Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Queen's Birthday Weekend

Cape Palliser Lighthouse
Over Queen's Birthday weekend (first weekend in June, but that's not actually her birthday...whatever...) we decided to venture to a place we hadn't been before in New Zealand - Martinborough and the Wairarapa.  Way down towards the far south of the North Island.

In order to NOT spend the whole weekend driving we flew to Wellington on Friday after work and had a wonderful dinner with some Auckland friends that just so happened to be in Welly as well. Then on Saturday we got a car and went an hour northeast.

On the way to Martinborough we stopped for a while in Greytown, a charming village with the most interesting chocolate shop - Schoc Chocolate.  They make it all there of course but have the most interesting flavour combinations.  Sesame.  Caraway and almond. Carrot and corriander.  Lime and chili. Sounds odd, but it's amazingly good! We bought, um, lots.

Martinborough is a main wine growing region - especially known for Pinot Noir - so yeah we may have visited a winery or six while we there on Saturday and Sunday.  Really interesting, usually small wineries with really good wine.  Be bought, um, lots.

The last day, Monday, we drove out to the rugged Wairarapa coast which was quite striking, chock full of seals, waves, rocky coastline, and even a lighthouse at Cape Palliser.  Just lovely.  Then it was back to Wellington for our flight back to our silly cat Remy.

It was great to see yet another part of this beautiful country.  Plus really just an excuse to get away.  Again.

More photos are here.



Monday, April 22, 2013

Birds Galore

Red Crowned Parakeet
A few weeks ago we finally visited a nearby island bird sanctuary called Tiritiri Matangi. We've been meaning to go there since, oh, about a month after moving to Auckland. We're lame.

Over the last 30 years it's been made predator-free and heaps of trees were planted to make it a haven for birds. Many there are native, and many had to be re-introduced.

It didn't disappoint!  There are birds birds birds everywhere and doing the first part of the day with a guide makes it even better.

The way it works is you take a special ferry that goes once a day, pack a lunch a spend about 5 hours on the island that's full of trails, and then take the ferry back at the end of the day.  Takes about an hour to get there and works pretty well!

There were Red Crowned Parakeets like the one in this photo, Bellbirds (very musical), Tui, Stitchbirds, Brown Saddlebacks, the big New Zealand Pigeon, and the very rare (and huge) Takahe, of which there are only a couple hundred left in the world.

The volunteers there have setup a few sugar water stations for birds like the Bellbird to help you see them up close when they gather around to feast on the wonderfulness (apparently) that is sugar water.  The stitchbirds like it too, and it makes for quite the sing-song station.  Here's a brief clip of some:


I hauled along my giant telephoto lens for the day and got a few good shots of some of the birds.  See more photos here.

And finally, in case you're wondering, here's a map of where the island is in relation to central Auckland.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Jeff's New Job!

I have completed my first week at my new job!  Yep, after more than 12 years contracting at Supervalu and the last 2.5 from New Zealand, I have an actual Kiwi job for an actual Kiwi Company.

It was quite unexpected and came up rather quickly, but I'm now a Senior Consultant at Theta Systems in Auckland.  I'll be doing similar work to what I have been doing, but with a lot more potential.

Walking away from SV was a hard thing to do - I was quite comfortable there and it was a good gig.  Working from home since moving has been nice, but I was ready for an actual office environment again.  I just felt right, I guess, and here we are.

There is so much to learn and do on a high visibility project, but that's part of the fun I guess.  It just so happens that my first two weeks on the job, though, are four day weeks because of Good Friday and Easter Monday.  So that's nice.  Well, it's just nice getting to have NZ public holidays off for a change!

The office is just 1.5km (< 1mile) from home so I can easily walk to work.  Nice.  And when it rains I can catch a bus a block from home and get dropped off two blocks from work.  Very nice.  I like that a lot.

So things are very exciting right now, what with Anne's new jobs as well.  It's great.  And let's just say there is lots of takeaway being had at our house lately.  :-)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Rich & Judi in New Zealand!

A sunny day in Auckland
For the last three weeks in February, my mom and dad came back to New Zealand for a second time to see more of this country - oh and also probably to see us, too.  :-)

It was fantastic. They had amazing weather, saw beautiful places, did new & interesting things, and had good food and good wine.

