While we have had a wonderful time since we began traveling last August, our arrival in Japan has felt a bit like coming home. Not only are we thrilled about being nearby to our son and his family again, but we’re going to be here long enough that we can fully unpack our suitcases and live somewhat like “normal” (whatever that is) for a while. We still haven’t a clue what most anything around here says, and we’re just getting started figuring out our way around in a new area of Tokyo for us, but it’s so wonderful being in our favorite country in the world once again. We’d still move here in a heartbeat if we could.
We left started for the airport yesterday at 6:00 in the morning. It was pitch dark when we left our Airbnb and since I couldn’t see the two small steps in the pathway out to the street I of course stumbled and fell. It was very painful and at first I couldn’t get up because I was so twisted around, but Brett helped me stand and assess the damage. I thankfully didn’t break or sprain anything but I did bang myself up pretty well and have the bruises and scrapes to prove it. How Brett got down those steps without falling when he was taking out the two heavy suitcases to the car was nothing short of a miracle.
We had hoped that by leaving early we would avoid Auckland traffic issues but it was not to be – there was an already heavy amount of cars out on the road. The signage to the airport was very confusing as well, but we eventually found our way, got our car turned in and ourselves to the airport. We got in line and checked our bags and got our boarding passes, and departed Auckland a little after 10:00 a.m. It was a long flight (nearly 11 hours) but our seats were OK and we were fed two meals with an ice cream break in the middle. The flight also had a fantastic movie selection which helped pass the time (we both finally got to watch Bohemian Rhapsody).
Arriving in Narita Airport is convenient to nothing but the town of Narita, and there’s generally around two hours of commute time to reach any destination in the Tokyo area. Our son was at the airport to meet us, and got us on an express train (NEX) into Tokyo followed by a taxi ride to his beautiful new house where our daughter had a light dinner waiting for us.
Our apartment here is very nice, but it’s going to take us a few days to figure some things out, like the washing machine. We have a nice, well-equipped kitchen with loads of dishes, a very comfortable bed and a good-size living/dining room. The bathroom isn’t the most modern (it sadly doesn’t have one of those fully-automated toilets) but it’s very clean and has a traditional Japanese bath for soaking which we’ll enjoy. The apartment and the building are very secure, and just a short walk away from shops and restaurants.
We’ve already been having a grand time with the grandkids. The first thing our grandson (C) said to me was, “Grandma, you look thinner than you used to.” I love that boy! It took just a few hours for our granddaughter to decide we were OK and could pick her up or hold her hand when walking.
We had lunch at our son’s this afternoon and then went out with him to find an ATM that would accept our American debit card as they are often rejected, even by bank-owned machines. Today the ATM in our subway station refused the card but another one located in the back of a nearby minimart (owned by the same bank) worked fine – go figure. After we had some cash, Brett and I then headed to the supermarket with our grandson to do our first round of grocery shopping. C read labels, asked employees where to find things or translated what people were saying to us – he did a very good job and was a huge help. I absolutely ❤️❤️ Japanese supermarkets, and we had to make an effort to keep from buying too much. We chose some yakisoba from the prepared food section for our dinner tonight, and are otherwise set for the next week or so. Tomorrow our son is taking us out to the navy base so we can get some American items from the commissary and exchange, including plenty of Diet Coke for him.
Finally, it is definitely winter here. After three weeks of hot summer weather in Australia and New Zealand, we arrived to temperatures around 40°F (or less – there had been snow earlier in the day). We had our coats with us coming off the plane, but today the scarves, hats and gloves came out as well! The apartment was also extremely cold inside when we first arrived, but with our daughter-in-law’s help we got the heater working and now we’re toasty and comfortable.
Here’s hoping the next few months will not go by quickly!
We left Wellington at 10:00 a.m. the day before yesterday, which turned out to be good timing – there were almost no cars on the expressways, and before we knew it we were once again out in the beautiful open countryside of New Zealand.
We have come to believe there are no straight roads in New Zealand, at least not outside any city’s limits. Once again the highways we traveled twisted and turned through fields, hills and mountains. It was all wonderfully gorgeous, but challenging at times for both driver and passenger. Brett often had to grip the wheel and pay close attention, and I had to work to keep myself from being flung from side to side of the seat with each turn. The speed limit on New Zealand state highways is around 60 mph, although it goes down for some curves (down to 20 mph for sharp or hairpin ones), and passing lanes are frequently provided when going uphill so that no one gets stuck and frustrated behind slower cars and trucks.
We passed through a few small towns on our way to Mangorei, and at one gas station’s minimart we discovered real Diet Coke in the cooler! Oh, how it had been missed! I also found Golden Fruit cookies there, a childhood favorite no longer made in the U.S., and we also picked up a package of Gingernuts, extra crispy gingersnaps made for dunking. We snacked on those a bit but at around 2:00 in the afternoon we were growing hungry and decided to stop for lunch. As we drove through the first town we came to the only place we could find was a McDonald’s, and as it was quite a ways to the next town we decided to stop there for lunch. I cannot even count the years since I last ate in a McDonald’s (over 20 at least except for a teriyaki burger when I’ve been in Tokyo), so I was a bit wary, but I was able to order a freshly made “gourmet” burger with locally-raised New Zealand beef on a special bun. It was very good! The only thing that could have made it better was if they had used real cheddar instead of the American cheese-like stuff, but still I enjoyed my meal. Brett had a fish sandwich and a coffee and called his meal good too.
