Down Under: New Zealand

New Zealand:

We departed Sydney, Australia on the morning of January 17th – summer-time down under. Our destination – Queenstown, New Zealand. Flying over the Tasman Sea, we entered New Zealand over the Fiordland National Park. Even though the day was a bit overcast, I had my camera out as the entrance into Queenstown was breathtaking – coming in low over a set of glacial lakes, carved through the majestic mountains. A few feet from touchdown I turned to my travel partner – we were both smiling with anticipation at what was to come in this notoriously beautiful country.

One of our first views upon arriving in Queenstown – and I didn’t even bring my golf clubs!

Our entrance into Queenstown over the glacial waters of Lake Wakatipu.

In the next instance we were both thrown backwards into our seat as the plane accelerated quickly and pulled upwards. Everybody looked at each other with a ‘WTF’ stare. No announcement from the pilot. But the map screens on the back of each seat quickly listed ‘Christchurch‘ as our ‘next’ destination – a 40-minute flight away. We later learned the tail wind into Queenstown was so strong we would not have had enough runway to land. So…we had a last-minute addition to our itinerary! Unfortunately we were not able to get off the plane – but it was neat to see a different part of the south island of New Zealand – a channel of lush green geometrical agricultural flat lands with the sea on one side and hills on the other.

An unscheduled touch down in Christchurch allowed us a view of another amazing part of New Zealand.

Several hours later we finally landed in the magical, remote, rugged Queenstown. The city sits along the shore of the ‘lightening strike’ shape of Lake Wakatipu  and at the base of a mountain range aptly called ‘The Remarkables‘ – as it is nothing short of remarkable with its steep, sheer jagged formation. They are also one of only two mountain ranges in the world that run north to south. This range and a hilly area called Deer Park Heights were used for multiple scenes in the Lord of the Rings.

The Remarkables and Deer Park Heights – a backdrop to Queenstown and the setting for many scenes of LOR.

We eventually settled into our room at the QT Hotel, overlooking Lake Wakatipu and watched the 100-year-old TSS Earnslaw steamship chug up and down the waterway from destinations at the far tips of the lake . Our late arrival had us missing our afternoon wine tours so instead we took a walk around the town center to get our shopping out-of-the-way and purchased some of the locally produced wares – wool, jade, wine and beer, anything kiwi, and Manuka honey!

The TSS Earnslaw steamship running up and down Lake Wakatipu for 100 years and still chugging!

Our first full day in New Zealand was a doozy. We were shuttled to the airport where we boarded a 12-seater fixed-wing plane, and headed out on a 35-minute journey to Milford Sound – one of the most well know fiords in New Zealand with Mitre Peak as it’s major focal point. Our pilot was obviously well experienced and versed and in the trials and tribulations of flying in and out of not only a very mountainous terrain but with sketchy weather conditions. Flights had not been flying in this area for the last several days because of rain storms – and the night before our flight we had been given a 50-50 shot at taking off.

This fixed-wing 12-seater airplane felt solid as a rock as it sliced through the turbulent air above Milford Sound.

Mitre Peak stands at the forefront of Milford Sound as the main focal point across the swampy inlet near the landing strip.

This vast mostly untouched land is a sight to be beholden.

But take off we did – and flew so close to some of the mountains they seemed within reach if I could’ve opened my window – which thank goodness I couldn’t!! Swooping in and out of glacial lake canyons and over the Paradise region where Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies did some of their filming, I was snapping pictures left and right. We landed on a tiny airstrip at the inlet of the 12-km long fiord, followed by a 10-minute hike to board a lightly packed cruise ship for our 2-hour water journey. The boat made its way up one side of the fiord, coasting along sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet up into the cool misty skies. We came within viewing distant of the Tasman Sea and then back to port along the other side of the fiord. Witnessing some of the most amazing waterfalls – some permanent, others pop-ups thanks to the 10″ of rainfall mother nature bathed the area with in the last 48 hours.

Our landing strip at the end of inlet of Milford Sound. Not a lot of room for error – coming in low over the water.

One of the permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound – and no this has not been retouched!

Sheer cliffs meet the serene waters of Milford Sound.

A couple of temporary waterfalls popped up thanks to the double-digit rainfalls in the last 48 hours. The boat captain would take us close enough to get a ‘shower’ if we wished.

To give you an idea of the beauty of the area I took 400+ pictures in a two-hour time span – I couldn’t stop snapping! It is said the fiords in Alaska or Norway are equally as beautiful and not as hard to get to – but this was worth every long hour spent on the flight to get down under, and the harrowing flight we took to bring us to this amazing natural sanctuary. Rudyard Kipling dubbed the area the ‘8th Wonder of the World.’ We were told we might see dolphins or penguins, but alas they did not make an appearance. We were however graced with the characters of the seas – seals! Of all shapes and sizes and colors.

We caught the usually active seals taking a snooze on a warm rock in Milford Sound.

Our return flight was equally impressive, taking us on different route, with a new pilot who was even more daring than the first – but just as confident in his ability to get close enough to the natural landscape to give us an up close and personal look while still keeping us safe. It is easy to understand why so many movies have been filmed in New Zealand with its natural beauty, much of it untouched by mans wayward hand.

One of many amazing rock formations the pilot took us over, almost feeling we could reach out and touch it.

A glacial lake fed by a nearby glacier enroute to Milford Sound.

Is it a diamond or Africa – either way it’s a uniquely shaped mountain lake high above Milford Sound.

That was enough stimulation to fill a day, but we were only getting started. Next we were whisked off to experience our most extreme, heart pounding, invigorating adventure of the whole trip – a fast paced ride aboard a 16-person jet boat for an excursion on the Shotover River – yet another filming location for LOR and the Hobbit trilogies. This 25-minute adventure placed us in the hands of a diabolical, but thankfully very capable captain who whisked us up and down the tight, shallow (10cm at times) meandering river, at speeds over 60mph, doing 360 degree tight spins. These boats have such quick reactionary abilities we could be heading towards a canyon wall or boulder jutting out of the water at full speed and turn at the last split second, barely missing the end of our life!

A hair-razing ride aboard the shotover river jet boat!

After we caught our breath it was time for a little down time to see some of the back country of Queenstown. One of the most renowned spots in New Zealand is set on the Kawarau Bridge, in the rugged region of the Kawarau Gorge the site of the original AJ Hackett Bungy Jump. Having had our share of extreme adventures for the day, we chose to sit this one out and watch several people scream at the top of their lungs, certain they were plunging to their death into the turquoise river waters below – only to be yanked up at the last second by a well secured bungy rope.

The front entrance to the AJ Hackett Bungy Jump center – the worlds first public commercial bungy jump location.

The long expansion bridge, now used as a bungy jumping off point.

A brave soul bungy jumping at Karawau Gorge – you can set the bungy cord to stop you above the water, so you can just touch the water, or so you can be plunged into the water!

