We’re off to Miami for a day before joining some fun folks in Dominica for a week of sun, fun, and scuba for Dan!
Our original flight today is delayed at the originating airport, but the lovely folks at Delta rebooked us to avoid missing our connection or losing bags. We’ll have to transit from the Ft. Lauderdale airport to the Miami Airport because that’s where we booked our hotel, so I am looking forward to figuring that out on the fly!
We’re taking the changes in stride and enjoying the good customer care. Alas, we had been upgraded to first class for the initial flight and the changed booking means we likely won’t even be sitting together. But it’s all good!
The drive to the Abel Tasman region was beautiful as we moved through a beautiful mountain pass with some lovely gorges and great river views. As we came down toward the coast we started seeing signs for orchards, some vineyards and citrus groves. At one point we passed a large field filled with neat rows of tall poles – almost like a field of utility poles, and there were even wires string from top to top. We agreed that it looked like what you would do to grow hops. Sure enough, as we came around a corner, we saw a sign that this was a hop farm and then we came across more established fields, but as it was after the harvest we did not see any hops. This region of New Zealand grows most of the hops apparently. After spending the last few weeks seeing snow capped mountains and glaciers, it was interesting to arrive in a more temperate zone where citrus and kiwi were being harvested.
The next morning we jumped in the car and headed to the coast and Abel Tasman National Park. The drive took us up and over some more mountains on a windy, narrow road that was made more narrow by a pretty major slip (landslide) that had taken out one side of the road. They were working on the repairs and managing traffic through a several mile long one lane portion. The views on this drive were also amazing and we ended up along the coast to catch our water taxi up to the trailhead we planned to hike that day. This area has pretty big tidal differences, five meters between low and high tide, and the bay has a very long sandy lead up during low tide, about a half a mile. So we loaded into the water taxi in a parking lot and a tractor towed the boat out to the dock and drove across the sand until we were in water deep enough to launch. A number of boats are “moored” in the harbor and they are on sand part of the day. We actually saw this in a couple of places on this trip.
The water taxi trip was a treat, we checked out a number of lovely coastal sites on our way to the various drop of points, and while we were tooling along the drive of the boat suddenly stopped the engines and excitedly announced “little blue penguin” and pointed to the little guy, just swimming along. We always love it when the drivers/tour guides/boat captains get excited about something because it means we are sharing a pretty special experience.
Our hike took us up and down the hills that make up the coastline, with a beautiful view at every turn. We looked down on some pretty spectacular beaches, walked across another fun swing bridge, saw beautiful birds and basically enjoyed a picture perfect hike with fabulous weather, fantastic sights and even a nice conversation with a local who gave us some history and pointers for other things to do in the area.
Farewell Spit is a very long spit that might one day (again) connect the north and south islands. We did not time our visit to match the tide so we were not able to go far our the spit, but we did walk along the beach for a bit and were amazed at the amount of pine needles that accumulate along the beaches. We stopped at several incredibly scenic lookouts as this area has steep mountains and deep valleys which create some dramatic landscape, especially when viewed from the edge. We stopped in the small town of Collingwood for lunch and took a few minutes to go through their historical museum. They had quite the collection of, well, everything. Furniture, rock collections, school notebooks, ration books, weapons, war time medals, kitchen appliances and utensils, books, radios, typewriters, personal grooming equipment, and more. Including someone’s diary from the 1920’s which was easier to read than my current journal. We both observed “they don’t throw anything away here.” It was an interesting glimpse into what life was like there.
After more than a month of staying in small towns around New Zealand we found the mid-sized city of Nelson to be bustling! It is a nice city with a lot of shops and a nice wine shop were an American ex-pat is the owner and very willing to share her knowledge of the region and the wines with us. We enjoyed the tasting there and took back several bottles of local wine. Nelson also claims to be the “craft beer capital of New Zealand” but we must be spoiled by variety and volume of craft breweries back home because while there were a number of breweries and tap rooms, we did not find anything extra special. We found several beers we enjoyed, had one sample of a berry IPA that was undrinkable – really, we each took one sip and set the glass aside – but nothing to blow us away.
From Nelson we headed east to the main winery region, Marlborough, and the town of Blenheim. When we checked in the host offered a suggestion for dinner of the pub a few blocks away – “I love the steak special there, could eat it all the time.” So, guess where we ate? It was a lovely pub with a nice selection of mild beers, Dan enjoyed his steak and I had a nice fish and chips! Before dinner we wandered over to the wine depot, a tasting room in the old rail station. Not only did they carry over 100 wines from New Zealand, most were from the area. The woman helping us took the time to quiz us about what we liked and didn’t like in wine, not just “white or red? Dry or sweet?” but lots of questions before she curated a personalized but self-directed tasting for each of us. The wines we tried were delicious and the experience was fantastic! We tasted a lot of wine and bought a few bottles to enjoy at our leisure!
From Blenheim we headed back down the east coast toward Christchurch along a section of the map that showed no towns, no tourist markings and that no one, not a single person in the i-Sites anywhere we stopped pointed out something to do. In Blenheim, where we specifically asked, we were told there was a place to stop for lunch, but that was it. We were a bit surprised given how much there is to do everywhere else, so with a bit of “what if we pass by something we want to spend more than an hour or so checking out” trepidation, we headed through the area with a reservation at Christchurch. Well, there really isn’t anything along that part of New Zealand. It is lovely country with pretty coastline, but no pull offs, hiking trails, or attractions. We did pass a pink lake and both of us said “that looks like the salt flats in Belize” so I did a quick google and, yes, Marlborough salt is a thing. This area is good for salt evaporation. And growing wine, and grazing sheep, but the road just goes through there. We ran into a fair amount of road construction as they were fixing a road hit hard by several recent earthquakes!
The South Island of New Zealand is not any wider than that state of Ohio. That said, the east and west coasts are very different in many ways, kinda like Cincinnati and Cleveland. After leaving the fiords and glaciers of the southwest of the island we headed up the west coast. The coastline is rugged and different from the east, rocky, cliffs and narrow beaches. The mountains are much closer, often crowding the coastline and creating some pretty amazing vistas and views.
