Mar 022017
 

This one is going to get a little long. Yes, it’s only two days in Australia, but there’s just that much to see and enjoy that I can’t do it justice without at least a few dozen pictures.

Australian immigration is super easy now that ePassports can be scanned at the gate and you don’t have to deal with an immigration officer. Through the gates, straight to customs, and hand my slip to the customs agent. After asking how long I was here for, and hearing three days, he asked why so far for three days. Told him it’s been a rough few months at work, so decided to take a bit of a trip around the world to get away from all the drama in Washington DC lately. His response was so typically Australian: “yeah, that President’s a bit of a wanker, isn’t he?” Perfect welcome to Australia!

On to the Airport Express Train and off to my hotel – the Westin Sydney. I’ve always stayed at the Four Points Darling Harbour before, but it’s in the process of rebranding so it was time to check out a new part of the city. I’m very glad I did, because although it wasn’t on the water I was very happy with my stay here. Yes, I had the perfect storm of problems with my room (bad air conditioning, a door lock that froze in the locked position and needed a manual key to open, etc, etc, etc) but major kudos to hotel management for doing their best to make things right in the end. Suffice to say, for a stay with so many problems, I will definitely be giving them another chance.

Check in, quick shower after sleeping on a plane, and given it was already mid-afternoon it was time for a walk. Strolled down to The Rocks, and on the way stopped at a small pub I like for a couple of beers and an emu, crocodile, and kangaroo pizza. Lunch al fresco, ahhh….

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Got down to the waterfront just in time, while it was still full daylight, and enjoyed playing tourist a bit. The Harbour Bridge:

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Sydney Opera House just as the sun was beginning to set:

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Bridge selfie:

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Harbour panorama:

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Opera House just before dusk:

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Late afternoon Harbour Bridge:

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I definitely stayed around the water for a couple hours just walking around and people watching. Even after having been to every country there’s something I really enjoy about going to the World’s great cities and just tourist/people watching. It’s amazing to see people who are still excited about the vacation of a life time, and watching the joy as they discover new places.

Opera House just after sunset:

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The next morning, I ended up sleeping in a bit later than planned (thanks jetlag and finally catching up – I think this was my first full night of sleep since I left DC) so by the time I headed out it was just afternoon and already approaching 40C / 105F. I was convinced it would be cooler by the water, so decided to head out on my planned excursion regardless.

My friend Ryan had suggested heading to Coogee Beach to do what is known as the Bondi to Coogee Walk. He suggested, however, doing it in the reverse direction, because finishing the walk in Bondi has great views and drops you in a much more happening area where you can celebrate and enjoy a long walk better. Bit of googling seemed to agree with this, and a couple pages suggested actually starting the walk even further down the coast in the the town of Maroubra.

Only problem was – how do I get there? Those of us over 35 remember when traveling meant maps, guide books, etc, but now things are easy. You tell google maps where you are, you tell it where you want to go, and it gives you bus directions. It works like a charm. I had already purchased a local transit card and loaded fare onto it, so it was an easy matter of finding the bus stop, waiting for the bus, tapping on, and getting off and tapping the card in the right place. Couldn’t be easier!

Even the busses in Sydney are sports-crazed:

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Near the bus stop in Maroubra, getting read to head down the South Coogee Stairs towards the water:

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After about 15 minutes of walking Coogee Beach appeared:

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Fantastic view of the water against the beach:

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After Coogee Beach I had to stop. I was already baking 30 minutes into the walk, and severe sunburn was imminent. Fortunately every little corner store sells 100 types of sunblock, so after stopping for a can of spray-on SPF 50, water, and red bull, I was back on my way. A short while later, I rounded the corner again to Gordons Bay:

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Looking back towards Coogee:

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Next up was Clovelly Beach, with an ocean pool. Didn’t get pics of the pool, but did manage a selfie up against the small inlet:

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After walking around Shark Point, with some serious elevation gain and fall, I came upon Waverley Cemetery. The main walk along the water had been washed out in storms the pervious summer, so a detour straight through the cemetery and a bit inland was in order.

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Path right through the cemetery:

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Gravestones with Ocean backdrop:

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Rounding the next corner after the cemetery brought me to Bronte Beach. Time to stop for a bit, reapply sunblock, before continuing on my way.

