This is another in a series of travelogues chronicling the adventures of Frank and Patricia Hall. Detailed here is our cruise on the Crystal Symphony from January 17th to the 29th, followed by a two day stay in Auckland in a Post Cruise package offered by Crystal. Our companions were our Travel Buddies, Larry and Patti Webber of Bend, Oregon, formerly of Arcadia who have shared many adventures with us.
The cruise itinerary included Brisbane, Newcastle and Sydney in Australia then on to Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington in New Zealand before disembarking in Auckland.
Larry and Patti flew down to Los Angeles a couple of days before to spend time with their family in Long Beach and we agreed to meet at LAX.
TRAVELOGUE CONTENTS: In this document we’ll first discuss getting to and from Australia and New Zealand, then the countries themselves and the ports we visited, then we’ll give some details on the two wine regions we visited and toward the end we’ll describe our experience on the Crystal Symphony. To spare you some suspense, it was one of the better cruise experiences we’ve ever had. Finally we’ll give you the excruciating details of getting home.
GETTING THERE: If you live in the Los Angeles area, your travel adventures usually start at Los Angeles International Airport, known to all as LAX. We have taken surveys of our fellow travelers who agree LAX is the worst airport outside of the third world – and the worst terminal: the Thomas Bradley International Terminal, named for the lackluster Mayor who spent his entire tenure in that office unsuccessfully running for the office of Governor of California. Like Tom Bradley himself, everyone who works in LAX would rather be someplace else.
Home to almost all International Airlines, Terminal B (for Bradley, of course) was humming with activity when we arrived 3 hours early for our midnight flight to Australia on Qantas. On this particular evening the belt moving the luggage from ticket counter to the Baggage area was broken and all ticket counters had come to a complete halt waiting while the lone Union Mechanic with authorization to touch the belt in question was being roused from his slumber. As a result all flights were delayed a couple of hours and we didn’t take off until after 1:30 AM. Naturally, the Business Class Lounge in Terminal B was overflowing with passengers making it impossible to find a place to sit. We went to the gate and made friends with lots of other stranded passengers. We had plenty of time to become acquainted.
Our flight itinerary called for a four hour layover in Sydney so we would have time to go through Customs, transfer our luggage to the Domestic Terminal and catch a local flight to Brisbane. Because we were two hours late, we had to dash to catch the Brisbane flight. I confess, I just don’t “dash” as well as I used to. Thank God, Patti and Patricia ran ahead to tell them we were on our way. I told Larry I remembered when, not so long ago, we could outrun our wives.
This is to take nothing away from Qantas, which, once we were on Board, made our flight as perfect as 15+ hour flight can be. Food and service were great. It was just the two airports we hated, including the TSA people in LA who made Larry go through a “Patdown” on his way to the gate. He looks less like a Terrorist than I do.
AUSTRALIA TIME: It takes a bit over 15 hours to get to Australia, but because most of your distance is North-to-South, you don’t cross as many time zones on the way, several less than going to Europe. The official time difference between Sydney and Los Angeles is 19 hours, but, that is because you cross the International Dateline on the way. When it’s 3 PM in Sydney it’s 8 PM in Los Angeles, just 5 hours. The big difference is that today in California is tomorrow in Australia.
The time difference is also shortened by the fact that when L.A. is on Daylight Saving Time, Sydney is on Standard and vice versa.
Queensland, the state in which Brisbane is located, like Arizona, doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time so it’s an hour earlier than Sydney in New South Wales.
All of this is a little confusing, particularly trying to remember what day it is.
CONVERTING DISTANCE, TEMPERATURE AND YOUR CASH DOWN UNDER: Australia and New Zealand converted to the Metric System in the 70s and 80s, but you may occasionally run across a sign that quotes the distance in miles.
A. MILES TO KILOMETERS: It’s fairly easy to convert Miles to Kilometers as long as you’re not too picky about accuracy. A Kilometer is about .623 of a mile, or round it off to 2/3rds. So 300 kilometers is about 200 miles, and a 65 mile an hour speed limit is 100 K an hour on your Ausie or Kiwi Rental Car.
B. CELSIUS TO FAHRENHEIT: This a little trickier. You multiply the Celsius Temperature by 2, then add 32 (Freezing in Celsius is zero) then reduce the total by 10%. Let’s say the Celsius Temperature is 30. Twice that is 60, adding 32 makes it 92, take away 10% (9) and it makes the 30C Temperature to be about 83F.
C. AMERICAN DOLLARS TO AUSTRALIAN OR NEW ZEALAND DOLLARS: When we first went to Australia in 2002 the Australian Dollar was worth about half an American Dollar. The New Zealand Dollar was 40 Cents. Today the Australian Dollar is worth a penny or two more than the American Dollar and a New Zealand Dollar will get you 80 Cents American. This wasn’t caused by a conversion to the metric system, but by actions taken by our government which reduced the value of our money over the last 12 years. I blame both Bush AND Obama.
BRISBANE: We arrived in Brisbane (pronounced "Brizbon" by the locals), in early afternoon, after a nice Qantas lunch, and were met by a limo driver arranged by Crystal. He gave us a history and geography lesson on the way to the hotel.
