Pinehurst – finally!

As I have mentioned in previous posts I am an avid golfer. I grew up in a family where you learned to play golf and ski or you find a new family. I decided I liked my family so I didn’t fight it when parents put me on my first set of skis at age 3 and put golf clubs in my hands at age 6. I skied until about 10 years ago, when I decided I liked my body in one piece and risking the slopes with an aging body was no longer a smart play. Golf, although mentally taxing, is a little kinder on the body and has given me opportunities to see some of the most amazing tracks of land across this great country of ours.

I played my first tournament at age 8, and made golf my focus from that age on. I spent the summers on the golf course, while all my friends were hanging out a block away at the local pool. They were working on their tans and I was trying to hide my golfers tan. But that’s what comes with the territory of being a serious golfer. Living in Minnesota we had a very short golf season, but that didn’t deter our desire to play this crazy game. We spent our winters fixing clubs, hitting into nets and creating our dream courses on large pieces of tag board. Minnesota had one of the strongest junior programs of any state in the country, so we had plenty of tournaments to play in once the snow melted and the courses opened.

Our family of six had a standing tee time every Saturday and Sunday at our local course. My dad never missed a Men’s day and my mom – who got us started in this crazy game – never missed a Ladies day at the club. My Mom grew up in Duluth, and way back in the day, to earn a little summer fun money, she caddied for little known Patty Berg, one of the founding members of the LPGA. If Mom had only known back then what an icon Patty would become she would’ve stayed on her bag a lot longer.

My two next oldest brothers and I spent from sun-up to sun-down working on our games. If we couldn’t play, we took multiple shag bags of balls and headed to the largest fields we could find and pound balls hour after hour. Then head to the putting green and work on our putting, short game, sand game, and trick shots! Hey I took hot dog lessons when I was a young skier – so for golf I had to learn to hit every trick shot my brothers threw at me. They were pretty cool to let their little sis tag along, but they gave me one rule to abide by – ‘keep up’ – because they weren’t waiting around for me. So I learned to hit the biggest ball my 110 pounds of body mass could muster. It wasn’t anywhere near as long as they hit it, but it was enough to ‘keep up’ with them.

My oldest brother was more the team sport guy – baseball, football, basketball. But the stud athlete he was allowed him to play a pretty solid game of golf. My middle two brothers were the golfers of the family. They both had scratch handicaps for most of their high school years. One summer, the older of the two shot the course record of 63 on our home course. The next week, the younger brother topped that feat and beat the newly set course record by one.

Golf was such a huge deal in our family that for our high school graduation my parents gave us a choice between a week of golf at the most renown golf resort in the country, Pinehurst, or help in buying a car. My oldest brother took the car, but the two golfing brothers chose trips to Pinehurst. In the seven years since my oldest brother had graduated from high school, I put my all into the game of golf. My intent from the age of at least 12 was to become a professional golfer. I put the time and effort into achieving this goal, even moving to Arizona in my junior year of high school so I could practice year round. But what quickly became evident was that I was good, but probably not good enough to play at the pro  level. Or if I was good enough it would be a constant struggle of just trying to make cuts. I became burned out on the game and sadly hung up my clubs at age 18 for the next 5 years. No Pinehurst for me.

In the ensuing years I picked up my clubs again, and other than another 5 year break when my kids were born, I put enough effort back into my game to keep my handicap in the middle single digits. My husband took up the game after we got married. He played sparingly over the years with a very busy work schedule, but he was a strong athlete and made strong enough progress that in the last 20 years we have been able to enjoy some of the most amazing golf tracks around today: Pebble Beach, Spyglass, Pasatiempo, Bandon Dunes, Sahalee, Interlachen, The Ocean Course – but the one that kept eluding me was – Pinehurst.

Even though I willingly gave up the game of golf for a time, I never let go of the dream of one day wanting to play Pinehurst. Partly because Pinehurst was part of our families golf legacy, partly because of its place in history in the game of golf as a whole. Earlier this year we were invited by friends who belonged to Pinehurst to come play this iconic golf mecca. It took me all of 3 seconds to accept.

This has been my longest standing bucket list item – golf related or not. After 37 years of bypassing my opportunity to play Pinehurst for my graduation gift from my parents, last week I was finally able to check Pinehurst off my bucket list. We could not have hit better weather – 75 and sunny every day. Pinehurst now touts 9 courses in its’ line-up and was the location of the World Golf Hall of Fame from 1974-1998. Back when my brothers went, there were 5 courses with the 6th just about ready to open. My husband and I only had a few days, so we let our hosts pick the courses they recommended playing – as long as one of them was #2.

Pinehurst #2 is where it all happens. This is the course that has played host to several iconic US Open Championships and a myriad of other major tournaments. Champions list includes: 2014 US Women’s US Open and Men’s US Open played back to back – Michelle Wie & Martin Kaymer; 1999 US Open emotional winner Payne Stewart – there is a statue in his honor at the 18th green; 1951 – Sam Snead captained the winning Ryder Cup team.

