Have you ever been Down Under - or wanted to go there, mate? POSH Photographer Harold Leath and I recently headed there on a tour of Australia, which was followed with a visit to New Zealand for seeing heaping helpings of spectacular scenery, which just happens to be some of the most beautiful in the world, and to do what all else that country had to offer, which involved food, of course - and then, traveled on to savor the tropical paradise of Fiji, which involved sun -- and, again food. What a triple combo of vacation delight: Australia, New Zealand and Fiji all wrapped in one package. (Offered by Jane's Journeys)
Harold and I had both packed guides on how to throw a boomerang - just kidding, but we did pack too much stuff, unfortunately. What we should have done was left our watches at home because as you know, travelers seem to lose all sense of keeping time, or know what day it is, once they have crossed the International Time Line. I never knew what day it was, but did realize that every day of the journey was better than the day before.
Although the tour was to officially begin in Australia, there was an airport stop in Auckland, New Zealand. Both Harold and I just loved a sign in the airport lobby while we were sipping on delicious mango tea that had beckoned us: Eat, Drink, Travel Happy. We made a vow to be Happy Travelers for the whole trip.
It all started in Cairns
You MUST learn to pronounce Cairns correctly, PLEASE. It is said quite simply: "cans." And, what a great place to begin our tour was Cairns, Australia. If you do not remember anything else, you might want to remember that Cairns is home to the Great Barrier Reef - and that is a BIG DEAL. We spent some remarkable time at "the reef," but we also enjoyed The Esplanade in Cairns, which was the main "drag" through town where our hotel, The Pacific Hotel, was located near all the action -- with places to eat, shops a'plenty and a pretty beach with BIG, interesting pieces of art right on the beach nearby.
OK - eating right in the restaurant at The Pacific Hotel was a treat because that is where we had several delicious meats (including kangaroo and lamb for the first of what would be many times on the trip) grilled on The Barbie and presented at our table on a spear, along with unique marinades. You do know Australians are known for being saucy - and so are their meats, which were delicious? They even roasted pineapple that night, and I wish I had the recipe for the cinnamon/sugar glaze served with it.
Our days in Cairns were varied and filled with opportunities. Traveling by a high speed catamaran named the Reef Adventure out to Green Island to explore The Great Barrier Reef; taking a glass bottom boat ride to actually see the world-famous coral reefs, along with sea turtles and other "things;" and then having a lovely lunch with members of the tour group together on the veranda of the restaurant on the island, were highlights of the first day.
The second day in Cairns started before the crack of dawn with going on an early morning hot air balloon adventure. This optional choice for Harold Leath and me was so enjoyable that I have said that after all was said and done, this was by far my favorite part of the whole trip. I loved every minute from crawling into the basket to soaring up in the clouds over the pretty valley.
Our last full day in Cairns was what we labeled our Tribal Day, traveling as a group to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Center (tough to say or spell) to see costumed traditional dances, learn how to play a didgeridoo - do you know how - and then, the long-anticipated boomerang throwing.
After all of that, the group visited Hartley's Croc Farm where we saw MANY crocodiles from a boat ride adventure through a lagoon of the crocodiles' natural rainforest habitat. Much more to my liking was strolling through the part of the farm with natural woodlands that featured kangaroos and koalas that we could actually pet. All this was before a scrumptious dinner of more Aussie barbecue.
Traveling to Sydney the next day was exciting to me because I was to meet a long-time friend who now lives there, and who was going to join us on some tour activities. You can just imagine all the famous sights that we savored: seeing the architectural glory of the Harbour Bridge and actually touring the spectacular Sydney Opera House. Do you know that those two famous landmarks are located close to each other on the Sydney Harbour?
Everyone on our tour visited an opal shop and learned about that locally mined stone being a popular gem of the area. Then, folks had a multitude of choices for the day - mostly from a useful "Hop On and Off" Ferry Cruise Pass. Harold and I, along with my Aussie friend Barb, chose to ascend the amazing Sydney Tower Eye for an incredible lunch in the rotating restaurant that enabled unbelievable views of the whole city before we eventually caught the ferry and visited one of Barb's favorite beach areas. Sydney is such a great city with so much to offer.
What comes to mind when you hear Foodie Safari? For those fortunate tour members choosing this option, five local eateries were visited, sampled and loved: historic Raineri Delicatessen, Sydney Fish Market - where we ate a hearty lunch of seafood from the market, outside on picnic tables - VERY interesting, Harry's Café de Wheels (featuring meat pies, a specialty in Australia - and Harold loved the name Harry's, of course,) Old Fitzroy's local pub and ended the Foodie Safari with a local ice cream treat.
That night the excitement continued when the whole group went together on The Captain Cook Dinner Cruise around Sydney Harbour, which offered one more look at the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and other scenic views - this time at night - along with great food, as a way to say good-bye to the city.
