Some Pacific Islands and a visit to Cousin Jeremy,
October-November 2010


Pacific route
Seven islands via 13 flights on eight different airlines, and all of them very good! First a stopever in Brunei, then Solomon Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Fiji, Wallis, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, with stopovers in Brisbane and a trip to Cairns in between.
 

Sun Oct 10th.  Flew to Brunei, arriving on Monday 11th.  The great majority of the people on the plane were flying on to Australia or New Zealand so the airport officials were surprised when we refused their invitation to the transit lounge.  There’s a regular airport bus which we discovered would drop us right outside our hotel, so we were patiently waiting for it outside the arrivals lounge when we noticed it leaving from departures, and had to pick up our stuff and run after it.  The Terrace Hotel just on the edge of the town centre is friendly and good value although it could do with a fresh coat of paint. 

Regalia museum
After a bit of a freshen-up we walked towards the town and diverted into the spectacular Royal Regalia Museum which is huge and has no entrance fee.  As the guide book says, visiting heads of state were confronted with the question: what do you give as a gift to the man who has everything?  And you can see a selection of their answers around the gallery of the museum.


Further down the main street, Jalan Sultan, we came to the restaurants block and stopped for lunch at De Royalle Cafe where we had excellent fish and chips (Sheila's homesick already) and chicken satay (I'm getting into the local culture).  Suddenly a tropical downpour started so we sat cozily under our big umbrella outside the restaurant for a while, but when it showed no sign of stopping we went to the nearby bus station and got a bus back to the Terrace.  As soon as we were there it stopped raining.

Stilt village and mosque
Later as dusk fell we went for a boat ride on the Brunei river, past the floodlit mosques and Sultan's palace, then through the stilt villages built haphazardly over the water.


Tues 12th. 

stilt village
We walked down to the riverfront and across some of the rickety wooden walkways to explore part of Kampung Ayer, the stilt villages.  Most of the wooden houses were quite rickety too and we walked carefully in case a sudden movement might send them tumbling into the water. 


Sheila then explored the nearby Yayasan Complex, a shopping mall, but luckily couldn't find anything to buy except the ever-popular special at the Donut Shop, a cheese doughnut!!!  So we skipped that and went down the road to the impressive golden-domed Omar Ali Saifaddien mosque and enjoyed the cool, light and airy interior with its finest Italian marble and English-made stained-glass windows.

Later in the day when the heat had reduced a bit we set out and went to the ‘Twelve-Roofed House’, the former British Governor’s bungalow set in nice gardens on the side of a hill just outside town.  The pleasant bungalow was large, light and airy with views through the palm trees to the Brunei river and the stilt villages.  As we walked back beside the river we met the same boatman who took us round the waterways last night and we agreed to go up the river to search for Proboscis monkeys.  First he said we had to go to the ‘power station’ and we weren't sure what to expect until we pulled up at a Shell filling station, built over the water on stilts like everything else, and filled the boat up with petrol.  Then we set off up the river and nosing through creeks in the mangrove forests until he shouted and pointed at something invisible to us - it was only when they started moving about and jumping from tree to tree that we spotted the reddish-brown monkeys with their cartoon-sized noses.  By the time we set off to come back it was dark and we stopped to pick the fireflies off the trees by the water - some of them shone permanently and others flashed on and off like traffic beacons.

Back in town we looked at the satay stalls by the river but they hadn't really got going so we walked back through town and couldn't resist stopping for a coffee and huge slice of chocolate cheesecake at The Coffee Bean And Tea Leaf café.  It was so huge and filling that we couldn't manage any dinner after that which was a pity because we discovered that the night food market just opposite our hotel looked really interesting, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it justice.

Weds 13th.  After a leisurely start we went back to De Royalle for brunch of fish and chips, then walked round to the bus station and got a number 38 to Muara, a small town a few miles out of Bandar Seri Bagawan, then a number 39 back through the villages along the waterfront.  Then it was time to go to the airport and we flew to Brisbane.

Thurs 14th. 

Koala house Brisbane
We arrived at the Acacia City Inn before our room was ready so the nice lady in charge gave us toast and tea in the communal kitchen then we went on a walking tour of Brisbane through pleasant parks amongst the gleaming modern buildings, along the waterfront .....
Possum Possum
... and through the Botanical Gardens where we saw a possum trying to sleep in a rubbish bin,  until park attendants came with long tongs, picked him up and carried him spitting and snarling to a nearby tree.

In the evening we went for a walk around the shopping malls and stopped for a glass of wine in an open-air bar in Queen Street mall to watch the world go by.  Just up the street from our hotel we went to the Spring Hill hotel and had wonderful steaks in their garden restaurant.

