This is a story about my first trip to Australia and parts of New Zealand. I made this trip in 2013.
G’Day Friends! Back on the road again; this time, I headed for Australia and New Zealand. This time I visited numerous towns in Australia including Sydney, Carnes, Brisbane, The Gold Coast, Perth, Fremantle, Melbourne, and Canberra. Then, I flew to Christchurch, New Zealand to visit that lovely city and the seaside town of Tamaru before returning to Sydney for a more extended stay. As you can see, the trip was an extensive visit to Australia with a shorter visit to New Zealand. The entire trip took over a month and, even then, I didn’t see everything in either country. Let’s begin looking at Australia.
To get to Australia, I flew from Las Vegas to San Francisco on United Airlines. From there, I flew to Vancouver, Canada on Air Canada. It was my first experience with that airline and I was very pleased. From Vancouver to Sydney, I flew Air Canada Business Class. The airline only had 2 classes on their long flights, Business Class and Economy. Air Canada’s business class was better than many air carrier’s domestic first class. I had my own pod with a seat that converted into a full-length bed. The food was truly outstanding and the service was impeccable! I was able to get several hours of sleep. This made the 15.5-hour flight from Vancouver to Sydney more than tolerable. I arrived “Down-under” actually rested, reasonably refreshed, and sans jet leg! I immediately realized that this was the only way to travel, especially since I used my airline miles to fly Business Class. The airfare cost was less than it would have been in cab fare to the airport!
Landing safely in Sydney, I spent the night at the Airport Holiday Inn. This made it easy for me to catch an early morning flight. I felt rested enough to make my first venture to the heart of the Sydney where I got my first look at two of the most famous icons of the city, the Sydney Harbor Bridge and The Sydney Opera House. They were as impressive as I imagined. Be it a small attack of jet lag or not, I was compelled to pinch myself. I was fulfilling one of dreams!
THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and flew up to Cairns, on Qantas Airlines. Qantas was the flag carrier of Australia. It was comparable to our United or American Airlines. On the flight, I sat next to a Chinese man form Malaysia who had lived in Sydney for over 30 years. We talked the entire flight and it made the time fly (forgive the pun). His name was Kim. Kim won a Sydney golf tournament. His first prize was an all-expense paid trip for two to the Masters Golf Tournament! It included 1st class air fare, limo service to the tournament, 5 star accommodations, and daily tickets to the tournament. Also, they played 2 rounds of golf at one of the sister courses. The total value was over $64,000! Kim was going to be living other people’s fantasies and mine! It was one of the coolest prizes I had ever heard.
I arrived at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Carnes in the early afternoon. The weather was partly cloudy. Cairns reminded me of Key West or Hawaii. T shirts and shorts were the uniform of the day in this beach resort town. I quickly filled my schedule. I was going to be snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) the next day. That was going to take the whole day. I wanted to do it while the weather was workable. On my last day in Carnes, I just did the beach and walked around the town. That took the whole day, too!
I still had a good part of my first afternoon left, and the weather was still only partly cloudy. Thus, I took a helicopter ride over the GBR. It was an amazing flight! There were three passengers and the pilot. Since the other two were a couple, I got to sit in the front seat with the pilot. It was the best seat in the house! We got a spectacular view of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as tour boats with divers and snorkelers. The whole area was dotted with sailboats, of all sizes, leisurely gliding through the turquoise blue water along the reef. The water was even more blue and beautiful than I had seen in numerous pictures. It just proved that nothing takes the place of the real thing! We landed just as the sun was setting. I got off the chopper with a distinct sense of exhilarations and satisfied that I had done something that many people only dream about.
My first full day in Carnes was spent snorkeling the reef about 30 miles off Port Douglas. As we took the hour-long bus ride along the coast to Port Douglas, we were treated to a spectacular view of this rugged, tropical region of Northern Australia. Many in the group were disappointed that it was raining. I noted to the others that we were going to get wet anyway. The rainy clouds would reduce the risk of sun burns. Furthermore, the rain would beat down the ways and make swimming on the GBR much easier.
Once at the boat docks, we joined a diving and snorkeling tour operated by Quick Silver. There, we were given the opportunity to dive or snorkel the GBR. Each group was given a tour guide / instructor with safety being the optimum word. Soon, we were on the tour boat, underway, and heading for our first dive location. There were over 100 people on our boat. Additionally, there were several other tour boats operating in the tour areas.
It took over an hour to reach our first dive location. During that time, each member of the group was required to watch a video on diving and snorkeling rules for the GBR. The main point of the video was to emphasize protecting the reef and safety. The big NO, NO was touching the reef! It was truly a place where one could look, but don’t touch!
We dived in 3 different locations. The colors of the coral and the fish are beyond description! I even saw sting rays and played with a sea turtle. Each dive location seemed to be even more spectacular than the previous one. On the last one, they had to blow the horn 3 times and threatened to leave me in the water. I just didn’t want to leave such a fantastically picturesque scene of beauty and serenity. It was truly magical!
At the end of the day it was really hard to head back to shore. Speeding back to Port Douglas, I reflected with my newfound friends about our experiences and impressions of this true wonder of nature. I listened to their reflections, too, noting a great similarity with mine. We all agreed that we had done something that day that could almost be considered life changing.
GOLD COAST AND ROUND-A-BOUTS
The next day, I flew to Brisbane and rented a car to drive to Gold Coast. It was about a 2-hour drive south from Brisbane in rush hour traffic. Needless to say, I got my baptism of fire in Australian driving. Driving in Australia required my full attention and I had only one, almost near miss at a round-a-bout. The only real problem was that I kept turning on my windshield wipers when I wanted to turn. They and the turn signals were on reversed sides in cars down under. Oh, well, I got used to it, almost. Once out of Brisbane evening rush hour traffic, the drive along the East coast of Australia to Gold Coast was wonderful!
