The period of time leading to a trip excites me as much as the travel itself. All the anticipation and planning is a better feeling than looking forward to Christmas Day when I was a kid. This is my Super Bowl. I love to travel, I love to write, and you get stuck with my blog.
I get lost in the planning. What airline will we be taking? What seats? Should we upgrade? Should we use miles? How do we get to the hotel? Taxi? Bus? Shuttle? Train? Private transfer? For any one trip I have a thousand questions that need to be asked. There was a time when I could just throw a clean pair of underwear in a backpack and go, without a care in the world. Now that I’ve reached middle age, I need to know EVERYTHING. I hate surprises.
And guess what? You get to know everything too. I’ve begun an online blogging course thru WordPress called Blogging 101. My aim has multiple fronts. First, I welcome critique in my writing, my ability to get my voice across. Secondly, I want to improve the blog site itself so I can gain more readers and followers. Maybe someday I will have enough followers that a great hotel wouldn’t mind having SirOzzy.com along to write a review.
SirOzzy will be traveling again next month. We’ll be flying from Long Island to Fort Lauderdale, where we will pick up a car for our drive to Key West. From there, we head to San Juan for a Caribbean cruise. For the next month I will publish posts detailing what it takes to plan and organize such an undertaking.
In the meantime, I’m open to all critique and hate-mail. I’ve always been a tad envious of people that have stalkers. Enjoy The Journey.
With suitcases packed and pillows strewn across the back seat of the family wagon, the SirOzzy family left at 5 am for a weekend of adventure at Hershey. Mrs. SirOzzy was co-pilot while the three boys were our backseat drivers. The four and a half hour drive was hardly reminiscent of the 27 hour drive my family took to Disney World when I was a child. During that trip there were six of us, four children, packed into a station wagon. My mother was a chain smoker and the car was always filled with what could only be described as something similar to mustard gas. Of course she wouldn’t roll the window down, that would mess up her beehive. I’m also certain, without hardened evidence, my father was imbibing while driving to calm his nerves. It was a different age. Long gone are the days when parents brought home their newborns resting on their lap in the front seat of a car. Seat-belts were always lost, tucked in between the seats, when they weren’t being used to tie each other up. To pass the time we played license plate games and had word finds. I noticed every cow, horse, and farm along the way, my eyes were always glued to whatever was outside the window. Maybe I was dreaming of, and planning, my future travels. The SirOzzy kids hardly took their eyes off their personal handheld video game apparatus. The four hours passed quickly.
A bit about the boys. The oldest is the Quiet Guy. He’s so quiet, in fact, he didn’t speak until he was nearly four years old. Not a word, or a cry, or barely a sound came out of that child. Most parents could only dream of such a quiet child, but after a while it became concerning. By the time he was three years old my concern turned to worry that he was autistic, or had some other ailment which rendered him silent. Consultations with specialists produced results from a slew of tests and procedures. At the conclusion, Dr. So and So announced, “He’s perfectly fine. He just has nothing to say.” To this day, when Quiet Guy does have something to say, people listen.
The middle child is the Talker. Words come flying out of his lispy mouth like wildfire. More often than not, these words are spoken in a completely random, nonsensical manner, with neither rhyme nor reason. He just talks and talks and talks. The key to his puzzle is always pay attention, you just never know when something might make sense.
And then there is the Noisemaker. For all the words that comes from the mouth of the Talker, sounds emit from the Noisemaker. Beep, bloop, burp, whip, whop, slursh, scream, sceech, screwl, clang, clap, clop, click, fart, burp, belch, shart, deedle-deedle-deedle. He produces a never ending array of noises that come from his mouth, his, hands, his feet, and everywhere in between. I would take him to a doctor, but certainly the doctor would simply say, “he likes to make noises.” Mrs. SirOzzy says, “Jim Carrey, eat your heart out.”
