Tuesday, December 31, 2013

China 2013 - A Stop in Kuala Lumpur

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY! IT'S 2014. We have been "At Home in Hyderabad" for 3-years and 7-months! I've got time to blog today. And maybe for the next several days. I came home from our yearly holiday trip (this year to China!) with a bit of a bug. I think I'm over the worst of it. It's no joke (I actually lost a dear friend to the bird-flu back in 2009)... but Amy and I kept saying "I hope I don't have the SARS!" Remember the SARS epidemic? Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome? Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused an eventual 8,273 cases and 775 deaths reported in multiple countries with the majority of cases in Hong Kong...and it spread world-wide. Just yesterday, Saudi Arabia reported that the death-toll from a SARS-like virus has reached 57! New cases of the bird-flu are being reported in Hong Kong just this week. Scary stuff! 

Anyway... this year would conclude our holiday travels...and we juggled several possible destinations. Japan and Russia and Switzerland were all possibilities. But Amy said that she really wanted to see China...so that's the trip we booked. We cut back the duration and the cost of some of the hotels, added in a couple of days on the front-end to go to Kuala Lumpur to chill-out and decompress a little...and the trip was set!  As always...the best vacations are the ones booked by Eve Wertsch at Fugazi Travel in San Francisco!

The trip was almost over before it started...my bad hip was bothering me terribly... but thanks to some gentle counseling by Eve... I got talked into going and just doing what I could. I didn't have a clue how much I would be able to manage...but I decided to try. Amy agreed that I would try to do as much as I could possible do and I promised that I would not hold her back. We were just going to have to go and see how it played out! 

Amy Suzanne had taken some time to return to the U.S. at the end of November through the 8th of December to attend Deloitte University training... then take part in a variety of meetings in Los Angeles and San Francisco...and return to her first-love, riding her horses, in Santa Barbara... Unfortunately, this meant that she had her passport was with her...and we needed that in order to procure our tourist visas for China. This made our "window" to get the visas far-shorter than the experts said to allow to get them.... and the only place for us to go to get those visas was up in New Delhi. It was crunch-time up until the week before we left!

I won't go into all of the frustrating details about getting the visas... suffice it to say that it was a stressful time but all's well that ends well...we got our visas with one-day to spare. I was willing to catch another flight home to Hyderabad... but it turned out that it was not necessary. we got home from Delhi and immediately began to pack our bags!

Our journey began Thursday, the 19th of December, 2013... with a super-early morning flight (at 12:25 A.M.) on Malaysian Airlines from HYD to KUL ... we got stranded at the airport ... but we're seasoned-enough travelers now that we just got a cab...as it turned out ... when we got our refund for the pick-up-screw-up...we actually came out ahead. We stayed at the venerable Westin Hotel in Kuala Lumpur... a nice enough place... but beginning to show its age a little. The good part... it's right near some awesome shopping malls and they have the Westin Executive Club floors... no need to spend extra money for Diet Cokes and wine or snacks the whole time!

We slept most of the first day....I slept on the floor by choice....the westin may advertise their "Heavenly Beds" - but they are far-too soft for me and my bum-hip. Amy snuck out to walk around the HUGE Pavilion Mall....which was filled with the cheesiest Christmas decorations you ever saw! We caught a little dinner and called it a night...we're such party animals!!

The next day we had a lazy start (just what we intended.) On the way in to the hotel, the taxi (or "teksi" as they spell it in KL) driver told us that it had rained virtually the whole month of November. He didn't mention that it still rained every afternoon at about 2;00 P.M. We were going to catch the double-decker on/off bus tour...but we were no more than five-minutes into our walk to the bus-stop that the skies opened up.... we ducked into a hotel cafe that had no windows in the front...and just watched the rain POUR down for about an hour. Of course Amy went out in the rain (she loves to do that! - that's her in the photo above-left)...we had a couple of drinks and a little lunch...after the rain we both went and explored the Pavilion Mall.... it's huge.... but remember... even though Malaysia is a Muslim country...Christmas is still celebrated there with all of the pomp and circumstance one sees around the world. It's now the 20th of December and Christmas shopping had gotten to a frenzied state. 

Dinner in the hotel that night... and a peek at the Internet that told us that the KL Double-Decker Bus tour got less-than-five-star reviews.... we would pass and take a taxi the next day to this big Electronics Mall to get a memory-card for my camera. It never fails... I end up leaving the current card in my laptop when we leave on vacation!! We found a Starbucks attached to the mall...and a cool place for a light lunch. We had an afternoon flight out of KL to Beijing, China.... so we grabbed a teksi for 150 gringotts (that's what Amy calls the Malaysian Ringgits (MYR) - the national currency.

Not a bad wait in the Golden Lounge (the new Malaysian Airlines Business Class Lounge was under construction) .... and what turned-out to be my last chance to see Facebook for the next 11 days! There is no access to Facebook or any number of other websites that are blocked by the Chinese government. We would land in Beijing a little after midnight, China-time. Off we went to our next adventure.

Here are the links for our Facebook Photo Albums for our brief stay in Kuala Lumpur....

A Brief Stop in Kuala Lumpur

A Taste of Kuala Lumpur (Day Two)

Waiting Out The Rainstorm in KL 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sydney Finale... Now it's 2013! (Part Three of Three)

Hey! We made it! It's 2013! Happy New Year! Well....I'm almost eleven months late with that greeting... but better late than never, right?? We actually have a deadline now...and Amy Suzanne would like to see this blog completely up-to-date by the time we pack up and leave Hyderabad for good. In June of next year, when we will be closing this FANTASTIC, INCREDIBLE, AMAZING chapter of our lives... and we will be heading to...(wait for it...think ultimate culture shock!)...Salt Lake City, Utah!!