It was shortly before lunch that we first spotted the large volcanic cone of Mt. Taranaki (8,261 feet) off in the distance. Our Airbnb was located up on the side of the mountain so we knew we hadn’t too much longer to go to reach our destination.
The Airbnb we stayed in couldn’t have been in a more beautiful location. The home itself was gorgeous and sits inside the mountainside forest, with views up to the rainforest above, and out to the ocean the other direction. The house and bed were very comfortable, the owner an interesting man we enjoyed chatting with, and we had a good rest there for the night.
We were up and on the road again by 10:00 a.m., and were expecting an approximately five-hour drive to Auckland. We headed out to the coast and drove along by the ocean for a while, enjoying all sorts of beautiful views before turning into the center. We soon found ourselves heading up into the mountains, traveling through a rainforest before moving into pine forests, deep valleys and fields of grazing cattle.
While down in one valley we we were notified there was roadwork ahead and to “watch for queues.” Soon enough we found ourselves at the back of a l-o-n-g line of cars and trucks on the valley floor that had obviously been sitting for quite a while as engines were shut off and people were out visiting with others while they waited. We shut off our car as well and sat there, but after about 25 minutes we noticed cars coming down the mountain from the other side, and 10 minutes later it was our turn to start over the mountain with a slow, very winding climb up to the top. We discovered the workers as we got near to the summit, apparently repaving the passing lane. At that point pretty much everyone was stuck behind several slow-moving trucks but could not pass any of them – frustrating!
Of course what goes up must come down, and we had a wild, winding ride back down the other side of the mountain on our two-lane road, behind the trucks that now kept having to put on their brakes so as not to fly off the road – it was a nerve-wracking piece of travel for both Brett and I. We eventually made it to the bottom and noticed that the line of cars and trucks on the other side now waiting their turn to go up and over was even longer than ours had been! Most of the vehicles that came down in our group stopped at the small town at the bottom of the mountain, but Brett and I drove on to the next town, Piopio, and stopped at a little cafe and bakery there. The food was freshly made and absolutely delicious. Brett had a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, and I finally got to try a New Zealand mince and cheese pie. Besides the good food we also got a much-needed break before heading back out on the road.
The journey from Piopio started out well, but a few miles away, near the junction between the highway we were on and the one we would take up into Auckland, we came to a complete standstill in a huge line of cars that went on for miles. Had there been an accident? For over an hour we moved along very slowly and eventually discovered that workers were repairing two lanes at once on a stretch of the road just past a roundabout that had cars entering it from three directions. The work had turned the roundabout into a complete bottleneck and caused massive traffic jams on all three roads! We finally got through that mess, and once again drove happily on our way to Auckland, feeling very smug at one point at the bumper-to-bumper traffic leaving the city while there appeared to be very little traffic going our way into the city.
That smug feeling was wiped away though the closer we got to downtown. Soon enough, we were the ones stuck in traffic barely inching our way along. We crawled for another hour or so until we finally reached the exit that would lead to our our Airbnb. It was at this point that Google Maps decided once again to go nuts, and it pointed us in a direction completely opposite of where we needed to go. We finally got turned around and on our own figured out the route to the house. When we arrived it was after 6:00 p.m., and we’d been on the road for over eight hours. It was no wonder we felt so exhausted!
Our Auckland lodgings are beautiful and peaceful, and we decided that instead of pushing ourselves trying to get out and see things in town today we’d just hang out in the neighborhood and relax, and get ourselves packed and rested for tomorrow’s long flight to Tokyo (over 10 hours). We enjoyed a special Valentine’s Day dinner at a nearby restaurant earlier this evening, and stopped at a neighborhood bakery to pick up pastries for tomorrow’s breakfast. Thankfully the airport is only a 20-minute drive away, and at the early hour we have to be there to turn in the car there shouldn’t be any traffic.
Our time visiting the North Island of New Zealand has been everything we hoped for and more. The scenery has been magnificent, and the people we’ve met along the way friendly and gracious. We’ve enjoyed absolutely perfect summer weather every day with no humidity. Over and over we were asked if we were going to visit the South Island, and received words of gratitude when we said we were sticking to the North. So many visitors just pass through, we were told, in a rush to get to the south, when the North Island has so much to offer and see as well. We have promised ourselves a visit to the South Island some day, and more time in Auckland as well, but for now we’ve had a fabulous time driving around in the North.
It took us a bit longer than expected but Laura and I finally reached Wellington after numerous differences of opinion with Google Maps, which like a spoiled child kept changing our route in fits and spurts—the last faux pas encouraging us to take an exit we had already passed nearly four miles earlier. Some of the highway markings fell short of the mark as well, though admittedly I may have missed one crucial turn because it was blocked by a semi-tanker to my right.
Getting back to Google’s new recommended route took us down the road to the longest place name in the world, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, and that’s the traditional 92-character spelling—according to Wikipedia there is also a 105-character version!
Laura had one more tussle with Google to get us from the end of the freeway in Wellington to our AirBnB location, and then everything was lovely. Not altogether lovely – I’m blogging because she was more than a bit under the weather yesterday and ended up spending most of the day in bed, and I set out in the morning to see the sights for us both.
I first took care of a personal preference: a hike up to the lookout at the summit of Mt. Victoria, which rose behind and above our lodging’s location. It didn’t look like much of mountain, but its diminutive stature was radically offset by its steepness. My little health app indicated that I had ascended 31 floors on the 1.5 mile trek.