The fairways are tightly lined with towering Loblolly Pines, and where their pine needles don’t fall in mats of slippery undercover, there are unending seas of waste areas consisting of the local sandy base with native wire grasses sprouting up like landmines. Not a hilly course, no water, but keeps your attention.

The greens are small, undulating, crowned and fast. We had a tough time keeping the balls on these upside down bowls – they were running at about 11 on the stimpmeter. For US Opens they run about 12.5-13. One of golfs most notorious sayings is ‘Drive for dough, putt for show’ – but at Pinehurst you need to put the ball in the fairway so you can hit your approach shots with the highest lofted club possible to have a chance of hitting a landing area about the size of a dime and keeping the ball on the green. Then work on your breathing – a lightly tapped putt is all you’ll need to have a chance of it dropping. Or take your lag putt and run to the next tee!

We played Pinehurst #6 first – this Tom Fazio designed course was the most benign of the three we played, but it still demanded big drives and aggressive approach shots. A wayward tee shot easily turned into a double bogey just getting back in play. But a good course to prepare for what was to come on #2, which we played on our second day at Pinehurst. We finished our tour playing Pinehurst #9. This Jack Nicklaus design incorporates every discipline available to this imaginative course designer – tons of water; winding, rolling, lush, tight fairways; deep bunkers with wet heavy sand; long narrow undulating greens; towering pines lining the fairways with beds of slippery pine needles.

My Pinehurst mission is replete. I came, I saw and I got conquered – mainly by #2. I would love an opportunity to go back, knowing what I now know of the course, and give it another whack!

I generally intertwine my pics throughout the post, but there was a story that needed to be told, supplanted at the end with a few photos of the adventure that was Pinehurst. More pics available to view in the Global Gallery.

Played #6 in our first round at Pinehurst. Shot a respectable 78 with 3 double bogeys. Should’ve stopped after this round.

The end of October #6 & #9 will play host to the LPGA Q-School Finals. Good luck gals!

The drive into the entrance of #2 just oozes iconic golf course.

One of the famed waste areas on #2. Try and hit out of it to a crowned green with a landing area the size of a dime.

Sure you can hit that fairway. And you better hope that you do, as the green is about the size of a nickel and sloped at a weird angle.

By the 12th hole, our scores were in the stratosphere, so we decided to have some fun and have a head to head – literally – putt off.

Still smiling after the round and enough energy left to do the famed Payne Stewart fist pump!

Uphill, long, dog-leg, tree-lined hole at #9 had us all taking the esteemed Jack Nicklaus name in vein.

But alas, we made it to through with our dignity and love of the game intact. Shooting a 41 with 2 double bogeys on my last 9 at Pinehurst was a bit of salve on the wounds from the previous 27 holes.

Luckily they make a tasty and strong margarita at the Ryder Cup bar at the Pinehurst Resort. All is well that ends well – at the 19th hole.

Hunts Mesa, Monument Valley et al

Hunts Mesa. A destination, an experience, a vista that will live with me the rest of my years. I’ve been coming to Arizona for 40 plus years, and spending time in the National Parks and accessible tribal lands located within a days drive from the Phoenix Valley have been on my bucket list all those years. Recently I finally made the four hour road excursion north to take in the sights of Secret Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Monument Valley where Hunts Mesa rules over the valley below, showcasing many more monuments than what you see at ground level.

Page sits just south of the Arizona/Utah border, near the shores of Lake Powell, and was base camp for the next several days. It is a good central location with so much to see and do within a couple of hours drive in just about every direction. This historic little town sits northeast of the Grand Canyon, with easy access to the Colorado River for some river rafting via Lee’s Ferry.

The view from the hotel in Page looking towards Lee’s Ferry and the Colorado River.

Because of the proximity to Page I was able to experience in 24 hours:

Secret Canyon – one of the areas slot canyons. It has an opening on both ends of the canyon, and you can also climb to the top of the canyon to take in a birds-eye view of the wavy slots from above. Weaving in and out of these wavy sandstone walls gives you an appreciation for the power of water as it swirls in these tight areas and has for centuries, leaving perfectly aligned ribbings along each orange-ish/pink-ish sandstone wall. The flood waters still come fast and hard from far upstream and can catch you unaware as you sit in these canyons with clear blue skies above. This slot canyon may be smaller than the famed Antelope Canyon, but it allows you access to ‘people free’ photos with a secluded 2 /12 tour with 15 people or less. Very intimate experience with a tribal guide who shared stories of his youth growing up in these canyons, and great photo tips.

Secret Canyon slot canyon – a maze of tight wavy curved sandstone walls.

Secret Canyon – no this is not a painting or highly photo-shopped. Handy work courtesy of Mother Nature inside Secret Canyon slot canyon.

