Monday, March 10, 2008

Day 21 - The Blue Mountains and Katoomba

March 7th – The Blue Mountains & Katoomba This morning we all woke up and ventured to The Blue Mountains – the whole crew went including Carolyn, Julia, Mitchell, & Anthony – as this was going to be our last day on vacation (sob). The Blue Mountains are about 1 ½ hours west of Sydney. We started our tour by visiting Echo Point in Katoomba. Here we could see great views of the Three Sisters and across the Jamison Valley. We did the “bushwalk” to the base of the Three Sisters – very steep stairs but beautiful view! Here are some pictures from both vantage points.

We then had a wonderful picnic compliments of Carolyn and headed over to Scenic World where we took the steepest incline railway in the world down to the rainforest floor. It was a 415 meter descent straight down through a cliff side tunnel (the coal miners built this railway back in the day but now it is used for tourists). Below is one of my favorite pictures – we were about to take the railway down - you can just barely see Anthony’s eyes but you can tell he is excited/scared! Here is also a picture on the way down – you can kind of tell how steep the incline is. And finally a picture of the boys on a model of the railway at the bottom.

We then walked about 2 km through the ancient rainforest and took the cableway back up to the top. At the bottom we learned a lot about the coal miners who mined the area - very tough life and a lot of deaths.

Great scenery and bushwalking – if you have time I definitely suggest going to the Blue Mountains! You can even get there by train from Sydney if you don’t want to rent a car.

Our day ended with a home cooked meal compliments of Peter – I am so upset we are leaving tomorrow –I can’t believe the 3 weeks ended so soon! Tomorrow we head home on the flight schedule from hell! We fly 10 hours from Sydney to Seoul, spend the night in Seoul, fly 12 hours to Seattle, have an 11 hour layover in Seattle, fly to JFK, then finally fly home to Raleigh where we will get home around noon on Monday March 10th. We hope to change this so stay tuned!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Day 20 - Arrowtown, Skyline Gondola, and More Casinos

March 5th & 6th– Arrowtown, Skyline Gondola, and More Casinos! We are currently sitting in the airport in Christ Church, NZ as we have another day of flying ahead of us. Only one more day of site seeing down under and we are on our way back to the U.S.! Nathan is so excited he can’t stand it (truly- I am not making this up) – back to ABB and his conference calls (he has missed a few in the last couple days b/c of the time change and it is KILLING him!) - back to work – yippee! (BTW – I am excited about getting back to work too – I love Swagger and miss my mom very much! Is that enough sucking up? Probably not! No- truly we never could have come this far for this long without her and everyone else at Swagger – thank you so much!) Actually I think Nathan is excited about not spending any more money – for all of you wondering – trips to Australia/New Zealand are not cheap. Of course – I’m sure we could have done it cheaper as we have met several people our age who are traveling for 5 months plus after quitting their jobs – but we still HAVE jobs - so LIVE IT UP – right?!!! So our last day in Queenstown started with a trip to Arrowtown (about 20 minutes from Queenstown). Arrowtown is the city the Gold Miner’s set up back in the 1800’s – it is on the Arrow river where a lot of gold was originally found. Pretty cool – nice restaurants, history, and you can still pan for gold. Not too exciting though and if you had to pass up something on your travels to Queenstown I would suggest this. However, there are some Wineries on the way there that we heard were good. We took a photo of the main street just to say we were there – (it is pretty lame though).

After getting back to Queenstown we took the Skyline Gondola up the mountain to see the views of the lake, city, and mountains.

They had a luge at the top that was a lot of fun! After rounding a corner on one wheel and almost taking out two asian children – Nathan was 30 seconds behind my world record breaking time. However, Nathan cheated on the second go round and barely crossed the finish line only seconds before me! I believe I still won though as my two combined times were MUCH shorter than his!

We spent the rest of the night at the Skylight Casino – poor guys almost had to shut down we took so much of their money! The really fun thing about gambling is meeting the other people at your table (we were playing blackjack). We met some great kiwis, irish men, and even Americans. Small World Story – so a gentleman sitting to my right asked where I was from. When I said Raleigh he mentioned that his son and daughter in law live in Cary. I mentioned I owned a gift store and asked their last name – and low and behold she is a good customer! I told the him to come visit the next time he was in town - only at the gambling tables in Queenstown, NZ!