One interesting point about Mt. Victoria is that there is a Lord of the Rings filming location here. Also found here is an abundance of widely recognizable, richly colored plants such as Sweet Pea, Queen Anne’s Lace, Giant Fern, and that thing with nasturtium-like leaves and morning glory-like blossoms.
The trails are quite well marked, and the things you can see are worth the effort to sort out the occasional unmarked intersections. I enjoyed a stunning view of Oriental Bay along the way, and from the top, the other side of the world as it seemed, including the somewhat busy airport.
After a brief stroll around the summit, I headed back down into town by a somewhat different route. To my surprise there was the piece of a set for “Lord of the Rings,” not exactly a hobbit house, but more like a wayfarer’s lodgings.
I suspect children from the nearby playground have kept the hutch going all these years.
Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand, was the next station on my trek, and looking back along the way I could see Mt. Victoria’s summit, where I had just come from.
Although some of China’s terracotta warriors are currently on exhibit, I didn’t have the price of admission on me so I chose instead to look at some of New Zealand’s treasures that have been collected here.
Once inside, I was first captivated by the story of the WWI battle of Gallipoli, vividly writ larger than life with photos, models of trench works, giant life-like statuary, and audio tracks. It was dreadful, knowing the eventual outcome of the battle (New Zealand lost 8,000 men) and also because it reminded me of brief moments during Operation Desert Storm: making every bullet count, eating canned meats, no one wanting to be taken out by a ricochet, and heartbreaking.
Then it was up to the second floor to see exhibits of the origins of this part of earth that is now called New Zealand. From the beginning, the people were connected to the Earth, whenua (wh is pronounced as /f/ in the Maori language). The placenta was also called whenua so the first people prepared an ipu whenua (afterbirth container), such as the replica on display, to return the placenta to the earth, thus maintaining the connection.
From the beginning, the people used the Earth’s bounty as they pleased. Whenever resources ran low, they banned hunting, fishing, or harvesting to allow the resources to recover. A ban was established by erecting a pou rahui (post denoting restriction) to mark an area off limits, and the people respected the ban.
Then came the Europeans, and they began clearing land, and marking their territory with a pou rahui, several actually, and stringing wire between the posts to “enforce a ban” on crossing the area.
Ultimately, the Treaty of Watangi, signed 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and more than 500 Maori Chiefs became the founding document of a nation, a symbol of the unique relationship among people which continues to evolve today.
There was more museum than I could see in an afternoon, so I headed back to our lodgings to check on Laura, who thankfully was feeling much better; good enough, in fact, that we went out for dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant in the evening and enjoyed some very good chicken and sweet corn soup, cashew chicken, and egg fried rice, which also provided enough leftovers for our breakfast this morning before departing Wellington, a city we both agreed we had once again not spent enough time getting to know.
In our drive around New Zealand’s North Island, we chose to stop in Napier, located on Hawke’s Bay on the southeast coast, for two reasons: 1) We wanted a place to stop between Rotorua and Wellington (we’re hoping to keep our daily drives between four to five hours a day); and 2) We heard that downtown Napier has a collection of vintage Art Deco buildings that we wanted check out.
We left Rotorua about 10:30 in the morning yesterday, and had a lovely drive down to Napier, through rolling hills and lush farmland on a two-lane state highway. In the distance we could see mountains at times, some even with snow, but they eventually disappeared. We had also hoped to stop off and check out a couple of waterfalls along the way, but although we saw signs letting us know they were in the area, we never saw any other signs letting us know when to turn. Google Maps was no help at all either – it has not functioned well here in New Zealand. As we approached Napier though we came over a last set of hills and got our first look at Hawke’s Bay, chock full of sailboats out in its turquoise water, and loads of houses perched up on the bluffs above the town.
It took us a couple of tries to find our Airbnb up in the hills – the streets were narrow, some were one-way or dead ends, and once again Google Maps let us down – their directions told us to go up a one-way street, and they left off information that we would need the ‘North’ side of a street versus one labeled ‘South.’ But, we eventually found the house, and when we were shown to our room, the view alone made all of the frustration of getting there worthwhile. Our first thought as we looked out at the incredible view was to wonder why we hadn’t booked the room for more than one night!
After getting our stuff up to our room, we chatted with our delightful host for a while and played with their adorable little terrier, and then got directions for how to get down into town as well as some suggestions for where to eat dinner. We turned out to be closer to the Art Deco district than we thought, and decided to start over at the waterfront, then stroll through the town and end with dinner.
There was a strong wind at the waterfront and lots of choppy water – definitely not beach weather. The beach was shingled (small rocks) versus sandy and didn’t look very inviting either. There’s a long park lining the beachfront, so we walked through that to a main street (Tennyson) that headed back into town. We had glimpsed a few of the buildings on the way to the waterfront and thought Tennyson would be a good place to start.
Art Deco has been my favorite architectural style for forever, and walking through Napier was like going through a box of exquisite jewelry. Almost every building was vintage Art Deco, built in 1933 after most of the city was destroyed by a large earthquake in 1931. Many of the buildings now house modern shops on the ground floor, with the vintage upstairs offices, apartments or sometimes left empty. All were well-maintained though with no peeling paint, etc. We must have walked around for an hour or so – every time we looked up, there was another masterpiece of the style. Even the street signs and manhole covers were done Art Deco style so as to blend in.
