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Bora Bora: The St. Regis

The deck and private pool at our Royal Overwater Bungalow

Our last stop in Bora Bora was at the St. Regis, the other Starwood property on the island. Since we were making the trip, it made sense to check out both hotels if for no other reason than to figure out which one we like better. After our time at the St. Regis, it’s safe to say that it’s the better Starwood in Bora Bora and one of the most stunning hotels we’ve ever visited.

St. Regis Bora Bora Polynesian Show fire dancers

Like the Le Meridien, we hopped in a golf cart after checking in and were taken to our bungalow. Upon arriving, I immediately made a fool of myself, asking “do all of the bungalows have stone entryways?” Turns out, thanks to Kristen’s hard-earned Starwood status, we had been upgraded to a two bedroom Royal Overwater Bungalow, one of 5 at the hotel and second only to the absolutely ridiculous Royal Estate. After picking our jaws up off of the floor, we explored our new home and caught sight of a stingray family swimming underneath before taking a dip in the pool and the lagoon.

Lagoon by Jean-Georges at the St. Regis Bora Bora

After exploring the hotel a little more, we cleaned up for the Polynesian buffet dinner at Te Pahu, one of the hotel’s four restaurants. While I’m sure all of the food (except the fish) was imported from who-knows-where, it was the best meal we had on the trip. After dinner, we stuck around for our second Polynesian show of the week before wandering off again to check out some of the other parts of the hotel, including Lagoon, one of the other restaurants that overlooks, you guessed it, the Bora Bora lagoon.

Enjoying the Bora Bora lagoon

We spend our next and final day in Bora Bora soaking up as much water, sand and sun as possible, testing out every body of water and beach available at the hotel. Though the lagoonarium didn’t have any turtles (the only downside of the hotel, if you can call it that), the entire experience was one we won’t soon be forgetting and hope to repeat in the near future.

We caught the boat back to the airport in the afternoon for our return flight to Tahiti. Due to the flight schedules, we had another two nights there, so we ventured into town and did some shopping. Dinner was at the hotel that night, where we saw our final (and the best) Polynesian show of the trip. The next morning was an early wake up call for the flight back to Auckland.

Bora Bora is really one of those places that has to be seen to be appreciated. It’s one of the top destinations for a reason: remote, pristine and absolutely spectacular. I hope you, dear reader, have the chance to visit some day (and I hope that you take us along with you!)

Sunset over the Bora Bora Lagoon

Bora Bora: Sharks, Jet Skis and Beaches

Swimming with Blacktip Reef Sharks

It would certainly be easy to spend all day in Bora Bora relaxing on the beach, but there’s plenty of other stuff to do as well, so we thought we’d take advantage. There’s a huge list of activities offered by the Le Meridien, but after talking to the staff, we decided on two: the highly rated Ray and Shark Feeding excursion and the Jet Ski tour.

The Ray and Shark Feeding excursion departed early the next morning from the hotel. After a bit of orientation, we were soon on our way to the first of three sites, where we would jump in the water with some blacktip reef sharks. There were plenty of jokes about sharks eating tourists and the like, but in reality they aren’t aggressive and would require some serious provoking before they’d even think of attacking. In our case, they were far more interested in their usual food (chum tossed in the water by our guides) than the curious onlookers in the water with them. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be a bit nervous when getting in the open ocean with dozens of sharks.

Playing with stingrays

Our next stop took us to a shallow part of the lagoon populated by a large group of stingrays. Our guide hopped in the water and lured in one swimming near his feet. Though a bit feisty at first, the stingray was pretty calm by the time we got in the water. We took turns petting it before our guide gave it a big sloppy kiss for the camera. Lest you be concerned for the stingray’s welfare, they seem to be pretty used to the attention, since multiple excursions are out there every day and the guides feed them in exchange for their trouble.

Busted by the fuzz!

Our third and final stop was to a reef home to hundreds of brightly colored fish. After swimming with the fish for a while, we started our journey back to the hotel. About halfway back though, we were stopped by the local police. Unable to understand much French, we didn’t really know what was going on, but we were told it was something about not wearing lifejackets. I’m not sure if our guides ended up with a citation, but it made for a rather interesting end to the tour. An excellent excursion overall though, highly recommended for your visit.