That pretty much covers Queenstown. Although we enjoyed ourselves and it was nice to relax and just tool about, my suggestion would be to stay only 3 full days (I think we were here one day too long) and spend two days in Christ Church if you can.

We are off to Sydney (via Brisbane – we LOVE layovers)! We can’t wait to see Carolyn, Julia and the whole family! It is amazing how close you can get to someone when you invade their homes! See you guys soon!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Day 18 (cont) and 19 - Ice Bar & Milford Sound (Queenstown, NZ)

March 3rd & 4th – Ice Bar & Milford Sound

In the evening on March 3rd, we went to Minus 5 – a bar that is made completely out of ice! Hence from the name it is Minus 5 degrees (Celsius). It was darn cold in there! They have to give you parkas and gloves before going in and they only allow you to stay in the bar for 30 minutes due to the effects of alcohol at that temperature. I’m not sure if you can tell, but even the couch and the glasses are made out of ice! It was pretty cool (no pun intended!)

This morning we had to wake up at 5:30 AM (so much for sleeping in on vacation) so we could take the 13 hour roundtrip bus ride to Milford Sound. After reading all the brochures on the different companies who take this trip (there is about 10) we decided to go with one of the smaller companies Mitre Peak. I am so glad we did – I would give this trip a 10 out of 10! First of all, Milford Sound is one of the most unbelievable awe inspiring landscapes I have ever seen. Second, the great thing about Mitre Peak was that it was a small enough group and company that the bus driver, Allen, stopped at several lookouts on the way there and even stopped off at Te Anua on the way back to view a documentary on The Fiords of New Zealand. (Milford Sound is actually a fiord not a sound. Fiords were created during the ice age when glaciers retreated, and carved out the steep valleys all the way to the seafloor.) He was very knowledgeable about the terrain and wildlife and taught us so much about New Zealand! Here are a few pictures from the trip as I couldn’t describe it’s beauty even if I tried! This was one of our favorite days of the whole trip! (Just a note – if you come to Queenstown we would suggest this tour with Mitre Peak – we heard that some of the other companies like Real Journeys herd you like cattle – definitely not our experience!)

Mirror Lakes

Lake Gunn

Outside of Homer Tunnel

Milford Sound

And finally! One of my favorite Kiwi sayings is “Good on Ya Mate” ! I love this picture!

I knew the pictures wouldn’t do it justice so I tried to take a movie with my camera – here is what I got! Sorry it is a little shaky but you will get the jist – the boat was rocking!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day 18 - Queenstown, New Zealand

March 3rd – Queenstown, NZ – 3:30 PM We started out this morning on with a combo excursion of the Shotover Jet Boat and the Shotover River Rafting Trip. The jet boat was amazing and very cold -it was about 50 degrees outside and the boat reaches up to 150 km/h – needless to say we couldn’t feel our faces they were so numb when it was over! The guy looked as if he was going to drive the boat into the sides of the mountains – crazy! Nathan and I both give it about a 7 out of 10. We then headed to the river rafting. I loved this – the Shotover River has class 3 & 4 river rapids and the water is about 20 degrees (Fahrenheit). The sights were amazing coming down the river and our guide was great – he gave us a lot of history on the river as well. The Shotoever River was part of the NZ gold frenzy that started in the late 1800s and only ended in 1992. You can still see a lot of the shacks the miners slept in as well as some of the tools they used and then just left on the sides of the river when they either went bankrupt, died, or found their gold and left. Nathan and I gave this about a 7 out of 10 as well. But if you like to river raft it was worth it – even if just for the views! We did both activities with the “Shotover” Company – the red boats – you won’t miss it if you come here. Here are some pictures of this morning! We came back - bought some wine and cheese and sat on the beach across from our hotel to have some great views with our “lunch”. (Mom this was our view when I called you for your birthday!)


