Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

2017 Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands – Part 1

March 14, 2017 6:22 pm

It is Sunday morning, February 5th, 2017, and we have left our Peruvian Guide and traveled with our 11 other adventurer travelers from Cusco to Lima then on to Quito, Ecuador. Here, we are met by our new Country Guide, Louis. Louis is a certified Galapagos naturalist who was born and raised on the Galapagos Island of San Cristobal, where his family still owns and operates a farm. Louis is married with a daughter, and lives on the mainland in Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil. After collecting up our group, we head downtown to our hotel, The Mercure Alameda. From here, we have a few hours to explore the area, so a group of us walk down to Ejido Park where weekends are bustling with artists, food vendors and handicraft markets. Quito is Ecuador’s capital city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits in a long, narrow valley, 30 miles long by 3 miles wide, between a number of active volcanos. After a “Welcome Dinner” in the hotel, we rush off to watch The Super Bowl and Lady Gaga’s spectacular halftime show – broadcast in English and in Spanish!

Apartment buildings in Quito

The next day, after breakfast, we go to a special school to watch, and participate, in a presentation by the Sinamune Disabled Children’s Orchestra. This Orchestra was founded by Maestro Edgar Palacios, a famed musician who gave up his personal career to lead this group. Since 2005, Grand Circle Tours had partnered with them to help support the group. They demonstrated tremendous musical ability in playing instruments, singing and dancing, and in their interaction with the audience. After the concert, we went to Quito’s historic section and saw La Basilica and toured the Plaza de La Independenzia. Here, under a winged-statue of Freedom, all sorts of activities were underway, including a march supporting a woman candidate in the soon-to-be Country’s elections. We entered the Presidential Palace and took pictures with the stoic Palace Guards, before walking further to San Francisco Square. Here we ate lunch at Hotel Casa Gangotena, a beautiful colonial residence turned boutique establishment. After lunch, we strolled and shopped on the narrow lane of La Ronda, before finally returning to the hotel and having dinner.

Sinamune Disabled Children”s Orchestra

 

Politics in Plaza de La Independenzia

On Tuesday morning, we collected up just what we need for the next 5 days and traveled to the airport for the trip to the Galapagos Islands, located over 600 miles offshore Ecuador. Our flight was delayed, so we enjoyed lunch at the airport, and instead of flying via Guayaquil, we would fly directly to Baltra, Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands were undiscovered until 1535 when Spaniard Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants. De Berlanga’s vessel drifted off course, and his party reached the islands on 10 March. Until the early 19th century, the islands were used by English pirates who robbed Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain. Throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s, the islands were a way-station for fleets of whaling vessels. They used the great Galapagos Tortoises as their main source on meat, since they would survive on-board for up to a year without food or water. This led to the extinction of some of the species, and near extinction of almost all the tortoises, until the widespread use of petroleum oil made whaling in these remote waters too expensive. Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands in 1832, and in 1835, the voyage of the Beagle brought the survey ship HMS Beagle, to the Galapagos with young naturalist, Charles Darwin, aboard. In the early 1900’s Ecuador tried repeatedly to sell the islands, but with their limited resources and remote access, there were no takers. In the 1920s and 1930s, a small wave of European settlers arrived in the islands, principally from Scandinavia, and settled in Floreana, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, creating the core of the settlements that remain today. In the 1940’s, the USA paid a lease for a military base on the island of Baltra to aid in protecting the Panama Canal. In 1959, The Galápagos Islands became a national park, and tourism began in the 1960s.

Galapagos Map Part 1

Upon landing at Baltra, one is struck by the landscape of nothing but volcanic rock with few scrubs and bushes. The airport is built upon the old USA military landing strip, and the base housing has long since been scavenged to their slabs. There is nothing actually on the island, so we immediate bus to the local ferry dock to transfer to the more populated island of Santa Cruz. Here we board a bus, and travel across the island to our ship waiting in Porto Ayora on the southern coast. Along the way, we travel through the area of Bellavista and Tunels de Lava where we stop to see Galapagos tortoises in a park in the wild, and walk 200 yards through an underground lava tunnel. The number of tortoises in this area were significant, since the adults travel up to these highlands during this season for food, the cool air, and mating. We saw a pair mating, and watched as another male chased-down a shy female before achieving success. Here, the males grow to 750 lbs. and the females to upwards of 400 lbs., with the females laying 10-15 eggs that hatch in about 4 months. When we arrive in Porto Ayora, we are greeted by sea lions lying about the dock. We boarded our ship’s 2 pangas, (inflatable zodiacs), and board our home for the next 5 days, a cabin cruiser with 9 cabins that can tour up to 16 passengers, named “Carina”. On board Carina, we occupy cabin #7, and have time to unpack before taking dinner in the dining room. The rooms are all air conditioned, and the boat is manned by a crew of 9. We pull anchor and get underway as soon as everyone is on board, as we will travel all night to our next destination, near Puerto Villamil, at the southern end of Isabela Island.

Giant Tortoises Mating on Santa Cruz Island

Julie & guide Louis in the lava cave

Carina – our Galapagos ship

Because the heat of the day drives the land animals to rest at those times, we wake-up early and take a 6am pre-breakfast excursion via the pangas through the wetlands surrounding us. Along the way, we spot a Galapagos penguin, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and bright-red sally-light-foot crabs. We make a dry-landing ashore where a nature trail through the rough volcanic rocks is maintained, and take a walk past nesting iguanas and resting sea lions. Along the way, we pass two large green sea turtles caught in the low-tide estuary waiting for high-tide to escape, and a colony of 100’s of marine iguanas all moving begrudgedly from our path. We return on-board for breakfast, and then leave again at 10am for our first snorkeling trip in a large estuary surrounded by mangroves. We are greeted at the snorkeling dock by the ever-present sea lions snoozing on the benches and steps. After making our way past them, we enter the underwater world of the Galapagos, and although the water is not Caribbean-clear in this estuary, it is warm – ~80 degrees Fahrenheit, and we still see lots of tropical reef fish, eagle stingrays, green sea turtles, white-tipped sharks and playful sea lions swimming among us.

Swimming with a 200 hundred pound green turtle

Swimming with a Spotted Eagle Ray

After an hour and a half of snorkeling, we head back to the boat for lunch and a brief rest, before leaving again in the afternoon to go back to the docks, but this time to catch a bus to go to the Charles Darwin Research Center Breeding Station, where we get to see Galapagos tortoises from each island, in captivity, including eggs and even a baby tortoise only one month old.

The red mature Sally Lightfoot Crab

Female Galapagos Marine Ignuana

Baby Tortoise at the Darwin Breeding Station

Next to the Center, is a nature walk through some of the island’s wetlands, among hundreds of Darwin finches, and past Flamingo Lake where pink flamingos sift for brine shrimp in the brackish waters. Finally, we emerge at the beach at the town of Puerto Villamil, where we take a casual stroll down the white sandy beach before stopping at a local beach-bar for a rum coconut, and finally boarding our panga for the ride back to the boat. Dinner is buffet style with an excellent assortment of vegetables, meats and fish, all expertly cooked by our onboard chef. As we finish dinner, the Carina hauls up anchor to begin our next overnight travel to tomorrow’s destination.

Pink Flamingo on Isabela Island

Peru & Machu Picchu – Part 2

5:52 pm

Today we would go to Machu Picchu! The morning was Wednesday, February 1st, 2017, and after checking out of the hotel and taking only what we really needed, we again took the bus to Ollantaytambo. We left earlier than we had planned because of reports of protesters from Cusco who would be trying to shut down the highways! After weaving the bus through various boulders and tree stumps in the road, we made it to Ollantaytambo, where we caught the train for a 90-minute ride down the Willkanuta River in the Sacred Valley, through tall trees, rocky outcrops with hanging orchids and bromeliads to the village of Aguas Calientes. All along the way there is evidence of the Incas reforming the landscape with terraces, villages and ruins. This Village is the closest access point to Machu Picchu, which is still ~3.7 miles away, and can only be accessed via Park bus and by foot. The town is named for some warm natural springs located there, but we did not visit these. Upon arriving, we checked into the El Mapi Hotel, located in the center of town, near the town square. Since we ate a box lunch aboard the train, we immediately caught the Park Bus for the “switch-back” ride up the side of the mountain to the Park’s Entrance, and then climbed another 500’ up to the “overlook” to survey the sight of Machu Picchu. Cesar took us on a 3-hour walking investigation of the ancient city, its history, rediscovery and significance. After the tour, we returned to the hotel to enjoy a free drink and Happy Hour, before assembling for a short walk across the street to the Inca Wasi Restaurant and Pizzeria.

