Sydney Reunion: Cohen, the Bergmans and New Zealand

The Bergmans, Adam and Ryan in Darling Harbour

It’s been almost a year since Kristen and I first set foot in Sydney, and what better way to round out 2011 in Australia than with a hometown reunion. The latest addition to our visitor log was Adam Cohen, a childhood friend of mine, who planned to spend a couple weeks with us over Thanksgiving. This happened to coincide with another childhood friend finishing a study abroad program in Melbourne, where his family met him to begin a trip through Australia before heading home. Due to a little luck in timing and scheduling, we all were able to meet in Sydney and get together on the other side of the world.

Adam and the Bergmans then flew to Cairns for some diving before the Bergmans returned to the U.S.A. and Adam came back to Sydney, at which point he and I boarded a plane and began our trip to New Zealand.

After doing a bit of research and reviewing options for a good road trip, we decided on a loop through the South Island, beginning and ending in Christchurch. Our original intention was to rent a campervan for the long weekend and stay out in the countryside, but the logistics didn’t work out for our itinerary, so we just planned to rent a car and make a few stops on the way.

The Fergburger logo in Queenstown

After a late arrival, we left the guest house and drove off into the New Zealand countryside. Departing from Christchurch, our route took us through a variety of different Regions before we reached Queenstown that evening. In addition to the fields and rivers of coastal New Zealand, we drove the winding mountain roads past spectacular lakes (Tekapo and Pukaki) before reaching the Hotel Mercure in the Fernhill region of Queenstown. We checked into the hotel then got some dinner at that most popular of Queenstown burger joints, Fergburger.

No trip to Queenstown would be complete without a little thrillseeking and an adrenaline rush, so after a visit to The Station, Queenstown’s hub of everything extreme, we decided on hang gliding and drove up to the base of the Remarkables to jump off a mountain with only a guide and a wing. After catching a few thermals, taking in some stunning views, and getting a chance to pilot the glider (under careful supervision), we reached solid ground and continued on our journey through the Southern Alps.

Franz Josef Glacier meltwater heading to the Tasman Sea

Though the coastal plains of the island are nice, the real attraction is the mountains, and the next two days would not leave us disappointed. Our journey out of Queenstown towards the west coast took us past a pair of stunning lakes: Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. We then continued to drive through the first of a handful of national parks, stopping occasionally to check out waterfalls and other roadside attractions, before emerging from the Haast Pass and reaching the town of Haast on the coast. From here the road took us over and around the foothills on the coast before we reached the next of the South Island’s attractions.

An Otira Gorge Road Viaduct through Arthur's Pass

Descending from the mountains through temperate rainforests, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are among the most unique and accessible glaciers in the world. Visitors can drive to within a couple kilometers before completing the last part of the journey on foot, coming as close as 100 meters to the face of each glacier. While it’s possible to take guided tours onto the glaciers themselves, we contented ourselves with viewing them from the public hiking path before spending the night in the town of Franz Josef.

The final leg of our road trip took us back into the heart of the island, through yet another national park and an area known as Arthur’s Pass. Cutting across the middle of the South Island, the route is one of the few connections between the east and west coasts. As you might expect, building roads through the mountains can be challenging, but the Kiwis constructed an impressive set of viaducts to connect both sides of the island.

Devil's Punchbowl Falls waterfall in Arthur's Pass

We stopped again for a hike to a nearby waterfall before continuing back to Christchurch, where we stayed before our early morning flight the next day. We unfortunately were unable to explore much of the city, as the CBD is still closed off as a result of the recent earthquake. After an early wake-up call and a flight across the Tasman Sea, we returned to Sydney and began packing again, this time for the return trip to America for the Christmas holiday.

There are lots more pictures from the trip, check them out on Flickr!

A Few Quick Trips: Blue Mountains, Sculptures and Hunter Valley

The Three Sisters and the Jamison Valley in HDR

Like most major urban areas, Sydney has plenty to do within the city limits, but there’s lots more to see if you’re willing to travel a couple hours away. Sydney has several popular day trip destinations, two of which we got to visit on consecutive weekends: the Blue Mountains, which I’ve already written about in a previous post; and the Hunter Valley, Sydney’s most prominent wine region.

