Greece 2024 Travelogue!

Meteoric Rises and Ukrainian Elbows

Arriving in Athens so late this time I was worried I wouldn’t be able to catch a train downtown as the subway kind of shockingly shuts down at midnight and doesn’t run again until morning. Thankfully once I’d collected my luggage and made my way to the station I saw that the last train had yet to leave. About an hour later I was stepping out into the area south of the Plaka district and heading for my short overnight before picking up the rental car. I’d skimped a bit on this overnight amenities wise but it actually worked out well as they had a small coin laundry downstairs and after breakfast I had time to do a load before my car pickup. Freshly laundered I clattered my way down the cobble sidewalks with my suitcase and over to the subway station where the rental car pickup was. To my delight this car had Android Auto so I was able to connect my gps instructions to the screen and save some pain but to be honest getting out of Athens and onto the highway north was a breeze. That afternoon’s destination was Delphi, the home of the Pythian Oracle.

Delphi is just close enough to Athens to be bus-tour doable but I’d gone for a self drive in order to include some further destinations as well as to save myself bouncing back to the capital repeatedly. The drive itself was a mix of modern highway with extortionate tolls, side roads small enough I might have questioned if I was heading the right way if I hadn’t seen bus tours heading back to Athens and steep mountain roads winding up and around blind corners. Getting to Delphi this way also involves passing through the closest ‘ski country’ to the capital and even though I’d been aware of this in advance it was still odd to see signs for end of season ski and snowboard sales. Apparently the resort on Mt. Parnassus was still running, if I’d had a couple extra days I might have gone for a ski just to say I had. A couple of the mountain towns I passed were incredibly interesting looking but even at low season seemed to have nowhere to easily park. I think if I went back I’d  probably make an effort to spend an extra day in the area though.

Delphi itself is a relatively modern small town by Greek standards as the residents were built a new town around the turn of the 20th century after an earthquake in exchange for removing themselves from the area over what is now the archaeological park. It’s nestled around the curve of a mountain pass with steep one way streets scarcely having room for cars much less the behemoth tour buses. Again I was thankful it was low season in this instance as I managed to snag a super affordable room with a valley view out towards the Gulf of Corinth and by some miracle also lucked into free street parking a few cars down from the entrance. Less positive due to low season was the sanctuary/museum closing early and unless I felt like rushing my whole visit into a 30 minute window I’d be waiting for morning. Even here a lot of things were closed but what was open was at least staying open past 3pm (other than the museum/site.) In the end I wandered the town as it quieted down for the evening while scouting out a place for dinner, buying a few souvenir gifts. I met a number of the town dogs and cats and eventually just found a spot in the church square and spent a happy hour reading a book/enjoying the view.

Dinner was a phenomenal meal overlooking the valley for sunset. I sadly couldn’t get right on the cliff being a single diner but I still had a great view as I sampled a local cheese done saganaki style and some local lamb and herb sausages. I lingered quite a while but eventually the monotony of overhearing nearby Americans grew too much after a nice long period of not hearing much English around and I headed out into the streets. There definitely wasn’t much in the way of nightlife at this time of year though with a mostly older crowd around, I’d been hoping for a pub type situation but in the end I just took another walk then called it a night in order to be up and at the ruins first thing. This seemed to be the best way to do things at this time of year (and to be honest would probably work well in busier times as well. Hit the sights early and spend the later part of the day getting to the next destination.

Come morning I tossed everything in my trunk then headed off to the ticket office managing to sneak into the site just before a tour group of French high school kids who’d obviously stayed either in town or nearby. It was an incredible experience to be at the sanctuary as the sun was really only just beginning to shine in earnest. The kids were getting a big lecture at the entrance so it was only a couple of people up exploring the site proper.

Delphi was the site of the Pythia, oracle of Apollo and one of the most important sources of prophecy to much of the ancient Greek world. The legend is that the priestess ranted while huffing fumes from a chasm beneath the temple and her attendants then translated them into (moderately) decipherable prophecies to be interpreted by the visitors. The truth of all this is of course questionable (there are some thoughts the rantings came from a poisonous drug) but regardless Delphi was a powerful religious site for several periods in antiquity. Eventually the site was abandoned for centuries before new settlements formed in the area and covered the ruins until the aforementioned land swap.

Standing on this steep hillside I remembered my drive from Athens the day before and was struck by what an epic journey it would have been on foot from most of the other centers of that ancient Greek world. Probably a week’s walk from Athens and much further from Sparta or Macedon or the islands. No doubt made harder because you’re lugging whatever offering you’re bringing to the Oracle. You arrive in this impressive place up overlooking the valley, you get your vague prophecy to interpret how you will, then you turn around and go home. There was more to it than that of course. At the highest heights there was a whole industry around it here as well as theatre, quadrennial games nearly as important as the Olympics etc. And of course if you were a mere mortal you might be waiting around a while for your turn at the Oracle so hospitality as well.

Having the upper tiers of the site more or less to myself made it easier to try and imagine the walls rebuilt, the marble shining and the statuary truly epic as gifts to the oracle dominated the site. Once I’d finished exploring the site the nearby museum housed some of these gifts that still remain. As a side note, one of the nice things about Greece has been the fact that at most of the sites I’ve visited the nearby museums actually have some of the artifacts so you can see them at least close to in context. Of course, some of the mega treasures are in the national museum in Athens (or in various conqueror’s collections… or stolen by the Brits.)

Thanks to my early start I’d seen the sights and done the museum well before lunch time so I grabbed a ham and cheese pastry and charted a slower course up through the mountain valleys and off towards Kalabaka and the monasteries of Meteora!

Once I’d gotten out of the mountain valley I ended up back on the same highway I’d left out of Athens but this soon gave way to an odd secondary road that seemed to snake off and on a brand new/uncompleted highway. Seems like a very odd way to build a new expressway… 20km or so of basically unused road then a large section where it disappears and I snaked across some back ways. It’s new enough that it doesn’t feel like something that was abandoned during Greece’s big crash a while back. The off again on again led to some more speed camera shenanigans as the limit yoyo’d through these secondary sections but (fingers crossed anyway) I avoided the nonsense.

If you’ve never heard of it Meteora is a region of rock formations in the inland valleys of Thessaly. These picturesque pillars of stone jut out on the edge of a flat fertile valley and clinging to them sometimes seemingly in defiance of gravity are a number of ancient monasteries. Monks and hermits have apparently been retreating to the valley for almost a thousand years and more elaborate monasteries started to be built in the 1300s. There were as many as two dozen at one point but now six fairly large ones remain and are open to tourists by schedule.

For most of their existence access to these retreats was only by rope ladders, baskets or nets lowered to the valley floor from above and just getting up was a test of your faith and courage. These days there are (no small number of) steps carved into the rocky pinnacles. Some of these were ridiculously intense as you see from the pictures, one in particular was definitely 10 stories down from the parking then 12 more back up (then reverse it to leave.)

What you find at the top are no simple huts but elaborate courtyards, finely decorated orthodox churches and chapels and simple accommodations for the brothers or sisters with spectacular views. If you remember the villain’s lair from For Your Eyes Only it was filmed around/in one of the monasteries.

I won’t blather on about it, the place was gorgeous and it’s best seen in photos.

The one positive here is that things were open on a split day for some of them so I actually managed to see 3 of the 6 the same afternoon I arrived from Delphi which made the step climbing a little less intense. I’m not sure if I would have made it up to all 6 had I done them all the same day. (7 actually since I was a genius and mistakenly climbed down to one I’d already done from below, despite a friend warning me she’d made the same mistake on visiting.)

In between all this climbing I settled into a very nice little hotel called the Theatro Hotel Odysseon where every room was themed with a stage play. I was in the Madame Butterfly room with some mildly questionable Asian decoration but otherwise very nice and with a small terrace looking up at the rocks. Nightlife was also a little more hopping here and I managed to find a pub with a delicious wood fired pizza and some cider and wiled away a few hours people watching as a rainstorm hit. At this point it was definitely starting to hit that the trip was almost over and I’d more or less done the planning to maximize what little time I had left.

The following morning I had a delicious included hotel breakfast (god I miss the feta and pastries) savoured the freshly rain washed sunshine and headed up to do the rest of the climbs. They definitely made the first day look easy but the views were worth every step.

The Grand Meteoron Monastery is the oldest and largest of all of them and is truly an impressive complex but they all have something worth seeing. Each of them asks for a 3 Euro donation for entry, something that is made plainly obvious everywhere but of course I ended up walking up behind an American couple who were flabbergasted that this remote monastery didn’t have a credit card reader for them. You’re also expected to dress ‘respectfully’ with what that means being the usual religious sexism nonsense. Not really a problem at this time of year but I can imagine getting up there in the heat of summer and not particularly wanting to cover my aching legs.

Thanks to an early start I’d finished seeing what I was going to see before 11 and set out on my next transfer, this one being a bit of a marathon drive from up in the middle of the country down across the gulf of Corinth and on to the Peloponnese peninsula that juts out SW of Athens. This again took a number of mountain switchback roads to get up to the main highway followed by a truly epic series of short to long tunnels as I crossed the spine of the country. Greek mountains, while mostly not very high, do occasionally have some impressive isolation and you can see how the ancients would have thought them the homes of the gods.

As I got closer to the west coast I was slightly disappointed to not have a chance to go to Corfu only an hour or so further on but I needed to get back closer to Athens for departure. I definitely think I’ll be back in Greece at some point and I’ll come at a time of year that’s nicer for the north. I caught the occasional glimpse of a bright blue Ionian sea on my right with one of my best views being at a fuel stop of all places, at least until the impressive bridge crossing the gulf. (It has to be said that between the tunnels, the expressway and that bridge I ended up spending double on tolls than the car rental itself cost me for that day.)

Eventually after about 5 hours I arrived at my destination for the night: Ancient Olympia. The birthplace of the games is unfortunately a kind of charmless modern town (again only about half open due to low season) but it’s reasonably isolated from anywhere major so it was best just to plunk down for a night to see the site of the original games. The positive was that the site was totally walkable from town so the next morning I again just threw my bags in the car and went for my explore.

I will nerd it up here and say I’ve played a video game that recreated a few of the sights from Olympia and it was fun to see how they’d done so from seeing the real thing. The site has remnants of the temples/altars from the celebrations of the ancient games but also the practice and training facilities for the competitors, the baths and the workshops of the artisans working in the area. And of course, at one end of the site there’s the ancient stadium. The competition floor is huge and the spectator areas are small grass banks but you can still see the judging stand and there’s a marble starting mark still there for you to line up on. Overall it was worth a visit but the actual interpretation on the grounds left a bit to be desired, I was glad to have my guide book

The area around Olympia (and most of the last hour of the day before) had seemed… I don’t want to say run down but perhaps a region that was in decline. Lots of stores that appeared to be shut down not just for the season, half finished buildings etc. By contrast as I headed further south that afternoon I’d clearly passed into an area where plenty of folks both domestic and foreign had their getaway pads. The coastal road I followed wound in and out of a number of small bays and there were many small clusters of boutique hotels and ‘cottages’ from simple to palatial. Again most were closed for the winter but they became more and more plentiful the further south I went. At a certain point they all changed to a similar construction of stone block almost castle feeling structures where even the large ones under construction were aping this ancient looking build style. I’m guessing it might be a matter of insulation for the hot summer days? Or who knows, maybe just tradition, the area is known for these towers after all.

My main destination for this day was the caves of Pyrgos-dirou which are a huge network of caves filled with an underground lake. You end up taken on poled boat through almost 2 kilometers of caves and apparently this only represents a small fraction of the cave system, most of which is still being explored. The caves are super impressive, stalagmites/tites are everywhere and the water is completely transparent. If you’re a taller person or even average height you may find yourself ducking (often at the last minute) as your guide swings you around through the pillars.

The experience itself was bizarre though. I showed up about 90mins before the website said they closed, had no issues checking in at the gate and getting a ticket before driving down to the cave entrance. Parked and was told to wait a while… not entirely sure why as everyone I ended up on a boat with was already there at the time. For off season there was a truly ridiculous number of maybe staff? Maybe construction? People around. Multiple women nattering in the gift shop entrance, 5 or 6 surly men smoking who I think were all the guides and another 5 or 6 people that seemed like they worked there but I couldn’t see anything they were actively doing.

Eventually we got taken over to get a life jacket and loaded onto the boat, as a solo traveller and a bigger guy I was put at the front. I was pretty thankful for this both for advance warning of low bridges incoming and because my guide had some truly TRULY horrendous body odour. I felt for the people sitting at his feet at the back because when I had to climb past him after the tour I gagged. Due to time of year he also didn’t speak English but I didn’t mind much as I knew how the caves were formed and I caught enough to understand he was mostly giving out the fanciful names for particular formations (Zeus’ bolt etc.)

The last section of the cave is traversed on foot and then you emerge on the edge of a crystal blue bay as the waves roll past. It was absolutely worth the trip out of my way, triply so as a person who really just loves neat caves.

Unfortunately, at this point it was decision time. I needed to have the car back in Athens by noon the following day. Either I could stay somewhere near the caves and see something else in the area or I could travel part of the way back and see some more historical sites. Part of the problem was nowhere nearby being particularly affordable stay wise. It wasn’t a situation when I wanted to splurge on a hotel knowing I’d just be there for the night and having to leave at 7 the next morning. In the end I decided to head halfway back to Athens and visit the onetime republic capital of Nafplio.

Not going to lie, it had been a tiring couple days and by the time I got to Nafplio I was tired and sore and made extra grumpy by a booked room that had lied about it’s location. While I had a car and it being a couple KM from the old town wasn’t the end of the world the extra time looking for the place when I desperately wanted a shower and a meal wasn’t appreciated. Actually getting that shower lowered the grumpiness at least 50% though and I had a brief explore of the old town center before dinner.

Nafplio is a pretty town right on the coast and loomed over by a giant fort that’s well lit at night. The old town is a mix of narrow cobbled roads and wide plazas and is apparently a weekend getaway hotspot for Athenians. It was Saturday night and absolutely hopping when I was there even on a relatively chilly march day. It made for some interesting people watching between family holidaymakers, some obvious stag and stagette types and the occasional person walking past in what I’d describe as renaissance masquerade-wear (genuinely not sure if they were on their way to a fancy dress party or street performers heading home.) After a fairly middling dinner I treated myself to a nice gelato and strolled around for a while. This sort of place in Europe is always funny with the super high-end boutiques often sharing a building with a super tacky souvenir store. I’d be interested in visiting the town again on more than a flying visit but it definitely wouldn’t be tons longer.

The next morning, I got another early start and headed to the ruins of Mycenae for my final archaeology stop. This one was definitely more of a ‘mind’s eye’ ruin than some of the rest as the only really visible things remaining are the (impressive) gate stones and various pits/depressions. That said it was a fascinating spot because you could see the defensibility of the place. Excellent sightlines in all directions, clear view down to the bay side forts that would have given lots of advance warning for attackers by sea and tough approaches on land. It was one of the really ancient centers of Greece having fallen from prominence in the collapses around 1200BC. Near the site is also the Treasury of Atreus, a hillside tomb with a massive dome.

