Land Down Under
by Gwen DeWalt, CTC
A good friend of mine once said that “The world is a smorgasbord, and you can’t eat it all.” True, but one can make the effort to sample as much as possible. When I used to look at the array before me, one “item” stood out……….Australia and New Zealand. Now I can say that I have “tasted,” but certainly much of those two countries is still part of the smorgasbord.”
Australia and New Zealand have always been high on our “To Do “ list of travel destinations. Knowing that time was limited and considering our love of cruising, we selected Silversea Cruise Lines’ Silver Shadow, a lovely small ship. Having dreaded the flight and heard such horror stories about its length, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t any more tired upon reaching Sydney than I am when going to Europe. Our flight from LAX to Auckland on Air New Zealand was approximately 11 hours. The kicker came when I realized that our flight onward to Sydney wasn’t just a hop, skip, and a jump, but another 3 and one-half hours! We arrived in Sydney early morning, checked into our hotel, and after a few hours to get settled, nap, and shower, we and the two other couples traveling with us boarded the 45 foot Phoenix for a private tour of Sydney harbor. Once onboard, champagne, wine, and Australian beer were offered followed by a lunch of fresh, local seafood---prawns, crab, clams, and inexplicably something called Bug. Luckily, that didn’t translate into our version of bug, but was a very tasty crustacean, a cross between lobster and crab. Our harbor tour was a perfect introduction to a city that is so water-oriented. I was fascinated by the water taxis running back and forth across the harbor like the yellow-cabs in New York!
On our first full day in Sydney our guide and driver escorted us on a private, behind the scenes tour of the Sydney zoo focusing on animals native to Australia. We saw the “nursery” where sick animals and babies are kept when not on display in the zoo, as well as going into the kitchens to see the animals’ meals being prepared. This is a very carefully orchestrated and complicated process taking into account specific animal’s needs, special diets, and vitamins and medications given with the food. The highlight of this tour was going into the cage with the koalas. Although we could get very close, we were cautioned not to touch or try to pet them. Once one of them opened his mouth, and I saw the size of his teeth, I didn’t have to be told twice! We felt very privileged to be inside the enclosure with the animals, and I’m sure the other visitors to the Zoo wondered how we managed to be there!
Lunch was fish and chips at Ravesi’s on Bondi Beach; the beach was packed as it was the height of summer there and people were taking advantage of the lovely weather. The afternoon highlight was a private tour of the Sydney Opera House. Having viewed this building on T.V. and in the movies and having seen many photos took nothing away from being there and seeing it in person. It is truly a magnificent structure, one of a kind, and its history as told by our very knowledgeable guide was fascinating. We were taken backstage to view how the sets are changed during a performance, an intriguing process. Dinner along the waterfront in the evening was a bit touristy, and my first taste of kangaroo left me quite certain that I wouldn’t be ordering it in the future. No, we didn’t do the bridge climb!
Upon arrival in Geelong, Australia, a charming seaside town, it was apparent that they don’t have many cruise ships visiting. It seemed that the whole town turned out very early in the morning to welcome us, including a band and singers from a local girls’ college. They were excited to have us, but sorry to hear that many of us weren’t staying in Geelong, but taking the Great Ocean Road tour. The Great Ocean Road is truly that……….a road along a beautiful stretch of ocean favored by surfers and Aussies on holiday. Reminiscent of the Carmel area of California, it also is the spot where the impressive “Twelve Apostles” are located. These are huge limestone rock formations separated from the cliff shore by the action of wind and waves. You won’t see 12 of these rock formations all at once, as they say some may be hidden from view from any of the vantage points. Some say as well that there are no longer 12 rock formations, because some may have been eroded away. One of the most interesting sights was off the Ocean Road…our driver detoured to show us the “hazards” on a local golf course….kangaroos. I counted 12 on one hole alone!
Melbourne was our least favorite of the places visited. Although there are some beautiful old buildings, an observatory, and botanical gardens, there is much graffiti and it was the least pristine of any place we saw. To be fair to the city, we were there on a Sunday and most everything was closed, so I feel we didn’t see it at it’s best.
On to New Zealand….two days on the Tasman Sea. We were told that we had one of the smoothest crossings possible, although there was rain for the whole two days. Lots of reading and movie viewing!
We sailed into Milford Sound on a sunny, gorgeous, day with hardly a cloud in the sky. Again we were told how fortunate we were to have such weather, as often the entire vista is obscured by fog and clouds. The mountains were majestic with snow capping most of them. The area reminded us of the Inside Passage of Alaska. As we learned about the history, we were awed at the bravery and fortitude of those intrepid explorers who discovered this area. The explorers were quite literal in their naming of places, such as Doubtful Sound, so named because it was doubtful that they would be able to get out of it once they sailed in.
