Wednesday, February 14, 2018

NZ Pt 2 - The Joker Stage and the Queen Stage

Taupo, NZ

After a few days of non-stop rain, we were elated to wake up on Sunday to blue skies, despite a weather app that said "rain will continue". We stayed at Lake Taupo, home to an Ironman and other adventure sports, for 2 nights and did some lovely riding and eating. Then, on to the final 2 Big Adventures of the trip!

Lake Taupo on unexpected sunny day

The Joker Stage - Tongagiro Alpine Crossing

One of the most recommended and obvious activities for a trip to New Zealand is to do a gorgeous day hike ("tramp", in NZ terms) in the mountains. The highest-rated tramp within reasonable driving distance is the Tongagiro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km (12mi) point-to-point trek that passes through a Dual World Heritage site and passes by huge volcanoes, the most iconic being 'Mt Doom' from Lord of the Rings.

My heart was set on doing this hike and not wimping out due to weather, and Zack played along nicely. We parked in National Park Village, rented some trekking poles, and took a shuttle to the trailhead. Despite raging thunderstorms that morning in Taupo (1hr drive away), the weather seemed OK - around 60 degrees and misty. We hoped to get above some clouds to see some of the world-renowned views! Unfortunately, we soon climbed up into the cloud, then were pelted with cold rain in heavy bursts! We hurried along, not stopping for a pleasant picnic, passing hundreds of boy-scout equivalents and jogging a little bit at the end to make it back for the earliest shuttle back. Mission accomplished, glad we did it, but a little bit ridiculous. Luckily, the Airbnb host that night had a very sweet dog to warm us up.

Warning sign

Going up the 'Devil's Staircase'

Summit viewpoint

One spectacular view - descending

Crater walk in the rain

Queen Stage - The Timber Trail MTB

The hardest day of a cycling stage race is called the 'Queen Stage'. We often seem to have such epic days toward the end of our 'vacations' (not sure who plans them! ;)
Zack actually introduced me to The Timber Trail a few months ago, and when he expressed interest in an all-day MTB ride, I readily acquiesced. It's an 84km (50mi) point-to-point ride through timber forests and natural preserves, all on dirt, mostly non-technical singletrack. We'd book a shuttle to the start, then ride back to end at our car. 50 miles doesn't sound that huge compared to road rides, but our longest MTB ride this trip so far had been about 15, so it's a different beast! The website estimates 11 hours for most groups to do the ride and recommends camping or staying at a lodge at the halfway point.

The trail contains amazing suspension bridges, built specifically for cyclists/trampers!
We woke up with tender legs from muscles unused to hiking. We figured if the muscles were so sore, they must not be cycling muscles anyway so not to worry! The prior day, the shuttle company concernedly sent a few emails confirming "do you really want to do the full ride in such bad weather?" We got worried, asked whether it was still rideable, to which they replied that it would be much slower than usual but doable and that only 2 of that day's 30 booked riders ended up going. Morning of, standing in just light rain, we decided to just go for it and bring a bunch of extra food and clothes just in case.

There were only a few major obstacles;
otherwise, the trail is meticulously maintained and engineered
After a nice shuttle ride to the start, we slogged off through the woods, legs and aerobic systems feeling surprisingly good. The dirt in NZ is mainly volcanic pumice soil, which drains water incredibly well, so we had good traction and overall much better conditions that one would expect after these downpours. The route took us up and over a mountain (fine trail conditions, pelting rain), along some rolling sections (very nice), up a second climb (much muddier, lots of puddles), then down toward the endpoint (still very muddy/slow-going). We stopped for cookie and egg-sandwich breaks, passed some other riders, and altogether had a really nice ride. The sun peaked out for the last hour, making this whole ride feel very upbeat. We finished in 6.5 hours, plenty of time to get an early Valentine's Day dinner and soak in the hot tub at the next Airbnb!

Peek of sunshine toward the end!

2km from the end, the entire creek flooded. Zack just went for it and didn't realize he went against the NWS PSA of "Turn Around, Don't Drown".

Last Days

Thursday we awoke with the bright sun in our faces. A gorgeous, typical summer day in NZ after all that rain! We mainly relaxed and savored the last day of vacation, doing a little work, reading, and going for an easy kayak paddle on the Bay to Pancake Rocks. Raglan, NZ is a little surf town, with black sand beaches, nice water, and a great left-hand wave break (not sure what that means, not being a surfer). Lovely last day.

Gorgeous beach at Raglan

Friday will span 42 hours with the time changes, so should be a big day. We plan to drive back to up to Auckland Airport, drop off the rental car, go for a quick final MTB spin nearby, shower (the terminal has free showers, supposedly), fly 13 hours, wake up at 6:30am also on Friday in LAX, work from LAX until 2:40pm (hopefully using my 2 free United Club passes), then fly to PIT. Looking forward to seeing our puppy again and spending the long weekend with Zack's parents!

