Saturday, March 18, 2017

Aloha Hawaii

As a friend of ours was getting married on the Big Island of Hawaii, we decided that was a great reason to take a trip. We spent two weeks in Hawaii, mostly on the Big Island with the last few days in Honolulu. We flew into Honolulu for one night and then flew to Kona. As we were arriving late in Honolulu, I smartly packed some vegan pizza pockets for dinner! After arriving in Kona, we picked up our reserved car at the airport via National (great service - highly recommend). We were lucky to get a free upgrade to a fun new, 4WD, jeep! Our first stop was for lunch at Kaya's Store, which has great coffee and vegan pastries. 

We stayed in Waikoloa Village at the Fairmont Orchid (specifically because they offered vegan options at their restaurants). We enjoyed meals at the beach front Hale Kai restaurant, and a nice fancy dinner at Browns' Beach House, which has a separate vegan menuWe also picked up great snacks, deli items, and breakfast pastries from the Kona Island Natural Market and deli. We enjoyed a healthy meal and large fruit plate at the nearby vegetarian restaurant, Under the Bodhi TreeThe hotel was terrific with a big pool, terrific beach access, and several green sea turtles hanging around. Our friend's wedding was just down the road at the Lava Lava Beach club. It was a beautiful ocean side ceremony with a great dinner on the beach. By surprise, our neighbours and friends, also happened to be on the Big Island so we had a visit with them at the Hilton hotel.

We went on a nice (hot) 8km hike (where we stumbled upon more green sea turtles and Keanalele waterhole), checked out the nearby petroglyphs, relaxed by the pool and went up Maunakea, a dormant volcano! J really wanted to go to the top to see the Mauna Kea Observatories; a height of 14,000 feet! This posed a bit of an issue as we did not bring any warm jackets to save space. We are totally committed to carry-on only whenever possible with our awesome Patagonia MCL carry-on convertible backpacks; which even fit our snorkelling masks, shorty fins and all our other needed items. We solved the problem by picking up some jackets at the Kona Salvation Army, which proved to be wise as the temperature dropped significantly, and the top of Maunakea was snow covered. Once you get the to the Maunakea visitors centre, 9200 feet, you require 4WD to go up the remaining winding, super steep road. Our jeep actually stalled at the very top due to the reduced oxygen levels, and I certainly felt winded and light headed. Once at the top we took photos of the gigantic telescopes and enjoyed the view. It was very eery to be above the clouds looking down. Everyone has to depart by 7pm to not interfere with the astronomy work, due to vehicle lights and dust. We travelled back down to the visitors centre and spent a few chilly hours taking star photos and listening to the staff discuss the constellations. We were rewarded with a super clear night and I am anxiously awaiting J's  photos to be posted to flickr

Next we drove to Hilo area and stayed in an airbnb cabin right on the beach, outside of the town of Pahoa. This location was terrific to watch the waves crash on the rocky beach, take a short walk to the nearby Kapoho Tidal Pools, access to Hilo and other attractions, plus cabin had a well equipped kitchen, so we were able to cook many meals with vegan supplies from the Islands Natural Market and Deli in Pahoa and Hilo. Pahoa is a sweet little town, with a hippy beach vibe (apparently there are nearby clothing optional, beach drumming circles), and we enjoyed delicious vegan pizza from Strato's. We were also able to donate the jackets we picked up from the Kona Salvation Army (for the Maunakea excursion), to a Pahoa charity. The clothing donation is located right at the dump, which was also outfitted with great recycling bins, ensuring as much as possible is diverted from land fill. (As our airbnb was more remote it did not have garbage pick up so we had to drop our garbage off on our last day in the area.)

The tidal pools were great for snorkelling as they offered a sheltered area way from the crashing waves. We saw many tropical fish and coral. The entry is a bit tricky as you climb over sharp lava rock; having the shorty snorkelling fins proved helpful for entry. We also spent some time in Hilo and checked out the nearby Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - I've never seen so many orchids! The gardens also end at the beach with stunning views of cliffs.

