Thursday, September 28, 2006

28 - September 2006 (yet 24 hours later!)

After five whole weeks Down Under, we felt so heart-fluttering close to being home when we boarded the first plane...and yet so bloody far as the in-flight hours stretched on until we could finally hug our little ones! But every leg of travel went smoothly (from Los Angeles to San Francisco, we were just a seat away from soccer legend Mia Hamm!), and we're beyond happy to be back where we belong.

Grandma, Granddad, Sawyer, and Sadie couldn't have been a more welcome sight at the airport. It was an emotional homecoming--we weren't sure Sadie would ever let go, nor did we want her to--and that moment marked the indisputable, absolute highlight of our entire vacation. Afterward, we all savored a hearty Italian dinner in the City, along with Auntie Kimbo and Uncle Brook (whose faithful following of our blog made catching up effortless!).

Now we're so busy loving on these goofy, wonderful kids of ours that we hope you'll forgive us for wrapping up the blog without fanfare. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary, rejuvenating, and unforgettable holiday, and we are eager to return to Australia and New Zealand--with three young Ikedas in tow next time--to revisit our favorite destinations and discover new ones together. We feel endlessly blessed (and forever indebted to Grandma and Granddad, kidsitters extraordinaire!) to have experienced so much beauty, to have shared time with so many warm and witty people, and to have been reminded of just how much Mike and I truly delight in one another's company.

28 - September 2006

We awoke to another perfect Milford day. The sparse, low-hanging cloud cover was positively mystical as it creeped along and behind various mountains, shadows, and morning-fresh sun rays. After an early breakfast, we donned our beanies once again to go on deck and catch sight of more penguins (are they ever cute as they hop from rock to rock--you can practically hear an accompanying "boing! boing!") and even some seals popping their heads out of the water. Sheer rock walls tower nearly vertical from the sea, and we got up close and personal with a couple of rushing waterfalls. After a breathtaking visit to the Tasman Sea (nearly as calm as the coves today, which we understand is quite rare), we stopped in at the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory for a glimpse of life beneath the tea-green waterline (stained this incredibly rich color by tree tannins) and then cruised back to the pier (what a stunning view of Mitre Peak from there!).

So we'd seen Milford and the Fiordland by road and by up, by air! Mike and I were the only passengers aboard a dual prop plane for a flightseeing trip over the Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks and back to Queenstown. Our pilot pointed out (and kindly rolled the plane toward) all sorts of remote valleys, cascading waterfalls, lush rainforests, alpine lakes, and cloud-piercing summits. We'll never forget it! There is no better way to grasp the immensity and vastness of this area (much of it totally unspoiled and unreachable). Our mouths were agape most of the way, and we said "wow" all too frequently.

Back on earth, we took a leisurely drive out to Glenorchy (not much of a destination--it's got a population of about 200 people and not a whole lot to offer beyond the much-hyped water activities--but the road there is gorgeous!). Mike once again proved his far superior rock-skipping skills at the glassiest-watered beach with the flattest, roundest rocks we've ever found.

In Queenstown, we toured more of the city by foot (Mike was in desperate want of a genuine rugby ball to take home) before settling on a site for our very last New Zealand dinner and sunset. Then it was back to the inn to pack up our over-grown belongings--we leave this magical place tomorrow!

(This was just our starter...and it only got better from there!)

--An orthodontist could make a killing in New Zealand--as we see it, many Kiwis are in need. (Maybe they just aren't as vain as Americans?!)

--Sand flies are relentless on the west coast; our ankles are spotted and itching like mad. Bring repellent! (And for anyone eagerly awaiting a rash update from Mike: we do believe it's improving by the day.)

Favorite sign of the day:

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

27 - September 2006

After a delightful breakfast at our inn (the innkeeper opened the kitchen early just for us, as we had an 8:00 AM pickup, and he went all out for Mike's Eggs Benedict!), we were off on a tour bus to Milford Sound. Our guide Ben has lived in these parts all his life, and he was full of personal and historical anecdotes to bring the area alive for us.

We drove along chunky alpine roads ("our roads are loaded with character, but at least they aren't loaded with vehicles!" Ben commented with pride) past the Remarkable Mountains, stunning blue lakes ("they're 98% pure water and 2% salmon, trout, and eel"), and all varieties of thriving plants and trees (some native and many brought here by gold miners from around the world who wanted to be reminded of their homelands).

We tucked into the peaceful town of Kingston for midmorning "tea" (coffee, actually--which, incidentally, has been absolutely delicious throughout the South Island). Kingstown is the hub of the historic (and still running) Kingston Flyer Steam Train (they happened to be filling it with steam as we arrived), and it's the kind of place, Ben said, "where you can stay a week, read a book, and gather sanity. There are no stress levels here." Afterward, we passed Garston, the most inland town in New Zealand (that's not saying a whole lot in this coastal country!) which, despite a very rich gold mining heritage, has been reduced to little more than stone chimney remains cropping out of otherwise empty fields.

The land changed constantly on the road trip (as it has for all our travels in this remarkable country)--from rivers to plains, rocky hills to forested areas, pastures to rainforest--and we were never want for interesting and unusual sights (such as the unique Belted Galloway cows and calves--a bit like giant Oreo cookies--and the hold-up when dairy cattle were crossing the road, herded by a guy on a motorbike). Soon, we were in Te Anau, the gateway to the Fiordland and, as Ben put it, "a very down-to-earth, easygoing, nearly retarded place." It was here that we tried New Zealand's favorite icon in a cone, Hokey Pokey ice cream (a part-gooey, part-crunchy, toffee-and-vanilla sensation--two thumbs up!).

And then we were in the virtually indescribable, very dramatic Fiordland (it's little wonder "The Lord of the Rings" crew chose to film this area!). "A theater for weather," there is no rainy season here; it can downpour in the middle of summer, and today it was breathtakingly perfect. We passed the last paddocks of farm country before the area became a national park. There, we saw Paradise ducks, crossed 45 South (at which point we were located precisely in the middle of the equator and the South Pole), and drove along cold glacial lakes, rocky white-water rivers (that look aqua in the sunshine), rushing waterfalls ("ah, but these are just a squirt of what you'll see at Milford Sound," Ben promised), and avalanche country (spring happens to be prime time for avalanches, he warned).

We stopped at Monkey Creek, where the water is so pure that if you drink it, it's said to add five years to your life. We drank--and then drank some more (why the heck not?)! Afterward, we drove through Homer Tunnel (it took nine total years of digging through glacial rocks to create the tunnel), which is long, dark, narrow, and probably quite nerve-wracking to navigate, especially during storms. But it brought us to the awe-inspiring Milford Sound and our destination for the night, the Milford Mariner.

We checked into our room (cramped but cozy for one night--and with a splendid, ever-changing view!) and then settled onto the deck to take in the magnificent Sound (it was chilly, but not at all windy or unpleasant). We cruised to the well-protected, totally picturesque Harrison Cove, where we took the crew up on their offer to go kayaking in paradise (Mike's legs somehow got soaked, but he was all a'smile all the same). We even met up with noisy and adorable, rock-hopping Fiordland Crested Penguins!

Back on board and all blissed out by the kayaking, we enjoyed appetizers and drinks followed by soup and a grand buffet dinner and dessert spread. With full bellies, we then headed to an entertaining and informative slide show with a crew naturalist (his presentation of course included more possum bashing: we were urged to "turn possums to 'squash 'ems'" since "the only good possum in New Zealand is a dead possum," and we were told there are an estimated 70 million of the "wretched" animals threatening New Zealand's native birds and trees, whereas there are only 14 million in Australia "where they belong" [nah, no hostility here]). We then retired to our cabin, where it sounds as though we'll be falling asleep to the bar-tab folks taking turns on the piano and singing in the saloon (covering hits from the '80s--there are lots of Aussies here tonight! Hmmm, we may need those ear plugs we found in our bedside tables after all...).

--"Good on ya" is not as sarcastic on this side of the Tasman Sea--Kiwis say it more like a genuine "thanks, that was nice of you" or a sincere "good job!"

--New Zealanders are the highest per capita consumers of ice cream in the world.

--The famed "Milford Track" is a 3-night, 4-day hike in the paradise that is Milford--and while there are no bears, foxes, snakes, goanas, "or anything else ugly" here in New Zealand (where the only native land mammal is the bat), says Ben, there are plenty of risks to hiking the wild and unpredictable country of the Fiordland. He highly recommends taking a guided hike (no, he's not affiliated!), which he says comes with not only the indispensable knowledge of a seasoned and trained guide, but also the best huts, hot showers, evening wine, and chef-prepared meals. I could be persuaded to hike like that!

--Both Aussies and Kiwis serve cheese, fruit, and cracker platters for breakfast and dessert--I love these people.

Favorite sign of the day:

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

26 - September 2006

We left Wanaka early and traveled the twisty, snow-capped Crown Range to the old gold-mining settlement of Arrowtown. Many of the town's original buildings still exist, and the main street retains its historic charm. After breakfast and exploring, we were off to Queenstown, "the adventure capital of the world."

We'd planned to jet boat on the Shotover River, but it's not advised for pregnant women, so we'll have to catch that thrill next time.

Now surely your parents have asked you at one point or another: "If someone told you to go jump off a bridge, would you?" Well, Mike apparently would. And as of today, he has! Yep, this afternoon Mike bungy jumped (they spell it bungy here--and they ought to know, since these guys originated the sport) 43 meters (that's 142 feet) off of Kawarau Bridge, the recognized world's first bungy site. And he's got the certificate, video, photos, and been-there-done-that t-shirt to prove it!

He did great--he didn't look panicked, and he dove like he meant it. (We'd seen a t-shirt yesterday that read, "I'd rather be scared to death than bored to death," and I guess Mike took the message to heart!) The bungy operator was even impressed--he said Mike's was a "powerful dive" and "really well controlled." When my nerves settled, I was really proud of Mike, who is now, according to the official, signed certificate, "more than your Average Joe." But I always knew that.

Bungy jumping isn't advised for pregnant women, either, so I was merely a spectator this time around. While ever-so-slightly jealous of Mike's adrenaline rush and joy, I mostly thank our baby-to-be for letting me off the hook, totally guilt and shame free. (Where's the "Baby-on-board saved me from jumping" t-shirt, anyway?)

A phonecall to the kids (always a highlight of a day!), an $86-fillup of gas (eegads!), a stroll through Queenstown, and a fine meal later, we were at Brown's Boutique Hotel, a friendly little place tucked on a hill and overlooking Lake Wakatipu, where we'll rest our heads for the night.

--In Australia, an "entree" is not an entree as we know it--it's an appetizer (and an entree is called a "main"). In New Zealand, an appetizer is called a "starter," and a "main" is still a "main."

Favorite signs of the day:

(Presumably windy area ahead?!)

(Marking the women's restroom at AJ Hackett Bungy site)

Monday, September 25, 2006

25 - September 2006

As promised, today was a slow day (good thing, too, as I'm feeling yesterday's hike in my thighs!). At the recommendation of a local gal we met last night, we had brunch at Cafe Fe, just up the hill from central Wanaka. The food was great and the view even better (from inside, that is--it was unbelievably and unpleasantly blustery and chilly out today!).

After walking around the lakeside town, we made our way to Wanaka's E-M@il to download our backlogged blog entries. We feel very at home in these little stations by now, and they are all pretty much the same: locals surfing the Web and checking their email (and giggling to themselves every so often as they do); awkward guys taking a very long time to draft a very short email via the hunt-and-peck method (and often muttering or even swearing periodically); not-quite-fully-on-holiday businessmen barking into their cell phones with IT departments about why they can't seem to log into their mail programs (it always ends with an "aha!" moment, but rarely an apology for their just being dense); folks doing online banking (and then, almost on cue, asking how best to erase all traces of having done so); teens playing online games until the moderator says their minutes have run out; and backpack-toting travelers--usually tired-looking couples like us huddling together at one monitor--staying in touch with loved ones, searching new destinations, and booking upcoming hotel stays and tours. The people who run these places are always incredibly laid-back and friendly (and great sources of local info and good humor), and the atmosphere is always kooky and comfy.

