Saturday, January 30, 2016


absolutely am NOT doing an Eat, Pray, Love tour; however my cousins did ensure that I ate very well while in Melbourne, and I did go and find a yoga class I could drop into. And then I may have caused a thunderstorm. 
A few foodie highlights include Le Bon Ton if you want some tasty American cuisine, good burgers, and the least healthy salad you've ever devoured; The Napier for tender and delicious kangaroo steak, to really get your outback on; and Doc's for Italian by Italians for everyone, particularly lovers of fresh buffalo mozzarella. 
On the bar front, The Black Pearl is my pick for original hand crafted cocktails, expertly made and easily knocked back. Here is my awesome cousin mixing me up his signature Empire of Dreams. 
And Bad Frankie is a treat as a bar that only deals in Austrlian made (including Tasmania) wine and spirits, some really great stuff, like the surprisingly good 666 Butter Vodka, which they mix up into something called a Golden Flip to taste like you're licking the cake batter left in the bowl, but not too sweet, very vanilla, and just a wonderful liquid dessert. 
Ok, enough with the food and drink. Melbourne has a good sized central business district (CBD as downtown areas are called all over down here), really easy to get around by tram, or even on foot (it's a grid layout, so easy to navigate for a New Yorker). And even if you do have some trouble, the incredibly friendly people are likely to see you on a corner pouring over a map and ask if you need help finding your way, then pull up directions if they don't know off the top of their heads.  Really, it happened to me twice in different parts of the city. Getting around without using the limited data plan on my phone is definitely a challenge, but I'm bringing back the lost art of map reading. 
It worked well enough for me to visit the zoo, the Royal Botanical Gardens, both halves of the National Gallery of Victioria (there are separate buildings on either side of the Yarra River, with the collection of Australian art on the North Bank and the international collection on the South Bank), the Queen Victoria Market (a huge outdoor marketplace of vender stalls and fresh produce/meats with somewhat confusing hours, that led me to go by twice when it was closed and twice when it was open), and the Eurika building, the tallest building in Melbourne. I covered the tourist highlights. 
I was lucky enough to have really great guides to the city in my two cousins, and it was great to hang out with them again after many years on opposite sides of the world.  They introduced me to the northern districts of Carlton and Fitroy, sort of a Brooklyn-ish area of hipsters, fancy cocktail lounges, and gelato places with lines out the door. After mainly sticking to the CBD in Auckland and Wellington, it was nice to be shown into the heart of where people actually live and eat and drink, not just the touristy spots. 
Aside from the loss of my camera (totally stupid absent mindedness on my part, and so aggravating) it was a great week in Australia's southeast city. And my second to last night in town, the skies broke open and a thunder storm struck the city, torrents of rain, cracks of thunder and lightening, a great show to watch from under an awning on a balcony with a glass of wine. 
And now across the country to West Australia for some less urban adventures! 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A small digression

Finding wifi in Australia turns out to be a lot like trying to find a guy to date in NYC. 
The good ones aren't available. Some look promising, but turn out to fail you. Some work out for a while and then just disappear with no explanation.  Some you know won't work out long term, but you enjoy them while they last, get everything you can out of it. Some seem like they could work out if they weren't so far away. Some are just too weak to satisfy you. Some ask more from you than you are willing to give. Some are involved with so many other people, they can't give you what you need. Even buying dinner doesn't guarantee you access. Sometimes you'll try one that has worked for you in the past, only to remember why it ended.  Some want you to do something you find degrading (like be with them in a McDonalds) and then you just feel dirty afterwards. You can try ones that belong to someone else, but that's a dangerous game. Sometimes a friend will hook you up for a while and it'll be nice, but you know it's not meant to last. 
If you find one you can live with, go to bed with at night and find there in the morning, every day, and it still works, you know you've hit the jackpot. And if you do find that kind of loyal stability, for a while you want to hide away with them from the rest of the world, it can be hard to venture outside, separated from that emotional support. 
But of course there is a wide world out there full of other people and beautiful sites and koalas and kangaroos (remember, this is Australia), so eventually you have to go exploring and trust that they will still be there waiting for you when you return. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

