Day 16 – Sydney and Blue Mountains

We booked a tour this morning to see the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. The formations were supposed to be incredible. However, the weather wasn’t very cooperative. We joined a group of eight in a van to see what we could see. Adam, our guide, really worked hard to find areas that would be visible. He was semi-successful but the walk in the rainforest was quite beautiful. We couldn’t see the “Three Sisters,” which is a must-see in the Blue Mountains. So, I took a picture of it to let you know what it was supposed to look like.

There were numerous stops along the way, some with glimpses of beauty when the clouds melted away, if only fleetingly. Adam apologized profusely with hopes that some of the splendid views would reveal themselves. Unfortunately, his cloud melting powers were on vacation! We even got a quick peak of a lyrebird before it hid in the bushes. That was only the second time that Adam had ever seen one in the wild.

He does have a YouTube channel where he talks about the wonders of this area, called Adsventures. I plan to check it out when we are home. We did take the gondola down to almost the bottom, providing a beautiful view of the area. We took the train (more like an incline) back up and the seats reclined a lot so you weren’t falling forward when it lurched up the mountain. That was fun, actually.

Afterward, we stopped at a local zoo, the Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park, where many of the animals were allowed to roam freely. The kangaroos, wallabys, and many birds, like the Ibis, seemed to enjoy the attention, allowing us to pet them (not the birds). They had an incredible, pre-historic-looking bird (cassowary), huge pelicans (or were they storks?), goats, koalas, owls, unusual ducks, emus, penguins, wombats, echidnas, dog-like dingos, ostriches, cockatoos, and quokkas. Although echidnas look like porcupines, they are quite different. They aren’t in the rodent family like porcupines, but are egg-laying mammals. They were very cute but can be dangerous to touch. The quokka has an adorable face that always seems to be smiling.

We returned to Sydney to get freshened up before our farewell dinner at a nearby hotel. We had one very long table, which wasn’t our favorite way to dine, but it gave us an opportunity to visit with some of our fellow travelers. This is the final day of the original tour. Seven of us are going on to Fiji, one couple is going to Hawaii to celebrate their anniversary on their way home, and one couple is returning to Sydney for five days to really get up-close and personal time to visit places we didn’t get to on the tour. The rest are heading home to snow and cold.

We leave tomorrow morning for our flight to Nadi, about 3.5 hours away. It will be nice to enjoy warm weather and some down time. We said our goodbyes and may keep in touch via our WhatsApp group, sharing pictures and updates once everyone is home. Despite the larger size of the group, we enjoyed each other’s company and got along well.

Day 15 – Sydney

Today, we experienced our first overcast and rainy day on this trip. No worries, as the Aussies say! We had umbrellas and jackets, some with hoods, so we were nonplussed about heading out – especially because our first stop was the iconic Sydney Opera House. Even with sprinkles, it is quite a sight to see. We were given a special “behind the scenes” tour of the facility, which most tours do not provide. We were there only days after they celebrated its 50th anniversary to great fanfare.

Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon in a design competition, he created something very special, where millions flock to see each year. When it was started, there was a lot of political will and enthusiasm, built for over $100 million dollars (about $3 billion in today’s money). Eventually, when administrations changed, the enthusiasm changed and Utzon was pretty much ostracized, and quit. Three Sydney architects took over the completion of the building and in 1999, Utzon returned as the architect for a huge improvement project, including the Reception Hall.

We were allowed to go into the main concert hall, which seats just over 2,900 people. The acoustics are amazing, with innovative designs in the wood to move the sound in the auditorium from the hard wood on the walls to the soft wood of the seats so everyone can hear perfectly. Fifty years ago, this was unimaginable, but accomplished. Of course, the hall is not just used for opera but also for concerts of all kinds.

The smaller concert hall, named for opera legend Joan Sutherland, is mainly used for chamber orchestras and dance performances. It is beautiful but not as impressive as the larger hall. The roof, with its flying sail design, is made of reinforced concrete and custom-made tiles that repel water, shuttling it off to spaces between the concrete walkways and ultimately to the harbor.

Its proximity to the Sydney Harbor Bridge makes for a spectacular view. Many people pay a lot of money to climb the bridge, which is quite taxing although, no doubt, very rewarding. Supposedly, just walking across the bridge is amazing, although we did not have time to try this. Docked near the bridge was an immense cruise ship, housing over 6,000 passengers, plus crew. It was an overwhelming site. I can’t imagine what happens when they disembark and overrun the city.