Brisbane is the third largest city in Australia after Sydney and Melbourne with a population of a bit more than 2 Million people in the metropolitan area. It represents about 5% of the total population of Australia. It’s located almost due north of Sydney in the State of Queensland, of which it is the Capital.
It straddles the Brisbane River, a large, if short river (by American Standards), about 14 miles from the coast. The River is quite wide and picturesque as it flows through Brisbane and it also is the source of the flooding that plagued the city. In fact a major flood happened in Brisbane a few days after we left. Our Driver told us that they’d been having a drought and everyone was hoping for relief. Careful what you wish for.
The city is a bustling metropolis today, a financial and business center for the entire region. It was founded less than 200 years ago a few miles from the penal colony that was the first English settlement in Queensland.
Most Americans are aware that most early residents of Australia were “criminals,” petty thieves from England and “Freedom Fighters” from Ireland who were sentenced to “transportation” for their crimes. Australia actually became a penal colony because of the American Revolution in the late 18th Century that shut off the transport of prisoners to the penal colonies in the USA, originally in Georgia.
These first citizens were not horse thieves, armed robbers, rapists or murderers – those hardened criminals were hanged- Australia’s share of prisoners were mostly those who stole a loaf of bread or a gentleman’s handkerchief. The length of a sentence was seven years or a multiple of that number for severe cases (perhaps the theft of two loaves of bread). Prisoners were often made indentured workers obliged to work out their sentence as the slave of a planter. That was their first problem.
Their second problem was that “Transportation” was only one way, they would have to pay their own way home, the cost of which was out of reach of recently freed “slaves.” So the vast majority stayed and became the ancestors of some of the most hardworking, brightest and fun-loving people you will ever meet.
You’ll meet Australians, who proudly discuss their ancestry to you, but they’ll never refer to their ancestors as criminals or even petty criminals – they are, “those who suffered transportation.”
If you think this is odd, consider the fact that in the American South today the Civil War is still often referred to as “The war of Northern (or Yankee) aggression.”
Brisbanites are addicted to Sport. Cricket, Football (Soccer), Rugby, Sailing, Tennis and Golf seem to get top billing in the Sporting Pages of the newspapers. But Horse Racing is still a major sport, with two year-round Race Tracks in Brisbane alone. When the horses aren’t racing the greyhounds are. We were told there are several kinds of “football” in Australia; the variety closest to American Football is called Australian Football and is often played in South Australia where the climate is cooler.
Our Hotel in Brisbane was the Sofitel Brisbane Central. It is comfortable, clean and well staffed. Patricia and I were planning to go out to dinner, but ended up “crashing” instead. We ordered “Room Service” sandwiches which were delicious. I had a Club Sandwich that came with the usual ingredients plus a fried egg. It was excellent.
The Ausies have a way of improving on the dishes invented by others. An “Ausie Burger” for example will come with pickled beets as the surprise ingredient. Don’t laugh; it’s a great addition to the American tradition.
Larry and I decided to check out the neighborhood in search of a place to buy fruit juice. We found a bunch of interesting Restaurants, Wine Shops, Pubs and of course Betting Parlors, but had a steep climb uphill to reach a 7/11 store, only to discover that in Australia 7/11 stores sell fast food and liquor, and very few groceries.
Brisbane seems to be as hilly as San Francisco, but the locals charge up hill like it’s a walk in the park. They must have great cardiovascular systems and live to be 103.
If we ever go back to Australia, we’d like to spend some time in Brisbane and Queensland. The coastal area north of Brisbane is known as the “Sunshine Coast” and is a wonderland of wonderful beaches, a vacation paradise. From Brisbane south to the New South Wales border is the city of “Gold Coast” which boasts an equal attraction to tourists. The average winter temperature along this coast is about 70F while summer temperatures are in the mid-80s. Like most tropical areas (Florida for example) the summer months sport more rain than the winter does, but, most of the time the sun is shining.
Unfortunately, after a good night’s rest and a terrific buffet Breakfast at the Sofitel we caught a Motor Coach to our Ship and bid farewell to Queensland.
NEWCASTLE: Our first port, after a day at sea, was Newcastle about 100 miles north of Sydney. Like its namesake in Britain, it is the home of Australia’s coal industry and ships more coal on a monthly basis than any other port in the world. This drives Australia’s many environmentalists absolutely “Nuts,” but the economic impact on the country is so great I don’t think they’ll ever be successful in shutting it down.
It’s a city of about 300,000 on the coast at the mouth of the Hunter River which over the eons has carved the Hunter Valley in the otherwise forbidding landscape. Hunter Valley is quite a famous Wine Region, but, only about 2% of Australia’s Wine is produced here, but, its more than 50 wineries feature some of the oldest and most famous names in the Ausie Wine Business.
We elected to take a tour of the wine region while in Newcastle. It’s about an hour’s ride by Motor Coach from Newcastle which gives your tour guide plenty of time to talk about the region’s history and culture. You’ll pass through several little Coal Towns including one with the curious name of
Kurri Kurri. Each town has a little Hotel and each hotel features a historic mural covering one of its exterior walls, great art in unexpected places.