New Zealand: part 2

'It's my last night in New Zealand, now down in Wellington at the bottom of the North Island.  The Contiki trip has ended, and the rest of those traveling on have taken a ferry over to the South Island. My traveling companion @nitabasu flew out this morning in her long journey home, stopping in Aukland and then San Francisco before heading into the snow storm poised to hit NYC. Good luck to her! 
So for the first time in almost 2 weeks, I have a room of my own for the night, and thus, a chance to write.
One of the great ways that @nitabasu and I found to explore different cities was wandering around and trying out different bars/cafes.  So allow me to go back Auckland to review a few places we discovered.
Right Track Sports Cafe: if you're in the city around 10am, but it feels more like 4pm, you're tired and need a shower, but have hours to kill before you can check into your hotel, the good news is there's somewhere open to sit down and have a drink (and though not on the menu, they will make an Irish coffee on request). And if you are looking to play the ponies, this is your place, with the races on the TV and betting stations.
Vulture's Lane: when you're a little more refreshed, this is a great spot for a late lunch or a laid back drink later in the evening.  They are a craft beer bar, but I can't tell you anything about that, not being a beer drinker. I can tell you they have a delicious chicken wrap and a full bar.  Also TVs where you can catch up on rugby, soccer, or cricket.
Fort Street Union: there's a great outdoor roof space to enjoy a little sun or moonlight with your drinks/eats.  Full bar, takes credit card, and has available wifi (always a perk in NZ)
On to the Bay of Islands and Paihia.
Hone's Garden in Russell: just across the bay from Paihia, this is a great find a little off of the main drag, wood fire cooked pizza made to order, a nice selection of wine and beer, and wifi included with your order.
Splash Bar: nice outdoor seating with water views, but higher priced drinks than many others in the area.
The Saltwater Pub & Pizza bar: we didn't try the pizza, but the bar is low key, with a pool table and jukebox in the back, and reasonably priced.
There is only one bar in Waitomo, it's called called Curly's. Enjoy!
In Rotorua, the smell of the lake might put you off your appetite, but if not, there are some good places to eat in town. The town was built in a volcanic region, and the lake created after one such volcano collapsed through the magma cavern beneath, creating a caldera. The continued geothermic activity in the area releases sulphur into the air through hot mud pools, geysers, and the lake. If you think you have smelled sulphur and it's not so bad, well, you have no idea. 
But back to the eateries. 
Fat Dog: a cool little cafe, good for brunch or lunch, decent prices, tasty food and drinks.
Picnic Cafe: another good choice for brunch, right at the end of "Eat Street," good food, feel free to have a boozy brunch, nice atmosphere
Gengy's: get a good deal on Mingolian BBQ here, choose your ingredients and watch them cook everything up in a great rotating assembly line. 
And about an hour away is Hobbiton on the Alexander family farm, so I don't want to leave out the Green Dragon Inn.  We were a little rushed through, only getting one drink each, I chose the cider which was pretty good, and heard the stout was excellent. The tours are expertly run, the scenery stunning, and they manage to get about 3,000 people through a day! 

After Rotorua we moved on to Taupo for one night, a really pretty lakeside town.  We went out on a dinner cruise here, so we didn't explore as much as in other places, but did find a cute cafe overlooking the lake appropriately named:
Waterside Restaurant: eat outside with a beautiful view, enjoy a well priced lunch special, or an extended dinner menu, plus free wifi.  
Taupo is known for nearby sky diving, which I didn't participate in this time, but heard was a lot of fun at 15,000 feet with great views on the way down.  
From there we had a long bus ride down to Wellington, the last stop in our tour. Along the way we stopped to get a view of Mt Ngauruhoe, known to many as Mount Doom.
And then on to Wellington itself.  Here we also stayed in the central business district, near well known Cuba Street and Courtney Place. Some highlights of the food include:
The Library: a great theme bar on the second story, filled with book shelves, some sofas, a great feel for book and booze lovers (particularly if you come in for their 2 for 1 drink special). The have a few savory choices on the menu, but are more known for their sweets like the creme brûlée. 
Chow: an Asian fusion restaurant with tapas, including a lunch special of $25 for a drink, 2 tapas, and a side of rice. No wifi though.
Monsoon Poon: recognizable by its elephant sign, and known to be a favorite of David Beckam, whose signed plate is hung in the wall, this is also Asian fusion, a little pricier, but great decor and ambiance. 
Also while in the Wellington area, we went up Mt Victoria for the views of the bay, and our first taste for the windiest city I've ever been in. I also made the long climb up to the Botanical Gardens, very pretty, lots of trails to get lost on, and an observatory if you have the time. I opted to take the cable car back down to the city center. 
And while here, we paid a visit to the Weta workshop, responsible for making all of Peter Jacksons costumes, props, animatronics, and CGI. They are used on lots of major films around the world these days, like Avengers and District 9, but still all feel a special allegiance to Middlearth. A small fellowship of us also went to check out a few of the Lord of the Rings filming locations in the area.  Sadly, all sets were totally taken down and the areas returned to their previous condition after filming, so it takes a bit imagination to envision the movie scenes. 
Here we are as hobbits hiding from the ring wraiths on Mt Victoria. We also visited the areas that housed Rivendell and Isenguard. 
This gateway was put up after the success of the film had so many people coming out to see the film sites and wanting something familiar to pose with. 
So tonight I bid farewell to New Zealand, before I get up ridiculously early to catch a 7am flight to Melbourne in the morning. I'm extremely excited for Australia, and to hang out with cousins I haven't seen in many years. 
More to come! 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Northern New Zealand: part 1