Machu Picchu from the Caretakers Hut.

Machu Picchu from the Caretakers Hut.

 

Machu Picchu with the Huayna Picchu Mountain.

Machu Picchu with the Huayna Picchu Mountain.

Thursday morning, after breakfast, Julie and I chose to go back up to Machu Picchu to hike up to the Sun Gate, “Inti Punku”. We were joined by a local OAT guide, Yessica, and one other traveler, Nancy. After getting to the “Caretaker’s Hut” past the “overlook” we began the ascent to the Sun Gate. From there, the trail followed the originally-placed stones of the Inca Trail. The Sun Gate trail follows a path which is is modest in angle, and offers spectacular views of the valley, surrounding mountains, and Machu Picchu all along the way. We passed dozens of types of orchids, and stopped regularly to take pictures of them and the view. As we approached the Sun Gate, the trail became a little steeper. Reportedly, Incan Imperial guards used the Sun Gate to control entrance to Machu Picchu, and for this reason it was believed that Machu Picchu only welcomed selected visitors of the imperial elite. We made it to the Gate in a little over 90 minutes, spent a half-hour there, and then descended to Machu Picchu before returning to the hotel and meeting the rest of our group for lunch. After lunch, we caught the train for the 2-hour ride back to Ollantaytambo, where we re-boarded our bus, picked-up the rest of our luggage, and made the trip back to Cusco, and re-checked back in to the Jose Antonio hotel where we all gathered for dinner.

The start of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate

The start of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate

 

Julie & Nancy hiking to the Sun Gate

Julie & Nancy hiking to the Sun Gate

 

The switchback road leading from Aquas Calientes

The switchback road leading from Aquas Calientes

 

At the Sun Gate

At the Sun Gate

 

Yessica, Julie, Rocky and Nancy at the sun Gate with Machu Picchu below

Yessica, Julie, Rocky and Nancy at the sun Gate with Machu Picchu below

On Friday, after breakfast, we took a walking tour to the main square, Plaza de Armes, which was beautifully landscaped, surrounded by shops and restaurants, and full of people. From here, we toured the Cathedral and then walked to the historic Plaza Regocijo, surrounded by its churches, government buildings and shops.

Plaza Regocijo in Cusco

Plaza Regocijo in Cusco

We were then on our own, and so a group of us made our way to Cicciolina’s for lunch. Afterwards, Julie and I went on to explore and shop at the local Artisan’s Market, before returning to the hotel and going out with friends for a relaxed Italian meal.
Saturday, we traveled to a steep hill that overlooks the city which contains a series of fortified archeological sites. The first site, Sacsayhuaman, dates to the 13th century, and is a series of huge stone mounds that once housed great towers.

One of the mounds at Sacsayhuaman

One of the mounds at Sacsayhuaman

Many of the stones have long-since been taken and used in construction within the town, but the larger carved and fit stones remain. Here we were treated to a local scouting group or children sponsored by the town’s Fire Department, hiking and singing as they made their way. We also were reluctant witnesses to Llama’s mating, the first in a long string of animal mating observations along our trip. Love must have been in the air! After visiting Sacsayhuaman, we traveled a very short distance to Qenqo, a labyrinth of tunnels and altars carved in the stone whose historic use is still unclear. From there, we went to an Alpaca shop that offer all types of Alpaca clothing and linens of a range of quality and prices. For lunch, we decided to check out a restaurant located near the Main Square named “Baco”, on recommendation of a friend. Unfortunately, it was closed until 3pm, and so we ate at a restaurant on the Square called “The Inca Grill”, where a very nice meal before spending the afternoon shopping and packing. That night was our “Farewell Dinner” for Peru, but since we were all traveling to Ecuador, it was really a farewell to our Guide, Cesar!

Cesar describing the stones at Qenqo

Cesar describing the stones at Qenqo

On Sunday morning, we all went to the airport and caught a flight from Cusco to Lima and then to the city of Quito in Ecuador, from which we would enjoy the second leg of our adventure.

Peru & Machu Picchu – Part 1

5:51 pm

One of our long-held dreams was to visit both Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands, and, after almost a year of research and planning, we finally chose Overseas Adventure Travel for our trip. We started our trip on Saturday by driving a short distance south to Miami’s Airport and flying the 5-hour trip to Lima, the capital of Peru. There we were met by our first OAT Representative, Cesar, who collected us up for the short bus trip to our hotel, The Jose Antonio.

The Pacific Coast - Lima

The Pacific Coast – Lima

In the morning, Julie and I walked the 4 blocks to the Pacific Coast to get a coffee at Starbucks, and to enjoy the great vistas and views afforded us on the bluffs overlooking their Pacific Coast highway and the morning surfing crowd. After breakfast, back at the hotel, we gathered our group of 13, (5 couples and 3 singles), with Cesar for introductions and questions and answers, and then began our facilitated adventure with a short bus ride to the historic center of town where we learned of much of the history of the country of Peru. For lunch, we were back to a restaurant on the coast where we were treated to the “national” alcoholic drink, a Pisco Sour, a buffet of local foods, and cultural dancing by professional dancers.

Traditional Dancing

Traditional Dancing

After lunch, we were off to an Inca Archeological Museum that captured artifacts and recovered tombs from the Inca civilization. Since it was Sunday afternoon, we visited Saint Martin’s Square, and then the main square in the center of town, which was fronted by The Presidential Palace, and The Bishop’s Palace, and was full of people visiting churches, listening to music and enjoying the beautiful weather.

Bishop's Palace in the main square of Lima

Bishop’s Palace in the main square of Lima

We walked to tour the active Saint Francis Monastery and Convent, including the catacombs, before returning to the hotel. The Church and Monastery were consecrated in 1673 and completed in 1774, built in the Spanish Baroque style, and is listed as a World Heritage Site as part of historic Lima. Although Cusco was the historic capital of the Incan Empire, Francisco Pizarro founded Lima as the new capital in 1535 after conquering the Incans, and a Spanish Colonial city was created. That night was our “Welcome Dinner” where we all got to know each other better before our travels inland tomorrow.
Monday morning, we arose early and caught a Lantum Airline flight from Lima to the historic Inca capital city of Cusco. Cusco sits at 11,150’ altitude, and one could definitely tell that the air was thinner from the sea level we had just left. At the Cusco airport, we boarded a touring bus and started the trip to the city of Urubamba, within the Sacred Valley. Along the way, we traveled through the town of Chinchero, our trip’s highest point, where we stopped for a “healing ceremony” with a local medicine man. He assembled a variety of items to represent all aspects of “life” and then burned them, blessed each of us, giving “thanks” to the great mountains surrounding us, and then would bury the ash remains.

Andean medicine man performing healing

Andean medicine man performing healing

Following this, we participated in a traditional weaving demonstration starting with Alpaca wool, involving brushing, spinning, coloring and weaving of the wool to make beautiful clothes.

Local village weavers

Local village weavers

From there, we continued down into the Sacred Valley, but with a short stop to meet a local roadside farmer with a very old steer-pulled plow. The Sacred Valley was lush with fruit trees and crops that provide food for much of Peru and for its export. All along the way, the hillsides were terraced by ancient Incas, and we passed many remnant historic grain store-houses strategically placed high on the slopes. In Urubamba, (down in the valley at elevation 9,420’), we entered the enclosed Hotel Villa Urubamba, a set of cabins scattered across a beautiful, lush set of gardens with hundreds of types of blooming flowers, stone walkways and flowing water. That night we ate at the hotel, completely filling their small but very nice dining room.

Tuesday, after breakfast at the hotel, we took a day to visit and sightsee the local town. First, we visited a modest home of a local single mother with 3 daughters, who would be making us lunch that day. She demonstrated the killing and preparation of a guinea pig, a traditional, celebratory dish in Peru. In their country, guinea pigs are raised for meat, much like chicken are in most places. When one of our travel companions asked “Why would you eat our pets?” the Peruvians responded with “Why would you pet our food?”! She killed it quickly, removed the fur after a quick dip in boiling water, gutted and cleaned it, and then rubbed it with spices and oils, before stuffing it with herbs, and putting it into the oven to cook.

Emma, Our Urubamba Home Host making Guinea Pig

Emma, Our Urubamba Home Host making Guinea Pig

Meanwhile, we left to take the bus a short way down the valley to the town of Ollantaytambo, the entry way to Machu Picchu, since there are no roads that travel to the lost Incan City. The town includes an Inca archaeological site at an altitude of 9,160’ which we ascended. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Incan Emperor, who built the town and a ceremonial center. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru it served as a stronghold for the Inca resistance, and, today, it is one of the most common starting points for hiking the Inca Trail, or catching the train there.

