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.

Day 5 – Rotorua

We had another beautiful day, which everyone has marveled at. There has been a lot of rain in this part of New Zealand recently, making it extremely green. Today was expected to be in the high 60’s which is perfect.

Our first stop today was to the Agrodome to experience the many aspects of New Zealand’s sheep industry. This modern facility welcomed a couple hundred visitors who had a marvelous time seeing the many species of sheep. Merino sheep are the most sought-after and one of the most difficult to shear. They need a shearing at least three times a year because their wool is so fine and thick. However, their skin is very wrinkled, making it more of a challenge to remove the coat without hurting the sheep. Also, the horns are quite big and not easy to maneuver. I took pictures of the many types of sheep and they are all adorable with different qualities of wool. One even sheds its wool all by itself, without shearing!

The sheep were all lined up on either side of the auditorium and when called upon, they ran onto their step. Obviously, these sheep know the game and performed beautifully. The MC was great, very funny, and a pro at getting the audience involved. At the same time, she gave us a lot of information about how important the sheep industry is to New Zealand, both for the wool and the lamb they provide to the whole world.

Our next stop was to Te Puia, run by New Zealand’s indigenous Maori tribes. This park is home to New Zealand’s largest geyser, boiling mud pools, and silica terraces, the mineral deposits from the shooting water. The facility is divided into many areas. There is a Kiwi House, where kiwi birds, one of the three flightless birds, including the ostrich and emu, that are a part of New Zealand’s and Australia’s unique wildlife. There are habitats housing kiwis but they were very difficult to see within the enclosures.

From there, we walked to the bubbling mud pools and geyser area. The earth’s magma is not very deep in this volcanic area. There are many areas that release steam into the sky, with an actual geyser about every 45 minutes. These geysers can shoot water as high as 50′. We got there at the perfect time to see both the bubbling mud and a geyser.

We returned to our hotel in the early afternoon, leaving time for Jim to get in a 9-hole round of golf with one of the other guys in our group (from Houston), while I went to a local spa to enjoy their naturally hot mud baths and mineral water pools. This spa is similar to the Balneario (hot springs) we enjoy in San Juan Cosala, near Ajijic, where we have enjoyed the therapeutic hot water pools.

The day was still not over. In the evening, we explored the ancient culture of the Maori by experiencing the Haka (war dance), sharing a very special Hangi dinner (roasted meats and vegetables cooked underground with hot stones) in their Wharenui (ancestral meeting house), and a presentation of their stories through song and dance. The Maori culture has had a resurgence by teaching their language in the schools and having all signs throughout the country in both English and Maori. The food was plentiful, the tattooed “soldiers” showed their bravado and the final presentation of their storytelling was unique. We then walked around the grounds and were able to see glowworms again, this time in the wild, not in caves. It was a long and tiring day but very informative. We were definitely going to sleep well tonight! Tomorrow

Day 4 – Auckland to Rotorua

We had an early morning departure from our hotel, with only 20 minutes to have breakfast and check out from the hotel. We made it with time to spare so we can head out to Waitomo, known for its Glowworm Caves.

What are these, you ask? They are actually the larve of a species of fly called a fungus gnat. Sorry you asked?? These “worms” have an organ similar to kidneys and have a special ability to create a glowing light. They make a sticky silk thread that hangs like fishing line. Insects are attracted to the light and get caught in the threads, where the worm pulls in the thread with its mouth and eats the insect. The dryness of these caves is the perfect environment for them.

The caves are in a rain forest but we can walk into the cave to see them and then take a silent boat trip in the grotto to view thousands of pinpoint lights on the ceiling. It is truly a magical experience. Unfortunately, you can not take any pictures inside of the caves and you absolutely can not talk when you are in the boat going through the grotto. I have used commercial pictures of some of the amazing details since I could not take any myself.

From Waitomo, we drove the meandering roads to get a bite of lunch and continue to Matamata, which was transformed into movie set of The Hobbit trilogy movies. This amazingly lush farm of 1,250 acres offers some of the most beautiful hills you have ever seen, green and overflowing with sheep (5-7,000) and Angus cattle. We stepped into the Shire with a guided walking tour of Hobbiton. The actual movie set utilizes 12 acres of the farm and recounts how the area was transformed to make the iconic films. Although I have never seen any of the movies, the transformation into Middle Earth has been a draw for Hobbit fans world-wide. The hills are dotted with the homes of the Hobbits and many in our group had intimate knowledge of the characters and in which homes they lived. (Sorry, it was lost on me and Jim.)

There were many special buses bringing tourists there. Although the story wasn’t familiar, the grounds, especially the flowers, were totally amazing. We had a beer in the Green Dragon Inn and were on our way again.

I was incredulous that this part of New Zealand has no highways that take people from Auckland (the country’s most populated city) to other parts of the North Island. All the roads are two lane windy roads, which add to travel time. Perhaps it is because elsewhere on the island, the towns are very small. It just seemed strange to me.