Overall trip route: Map

Thursday, February 8, 2018

New Zealand Honeymoon

While we went on a lovely Pacific Northwest road trip after our wedding last summer, we didn't classify it as a 'honeymoon', instead saving that for a later occasion when Zack might need more of an excuse to be absent from work. The opportunity presented itself in the form of $800 roundtrip tickets from SF to New Zealand during NZ summer/Pittsburgh ice-season! Ever since seeing Whale Rider and Lord of the Rings, NZ has been on my radar as a bucket-list destination, so we jumped on the tickets. The plan is a thoroughly relaxing 10-day vacation, staying 2-3 days at each place, renting mountain bikes for the majority.

First, I spent a week in the Bay Area, catching up with my coworkers during the week and friends on the weekend. It feels right to go work in my home office every few months to check in with everyone, so that worked out great. The weather was ~70 and sunny every day, which didn't hurt ;)

I don't miss commuting, but this part of the commute was pretty amazing.


We flew to Auckland Sunday night (arriving Tuesday morning NZT). Auckland is by far the largest population center in NZ, with ~30% of the country's inhabitants at around 1.5 million people in the metro. It's bounded by the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, with interesting topography containing dozens of volcano cones, craters, and lava flows. The weather for the first couple days of our trip was 65-80 F and mostly sunny, which I think is pretty typical summer weather.

After a deluxe second-breakfast then dropping off our (minimal) luggage at an Airbnb shared apartment right downtown, we walked over to the ferry terminal and jetted over to Waiheke Island. We were exhausted, not having slept that well on the plane and with tired legs from a bike ride that was technically on Sunday but really only the day before!! The time difference wasn't bad, only 3 hours (21 hours) from CA. We wandered around the island, swimming, reading, walking on paths and eating acai bowls and gelato. It was lovely, though the 'clapping cicadas' chirps made it hard to hear or talk on the trails!

View from Airbnb window, Auckland

Waiheke Island

Wednesday morning, we rented city bikes for the morning and pedaled along the Strava Local curated route "Triple Peaks". The city is full of green space and parks and has certain bike-friendly areas, though some of the roads definitely included bikes as an afterthought (e.g. "bus/bike lanes" - terrible idea, buses are the vehicles I least like to share a lane with!). After some more pricey but tasty cafe-food, and the fanciest, most over-the-top gelato I've ever seen, Zack went off to University of Auckland to give a seminar! I went for a hike through more city parks (Albert Park and Auckland Domain) and read for a while.

Mt Eden (crater) in Auckland

One Tree Hill in Auckland (with sheep)

Auckland Domain - park downtown feels like a jungle

This hazelnut gelato work-of-art was 'only' $13.
Would have been easy to spend $40 on a really fancy one!

Thursday, we departed Auckland in the morning for the rest of our adventure. New Zealand is really known for its scenery, not its cities. That said, I liked what we saw of Auckland; it reminds me a fair bit of San Francisco, with good parks, weather, food, topography, and expensive.

Take that, San Francisco!

Really well-done 'shared zones' in Auckland -
mostly pedestrians, but cars allowed


The North Island has very scenic roads, but they are narrow and don't have shoulders, so the road biking doesn't sound great. However, the mountain biking is world-renowned. Zack and I have both been mountain biking more since moving to Pittsburgh and decided to rent MTBs for this trip; we picked up some Specialized Rockhopper HTs along with our rental car, and headed off or the rest of our journey. Rotorua is home to Whakarewarewa Forest, with over 100 miles of trails, most of them well-maintained and banked for riding. We originally planned to travel and sight-see Thursday, then do some riding Fri-Sun, but a huge rainstorm was forecast starting on Friday, so Thursday afternoon we hopped on the still-dry trails for a few hours. They were all well-marked, directional, and fun, as long as we stayed to the appropriate 'grade' (a grade '4' descent was too steep for our comfort). The forest is known for its California Redwoods, ironically, so felt a lot like the Bay Area.

MTBing in Whaka Forest

Rotorua hosts a Thursday Night Market, so we wandered around there for dinner and exploration. There are around a dozen different bike shops capitalizing on tourists visiting the Redwoods and the gravity lift-assisted downhill parks. Everything seemed incredibly overpriced, even at the 'discount' shops and after taking into account the NZD-USD conversion, but luckily we didn't need too much. The area is home to incredible thermal features that permeate the area; the whole town smells of sulfur, like Yellowstone. There are thermal springs for swimming, geysers for viewing, and Maori villages with cultural performances.