Thankfully I’d timed things pretty well and got away from there with plenty of time to get back to Athens. Unfortunately for me I’d forgotten that the wide boulevard I’d picked the car up on had been closed for the changing of the guard Sunday morning… to make matters worse I’d also picked the day of the Athens marathon to return the car. This led to me having to force my way onto a side street and some frankly stressful narrow lane crawling until I lucked into a spot in front of a coffee shop about a block from the rental return. When I told the agency where it was, I had to walk them over and they made some comment like “next time you need to bring it to the door” and I just wordlessly pointed at the cops still blocking the road completely at the nearest corner.

The rental place being in a subway station came in handy again as rather than fight my way with a suitcase past the marathon runners multiple times I scooted underground, dumped my bag at my final hotel and headed off to the national archaeology museum I’d missed on my first Athens stop. This one was fun for content as it’s got some of the greatest treasures of the land (and the originals of some of the things I’d seen reproductions of) but the building itself is pretty tired and is apparently closing in phases for needed complete rebuild.

With that done it was time for one last walk around the acropolis area, some last-minute souvenir shopping and a final souvlaki and baklava. I ran into an odd street festival procession with people dancing and Greek ‘bagpipes’ wailing away. At a sadly early hour I headed back to my hotel to do a final pack. Unfortunately I had to be at the airport by 5 which meant not having subway access. After a relatively fitful sleep I was up at 3:30 and kindly provided with a packed “breakfast” by the hotel I grabbed an uber taxi to the main square where the airport bus made a relatively fast path to the airport and I was checked in right behind a swath of Canadian schoolkids.

Getting to Zurich was relatively uneventful though I’ll never get used to prices in Switzerland (though god some of the chocolate looked tasty.) I did have a good laugh when taking the shuttle to the international area there was a stereoscopic video presentation of Heidi yelling at us about “hope you saw all these sights!” This time the travel luck wasn’t with me though and on the long hop from my stop in Zurich to Toronto I ended up next to a hulking Ukrainian dude who for the first hour of the flight insisted on watching videos on high volume on his phone…. Constantly elbowing me whenever I started to drift off and then talking across me to the woman sitting on the other side of me. The only saving grace was it was a bulkhead seat so my feet weren’t cramped but I was desperately wishing I had a sleeping pill. It was frankly amazing how fast the flight from Toronto to Winnipeg went by comparison, and typical Winnipeg small town I ran into a friend on the flight.

Greece was for the most part lovely. I would definitely visit again however I absolutely wouldn’t go at this time of year. I definitely missed out on part of the experience but, at the same time, I hate when things are super crowded and I think I’d find Santorini hellish in another way if I went in July. September/early October might be the ideal time for me for visiting the islands at least. Spring would work too but the ocean would be warmer in September for the diving side of my travel personality. That said, the quieter time definitely led to a few great experiences and some good prices so it wasn’t all bad.

The Greek people were almost universally super friendly, eager to welcome you and happy to struggle to communicate with you if they didn’t speak at least a bit of English. Bus drivers were perhaps the exception but then, aren’t they always. Probably the highlight overall was Crete, I knew I’d love Athens, other sights were great but Crete was both gorgeous and a total surprise to me versus my earlier thoughts. Thanks again to Jay and Kim for that recommendation.

Bonus Round: Extra Photo Dump

Hey Everyone, here are some extra photos from the first half of the trip now that I’m home and can fight the server with some extra tools/better internet. Some of these may/will be repeats but I wanted to upload some things from the other camera as well. Enjoy!

Athens and Santorini

Athens is a heck of a city, hopping, compact to explore for a tourist and full of friendly people and great food. Heartily recommended!

Crete Views

A couple weeks before I left I wasn’t even planning on hitting Crete but I’m glad my cousin’s Jay and Kim had the recommendation because it was absolutely gorgeous even in low/dry season. I caught the start of the wildflowers coming out but I bet it’s gorgeous in another 2-3 weeks.

Herculean Beauty

My first taste of Crete was the rather run down Iraklio/Heraklion Airport as I waited at baggage claim to find out if my bag had successfully made the dash between the planes that I had. Much to my shock and delight it showed up rather quickly. Figures, I was planning to stay in one place for a few days so it could have caught up and nothing happens! I’m still paranoid after Madeira!

Life on the beach in Crete

The bus into the city proper was relatively painless as well though could have been better signposted. For some reason my google maps pointed me slightly wrong however and combined with the ‘help’ of a local I ended up getting off the bus about 2km short of where I actually needed to. Not the end of the world though as it was later in the evening at this point and I got to see the inner ‘Old City’ positively bustling with activity making me quite happy I’d booked a central hotel. The hotel itself was also not the best at directions having given me vague instructions better suited to arriving by car (figures my one hotel on Crete that had a parking lot would be for the stretch before I rented a car) and unfortunately on some of the maps all the back alleys of these old towns that date in some cases to the byzantine era kind of turn into a maze. Eventually I found the path! After passing what felt like all the cats in town staring me down I came to the Kipos Suites nestled at the end of an alley and looking like an island of modernity amongst the mix of crumbling post-war concrete and more ancient buildings in this section of old town.

My room was spacious (for Europe) and had a powerful shower that I immediately used to wash off the airport before hitting up the desk clerk for recommendations for a Cretan dinner. Unlike some of the clerks so far this trip this guy had strong opinions so I decided to check them out as they were all quite close. Actually all of Heraklion’s old quarter was super walkable and I checked out all the options before deciding on Xalali. This place had a fun looking family taverna atmosphere and I ended up sitting outside again as it was such a nice night. Dinner was a chicken with cretan cheese sauce which turned out to be a juicy chicken cutlet served with a sharp cheese and white wine sauce along with incredibly flavourful tomatoes and a side of actual bread an tzaziki (as well as olives completely wasted on me.) Unsurprisingly some of the neighbourhood felines found their way over to covet my dinner and it was a little like being back at home with certain dogs. As I quickly discovered was standard on Crete dinner ended with my waitress bringing me a small bottle of raki (local liquor like a less anis-y ouzo) for a shot and a small chocolate chip cake topped with a scoop of ice cream. The baffling thing to me is most of these places still have a dessert menu!

I decided to walk around a bit longer to work some of that off and discovered a plethora of churches in the old town, even by Greek standards. Nestled between the churches there was a warren of old streets, some pedestrianized, lots of late night food options of the meaty variety and a number of bakeries/patisseries open just as late (the hours on places here continue to baffle me.) Eventually though I succumbed to the allure of that comfy bed and headed back to watch a show and send some emails to discover that while the hotel was lovely it was definitely of the vintage of greek building where soundproofing isn’t really a thing. Less of a problem this night though again despite the hotel not being full as far as I could tell I’d been placed right near the main entrance and could hear the electric slide open a few times after I climbed into bed.

The next morning I woke fairly early and planned my trip out to the archaelogical site of the ruins of the palace at Knossos. This was so conveniently close to town that a city bus ran there and it conveniently embarked about a 3 minute walk from the hotel. Armed with a bacon, egg and cheese pastry for brunch I was on my way reasonably early as I wanted to hit the archaelogical museum back in town that has some of the finds from the site on the same day and I knew from experience at this point that winter hours would be stupidly short. I’d also decided that it was time to proactively find some laundry service before things reached critical mass in a less helpful place. The close place to the hotel was a bit more expensive than I’d hoped for wash and fold but I didn’t really want to waste any more time on it so I left it and hit the bus.

The site was very impressive but also a bit frustrating. I wasn’t about to hire a private guide for just me but the info on the signboards at the site seemed a bit selective. Thankfully my Lonely Planet (RIP 🙁 ) guidebook had a big section on the palace and I augmented it with some internet searching on breaks. The palace was at various points the capital of ancient Crete, particularly in the days when the Minoan civilization conquered a big chunk of the modern Greek area. Trade was quite wide and there were elements found here that hint at contact far and wide across the Med.

The site’s documentation hero worships the Brit who lead most of the early excavations but also doesn’t do the greatest job of mentioning how controversial some of his restoration work was. Like most of that era of Archaeologist he seems to have come to a conclusion of what he thought a site/subsite was and stuck to it. Some of the restoration as a result may bear little resemblance to reality. That said, most of the site is untouched and his finds revealed a lot of what we’ve come to know about the Minoans. It’s a fascinating place even taken with a grain of salt especially when you remember that this massive palace predates the parthenon by a millenium. Not going to lie, seeing all these places is making me want to play some Civilization on my computer when I get home.

Back in town I discovered happily that the bus pathed right by the Museum so I hopped off and inside. I was disappointed to discover they didn’t have an audio guide but there was an app with extra context though in this case the English commentary was actually great so I felt spoiled. This was another place with some great future pottery inspirations especially in some ancient ‘marine decorated’ pots. The museum was great but despite my reasonably early start I really only just had time for both before it was closing for the night and I headed back to my hotel on foot to have a bit of a rest/do some research for further planning. In practice this actually turned into a 90 minute nap.

Once I’d woken up, picked up the laundry and thrown on something less ‘backpacker’ looking I headed to a restaurant recommended by my guidebook, a culinary guide and a few random reviews and discovered an absolutely enchanting farm to table place nestled in between a couple alleys between a church and a park. It would have taken some work to discover it without a map. Their emphasis on farm to table is sincere to the point where they have their own farm that supplies all the ingredients for the restaurant for 3/4 of the year (the rest of the year they supplement with other local organic farms.) Every dish has the distance from the table the farthest ingredient has come from marked on the menu. They also offer a tasting menu of 10+ olive oils which I did not indulge in. It was called Peskesi.

I ordered a slow cooked lamb and yogurt dish with rice pilaf and when it came out it was not at all what I expected. Completely melt in your mouth lamb crusted with flavourful cheese over a layer of herbed yogurt as an island in a pool of some of the most amazing rice I’ve ever tasted, almost more like a very wet risotto. It was incredibly delicious and I didn’t make it through more than 2/3 of it. This time the complimentary Raki was also flavoured with rose, I’m not normally a huge fan of florals in drinks but something about the interaction of the rose and the anise made this really hit the spot (though I only had two shots unlike some at nearby tables.) The dessert was unusual as it was a semolina based pudding smeared in a thin layer on the plate then drizzled with honey, lemon, cinnamon and almonds. The texture was interesting, I’d described it as a sweet thicker cream of wheat. It was really quite good but again I was stuffed and didn’t come close to finishing my included portion. Overall an incredible meal and arguably in the top ten of my life… and ridiculously cheap for the quality. I paid under $25 CAD if I recall.

I was kind of surprised that the busker scene in Heraklion wasn’t livelier but I guess with it being low season and ‘cold’ there wasn’t the draw. I ended up sitting by a venetian fountain from 1629 and just people watching for an hour or so before taking a circuitous route back to the hotel and calling it a day. In truth, at least in old town, the bar scene in general seemed kind of meh at this time of year. I’m guessing it’s likely livelier somewhere closer to the university or whatnot. There were a few small lounges that were quite hopping but Greece is definitely an ‘eat late then party late’ place.

Originally I had planned to leave the next morning and rent a car to move on and explore more of Crete but I’d had the luck to connect with the only diving company planning to start for the year before I left and staying in town an extra night was going to get me a dive on the Saturday so I spent friday finding a local rental car provider who’d rent me a small automatic. Honestly I need to re-learn how to drive standard but I figured chaotic greek town then sharp mountain roads probably wasn’t the time to struggle through it. The rest of the day was exploring the town a bit more and having a bit more of a relaxing day. I hit the other big museum in town, explored the harbour fort and partook of a snack or two in sidewalk cafes.

The dive shop itself was again right on a bus route and we weren’t starting at the crack of dawn so I stumbled in at about ten and got kitted up. This was a bit eye opening given recent changes as well as the fact that we were running on different equipment than I was used to as well as it being an SSI shop when I’m a PADI trained diver. Phil at the shop was great though and I met the other two divers on the trip and we drove about 30 minutes away to a small cove nestled at the bottom of a steep switchback. Oddly despite having done I think almost 40 dives now this is only the second time I’ve done a shore dive after the time in Cuba. The water was cool but not crazy cold for a Manitoban. The young german woman who was my dive buddy generally dove in the baltic so she wasn’t cold either. Our dive lead on the other hand was wearing a dry suit for some unknowable reason. Coward!

The bay we were diving in is apparently in the process of being turned into a marine reserve. I won’t pretend it was the most exciting dive I’ve ever done (first dive since Fiji was always likely to be a bit tamer) but it was an excellent time. Current/surge was relatively low, we had 15m visibility despite the cloud and managed to see some barracuda, a couple lionfish, some trumpetfish and a number of grouper. Only sadness was not seeing any octopus since Phil had said they saw them quite often but overall it wasn’t a bad dive.

Back on dry land I had a tipsy moment when I forgot to baby my legs a bit having forgotten that I have not used flippers for a while but then had a lovely chat with two other divers who were prepping to go out with a scooter. They were a couple (one German, one Belgian) who were living in Crete at the moment and sampling the dive sites around the island while things were quiet. We shared stories of our fave places elsewhere and I got a couple future targets to think about aiming for. Eventually we wished them well as they headed in and Phil had finally struggled out of his drysuit and we headed back to the shop. I’d stupidly let myself run out of small change for the bus and didn’t think a bus driver would take kindly to me trying to break a fifty so I walked a few blocks back towards town until I found a fruit market, bought a banana for some potassium and some dried pineapple for dessert then made it back to town to pick up my rental car.

I am mildly ashamed of the fact that I’m not confident driving a stick, to be honest that was for one marathon road trip 20+ years ago and nothing since so it’s not really surprising. Unfortunately it makes renting a car outside North America a bit harder/pricier. At the smaller local rental place I ended up using they really only had one option which was a micro Hyundai hatch that just barely fit my suitcase in the back and had an engine that sounded like it was going to die at some point. Still, I wanted to hit the roads of this beautiful island so I put-putted away, trusting my gps to get me outside of the old town at least and then at that point there’s really only the one main east-west highway on the island. I was heading for Chania, the ‘second city’ of the island which meant heading from the more central Heraklion to almost the west coast.

Quick side note here. Cretan drivers are absolutely mental. At almost no point of this section of highway are there two lanes in one direction. There are only small sections with a dashed central line and the road follows the coast for most of its length so there are a ton of blind corners. This does not stop people from passing. You’re expected to pull off half or fully onto the shoulder to let these nutbars by. Eventually I got used to it but yikes. Thankfully the road itself wasn’t in bad shape and the views were absolutely gorgeous. Crete is a stunning place and at times really reminds me of northern California, especially at this time of year where many sections are quite arid running down to wild looking coastline.

