Down Under: New Zealand

New Zealand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheer cliffs meet the serene waters of Milford Sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brennan Winery just outside of the Queenstown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please check back for more pictures in the Global Gallery!

 

Down Under: Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Barrier Reef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melbourne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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