Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cycling Napier pathways around Hawkes Bay- New Zealand

When we docked at Napier, it was a tough decision about what to do because there are so many things to see and do in the area- vineyards, bird watching, classic car tours, golf, and the beautiful artwork on the art deco buildings of the downtown. We opted for a more active adventure which meant cycling along the beachfront and Into the rural areas around the town.

Takarotrails was the bike company that met us with bikes fitted to our sizes, in the center of downtown along the shore trail, called the marine parade. Napier had an earthquake many years ago that caused the loss of their beautiful sandy beachfront, and now there's quite a sharp dropoff when you stand at the waterfront of the Pacific ocean. The area is flat so it makes for easy biking. We did about 9 miles in all, following the water and then turning onto a dike that has been flattened on top to make bike paths. I almost felt I was in Wisconsin at this point as we cycled through cow filled pastures, fruit orchards, farms, and creeks with grassy banks where people pitched tents and played in the water.

At the end of the tour, we left the bikes in a parking lot where we enjoyed a snack of granola bars and fresh fruit. Then we hiked up to a peak that is the historic Otatara Maori Pa village site (where native Maori tribes used to live). From here we could see the beach and the area we had just biked. We had quite a workout and enjoyed the scenery.

Abdul and I on our rental bikes

the cows seem to be bored with us

You can see Cape Kidnappers at the far end of this photo- a bird sanctuary for gannets and a very nice golf course

the flat rural portion of the trail

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Kayaking in the bays of New Zealand- waterfalls, geothermal pools and gloworms!

We had some great views and a lot of exercise the past 2 days as we kayaked in 2 different bay areas. The first trip was with a large group from our ship, at Waitangi river, an estuary in the bay of islands at the far north island. This was shallow saltwater in a calm protected area. We went down the river and through a forest of mangroves, which grow in brackish water by sucking up the water through leaves and roots, mainly living off the fresh water they take out. Then we saw a beautiful horseshoe shaped waterfall, similar in shape to Niagara Falls, but on a much smaller scale. There was a nice rest stop for coffee and biscuits, then a paddle back to the starting point.

The following day we booked a private kayak tour with Waimarino Adventures. You can check them out at They specialize in tours on Lake Rotoiti in the Bay of Plenty area further down the northern island. This was a much longer tour but our kayak was a bit lighter so it wasn't too tiring. We were able to see black swans, as well as several other types of birds that fish. We took a trip inside of a very slender cave that had glow-worms. They remind me of lightning bugs that don't move- very small and they glow all the time. Almost impossible to photograph, you might check the website for a photo of the cave. From there we kayaked across the wide lake under sunny beautiful skies, to a collection of thermal pools. You could smell the sulphur smell as soon as we got close. There were pools of varying temps you could try, after having first gone down a slide into the tepid lake water to get cool enough to truly appreciate them. It was a gorgeous location, rich in plant life with a nice picnic spot. Our guide, also the owner of the company, brought sandwiches and sweets for us. After we'd had a little break, we paddled back to the starting point. Abdul was in the back of the double kayak, so he was in charge of the foot pedals that steer. I only had to paddle. He said I kept soaking him with the paddle so I guess I need to work on my form. It was a great way to enjoy the "kiwi summer". We'd both love to do more kayaking!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cairns Esplanade and Harbor

The Shangri-la hotel where we stayed in Cairns is right on the harbor, so you have a great view of the yachts and other vessels that provide sightseeing tours. I took my morning walk along the boardwalk that leads to the beautiful esplanade that runs the length of the waterfront. I have to say this is THE BEST WATERFRONT PARK EVER!!!!! Whoever designed this property had everyone's needs in mind. There's an exhaustive list of activities you can do here and it is such a beautiful setting. Then they had the foresight to put interpretive signs along the walking path so you learn a great deal about the region and its history.

There's a giant fig tree that's been made into a treehouse park. I would have enjoyed exploring it more but a backpacker was taking a snooze there. No worries. There are lots of young people backpacking across Australia, but very few homeless people. It seems very safe.

Because of the crocodiles and stingrays, the water is pretty much off limits. To compensate for that, there's a huge free pool and a children's park with water features. When I walked by, there were dozens of kids taking swim lessons. There are even lifeguards on duty.

If you're hungry, pack your favorite meats and grill on the gas grills provided or have a picnic in the green areas under the shade trees. You can also pick up a cold drink or ice cream at one of the small kiosks with outdoor seating.

In addition to all this, there are exercise stations, a skateboard park, bike lanes, wooden boardwalk, and a war memorial. And did i forget to mention free outdoor yoga classes?!! Anyone could find something to do here. I would love to have this in our hometown!