We had a couple of days at our place in Auckland before starting things with a bang by doing one of the top 10 day hikes in the world - the Tongariro Crossing. Anne had to stay behind for work training unfortunately but the three of us conquered those volcanoes! It's like nowhere else - and the difficulty of the 8 hour hike made the next day relaxing in Taupo a good reward.

From there they went off for about a week on their own while job duties called for me.  They spent time in Napier/Hawkes Bay, Wellington, Picton, and Marlborough Wine Country before Anne and I rejoined them on the South Island.

A lovely drive down the east coast of the South Island To Kaikoura had us eating fresh crayfish (lobster) by the sea, seeing seals, and doing a lovely walk along the beautiful coast of the Kaikoura Peninsula.  From there we went on to Hanmer Springs where Anne and I had never been before.  Lovely!  The thermal pools were great and it's a lovely alpine village.

The lovely Abel Tasman coast
A couple of days in Nelson Lakes National Park were well spent with hikes and relaxation before heading up to the Abel Tasman National Park area.  We really saw and did some great things here - sea kayaking along the coast, a hike on the Abel Tasman Coastal Walkway, and saw seal pups swimming amongst people at a beautiful beach.  Wow.

They spent a couple days in Nelson after that (even went paragliding!) while we went back to Auckland - stupid job again!  But then we had a few days left in Auckland together where we had them get to know Ponsonby (where we live) a little better and even drove up to Matakana for some wine and beach time.

We've had a stunning summer weather-wise and they got to reap those rewards while they were here - sunny and warm most everyday it seemed.  We were thrilled about that!

Most of all we really really enjoyed spending time with them and sharing some more of this amazing place we live in.  New Zealand is really something, and it didn't disappoint!  It really meant a lot that they came back for a second visit and I think it's safe to say they had a blast.

Click here for more photos of our time together.

And click here for some video highlights, including those adorable seal pups and a sting ray "glide by".

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Remy McSwain, Action Cat!

As usual I'm a little late getting to the blog, but in early January we got a cat! This is a big deal because Anne is allergic to...well, everything.  Certainly anything furry and cuddly.

But we finally decided to look into Siberians - which are naturally low in the protein that people get allergic to. We got on a kitten waiting list here in Auckland and a litter of 5 was born on September 30, 2012.

It wasn't until January that the allergen levels of each kitten was known and since we were first on the list we got to choose the one with the lowest levels in their saliva. This little guy is so low in allergens that Anne doesn't react at all - and now we have a kitty!  He was just over 3 months old when he came to our home and has grown like crazy since then!

We both love cats - me especially - so this is a real treat.  We have named this little gem Remy McSwain, Action Cat.  Cuz he kinda has an action here persona about him and this seemed like a good name for him.

He's mellow, sweet, loves to be held, plays and plays a good part of the day and NAPS a good part of every day, too.  He goes between completely mental and nap-master is no time at all. We love him to death!

Remy (then named Barney) at 5 weeks
As evidence of how smart the little guy is, he has recently figured out how to type and use the computer. So we helped him setup a blog so he could share with the world the awesomeness that is Remy.

So yeah, that's how we we roll.  You should check it out and sign up for updates when he posts them. (There is a "subscribe by email" section on the slide-out menu on the right side of the blog.)

Here's the address:
remymcswain.com


Monday, November 5, 2012

Japan Part 3: Kyoto

Old Kyoto
Whew. I can't believe it took me this long to get this last Japan blog out there but well there you go. After 8 days in Japan, having explored Tokyo, Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Takayama, we hopped on a bullet train for about 2 hours to get to our final destination - Kyoto.

Kyoto is known for it's rich history and cultural significance - plus the fact that it came out virtually unscathed from bombing in WWII means when you spend time in the older parts of Kyoto you really do see how it used to be. And that was a big appeal for coming here.

We found a lovely ryokan right in the heart of Old Kyoto and it was a perfect location get immersed in the rich history. Temples everywhere plus monuments, old streets, parks, wonderful food, and really just heaps of character everywhere. Sure, there is the "modern Kyoto" not far away with skyscrapers and blah buildings and traffic lights. That's to be expected. But the old part is pretty special.

We thought we had walked a crap load in Japan up until this point, be it on concrete or nature trail. But the walking we did in Kyoto blew that all away. There is so much to see that most often walking there was the most practical and interesting, even if it took 20 or 30 minutes just to go to a park or restaurant or temple. Add that up over a few days and one is glad to have good shoes.