We checked in early to the Hershey Lodge and the boys were ecstatic over their first piece of chocolate for the trip. Reception handed out a full Hershey Bar to all, and rest assured, it was ripped open and devoured before we reached the elevator. There would be much more chocolate to enjoy and in due time we would learn proper tasting technique from the professionals.
The Hershey Lodge is a family friendly 665 room hotel located just a few minutes away from Hershey Park. Strangely enough, we learned there is no actual town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Hershey is an unrecognized community named, obviously, after the innovative and iconic Milton S. Hershey. So while some businesses, like the Hershey Lodge, are directly affiliated with Hershey Company, other entities, such as the Hershey Pantry, are associated with the community and thus have no relation with the chocolate company. It’s worth knowing what’s what around town.
Because we departed so early in the morning there was time to fill up on lunch sandwiches and chips prior to departing for Hershey Park. The park opens at noon on weekends this time of year, but Chocolate World opens at 11… YAY!
In 1973, the Hershey Factory stopped giving tours. It wasn’t under a veil of secrecy, ala the Wonka Factory, it was simply because they couldn’t accommodate all the demand. In came Chocolate World. Located right next to the park, Chocolate World is a sort of super mall of all things Hershey. A 4D movie theater, a ride simulating the factory works, chocolate tasting, chocolate bar making, and as much chocolate as you could possibly imagine buying adorn the 100,000 square foot building. We would do and see it all in the next two days.
After watching the short Hershey themed 4D movie (admittedly, I previously had no idea what a 4D movie was), we jumped onto the Hershey’s Chocolate Tour Ride. Of course there was “free” chocolate at the conclusion of both these attractions. The Tour Ride features three singing cows that are only slightly less annoying than the It’s A Small World ride in Disney World. Between the perturbing ringing of the cow’s song and the pestering of the kids hyped up on cocoa, we were ready to beat feet for the park.
Arriving finally at the park, I was reminded many times of Disney World. Mostly, I was reminded this is NOT Disney. Though it is a theme park for a major US corporation, Hershey is much smaller in every sense of the word. Even with the park generally inferior, with lesser crowds (hence shorter lines), and fewer attractions, we were nonetheless occupied and enjoyed a solid 8 hours in the park. It would have been nice to split up the time a little bit and do two days in the park, but we only had passes for one.
While sitting on one particular park bench, Mrs. SirOzzy and I had quite a sobering moment… We realized that we were indeed sitting on a park bench… We were sitting on said park bench while our children were on rides, without us. We have reached that age when our children are capable of running off on their own, and we only have enough stamina to sit on a bench and watch. It was just one more sign of middle age and things to come.
Dinner was at The Bear’s Den, a restaurant in the hotel named after the local minor league hockey club. Following burgers and fries we tiredly retreated to our rooms. God only knows what happened in the boys room, as it was the first time the three boys had a hotel room to themselves without direct parental supervision. One can only imagine what kind of mischievousness and horseplay went on in that room over night.
So we woke the next morning rested and ready to tackle another full day of Hershey adventures. We started with a buffet breakfast at the Hershey Hotel. A 4 star luxurious hotel, I’m glad we didn’t stay there with the kids, but I would look forward to staying there with Mrs. SirOzzy. The Circular is the signature restaurant designed specifically by Mr. Hershey himself. Large, open, and round, with not a pillar or obstruction in sight, there are magnificent views of the grounds from every table. The food was delicious and the service exceptional, we really enjoyed our breakfast. We told the kids to load up, because lunch was not likely in the cards.
Following breakfast we had the opportunity to go on a free guided tour of the hotel. The tourguide, Albert, had his retirement party that same week and this would be his swansong, so-to-speak. Interestingly enough, there were quite a few Hershey executives present as well. The Hershey archivist was in attendance, as well as the museum curator, chief of reservations, head of spa, and a few others that seemed equally important. This was a great learning tour, evidenced by the fact that during the 2 hours Albert managed to keep the attention of all 3 boys. Little did anyone know, I read the boys the Riot Act before the tour.