We are now just sitting in an internet café – we will write tomorrow about our trip to Milford Sound!

Day 17 - Queenstown, New Zealand

March 2nd – Queenstown, New Zealand – (we are now 18 hours ahead of N.C.) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Okay so it was a bus not a train but same difference. After “sleeping” all night in the airport and waiting for our 9:30 AM flight to Queenstown they announce 10 mins before we are about to board that the flight has been delayed – oh no here we go again was all I could think. However, they do things a little differently in New Zealand- we couldn’t get into Queenstown b/c the weather was too bad there (and we heard the runway was really short) so they flew us to another city, Invercargill, rented buses and DROVE the entire airplane full of people 2 ½ hours north to Queenstown. Now how is that for service? In the U.S. they would just cancel the flight due to weather – go Qantas Airlines! Honestly, the drive didn’t bother us at all- It was beautiful!!! We tried to take a couple pictures out the bus window but they don’t do it justice – 1) b/c the pictures were out a bus window and 2)it was raining. One thing is for sure – it is no wonder about all the sheep jokes with New Zealand – they are everywhere! (When we were flying into Invercargill we saw all these white “ants” from the plane – they were sheep – and I think there were more sheep than houses) The drive took us past Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables (the mountain range that runs North/South on the eastern side of the south island of New Zealand). I am posting a picture just so you guys can see it.

Did I mention that was 8 degrees Celsius (about 46 Fahrenheit), windy, and raining when we arrived? Far cry from the 90 degree weather in Cairns! I am so glad we decided to come to Queenstown – thank you to everyone who suggested it and to Nathan for making it happen! Very out of the box for him to change our plans on a whimJ The number of things to do here is incredible - when reading about all the stuff in the tourist magazines it is almost overwhelming. The little town of Queenstown (population only 13,000) is situated on Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables surround it. Picture a small town in Switzerland on a lake with the alps in the background add lots of backpackers and tourists and that is what its like! Lots of energy and charm – I just love it! There are tons of bars and restaurants, places to hike, adrenaline seeking activities, lots of shopping and 2 casinos (Nathan was very excited about that!)

Last night we checked into our hotel, The Crowne Plaza, which is right on the lake and booked a few excursions.

We decided to try the Shotover River Jetboat, the Shotover River Rafting, and the Milford Sound Cruise. Unfortunately, all the activities are VERY expensive so we decided to start here. Instead of Bungy Jumping we wanted to do the Canyon Swing (very similar except instead of bouncing up and down after you jump - you jump and then swing in a 200 m arc) but at almost $300 a person we are waiting to see what happens. Here is a picture from our balcony – it is still raining and overcast but beautiful!
After this we went out to explore the town, eat some dinner, and gamble (of course). We started on the esplanade and walked around the harbor to the Queenstown Gardens. They were pretty and it was nice to get out and walk around (even if it was FREEZING!). Oh and surprise surprise with all the clothes I have the warmest thing I brought was my Juicy hoodie! (So note to self – if you are traveling to New Zealand – it rains a lot and the temperature changes quickly so bring a jacket!).

Anyway, from here we walked through the quaint town, ate dinner at the Fishbone Restaurant (my dinner was fabulous, Nathan’s was only okay but cute place), then on to the Skycity Casino. After a few too many Wild Turkey and cokes we cashed out and can you believe we were up? (Oh – and just in case you were wondering I didn’t get in trouble for cussing :)
Good Night – we have to wake up at 6:00 AM for our boating trips!

Day 16 - Chirst Church Airport, New Zealand

Sunday March 2 – Chirst Church Airport, New Zealand – 7:30 AM

Happy Birthday Mom!!!!!!!