Fri 15th to Sun 17th.  We flew on Solomon Airlines to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.  When we rang the King Solomon hotel some weeks ago they were fully booked with UN peacekeeping forces here to prevent trouble during the election.  However, the election took place peacefully, most of the forces left and when we turned up at King Solomon reception they had a choice of rooms available. 

King Solomon hotel
The hotel is made up of a series of large wooden rooms built up the side of a steep hill and there is a little funicular railway to take you up to your level.  We had a look at a room with sea view but in fact the view is obscured by the palm trees and tropical vegetation so we chose one of the cheaper but just as large rooms with 'hill view'.

We had a nice breakfast of eggs Benedict at the Lime Lounge, the trendy cafe in town, followed by a pre-lunch beer at the Yacht Club (members only but they kindly signed us in as visitors) watching the occasional boats come and go and listening to the grizzled sea-dogs swapping yarns.

We had a walk round Honiara and looked at the Mendana Hotel which is very nice and right on the beach but not as characterful as the King Solomon, then we stopped at a little Chinese restaurant for a very tasty lunch, which was so big we had to take half of it as a takeaway and had it for lunch the next day, heated up in the microwave in our room. 

Solomon Is Ferry
Later we went down to the main ferry wharf and watched the seething masses of people boarding ferries to the outer islands and disembarking from other ferries and loading all their belongings, including live pigs, into the backs of taxis.
Honiara fish market
We looked round the market which had been going all day but was still bustling with activity when we got there in the late afternoon.  The fish section looked a bit sad though because many of the stalls had no ice boxes and the fish were wilting in the heat, but you could buy a whole tuna for ten pounds.

In the evenings we walked up to the Honiara Hotel on the other side of town, via a diversion through Chinatown which was rather dismal, and had refreshing cold Toohey's Old brown beers in the bar, where we met an Australian who was working on the new gold mine in the nearby hills and was celebrating his one day off after a week of 12-hour days.  He recommended the restaurant at the Heritage Hotel so we went there and had very good lobster thermidor (Sheila of course) and Indian style prawn curry.  Another evening we went back to the Honiara Hotel and had a beer while watching their Solomon Islands music and dance show, with a bamboo 'pan-pipes' drum band, then we ate at their French restaurant where we had delicious steaks with three sauces and tasty seafood skewers.  One evening when we got back to the King Solomon Hotel we found there was a Polynesian Hula dance show on the stage by the restaurant so we stayed and watched.

Late at night on the last day we went to the airport and checked in for the Our Airline (formerly Air Nauru) flight.

Mon 18th.  When Nauru (population under ten thousand) was the richest country in the world thanks to the phosphate mine which took up most of the island, their airline had a fleet of seven modern 737s, but then the mining stopped and all the money disappeared and now Our Airline has just the one ageing plane.  We landed at Nauru at 5am and our 'tour of Nauru' was a walk on the tarmac and the inside of the airport building with its view of the sea beyond the road outside the airport.  Our flight had the Nauru Commonwealth Games team returning home with one gold (boxing) and one silver medal and there was a deputation of dignitaries and press waiting on the tarmac for them.  As we took off again we glimpsed the devastated inside of the island where the open-cast phosphate mining has left a barren greyish wasteland. 

We landed on Tarawa, the main atoll of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands), a scattering of low coral atolls spread over thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean.  The whole place is very remote and laid-back, almost comatose, and sure enough there was no-one to meet us from the hotel we'd booked.  There are no taxis in the whole country so we let ourselves be taken to the Otintaai Hotel because they had come to collect someone from the flight who didn't turn up.  However the Otintaai turned out to be the worst sort of Government-run hotel, characterless and overpriced.  We stood by the road outside the hotel and flagged down a passing man in a pickup truck (who turned out to be a policeman) and he kindly took us back to the airport.  There is about one flight a day and the runway at the airport was unfenced and people were walking and cycling along it, and several people had written their names in the soft tarmac!  We learned later that when there is a rare night flight, local people bring their cars and use their lights for landing lights!

Buota Lodge
After a little while a minibus appeared so we got on (there is only one road on the long, thin atoll so you can't go wrong) and he took us to Buota Lodge which was completely different - three large and airy wooden cabins with verandahs around a creek inlet from the sea, where we sat and had tea with Peter the owner who told us stories about this life living in the Solomons, Nauru and Australia, being knighted by the Queen, etc.
Buota Lodge
The rooms only had fans and no a/c but we decided to tough it out because it was so interesting and characterful and the setting was perfect.  While Sheila caught up on some sleep I sat on the verandah with a cup of tea watching the tide come in up the creek and wading birds paddling to and fro in the shallows.

