This time last year, I walked into the New York Times Travel Show with the intention of building up readership for this blog, and maybe learn a thing or two about places I haven’t been. I never dreamed I would walk out on the path to being a Cruise Planners franchise owner. Within six weeks of the show, I completely reinvented myself as a business owner.
I love to travel. There are a million reasons I could list; the sights, the sounds, the people, new experiences, we know them all. Perhaps my favorite are the smells. Every different location has it’s own unique scent. It comes from the geology, the ecology, the people, the food, the culture – it hits as soon as you get off the plane, or maybe later while sitting at a street-side restaurant, or strolling through a park. It becomes ingrained in memory, and you never know when you’ll be reminded again.
I bought the Cruise Planners franchise for my love of travel. “Great, I own a Travel Agency. I’ll be able to travel the world now!” They sold me a dream, but I bought a business. I’ve been sitting at my desk for the better part of a year planning other’s great adventures. I’ve hardly stepped outside.
But the year was good. We’ve sent or booked clients to France and Italy, Iceland, Mexico, Tahiti, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. We have a couple spending a week at an over-water bungalow in Jamaica, and another spending a night in Bora Bora. Now it’s time to wipe the dust off the luggage.
Our travel itinerary for 2017 (and yes, you can expect a blog on each one):
January: The New York Times Travel Show. SirOzzy, now known as Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire, are returning to where it all began.
February: Las Vegas, Nevada. We’ve cashed in our mileage and exchanged our timeshare. Looking forward to seeing Terry Fator at the Mirage on our wedding anniversary. Vegas Baby!
April:Atlantic City, New Jersey. Cruise Planners Training Conference. Research and Development to help make your travel experience even better (and play some slot machines).
May:Europe. Two nights in Athens, Greece, followed by a 7 night sailing on the brand new Majestic Princess. This 7 night sailing departs from Athens and visits Santorini, Montenegro, Sicily, and Naples before disembarking in Barcelona.
September: Alaska.The Great Alaskan Journey. Starting in Seattle with an Amtrak Cascades train ride to Vancouver, British Colombia; 2 nights at the Vancouver Four Seasons; 7 nights on the Star Princess to Whittier, Alaska; 4 nights in the Denali region; finishing in Fairbanks before returning home. This may be what they call a masterpiece vacation.
It looks like the old shoe maker just got a new pair of soles! Enjoy The Journey…
Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire are hosting their Great Alaskan Journey in September, 2017. A 7 night cruise on the Star Princess out of Vancouver follows your first night at the Four Seasons. The cruise ventures through the Inside Passage, followed by port stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. Sightseeing in Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord comes before disembarking in Whittier, Alaska. Step off the cruise into an awaiting glass domed train for a six hour scenic rail ride to Talkeetna and the Denali National Park region. The next 4 nights will be spent at various Princess Lodges with tours of Denali and the Chena River. After salmon fishing, a visit to a sled dog facility, whale watching , and memories to last a lifetime, fly home from Fairbanks. For more on this trip, visit Great Alaskan Journey.
2. All-Inclusive in the Caribbean
Breathtakingly beautiful beaches, wonderful year-round weather, the finest service – there are very few places in the world that rival the Caribbean Islands. Sandals, and it’s sister brand Beaches, are the standard bearer for the All-Inclusive experience. From the moment you get off the plane to when they bring you back, everything is taken care of. Sandals is for couples only and has 15 distinct locations throughout the Caribbean. Beaches is a family friendly experience located on Jamaica as well as Turks and Caicos. Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire are proud to be Certified Sandals Specialists, and will gladly give a free consultation to anyone considering a Sandals or Beaches vacation. Don’t book without them!
FINALLY! Since the embargo in 1960, travel to Cuba has been restricted for all Americans. With the restrictions easing, there are now a number of ways to legally travel to this Caribbean Island. While regulations are still tricky, Cruise Planners- Ken & Gail McGuire are well versed in the legalities and tour operators that handle the logistics. Make this a top a destination for yourself.
4. U.S. National Parks
“Oh Beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountains majesty, Above the fruited plains.” Too many people never get to see how magnificent this country we live in truly is. Take a guided tour through the U.S. National Parks. From the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon, YellowStone and the Black Hills, there is much to see and do. Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire have outstanding business relationships with all the key Tour Operators, and will handle all the logistics for you. All you have to do is Enjoy The Journey…
5. European River Cruise
The 1960’s are over and the time of backpacking through Europe is long past. With itineraries ranging from Tulips in Holland, Wine tasting in Burgundy and Provence, and Castles in Germany, a river cruise is a top option for sightseeing. Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire are Avalon Waterways Specialists and will handle your booking from start to finish. Call today to find out how to get free airfare.