Incan Ruins at Ollantaytambo

Incan Ruins at Ollantaytambo

On the way there, we went to a local bar where we played a game tossing “coins” at a small table with slots and holes that carried value, and we tasted the local “hooch”, a corn-beer called “chichi”, historically drunken by the locals. From here, we left for the local market to purchase side-dish items for lunch. Cesar provided each person with a piece of paper on which was written the Spanish name of a local ingredient, (e.g. chocio = corn), and we were each sent off with a 2 Soles limit (~$0.60 USD) to find, negotiate and purchase the ingredient. The local market vendors were very helpful, and everyone completed the challenge within 10-15 minutes. Then we conversed with a local supplier of coco leaves, the local “drug” of choice to deal with altitude and sicknesses of all kinds!

The local market in Urabamba

The local market in Urabamba

From the market, we all got into tuk-tuks, (a small 3-wheel taxi), for a short ride to a local Chapel of the Lord of Torrechayoc, where a huge cross was once left and the church was subsequently built on-top-of it. Like most churches in this country, everything is only covered in gold-leaf, as most of the solid gold was taken by the Spaniards. Finally, we returned to our host’s house for lunch, helped prepare homemade tortillas, and celebrated with her and her 3 daughters a wonderful meal or guinea pig, chicken, potatoes, tortillas, squash, and salad with roasted peach for desert. After thanking our hosts, we traveled to the home and shop of local artist, Pablo Seminarios. This region provides inspiration to many artists who make their home here. Pablo’s works are on display in Chicago and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and he discussed with us the evolution in his work and his inspirations, while walking us through his workshop and gallery.

Pablo Seminarios discussing his Art

Pablo Seminarios discussing his Art

After a brief stop at the hotel, we assembled for a short ride to dinner, hosted by another artist, Oscar, at his home/restaurant, Wallpa Wasi. He specialized in clay-oven rotisserie chicken, which was spectacular! After dinner, he took us for a tour of his house where his collectables, and some of his and his wife’s art, are proudly on display.
Tomorrow we would go on to Machu Picchu!

Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.

Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.

Dallas Texas

November 2, 2016 3:19 pm
Flying red horse - a Dallas icon from the 1930's

Flying red horse – a Dallas icon from the 1930’s

October 13-21, 2016

It’s been 13 years since our last visit to this Texas City and lots of changes. As with a lot of the US cities re-vitalization of downtown has come to Dallas. Uptown is the new place for millennials and broken down warehouses are replaced with lofts and upscale apartments. Residential towers are planted among high-rise office buildings. Market and Main streets and the West End are hopping with restaurants. We are here for the SEG (Society of Exploration Geophysicists) Annual Meeting and Convention. We were greeted with the SEG silhouetted on to the hotel facade. It took us a while to realize that even our hotel did not exist on our last visit. The front of the convention center has a massive bronze cattle drive sculpture and it is awesome to walk among the “cattle” in the middle of downtown.

Hotel lighting welcoming the SEG.

Hotel lighting welcoming the SEG.

 

Cattle sculptures at the front of the convention center.

Cattle sculptures at the front of the convention center.

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I also had the opportunity to see a few local sights and to tour the Perot Museum of Nature and Science – a massive modern building offering dynamic and interactive experiences for visitors of all ages. The Earth Hall has an earthquake simulator for one to experience, and the Energy Hall has a drilling well and petroleum plant. There were fossils and gems, a hall devoted to the human body, and exhibits everywhere that encouraged touching, building and exploring. You could learn to program a robot or even pilot one around. On the basement floor was a Children’s Museum for those under 5 years and an Athletic Museum, which was a favorite with the teens. A most fascinating place to visit.

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I also spent a day at the Arboretum when the autumn flowers were in bloom, and the Pumpkin Village was amazing. There were over 50 different kinds of pumpkins and 90,000 pumpkins covering everything – so many of every kind and color. There were houses built out of pumpkins as well as spirals, and there were horses made from cornstalks. The gardens were interlaced with creeks, waterfalls, and lakes, as well as eight bronze statues seated on benches throughout. It was an outing away from city noises and distractions as we saw hundreds of monarch butterflies among the fall flowers.

Pumpkin House at Pumpkin Village

Pumpkin House at Pumpkin Village

So many Pumpkins

So many Pumpkins

Cornstalk horses.

Cornstalk horses.

We attended the International Reception which included Russian dancing and food. To close the convention, we attended a the Wrap-up party which stated “bring your cowboy boots” and we had the opportunity to ride a mechanical bull and to eat Texan food while John Wayne movies played on the wall and line dancing was led on the stage.

Russian dancers

Russian dancers

Rocky riding the mechanical bull

Rocky riding the mechanical bull

 

Caribbean Sailing Adventure

October 25, 2016 5:50 pm

September 23- October 11, 2016

Once again this year we would have the opportunity to sail in the Caribbean with close friends, Nikki, Peter and Jackson. This time, we went “bigger & better” bareboat chartering a 56’ Dufour monohull in Grenada from Dream Yachts, and beginning our adventure sailing ~500 miles north to the British Virgin Islands. We began by flying on Friday from Orlando, through Miami, to Grenada where we had a 2-day pre-trip stay at our favorite beach resort, located between the airport and marina. Here we enjoyed the swim-up pool bar, the lush, tropical landscaping, and took a stroll up the beach to a familiar restaurant named “Umbrella’s” where we met our sail-mates for dancing & dinner. The next day was spent relaxing at the pool, while prepping for our trip with a visit to the marina, immigration, and local stores. Sunday was “boat check-out” day, where we familiarized ourselves with the generator, air conditioning, bow thrusters, desalinator water-maker, and assorted high tech devices which were part of this beautiful, large boat! That night, the 5 of us slept aboard and prepared to leave the marina early the next morning.

Our Boat and home for the next 3 weeks - "Le Titien"

Our Boat and home for the next 3 weeks –            “Le Titien”

Monday’s sail started beautifully with a dozen dolphins playing off our bow as we headed north from Grenada towards St. Vincent.

Underway with our first dolphin escort!

Underway with our first dolphin escort!

After stopping at the island of Union to check into the country and arrange an evening lobster dinner, we proceeded to the Tobago Cays where we hooked up to a mooring ball next to the sea turtle sanctuary and swam in the crystal blue waters. The area abounded with large red starfish and sea turtles whom were calmly eating grasses from the seafloor in only 10 feet of water, and oblivious to our observations. That night, the “boys” came to the boat to “collect us” and take us to a nearby shore where they grilled a fabulous lobster dinner including salad, rice, potatoes and vegetables, all washed down with homemade rum punch. After feeding the enormous puffer fish that came to shore in curiosity, we watched the sunset before returning to our boat in the dark to prepare for tomorrow’s trip.

Our lobster feast!

Our lobster feast!

Relaxing at the Tobago Cays.

Relaxing at the Tobago Cays.

Our colorful women aboard...

Our colorful women aboard…

And the guys aboard.

And the guys aboard.

 

Now we had been following weather reports of an Atlantic tropical storm called Matthew which was moving our way, but next morning we left the Tobago Cays and hoped to make it north to the island of St. Lucia. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs with leftover lobster, we checked on the weather again, and called in to the boat’s home base. Unfortunately, Matthew had intensified and laid a course that would intersect us at St. Lucia, so we decided to turn back south and take refuge in a protected harbor called “Blue Lagoon” located at the southern end of the island of St. Vincent. This brought us into one of the most unique encounters we have ever had while sailing, as we came upon a single, ~45’ humpback whale heading east. He was cruising at the surface and allowed us to approach within a few hundred feet of him as we followed for 15-20 minutes. Finally, he dove deep and flipped his tail on the surface to finally vanish from our sight.

Sighting a 45"Humpback whale near St. Vincent.

Sighting a 45″Humpback whale near St. Vincent.

On this note, we returned to a journey to Blue Lagoon, where we were met by the local marina representative, who helmed us through a treacherous reef into a small protected cove where we would be connected to a mooring ball, shielded from the winds by the surrounding mountains, and protected from the waves by the surrounding shallow reef. We spent the rest of the day visiting with the locals who were in full preparation themselves for the storm. We returned to the boat where we removed everything topsides that we could, took down the bimini, dropped the sail and boom, and lashed everything tightly to the deck. That night we settled in with our generator and air conditioning to see what the coming day would bring.

All battened down for Hurricane Matthew.

All battened down for Hurricane Matthew.

Wednesday we spent the day weathering (what was now Hurricane Category 1) Matthew’s fury as it aimed for 30 miles north of us between the islands of St. Vincent and St. Lucia. The cabin was comfortable, calm and protected as we spend the day playing cards, drinking and eating.

