Posts Tagged With: beach

Cozumel

I am (like many people) a fan of New Yorker magazine cartoons, and one of the many that have stuck in my mind is from decades ago. It depicts a man and a local Hispanic guide, overlooking a village from a viewpoint on some generic Central American hillside. The guide is saying, “This town has no history, señor. It was built 20 years ago entirely for the tourist trade.” Which brings us to Cozumel, Mexico.

It’s a little unfair to say that Cozumel has no history, but it doesn’t have a lot. A small arrowhead-shaped island less than 20 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, it hummed along for a few millennia, hosting a population of about 10,000 Maya, until the Spanish showed up in 1520 with the gift of smallpox, plus a predilection for destroying Mayan idols and replacing them with Virgin Mary statues . You’ve read this story before; fifty years later the population was less than 300. About the only other event of historical interest was Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt in 1861 to buy the island from Mexico as a home for freed slaves.

The island is very flat — it’s highest point is less than 50 ft above the surrounding Caribbean — and covered mostly with scrubby tropical vegetation. But it has beautiful beaches (when they are not clogged by sargassum seaweed, about which more shortly) and is one of the world’s premier snorkeling and scuba diving destinations. The main attractions for us, however, are our good friends and occasional travel companions Laura and David, who retired here in August 2018. So here we are.

Our friends live in a large and beautiful apartment overlooking the Caribbean to the west. From their balcony, just on the horizon, you can see the resort of Playa del Carmen across the channel on the Yucatan. You can also the comings and goings of a steady stream of enormous cruise ships; Cozumel is one of the major stops on the Caribbean cruise circuit. The largest of these that we’ve seen is the largest that you can see, the Allure of the Seas, which until 2015 was the largest cruise ship in the world and is now a close second. The Allure towers above everything around here including the buildings, with 16 passenger decks reaching the height of a 24-story building (far higher than any of the actual buildings on the island). It’s as long as four football fields and including crew carries eight thousand people. They could have called it the Behemoth of the Seas.

Because Cozumel is so small (a little under 30 x 10 miles), flat, and close to the coast, it does not enjoy the full climate-moderating effects of the surrounding ocean. It is pleasantly breezy, but hot and humid and subject to the occasional buildup of brief but intense tropical downpours in the afternoons. (The “breeze” is frequently a strong steady wind; I have not yet been able to fly my drone.) Here’s a photo from our first evening, when we were treated to a simultaneous sunset and rainstorm.

The main population center of the island is the town of San Miguel, home to about 3/4 of the island’s 120,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t have much in the way of cultural attractions — no museums or art galleries — but has plenty of cruise ship port-side bars, souvenir stores, and restaurants, the some of the latter sporting debauchery-friendly names like “Mar Y Juana”.  The restaurant and bar competition is intense: if your walk down the street brings you within 30 feet of a restaurant — and it will — then you will be accosted by an excessively friendly person carrying a menu and latching onto you like a remora in an attempt to get you into “his” restaurant/bar.  And if you are looking for a particular restaurant and ask about it — “I’m trying to find Luigi’s” — you will be assured that yep, this is it, regardless of the relationship between that statement and verifiable reality. In short, it’s really all about the cruise ships here, and their hordes of hopefully-free-spending passengers.

But there are some very good restaurants to be found if you know what you are doing, which in our case means having friends who live here. Among our food destinations so far was La Perlita, a little open-air back street place whose specialty is lionfish, which you have probably never had, and which you can see here (not my photo).

Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s the good news. The bad news is that those dorsal spines are venomous as hell — stings can kill children and the elderly — and to add to the fun they are extremely invasive, not native to these waters. People have figured out that they are delicious, however, and so one way to control their population is to eat them. Which we did most enjoyably, doing our part for the environment.

That environment is a beautiful one if you know where to look, which in the case of Cozumel often means underwater. I mentioned that it is famous for its scuba diving, and rightfully so: I went diving yesterday on the well-known Palancar Reef off the southwest coast of the island, and enjoyed one of the best dives I have ever had. At a depth of ~62 ft (19 m) the water visibility was at least 100 ft (30 m) and the variety of sea life stunning: sting rays, sea turtles, moray eels, huge jacks, groupers, parrotfish, angelfish, blennies… it was like a National Geographic episode, and a half day very well spent. (No photos, alas: my small underwater camera would only survive to about half the depth I was at.)

Our island explorations yesterday bought us to Punta Sur (“South Point”), the southernmost point of the island and also home to one of its most beautiful beaches. Such beaches are unfortunately a sort of monetized commodity here: although there are very attractive venues where you can simply go to the beach, large stretches of the most  beach-worthy coastline have been turned into a string of commercial beach parks with admission charges. They offer amenities that include huge inflatable climbing toys (e.g., a Mayan pyramid) anchored a few feet offshore from the sugary sand. I’m not crazy about this; it is apparently deemed insufficient to simply enjoy the view and the water.

The water is on fine display at Punta Sur (at a US$16 admission charge), along with a number of other points of interest, notably a crocodile-filled inland lagoon and a lighthouse that offers a commanding view of the coast.

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Cozumel Playa Sur-6186

Cozumel Playa Sur-6210

Cozumel Playa Sur-6220

Notice the spectacular color — more accurately colors, plural — of the water. It is responsible for much of the overall beauty of the island, the vegetation itself being largely unimpressive and the animal life restricted to coatis, raccoons, and peccaries. (Those are the mammals; beyond those are copious iguanas and geckos.) But in the photo with the direction signs, notice also the thin line of orange brown stuff where the surf meets the sand. That is the infamous sargassum, mats of stringy algal seaweed. At this location on the island it is a noticeable problem; you can see a line of it along the beach in the panorama photo. When flying from the Yucatan mainland across the channel from Cancun, you can see football field-sized mats of it floating below.

