Thursday, November 6, 2008

Top o' the World, Ma!

Hi all Su here again..  Well after our adventurous few days in McGrath we flew back to Anchorage and the following morning boarded 'The Aurora Winter Train' to Fairbanks on the Alaskan Railway . 

The Alaskan railway

Known as one of the most beautiful railway journey in the world its just under 400km long and cruising along between 25 to 40km an hour it takes a lengthy 12 hours.

Winter wonderland  

Sitting back and enjoying the view is the order of the day, as you meander thru 3 huge mountain ranges heading due north right through the center of Alaska.

Rudolf the red nosed reindeers!

This pic was taken as we travelled over a huge gorge and at 25km an hour the icy wind was unbearably cold hence the red noses.

A train with a view

As we pass hundreds of kilometres of breath taking scenery the sun sets and we arrive in Fairbanks ready to see the star attraction of Northern Alaska.... The Aurora Borealis also known as The Northern Lights..

Railway sunset

So we check into our hotel where we plan to stay for 8 nights to give us a good chance to see the Aurora.  They had an Aurora wake up call service, so we expected that as soon as the lights begin to dance in the sky (which is normally from 1am to 5am) they are on the phone to you telling you to put your woollies on and head outside to see the show.  It takes a certain conditions for the Aurora to be visible, firstly you need a clear nights sky, ideally a half or smaller moon and of course good aurora activity which fluctuates nightly.  Luckily there is an aurora forecast web site to give you an idea of the nights activity.  Much to our dismay after 4 clear nights and lots of forecasted activity later we are still waiting on our wake up call...  So the next night we take matters into our own hands and on went the thermals, fleeces, woollies, hats, scarf's, gloves, 2 pairs of socks, heavy boots, down jacket, water proof outer jacket and a few warming glasses of red wine in us, we braved the -15 Degree Celsius temperatures and stepped outside our hotel in the hope of seeing anything floating around the sky!!  We trudge along in the snow freezing our bums off heading North for the best viewing possibility.  So here we are standing in the middle of the garden at 1.30am in sub zero temperatures looking at what we think is long thin cloud, slightly illuminated by the city lights.  "Is that it?", " No, I think it's a cloud!", " Is it moving?", "No", "Well Maybe", "No it's not", "Then again!"....  So after a few minutes of, I'm sure you'll agree, a very intelligent discussion we both stood dumb struck staring at the sky as our 'cloud' snaked slowly, but surely diagonally over our heads and split into 2 long tubes of luminous green light that literally floated and danced above us for around 5 minutes..

Northern Lights

I know the photos looks like a green spludges and very unexciting, I'm surprised anything came out at all, but we're happy to have some record of it. 

Northern Lights 2

We were so excited to see what we were seeing.  It was truly amazing and was the very reason why we travelled so far north Alaska to the middle of nowhere.  I was so awestruck that I forgot I even had a camera in my had, I didn't want to take my eyes off the sky in case I missed anything.  We're very lucky to have seen what we did..

Northern Lights 3

So for the next few nights we religiously donned our thermals and faced the cold only to see a big black sky above.  It really made us appreciate what we saw that night and even though we only got to see it the once we were happy that luck was on our side that night...

During our stay in North Alaska we thought that a trip to the Arctic Circle would be in order.  Mmm Apparently -15 Degree Celsius wasn't cold enough for us.  So with all our woollies in hand we started on the 16 hour round trip to the Arctic Circle.  First we passed the famed Alaskan Gas Pipeline which runs from the north to south of Alaska to be refined and shipped out to the rest of the world.

Alaskan Pipeline

Half way there we stopped off at a Roadhouse for a toilet break.  It consisted of a 'closed for the winter' Roadhouse and a few loghouse longdrop loos, similar to the one that Chris was on in McGrath.  I was not looking forward the experience with all my layers on I was frozen solid so the thought to going to the loo al fresco Arctic style was not what I'd call a holiday,but you gotta do what you gotta do and you don't hang around!!!

Nearly there!

As we drove along we clock the temperature gauge in the car getting lower and lower and the surrounding terrain getting less and less hospitable, the coldest temp we got to was -27C!!! This photo below was taken in an area where the temperature was about -20C with a wind chill factor that brought it much lower and even Pete who has a in built furnace was bitterly cold.  We welcomed the warm chocolate our driver had for us when we got back to the van..