While taking the speedy train to Kyoto we heard that a typhoon - actually a SUPER typhoon - was wreaking havoc in Okinawa (way way way south Japan) and was making its way toward mainland Japan. Uh oh. A hurricane was making its way toward us on what would be our first full day in Kyoto. Nertz. But as it turned out it was mostly nothing for us. The day pretty much went like this: cloudy but pleasant morning where we could still walk our butts off seeing things in Old Kyoto, rain showers after lunch, 2 or so hours of wind in mid afternoon (not terrible, but enough to not want to be in driving rain), winds and rain gone just after dinner time, lovely the next day.  Not too shabby!  We felt pretty fortunate about that.

Geisha sighting in Bamboo Grove
Kyoto is known for having more actual working geishas compared to other parts of Japan, especially in the Gion district - which we happened to be adjacent to. So it was pretty interesting to be walking along a street during the day or even at night to suddenly walk past a geisha in full dress and makeup. So lovely - and so unexpected!

And while we were outside the city exploring a lovely area which includes a pretty spectacular bamboo grove - a lovely walkway carved through a dense bamboo forest - we happened to see this one out having some photos taken. As you can imagine, I wasn't the only one who ran over fumbling around with my camera trying to get shots while it lasted without being TOO obvious and invading her space. Not an easy feat. :-)

Another highlight was visiting Nijo-jo castle in the heart of Kyoto. It's not only a big and impressive place, it has a feature Anne had read about in novels and other books that we were both really interested in seeing first hand - "nightingale floors". It's a pretty interesting concept that was invented centuries ago. When they built the wooden floors in the (wooden) castle, they designed them so that they would intentionally squeak when you walked on them. And not quite like how you'd think of a squeaky wooden floor - in fact more like a bird. A nightingale, to be specific. It has to do with the nails. The reason? So that if the enemy were to try and sneak in at night - for an assassination or attack or whatever - you could hear them coming. They couldn't walk inside without being heard. Pretty clever, huh? And sure enough when you walked around the castle all the floors made tiny little chirps with every step. Not terribly loud - but there. Clever.

One of the many lovely temples
Kyoto was a fascinating place. Full of history and culture yet modern. So very walkable yet subways and trains to get you around when walking wasn't practical. Of course, as we learned, being mindful of the teeny little "express" sign on the front of a train will help one avoid getting on and whizzing by your stop 5 minutes down the line and ending up 20 miles up in the mountains. Whoops!

It's hard for to pick a favorite place in Japan of all the places we went - but it would be a close race between Kyoto and Takayama/Japan Alps. It was an amazing trip altogether - much better than I even expected. The challenge is part of what made it fun - the language, food, and culture - but the amazing people, amazing sights, and of course my amazing travel companion - make it a trip to remember. Highly recommended!

We were fortunate to be able to fly home on Air New Zealand from Osaka-Kansai airport (an hour away by train) rather than having to go all the way back to Tokyo. And then finding out we got a complimentary upgrade to business class for the 11 hour overnight return flight made for the perfect ending to the trip. Me likey.

Click here to see more Kyoto photos!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Japan Part 2: The Japan Alps

After 3 exciting days in Tokyo it was time to head into the central mountains of Japan - the Japan Alps - via 2.5 hours in trains including a speedy bullet train to Nagano. Our first destination of three for this area was Matsumoto, a small and charming city with an old castle as a highlight.

Matsumoto castle (featured heavily in the photos link at the end) is Japan's oldest wooden castle having been built in the 16th century. Quite a feat not to have burned down in all that time! It comes complete with moat and is quite beautiful. For a bit of fun there was even a guy dressed in actual samurai armor. Hokey? Nah, pretty cool actually.

You are able to walk around inside the castle including going all the way up to the top level of the tower - very interesting indeed. And as with most historical places in Japan you can't wear your shoes inside while walking around. So you remove your shoes at the door, slip them in a bag to carry around with you, or leave them in a cubby. Sure they provide one-size-fits-all slippers to wear instead - but as you can imagine my feet came nowhere close to fitting in them. Quite comical, really. So if possible I just walked around in socks. :-)

The jovial samurai?
A highlight of our two nights in Matsumoto was using the free bicycles our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) had for use. We rode all over this very bike-friendly town and it was a handy way to get to and from the ryokan since it wasn't right in the town center. We were skeptical about it at first but it turned out to be really fun and an unexpected delight!