We made a stop in Hokitika, a cute beach town around the mouth of a wide river that flows down from a beautiful gorge not far inland from town. The river is a lovely blue gray thanks to the glacial silt that fills the riverbed. They made very creative use of driftwood for several signs in town and the beach was well decorated with driftwood sculptures.
From Hokitika we moved on to the larger city of Greymouth, large being relative as there are less than 50,000 people in the whole region. Greymouth, sitting at the mouth of the Grey river, was a town created to cater to the mining industry in the area, gold and more significantly coal. It is also home to Montieths, one of the larger breweries in New Zealand so of course we made a visit to their tap room! We explored the area and came across the remains of various mines and an abandoned gold mining town. There were also many monuments to miners lost in a number of mining tragedies dating from the late 1800s to the most recent in 2009. The memorials, especially the most recent, were moving and in the case of the older ones, often a glaring reminder of how little worker safety and security was available before labor organized and sought protections and regulations to balance economic drivers that would exploit everything.
Proceeding up the west coast we continued to enjoy great coastal views and some amazing rock formations like the Pancake rocks at Punakaki. These rocks really do look like stacks of pancakes and are very thick. The are also includes a blow hole, but alas the weather was way too good that day and even close to high tide we did not have enough oomph to get a good effect. The walkway through the rock formation and the views of the ocean were amazing and well worth it!
Westport ended up being a pleasant surprise when we stayed there, mostly because Dan had checked out some reviews and most said “no reason to stay here.” But we had a nice overnight. We checkout out a lighthouse and seal colony nearby and took a very nice walk along the coast. One thing about New Zealand we have learned is that there is always another amazing view. The next morning we took a walk along the river in town and the tide was coming in and it was a tidal river. We were looking at some ducks and realized there was a clear line of water just easing it’s way upstream. In the 30 minutes or so it took us to loop back around to that part of the river the tide had changed it from a low water river with mud flats to a pretty wide river.
We headed further up the coast to check out an area with some cool limestone caves and natural bridges. It was a very small community and the road to the trail was pretty much a one lane dirt road that wound up some pretty steep terrain. Of course, people were coming and going on the road so there were some pretty nifty driving maneuvers needed, but everyone was up to the task. There was a produce stand with an honor box selling some apples and a few bags of passionfruit. Dan decided we needed to try passion fruit, so he bought a bag, making change from the honor box. Since neither of us had seen a passionfruit before we had to look up how to eat them. The next day, when we stopped in a town for lunch we came across another fruit stand and honor box right in the middle of town. This one had Feijoa available, so why not, right? Another web search on how to eat them and we had snacks for several days! That night we ate a delicious dinner in a pub that was full of actual lumberjacks as we had progressed into a region with lots of logging. They were pretty well behaved though, so no real story, just wanted to report that we were hanging with a bunch of lumberjacks.
The time around Easter, besides being a challenge if you want wine with your dinner, is also a big travel time here. When we were booking things after we arrived in early April we often heard “that is pretty busy with the school holidays.” Apparently almost every school in New Zealand and many in Australia have the week before and after Easter off, so there are lots of people travelling to certain areas, this in addition to the many international tourists roaming around the country. Our timing put us approaching some very popular places during that period, so we did have to get a little creative to find places to stay that weren’t crazy costly. For the Easter weekend, we ended up staying in a small agricultural city about an hour inland from the southern coast because it looked well situated for short drives to some of the sights we wanted to check out. Gore ended up being exactly what we needed for that weekend, we got a good place to stay and learned some fun things! Not only is Gore the brown trout capital of the world, but it was also home to Creamoata, a popular hot cereal that boasted a large marketing budget during the Depression and had as their mascot “Sgt. Dan.” The local I Site had a little museum attached with lots of Creamoata memorabilia as well as exhibits about the local moonshine and many Victorian era clothes and tools.
From Gore we headed up into the Southern Alps region and Queenstown. The town sits in a valley at the end of one of the longest lakes in New Zealand. It is a beautiful place and everyone had heard of it and comes to visit. It was a charming town, with lots to do especially for adventure seekers. They have skydiving, para gliding, mountain biking, hiking, jet boats, and those little speedboats that look like sharks and sit just under the water line. We stayed in a smaller town just outside of Queenstown proper and the clerk who checked us in gave us advice on using the transit system that was a lifesaver for the few days we were there. The traffic was very busy in and out of town, so we just hopped on the bus! That was also nice when we found the local wine shop that offered tastings of many local and New Zealand wines. While we were there enjoying tasting some wine I noticed a young man with a Case Western Reserve sweatshirt. Of course, I accosted him and got details. He is studying in Auckland for the semester and his parents were visiting from… Lancaster, Ohio a mere 30 minutes down the road from home. The world is a lovely and small place when you are willing to talk to strangers.
While in Queenstown we took the gondola up to the top of a mountain to check out the views. While we were deciding on what time to venture up there Dan said, let’s go now (it was about 10:30 am), we can pay too much for a mediocre lunch that will be worth it for the view. And it totally was, the sandwich was slightly better than mediocre and not horribly overpriced and the view was spectacular. They had a variety of activities you could watch when you could tear your eyes away from the lake and the mountain view. A concrete luge/sled track was very popular and there was a beginner track and a more advanced track, you could sit and watch folks coming down each of them. It didn’t take long for us to figure out which was the beginner’s, and which one was for the more advanced sledder. Some folks went so slow I could walk the track faster than they were sliding down it. We also saw bungee jumpers and paragliders. Everyone was having a good time! On another walk closer to our hotel one morning we noticed several small planes in flying over the valley, and then we noticed a small object falling below the plane. It was a skydiver and we could see them leaving the plane, falling for a long way and then watched the chutes open. That was cool.
