Category Archives: Pacific Islands

Ski Season Starts in New Zealand

With high temperatures and wildfire danger in the US West, the notion of skiing appeals

Reports from New  Zealand are of snow blanketing the South Island’s mountains overnight, a perfect omen for tomorrow’s official start to the 2012 ski season at Coronet Peak, the first of the Queenstown-Wanaka region’s six commercial ski fields to open. “Ski field” is Kiwi for ski area. Coming right up is snow action at Snow Park NZ, which is scheduled to open next Friday (June 15), followed by The Remarkables on June 16, Cardrona Alpine Resort on June 22 and Treble Cone on June 28. I skied them all several years ago, and when the thermometer approaches the triple digits here, I rather wish I were there.

Early snow on the mountains surrounding the sporty lakeside town of Queenstown, New Zealand. (Photo: Destination Queenstown)

The annual American Express Queenstown Winter Festival, dubbed the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest winter party, takes place from June 22 to July 1 and attracts an estimated 45,000 people each year to celebrate the advent of winter in style.  The festival features 10 days of non-stop fun with on-mountain action, fireworks, street parties,

Flights from the US all land in Auckland on the North Island. Air New Zealand and United fly from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Another option is Some are code-share flights. From Auckland, it’s a domestic non-stop to Queenstown on the South Island. Hope for clear skies as you fly over the Southern Alps. Beginning the last week of June, there will be a significant increase in domestic flights with Air New Zealand and Jetstar, plus 32 direct trans-Tasman flights from Australia into Queenstown per week for those who want to visit both countries as long as they are traveling “that far.”

Another transportation option is Air Pacific, the national airline of Fiji. This carrier periodically run specials on Los Angeles-Nadi flights that include free onward service to any other destinations (including both Auckland and Christchurch) when combined with a stopover in Fiji. It’s a great way to combine fabulous skiing with a South Pacific getaway. What could be better?

Hawaii’s Changing Landscape on View

Visitors watch land alteration daily at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

I first visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park not long after Kilauea began erupting. That event began in 1983, and one subdivision had already been engulfed in lava. Street signs sticking out of the rock made for good images. It made news then, and still does. Videographers still show up whenever lava from the world’s most active volcano again begins to cascade into the Pacific Ocean. The dramatic footage of red-hot molten lava oozing into the sea and sending up giant steam clouds makes for good television, but seeing the current lava-less activity is also watching a compelling natural force in action.

A current aerial view into the crater and the lava lake. (USGS photo)
A current aerial view into the crater and the lava lake. (USGS photo)

I’ve returned to the park several times since then, and it changes more frequently than any other major national park. Kilauea’s eruptions from the east rift zone have been constant 24/7 for some 18 years, adding over 568 acres to the southern shore of the Big Island of Hawaii and by now covering 8.7 miles of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet — way over the tops of the signs by now.

Steam plume emits 600 tons of material into the atmosphere every day.

Kilauea never sleeps — sometimes pouring out lava, sometimes not. There is no current lava flow but rather a powerful steam plume rising up from a lava lake. From a distance, it looks like an enormous geyser by day and a glowing cloud by night.  The US Geological Survey posts a daily update on the status of thermal and volcanic activity in the park.

In addition to adding new land and changing the park’s acreage, the Park Service has to change where people may visit and from where they can look out over current volcanic action. Roads have been obliterated and one road was removed and replaced by a trail and boardwalk past steaming pits and cracks. Currently, Crater Rim Drive is closed between Jaggar Museum and the Chain of Craters Road junction due to volcanic activity.

The park is more than volcanoes and lava, of course. It contains a tropical rainforest, has one of the highest rates of endemic species anywhere in the world (endemic meaning it is found there and nowhere else) and when measured from the sea floor to the top of Maune Kea, it is the highest base-to-summit mountain on the planet. For these reasons, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I was lucky enough to join Rob Pacheco, founder and president of Hawaii Forest & Trail, on a twilight tour in the park. He shared so much knowledge, my notebook is so full and my time is so constricted right now (I have to be heading out for dinner in 45 minutes and have yet to shower) that I can’t come up with a coherent post right now. But I’ll try when I have a bit more time to decipher my hasty notes and write a (hopefully) coherent post.