Then it was time for Mike's afternoon doctor's appointment. Dr. Allen of Wanaka Medical Centre had the personality of a doorknob, and after an hour-and-a-half in his office (of which about ten minutes was spent with him), we still didn't feel any more confident that we know what Mike's rash is all about (oh, how we miss our trusted Dr. Cooper!). Dr. Allen gave Mike a prescription, but we've decided to hold off on filling it because we just aren't convinced (nor are we convinced that he was convinced) that it's the right diagnosis.

This evening, we headed to Cinema Paradiso to see "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," an English flick we knew nothing about (we wanted to check out what we'd heard was no ordinary theater, and this was playing when we were free). Paradiso has a great menu (fajitas, gourmet salads, hearty soups, wraps, pizzas, lasagne and garlic bread, coffee cake, wine, beer, juices, milkshakes...and of course there's soda, popcorn, and candy for the traditionalists, too). You bring real dishes, utensils, glasses, mugs, and even pitchers of water into the cinema (which feels like town hall) and sit in your choice of old recliners with mish-mashed pillows, cushy armchairs, mended couches, or even a yellow convertible Morris Minor! Halfway through the movie, the film clicks off for intermission, at which point everyone flocks to the cafe to grab still-warm-from-the-oven cookies and homemade ice cream (we had kahlua coffee ice cream--yum!), spiked coffees, or anything else their stomachs desire. It's like watching a show from the comforts of home--only the pantry is far better stocked, and someone cooks to order and even does the dishes! Oh, and the movie (it turned out to be an off-beat, tender comedy about friendship, family, and love) wasn't too shabby, either!

More on how to speak Kiwi:
--"soda/pop" = "fizzy"

--When you order a milkshake Down Under, you get a rich but still milky substance; you need to specify a "thick" shake if you want it ice-creamy like back home.

--Marshmallows are entirely different Down Under (and they're served with mochas, not just cocoa!); they are flatter and more disc-like and come in pink and white, and they are powdery, slightly crispy on the outside (almost as if they are stale), and dense and chewy on the inside. They make American marshmallows seem like foam! (Wait, how do they make Rice Krispy Treats--er, Rice Bubble Treats--here?!)

--We've come across lots of hitchhikers in New Zealand. Most are young and toting a snowboard (but not for long--ski season should end this week or next, we're told).

--Nowhere but New Zealand have we ever seen so many Caucasians with dreadlocks.

Favorite sign of the day:

(This is a very typical Down Under take-away menu.)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

24 - September 2006

When we were falling asleep last night, it started to downpour. But I awoke, for no particular reason, at 2:45 AM to total peace, so I was excited that our plans for the day might be unhindered after all. What I didn't know was that I had caught the literal calm before the storm. Within minutes, the most thrilling and powerful thunder and lightening show of our lives took place! There was hardly even a moment between the cracks of lightening (that lit up our entire room like pure daylight) and the booming (wait, make that BOOMING) thunder. We lost power and everything.

By morning, it was miraculously warm and dry (and the storm was the talk of the village--Fox locals said they hadn't experienced anything like it!). But since there was fog in the township affecting visibility, our 9:00 AM glacier heli-hike was cancelled. We opted instead for the helicopter-free half-day hike to and on Fox Glacier (lucky we chose Fox over nearby Franz Joseph, which was apparently closed for the day due to a collapse after the storm). It was quite a climb through the rainforest to get to the ice (a sweaty, steep, guide-led-only hour and fifteen minutes or so, with precarious areas at which you climb ladders and hold onto chains to avoid slipping off the narrow ledge--and this was marked for people of "moderate" fitness; we can hardly imagine the ones for "good" fitness!), but it was more than worth the effort.

Fox Glacier, one of only three areas in the world where rainforest and glacier intersect, is 300 meters deep and an estimated 16-billion tons of ever-changing ice (the glacier is advancing at three feet per day at this point--approximately ten times the speed of other valley glaciers in the world--and you can hear and see blocks of ice cracking and tumbling as you go along). Our actual ice time (the tour company provides waterproof pants, wool socks, hiking boots, and crampons) was about an hour and a half, and even in that short time we witnessed changes in the ice (fresh waterfalls, melted sections, freshly carved stairs that were no more, etc.).

You are humbled on the massive glacier (to help people get a sense of the size and scope, the tour company brochure superimposes a to-scale Eiffel Tower onto the glacier, and it's totally dwarfed!). I loved the crunch of slush and the crisp sound of our spikes digging into solid ice as we carved our way across this living remnant of the Ice Ages. The glacier is rockier and dirtier than we expected, some of which was due to last night's storm. But it was still magnificent! The bright white powder and the crystal clear blue solid ice were brilliant under the beaming sun. (The weather ended up being more than perfect--"wicked day fer it, eh?!" our guide Jeremy kept marveling--and the afternoon helicopters ran as scheduled; while we were severely disappointed to miss out on that adventure, we've managed to convince ourselves that it's far more noble to get to the ice on [now-blistered] foot than to laze our way there by helicopter.)

In the afternoon, we took the rainforest walk to New Zealand's West Coast icon, Lake Matheson, which perfectly reflects the trees and mountains all around it (including Mount Cook/Aoraki and Mount Tasman, the country's highest peaks). Between the quickly moving mountain clouds, slight breezes on the water, and carefree ducks swimming by, the view changes by the minute (I didn't catch the best one on camera, when all the snow-capped mountains suddenly and briefly peeked out from the clouds, as there were a couple of large-headed people in my way at the time--wah!), and it's positively mesmerizing.

Then we were off on yet another incredibly scenic drive, this time to Wanaka, at the heart of the Southern Lakes. On the way, we stopped to walk to Forest Creek Falls (and saw countless other falls along the road) and passed serene lakes, rushing rivers, and even a couple of wandering cattle. Everything seems untamed and pure here. And we were totally confused and amazed when, at one point, the sun seemed to be setting all around us--only in New Zealand could that spectacular feat be possible!

This evening in Wanaka, we scouted out an internet place where we will finally be able to upload a big batch of recent blog entries as well as a medical center to visit in the morning to get a handle on Mike's itchy, persistent hives. But for now, it's bedtime--tomorrow, we've vowed to take it easy!

--These folks love their eggs, too. Kiwis even put them on pizza (we can't even picture it--and choose not to!). And on a Hawaiian pizza, you get not only ham and pineapple, but, oddly enough, shrimp and banana, too!

--Aussies (and particularly Queenslanders) are extremely and understandably proud of their country, and they don't hesitate to tell you why; Kiwis seem to be in awe themselves of their amazing country, and they tend to let the natural beauty speak for itself.

--We can't imagine a better place in the world to camp than New Zealand. There are uncrowded, easily accessible, stunningly scenic campsites all around. We've noticed that many people choose to hire campervans, too, which seems like a particularly ideal way to see the country as a family (we'll be back--and next time you're coming with us, Kiddos!).

Favorite signs of the day:

(That's "World Bar Secret HQ," and it reads, "shhhh" above the entry door.)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

23 - September 2006

After downing delicious pancakes, we walked across the road to Punakaiki, the limestone formations known as "Pancake Rocks." We managed to see them at high tide (by luck, but I let Mike think I'd planned the day just so), which is ideal for the many blowholes in the area. It was amazing to see them spew--and even more impressive to hear them. They sound like part roar, part exploding bomb!

We hit the road once again and passed through jade country (we visited the Jade Factory in Hokitika, where we could watch a carver in action; they even make jade golf putters!), art galleries, and fields of...wait, what's that? Goats?! But no worries--there were plenty of sheep, too. When we hit civilization (it's all relative--the town was tiny!), we visited a pharmacist (er, that's "chemist" down under), who found Mike some oral antihistamine (they don't sell that kind of Bendryl here) and a topical hive cream (the poor fella is spottier than ever and itching like mad!).

Aside from the frequent roadkill (one Kiwi did say, "if you've noticed our roads are fuzzy, it's because we aim for the possums; each one means a New Zealander has performed his civic duty"), New Zealand highways (called "motorways" here) are really more like country drives, and they couldn't be any more dreamy. The scenery is breathtaking and ever-changing, from lush rainforest to glassy lakes (at Lake Ianthe, we so wish we'd had a kayak on us!) to fog-shrouded mountains to bright blue rivers. We just can't get over the tremendous variety of plants, trees, waterways, and birds (and birdsongs) in this country.

Early this evening, we made our way to today's destination, New Zealand glacier country. We'd heard it would be storming here, but we've encountered little more than mist (we're just crossing fingers it doesn't hit tomorrow!). We're staying in the one-block township of Fox Glacier (tucked into the foothills of the Southern Alps, it's a much cozier and cuter village than the more popular, populated, and spread-out Franz Joseph Glacier), where we had dinner at the pub (the waitress was quite confused when I ordered my burger without the fried egg and bacon) and, after dark, walked over to the fern forest/glow worm grotto at the end of the street. It was magical, as if the stars had come to earth all around us!

(This was taken with a flash, as our camera couldn't capture the "star" effect these little guys actually gave off.)

And for the record, this is Mike's usual evening contribution to the blog:

(Yes, he's nodded off.)

More on how to speak Kiwi:
--Change every soft "e" sound to a soft "i" sound, as in "second" = "sicond," "left" = "lift," "egg" = "igg," and "Pepsi" = "Pipsi"
--"corner market or convenience store" = "dairy"

Today's head-scratcher:
--While they measure distance in kilometers in New Zealand, there are all sorts of names like "Four Mile Road" and "One Mile Bridge."

--There are inexpensive "backpackers" accommodations all over the place here--and most are in far more superb and interesting locations than the more expensive and popular hotels! Bed and Breakfasts are everywhere, too, and they run the gamut here from a bedroom in a modest home to a fancy inn--but it appears there's far more of the former. One day we might consider New Zealand farm stays, which would be a great way to really get to know the locals and the New Zealand lifestyle.

--Both Australians and Kiwis (as do Americans) cut food with the knife in their right hand and the fork upside down in the left--but then they don't transfer back before taking a bite, which means they eat from an upside-down, left-handed fork. It is inarguably more efficient, but we can't help but think it looks crude!

--We love listening to the local news. Today we learned of a doctor who performed two vasectomies that subsequently failed (poor folks!); as punishment, he cannot perform another vasectomy for three years.

-- I believe I read that glow worms are actually maggots (and that they glow when they are hungry)...but they look quite beautiful if you put that out of your mind!

Today's sign of the day:

Friday, September 22, 2006

22 - September 2006

We'd heard a lot about WoW, the World of WearableArt and Classic Car Museum, so that was our last Nelson stop before hitting the road. What a place! WoW is an annual award show that has grown like hotcakes since its inception in 1987. People from all across the world create elaborate costumes--out of everything from metal to paper to plastic to foam to paper clips to fabric--that are totally unique, inventive, and cool. There are funny, whimsical, meaningful, and jaw-drop gorgeous entries in all sorts of categories like illumination, reflective surfaces, bizarre bras (yep, you read that right!), children's wear, oceania, avante garde, and more. And the museum houses some of the best entries very theatrically--it's a fascinating and inspiring multimedia experience. One day we'd love to attend the show itself (which recently moved to Wellington on the North Island). Next door is a very slick car gallery with fully restored models from the early 1900s to today. (This place is the ideal blend for Sadie and Sawyer--sparkly costumes in one gallery and shiny cars in the next!)

Then we hit the road, where we passed glass blowers, potters, and stalls and honor stands selling fruit, juice, vegetables, honey, hen and duck eggs, and even manure! There were also more than a few catteries, vineyards, cattle and deer farms, and golf courses. And, of course, there were plenty of green pastures filled with--you guessed it--sheep. The weather was outstanding with bright sun, rich blue skies, and fluffy white clouds.

We passed through all sorts of sleepy little towns (and modest, cute homes with laundry hanging on the porches just like in Tasmania) and then started climbing densely forested mountains and seeing beautiful rivers, creeks, and gorges. We stopped for the Kawatiri Historic Railway Walk, where we went through a v-e-r-y long, pitch black, dripping wet train tunnel from 1923, hopped rocks along the water, and even found a little cave!

The highway here is a twisty two-lane road with narrow, one-lane bridges after every other bend. And yet there's no alternative, so this main New Zealand thoroughfare is where all the truckers and moving vans and everyone else travels from Point A to Point B!

We caught sight of a swing bridge on the side of the road, and we had to walk across it. It turned out to be the sand-fly infested Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park, where you can walk across the bridge (supposedly the longest swing bridge in New Zealand), take various hikes from there to catch amazing views and learn about the area's gold-mining history and earthquake-filled past, and, if you like (and we did!), ride a "comet line" back (fast and fun!).

