A Travellerspoint blog

Back home

By Johan

Can't believe 6 months have past since we left but here we are sitting in Anchorage airport, ready for our flight home to Auckland, New Zealand. Some quick stop overs in Portland and Los Angeles and then it's back to Down Under.

It has been a fantastic adventure; In addition to catching up with family and friends at various places, I have gained many new impressions from the new places we visited and learned more about the various peoples in places I wasn't familiar with such as Chinese, Mongolians, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Kazaks, Native Americans in the Adirondacks, Vikings in Norway and Native Alaskans in Fairbanks.
A truly unforgettable experience.

I am looking forward to return to New Zealand now. Although we will have to cope with some of the necessities of job hunting and going back to work and house keeping, NZ is a pretty cool place to return to and I can't wait to go back to the my favourite mountain bike trails, the Waitakeres and the West Coast and Coromandel Beaches.
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Posted by Vendrig 11:38 Comments (0)

Alaska

By Johan

Alaska had been on our wish list for awhile and although it is a destination that deserves a longer stay in itself, our main objective for this 12 day visit at the end of our travel adventure was to see the Northern Lights. It has to be cold and clear for this to work and we were lucky to get both for some of these days. We started our trip with a visit to Santa Clause's home town of "North Pole" . (For real, this is where his international mail goes and where his main chair and reindeer stay in summer).
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We had some rain and grey weather (which is very common at this time of year) at the start and the end of of our 12 days in Alaska. They had a big snow storm a week before we arrived in Fairbanks and power had only just been restored to most of the town. So adjusting from 30 plus degrees C and tropical beaches in Cuba to minus 4 and snow in Fairbanks was a bit of an adjustment. Nevertheless the weather soon cleared and we moved into our "public use cabin" for some wonderful clear and crisp winter weather. Maaike started building a snow wall (as defence for the snow ball fight) and soon Deborah and I chipped in to extend this to a full size igloo.
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Deborah's wishes were heard with four cold clear nights with the northern lights dancing right above us. Although it is pretty hard to get out of bed and into the cold in the middle of the night, it is well worth it to see this mesmerising light show. The light clouds are moving across the sky in ever changing patterns of green with the odd flare of red.
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With some short walks, gathering firewood, playing in the snow and visits to the local Chena hit pools, we really enjoyed our 4 days of "Alaska frontier" life style.. We also used the public use cabin in Denali. I recommend using the public use cabins; it really does give you a great taste of the Alaskan outdoors. Before you book check the accessibility though because many can only be accessed by hiking or 4x4 in summer or snow mobiles in winter.
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Driving south from Fairbanks to Anchorage and Seward we passed through the Denali and Kenai national parks. This is a great drive that provides a great taste of the vast mountain ranges and fjords that cover most of Alaska.
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There are only very few major roads through Alaska with the rest of the country only accessible via 4 wheel drive or snow mobile tracks, ice roads and (mostly) small airplanes. There are many small airfields dotted around as and many little planes use the lakes and rivers as runways. Flying is big business here and there where more than a hundred of these sea planes parked around the lake behind our motel in Anchorage. (We noticed it is much cheaper to park your plane in down town anchorage than it is to park your car in downtown Auckland - the first three days is free!)
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We finished our trip with a visit to Anchorage zoo to see some of the wild life we didn't see in the wild. Seeing the fully grown version of the grizzly (brown) bear and the black bear I am kinda glad we didn't bump into these fellas in the wild :).
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Posted by Vendrig 11:03 Comments (0)