Chinese Coal Ship Aground on Great Barrier Reef

Marine park and top diving destination at risk

If I ruled the world, China would stop mining coal. The cost is too great: frequent fatal mine accidents (the latest just a few days ago), filthy and unhealthy air over much of China from antiquated coal-fired plants and now the “Shen Neng 1,” a Chinese bulk-coal ship that strayed from designated shipping lanes on Saturday and slammed into Australia’s Great Barrier reef at full speed and ran aground on this world wonder.

The reef is a fanastic 1,800-mile barrier reef 60-odd miles off Australia’s northeast coast that is arguably the world’s finest scuba destinations. Great Keppel Island, where the ship ran aground, is a dive destination that boasts “pristine waters. I checked dive blogs and specific Great Keppel Island dive operators and resorts, and astonishingly, none mentioned this incident or its possible effects.

There has not yet been a really major spill of the ship’s 950 tons of oil, but oil patches several miles from the wreck have been spotted from the air. Chemical dispersants were sprayed on the oil on Sunday  The ship, which is about 800 feet long and carried about 65,000 tons of coal, will have to be towed into port.

The BBC reported: “Queensland officials say the ‘Shen Neng 1’ is badly damaged and the salvage operation could take weeks. Fears remain that it could break up, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil.
Environmentalists are furious about the grounding on Douglas Shoals, well outside the authorised shipping channel. The Chinese-registered ship is balanced precariously off the east coast of Great Keppel Island.
A tug boat is at the scene to help prevent it from keeling over and to assist with any attempt at refloating the stricken vessel. Its Chinese crew have remained on board.” According to a statement in a video that is part of the BBC report, ships are permitted to sail the calmer waters between the Mainland and Queensland without a pilot. Blomberg more recently reported that a second tug is on its way.

Deja Vue All Over Again

On March 11, 2009, the Hong Kong-flagged container ship “Pacific Adventurer” was responsible for a large oil spill that Moreton Island and Sunshine Coast beaches, north of Brisbane The  ship lost 31 containers of ammonium nitrate that loose in Cyclose Hamish’s rough seas. Some of the containers pierced the ship’s hull, releasing some 270 tons of oil into the ocean. The captain was charged with violating marine-pollution laws but permitted to leave Australia.

In August 2009, the Australian and Queensland Governments and its owner, Swire Shipping, reached an  agreement, under which the transport company was to pay $25 million in damages. This far exceeds Swire’s legal obligation of $17.5 million for compensation. The overage was to go to a trust specially established to help improve marine protection and maritime safety. The “Shen Neng 1” accident might put it to use. Who knows what will happen to the captain — and whether China’s Cosco Group will pay a potential $921,500 fine — far too little, IMHO.

Ironically, Cosco’s website boasts that it is committed to the UN’s Global Compact, whose cornerstones are “aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.” Environment. Slamming a ship into a marine park is a serious misalignment.

The Great Barrier Reef is a world wonder, home to some 400 coral species (the most in the world), 1,500 species of tropical fish, 4,000 types of mollusks, 200 types of birds, 20 types of reptiles. It is also the habitat for a number of threatened species such as the dugong (“sea cow”) and large green turtle. Additionally, it is an important breeding area for humpback whales that migrate from Antarctica.

I have a special affection for the Great Barrier Reef. After snorkeling off Lady Musgrave Island, one of thousands of little land outcroppings, back in 1987, I decided to get my scuba certification, because I wanted to participate in underwater life, not simply to float on top as spectator. I’m now a certified diver but never managed to return to Australia. Since my visit, we’ve become aware that this reef, like all others on the planet, is under chronic assault from climate change, but a ship running aground and spilling oil or other harmless substances is acute trauma.