From there, the forest started to turn from tightly packed trees to mossy rocks, ferns, palms, and calla lilies, with glimpses of the beautiful Tasman Sea in between. There were caves and waterfalls right along the road, and we could see amazing rock formations as the famed West Coast came into full view. What a stunningly lush place--even the rocks are covered with vegetation as they spout from the sea!

Tonight we're staying at the Punakaiki Rocks Hotel & Villas. We love how unique each accommodation has been on this trip--from drive-up motels to city sky rises to beach bungalows to rainforest hideaways. Our room here has an amazing view of the rainforest on one side and the beach on the other (we caught a lovely sunset from our balcony tonight), and the dining room where we had dinner (and shared a delicious chocolate and orange tiramisu with deep-fried chocolate truffles) was right over the water.

Mike developed hives or some sort of rash on his torso and arms last night--we don't know if it's a reaction to food, drink, laundry detergent, soap, or some sort of bug. There's no pharmacy (or market or anything but a visitor center and internet cafe), so the best the hotel could offer was what we think was a Claritin. Let's hope it works, and he's spot-free tomorrow!

How to speak Kiwi:
--"thanks" = "cheers" (it's used more as a simple thank-you here--as in thanks for handing me your credit card, thanks for signing the slip, etc.-- than as the greeting it was in Australia)
--"you're welcome/no problem" (in reply to "thank you") = "not a problem"

Favorite signs of the day:

Thursday, September 21, 2006

21 - September 2006

We spent the better part of the morning visiting camera repair shops and telephoning our traveler's insurance--our digital SLR bit the dust, and it looks like we'll have to be without it for the remainder of the trip. We're just sick about this, because New Zealand is more picturesque and breathtaking than anywhere we've ever seen! At least we have our trusty little point-and-shoot digital camera (never fear, the blog will go on).

As we made our way to Abel Tasman National Park for the afternoon, we drove past open artist studios, vineyards and wineries, olive groves, fruit orchards, and, of course, fields of sheep.

Say, remember when I said the tender-eyed kiwi were camera-shy? Well, this one ain't!

We also enjoyed the art along the marshland (this was just one of the many entertaining images and words spelled out in rocks...graffiti of sorts!).

We arrived too late to take a water taxi or hire a kayak to fully experience the Abel Tasman, but we covered what little we could on foot before visiting more beaches and countryside on the way back to The Honest Lawyer for a great sunset, room-service dinner, a quick load of laundry, and a good night's sleep.

Favorite signs of the day:

(The Class of 1857 must have longevity in the genes, eh?!)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

20 - September 2006

We hated to check out of The Charlotte Jane (also known as Rangi Ruri--"wide sky shelter" in Maori--and serving as Miss Gibson's Private School for girls from 1891 to 1920, when the school outgrew the property and moved to another site in Christchurch, where it still exists today). The grounds of the boutique hotel are beautiful, and the staff (many of them part of the innkeeper's Japanese-Kiwi family) is warm, friendly, and eager to please.

We also hated to leave Christchurch, so we dawdled out of town. First, we rode the gondola, where you get 360-degree views across Christchurch, the Canterbury Plains, the Southern Alps (breathtaking!), Banks Peninsula, Lyttleton Harbour, and the Pacific Ocean.

Then we visited the 500-acre Hagley Park (the Avon River winds through it) and the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, where spring has definitely sprung.

(Look closely--do you see anything unusual in those flowers?)

As we finally headed toward our next destination, we ran across "Sawyer's Arms Road," which we found rather fitting on the very day that Sawyer had his broken arm put in a cast (the poor little guy broke it on the playground at the end of last week)! (We hope it's not too uncomfortable to have that big cast on, Sawyer, and we think black is a very cool and distinctive color choice! Bet you're a star at school!)

As we passed sheep, sheep, and more sheep, we wondered whether the phrase "counting sheep" originated here. Certainly the task can become a tiresome one in New Zealand! The best part of these photos is what you can't see: the sound of the sheep, and especially the wee lambs, as they chatter incessantly across the otherwise quiet countryside.

Along the beautiful and sometimes rugged east coast, we also sighted seals!

(These were seal cubs, and they played and bickered--and then played and bickered some more--just like Sawyer and Sadie do!)

It was after dark when we arrived in Nelson, but The Honest Lawyer was awaiting us. It's a strange place--a country pub and rustic inn (wagon wheels, rusted farm tools on the walls, exposed beams, brick shower stalls, and all) set in the middle of a bustling, artsy beach town. But it's comfortable and friendly, and our cottage is private and cozy. We're ready for some tucker and a good night's rest!

Favorite signs of the day:

(These free-coffee signs are all over--very considerate country, no?)

(We'd been seeing sheep for the last, oh, 400 kilometers or so...but thanks for the warning all the same!)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

19 - September 2006

We're back in a land of the familiar toilet flush, soft toilet tissue, and paper toilet seat covers! And Burger King is called none other than Burger King here in New Zealand.

After a fabulous breakfast at the inn (the fruit is incredible in New Zealand!), we spent the day walking around the beautiful garden city of Christchurch (New Zealand's first established city), so genteel that it's said to be "more English than the English." (They've even got double-decker buses and red phone booths!) There are stately homes and gorgeous colonial buildings, the beautiful Cathedral Square built around the 1881 Gothic cathedral, quaint cafes (we had a mid-morning treat at the Java Cafe and Coffee House--the best mocha and hot chocolate ever!), great shops (the folks at The CD & DVD Store helped us select some excellent Kiwi music to bring home), and plenty of meandering paths and gardens.

Then we strolled through the Arts Centre, a stunning set of Gothic buildings that originally housed Canterbury College (where physicist Ernest Rutherford first succeeded in splitting the atom--work for which he earned himself the Nobel Prize in 1908) and now home to craft shops, boutiques, galleries, cafes, artist studios, a dance school, theaters, and art cinemas (we'd love to have been there on a weekend when it also becomes a market for artisan crafts, gifts, and foods). As you make your way through the centre, you hear beautiful ballet music wafting from upstairs windows, see children carrying stringed instruments through the courtyard, and smell enticing food all around. It's at once a peaceful and invigorating place.

Tonight was our long-awaited Maori experience at Willowbank (the Maori are an indigenous culture to New Zealand, and they are very hospitable to respectful visitors). The evening began with a powerful (and rather scary!) challenge by the Maori warriors (Mike was chosen to be our visiting tribe's chief, so he was the one who ensured a safe and pleasant evening for all by accepting the warriors' peace offering and performing the traditional hongi greeting of looking eye to eye while pressing foreheads and noses with the other chief). We were then welcomed by firelight onto the pa (village; this one is a reproduction) where, as the evening unfolded, we learned about the Maori culture and language, participated in some poi dance (swinging ball) and haka (fierce dance), and then watched the traditional haka (unbelievably intimidating and exhilarating, it's the dance made world famous by the New Zealand All Black rugby team, who performs it before their opponents) and love songs and dances. The entire experience was moving and unforgettable.

After the show and dance, we enjoyed a buffet meal (I had my first pavlova--rich and rather sickeningly sweet, but I quite liked it and look forward to making a version at home). We then took the nighttime guided tour of New Zealand native and introduced birds, animals, and fish at the wildlife preserve. We saw pigs; skinks; swans, mountain parrots (known as keas--the little rascals who apparently destroy rubber window gaskets on cars in many a New Zealand parking lot!), owls, and many other kinds of birds; brush-tailed possums (they're protected in Tasmania but considered, and I quote, "little fluff balls of evil" here in New Zealand, as they are non-native and have severely destroyed the local trees and environment...hence the many warm and beautiful combination merino wool/possum scarves and sweaters available in New Zealand today!); eels (we got to feel them--slick and soft as jelly--but they have very scary, snappy, snake-like mouths with lots of sharp teeth!); and the country's mascot, the kiwi (the round, fuzzy, flightless birds can't be photographed, as their eyes don't close, and thus camera flashes can render them blind).

Upon our return to the hotel room, we found the tub ready, the fire burning, and a note apologizing once again for last night's arrival snafu and congratulating us on our coming baby (I had turned down several wine offerings and was fearing I was insulting them, so I explained my drinking predicament) along with a bottle of sparkling wine (hey wait, no fair!) and a fruit platter with chocolate and fudge (okay, forgiven!).


--Kiwis (the birds, that is) give birth to eggs that are the equivalent of humans giving birth to 33-pound babies--yow. Check out the proportion of egg to body on this x-ray!

--In New Zealand, Kiwi refers to either people (New Zealanders) or to the protected kiwi bird, but never the kiwifruit.

Monday, September 18, 2006

18 - September 2006

It was our last day in Australia, so we were on a mission for an authentic, great meat pie. We were also in need of additional luggage, as we'd done a wee bit more shopping than we could comfortably accommodate in our compact carry-on pieces. So after quick morning showers (Brisbane is experiencing their worst drought in 100 years), we set off on foot (no easy task--the city is hilly, multi-layered, and not nearly as well signed as Sydney!) to the West End, which we heard is everyone's favorite Brisbane suburb.

It was an interesting place for sure--very bohemian, with coffee houses, curbside musicians, and vegetarian markets on every corner (and quite a few discount luggage shops--score!). We'd gotten on good authority (from a couple of guys we met downtown earlier in the day who were positively astounded that we'd never had a meat pie and quite disturbed that we'd opted for chicken pie elsewhere--"what's a chicken pie?!" they'd asked, incredulous and with crinkled-up noses) that a true and truly fantastic meat pie could be had at the bakery right next to West End's "The Fat Carrot" market. They recommended the plain meat pie as well as the steak and mushroom variety, so we got both along with a sausage roll, which we understand completes the quintessential Australian food ensemble.

We took into account one Aussie's advice ("just don't ask what's in the pies"), and with great enthusiasm and much anticipation, we each tried several hearty bites of every item...and aside from the delightfully flakey crusts, all three were unpalatable (oh, were they bad!). We're thinkin' you really gotta be Australian (or maybe British?).

(Frankly, if we weren't big-time seafood fans, we'd be sorely disappointed by Australian restaurant offerings--other than to-die-for fish and shellfish, it's all fried potatoes, fried eggs, bacon, sausage, and meat; and it's nearly impossible to find a salad with anything but rocket greens and bacon drowning in dressing or a fresh fruit platter with anything but cantaloupe and honeydew melon and maybe, if you're really lucky, a chunk of pineapple or two. We're very much craving our fruits and vegetables. And while there's lots of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Mediterranean, and Italian food, we Californians are in desperate want of a Mexican meal!)

Since the pies hadn't satiated our appetites (we covertly re-wrapped them, casually tossed them into the rubbish bin, and got the heck out of dodge lest we offend the entire nation), we grabbed an afternoon bite at the hotel lounge while waiting for our taxi. This meal definitely hit the spot.

We were sad to leave Australia and particularly Brisbane (we still wanted to hit Chinatown as well as nearby Moreton Bay, Noosa, and Fraser Island). As our cab driver put it, and we had to agree, "Sydney is an easy town to leave; Brisbane is a hard town to leave" (next time, we'd like to check out Melbourne, too). But it was a bittersweet goodbye, as we had our entire New Zealand vacation still ahead, and we were all that much closer to getting home to our Sawyer and Sadie!

Ours was a late-afternoon international flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, and by the time we had cleared customs and retrieved our Toyota Camry rental, it was after midnight local time. We arrived at our bed and breakfast within just a few minutes, but much to our disappointment, there was no answer at any door and no sign of light or life inside! After poking around the dark grounds to no avail, we drove to a nearby Shell station pay phone and called reception. We got an answering machine with an emergency number and called that only to reach a disheartening voicemail system. I left a friendly albeit desperate message, and then we headed back to look around some more. As our hope was waning and our stress compounding, a sweet lady (the innkeeper's mom) came to our rescue. She was warm and welcoming and apologetic as could be (she's Japanese and reminded us so much of Grandma Hanaki!), and she offered wine, coffee, tea, snacks, and anything we could possibly have wanted before showing us to our delightful room, where we fell asleep the moment our heads hit pillow!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

17 - September 2006

We very much like Brisbane ("Brizzie")--even more than Sydney, though I suppose that's a must-see, at least once, for the Opera House and Bridge. Brisbane is a friendly, festive, and tidy city perfect for eating, shopping, and entertainment (you had me at hello!). And it's especially fun to be here on a Sunday, when you can hit the Riverside and Eagle Street Pier markets for all sorts of crafts, food, and souvenirs.