I arrived in Chania (Ha-nia) not long before sunset having not actually booked anywhere to stay yet. To be honest I’d been worried I’d be too tired after diving to make it past the halfway point but it hadn’t turned out to be an issue. As I reached the outskirts of the modern town I pulled into a closed business and started browsing for something that looked decent. I was comparing things on a map when someone knocked on the window and I nearly jumped out of my skin, immediately thinking the business owner was grumpy. It turned out to be an older British woman who asked me if I had any jumper cables. She and her Canadian partner had broken down nearby. Obviously I did not in my baby rental but I agreed to try giving her a boost if she bought some at a nearby garage. This being a typical greek road this involved me fighting across a street the wrong way and bumping up onto a curb to get mostly out of traffic. Sadly the boost was unsuccessful. At first I assumed it was just my baby battery not having the oomph to help their similarly sized car but it sounded in the end like it was some more major electrical fault. They thanked me profusely anyway and actually offered to let me stay in their guest room but informed me they were 30 minutes out of town back the other way. Had I had more time I might have taken them up on it but I definitely wanted to stay in Chania’s beautiful old town so I wished them well and booked myself in.

Venetian Old Town

Chania’s old town is dotted with buildings from the era when the Venetians owned the island. Narrow cobbled streets run into church plazas and then run down to the beautiful harbour. The fortifications remain on two sides helping make the district close to but not quite car-free. I was arriving on saturday night and things were already hopping in that area. I knew I was unlikely to get anything too close parking wise but it ended up being quite the ordeal. Unlike most places in Crete a lot of the street parking in that area was paid and when I finally found a spot I ran into issues getting their parking app to work. Ended up having to tether my laptop to get a confirmation email because the only credit card I could get to work would send my fraud alerts to an older email. (Side note to people who run so-called travel cards, maybe don’t have confirmations only be SMS-able when plenty of travel folks get travel SIMs while abroad?) Eventually I was set until midnight and parking was apparently free on sundays so I hoped things would be fine. That said I can’t fathom how terrible the parking must be in high season.

Setting off into the narrow old lanes with my suitcase clattering away I noticed again the winter deadness. This was saturday night, some of the main thoroughfares were hopping and a few restaurants were packed but almost every hotel I passed looked shut completely. When I found my hotel it looked SLIGHTLY more alive but was locked and no one was visible inside. I rang the bell at the Vilelmine and got a long wait followed by a confused sounding mess of greek. Tentatively I said “checking in?” wondering if I’d somehow buzzed an apartment. A lady walking past took pity on me and spoke to the person on the intercom and translated. I’m guessing that was maybe a family member of the owner because when he showed up 5 minutes later he spoke quite good english and apologized that he’d missed the booking notice on his phone. He chatted with me a bit about the town and told me that Chania’s old town was so beautiful because it was one of the few places the Germans hadn’t wrecked in WW2 as it was their last refuge/where they ended up surrendering. Makes sense but would have been a bit awkward to know that when my german dive buddy was extolling the beauty of the place a few hours prior.

I was clearly the only person in this hotel as when he came in the door he flipped on a bunch of breakers saying “I guess you’d like the hot water.” I was only half paying attention though as the building was gorgeous. It was a narrow Venetian townhouse that had been subdivided into quite large suites and had gorgeous art on the walls and a spiraling staircase leading upwards. My host showed me up to one of them and I found a massive bedroom, a tiny couch area with coffee and a minifridge and a balcony that overhung the church square. He had definitely not been wrong about wanting the hot water though as since I’d already checked out before diving I’d had to drive a couple hours still salty from the dive (ick.)

Showered and mildly more presentable I spent the rest of the night wandering the town. It was an odd mix. While many many hotels and restaurants were closed, others were completely packed. When facing the harbour itself it was as if everything on the west side was shut down. Yet at the same time there were floods of people around and a much younger skewing crowd than I’d seen in many of the towns since Athens. This made more sense later when I found out that there was both a NATO naval base and a large university near town. This also explained the larger number of young American voices I heard in the babble. I eventually ended up at a fish restaurant recommended by my host which ended up being a bit of a dud. Nothing terrible just underwhelming, but rescued by a small cone of citrus sorbet on the way back up the road. By this point the dive fatigue had indeed arrived and I decided to head back and get some sleep.

I’d forgotten the next morning was sunday. A cacophony of bells reminded me at around 7. I had been planning to get an early-ish start but my room being essentially right at the height of the belfry made damned sure I wasn’t sleeping any longer, especially when they went off again 15 minutes later. By the time I’d had another shower and gotten mostly ready to go I was able to sit out on the mini balcony with a glass of water and see parishioners going in and out and the orthodox chants of the service filled the chilly morning air. One of the church staff was outside setting up a buffet of food was no doubt going to be spending the next hour defending it from cats. I couldn’t help but laugh as one man came into the square with his two dogs, one leashed, one wandering off leash behind him… he eventually stopped mid-square, tied the two dogs together and left them waiting quite patiently tied to one another as he went into church for a blessing and returned about five minutes later.

Church theatre aside it was time to get moving. I’d decided to visit a famous beach at the southwest corner of the island and was mildly nervous if my wussy little car would make it or not. One guide I’d read said the last bit of the road wasn’t in great shape, the other said no issues. My rental company had warned me I wasn’t covered for gravel road recovery but in the end I decided to try and I’m glad I did. It was definitely the most european of european roads though, as once I got off the highway the secondary road kept going through cliff-side villages as we climbed a mountain pass. Cars would be jammed willy nilly, roads would barely be wide enough for one car much less the tour buses I knew must come this way in high season. I firmly got out of the way of the speed demons this time but overall it was mostly just fun at this time of year. My only regret was the lack of places at times to stop and check out the view properly.

Eventually the road opened up to a view of a gorgeous aqua sea and the road spilled out onto a somehow even more rugged coastline. I was all set to say this is now the closest I’ve been to Africa before I remembered that I’ve been to Gibraltar… whoops. The beach itself is famous for pink ‘sand’ which is actually crushed shells floating over the sand. Due to tides/wind I wasn’t there at peak beauty by the sounds of it but it was still gorgeous. Apparently the ‘island’ offshore is often connected by a spit of the pinkish sand but on the day of my visit the lagoon had completely separated it. The lagoon was totally wadeable though and at spots was only ankle deep, at first I just waded out a bit but eventually decided to go all the way across to explore the spit of an island jutting out in the bay. As I was putting my shoes away (I’d worn a bathing suit though had not been sure if I’d swim or not) a couple started walking back from the island with their two dogs who made it clear the depth never got above waist high.

The island was gorgeous, small coves everywhere with picturesque rocks and slowly rolling waves coming in off a barrier reef. The ocean pools reflecting with sheens of emerald and indigo. I read later that after increasing crowds for a number of years they have been cracking down and are trying to return more of the area to nature/keep permanent fixtures at a greater distance so hopefully the main shoreline will eventually be just as great. I gather the main beach is basically a giant expanse of deck chairs and umbrellas come July and August. On this particular ‘winter’ day I only saw about 15 people total all day. I spent a couple hours in a few of the coves, did a bit of snorkeling and just generally relaxed and enjoyed the view. I’d definitely love to come back some day and snorkel when it was a bit warmer but it was still absolutely worth the trip.

Back in Chania I found a spot in an entirely free lot that I found mention of online (mostly so I wouldn’t have to log on and pay for a couple hours at 7am the following morning) then tried to have a look around some shops. This was definitely not a sunday shopping town though, especially at low season so in the end I just did a lap of the harbour, took some photos then went back to to my room for a bit of a nap and sitting on my balcony for a while writing some of this travelogue. Dinner was much better that night as I indulged in some saganaki and souvlaki in one of the narrow alley eateries before curling up with a book until bed.

I lingered for a bit monday morning wanting to check out some of the stores and hoping they’d actually open at the time google listings said they would, thankfully a few of them did and I made a couple of small purchases for folks back home. I had one more full day with the car and decided to race to the other end of the island just to have seen a bit of each side. Now that I was more used to the roads this went fairly smoothly, especially since the highway east of Heraklion is markedly better and even has some passing lane areas. A few hours later I ended up in Agios Nikaulaus (St. Nicholas) a town on the edge of yet another gorgeous bay full of glassy turquoise waves. Other than beaches the draw here in prime season is an offshore island that was a leper colony until the 70s.

On the plus side street parking was free here, on the negative my hotel had neglected to inform me that their street in the warren was under construction and thus their instructions on getting to the front door were useless. In the end I parked on the waterfront and dragged my bag around the breakwater until I found a way to climb up to the hotel where I found no host just my name and a key. This was the first serious dud of a hotel for the trip as the beds were hard, the toilet needed to be fought with to not run after a flush and the construction the next morning started back up early. Things seemed almost Santorini dead in this town and other than a lovely beach I visited 20km away there wasn’t much of excitement happening (but it would probably be hopping in summer.)

My flight back to Athens wasn’t until fairly late the next day so I dragged out the car adventures as long as possible and instead of cutting straight back to Heraklion I drove down to the south coast and back across the mountains of the spine of Crete. Tons of lovely views but I found myself baffled by a couple of the towns on the coast where absolutely gorgeous oceanfront property was being used for businesses you’d never expect like auto wreckers etc. Also I got a delicious feta croissant. The southeast of the island was absolutely covered in greenhouses… like acres and acres of them. I’m curious as to what they grow in them that’s such a big crop. As I crossed over the middle I ended up driving through olive groves and vineyards, two of the products of the island I’d already sampled quite a lot of. Unfortunately my car also started beeping at random a few times with no accompanying warning lights. I got out and checked tire pressure etc but everything seemed to be running just as well as before even though that wasn’t great. In the end it went away after a restart for a while and then stopped happening completely after another 45 minutes so I rolled the dice and kept driving.

Of course… after having no rain to speak of… once I’d dropped the car off that afternoon and had fully 5 hours to kill before my flight there were a number of short downpours. Eventually I gave in, stopped running to hide under canopies in between stretches reading on a park bench with my suitcase and found a burger joint, ordered some food and loitered my heart out until it was time to hop the airport bus. Actually to be honest I probably would have left it another hour at least but I was starting to get the stinkeye at the cafe and figured I might as well. Low season was in evidence at the airport too however as very little was open and large stretches of the airport had temporarily been barricaded until business improved.

Overall Crete was a blast and I’d come back in a heartbeat (though at a warmer time of year to check out more dive sites, do more swimming, see a different side of the island. I’d honestly love to be back with someone else as well, if only to get to order more of some of those menus to share at dinner.

Santori-no fun for you

Fira from the bay

I slept a bit fitfully the night before the ferry, the way you do before early travel and not helped by someone noisily throwing out trash at three am in between incredibly violent bursts of rain. The plan was to hit the subway not long after it opened for the morning and catch it to the port where my ferry was leaving at solidly “WHAT?” o’clock. It was just as well I was very conservative with my time estimates as it turned out my ferry was in the absolute opposite end of the port and I must have missed the map that said so and/or the sign that pointed to the shuttle bus that arrived at the ferry just as I’d hoofed it around a ferry terminal probably 4x the size of anything I’ve seen at home. Eventually I got there though, all of 15 minutes before final boarding, plonked my luggage in a rack and found my seat just as the rain finally came back and started lashing the deck. Small favours. As much as I would have loved to spend the day staring out the window at sunny seas and islands in the end I was a bit dozy through the first part of the voyage anyway and better to have rain on a travel day than it forcing me inside while at a destination.

After a couple hours we started intermittently docking at islands before Santorini. Despite the looming low clouds each one looked gorgeous and inviting. They also looked incredibly dead people wise. I’d been warned by my research that the islands were quiet in low season. While in July and August there are multiple ferry options, high speed directs, inter-island bounces etc we were firmly in one slow boat a day territory at the end of February.

One of the en route Islands, Paros I think?

For those who don’t know the island of Santorini (or Thira for the actual main island I gather) is one part of a formerly quite large island that blew its top in ancient times and the modern ‘Santorini’ is mostly build on one part of the Caldera rim. If you’ve seen images of a greek island with white towns built on what seems like impossibly steep cliffs it’s a good chance this is it. I’d gone back and forth a few time on whether to spring for one of the ‘Caldera View’ suites and in the end had decided to save my money and spent it elsewhere. I’m glad I did as the weather was ‘fine’ but rarely super sunny and I was unsuccessful in getting one of the really quality sunsets they’re famous for while there.

The Rim Path

One thing that isn’t dead is the taxi industry despite the time of year and they want pretty extortionate rates to go anywhere on the island. As a solo traveler I cab only when necessary and it definitely wasn’t here with a modern motorcoach bus transfer available to my home base (the capital Fira) for only 2 Euro. The ride up was a pretty impressive zigzag up the Volcano’s rim and across some of the fertile lands at the top until we arrived in a village of white washed buildings, hotels and tavernas/restaurants… all of which were closed completely.

I exaggerate only slightly. I’d guess at least 95% of businesses were firmly battened down at this point which was more intense than I was expecting closure wise. To be honest more than a few of them looked like they maybe hadn’t been open since Covid Lockdowns but my hotelier said most things had reopened. The sheer number of places that were completely stripped out was shocking though. As my time on the island went on I did see some of these businesses being sandblasted/repainted and I gather some of this activity was for the start of April (Orthodox Easter being their first busy weekend.) Compounding the frustration was the fact that most of these business do not update their business hours for offseason on their website if they have one or on google. It was pretty frustrating. You know a place is dead when their McDonalds (incidentally the first one I’ve seen this trip) is closed.

My (cheaper) hotel was on the secondary road and I clattered down the crappy pavement after the sidewalk gave out until I found a tiny sign and a steep ramp down. I’m a little afraid I may murder my suitcase with all these cobbles (yes I skipped the old reliable backpack this time as it didn’t seem necessary.) Thankfully it was a lovely little place with a number of suites scattered around a neighbourhood and I was shown to a little second floor unit with a balcony terrace and a comfy bed. Unfortunately he more or less confirmed nothing was running excursion wise either though he told me to check at the travel agency where they confirmed it. At this point I was starving so I pretty much immediately went back up to the main road, found one of the few things open was a soulvaki place (gasp!) and chowed down on a pita. Properly victualed I began exploring the internecine pathways of the town, pretty much all lined with closed down jewellery shops, souvenir stores, snack bars etc. Restaurant wise there were two souvlaki stands with outdoor seating, an asian fast food place and two not great looking sit down chinese places. When things got a bit busier a day or two later it was mostly chinese nationals I saw so perhaps the latter still being open isn’t surprising.

Snaking my way down towards the caldera I could help but gasp at the view. It’s truly breathtaking and probably wild if you’re afraid of heights. You look out towards the other islands that form the rim while in either direction beside you stretches an absolute hodgepodge of bulbous buildings jutting out over the edge like cliff sparrow nests. (Empty) infinity pools are everywhere the better to enjoy the sunset with your traveling companion. Whether you QUITE get that luxury experience from the photos when there are other balconies inches to your left and right I don’t know, especially since in some the cheaper ones near the top you also have schmucks like me who can just lean over and look past your balcony to the sea.

The dock right below the town apparently is often clogged with cruise ship tenders and there is a cable car and a long set of 500+ stairs often covered in donkey dung. Apparently you have the option to have a ride part way via donkey as well. A lot of the deliveries are done by teams of donkeys as the narrow paths aren’t accessible even to carts. I chose not do do the 500 stairs as the cable car wasn’t running if I decided I wasn’t up to coming back up.

