Tuesday, October 9, 2012

AU/NZ trip: days 9-15...the end for now.

Day 9:
Today was our last morning in Australia, before flying to New Zealand. We made our way to the airport early so that we would not run into any complications for our 11am flight. We arrived in Auckland at 7pm that night; there is a three hour time difference between NZ & AU, so our flight was only about 5 hours long. We picked up our rental car (they drive on the other side of the road, and consequently, the steering wheel is on the right side of the car instead of the left – thank goodness Kyle is driving), headed out for dinner, and ventured out toward our first hotel. The stars were absolutely beautiful on our drive to our first hotel about two hours south of Auckland. We pulled over to take a look at them.
Day 10:

Today is our first full day in NZ, and we have decided that we both need a relaxing day to give our bodies a chance to fully recover from Australia and the liveaboard. So this morning we went to some geothermal hot springs to spend the morning relaxing in the warm water. There were several different mineral baths, with some being good for bones/joints, and the others being good for your skin. Despite the light sulfur smell, these outdoor baths had an amazing view of the lake and rolling green hills. We met a man who was a local and comes to these baths regularly for his joints, and he pointed us in a new direction for some must-see hikes in the area. He was the third person so far to as us if we were on our Honeymoon, which makes us both smile every time.  It's hard to believe we are coming up on 6 years already....feels like just yesterday!

After that, we drove to a naturally heated pond just outside the city, which our new friend told us about.  He said it was a local favorite date spot for couples to go swimming there. It was beautiful & secluded, and surprising the water was naturally heated to about 80 degrees and had steam rising off of the water.

Along our drive through the country to our hotel, we saw a trail sign to a waterfall, so we decided to park and go find it. It was only about a 20 minute walk each way & well worth the view! It was a great activity to do with the remaining sunlight in the day.

Day 11:

We had planned today to be our super-long hiking day to the top of a mountain (Mt. Doom for anyone who has seen Lord of the Rings), but upon arriving to our hotel and talking to some of the locals who hike this area regularly, we found out that this particular trail was closed due to a very recent volcanic eruption! This eruption actually destroyed one of the huts along this trail & the crater is still smoking, which we were able to see from the road.

Since this specific hike was no longer do-able, we found 2 other hikes in this same area to choose from and did those instead. The first one was hiking around a high plateau on "Mt. Doom" and it offered some breathtaking views. We got caught in a hail storm on our hike back, though; thank goodness we both have hoods on our rain jackets!