On the way to the Artic Circle

After 8 hours driving and travelling through many different terrains and weather fronts here we are, the Arctic Circle, sure it just looks like at plaque in the middle of nowhere but it felt pretty special, considering we would never willingly venture this far north again as long as we both shall live!!

We finally made it

We were lucky to have such a clear day and could see for miles of empty lands around us.  It was very quiet and peaceful and we really felt like we were on top of the world.. 

Southbound again we were heading back to Fairbanks to cook up one of many wild Alaskan Salmon Dinners...

Mmm wild Alaskan Salmon

Joseph, the owner of the hostel where we stayed in Anchorage gave us a gift of this huge Wild Alaskan Salmon, it weighed a ton and fed us for nearly a week!!! Yum...We left Alaska with many happy and funny memories and if anyone out there is willing to brave the cold it is truly a holiday of a life time.

Next stop Vegas... We unexpectedly had to overnight in Vegas before flying to Toronto.  On the flight we flew over the Grand Canyon and got some stunning views, which was a bonus.  Vegas isn't what you would call a backpackers destination so we were pretty annoyed with the layover expecting high accommodation rates, but we hit the Internet and got the hotel deal of a lifetime. We stayed in the Tropicana Casino Resort which in on the main Vegas strip, for any one that's been there already it's just across the road from New York, New York and Luxor. Great location..

A room with a view

This photo was taken from our room, amazing, and all for just $40,unfortunately we didn't have time to enjoy the pool!  To make up for it, we ate all around us at the hotel buffet for half nothing, great for the hungry backpacker.  Both Pete and I had been to Vegas before so we were happy just to wander along the strip and soak up the atmosphere.

Ooh la la!

  There's nothing like strolling past Paris on the way to New York...

The City that never sleeps

We even caught the water show at the Belagio..

Water wonderland

Before heading back to our room to enjoy a glass of wine and admire the colourful view...

Next morning we head back to the airport on the way to Toronto...  Stay tuned for the final blog installation, We're nearly home....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Anchorage to McGrath

After the heat of Hawaii things are starting to get a little chillier. Our travels are taking us to the wilds of Alaska! Su has been dreading this part of the trip for the best part of the year but I've managed to drag her (kicking and screaming) along. We arrived in Anchorage and literally chilled for a few days to acclimatise. To be honest we don't have too much to say about Anchorage except that the people are nice and the city has an amazing backdrop - here's a photo of the local Walmart for example:


The mountains in the background are stunning (when you can see them). My main reason for coming to Alaska (as silly as it sounds) was to visit a place I read about roughly 10 years ago called McGrath. It's a little village in the middle of Alaska that was named after a U.S. Marshall called Peter McGrath.

McGrath Map

As good a reason as any to visit a place. This is nearly as remote as you get in Alaska (the population is less than 300 in the winter) so we weren't too sure what to expect. However, we booked our ticket....

Boarding Pass to the airport...

McGrath Departure

...and boarded our 30 seater plane for 2 days of wilderness! If you think a 30 seater plane is small, just wait.

Small plane

We had two goals for the trip: I wanted to find out some more information about the Peter McGrath that the town was named after, and Su wanted to see a moose. We didn't want to aim too high just in case. We landed in McGrath at around 9:30 in the morning and hit the main street:

Main Street McGrath

We saw Hotel McGrath just by the airport:

Hotel McGrath

but being poor backpackers we weren't staying there. A short walk down the road was the cafe which had a few rooms above it - not as fancy as the hotel but fine for us.

Su outside the Cafe

We were sort of at a loss for something to do at this stage so we went for a walk around the town and less than an hour later got back to the cafe having seen what we though was pretty much everything. How wrong we were. Not sure what else to do, we relied on instinct and had some pizza at the cafe (very good!) and hit one of the two pubs in the town: Joes Bar.

Joes Bar

It serves the best (and only) draft beer in McGrath! Certainly good enough for the likes of us!

Things pretty much took off from there. We had been a bit worried that we had spent one of our two days in McGrath walking around, eating pizza, and going to the pub - which we could (and do) pretty much do anywhere but all that changed when we got talking to this guy:


Chris! Local jack-of-all-trades from lumber to whatever you need, he's your man. We told him what we were doing in his fine town and he got a great kick out of it. Soon all the bar knew about our great adventure in McGrath (there were about 5 people in the bar including us and Nick the barman). The other person in the bar was Camille and she headed off and came back a few minutes later with a bag of her finest homemade Smoked Wild Alaskan Salmon strips and Moose jerky - both of which were delicious - these were bar snacks Alaskan style!