After strolling the many tempting booths, we caught the sleek and speedy CityCat (a catamaran for jetting around the river) to South Bank for more exploring. South Bank is a park, riverside complex, performing arts hub, college town, and shopping district in one! There, we found an even better weekend craft market (try as he might, poor Mike couldn't rein me in). We had a great falafel lunch at a ridiculously crowded falafel and kebab did many fine examples of the Australian White Ibis (they live for food spills, but they're more polite than the Hamilton Island Rainbow Lorikeets--these guys at least wait for you to vacate a table before they move in!).

Then it was off to "Dusty: The Original Pop Diva" at the Queensland Performing Arts Complex's Lyric Theatre (the hotel concierge secured us tickets this morning after we'd read about it in a local rag). It's a musical based on the life of Britain's "white lady of soul," Dusty Springfield, and it features a bunch of hits, such as "Wishin' and Hopin'," "The Look of Love," "I Only Want to Be With You," and "Son of a Preacher Man." It was a really lively and surprisingly moving show with a talented cast. Aussie audiences seem far more subdued than American ones, though--they clap only very politely and briefly, and they don't whistle or cheer or bob their heads or anything! It wasn't that they weren't impressed, either--everyone we talked to was raving at intermission.

After the show, we walked through the city to take in the lit-up city sights.

(Australia is the land of the sun tent--you see them everywhere!)

We found Brisbane's urban kangaroos to be especially friendly.

Back at the hotel, we're hunkering down to pack for tomorrow's flight to New Zealand. Room service is on it's way!

--There's a 24-hour 7-Eleven on nearly every Brisbane block (often they are literally across the street from one another!).

--KitKats come in every flavor imaginable in OZ, including Mint, Cappuccino, Cookie Dough, Honey Comb, Caramel Fudge, Coconut Eclair, and Hazelnut Praline.

--We've had countless Aussies ask us where we've been so far in Australia, and all have laughed that we've seen more than they have! Very few have ventured to Tasmania (they have no idea what they're missing--it was by far our favorite destination to date!), and few have traveled farther north than Port Douglas (which means they missed the Daintree/Cape Tribulation, our second favorite destination!).

Favorite sign of the day:

Saturday, September 16, 2006

16 - September 2006

Sitting in our room this morning, I happened to peek through the edge of a closed curtain to see a kangaroo sunning on the hill beside our bungalow!

While we weren't overly enamored with Hamilton Island--it's a bit overrun with golf-types, the happy hour set, men in Speedos, and tourists (mostly Japanese-speaking, it seems; even signs are in both Japanese and English)--we thoroughly enjoyed our slow-down time there. After all the sightseeing we've done over the last three weeks, these lazy days have been a most welcome respite. And the resort couldn't offer more or be more accommodating (it is a truly ideal family vacation spot, and we would have loved to have the kids with us!), the grounds are really stunning, and the bungalows are great.

We spent the remainder of the morning by the pool and beach soaking up our last Hamilton Island rays (figures, it was all sunshine and blue skies once we were set to leave!). That's when it hit us: we'd become nearly immune to the beauty of the tropical paradise surrounding us. If Hamilton Island had been our first stop in Australia, our jaws would surely still be dropped. I mean, ocean water can't possibly be that turquoise and sand can't be that white, can it?! Suddenly we were terribly jealous of the people just arriving, and we very much dreaded leaving.

Our chipper shuttle driver played "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on our three-minute ride to the airport (all the passengers oohed and ahhed as we passed a beautiful bride loading herself and her "frock" onto a golf buggy), and he had everyone laughing as they whistled and sang along with Bobby McFerrin. There really are "no worries" in the Whitsundays.

We arrived in Brisbane around 3:00 PM, used every last bit of Australian cash we had on hand to take a taxi from the airport to our hotel (the driver was a very kind Russian man who came here for university many years ago, fell for an Aussie girl, and never went home! Like most Queenslanders we've met, he can't understand why we spent any time anywhere else in Australia), and had a look around the major shopping metropolis just blocks from where we're staying. We hit some interesting spots, including a beautiful (and oddly housed) casino and an Internet station for die-hard gamers.

After putting our credit card through some paces, we shared a massive platter of chili potato wedges and char-grilled seafood, including king ocean prawns, coral scallops, reef fish, calamari, and mussels. What a dinner! We followed that with dessert back at the hotel in the form of hot tea and treats from a local chocolatier. Mmmm.

More on how to speak Australian:
--add an "r" to the end of any (and every) word ending in "a," as in "bananar" or "Alisar Ikedar"

Friday, September 15, 2006

15 - September 2006

We breakfasted in our room on kiwi, cereal, and milk. We've found that we love Australian Kellogg's Nutri-Grain cereal. We've also found that Australians have somehow successfully avoided the anti-carb kick (how refreshing!)--we haven't encountered any low-carb bursts on food items, and in fact, many Australian labels actually hype "carbo's" as a great energy source. (And from what we've seen, they are a relatively slim nation.)

After breakfast, we cuddled a koala! He was a lightweight (it was a bit like holding a clingy baby, only with giant claws!), and his fur was a little scratchier than it looks. But what fun! There's a Koala Gallery on the island, and though it's quite small, they have beautiful grounds and more than just koalas--you can also see crocodiles, cassowaries, kangaroos, and lots of striking birds.

(I'm not sure why the koala looks so frantic in Mike's arms!)

(Must be my motherly ways--he seems much more at ease now, no?)

We lunched at yet another poolside restaurant today, and then we headed to the Internet center to upload the last couple of blogs. While we prefer the convenience of Internet access in our rooms (and may indeed use that as our most discriminating factor when choosing accommodations for future vacations), we've very much enjoyed visiting Internet centers throughout Australia. It's a great way to meet locals (and quite amusing to peek in on what they're into online--we've seen some rather funny eBay purchases, and MySpace is hot here, too!).

Then we walked the island some more before it started down-pouring (today was warm but overcast--the sun only peeked through for a few minutes in the late afternoon) and headed back to our bungalow (there was a flock of flying foxes/bats overhead!), armed with a new set of movies, a fresh batch of popcorn, and a few bakery-fresh chicken pies for dinner (good for sure, but not a whole lot better than a frozen pot pie from an American grocery store, I'm sorry to report!). There's a wedding going on somewhere nearby (probably the quaint island chapel; we've seen lots of tuxedo-clad men with boutonnieres heading up the hill), so we hope the rain brings the couple luck and that the sun poked in just as they were exchanging vows.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

14 - September 2006

After we were safely tucked into bed, it stormed most of the night. It was toasty and cozy in our little bungalow as we listened to the sound of the pouring rain on the tin roof. Every time the winds stopped howling, the birds in the trees outside our back windows went crazy. We haven't identified them yet, but they make the most peculiar bird calls! Some sound like women screaming and wailing, some like the recorders kids learn to play in the 4th grade; some create a highly exaggerated cackling (we've definitely heard some kookaburras in the mix), and some whistle, warble, and chirp. The crickets and frogs were plenty chatty, too.

By morning, it was miraculously sunny and warm again, and the earth smelled especially fresh after the overnight cleanse. You can do everything here (go-kart, hang glide, play golf or mini golf, fish, kayak, sail, water ski, jet ski, island hop, snorkel the Reef, go on a helicopter ride, hike, play bingo, take a painting class...), or you can do nothing. We're very much enjoying the "nothing" option.

We were scheduled to cruise to the famous and pristine Whitehaven Beach today, but the waters looked a little too choppy for our liking, so we cancelled our reservation (the moment I told them I was pregnant, they agreed it was really the only decision and that we deserved a full refund!). Instead, we strolled the beach and grounds, picked up fruit, cheese, and chocolate at the general store, read books, watched movies, and breathed in the island air from the lounge chairs on our front porch. We're planning more of the same all evening. Heaven!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

13 - September 2006

We caught our shuttle to the airport at 4:30 in the morning (much too early to be awake and attempting to function, we can assure you!) After sacking out at the airport before boarding, we had the pleasure of riding in a prop plane from Cairns to Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands. The trip was absolutely beautiful, and we spent the entire hour-and-a-half admiring the ever-changing Great Barrier Reef below.

We arrived at about 9:30 AM, much too early to check in to our room, so we toured the marina and resort on foot. (Most people get around on golf buggies here, but we feel the need to work off all the fantastic food we've been eating--my bulging belly can't be all baby. And Mike's, well, he hasn't got a chance of his being baby.)

Hamilton Island is a funny place. It's an entirely private island with several eye-sore hotel and apartment towers, and it clearly caters to folks who have a hunkering for things like sequined "resort wear," big jewels, and life-sized marble and bronze dolphins and sea turtles. It's also clear that happy hour starts uncharacteristically early on Hamilton Island (there's a thatched bar at every palm-tree lined pool--and there's a palm-tree lined pool everywhere you look). It's sort of like being on a giant cruise ship docked in the middle of paradise.

It was windy with a few splats of rain, but there was never enough to get wet, and we were always plenty warm. We shared lunch along the marina with several of the island's wild cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets (not exactly by choice--they're cheeky little critters!).

Our private bungalow looks straight from an Annette Funicello movie. We love it! It's got a great retro feel to it with its lime-green and orange cushions, rattan bar with leather barstools, a framed old Whitsunday Islands map, and a deco canvas angelfish print. The view from the porch window is lovely, too. It's wonderfully relaxing here, and time seems to stand still--so we felt zero guilt about checking in and immediately taking an afternoon doze!

We had an early dinner overlooking the pool and ocean (Mike fell hard for a drink called Mud Baby, with creme de cafe, brown creme de cocoa, liquid chocolate, and fresh cream), and then we befriended Craig, the Aussie behind the counter at the movie rental shop on our way back. Craig came here to work for just three months...and loved the pace and lifestyle of the island so much that he's stayed for twelve years and counting! We were open to recommendation and ready for some quite time back at the bungalow over the coming days, so we ended up renting three of Craig's favorite movies: "Whale Rider" (set in New Zealand, where we're headed early next week), "Mozart and the Whale" (pardon the whale trend) and "Rent." He even popped us some popcorn for the first viewing!

More on how to speak Australian:
--"candy" = "lollies" (Craig confirmed that it's for all candy, not just lollipops!)
--"baby" = "bub"

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

12 - September 2006

At a respectable 8:30 AM this morning, we were off on a tour to the world-heritage-listed rainforests of Daintree and Cape Tribulation. Our guide told us plenty of obscure stories and historical facts along the way, like the one about the Cockatoo Motel we passed, which boasts 100% occupancy rate even in the low season, when all the neighboring motels are lucky to fill 15%. Why, you ask? Because the motel owner was desperate for bookings and decided to promote the place as a nude motel. Or there's the one about how the famed 4-Mile Beach in Port Douglas has coconut trees but no coconuts. Why, you ask? Because the local government cuts them off so they won't fall on anyone's head (there are, in fact, six "denutters" on the Port Douglas city council).

We also learned about Thornton Mountain, which is a mountain of virgin rainforest shrouded in clouds 300 days a year (as it was today). In the late '80s, a plane crashed there. Six weeks after it went down, when skies cleared enough for rescuers to helicopter in and survey the wreckage (there were of course no survivors by then), they found more than they anticipated: they discovered the remains of a World War II Japanese communications post!

The Daintree rainforest is known to be more than 100 million years old, which means it's one of the oldest if not the oldest rainforest in the world. The average rainfall in the Daintree is 160 inches a year. (There are only two seasons in the Wet Tropics of North Queensland: wet and dry.) After picking up big, delicious, and affordable bananas at a roadside stand (they are grown locally--the Brisbane folks on the coach, who have been without bananas this year, went nuts for them!), we had morning tea at the Daintree Discovery Center followed by a guided walk to the Center's Canopy Tower and across the Aerial Walkway, where we got amazing views of the rainforest, the sun streaming through its leaves.

Next stop was a beautiful Cape Tribulation beach, where we met two hefty Lace Monitor Lizards (Goannas)--these are the ones who, if cornered or threatened in any way, will run up a tree...or up the nearest tall person!). Check out the one on the beach--he's solar-powered.

The Daintree is gorgeous, and there's plenty to see and do; we'd have loved to have had more time and a car to explore at our own pace, and we'd definitely consider staying at one of the lodges there one day.