Our final destination today was our hotel in Rotorua, located about two miles from the center of town. Some folks went into the downtown area but we opted to have a bite at the hotel bar (which was excellent), give me time to write and add some pictures, and then blissfully go to bed… which I will do soon. By the way, Jeremy, our guide, has visited both Waitomo and Hobbiton many times and this is the first time it wasn’t raining. I think we brought the good weather with us.

Tomorrow, we are off to Te Puia, Rotorua’s most prominent thermal area with New Zealand’s largest geyser, boiling mud pools, and silica terraces. Afterward, we are going to the Agrodome to experience the country’s sheep industry.

Day 3 – Auckland

After a good breakfast in the hotel, we met in the lobby to begin our day. We were met by a very comfortable bus and had seat assignments to separate groups and allow us to get to know our fellow travelers. This probably won’t last for the whole trip but Jeremy wanted us to help create a fun group for this trip.

Our driver, a natural comic, took us all around Auckland to see many of the beautiful areas, describing the museums, parks, and buildings of note, as well as the older sections of the town, filled with charming shops, galleries, and restaurants. We drove around the harbor to get an up-close view of the thousands of boats near the Harbor Bridge.

Around 11:00, we boarded the ferry to take us to Waikele Island, the second-largest island in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand. It is New Zealand’s most densely populated island. We didn’t know what to expect exactly, other than the mountainous island, with 50 dormant volcanos, has the perfect ecosystem for wine and olive production. It has a micro-climate that is warmer than Auckland and less rainy but with enough rain to make the island lush and green.

The 40 minute ferry ride to the island was smooth. We were met with another bus and a charming driver who has lived on the island for about 20 years and was funny and very knowledgeable. After we drove around a bit, we were taken to the Stony Ridge Winery. This winery is relatively new but in the past 20 years, their numbers have grown from about a dozen to 30 on the island.

They grow a number of different grapes and make white, red and rose wines. We had an initial tasting of a Reserve Vionier and a Syrah (or Shiraz). They don’t export, nor do they bottle a huge amount of each type of wine. Their wines range from $60-70 NZD ($35-42 USD) per bottle. We had a tasting of the two wines and they were spectacular – honestly. We were very impressed with the smoothness and quality of the wines. We then went into the restaurant for our highly anticipated lunch.

We had a set menu but were given the opportunity to choose what two wines we wanted to have with our meal. We started with a charcuterie board that included housemade hummus, white fish salad, salmon, sourdough bread and special crackers for dipping, prosciutto, salamies, cheeses, and so much more. As you can see, the offerings were just amazing and we filled up on this course, not knowing what was to come.

I ordered the Rose and then the Pinot Grigio to go with the meal. Several folks ordered the Cabernet Sauvignon and everyone loved their choices. Our next course included incredible lamb with wine-carmelized onions and a wine sauce on a bed of an amazing mustard. We also had an herb-crusted salmon (with fennel and mustard seeds) with a garlicky aioli and grilled lemon. The roasted potatoes and amazing salad rounded out this course.

Finally, we had tiny desserts, to taste all kinds of flavors. There were macaroons with a filling to match their color. The green ones had a pistachio filling, the brown ones had chocolate, the yellow ones had lemon, and the pink ones had strawberries. Truthfully, I missed taking a picture of the whole tray. When I took the photo, half were eaten already! The meal was another amazing example of cuisine in New Zealand. We were all stuffed.

But, the fun didn’t end. Our next stop was an olive tasting at Allpress Olive Groves. This olive farm grows a number of varietals to make oils that are balanced, smooth, and unique. The constantly add new olive trees to their growing area by transplanting them in the rich, volcanic soil. Last year’s harvest didn’t produce the best olives, compared to 2021 or 2020 but they still created oils that absolutely had the qualities that they are known for – peppery, or grassy, floral or delicate. You could taste the difference. Of course, the cubes of foccacia they gave us to sample the oils didn’t hurt either. With the weight limits for our luggage, we couldn’t buy any of the olive oils that we liked. However, they do ship to the US. Maybe we will consider ordering some once we are home.

Feeling beyond full, we went into the main town, Oneroa, to check it out. The shops and galleries were interesting. Truthfully, at this point, all we wanted to do is relax and let all the food digest. However, some walked to the beach, only a few minutes out of town. The water in the cove was calm but the temperature of the water is only about 70F, certainly not warm enough for us old folks. Even the tempting gelato store in town didn’t sway us. A quick walk around and we were ready to head to the ferry back to Auckland.

It definitely was a full day and going out for dinner was definitely out of the question. Relaxing in our room gave me the time I needed to catch up on posting what we did today and the pictures to go with it. Tomorrow morning, we pack our bags and leave early to head to Rotorua, with some interesting stops along the way.

Day 2 – Auckland

We got settled in our very well-located hotel, right next to the Sky Tower, a close twin to the Seattle Sky Needle.  We met our guide for this trip, Jeremy, who has been with Globus for ten years after a long stint with Overseas Adventure Travel. He is an Aussie but knows NZ well.

We are a group of 23, which is larger than we have experienced in the past. There is a group of eight friends from northern Indiana and a group of four from the Detroit area. There a few from Canada and one couple from Denver. It will take some time to get to know everyone’s name. And not everyone is going to Fiji at the end.