Time Out! I need to take a brief pause here. It is sometimes hard to believe that we actually left out home back in Pasadena, California on the 30th of May 2010. I wrote my first post in this blog on the 13th of March, 2010. We have now been in India for 3-years, 5-months and 26-days. The third extensions of our original Indian visas expire in just 157-days 8-hours and 30-minutes! I would not change a single minute of any of it!

Anyway, we have reached our final day of our Australian adventure. Our last day in Sydney was here...and it was to be probably the best New Year's Day...ever. We got another slow start (like most lazy New Year's Days)... we threw a few things into "organized piles of chaos" and had the suitcases on the floor...it was a pretty good start to just separate out our "cleans-from-our-dirties" and put all of our Australian souvenirs in one big stack on a couple of chairs. One thing was for certain...we were not going to spend the last day of our vacation lounging around the hotel room...it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside (just look at the sky in the photo of Amy in front of the Sydney Opera House, above!) ... so we decided to "go walkabout"!

No day on vacation can start without a trip to the local Starbucks as long as there's one available. I broke with tradition...normally, no matter how hot it is outside, I get a hot cup of coffee. Usually some sort of cinnamon or (in the U.S.) a pumpkin-spice latte. I never developed the taste for "iced coffee"...although Amy likes it quite a lot ... It was really much too hot this New Year's Day to have anything hot...so I had my very first "Mocha  Frappuccino®" ever ... and with whipped cream, no less! Is this what I have been missing all these years?? Damn! I have some serious catching up to do!!

We walked down the waterfront of Circular Quay and started some serious people-watching. We heard some wild music... a couple of street-musicians and pick-up bands playing the didgeridoo.. a wild man doing unicycle and fire-juggling tricks... an one very strange-looking local fellow dressed something like a cross between the Statue of Liberty and the Tin Woodsman from the Land of Oz. How appropriate. "Oz". Get it??We certainly weren't the only people to decide to go walking on the harbor waterfront that morning...I'm pretty sure all of the various cruise ships docked alongside the Quay had let their passengers off the boat for the day...and the ferry-boats taking people back and forth across the bay were packed...both going and coming from the docks.

From the area by the Opera House we had some incredible last views of the harbor...(see the photo album link, below) But nothing like what Amy was going to see later.

Sydney Walkabout...

You see, after much internal wrestling - she came to a decision. We ould definitely not be coming back this way ever again...so it was a "now-or-never" thing. She had decided, on her own, to make the famous "Sydney Bridge Climb" on New Year's Night! Now for more reasons than I can list..this is something that I would never do...my incredible fear of heights being the most serious one. But she had made up her mind...and that's what she wanted to do!  She made her reservations and we got back to the hotel room to have a little rest before her big climb!

After the sun went down... she got pretty nervous...but she was really excited. There was no chance she was going to walk over to the entrance to the bridge alone....I went along for moral-support. Inside the building, there was a snack-shop and a place to buy t-shits and pictures and video mementos of "your big climb".... After a big hug (and me telling her how proud I was of her!)...off she went to the upstairs holding area where everybody gets a jumpsuit (come to think of it...that's a terrible way to describe the overalls they give you for the climb...a "jump" suit... Oh, well. They gave her (and everybody on the climb) a safety harness and a breathalyzer test ....

I watched from down below until she actually entered the superstructure of the bridge.

She did it. She did the Bridge Climb!! She says it was a little windy, a little scary, definitely a good workout,,,and that he views were...unbelievable!

She was just elated when she came back to the hotel.  They gave her a little flash-drive with her photos on it...and she couldn't wait to plug it in and show me. Yes...I was very proud of her...but so glad I didn't even consider trying to do it. There was no way I could have done what she did!

Our Australian adventure had truly come to a climactic end! We would leave in the morning for the airport and our first-leg flight back home through Kuala Lumpur and back Home to Hyderabad.

We leave you with some of the photos from Amy's bridge climb. I hope you have enjoyed this ten-part series of posts on our Aussie Adventure. Honestly...I never thought it would take ten-full-chapters to tell the tales...but it was truly a trip for the ages!! Thanks for reading!

Sydney Skyline

Amy (best photo!)

Amy at the top!!

Far above our hotel room!

Now that's a look I understand!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Double-Decker Bus Tour of Sydney (Part Two of Three)

We have learned so much about how we travel together, Amy and I. We pretty much like the same things. If it has to do with animals, we are all over it (African Big Five, Australian koalas and kangaroos, yesterday's trip to the Taronga Zoo) We will go to museums if they are on the itinerary, but would rarely go out of the way to see one. On our very first stop on our way to Hyderabad, we spent a few nights in Frankfurt, Germany. There was actually a famous museum filled with religious icons that I had thought I might like to go see... but we never got around to doing it.

I did forget to mention one slight "downer" about our Taronga Zoo experience... we waited too long to see the orangutans and they were on an extended "break" during the heat of the day, and were not expected to be out running around again until after the sun was on its way down. But the chimpanzees were pretty cute and playful.... see the photo journal in yesterday's blog enrty.

Another thing we have learned is that if you have a limited time to spend in any one city, and if the city is of any size whatsoever, taking one of those double decker on/off tour buses with the recorded guide and a set of headphones is the way to go. We did it in Frankfurt, we did it in Singapore (which was the best!)  And now we decided to do it again in Sydney, which is a good city for walking, but a little big if you plan to see more than one-or-two things.

We got off to a slow start on New Year's Eve...that can happen sometimes if you are following your itinerary scheduled for a "day at leisure"....looking back at the photos, I now remember why we got up a little later than normal...

