Reflections of Travel to Southeast Asia

As a four-decade Certified Travel Agent, international airline employee, researcher, writer, teacher, and photographer, travel, whether for pleasure or business purposes, has always been a significant and an integral part of my life. Some 400 trips to every portion of the globe, by means of road, rail, sea, and air, entailed destinations both mundane and exotic. This article focuses on those in Southeast Asia.


Although the land of the King of Siam was overcrowded and, at least in Bangkok, smeared with traffic-created smog, if offered enough vestiges to transport me back to its early history.

Its dazzling, awe-inspiring Grand Palace, built in 1782 and the home of the Thai King, the Royal Court, and the administrative seat of government for 150 years, served as the city’s very landmark.

Surrounded by walls, whose length measured 1,900 meters, it was built for the purpose of restoring order after the fall of Ayudhya, whose monarch lived in Dhenburi, on the other side of the Chao Phya River. But, as soon as Rama I ascended to the throne, he transferred its center of administration to the current site, constructing fortifications, monasteries, and a palace to serve as his offices and residence. That came to be known as the “Grand Palace,”

Its upper terrace sported four significant monuments: the Reliquary in the shape of a golden cedi; the Repository of the Cannon of Buddhism; the model of Angkor Wat; and the Royal Penthouse, in which statues of past sovereigns of the ruling dynasty have been enshrined.

Scattered around these monuments on the terrace were fanciful animals of mythology, which themselves originated in artist imagination because of their aesthetic value.

North of the Royal Residence of the Mahamopnitien was a connecting gate that opened to the grounds of the Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha. Because monks did not reside there, it lacked residential quarters, but retained all of the architectural features of a monastery.

The Assembly Hall served as the monarch’s private chapel, but its “Emerald Buddha” was actually a single-piece jade figure which sat on a gold altar designed to represent the traditional aerial chariot attributed to Hindu gods. It was here that crowds gathered to pay respect to his memory and teachings.

The Vimanmek, the world’s largest teak wood mansion, was the six-year residence of Chulalongkom, who was also known as Rama V and consequently the fifth monarch of Siam to have ruled under the House of Chakri. It marked the transitional period from the conservative “old” to the progressive “new” in Thailand’s history.

A leisurely glide along the Chao Phrya River brought insight into Bangkok’s canal life and the boat docked at Wat Arun. Locally known as Wat Chaeng, but nicknamed “Temple of Dawn,” it was colorfully decorated with spires.

I often threaded my way through the obstacle-course comprised streets in a three-wheel “Thai tuk-tuk” by day and consumed all varieties of Thai noodles by night-rice, egg, bean, and glass–in never-disappointing dishes.

Rising from the horizon during a subsequent day’s drive to Nakhon Pathom a city in central Thailand, was the 120-meter-high Phra Pathom Chedi, itself translating as the “Holy Chedi of the beginning,” whose roots were planted in the 3rd century BC when Buddhism was introduced to Thailand. Modeled after the Great Stupa of Sanchi in Central India, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was the tallest such chedi in existence.

A visit to the Rose Garden to experience its Thai Village Cultural Show was another immersion into the country’s colorful pageantry. Amidst expansive gardens, elephants, reminiscent of the days when king and princes fought battles on their backs, roamed the area. But the actual show included such aspects as the ordination in monkhood, the fingernail dance, Thai-style boxing, northeastern dance, sword fighting, the full moon-associated bamboo dance, and a Thai wedding ceremony.

The colorful Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, about 100 kilometers southwest of Bangkok, was another immersion into local life. Its canal-thronged, long-tail boats floated almost within reach of the dizzying array of shore-based stalls that sold everything from local produce to toy elephants and tiger balm.


Like so many “country coverage” trips, such as those to Argentina, Chile, the UK, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and French Polynesia, the one to Malaysia required multiple modes, hotels, flights, and airborne hours. I traveled half of its west coast, along with drives to some of its interior areas.

Sandwiched between Thailand and Singapore some seven degrees north of the equator in Southeast Asia, it consists of Peninsula Malaysia and the two states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island, most of which belongs to Indonesia. Because of its strategic position between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, it attracted travelers and traders alike, and was continually influenced by foreign powers.

Having achieved its independence on August 31, 1957, it was initially known as the Federation of Malaysia, reduced, simply, to “Malaysia,” six years later in 1963. Today, it is subdivided into 13 states and two territories.

Its capital, Kuala Lumpur, is a mixture of old and new. Glimmering glass skyscrapers rise from wide, open, tree-line boulevards, but behind, tucked into its past, gracious Colonial-era edifices, copper domed roofs, and pre-war shop houses are only accessed by narrow lanes.

“The capital of Malaysia has grown tremendously from a small settlement of tin mines to a cosmopolitan city of 1.3 million people,” according to the KL City Experience tour description. “Still rapidly expanding, modern high-rise buildings intermingle with old structures featuring a wide range of influences: Moghul, Islamic, Tudor, and modern contemporary.”

My first hotel, the Kuala Lumpur Hilton International. rose from a hill in the city’s heart. Featuring 581 rooms and suites, it was entered through a marble lobby decorated with chandeliers and carved pillars. Its small Café Gourmet offered scones, snacks, and lunch; its Planters Inn Restaurant had a full-meal menu; and its shopping arcade displayed Royal Selangor pewter, among other items.

