Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Upside Down - Episode 4

Day 15 - March 25:

For Michel and Graham it was a very early start to the day with the alarm going off at 5:00 a.m.  By 6:30 all the bags were packed, the bill had been paid (with a 1.5\% service fee for using any credit card - something that is becoming quite common in hotels and restaurants.) and M and G waited for the shuttle to take them to the airport.  Unfortunately, the bus had gone to the wrong hotel and as it would not be arriving for a while they struck a deal with a taxi driver and took that as their mode of transportation.

Even though there were some check-in staff at the service counters, check-in and everything else had to be done using one of the electronic booths; including confirming and changing seats and weighing and tagging the checked bags. Both checked bags were slightly over the limit so a small fee had to be paid.  Again this was supposed to be done at the booths after the bags had disappeared on the conveyer belt.  If you wonder what would happen if you didn't pay the excess fee, you would be stopped at the gate and no payment meant no flight!

It was a Qantas flight to Alice Springs and the in-flight service was great, even a hot breakfast was provided.  As the flight was not full it was possible to get room to stretch out a little.  The flight left a little late but was on-time for touchdown in Alice Springs.

The weather was cool and showery as Melbourne was left behind but warm, sunny and cloudless skies welcomed the travelers.  Even though arrival at the Alice Springs Crowne Plaza hotel was quite early, just after 11:00 a.m. , it was possible to check-in to the room and explore options for the afternoon.

A short walk to the centre of the town past by some normally dry river beds.  Since Alice Springs has been having quite a bit of rain for the past months, there was water in them there river beds.  In fact, the red of the desert had been transformed into a lush green landscape - a green desert according to the residents.  Following lunch at a local pub, a popular choice for the locals, it was time to walk to another, well-known local pub,  "Bojangles".  This pub which doubles as a night spot for the late crowd, resembled an American Wild West saloon with the traditional swinging doors.  At Bojangles they waited for a bus to take them to the Desert Park on the south side of town.

Audio headsets were provided for a very informative walk through the park.  The examples of different desert vegetation as well as various bird and reptile enclosures gave a real sense and feel of the desert.  In the park were some native animals including M and G's first kangaroo sighting.

The afternoon in the park concluded with a bird of prey exhibit.  It was amazing how the birds came in on cue.  Even though it was the afternoon, an owl flew in and perched in the rafters of the open air auditorium.

Since Michel was paying, the choice for dinner was Hunamans, an Indian and Thai restaurant at the Crown Plaza Hotel.  This restaurant came highly recommended and Michel persuaded Graham to venture forth.  Yes Graham agreed to try it!!  The food was very good and even Graham enjoyed it.  Have his eating options been expanded!!

Chad and Dino spent their day in the Mornington Peninsular about an hour outside Melbourne.  The trip there went through the town of Rosebud and other small towns and villages. The drive to Mornington Peninsular was like a small version of the Great Ocean Road.  Later that day Dino found it strange to hear Italians' with a rich Australian accent.

Day 16 - March 26:

For Michel and Graham it was another 5:00 a.m. alarm call!  This time the reason was  to catch the tour bus from Alice Springs to Yulara, the resort of hotels near Uluru (Ayers Rock).  The 500 KM drive would take just under 6 hours and involved two right turns, The countryside was quite flat with very long and perfectly straight sections.  Just like the Canadian Prairies.

To break up the long drive, there were stops at a Camel Farm, Mount Ebenezer (not named for Scrooge but Ebenezer Flint a telegraph pioneer), and the "Central Australian Bus Terminal" for those making a connection to Kings Canyon.

This is the Bus Terminal and Transfer Point

Once some had left the coach for their transfer, the drive past by Mount Connor (not to be confused with Ayres Rock). As the drive got close to the destination they got a first glimpse of Uluru.

At  12:30 p.m. the bus trip was over and time to check-in at the Outback Pioneer Lodge.  Many reviews of the hotels in Yulara were not good, so it was known before the trip that the room was going to be expensive, even for something very basic.  To get a small two bed room rather than a dormitory type room cost $300.00 for one night!

This outside view for Room 103!