As the evening wore on we met more and more people - all of which were friendly and delighted that two Irish eejits went out of their way to visit their town. Chris, acting as our agent, rang the radio station and booked us in for an interview first thing in the morning (sounded like a great idea after a skinful of pints). He also promised us that he would pick us up afterwards and bring us around to a couple of the sights. We staggered home in the -10 degree cold to the cafe, happy with the way the night had gone and very unhappy after discovering that even with thermal underwear, 4 layers, and our beer-coats on, -10 degrees is COLD!!!

The next day was the busiest day we've had since our journey began. We awoke early to head over to the radio station: KSKO.

Radio station under snow

We had around a half hour interview with Mike Lane the local (and only) DJ where we told him about our travels and he told us a little about the area. It was a good laugh.

Radio Interview

Su thought she'd be clever and stand by the doorway talking photographs but Mike wasn't having any of it and called her in, live on air, and grilled her as much as he had me. We found out that even though not a lot of tourists visit McGrath at this time of year, they expected the first heavy fall of snow soon which is basically the start of the severe winter so we might get a chance to experience that! As if -10 wasn't cold enough.

After having a cup of Irish tea with Mike and saying our goodbyes, we met Chris at the cafe and he was all set to take us on the grand tour of McGrath! First off was a bit of Moose hunting (well... Moose sighting..) and sure enough, Chris knew just the place. It's amazing how well an animal that big (think of a horse but ganglier) can camouflage itself. Su took quite a few photographs (with me hiding behind) and this is the clearest:


This was a female Moose, hence no antlers.

Next we took a trip to McGrath Air Terminal. Not to be confused with McGrath air strip where the commercial flights land (like the one we got to McGrath). This Air Terminal is a privately owned business which flies goods and post to even smaller, even more inaccessible nearby villages in ridiculously small one-engine planes. Anyway, Chris rocks up there and asks if myself and Su can hop on board on the runs for an eagle eye view of McGrath. We were told that if there was room, there'd be no problem. An hour later we were hopping into this:

Smaller plane

and flying over this:

Kuskokwim River

This is the Kuskokwim river on which McGrath resides. It meanders quite a bit, as you can see. This is the real Alaska folks! We landed on the side of a mountain in a place called Takotna, helped unload the airplane, and took off back to McGrath - all done in less than 30 minutes.

After the flight, we thought it was time to find out a big more about this McGrath fella so we took a walk to the museum. So, here he is: Peter H McGrath:

Peter H McGrath

I don't know, Chris was beside himself when he saw the photo - he thought the resemblance was uncanny. I myself wasn't too sure. He IS a handsome guy though....

I'll leave it up to you to decide. Here's some info about him (if you can make it out):

PMG Info

Chris picked us up again to take us around the some the local sights. He introduced us to Donne - she is one of the native Alaskans who live in McGrath and she kindly allowed Chris to show us her homestead - a magnificent log cabin with surround forest and incredible view (it even had it's own outdoor wood-fired sauna folks!):

Native log cabin 

View from the log cabin 

We also paid a visit to Donne's fathers house which had it's own airstrip! Incredible!

We took a trip to Mount McKinley lookout (Mount McKinley being the highest mountain in the U.S.and the second highest in the world!) but the weather was closing in. We just had time to stop by a friend of Chris's who was building his own log cabin. He and his (pregnant) wife were living in a wall tent while they built their house. A wall tent is a military-style canvas and plastic waterproof tent. It had a stove, so they were alright. Hardy people these Alaskans. The picture of Chris at the start of the blog was in their outhouse. This picture is of their cabin:

Log Cabin

They've got quite a bit to go.

By the time we got back to the town the river looked like this:

River icing over

It was getting down to -15 Celsius now - it seemed we got there for the heavy snow! Nothing for it but to hit the bar again where we met even more people and heard even more amazing stories! One guy we met who worked as a gold miner gave us a gold nugget as a souvenir! A gold nugget!!! We bought him a Budweiser but it didn't seem like enough compensation somehow...

The next day we awoke to this:


We were told that it was 50/50 if we'd get out of McGrath. There are certainly worse places to be but we had to catch a train to Fairbanks the next day. All of a sudden the incoming flight landed and we were boarded without delay. It was all too quick as we didn't get to say goodbye and thank everyone that we should. We had an amazing two days in McGrath and the people there should be proud of what they have. If your name is McGrath, or if you want to see a bit of real Alaska, I highly recommend it! You can't go wrong! They've done the name proud!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hawaii 5-oh!