Matthew passed during the night and early morning, as it headed off north east towards Haiti and Cuba. Accordingly, the morning’s rain slowly gave way to a calm sunny afternoon, as we then took time out on deck and worked to reassemble the boat’s gear.

We left Blue Lagoon at daybreak on Friday morning and set off on out original plan to sail to St. Lucia. Having now lost 2 days, we no longer had the extra time we had planned into the schedule for sightseeing along the way, and instead headed straight to Marigold Bay along northwest St. Lucia. Along the way, we decided to put out a handline behind the boat, and was rewarded with our first fish – a 3-foot barracuda – which we promptly turned into “barracuda bites” for a future dinner. However, in the ocean channel between the two islands where the hurricane’s eye had passed, we ran into a sea of debris full of coconuts, trees and plastic washed out to sea by the storm and requiring an extreme level of vigilance. Finally, we made it to Marigold Bay, a beautiful, picturesque inlet harbor which we had visited before. Here, we would take the opportunity to refill our fuel tanks and then took dinner onshore at Pirate’s Bay Restaurant.

Saturday morning, we left early to be sure we made it north to the island of Martinique, where we were scheduled to pick up another sailing member. Again, along the way we were escorted by about a dozen dolphins who played along the boat’s bow-wave. We made it to the port of Marin mid-afternoon, where we docked at the marina and met-up with Scott. We then proceeded to restock groceries before enjoying dinner of duck and steak upstairs at a Marina restaurant called “20”.

Sunday, we left Martinique and started heading further north towards Guadeloupe. Because this would be a very long journey, we decided to go around the island of Dominica to the east, hoping for better winds to boost us along more quickly. Initially, we ran into fields of crab traps closer to the island, and went 20 miles offshore to help avoid them. Again, we pulled a fishing line behind the boat, and again, we caught another 3-foot barracuda. That evening, while under sail, we breaded the first barracuda bites and fried them. This we served up with salad, rice and corn for a feast on-board. Unfortunately, the winds were not favorable for us, and so we were traveling at only 4 knots. Because of this, we decided to sail all night along the coast of Dominica. The night was relatively clear, but with no moon, and with the worry about potentially catching debris in the prop, we slowly sailed along with the engine off.

Monday morning sunrise came with us at the northeastern end of Dominica, where we turned northwest and headed to the islands of Guadeloupe called Isle de Saintes – a very quaint “French” town that we find enjoyable and relaxing. Unfortunately, during the night, we had broken one set of “lazy jacks”, which help guide the sail when raising and lowering it., and we had developed a small tear in the mainsail’s edge along the mast. Our generator had also stopped working. Therefore, some of us spent time at the boat waiting for a mechanic while hoisting Rocky to the top of the mast to repair the “lazy jacks”, while others went ashore to check-in and look for a sailmaker that could sell us some “sail tape” and for a store to restock our ice. The mechanic arrived and discovered a dead fuel pump for the generator, but no replacement was available. And so he “jury-rigged” it with a cheap, manual override. While there, he also found and cleaned the Desalinator filter, which brought it operationally back online. It was a busy day, and that night we relaxed on deck with a barbeque chicken dinner cooked on the boat’s grill.

Tuesday morning, we left Isle de Saintes and continued our journey north on the west side of Guadeloupe. The winds were favorable that day, but first, Rocky, Peter and Jackson repaired the sail with “sail tape” and with hand-stitching using the boat’s sail repair kit. With the repair, we averaged 7 knots, and took the time to stop at Pigeon Island, a marine sanctuary off the west coast of Guadeloupe preserved in honor of Jacques Cousteau. We picked up a mooring ball there and spent a couple of hours swimming, snorkeling and exploring the beautiful corals and fish that resided there. After a swimming, we had a quick lunch and left to continue our journey to the port city of DeShaies on the northwest coast of Guadeloupe. Here we had drinks and shopped ashore before having dinner in a fantastic little French restaurant called “la Kaz du Douanier”, where we partook of delicious veal and French red wine.

French Village on Isle de Saintes of Guadeloupe.

French Village on Isle de Saintes of Guadeloupe.

Wednesday, we sailed from the island of Guadeloupe to Antigua with excellent winds, where we entered the historic English Harbor and tied up at the Dream Yachts Fuel Dock. Again, the mechanics tried to solve the generator fuel problem, but again, they did not have the part available, as the temporary repair was now starting to leak diesel slowly into the bilge. We would have to wait until we reached the BVI to get a final repair. That night, we walked a short distance to the nearby Jolly Harbor where we had dinner and drinks at “Trappas”, a local restaurant.

Thursday we sailed from Antigua to St. Kitts (also known as St. Cristopher). Today, we hooked a 4 ½ ft. long Mahi Mahi which we cleaned and fileted while underway as the rear of the boat had a sink and cutting board hidden under one of the benches. Because we arrive there late, we dropped anchor in the bay at St. Kitts and grilled our second barracuda on the grill and enjoyed a starry night on the boat’s deck. That night, we followed the internet news as Hurricane Matthew was now getting ready to come up the Florida East Coast, potentially impacting Peter and Nikki’s and Rocky and Julie’s homes and relatives located there.

The first Mahi Mahi - the catch of the trip!

The first Mahi Mahi – the catch of the trip!

Friday, we sailed the relatively short distance to St. Bart’s, where we took up a mooring ball and went ashore in search of supplies and adventure. The girl’s enjoyed the chance to shop before we gathered at a local pub for afternoon drinks. That night we found “25” Quarter, a small “hip” restaurant for dinner where we played beer-pong with the local and left our mark on their chalkboard wall.

Saturday, we left St. Bart’s very early to sail the long distance to the British Virgin Islands. Along the way, we caught another, albeit smaller, Mahi Mahi, which along with the first catch, we proceeded to grill on the Barbeque while under sail. The fish feast was capped by a last minute small tuna catch, which we filleted into sushi for our dinner’s appetizer. Dinner was capped with after dinner drinks before we settled in for a bit more of night sailing into the BVI, where we picked up a mooring ball in the dark at ~10pm in “The Bight” bay of Norman Island.

Friends sailing - Rocky & Peter

Friends sailing – Rocky & Peter

Sunday, we had to deliver Scott and Jackson to The U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas for Scott’s morning airplane departure. After rising at 4:30am, we sailed around St. John’s to Crown Bay Marina in Charlotte Amalie near the airport on St. Thomas. After dropping them at the fuel dock, we ran afoul of the Port when diesel from our bilge and fueling created a sheen that required reporting to the Coast Guard, and then a short boat “impoundment” while we checked-in with U.S. Immigration. After straightening out all of the requirements and formalities, we took brunch at the Marina during a huge downpour before leaving and sailing to the Dream Yacht Base at Hodge’s Creek Marina on Tortola in the BVI. That night, the remaining four of us taxied into town for drinks and dinner at Pusser’s before returning to the boat for the night.

Julie relaxing at sunset.

Julie relaxing at sunset.

Monday, the boat finally got its generator fuel pump replaced, and the bilge cleaned up from the diesel that had been deposited there. That afternoon, Walt and Allison, and their friends, Jay and Kathy arrived to join us on the boat, and after settling in, we all went back to Pusser’s again for dinner. That night was spent telling stories and drinking, before an evening of sleep – the last on the boat for Julie and Rocky, as the next morning saw us saying our goodbyes as their adventure was just beginning.

Sanibel Island Florida

September 7, 2016 5:16 pm

August 2016

Rocky moved to the East Coast of Florida over 50 years ago, but in all that time had never been to Sanibel Island, the USA Capital for Seashell collecting. Julie, being an avid beachcomber, had also never been to the southwest coast of Florida, and so it seemed appropriate for a short trip to the Island. Sanibel Island is a 4-hour drive from our home on the east coast across the south-central part of the state. It is a “sleepy” community of hardy locals during the summer, that grows into a crowded retreat from the north during the winter for weary “snowbirds”. The relaxing morning drive takes us just north of Lake Okeechobee, through expansive orange groves and grazing cattle pastures, until we reach Fort Meyers, and then a short trip south to Sanibel Island. Island access is over a toll bridge that costs $6, but once on the Island, we were prepared to stay a couple of days with a hotel reservation in the center of the Island right on the beach.