We finished our day with a leisurely, albeit steeply vertical Gondola ride up to the top of the ski hill that overlooks Queenstown, to enjoy the panoramic views with a glass of wine to relax our highly activated nerves from a day of extremes.

The next day was a ‘kick back’ kind of day. We were loaded into a LandRover and taken on a half-day voyage through the scenic mountain and forest views of the New Zealand outback, stopping at many exact locations of filming for LOTR and Hobbit trilogies – ie. Isengard, Forest of Lothlorien, the Ithilian Camp, Mt. Earnslaw….we were even given a few swords used in the movie scenes to create our own LOTR photo-op.

The remains of the scene where Sam and Gollum are fixing supper for them and Frodo.

Sam & Gollum cook dinner while Frodo is pre-occupied in the background of LOTR.

The real life view of Mt. Earnslaw – the snow field in the background was the setting for the trek led by Gandolf in the LOTR 1.

Gandolf leads the trek across Pass of Caradrhas in LOTR 1.

A sword used in the filming of Lord of the Rings for the fight scenes in the Lothlorian Forest.

That afternoon we were escorted via a private car to some of the local wineries in the Gibbston wine district. New Zealand may not have the history of some other noted wine regions, but it is making its way into an industry that demands a lot of patience and a lot of time to make wines to compete on the world wine stage. And from what we tasted – they are well on their way. Very strong Pinot Noirs and Rose’s.

Brennan Winery just outside of the Queenstown.

As much as we were sad to leave the Queenstown area – we could’ve stayed for weeks – it was time to continue on our journey. Which included one more New Zealand stop before heading back to Australia. An early morning flight had us arriving in the ‘City of Sails‘ a/k/a Auckland, which sits on the north end of the north island of New Zealand. We only had a partial day to spend in this expansive city. We started out at the large marina, positioned at the edge of downtown – it was easy to see how the city got its name peering through the multitudes of ship masts, looking across the marina at the Sky Tower, the skyline focal point, looming high above the city and was our next destination. The Sky Tower high-speed elevator whisked us up the 328 meters to the observation deck where we had an amazing 360 degree view of Auckland. We watched with awe several tethered people jump off the balcony of the tower down to a landing spot at street level. No thanks!

The Auckland Sky Tower is the focal point across the marina that sits at the edge of this ‘city of sails.’

Tethered crazies jump from an exterior balcony on the Sky Tower in Auckland.

Cornwall Park, Auckland. Where the sheep roam free and inactive volcanic cones dot the horizon.

Next it was off to experience the black sand beaches just outside of Auckland, that extend 50km north – an amazing sight! Enroute we witnessed the largest Muriwai Gannet bird migration. . The ammonia tainted stench of the birds literally took your breath away, but the visual of thousands of birds on this one outcropping was a sight to see. Auckland also boasts one of New Zealand’s most amazing urban parks, Cornwall Park  – where sheep are free to roam, and the high point sits atop one of 48 inactive volcanic cones that dot the landscape in an otherwise fairly flat cityscape.

Black sand beach just outside of Auckland stretches 50km to the north.

The Muriwai Gannet bird migration at a rock outcropping on the black sand beaches of Auckland.

These black sand beaches often play host to major surfing competitions.

Thus ends our exhaustive jaw-dropping awe-struck trip to New Zealand. And we can’t wait to go back! We lost track of how many people we came across who said they came to visit and never left. I so get it!! And we barely touched what this amazing country has to offer those open to adventure and the desire to be astounded at every turn.

Please check back for more pictures in the Global Gallery!

 

Down Under: Australia

The term ‘down under’ refers to the countries of Australia and New Zealand, because they are indeed below all other countries in the southern hemisphere. And across the largest expanse of water from the US vs pretty much anywhere on earth. To fly 15 hours (approximately 7,500 miles)on a route that is nearly 100% over water, other than the few minutes fly over Fiji, is a little disconcerting to say the least. But thankfully most flights from the US are red eyes, so you sleep through most of that anxiety.

Because I have a hard time sleeping sitting up, I splurged for a first class seat/pod. Starting out a two-week trip with no sleep just did not seem like a good idea. Plus you get a pair of pj’s to lounge/sleep in while imbibing in all the alcohol you can handle, stopping short of starting such a monumental trip with a hangover. But of course you are plied with enough gourmet food to bust a gut for good absorption factor. And alas a sleeping pod with a seat that reclines to 180 degrees. All for the nominal fee of several months mortgage payments – but so worth it if there is anyway to swing it.

I will break down the ‘down under’ posts into two posts. There is simply too much to cover in one. Even though Australia is home to some of the most amazing natural landscape – and grueling rustic areas such as the ‘outback, it is the major cities that were the highlights for us. Whereas New Zealand was all about experiencing the natural landscape. This post will be focused on Australia – the follow-up post on New Zealand.

My travel partner and I departed LAX on Friday, January 12th at 10:30pm and arrived in Sydney on Sunday, January 14th at 8:30am, as morning dawned on a somewhat ominous weather day. I pulled out my camera to get some aerial shots. The flight attendant took notice of my camera and said we would be turning soon and to watch for the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge outside my window. Not a bad start to our journey.

Aerial view of the Sydney Harbour, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

I have used tour companies in the past to organize an itinerary for upcoming travel. When an area is new to you, having the help of local knowledge is priceless. We used a travel company I found through Wendy Perrin’s WOW travel service called Southern Crossings. Stuart and his team were amazing to work with in the short couple of months we had to organize this trip down under. They took our specialized requests for transportation, accommodations, tours, restaurants and created an itinerary that was ideally suited for us. Everything was included in our cost except for most meals.

Sydney

We were picked up at the airport by a private car service and whisked away through the heart of Sydney to our boutique hotel, Pier One Sydney Harbour that was located on the water at the base of the Harbour Bridge, within walking distance from the Opera House. We took the first day to acclimate ourselves to our new time zone – 18 hours difference from home in Arizona. We walked around the harbour area near our hotel – a small part of the 150 miles of the Sydney Harbour shoreline.

The Pier One Harbour hotel in Sydney sits at the base of the Harbour Bridge.

View of the Sydney Opera House framed by the massive steel structure of the Harbour Bridge.

View of the Harbour Bridge from a recently refurbished part of the harbour shoreline.

Our second day was spent touring the highlights of Sydney: historic Rocks precinct, Circular Quay, Bondi Beach, and lunch at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, before being dropped off at Darling Harbor to board our private small sailing yacht for a 2-hour harbour tour. It was a beautiful, albeit windy day, so our skipper opened the sail and we cruised at a high clip through part of the harbor with the boat lilting hard to one side, salt water spraying up on us. Giving us some of the best views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House and all the beautiful homes, many famous, that line the harbour.

Looking out over The Rocks historic precinct and the first church in Australia, from Observatory Hill.

Mrs. Macquarie, (the wife of the sitting Governor of 1810) sat for days on end on this stone chair, waiting for ships to arrive from London with all the updated goods from a modern world and letters from home.