Here's the fig tree park

skateboarding anyone?

mature trees shade the walking path

free swimming pool

You can climb inside the fish's mouth for fun
Cairns harbor at lowtide

Kuranda - the peaceful hippie village and Barron Falls

We heard about kuranda from one of our helicopter pilots, so we thought we'd stop in on the way back to Cairns. Started as a place for people who wanted an alternative lifestyle in the 60's, it's now a picturesque mountain retreat full of markets, friendly people, and colorful artwork. You will also see the occasional rasta hair and sandals though. We read about a place to eat buckwheat crepes in this village, and had a bit of a search to find it, but we ended up eating at the Petit Cafe, in the heart of the old market buildings. It has been said these are the best buckwheat crepes in Australia. Here you are immersed in the culture of the village and the sounds of the rainforest. We shared a couple of crepes- one with spinach and salmon, the other with banana and ice cream. Both were outstanding. Then we headed over to a man cutting coconuts you could drink with a straw. The most adorable 2 year old boy was slurping away like it was the finest nectar ever! We opted for a more traditional smoothie. The best part of eating in Australia is the conversation from the people we meet. They come from all over the world and all have something to share. This man shared the original island story of how sailors in 1400s would plant tamarind trees along the coastline to be used for their vitamin c. Then the bluish trees could be seen from the sea and it marked the trading places.

After exploring Kuranda, we drove to nearby Barron Falls. You could also take a rustic train or skyway from Cairns with James Bond like sky cars. I'm quite sure the views were stunning but we'd already done something similar at the Blue mountains. It rained last night so there was some water coming off the falls. The amount varies greatly depending on the season. There are several lookout points and a nice trail on wooden walkways set high above the rainforest floor. We didn't notice the mosquitoes so much because we'd put on some repellent in the parking lot. Good thing! It was a nice morning hike before driving to cairns for the night. Next stop Auckland, New Zealand!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Swimming at Mossman Gorge

This was my favorite day so far- who would have thought that an unplanned day of hiking and swimming could be so much fun? Port Douglas is right near the Daintree rain forest, and Mossman is both a town and a gorge. We drove here (I'm getting pretty good at this now, although I still hit the wipers instead of the turn signals. Everything is opposite here- steering wheel on the right. Drive on the left.) by way of Mossman where we picked up some sandwiches and drinks for a picnic. You have to park at the visitor center and take a bus to the gorge trails. We wore bathing suits and brought towels from the hotel. The heat has been pretty overwhelming all over Australia lately. This seemed like a better idea than hanging out at the resort pool, where the water is warm like a bath.

The hike to the river where there are large boulders and pools with cool, clear water was only about 10 minutes along walkways that brought you above the forest floor. Abdul was happy about this as we had heard we might see snakes here. We got in the swimming hole a bit slowly, as it felt cold to me,but an Aussie assured me it was "refreshing"! We enjoyed watching the young people jump off boulders and watched the fish swim by our feet, then we hiked the 2km path into the rain forest where we got more views of the rivers and read the interpretive signs about plants and wildlife. We swam again at one point where it was just us and watched marvelous bright blue and orange butterflies and dragonflies fly above our heads. How incredible to feel like you're all alone in the jungle.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Helicopter tour over Daintree rainforest and Great Barrier Reef

We've been lodging at Sea Temple resort at Port Douglas, near Cairns, a common launching point for touring the Great Barrier Reef. I didn't realize that there were so many reefs comprising this so called "8th wonder of the world". This morning we flew with GBR Helicopters, to one of the reefs north of here, agincourt reef, where a helipad floats nearby, and a boat shuttles you to a large pontoon boat run by Quicksilver. What you have then is a man made island floating next to a reef where you can explore the underwater life. These are considered the outlying reefs which are quite shallow in comparison to the older, larger reefs.

The helicopter ride was only about 30 minutes on the way there. Passengers who were already on the pontoon when we arrived actually rode the boat there on a 1 1/2 hour cruise. Buffet lunch was served on deck, and you could eat at your leisure, with 3 different underwater activities going on around the platform.

Snorkeling was available in a roped off area above the coral, with stairs from the boat. You could get into a suit that helped protect your skin from thumb size creatures called stingers. We never saw any but this is apparently a problem sometimes. I suited up and found mask, breathing tube, and flippers. There were life vests and noodles to help you float. I didn't see much except some very common silver fish and schools of tiny fish.

We also tried the submersible- a boat with an underside that had windows in it. It was kind of like a submarine, as you sat under the surface, while the boat rode over the reef and fish food was thrown out to ensure we saw something. There were plenty of fish to see here. We saw a smaller shark, jellyfish, lots of colorful blue coral, and smaller fish of all colors.
Lastly, there was a viewing deck with a large picture window. From here you could watch the underwater activities of the snorkelers. It was really nice. You didn't have to get wet to enjoy the sealife.