Winter is High Season for Stormwatching

Tofino is the best place for observing mammoth Pacific Coast storms in luxury and comfort

Here’s a wet and wild winter option to languishing on a tropical beach, swatting golf balls on a palm-studded course, cruising calm seas on a big ship or even skiing through down-soft powder snow. If you lust for a combination of excitement and raw natural beauty, think about heading into the teeth of wild winter weather. For a growing cadre of stormwatchers, nothing but nothing beats the Pacific Coast of Vancouver Island off mainland British Columbia’s coast.

There you will find the only stretch of the island’s central coastline with a year-round paved road. Between forested mountains and lakes to the northeast and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest stretches a sliver of Pacific Rim National Park Preserve, known for its fine-sand beaches, rocky headlands embracing scenic bays and coves, and rainforest hiking trails cut through thick old-growth red cedar and Western hemlock.

The Pacific Rim Highway, a two-laner flanked by these towering, moss-draped trees, runs right through the park with Tofino on one end and Ucluelet on the other. These funky hamlets just 25 miles apart enjoy some of western Canada’s mildest winter temperatures and experience some of its heaviest rainfalls and most potent storms. What the 3,000 or so locals endure has made these towns meccas for winter stormwatchers, who treasure this dramatic and remote area to watch Pacific storms roll in with power, fury and wild beauty.

More than 130 inches of average annual rain falls on this part of Vancouver Island, which is nicknamed the Rain Coast. Of that, 20 inches can pour from the skies in a single storm. Even in relatively tranquil periods between storms, impressive swells roll onto shore, crashing against rocky headlands, sliding over the wide beaches, littering the white sand with whiter oyster and clam shells, fringing the tideline with seaweed and rearranging the driftwood.

Eight-foot waves are not uncommon. Add wind and rising tides, and when all the elements of waves and weather converge to create the proverbial perfect storm, waves have been known to crest to 30 or 40 feet, occasionally more. Driftwood isn’t limited diminutive sticks and ordinary-size logs, but includes enormous tree trunks cast upon the beaches and piled into bayheads like spilled toothpicks. Beneath the turbulent waves lie nearly 250 shipwrecks, sunk over two centuries, in the so-called “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

A dozen significant tempests, give or take, hit this coastline each month during storm season, which kicks off in late October or early November and shifts into high gear in January and February. In midwinter, you’ll see curtains of rain, buckets of rain, horizontal sheets of rain, sprays of rain shooting through the salt-kissed air – but rarely snow. It is improbably romantic, whether you prefer to share the raw and invigorating experience of the outdoors, protected by fetching fishermen’s slickers that lodges lend to guests, or to snuggle in the warm, dry coziness of one of the handful of inns and lodges that remain open. Even from indoor comfort, you will be mesmerized as wave after wave washes up on the beach below, crashes onto a nearby cliff, and sprays your double-paned window. You might also luck upon nature’s light show from a winter electrical storm.

During low tides and calm periods, there’s nothing finer than an invigorating walk, either on a trail or directly along the shore. Step onto a beach as the tide goes out and gaze out at the restless sea and down by your feet to examine what the water has deposited on the sand. Still, it is imperative to keep a cautious eye for changing weather, and retreat when the ride begins to change. Beaches can be especially hazardous during a true winter storm, when massive drift logs ride the waves and jumble onto land and pile up like Brobdinagian Pick-Up Sticks. Except during the most potent storms, when hoteliers and innkeepers caution guests to stay inside, you can don heavy-duty raingear and venture out into the weather, staying on marked trails and staying off wet rocks.

The best stormwatching spots include designated safe areas along the well-named Wild Pacific Trail that snakes along the top of sea cliffs and Big Beach, a relatively sheltered, horseshoe-shaped strand near Ucluelet. Radar Hill, crowned by remnants of a long-abandoned World War II installation at nearly 500 feet above sea level, provides a stunning panorama of coves, bays, breakers and clouds but can be terribly windy during a howling storm. Perhaps best of all is the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse overlooking with views of Barkley Sound, Broken Group Islands and the open sea. The operating Canadian Coast Guard Station (below), a squat, square signal structure, is a coastal a landmark at the tip of the peninsula below Ucluelet.