Lake Powell, and all of it’s watery arm extensions, is an amazing location to catch the setting sun, lighting up a backdrop of multi-colored rock formations and inky blue pools of water with their rugged shorelines. Photographing the sunset is a popular evening activity with parking lots full of tri-pods and eager shutterbugs trying to capture the perfect natural lighting on the perfect natural setting. One of the countries largest man-made reservoirs, one could spend days discovering the many hidden gems of Lake Powell and is a must return for me.

A high vantage view of Lake Powell as the sun was setting over the marina.

Boat launch into Lake Powell at Wahweap Marina near Page.

Horseshoe Bend trailhead is a 5 mile drive from Page. The 3/4 mile easy hike to the edge of yet another amazing feature created by centuries of water powering it’s way through bedrock to create  this horseshoe shaped bend in the Colorado River. The contrast of multiple blue hues of the water weaving through the multiple shades of orange bedrock is breathtaking. So are the vistas all along this canyon, but with multiple deaths a year in the area from people getting too bold to experience the perfect view of looking over the edge of the rim a railing was recently installed above the bend to give security to the nearly 2 million annual visitors.

Horseshoe Bend photographed with a fish-eye lens showcasing all the amazing colors at sunrise.

The next day, after unfortunately coming across a horrific bus/SUV accident on Highway 89, where 3 people were airlifted to area hospitals, we were forced to change our plans of going to Bryce Canyon and ended up at a very unique little spot about 30 miles west of Page:

The Toad Stools sit at the southern edge of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Park with an easily accessible trailhead right off the highway. These multi-colored formations – from bright white, to a golden cream, to rustic orange – are mind boggling in how large boulders teeter atop a pointy sandstone spire that look ready to crumble. Even though they’ve been this way for centuries how do they not topple over?? I sure don’t want to be under one whenever that does happen! The 1.8 mile hike is easy, and generally not over crowded – plenty of space to spread out and see all the amazing rock formations and wall art created by Mother Nature herself.

Toad Stool – cream colored massive sandstone walls provide a backdrop to orange toad stools.

Finally made it to Bryce Canyon the next day – after a 2 1/2 hour drive northwest of Page along a two-lane windy road:

Bryce Canyon sits at an elevation of almost 9000 feet. I visited on April 5th and arrived to an amazing amount of snow. What a contrast of colors with the intense orange coloration of the rock formations dotted with thick layers of snow. It is meditative to fully absorb the aura of these cathedrals and amphitheaters of orange and cream colored spires and natural arches created by the extreme weather conditions that exist in this location. The canyon was named for a mormon homesteader, Ebenezer Bryce, in 1874. In Bryce Canyon you climb to above views of the spires, whereas in Zion National Park you drive through the low lying bases of similar formations. For this reason, Zion does not get as cold and is about 30 minutes closer to Page, which means larger crowds.

Bryce Canyon – this massive amphitheater of sandstone spires dusted with snow spreads out over miles.

A very cool natural arch, bathed in snow, at the farthest open end of Bryce Canyon.

Saturday, April 6th, 2019 – a day that will live in infamy, at least in my little world. A day I wasn’t sure I was going to live to see the end of, but when I did, I was oh so glad. The 2 1/2 hour drive from Page to Monument Valley mid-morning was non-plus. Enjoyed lunch at the The View Hotel while looking out over the world-renown Monument Valley. At 2:30 my travel companion and I met up with our native Indian guide, Toney Begay who works for Monument Valley Safari Tours. A man we would surrender the safety of our well-being to for the next 18 hours. A man who grew up in the area and has been a guide for over 40-years.

Some of the more prominent monuments basking under the crystal blue skies and blanket of white cotton candy clouds above Monument Valley.

For the next four hours we meandered along a 8-mile ‘road’, often going no more than 5-10mph, up the backside of Hunt’s Mesa, in a four-wheel-drive Suburban. I was happy to be enclosed and securely fastened by my seatbelt. The ‘road’ and I use that term loosely, wove through low desert sand dunes; up rock faces where we felt we were going to tip over backwards; along pathways that were no wider than the vehicle where we felt we were going to tip over sideways; and along drop-offs 100’s of feet on both sides of the road in one area. In these tribunal lands there are no guardrails, no barriers of any kind – one slip of the truck on a slick rock or a loose rock gives way – and it would’ve been all over.

Our roadway up the back side of Hunts Mesa to our vista point overlooking Monument Valley.

A higher vantage of the pathway we were about to embark on – with drop-offs of 100’s of feet on either side of the road.

I have always had a fear of heights, especially severe drop-offs. But I knew if I were going to get the best pictures I had to brave the ‘elements’ and sit up front. My travel partner sat in the back, often with her hands covering her eyes. Our highly experienced guide oozed with confidence, and we had no choice but to trust in him and his years of experience. During high season he makes this drive 5-7 times a week and often twice a day. He was so confident of his abilities he acted like we were out for a Sunday drive on the flatlands of Nebraska.