Lunch was at a remote and really pretty site along a river, where the perch in the water eagerly awaited any leftover steak and damper (traditional outback bread). Another Goanna wanted a treat from the BBQ, too--he needed to be chased up a tree with a broom! Dessert was a platter of tropical fruits (none of which are native to Australia--apparently the country has no native fruit that is non-poisonous and actually tastes good!)--all were common and familiar to us but the very sweet and tasty custard apples.

Our next adventure of the day was the Daintree River cruise in search of estuarine crocodiles (salty crocs)! We learned all sorts of crocodile facts, including:
--Crocodiles have four eyelids; the inside set is clear to serve as underwater goggles.
--The longest crocodile ever found in Australia was 26 feet long.
--Baby crocs in the wild have a 90-98% mortality rate (most die before they even reach walking stage).
--The brain of a crocodile is the size of a walnut, and they aren't particularly bright (lucky for us--otherwise, they'd realize they could easily get into a boat or walk into town and eat us!)
--Crocs don't know their own strength, and they hate to be outnumbered or in any way threatened, so they'll always go for the weakest, smallest, and loneliest specimen they can find (never crouch down by a crocodile river!).

We did spot a wild boar and four crocs on the cruise--three babies and the yellow spotted tail of one larger one, though none of them photographed well). A few passengers thought they saw more..."Is it a crocodile or a logadile?" asked the guide each time. Yep, logs look a lot like crocs!

Our last stop was Mossman Gorge, which is stunning and even greener than Cape Tribulation. We walked to the suspension bridge for a great view of the rainforest and water.

On our way back to town, we passed tea plantations (tea is not native here, but it thrives!) and sugar cane fields galore (there's a cane railway for transporting the cane to the sugar mill--but there's no refinery, so they only produce raw sugar here).

We came back to the hotel and are ready to crash after a room service salad and sandwich, but we have to pack first--the airport shuttle will arrive for us at the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the morning!

More on how to speak Australian:
--"jacket" = "jumper"
--"that's great" or "good for you" (but not quite--it's a wee bit flip and really has no American translation, but it's quite fun to say when the moment is just right!) = "good on ya"

--Three Australians a year lose their lives to 9-volt batteries (they test them on their tongues and electrocute themselves).

--Three people die each year from shark attacks worldwide; by comparison, 30 people die each year from coconuts falling on their heads (more, no doubt, if not for the trusty Port Douglas city council).

--Crocodiles claim 1000 human lives a year (they attack with stealth and can lunge out of the water at an impressive 35 km/hr; there are far more croc attacks than that, but most people survive them); by comparison, snakes claim 40,000 human lives a year.

--Australians really (really) like to talk about this morbid kind of stuff.

--The cassowary, a bird that is as tall as a man, is actually Australia's largest land animal. It doesn't fly (good on ya, because apparently one cassowary dropping can weigh up to 14 pounds and is bright blue!).

Favorite signs of the day:

(Apparently this cassowary sign gets modified and replaced and modified and replaced and get the idea. We kinda like it this way.)

Monday, September 11, 2006

11 - September 2006

(It's not yet September 11 in America, but our thoughts are with our home nation as we remember the happenings of five years ago today.)

Port Douglas is closer than any other Australian town to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a giant living organism that is home to thousands of species of fish, coral, mollusks, and sponges. So of course, we had to get up close and personal with it.

We were outside of our hotel by 7:45 AM to catch the tour bus for a day of snorkeling on the reef. We chose Poseidon Outer Reef Cruises from the countless snorkeling tour operators because they go to the very edge of the Outer Barrier Reef (known to be the most spectacular), and every day they select the three best sites (from the forty-five they have access to on the Agincort Ribbon Reefs) for both the snorkelers and the introductory and certified divers on board. They also offer a marine biologist guide and focus on educating passengers about the delicate reef ecosystems and how to protect and enjoy them.

It was a beautiful, still, and warm morning, and our shuttle driver said we could expect the waters to be "flat as a pancake." Turns out Australian pancakes are entirely different from American ones, as there was nothing "flat" about the choppy seas we encountered for the 1-1/2-hour ride out to the very remote sites! Let's just say that many a paper chum bag was tossed overboard (Mike started to look green early on, so he took two doses of the sea sickness medication they sold on board, which thankfully and quickly did the trick; lucky for me, my morning sickness has settled, and I don't tend to get sea sick). The boat deck was completely soaked (we're talking constant torrents, not light sea spray!) while the passengers huddled under cover. (You know that advice about looking to the horizon to keep from getting sea sick? Pointless here--the boat was tossed around so much that the horizon was usually obscured from view by either waves or the vessel itself. I kept thinking that Mom would have just thrown herself to the sharks!).

But once we arrived at each site (quite literally in the middle of nowhere--the coast of Australia was so far away that the boat was really our only point of reference), the snorkeling was amazing. The reef was truly breathtaking in person (albeit not as colorful as we expected--it turns out that the healthiest, most vibrant reef is actually more brown than anything), the fish were plenty and colorful, and the water was as warm as bathwater (we didn't need the $5 wetsuits to stay warm in the ocean at all, but we did appreciate them for adjusting to the air temperature after emerging from that warm water and also for sun protection; several folks who didn't get them were burnt-backed by day's end!).

There were giant trigger fish, sea cucumbers (Mike got to hold one!), potato cod, parrot fish (if you listen carefully, you can hear them munching on the reef!), unicorn sturgeons, giant clams, and lots more unidentified beauties and gorgeous, swaying coral. Though they told us they were all around us, we didn't see any reef sharks (okay by us!) or sea turtles (shucks, we'd have loved that!).

I wasn't up for as much snorkeling as Mike, as the waters were too rough for my liking (it was nothing like the peaceful ocean I remember in Hawaii!), so I only went in twice (I don't recommend using a noodle, either--it makes you too bouyant and less able to get where you want to go). Mike, however, couldn't get enough--at the final site, he was literally the last guy (of 75 passengers) back in the boat and the one with the biggest grin on his face!

The package came with an incredible lunch spread as well as morning and afternoon tea, cookies, and fruit; several "classes" by the marine biologist on the history of the reef and the relationship between the coral and marine life; and guided snorkel tours for anyone interested.

After returning to the hotel all salty and worn out, we spent the early evening lounging by the beautiful tropical pool listening to amazing bird calls from the treetops and stopping in at the poolside bar. Then we showered up and hit their open-air, tiki-torch restaurant for dinner by the waterfall. Our hotel room is nothing to write home about, but the grounds are great!

--It's hard to get a seal on a snorkeling mask with facial hair. Two dedicated snorkelers with very respectable moustaches shaved theirs off before hopping into the water today!

--Queenslanders are relentless teasers of anyone who isn't from Queensland (and most notably the English, New Zealanders, and anyone from Darwin or Adelaide).

--New Zealand, we were told by a Kiwi on board with us, is known for excellent reggae music. We promised to find some when we visit the South Island.

--Australian TV programming gives us a giggle. Tonight we saw these shows advertised: "Two Men in a Tinny" (a reality series following two dorky blokes as they take a small metal boat around various waterways in Australia) and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugg Boot" (a documentary on the rise in worldwide popularity of the fuzzy Australian slipper--there's definite resentment among Aussies that the rest of the world "took" their boot).

--There's an obvious and widespread love for Al Gore here--in large part, it seems, because of his stance on global warming and the environment.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

10 - September 2006

We awoke to sunshine streaming through the bedroom window and the view of boat after boat leaving the marina for a Sunday at sea. After a leisurely hotel morning, we officially began our day with a stroll along the Cairns Esplanade, where they've created an impressive and mighty popular manmade lagoon just a few feet from the ocean (the beach here is a muddy, weedy bog, so I suppose this is the perfect alternative). The "pool," with its own sandy beaches and surrounding lawns, was teeming with suntanned people and splashing kids, and lunchtime BBQs were lit up all around. Not far from there and also along the water was a great, well-tented children's park--with plenty more piping hot BBQs (grilling is quite obviously a favorite Aussie pastime!).

We then made our way through the shopping district, where we got to chatting with a particularly friendly shopkeeper who was shocked to learn that we didn't care for Tim Tams ('course, she doesn't think there's anything remotely special or enjoyable about Oreos, either). Later, on our way out, we asked her for a restaurant recommendation for lunch. "Well, if you don't like Tim Tams," she replied with exaggerated disappointment, "I suppose I'd better point you to McDonald's."

We lunched at a restaurant called 2 Fish on the boardwalk (the shopkeeper did take pity on us clueless Americans and suggest a couple of good places). It was a tough choice between that and a fish market we'd passed with offerings like whole lobsters and an icy bucket of Coronas and shrimp, but the 2 Fish oysters and beer-battered prawns won out (good thing, too--they were fantastic!).

Our next stop was Port Douglas, about an hour's drive away (we caught a shuttle). We passed several sleepy coastal towns (oddly, we've noticed that Australia has big and easily recognizable information centers in even the most remote and least remarkable of towns), sugar cane crops, fields of kangaroo (no kidding, there were like 25 at a time just grazing, hopping, and hanging out--but at 100 km/hr, we couldn't get a photo!), and lots of rocky beaches and muddy coastline (our driver said that last week's rain stirred up the shallow waters, but they should settle into their usual blue very soon).

The town of Port Douglas (known simply as "Port" to the locals) is a totally tropical, completely casual, seemingly timeless town (unless you count the '80's karaoke you hear on nearly every street corner downtown) with palm-tree-lined streets (turns out they are non-native palms) and no traffic lights or parking meters. After checking into our hotel, we had dinner at The Lounge, one of the many (and I do mean many!) cute little candlelit cafes competing for nightly business. We shared a bowl of risotto with red-claw yabbies (turns out yabbies are quite tasty), followed by dessert, which is always a hit with us--and this one was no exception.

--Australians very much like '80's pop music. It's played in restaurants and shops, on boats, in buses, on nearly every radio station we've tuned into--everywhere. Bruce Springsteen, Tears for Fears, Wham, Duran Duran...the Aussie's can't get enough!

--When you order "lemonade" in Australia, you don't get a sweetened squeezed lemon juice--you get a Sprite-like drink made by Schweppes!

Favorite signs of the day:

Saturday, September 09, 2006

9 - September 2006

Bloggers' note: Loyal readers (we know you're out there...), we love your comments, as they remind us of home and everyone we love and miss. Please don't be shy--keep 'em coming!

This morning we returned to Uluru to see more of the Cultural Center (it really is a magnificent and very moving place), pick up a souvenir for myself (a piti, an Aboriginal wooden bowl used by tribal women as a carrying vessel for food, water, and even babies), take the Liru walk, and explore the base of the rock at our leisure. Along the way, our shuttle had to slow down for wild camels crossing the road! We weren't very quick on the camera draw, but there were quite a few.

I'm not sure how many times we can marvel at how clustered Australians are to the coastal regions. The vast emptiness of the interior of the country just astounds us. Our flight to Cairns was 2-1/2 hours long (Mike learned Sudoku from another passenger, and he's hooked!), and it wasn't until the last 20 minutes or fewer that we started to see crops (many of them round), waterways, occasional buildings, and, finally, dense communities between the hilly areas. And then, of course, we hit water and had arrived!

It's clear that we've landed in Tropical North Queensland--this place is amazingly lush. (We were surprised by how fertile the Australian desert was...we laugh now that we thought that stuff was even remotely green!)

Tonight we and our still-sandy red shoes are staying at the Shangri-La Hotel in Cairns (thank you to Sonya's mother-in-law for the superb accommodation recommendation!). For whatever reason (and we're certainly not complaining), we were upgraded to one of their top-of-the-line Horizon Suites on a secluded floor (including private check-in) with it's own lounge (in which we had complimentary cocktails and canapes this evening and where we'll get a free full breakfast in the morning). Our suite features a big balcony (with sliding glass doors that open completely onto it) overlooking the marina and the gorgeous mountains across from it. (It's bustling on the pier just below--this is definitely a party town.) We will hate to leave tomorrow (and we'll probably stay until the noon checkout just because we can!).

--Caesar salads always come with bacon here (the real anchovies I love, but the bacon I could do without for sure). And club sandwiches come standard with cucumbers...and, quite often, a fried egg, too.