But on the eastern side of the island, it is a crisis. Exposed to the winds from the Caribbean, vast tangles of it are blown ashore in the surf, covering every square inch of beach in thick, tangled, rotting mounds up to a few feet deep. No amount of trucking or shoveling can make a serious dent in it; there is little to do but wait it out and hope that as water conditions change throughout the year the environment will becomes less hospitable to it and less will be formed. We drove down the eastern side, encountering any number of scenes that would have been classically tropically beautiful had they not been overwhelmed with this stuff. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it.

We made our way down the eastern coast all the way to Punta Sur, then rounded the point and headed back into town to pick up some groceries. Once you leave the tourist area at the waterfront, San Miguel is a typical Central American town: wide dusty streets, lots of storefront mom-and-pop businesses, painted in primary colors and with roll-down aluminum shutters, a sultry slow-moving gestalt. Laura and David are learning the ins and outs of where to go: the best restaurants that only the locals know about; which gas stations to avoid (they don’t reset the counters on the pump when you drive up); which supermarket has the particular items they need.

Today was our 22nd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated with an experiment: our friends wanted to try a recently-opened upscale Japanese restaurant called Shii Fu. I am happy to report that it was excellent.

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Categories: Central America, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

They Don’t Call It Iceland For Nothing

We’ve been variously too busy or to exhausted for the last couple of nights to keep up with daily blog posts, and as of about 6 hours ago as I type this, we are in Paris. So this is going to be a quick “catch up” post, heavy on the photos, to wrap up our stay in Iceland.

I’ll go through our last two Icelandic days (Sept 14 and 15) in more or less chronological order, with one big exception, which was our excitement on the night of Friday the 14th. At about 8 PM we were almost home from a day of legendary photographic luck — which is to say, clear sunny skies and mild temperatures — when Janet suddenly screamed, “The aurora!” This seemed improbable since the aurora prediction gave it a very low probability for that night, and we had barely seen it a few nights earlier when the prediction called for high activity. Which only goes to show that aurora forecasts can be as wildly off base as weather forecasts, for there was indeed a greenish glow in the sky that an hour or so later looked like this (admittedly with a 5 second time exposure):

To which I can only say, “Ta-da!” It shimmered, it moved, it waxed and waned, it was cooler than all get-out. This was only the second time in my life that I had seen it, and the (very excited) first for Alice, Janet, and Tim. It was Iceland coming through for us, bigly.

The day began promisingly enough, as we walked out of our farm bungalows to a beautiful day. Here is our cabin, complete with waterfall on the cliffside behind us. (You can just see it to the left of the of the peak of the rooftop.)

We had a couple of major ice-related destinations that day, all of them various aspects of the Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón glaciers. (You may have figured out by now that “jökul”, pronounced “yerkle”, means “glacier”. At the end of a word it has two L’s and is for some reason pronounced “yerktle”, with a T-sound stuck in there to keep you of balance.)

Anyway, these two masses of ice are pretty close to each other, which created a large number of opportunities for Janet and me to shout “Stop the car!” so that we could get out and photograph one or another random roadside vista like this one.

I mean, seriously, this location wasn’t even flagged as a scenic viewpoint or anything. It was just there, reflecting in a big puddle.

Our first “official” stop was the so-called “Diamond Beach” at the foot of Jökulsárlón. Why do they call it the “Diamond Beach”? Oh, I dunno. Probably because of all the little glacier bits flowing around in the surf, like this:

You will note that the sand is black, which heightens the effect of a landscape of 50,000-carat diamonds displayed on a field of black velvet. Adding to the surrealism is the speedy current exiting the lake from which the bergs originate, castoffs from Jökulsárlón. There is a narrow throat where the lake empties into the sea, and so the ice chunks bob and swirl around, bumping into each other and eddying in the surf.

That lake, just a few hundred meters upstream from the Diamond Beach, is itself quite the sight, since it is basically the collection point for all the icebergs that calve off of Jökulsárlón at this location.

The lake is otherwise very still, and you can rent kayaks or a buy a ride in a Zodiac boat to weave in and out of the bergs. The lake was also full of seals: we counted at least a dozen, barking and sounding and clapping their flippers against the water.

Just a few miles down the road was another location where we could get up close and personal with Jökulsárlón. There, the tongue of the glacier extruded into a smaller lake, virtually tiled with small bergs and floes that made it seem as though, if you were sufficiently careful and balanced, you could gingerly walk or hop from one to the next and so approach the face of the glacier itself. And by “sufficiently careful”, I mean, “You would without any doubt whatsoever fall in and drown whilst freezing to death.” Here’s the scene from the top of the access path:

…and from lake level:

And here is Alice doing her best Ice Queen:

Her cheery photogenic smile completely masks her bitter complaints about getting a cold wet butt just so I could get a “We were There” photo.

We headed back to the farm in Vik (population 300, not counting us), then, realizing that this might be the last clear skies we’d have, turned around and headed back into town to visit Reynisfjara, the best-known black sand beach in the area. Iceland is littered with such beaches, but Reynisfjara is famous for its offshore basaltic rock formations. In the northwestern US they’d be called “hoodoos”, but here they are called Reynisdrangar because, well, it’s Iceland. And they aren’t basaltic columns, they’re frozen trolls. Story goes that they originated when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to land (I don’t remember why). They worked through the night — trolls can’t stand sunlight –but didn’t make it before dawn broke, and they froze into rock columns. It’s a Lot’s wife/vampire sort of thing. Anyway, here they are at sunset.

A little further down the beach is a larger, flat-topped formation that at sunset reminded me of Stonehenge. See if you agree:

As you can tell, it was a hell of a day, photographically, and it was on the way back from the frozen trolls that Janet spotted the aurora, which was the capstone of the day’s travels.

