Spectacular Sydney

Hi all (we're actually in NZ where we haven't heard a single G'day). It is Saturday afternoon, December 22, 2007... our wedding anniversary.

I promised our next note would be about spectacular Sydney...actually we're in the south island of New Zealand now and had I only known I would have saved the adjective "spectacular" for the South island.  Who knew... so I will come up with another superlative later...but in the meantime.

We loved Sydney.  We started off with dinner with two friends from our Japan Tauck trip, Robyn and Warren Hillman, Aussies who live in Mossman (right outside of Sydney). We ate on the harbor where Robyn proclaimed that Sydney is by far the most beautiful city in the world (and they are VERY well traveled). Our cynical selves didn't believe her until we spent the next 3 days walking and boating around...but she was right.  What a spectacular city.  Situated around the harbor and accented by the Opera House and Bridge it is a breath-taking place.  And our experiences there were unforgettable.

After picking up Em from the airport, we walked around the Botanic Gardens (lovely), had lunch in the Central Business District, then ambled over to the Queen Victoria Building (a beautiful 19th century building restored into a Westfield--as in Old Orchard--mall).  We are doing our share of shopping on the trip but what stuck with us here was the architecture.  Amazing.  After QVB, we mono-railed around the city, then went back to the hotel to prepare for our next adventure--the Syndey Opera House--where we had a private tour, dinner in the chi-chi restaurant, and great seats for the Nutcracker.  The SOH is amazing... so beautiful and our guide had such interesting stories.  The dinner was splendid and the Nutcracker, though familiar, was special. I must report that Emily was an extraordinary good sport and was actually awake for a good portion of the performance!

The next morning, Andrew & Wendy left for a harbor tour (great photo ops), then Em and Wayne joined us for a spin at the Taronga Zoo. This is a beautiful zoo set on the harbor with astonishing views.  We focused on the wild Australia exhibits...actually had platypus and Tasmanian Devil sightings, saw some jumping kangaroos, and had our picture taken (up close and personal) with a koala. 

There seem to be conflicting opinions as to the docility of koalas.  One of our waiters told us that they seem docile but because they snack on eucalyptus leaves, they really exist in a constant state of being stoned.  hmmm .  We finished up the day with a visit to Bondi Beach to check out the surfers and do some of our own wading (watch out for the tides--Em and I ended up getting drenched at least 8 inches up!).  Our dinner was at Iceberg's on the beach...  this is a contemporary, all glass room overlooking the beach with awesome views.  Em & Wayne shared pasta with clams and zucchini flowers, Wendy had a bone-in flounder, and Andrew had sting ray in parchment (which is what we would call skate).

As you can read, I began to run out of superlatives to describe Sydney after 3 days... so good thing we didn't stay any longer!  Actually, we will end our trip there on January 1.

In the meantime, I'll sign off for now.  If we don't get back to you before then, "happy Christmas," as they say here.  Next email will be on the South Island of New Zealand, followed by one for the North Island.  As a preview, please know that we arrived in NZ on Thursday afternoon (it's Saturday), and I will need to get out a thesaurus for more adjectives.  The beauty here is indescribable.  But more on that later... time for a hike.   

South Island Splendor

Hello all,
It is Thursday, Dec 27, 2007 at 3:50 p.m.  We are on the North Island in a 5,000 acre country manor which doubles as a sheep station (Wharekauhau--we still cannot get the Maori pronunciation down).  But, I wanted to give you the South Island update. 

In our last installment, I gave you a preview of the South Island of New Zealand; I recall (in my after-massage stupor right now) that I may have described it as indescribable.  Several days later, that is still the case... but, OK... I'll try to come up with some words.  The South Island of New Zealand is one minute after another of absolute eye candy.  Beginning with our ride through Christchurch (a lovely English-style city with the most beautifully delicate rose gardens in colors we had ever seen and the Avon... a stream of a river with punting), we knew that New Zealand was something special and altogether different from anything we'd seen in Australia.  You say you're going to Australia and New Zealand on holiday, but (at least for us), you neglect to realize how absolutely distinct they are in every single respect (except for both countries using English as their primary language).  Anyway, Christchurch was lovely even though we were there for fewer than 24 hours.  Then, we picked up the TransAlpine train to Greymouth (on the Tasman Sea side)--a 4 hour ride through the Southern Alps that was just splendid.  Then we picked up our rental care where the true fun began.

On a friend's tip, we had arranged for GPS/Tour guide equipment (separate unit--for those planning a trip here, it's called Kruse and has become indispensable). John (the narrator) has been our guide...which was reassuring because driving the "proper way" on the left has been challenging!  Our first stop was to wind through the Alps toward the Fox Glacier.  Magnificent.  We hiked up to the glacier last Saturday morning and it was glorious. 

That afternoon, we hiked around Lake Matthison (which they say is a must not miss because if the sun is right, you can catch the reflections of Mt Cook and Mt. Tasman. The sun wasn't right but it didn't matter.  It was great. We went back to the lake for breakfast the next day and caught a wonderful glimpse of both mountain tops.