Julie at the connection between Sanibel Island onto Captiva Island

Julie at the connection between Sanibel Island onto Captiva Island

We used the afternoon to explore the Island and its adjoining northern extension, Captiva Island. Sanibel Island is a narrow sandbar about 10 miles long and never more than 2 miles wide, that connects over a narrow channel to Captiva Island, about 5 miles long, located to the north. The islands have maintained their classic, nostalgic charm from the 1950’s and 1960’s, with many small bungalows hidden among the low-rise resorts and hotels. Before having lunch at Th Mucky Duck on the beach in Captiva, we went to Bowman Beach, where we recovered a nice collection of Florida Fighting Conch shells. After lunch, we checked into our hotel, and after checking out the local beach, took a drive through the local wildlife preserve, J.N. “Ding” Darling, where we saw local snakes, manatees and gators. Then we drove to the Sanibel Lighthouse on the southern tip of the Island to walk “the flats” during low-tide. The area was full of swimmers and shell-seekers, and covered with so many sand-dollars that one could barely walk without stepping on them. That night we had dinner at a local restaurant, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, before settling in back at the hotel for a western shore sunset and a nice bottle of wine.

“Booty” found on the beach during our brief visit, including a number of beautiful Florida Fighting Conch and Lightning Whelk shells.

“Booty” found on the beach during our brief visit, including a number of beautiful Florida Fighting Conch and Lightning Whelk shells.

 

A look northwest along Bowman’s where few people visit.

A look northwest along Bowman’s where few people visit.

 

A view of our hotel, The West Wind Inn, located between Tarpon Bay Beach and Bowman’s Beach facing south on the Gulf of Mexico

A view of our hotel, The West Wind Inn, located between Tarpon Bay Beach and Bowman’s Beach facing south on the Gulf of Mexico

The next morning, we had breakfast at a spectacular, local establishment, The OEC (Over Easy Cafe), before traveling back to the north end of the Island to explore the Turners Beach and Blind Pass Beach. By now, our shell collection was growing quite large, and so we decided a visit to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum would be appropriate. The Museum is also located on the Island, and has world-class examples of seashells from the local area and from around the world. After one last beach visit, we then left the island and began the drive home. A short but wonderful excursion into a “backyard” spot that we will likely come visit again.

 

Sunday morning breakfast at “The OEC”, The Over Easy Café, where visitors and local both congregate

Sunday morning breakfast at “The OEC”, The Over Easy Café, where visitors and locals both congregate.

A Whirlwind Tour of the Canadian Rockies

July 16, 2016 5:19 pm

June 2016

Our adventure to the Canadian Rockies begins in the city of Calgary in the Canadian Province of Alberta. While Rocky is busy providing classroom instruction to Canadian oil staff, Julie arrives and takes in the sites of this modern, yet frontier, city. The city of Calgary is laid out along the Bow River, with its streets oriented north-south and east-west to take advantage of the sun’s path overhead. The city was founded as the portal to Western Canada and served as the commerce and trade center in the region, experiencing significant growth around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. In order to see and enjoy much of the city quickly, Julie scheduled a private, 2-hour Segway tour that explored the numerous parks, islands and landmarks around the city while learning its rich history. The city still has many reminders of its hosting of the 1988 Winter Olympics sprinkled among its architecturally interesting modern skyscrapers, beautiful gardens and public art. Connecting the downtown is an excellent public transit system and an historic, pedestrian town center along 8th Street. During the winter, people traverse the city through its extensive “Plus-15” – a system of skywalks that connect most major building above ground level. But, during the summer, the sidewalks downtown and along the river fill with an abundance of cafes and restaurants where we enjoyed lunches and dinners.

Inside the Plus-15 at Devonian Gardens

Inside the Plus-15 at Devonian Gardens

 

Julie Touring on a Segway

Julie Touring on a Segway

 

1988 Olympic Ski Jump

1988 Olympic Ski Jump

When Rocky was free for the weekend, we rented a car and began our adventure to the Canadian Rockies. Traveling upstream along the Bow river, our first destination was Lake Louise, located north of the resort town of Banff, famous for its hiking, climbing, water sports, and home to a resort that celebrates its location for its beauty, and for being the birthplace of North American winter skiing and climbing. From there, we visited nearby Lake Moraine, where the view of 10 mountain peaks once graced the back of the Canadian $20 bill. Then it was a short trip to the other side of the Bow valley to the Lake Louise Ski Resort where we took a ski lift up the side of the mountain to enjoy the view of the valley and Lake Louise from afar. After enjoying lunch at the local lodge there, we continued our journey by retracing our route back past the town of Banff to the lakes of Minnewanka and Two Jacks. Although the weather had degraded, we were lucky enough to see a small group of big-horned sheep and still enjoyed the serenity and beauty of the area. Then, we went into the town of Banff via the “Tunnel Road” that meanders along the mountain side above the town. Once in town, we visited the Bow waterfall and marveled at the historical building, such as the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel build nearly 130 years ago, before finally checking into our hotel. That night, we shopped before we ate dinner in the center of town, and enjoyed watching the people in town for its annual marathon race.

Moraine Lake & the ten peaks

Moraine Lake & the ten peaks

 

Lake Louise from the Other Side of Bow Valley

Lake Louise from the Other Side of Bow Valley

 

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep

 

Old Banff

Old Banff

The next morning, we decided to drive the 2+ hours north on Hwy 93 to the Columbia Icefields which are located at the southern end of Jasper National Park. Here we toured the Athabasca Visitor’s Center where we began our adventure with a ride onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier in the all-terrain Ice Explorer. The trip included traversing the glacier’s lateral moraine and traveling out onto the glacier where we explored on foot. The glacier was crisscrossed with rivulets of melt water and ice-cracks that penetrate to unknown depths. We were careful where we ventured, but we explored the ice sheet for about an hour, before re-boarding our Ice Explorer for the return trip. After this adventure, we were bused a short way to the Glacier Skywalk, a cliff-edged, glass-bottomed walkway suspended 918’ over the glacial valley where giant glaciers still rest above and the spectacular glacier-formed Sunwapta Valley stretches below. From here, the view was spectacular in all directions, and the geologic history of the area was clearly exposed. After lunch at the Visitor’s Center, we drove back south towards Banff when we spotted two moose grazing in a roadside meadow near the Vermillion Lakes. This last highlight sent us happily driving back to Calgary where our whirlwind Canadian Rocky Mountain Adventure came to a close.

Columbia Icefields

Columbia Icefields

 

Ice Explorer Vehicle

Ice Explorer Vehicle

 

Julie on the Athabasca Glacier

Julie on the Athabasca Glacier

 

The Glass Observation Arch Skyway

The Glass Observation Arch Skyway

 

Moose in the Meadow

Moose in the Meadow

2016 Caribbean Carnival Cruise

April 20, 2016 8:42 pm

April, 2016

Miami – Half Moon Cay – St. Thomas – Puerto Rico – Grand Turk – Miami

A few weeks before the cruise, we received an excellent “last-minute” offer from Carnival to travel their 7-day Exotic Eastern Caribbean Cruise out of Miami. This cruise was appealing to us since it was such a “good deal” and our schedule was open at that time, and Julie had never been to Grand Turk. Then, two days before leaving, Carnival called us up and offered an “upgrade” to a balcony room on the Lido Deck, which we accepted! On Sunday, we drove to Miami (~2 ½ hours) and parked at a remote lot before getting priority boarding aboard the Carnival Splendor, because of the number of Carnival cruises we historically have been on. After the normal formalities, we departed Miami on time and began our exploration of the ship.

Julie on deck of the Carnival Splendor getting ready to set sail from Miami, Florida

Julie on deck of the Carnival Splendor getting ready to set sail from Miami, Florida

The Carnival Splendor is the only Carnival ship in its class, since it was purchased, instead of custom-built for Carnival. It carries ~3000 passengers and another ~1200 staff. We were impressed with the ship’s staff, including our first experience of having a female Cruise Director, Chloe, who was excellent. In addition, the evening entertainment “shows” were energetic and exciting, performed by an in-house cast of 8 singer-dancers (4 males, 4 females) who were vey talented and outstanding. Usually, after the shows we attended the Comedy Club shows, which showcased an array of talented individuals.

View of the ship from shore at Half Moon Cay

View of the ship from shore at Half Moon Cay

On Monday, we arrived at Carnival’s private island beach, Half Moon Cay, where we enjoyed swimming, snorkeling, walking and laying in the sun, while being entertained and enjoying an island barbeque. We walked to the other side of the island where we watched stingrays swim near the shore and had a great day just relaxing. That night was the ‘70’s music show “V.I.P” which found Rocky being selected as one of 15 individuals that were interviewed on a live broadcast and brought upstage to participate with the dancers.

