13 February 2007

Chile's Torres del Paine national park

Torres del Paine, Chile - Patagonia region

While Torres del Paine National Park was certainly not the easiest to access, it was well worth the effort. We flew from Ushuaia (1 hour flight North) to Punta Arenas and immediately took a bus to Puerto Natales (3 hour drive). We spent the next day to pack and reconfirm our refugio/camping arrangements and ice hike logistics.

After spending 4 days in Ushuaia, "the end of the world", and enduring what we thought was the coldest summer we´ve ever experienced (yes! colder than summers spent in SF), we expected Puerto Natales to be a bit warmer (since it was a tad bit further north and closer to the equator). Boy, were we wrong! Puerto Natales greeted us with a bitterly cold antarctic wind. Gortex and long underwear were definitely on the "must pack" list.

We were off to the park early the next morning, which started with a 7:30 am bus pick up for our 2 hour journey to the park, followed by a 30 minute catamaran boat ride and a 3 hour hike to our starting point of our 5 day trek. Phew!

Our 5 day trek along the W trail was a blast with 2 exceptions....both of which were manageable. First, our ice hike and climb, scheduled for our 2nd day was cancelled last minute for the lamest reason! A rich American had paid an enormous amount of money to book the boat that was the only transport for us to reach the other side of the glacier where we would hike. X and I couldn´t have been more ashamed...this is exactly why Americans have such a horrible reputation around the world....no wonder many Americans tell others that they are Canadians when travelling.

On the flip side, this made for a much more manageable day. We had much more time to admire the glacier from a view point that we would have had to skip. Furthermore, we took our time hiking to the next refugio (a 3 hour hike we would have had to do immediately after our ice climb which would have concluded at 5pm). Aside from this disappointment, I got sick the 3rd and 4th day of our trek.....48 hour flu or something like that....food was not my friend and I had trouble keeping it down....this made for an extra challenging trek! Nevertheless, Xavier still tells me how well I did treking the long distances and making it up the optional look out ¨mirador¨to see the panoramic of the valley on day 3 despite my condition. Poor guy...he had to endure a wimpering sick puppy companion, especially as the day progressed on these 2 days! Admittedly, it was probably the hardest treks I´ve done as a result of my condition.

You´re probably wondering WHAT we saw! We saw an incredible array of nature and natural formations....a massive blue blue blue glacier (Glacier Grey), exquisite spiked towers (the famous Torres rock formations), additional rock towers (Cuernos) chiseled into the shape of horns by natural elements, HUGE condors (like the size of me!) soaring gracefully above, gorgeous rolling valleys, forests of dead trees that contributed a sense of beauty in their own way, red flowers giving sporadic bursts of color within the bushes, snow capped mountains and incredibly bright blue lakes and flowing water falls and streams everywhere. See our photos...they speak louder than words!

The hike itself was an amazing hike. Although the W is one of the most popular hikes within Patagonia and we saw plenty of people along the way, we chose to do the hike in the reverse (left to right) and loved it, definitely the less traveled way! Each day revealed a bit more of the beautiful park, with a climax of an incredible view of the Torres on the last day.....And not only that, we had incredible weather the last few days....sunny, warm and clear!

Day 1: 3 hour hike to Refugio Grey, first viewing of Glacier Grey, overnight in Refugio Grey right on Lago Grey with glacier in sight

Day 2: Hike to an incredible view of the glacier (2 hours rt), incredible siting of ice break off from the glacier (kaboom!), hike to Refugio Pehoe (3 hours), on Lago Pehoe....camp

Day 3: Hike to Valley Frances (2 hours)....first viewing of Torres and extensive views of Glacier Frances, additional optional hike (4 hours) to panoramic view of torres, glaciers, cuernos...todos! Hike and overnight in Refugio Cuernos (2 hours)

Day 4: Hike to Refugio Chileno (on the way to the Torres look out) (4 hours), overnight here in a prettly little valley, Hike up to the look out of Torres (sin Julie) (3-4 hours rt)

Day 5: Hike to Torres look out (3 hours rt) and then to Refugio Torres (1.5 hours) for transport out of park.

The people made this trek extra special and quite international. We had the best bunk mates and treking mates we met along the way! Stephanie and boyfriend from Belgium. Sven and Maran from Germany, Andrew and Ana from Washington DC, Shiri and David from the UK and a young polish couple. We loved every moment getting to know them all and sharing stories, sites and experiences....including sore achy feet and enduring other snoring bunk mates (fortunately, we did not have this experience!)

05 February 2007

Argentina - Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego

Ushuaia... the land at the end of the earth, in Tierra del Fuego. This region is majestic, and words do little justice to the alpine-like beauty we saw here. There are deep blue ocean waters, lakes of every shade of blue, white-capped mountains which continue to the horizon and blur into a sea of grayness that is often the horizon here.

Our hikes here took us from rocky beaches to forests of lengua, southern beech, and mid-mountain meadows of peat moss which intersected our treks up to the mountain summits. During our time in Tierra del Fuego, we spent most of our time on the outskirts of Ushuaia, where we beheld the awesome views of lonesome, jagged mountains towering over the seas and little towns that dot this landscape, and saw islands covered with seals and birds.

We drank from streams flowing with alpine mountain water that flows from the glaciers, rejuvenated ourselves with savory Argentine lamb and local king crab, and started our days with artisan breads smeared with local calafate berry jam.

The summertime beauty here is unusual, filled with vivid colors amidst the greys and blues. the specific details of our brief time in this rugged land included hiking the National Park's coast and mountain trails, in which we squeezed 10 hours of hiking into about 7! Another day, we took a cab out to hike to Laguna Esmeralda and then further up to Ojo de Albino, a tiny glacier near the mountain summits ringing Laguna Esmeralda. During this hike, we met a great porteno couple, Alicia and Fernando, whom we later met up with in Buenos Aires. And we also took a brief boat tour around the Beagle Channel, I think it was with Maria tours or something like that.

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01 February 2007

Arrival into Buenos Aires

An adventure in airports. We had to disembark in Chile and re-enter, which was a bit annoying. however, when we arrived in Buenos Aires we breathed a sigh of relief and anticipation. BA is one of our favorite cities, and I (X) feel like I'm at home when in this city. There is so much to do, whether it's food, shopping, walking, sightseeing, or taking in the arts, that you can spend a month easily soaking in everything in BA.

This time around , we stayed in the Marriott on Plaza San Martin. We loved it! The Marriott is in a historic building on a convenient corner of the Plaza. Calle Florida, the pedestrian shopping street, starts here. Plus the subway is 1/2 block away, and one of our favorite cafes was across the plaza, where Avenida Santa Fe terminates. The rooms here are luxurious, far better than most Marriotts I've stayed in the US.

Below is a quick recap of our favorite food & shopping excursions.
El Mirasol is a great steak restaurant at the intersection of Avenida 9 de Julio and Av. Libertador.
Also, Dora's by Plaza San Martin is a classic Buenos Aires restaurant tradition.
Of course, have a short breakfast in any cafe, and enjoy a coffee and some medialunas pastries!
Go to Palermo Viejo for designer boutique shopping, filled with local Argentine designers. Head to Santa Fe for the local's shopping haven, and to Calle Florida for the tourists. Some good brands in Argentina include Fortin (leather), Kuala (shoes), Tucci (women's), Zara, Lorens (shoes mostly), Soho.
We really enjoy the antiques market in San Telmo on Sundays, and always the weekend crafts fair in Recoleta is a fun place to spend the day, plus you get to take in some street tango shows which are more fun than the tango dinners anyway!
For the businessperson/tourist eating spots, to to Puerto Madero, especially to Cabana Las Lilas which is well known for steaks.
And for buying wine, the winery place at Av 9 de Julio intersection with Av. Libertador is great; very helpful staff there; if you ask, they'll box up your wine for shipping overseas, and even transport to your hotel! I think there is also a good wine shop on Santa Fe around the 1200 to 1500 blocks (can't remember exactly, but it's on a major intersection), as well as the wine store on the 2nd floor in Patio Bullrich mall.

22 January 2007

Bolivia - Yungas, the mountain jungles

After our crazy mountain bike ride, we stopped in the town of Yolosa. My uncle Carlos has a small ranch in Yolosa, well technically it's another town, but just up the mountainside. Yolosa is now a sleepy town that only mountain bikers stop in, since the new paved road to Coroico doesn't stop here anymore. In truth, the bikers only stop to rest, grab a drink, and load the bikes onto the chase vans before heading up to Coroico, where they shower up in a hotel and have a nice meal.

At my uncle's ranch, we picked maracuyas (passionfruit?), mangos, and avocados. We foundso much that I carried a huge canvas back down the mountain to He's got a respectable amount of mountainside that's his ranch, and plants are growing everywhere due to the year-round warm weather and current rains. Despite so much fruit & vegetable growing, he doesn't bother to pick it and transport back to La Paz, as we learned no one can sell the produce profitably.

Our first night, we ate a delicious lechon, roasted small pig! That was the first time my uncle's mud/brick oven was used. Gerard is inspired to build one in our new home (yes that's a recent update). Also, Julie functioned as fairly effective mosquito attractant - they loved her! And fortunately lightened up on me, but I still left the Yungas with a lot of little red welts.

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20 January 2007

Bolivia - death bike ride to Coroico

Since Julie is a mountain bike enthusiast, I thought it would be fun to do a mountain bike ride in Bolivia. Shortly after Gerard, my brother, moved to Bolivia, he told us about the bike ride to Coroico. This ride takes you down what is billed as the world's deadliest road. Well, after some indecision we decided to go on the bike ride.

I would not be surprised if this label was true. I recall as a child sitting in the back of my uncle's 20-year old jeep, driving down a single lane dirt road from La Paz to Chulumani, in the Yungas region, and looking just 3 feet past the car to a 1000-foot or longer drop down a steep mountainside to a rocky river below. At the time I thought it was really cool to watch as we would stop on a narrow pull-out as a truck or bus drove the opposite direction, just inches from my uncle's jeep.