After a brief lunch, it was another bus ride to Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park.  The afternoon tour included a guided Mala Walk, visits to the Cultural Centre, the Mutitjulu Waterhole, the Kantju Gorge, and a  look at some aboriginal drawings in one of the caves, and a chance to look at Manuka arts and crafts.  It was time for one of the highlights of the downunder trip and, with a glass of wine in hand, M and G watched the sunset over Ayers Rock.  What fantastic changing colours.

Once this truly memorable sunset had ended, it was on to an Aussie BBQ of kangaroo, beef, chicken and sausage, also in Uluru National Park.  A pricey event but it was great to eat under the stars.  The final event was an evening star orientation tour.  There were many more stars than one sees in the northern night sky and the southern view of the Milky Way was very special.

M and G got back to the Lodge at 9:30 p.m. somewhat tired after a long and remarkable day.

For Chad and Dino, March 19th was spent exploring some more of downtown Melbourne, including several of the alleyways and narrow lanes.  To see the culinary side of the Victoria Market a return trip was made.  Here there were plenty of meats, cheeses, fish and other stalls to satisfy all desires.  C and D. spent their last night in Melbourne out on the town partying till late into the night.

Day 17 - March 27:

Two consecutive early starts were enough for Michel but the energizer bunny was in for one more.  Yes Graham was up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus for the Ayers Rock at Sunrise Tour.  This time with a cup of  tea in hand, Graham saw Uluru at sunrise.  For some this was more special than the sunset the previous night.

One the sun was high in the sky, the tour bus traveled to western section of the National Park to see the the 36 domes of Kata Tjuta. 

Camels were introduced into Australia around 1860 and there are now over 600,000 roaming wild.  Near Kata Tjuta the first wild camels were seen.

The visit to Kata Tjuta included a very interesting walk through the Walpa Gorge.

Once back at the hotel, it was time to check-out, walk to the resort center, have lunch, and then wait for the bus to the airport for the flight to Cairns. Not only were the checked bags a little over the weight limit but one carry-on of 14 kg is not the same a two at 7 kg.  Luckily, the check-in clerk was very helpful and provided an couple of extra bags to split the contents of the "offending" bag.  This helped avoid an excess baggage charge of $150.00!

Would Chad and Dino get there - yes a little early!

The type of rental car that had been ordered was not available and a larger one had to be taken.  With the problems with the size of the first large van, it was decided to keep it for Port Douglas and to exchange it for a smaller one later in the week during the drive from Port Douglas to Townsville.

With Ottawa's fantastic four re-connected it was on to Port Douglas, about an hour north of Cairns.  A small problem occurred about half-way to Port Douglas when the group was pulled over by the police.  Although Dr. Chaos was in the car he was not driving!.  Apparently there was a large speed limit sign everyone missed.  After a friendly warning to the visitors the journey continued. 

At about 9:00 p.m. the trip was over and we checked-in at the Port Douglas Queenslander - a very nice two bedroom apartment with all "mod cons".

Friday, March 25, 2011

Upside Down - Episode 3

Day 10 (Continued) - March 20:

The flight from Christchurch to Melbourne was very good.  With Chad and Dino getting exit row seating and Graham and Michel a spare seat between them, it made for a comfortable flight.  Although M. and G., breezed through passport control and immigration, C. and D. were transporting some dangerous Canadian products - Maple Syrup - for a friend from Ottawa, Markus,  who had taken a one-year leave from his job in Ottawa.

Markus had arranged for Steve, a Melbourne local, to drive us all from the airport. Getting the driver, four passengers, four checked and the other bags in an Audi station wagon was a real challenge.  With bags in our laps and stuffed everywhere, we made the trip to the city. Thanks Steve.

After dropping-off Graham and Michel at the Ibis Melbourne, Chad and Dino were taken to their digs - where Markus was living.  Following a quick stop and change at the hotel, Steve returned to collect M and G for a dinner to celebrate the beginning of the Australian leg of the trip.,

Day 11 - March 21:

The sun shone on the first day in Melbourne.  Since the rate for the internet at the Ibis Melbourne was very high ($28 Ausralian a day) another option was sought.  Luckily a nearby up-scale restaurant - McCafe - had free Wifi.  Not fast but it worked.  The hotel duo spent the morning catching up on emails, posting the second episode of the blog and starting to book some of the hotels for the drive from Port Douglas (near Cairns) to Sydney.

