Merlin & Sandy Dorfman

March 1-21, 2004


The pictures from this trip can be found at


March 1, Monday

We left the house just before Noon.  Jenn drove us to the San Jose airport.  Weather had been bad for much of the previous week or more, and we had had some water damage to the house a few days before.  The construction company had made temporary repairs to the roof, but we had not been able to get the insurance company adjuster out before we left, nor had an inspection to determine the extent of interior damage.

We flew to Los Angeles on American Eagle; even though it was somewhat more expensive than Southwest, they could check our (many and heavy) baggage through to Auckland.

At Los Angeles Airport, we had dinner and checked in for the flight (scheduled to leave at 8:30 PM).  Qantas limits carry-ons to 7 Kg (15 lb.) but does not weigh small articles.  I had to transfer a lot of stuff to Sandy's and my smaller carry-ons to avoid checking my small suitcase.  We had reserved window/aisle seats but were given middle seats for some reason.  Qantas was able to give us an aisle seat in the middle section at least.


March 3, Wednesday

It was a long flight--about 12 1/2 hours--and with the International Date Line, by the time we landed at Auckland it was March 3 (6:30 AM).  We missed March 2 (Election Day) completely.  Maybe just as well.

The in-flight entertainment system had individual screens and headsets, and movies and other programs in 2 1/2 hour blocks so there were four full cycles during the flight.  We each watched a couple of movies, such as "Something's Gotta Give," "Cheaper by the Dozen" (remake), and "Lost in Translation."  The last was a good, entertaining movie, but I did not see anything in it deserving of any Academy Award nominations.

We cleared immigration and customs quickly, got some NZ money, and found our ground transportation.  Because of rush hour or for other reasons, it took us close to two hours to get to our hotel downtown.  It would have been well over 1 1/2 hours even if we had been the first dropoff; the van left the freeways and used side streets, and in one location we were backed up for several traffic light cycles and were not keeping up with pedestrians.

The hotel was very lovely, right on the waterfront.  We had a 12th floor room overlooking the harbor.  (We found out later that all the hotel rooms are on the harbor side.)  We were able to check in even though it was only about 9 AM, and we got some breakfast, rested for a while, and then did some sightseeing.  We were right across the street from the tourist information office, the Maritime Museum and the America's Cup shop so we went there first.  In the afternoon we got on the free bus that circles the downtown area and made several stops, including the Art Museum where we saw some good exhibits of European art and some excellent local artists' work.  We had lunch at a sidewalk Greek restaurant and continued on the bus to the Sky Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.  We went up to the observation deck--it was a spectacularly clear day and we had an excellent view in all directions.  Sandy stood on a glass block that lets you look straight down.

We then walked through some more of the downtown area and caught the bus back to the starting point.  I got sandwiches for us at the Subway across the street (the price was comparable to the US but there was much less meat in a sandwich) and we stayed in the room.  I had bought some postcards at the tourist office, wrote a couple, and mailed them.  Turns out that New Zealand has two competing postal services--government and private--and we had been sold stamps from the private service.  They do get delivered but, in international mail at least, it is very slow…and through the Singapore Post Office!


March 4, Thursday

In the morning we had a bus tour of Auckland.  Auckland is by far the largest city in New Zealand--about 1.4 million, if I recall correctly, out of a total of just over 4 million.  The great majority of the 4 million live on the North Island.

We started through the America's Cup Village, then went across the Harbor Bridge for a spectacular view back towards downtown.  Then we drove through the business district, past City Hall, and through the University area near the Art Gallery.  We went to some of the very expensive suburbs and to Mount Eden, an extinct volcano, where there is an excellent view of the city, and then to the War Memorial Museum.  We only had about half an hour in the museum but saw some Maori performances, the small section on the Holocaust, some World War II exhibits, and a cartoon exhibit which showed that the political issues are pretty much the same in New Zealand as in the United States.

The bus driver showed us the New Zealand Navy dock, and pointed out that the New Zealand Navy has about three combat ships, and also that the Air Force has exactly zero combat aircraft.  He also was the first of many to discuss real estate prices in New Zealand and Australia.  In the urban areas, they are very high!  Auckland has suburbs where houses routinely run millions of NZ dollars, and in good areas housing may average half a million dollars.  In Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne, and even Hobart, prices were surprisingly high.  The numbers mentioned in Sydney and Melbourne (in Australian dollars) were the most striking but perhaps that is not representative.  We also noticed that there were many industrial and residential vacancies in older buildings (particularly in Melbourne) even as construction boomed, so we had to wonder how solid the price structure was.