This trip was Kristen’s second to the Blue Mountains, as she had visited when her parents were in town. I had never been though, and the opportunity to go with several of Kristen’s classmates came at the right time. Unlike the last trip, which was on a bus, for this trip we chose to take the train, which doesn’t take a whole lot more time and is a lot cheaper. We arrived Saturday morning and spent the afternoon touring via the hop-on-hop-off bus before meeting the rest of the cohort for dinner.

Boardwalk through the Jamison Valley rainforest

In addition to being rich in coal mining history, the Blue Mountains are also part of a large national park filled with hiking trails. We unfortunately arrived a bit late to join the rest of the class on a longer hike, but there are plenty of trails of varying lengths catering to all sorts of schedules. Given limited time, we chose one of the shorter hikes that took us along the boardwalks near the base of the mountains, where informational placards and prominent maps guide even the navigationally-challenged tourist from point A to point B past interesting sights.

A giant faucet, part of Sculpture by the Sea

After riding the Scenic Cableway back to the top of the ridge, we hopped back on the hop-on-hop-off bus and headed back to Katoomba, where we met the rest of the crew for an Italian dinner in the town before retiring to the Katoomba Town Centre Motel for the night and leaving the next afternoon.

The following weekend, the class planned a bus trip to the Hunter Valley, but before heading north to the vineyards, we stopped by Bondi Beach for a large outdoor art exhibit known as Sculpture by the Sea. Installed on the coastal walk between Bondi and a smaller beach called Tamarama, the exhibit included dozens of larger-than-life pieces of art, often constructed out of everyday things like tires and scrap metal. There were plenty of stunning pieces and even the occasional meta-art sculpture, but the most popular was easily the giant faucet. Seeming as though it might let loose and hose an unsuspecting child, the faucet sat prominently on a hill overlooking Bondi, encouraging visitors to engage in a hands-on experience despite frequent signage discouraging such things.

Lindeman's Wines in the Hunter Valley

After braving the crowds through the sculpture installation, we heeded an early wake-up call the next morning and caught a cab to UNSW to meet the bus that would take us to four vineyards and a spot for lunch. Though the bus driver didn’t seem to know where he was going and refused to go faster than 50mph on the freeway, we made it ¬†to the Valley and started our tour of Sydney’s winemaking region. Though its primary export is coal, residents of the area began importing vines in the mid-1830s and was thriving soon after.

Our tour took us to four vineyards: Tulloch, Brokenwood, Lindeman’s, and, um, considering we tasted several wines at each vineyard, things were a bit foggy by the end of the day so I don’t remember the last one ūüôā It was a great trip though, and a great chance to catch up with the classmates who would be leaving for exchange programs for the following term.

There are plenty more pictures from our trip on Flickr: Blue Mountains and Sculpture by the Sea.

Kristen and Ryan and Bondi Beach at night

Tasmania: Launceston, Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and Port Arthur

Cataract Gorge near Launceston, Tasmania

The only state not part of the Australian mainland, Tasmania lies across the Bass Strait from the Australian state of Victoria. The Melbourne to Devonport ferry takes 9 hours to cross the 150 miles separating the two landmasses, but unless you need to transport a car, flying is a much faster (and sometimes cheaper) option. While one could easily spend a few weeks exploring the island, we just wanted a highlight tour, so we booked flights over a long weekend, hired a car, and started our road trip through the state.

Instead of flying a round trip to one of Tasmania’s major airports, we flew into Launceston in the north and planned to fly out of Hobart in the south. After arriving in Launceston on a Thursday evening, we spent the following morning exploring the surrounding area and got our first glimpse of the variety of landscapes in Tasmania. Only a couple miles outside of the city center lies a large national park and a recreation area known as Cataract Gorge. We walked to the mouth of the gorge from our hotel and hiked one of the trails to the main part of the recreation area. A large basin in the mountains surrounding Tasmania, Cataract Gorge includes a swimming pool, gardens, and a chairlift that carries visitors between the two sides of the gorge.