We took many deep breathes, and embraced the adventure that lay before us. When we arrived at our destination, we quickly understood the expression of awe when we told our slot canyon guide a few days earlier we were going to Hunts Mesa. He told us we were in for a treat of a lifetime and he was spot on!  As heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, lump-in-the-throat the trek to the top was – we felt we earned the views that now laid at our feet.

The heart stopping, mind blowing, gut churning, nerve-wracking trek was all worth it!

The whole of Monument Valley spread out before us like divas all battling for center stage to claim the crown for best in show. Each deep red rock monument has been given their own name by tribal ancestors over many centuries. It is hard to fathom this canvas of unique subjects was created by centuries of wind and water, not a pick and chisel at the hands of man. Their lines are majestic, magical, mind-bending – and nearly perfect, in their own right. I took over 600 pictures in the 18 hours we spent in the presence of such greatness.

On our way back down Hunts Mesa we stopped by our evening viewing point to see it had been overtaken by a heard of wild goats.

With no city lights for many, many miles in any direction the thick blanket of stars we experienced were bright enough to bath Monument Valley in a soft glow. Because we booked this tour on such short notice I did not have the proper equipment and knowledge to properly capture the night sky, but we were lucky enough to come across an amazing professional free-lance photographer who did capture some amazing pics that evening from the same look-out we were stationed at. Check out Ranjan Bhattacharya at rbfotoartcreations on Instagram.

On our way back down Hunts Mesa Toney asked if we were in a hurry. Thankfully we said no and were treated to more amazing sights along these sacred tribal pathways: Anasazi ruins built high up in rock faces; rock formations with a wow-factor to rival the world renown monuments we originally signed up to experience; and a hidden gem, Spider Arch, tucked deep along a dry river bed, through porcupine footprints, massive pincushion cacti – to a natural arch to rival any I have seen in person or in pictures.

There was a bit of a slick sandstone rock face we needed to ascend to take full advantage of the visual before us. Our guide Toney showed us how to navigate the rock face by traversing and to keep our bodies low to the rock. We were slip sliding all over and about to give up when I decided to risk doing a face plant and stood up and ran as fast as I could creating enough momentum to carry me up the rest of the face – only to be rewarded with one of Mother Nature’s most awe-inspiring creations. My travel partner plays the native flute and the site of her playing in this natural amphitheater, with our native American guide lying on his back listening peacefully will be a visual that will stay with me all my days.

A short but challenging rock face we had to climb to fully experience the whole of Spider Arch.

It doesn’t get much better than to be witness to my travel companion playing her native flute for our Native American guide as he relaxes under the Spider Arch.

As we made our way back out on to the main road to head back to our vehicle, all of our anxiety from the drive up Hunts Mesa was erased by the plethora of visuals that now filled our mind, our heart and our soul. Along with a new appreciation for the Native American culture that flourishes in places like Monument Valley. Toney and his tribe are a proud people and I am honored they choose to share these amazing sites – sites I will never take advantage of, and will do all I can do support their culture and their heritage so they will continue to be open to sharing these amazing adventuresome experiences.

Check back soon for more pics in the Global Gallery from Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon and all the other sites we visited.

Ireland for sightseers and music lovers

Ireland is for golfers. But what has changed dramatically in recent years, is its appeal to anybody and everybody. The tour company we used for our ‘golf’ trip to Ireland, by the name of ‘Links Golf-Ireland‘, informed us that 10-15 years ago their tours consisted of about 80-20 percent in favor of golf tours, but in recent years that percentage has totally flip-flopped. The word is out – Ireland has a host of noteworthy places to visit. From a multitude of sea-ports, to the jaw-dropping rugged shorelines, to the lush ’emerald’ green countryside full of shamrocks, leprechauns, and fairy trees.

Shamrocks everywhere in Ireland, even painted on the back of our travel mate’s head!

Wonder what kind of mischief this leprechaun is up to. If we grab him he has to grant us 3 wishes for his freedom!

One of many fairy trees that dot the Irish countryside – reminding us of the importance of Irish folklore.

As mentioned in the previous post, the culture of Ireland is worth a visit to experience. The locals either stay local, or after a stint to check out what the rest of the world is all about, tend to return to their original roots. If you need to learn how to relax and enjoy what just being alive really means, spend some time in Ireland for a front row seat to what the Irish have perfected. I believe I also mildly touched on the importance of ‘music’ to the Irish culture in my previous post. One of the true highlights of our 10-day excursion was listening to our tour guide/shuttle driver, Eamon Hegarty, regale us with Irish tunes in his melodic Irish lilt and soothing voice. We couldn’t get enough and rarely did he repeat himself with the same song – and one song, Seven Drunken Nights, went through the whole week as each stanza started with the day of the week.