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Local kids contemplating some cliff diving:

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Tamarama Beach – the last beach before Bondi, and the fourth beach I’d passed on the walk already:

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Rounding Tamarama Beach to Mackenzies Point:

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Coming around the bend, Bondi Beach was in sight:

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Rock overhangs on Mackenzies Point:

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Bondi Beach:

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Great view of Bondi:

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By this point I was starving, and found a great little Italian place for a late lunch/early dinner thanks to Tripadvisor. Highly recommend checking out Bondi Trattoria if you’re in the area.  Burrata, figs, and balsamic. Outstanding.

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Angel hair pasta, raw tuna, and chili oil. Again, outstanding, and makes me wonder why such simple, fresh dishes are so hard to find in the US:

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After stuffing myself post-walk, headed back to Bondi and sat down on the hill overlooking the beach to watch the sun go down:

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Sunset:

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Found a fun little Star Wars-themed bar near my hotel when I got back, which had several great local NSW craft beers and was a fun way to close out the evening. All the walking had tired me out, and it was a relatively early night. I had nearly a full day the next day, but wanted to be sure I could get up at a reasonable hour and make the most of it.

Despite that, slept in a bit longer than I wanted, so hurried back towards the water to catch the ferry to Manly. Great view of the Harbour Bridge heading out:

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After docking in Manly, a quick shot of the beach. It was a gorgeous, although slightly hot, morning:

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Manly’s fierce and fearless avian inhabitants:

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Still wasn’t really hungry, but decided to stop by the 4 Pines Brewing Company to sample their beers. Definitely a great selection!

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The clouds were starting to gather, so I rushed back to the ferry to head back to Sydney and get my bags before the weather looked too bad.  Of course, a quick stop at Starbucks first to re-caffeinate for the long night ahead. About five minutes into the ferry ride the clouds started looking ominous, so I went to the railing and put the camera on rapid fire mode, hoping that I would catch something exciting. Just a few minutes out from Sydney, I got this amazing shot! Perfect way to end the trip!

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Had to wait about 30 minutes at the pier for the super torrential rains to let up, and grabbed another crocodile pizza on the way back to the hotel and then it was time to check out and catch the train back to the airport. It had been an amazing few days in Sydney, and I can’t wait to go back.

But first, the Qatar A380 in first class to Doha…

Feb 092015
 

Woke up way too early just after 6am, and met my friend from DC for breakfast before getting ready to head out on my tour. Driver picked me up as planned at 7:30 on the nose, and of course I got distracted catching up over breakfast so was running a little late. No worries, we headed out just before 8 to head to the east part of the island and find some lemurs! Traffic getting out of Tana was quite bad, and the joke the driver had was that it was the Lycée Français – not sure why this was so funny, but every time he encountered traffic that’s what he’d say. Pretty sure you can’t blame ALL the traffic on the French!

Soon we were clear of Tana, and winding our way over the hills/mountains towards Andisibe Park in the east of the island:

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Stop one was the Pereyras Reptiles Farm. After a short trek through the woods, we spotted our first lemurs, who came down from the trees…because we had bananas. Clever.

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Who wants a banana!

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After playing with the lemurs and taking pics, we headed to the chameleon enclosure. It was a bit too zoo-like for my tastes, but at least it guaranteed we’d get to see them since the chameleons can be really hard to spot in the wild. First up, a Parson’s Chameleon:

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…and a tomato frog…gee, I wonder how it got that name!

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BATS!

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I’d had enough of the zoo at this point, so it was back in the car to drive a bit further. We stopped at the edge of the park to get lunch, since it was already after 1pm at this point. Zebu in madagascar green curry…it was pretty tasty…especially the onions! …not to mention cheap. The entire meal with a beer was hardly $8.

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After lunch we kept driving, and our next stop was the Vakona Forest Lodge, where I’d be spending the night. Lanai to my hut:

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It was pretty basic inside, but much better than I’d expected. There was no AC, but the temperatures outside were reasonable enough that it wasn’t needed. The big downside, however, was the 99% humidity in the park. Everything was instantly damp, but hey, that’s what you get when you come to the rainforest! It had warm water on demand, was very comfortable, and all in all, for being in the middle of a tropical rainforest was all-around excellent!

