A Summer Week in Iceland

We spent a wonderful week in Iceland. The country is beautiful in a desolate way. Its volcanic origins and geothermal energy makes for spectacular scenery, delicious crystal blue baths, and hot water that often smells of sulphur :-)

 

The Icelanders we met were friendly and spoke English well. The weather was never warm and often cold & drizzly though we were surprised to learn that the temperatures in winter (esp. in the Southern part of the island) rarely drop below minus five celcius.

 

Below you'll find pictures of Reykjavik, the Golden Circle (a must-do day trip in the outskirts of the capital), and further afield in the south of the island (admiring many waterfalls, mountains, as well as a fun speed boat trip around the icebergs of Jökulsárlón).

 

Quick travel tips:

  • In Reykjavik, we stayed in the second floor flat of this apartment building. It was tight for five people but comfortable and very well situated. We rented its car as well. Worked out great.
  • During our "South of Iceland" expedition we stayed at one of the cottages of the Vellir farm. Amenities were good though dinner was pricey.
  • If you want a great meal in Reykjavik I highly recommend the Around the World menu at the Fish Company.
  • We didn't end up doing it but I heard that the boat tour of Vestmannaeyar is really great.
  • Roads are good, internet is fast, people are nice, weather is... variable. Can't have everything! :-)

Four Parks in Five Days

After a great time in Vegas attending Minecon, our family took a road trip to some of the most beautiful and fascinating national parks in the Western US: Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, and Death Valley.

By far the most spectacular of the parks is the Grand Canyon. Its sheer size defeats any attempt to capture its magnificence in a picture. You just have to see it. We spent our day first at the National Geographic visitors center (the IMAX movie is worth it), then visiting many vista points along the south rim. Everywhere you stop a new view of the canyon takes your breath away.

Hotel-wise we were very happy with the rooms & amenities at the Best Western Grand Canyon: conveniently close to the park, plus not every hotel has pool tables and its own bowling alley. Great fun with kids!


Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are close together but worlds apart. Bryce's myriad stone spires make the park the more visually appealing of the two but our boys enjoyed climbing and exploring Zion more. Both are well worth a visit, you can stay at either park. Not knowing that up front, we chose Zion. The town is pretty and larger than I'd expected. We stayed at the Quality Inn. It was a little spartan but the price was great, breakfast good, wifi free, and the people very friendly. Dinner at the Spotted Dog Cafe was delicious and surprisingly affordable with kids.


Death Valley's strange landscapes and salt flats made us feel that we'd gone back in time a few billions years. Visiting in late November, the temperatures were very comfortable.

Lodging was a disappointment though. With no competition, Furnace Creek Ranch charges double what rooms are worth. If you make a long day of it, you can see most of Death Valley's attractions so you may want to stay off park. While we're at it, fill up your gas tank before entering Death Valley, or do so at Stovepipe Wells. The prices we saw at Furnace Creek hovered at a sweltering $5.50/gallon!


If you're driving from Las Vegas, set aside a day to get to each park (except Bryce & Zion which are two hours apart). Don't worry, you won't spend the whole day in the car: at some point the scenery along the way will be just too tempting...

 

A final tip: Buy a National Parks Annual Pass. At $80 this quickly pays for itself as the cost of a park entry is $25/day and, in some parks, card holders can take advantage of faster entry lane.

A Fortnight in Belgium

Being in Belgium reminded me that it was high time I blogged some summer pictures. We spent two lovely weeks in the small Belgian seaside town of Wenduine.

We swam in the North Sea (chilly but nowhere near as cold as Northern California's Pacific Ocean), played on the big sandy beaches, pedaled our go-carts madly around town, visited Bruges and Brussels, spent time with friends & family, and of course… Ate waffles!

The painting is Pieter Bruegel's "The Fight between Carnival and Lent", created in 1559. This is just a small part of the wonderfully detailed canvases Bruegel produced. As you can see, even back then waffles were a big deal here! :-)

A Weekend in Quebec

I recently traveled to Montreal on business and, having never experienced Quebec before, I stayed over the weekend. Like most of North America, a heatwave was gripping the area and sunshine abounded.

When I asked my Montreal friends for recommendations of things to do, their suggestions almost invariably involved eating. "You have to try poutine!", "Montreal has *real* bagels," and "You should definitely stop at Schwartz's, it's an institution." (Sadly Schwartz's wasn't yet open for business when I visited. Tip: don't get there before 10:30 in the morning)

Friday evening I spent visiting the Vieux Montreal, the oldest, most touristy section of Montreal. Quaint cobblestone streets and old buildings. The Notre Dame basilica is worth visiting. I had my first poutine at a restaurant called, you'll never guess, Montreal Poutine. So what it this famous delicacy? A culinary masterpiece of fries smothered in gravy and cottage cheese (i.e. cheese curds). It wasn't that bad, but not really that enjoyable either. I expect this may well be my last poutine. The bagels were good.

