually witnessed a pretty impressive sound clash between a guy singing opera, an amateur brass band, and a Salsa group, all practising within 50 metres of each other in a park!

By now the 1st of October National Day celebrations were in full force, we’d seen preparations of street decorations in Beijing, and it was busy busy busy. Walking downtown towards The Bund to see the famous riverbank skyscrapers was like a mixture of Notting Hill Carnival crowds with Boxing Day shoppers (National Day is followed by mega sale shopping over the week-long holiday period), which was fun for us to see. No more tour guides, we curated our own walking tours for a few days, spending a lot of time in the French Concession with its tree-lined streets, delicious food venues and chilled atmosphere. We were on the up :-)

On to Hong Kong next…

Posted by Bakerfam 17:00 Archived in China Tagged #bakertravels2014 #china #xian #shanghai Comments (1)

GROUNDED

Golden Triangle Pt.1 (Beijing - Xi’an - Shanghai)

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After saying a fond farewell to Japan we spent a large part of the day travelling on Thursday flying 5.5 hours to Beijing, China.

Immediately we found the atmosphere and interaction with the locals worlds apart from what we’d just experienced in Japan. Not too many smiles (even when we smiled), lots of staring, next to no English is spoken here (which we’d expected) so we were about to test our communication skills to the full.

Test one - make way to the nearest taxi queue and take taxi to city centre (around 45 minute drive). Simple as this sounds, it actually became a very stressful experience. Showing the address - in Chinese - to the taxi attendant (who stroked my arm twice (!?) until I firmly asked him to stop) it was apparent that we were at the mercy of human nature here - ushered towards a taxi driver with people carrier by our over-tactile taxi attendant who subsequently decided to charge us (we found out later) 5x what we should have paid (50 quid rather than the usual 10!, not a big deal, but a bit underhanded). Not the best of starts.

We had hired an Air B'n'B apartment in East Beijing and met Vivian who set us up in comfort. A long day had by all, we headed to the local shop for some groceries, made dinner, played lego and crashed out for the night.

Day 2 (Friday) we decided to take a long walk, from our apartment through the local park (Temple of Sun Park) and on to Tiananmen Square (after a stroll around the perimeters of the Forbidden City). We covered many miles by foot this day and had our senses awakened for many reasons.

You really do see people doing Tai Chi in the parks in China, we saw this everywhere, as well as open-air dancing. However constant staring continued (still with no smiles, or giggling at our curious child carrier like in Japan) but straight faced staring - we have absolutely no idea why this happened. Chaos on the roads and pavements - driving and bike riding are a law unto themselves here!

Seeing Tiananmen Square (the largest public square in the world) was an impressive if not mildly intimidating experience. Strict control/search of all that entered, no queuing as such just an ‘everyman for themselves' even if you have a child, whilst crossing the police/army stations. Anna and I had switched from our laissez-faire Japanese vibe to fully focussed, eyes open and pay attention mode. We’ve uploaded some photos which may/may not paint a vivid picture of what we experienced here - hard to fully put it words but one thing is for sure you know who is in charge here and the people of Beijing (seem to) know this too.

The rain clouds set in and gave us a perfect segue to take the subway back to our digs for a debrief…we obviously followed this up by building a lego football stadium, watching Despicable Me 2 and eating pasta; part of Ollie’s new nightly routine! A fascinating and somewhat grounding 24 hours.

The following morning we arranged for a local tour guide (Dawn) to take us to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. We met early on Saturday and headed off on a 1.5 hour drive North of Beijing. We soon clicked with Dawn and were truly excited about seeing the wall. This did not disappoint, an awesome experience (again hopefully our photos can do this some justice), the open ski lift on the way up was frightening but the toboggan on the way down was incredible...Ollie drove mine and did not want to brake at all...no fear!!

We were also able to get some insight into life in Beijing from Dawn who is (aged 22) studying tourism, and lives with six other girls in a 30 square metre apartment. This plus overt state control of the activities of tour companies and tourists sadly confirmed some of the perceptions we had of China.