From Queenstown we headed west to the Fiordlands National Park area. We had booked two trips for there so we could cruise around a couple of the famous landmarks on the southwest coast. We stayed in Te Anua which was a lovely town, also gets a lot of tourists, but not nearly as big or busy as Queenstown. It was cloudy and a bit rainy that afternoon and there was a lot of rain overnight and we woke up to snow covered mountain tops! After breakfast we boarded a bus to take us down the road so we could board a boat to take us across the lake so we could board another bus to take us over the mountains so we could board another boat to take us around Doubtful Sound! All that bussing and boating was awesome.
We had a little rain and sun as we crossed the lake and a rainbow hung around for a good part of the trip. The dock on the other side of the lake was near a hydroelectric power plant that was built in the 1960’s to power an aluminum smelter down near Bluff. In fact, the smokestack from that smelter is visible from Stewart Island and Dan and I had seen it when we were there so we had some context about how far they were moving that power. One of several interesting things about the power plant is that they collect water from the lake, run it down tunnels and through turbines, there is not a dam. Then they take the water out tunnels and release it into Doubtful Sound. There was objection to the plant because of concerns about the impact on the lake water levels, so there was agreement to run the plant while maintaining the water levels within the normal and natural lake levels. This is a pretty unique power plant. While they maintain the water levels on the lake, they dramatically reduced the flow of the river that is sourced by the lake and we didn’t hear how that was received.
The whole area is mostly granite mountains, which gave us two interesting things to observe on our trip. The first and most picturesque was that all the rain from the previous night meant there were literally hundreds of temporary waterfalls flowing down the mountains near the lake and in the sound. You heard running water the whole day, even over the boat engines. The other thing you see are the scares left from tree avalanches. Because the rock is granite, first you get a layer of moss, then other vegetation and finally trees. But the roots are not very deep, so sometimes some trees begin to fall and create an avalanche. It takes a hundred years or so to revegetate to the previous state. So, there was lots of that evidence to see. Alas, we did not get to witness one happen, but there is always next time!
Doubtful Sound is bigger but less visited than Milford Sound, which was our second excursion for this area. For that trip we only had one bus and one boat, but another great experience. We took the bus north and into the Fiordlands park along a road that included a long tunnel painstakingly drilled through the mountains by some very hardy workers under pretty rough conditions. The views were amazing and we had more waterfalls, including a number of temporary ones. It was pretty cloudy and rainy on the drive but as we pulled up to the boat dock the sun came out and things cleared up. We spent the next several hours ohhing and ahhing at all the great sights that included several temporary and permanent waterfalls, including one supplied by a creek that followed a small fault line in the mountains. That fault line is responsible for many small earthquakes, but they require a seismological tool to know about them. Milford Sound also gives you a great view of a large glacier draining into a temperate rain forest and ending in a deep sound carved by previous glaciers. There aren’t too many other places you can see that!
Te Anua also has a bird sanctuary where we learned about conservation efforts for several bird species. A lot of conservation in New Zealand is about getting rid of introduced mammals like Stoats (a type of ferret), foxes, possum, rats and mice. So, they are doing a lot of trapping and poisoning of these animals and have managed to get a number of islands to be “predator free.” One person described conservation in New Zealand as spending a lot of time killing things. Alas, it is fighting an uphill battle as more than half of the native species, mostly birds, are already extinct.
From Te Anua we headed north toward two of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef. The road to this area had been closed for almost a month after a major storm in March had caused a river to take out several access roads and the bridge. We saw news coverage of a guy in the area who had a dump truck and he was ferrying cars across the much less flooded river at one point.
The glaciers both come down into deep valleys along a beautiful mountain range. We lucked out with a few hours of clear weather and were able to get great views from across the valley near a lovely lake that provides great reflections of Fox Glacier. Alas, we could not hike to the glaciers because the trails and access roads were pretty well taken out the previous month. We did take a walk up the trail until we got to the trail closed sign – which they put up right where it was almost redundant. The trail also had a lovely side trail where there were glow worms, so we waited until close to sunset, and as it got darker we (ok, Dan) spotted small lights among the moss growing in roots of a fallen tree, talk about fairy lights! Alas, we were not able to get any photos. You will have to trust me on how awesome it was!!
From Dunedin we continued south toward the Catlins Coast, an area with lots to see including petrified forests visible at low tide, waterfalls and lots of great views. We stopped in Balclutha because it was lunch time. Balclutha, located on a river a little inland, was not a large town, but it did have an I Site and several restaurants. We tried the local Indian place and had a delicious meal and took the leftovers with us. The woman staffing the I Site was full of advice for our trip along the coast and loaded us up with a more detailed map and information about closed trails – saving us a drive up to a waterfall we would not be able to see. She did encourage us to check out several other waterfalls that didn’t have great signage, so without her advice we would have missed them!
Along the this very scenic drive we made stops that took us out to scenic overlooks, lighthouses, and a petrified forest that appears during low tide. Another low tide activity was the walk out to Monkey Island. We initially hit Monkey Island while the tide was high enough that you could not walk out and climb to the top, but after we had continued on and enjoyed a great lunch, a short hike and some more great views, we were heading back to our hotel and we decided to see if the tide was down enough, and it was! The “island” is just about 50 meters from the shore, but the tide is big enough that the beach extends out and you can climb up to an observation platform on top, Nice views.
We stayed in Invercargill for a few days on this leg of the trip, and it is an interesting city. The downtown was a little run-down and a number of the buildings had notices that they needed remediation to meet earthquake proof standards which may have contributed to the number of empty buildings. Based on random bits of information gleaned here and there, it appears that changes to national building codes in response to the Christchurch earthquake are creating many challenges for smaller cities and towns, especially as older buildings in their central business districts are being hit with these remediation orders. But, like many cities and towns here, it does have a lovely public garden with an aviary, so we saw some very colorful and noisy birds.