Ryan and Kristen on a quad bike in Tasmania

After a chairlift ride and a hike out of the steeper side of the gorge, we walked back to town and started our road trip. Our first stop was Cradle Mountain, the centerpiece of¬†Cradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair National Park. Given the nature of the landscape, it seemed best to see the area from the ground, so we booked a quad bike tour and followed our guide Ray along the trails through the national park. Though riding four-wheelers is practically second nature to Kristen, this was only my second time, so it took me a little while to get the hang of it again. But get the hang of it I did and I managed to successfully ford the large puddles in the track (since getting stuck meant owing Ray a case of beer). Unfortunately for me, however, Ray’s ride was a bit bigger than mine. This was fine for most of the trip, but when he flew past me through a puddle, I received a second shower for the day, much to Kristen’s (and Ray’s) amusement.

A Tasmanian Devil

We returned to the hotel after the quad bike trip, picked up our car and drove to the edge of Dove Lake, where the best views of the mountain can be had. We spent a bit of time there (and shot a few pictures, see below) before backtracking to begin our Devils@Cradle tour and meet Tasmania’s endemic carnivorous marsupial.¬†The devils normally aren’t very tolerant of people, but a few of the animals bred in captivity have become acclimatized to our presence, so the keeper leading our tour brought one out and carried him around until he became a bit too excited and needed to return to his habitat. After observing feeding time and picking up a couple souvenirs, we returned to our room at the Cradle Mountain Chateau.

Wineglass Bay, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania

The next morning we got back on the highway and continued our road trip across the center of the island. We backtracked almost to Launceston before driving through the eastern part of the island on the way to the east coast. Along the way, our GPS accidentally directed us on a slightly shorter but unpaved route via the Old Coach Road through the eastern forests, so we were relieved to reach our destination and return to pavement.

After hunting down a gas station, we continued to the next part of the highlight tour, an hour-long hike to the Wineglass Bay Scenic Overlook in Freycinet National Park. While Wineglass Bay may seem to be named because it’s shaped roughly like a wineglass, the¬†etymology is actually rather morbid: Wineglass Bay was once a base for whalers and the blood from their catches would turn the water red, hence the name. These days the water in the bay is a lovely shade of blue, and if we had more time we would have hiked the rest of the way to experience it for ourselves. Our itinerary had us in Hobart by the evening though, so we hiked back down and continued our journey. Upon arriving, we checked into the Wrest Point Casino and Hotel and had dinner in the revolving restaurant on the top floor.

Port Arthur, Tasmania

Our next and final day in Tasmania was spent in Port Arthur, a historic convict site southeast of Hobart on the Tasman Peninsula. Home to British and Irish prisoners from 1833-1877, the grounds and ruins are now a tourist attraction, where visitors can explore the original and restored buildings and even stick around for a ghost tour. In addition to the more traditional halls, churches, and houses on the grounds, the site also contains a panopticon known as the “Separate Prison”, where visitors can experience solitary confinement and even a chapel with individual cell-like pews.

Once we finished touring, we jumped in the rental car for the last time before returning it at Hobart’s international airport and flying back to Sydney. Though Tasmania may not make it onto an itinerary for a shorter stay in Australia, if you’re interested in a variety of landscapes or want to do some hiking, Tasmania has plenty to offer. There’s lots to do beyond what we covered, but the travel guide in me felt vindicated when we were browsing the gift shop and found a postcard with three highlights of Tasmania: Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and Port Arthur.

More pictures are on Flickr: Launceston, Cradle Mountain, Freycinet/Wineglass Bay, and Port Arthur.

