Summer Road Trip 2019 – West Coast

This last summer my husband and I embarked on a 40-day road trip, packed to the gils in our SUV – angling northeast from Arizona, through Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, Sonoma County and on up the west coast. Making stops in Bandon Dunes, Portland and Seattle before heading across the border into Canada. This second leg of our trip included stops in Whistler, British Columbia and then across the water (Strait of Georgia) to Vancouver Island to spend time in Tofino and Qualicum Beach. Our third leg took us back stateside where we made our way back down through Seattle, east to Coeur d’Alene and into Billings, Montana. Then we began our southernly descent towards home going through Jackson Hole, Colorado Springs and Durango.

Golf, although not the main driving force of this trip, played a major role in how we organized this trip and deciding where we were headed. Our intent was to see as much of our amazing country, and new destinations in Canada, up close and personal, taking major highways only when time was of the essence. We had to pre-book certain parts of the trip, so staying somewhat to a schedule was imperative, but overall the total number days on the road was left to play out however it played out.

A single write-up of this trip would be labeled a novel, so as not lose my readers attention, I will break the trip up into the three different legs so I can share more details of each amazing stop on this bucket-list filled journey.

FIRST LEG – West Coast

Choosing which way to make our way up to NorCal was a challenge coming from the Phoenix Valley. Not many routes across the national forests that line the eastern border of California, from almost the northern tip down to Bakersfield, north of LA. We wanted scenic – so we meandered our way taking in the following amazing destinations on the first part of this leg.

Las Vegas:

Day 1 – Southern Highlands Golf Club was the first stop on our trip to play this beautiful private club. One of only four courses co-designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and Robert Trent Jones, Jr.  RTJ, Sr. passed away during the construction of this course and there is a plaque on the 12th hole commemorating his passing – the last hole he finished. For the first time in our 33-year marriage my husband, a 14-hdcp, played really well and beat my score (I’m a 5-hdcp) – so this is now his favorite course!

Southern Highlands – a lush green oasis in the Las Vegas desert, with amazing views. Every tree was planted during the build process.

Day 2 – Ever wanted to put the pedal to the metal and go as fast as you can – legally? Drive whatever your dream sports car is at Exotics Racing in Las Vegas. A track with multiple turns to test your maneuverability and one long straight away to ‘let it out’ and see how fast you can go! Exhilarating – or so my husband said after driving his dream car – a Porsche. He was amazed at how physically demanding it was driving these cars – for just 7 laps, can’t imagine the exhaustion after driving 500 laps for the pros.

We finished off the day, our 33rd- wedding anniversary, with a fun whimsical dinner at Lakeside restaurant at The Wynn – singing frogs et al!

Exotics Racing – Las Vegas – Porsche 911 GT3 RS – powerful – fast. Bucket list item – check!

The Lakeside restaurant in the lower level of The Wynn sits on a man-made small lake, where you are serenade by singing frogs, bouncing balls and flittering butterflies.

Yosemite National Park:

Day 3 – We hadn’t been to Yosemite in over 30-years, so we were anxious to return. There is no easy direct route into Yosemite National Park. Due to narrow, windy, single lane roads – the last 80 miles took 4 1/2 hours, the last 20 miles took 2 1/2 hours. But with the beauty surrounding this whole area, one hardly notices or cares that you are forced to drive slow and take in the overwhelming aura of this park. El Capitan stands majestic to your left as you approach The Ahwahnee Lodge, Half Dome looms large in the distance, a multitude of massive trees line the roadway, rushing waterfalls thunder in their descent. A magical mystical place.

El Capitan – makes Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent even more impressive when you see this iconic rock structure in person.

Half Dome in Yosemite draws in your with it’s unique shape and just out of reach location.

Day 4 – Up early to drive to a high point in the park to witness the sun rise along El Capitan, bathing the Half Dome in sunlight. Driving out of the park, we stopped to walk through one of the many Giant Sequoia groves that dot the park. Standing at the base of these looming, behemoth trees is mind-blowing.

A high vantage point in Yosemite presents a sunrise show with the sun rising behind El Capitan bathing Half Dome in the morning sun.

Giant Sequoias – aka Redwoods – stand out with their size and robust red color.

Sonoma County:

Visiting Sonoma wine country was another bucket-list item for us. We have been to the Napa Valley multiple times and wanted to see what it’s quieter, smaller sister had to offer. We stayed at the new boutique hotel, MacArthur Place – 5 blocks off the main square in Sonoma. Spacious, well-appointed rooms, a great bar setting, an amazing eating experience at their top-notch restaurant Layla, and friendly attentive service throughout the whole complex warrants a return visit.

MacArthur Place in Sonoma is great new boutique resort that has brought service to a whole new level.

The next two days we were treated to full days of wine tasting and seeing the sights of Sonoma, organized by Val & Mike Marino, of California Wine Tours. Top notch service and wine tour experience!

Day 5 – Wine tours at: Hanzell, Deerfield Ranch and Repris. All had very unique wine caves.

Hanzell, Sonoma – going into it’s seventh decade of making wine, specifically Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, uses a holistic ‘farming’ approach in caring for their vineyards by growing veggies and fruit trees along wine rows, allowing farm animals to mow, dig, and fertilize the cropland. By appt. only.