Our last day on the island, Sunday the 15th, dawned chilly, heavily overcast, and rainy, and pretty much stayed that way. In other words, it was the perfect day for an indoor activity, like strapping on crampons and mining helmets to explore frigid, drippy ice caves. So we did that.

We put on every article of clothing we had, including waterproof slickers and rain pants, and drove to the rendezvous point in Vik to board the world’s most masculine tourism vehicle, a massive 4×4 with tires the size of large toroidal children. Our guide was the equally outsized and suitably Nordic David, who took off across the black sand desert, speeding up the sides of ebon dunes and doing donuts at the top as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blared on the sound system. It was that kind of experience. But it brought us to here:

This is where, if you go trick-or-treating, Sauron answers the door wearing a Darth Vader costume. The greenish stuff in the foreground and distant hills is moss, the only kind of ground cover that can grow here. The ominous structure in the center is our destination, part of Myrdalsjökull glacier. The reason it is black is that it is covered in volcanic grit, as were we and everything we owned after tramping around there for a while.

Myrdalsjökull actually sits above Katla volcano, essentially capping it. Except that it is really hard to cap a volcano: when it blows, along with the lava, ash, and pyroclastic flows, you get bonus flooding and chunks of glacier. This has happened in the past.

Like everything else in Iceland, Katla has a legend associated with it. Katla was a witch who owned a pair of magic pants. Someone stole the pants, and it only gets more complicated from there. Suffice it to say that like all Icelandic legends we have heard to date, it involves someone getting thrown off a cliff and someone else getting eaten, and makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like it was written by the same guy who gave us the little girl and the gold ring and the giant magical slug living at the bottom of the lake. You’d think that with the Brothers Grimm living just across the sea in Denmark, the Icelanders could have made up more comprehensible legends.

Anyway, the point is that there are caves in the glacier face, so we set off, Hobbit-like, with our crampons and mining helmets to explore them. Look at the photo below and mentally insert “Lord of the Rings” music.

I’m sure that that photo is your image of an ideal vacation. (And for the record, I did no alteration to the colors in that photo. Everything except us really was black and white. David carried an ice axe, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to trust it to one of us, and rightly so. The ice was white or clear, and the coarse volcanic sand was black and ubiquitous, including in our clothing afterwards. So here is a view looking out from within the cave.

..and here are Janet and Tim thwarting our fiendish attempt to entomb them in ice forever so we can steal the snacks that brought along for the trip.

The inside of the caves — being ice — was wet, cold, slippery, gritty, and very dark, with claustrophobically low ceilings. The walls were sculpted into smooth pained-looking curves, like the sky and face in the famous Munch painting, “The Scream.” There were rivulets of glacial runoff running across the crude path, spanned by short, narrow planks that we had to negotiate while crouching. Our mining helmets were a strict necessity both for the light and the overhead protection. It is not for nothing that movies like “Aliens” get filmed here and elsewhere in the area; the whole place just seems not of this Earth.

It’s kind of ironic that the last outing we had in Iceland was all in shades of black and white, since the previous day had given us such colorful skies, culminating in the aurora. But it’s that kind of place, all extremes. It was a great ten days and we felt like we had really seen much of the country. As I type this Janet and Tim are en route home to Ohio while we are in Paris. So with luck I’ll get up the gumption to report on our stay here. (Don’t expect much; this is about our sixth time here so we don’t do a huge amount of the “standard” Paris tourism.)

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Droning Over OBX

If you’re not from the east coast of the US, you may not be entirely familiar with the Outer Banks, an enormous barrier island beach vacation destination in North Carolina. The term “OBX” to describe them is a relatively recent marketing invention; I don’t recall ever hearing it when I was a kid. In fact, the term “Outer Banks” itself only dates from the 1930’s.

The area is one of the longest pleasure beaches in the world: a 200-mile (320 km) strong of barrier islands more or less waiting to be destroyed by a hurricane. Unlike many barrier islands, OBX is (are?) not anchored by a coral reef, making them particularly vulnerable. Mother Nature likes un-anchored barrier islands to be movable: the oceanward sides of them erode away while the landward sides silt up and eventually merge with the mainland. Wave action then causes the barrier to re-form on the ocean side, and the cycle begins anew.

The problem, of course, is that houses are a lot less mobile than sand, and so the tourism and real estate powers-that-be engage in a constant and ultimately losing battle with the laws of physics.  But until that final capitulation occurs, it’s a great place to vacation, and my family and I have done so regularly. The tradition is to rent one of the gigantic multi-bedroom beach houses and to overeat for a week. Such houses are lined up along the beach, patiently generating tourist revenue and awaiting their destruction.

OBX 2018 Canon-044-Edit

This year was no exception, the new twist being that I now had a drone to fly. So here’s our house from the air (it’s the one in the foreground), followed by two panoramic views of the beach itself. (The lower one is looking northward at sunset.)

OBX 2018-003

OBX 2018-001

OBX sunset drone

That pier on the left side of the middle photo has a name of some historical significance. Here’s a ground-based shot that gives it away:

OBX 2018 Canon-037 In case you’re not viewing this on a big screen, it says “Kitty Hawk Pier”. Here’s a drone’s-eye view of it.

OBX 2018-002

This is the area where the Wright brothers inaugurated the air travel age in 1903, and do not imagine for one moment that the local tourism gurus let you forget it. The actual event took place a mile or two from this pier, in Kill Devil Hills, and there is of course a memorial there. There is also the actual course of the flight marked out, and you can easily walk its length in about 30 seconds as it is only 120′ (36m) long. (For comparison, the wingspan of a 747 is about 60% longer than that.) The flight took 12 seconds, and their luggage showed up three days later.

