Day trip to the Yarra Valley: A wine lover’s paradise

Wine and me are like long lost friends.  We have a love/hate relationship.  I adore wine so much that I must have at least a glass or two each and every night.  Yet sometimes I adore it too much and find myself creeping up to three or four or five glasses and then ouch….the next day sucks!

I’ve often heard it is part of the so-called Mediterranean diet.  That the French, Italians and Greeks consume wine with passion and vigor as part of their healthy lifestyles and diets.  Whether or not this is fully medically proven I do not know or quite frankly, even care (I am sure there is much debate as there seems to be an awful lot of debate about anything these days related to health and diet!) . Basically, I love wine.  Period.

Of course I didn’t grow up on wine like the French or Italians do.  It was an acquired taste that took time, maturity and well, taste!  I first began drinking wine for occasional family meals during my college years, normally for special occasions like birthdays, holidays or dining out.  However, I really learned and grew to love wine during my eight months living abroad in France back in my twenties.

Being a student living off my parents and having relatively no extra money, my good amie and I went for the down and dirty stuff.  The infamous Côtes du Rhône….the cheapest wine you could buy for 5 francs a bottle (about US$1 at the time).  It was nasty, thick, acidic stuff that literally slide down your throat but did the job.  An instantaneous buzz would arise after sucking down two or three glasses.

Mon amie and I even got so hooked on it (we were silly, immature and cheap) that we would fill an empty Evian water bottle with cheap, red Côtes du Rhône and bring it as a “roadie”.  Our Evian bottle filled with cheap wine followed us all over Paris at night where we drank it sitting beneath the Tour Eiffel, Le Sacre Coeur and la Seine We were cheap, pathetic and young.  But it was so much fun and still remains to be one of my fondest memories of life as a student in Paris.  Drinking cheap Côtes du Rhône in an Evian bottle under the Parisian stars!  What could be better than that?

Fast forward the years to my trip to Australia in 2003, and I was still as much as ever in love with wine.  My passion for wine has always been attended to while traveling, especially in countries that produce brilliant wines such as Australia.  Thus, it made perfect sense that we spent our last day in Australia touring the lovely Yarra Valley, located 40 miles/61 km east of Melbourne.  In my opinion, there was no better way to leave a fabulous vacation in a truly wonderful country than by visiting its nearby vineyards.  Of course, I was not disappointed!

We took a tour (there was no way we were going to drive!) leaving Melbourne in the morning and spent the day tasting at four idyllic vineyards in the Yarra Valley.  There were only a few of us on the small van which was perfect.  There is nothing I detest more than being stuck on a huge obnoxious tour bus loaded with drunk wine tasters!

The Yarra Valley is a beautiful, peaceful setting that hosts over 70 award-winning vineyards as well as picturesque villages, gardens and shops along the way.  The Yarra Valley is famous for their Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, and Cabernet Sauvignons,  which flourish in the valley’s cool climate.  We were fortunate to try many delicious, savory wines thus breezed lightly through the day, enjoying ourselves immensely.

Here are some photos along the way….

It was the perfect way to end a wonderful trip.  Thankfully we had some time to “sleep it off” before catching our insanely long flight back to the United States the following morning.

Unfortunately, the flight home ended up being perhaps the craziest flight of my life as we made an emergency landing at two in the morning at the Honolulu airport in Hawaii.  There was no warning, no information or comments to the passengers about what was going on.  All we knew was that the lights suddenly went on, the pilot said “Flight attendants, prepare for landing” and our Qantas 747 plunged down faster than my stomach could handle.

Still left in the dark, we landed at a previously unopened airport to police lights and ambulances.  Only after the police apparently boarded the plane (we were sitting at the total end of the bus so couldn’t see or hear what was going on) and left, did the captain come on to announce to the passengers what had happened.

Apparently a mad man/presumed terrorist (I have doubts) was on board making irrational comments about 9/11 and bringing the plane down.  (Remember this trip was made in 2003….after 9/11 and the crazy heightened security that has made traveling never the same).  Some fellow passengers tackled the guy down, and he was hand-cuffed and sedated while we were in the middle of no where out in the ocean.  Honolulu was the closest place we could land.

Ok, I was pretty freaked out at that point wondering what in the hell just happened.  It took two hours to unload every single piece of luggage from our 747 jumbo jet and them more time for the police to find this crazy guy’s baggage.  We were not allowed to get off the plane and were all extremely tired and stressed out by that point.

Two hours later, we took off again making our landing in LA late.  I raced through security, sweating bullets and caught my connecting four-hour flight within five minutes before departure.  It was a crazy way to end a trip, that’s for sure!  But it is certainly one I’ll never forget.

Stay tuned…next post I’m headed back to Argentina where I visited San Carlos de Bariloche and Buenos Aires a few years back. 

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Rockin’ in Melbourne

Scan above of my ticket stub to the sensational “We Will Rock You” musical set to the music of Queen performed in the heart of Melbourne.