I can assure you the dirt road to Coroico looks just like the road to Chulumani. There is no guardrail, it's single-lane, and the downhill side of the road is dirt covered by grass and occasionally some of it collapses down the mountainside during the rainy season. At some points you can stop and look down to see the mangled remains of a car, bus or truck that drove just a little too close to the edge and fell down.

Fortunately, nowadays the bike ride is relatively safe. There is now a separate paved road from La Paz to Coroico, and most buses and trucks go on this road. I think we only saw 1 or 2 cars that drove uphill as we biked down the dirt road.

The morning of our bike trip, we had lunch at the hostel in La Paz where the buses leave to take us up to La Cumbre. Julie and I were pleasantly surprised to see 2 of our friends there, Graeme and Sarah from Australia, whom we met hiking on the Inca Trail! We quickly caught up and learned they were delayed into Bolivia a few days due to the stomach virus they caught the night we finished the Inca Trail hike.

The tour starts with a 30-minute drive up to La Cumbre pass at 4000 meters altitude. Even in the summer it's cold up there! This is the start of the ride, about an hour's ride on asphalt towards Coroico.

We had a few brief stops for pictures, snacks and to ensure the group stayed together. We also had 2 narcotics stops along the road. I don't know why you have to stop for a drug check going into the Yungas, since they grow the coca leaves there, and not in La Paz...

So at nearly noon we arrived at the start of the dirt road. We had already had a dropout, a young girl who went too fast on the street and lost control of her bike, flew off and needed stitches on her chin. There is about another 2 hours left to go, and it's all downhill dirt!

The dirt road is quite rocky, and I found myself nearly sliding a bit on all the curves as I got used to the bike and the road. Luckily there is no one but bicyclists on the road, so it's not really that scary anymore. We had a few more photo and food stops to admire the scenery. It was neat to feel the change in temperature as we biked downhill into mountain jungle, and see the change from alpine scrub to tropical forest. We had fun biking through a rainy-season waterfall on the road, and biking across 2 small rivers!

At mid-afternoon we finally arrived at the bottom, at a town called Yolosa at 1100 meters altitude, or 3600 feet. Here Julie and I left the group to meet my uncle Carlos and my dad, who were staying at my uncle's ranch just above Yolosa, so that we could also spend the weekend in the Yungas. We were quite glad to make it safely to the bottom!

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19 January 2007

Bolivia - Sucre

After only 1 1/2 days in Potosi, we took yet another bus to Sucre, a beautiful colonial town which used to be the capital of Bolivia. We took a pleasant afternoon bus to the town - no more night trips! It was great to see some of the mountainous countryside into Sucre, and to get a feel for this historically rich city.

We thought about getting a hostel near the main market area, but after poking around 2 places, we decided we wanted some luxury. So we went to the main plaza and booked a room in one of the nicest hotels in the city. 24x7 hot running water, a TV, a giant queen bed, and a full breakfast was ours for only $50! Gotta love exchange rates :)

That night, we met up with Gerard's old coworker and friend Andres. They used to work together at Aid to Artisans. Andres took us up to a wonderful lookout spot where we met some of his friends and enjoyed some delicious hot cocoa & coffee while watching the sun go down over the city.

Sucre is a beautiful city and worth a visit if you're in Bolivia. It's nestled in-between the mountains, and used to be the home of the rich Spaniards who owned mines in Potosi. As it was the former capital, there is also many universities in Sucre who lay claim to some of South America's most famous students, like Simon Bolivar. The universities are still quite prestigious even after Sucre's fade from prominence.

The following day, we visited the textile museum - definitely a must-see! Both my brother Gerard and Andres highly recommended it as the textiles are world-class. The museum was started so that the local weaving traditions and patterns could be preserved. The various tribes in the area all weave different patterns into their work so it's fascinating to see the differences. Julie took tons of pictures which you should see on flickr!

Later in the day we walked around the town a bit. We hung out in the plaza, which was quite fun. Sucre feels like it's got a lot of energy because there are so many college students there. We definitely felt the difference compared to so many other towns in Bolivia.

Our other activity was a tour of the old government meeting hall. Here we got to see photo of all the past & present Bolivian presidents, the original congress room, and saw a copy of the Declaration of Independence! It was great to learn about Bolivia's independence and hear about South America's struggle for independence from Spain. I honestly didn't know much, since I didn't grow up in south america, nor did I ever think to ask my parents, so to learn about the history of my parent's native countries was quite a moving experience for me.

Well, unfortunately our visit to Sucre was brief. We took a flight early in our 3rd day in Sucre back to La Paz. But we left feeling quite refreshed from the city's energy and the 2 high-class hotels we stayed at! Now we were ready for new adventures!

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17 January 2007

Bolivia - Potosi

Immediately after our adventure in Uyuni, we boarded a bus to Potosi. At first we thought it would be only a 5-7 hour drive, putting us in Potosi around midnight to 2, but the bus company said we'd arrive at 3 am! We finally made it to Potosi at 5 am!

Lesson learned - be very careful travelling in Bolivia during the rainy season, and don't make travel plans that rely on tight timing - it's not like in the US!

Potosi used to be the most important city in South America. The Incas revered the mountain of silver and the Spaniards were astonished to find silver literally busting out of the mountain. Thereafter began centuries of mining and exporting of silver - I think it's impossible to calculate the $$ that came out of the mountain!

Today, Potosi is now a ghost of its former self. There is still substantial mining going on which pulls out miniscule amounts of minerals by hand. Most of the rock is now shipped out of the country for processing. Unfortunately mining seems to be one of the few professions in this high-altitude, mountain-desert town.

Some enterprising miners have given up their work to provide tours in the mine, which is one of the reasons we went to Potosi. We toured one of the coop mines, and even bought dynamite in the town's "miner" market to give to the miners as a gift! It's customary to bring drinks or coca leaves for the miners. It is really hard work in hot & dusty conditions; they are underground 8-10 hours a day, only coming out at the end of their shift. Our tour guide is a part-time miner now and even had us participate in the work a little bit to understand how hard the conditions are.

We also walked around town a little bit, to see the historical sights. We did the tour of the mint, Casa de Moneda, and saw the old coins that were made in Potosi. The mint is definitely worth seeing how they used to make old coins, the semi-precious stones mined in the area, and artifacts recovered from pre-Inca sites around the area - the child mummies are a little creepy!

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16 January 2007

Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni

Once back in La Paz from our Inca Trail hike to Macchu Picchu, we started making plans for our next visit to see the salt flats in Uyuni. We were lucky to get train tickets to Uyuni as we decided to try to leave right away, having learned that my father was coming to Bolivia the following week! Ignoring the advice of most of my family, we decided to book the 3-day Uyuni tour in La Paz as we didn't want to potentially lose a day checking around in Uyuni.

A visit to Uyuni starts with a 3 hour bus to Oruro, which is an old mining town and now famous for its Carnival celebrations. From there, we took a 10 hour train ride to Uyuni. We managed to get some naptime in and even saw flamingoes on some of the lagoons on the way!

We arrived in Uyuni around 10 pm, about on time, and were met by a representative from Colque tours since our original hotel they booked for us was not available, so we moved to another hotel nearby. Fortunately Uyuni is a small town, so all the agencies, hotels, and bus companies are near each other, which made it easy for us to book our bus from Uyuni to Potosi in a few days.

The next day we started our Salar de Uyuni tour. We ended up with a Brazilian hippie chick, the funny-speaking Spanish/Chilean college student, and 2 Japanese tourists. Fortunately we all spoke spanish or english! Our tour started at the train graveyard near Uyuni. It merits this 1-sentence comment but that's really all there is to it. Next, we headed off to the Salar - yeah! Oh, but first is the requisite tourist souvenir stop in the next town to gawk at salt rock statuettes, salt-brick buildings, and a few llamas.

Ah, finally we arrived at the Salar de Uyuni. We were told that due to recent rains we wouldn't go all the way through the salt flats to the lagoons, but only to the salt hotel. Well, when we arrived I didn't think we'd go anywhere! The salt flat was a flat, huge mirror due to recent rains. However, this didn't faze our driver - he drove right onto the Salar and away we went! Wow! You have to see the pictures to believe it. Imagine the ground being a perfect, smooth mirror reflecting everything above it. The salt was still hard-packed, so the jeeps could drive on the Salar, and we got out and walked around a little. We didn't have any wind, and it was incredible to see the mountains in the distance and the clouds perfectly reflected off the water. It seemed like we were in another world. We also looked at the little salt mounds that grew from salt bubbling up from underground - it reminded me a lot of the tufas at Mono Lake in California's Sierra Nevadas.
Next, we drove to the Salt Hotel, which is not far into the Salar de Uyuni. Interesting place as it is completely made out of salt except for the doors and roof. Really! They have bed platforms, benches, seats and tables all made out of salt.

After this interesting stop, we went back to the neighboring town for a lunch of llama meat, salad and quinoa. After lunch, we swung by Uyuni to pick up our luggage and head off to our evening accomodations southwest from Uyuni. This was about a 3 hour drive, coupled with a drive through 2 towns because all the other jeeps had gotten the better accomodations. Well, I guess you can call it accomodation - they had little beds, a common room to eat in, and a pay shower. We were told the next night's accomodation didn't have a shower!

Day 2 included a variety of sightseeing stops. We stopped at Laguna Herionda, which was full of flamingoes. Apparently 3 of the world's 6 species of flamingoes lives in Bolivia! We also visited the stone tree, an area full of wierd rock formations. I rock-climbed (bouldering, really) a few monuments, which was really hard work at 4500 meters above sea level! Whew! Our final destination was Laguna Colorada, which appears as a pink-red lake when the sun is shining, has a good number of flamingoes hanging, and we also spotted a few llamas and viscachas (rabbit species) around the lagoon. This was the nicest spot of the day, and we had all the time we wanted around the lagoon as we stayed at the hostel beside the lake! Our night was quite interesting - we met a group of Brazilians with another tour agency and also a small group of guys doing a South American motorcycle tour!!! Very cool - there was even an American travelling through the Americas on a little Japanese dual-sport; I dunno how he was doing it because his seat didn't look all that comfortable...