At the end of our long day yesterday... we had found a cool pub/restaurant about 1.5 km. from our hotel (all downhill) near the Circular Quay (which you learn very quickly is properly pronounced "KEY"!!) called Jackson's on George   From the look of their current website, it seems that are closed now for remodeling, are under new management and are due to reopen as "P.J. Gallagher's" - - and according to their Facebook page, they are already selling tickets for their rooftop New Years Eve party...and as I write this, we are not even to Thanksgiving yet! They were pushing hard to sell us tickets to the NYE party when we were there...and we may have actually considered it...for a nanosecond. They probably did have a decent view of the harbor fireworks show from their roof... but the idea of rooftop partying with 100's of 20-somethings at an "all-you-can-drink" affair had me thinking that we might be spending the night stepping over bodies and puddles of puke. NOT the way we wanted to spend the evening!!

Did I mention that the walk to Jackson's was "all downhill" ?? Well.... the walk back to the hotel was a pretty steep climb up a side-street off of George Street that actually ended with three flights of stairs to the terrace from where we could enter the Shangri La. But all was not lost...we stopped for a nightcap at the homey little pub called Hart's Pub which was located just before the last set of stairs to "home"!! No wonder we got a slow start the next morning!

Some photos of Jackson's are in the beginning of the "Sydney Double Deck Bus Tour" Facebook album (see ink at bottom)

So...once we got ourselves together and got out the door... off we went on "walkabout"... we stopped at a Starbucks near the harbor (another thing we have learned about traveling together is that everything goes better with Starbucks!)...and not too far from where Jackson's was located, we found a double-decker bus-stop and bought us a pair of daily on/off tickets. The bus took a zig-zag route through the city ... we took a few photos but mostly we got on and off to go to some very cool old malls...and I did some shopping for some shirts and shorts...

The bus took us over to "Dawes Point" which is the place where people were already beginning to gather to get the best free-spots to watch the fireworks show from. Our hotel had become like an armed encampment... you had to show your room-key at the front door to the lobby....and very soon, they would be enforcing the "no outside alcohol" rule... so we bought several bottles of good champagne and snuck them up to the room when we were done with all of our shopping.

Of course, our constant companion for the day was "Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy"... the little stuffed scruffy-black dog that we had picked up back in Port Douglas...I guess we were starting to miss Beloved (aka The Bee - our Lhasa Apso) who was back at home in Hyderabad staying with our driver, Krishna. Hairy has his very own set of photos below.

By far one of the best parts of taking the double-decker bus tour of any city...are the pub-scouting possibilities you have from the upper-deck. While touring, we passed "The Oldest Pub in Sydney" (so they claim - there seems to be some controversy over who has been there longer with the pub right next-door - the "First Fleet Bar and Bistro")  which is now known as  The Fortune of War  We had a few pints while talking to one f the locals (very easy to do in a Sydney Pub!)

It was time to head back to the hotel and get inside before the big fireworks show.

Of course this was not before one more fateful stop at Hart's Pub. Did I mention that we had a couple of pints at the Fortune of War? Well that was followed by a bit of pub-grub and some number of pints to follow. We chatted with a few more of the locals (one of whom was a female bartender who was from California! Or maybe she said New Jersey. Whatever!) The walk up the last few flights of stairs was memorable. I think. I really don't remember.

As has happened every New Year's Eve since we got married 15-years ago... we didn't make it to midnight.

Well....we did. Sort of. Sydney's fireworks spectacular is so incredible, that they do it twice. There's the "kid's show" at 9:30 P.M. Which we both watched from the big picture window in our hotel room. And it was incredible... with the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the background... it was one of the greatest fireworks shows I had ever seen!!

We toasted the New Year about two-hours early...which is normal for us....and Amy crawled into bed and went fast to sleep.  I nay have closed my eyes for a bit as well...but luckily I heard the first of the midnight fireworks at the moment they first started. I woke Amy up and said "You have to see this!! This is it...the big one!!" We watched the whole show.... gave a quick "Yaaaay!" and both closed the day off with a final glass of champagne.

Here endeth a very, very long day!

Stay tuned for Part Three.... and the FINAL blog-post on our Australian adventure coming tomorrow!!

Sydney Double Deck Bus Tour

It's Hairy Maclary From Donaldson's Dairy

Pub Crawl and Fireworks

Saturday, November 23, 2013

At Last....Sydney!! (Part One of Three)

I think that anybody who watches the television broadcasts of the various "New Years Celebrations" from around the world is familiar with the sights and sound of the mammoth fireworks spectacular at Sydney Harbor. We had finally arrived in Sydney. This was the "reason" for the trip (although, as I have often said ...if you have nothing in mind but the "destination", you have missed the point of the "journey".) The blessings of being here "on the other side of the world" have been countless...but having the ability to travel and see as many places we have since we arrived in India in 2010 is just priceless. The great author of "Brave New World" and disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Aldous Huxley, once said that "To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries." Amen to that!!

We got a cool ride to our hotel from a limo driver who had a right-hand-drive conversion Cadillac Escalade... he said that the conversion cost $10,000.00 USD... he has to get a lot of airport runs to make that investment pay off! He dropped us off at our hotel...the Shangri La Sydney (make sure to click on this link and you will see what an amazing view this place has!) We had scrimped on some other things along the way on this trip... but the HARBOR VIEW room was not on of them. Looking out our window...the Sydney Harbor Bridge was to the left, the harbor right below us...and the iconic Sydney Opera House was off to the right. It was simply the most spectacular view you can imagine. I think the only better view in the entire city might be from the top of the bridge, and that was something Amy got to see on New Year's Day (that's the photo above left!)

We pretty much had some wine, some dinner and we were done. I checked the Internet to see about getting tickets to see the Australian Cricket professional league game (Called The Big Bash) on Sunday night, December 30th  ... both the Sydney Thunder and the Sydney Sixers were in town to play each other...and we had been invited to look up our basketball-playing friends (The Minnesota Twins) that we met on Kangaroo Island. I found tickets...but I also found out that the stadium was about as unreachable as anything in the city...possibly an hour by taxi and at least that long by train. We never did catch up with our BFF's. We needed to be up before dawn...so we snuggled up in the big comfy bed for the night.

