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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

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

Queensland: Gold Coast, Brisbane, Noosa and Byron Bay

Steve Irwin Statue at the Australia Zoo

For the second of Kristen’s two week break between terms, we decided to visit some parts of Australia. Having already spent Easter in Melbourne, we looked at a couple other options for our next destination, but ended up choosing a few locations in and around the Gold Coast and Brisbane, the largest city in the northeastern Australian state of Queensland.

After arriving in the Gold Coast airport and checking into the Sheraton Mirage Gold Coast, we headed north towards Noosa Heads, a small coastal community 80 miles north of Brisbane. On the way, we made a stop in a small town called Beerwah, home to the late Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo. Owned by the Irwin family since 1970, the zoo was made popular by Steve’s “Crocodile Hunter” wildlife shows and continues to be run by his widow Terri.

Noosa National Park

In addition to the usual sorts of animals you find in zoos, like elephants and big cats, the Australia Zoo has a variety of native species as well. Koalas, dingoes, Tasmanian devils all call the zoo home, as do many kangaroos and wallabies, who reside in a large, walk-in section of the zoo and can be hand-fed. Finally, since the Australia Zoo is located in Queensland, holding koalas is permitted by law, so we made a point to have a picture taken with one of Australia’s most famous marsupials.

We continued north from the Australia Zoo to Noosa Heads and had some dinner along the main street of the town. The next morning, we ventured off into Noosa National Park along one of the most popular walking trails. Winding its way along the coast, past beaches and cliffs, the trail eventually leads to Hell’s Gate, a point atop the cliff overlooking the ocean and the park. Having reached our goal, we turned around and walked back into town for some souvenir shopping prior to our departure.

Brisbane at Night

On the way back to the Gold Coast, we stopped briefly in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. Though unable to stay for more than a couple hours, we toured the City Botanic Gardens and explored the Southbank area before returning to the car and continuing on our journey back to the Gold Coast.

Surfers Paradise - Gold Coast

Taking a break from the long road trips, the next day we met up with one of Kristen’s classmates in nearby Surfers Paradise for brunch before making the short drive to Warner Bros. Movie World, one of the major theme parks in the area. Similar to Disney’s Hollywood (formerly MGM) Studios, Movie World featured rides and attractions based on a variety of films. Some of the shows seemed a bit familiar (like “Hollywood Stunt Driver”) and some were just corny (“Journey to the Center of the Earth 4-D Adventure”), but we were quite impressed that a original-looking Tumbler from the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise was part of the daily parade.

Batman's Tumbler at Warner Bros. Movie World

Our second and final road trip took us south, to an area called Byron Bay. Popular among backpackers and, er, alternative-lifestyle individuals, Byron Bay is also home to the white Byron Lighthouse and the most easterly point of Australia. After lingering around the lighthouse until the rain cleared and the sun came out, we ventured into town for some local fare at Fishheads before beginning the trip back to Gold Coast.

The Byron Lighthouse at Byron Bay

After spending a few days in the area, it’s no surprise that Queensland is nicknamed the “Sunshine State”. The Gold Coast and surrounding areas were all very welcoming and familiar – Noosa reminded us of Hilton Head and Surfers Paradise was a dead ringer for the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area. I can’t say with any certainty that we’ll be back, but, for a quick and sunny weekend getaway, the Gold Coast is hard to beat.

Ryan and Kristen in Noosa National Park

Bora Bora: Sharks, Jet Skis and Beaches

Swimming with Blacktip Reef Sharks

It would certainly be easy to spend all day in Bora Bora relaxing on the beach, but there’s plenty of other stuff to do as well, so we thought we’d take advantage. There’s a huge list of activities offered by the Le Meridien, but after talking to the staff, we decided on two: the highly rated Ray and Shark Feeding excursion and the Jet Ski tour.

The Ray and Shark Feeding excursion departed early the next morning from the hotel. After a bit of orientation, we were soon on our way to the first of three sites, where we would jump in the water with some blacktip reef sharks. There were plenty of jokes about sharks eating tourists and the like, but in reality they aren’t aggressive and would require some serious provoking before they’d even think of attacking. In our case, they were far more interested in their usual food (chum tossed in the water by our guides) than the curious onlookers in the water with them. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be a bit nervous when getting in the open ocean with dozens of sharks.

Playing with stingrays

Our next stop took us to a shallow part of the lagoon populated by a large group of stingrays. Our guide hopped in the water and lured in one swimming near his feet. Though a bit feisty at first, the stingray was pretty calm by the time we got in the water. We took turns petting it before our guide gave it a big sloppy kiss for the camera. Lest you be concerned for the stingray’s welfare, they seem to be pretty used to the attention, since multiple excursions are out there every day and the guides feed them in exchange for their trouble.

Busted by the fuzz!

Our third and final stop was to a reef home to hundreds of brightly colored fish. After swimming with the fish for a while, we started our journey back to the hotel. About halfway back though, we were stopped by the local police. Unable to understand much French, we didn’t really know what was going on, but we were told it was something about not wearing lifejackets. I’m not sure if our guides ended up with a citation, but it made for a rather interesting end to the tour. An excellent excursion overall though, highly recommended for your visit.