Another historical name that pops up frequently in the area is Virginia Dare. Roads, restaurants, you name it, she’s everywhere. Which is somewhat remarkable, because her sole claim to fame is being born here, the first child born to English settlers in the New World. That was in August 1587. Three months later her grandfather sailed back to England on a supply run, and when he returned Virginia, her parents, and the entire colony had disappeared altogether, thereby creating one of the enduring mysteries of American history. Ms. Dare — or at least her name — has had quite a good run of it since then, however, as everything from a soft drink to an icon of women’s suffrage, which is not a bad legacy considering that absolutely nothing else is known about her.

I’ll end this note with a non-drone picture, taken at night underneath the pier. I post it here entirely because (a) I like how the shot came out (it’s a 3-second time exposure) and (b) it’s my blog, dammit.

OBX 2018 Canon-024

Our next travel adventure will be in less than 4 weeks, to Iceland, Paris, and Prague. Watch this space!

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Oahu and Aloha

We left the Big Island 2 1/2 days ago with our usual reluctance — meaning that a commando team was required to get Alice onto the plane — but as usual have arranged to ease our transition back into non-tropical life by spending three days with our old friends Laura and Brian in Honolulu.  This having become part of a pleasant yearly routine, we by now have a certain number of haunts on Oahu that we visit with them.

The first of these — it having impressed us so much in the past that we now schedule our visit around it — is the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Kapiolani Community College. Trust me, if you’re used to farmer’s markets on the mainland this one is a revelation. Here’s a panorama of a small piece of it:

Honoulu 2018-002-Edit

The sign on the left says “Kimchi Poke Bowl”, which already tells you a lot about Hawaii: kimchi of course is Korean, whereas poke (pronounced poke-eh) is a Hawaiian specialty, basically marinated sushi (and most wonderful, I should add).  At this market you can also enjoy (among many other delights) sushi sliders, lilikoi (passion fruit) popsicles, grilled giant shrimp, and kimchi sausage on a stick. And we did. In fact, the entire time we are visiting our friends here we eat very exotically and very, very well. And very excessively.

Most non-Hawaiians’ mental image of Honolulu is probably dominated by visions of Waikiki, and it is true that that iconic strand is a very visited place.

Honoulu 2018-012-Edit

But there are in a sense really two Waikikis: the tourist one that you see in the picture above, and the one frequented by the locals, from which the photos above and below were taken.

Honoulu 2018-023

The “local” part of Waikiki is smaller, dominated by an old World War I memorial and a decrepit and long-since-disused public swimming people, long gone in disrepair . But there is also a pleasant beach with no hotels hard upon it, and a large park filled with exercise classes, picnickers, and — on this particular day — a gathering of the Aloha Koi Club, presumably there to compare their respective decorative fish. It’s a pleasant place with a family atmosphere. There is also an old concrete jetty, perhaps 40 meters long, extending into the shallow green surf and offering an excellent platform from which to throw bread crumbs to the waiting fish. The water is clear as glass, and it’s a lot of fun watching the surgeonfish and the triggerfish (“humuhumunuknukuapua’a!”) go after their targets.  That abundance of fish makes it a pretty good place to snorkel; you can see two snorkelers in the foreground of the photo above.

The central part of Oahu, north of Honolulu, is overlooked by the 550′ (16m) high Punchbowl, an extinct volcanic crater that is now home to a military cemetery. A little further north than that, perhaps 10 miles north of the city and about twice as high as the Punchbowl, is “The Pali”, or more formally the Nu’uani Pali Lookout. (Pali means cliff in Hawaiian.) It’s an overlook on the volcanic side, overlooking the central valley of the island and and flanked by the crenelated basaltic cliffs, long overgrown with vegetation. The wind howls up the cliffside from the valley below, and on especially windy days requires you to lean forward to avoid being blown over. It was unusually calm when we visited, and afforded us this view of the plain below.

Pali lookout

Those craggy hillsides are completely typical of eroded volcanic landscapes, and make every setting a dramatic one.  (On rainy or foggy days, they become looming and ominous, as you’ll see below.) And as you can see from the picture, from this 1200′ (360m) vantage point, you can see all the way to the ocean to the northeast.

Heading eastward from Honolulu quickly brings you to the eastern end of the island, Makapuu Point. It’s a commanding viewpoint from which you can easily see the islands of Lanai and Molokai on the horizon, with a glimpse of Maui as well on a really good day. Closer to shore, especially in the winter months, you can see whales, and indeed we saw a handful of them, including one performing a spectacular breach perhaps 200 meters from shore below us. We don’t see a whole lot of those around Washington DC.

The lookout spot where we parked offered an ideal spot from which to launch my drone, but I hesitated because of the cop directing cars into the lot. My hesitation vanished about a minute later when we saw a guy flying a drone about fifty feet from the cop, so off I went. I flew along the coast for a mile or so, keeping both a drone and a protoplasmic eye out to see in case the opportunity to fly above a whale presented itself. It didn’t. (It would have a lot of patience and a lot of drone batteries to pull it off; the whales do not stay on the surface for very long, and it is unlikely that I would have been able to get the drone position before the beast dove again. Those BBC and National Geographic guys have a lot more patience than I do.)

Makapuu Point is dominated by the Makapuu Lighthouse, activated in 1909 and still in use. It has the odd distinction of having the largest lighthouse lens in the US, and is also the third highest lighthouse in the country at 422′ (129m). (The two higher ones are both in California, in case you were wondering.)

Makapuu Lighthouse

There is a fairly steep trail leading up to the lighthouse. Last year we were ambitious enough to make that hike; this year I let the drone do the work. Here’s the video:

We had a gorgeous day for it, as you can see. And yes, the water really is that color, so feel free to hate us.

