Places Visited Queenstown (NZ), Great Ocean Road, Grampian Park, Uluru Rock, Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas, Sydney
Kids' Ages Ivan: 12 yrs. old. Carolyn: 10 yrs. old
When 21 days in May & June of 2017
Cost about $19,600 ($933/day)
Kids' Favorites Bungy Jumping (NZ)
Driving Luges (NZ)
Gelato in Queenstown (NZ)
Snorkeling in Barrier Reef
Napping in our own beds after snorkeling on the boat
Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery
Staying at Fauna Australia and feeding koalas, wallabies, etc.
Camel Ride at Uluru Rock
Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park Tour (NZ)
The Steaks at The Meat and Wine Company, Sydney
Hartley's Crocodile Adventure
Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park Tour (NZ)
Snorkeling/Diving in Barrier Reef
Biking on Queenstown Trail (NZ)
Driving Luges (NZ)
Birds in Australia
Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery
Staying at Fauna Australia and feeding koalas, wallabies, etc.
Grampian National Park / Wild kangaroos
Hartley's Crocodile Adventure
Sydney Vivid 2017
The Meal at The Meat and Wine Company, Sydney
Inspired by Ivan's wish to see Sydney Opera House and Bill Bryson's book, In a Sunburnt Country, we set the itinerary around Australia and added New Zealand as a sampler. To be truthful, I wanted to visit mostly New Zealand, but Australia had better weather in June.
Logistically, it would have been better to stay in Auckland, instead of Queenstown, but if we were doing only one spot in NZ, it would have to be "The Lord of the Rings" place, which is known for its beauty as well as the bungy jumping bridge. I also read about the amazing Milford Sound
It's also on our bucket list to snorkel and dive in the Great Barrier Reef. We chose a liveaboard ship to see the reef, as suggested by my Kiwi friend. Even though it required extra driving, I decided to relax in Port Douglas, which didn't have a casino and mega hotels like Cairns. Plus, it was also close to Daintree Rainforest and the Hartleys's Crocodile Adventures.
Uluru was chosen to see the famed red rock as well as the "red center" of Australia. I read that it was also a spiritual place.
I was not sure about the Great Ocean Road as our itinerary was already quite full. However, we ultimately added it for its beautiful ocean vistas, Twelve Apostles, and a chance to see wild kangaroos. My Kiwi friend told me that kangaroos like to hang out by golf courses and we might come across some during the drive.
This itinerary would require us to fly 9 times and sleep in 10 different places in 21 days... The most ambitious vacation we've taken thus far.
QUEENSTOWN, NZ: The Adrenaline Action Center
♦ Bungy jumped from
- Kawarau Bridge (Ivan only)
- Shotover Canyon (kids only)
♦ Ziplined on Skyline Gondola Hill
♦ Drove luges
♦ Rode Queenstown Skyline Gondola
♦ Biked on Queenstown Trail
♦ Toured Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park by bus and boat
GREAT OCEAN ROAD, OZ: The Coastal Great Scenic Drive
♦ Drove through Lorne, Apollo Bay, Lavers Hill, Port Campbell, Warrnambool, Colac, Melbourne
- Erskine Falls, Great Otway National Park
- Twelve Apostles, Port Campbell National Park
- Whale nursery in Warrnambool (no whales at that time)
♦ Hung out with wild kangaroos at Grampian National Park
♦ Hiked at night and saw glow worms at Melba Gully National Park
♦ Ate at Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery (& Macarons)
♦ Fed and played with
- Koalas, wallabies, fly foxes, wombats, parrots at Fauna Australia Wildlife Retreat
- Sulfur crested cockatoos at Lorne
ULURU, OZ: The Wondrous Big Red Rock
♦ Drove around the rock
♦ Hiked around the rock
♦ Rode camels around the rock
♦ Watched the night sky around the rock
GREAT BARRIER REEF, OZ: The Spectacular Reef
♦ Spent a night on the boat
♦ Snorkeled and dove at 5 different sites
♦ Went on a night dive (Greg)
PORT DOUGLAS, OZ: A Quaint Seaside Town
♦ Visited Hartley's Crocodile Adventures
♦ Hiked Mossman Gorge
♦ Played at the beach
♦ Shopped in the town center
♦ Cheered the athletes at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship Cairns
Sydney, OZ: The Opera House City
♦ Hung out at our awesome Meriton Serviced Apartments World Tower with Darling Harbour view
- Darling Harbour
- Royal Botanical Garden
- Hyde Park
- Mary's Cathedral
- Australian National Maritime Museum (Greg)
- Sydney Opera House
♦ Rode on a Darling Harbour ferry and saw the Opera House from the sea
- Sydney Vivid 2017 at the Darling Harbour and the Opera House
- Movie: Wonder Woman
- Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Greg and Ivan)
♦ Shopped at (Sharon and Carolyn)
- Queen Victoria Building
- Korean, Japanese, Indonesian foods
- Macarons at La Duree
- Steaks at the Meat and Wine Company
No. of Nights
Transportation in Location
Flew from L.A. to Queenstown
Quality Hotel Melbourne Airport
Flew from Queenstown to Melbourne
Fauna Australia Wildlife Retreat
Comfort Inn Botanical
The Larwill Studio Hotel
Outback Pioneer Lodge
Flew from Melbourne to Uluru
Tropical Heritage Cairns
Flew from Uluru to Cairns
Rode on a boat from Cairns Pier
Coral Sea Villas
Drove from Cairns
Meriton Serviced Apartments World Tower
Flew from Cairns to Sydney
Car rental was about $40 per day.