This was a day to explore Melbourne's CBD (Central Business District).  Chad and Dino walked from their digs to downtown.  The "old fellahs" also walked around the city but the two paths did not cross.  Melbourne is a very cosmopolitan city with unusual and varied architecture.  The streets were busy with "suits", those in business suits, everywhere.

On one of the major streets Graham was approached to make a donation to an international organization to support Lybia.  This guy's accent was very British, trust Graham to pick-up on that, and, after a brief exchange it turned out he was from Uxbridge.  A small town very close to where Graham was born.  It's a small world!

After lunch on the south bank of the Yarra River, the "old fellahs" made it back to the hotel for some necessary laundry duties.  Once again, fates intervened and when Graham tried to get back into the room, the door lock decided it had already had enough of this visitor.  Michel's key suffered the same fate and eventually with several visits by hotel staff, five re-sets, and a battery replacement for the door system, the problem was fixed.  How come these things always happen when Graham is around!

Dinner was in Hardware Lane, a short walk from the hotel, where the restaurants compete to entice you into their eating establishment.  The competition certainly helped get a good meal deal.  And another small world experience, our waiter was from near Kitchener, Ontario, also visiting Australia.

Day 12 - March 22:

An early start to the day with another visit to Cafe McDonald's for an "internet fix".  Since the hotel was offering a 10% discount for meals, Michel and Graham opted to try breakfast at the hotel.

Once Chad and Dino arrived, it was time to walk to a large open air market - the Victoria Market - very close to the hotel.  Hundreds of stalls selling everything you can imagine.  Some junk but also some good deals.  Lunch in the market was followed by a chance to try-out Melbourne's transit system

For just under $7.00 (AUS) - almost the same in Canadian dollars - you get a day pass for all zones.  A great value and something OC Transpo (the Ottawa transit system) might like to try to increase ridership.  We took the tram to the Royal Botanical Gardens.  The skies looked threatening but the weather turned out OK and the Gardens were very good with some many different things to see.

Markus had kindly offered to be the main driver for our next day's outing so that we could all truly experience the sights.  His presence was needed to complete the paperwork for the rental car and, once all this was accomplished, we ventured to Hardware Lane for dinner.

Just like the night before, the restaurants competed for our business but this time it was much more intense.  Even Steve, the "Melbournian", had never seen it before.  After many competing for our business, our best deal was at Vialetto's Italian restaurant with a plate of free appetizers and two complementary bottles of wine. Brent, our Ottawa discount champion, would have been proud of the deal we got!

Day 13 - March 23:

One of the most well-known tourist attractions in the Melbourne area is the Great Ocean Road.  If you want to do it all it would take a few days and you would eventually make it to Adelaide. 

You can see quite a lot on a day trip but only if you start really early.  So at 6:30 a.m. Markus, the driver, Chad and Dino arrived at the hotel and we all piled into the car to get out of the city before the rush hour started.

The weather was bright  and sunny to start the day and after a couple of hours and a couple of stops to take in some of the beaches, we made it to Lorne. A small town but one that obviously knew what visitor was coming.  Kafe Kaos!  Graham and everyone had to stop for coffee.

For all of us, this was an amazing day.  The road wound past some fantastic scenery.  Although Markus is an Ottawa native, he had done the trip before so having him at the wheel was a real bonus.  Five of us in a small Hyndai made for a cramped ride but the many stops helped stretch-out the limbs.

Later in the morning, the group took a side tour into Otway National Park to see the lighthouse.  It was decided not to pay the entrance fee so the lighthouse was not really visible.  However, the park is home to several Koala Bears and the group had their first Koala Bear Sighting.