We eventually made our way to a small Mexican restaurant, and managed to get the last available table (customers after us either had to sit at the bar or wait outside). We enjoyed some very tasty (and spicy) food and cool drinks, and then headed to our car and back up to our room to enjoy the view some more and relax. The bed during our stay in Rotorua was the most uncomfortable we’ve slept in during our travels (way too soft for us), but the one in Napier more than made up for it and we both slept soundly.
This morning we enjoyed coffee and breakfast out on the terrace with our host, enjoying the beautiful view for the last time before starting our journey to Wellington. It may have only been for one night, but we definitely found this Airbnb and the visit to the city one of the highlights of our Big Adventure!
As much as we loved Sydney – and we absolutely loved Sydney – the summer heat and humidity there about did us in. When I climbed on the train out to the airport at 8:40 a.m. on the morning we left, I was quite literally already soaked through with sweat following the short walk from our apartment to the train station, with it dripping off my head and face onto the floor of the train. Everyone around me looked as cool as a cucumber while I felt like a very soggy human Las Vegas fountain.
But, we got to the airport, got our bags checked, cooled off and eventually boarded our three and a half-hour flight to Auckland. We arrived on time at around 4:00 p.m., expecting to quickly pick up our bags, get our rental car and hit the road. But it was not to be so easy: Brett got pulled over by customs and had to practically unpack his entire suitcase to show that the little jars in his suitcase were really Oregon jam and not honey. That took a while, and then we had to wait for a van to come and pick us up and take us out to the car rental office, which was near to but not in the terminal. Everyone we dealt with was very, very nice, but by the time we finally drove out of the rental lot it was after 6:00 p.m. and we had a three-hour drive ahead of us.
Thankfully, because New Zealand is so far south, it didn’t get dark until around 8:45, so we did get to see quite a bit of beautiful countryside on our way to Rotorua. We arrived at our Airbnb at around 9:15, met our very kind hosts, got settled into our room and fell right asleep.
After a lovely breakfast the next morning, prepared by our hosts, we checked out the notebook of local sights and activities our hosts had prepared for guests and discovered that you have to pay (a lot) to view almost every site in the area, from natural wonders to Maori villages. Free activities were few and far between However, we did find a few interesting-looking places that didn’t charge admission, so we set off to check them out. Our first stop was Kuirau Park in downtown Rotorua.
We could smell sulphur the moment we got out of our car at the park, and noticed lots of steam coming out of the ground in different places, as well as lots of low brown fences which surrounded the steam. Fairly soon we were walking around pits of boiling water or mud, or listening to water furiously bubble and hiss beneath piles of rocks. It was fascinating! Eventually we reached a rather large pond of boiling water with a low bridge across it. Crossing the bridge was, I thought, like walking through hell, with its smell of sulphur, dead trees all around, clouds of steam blowing across the water, and moist heat rising up through the planks of the bridge. And, all of this was right in the center of town! There were also large area of grass where we could see small pools beginning to form, and just outside the park and across the street was a motel that had apparently just sprung a leak because there were big clouds of heavy, angry steam coming through its fence out to the sidewalk.
From the park we walked up and looked out over Rotorua lake, and down to a Maori village that sits by the lake, in particular to see the traditional meeting house which is decorated with shells. We could have walked down into the village, but it’s not a place set up for tourists or visitors. We stopped at a small bakery nearby though and shared an amazing and affordable piece of quiche and big slice of lemon meringue pie for our lunch.
After lunch we headed over to Government Park especially to see Government House, so called these days only because it sits in Government Park, not because it was ever the seat of government. Actually, it was constructed as a large spa back in the late 19th century, and had thermal waters piped into private bathrooms throughout the hotel. The spa, or bath house, also contained large pools for more complex therapeutic needs, and guests could also receive hot water, high pressure shower massages. The architecture of the place was a frothy mix of several architectural styles from gingerbread to cupolas to leaded glass to half-timbering. Out front were lawns for croquet and bowling.
Nearby was the famous Blue Baths, built in 1933 so both locals and spa guests could swim in hot, therapeutic waters. The Blue Baths were infamous for a while as the first place where men and women shockingly swam together at the same time in New Zealand. Both Government House and the Blue Baths are listed on the New Zealand historic register (as is nearby Rachel Spring, where all the hot water come from), and Government House now holds the Rotorua Museum.
We came back to our Airbnb from that outing feeling a bit tired, but rested for a bit and then headed into town to eat at a highly-rated place called Ali Baba’s, which served Tunisian food. Our dinners were some of the best food we have had since we began traveling – fluffy rice with falafel, tasty sauce and fresh salads – and the price was pretty good too, with our two huge plates of food and some baklava costing less than $25US.
Then it was out to the Redwood Forest to experience the night walk through the trees. We paid $20US each, and for around 50 minutes we walked from platform to platform in the trees in the dark on suspended bridges high above the forest floor. Each platform contained information about the redwoods and the forest. Large, artist-made lanterns, fairy lights, holograms and other types of lights decorated the forest – the experience was absolutely magical, and we left feeling very glad that we had decided to go.
We slept in this morning, and at around noon drove up north to visit Okere Falls (because they are free to visit!). We were able to watch kayakers and a raft or two, loaded with people, go over the falls. The 22-foot high waterfall is said to be the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. We ended up doing quite a bit of hiking in the area when we took what appeared to be a short loop trail and instead had to walk nearly two miles through the woods to get to the other end.
