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!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Day 11 - China Town, Darling Harbor, Arrival into Cairns

Today we are flying to Cairns (pronounced CANS) for a 3 day diving cruise on the Great Barrier Reef. Prior to our departure, Carolyn, Julia and Anthony took us back into Sydney to China Town and Darling Harbor for some more sight seeing and lunch. We road on the Monorail which Carolyn says was basically built for the “terrorists” as there is really no reason for it.  It was fun to see the city from that view point though! Well we have officially logged 8 days in Sydney. Based on several responses from local Aussies, we have done an amazing amount of sight seeing during our time here. We can not thank Julia, Carolyn and Peter enough for their gracious hospitality and expertise.

We flew Virgin Blue Airlines to Cairns (a domestic flight obviously) but b/c of this they had different rules about luggage – specifically the weight of our luggage. We flew over here with two rolling pieces and two duffel bags – the duffel bags had our dive gear as well as gifts – the rolling pieces were for our clothes and stuff. We kind of knew about the weight restriction so Nathan and I shed as much as we could part with into the duffel that had the gifts in it (now empty) and left it at Carolyn’s as we are flying back threw Sydney before going home. (Yes we were able to fill the extra duffel bag completely and still I was worried all morning that the other bags would be too heavy – I swear our stuff has multiplied!) I was worried b/c I heard they were very strict on weight – and rightfully so – when we got to the check-in and find out that the limit was 20 kilos per person (not bag as we had thought) – we were OVER by 21 kilos!!!! Thank god the two people behind the counter were women and Nathan was able to use his amazing southern charm and wit to talk the women into letting it pass (jokes about his wife’s shoe addiction, all her shopping, and inability to pack lightly, blah, blah, blah) actually worked and we didn’t have to pay a dime!!! I don’t know how he did it - but boy were we lucky! (Sidenote – I just want to say to defend myself that the 21 kilos over was basically the dive equipment and had nothing to do with my luggage or shoes thank you very much!) We arrived into Cairns on Monday evening whereby we took a taxi to the hotel.

Views from our hotel room in Cairns, Australia

We will spend the night in the hotel prior to our Tuesday AM departure on our 3 day cruise. Since we will be out in the middle of the ocean for the next 3 days, we will not be able to post our next blog until Friday, but I promise to tell you all about it when we have our first internet connection! Definitely check back – we have been told there might be “killer jellyfish” on the reef and Nathan hopes we see some big sharks! (Last note for the day – we would have had pictures for you from our adventures today BUT Nathan DELETED them all as well as most of the beautiful pictures I took from the wedding last night!@%@&! Needless to say he is not allowed to touch my camera ANY MORE!!!!!)

Day 10 - Darling Harbor, Gift Fair and Wedding Ceremony

Happy Birthday KIRK D (Kristen)

This morning we woke up and went down to Darling Harbor for the Australian Gift Fair. What a bonus – we can write off a portion of our trip as I made a couple contacts with some Australian gift manufacturers. Here is the proof we were here

After market, Carolyn, Julia, Mandy and I strolled through Darling Harbor admiring the water, architecture and large number of tourists (Carolyn calls them terrorists ). We concluded with some lunch and shopping in the harbor.

Later in the evening, we headed out to Gladesville to the “Banjo Patterson House” for Andy & Josie’s wedding. Upon arrival, Mandy was informed that she would be responsible for coordinating pictures. Later we found out that Mandy was chosen for this task for her assertiveness and “soldier like” behaviors (and most of those people have only known her for a couple days). Say it Ain’t So!!!

The wedding ceremony and cocktail hour were held outside overlooking the beautiful harbor. After pictures, Jim (father of the bride) personally welcomed each and every guest before welcoming the guests into the house for a spectacular dinner, toasts, cutting of the cake and a little late night dancing. The celebration ended around midnight.

Here we are with the bride (Josie) and groom (Andy). Congratulations and Best Wishes to you both.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Day 7, 8 & 9 - Wild Past Couple of Days

Sorry everybody – the last couple of days have been a little crazy! So I left off at the Hen’s Party on Thursday night the 21st. The Hen’s Party was in Balmain and had a 50’s Grease theme (hence the scarf around my neck – hey it was the best I could do – I found out about the theme on the night before I left at midnight!) (The Bucks started at the Victoria Room in Darlinghurst but that is the most I got out of Nathan so I have no more info about them.) Anyway, we started out with dance lessons at the Pub then we played some games and finally on to drinking and more drinking and then drinking some more. I learned a valuable lesson on Thursday night which was a girl from South Georgia (Albany no less) can NOT out drink a Kiwi!!!! Piki, sister in law of the bride, must have bought 6 rounds of tequila and other shots, on top of the champagne, wine, cosmos, and beer we had that night! We finished at The Empire Room in Kings Cross but I honestly can’t tell you a lot of details b/c I can’t remember –all a blur!