After an amazing four days spent exploring Cairns, Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef, we hopped flight number three of our trip and headed the four-hour flight south to lovely, culturally alive Melbourne (pronounced “Mel-bun” by the Aussies).  We didn’t land in Melbourne until well past nine at night thus besides collecting our luggage and taking a cab to our hotel, there wasn’t much time for much else except a few well-deserved and highly cherished glasses of Australian wine in the hotel bar.

We rose early for our English style breakfast in the hotel dining room and indulged in tea, coffee, fresh pastries, scones and jellies.  We had yet another busy day ahead of us checking out Melbourne.   Since my father had been there a few times before, we didn’t need a tour guide.  I had him to show me around and bring me to all the latest and greatest spots.

Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia with a population close to four million.  Melbourne is an interesting and exciting city because it is a huge cultural melting pot with one of the largest populations of Greeks outside of Athens and a sizable population of Chinese, Lebanese, Italian and Vietnamese immigrants.  One in three Melburnians were born overseas or have parents who were born overseas, creating a largely diverse population awash with culture.  I was excited to check it out as Melbourne sounded like my kind of place.

We spent the morning doing a lengthy jog through the lush Botanical Gardens.  I always find seeing a place on foot via trekking or running to be extremely exciting because you can cover more ground than walking.  It was a clear, perfect day– t-shirt and jeans weather of 60 degree F (felt like heaven after steamy, humid Cairns!).  I enjoyed the cooler air and took advantage of the weather by spending the entire day outside, exploring Melbourne.

I found Melbourne to be quite different from Sydney.  The entire mindset and feeling of the place felt like comparing apples to oranges.   While Sydney is sexy, cosmopolitan and fast-moving, Melbourne felt more laid back, hippy and diverse.  Melbourne reminded me more of Chicago (where I lived for five wonderful years) while Sydney seemed more like an Australian Paris or New York with all its chic and glamour.  I adored both cities but felt more at ease in Melbourne.  It was my kind of town.

Picture below of lovely Melbourne (called in Aussie accent “Melbun”). 

Downtown Melbourne:  Melbourne’s city center is built around the Yarra River which flows into Port Philip, a large natural bay that leads out to the sea.

The Yarra River

Restaurant district:  Melbourne’s cultural diversity leads to an incredible variety of ethnic treats.  You can find any kind of food you want in Melbourne.  Plus the food like most I found in Australia, was wonderful. 

The city center:  The main part of town where businesses are located plus great shopping, restaurants, cafes and clubs.

Funky, fun and hip Fitzroy:  About as bohemian as you can get with lots of great shopping for those retro vintage finds.

The fantastic Queen Victoria Market where you can buy anything and everything as fresh and wonderfully delicious as can be.

Unfortunately I was not in my thirdeyemom mindset when I went on this trip (remember it was in 2003!  I’ve grown and matured since then…at least I hope so!) and probably missed tons of great photo opps that would illustrate the quirky, vitality and excitement of the various neighborhoods in Melbourne.  There was St. Kilda which was bohemian and filled with outrageous cake shops, Carlton which had its own Aussie-style “Little Italy“, and Melbourne’s very own Chinatown.  The far-stretching neighborhoods went on for miles and each one had its own unique and special charm.  I would love to have the opportunity to revisit Melbourne someday and rediscover all the fabulous things it has to offer.  It is a great city, in my humble opinion, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The last highlight of our stay in Melbourne was our big night out on the town.  It all began with a gourmet Italian meal nearby the theater where we started out with a $50 bottle of wine (the cheapest on the menu…thank God my dad was paying!).  The tiny restaurant only had twenty tables and was fully booked.  But per my dad who had eaten there a year before, the food was so good we chose to eat our four-course meal at the bar!  It was amazing and I was so full afterwards that I thought I’d pass out during the musical.  Yet, the loud, vibrant sounds of QUEEN singing “We will, we will ROCK YOU!” got me jumping off my chair and feeling like I was ready to pack my bags and move to Melbourne.  The musical blasted my eardrums, raised my heart beat and excited my soul for I love QUEEN and there was nothing better than hearing it in lovely, lively “Mel-bun”!  We love ya Mel-bun” they cried and sang with all their might.  What a fantastic send-off!

Stay tuned…my last post on Australia will be a day trip to the Yarra Valley wine regions for lots and lots of tasting and sipping yummy Australian wines. 

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One last dive in the Great Barrier Reef

The next morning, we woke up bright and returned to the lovely town of Port Douglas to do our last of three dives (this time we would be leaving from Port Douglas as opposed to Cairns).  I was really getting hooked on diving.  I loved the thrill, the adventure and the insanely surreal scenery below the water.  I could hardly contain my excitement!

Here is a view of the gorgeous coastline.

The pretty marina in Port Douglas where we would be meeting our dive boat.

A younger me (8 years ago!) in front of our ride, the Quicksilver.

En route, elated to be doing my third dive of the trip to 30 feet, in the Great Barrier Reef.

This time we went to the Agrinaut reef.  The boat was a bit smaller than the Osprey that we took out of Cairns for our first two dives.  It only held about 55 people which was great.  It was also a nicer boat and offered a more relaxed atmosphere compared with the fun-loving, crowded party boat in Cairns.