The highlight of the trip was seeing red hot, flowing lava at Kalapana Lava Viewing Area. We read up on it on tripadvisor, a great site to get up to date travel information from fellow travellers, which helped us decide what to do and how to get there. Once you arrive at the parking area you must travel by foot or bike the rest of the way, which is 14kms round trip, plus the distance spent exploring. We opted to rent bikes on site, to more easily reach lava viewing area. The bikes were $20 USD each with a lock, headlamp and a bottle of water. Headlamps and lots of water is a must! We travelled by bike on the gravel emergency access road, which had a few gentle hills. At the end we locked up our bikes and had the option of going towards the sea viewing area or inland to the rocky lava field. Taking advice from tripadvisor, we opted for inland and we were not disappointed! We spent hours until dusk exploring the field and getting within a few feet of red hot, flowing lava. It was a truly amazing experience worth the trek, heat and fumes. It is against Hawaiian culture to poke the lava with sticks etc, and while tempting, we respected this rule, enjoying just watching the lava suddenly appear in different spots as we walked around. 

We spent another day exploring Volcano National Park, where we checked out the Jaggar Museum and viewed the Halema‘uma‘u Crater, spurting lava, from the observation deck. We also checked out the steam vents, which are just like they sound - cracks in the earth with steam flowing out, and the Nahuku - Thurston Lava Tube, which is like a long cave left behind by flowing lava, surrounded by lush forest. On our last day on the Big Island we dropped our car at the Hilo airport and headed to Honolulu; the inter island flights are super easy and quick. As Honolulu is a large city with good public transportation we opted to not get a rental car.

When J was little, he and his family, went to Waikiki and stayed in a condo a few blocks from the beach. On this trip, he spotted the Royal Hawaiian, a bright pink, vintage, ocean side hotel, and vowed one day to stay there. I was easily convinced as it reminded me of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a favourite movie. The original portion of the Royal Hawaiian was built in 1927 and offers old world charm and luxury. We were given a free upgrade to a junior suite, which had an extra sitting room! I adore this hotel with its quaint pool (plus free access to the pool at the adjacent Sheraton), ocean front location, and lovely vintage decor. We spent time bobbing in the waves and relaxing by the pool. As luck would have it a dear friend, who now lives in Australia was also in town for a conference, so we enjoyed an evening visiting at the beachside restaurant. 

Honolulu is a very different experience than the slow moving towns on the Big Island and offers a lot of urban activities. We travelled around by city bus and walking. We were delighted with the terrific art at HOMA - Hawaii Museum of Art, which had diverse exhibits including contemporary Hawaii design, historical and multicultural artifacts. The building itself is beautiful and has lovely inner courtyards with plants and ponds. Our favourite place to eat was Downbeat Diner, which has a vegan option for every item on the menu. It is a funky, rockabilly diner, located downtown, but the bus stop is right at the door! While downtown we checked out the older buildings and vintage shops. We checked out Whole Foods Market for snacks but ended up preferring the Down to Earth all vegetarian market. Down to Earth had a terrific deli, hot buffet, and great snacks. I also loaded up the remaining room in my wee carry-on with a few vegan items not easily found at home.

Hawaii was a terrific, relaxing trip. We had way more adventure and fun than we anticipated and spent time with great friends! To check out my photos head over to Flickr or instagram.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Morocco; hardship + time = adventure

First of all, this post is shamefully late as we were in Morocco in October 2016. As we are now traveling in Hawaii, I thought it best to get this post up on the blog! 

We arrived in late in the evening in Casablanca, Morocco by plane from Lisbon, Portugal. On landing we immediately picked up a SIM card in the airport, which was installed and set up but the very helpful clerk; instant calling, internet and GPS maps! We fondly recall the adventures of our early days of travel with our well worn lonely planet book, and internet cafes, to help us navigate foreign lands. It is almost too easy now with an unlocked smart phone and local SIM cards. We spent one night in Casablanca before taking the train to Marrakesh. We booked our tickets for the train right at the station and the tickets for first class (enclosed, shared cabin with air conditioning)  were very cheap. The train was comfortable, easy to navigate and provided a great opportunity to see the landscape. 