Our jetski tour was the following day, so we met our tour guide on the hotel’s beach and were on our merry way. Now, you may think you have a great job, maybe even one of the best. But I’ll tell you, after talking to our guy, I’m pretty sure that “Bora Bora Jet Ski Tour Guide” is the best job out there. What’s not to love? Apparently he’s been there for 4 years and will be returning to France soon, so there may be an opening coming up. Act fast, I’m sure the position won’t be open for long!

Jetskiing by some bungalows

Our tour took us on a loop through the lagoon around the main island, with the occasional stop for some history or information about the area. We saw a couple World War II installations on the hillside and some of the smaller, privately owned islands. About midway through the tour, we stopped at another shallow portion of the lagoon, tied the jetskis together and just enjoyed the water and scenery. After a while, when the pineapple and coconut ran out, we returned to the jetskis and made our way back to the hotel.

A resident of the Lagoonarium

Left with a little more time after the tour, we headed over to the hotel’s lagoonarium. As you may recall, the Le Meridien is home to a turtle sanctuary. Though the youngsters are kept in a more protected area, the adults are free to roam through the enclosed lagoon and interact with the hotel’s guests. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to hang out with some turtles, we jumped in the water and started swimming. Turns out, the lagoon is pretty big, so it actually can take a bit to find them, but find them we did.

This was our last day at the Le Meridien, so we parted ways with the turtles and retreated to the bungalow to clean up and pack. But our trip wasn’t over yet. Since Kristen still had a few Starpoints left, we planned to visit both of the Starwood hotels in Bora Bora. Next stop, the St. Regis!

Pure relaxation

Bora Bora: Arrival and the Le Meridien

Bora Bora from the Air Tahiti flight

Though geographically remote, Tahiti feels like most other tropical island destinations. There are still shopping centers, lots of restaurants and supermarkets with plenty of American food (including some that can’t be found in Australia… jackpot!) Bora Bora, on the other hand, feels like miles away from everything. Perhaps it’s the landscape or the insulated nature of the resorts, but the place is just a pure escape from reality.

Bora Bora taxi line

The Air Tahiti flight from Papeete was only about an hour with a stop in the middle at Moorea, another nearby island. The views from the propeller-driven plane were spectacular, serving to heighten the anticipation of the travelers (mostly honeymooners, couples celebrating anniversaries and the occasional professional athlete). After a great flyby of the island, we landed on the solitary airstrip and headed over to baggage claim. The airstrip on Bora Bora was actually the first on French Polynesia, built by the U.S. military during World War II as part of their fortification of the island. Perhaps not the legacy that we would like to leave behind, but the activity and infrastructure no doubt promoted economic growth on the island.

Our overwater bungalow at the Le Meridien

After collecting our bags, we walked outside and met our boat to take us to the hotel. Since the airport and each of the hotels sit on their own island, the only way to get around is by boat. Not that this is a bad way to travel… more anticipation and excitement. After a quick 15 minute ride to the Le Meridien, we checked in and took a quick tour of the hotel before hopping on a golf cart (seriously) and heading to our bungalow.

"Tahitian Television"

Of the many iconic elements of Bora Bora, the overwater bungalows stand out as one of the most recognizable. Though you can get beach- or lagoon-front bungalows as well, if you’re making the trip, why not go for over the water? Each bungalow comes with its own balcony and ladder directly into the lagoon below and is connected by a series of golf cart-size catwalks back to the main hotel. You also get what’s called a “Tahitian Television”, which is, well, just check out the picture.

The Le Tipanie restaurant

After settling in and unpacking a bit, we set out to explore some more of the hotel. In addition to the sets of overwater bungalows, there were also several larger units on the edge of the lagoonarium. A combination of a lagoon and an aquarium, the Le Meridien’s lagoonarium is basically a giant swimming pool inhabited by a variety of fish and turtles. We finished off the night at the hotel’s main restaurant, Le Tipanie. Situated on the edge of the lagoonarium, you can check out the fish and turtles while enjoying dinner thanks to the underwater lighting. The meals were great – local fare and an elaborate buffet – but the setting stole the show.