The rustic stone barn tasting room at Hanzell offers panoramic views of the Sonoma Valley.

Deerfield Ranch, Kenwood – Red Blends are their speciality, with a focus on low amounts of sulfate and histamines, creating a smoother tasting wine while using less tannins, but also reducing additives that many people are sensitive to and can hamper their wine tasting enjoyment. Open to the public.

The wine cave at Deerfield Ranch opens up into an inviting, well lit, living room style setting.

Repris, Sonoma – wines 125-years in the making, is a well-hidden gem – not even known to most locals. The climate of this Moon Mountain Vineyard creates some the highest quality grapes in the region. Their 18,000 sf cave reveals the natural stone walls left behind the big dig to create this natural wine cellar. By appt. only.

No matter how bad the fires got, the wine cave at Repris would safe coat a major portion of their wine supply. Great place for fun wine tastings too!

Day 6 – Wine tours at: A. Rafanelli and MacRostie.

A. Rafanelli, Dry Creek – sits on some of the most pristine property in Sonoma County, focusing on Zinfandels, Cabs and Merlots. Shelly Rafanelli, 4th generation, is the winemaker and her sister, Stacy, runs the financial side of the winery – continuing the Rafanelli legacy of great winemaking. By appt. only.

The Rafanelli family has been on this property for four generations and it shows! Absolutely gorgeous setting!

MacRostie, Healdsburg, is in the Russian River Valley, the go to AVA for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The property sits with an expansive vista that allows you an opportunity to contemplate life of maybe one day opening your own vineyard or winery. Open to public, but reservations highly recommended.

MacRostie Winery – a great place to contemplate life and take in the amazing vistas.

Bandon Dunes:

Day 7 – Back on the road to make our way to our first golf bucket-list destination, Bandon Dunes. The American version of Irish golf links. Upon our arrival at our cottage that sits at the edge of a lily pond, frogs were ‘croaking’ out their mating calls and on cue a momma deer and her two fawns appeared at the base of our balcony. A great start!

A momma deer and her two fawns made an appearance at the base of our deck at Bandon Dunes, right on cue to our arrival.

Day 8 – Up and at em’ early for our first round at the original Bandon Dunes golf course. The cool breezes off the Pacific had our attention quickly with no trees to break the blustery winds.  With 7-holes fully are partially along the ocean, our attention was focused on those stinger shots to keep our balls low and in play on this naturally created course winding through dunes and natural vegetation.

Are we in Ireland? It’s hard to tell the difference – Bandon Dunes does a great job of pulling off a true links golf experience.

Day 9 – Pacific Dunes became our favorite course at the resort. It was more captivating with its layout – challenging, but not in a quirky way. A playable distance, but an emphasis on shot making. With 7 holes fully or partially along the ocean, the 3-club wind had our attention today.

Probably the most photographed hole in Bandon Dunes is the 10th hole at Pacific Dunes.

Day 10 – Old MacDonald only has 4 holes that are directly affected by the ocean, but with some of the world’s largest greens and deepest bunkers there is no shortage of challenges. We were taking full body turns on some of our putts and hitting backwards out of several bunkers.

Our caddies walking off the back of one of the monstrous greens at Old McDonald. I needed a wide angle lens to have been able to capture the whole green.

Only way out – is backwards! Brutally tough and deep bunkers at Old McDonald.

Portland:

Day 11 – Our first trip ever to Portland – lush green rolling hills welcome you as you wind along the Willamette River and it’s tributaries, which make it very challenging to get around. There are no direct routes to cut through rivers and hills, but tour circuitous route allowed us to experience the beautiful Oregon countryside. We were treated to play on an old course – circa 1896, Waverley Country Club, along the banks of the river. A tight, heavily treed course with wrist breaking rough.

The picturesque 16th hole at Waverly Country Club – aptly named the Punch Bowl. Long shots end up in the Willamette River.

Seattle:

Day 12 – Seattle is similar to Portland in having to work your way around waterways and hills. We stayed at The Edgewater where we were upgraded to The Beatles room – where apparently they stayed back in the 1960’s. After walking to get our morning coffee at the original Starbucks, we headed to our second golf bucket-list experience – playing the famed Sahalee Country Club. Even the greatest players have been brought to near tears with fairways tightly lined with thick stoic stands of woods and greens harder to hold than my living room glass coffee table. Some greens were so tough to hold we just picked up our balls and walked to the next tee.

Evening view from our room at The Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, show cases the Seattle highlights with Mount Rainier lurking in the background.

Does anybody have a chainsaw?? As if the greens aren’t hard enough, they have to line the fairways with these monstrous trees, just to test your golf mettle a bit more.

Can you say tight? It’s hard to envision trying to pipe down the tight fairways at Sahalee CC, just outside of Seattle.

Almost a third of the way through our road trip, my husband and I were still talking to each other, we had already experienced enough amazing adventures to fill a life-time, but were energized and excited about the next two legs of our trip to visit new destinations and revisit old favorite destinations.

Check the Global Gallery in the near future to see more pictures from the first leg of our summer 2019 road trip. And stay tuned for ‘leg two’ of Summer Road Trip 2019.

 

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.

Check the Global Gallery for more pics from New Zealand!

 

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!

Enjoy the follow-up post on New Zealand and look for more pics on the 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.

Check out the 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.