Hello from NEW ZEALAND!!!! Yesterday was a pretty easy travel day – starting in Carins at 9:00 AM and landing in Christ Church, New Zealand at Midnight. The only slight setback was when we reached New Zealand, customs almost didn’t let me into the country! (Nathan says I’m such a liability) Anyway, apparently when traveling to New Zealand as a US citizen your passport can not expire within 3 months of your travel – mine expires in 1 month! When we got to customs the officer informed us of this and had to call his boss over – the boss man was like “they shouldn’t have even let you on the plane, blah, blah”. Nathan explained that he did extensive research on travel visas, etc that we would need for our trip and he found nothing about New Zealand – apparently they didn’t care b/c we were put through about 30 mins of waiting, worried looks from the customs agent, and extensive questioning before they finally said that we looked like honest people and they would allow us the 1 month passport expiration exception. Thanks. The silver lining was no waiting in the declaration line (since everyone else was long gone) and we sailed on through – approx. time 1:30 AM. OH – and they found my bag!!!!!! Yippee! NOTE TO ANYONE TRAVELING TO NEW ZEALAND – Your passport can not expire within 3 months of your trip – of course they obviously make exceptions but why bother trying!!!! I’m not sure I mentioned this before, but b/c of our flight delay out of Cairns, the refund on our airline ticket, and lots of travel advice from the Kiwis (New Zealanders) we decided to go ahead and fly directly from Christ Church to Queenstown and just spend our entire trip there. We would have loved to spend some time in Christ Church but due to time restraints and the fact that we “can’t do everything” we decided on Queenstown. Queenstown is known as the Adventure Capital of the World as well as having the most breathtaking views in all of New Zealand. We both can’t wait!!! Our flight to Queenstown is at 9:00 AM this morning and we would have had to be at the airport around 7:30 – so we decided to just sleep in the airport with about 30 other back packers and one older couple (who says I’m high maintenance?) Here is a picture of our accommodations for last evening!:)

We are off to Queenstown – I can’t wait to take pictures to show you guys!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Day 15 - Leaving Cairns – Take Two

So a little hiccup in our plans yesterday – we got to the airport where we sat for about 2 hours before we heard our names over the intercom to report back to customer service – this can’t be good I thought but I was trying to be optimistic. The woman at Virgin Airlines informed us that the bad weather in Brisbane (our connection to Christ Church, New Zealand) had delayed our plane making it impossible to make our connection, so they would be putting us up in a hotel and we could come back on Saturday to try again. She also informed us that we would be refunded the entire cost of the tickets (approximately $800 USD) for our inconvenience (now that was sounding a little better – again trying to keep an open mind)

As she was booking our tickets for Saturday she sent someone to get our bags. Nathan’s came back right away, but they were still looking for mine – ooookay. But hey – we haven’t gone anywhere – RIGHT – and the plane isn’t even in Cairns to be put on so she assures us she will send the bag to the hotel. And since she had already called us the shuttle bus we got on and headed to our new “resort”. Nathan and I decided after looking at the other “resorts” in Cairns that if it looks old or run down add resort to the end of the name and people will want to stay there – don’t be fooled by this when you travel to Cairns – make sure to book a Hotel!:) Actually – the place wasn’t THAT bad. We stayed at the Colonial Cairns Resort – and the pool had a swim up bar so things were looking up again. Since I am a REALLY good “carry on bag packer” I was smart enough to pack my bathing suit and a change of clothes (which would come in handy later).

When we got to the “Resort” I tried to book us a trip on the Skyrail to Kuranda – unfortunately since we had spent the better part of the morning at the airport - we missed the last one by 10 minutes. This was a total bummer as we heard from several people that it was amazing – the skyrail takes you on a 1 ½ hour trip over the rainforest and then Kuranda is an Aboriginal village – so if you come to Cairns I would say make time for this. Okay – so PLAN A was out – on to PLAN B – I lay out at the pool while Nathan tries to cancel our hotel, rental, car, etc and figure out what we are going to do in New Zealand. Here is my view for the rest of the day – I definitely couldn’t complain!!!

So after the pool we call Virgin again to see where my luggage is – we have been informed it is on its way to Christ Church – WHAT?%@!&! We couldn’t go but all MY belongings are there – NICE! Again – what are you going to do – so we decided what better than head to the CASINO!