It’s difficult to articulate the serenity of a place like Bora Bora. As habitual city-dwellers, Kristen and I are pretty used to a constant level of ambient noise and activity. Here, there’s nothing between you, the sand, the sun and the sky, and endless ocean between you and the rest of the world. It really has to be experienced to be understood. Of course, there are still plenty of activities if you’re interested, and we were. Stay tuned 🙂

Ryan, Kristen and Mount Otemanu

May Vacation: Tahiti and Bora Bora

Kristen’s accelerated MBA schedule doesn’t leave a lot of time for breaks, but she does get a couple weeks off between terms. As our available vacation time was quickly filling up, we decided to spend two weeks in May visiting a place we were unlikely to return to in the near future (if ever). After considering a few options in the area, we decided on a trip to Tahiti and Bora Bora.

On a Tahitian rainforest safari

Few destinations are as remote as French Polynesia. Most of the other comparable destinations are still close to another major landmass (Maldives – Sri Lanka; Seychelles and Mauritius – Madagascar). Not Tahiti… 5 hours from Auckland, 8 from LA, it’s a few scraps of volcanic land a long way from just about everywhere. Maybe it’s the remoteness that makes it particularly appealing, or maybe people just like Vin Diesel. Whatever the reason, Tahiti and Bora Bora appear near the top of many must-visit lists and it’s not hard to see why.

Fording the river

There is no direct service from Sydney to Papeete, so our itinerary took us through Auckland before we boarded one of Air Tahiti Nui’s colorful Airbus A340s. The main focus of the trip was four days in Bora Bora, but the flight schedules to and from Australia didn’t mesh cleanly with the domestic Air Tahiti island service, so we spent a couple nights in Tahiti on either end of the trip.

The Le Meridien Tahiti

We spent our first full day in Tahiti on a safari through the rain forest in the mountainous interior of the island, fording rivers and checking out the local and introduced flora while en route to the crater lake in the center. On the way we stopped at a small resort close to the center of the island, one of the few signs of civilization during the entire trip (almost all of Tahiti’s inhabitants live on the coast). Though the weather was fantastic for most of the trip, by the time we made it to the crater, a light drizzle and some fog had rolled in and blocked the view.

The lizards, they're everywhere!

We made our way back to the island’s edge and hopped off the safari in town to meet our next pickup, a shuttle to a restaurant called Le Belvedere. Situated on the mountains, the restaurant overlooked all of Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. The food was nothing to write home (or blog) about but the view was quite nice. We were also introduced to a few members of the island’s lizard population, situated motionless throughout the restaurant. We didn’t notice them at first, but once you see one, you start to find them everywhere.

After spending the following morning relaxing by the pool, it was time to head back to the airport. Next stop, Bora Bora!

On the way to Bora Bora!

Melbourne Road Trips: Phillip Island and the 12 Apostles

A resident of Phillip Island's Koala Conservation Centre

Like almost every city in Australia, Melbourne lies in close proximity to a variety of natural attractions and national parks. As part of our long Easter weekend in Melbourne, we set out to visit two of the most popular attractions in the area: Phillip Island and the world famous Twelve Apostles. Despite a minor mishap with the rental car (seems that the office closed earlier than we expected), we first set off on our day trip to Phillip Island, home of the Koala Conservation Centre, the Nobbies, and the Penguin Parade.

Check under your car for penguins!

Until this point we actually hadn’t seen any of Australia’s most famous marsupials in real life, so the trip to visit the koalas was particularly exciting. Though the koalas were the main attraction, the centre was also home to a number of other Australian animals, like wallabies and echidnas. Since koalas are difficult to spot in the wild, there were plenty of raised catwalks through the trees so that visitors could get up close and personal. Unfortunately, though there are places where you can hold a koala, this wasn’t one of them, so we had to be content with just observing.

After a quick stop at the Nobbies, a lookout point on the western edge of Phillip Island, we made our way to the Penguin Parade, the island’s most famous attraction. Every night, hundreds of Little Penguins make their way in from the ocean, up the beach and past bleachers of onlooking spectators to return to their burrows. We were lucky enough to arrive at the right time: the tide was on its way out and had just finished washing over the bottom rows of bleachers when we made our way toward the beach, so we got a front row seat. As camera flashes hurt young penguin eyes, photography was not allowed, but there were plenty of opportunities to get up close to the little birds. Some do travel pretty far inland though, so make sure to check under your car when you leave!

