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A Bit of Culture

After the late return from Phillip Island we were moving a bit slowly the next day.  Maybe the negative ions from the rain just made us want to sleep in a bit.  When we finally crawled out of bed and hit the hotel breakfast buffet (it is a struggle of self-restraint not to try and sample everything), we emerged into intermittent showers that lasted through mid-afternoon.  Nevertheless, we braved the conditions and opted for a bit of culture.

Our first stop was the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), which had a number of free exhibits in addition to several fee-based.  We viewed an exhibit of Japanese and southeast Asia art, including calligraphy, garments with tie-dyed and stenciled designs, pottery, and more formal kimonos.  It was a good shelter from the rain, too.

Next, we hoofed it up to the newly refurbished State Library of Victoria (BTW, Melbourne is in the state of Victoria).  The Library is a grand building with a multiple reading rooms, old volumes, and a multi-story dome with different exhibits on each level.  The main reading room is modelled after the British Museum and the U.S. Library of Congress.

The State Library Reading Room

One of the more interesting exhibits was the Velvet, Iron, Ashes. Among some of the more memorable items were footage of the finish of the London-Melbourne air race of 1934 and the suit of armor, with 18 bullet marks, that the Aussie bushranger (outlaw), Ned Kelly, was wearing when he was captured in a shootout with police in 1880.  

The original Ironman. This weighs nearly 100 pounds. What did Ned in were leg wounds.

We just missed the Ashes Urn, which contains ashes of a cricket wicket and the inscription, “In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882, Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. N.B. —The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”  This occurred after Australia defeated England in cricket in 1882 in England.

Our last day in Melbourne was another walking tour to the Victoria Market via Flagstaff Park.  Early in Melbourne’s existence Flagstaff Hill was used as a signal point to observe arrivals in the harbor and relay news via flags.  Today one can see where the harbor would be if not for all the buildings, but it is another nice Melbourne park.  We roamed through the market’s bread and cheese sections, picked up some souvenirs, and beat the afternoon rain back to the hotel.  All in all, we covered about 35 miles during our five-day Melbourne walkabout.

HOME!

“We’ll always have Paris.”  That line from Casablanca was going through our heads as we caught what was nearly the last flight out of Auckland for the U.S.  Not surprisingly, it was packed.  American Airlines has a codeshare agreement with Qantas, and it wanted its equipment back to the States before NZ closed its borders.  So we settled into our Dreamliner business class pods for the flight back.  Service was great, the pods were semi-self-contained cocoons, and the movies were pretty good.  Since we departed in mid-afternoon on March 25, it was still light out, and we were not quite ready to enter the Land of Nod. 

We arrived early on March 25 (yes, we arrived before we left, thanks to the confusing miracle of the International Dateline) at LAX and were not allowed off the plane until Customs opened at 6 a.m.  We breezed through and waited longer for our luggage to emerge.  Nobody asked about our health or any symptoms.  Janelle had read that unless one was visibly ill or in distress, they wanted to expedite the process, so that people could get through the airport and self-isolate as soon as possible.  I am sure that most people will, but we have been reading about the “corona parties” and blatant disregard of any social distancing guidelines.  In any event, we checked into an airport Marriott Courtyard for some decompression time until our final flights to BWI the next day.  Although we had slept a bit on the flight, we checked for light leaks for several hours in the hotel.

Our flights have been eerily empty (like the old Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith emerging from his lunch time reading session to find nobody around after a holocaust, all the books at his disposal, and then breaking his glasses).  We had eight passengers, plus crew, on the flight to San Jose.  The flight to Baltimore was more crowded:  12 passengers, plus crew, who said that flights like this were a combination of a “nice break” and “incredibly boring.” There was no service on the flight to limit personal contact, although I did score a can of water.

All told, we had an incredible trip in spite of this COVID-19 fiasco that has disrupted planet Earth.  We experienced some incredible sights and places:

  • Exploring Victoria Market in Melbourne.
  • Watching cricket at the legendary Melbourne Cricket Grounds.
  • Meeting our friend’s son, Ben Russell, in Melbourne.
  • Getting the “up close and personal” view of the Little Penguins Parade on Phillip Island.
  • Golfing on Dent Island, Great Barrier Reef snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding (kind of), and just hanging out on Hamilton Island.
  • Seeing the Blue Mountains starting to recover from the devastating brushfires.
  • Experiencing a mix of tourist and local flavor in Sydney during a wonderful visit with nephew Brett and being introduced to a variety of pies at Harry’s.
  • Enjoying Queenstown on the South Island, the small plane flyback from Milford Sound, and the Routeburn Track.
  • Exploring Picton during our short stay there.
  • Erring logistically by not seeing more of Christchurch.
  • Receiving guidance and support from locals as we adjusted our itinerary, particularly Mike and Ellie, but also Ellie’s son, Peter, as the coronavirus intruded more on our plans.
  • Eating at some memorable places, including Portofino’s in Auckland with our Maryland hockey friends, Dory and Steve.