That first evening I walked most of the way to the next town up cliff-side path (it goes about 9km to the last town on the island) before snaking my way back through the alleyways since the heavy cloud was not cooperating for sunsets. As there was basically nothing to do at that point I walked back, decided to skip a gelato (regrets as this was the last time it was open during my stay) and headed back to my room for a movie and a think. I’d purposely kept things flexible here in case I’d wanted to extend things on the island but instead it seemed time to work out when/how to leave.

This is when I discovered the ferry strike was going ahead for the day I’d planned to leave. Long story short nothing was sailing on the calendar day I wanted to leave. There was a ferry starting from Athens (Piraeus) just after midnight, arriving at Santorini around 5 am then going onward to Crete the following morning. Unfortunately that basically made my options to be “get a hotel for another night and leave at 4am, pay a middle of the night taxi+luggage+time surcharge on top of the ferry fare and get to Crete probably wrecked again. Alternatively since the air traffic controllers were not on strike after all (they’d planned to join in) I could fly. Unfortunately again because low-season there were no direct flights at the moment… I dithered about it for the next day but then yes I booked a flight back to Athens to then turn around and basically fly back over Santorini to land in Crete. Wasteful as hell but I wanted to make sure I got out of there without wasting another full day, especially if the strike had delayed that ferry further.

Oia – from the point

Still before that happened I hopped a bus over to the end of the island the next day. If Fira is the pretty girl Oia is the supermodel. It’s DEFINITELY that white washed walls/blue roofed village you’ve seen on a greek travel poster. Felt like I was in an off brand Mamma Mia sequel where they didn’t want to pay the extras. I spent a few hours wandering around the various paths, marveling at how many hotels were just closed completely with many looking like they needed two months work to be opened again. Store wise there was a bit more open here, mostly souvenirs and a couple women’s clothing/jewellery shops. Pretty much everything on the island is pricey but I guess the Oia folks know everyone is coming there for sunset no matter where they’re staying on the island, even in the off season.

I ended up spending a couple hours on the tip of the point at a small fortification getting snuggles off and on from a very affectionate cat and reading a book in the sunshine. It was a lovely day, I just would have really loved to be able to take a cruise around the islands too while I was there (and dive some of the volcanic caves.) Despite sitting there enjoyably for hours as it began to get busy for sunset I climbed further into the hotel neighbourhood figuring I’d be able to find a good vantagepoint that was less busy given they were all closed. I found an excellent balcony… but it was eventually ruined by a french couple who both kept hacking up a lung/sniffling until I retreated for my health… then by a large cloud bank rolling in just before sunset. I grumbled as I caught the last bus back to Fira, grabbed some food then booked my flight(s) out.

I realize that I neglected to mention the one new thing I’d found open after the first night which was a delicious bakery hidden in the bowls of a building behind a pretty bad looking bar and a closed fish spa. I’d seen a girl walk out with a koulouri (greek sesame bagel thing) and had wandered into the darkness and come away with a delicious ham and cheese pretzel. The next morning (my luggage left with my hotel man) I grabbed a feta pastry and took another bus, this time to the Akrotiri historical site. This is an ancient town buried by ash not unlike Pompeii with the note that most of the inhabitants evacuated here. It’s a neat site with a full canopied building over everything and excavation ongoing. It’s also right by the sea so as I waited for my bus back I stuck my feet in the water for the first time this trip. Chilly but no worse than home in the summer.

Akrotiri archaelogical site

With that though, Santorini time was over. A quick bus back to Fira, the long trudge to and from the hotel to get the luggage and another bus to the Airport and it was time to go. Have I mentioned I went through like 4 books while there? The flight was mildly stressful as we started boarding late and had to take a bus out to the plane so I started sweating my connection, especially when while disembarking I got stuck behind a woman who insisted on opening her carryon to put away her coat and blocking the entire line. In the end I had to run through the terminal as it was already marked final boarding when I got inside (our plane being parked at the ass end of nowhere and me again missing the first bus back to the terminal.) Still, I made it, got on another absurdly short flight and took another bus to the old town of Heraklio (Iraklion) the capital of Crete! More to come.

PS I don’t want to seem super down on the island. It’s a beautiful place and I don’t doubt the stories about how it gets massively OVERcrowded in the summer but I would have loved even slightly more in between. It seems like October might be the time to visit while things are still running and the seas are warmer but after the crush.

Hellenic Adventure 2024

Me by some historic building ;)

Hey, it’s the Parthenon!

It’s adventure time again, hello all 10 people that read these travelogues. I know some of you cringe a little bit with how seat of my pants I sometimes travel and to you I apologize because this trip has definitely had some of the lowest planning effort of any of them. There were a variety of reasons for this but it mostly came down to not being comfortable booking a trip until the last minute then randomly deciding to go to Greece after flights for my initially planned revisit of Thailand doubled in price. Greece has always been on the list to visit but I’ll be honest this trip basically came down to seeing what was a decent price over a period I could fit between on call weeks and here we are.

So hey, Greece! Souvlaki! Zorba! History! Windex! (scratch that last one, I bought travel health insurance.)

My flight out was actually at a sane hour and included a long enough layover at Pearson that I didn’t have to sprint down the latest convoluted path between domestic and international. I’d been happy to see that my randomly assigned seats had all been acceptable and I didn’t have to shell out extra money for seat selection… was less enthused when I got a text 30 mins before boarding Toronto to Munich that my seat had been changed. It turned out I’d worried for nothing though as I ended up getting moved into Economy preferred for free and had a row of 4 to myself. Always nice for the overseas hop. Turns out the flight was about half empty. I was surprised but I wasn’t going to argue. As usual I didn’t sleep more than a few disjointed 15 minute periods and was running on fumes by the time I made my way through EU customs and over to my next gate.

In the end I didn’t nod off at the gate either, partially through worry they’d change my gate and I’d miss it as the signage/announcements in the area weren’t very good (decidedly un-German of them…) and partially due to the strange man who sat down across from me after about 30 minutes with a large produce bag full of ripe bananas… slowly eating at least 6 of them over a relatively short period of time. Eventually we boarded and again had an empty seat next to me this time, not a bad round of airplane luck.

I’d done enough research to know the cheapest way into town from the airport in Athens was via the subway built for the Olympics. For the record, when available airport trains are the best. Even if you have to take a cab for the final hop you get a nice introduction to the mood of the city you’re visiting. The Athens one is particularly handy as it’s just a spur station on one of the main lines and as such took me straight downtown.

The busy old town neighbourhood not far from my hotel

I was less enthused about my hotel’s directions which basically just said exit at one of these four metro stations then “you can enter off such and such a street or alternatively ‘this other street'” which isn’t the most helpful when it’s a) dark b) greek alphabet signs most of the time c) you haven’t been able to buy a local phone card yet. In the end I bit the bullet and used a day of rogers roaming to get through things. Just as well. Both entrances were terribly signposted, I’ll try to snap a pic when I’m back in Athens later but essentially it was a small van sized archway into a corridor on the right and I just happened to look up far enough at the right moment a scooter went by and illuminated a dirty plastic sign way up on the interior wall. (The gps tried to send me through another business on another block.) Luckily when I found got into that courtyard there was a bright modern sign showing the way to a tiny but sparkling clean hotel with a great location.

Wasn’t expecting to get such a great view essentially just off the plane.

Given that it was about 7pm local at this point and I’d been up something like 32 hours I did the sensible thing and (almost) immediately went out for food knowing that I’d crash when I crashed so fueling up first was the best bet to make that sleep beat any jetlag. I was kind to others and showered off a full day of travel first with a solid 20 minutes under a surprisingly nice waterfall shower but then got dressed and hit the streets. Heading south towards the Acropolis (into what was clearly the happening area) I peered down alleys for likely spots for a bite. Pretty much every cafe I saw was packed and I really wasn’t looking for a big roast meat and potatoes type fill up so when I stumbled across a place called Zeyroun I was sold. I later found it listed in multiple food guides to the city.

It might have been sacrilege to not start out with a greek meal my first night in Athens but instead I had a Zeyroun wrap which reminded me of an Iraqi dish I had once but forget the name of. It was a mildly spicy ground meat and tomato and za’atar blend baked into a crispy flat bread. The cook then freshly resizzled it, threw yoghurt and baba ghanoush and some other goodies on it and brought it out to me at an outdoor counter seat. The flavours were both familiar and exotic and I absolutely devoured it, belately remembering I hadn’t eaten since the overseas flight and not much of that (because Air Canada.)

For the issues I’d had finding the hotel it was immediately clear that I’d have no problems finding my way back as just downhill the cross street turned into a pedestrian only lane that led directly to a view of the fully lit Acropolis and that was was full of people having a fun friday night. My one semester of Russian now coming back to me and helping me decipher the Greek alphabet a bit (cyrillic being essentially a superset of greek iirc) I memorized the name (as most of you know I’m a memorize the map/learn the lay of the land/screw gps person) and set off to explore as long as my fuel lasted.

The tiny Orthodox church surrounded by the pedestrian shopping/eating district.

It wasn’t super long, another two hours I think but I walked up to the lower wall of the Acropolis mount, explored a few snaky lanes and large church plazas and made my way up to the Greek Parliament and watched a changing of the guard. In the main square I listened to two incredibly talented street musicians doing old rock standards then gave into the inevitability of sleep and started heading back only to find one of the best pianists I’ve seen in recent years hammering away on an organ on wheels. Since she was conveniently close to a gelato stand I grabbed a cup and found a step to perch on. Hanging out watching street musicians has actually become somewhat of a trip opening night tradition for me on my travel adventures and this one will be a hard outing to beat.

Still, it was a tired tired traveler who got back to the hotel and climbed into bed after just barely remembering to take off socks and set an alarm for the next morning.

Come morning I made the lovely/terrible discovery that even my little mid tier hotel’s feta was going to make going home to domestic brands very sad. Even for a euro breakfast bar it was a bit odd but delicious proper greek yogurt with drizzle of honey and some granola + some charcuterie was hard to say no to. At some point during the trip I’ll succumb to the lure of an sausage egg mcmuffin though.

While browsing one of the books before getting out of bed I realized I’d inadvertently done the first 3rd or so of Rick Steves’ Athens city walk so after trying and failing (due to shop hours) to get a traveler SIM card for my phone I set out to finish that listening to the guide. While I find Rick’s stuff does lean a bit ‘older crowd’ it was nice to get some cultural background to some of the things I was seeing and I do think his major city/capital guides are great.

This trip took me back down into the plaka ‘old town’ section and along past several churches including the home metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox faith, down to the ruins of Hadrian’s arch and a look through the fence at the remnants of the temple of Olympian Zeus. Several sources had pointed out the view of the latter from the fence line wasn’t much worse than paying the admission and you’d also get a better overhead view of the site from the acropolis.

Athens is kind of shockingly compact, at least in terms of things that appeal to tourists. The fact that most of the history is SO old and that the city dwindled away to relatively nothing for some of the intervening years means almost everything that most people are dying to see is clustered around the Acropolis. I plan to expand my horizons a bit upon my return at the end of the trip but to be honest I didn’t have to do anything but walk until I headed to the ferry terminal to head to the islands.

As I listened to the audio guide I got a better feel for some of the winding lanes I’d traversed the night before and some of the pre-trip neighbourhood discussions felt a bit more real. One of the most interesting was “little Analfi” a tiny neighbourhood built for craftsmen from that island right under the acropolis wall and bearing convincing resemblence to the kind of homes you expect to see in a greek islands setting. Many of these ‘island cottages’ are apparently now owned by well to do Athenians who want a downtown pied-à-terre. Very neat however as at points you’re squeezing in the narrow path between two bright white walls and expecting to walk out into the set of Mamma Mia only to look up and see the Acropolis looming overhead.

Eventually I snaked my way through the market streets and made my way into the Ancient Agora site. It’s a surprisingly small area and almost entirely fully ruined, especially compared to the Roman forum but it was impossible to forget that many of the roots of democracy started where I now standing. (cue Kent Brockman.) Some parts of the area have been reconstructed, others could probably use a little more TLC but with some imagination you could still visualize just how impressive this must have been 2500 years ago.

As I exited the Agora and made my way back to Monastoriki Square I had a decision to make. I was dying to see the Acropolis mount itself but I’d discovered the winter hours were far more limited and I wouldn’t be able to go up just before sunset as I’d hoped. At this point I’d walked a ton already and I’d have to hustle to get to the gates in time to have enough time… add in that fact that I’d have to climb to the top on my defective and tired feets and it felt like a coin flip, but in the end I couldn’t wait. I’ve been wanting to see the Parthenon in person forever and it felt wrong to wait another day.

No doubt the first of many

In relatively recent times most of the roads right around the mount have been converted to pedestrian only pathways and making my way up basically meant passing a giant flea market of vendors and restaurants before reaching the entrance to the ‘park’ itself. I mean you’ve all seen pictures, it’s definitely a bit of a climb (especially for a prairie boy who doesn’t see hills too often) but wow is it worth it. Reaching the Propylaia (entrance gate) was incredibly cool but as I emerged onto the top of the hill and saw the Parthenon and Erekthion I was blown away. This definitely wasn’t one of those ‘man I thought it would be bigger’ moments. I wrote a couple papers on these buildings in university (and the ‘Elgin’ Marbles) and seeing them in person was definitely one of those damned Plamandon life list things I can cross off.

Some famous temple…

As I walked around the site it somehow felt more real than other ancient places I’ve been. You’re walking where some of those big names you learned about in school days actually walked. All of those cobbles are smooth and slippery because people have been coming here for a shockingly long chunk of human history. Even in the dark times for Athens this has been a special place. If only the damned Venetians could have kept from blowing up the Parthenon. I’ll let photos do a bit of talking here as it’s been a few days and the history nerd in me could still go on ad nauseum here. Let me just say that the architecture is still gorgeous and impressive and even the scaffolding and crane of the ongoing restoration didn’t diminish that (though I’ll have to go back and see it again if they ever finish the project.)

As I saw the staff preparing to herd us out at five o’clock I had definitely drunk it all in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I pay for another admission when I get back to Athens. If nothing else there are some lovely views.

My feet were absolutely done as I made my way down the steps. For those who don’t know my grandmother and mother handed off terrible arches to me to the point where I need orthotics and standing on uneven or hard ground can get pretty excrutiating relatively quickly. The combination of a ton of walking and the rest had left me in need of a rest so I climbed nearby Mars/Ares Hill and sat to watch the sunset. Unfortunately I ended up swarmed by a tour group of elderly folks some foolish guide led up there to repeatedly trip and fall. Regardless we were thwarted by some suspiciously rainy looking clouds rolling in before sunset (this has become a theme.)

Ares/Mars Hill – pre-octonegarian invasion

I’d managed to grab my first (amazing) souvlaki wrap from souvlaki row earlier for lunch so I wasn’t exactly aching for food so I walked a bit further and made my way back to the hotel, had a shower and flaked out for a bit… I just wasn’t expecting to nap quite so hard as I did… which led to me exploring the very cool Psyri neighbourhood for dinner at around 11. I ended up passing an american style barbecue joint and while I rationalized it (correctly it turned out) by imagining I’d have less choice on the islands and might not get a break from greek food for a bit… to be quite honest I mostly just thought the guy on the street eating a brisket sandwich looked like he was really enjoying it. Final verdict was a solid A brisket, the fries were very disappointing though. As a Winnipegger who enjoys his greek burgers and fries back home too much, the fact that most fries I’ve had here have been undercooked and sad is disappointing. Perhaps that was why they only won “11th best” bbq in europe.

