I hope everyone’s been enjoying the holiday season thus far! I’ve been taking it easy for a few days since returning from my trip to Hawaii, Fiji, and New Zealand early on this week, and I’ll share with you here the initial impressions from this trip before covering it in more detail in the future.
This one was quite different from the other trips I’ve taken recently, as I set aside my penchant for fancy hotels and whirlwind jet-setting in favour of cute Airbnbs and relaxing drives through scenic landscapes, and coming away with some of the best memories that Jessy and I have made along all of our travels.
A Taste of Hawaii
I hadn’t been to Hawaii since I was a young boy, and Jessy had never set foot on the islands previously either – and yet, everyone I know seems to be going to Hawaii all the time.
And so, our trip had begun with four nights in Maui to give us both a chance to finally see what the hype was all about.
We arrived at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort after a five-hour flight from Vancouver on Air Canada Premium Rouge, which was about five hours more than the tolerable limit for Premium Rouge but was nonetheless the most convenient option.
I had been on a hot streak of Marriott suite upgrades throughout my many trips in 2019, but alas that streak would end here in Maui.
Indeed, it was immediately apparent to me that Hawaii’s resorts, despite boasting picturesque beachfronts and sunsets, ultimately still fell within “North American” hotel standards: heavy on fellow elite members and light on elite treatment compared to the rest of the world, with the only forthcoming room upgrade giving us a rather limited view of the ocean and no more, and the elite breakfast amenity being limited to a pastry, fruit cup, and beverage from the on-site Starbucks.
Nevertheless, we’d know better than to let that spoil our mood during our short time on Maui. An engrossing whale-watching tour in the town of Lahaina on our first day (including a few dolphin sightings as well!) set us in the right spirits, followed by a delightful poke lunch and a peaceful drive back to the resort to catch the sunset.
We’d spend the entirety of the second day relaxing at the resort, although I again took notice of some of the differences between a Hawaii beach getaway and one in, say, South East Asia – the number of guests clearly overwhelmed the resort’s resources (poolside cabanas, beach chairs, etc.) at times, which made me feel as though I was in a “resort factory” compared to my experiences in other parts of the world.
One upside, however, was the Wailea Beach Resort’s impressive waterslide setup, which I’ve certainly never encountered in South East Asia and quickly washed away any of my worries as I took to the watersides again and again. 😉
On the third day, Jessy and I embarked on the famous Road to Hana and the many spectacular sights along the way, such as the gorgeous Twin Falls and the black sand beaches of the Wai’anapanapa State Park, stopping along the side of the road to take in one final Maui sunset along the way back.
Overall, I had mixed feelings about Hawaii: while the luxury factor of the resort and beach experience seems scaled-down compared to its other counterparts around the world, I can certainly see why it’s such a popular place for North American vacationers, especially given the proximity and easy access from the mainland.
Jessy and I agreed that it’s the kind of place we’d love to come back to in the future with one of our families in tow, simply to spend a week or so enjoying the good company and stunning views.
Plus, I’ve gotta check out the famous sunrise views from the crater at the Haleakala National Park, which we sadly didn’t get a chance to see this time, as well visit as some of the other Hawaiian islands and see what they have to offer as well!
Marriott Fiji Momi Bay: An Ephemeral Paradise
We travelled from Hawaii to Fiji by way of the Fiji Airways “mini-island-hopper”: the once-weekly Flight 823, which first traverses the International Date Line to land in Christmas Island, Kiribati, before continuing on to Nadi, Fiji.
And having completed the United Island Hopper earlier this year, the Fiji Airways flavour of island-hopping certainly rekindled some very fond memories.
It turns out that Nadi-bound passengers aren’t supposed to deplane in Christmas Island, although I of course decided to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, taking the chance to catch the briefest of glimpses of the Republic of Kiribati out on the tarmac and receiving a light scolding for doing so.