Ryan and Kristen at Cradle Mountain

New Zealand: The Rugby World Cup and Waitomo Caves

Ryan and Kristen and a giant rugby ball

It should be obvious by now that one of our prime objectives while in Australia is to experience as much as possible, regardless of how familiar we may be with said experiences. We’ve approached every possible trip, festival and event thinking “can we do it?” instead of “I’m not sure about this one”. This attitude has served us well, leading us to heaps of interesting events and places.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that, when we found out that the Rugby World Cup was being hosted in New Zealand, our first thought was “why not?” We looked into available weekends, picked up tickets for a Saturday night quarter finals game, and booked a flight to Auckland for the weekend.

When we arrived in Auckland in early October, we were thrust into a world of, well, generally enthusiastic rugby supporters. Coming from rowdy sports towns like Chicago, we were expecting a little more, um, rowdiness, but, this being our second trip to New Zealand, we’ve determined that “rowdy” is pretty low on the list of adjectives to describe Kiwis. “Thrillseeking” maybe, but for the most part the events we attended, including the match itself, were pretty tame. That said, we saw France and England play, not the All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team), so maybe the French and Brits were all jetlagged.

Auckland from the Devonport Ferry

Having arrived on Friday night for a Saturday night match, we had a day to kill in Auckland before heading to Eden Park. Auckland may be New Zealand’s largest city, with over 30% of the population, but in a country of just around 4.5 million it’s still not an especially big place. We walked through the CBD and checked out some of the festivities, but found ourselves with a few more hours to kill, so we took a ferry across the¬†Waitemata Harbour to the historic suburb of Devonport and got some lunch.

Returning from Devonport after some more wandering, we caught a train from the Britomart Transport Centre to Eden Park, where the match was being held. With rain showers threatening, we walked from the Kingsland train station to the stadium and found our seats, at which point we pulled up mobile Wikipedia and went through a quick refresher of the rules of rugby union.

Kristen holding up her Try! sign

At this point it should be evident that, while we were certainly very excited to be at the Rugby World Cup, we hadn’t actually attended a rugby match before and therefore had almost no idea what was going on. It occasionally looked like American football (“gridiron” over here), which proved to be a problem since the cheers one might yell during gridiron are not at all the same cheers used for rugby. We did eventually pick up the general rules of the game though, and since we didn’t choose an allegiance to either side, we went with the safe option of cheering whenever the majority of the crowd around us did.

After the end of the match (France won, 19-12), we squeezed back onto a train that traveled ever so slowly back to the city, where we had left our rental car. We picked up the car, flipped on the GPS, and made our way back to the hotel to get some rest for an early wake up call the next morning.

Ryan crawling through a cave while Black Water Rafting

While working in Melbourne, I was discussing the finer points of visiting New Zealand with a coworker (hi John!) In the course of the discussion, he mentioned that, several years prior, he and his wife visited New Zealand and went on a Black Water Rafting tour. Intrigued, I looked up Black Water Rafting and found that one of the best places for this type of thing is two hours south of Auckland, near a small town called Waitomo. While the prospect of floating and hiking in caves through freezing water may not seem exciting to you, it sure sounded fun to me, so I signed us up for the 5 hour “Abyss” tour, starting at 9am.

So, after that early wake up call, we drove south to Waitomo and began our Black Water Rafting adventure with 6 other brave souls, led by our guides Matt and Jah. After a 100ft abseil (rappel) into the cave, we zip-lined, paddled, waded, and crawled through the caves of Waitomo, eventually scaling two waterfalls to get out of the caves.

The caves of Waitomo also host one other interesting natural phenomenon. If you’ve seen the “Caves” episode of the BBC series Planet Earth, it starts with a segment on cave-dwelling maggots. Living in total darkness, these maggots “fish” for their prey with long strands of mucus and attract said prey with a bioluminescent blue glow. Called “glow worms” (because “glow maggots” doesn’t look as nice on brochures), these larvae cover the ceiling of the caves. At one point during our adventure, we all turned off our headlamps and were treated to a beautiful display of twinkling blue light overhead.