Stingrays swimming near shore in Half Moon Cay

Stingrays swimming near shore in Half Moon Cay

Tuesday was a “sea day”, and so we enjoyed the pool decks, the sun chairs, and one of the 5 hot tubs on board. That night was the first “elegant evening” aboard the ship, and we enjoyed all-you-can eat lobsters before meeting the captain and crew, and taking in the evening’s show, “88 Keys”, focusing on hit piano music of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s!

View from our balcony of the boats in the bay at St. Thomas

View from our balcony of the boats in the bay at St. Thomas

Wednesday brought us to the U.S. Virgin island of St. Thomas, where we scheduled a Catamaran Champagne cruise to the nearby island of St. John’s. St. John’s is 80% National Park, and so only about 600 people live on the island, but the beaches are fantastic. We picked up a mooring ball off of Honeymoon Beach where we swan and snorkeled along the reef before swimming to shore and talking a short stroll. Julie successfully scoured the beaches for her “beach glass” before we swam back to the boat and began the journey back to St. Thomas, all the while drinking champagne and rum punch, and enjoying cheese and crackers. A fine trip! That night we checked out the comedy, the casinos and the music nightclubs.

Fish and Coral at St. John’s Honeymoon Beach

Fish and Coral at St. John’s Honeymoon Beach

The next day, we arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place we have been many times before. Therefore, we decided to do something different and take a zip-line trip in the nearby mountains. The trip only accommodated 22 of us from the ship, and after a short bus ride, followed by a steep “tractor-pull tram” ride, we were outfitted with harnesses and helmets for the 9 different traverses set out beneath the beautiful rain forest canopy of the National Park Forest. We rode an overhead sky-tram to the top of the mountain rainforest to begin our adventure down. The traverses ranged from about a hundred yards long to over a quarter mile long, and included a vertical rappel/drop at one station. We had a great time and recorded most of our “zips” with a helmet-mounted GoPro! After returning to the ship, we left Puerto Rico and headed south, spending our evening checking out the local bars and music venues.

Julie outfitted for zip-lining at La Marquesa in Puerto Rico

Julie outfitted for zip-lining at La Marquesa in Puerto Rico

 

View of the Old Fort as we are leaving San Juan, Puerto Rico

View of the Old Fort as we are leaving San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

“Octopus” towel art on board the Splendor

“Octopus” towel art on board the Splendor

Friday, we arrived at the island of Grand Turk – a beautiful “pearl” in the Caribbean that Rocky had last visited ~30 years ago! We disembarked the ship to enjoy the small shopping village and free beach chairs and proceeded to enjoy the crystal-blue water. The snorkeling right off the beach was great, with many fish, some coral and a series of old anchors and cannons lying right at the edge of “The Wall” – a precipitous drop-off to great depths that borders the island and attracts divers of all ages. Julie collect a huge amount of sea-glass, and we enjoyed the day under the palms and in the water. Tonight was the second “elegant night”, so we dressed up and took pictures. That night, the show was “Epic Rock”, a fantastic medley of dancing and singing dedicated to the epic rock and roll of the last 50 years!

View over Grand Turk island

View over Grand Turk island

 

Julie at our chairs on the beach in Grand Turk

Julie at our chairs on the beach in Grand Turk

Saturday was another “day at sea” as we sped our way back towards Miami. The day was filled with free cocktail parties – one for the V.I.P. selection, one for being “platinum” frequent cruisers, etc. We drank free nearly all day, before saying goodbye to our dinner companions, watching the evening show, “80’s Pop to the Max”, and packing our bags.
Sunday, we docked early, and were off the boat, through customs, and in our car driving home by 9:30am. A great cruising adventure!

 Julie with Cruise Drector, Chloe

Julie with Cruise Drector, Chloe

Some of the performers from the show at the V.I.P. party

Some of the performers from the show at the V.I.P. party

 

 

Adventures “Down Under” AUS

March 13, 2016 7:59 pm

January 2016

After nearly 3 weeks in lovely New Zealand, we could not return home without spending at least a little time in Australia! Since the east coast of Australia was only a few hours away, we flew from the end of our Backroads Trip in Queenstown to Sydney, Australia.
Part-3: Visiting the Cities of Australia’s East Coast
We arrived at the airport in Sydney midday on Thursday, and caught a taxi to The Swiss Hotel, where we would be spending the next few nights. It was located in the middle of downtown, near the Metro train station, but within walking distance of the harbor, bridge and opera house. That afternoon, we explored the streets and shops around the hotel, stopped for sandwiches and a bottle of wine, and spent the evening planning and making reservations for our activities over the next few days.

Julie & Pam under a large fig tree at the Sydney Conservatory of Music

Julie & Pam under a large fig tree at the Sydney Conservatory of Music

Friday started out rainy, but it did not deter us from walking to the Conservatory of Music at the entrance of the Government House, built in the 1850’s. It was an historic building that was nearly fully restored, and it was surrounded by old and magnificent gardens, including 160-year-old fig trees that dwarfed anything around them. As the weather began to clear, we strolled down to Sydney Harbour and along the waters of Farm Cove to the iconic Sydney Opera House, where we had reservations to tour the building. The Opera House had a long, storied history as it was built from a design mimicking sails, submitted by Jorn Utzon of Denmark, without any certainty that it could actually be built. The early cost estimates were in the $12 million range, and at the end of the day, it ended up costing over $100 million! Jorn oversaw the construction for the site preparation and outer shells of the buildings, but disputes drove him from the project back to Denmark, and he never set foot in Australia again. The infrastructure goes 5 stories down beneath the opera house and studios that everyone sees, as this is where the offices, delivery docks, and infrastructure is all located. We toured all of the buildings and took “peeks” at rehearsals and sets in the playhouse and studio theaters, as well as the opera house and symphony house. After the Sydney Opera House tour, we took a ferry for the hour-long trip to the town of Manly, located near the entrance to the Harbour, and home of iconic surfing legends. Once there, we walked on the Manly beach, watched the surfers and surfing classes, and explored the town and local botanical gardens. After a nice Mexican lunch at the wharf, we caught the ferry back to Sydney. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped into the famous Queen Victoria Building, a palatial building converted into a high-class shopping mall, full of stained glass windows and ceiling, and decorated with beautiful and colorful floor tiles. Hanging strategically within the mall are two large animated clocks that play on the hour. That night we ate Chinese before returning to the hotel for wine and a rousing game of Eucher (cards).

View of the Sydney Opera House from the top of Sydney Harbour

View of the Sydney Opera House from the top of Sydney Harbour

 

One of the famous clocks suspended in the Queen Victoria Building

One of the famous clocks suspended in the Queen Victoria Building

On Saturday, we walked to “The Strand” and ate an Aussie breakfast – Italian style. Then we purchased “Opal Cards” for $10 each which would get us free travel all day tomorrow (Sunday) on the Metro train (and bus, and ferry) system. We then walked through Hyde park to St. Mark’s Cathedral, which had preserved its original wood buttresses and relics of the dead. Then we headed over to the Sydney Botanical Gardens, where we had lunch, and then, finally back down to the water’s edge onto Mrs. Macquarie Point, where we each sat in Mrs. Macquarie’s chair and took pictures of the water, flowers and ourselves. From here, we stopped for a tour through the New South Wales (NSW) State library to see the “What a Life” rock music photography display by Tony Mott, and an emotional flower exhibit in commemoration of the nearby Martin Place Siege of December 16 ,2014, where Sydney residents lost their lives. We then walked to the Sydney Harbour Bridge for our sunset hike to the top of the bridge. Upon arriving, we had to undergo a breathalyzer test before changing clothes into jumpsuits, where every single thing on your person could be hooked on or clamped down – no watches – no earrings – no cameras! After passing through metal detectors, we were strapped into harnesses that connected each of us to a stainless steel cable that would run the length of the climb and tour. Our small group of 12 then climbed through and up the beams of the heaviest steel bridge in the world, until reaching the top of the upper beam, which we then proceeded to walk on, until we reached the summit at the middle of the bridge, just as the sun was setting. Our guide took pictures of each of us, and our group of four, and Julie and I sent Mike his 35th Birthday Wishes via a short video. We then made our way back down with the whole trip taking nearly 3 hours. That night, it was simple burgers for dinner, and, after having walked over 25 miles that day, we simply had a few nightcaps and went to bed.