After an intense couple of days we had a very lazy Sunday packing ready to pick up our train at 5.30pm from Beijing West train station onto Xi’an. We had not anticipated the Beijing traffic on a Sunday being so heavy and subsequently arrived at said train station 15 minutes before our train was due to depart.

Now.....how to describe the train station. Like Kings Cross on steroids, mixed with the same amount of security and customers as Heathrow Terminal 1. Chaos….absolute carnage. We’d arrived too late and kind of knew in our hearts that we’d missed our train…(not good when there is me, Anna, Ollie, two large bags and a buggy to manage!). Nerves were getting slightly frazzled. Leaving Anna and Ollie safely at a security desk I headed to try and switch our tickets for another train (walking through some pretty sad scenes, begging, glue sniffing, countless people clearly in a tough place). The ticket attendant confirmed that the last train had left for the night and next was 10am in the morning. Reunited with Anna and Ollie we sprung into survival mode as day turned to night and made our way to the nearest hotel (not a good one at that..hassled en route by people trying to sell us various things....and even offered massages !! wtf!) our sense of humour had (almost) faded at this point...we checked in, slept for a few hours before returning the next morning to make our way out of the capital.

We made our way to the station and platform early and to finish off our experience, saw families waking up in the walkways to the train station. This is the first time we'd ever seen children sleeping rough. No words can do this scene justice, guess we now understand a little of the the shell-shock people describe visiting places where kids live on the streets.

To be very honest, a huge sense of relief was felt by both Anna and I upon leaving the capital, which was mostly testing or at least in an ‘on-edge’ state of awareness. We hoped that our next stop in Xi'an would lift spirits a little and prove that Beijing doesn't represent wider China. In the interest of balance, we should say that we met and travelled to Xi'an with a kind American couple, who maybe sensing our stress levels pretty much walked us to the train, helped us get seated and disembark in Xi'an. They had experienced no such trauma, reporting a great time in China, starting with a business visit then switching to vacation. So maybe we struck out of luck??!!

Posted by Bakerfam 00:18 Archived in China Tagged #bakertravels2014 #china #beijing Comments (3)

KYO (Capital) TO (City)

KEEP ON MOVING

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After taking such a liking to Osaka we stayed for much of the next day to enjoy the city before taking another bullet train to Kyoto. A 30 minute journey saw us arrive at the former Japanese capital city early evening ready to explore. Our hotel is funny, all 80s glamour a la Dynasty basically, which is a good opener to Kyoto as it has a distinctly kitch feel to many parts of the city.

Day 1 in Kyoto we enjoyed a tour of the city. Having learned our lesson about early starts, we met our guide for the day (Kaz) at 10am, ready for a day of sightseeing. Another lovely Japanese lady like our first guide, Kaz has six grandchildren so a total pro with Ollie.

Unlike other cities, Kyoto is more about buses than the subway (there are only two lines N to S and E to W rather than a whole network). Because its the ancient centre, Kaz said digging metro tunnels involved all manner of checks to avoid damaging buried relics, so they just stick with the buses. So, first bus stop took us to Nijo Castle, a huge Shogun palace set inside a moat with beautiful gardens. This was a kung-fu film fans paradise! Shoes off as usual, we took the walk around the castle, so much to learn; first off, creaking floorboards. Not accidental we learn, this is Nightingale Floor, created to squeak when walked over to alert the resident ninjas to intruders. Next we learn why Samurai ninjas carry two swords, one long, one short; long for fighting, short for suicide (hari kiri) should it go that way! Visiting Samurai would have to leave their long swords at the entrance, and wear extra long trousers (not kidding) to make it harder for them to pick a fight with the Shogun or his ninjas. And so on and so on, hidden doors with backup ninjas behind them, symbolic wall murals (pine trees to show Shogun strength in visitors waiting room), Concubines, tea ceremony, who sits where (raised floor levels key here!) and ornamental gardens……a pretty impressive place, all in immaculate condition.