It took an hour and a half to get out to the reef where we would do our dive.  I stood outside, watching the beautiful coastline and enjoying the breath-taking surroundings.  About a half an hour before reaching the reef, we had a very informative instructional meeting on our dive.  I learned that the reason why my ears were hurting so bad and still plugged was due to not properly clearning my ears. I would have to be a bit more careful since we were going even deeper than before.

We arrived at the sight and my dad, me and a father and son pair were the first group to go.  Our instructor was a guy from England who was extremely funny as well as very knowledgable about the reef.  I felt safe in his hands despite the fact that I was a little nervous about the upcoming dive.

The reef was much deeper and darker than the last two I had been to.  It was also not as clear which caused some concern (i.e.  sharks!).  For some reason, I was way more anxious this time.  Perhaps it was fear or else my poor painful ears.  We descended holding onto a rope through the deep, dark water.  I had a hard time relaxing and breathing.  I was scared.  We went about 15 feet down and my ears began to feel an enormous, painful pressure.  They were driving me mad but I tried to ignore it and concentrate on breathing.

We had three safety activities to do:  Mask clear, take the regulator out of your mouth and clear, and do a regulator switch.  I successfully did the first two but for some reason I freaked out on the last one.  When I switched the regulator back, my mask filled up with water and I swallowed some ocean. I panicked and before I know it, I was up at the top gasping for air!   My instructor was of course right there by my side, telling me not to worry and trying to calm me down.  I know that what I did was a big mistake.  You are not supposed to just take off like that.  But I was afraid and I panicked.

I had to try to relax and pass the third test or I would not be able to dive.  So I held back all my fear and went back down once again to give the “regulator switch” another try.  I couldn’t believe how frightening it was to take be without oxygen 15 feet below the surface.  But it was.  I knew my dad was right there by my side so I held back my fear and knew what I had to do.  Before I knew it, it was done.  I didn’t drown.  I made it through and it felt good to overcome my fears.

We descended slowly so my ears would adjust and met up with the others who were waiting.  I was unexpectedly calmer perhaps because I was trying so hard to relax.  After five minutes of going down, we were finally on the bottom of the reef and kneeled down to have another nature lesson on giant clams and sea cucumbers.   I tried not to look up….it seemed so impossibly far and felt like being trapped inside a glass coffin.  It was frightening to me despite my enthusiasm and euphoria from seeing all the fish and corals below.

We swam over to the corals to explore their incredibly brilliant colors.  It was surrounded with life and vibrant colored fish.  I forgot about my fear and embraced in the sensational beauty of the reef.  The corals and fish at this site were by far the most brilliant and magical I’d seen.  If I close my eyes even today, I still can picture the swirling tentacles swaying back and forth of the soft corals.  They were so alive.  It was phenomenal.  I wish I had an underwater camera to capture it all but even so, there really is no way in my opinion to see it except for yourself.

After thirty minutes we surface and I couldn’t believe how pumped with energy and excitement I was.  What an incredible high!  Unfortunately my ears were very plugged and at this point, I could not really hear a thing.  I had to pass on the next dive at site two because I couldn’t risk further damaging my ears.  We were off to Melbourne the next day and the thought of flying made my ears hurt even more.

We arrived at the second site and were surprised to be greeted by a school of baby reef tip sharks swimming near the boat.  Although they were only three feet long, the thought of jumping in the water and swimming side by side the sharks made my skin crawl.  I have a deep-seated paranoia of sharks!   Eventually I did get in the water to go snorkeling and see the “Barracuda Pass”, a pinnacle of coral that was surrounded by sharp-toothed scary looking barracuda.  There were tons of different kinds of fish in all shapes and colors.   Some were so huge it was mind-boggling.

We boarded back on the boat and went to site number three where I did a “snorkeling safari” with a group of thirty others and a guide.  It was fun if you didn’t mind getting accidentally kicked by a fellow swimmer.

By the time we boarded the boat and headed back to Port Douglas, I was completely exhausted and famished.  It was my last dive of the trip for we were leaving tomorrow to Melbourne.  Yet I hope it is not my last dive ever!  I dream of someday going back and showing my children this unbelievably magical, alive underwater playground.  Let’s hope it is still around to show them. 

Stay tuned…next post is on lively, playful Melbourne. 

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Golf, Rainforests and Didgeridoos in Port Douglas, Australia

For our last two days in Cairns, we decided to rent a car and head north to check out the lovely coastal town of Port Douglas for some golf, hiking and my third dive.  The tiny fishing village of Port Douglas is the only place in the world where two completely different World Heritage Sites lie side by side:  The Great Barrier Reef and The Daintree National Park.

We woke up after finally sleeping in (something I rarely do on an active vacation) and hit the road for the scenic one drive north to Port Douglas.  The first thing on the agenda was a round of golf at the beautiful, tropical links course in town.  Being an avid golfer, my dad desperately wanted to play some golf in Australia.  I am not that good of a golfer yet agreed to partake in a few rounds of golf for fun and frustration.  Golf has always been a family affair as I come from a family of golfers and even had the pleasure of playing several times with my father and ninety-year-old grandfather.