Because the buses don't normally come this far up the bumpy, difficult road, Peter drove us to the store where we bought an assortment of provisions (there is no restaurant at Buota Lodge) including a couple of cucumbers that we noticed too late cost 5 pounds – at that price we should have had to wheel them home in a wheelbarrow!  Then we came back and sat on the verandah some more, sipping beers and listening to the sea, then cooked up dinner of beans on toast in the kitchenette - rather the opposite extreme from the classy French restaurant last night but great fun.

Tues 19th to Weds 20th.  After cereal for breakfast sitting on our verandah of course, Peter's friend Jack drove us down the bumpy road and part way to the ‘town’, dropping us at a little vegetable market.  We got a bus to Betio at the extreme far end of the long thin atoll where there were still blockhouses and guns mounted by the shore, left over from WW2.  We bought some postcards and wrote and posted them in the tiny post office, then caught another bus along the causeway to Bairiki, the second nearest thing to a town, where we got a takeaway meal from Mary’s Motel and restaurant, and bought some more provisions in a store.  Then we got a bus as far as the metal bridge where it stopped, and we walked the last mile back to Buota Lodge looking forward to our lunch of soup, eggs on toast and beer. 

At low tide I had a stroll across the coral and through the mangrove forest to the open sea.  As the tide started coming in several people appeared from nowhere with things they had been collecting from the shore (we couldn’t see what) and headed back to the nearby village.

Buota Lodge
We had lazy afternoons in our idyllic south seas paradise, reading on the verandah watching the tide go in and out, having a short walk up to the end of the island where the road stops and the ferry (or wading across the creek) is the only way to continue to the next island in the atoll.
Buota Lodge
We had the takeaway Chinese for dinner and the dog from the neighbouring village cleaned up the leftovers for us, then in the evening we sat with Peter and Aketa, the proprietors, chatting and putting the world to rights.


Thurs 21st.  Peter drove us down to the airport and we caught the very comfortable Air Pacific flight to Nadi (pronounced Nandi) in Fiji. 

Garden of the Sleeping Giant
We hired a car from Central car rental, whose rates are cheaper because their office is outside the main concourse, and headed up the road a few miles to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant (created by actor Raymond Burr), and walked through the lovely valley full of exotic orchids and other rainforest flora.


We drove on round the coast until we got to Rakiraki where we turned off for the Wananavu Resort, a lovely resort overlooking bays and islands where we stayed when we were here 15 years ago.  However, we got as far as the security gate where the guard told us the whole resort was booked for a wedding party for four days, and he wouldn’t even let us go and have a look round.  Just up the hill nearby was a group of magnificent two-storey villas for rent but there was nowhere to get food or drink nearby and although they had sweeping views of the bays and hills they were starkly out of place and not at all Fijian, so we drove a little further to the Volivoli Beach resort which was absolutely lovely.  It too had sweeping views of the sea as well as colourful gardens, a beach, a pool and most importantly a restaurant and bar.  We planned to stay for one or two nights and carry on round the island but it was so nice we stayed for our full four days in Fiji.  We had steak sandwich and Caesar salad with a few beers and retired to our roomy, airy bungalow. 

Volivoli
Our garden had a pawpaw tree and frangipanis ....
Volivoli
.... and in the bungalow, the bed was on a raised platform so it had a view of the sea.


Fri 22nd to Sun 24th
.  Deliciously lazy days at Volivoli.  The bungalow had a lavishly-equipped kitchen so we had a cup of tea while Sheila washed our clothes in the fitted washing machine, then we went for eggs and bacon in the restaurant (there is everything you need for self-catering but Sheila is on holiday so somebody else does the cooking!) 

Rakiraki market
Afterwards we drove to Rakiraki town for a bit of shopping, mostly fruit at the market – you are supposed to buy a ‘pile’ of fruit but Sheila insisted on picking the best ones from several piles!  The Fijians are so good-natured that they just smiled and let her get on with it.


While Sheila had some beauty treatment at a little Indian beauty parlour down a little alleyway, I went to one of the ‘hot bread and tea’ shops and had a huge mug of tea and a huge Chelsea bun, wonderfully fresh and fluffy and presumably just baked on the premises.  On the way back we stopped in the village of ‘Ra’ at the Tamoa Hotel which is based around a nice old Government Rest-house bungalow.  The hotel is also a school for catering staff who appeared to be mostly Indian and there was an enticing smell of curry coming from the kitchen so we had delicious beef curry with tamarind chutney for lunch.