Bondi Beach – a large popular beach for the locals and tourists.

A private sailing tour through the Sydney harbour – not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

The Harbour Bridge and Opera House as seen from the water in Sydney Harbour.

The next day brought the trip’s biggest challenge – climbing to the top of the Harbour Bridge, a 2 1/2 hour experience. For someone who is afraid of heights, this was quite the test for me. We went through a short albeit rigorous training course and got all rigged up with a special cover-all and gear to attach us to a railing with a cable – all that kept us from plunging to the water 440 feet below. We climbed up through the menagerie of the massive structural supports – and popped out through an opening on the top of the bridge. As we did, the skies opened up and it began to rain with the wind blowing at 30 mph. My heart was pounding out of my chest, but it was worth every dropped heart beat! And the views were figuratively and literally breathtaking.

Standing on top of the Harbour Bridge, with the wind howling and the rain coming down – Opera House in the background.

After a much-needed rest and refreshing, we got dressed up and strolled over to the Sydney Opera House, where we had a private tour of the inner workings of the whole complex; an exquisite gourmet dinner in the on-side restaurant, Bennelong; and finished off the evening with a production of The Merry Widow. Our trip could’ve ended right now and it would have been worth the 15-hour plane trip to get to this corner of the world.

The stage from The Merry Widow inside the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Opera House all aglow at night with lights reflecting off the roof tiles embedded with bits of sea shells.

But alas end it did not – there was so much more to come! The next 6 days were spent in New Zealand which will be covered in the following post.

Great Barrier Reef

We returned to Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef. This was our one stroke of bad luck. The most anticipated photo-op of the whole trip. We embarked on a small tour, full-day, boat excursion 1 1/2 miles out to the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, but the weather was so poor all we experienced was dull gray. Dull gray skies, dull gray surface water, dull gray underwater. We saw some vibrant colorful fish while snorkeling, but the coral was mostly colorless and covered with ocean sediment.

The next day was much improved as we headed into the world’s oldest rainforest, the Daintree Rainforest – a beautifully lush tropical forest. We started out with a short riverboat cruise to get up close and personal with some 9-12′ crocodiles. Then we embarked on a walk through the rainforest that was thick with amazing vegetation and streams. We saw several wallabies – one with a joey in her pouch; a bright green frog; and numerous spiders and their creative webs.

A 10′ river crocodile moseying along in the Daintree River.

A little wallaby hoping not be noticed by the pesky humans staring at him.

Our little bright green tree frog checking out the details on the visitor info board.

These rainforest spiders have some mad-skill at spinning some complex webs.

A momma wallaby with a baby joey in her pouch – at the animal reserve in the Daintree Rainforest.

A very bold junior wallaby, eating slivers of sweet potato out of my hand. He was very insistent.

Melbourne

Next we headed to Melbourne to experience the more cosmopolitan city in Australia. There is a very vocal, almost hostile rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney – each touting themselves as the ‘go-to’ city of Australia. These cities are so very different that I don’t even see a need for a rivalry, but an opportunity to tout each others strengths. Our main purpose in visiting Melbourne was to attend the semi-final and final matches of the women’s Australian Open, with a day in between to experience the vibe of Melbourne.

A good part of Melbourne is experiencing a renaissance of sorts – seeing people taking pride in their neighborhoods and creating unique expressions of the area by the food they serve, the culture they openly share, and the architecture to showcase the area’s innovations. Alleys along many of the bustling streets are go-to spots for boutique stores, coffee shops and dining experiences.

The city as a whole has embraced graffiti as a form of art that needs to be openly exhibited, not painted over. The city has commissioned several graffiti artists to paint murals on several large buildings that are amazing in stature, creativity and talent. Many of the above mentioned alleys have become oversized canvases for more detailed artwork and other forms of artistic expression.

One of many building murals, commissioned by the city, to spruce up large industrial buildings.

Most of the cities alleys are clean, embedded with amazing restaurants, and showered with all forms of murals – many of local favorites AC/DC.

And although the city sits on the east side of a very large harbor, only a small portion of the city revolves it’s day-to-day workings on the waterfront. That is mainly reserved for the weekend when the city’s inhabitants pour out onto the beaches and soak up the sun and water.

Brighten Beach. One of the most popular city beaches in Melbourne. The colorful beachside structures, that have no rooms, running water or electricity, were built in the 1920’s for the women to change into their full-length swimsuits. Each ‘cabin’ now sells for a mere $340,000.

As if the trip down under hadn’t already been magnificent enough, we still had the main reason for coming to Australia to experience – the Australian Open. It was the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s one win at the Aussie Open, and she was being honored with a special award – Australian Women of the Year. Being summer in Australia in January, we sweltered courtside while witnessing three of the best women’s matches I have ever watched – live or on TV. Luckily we had ample opportunity to quench our thirst with the tournament signature drink – Aperol Spritz.

Settling into to watch an exciting semi-final match between Wozniaki & Mertens at the Australian Open.

Kerber congratulating Halep on her semi-final win at the Australian Open.

Billie Jean King hugging Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniaki after presenting her with the winners trophy.

A very special moment recognizing Billie Jean King on her 50th anniversary of her only win at the Australian Open.

Refreshing Aperol Spritz drinks lined up at the Aperol bar at the Australian Open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And yes we even tried some ‘Vegemite‘ – not bad if I do say so myself. A salty spread that most Australians we talked to still eat on a regular basis. But sadly we never saw a koala bear or a kangaroo. Guess we’ll just have to make a return trip!

Be watching for my upcoming post on New Zealand, as well as a Global Gallery page showcasing more Australian culture that added to our whole ‘down under’ experience.

Brazil – Rio de Janeiro

We’re being jostled around in a little 6-seater prop plane – making our way from Angra dos Reis to Rio de Janeiro. The skies are gray and gloomy with heavy rain up ahead. The runway is in sight, but the pilot turns around and gives a thumbs down – the tower will not let us land and we must return to Angra. Then just as quickly he turns back around and gives us a thumbs up – the tower says ‘NOW’. We have 8 seconds to land – the pilot holds the steering mechanism as tight as he can, the wings are teetering heavily side to side. We drop hard onto the runway, the skies open up and the rain comes down in sheets. A van meets us right at the door to the plane and we get drenched in the 10-feet we have to walk from the plane to the van. “Welcome to Rio!” says our driver.

Landing strip in the bay off of Rio de Janeiro where we landed in the prop-plane we took from Angra dos Reis.

Rio de Janeiro. The name rolls off your tongue and evokes a sense of beauty. Fitting for a city that is undeniably one of the most beautiful in the world. The saying in Rio is – ‘God built Rio on the 8th day.’ As I said in my earlier Brazil posts, the country was never on my bucket list – but Rio has always held a bit of an interest, especially since the 2016 Rio Olympics when I witnessed one enticing iconic photo or video after another. How can one deny a pull to experience the marrying of white powder sandy beaches and tropical forests rising up out of the ocean encasing a culture known for a love of living life to the fullest.