It was of great importance that we didn’t tucker ourselves out during the day, so we always had enough left in the tank to make it to a local pub, or three, each night to listen to live Irish music. Music that takes you in, and quite often takes you from a place of grief to a place of joy and happiness by the end of the song. Or take you on a journey of self-deprecating humor that has a place for everyone to connect. I can only imagine many of these songs being born on the bar stools of many a pub, plenty of Guinness to loosen the tongue and lips.

The entrance to the Guinness Brewery – looks like you’re entering Fort Knox.

Look at all those vats of Guinness – they must have known the beer drinking North Americans were coming!

Little known fact – Guinness owns the right to the harp logo. If any other entity, including the state of Ireland wants to use the harp logo they have to use the mirror image of it.

Luckily several of our party had been to Ireland several times, so we wasted no time winging it through our trip.  On our way to have our first pint of Guinness at Gogarty’s Pub and before we took in some great live Irish music off the back entrance off another great pub, Stag’s Head, we took in some of the local history: The General Post OfficeThe Ha’penny Bridge; Illen Bagpipes; Phoenix Park.

The General Post Office, where an uprising was held in 1916 for Irish Independence from the British Empire.

The Ha’penny bridge over the River Liffey.

A random gathering of an Irish musical group outside the back entrance to Stag’s Head Pub in Dublin.

The next morning had us up bright and early and off to Old Head Golf Links – in the rain and thick fog. Afterwards we headed to the idyllic little port town of Kinsale. After checking into Perryville House, and a long hot shower to thaw out from the chilly day on the course, we snuggled up in our jeans and sweaters and walked down to Finns’ Table to enjoy a relaxing 5-star dining experience. Followed by another walk, and a pop into a pub for a little music and what would become a regularity of having a Red Breast Irish Whiskey or some other Irish scotch whiskey for a proper wind down to our long day.

Perryville House, Kinsale. A quaint Inn off the bay in Kinsale – large comfy rooms and a great bar lounge area.

The harbour in Kinsale – a beautiful backdrop to a quaint little town where you can enjoy 5-star dining in your jeans.

The following day after our round at Tralee Golf Club we worked our way towards the more inland base of Killarney – where we spent two nights at the Ross Hotel. One great thing about all the Irish towns – they are all very walkable. After a dinner of Irish Stew and a very intense tutorial on the proper pouring and drinking of Guinness by our gracious host Eamon Hegarty, we set off to do a little late night shopping of soft and cozy Irish wool sweaters and accessories, and jewelry before tracking down more live Irish music and Irish whiskey.

Ross Hotel, Killarney – great location in the town center, next to a beautiful church, walking distance to castles, pubs, shopping…

How to properly pour a Guinness: Step 1 – pour the glass 1/3 full – let sitl; pour second 1/3 – let sit; pour final 1/3 – let sit. Takes about 20 mins.

Amazingly the glass is still cold. Now ‘stroke’ glass to help beer separate from head. If dranken properly the size of the head should remain the same until the beer is gone.

After a day of golf at Waterville Golf Links, the gals took the next day to explore around Killarney, a couple of us hiking up to one of the many castles that dot the Irish countryside, Ross Castle ruins, circa 15th century. Followed by a visit to Inch Beach – a long stretch of beach that is slowly connecting the arms of the Iveragh (Waterville) Peninsula and the Dingle Peninsula, our next destination.

Ross Castle – a 15th century ruin that sits on the edge of Killarney, a 30-minute easy walk from the town center.

Inch Strand – an idyllic stretch of beach. Great for strolling, searching for seashells, and surfing – if you are so inclined.

Dingle. What a great name for a town. It had a vibe and a style that put a perennial smile on our faces. Colorful buildings filled with local artisans working away at their art, from jewelry to leather goods to knitting. We were also treated to a tour of Dingle Crystal, where we met the owner and head craftsman, Sean Daly, and watched him create one of his original cut-glass styles on Waterford Crystal he brings in uncut. One of Sean’s original cut-glass designs is called the ‘beehive’ named after the beehive huts that exist on Slea Head, Dingle Peninsula, where a big part of the recent Star Wars movie was filmed. We had dinner at Sean’s son’s restaurant, called Solas, named after one of Sean’s styles of cut-glass.

Colorful buildings align the streets of dingle, housing multiple artisans and pubs.

The gals huddle around Sean Daly in his workspace where he spins his magic cut-glass freehand designs.

Then the real highlight of the trip was waiting for us at John Benny’s Pub, where the owner’s wife, Eilis Kennedy, one of the world renown Celtic Divas, and of the duo, Lumiere, gave a somewhat impromptu mini-concert with several of her Irish musical friends. We were mesmerized by their vocal talent and instrumental savvy, with several drop-in’s adding to the musical mix.

Eilis Kennedy and her colleagues regale us with their Irish folklore music – both vocal and instrumental.