The area has experienced some fires, for which Australia receives much world-wide press each year. Most of the trees in this area are varieties of Eucalyptus, the native tree of Australia which has been transplanted in many areas of the world, including our yard here in Sierra Madre. Eucalyptus is one of the few trees in the world that can survive a forest fire. Soon after a fire is extinguished, the blackened trees will proceed to sprout new leaves, so it doesn’t take the eucalyptus forest much time before it can burn again.
I’ll talk about the Wineries we visited in a later section, but, a couple of interesting things happened to us while we were on this tour. The first is that we saw a pair of Kangaroos in the Wild. Our tour guide had just finished telling us that we were unlikely to see any, because of the time of day (they prefer the cool of the evening and the early morning) when out of a nearby stand of trees hopped a pair about 5 feet tall. On spotting the Bus, they promptly hopped right back in the forest, but seeing them in the wild was one of our goals for the trip.
On the Bus with us was a group of Travel Writers from various Australian publications. Crystal Cruises had invited them to board the ship in Brisbane and debark in Sydney (3 days later) as a marketing promotion. One guest was Angie Kelly, the Travel Editor of the Sunday Sydney Morning Herald (the “Paper of Record” for Australia). We became friendly and when she learned that I write travelogues, she asked us to be interviewed for a weekly feature on Cruise Excursions. After we returned home we corresponded with the feature’s writer, Jane Frazer, and were interviewed about our excursion in Auckland. It was published along with a picture of the 4 of us In the March 17th Sunday Herald. What fun it was. If you want to see the on-line edition of the Herald you’ll find it at: www.smh.com.au. I’ve been reading it regularly and now subscribe online.
SYDNEY: Twenty years ago, we took our first major cruise through the Panama Canal and, on the way, visited Acapulco for the first time. Our tour guide told us that “the experts” believe Acapulco has the third most beautiful harbor in the world, behind only number two, Rio de Janeiro, and number one, Sydney. We thought Acapulco harbor to be spectacular and figured Sydney would have to be terrific to surpass it in beauty. Ten years ago, we visited Sydney for the first time, and we immediately agreed with our Mexican tour guide of so long ago. Sydney has the most beautiful harbor we ever saw, and we’ve seen many before and since.
We all gathered in the highest lounge on the ship for the entry into Sydney Harbour, which occurred at
6 AM. It took nearly an hour from the time we entered it until we docked.
Actually the official name of the Sydney Harbour area is “Port Jackson” and it’s not technically a “Harbour” (it is “Harbor” in America and “Harbour” in the British Empire) according to the geologists, it’s a “Flooded River Valley.” But, whatever they call it, it is spectacular. It’s about 13 miles long, but the perimeter is over 200 miles around. Much of it is inhabited by people all of whom have great views. The city of Sydney pretty much surrounds the Harbour, but the Civic Center is on the south end. The two outstanding sites, in the Harbour, according to one of our guides, are the Famous Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. According to an Australian couple who sat with us at our early morning entry, the Opera House is known to local wags as “The Nun Scrum” (you’ll have to get a Rugby fan to explain this to you) and the Harbour Bridge is called “The Coat Hanger.” Call them what you will, they’re both worth a picture postcard home.
We had two days in Sydney and for our first outing we chose a Harbour tour.
A Harbour tour is a must for a visitor to Sydney. There are Tour Boats that act like the Hop on/Hop off busses in many cities, that will allow you get off the boat, see an attraction and catch a later vessel.
This is a great way to do it, but, it will take most of a day. The last time we went, we got off at Watson’s Bay and had lunch at Doyle’s. If you have time, I’d suggest it. This time, we didn’t have the time, so stayed on Board the tour boat for the entire afternoon.
You can also get off at the Zoo and spend hours making new friends. We didn’t do the zoo last time we were here and it wasn’t until we got home that I realized we hadn’t seen any of Australia’s truly unique animals. So, this trip we elected to take a tour called “A Wildlife Experience” on our second day in Sydney. We took a motor coach (a “bus” to us Americans) past the Sydney Olympic Stadium in the suburb of “Sydney Olympic Park” (the town was formerly called “Homebush Bay” a name I like a lot better) site of the 2000 Olympic games, to Featherdale Wildlife Park.
Patricia’s goal was to hug a Koala Bear. They turned out to be larger than we expected and because they spend their lives in Eucalyptus trees, they smell like the liniment smell you’ll find in the men’s locker room. So, she didn’t exactly hug one, but the handler brought him close enough for her to stroke his coat. Like most animals in Australia, they’re Marsupials, carrying their babies in a pouch on their tummies. We were told by the keeper of the Koalas that they will eventually become extinct in the wild because they have failed to “evolve.” For a thousand years they and their ancestors have been sleeping 18 hours a day and spending the other 6 hours eating the same variety of eucalyptus leaf.