One of the first visuals that stood out to me was the emptiness of beaches Monday through Friday. But on the weekends these beaches were transformed into a sea of humanity. The locals work hard during the week so they can play harder over the weekend. Arriving at the beaches by 9am and staying on well past midnight. Plied with local beverages – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and fresh seafood and fruits, by walking vendors – there is no need to leave. If you forgot your swimsuit – there are vendors selling swimsuits. If you forgot your sunscreen, or sarong, or hat – there are vendors to take care of you. None of the vendors are pushy – they are just there, walking up and down the beach in numbers so great you don’t have to wait long for the right one to come along.

Ipanema Beach, empty during the week except for the long line-up of orange garbage bins that people are very good at using to keep these beaches spotless.

Ipanema Beach on a Saturday – when a mass of humanity descends on the beaches for a day of fun in the sun.

If you forgot or lost your swimsuit – no problem walking vendors have you ‘covered’!

If you are hungry or thirsty but you don’t want to risk losing your prime beach spot, no problem – walking vendors will serve your every need.

Although we felt fairly safe on the beaches – Ipanema Beach is definitely more inclined to host the tourists, while Copacabana Beach was the locals haven. And no question as to what someone is talking about when they mention ‘wearing a thong’ – that has nothing to do with flip-flops for your feet. That is the ONLY kind of swimsuit bottom worn by the women – no matter what age or size of bum. I have never seen so many butts in all my life! And the speedo for men may have gone by the wayside in most regions of the world, but in Rio it is alive and doing quite well!

Speedos for the men – thongs for the women. My husband looks very nonplussed by all of it. Life is good while on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.

Ironically, the poorer the citizen the higher up they live in Rio. The most financially depressed parts of the city, or favelas, are the ones that sit high up in the hills. I guess it’s the least they deserve – a good view even if they can’t afford a car, a nice home or to put much food on the table. The economy may be depressed, but the people certainly are not. They take an attitude that tomorrow is another day and it could be better so why worry about today. When basic needs are met and your every waking hour allows you to exist in such beauty no matter how much money is in your pocket, it is hard to argue their attitude.

High up in the city, the buildings show disrepair and a multitude of electrical wires looking like a fire hazard – but the monkeys love the easy access to their favorite trees.

The Olympics were held 6 months prior to our arrival in Rio de Janeiro, but by then most of the venues had already fallen into disrepair, the golf course hardly had a round played on it, and the influx of interest in the area had waned. But alas the locals carry on as they always have. Nothing much changed in getting ready for the Olympics and nothing much has changed since the Olympics. Life goes on as usual and they are fine with that.

There is no lack of culture or history to go along with some of the world’s most amazing natural vistas. Usually a city is renowned for one or the other – beauty or culture. Rio ticks off both those boxes – multiple times. When the word breathtaking was created, the creator must have been standing atop Sugarloaf Mountain looking across at the future pinnacle for  Christ the Redeemer.

Christ the Redeemer stands tall as a protector over all the people of Rio and the many visitors to this magical destination.

Sugarloaf Mountain rises up out of the harbor in Rio into the shape of a what was a sugar-loaf back in the 1600’s. Sugar cane was a major commodity in the area and it was transported in conical clay forms from Rio to other parts of the world. In 1912 the first set of cable cars was built to carry people up to the highest point of Sugarloaf Mountain. Today the glass cable cars can hold up to 65 people. You can take one cable car from the base of the mountain to the first hill-top, and then a second cable car all the way up to the top of Sugarloaf = 1200 feet elevation. Or you can hike up the first mountain and then take the second cable car from there. We did the latter and our guide said we were the first people in 5 years he had guided to choose to do so. It is a steep elevation and it was very hot and humid, but it was lush green, heavily shaded and we saw monkeys!

We saw several marmosets or monkeys – but were absolutely forbidden to feed them.

The iconic Sugarloaf Mountain rising up out of the harbor – with a tram going from the lower hilltop to the high peak.

The panoramic views from Sugarloaf Mountain are truly breathtaking!

Christ the Redeemer became the iconic visual of the Rio Olympics – day and night. It is eye-catching from afar and you can see it from miles and miles away. But the actual statue was less ornate than I thought it would be. Even so, what an awe-inspiring task when you look at how this was resurrected back in 1922-1931. The wing span of Christ’s arms (92 feet) is almost as long as he is tall (98 feet) – and stands on a 26-foot high granite pedestal. It is a monolithic piece weighing in at over 630 tons that sits atop a 2300-foot high peak. You take a railway tram up a very steep hillside and your only thought is – ‘I hope the brakes don’t give out!’ The statue is constructed mainly of iron and concrete, with an outer-shell of soapstone. The statue has been struck by lighting 3 times with minimal damage.

The rail cars that take you up the hillside to the base of Christ the Redeemer. I am sure this grade would not meet US standards.

Christ the Redeemer stands as a beacon of hope and peace on one of the highest points in Rio.

Other Rio cultural highlights and must sees: The Metropolitan Cathedral – a 264-foot high conical-shaped church with four floor to ceiling stain-glassed panels coming together at the top to create a cross; the Real Gabinete Portugues da Leitura is tucked among narrow side streets – but this library is a must see for its uniqueness and beauty; the Museum of Tomorrow sits on the edge of the harbor like a spaceship from another world; Korda‘s 3,000sm mural (15.5m high by 190m long) may have been created for the olympics, but it will stay on as an artistic masterpiece highlighting the cultures of each amazing continent in this world; the ‘Selaron Steps‘ were designed by the artist as a tribute to Brazil and it’s people, but you can find a tile from just about every spot in the world.

The conical-shaped Metropolitan Cathedral in the heart of Rio.

The interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral showcasing the stained glass floor to ceiling panels coming together at the peak into the shape of a cross.

The Royal Portuguese Library – a magical reading room and fitting for the area as Portuguese is the main language of Brazil.

The Museum of Tomorrow built for the Rio Olympics in 2016 – an innovative scientific look at sustainability and the start of revitalizing a once struggling waterfront.

World renowned mural artist Eduardo Korda was commissioned to create and paint a mural for the 2016 Olympics.

The ‘Selaron Steps’ created over 20 years by artist Jorge Selaron as a tribute to Brazil – anybody can now add a tile when they visit, making it a tribute to the world we live in.

Our days consisted of a morning run or walk on Ipanema Beach across the street from our Fasano Hotel, followed by a day of touring the area, then retreat to the rooftop pool for the refreshing local drink – Caipirinha, and finish with an amazing dinner touting local Brazilian flavors and style of cooking, like Churrascaria. While Brazil may not have been on my bucket list – it is on my list of places to return to. I still have 362 islands to see in Angra dos Reis; more beach time to enjoy in Rio; and inner country sanctums such as the Amazon and Iguazu Falls to experience.