The next day took us to our most favorite lodging of the whole trip, Moy House. I could just post pictures and need not write another word – but this a ‘writers blog’ so write I shall. At least a caption or two. Moy House is a 200-year-old home that stood in disrepair for most of its life until a family member lovingly and meticulously renovated it about 20-years ago into a magnificent country house with each room as unique as the lay of the land, and a chef that creates a 5-star dining experience for every meal, with produce and proteins grown on site.

Moy House – a country home turned into lodging of 12 rooms, a full stocked self-serve bar, 5-star restaurant, and 50-acres of walkable grounds.

The rear views of Moy House – overlooking Lahinch Bay.

Stone walls fill the Irish countryside. People could only carry the rocks so far and just piled them up in a line that became property lines.

Lahinch Beach parallels the western holes of Lahinch Golf Club. It is a long expansive beach that allows for some pretty big waves to be created and is well known for its surfing. That’s a little out of our comfort zone being from the AZ desert, so we watched the youngins’ give it a go and stuck to strolling the wide swath of sand with the tide being out giving us ample room to spread out and each find our own private beach experience.

Lahinch Beach – lined with massive boulders to protect the town from high tide.

The bright buildings in the town of Lahinch sit as a colorful backdrop to Lahinch Beach – one of the most popular surfing beaches around.

Enroute to our next destination of Galway, we stopped at the ‘must see’ destination of the Cliffs of Moher. Stunning sea cliffs that go on for about 14 kilometers and range from 390 feet at the low-end up to the biggest drop-off at 702 feet – with no railings along any part of the ridge, so visitor be ware!

One of the highest points at the Cliffs of Moher, just outside of Dingle. A sight to be seen!

The pathways run along the edge of the Cliffs of Moher for 14 km, no railings in sight.

We arrived into Galway on a misty day, but ventured out on a beautiful walk along the waterways outlining this quaint city, dotted with a 14th century Gothic Church, a majestic Cathedral, and more history than all of the US combined. We sauntered around the city streets and low and behold found an interesting little pub to imbibe in our nightly Guinness consumption – at the 800-year-old historic King’s Head Pub. But the music wasn’t your regular Irish fodder so we went to the streets and were greeted with an ensemble of young musicians who randomly gathered and gave the people a musical treat streaming from a multitude of traditional Irish instruments.

Galway, sandwiched between two waterways is a great walking city with beauty along every shoreline.

Galway Cathedral stands tall within the town of Galway.

But the interior was the real sight to behold!

We finished our trip with a three-day stay back where we started, at the Brooks Hotel in Dublin. Now that we were comfortable with our surroundings we spread out and took in as much of the city as we could in what little time we had – more pubs, more shopping, more golf. Our second to last day in Ireland provided a few of us with a highlight of one of the most visually satisfying hikes I have ever experienced. The Howth Coastal Walk – about 10 miles north of Dublin, was a moderately challenging hike along the water’s edge, up and down steep embankments, with views of the ocean, a lighthouse, and immersed in a plethora of colorful unique flora and unique rock outcroppings.

Some of the views from our Coastal Walk on Howth Head were absolutely stunning.

The original Baily Lighthouse off of Howth Head was built in 1667, and is now a fully automated but still working lighthouse.

Some of the colorful flora that dotted the Coastal Walk on Howth.

As busy and full our 10 days in Ireland was – exhaustion never fully set in because the full experience was too exhilarating and left us saying good-bye to Ireland with very big smiles on our faces and a definitive intent to return to the Emerald Isle. But I won’t wait 40 years again for that to happen.

Check out more great pictures from the sights of Ireland in the Global Gallery.

 

Ireland for golfers

Yes – Ireland is for golfers. And it has castles galore. But it’s the people and their culture that are the true highlights of the Emerald Isle. Although my husband and I set out with three other couples on a 10-day excursion touted as a ‘golf’ trip – and golf we did – we also absorbed the love of life the Irish have perfected. You certainly don’t go to Ireland for the weather – although we did experience a couple of truly nice weather days with no rain, no mist, no fog and only a light wind. But you definitely need to go for the music, the beer, the music, the smiles, the music, the beautiful architecture, the music, the golf, the music, the lush green countryside, the music. Did I mention the music??

Our days, no matter how long and arduous, always ended up in a local pub listening to local Irish songs regaling us with their entertaining folklore. It was amazing how you could enjoy listening to so many songs you’ve never heard of in a style most are not accustomed to hearing. There was music everywhere – you didn’t need to search it out. Almost every pub, on almost every night had live music. And if it was a nice evening, there were street performers everywhere we turned. They were young, they were old; they were father and son, they were brother and sister; they were the wife of the pub owner; they were a random gathering of musicians.

But more on the Irish culture and people in the next post. As this was intended to be a trip focused on the amazing golf in Ireland, I’ll share our golf experiences in this post and share all the other highlights of Ireland in a follow-up post.