The wildlife park is built to allow the public, primarily kids, get up close and personal with the parks’ tenants. Larger dangerous animals like Tasmanian Devils and Crocodiles are there to be seen, but, not cuddled. Kangaroos and wallabies of all sizes roam the park and the guests enjoy their company.
The park also had a huge number of tenants with wings including birds of numerous varieties, of course, but also bats and even “Flying Foxes.”
The reptile exhibit was also popular, but I remember reading in Bill Bryson’s wonderful travel book about Australia, “In a Sunburned Country,” that 8 of the world’s 10 most poisonous snakes and 8 of the world’s 10 most poisonous spiders hail from Australia. I stayed in the barnyard with the Koalas.
There were lots of young Ausies with their parents plus a fairly large contingent of long-haired Monks in Orange robes, no doubt from nearby Indonesia. A good time was had by all, including the Monks and us, too. Larry found a Crocodile Dundee Hat in the Gift Shop, which he is now showing off to the folks in Bend.
We didn’t have time to eat in Sydney on this trip, which was really disappointing. We had some wonderful meals in Sydney restaurants the last time we were here but, this time it just didn’t work out. We did have a few free hours to take a shuttle bus to a popular tourist area called “The Rocks” where we shopped for tee shirts and had a beer in “Sydney’s oldest Pub” known as the “Fortune of War.” Australians love their beer. When you taste it you’ll discover why.
If you enjoyed the entrance into Sydney Harbour, you’re going to love the “Sail Away.” You will leave in late afternoon when all the early morning haze is nothing but a memory and you’ll get a great view of the City and its many surrounding attractions. We watched from the same lounge we occupied on the way in and were glued to the view. As we sailed away we received an email from our new friend Angie in her office at the Newspaper where she was watching us sail away.
FAREWELL TO AUSTRALIA: Because we travel a lot I’ve been asked many times. “Where is your favorite place to visit?” Our answer is usually “Italy” or “New York City,” but if the question is ever, “Where would you like to live, if you couldn’t live in the USA?” My answer would be “Australia.”
The Australian people are very much like Americans were 30 years ago – upbeat, fun loving and sure of the future. While the government is more socialistic than the States, it is less so than Europe and they have a sensible immigration policy that targets those people with the talents and skills they need in their society. And, it seems to be working.
On many Australian cruises you will have additional Australian ports – perhaps Melbourne, Adelaide or Hobart in Tasmania, but on this cruise we headed for the South Island of New Zealand.
WELCOME TO NEW ZEALAND: It will take two days at sea to cover the 1,400 miles from Australia to New Zealand. The two countries share their British history but not much else. Note these striking differences:
Australia was first populated by Aborigines probably from India after one of Earth’s ice ages. These first citizens remained in small isolated and solitary family groups for 2,000 years or more. New Zealand wasn’t populated until about 1200 AD when the Maoris, Polynesians related to the natives of Hawaii and Samoa, arrived and established a fairly advanced culture. When Europeans arrived in Australia, the native peoples retreated into the outback. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand they fought the Maoris in many battles before finally signing a treaty with them that survives to this day and honors Maori traditions and customs equally with those of the British.
Australia is home to thousands of animals: marsupials, reptiles, birds and insects that exist nowhere else in the world. The majority of Australian animals are marsupials, raising their babies in a pouch on the mother’s stomach. Deadly insects and reptiles abound. By contrast, there are no native animals in New Zealand – that’s right – NONE. That no doubt explains why New Zealand has such a large number of flightless birds, such as the Kiwi. No predators, so they don’t need wings for escape. The Maoris did bring a few animals with them when they came, but one suspects the rats that infested historic New Zealand were stowaways on Maori canoes.
Australia’s major exports are iron ore, coal and agricultural products including meat and fish, much of it shipped to China and other Asian countries. New Zealand, more agricultural, is the major provider of milk and dairy products to the Asian market. And of course New Zealand is world famous for its sheep (lamb and wool products). Unlike the United States, New Zealand has many deer farms and venison is on many Kiwi menus. Both countries have growing wine industries with Australia gaining Gold Medals for its Shiraz and Cabernet, while New Zealand is earning awards for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Both Countries are justly proud of their film industries. Look out, Hollywood!
Geography of the two countries couldn’t be more different. Australia’s huge land mass makes it the only island on Earth considered a “Continent” and stretches more than 2,000 miles from Perth on the West Coast to Sydney on the East. North to South it is about 1,700 miles from Adelaide on the south to Darwin in the north. Alice Springs, a transportation hub in the center of the Australia’s central desert with a population of about 25,000, is the only city not located close to the coast. The Country spans 3 time zones. By contrast, New Zealand stretches from Auckland in the north to Dunedin on the south, a bit over 600 miles. New Zealand is two time zones east of Australia and its proximity to the International Dateline makes Auckland the first major city to celebrate the New Year each year. Auckland’s weather can be quite tropical in a summer January while Dunedin often gets snow in a wintery July.
The law in both countries allows their citizens to move freely from one country to the other and they are both justly proud of their common military history. The Anzac troops were among the first ashore at Gold Beach on “D Day” during World War II, and they have stood with their American Allies from Korea, and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally, Australia has 6 states and two territories. New Zealand has no states or provinces; just City government and the National Parliament. Imagine, they’ve eliminated a whole level of bureaucracy. What a concept!