Josie (the bride and me at the hen’s night)

Piki (the Kiwi and cause of my MAJOR “Headache”) and Mandy

The reason for our headaches! All the girl’s were feeling REALLY bad on Friday!

Hence why I couldn’t blog yesterday b/c I was in recovery until around 6pm. But of course since I am married to the least sympathetic man on the planet (god bless him) I “boned up” and got out of bed at noon – went to McDonald’s and then we all went to see the Sydney Olympic Park. The Olympic Park was amazing b/c Sydney didn’t have any of the facilities they would need for the Olympics so they built everything for the event. So all the buildings including the stadium, pool, village, etc were built within walking distance of each other -great concept that couldn’t be done in most cities b/c they wouldn’t have that much land available in one place - but surprisingly Sydney did! Unfortunately I was very sick and couldn’t really enjoy itL! I blame Piki (the New Zealander) for my awful headache and when I see her at the Rehearsal Dinner I will let her know!
Nathan outside the main stadium at Olympic Park

Sydney did some really cool things at the Olympic park including naming all the previous sites – here we are posing with Atlanta.

I (barely) pulled myself together for the Rehearsal Dinner at the Woolwich Pier Hotel, but I’m glad I did. The views were unbelievable. We had an early night though and went home by 10 pm to have a good night sleep.
View from the balcony at Woolwich Pier Hotel

So we woke up this morning and drove down to the Paddington Market – what a wonderful time! I HIGHLY recommend this to anyone traveling to Sydney – it only happens on Saturdays from 10 – 6 and has wonderful artists, jewelers, and clothing vendors. I am so glad we woke up early to go! We went from there to the Bolmain Bowling Club to meet the bride, groom, and other wedding attendees. The “bowling” game was cool and nothing I had played before. Great beer drinking and bonding activity. – oh and I beat the pants off Nathan as I am a very good bowler!

Our party of bowlers.

Carolyn picked us up from bowling (the hostesses with the mostess for sure) then we got hher Mum and we all went back to Carolyn’s for a barbeque. We grilled lamb and the most wonderful sausages I have ever eaten. We also had a fabulous dessert called Pavlova – I would make it for you guys when I get back but it sounds WAY too complicated! We had a nice relaxing dinner and now I am going to bed before 3 am – thank goodness! Tomorrow we are off to the Australian Gift Fair (so we can write off this tripJ) and to the wedding! Good Night and Rest in Peace!:)
Anthony, Peter, Julia, Mandy, and Mum
Nathan the mean griller! (Yes that is water he is pouring on the grill – don’t ask)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Day 6 - Near Death Experience and Hunter Valley

So for the last two days we have been up in wine country in Hunter Valley. We rented a car Wednesday morning around 10 and headed off for the 2 hr drive. (This is where the near death part comes in) I’m not sure if you are aware, but the Aussies drive on the OTHER side of the road! After almost running off the road and driving into on coming traffic we were out of the city and onto the freeway. The freeway was much more relaxing as I wasn’t screaming anymore or praying for my life and Nathan got us to the Hunter Valley safely with no more mishaps!

The first winery we went to was McWilliams b/c it is one of my favorite brands of shiraz in the US. Very nice wines and the staff was friendly and informative. From here we headed to have lunch at the Hunter Valley Gardens which was very good but Nathan said was a rip off. (Food is pretty expensive here – and we found out why – food service workers get paid about $18/hour! Needless to say you don’t really have tip as they make a damn good salary.) From here we went to Tyrrell’s winery for a tour. The tour was fantastic – I highly recommend it – very informative – and last about 1 ½ hours. Afterwards, we tasted all the wines with the tour guide as he explained the different tastes based on age of the wine, grapes, oaked or unoaked barreling, etc. We were then onto Hope Estates (another winery I like to drink in the US) – the wine was great and the staff was again friendly and informative. The wineries are at the end of the harvest for 2008 and everyone has told us that this was a crappy year for Australian wines b/c they had so much rain. They had to leave a lot of grapes on the vines so they will not be producing as much wine as usual this year (all I could think was that my cheap Australian shirazes were going to go up in price!) From here we went to the Smelly Cheese Shop (what a name!) but it must be famous (or infamous) b/c it was very busy and everyone was telling us to go! We had a look around tasted some fantastic cheese and went on to our hotel b/c Nathan was starting to get crabby!:)

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Hunters Valley – very nice! It was very hot so we went to the beautiful pool to relax and have a swim. (We were so tired b/c Nathan has been getting me up at 6 am to write this blogJ so we went back to the room to take a nap before dinner.) I woke up at 8:30 pm (oops) and Nathan was still asleep – we tried to get ready quickly but most places stopped serving at 9 – so we didn’t get to have a fancy dinner out, but we ended up eating a lite dinner at the Crowne Plaza’s restaurant which was very good (great bruscetta). We had heard a lot about the Crowne Plaza’s breakfast so we got up and had that before going to see more wineries. (Do you see a pattern here? All we have been doing is eating and drinking – I won’t be surprised if I have to buy new clothes to wear on the way back!)