The following morning we left for Queenstown...a ride full of more beautiful scenery (mind you, we didn't even include Milford Sound in our trip which is supposed to be the most breathtaking scenery on the South Island; I can't imagine).  Arriving at Queenstown, we settled in for two days of activities.  On Day 1, Andrew & Wendy took the jet-boating route at the Dart River.  The jet boats (big tourist attraction but we enjoyed them) sped through the River (only 6" deep at points) with daredevil twists and turns.  Because there had been a lot of rain the night before, there were waterfalls galore.  Beautiful.  On Day 2, we took a 4WD Lord of the Rings safari.  My not being a fan was irrelevant because the scenery is so breathtaking you feel like you are on a Universal Studios set.  Divine. While we were off adventuring, Emily & Wayne checked out the bird preserve and the botanic garden.  We also made sure to get in some retail therapy and great eating in Queenstown (though I must say we haven't suffered for eating anywhere so far).  On Christmas Day, we got in our requisite Asian lunch (though it was Thai, not the traditional Chinese); no movies playing... but we enjoyed the day and prepared for our voyage to the North Island on Wednesday.

A word about the eating in New Zealand: We have been doing it nonstop (in between scenery).  The lamb is as good as they say if not better (although the sheep and lambs everywhere made it difficult to eat lamb the first time; we got over it).  The fish is great.  We are still looking for Pavlova (the meringue/fruit dessert which is claimed by both Australia and NZ).  ANNE V:  I am enjoying your skinny flat whites (capuccino's without the foam).  We found the most amazing chocolate shop in Queenstown and visited at least 6 times in our 3 days there.  The wines, needless to say, are wonderful.  In short, no complaints...except that I should have packed more elastic pants.

We'll check in again toward the end of the North Island part of the trip (New Year's Day, unless we provide a preview before then).  In the meantime, be safe, be well, and happy new year's.

North Island Nirvana

Hello everyone and Happy New Year!
It is 9:11 a.m. on January 1, 2008 and we celebrated by watching the fireworks off Sky Tower in Auckland (the largest structure in the Southern Hemisphere).  It was great.

We are leaving in just a few hours for Sydney, then the flight home tomorrow (January 2)...but we wanted to give you this catch up on the North Island of New Zealand first. First, everyone says the scenery in the South Island is more spectacular and that Queenstown is a tourist's paradise.  Well, we loved the South Island but we also loved the North Island.  Again, it was one sight after the other of extraordinary scenery.  We started off (on Dec 26--Boxing Day) with our flight into Wellington (the capital) and a visit to Te Papa, an amazing cultural, geophysical museum.  It's oriented for kids but quite wonderful for big kids as well.  A friend recommended we visit and he was right on the money. We only had an hour to spend there but we strongly suggest it for others. We followed that up with a 2 hour drive on a winding mountain passage-way and a gravel road to our next destination Wharekauhau (pronounce it Far-a Ko-Ho).  This was a beautiful farm estate on a hill overlooking Palisser Bay.  We had two attached cottages here that were incredibly appointed... you would never know we were out in never-never land... just exquisite.  The meals there were unbelievable; we ate with the other guests.  For dinner the first evening, we had: crayfish filled squid-ink ravioli, asparagus soup, salmon wrapped in corn husks, and apple turnover.  We walked back to our cottages to find white-chocolate sheep on our pillows... and prepared for our farm tour the next morning.  This was no ordinary farm tour...the grounds are huge, thousands of hectares... with amazing views.  And not only did we see the sheep, sheep shearing, dog herding,  and a "friendly" eel eating a raw rabbit (ughhh), we saw spectacular scenery. We returned to the estate for a beautifully served lunch, massages, then dinner.  This time, they served venison carpaccio, gazpacho, crayfish lasagna, and white chocolate/raspberry meringues (preceded by 10 appetizers in the lounge).

The next morning, we left for the wine country (Hawkes Bay)... including (yes another meal) at the Sileni Winery. It was (are you surprised, I told you I didn't bring enough elastic pants) amazing...and the views, once again, were wonderful.  We ended up in Napier, an art-deco city completely restored after the 1931 earthquake.  We stayed in a vintage hotel and couldn't see anything because of the rain but woke up on Saturday morning to beautiful sunshine and the opportunity to walk along the shore. We headed to Taupo and Rotorua.  Taupo is the sight of Lake Taupo and several large volcanoes--at least one erupted within the last 50 years.

We had been under the impression that Rotorua was the farming capital and not more...but we couldn't have been farther off.  This was where the truly unbelievable scenery came into play.  Think thermal geysers, big lakes, volcanic craters, mud pots, steaming multi-colored sulfur pools.  We were escorted by Ben, a member of a huge Maori family (I think they all have thousands of cousins).  Ben is a gentle man who chauffeured us around for a memorable, fantastic 9 hour day--not only to the eco sites but also to his Maori village and the local museum.  So we not only soaked in the scenery but also the culture.  An incredible day.