A perennial favorite on everyone’s bucketlist, Hawaii is a must do. From historic Pearl Harbor to the lushness of Maui, there is much to see and do in America’s 50th state. Let Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire put your dream itinerary together for you
Ironically, the coolest place on this list is also the hottest. Iceland steps up in popularity every year. See the Northern Lights, the Blue Lagoon, and Mt. Eyjafjallajökull. With names like that, don’t take this booking into your own hands, let Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire handle the hard part for you.
With all the major cruise lines making regular trips to this English island off the East Coast, it’s easy enough to get to. Immersed in old culture, great restaurants, hotels, and beaches, what’s not to love? Call Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire to plan the perfect 5-7 night getaway.
9. A Cruise Anywhere
My favorite part of a cruise is that every morning you wake up in a different place – and you’ve done absolutely nothing to get there! Cruise Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire have tremendous buying power with all the cruise lines, and because of that, are able to provide you with more than you’ll ever get on you own. Our priority is to provide you the best value for your trip along with the best service. Think of us as your own personal Travel Concierge, for FREE!
10. Anywhere Else In The World You Want To Go
Travel. It’s the only thing you spend money on that makes you richer. From Rio de Janeiro to Machu Pichu, Disney World to Tokyo, a South African safari to the Fairmont in Lake Louise… Cruise – Planners – Ken & Gail McGuire, we’re making your travel dreams come true.
Call us today to book your next vacation. 631-509-0502. And LIKE us on Facebook.
Check The Batteries. Make sure the security and smoke alarms are operating properly in the house. My trigger-happy, shotgun-wielding, vodka-swilling brother-in-law will be house watching while we’re away. I do not want him to put a hole through the front door when he hears a low battery chirp coming from the system.
Bring Sunscreen. I’ve been told the Caribbean Sun is different than regular sun.
Bring Booze. Think you can’t bring alcohol on a ship? Try 20 or so shot size bottles mixed in with your cosmetics in each suitcase. It works every time.
Bring Sunglasses. Your eyes will be bloodshot.
Bring Chargers. Don’t forget cellphone, laptop, kindle, ipad, ipod, and game system. A Caribbean cruise is certainly no time to disconnect from the World Wide Web.
Print Documents. Make sure you print everything, especially the ones that are already downloaded on your cellphone, you never know when the battery will die.
For The Ladies. Make sure you have an extra suitcase for your shoes. You will need 7 pairs of flip-flops, because God forbid anyone sees you wearing the same pair twice at the pool. Bring your favorite walking shoes for land excursions, and your second favorite, and your old favorite in case they don’t work out. And bring the new ones you want break in too. You should bring a different pair of heels for dinner every night, and that really nice pair for the night you just might have dinner near the captain. And don’t forget your slippers for your stateroom. All told that’s 19 pairs of shoes, plus the ones you are wearing, 20. That should do.
Eat. While most people prepare by going to the gym so they can look great in that new swimsuit, I have reached that age where I really don’t give a shit what I look like. I practice eating for a couple weeks because I don’t want to look like a lightweight at the buffet.
Make Reservations. The breakfast, lunch, midday snack, and dinner buffet may not be enough. Reservations are required early for specialty restaurants.
Clean House. Make sure your own house is thoroughly cleaned before you leave. Especially the doghouse, you just might find yourself in it.
Too often we take what we have for granted. I came across an interesting blog post by a young traveler recently. She said her goal is to take a 7 day cruise. I felt a twinge of guilt as I read this because I cruise more frequently than I get dental cleanings. Here are 5 great tips to make your dream cruise possible.
Always use a travel agent when making a reservation. Most cruise lines have a fair market booking system. This means a travel agent pays exactly the same amount you pay. Then what is the advantage? Perks. When booking through an agent you can receive prepaid gratuities, additional shipboard credit, specialty restaurant comps, and maybe even a bottle of champagne in your stateroom. Additionally, you will receive more personalized service from a single point of sale.
Book early. The cruise industry is booming and savvy cruisers know what they want and don’t wait for it. (Don’t believe me? Check out the buffet line.) It’s frustrating when you find the exact right itinerary on the exact ship you want, only to learn the accommodations are sold out.
Prices will often come down from the time of your original booking. Check the policy with your agent in advance. If the price lowers, you can usually re-book at no charge prior to final payment. And check the higher level accommodations as well, it could be a no-cost upgrade.