We were on board only a couple of hours and then we returned by helicopter for one of the most amazing flights ever. It was a small 4 passenger helicopter. I sat in front and Abdul was behind me. For nearly one hour we flew over the reefs spotting rays, turtles, sharks, and schools of jumping fish. Our pilot landed on a small sandy reef island where the birds scattered at our visit. From there, we flew low over the Daintree rain forest skimming the eucalyptus trees. What an incredible sight to see these tall trees so closely. We went over the sugar cane fields and shoreline along the coast before landing again at Port Douglas. What an incredible day!

You can see the ship docked nearby Agincourt reef- this is where the boat floats around so you can see fish

View from the helicopter as we head over Daintree rain forest

Our helicopter pilot briefly landed on this small sandy island and the birds scattered in all directions
The sandy island where the birds were flying

fish as seen from the snorkeling area with my cheap underwater camera

Me all suited up for a little snorkeling

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sydney highlights

We've been in Sydney for only 3 days, yet it seems like a week! There is so much to explore here. Most of our tours were arranged before we arrived, yet we managed to cram even a few more events in.

Our first day we arrived in the morning and did some exploring on our own, resisting the urge to just go to sleep. We'd been warned the jet lag would be worse by taking a nap and tried to soak up some sunshine. It's summertime here in sydney and the weather is fine! The beautiful Hilton hotel where we are staying is directly across from Hyde park and we're on the 9th floor so the view is green tree tops- very nice! We walked through Hyde park and then had an amazing lunch at a nearby Westfield mall, which has an international food court of sorts. We had Lebanese kebabs and salads. That first night we walked to the wharf near the opera house and dined outdoors, fighting off the cheeky seagulls who finally succeeded in getting a bite of pasta off Abdul's plate by swooping down and racing off again! Later at the Opera house we saw a comedy trio, called Tripod. I haven't laughed so hard, nor heard quite so many lewd songs. We both enjoyed it immensely. The walk back took us through the botanical garden under the moonlight- quite safe and even a bit romantic. There seems to be so little crime and very few homeless people- quite a surprise for a large city with such good weather.

The 2nd day we awoke early and caught a free concert at sunrise in Hyde Park as part of the sydney festival. It was an alpenhorn player. Lovely! The rest of the day was spent doing a local tour with Australian Eco tours. This was a great way to get an overview of the city but we didn't really get to "do" much. We saw the botanic gardens, Paddington, the Rocks, and Bondi beach, along with a few more areas i don't recall. In the afternoon we took a Harbor tour on a private yacht. It was an incredibly hot sunny day so the breeze on the yacht felt great. The captain took us around all the big homes situated on the banks of the harbor, and shared stories about their owners or construction of the dwellings. It was quite interesting and a great way to see the opera house and famous Sydney bridge from a different viewpoint. We ended up the evening at a Thai massage, which turned out to be a new and incredible experience on its own. I was most surprised by the masseuse hopping on top of my back and digging elbows and knees into my flesh. It's one of those things that feels better when you are walking out the door. Nepalese curry was dinner as we did "people watching" on Potts St. Wow! You will see all sorts of characters in that part of town.

We awoke early on day 3 as we headed to the Blue mountains for the day, stopping first at an animal park where you could see and even handle many of Australia's well known critters such as koalas, wallaby, and kangaroos. We had morning tea and apple pie in bilpin,a region known for their fruits. Then it was an afternoon in the eucalyptus forests where the air was fresh but temps were high. Extreme heat caused the park's trails to be closed so the only real hiking was at scenic world in katoomba, where you can take a sky tram and railway to the bottom of the canyons that were used for mining in past years. This was a great idea because the air was a bit cooler and you could breathe so much easier among the greenery of the lush rain forest. We enjoyed views of the 3 sisters rock formation. We also took in an aboriginal show and learned a bit about the lifestyle of aborigines both past and present. It was a great tour.

Sydney opera house and bridge as seen from nearby gardens

St. Mary's Cathedral in Hyde Park

Popular Bondi beach has a shark net encircling the swimming area to keep swimmers safe
a sleepy koala
this kangaroo knows where the food comes from!

Sailing under the Sydney bridge

the 3 sisters at Blue Mountains

Monday, January 7, 2013

Down Under Bound!

Trying to decide what to pack
We'll be heading to Australia and New Zealand tomorrow and won't return until February.  I have a pile of stuff and I'm still trying to decide what to pack.  It's difficult when you need everything for activities ranging from kayaking to ballroom dance- shorts to evening gowns!    This is the first trip in our nearly 10 years together we'll be taking that is totally for pleasure and includes no Omar.  He's already a mess.  7 years old is a tough age to do without both parents for nearly a month.  Luckily my son Jake is stepping in to take care of him and he'll have plenty of back up with the rest of the family.