In Rotorua, we stayed at the best B&B (The Springs) where our hostess (Colleen) makes the world's greatest blueberry pancakes.  She said that Bon Appetit had contacted her for the recipe... so watch for it!  We will. Anyway, we headed for Auckland through dairy country so of course had to stop for burgers and milkshakes before we arrived.  (Dairy farming is MUCH more profitable than sheep farming.)  Once we arrived in Auckland, we took a wonderful walk and headed for the Sky Tower where we checked out the sights.  We had an amazing dinner at Cin Cin on the Quay (and we have the pics to prove it!) continued our Scrabble tournament and brought in the new year.

Regarding the weather here on the North Island.  It started out stormy and windy (Chicago has nothing on Wellington, the true windy city... and our sleep on the estate was interrupted by terrific winds). Napier was also rainy when we arrived.  But, by the time we got to Rotorua, the weather turned absolutely perfect.  We got loads of sun (and a mild sunburn) and we finally look like we spent 3 weeks in the summer!

Well, running out of time on this computer, so gotta go.  Off to Sydney (again)!

Antipodean After-thoughts

Hi everyone,
It is Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 10:22 p.m. Chicago time and we are safely ensconced back home (Andrew in San Diego, Wendy & Wayne in Chicago, and Em packing for New Orleans even as we speak).  We arrived home at 4:00 this afternoon (technically 3 hours after we left Sydney, but in body-clock time nearly 24 hours after we left; this was truly our longest day!).  We thought it would only be proper to top off our trip with some perspectives.

They (at least in the books I've read) call Australia and New Zealand the Antipodes (the other side of the world).  They are and they aren't.  The long flights (and days lost or gained) certainly make these countries seem somewhat other-worldly.  But, once you're there, the language makes them very familiar.

They (mostly people who haven't visited) also say that as long as you're going, see both countries while you're there.  We disagree.  They're so different.  As long as you're going, go deeper into one country and go back for the other.  There's so much to see.

For a primeval feast of the eyes with amazing fern forests, volcanoes, thermal pools, geysers, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, overall spectacular scenery, and more sheep than people, choose NZ.  An amazing place, it is a haven for foodies and for adventure lovers. Feels a little like the road to Hana on Maui...but more wild.  There is a cultural angle with the Maori story, but it is interwoven everywhere you turn.  In fact, many of the towns on the North Island have Maori names.

For more diversity, architectural triumphs, great cities, culture, incredible eats, amazing shopping, time in the tropics, extraordinary Aboriginal history and sights, choose Australia (keep in mind, we tend to find amazing shopping everywhere and had the customs forms to prove it).  And mind you, we only saw a small part of the country.  In terms of wildlife, unlike Capetown where the baboons are on the loose a half hour out of the city, you won't see kangaroos in the big cities of Australia (except perhaps in Perth on the west coast).  They're in the zoos but don't run wild elsewhere.

Other Things We Learned (beyond our region updates)
New Zealand is renowned for its honey.  (Luckily, we had a food expert on our team, Andrew, who actually found a honey store and purchased at least 4 different types.)

Did you know that the loo's in NZ and Australia enable full or partial flushes?  So eco-friendly.

Did you know that when the continents were separated (centuries ago), Australia got all the venomous creatures?  New Zealand got the earthquakes and volcanoes but not a single venomous creature. 

In Rotorua, don't forget the Agridome (campy must not miss sheep show) and the Zorb (another action activity for the brave of heart, of course Andrew tried it).

This is the best spot for t-shirts in the world (so far at least).  If you travel here, pack half the shirts you would have.  You'll pick up more along the way.

We discovered two of the world's finest airlines with our transfers--New Zealand Air and Quantas.  What an improvement over United!

Top Ten
1.Being together as a family, couldn't beat it.

2.Sydney Opera House, the whole experience was amazing.
3.The people, everywhere.
4.Auckland on New Year's Eve (while the fireworks weren't on a par with what Sydney does, it was awesome to see in the New Year 2 hours earlier than Sydney with fireworks off the Sky Tower which we had ascended only 8 hours prior).
5.The Botanic Gardens--everywhere!
6.Knock-out scenery in NZ.
7.The special dessert arranged by Andrew & Emily for our 33rd wedding anniversary.
8.Getting drenched at Bondi Beach and our great dinner there.
9.Our audio expert, John, with funny stories, and his Maori warrior impersonations while we tried to "keep to the left" on some pretty challenging, winding roads.
10.The Wharekauhau country estate outside of Wellington, NZ.

And, of course, everything else.  We could do a separate top ten of the meals...but you got the idea.

So, thanks for being with us on our journey.  Now, for laundry, some sleep, a lo-carb diet, regular exercise, paying bills, and a return to the real world.

Happy new year everyone.

wendy, wayne, andrew & emily

Australia - New Zealand Photo Album Links

You can see our Shutterfly photo albums for this trip. 

Australia: CLICK HERE

New Zealand: CLICK HERE

Click on "Full screen" for best viewing.