Know your accommodation. This is another great place to utilize your travel agent. Some cruisers are perfectly okay with an interior stateroom, they feel they won’t be in their room very much and it is the single largest price saver. Others want to open doors to a seaside balcony. We prefer a Grand Suite or above. Each level of accommodation comes with specific amenities.
Book your excursions early. The catamaran with drinks and snorkeling at the turtle sanctuary? It’s sold out. Especially when you’re on a bigger ship, the excursions sell out well in advance of your sailing. If there is something specific you want to do, book early. However, you do not have to book an excursion with the ship. Research the area, find out what you want to do, and book or plan it on your own, you’ll save a ton. You do not need your agent for this. But be forewarned, if you choose to go on your own, research the area and culture. There are places that simply aren’t safe to go on your own.
Avoid the buffet. Okay, let’s be frank here, everybody and Uncle Charlie will begin their power eating competition the moment they board the ship. Avoid the buffet for the first few hours. Find a quiet place to sit and start soaking it all in.
For other information, like how to save more on bookings, avoiding ATM and international credit card fees, and the best itineraries, please send us a message. We have tons of valuable information, and even more great tips, and will soon be putting them into book form… Enjoy The Journey!
I find wherever I go people are generally supportive of my endeavours and some even a bit envious. But, “I can’t (or wish I could) travel like you,” is what I hear over and over again.
I don’t believe that. I believe if you want to travel, you can. But it helps if you follow our formula. SirOzzy’s aim is to help guide you on your perfect vacation. We want to help you decide where to stay and eat, and where to relax and play. We want SirOzzy to become a verb. “Wow, where did you get all that great information for your trip?” “I SirOzzy’d it!”
Yes, we have an amazing trip coming soon, but it wasn’t planned overnight. As with most trips the SirOzzy clan takes, this one took two years in the making. There is an infinitesimal amount of planning and organization that goes into a successful trip. The details can be overwhelming. Here we will begin to spell out and simplify the decision making process that goes into a vacation like this.
There are three key elements to the art of travel. Each piece has it’s own importance in the puzzle and will affect the outcome of another piece and thus, the trip itself. These pieces are Time, Location, and Money.
Let’s start first with the time frame. The busy time at Mrs. SirOzzy’s job ends every year in early February. The busy time in my career starts in March. Now we know February is a good time to travel. Lesson number one is plan ahead, there are way too many decisions to make in a short period of time.
Now begins the process of where do we go? This is the fun part. We could go virtually anywhere in the world, so before we decide where we’re going, let’s decide where we are not going. Europe is out, it’s too cold in February for us. Australia is out, we went just two years ago. Hawaii? No, too long a flight for what we want. Africa? No. Asia? Nope. The Caribbean? The weather is perfect in February and it’s fairly easy to get to from New York. Yes, the Caribbean it is.
The Caribbean. That’s kind of a big place, a little too big to conquer all at once. Let’s narrow it down. There are some amazing all-inclusive resorts and beautiful hotels in the islands. But for this trip I don’t think I really want to fend for myself too much and I don’t want to sit in one place for too long either. A cruise? I love to cruise. My favorite thing about cruising is that everyday you wake up you’re in an entirely new place, and you’ve done absolutely nothing to get there. Yes, a cruise it will be.
Our favorite cruise line is Royal Caribbean, for reasons we’ll leave to another post. Looking through the cruise book can be a bit overwhelming. The first thing we decide is where do we leave from. Bayonne, NJ and Baltimore, MD are both within driving distance and have cruises departing from there, but sailing the Atlantic during February can be unpleasant. We looked to leave from further south and found The Jewel Of The Seas is in Puerto Rico.
The Jewel is the first ship Mrs. SirOzzy and I went on together and has been our favorite ever since. On that ship was the first of many times I would ask her to marry me. Yes, The Jewel Of The Seas. Next, the itinerary. The Jewel has two different sailings in the month of February, both are 7 nights and both go to the southern Caribbean. One itinerary happened to also fall on our anniversary.
Simple, right? No way. Sure, you can just fly straight to Puerto Rico and jump on a ship, but why do that when you can go a few days in advance and acclimate and enjoy your trip even more? Besides, we have 2 weeks of vacation time, let’s use it.
We began to look at different hotels and realized, shit, we’re already down there, do we necessarily have to stay in Puerto Rico? No, we started looking at the surrounding US Virgin Islands. St. Thomas is not part of the cruise itinerary, and since it is part of the US there is no international flight required. Sounds good, but, hmmmm, there is one other option.