Lunch was in Lavers Hill, the highest point on the Great Ocean Road.  After lunch the weather was not so good and we were often dodging some heaving showers.  By mid-afternoon we reached one of the sites of the "Twelve Apostles".  This was the only location where you could get down for a beach-side look at a few of the Twelve Apostles.  It required a walk down a steep cliff, luckily with steps provided.  Once down on the beach the heavens opened and we all took protection "under the weather"!  Once the rain soon stopped and we spent quite a bit of time on the beach amongst the Apostles - a definite highlight of the trip.

Graham showed he had truly mastered the art of delayed action photography.

We then toured to other scenic lookouts for the Twelve Apostles (just spectacular) and our last stop was at the site of the "London Bridge".  Another limestone formation which, at one time, had two arches - but just like London Bridge one of the the arches had fallen down!

As we started the drive home a brilliant rainbow shone over us.,  What an ending to a truly memorable day.  Thanks Markus.

 Day 14 - March 24:

Although the weather did not seem too bad as we walked to Cafe McDonald's for breakfast and some email duty, by the time Graham and Michel had taken the tram to meet-up with Chad and Dino , the rain began.  It was supposed to be a showery day but the rain and drizzle were to be a large part of this day.

We drove to the Yarra Valley, a large wine growing area in the state of Victoria with many many wineries.  We stopped to walk around the town of Healesville but with the rain coming down hard we got back in the car and headed for the De Bartoli winery. The wines, both red and white, were very good and some are sold in Ontario.  Dino and Graham really liked their port wines.  To avoid lugging bottles around Australia, some purchases might be made in Sydney for the trip back to Canada - of course, all within Canada custom regulations.  Before heading back to Melbourne we stopped at another winery but this one was not that good.

Once back in the city, it was time to bid a brief farewell to Chad and Dino and to thank Markus and Steve for their hospitality.

With the rental car returned, undamaged! Michel and Graham checked-out some of Melbourne's other areas.  A walk through the Greek and Chinese quarters was followed by a tram ride to Albert Park.  This is the site of the first race of the 2011 Grand Prix season.  Although one had to look at the track over the outside the fences, you could see the cars racing by and those cars certainly are noisy.

A further tram ride lead to  St. Klida.  At the end of the St. Kilda Pier is the home of a colony of very small blue penquins.  Chad and Dino had gone to see these penquins on their first night in Melbourne and Graham and Michel decided to take check them out on their last night.  The rain had stopped but winds were blowing hard and the waves were crashing into the pier as the made their way along the walkway.  The intrepid tourists made it to the end of the pier for a look at penquins who were trying to get onto the rocks for the night.

The street before the Pier was full of restaurants which gave plenty of choice for Michel and Graham for their final dinner in Melbourne. 

Chad and Dino will remain in Melbourne until March 27th (Day 17), before heading to Cairns.  Graham and Michel leave tomorrow (Day 15) to fly to Alice Springs and, after a side-trip to Ayers Rock, they hopefully will meet Chad and Dino in Cairns Airport.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Upside Down - Episode 2

Day 6 - March 16:

Today was the drive from Rotorua to Wellington (the Kiwi capital). En route we stopped at the Huka Falls and, just like at Nigara Falls (but on a much smaller scale), speed-boats go as close as they can to the falls. Here the water was as blue as the sky and the café sold hot coffee in a can: we didn’t try it.

Another first: Chad at the wheel in Turangi! Our nerves calmed down since Graham had carefully instructed him in the art of “what-not-to-do”! There were also some interesting road signs: “merge like a zip” and “horse poo for sale” (not that we got any as souvenirs).

The weather continued to be at its best. Just before lunch we drove by Lake Taupo and, once passed the lake, came the mountains and its winding roads through the Tongariro National Park.  Once we cleared the mountains we stopped for our first picnic lunch near Taihape.

After lunch we had our first sightings of large sheep, alpacas and deer herds. We also heard all about Graham’s recuperative powers.  However, nobody remembers any of it since there were much more interesting things to concentrate on – the sheer natural beauty of the landscape. By the way, has anyone else noticed Graham’s gait? As we were commenting on his need to always be 50 meters ahead of the pack, he introduced us to the concept of his gait, or so he claims, whatever that means!