♦ Find free and less expensive activities: This gorgeous place is set up like an expensive amusement park. Every adrenaline pumping activity comes with a price tag. I blew my budget in no time and we spent a whopping $1,500 in 3 days on activities alone.
♦ Find deals and plan ahead for activities: You might get discounts if you book in advance.
♦ Bike the Queenstown Trail: At times it was a little steep, but kids over 8 years old can certainly do it. It's an intimate way to experience picturesque Queenstown. Plus, it was relatively cheap.
♦ Skip ziplining... if you’ve already done (or are planning to do) bungy jumping.
♦ Buy Skyline Gondola/Luge combo packs: It was super fun and it was also reasonably priced. We did the luge 3 times, but we could have done more!
♦ Go for the Milford Sound tour: It was a 12+ hour tour and many hours were spent on the bus. The bus was comfortable, the road sceneries were like from "Lord of the Rings" and the Milford Sound was absolutely amazing. In fact, it was the most beautiful place I have ever visited.
♦ Kayak around Milford Sound: It would be magnificent to kayak there. We didn't have time and it was too cold, but I know we will be coming back to do this.
♦ Be safe! Their infamous, extremely poisonous animals and plants abound on land and in water. Never pick up unknown seashells, animals, insects or plants. Don't swim in the river, lagoon or ocean unless the local authorities give you the okay.
♦ I just had to share this video of a spider carrying a mouse, which was shot in Queensland. These things only happen in Australia, especially in Queensland.
♦ Skip the Great Ocean Road (GOR) if... you already have seen beautiful ocean sceneries elsewhere. We are from California and have seen some gorgeous coastal views. GOR was beautiful, but to us, it wasn’t flying-halfway-around-the-world beautiful. The kids were restless during the 3-day drive.
♦ Do not rent a "compact" car with Sixt if... you have more than one piece of luggage. I’ve rented compact cars before. but this compact car was tiny like a Toyota Prius. Maybe our suitcases were too big, but because Sixt ONLY rented compact cars, we couldn’t upgrade even if we paid more. The poor kids were packed in like sardines for a few days.
♦ Skip Uluru if... you love Sedona, Arizona. However, it a great place to check out the Australian outback.
♦ Try liveaboard to see the reef: We had a luxurious snorkeling/diving trip because we had our own super cozy beds to nap on between snorkeling. Also, we got to see some reef sites that day trip boats didn't go to. It was quite expensive (over $1,500 for 1 night for the family), but it was worth every single penny.
♦ If you're doing liveaboard, book early. We booked about 7 months ahead, but their calendar was pretty full already. I whole-heartedly recommend the Reef Encounter. Everything about the experience on the ship was excellent.
♦ Pack socks if you're snorkeling multiple times: You might get blisters from the swimming fins and wearing socks really help.
♦ Don’t drive to Grampian Park from dusk till dawn: We had to miss our lodging reservation because we decided not to drive into the park in the evening. All the locals strongly warned us that we would get run over by kangaroos if we did. Furthermore, it would be pitch dark and the road is windy.
♦ Get a GPS with rental cars: We had our phone fitted with an Australian Vodafone chip. While we had some data/GPS service, it was not always reliable. We ended up driving in Australia with paper maps, which was mostly okay but not preferred.