In late February and early March, gray whales begin migrating northward along the coast, and stormwatchers begin to give way to whale watchers. An estimated 20,000 gray whales – the entire North American population of this awesome species – pass close by on their 5,000-nautical-mile journey from mating and calving lagoons of the Sea of Cortes between the Mexican mainland and Baja California, to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. That’s one heck of a commute – and it happens just off-shore of Vancouver Island. Most grays are gone by May, but some spend the entire in Clayoquot Sound, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve just northwest of Tofino.

The rocky headlands jutting out toward the sea offer fine vantage points for spotting these splendid marine mammals, and during the Pacific Rim Whale Festival (Mar. 14-22, 2009), free public viewing stations are set up at Amphitrite Point Lighthouse, and charter boat and floatplane operators from Ucluelet and Tofino begin their season. The festival features 70 events, ranging from a seafood chowder cook-off to an art show.

Wildlife viewing is not restricted to whales. Bald eagles overwintering in this area can often be spotted in sheltered harbors, where they perch on trees or pier pilings in the harbor. The region’s black bears do not go into deep hibernation, so it is not uncommon to see bears even in the wettest weather. By March, you can often spot a bruin or two on skunk cabbage growing in roadside ditches or marshy areas.

Tofino was a fishing town, while Ucluelet’s economy was once based on logging. First Vietnam-era war protestors and later eco-activists added a layer of idealism to the pragmatic working-class popular, which still is only about 3,000 people spread between the two towns. Local business signs now indicate such enterprises as “Massage therapy,” “art gallery,” “fishing charters” and “whale watching trips” now form the base of the local economy.

These days, the economy is tourism-based. Of the several properties that stay open in winter especially for storm-watching and whale-migration season, the first among equals is the Wickaninnish Inn (above), an upscale Relais & Chateaux property that offers a polished version of down-home hospitality. In December, rooms starting at $200 a night — less than half of summer season rates when there’s much less excitement. With a first-rate restaurant and on-site spa, the inn’s early storm-season pricing fits into the “affordable luxury” category. It closes Jan. 2-8 before reopening for high storm-watching season, when room rates are $100 or more higher per night. The reservations number is 800-333-4604.

Galapagos "In Crisis"; Ecuador Might Suspend Tourist Visits

Eleven-and-a-half years ago, we visited the Galapagos, cruising from island to island on a 12-passenger motor-sailer called the “Diamante.” The map on the right, from shows the relationship of these islands, which are 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador, to each other. Our visit was a “National Geographic Special” come to life. The volcanic islands sport rare plant species, and among the many animal species we saw were abundant seals, marine and land iguanas, and many birds, including the world’s most northerly penguin, petrels, flightless cormorants, albatross, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, herons, flamingos and several of the finch species that jump-started Charles Darwin’s thoughts on evolution.

Our too-short visit did not include any island where the archipelago’s famous giant tortoises are still to be found — and it did not include either of the small settlements on the islands of Santa Cruz (where the only tourist town is located) or San Cristobal (site of the Galapagos’ political capital). There was trouble of some sketchily described sort — perhaps between local and mainland fishermen, perhaps between fishing interests and conservationists, perhaps between predatory Japanese fishing fleets and Ecuadorian fishermen, perhaps something else entirely. In any case, we were unable to visit the famous Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz.

Now, El Comercio, an Ecuadorian newspaper, reported on an emergency degree signed by President, Rafael Correa responding to a social and environmental crisis, indicated that he would consider temporarily suspending tourism permits to the Galapagos and enforcing other restrictions to prevent further environmental harm. Sustainability in the face of increased and too loosely regulated tourism, population pressure, threats from invasive non-native species and other critically harmful problems have brought these islands to this crisis state.