Another first - this time a slight computer screw-up with the Wellington hotel. Although the hotel had our booking for two rooms only one was available! Luckily they were able to relocated us to a nearby motel. While Chad and Dino received the royal treatment: a superb view, a balcony door that worked and a normal bathroom, Michel and Graham suffered the indignation of a view of the freeway, a balcony door that could not be unlocked and, to top it off, a rather unusual bathroom with a shower that was reminiscent of a hospital bed curtain and a drain in the middle of the bathroom for the water to flow freely to it. After a shower, you could swim to the toilet or sink!

For the evening we ventured to the Wellington Botanical garden: unusual in its location on the side of the hills surrounding Wellington. From the top, to which “Daniel the GPS” dutifully led us despite our desire to find the cable car station for a ride to the top, we all worked-up an appetite going down to the Lady Knox Rose Garden and back up to the car.

The evening concluded with dinner at a downtown Wellington pub and drinks at a local bar.  Although we were back at the motel by 10:15 pm, we soon realized that the “internet curfew” started at 10 pm! Yes - no access to the reception (the only area where internet was available) after 10 pm.

Day 7 - March 17:

St-Patrick’s day started on the wet side with our first showers of the trip. Of course, Graham’s natural ability for things to happen occurred.  Somehow as he passed the ferry tickets to the attendant they dropped into a puddle. The tickets were salvaged and dried on the dashboard - thank God! As we waited to board the Picton Ferry to the South Island not all was lost, a rainbow shone over us signaling a positive influence for rest of our day. Picture perfect Picton welcomed us to the South Island. 

Oh, just a small note: after more than 5 years of friendship, Graham can’t tell the difference between Chad and Dino. He often calls one by the other’s name in some random fashion. 

After embarking the Ferry, we stopped in Pickton for lunch and then had a short walk around the town.  The drive from Picton to Nelson took us through the Malborough wine region (where over half of New Zealand’s wines are produced).  Unfortunately for several of us, mostly white wines.  Not only did we see acres and acres of vineyards but also apple, cherry and pear orchards.

Just before we got to our first wine sampling, another Graham incident occurred.  Dino, no…Chad….no Dino….closed the car door and Grahams hand got in the way.  After a loud scream, Dino…or was it Chad…. opened the door to free Graham’s hand.  We finally got to appreciate Graham’s recuperative powers - his hand was still intact. 

We arrived in Nelson, and checked-in at the Century Park Motel (our best accommodation to date).  We received a warm welcome from Jan, with the standard question of whether we would like regular or trim milk.  Jan suggested that the old fellahs should get the trim milk.  She recommended that we have dinner at the Boat Shed and we took her up on her suggestion.  Chad, Dino and Graham went for the “Trust the Chef” dinner which consisted of a six course meal with three appetizers and three main dishes.  All dishes were excellent.

Day 8 - March 18:

Friday, as we checked out of the Motel, some learned a new expression “be with you in a tic”.   The itinerary for today was a drive to Westport and then to Greymouth on the western coast.

We made our way to Westport through exceptionally winding roads and shared bridges: yes, you got it right, single lane bridges with, at times, a railway track beside. On one bridge the railway track was also part of the road.

Once in Westport we took a side trip to the Cape Foulwind Seal Colony. After a picnic lunch by the Tasman Sea we walked to the seal colony and then a chance to dip our feet in the ocean. Here we also encountered our first native bird: the Wake (pronounced whacky).  The Wake might be considered the day-time version of New Zealand’s famous Kiwi bird.  As we never ventured out much at night, we never got to see a Kiwi.

From Westport we headed to Punakaiki Scenic Reserve.  As we approached Punakaiki the ocean views were amazing.  At Punakaiki we saw pancake rocks and blowholes.  As it was not high tide, we did get to see the blowholes in full force.  However, some felt there were some in the car!

During our drive to Greymouth, there was some discussion as to whether or not to visit New Zealand’s famous Mirror Lake.  Chad commented that “we should reflect upon it”.

We made our way to the Gables Motor Lodge where we all shared a one-bedroom unit.  For some they had their first sighting of Graham in his dressing gown!