♦ Ask how to use the air conditioning/heater when checking into motels: Australia motels had the same AC remotes by Panasonic and some didn't work properly. Moreover, the front desk was not staffed 24/7. We spent the coldest night ever in a motel in Australia and we wore all our clothes to bed.
♦ Rent a car in Uluru: Unless your schedule is fully booked, it's very nice to drive to Uluru at your leisure, since there really isn’t much to do in town.
♦ Check out "swimming with wild dolphins" near Sydney: We really wanted to do it, but it was closed for the winter. I guess we’ll have to come back for it.
QUEENSTOWN, NZ: The Adrenaline Action Center
Lake Wakatipu, NZ from our lodge
We stayed at Alexis Apartment, which was right on Lake Wakatipu. It had 2 nice bedrooms with a full kitchen. It had an absolutely gorgeous lake view with beautiful fall colors. I loved that a puff of clouds was always hanging over the lake.
Be warned now that I have many superlatives describing Queenstown below. It's not because I'm a person generous with superlatives, but because Queeenstown deserves every single superlative I write here.
Queenstown is known for its adrenaline pumping activities as well as its marvelous beauty. We were told big celebrities like Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey would pop into town. Also, it was no secret that the top spy agencies from the Five Eyes (US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) were having a conference there. I guess even the spies love beautiful places.
Biking on Queenstown Trail
Having arrived at Queenstown with only the Milford Sound tour booked, our first hang out place was the ubiquitous information office with the red sign "i". Everyone at the desk was helpful and efficient, and the office was filled with brochures of paid activities. Because the kids were not too keen on hiking, we booked two bungy jumps, ziplining and a bike tour at the "i". The entire town had free wi-fi, and although not very fast, it helped with planning and sometimes with internet phone calls.
Walking around town, I could feel the impact of Chinese tourists because most of the street signs were in English and Chinese, and always one or more Chinese-speaking staff member was present at the "i". Also, many tour brochures were in Chinese. The best part for us was that all the convenience stores stocked Asian/Korean cup noodles, which we ate as breakfasts happily.
On the day of the Kawarau Bridge jumping, we got up early (around 7:00 a.m.) and went to the A.J. Hackett Bungy office in downtown. Ivan was weighed in and we got bussed to the bridge. I didn't know what to expect, but the beautiful modern building at the jump site was a big surprise. Another big surprise was how absolutely gorgeous the Shotoever River was with its turquoise water and jagged rocky walls. It seemed like nothing was average-looking in Queenstown.
We waited for Ivan's turn inside the building, surrounded by many screens of screaming and laughing faces of the real time jumpers. When it was Ivan's turn, we went to the viewing deck and saw Ivan fitted with the gear. Then, he just walked (actually waddled) off the bridge like he was walking to open a fridge door. When he was done bouncing in the air, a yellow boat came and unhooked him and took him to the riverbank. Ivan walked up the stairs with a sheepish smile, but we could tell he was proud. He liked the video and pictures from the jump and he received a free t-shirt to prove that he bungy jumped!
Driving a luge
We then took the Skyline Gondola to go ziplining by Ziptrek Ecotours on top of the hill. The panoramic view of the Lake Wakatipu was breathtaking. While waiting for the ziplining, we drove luges. This was our first time luging and it was soooo much fun going down the curvy course fast without crashing (ok, only small crashes). I thought I have to look up luge places when I get back home!
We then did ziplining, another first for me. We had 2 guides, Sapphire and Roman, who were funny and fantastic. The company also loaned us heavy jackets and beanies for free, which kept us toasty. We did the first zipline with a little bit of trepidation, but we were doing tricks on the zipline in no time. Zipping through trees was another way to enjoy the Wakatipu Lake views.
After listening to her 12-year old brother getting praises for bravely bungy jumping, the ultra competitive 10-year old Carolyn decided she should also bungy jump to level the bungy jumping field. Ivan also wanted to do a second jump, so the two kids agreed to do the "Canyon Swing" together, which was a bungy jump combined with a big swinging motion at the bottom.
At the Shotover Canyon Swing, when they jumped tandem from the 360 ft. high platform (about 35 story building!), the brother and the sister would scream together all the way down. Also with the Shotover Canyon Swing, they could choose different jump styles. Most of the college kids in the front of Ivan and Carolyn chose the rather passive "the chair". While they sat on the white plastic chair, the staff would kick them off the platform. Some did backwards swan dives. A little slide or a trike was available for those who didn't want to have second thoughts at the last minute. Or one could choose "the bin laden" style where they put a bucket over the head, which stayed on the whole time.