Rocky & Julie at the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge

Rocky & Julie at the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sunday morning, we used our Opal cards to negotiate our way onto a Metro train out of Sydney to Featherdale Wildlife Park. The hour-long train ride was followed by a brief bus ride to the gates of the Park just in time for its daily opening. Inside, we were treated to seeing much of the native wildlife of Australia, including its huge crocodiles, its numerous types of kangaroos, and it strange assortment of birds, reptiles and other mammals. We had the good fortune to pet a koala bear, to feed an assortment of wallabies and kangaroos, and to see the “little penguins” eat close-up. After the day there, we had a late lunch before taking the bus and train back to Sydney. Once in Sydney, we walked back to the Harbour Bridge to climb to the top of one of the bridge’s massive pylons for a final scenic view of the city. After taking pictures there, we stopped in a nearby pub in an area known as “The Rocks” to have dinner and to watch the Green Bay Packers play their NFL Playoff game on Australian television. To A.J.’s dismay – they lost! We finished off a great day with a game of cards in our room and an Australian bottle of wine.

Julie petting a Koala Bear at Featherdale Wildlife Park

Julie petting a Koala Bear at Featherdale Wildlife Park

Rocky feeding a Wallaby at Featherdale Wildlife Park

Rocky feeding a Wallaby at Featherdale Wildlife Park

 

Australia's "Little Penguins" getting ready to eat

Australia’s “Little Penguins” getting ready to eat

 

View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylon

View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylon

It was now Monday, January 18th, and time to leave Sydney. After a taxi ride to the airport, we caught a flight to Melbourne, Australia and taxied into the heart of town to the Pegasus Hotel. Once checked in, the four of us explored Burke street and went to a local restaurant on the corner for dinner. Again we gathered to make plays for our time in the city, to enjoy a lively game of cards, and to drink the local wine, before calling it a night.
Tuesday’s are Market Day in Melbourne, and so we walked over to the nearby, massive “Farmer’s Market” for breakfast and shopping. After exploring the wares of the locals, we walked through the city’s Central Business District and shops to Federation Square – an eclectic set of building featuring cultural and artistic centers. Then we walked over to Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open Tennis Tournament was just getting underway. It is easy and convenient to get around in downtown Melbourne, since there are street cars nearly everywhere, and in the Center of Town, they are free! After the Tennis Expo, we walked to an area in the park where Cook’s Cottage is preserved. Although Captain Cook is credited with “rediscovering” Australia, his cottage was actually in England, until the City of Melbourne bought it, had it disassembled, shipped, and reassembled. Now, one can explore the history and life of the man, and dress up in period-clothes and costumes from those times. After a long day exploring the gardens and town, we made our way back across the river to our hotel for “Happy Hour” before heading down the street to a Chinese Restaurant for dinner.

Rocky & Julie at the Australian Open Tournament

Rocky & Julie at the Australian Open Tournament

Wednesday, after breakfast, we trammed and walked to the “Old Treasury” Building. This is the building that stored that vast gold bars that characterized the great Australian “Gold Rush” that turned Melbourne into a thriving metropolis. We then returned to town and visited “The Ugg House” – home to UGG boots and shoes, and Pam tried to find a pair that we just the right shade of pink to suit her. For lunch, we had reservations on The Colonial Tram Restaurant – a traveling restaurant that only consists of 3 cars that travel the tracks at lunch time serving a spectacular 4 course meal with free drinks over a 2.5-hour journey. We took a tour of the city while we were served an outstanding Aussie meal including champagne, wine and port – duck, steaks, and deserts – all with excellent service. Then we explored the waterfront where the river meets the harbor and where old sailing ships and restaurants abound. Finally, we made our way back past the hotel to the Wednesday Evening Market, where live bands and street vendors abounded. We joined with the locals to have a BBQ dinner with wine and beer here tonight before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant - a traveling restaurant

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant – a traveling restaurant

The next day, we took a combination of tram and walking to make the journey to the Carlton United Brewery. This major Aussie brewery is the result of a uniting of a number of local breweries to compete with the local hotels who used to brew their own beer. Today, it consists of 7 major brands, including: Carlton, Fosters and Peroni. We toured the entire operation and finished up with a large tasting of their many brands. While there, we were treated to be able to get up close and personal with the Carlton Clydesdales while they were hooked up to a typical beer wagon. After returning to town, we toured the Royal Botanical Gardens – a series of footpaths and walkways that wind through manicured examples of rainforest, meadows and gardens – all beautifully and carefully taken care of. Finally, we spent our early evening shopping before getting dinner along the River and returning to the hotel to pack.

Impressionist photo of Pam & Julie behind a waterfall pane

Impressionist photo of Pam & Julie behind a waterfall pane

Friday, January 22nd, and we prepare to finish our month-long visit to the land “Down Under”. We showed up at the airport, only to find that our return flight is cancelled due to weather problems over the Pacific. Instead, the airline put us up at the Mantra Hotel in North Melbourne for the night so that they can fly us to Sydney the next morning to connect us to a flight that returns us to the USA via San Francisco. That all goes well, but when we get to San Francisco, (1 day late), our flight to Washington, D.C.is also cancelled, this time due to the snow storms in the northeast. Rather than spend another couple of nights stranded, Julie and I fly to Houston to spend two nights with our friends, Dave and Angie, before finally getting home 3 days late.
What a great adventure!!

Cycling the “Down Under” South Island NZ

March 12, 2016 8:30 pm

January 2016

After spending 10 days ushering in the New Year, 2016, in the North Island of New Zealand with our Backroads Multisport Adventure, we headed to New Zealand’s South Island where we would begin Part 2 of our adventure, with a challenging cycling trip along the island.
Part-2: Backroad’s Cycling Trip in New Zealand’s South Island
We arrived in Christchurch at the airport fresh from our North Island adventure on Monday, January 4th, and immediately took taxi’s to our hotels near the train station. We gathered up at Speight’s Ale House for dinner and made our plans for meeting everyone for the first day of our new trip the next morning. It had been a long day, and we called an early night after a dinner of burgers, beer, fries and wine.

Tower at Railway Station in Christchurch.

Tower at Railway Station in Christchurch.

The next morning, we gathered with all of our gear at the train station, fully dressed ready to ride bikes. The six of us were joined by 16 other people this time, and they came from Brazil to Canada. Our guides, Bradley and Darren, would be supported by two other staff, Grant and Sophia. After loading up all of our gear into luggage vehicles that Grant, Darren and Sophia would drive, Bradley joined the rest of us on the train for a cross-country scenic tour through the Southern Alps, from the east coast to the west. Along the way, the scenery was gorgeous, and, in addition to a dining car, there was an “open air” car without windows where one could take pictures. As we climbed into the snow covered passes, however, most people stayed to the inside cars. Near the midway point, the train stopped at Arthur’s Pass, allowing us to stretch our legs outdoors and view the local flora.

Julie & Rocky at Arthur's Pass.

Julie & Rocky at Arthur’s Pass.

We finally disembarked before the coast in a small town of Moana on the shores of Lake Brunner for lunch at the Station House Café. After lunch, we fitted out our bikes and then began our first ride – 26.5 miles from Moana to the coast. We followed the Arnold River down from the hillsides, crossed the Grey River and passed the mining town of Rununga, to end up at a “beach pub” in Rapahoe. There, we gathered for a quick drink while others made their way in, before taking the van a short way north, up the coast, to the Punakaiki Resort, located on the beach. After cleaning up and a relaxing stroll down the beach, we met up with others for drinks and dinner at the hotel and discussed the upcoming day.

View of Sunset over the Tasman Sea from Punakaiki Resort

View of Sunset over the Tasman Sea from Punakaiki Resort

The next morning, after breakfast, we took a brisk walk up the coast on the side of Highway 6 to the “Pancake Rocks” – stacks of limestone layered into amazing formations, eroded by the runoff from the mountains and the pounding surf.

Pancake Rocks hike north of Rapahoe

Pancake Rocks hike north of Rapahoe

From there, we boarded our bikes to begin a 27-mile ride south along the Coastal Highway and then to the city of Greymouth. After crossing the Grey River bridge, we all met up at another Speight’s Ale House where we were free to order whatever we wanted for lunch. After lunch, we rode another 12 miles to the coastal town of Hokitika – an historic gold mining town that morphed into a quiet resort community. The town is also known for it “driftwood art” that springs up along the beachfront on unexpended occasions. Once we were checked into our hotel, we met a local historian for a walk-about around the historic buildings of the town. That night we traveled to a local working farm restaurant called The Stations Inn for wine and dinner, before settling in for the night.

Driftwood Art at Hokitika Beach

Driftwood Art at Hokitika Beach

The next morning, we were up for breakfast early before shuttling a short distance to the town of Ross, where we boarded our bikes for the most challenging day yet – a morning 30-mile ride along the Kakapotahi River and through the Waitaha Reserve to the town of Hari Hari to take lunch at the Pukeko Tearoom. After lunch, it was another 37 miles, but this time with over 2000’ of elevation change making our way over Mt. Hercules and through the Whataroa Reserve to the Te Waonui Forest Retreat in the town of Franz Josef. It was a grueling but rewarding ride, and we were met with a fierce but friendly Maori warrior, and guided to the nearby geothermal pools to soak and recover. It was a long but adventurous day, and we all gathered for dinner at the hotel restaurant and made plans for the next day’s exploration.