Our second hike was hands down the most beautiful hike we have ever been on! Kyle described it as Shangra-la. This trail was in the New Zealand "bush," as the locals call it, which in American standards is nothing short of a Rain Forest. It had a mixture of redwoods, ferns, and moss-covered trees & vines. Pictures don't even come close to doing this place justice.
Day 12:
This morning we drove to Hobbiton – where they filmed the Lord of the Rings. We had a perfect day for it, too, because the weather was beautiful and the sun was shining. The green rolling hills where they filmed the movie are covered in sheep for as far as the eye can see. We took a guided tour throughout the outdoor set, and were able to get up close and personal with the hobbit holes – we even got to go inside one of them. The set is huge – they really did build an entire little village! Our guide told us that they completely blew their budget allowance, creating 44 different holes, among other things. We also got to see the set of the new movies that have not yet been released; the next Lord of the Rings movie will be released this December, so we’ll have to go see it now. The other two movies in the series will be released Dec. ’13 and Dec. ’14. We had a great time and are so glad we decided to stop and see it.
After Hobbiton, we drove to the Coromandel peninsula. They have a “hot water beach” there, where people take spades/shovels and dig out little hot-tubs in the sand. Kyle and I had to check this phenomenon out. Much to our surprise, the water there is REALLY hot! We were both expecting it to be luke warm at best, but this wasn’t the case at all. The water was so hot in some areas that it could actually burn you! There is a localized geothermal hot water spring on this beach that rises through the sand, and that part of the beach is only accessible during low-tide. We quickly realized that the perfect hot-tub could only be made by mixing the cool ocean water with the hot spring water to get the perfect temperature.
As we drove to our hotel from the beach after sunset, we realized how few lights there were in this small city; because of this, the stars seemed SO bright! We were able to locate the Southern Cross, and Kyle was able to capture a great night picture of it to remember it by.
Day 13:
This morning, we woke up early to hike out to the Cathedral Cove during low-tide, which is around 7am. During this time, there is a cove on the coast that is accessible by foot. When we got there, we were the only people on the beach, and we got to enjoy Cathedral Cove all to ourselves. As we were leaving, though, we passed several other people; so we were glad we had gotten an early start.
After the Cove, we drove to a town called Thames (pronounced Tims), where we ate lunch and ventured down a long-windy-mountainy road to get to the beginning of a hiking trail to the “pinnacles.” This was our longest hike of our entire vacation. We started at noon, and didn’t finish until sunset. The hike itself was gorgeous, but extremely challenging. It was INSANELY vertical, and on the decent, we both kept saying that we didn’t know how we had made it up there in the first place. Unfortunately for us, though, the spectacular views that the pinnacle offers were not visible to us because we had hiked into a big cloud and all we could see was white at the top.
After literally hiking all day long, we did a munchies stop at the local grocery store called Pak ’n Save back in Thames, and went a little crazy buying chocolates, mixed nuts, wine, and other fun snacks. We figured we deserved it after all of the calories we had burned off!
Day 14:
Today was our last full day in New Zealand, and we spent it exploring Auckland. We got into our hotel late last night, still in our dirty hiking clothes, and boy did we ever feel like fish out of water when we pulled up to our Auckland hotel and there was not only valet parking to park our car, but also a bell hop to help with our luggage and press the elevator buttons for us! Our hotel here was a little more expensive than the rest of the ones on our trip, but we had just figured that they ALL were more expensive in Auckland because it is a huge city. Our room was immaculate, but we both felt a little out of our league, especially walking into the hotel in our hiking clothes. Ritzy, ritzy, ritzy…fish out of water for sure!
Auckland is a nice city to walk around and lounge in. It’s not as busy as Sydney, but it still has a pretty harbor, a big bridge, and a sky tower. We walked through the Victoria Park and markets, wandered around the harbor day-dreaming about owning a boat someday, and did a little souvenir shopping. Our flight the next morning was an early one at 6am, so we decided it was best to just pull an all-nighter and sleep on the plane tomorrow instead of trying to sleep tonight. We went to a late movie (Looper) that didn’t get out until almost midnight, and then we found a Denny’s (of all places! I’ve never seen one of these outside of America) for a midnight breakfast. At 2am, we checked out of our hotel and began driving to the airport, where we got lost. We pulled off on the side of the highway when a police car came up behind us with his lights on; we figured we were getting a ticket for stopping where we did, but instead he drove up to our window and asked if everything was okay. When we told him we were lost, he was super friendly and told us to follow him, and he gave us a police escort for a good 20 minutes or so all the way to the airport!!!!! What a nice guy, and a pleasant ending to our trip.
Day 15:
As I wrote in yesterday’s post, today started super bright and early. Our first flight from Auckland to Sydney was about 4 hours long and Kyle and I slept the entire time; we are like two walking zombies! Currently, we are sitting in the Sydney airport, where we have a layover for the next two hours before boarding our next flight to Incheon, Korea that is 10.5 hours long. We are hoping that because we stayed up all night, we will be able to sleep the majority of this flight, as well.
We are both sad to be leaving AU & NZ, but we’re also ready to get back to Korea to return to a normal schedule and see our friends. It’s always bittersweet ending a vacation. I know without a shadow of a doubt, though, that we will return to AU & NZ someday; there was just way too much to see in just a short amount of time. Next time we come, we will visit Melbourne & Perth in Australia, and then fly to the south island of New Zealand. We already have our ‘trip’ mapped out in our heads. =) Until then, though, we are really going to miss these places!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

AU/NZ Trip: days 6-8

Day 6 (2nd on liveaboard):
Today started out with a morning dive before breakfast at 6:30am; we stayed on the boat for this one for two reasons: 1) I was sore from the weight belts and tanks from the 4 dives the previous day & 2) Kyle's ears were giving him problems equalizing the night before and he needed to give them a chance to recover.