The actual KL City Experience tour drove past China Town, the Parliament House, the National Monument, and the Lake Gardens, before stopping at the Kanyaneka Handicraft Center; the Istana Negara Kings’ Place, which itself was surrounded by serenity in the form of formal gardens and lily ponds; and the National Museum. A palatial structure featuring Old Malay-style architecture and flanked by murals depicting the country’s history and culture, it was internally subdivided into traditions, arts and crafts, flora and fauna, currency, and weapons exhibitions. Outside displays included those of vintage cars and steam locomotives and a reconstructed Malay palace.

Kula Lumpur’s National Mosque, another tour-included attraction, sported a multiple-fold, umbrella-resembling roof that symbolized the nation’s aspirations, and a sleek, 73-meter-high minaret.

Merdaka Square commemorated the country’s independence and the Selangor Club’s marble plaque marked the location where the lowering of the union jack and the raising of the Malaysian flag took place in 1957.

An elevator ascent up the 421-meter Selemat Datong Tower, the world’s third such tallest tower inspired by the Islamic minarets from which calls to prayer are made five times per day, offered new city perspectives.

A Suburbs and Craft Tour eclipsed the boundaries of Kuala Lumpur to the surrounding state of Selangor. Located on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia and considered the country’s most developed one, it sprouted natural vegetation that ranged from coastal mangroves to lush interior tropical rainforests, and its coastline was dotted with fishing villages. Yet it hardly lacked in infrastructure: it was the location of both the largest seaport and airport, and housed the highest concentration of higher learning institutions.

The tour provided exposure to Malaysia’s indigenous products in a batik factory, a pewter plant, a rubber tree farm, complete with a tapping demonstration, and a butterfly and scorpion farm. But its highlight was a visit to the Batu Caves.

Located 13 kilometers outside of Kuala Lumpur’s central business district, they were accessed by a 272 stone step staircase that led to the 100-year-old limestone Hindu temple inside, whose 100-meter-high ceiling featured statues and idols that were incorporated within the 400-million-year-old formations.

Aside from the Art Gallery and the Museum Caves, the Cathedral Cave, considered the main one, housed several Hindu shrines.

A rental car pick-up on the fourth day facilitated self-drive coverage beyond the congested capital with an initial, northern destination of the Malaysian state of Perak. Its name, meaning “silver” in Malay, was derived from its abundant silver tin ore natural resource.

“Perak has just about everything for everyone,” according to the Perak Guide (Perak Tourist Information Center, 1997); “places and graces that speak of genuine warmth and charming hospitality. It is rich in history, culture, folklore, and heritage. It is the state of ageless architectural splendors, island resorts that offer sun, sea, and sand, virgin tropical jungles, beautiful holiday hideaways, natural recreation parks, and a host of specialized museums.”

My first stop was the unassuming fishing village of Lumut. Although it was known for its shell and corral handicrafts, the attraction, paradoxically, was its huge parking lot across from the Pan Silver Ferry departure point for the 40-minute water crossing to Pangkor Island located off the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia.

“The most popular island resort in Perak,” it billed itself, “Pangkor welcomes visitors with its serene, golden beaches, crystalline blue water, and cool, refreshing breezes.”

Once the refuge of seamen who sailed through the Strait of Malacca, it provided pause and peace for pirates, merchants, and soldiers with its idyllic bays.

The 240-room, -suite, and -chalet Pan Pacific Resort, located on a private, ten-kilometer-long golden beach, offered restaurants, watersports, swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf courses, and close proximity to jungle fishing villages. The island’s sights included Teluk Nipah, a sea park with a coral reef and marine life, and Kota Belanda, the 300-year-old Dutch fort that served as a stronghold against attacking pirates and local Malays until the Malays themselves drove the Dutch out.

A return ferry ride, which itself was crowded because of Malaysia’s National Day of Independence celebration, preceded a drive to another topographical region of the country in the state of Pahang, the Cameron Highlands. Reached after a progressive climb on a mountain-encircling road, it seemed as if I had been deposited into another world of undulating green hills and cool air 1,829 meters about sea level, where temperature and soil facilitated tea and subtemperate fruit and vegetable growing.

The Equatorial Hill Resort, the chosen accommodation for the night, was centrally located on Kea Farm at a 1,628-meter elevation with commanding views of the majestic mountains and valleys, often hugged by misty clouds.

Featuring Tudor-style architecture outside and leather couches and fireplaces inside in its lobby, it greeted guests with the following welcome.

“Welcome to the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s most idyllic mountain getaway. Rolling hills and lofty mountains are complemented by terraced tea estates and valleys showcasing vegetable gardens and flower farms.”

Comfort was not a lost concept here: 511 rooms, restaurants, lounges, an entertainment complex, and area activities, such as mountain trekking and old-fashioned bamboo pole fishing in Habu Lake.

A half-day, agriculturally-themed “Country Excursion” took in Rose Valley, Cactus Valley, the Butterfly Farm, wild orchids, and tea plantations for both tasting and purchasing.

Dinner in the Smokehouse Restaurant that evening was a must.

“The charm of the English countryside, English Tudor style,” it described itself. “Sixty kilometers of loops, switchbacks, and steady climbing takes you to this delightful resort. Here you will find the most famous building of Cameron Highlands. Standing alongside the golf course is the Smokehouse Hotel and Restaurant. The English Tudor style hotel, built in 1939, provides you with the ultimate in colonial ambiance.