In the EARLY morning of the following day ... we grabbed a taxi to take us to the Sydney Opera House for a very cool backstage-tour of the inside of this wonderful building. Taking a taxi was overkill...it was really a short walk and we did it a number of times afterwards! Seeing the outside of the opera house is pretty special. But seeing the inside? Really amazing stuff. Our guide was just a trip!! An extremely knowledgeable young man who worked the sound systems at the Opera House... and - he was a dwarf. Made for an interesting morning to be sure...followed by a great breakfast. Our guide was nice enough to also escort us over to the boat-launce where we would catch a water-taxi to the wonderful Taronga Zoo on the other side of Sydney Harbor.

Here are our photos from our first Sydney album on Facebook:

We Made It To Sydney!!

Next was a full day at the aforementioned Taronga Zoo. Now...I'm not much for zoos usually...I prefer to see my animals in the wild as we did on our African Safari. But I have to say that this one was one of the nicest I have ever been to... It was going to be another warm day... and there was going to be a ton of walking. The staff could not have been more helpful (even when we were not sue how our tickets worked ... they came as a package-deal with the Opera House Tour and it was a little confusing...but they got us sorted out. We had a great guide, too... a very cool and friendly young Aussie woman... kind of like "Crocodile Dorthy".  The highlights, as usual, were the petting zoo....and going into the "kitchen" where all of the various foods were prepared for the animals. Although I did think we might lose poor Amy Suzanne when she saw the frozen baby chicken and all of the frozen baby mice that the snakes liked so much...

Here's a couple of snapshots of THAT event!

Snake food - - frozen baby chicken

Oh my God!!! 

Here are the rest of the photos from our day at the zoo.... afterwards we took the much bigger ferry-boat  back to the other shore - walked around the Opera House again, got a cup of Starbucks...and called it a day. Tomorrow we would take a full-day double-decker bus tour of the whole city!

The Taronga Zoo in Sydney

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Into the Rain Forest - Make sure there's plenty of beer!!

Another shrimp off the barbie !!
After our day in the water snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef ... the next day would be spent on land. But it was so humid, you would have thought we were back UNDER water. I've been in cooler, less muggy hotel steam-baths! Now we would be heading into uncharted territory...and - admittedly - the one part of our journey that I had not researched at all - so there were truly no real expectations on what the day would hold. Again - it was a shared-van excursion.... our guide-slash-driver picked us up in a Range Rover in the morning. We stopped at another small hotel in Port Douglas and picked up a family of four....mom, dad, brother and sister. I think they were from England if my memory is correct. Nice folks...again - the non-private touring we were doing in Australia was paying off.

Today we would be heading into the Daintree Rainforest... across the bay from Port Douglas.

The Daintree Rainforest is a tropical rainforest on the north east coast of Queensland, Australia, north of Mossman and Cairns. At around 1,200 km2 (460 sq mi) the Daintree is the largest continuous area of tropical rainforest on the Australian continent. Along the coastline north of the Daintree River, tropical rainforest grows right down to the edge of the sea.

Our guide for the day could have walked right out of central-casting for Crocodile Dundee...a real "True Blue Fair Dinkum Aussie Bloke" is what he called himself...and what a character. He told some interesting stories about the area and seemed to love his job. That always makes a difference... if your guide is having a good time, the tour is better. But then again, everybody in Australia seems to be out to pass a good time...so there you have it. 

The Daintree is hot and humid... but because of that... it is very, very green. And thick. Rainforest is the modern-day term for this kind of place... but as a kid I would have called it "a jungle"...and as I mentioned earlier... the forest grows right to the sandy shoreline. Definitely a unique place. We made several stops along the way... on the beach, at a little out of the way pub (again, right out of the scenery-storage-locker for Crocodile Dundee). We tried our hand at trying to get some proper sounds out of a didgeridoo (without much success). We took a pretty long hike in the forest...and that was pretty intense. The humidity was really up there - - and I felt like a wet dishrag most of the time we were walking (see photo below)

Help me! I'm melting!! 

Our stop for a late lunch was a touristy place with decent food, good wine and a petting-zoo full of kangaroos and wallabies... always fun to visit with the 'roos. A few more stops along the way....and then to the highlight of the day...a boat cruise on the river to look for crocodiles. It wasn't too hard to spot them... they were all over in the shallow water along the banks of the river.... the boat guide was a pretty funny guy and the time went pretty quickly. But we had had a long day and we were getting pretty tired. It was good news to hear that we would be making the hour-and-a-half drive back to our hotel in Port Douglas. That was it for us...

After a nice hot shower, we went out to dinner at a place that was a few miles walk down the main-drag in town. Again....we walked. We sat at a table next to the sidewalk and there were no windows.... the sound of the cicadas in the tree outside was really loud... The meal was decent.... we saw the producer guy from New York and he was going to some club after. But we had it in our mind to go to the "world famous" (or so they say!) Iron Bar to see the Cane Toad Races. Yes...cane toads are these huge toads that have few natural enemies and are really a problem in Australia... the buggers are everywhere. Here is a link with a short video about the cane toad racing at the Iron Bar ... as you can see.... the "toad jockeys" use party-favor blowers to get their toads to jump...and the lucky few have to kiss their toads for good luck!! And that was the end of our very, very, very long day.

The next day was "at our leisure" - - actually three little words that you hope to see a lot of on your travel itinerary. The day before took a lot more out of me than I had thought. My sciatica was bothering me from all the walking....and we didn't have a driver for the day....so - we ended up walking some more.  We decided to walk up to the harbor where our boat was docked....to do a little shopping along the main street...and have a late lunch at a place we had seen on our snorkeling day that looked pretty interesting and fun. Along the way... we stopped at a book store where we picked up our "mascot" for the rest of the trip... a book and little stuffed dog that came as a package-deal... a local favorite -- Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy.  He was to be our constant companion for the rest of the trip!