We dove just after breakfast, but Kyle was not able to descend past two meters because his ears would not equalize! Nevertheless, we saw an abundance of sea life and used this shallow depth to scuba-snorkel over the shallower parts of the reef.  We were also able to see another sea turtle and several other giant clams (>1 meter wide!).

Because of Kyle's ears, we decided to snorkel instead of dive for the third scheduled dive; this turned out to be an AMAZING experience! The reef extended almost to the surface and therefore the top was only accessible by snorkeling. The increased amount of light, as well as the close proximity of the marine life, made for some great sights and the most colorful pictures of the entire trip.

The last dive of the day was the night dive. Kyle decided to sit this one out and I decided to go on it alone... but still in a group of other divers. The wind had picked up, so the water was a lot choppier than the previous night dive. And I don't know if it was just my imagination or if it was the fact that I was missing my diving buddy, but it seemed a whole lot darker out, too. At nighttime all the "creepy-crawly-creatures" come out to play and the reefs had tons of crustaceans all over them.  The dive guide who was leading our group of about 6 divers motioned for us to congregate on the seafloor toward the end of our dive. As we all circled around him, he motioned for us to press our lights against our chests in order to extinguish the light without actually turning it off. I was shocked at how well my eyes adjusted to the darkness and how the moons reflection actually provided enough light to see shapes & figures in the distance. We swam this way to our "safety stop" which we preform for 3 minutes at about 5 meters in order to expel excess nitrogen from our bodies so we don't get decompression sickness. While at the safety stop, our guide put his hand on his forehead sticking straight up, and pointed, indicating a shark was nearby. I looked over the outline of a huge shark patrolling back and forth looking for something to eat. Our group of 6 was almost instantly on top of one another and I took someone's flipper to my face! Looking back, I have never seen so many people trying to get to the middle, especially because the shark was swimming 15 ft away from us and we still didn't have our lights on. While our guide assured us after the dive that this 2-meter-long-white-tipped-shark posed no immediate threat, it was an alarming experience, especially at night, and it was the closest I have ever been to a shark.

Day 7 (day #3 on the liveaboard):
Today was our last day on the liveaboard; it began with a very early dive/snorkel @ 5:30 am, which we opted for snorkeling on this one because it was so early in the morning. After we snorkeled, we ate breakfast, and then got ready for the post-breakfast dive. We saw our third large sea-turtle on this dive, which meant that we got to see a different sea-turtle every single day that we were on the trip. Turtles are fun to come across when you are diving because they aren't afraid of you and will normally let you get right up on them to take pictures of them/with them and touch them. They remind me of the turtles in the movie Finding Nemo (Kyle swears he heard it say “duuuuuude”), which is ironic because shortly after we met this turtle, we actually FOUND Nemo…two of them! They were hanging out in their algae home, hovering around their living space, just like at the beginning of the movie. It was cool to see real clownfish. After surfacing from this dive, we only had about a half hour of dwell time before jumping back into the water for our final dive of the trip. On our last dive, we did our deepest dive of the entire trip, reaching depths of just over 18 meters. There was a fish almost as big as I am, called a parrot-fish, and Kyle took some really neat pictures of it swimming near me.  After this dive, we ate lunch on the boat, and then the boat started on the two-hour journey back to shore.