“A three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands is quite literally at the frontier between the manmade world and the wild where one can venture out and taste the latter. The experience of the Smokehouse is something to be treasured.”

Traditional English tea with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jams was served in its lush gardens. Dinner, requiring reservations, was preceded by a comfortable wait in the living room adorned with overstuffed chairs and couches, a fireplace, and a beamed ceiling, before invitation into the small, main dining room, and its menu featured appetizers such as smoked salmon, entrees like beef with Yorkshire pudding, and delectable desserts.

A mountain re-descent the following day entailed the almost obligatory stop at the Lota Iskondar waterfall and then the drive to my fourth hotel, the ultra-modern, 441-room Pan Pacific Kuala Lumpur International Airport, to which it was skybridge-connected.

Considering itself the country’s gateway, it advertised, “Experience the world of Malaysia and its modern airport-symbiotic relationships between technological and agricultural achievements, eastern and western cultures, modern and traditional lifestyles, and international and domestic connections.

“As the nation’s new transportation hub, Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s architectural and technological splendors rise above its beautifully landscaped rain forest.”

A two-and-a-half-hour drive to the southern part of the country past rubber and oil palm plantations, tropical rain forests, and valleys the following day led to the Malaysian state of Malacca, its unofficial historical capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Originally a simple fishing village, it was founded by a prince fleeing nearby Sumatra in the late 14th-century, who transformed it into a port for safe harboring during monsoons and resupplying ships that plied the Strait of Malacca. Because of its strategic, China-India intermediate location, it soon monopolized the trading routes in the region.

Its spices attracted colonial powers. In 1511, for instance, it fell to the Portuguese, in 1641 to the Dutch, and in 1815 to the British.

Although it ultimately faded into history, it gained its independence in the 21st century and began to attract tourists. Today, it resembles a compact living museum, whose Malay, Chinese, Indian, Straits-born Chinese, and Portuguese descendant left a wealth of cultural influences, as reflected in its Medieval charm, narrow streets, and quaint architecture.

Some of it was sampled in Taman Mini Malaysia, a cultural park comprised of traditional home replicas from the country’s 13 states, along with a model of an Orang Asi village.

Other city attractions included St. Peters Church, the salmon-pink Stadhuys, Sultan’s Well, the Queen Victoria Fountain, and the Portuguese settlement.

The book on this travel-rich trip ended no differently than it began-namely, with a dual-sector, 21-hour intercontinental flight from Kuala Lumpur to Newark that made an intermediate stop in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.


Spotlessly clean, modern, efficiently-run, and small in size, but the result of its multi-racial roots, Singapore offered a taste of its diversity in the pockets of ethnicity that continued to thrive.

Little India, for instance, was an enclave of saris, curries, goldsmiths, and Hindu temples.

Merlion Park not only offered views of its Colonial buildings, such as the City Hall, the Supreme Court, and the General Post Office, but displayed the city’s very symbol, the lion. A Hindu prince, descending from Alexander the Great, ruled large areas of the Asian coastline and sought a new site to establish a population center on the pirate-infested island during the 14th century. It was here that he encountered a strange animal with a red body, a black head, and a white breast-that is, a lion-prompting him to name his new location “Singapura” or “the City of the Lion.”

Shenton Way constituted Singapore’s financial district.

Chinatown consisted of two such sections-the Hokkien District, with its 150-year-old Thian Hock Keng Temple, and the Cantonese District, with its own signature Sri Mariamman Temple.

Expansive views of the city and the Port of Singapore were enjoyed on the top of Mt. Faber.

And the Botanical Garden, another Colonial Heritage area, was ablaze with orchid color and was the location where the first rubber tree was planted in Asian.

The Tang Dynasty, reached after a walk to the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway station from my hotel on Orchard Road and then a 15-minute ride, was a 12-hectare, miniature recreation of Chang’an, the capital of the dynasty some 1,300 years ago during its Golden Age. Cornerstone, perhaps, was its seven-story Wild Goose Pagoda, beneath which was the Underground Palace, which displayed terra cotta warriors, horses, and wagons.

Considerable authenticity had been incorporated into the restoration. Almost 2,000 bricks had been manufactured by an ancient factory in Guangzhou and all of the wooden doors and windows had been hand carved by Chinese craftsmen.

Its house- and shop-lined streets said much about life during the era. Its pleasure houses, for instance, were locations where Japanese geisha girl equivalents, who were taught to dance, sing, and write, entertained men. The Court House represented the formal jurisdiction system devised by the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Tang Ganzo. The replica of a rich man’s house featured a high threshold lying across its entrance to both prevent flooding and ward off evil spirits. A temple for worshippers was the location where prayer was offered up to Kuan Yin, the God of Mercy, whom they believed could cure illnesses. And the House of Li Bai, set next to the village’s lake, represented the one where the dynasty’s greatest poets lived and the setting which inspired their works.

Shops demonstrated and sold herbs, wine, pottery, and tea, and re-enactments in the city’s square and along its streets ranged from marital arts to wedding parades.

Sentosa, translated as “Isle of Tranquility” in Malay, was another educational and entertainment venue, which was transformed from its British fortress and military base origins.

Its extensive, multifaceted offerings included those pertaining to history (the Lost Civilization, Fort Siloso, and the Pioneers of Singapore Wax Museum), nature (the Coralarium and Nature Ramble, a butterfly park, and fountain gardens); recreation (golf, cycling, sunning, and swimming on its beach, and nighttime entertainment (lighted, music-accompanied fountains and periodic shows).