Although I hadn’t played for a long time and was extremely bad, I still enjoyed the gorgeous views of the sensational golf course in Port Douglas.  The course was full of exotic flowers and birds singing joyfully.  We were surprised to find no one else out on the course.  After a few holes in the hot, unbearably humid weather, we understood why:  Only the crazy people like us would play in this kind of weather!

Here is the entrance to the club:

Beware!  There are live crocodiles lurking in the pond!  I wouldn’t want my ball to veer that way.  But the flowering lily pads were sure pretty. 

Since we were located right near a tropical rainforest, it was sweltering hot and humid.  I found it quite uncomfortable and definitely preferred the water activities in the area as opposed to sweaty golf.

After golf, we got on the road again and headed further north to the Daintree National Forest.

The World Heritage Daintree rain forest is one of those unique parks that has remained relatively unchanged for the past 110 million years.  Per Frommers (2004), “it is now home to rare plants that provide key links in the evolution story.  In the 56,000-hectare park you will find cycads, dinosaur trees, fan palms, giant strangler figs, and epiphytes like the basket fern, staghorn, and elkhorn”.   You can even take night-time croc-spotting tours and see the sensational park via 4WD.  Unfortunately our time was short.  We only had an hour to explore it. But it was definitely worth the trip!

Here are some pictures from the park:

Hiking through the hot, humid and wet tropical rainforest ending up being short-lived.  It was too insanely hot to walk much but I’m still smiling!

I loved all the gorgeous ferns and foliage.

It was eerily quiet inside.  All we could hear were the sounds of the forest.  Yes, it is indeed daytime in this picture!  We were surrounded by a huge canopy of tropical forest!

Unfortunately it was way too miserably hot and uncomfortable to venture far.  After thirty minutes we turned around and headed back.  Oh well at least we tried!

The next stop was the mountain town of Kuranda, a rainforest village located 21 miles (34 km) west of Cairns near the Barron Gorge National Park.  It is a touristy, trendy village town located up in the mist covered rainforest that is awash with local shops where you can buy leather goods, Australian wool, pals, crafts, aboriginal art and if you desire, the infamous didgeridoo.  We were excited for the cool, fresh mountain air that greeted us and enjoyed the afternoon in this quaint mountain village town.

Lovely Kuranda a nice break from the tropical heat.

Besides shops, the town also had an area for animal preservation where you could get up close and personal with some of Australia’s famous critters.  Here are the bats.

Beautiful tropical flowers surround you….

A cute, cuddly (wait not so close….aren’t they mean?) koala bear.

Finally, after all this time I see my first wallaby (looks like a mini Kangeroo).  But unfortunately it isn’t in the wild.  Oh well…it still was cute!

We shopped around, visiting the local leather shop and then finding this treasure:  An aboriginal art store which sold gorgeous aboriginal art and even the much loved didgeridoo, a musical instrument and a work of art.  Here is the shop owner giving us a demonstration.  It is not easy to play!  Believe me, I tried and was unsuccessful at producing the faintest sound besides a load of gurgling saliva!

This is one of the longest didgs ever made.  It’s sound was haunting. 

Of course, being an art lover, my dad could not resist.  He had to have one.  So he purchased a beautiful didgeridoo for their home in Tucson, Arizona.  It is stil there, laying against the wall and is a gorgeous work out art….yet not a single soul in our family can play it!

Here it is….our own family didgeridoo!  Too bad no one can play it…

Stay tuned….next post will describe my third and last dive in the Great Barrier Reef. Then it is off to Melbourne!

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Searching for Sharks in the Great Barrier Reef

We woke up the next day excited about our adventure once again on the Great Barrier Reef.  Throughout the night I had strange, colorful dreams of the exotic fish and spectrum of magnificent colors I saw in this underwater playground.  It was so unbelievable that I could hardly wait to get back out there.

We took the same company Quicksilver out to the reef, and arrived an hour and a half later.  The main highlight at the reef was a fish called “Wally”;  a giant, four-foot long Napoleon Maori Wrasse who you could pet like a dog.

Wally first swam up to the dive boat as if coming over to meet good friends. He was not the least bit shy. In fact, he was playful, fun-loving and seemed to truly love people!

As soon as our boat appeared, so did Wally, a giant dog-like fish who loved to be pet and fed. 

We pet him from the dive boat, then loaded on our gear and jumped in the refreshingly warm tropical waters. There, Wally awaited our arrival and followed us along our dive. He was the biggest fish I’d ever seen and it was an unbelievable experience. It was like having a dog along on a walk except this was a giant, over-sized tropical fish lovingly named Wally by the crew.

Apparently Wally is famous. I did a search on goggle and found this cute link of a local Aussie girl who frequently visits Wally the fish. Here is the link that I could on the Cairns, Australia online journal (article written in 2008).

After we jumped into the water, next on the agenda after ogling over Wally was to do a few safety tests such as the awful mask clear and even worse, the regulator clear (this one freaked me out because you had to take your mouth away from the oxygen supply).  Then we descended slowly, going down down down and having my ears pop and clog like crazy.  I couldn’t believe the terrible pressure on my ears.  It drove me mad yet the sight of our gigantic, loveable Wally the fish made me forget about my discomforts and embrace in the moment.