Our last day proved to be the most interesting, and tiresome. We woke up at 4 am in order to see the sights and reach the Chilean border by 9 am. We saw some geysers and mud pools, and then drove to another lagoon with a hot mineral water pool where we relaxed before breakfast.

On our way to the border with Chile our jeep had a flat. This was not unusual as we and many other jeeps had flats during the 3-day trip. This time, however, our driver decided to tie the flat tire to the roof with the other luggage, but as he was finishing, he fell off the roof! We rushed over to see how he was. We were definitely worried when he mentioned he was in some pain and took a closer look at his wrist - it was certainly bent in an odd way. Strangely, our driver insisted he was OK and wanted to keep driving. Luckily all 6 of us protested to the contrary, and we finally convinced him not to drive - I think he would have passed out from trying to manage the stickshift and steering wheel... Only 2 of us could drive, myself and the Chilean college student... can you guess who drove that day???

Well, I felt kinda ready since I've done some off-road driving, but the Salar de Uyuni trip is all dirt roads. I was facing 9 hours of dirt road driving, ranging from a dirt "highway" to true off-road including 2 river crossings. During the drive we also had to drive through a lot of big water puddles and a few very muddy sections 1 to 2 feet deep! What an adventure. Not only did we have to contend the roads, but we also had to deal with a gate placed across the highway by a neighboring town, and then the town along the highway decided to blockade their section of highway to protest the illegal gate. Go figure... Unfortunately this all too often is the norm in Bolivia, with people protesting a situation they don't like and not at all thinking about the negative consequences of their actions. It is amazing how narrow-minded the Bolivian mindset can sometimes be, and it was particularly disconcerting to me considering that most of my dad's family is born & raised there, including my dad.

To cap off our day, we took a bus from Uyuni to Potosi that night, which is normally a 5 to 7 hour trip. They told us that the 7 pm bus would arrive at 3 am (that's 8 hours) due to the rains and it actually arrived at 5 am. Our bus was a local's bus, which meant every seat was full, along with every square inch of the aisle taken up by additional passengers. Thank goodness there were no fire hazards!

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11 January 2007

Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu

Our first day on the Inca Trail had an interesting start. First, we waited over half an hour for SAS Travel to pick us up from the hostal. I walked down to the office to see if anyone was there; of course not, being it was only 6 am! Luckily an SAS bus happened to drive by, so I flagged it down and they took me back to the hostal. There I found Julie getting onto our bus. Apparently they forgot to come pick us up! We were lucky there was another SAS travel group leaving for the Inca Trail too!

Our drive out of Cusco to Ollantaytambo was uneventful. From the town of Ollantaytambo we drove another 15 minutes to the start of the Inca Trail. Well, it should've been 15 minutes, except another bus was trying to drive the opposite direction on the road, which was a dirt road only about 1.5 lanes wide! This episode took about 15-20 minutes as we inched closer and closer to an adobe house, and the other bus tried to inch closer and closer to the other side of the road, which dropped down to a cornfield. Amazingly both buses managed to pass each other with only 1 or 2 inches to spare!

We finally arrived at the trail head, and were each given a grocery bag full of snacks! This was unexpected! We quickly learned we always had plenty to eat. Hiking the Inca Trail with a reputable tour agency is kinda like trekking with hobbits in Lord of the Rings; we had breakfast before starting the day's hike, mid-morning snacks, lunch, afternoon tea and then dinner each day!

The first day's hike isn't all that exciting. Basically we hiked partly up a mountain, passing a few villages before arriving at our designated camping area. But it gave us a chance to get to know our fellow travelers; Neil and Graeme from a little town in UK; 3 recent UK grads, Neal, John and ??; 2 Ozzies, Graeme and Sarah whose families are close friends; "Gringo" Bill, the military media consultant; a Russian couple; and Alex, a recent US college grad. We learned few South Americans are now found on the trail, since they have to pay the same prices as other tourists - $300 to $400 per person on average!

Day two proved to be more challenging. Each group hikes up 4 hours from their campsites (ours at 3100 meters / 10200 feet) through Dead Woman's pass at 4200 meters (13800 feet). From here, it's 600 meters elevation down to the first campsites, another 2 hour hike. While it's quite tiring to hike up to the pass, it is beautiful to hike through temperate forest, beech forest, and alpine scrub filled with tiny orchids and flowers. Even though I stopped a lot to catch my breath, I ended up taking lots of photos on the way up because there was so much flora to look at!

After stopping for lunch at the campsite, our main guide Saul asked if we wanted to continue. We had the option to hike 3 more hours to the next camp area, which would save us 3 hours the following day, and allow more time to visit the many Inca ruins that we would see on Day 3. Most of us opted to keep going, so a democratic vote in favor meant we hiked 3 more hours on Day 2. I could tell a few people in the group were getting really tired, but I think they were happy to know we could sleep in an extra hour on day 3. I know I was!

Day 3 was exciting. We hiked through 2 small tunnels the Incas carved, and saw more spectacular valleys and mountains. Not only was the panorama beautiful, but we also stopped to see and learn about several Inca ruins. Many of these included outposts and connection points between several major Inca trails, as well as some religious sites and agricultural research areas. Pretty interesting to learn the Incas did a lot of research on astronomy, architecture, and agriculture! (A side note - I learned from reading 'Guns, Germs and Steel' during our travels that the Incas & Aztecs took several centuries to cultivate corn from a small thumb-sized cob to today's edible cobs)

Our campsite on Day 3 was quite luxurious. It included a restaurant and hot showers. Yay! We ate inside the restaurant, although the food was prepared by our porters and cook. However, this dinner was accompanied by beer & wine, unlike our other meals on the trip ;)

Day 4 was an early start to make it to the Sun Gate just after dawn, to get an early morning look at Macchu Picchu (MP). And what a beautiful view it was! We had a phenomenal sunrise to usher in a sunny morning hike to MP. Upon arriving at MP, we stopped for a break and for half the group to check-in their backpacks, which are not allowed into MP. Only day-backpacks are allowed into the ruins.

We had a 1-hour tour of the ruins with our guides, learning about the various religious and key architectural details of MP. After the tour, several of us decided to hike up Wayna Picchu, one of the mountains on the side of MP, which also has some ruins. We hiked up and had great panoramic views of MP and the valley surrounding us.

After hiking back down to MP, we picked up our belongings and got onto one of the many buses that take people down the mountain to the town of Aguas Calientes. We couldn't have timed it better - it started to rain as we waited for the bus! Also, this is a nice benefit of booking the Inca Trail with a reputable agency - some of them also provide tickets for the bus ride down the mountain & lunch afterwards, rather than having to hike down another hour to Aguas Calientes.

After another tasty meal and hot shower, we headed back to Cusco and picked up our belongings we had stored in town at a hotel next to SAS Travel. Julie and I tried to get a quick dinner so that we could make our return bus to La Paz, but the hotel took a long time, getting our food just in time for us to wolf it down and race over to the bus terminal in a taxi. We arrived only 10 minutes before the bus left town - and it actually left on time!

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10 January 2007

To Cusco and prep for the Inca Trail

One of our goals on our honeymoon trip was to hike the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu. Even though we planned it at the last minute, we were fortunate to be traveling during the low season, so it was easy to arrange transportation from La Paz, accommodation in Cusco, and the tour. We actually took a bus from La Paz to Cusco for 2 reasons. First, we thought it might be nice to see the altiplano scenery in Bolivia and Peru, and second, we learned there are no reliable, cheap flights from La Paz to Cusco. It would have cost $400-500 each to take 2 connecting flights, while the bus was USD$40 round-trip and 2-3 more hours each way, so it was a no-brainer. Plus, with the money we saved by not flying, we could buy more artisan crafts from my brother's friends!

Generally, you spend 2-3 days in Cusco before starting the Inca Trail, to acclimate to the altitude. Cusco is 3500 meters above sea level, which is about 2 miles. Since we had been in La Paz for a week, we didn't have to spend the time in Cusco, but we did arrive early to finalize our tour booking and arrange for a return bus ride.

In Cusco we stayed at the Hostal de Ninos. This hotel was started by a Scandinavian lady who wanted to stay and help some of the poorer kids in Cusco. She started the hostel and several other small enterprises to fund schooling and food to some of the children in the city.

After arriving from a long day's journey across the Bolivian and Peruvian high plains, we had a great night's sleep and breakfast at the hotel. The next day we took care of administrative stuff like paying for our Inca Trail tour and finding bus tickets back to Cusco, and then took a taxi to go see one of the famous ruins near Cusco, called Sacsayhuaman. It's pronounced kinda like "sexy woman" - it's quite fun to talk about it!

We learned you have to buy a tour pass to see the ruins. Well, I knew that already, having visited Cusco a few years ago, but we thought we could sneak in or maybe pay to see just one of the ruins. The park ranger would have none of it, but after a lot of negotiation they let us in to see the ruins for the price of only 1 partial tour pass at 40 soles, or $13. The full tour pass for all 10 ruins is now 70 soles, compared to 30 soles only 3 years ago!

No one is exactly sure what Sacsayhuaman was. Most believe it was a fortress/castle due to the layout and location. There are massive rock walls with carved stones over 10 feet high and some of them have multiple corners and angles carved into them. One of the amazing features of Inca architecture is that the most important military and religious buildings have walls made of huge stones carved to fit precisely together without the use of mortar, and nearly every stone will have different angles cut on its sides. It is quite different than ancient European architecture, where stones are cut into simple squares or rectangles. In a few places I saw stones with 10, 12 or even 14 corners/sides or more!

After walking around the large ruins of "sexy woman", we walked back down to Cusco. It's a quick 20 minute walk back into the city along an ancient Incan path. I find it amazing that Incan architecture is still usable on a daily basis even after more than 500 years! We had a quick lunch near the main plaza, called Plaza de Armas, and then walked down to the Temple of the Sun, which is in Cusco. This used to be a key Incan temple, and now showcases Incan architecture and Jesuit art and architecture.

The Spaniards destroyed most of the temple, kept the foundation and built a monastery on top of the Inca foundation. However, in the subsequent years strong earthquakes destroyed the monastery, while the Incan foundation was still intact!