One of Invercargill’s claims to fame is that it is the home of Burt Munroe who still holds the land speed record and was memorialized in the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian.” There is a motorcycle museum, and the actual motorcycle Burt Munroe rode is displayed at the local hardware store, along with an interesting array of other motorcycles, old cars and machines and some of the motorcycles made to shoot the movie in 2005.
From Invercargill we drove down to the southern end of Highway 1 to Bluff where we boarded a passenger ferry to Stewart Island. Stewart Island is the third largest island in New Zealand and is mostly national park and has one of the major tramping tracks (we call them hiking trails) so the ferry is pretty popular. We stayed in the town of Oban and took advantage of a number of the smaller tracks around town. The longer trails have tramping huts where hikers can stay – 60 bunks and a long drop (latrine), but as most of you know, that is not our travel style. The trails took us to one of the first homes built on the island, several amazing lookouts, along beautiful coastline and down to some lovely beaches.
The island is pretty hilly, so on the last day we decided to rent electric bikes so we could get to the end of the road and check out the views from there. We had great fun and found the bikes to make the hills easy to climb and great fun to descend! At one point, we stopped for a view at the bottom of one of the hills and then needed to head back up. Well, we don’t ride bikes all that often and we aren’t presented many hill riding opportunities when we do ride at home, so starting an unfamiliar bike with electric turbo assist on the up hill did present an interesting challenge. I got myself started and was headed up, Dan seemed to be trying a new uphill strategy and was taking longer to get started than expected, but he waved me on and I continued up hell and around the corner. I waited at the curve (it had a marginally smaller uphill grade) for a few minutes but he still didn’t appear. Eventually he caught up, with some grass hanging from one pedal. “I went into the ditch” he explained, and I thought he had just failed to stay on the road. When we made our next stop to enjoy the sights, he winced and held his ribs, “I must have hit harder than I thought.” Apparently, after his loving wife rode off without him, he pushed the turbo boost on the bike and it took off into the ditch with him before he took a tumble. A few days of rib soreness and sympathy from me were the result.
After returning to Bluff, we stayed the night and were able to enjoy some world famous Bluff oysters in Bluff! This was even better because it was Easter weekend and the liquor laws in New Zealand make the sale and public consumption of alcohol during the holiday a pretty interesting proposition. Not sure what all of the requirements are, but many restaurants and bars are not able to serve alcohol or allow BYO and our hotel didn’t plan to be able to serve it on Good Friday. But, for several reasons, not just my inquiry, the owners were able to meet the requirement. They called on the previous owner of the hotel who had sold to them a few months earlier and entered her second and well deserved retirement. She agreed to come in and be the “duty manager” required to allow them to serve wine and beer that evening. Turns out she is originally from Cincinnati and moved to New Zealand 40 years ago, retired to Bluff, bought a small hotel and ran it for about 10 years and then retired again last year
Our adventure has moved from Australia to New Zealand. We wanted to get to New Zealand before their winter hit in full, as they are as far south of the equator as Montana and Michigan are north of the equator. Now, they don’t have the same weather because they are an island surrounded by a body of water that does not freeze, but it can get quite cold and snowy in some areas.
On arrival at the airport we headed to passport control and went through the staffed stations as opposed to an e-passport area. While we were, apparently, eligible for the automated process there was hardly any line and we lucked out because the woman who checked our passports was full of suggestions for things to see and do and very excited that we were coming with so much time and so little planned yet. She probably spent 2 minutes doing the passport thing and 8 minutes providing travel advice! We then had to go through biosecurity review and because we had spent time at the koala sanctuary in Brisbane we needed to have our shoes inspected. Dan was wearing the shoes he had used to see the koalas, I had to dig my pair out of my bag. The man doing the inspection seemed pleased that our shoes appeared fairly clean and devoid of anything a visual inspection would tag as a biohazard. Alas the family behind us didn’t fair so well when the packet of cookies was discovered in a kid’s bag. They were let off with a stern warning as opposed to the $400 fine that was splashed on at least 50 posters leading from the gate to the baggage claim and inspection area.
Christchurch is still very much recovering from the major earthquakes that hit in 2011 and there is a lot of construction, new buildings and old buildings being held up with support beams, and little other evidence of future plans. The cathedral and the old city hall were both heavily damaged and clearly being shored up while someone determines a path forward, other places are shiny modern buildings clearly replacing something that did not survive. There are lots of old facades with new structures built behind them. In addition to that recovery, the city was also still obviously dealing with the mosque shootings that occurred shortly before we got there. There was a block long section of sidewalk near the botanical gardens that was covered in flowers, old and new, and messages of support. As we walked down a residential street we saw a box with stickers and a pen with the note – write a note of support for our Muslim family and post it in town. We saw lots of stickers around, again some fresh, some more muted in the weeks that had passed.
We wandered around town and enjoyed finding hidden gems like a Victorian era clock tower and a fancy phone booth built in the 1920’s to commemorate the 50th year some guy had lived in Christchurch. We also came across a beam from the World Trade Center that was sent to Christchurch in 2003 to be made a statue unveiled during the World Firefighters Games held there that year. One morning we were headed to get some tourist information and came across a arts and crafts market with food vendors and spent most of the morning looking at fun things and trying some food from the food trucks!
There is a train that goes from Queenstown across the middle of the South Island to the west coast, and it is justly famous for the beautiful scenery. When we went to book the trip the woman helping us suggested that we get off a Arthur’s Pass and hike instead of staying on the train all day. The train would come back through and pick us up and we’d have about 4 hours to see the mountains, and besides she assured us that the best part of the ride was up to Arthur’s Pass. We took that option and had a great day. The train ride was as beautiful as advertised and it was nice to get off and head out for a hike. When we stopped in the information center at the park near that train depot the ranger showed us several short hikes we could take during out layover and then said “I see you have water bottles, but if you run out you can drink from our streams!” She encouraged us to drink straight from the streams, no filters necessary. We did not try that, but every bit of water we saw on the trails was startlingly clear, and the views were lovely.