The mall was fun...Amy bought her "stinger suit" and some shoes...and we had an amazing lunch of cold Victoria Bitters beer and these giant shrimp (see the photo above!)  We walked back to the hotel and napped....then ventured out one last time for some good food and beer. We had had our eye on this little place that served Mexican food... but they had a sign that said that they were closed and they never opened. We got back to the hotel one last time...did some laundry for the last time... and got re-packed for our next stop... beautiful Sydney for the New Year's Eve celebration.

All in all...Port Douglas far exceeded all expectations... just writing this has brought back some terrific memories...and I am glad I had the chance to share them with all of you...

Stay tuned... next... on to Sydney!!

Here is an album of photos from my Facebook page that contains over 100 snapshots of our final two days in Port Douglas, Australia:

Daintree Rain Forest and Port Douglas 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How "Great" is the "Great Barrier Reef", Anyway??

Our boat - the "Calypso"
So December 26th was the day... we had a light breakfast and come coffee out by the pool, and sat in the small lobby of our hotel and waited until a van pulled up to take us to the harbor and our boar for a full day of snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. This was something I had been looking forward to since we first planned this vacation and I saw the original itinerary. The itinerary had undergone some changes and minor tweaking, but this snorkeling trip was always going to be the highlight of the trip, for sure! I think there is always some worry when you are traveling to places that you have seen 1,000-times in your mind's-eye - "Is this going to live up to our expectations? Is it going to be a letdown? What if, what if, what if...?"

I think the secret to our traveling success on "this side of the world" has been to try our best to NOT have any expectations. A wise man once told me that expectations are merely disappointments waiting to hatch.  Sure, we look forward to our trips with great anticipation, and hope to have a good time... but if you start to think of only the "destinations" on your itinerary, you are missing the point of the journey.

So I was a little worried about the possibility of a big letdown as we set off to the harbor. Our hotel is actually walking-distance from the harbor (it's a good hike) - but in the tropical heat of North Queensland - the last think you want to do is go for a long walk if you don't have to. We had to stop and make a few other pick-ups on the way.... but we arrived in plenty of time to get down to the boat. The harbor area itself has a cute little "mall" of shops (mostly diving and souvenir shops...imagine that!) and a few places to eat (more about that later!)...and a long set of docks where all of the assorted dive-boats were tied-up.

Our boat was the Calypso (see photo, above left) and it was big. And it was nice. Kind of a split-hull catamaran design. It had a number of places to sit...outside on the main deck (both the bow and stern were open), inside (where most of the seating was located...also where the coffee and food were served) - the bridge-deck and catwalk...and an upper-deck in case you wanted to catch some of the intense summertime Australia sun. We pretty much went up and down the stairs a lot... getting some sun and coming back into the cool...

The trip out to the reef was a long one.... maybe two-hours? I really don't remember because the people-watching opportunities were so incredible !! That's the thing about going to places where everybody wants to go... everybody is there! You hear as many different languages as you might during a tour of the floor at the United Nations building! Very few Americans (on other couple from New Jersey on their honeymoon who were new to scuba-diving).... but there were Germans and Swedes and Japanese and Koreans and Canadians and French and Spanish people... people from all over the world. There was a very large Italian family....maybe six kids and the parents. And we started doing the math about how much their trip must be costing them. I have mentioned before in this blog that Australia is not the cheapest place we have ever traveled.... but - it almost broke-the-bank for the two of us to come for two-weeks...I could not imagine four-times the expense!!

About 45-minutes from the Great Barrier Reef...they start handing out the gear. Obviously those who were going scuba diving had much more gear to collect and assorted preparations to make.... we just needed to get our mask, snorkel and fins...and a new addition for us... the "stinger suit". We did not need one of these tight-fitting black-spandex getup's when we went snorkeling in the Maldives... but here in the waters off Queensland... it was required to protect everybody from the dreaded "stingers" that float with the sea currents. See this link all about the deadly stingers.

You see, Australia’s marine and estuarine environment is home to many interesting animals, including some harmful jellyfish collectively known as marine "stingers'. These marine stingers are easy to avoid but can cause discomfort if you are stung, and some of the tropical species, such as the Irukandji and Chironex fleckeri (the Box Jellyfish) can be lethal. So, to ensure you enjoy your day in the water, always remember be on the lookout....and wear your stinger suit!! They are...so flattering!!! Amy actually liked hers so much, that she actually bought one to take home from the harbor mall dive shop!!

We arrived at the site and got into the water. Here I will let the photos tell the story...with one addendum. Amy was the first one in the water and the last one out on all three dives!!! It was so cool to see her having such a good time. She really deserves it.... she is the reason we are able to do all that we do... With so many people in the water - all dressed in matching black stinger suits, it was hard to tell where whe was a t all times.... the only distinct part of her outfit was the color of her bright neon-yellow snorkel.  We dove together and separately for a total of over three-hours on our various stops to anchor the Calypso and swim off to the best spots. We could see scuba divers below us as we scooted along the surface and took and occasional trip down to the bottom...as long as one deep breath could take us.

Just a very small sample of the amazing colors we saw!

So.... was the Great Barrier Reef all that Great? You look at the photos and decide for yourself. Here are links to our assorted Facebook Photo Albums:

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Scott and Amy Suzanne Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef and The Calypso 

Stay tuned for more! Next: The Daintree Rain forest and on to Sydney!!

Port Douglas, Queensland

The Peninsula Boutique Hotel Pool
If ever there was a "bucket list" portion of the trip... we were now embarking on it. Our early morning flight out of Adelaide and on to the little airport in Cairns was a long one... but it was oh, so worth the wait. Flying from the coast of South Australia to almost the Northeast tip of Queensland would take us about half-the-day...and land us in the quaint little town of Fort Douglas and onto our dream of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef.