The next morning armed with a store address I managed to snag a SIM card and moved back over to the parliament square to see the full changing of the guard ceremony. Honestly while neat it was a bit underwhelming from the distance I had to stand so I ended up leaving before they’d fully cleared the area and made my way to the Acropolis Museum. This is a fairly new museum that contains many of the finds from the mount and surrounding areas and is absolutely fascinating. It’s an interesting combo of finds from around the acropolis and a dedicated geometrically offset floor that does an exact layout of the parthenon, reproductions of the friezes and the pediments and a whole bunch of brit-shaming. I imagine most people are familiar with the Elgin marbles but whatever your feelings about Elgin taking them in the first place being in that lovely gallery with a sightline to their ancestral home it’s pretty clear where they should be now.

Kind of frustratingly because of the limited winter hours I didn’t really have time to fit in another museum that day once I was done. I don’t really get why they chop back from 8-8pm all the way to 9-3:30. Since the changing of the guard was at 11 I couldn’t have really been there any earlier either. At least stay open til 5, it’s not like the rest of Athens seems to do the siesta thing much. In the end I spent the rest of the day doing the entirety of the round the acropolis walk, browsed some shops (though any purchases will wait til I return to Athens) and people watched.

One thing I did love was getting to snag what was apparently one of the best galatabourikos in town. House made phyllo ballooned and filled with rich thick custard. I learned how to make one from dear departed friend Jim Pappas and his wife Barb’s greek cooking class eons ago but it’s kind of a pain to make so it’s been forever. This one was simultaneously flaky and rich and melt in your mouth and I devoured it all. Cheers Jim, thanks for introducing me to this tasty treat all those years ago.

One thing I notice on every visit to Europe and particularly in the mediterranean countries is how many more people smoke than in North America. Greece seems to take it to a new level though with many people seeming to love to stand in a cafe entrance and smoke as though the wind blowing across the square wasn’t just filling my face and ruining my snack. One friend I mentioned to says this will get worse out of the capital as well as enforcement of the indoor ban gets lax.

Dinner on the edge

With that my time in Athens had come to a close (for now.) I’d purposely scheduled a shorter stop up front on the trip knowing I could do some more when I come back for the flight home. For my final meal I climbed back up the hill to a little taverna I’d passed the first night, got a table by the stairs overlooking the old quarter and had a delicious little crock of baked feta smeared all over grilled pita and accompanied by another lemonade with honey and ginger.

I went to bed happy but sadly knowing I had to be up at 5ish to catch the ferry on to my next destination.

He sees sea snakes by the sea shore…

Quick preamble: Apologies for the lateness of this particular post. I came back from work and immediately got slammed with work to the point where I just wanted to be off the computer in the evenings so this has taken about 2 weeks longer than planned. Whoops.

Dawn was just breaking over the hillside as I woke to finish packing and head to the airport for an early flight. It was already warm but mist was still hanging around the garden and lightly coating the flowers in dew. Somewhat oddly (I doubt her boss would have been thrilled) the caretaker/hostess of the place we stayed invited herself to share our cab as she had to be in town. I didn’t care as I felt like it made sure we’d actually be picked up on time. In reality though I probably could have been there five minutes before the flight and still made it on. As you saw in the last post security was pretty non-existent so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that I walked on with half a bottle of soda without comment.

Arriving in the capital was an interesting experience the tarmac security was just as bad as the other airports, only the fact that one of the folks on the plane clearly flew the route a lot gave us someone to follow to the exit area. At which point we waited next to this:

Carousel really working hard

Kind of hilariously I was checking messages afterwards as we waited for baggage. I turned around and the other 2 people waiting for bags had just grabbed theirs from the cart as it arrived. But yep, they threw my bag on the silly micro carousel and I waited for it to come around feeling rather silly.

I regret not having a spare day or two to poke around Suva as it’s apparently a much more interesting town than Nadi with historical/colonial architecture and some museums but instead I hopped in a cab. Suva will have to wait til next time.

Off to maroon myself

My destination was Crusoe’s Retreat (on Man Friday road no less) which was more or less halfway between Suva and Nadi on the southern coast road (the Queen’s Road.) It turns out that a) this was farther than it looked from the town of Pacific Harbour which was the general area I’d been trying to stay and b) cab prices had increased a fair bit from my slightly out of date guidebook. That said on the way out it was still nice to have a bit of a look around at everyday life on the fringes of the town.

The Ginormous traditional kava bowl at the entrance – With the guest numbers they never filled it.

A wild ride…

I think I’ve mentioned it before but Fijian drivers definitely consider the center divider a suggestion at best and not a particularly attractive one. To be fair to them the edges of the road are sometimes catastrophically potholed (though the Queen’s road was much better than places I’d been elsewhere.) This led to an occasional white knuckled grip of the handrest as we cut a blind corner or did a questionable overtake. We would often power down a hill then suddenly arrive at a 2 foot tall speed bump and slam on the brakes to hump over. The road was good enough that I’d be reasonably comfortable renting a car and exploring the main island a bit next trip, but of course this is (or at least feels) much pricier as a solo traveler. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it elsewhere in Fiji from my brief glimpses of the outer islands, definitely believe what my guidebook said in that an off-road vehicle is best.

My driver started out very chatty but had no idea where the hotel was. It turned out to be much further past Pacific Harbour than expected and he started repeatedly asking me whether we were there yet as I watched the GPS. Eventually we found the turn off and headed onto a small gravel road that looked like it went to nowhere. We dove deep into lush seaside jungle but oddly started climbing towards the top of a seaside mount. I kept having to encourage the driver to go on, to be fair to him at one point we saw a sign saying “Crusoe’s Retreat: 1km” and then continued on climbing higher which was starting to worry me too. It was at least three kilometers later that we hit a blind corner and suddenly saw the sea burst into view below. The road immediately started doing quick switchbacks and dove a couple hundred feet down to a tiny courtyard at the main entrance. I wish I’d gotten him to stop and let me take a photo but he was worried enough as it was.

Unfortunately less pleasant was the fact that the cab ride ended up being FJD$190, about cad$120. In the grand scheme of things not a big deal but my guidebook had suggested more like $60 at most so it was lucky I had enough cash on me given the nearest atm was 30km back along the road. I hadn’t been expecting to be this quite so isolated and remote again at this stay. Still the resort itself was lovely and quickly made me feel welcome with a tasty drink and a trip down to my bungalow by the ocean.

My bitchin’ hammock chair

The resort had the feel of a slightly aging place that was popular say 25 years ago but well maintained and gorgeous views off the coast. There was a large central restaurant/bar area partly up on the cliff face with steps up to ‘gardenview’ bures on the cliff up above (nothing here was without a sea view) and then two rows of 6 bures down at the sea front half facing the sea, half facing the well-kept gardens. My particular digs were the third one in from the ocean and had a spacious porch with a large lounging space and a hanging hammock ‘chair in the air’ that was incredibly comfy. Thankfully it also had air conditioning as the temps had ramped up and things were muggy as hell.

Sucker punch

Unfortunately this was also the most disappointing part of the trip. Turns out the reason I was in Bure 3 was that I was the 3rd person to arrive at this resort at the moment and that was emblematic of just how ‘low season’ this area was. This had been a factor everywhere of course but I guess these more remote resorts that dot the southern coral coast of Viti Levu suffer a bit more during these slow months

View from the Volleyball court

After talking to my divemaster at the last stop I’d reached out to his recommended place on this coast to do a world-famous shark lagoon dive. They got back to me fairly quickly but told me they were about to change hands and the new owners were CC’d and would get back to me. While I shot off another email I did want to go with the recommended company if possible because the vibe at the Savusavu dive with Colin was perfect and he’d suggested it would be a similar feel with the Coral Coast folks. Big Mistake as it turns out. The new people turned out to be incompetent, only finally getting back to me (as is a theme with this trip it seems) when I got to the new hotel and asked the tour lady to call on my behalf. Suddenly there was an email in my box as well saying oh sorry we aren’t going out the day you asked after all but we can take you on (Date 8 days later.) How they ever thought that was acceptable as a ‘compromise’ (I doubt anyone spends more than 7 days here) I really don’t know.

The view while drowning my sorrows at the bar.

Unfortunately, the disappointment continued. The lady who ran the tour desk out of the resort called several other places on my behalf and not only was no one doing the shark dive, no one was doing dives at all! She kept getting offers to take me out on Friday but unfortunately I was flying out late that night and for those not aware it’s not safe to fly within that interval of being in the deep. Frustratingly they did the shark dive the day I arrived at the new resort and honestly had that asshole company told me that was my only chance to go I would have moved heaven and earth over to hop a flight the night before to get to the Coral Coast earlier. Even typing this out now makes me angry.

Despite being somewhat shattered I arranged with the tour lady Rachai to go on a jungle tour up to a village then a raft/float back down the river to the sea. By the time we signed up for this it was later in the morning so I was set for the following day. Despite that, I was just settling into my bedroom and about to have an shower when I heard a knock on the door. Given how things had been going I had a sinking feeling… and sure enough it was Rachai telling me she’d had an email and they weren’t going out tomorrow due to low numbers. (Why they couldn’t have said to her when she registered me ‘hey we don’t have anyone else going so this is maybe/maybe not’ I don’t know.) She was genuinely upset to have to tell me this and kept asking me if I wanted to do something else. She tried calling around but I was clearly completely out of luck and in the end as the only other thing she could really offer me was the chance to rent a car and go into town for some shopping I decided just to stay around the resort and snorkel.

I was pretty bummed by all this; I’m not going to lie. The Beqa shark dive was pretty much the only thing I’d firmly had in my ‘must dos’ before I left. Still, it’s a reason to go back I suppose.

The grounds

So despite all that… This was a lovely stay in a beautiful spot. I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more with a few more people here (for instance almost all my resorts had a volleyball court but never saw a game running.) That said, I did do some kayaking out over the reef enjoying the views both above and below. It was solidly 33+ and 100% humidity my entire stay though so I spent most of my daytime around the water. The staff outnumbered the guests at least 10 to one during the day but most of them were clearly renovating some of the bures (or at least prepping them for high season.)

Reading with a drink post-snorkel

Natural Wonders

The snorkeling here was glorious, honestly not quite as good as the previous place but basically nowhere would be. The one positive about my timing here was that perfect tides were around the heat of the day for the duration of my stay. The was a long mostly sandy shelf leading out to the barrier reef here with countless stone outcroppings covered in hard and soft corals and most delightfully a massive crop of anemones scattered all over. It was a surprisingly frequent occurrence to float over a clump of stone and find yourself face to face with a clownfish coming out to challenge you. (The ‘dad’ comes out of the anemone to challenge the intruder with the ‘mom’ hanging out on the fringes of it and the baby sometimes visible if the fronds parted enough.) I saw both black and orange varieties. It was fun to dive down with my fins and get a closer look as they flitted in and out of the waving anemone. Again, regretting my stupid underwater camera refusing to charge…

…especially when I saw this guy. A banded sea krait. The one I saw was I’d guess at least 8 feet long and undulating in that bizarre way that snakes swim. I vaguely recalled that these were poisonous so I kept my distance but figured correctly that the general rule of ‘don’t bother them and they won’t bother you’ would apply. After getting out of the water I checked and yes they’re one of the more venomous things out there, venom 10x more potent than a rattlesnake! Absolutely gorgeous though and a rare treat to see.

A banded sea krait – sadly not my photo

Also in the venomous department were a couple lionfish which as pretty and neat as they are getting to be a nuisance some areas of the world. Still gorgeous to see it hovering around amidst clouds of other things.

I’m still amazed at how much time I spent in the water this trip, but this final step was definitely a high point for that with all the heat and humidity. I probably spent 4 hours a day at least on or in the water. The resort actually had a hot tub as well but I can’t imagine spending any time in it when it was still 30ish at 11pm.

In the evenings the grounds would suddenly be strewn with large toads that wouldn’t move until you were almost stepping on them, despite the fact that it was still quite warm I guess the slightly cooler breezes off the sea had enough moisture that they came out to enjoy them. There were so many of them that it was basically reverse Frogger trying to get up to dinner.


My other exciting nature moment was meeting a mongoose who I think lived under my hut. He was very cute and I felt extra safe from cobras.

No cobras here nosiree

That’s a wrap

The food was less exciting at this stop. Prices were fairly high but quality varied a ton. To be fair I’m not really sure if this was due to low staffing or just the fact that they didn’t have many people to cook for and weren’t doing their better options. Again though, it would have been at minimum a $50 cab ride round trip to go anywhere else so it’s not like I had a ton of options.

Before long the final day had arrived and it was time to head back to the airport. I’d discussed the bus option with the front desk staff and sure enough one could take a cab ride to the main road and hail the cross-island air conditioned bus. Combined it cost about 15 bucks and to be honest a better view of the coast from the higher seats. The wind was up a bit this particular day and I got a few gorgeous views as the waves crashed into the barrier reef. The only downside was that our road ended just down a fairly large hill so one had to pay attention as it didn’t take long for vehicles to go from ‘appearing in the distance’ to ‘past and around the bend’ and I had to manually flag the bus.

It was supposed to absolutely pour right about as I was waiting for the bus but thankfully waited for an hour or so.

Further along the coast from my resort were a number of more traditional looking modern resorts and smaller rentals and hotels. Most of them looked just as deserted as my digs so I guess it’s not surprising I had issues. Thinking back now I think perhaps the reason the initial spots were busier was that they’re an easier ‘layover’ trip. I definitely met more than a few people who were sneaking in a 5 day layover going to/from Australia/NZ, some were even just there for two days and jetted out to the islands for a getaway.

Eventually I arrived back in Nadi with the bus thankfully going straight to the airport where I dumped my bag in left luggage and went off to properly explore Nadi itself a bit more/do a little souvenir and gift shopping. To be honestly my original impression of Nadi wasn’t changed much, it’s a fairly unexciting town and I’m glad I made the decision to get out of it quickly the first time. It’s a couple of shop lined streets with a mix of tourist and local focused things and not much else other than an elaborate Hindu temple.

I browsed the handicraft market a bit which was mostly uninspired Chinese-made junk. I bought a few small items and a few small gifts of Fiji Rugby shirts and other such things. I never really bring a ton back from my trips though I generally try to get a small piece of art which this time ended up being a small map of the islands.

And… sadly that was it. Really the only thing of note was that perhaps I got some recompense for the bad luck earlier but on my flight home I got a pair of seats to myself after paying for a bulkhead seat. Hilariously I’d gotten an email from the airline a few days earlier asking if I wanted to pay extra for a bubble of seats and had been moderately tempted due to what wasn’t the worst price. In the end I ended up on my own and also off the plane and through customs first from the economy folks. Honestly having a seat next to you open for a 12 hour flight is an absolute jackpot.