However, not every day is gorgeous here — only most of them — and today, our last day in the islands, was emphatically not. It rained buckets for most of the day, a relentless drenching of the sort that you only get in the tropics. Unusually, we had thunder and lightning as well. But hell, it was our last day here and we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us. Or a lot of rain. Or an insane nonstop deluge that left us cowering in the car saying, “What were we thinking?”. But we pushed on anyway, Laura bravely navigating her new car through flooded roads whose Stygian depths may well have harbored entire new species of sea life.

But we were not seized by the kraken, and made it around the coast to the North Shore, stopping at a beach whose famous landmark is an offshore island with the condescendingly racist (but nonetheless apt) name of Chinaman’s Hat. You can see why:

Chinamans Hat Oahu-028-Edit

Trust me, those pendulous clouds represented a break in the weather. Turning 180° from this scene to face inland revealed this vista:

Chinamans Hat Oahu-001-Edit

And now you know where Darth Vader goes on vacation.

The rain kept up all day and into the evening, our phones screaming out flash flood alerts every hour or two as they were broadcast by the authorities. (No incoming missile alerts, though.) The downpour finally tapered off about 9 PM, after we got back from our farewell dinner with our friends.

So I guess it is time to leave the islands. We’ll be spending about a week visiting various friends on the mainland before getting home for real at the end of the month. But we’re already talking about next year’s visit.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hapuna a me ka Lapakahi

…which is not as complicated as it looks. It simply means “Hapuna and Lapakahi” in Hawaii, those being the names of two places on the Big Island that we visited yesterday.

Hapuna Beach is one of the best known beaches on the island, an achingly photogenic stretch of dun-colored sand caressed by a gentle turquoise surf, and framed by two jagged lava promontories at either end. Here’s a panorama from the drone, taken during yesterday’s visit:

Hapuna Beach drone-001

Besides the obvious beach and surf, there are two other features of note: Kohala mountain bulging gently above the horizon at left, and the luxurious Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel at far left, regally overlooking the scene. The hotel is enormous and beautiful; several years ago we had the privilege of staying there for four or five days on someone else’s dime while attending a boondoggle conference. The mountain is also enormous: a mile-high, 200 square mile (500 square km) extinct volcano that essentially is the entire northwest corner of the Big Island.

Conditions are not always this idyllic at Hapuna. The surf can be rough, although the bottom is sandy — unlike the other, rockier beaches on the island — and so a rough surf is far less dangerous than elsewhere. And if the wind is high you can get sandblasted whilst attempting to enjoy yourself. But these are the exceptions. Most frequently the place looks like a postcard and it is a popular destination for sunning and body surfing. Here’s a 2-minute drone flyover video to give you a sense of the place:

(As you can tell, I’ve gotten heavily into flying my drone on this trip. But I dare you to tell me that this is not seriously cool.)

Neither Alice nor I are sunbather types. For one thing, when I am in strong sunlight my mottled pasty complexion moves the state of my skin almost instantly from “Anemic Vampire” to “Crimson Crispy”. In the words of Woody Allen, “I don’t tan, I stroke.” And Alice grew up in Oregon, where one’s best opportunity to get a tan requires dodging the raindrops. So we hung out for 45 or minutes or so with our visiting friends, then moved on.

Our next stop, further up the coast in Kohala, was a little more cerebral: Lapakahi State Historical Park. It’s the ruins of an ancient coastal village, about 600 years old. The name means “single ridge” and it is an array of ruins and reconstructed structures spread out along a rough lava coast and threaded by a mile-long interpretive trail. Like so many archaelogical sites it seems to make the most sense when viewed from above, so here are a couple of aerial shots:

Lapakahi drone-002Lapakahi drone-001

In addition to the ruins, the offshore area is a Marine Life Conservation District. The interpretive path takes you past a variety of structures in various stages of deterioration or, in some cases, reconstruction. There are dwellings, canoe storage houses, salt-making pans, and a couple of kōnane games, the latter being a lot like Chinese checkers. It’s played on a lava “board” with a grid of hollowed out pits, with alternating black and white stones placed in the pits and variously moved around per the rules.

The aerial views give you a sense of the layout of the place, but, truth to tell, when you are following the path it mostly feels like you are walking among a random collection of low lava walls of uncertain purpose. Which, I suppose, is why I am not an archaeologist. Nonetheless, the place has an enjoyably eldritch feel to it, the susurration of the surf and the dark rough lava walls invoking a real sense of mystery and age. Or to put it another way, it feels just a bit like being inside the beautiful old computer game Myst. Here’s a video that I took by flying along the coast, so that you can see how large and spread out it is.

The surf has been high and the weather on the windward (eastern) side of the island rainy for the past few days, so we have confined our roamings to the Kona coast and the western side of Kohala to escape it. But things look better for the next few days. Tomorrow we will try and make it to the 13,802′ (4205 m) summit of Mauna Kea where the conditions are expected to be clear, provided one is willing to tolerate sub-freezing temperatures and 20 mph winds. They’ve had a lot of snow up there this winter, so if we are lucky then I will have some “snow in Hawaii” photos to post.

 

 

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Waipio? Wai not?

The oldest part of the Big Island is its northwestern corner, a 15 mile (25 km) long, 10 mile (16 km) wide peninsula called Kohala. It is, in fact, a single giant extinct volcano, the first part of the island that formed. That makes it about a million years old, and it last erupted about 120,000 years ago. So it’s old; eroded and overgrown, it’s now cattle grazing country, a huge grassy hill dotted with overgrown volcanic cinder cones and commanding a view down the coast.

When the clouds are not in the way — which they are, more often than not — you can see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well.  Today we had — what is for this part of the island — uncharacteristically beautiful weather; the day was clear and warm, though distant clouds kept Mauna Kea out of view most of the time.