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Reflectons of Travel to Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific

As a four-decade Certified Travel Agent, international airline employee, researcher, writer, teacher, and photographer, travel, whether for pleasure or business purposes, has always been a significant and an integral part of my life. Some 400 trips to every portion of the globe, by means of road, rail, sea, and air, entailed destinations both mundane and exotic. This article focuses on Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific.


The Sydney Opera House, sporting its sail-resembling roof and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, confirmed my arrival “down under” after another flight whose hour duration eclipsed two digits in number on the appropriately named Qantas Boeing 747-400 “Long Reach.”

Although a need to reduce trip costs relegated me to a smaller hotel, it was nevertheless well-located and appointed, with quaint decorations, a refrigerator, a small kitchen area, and a private bath, facilitating grocery storage for breakfast and Thai take out for dinner, eaten at its very round table.

The country-continent’s sights were, however, canvased, with both walking and motor coach tours during a flawlessly-blue spring, which, in the southern hemisphere, meant October, and included Kings Cross, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Darling Harbour and its monorail, the Chinese Garden, the Queen Victoria Building shopping complex, the Sydney Aquarium, and The Rocks, a restored and preserved neighborhood whose buildings dated at least a century, but had since been converted into terrace houses, shops, galleries, craft centers, restaurants, and taverns.

Ferries plying the deep blue harbor took me to Manly and the area’s famed Bondi Beach, one of Sydney’s iconic, crescent-shaped, sweeping stretches of sand.

The prerequisite “cuddle a koala” occurred on a full-day tour, whose initial Wildlife Park stop, offered quintessential indigenous animal interactions, including those that enabled me to feed a kangaroo, nurse a wombat, pet a dingo, and walk among the colorful birds, particularly the parrots and cockatoos.

A tour continuation, which entailed a drive past Windsor and across the Hawksbury River, ultimately pinnacled in an ascent up Bell Bird Hill for a spectacular view from Kurrajong Heights. The Great Dividing Range was later visible as the coach passed canyon ridgetops and towering sandstone cliffs, before arriving in Katoomba, the main town in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

Lush vegetation, steep cliffs, eucalyptus forests, and silky, sun-glinted waterfalls blanketed the area.

The Three Sisters, an unusual rock formation and one of the area’s most-visited geological formations, represented the three sisters from the Katoomba tribe, who fell in love with three brothers from the competing Nepean one. Since tribal law forbade them from getting married, the brothers decided to capture the sisters, sparking a war between the two tribes. In order to protect the three sisters, a witch doctor cast a temporary spell on them, transforming them into current rocks, with the intention of turning them back after the danger had passed. But, because he was killed during the war, the sisters remained in their present sedentary state for eternity.

The Scenic Skyway gondola, one of two mountain-ascending means, facilitated spectacular views from the summit, where its Skyway Revolving Restaurant served lunch, Devonshire teas, cakes, and pastries.

A second escorted tour taken the following day-this time on a modern, double-deck bus-offered insight into Australia’s Washington, DC equivalent in Canberra. A drive through Mittagong, a town in New South Wales’ Southern Highland, a skirt of Berrima, and a cross of Lake Burley Griffin led to the national capital. Its sights included a tour of the New Parliament, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library, and the Australian War Memorial, then a drive past the numerous embassies and diplomatic residences, and finally a view from the top of Mount Ainsley, the city’s highest point, which offered demonstrable proof of its carefully-planned, laid out, and structured configuration.

After its brief evening rush hour, the city itself was left virtually vacant.


Although New Zealand is the second largest landmass in the South Pacific after Australia and therefore always stands in its shadow, perhaps it should be the other way around, at least in terms of its diverse offerings in such a compact area.

Consisting of North, South, and Stewart Islands, the latter the smallest and often considered the “forgotten one,” it boasts a 3.5 million-strong population, seventy percent of whom live on the first of the three.

Initially settled by the native Pacific Maori people around 750 AD, it traces its first European exploration to Captain James Cook, whose sea voyages sparked interest by adventurers, traders, and settlers alike. While it is an English-speaking country today, it is still a mixture of cultures, particularly those of the Maori and the Polynesians. Its main export products include dairy, meat, and wool.

Because of its location between two harbors, Auckland, its capital, is refereed to as the “City of Sails,” and its Main, or Queen, Street offers a myriad of shops, businesses, arcades, and restaurants.

My first hotel, the Novotel Auckland, located on the intersection between Customs and Queens Streets, was touted as follows.

“Situated on a picturesque harbor, Novotel Auckland offers the perfect venue for business travelers, corporate functions, or family holidays. Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor opens up with an abundance of water sports, bars, restaurants, and shops. This idyllic harbor location places guests in the heart of the city’s shopping and business district, and close to many of its popular entertainment spots and tourist attractions, making it the ideal venue in the City of Sails.”

It certainly supplied me with a hospital welcome. I was offered coffee upon arrival because my room was not ready, despite the fact that I had made the reservation for it only 20 minutes earlier at the airport. A dinner of lasagna with pine nuts in the city-overlooking Vertigo Restaurant was particularly memorable.

Always avoiding the congestion and parking problems associated with a rental car in major cities, I initially elected to tour Auckland on the hop-on/hop-off, double-decked Explorer Bus.

A ferry across Waitemata Harbor to historic Devonport became the threshold to a peruse of its Victoria Road and its intersecting streets.