I had never swam with a large fish before.  I must say that it was the wildest experience I’ve ever had.  I felt like Wally the fish was my pet dog, following us around, playing, hanging out and having fun.  It was so strange.  He was so unbelievable.  I wonder if he is still alive today, greeting the multitude of divers and snorkelers like he did eight years before.  I hope so.

Taken once inside the water. Up close and personal with Wally the fish!  Just look at those enormous lips!  Doesn’t he look like he’s hiding a smile?

He is gigantic and so adorable.  It is too bad I only had a cheap Kodak underwater disposable camera.  Imagine what the colors would be like if I had a real underwater camera!  Wally was beautiful with shades of pastel blue and pinks. 

Wally looking for some love and attention.

We swam for a while, going deeper into the waters, marveling at the insane display of colors which unfortunately there was no way to capture given my cheap camera.  Close your eyes and image corals as far as the eye can see in brilliant hues of reds, pinks, purples, yellows, oranges, golds, blues, reds and greens.  The vibrant colors blew me away.  So sad I could not have captured them on film!

I tried to adjust to life underwater.  I found it difficult and somewhat scary to breathe out of a regulator.  I had to really take deep, full breathes to get enough air.  If you panic, it is very bad and can be extremely dangerous.   So I tried my best to just relax and not freak out the further we went below the surface.  Fortunately you are not allowed to go much deeper than 20 feet without being certified.  But 20 feet felt frightening to me.  Like being trapped below a glass box.  I constantly looked upwards to make sure it was still there.  I had a hard time relaxing but once I was able to relax and let go of my fears, I found the experience to be sensational.

When we reached the lowest point we would go, twenty feet below the surface, our guide instructed us to kneel down on the sand for our “nature” presentation. He showed us a giant clam and we all got to hold a sea cucumber. It was fantastic!

I surfaced up and snapped this shot of our dive boat off in the distance.  We would swim to the boat and then move to another site for dive number 2. 

We did another dive, this time I was less fearful except for the thought of seeing a random shark in the reef.  I knew it was highly unlikely but the thought of seeing an enormous, hungry JAWS was lurking around my brain.

We swam with hundreds and hundreds of brilliantly colored fish, found an electric colored eel hiding in the corals and tried our best to take in all the wonders of this colorful underground world.  It is certainly a fascinating place.  I sure hope that Global Warming does not take it all away from future generations to see.  It would be a tragedy.

After a quick lunch, another amazing opportunity was presented to the guests.  The opportunity to see the reef from above.  Of course it was expensive but as my favorite motto goes When in Rome, we decided that we had to do it.  We had to take a ride in a helicopter above the reef.

We took a small boat over to the heli pad awaiting us not far from the dive boat. 

Me feeling out of my mind excited to board the helicopter for a ride of a lifetime.

We climbed on board and were off on our ten minute adventure flying over Australia’s world-famous Great Barrier Reef.  The views from the flight were out of sight.  I could not believe how enormous the reef is.  It stretches for over 1000 miles long and is the only living organism that can be seen from space.  It was ungodly beautiful from the air.  Almost (and I saw almost since under the waters it is so incredibly spectacular that nothing can top it) as beautiful above as it is below its waters.

From above, we could see sea turtles and all kinds of gorgeous corals lumped together in various shades of blues.  It was absolutely spectacular!  It also was quite thrilling to fly at such speed and angles.  At one point our pilot informed us that we were in search of the elusive sharks who swim across the borders of the reefs.  We flew in search of sharks hoping to catch one that we could trail.  Unfortunately none were to be found.

Below are some of the magnificent views of the Great Barrier Reef from the air.  Breath-taking, isn’t it? 

After a fabulous adventurous day, we were elated and celebrated with a bottle of ice-cold Australian Sav Blanc on the boat ride back. I sadly said goodbye to the amazing Great Barrier Reef, wondering what its future would be and hoping that it would not all disappear with the unstoppable global climate change our Earth is enduring. For wouldn’t it be an unbelievable tragedy if the reef was no longer there to inspire, amaze and mesmerize the world.  I hope it will still be alive and thriving for future generations.

To read more about the documented disappearing of the Great Barrier Reef:

“Ocean acidification, global warming, and the Great Barrier Reef”

“Great Barrier Reef to be decimated by 2050”

“Global Warming Threat to Great Barrier Reef ”

“Global Warming. What you need to know: The Great Barrier Reef”

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Taking a Dive in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

I had always dreamed of going to the world-famous Great Barrier Reef.  It is one of those talked about, revered places that a true traveler must visit and explore.  Thanks to our vacation package with Qantas, a three-day stop over in Cairns was on the agenda.  We could have gone to see another natural wonder, Ayer’s Rock in the Outback, but in my opinion a rock could not hold a candle to the Great Barrier Reef, a hidden underwater fantasy land that is like no place on Earth.