Some things come to mind as we close out this blog. 

  • We started getting into the local jargon:  “holiday” for vacation, “for hire” rather than rent, “lift” instead of elevator, “takeaway” for to go.
  • All the hotels and restaurants have the variable flush toilets that conserve water.
  • One must use the seatbelts on the buses and vans or risk a fine.
  • The Aussie and NZ airlines turn off the seatbelt signs much earlier in the flight and keep them off unless it gets really bumpy.

Yes, Rick and Ilsa might always have Paris, but we will have our Down Under Adventure.

Kiwi Wrap Up

We are fewer than 24 hours from our NZ departure. The ride to the airport is scheduled so that I will be there within my “comfort zone” of getting there early enough, I hope. We are packing up for a quick checkout tomorrow.

Even so, we took another stroll around the area just to see if we “missed” anything. We found a smaller, apparently more exclusive marina with some big sailboats, larger launches, i.e., powerboats, and slips for 14 historically significant boats built in the late 19th century to the 1970s. We also found Victoria Park with a running/walking track, four cricket pitches, and the clubhouse for the Auckland Indoor Cricket Club, however that works. The park and the marina were neat little finds for our last walkabout.

A couple of “big boys”
Useful recycling of “little buoys” for a park area
Notice the red, full size speed catamaran at the stern ready to be launches

Restaurants along the way were still empty but unlike a couple of days ago, they were now closed. One had a sign, “No cash or alcohol on the premises.” Hoping to ward off potential looters if things get a bit crazier? I find that hard to imagine here in NZ, but I am hearing about record gun and ammo sales back home. Sheesh.

Empty and closed

So, we are winding down on this great adventure, wondering what we will find when we return to the States, and anticipating our self-isolation protocol. Until we are back in SS, MD…

Holed Up in Auckland

We arrived here already in semi self-isolation. So many attractions and tours have closed or been cancelled that we have been walking quite a bit. We are in a one-bedroom apartment, and it gives us a bit of flexibility. We are just a five-minute walk from the waterfront with ferries and a wide variety of shops, restaurants (most are open but not packed), and attractions (most of them closed).

Waiheke Island proved to be a good first day for our Auckland stay. We took the 40-minute ferry ride and started walking when we debarked. The downtown village had the usual assortment of tourist shops. We strolled along the beach at Oretoa Bay, which was full of small boats, swimmers, and beachwalkers, like us. We grabbed lunch at a local pub and enjoyed a Monteith’s pale ale before setting out for the island wineries. We tasted a sampling of Cable Bay offerings, enjoyed the view, and walked the forest trail to the return ferry.

We explored away from the waterfront the next day. Albert Park was a quiet island of green with people practicing Tai Chi, walking dogs, and just enjoying the sunshine. The bigger find was the Auckland Domain. The Domain is a huge green area in the city, akin to but smaller than Central Park. It has a perimeter track, multiple cricket pitches, a fernery/greenhouse, ponds, trails, and on the hill overlooking the bay, the War Memorial Museum and ANZAC memorial, which was closed, disappointingly.

We shared a delightful dinner at Portofino’s with Maryland hockey friends, Steve Emburey and Dory Smith, along with their travel companions. We were on the Viaduct Basin marina front and had a great evening of food, wine, and good conversation. At the waterfront, we also saw some bare bones, America’s Cup class racing sailboats. They are characterized with the dual steering wheels and hand cranks, and are the sailing world’s thoroughbreds.

The Wynyard Quarter is an industrial park that is evolving into a residential, business, retail, and entertainment district. But as we wandered around, it was sad to see the effects of this COVID-19; lots of restaurants open and empty. That will not last long as NZ increases its lockdown level (it just went to Level 3 on Monday afternoon) that closes all restaurants, schools, and shops. New Zealanders do not mess around. They are closing within an hour of the announcement.

We just heard that all air travel shuts down in 48 hours. Our flight is scheduled to leave in about 47 hours…cutting it pretty close. Stay tuned for developments.

Leaving the South Island

Our South Island odyssey ended up in Nelson at the north end of the island. The drive to Nelson from Picton was scenic, I think, as I was concentrating on staying on the right, or rather the correct, side of the road. Our B&B was comfortable and walking distance from the CBD. We found a nice small restaurant, Arnel’s Fusion, for dinner, although businesses pretty much rolled up the sidewalks around 5:30. Along with a couple of locally brewed Stoke beers, the seafood platter included green mussels, named for their shells’ color.