I should have known when we sat down and the drinks were NOT free and the Black Jack rules were different that we should leave, but our table seemed fun so we decided to LIVE IT UP! Of course my winning started going the other way and I said “Shit” after losing the 10th hand in a row – the pit boss came over and said that NO CUSSING was allowed in the casino and for me to please watch my mouth – WTF!!!! No cussing – is that even possible? I got reprimanded a couple other times (surprising? – I didn’t think so) and then I SPILLED my ENTIRE glass of wine on the table!!!!!!!!! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? COULD THIS DAY GET ANY WORSE? I was mortified and very embarrassed – however they told me it happened all the time – probably b/c they didn’t have drink holders and my drink was sitting on the table – but whatever. The night went on from there and nothing else exciting happened except that I found a new Miller drink – I don’t think they even sell it in the States – Miller beer with Lime and Salt in it – it actually tasted like crap but the Aussies and Japanese seemed to like it! Dad – have you ever seen this?

Now we are headed BACK to the airport to try this again – stay tuned………

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Day 11,12,13,14 - Cairns, Australia

February 29th (Leap Day!) – 8 AM – Cairns, Australia

Where do I begin? We left off on Monday evening after we checked into our Hotel in Cairns – The Rydges Hotel – it is very nice and clean and right on the water so I would recommend it to anyone who travels to Cairns. (One thing to do before you book would be to sign up for their “hotel points” club so you can get 10% off when you book your stay.)

Tuesday morning we left The Rydges Hotel around 7:30 AM for a 3 day/2 night stay on a Live Aboard 35 Meter Catamaran on the Great Barrier Reef, The Reef Encounter. (BTW – when we left for the boat we asked the hotel to keep two bags for us b/c we would only be gone for three days – when we got to the boat we still had WAY more luggage than everyone else – who would have guessed? I have promised Nathan that I will travel lighter next time – pinkie swear) So when we got to the marina we had to get on a day boat, The Compass, that would take us out 2 hours boating time to the great barrier reef. The Compass had customers that were just scuba or snorkeling for the day as well as the passengers that would transfer to the live aboard. The “transfer” is done at Hastings Reef about 50 km north off the coast of Cairns.

Once aboard The Reef Encounter we were assigned a room (which was pretty big I thought – possibly bigger than some cruise ship rooms we have stayed in), we explored the boat (there were 3 decks, a hot tub, and a “saloon” which housed couches, the bar, and the dining room) Below are some pictures so you can get the idea.

Right after we arrived we were served lunch and headed out for our first dive on The Reef. The thing I thought was a little odd when we went for our first scuba dive was that you literally just dive in – no dive master or guide that takes you around – WTF! There are sharks and killer jellyfish – aren’t they concerned for our lives?!!! They did have a “map” of what you are supposed to be looking for underwater (really detailed – with large circles that say “bomme” and turn right at the “gap” – RIIIGGHT!) Anyway, I started to freak out a little (just a little) until Nathan my very sensitive husband pulled out his famous line “Bone Up and jump in” He then went on to explain that he had his dad’s compass (thanks Gregg!) and that he could TOTALLY get us back to the boat no problem (although he had never used it before – but details again -right?) At this point the Dive Master (they do have one she doesn’t dive with you) explains that you can pay extra for a guide (only $10 which I thought was cheap enough to ensure coming back alive) – “phew” I thought and looked at Nathan – he was staring at me with a “don’t even think about it look” so I gave in against my better judgment and just jumped in! Obviously I am still alive b/c I am here to write this but it did get a little hairy – believe me! I wasn’t that comfortable the first dive as I hadn’t been since we dove Cabo in 2006, and I thought we were going to get left on the reef somewhere (it is always the Americans they leave behind). But we made it and I had a fabulous time (we over shot our mark a little but Nathan did a good job with his compass).

After this dive the boat traveled to another part of the reef, Saxon Reef. This dive was to get us ready for the night dive so we would be more comfortable in our surroundings. We saw beautiful coral and a few fish – but still no sharks or sea turtles – “no worries” they said –“you will be able to see those at night”! Funny thing is – everyone wants to swim with the sharks and there seems to be a bit of a competition to see who can get closest to a shark and how many you see in one dive. (You would think it would be scary but they say they won’t bother you so everyone just believes them – we also aren’t talking Great Whites either – we were swimming with white, black, and grey tip reef sharks.)