Watch for a Global Gallery with more pics from Brazil, specifically Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis, and Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil – Angra dos Reis

Angra dos Reis – translated from Portuguese means ‘Creek of the Kings’. This state of Brazil was first discovered back in the early 1500’s by the Portuguese naval fleet. An archipelago of 365 islands, one for every day of the year, Angra is a favorite vacation spot for many in the region and even for the whole country. We came about it through Brazilian friends who have a place on the ‘Big Island’ (Ilha Grande).

Angra dos Reis – on the coast of Brazil between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

A handful of the 365 islands of Angra dos Reis, Brazil.

Angra is a fairly remote area. From Sao Paulo, there is one windy road along the coast and another through the tropical hilly terrain, both of which take a good six plus hours to go the 240 miles. From Rio de Janeiro, there is one windy road, mostly along the coast, that takes three plus hours to go 90 miles. The best way to arrive is by plane, and as luck would have it our friends just happened to have their own plane – go figure! 🙂 My first small plane ride ever and I have to experience landing on a landing strip that starts at the tip of an ocean inlet and end at the base of a mountain, in the rain! Thank goodness I didn’t have a heart attack then and there or I would’ve missed the most magical next 3 days of my life.

Coming in for a landing to the landing strip at Angra dos Reis regional airport.

Besides tourism, the area is noted for fishing, agricultural products (bananas, coconuts, oranges, hearts of palm and sugar cane), steel export and transporting oil. Many residents on the island are in the service industry – the culture in Brazil in general is very service oriented. Our friends have paid staff in the house to look after any and all needs of the family: cook, nanny, clean, garden. They have a separate crew to man their 78-foot yacht. Our friends are humble and full of gratitude to their staff and the staff is like family – it is viewed as an employer/employee not a hierarchy.

The crew on our friends boat coming into the marina to pick us up from a day at one of the many islands of Angra dos Reis.

The attitude and attire are laid back in this very temperate climate where the high temps throughout the year range from 77 to 87, and the lows range from 62 to 77. Because they are on the beach or on the boat almost every day, our friends tend to live in swimsuits and flip-flops. The rainy season is from December through March (their summer) where they average 10 inches of rain a month. One of the nights we were there – I think they might have received their rain total for the month. It rained, and rained, and rained! I love a good rainstorm as much as a crystal clear day or a starry night!

View from the beach home we found ourselves lucky enough to be staying at while in Angra dos Reis.

A dark and eerie sky ready to open up and unload several inches of rain.

Upon arriving at our friend’s home, we were told to don our bathing suits – we were heading right out on the boat to go and check out one of their favorite islands known as ‘Dentist Island’ – apparently a century or so ago it was owned by a very prominent dentist in the area.  To me it was what beach dreams are made of – a deserted looking island right out of a movie scene. The boat was anchored offshore about 50 yards and we swam to the shore for a run up and down the beach and then swam back to the boat for our first caipirinha of the day, and a feast of fresh fruit, veggies and fish dishes.

A ‘life is good’ moment in Angra does Reis.

My husband and daughter both tried stand-up paddle boarding – one fared a bit better than the other, but I won’t say who, other than ‘nicely done sweetie!’ 🙂 Our hostess has it down so well she paddle boards all over the bay with her dog Louie sitting serenely at her feet. After another caipirhina or two, it was back to our friends amazing beach house. Our hostess designed it and utilized boulders from the area to create unique room settings.

My daughter getting the hand of stand-up paddle boarding in the quiet bay of Dentist Island.

Louie waiting to go paddle-boarding!

The next morning arrived bright with sunshine. After a breakfast of a tapioca crepes filled with eggs and ham, and more of the islands fresh fruit, it was off to hit the links for the older adults. A fun little course that winds it way through the foothills within a driver distance of the beach house. We saw a giant hamster, aka Capybaras, many of us saw on the Olympic coverage from Rio. Golfing in these tropical regions sure is humid and sweaty, but you do stay loose! Luckily we were brought cold beers and more fresh fruit at the turn to keep our hydration levels up.

Getting up close and personal on the golf course with a local capybara.

Not too many golf courses you have to hit over ancient ruins to get to the green.

After a quick freshen up back at the beach house it was off the magical island of Paraty – a town built back in the early 1800’s reminiscent of a European colorful hamlet. Buildings of white, trimmed with a multitude of different colors, veined with concave cobblestone streets so rain drains towards the ocean. The town is filled with boutique shops, bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants and ice cream shops. We bought some artifacts from Amazonian tribes at one of the stores. We had an ice cream cone for lunch, because our host asked us not to eat too much as he was having fresh lobster flown in and was cooking for us tonight – which meant he oversaw his cook grilling the lobster! 🙂 Twenty plus lobster tails for 5 of us – you do the math! Teamed with another caipirinha or two, and a couple of shared bottles of wine meant a deep sleep for all.

The colorful tourist boats in the Paraty Harbor, reading to take guests out on the water for a Paraty style party!

The colorfully trimmed white buildings of Paraty, with concave cobblestone streets.

Needless to say we slept in the next morning. But before our final boat trip back to the plane to take us to our next destination – Rio de Janeiro, we all took a nice long bike ride. The guys went one way and the gals took another way, back through the golf course where we just missed riding over a coral snake, along a beach to see a new Fasano resort in development, and past a few more of the docile capybaras.

My daughter and I on one last trek, on bikes, through the beauty that is Angra dos Reis.

A couple more Capybaras lounging by the river on the golf course we biked through.

My daughter and our extremely gracious hostess for our time spent at Angra dos Reis.

All in all a this was a trip unlike anything any of us had ever experienced – mainly because of the hospitality of our friends, but it is certainly a destination worth checking out for anybody. Albeit it a challenge to get there, everything is in place to create an unforgettable experience for any new comer to the area. Since we only experienced 3 of the 365 islands we will definitely be putting Angra dos Reis on our ‘return to’ travel list.

Stay tuned for Brazil Part 3: Rio de Janeiro and the Global Gallery from all three stops in Brazil.

 

 

 

 

Brazil – Sao Paulo

Brazil. Where does one start? The food. The people. The culture. The beauty – natural and manmade. Brazil was never on my bucket list, not even an honorable mention. When my husband began traveling there for business my interest became piqued to see a destination not on many people’s bucket list. That interest was further inspired by the recent 2016 Summer Olympic Games. (FYI: a VISA is needed for Americans to travel to Brazil.)

Brazil, South America.

Every year my daughter and I, whether together or not, travel to a unique location somewhere in this amazing world of ours. The opportunity to travel to Brazil with my husband on one of his business trips was too great an opportunity for us to pass up. He had already been to Brazil multiple times, knew the lay of the land and how to navigate a region not regarded as overly safe. The locals we know cautiously reminded us to be extra vigilant and monitored our travel itineraries to be sure we weren’t going into areas they would not recommend. But like any place else, be smart and be aware and you’ll be safe.