“We are pushing for a series of actions to overcome the huge institutional, environmental and social crisis in the islands,” President Correa was quoted as saying. He reportedly ordered the Governor of Galapagos to convene an urgent meeting of the Institute Nacional Galapagos (INGALA) to determine the balance between conservation and development, the potential halt to new tourist permits and even the possible suspension of commercial air service.

Some international reports mistakenly claimed that tourists would be hereafter barred from the Galapagos, though Ecuador, of which claimed the mid-Pacific Galapagos back in 1832, emphasized that tourism might be suspended, not prohibited, and that any suspension would be temporary.

The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) issued a press release affirming “strong support for yesterday’s declaration by Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa that Galapagos is at risk and is a national conservation priority.” International conservation agencies have been monitoring the Galapagos for years, and various Ecuadorian and international organizations have carved out their own little environmental fiefdoms on the environmentally fragile islands and also do not always seem to get along.

A high-level delegation from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, led by Director Francesco Bandarin, is currently or will soon be visiting Ecuador to study the state of Galapagos and make recommendations on whether to list Galapagos as an endangered World Heritage site. Not surprisingly, President Correa claimed that Ecuador does not need attention from international organizations. Leaders of countries that do not or cannot take care of their precious environmental and cultural treasures always say seem to believe things like that.

Since whatever problems kept us off the two inhabited islands more than a decade ago, things have gotten tense. There have been recent reports of an assault on Galapagos National Park rangers who were attempting to stop a kayaking operation on Baltra Island. Hard to believe, gut the rangers were injured by members Ecuador’s own Air Force on a nearby island. Both the commander of the Air Force base and the Puerto Ayora port captain or harbormaster were reportedly relieved of their duties. Pressure is growing to contain and more strictly regulate tourist development, which might be getting out of hand. Still, during our visit, we were impressed by the environmental sensitivity and his by-the-book regard for Galapagos National Park regulations as he shepherded us around the islands. Clearly, things have even changed since our visit.

Easter Island

Way out in the Pacific, 3,700 kilometers or about 2,300 miles from mainland Chile, lies Easter Island — Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui in the increasingly accepted language of Polynesia. It it is the island to which Thor Heyerdahl sailed on the raft ‘KonTiki‘ and which was first reached by airplane from the mainland in 1951. Bottom line is that Rapa Nui remains remote and also mysterious.

It is, however, an increasingly popular tourist destination. Seasoned travelers who have been many other places and seen many other things are drawn to the island’s moai, towering figures carved from volcanic stone, moved to the shoreline and erected, in great feats of engineering for pre-industrial people, on lava-rock platforms (ahu) to guard their respective villages. Rapa Nui National Park is unsurprisingly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of the 887 known moai, 288 were set upon platforms, 98 fell or were abandoned and 397 were unfinished and still stand or lie in the Rano Rotaku quarry. I don’t know where the rest are or their condition — and I’m not sure that archaeologists do either. Some moai feature topknots of a red stone called scoria from the smaller Puna Pau quarry. The moai are tall (average, about 13 feet) and heavy (12.5 tons). They faced inland rather than toward the sea, because inhabitants were each others’ foes. They were meant to be seen from the carved front, and each one has a different face — much like the terracotta army in Xi’an, China. The moaisbacks are flat — by necessity because they were carved while lying on the ground. Archaeologists have restored some sites. Others remain primitive.

On the island’s northeast coast is “the navel of the world,” a round, squat black rock with four smaller sit-upon rocks around it. People hunker there to meditate, contemplate, commune with spirits, admire the view or wonder why compasses swing around madly when near the rock.

The spectacular and mesmerizing south coast is worthwhile for watching and photographing the big South Pacific rollers roiling and boiling and crashing onto the black coastal cliffs. The island was once heavily treed, but now the vegetation is largely grass. Stands of introduced eucalyptus grow where once there were palm species.