I arrived there around 6:30 PM and checked into the Crown Plaza Surfers’ Paradise…once I found it. My room was on the top floor and had another great few of the ocean! The room is slightly smaller than the suite I had in Singapore which was almost as big as my house! I felt quite comfortable, here. I loved being at my IHG rewards level and the way I was treated to room upgrades!
Once in the hotel, I called Matthew, a longtime friend of my son, Nick. We planned to meet around 7:30 that evening and go to Rebecca’s favorite steak house. Matthew asked me if I like steak? Can you imagine…? I really looked forward to meeting them. Matthew, and his lovely wife Rebecca, picked me up at the hotel in their Porsche Mecan. They took me to dinner at a very nice restaurant overlooking the surf and the beach that extended as far as the eye could see. On the way, there, we passed a sand sculpture contest. It was impressive! However, what I truly enjoyed was our conversations and listening to both of their points of view about Australia and the politics of their country. I left feeling like I made two new friends. If Carnes reminded me of Key West, FL; Gold Coast reminds me of La Jolla or Malibu, CA. There was money in that Gold Coast!
The following day, I had my morning coffee watching the sun rise and the early morning surfers and did my laundry. After I had breakfast and checked e-mails, it was still only 8:45. Since Matthew wasn’t going to meet me until the afternoon, I went off to see the town on my own. Again, it reminded me of any wealthy, sea side towns in California or parts of Florida…except everyone drove on the wrong side of the road!
In the afternoon, Matthew took me out on his boat for the remainder of the day. They lived in an exclusive community and his boat was tied up to the pier in his back yard. He drove a new Porsche Mecan SUV and she drove a Mercedes “C” class. I didn’t want to be gauche and ask what he was worth, but the homes in the development in which they lived were in the multiple millions.
Matthew and I boated all day in the inner canals of Gold Coast. In many ways, it was like FT. Lauderdale, only bigger, classier, and with many more canals. Along the way, we saw numerous kangaroos resting along the banks of the canals. It was a wonderful day. However, my face was the color of a lobster. It was great to get my sea legs back, although I was a bit rusty with the line handling. Seeing the kangaroos in their natural habitat was icing on the cake. Later, I sent flowers to Matthew and Rebecca to show my true appreciation for their warm welcome and hospitality.
Now for the driving. They had their fair share of crazies in Australia, just like us. However, they seemed politer or was it more tolerant? I had adapted, somewhat, to driving on the “Wrong side of the road.” However, it continued to require my FULL attention…especially in those DAMN round-a-bouts. I felt it was an unnatural concept! The only real problem I seemed to have was when I wanted to make a turn. I kept turning on the bloody windshield wipers instead of the turn signal. The instruments were reversed. They could tell the Yank. He was the guy trying to make a wrong turn with his windshield wipers on!
The next day, I had to catch a morning flight from Brisbane Perth. They had traffic in Brisbane like we had in America. I left my hotel at the Gold Coast and drove to the airport in Brisbane. Normally, it was only a 45-minute trip. However, I left at 6:15 AM and got there at 8:45 AM thanks to rush hour. Australia had traffic jams that could compete with any American city. Again, I was grateful for the patient and courteous Australian drivers! I guess it was obvious that a yank was behind the wheel. Again, I think the windshield wipers may have been the dead giveaway.
PERTH / FREMANTLE, FISH AND CHIPS, AND RUGBY
From Brisbane, I flew across Australia to Perth on the west coast. Friends, that was like flying from New York to Los Angeles! There wasn’t much in the middle of Australia. From what I could see in the air, it was a pretty barren land. It was a long, but uneventful flight on Qantas.
Perth was a lovely, old city. Arriving in Perth, I immediately rented a car and proceeded to try to locate the hotel. I knew its location, but it was because of traffic restriction, it was very difficult to get there. It took several attempts until I found the correct traffic pattern that put me in front of Holiday Inn. It was a very nice, quiet hotel with excellent proximity to the heart of town known as the City Center and many of the town’s activities. Because of the ease of accessibility to public transportation and the challenging traffic pattern in this city, I never took my rental car out of the garage until my departure.
I took a day trip to Freemantle, Australia. It was the seaport city for Perth and was located on the Indian Ocean about 20 miles due west from Perth. I took the local 30-minute train to Fremantle. Doing this afforded me an opportunity to see the local countryside and experience the local culture. I was not disappointed. The people of Perth and Freemantle were even friendlier than Sydney, Carnes, and the Gold Coast…if that was possible. The train stopped just adjacent to the seaport terminal. I noticed that the Diamond Princess, the same cruise ship on which I had sailed the Mexican Rivera 6 years earlier, was docked there for the day. She still looked good.
Nick and Lisa had recommended that I have the fish and chip lunch at Cicerello’s, a seafood restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in Fremantle. They insisted that they have the best fish and chips in the whole world! Now, I actually thought that was a bit of an exaggeration until I visited Cicerello’s. The first indication that this might be a legitimate boast was the huge crowd at the restaurant with all the patrons eating fish and chips! Following the rule of “When in Rome…” I had the same as all the others. Oh, my God! This was the best fish and chips that I had ever eaten! I don’t know what they do or what was their secret, but Nick and Lisa were absolutely right! Furthermore, when talking about Perth / Fremantle with someone who had been there, I always played forgetful and ask what was that famous fish and chips place in Fremantle? The persons ALWAYS said Cicerello’s. Their fish and chips were world renowned!
In many respects, Fremantle reminded me of Key West, FL or Carmel, CA; both in layout and attitude. It is a bit touristy with an abundance of souvenir shops and saloons. They even had a Rosie O’Grady’s, just like they had at the Seville Square in Pensacola, FL. This was a favorite watering hole for Aviation Officer Candidates going through training at NAS Pensacola. The Fremantle Rosie’s was part of a chain. I was the first person to visit this one who had, also, been to the one in Pensacola. I had a diet coke and reflected on days gone by and other times.