Tasman National Park is beautiful, as is most of what we have seen in New Zealand. We signed up for the half-day cruise/water taxi that stopped at several bays, coves, and beaches along the park’s coastline to discharge or pick up hikers, walkers, and kayakers. The day could not have been better, and the stiff breeze kept things comfortable, if not almost cool. We saw a few fur seals lolling in the sun (though nothing like the bob of seals we saw along the railroad on the ride to Picton). The park has trails and camping areas that weave among the shore and hills. One can take a multi-day hike along the whole length or a series of shorter hikes. The lodges in the park are good hub locations, but they were booked when we were making reservations (I bet space is available now, due to the COVID-19 “event”).

Before our flight to Auckland we stopped at the World of Wearables (WOW) and Classic Car Museum. Housed in a former car factory, the museum has two distinct sections. WOW is an annual contest that designers enter and compete for prizes and recognition. The costumes are on display along with videos of them in the “cirque de soliel”-ish, in terms of choreography, “story line,” and music, fashion show.

The other section is a natural segue (or maybe not) from fashion to a collection of dozens of classic cars in mint condition. They range from international and US makes and models from old to modern. Behind the primary showroom is the second showroom along with a workshop containing several cars in various stages of restoration. It was a nice stop before our flight to Auckland.

Diversions

We have had a couple of interesting days: some for trip-related items, some for travel-related items. The trip aspects have been as we had hoped. We arrived late into Christchurch, but the next day we took a the TranzAlpine train to Arthur’s Pass in the Southern Alps. When I heard “alps,” I envisioned snow capped crags, ala the Matterhorn. Well, the scenery was spectacular, and the mountains were big, but very little snow was evident. Our Canterbury Trails guide, Mandy, got us seated on the train, picked us up Arthur’s Pass and led us on some beautiful side trips to see beech forests, waterfalls, and huge stone formations that made me wish I knew more geology; however, it gave Janelle an opportunity for some bouldering. After returning to the hotel, we crossed the street (always looking to the right first) and had dinner and some local brews at the Old Government Bar. The OGB is in the old Government Building, now a hotel. The bartender, originally from Miami and an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran, might have been part of the USMC’s Sunset Parade unit, the way he flipped and juggled the bottles and drink containers.

The half-day Pacific Coastal ride on KiwiRail to Picton was not crowded, the cafe car was neat and well stocked, and the train was exactly on schedule. As we rode along with the Pacific on our right, Janelle saw some dusky dolphins frolicking in the surf, and we saw hundreds of fur seals and pups on the rocks within yards of the tracks. It was a thrill to see them “in the wild.” We could have been watching a documentary.

Even though we only had about 24 hours in Picton, we were busy. We had a very nice dinner at our hotel, the Picton Yacht Club, hiked up to the scenic overlook about 300 meters above the town, and went through the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum that features artifacts and the hull, built in 1853, of the last remaining ship that delivered convicts to Australia, among many other cargoes.

Now on to the “not so lovely” travel aspects. As you might have heard, a little thing called COVID-19 has disrupted planet Earth, and New Zealand is no exception. Our reunion with my grade school-high school friend, Mike Russell and his wife, Ellie, had been negated with the travel ban between Oz and NZ. Next, flight cancellations and disruptions have wreaked havoc on the travel and tourist industry. As a result, we will be coming back to the U.S. three days early (maybe the door to NZ will not hit us on the way out, and we will turn the lights out). We will cancel our trips on the North Island and extend our stay in Auckland, which is now our departure port. (Sigh). But this will be an “okay” solution of a tough situation. Now to figure out how to get from LA to BWI…more later.

Aoraki Mt. Cook

The name pays homage to the Maori name in addition to the Anglo name.  Can you guess which is which?  We checked into a very comfortable motel-style suite at the Mt. Cook Lodge, about a 15-minute walk from the Hermitage main location.  Too bad we only stayed one night and could not take advantage of the kitchenette and other bedroom.

Aoraki Mt. Cook is the highest peak in the Southern Alps.  Sir Edmund Hillary, a native New Zealander, climbed Aoraki Mt. Cook multiple times in preparation to his successful summit of Mount Everest in 1953.  He also led the first drive to the South Pole a few years later.  Most impressively, he parlayed his fame into successful fundraising and oversaw (sometimes hands on) the building of dozens of schools, churches, hospitals, and airstrips in Nepal, which opened some pretty isolated areas to relative modernity.