Driving the Great Ocean Road

After a day or two back in Melbourne, we left on our second road trip to the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles. Often listed as one of the world’s great scenic drives, the Great Ocean Road winds down the south-eastern coast of Australia and passes by beaches, rainforests and other natural landmarks. Built by soldiers coming back from World War 1, the road also holds the distinction of the largest war memorial, dedicated to the casualties of the war.

The Loch Ard Gorge

Starting in Melbourne, we worked our way down the coast past beaches and through little towns until we arrived in Lorne, one of the larger towns on the road, and stopped for lunch. From there we continued on, making a quick stop in Apollo Bay for gas, with the intention of reaching the Twelve Apostles just before sunset. Unfortunately, there was some traffic just as we were nearing our destination, so by the time we got to the area, the sun had already set.

The 12 Apostles

We continued on to Port Campbell to find our motel and crashed for the night, planning to get up early the next morning so we could both see the rock formations and ensure that we would make it back to Melbourne by noon (stores close pretty early on holidays in Australia, if they’re open at all). After an early wake up call, we were back on our way, stopping first by the Loch Ard Gorge, a natural inlet named for a ship that ran aground there in 1878.

Our last stop was at the Twelve Apostles, a collection of limestone stacks off the coastal cliffs near Port Campbell. The site has gone through a few different names over the years, but, despite the name, has never actually had more than 9 stacks. The current count is 8 stacks, as one of them fell down in 2005 due to the continued erosion that created them in the first place. It was rather cold in the morning, so we didn’t get to any of the beaches, but there are some great lookout points in the national park. Overall, absolutely worth the trip… the formations are pretty cool.

Our sightseeing over, we took the inland roads back to the highway on our return trip since they were a bit shorter and we were on a schedule. A great way to spend part of the Easter weekend though, just make sure to book your accommodations early and pick up your rental car before noon 🙂

At the Nobbies on Phillip Island

Visiting Melbourne: Touring the City

The Melbourne Skyline from Southbank

Though Sydney tends to represent Australia on the world stage, with its famous landmarks and endless beaches, it has not always been Australia’s most important or populous city. From the 1850’s gold rush through the early 20th century, Melbourne was larger and growing faster than Sydney and was the country’s capital prior to the founding of Canberra. As you might expect, this has led to a bit of a rivalry between Sydneysiders and Melbournians, often fueled by business developments or livability rankings. Though the balance has swung back to Sydney’s favor, Melbourne is on track to surpass Sydney in population within the next 30 years.

But too much time spent looking at charts, rankings and statistics does neither city justice; it is only by visiting (and you should!) that you can really understand what makes Melbourne and Sydney different. Luckily for me, while working on a project with a major Australian telecom, I spent a few months living and working right in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD.

Melbourne's free City Circle Tram

If Sydney is New York, Melbourne is probably San Francisco or Los Angeles. Compared to Sydney’s go-go-go business powerhouse-ness, Melbourne has an abundance of cafés, back-alley bars, restaurants and culture combined with an overall laid-back ambiance (which says a lot in Australia). As I’ve told a few different people, I’m happy that we’re living in Sydney for our temporary stay, but if we were to move here permanently we’d probably live in Melbourne.

Despite having spent a few months working there, I hadn’t really experienced the city as a tourist, so when the long Easter weekend rolled around at the end of April, I flew Kristen out so we could actually explore and see some of the sights. Though they are occasionally found in other cities, Melbourne is famous for its abundance of trams. In addition to the ones used by daily commuters, Yarra Trams also operates a free City Circle Tram. Using some of their historic cars, the tram goes in a circle around Melbourne’s CBD and includes an audio tour of some of the city’s highlights. We stopped at Federation Square and the Melbourne Aquarium before heading over to the Crown Casino for dinner.