Dunedin, New Zealand met us and bid us farewell with bagpipes, very appropriate for this very Scottish town. The beautiful old train station could have come right out of Edinburgh. I love what Mark Twain said about Dunedin and the coastal area surrounding it…. "The people here are Scots. They stopped here on their way to heaven, thinking they had arrived." From this port we went on a train ride over the rugged, spectacular Taieri River Gorge through 10 tunnels and over 12 viaducts This railway construction started in 1889 and wasn't finished till 1891. Leaving the train around noontime, we visited a sheep station for lunch at the home of Jill and Ian Bagley, a charming couple and third generation on their land. New Zealand is in the midst of a terrible drought; the pictures that come to mind of the green, green hills dotted with sheep is unfortunately not true this year. The hills were dotted with sheep, but the color was brown and there was very little vegetation for the animals. Many sheep farmers have brought their sheep down from the hills and planted food in a concentrated area for the sheep. Ian said that although he has had cattle in the past, with the lack of rain he doesn’t have any at present as there isn’t enough food for them. Following a demonstration of sheep dogs bringing the sheep to the barn, a scrumptious lunch was served by Jill, her daughter, and a friend. It was obvious that she had often been asked for recipes for the delicious dishes served that day, as she already had them printed and ready to give to us. The Brandy Ice Cream was divine and should have been enough, but the Lemon Pavlova roulade was too beautiful to resist! A later visit to a sheep station out from Picton resulted in another beautifully prepared and served lunch….again, we were provided with recipes. I highly recommend the Coronation Chicken..different from any dish I’ve been served before, but quite tasty. Wine was from the local Montana vineyard….a delightful Chardonnay. In spite of the lack of rain, the gardens surrounding these homes are exquisite and the pride and joy of their owners.
Christchurch was our favorite city in New Zealand. The Christchurch Arts Centre is the former town site of the University of Canterbury and was given to the city for its use. There are craft shops and restaurants in the center as well as lofts upstairs. Called the Garden City, it is readily apparent why…..everywhere are flowers and trees, and the Botanic Gardens are magnificent. I was so impressed in New Zealand by the lack of litter….when I asked our guide if they have very strict litter laws, he said no, that people just don’t do it! They appreciate the beauty of their country and take such pride in it; what must they think when they visit the United States and see the sides of our roadways?
From the port of Tauranga we set out for Rotorua, one of the most famous destinations in New Zealand and one of the most odiferous! From the moment people arrive in Rotorua they know they're somewhere quite different. There is a scent of sulphur in the air, and at nearby geothermal hotspots there are spouting geysers, acrid-smelling mud pools bubbling and belching, and warm geothermal pools and ponds. Rotorua's fame as a spa destination began over 160 years ago. Visitors were drawn to the area to soak in its natural therapeutic waters. The fascinating Maori community and its culture and traditions have a very significant influence in the District, and are of major interest to visitors. At the Maori cultural center, there is great care being taken to teach the crafts particular to the Maori and not let them die. While in Rotorua, we had lunch at Tree Tops, a very small hotel approximately 15 miles outside the city. For those looking for seclusion and luxury, one couldn’t do better….it’s a great spot from which to take advantage of the great trout fishing….either in Lake Rotorua or in one of the many, many picturesque streams. New Zealanders say that most trout die of old age, because the terrain makes it so difficult to get to them, which is true. Only the hardy and fit can manage some of the trout fishing areas. Hunting is also popular….there is no quota in New Zealand, although there is a fee (for instance for deer in certain situations.) Upon leaving Tree Tops I looked to the side of the road, thinking I was seeing a statue of a magnificent light tan buck; a second glance assured me that he was no statue, but a gorgeous, living animal.
Our trip ended in Auckland and although we were leaving for the U.S. the same day the ship docked, we had arranged for a private tour of the area and lunch at a local restaurant before leaving. Auckland is a busy, upbeat, and vibrant city. Obviously the water is a part of everyone’s lives here; it’s said that there is one boat for every four New Zealanders, and that estimate could be a bit low! Along the beautiful waterfront we had lunch at an outdoor restaurant and toasted a long-desired and memorable trip to the two countries. Would I go back……….Yes. Obviously there is much, much more to see in both countries. Like most people I talk to who have visited both countries, if I could only go back to one, it would definitely be New Zealand; however, I would like the see the Barrier Reef area of Australia.
You would be hard pressed to find more beautiful destinations with such warm, welcoming people. It was truly a memorable trip…one of our best!