--Australians really, really like Pringles. It's the main snack at every hotel mini-bar (the little 3-inch cans cost up to $16 AUD!), the stores stock every imaginable flavor, and we see Australians eating them everywhere we look! (Say, if fries are known as chips here, what are chips?)

--Australians aren't at all familiar with Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, however; at the airport, a group of security ladies got a good giggle over ours. They were fascinated by our package as they passed it around, one by one, with confused looks on their faces. We explained that they are cheesy crackers. They had assumed we were carrying fish food!

--The predominant roofing material we've seen throughout most of Australia is tin.

--Australians carry lots and lots of coins (they seem averse to small bills), and yet they don't have pennies (let's see: there's $2, $1, 50-cent, 20-cent, 10-cent, and 5-cent coins--all quite pretty, I might add). They always charge a tidy sum (they literally round items like weighed produce to a nice, neat figure), but it's rather unwieldy to carry all that clinking money. They don't add sales tax to purchases, and they don't expect tips (we like!).

--At the risk of sounding obsessed with Australian toileting, I have to say that Aussies musn't be tender-bottomed. The toilet paper has been notably crisp and rough at even the classiest of hotels we've visited. Where's the Charmin Ultra?!

--Mike was wearing his (Denver) Broncos shirt at the airport, and a guy came up to congratulate him on a recent game--turns out Mike was mistaken for one of the Brisbane Broncos National Rugby League players! Tonight, we flipped on the television and caught a game (whoa, it's a brutal sport!) and it all became clear: with those beefy legs of his, Mike would fit right in.

Friday, September 08, 2006

8 - September 2006

We had another early-morning wake-up call, this time for a sunrise camel ride (no chance of wind cancellation from these guys--though wouldn't you know it, the air was still as could be!). Mike and I rode 20-year-old Moosha, the biggest and tallest camel of the one-humped bunch. We were lucky enough to get right up front just behind the guide, who was really personable, funny, and knowledgeable--and it was like we had him all to ourselves!

As the full moon was setting, dingoes were howling loudly in the not-too-far distance (we saw their fresh tracks in the sand, too). The ride was so peaceful and beautiful, we couldn't have asked for a more perfect morning. After an hour of riding, we went back to the base camp for cocoa and homemade beer bread fresh from the oven. This outing was a definite highlight to our trip, and we can't stop talking about it!

With brightly beaming faces and slightly sore bums, we then headed to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Center. They have an amazing display on the rich, resourceful, and resilient Anangus, the Aboriginal traditional owners of this land. Much of the exhibit is written (and spoken, via push-button speakers) in the tribal members' own words, and we learned all about Tjukurpa, the basis of the social, religious, legal, and ethical systems of Anangu culture. We also learned of their passion for preserving the land and their way of life in the face of modern changes. It's been a long road, but they've been able to build and maintain a rewarding partnership with the Australian Nature Conservation Agency to manage the park and welcome visitors to their sacred site.

The Anangu urge us, as guests on their land, to respect their law and culture by not climbing Uluru, but people blatantly disregard their wishes. One guide told us of a man just a few months ago who panicked that he might miss his hotel shuttle; he rushed down the rock, slipped, and died three weeks later from the internal injuries he had sustained from the fall. The climb is obviously grueling; injuries and deaths aren't all that uncommon, and they of course upset the Aborigines greatly. In the few minutes we sat and watched the climbers before our tour began, we saw three water bottles go tumbling down, folks repeatedly lose their foothold, several people be forced to stop climbing and start back down on their rumps, and others shouting triumphantly from the top. This desire to conquer and this cultural insensitivity astound, embarrass, and sadden us.

It was time for our small-group, fly-infested (Australian flies are pesky, persistent little buggers!) Mala walk, which was led by an elder Aborigine (in his native tongue with an interpreter). We studied the cave paintings and etchings around Uluru and learned a great deal about the local tribe's sacred sites (not to be photographed), ceremonies, lifestyle, legends, and cultural customs. We sampled Aboriginal plums and figs, and we admired how green and lush the plants were at the base of the rock (there are plenty of plants growing right out of the rock, too!).

By then we were pooped, so we spent the afternoon reading and resting in our hotel room (a bizarre place, The Lost Camel hotel--the rooms are strangely dorm-like, Art Deco, and void of much natural light) before getting take-away dinner and resting some more.

--Camels weigh 600-800 kilos (about 1300-1750 pounds), and yet they leave barely a footprint--they are so very light on their feet that they hardly disturb the sand at all.

--We wish we'd driven between Alice and Uluru; it would have taken about 4-1/2 hours, but we'd have better appreciated the nuances of the changing scenery between the two places and seen much more of the outback lifestyle. And, we'd no doubt have dingo- and camel-crossing signs to share with you! (We'd also be able to get ourselves to and from Uluru and Kata Tjuta without taking a $35-apiece shuttle or joining an even pricier tour!)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

7 - September 2006

This morning we met our tour guide at a scary-early 4:30 AM for a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over the outback--we'd heard it was the best way to take it all in. We set out by bus and were quickly off paved road and onto dirt road; soon we were off road entirely as we bounced around the bush for the perfect set-off point. The pilot told us a bit about what to expect from the experience, and then he went to confirm flight conditions with the other pilot (there were two busloads of eager ballooners). After much waiting, consultation with the local airport, and deliberation, our guides determined that the wind was 7 knots and climbing--too windy and too unpredictable for a safe flight. We were all crushed (though Mike and I weren't completely surprised; a tablemate from last-night's dinner had had her balloon ride cancelled yesterday morning for the same reason, so we were at least prepared for possible disappointment). Another couple on our bus had tried yesterday and today, and they plan to wake before dawn yet once more to try again tomorrow under the three-time's-a-charm adage (known as "three times lucky" in Australia); we wish we could have tried again, too, but we were leaving town.

Our pilot, originally from Norway, did regale us with some information about the history of ballooning as well as true tales of his own ballooning exploits, including getting stranded in the middle of a snowy forest in Germany and successfully ballooning over the Swiss Alps.

The silver lining to the cancellation was that even the return bus ride from the site was incredible--there were no streetlights in the bush, of course, so the only light was from the bus headlights, the moon, and the sun. On one side of the bus, the moon was setting; on the other, the sun was rising. The outback horizon was in perfect silhouette, and skies were a vibrant orange, pink, and blue all around.

Another plus was that we were able to stay warm and catch a little more shut-eye back at the hotel before check-out. And while the hotel breakfast wasn't exactly champagne "brekky" in the bush with our balloon mates as planned, it was still quite delicious.

The flight to Ayers Rock Airport (it's still called that, though the rock itself is now known as Uluru, it's Aboriginal name) was uneventful except for some salt flats that added a wee bit of landscape interest (bummer we never spotted the Australian-American "spy station" we'd heard about at dinner last night)--but it was quite thrilling to see the massive Uluru from the air and land so close to it.

Tonight was our much-anticipated Sounds of Silence dinner. With a busload of tourists from all around the world (it's great fun to listen to all the languages!), we bobbled along on a dirt road until we parked at our remote site. We enjoyed cocktails and canapes on a dune overlooking both Uluru and Kata Tjuta (another rock formation almost more beautiful) as the sun set on one side of us and the full moon rose on the other. The light and views changed by the minute--it was breathtaking all night long.

Then we were escorted to our white-linen dinner lit only by fire- candle-, and moonlight. We were seated at a table with several Australians from Sydney as well as a couple from Los Angeles celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary (the husband, oddly enough, lived in Novato in the '60s!). They all gave us tips for things to see and do as we continue our travels, and all were warm and funny (even funnier as they downed more of the limitless alcohol!).

We dined on crocodile (rather tough and somewhat flavorless), kangaroo (delicious--I hated to like it as much as I did), barramundi (great), and other, less adventurous and more familiar foods, all elegantly prepared and quite good. A didgeridoo player strolled among the tables to entertain us. After dinner, we were treated to a moderated stargazing session with some great celestial tales (the clouds obscured many a star, but it was still really informative and beautiful). Then we enjoyed port, coffee, tea, and an array of desserts as the evening wore down. It truly was a magical night.

More on how to speak Australian:
--"cry/start to cry" = "pop a tear"
--"throw a tantrum/fit" = "throw a tanty"
--"feeling hungry/craving a snack" = "feeling peckish"
--"ride a plane" = "take a ride on the big bird"
--"Rice Krispies" = "Rice Bubbles" (Don't worry: they still snap, crackle, and pop!)

--Down Under (under the equator, that is) there is no north star--nor is there any poll star for reference (they have to draw vectors from the Southern Cross to determine due south).

--Bananas are in high demand after Hurricane Larry all but wiped out the crop in March; check out these prices!

(We also saw a hand-written sign in a Launceston shop window that read "no bananas kept on the premises overnight." So savor those affordable and fresh bananas, folks!)

--Smoking seems to be more prevalent in Australia than in America--and it ain't the tourists who are lighting up! We're told they are cracking down, though, and that most hotels will be entirely non-smoking soon.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

6 - September 2006

"It's not even possible to say quite where the outback is. To Australians, anything vaguely rural is 'the bush.' At some indeterminate point, 'the bush' becomes 'the outback.' Push on for another two thousand miles or so and eventually you come to bush again, and then a city, and then the sea. And that's Australia."--Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

On the 3+-hour flight from Sydney to Alice Springs, we watched the ground beneath us turn from densely populated harbor city to sparse bushland to nothing but parallel ripples of deep red sand (it's little wonder they call this the Red Centre). We spotted some cooler-looking, darker areas--water, we wondered?--but soon realized those were just perfect replicas of the cloud formations above. We had definitely arrived in the outback, and we were mighty glad we hadn't driven there; monotony would have overcome us for sure (though I do dream of one day taking the Ghan Train from Adelaide to Alice or vice versa).

Alice Springs, our destination for the night, is an overwhelmingly flat and dusty place with little more than dingy shrubs to break up the landscape. We strolled around the rather desolate town--mostly security-barred strip malls, low-end hotels with tour and airport shuttles idling out front, and a few familiar chains like K-Mart, Woolworths, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald's (there appeared to be no McCafe at this one)--and visited some Aboriginal art galleries and shops at "the mall." Local Aborigines wandered with us, some selling their detailed and colorful dot paintings to tourists, some loitering quietly and seemingly aimlessly, and several shouting to one another in their native tongue. They rarely made eye contact and didn't seem particularly comfortable around tourists. There was a huge and very modern-looking hospital; we heard there's a great, hands-on reptile center, and we were intrigued by the rather large library, but our time was limited and booked.

Tonight we held tickets to the Red Centre Dreaming Dinner and Show, which delivered an evening of Aboriginal song, dance, and culture as well as a three-course meal. Under a nearly full moon and at the base of a mountain considered sacred to the local Aborigines, we started the night with champagne and orange juice. Black-footed rock wallabies hopped around and nibbled food behind the ceremonial platform (we figure they feed them before shows to satiate tourists' appetite for local wildlife). The show began with a demonstration of various Aboriginal tools and weapons such as the boomerang, spears, and a hatchet; an explanation of the stories behind dot paintings; and a great deal of talk about witchetty grubs, honey ants, and kangaroo meat (all foods gathered and hunted by local Aborigines).

We enjoyed soup (pumpkin capsicum soup must be in season, as it's offered on nearly every menu we've seen in Australia!), bread, and a full buffet dinner before sitting back to take in the rhythmic, earthy drone of the didgeridoo (those players perform the extraordinary feat of circular breathing--the music never pauses!--and women don't play or even touch the didgeridoo in Aboriginal culture) along with tapping and chanting. An Aboriginal tribe (unexpectedly based in northern coastal Australia--the local tribe gives permission for them to be here) performed for us, and they told beautiful and engaging stories as they danced by the fire. The evening came to a close with tea and dessert.

(Yes, that's a white guy you see--but he was welcomed into the tribe as a child and is every bit a part of them.)

It was a memorable, spiritual evening, and it was the perfect welcome to the outback and an ideal introduction to the Aboriginal way of life.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

5 - September 2006

We had a lazy morning and a late start, but we still managed to soak a lot of Sydney into our day. As usual, we set out on foot. This is a great walking city--the signage is clear, the streets are easy to navigate, and there are lots of convenient foot paths for avoiding busy thoroughfares. It's next to impossible to get lost in Sydney! It's also apparently a great motorcycle city--from the looks of the bike-lined streets in the high-rise areas, that's the way many corporate folks travel!