Per Frommers Australia Guidebook (ed. 2004), Exploring the Great Barrier Reef:

It’s the only living structure on Earth visible from the moon; at 348,700 sq. km (135,993 sq. miles), it’s bigger than the United Kingdom; it’s over 2,000 km (1,240 miles) long and is home to 1,500 kinds of fish, 400 species of corals, 4,000 kinds of clams and snails, and much more.  The Great Barrier Reef is listed as a World Heritage Site and is the biggest marine park in the world.

The more I read and learned about this incredible place, the more I had to go and see it for myself.  I’ve been snorkeling many times before in the tropical waters of the Caribbean, yet I knew it was nothing in comparison with the mighty, amazing Great Barrier Reef.  Plus, I was also quite interested in checking out the tropical rainforests near Port Douglas.

We took a final send off morning run near the harbor in beautiful Sydney and then went to the airport to catch our two and a half hour flight north to hot, humid, tropical Cairns.  We lucked out by scoring another emergency row exit seat where I took this picture of the landscape out the window.

As we made the approach for our landing, I caught site of the Great Barrier Reef out my window and could not believe my eyes.  The azure blue colors of the waters were mesmerizing and I couldn’t wait to actually see it for myself.

We landed in Cairns near the end of the day, just in time to reserve our trip to the Great Barrier Reef the following day and have a nice dinner on the boardwalk.  It was sizzling hot and the sun was shining brightly, something that we had been lacking in Sydney.   I didn’t find Cairns (pronounced Cannes) to be anything exciting since it is mostly a touristy beach town.  Yet Cairns did have a certain kind of laid-back Aussie charm which was nice after all the hustle and bustle in Sydney.   The locals were extremely nice, friendly people who really made us feel welcome and at home.

Lovely, tropical Cairns (photo taken in the direction of the harbor).  The launching off point for ventures into the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking down the other direction.

After checking into our hotel and instantly changing into shorts and t-shirts, we headed on a short 15-minute walk to town.  The hot, sticky air felt like paradise after being in chilly, rainy Sydney.  It was wonderful to be so wet and sweaty!

We walked straight over to the marina to the nearest reef tour booking office to reserve our trip to the reef the next day.  It was overwhelming to choose what tour, company and boat to use since there were over 600 boats offering tours on the reef.  It made me dizzy just thinking about it.  But luckily we had excellent advice and ended up selecting a great company.

After a fabulous outdoor dinner at an Italian restaurant right on the water, we returned back to the hotel to get some sleep before the big day ahead.

The next morning we met our tour company at the marina at 8:30 am sharp for our departure out to the Great Barrier Reef.  Our boat was called the “Osprey” and it was a 100-foot catamaran that held up to 100 people with crew.  The Osprey was written up in Frommers  as a great first experience on the reef with a lively, fun crew, and it certainly was.

Setting off from the marina towards the Great Barrier Reef…..

The night before, when we signed up for our tour of the Great Barrier Reef, I made my decision that I was going to try diving.  I just had to do it.  You only live once, right? (unless you are a cat and are lucky enough to have nine lives).

Yet as we cruised away from the marina towards the Great Barrier Reef, I began to have doubts and concerns.  Would there be sharks?  Would it be scary?  What if I had an accident?  I am traditionally a huge worry wart!  But when I looked at the beauty of my surroundings, I decided that I couldn’t possibly chicken out.  I was seduced by the promised beauty shown in the fancy, glossy brochures at the booking office.  How could I possibly not check it out, after I’ve traveled so far to finally see it.

On board of course my dad and I being huge extroverts, met lots of friends.  Here is an Irish couple on a year long around the world tour.  I couldn’t have been more jealous. 

My father is actually a certified diver.  He got his certification years ago and afterwards never did it again.  Yet he wasn’t going to let his daughter go on her first introductory dive all by herself.  So he decided to join me.

After an hour and a half, we arrived at our destination:  The Norman and the Hastings Reefs.  The scenery was spectacular and I could not believe how pure and surreal the water looked.  It was magical and I felt like a mermaid waiting to rejoin her kingdom.

We began by jumping in and doing a half and hour snorkel around the reef to get a taste of the hidden treasures that buried inside.  I was a little timid and afraid to jump in.  I have this crazy fear of sharks and big, toothy fish.  So I let the other guinea pigs jump in first.  When I hear their elated cries of excitement and joy, I dove on in and…..WOW!!!!!

The reef was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life.  There were fish in all colors (electric blues, pinks, oranges, yellows, reds and pinks), shapes and sizes, brilliant, surreal and amazing, swimming in huge masses along my side.  The corals were the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.  An array of rainbow colors so brilliant and fluorescent that it hurt my eyes.  I had never expected to see so much magical, surreal beauty.  It literally took my breath away.  So I had to surface for some air and a photo opp:

There was only one other large diving boat nearby.  Otherwise we had the entire place to ourselves to explore.

The new divers were then briefed on an introductory course on the basis of diving.  We would be going in groups of four with one instructor.  I was with two guys from Austria, my dad and one guide/instructor from Australia (who by the way had the sexiest accent ever).  It was going to be me and the guys!  I was excited and nervous all the same. 