After the tour we returned to the hotel, checked out, and got our van to the airport.  At mid-day this only took about half an hour.  We had an interesting political conversation with the driver.  We had lunch at the airport and caught the plane for Wellington.

We had a smooth flight on a very clear day but could see some of the damage done by the extensive rains in February.  We met our airport transportation and arrived at our hotel in downtown Wellington in the late afternoon, and then contacted an e-mail friend of mine and his wife.  We had arranged to have dinner with them.  They were somewhat delayed by traffic but eventually arrived at the hotel and drove us to the only Welsh restaurant in New Zealand, which is run by a friend of theirs.  The food was mediocre but the company and entertainment were good.  It turned out that they have a daughter in Melbourne that they were trying to get a Care Package to, but shipping is very expensive.  He was going to be in Sydney the same time we were, and then we were going on to Melbourne, so we arranged that he would bring the package to Sydney as part of his baggage, meet us in Sydney and transfer it, and we would take it to Melbourne with our baggage and call his daughter to come pick it up.  Amazingly, that all worked out.

It was a late evening and we were glad to go right to sleep when we got back to the hotel after dinner.


March 5, Friday

The hotel in Wellington was conveniently located but was not nearly as comfortable as the one in Auckland.  The room was very small.

We had a buffet breakfast in the hotel before our city tour.  In both Australia and New Zealand, hotel restaurants are very expensive.  Many other restaurants also seem expensive by American standards.  Take-out, food courts, and such are more reasonable.  In New Zealand, tipping in restaurants is apparently not commonly done; in Australia, tipping is more common but is low (typically no more than 10%) compared to the US. 

We had a late morning/early afternoon tour of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.  Auckland was the original capital but it was moved long ago to a more central location.  The population of the city itself is over 100,000, but there is a large metropolitan area. The tour included the Parliament Buildings--a striking mixture of very traditional and very modern--an arboretum, the University, both ends of a cable car route, the museum area by the harbor, some residential suburbs, the beach area, and Mount Victoria for a panoramic view of the city.

During the afternoon we walked around the shopping area near the hotel.  The Tourist Information Center right across from the hotel had internet-connected computers for rent and I was able to check my e-mail.  We asked the hotel desk for a recommendation for a restaurant that served good steaks, and they suggested the Green Parrot.  We were not disappointed!  Sandy had a fillet, I had lamb souvlaki (shishkebab), and both were truly excellent--flavorful and tender enough to cut with a fork.  Converting from NZ to US dollars, the price was quite reasonable.


March 6, Saturday

Saturday morning we took a limo to the pier and got on the ferry boat to the South Island.  We were able to check our bags through to Christchurch--a good thing, since we had four heavy bags and it was a bit of a walk from the other end of the ferry line to the railroad station.

The ferry trip was very pleasant.  It was a three-hour ride, and though the water seemed calm we took Dramamine.  We spoke to several people during the trip, both locals and tourists, and got some good tips for sightseeing on the South Island.  We had lunch in the cafeteria on the boat.  The last part of the ride was through a beautiful fjord or sound to the small city of Picton. 

North and South Islands are geologically very different.  South Island was part of the large southern continent called Gondwanaland, which also included Australia, Antarctica, and India.  North Island is volcanic.

We walked the few hundred yards from the Picton ferry terminal to the TranzScenic railroad station.  We had time for a snack at the station before the train was ready for boarding.  All New Zealand railways are narrow gauge (3 ft. 6 in.), which means the cars are narrow and not as stable as standard gauge cars, besides looking somewhat dinky.  The ride to Christchurch took 5 1/2 hours, through very scenic country, with mountains rising to the west and the ocean to the east.  It was dark by the time we arrived and we caught a van to the hotel.  The hotel was very beautiful and well-appointed and we wished we had had more time there.  We had a lovely dinner in the hotel dining room and went to sleep since we had an early start the next day.


March 7, Sunday

The bus picked us up before sunrise for the trip to Queenstown.  We had a brief tour of Christchurch as we picked up other passengers and headed out of town--Christchurch is a charming little city, the biggest on the South Island, and we would like to have the opportunity, perhaps as part of another trip some time, to go back there, spend some time in the hotel, and see the city.