Much love to my Uncle Robin for hosting me for a couple days before and after the Fiji portion. It was nice to have a visit and a bit of an adjustment step back time wise as well as a snuggle with his pup Bailey.

That’s a wrap

Farewell from Paradise

Thanks for following along with me on this journey. I know it was probably not quite as exciting as my previous travels from a ‘read about it’ point of view since there was a lot less pure excitement/discovery. That being said, I adored my time in Fiji and I’d heartily recommend to my Canadian friends and family to take advantage of the direct flight from Vancouver. I’d love to see them keep offering the route.

I’ve never been to Hawaii, everything I’ve read about it of late says it’s super pricey and moving around is much more difficult due to the issues w/ rental cars due to the pandemic issues. Fiji honestly seemed every bit as beautiful, much more laid back and with a less commercial focus. Obviously I was here at low season and if you’re there at peak Aussie visiting time it’ll be much busier but even then I can’t imagine. I can’t pretend it was a cheap cheap trip, but it seemed great value. I’ve seen people I know spend more than I did on a Florida/Mexican trip and see/experience nothing near as glorious. You might be surprised at how accessible a trip to Fiji is!*

*Admittedly I got a great flight deal 😉

The scenery was phenomenal, the water divine and the people warm and welcoming. Pretty much every Fijian I met was genuinely curious if you were loving their homeland as much as they seemed to. It’s the rare trip I’ve done where I’d do the exact same itinerary, I might just change the month I went a bit. September is supposedly a great time to visit as you’re after the Aus/NZ winter rush but still in the best weather. You’d lose the joy of escaping Winnipeg at -30 in my case of course. As I’ve mentioned throughout this travelogue there are also other places I’d try to visit though. Some of the more remote offshore island groups are apparently worth a visit though there’s a time/money investment component to get there that means you probably wouldn’t do too many of them on one visit however.

At least someone missed me

As ever, if you have any questions about any of my travels hit me up. I’ve helped a few people do some Thai trip planning already this year.

Thanks for reading.

Stop! Hammer Time!

It was another rainy day the next morning as I repacked things more tightly for a flight on a small plane to Vanua Levu. I’d booked a flight direct to Savusavu and had been warned that it was a tiny airport reached by a tiny plane. Unfortunately internal fiji flights have a lower weight allowance so I was more than a bit worried about just how much it would cost me as the airline’s excess baggage page was a convoluted mess. Thankfully it turned out to be a realtively minor $42ish FJD of overage. Entertainingly I was also asked to step on the scale with my carryon which turned out to be a hint to just how tiny the plane was.

I actually didn’t realize myself as when I was sent out onto the tarmac unescorted all the lady said was ‘turn left.’ I was almost at the door of the first plane to the left when someone shouted at me. Turns out another plane had arrived since the door lady had been outside I guess and I walked around the wing of the larger plane to find myself boarding a little twin otter. We were all told to sit in our assigned seats as the weight distribution had been set up appropriately for the load. In the end there were only 7 of us on the plane as it taxied and took off.

Just one of thousands of beautiful structures just under the surface that you can see from the plane.

The view once we were up was spectacular. Fiji is just ridiculously full of reefs and lagoons and sandbars and from above with the sun shining down they were on display. I’m not usually one to take photos from an airplane window but come on.


savusavu airport
Security is uh… shall we say… a less intense process at this airport.

Savusavu itself turned out to be a tiny town covering the south rim of an old volcanic crater. The airport was barely more than a shack and some tarmac though and I was thankful when a former local visiting from Sydney let me tag along in his cab to town as despite this being one of only two flights no taxis had come to the airport. I’d regret not buying some more supplies at the time but I didn’t yet have a grasp of just how far from town my lodge was or what I had for kitchen supplies. I stocked up with water regardless and some other drinks and snacks and hopped back in the cab for the Vosa Ni Ua Lodge.

My digs for this stay, not the super odd hotplate/toaster oven combo.

The lodge was less a lodge than a small collection of Bures on a hill not far from a gorgeous crystal green bay just hitting low tide as I arrived. My room was a fairly large space with a small kitchenette along one wall with a very odd combination hot plate/toaster oven. Sadly the tide meant there wasn’t any hope of snorkeling that afternoon.

One of the other Vasa Ni Ua bures looking out across the garden towards the sea.

The caretaker of the property realized that I happened to have arrived on the one night of the week that a local garden restaurant was open roughly a 20 minute walk down the road. I gather in the higher season it’s a bit more raucous of an affair but there was a lively crowd of expats that live along the ‘Hibiscus Highway’ east of Savusavu and the pizza was phenomenal. It was a motely collection of Brits, Kiwis/Aussies a few Germans and several other Canadians. I gathered roughly half the folks lived here on a seasonal basis and a few of them were shorter stays. Luckily I’d thought to bring a flashlight as it was beyond pitch black the entire walk back home.

The Friday Night Pizza crowd.

Vosa Ni Ua seemed to be the last of the accomodations on this section of the highway and it was very much on the fringe of cell range, I’d tried to call my chosen dive folks but had to resort to email. Thankfully this operator was on the ball and actually got back to me at six the next morning when I was woken by the sun streaming through the louvres I hadn’t closed. I’d been warned that EVERYTHING in most towns in fiji closed on sundays so I happily agreed to go out for a few dives on sunday.

Saturday then was spent heading into town on the coastal bus and exploring Savusavu/provisioning some foodstuffs. It’s an odd little town. Based on what I saw in my guidebook I’d guess it suffered a bit from covid as a number of the restaurants and such seemed to have closed. It’s one of the only places you can legally enter the country with a yacht and has a bit of that vibe with two small marinas and a new large one being built just offshore. There are a couple yacht club/bars that I gather are filled with salty boaty types in the evenings during the busier months.

Fish and Chips by the Harbour

Savusavu bay is actually a volcanic crater and at several points along the beach steam rises from subsurface pools. There are a few hot spa pools available as well but I didn’t partake as it was 32 or so every day I was in the area.

If you look very closely you can see the beach steaming here from the volcanic forces

Hammerhead House

The next morning I was picked up by my divemaster bright and early and taken about halfway back to town to their home base at the Savisi Island resort. To my delight our proposed itinerary included two of the sites I’d most wanted to visit from earlier research. The wind was up a bit but by the time we got to the ‘dreamhouse’ site it had fallen enough that the divemaster’s scouting report revealed good vis and a helpful current. The big draw of this site is that it’s known to have frequent visits from hammerhead sharks… and to my absolute delight we saw not one but SIX of them during the course of the dive. Their weird silhouettes emerged from the gloom and set my heart pumping a bit, these aren’t little reef sharks after all though they’ll generally leave humans alone unless you’re trying to piss them off.

Happy tired dive man

Much to my disgust when we got back above water I got confirmation that one of our divers had seen a manta as well but I only caught the vaguest of shapes and didn’t get a good look. The hammers were amazing though and something I’m very happy to check off my diver’s SEEN IT list. As we surfaced and did our safety stop we were surrounded by an absolute cloud of batfish to the point where if you suddenly turned your head there’d be an eye staring into your mask until it startled away, it’s not uncommon to have a curious school check you out but it hasn’t happened for me with anything that size before.

After a surface interval with some of the tastiest pineapple I’ve ever put in my mouth (that the divemaster apparently grows in his garden the lucky jerk) we set out for another nearby dive site called Dungeons and Dragons. It’s absurd how close most of these are to shore and in fact dreamhouse was literally right off the outer reef by our lodge. Were the waves calm you could have kayaked out to it.

Beach across the road from my lodge, beautiful snorkeling lagoon in foreground, dungeons and dragons dive site just out beyond the barrier reef.

This site was a labyrinth of outcroppings, hard and soft coral and long swimthroughs. Swimming highlights were a couple of weird endangered wrasse I forget the specific name of, lots of clownfish and angel/damselfish. I wasn’t quite careful enough in one swimthrough and managed to yank my regulator out of my mouth snagging it on a rock but I was happy to find I was super calm about it and followed the recovery procedure without needing any help.

One of the coolest spots on the dive was a small trough filled with colour changing coral that is sensitive to pressure changes and will change hues if you get close. All in all these two dives were the highlight of the trip so far just from sheer variety.

Pro Tier Snorkeling

Energized by the morning’s dives and revitalized by some food and a short half-nap/half musical interlude I took advantage of the tide finally aligning better and went down and across the road to snorkel. The caretaker had told me the night before that some young teen had stayed there the year before and drawn a map of the lagoon’s corals/swimthroughs. It turned out to be quite a great little map and I spent the rest of my time in Savusavu snorkeling around the lagoon.

There was a reef superstructure with a few large rocks and caves, coral outcroppings and sudden drops into deep tunnels and pits. I’m not a good enough free diver to really mess with the swimthroughs without a tank but I still dove down to play peekaboo with some of the larger specimins hiding just out of sight.

The truly spectacular thing about the snorkeling was that at high tide you could very easily get over the edge of the reef and swim right over the 25/30 meter drop. The barrier between two environments is where you often see the neatest stuff and the visibility was just astounding. When the sun was out you could clearly see the life on the bottom and a fair ways out into the deeper lagoon, all while still protected by the outer reef. While my other stops on this trip have all had amazing snorkeling just offshore, this was a spot that the owner of the lodge called some of the best snorkeling in Fiji and I agree with him. A snorkel in that bay is easily on par for variety of sea life and sheer beauty with a good portion of the full scuba dives I’ve ever done.

There was so much life hidden under the placid waters of the lagoon (here mid-ish tide)

While I have many other places in Fiji I would want to add on if I come back I would seriously consider going back there just for a snorkel. The fact that there are still a ton of dive sites there, a marine park that begs for a special trip and another nearby island that’s supposed to be amazing (though rainy enough at this time of year that I didn’t visit this time) just means I’ll need to come back

I’m just now realizing I forgot to mention one of the coolest non-aquatic parts of this stop. Every night at dusk I sat out front of my bure and watched squadrons of bats turning around the sky hunting the evening bugs. None of these guys were small and a few were of a size that they’re probably in the flying fox category. They dove and swooped all over the valley down to the sea and it was wild just how many there were every night. I find bats absolutely fascinating and while I may not have made it over to the more rainforesty island of Taveuni this trip where the rarest of them lives but I’m glad I got such a display. Sadly none of my pictures came out though, not surprising given light conditions alas.

Imagine bats swooping all around the trees here a bit later that night…

In any case, after one last meal back in town and a stressed sleep (I kept worrying that my alarm wouldn’t go off in time and I was waiting for snorkel gear to dry overnight and pack at 6am) I caught a very early morning, equally tiny flight back to Viti Levu and went in search of the last stop of my Fiji journey.

But that’s the next post…

Beautiful Blue Lagoon

It turns out I was the only one leaving the island heading north on this particular day so I got the full force of half the staff singing the farewell song to me. It was delightful, endearing and incredibly awkward for someone of my personality, especially when almost everyone insisted on giving me a big hug afterwards. I still loved it though and will miss all those cheerful personalities. That said it was just as well I hadn’t tried to squeeze an extra dive in as the northward boat was fairly early (it seems to vary a reasonable amount depending on specific drop offs.)

Once back onboard the Yasawa Flyer (this time a different one called the Panther) we headed northward, this time with MUCH nicer weather and a proper view of the scenery. It continued to make excellent time as the boat was nearly empty and based on my brochure seemed to be skipping roughly half the stops. It still took a while though as my next stop was at the end of the chain at the Blue Lagoon beach resort.

The eponymous blue lagoon is actually the water between a number of islands up at the north end of the chain and is indeed the blue lagoon where most of both versions of the film were shot. It seemed as if the catamaran was taking a fairly circuitous route through the lagoon but as my travels over the coming days would show it’s a fairly shallow lagoon with lots of reefs and rock formations lurking. The resort itself was obviously a bit more of a traditional resort than my last digs and came out with a ~20 passenger excursion boat to pick us up. A fairly sizable group of us were disembarking and again as we came to shore a welcome part of the staff were singing a welcome and smiling ear to ear. This time however there was a delicious pineapple and berry smoothie in a champagne flute to add to the experience.

Low Tide at the Blue Lagoon

Side note on the film track of things, the island from Castaway is also in the chain and has a resort as well. How sick of Wilson jokes do you think they are?

My guidebook wasn’t wrong, the beachfront villas at the BLBR were indeed spectacular. Sadly I wasn’t in one of those. Because I’d gone a bit upmarket at this stop I was in the ‘lodge’ area which was essentially groups of side by side rooms which reminded me a bit of some of the old cabin motels you see in the backwoods of Wisconsin/Michigan etc. They were spotless, had small patios with a bench to relax on and a pretty garden area. The bathroom was shared with the two small dorms (male/female) but it was large and had extremely good water pressure for the showers. It was perfectly pleasant, just not as magical as the Barefoot Manta experience had been. Were I to return with someone I’d probably spring for at least one of the non-beach villas.

The food however… good lord… While I still maintain the first few nights food was tasty, the Blue Lagoon’s culinary team was top notch. After settling in the newcomers all straggled in to the beachfront restaurant and I found myself with a table overlooking the beach at mid tide. The lunch menu was a choice of about 10 different items, all of which sounded delicious but wanting to go for something very different than the previous nights I had a chicken schnitzel, which honestly turned out to be something that made me assume the chef had trained in the us at one point because while it was delicious and lightly fried… it was served with a peppery gravy very reminiscent of something you’d have with chicken fried chicken. There was always a pie of the day at lunch too which was always popular with the aussies/kiwis. Breakfasts were a full continental as well as your choice of various hot breakfasts including eggs benedict, pancakes in the usual or the asian way, full english breakfast and so on. All of this was great; however…

Dinners were at another level. I would have loved to experience the full cycle they no doubt have in place but while I was there we had a curry night where the tables of four got what seemed like half an east india company buffet dropped off at the their table. My solo dinner was a giant tray with 4 kinds of curry, naan, salad, fruit and pickle, and that was AFTER one of the best dal soups I’ve ever had. Another night was just a six course meal with multiple choice for each course because why not.

Smoothie time after some hard diving

The vibe at this place was a strange but pleasant one. You definitely got a sense that some of the guests were high roller-ish, but at the same time they’re rubbing shoulders with backpackers (though admittedly not the absolute low budget backpackers.) There was also a more sizable Canadian contingent during my stay, half made up of one large extended family with three generations there. I’ll also admit to feeling like I stuck out a bit more at this resort as a solo traveller around 40. While I’m still happy to have a good chat with the backpacking crowd there’s definitely more of a gulf there than when I was doing my grand travels a decade ago. Anyway, after that first lunch I quickly went and changed into swim gear, grabbed my ebook and found a spot on the edge of the beach. It was a very hot afternoon that I spent in and out of the water, soaking up some rays and marvelling at the fact that I could see ten feet down in the water from well on shore. It’s really hard to convey just how magical the water is here… pictures are startling but still don’t do it justice.

Day two dawned early as I was catching the first dive boat out to a site that I’d heard was phenomenal. The dive shop at the BLBR actually serves a number of the surrounding resorts and I was buddied up with an older lady who was staying at the Turtle Island resort nearby. I remembered reading in my guidebook that it was the ultimate of fancy pants and also where a lot of blue lagoon stuff was filmed and she confirmed that it was completely over the top but her husband liked to travel fancy. Looking it up later I found that their smallest villa costs per night what my entire 7 day island trip cost… must be nice.