Our first destination was the lively Darling Harbour. That's where we ran into Carol and Judy, two dressed-to-the-hilt, beaded and bedazzled, smokey ladies who looked to be straight off the plane from Vegas. Turns out they're Australians visiting Sydney from The Gold Coast, and they took an apparent liking to us. We now have Carol's calling card (a color-printed photo of her waving to the camera under three clip-art spotlights with nothing but her name and phone numbers) so we can ring them when we arrive in Brisbane later on our holiday; they want us to day-trip it to the Gold Coast so they can drive us around, take us to their yacht club, and show us all the best sights. What a hoot!

We then ventured to Chinatown, where we lunched outdoors on an eatery-heavy alleyway and finished the meal off with treats from the traditional Chinese bakery next door. There looks to be a thriving Chinese population in Sydney.

(That's quite a hula-hooping getup!)

Then we stepped into the tranquil Chinese Garden of Friendship at the southern end of Darling Harbour. A joint project between the Guangdong province in China and New South Wales, the traditional garden is an absolute oasis amidst the bustling city. We meandered around ornate pavilions, graceful bridges, glassy carp ponds, rushing waterfalls, and dramatic rock forms chosen for their likeness to animals (Sawyer and Sadie, check out the rocks below--what do they look like to you?)--each deliberately located, meaningful, and beautiful.

After enjoying tea at the garden teahouse, we continued to explore Darling Harbour. Sawyer, the tugboat made us think of your book, "I'm Mighty!"

We packed up a yummy takeaway sushi dinner from "Sushi Go-Round" for back at the hotel, and we discovered our new favorite drinks: Nudies! If only they had these in America--billed as "a day's fruit in every bottle," they're sugar-, additive-, and preservative-free, and they contain nothing but super-tasty combinations of pressed, crushed, mashed, and squeezed fruits.

It's early to bed and early to rise tomorrow--we leave in the morning for the outback!

Monday, September 04, 2006

4 - September 2006

We stepped out of the hotel this morning into the warmth of Sydney sunshine. Our first stop was the waterfront (an easy walk) for morning views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (we briefly debated doing the celebrated and dramatic Bridge Climb despite our fears of heights--but they told us it's not appropriate for pregnant women, so we were soon off the hook). It's very cool to be able to touch world icons.

Then we strolled through the shops and galleries in Sydney's heritage quarter known as the Rocks before finding a great little hidden courtyard cafe for brunch (my scone was nothing like the ones we get at was more like a cornmeal muffin). The oldest area of Sydney and considered the birthplace of modern-day Australia, the Rocks is a restored 19th-century village with stately historical buildings and cobbled lanes and stairs built along a hillside with prominent outcrops of sandstone. (They offer a night-time ghost tour here, too--apparently there's a dark history at the Rocks of disease, disaster, violence, and murder--shall I spook Mike again?!)

After that, we hit the Circular Quay (the ferry landing and a bustling tourist area much like San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf with all sorts of world eateries, souvenirs for sale, and street artists) to catch a ferry to Manly, which is, as the wharf sign reads, "Seven miles from Sydney, a thousand miles from care..." Yep, it's that laid-back in Manly. And it's young and bikini-clad, too--we suspect it's where Aussie students come for spring break.

Oh, and pedestrians definitely have the right of way here in Sydney--even the cabs stop well before the line. Whew! And check out how tourist-friendly they are, lest we silly foreigners look the wrong way when stepping off a curb:

At a local's recommendation, we lunched on "yum cha"--that's what Australian's call dim sum--at the Manly Phoenix Chinese Restaurant on the wharf. Delicious! Then we shopped our way to Manly Beach (groceries are way pricey even at supermarkets like Coles) and had some ice cream for dessert.

We took the Jet Cat (fast boat vs. traditional ferry) back to Sydney Harbour in time to catch the area by sunset. We explored some more of Syndey by dark and found ourselves some "takeaway" (it's not take-out here) pizza and garlic bread for a relaxing evening at the hotel (where the bellman greeted us by name after meeting us just once late last night--these folks are impressive!).

When we flipped on the TV back in our room (aside from the news, morning shows, and commercials, it's almost entirely American programming), we learned of the shocking and tragic loss of the charismatic Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who played such an important role in the way that people around the world view Australia and Australian wildlife. No matter how they felt about his ways, Australians (along with the rest of the world) are definitely in mourning.

Today's sign of the day:

(Beware of body-less legs crossing in the night...)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

3 - September 2006

This morning we walked along the Tamar River waterfront and found a nice cafe for breakfast. Today is Father's Day in Australia, and I assure you Mike milked it (and felt a little sorry for himself, understandably, because he wasn't with his favorite kiddos!). He did get to talk to Sawyer and Uncle Brook; Auntie Kimbo and Sadie had crashed after a fun day at the Bay Area Discovery Museum.

After checking out of our hotel, we visited the beautiful Cataract Gorge, where we shared a chairlift and then toured the peaceful grounds by foot.

We then stopped into the City Centre of Launceston for a little window shopping (rather tacky goods, shucks) and had lunch at a pub (did we mention that Australians add fried eggs to their hamburgers and sandwiches? We've seen it on many menus and many patrons' plates. Again, why aren't these people fatter?!). Sadly, it was time to catch our flight to Sydney. We hated to leave Tasmania (and vowed to come back one day with the kids!), though the Launceston Airport was perfect for our departure--we got to savor our last views of Tassie's mountains and countless fields of sheep the whole way up!

We shared the flight with an older gentleman from New Zealand who proved what we've heard about the rivalry between Kiwis and Aussies. He had been on holiday in Tasmania for two weeks, and he was none too impressed--said the trip was long enough to know he need never go back. He told us that New Zealand is very much like Tassie, "only green, lush, and beautiful instead of all that dry land and those gum trees!" He also warned us that, "Australians are hard and brash, where New Zealanders are soft and mellow. An Australian will tell you you're an idiot; A New Zealander will say 'that's not at all nice!'"

We're splashing out in Sydney and staying at the Observatory Hotel. The room is incredibly elegant, spacious, and comfortable with down furniture, pillows, and blankets; fluffy bath sheets kept cozy on a warming rack; and a marble bathroom bigger than most bedrooms. We could get used to this. (The bellman, I might add, was mighty impressed by how lightly we managed to pack for a 5-week trip--one carry-on-sized rolling case each plus one backpack and two handbags--but he doesn't know that we'll need to buy another suitcase if we want to bring home so much as a newspaper!) And check out these giant strawberries that awaited us in the room!

Have I mentioned that the baby has been kicking since we left Los Angeles? Mike was even able to feel it with his hand on my belly a couple of days ago. My morning sickness hasn't exactly eased up, but it's at its worse on car and plane rides, neither of which we'll be doing in the next couple of days.

More on how to speak Australian:
--"bottle" (as in beer) = "stubbie"
--"you're welcome" (in reply to "thank you") = "that's okay" (said quite drab--it makes you feel as if you've really put them out somehow!)
--"swimsuit" = "swimming costume"

And quite possibly the most overused word by Australians:

Saturday, September 02, 2006

2 - September 2006

We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere when we woke up this morning. The wild bird calls were unlike anything we've heard before, and the view of the treetops from our balcony was incredible (we had a very friendly black currawong on the railing for most of the morning).

Thank you for the anniversary cards, Sawyer and Sadie (er, SNI and SKI)--they made our day super! (We've been married 11 years today!)

It has become clear to us that Aussies love their morning bacon. Nearly a quarter inch thick, about three inches wide, and close to a foot long, the curly, fatty, soggy Australian bacon bears no resemblance to the crispy, flakey American treat we love so much. And they give you, no joke, about a pound a serving! (Trust me, it's hard to hide under a piece of toast to be polite.) They also like to eat strange things like spaghetti on toast and baked beans on toast--yep, for breakfast. Luckily, they serve good fruit (I enjoyed my first passion fruit), yogurt (albeit the heavy-cream variety) and cereals (but skim milk is hard to come by--why aren't these people fatter?).

After breakfast, we took the Fernglade Walk on the lodge property. It wound through gullies of ferns and forest trees and around a lovely creek that is home to the occasional lost trout and lots of platypuses (platypi? Anyway, we didn't see any). We did run into a couple of wallabies and heard many frogs and birds.

We then made our way to Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. We saw our first wild kangaroo on the side of the road along the way (unfortunately he was camera shy) and a wombat (my, are they ever plump!), and then, at the visitor center, we parked right alongside a couple of confident wallabies (one with a brand new, pink baby in her pouch).

(That's a foot peeking out along with the baby's head--flexible little fella!)

At the visitor center, we met up with the very friendly Ken and Helen, a couple from Sydney (Australians are quite chatty, we've found), and they gave us all sorts must-sees and must-dos for when we hit the mainland. They have traveled to Tassie multiple times, and they said that even on the high season, it's not at all crowded here. The world is clearly missing out on this place!

It was icy cold at Dove Lake (the signs say it can rain and even snow there any given month of the year), but what a view of the aptly named Cradle Mountain!

We're now in Launceston, the northern capital city of Tasmania, which feels like a "real" city--traffic noise, Chinese restaurants, neon lights, and all. We're staying at The Old Bakery Inn, and we're dining in tonight on cheese and crackers (we found another cheese factory today called Ashgrove Tasmanian Farm Cheese--this one offered tasty and unique wasabi cheese and lavendar cheese), apples, and chocolate truffles from Hobart (lest the airline confiscate them tomorrow!).

--Wombats poop cubes.

--Pedestrians do not have the right of way here. Even the locals look like they're running for their lives when they cross a busy street.

--While many towns have easily accessible public toilets and information centers, Tasmanian highways (almost all of which are two-laned, often curvy, and nearly void of traffic) don't have rest stops or emergency call boxes. We're without a cell phone Down Under, so we're grateful that our car (a cute and comfy Nissan X-Trail) has been reliable!

--Many hotels here have a socket in the wall to insert your key when you enter the room; that serves as the master switch for all the lights. Nifty energy conservation!

Today's sign of the day:

Friday, September 01, 2006

1 - September 2006

After another great buffet breakfast at Freycinet Lodge, we hit the road toward our next destination: Cradle Mountain. We opted for the longer, more scenic route up the coast, and Mike perfected his other-side-of-the-road driving skills. Everyone drives quite fast here (typical highway speeds are 100 km/hr, and the fastest posted limit we've seen is 110, which converts to 68+ miles/hr; but people drive that and faster on even the narrowest, windiest roads), and I guess it's catchy--Mike's now passing slower drivers up with ease!

The views from the car were gorgeous. We wound our way through many lazy coastal towns (some reminded us of Pacifica, CA) and mining and logging towns, and we passed countless fields of sheep as far as the eye could see (we'd like to know the sheep-to-people ratio in Tassie), just about as many cows, and quite a few miniature horses. 'Tis the season for babies, too: we spotted many adorable lambs and calves.

We drove through some whipping wind storms, and the whitecaps and mist along the bright blue South Pacific couldn't have been prettier (especially from the warmth of the car). Everything became much more green and lush as we headed north, too. The trees got taller and fuller and more varied, and there were giant ferns and mounds of bright yellow, ruffled daffodils.

They don't exploit the natural beauty here on Tasmania (license plates, or "registers," read, "Tasmania--your natural state"). You don't find giant hotels at every spectacular view ('course it wouldn't be possible, as the views are spectacular everywhere you look!), and the homes are extremely modest and plain. Even the cars are purely practical. We haven't seen a big or fancy home or expensive car since Hobart.

We've also noted that there seems to be virtually no law enforcement presence here--while we've seen a police station or two on the island, we haven't run into a single policeman, patrol car, or security officer yet!

As we headed inland, we hit the Pyengana Cheese Factory for a cheddar tasting (yum!) and picked up some goodies for the road. Then we lucked onto a most memorable stop along the side of the road: a brief walk called the Weldborough Pass Rainforest Walk--what a treat to meander through those ancient myrtles and massive ferns!

After that, we proved our intense dedication to you, dear blog readers. It had been several days since you'd heard from us (thanks to poor and/or nonexistent Internet connections), and we hated for you to worry. So when we spotted the Online Access Centre at the Scottsdale library (with all of about 5 racks of books--we're talking a tiny place!), we just had to pop in with our trusty iPod (onto which we'd uploaded our blog entries and photos in advance--are we good or what?!). We sat there for 2-1/2 hours of uploading for you, folks (man, are photos slow)! They charged us all of $6, and we finished just in time for the place to turn into after-school entertainment for the local boys who obviously come daily to play a networked, first-person shooter game.