That night we had a briefing session with our tour operator, SAS Travel, where we met our two guides, Saul and Juan, and our fellow hikers. Our group was 13 tourists, and we learned people were from all over the world; Russia, Australia, UK and USA. We also received duffel bags and plastic bags to hold our belongings and sleeping pads, since Julie and I paid a little extra to have porters carry our belongings. I wanted us to spend our time enjoying the hike and scenery rather than being tired from schlepping a backpack at high altitude.

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02 January 2007

Bolivia-Copacabana, Isla del Sol, and cuisine

After spending Christmas at both Julie's and my parents' places in Fremont and Miami, we flew to Bolivia on Dec 29 to visit my family and go sightseeing.

We were excited because my cousin Andrea invited us to spend New Years at Copacabana and Isla del Sol, both which are on Lake Titicaca. It would be a great opportunity to visit these 2 famous areas in Bolivia.

When we arrived at La Paz airport, my aunt Teresa and Andrea were there to greet us. There we learned that we were supposed to leave early the next morning (Dec 30) to go to Copacabana. Oops! A little miscalculation on my part. Normally this would not be an issue, but it's important to understand that upon flying into La Paz, nearly everyone gets altitude sickness. The airport is at 3600 meters or 11,800 feet! So my aunts & uncles were a little nervous about us going off and camping/hiking/whatever a day after our arrival.

I wasn't worried about the altitude, but what we were supposed to bring to Isla del Sol. I didn't know if we were staying hotels or camping out! With little info to go on, we packed our sleeping bags and plenty of warm clothes.

The next morning we took the bus from La Paz to Copacabana. Taking a bus in Bolivia can be an interesting experience. There are many 20+ year old buses that are colorfully painted and are a key transportation mode in Bolivia. The road to Copacabana includes a stop at Tiquina, where we had to get off the bus and take the little boat ferries across the other side of the lake, just a short 1/2 km ride. The buses, trucks and cars crossed via large flat ferries. After a 3 hour trip, for just 20 Bolivianos (USD$2.5) we finally arrived at Copacabana. Here, we quickly arranged our boat transport to Isla del Sol.

We had lunch in Copa. Apparently the trout is supposed to be good here... Well, after eating loads of seafood in NZ and fresh steamed fish Chinese-style at Julie's parents' house, a pan-fried fish filet was just average. During our month in Bolivia, we quickly learned that Bolivia is not known for its excellent cuisine. However, we quickly fell in love with the soups - this country seems to be the capital of soup! yum!

The boat ride from Copacabana to Isla del Sol is 1.5 to 2 hours on a small ferry boat for about 25 people. There are great views of the lake border as you approach the island and it is just amazing to see such deep blue water!

We stopped at south end of Isla del Sol at the little town of Yumani. We planned to spend the night at a hostel here. But first, we had to climb up the 1000 Inca steps and see the Fountain of the Incas! Uh oh... this was definitely not the thing to do less than 24 hours after arriving in Bolivia!

Luckily the 1000 steps are not that many, maybe more like 200. But it took us quite a while to walk up, me with a 40-liter pack on my back. The reward was seeing a 500-1000 year old Inca fountain still flowing with water - the Incans were amazing architects!

We had a lot of drama finding a hostel. We had to hike to the top of the town just to try to find a decent hostel, which was quite tiring for Julie and I, and finally my cousin's friend settled on a so-so hostel; we learned many were already full. The upside was that we had amazing sunset views, with the typical red-fire sunset accompanied by dozens of lightning flashes off in the distance - wow!

The next day we set off for the ruins. That night, we learned that hiking to the north end was a 3-hour trip and we probably would've had to hike back, due to the limited boat schedule. Well, half of us weren't up to 6-8 hours of trekking, so we opted to take a boat ride to a nearby town and and do the short walk to the ruins.

We had a nice 45 minute walk up to the ruins, with a big impromptu tour group, and learned about the place where the Aymaran culture (pre-Inca) believes the world started. There was a big rock shaped like a puma, another rock in the shape of a diety's face, and a set of Aymaran ruins that used to house a small colony of priests. One of my cousin's friends even got a blessing from the priests at a small altar.

Back to Copacabana by boat. We had another night in a hostel in town, as we decided to spend New Year's here rather than on the island. We sort of had running water - Julie and I managed to take a warm shower! Later that night the workers had to carry buckets of water to the roof to refill the water tank!

Well, we had a great New Years watching fireworks all over the town. We had a little bubbly at the hotel rooftop balcony taking it all in. That night we had picana, a typical Bolivian dish for Christmas or New year, which was a 3-meat stew with corn and potatoes. Not bad except for the toonta potatoes.

One thing there is a huge variety of in Bolivia and Peru is potato. Apparently there are hundreds of varieties, including some potatoes that are dehydrated and others freeze-dried. Incredible what the pre-Incan cultures discovered. There are 2 main dehydrated/freeze-dried potatoes. Chuna is the dark-colored one, and Toonta the white one. While chuna tastes like a rehydrated potato, it's interesting and tasty, toonta was our least favorite potato - it tasted like crap! literally...

The next day we woke up at 9 am (yes!) after dancing until 3 AM... Luckily everyone else got up just before we did. Since our bus wasn't until 3 or 4 pm, we wanted to do a short hike in town and decided to hike up Calvary hill in town. It's supposed to have great views of Copacabana and the lake, so we went. We learned there are 12 crosses on the way up, which represent the 12 stations in Christ's crucifixion, and the Catholics supposedly stop at each cross, say a prayer and a wish, and toss a little pebble onto the cross to make the wish come true. I thought it was a nice way to remind us to pray, so Julie and I did this on our way up.

The views at top were indeed fantastic. In addition to the typical South American shrines, what was also interesting at the top was this pagan ritual of renting a small plot of dirt and putting a mini house, garden and cars on it. Apparently this miniature home was to represent the real things you wanted, so you bought miniatures, set them up, and some old guy blessed the whole thing with a prayer and splash of beer.

Well, OK. After taking in the views, we hiked down, had another average lunch of trout, and returned to La Paz via bus. All in all, we had a fascinating introduction to Bolivian customs and managed to stay healthy!

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22 December 2006


We almost didn't get home in time for Christmas... completely our fault this time!
When we arrived at Queenstown airport, we couldn't be found in the travel registry. It turns out that we booked the flight a day earlier than we should have, so our flight was purchased for a day too early. Yikes! Fortunately, kiwis are nice people and those at the ticket counter let us on board once they determined they had room for us.
After that drama, we ate dinner at White restaurant in Hilton, 7 course prixe fixe with wine pairings. We felt we deserved some luxury after all our hostels & backpacking! After all, it is our honeymoon...
Towards the end of dinner we met my dad's friend, Peter Hawthornwaite, in Auckland - they are friends from when my dad started working in NYC! We were really excited and felt blessed to have some fellowship time with other christians - that was a nice, unexpected surprise.
The next day, after strolling through Auckland downtown, we left for the airport and we found we were actually able to pack all the NZ wine into our luggage! And checking in our box from Australia turned out to be no problem.
We do plan to have some wine tasting events to try out the wines we purchased. But with all the events going on this year of 2007 it looks like it may not be until next year...

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19 December 2006

NZ-Te Anau and Doubtful Sound

In Queenstown, when we went to confirm our reservation for the Milford Sound boat trip, we decided to go to Doubtful Sound instead of Milford Sound. Why? Well, we learned there was a 2-hour drive to Milford, then 2 hours on a boat, followed by another 2 hours drive back to Te Anau. Sounded kinda dull spending all that time driving, and sharing the sound with a bunch of other tour bouts, so we decided on the less touristy Doubtful Sound instead. To get to Doubtful Sound, it is a short bus ride to Lake Manapouri, where we take a boat ride to the power station at the other end of the lake. Then we take a short bus over Wilmot Pass for some views of Doubtful Sound before taking the boat ride through the sound.

Well, this tour did not disappoint. The boat ride across Manapouri was pretty, and Doubtful Sound was even more scenic - there were dramatic mountains all over the place. I think we were starting to get used to the massive granite peaks all around us; at the end of the day I was tired of looking up at huge mountains next to our boat. But to see forests of fern trees and waterfalls right by the sea was incredible.

We learned there is amazing sea life to see. Apparently the fresh water coming down the mountains absorbs a lot of plant tannins, so the few feet of fresh water that constantly sits on top of the sea water in the fjord blocks almost all the sunlight, and deep water coral and fish live just a few meters below the surface. Well we didn't go to any underwater observatory or scuba dive, but we saw the videos and now we want to do some cold-water diving!

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17 December 2006

NZ - the Routeburn Tramp

The morning after our arrival in Queenstown we left for the Routeburn trek. We drove up along Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, with incredible views of the surrounding mountains.

Facts: The Routeburn is usually done in 3 days hiking just over 30-some kilometers. It climbs from temperate rainforest in Mt Aspiring National Park up to the Harris Saddle, which is alpine scrub and some snow even in early summer, back into mossy wet rainforest in Fiordlands National Park before stopping at The Divide near Milford Sound and Te Anau. We learned the rainfall averages 5 meters/year near Glenorchy to 6 meters/year near Te Anau! The great thing about the Routeburn tramp (as kiwis call their trails) is considered one of their Great Walks, which means there are huts with kitchens and bunkrooms so you can cut down on the gear you need to carry.

Well, starting at the eastern side, it's a gentle 2 hour climb to Routeburn Flats hut which is by the side of a beautiful mountain meadow valley. Along the way we were stopped by 2 ladies who were bird watching. We got to see & hear the Mohua, a yellow-headed canary which is slowly disappearing due to the European-introduced stout (a smaller, shorter, nastier version of the weasel). They said in their 20 years of hiking in NZ they had never seen this bird before!

After hitting the Flats hut, we hiked up another hour to Routeburn Falls hut where we had reservations for the night. Since it was a beautiful day out, we decided to take the advice of the park ranger we talked to earlier in the day at Glenorchy, and spent the late afternoon hiking up to the Harris Saddle to take in views of Hollyford River valley. We were advised by quite a few people that the weather can change daily, and the views up around the Harris Saddle are incredible, and we didn't want to miss those!