There is one tradition that is very similar to Key West, FL. When the sun sets on a nice evening in Key West, the entire town seems to congregate at Mallory Square on the western side of the key. The gathering takes on a carnival atmosphere with street entertainers and activities. The sole purpose of this meeting was to simply watch the sun set into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a beautifully simple, yet, enchanting tradition!
The people of Fremantle preformed the same ritual, a halfway around the world. However, the sun was setting in the Indian Ocean instead of the Gulf of Mexico. While I, like everyone else, was facing west watching the sun set, I noticed the cruise ship Diamond Princess was leaving port and sailing majestically into the sunset. It demonstrated one of the disadvantages of traveling on cruise ships. While ship passengers could grasp the sights, sounds, and ambiance of a particular location during the day, they usually didn’t have an opportunity to experience the night life of a town because the ship got underway in the evening for their next port. I stood there until the ship disappeared on the horizon, thankful that I still had more time in Fremantle.
After sun set, I went to the Freemantle Market. There, I met a shop keeper from Alabama who lived in Freemantle with his Italian girlfriend. They were both living their dream. He told me that there was going to be a Mardi Gras Parade on the Cappuccino Strip. I went over there just in time to see the parade. The Cappuccino Strip was a night life region of café’s, bars and bistros. It was the happening place during the evenings in Fremantle.
Fremantle was something! It was alive, full of color, yet had a laid-back sense of serenity. I could easily have lived there. But, I don’t know if a steady diet of fish and chips from Cicerello’s would be good for me. I stopped at one of the cafés for a quick coffee before I headed to catch the train back to Perth. I was grateful to have spent time on the western coast of Australia. Most people never get here.
I caught the 8:05 PM train back to Perth and was at my hotel by 9:00 PM. In the park by the train station, they were having the Perth Festival with live bands, food stands, and other activities. Again, this place seemed to be alive! The people are very friendly. In many respects, this has been my favorite place, thus far. Of course, this doesn’t take away from the wonderful time I had with Matthew and Rebecca. However, if it wasn’t for them and their warm hospitality, Gold Coast would have been nice at best. I think you know what I mean.
At the encouragement of Matthew and my son, Nick, I attended my first rugby match on that Saturday evening. The match was The Western Force Vs. The Canberra Brumbies at NIB Stadium. It was a Rugby Union match. I had been told there was a deep schism between Ruby Union and Rugby League. Yet, I was not sure of the problem. I was concerned about my lack of knowledge of the game of Rugby. However, Matthew insisted that once the people around me realized I was a “Bloody Yank,” I would have everyone in the stands telling me how the game was played. You know, Matthew was right! I had a wonderful time!
It was not a title match, but it was good enough for a start, for me. From that day, I became a Rugby fan and tried to watch as many matches that I could on TV while I remained in Australia and New Zealand. I watched both Rugby and Cricket on TV in the evenings. I still have not figured out cricket. However, Rugby looked a lot like a bar room brawl in the mud but played with even more intensity. I found it to be much more exciting than American football.
Here are some final thoughts on Perth / Fremantle. The Holiday Inn Perth was in an excellent location, downtown, which is very much like the high-end downtown shopping areas like Chicago’s Michigan Ave. The train station was only a 5-minute walk from the hotel. I found that walking, public transportation and taxis were very user friendly to the point that I never drove my car while in Perth. This caused me to cancel my rental reservations in Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney. However, I still needed to drive in New Zealand.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a prime example of the character of the Australian and, in particular, the citizens of Perth. I left the hotel and flew to Melbourne, clear across the country. While unpacking in Melbourne, I realized I had left my security pouch, containing personal valuables, in the safe at the Perth Holiday Inn. The Staff at the Crown Plaza immediately called the staff at the hotel in Perth, who went to the safe in my room and found the pouch. The Perth staff forwarded the pouch and its valuable contents to my future hotel in Canberra! Both staffs earned my eternal gratitude and respect!
I got here safely in Melbourne and checked into the Crown Plaza. I had a top floor room with a great view of the city, the ocean, and the Yarra River. From my room, I had an excellent view of the rowing teams racing and practicing as they glided their craft up and down the river. Their majestic synchronization was truly mesmerizing. I was truly pleased with my view!
Melbourne was the capital and most populous city in the Australian state of Victoria, and the second most populous city in Australia. It had a population of 4,529,500 as of 2015, and its inhabitants were called Melburnians. Melbourne was a center for education, entertainment, health care, research and development, tourism and sports. Per the 2014 Economist Intelligence Unit, Melbourne was the world’s most livable city. It was the birthplace of Australian rules football. It was recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature. It was home to many of Australia’s largest and oldest cultural institutions including the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). It was the host city of the 1956 Summer Olympics.
As usual, one of the first things I usually did in this new city was to take the City Tour. Thus, this was how I spent my first morning in Melbourne. I couldn’t have asked for a better day for it. It was a cloudless sky with a warm sun. The tour took us to several of the beautiful city gardens and the home of the famous Capt. Cook. We also saw where the Australia Grand Prix was held inside Albert Park. We saw the Rod Lever Arena, the home of the Australian Tennis Open, which was located next to the famous Melbourne Cricket Grounds (MCG). The tour ended at the Shrine of Remembrance dedicated to Australian War Veterans.