Leaving the falls we took a short drive back to the Redwood Forest to see what they all looked like in the light. The redwoods came from California, and were planted in 1900 – New Zealand is the only place outside of California where they grow. The forest was magnificent, with towering redwoods and huge ferns along the way, and there are several different hiking trails to choose from, depending on how far you’d like to walk (we chose the shortest, supposedly 30 minutes but it took us more like 45). The trees are nowhere near as big yet as the ones in California, but give them a few hundred years and they will be!
Dinner tonight was back at Ali Baba’s, where we shared an extremely delicious Tunisian pizza topped with chicken, apricots and cream cheese among other toppings. It sounds weird but it was fabulous. Our big pizza was just $12, and we still have half to take with us for lunch on the road tomorrow.
We’re heading to Napier tomorrow, located on the south coast of New Zealand’s north island. We’ll stop to visit some more waterfalls on the way, and hope to get into town early enough to stroll around to see Napier’s most famous site, an amazing collection of art deco buildings located throughout the downtown area. We can’t wait!
Gong xi fa cai! Xin nian kuai le! Happy New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Pig!
Our time in Australia has absolutely flown by. It seems like just yesterday that we were in Hong Kong, and yet sixteen days have passed since we arrived in Perth: six days there, four days on the train, and another six here in Sydney. It’s been an amazing time, and yet we know we’ve only scratched the surface of this big and fascinating country.
For the most part it’s been very HOT while we’ve been here, from beginning to end. We knew we were coming to Australia in height of their summer, but we (me especially) were honestly not prepared for the blazing sun, high temperatures and the humidity (once we hit Sydney). Still, I’ve never seen skies so blue and have loved being out on and near the water once again – the trade-off has been worth it.
We traveled over to Sydney’s Taronga Zoo yesterday to check out their collection of Australian animals, excited to see ones we had only previously seen in books, and were not disappointed. Taronga (an Aboriginal word for “beautiful view”) was a wonderful, well-planned zoo, set up high on a hill with a sweeping overlook of Sydney harbor, and with well-designed animal enclosures. The zoo is good-sized without being overwhelming, and has an Australian “walkabout” area as well as a koala walkabout and a reptile section containing giant monitor lizards, crocodiles, and snakes both (highly) poisonous and not (there are also a few SE Asian and African animals, but we did not go over to see them). We arrived just a few minutes late for the koala encounter, where I believe I could have held one of them (swoon), but we still got a very good look at them. Koalas are just as adorable as you think they will be.
The nocturnal animals were of course asleep, and the platypus and echidnas were hiding the entire time we were there, but otherwise we got a good, fairly up-close look at many fascinating animals. My favorite, after the koalas, was the southern cassowary, the third largest bird in the world, and the bird most closely related to its dinosaur ancestors. The big one we saw yesterday was gorgeous and he knew it.
For our last day’s activity we took the train and bus over to the famous Bondi Beach this morning and took a hike along the coastal walk path to check out the ocean views. This morning’s weather was cool and slightly overcast in Sydney (although with high humidity), but by the time we got to Bondi the sun was out in full force and once again the humidity was pushing the limits (it’s been worse here in Sydney than back on Kaua’i). We walked as far as Bronte Beach, with a stop to share a grilled chicken sandwich for lunch at Tamarama Beach, at a spot overlooking the beach. There was a breeze as we walked, but it came and went, and unfortunately when it went away it was miserable, for me anyway. From Bronte Beach we caught the bus back to Bondi Junction, and then took the train to our neighborhood station.
By the way, we have greatly enjoyed our apartment in the Potts Point neighborhood, a suburb to the east of downtown Sydney. The apartment is conveniently located, and we’ve had no trouble getting out and around from here. The area is filled with lovely older terrace buildings in between some modern buildings and even some art deco stuff as well and we’ve enjoyed walking around and looking at those. Some of the old buildings have been converted into backpacker lodging while others are being or have been renovated. Potts Point sits up on a bluff from the Sydney harbor area and Wooloomooloo (try saying that fast!) neighborhood, so there are some rather daunting staircases to climb if you’re walking back.
Tonight we’ll finish our packing, and eat all of our odds and ends to clean out the refrigerator, making for a very weird dinner (remaining items include two eggs, half an avocado, a lemon, orange juice, wine, a few spoons of yogurt, some blueberries and some grapes). We’ve also got two lovely big slices of banana bread, but we’re saving those for our breakfast tomorrow as we’ll be up early to be on our way to the international airport for our flight to Auckland!
The best travel experiences often arrive when you least expect them. The same goes for meeting new people and making friends.
I have always had great experiences meeting my readers, and yesterday’s meet-up with reader Lucinda was no exception. What Brett and I thought would be just a nice lunch and a long chat with a Sydney reader of the blog turned out to be a day of exploration for us in an area of Sydney we might not have visited otherwise, or if we had, we wouldn’t have appreciated anywhere near as much for its history, culture, and sense of place in modern Sydney. Lucinda has a deep knowledge and understanding of The Rocks neighborhood’s history, its current incarnation, and its future direction. Plus, talking with her was like catching up with an old friend you hadn’t seen in a long while, and we never ran out of things to talk about the entire time. The whole experience took the day from being merely a good one into one of the best days we’ve spent during our travels.