The bus stopped for breakfast in the town of Geraldine, and then headed into the foothills of the Southern Alps.  We saw many, many sheep in addition to cows, horses, and even deer. 

We learned probably more about sheep than we care to know on this vacation.  New Zealand has over 30 million sheep.  (It once had 60 million, but as Britain has moved economically closer to the continent of Europe, trade preferences for the Commonwealth have decreased and New Zealand has had to diversify its economy.)  There are two primary breeds of sheep grown in New Zealand, crossbred and Merino.  Crossbred wool is usually too coarse for clothing; it is primarily used for carpets and such, and these sheep are also used for food.  Merinos are grown for wool for clothing, and there is serious competition for judgings of wool quality. 

As for deer, they are Red Deer that were originally imported from Scotland, and are smaller than the deer Americans are used to seeing (usually Mule Deer).  They are kept in fenced enclosures, and deer enclosures can be recognized because the fences are about six feet high, vs. three feet or so for sheep.  The deer could probably jump a six-foot fence if they were inclined to do so, but they seem to be content with being fed regularly.

We stopped at Lake Tekapo, a beautiful glacial lake, where we visited the Church of the Good Shepherd and saw a monument to sheep-herding dogs.  I went on a light plane that took of from near the lake and flew through the mountains, over glaciers, around Mount Tasman and Mount Cook (Aoraki), and landed near Lake Pukaki; Sandy stayed on the bus which met us there.  The flight was very spectacular; I looked up, down, and directly across at mountains and glaciers.  The bus then continued to "The Hermitage," a restaurant, shop, and hotel at the base of Mount Cook.  We had an excellent buffet lunch, bought some souvenirs, and looked around the area, including a statue of Sir Edmund Hillary (who climbed Mount Everest in 1953), a New Zealander who trained in the Mount Cook area.  Hillary is still alive and lives in Auckland.

The bus we started on returned to Christchurch with passengers who originated in Queenstown, while we transferred to a bus that originated in Queenstown.  We then continued past Lake Pukaki, through the foothills, to a rest stop at a winery in Omarama, past Lake Dunstan, through the little town of Cromwell, and into the hilly country to Queenstown.  We arrived at dusk but did get to see some of the town as passengers were dropped off at their hotels.  We stayed at a lovely resort hotel right on Lake Wakatipu.  Our room overlooked the lake, giving us a great view of the mountains, and a steamboat on an evening/dinner cruise.  As the hotel restaurant was closed by the time we arrived, we had a nice room service dinner.


March 8, Monday

The activity for the day was an all-day bus tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound and a boat excursion on the Sound.  Sandy decided to skip the tour and relax for the day, get a massage, look around Queenstown, try to get her hair done, etc.  I had a week's worth of dirty laundry which I turned in at the hotel desk, explaining that it was to be laundered, not dry cleaned.  I got most of the message through, but all my socks, underwear, and pajamas were ironed--at great expense.

The bus drove along the shore of Lake Wakatipu and through the town of Kingston which has a historic steam train.  Then to Lake Te Anu, another picturesque lake in the Southern Alps, where we made a rest stop.  We then proceeded through the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound.  Ice fields and glaciers were visible on the mountains along the route.  The boat excursion on the Sound was spectacular.  The weather was cloudy but visibility was fine.  Most of the waterfalls were running, though not as many or as much as if it had been raining in the preceding days.  We went to the entrance to the Sound on the Tasman Sea and then back to the dock.  We saw some seals on the rocks.

We then returned to Queenstown by the same route.  I had time to walk from the hotel into the center of Queenstown for dinner, some shopping, and to check e-mail again.


March 9, Tuesday

Another busy day.  We left Queenstown by bus early in the morning for Dunedin.  The bus traveled a scenic route through Cromwell, the scenic agricultural town of Alexandra, and Lawrence.  Again we saw many, many sheep as well as cows, horses, and deer.  Even though this was a public transport bus rather than a tourist vehicle, the driver gave a good narration on history and geography, such as the plague of rabbits, which was at least temporarily resolved by citizens illegally bringing in a rabbit-killing virus that the government had not (yet) approved.