MILFORD, DUSKY AND DOUBTFUL SOUNDS: Because New Zealand lies in the path of prevailing Southern Hemisphere West to East winds; so, the weather tends to be milder on the East Side of both major New Zealand Islands which explains why the early pioneers settled for the most part on the East coast. While there are no major cities to visit in the west, nature has provided a group of beautiful and majestic Fjords to visit.
Your cruise will spend a day traversing the “Sounds” and you’ll see lush forest and incredible waterfalls. There are lodges for fishermen and nature lovers to enjoy a few days “away from it all.” It’s truly spectacular and you’ll understand why Peter Jackson picked this area as the backdrop for his “Lord of the Rings Trilogy.” Captain Cook discovered and named them in 1770 on his voyage down the West Coast.
DUNEDIN: On the Southeast coast of the South Island the town of Dunedin was founded by Scottish settlers, just a few years after colonization began. The name is a derivation of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and the citizens proudly embrace those roots. A decade or so after settlement gold was discovered and while the USA was engulfed in its Civil War, Dunedin was the site of the New Zealand Gold Rush, in the early 1860s. A few years later, Dunedin was the site of the founding of the first University in New Zealand, Otago University, named for the geographic area occupied by Dunedin, one of the largest Schools of Higher Learning in the Country.
There are about 100,000 permanent residents in Dunedin, a number swollen by 20,000 Otago U. students during the school year. When we arrived, many students were on summer vacation and the community was fairly quiet.
Dunedin’s Train Station is historic and picturesque and is a “will see” if you take just about any of the excursions offered by your cruise line. The fact is there isn’t a lot to see in Dunedin, but the 150 year old Presbyterian Church and the fine old Victorian and Edwardian buildings are beautiful.
We elected a tour called “Scottish Dunedin” which included a ceremonial “Address to a Haggis,” a centuries old Scottish tradition which commemorates a poem by Scottish Poet and Historical Hero Robert Burns, who according to legend, delivered his accolades to the traditional Scottish Pudding at a dinner hosted by European gourmets who looked down their noses at the dish. Haggis is traditionally baked in the stomach of a sheep and is usually composed of “Sheep Innards” and Oatmeal. We were told that one can now find vegetarian Haggis. Will the outrages of the “Food Nazis” never stop?
Local Kiwis of Scottish heritage hosted and recreated this famous event from Scottish history complete with wigs, kilts and Scottish brogues. Burns poem is delivered with appropriate solemnity and then the guests are invited to try the Haggis. Neither Patricia nor Patty has a drop of Scottish Blood in their veins, but, Larry and I felt compelled to try it. Served on a cracker, the taste was as bland as just about every other traditional British dish.
However we had fun and can now answer in the affirmative when we are asked, “have you ever tasted Haggis?”
After the Haggis Ceremony we were taken on a tour of the nearby mountain community and ended up at “Rotary Park” a gift of the Dunedin Rotary Club to the town and another example of the community service provided by that worldwide service club, (both Larry and I have been Rotarians for many years. Larry dropped out when he moved to Bend, but, I’m sure the Rotary bug will bite him again.) From Rotary Park we could enjoy the spectacular view of the Fjord which shelters Dunedin.
CHRISTCHURCH: Founded by a group of English Christians, Christchurch became the first officially chartered New Zealand City in 1856. The settlers came from Canterbury, a name they adopted for their region as they named their city for their community back home. Even the lovely local river was named “The Avon” to commemorate their roots. We visited this bustling community on our first trip in 2001. Disaster struck the town in 2010 when a devastating earthquake hit the city followed the next year by an equally destructive after-shock. All of the Civic buildings were heavily damaged and even the port and a tunnel connecting Christchurch with the coast were shut down.
Today, Christchurch is under reconstruction and we wanted to see their progress. Our ship actually anchored in Akaroa 100 Kilometers away and offered no excursions that would take us into the ruined city. Perhaps they were concerned with Liability issues in the event of another shaker. The islands of New Zealand are the result of volcanic activity and earthquakes are quite common. There was, however, an independent bus line available to take passengers into Christchurch and the Webbers and I signed up for the trip. Patricia wanted a day of rest.
The trip, some of which was on Mountain roads, took about 90 minutes. It did give us a chance to see a lot of beautiful New Zealand Countryside, all of it under cultivation. We expected to see sheep, of course, and there were plenty of them, but the cattle seemed even more prevalent. There were many vineyards too, as much of the Sauvignon Blanc for which New Zealand is famous comes from regions near Christchurch. One thing I thought amusing, the name of the city is abbreviated as Ch Ch and many of the road signs showed your distance from the city thusly “Ch Ch 30 K”
When we entered the suburban area we noticed some abandoned old buildings, but, for the most part the homes were still well kept. But, we learned that after the quakes a third of Christchurch’s population moved away. Not because their homes were destroyed, but because so many business were closed and a deep economic recession set in. When we reached the center of town we parked in front of the local museum which was open and bustling with activity.