Next on to the Golden Temple, also formerly under Shogun ownership, now open to all. The central feature is a three story temple next to a small lake. Its literally covered in gold and the three tiers were set up for different classes of visitor with the top being for visiting Buddhist monks. Subtle it is not, see photo! There are lots of other gardens on the site too, as we expect now they all have heavy symbolism in their execution, not much happens without careful thought it seems here in Japan.

To bring us back to the future, we head to a conveyer belt sushi restaurant for lunch, Ollie has been looking forward to this!! Every dish is 80p and you feed your dishes into a plate post box at your table, to calculate your bill. Every five plates sets off a video game on a screen hovering over your table and alas despite three rounds, we didn’t win a cheap toy (much to Ollie’s disappointment!). If you order off-converter belt from the on-screen menu, your dish speeds towards you on a second conveyor belt, which Kaz calls the sushi bullet rain (she’s very lovely). Oh and the sushi is really good too!

Fuelled up we take another bus to the last spot for the day, a meditation rock garden, made popular by none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself who visited and was very complimentary; after which Japanese tourists started visiting. Nice work Liz. We’ve included a photo from the bus journey which was quite sweet. It’s school trip season so there are lots of teens in Kyoto, and a group on the bus were keen to practice their English with us. They are quite shy on the whole so Ollie did most of the talking, asking them if they’d seen pretty much every film he’s every seen much to their amusement. The rock garden was lovely, walled in a courtyard style next to a temple building. It was a little wasted on us (tricky to meditate with three yr old in tow) but as usual set in beautiful gardens with a fountain we especially liked, see photo. Exhausted and with brains full of new things, we return to our hotel via a bus and the subway, saying goodbye to Kaz who has given us a brilliant day. Picnic tea in our room and sleep.

After an indulgent tour day, we get back to basics; three loads of laundry at the coin-op launderette near our hotel in Kyoto!! Being away for nearly four months means basic clothes and washing at least once a week so when we’re not self-catering that equals launderette. Whilst the washing is on we relax in a nearby square, snacking and watching an open-air school music performance. The kids are really good, playing a mix of Jazz faves and a little rock band section, cute-central actually. Leaving Ollie and Scott having lunch, I walk back to launderette to switch loads from washer to dryer and crossing the road see mountains in the distance, smart tower blocks in the foreground. And I have a little moment of “this is pretty mad, I’m crossing a road in Kyoto, Japan. We’re all the way round the world. This is amazing”….then I carry on ready to sort pants and socks.

Chores done we’re off to check the other side of Kyoto to temples, gardens and castles; downtown Gion. This is lots of fun. More crazy Japan i.e. shopping malls (where we buy a new camera, thank goodness) and neon lights everywhere. We stop for dinner at a restaurant that is similar in style to our hotel, but a few decades earlier, its all fifties glamour, leather booths and lounge chairs, with a menu to match (glace cherries on ALL desserts)!! We walk after dinner through tiny more peaceful streets, lined with two-storey traditional buildings containing eateries, tea houses and locals. Sadly we don't see any real Geisha, but lots of people in kimonos which is quite endearing. This part of Kyoto reminds us of the old town in Nice, France, so we like it even more! Back to the hotel for sleep before tomorrow's last train, back to Tokyo.

On our final day in Japan we have a last run around town, Tower Records, toy shop (again) and home to pack for our next (and possibly most testing leg) - China.

In summary Japan has been everything that we'd hoped for plus a lot more, we have truely loved every moment - friendly and welcoming people, rich heritage and history, great food and culture - all encapsultaed within a crazy-futuristic, yet safe and fun city....minds blown. 10 days scratched the surface just, but we will be back to explore more, that is certain.

Posted by Bakerfam 19:09 Archived in Japan Tagged #japan #bakertravels2014 #tokyo #kyoto Comments (2)

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