As is our leisurely wont, we found a few things to keep us occupied.  The Alpine Center restaurants have breathtaking views of Aoraki Mt. Cook and the brown glaciers (from the Australian bush fire ashes).  The onsite museum features multiple displays and history about “Sir Ed,” including a tractor from the Antarctic expedition.  Other displays include old cars that ferried visitors to the old Hermitage (only a 12-22 hour experience) and the first ski plane to land on the Tasman glacier, opening up a new and continually thriving tourist attraction.  

The star gazing tour was real and spectacular, and the Milky Way was on full display.  Our enthusiastic guide, Jason, mentioned that the Greeks were probably hitting the red wine (or something stronger) when they envisioned the constellations.  We learned how to approximate due south, since there is no southern equivalent of the North Star, which by the way we could not see for some reason.  We did, however, learn how to find the “real” Southern Cross.

Lesson learned:  While we thought we had built in plenty of down time, we have not.  Moving a lot and the associated packing/unpacking has been tiring.

While the Aussies in Sydney are buying up toilet paper at a frenzied pace, the Kiwis are are reporting a sales spike in something for the self-isolators: adult toys. In about nine months a new generation will enter the world. They will be the “coronials.”

On to the next port of call:  Christchurch and the TranzAlpine Pass.

Queenstown Miscellaneous

Slept in a bit for our last day in Queenstown, then explored around town a little more.  The gondola ride provided a beautiful overview of the area, thanks to the sunny and clear day.  We watched the tandem paragliders jump off for the 10-15-minute spiral to a soft landing near downtown.

Back in town we strolled through the Queenstown Gardens that occupy the spit of land across from downtown.  The Gardens were beautifully manicured, housed the Queenstown Bowling (bocce) Club, had a “disk,” i.e., Frisbee, golf course, the ice rink that was closed until next month, and a monument to the ill-fated Scott expedition that almost reached the South Pole.  We enjoyed our last 1789 Lounge happy hour, chatted with a Canadian who was on a 42-day trip down under, and packed up for our departure to Aoraki/Mt. Cook in the morning.

The Routeburn Track

Amid and inspite of the onslaught of COVID-19 emails from hotels, airlines, Amtrak, county facilities, sports teams, the NCAA (good bye, Frozen Four tournament), 7-11, ADT, newspapers, and more yet to be named, we left the hotel early for our hike in the woods at Fjordland National Park.

A digresssion: Virtually every email goes on about keeping employees and customers safe, enhanced and more frequent cleaning, more hand sanitizers, better food handling, yada, yada, yada (were they not doing that already?). In Australia we flew on Virgin Australia three times in a week and a half. On each plane, one of the lavatories was “not in service.” Since the flights were not totally packed, it was not too bad. Once did not raise any suspicions, but three means we were either on the same plane each flight (although the out of service lavs were on different sides) , or VA is saving about 30-50% on cleaning fees in a pretty creative manner.

Now back to our regular programming…We drove along the edge of Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a thriving community of about 500, including the metro area.  Our group included or guide, Dylan, three Canadians from Leftbridge, Alberta, two Chicagoans, and us.  We all “clicked” and had a nice set of conversations throughout the day. 

What started out cloudy turned into a magnificent, sunny day.  The shady trail provided just enough moments of sunlight to keep us warm.  The 400-meter elevation gain over the two and a half hour, 4.5-mile hike to Routeburn Flats (and lunch) got the heart pumping.  We stopped at several scenic spots, and Dylan told us the water was pure, potable, and cold.

We crossed several swing bridges and saw the remains of two that had been washed away in the recent floods.  We saw where the debris had piled up and where the high water marks had been.  We had a nice lunch at Routeburn Flats, then hiked back to the van.  Not surprisingly, going downhill for the return 4.5 miles was harder on these well-used (not bad) knees. Of course, we made it back in time for happy hour pinot noir and appetizers at the Sofitel’s 1789 Lounge (I will miss that ).

Milford Sound

Queenstown sits on the shores of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu, set against the dramatic Southern Alps.  Renowned for adventure sports, it is also a base for exploring the region’s vineyards and historic mining towns. There is bungee jumping off Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge and jet-boating on the Shotover and Dart rivers.  In winter, there’s skiing on the slopes of The Remarkables and Coronet Peak. For foodies, Fergburger’s and Cow Pizza are popular, as evidenced by the lines and referrals (and Janelle’s gull friend waiting for Fergburger crumbs).

Our tour of Milford Sound almost did not happen, due to torrential rains a few weeks before.  They washed out the roads to the Sound, but road crews have completed enough repairs to allow bus convoys to get there.  Our tour coach left in Queenstown in a steady rain, but things cleared up as we approached the Sound.  The roads still had some repair work underway, but we emerged into the sunlight.