We asked the Bus Driver if we could go into “Downtown” and he said “two blocks down and one block over you’ll come to the “Container Mall.” We didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but, we followed his directions. We came to an amazing area of what used to be the downtown business area. We had been here 12 years before and bought some ceramics at Balentynes Department Store. When we got “downtown” there was Balentynes still anchoring the Downtown area, but all the surrounding businesses were gone. In place of the shops and office buildings were large metal containers, like the ones that travel on ships and are used by trucks to transport merchandise - dozens of them, in bright colors. Each housed a shop or other business. There were dress shops, banks, menswear stores, and a couple of designer clothing outlets all brimming with Saturday afternoon shoppers. In front of Balentynes an area had been cleared, (the streets are all closed to traffic), and a little festival was taking place with Street Mimes, Balloon Blowers making Balloon Animals for the kids and several clowns riding unicycles or performing other antics. The town’s people, about 200 of them, had brought folding chairs so they could enjoy the show. Everybody was having a great time. I was very moved to see these brave Kiwis going on with their lives in the wake of disaster. Joplin and Oklahoma City folks came to mind.
There was one building reconstructed which sported a sign “Future Home of Quake City,” an amusement attraction scheduled to open in a few months. Some entrepreneurial person is going to turn Ch Ch’s disaster into a tourist attraction. Good for them. We did have difficulty finding a place for lunch; there were no cafés in the Container Mall. One of the shopkeepers told us to try the hotel; a four story building that had been rebuilt and reopened in the preceding weeks. The hotel and its restaurant were nearly empty, not many conferences or salesmen coming to town yet. We had a very nice lunch of fish and chips in the hotel coffee shop where we had the exclusive attention of the waitress who described much of the progress in town for us.
We walked back to the Museum, bought some postcards and looked at the Museum’s recent addition of an Earthquake exhibit.
On the trip back to the ship we marveled at the “True Grit” of the four million people of New Zealand who have been battling nature and Maoris for over 200 years and have still managed to fight by our side in every war since the First World War. All Americans should be proud to call them our friends.
WELLINGTON: The capital city of Wellington is located at the southern tip of the North Island on the Cook Straight and proudly calls itself a “Cool City” because it is the Southernmost National Capital in the World. About 400,000 Kiwis call Wellington home and it is the most popular tourist destination for New Zealanders vacationing in their own country. It is literally built on the foot and side of a mountain, so one of the “must do” things is a ride on the Cable Car which takes you from the downtown area to the Cable Car Museum and Botanical Garden at the top.
We took the complementary ship’s shuttle bus to the downtown area and enjoyed spending some New Zealand Dollars, the conversion price of which make New Zealand prices as affordable as just about any foreign city in the world. We also took a taxi to see “old St. Paul’s” a beautiful old gothic church built in 1864-65. We were interested to see it because we were told they had a space dedicated to the United States Marine Corps.
During World War II Australia and New Zealand’s young men joined the Anzacs fighting force and were shipped across the world to fight in North Africa and Europe. Because they were commanded by the British, little thought was given to the Japanese threat in the Pacific and as the Japanese began to threaten New Zealand, the fear was there wouldn’t be enough young men to defend the home land. Enter Douglas McArthur who sent a group of U.S. Marines to help defend New Zealand and when they arrived in Wellington they were received as the heroes that they were. Their bravery and strength are honored at old St. Paul’s where an American Flag and Marine Ensign fly in the sanctuary near the altar.
There is also an electronic display in the corner that details their exploits. This may be one reason Americans feel so welcome in Wellington. We enjoyed seeing it along with the historic church’s Gothic architecture.
When last we were here we had lunch in a restaurant named “Shed 5” on Queens Wharf. It was great, so we made a reservation to take the Webbers to “our favorite restaurant” on this trip, too. It was a mistake; the food was good, but not as spectacular as we remembered. It seems the original owner sold the restaurant to a large company. We’ve learned that ownership of restaurants and cruise lines means everything when it comes to quality and service.
There is much more to Wellington than we had time to explore. It’s a very popular tourist destination and was voted the 12th most livable city in the world by somebody’s survey. I can see why. It’s clean, modern, unfettered by smog (thanks to its reputation as the Kiwi “Windy City”), and the people are very friendly to Americans, also they’re healthy because of climbing lots of stairs to get up the mountain.
AUCKLAND Our final port was New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland on the Northern coast of the North Island, the most tropical city in the Country. The city sits on the site of a “dormant” volcano and its beautiful harbor is full of volcanic islands.
When we visited New Zealand 12 years ago our plane landed in Auckland and we hurried to the ship without much time to enjoy the city. This time it was the terminus of our cruise, so we arranged to stay two nights before flying home. We have a friend in Arcadia, Dr. Brad Miller, who is a native of Auckland, so I asked Brad to help us decide our itinerary. It made the time spent here extra special and we’re grateful for his help.