And I am happy to report we had a very safe trip – we did not have one instance of concern. No clutching our purses to our chest or looking over our shoulders. Which would’ve been a travesty as there was something to behold in every direction. I have now added Brazil to my bucket list because there is so much more to see and do – we did not even scratch the surface in the 10 days we were there. We were however, able to experience some areas probably better known to locals than to tourists in the regions we visited, thanks to the local connections we have.

Because our experiences were as vast at the country itself I will break the Brazil post up into three parts: 1) Sao Paulo; 2) Angra dos Reis; 3) Rio de Janeiro. The proximity of South America to North America actually makes it fairly easy, but long trip to Brazil – about a 9 hour flight from the US mainland. Most flights out of the US depart from Atlanta (Delta) or Dallas (American) and fly directly to Sao Paulo. We flew out of NYC – which is another direct flight option. All flights to Brazil are red-eyes, mainly into Sao Paulo, so the flight goes fast since you sleep through the bulk of it, waking in time for a quick breakfast before touch down on the runway. The time zone change is minimal compared to travel abroad to the east or west. Example – from Rio de Janeiro to the west coast of the U.S. is 4-5 hours depending on time of year.

Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis, and Rio de Janeiro – along the southeast border of Brazil.

Part 1: Sao Paulo

The geographical spread of Sao Paulo  is so expansive I couldn’t fit the whole city into my pictures taken from the plane. It is an urban setting of 24 million people spread out over an area of 85 miles from edge to edge. Sao Paulo is the international business and cultural center of Brazil. People in Brazil tend to work in Sao Paulo and play in Rio. Portuguese is the language spoken in Brazil, but like most places in the world we had no problem getting around not being fluent in Portuguese – although we certainly picked up a lot of Portuguese phrases throughout our stay, and locals appreciated our efforts to reply back to them in Portuguese. And according to a friend who speaks Portuguese, the Portuguese spoken in Brazil has a more fluid lilt to it then what is spoken in Portugal, and is a little easer to pick up.

The city of Sao Paulo spreads out, and out, and out….

We stayed at the Fasano Hotel, a high-end boutique-style hotel chain. Once settled into our rooms, it didn’t take us long to indulge in the first cultural experience of Brazil – a drink called the ‘Caipirinha‘. Muddled limes with a touch of sugar and a generous pour-over of a Brazilian rum called cachaca, shaken and served in glass full of crushed ice. The locals drink this as much as the tourists – but beware, one is just right, two will land you on your arse. Even the locals don’t push it and if they are going to drink multiple Caipirinhas they will use vodka instead of the local rum. This local rum is made from raw pure cane sugar where other rums are generally made from processed sugar.

A Caipirinha – a Brazilian drink even the locals drink. Refreshing and very potent!

Food is also a forte of Sao Paulo – one restaurant has ranked as high as 9th in the world: Dom. We were lucky enough to get in by booking our reservations well in advance. The focus at Dom is on using Brazilian grown ingredients in Brazilian created dishes. A prix fixe gastronomical dining experience worth every high calorie laden bite. And if you like your beer cold – Brazil is the place for you. They house their beers in an extra cold fridge, serve it in mini pilsner glasses so you drink it before it gets warm, and keep the unfinished bottle in a table side ice bucket.

Beer served in miniature glasses to the beer in it doesn’t have a chance to get warm.

Keeping the beer ice-cold in an ice bucket table side.

After a long deep sleep to recover from Day 1 travel and heavy eats, it was time to stretch our legs and see some of the culture of Sao Paulo. Off to Ibirapuera Park, their version of Central Park, where we walked on heavily treed paths along waterways, while quenching our thirst with fresh coconut water. Coconut stands dot the pathways – the vendor cuts a hole in the coconut, adds fresh cold water that mixes with the coconut juice and you sip it with a long straw. As the heat of the day increased we took our interests inside to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art which houses pieces of work from locals on the first floor, to pieces from the world’s most well renowned artists of all time on the second floor. The Museum sits up off the ground – during the week this covered space serves as a shelter for the homeless. And twice a week they clear this space out and it becomes a flea market.

Beautiful heavily tree-lined pathways of Sao Paulo’s version of Central Park.

Multiple vendors sell fresh coconuts along what waterways in Iberpuera Park.

An installation of artists from Renoir to Picasso and classic artists in between, at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Each painting is placed on an individual stand to create an illusion of the artwork floating.

After cooling down we walked down to Sao Paulo’s version of Rodeo Drive for some much-needed shopping on Jardins’ Rua Oscar Freire. My daughter and I simply couldn’t leave Sao Paulo without purchasing some Brazilian styled vibrant clothing. After all that bopping around and shopping around it was time for another refreshment – no better option than our new favorite drink, a Caipirinha, at a cute local eatery right around the corner from out hotel.

After a short nap it was off to one of the most interesting restaurant settings I have ever experienced, at the Figueira Rubaiyat. The open air entrance is guarded by a ficus tree with a trunk diameter of over ten feet and branches jutting out under and through panels in the all clear glass ceiling. That evening we were treated to the most amazing rainstorm I have ever experienced. The area of Sao Paulo we were staying in is built on a very steep hill – our hotel and the restaurant were near the base of this hill. The rain came down so fast and furious there was a raging river racing down the street knee-deep – we couldn’t even make it back to our hotel a half block away. So we indulged in local fresh seafood and wine and waited the storm out.

Apparently this Ficus tree loves the tropical weather of Sao Paulo.

A tropical rainstorm hits Sao Paulo leaving us hostages in the Rubaiyat Restaurant.

Sao Paulo may not be the area to spend the bulk of your time in when visiting Brazil, but it does have enough to sufficiently fill a couple of days. Next it was off to another area the locals love to get away to called Angra dos Reis, an archepegio of 365 islands situated between Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro.

Check back soon for the next two Brazilian posts and an upcoming Global Gallery for all of our stops in Brazil!

Alaska Adventures – part 2

Below please enjoy the follow-up post by my guest blogger, and son, Mike Malecha. Continuing to see more of Anchorage and experience one of Alaska’s 664 named glaciers – Washington is the state with the next closest number of named glaciers at 186.

Enjoy Alaska Adventures – part 2 by Mike Malecha:

 

Wednesday
Wednesday began nice and early with a workout at Body Renew, the gym where Tara does some personal training. It was (almost) effortless to get up early and head to the gym already surrounded by light that made it feel like mid-day. A few hours of sleep somehow felt like an eternity in an Alaskan summer. What a great feeling to be back at the house having coffee by 8 with an energizing workout (and a long stretching session which my body needed after a few days of climbing and hiking) already in the books. With the rest of the morning to myself to catch up on some reading, I set out to grab a little breakfast at the local McDonalds (just to make sure it’s the same in Alaska as everywhere else;) – and it is!) and then spent the morning with my nose in a book and doing the tiny bit of work I reluctantly allowed myself to bring on the trip.