As we hiked up, another park ranger pointed out to us the Mt Cook Lily, which isn't really a lily but it's still a pretty little white flower. We had incredible views looking back behind us and ahead as we saw more and more of the Hollyford River valley.

Well, once we arrived at the Harris Saddle, we decided to hike a side trail up Conical Hill. We had passed a couple hiking the opposite way who said they had views all the way to the ocean! Great, except when we arrived the trail said it was closed... Well, that didn't really stop us - we figured we had hiking shoes and poles, so we could handle the snow! We hiked up the mountain, over the snow and arrived at the top to see... uh, not much! Well, we had a slightly foggy view of Hollyford River due to the clouds coming in, but couldn't see much else.

We returned back to the hut and had a tasty dinner of freeze-dried food and quinoa ;) We were a little envious of some other groups who brought along bottles of wine, but one great thing about camping is that most food tastes great when you carry it for several hours or days!

The next morning turned out as expected - rain! As we hiked up the Harris Saddle again, the trail was practically a stream with the amount of rain and water pouring down the mountains. As you can imagine, this 2nd day we didn't get to see much of anything with all the clouds and rain. I learned that my 10-year-old rainpants didn't work - they were completely soaked by the time we arrived at the Harris Saddle shelter! I also arrived with fully soaked hiking shoes. But I was not alone - many of our fellow hikers also were quite wet, and it was comical to see the steam rising off our jackets and pants as we huddled in the shelter in an attempt to dry off.

After a quick lunch, we walked along the mountain ridge above Lake Mackenzie, where our 2nd night's shelter was located. We were lucky that the wind wasn't as bad as the rangers had cautioned us, so we quickly hiked along the ridge and then down towards the lake.

Luckily, on the way down, the rain stopped and we started to get some views of the lake and the forest on the mountain. We thought the moss was heavy on the eastern side of the mountain, but here it was even denser - it practically carpeted the trees and rocks!

We were quite happy to reach the hut mid afternoon, and we quickly took all our wet clothes and shoes and put them by the super-warm coal stove in the middle of the common room. It was quite a sight to see everyone's clothes and shoes ringing the stove, and it was so warm in the hut that the ranger warned us we might set off the fire sprinklers! Luckily he was just being cautious, but we did all move our shoes a little farther away so we wouldn't melt them or burn down the hut.

That night we met some of our fellow hikers - 3 families were hiking together. One family had 3 generations - grandkids, parents, and grandparents, and the granddad had even had a stent placed in his heart 3 months earlier! Julie and I were really impressed, and hope we're that active in our mid 70s!

Our third and last day turned out to be a sunny day. We had beautiful weather hiking along the mountain, and took pictures of Lake Mackenzie and the mountains to our west - more snow-capped majesties! Near the end, we detoured up the side trip to Key Summit, where there was an informational nature walk and we learned a few things about the flora in the area, like the peat moss can hold 25 times its weight in water, and the NZ beach tree is genetically very similar to the South American beech.

After 3 days of hiking, we finally arrived at The Divide. We took off our hiking boots and relaxed in the sun, waiting for our bus transport to Te Anau, where we planned to spend 2 nights and visit Doubtful Sound. As we waited, another hiker saw some keas - this is a NZ parrot that lives in the south, and is quite the pesky bird. It was trying to pull off the rubber lining around the doors to an RV, so we tried to scare it off. Apparently the kea likes to pick at rubber lining, windshield wipers, and shiny parts on cars.

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14 December 2006

NZ-West Coast Adventures

After our arrival to the South Island and spending a few days out on the water kayaking, we decided to make our way to Queenstown by driving. We decided to go west and drive along the coast as we heard it's beautiful and figured we had a few days to enjoy the scenery. We also were told about some neat sights like the pancake rocks (Punaikiki), the glaciers, and the beautiful glacier lakes near Waanaka and Queenstown.
The West Coast definitely lived up to our expectations. While the weather was quite variable, it was much like the San Francisco coastal area in summer - fog/clouds and occasional sun! We just had such a blast seeing the sites that we didn't really mind.
Our first major stop was at Punaikiki to see the pancake rocks. This is a cliff area that has been carved into grottos and coves by the ocean, and the layers of rock here eroded differently so it looks like someone carved horizontal lines into the grey cliffsides. I was personally amazed to see palm trees this far south - apparently they're native to this area! And I thought palm trees only liked warm weather...

We finished our first day staying in Franz Josef. This little town is right by the glacier, so we drove over to the park and hiked to a view point. We lucked out with a little sun, and got to see the front of the glacier poking through a river valley. It was quite a sight to see a mass of blue, black and white ice in the middle of a lush green valley! We learned that Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers in NZ are unique in that they exist in the middle of the temperate rainforest, whereas other glaciers exist in more barren mountainous terrain. Later, in South America, we got to see massive glaciers in their typical location.

On day 2 of our trip down the west coast, we drove down a few minutes to Fox Glacier, where we had reserved room on a helicopter ride to go onto the glacier and do some hiking. We really lucked out with weather; it started getting a little sunny and clear, so the company decided to start helihike services that afternoon, starting with our scheduled trip! Praise God - we learned they had not flown up in several days, so we were the first group in the last 2 or 3 days.

Julie and I agreed the heli-hike was one of our NZ highlights. We put on some heavy leather boots and strapped on little crampons that didn't look like they'd work. But they kept us steady as we walked around for 3 hours on top of Fox Glacier. Our trip up was fun - the pilot circled around the lower part of the glacier, arriving at our landing spot where we waited for the other sets of trekkers to be brought up. Our guide was a college student from Detroit, MI! who was working in NZ and was on his last helihike before heading back home. So he was quite enthusiastic in chopping away at the glacier, clearing a pathway here and there as we tramped around. He even found us a few ice caves to crawl through, which made for some spectacular photo shots. It was really amazing to see the deep blue color that the ice creates when it's compressed as hard as it is in a glacier. Finally, he took us close to a waterfall that was pouring down along one of the sides of Fox Glacier, and we quickly trekked back to the heli landing so we could get back down - apparently the clouds were coming back so they only ran 2 trips the entire day! Well, we were about 1/2 hour late, but we didn't mind - we got a fun trip poking around on the top of a glacier.

The rest of the afternoon, we drove to Haast and stayed the night, at what was probably the cleanest hostel we've seen on our travels. Along the way, we stopped at one or two beautiful beach spots, to take in some of the amazing forest scenery along the coast. It was quite entertaining to talk to our Haast hostel owner - he was very proud of his clean hostel and we made sure to tell him we were enjoying it!

Our third, and last day, we drove from Haast through Waanaka to arrive at Queenstown. Along the way, we stopped at a bunch of short hikes through the Haast Pass to see some blue-green pools, waterfalls and of course the beautiful glacier lakes near Waanaka and Queenstown. Well, a coworker told me this was a beautiful drive, and I'm really glad we spent the whole day driving through it - it is just a majestic area; makes you feel like you're in the movie trilogy LOTR!

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12 December 2006

NZ-kayaking in Abel Tasman park

After a night in Nelson, we were to take a bus close to Abel Tasman National Park where we hired Abel Tasman Kayaks to take us on a 3 day kayak trip through the park.

Well, we almost didn't make the trip! We woke up a little later than we should have, and we arrived at our bus station at 7:45 AM. After about 5 minutes, we still didn't see a bus and called Abel Tasman Kayaks to find out what happened. Oops... the bus actually came on time at 7:35 AM! So we rushed to find a taxi and catch up with the bus. Phew! They actually waited for us.

Luckily that was the only major hiccup on this trip. We arrived at the kayak place, met our guides, and packed our kayaks. Let me tell you it is amazing how much stuff fits into a kayak! We packed several jugs of juice, bags of cookies, a propane tank, our tent, 2 sleeping pads and bags, and all our clothes. All the other kayaks in our trip, 5 double kayaks, were also packed full.

No matter... when you're in the water, you hardly notice it! Plus, we had spectacular views of the park as we paddled along. Shortly after enjoying this scenery, our guide pulled out a big tarp and had us set up a sail! Huh? Well, they have everyone hold onto each other's kayaks and form a big raft-like mass, then 4 people hold each corner of the sail and off we go!

Our entire 3 days were fantastic. We lucked out with the weather - no rain really, and generally clear blue skies. We would paddle into beautiful little sandy bays for lunch or for our campsites, and even paddled a little ways up a river or two during the afternoons.

We felt spoiled by the gourmet camping. We camped in the same campsites as the hikers, but our guides would set up a tarp above the picnic benches to keep rain/tree junk from falling on the food. We'd have proper teatime with biscuits (aka cookies), and later that evening a gourmet dinner including wine! We even had eggs & bacon for breakfast once, and then pancakes another day - yum!

One of the highlights of the trip was a last-minute kayak out to an island nature refuge for sea lions. We decided to go late one afternoon and paddle hard to make sure we got back before dark. Our guides got us to within 5 feet of the sea lions and cormorants hanging out on the rocks - quite amazing really - and even up close to some young sea lions playing in the water!

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08 December 2006

NZ-marlborough wine country

On Day 1, we visited Montana (aka Brancroft in US), Cloudy Bay, Allan Scott, From and Grove Mill.
Montana was recommended by several kiwis as it's the biggest winery in NZ, so being fans of the mom & pop wineries we were a little apprehensive. However, we had a great time tasting 8 different Sauv Blancs thanks to a very knowledgable winery employee. We learned about all the different brands, vineyards and appellations where Montana-Brancroft has grapes, which was a bit dizzying at first! We bought 1 terroir-specific wine to enjoy on our NZ trip, and another for tasting back home with our other NZ wines (don't forget to remind us!)

I was really looking forward to visiting Cloudy Bay, as I've had their wines in USA, and was excited when we arrived - the place had a great brick courtyard where you walked in. But I was a bit disappointed with the wine tasting - not a big variety, and the staff seemed a bit distracted with their coworkers milling about.

In a similar vein, Allan Scott was a quick visit. Even though he's been a longtime winemaker in Marlborough, the girl pouring our wines only seemed to know a little about the wines and the winery. But we did buy a Sauv Blanc from here.