Amazing New Zealand: So awesome
The following day it was time to fly to New Zealand and few of us knew what we had ahead. In a nutshell, every minute spent in New Zealand on the trip was more laid back, beautiful and delightful than anticipated. Stopping first in the city of Christchurch, located in an area that had been devastated by a series of earthquakes in 2011, the city once known as "The Garden City" is now recreating itself.
A visit to a local family in Christchurch, for dinner in their homes, was the first item on our New Zealand itineraries. Broken into small groups, we went to eat - most groups having similar meals of lamb, a specialty of the area, of course - with veggies and a special local dessert. With no exceptions, all tour members agreed their hosts provided food that was yummy and an experience that was a delightful look at life in that part of the world.
We were ready for the next day's venture out to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve to walk through the natural heritage forest reserve to see interesting wildlife such as the Kiwi. All of us also got a kick out of seeing and talking about the name of one of the other birds, the kaka. I thought the kaka was pretty, even if it has a funny name. That afternoon there was free time and each tour member found what interested them: Harold took an interactive tour at the International Antarctic Centre that he found educational. My friend Jane Julian, from Jane's Journeys, and I found a great little Mexican restaurant recommended by locals. Ole.
Take note, please. Some of the most spectacular scenery you can imagine was seen the next day traveling from Christchurch toward our destination of Queenstown through the Southern Alps. Viewing Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand, was so remarkable, as was seeing more sheep than you could count - and stopping to admire a scenic stone church and a fine-looking statue of a sheep, before going into a local fruit market that had an awesome tasting table set up for us to sample (and buy, if we chose) some of their delicious New Zealand produce.
Excitement mounted upon reaching Queenstown, built on an inlet called Queenstown Bay on Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by the Remarkable Mountains. Yes, that really is the name of the mountain range. Our fellow travelers realized we would be kept busy enjoying this area that has become well known recently as the location for many TV shows and movies, particularly all of the "Lord of the Rings" films.
Our first day in Queenstown would be spent exploring the quaint Gold Rush settlement of Arrowtown, where as fate would have it, a festival was happening, complete with a parade and a skydiving show. Continuing on into the Otago Region of New Zealand wine country was a stop at Gibbston Valley Winery for a tour and wine-tasting at the wine cave.
That evening in Queenstown, some tour members made the choice to ride the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw to have dinner, followed by seeing a lamb-shearing, before returning by the steamship back to Queenstown. What fun to have an old-fashioned sing-a-long on board on the way back.
There was good news/no bad news about our traveling to Milford Sound. It was raining the following day when we traveled by bus through the rugged grandeur of Hollyford Valley and arrived at the Homer Tunnel to "the sound." Our guide said not to worry because we should be happy about the rain because we would see hundreds, maybe even thousands, of waterfalls - and even rainbows, too. It apparently was great to go to Milford Sound on a rainy day. We had a spectacular ride on the SPIRIT OF MILFORD catamaran on "the sound" as well.
Harold and some of the other tour members accepted the challenge the following day to take the "Journey Through the Middle Earth" four-wheel drive tour that not only went over extreme terrain, but even went through rough water to explore spots where "The Lord of the Rings" movies were filmed, as well as the site of a world-famous bungee jump. All participants were still breathing heavily long after the tour was over, and were saying the tour was one of their most exhilarating experiences ever.
That evening all tour members took a breath-taking gondola ride to a gourmet farewell New Zealand dinner at Skyline Restaurant, where we dined on the most amazing array of delicious, and a few unusual dishes, such as venison steak and baby octopus, to name a few. We all thought that in addition to the outstanding food, another highlight of the evening was views seen of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkable Mountains. Yes, the mountains are named Remarkable and they certainly live up to their name.
Paradise found in Fiji
After the cool and damp of New Zealand, it was wonderful to land in the city of Nadi in third country of our tour, Fiji. It did not take long to realize that Fiji does not have just tropical temperatures, but the local residents are just as warm and friendly as can be. EVERYONE at the brand new Pullman Nadi Bay Resort did EVERYTHING possible, from giving lessons on how to peel and serve a fresh coconut, to presenting native Fire Dances.
Harold and I are usually known to participate in most of the optional excursions offered while on tours. In tropical Fiji we just relaxed at the hotel most of the time and enjoyed life. Much of the time we discussed what a great time, in ALL ways possible, the tour had been.
Could we say what had been our favorite parts of this tour, which had been on both of our Bucket Lists? I had loved taking the Hot Air Balloon in Australia and hope to never forget how much I adored petting those kangaroos and koala bears seen in Australia, as well. The Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge are now two of my new best friends - forever. Harold and I both fell in love with New Zealand - and really enjoyed everything about it.
I feel blessed to have been able to take this tour after having a year with some health issues - and to have come home from the tour healthy and happy. Yes, Harold, we vowed to be Happy Travelers - and we were. Hope each of you continues to travel, check off places on your Bucket Lists and be happy, too. ENJOY.