Ivan chose "the Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood" style and Carolyn agreed to do it too. The kids were harnessed and the staff pushed them out from the platform and they were dangling from 360 ft. high. Then out of their own will, the kids kicked their feet up which rested on the top bar, so they were now hanging upside down! The staff counted 5, 4 then the kids were gone! And yes, we got all the video and pictures from the outfit, which were great. After the return, Carolyn had a big smile and said, "it wasn't as bad as I thought!". (She also confessed that while she was dangling in the air, she thought, "I'm not going to die...right?" ) Greg and I might have done it too, but we happily stopped ourselves to keep our budget in check.
With bungy jumping accomplished, we did a low adrenaline activity of biking the Queenstown Trail. The owner of Queenstown Bike Tours picked us up and brought us to Arrowtown. The mountain bikes were in good shape and the trail was well marked throughout. We rode among gold and red fall foliage along the creek, which was absolutely beautiful. We rode on several bridges and cheered on the nervous bungy jumpers on Kawarau Bridge. I felt like we finally got to know Queenstown, away from the million other visitors and bustling downtown. Our bike ride ended in the Gibson Winery, but sadly we didn't have time to enjoy the wine and cheese.
Milford Sound, NZ
The next day we went on the Milford Sound tour. I was a little apprehensive when I booked the 12-hour tour, but once we got on the bus, my concerns evaporated. We spent about 4 hours each way on the bus, but the scenery alone along the way was alone was worth it. It was a light rainy day and it just added to the drama. The majestic granite mountains with cascading waterfalls went on forever. We took a little hike among the rainforest during a short break. When we got on the boat and cruised around Milford Sound, we got to see the granite rocks closely, which seemingly erupted out of the sea. We even got sprayed by the waterfall when the boat was close. To me, saying that Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I have ever been to would be selling it short. I will always remember the feeling of profound awe when I saw the magnificent and majestic Milford Sound. Next time, I will be kayaking in it.
Food-wise, Queenstown was pretty decent, although we expected more. The kids loved the gelato and the adults enjoyed meat pies, Boston cream puffs and some nice steaks. Ironically, even with all the sheep around, we didn't find any rack of lamb. They did have a highly recommended lamb place, but we didn't try it because they only offered take-out.
GREAT OCEAN ROAD (GOR), AU: The Coastal Great Scenic Drive
Wallabies at Fauna Australia Wildlife Retreat
While we were in GOR, we switched hotels every night for 4 nights, which was a little tough. The Quality Hotel in Melbourne didn't feel like high quality with dead ants on the sheets and the blocked off staircase. Our stay at Fauna Australia Wildlife Retreat was definitely memorable because of the fun animals we hung out with, as well as the interesting condition of the room. The room looked like nothing has changed after they set up the place, which was probably in the 1970's. The Comfort Inn in Hamilton also stood out because we felt like we were freezing to death while sleeping. So by the time we got to Melbourne and stayed at Larwill Studio Hotel, we were ecstatic to find cozy, comfy, clean beds and a working heater. In addition, the room was decorated with really cool and funky art.
With the 3-day driving planned, I ordered a Vodafone chip delivered to the Melbourne hotel, but it never arrived. So we bought a chip from a gas station, and with the help from the front desk lady (because we didn't know how to enter a phone number), we were able to use it. It was very nice to have the GPS as we were heading out to Melbourne, because the traffic and the road signs were overwhelming. On top of that, Greg was driving on the wrong side of the road!
The road was well maintained and the traffic was light once we were outside Melbourne suburbs. Greg happened to find a sign for a chocolate factory, which turned out to be awesome. The Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie had mountainful of chocolates and their macarons and ice creams were absolutely delicious. We laughed at the fact in Australia the half-day old Krispy Kreme donuts ($2.25) at a Shell gas station cost more than these delicate macarons ($2.00).
Sulfer crested cockatoo at Lorne
We entered Lorne and were greeted by big beautiful white sulfur crested cockatoos. We could not believe these gorgeous and expensive birds were just hanging out by the parking lot and there were even more on the grass by the ocean. There must have been over 50 of them! And this would begin our discovery of Australian birds…all beautiful, abundant and noisy.