I first became aware of the City of Melbourne, in 1959, when I was a young boy and saw the Stanly Kramer movie, “On The Beach.” It starred Gregory Peck, Ava Garner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire. It dealt with a post-apocalyptic world which was facing total doom as a result of a worldwide nuclear holocaust. The last bastion of humanity was in Melbourne, Australia as the lethal radiation effects covered the globe. They actually filmed much of the movie in Melbourne. I revisited the movie before I went to Australia. I was delighted to be able to recognize several of the buildings that were in the movie. These included St. Paul’s Cathedral and the ornate train station which is a prime example of Victorian Architecture. Throughout the movie, they played Waltzing Matilda, which is the unofficial National Anthem of Australia. I highly recommend the original version of “On The Beach” and not the remake. The original version relies solely on excellent acting and not special effects. Check it out if you want to see a movie classic and what Melbourne looked like almost 60 years ago as well as today.
Finishing the tour, I walked along the river and watched the rowing teams practice. There was a lovely tree-lined promenade that extended over a mile along the river. The walkway had numerous shops, cafés, restaurants. My hotel was along this river walk. Across the river from my hotel was the Crown Casino complex that had a gaming hall, a wide range for restaurants, and a wonderful shopping mall. One could spend numerous hours and dollars in this complex.
It was a delightful way to spend the rest a few hours until I was scheduled to take the boat tour of Melbourne at 3:00 PM. While walking the promenade, I realized that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Noticing what appeared to be a small restaurant that specialized in organic and gluten free foods, I decided to give it a try. I watched the cook flipping charcoal broiled burgers and when she finished one of the burgers, she put a fried egg, over easy, on the burger! Having never seen such a thing, I had to give a try. The good news was that it was quite good! The bad news was that it really was messy. I had to find a rest room to clean up before I caught the boat tour.
The boat tour went for the landing on the promenade up the river past the train station, several parks, and within view of the MCG. On the return trip, we went out to the bay and past the ship yards. Along this portion of the river, I became acutely aware of the wealth in Melbourne. There were mega condos and mega yachts! One would be hard-pressed to tell which one cost the most! It was a very lovely and very impressive ride on the river. We returned up the river, dodging rowing crews, until we docked at the landing on the promenade. It was a delightful way to spend a day. That evening I quietly walked through the casino and the mall. The day ended with writing post cards and watching my new favorite sport on TV: Rugby!
The next day was spent was walking about more of Melbourne and finding a post office to mail the 21 postcards that I had written to my friends and the teacher who replaced me when I retired from teaching special ed. She has made geography lessons out of the post cards that I had sent from around the world. To my surprise, the postage to send 21 post cards back to the states was over $50! Yikes! The evening was spent packing, journal writing, and watching more Rugby. I had become a fan of the sport.
Checking out of the hotel was uneventful, as was the ride to the airport, and the short flight to Canberra. I liked Melbourne and I want to return there someday. It was recommended that I take the 1-hour flight to Canberra instead of the 8-hour drive from Melbourne. I think for my sanity as well as my safety and the safety of the citizens of Australia, this was a very wise choice!
CANBERRA THE CAPITAL
I arrived in Canberra later that morning and was met by my new friend, Commander Tex Toohay, Australian Royal Navy (Retired). He was as much of a character as his name would imply. He gave me a brief tour of the city before I checked into the Crown Plaza Canberra.
Canberra was the capital of Australia. It was a planned city designed by Walter Barley Griffin, who was a partner of Frank Lloyd Wright prior to moving to Australia for the Canberra project. Canberra’s design was very like Washington D. C. but on a much smaller scale. The best place to view the logical design of Canberra and to appreciate its beauty was from the top of Mount Ainslie, which was located just far enough outside the city to provide a spectacular view of the entire city and the surrounding areas. Tex made sure that a visit to the mountain top was included in my initial tour. My first impression of Canberra was extremely favorable. While I loved Perth / Fremantle and thoroughly enjoyed Melbourne, I felt like Canberra could be home.
While Canberra was the Capital of Australia, it felt more like a small town in Iowa. The abundance of parks, the arboretum, and the huge lake that only allowed sailboats and made this place a real paradise. You could go skiing in the mountains, swimming at a coastal beach, or visit Sydney all within a 2-hour radius, depending on which direction you travel and the traffic. Canberra was full of museums, art galleries, and cultural events. I liked it there! It was so clean and pristine! I couldn’t believe that I felt this way after only being there a half day! The day ended with dinner with Tex and his lovely wife Leigh, who also served in the Royal Australian Navy. We had shrimp and salmon on the Bar-B. It was a wonderful way to end my first day in Canberra.
The next day, Tex picked me up at the hotel for a full day of touring. My new friend took me to the Australian War Memorial. It is a wonderful place that was a cross between the Smithsonian, the Viet Nam Memorial, the Korean Memorial, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. One could have spent days there. I already felt like I’d known this guy for years. He was in Viet Nam, too, and went back about 3 years ago. Like all veterans, we shared and compared experiences.
Later, we went to the Australian Parliament and watched the House of Representatives having a spirited debate. Also, they had a session called question where they put the Australian Prime Minister on the proverbial “Hot seat,” and the Members of Parliament asked him ANY question. I sure wish we could do this to our President! It was almost like a political rugby match. I could have spent hours there. It was truly fascinating!
For dinner, Tex, his wife Leigh, and I went to their country club for dinner. Tex had membership #2 at the club and was known by everyone. He checked out a golf cart, and we went on the course to herd kangaroos. There were almost a hundred of them, from little babies to big ones. They were used to humans and were so peaceful. I could just walk up to them and almost pet them before they would slowly hop away, just out of reach. Generally, they just sat there and looked at us. I got some great pictures. The strangest one was of me in my sport coat walking among the kangaroos. After walking among the kangaroos, we had a delightful dinner at the club and reflected upon the day’s activities. I had the time of my life!
Returning to their home, we watched the last of the cricket match where Australia beat South Africa. Tex tried to patiently explain the sport of cricket to me. For the first time in my life, I began to understand the game…somewhat…I think…maybe not. Canberra is truly a beautiful place. Tex was already talking about my next trip there.