Pickup of a rental car-in this case, a Ford Falcon Futura-always signaled country coverage of a destination, as it did for me the following day. A 133-kilometer drive on State Highway 1 led to an intermediate stop in Hamilton, New Zealand’s fifth largest metropolitan area and center of the Waikato faming region. Located on the tree-line banks of the Waikato River, the town offered a mixture of art and culture venues, gardens, and shopping, and, for me, an extensive lunch at Valentine’s Seafood Buffet.

An inward, 108-kilometer continuation-this time on State High 5-led to an overnight stay in Rotorua.

“Rotorua is the inland jewel of the Bay of Plenty,” according to the New Zealand Visitor Guide (Jason Publishing Company, 1996, p. 42). “It is famous for its areas of intense thermal activity-bubbling mud pools, spouting geysers, and steaming vents-and as a Maori cultural center.”

Lying on the volcanic fault line that runs through the Pacific within the Ring of Fire, it was subjected to the forces that created its thermal landscape. It also offered an introduction to the origins, culture, and lifestyle of the Maori people.

Discovering the area when they migrated from Hawaiki, which was near Tahiti, in canoes, they built villages ringed by trenches and protected by fences.

Although current descendants have been westernized, they still practice the customs that led to their culture, such as celebrating in “hangi” gatherings, in which food is cooked in underground, heated stones and a subsequent celebration entails chants, action songs, stick games, and speeches.

“Wooden carvings and buildings, tattooing, finely crafted jade, spiral-patterned paintings, and textiles are all part of a distinctive Maori arts and crafts heritage,” according to the New Zealand Visitor Guide (ibid, p. 11). “No other Polynesian culture has produced such elaborate arts or such exacting buildings. They are expressions of tribal dignity and visible proof of pride in a remarkable ancestry.”

My own nightly domicile took form as the Lake Rotorua Quality Resort, which it self-described as follows.

“All 227 rooms have views, with many overlooking the lake just 20 meters away. The center of town is but a brief walk, as are the Government Gardens and the magnificent Tudor-style Bath Houses, and the therapeutic mineral waters of the Polynesian Pools.”

The surrounding area was a veritable cauldron of boiling mud pools and silica terraces, and the center piece of Waimangu Volcanic Park was the world’s largest boiling lake.

Area-indicative sights were many.

Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, for example-30 kilometers from Rotorua on State Highway 5-was a scenic reserve, whose walking paths led through an other-planetary surface of flora, fauna, and geological formations. Its abundant natural colors, such as yellow, purple, and orange, respectively reflected their Sulphur, manganese, and antimony chemical compositions.

“Colors, innumerable of every tint and hue, are displayed in pools, lakes, craters, steam vents, mineral terraces, and even the tracks you walk on,” according to the Wonderland’s brochure. “Waiotapu lays claim to be New Zealand’s most colorful and diverse thermal reserve. The walk through the area takes visitors through stunning geothermal activity.”

A cross of the Waiotapu hot stream brought views of steaming cauldrons, bubbling mud, and hissing fumaroles.

“The area is literally covered with collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud and water, and steaming fumaroles,” the brochure continues. “It is drained by the Waiotapu Stream, which joins the Waikato River.”

Another related sight was Orakei Karako Geyserland and Caves, located an additional 72 kilometers from Rotorua.

“Orakei Karako is a pocket wonderland of geysers, sinter terraces, hot springs, boiling mud pools, and the Ruatapu Caves tucked away in a Hidden Valley on the edge of a beautiful sheltered lake, where even the swallows stay all year round,” according to its own brochure.

Access was by an included boat ride.

“As we move across the sheltered Lake Ohakuri, the Emerald Terrace seems to grow larger,” it continues. “Often mistaken for an old lava flow, this silica terrace is the largest of its kind in New Zealand and is about 20 meters thick. It continues another 35 meters under the lake.”

Orakei Karako’s numerous highlights included the Rainbow Terrace, which was earthquake-formed in 131 AD; Rainbow Lookout; its own Artist’s Palette, which was created by hydrothermal eruptions between 8,000 and 14,000 BC; and the Ruatapu Cave, with its Pool of Mirrors.

The brochure offers a concluding perspective, based upon a view of the complex’s main lodge.

“The log cabin lodge looks minute nestled beneath the proud volcanoes that once spat fir and lava into the air and one wonders in awe that, from such a turbulent past, is born such serene beauty,” it states.

Located in Wairakei Park, Huka Falls, another area sight, was created by the narrow, 20-meter-high volcanic ledge causing the large volume of water to collide with itself and crash into the Waikato River, which itself drains Lake Taupo.

Imprinted and impressed with New Zealand’s natural sights, I drove to Taupo, a holiday resort on the shores of 600-square-kilometer Lake Taupo, which, as the country’s largest, was formed by an eruption in 106 AD and today offers trout fishing and water skiing.

Endowed with grape growing soil and climate, the area afforded a taste and a glimpse of its fruits at the Park Estate Winery, which was located on a 13-hectare site between Rotorua and Hawkes Bay.

“Park Estate wines are full of fresh flowers. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay are all successful varieties in Hawkes Bay and are complemented by the classical full-bodied reds-Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot,” it explained.

Offering a winery, a tasting room, a restaurant, and shop designed in Spanish mission style, using locally grown timbers, and sporting heavy wood beams to create warm, naturally-toned interiors, it was the ideal location for an excellent lunch within a Mediterranean atmosphere.