The Rocks neighborhood sits down under the south end of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. One of Sydney’s earliest settlements (1788), the area came to be where Sydney’s great shipping wharves were located, and the neighborhood was filled with men and families that worked on the docks or the merchant service, something Australia sadly no longer has (all merchant activity is now contracted out to other countries, and Sydney Harbor is almost purely used for recreation now). Along with the sandstone houses that gave the area its name, The Rocks was filled with hotels, pubs, and other related businesses, and was known as quite the rowdy part of town. These days, many pubs remain as a reminder of The Rocks past life, several of them claiming to be “Sydney’s oldest pub.” Other buildings related to The Rocks’ maritime past have been converted to other uses, and most sad of all, homes that workers’ families had lived in for generations have been and are being converted into million-dollar residences – gentrification in full force – while the families who formerly lived in those homes were moved out to the far west side of Sydney, away from the harbor and neighborhood they had lived by and in for so long.
We met Lucinda at Circular Quay, and started our visit with a walk along the Cahill Expressway, on a path that looked out to the harbor and out over The Rocks neighborhood. She showed us little paths and stairs that descended into the neighborhood, and we walked around for a bit while Lucinda explained what we were seeing and how places were in the past as well as how they fit into Sydney today. We eventually found our way to the Glenmore pub (in the former Glenmore Hotel) where we enjoyed lunch up on the rooftop, shaded by large umbrellas and cooled by a lovely breeze. It was quite a hot day, in the mid- to upper-80s, and while Brett and Lucinda each enjoyed a couple of beers, I decided to go with a couple of glasses of tasty Australian white wine. Let’s just say I was a bit sloshed by the time we finished – the wine glasses were big, and the pours generous.
I eventually got myself righted and we headed over to the Harbor Bridge. There are stairs to climb up to the bridge, but these days there are elevators as well, so we took one of those and started off across the bridge – the pedestrian path is on the side that faces the Opera House. The views along the way were nothing short of spectacular – poor Brett and Lucinda had to stop every few feet so that I could look out and snap a picture of the changing view of the Opera House as well as the views across the harbor. It was especially lovely up on the bridge because of the cool breeze that blew the entire time and kept us cool.
When we got to the other side we stopped for some gelato, and then it was time to say our goodbyes. Brett and I hopped on our train back to the south side of Sydney and home while Lucinda headed in the other directions.
Brett and I agree yesterday was one of the best days we have enjoyed during our travels because it had it all: good weather, an interesting location, history and local color, good food and drink, and best of all, delightful company and wonderful conversation. We only hope that some day in the future we can return the favor and show Lucinda around one of our favorite neighborhoods or cities.
We’ve had a lovely first few days in Sydney along with my older brother, catching up, reminiscing and visiting places around town. He arrived from Queensland (located in the northeast of Australia) just an hour or so after our train arrived in Sydney. He had booked himself a hotel in our neighborhood not knowing we were staying here, and the hotel turned out to be only a couple of blocks away from our apartment, so it was easy for us to get together each day.
My brother has lived in Queensland for over 40 years, working for the Australian Institute of Marine Science as an oceanographer and chief research scientist. He has both Australian and U.S. citizenship. His wife was a veterinarian, and both of them recently retired.
We met up early Thursday morning to go down to the harbor for a ferry ride across to Manly Beach. Temperatures that day were predicted to reach the mid-90s, and they did – the weather was beastly, and the heat draining. Being out on the water was lovely though, with nice breezes as we rode along the water both coming and going, and stunning views all around. We got our first glimpse of the opera house which completely exceeded all of our expectations, and of the magnificent Sydney Harbor Bridge as well, another famous landmark. We also got views of the prime minister’s and governor-general’s official houses, the navy base, the zoo up on the hill and other sites.
When we got off at Manly, the heat unfortunately was at its worst and we quickly found we barely had the energy to walk around. We had hoped to eat lunch out there, but the heat took away our appetites. The air was actually shimmering at one point because it was so hot so we ducked into a small restaurant and ordered cool drinks and sat and chatted for a while before heading back to the ferry for a cool ride back to the quay.
My brother had a shopping errand to take care of downtown, so Brett and I decided we’d go along and look for a replacement for my pilfered sunscreen/moisturizer (I realized later that a bar of special soap from one of our Indian hotels had also gone missing from the bag). We did find a product I could use, but taking care of that small errand was when l fell and broke my toe. Thankfully I could still (somewhat painfully) walk, and we stopped at a supermarket on the way to our apartment for supplies, relaxed at our apartment for a while, and then all headed out for dinner at a nearby fish restaurant.
I took the day off Friday to rest and keep my foot iced and elevated, while my brother and Brett went out to do “boy stuff.” The weather had nicely cooled off so they headed back downtown to the harbor area to visit the Maritime Museum as well as the Powerhouse museum just down the road from it, filled with steam engines and other mechanical stuff that Brett loves to look at. It took them several hours to do both, and they both thoroughly enjoyed themselves. We again all hung out in our apartment for a while to enjoy some wine, cheese and conversation, and then walked over to an Italian restaurant next door to the fish restaurant we’d eaten at the night before. The restaurant was very busy, and we waited an hour for a table, but our dinners made the wait completely worth it – the food was that good.
My brother was scheduled to head for home this afternoon (there has been massive flooding in the area near his home), but this morning we decided to take the guided tour of the opera house before he had to leave. The tour was absolutely FABULOUS, worth every penny, and we had a great (and funny) guide who spoke like an announcer on British nature shows, where they sort of bring things down to nearly a whisper for the really interesting tidbits of information. As for the opera house itself, it was beyond stunning, both inside and out, and we loved learning its history, from idea to design to construction, and about its future (renovations are taking place). We were also quite lucky to be able to be one of the last groups to be able to enter both the main concert hall and the opera theater as events were being held in both this morning – we got in to view them just before they opened to the public and tours could no longer go in. Unfortunately, because of final preparations going on for the events we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the actual halls and theaters.