Hi all, Daisy here, I'm afraid that I'm being inflicted upon you as I've joined the Pete and Su travelling circus in Hawaii. I came all the way from Ireland and Pete and Su came from Japan and we met smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the island of Oahu. It really does feel like being in the centre of the world.

Chillin' in Dukes Bar

Hawaii lived up to my expectations from the moment I arrived, the night before Pete and Susan. The warm balmy air, that Hawaiin breeze (now I know why it's called that) - bit slow on the uptake sometimes - it's all exactly as you'd expect. Beautiful clear seas, gently waving palm trees, everyone saying 'Aloha!'

Sunset on Waikiki Beach 2

I met the guys off their flight from Japan and we went straight to our hotel/condo just two blocks from the beach in Waikiki.

Sunset on Waikiki Beach

The one thing we were all agreed on was that this was going to be a real holiday - no frantic activity. Just lying horizontal for as much as possible and soaking up the rays. And maybe a bit of reading.

Pete & Su reading my Book!!!!

Unfortunately for me, Pete and Su are currently the colour of the mahongany conkers falling out of the trees at home. And me, well let's just say that I'm, ahem, of a more pasty -haven't - seen - the - sun - in - two - years -  complexion. Although I have gone a lovely shade of red by now. Just in time for home. If anyone asks me did I leave my tan behind they'll get a smack.

We did manage to unpeel ourselves from beside our gorgeous pool in the hotel intermittently to go out for beers, more beers, some food and yet more beers. And wine.

Champagne in the sun

Our room has a kitchen and Susan has been happily chained to the kitchen sink cooking us breakfast every day, we've renamed her Mrs Mop. She and Pete are loving the novelty of home cooking and having the TV on tap. Backpackers eh?! They're such cheap dates.

Different Day different Sunset!

Oh, and we did do some sightseeing. The last time Susan was here she was throwing herself out of airplanes and taking surf lessons. This time I'm glad to say that they were both sufficiently exhausted to be content to just check out the North Shore and Pearl Harbour.

Beautiful North Shore

The North Shore was amazing. I'm a total armchair surfer, more happy to watch it than actually try it. The North Shore of Oahu is the spiritual home of surfers and surfing everywhere. There are bays and stretches of beach that have seen some of the biggest waves ever surfed and it's where the triple crown competition take place every year in November and December.

Su & Pete on the North Shore

One particular place is called the Banzai Pipeline, so called because of the way the waves break, forming a pipeline like structure. Around this time of year the sea is becoming more and more rough, the winter swells growing all the time. When we got to the beach it was practically empty, just a few surfers in the sea. Just acres and acres of gorgeous sandy beach stretching away either side. Paradise. We decided to take a dip to cool off. The sea looked choppy but we had no idea how strong the currents were.

Surfer Girl

I'll admit I had visions of finding myself in a compromising position with a surfer, but I ended up in a much more compromising position when I was all but hurled back onto the beach, spat out by a huge wave with my bikini almost gone and halfway to Japan. Needless to say Susan fell around the place laughing and it took a long, long time to get all the sand out of cracks and crevices that haven't seen such action in ages.

North Shore

We survived the pipeline and had a delicious pizza and some beers in a little place called Hale'iwa. Just so you know, if you ever come here and visit the North Shore, Hale'iwa is the best place for getting food and drinks. Around the pipeline and Sunset Beach, it's surprisingly sparse in that there's not really any bars/restaurants. We figured it's because the community are determined to keep this whole part of Oahu strictly surfing, and not have the hordes of tourists thronging the beach at Waikiki.

USS Arizona Memorial Pearl Harbour

We also went to Pearl Harbour and that was very interesting, just to see the area where such carnage happened in one day. There's a monument that sits right over the sunken wreck of the battleship Arizona and you can look down and see the ship beneath, rusting and still leaking small amounts of oil into the water.

The sunken Arizona

It's a very moving experience as all of the men who were on the ship and died when it went down are still entombed within the wreck.

It's now our last day, I'm off back to the other side of the world, leaving here at 4.30am. Pete and Su will be off on their next leg to Alaska. I'd definitely come back, if only just to brave the North Shore waters again and this time try and arrange it so that I have my near drowning and unwitting bikini removal near a gorgeous surfer who can save me...

Anyone for a swim!!!