Key West is only a short flight to San Juan. One item that has been on my bucket list for a very long time is driving a convertible to Key West. We can get a direct flight from our local airport to Fort Lauderdale, we’ll rent a car from there. We’ll use our top secret code to get a deal on a room at the Hyatt next to Mallory Square.
Now we have a cruise and Key West. Coming off a cruise and going straight home is always a bit of a drag, so let’s stay one more night and take advantage of San Juan before leaving.
This didn’t happen over night. We began our planning two years ago and solidified the itinerary about 6 months ago. Here’s what it looks like now:
Day 1 Fly to Fort Lauderdale. Drive to Key West.
Day 2 Key West
Day 3 Key West
Day 4 Drive back to Fort Lauderdale
Day 5 Fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cruise
Day 6 Sailing on The Jewel Of The Seas
Day 7 Bridgetown, Barbados
Day 8 Castries, St Lucia
Day 9 St. John’s, Antigua
Day 10 Philipsburg, St. Maarten
Day 11 St Croix, US Virgin Islands
Day 12 San Juan, Puerto Rico. Intercontinental Hotel, Isla Verde
Day 13 San Juan. Fly home.
Now that is what a two week vacation looks like.
As far as the 3rd part to planning a successful trip, Money? Shit, we’ll have to figure that out too, but we have two years to do it.
If I was a geologist, this post would start 85 million years ago. I would describe, in all it’s scientific glory and details, how a large landmass, now Australia, split off Antarctica and drifted north, into the Pacific Ocean. Over the next 20 million years there were smaller splits which created New Zealand and Tasmania. New Caledonia, the Vanuatu Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands were also created by these seismic events. But I am not a geologist, so you won’t be bored with what happened between then and 4,000 years ago.
I am also not an Anthropologist. If I were, I would be able to tell a tale of the first inhabitants of these untouched and dormant tropical islands. Four thousand years ago a small group of Melanesian fishermen set off in their outrigger canoes in search of God-knows-what. We can safely assume they got lost in a storm, or stuck to a whale they were chasing. Whatever the cause, 1,000 miles west of Australia, they came across these volcanic islands and made them home. But I am not an anthropologist, so I won’t bore you with what happened for the next 4,000 years.
If I was a Historian, I would tell the story of Frank McLoughlin, a young man from Hell’s Kitchen who joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. Taken from a life on the tough streets of New York he was trained to be a turret gunner on the B-24 bomber, also known as a flying coffin. He flew 50 missions, fighting Japanese Imperialism, during World War II in the South Pacific campaign. On one particular mission, while being swarmed by enemy firepower like a nasty hive of bees, he shot down 2 Japanese Zeroes and returned safely to the Solomon Islands from the Philippines. Seventy years later he was recognized for his acts of bravery and heroism, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal. But I am not a historian, and will save that story for the future.
If I was a Sociologist, I would tell the story of Staff Sergeant McLoughlin’s Grandson. Fifty years after Frank’s heroics, a young man was taken off the streets and found himself in a cold and dimly lit prison cell in Elmira, New York. The first 2 books he read since childhood were by James Michener: Hawaii and Tales From The South Pacific. Each book he read 3 or 4 or 5 times, not because he loved them so much, but because that’s all he had. Reading was his only chance of escape and there was no better place than The Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and The Vanuatu Archipelago. Deep in his soul, he knew he would never get to those places. But I’m not a Sociologist, and won’t bore you with what happened to him for the next 25 years.
What I have become, however, is a traveler. So, in February, 2014, just a few weeks after the wedding of the century, my new wife and I set off on a dream cruise. The itinerary would have us depart from Sydney, Australia and take us to various islands in the South Pacific, belonging to both New Caledonia and the Vanuatu Archipelago.
Our exploration was on Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas. Staying in an Owner’s Suite entitled us to the best amenities and services offered, and man, did we take advantage of that. As a suite guest, there are no lines anywhere and our personal concierge is at our beck and call. We spent most evenings on this 12 night cruise in the Concierge lounge, with a top-shelf open bar from 4 to 9 every night, complete with private bartender.
Although we had spent the last 2 weeks exploring Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, it wasn’t until we were on the ship with 2,500 people that we really learned what the Aussies are like. Generally speaking, they weren’t the most inviting, at first. It seemed like most needed to say hello (G’day) and see us a few times before opening up. But once they warmed up to us, they became friends for life.
And then there was John and Rose, from Tasmania. We met this interesting couple at dinner on our first night. John was a character, zingy one-liners flew faster than nautical miles. He quickly let us know he was from Tasmania, not New Zealand. He didn’t like Kiwis, his sheep were much healthier and handsome than any from that untamed nation below his. Not to mention the horrid things those New Zealand Neanderthals do to their sheep. Yes, the men are men, but the sheep are afraid.