A nice surprise was Fromm. A German decided to start a winery in Marlborough and focus just on reds, making some fantastic Pinots in a variety of styles. We bought one that I think we'll cellar a few years and then see how it comes out! We also enjoyed reading the detailed wine notes they had at the tasting room and chatting with the lady pouring our wines.

Our last visit of the day, Grove Mill, seemed like a bit of a letdown. I think we were really tired after all the wines we tasted that day! But we really liked their organic and environmentally friendly approach. We also bought a Pinot for future tasting :)

Our dinner was at Gibb's Vineyard Restaurant, fantastic place in the middle of a vineyard. We had a Fox Island Pinot; our waitress' father is the owner! We started with a delicious mussel appetizer, followed by our lamb and fish dishes. Wow! One of the best meals we had in NZ.

Day two was a short wine tasting trip. We visited Clos Henri, which was started by a french winemaking family from Sancerre. Their wine tasting room was a small church they transplanted from 60 km away! We bought a mellow Old World-New World style Pinot.

Finally, we visited Seresin winery, named after the NZ director Michael Seresin. Here we tried a variety of whites and reds; we did buy one, but the fun part about the winery was that we also got to taste some of their boutique olive oils - yum!

After Marlborough, we headed to Nelson where we planned to spend a night before going on a 3-day kayak trip. Along the way, we drove through coastal towns in the Marlborough Sounds and stopped to have a quick seafood lunch. We had some great fried oysters and mussels - these were really tasty with beer :)

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06 December 2006

NZ-martinborough wine country

After our Tongariro speed hike, we had a leisurely morning wake-up the following day and left National Park to continue our journey south along the North Island. Our destination this time was Masterton. A few times we stopped along the drive to Masterton to ask about which route would be more scenic, and each time the Kiwi we asked said, "why Masterton?" with a bewildered look on their face. See, kiwis seem to think there isn't much of interest between National Park and Wellington, except for some wine country regions along the east coast.

Well, the simple answer is that we were meeting my cousin Claudia who was working at Johner Winery. Claudia has been travelling around Australia and NZ on a working holiday visa. It had also been around 10 years since I last saw her, which was when I was graduating from college.

We learned from Claudia that winery work is quite demanding. Actually, we have learned that any agriculture seems to be tough work - seems like there's always something to do. Hmm... sounds a lot like consulting...

We met most of the Johner Winery crew, including the owner, Karl Heinz, the winemaker, sales rep (winemaker's girlfriend), and another girl, Katy, who was working there on her working holiday visa. Everyone was German!

After introductions, we took Claudia and Katy to their house to drop off our stuff and headed to the market to get dinner supplies. We (Julie, Claudia and I) prepared a delicious NZ mussel stew in tomato sauce, steamed veggies, and of course plenty of Johner Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir to accompany dinner.

Claudia, Katy, the winemaker and his girlfriend were all living in a little cottage close by. It had a beautiful view overlooking Johner winery and the surrounding farm region, with views across the Masterton /Gladstone valley. Claudia was kind enough to give us her room while she slept on the couch - I think she got a nice deal as the couch is in the living room with the coal-burning stove for warmth! It was a true experience of living in the country!

The following day we headed over to Martinborough for some wine tasting. This area is known for its Sauv Blancs and Pinots. We visited Gladstone, Ata Rangi, Alana, Canadoro, and Nga Waka. Ata Rangi had some great Pinots, while we bought a few Cab Sauvs at Canadoro - believe it or not NZ can make some good heavy reds! I was surprised to hear that Alana considered their regular Sauv Blanc to only need 3-7 years of age, with their Reserve at 12-15! We later learned not all the wineries bottle such young whites. Nga Waka was a quick stop, as the owner, Roger, didn't normally do tastings, but stopped by to say hello since he was good friends with a PwC colleague, Peter Randle.

We had such a good time with Claudia that we decided to stay an extra night, and the housemates were kind enough to let us do that. Fortunately for them it also meant they had 2 extra cooks for another night! We learned that Claudia did most of the cooking - I am proud of our family's cooking skills! After dinner, Julie and Claudia spent the rest of the night talking, with much laughter - I think Julie was enjoying the childhood stories that Claudia was sharing with her :O

The next day we went to Wellington to visit the town and take the night ferry to the South Island. We found Wellington to be a pretty harbour city with a bustling downtown area, albeit small by US city standards. Our first stop was up to a vista point at Mt. Victoria, which provided some very pretty views of Wellington and the harbor. Julie and I visited the Te Papa museum while Claudia kicked around town. The Te Papa musuem was great - lots of big Maori artifacts to look at, and we were lucky enough to catch some schoolkids doing some traditional songs & dances in the auditorium! Very impressive to see how NZ is working to preserve the Maori customs. Later we walked along the bay, meandered through the city hall plaza, and walked up a pedestrian shopping street. We had some of the best gelatto of our trip at a small bayfront store. Unfortunately that was all the time we had, so we left Claudia and headed to the port to take our ferry to Picton on the South Island.

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04 December 2006

NZ-tongariro death march

From Waitomo, we drove off to National Park to hike the famous Tongariro Crossing. As we approached, our usual north island scenery of rolling green hills were punctuated by a few snow-topped mountains and one ominous black volcano. We later learned this was a film site for some of the Mt. Doom scenes in LOTR. We were quite excited to learn we would be hiking around it!

We stayed in Howard's Lodge, which also conveniently provides transport to the Tongariro hike. The weather in the morning of our hike looked poor with low heavy clouds which seemed ready to rain at any moment. However, as we approached the trail, the sun came out and we were excited about the great views we'd see!

Our hike started in alpine brush, slowly giving way to alpine desert as we hiked up the pass between 2 old volcanoes, Tongariro and Narahwhoe. Once at the saddle, we rested a bit and then spent some time figuring out if we wanted to, and had time for, a side trek up Mt Narawhoe.

Our dilemma stemmed from a simple question of time. The buses have a fixed time they take you to the trail and when they pick you up. The trail normally takes 6 to 8 hours. The 2 side treks up either volcano each take about 2 hours based on the trail map we had, and we were told Narawhoe had great views. So we figured it would be doable but tight. However, what threw us for a loop was that when we actually arrived at the pass, a sign stated it was a 3 hour side trek, which translated to at least a 9 hour hike!!! Guaranteed to make us arrive late to the bus pickup location...

Well, there we talked to a young Irish couple that was on our bus and looked like regular hikers. They decided to go up, so we figured there was strength un numbers! So up we went.

This slowly turned out to be a challenging side trip. The higher we went, the steeper we got and the more scree we found. This loose rock/pebble combo made us feel like we were taking 1 step backward for each step forward. However, we pushed on and made it to the top for some amazing views for miles in every direction. Not only that, we also saw the Narawhoe volcano crater!

We spent a few minutes to enjoy the views and take a small break. I (Xavier) practically jumped my way down the scree since it seemed like I was sliding down anyway!

We hiked up the next part to Red Crater, the highest part of the trail, and stopped for lunch. There we talked to the Irish couple and realized we were way behind schedule. It was nearly 2 PM, with 1.5 to 2 hours to Ketati Hut. Our bus driver said we needed to be at that hut by 2 PM to safely make it back down to the trail end by 4:30, our pickup time! Oops...

We quickly finished lunch and started our afternoon speed hike. We passed the Emerald Lakes, named for the sulphurey minerals that color the water. These were an incredible sight of deep green, albeit the smell. We started our descent through more alpine brush and arrived at Ketati Hut. We had made it there a little after 3 PM, just 1:10 hours of hiking. OK, at our rate I was hoping we'd make it by 5!

We took a short break to fill up on water. Did I forget to mention we didn't bring enough? Hmm, that was because I didn't plan on our 2.5 hour side trip and our speed-hiking pace! Luckily I knew the hut was enroute.

From the hut, the alpine brush continued until we got a lot lower, when the trail moved into the familiar NZ fern&tree rainforest. By now we had sped by quite a few packs of hikers. Nearly at the end, or so we hoped, we ran into 2 Chinese girls who thought they were lost. We told them they were on the right path and then they tried to keep up with us for fear of getting lost again! I told them to take it easy since we were running to catch our bus... 10 minutes later we got to the trail end, whew! We got to the bus only 10 minutes late! In hindsight, the views were well worth the adventure....

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03 December 2006

NZ - Waitomo Glow Worms & Caving

After a full day of hot springs and Maori culture, we set off for yet another picturesque drive and arrived in Waitomo in the afternoon. We immediately visited the glow worm caves, a major attraction of this area. While the 1 hour tour was quite 'toursity' we still enjoyed the information shared by the apathetic guide and of course, the viewing of the glow worms via row boat in the cave. It was as if we were viewing stars in the sky, dozens of constellations all above us within the caves. These stars were the worms glowing in the dark (they reminded us of lightning bugs). A quick explanation of glow worms: these worms are fly larvae that have just a mouth to feed but no means of expelling their waste (no anus). They process their waste by a chemical reaction within their body..this reaction creates a florescent glow...neat, eh? They produce thin stringy hair like webs to catch and eat curious insects that are attracted to the glow.

Our real adventure and one of our most memorable, was experienced the next day where we spent the day in the dark with 1 other adventurous couple from NZ and a certified canyoneering guide crawling through an extensive Waitomo cave, abseiling down water falls, wading through waste deep water, bouldering and climbing through holes just big enough for us to crawl through on our bellies or backs while partially submerged in water. Thank goodness they armed us with 2 layers of thermals, a caving outer layer, boots, helmets and head lamps.....it was cold and muddy but we were prepared! Amidst the adventure, we saw some glow worms and incredible stalactite formations. The main focus, however, was to give us a true experience of the sport of canyoneering itself without a hand holding approach.

When we had reached the furthest point of the cave, 2 plus hours into our expedition of predominantly climbing (the high road) we were tasked to work as a team to find our way back out following the river path (the low road); our guide shadowed us but became our silent and invisible guide. Our team worked incredibly well and we had the best time.....we're ready to explore more caves and have heard of quite a few in Northern CA ;)

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02 December 2006

NZ-sulphury Rotorua

Our drive to Rotorua (the land of the thermal springs) seemed to be a typical spring day in NZ with clouds and occasional rain on our drive south from the Bay of Plenty. As we arrived into Rotorua, we could distinctly detect our approach due to the famous sulphur smell of the city. Our advice to you would be to carefully pick your hotel so that you don't stay too close to the thermal active areas - those are the smelly places! We stayed in the Hot Rocks Backpackers which was quite basic; it's worth checking out the other hostels in town.