An unpaved road climbs to the top of Maunga Pu A Tiki, a dormant volcano in whose water-filled crater rafts of vegetation float like little islands. Beyond, at the tip of Poike Peninsula is a curious seasonal colony where Easter Islanders, long after the days of the moaicarvers, lived while they selected their annual leader. The bizarre ritual involved deputizing someone to swim to a nearby rock and find the first egg laid that spring by a particular bird. The leader selected in this strange way lived like a hermit during his rule. Visit yourself and hear the whole strange tale, but also know that the missionaries put an end to it. Rapa Nui is now enthusiastically Catholic, and visitors are invited to the exuberant, music-heavy Mass at the church in Honga Roa. The church is packed every Sunday, beginning at 9:00 a.m.

Honga Roa is, in fact, the island’s only town. Accommodations range from simple hostels to the luxurious Explora Lodge, currently located in a leased private vacation retreat but with plans to build a new property in the next couple of years. Numerous restaurants and abundant shops are scattered along the town’s streets. Consider signs with posted opening hours to be guidelines.

Whether you are looking for fine crafts or mass-produced souvenirs, you’ll find them in many small shops and in two multi-stall crafts markets, one on Tu’u Kohinu (one block to the left of the church) and one that is half crafts market and half produce market at the corner of Tu’u Maheke and Atamu Tekena. Prices vary, so shop around. Don’t be afraid to bargain, especially if you are buying several items, but don’t expect huge price breaks either.

The greatest variation was for what appears to be the only English guidebook to the island, Rapa Nui by Daniel Pardon . We found it at the archaeological museum for more than US$70. Gasp! That is high even for a glossy four-color job, but for that money, there should be an index. We bought it anyway because we were driving around and wanted it for the road. Later, a colleague reported that she had bought it for a few dollars more at a shop in town, but as we were leaving, we spotted it at an airport shop for about half the price. Moral: Try to pick it up on arrival — unless, of course, the prices at various venues have changed.

In the souvenir realm, I found placemats (choice of colors, choice of moai or a still undeciphered writing called rororongo) for as little as ARG$2,000 (US$4) and as much as ARG$5,000 ($10), and small wooden rororongo reproductions in the ARG$25,000 to ARG$35,000 range in town, but for ARG$7,500 at the airport. You have several last chances to shop at the airport. There’s a new brick building with several stalls across from the terminal, numerous stalls in the terminal outside of the security area or in one of several more stalls after the security checkpoint. Abundant, of course, are moai of stone, wood or molded plastic in various sizes and configurations.

The archaeological museum on the outskirts of town is more interpretive than anything else. Relatively few artifacts are on display, but 20,000 are in storage pending money to build a larger building and guard the artifacts. The town cemetery is worth a visit too. There is one ATM on a street called Tu’u Maheke. It currently dispenses cash only to MasterCard holders, but other businesses take other cards as well. The post office is one block over on Te Pito Te Henua. For ARG$1,000 (a little more than US$2), the clerk will stamp your passport with three Easter Island stamps. Scuba divers rave about the clarity of the water. Several dive shops located at the harbor use simple open fishing boats for their dive trips.

Easter Island is open range. Cattle and horses wander all over the countryside, depositing their droppings wherever. Similarly, dogs, cats and even chickens wander around town. They are uncollared but also unmenacing. In town, the streets have been paved but the sidewalks remain hazardous with cracks, gaping holes and some concrete slabs missing and storm drains exposed, so do look where you are stepping — whether to skirt sidewalk obstacles or just to avoid the unpleasantness of animal droppings.

The moai deserve more time than most bus and van tours permit, so renting is recommended. Rentals for small 4WD cars are surprisingly reasonable, and gas isn’t too expensive either. Roads from Hanga Roa directly to the most popular sites are paved, but others are not. Tourists on organized tours are never out and about during the fine dawn and dusk light, and the quarry where the majority of moai are found is not included in most tours but is quickly offered for $40 extra. If you take such a tour, cough up the 40, because the quarry should not be missed.