Boiling lake in downtown Rotorua park - eerie!

Friday, we bought eggs/bacon/bread/jam/coffee and made ourselves what would  be at least a $20/pp breakfast at a nearby cafe. After that great start, we braved the first day of rain and rode through the forest for another few hours; it seemed to be holding up well, mostly clay/hardpack dirt that the water rolled off or formed puddles on rather than becoming deep mud.

Rainy jungle

Since the rain is expected to continue for another few days, we aren't sure whether riding will be possible or if areas will flood; but will go see some cultural sights instead! After that, we're planning on a long day hike, a long day ride, and a beach day before heading back to winter!

Additional note

We added a member to our family since the last post - Kepler the Aussiedor, adopted in August and now 8 months old! Traveling takes more thought/arrangements now, but Zack's parents are house-sitting for these 2 weeks and keeping him entertained and worn out! 
Before he learned how to stand up in the backpack
My work-from-home buddy

Ellen and Stefano instructing Kepler about world news

Monday, July 3, 2017

CA-OR Road Trip

Straight from our wedding in Lake Tahoe, we headed north for a 1-week road trip to see a spectacular part of the country.

  1. Westwood, CA & Lassen Volcanic National Park
  2. Klamath Falls, OR & Crater Lake National Park
  3. Ashland, OR & Cascade Siskiyou National Monument

Westwood, CA & Lassen Volcanic National Park

We stayed in a cabin in Westwood, by Lake Almanor a few hours north of Tahoe with my dad for the first leg of our trip. 

Westwood itself didn't have much going on; its claim to fame is a
 giant Paul Bunyan statue.
After a "recovery" bike ride that turned too long due to a bridge repair and
included some pretty narrow shoulders with logging trucks, we planned an off-road
ride for the next day.

We rode up the Bizz Johnson Trail, a ~22-mile rails-to-trails gravel road to Susanville,
with Zack giving a motor-assist to my dad with his Christmas present to me (a bike leash).
My dad and I rode mountain bikes, while Zack had his gravel bike, which provided an
unnecessary boost of speed to him on any non-gnarly roads. 

From Susanville, we rode up forest service roads deep into the hills, forming a loop where we saw only a few other people all day but rode in great areas.

From Westwood, we drove up toward Lassen Volcanic National Park. We stopped on the way to do an out-and-back gravel/road ride to a remote Park entrance. After a nice lunch and a chat with a local book club in Chester (discussing Trevor Noah's "Born a Crime", which we're listening to on audiobook while driving now), we continued on our way to the main visitor's center.

It turned out that the main road through the park was closed to through traffic because of deep snow, however 7 miles were open to bikes (only), and temperatures were in the 70s-80s. Best-case scenario for visiting a National Park, in my opinion! We rode to the end, awed by the sulfur springs and abundant snow.

Open to bikes!

The end of the road

Klamath Falls, OR & Crater Lake National Park

We continued on north to Klamath Falls, a nice town in southern Oregon. From Klamath, we took a day trip up to Crater Lake National Park, about 1 hour drive north. Like Lassen, much of the road was closed to cars but open to bikes and hikers. We did a short ride as far as the road was open, locked up the bikes, and hiked down Cleetwood Cove, the only location along the whole lake where people can go in the water! My dad and I jumped off the rock into the snow-melt water, while Zack laughed and stayed warm. Despite the snow, the temperatures were in the 80s, with bright sun, so we didn't stay cold long.


The final day in Klamath Falls, we relaxed by a park, drank coffee in a café, and did a bit of work in another café. The coffee was excellent; not normally much one to discern different coffee types, I found it good enough to buy a bag of beans. From Klamath, we parted ways with my dad, who would drive back to Wyoming while we turned west to Ashland.

Ashland, OR

Ashland is very cute and hip. It has something like 50 organic coffee roasters, and enough expensive bakeries to be dangerous for Zack and me. The town is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, and full of outdoorsy people biking, hiking, and rafting/kayaking the rivers. It reminds me a lot of Jackson, and a bit of the wine country towns in Sonoma Valley. 

Our first stop in Ashland, before continuing on to the small organic farm airbnb where we would room, was Mix Bakeshop to get earl grey-chocolate chip ice cream. We went back here a few times, since their coffee and pastries were also excellent. 

Saturday, we did a long beautiful road ride that started with a long climb up into the mountains where the air was (thankfully) cooler. The roads were small and low-traffic, and all were paved. My legs felt great after a couple of easy/rest days, and I made Zack suffer a bit. We spent the afternoon eating fancy organic food and lounging by a reservoir – really lovely area.

