A Voyage to Cast Away Island

Did you know that you can visit the island where Cast Away was filmed? Remember, the Tom Hanks movie where he gets marooned on an island for four years? That’s Monuriki Island, as the locals call it. It’s uninhabited apart from a large iguana population and has a land area of only .4 square kilometers. Our snorkel tour there ended up being our favorite activity in Fiji (aside from the doing nothing part – we quite enjoyed that too).

Here are photos!

[ptcPhoto filename=”CAIsland.jpg” title=”The Island” caption=”Sailing up to the island.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”CACliff.jpg” title=”Cliff” caption=”You might recognize the cliff up top as the place Chuck tries to commit suicide.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”CABeach.jpg” title=”White” caption=”The beach on Monuriki…they had to film selectively since there are other islands around.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”CACoconut.jpg” title=”Coconut” caption=”Our guide Mini shows us the rock where Chuck smashes coconuts.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”CASnorkel.jpg” title=”Snorkel” caption=”There are a million microscopic jellyfish in the water here, which impart a million tiny stings.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”CAPalm.jpg” title=”Palm” caption=”This is the beach where he washes up in the beginning of the film.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”CAUs.jpg” title=”Us” caption=”Two of only ten people on the island that day.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”CAEric.jpg” title=”Waves” caption=”‘No no, don’t hurry with the rescue operation. We’ll stay a while…'” position=”center”]

Snapshot Sunday: Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers

[ptcPhoto filename=”PetronasSS.jpg” title=”Petronas Towers” caption=”The Petronas Twin Towers – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia” position=”center”]

Once the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers add postmodern flair to the Kuala Lumpur skyline. The glass facade was built to resemble Islamic art and reflects the country’s predominantly Muslim population. The two-story skybridge that connects the towers weighs a massive 750 tons.

Happy Father’s Day to the dads in our lives!

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Holiday in Fiji: Slum or Splurge?

You might roll your eyes when I tell you that we didn’t actually plan on visiting Fiji, and that we went there out of necessity. But it’s true. You see, if you’re using frequent flyer miles it’s cheaper to fly from Asia to Fiji and back than it is to fly to Australia…and in order to fly to Fiji one must stop in Australia anyways. So long story short, we actually saved 80,000 miles by making Fiji the “destination” and stopping over (for a couple of months) in Australia and New Zealand. One of these days Eric will publish that book he’s been writing on using frequent flyer miles, but for now just trust that it made good financial sense.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RKBoat.jpg” title=”Boat” caption=”Also, we needed a break.” position=”center”]

Anyhoo, we found ourselves in Nadi in early May. Eric had 200,000 Hilton points left over from long-ago employment and the Fiji Beach Resort and Spa seemed like the perfect place to use them. They got us five (almost) free nights there, and we also booked six nights at the cheapest backpacker resort we could find: Ratu Kini’s on Mana Island. We normally don’t write about hotels, and most of this will be apples to oranges. But the juxtaposition between these two seems like it’s worth noting (and plus, it pretty much covers our Fiji experience in one article – see what I did there!).

So here’s the question: Should you splash out on fancy accommodation in Fiji or go for the more authentic experience at a cheaper place? Let’s pull in some criteria to help break it down, shall we?

Cost

Had we just gone with the regular studio apartment (no full kitchen) we wouldn’t have paid anything for the Hilton except for Honors points. But we missed cooking and decided to upgrade to the one-bedroom apartment (full kitchen, living room, BBQ, bathtub, washer and dryer, king-sized bed, balcony, two flat screen TVs, ocean view) for $52 USD a night. Normally the beachfront one-bedrooms are $320 USD, so it was a killer deal.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FHBed.jpg” title=”King sized” caption=”Sweet, sweet dreams were had here.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FHTub.jpg” title=”Tub” caption=”Our lovely tub came with Peter Thomas Roth bath products.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FHGrill.jpg” title=”BBQ” caption=”The grill on our patio.” position=”center”]

We didn’t get any photos of our rooms at Ratu Kini. They were both 5-bed dorms, and we moved out of the first room after a few nights because it was so depressing (no A/C, very dingy, holes in the window screens, etc.). The first room cost $55 USD a night, and the A/C dorm was $70 USD. Not cheap.

Ratu Kini for the win. For us, the Hilton cost less. But since our readers probably wouldn’t be staying there for free we’ll have to give this one to Ratu Kini.

Amenities

This one is kind of a given. There’s a reason people stay at fancy resorts: Most budget places aren’t going to offer much outside of a hammock or two. RK had five beach chairs and that was about it, whereas the Hilton had seven pools, a gym, a business center and some nice boutiques. Neither resort offered free wi-fi in the rooms. Grrr.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FHPool.jpg” title=”Pool” caption=”One of seven pools at the Hilton.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”FHEric.jpg” title=”Umbrella” caption=”Lounging by the pool.” position=”center”]

Hilton for the win.