We stayed at the Sky City Grand Hotel, as recommended by Crystal Cruises and it was a lovely hotel. Sky City is a space needle apparatus, similar to those in Seattle, San Antonio, and Toronto. For awhile it was the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere, before someone else came along to build something taller. The Sky City complex actually has another hotel in addition to the Sky City Grand, a Shopping Center and a Casino as well.
After checking in, we opted to take a taxi to the War Memorial Museum which honors the many brave Kiwis who have fought various foes since the country’s founding. Many of the exhibits celebrate the Maori natives whose culture arrived 600 years before the British. The Maori were not an organized nation, so the early settlers would make peace with one tribe, only to have another nearby tribe declare war. Shortly after the first British arrived the Maori discovered the British musket and what followed for 30 years were the “Musket Wars” as Maori Tribes who had muskets wiped out those tribes who didn’t have muskets. Finally, the Maori got together to elect a King in 1859 which brought relative peace among them.
The Museum also has very interesting exhibits about Kiwi participation in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. And, you’ll learn a great deal about New Zealand history while you’re at it.
We shopped along a main thoroughfare, Queen St, and took a taxi to an area of the waterfront known as “The Viaduct.” The Viaduct is the home of many of the sailing ships that competed in the America’s Cup Races. Kiwis are more than happy to let you know that they won the cup against the Yanks in 2000 and held it for four years. The Swiss took it from the Kiwis and the USA only recently won it back.
The Viaduct has also become the home of some of Auckland’s finest restaurants. We ate in Portofino’s which our friend Brad Miller assured was “world class” - and - he was right, too. Most of the Viaduct restaurants including Ristorante Portofino are elevated above the docks where the sailing yachts are moored. So, the view from the outdoor deck is beautiful. The menu is varied and authentic. Larry and I shared an order of Spaghetti Marinara for appetizer and I had Veal in Mushroom sauce for an entrée. Patricia had a bowl of Stracciatella Soup followed by the House special Ravioli. We all thought it the best meal we had on the trip. If you go to Auckland, you have to go to Portofino Ristorante at the Viaduct.
The following day we again took Brad’s advice and booked a wine tour of Waiheke Island in Auckland Harbor. We found the tour company on line and booked it before we arrived. Waiheke is a large resort and bedroom island reached by ferry from downtown Auckland in about 30 minutes. Our tour guide, Wayne, met us at the Ferry landing and took the four of us and another couple (Newlyweds from Sydney) on a tour of the island and 3 wineries. I’ll get to the wine in due course, but Wayne also took us to a very nice restaurant, in the middle of nowhere, called “Casita Miro” that specialized in Tapas and Sangria. It was very nice, you’ll enjoy it. You can book a tour at www.waihekeislandwinetours.co.nz the next time you’re going to be Down Under. The tour price was reasonable, too, only $99NZ per person, about $85 U.S. Add to that the Ferry cost of $35 each and the price of lunch, still, it was a lot cheaper than most ship excursions. The Waiheke Island Ferry deposited us back in Auckland in time for the cocktail hour.
That evening we had our “Getaway” dinner at “Tony’s Steak House” around the corner from the hotel on Wellesley Street, which advertises its fare as “the Best Steak in the Southern Hemisphere.” The steaks were indeed excellent, and more than we could eat. I’m not sure it was better than some we’ve had in Argentina, but, who’s going to argue with Tony? Not me.
WINE TOURS DOWN UNDER: We were lucky to visit 5 wineries on this trip, 2 in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales and 3 on Waiheke Island in Auckland. Unfortunately, you’ll only find wine from one of them in your Liquor Mart, Lindeman’s of Australia. All the others have websites and you can probably figure out how to buy a bottle online, but, the cost of insured shipping will kill you. It’s almost cheaper to book a cruise Down Under. But, if you get down there, give them a try.
The Australian Wine Industry actually started before California’s did. Unfettered by California’s snobbish obsession with the French Winemakers, Australian Wine Makers were able to experiment with blended wines. The best French wines, according to the wine snobs, are named for a grape variety only if it contains a large percentage of that grape.
In California and France Cabernet Sauvignon can only be labeled with that name if it has a vast majority of that grape. That’s why you won’t see a Cabernet-Merlot blend, called by the name of the grape components, in a California or French Wine. But, Australian winemakers have always been able to blend their wines without restriction, and are producing some of the best blends in the world. Lucky for the Down Under traveler, New Zealand winemakers take after their Australian mates.
HUNTER VALLEY WINE TOUR: If you end up in the port of Newcastle, there frankly isn’t much to do unless you drive to the Hunter Valley nearby and visit some of the 150 wineries located there.
LINDEMAN’S is the oldest and probably the most famous winery in the Hunter Valley founded in 1843. While the company headquarters are still here, Lindeman’s operates several wineries in the great wine regions of South Australia including Coonawarra (known for its Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Barossa Valley (home of the finest Shiraz). We loved the 2009 Cabernet from Coonawara so much that we bought a bottle for $80, way above my normal price limit for a single bottle. I couldn’t resist.
Wine tasting in Australia is like it used to be in Napa Valley. They provide snacks and 2nd tastings if you like a wine. The Tasting Room is more like a friendly wine bar than a retail store. We enjoyed it a lot.