Our resting spot for the night was a remote and super-cool wildlife retreat called Lemonthyme Lodge in Moina, just outside Cradle Mountain. To get there, you head down an 8-km gravel road that seems to go on forever, especially in the dark when the animals are most active. Our tree-top cabin has a cozy fireplace and even warmers under the tiles in the bathroom.

During dinner at the lodge, they brought in a Rufus wallaby (aka a Tasmanian pademelon) named Oscar, who they'd rescued two months ago when his mom was killed by a car. They initially bottle-fed him and will soon release him back safely into the wild. But we suspect he'll always have an affinity for the humans at Lemonthyme, as do the other local wallabies who get fed there each night (there must have been a dozen tonight).

There was also a very curious and cute brush-tailed possum on the porch railing at the feeding. Mike was so taken by him that he couldn't help but reach out and pet him. He was amazed by how soft the little guy was, and he urged me to pet him, too. I didn't want to--I felt that because he was a wild animal, it wouldn't be respectful. But Mike kept pushing, so I finally went for it. And he bit me! That'll teach me to trust Mike....

More on how to speak Australian:
--"ATM" = "handy bank"
--"how are you?" or "how's it going?" = "how're ya going?"
--"toothbrush" = "toothbrush" (okay, okay)
--"throwaway airline footies" = "socket" (aHA!)
--"Burger King" = "Hungry Jacks"

Today's signs of the day:

(Look how mighty those 'roos are--they can lift cars!)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

31 - August 2006

The biggest highlight of today was calling home this morning--even if Sadie had very little to say! We really miss you guys and loved hearing your voices.

The day started out overcast and chilly, but as soon as we started hiking ("trekking"), out popped the blue skies and bright sun (we instantly regretted our long-sleeved attire)! Our first destination was the Wineglass Bay Lookout. The trail ("track") wasn't too long, but it was more strenuous than we anticipated, so we quickly abandoned any thoughts about hiking all the way to Wineglass Beach itself (I love having "the baby" to blame for taking it easy!). The view was fabulous (Wineglass Bay is quite likely the most photographed image in Tasmania, and the beach is considered one of the top ten beaches in the world), and we met several friendly folks along the way (oddly enough, we haven't yet encountered any other Americans in Tassie--it seems most visitors are from Mainland Australia, New Zealand, or Europe).

Then we set out beach hopping. Each beach along the Freycinet Peninsula is incredible, and each is unique despite how very close they are! One will have the whitest sand you've ever seen and the next will be richly golden; another will be pebbly and the neighboring one rocky. The water never looks the same, either--sometimes it's a bright aqua, sometimes it's a rich jade, and sometimes it's nearly colorless. Even the shells vary dramatically from beach to beach. But two things are consistent: the water is always so clear that you can see every detail under the surface, and the beaches are always pristine (often ours were the only human footsteps to be found). We covered Honeymoon Bay, Richardson's Beach, and Sleepy Bay, where we hiked to perhaps the most perfect and perfectly unforgettable beach there ever was: Little Gravelly Beach.

Incidentally, we had most all of the beaches entirely to ourselves today. Between the privacy, the relaxed pace, and the ideal weather, we're thinking there may be no better time of year to visit this state. And we've certainly never enjoyed more spectacular scenery--we're hooked on Tasmania!

On our way back from Cape Tourville Lighthouse this afternoon, we caught a wallaby on camera for your viewing pleasure:

We didn't want to dine at the lodge tonight (last night's meal was an overpriced disappointment), so we headed to Coles Bay (just outside the park) and lucked into a hole-in-the-wall market called Iluka attached to a hole-in-the-wall eaterie called Jus Food. We ordered fish and chips and picked up Tasmanian sodas (from Cascade Brewery in Hobart) and original Tim Tams for dessert (we wanted to know what the hype is all about). The woman at the counter piled up two huge, piping-hot orders of fish and chips with lemon slices onto a piece of butcher paper and wrapped it in newspaper for us. We headed across the street with our warm bundle to Muirs Beach to eat by sunset. Never have we shared a more relaxed, romantic, and crazy-delicious meal! And it was all to be had for about $15 AUD. (Oh, but the Tim Tam hype? 'Fraid we just don't get it!)

(Note: Internet connections have proven hard to come by in some of the more remote areas we're visiting. We're doing our best to stay in touch every day, but sometimes we'll have to hold our daily entries and post several at once when we finally get a reliable you might need to keep scrolling!)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

30 - August 2006

This morning we explored Port Arthur by daylight as well as by sea (we took a short boat cruise around the site and to the Isle of the Dead). Even in the daylight, Port Arthur felt dark and eerie (though Mike contained himself--no crying out in terror this time around).

We then made our way to the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Tarrana, where we saw not only the Tassie Devils (they sleep flat on their bellies!), but also Cape Barron geese, wedge-tailed eagles, brush-tailed possums, masked owls, a Peregrine falcon, kookaburras, and more. But most memorable of all was literally hanging out with a whole bunch of very relaxed kangaroos and wallabies. Sadie, you would have loved seeing the Mama 'roos with babies in their pouches!

We also managed to solve the roadkill mysteries:

We had an awesome lunch at The Mussel Boys (also in Tarrana and with a great water view), where we gorged ourselves on local delicacies including Norfolk Bay oysters, Port Arthur mussels, Pirates Bay octopus, salmon, and Federation chocolate creme brulee. From there, we checked out more of the Tasman Peninsula: we saw Fossil Bay, the Tasman Blowhole (it wasn't blowing), the Tasman Arch (whoa--it's so much more massive than the postcards make it look!), and Devil's Kitchen (a knee-wobbling experience a bit akin to visiting the mighty fissures in Yosemite). Photos don't do these sights justice--they are the kind of majestic natural wonders that make you feel miniscule, insignificant, and awed.

Then we drove a few hours through mostly bushland to get to Freycinet National Park, where we're staying at the Freycinet Lodge for the next two nights. Along the way, we saw a wombat cross the road, a brush-tailed possum, and many, many wallabies in the wild! The Australians probably get a good giggle from our excitement--but I imagine they might get a thrill from sighting your average squirrel, raccoon, or deer back home, eh?

Today's sign of the day:

(We didn't see any, darnit. That would have been a kick!)

How to speak Australian:
--"trash" or "garbage" = "rubbish"
--"napkin" = "serviette"
--"dock" = "jetty"
--"loading zone" = "set down zone"

They really do sound much more civilized, don't they? Except they don't ever say "bathroom" or "restroom" (and they look at you funny when you do)--it's strictly "toilet" here. Speaking of toilets, every one we've encountered has two flush buttons. We still haven't figured out the difference (they aren't labeled anything obvious), though presumably they're for varying power/duration according to flushing needs at any given time?

Today's head-scratcher:
We read in the newspaper that Australians play underwater hockey. Huh?!

***Happy first day of school, Sadie! We can't wait to hear all about it. And happy 42nd anniversary, Susie and Noby/Mom and Dad!***

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

29 - August 2006

We awoke in time for a beautiful sunrise over the Hobart waterfront. After strolling through the many courtyards, cafes, boutiques, and grassy parks within Salamanca Place and Battery Point, we savored a leisurely brunch at the Jackman & McRoss bakery (they make a to-die-for chicken and mushroom pie and goat cheese/spinach/tomato/carmelized onion tart as well as flavored iced milks, which we hope to recreate at home).

We wish we had booked another night in Hobart and definitely intend to return and stay longer. The European-feel city is much bigger and more fashion-forward than we expected but really warm, welcoming, and charming all the same. We admired the traditional architecture (from grand colonial homes to sweet little cottages to sandstone and brick buildings and warehouses) and enjoyed learning about the city's history and reading about some of the people who settled there starting in 1804.

And what an ideal time of year to be in Hobart--everything is in bloom, the air smells sweet, and the skies are so blue!

Sawyer, we spotted Herbie! Guess everyone needs a vacation sometimes, eh?

And check out this in-progress (and mighty intense, I might add) chess game at the park...

In the afternoon, we drove to the pinnacle of Mount Wellington (which nestles the city of Hobart and protects it from the wind). It's a frighteningly narrow road but well worth the white knuckles; the views of Hobart and far, far beyond were breathtaking (note to self: pack ear muffs next time!). You wouldn't believe the amount of undeveloped land in Tasmania--it's immense and magnificent and evident everywhere you look.

Tonight we made it to Port Arthur, a notorious and fascinating penitentiary established in 1830 and closed in 1877 after housing more than 12,500 prisoners. It's located on the wild and beautiful Tasman Peninsula that is nearly an island in itself (the narrow isthmus that serves as a link to the mainland was once guarded by ferocious dogs). After dinner (and a delicious affogato dessert that we also hope to recreate at home), we took an eerie moonlight Ghost Tour with a really entertaining guide, Todd. Mike got seriously spooked several times (to the amusement of many, myself not included--his jumps and yelps startled me more than any ghost probably would have!). Let's just hope he can get some sleep tonight.

--It seems we're in a nation of squatters. There hasn't been a toilet seat cover to be found in Australia thus far. (Good thing my Mama taught me to squat even with the added paper protection we enjoy in America.)

--McDonald's steps it up in OZ! Within the Golden Arches, there's a "McCafe," complete with elegant and beautiful desserts and a coffee selection to rival any Starbucks. (Yeah, we admit it--we stopped in for some fries for the road!)

--You don't need to wait for your water to be refilled at restaurants here (hallelujah!)--at the start of a meal, they bring you glasses and a perfectly chilled bottle of water (no ice necessary). It's lovely for guzzlers like us!

Favorite signs of the day:
--"Discount You Know Whats" (at a petrol--or gas, as we know it--station on the road toward Mount Wellington; we've given it a lot of thought, and we still don't know what...maybe you gotta be Australian?)

--"Speedo check ahead" (on the highway toward Port Arthur; Mike wasn't wearing one at the time, but I'm confident he'd have passed with flying colors.)

--And of course, there's...


(No sightings of either as yet, though we have driven past many an unfamiliar and mighty peculiar roadkill.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

28 - August 2006

We're starting our journey in Hobart on the island of Tasmania, "where a minute lasts ninety seconds" according to a nice ol' couple from Adelaide with whom we had the pleasure of sharing an airport bench and some good conversation in Sydney earlier today.

We left our home at 3:15 PM on Saturday, August 26, 2006, and arrived in Hobart at 6:00 PM on Monday, August 28, 2006 (Australian day/time), after a lengthy day-and-a-half of real-time air travel (San Francisco to Los Angeles to Sydney to Hobart--with plenty of layovers in between). Security was tight in both countries, and Mike was extensively searched (including a visit to the "puffer" room) for chemical explosives at every checkpoint. Each time, he was "randomly chosen," but we didn't see a single other person searched at any of those sites...there must be something suspicious about that fellow!

After landing, we enjoyed a blessedly uneventful sunset drive in our rental car on the wrong--er, other--side of the road (once Mike stops hugging the left shoulder, we'll be golden!). We haven't had the chance to do any exploring yet, but at first glance, the place reminds us of Monterey Bay back home.

First impressions: in addition to the great accents (Mike says that's the one souvenir he wants to take home--can you imagine him with an Australian accent?!) and wicked wit, Australians are incredibly friendly, approachable, and relaxed. And they seem endlessly amused by us Americans (or perhaps just me, suggests Mike). The international Qantas crew mistook me for the wife of our seatmate, a guy on his way home to Sydney. The Aussie got an obvious kick out of the whole scenario as he quietly drank his Tooheys New (that's Australian for beer), snickered at our seemingly constant confusion, and kindly explained the contents of the random packages of goodies offered up by the flight attendants (so, really, a "socket" is a toothbrush? Or am I still all mixed up?!).

Note to anyone planning a similar trip: make sure you book the red-eye as we did--we're not at all jet-lagged! Of course, that's not to say we aren't going to sleep like babies tonight. We're all showered up and ready to do nothing at all, so it's fish and chips via room service for dinner tonight!

Snapshots of the day...

What's not to love about a man who carries more than his share of the luggage?

Just before touching down in Tasmania...

Who put the steering wheel over here?

The harbor view from our Hotel Grand Chancellor room...not too shabby a reward for all that air/airport time!