On the last full day in Canberra, Tex dropped me off in the Civic Center while he had to conduct some business. This enabled me to visit, on my own, the Museum of Modern Art, the Science Center, and the Old Parliament Building, which was now a museum. Each of these buildings were beautiful marble structures situated along a mall reminiscent of the Mall in the U. S. Capital. At the Museum of Modern Art was an exhibit titled “Elvis at 21.” It was a display of dozens of photographs taken of Elvis, during a one-week period, when Elvis was just beginning his career at the age of 21. It was truly fascinating and it appeared that the citizens of Canberra really enjoyed the exhibit. All these years, Elvis was still popular -even halfway around the world.
I ended up at the Old Parliament Museum where I got a bit of lesson in Australian history and politics. This was provided by an elderly tour guide who was lacking a tour group and looking for an opportunity to fight boredom. I was delighted that he shared his knowledge with me! Having a degree in history and political science, I didn’t have to fake polite interest as I learned a lot and enjoyed the stimulating conversation as we compared each of our governments. It was a great way to pass the time until I waited to meet Tex.
At the predesignated time, Tex picked me up in front of the museum, and we headed to a local café for a quick lunch and to plan the afternoon activities. First on the list was to be a boat trip on the lake in the center of the city. Lake Burley Griffin was a huge artificial lake in the center of Canberra. The only power boat allowed on the lake was the tour boat. However, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, and paddle boats were permitted. The deep blue lake surrounded by parks and museums created a lovely setting of beauty and tranquility. I immediately decided to buy a sailboat if ever I lived in Canberra and sail it on this lake as often as I could.
As if things couldn’t get any better, Tex, Leigh, and I attended the annual Enlighten Canberra. This was the annual art and culture festival that was held outdoors in the Capital Civic Center. The festival featured illuminating light installations and projections, performances from local and interstate musicians, dining and film events. The entire Mall was turned into a multi-media extravaganza that was truly magical! Google it to see what I am talking about! It was a must see and a spectacular way to end my visit to Canberra.
In the morning, as I prepared to check out of the hotel, I noticed over a dozen hot air balloons being launched from the mall in front of my hotel. They looked like multicolored polka dots pasted against the clear blue sky. It was truly a spectacular sight. It confirmed that I truly loved Canberra and vowed to return…possibly to live there.
Tex took me the airport and made sure that I was on the Emirates flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. I thanked my new friend for his tremendous hospitality and vowed to reciprocate whenever he and Leigh come to America. I am happy to say that we have continued to remain in contact.
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND
TIMARU, LIKE CARMEL, CA BUT WITH ALPS
The flight from Melbourne, Australia to Christchurch was quite pleasant and lasted 3.5 hours. This was the first time I flew on Emirates Airlines, and I was very impressed with the aircraft, staff and cuisine. The food was much better than food on domestic air carriers in the U. S. Departing the plane in Christchurch, I hoped to have another opportunity to fly Emirates.
Entering New Zealand for the first time, I got my passport stamped. This made country number 58! The country of New Zealand was divided into 2 Islands, often referred to as the North Island and the South Island. Christchurch was on the South Island. Since I would be traveling extensively around the South Island, I immediately rented a car upon arrival. As I departed the rental agency, I wonder if the Hertz put out “Yank on the road” warnings with the local traffic report?
To my surprise and disappointment, Christchurch didn’t have any of the major hotel chains in the town. If I stayed in a hotel, I always tried to stay with International Hotel Group (IHG), Hilton, or Marriott properties in that order. The points and frequent traveler status provided great rewards for my loyalty. It also provided a certain assurance of the high quality of the property. Unfortunately, the hotel I selected was not of that quality. It didn’t even have an alarm clock in the room nor wake-up call service. At the end of the stay, in order to make a very early morning flight to Sydney, I relied on my son, Nick, calling me on SKYPE from the states with my computer to wake me up. This reaffirmed why I stayed with my favorite properties.
Aside from the hotel accommodations, my first impressions of New Zealand were very positive. As expected, people were very friendly! It reminded me of Iowa with mountains. I drove around Christchurch during my first evening in town.
In 2011, there was a devastating earthquake on the South Island of New Zealand. It was a rather sad scene around the center of the city. The devastation of the earth quake was totally apparent by the large number of vacant lots. Every one of those represented a building that was totally destroyed. It was almost haunting. It was estimated that it will take years for the people to recover, but they were working at it! The problem was that the entire country of New Zealand had less than 5 million people. To put this in perspective, the city of New York City had almost twice as many people as the entire country of New Zealand. Thus, New Zealand didn’t have the economic resources and foundation to stage a massive recovery program. Furthermore, after the earthquake, it was discovered that Christchurch was located directly on a massive fault! Thus, the logic of rebuilding was subject to question. It was a real problem.
I also drove out to Lincoln University that evening. It was very large campus and reminded me of a New Zealand equivalent to Iowa State U. It definitely was an aggie school. The campus was really beautiful! I drove around Christchurch University, too, which seemed like a small liberal arts school. One thing I noticed about both universities, there weren’t any areas with bars and pizza parlors, etc. At Drake University, my Alma Mater for under grad, we used to call the student hang out area, “Dog Town” in honor of the Drake Bull Dogs. Iowa State had a similar area. I didn’t see anything like that around either of the Christchurch schools. I guess the students came there to actually study. What a concept!
The 2-hour drive to Timaru was very picturesque and uneventful. By journey’s end I had reached a certain comfort level for driving on the “Wrong side of the road.” The only problem was it required my undivided attention. Thus, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to enjoy the lovely scenery.