Biking up the Kakapotahi River Valley

Biking up the Kakapotahi River Valley

 

Rocky with Maori tribesman at Te Waonui Forest Retreat

Rocky with Maori tribesman at Te Waonui Forest Retreat

It was now, Friday, January 9th, and we were free to explore the local area and town on this day. After breakfast, we traveled a short distance to the entrance to the Franz Josef Glacier terminal moraine. There, we hiked through the temperate rainforest to the river where one had the option to hike up to the Franz Josef Glacier’s retreating ice-face. Unfortunately, it was raining and chilly, but Rocky hiked in to check it out, while the rest of the group headed back to the hotel. Thankfully, the weather cleared enough to make a great hike, but not enough to allow us to take a helicopter to the top of the glacier. Therefore, after walking 3 miles back to the hotel, Julie, Pam and A.J. joined Rocky in returning to explore the glacier’s retreating moraines and ice-face once more. The glacier has retreated over 2 miles since it was discovered in the 1800’s, but it is still an impressive, massive ice sheet, hundreds of meters thick. This time, on return to the town, we explored the local shops and made reservations for dinner in town – again at a Speight’s Ale House! After over 15 miles of hiking that day, a few drinks, and some steaks, we called it a night.

Rocky holding ice from Franz Josef Glacier in the background.

Rocky holding ice from Franz Josef Glacier in the background.

Today we would cycle further into the South Westland National Parklands and along the wild and sparsely populated New Zealand’s West Coast. However, before leaving, we were again treated to training in learning a Haka from the local tribesmen. It was great fun, and will certainly be the source of numerous pictures and movies. Then we boarded our bikes and began our 38.5-mile morning ride from Franz Josef through rolling fields to the Salmon Farm Café for lunch. The Café is surrounded by pools of salmon in various stages of maturity. After a light lunch of chowder and salads with a coffee boost, we took off again for another 17-mile long ride to the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge – a quaint retreat on the shores of a small lake, in the middle of a Reserve, only a few miles from the coast. It turns out that it was originally a Worker’s Camp during the construction of the Western Coastal Highway in the 1960’s that was rescued and improved by Dr. Gerry and Anne McSweeney. They then petitioned and actioned to get the surrounding area protected and preserved from development. The area now serves as a home for many native species of temperate rainforest trees and flowers, and is home on the coast to colonies of New Zealand’s “little penguins” and fur seals. Before dinner, Dr. Gerry gave us a brief walk through the rainforest, pointing out the native species, including the massive trees that served as inspiration for the movie “Avatar”. After returning, cleaning up and having dinner, we again followed Gerry, this time into the night in the search of “glow worms”. These are centimeters long worms that glow with a fluorescence, and that are usually found making webs in areas located in overhung embankments. In the dark, the banks along the road looked like a million stars, glowing and twinkling as the breeze rustled the foliage around them.
The next day, we skipped a short morning bike ride to explore the area on our own. We hiked down to nearby Munro Beach through rainforest trails to check out the nesting site of local penguin colonies, but we were too late in the season to see any remaining penguins. We wandered upstream along the glacial Moeraki River to look for the large native eels that populate these waters, and where we have the option to feed them. Finally, we returned to the lodge where there are kayaks available to go further upstream into Moeraki Lake. After lunch, Dr. Gerry took a group of us on a challenging hike through a more secluded part of the rainforest to a deserted portion of the beach, where we clambered along surf pounded rocks and avoided large waves to make our way south to a fur seal colony hanging out at a point on the shore. The seals were numerous and wary of us, but we did not get between them and the water, and so it went well. Along the way, we stopped to pick up sea urchins and to sample them raw straight from the shell and to take an afternoon coffee. The way back involved pulling ourselves 500’ vertically up with an extended rope and crude steps carved into the cliff face. It was the most physically challenging part of the entire trip, but everyone who went made it, with a little help. It was then back to the hotel for showers and dinner and the sharing of excited stories.

Hike along Coast to Seal Colony near Lake Moeraki

Hike along Coast to Seal Colony near Lake Moeraki

 

Fur Seal Colony on Tasman Sea

Fur Seal Colony on Tasman Sea

In the morning, we left the Lake Moeraki lodge early, knowing that this would be the most challenging day of the trip. Today, we would ride our bicycles from the coast, inland and uphill through the Mt. Aspiring National Park, past a series of scenic lakes, and over the Continental Divide of the Southern Alps, to the scenic town of Lake Wanaka. Our morning portion of the ride consist of 48.5 miles, with over 5000’ of elevation climbing, including a steep ascent over Haast Pass. Today, A.J., Peter and Rocky decided to tackle the challenge together. It then became clear that both Peter and A.J., and especially A.J. are “hill animals” when it comes to ascents. We all made it, however, to our lunch stop at the Makarora Café. Then, after a quick and light lunch, we took off again for the afternoon challenge of another 60 grueling miles! This time, Peter and Rocky supported each other and rode together past the pristine lakes, stopping to briefly enjoy the scenic overlooks and to keep hydrated. After replenishing their water supply, Peter and Rocky rode into the vacation town of Wanaka, and to the Edgewater Resort Hotel with their odometers reading over 110 miles of travel that day each! Of the only 6 individuals that completed the whole challenge that day, they arrived first! Meanwhile, while the boys were finishing their ride, the girls cut their ride short, and had explored the local area around the hotel, including a nearby winery. However, such an accomplishment by everyone called for drinks at the bar before our celebration dinner.

At the top of Haast Pass - The Southern Alps Continental Divide

At the top of Haast Pass – The Southern Alps Continental Divide

The next day was Tuesday, January 12th, and we were free to explore town or take a plane ride over the Southern Alps to Milford Sound. Again, the weather’s high winds did not permit the flying option, and we chose to spend our morning with Julie and Pam bike riding and Rocky, A.J., Peter and Nikki hiking. The bike ride was a short, but challenging 24 miles out to Treble Cone ski area and back, and the hike was a 5 mile climb up Iron Mountain with a hike back down and into town. We all met up at the hotel and walked up to Rippon Winery for a scenic lunch overview of Lake Wanaka. That night, we went back to town to have dinner at a local pub where we watched the NCAA Division 1 National Championship Game on TV. After strolling 2 miles back to the hotel, we all met up in Nikki and Peter’s room for nightcaps and camaraderie.

 

View of Wanaka Lake from Rippon Winery

View of Wanaka Lake from Rippon Winery

Wednesday would be our last day on bikes in New Zealand – The “Final Ride!” It would encompass a challenging morning ride of 37 miles along the Clutha River to Bannockburn and the Otago wine region. Along the way, we coasted through “Old Town” Cromwell historic district, before heading out along country roads lined with vineyards. Our destination for lunch was Wild Earth Wines, a restaurant across the Kawarau Gorge ravine, with a small suspension bridge leading to it. The restaurant is built upon the ruins of an old mining village where cables, buckets, and wash-nozzles are scattered about. Here, we loaded our bikes up onto the vans for the last time, and proceeded to enjoy a great lunch of wine-barrel BBQ and local vino, before loading ourselves into the vans for the hour-trip to Queenstown. Upon arriving in Queenstown, we checked into the Sofitel Hotel in the center of town. Queenstown is located on the waters of a large lake, and is one of the recreation capitals of the country. After checking in, one could explore the upscale shops in town, walk the picturesque waterfront, explore the local Arboretum, or take on bungee jumping from the original bungee jumping venue in the world. New Zealanders A.J. Hackett and Henry van Asch built the sport here in Queenstown from observing vine-jumpers in Vanuatu, opening this first venue in 1988. That evening we gathered in the hotel bar for a group cocktail hour, and then walked next door for a “last meal”. Everyone had been challenged and had a great time.

Silver Fern Art in Queenstown

Silver Fern Art in Queenstown

The next morning, some of us met Bradley for a final walk and tour through the local Arboretum and lawn bowling club. Many of the trees there were hundreds of years old, and the flowering shrubbery was fully in bloom. Then it was back to the hotel for shuttles to the Queenstown airport for our flight to Australia, and the third-leg of our adventure. As we climbed away from the runway, we said “good-bye” to the country that had hosted us for the past 3 weeks with adventure, beauty and hospitality. We will miss it!

Backroads Guides Bradley and Darren

Backroads Guides Bradley and Darren