The lodge has it’s own private island, which serves as a refuge for lemurs which had either been in captivity previously, or were in endangered areas. (ie, logging companies were destroying their land, etc.) Got in a small boat to cross the moat onto the island (literally 20 meters across), and I hadn’t been out of the boat for two seconds before this happened. This little brown lemur leapt right at me and jumped on my head. No warning at all, lol, I can see how this wouldn’t go over too well with some people…

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5 seconds later, he was joined by this guy:

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Apparently, they thought I was a tree.

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Lemur kisses!

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What are YOU looking at!

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After managing to pry the lemurs off me we got back in the boat to go down the moat a bit and look for more species. Next up was the golden sifooka:

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…and finally, the ringtailed lemur:

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Right after the ringtails, a torrential downpour started, and we paddled back to the car as quickly as possible, but still got soaked. That’s what happens in the rainforest I guess!

After relaxing at the lodge for a couple of hours, using the wifi in the main lodge, and having a couple espressos, it was time to head out on the night walk. We saw the two smallest species of lemurs – the mouse lemur and the dwarf lemur, but unfortunately they were too far away (and it was too dark) to really get pictures of them. We did get a few cool frog pictures, however:

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After walking in the dark for about 90 minutes I was exhausted, and had had enough, so it was back to the lodge for dinner. More Zebu stew and wild forest mushrooms. Every time I had Zebu, I kept thinking back to that old Simpsons episode where Lisa is trying to teach Maggie the alphabet, and Z is for Zebu…see Maggie? Zebu? With a hump and a doolap. Dooooolap.

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Slept reasonably well, although it felt like sleeping in a swamp the humidity was so high. Up early, decent breakfast provided by the lodge including eggs, bread, and fruit, and then it was off to the National Park to go lemur spotting. Our goal this morning was to see the Indri Indri which was the largest species. About an hour in, we’d seen a few more common brown lemurs and a couple of bamboo lemurs (so named because they eat bamboo) but no Indri Indri. We did, however, see a massive snail:

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…and another Parson’s Chameleon up close and in nature!

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…and this frog!

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After nearly four hours of walking, and consulting with other guides we ran into, we still hadn’t seen any Indri Indri. My guide (a local guide, not the one from my tour company) was growing visibly frustrated, and kept wandering into the forest for 30 minutes at a time looking for them and leaving us behind to stand around. It was pretty frustrating. I told him several times it really wasn’t that important we find them, but he refused to give up. Finally, he was really frustrated, and got out his cell phone and started calling around to all the other local guides.

A friend of his had spotted some Indri Indri at another Park about 10 minutes drive away, so he rushed us out of the National Park, into the car, and off we drove to another park. Another 15 minute or so hike into this park, and finally, there it was….way up in the trees. I needed the binoculars to get a good look at it, but he seemed happy since we could at least tick the box that we’d seen it and he could do his job. It was really cool, but probably not worth all the stress.

At this point it was after noon, so we piled back in the car to begin the drive to Tana. We weren’t hungry when we reached the restaurant we’d eaten at the day before, so I agreed we’d stop at a “clean local restaurant” which was really the only other option on the way back to Tana. I ended up having “steak” which was actually pretty good grilled in some sort of a sweet sauce with a side of fries for a whopping $4. Including a large bottle of water. Hah!

View on the drive back to Tana:

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Pretty bad traffic, and finally made it back to the hotel around 6pm. I rested up a bit, and it was pouring rain outside by this point, so decided to just have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, since it looked like it had a decent menu. Tasty fois gras starter:

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Grilled fish with blue cheese sauce and veg:

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Moëlleux au Chocolate with ice cream:

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Three courses and two beers? Yes, $21. I think Madagascar is by far the best value for food and lodging of anywhere I’ve ever visited. Every meal was under $25 and high quality, lodging was under $100 a night for solid three star standard, and everything was clean, comfortable, and most importantly all the employees seemed happy and well-provided for.

By this point I was seriously about ready to pass out having been up since 5:30, and crashed early, since we had one more morning tour before flying out.

Feb 232014
 

One problem I was having when booking this trip was the price of rental cars. They were absolutely outrageous, coming in at well over $100 a day for a compact car. Ugh, and that was on the cheapest sites. I spent some time on google, and eventually came across Discount Hawaii Car Rental dot com. Checked their rates…and it seemed too good to be true…plus they weren’t even asking for a credit card to confirm it!  I booked, they told me it had been booked with Alamo, and I checked Alamo’s website…and it was there.  Wow.