He was fascinated when he discovered we were from the States. “I once went to Los Angeles. Is it very far from New York?” Not particularly, John. ” Well, I tell ya, I was there. Couldn’t believe how many coloreds there was. Bunch a big niggers everywhere. Got on an elevator with one. Bigger than a milk cow. So I says to this colored man, you just the biggest nigger I ever seen. Didn’t mean nothing by it, we don’t see too many coloreds down under, but damn he had a temper, thought he was gonna kill me, don’t know why. But the funny part, he was a queer to boot!” John let out a boisterous roar, and Rose, nodding and parroting, laughed too.
The next 11 nights we spent avoiding Tasmanian John and Rose, not always with great success.
By the second day sailing most men, and quite a few women, were thoroughly wrecked and that’s when the chants started. Aussie!, Aussie!, Aussie!, Oi!, Oi!, Oi!!!! “What the hell is that?” Gail says to me. I explained, that’s their national chant. We heard it often, typically at the conclusion of an AC/DC song played poolside, or Olivia Newton-John in the Karaoke Bar. “That’s stupid,” says Gail. And off we sailed to New Caledonia.
Noumea is the capitol and largest city of New Caledonia. A welcome sight after days at sea, it rose in the morning thru an eerie fog. I thought of Skull Island, that dark and foreboding home to King Kong. I expected to see natives shaking torches at me and banging drums. But it wasn’t like that at all, mostly.
As is typical with Gail and I, we didn’t follow the cruise crowd after tendering to the mainland. Instead, we ventured off to the tiny island of Amadee. By my estimation, this remote little island in the middle of the South Pacific couldn’t have been more than 8 acres in total. The only semi-permanent construction on the island is a decades old lighthouse, which was offered up for climbing and viewing. The inhabitants of Amadee consists of the lighthouse keeper and his seemingly understandable and equally anti-social wife.
The greatest feature of the island, though, was the beach. While larger than most Caribbean beaches, it was just as magnificent. Within minutes I was snorkeling with giant sea turtles and the infamous, and highly venomous, striped sea snakes. Though their poison apparently packs quite a wallop, I understand these snakes are virtually harmless. Their fangs are set deep in the back of their narrow mouths. In order to be struck by one, you would have to literally stick your finger down it’s throat. But I wasn’t going to take that chance and opted for a BBQ luau lunch with the local grass skirt girls.
Dinner that night introduced us to the only other Americans on the ship. With this retired Los Angeles detective and his Cuban born wife, we laughed thru several nights and plenty of wine. They were a pleasant respite from the locals, especially Tasmanian John.
After a day in Lifou, of the Loyalty Islands, we discovered Vila, Vanuatu. We hired a local taxi driver, Alberic, to be our personal tour guide for the day. A native to this region, Alberic happily obliged us for the day. After seeing our general disinterest at the tourist friendly Turtle Sanctuary, Alberic realized we wanted something a little more off the beaten path.
Off the ocean, past the farms and small villages, we entered a jungle. Through the dark woods we drove to where, Alberic told us, only the locals go. Alongside a stream we began to see an occasional wooden kayak and locals milling around. The stream was so clear, at first I thought it was empty. Before we knew it, we were in a dirt parking lot with the smells of BBQ and locals running around. “We’re here,” said Alberic.
By “here”, he meant the most amazing blue water hole I could have ever imagined. The water was so clear and clean it was like swimming in cool air. I spent hours swimming. This was the South Pacific of my dreams.
We finished our day drinking cocktails at The Warwick Hotel at La Lagon, a beautiful resort just down the road from the cruise port in Vila. While there were no passengers from the ship, it seemed like half the crew was playing in the pool. We laughed at our fortune and thanked Alberic for a wonderful day.
The next day brought us to Champagne Bay, on the largest of the Vanuatu islands, Espiritu Santo. Following that we arrived at Luganville, located on the backside of Espiritu Santo. Here we met Linesse, another local taxi driver willing to be our tour guide for the day.
As friendly as Alberic was, Linesse knew her history. We spent hours at another local water hole, known locally as “blu ho”. Linesse was a walking encyclopedia of World War II knowledge. When I mentioned my Grandfather was a veteran she really opened up. She showed us the roads that the Americans built 70 years earlier. To this day, not a pothole anywhere. She pointed out an area where American troops hid tanks and other heavy artillery. It was a heap of thick brush. “We call that American Vine.” In addition to weapons, apparently we brought over the vine to hide them.