After the tour we all sat outside beside the harbor and had coffee and chatted some more, then said our good-byes. The last time I had seen my brother was in 2005, and neither of us know now when we’ll be able to see each other again. However, both of us are travelers, and now that we’re retired there’s a very good chance we’ll meet up somewhere again sooner rather than later.
Although it was very humid today, it was still cool-ish, and my toe thankfully didn’t hurt too much, so Brett and I decided to walk home from the Opera House along the harbor and through the Sydney Botanical Gardens. We decided to stop for lunch at the Garden’s cafe, ordered a plate of fish & chips to share, and sat outside to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. I was thrilled to discover that a kookaburra was sitting on a sign just looking over where we were sitting as I had very much wanted to see one in the wild. However, this turned out to be one of those “be careful what you wish for” events, and a true dining adventure, because the next thing we knew we were being dive-bombed not once but twice by the kookaburra as it attempted to snatch a piece of our fish! The attacks scared us out of our wits as they happened VERY quickly, and literally without warning, but thankfully we didn’t have to “share” any of our fish, especially after I set my purse up on the table next to the plate which blocked the bird’s view of our lunch.
We have some great activities planned around town for the next three days, so hopefully the weather will continue to cooperate and not heat up again! But so far, heat and broken toe aside, we are thoroughly enjoying our time in Sydney, and I’m so grateful I got the chance to spend some time with my brother.
January should have been a very low-cost month for us, but it didn’t turn out that way. We had more no-spend days than any previous month, and yet our costs outside of those days turned out to be quite high, and as a result we ended the month over our daily spend limit by nearly $5.50/day, or a total of $170.50 for the month. That’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it was still troubling for us.
Our short stay in Hong Kong is where we really got into trouble, spending-wise, because any way we sliced it, Hong Kong was an expensive city. We saved in some areas, but other things caught us way off guard, like the huge (and surprising) cost to get our laundry done at the hotel, for example. Our casual lunch out at Stanley (a sandwich, some fish & chips, and two iced teas) was nearly $60US. It cost us twice as much to eat at Hong Kong Disneyland than our admission, and so on. A few taxi rides didn’t help the bottom line either. We made up for some of that overage once we got to Australia, which we have found to be very affordable in comparison, and hoped we’d be able to come in just slightly above our goal of $50/day by the end of the month. Our purchase of two $50AU Opal cards and a few groceries yesterday dashed those hopes.
However, with our Opal cards and groceries now in hand we are off to a good start in February, and hopefully we can keep things under control for the rest of our time in Australia, and then in New Zealand and Japan, although we will be having to buy (expensive) gasoline for the car in New Zealand, and two spendy tickets to get into Tokyo from the airport. But otherwise we should be OK, and are keeping our fingers crossed.
I also discovered that along with tracking our daily spending averages, Brett has also been tracking our daily steps and miles walked. Yesterday, for example, we walked 5.3 miles, and Brett took 14,333 steps (around 16,000 for me). The amount surprised me, considering how hot it was. Good thing I got most of those steps in before I fell and broke my toe!
Late yesterday afternoon the front edge of my flip-flop caught on the edge of a step as we were entering the David Jones department store in downtown Sydney (looking for a moisturizer/sunscreen replacement), and down I went. I was otherwise OK, but knew fairly soon that I had broken something in my foot because the pain in my toes was at a whole different level. However, I could still walk and we made it back home and out to dinner last night. I decided not to go to the ER because I knew all that would happen was there would be an X-ray confirming the break, my toes would be taped together, I would be told to elevate and ice my foot, and we would get a bill (I have broken a toe before). Instead, we stopped at a pharmacy and bought some tape, I taped the toe myself, and am keeping my foot elevated and iced as much as possible, and it’s all feeling better today. Brett is out with my brother this morning touring a couple of museums while I rest my foot, but I will be ready to do some limited walking later today and we plan to go tour the opera house tomorrow morning before my brother has to head back up to his home in Queensland (where there has been heavy flooding).
We have four more full days in Sydney though before leaving for New Zealand, so we should have enough time to do and see everything we’d like before we go. I’m having a very nice reunion with my brother as well!
We’ve made it to Sydney! And, we had a fabulous time getting here, on the train ride of a lifetime.
The East Perth train station was just a 10-minute walk from our Airbnb condo, and as we headed for the station with all our luggage at around 8:00 a.m. last Sunday morning the walk was thankfully nice and cool. Great Southern Rail’s legendary service and hospitality began the minute we arrived at the station – our big suitcases were collected and we were given our cabin assignment: Car C, near the front of the train, Cabin 4. I asked if it was a forward or rear facing cabin, but no one seemed to know so we continued to keep our fingers crossed until we could board and find out.
We boarded the train about a half-hour before its scheduled departure time of 10:00 a.m., settled in to our front-facing cabin (yeah!) and before we knew it the train was rolling out of the station. We had been given an itinerary for the trip at check-in, but shortly after we departed we were visited by our car manager in order to choose our off-train outings, and a short while later by the restaurant manager in order to receive our restaurant schedule. Car C was just two cars away from the lounge car, and three away from the restaurant.