Fast forward to Kona, and I get to Alamo to pick up the car.  As promised, it was a two door jeep, and the price was as promised as well.  Wow…score another win for teh interwebz!

Short 20ish minute drive, and we were at our hotel, the Kona Sheraton.  Parking was an absolute bear, with no spots at all in the lot.  Eventually I just gave up and gave the car to the valet…which turned out to be good, because when I checked in it turned out valet was complimentary for Starwood Platinum members.  Something they should probably alert you about in advance maybe?

There was good news, however.  We’d been upgraded to an “Ohana Suite” which was an amazing room with an oceanfront view.  Found out one other disappointing thing at check-in:  it was 9:15pm and all the hotel restaurants were already closed.  Seriously, I know it’s a resort and it’s Hawaii, but no food after 9pm?!  We ended up ordering room service (which delivered only until 10) and had two outrageously priced burgers and beers for like $60.  At least they were quite tasty.

Then, it was time to brush the teeth…or so we thought.  Turned on the faucets…and a stream of brown water came out for like 30 seconds.  What is this, Sochi?  I know well enough to avoid “dangerous face water” but it was running clear after a minute, so figured it was at least good enough to shower in.  Called the front desk, they apologized profusely, and sent up several bottles of water for drinking…and then we passed out.

Woke up reasonably early, maybe 8a and the view outside the room of the pools was amazing:

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The hotel had a great little coffee shop/stand, and we grabbed some great kona coffee and small snacks for breakfast.  This is something I wish more hotels had:  a local coffeeshop with great food and drinks so you don’t have to have a giant breakfast in the morning.

The pool looked awesome out our room, so we opted to spend the rest of the morning being completely lazy and sitting by the pool until check-out time.  It was fantastically relaxing and just what I needed to start the trip off.  Yes, I said check-out.  We were in Kona for three nights, but ended up booking each night at a different hotel.  When I booked, the Sheraton was only available the first and last nights, and the King Kam Courtyard was only available the middle night.  Odd, but at least I’d get two Starwood stay credits!

We checked out at exactly noon, and drove to the King Kamehameha Hotel to check in.  It’s right in the middle of the city, and I’d stayed there many times 15+ years ago when I used to go to Kona each fall to volunteer at the Ironman.  The hotel was in much rougher shape than I remembered, but maybe that was partly to do with the lack of the festive atmosphere I remember from Ironman…who knows.  They did give me a free box of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, however, for being a Marriott Gold Member.  Heh. The hotel was so-so and really musty smelling, and I don’t know…I just had really good memories of it and it was a bit of a let down.

Walked to lunch at the Kona Brewing Company, about a 10 minute walk from the hotel:

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Very tasty Cuban sandwich with Kailua Pork, and even tastier samplers:

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Mar 212013
 

By the time we’d grabbed a small snack, the drizzle had turned into a steady light rain…not a good sign for our afternoon at Machu Picchu.  Let me back up here and talk about tickets a bit.  You can in theory buy tickets from the government website, but when we went the website’s payment portal was down for two straight week so we had no way to get them in advance except through our hotel.  The hotel arranged them for us by credit card, and we were able to pick them up along with bus tickets when we checked in.  There was approximately a $10-15 surcharge per ticket for this service, but it definitely beat being caught out in the rain with no ticket when we’d gone that far!

We took the bus up the very very windy road to the top of Machu Picchu, and the steady rain continued.  It was actually pretty miserable, but we did manage to walk around for about 45 minutes until the rain let up a bit.  A few views from the very top of the site, looking down over the valley:

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May 312012
 

Up early to check out of the hotel to drive back to the town of Paro for our big day hike to Taktsang Monestary. The monastery is at approximately 3,100 metres above sea level, and the hike up starts somewhere around 2,200 metres so it’s a pretty steep hike! We drove the one hour from the hotel in Thimphu pretty quickly, and soon were at the base of the hill to begin our hike.

It was approximately a 2.5 hour hike pretty much straight uphill, with a stop at the canteen halfway to buy water, etc, and take a brief rest. A few pics from the hike up:

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