On Saturday I walked over 15 miles, most of them in the company of a German tourist, Frederik, who I ran into in the morning. Having someone to enjoy the sights with made it all the more fun. We first explored the Mont Royal, a large hill just north west of the Vieux Montreal with great views of the city. On the other side of the hill is the biggest cemetery I've ever visited. It's well maintained and I took pleasure in wandering through it on our way to Saint Joseph's Oratory, one of the most famous churches in Montreal. A walk down Sherbrooke Street rounded out the afternoon with visits to McGill University and the Museum of Fine Arts (which is free BTW, I love it when a government sponsors learning!). In the evening I thoroughly enjoyed a hilarious rendition of Moliere's play Les Fouberies de Scapin.

Sunday was time for a change. I wanted to get out of Montreal and experience some of Quebec's beautiful countryside. So I set out for Mont Tremblant, one of the highest peaks in the area at 900m (3000ft) and about 2 hours' drive north. The area is very pretty and resembles a cross between Switzerland and Norway. After visiting the summit by gondola, I headed over to the national park (which is over half the size of Luxemburg!) for five hours of climbing a via ferrata. Our group of eight had great fun.

All in all I had a wonderful time, not least of which because Montreal is the first place I've been in North America where I can speak French to almost everyone. I just wish the rest of my family had been with me!

Fraser Island: The World's Biggest Sand Island

Slowly making our way south to Brisbane we decided to visit Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. Fraser's a pretty unique place: over 1,000 square miles of sand with rain forests, fresh water lakes, dunes, mangroves, swamps, the purest strain of dingo in Australia and much more. Life is so abundant here thanks in large part to fungi in the sand which release nutrients for plants to absorb.

We chose a two day tour of the island via Queensland Bookings. We were picked up at our hotel on the mainland in Hervey Bay, bused to a ferry terminal, and then on to Fraser itself. The buses have a high clearance and, I assume, four wheel drive to able to negotiate all the sandy roads. Day one mainly consisted of stops at Lake Wabbi and Lake McKenzie. They were both delightful to swim in, esp. McKenzie whose waters were cool and blue. Diving to its bottom (depth 10-15 meters?) I startled some turtles rooting about its bed.

We stayed overnight at Eurong Station. The accommodations were very spacious but be aware that there is no AC here. Eurong uses generators to supply it with electricity and air conditioning would draw too much power. The fans kept us pretty cool though.

The second day we drove up and down Fraser's east coast highway... its beach of course :-) We saw what was left of the 1930s Maheno wreck, the colored sands further on, the view from Indian Heads, and cooled off in a delightfully refreshing creek. Thomas and I took a plane ride in an Air Van to admire the island from the air. As a pilot myself, this was a treat even if I didn't get to touch the controls ;-)

Travel tips:
  • There are many ways to see Fraser: in addition to 1, 2, and 3 day tours, you can also rent 4x4s and explore the island on your own. Use your favorite search engine to find options
  • It had rained the night before our arrival so the sand was moist. Turns out that was lucky because when the weather's very dry the sand can get everywhere. Protect your camera and other gear accordingly
  • There's plenty of food at the resorts and (on the second day) on the bus but it never hurts to have extra snack, esp. if you have kids
  • Sunscreen!

Sailing the Whitsundays in a 100 year old ship

The Whitsundays, a large collection of islands off the east coast of Australia are a famous destination for tourists and sailors alike. There are hundreds of idyllic beaches and coves dotted around the islands, and a good number of resorts as well. Though you can rent your own sailing ship to tour the islands, we decided we'd have more fun letting more qualified sailors do the work!

We booked a three day / three night trip on the Solway Lass and were as taken by her as with the islands. Originally built in Holland, the Lass has had an exciting life that includes serving in both world wars as well as trading throughout the South Pacific. She moved to the Whitsundays about 10 years ago and was renovated for the tourism industry. That means her quarters were reasonably comfortable (with a decent AC system) but not up to the quality of our cabins on our Great Barrier Reef diving trip.

We had a great time. The first day was rainy which unfortunately didn't make for the best snorkeling conditions but we still saw plenty of marine life. Just as fun was the rope swing and diving off the bow, our boys couldn't get enough. The crew were always friendly and took good care of us. The second and third days were beautifully sunny and included island exploration, esp. the famous Whitehaven Beach, voted one of the top ten beaches in the world.

Perhaps the nicest aspect of the trip was the great company we had on board: a Danish bartender, British-Kiwi affiliate marketeers, a US investment banker, a German Nightwish groupie, a Brazilian environmental engineer... We loved getting to know everyone.

Travel tips:
  • Book well in advance, at least a month or two to make sure you get the cabin you want
  • The snorkeling gear onboard is OK but they don't have flippers, bring your own if that really matters to you
  • There's very little space on board so pack lightly. The good news is that you don't need much
  • Bring a few dry snacks (cookies, chocs, chips) in case you get peckish between meals (esp. if you have children)
  • Don't forget your sunscreen!
  • Have dinner before you board, your first on the ship is at 10PM that night
  • You can leave your car parked in the marina lot, it was pretty safe
  • Consider booking a room in or around Airlie Beach for the night of your return

The Beautiful Atherton Tablelands

The Tablelands are a fertile set of plateaus to the West of Cairns in the North Eastern tip of Australia. It's a lush, verdant land with red red earth, rain forests, plains, hills, and much beauty. We spent a couple weeks in and around Atherton, the Tablelands' capital, and had a wonderful time (thanks to some great recommendations by friends).