Our first order of business was to book our "adventures" in Rotorua. Apparently there is a strong Maori culture still present here, so we decided to sign up for one of the traditional hangis, which is a show of Maori song & dance as well as their traditional pit BBQs. These reminded us of Hawaiian luaus. We booked a tour through the i-site in Rotorua, which included a free trip to the Rotorua museum or a spa. We chose the museum as we thought it might be useful to get some local culture.

A side note about visiting NZ - nearly every town has at least 1 i-site, which are useful information centers with free maps, hostel/hotel/motel listings, and other tourist services. We used these quite a bit to get useful info and local knowledge of the towns we visited since we had done very little planning prior to arriving in NZ.

We first hit the Rotorua museum housed in an old spa center considered to be a 'healing center' in the old days including treatments such as scary electric baths. Since we had just a short time before our Maori hangi, we skipped the last half of the tour describing the details of the spa in the old days and focused on the much more stimulating Maori exhibits describing the history of how the Moari arrived, how they survived, and artifacts of their culture, weapons, jewelry, and homes. That part was pretty cool since we knew nothing about the Maori before arriving in NZ.

Our hangi show started with an entertaining bus ride to the site. Our driver was a friendly and funny Maori who liked to poke fun at Ozzie rugby. On the way, we learned each bus load of people (our 'tribe') had to pick a "chief" to represent our "tribe" for the welcome ceremony. There was an Aussie couple honeymooning so our bus driver picked the lucky groom to be our chief, who was responsible to receive the Maori welcome and lead us into the village. There, we saw Maori doing traditional activities like war dances, songs, and then we went into their main house for a song & dance show followed by a traditional dinner! That was tasty - slow cooked pork, chicken and veggies all slow cooked in the ground.

The next morning we decided to go to a spa after all (hard to pass up ;)), so we hit up the Polynesian Spa after breakfast and spent a comfortable hour soaking in the various mineral pools there. After that we drove to Te Puia to check out the thermal park and viewed bubbling mud pools, hot rocks, and a pair of geysers that were spouting nearly 50 feet high just as we arrived - very cool! They also have a Maori house there with some wood artisans. We took part in another Maori welcome ceremony and show. This time, I (Xavier) volunteered to be the chief.

What I didn't mention before is the Maori tribe would do a welcome war dance when another tribe arrived to determine if they came in peace or to fight. So if the chief laughed or looked away, the Maori at our hangi site would have traditionally attacked us due to this sign of disrespect. Fortunately I kept my cool as the local Maori warrior chief did their wide-eyed, tongue-protruding war dance which ended in a gift of a leaf from a native plant, symbolic of peaceful welcome of our tribe...phew!

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30 November 2006

New Zealand - Coromandel Penisula

Leaving our home base from Auckland, we headed East by car to the Coromandel Peninsula, taking the scenic winding and beautiful coastal road. Although the weather was cool, cooler than average, the sun made for some beautiful photos, we soaked in the incredibly green rolling hills and coastal views.. oohing and ahhing along the way. Green lip mussels are well known in New Zealand and the Peninsula is one of the best places to try some... in fact, we helped ourselves at the local supermarket in Whitianga, our home for the night. $2 (US) for 1 kilo (2.2 lbs).... fresh and huge mussels! We made full use of the community kitchen and whipped up a meal of sauteed mussels in a garlic wine butter sauce over brown rice and veggies on the side. Yum!

We started bright and early the next morning to drive south to the Hot Water Beach. This beach has 2 small thermal springs under the sand, so near low tide people come and dig shallow holes near the springs to make small baths to soak in, mixing the hot spring water with cold seawater. We borrowed a shovel from some early birds and after 2 attempts, found the ideal spot for a warm spa with a beatiful ocean front view - a great way to start the day! This was definitely one of the highlights of our North Island experience (highly recommended on our list).

After our home-made spa treatment, we rushed back to Whitianga for breakfast and continued our trek south to the Bay of Plenty. We had another beautiful day of driving along this coast, which is a popular weekend and vacation spot for kiwis due to the warm weather and close proximity to Auckland. We did a nice hike on the Peninsula at Cathedral cove... a gorgeous trek consisting of coastal sights and NZ ferntree rainforest with a beatiful beach and cover as our reward in the end.

Since we were making good time, we made it to Tauranga with just enough time to do our first NZ wine tasting at Mills Reef winery; our first exposure to NZ wine tasting and we liked what we tasted - we bought a bottle of malbec to be consumed along with perhaps a future gourmet dinner. From there, we continued onto Mt. Manganui where we spent the night at a B&B. We had been told the town is right next to an old volcano that is a nice short hiking area and provides great views, so we decided to stay there.

Mt. Manganui and Tauranga were busy little towns. We arrived around rush hour so there was a good bit of NZ traffic, but once we got into Mt Manganui there was few people around. We had just enough time that night to hike up the volcano and take in beautiful panoramic views of the Bay of Plenty just before sunset! Well worth the hike up.

From Mt. Manganui, we headed down to Rotorua for some Maori culture and thermal spas.

29 November 2006

Intro to New Zealand and Auckland

Our arrival into New Zealand was a smooth transition from Australia. Arriving into Auckland airport, we found our rental car quite quickly. Hertz was even nice enough to provide a bunch of maps...this was the beginning of our road trip through New Zealand from top to bottom (North Island to South Island) over a three and half week period.

As we reminisce and begin writing our blog in retrospect, we can´t stop telling everybody how gorgeous New Zealand is - and yes, there are magical places that look just like the scenes from Lord of the Rings! We thoroughly enjoyed New Zealand - almost everywhere you go it´s beautiful - clean beautiful lakes, sheep grazing leisurely, rolling green hills in the North and magnificent snow capped mountains in the South; a canvas of artwork right before your eyes everywhere you go. Some of the most interesting and comforting facts we learned about NZ early on is that there are about at least 50 times more sheep than people and there are VERY few animals or critters that people need to worry about...it´s super safe and practically nothing can kill you - no snakes, bears, etc....makes for an easy outdoors experience.


Our first stop on the way into the city from the airport...."one tree hill" look out just South of the city.....a great place to soak in Auckland from above - a beautiful vista with sheep roaming along side the path to the top....our first exposure to the many sheep we'll see in the next month. Auckland, a beautiful city surrounded by water and many interesting neighborhoods...in many ways it reminded us of a bit of San Francisco...even the cool breezy climate in early summer was all too familiar for us! We stopped for dinner at Circus Circus cafe-eatery (needless to say the decor was centered around a 'circus' theme) in Mount Eden, a colorful neighborhood/area 20 minutes drive south of the city....we later realized that neighborhoods such as Mt Eden outside of the touristy down town area give Auckland the character that we appreciate....cafes and mom and pop shops along busy main streets. We finally arrived in what we would say is the best boutique hotel we have stayed at...it couldn't have been a better home base as we start our trek through NZ, prepared to make our home in various local B&B's and hostels along the way. We learned from a UK couple along the way that our style of taveling, a step above backpacking, is known as 'flash packing'... staying in hostels yet enjoying the finer things that backpackers may not splurge on... nice gourmet meals or even cooking our own in the community kitchen along the way ;)

Thanks to X's Hilton hotel points, we stayed at the Hilton Auckland literally on the water/harbour of Auckland in the Princes Wharf (Northern part of down town)....it is less than 5 years old and truly a small boutique style hotel....modern decor with simple clean lines and water front views from our private balcony adjoining our room....puffy white down comforters and pillows....and truffles at your bed side.....I will stop now - clearly amenities that we appreciate and that have gone amiss while flashpacking the past month.

We stayed one night in our heaven of sorts and after a mornnig swim in the most unique and elegant pool that I have seen (3 lane lap pool on the 4th floor of the hotel with the illusion of water cascading into the sea) , we were off to explore New Zealand.

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28 November 2006

Final thoughts on Australia

When we reminisce about Australia, we think about the wonderful people, the variations in landscape and climate, the urban culture of Sydney and Melbourne and how much fun we had exploring the country! Australia was much bigger than we thought-we had to skip Western Australia and the N. Aust. Area around Darwin due to our limited time. And while we saw the beaches in Q'land and Sydney, we felt we didn't spend enough time to fully enjoy them- in particular, no surfing was done on our visit! Just one more reason to come back and visit...


We found Aussies to be quite friendly, hospitable and direct (in that sense, more like East Coasters than Californians). We had a blast learning Aussie speak, such as "that's alright" instead of "you're welcome" and "swimming costume" rather than "swimsuit".


Aussie BBQ is a bit different as they cook on a flat metal surface instead of a grill surface like in US or Argentina. You'll find lots of fish-n-chips and hamburgers, which are a bit different from home-their patties seem to be slightly tastier, I have to admit! Julie found it a bit disconcerting that chips (french fries) were the main carb for nearly all meals, while Xavier fully took advantage of this custom. They have savory and sweet biscuits nailed down-X was introduced to the sweet chocolatey delight of Tim Tams and coffee! One thing we found curious was that while the kangaroo is considered a national icon (animal?) of Oz, they have no qualms about eating 'roo as well!


One thing that made day hikes interesting was that we were never quite sure if we would be attacked by an animal or wounded by a plant. It seems that many Ozzie animals can kill or hurt you. For example, our beach walk in Q'land's Daintree Park was brief since we were warned that a croc was spotted there a few weeks earlier! And there seems to be many scratchy or itchy plants to be avoided! However, we found walking through the botanical gardens in Sydney and Melbourne to be an experience not to be missed - the beautiful landscaping, variety of plants, and extensive grounds made for many romantic afternoon walks.