Upon finally arriving in Fiji, we made our way to the Marriott Resort Fiji Momi Bay for the night, where I had used a Suite Night Award to upgrade to the resort’s signature Overwater Bure Lagoon Villa. And of course, we spent most of the next day jumping off our balcony into the water, swimming in the man-made lagoon, and sunbathing on our deck (perhaps a little too indulgently, as I was left with a sunburn that lasted throughout our time in New Zealand).
I haven’t been to the ultra-luxurious overwater villas of the Maldives or Bora Bora yet, but I felt that the Marriott Resort Fiji Momi Bay did a fine job of providing a “budget” overwater villa experience. Indeed, this resort is relatively affordable and is definitely one of the most luxurious Category 5 Marriott Bonvoy redemptions out there if you happen to swing by this part of the world.
Alas, while the Fijian sunshine and unobstructed access to the clear blue waters were definitely appreciated, one part that let me down was the hotel’s service, which was consistently very, very poor.
Although my attitude about the level of service I receive at a hotel is usually very casual – I don’t really have very high standards at all – I was left frustrated on multiple occasions by the the staff’s sluggishness, lack of awareness, and lapses in communication. Even though everyone’s understandably on “island time”, the service here at the Marriott Fiji Momi Bay definitely has massive room for improvement.
A Wonderful Week in the South Island
Auckland, New Zealand had struck a particular chord with me back when I visited back in February of this year, and it was again highly rewarding to spend a full day walking around the City of Sails.
Jessy and I grabbed a late breakfast by the Viaduct Harbour waterfront, took in a Maori cultural performance at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and then hiked up to the top of Mount Eden later in the afternoon.
The true highlight of this visit to New Zealand, however, was no doubt the week we subsequently spent driving around the South Island.
With the city of Queenstown (and the excellent Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa) as our base, we spent two days exploring the Fiordland region, three days up in the spectacular expanse of the Mackenzie Basin, and another two days back in Queenstown split across two separate one-night visits.
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t always playing nice during our time in the South Island; the ongoing bush fires in Australia had apparently been pushing record-breaking volumes of rain clouds across the Tasman Sea.
But to look on the bright side of things, we had the pleasure of seeing the full spectrum of the South Island’s beauty as a result: in exchange for a three-hour drive in the relentless rain or our boat cruise through a storm-lashed Milford Sound, we also enjoyed some glorious hiking on a sunny day in Mount Cook and an incredible rainbow over Lake Wakatipu greeting us at the end of our trek up to the Queenstown Hill Summit.
The Airbnbs we had chosen also greatly added to the depth of the South Island experience.
In Te Anau, the town closest to Milford Sound, we spent two days in a delightful guest-house on a quiet residential street; meanwhile, for our visits to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, we took up residence in Skylab, a disused-plane-turned-studio on the grounds of Pukaki Airport, whose skylight above the bed made for some unforgettable stargazing under the Southern night sky.
Going into this trip, I was fully expecting to be blown away by New Zealand’s natural beauty, and between the dramatic fjords of Milford Sound, the purple and pink lupin fields hugging the roadside, and the mellifluous calls of the country’s endemic songbirds, I was not disappointed in the slightest.
If you’re looking for an outdoor-focused adventure in the midst of some truly stunning landscapes, I couldn’t recommend a similar trip through New Zealand’s South Island highly enough.
Kawarau Bridge Bungy, Queenstown: WOW!
Queenstown is known as the world’s adventure tourism capital, which was very exciting to me as someone who very much revels in the occasional adrenaline rush.
Alas, Jessy doesn’t quite share the same craving as me (she “already has enough stress in her life as it is”, in her words), so I decided to keep things simple on this visit to Queenstown and focus only on checking a single extreme activity off my bucket list: bungee jumping.
Indeed, bungee jumping was practically invented by the Kiwis here in Queenstown, whose 43-meter-high Kawarau Bridge Bungy is the world’s oldest continuously operating commercial bungee jump. For those who have never bungee-jumped before, there’s basically no better place in the world to try it for the first time.