The local places had wonderful brochures, which included the local attractions and the map. Our GPS somehow stopped working and these maps got us through the GOR. We stopped by Erskine Falls, Great Otway National Park, which was a quick drive from the Lorne town center. We only walked to the top of the fall, which was nice enough. However, the surrounding forest was beautiful, definitely different than I was used to. We looked for the kangaroos since there were signs, but didn't see any.
We arrived at Fauna Australia Wildlife Retreat late and were greeted by the host and received a large bag of carrots. Instead of feeding the animals at night, we headed to see the glow worms of Melba Gully National Park. The moon was out, but it was still very dark. Even though we had our flashlights, the kids and I were scared. We were hiking in the pitch dark and didn't know if some strange animals would attack us. After all, we were in Australia! Carolyn wanted to turn back after 5 min., but we pushed on. After 15 min. or so, we saw small faint lights glowing. Wanting to see more of them, we walked for few more minutes. Both sides of the forest were covered with the soft glowing lights, but there weren’t enough to make a big impression. By now, our inner voice telling us to "get out" was getting louder, so we turned around.
Koalas at Fauna Australia Wildlife Retreat
First thing in the morning, we rushed to the backyard to see the animals with the carrot bag in hand. As soon as we entered, we were greeted with all those carrot loving wallabies that ate a half of the carrots. The other carrots went to flying foxes, deer, ponies and wombats. This was the first time I had ever seen a wombat, and I thought it was my kind of funky animal. This chubby marsupial looked like it was part pig and part gopher, and was completely content in the caretaker's arms like a baby.
Then it was the breakfast time for the koalas. We got to feed 3 very hungry koala bears. While I was taking a silly amount of pictures, the caretaker was telling us fun koala facts. Koalas are really parasites of the forest and the trees have been trying to get rid of them by making poisonous leaves, but koalas just adapted. Koala males are very territorial and the big males would just push out the little ones, making them fall from 30 ft. high. Naturally, the evolution caught up with the practice, and now they have these super thick bottom plates for protection.
The famed Twelve Apostles
We wanted to hang out with the animals longer, but we had to get to the rest of the GOR. Our plan was to spend a night in Grampian National Park, known for its natural beauty. We ultimately decided to forego a beautiful park in exchange for a more leisurely schedule for the day. We stopped by the famed Twelve Apostles at the Port Campbell National Park, which was an impressive collection of huge limestone rocks We also visited the whale nursery in Warrnambool, which unfortunately was empty. In Warrnambool, we visited Bayside Lodge thinking that we would spend a night there, but the wonderful inn keeper told us that wild kangaroos just hang out in Grampian National Park. He said it would be too late for us to head out that night,because nobody should be driving during their feeding time, dawn to dusk. So we decided to visit Grampian Park after all, then drove to Hamilton, which was about 1 hr. away from Grampian Park.
We arrived in Hamilton around 8pm and found a room in Comfort Inn Botanical. This was where we had the coldest night ever. It seemed most Australian motels used Panasonic AC/heaters, which came with a handy remote. Somehow the remote didn't really work that night. I would guess the room was probably in the mid 40 F range and we were freezing in our beds even with all our clothes and socks on. Greg checked with the front desk, but nobody was working at night.
We were too happy to get out of the motel the next morning and we headed to Grampian National Park safely in sunlight. When we arrived, we asked at the "i", the information center, where we could see kangaroos. The lady told us that probably none at that hour since they are nocturnal. This was rather disappointing, so we headed to a restaurant to comfort ourselves with some nice food. The nice waitress was telling us about all those not-so-nocturnal kangaroos that hung out at the "Common" during daytime. The Common was a grassy area where the locals played sports.
Here's looking at you, Grampian National Park
Kangaroos we saw at the Common! There were over 20 kangaroos of all sizes. The joeys were definitely cute, but the big ones inspired wonder and fear. They were as tall as Greg (about 6 ft.) and extremely muscular everywhere, including the tails. We could easily imagine the powerful blow they could throw, so we kept a safe distance from them while taking lots of pictures. Then we saw a lady who was taking a selfie right next to a kangaroo, lying down on the grass generously peppered with kangaroo poos. She was unquestionably dedicated to taking an awesome selfie, but boy, she was stupid. I just hoped she didn't end up as one of the "accidents of selfie takers" statistics.
While Grampian Park had wonderful hiking courses, we headed back to Melbourne as we wanted have a good night sleep before we fly out to Uluru the next day. The drive was mostly easy, but driving in Melbourne was a little intimidating with many cars, unclearly marked streets and the trams.