Australian Rules Football (AFL) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)

If you had to make a list of things Melbournians are passionate about, the AFL would probably be at the top of the list. Though it’s called the Australian Football League, of the 17 teams in the league, 10 are located in or around Melbourne. As such, a proper Melbourne itinerary in the fall/winter isn’t complete without a footy game, and the place to see it is the MCG – Melbourne Cricket Ground. We attended the Geelong vs. Hawthorn game where, despite trailing in the first half of the game, Geelong managed to pull out a victory and remain undefeated in the season.

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant

Our long weekend ended with dinner on Melbourne’s Colonial Tramcar Restaurant. Though a little touristy, the excursion was actually a fun and unique way to see some of the city’s other sights. The experience is pretty much what you’d expect and, though the inside was a bit cozy, it was absolutely worth our while. Though that ended our holiday weekend and I had to return to work, Kristen still had the rest of week off, so she stayed in Melbourne and joined us for a few after-work events, notably Wednesday night bowling at the casino.

Though my Melbourne project assignment has since come to an end, I’m grateful to have spent a good portion of time there. It’s a wonderful place and absolutely deserves its position near the top of the world’s list of most livable cities.

In front of Melbourne's Southgate Footbridge

First-Hand Guide: Traveling to Sydney, Australia

So you’re considering a trip to Australia, yeah? Great! It’s a bit daunting, I know, but once you make it here, you’re bound to have a fantastic time. Hopefully this guide can help answer most of the questions and concerns you might have about making the trip.

Make no mistake about it, Australia is a long way away from, well, almost everything. A flight from Sydney to New Zealand is at least 3 hours, Tokyo is 10 hours and Los Angeles is 14 hours.

Most itineraries from the US will route through either LAX or San Francisco (SFO), and, depending on your preferred airline, you can probably fly to one of those cities directly (United, American and Delta fly direct to LAX from their major and some minor hubs). Depending on your time and airline preference, you also can fly non-stop from Vancouver on Air Canada or, starting in May, you can fly non-stop from Dallas on Quantas, although the DFW-SYD flight stops in Brisbane first.

I’ll use LAX as my example, since that’s what we did. Flights from ORD-LAX are about 3.5 hours; JFK-LAX is about 5. You’ll probably want to give yourself some extra time prior to your international flight, since that gives you a buffer for delays and should increase the chances that your bags will make it.

As I mentioned, LAX-SYD is about 14 hours. Flights usually leave between 9-11pm and land at around 6am two days later. We left on January 6th and landed on January 8th, so I’m sure something interesting happened on January 7th, but I wasn’t there for it! Of course, you regain that lost day on the way back (you land the same day as you take off). You’ll be flying on a large plane, probably a 747, so there will be movies and other entertainment available.

It’s not a fun flight, but if you’ve been on other red-eyes, it doesn’t feel that much different. I personally didn’t really notice much of a difference compared to my flights to Brazil and Chile (10 hours apiece). You leave at night and arrive in the morning, so a few hours here and there don’t really make much of a difference. Just hope that you can get a bit of sleep on the plane, although it probably won’t make your first day in Australia much easier.

As you might imagine, flights are expensive. Expect to pay at least $1500-$2000 per person for a round trip ticket, depending on when you book and when you want to visit. You can attempt to book with points, but Australia is difficult to obtain using award travel, so you’ll need to be flexible with your itinerary and diligent about calling the airlines for availability.

Fortunately, with each ticket comes two free checked bags on most US carriers, which you’ll want to stick to, since both additional and overweight (>50 lbs) bags cost around $200 apiece each way. Australia is a pretty casual place, so pack light and weigh your bags before you leave home. More information is here, depending on your airline: United – American – Delta.

Once you arrive, you’ll be dealing with an actual time change of around +16 hours (SYD – US EST), though the impact on you is actually only 8 hours (Sydney is 8 hours behind and 1 day ahead of the US East Coast). Based on the rule of thumb that it takes about 1 day per hour of adjustment, it’ll probably take a week before you’re fully adjusted, though you’ll probably feel good enough to stay out all day by your 2nd or 3rd day. I’ve heard that the adjustment during the trip back is more difficult, although I haven’t experienced it yet.