As for me, well, I’ve always been somewhat curious about what it would be like to throw myself off a bridge attached to nothing but a piece of rope, but had also always harboured doubts as to whether I’d actually be able to go through with it. Would I be able to take that leap? Or would I hesitate and chicken out eventually?
As our final day in Queenstown approached, I found my mind inevitably wandering back to the prospect of bungee-jumping. I was downright terrified at the thought, and yet I couldn’t quite let go of the idea either, since I knew it was something I had always wanted to try – and I definitely wouldn’t be doing Queenstown justice if I left without conquering its most famous attraction.
On the last morning, with our departure rapidly approaching that evening, I finally committed to the cause and purchased my tickets. And suddenly, there was no backing down: I wasn’t about to let that NZ$285 go to waste!
Upon arriving at the Kawarau Bridge, we spent a few minutes watching other jumpers take the leap. And then, all of a sudden, it was my turn: I completed my weigh-in, walked to the middle of the bridge, donned my harness, and took the bungee-master’s hand as I stepped out to the ledge.
My mind was a complete haze at this point, and I frankly have very little recollection of my thoughts as I stood out there and looked out at the onrushing waters of the Kawarau River far below. “Smile for the camera,” I recall hearing, followed by “3… 2… 1… bungeeeeee!”
Leaping forward, I instinctively slammed my eyes shut and screamed, at the very top of my lungs, for dear life. And frankly, I don’t know how anyone could bungee jump without doing the same.
It was all over within a few seconds. I laughed maniacally as the elastic bungee rope took me for a few almighty swings, the full rush of emotions swelling within me: fear, dread, excitement, faith, determination, exhilaration, and euphoria.
I was so thrilled to check off such a major bucket list item, although I have to say that the nearby Nevis Bungy Jump – which offers adrenaline junkies a full 8.5 seconds of free-fall – looks like an even more daunting challenge for next time!
Air New Zealand Business Class: A High Note to End
After a 23-hour layover in Christchurch, a city whose large green spaces and easily walkable city centre made for a positively serene visit compared to my exploits in Queenstown, it was time to return home onboard Air New Zealand business class from Auckland to Los Angeles.
The Kiwi carrier is well-known for offering very limited award availability in any class of service, and you often need to have a fair bit of luck on your side to snag one of their rare pockets of business class award space. I was therefore quite curious how exactly Air New Zealand’s business class experience would compare to their fellow Star Alliance airlines, especially knowing that I probably wouldn’t get to fly with them very often.
I’ll let some pictures do most of the talking for now, but on the whole, I thought Air NZ fell squarely into the “pretty great, but not outstanding” camp – roughly on par with, say, Air Canada or Swiss, but not nearly the level of EVA Air or Singapore Airlines.
The food and drink were very well-executed, and I thought that the crew’s service fully reflected the openness and friendliness that Kiwis are known for.
However, the seat itself was definitely lagging behind the times somewhat – the herringbone product faces out into the aisle, lacking privacy and personal space compared to its peers. One of the crew members remarked that the seat type was over 10 years old, and I do think it’s about time that Air NZ looks at refreshing their product.
Nevertheless, the airline is probably one of the most comfortable – and definitely one of the most convenient – ways to travel to and from New Zealand, so if you’re planning a trip there, it’s all about setting up a few ExpertFlyer alerts to snag any business class seats that might open up at a moment’s notice.
Lying in our metal cylinder of an Airbnb, picking out the constellations in the night sky from Orion to the Southern Cross, Jessy and I agreed that this would be a trip that we’d remember for a very long time.
Indeed, even though it was perhaps lighter on the luxury side compared to some of the previous trips I’ve taken, the long drives, scenic hikes, and spellbinding sunsets of Hawaii and New Zealand, with a brief dip in the sunny waters of Fiji sandwiched in-between and an adrenaline-fuelled bungee jump to cap it all off, made for an excellent way to wind down at the tail end of a busy and eventful year.
The past week or so marks an end to any real relaxation I get, though, since I’ll be heading off on another quick trip very soon – stay tuned for the details on that one!