We loved our stay at Larwill Studio Hotel, which had one of the most comfortable beds anywhere. It was particularly nice after the freezing night we had. We walked out of the hotel around dusk and were greeted by flocks of birds making a racket. They were super noisy but very beautiful. I was pleasantly surprised that Australia was filled with pretty birds everywhere, which was not mentioned anywhere when I did my research.
ULURU, AU: The Wondrous Big Red Rock
Glowing Uluru at Sunset
We stayed at Outback Pioneer Lodge for 2 nights. Its virtue was that it was in a pretty good location and the rates were fairly reasonable compared to other hotels.
The town was pretty small with one small town center. It was convenient that the town had its own free shuttle bus connecting all the hotels and the town center, but not Uluru National Park. Perhaps because we were there in June, the town didn’t seem very busy.
We visited the town center and quickly learned that we could only spend about an hour at the most shopping at the different stores. So we decided to rent a car and we drove to see Uluru at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It was easy to see the rock even from a distance since it was the only object rising from the flat ground. It was near sunset and the parking lot was filled with cars. Once we parked, we watched the big red rock glowing in the sunset. The air around it changed the color, forming layers of purple and pink, like the layers of kir royale.
While the kids were hanging out in the hotel, Greg and I drove back to the park to catch the desert night sky. Even with the full moon, the stars were bright, sparkling in the big sky and it was absolutely beautiful. Greg, who is an avid star gazer, loved that he got to see the Southern Cross. It’s a constellation that can only be seen in the southern hemisphere. He was excited to see the familiar constellations, such as Scorpio, upside down!
The next morning we returned to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park for a ranger guided hike. Unfortunately, Ivan became ill and only Greg and Carolyn went on the hike. I expected the outback to be unbearable, desolate red earth, but what I saw was green bush trees growing out of the red earth everywhere. It was quite lush and beautiful, but I was told that this was an unusually green year due to heavier than normal rainfall.
We had a date with camels in the afternoon. I booked a sunset camel tour run by Uluru Camel Tours, as camels sounded a lot more exciting than the usual horses and mules. At the camel ranch, the tour camels were waiting for riders while sitting down and tied together like a candy necklace. They looked a little mangy and sounded like monsters when they yawned! Greg and I sat on the saddles and the camel got up, straightening its hind legs first, then the front. Sitting atop the camel, it felt like we were riding a bull in a rodeo! Ivan was still sick and Carolyn was riding her own camel named Trevor. The ride was enjoyable and we viewed another beautiful sunset at Uluru.
GREAT BARRIER REEF, AU: The Spectacular Reef
The Great Barrier Reef, photo by Reef Encounter photographer
We spent a night in Tropical Heritage Cairns, which was clean and close to the cairns pier. The staff at the front desk was courteous and made taxi arrangements for the next morning since we had to get to the pier early.
We boarded a transfer boat, which would rendezvous with Reef Encounter, our liveaboard ship. We arrived on Reef Encounter by walking on the plank between the two ships, which reminded me of prisoners walking the plank on pirate ships. As soon as we got to our assigned rooms, we got ready to snorkel.
We wore full wetsuits and jumped into the choppy water. Soon we began to see colorful, beautiful fish swimming among the coral reef. Oh, the fish were so very big! Yellow tangs, fox face butterflies, naso tangs, queen angels, parrot fish, puffers, moorish idols, damsels, queen trigger fish, giant clams, staghorn corals, brain corals, sponges, finger corals, sea stars, green sea turtles, black tip sharks, blue spotted rays, Nemos and Dorys, they were all there! I used to work at my sister's tropical fish store that specialized in saltwater aquariums for many years in college. Not only did I recognize most of the fish, I could almost name their prices! I could not believe that we were actually snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and it truly was amazing. The kids even saw a moray eel.
After the first snorkeling, we got back to the room and showered and napped. Carolyn and I agreed that these were the best beds, period. Between snorkeling, we indulged in all the yummy snacks and meals. The worst part was getting in and out of the wetsuits, because we had to change outside and it was windy and the wetsuits were...wet.
Colorful parrot fish in the Great Barrier Reef
Greg enjoyed his day and night dives. With a guide, he explored a narrow tunnel which opened up to a big area filled with fish and coral. He also came across a lion fish, which he wisely stayed away from.