We came into Dunedin from the Southwest along the coastal highway.  The town is one of the older ones in New Zealand with an established university.  We took a taxi from the bus station to our hotel and had a little time to get settled before we were picked up for our bus tour of the Otago Peninsula.  On the way, we got a brief tour of the town and wished we had had time to see more.

The tour of the Otago Peninsula was outstanding.  The weather was spectacularly clear.  The bus drove the length of the peninsula, showing us the towns on the peninsula and looking across Dunedin Harbor to the city.  We saw dolphins in the harbor.  Passengers had a choice of expeditions away from the bus; we chose the Yellow Eyed Penguins.  They are very shy creatures that nest on steep cliffs.  Structures like duck blinds have been constructed to enable visitors to get close.  Open ATVs are used to transport visitors; we donned canvas ponchos to ward off the clouds of dust as the ATVs go over dirt paths to the nesting grounds.  (On rainy days the ponchos protect from flying mud.)  We saw a few penguins through binoculars and got a closeup look at a chick.  The nesting penguins make the arduous journey to the water several times a day to get food for the chicks.  These penguins cannot survive in captivity—their heart rates go sky-high due to the stress of being close to other animals or being in captivity, and they die within hours or days.

After leaving the penguin area, the bus picked up passengers who had gone to an albatross nesting ground.  We saw some albatrosses fly by as we waited for them.  Then the bus toured the rest of the peninsula, showing us Larnach Castle (we did not go inside), old buildings and churches, and scenic views of the harbor, beaches, and the peninsula itself.

We got back to the hotel in late afternoon.  There was a Scottish festival going on, and I listened to part of a bagpipe concert.  Then we had dinner at the hotel restaurant.  After dinner, I walked through the nearby Botanical Gardens.  After dark, I went onto the hotel grounds and looked for the Southern Cross.  I had not been able to see stars previously, because of clouds, city lights, being surrounded by tall buildings, etc., but the night was clear in Dunedin, we were out of the main part of the city, and I could see enough open sky.  While the North Star is very close to the celestial North Pole, the Southern Cross is about 40 degrees away from the pole, so depending on the location, time of year, etc., it may be high in the sky or close to the horizon.  I had brought my National Geographic star chart and was able to find the Southern Cross—the only time during the entire vacation.


March 10, Wednesday

We got to sleep late, then had a buffet breakfast in the hotel and caught a van to the airport, which is about 15 miles out of town.  I had a great view of the city, the harbor, and the Otago peninsula from the airplane.  We flew right over Christchurch, stopped at Wellington, and flew on to Auckland.  (There was a US Air Force VIP transport plane at the Wellington airport; turns out Admiral Thomas Fargo, US Pacific Commander, was in town to talk to the New Zealand government.)  At Auckland we got lunch at the airport again and then went to the international terminal for the flight to Sydney.  At Security, Sandy found that regulations only permit one cigarette lighter per passenger…how curious!  X-ray showed she had five, and after an extensive search of her handbag she found all five.  She and I each kept one and she contributed the rest to the airport.  [10-1]

The flight across the Tasman Sea was uneventful.  We arrived at Sydney and went through Immigration and Customs, but when we tried to find our transportation to town it was nowhere to be found.  We finally got the next trip, almost an hour late, and he kept us waiting at the curb for quite a while, so by the time we got to the hotel it was very late.


March 11, Thursday

I had booked a trip by bus and boat to the Koala Park west of Sydney.  However the boat was not running, so we were switched to a bus to the Ferndale Wildlife Park.  We don’t know what the original park would have been like, but Ferndale was one of the highlights of the vacation.  We got to see most of the animals peculiar to Australia—koalas, kangaroos, wombats, echidnas, Tasmanian devils, cassowaries, emus, dingoes, wallabies, bats, kookaburras, penguins, etc., etc.-- and to pet many of them such as koalas and kangaroos.

We returned from the park to meet my friend Dr. Didar Zowghi of the University of Technology Sydney.  She and one of her faculty colleagues took us to dim sum (called yam chai in Australia) near our hotel.  Afterwards I went to the university to meet with her Requirements Engineering group, and Sandy did some shopping in the big market near the restaurant. 

That evening we went on a dinner cruise on the harbor.  The weather was a bit humid but very good—Sydney had been very hot for the preceding couple of weeks—and we saw the city from the water as well as having a good dinner.  In addition to the usual landmarks (the Opera House, the Harbor Bridge, etc., some of the expensive waterfront residences were pointed out.  One building, which had been the US consulate, was sold recently; Nicole Kidman had bid $A21 million…and lost!