After a nice stay in Christchurch we arranged for a rental car and headed out. We had a map of the South Island that had a number of pink highlighted places thanks to a helpful person at the tourist information center. We hopped on to the scenic route – they are all pretty scenic here, but this one was also not the heavily travelled main road – and headed down the coast. The east coast of the island has lots of lovely beaches and well-established sand dunes, charming towns and interesting sights.
We made a stop in Oamaru to check out a Steampunk exhibit – they have a whole museum dedicated to the contraptions made popular in Victorian sci-fi, like Jules Verne’s machines. Pretty cool stuff and that was on the outside, we didn’t feel inclined to go in as it was a beautiful day. The museum is at one end of an attractive and intact Victorian era harbor district with lots of interesting shops filling the buildings. We wandered into one building where someone was running quite the eclectic museum and talked to an older gentleman who gave us some tips about what to see a little further down the coast and how to avoid the expensive tourist trap related to the Moeraki Boulders and a lighthouse. We followed his advice and had a wonderful afternoon walking the beach to see the boulders without having to run a gauntlet of tour buses and cruise excursion groups. And the boulders were more interesting than we had thought. The lighthouse was not open to the public, but the views and the walk down to the bluff to see the seals and sea lions was everything the guy has set it up to be!
We spent a few days in the city of Dunedin and enjoyed several very hilly walks around town, sampled beer at the Speight’s brewery and found local wine, apples and pastry at the weekly market. Charming town with lots of Scottish influence.
The tourist information center there – an I Site, they are all over the country and a great resource – set us up on a nature tour that took us to see Albatross, including nesting chicks at a reserve, yellow eyed penguins, fur seals and sea lions. As we walked along the beach after spotting several of the rare and adorable penguins, we started seeing a lot of male sea lions lounging around. Now, all of the signs we had seen suggested 10 meters or more distance between you and the sea lions, we were way closer! Our guides encouraged us to move along but did not seem particularly alarmed and for the most part the sea lions seemed unconcerned as well, didn’t make me any more willing to linger though. As we moved past the large male that woke up and barked at the smaller and younger male nearby, our guide Donna got our attention and with a big grin announced “look, a fresh regurgitation!” Part of her excitement stemmed from the fact that the evidence of the regurgitation included some tentacles and the head of a barracuda. This allowed us to learn more about sea lion digestion than I ever cared to know, but it was interesting. The tour was great an they went out of their way and added a stop to take us to an area where they thought there would be some young sea lions hanging out. There was one and he put on quite the show for us! Great day!
From Melbourne we headed up to Brisbane. The driver of our cab from the airport was obviously very proud of the city as he regaled us with how much activity is happening there, including that the city had the most construction cranes in the world during 2018. Well, there were still a lot in the central business district in 2019 too. Brisbane is all about the river, there is a lot of activity in town focused on a long and winding riverfront that includes much public and green space, lots of boardwalks, lots of building activity and plenty of places to wet your whistle and enjoy a meal. There are a variety of ferry boats to take you up and down the river including a free one that covers most of the central city, both sides of the river.
One side of the river features some cliffs that attract climbers and as we walked along the base of the cliff we watched a number of them heading up to the street above. We took the stairs. This area has some great skyline views and we passed a small grove that was getting set up for a wedding later in the day. A few hundred meters down another couple was having wedding photos taken with the remarkable combination of the natural features of the river and the cliffs along side the skyscrapers and boats moored along the park.
We arrived on a Friday, so we were able to check out several of the markets that set up every weekend. One, on the side of the river where the museums and entertainment areas are set up was full of artisans, from fabric and paper art to jewelry and photography. It was a bit rainy when we were there, but still well attended. Later in the weekend we went to the market in the botanical garden which had lots of food trucks, produce, jewelry, clothing, and jewelry that included opals mined nearby.
On a trip last year, we met a couple from Brisbane, and we had reached out to them when planning this trip. They had just sold their house and moved a few hours further north to get a beach location and be warmer (because the 30 C weather we had wasn’t warm enough for them) but were in town that weekend and we met them for drinks and dinner. It was great catching up with them and they were just as much fun as we remembered. Apparently, they meet a lot of people traveling and are always told “we are coming to Australia and will meet up with you” but we are the first people to ever actually follow through on that threat!
One of the oldest koala sanctuaries is in Brisbane and we decided to take the tour and check out the cute little buggers since we hadn’t yet seen any. The tour included an hour-long boat ride up the river to the sanctuary and there was commentary! We learned about the development of the city, the impact of three major floods and had many fancy homes and buildings pointed out to us. There was a three-story building that was built prior to the 1894 flood that still stands, and the captain was able to describe the three floods with the context of where they hit the building. In 1894 the floods filled the first floor, the flood in the 1970’s reached the bottom of the balcony on the third floor and the 2010 flood covered the first floor again. After the flood in the 1970s the city put in major flood control projects upstream including a huge dam, but even that couldn’t stop another flood in the area. It was nice to have some context for the impact of the floods.
When we arrived at the sanctuary we decided to spring for a photo with a Koala. That was a bit cheesy, but fun! And, the proceeds support the work being done to protect the wildlife at the sanctuary and around Australia. In addition to the koalas, there were platypus, kangaroos, crocodiles, lizards, dingoes and a variety of birds including emus, parrots, kookaburra, and a cassowary (the large bird that killed a guy in Florida a few weeks after we saw this one). We were able to pet not only the koala, but also a kangaroo which was surprisingly soft.
Melbourne is about the same size as Sydney and over the years the two cities have engaged in some civic competition. I will not weigh in on any of this, all of Australia is proving to be wonderful in so many ways! Whenever anyone asks us about our “favorite” part of any trip, we can never answer because there are always so many great things, and this trip is just like that.