Now, even months after we got back home to Hyderabad...it is difficult to imagine that here we were...traveling on Christmas Day...and it's HOT! Man, I gotta tell you, it's tropical hot! Northern Queensland in the summertime is really sticky and warm... not exactly the "Jack Frost nipping at your chestnuts roasting by an open fire in a one-horse open sleigh" type of weather we might be expecting back in the U.S. It's quite strange.

From the small airport in Cairns, it was supposed to be about a one-hour drive up the coast. I'm pretty sure it was much longer, but the scenery was nice. We rode in a van with an interesting fellow who it turned out was the long-time and Emmy-winning producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He had really been roughing it during his stay in Oz...and he amazed us with tales of staying on a sheep ranch out in the outback where you needed a small plane to get in-and-out. We figured that we might end up hanging out with him during our Fort Douglas stay, but we really only saw him again one time at a local restaurant on our last night. It seems that we met a lot of fine people on this trip... but people we will probably never see again in our lives. That's what makes traveling fun.... new people...new adventures every day! 

Port Douglas is a town in Far North QueenslandAustralia, approximately 70 km (40 mi) north of Cairns. Its permanent population was 4,772 at the time of the 2011 census.The town's population can often double, however, with the influx of tourists during the peak tourism season May–September. The town is named in honour of former Premier of Queensland, John Douglas. Port Douglas developed quickly based on the mining industry. Other parts of the area were established with timber cutting occurring in the area surrounding the Daintree River and with settlement starting to occur on lots around the Mossman River by 1880.
Previous names for the town included Terrigal, Island Point, Port Owen and Salisbury. The town is situated adjacent to two World Heritageareas, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.
Port Douglas was No. 3 on Australian Traveller magazine's list of 100 Best Towns In Australia.
If we ever decided to cash it all in and move away to Australia... Port Douglas could be a very, very good choice. But we did grab a few real estate brochures...and - the beachfront prices are quite ridiculous!

While in this quaint little town, we stayed at the PORT DOUGLAS PENINSULA BOUTIQUE HOTEL – and...once again thanks to our wonderful travel agent Eve Wertsch at Fugazi Travel in San Francisco, we got upgraded to a pool view suite! It's Christmas Day...and we were hot and tired from a full day of travel. We really liked the little hotel...but most of all we loved the incredible one-on-one service we got from the moment we arrived. If there is perhaps one thing I have not stressed enough in the prior six blog-posts about our Australian Holiday...it's that the people are just amazing!! The friendliest people I think I have ever met! Just add in a few pints of the favorite national beverage (cold beer) and you've got a great time on your hands!

What we did next was something we had been waiting to do since we started this journey: nothing. We sat by the pool (see photo above-left and below) and drank cold drinks. For a couple of hours! Just what the doctor ordered! The only thing of pressing need was to make dinner reservations (necessary because it was their special Christmas Dinner and it sounded pretty good!)  

Our upgraded room was really quite nice and we could see both the pool below and the beach beyond. And the best part... the little boutique hotel had free washers and driers and - man - were we ever in need of those. We had to keep a tight assembly-line going so we could beat the other guests and not get our stuff taken out of the drier and left on the counter....but we got virtually everything washed (some of which was still carrying dust and dirt from Kangaroo Island and wine stains from the Barossa Valley!!

The Christmas Dinner was all that we could have asked for... we drank champagne and got good and full and retired to our room for the night. Tomorrow we would board the Calypso (no...not Jacques Cousteau's boat...another "Calypso") for our full day of snorkeling on the Great Barrier reef. - - Stay tuned!!

Here are a few of our Fort Douglas photos from the first day:

I think I need one
Probably too sweet!

Ho Ho Ho !!

I think that's a daiquiri 

Australia's national beverage

Amy enjoying the pool

And that is a "Candy Cane"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Barossa Valley....

There were many things to love about the Barossa Valley. First of all...it reminded Amy and me of our home in California.... rolling hills, beautiful vineyards. Not as big as the Napa Valley wine area we love so much back home.... but very similar in so many ways. Of course the very best part was tasting so many great wines. While the Barossa Valley is most commonly associated with its signature grape variety of Shiraz, (See photo above) the region does grow a number of grape varieties. 

Among these other varieties are:

 RieslingSemillonChardonnayGrenacheMourvedre and Cabernet Sauvignon.

And yes....we did our very best to try them all!! 

Our tour bus made six stops. Well...seven stops if you count the winery we went to that was closed for the holidays! Which was too bad, because we had heard great things about that particular place. Kudos to our driver/tour-guide for making a couple of calls and getting our big group booked into another winery with a fine tasting room. The weather was quite warm...bordering on "hot".... still a very strange feeling when you realized that it was Christmas Eve!! 

One of the highlights of the day was seeing the actual creek called "Jacob's Creek" (the wine was mentioned in our prior blog post).... Our bus drove right over it...on a small bridge. If you were hiking, there would be no problem stepping over it as you walked along! Not that impressive, actually...but still pretty neat to say that we had been to the actual "Jacob's Creek"!

We stopped at a lookout point later in the day that gave a stunning view of the entire valley! I actually had myself convinced that it was as large as the Napa Valley...but a quick search of the Internet proved to me that Napa is substantially larger...both in total area, acres of vineyards - - and most importantly... amount of wine produced. But that does not mean that the Barossa is not special. I think both Amy and I would say that our trip there was a great diversion from the "go, go, go" pace we had on Kangaroo Island.

Besides, we purchased enough wine to last us until we got to Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef!

Unlike when we got picked up by the bus in the morning....we were the first ones OFF the bus when it pulled up in front of our hotel! So quickly, as a matter of fact, that we sort of looked like the Keystone Cops getting our stuff together (many bags of souvenirs and plenty of good Barossa Valley wines...) 

That night we stayed in Adelaide one more time.... we thought there might be some problem finding a restaurant in town open on Christmas Eve...but that was not an issue... we ate at the place kitty-corner from our hotel room... on a balcony outside (still quite warm.... hard to get feeling all "Christmassy" when it's 85 F. at night!