We rewarded the boys for their good behavior with another trip back to Chocolate World. This time they would partake in a Chocolate Tasting Seminar, followed by designing their own Hershey Bar. This is another wonderful thing to do, as you can watch the bar be made from concept, to production, to packaging, and it’s all custom.
I’ve often said that kids can learn more in one or two days with their parents than they will in one month of school. This was true when we brought them onto the Hershey Works Historical Trolley Ride. For nearly two hours we were treated to a history lesson given by a bright and funny young man named Tim. The kids and myself learned the fascinating story of Milton Hershey and how he was a part of the Industrial Revolution. We also learned about the Milton S. Hershey School, a great contribution to society and education.
The school was founded in 1910 for orphaned boys. While requirements for admission to the school has changed over the years, it is still a philanthropic institution for disadvantaged children. Mr. Hershey always gave full credit to his wife, “It was Kitty’s idea,” he often said. Mr. and Mrs. Hershey never had any children and thus set up a trust fund for the school. Today, it’s valued at over $9 billion. You will never hear me complain about the cost of a Hershey Bar. Look under the flap of any Hershey Bar to learn more.
The tour continued with visits to all things Hershey, with plenty of chocolates and jokes along the way. While passing the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, Tim told us the hospital even has a Chocolate Eaters Rehab. He once spent two days recovering from the Hokey-Pokey, but he “turned himself around. And that’s what it’s all about.”
We all slept good that night and woke to a local breakfast. We were on the road soon after and home in plenty of time for a light, chocolate-free, dinner. All in all, it was a very good trip filled with fun and learning. We sure did a lot of activities in two days, and it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it didn’t break the bank either. And finally, don’t smoke with a beehive or children in the car.
As a kid no dare was too great. Riding a skateboard down the biggest hill and fighting the toughest kid on the block were just two of many notches on my belt. I was King of the Ring and Run. I could swim the furthest distances and jump from the highest peaks. As a young man the feats became greater and more death defying. Fast cars and hair raising adventures were my thing. Fear was an excuse for others, not me, I’ve always had a never ending quench to conquer the greatest challenges.
Now I find myself in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, speeding along the ridge of another majestic ascent. Switchbacks and hairpin turns race past me in a blur. Just off the shoulder-less road is a 3,000 foot vertical drop along a sheer faced granite slab. The cliff ends where the crystal blue water of Lake Tahoe crashes into sixty five million year old boulders. The drive is exhilarating and sublimely mesmerizing.
“Would you please slow down?!” Mrs. SirOzzy shrieks from the passenger seat.
“Jesus Christ, Babe, I’m already doing ten miles an hour under the speed limit, and there are fifteen cars behind me!” My knuckles are white on the steering wheel of the Ford Focus. I’ve entered middle age.Our one week stay in Lake Tahoe was supposed to be for relaxation. It’s been a year of hard work and routine day to day stresses. A mellow resort during the off season seemed like an ideal place to unwind and rejuvenate before the grind of yet another Northeast Winter.