We looked around the dock area (many shops) briefly and then returned to the hotel.

March 12, Friday

This was our day to tour Canberra, the capital of Australia.  It is about a three-hour trip by bus from Sydney (plus rest stops)…question: why not do it by train?  We were picked up at our hotel and taken to a central location (Star City) where the all the hotel pickup vehicles dropped passengers for all the bus expeditions.  While waiting we purchased tickets for a Saturday morning tour of Sydney.

In Canberra we went to the modern National Museum for lunch and a tour. Then we saw the new Parliament Buildings, which are spectacularly modern. We saw the House of Representatives and the Senate Chambers, and the main banquet hall, which has a remarkable tapestry.  We drove around the embassy area and also saw the older parliament buildings.  The old and new buildings, the war memorial museum, and Mount Ainslie are in line along one axis with a mall between them.  In the other direction is Lake Burley Griffin, named after the American architect of Canberra.

The final two stops were the War Memorial Museum, which we saw just before closing time, and to the top of Mount Ainslie for a panoramic view of the whole city.  At the Museum, we did have time to see a number of World War I and II airplanes, and exhibits on Australian participation in World War II in the Pacific.

On the way back, our dinner stop was at a restaurant and nearby souvenir shop which is shaped like a gigantic Merino sheep.  We arrived back at our hotel in Sydney about 9 PM.


March 13, Saturday

Saturday morning we were really too tired to go on the tour we had scheduled, so we cancelled it.  I walked around the area of our hotel and took the Monorail to and around the downtown/harbor area.  We had lunch at a Hungry Jack across the street from the hotel; it is a Burger King in appearance, in menu, in everything but name.

We caught an afternoon flight to Melbourne and found the shuttle to our hotel.  While Melbourne is often cold and rainy, the weather was perfect for our visit.  Melbourne is famous for its trams (trolleys) which criss-cross the downtown area and go out to all the suburbs.  Our hotel was almost in the middle of the downtown area, which is rectangular in shape, with a free tram line going around it; we walked to the stop nearest our hotel and took the full circle, seeing a mixture of old and very new architecture.  There was a big football game at Telstra Stadium near the trolley line and a crowd was gathering for the game.

Melbourne has many ethnic neighborhoods.  We walked to the Greek district and had an excellent dinner at a Greek restaurant.

As mentioned above, we phoned our friend from New Zealand’s daughter and arranged to transfer the Care package to her.  We left it with the hotel concierge, and she came and picked it up while we were out.  She slipped a very nice thank-you note under our door.

Having learned our laundry lesson in Queenstown, we used the self-service washer and dryer in the hotel in Melbourne.


March 14, Sunday

We had the morning free in Melbourne.  We walked around the area near our hotel—a ritzy pedestrian mall (Bourke Street), an indoor shopping mall, and some other shops.

Our planned tour occupied the afternoon and evening.  The bus picked us up right across the street from our hotel, and took us on a brief tour of the downtown area, and some of the parks such as Fitzroy Gardens (to which Captain Cook’s home had been moved many years ago), before dropping us at Federation Square, where several museums of striking modern architecture are located.  On the river bank behind Federation Square is the dock for the Yarra River cruises, which was our next activity.  We cruised down the river to the harbor area, seeing historic and modern structures on both sides of the river, historic docks and ships such as the sailing ship “Polly Woodside.”  Especially on the South Bank, construction is everywhere, and residences are selling for remarkable prices.  We had noticed many vacancies in residential and commercial properties in downtown Melbourne and wondered how durable the real estate boom was. 

After the river cruise, the bus picked us up again at Federation Square and took us out of town, past the Queen Victoria Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance (Melbourne’s War Memorial) toward the Blue Dandenong mountains, 20 miles or so to the southeast.  We drove through stylish suburbs and then into the hills, which are a distant commute but home to many Melbourne commuters and full-time local residents.  We stopped at a state park for “Bush Billy tea,” tea brewed over a fire with cookies and crackers.  That area is populated by many birds such as Rainbow Parrots, who swarmed around for handouts.  Next we drove to an observatory on top of a hill where we looked over the whole Melbourne area on this very clear day.