The most important thing I have learned so far in my time in New Zealand (hereafter referred to as NZ) is that Wifi is a privilege, not a right- it is the Precious that Gollum was really referring to in theTolkien  adventures filmed here. So while I had intended to post more frequently, I can only do what I can do. 
This first leg of my Down Under adventure I am traveling the North island of NZ with a Contiki tour group. They were started in Australia and run tours all over the world for groups of people between the ages of 18-35. @nitabasu joined me for this portion, and I couldn't be more glad to have a companion and ally.  What we didn't know coming into the tour is that NZ is run in a modular fashion, running all the way through the North and South islands (up to 20 days, or as little as 5 days), and people hop on and off for different segments of the trip.  Ours runs for 11days from Aukland to Wellington. When we first joined the group, many of them had been traveling together for a week or more already, had their own cliques, it was like transferring midway through high school, trying to catch up, make friends, fit in.  To be fair, we didn't try that hard the first few days, we were happy to explore Aukland on our own (Central Business District, near the wharf), find some pubs (not that easy when we arrived in the city at 9am, feeling like it was 3pm), and fight off jet lag.  On the last count, I feel like we have done very well. 4 days in we have acclimated (though we aren't out partying all hours of the night, but that seems ok). Sleeping on the plane during our 15hour journey and then not napping until we allowed ourselves to go to bed around 7:30pm the day we got in helped.  This was our greeting when we arrived at the airport in Aukland:
The title card read "On loan from Middle Earth."  After a full day in Aukland, we met up with our tour group, boarded a bus, and headed up to the Bay of Islands and Paihia (which I still can't pronounce properly). The fist afternoon we went out parasailing, which was a great way to see the whole area from far above (they have a tow rope 1,200 feet long). We did his tandem, as the wind was strong that day, so @nitabasu and I flew together. 
On our tour, we signed up for "multi-share" rooms, the cheapest option, which means rooming with up to a total of 4 people. In Paihia, we were joined by a nice and very energetic girl names Charlotte from Belgium. As we picked different activities, it worked out well with no fights for the bathroom or whatnot. The second day in The Bay of Islands, @nitabasu and I chose the Hole in the Rock boat trip, only knowing that we would sail through a giant hole in a rock meant to bring good luck.  It turns out this trip (which out of 50 people in the group, only she and I chose) was massively undersold by the tour leader. Yes, our boat took us out through the Bay, pointing out various islands and then sailing through a naturally created hole in a small rock island, but then we were dropped off on another beautiful island where we could hike up to be top of the hill and look out over the entire bay. Some other people skipped the hike and had a picnic. It was beautiful. And then we reboarded the boat and stopped at another town across the bay called Russel (one of the few thoroughly anglicized names), where we wandered through town and found a delicious home made pizza place (with wifi, big plus) off the tourist path. And then hopped back onto another ferry (with a complimentary ticket) to head back to Paihia. 
We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking delicious milkshakes (mine was peanut butter and cookies and cream, called a Harlem Shake) and sitting by a beach watching a sailing class in the bay try to learn to tack and jibe in heavy wind. Totally enjoyable.  For the evening, we found a nice little Thai restaurant and then bar hopped a bit, still heading back to the hotel fairly early, ahead of our roommate. 
The next day, we all got back in the bus and returned to Aukland, where most of those who had been on the trip for so long already (and formed tight cliques) would be leaving. Sadly, because of the routing of the rooming sign up sheet, @nitabasu and I were separated, each in our own 4-person room with mainly strangers (Belgin Charlotte was still with me). We tried to make conversation and ingratiate ourselves, but didn't get much beyond politeness. Oh well.  The day passed much as our first in Aukland, wandering around, passing through Albert Park, and finally going up the famous Sky Tower to see the sights from above. 