This morning I decided that I would drive the car to see how hard it was. Although it is very unnatural I did a fine job, did not drive into on coming traffic, and only hit one curb (which I do in the states all the time so no biggieJ). So anyway, we started off the day at the Hunter Olive Centre – I bet they had about 50 different olives, olive oils, vinegars, and chutneys to taste with even more on the shelves. About 90% of everything was grown and made in Hunter Valley – very cool place to go if you like this kind of thing! Now on to Drayton’s Winery – we thought we were going to make their 11 am tour, but they had an explosion about a month ago killing two people so they won’t be doing tours for a while. The Cellar Door (tasting room) had been moved due to the explosion but it was still open so we went in to try some. This was probably some of my favorite wine. We bought a couple bottles as well as some Liqueur Muscat – great after dinner drink! Nathan was sick of trying wine (or more likely buying it as I had to get some at each winery –right?!) So went to some of the antique shops, gift shops, and finally Aqua Golf. So much fun! You basically hit golf balls into a big lake that has nets that you are trying to hit for prizes – Raleigh should have one of these! (Of course Nathan’s mind was running about a new business for us blah blah blah but I have learned to just agree, smile, and nod -no need to get all huffy since he doesn’t have any free time anyway! J) After this we went to Ivanhoe Winery and then off back home – we had to get back to Sydney for the Buck’s/Hen’s Party (Bachelor/Bachelorette). Okay – that is it for now but I will fill you in on the party tomorrow! Love and miss everyone!

Nathan Learning how to drive on the right side of the car.

Nathan playing golf at Aqua Golf - Unfortunately, I was not able to hit the targets.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Day 5 - Tour of Sydney and Dinner with Bride/Groom

So today we ventured into the city! We took the train into Sydney and got off at the Queen Victoria Building (QVB). The QVB was beautiful and Julia told us that a few years ago that they had talked of tearing it down but the city got such resistance from the residents that they restore it. Today it is full of art galleries, stores, and souvenir shops. We’ve posted a shot of the ladies bathroom b/c it was so cool – the “sink” was a slab of marble at a slight angle so the water could run off. It was so cool – that while I was in there a Chinese woman brought her husband in their to see it – nice! From here we walked to Sydney Tower – amazing views of the city! I highly recommend going to the top! You can see 360 degrees of the city for miles! Thank goodness we had our very knowledgeable aussie tour guides with us who could tell us what everything was! (Julia and Carolyn know so many interesting facts and information about Sydney and Australia in general – I don’t think I would be able to be as good a tour guide in the US!:) – they even had other tourists asking them questions!) After Sydney Tower we went on the Oz Trek – it is a “ride” (at the top of Sydney Tower) where your seat moves and you feel like you are “inside” the movie (they have these at places like Disney). It was cool b/c we learned a few more things about Australia and its history. From here we walked to the War Memorial at Martin Place and on to Circular Quay. Circular Quay is where the Opera House is located. Great people watching here! The Opera House is magnificent and is even more breathtaking in person than in the pictures and movies I’ve seen. It was interesting to see up close what makes it look like it “shines” – the tiles on the roof are in a diamond pattern and one is a white ceramic and the next just concrete – pretty cool effect from far away – it sparkles like diamonds! Great view of the Harbor Bridge or “Coat Hanger” as it is sometimes called here. After lots of photos, we went to The Rocks to look around – this is where the first settlers came and lived – they still have the original cobblestone streets in some parts. That was the end of our whirl wind tour of Sydney – from here we took a ferry to Woolwich to meet up with Andy and Josie for dinner with their families. We had a wonderful dinner and everyone was so nice! I’m so glad we got to hang out and meet Josie in a relaxed setting before all the festivities begin – she is fabulous! We also learned a few more aussie terms and how the word “piss” is used in like 7 different contexts. My new favorite is – “Taking the piss out of you” – the translation as best I can describe is “getting someone’s goat” – as in “Dad – stop taking the piss out of me!”

Picture outside of Queen Victoria outside the QVB (Queen Victoria Building). This is the main train station that consists of an upscale shopping mall.

Inside the QVB. From Left to right we have Carolyn, Mandy, Mitchell and Julia.

Circular stairway in the QVB to a secret door.

Here is a picture of the unique sink in the ladies bathroom in QVB

Sydney Tower

Picture of St. Mary's cathedral - Oldest Catholic Church in Australia

View of Darling Harbor from Sydney Tower

Picture of Park from Sydney Tour

View of Queen Victoria Building (main train station) from top of Sydney Tour

War Memorial in the financial district

Sydney Opera House

Carolyn & Julia in front of Harbour Bridge

Luna Park

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