Our last big ride was Sunday, up Mount Ashland. We rode up fire roads, 5500 feet over ~15 miles to the summit. From there, Zack rolled down the paved road on his gravel bike, while I tried out the world-class mountain biking trails down the mountain; the trails I did were reasonably within my expertise level, though I am becoming a bit curious about how nice a full-suspension bike might feel descending. The trails toward the bottom of the mountain have this incredible banking/berms, making the switchback turns really fun even while I still hold my brakes and get passed by more fearless descenders!

Top of Mt Ashland

After one more recovery ride and 3 more bakery/ice cream/smoothie stops, we drove back to Millbrae to get back to work for a few more weeks.

Our next adventure is moving to Pittsburgh at the beginning of August! Also, let us know if you have any recommendations/ideas for a honeymoon this winter in Patagonia area.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Wedding Weekend in Tahoe!

This long hiatus in blog posts skipped over a number of great trips, including:

  • Pre-Christmas in Payson, Arizona with my mom and Nina
  • Christmas in Maryland with Zack's family
  • Tahoe XC-ski trip with coworkers
  • February winter-sports trip to Jackson with my dad
  • Pittsburgh house-hunting trip
  • Sea Otter classic bike weekend
  • Nina's college graduation (Duke)
  • Pittsburgh AWMA conference
  • Yosemite weekend (with so many waterfalls)

...but the most interesting highlight has to be our wedding!!

45 of our closest family and friends gathered for a weekend wedding getaway in Incline Village, NV, overlooking Lake Tahoe. The goal was an intimate, outdoorsy weekend that melded a cycling training camp with a classy wedding, and it turned out perfect. Full photo album here.

Thursday night, Zack cooked one of his Italian specialties -- pasta with fennel-mushroom-sausage sauce. Those in town already not busy with other wedding prep all ate together at one of the houses; rather than staying in hotels, we rented 5 big ski/vacation homes in town and rotated between hanging out at the various houses.

We advised friends to bring or rent mountain bikes, since the riding in Incline Village is spectacular. Due to record snowfall, Friday was the first day of the year the trail was open at all (lucky!!). A few friends and my dad went mountain biking on the Flume Trail, a gorgeous non-technical mountain ride with some serious exposure.
Soon after this, we turned back around...

View of Sand Harbor beach from the Flume Trail!

After a BBQ dinner at the house with the best view, we went to sleep knowing tomorrow was the big day! I didn't feel nervous about the marriage itself (we've already planned a move cross-country and bought a house together, after all!), but the anticipation of the fun weekend events (and associated logistics) kept me awake like Christmas morning used to.

Beautiful view from the deck

Saturday morning dawned early and clear (as usual), and we headed out on a wedding-morning bike ride up Mt Rose. I feel so lucky to have such a good group of friends to join on adventures like this -- it was really the perfect way to start a wedding.

Scenic overlook on Mt Rose

After that, I went to get my hair and nails done (JK!) and we drove down to Preston Park, the informal venue for our reception-with-a-small-ceremony. My mom and her family did an amazing job making the park look lovely and non-picnic-like, with my favorite flowers (hydrangeas) and settings. Zack's uncle Alan performed our ceremony, we said our vows, and we ate great food & drinks, amazing cake, and socialized.
NIna and Isaac

Zack's family eyeing the cakes

My dad and Emmy
Our first kiss
Zack, you are the most amazing man I’ve met. You are brilliant and sweet, and I know I can always depend on you. I love you, and I am so happy to be standing here with you today. I promise to be loving, supportive, and faithful. I’ll be your partner on all of life’s adventures. I will love you through sunshine and through storms for as long as we both shall live.

Shaena, you are my very best friend.  
You are a positive force for myself and everyone around you, and you give meaning to every day.  
I promise to nurture your goals and ambitions; to support you through misfortune and celebrate your triumphs. I’ll be your partner on all of life’s adventures. I will love you through sunshine and through storms for as long as we both shall live.

For our wedding night wild party, we went on a little hike down to the lake and jumped into the water, then played board games -- really the perfect evening for Zack and me :)

Sunday was beach day at Sand Harbor, which turned out even more gorgeous than it looked in the photos! We reserved the 'Group Ramada' pavilion (on January 2nd, the first day reservations were accepted), which worked out well because the beach was otherwise very crowded. My dad rented kayaks, stand-up-paddleboards (SUPs), and a pedal-catamaran (awesome, so fast!). We ate leftover BBQ, catering, and more breakfast, and hung out at the beach all day. By the end, we were a bit exhausted but thoroughly happy.
Nina and Isaac SUP-ing

Pedal-maran sailboat; not much wind, so most of the propulsion came from pedaling
Now, we are on a 1-week road trip through some national parks to Oregon with my dad -- planning an official 'honeymoon' for next winter, but happy to escape and see a beautiful part of the country before we move in a month.