We then proceeded back to town and the bus dropped us at the starting point of the Mebourne Colonial Tramcar Restaurant.  These are three old trolley cars that have been converted to elegant dining cars.  Since we were on an all-afternoon tour we did not have time to return to the hotel and change into something more appropriate, so we were in very casual dress for this elegant evening.  Luckily we did not appear to be the only ones in this situation as, in addition to passengers very finely dressed, there were others who seemed more appropriately dressed for McDonald’s than for such a dinner.

The trolleys have a kitchen as well as dining tables, and are staffed by uniformed cooks and waiters.  The cars are stabilized to make dining more enjoyable as they travel the tracks in and around Melbourne.  Our car went to the beach area of St. Kilda which was very picturesque around sunset.  We saw some Jewish temples and learned later that St. Kilda is one of the Jewish areas of Australia, including Orthodox and even Hasidic.  A three-course dinner, plus appetizers, dessert, wine, and after-dinner drinks were served as we traveled the tracks.  Sandy had filet and I had lamb—both excellent!

After the trolley returned to its starting point, we took a taxi back to the hotel.


March 15, Monday

During the morning I walked around downtown Melbourne near the hotel, including the location of the National Postal Museum, which unfortunately didn’t open until Noon.  I did buy some Australian stamps for mailing postcards, and some Australian-theme holiday cards which we will use this year.  The stamps included a souvenir sheet for the Hobart (Tasmania) Bicentennial, some of which I used for mailings from our next stop.  I didn’t think to buy any Australian Antarctic Territory stamps, which are valid for mailing from Australia itself.

We checked out of the hotel about noon and traveled back to Melbourne Airport, and caught a flight to Hobart.  I had a good view of some of the communities on Port Philip Bay (south of Melbourne) and of the rugged interior of Tasmania during the flight.  Hobart itself was a larger city than I expected, but it does have a quaint fishing harbor area very near our hotel.  We walked there and had a seafood dinner overlooking the harbor.  We had also gone to the Visitor Center and looked around the downtown area.


March 16, Tuesday

We had a morning bus tour of Hobart and surrounding areas, including the suburbs across the Derwent River.  The tour included a stop at the picturesque Cascade  Gardens and Brewery in the hills south of the city, as well as the elegant Battery Point residential area and St. David’s Cathedral.  We wished there had been time for a tour in the afternoon that would take us into the countryside, e.g., Port Arthur or Richmond, but there was not, so we had lunch at the Grand Chancellor Hotel on the waterfront and then took a harbor cruise.  We got an excellent view of the city and nearby areas from the boat, including the icebreaker and Antarctic research vessel that the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) docks in Hobart.  We went under the bridge that crosses the river and learned about the ship that rammed it over 20 years ago, sinking the ship and dropping some sections of the bridge, closing the bridge for two years and causing great chaos in the area.  We saw the Governor’s Mansion and other sights.  The Derwent River is very deep—it does not need to be dredged--and can hold the largest ships, including American aircraft carriers.

We returned to the hotel and had dinner at its restaurant.  I walked around the area a little after dinner, and used the computer in the hotel’s business center to catch up on e-mail.  After dark I walked through some of the park areas near the hotel hoping to see the Southern Cross again, but even though the sky was mostly clear at sunset, and did not appear to be very cloudy, I could not see any stars at all.

There was a washer and dryer in the hotel room, and we took care of those few items that needed laundering, so that we would not need to do it again before going home.


March 17, Wednesday

We slept late, had breakfast in the hotel dining room, and caught the transportation to the airport.  We changed planes in Melbourne on our way to the Great Barrier Reef.  From the airplane windows I had excellent views of Launceston, the North Shore of Tasmania, the area around Melbourne and the city itself, and the interior on the way to Queensland, including the Murray River that forms the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria.

We had had nearly perfect weather until this time, but the odds finally caught up with us.  There was a "cyclone" (hurricane or typhoon) off the Queensland coast.  We flew into bad weather as we approached Cairns.  The pilot had to abort our first landing attempt as visibility dropped below minimums, and we went around and landed successfully on the second try.  It was raining and the wind was blowing.  We took a van to Port Douglas, about an hour north of Cairns on a narrow, twisting road between the cliffs and the ocean.  It was raining heavily as we checked into our hotel.  The hotel was a resort destination, with tennis courts, several swimming pools, and other outdoor activities.  We had dinner in the bar and spoke with an Australian couple who had retired to the Gold Coast area of Queensland and were in Port Douglas on vacation.  The Gold Coast is another place where real estate prices had risen phenomenally in recent years.