Our time onboard the train was very relaxed. We spent most of our time in our cabin, looking out the window at the scenery or napping, but we sometimes headed down to the lounge car to meet other passengers, to enjoy a drink and/or a tasty snack, or have a cocktail before dinner. All meals and drinks on our trip were included in the price of the ticket – all we had to do was order and enjoy.
We turned out to be the only Americans onboard! Most of the passengers were from Great Britain (several of whom were continuing on with a two week cruise around New Zealand), but there were some Australians, and we also met a couple from Ireland, a very nice man from Japan, and a there were few passengers from India and South Africa. My favorite experience of the trip happened the first evening as we were getting back on the bus to go back to the train after a late-night off-train outing. We were looking for our seats on the bus, and a woman from Britain piped up, “Oh, you’re behind us. I recognize your accents.” What!?!?!?!?We don’t have accents!” was my first thought. It took me a second to realize that this time around we were the odd ones out, and the ones with an accent to everyone else.
One other thing about the passengers (us included) is that I don’t think there were more than 10 people on that train less than 60 years old! Even though we’re both in the second half of that decade, Brett and I still felt like spring chickens compared to many of the other passengers – most, we guessed, were in their 70s – but everyone was friendly and we had a good time with everyone we interacted with. The dining room did a good job of seating us with different people and we enjoyed chatting with and hearing about others’ lives and experiences, where they were from, and so forth.
Our beds were always made up while we were at dinner, and put away during breakfast the next morning. Brett slept in the upper bunk, but both of us rock and rolled all night with the train as we slept, especially the second and third nights – they were pretty wild! Probably the best thing was that we had a private bathroom with a shower. It was so nice not having to walk down the passageway to get to the bathroom, especially in the middle of the night. The only negative we experienced during the entire journey was that a jar of (expensive) moisturizer, a Christmas gift from Brett, went missing the last night – we don’t know if someone from the cabin crew took it when they came in to prepare the cabin for nighttime, or it fell and broke and they threw it away. Whatever, it was missing this morning and nowhere to be found, and will have to be replaced while we’re here in Sydney (if I can).
The meals we were served were nothing short of extraordinary. The menu was different every day and showcased local Australian food products. We were afraid we were going to see kangaroo appear on menu, but thankfully it never did – Brett said he would have tried it (camel masala was one of the lunch choices one day, but we chose something else).
Every day there was at least one, if not two, off train excursions. We chose the ones below:
– Day 1: The Kalgoorlie gold mine tour. We got into Kalgoorlie after 8:00 p.m. so this tour took place at night and it was difficult to take pictures. We visited the Super Pit, where miners dig around the clock. This place was massive and DEEP, and from there we went to a visitors center where we watched a cute skit about how gold was discovered in Australia. The Super Pit was expected to close back in the 1980s, but they are still finding fresh veins of gold, and now they expect it to stay open another 30 years! I did not think I would enjoy this tour very much, but I learned a lot and in the end was glad I went. For example, I learned that only 7% of the gold mined in the world goes to make jewelry. That figure surprised me, but most gold mined these days goes into phones, computers and other tech devices – they wouldn’t operate without gold.
– Day 2: We skipped the morning stop at a sheep ranch and slept in, but in the afternoon got off to stretch our legs at Cook, a ghost town out in the middle of the Nullabor Desert, located on the longest straight stretch of railway track in the world. Cook was founded in 1917 as a primary place of support for the railroad in the Nullabor, and over 400 people used to live there – it had its own school and hospital, and the town got all its water from an underground Artesian aquifer. In 1997 the railroad was privatized and said it no longer needed full-time support from Cook, and the town dried up literally overnight. Today only four people live there to help refuel the Indian-Pacific when it comes through twice a week.
– Day 3: We arrived in the South Australian city of Adelaide early in the morning, and had a choice of four different outings. Brett and I took walking tour around the center of Adelaide, where the city was founded. It was a short but interesting tour and we had a charming guide. Following all the tours train passengers were served breakfast in a downtown convention center while the train was repositioned and new staff came on board for the trip to Sydney. In the early evening, the train stopped in Broken Hill for refueling and to drop off mail. Broken Hill is an old mining town and was the setting for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a comedy drama about two drag queens who travel around Australia in a bus called Priscilla. Along with most of the passengers, we chose to see the “Main Drag” and had a fun time along with everyone else. Our evening included complementary wine and spring rolls, but finished early because one of the performers was not there that evening. The extra time allowed us to take a leisurely stroll through town on our way back to the train.
– Day 4: The last day on the train and it stopped in the gorgeous Blue Mountains National Park. We signed up for a 1-hour hike with guides who took us to some out-of-the-way spots along with the more famous sites like the Three Sisters and the Orphan Rock. The “blue” in the name comes from the haze caused by eucalyptus trees, similar to the haze in the Great Smoky Mountains. The temperature up in the mountains was lovely and cool, and after two days of desert we were happy to see all the green trees and water.
We (and apparently everyone else) were glad to get off the train when we arrived in Sydney – four days and three nights were enough. But, it was the journey of a lifetime for us, especially for Brett, and I am so happy that we were able to include it in our itinerary. Great Southern Rail offers three different trips through Australia, all with comparable service to the Indian-Pacific, and both Brett and I said if we ever make it back to Australia we’d love to ride the others, especially the Ghan, which runs from Adelaide to Darwin in the north.