Once Ryan had finished up at work himself, we kept the activity and adventure theme going and hit the road for another hike. One of the ‘must-do’ items on my list was to see a  glacier, and that was the item of the day. Ryan and I drove about an hour south to a town called Whittier, a very small water-side community tucked into a gorgeous river-valley between the mountains. The drive also included a 2-mile stretch directly through Maynard Mountain via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel! We set out on the Portage Pass Trail, up over a saddle between two peaks which took us to a glacier-viewing area. On the way up, we had a view of the pristine Portage Lake running through the valley behind us the whole way, and the sight only became more beautiful and expansive as we climbed upward.

Maynard Mountain with road/train tracks lead into the 2 plus mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.

This way to glacier viewing!

I requested several stops along the way up, to turn around and embrace the scenery (and just maybe to catch an extra breath or two, but that was a very secondary reason ;). Once we made it over the saddle, the view of a hanging glacier, Portage Glacier, between the upper slopes of two mountains nearly stopped me in my tracks – truly one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I have ever witnessed. The pictures below can do the glacier more justice than my words can, and the pictures aren’t nearly enough. Truly something that must be seen first-hand to be appreciated. The magnitude of nature’s power became overwhelmingly apparent while in its presence. Witnessing the masterpiece created by such monumental forces, which over immense periods of time, came together to form this natural wonder was a humbling experience.

From the road – the destination of the Portage Glacier looks daunting.

Portage Glacier slowly melts into Portage Lake as viewed from the Portage Pass Trail.

And it was worth the effort!

Dinner that night was at Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, a staple in Anchorage. Lines extend out the front door and fill the waiting area on a daily basis at dinner time, and for hours thereafter. We went at about 8:30 pm and still had to wait over a half an hour. Fortunately, the place brews a number of its own beers, so we patiently sat on the patio and each enjoyed our pick of their home-made Broken Tooth brews while waiting; my Raspberry Pale Ale was terrific. The pizza was every bit worth the wait – easily understandable why the place has become such a staple. Aside from the food quality, an ever-bustling family style atmosphere filled the place, not a person in the restaurant without a smile on their face. It’s the kind of place I’m sure has kids jumping up and down and shouting in joy when their parents agree to take them out for pizza.

Checking out the different brews at Broken Tooth Brewing while waiting to get in for pizza at Moose’s Tooth.

Big surprise, Ryan and I decided to do another hike on Thursday afternoon once he was off work, and today we wanted to focus on physical intensity more than the scenery. So, we set out on a two and a quarter-mile trek, pretty much directly upward from the base of Alyeska Ski Resort (about a half hour south of Anchorage) up to the resort’s winter lodge. Up until now, we hadn’t had to worry much about wildlife encounters, but as this outing took us through more raw wilderness, we were sure to equip ourselves with bear spray and Ryan’s firearm.

Our destination is the Alyeska ski lodge at the top of the hill.

Ran into a big snow-patch about halfway up the mountain! Forgot to bring our snowboards unfortunately!

As fortune would have it, about 10 minutes into the hike, a woman passed by on her way down saying there had been reported sightings of a mother black bear and 3 cubs not far up the trail. Rather than a quick discussion of whether we should go forward, Ryan simply said, “Well that’s Alaska for you, better get used to it!” and proceeded to take his gun out of his pack to keep it close at hand, and we continued right on up the hill – and I had my bear spray at the ready. I thought I would feel much more fearful in such a situation, but I knew we were properly prepared and the initial fear honestly faded quite quickly. We made sure to make a racket as we went to alert any nearby critters of our presence, which basically resulted in a non-stop clapping, singing and whistling fest most of the way up the mountain – not a noise level that was much out of the ordinary for the two of us.

We made it to the top without a sighting of any wildlife, only with a couple of spent pairs of legs. The hike was a real kicker, but the satisfaction upon reaching the top was of course worth every second. Another Alaskan mountain conquered! A nearly 360 degree view of the mountains, valleys, bowls and the ocean off in the distance was yet another breath-taking setting. The views may not have been the focal point of our day, but they delivered nonetheless.

Alyeska Ski Resort sits at the base of what is called a deep steep slope.

After 4 hikes and some mountain biking under my belt in my short time in Alaska, I could see exactly why even residents would never get sick of outdoor activities day in and day out. To make sure we completely gassed ourselves and earned what we planned to be a final day of total R&R tomorrow, we finished up with another rock climbing session. We accomplished our goal of over-exhaustion, and I managed to move up one level from V2 to V3!

Round 2 at the rock climbing wall!

As planned, our final day was devoted to rest, relaxation, and a little reality TV – had to take in an episode of “Alaskan Bush People” while we lazed on the couch for the first few hours of the day. The rest of the day didn’t get much more exciting than that, and mostly involved working ourselves up to actually getting off the couch, playing with Hank, and packing at the last-minute in my patented fashion. My sore muscles thanked me for asking very little of them all day. Ryan, Tara and I enjoyed a wonderfully fresh seafood dinner, an absolute must when in Alaska, at the Southside Bistro before they took me to the airport. A trip that was 3 years in the making had gone by, as expected, in a blink.

Dining at one of Ryan and Tara’s favorite seafood restaurants. Most vehicles are either SUV’s or trucks.

Finishing my trip with a little R&R, fun and games, with my two hostesses with the mostesses! Thanks Ryan and Tara for an amazing trip!

My trip to Alaska was, in many ways, exactly what I expected it to be: a week devoted to experiencing nature like I never had before, and to be blown away by the scenery I saw all along the way. But there was more to the week than just mountains and glaciers. The most interesting thing I took away from the trip was how unassuming it all was. There I was, closer to Russia’s east coast than I was to home or any of my other family in the lower 48, in a highly functioning, North American urban setting, and it just felt right – even surrounded by all the natural rugged beauty one associates with Alaska. And it should, because it is very apparent that Alaskans greatly appreciate the many unique qualities the state has to offer, and are willing to battle through the harsh winters and long nights to live in this amazing place. Coming back to experience those 23-hours of darkness has now moved up near the top of my bucket list!

Check out more fantastic pics from Alaska in the Global Gallery.

Alaska Adventures – part 1

In years past I have had ‘guest bloggers’ share an amazing trip they experienced. This was well received, so I’d like to continue that trend and add a post done by my son, Michael – sharing his personal insight and pictures while he explored the magnificent state of Alaska.

My first Alaskan Adventure, by Michael Malecha – July 1-8, 2017

I had hoped my descent into Anchorage, Alaska would yield a progression of stunning mountain views, but with a full cloud cover in effect, there wasn’t much to view from above. It must have been karma, as I was flying out of Canada (I presently live in Regina, Saskatchewan) and into the U.S. on Canada Day, July 1st. Ryan (my cousin) and Tara (Ryan’s finance’ and native Alaskan), my hosts for the week, shared their sympathies upon picking me up and admitted I had missed out on a great vantage point of this amazing state – but there was still hope for the flight out.