While in Japan we wanted to be sure to have a little bit of time out in a remote, beautiful area so we chose Kamikochi, a national park "village", but not really a village, about an hour and half by train and bus. Just a few places to stay and eat. Our "onsen hotel" (with traditional Japanese baths) was right on a river surrounded by mountains and was a lovely place to stay. And it's not often that one can be in a place with both black bears and monkeys, but this is such a place! Very strange. We did see some monkeys - so close in that one walked right by me on a trail - but thankfully no bears.

We had such a nice time walking the trails and enjoying the wonderful, warm weather. There is no shortage of other visitors here - almost all Japanese - so at times it can feel a bit crowded. But it doesn't take much to get on a trail with no one else around. Not surprisingly, that is where we saw the monkeys. And everyone you pass on the trail offered a cheerful "konichiwa!" or "ohayo gozaimas!" (good morning). So friendly.  And since no cars are allowed in this area (you can only get here by bus) it makes it a very enjoyable place to be.

One side effect of seeing a country by train (and the occasional bus) is hauling one's luggage on and off the trains and to/from the train station on foot. Yes they have taxis shut up. Wheeling a suitcase for several blocks in Tokyo? Not too troublesome actually. Finding nooks and crannies on the train cars to stick the suitcases? Sometime tricky. (It sure seemed like we were the only ones with bags bigger than carry ons!) But the most unusual was toting our bags a half a mile through the forest on walking trails to get to our Kamikochi hotel from the bus stop. Can't say as I've done that before...

After our one night in the wilderness we hopped back on a bus for an hour and a half ride to Takayama, another charming little city in the mountains. Our first night we stayed at the most wonderful little ryokan that was impossibly charming and wonderfully traditional. It felt like stepping back in time. And the host was a very funny and delightful older woman who spoke a little bit of English and made sure we really enjoyed the Japanese breakfast and dinner she served us in our little room - complete with tatami mats (socks only!), low table, antiques abounding, and a futon she rolled out on the floor after dinner to sleep on.

Takayama is full of lovely street markets, lovely shrines and temples, and traditional Japanese architecture. It's easily navigated on foot and there is no shortage of places to see and things to do. Very photogenic, and very Japanese. And no shortage of funny little things like this oddly worded hat and the sugary vitamin water bottle with "Let's Vitamin!" on it.  I laugh.

We wanted to stay in that perfect little ryokan for our second night in Takayama but...they were already full. So we found another one that, while also really lovely and traditional, suffered only from following our first one so it just wasn't quite as awesome. But the food was good (as always) and they were so very, very nice. Even gave us a ride to the train station when we were ready to go to Kyoto!

These five days in the mountains, whether actually in the mountains or in the charming cities surrounded by mountains, was a highlight for me. Spectacular, perfect-as-can-be weather helped I'm sure, but I really loved the places we stayed, the beauty of the mountains, and the people we encountered. Lots to do yet easy going and relaxed pace. Just lovely.

The place we went next - the last three days of our trip - was Kyoto. And that will be the topic of my next blog entry. Just as soon as I get those photos done. :-)

In the mean time, click here to see some more photos from Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Takayama.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Japan Part 1: Tokyo

Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo
After returning from our 11 day adventure to Japan I thought it would be best to blog about it in three parts - one for each of the main areas we visited.  Since our first three days were in Tokyo, that seems like a good place to start.

We arrived in Tokyo full of eager anticipation yet also with a bit of trepidation. Although we've been to places where English wasn't the primary language, most of the time the locals did speak English so it was never a hardship. This would be different, though, since only a small number of Japanese speak English and even more so the fact that the writing, unlike say Spanish or French, is completely unintelligible to the likes of us.

So we did our best to learn a number of Japanese words and phrases to help us get by.  And wow was that ever a good thing. Not only do they appreciate the effort of saying "thank you", "hello", "excuse me", "good morning", and even "do you speak English?" in their own language but I really think it helps establish an instant rapport. We found every single Japanese person we encountered to be friendly, kind, and helpful - even if we could barely communicate.  So great!