Entertainment

If we’re honest, most resort performances are going to be cheesy or contrived. That said, the entertainers at both resorts were talented and, well…entertaining. Ratu Kini invites local schoolchildren to dance and sing for the guests, which is practical since many of them will work in hospitality when they grow up. I don’t generally love watching children perform, but I appreciated their efforts to bring in community initiatives (and to collect donations for the island’s school).

[ptcPhoto filename=”RKFire1.jpg” title=”Fire dancing” caption=”I just love fire dancing. Isn’t it mesmerizing?” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FHFire1.jpg” title=”Hilton fire” caption=”The Hilton show was choreographed, plus they had fire breathing!” position=”center”]

How can we say no to children? Ratu Kini for the win.

Activities

The Hilton offers constant free activities to guests, so there’s always something to do. Plus they offer free kayak and snorkel rental. Both places have spas, although one was obviously more swanky. You can also dive with either one.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HiltonAct.jpg” title=”Activities” caption=”You couldn’t possibly be bored here.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FHSpa.jpg” title=”Baby” caption=”In case your infant has had a stressful day…” position=”center”]

RK does offer several paid outings, like fishing and a visit to the island where they filmed Cast Away. Oh, and I spent a solid two days making jewelry out of coconuts there. It’s amazing what you can do with a saw blade, broken beer bottles, string, and coconut shells.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RKCA.jpg” title=”Cast Away” caption=”Cast Away Island (article coming soon!)” position=”center”]

Hilton for the win.

Food and Drink

Resort food in general is nothing to write home about. The Hilton did have more variety and some fantastic pizzas. Plus we got to cook our own meals, and drinks from the general store cost less than those at RK.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FHMimosa.jpg” title=”Mimosa” caption=”A homemade berry mimosa at the Hilton.” position=”center”]

Hilton for the win.

Location and Ambiance

The Hilton may be a short ride in from the airport, but the beaches on the main island are far from the pristine blindingly white sands you’ll see in photographs. RK’s beach isn’t fantastic either, but it would be a shame to go all that way and not do some island hopping.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RKBeach.jpg” title=”Beach” caption=”The beach off Ratu Kini.” position=”center”]

The grounds of the Hilton resort, in a word, are beautiful. The paths are lined with tropical flowers that are really enjoyable when you aren’t dodging the hundred golf carts that zip around. And they spray for mosquitos, so you don’t have to douse yourself in DEET every time you leave the room. That does tend to make the place feel a little sterile, but I’ll take it.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FHGrounds.jpg” title=”Grounds” caption=”The Hilton resort was full of flawlessly manicured green spaces.” position=”center”]

RK has everything you might expect from a tropical island – mosquitos, geckos, and a salty sea breeze. And many, many stray dogs that certain staff members will kick in the ribs every time they venture inside. Seriously, you guys. It’s an island. How hard could it be to control the animal population?

This one is too subjective. Let’s call it a tie.

The People

We’ve found that staying at upscale places can be a bit isolating – there aren’t that many people in our age group, and everyone’s on holiday instead of traveling long-term. It’s always so easy to meet other backpackers at hostels, and making new friends tends to transform the whole experience.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RKIzzy1.jpg” title=”Izzy” caption=”Izzy, I’m wearing my coconut rings…BFF, ok?” position=”center”]

We also have to put in a good word for the staff at RK. Despite the fact that they work in 12 day shifts they were super friendly, went out of their way to impart knowledge about Fijian language and culture, and played happy island music all the time. Plus they shared their kava with us. Twice.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RKIzzy.jpg” title=”Ukey” caption=”An impromptu ukulele lesson.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”RKKava.jpg” title=”Kava” caption=”Kava: It tastes like mud and makes you feel tingly, then numb, then sleeeepy.” position=”center”]

As our boat left the island, some of the guys got together and sang my favorite song from their lineup.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RKGoodbye.jpg” title=”Sweetheart” caption=”Saying goodbye to Ratu Kini.” position=”center”]

Ratu Kini for the win.

The bottom line is that while the Hilton guarantees a clean, relaxing place to unwind, you really may as well be at any upscale resort in the world. And at a backpacker’s resort you may have to sacrifice some creature comforts, but you might come away with a more informed perspective on how locals really live.

We couldn’t possibly choose between the two.

What…you didn’t think this would really be an either/or article, did you?

[ptcPhoto filename=”FHSunset.jpg” title=”Sunset” caption=”I suppose you’ll just have to do both, and decide for yourself. ;)” position=”center”]

Snapshot Sunday: Waterfalling on Tioman Island

[ptcPhoto filename=”TiomanWaterfall.jpg” title=”Asah” caption=”Asah Waterfall near Mukut Village, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia” position=”center”]

Just off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia is Pulau Tioman, a popular holiday spot for locals and Singaporeans. If you venture south near Kampong Merkut you’ll find the Asah Waterfall, surrounded on all sides by some pretty intense jungle. Worried about the giant monitor lizards and 25 species of snake? Luckily the path that leads here is fully paved, making it an easy walk from the village.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

A Hobbiton Tale

The rain swells from a misty dribble to a full autumn shower as we traverse the rolling, radiant green hills that surround the Shire. There might be better days to slog around in the countryside, but we’re on a schedule – it’s time to find Frodo, and a little water won’t deter us. We pull into the lot next to a herd of sheep languidly grazing on the dewy grass and dart inside to purchase tickets – $75 NZD ($65 USD) each for a tour around the site we’ve all seen in the movies.