After emerging from the cave and heading back to base for some dry clothes and hot soup, we found that there was another glow worm cave nearby. Since tickets were half price after our rafting tour, we decided to stop by, since our guides said that the glow worms in that cave were even more spectacular, plus we could keep our normal clothes on. For this tour, instead of wading through the water, a guide took us on a boat through the caves to see the constellations of glow worms overhead. Way easier, to be sure, but not nearly as fun!

After driving back through the North Island country side, we were almost back to the hotel when we saw a sight that we hadn’t seen in months: a Wendys! After a fantastic dinner of burgers and frosties, we called it a night before catching a Monday morning flight back to Sydney.

Check out more pictures from this trip here and here.

We made it out of the cave!

Deaton Family Visit: Sydney and the Blue Mountains

Carol, Dave, and Kristen climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Returning to Sydney, the Deatons set off to further explore the city and the surrounding attractions, starting with a view of Sydney from atop the Harbour Bridge. Sydney’s BridgeClimb remains one of our top recommendations for visitors to Sydney; it’s an entertaining and unique way to see the city and learn about the engineering achievement that is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge. ¬†Having now climbed the bridge twice, Kristen earned her “BridgeClimb Master” certificate of achievement.

Carol and Dave on a Sydney jet boat

The next stop on the Sydney itinerary was a fast-paced jetboat tour of the harbour. Originally designed for the shallow rivers of New Zealand, jetboats have increased in popularity due to their maneuverability and operational versatility. After booking a tour with Harbour Jet, the Deatons set off on their journey past many of Sydney’s waterfront landmarks, including the bridge, Luna Park, Cockatoo Island, and, of course, the Opera House. Along the way, the driver did his best to spin and soak his passengers.

Cockatoos and the Three Sisters

The next day, Kristen and her parents set off to the west to see a couple more Sydney landmarks, starting with the Olympic Park. No longer covered with rides and farm animals, the Olympic Park is quiet on normal days, which makes it easier to explore and take in a bit of sporting history. After leaving the park, the Deatons continued west towards one of Sydney’s most famous natural attractions, the Blue Mountains. Named for the lingering blue haze caused by evaporated eucalyptus oil, the mountains host a variety of wildlife and several rock formations, including the Three Sisters.

Dave and Carol in the Blue Mountains

In addition to scenery and wildlife, the Blue Mountains are also rich in natural resources, the extraction of which constitutes much of the area’s recent history. Coal and shale mining began around 1865 and continued into the mid 20th century,¬†until it was no longer economically viable. Though there are many replica artifacts to illustrate the story of mining in the area, original machinery and hauling equipment, long since abandoned and rusted over, can be seen as part of the scenic walks in the valley.

After a quick stop at the Featherdale Wildlife Park  on the way home, the Deatons continued their touring, getting to know more about our daily life and experiences in Sydney. In particular, Kristen took her parents on a tour of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) on the UNSW campus, where she spends most of her days. About 20 minutes south-east of the CBD, UNSW is conveniently located close to Coogee Beach for those days when class lets out early.

The Deatons’ two weeks wrapped up with a Sydney Harbour dinner cruise and a few more pictures in front of the Opera House before boarding a flight back to the USA. It was great to show Kristen’s parents around, as exploring Sydney was (and remains) high on our todo list. While we do spend a fair amount of time traveling, it was nice to become more familiar with the city we currently call home.

Dave and Kristen at UNSW

Deaton Family Visit: Cairns and Uluru

Carol and Dave and an Indigenous Australian

The second of our family visits began at the end of August with the arrival of the Deaton family. Also in town for two weeks to coincide with Kristen’s break between terms, the Deatons had a full itinerary and wasted no time getting started.

Carol and Kristen snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

After the usual Sydney orientation walks that all of our guests must endure, Kristen and her parents departed for Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. After dropping off their stuff at the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, they boarded a Quicksilver tour at the Marina Mirage and headed out to the Agincourt Reef and Quicksilver’s floating platform. Complete with showers, a bar, and even a post office box, the Agincourt Reef platform offered everything a snorkeler or diver could want. There were even semi-submersibles docked at the platform for those wanting to see the reef without getting in the water.