The next day, we snorkeled before breakfast because we would see different fish in the early hours. We later went to the last snorkeling site called Hastings. It was the most spectacular reef I had ever seen. In the shallow water, the reef extended as far as my eyes could see. It truly was a coral garden and resembled a scene from the movie "Finding Nemo". The colorful and huge parrot fish were everywhere and it was exciting to spot big fat puffer fish.
We were very fortunate that we had pretty good visibility while snorkeling. Everyone on the boat was saying that the visibility had been quite poor until we showed up. The onboard photographer, who we became friends with, took many stunning pictures and we were happy to buy them.
PORT DOUGLAS, AU: The Quaint Seaside Town
Port Douglas Beach
We stayed at Coral Sea Villas for 3 nights and were glad that we were staying in one place longer than 2 nights. Coral Sea Villas had great reviews and we were happy to check into a nice 2 bedroom apartment. However, things went downhill quickly as I found sand on the sofa and in all 3 beds. It seemed like the bed sheets were washed, but somehow the sand remained. The almost non-existent wi-fi didn't help our experience either.
The first thing we did in Port Douglas was visiting the Hartley's Crocodile Adventures. It is known for its crocodile lake, where visitors can see the huge crocodiles from the boat. While we were waiting for our boat time, we saw the crocodile and snake shows, which were really good. When teased with a piece of meat, the crocodile literally burst out of the water in a nano second and the meat was gone. We were told that if we encountered a crocodile and could measure its length, run for dear life if it's over 7 ft. (2.1 m) long, which has a mouth big enough to eat you!
Harltey's even had cassowaries, which were as tall as Carolyn and had beautiful black plumage and iridescent blue necks. These flightless handsome birds can kill a person with one big swipe of its powerful claws. In Australia, even birds are lethal. To be fair, they also had komodo dragons, another lethal animal, but they were from Indonesia.
We were planning to drive to Daintree Rainforest, which is the oldest rainforest in the world. However, the road to the Daintree was blocked until 3pm due to the Ironman Championship. These amazing athletes would swim 2.6mi (3.8 km), bike 112 mi (180 km), then run a full marathon of 26.6 mi (42.2 km)! On Reef Encounter, we met a couple from Shanghai, and they were actually competing in the event. We tried to find them as the ironpeople were biking through Port Douglas, but did not see them. It was funny to hear that the engagement gift from the now husband to the wife was a titanium triathlete bike. I hoped the nice couple finished the race.
With the Daintree Rainforest canceled, we had some time to check out the beach down the street. We walked on big rocks looking for crabs and the kids ran a race on the wide beach. We reminded the kids not to pick up any shells, as pretty little cone snails are one of the most poisonous animals on earth and they live in Queensland, Australia.
After the road was open, we made a quick dash to Mossman Gorge, which was only 20 min. away. The shuttle dropped us off and we walked on the boardwalk, which was well above the ground at times. I really liked walking among the tall trees, which were at my eye level. We had been to rainforests in Belize, Guatemala, Hawaii, as well as our favorite Redwoods, but somehow this rainforest was different. Mossman Gorge is a part of Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest, and this one seemed timeless, wild and really old. It was easy to imagine handsome cassowaries running around the trees. By the picturesque creek, we saw a wild turkey running with its jet black feathers and a flaming red face.
Sydney, AU: The Opera House City
Sydney Opera House
We stayed at Meriton Serviced Apartments, World Tower, which was the best hotel we stayed anywhere. We stayed in a 3 bedroom apartment on the 64th floor which had a glorious view of Darling Harbour as well as downtown Sydney. The rooms were roomy and the beds were oh-so comfy. The kitchen had Miel appliances and the wi-fi was fast. The kids were finally able to play their games and they were in hog-heaven! The best part for me was that we were in the middle of Korea/Asia town. When we walked out of the hotel, a Korean restaurant was on the right and a Japanese restaurant was on the left. First meal was at a Korean restaurant, which was delicious. We also loved the Japanese ramen place next to the hotel.
After being in the nature for the past 2 weeks, it was very exciting to be in a city, and Sydney was an awesome city. It had all the things a city would have; shops, office buildings, restaurants, opera house. Instead of being overwhelming like New York, it was approachable, enjoyable and clean. We were hoping to see the new "Wonder Woman" movie in the world's biggest IMAX theater in Sydney, but it was being remodeled at the time. As we walked to the regular movie theater, we discovered so many interesting shops and restaurants, punctuated regularly by Ugg stores. "Wonder Woman" really rocked and Gal Gadot was very convincing as a demi-godess. I loved all the action scenes and Chris Pine scenes. We walked through Hyde Park, Royal Botanical Garden and visited St. Mary's Cathedral, which were all very nice. We then took a ferry where we saw the Opera House for the first time. Being such an icon, it looked really familiar. Even though I had taken a couple good pictures already, I just couldn’t help taking more pictures. It was as if I’d been possessed by the camera!