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27 November 2006

Sydney and the Blue Mountains

After the heat of Ayers Rock, it was nice to experience the air conditioned luxury of the Sydney Marriott! Once again we had a room overlooking Hyde Park in central Sydney.
We had almost a week here, and we saw quite a lot. We walked thru the botanical gardens twice, saw Darling Harbour, Rocks, East Sydney, Darlinghurst and Paddington and of course, had our regular dose of gelato to finish off our days (gelato and ice cream shops are everywhere!)
We took a tour of the Sydney Opera House, which has beautiful architecture inside & out, and saw the ballet performance Revolutions in the Opera House itself. The Australian Ballet peformed 3 short classical pieces originally performed by the Russian Ballet. We really liked the short but fast-paced middle piece and the costuming and plot of the third piece Scheherezade - modern day version of an old Russian classic - costumes and dancing were superb and of course the venue was memorable!
One of our most memorable experiences included a ferry to Manly, where we rented bikes to go up to North End park for amazing views of Sydney harbor entrance all the way back to the city. Once back into Sydney, we experienced a nice sunset and amazing night views of the city sky line including the Opera House. We ended our beautiful day dining at Fish Face (yummy gourmet sea food place in Darlinghurst) with a nice glass of Australian wine.

Our time in Sydney was made extra special when we had the opportunity to meet Becky and Brian, 2 very wonderful friends of Sally (our Bay area friend giving serving as our key connection linking us to these lovely people!) Becky and Brian treated us with a yummy home cooked meal and took us to Bondi and Bronte beach (gorgeous!) and the Blue Mountains - it was a blasst! Thanks Becky and Brian...can't wait to see you in SF ;). We also loved meeting their 2 adventurous sons - we had much in common. They both were soon to be married and a pleasure to talk to; hoping we'll see them in SF, perhaps on a future visit as well.

We only wish our time was longer in Sydney...can't wait to share photos!

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23 November 2006

Ayers Rock aka Uluru and the Olgas

Early Monday morning we woke up early to fly to the Red Center. Jack drove us, and Faye woke up early to see is off-what troopers!
The Red Center is aptly named, the soil is quite an earth-red, and creates an incredible contrast with the plants in the area.
It was so hot that the park closed the Ayers Rock climb and the Valley of the Winds walk by 11 AM! We were later told it hit 50 Celsius in some parts of the park; that's 120 Fahrenheit! It felt worse than what we felt at Burning Man, Nevada desert as we walked around parts of Ayers Rock, known to Aborigines as Uluru.
For dinner, Julie had made reservations for Sounds of Silence, an outdoor dinner show experience. Here we saw the sun set on Uluru, altho a bit far away and not as impressive as we hoped for. We had a delicious dinner buffet including kangaroo, crocodile, and barramundi fish while we listened to a didgeridoo player and were educated on the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.
The next day we woke up before dawn to see the sunrise near the Olgas, aka Kata Tjuta. Now this was impressive! The sun came up thru just a few clouds, and after that it was amazing to see the colors change on the Olgas! Then we raced over to these rocks to hike the Valley of the Winds before it got too hot. Good thing, cuz it already felt got and I was feeling a little "dehydrated" and a headache from last night's dinner... The park closes the walk at 11 am due to the fact it gets to 36 C by then (about 96 F). If you have a chance to do this walk, do it! It is beautiful to walk amidst these red rock giants.
After our hike we raced back to our hotel to clean up, pack, and head off to the airport for Sydney!

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20 November 2006

Melbourne and surrounds

We arrived at the Arts Center in Melbourne's Southbank neighborhood at noon on the 17th.
Jack met us and we put our bags in his car. That day we ate pho for lunch and walked around the CBD (central biz district) before meeting Jack at the end of the day to go home.
During our stay here we stayed with Faye, Jack, and Kupa who live in the SE suburb of Melgrave. At dinner we finally had a home-cooked meal; thanks Faye! Julie and I were lucky enough to stay with them, through the generosity of Jenn's friend Sally, who is longtime friends with Faye.
Friday we had a nice sleep-in morning, much needed after many early mornings on our Wayward Bus trip. We took the train into the CBD and spent our day wandering about. We hit the Victoria Market and picked up various items for an impromptu picnic lunch of Turkish bread sandwiches we filled with local salami, ham, cheddar, and pesto! Yum! Other highlights were taking the City Center Circle tram to the Rialto Observation Tower for a bird's eye view of the city (found the PwC and Mercer buildings); took the local tram to the Royal Botanical Gardens (which I think are far more beautiful than Sydney); had dinner at Tiamo 2 restaurant on Lygon Street; and managed to get into the Spiegeltent to see the Le Clique show-which was really amazing!
Saturday we headed to the Healesville Animal Sanctuary. On our way we stopped at a lookout in the Dandenong mountains, where we could see clear across the greater Melbourne area. On our way to the animal reserve we lunched in Healesville, where Julie had her 1st ginger beer (non-alcoholic) and I had my first Oz hamburger, which was tasty-their burgers all seem more homemade and therefore a little tastier than US burgers, believe it or not!
The animal reserve was neat-we got to see the animals up close, our faves were koalas, echidnas and the platypus! This night Jack treated us his delicious Oz bbq!
On Sunday morning, Jack outdid himself with a hearty Oz breakfast with eggs and bacon! Later we went to the St Kilda neighborhood to take in the local crafts market and that evening we took a short boat ride from the pier to see the cute little fairy penguins which Julie was keen on doing. We fortunately found this tour instead of getting up early and spending the whole day down in touristy Philip Island!
After that whirlwind tour of Melbourne, we left early Monday for Ayers Rock. We are grateful to Sally for hooking is up with her friends Faye and Jack!

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16 November 2006

Great Ocean Road to Melbourne

On Monday 12 Nov we got onto a bus run by Wayward Bus to see the sights from Adelaide to Melbourne. Our driver was Lawrie, who was not only a skillful driver but also full of information about many of the places, sights, and flora & fauna we saw along the way.
Our trip lasted 3.5 days, and a week later I(X) can't remember all the little coastal towns we saw. I'll try to hit the highlights-some things have to be left for all of you to see!
Day 1.
We drove into Adelaide Hills into Hahndorf, a touristy German town. We were there quite early so only a bakery or two was open. We stopped at sand dunes in Cooranga(?) National Park. We had our first views of the ocean since leaving Adelaide! We also stopped at a small restaurant run by aborigines and had a brief tour of local flora & fauna and history by one of them, Gordy. Julie got to hold a lizard and learned the local insect repellent plant! This evening we spent in Robe, a town famous for its crawfish, or lobster as we know it in USA. We had some for dinner-delicious and fresh! Our hotel was Guichen Motel, which was cozy and charming and also had the restaurant we ate dinner.
Day 2.
We visited the town of Mt. Gambier, which is on the slopes of an extinct volcano. There is a lake in the volcano which is the town's water source and apparntly changes color from a black-blue in winter to aqua in the summer. This night was spent in Port Fairy, which had a nice bay to walk along. This day we saw a lot of small port towns-all started by whaling or gold rush. We also had a lot of rain today!
Day 3
Today we drove through another extinct volcano, which once was farmland but has been converted into a wildlife sanctuary for kangaroos, koalas, and emus. We finally got onto the "real" Great Ocean Road with great views, just as dramatically beautiful as CA highway 1 but of course different. We saw several sights including Loch Ard, London Bridge, and the 12 Apostles. This night was spent in Apollo Bay.
Day 4
A half day drive into Melbourne. We drove through a lot of weekend beach towns, and as we approached Melbourne we had some nice views. We met up with Jack Hamilton, a friend of a friend who was kind enough to open up their home to us while we were in Melbourne.

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13 November 2006

Barossa Valley, South Australia

After Heron Island, we continued our "high life" adventure by flying to Adelaide and renting a car to drive to Barossa Valley for the weekend. Barossa is Oz's oldest wine region so we thought we might be doing a "Napa Valley" weekend.

I had fun driving up in a little Toyota Yaris (smaller than a mini - in fact, we don't have anything nearly as small in the states - imagine that!), with manual transmission and in the left lane! Fortunately we had 2 weeks in Oz to get used to being on the other side of the road. Driving up to Barossa, we took the A20 to B19 which was a nice country road into Barossa through Gawler and then Tanunda, where our B&B was located - Lawley Farm! Leslie met us and showed us our own cottage, which was as charming as we could have imagined it; amidst vineyards and with a lovely garden and friendly farm animal (ducklings :)) steps away. She recommended we just stick to Krondorf Road as there were so many famous wineries on our street.

Well, what a nice change of pace we had in Barossa! Barossa is still low-key and informal, even compared to Sonoma wineries. Our Saturday wineries included lunch at Barossa Vines and tastings at small boutique wineries - Charles Melton (wines were poured by Virginia, the friendly wife of Charles, the wine maker; it was a load of fun as we experienced the tasting while chatting with some Aussies), Rockford, St. Hallets, and Villa Tinto .

Villa Tinto turned out to be a wonderful surprise. Alberto is the owner, who originally hails from Mendoza Argentina (an instant connection for me (X)! He started the winery, making wines which IMHO are very similar to the food-friendly wines of Argentina, Spain and Italy; not so much for tasting & enjoying on their own, but with food, as it should be! I started speaking in spanish with Alberto, and then 2 Spaniards showed up, who were also directed to Villa Tinto by another winery. One thing led to another, and Alberto gave us some tastes out of his barrels and his lovely wife Diane even invited us to a delicious dinner of asado (Argentine BBQ right in his own backyard), spanish tortilla cooked by the Spaniards, and of course more Villa Tinto wine! We had a great time seeing the video of some TV coverage of the winery, spoke loads of Spanish and some German (!) and making some new friends in Australia.

Sunday I(X) woke up with a little hangover, but we still enjoyed our farm-fresh egg breakfast delivered to our room :). We visited Torbreck, Murray Street, Two Hands, and then back to Villa Tinto to buy our wines and ship everything to Sydney! We unfortunately found out Henschke was closed early; we had hoped to taste there on our drive back to Adelaide.

We stopped in North Adelaide to eat at Cibo, which had a delicious gnocchi. We stayed in the old part of Adelaide to be close to Wayward Bus Tours for our trip to the Great Ocean Road the next day.

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