Because the winds had picked up the night before, our boat ride back was an extremely rocky one. The crew tied down the loose chairs, the microwave, & anything/everything that could move because the waves were tossing our little boat all over the place. I laid down on one of the benches so I wouldn't get sea-sick, and Kyle went up on the top deck to get some fresh air, where he got splashed by the waves coming over the sides of the boat & a pretty bad sunburn. At one point during the ride home, I tried to make my way downstairs to our cabin so that I could make sure that things on my bunk hadn't been thrown all around our room; I didn't even make it 5 steps and a big wave rocked the boat, throwing me skidding across the floor. I have a very bruised forearm and a cut-up knee because of it! These waves were brutal. I crawled my way back to the bench I had been sitting on and didn't try to move from it again the rest of the trip.
A bunch of the people from the dive boat were going out to have a drink back in Cairns after we got dropped off back at our hotels around 5, but Kyle and I were both so exhausted from the previous three days that we both ended up falling asleep around 8 that night after walking around Cairns for a bit. Funnily enough, though, when we were brushing our teeth, both of us felt like the bathroom was rocking….maybe that’s what they mean by “sea-legs.”

Day 8:
Today had an early start, as do many of our vacation days, because we try to see as much as we can and make the most out of our time here. Even though we were both exhausted & sore from our dive trip and both could have used a day in bed watching cartoons, we decided against listening to our lazy instincts, and ventured out to see the worlds oldest rainforest. Our tour guide picked us up from our hotel @ 7am; this time, our 16 passenger  van consisted of our Aussie guide, an Australian family from Melbourne, an Australian family from Perth, a man from Tokyo, Japan, and a father/daughter from Adelaide, Australia....lots of Australians on this trip!

We made our way north to the Daintree Rainforest, where we were able to walk through it and marvel at how much life there was in one specific location.  After waking around it, we took an hour-long boat ride on the Daintree River surrounded by the rainforest on all sides.  We kept our eyes open for large crocodiles, but instead saw snakes & hatchlings, which are baby crocs. After our boat ride, we had lunch in the rainforest at some picnic tables outside; our guide grilled steaks and fish "on the barbee" & we ate those with local fresh fruit from the surrounding area.  We sat with our new friends from Perth, who ate their steaks with BBQ sauce; when we asked them if they have A1 sauce here, they had never heard of it, but seemed eager to try it. We got their address from them and promised we'd send them some once we get back to Korea. They told us that before we leave Australia, we need to try "vegemite" which is the Australian condiment that everyone loves on toast.

After lunch, we made our way further north to Cape Tribulation beach, which is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sights actually meet.  Those two sights are: the Great Barrier Reef & the Daintree Rainforest. We walked along the beach and waded in the crystal clear water, and of course, took a ridiculous amount of pictures :).

Our trip ended with a stop to the Crossroads Cafe which is owned by a man named Dennis who came to Australia in the 1980s from Pennsylvania to teach and subsequently fell in love with the Daintree area and never left. Here, we ate fruit sorbet that was locally made with berries picked from the local area.

Tomorrow is our flight to New Zealand. We sure are going to miss this place...

Australia/New Zealand Trip days 3-5

Day 3:
Our third day began bright & early as we got picked up by a 12 passenger van to take us on our Hunter Valley wine tour.  On this tour, we went to five different wineries in the Hunter Valley, and we sampled several of the different kinds of wine. Our tour group was a small one, consisting of a couple from Scotland, two guys from Ireland, a newly married couple from Texas, and our Aussie guide. It was a great group dynamic & we had a great time learning about & sampling the Australian wines. Our favorite winery was our last stop of the day: Blueberry Hill. This vineyard was a small, privately owned one, with an elderly gentleman running and operating it.  You could only buy his wine at his cellar door--it's not for sale in stores. Blueberry Hill's claim to fame was their 55 year old Merlot vines which produced a distinctively rich red wine.  In 2006, this small vineyard won best Merlot in the WORLD. After tasting it, Kyle and I bought a bottle of it from him to enjoy on our last night in AU. Kyle & I were also impressed with the atmosphere at Blueberry Hill because we had just come from Tempus Two, a large, commercialized vineyard, that produces large amounts of wine and sells them to stores around the world--including our shop on post in Korea. Blueberry Hill, though, blew us away by the sheer simplicity and beauty of the location.