From here, we went to check out Manly Beach. It is known for surfing but the surfers were scarce that day. It was raining, although I doubt that surfers care about that. We ate Chinese dumplings at a small restaurant overlooking the beach and had a giggle when we saw a gaggle of Chinese tourists leaving, all decked out in matching orange jackets and pink caps. I kidded our tour guide how we would all balk at having to wear identical jackets and caps – big time!

By the time we returned to the hotel, we decided to go to the Queen Victoria Mall to get something quick and easy to eat for dinner. It seems that most of the food places closed at 8:00, so we did a quick check and got some Asian food for takeaway (to go in our parlance). We took the food to our hotel and ate in the lobby with a beer from the bar. Another busy day…

Day 14 – Cairns to Sydney

Our morning flight on Jetstar Airlines, a low-cost subsidiary of Quantas, was uneventful, except that their baggage allowances are tighter than all the other airlines. We found out afterward that the tour company paid for us to have more weight at no cost to us. ​Oh well… We didn’t shop much anyway and we were within the reduced limits without a problem.

The four-hour flight took us over Sydney before landing. It was an amazing sight. We checked into our lovely hotel, right in the city’s center, near every high-end brand you can imagine. A short walk away was the Queen Victoria Mall, which was a spectacular example of Victorian architecture and now a bevy of beautiful stores and food purveyors. Everything is decorated for Christmas, especially on the streets and department store windows.

Outside, the city was decorated and very festive. We walked all around the center of Sydney before we could check into our hotel. It has a wonderful energy, kind of like New York, except with an accent. Oh wait, New Yorkers also have an accent! There was theater, shopping of every kind, too many restaurants to count, and coffee shop upon coffee shop. Aussies LOVE their coffee, aparently.

At 5:30, Jim, Bob (a fellow traveler), and I went on a Sydney Pub Crawl. It included dinner but only Bob was adventurous enough to have a crocodile and emu pizza. After eating Adam, our guide, met us and six others to start our “crawl.” We got a fabulous history lesson about The Rocks, the original settlement of Sydney, where the prisoners were sent from England. They worked to cut and shape the sandstone that was used to build the original buildings in Sydney, many of which are still in use.

While excavating a foundation for new construction, remnants of 45 structures were found from the 1600’s. Fortunately, they have been preserved and the new construction was built on stilts so the digging sites could still be visible.​ We visited The Hero of Waterloo pub, the oldest pub in Sydney, dating from 1843 and still functioning well. It is one of the busiest pubs, as well. The Lord Nelson pub has the oldest hotel in Sydney, dating from around the same time. The interior is original, except for Wi-Fi, security cameras, and other modern conveniences.

Another anachronism is the public phone booths all over Australia. Not only are they free, but they also have Wi-Fi. The reason they exist is for the unhoused and runaways so they can keep in touch with loved ones and have internet access. What a good idea!

After four pubs and too many beers (all excellent), we toddled back to the hotel and slept well.

Day 13 – Cairns Great Barrier Reef, Day 2

While about 15 in our group decided to visit the rainforest, we scheduled a second day of snorkeling, this time on a very luxurious boat. With at least 100 fewer people than yesterday, we got the royal treatment. By the way, the area is pronounced “Cans” with a flat A, not Carns or anything like that. We learned that pretty quickly.

This boat was definitely a step up from yesterday’s boat. It was parked almost next to a yacht built by Steve Jobs for his wife. However, he never lived to be on it and his wife has never used it. It has been in Cairns for maintenance and his daughter uses it occasionally. As you will see, it looks like a prison ship, with few windows, very unadorned, except for the shiny metal covering the bow. No hot tub, no deck chairs, nothing much to see, and all white! Next to this yacht was parked a smaller, but more typical yacht owned by Clive Palmer, an Aussie billionaire who is now a politician. (Either they go into politics as a billionaire, or retire from politics as a billionaire!) We never heard of him but the Aussies certainly did!

The location of our first reef today was north of Cairns, rather than south like yesterday. The snorkeling yesterday showed us amazing coral. Today’s adventure revealed different kinds of coral, some only a foot below the surface of the water. There were some colorful specimens but mainly in shades of green and yellow, with an occasional pop of color. Today, the colors were muted but the coral was much larger. It made the various fish we saw look even brighter. We didn’t have an underwater camera, but our guide did and he took some of these pictures.

The coral was very close to the surface, maybe 12″ below, and you had to be careful not to kick them with your fins. There was an area where the reef dropped off into an abyss that the divers must have loved visiting. The wind was kicking up but in the water, you felt serene and at one with nature.