Ryan, Tara and Hank – my gracious hosts for my visit to Alaska.

Even so, I was fascinated by what scenery was still available to me. The clouds and mist gave the atmosphere an alluring and mysterious vibe, and that was fitting with the sudden awareness I had just touched down in one of the far corners of the map. However, Ryan and Tara were persistent in their claims that everything I was seeing and feeling would pale in comparison to the experience on a clear day; these claims I did not doubt to be true.

Naturally, as soon as we got back to their house and dropped off my bags, the first order of business was to hike to the top of a “popular” nearby trail, Flat Top Mountain –  which in Anchorage means you see other people while you are hiking. I had requested our itinerary for the week occur almost entirely outside or involve physical activity, and being the adventurous and active couple they are, Ryan and Tara were ready to hit the ground running. Or hiking, or mountain biking, or rock climbing. I was briefly introduced to Hank, their pitbull-bulldog-mix that I had been anxiously waiting far too long to meet, before the whole crew saddled up and made way for the trail.

On our way up to the top of Flat Top Mountain, where we spotted an opening of blue sky.

The view from atop Flat Top Mountain – Anchorage in the backdrop.

Just a few hours into my introduction to Alaska, I had conquered my first mountain, and as fortune would have it, the sun peeked out on the way up! The views I had been waiting for shattered my expectations, and the snow-capped mountains rising right up out of the ocean shore were a spectacular sight. I wasn’t worried about seeing a plethora of wildlife during the week, but we got off to a quick start anyway as we passed by a moose on the way down the mountain! I quickly felt the sense that such encounters would be even more common than I had experienced in other locales dominated by nature.

Snow-capped mountains serve as a backdrop to the ocean, as viewed from our trek up to Flat Top Mountain.

My first Alaskan moose sighting!

My first evening in Alaska was spent in the usual fashion when Ryan, Tara and I get together: hours of laughing, fun and games (drinking, board and otherwise). They say time flies when you are having fun, and although true, I would argue that time REALLY flies when the sun never goes down – a lesson I learned on my first day/night (not sure what to call it when it’s 11pm and you still don’t need the indoor lights on) in Alaska. Even though going into the trip I knew I was in for an inordinate amount of sunlight, that didn’t prepare me for how it felt when night just didn’t quite come.

Looking for an indoor activity as a result of the continued gloomy weather, Ryan and I spent the following afternoon at the Alaska Rock Gym. I can’t nearly keep up with Ryan, who draws oohs and aahs from onlookers on a regular basis. On the universal difficulty ranking system, he is capable of doing V9’s and V10’s or better, while for reference I wasn’t able to complete better than a V2, with a vastly longer reach and body than Ryan has; the increase in difficulty from one level to the next is not slight either. Rock climbing is a great full body workout that tests your physical strength, flexibility and mobility, as well as your mental strength – making it through a climb entails strategic planning beforehand and quick improvisation while on the wall. It is not any wonder it is a sport that Ryan has found a passion for! Planning ahead and critical thinking are regular tasks for Ryan as an engineer. On the way home we took a short drive down to the local mountain water fountain – and had to wait in line for a cool refreshing sip!

Ryan climbing up the rock wall in the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage.

Nothing like a cool refreshing sip from an actual mountain spring.

Waking up to another drizzly day, I spent Monday morning reading while Ryan went to the office to get a little work done. Although I had wanted to be outside and doing activities in the wilderness as much as possible, sitting on the deck with a book was wonderfully relaxing. To the same effect, I also spent some time thinking about exactly where I was on the globe and how remarkable it was to be so far removed from the usual aggregation of the human population – Alaska is the 3rd least populated state in the union. “Getting away” really had meaning here, and came with a slightly more satisfying feeling of detachment from the world one usually seeks while on vacation.

I went to visit Ryan at work in the afternoon, and met a few colleagues of his – including the very generous J.P. who allowed me to borrow his Fat Tire bike so I could ride some mountain trails with Ryan. The ride that followed initially looked like a little more than I had bargained for, but a few minutes in and I was feeling comfortable cruising through the trails at a moderate pace and riding off some small drops with confidence – although I left the actual jumps to Ryan! It was an exhilarating ride through the forest and hills nonetheless, and another great workout.

Riding Fat Tire bikes up the paved paths eventually into the heavily forested dirt trails.

Ryan, gingerly making his way by another big moose before hitting the steep trail full of jumps.

Ryan showing Mike how it’s done on the bumps and jumps of a mountain trail. Ryan used to ride professionally, but he eventually decided it was time for a more subdued career after multiple collar-bone breaks from over-the-handlebars crashes.

On our way back up the mountain toward our vehicle, we came across a Moose on the side of our path, casually grazing. He must have been something of a local celeb as Ryan had seen him around the trail before and others walking by commented the same. He clearly wasn’t bothered by riders and hikers strolling right next to him one after another. It was almost hard to be afraid of the huge animal seeing how docile he was around the traffic, but the rational part of my brain strongly reminded me otherwise. We cautiously strolled by and he paid us no more mind than the trees he was standing in.

People making their way past a moose that stands only feet off the trail.

Tuesday, which was the 4th of July, we spent a bit of time with Tara’s family at her aunt and uncle’s house, which took us about 45 minutes out of the city. We still wanted to get some activity in for the day, so we set out on another hike in that area. Driving into a mountain range toward the starting point of our hike, we were already consumed by the clouds before we began, and couldn’t see further than a lob wedge in any direction. The Gold Cord Lake Trail, which would take us past an abandoned mine site and a lake at the top, was our elected route. Not a long hike, but an enchanting one on this day. The fog resting on the surface of the lake made it feel like an empty and endless abyss; eerily still, yet so peaceful at the same time.

The remains of the abandoned mine site seemed straight out of a thriller movie. It was dead silent too, aside from the few remarks we whispered to each other, almost like we were afraid to disturb the silence. We may have disturbed it more than a little when Hank had eaten enough grass to throw it all back up, and we couldn’t contain our laughter. A few patches of snow still remained, so we decided to toss a couple of 4th of July snowballs (how often does one get to do that?) and make our way back down the trail. We were about 10 minutes from getting towed out of the parking lot on our way out, so thankfully we didn’t lollygag up by the lake or hike any further than we did! Might not have been the most relaxing place to spend the night.

Old abandoned mine on the Gold Cord Lake Trail on a very misty eerie morning.

Who’s up for a little snow ball fight on the 4th of July??

Now, the really odd-seeming part about the day was there was very little emphasis on 4th of July fireworks, which finally made sense when bedtime came for everyone who had work tomorrow and it still was as bright as mid-afternoon – not the most optimal backdrop for fireworks! Our day wasn’t any worse for it though, being away from the desk and with family was our only to-do list item.

Hank making sure you aren’t going anywhere. Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures.

Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures with an added photo gallery!