Tokyo is massive in every sense of the word. Huge in size and huge in population - the biggest city in the world with 35 million people. Wow! So would walking around Tokyo be like the "Girl in the Red Dress" scene from The Matrix? Shoulder to shoulder masses of people everywhere?  Well no.  But sometimes yes. :-)

It's not hard to find areas with the quintessential neon, skyscrapers, packed subways, and masses of people that visions of Tokyo conjure up.  And we immersed ourselves in some of that. Could hardly say you've visited Tokyo without doing that! But it's also quite easy - QUITE easy - to find parks and temples and small quaint streets with just a handful of people around. At no time did the city feel overcrowded to me. Very unexpected! And quite lovely.

Of course another fun aspect of Japan is the part of the pop culture very different from ours (and often quite kooky) and how it manifests itself in everyday things. And of course the often comical translations into English for many things including products and slogans.

So many things are just so happy and jovial like this sign for an electronics store. Or the little sing-song electronic melodies that play when your train is about to depart.

And then there is my favorite name for an ice cream bar ever (and corresponding candy bar) - Crunky. I can hardly stop saying it out loud. So for things that were written in English it was always fun to see how the translation manifested itself or the names they came up with.

The subways and trains in Tokyo are remarkably efficient and always on time (would you expect any less?) and because the signage is always in both Japanese and English it meant getting around the city was a snap. Well OK it really helped having a pocket map, but still - it sure made getting around one less thing to worry about.

One often difficult thing was finding a restaurant listed in a guidebook. Sure, there are 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo (!) so finding one isn't ever going to be hard. With Anne's gluten-free needs, though, there were times we wanted to seek out a particular place because perhaps they had gluten free soba noodles or something and were highly regarded. Since Japanese addresses are very different from ours it's hard enough finding a place - but then factor in that if a building is kind enough to put the address up well it's written in Japanese of course so no help there.

The guidebook would tell you the English name of the restaurant, the description, and a dot on a crude map. So off we go, we manage to find the street and general location, and of course every single sign for every single business is in...you guessed it...Japanese.  Ugh.  So the best we could hope for was someone coming out of where we thought it might be and asking in very rudimentary Japanese if this was so-and-so. And well...it did actually work! Or one time there were so many other restaurants around that we threw up our hands and said, "Let's just choose this one." And then after being seated we saw in tiny print their website URL and lo and behold it was the one were actually looking for! Nice.

Tokyo is known for being expensive - and it certainly can be. Hotels especially. But it's actually not too hard to find very reasonable yet lovely places to eat. Or to find things to do/places to visit that cost very little.  So that was really nice.

The marvellous differences in age and feel in different parts of city was fascinating. Our hotel, for example, was in a very modern area with a very sort of "futuristic" vibe - levels upon levels of walkways, trains, and roads. Then walk for 5 minutes and you feel you are back in time with charming streets, lanterns, and cafes. Pretty cool.

How was it being so exceedingly tall in a land of generally short people? Not too different, really. Ducking wasn't needed all that often. I fit (barely) into the subway cars. I got some looks but you know, there are plenty of taller Japanese people, too. None as tall as me, but then that usually seems to be the case. So it didn't really feel all that odd or different. Or maybe everyone was taking surreptitious photos of the "freaky Caucasian". Hard to tell.

The weather as a whole for our entire trip was AMAZINGLY good. Just wonderful, warm, pleasant sunny summer days with highs around 80F/27C most days. However there were 2 days where we got wet (both were Sundays oddly enough) including one day in Tokyo. It literally rained all day but we made the best of it for as long as we could. We still saw a lot but by 2pm we were soaked through and had enough. That's OK - the next day was idyllic and it was a good excuse to visit a Japanese version of an English pub and have a nap.

Tokyo gave us a great introduction to Japan and I enjoyed it quite a lot - certainly more than I might have thought. And there was much more to come. Next up would be three different locales in and amongst the Japan Alps, about 2.5 hours by train west of Tokyo. Small charming cities and no-cities-around mountain immersion. More on that in part 2.

In the mean time, you can see more photos of Tokyo here.

And here is a short clip highlighting Shibuya - an area that does in fact have LOTS of people, all the time. Plus a little bit of Tokyo Dome and neighboring middle-of-the-city roller coaster. Very Japanese. :-)

video






Monday, September 17, 2012

The Mighty All Blacks

The All Blacks at Eden Park
The Rugby World Cup last year made us fall in love with rugby, and most especially the All Blacks - easily the greatest rugby club in history.