After our dive, we enjoyed a lunch of BBQ lamb, salads, and huge prawns (with heads, shells, and tails… not my favorite way to eat shrimp). A bit of a rest and Jim returned to the water to continue snorkeling. He saw more fish and a huge humpback wrasse, a carnivorous fish that he said was over a meter long and maybe a foot tall. I had never heard of such a fish. And, I am glad I never saw one.

On our way back to port, it started to rain and the water was pretty choppy. Rather than being inside the boat, we moved outside to the back where there was less wind. It was a long day and we were ready to have a bite of dinner and crash.

Day 12 – Cairns Great Barrier Reef

You can’t visit Australia without going to the Great Barrier Reef. It is a bucket list trip of a lifetime. After a hearty breakfast, we walked to the wharf where we boarded a large boat to head out to Fitzroy Island and then to the reef for our snorkeling adventure.

There are a number of boats taking folks out for a day of scuba diving, snorkeling, or enjoying short trips in a glass-bottom or semi-submersible boat to see the coral. Our boat docked at their own very large pontoon platform, housing changing rooms, equipment for diving or snorkeling, Lycra full-body stinger suits, flippers and more. We brought our own snorkeling masks, which we debated about but were happy to have with us.

I am relatively new to snorkeling but the anticipation of seeing amazing coral, fish, and maybe turtles was the draw. We got our gear on and jumped into the warm water. The coral had many colors and shapes. Jim knows all the names of the different corals but I just enjoyed seeing how these animals live under the water, with fish swimming in and out of them. We did spy Nemo in the anemones, along with his buddies. No turtles, unfortunately., although some in our group did see some.

We didn’t get a picture of us in our stinger suits but we do have one of our friends, Carol and Mark from Denver. That is pretty much how we also looked. We didn’t have an underwater camera but Jeremy, our guide, had one and took some amazing pictures, which I am happy to post with his permission.

After snorkeling, we went on the semi-submersible boat and got another look at the coral and more fish from a different perspective. Just as we were leaving the pontoon, the weather changed and it started to rain very lightly. We still were able to sit outside at the back of the boat and enjoy the trip back.Sitting outside on the back of the boat,

Once back at the hotel, we looked forward to a lovely hot shower to get the salt off of our bodies. Tomorrow, we scheduled a second day of snorkeling in a different area, while a number of people in our group are going to the rainforest and gondola trip. We opted for another opportunity to see the ocean wildlife and reef coral. We also have two snorkeling days in Fiji at the end of our trip. Poor us!

That evening, we went to an Aussie restaurant that offered upscale VERY Australian food. Jim is fairly conservative eating strange food but he loved every bite. We had an appetizer of kangaroo pate, a main dish of kangaroo and steak, and a dessert of vanilla ice cream bathed in Bailey’s Irish Cream. Okay, the dessert probably wasn’t a typical Aussie dish but it was divine! The other couple had a scallop salad appetizer, lamb and duck. Their dessert was a lemon tart with a lemon sorbet. All were excellent.

Being on the Reef was an amazing experience. We are looking forward for day two snorkeling again tomorrow. Another great day…

Day 11 – Melbourne to Cairns

It was an early morning when we departed to the Melbourne Airport for our three-hour flight to Cairns in the northeast corner of Australia. We arrived before noon and were picked up by our bus to go to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure, about 45 minutes north of the airport.

This park is a sanctuary, breeding facility, and showplace for kangaroos, wallabys, parrots, koalas, and crocs. We started out in a small boat to navigate the canal in the park where they have nine crocodiles. The females lay about 100 eggs but not all make it to birth. They have to remove most of the eggs from the nest because they couldn’t handle several females hatching hundreds of baby crocs.

We witnessed these prehistoric animals living the good life, without predators and lots of chicken to enjoy. Afterward, we got an opportunity to hold either a baby croc or a beautifully-colored python. I held the python, whose skin was very smooth and soft. We fed and petted adorable kangaroos, saw some amazing birds, and had another photo op with koalas.

We got to our hotel around 5:00 PM to get settled before going to a nearby restaurant for an incredible meal. No buffet this time, thankfully. I meant to take pictures of Jim’s calamari, my awesome salad, his perfectly-cooked steak, and my barramundi fish (Asian sea bass) but we ate it all too quickly. We only had a picture of our dessert.

We definitely were ready for a good night’s sleep.

Day 10 – Melbourne

In the morning, we took a tour of this incredible city. Recently, it became larger than Sydney because it added more land (and population) adjacent to the previous city boundaries. The downtown has so many beautiful modern high-rise buildings, while preserving the original structures from the early 1800’s, most of which have been faithfully renovated and re-purposed as housing or businesses.