Melbourne does not have a convict story as it was set up as a free settlement in the mid-1800’s. For myriad reasons including a navigable river, large harbor, economics and some gold, Melbourne has had periods where it was among the wealthiest of communities in the world. You can see proof of this in the beautiful architecture, many theatres and civic spaces. It is also a city filled with people from all over the world, with a large and thriving Chinatown, a huge Greek community, and the sound of different languages and accents every where you turn. There were a variety of things happening in Melbourne during our time there including: the Australian Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic, the Australian Grand Prix Formula One Race, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and preparations for the International Flower and Garden Show. I am sure there were lots of other things happening, those are just the things that caught our notice. We settled into our usual new city habit of walking out the door and heading a new direction. The concierge at the hotel provided us with a good city map and a nice articulation of our strategy “the best way to see Melbourne is to get a little lost.” He also suggested we wander down the many alleys and into the Arcades and suggested a few of his favorites. Melbourne, like Sydney, is a mish-mash of old and new. Modern skyscrapers next to mid-19th Century buildings, classic facades opening into glass towers and tight alleys connecting out to main thoroughfares. Exactly the kind of place you want to get a little lost in.
Our hotel was situated not far from the Melbourne Exhibition building which was built for the Exhibition the city hosted back in the late 1800s. It is currently undergoing some renovations and is an impressive building. Not only did the building host the Exhibition, it was the location of the first meeting of the Australian Parliament in 1906 and hosted events for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics including basketball and boxing. While we were in town it, and the park around it, were hosting the Flower show.
Taking advice from friends who were in Melbourne a year or so ago, we went to the Queen Victoria Market and wandered through quite an array of stalls selling everything from cell phone cases to locally constructed hats, leather gear, merino wool sweaters and UGG Boots, to shoes and even rabbits and song birds with pet supplies. There were food vendors and soap makers, a hardware booth and several kitchen supply shops. And then, you get to the fruit and vegetable market! We got a couple of fresh mangoes and left the market with a smile on our faces and a good step count for the day! Following another suggestion from our friends, one afternoon we headed up to the Sky Deck. We took an express elevator to the 88th floor and had great views of the city, the bay, and the mountains off in the distance. When we went out to the very windy outdoor deck we heard a distinct mechanical whine, and identified that we could hear the Formula One cars racing around practicing for the upcoming Grand Prix! We also saw several places that then went on the “let’s go find those buildings” list!
The day we wandered over to one of those “find those buildings” places happened to be the day the Grand Prix was running, and we were in that area of Melbourne. As we were walking around, we heard that whine you hear when fighter jets are around. Sure enough, an Australian Royal Air Force jet was doing some fancy flying as part of the warmup to the race. We were not ideally situated to see the whole thing, but it did some loop de loops and a very impressive hovering maneuver that we could see. Almost like they followed us from Newcastle to show they could do more than fly by really fast!
Melbourne is located on the Yarra River and Port Phillip Bay with several sets of large commercial docks. We took one of the river boat tours that took us down the river through town, past the commercial docks and across the Bay to a lovely suburb where we found lunch and a nice market, much smaller than the Queen Victoria Market, but with great views of the city!
Our hotel loyalty program includes an “experiences” section that has lots of tours and excursions available all over the place. One evening, while scrolling through the list, we found a bus tour of the Yarra Valley Wine region that included a ride on Puffing Billy, a narrow gauge railroad dating back to the early 1900s. Who can resist a train ride and wine tasting! It was a great day. Our bus driver was knowledgeable, but didn’t overwhelm, the drive up to the mountains included a stop for tea and a short hike where we saw wallaby’s, but alas, not the bird we were told about on the ride. I can’t remember what type it was, but it is one that is quite the singer and can also mimic other sounds, including chainsaws, according to the short video. From there, we headed to the train station and boarded the beautifully restored open-air train cars for a short and slow ride along the rail line. The train was narrow gauge to make the twists and turns necessary to transport goods and people up the mountains. Several times during our ride the twists were such that we could see the engine out one window and the end of the train out the other!
The wine region near Melbourne, like most wine regions I have been to, is beautiful. We had three wineries to visit and enjoyed tastings at all of them. It was an interesting selection with one very large well-known winery, a medium sized regional winery and a small, family owned winery that only does estate wines and ciders. We did come back with some bottles to enjoy!
The Great Ocean Walk is a 108-kilometer trail that covers much of the coastline associated with the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road was built after World War I by returning soldiers. It was conceived as both a monument to the soldiers who served in the war and a civic works project for them during the depression that followed the conflict. Initially the road was funded with private monies and local funding as the state government was not interested. We missed most of the Road, as we were walking, and while we expected the trail to follow the path of the road, it really didn’t, we had very little interaction with the road.
We did have a lot of interaction with the coastal areas though! Not really knowing what to expect, we were constantly surprised by the variety of terrain and landscape. We walked on beaches, along cliffs, on rolling hills, in rainforests and areas full of coastal bushes. Every time we turned a corner it was a new view. The coastline never disappointed and we saw new and different things every day and in every section.
We stayed in a lighthouse keepers cottage dating from the 1860s, a gracious guesthouse that started life as a farmhouse in the late 1800s, and several small hotels located in charming small harbor towns. We used an outfitter who provided the logistics and lodgings, directions and arranged not only for us to have our meals, including way too much lunch on the trail, but to move the rest of our luggage each time we changed lodgings. The company we used was www.auswalk.com. They do walks all over Australia and if you have the time and inclination, it is a great way to see parts of the country.
Australians joke that the coastal area we were walking in can get all four seasons in a day. Well, we certainly had a lot of weather during the seven days we were there, and usually we had variety each day. Early on the walk there was fog and low clouds and we spent a lot of time one day deciding if we should put the rain gear on, or if it was safe to take it off. The coastal views were neat because we could see the cliffs, but often not the tops. The waves were crashing and we had that as the soundtrack even when we had taken turns inland.