So this year it made sense that we should try and go see a match live and in person in Auckland.  They play their home games throughout the country and so there was really one chance to see them here in Auckland during their "season".

So I got us some tickets when they went on sale and a couple of weeks ago we got to see our boys in person - and playing arch-rival Australia no less!

Although there are hardly any bad seats at Eden Park, we probably had some of the ones farthest away up in the top corner.  So although that made it hard to hear the hits and grunts and yelling going on down on the field, it was still a pretty amazing experience to see them - and the pre-game haka - live.  They are SO GOOD!

As stated by the reporters the next day, there was probably not a team in the world that could have beaten New Zealand that day - they won quite convincingly 22-0.  Very satisfying.  Of course the Wallabies haven't beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park since 1986...so we're glad that streak didn't end with us in attendance.

So although watching the mighty All Blacks on TV is probably the best way to go (we never miss a match) it was great to take part in the very Kiwi experience of seeing the All Blacks in the home park.  Sweet as.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Vanuatu and the Volcano

We've recently returned from our first South Pacific island getaway - 6 days in Vanuatu. Since most people not from this side of the world haven't heard of Vanuatu, it's an island nation consisting of 83 islands in the neighborhood of Fiji and an easy 3 hour flight from Auckland. One of the common "beach holiday" destinations for Kiwis and Aussies.

Of course there was the tropical loveliness and sunshine and all that but it is still south of the equator and therefore still winter.  So it wasn't ever HOT - highs in the mid-upper 70s(F) - but a couple of days and nights it was downright COLD.  OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration seeing how "cold" = 65F but when you're in an open-air bungalow with one blanket it's shiver-time.  Hotter would have been better, but man was it nice to feel warm in the sun coming from winter-time cool wet days in NZ!

The highlight, far and away, was our volcano visit.  After arriving in Vanuatu we took an island hopper over to Tanna, a remote island of Vanuatu, to spend 3 days.  There is almost nothing there except for the indigenous people living a very simple life and a handful of tourists and lodges.  Just forest, mountains, and an active volcano. And active it is!

We knew to expect something special, but we had no idea it was going to be quite so amazing.  Yes, it active every day and ash billows out in big plumes.  We knew that, and knew that you can get a guide to drive you in a 4x4 (absolutely essential - the "roads"are not passable without one) all the way up to the rim to look down into the caldera.  And if the wind was a certain direction you can and will get covered in it.  Yuck.

Mt Yasur from a distance
Coming over the mountain after an hour of bouncing and swaying in the 4x4 we saw the ash-spewing volcano from a distance - and were pretty amazed to see just how active it was.

Driving further to the base of the volcano we could drive 50mph over the flat ash plain.  Rocks and boulders littered the area, giving a hint as to what this thing can do.

Then it was up to the top where we joined a handful of others looking down into the volcano at dusk.  It was pretty amazing to see this and be so close.  The whole effort of coming to Tanna and driving on those god-forsaken roads would have been totally worth it as this point.

Then the thing exploded.

Explosion time
The ground shakes beneath your feet, the shock wave hits with a deep, deep boom any subwoofer owner would be jealous of, and an explosion of glowing, tumbling chair and sofa sized rocks blasts into the sky above you, seemingly in slow motion.  Oh. My. God.  Awesome!!

(And we were upwind, so no ash-covered Americans here!)

And it kept doing this, maybe once every 5 - 10 minutes, sometimes one right after the other.  And it does this every day!  Which is why people come here - to witness an exploding volcano close-up yet know it will (probably) be safe.  After we were there for a while and it was dark, the thing had such a big explosion that the flying, glowing magma came a little to close to where we were.  So even the seasoned guides accompanying everyone said, "It's time to go now!"  Well I wanted to stay but Anne insisted otherwise. :-)

So really, this should be on more people's bucket list.  It not only was an amazing experience of the trip, it ranks as one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.

Here is a YouTube video with a more complete set of photos plus some video clips courtesy of my iPhone.  Note that the first video clip ends right as the first explosion happened - I wasn't expecting it AT ALL and was just turing it off when it happened.  I started it up again and missed the best part - although capturing Anne's reaction was pretty good.

Volcano Video

And click here for a collection of photos from the trip. (Tip: click or tap the photo to show/hide the captions and next/prev controls)