Something that did not come as a surprise was that every island had absolutely amazing beaches. Mystery Island, on day number 9 was no exception. A completely uninhabited island in the Archipelago, we had another day of snorkeling with sea turtles and reef sharks. Our tans were perfected. But truth be told, at this point in the trip, we were ready for some city life.
Evenings on the ship continued to consist of drinks at the concierge lounge and your traditional corny cruise entertainment. We walked out on a number of comedians, as they were recycling old Henny Youngman style slapstick comedy. We could hear Tasmanian John and Rose cackling from across the theatre. But we also met some great people along the way. Michael and Vicky were one such couple. Michael is an executive chef at a 4 star retaurant and restored our faith in Tasmanians.
We met these two in the lounge and shared plenty of drinks together. Back at Champagne Bay we sat beachside and smoked cigars. I could talk to a chef about his craft for days.
Twenty five hundred passengers on a ship sure seems like a lot, but somehow, we manage to continually bump into the same people over and over. So it was disconcerting when we hadn’t seen Michael and Vicky in a number of days. And there we were, on the Isle of Pines, appropriately named by Captain Cook, when we saw Vicky. Practically crawling behind her came Michael, with his face bandaged from side to side. “What in the name of New Caledonia happened to you?” As it turned out, after we shared a few drinks and a smoke at Champagne Bay he decided it would be good idea to go for a swim. Diving headfirst into the water he face-planted smack into an old coral bed, breaking his nose and ripping off half the skin on his face. He vouched for the Medical Staff on Royal Caribbean, and we had another drink and laughed our asses off.
We spent the next two days sailing back to Sydney. We laughed as we heard the old Men At Work tune, I come from a land down under. When that song played poolside, it was as if the ship stopped, everybody, and I mean everybody, sang along. And then the chants of Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!
James Michener, my favorite author, once said about the people of Vanuatu, “…the friendliness of the peoples, their infectious smiles and their open heartedness will remain forever one of life’s treasures.”
We spent nearly a month traveling various parts of the South Pacific, but to say we even saw any of it, is like asking if you know the big guy in an elevator in Los Angeles.
A country built on the backs of convicts. The most poisonous snakes and spiders on Earth. World class surf. Great White sharks. The Outback. A reputation for heavy drinkers. They say watch your step, you never know when something around the corner will kill you. It sounds like my kind of place, Australia.
We made our way back to Sydney after spending some time in Queensland. As much as we had a great time up north, it was nice to be back in the city. The Four Seasons, as expected, welcomed us in. Owning perhaps the most prized piece of real estate in Sydney, if not all of Australia, this magnificent 5 star hotel sits on the steps of the world renowned harbor.
After checking in, we were escorted to our room. The amenities were presented by the bellhop, and we freshened up after the 3 hour flight. Then we dined in the restaurant downstairs.
A young and expertly trained hostess happily led us to our table. Greeting us by name, she offered their finest champagne to celebrate our marriage. And then it got better. I ordered the dry-aged wagyu ribeye steak with black mushroom truffle sauce. I lack the vocabulary to describe the pure deliciousness. I can only say it was the best steak I’ve ever had, and I can’t imagine ever tasting anything more enjoyable.
Later in the evening, while digesting our feast, there was a rustle in the lobby. I have a keen eye for these things, I can always tell when a prison riot is about to break out, and told Gail something was about to happen. Then it seemed like all hell broke loose. The doors flew open and a swarm of loud and over-hyper photographers came flying in. Right through their flashing cameras, like a golden tornado, Sophia Vergara swooped in and hurriedly made her way to the elevators. Holy shit!
Modern Family was filming their Australian vacation shows here, at this hotel, this week. We made a joking reference about our brush with celebrity to our hostess. She told us she was not allowed to say anything, but implied the entire cast was staying at the hotel. Rico Rodriguez, who plays Manny on the show, was eating dinner next to us. We would have never noticed. And she also did not tell us, wink-wink, that Eminem and Bruce Springsteen were on the upper floors. This place didn’t suck at all.
We rose early the next day to get a jump start on our itinerary. One floor below us, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell from Modern Family) got on the elevator. We knew well enough not to bother him, but probably stared the whole time anyway. He exited on the third floor, and as we were walking out through the lobby we noticed he was now walking down the stairs from the second floor. From the confused look on his face, we could tell he obviously got off on the wrong floor. It was the same look I had right before nearly getting wiped out by a cab a week earlier.
While having a good laugh over this, Eric Stonestreet (Cam from the show) was in front of the hotel barking orders and directing the valets and bellhops. Are we actually in an episode? It was just too funny.