We had this goal of eating an Australian steak before we left. With the fast wi-fi at the hotel, I found and made a reservation at the Meat and Wine Company. The restaurant ambiance was a little dark and formal, but the steaks and the lamb shoulders were absolutely fabulous. The dessert (apple pie?) was also excellent. We were a very happy family after the lunch.
Sydney Vivid 2017 at the Opera House
Then came the individual shopping time. Carolyn and I hit the streets, Greg visited the Maritime Museum, and Ivan played his game at the hotel. In the afternoon, we met at La Duree, a famed French macaron restaurant. Greg and I had the first La Duree macarons when we were in Paris many many years ago, which made an unforgettable impression. As we were biting into the rose macarons in Sydney, I knew that Carolyn and Ivan were getting their unforgettable impression. Their faces were initially perplexed, then in awe as the rose flavor lingered on for a long while. We ordered a few more rose macarons.
A great deal of stamina was required for shopping in Sydney. Their city center shopping district extended 4 square blocks continuously in multi levels. Carolyn wanted to get a denim jacket and after an hour of exhaustive searching, I asked a local for help. I was told that in the entire city center, there were probably 2 kids stores! We did visit one of them and they didn't have the jacket, but Carolyn bought a couple of extra small jackets from H&M. It was a little odd to see the chain stores like H&M and Zara displaying all the winter clothes that I already shopped for 6 months ago. I guess the northern hemisphere gets the new crop of fashion first.
In the evening, Carolyn and I headed to the Opera House to see "Sydney Vivid", which is held every year. The entire Darling Harbour and the Opera House areas are turned into a gigantic canvas, where art images are projected to the groovy music. It was like watching really cool artsy screen savers over the buildings with cool music. The Vivid was beautiful, and it was a good way to end our long vacation, even though we didn't want to leave Sydney yet.
Milford Sound, NZ
This trip felt different than others because the kids were getting older. Ivan was a teenager, even though he was not quite 13 years old yet. To him, the wi-fi capability of the hotel was as important as getting 3 meals per day. He preferred texting with his friends and playing a game (Clash Royale) at the hotel instead of walking around Sydney. Carolyn was eager to shop anywhere, anytime, often hunting to find the perfect stuffed animal to add to her collection and some cool clothes as well.
Another reason why this trip felt different was because how similar New Zealand and Australia were to the U.S. We ate like we were at home, spoke English, drove on well marked roads and shopped at the same chain stores. The difference was that we drove on the wrong side of the road, the locals spoke with a cool funny accent, and the bakeries were better. There were McDonald’s and KFC restaurants everywhere, albeit equipped with much better menus than those in the U.S.
Sunset on Great Ocean Drive
I truly believe that "it's a great trip if we eat well". The fried chicken in Belize is legendary, along with Turkish kebobs, Japanese black sesame buns and Korean street foods. I was bothered that this trip came up a little short in that regard. The baked goods and ice creams were excellent; the Boston cream puffs, macarons, gelatos, ice creams and bread were really good. However, we saw the same menu everywhere; meat pies, fish and chips, burgers, sandwiches and pizzas. I think we loved Sydney even more because we could finally eat different delicious food.
The trip felt rushed, because it was. With the vastness of Australia and a side trip to New Zealand, we hardly had time to relax and hang out. I'm grateful that our kids were great travelers, keeping up with the entire itinerary without complaining. I also appreciated that they understood and appreciated that this trip was extra special, because only a few families travel this far down from our area.
Sydney Vivid 2017 at the Opera House
Even though this was a special trip, when we returned home I was contemplating if the vacation was really worth the time and money. While in Australia, I also realized how beautiful our home country is and how fortunate we are to live here. The Redwoods, Yellowstone, Sedona, and California Coast are all world-class beauty. The next time we head back to the southern hemisphere, we’ll see a lot more of New Zealand, the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney in their summer time. I know Ivan is already planning to do New Zealand with his friends in high school. It will totally be awesome.