At the southeastern end of the peninsula, on the windward side where Kohala joins the rest of the island, is one of the Big Island’s most paradisaical  locales: Waipi’o Valley. A 1000-foot deep, half-mile wide slash in the lava-stone coastline, Waipi’o’s striking appearance is matched by its comparable inaccessibility. It was the home of ancient Hawaiian chiefs and is still considered a “cultural seedbank”, dotted with taro fields and threaded by a shallow river that flows down to a black sand beach. The nearly vertical green walls are punctuated by waterfalls, giving the place a serene Edenic feel. I wrote about it a year ago in this blog post.

It’s tough to get down to the bottom: you need a good four-wheel drive or really strong thighs and cardiovascular system to tackle the intimidating 25% grade. We did it for fun when I lived here, 35 years ago; today I sent a drone in my place.

The cranky “Resource Ranger” (that’s what it said on his name tag) wouldn’t let me launch the drone from the lookout point and admonished that I must not fly into the valley at all. So I walked a few hundred yards back down the approach road and launched from there instead, being careful to stay out over the water and above the rim of the valley. Here’s what it looked like from my airborne proxy, nearly 500 meters above the beach.

If you’d like a greater sense of immediacy about the place, here’s the video from the same drone flight:

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Fish Poop Beach

… is not the name of my new emo band, though perhaps it should be. It is, rather, the answer to the question that I was puzzling over in my previous post, namely: where do the Big Island’s white sand beaches come from? And the answer is: fish poop. Parrotfish poop, to be specific.

(Photo from Waikiki aquarium, not me)

Yes, really. This guy and his cousins eat coral and excrete prodigious quantities of white sand. You can actually hear them in action when you’re snorkeling: a ubiquitous crunching, crackling sound. (You’ve got to have really good teeth to eat coral.) And you  also frequently see them, um, producing the end product: a granular white stream from their posterior. I have seen that countless times and never made the connection, for which I doubt anyone would blame me.

I was quite inebriated with this outré new knowledge, and so immediately attempted to show off by interrogating our weekend visitor, the daughter of some old friends who is here with her husband and children. “Hey Johanna,” I  crowed, “you know where all this white sand comes from?” Unfortunately in my excitement I had momentarily forgotten the critical fact that Johanna has a PhD in Science and Public Policy relating to….. coral reefs. She looked at me contemptuously and said, “Parrotfish poop. Have you forgotten what I do for a living?” Damn.

Despite my humiliation, we enjoyed an outing to one of the few Parrotfish Poop beaches on the Big Island, a nearby scenic venue variously called White Sand, Magic Sands, and Disappearing Sands. The latter two monikers stem from the historical propensity of this particular beach to  disappear for a while every year or so. Some fluke of the local topography makes it particularly susceptible to being washed away by storm surges. You can see it happening on a very small scale on the seaward side of the surf in this aerial shot, light brown clouds of sand being stirred up and carried away behind the waves.

I of course took the photo with my new drone, whilst flying up and down the coastline surrounding the beach. So I’ll close with this four-minute video of that flight, which though not much of a cinematic achievement will give you a pretty good sense of the environs:

 

 

 

 

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“Da Drone, Boss, Da Drone!”

We arrived on the Big Island yesterday afternoon, about 30 hours ago as I type this, and though we are still coping with East Coast-to-Hawaii jet lag — I woke up at 4 AM today — we have nonetheless settled right in to our tropical home away from home. And it feels like that, too, i.e., the home part: this place is real easy to get used to, doubly so since this is our third winter here. Our goal has now become convincing all of our family and friends to move here so we can stay for good.

We have spent the day variously basking on the lanai (known as a patio just about anywhere else) and running various errands, the latter mostly in the form of grocery shopping or buying items that we forgot to bring. Those missing items included hats (I would not recognize Alice without her floppy garden hat) and the wall charger for my camera batteries.

But I did manage to execute a couple of short drone flights so that I can give you a bit of a feel for the environs.  I am still very much learning the fine points of getting good photo and video results from the thing — you know, niceties like steering and camera settings — but nonetheless here is today’s result:

You will notice the ubiquity of lava rock, e.g., the rather uninviting jagged ebon expanse adjacent to the swimming pool at about the one-minute mark in the video. That’s what the whole complex would look like were it not for the intervention of developers. In fact, in significant measure that’s what this whole side of the island would look like.

You’ll note similarly that the shoreline — about 250 meters from our house as the drone flies — is quite rough-looking. It’s that lava again, pretty much up and down the coast. But there are a number of nice beaches, mostly of the black sand variety where the lava has eroded. There’s quite an attractive one just another couple of hundred meters up the coast, just beyond where the video ends. (I started getting some radio interference and so brought the drone home earlier than planned rather than risk losing control.) You can also see that the water is quite clear, with coral reefs visible in the shallows. The snorkeling around here is superb.

About 45 minutes up the coast from here is an enormous, picturesque, and very popular white sand beach called Hapuna. I confess to being puzzled by its geology. Black sand I get; it’s just broken down lava. But where did the white sand come from? Some research is required, but not tonight.

My drone expedition was cut short when the property manager — a cheerful mustachioed man — tootled over in a small vehicle and rather apologetically asked me to knock it off. It’s not forbidden to fly drones in the complex, he allowed, but a couple of the residents were freaking out so would I please stop? So I did. I had in fact canvassed a couple of the neighbors in advance to make sure they were OK with it (they were) but I obviously couldn’t poll everyone and apparently missed the paranoid ones. Jeez, you’d think that they had all received some kind of false alarm on their cell phones about incoming missiles…..