Our jetski tour was the following day, so we met our tour guide on the hotel’s beach and were on our merry way. Now, you may think you have a great job, maybe even one of the best. But I’ll tell you, after talking to our guy, I’m pretty sure that “Bora Bora Jet Ski Tour Guide” is the best job out there. What’s not to love? Apparently he’s been there for 4 years and will be returning to France soon, so there may be an opening coming up. Act fast, I’m sure the position won’t be open for long!

Jetskiing by some bungalows

Our tour took us on a loop through the lagoon around the main island, with the occasional stop for some history or information about the area. We saw a couple World War II installations on the hillside and some of the smaller, privately owned islands. About midway through the tour, we stopped at another shallow portion of the lagoon, tied the jetskis together and just enjoyed the water and scenery. After a while, when the pineapple and coconut ran out, we returned to the jetskis and made our way back to the hotel.

A resident of the Lagoonarium

Left with a little more time after the tour, we headed over to the hotel’s lagoonarium. As you may recall, the Le Meridien is home to a turtle sanctuary. Though the youngsters are kept in a more protected area, the adults are free to roam through the enclosed lagoon and interact with the hotel’s guests. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to hang out with some turtles, we jumped in the water and started swimming. Turns out, the lagoon is pretty big, so it actually can take a bit to find them, but find them we did.

This was our last day at the Le Meridien, so we parted ways with the turtles and retreated to the bungalow to clean up and pack. But our trip wasn’t over yet. Since Kristen still had a few Starpoints left, we planned to visit both of the Starwood hotels in Bora Bora. Next stop, the St. Regis!

Pure relaxation

Melbourne Road Trips: Phillip Island and the 12 Apostles

A resident of Phillip Island's Koala Conservation Centre

Like almost every city in Australia, Melbourne lies in close proximity to a variety of natural attractions and national parks. As part of our long Easter weekend in Melbourne, we set out to visit two of the most popular attractions in the area: Phillip Island and the world famous Twelve Apostles. Despite a minor mishap with the rental car (seems that the office closed earlier than we expected), we first set off on our day trip to Phillip Island, home of the Koala Conservation Centre, the Nobbies, and the Penguin Parade.

Check under your car for penguins!

Until this point we actually hadn’t seen any of Australia’s most famous marsupials in real life, so the trip to visit the koalas was particularly exciting. Though the koalas were the main attraction, the centre was also home to a number of other Australian animals, like wallabies and echidnas. Since koalas are difficult to spot in the wild, there were plenty of raised catwalks through the trees so that visitors could get up close and personal. Unfortunately, though there are places where you can hold a koala, this wasn’t one of them, so we had to be content with just observing.

After a quick stop at the Nobbies, a lookout point on the western edge of Phillip Island, we made our way to the Penguin Parade, the island’s most famous attraction. Every night, hundreds of Little Penguins make their way in from the ocean, up the beach and past bleachers of onlooking spectators to return to their burrows. We were lucky enough to arrive at the right time: the tide was on its way out and had just finished washing over the bottom rows of bleachers when we made our way toward the beach, so we got a front row seat. As camera flashes hurt young penguin eyes, photography was not allowed, but there were plenty of opportunities to get up close to the little birds. Some do travel pretty far inland though, so make sure to check under your car when you leave!

Driving the Great Ocean Road

After a day or two back in Melbourne, we left on our second road trip to the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles. Often listed as one of the world’s great scenic drives, the Great Ocean Road winds down the south-eastern coast of Australia and passes by beaches, rainforests and other natural landmarks. Built by soldiers coming back from World War 1, the road also holds the distinction of the largest war memorial, dedicated to the casualties of the war.

The Loch Ard Gorge

Starting in Melbourne, we worked our way down the coast past beaches and through little towns until we arrived in Lorne, one of the larger towns on the road, and stopped for lunch. From there we continued on, making a quick stop in Apollo Bay for gas, with the intention of reaching the Twelve Apostles just before sunset. Unfortunately, there was some traffic just as we were nearing our destination, so by the time we got to the area, the sun had already set.

The 12 Apostles

We continued on to Port Campbell to find our motel and crashed for the night, planning to get up early the next morning so we could both see the rock formations and ensure that we would make it back to Melbourne by noon (stores close pretty early on holidays in Australia, if they’re open at all). After an early wake up call, we were back on our way, stopping first by the Loch Ard Gorge, a natural inlet named for a ship that ran aground there in 1878.

Our last stop was at the Twelve Apostles, a collection of limestone stacks off the coastal cliffs near Port Campbell. The site has gone through a few different names over the years, but, despite the name, has never actually had more than 9 stacks. The current count is 8 stacks, as one of them fell down in 2005 due to the continued erosion that created them in the first place. It was rather cold in the morning, so we didn’t get to any of the beaches, but there are some great lookout points in the national park. Overall, absolutely worth the trip… the formations are pretty cool.

Our sightseeing over, we took the inland roads back to the highway on our return trip since they were a bit shorter and we were on a schedule. A great way to spend part of the Easter weekend though, just make sure to book your accommodations early and pick up your rental car before noon 🙂

At the Nobbies on Phillip Island