Back at Volivoli Beach we lazed away the afternoons swimming in the pool and sunbathing, then treated ourselves to bottles of sparkling Australian ‘champagne’ in the bar with our dinner. 

Volivoli red snapper
One evening we had the red snapper for dinner, one of the ones we saw them carrying up the beach from the boat.


As we were sitting in the restaurant a violent rainstorm came down and they had to close all the windows to avoid being flooded.

Mon 25th.  Drove to the airport and we were magically transported to France – we got the Air Caledonia flight which had come from New Caledonia, a French territory, to Wallis and Futuna, another French territory.  On the flight everything was in French, and even more so when we arrived in Wallis.  We had booked the Moana Ho’u hotel by phone and no sooner had we stepped outside the arrivals lounge than the lady from the hotel announced herself (I don’t know how she knew it was us) and took us to the minibus for the hotel. 

Moana Hou
Moana Ho’u means wavy sea and sure enough our room had a balcony with a view directly over the seafront just a few yards away.
Wallis canoe
Just down the seafront from the hotel was an old canoe and a wooden statue of unknown significance.


The hotel is very much a family affair and the owner’s wife, her sister or cousin (not sure) and their neice (I think) took us in the pickup truck to a couple of supermarkets to stock up on essentials – water, peanuts and beer.  We said we’d like to hire a car tomorrow so we stopped at the owner’s house where they showed us their car, and said they’d bring it round to the hotel tomorrow morning.

We sat on our balcony with our beer and peanuts listening to the sea below and talked to another guest at the hotel who was amused by the idea that we were tourists – the last time he met a tourist in Wallis was ten years ago.  Then we had dinner in the hotel restaurant but that was less than idyllic and it wasn’t cheap – the menu was pork chop with plantains, we won’t be looking for those in the supermarket back home.

Tues 26th.  After a nice continental breakfast we set off in the hire car for a tour of Wallis. 

Wallis cathedral
We stopped at the waterfront in town to look at the wharf, the impressive cathedral, the King’s palace and the post office.


Up the road at a small shopping centre we bought some postcards which we wrote and posted back at the post office, then set off round the island.  We stopped and looked at another impressive Church of the Sacred Heart, but the day was so hot and humid that we drove past the next few impressive churches without stopping.  We drove around some small roads and a wharf in the far south of the island then asked for directions down a little dirt track to Talietumi, an ancient restored Tongan fort made of great rocks of black coral. 

Lalolalo lake
Halfway up the other side of the island, on the dirt road that circled the west side, we stopped at Lalolalo crater late – a most unusual eerie water-filled crater with vertical sides surrounded by jungle.
Wallis beach
We turned off down a side road towards To’oga Toto, another ruined Tongan fort but the road got so bad we couldn’t find it.  After driving along deeply-rutted mud roads through thick jungle we ended up at a deserted beach which looked like the sort of place you could be shipwrecked on.


We found our way back to the ‘main’ (dirt) road and went up to the north of the island to find a restaurant called Chez Patricia which was right on the beach and looked nice, but it was deserted with a notice pinned to the door saying closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (typical, the only two days we are here!). 

We drove back to Mata-Utu town and stopped at the restaurant at hotel Lomipeau, but it was just after 2pm and the kitchen was fermé and with a very French lack of flexibility they declined to open it for us. However, down the road from our hotel on the waterfront La Terrasse de Liku restaurant was much more flexible and we had a delicious seafood lunch and wine there.

In the late afternoon when the heat had died down I went for a walk along the seafront into town, then we went back to La Terrasse for a delicious dinner.  As we walked down the road from La Terrasse the sky was absolutely ablaze with stars in the clear unpolluted air, we have never seen so many, and the moon rose spectacularly out of the sea between the palm trees, making a perfect picture which was unfortunately too dark to photograph properly.

Weds 27th. 

Moana Hou
After a misty start and a lazy morning......


.... the ladies at Moana Ho’u drove us to the airport and we flew on Air Calin via Fiji to Noumea in New Caledonia, another extraordinarily expensive French territory.  The airport is a long way from the city and a taxi would have cost about £60 (but there weren’t any around anyway) so we found a slightly cheaper minibus for £20 each which took us right to our hotel, the Beau Rivage.  Noumea is the first big city since Brisbane and having got used to small towns on small islands we were impressed by the size of it as we drove through on our way to the beach and restaurant area to the south, which seems very like the south of France.  Beau Rivage is a ‘rather faded retro hotel’ to quote the guide book, but they gave us a nice big room with a panoramic view over the promenade and the sea.  It was nice and quiet apart from the Saturday disco down the road.