A star of Hartley's Crocodile Adventures

Regaining their land legs, the Deatons then stopped by the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail before taking a trip with Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. On the forefront of the “immersion exhibit” movement, Hartley’s features a massive lagoon containing 19 crocodiles. Boat tours run 5 times per day to show visitors the crocodiles in their natural habitat. That is, laying around on the banks of the lagoon most of the time. But the tours also include “pole feedings”, where a dead chicken is attached to the edge of the pole and dangled above the water. As you can see on the right, this seems to get the crocodiles’ attention.

Ryan, Kristen, Carol, and Dave near Uluru

After visiting with the crocs, Kristen and her parents flew to Ayers Rock Airport, where I met them for a quick visit to¬†UluŠĻüu-Kata TjuŠĻĮa National Park. Uluru / Ayers Rock is a giant rock formation in the southwest corner of Australia’s Northern Territory. A sacred Aboriginal site, the rock and the surrounding area have become a sizable tourist attraction, supporting several hotels and loads of tourist activities centered around this otherwise barren patch of outback.

Carol, Dave, Kristen, and Ryan on the Uluru Sunrise Camel Tour

Since there isn’t really much else to do other than look at the rock while engaging in the aforementioned tourist activities, our trip consisted of¬†two tours and¬†one night in the Emu Walk Apartments. The first tour was the Sounds of Silence, which included an Australian BBQ and a narrated tour of the night sky by a “startalker” ‚ÄĒ¬†a native storyteller + astronomer. Not that she had to say much… at over 200 miles southwest of the nearest large town (Alice Springs), a clear sky over Uluru doesn’t really need any narration.

The following morning, everyone woke up early for the next excursion, the Uluru Sunrise Camel Tour. No, camels aren’t native to Australia, but after their introduction the animals thrived in the environment; Australia contains the last wild dromedary population in the world. Arriving early in the morning, we saddled up and rode our camels into the desert, just in time to watch the sunrise over the outback. Not that we needed to see it from the back of a camel, but that made it all the more fun. We dropped off our camels at the camp before stopping by the hotel on the way to catch our flight to Sydney.

While I wouldn’t put it at the top of your list, if you have the time during your visit to Australia, Uluru is worth at least a day or two. It’s easy to spend months in Australia without ever seeing the terrain that makes up the vast majority of the continent, but it’s worth seeing just how barren the outback can be. Sure, Uluru is just a rock, and perhaps not as remarkable as the Opera House or the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s worth a visit if for no other reason than to see what the rest of Australia looks like.

Check out 10 more pictures on Flickr

Winter in Sydney: Festivals, Concerts and the Aquarium

A shark at the Sydney Aquarium

Coming from Chicago, it’s hard not to chuckle when people in Sydney complain about winter. Sure, it’s colder than summer and requires an additional layer of clothing, but compared to Chicago, Sydney’s winter is more like a moderate autumn. It never gets below freezing and there certainly isn’t any snow. That said, it’s not comfortable weather for the beach, so Sydneysiders need to find other ways to keep themselves occupied.

Ice Skating in Sydney

We took the opportunity to check out some of the indoor attractions around the city, starting with the Sydney Aquarium. Located on the east side of Cockle Bay near Darling Harbour, the aquarium is home to a variety of native Australian species inhabiting several different exhibits. Separately, each exhibit represents a different region of Australia; together, they host one of the largest collections of sharks in the world. The aquarium is also next door to Wild Life Sydney, so if you don’t have time to take the ferry to Taronga Zoo, you can knock off all of your Australian wildlife viewing in two quick visits.