The dive site (BONZAI!) was surprisingly far out west given that there’s not much in that direction but Australia. I guess the shelf continues out a fair way because when we went under the surface I discovered a beautiful reef face, coral everywhere and an abundance of Anenomefish poking their noses out to fend off us intruders. It was a beautiful spot but honestly that first section of the reef was the highlight, especially with the lovely visibility. The others on the boat had been diving all week (this resort has a ‘dive all you can for a week’ package available that I am sorely tempted to return and do as it’s a ridiculous bargain) and had been dealing with less than great viz the previous few days due to all the rain so I guess my timing was good. My only annoyance was that my breath control wasn’t great on this particular dive and I had to surface a bit early but my companions assured me I’d caught the best of the views. I decided to skip the second dive that day and just snorkel as there were some other (paid) activities I wanted to catch as well during the trip so pacing my diving was best. Thinking back now I’m also glad I hadn’t chosen to do both when my breath control was bad on the first one just in case it was an asthma thing I wasn’t noticing and would have been as bad again.

Sunset on the beach

One thing I haven’t mentioned about the place is the sheer volume of crabs everywhere. There are various types of fiddler crabs almost everywhere you look and spots where they’ve burrowed everywhere else. Tiny little white almost ghostly crabs are near impossible to see but scurry everywhere around the beach. Peak crab happened to me at dinner that night when as I was eating my seafood curry I noticed a little boy looking at my feet most intently but before I could look under the table something pointy scuttled across my foot and I jumped before I saw him cruise over to another table. The following night there was a shriek from the restaurant restroom and a woman ran out and said there were four of them around the ladies toilet snapping their claws. A bunch of them even ended up in the swimming pool one night until one of the staff pulled them out… I didn’t notice if they were set free or taken to the kitchen 😉

The following morning was another early start as the trip to the Saw-I-Lau caves set out from the dive shop at around 8:30 and I needed some Eggs Benedict first. I wasn’t the only one. Originally I’d been glad I signed up for the cave early but I guess interest was such that they decided to take two boats. We set out north to Sawa-I-Lau island and in the process got a view of Yasawa Island itself which is the northernmost in the chain and has a couple actual settlements, some roads and a tiny airport. The cave island is owned by the local tribes and visits are controlled, most of the caves are off limits but the spectacular flooded cave we visited is not.

The caves are tall and echoing limestone caverns filled with a mix of salt and fresh water. Formed underwater and thrust aboveground by tectonic movement they’re beyond picturesque though annoyingly my waterproof camera was acting up. We disembarked at a small beach and splashed through some absolutely gorgeous warm waves to reach a small staircase. I was honestly expecting a more substantial climb but the cave entrance was only about 30 feet up followed by an immediate drop down and some very low rocks over the steps. Leaving our sandals (and phones for most) behind we splashed down into the deep clear cave into water that while not at all cold by home standards was a bit of a shock after the warm seas we’d just left.

The first cavern is about 1/3 open to the sky but far far above which combined with the foliage makes for almost mystical streams of light descending to the water’s surface. There is something almost alien about the scene, the pitted and smooth rock walls shimmer in the reflections off the water and the sounds of human visitors echoing strangely over and over. The other neat part of the adventure came after as our guides showed us a swimthrough that the braver among us ducked under and swam 10 feet or so towards a waving flashlight and surfaced in a new dark section of the caves.

As we collected those brave enough to do the swim-through we eventually got to venture deeper into the blackness until we found the one spot of light, a narrow well apparently called the spitting cave because a drop of water from it will apparently echo throughout the cave. I can believe it after spending half an hour in the inky blackness and it was incredibly neat.

Saw-I-Lau Cave, sadly not my photo

Less fun was the fact that it really felt like the guides should have been more forceful about making people who needed them wear life jackets. We were warned that you’d need to be comfortable treading water for quite a while but they weren’t what I’d call forceful about it. And while they eventually brought a pvc pipe floaty handhold thing through for people in the dark cave, there were a few people who were clinging to it with a forcefulness that kept submerging it. Several of the backpackers girls were very much not comfortable with the dark cave in general and probably should have just immediately returned to the light. One father there with his two kids was particularly moronic, not even being good enough at treading water to consistently keep his chin out of the water. Meanwhile myself and one of my diving companions from the day before alternated treading water or just floating on our backs and whistling for echoes.

Despite the iffy safety issues and my concern for the dumber folks it was a very neat little adventure, though I wish I’d been able to go with a smaller group. Once we’d returned to the bright side of the swim through we found the other guides had been climbing the cave walls and cliff diving for the other guests. Once of these guys was basically spiderman and had climbed almost to the roof of the cave before jackknifing down so far that it took him an absurdly long time to resurface. Eventually though we all started to get cold and made our way back to the steps where at least two people wanged their head badly on the low ceiling. At least getting warm again was as easy as throwing yourself back in the waves outside as the temps in the shallow bay were essentially bathwater.

Refueled by a tasty lunch I headed out on an afternoon dive and snorkel trip and had another gorgeous time. I saw a stingway literally the moment I put my head under the water. A massive collection of clownfish guarded one end of the reef and as we were finishing up a shark sleeping far below was startled by us and whooshed up for a closer look before high tailing it out of there. Breath control was better this time but it was also a shallower dive.

The trip ended with us killing some time snorkeling near one of the private beaches used by the cruising arm of the company that owns our resort where our guide fed some of the fish. This is ethically not the best 🙁 but honestly I think the fish in that area probably eat a ton of scraps off the boats that moor in the area anyway. There were swarms of Sergeant Majors and a whole bunch of Needlefish that arrived after and scared the former off. I’m fairly sure it was one of the latter that decided my right earlobe was a hunk of bread and repeatedly bit me until I was actually bleeding, a new experience for me. I’m going to go ahead and hope that’s the last time I’m fish food this trip.

Coincidentally my last night on the island was also the beach bbq and survivor night. The staff cooked up copious amounts of ribs, chicken, fish and beef skewers on a pit bbq on the beach. The guests mostly sat at larger tables and met new neighbours, I horrified some Brits and Australians by checking the weather back at home and finding a -45 windchill warning. As the night wound down we played survivor, which could more accurately be called ‘Fiji trivia.’ I did my best and probably personally kept us tied but the in the end it came down to drawing lots to break a tie with the other leaders and they won the free bottle of champagne. Alas… Still, as I sat on the beach watching one of the staff members spray gas onto the bonfire to get the damp logs started I looked back on my stay with incredible fondness.

The next morning was checkout time though thankfully once I got everything packed up I managed to have a little bit of snorkeling off the beach and a nice long read on the beach before the boat arrived. As previously mentioned we were at the end of the Yasawa Flyer route so we were the last stop before it turned around and headed back. The trip was mostly uneventful except for the fact that they decided to do a pickup for the day trippers at the first island rather than use their own boat as I imagine they do at busier times so they catamaran was absolutely packed to the gills for the last 20 mins of the trip. The only downside of a lovely trip otherwise.

I’d booked back into the same B&B for my one night stay back in Nadi before flying to my next destination the following morning. Unfortunately my excitement that evening was limited to finally doing laundry for the first time and grabbing one of my fave Aussie sodas from the corner store for a treat.

I am extremely thankful the weather turned for me, while the islands would have been beautiful whatever the weather the fact that the sun came out and made them the gorgeous turquoise paradise of the brochures took things to the next level. I can say without doubt that I’ll be back there some day.

Up next: Onto fiji’s other large island of Vanua Levu and Savusavu Town for more diving.

The water clarity is beyond amazing

In which paradise is found

Diving and divine digs in the Yasawa Islands

The islands/region

(again, more pics to come once better internet)

The weather was wild for the first day or so on Drawaqa Island. As previously mentioned it’s more or less one fairly steep hill with a narrow spit of sand jutting off and surrounded by a sizable reef. My bure faced the windward side which on the day I arrived meant sizable waves pounding in and a heavy breeze into the front ‘door.’ Bure can apparently mean very different things at different resorts but at the barefoot manta it was a solid roof with thatched top and side enclosed by canvas very similar to the Manitoba parks yurts. My ensuite was more an ‘outsuite’ with a screen door at the back of the bure leading to an open air shower with trees growing through it and a toilet with a hint of a roof.

View from the bure

After being welcomed and given the brief intro I wandered the resort for a bit and found the dive shop where I made some provisional plans based on the weather and got the lay of the land for snorkeling. I decided to just borrow equipment as mine was still packed up and quickly threw on a suit and got in the water. The leeward side of the island was amazingly calm for being roughly 200 feet away from where I’d been before and even with a heavily overcast sky and not much sun the visibility was amazing. This resort is particularly focused on marine conservation and in between the existing reef you could see their various projects for reef extension and stabilization and a couple cages where they were trying to get giant clams re-established.

The reef itself was fantastic and teeming with life, tons of hard corals… bright yellow and transluscent gar, parrotfish, angelfish, a large wrasse, trevalley and a whole bunch of things I hadn’t seen since my days diving the great barrier reef. I’m reasonably certain I caught a hint of a small reef shark as well but it was right at the fringe of visibility so I can’t say for sure. The reef is so huge and protected that you can actually snorkel right around the point and come back in on the northward facing beach if you want making for a really nice long and mostly leisurely snorkel. I don’t think it’s really possible to convey just how much this put me into my ‘happy place’ but as I flopped down in my private hammock on my private beach access (la-di-da) I was more relaxed that I’ve been in years.

My personal bure on the beachfront

Unfortunately we were still getting the same system that was pounding the mainland so the wind was wild the rest of the day. Rain occasionally reared for a few minutes and the staff ended up closing a couple the shutters as we ate dinner. I admit despite the fact that I’d had a lovely snorkel I was starting to worry that the weather would be like this my whole stay and would curtail diving partially/completely. Overnight was worse. I’d left just the screen door shut on my bure wanting to watch the waves come in but got a rude awakening around 3 am when I realized my feet felt damp and the downpour I’d heard earlier had really been splashing inward to the point where the blanket on the edge of the bed had gotten rather soaked (along with some of my gear.) So after a frantic scurry and some reorg I managed to get back to sleep and thankfully the crashing downpour didn’t return and force me to actually close the canvas flap because…

waterlogged but relaxed…

I woke to glorious sunshine! It was still heckin’ windy but the sun was flitting in and out of clouds and the water was shining that crystal green blue that you normally only see in postcards. Getting out of bed and walking the ten steps or so to the beach I could easily see fish flitting in and out of the rocks and coral and then was startled to see a school of flying fish launch themselves repeatedly out of the water running from some form of predator. On the beach itself there were a few lizards playing and as I looked closer a number of hermit crabs emerging as well. It was a fantastic start to the day.

Unfortunately it was also still too windy for diving at any of the good sites. The dive shop woman flat out told me that the one place they could safely dive that day was basically a glorified snorkel and that there were marine warnings out that the wind could get much worse so they couldn’t safely do anything. Thankfully the forecast for the next day looked better and I still had two more nights before moving to the next island so I filled my morning and afternoon with another snorkel, a long read in my hammock and a long walk around the most accessible parts of the island. They’d unfortunately warned us that while they normally did a cliff walk/hike for sunrise/sunset they’d cancelled it for the time being as the rain had made it a bit dangerous.

Why yes, I have already read 6 books this holiday.

The food at the Barefoot Manta was quite good. It’s an enforced meal plan thing which I’m normally never a fan of but with the restort being the only thing on the island it’s not like you can pop down to a mom and pop place instead. Meals varied between a buffet with a wide variety of choices or more often a selection of 4-5 dishes, usually a curry or stirfry, seafood and a couple vegetarian/vegan options. Portions were sizable especially for me as I’ve gone back into my usually walk around a bunch, don’t have a massive appetite travel mode that I really wish I could trigger back at home.

The end of that night was my first exposure to the Fijian kava ceremony. Once the domain of chiefs alone the sharing of kava is now a ceremony by which you’re welcomed to a village if you visit and politeness dictates that you quaff at least one bowl (usually a coco shell) though it keeps going around and around until all gone. The drink itself is created by soaking the pounded root of the plant and has numbing/sedative qualities. It has started to be exported and you can find kava bars/extracts elsewhere around the world now, but apparently the local stuff has more of an effect. After the first bowl my tongue had definitely numbed a bit… after the four or five more ‘high-tide’ bowls I was handed most of my mouth was tingly. I’m guessing it also had something to do with the fact that when I retired to my bure at about 8:30 as it had started raining again I failed spectacularly at staying awake to watch the show I fired up on my laptop. Based on life thus far I’m guessing early wakeups and dozy nights are going to be the norm though. I have yet to sleep past 7 or even need my alarm.

When the next morning dawned something seemed different as I opened my eyes. It took me a few moments to realize that the rhythmic pounding of the waves was now more of a gentle lapping. Ninety minutes later two young Swedish ladies had joined me and our crew was skimming us across the waves to my first ever wreck dive. The sea and sky were meeting in a union of just about every shade of blue you can imagine and steep coasted islands poked up here and there covered in lush greenery. You find yourself hoping you can trust in the encyclopedic reef knowledge of the staff that pilot the boats because as you sit there flying along you can very clearly see how narrow a channel you’re sometimes passing through. The whole archipelago is a maze of reefs and shelves with the occasional deep blue gap.

Once we arrived at the buoy about 300m offshore we started prepping then eventually rolled into the water. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough weight at first to get me down and while we were solving that problem the two ladies and the second staff member were not paying attention and drifted off with the current. Honestly it wasn’t a great job by the staff member there as there was clearly a mooring line to follow down but based on a subsequent dive he was probably more concerned with one of the two women who was not especially mobile underwater due to a disability. Still, after we patrolled for a bit looking for them we went back up and the dive lead had me wait while he searched for them where he thought the current had carried them. By the time they came back up they’d used their entire air supply circling around in a deep channel. At that point I assumed my dive curse had continued on from Portugal/Vietnam but nope, once he changed out his tank we went down alone together.

The wreck itself was an old fishing boat, sunk purposely to form the base of a new reef. This was only about ten years ago so while marine life is abundant it was still very clearly a wreck even from a distance. Known as ‘Glory Wreck’ it’s base was at about 25m (~80feet) in that tide and we started by swimming around the perimeter with Lai my divemaster showing me where it was moored down and how there were mantis shrmp all around the base. These ridiculous tiny shrimp can scoot around at high speed and wallop things with their claws with the force of a handgun bullet. At the same time we saw the slowly building clusters of marine life on the hull. A few clusters of fan coral, sea cucumbers moving along the edge and school after school of various small fish running about to and fro.

Swimming upward we snuck onto the deck amidships and started a number of large trevally feeding on something clinging to the base. The wreck was definitely already a fish garden and was amazing to explore, especially as we swam inside the upper deck and were surrounded by clouds of thousands and thousands of tiny fish (blanking on name.) It’s always been a bucket list item to do a wreck dive and while this was on the simpler side I’m definitely going to get my wreck diving certification some day and do one of the really cool ones like the scuttled WW2 ships or the like.