Entering Timaru, I discovered a quiet village on Caroline Bay at the base of New Zealand’s South Alps. The whole scene was breathtaking and reminded me of Carmel, CA with Alps. I immediately wanted to permanently relocate there and buy my own sail boat to join the others dotting the bay. It was love at first sight.
I was directed by Tony to a coffee shop which had a perfect view of the bay. From there, the proprietor called Tony on their shop’s phone and announced my arrival. Within, 15 minutes, Tony joined me for coffee as we introduced ourselves to each other. Finishing our coffee, I followed Tony to the sheep farm to meet Sandra and have a tour of the farm. The entire region was magnificent!
This whole scene would have been a young child’s delight. The fresh air was intoxicating! There were sheep everywhere as well as little lambs, cute as could be. To add to the fun, the border collie recently had 4 pups that were so young, their eyes hadn’t even opened, yet. The scene was joyful ciaos!
The next day was bright, sunny, and a bit chilly. Tony and Sandra took me around to the various points of interest in the Canterbury Region. Top on the list were The Church of the Good Shepard and lake Tekapo. The church was of a rugged stone design, very like those seen in the Irish country side. The church was located on a hill overlooking the beautiful, clear blue waters of Lake Tekapo, whose calm waters were at the base of New Zealand’s South Alps. My first thought was, “Now I know where God goes on vacation!” No words could describe the rugged beauty and serenity that was before me.
We found a nice lakeside restaurant where I treated Tony and Sandra to lunch, as an appreciation for their warm hospitality. Leaving the lake, we drove up to the Mt. John Observatory. This region has been determined to be one of the few places where there was no air or light pollution. It is one of the purest and darkest places on earth. This made it the most ideal place for an observatory. Unfortunately, it rained every night while I was there. However, I am told that the night sky was beyond belief! It provided be a good reason to return.
As mentioned, it rained that evening. Thus, we had a quiet dinner at home where we were joined by Tony and Sandra’s daughter and son-in-law. They were as curious about America as I was about New Zealand. We had a delightful evening filled with fun conversation. I hated it to end. However, I needed to get up in the morning to drive back to Christchurch.
Profusely thanking Tony and Sandra for their invitation and warm hospitality, I left my new friends, the farm, and Timaru. I liked the whole Canterbury Region and hoped to return there someday. I could actually see myself living there and sailing on Caroline Bay! It was good to have dreams!
The rainy drive back to Christchurch provided an additional challenge, as it required even more of my undivided attention. I applied an even greater amount of caution at the round-a-bouts. I guaranteed that no constable was going to give me a speeding ticket. I made it back safely to Christchurch with enough time to visit their local military air museum. Although it wasn’t the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, it was interesting to see the New Zealand’s aspect of military air.
Returning to Christchurch, I stopped by the mall to do some quick shopping for my son. He had requested only one thing from my entire trip to Australia and New Zealand. That was a New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team shirt. Of course, that is the National Team of New Zealand. They had been world champions numerous times. The good news was that I could find one in the local sporting goods store in the mall. It was rather pricey at $100, especially when I found out that I could have bought in the airport’s duty free shop for $90. Oh well, it was the only thing he wanted.
Since I was due at the airport very early in the morning, I checked out from the hotel the night before. Since they still didn’t have any alarm clocks or wake-up calls, I put my faith in Nick to call me on Skype. As promised, the Skype chimes woke me and I was able to make my flight to Sydney on Qantas Airlines. I was sure happy that I bought that rugby shirt for him!
It was with a heavy heart that I left New Zealand. I loved Timaru and wanted to return there someday. I had met great new friends in Tony, Sandra, and their family. I was also sad for the people of Christchurch. They hadn’t recovered from the 2011 devastating earthquake. There seemed to be an air of uncertainty and indecision as to which way to go on this matter. Thus, not much of an effort had been made to rebuild. I hated to see this because the people of Christchurch were good people and deserve a future with a sense of certainty. I wish I had the answer for them.
SYDNEY, WHAT ELSE CAN BE SAID?
The flight to Sydney was uneventful. Since I was traveling from New Zealand, I had to go through immigration again. Everything went smoothly, and I was soon speeding towards my hotel: The Holiday Inn Kings Cross. I chose this hotel because it was more centrally located to the sights and activities of Sydney. Furthermore, it was less than 100 feet to the elevator which took me to the subway and the rest of the city. Arriving there, they gave me a wonderful room on the top floor with an excellent view of the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge and the harbor. I also had view of the apartment complex where the Australian actor, Russel Crowe, lived. I knew I would be comfortable here for the next week.
Once checked into the hotel, I immediately arranged a tour of the city. This gave me a great overview of Sydney and helped me to get my “bearings.” Additionally, it helped me to decide places for returning or skipping. After the city tour, I spent the rest of the day planning and arranging for my various other tours. Top of the list was scheduling the climb of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. That was high on my bucket list. Also, I planned to take a tour of the Sydney Opera House, the Taronga Zoo, the top of the Sydney Tower, and visits to the Rocks as well as Bondi and Manly Beaches. I also planned to make a side trip to the H. M. A. S. Watson Memorial Chapel which was highly recommended by my friend Tex Toohay. There was a lot to do in Sydney and that was why I scheduled almost a week there.
The second full day was spent climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky. The tour was not for the faint of heart or for those that are out of shape. The bridge rose high over the Sydney Harbor. Thus, it was a challenge for those with a strong fear of heights. However, the view was truly spectacular. Because of the clear day, we could even see the Blue Mountains in the distance. Safety was paramount. Each person was required to change into blue jump suits and empty all their pockets. We were not allowed to take any objects on the bridge. The fear was that items might be dropped on cars or pedestrians with devastating results. Also, by not allowing cameras or cell phones, the tour company could sell us overpriced photos of us on the bridge.