Barossa Wine Tour on Christmas Eve

Super early the next morning, we would use Christmas Day as a travel Day. Next stop...the airport in Cairns, Fort Douglas and The Great Barrier Reef! Here are the photos of Christmas Day and our arrival in from our Facebook albums: 

Adelaide to Port Douglas on Christmas Day

Friday, October 25, 2013

Adelaide .... and the start of our Barossa Valley Tour

Here in Hyderabad, the red-wine situation is... as Amy puts it, "just tragic". There are only about three brands of Indian-made red wines.. There are the "Big Banyan" wines...which are, generally speaking, not fit for pigs. There's another one called "Four Season"s (no relation to the wonderful chain of luxury hotels!) that is quite literally, rotten... the very first glass of wine we tried when we arrived in India in 2010 was a Four Seasons "Cabernet" (I use that varietal term loosely) that honestly looked like the color of gopher-guts and tasted like a batch of raisins had gone bad in the cabinet - mixed with dirty dishwater.

Then there's the venerable Sula Red (they actually make several varieties of red wine, the most common being a Cabernet/Shiraz blend) ... which is grown and vinted somewhere outside of Bombay (Mumbai) , NOT an area known for it's fine, expertly-made wines. The best thing we can say about Sula Red is that you can actually get it down without a gag-reaction...but you do have to hold your nose for the first mouthful!

Then (finally) after about 2 1/2 years, we began to see both red and white wines made by the Australian winery, "Jacob's Creek" ... grown and vinted in some place called the "Barossa Valley" ... so Amy and I were quite thrilled to see that a day on a tour through the Barossa on our itinerary.

We finally got to our hotel in Adelaide only after what is now on the list of "the most frustrating airport experiences... ever" ... When you go to Kangaroo Island... you are severely limited on the amount of luggage you can take on the little airplane. So.... as an extra service (and for a small fee) - the airline will hold the bulk of your luggage in storage and give you a separate claim-ticket for it.... just get your small luggage at the carousel...then go around to another area and they are supposed to have it waiting for you. Needless to say, several people from our little flight were there getting their stored bags...and one-by-one they grabbed their stuff and loaded into taxis and town cars.

But our baggage did not appear. The carousel stopped. No bags. And we are the only two people left standing there. All the rest of our clean stuff... (our Kangaroo Island bags were filled with dirty clothes and were still covered in road-dust from our day of off-road touring...)... was "somewhere". There was a phone on the wall that said "call for service". I called and called and there was no answer. I had to run outside to tell our driver that we would be delayed.... no luggage!! The claim area was quite large...completely empty.... and quiet as a tomb. Well... there was the sound of me ranting-and-raving about our bags.... but let's not dwell on that, shall we?

So I'm outside telling the driver to be patient...and of course, by this time I was long-past running out of my patience!!  I came back in and Amy had gotten someone to answer the service phone and said that they would look for our bags.  And we waited some more. Finally...after what seemed like hours (it was really only abut 25-minutes!)... the old carousel comes to life with a red light and horn and out come all of our bags!!

The driver was quite nice...and he took us straight to our hotel.... a kind of funky, modern place right off the main drag where all the artsy-fartsy shops and trendy eateries are located. It was getting late and it was two-days before Christmas.... (and hot... still a very strange experience, Christmas in summer!) so we thought places might be closed.  Not true. About three blocks from our hotel was a nice steakhouse... that had an incredible wine list from mostly Basrossa Valley wineries. Man, this Australia place is great!! Big slabs of tender beef and great red wine.... these are two of the things that rock our world when we are traveling outside of India!!

We walked back to the hotel to get a good night's rest before our Barossa Valley tour.... With most of our trips, we have been blessed with our own private tour guides.... men and women who we traveled with by car all over he world... just Amy and I ... the driver and the guide. Some of our guides were amazing.... an extremely smart lady-historian in New Delhi who knew so much! Christopher in Africa who was just the sweetest man! The definitive tour guide in Egypt.... the lady that all other tour guides learned their craft from... the one and only Dr. Zeinab Shawki, who we loved... Sunny in Cambodia (sounds like a weather report, but his name really was Sunny!) Some good ones in Vietnam, and some not-so-good ones, too... And a guy in Jaipur, Rajasthan who looked just like Ray Romano !!

So imagine our surprise when we are down in the hotel lobby after breakfast, waiting for our tour guide.... when up pulls a 24-passenger tour BUS .... stuffed full of tourists from all over the world... and we were the last pick-up of the morning before we headed out to the Barossa!! We climbed up and into the bus... under the watchful eyes of 22 other people, al giving us the stink-eye! There were only two-seats left. I guess that traveling over Christmas is a popular idea in Australia !

And off we went... to the Barossa Valley and Jacob's Creek! Just Amy, me, our very entertaining guide...and 34 of our new BFF's!! Lord, have mercy!

Next stop: Barossa Valley!

Here's our Facebook Photo Album from Adelaide ... our hotel, our little steak house, the tour bus...and our first stop at  wild gift-shop filled with cool wooden toys and a snack bar!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Last of Kangaroo Island....

I truly do apologize. I have been an extremely bad blogger. I see now how easy it is to get out of the habit of writing. Life in India is never dull, that's for sure...and it's just so easy to get caught up in all of the things going on and this blog got put on the shelf for far too long ... I figure that it's time to get all caught-up before some of the memories of our travels begin to fade into the deeper-parts of the grey-matter and become lost forever.

When we last checked-in, dear reader, we we exploring the wonderful diverse landscape of Kangaroo Island with our new friends... we dropped them off at their bed and breakfast after our second-day of touring... and knew we would run into them again at the airport when we went to pick up two new travelers for our last day on K.I. Hopefully we would see them again at the cricket match in Sydney, but alas, that was not to be! Our guide, Chris picked us up in the morning, along with this... O.K. - I'll say it... horrible woman who was also staying at our B&B .... I don't know if "horrible" is the right word... she was just sort of a bitter, older, whining sourpuss who was really sensitive about anybody discussing anything even remotely political or controversial. Being stuck in a car with her all day was NOT how we were looking forward to spending our final day on the island.