The night dive on the first night was amazing – it was pouring down rain and lightning – the boat was rocking really hard – but funny thing is once you get in the water it is so calm and peaceful. We did have a guide for the night dive (it is pitch black dark at 15 meters and all you have is a tiny flashlight). Also, the guides kind of know where all the cool things are – like where the turtles sleep, the sharks hang out, etc. Amazing! We saw a 6 foot white tip reef shark (about 6 feet from us – and talk about surreal – all you can see is glowing green eyes swimming towards you until they get close enough to see what is attached to them – however you know that glowing green eyes are predators and glowing pink eyes are crustaceans). We also saw a HUGE sea turtle sleeping under a rock – I bet it was about 1 meter long). That night we were in bed by 9 PM – diving wears you out and you get very dehydrated from all the underwater breathing.

The next day we were only allowed to dive 4 out of the 6 dives. So we snorkeled twice – which was really beautiful as well. The colors at 2 – 3 meters are much brighter that at 10 – 18 meters (you lose color every meter starting with Red then following the color spectrum – as in ROY G. BIV) The schedule was great – wake up at 6 AM and dive – this dive was great both mornings b/c this is when all the fish wake up and are hungry so you see lots of marine life. Then you come in take a shower, eat breakfast, dive again, take another shower. The boat moves back to Hastings Reef to pick up new people and drop off those unfortunate people who have to go home – 1 ½ hours later you dive again, shower again, eat lunch, dive again. The boat then moved to a third reef – Norman Reef – about 70 km from Cairns) This was my favorite location – I got to swim with a Sea Turtle – I even got to pet it – so cool – I swear they move just like in the movie Finding Nemo – they are so graceful! The coral was so beautiful as well – lots of bright colors – we saw a cauliflower looking coral that was twice as long as Nathan and the most brilliant yellow color. We also swam with a napoleon wrasse fish – you can see Nathan swimming with it below. And this wasn’t even the biggest fish we saw! The night dive hear was unbelievable as well – a shark swam past me about 3 feet from my back leg (I will have to say I was a little scared b/c it was night and you really can’t see much except for a shark swimming for your leg – nice!) That night we had a great time with the crew and other passengers. I swear this one guy was my dad’s twin – he got everyone together by pulling out some string and doing “tricks” as well as engaging everyone with riddles. The second morning we woke up for the 6 am dive at Norman Reef but we went to the “other side” – again fabulous – we did the same dive at 8:30 as well. Now I saw we did the same dive – but it is never the same twice – you see different animals – different corals – depending on your depth the “same dive” could be a completely different experience. After this we drove back to Hastings Reef so we could dive one more time before going home (so sad). This time we went to the “Wild Side” of Hasting Reef – the opposite side of the reef than the last time – here the current was REALLY strong and we ended up over shooting the boat TWICE – oops! Oh well that was the last dive and Nathan had practically mastered the compass by this last time – so I won’t fault him for the last dive – the current was ridiculous! From here we packed up our stuff and took the Compass back to Cairns. I was too tired to get in the water for boom netting but here is a picture – looks like a lot of fun – I won’t miss it next time for sure!!! Even though one girl lost her bathing suit and a couple people feel off in the middle of the ocean! SORRY THIS IS GETTING SO WORDY but it is four days in one! Last night we got back to the Rydges Hotel and went out to explore Cairns. This is a pretty happening city as it is where everyone comes to go out onto the Great Barrier Reef as well as it is a HUGE city for the back packers to visit. We visited the Night Markets (kind of lame but Nathan wanted a dive t-shirt which we couldn’t find – very strange) and we ate at Café Thailand – great Thai food – I definitely recommend it and it wasn’t too pricey). So that should catch you up. Today we leave for New Zealand – we are flying into Christ Church and driving to Queenstown – I will tell you how that goes tomorrow – hopefully we make it – we still haven’t found a good map!:) Love you all!

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