Lindeman’s sells a large price range of wines and I’ve seen their lower priced offerings in our Super Market in Arcadia.
MC GUIGAN WINERY was named the International “Winemaker of the Year” in 2011. They have an excellent attractive and comfortable tasting room.
Their wines include some great blends including a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc that we liked a lot. They also have a blend simply called “Black Label Red” which I thought was excellent and was reasonably priced, under $20. I bought a bottle to take home.
It was at the McGuigan Winery where we met the Australian Travel writer, our new friend Angie Kelly and her neighbor Nicole Stapleton who was her guest on the cruise. Good company will certainly improve the wine tasting experience. Patricia and Patti were soon exchanging recipes with the Gals from Sydney.
WAIHEKE ISLAND WINE TOUR: The first Winery was established on Waiheke Island many years ago. Now there are 23 wineries growing 11 different varieties of grapes. The wineries here are much smaller than those in Australia and your visit will generate much more personal attention from your Winemaker. Our Tour Guide Wayne took us to 3 of the best and most interesting.
JURASSIC RIDGE WINERY operated by Lance Blumhardt billed as “Viticulturist and Winemaker”, who is also a retired physician. Dr. Blumhardt gives you an excellent history of the Island’s Geology and discusses the impact of the soil on the ultimate taste of his wines. He has won a number of awards for his wines including a Gold Medal for his Montepulciano, a wonderful red Italian variety which we tasted and a terrific Syrah Rose’. We liked these best of the ones we tasted at Jurassic Ridge.
OBSIDIAN & WEEPING SANDS: There are two wine labels produced at the Obsidian Winery, named for the Black Rock (really a type of glass) left behind by the lava in an eruption from a volcano. It is plentiful underneath this lovely little winery which also provides a luncheon menu for those that would like to lunch and sip. Michael Wood is the Winemaker. We particularly liked the 2009 Obsidian Syrah, and a lovely White Obsidian Viognier. They have won so many awards, that the wall is not large enough to hold them all.
PEACOCK SKY is the only tasting room we visited that provided a tasty food pairing with each wine tasted. A treat you’ll never find in Napa Valley. Rob Meredith the owner pours the wine and Mrs. Meredith is in charge of the gourmet food pairings. We loved the gourmet fare and the wine, too.
My wife Patricia particularly liked their Chardonnay (a variety she seldom likes). Larry and I fell in love with the Merlot-Malbec blend and bought a couple of bottles to pack in our luggage.
The wine tour concluded with our lunch at Casita Miro, where we added Sangria to the excellent wine we had tasted earlier in the day. Suffice to say a good time was had by all.
THE CRYSTAL SYMPHONY: Patricia and I have taken 24 cruises together and Crystal is by far the finest Cruise Line we’ve been on. This was our fourth Cruise with Crystal and I can promise it won’t be the last. The Symphony will carry about 900 passengers with nearly 550 crew members, that’s a much higher staff-to-cruiser ratio than nearly all other large ships. The service is impeccable, the food is the best at sea (in our opinion) and they recently started “all-inclusive” fares include your liquor and gratuities.
In the dining room, if you don’t see anything on the menu that appeals to you, ask for what you’d like to eat and the chances are they’ll fix it for you. The two specialty restaurants, one steak house and the other Japanese cuisine, are also highly rated. We enjoyed the Steak house, but, the Japanese restaurant was not my cup of tea, so to speak. Larry loved their Sushi, but, I prefer my fish cooked in one way or another, but, definitely cooked not raw.
We thought the entertainment was the best of any ship we’ve been on in the last few years. Every night we went to the nightly show and had a great time. The bars all have piano players in the evening hours and the Luxe had a Magician, courtesy of the Magic Castle in Hollywood who conducted a small group reservation only performance on several evenings. The Symphony has been completely remodeled and refurbished since we were last on it 3 years ago and it is beautiful.
Our Travel Editor friend Angie wrote a great ship review for her paper. She and her friend are a lot younger than our party, so you’ll get a picture of the night life. Night life to us is a half hour of Black Jack or Penny Slots and a glass of prune juice. Here’s a link Angie’s article:
GOING HOME: Our Flight home was nearly as big a nightmare as the one going Down Under. Our travel agent, Sue Wilson from the Travel Store, did her usually terrific job of finding us the lowest possible fare in Business Class on Qantas, but, alas, we had to fly back from Auckland to Sydney and transfer to a flight from Sydney to LAX. It was made more “awful” by our having to catch a 6 AM flight out of Auckland which meant we had to arrive at the Auckland airport at 3 AM. The Flight from Auckland to Sydney, was 3 ½ hours, (that’s longer than LA to Chicago.) then we had a four hour layover and a 15 hour flight to LAX. We were in transit for 26 hours. Thank God, all the flights were on time.
Here’s our advice: Fly from the States to Honolulu and stay over a day or two to rest up, then fly non-stop direct to the Boarding City. Coming home fly direct non-stop if you can to Honolulu, spend another day, and then fly home. You’ll thank us if you do.
We love Australia and New Zealand. If you go, we think you will, too.