A casual hike is always a great way to jump start a lazy day. Granted, I’m not in the condition I used to be, but I believe I’m still better off than my counterparts. Although I’ve gained a bit over the years in my midsection, my hairline has receded and thinned, and my beard has some aging colors in it, I swear I’m not old, fat, or bald – yet. I only wear glasses for reading. I also can’t jog or run like I used to, but I can still walk a few miles at a good clip. So when we asked the concierge about a moderate hike and were told about a place called Tunnel Creek, we figured we were in for an easy morning.The trail head starts just behind a coffee stop called the Tunnel Creek Cafe. A genuine establishment reminiscent of the mining period. This is the kind of place Mad Jack would buy his supplies from on his Ol’ Number Seven Mule on the TV series Grizzly Adams (Did I just date myself?). We were assured that the trail would be easy walking, despite the significant snowfall a few days earlier. Of course we were looking forward to stepping into the cafe prior to our departure, not so much to load up on provisions, but rather to get a cup of coffee and maybe chat with some locals. Ominously, the cafe was closed; good thing we weren’t climbing Denali. Oh well, we’ll make do with out.Onward and upwards we went. Mrs. SirOzzy will readily admit she is not an outdoors-woman, or really much of the adventurous type. A hike to the indoor pool at a Ritz Carlton is excursion enough. But she is a trooper and an accommodating partner. Steadily climbing uphill, the scenic lake and mountain vistas opened itself wide to us. The views of this region are really magnificent, they can’t be understated. We continued plodding uphill. The snow was thick and icy under our feet and elevation was gained with every step. Living our entire lives at sea level, we’ve become accustomed to full breathes of air, here the cold air is refreshing, but thinner with every step. Holy crap, this isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. My steps slowed and became increasingly labored. My less than eager hiking parnter was falling back quickly. If we could just make it to the top of the next ridge.There was a “Bear in Area” sign. Are you kidding me? Of course the thoughts of being mauled by a giant Grizzly Bear were already on my mind. The Sierra Nevada Mountains was the home of Grizzly Adams and his Bear Ben. But who the hell puts a sign in the middle of the woods? Ok, we’ll go back now.After trail blazing a few exhausting miles, and what seemed like 7,000 feet of elevation gain, we were cozily back in the car. The drive down the scenic highway brought us to Zephyr Cove, one of the countless beaches pockmarking the perimeter of the lake. Though we’ve made this drive a number of times already, Mrs. SirOzzy never quite got used to it. She’d slump down in her seat, tuck most of her face into the neck opening of her coat, cross her arms in front of her body, hands in her armpits, and stare straight out ahead, never looking out the window, as that may cause us to crash into the cold blue water hundreds of feet below to our ultimate peril.
At the dock we boarded the MS Dixie for a narrated afternoon tour of Lake Tahoe. This was more her cup of tea. An old, but comfortably apportioned, paddle-wheel ship loaded with tourists, our cruise would bring us to Emerald Bay and back. Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide filled with the clearest water this side of the Caribbean. Surrounded by the towering pines of the Sierra Nevada, the million dollar views never get old.Arriving into Emerald Bay we learned the fate of Captain Dick Barter. After a day of drinking, his ship sank off the shore of Rubicon Point in 1,400 feet of water. His body was never found. Some claim on a foggy morning you can see his ghost rise from the water and make it’s way back up the hill.We finished our boat tour and decided to drive the perimeter of the entire lake. That’s when we had our aforementioned cliff driving event in the Ford Focus. For our day of relaxation we nearly suffered altitude sickness, were warned about presumably hungry bears, heard about ghosts, and had a near death experience cliff driving. But man, was it ever scenic. It was time for a glass of wine by the fireside.Our adventures didn’t stop there though. A day in South Lake Tahoe is somewhat enjoyable, but one day in a lifetime proved to be enough. Another day trip brought us to Virginia City, an old mining town that I would recommend to anyone, also just for one day in a lifetime. The residing attitude here was, “When everything else fails, invite the tourists, but don’t make them too comfortable.” After a couple haunted hotel visits, beers in the Bucket-O-Blood and Red Dog Saloons, and crappy hamburgers in some run down lunch joint, we were ready to get back to the familiar environs of our noisy and smoky casino. Another day brought us hiking along the Western States Trail near Squaw Valley California, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Sand Harbour is Tripadvisor’s number 1 thing to do in the region. A remarkably beautiful and serene state park, if I lived in the area I’d be there everyday. But unless I get cast in the remake of Grizzly Adams, I don’t think I’ll ever live there.Our final day brought us back to Reno. Homeless people, drug addicts, and derelicts littered every corner of this shit-hole excuse for an American city. If you paid me a gazillion dollars, I might consider driving through, otherwise you’ll never catch me in that dump again. But as for Lake Tahoe… We met some wonderful people, ate A LOT better than we expected, and had lots of fun. We came home far more tired from this relaxing vacation than we expected to. Next stop….Margaritas in Key West!
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.