Once we were in our climbing uniforms, we were placed in groups no larger than 14 people. We weaved our way through the bridge superstructure and girders high over the bridge traffic to the point where we began the climb up one side of the curved arch to the very top of the bridge. At that point, we had individual pictures taken by one of the tour guides. After that we crossed over to the arch on the other side of the bridge and made our descent, eventually to street level. All the while, as we made our climb and descent, we were linked to each other by strong flexible steel cables. Additionally, we were linked to the bridge, which caused us to link and re-link to the bridge as we made the climb. It appeared to be totally safe and I never gave the possibility of falling off the bridge a thought.
The tour took about 3.5 hours and involved climbing over 3,000 steps. If you did the additional climb up on the lookout pylon, that was an additional 400 steps. I found this out when I asked the clerk at the souvenir stand how many steps I had climbed. With a look that questioned my sanity she said, most people don’t do both climbs on the same day. I highly recommend the bridge climb. You not only get a great view on a clear day, but a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
The next day I visited the area known as the Rocks. It supposedly was where the original inhabitants of Sydney first landed. Today, it was a tourist region filled with shops, museums, restaurants and bars. On one side was the Sydney Bridge, and on the other side was the Sydney Opera House. The main ferry terminal landing was right in the middle. From the landing, one could take a ferry to all regions of the huge harbor, including Manly Beach and the Taronga Zoo. Not only was it a rapid, inexpensive way to travel, it provided a spectacular view of the sights of Sydney. I was always glad that I brought my camera when I took the ferry.
That afternoon, I took the tour of the other icon on Sydney, the world-famous Sydney Opera House. It was a great way to see this famous venue and to learn the history of it. The Opera House had three stages. The Joan Sutherland Theatre was where the main opera performances were held. There was a Jazz Cabaret and a smaller theater for drama performances. While we were taking the tour, we had a brief opportunity to watch a rehearsal of the Opera Carmen. It was wonderful, and they even used real live horses during the performance!
I asked our guide if there were tickets available for Carmen. She suggested that I check at the ticket office after the tour. Also, she suggested that I mention that I had taken the tour in order to receive a discount. After the tour, I went directly to the Box Office and requested a ticket for Wednesday night’s performance of Carman. The agents gave me a perfect seat right in the center. Then, he asked me for $299! I thought for a moment and almost agreed to pay the price. After all, this was a once in a lifetime experience. Then, I remembered the tour guide’s comment about showing my tour receipt for a discount. The agent said, “Of course.” The new price with discount was only $99! With a $200 savings, I immediately said, “Sold,” and gladly paid that price!
Before I went to the Opera, I had dinner at the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. It was a private club where I had reciprocal membership through my Marine Memorial Association. The food was outstanding and reasonably priced! The waitress had the face of a young Jackie Kennedy, and the waiter looked like John Goodman. They were a pair of real characters and made the meal even more enjoyable! The club was two blocks from the Opera House, and the walk to the opera helped settle my meal. Needless to say, the performance of Carman was outstanding, especially at the discounted price! The whole evening was quite memorable.
The next day, I took a 12-minute ferry ride from the Rocks Ferry Landing to the Taronga Zoo, which was across the harbor from downtown Sydney. As we passed the Sydney Naval Base, where the new Royal Australian Navy aircraft carrier, H. M. A. S. Canberra, was being readied for commissioning. Seeing this very impressive new ship was an additional bonus for this ferry ride.
Taronga is an aboriginal word that means beautiful view. The Taronga Zoo first opened in 1916 and was located on a hill that provided a spectacular view of the entire Sydney Harbor. Thus, the name Taronga. The beautiful water; cloudless, sunny sky; and the entire view of the city and harbor, with all its famous icons, provided the opportunity for several great photos!
The zoo has a wide assortment of animals, including those that are indigenous to Australia and New Zealand. The most fun place was the area where I could get up close and personal with the Koala Bear. I even had my picture taken with one. Another fun activity, for children, was climbing on a high platform to feed the giraffes under the supervision of one of the zoo keepers. I highly recommend visiting the Taronga Zoo, especially if you had children with you.
On another day trip, I took the suggestion of my friend, Commander Tex Toohay and visited the Chapel of St George the Martyr. This was located on H. M. A. S Watson at the entrance to Sydney harbor. H. M. A. S. stands for His / Her Majesty’s Australian Ship or Station. This is a naval training station. The most picturesque way to get to the naval station was via ferry. Since I was a retired American military officer with an I. D. card, I was permitted limited access to visit the base and the chapel. The building was located on a hill with a wonderful view of the harbor, distant city sky line, and a view of the ocean. This alone would have been worth the trip. However, once inside the chapel, I was treated to a dazzling display of stain glass windows that represented various units and commands in the Royal Australian Navy. Although, what really caught my eye was a huge plate glass window, behind the alter, which offered a spectacular view of the ocean and the entrance to Sydney Harbor. The scene was truly breathtaking! For its small size, it was one of the most impressive military chapels that I had ever visited. I was grateful to Tex’s suggestion and that I made the effort to visit this beautiful chapel.
There are several other must-see attractions in the Sydney area. If time permitted, take the 40-minute ferry to Manly Beach which was on the ocean side. Walking down the promenade from the ferry landing to the expansive beach, I was reminded of the beach areas in Southern California in the mid-60s. There were T-shirt shops and eateries all along the way. Once at the beach, I was treated to one of the most beautiful and largest beaches in the Sydney area. Furthermore, the day I visited, the beach was nearly empty. If I was a beach person, this was where I would be.
On another day, I visited the famous Bondi Beach. That could be reached from my hotel by taking the subway just 2 stops and a short bus ride. As much as Manly Beach was quiet, serene, and uncrowded, the famous Bondi Beach was just the opposite! It was so crowded, people had difficulty finding a spot to put down their towels. While it may be one of the most famous beaches in the world, and the place to see and be seen, I preferred the vast expanse and peacefulness on Manly Beach. However, I checked Bondi Beach off my “Been there, done that,” list.