 

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Nam-Ahab-ia

We hadn’t actually been thinking about whale watching when we came to Nambia, but in retrospect that was a little short-sighted, “Walvis Bay” taking its name from the Afrikaans/Dutch word for “whale”. And so it came to pass that today’s highlight was a whale-, seal-, and dolphin-watching cruise on the catamaran Libertine, carrying about 25 people this morning northward out of the bay.

The weather in Walvis Bay tends to be foggy and gloomy in the morning, clearing up later in the day, and so we departed under pendulous, chilly gray clouds, motoring out past a long sandbar and lighthouse into what appeared to be some kind of ship’s graveyard: sets of two, three, or even eight idle cargo ships lashed together like giant robotic rafts, waiting for a cargo or for permission to depart. Many looked like they had been waiting for a long time, resembling a scene out of the Kevin Costner movie Waterworld.

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The only dash of color in the bay were long files of oyster pots, bobbing in endless tethered rows, waiting for their owners to harvest their catch.

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We were told by Lloyd that actually seeing any whales — humpbacks in this part of the ocean — was by no means guaranteed, but the boat captain offered the consolation that at least a few seals were a sure thing. He related this in a tone that pretty clearly communicated that he had done this way too many times before: a flat, heavily Afrikaans-accented monotone that prompted one of our number to raise his hand and ask the captain to please speak English (which, to the interlocutor’s embarrassment, he was already doing).

But his lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding, Captain Johan knew whereof he spoke, as only a few minutes into the trip a few seals started surfing in our wake…

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…and then actually slid onboard to join the party, knowing that they’d get a handout from the crew.

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The seals were not the only ones who recognized that catamaran = tourists = free food. Around the same time, one of the crew members started whistling in much the same way that one might summon a sheep dog, in this case attracting a couple of shameless pelicans.

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The thing about giant birds, though, is that, um, you need to mop the deck afterwards. (Al, pictured above, remarked, “Guess he wants to buy the boat. He’s already put down a deposit.” <rim shot>)

Seals and pelicans are all very nice, to be sure, but about an hour later and several miles up the coast, we hit the jackpot: a small pod of humpback whales, at least three individuals. These two shots show two of them:03a Walvis Bay 2017-079

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As you can tell from the lower shot, they came quite close to us at least briefly; most of the time they were usually 100-200 meters away. (What you are seeing in the lower picture is the underside of one whale’s mouth in the center of the image — the white thing — and the body of a second whale at left.)

Whales are always thrilling; we have seen them many times in Hawaii but it is a sight that never gets old. You usually spot the waterspout from the blowhole first, then crane your neck (and in my case, camera) around to try and catch a glimpse of as much of their body as you can. Frequently it’s a huge mottled flipper scything out of the water, but occasionally you get lucky and see a good part of the creature’s body at once.

We watched the whales for quite a while, perhaps a half hour before heading back, stopping first to take in an enormous colony of seals covering a long sandy peninsula jutting out from the mainland. They were everywhere: surfing onto the beach, waddling around bumping into each other, fighting, barking, and generally reveling in some kind of gigantic Woodstockian pinniped free-for-all.

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Around the same time we attracted an enormous pod of bottlenose dolphins, surfing alongside (and under) the boat and leaping into the air all around us, an encircling cetacean ballet that kept us snapping our heads from one direction to another as we tried to catch them in the act.  Their arcs are wondrous to behold but a first class pain in the neck to photograph since they happen so fast and so unpredictably. With no time to focus since each launch was at a different distance from us, this is the best I could do:

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In short, it was a more than satisfying boat ride, if a rather chilly one: we had spent most of our time on the upper deck to get a more panoramic view at the cost of some shivers and windburn.

By the time we returned to our hotel in Swakopmund in early afternoon, the sun had broken through — typical weather for this part of the coast — and we set off northward in our two vans, shepherded by Lloyd and our two drivers, Joe and (once again!) Castro. The goal was a little south of Henties Bay, part of the famed Skeleton Coast. But we had to make a couple of surrealistic stops along the way.

The first of these was the entrance the Salt Company Ltd, which shares an expanse of land with the Seabird Guano Company. (You do not want to confuse these two substances when seasoning your food.) The Salt Company uses both reverse osmosis and evaporation ponds to make, well, really large piles of salt like you see here. The terrain is otherwise barren, an endless astringent hardpan of compressed dirt and sand that runs right up to a rocky beach on the ocean. It’s flat for miles and miles, dry as dust (it kinda is dust), devoid of shade or any vegetation, and utterly uninviting.

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It is, in short, not exactly the kind of place you would build a vacation home. Which makes the actual presence of a community of vacation homes mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. The homeowners are at least marginally aware of the incongruity and able to poke a tiny bit of fun at themselves, as you can tell:

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But they have nonetheless each constructed for themselves an electricity-free, trucked-in-water-dependent Lego-like vacation house. Gaily painted in pastels and primary colors, some have solar panels, most have water tanks on the roof, and all make you wonder why the hell anyone in his right mind would want to escape to here. It is definitely the kind of place that people escape from in any number of movies.

As all fourteen of us scratched our heads in bemusement, Joe and Castro brought us to our actual goal, the Skeleton Coast, dubbed by the Namibian Bushmen “The Land God Made in Anger”. Portuguese sailors called it “The Gates of Hell”. The people who built those vacation homes near the salt factory probably call it “prime real estate.”

The degree to which the local flora and fauna adapt to these conditions of extreme aridity is remarkable. I told you a few days ago about the bird that suckles its young through a water pouch in its breast. But I think my favorite is the beetle with the extra-long rear legs. When the fog rolls in in the morning, it extends those legs and so raises its little beetle butt up in the air, thus making about a 30 degree tilt. This increases its cross section to whatever breeze there might be; the fog condenses into microscopic water droplets on its back, which then flow downhill to its waiting mouth. Ta-da! Beetle Yoga as a survival mechanism!