We stayed through sunset, which disappeared behind the mountains without much fanfare. And then joined our whole group out at a local bar, and lasted for 2 drinks, making as much small talk as we could with loud music pounding, before deciding to call it a night. 
That brings us to Saturday, today, when we left Aukland to drive south down to Waitomo. This is where the first of the activities I had been eagerly anticipating took place, Black Water Rafting. It's a bit of a misnomer as it's not rafting, but tubing through caverns in the dark. The Waitomo caves are home to glow worms, which attach to the ceiling and emit an effervescent light to attract prey. When you float through the rivers running underneath them, it's like starlight above you.  But it wasn't all calm floating, we traversed rocky climbs, jumped off (small) waterfalls with our tubes, and paddled our way through the caverns. All lots of fun. The whole thing was about 3 hours, after which we emerged into sunlight in our wetsuits, soaked and smelling and smiling.  I have no picture, as they don't allow you to bring cameras inside (only to purchase the photos they take, such a racket), so you'll have to take my word for how amazing it all was. I can show you a glimpse of the countryside out by Waitomo:
If you think it looks like Hobbiton, you're not far off. After a short drive tomorrow to Rotorua, that's exactly where we will be. 
Oh, and on a happy note, from our adventure today, we have begun to make some friends (strangely all with couples so far, which there are a surprisingly large number of on this trip), so we aren't total pariahs in the land of the very young 😜
So more updates and pictures to come, as the wifi gods allow.  Next stop, Hobbiton and Zorbing!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Journey to the Far Side of the World

By now you may have heard rumblings (or more) about my upcoming trip, and I want to say that the rumors are true: I'm traveling to the other side of the globe for about 3 months. 
To fully explain, allow me to go back a year, to early 2015, when I received an email from an old friend looking for someone to go along to Costa Rica with her.  She had won a trip for two with a tour group called Contiki, and her original companion had to cancel on her.  I've always enjoyed traveling and usually feel like I'm not doing enough of it, so before I could think up any reasons not to go, I replied that yes, I was interested.  The best and worst things I do almost always begin with an impulsive decision.  
Come April, we went down to San Jose, and met up with the rest of the group.  I had no idea what to expect.  I can tell you now, it was an amazing trip, so much fun, lots of adventures (white water rafting, repelling down a waterfall, staying in a pimped-out tent in the rain forest and waking up to the sound of a tree crashing down somewhere nearby), great people, and eye opening for me.  

The full trip was 12 days, but I didn't feel like I could take more than a week off of work at a time (it's discouraged though not outright banned), so I only went from Saturday to Saturday.  Leaving was incredibly hard, up at dawn and into a jeep back to San Jose, knowing the rest of the group, now friends, would be going zip-lining later that day and then moving on to Manuel Antonio, the beautiful beach town, continuing to have lots of fun without me.  And when I got back to work, catching up from my week away wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be, making it feel all the worse that I hurried back.  Some of the people I'd met on my trip were either using all of their vacation time to do this trip, or putting themselves in debt; others were in one part of longer trips that they had taken time off from everything else to do, just travel around while young and free enough to really enjoy it.  It was inspiring to me, and made me wonder why I was dedicating myself so fully to a job that wasn't paying off in many ways, while the years when I could also be young and free enough to go anywhere were swiftly passing by.  
It didn't take very long after I got back home for this idea to start formulating in my mind. 
The top of my travel list for a long time has been Australia, and following the Lord of the Rings movies, New Zealand as well.  But since it takes so long just to get there, you have to dedicate serious time to going.  I could wait another 3 years until I qualified for a month long sabbatical, but who knows where I will be in my life in 3 years, if I would still be at this job, if I would have people in my life counting on me to be here, etc.  Part of the idea was to stop waiting, not to let myself get complacent again and let time go by without actually doing anything.  
Over the course of the summer my plans began to gel.  An Australian Visa is good for 3 months at a time, which helped to give me a time frame.  And I decided I wanted to do some more Contiki tours, as the first one was so much fun, so their dates gave the trip more shape.  
So here it is, my finalized trip: 
2 weeks on New Zealand's North island, touring from Auckland down to Wellington with @nitabasu including a visit to Hobbiton

1 week in Melbourne hanging out with my awesome cousins, @gracey3000 and @fredsiggins
2.5 weeks in West Australia touring all over, and very importantly, seeing Quokkas 
5 days getting certified in Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef off of Cairns
2 weeks touring down from Cairns to Sydney, including surf lessons
4 days in Bali
3 days in LA to see some old friends on my way back home
I'll be blogging and posting pictures as I go, so stay tuned for more updates and accounts of my amazing adventure!