Besides the different terrains, we also saw or heard a lot of wildlife, mostly birds. We had heard there were black cockatoos and came across them during a sunny period on the second day. This bunch had bright yellow highlights on their tails. There is a bird call that sounds like a slower version of Woody Woodpecker’s laugh with some vaguely jungle sounding call inserted. It is a sound you might associate with the noises Hollywood inserts for jungle scenes in movies. Well, we heard that sound. Dan’s initial reaction was “what’s that? Is that real? I thought that was a fake move sound.” We were informed by the nice couple who was also staying at the guest house that it was the sound of the Kookaburra. The Kookaburra is a member of the Kingfisher family of birds and does migrate around the South Pacific, but I think some Hollywood types have been playing fast and loose with reality in most cases. Alas, while we heard the bird, we didn’t actually see any.
Another animal we didn’t see were Koalas. They are in the area, but can be tough to spot. Between the cloud cover, rain and so many new things to see, we weren’t able to spot any. When the shuttle driver asked if we had seen any, I admitted I didn’t really know to look or even when I should look. She said you can hear them, and when asked what they sounded like she made a little “grrrrrr – uuooff” noise. Her husband, also in the vehicle, let out a laugh and some minor ribbing ensued. When we asked for a refresher on how they sounded the next morning, she laughingly refused!
We did come across our first Kangaroos which are larger and lighter in color than the wallaby’s we had seen (and continued to see). They move in larger packs than wallaby’s called Mobs, so when you see one, there are plenty more. On one section of the trail, we came around the corner and started up the rise and there were 4 or 4 Kangaroos just standing there about 10 yards up the trail. They weren’t going anywhere and Dan decided to serenade them with the University of Akron fighting song. He also referred to several as Zippy because they do bear a resemblance to the Zips mascot! The animals continued to stare at us completely unimpressed with his rendition of the song and the fact that he remembers it from his time there.
Our wildest weather day was also the toughest terrain on the walk. Described as “steep up and down followed by undulating sections with more steep climbs at the end” they weren’t kidding. There had been heavy rain overnight so not only were the hills steep, they were muddy and slippery. We persevered and about an hour in to that day’s walking it started to rain again and the wind was picking up. There was plenty of thick vegetation though, so the wind wasn’t too much of an issue. When we started to get pelted with hail, though…. Fortunately, the hail remained pea sized and didn’t last too long. We stopped for lunch at one of the campsites and were joined by a group on a guided walk. As we all huddled under the picnic shelter located along the cliffs on the coast, the wind really picked up and howled around us. It was really cool! We ran into one of the guides the next day and while we caught up on how we had all fared the previous day she tried to sell the weather with “it’s great that you get that kind of weather, makes you appreciate the s even more!” I told her she was overselling it, but we are always happy to get a story, had proper gear and weren’t really complaining, but if you can’t complain about the weather, though.
After our time on the east coast, we headed south to the largest city, Hobart, with a planned stop at the historic Port Arthur. We had a large and good map thanks to the car rental agent who gave it to Dan after our rental car was delayed. It was huge when unfurled and a bit ungainly but had lots of detail and included the locations of many shipwrecks along the coast line. Despite the quality of the map, the size made it challenging, so we asked Google maps to set our route. It offered up a nice looking route through a state forest area. The road quickly went to gravel but took us to a nice turn off with great views of Maria Island, the previous day’s destination. The gravel road was in such good shape Dan commented that the paved roads at home were often not as smooth. Murphy’s Law, being what it is, meant that shortly after that comment was uttered, we spent the rest of trip bumping along a washboard textured road with some pretty impressive potholes. We had entered the area of the forest that was actively logged. It was still a beautiful drive and well worth it.
We arrived in Port Arthur, not really knowing what to expect beyond the historic site of one of the largest convict site in Tasmania, if not Australia. I think I expected a town and the remains of the prison site. In fact, it is the prison site, there are many residents in the area, but it appears as if Port Arthur is held in time. Not only is it a World Heritage site related to the convict history of Australia, it also has the sad distinction of being the site of the largest mass shooting in Australia, and at the time in the world. In the 1990s a mass shooter opened fire on the staff and visitors, killing 35 people. Shortly after, Australia passed significant gun control legislation and no longer appears on the list of mass shootings. There is a memorial garden at the site of the massacre and the site honors both its older and newer tragic histories in very appropriate ways.
The site is a sprawling place with the prison and British army garrison in one area and the church and homes for the free settlers nearby. It sits on a beautiful bay and is connected by a narrow strip of land back to the mainland. There are no fences because the natural boundaries were perceived to be sufficient to keep prisoners on site. In the early days, the strip of land – about 100 km across – was lined with vicious dogs, chained at intervals who would attack anyone trying to cross that way. The forest and the water were the other barriers. It seems like they worked because there were very few escape attempts, and even fewer successes.
This site was a place of secondary incarceration, meaning that if a convict re-offended after arriving in Australia, they were sent to Port Arthur and held there. There is a lot of history regarding the convicts in Australia, and I admit to knowing almost nothing as the writing of this blog. Who knows if I will educate myself in the future and feel like sharing, so you might want to stay tuned…
While a number of the buildings have been destroyed, either by neglect before it became a park, or by one of several major bush fires in the area, there remains a lot of history. The site is also a stop for many cruise ships that come to Tasmania. A P&O Australia ship was in port the day we were there, and the Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to arrive the next day.
From Port Arthur we left the sparsely travelled rural roads and headed in to the big city across a large bridge spanning the river and overlooking the harbor. We found our hotel and Dan navigated the rush hour traffic to drop off our stuff and then proceed to the parking deck several blocks away. Judicious use of the one way streets allowed us to avoid any major lane crossings and difficult turns. I think he was very happy to stash the car for the remainder of our time in the big city!
The schedule called for four days in Hobart with a suggested visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), we had also heard from our friends in Sydney and several other people that we should check it out. We did some exploring of the city and found out where to catch the ferry if we did decide to head to the museum but were still on the fence. The ferry terminal was on the pier next to one that hosted several restaurants and we stopped in and sampled some different brews made in the Hobart area, we would be back here more than once.