The group before us getting ready to launch off into the waters.

I got into my wetsuit (the water was very warm, around 85 degrees but colder deeper) and got fitted with my weight belt and dive gear.  I couldn’t believe how heavy the oxygen tank was.  I could not move with it on and needed help so I wouldn’t tip over.  Once the four of us were ready, we were gently pushed off into the water and WOW!  Completely, utterly f-ing unbelievable!  I felt like I was on another planet!

I only wished I had invested in an expensive underwater camera to take pictures of this magical world beneath the blue waters.  The colors, the fish and the corals that I saw were so spectacular and mind-boggling that it blew me away.  I was only under water for twenty minutes or so until it was time to come up.  But I decided right there and then, that I was addicted and had to come back the next day for another dive.  I could hardly wait!

Stay tuned….next post will be seeing the Great Barrier Reef both above and below its magical waters!

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Birthday in the Blue Mountains

On Saturday, December 6th it was our third day in Sydney and my 32nd Birthday. It felt a little strange given the time change as it really wasn’t my birthday at home in the States. It was only December 5th. But in the land Down Under, today was the day so why not celebrate? (I was still at the age where I enjoyed my birthday and still felt relatively young…ha).

It was a free day ahead and I got to pick what to do. Of course I wanted to do something outdoors, athletic and meaningful. Thus we decided to take a train to the Blue Mountains, a place known for its spectacular scenery and fabulous hikes. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my birthday than bushwalking (as the Aussies say). Hiking is one of my favorite sports.

The Blue Mountains are roughly 3,000 feet high and are considered a cool area rainforest.  I had read that it is not only a mecca for Sydneysiders who love to do day trips to escape the heat and crowds, but it is also one of Australia’s best known playgrounds with tons of opportunities for adventures sports.  The guide book recommended a couple of days.  We only had an afternoon, so we decided to make the best of it.

We took the two-hour ride to the mountain town of Katoomba hoping that the unusual cloudy and cool weather would pass.  We wanted to experience that fantastic perfect summer weather that Sydney is known for.  All I had were shorts since I had expected it to be summery weather.  Little did I know, it was going to be freezing as soon as we stepped off the train in the Blue Mountains.  It was even colder there than the mere 60 degree weather in Sydney.  Brutal.

We arrived at our stop at the town of Katoomba, freezing cold and hungry.  It was perfect grazing weather so we decided to test out a couple of the delightful bakeries lining the street.  After loading up on pastries and treats, we headed for the trails to do our bushwalk and work it off.

We tramped around the rainforest for awhile, marveling at all the beauty and sights.  It was the perfect way to spend my birthday:  Doing something I love and being with my dad.

After fully exhausting ourselves and using up all our sugary-induced energy, we headed back to Sydney for one last hurrah at the fabulous restaurant looking right out at the Opera House.  We indulged in a huge, gourmet pig out with two bottles of wine and cake.  It felt great to be 32.  I was looking forward to the rest of the trip.

Here are some photos from the day:

The Blue Mountains were absolutely stunning even in the cloudy, cool weather.  The hiking trails are awash with ferns and gorgeous trees.  You pass many waterfalls and scenic viewpoints such as the one below. 

Birthday girl in the Blue Mountains….if only I could be 32 again! 

Bushwalking in the Blue Mountains with my dad:

Deeper into the rainforest it was as dark as night.  There were also many waterfalls along the way plus loads of my beloved ferns. 

A dinner to remember right next to the Opera House and a show at the Opera

Stay tuned…next post I’m off to the Great Barrier Reef for my first dive!

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An unexpected trip to the land Down Under

My trip to Patagonia back in November 2003 had been a eye-opening, soul-searching adventure of a lifetime.  I had been in perhaps the most stressful, worst job ever so getting away from the hell I was in at the time, to such a magical place, felt like a boulder had been lifted off my chest.  I could breathe again.  I could relax.  I could enjoy life.  I could be me.

But then as they always say in life, all good things must come to an end.  I had to go home and back to that god awful job that caused me so much pain and distress.  I was trapped in an incredibly unhappy, miserable situation in which I drove home from work each day in tears.  Yet there was no way that I could quit, or so I believed.  I didn’t want that unfortunate mark on my resume nor on the career ladder I was trying to climb.   I felt trapped.  Chained.  Stuck.  And miserable.

How could I go back to that hell?  Too much had changed during that week in Patagonia.  I realized that it simply wasn’t worth it.  You’ve got one shot at life, so why not give it your best?  Nothing, and I mean nothing is more important than happiness.  I needed to leave that awful, unkind, brutal place and be somewhere completely different where I was treated with kindness, respect and where I felt free.  I needed a new beginning and oddly enough, I believe it was fate.  I got just that opportunity.

Less than 24 hours after I was home, the mysterious acts of fate rang at my door.  On my first day back to work, by noon I was laid off.  Just like that, my life had changed.  I could not believe my good fortune (for in my eyes being laid off was easier to explain to a future employer than quitting).  I felt like it was a sign from above, a voice inside my heart and soul telling me that I was free.  It truly was an act of fate.