Things to do:
  • The waterfalls! We visited in the "wet" (aka summer) and, thanks to recent rains, the waterfalls were in full bloom. Two are pictured below. The largest is Millaa Millaa falls, the smaller Malanda Falls. You can swim in both and it's a wonderfully refreshing experience...
  • ... As is swimming in crater lakes such as Eacham and Barrine (below). A remnant of the region's volcanic past the water is clean and free of crocs
  • Mount Hypipamee's crater is more impressive still but you can't swim in it
  • The Barron River cuts through the Tablelands, literally, giving rise to the Barron Falls which are over 200m high in places
  • There are unique fig trees in the area. Pictured below is the Curtain Fig tree. There's also a Cathedral Fig tree but we didn't have time to visit it
  • Yungaburra and Tolga both have large fruit bat colonies. Yungaburra also has a monthly arts and craft market
  • Keen on Aussie wildlife, Aborigine customs, and the rain forest? Take a day trip to Rainforestation, our boys had a blast there and, considering all you get to do, it was great value for money (more than Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo IMO). We took all three "tours" they offer and highly recommend a visit. BTW that's a cassowary, a dingo, and a saltwater croc below
  • If you're a World War II buff there's a decent museum on the road between Atherton and Mareeba, though a little pricey
  • The Crystal Caves is a shop / museum in Atherton. If you're really into rocks I'd take the self guided tour, otherwise just check out all that's on display in the shop
  • This list is far from comprehensive!

The Beautiful Chillagoe Caves

Chillagoe is an outback town about 3-4 hrs west of Cairns in Northern Queensland, Australia. Formerly a mining and smelting town, it's now famous for its spectacular limestone caves. There are apparently hundreds of caves in the area, many quite small. 

Three caves have guided tours and we visited all of them. We not only enjoyed seeing and learning about the beautiful stalactites, stalagmites, shrouds, pools, false floors and more, but it was also cool to see the caves' fauna such as different species of bats, huntsman spiders, and even a spotted python. 

Well worth a visit if you're in the area, our boys loved it.

Travel tips:
  • The caves' aspect will depend significantly on the time of year: during the dry you'll have full access but the walls won't sparkle, during the wet you will see calcite crystals sparkle, you may see waterfalls... and you may not be able to enter at all due to flooding
  • Given the last point it definitely makes sense to call the Chillagoe Tourist Office ((07) 4094 7163) esp. if you're traveling there between Feb and April
  • Don't know if it ever gets cold in the caves but we were quite comfortable in shorts and t-shirst when we visited in December
  • After a visit, climb up to the top of the rocks to admire the view and check out some of the caves "from above" (be careful!)
  • The aboriginal paintings are few in number, really faded and not worth bothering with
  • More information on the caves at the state park site
  • We stayed overnight at the Chillagoe Eco-Lodge and Observatory. The new managers were super nice and the rooms decent. Chatting with other guests and locals was an added bonus.

Saving a Flying Fox and Pup

Australia isn't only home to many beautiful birds, it's also home to many species of bat. An everyday occurrence for many Australians, seeing flying foxes in the skies at dusk, was a magical moment for our family. This just doesn't happen in California!

A few days later we were visiting friends who live next door to a bat colony. Walking under the canopy we spotted something all too common these days: a fruit bat struggling on the ground. She wasn't alone either: a pup was desperately clinging to its mother.

Mum was slowly dying from a paralysis tick bite: most Australian animals have built up immunity to its venom but not bats. Since the introduction of the tobacco plant twenty (?) odd years ago, the bats now come into contact with these ticks. Why? Because the flying foxes like the fruit of the tobacco plants, which are much shorter than the other fruit trees they frequent. Since they're shorter, ticks jump from forest animals like wallabies onto the plants, along comes a fruit bat, and...

The bat we found had a single tick on it. Our friend removed it but the damage was done: she didn't think the mother would make it, nor would the pup if we didn't do something about it.

Wrapped in a blanket we rushed both of them to the local bat hospital: a group of very dedicated individuals working hard to rehabilitate sick, injured, and orphaned bats.

The good news? They gave mum an antidote and she recovered! Both mother and daughter are now doing well and when we returned a few days later, the pup had been moved to an external cage.

Sadly, unless bats build up immunity to the ticks, I don't see their future very bright. A shame as they're beautiful creatures.

Here's a short video of the bats we saved...

So this is one of those Infamous Cane Toads?

Australia has an unfortunate history of introduced species running rampant and devastating native flora and fauna. Years ago it was rabbits. These days it's the cane toad (bufo marinus). Originally from Central and South America, the Australian toads were introduced in 1935 from Hawaii to eat beetles attacking sugar canes. Only two problems: one, the toads apparently don't like living in the cane fields; two, they're toxic and have no known predators in Australia. Indeed indigenous fauna such as lizards have declined from eating the toads. 

The toads are all over Queensland and rapidly moving into all Australian states. More proof that we humans are pretty poor at playing God.

That's one grumpy-looking toad.