Our itinerary is both adventurous and amazing.  We start with 2 days of travel flying out of Chicago, so we arrive in Sydney on Jan 10.  Not only were the tickets free with frequent flier miles, but Abdul persisted in calling every day to see if we could get an upgrade, and we managed to get bumped to business class for the flight from San Francisco to Sydney.  Yahoo!  That will make it much more comfortable.  He said the key is to hang up on anyone that says no and redial until you get someone nice.  Finally a lady in Atlanta made the upgrade.  The people in Chicago weren't as kind.

We'll be going to a comedy show at the Sydney Opera House the first night.  Hope we stay awake!  Then it's 2 days of sightseeing around Sydney, and an ecotour to the World Heritage site in the Blue Mountains for some hiking, aboriginal village tour, and a rain forest.  Unfortunately there are bush fires in the region, so we're wondering how that will affect the tours.  Obviously it's been terrible for those who live there.

We fly to Cairns where we'll drive to Port Douglas for a few days.  This will be different- they drive on the left side of the road.  We'll have to stay on our toes!  We're taking a helicopter tour to the Great Barrier reef and I'll snorkel while Abdul probably enjoys the beach or does the submarine tour.  He has a great fear of sharks, snakes, and spiders.  We've heard we could see plenty of all 3! We'll also drive to the Daintree National Park, a World Heritage rainforest- one of the oldest surviving.

We begin a 2 week tour around New Zealand starting in Auckland on Jan 18 with Silversea Cruise Lines.  This is a smaller ship so we will be seeing ports that are much smaller than other ships normally visit. The ship itself is going to have a culinary theme so there will be cooking demonstrations, along with the usual dancing, dinners, shows, and spas.  The list of New Zealand ports includes: Bay of Islands, Tauranga, Napier, Picton, Akaroa, Stewart and Ulva Islands, Milford & Dusky Sound.  Then we'll head to Tasmania, Melbourne, and Sydney in Australia.  There are day trips which include kayaking to see glow worm caves, waterfalls, beaches, bird watching, hiking, loads of cultural centers, sailing, and driving along the coast.  When we return to Sydney we'll end with climbing the Sydney bridge at sunset.  By then, we hope to be in shape enough to make the trek of 1332 steps!  If all goes well, we'll return Feb 2 and I'll have some good photos to share.  Hope you'll check back later!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Scenic Drives- Wisconsin's Great River Road

Larger than life-size fiberglass fish along the route

We had a long weekend due to the holidays and decided to take the scenic route along the Mississippi river from LaCrosse, WI to Prescott, WI.  This great river road, as it is called, runs along both sides of the Mississippi so you could alternatively take the Minnesota side and get a different view point.  We did that in fall several years ago.  It runs through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  There is a map designed to take you through all the scenic points which you can get at experience mississippi river or pick up along the route.  There are also  Facebook pages for the Great River Road and just the Wisconsin Great River Road.  It's worth it to take a look at the Facebook pages for up to the minute information.  We even downloaded a free audio tour to use as we drove so we could get a bit of history about the towns along the route.

Our main reason in driving this tour was to see eagles.  We've heard stories about how hundreds of eagles gather at the open spots on the river during winter and it's possible to see them fishing from closer up than you might imagine. There are several places where the water stays open due to dams.  We stopped at Alma, where they have a viewing platform on a business dedicated to viewing birds at Wings Over Alma.  We arrived near sunset and had missed the bulk of the eagles for the day, but we did manage to see about 6 as they flew right in front of the building.  The only down side is that this is on a very busy rail route and the very long trains pass directly in between you and the eagles.  We've heard that earlier in the day, you can see as many as 75 at a time.  What a magnificent sight it must be.
Eagle flying near the dam in Alma
There are also scenic bluffs and wildlife that can be seen year round.  The river is naturally an attraction for many kinds of birds.  In fall, you can see the Tundra swans as they rest on their journey southward. If you have an interest in birding along the route, use this link for birdwatching.  And don't pass by the manmade attractions without a look.  Loved the fiberglass fish shown above!  There are plenty of creative pieces of artwork out there waiting to be explored!

There's a great book from National Geographic, called Drives of a Lifetime.  Sometimes you'll be surprised by what is in your very own back yard.  You can use this book to plan destinations far and wide, but in our case, there are 4 right here in Wisconsin.  Use the index at the back of this book where you can find drives divided by location.  I've already done at least portions of the others listed- Door County, Lake Superior, and the Kettle Moraine.  You can read about those road trips I made by clicking on those blog links.  Now we plan to do the Great Ocean road when we visit Australia later this month.  So many fine places to see in the world!