Once you arrive, there are plenty of places to stay, and from what we’ve heard the hotels are pretty good. We haven’t stayed in any of them though, so definitely check out reviews online and see what is available, especially if you have a particular award program affinity.

Sydney is a very walkable city, so I’d recommend booking a hotel that’s reasonably centrally located. If you look near downtown Sydney, known as the CBD (central business district), you’ll probably want to find a hotel bounded by the water on the north and west sides, Elizabeth Street on the east side and Liverpool street on the south side. This will ensure that you’re no more than a 20 minute walk to restaurants, shopping, nightlife and major train, bus and ferry stations.

You can also look for hotels near the beaches (there are some) or use something like VRBO if you want to rent a house. I wouldn’t recommend going too far outside of the city so as to keep your transportation options open, so no farther south than Maroubra or farther north than Dee Why.

Unless you’re planning a trip significantly outside of the city, don’t rent a car. You can get just about anywhere by ferry, bus or train, which is much cheaper, almost as convenient and a better way to experience the city. For day trips, you can usually organize something through a tour company, although the light rail system around Sydney is pretty extensive. Sydney also has car sharing through GoGet and they allow drivers with foreign licenses, so that’s an option for longer stays.

Regarding trip duration, I’d recommend staying for at least 9-10 days, since it’s a long flight to get here and you’ll need at least a day or two in Australia before you’ve adjusted enough to the time change. While there’s plenty to do in Sydney, you also might consider using it as a jumping point to visit other cities/states in Australia (Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Cairns, Perth, Tasmania), other locations (Uluru [Ayers Rock], Great Barrier Reef), or other countries in the neighborhood (New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore). Wikipedia has a great article on Australian landmarks to help you get started.

In short, come visit! As a trip, it’s a significant undertaking, but you won’t regret it, promise 🙂

Category: Australia  Tags: , ,  One Comment
Australia: We made it!

The story really starts a few months ago, when Kristen was notified of her acceptance into UNSW‘s business school. That one email set off a flurry of requests, paperwork, process and relocation that eventually led us to O’Hare International Airport to begin a two day trip to Sydney, our new home for the next 16 months.

The trip itself actually was pretty smooth, with the possible exception of the bag fees that come with checking 6 rather overweight duffels. Fortunately, Kristen still had her 1K status on United and I made it to Premier, so that covered most of the fees, with ThoughtWorks making up almost all of the balance (whew!) After ditching the bags, we made it through a flight from ORD to Denver, waited there for 3 hours, then continued on to Los Angeles to board our 14 hour flight to Sydney.

Flights from LAX to Sydney normally leave between 9pm and 11pm and land between 6am and 8am. You also lose a day, so in our case we left on the evening of the 6th and arrived the morning of the 8th (I’m assuming something interesting happened on the 7th, but we weren’t around for much of it). You gain the day back on the return trip, but it’s still a little weird to miss an entire day.

As it turns out, the trip itself wasn’t all that bad. Having done a few 10 hour red-eyes to South America this year, I didn’t find the trip to Sydney to be all that much worse. You still leave at night and land in the morning, so a couple extra hours here and there don’t really seem all that different.

We flew economy on the 747, so we unfortunately didn’t get to see the upper deck. I hear it’s nice, but it wasn’t worth the cost (something like $13k when Kristen looked). This was our first time on a 747, and while the plane itself isn’t all that remarkable (it’s mostly just bigger), the wings are longer and flex more, so even the slightest turbulence is magnified.

We finally landed in Sydney, breezed through immigration and were thrilled to see that all of the checked luggage made it! While it sucks to sit around the airport during 3 hour layovers, the extra time allows the bags to easily migrate from one plane to the next. We also had a comfortable buffer for any delays, which is helpful when flying through both Chicago and Denver in January.

After pulling together all of our belongings and stuffing our winter coats into what little space remained in the bags, we met up with our ThoughtWorks-arranged driver for a quick trip (20 minutes or so) to our temporary accommodations: a corporate apartment near Chinatown, at the corner of Sussex and Liverpool. The place isn’t bad and is in a pretty good location, but we won’t be here long, so we aren’t really moving in all that much. Besides, there’s still a lot to explore!

Category: Australia  Tags: , ,  2 Comments