As this location was in the tropics, there were insects abundantly in the hotel room, and a lizard that for some reason did not seem inclined to eat any of the insects.  Perhaps in the environment of the hotel room, his green color enabled the insects to see and avoid him.

Also we were advised when we checked in not to drink the tap water.  There was a filtered water dispenser in each hotel building.


March 18, Thursday

It continued to rain and the wind continued to blow.  We went to the lobby for our scheduled tour of the Great Barrier Reef, but were told that the water was very rough and we might be well advised to reschedule for the next day, hoping the weather would improve.  The hotel had no rainy-day activities, e.g., only one pool table for the entire hotel.  The swimming pools and tennis courts were outdoors, and while it was warm enough to swim in the rain, and some people did, it did not seem particularly appealing.  In the late morning we took a bus into the town of Port Douglas and looked at the shops.  We looked for an Australian-themed gift for the baby our next-door neighbors were expecting, but could not find anything--the baby clothes and such were "generic," mostly made in China, and did not have decorations such as koalas or kangaroos.  We stopped in a café where Sandy had some tea, I had hot chocolate, and I used their internet connection to check e-mail.  We had lunch in a very nice Chinese restaurant and then went to a native-crafts shop and bought some souvenirs including a boomerang.  As we were getting drenched every time we went from one shop to another, we returned to the hotel in the early afternoon.

There were several good movie channels on television, and we both got a lot of reading done.  When the rain let up a bit, I put on my raincoat, got my umbrella, and went for a walk, but by the time I got back it was raining hard again.  We had a room service dinner and continued to watch movies on television and read.


March 19, Friday

The rain and wind continued.  We were notified in the morning that the reef tour had been cancelled for the day.  Other activities in the area, such as the aerial tramway, the wildlife park, and the steam railroad, were also unattractive in the rain.  We had a buffet breakfast at the hotel, sat in the lobby and read the newspaper for a while, and returned to the room and watched television and read.  We had brought plenty of reading material (and Sandy had bought more on Thursday in Port Douglas) but were rapidly running out.  Fortunately there continued to be movies on television that we had not seen or did not mind seeing again.

We had lunch in the bar and a good dinner in the hotel restaurant.  I took a short afternoon walk in the rain but quickly returned to the room. 

I asked the hotel staff what was a good time of year to see the Reef, and was told that the best season is May to November (winter and spring).  Monsoons and bad weather are common in the summer.


March 20, Saturday

The plan was to fly from Cairns to Sydney in the early afternoon, check into the same hotel we had been in at Sydney previously, have a relaxing dinner, get some sleep, and go to the airport Sunday morning.  At Port Douglas, we were packing and preparing to check out and catch our airport transportation when we got a phone call from the desk that there had been a landslide on the road to Cairns early that morning, the road was closed, and they could only guess when it would reopen.  We asked whether it might be possible to take a boat to Cairns and were told that, at that time, helicopters were available for charter.  We called one of the helicopter services; they expected they would be able to take us mid-afternoon and would call back.  We called the hotel in Sydney and cancelled our reservation for that night, and asked them to cancel our airport transportation in both directions. 

The Australian travel service that had set up our travel called us, but there wasn’t much they could do.  (If I had not already cancelled the Sydney plans, they would have done that.)  Eventually the helicopter service called back and confirmed our reservation for 3:50 PM.  Also by this time a boat service had been set up, for a 5 PM departure.  As it was still raining, it seemed best to take the earlier reservation in case the ocean was later too rough for the boat.

Knowing nothing about Cairns, we asked the hotel and were given the phone number of the hotel in Cairns in the same chain.  We called and made a reservation.  We also contacted Qantas and changed our flight reservations: we would leave Cairns at 5:45 AM the following morning, and catch a nonstop to Los Angeles leaving Sydney at 11:30 AM.  It would actually arrive a little earlier than our original flight, which makes a stop in Auckland.

We then had lunch, checked out, and took a taxi to the helicopter service.  We waited at a nearby restaurant until departure time when we were taken to the helicopter.  All this time it continued to rain though there was little wind.