Golf in Ireland. A bucket list dream of mine for the 40+ years I’ve been playing golf. Check that one of the list – but not one and done – I’d head back tomorrow. We arrived on the heels of an abnormal summer drought. The courses were in tough shape, but you don’t expect pristine conditions where they use very little artificial irrigation methods. This is walking with caddies golf, which can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to having somebody looking over your shoulder on every shot. But ‘buggies’ a/k/a golf carts are generally only available for medical reasons. Some courses don’t have any on hand, or are only provided by a handful of members.

Many courses individually name each hole – often to coincide with a story that goes along with that hole. Which adds to the historical element of playing these amazing tracts of land that often have a lot of local influence into their success. The locals love their golf as much as the tourists. All of our caddies had single digit handicaps, so even though you really just want them to carry your clubs and give you the yardage, their local knowledge of where to aim your drives and approach shots, and read the greens, was imperative to navigating these challenging courses. Caddies ranged from a couple of college aged knuckleheads out to make a few bucks for beer, to ‘professional’ caddies who were a wealth of knowledge. Some tended to get a little too deep into your psyche – thinking by the end of the round they knew more about your game than you did. The right caddy can make your golf experience, but the wrong caddy can break your golfing spirit.

We started in Dublin and made our way along the coast of Southern Ireland until we reached Galway and then we shot straight across the country to finish in Dublin. The courses were all links courses – defined as being the ‘link’ between the land and the sea, built among the natural sand dunes and lay of the land, void of trees. Can you say WINDY!! Nothing to stop those coastal breezes as you buffet your way around these courses. We rarely golfed with less than a few layers on top, thermal pants, and kept our rain pants handy as much to cut the wind as to counter any rain. But there was no complaining about the conditions, and we were never ‘chilled to the bone’. We wanted to play in whatever the coast or Ireland could throw at us, and she didn’t hold back! We mixed up our pairings – couples and couples, just guys and just gals, mix of guys and gals.

A map showing all the amazing golf options – in Ireland (aka Southern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.)

1st round – the brainchild of one John O’ConnorOld Head Golf Links, circa 1997, Kinsale. This was to be thee golf photo-op of the trip. Driving in you come up over a rise and apparently below sits the diamond shape of one of the most amazing tracts of a golf course property ever developed. All we saw was fog so thick we did well to see the road or fairway in front of us. But we were there to play golf – and golf we did! Among the rows of thick fragrant hydrangea and wild rose bushes, 400-year-old ruins, an austere lighthouse, and 300-foot cliffs with no barriers to the sea below. We may have missed a great photo opportunity of the peninsula as a whole, but we did get some great on course shots of this very unique golf setting. We’ll be back! Signature Hole: #12 – a 564-yard par 5 – perched along the 300-foot cliffs, from tee to green. You better hope the golf Gods are on your side with this hole or you might as well put down your max.

The view of Old Head as we would’ve experienced it had we arrived on a clear day. The signature 12th hole lies along the right side of the neck heading towards the point that is Old Head. (picture courtesy of Old Head facebook page.)

The 4th hole at Old Head. During our visit, the lighthouse stood shrouded in fog. And the remains of the Lusitania sit in the deep waters off Old Head, where it was sunk in 1915.

Last year during a horrific storm, the storm surge threw 160 golf balls back up onto the 17th green at Old Head.

2nd Round – the Arnold Palmer designed Tralee Golf Club, circa 1896, Killarney. No fog, nor rain, but plenty of wind. Even the inland holes were a solid 2-club wind on what the locals considered a pretty normal day. Built along an expansive beach open to the wild Atlantic Ocean, the salty sea breeze was intoxicating. The vistas are as impressive as the course is challenging, and we all battled the uniqueness of each hole while absorbing the history of the area. Signature Hole: #17 – Ryan’s Daughter – a 361-yard par 4 – where the ocean scenes from the epic movie Ryan’s Daughter were filmed in 1970.

The Arnold Palmer designed Tralee Golf Club has a statue to commemorate him and his legacy in golf.

The beach along Tralee Golf Club where the epic film Ryan’s Daughter was filmed in 1970.

3rd round – modern era designers John Mulcahy, Eddie Hackett, Claude HarmonWaterville Golf Links, circa 1889, Killarney. Rated as the #1 links golf course in Ireland, it was easy to see why. We hit a great weather day, and I finally got to experience the beauty of this layout my brothers and father have raved about from when they played here some 30 years ago. Each hole just feels right – nothing quirky, all magical in their own way. Mark Twain may have said, ‘Golf is a good walk wasted,’ but I think if he had ever played Waterville he would have changed his mind. And I liked it so much I can’t wait to go back. Signature Hole: #12 – The Mass hole – a 200-yard par 3 – a very low spot protected by high dunes was used by Irish Catholics to hold secretive masses during a time when British rulers disallowed the religion. When the course was being built the local Irish would not touch the sacred ground so now the tee boxes sit high atop one dune and the green on a high flat top across the untouched mass grounds.