Our evening dinner was with the locals at the Revington Hotel.  Not being locals, we did not realize the drink and meal ordering procedure was somewhat structured.  Our ignorance brought on the wrath of the head waitress.  Some of the other patrons wondered why we were experiencing such special treatment.  For dinner, Dino accepted the challenge and, apparently, was one of a few to finish a full-size roasted lamb dinner.  After dinner we joined other locals for a nightcap before calling it a quits.

We did notice that there appeared to have been a mix-up in the visit of Prince William to Greymouth.  He had visited Greymouth the day before and was unaware that Ottawa’s famous four would in the town after he had left!

Day 9 - March 19:

This was our last full day in New Zealand.

Before leaving Greymouth, Graham allowed an entire hour for some souvenir shopping.  When the “long” shopping stop was over we headed for Shanty Town.  Here we rode an old British steam train, toured the historic village, Graham panned for gold (you would not believe how much he found!), and after a picnic lunch in the grounds we headed for Springfield.

The drive to Springfield took us across the Southern Alps and through Aurthor’s Pass National Park.  Careful driving was essential with steep inclines, sharp hairpin turns and a lack of guardrails. Following a brief break at the Wobbly Kia Café and Bar we continued the drive.

Throughout the Alps the views were spectacular.  At one point we stopped for a photo opt.  It was a perfect opportunity to give Graham’s delayed-action photography another chance.  It seems he finally mastered the technique.

If you are reading this blog you have probably seen the youngest traveler’s comment on his travelling companions’ napping habits.  The following demonstrates, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that people in glass houses should not throw stones!

Originally we were going to spend out last night in New Zealand in Christchurch quite close to Christchurch Cathedral. In view of the earthquake, we decided to stay about an hour east of in Springfield at the Bahara Motel.  Our accommodation gave us a rustic view of New Zealand with alpacas and horses around the motel.

Dinner was at the Springfield Hotel, definitely a local “hot-spot” for a Saturday night on the town - population of Springfield 219!  You can ask Graham if he recommends the Porterhouse Steak special?

Day 10 - March 20:

In Springfield the day started bright and cool (below 10 degrees).  As drove to Christchurch it began the rain – was New Zealand crying since we were leaving!

A short rain-walk through part of Hagleigh Park and the Christchurch Botanical Gardens was followed by some time in a local mall.  The second rental car was returned (with no damage!) and we took the shuttle to the airport for the flight to Melbourne.

New Zealand Summary:

Distance Traveled: A little under 2,000 km.

Best Experience: Crossing the Southern Alps
Best Attraction:  Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Reserve - Rotorua
Biggest Disappointment: No Kiwi sightings
Most Over-rated Attraction: Shanty Town - Greymouth
Best Scientific Experience: The toilets do flush in the other direction!
Best Hotel: Century Park Lodge in Nelson
Worst Hotel: None
Best Meal: The Boat Shed Restaurant in Nelson
Worst Meal: Revington Hotel in Greymouth

See you in Australia mates!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Upside Down - Episode 1

Floods, cyclones and earthquakes did not stop the intrepid Ottawa four from venturing downunder.

Michel and Graham (known to some as Dr. Chaos) left March 9, and with Dr. Chaos on board it seemed like they needed a crank handle to get the engine started.  Black smoke billowing from a truck plugged into the airplane engine finally got the second engine started and they took off.   Connections were very tight, but they made the final flight from L.A. to Auckland.  Once again, with Dr. Chaos on board, Graham's flat-bed would not recline.  Another crank handle was needed so he could sleep!

Traveling across the date line meant Graham and Michel would never see March 10, 2011!!

Day 1 - March 11:

After picking up the large rental van and driving to downtown Auckland, Graham shoe-horned the van into an extremely confined parking garage.  The rest of the day was spent getting a local cell phone, walking around downtown and getting the lay of the land.

Day 2 - March 12:

This day started with a bang!  With more cars in the garage, getting the van out of the garage was considerably more challenging than getting it out.  Unfortunately, it was not accomplished successfully.  A concrete pillar jumped into the side of the van and left it's mark on the rear passenger door.  Nevertheless, Graham and Michel made it to the airport to pick up Chad and Dino.  Their flight had been less eventful, but very enjoyable - more details are available upon request.