We saw the many sports venues, which are numerous, for tennis, cricket, swimming, and more. They host a Formula 1 race and are very proud of their sports tradition. There is an amusement park with the oldest wooden roller coaster that is still working. The entrance is a bit scary, though. I particularly loved seeing the modern architecture and how greenery enhanced and softened many of the buildings. Older buildings were painted and the whimsey were show-stoppers.

Our next stop was the Shrine of Remembrance war memorial for the war heroes who fought in past wars. Australia participated in every war, losing many troops. This memorial evokes both the pride and sadness that goes with serving in wars.

Next, on to the Fitzroy Gardens for our guided tour of the beautiful flowers, trees, miniature town, and Cook’s Cottage. The volunteers who were the tour leaders had obvious pride and pleasure in showing us around. But, this wasn’t our last stop of the morning. We moved on to enjoying a High Tea that promised to be an amazing taste experience. And, it was.

We had a variety of savory and sweet treats, served for each of us, plus an absolutely delicious welcoming cocktail (gin, Aperol, and… I can’t remember). After enjoying the food, we had pots of tea, a large variety, prepared to perfection.

We left a few minutes early to enjoy a Melbourne Walking Foodie Tour that we booked on our own. How we were going to eat more was a mystery but we met our local guide, Monique, along with six others who signed up. There was a Dutch couple who live in Brisbane now, a young woman from Houston, another young woman from Cincinnati who is finishing her Ph.D. in chemistry at a university in Brisbane, and a couple from Germany. We all got along famously.

Our guide knew the back stories of the owners of each shop, which made the tour more interesting. First stop was a macaroon shop (macaron here) with treats in the most beautiful colors, with fillings that were mouth-watering. We could pick one to enjoy, which wasn’t easy. They are also quite sweet, so one was more than enough. Then on to taste a traditional bahn mi sandwich, filled with amazing things and delicious bread.

Our last stop was a pub, filled with young people (like us, haha) and enjoyed one of the local beers. It was really good and we got to conct with our group again until we parted ways. The best part of the tour was that almost all of the places we visited were on tiny side streets. You wouldn’t know where to go for these amazing offerings unless you were knowledgeable, which Monique was. We returned to the hotel feeling full.

Tomorrow, we have our first excursion to the Barrier Reef.

Day 9 – Queenstown to Melbourne

We left our hotel this morning at around 10:00 AM for our 1:30 PM flight to Melbourne. Around 2:00 PM, we found out that there was a mechanical issue that caused the flight from Melbourne to Queenstown we would be boarding to turn around and return to Melbourne. It looked like we would have quite a wait until another plane was sent to take us. And we were correct when we found out that the flight wouldn’t take off until 7:30 PM or maybe a little later. So, what do you do in a tiny airport terminal for 5.5 hours? Not much. Our guide, Jeremy, was able to contact the tour company and they sent a bus to get us and take us to an old mining town not too far away for a few hours. It turned out to be a nice diversion – certainly better than hanging around the two eating places at the airport.

Arrowtown is a charming little mining town about 20 minutes away, with tiny houses where the miners lived in the 1800’s. Most likely, the nicer houses were occupied by the bosses of the average miner. There were a number of cute shops, selling Merino wool sweaters at elevated prices and many bars and coffee shops with lots of folks enjoying a beverage. We settled on a gelato while we waited to return to the airport.

When it was time to return to the airport, we stopped at a bridge where people can bungy jump. So sad that it was closed! No doubt it would have been high on our list of things to do today. NOT!

We finally took off at 8:00 PM and got to Melbourne around midnight… totally exhausted from the journey. We know we will get a good night’s sleep, ready to get started with our tour of this beautiful city tomorrow.

Day 8 – Queenstown

We had a leisurely day, getting up later, enjoying breakfast, then going into town. The downtown isn’t large but has lots of interesting shops. There were a lot of outdoor sports stores, like Patagonia and North Face, as well as upscale clothing stores. Cashmere and Merino wool items were everywhere and they weren’t cheap. A typical sweater can run between $300-500 NZD (approximately 30or more. Even at the current exchange rate between the NZ dollar and the US dollar (30% more), we weren’t that interested. Besides, we wouldn’t be wearing them much in Mexico and having room in our suitcases is always a challenge.

We did wander over to the famous Fergburger restaurant, where there usually are 50 or more people waiting in line to get a burger. In the same block, they have Mrs. Ferg’s the gelato store and Fergbaker, the shop that makes the buns for the burgers and a large variety of meat pies. The pastry was very good and the choices were interesting.

Rather than waiting in the line, we opted for one of the savory pies and a milkshake. Both were delicious but, as it turned out, they didn’t like me and I had to be near a bathroom for the rest of the day. I can’t be sure.