After our orientation, we went to the restaurant at the top of the Sky Tower, which rotates 360 degrees to view the city. We were fortunate to have absolutely clear weather to view the harbor and the home of the America’s Cup, although it hasn’t been held here in a long time.

The menu for dinner was especially varied and definitely with high-end options. We chose an heirloom tomato carpaccio with cashews, feta foam, and onion petals. I had a fabulous salmon dish and Jim had lamb rump, which didn’t sound very interesting but had wonderful flavor and a lovely sauce. 

With a delicious local beer (for Jim) and a Pinot Grigio (for me), we had dessert. The choices all looked wonderful but we both chose a strawberry marscapone cheesecake with butter pecan ice cream. One picture shows the dessert when delivered to our table and the second, once the strawberry bomb was cracked with the cheesecake instead! We finally hit the wall with jet-lag and happily fell into bed and soundly slept.

Tomorrow, after breakfast, we head out for an Auckland city tour and a ferry to nearby Waikeke Island. Sweet dreams…

On our way to Auckland…

Tuesday afternoon, we left Guadalajara for LA with a five-hour layover until we boarded our long flight to Nadi, Fiji. This time, we took Alaska Airlines instead of Volaris, our usual airline for its schedule and non-stop flights to destinations we visit.

By the way, the Guadalajara airport is STILL going through renovations and many restaurants are slated to be opened in the near future but near is a very loose term. We parked ourselves near our boarding gate (B10), hoping to get a quick bite or a sandwich. I left Jim with the bags and literally walked a half a kilometer each way to the nearest place to get something to eat. The Subway was beyond the baggage claim exit around gate C31, with at least 20 people in line. That was a no go. Fortunately, I found a lackluster chicken wrap and a tepid ham sandwich for Jim and made my way back to where he was. He almost sent out a posse to locate me! Mission accomplished but do not assume that previous services are available now until construction is completed… hopefully in our lifetime! Happy travels.

Our seat-mate to LA was a young man who turned 31 today and manages a band that travels a lot, including Monterrey, Pueblo, and Guadalajara, Mexico. The band is traveling to the UK and France next month, so dealing with the logistics of transportation of people and instruments has to be daunting.

The reason I mention him is because when Jim was using his neck pillow, he realized that one of his hearing aids was missing. With the light on our phones, this lovely young man, Jim, and I scoured the floor and seats to find it. All to no avail. Considering that hearing aids are costly and the missing one was really needed for his right ear, a little panic ensued.

After much chagrin, Jim checked the carrying case and lo and behold, the right hearing aid was still in the case. It seems that he forgot to put it in while getting ready to go to the airport! Whew and double whew! A friend uses a very subtle and unnoticeable “leash” that connects to hearing aids to you keep them from getting lost by accident. It sounds like an inexpensive and necessary addition to consider. Our new friend was so helpful and kind, especially at his age. 

If you haven’t ventured through LAX, take a tranquilizer (and perhaps a wheelchair) before you have to go from one terminal to another. We arrived at Terminal 6 and had to go to the Tom Bradley international Terminal. Yes, there is a shuttle but it goes all around the airport before getting to our destination. So, we walked and walked, about 15-20 minutes to check our bag on Fiji Air. 

Once inside the terminal, there is a dance to get to security. There was a huge line to go to the escalator to go to the security area. They have someone checking boarding passes and passports. We noticed that the escalator wasn’t working. All of a sudden, the person checking boarding passes told the long line thAt they had to go to the other end of the terminal to get to security. Many began running, as they didn’t want to miss their flights.

We were able to go attach ourselves to a family with two strollers at the nearby elevator, only reserved for wheelchairs and strollers. They let us oldies on the elevator with a wink. When you get to security, you have to walk three at a time so security dogs can sniff if you have any contraband. The poor dog had to walk back and forth with the handler hundreds of times. It is quite a challenge to go the this process.

Finally, we boarded our flight to Nadi. I hope to get some sleep during the 11 hour flight and maybe some interesting food… We’ll see.

Last Minute Details before Departing on our Next Trip

Jim’s 80th birthday is on November 9 (Yeah!) but we will be in Auckland, NZ at that time. So, I offered to make him a special Jim-designed dinner tomorrow, November 4. Some of the foods he requested are not readily available here. Looks like a challenge but I am making several of the foods he craves.

What are these foods? Here is the menu: Appetizer is Chicken Liver Pate with Triskets (shockingly at $11/box), New York strip steak and Lobster Tail (surf and turf), Au Gratin Potatoes, Broccoli, Cream Puffs with Whipped Cream and Panna Cotta with fresh Berries. To go with this yummy menu will be wine and a Sparkling Rose Dessert Wine from Estramancia, the amazing winery on the south side of Lake Chapala.

I know he will really enjoy the dinner because he selected the menu. He is in charge of grilling the steaks and preparing the lobster tails. I am not a lobster devotee so he will have his fill of this seafood.

On Monday, we will be finalizing what to pack, get ready for our housesitters, have Lola groomed, and relax before many hours in the air and in airports. I hope to keep on top of this blog as we travel. It will be fun!