One final stop on my visit to Sydney was the Sydney Tower. It seemed every major city of note had a similar tower and Sydney was no exception. It was opened in 1981 and stood 1014 feet above the city and harbor. It should be noted that this tower was 164 feet higher than the Auckland, NZ tower, not that there was any competition between the two countries. The tower provided an amazing 360-degree view of Sydney, the harbor, all the famous icons, and the surrounding areas. Viewing my hotel, I realized that I made a wise choice in its location relative to the many points of interest in this city. I would definitely put it on the must visit list, particularly if it the weather cooperated.
As fate would have it, my last day in Sydney was St. Patrick’s Day. I noticed that the bars had already begun to fill up before noon. I made a mental note to be out of the area before sundown. This had all the ear markings of a potentially rowdy evening. I used the day to revisit some of the places around The Rocks and Ferry Terminal that I enjoyed. Also, I spent the time souvenir shopping for myself, son, and daughter-in-law. I chose to do the shopping, now. If I had purchase the souvenirs earlier, I would have been lugging them all over the country and could have exceeded my weight limits on the various flights. Flying home first class on United, I was given extra weight allowances.
Of course, there were plenty of opportunities to spend money in the various shops. For myself, I bought a nice piece of Aboriginal Art that I later had framed at home. Shopping done, I found a wonderful waterfront café to have a coffee and a pastry. Sitting there with the Sydney Harbor Bridge on my left and the Opera House on my right, I took the time to reflect upon the activities of the past month. I was truly fortunate to have had this opportunity to take this trip of a life time. From a chopper ride over and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, to watching the sun set into the Indian Ocean at Fremantle, to seeing the Enlightenment Festival in Canberra, to climbing the Harbor Bridge and watching Carman in Sydney: I actually lived the fantasy of many people! I had both a feeling of exhilaration and sadness. I realized that I was truly blessed! Yet, I was truly sad that I was leaving Australia the next day. At that moment, I truly vowed to return to both Australia and New Zealand. I had fallen in love with both countries. However, now it was time to go home, for the moment.
I departed Sydney for San Francisco, CA USA at 3:20 PM on March 18th, on board a huge United Airlines 747. Using my airline miles, I flew first class, which was the only way to make such a long flight. As expected, the cuisine was superb, and I ate more than I needed. Also, I could get a reasonable good night’s sleep because the seat turned into a full-length bed that was quite comfortable. We had both dinner and breakfast on the flight.
As we approached the United States, I recognized the California coastline. It was a marvelously clear day with tremendous visibility. All of a sudden, right outside my window on the port side of the air craft, I was presented with the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the City of San Francisco. It was truly a picture postcard moment. I had been traveling to San Francisco since 1964. Never had I seen such a pristine view of the city and its own iconic bridge. What a wonderful way to end my trip and to welcome me back to America! It was one more blessing!
We landed at 10:50 AM on March 18th. Because of crossing the International Date Line in an easterly direction, I landed more than 4 hours BEFORE I took off. As many times that I have made similar trips eastward across the Pacific Ocean, I still find this to be a fascinating phenomenon. After that, the short flight to Las Vegas and home was almost anti-climactic.
FINAL IMPRESSIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
The month I spent in Australia and the brief trip to New Zealand was a trip of a life time. I found both countries and its people exceeded my expectations! I liked everything about my visit. The country’s topographical diversity was obvious. From the Great Barrier Reef, to the sunset on the Indian Ocean, to the planned city of Canberra, to the numerous activities in Sydney, and the beautiful, pristine air of the New Zealand Alps; the entire trip made a lasting, positive impression on me.
The people of Australia and New Zealand were as memorable as the rugged beauty of their countries. They were a friendly, fun lot who loved to talk, tell stories and share experiences. I felt totally welcomed and safe in both countries. Remember, I traveled much of this trip by myself. I did not find this to be a problem at all. However, since I was in several metropolitan areas, I did not put myself in any irresponsible situations. Whenever I found the need to ask for assistance, be it directions or dinner recommendation, both the Aussies and the Kiwis were eager to help. Of course, the fact that we spoke and reasonably understood a similar language, made conversations a lot easier. I had a great time with the people of Australia and New Zealand!
There were a few things to consider when making a trip to either Australia or New Zealand. Australia required tourists to purchase a visa. This was done on line or through a travel agent. New Zealand does not require a visa. Depending on the time of year, hotel reservations were recommended. Remember, their Summer was from December to March! For currency, the Australians used their money and the New Zealanders used their own money, too. Unlike some Asian countries, neither Aussies nor Kiwis accepted the American dollar for trade. Thus, make sure you have enough of the local currency when you arrive to take care of cab fares and porter tips.
The cuisine in both countries consisted of beef, lamb, and sea food. I didn’t find it totally unique from American food. For those who have a finicky palate, there were plenty of familiar fast-food establishments in all the cities. McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and Pizza Huts were plentiful. However, if you stuck with those venues, you limited yourself and really missed out.
Public transportation in all major cities was plentiful and very user friendly. In fact, it was so good, I decided to cancel my rental car in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. I wish I had done the same in Perth, because my car never left the hotel parking lot until the day of departure. Like many cities, there were fare-saver cards that could be purchased for a great savings. Also, remember to ask for senior discounts at all venues. It saved me a great deal at the Sydney Tower, The Taronga Zoo, the ferry rides and so many other places. It NEVER hurts to ask!
I hope you have enjoyed this travelogue on Australia and parts of New Zealand. I hope it served as a motivator to plan your own trip “Down Under.” Safe travels, have fun, and be good to yourself.