Across the street from the hotel, and just a few steps past the Aboriginal street vendors selling boomerangs and didgeridoos, we jumped a ferry to Manly Beach. Sydney is a city built on and around water and Circular Quay is the main hub of it’s waterway. Loaded with taxis, ferries, and tourists, it’s a scenic 30 minute ride to one of the best large beaches in the world.
Manly Beach is where old school surf meets cosmopolitan beach community. The same people that will strike up a cool, casual conversation with you on the pedestrian plaza will rip your head off if you tread on their wave. With an equal mix of stand up paddle-boarders and world class short board surfers in the water, I was the old dude on the classic, rented, long board. I lasted a solid hour or two in the strong currents and caught some rad 6 foot rollers, along with a nice sunburn.
After taking in the sights of Manly, and a few drinks, we eventually made our way back to the hotel, for yet another run-in with Modern Family. While talking with the concierge about Aussies lack of a sense of a direction, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen approached. Phil and Claire Dunphy apologized for interrupting, but they were in need of directions to their dinner location. As they walked out the door we all cracked up laughing.
A zoo is typically not one of my favorite places to go. With all it’s rude and basically ignorant people crowding around to see incarcerated animals, I feel confined and sad for it’s inhabitants. With it’s overflowing garbage cans, ungodly smells, and overpriced food and beverages, I avoid most of these places at all costs. A million times out of a million I’d rather see wildlife in it’s natural habitat. But the Taranga Zoo is not a typical zoo.
Sitting hillside across from Sydney Harbor, this wonderful piece of property watches over the city. This zoo is perfectly laid out. From the ferry, you take a gondola ride to the top of the hill and the main entrance. Stroll down the trails and eventually you wind up back at the ferry, right where you started. Around every turn is one wonderful view after the next of Sydney.
The grounds are pristine and the Aussies were are all polite and friendly, this was not like any other zoo experience I’ve had. And the best part? I’ve never seen such happy and healthy animals. We sat and watched the chimpanzees play for hours.
Australia is a place where men are men, and the cows better run scared, because steak is what’s for dinner again. We don’t often like to visit the same place twice, there are just way too many places to see. But that night, while having another great dinner, we decided Sydney is a city which we have to visit again.
While wishing we had more time to spend here, we needed to prepare for the next part of our adventure. Tomorrow we set sail on a 12 night cruise into the South Pacific.
If there was a bad decision to make, I made it. One monumental mistake followed the next. I fucked everything up. It was a continuous attempt to be someone I was not. I was not happy with the person I was becoming. So, at the age of forty-something, I made a conscious decision to spend the second half of my life enjoying the person I became, whatever that may be.
The first, and most important, decision I made was marrying the person I would spend the second half of my life with. I didn’t think it possible, but she liked to travel even more than me, and she actually liked me too. No one has ever made me happier. The wedding was February 8, 2014.
With yet another blizzard barreling towards the east coast, we opted to get out of town early. A couple of phone calls, and a few hundred dollars later, we were on our way.
An odd thing about traveling to Australia is crossing the International Dateline. Valentine’s Day, 2014, came and went in the air, without actually existing for us at all. We landed on the 15th, in Sydney.
It’s a long flight from Los Angeles; 15 hours in the air. Imagine watching three full movies, and then looking at the time only to realize you have ten more hours to go. It’s no wonder you hear the occasional story of a traveler going bonkers. And all the sleeping pills in the world couldn’t knock me out, believe me, I tried.
I had done tons of research on Australia, and countless hours of planning for this trip, and one of the most rudimentary facts I learned is Aussies drive on the other side of the road Down-Under. “Watch out for cars”, I read and was told over and over again. Despite all that knowledge, my first act coming out of the airport was nearly getting wiped out by a cab because I was looking the wrong way. My second act was getting into the driver’s seat of the cab that was to take us to our hotel. The driver’s seat is on the other side too. Man, I was shot.
Arriving in the southern hemisphere in February, the middle of summer, was an exhilarating breathe of fresh air. Off we went to the Shangri-La hotel, with 2 full suitcases in tow, along with 2 overstuffed carry-ons, Gail’s pocket book, my backpack, and a bag full of leftover snacks from the plane. There was a lesson to be learned about packing for a long trip.
The Shangri-La is a Chinese-owned luxury hotel located half a block from the Sydney Harbor. It’s a beautiful hotel with amazing city views all around. The beds are wonderful, I slept 8 straight hours for the first time in months. Then we went exploring.