A diprotodon at the Australian Museum

A few weeks later, we stopped by the Sydney Winter Festival, located just east of Hyde Park in Cathedral Square. Sponsored in part by the Switzerland Department of Tourism, the area was set up to look like an alpine village, complete with little wooden concession huts and an accordion player sporting lederhosen. None of this was quite as entertaining as the centerpiece of the festival, an ice rink. Nevermind that it was 60 degrees outside, people showed up in droves to try out ice skating, possibly for the first time ever. Since most people in Sydney don’t own ice skates, bright orange ones were provided for the brave souls who ventured onto the ice. For the slightly less brave souls venturing onto the ice, orange plastic seals were also provided as seats/walkers.

Darth Vader on stage at the Sydney Opera House

We left the Winter Festival and walked down the street to the Australian Museum, another attraction we hadn’t yet visited. The museum had a few interesting exhibits on Aborigines and extinct Australian animals, but was otherwise not especially remarkable, so it’s not recommended for shorter stays in Sydney (unless it rains the whole time you’re here).

The following weekend we had tickets for a performance at the Opera House.¬† But not just any performance, this was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing the music of John Williams, including classics like the themes from Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, E.T., and the Raiders March from the Indiana Jones trilogy. The highlight, however, was the last quarter of the show, where they performed an entire suite of Star Wars music. And what performance of Star Wars music would be complete without people in costume? The Sydney Symphony Orchestra did not disappoint, bringing Darth Vader up on stage during the Imperial March. There’s more than just opera at the Opera House… when you visit Sydney, make sure to book a show. I can’t guarantee you’ll be as happy as Kristen in the picture below, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience!

Kristen and Ryan with Darth Vader and a Stormtrooper

Buterbaugh Family Visit: Queenstown, New Zealand

Standing in the valley of Isengard

After a couple days of sightseeing in Sydney and a quick trip to visit Ayers Rock/Uluru, the Buterbaugh family was back at the airport on the way to the tour’s next stop. Queenstown lies in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, often regarded as the more scenic of the two islands. Situated next to a lake between the mountains, Queenstown reputedly received its name after a resident quipped that it was “fit for Queen Victoria”. Whether that’s true may never be known (Victoria never visited), but the area certainly lives up to the MńĀori name for the lake: “Wakatipu”, or “hollow of the giant”.

Ryan and Dad doing the Haka

Our first excursion was one that many visitors to New Zealand take: a tour of the film locations for the Lord of the Rings. While few actual sets remain (the most notable of which being Hobbiton in Matamata, near Auckland), the landscape of New Zealand and its place in the movie trilogy is just as stunning. Our Safari of the Scenes took us through Glenorchy to the film location of Isengard before stopping on the way back to the site of Ithilien Camp near an area known as 12 Mile Delta.

Our helicopter on a glacier

Upon returning to the Heritage Queenstown, we picked up Kristen at the airport before continuing to the Skyline Restaurant for a Kiwi Haka show and dinner. For those of you who follow rugby, you may already be familiar with the Haka performed prior to every game by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team. The ceremonial dance is performed for a variety of reasons, but the one we watched prior to dinner was designed to include audience participation. Getting on stage was a bit embarrassing at first, so we did the only thing you can do: jump in with both feet, stick your tongue out and yell at the top of your lungs!

A Shotover Jet Boat, mid-spin

The next day started off early with one of the highlights of the entire Australia and New Zealand trip: a helicopter sightseeing tour over the Southern Alps and Milford Sound. Milford Sound is listed as one of the top attractions of the South Island, but it’s rather tedious to get to by foot or by car. Not so by air, and the views are way better. Our fantastic tour guides at Over The Top took us on an unforgettable ride over Queenstown, past Milford Sound and through the mountains before landing on a glacier and letting us get out and see the mountains up close. After spending a bit of time on the ice and snow, we got back into the choppers and continued back to Queenstown.

Our second tour of the day, and the final tour in New Zealand, was a ride through the Shotover Canyon on a Jet Boat. The Shotover Jet boats are specially designed for the canyons, incorporating extra maneuverability and the ability to run in as little as 4″ of water. They also sport one other feature: the ability to perform 360¬į spins on top of the water. Coming impossibly close to the canyon walls at full speed, the pilot would casually twirl his finger around in the air, which was code for “hold on tight”. He’d then spin the boat completely around in under a second and continue on with barely a pause. After disembarking, we stood on the shore to watch the next boat come in for the perfect photo opportunity.