Its Fruitlands Shop offered a selection of blends and juices from locally grown fruits, including boysenberry, apple, grapefruit, orange, grape, and blackcurrant, along with homemade jams, honey, pickles, and chutney.

A return drive to my “secondary home” in Rotorua’s Quality Resort, interspersed with a restorative rest in Taupo’s Robert Harris Tea and Specialties Café, offered greater immersion into the Maori culture.

Populated by only 65,000 permanent residents, but more than two million sheep, Rotorua contained two villages where tribal life and traditions were preserved.

“Nowhere in New Zealand is it easier to understand and enjoy the remarkable story of the origins of our land and people than here in Rotorua,” according to the Rotorua Visitors Guide (Tourism Rotorua, 1995-1996, p. 16). “On every hand are the stark reminders of once convulsive volcanic activity that millions of years ago thrust our massive mountains high in the air. Enormous craters, slumped surfaces, and blocked up valleys have left us with a multitude of gem-like lakes… ”

The New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute provided insight into the tribe’s lifestyle and culture.

A café, gift shop, art gallery, and carving school were located on the side of the main entrance, which led to walking paths that wound their way through the village that consisted of a weaving school, a Maori canoe, the Kiwi House, geysers, boiling springs, fumaroles, mud pools, and the Lake of the Whistling Duck.

Contrast was achieved at the midway point between the nearby Blue and Green Lakes, the former 150 hectares in size and appearing its turquoise blue because of its pumice bottom and the reflection from white rhyolite, and the latter 440 hectares in size and appearing emerald green due to its shallow, sandy bottom.

The Te Wairoa Buried Village chronicled and preserved the once-quiet settlement that was devastated by the June 10, 1886 eruption of Mt. Tarawera, which claimed 153 lives and scattered ash, mud, and lava over a 5,000-square-mile area. Then the center of the Tuhourogi, a Maori subtribe of the Arawa, the Te Wairoa Valley was awash with gentle slopes and fruit orchards. A stream from Gran Lake powered the mill that ground the locally grown wheat. Today, the Buried Village preserves both the excavations and the scars that the eruption created.

Performances entailed Haka, the Maori dance; the poi dance, done with two string-attached balls; and love songs and legends.

Rotorua views and breakfast followed a 900-meter-ascent on the Skyline Gondola the following morning, and lunch, in the Waitomo Caves Tavern, after a boat cruise through the Glowworm Grotto’s limestone caverns.

The day’s 500-kilometer drive, from Rotorua to Taupo, Te Kuiti, Hamilton, Auckland, and Takapuna in a northerly direction, ended in an overnight stay in Takapuna Cho’s Motel, whose dual, living- and bedroom suite was decidedly lacking in heat during the southern hemisphere’s winter onset, despite the calendar’s late-May indication.

Route 1 unfolded to Orewa for human fueling otherwise known as “breakfast” and Paihia in the Bay of Islands, my itinerary’s last major destination.

A jewel of islands surrounded by the varying blue hues of water, its seaside setting offered swimming, boating, sailing, kayaking, and dolphin dabbling, but was historically significant as both the Maori and European cradle of civilization. After Lieutenant James Cook set anchor off its shores in 1769 on the HM Endeavour, he proclaimed, “I have named it the Bay of Islands.”

Paihia, one of its main towns, was instrumental in its development, but began as nothing more than a five-house and single-church community in 1890. Until a road was constructed to it from Opua during World War II, transport was by water to Auckland and one-way travelers primarily consisted of herded cattle.

“From its hard-earned beginning, Paihia is now the main center of the Bay of Islands,” according to the Guide (ibid, p. 16). “Adventure activities, sightseeing, cafes, bars, and accommodation are all here.”

Sights included the Waitangi National Reserve and the natural Hole in the Rock formation, which required a boat to reach.

Lunch was in the Café on the Bay, dinner in the upstairs Pizza Pasta Café (both in Paihia), and accommodation was in the 145-room Bay of Islands Quality Resort, Waitangi.

“Situated on over 60 acres of parklands and surrounded by sea, the Quality Resort Waitangi is located in a unique setting in the beautiful Bay of Islands, just a short walk from the Treaty Hose,” according to its self-description. “The hotel is surrounded by water and probably the most breathtaking golf course in New Zealand. With its own boat jetty, the Quality Resort Waitangi becomes an integral part of the water-based activity on this bay. There are boating excursions, game fishing trips, coach tours, yachting, and nature walks.”

The following day’s ferry ride to Russell, another of the area’s major towns, invited exploration. Serving as New Zealand’s capital for a single year, in 1840, before it was moved to Auckland, it was characterized by white picket fences, weatherboard architecture, and craft galleries. The historic, 29-room Duke of Marlborough Hotel, featuring a wood-paneled bar and lounge, was on the waterfront.

An outdoor lunch at the Whangerei Visitor’s Center served as a welcomed break during the southerly drive to Auckland International Airport the following day and the return of the rental car, which, in a way, had served as my “home away from home” during most of the trip.

As the Air New Zealand 747-400 took to the black skies that evening and I settled down for the more than 12-hour Pacific Ocean crossing to the US West Coast, I reflected on my kaleidoscopic North Island itinerary and some of its staggering statistics; 11 days, 11 nights, two in flight, eight in six different hotels, 1,950 road kilometers, and more than 36 airborne hours.

I would do it all again in a heartbeat.



Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands in the South Pacific characterized by its rugged landscapes, palm-lined beaches, coral reefs, and clear lagoons, consisted of its Viti Levu and Vanua Levu major islands, which supported most of the population. The former, home to its capital, Suva, was a port city with British colonial architecture. Both were tropical paradises.

Buffets beneath thatched-roof huts were typical of meals.

Two island excursions-one by sea and the other by land-offered an overview of local life.

The first, a four-island catamaran cruise on the 25-meter-long, 300-passenger Island Express, plied the deep blue waters, calling at two Fijian villages and six resorts and sailing past some of the Mamanuca group’s most pristine, sunbaked beaches.

A descent to the lower deck revealed a small boutique and a coffee shop ideal for a light lunch.

The second excursion-to the Pacific Harbor Cultural Center-entailed a drive from Nadi that passed sugarcane fields, pine forests, and other Fijian villages, before arriving in Sigatoka Town and affording an opportunity to peruse the local Market Place. Continuing through the Coral Coast and passing coconut trees, resorts, and reefs, it pulled into the recreated pocket of the country’s past, brought back to life through its exotic gardens, specialty shops, thatched roof houses, and natively attired craftsmen. Lunch at the Treetop Restaurant was followed by a traditional South Pacific show and float along the surrounding river.

French Polynesia:

To me, it seemed like little more than a dot to be aimed for, I thought, as the quad-engine Airbus A340-200, draped in Air Tahiti Nui’s blue-and-green color scheme, took to the skies from Los Angeles, intent on closing the gap between a continent and an island in the south Pacific-specifically, Tahiti.

“Nui, incidentally, connotated French Polynesia’s newly-launched intercontinental airline, and translated as “big,” to contrast it with the local, and obviously smaller, Air Tahiti, whose routes could be considered little more than hops in comparison to the current eight-hour one.

Canvassing 1.5 million square miles in the eastern South Pacific, the country was comprised of 118 islands and atolls, but Tahiti itself was only one of eight grouped in the Society Archipelago, the other seven being Bora Bora, Huahine, Manihi, Moorea, Raiatea, Rangiroa, and Tahaa. From where did its inhabitants come?

“The history of Old Polynesia is vaulted din the mists of time,” according to Tahiti and her Islands: Travel Planner to Islands beyond the Ordinary (Papeete, Tahiti, GIE Tahiti Tourisme, 1999, p. 34). “The discovery of buried villages and stone petroglyphs are pieces to the puzzle. Yet the mystery of origin is still unsolved.”

Nevertheless, seafaring Mahi people, it is believed, travelled there from either Samoa or Tonga in double-hulled canoes.

My own mode of transport, on the country’s first international airline, was decidedly faster and more comfortable. Small menus, even in coach, detailed the onboard repasts, which included appetizers of seafood marinated in lime juice and coconut milk; entrees like sautéed veal in berry and black pepper sauce, roasted tuna in orange sauce, grilled fillet of mahi-mahi, and chicken in mushroom wine sauce; French cheeses; wines, and desserts, such as lemon meringue tartlets. A second service consisted of a snack on westbound sectors and a hot breakfast on eastbound ones. Audio entertainment and movies passed the time as the blue Pacific surface passed beneath the wing.

The island’s warm, scented breezes, swaying palms, turquoise lagoons, and tropical color palette were draws for artists. Impressionist painter Paul Gaugin, for instance, traveled to Tahiti twice before he permanently settled there in 1895. Henri Matisse identified its unique nature, when he said, “The light of the Pacific has a special quality: it intercedes the spirit just like the heart of a gold cup when one gazes into it.”

Catching the first glimpse of French Polynesia during the aircraft’s approach, I thought of M. Somerset Maugham’s words.

“And I looked up and I saw the outline of the island,” he said. “I knew right a way there was the place I’d been looking for all of my life.”


Turtle-shaped, crowned by French Polynesia’s two highest peaks, and skirted by black, velvet beaches and pink coral reefs, Tahiti, the country’s largest island, consisted of Tahiti Nui (large) and Tahiti Iti (small), which were interconnected, but rose from separate volcanic eruptions millions of years apart. Their paved road coverages measured 71 and 11 miles, respectively. Papeete was the capital.

My hotel said and scented “Polynesia:” an open-air, thatched-roof lobby (there were no seasons here), rooms with lanais (balconies), an overwater restaurant, and sunset bars and lounges. Views took in the expansive Pacific.

Henri Matisse, who spend three months here in 1930 and left impression-filled notebooks, once said, “With wide open eyes, I would plunge under the transparent water that is green as absinth in its depths.”

Several tours acquainted me with this Pacific-transplanted version of France. Papeete was lined with sidewalk cafes. A travel agent I met in the hotel was from Paris. And all the houses sprouted long, birdhouse- or mailbox-resembling structures. Locals, I concluded, must take regular delivery of very long packages. In a way, I was correct, because the length accommodated the daily delivery of freshly baked baguettes, as occurred in France.

But there were differences. While shops sold French fashions, they also stocked local handicrafts. Transportation took form as “Le truck,” colorful, open-air truck-buses with bench seats. And female fashion in this paradise was often nothing more than a pareo (wrap-around skirt) and a flower tucked behind the ear. There was no concept of “winter wear”-not here, anyway.