Once back on surface we scooted back to the resort on the windward side, the waves had risen a bit but we seemed to be within an outer barrier and outside the inner reef. My Swedish companions were heading out on that day’s south-ward departure but were sneaking in another dive (or a first real one I guess) before that departure. I was mildly torn. I wanted to do another dive that day but wasn’t super enthused about getting stuck with them if they were in trouble again my wreck dive having already been a few minutes longer than it should be. However the shop couldn’t tell me what exactly the 3pm dive was going to be and as they were a couple people certifying that day I worried I’d get stuck on a new certified (or about to be) person’s first real dive with the accompanying super fast air usage.

I should explain though. At most places you’d just stay out and do the two dives but here all the resorts seem to have only a couple boats they use for everything. That means a dive trip goes out at 9, makes sure it’s back at 11 so the boat can then be used to run out and ferry folks in from the catamaran that comes from the port as it does the northbound swing. Then we take another trip out and the boat is back for 2pm when the boat is coming back southbound. There’s only one boat a day so if you miss it you’re in trouble.

The divemaster for the lodge happened to have returned on the boat from his days off and was going to run the second dive so I stuck with the devil I knew. (The staff member who’d gotten lost with the girls was nowhere to be seen and I imagine was in trouble since he probably should have surfaced with them after getting detached from us)

The dive itself was gorgeous and trouble was at a minimum though the lady in question still ended up slower and Lai stayed with her alone while the dive master lead the rest of us. A pinnacle in somewhat more open water this time it was a spur of coral covered rock almost reaching the surface at the ebbing tide. Soft golden fan coral everywhere gave it the name golden gate as further down the pinnacle there was a gorgeous swimthrough with fans everywhere. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the bigger species he’d suggested we might see but it was still a superb dive for the ground life.

If you’ve never done a dive but you’re one of those people that gets famished after swimming… let me just say that diving is 3x worse. Thankfully the kitchen still had some lunch left when we got back and I treated myself to a strawberry coconut smoothie in celebration. It had been 6? years since my last good dive and here I’d had two great ones in a day with most of my trip left to go.

The rest of the day passed in somewhat of a blur. I chatted with an Aussie doing his dive certification and was kinda shocked when I found out he was from Brisbane. I know Fiji is closer but man you have such good places to do it so close by. He was an interesting dude though, an engineer by trade now studying to be a science teacher and with a firm opinion on everything and everyone. I hope the weather holds for him and he gets to do some real dives after the boring certification go down/come up stuff. The rest of the time I spent either sitting by the beach or just enjoying some hammock time with my latest book.

This was an amazing three days but I was ready to check out my next home further north in the Yasawa chain where more diving and a cave adventure beckoned.

Paradise (Sunset Beach)

On the road again…

Finally giving in to the lure of travel once more and heading to the fabled south seas.

(note, pictures to follow once I get on some non terribad internet)

Well, here we are… I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever write another one of these. While I’ve taken a few mini trips since that last one left off on a cliffhanger they haven’t been of this sort. (side note, I need to go back and write the last post of that) I’ve missed traveling like you wouldn’t believe but wondered when I’d feel comfortable doing this sort of thing again. While I was probably more stressed out in the planning stage of this trip than any previous one that was more a factor of other life events, inept companies and this turning out to be a different style of trip than my previous adventures. More on that to follow of course as I discover Fiji.

Fair warning as well, it’s been an unfortunate amount of time since I’ve done any writing at all so please bear with me if the first couple posts are rusty and rambly, hopefully we’ll get back to normal quickly.

It was sometime in July last year that I stumbled across a thread on the red flag deals forums announcing ‘Fiji Airways new direct flights from vancouver, introductory deals’ or something of the sort. Having almost stopped in fiji on my trip to New Zealand and Australia about a decade (sob) ago I was intrigued… and when I clicked through and saw ‘Starting at $600’ I knew that this might put me over the edge to travel again. Sadly I didn’t snag one of those but I still locked in a great deal and got my seat for about $900 RT after some seat reservation fees. Coupled with a cheap Swoop flight grabbed a few months later to Abbotsford and some very much appreciated chauffeuring from my uncle Robin and I was going to be arriving in Nadi (pronounced Nandi) Fiji pale from winter and ready to relax. I had learned from the past and gave myself a 3 day cushion on the swoop flight heading out but thankfully their only change was to push it later in the evening and actually make it more convenient, a rare win.

Kind of hilariously in the days leading up to my flight Fiji Airways sent me emails inviting me to ‘bid on business upgrade’ (I took a look and the minimum bid one way was almost double the cost of my return flight) and later on offering me the chance to have a ‘bubble row’ to myself for a slightly more tempting $600. Once on the plane I wondered why they’d offered though as there seemed to be very few empty seats and I didn’t really see how that’d have been possible. However thinking about it now I remember now that the Auckland bound Air New Zealand flight had been cancelled that evening (likely due to the cyclone) so I’m guessing a few folks were transferred to our flight as a two hopper to NZ given roughly ¼ of the flight appeared to immediately head to the transfer desk on arrival in Nadi.

The flight itself was a bit of a nightmare, starting at 9:40pm and landing at 5:30am+1day. I couldn’t help but joke that as an eternally single person I’d found a way to skip valentine’s day by flying west across the date line on the 13th and not really experiencing the 14th as we landed the following morning. As I waited for the flight to board I became increasingly dismayed by the large number of people with very small children that kept arriving. Don’t get me wrong I love kids and I’m sure a couple of them were going home but man, maybe for the couple years while your kids are under 3 you could pick vacation destinations that don’t require a 12 hour flight? My usual recent luck for transcontinental flights held and I ended up beside another broad shouldered person and in a seat that didn’t recline at all. And yep, one or more of those toddlers caterwauled all through the flight.

For those that haven’t tried it, let me tell you, the cure for mild whiplash from a car accident a few weeks ago is not a 12 hour flight in economy.

I’ll admit I really only knew the absolute basics about Fiji before prepping for this trip. Tropical place, influences from a number of cultures, strong Indian influences in particular, very at threat from global warming. What I really didn’t know was just how small it was, a population around the same size of Manitoba strewn across a large number of islands (though with most of the ‘mainland’ of Viti Levu.) For the most part the population speaks Fijian, English and a Fijian Hindi dialect and thus far communication hasn’t been an issue. More to come on all that I’m sure.

I arrived at the hotel sometime around 7am, hoping against hope that they’d have some luggage storage so I could ditch my bags and go walk around a bit before check in time. Thankfully it turned out that my room was already free and a very grateful zombie stumbled up the road to the B&B offshoot of the main hotel, obviously a converted vacation home. Shown to a lovely clean (if spartan) room, I promptly dumped my gear, showered the smell of travel off myself and crawled between the sheets for a 2 hour power nap. I knew from experience that I couldn’t sleep for long if I wanted to beat the jetlag but I definitely needed something.

The B&B itself was nice, especially for the fairly bargain price (I’m splurging most of the rest of this trip so I kept the initial landing spot on the cheap end without doing the hostel dorm thing.) I’m guessing the hotel’s manager or owner lives in what was once the guest house and this main house now has 5 small guest rooms and a large living room/kitchen. 3 rooms share a bathroom/shower and two have ensuite. The bed was comfy and the place was spotless and that’s all that mattered at this moment.

A few hours later and brighter eyed if not bushy tailed I threw a few things in my daypack and went back to the main hotel to ask them to call and confirm my offshore stay. A couple weeks before I left I’d zeroed in on a multi hop trip up some of the offshore islands, had booked my reservation and gotten early confirmation… but had not had any final confirmation on the individual resorts I’d requested or any of my other questions. What was at first a minor annoyance became increasingly stressful as the trip approached and finally as I left for the islands not knowing if I had a place to stay beyond day 2. I gather I wasn’t the first with this problem as she told me to just go sit and she’d let me know what they said. Needless to say I blissfully complied, ordered a pineapple juice and proceeded to spend 3 hours reading on the shore as rain thankfully kept missing our end of the bay and I just watched the waves crash on the minimal beach. To say it was exactly what I needed was an understatement and the relaxation was increased by finally getting confirmation of my pickup for the boat even if they’d still neglected to finally confirm my hotels, something that would take 3 more emails. Still, at least I knew I was getting picked up

The combination of that relief, fatigue from lack of sleep and the overall stress of the last few months bleeding from me meant that bed was already calling again but I knew I had to last a couple more hours. As a result as inviting as the pool back at the b&b looked, I knew the post swim sleepies would do me in for the night so I followed the instructions of the hostess and found the minimart up the street. Amidst a couple snacks, some water bottles and a premixed gin and tonic I found my holy grail. A delicious bundaberg soda from Australia, not my personal fave blood orange variety but the still awesome peach soda. Annoyingly I’ve never found these in North America though Adam Savage is occasionally drinking one in his videos so someone must import them to california at least. Honestly if you ever have the chance… delicious on their own, delicious with gin/vodka/rum depending on the flavour. I polished that off very quickly back at the b&b while chatting with the new hostess Cecimaria. I’ve gotten better with the Fijian accent/lilt since that night but I was definitely in smile and nod territory a few times with this very bubbly young lady.

Between our chat and some angry emailing I managed to stay awake a bit longer but eventually gave in, had an early curry dinner back by the shore and raced back home through the rain to collapse sometime around 6pm local/10pm Vancouver/midnight Winnipeg with my body clock somewhere messed up between the three. Between my various efforts I’d managed to conk out until 6:45 the following morning and given I’d be up early the next morning anyway that seemed as close to a normal sleep schedule as I needed.

The Floods…

So I knew this was going to be the rainy season in Fiji. As the day of departure arrived I watched with increasing worry as the forecast shifted from a fair bit of rain to ’90-100% chance of thunderstorms every day I was scheduled to be here.’ It could have been worse of course given the NZ cyclone but still as I sat there eating my breakfast with a german couple who seemed to be youtubers the downpour increased to a dense tropical rain the likes of which I’ve probably only seen in Thailand. It came and went all day which I mostly spent reading and making sure I’d prepared everything else (fingers crossed.) A new guest arrived around lunchtime, his name was Jim and he didn’t talk much but I enjoyed him plucking away at his ukelele most of the afternoon under the thatched poolside shelter as we watched the water rise and rise. I’ll hand it to the local infrastructure though, the street flooding was fairly minimal until we’d reached a full 12 hours of this but by the time I went out for dinner manhole covers were overflowing on the main road and when they taxi brought me back I stepped out into lake roughly a foot deep. The next morning on the way to my pickup I had to wade through multiple troughs of calf deep water. I don’t think my poor sandals are ever going to be dry this trip.

The taxi drivers were hilarious in other ways as well. Pretty much everyone I talk to here at some point asks me if I’m travelling alone. When I reply yes some of them say something along the lines of ‘oh that’s the way to do it, others something like ‘you bring the wife next time?’ My driver on the way out to dinner that night had his own take. When told I was indeed travelling alone he considered that for a moment and said: You be careful… Fijian women very… INTELLIGENT.

Of course, the weather was worrying me for other obvious reasons as I had a 3-4 hour boat trip early the next morning. The rain was scheduled to continue and the islands I was going to had a ‘high winds/possible tidal flooding’ warning in place which didn’t sound hopeful. I kept waking up throughout the night as the heavens either opened up or quieted and checking my phone for note of cancellation (Why sleepy me thought they’d be that proactive is beyond me.) In fact when the shuttle bus showed up that morning they informed a few disappointed people that the day trip was cancelled due to weather (unsurprising given there’d be nothing to do really once at the island) but that those of us transfering to resorts were a go.

(since I wrote this things have apparently gotten much worse to the point where I may need to adjust end days plans if I’m not going to be able to safely get back along one of the roads, time will tell.)

The Boat:

I’m realizing that I haven’t really described Nadi much and I guess honestly that’s because there isn’t much to describe. It’s a relatively small city spread out in a couple directions. I didn’t see much of downtown given I was mostly dodging rain but didn’t see anything to really convince me I missed much in the city proper though I’ll be back my last bit of the trip and may try to explore more.

The port itself is a short trip from Nadi proper on an island/peninsula. This is where the fancier resorts close to Nadi are, a lot of places that from brief glimpses look like your usual all inclusives in Mexico (and indeed from talking to folks that’s basically what they are for Aussies/Kiwis.) Nestled in between all of them is a small but busy Marina which is home to a number of tour companies including the Yasawa Flyer, a high speed catamaran that runs out to a number of resorts on the offshore island chains.

I had chosen to do what’s called an ‘Awesome Pass’ which for a mildly exorbidant fee gives you unlimited boat rides, a number of nights accomodation (in my case 6) and bundled food. Normally I’m not down with the bundled food options on this sort of thing but on most of these islands the resort is literally the only thing there so it’s not like you can swing out to a mom and pop operation with a bit of a walk. That said, I’m writing this on night one of the islands and the food today was both fantastic and local.

I chose to spend three nights each at two different resorts (there are a large number to choose from) deeper in the island chain and more focused on snorkeling/diving. This meant a fairly lengthy trip as the first was about halfway through the catamaran journey. The big boat essentially runs a daily route up the two archipelagos and meets tender boats from various places which run passengers and luggage to and fro shore. Unfortunately for those who suffer from sea sickness the wind warning wasn’t a lie and she was rolling and hanging in the troughs a fair bit. As a couple of Aussies behind me kept saying, more than a few people had to ‘Chunder.’ Thankfully my seeming imperviousness to seasickness continues to be a thing and I enjoyed the ride until the stop was called.

The Islands

As much as I do hope to see these islands in their sun-drenched glory before the week is up there was something special about seeing the lush green hills appear out of the mist. The first island (and the target of many day trips) is called South Sea Island and seems to be little more than a sandbar with a few dorms and bures (huts) on it. Later islands have impressive craggy cliffs, lush vegitation and hidden sandy beaches where a small cluster of huts will suddenly appear. None of these resorts are huge, many (most?) are eco-travel focused and as sustainable as possible.

After about 3 hours I ended up on a narrow shoreboat speeding across a large bay and driving into shore at a welcoming crowd of singing staff and a hearty BULA (meaning health, a seemingly universal greeting hereabouts.) Between the musical welcome, the sand, the palms and the water… I felt at peace for the first time in months.

This only increased that feeling as I settled in to my bure, enjoyed my private view of ‘sunset beach’ and then went to enjoy a tasty lunch with my fellow new arrivals and those already enjoying the place.

The resort is small, I’d guess roughly 20-25 Bures with a couple of them being backpacker dorms with bunks and some like mine having an ‘ensuite’ which is open to the sky. They surround a larger ‘main bure’ which is basically a meal area/kitchen/lounge and a couple smaller bures which house other services. The whole thing is on a spit of land off one of the hilly islands and we’re surrounded by three beaches: my aforementioned sunset beach (though we didn’t see one tonight) a larger bay with a reef further out, and two (sunrise and ?) others seperated by a narrow point that share a large coral reef just offshore that offers fantastic snorkeling with absolute minimum effort.

You’d better believe I was in that water more or less as soon as I could be though I also set up some diving for the coming days, but more on that in the next post.