This brought us to the end of our time in Queenstown and I have to say that I agree with the fellow who declared the place fit for royalty. Queenstown is a fantastic place for thrillseekers, adventurers or those seeking a few days of relaxation punctuated by the occasional jolt of adrenaline. Setting all of that aside though, the place is just beautiful, which is reason enough to add it to your list. I’m glad we did.

Panorama of Queenstown, New Zealand

Buterbaugh Family Visit: Cairns, Kuranda and the Great Barrier Reef

We found Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef

The arrival of the Buterbaugh family marked our second official group of visitors and the first of two family visits. Despite only staying for two weeks, my family had a bunch of planned activities and wasted no time getting started.

The day after landing, we headed to the airport to fly to Cairns, the main entry point to the Great Barrier Reef. After landing late Thursday night, we slept for a few hours before heeding an early wakeup call and boarding a shuttle to the docks to catch our dive boat, operated by Tusa Dive. After a 90 minute, sea-sickness inducing ride to the reef, Kristin, Ali, Dad and I donned our diving gear to explore the world’s largest reef system over a series of three dives. In addition to some of the more standard underwater inhabitants, we were lucky enough to see a few sharks swimming around a formation known as the Three Sisters in Milln Reef.

Riding the Kuranda Scenic Railway

After a welcome return to solid ground later in the afternoon, we boarded the tour bus back to the Angsana Resort and Spa located in a northern suburb of Cairns called Palm Cove. After an early dinner to replace the meals that we, er, shared with the fish, it was off to bed in preparation for the next day’s activities.

In addition to the world famous reef system, the Australian state of Queensland is also home to several rainforests. Known as the “Wet Tropics of Queensland” on the¬†UNESCO World Heritage list, the state holds the unique distinction of being the home of two adjacent World Heritage listed sites (the reef being the other one, of course).

Riding the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Fortunately for us, the Kuranda State Forest was conveniently located a short drive away from the hotel. It was made accessible by two fantastic means of sightseeing transportation: the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Our itinerary started with boarding a morning train to take us by waterfalls and across bridges to the end of the line, deep in the forest. After disembarking, we found ourselves in the town of Kuranda, a small settlement that seemed to be purpose-built for tourists. Through the course of our exploring and souvenir shopping, we happened upon the Kuranda Koala Gardens.

Holding koalas: more fun for the holder

As you may know, holding wildlife is against the law in New South Wales and Victoria, but not so in Queensland. Therefore, since we were spending a weekend in Queensland, one of the goals was to find a place for the girls to hold koalas. Luckily for us, the Kuranda Koala Gardens fit the bill and even let us take as many of our own pictures as we wanted. If you find yourself in the area and want to hold one of Australia’s iconic furry marsupials, the Kuranda Koala Gardens is highly recommended.

Just a napping koala

We then headed back to the top station for the Kuranda Skyrail to make our return trip down to the bottom of the mountain. Suspended above the canopy of the forest, the Skyrail gives tourists a birds-eye view of the flora and occasional fauna below. There are a couple intermediate stations on the way down, giving passengers a chance to explore some of the forest from the ground as well as from the air.

Upon reaching the bottom, we continued on to our final stop of the tour, which was a few hours at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. There were a variety of sessions about Aboriginal life and culture, but the most fun activity by far was learning how to throw boomerangs. Just make sure to keep an eye on them when they’re on the way back!

The Kuranda excursion marked the end our trip to Cairns, so we checked out the following day and flew back to Sydney for a bit more sightseeing before the next set of excursions.

The Buterbaugh Family in Sydney

Pictures from Queensland and Vivid Sydney

Australia Zoo – May 2011

Noosa National Park – May 2011

Brisbane – May 2011

Vivid Sydney – June 2011