Fern-covered Mt. Orohena, the island’s highest at 7,353 feet, triumphantly rose and was always visible. The blowhole of Arahoho, the waterfalls of Fa’arumai, botanical gardens, and Point View-the black sand beach where the crew from the Bounty (as in “Mutiny on”) first came ashore-rounded out its natural highlights.

An interior-island safari created distance from the harbor and served as a transfer to the island’s foothills, which were tufted with coconut palms, waterfalls cascading down green valleys to ultimately feed streams, and a canvas of pink, Impressionist-painting-like bougainvillea. Interspersed within the fern and bamboo forests were vegetable plantations and stone tikis.

Mt. Orohena, always towering above, was considered the dwelling place of the ancient gods.

The guide, I surmised, viewed his van as a dual-purpose vehicle: the transportation means of tour to the interior he conducted and the delivery method of his family’s dinner, since a freshly caught fish lay in the back of it.

The experience was capped with a beach buffet and a Polynesian show that evening, lit by strategically placed torches in the sand and the stars.

A brochure once suggested that Polynesia gave rise to the word “paradise,” and that its beaches, beautifies, and intoxicating scents hold a place in visitors’ collective imaginations. I found the philosophy pretty accurate.


Traveling a long distance to French Polynesia certainly invited-if not beckoned-travel a short distance to its other islands. And so, I did. Moorea, just eleven miles off in the distance, was reached after a short boat ride.

As I approached it, I thought of James A. Mitchener’s words, which said, “… But nothing in Tahiti is so majestic as what faces it across the bay, for there lies the island of Moorea. To describe it is impossible. It is a monument to the prodigal beauty of nature.”

And its origin? The answer comes not from science, but from legend, which states that it was formed as the second dorsal fin of the fish that became Tahiti, from which I now separated during my crossing of the Sea of Moons. It has been described as “a long sierra of broken pinnacles and crags that resemble a weathered and dismantled castle, with slender minarets, escarpments, and rugged encasements through which fleecy clouds peep from the high horizons,” according to the Tahiti and Her Islands: guide (ibid, p. 68).

After a buffet lunch, an island tour made a 37-mile circuit on its coastal road past its crystalline waters, lush mountain slopes, and volcanic peaks, capped by a view from the Le Belvedere Lookout.

“Views from Le Belvedere Lookout of Mt. Rotui, Cook’s Bay, and the fertile Opunohu Valley, with its agricultural farms and miles of spiky green pineapple plants that dominate the mountain slopes (are spectacular),” according to the travel guide (p. 68). “Under towering basaltic cliffs of the dinosaur ridges, cattle graze peacefully on bright green grass, while the nearby river stream gurgles its way toward the sea.”

Bora Bora:

An excruciatingly early, 0600 departure the following morning from Papeete on one of Air Tahiti’s ATR-42 inter-island aerial inks took me to Bora Bora. As it closed the gap, lyrics from the South Pacific musical circled in my head.

“Where the sky meets the sea. Here am I, your special island. Come to me, come to me. Bali Ha’I, Bali Ha’I, Bali Ha’I.”

There may have been a good reason for this. Then-naval officer James A. Michener, stationed in Bora Bora in 1942, wrote his successful Tales of the South Pacific as a result of his experience and the book inspired the musical itself. The idealized Bali Ha’I was based upon the island I currently approached and, yes, it even has a Bloody Mary’s Restaurant.

Lying 150 miles northeast of Tahiti in the Leeward Society group, it consisted of a main island, almost serving as the nucleus of an atom, encircled by emerald islets, as if they formed a string of pearls surrounding a multi-colored lagoon. From its center rose the basalt, chisel-resembling Mt. Otemanu.

It was the only destination that required a boat launch cross of the lagoon from the aircraft ramp on the offshore motu island to the main one that supported the passenger terminal and baggage claim area.

Although budgetary constraints restricted my accommodation to the Beach Club Bora Bora, the thatched-roof overwater bungalows nearby were experiences in themselves. Propped up on stilts rising from the turquoise, they offered views through their translucent glass floors, as if they served as horizontal aquariums, providing endless contemplation. At night, gentle waves lapping below sang sleep-inducing lullabies.

But I still shared the water in my own hotel.

“Listen to the water calm nature,” Pierre Loti, French naval officer and novelist, once wrote: “the monotonous, eternal murmur of the breakers on the reef; look at the stupendous scenery, the peaks of basalt, the dark forest clinging to the mountain’s flank-all this lost in the midst of a vast, immeasurable solitude–the Pacific.”

Vaitape was Bora Bora’s main town and an 18-mile, partially-paved road encircled the island, passing colorful villages, archaeological sites, and World War II bunker and cannon remnants. But the breathtaking views were from below and above.

In the former case, I experienced underwater vistas in the almost spaceship-resembling “Aquascope,” which was equipped with a buoyancy-controlled system based upon ballasting. Remaining on the surface, it afforded views from the submerged, glass bubble-appearing sides of tropical fauna, coral reefs, and multi-colored fish.

In the latter case, a four-wheel jeep gently followed the ring road and then turned into what seemed like bush and forest, scurrying up hills and mountains, sometimes at significant angles. And the view from the top? It offered an artist’s palette of blues and greens, ranging from aquamarine to turquoise, cobalt, sapphire, emerald, and jade. Coconut palms seemed to quiver like a mirage on the horizon below and a baker’s confection of white sand beaches slanted into crystal lagoons. Warm breezes, carrying the scents of orchids, frangipani, hibiscus, pineapple, and vanilla, perfumed the air, and peace infused the soul.

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