We loaded up all our luggage into the trailer we picked-up at the storage-yard behind another B&B nearby. We knew it was going to be a packed-car so the extra room was necessary by putting all our gear in the trailer. Not knowing just how DUSTY all our stuff was going to be by the end of the day!!  We had to drive out to the airport, where we saw our friends, "The Minnesota Twins" - for thew last time... two wonderful retired professional basketball-playing twin-sisters from the beginning-days of the women's leagues in Europe... they were heading back to the mainland - while we were there to pick up a German lady ad her young daughter. Also smashed--into the Range Rover was another Aussie guide who turned pout to be the translator hired by the German lady for her daughter. The funny thing was... the mom spoke perfect English... and the daughter... although she was a sweetie, was so quiet...I don't think her mom knew that she spoke perfect English, too!! 

We toured the other side of the island and some wonderful beaches... some filled with all kinds of fur-seals and sea-lions all lounging around on these stunning white beaches.... we did a lot of walking that day... and I thing we were all glad to have the time out of the car to stretch our legs.... and rest our ears!!!

You don't really notice it until you are in an enclosed vehicle with the windows rolled-up... but the German language is spoken several decibels above that of English and other tongues you may hear while traveling. At least this translator spoke it that way.... the conversation she was having with the mother in the back-seat was pretty-much shouted the entire time we were moving. Again, if you recall - our driver/guide Chris was quite hard-of-hearing and I think he just turned his hearing-aids off!!

A great an memorable stop was at this wildlife way-station place - that was really more of a rustic petting-zoo - and here we gt to pet the koalas and feed the kangaroos (they are really smart and so cute!!) It was hot that day (December is the middle of the Aussie Summer!) and a little dusty with all of the animals running about... but having a kangaroo eat out of your hand and the way their whiskers tickle the palm of your hands... it's just a special experience that I will never forget!

On the grounds of the petting-zoo there was a really spectacular picnic area that was covered and decorated and set up for a really fancy lunch of steak and salad and warm breads... and a damn good bottle or two of Kangaroo Island Cabernet Sauvignon from a local winery called "Sunset"... I must say these open-air lunches were some of the best things about our three-days on Kangaroo Island... the food was awesome, the wines were good.... and the scenery was spectacular.

We left the way-station and went and explored another scenic beach where we had to climb through some rocks (a tight-fit n some places!!) - and we ran into some locals where we shared a couple of beers before we headed back over to the other side of the island (the island is actually quite large and can take over an hour to cross it.) We had a late-afternoon flight to Adelaide - so at the airport, we grabbed our luggage (now covered with about 5-pounds of Kangaroo Island dust and dirt!) and got on the little puddle-jumper plane for our next stop... Adelaide and the Barossa Wine Country!!

Here are some of the pics from our last day on K.I. - from our Facebook Albums...

Sea Lions and Other Critters on Kangaroo Island

KI Critters

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Kangaroo Island (continued)...

Our second day on K.I. was by far the most fun day we had on the trip so far - that is if "fun" can be measured purely on the amount of laughter in a day! Although it was the holiday season and it was "all hands on deck" when it came to the local tour-guides...our first guide, Shirley, had the day-off, and we got tour-guide Greg, instead.  Greg was a great guide, a good bloke, "true-blue fair dinkum Aussie to the bone, mate.... very knowledgeable about the Island. And also...well - he was pretty hard of hearing!! This made for a pretty fun day, right there. We were accompanied by a lady who was also staying at the same bed and breakfast... she was from Denmark or Norway or Sweden ..I forget. She was actually pretty forgettable, herself. Kind of a sour-puss.  But the best part was when we stopped and picked-up "the girls"... Two twin sisters from Minnesota, both former professional basketball players, one living in Sydney full-time...the other visiting for the holidays.  Twins in general are a trip. These two were hilarious - a real hoot!!

We drove around a bit (the sisters had a bit of a leg-room issue, as you can imagine)...and it wasn't long until we had all gone out for a bit of a walk... Then, with another lighthouse on the horizon, Amy went for a walk down the trail with the "Minnesota Twins" and the other lady.  Our guide and I went on ahead to a rocky point where there were seals mating and playing and fighting down below a stairway/walkway. I walked down to see the seals (not sea-lions - these were fur-seals!) The males were having some real brutal fights down below me...I could have stood there and watched all day. Greg the Guide waited for the girls to come down..and then we all went down to the so-called "Admiral's Arch" - one of the prettiest beach-scenes I have ever seen. It was awesome!

After our hike, it was time to head off to another "must-see" spot on the island...the "Remarkable Rocks" - a very cool place for sure. "Remarkable"?? Well...you can decide...see the second Facebook Photo Album below (Kangaroo Island Rocks!) When we were finished climbing all over the rocks...we went off for the best late-lunch steak BBQ of the whole trip.

But the best part of the day? We sang a lot of songs!! It seemed that any time a new subject came up,s it wa time to sing again! Whenever a word would come up that reminded us of a song, we'd start a signing. Waltzing Matilda? You bet!  Tie me Kangaroo Down, Sport ? Absolutely! At lunch I am sure there was more than singing, I do believe there was even some dancing going on!!

Totally beat, it was time to trade e-mail addresses and make plans to get together with the sisters in Sydney for a Big Bash Cricket Match... Then back to the B&B for a nice steak (yeah - we were still eating beef with every meal!) and get a good night's sleep for our final day on Kangaroo Island!

Here are three photo albums from our second day on K.I. - - stay tuned for more!!

Second Day On Kangaroo Island

More Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island Rocks!