After we got back from daylong wine tasting excursion, we ventured out for some dinner in Sydney, and then walked around to see what the nightlife was like. It was a Friday night, so it was hopping!

Day 4:
Today was our last morning in Sydney before our 3pm flight up to Cairns. We decided to spend the morning back at the harbor for one last breakfast overlooking the view. After walking around the Opera House for the last time, we made our way back to our hotel to pack up our things and get on the road. We jumped on the train to head back to the airport, where they were making announcements that there had been a fatality on the track and that anyone trying to get to the airport had to get off the line and take a bus a few blocks away. Thankfully, we had headed toward the airport early enough that we didn't have to stress this setback. After we got off the train and headed for the bus, we realized that there were about 150-200 people also waiting for the same bus. After waiting for 20 minutes or so with still no bus in sight, we grabbed a taxi, and made our way to the airport so that we didn't risk missing our flight. We shared a cab with a guy from France and another guy from Australia, who were both trying to get to the airport, as well.

Our flight was pretty uneventful, other than the fact that I had a few hours to start working on blogging our vacation memories. I feel like this is a great way to share these stories with close friends and family back home, as well as it’s a great way to preserve these memories for ourselves. At the end of a long vacation (two weeks is long for us…we’re used to four-day-weekend-European-style-vacays), it’s easy to forget the “little” things that happen and make impressions on you, so that’s the main motive behind this blog.

Day 5:
It’s time to board the liveaboard!!! We had a VERY early 5:50am pick-up from our hotel, to take us to the dive shop to get fitted for our gear before boarding our ship. Once we boarded, we met the other people who would be diving/snorkeling with us. There were about 32 people on the ship, so it wasn’t a huge group, which was nice. There was only one other couple from the US, and they were from Boston. The majority of the others onboard were from various countries in Europe, and there were a few Australians, as well.
We knew going into this trip that liveaboards were for “hardcore divers” but we didn’t realize just how true this statement was until after the first day was complete. In a nutshell this was our first day: eat breakfast while the boat drove two hours out to a good reef diving spot; dive #1; eat lunch; dive #2; drink coffee & eat cake snack; dive #3; eat dinner; night-dive (first ever for Kyle and I!!!!); exhausted – sleep. Seriously: eat, sleep, dive, period.

The diving around the reef is STUNNING. The colors are vibrant, even though they don’t show up the best in our photos – I guess that’s what you get when you only spend a couple hundred dollars on a diving camera, versus some of the $1,000+ cameras out there for diving.
We saw several huge sea turtles, a honeycomb monoray eel (leopard printed!!! so cool!!), barracuda, ginormous groupers, a plethora of other fish/clams/sea-life, and two lion-fish on our very first night-dive…so exciting!

The reef is great to dive around because first of all, it is HUGE; it’s amazing to us that we are on a boat full of other divers, but yet on some of our dives, Kyle and I haven’t come across ANYONE at all because this place is so large and spread out. The water is Bahama-blue and crystal clear, and entices you to jump right in. It’s a great time of year to be here because it’s warm outside, sunny, and the water is the perfect temperature!

Our first night dive experience was a really cool one. Neither of us had ever been diving at night before, so to say we were both a little nervous is an understatement. I was terrified and made up a hand signal with Kyle to signal that “I hate this…go back to the boat” if necessary. Thankfully, I didn't have to use this signal, but better safe than sorry. I didn't want to get 18 meters under the water to have a panic attack because of the creepy darkness surrounding me. We had “torches” as our Aussie dive guide kept calling them, which amounted to nothing more than an underwater flashlight. We ended up really enjoying the night dive, and it wasn't as scary as we had first thought it might be.