However, a lot of animals and people have not survived, and it is not called the Skeleton Coast for nothing. Here is the wreck of the Zeila, a former fishing trawler that was being sold for scrap; it was being towed to India for salvage when the tow chain broke and the boat ran aground.

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Lloyd informed us that the boat used to be further up the beach, close enough to touch, but is being gradually pulled out to sea by the tides and dismembered by the waves. It isn’t haunted but it probably ought to be. And in case it needs any help being haunted, here is an accompanying actual skeleton on the beach, from a pelican who swallowed his last fish quite some time ago.

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The saving grace of this grim scene was that Steve was able to deploy his drone to marvelous effect, orbiting the wreck about 20 meters above the sea to create a most spectacular video. If he posts it to YouTube some time in the future I will supply a link to it.

Our final stop of the day was — try not to get too excited by this — a field of lichen, which can survive these conditions. Lichen is a symbiotic lifeform, a mixture of algae and fungi, and it is primitive enough to live almost anywhere. It looks like an outcropping of mold in these environs, but when you nourish it with a sprinkle of water (say, from your water bottle), it unfolds a bit and takes on some color — red or green, in this particular case. It was, uh, botanically interesting, but not quite up there with a humpback whale or pelican skeleton. (Note to self: start a rock band called Pelican Skeleton, possibly with some funky hip misspelling like Pelican Skelitan. )

We fly further north to Damaraland tomorrow, home to Nambia’s Desert Elephants. We’ll be more or less incommunicado for at least the three days that we are there, so I will try and catch up when I can.

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Victoria, Victoria

The waterfront city of Victoria (population 86,000 in the city proper) is the capital of British Columbia and sits on Vancouver Island, about 30 miles south of Vancouver city across the Strait of Georgia.  I mention the distinction since most Americans can barely find Canada on a map, and a large majority in a recent survey identified Argentina as “a kind of dessert.”

It’s a gorgeous 1 1/2 hour ferry ride across the strait, threading among dozens of verdant islands, each a few miles across, most nearly uninhabited. The terminus is Swartz Bay near the resort town of Sidney, where our old friends Larry and Jean met us.

Victoria is a cheerful seaside town whose ambiance is a genial hybrid of British government colony and American seaside resort, the former generally classing up the latter. The waterfront area is overlooked by assorted government buildings sporting ornate Victorian architecture, but the piers themselves are dotted by both fishing and pleasure boats of various sizes — including lots of open-air whale watching boats — as well as street artists and restaurants. Seaplanes buzz surrealistically back and forth overhead and land and takeoff theatrically in the middle of all the port activity. (We watched one seaplane have to taxi out of the way of the departing Seattle ferry.)

A mile or so further up the coast is Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a whole lot smaller but rather more charming than the identically named tourist trap mecca in San Francisco. It sports a number of floating restaurants, including the heavenly-anointed Barb’s Fish and Chips, which serves that and little else, and rightly so.

Fisherman’s Wharf’s most unusual feature is its houseboats, which are not what you think of when you see the word. I think of a houseboat as a boat that has been retrofitted into house-like living quarters; these, however, look more like houses that have been retrofitted to float, e.g.:

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“Honey, the roof and the floor are both leaking again.”

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Most are two stories tall as you can see, and they vary somewhat in floor area but ~900 square feet (~ 81 sq m) is pretty typical. You can pick one up for roughly US$350,000. The property taxes are very low, there not being any actual land underneath them, but be prepared to shell out six or seven thousand dollars a year in moorage fees (yes, really), plus an unknown amount for seasickness tablets. And for God’s sake don’t try and install a man cave in the basement.

Another lively Victoria neighborhood is (inevitably) Chinatown, the oldest one in Canada. Like every other Chinatown in western North America, it dates from the mid-19th century Gold Rush.

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In addition to the expected panoply of Chinese restaurants, temples, produce stores, and souvenir shops, Victoria’s Chinatown boasts a number New Age-y innovative art galleries and non-Chinese restaurants in a maze of hip-looking side streets like this one.

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Larry and I got very excited when one of these — a chocolate and sweets store — trumpeted “Creamsicles” on the advertising blackboard in front of the store. This was very exciting because Creamsicles were treasured icons of our childhood: a Popsicle-like ice cream bar consisting of highly artificial and suspect vanilla ice cream coated in a shell of some kind of petrochemical-based orange sherbet. They were wonderful (and may even still exist), so we skipped happily through the door.

But alas. This sweets shop was far too progressive for our childhood tastes. The beloved additive-laced artificial-everything treat from our boyhood had in this particular establishment been replaced by a politically-correct adjective-laden impostor: vegan, fair trade, non-GMO, artisanal. We didn’t have time to take the sensitivity and diversity training courses that were required to actually eat the things — plus they were made sacrilegiously with coconut instead of vanilla ice cream — so we went Full Curmudgeon and left. (Now get those damn kids of my lawn!)

This being an island, another important feature of Victoria is of course the beach. Views from the coast are all striking: deep blue water, crystalline sky, and — on the eastern-facing coast — the Olympic  Mountains lining the horizon, some 40 miles away.

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(This photo was taken yesterday; the sky was cloudless today.) The beach itself is not the white sand strand of, say, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, being more pebbly than sandy and heavily strewn with bleached driftwood.

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The ubiquity of driftwood — and the impossibility of building sand castles — does not deter the locals (and countless vacationing mainland Canadians) from sunning themselves, jogging, and doing all the usual beach stuff. This does not include a lot of swimming, though: the water temperature is a blue-lipped 53 F (12 C).

But we were here to stroll, not swim, and it was a beautiful sunny day. So I’ll close with a shot of my own personal total solar eclipse, four days early thanks to a gentleman on the earthbound end of about four very impressive kites.

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