Thurs 28th to Sat 30th.  Days at the seaside.  We walked along the promenade at Bay des Citrons where people were swimming, jogging and cycling in the early morning sunshine, and over to Anse Vata, the other tourist-oriented bay with restaurants, bars and hotels where we had a ‘croque gastronomique’ or ham and cheese baguettes at ‘Snack Ulyssee’ for breakfast and ice creams at one of the cafés on the seafront.  Then we got on Le Petit Train, a tourist ‘train’ that goes for a sightseeing ride past yacht marinas, through the town centre a couple of miles away, up to the botanical gardens a couple of miles the other side of the city (but we didn’t stop there because it had begun to rain) then back via various viewpoints on the hills and round more of the coast to where we started. 

Noumea library
Another day we got the bus into town and had breakfast at the café in the market, then went on a walking tour round Noumea town, past the colonial-style library ....


.... up to the cathedral, down through the square to the port where there were pretty coloured fish swimming round the coral growing on the concrete jetty.  We tried to send some emails from an Internet café but the keyboard was a strange non-standard type and we couldn’t get on with it.

We went for lunch to La Fiesta restaurant next door to our hotel, which had been recommended independently by two different people we met, and had a wonderful lunch of big Caledonian prawns in garlic with a carafe of wine, at slightly more reasonable prices than many of the restaurants we’d checked (but still expensive, as was everything else here).  By early afternoon the sun was blazing again so we sat on the beach opposite our hotel and sweltered for a couple of hours. 

We got the bus into town for the Thursday evening market in the main square, with all sorts of stalls, food, music and dancing, then came back on the last bus (at 6:30!) and went to the Three Brewers for ‘happy hour’ of beers and a delicious thin-crust pizza with lardons (bacon bits).  There seemed to be an ‘end of term’ atmosphere with groups of underage kids buying a huge jug of beer and drinking it through straws simultaneously (1-2-3-Go and in 3 seconds it was empty!)

Sun 31st.  A leisurely morning of strolling along the promenade in the sun and snacking in cafés and ice cream parlours ....

Noumea stonefish
.... with a trip to the aquarium in the afternoon to see an impressive range of tropical fish (including menacing stonefish ....
Noumea frogfish
.... and ugly frogfish) and corals nicely presented in a series of room-sized displays.


Then we went to the airport and caught the evening Air Vanuatu flight to Port Vila, Vanuatu.  We got a taxi to Villa Hibiscus motel which is set in lavish tropical gardens, but the downside of all this tropical jungleness was the wildlife in the room, and Sheila spent our first half hour there chasing and splatting some impressively big cockroaches.  Luckily we didn’t have any further encounters with wildlife during our stay except for the tabby cat that used to come and sleep on the doormat outside our door.

Mon 1st to Tues 2nd Nov.  We walked around Port Vila in the sunshine checking out various hotels, restaurants and cafés and stopped for a huge ‘Bigfella Breakfast’ at one of them.  Another day we had eggs benedict for breakfast in La Tentation café/restaurant (formerly Rossi’s) on the seafront with a nice view of the harbour. 

Chantillys on the Bay
We looked around the market before ending up at Chantilly’s on the Bay for a drink sitting on the jetty over the water.
Lobster Office pub
For lunch Sheila had the most enormous lobster while I had a much more restrained salad at the Office pub/bistro, while the midday rainstorm raged outside.


One afternoon I went on the Lonely Planet walking tour of Port Vila which involved going up and down several steep hills with views of the bay.  Another time I went to explore the ‘lagoon’ side of town but there is absolutely nothing there except a few ‘resort’ hotels detached from everything around them.

Both evenings we ate at L’Houstalet, a very nice French-style restaurant where Sheila had lobster thermidor (again, obviously) and I had the most delicious, tender filet steak or a skewer of prawns flambé.  We considered, but eventually decided against, the house speciality of flying fox, which is actually a fruit bat.

Weds 3rd.  After another breakfast at La Tentation we flew to Brisbane and just made a very tight connection to Cairns (with help from Pacific Blue airline who marked our bags ‘priority’ so they came out first) and met cousin Jeremy who we haven’t seen for 30 years!

Thurs 4th - Fri 5th.  Sightseeing in Cairns and Port Douglas with Jeremy and his family, chatting over a few beers and having the most excellent curry feast prepared painstakingly by Jeremy.

Sat 6th.  Flew back to Brisbane early in the morning, and on to London arriving at 7am Sunday.

Flight home
For a 30-hour, 4-flight journey it was remarkably painless and comfortable, especially on the two legs where we got three seats between the two of us and Sheila was able to sprawl out across them all.


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