One of the very few truly flat holes at Waterville, carved along the seaside beach.

The vista showcasing some of the holes on the back 9 at Waterville. A truly beautiful links course.

4th round – Dooks Golf Club, circa 1889, Dingle. Dooks almost closed in the early 1960’s due to lack of funds, but the members rose up bought the land and literally, with shovel in hand, built another 9 holes, creating a championship level course that is today still owned and run by the members. Signature Hole: the members are the highlight of this club – dubbed the ‘friendliest golf club’ in Ireland – and that’s saying a lot – Dooks is the envy of golf clubs everywhere in how they treat their guests while giving them a great golf experience.

Not a true links course, but plenty of gorse and other elements to battle. (Photo courtesy of Dooks Golf Club website.)

5th round – Tom Simpson designed the modern era Ballybunion Golf Club Old Course, circa 1893, Lahinch. Mother Nature was in prime form the day we came visiting and had us looking for extra layers and cement shoes to battle the elements. The course is beyond tough in the best of conditions – today we were truly humbled – ie. hitting a 3-wood to a 125-yard par 3 and coming up short. This course was hardest hit by the drought, but the lack of grass on the fairways did not diminish the experience of a full line-up of 18 challenging holes. Each hole had a unique quality that had us saying wow over and over again. So much so that I need to go back an re-experience this whole round. Signature Hole: #11 – Watsons, because Tom Watson calls this the best golf hole anywhere. Riding the ridge along the ocean, you have to be brave enough to ride the boundary line with your tee shot to have a chance of landing in the fairway. The approach shot is blind, up a narrow neck, that is all carry to the green – the only safe landing area. We earned our Guinness that day!

The 1st hole at Ballybunion Old Course where it is said that whoever puts their drive into the cemetary buys the first round of Guinness.

One of many blind shots at Ballybunion. The walkways are artificially irrigated, but the fairways are left to Mother Nature to tend to.

“I’m flying!” – to take a line from Titanic. And you could have almost taken flight with the gale force winds we experienced off the west coast of Ireland along the 12th hole at Ballybunion.

6th round – the Old Tom Morris and Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed Lahinch Golf Club, circa 1892, Lahinch. Probably in the best condition of any of the courses following the drought, the thick grass covered giant dunes and the ocean breeze made sure Lahinch still stood as a strong test of links golf. The gals took a raincheck on golf today, and after hearing the guys rave about the condition and the layout, I absolutely have to return to Ireland so I can experience Lahinch. Signature Holes: #4 – Klondyke Hill – 475-yd par 5 – a blind approach shot over Klondyke Hill has you waiting for the flagman on the hill to give you the all clear – failing to take enough club to clear the hill will surely result in a bogey or worse; #5 – Dell – 154-yard par 3, the only indication of where to aim your tee shot is a white stone sitting atop another giant dune that blocks your view of the green.

The goat is the Lahinch Golf Course logo/mascot – for good reason. When the weather apps go on the fritz, rely on the reliable on course goats to tell you what’s ahead for the day’s weather. Goats on the hill – all is clear; goats by the clubhouse – nasty weather is near.

Lahinch had the best recovery from the drought of any of the links golf courses we played.

7th round – Portmarnock Golf Club, circa 1894, Dublin. Filling the whole of a flat barren peninsula just north of Dublin, this course has hosted major amateur and professional events over its history as well as some of the games greats dating all the way back to Harry Vardon who held the course record of 69 over what was then at a full course yardage of 5800+ yards. It has been called the fairest test of links golf due all the holes laying out in front of you – no hidden shots. No wonder my husband enjoyed this course the most. Signature Hole: #15 – 204-yard par 3 – this iconic Irish style hole parallels the ocean and a straight shot is needed on this long hole and well bunkered green to have a chance at par.

The 15th hole at Portmarnock. (Photo courtesy of Portmarnock Golf Club website.)

8th and final round: The Island Golf Club, circa 1890, Dublin. Surrounded by water on 3 sides it looked like an island from across the bay and until the 1970’s it was only reachable by boat. Sitting on the north end of Dublin, it is a comfortably challenging links course with a few wow holes. Being so open to the water, the wind had a big influence on our ball flight, but its a fair track and one I’d definitely return to play. Signature Holes: #13 – a 197-yards par 4 – Broadmeadow– a classic short par 4 that’s all carry over a large grassy bowl and along the water; and #14 – a 333-yards part 4 – Old Clubhouse – behind the tee box is where the old clubhouse stood when the course was only reachable by water and boasts the narrowest fairway in all of Ireland with water along the whole right side.

At the Island Club we had a great caddy, and that made the experience all the more enjoyable and necessary with blind shots such as this one.

The 18th hole at The Island Golf Club – a unique private club started by a group called the ‘Syndicate’ and is still run by the members today.

More amazing pictures from the golf courses in an Ireland photo gallery in the Global Gallery.

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.