We were given a quick safety briefing and loaded into the helicopter, Sandy in front next to the pilot and me in back next to one of our suitcases that would not fit in the cargo hold.  We took off, flew down the coast a few hundred feet off the water.  The flight was smoother than I expected.  We got a little view of the Coral Sea though certainly not of the Great Barrier Reef.  We saw the section of road that the landslide had taken out; there was construction equipment on both sides and the road was clearly going to be out for a while.  (We later heard an estimate of five days to get one lane open.)  Flooding in the Cairns area was obvious from the air.

We landed at the Cairns airport and unloaded.  The helicopter service drove us to our hotel.  As we left the airport, the helicopter was being loaded up with bottled water to go back to Port Douglas.

At the hotel, we were "upgraded" to a suite on an upper floor, but the whole floor smelled as though it had just been fumigated.  The suite was large and comfortable.  We left a wakeup call for 3 AM and asked for a taxi at 4:30 AM.  We then went for a walk in downtown Cairns--it had just about stopped raining.

The city (storefronts, sidewalk, and street) actually looked more like what I expected Australia to look like than anyplace we had been previously.  We went to some souvenir shops and found some T-shirts and other trinkets, including a baby shirt with kangaroos on it!  We found an Italian restaurant near the hotel and had dinner.  Then we went to sleep early in anticipation of the 3 AM wakeup call.


March 21, Sunday

The wake-up call came on time, and our taxi arrived at the hotel shortly before 4:30.  The weather had cleared up, and we got to the airport in a few minutes.  We checked our bags through to Los Angeles.  When the snack bar opened at 5 AM we had a bite to eat, looked around the shops which opened at the same time and picked up a couple of books, and Sandy found an opal she liked.  The flight for Sydney left on time, and I had a good view of the Queensland coast.

On the landing approach to Sydney I had a good view of the western suburbs, and people on the other side of the plane saw the harbor and landmarks such as the Opera House and the downtown tower.  We transferred by bus to the international terminal, spent most of our remaining Australian money, and turned the rest in.  The flight boarded and left about half an hour late.

The flight was a bit longer than the Los Angeles-Auckland flight, and the movie selection was slightly different.  I had a window seat but when the clouds parted there was usually little to see but water.  When the GPS indicated we were over islands (such as New Caledonia, Tuvalu [Ellice Islands], or Vanuatu [New Hebrides]) there was solid cloud.  In fact for some of the flight we were in thick clouds at altitude so the wingtips could not be seen clearly, and there was some turbulence.

We crossed both the International Date Line and the Equator at about sunset.  During the night we flew over the Hawaiian Islands, which do not appear to be on the Great Circle course between Sydney and Los Angeles.  The lights of Honolulu were clearly visible.

We made up the time of the late takeoff and landed on time at 6:30 AM—several hours “earlier” than we had left Australia.  Immigrations and customs were cleared easily, and we found that we could check in for American Airlines flights without leaving the area.  We were able to get an earlier flight to San Jose (9:05 instead of 11:30) and our bags could be checked right there.  The directions and path to the San Jose flight did not allow for us to stop in the concourse, e.g., to get some food or reading material.  It’s not clear why we had to leave a secured area at all, but the security line for the domestic terminal was long so we were marched outside to a bus, taken back to the international terminal where we went through security, then marched back onto a bus at an international gate and driven to one domestic terminal, where we got on another bus for the field terminal where American Eagle operates.

We phoned Jenn but she could not get to the airport in time to meet the 9:05 flight so we agreed that we would take a taxi.  The flight to San Jose was uneventful, we got our bags back and found a taxi and got home well before noon.  Accounting for time differences, we had been traveling for over 24 hours.


So it was an eventful and memorable vacation, the first time Sandy and I had traveled out of the country together but surely not the last.  Although we would have liked to have had more time just about everywhere we went, there were only three places that we are anxious to get back to see what we missed: Christchurch, New Zealand, where we arrived after dark and left before dawn the next day; Tasmania, where I would like to see some of the rural part of the island; and the Great Barrier Reef.  And Sandy really enjoyed the helicopter ride and would like to do that again.

We traveled by just about every mechanized means available—large and small airplane, helicopter, ship and boat, railroad, trolley, car, van, bus, and ATV.  (Horse-drawn buggies were available in Melbourne but we didn’t use one.)  We met many people during this trip and found them all to be very pleasant and helpful.  We can highly recommend both New Zealand and Australia as vacation destinations.