Looking back now, almost eight years later I realize that it was one of the best things that could have happened to me at the time.  For sometimes in life, it takes hardship, struggle and unhappiness to truly realize what is the most important to you.  Thus this period of my life greatly encouraged me to examine my life more deeply and figure out after ten years out of college, what I truly wanted out of my life.  It was not climbing the corporate ladder, making a lot of money or having a fancy title.  It was life itself which meant enjoying it and having a family.

Two weeks after I got laid off from my job, my dad and decided to take a trip.  Instead of looking at the negative aspect of being laid off (i.e. not having any money, needing to find a new job, etc) I looked at the positive.  I was free!  For a travel addict who never ceases to stop wanting to wonder the world, being unemployed offered me an opportunity to take another trip.  Thus in early December, a month after returning from Patagonia I found myself on board a Qantas airplane en route to Australia, the land Down Under.

We were fortunate to find an excellent deal with Qantas airlines.  For $2,200 we received an international flight to/from Australia, plus three internal flights and hotels in three cities.  We would have a two-week trip with four days in Sydney, Melbourne and Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef.  I couldn’t wait!

We left for Sydney on December 2nd.  I flew from Minneapolis to LA and arrived around 4:30 PM, early for our 10:30 PM flight.  This ended up being a fortunate thing as I was able to score the emergency exit row all the way to Sydney.  That meant 14 hours of extra leg room!

The flight was uneventful and I managed to sleep six hours thanks to the extra leg room.  Before I knew it, the crew was serving breakfast and we were almost there!  I was so excited.  I’ve always wanted to go to Australia.  I went to New Zealand the previous year and had fallen in love with it promising to someday venture a little further west to make it to Australia.  And here I was!

We landed around 9 am in Sydney, feeling extremely disoriented after the 19 hours of flying (the most I’d ever done at that point) yet thrilled to finally be getting off the plane.  The next three days proved to be exactly how I’d imagined:  Wonderful!

We spent the next few days checking out beautiful Sydney, a fabulous, hip, urban city that is so insanely lovely I thought I could easily live there.  We went to both Bondi and Manly Beach, saw a ballet at the Sydney Opera, took a train to the Blue Mountains, walked and shopped til we dropped, and ate splendidly.  Sydney was definitely how our guide book described it:  Sophisticated.  Sexy.  Laid Back and cosmopolitan.  Plus the people were so beautiful yet not artificial or rude.  The city was full of eye candy, that is for sure.

We spent three fabulous days in Sydney before it was time to hit the Great Barrier Reef.  I instantly fell in love with the city and can’t wait to someday go back.

Here are some pictures of my time in Sydney:

Leaving on Qantas dec. 2-16 2003….landing in Sydney on the big boy

Lovely flowers in The Royal Botanical Gardens…so refreshing for me in the dead of winter!

Hyde Park

Views of downtown Sydney

Bats swarm the trees in the downtown Botanical Gardens…eerie!

A nice walking path along the harbour…oh I could so live here! 

Views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge

The Harbour Bridge…no, I did not climb it (you can, if you are nuts!)

They say that the best way to see the city is by water so that is exactly what we did. We hopped a ferry and went to spend the afternoon in Manly, a beachside neighborhood. The views from the ferry were spectacular and breath-taking. Sydney is definitely a city that utilizes its waterfront. There are restaurants and bars all along the harbor. What a city!

Catching a ferry to Manly

The Beautiful Sydney Harbour

Sydney’s famous landmark, the Opera house, up close.

The Sydney skyline

We arrived in Manly in the early afternoon and were fascinated by the beach culture of Australia. Everyone from small children to seniors, were decked out in their speedos. Of course, everyone is as fit as can be. More eye candy awaited.


Manly Beach</em>: I could stay here all day!

Unfortunately our picture perfect weather began to disappear and the clouds moved in. We had to head back to Sydney as it wasn’t a good day for the beach.

The Storm Moving in

After an absolutely delightful dinner looking out the restaurant windows at the famous white sails of Sydney’s Opera House, it was time to go to sleep. We were exhausted but looking forward to our next day.

Day 2 in Sydney ended up being a rainy start. We already had plans to play golf at the Long Reef Golf course outside of Sydney. We took an hour long cab there, began to play and were soaked to the bone in heavy rain. It wasn’t fun but we had to at least play the first nine holes since we couldn’t get our money back at that point.

A rainy day for golf

Thankfully the weather cleared up by early afternoon, so we were able to make a trip over to the world famous Bondi Beach. I had heard that it was a “must see”.

Trip to bondi beach

An open water swim race at the beach.

The clouds were still heavy which was too bad because I really wanted to seat myself at one of the many hip outdoor bars and drink a bottle of wine. Oh well. It just wasn’t in the cards. The weather unfortunately was not cooperating. So when all else fails, what do we do? Eat and drink!

We had another gourmet meal in Sydney and drank our small worries about the weather away. We hoped tomorrow would be better since it was my birthday and we were planning to take the train to the Blue Mountains for a hike in the rainforest. I crossed my fingers when I went to sleep.

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