Dino and Chad's first stop after 32 hours travelling was to Apex Rentals to return the LARGE van that had been "destroyed" (somewhat of an exaggeration) by Dr. Chaos.  A smaller car was to be the mode of transport for the rest of the New Zealand tour.

The first day for all four Ottawa tourists involved visiting the Otara Market and the districts of Ponsonby, Parnell and Newmarket.  Spotting a coffee shop, the four headed for a jolt of much needed caffeine. Dino thought he had escaped the snow but the barista dropped a canister of whipped cream which exploded and sprayed Dino with other white stuff!

Day 2 ended with a walk up Mount Hobson for a 360 degree sunset view of the city of Auckland.  In spite of Michel's efforts to teach Graham delayed action photography, the following is a shot of the four ending their day on Mount Hobson (Guess who is missing!).

Day 3 - March 13:

This day featured a boat tour across to Waiheke Island.  Graham (and Michel too!) got the tremendous senior's discount of one NZ dollar (75 cents Canadian) off the fair.  An Explorer Bus Tour of the island was followed by lunch in Waiheke Village where we all learned that "Chemists Park in the Rear".

After lunch, a bus was taken to the Wild on Waiheke Winery where the wines, beers and other house specialties were sampled.

After the ferry ride back to Auckland, the day ended with "the best fish and chips in Auckland" at the Queen's Ferry Hotel (aka Pub).

Day 4 - March 14:

Until now, the group had been "fortunate to benefit" from Graham's driving experience on the "wrong-side" of the road.   Michel took over once the group had cleared city limits.  Our rental car has the cleanest windshield in all of New Zealand because the windshield control and the signal light are opposite downunder.  It was hoped that cars following would realize that when the windshield wipers were going back and forth this meant the car was making a turn.  In spite of this oddity, we all made it to Rotorua. 

The drive from Auckland to Rotorua was very scenic and included sites of thousands of cows, a couple of sheep and a few alpacas and deer.  We knew we were getting closer and closer to Rotorua by the increased sulphur smell.

Even after experiencing Michel's driving, some felt that the highlight of Day 4 was the Tamaki Maori Village - Journey of the Ages - performance and dinner.  We were all assembled to be greeted by the Maori warriors.

After the official Maori welcome, we were given the chance to witness the distinct elements of Maori culture and the traditional Maori Hangi dinner where the food is cooked underground with white hot volcanic rocks.  At our table were visitors from New York, Tasmania, Germany, Toronto and London.

The highlight of the tour bus ride back to the hotel was that each nationality was asked to sing a national song.  The fantastic four from Ottawa had difficulty deciding on a well-known Canadian song.  Being late in the day, the only song that came to mind was "Oh Canada".  Unfortunately, nobody else on the bus was able to sing along.  We did not win the singing contest.  In case we have to do a repeat performance, any suggestions as to a Canadian song that other nationalities would know is much appreciated!

Day 5 - March 15:

The morning drive to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland - good or baaaad - featured sheep, sheep and more sheep grazing on the hill-side.  The visit started with the eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser at precisely 10:15 a.m.  You might wonder how a natural event can occur precisely on-time.  You guessed it, man intervened and added a bag of soap to create the pressure needed for the on-time eruption.

When the Lady Knox Geyser had finished her thing, we took the 3 km walk through the Thermal Wonderland.  Gigantic volcanic craters, sulphur mounds, water falls, alum cliffs, steam vents, hot mud pools, and many other special features were part of the walk.  The final feature was the "Devil's Bath". The colour, a result of excess water mixing with sulphur and ferrous salts.  In fact, the colour changes from green to yellow depending on the amount of reflected light and cloud colour.

After a drive back to the hotel, grocery shopping for lunch (Dino's favourite), the afternoon was spent checking out the local souvenir shops.  The evening dinner was at an "Amazing Thai Restaurant".  That's what they called it, but it was very good.
Tomorrow will require a 6 hour drive to Wellington - the southern end of the north island.

Kia Ora (Maori for welcome, hello, goodbye, etc.)