The next day dawned cloudy and had rain in the forecast so we took that as our sign to head over to MONA. The ferry ride is definitely part of the experience and each ferry (there are at least 2 we saw, possibly 3) has it’s own décor. Ours included a herd of sheep on the upper deck and some kind of hot pink torpedo looking thing on the front. They have 2 sections on the ferry; the pit where everyone can go hang out with several cash bars and a café and the higher class section which you can pay extra, get canapes and an open bar. Since it was pretty early, we took the cheap seats. The ride across the bay and up the river to the museum was fun, with views of the nice houses, some industrial areas and then the museum. There are 99 steps from where the ferry drops you off to the entrance of the museum (if you can’t do the stairs they take you to a secondary dock and give you a ride up there).
You enter the museum at the top and then proceed down four stories to begin to see the exhibits. The building itself is worth the price of admission, and the variety of art on display is pretty amazing. Things from ancient Egyptian figurines to recreations of 1960’s art installations share space with a mechanical digestive track that poops every day at 2 pm. There is live artist painting in a recreation of an impressionist artists studio (sorry, I didn’t write down the name and waited too long to write this post to remember) and around the corner an artist tattooing his body sits on display as a living canvas. Dan became part of the exhibit by lending his heartbeat to a light display that incorporates all of the pulses into an ever-changing rhythm.
We enjoyed a great lunch at one of the many restaurants and it was served so nicely plated and artistic that we were inspired to play with our food! After we finished in the museum we headed to the winery. MONA sits on the site of an established winery, so that is a nice bonus. We tasted a selection of wine and liked one well enough to buy a bottle to take on the rest of our Tasmanian adventure!
The next day we were scheduled for a walking tour and it turns out we were the only ones, so we had a wonderful, private tour of the central part of the city. Our guide took us into several historic buildings still in use, and many were made with convict labor. She provided interesting insight into the daily practices of the settlement, including the free colonists, the recruitment of women to come to Darwin (not as convicts) and the penal colony, including how they encouraged the convicts to learn a trade so they would stay and have a vocation. There were of course a variety of issues created by both the efforts to establish livelihoods for paroled and released convicts and the use of convict labor as essentially slave labor by free settlers. All of this before we even get in to the destruction of the aboriginal population and culture.
Another stop on the walking tour was a park in the city with a number of monuments that could have been grave monuments. Well, they were. The park was built on an old cemetery in the 1920s, but the council in its civic wisdom was not going to relocate the bodies or the gravestones. They gave families the option to pay to remove their loved ones, but very few could afford it. When the time came to prepare the park, they simply pushed the headstones, except for a few monuments to “significant” people, down the hill. They were discovered a while later by an architect doing site preparations for a new government building. He proposed a wall between the park and the building that would incorporate many of the headstones and it is a nice monument. It was a fascinating tour!
Our last day in Hobart we took a walkway along the “rivulet” that serves the city up to the “Female Factory” which is where many women convicts were incarcerated. This site, like many, was sold by the government in the early 1900s, and only about 60% of it has been reclaimed and turned into a museum. It is part of the multi-site World Heritage Site that includes Port Arthur, Maria Island and other locations around Australia. They have done a nice job on this site of giving you the sense of the place despite the fact that only a few walls and one building remain. On the 40% of the site that they will likely never get back there sits a day care center and several private homes.
After our exploration of the Female Factory we headed up the hill to the Cascade Brewery. Now owned by one of the international beer conglomerates, the building is visible from many places in Hobart and the grounds include some beautiful gardens. We declined to get a Goose Island beer using our usual “we can get that at home” standard, but we did try a tasting paddle of three beers and a cider. Like most Australian beer so far it was light and delightful, especially after our walk up the hill in the bright and warm sun.
From Hobart we had our longest drive to the next destination, four hours on the short route. We were headed to Cradle Mountain, most of that region in Tasmania is national park. Of course, we took the scenic route which meant we spent whole day in the car. But there were plenty of stops along the way. We tend to stop at most places with a “scenic overlook” sign and were not disappointed on this trip. The first turned out to be part of a hydroelectric system build in the 1920s and 30s. Great views and well worth the minor detour. Further on the trip the overlooks included opportunities for short hikes, one to see some waterfalls and another with panoramic views of the mountains in the region.
When we arrived at our accommodations the woman checking us in encouraged us to go to the “feeding” tour of the Tasmanian Devil sanctuary nearby. While we planned to stop at Devils@Cradle on this trip, we hadn’t reserved a spot on the afterhours tour, but a quick log in to the wifi and a few moments on my phone and we had tickets! Again, not sure what I expected, but Tasmanian devils didn’t disappoint. Endangered because of a cancer, loss of habitat and falling prey to feral cats, this sanctuary and several others around Tasmania are home to “insurance populations” and are breeding centers. They have devils on display who are too acclimated to humans to be released, usually due to being hand raised, and devils who will be released to try to stabilize the population. While they look cuddly, if you let your fingers or toes too close their jaws are powerful enough that you might lose one. They are mostly scavengers and got their name because they let out quite a racket. They growl and moan to communicate and when there are several in close proximity who decide to make their presence known, it is obvious! The center also has two types of Quolls, cousins of the Devils who are smaller, but even more fierce.
Our cabin at the lodge had a wood burning fireplace and a deck with a nice view of the mountains. We spent some time on the deck, and enjoyed a woodfire after dinner along with our wine from MONA. The grounds featured several walkways and paths and a nice collection of wallaby’s and the occasional wombat. We woke up one morning to a wombat sitting in the grass near our car. The couple staying on the other side of the duplex cabin was walking out to their car while we admired the wombat from our window and we got to see the woman’s startled reaction when she looked over and realized she was feet from the furry guy!
We took several hikes that started near our lodge and saw some beautiful waterfalls, some otherworldly forest scenes and some type of alpine low shrub area that might have been near a spring. The forest was filled with trees covered in moss and the overcast skies and light mist made us on the lookout for elves and fairies or perhaps, Yoda.