Cuba

By Johan

Cuba wasn' part of original grand plan but after reading some blogs Deborah picked up on the suggestion that it is best to see Cuba before the upcoming "American invasion". So we decided to pick up a good travel deal in Canada and headed off to the Cuban sun for 2 weeks.
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The beaches near Varedero are absolutely beautiful. After being on the move for so long we really enjoyed hanging out in the resort and lying on the beach. Although normally I would prefer a mountain bike ride in my spare time, in this place you can't really beat sitting in the water sipping on a "Cuba Libre" or PiƱa Colada"!
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I didn't know a lot about Cuba before we went. I guess I thought about the cigars, the rum, old cars, communism and the Cuban missile crisis at the height of the Cold War. It is all true, these characteristics are in your face everywhere from the moment you get there. But there is a lot more here, the history goes back a long time to the times of Christopher Columbus, African slave traders and the Pirates of the Caribbean. My God, we even past the place where Piet Heijn sank the Spanish Silver Fleet! ( for the Dutchies that was a big deal). The prevalence of this history really hit home to me when I saw they use genuine old canons in the streets of the bigger cities as street decorations, there are soo many of them around.
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The old cars are every where too! Of course there are a lot of old Russian cars and some modern cars as well but the old sixties American classics really do steal the show. It's amazing how the Cubans have managed to keep these things on the road since the trade with the USA stopped after the revolution in 1960. Turns out that in many of the cars the original American petrol engines where replaced with Russian/Cuban Diesel engines over time but they certainly still look the part.
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When you get off the resort into the back streets of Varedero, Trinidad and Havana as well as the country side it is clear the county is very poor. The infrastructure of roads, rail roads, telecommunications, schools, hospitals, etc is all in a poor state. Since the trade with the Russians stopped in 1990 when the old USSR fell apart, the country has had very little income so maintenance in these areas has been very limited ever since.
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Listening to the guide during one of our day trips it seems the communist era between 1960 and 1990 with support of the Russians was very good for the Cuban people. After many years of crap dished out by the U.S. mafia (we drove past Al Capone's holiday home) and the Cuban dictatorship of General Baptista, Fidel Castro changed the country around quickly and introduced equality, free milk, eggs and basic food for all children to the age of 7, free health care and free education all the way through to university. Most of this is still in place today! No wonder Fidel Castro is still pretty popular as is his brother Raul, the current leader. But most prominent national hero is Che Guevara who trained and led the rebel army. His face is plastered over many walls, flags and t-shirts. We briefly visited his Mausoleum in Santa Clara.
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Despite the poverty, the cities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Havana are colourful, noisy and upbeat. As I said before there is a lot of history. With influences from the Spanish, French, Dutch, Africans and Americans.
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The people are equally colourful with racial and cultural influences from the same areas. The best way to enjoy the place is simply to walk the streets or enjoy one of the small eating places in old Havana.
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The streets only clear out for the huge thunderstorms that come in fast and furious in the afternoon and clear up again just as fast. This tropical climate forms the tropical dense bush that covers the Topes de Collates mountains in the central South where we went for a hike and a swim.
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I really enjoyed Cuba. I am not sure whether the "American invasion" will really make that much of a difference. There are many resorts with Canadians, Germans, Dutch and other tourist here already that I think the tourism part will probably grow but not necessary change. Cubans working in hotels and on tours like tips but they aren't really that service oriented because of the old communist culture of "take it or leave it". Tourist prices are also already relatively high and climbing because the prices are set by the government and seem to be based more on western standards than the actual local Cuban economy, which is how the government makes pretty much all its money from tourism.
Opening the trade with the USA will no doubt make a great difference to the infrastructure of the country which is clearly needed to keep providing care for its people and let them participate in the global economy (and Facebook ;) ) But hopefully the rich USA tourists won't buy up the cars which have pretty much become a national symbol.
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Posted by Vendrig 16:33 Comments (1)

North Eastern United States of America

By Johan

A road trip through the USA is always a treat. We enjoyed some great scenery and an endless supply of cool campsites across the North Eastern side of the States combined with the hustle and bustle that comes with visiting Boston and New York City. For those of us that have grown up watching a lot of Hollywood movies, travelling in these parts often gives you the feeling of driving through a movie set.