The weather turned out to be clear and windy, and the cruise was great.  Beautiful scenery and waterfalls.  We also saw some fur seals basking on “their” rock.

Upon return to the pier, Janelle and I shuttled over to the Milford Sound airstrip for our return flight option.  We were glad to return in the daylight for our flight among the mountains.  Our chariot of the sky was a Cessna Caravan with twelve passengers.  Our pilot, Antony, was a third generation pilot in the family business and gave us a running commentary on the 35-minute flight.  The scenery was spectacular, the ride was pretty smooth.  We were back at the hotel by 5 pm; the bus returned about 8:30 p.m.

A Weekend in Sydney

You have a full weekend in Sydney, Australia’s largest city.  What to do?  Based on Brett’s Tour Guide, let’s have a go.  Saturday morning, stroll the farmer’s market at El Alamein Park.  Take in the aromas, different cultures, items one does not usually see in the U.S., then enjoy a croissant, Portuguese custard pie, or veggie quiche, and your flat white coffee.

With the sun shining, walk to the Botanic Gardens, and enjoy the flowers and flora.  Mrs. MacQuarie’s “chair” is an exposed sandstone rock cut into the shape of a bench, on a peninsula in Sydney Harbour. It was hand carved by convicts in 1810, for Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales.

Mrs. Macquarie’s viewpoint

Then head to the “Rocks” district.  Originally where the first convicts landed in the 1880’s.  They worked and built small stone houses in the area, the foundations of which are still visible.  It has evolved into an “in” neighborhood of businesses, clubs, shops, restaurants, pubs, and the frequent street markets.  Now is a good time to stop by Australia’s oldest registered hotel, the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, for a refreshing half-pint of one of the house brews. On the walls of the Nelson are stones hand cut by the convicts; however, these stones show the count marks that each convict chiseled to keep track of his production. They are all unique.

Observation:  I have never seen so many New York Yankee and Los Angeles Dodgers hats and jerseys and in so many colors; however, most tourists go to either New York or LA.  So I guess that makes sense.

After slaking your thirst, walk over the Circular Quay (key) near the cruise ship dock.  This is “ferry central” for Sydney’s many ferries that crisscross the harbor carrying commuters, tourists, and beachgoers to various destinations in the Sydney metro area.  Here, catch the 30-minute ride to Manly, a beach suburb with all the requisite restaurants, coffee and souvenir shops, and other tourist-oriented businesses.  If the weather is nice, get a seat up front and outside.

When you arrive, look at what’s available, then grab a veggie burger or salad at the Hold before walking along beach.  Watch the surfers and swimmers, look at the beachfront residences, and breathe in the fresh sea breeze.  The afternoon might hold a rain shower or two that cools things off.  As you make your way back to the ferry, stop at the Four Pines Brewery for a taster of their seasonal brews.  The return trip in late afternoon will provide some special lighting for pictures.

On Sunday, take the easy-to-navigate public transportation (it has the “tap” on and off fare feature for credit and debit cards as well as the transit cards) to Bondi Junction and the bus to Bondi Beach.  The beach was the site for the 2000 Olympic beach volleyball competitions.  A walk to the end of the beach, which is wide and long, takes you along more beautiful oceanfront residences.  Bondi Beach is also the setting for the Australian reality equivalent of “Bay Watch,” because of the rip currents that occur.  The guarded swimming area has beach and boat guards, but plenty of surfers, boogey boarders, and swimmers are along the entire expanse.

In the afternoon, plan to spend at least a couple of hours to visit the ANZAC (Australian New Zealand Army Corps) memorial in Hyde Park.  It honors the New South Wales (NSW) service men and women of the all wars but focuses mostly on World War I.  “Your greatest offering is silence,” conveys the persistent reverence and respect that Aussies have for their sacrifices.  BTW, virtually all states and most towns/cities have ANZAC memorials.  The exhibit has a wealth of artifacts and exhibits.  It also contains a selection of oral histories and stories from service men and women.

Wind up the weekend with dinner at world famous Harry’s Café de Wheels in Woolloomooloo.  It is a kiosk that specializes in different types of pot pies, not just chicken, since 1945.  Celebrity photos festoon all four sides of the kiosk.  An after dinner walk around the wharf and in the park atop the nearby parking garage provides a view of numerous lorikeets, which are colorful and noisy birds, similar to parakeets.

Image result for lorikeet

Then it will be time to head to the airport in the morning for the next leg of the adventure in the Land of Kiwi.