The next outing won’t begin for another twenty minutes, which gives us time to check out the gift shop. Here you can stock up on all your Hobbit memorabilia, from replicas of The One Ring to maps of Middle Earth, to bottles of Hobbit brew. The grey wool Elven cloak by the door is particularly enticing.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbCape.jpg” title=”Elven” caption=”At $900, it’s a bit out of my price range…but….” position=”center”]

The Hobbiton bus arrives right in the knick of time.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbBus.jpg” title=”Hobbus” caption=”The Hobbitmobile.” position=”center”]

We’re introduced to our tour guide as make our way into a gated area. More sheep – hundreds this time – zigzag the gravel road as the driver explains that even though the farm is home to upwards of 13,000 sheep, they were all too ugly for a role in the movies.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbSheep1.jpg” title=”Sheep” caption=”Ok, that isn’t true. The sheep used in the films needed to look more ‘old world’ to play the part.” position=”center”]

Off the bus, and they hand out large umbrellas to keep us all dry. They go through the rules: Stay with the group, don’t touch anything. Don’t open the gates or mailboxes, no leaning on the fences. We’re guided through a passage you might recognize as the place Gandalf enters the Shire in Fellowship, and where Bilbo Baggins runs when he leaves.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbPassage.jpg” title=”Passage” caption=”‘I’m going on an adventure!'” position=”center”]

Once through, we see the first Hobbit holes. And we immediately start to notice the level of detail that has been achieved here. Every house is painted in brilliant colors and looks like someone’s just been there – a spade plunked into garden soil here, the morning wash on the clothesline there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbClothes1.jpg” title=”Clothesline” caption=” They really should take in their clothes, though. They’re getting soaked.” position=”center”]

The lane snakes its way through 44 Hobbit holes, and if you look up at any point you’ll be able to make out Bag End at the top of the hill.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BagEndView.jpg” title=”Bag End” caption=”That tree cost a million dollars to make…and gets about 7 seconds of screen time.” position=”center”]

Climbing our way up the slippery track, we really do get a sense that this is a living village. Every 15 minutes, a different chimney will start puffing out smoke. Many dwellings show some indication of what the Hobbits who live there might do for work. Some sell produce, some are beekeepers, some make pottery.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbBread2.jpg” title=”Baker” caption=”These Hobbits bake bread, which looks delicious.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbSquash2.jpg” title=”Wheelbarrow” caption=”A wheelbarrow of freshly picked squash.” position=”center”]

One hospitable Hobbit opens up her home to visitors.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbInside.jpg” title=”Human-sized” caption=”We went inside for a look.” position=”center”]

We recognize Bag End by the giant faux oak tree and the No Admittance sign posted on the gate. I ask, where is the mark that Gandalf carved into the front door with his staff? Our tour guide reminds me only dwarves can see it. Of course, silly me.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbBagEnd2.jpg” title=”Baggins” caption=”It looks like we can go in…” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbBagEnd3.jpg” title=”No Admittance” caption=”…but we aren’t on ‘party business’.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbBench.jpg” title=”Green” caption=”More from Bag End.” position=”center”]

Our shoes are soaked through by the time we get to the Party Tree.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PartyTree2.jpg” title=”Party Tree” caption=”The tree was an essential find for the movie scouts who chose the farm.” position=”center”]

Our guide has promised us free ale once we get to the Green Dragon, so we huddle under the umbrella and hastily make our way over the stone bridge.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbSign.jpg” title=”Mushrooms” caption=”Pointing the way to the ale.” position=”center”]

Once inside, the Green Dragon is warm and dry. We enjoy mugs of stout and look across at the mill through the steady showers.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HobbMill.jpg” title=”Mill” caption=”The Old Mill on the water.” position=”center”]

Ten minutes later, we’re rounded up and sent back to the bus. The whole experience seems like it was too short.

We’ve had a few Middle Earth moments over the last month here in New Zealand, but the Hobbiton movie set really drives the point home. It doesn’t take a child’s imagination to see Frodo and Sam rounding a bend and picking some fresh apples for the party tonight, or to hear the cheery melodies of folk music spilling out over the velvet terrain.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Shire1.jpg” title=”Hobbiton” caption=”A final look at Hobbiton.” position=”center”]

And if you’re near the lake, just close your eyes for a moment and concentrate. Do you smell it? The gunpowder from Gandalf’s fireworks is still heavy in the air. It’s time for an adventure.