We had one full day to take in as much of Sydney as we could. We were coming back soon to spend a few more days, so this was like a reconnaissance mission. We strolled all of Darling Harbor, stopping to window shop, look at menus, people watch, and take in the sights. Then over to the Botanical Gardens, which led us to the famed Sydney Opera House.
For the last three years, every place we went, and every opportunity I had, I asked Gail for her hand in marriage. I asked her long after she said yes, I just wanted to make sure. We made our way up the steps of the Opera House. I thought it was a bit smaller and greyer than I saw in photos. With countless, mostly Asian, tourists, on the steps, I asked Gail once again for her hand. But this time was different. This was for a dance.
On the steps of the Sydney Opera House, with only the music in our hearts, we performed our wedding dance. We received a round of applause and off we went.
The next day we were at the airport on our way up to Far North Queensland. As we were checking in our trailer load of luggage, the girl at the check-in counter told us our suitcases were too heavy. How could that be? They weren’t too heavy at JFK or LAX, and we hadn’t even opened them yet. So here we are, experienced travelers, loudmouthed New Yorkers, throwing items from our suitcases to our already overstuffed carry ons. Yes, we were those people. Ugh.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve is located in Port Douglas, about an hour drive north of Cairns. After driving along the scenic Captain Cook Highway, you go to where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Coral Sea. This was the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most. The reviews were outstanding and the photos even better. Billed as a 5 Star eco-resort in a tropical setting, we were booked in a private Eucalypt Bungalow.
Shortly after arriving, sitting in the open air lobby, enjoying my welcome drink, something in the corner caught my eye. The most perfectly formed, yellow hued, spider web in an open wall. It was so perfect I thought it was fake at first. And there in the center was the largest spider I’ve ever seen. Not just any spider, a Golden Orb Spider. This bad boy was humongous, it’s legs stretched out nearly as wide as a Frisbee. It is also referred to as the Bird Killer. Now I really felt like I was in Australia. Get me another drink!
The rest of the day we strolled the property, taking in the sights of the beach, the Coral Sea, and the Rainforest. While there were so many good and beautiful points to this resort, there were, unfortunately, quite a few negatives. My Tripadvisor review can be found here: Thala. It’s the old classic, If I only knew then what I know now.
Port Douglas is an easy twenty minute drive from Thala, and where we would go for the better part of the next three days. Our first day in town we visited the Artists and Farmer’s Market. Made up mostly of ad-hoc canvas tents, the vendors were friendly and seemed to be excited to meet some Americans.
We made our way into the town center where we did some more window shopping. There was some bar hopping mixed in too. The local beers were great and I tried one at more than a couple different places. We found ourselves at Salsa Restaurant, allegedly a favorite stopping point for Bill Clinton.
A bucket list item was checked off the next day. In the Port Douglas harbor, we boarded the Synergy II. This small, well equipped, catamaran was our personal transportation out to The Great Barrier Reef. Manned by 3 Aussies and a pretty American backpacker, only ourselves and a young couple from Spain were on board.
Off we went to see the largest and greatest coral reef in the world. Breathtakingly beautiful, I snorkeled for hours over and within the most amazing coral. Amongst the countless and indescribable shapes and colors under the sea, were creatures of all variety. I can only describe it as swimming in a giant fish tank. I saw everything from giant, and I mean GIANT, clams, electric blue starfish, lazy sea turtles, and the elusive and popular Nemo fish.
The sight of a few black tipped reef sharks coincided with a barbecue lunch on board. We moved further up, towards Batt Reef. This is where the late, great Steve Irwin had his infamous encounter with the stingray. There were none to be seen that day, though we did look, as it was the last excursion into the water. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, an adventure I’ll remember forever.
Just as memorable, was the trip back to shore. As luck would have it, one of the two engines seized out along the way. After an extra, unanticipated, but enjoyable, 2 hours of sailing it was time to get onto the dock. But without the motor we couldn’t get into the slip. It was time for Plan B. Seeing Gail, who doesn’t swim in open water (she stayed topside while I snorkeled), balanced on the edge of a pontoon on a little rubber raft was hysterical and priceless.
The following morning was Breakfast with the Birds and a day at The Port Douglas Wildlife Refuge. In a huge enclosure we shared our bacon, eggs, and fruit with nearly as many birds as we saw fish the day before.
A magnificent refuge, we spent all day with the wildlife.
We did so much over the last few days. From sleeping in a bungalow in the rainforest, to swimming with sharks in the Great Barrier Reef, to hopping around with wallabies, to cuddling Koalas, we were ready for our next great adventure. Tomorrow we go back to Sydney to check a few more things off the bucket list. The first stop will be the Four Seasons, not bad for a fuck up.