We were met at the Marrakech train station by a car from our accommodations Riad Star located in the bustling medina which is also a Unesco World Heritage site. The medina was founded in 1070 as the political, cultural and economic heart; it is the enclosed, central area of the city, filled with homes, markets, shops and restaurants, with narrow winding paths for pedestrians and sometimes donkeys and scooters. A Riad is like a bed a breakfast in a traditional house, which typically has an enclosed central courtyard/garden square for relaxing and which you can view from your window. Our Riad had a terrific rooftop patio which offered a great place to relax, sunbathe, watch the stars and listen to the melodic sounds of the call to prayer

We spent our days wandering the medina, checking out the gardens; Jardin Majorellele jardin secret and taking photos of all the cats! Every store and restaurant seemed to have a cat or two and many strays milling around. The locals spoke fondly of all the cats and provided food and water for both the shop cats and strays. One evening we were at the local cafe we frequented and the regular cat was doing her nightly dance begging for food. Suddenly her head shot up and she darted across the medina road towards a man walking in the crowd. He bent down and scratched her head and went about his way. The cat spent some time pacing excitedly back and forth, eventually returning to under our table. We were perplexed that she spotted this man in the crowd and ran to him with such purpose. A few minutes later the mystery was solved when the same man reappeared, and she ran to him again, as he put down a large bag of scraps for all the medina cats. We also learned that cats are quite revered in Islamic cultures; this article provides some history on the role of cats Cats in Islamic Culture. Many people do not have a lot of extra money but sill they try to provide the basics for the cats. Sadly there is a lack of spay/neuter and vet services. We made a donation to SPANA to support their work in spaying/neutering and providing vet care to the many strays.

A highlight of the trip was a day trip into the Atlas Mountains. We hired a driver to take us on a tour which allowed us to go at our own pace. We checked out a few local stores and artisans along the way and took in the desert scenery. The hike was picturesque with a waterfall at the top of the first section, and a mountain side cafe. The rocks were quite slippery but our guide was fully committed to ensuring that I did not fall, and literally held my hand in the most difficult sections. We decided to not venture on to the higher section as I was not eager to traverse the precarious hand made ladder that started the next leg.

As the title eludes to, Morocco also offered some more difficult travel experiences, but as time passes it turns into fond memories of adventure. We did fall prey to one of the common scams, the henna assault, in which a woman forcefully grabbed my hand and started applying henna while ignoring my protests and then demanding money. It was annoying but somewhat understandable as people are trying to survive; the minimum wage is about $300 USD a month, and of course many earn less than that. A nice shop keeper let me use his sink to wash off the henna. 

But mostly the difficulty was due to the trouble finding good vegan food, which often left us hangry (hungry + angry). We were also spoiled by the plentiful, flavourful, affordable vegan offerings of Portugal just prior to Morocco. (We were also surprised that Moroccan restaurants were more expensive than anticipated).  Over the last 24 years, we have travelled in more than 40 countries first as vegetarians, and for the last 7 years as vegans, and we found Morocco was uniquely challenging. I also had (incorrect) visions that falafel and hummus would be plentiful, like our experience in Jordan. In Morocco the staple dish is the tajine, a clay pot baked stew of meat and vegetables with couscous, and even when it is just vegetables it often has meat broth. With advance notice, our Riad did provide a welcome dinner of vegan tajine but day to day it was difficult to find good vegan food. We did use the trusty Happy Cow Vegan Dining Guide but the one vegetarian spot we went to was quite terrible. 

We took the train back to Casablanca for our last night. J smartly booked us into a posh hotel and we spent the entire time lounging in the pool (except for the spa massage and the delicious taco salad we found a the nearly mall). To check out my trip photos head over to;

A final note; Morocco, is the 6th predominately Muslim nation we have visited in our years of travel. And like everywhere, we found lovely people just trying to do their best (previous nations; Jordan, Palestine, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt). Don't buy into propaganda; Good people come from all cultures and all faiths (and non-faiths).