Leaving Canada via Niagara Falls took us in to New York State. We visited a few of the state parks with river canyons where small rivers have carved stone sculptures out of the sandstone. The gorge walk in Watkins Glen State park in particular is a great place to go. Although it was busy the day we visited, it really is a very pretty place with an absolute beautifully crafted walking track.
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The Adirondack Museum in the town of Blue Mountain Lake was an cool step back in time to experience the history of the adirondack mountains. The displays are put together beautifully and tell the stories of early settlers of the wild forest and river valleys all around. Now this area really is the wild and wilderness play ground for people that want to get away from the big cities in the North East. With over 70 million people living within a day's drive of this area, it is amazing how well this area has been preserved. The lakes are covered with impressive and very picturesque boat houses but there are also lots of remote tracks and campsites to enjoy.
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Maaike has been great with her home work. She has regular contact with some of her teachers and keeps to a schedule of 4 pages of her maths book every day! A good opportunity to brush up on my mathematic skill while helping her with her home work by the campfire.
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Deborah had been looking forward for a long time to re-visit some of her favourite places in New Hampshire and Maine, not in the least because of the 120 Million tons of lobster they pull out of the ocean every year and can be bought fresh at many street corners. I really enjoyed the beautiful renovated fishing villages and light houses dotted all along the coast.
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We celebrated Deborah's birthday in Boston. We were only in the city for one day but I really liked Boston despite the painful price of a hotel room in down town. It's a beautiful city with a relaxed atmosphere and a happening water front. Attending the Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees baseball game at Fenway park was a real taste of America. Very different to attending a rugby game. The crowd is socialising and chatting away and only seem to focus on the game from time to time when there is something exciting about to happen. The stands are continuously busy with people coming and going as well as dozens of guys that sell drinks and food out of boxes they carry around above their heads.
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Between Boston and New York it's was great to suck in some of the ocean air and feel the beach under our feet in Cape Cod- a real taste of home. We were impressed how close to these big cities you can still get away into some beautiful beach and bush scenery.
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In New York we decided to camp just south of Brooklyn in Floyd Bennett field state park. This is an abandoned airfield with a small campground in the middle of it. Pretty cool to camp that close to NYC. The only small hiccup was that this place is just across the water from JFK airport and it is a training ground for the NYPD police helicopter squad. So although the evening on the campground was pretty relaxed and quiet, the (very early) mornings were filled with the "soothing" sound of jet planes and helicopters. Some so close above the tent you would think they are about to land on your pick nick table. Nevertheless it was a great base to explore New York from; each of the three days we were there we drive for 10 minutes into Coney Island, parked the car and used the subway to get to Manhattan.
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Coincidentally, Julie, Deborah's sister, was also in NY with Jess, our niece. It was really cool to meet up with them and explore some of the city together. For me the coolest part of NY is watching its people. The streets and subways provide a continuous stream of entertainment with people from all sizes and colours expressing their thoughts with flair and assertiveness.
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For me the highlight of NYC was the experience of visiting ground zero of the World Trade Centre 9/11 tragedy. It really hit home standing in these streets of down town Manhattan how surrealistic and traumatic it must have been for the people of New York to see these buildings collapse and to deal with the horrific after math of the loss, recovery and cleanup. The stories shared in the museum and St Paul's chapel where many of the rescue workers found food and shelter during the rescue and recovery effort were both gut wrenching and inspiring.
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On our way back to Canada we cut back through the bush, mountain and river lands of Pennsylvania and New York State. We found a great campground with a swimming lake and many mountain bike trails were we settled in and pretty much had the place to ourselves for a few days. Unfortunately I ended up doing a nose dive over the handle bars on a rocky mountain bike track and busted my shoulder and upper arm. Have had my arm in a sling for the past week as a result; aaarrrggh.
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Posted by Vendrig 21:14 Comments (0)

Canada - Ontario

By Johan

The first part of our North American trip was great fun. Catching up with my brother and his family and friends is always a blast. A great opportunity to see what they are up to now that they are back in Canada, swim in the pond and of course enjoy a drink or two sitting by some whicked camp fires in the back yard.

We joined Paul, Rijk's youngest son, for one of his kart racing weekends. It was great to see him in action and the club manager was kind enough to let me have a go in two of the races as well - a real thrill to hoon at high speed with your bum only an inch or two from the tarmac in a racing kart. You can see why so many racers get addicted to motor sport starting their careers in these karts.
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The Canadian summer weather gave us the chance to check out some of the beaches in the grand bend area of Ontario. We spent an absolutely beautiful evening at the beach, swimming, JetSkiing and even some sailing with the catamaran of a friend who happened to be there.
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After almost two weeks in grand bend Ontario we left for our road trip through the North East of the USA. On the way out, the Canadians put on a fireworks display over the Niagra Falls to farewell us . - very decent of them indeed!
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Posted by Vendrig 12:58 Comments (1)

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