We decided to walk back from town, about a 3 km walk, which wouldn’t have been bad except for the wind and chill. After relaxing a bit, we had plans to take the steamship, the TSS Earnslaw, to Walter Peak, a boat ride of about 30 minutes from the Queenstown wharf. This boat is an old-fashioned, coal-fired boat and the poor fellow below was shoveling coal as fast as he could. Interestingly, New Zealand is a VERY environmentally conscious country, with trash-sorting everywhere. To have this anacronism of a boat using coal was a unique experience.

Walter Peak is actually a huge farm, where they raise sheep (duh!) and grow many of their own produce. The building is very pretty and the grounds, especially the flowers, were absolutely beautiful. The boat-load of folks (probably around 200) went up to the house that was more of a giant dining room to partake of the enormous buffet (again). There was lamb, free-range chicken and pork, fish, lots of seafood, veggies, salad, and many desserts.

However, lunch was starting to kick in for me and I found that the two bathrooms had only two stalls each for women. I couldn’t believe that this was the case, considering the number of people there. And, you know that the women’s room always has a line, while the men’s room never has a line! You can imagine the bottleneck after the dinner for the women to make a pitstop!

After dinner, there was the ubiquitous sheep shearing and border collie demo. The poor sheep wasn’t having any of this and kept squirming to get away. But the young sheep shearer prevailed!. The border collies here are very different from those we are accustomed to seeing. They are short-haired and almost look like a Labrador Retriever, but with a longer snout. This dog was very good at his job, always look back to his handler to make sure that he was doing it correctly. It was actually pretty cute.

Finally, back onto the boat for the ride home. The steamy warmth of the boat instantly put me to sleep but once in the bus back to the hotel, we fell into bed. At least, we had a relaxing day to catch up with life.

Tomorrow is another travel day. We take a 3.5 hour flight to Melbourne for three days of enjoying our first visit to Australia.

Day 6 and 7 – Queenstown and Milford Sound

Today is a travel day. We left the hotel early for the Rotorua Airport. We flew to Queenstown on the South Island via Wellington. There are no direct flights, unfortunately. The first flight was on a 90 passenger turbo prop and, after the three hour layover, we were off on a larger, normal-sized plane to Queenstown. The first leg was about an hour, the second leg a little longer. You fly over mountains, rivers, and more mountains. There were few towns that we could see. Wellington is the capital of NZ, although it isn’t anywhere near the population of Auckland (2.5 million people).

We arrived in the late afternoon, with just enough time to go into our hotel room and then go to dinner at the top of the mountain overlooking Queenstown. The Stratosfare Restaurant is only reachable via a gondola, with views that were amazing . The buffet was quite good, with an excellent selection meats, seafood, vegan, vegetables desserts, and lots more. We learned our lesson about buffets and were very diligent about not piling food on our plates.

Queenstown is a hub for sports, art, music but especially as the gateway to Milford Sound and Fiordland. The fiords are on the west side of the South Island with gorgeous waterways. It was a 4.5 hour bus ride, through sheep country, gorges, waterfalls, and snow-caped mountains. We stopped many times for photo opportunities and a rest stop in a little town called Te Anau, where they had some beautiful Merino wool clothing. It was tempting to buy something but I will wait until we are in Sydney toward the end of the month to make that decision, depending on whether I have any room in my suitcase!

We were on the lookout for local wildlife but especially the Kia Parrot, a bird about the size of a small turkey. They aren’t afraid of people so you can practically go right up to them without them being frightened. The views were very reminiscent of Colorado or any other mountainous area. As the temperatures were turning cooler, the weather was closing in, which isn’t uncommon in the mountains.

Finally, we arrived at Milford Sound. This fiord opens up to the Tasman Sea and occasionally, you can see a dolphin, or a whale. We were hoping to see a penguin or a seal, and they were very accommodating. To get the best photo, you had to go outside of the boat (catamaran, actually) which wasn’t much fun because it was sleeting and darn chilly. We brought layers but no heavy coats, since this is the coldest place we will be. We stayed inside, enjoying our lunch and the views, except for a quick visit to see a penguin and a seal when they decided to give us show.

The two-hour boat trip got close to huge waterfalls, some as tall as Niagara Falls. They were worth seeing. We took the bus trip back to Queenstown, arriving around 8:00 PM. We considered going into town for dinner but decided to have a bite in our hotel. It was a good decision and a nice end to the day. Tomorrow we have most of the day free until the evening, when we will be enjoying a boat trip to Walter Peak for a BBQ dinner.