The South Pacific Cruise

The South Pacific Cruise

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Sydney Harbor Bridge as seen from the Rhapsody of the Seas. I passed on the opportunity to walk over it.

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.

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Who gets a bathroom like this on a cruise ship?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Our day with Linesse ended with a couple cold Number One Draft beers. Nambawan.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Isn’t everybody’s suite this big?


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The South Pacific. Part II

The South Pacific. Part II

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Kookaburra Bird

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.

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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.

Goodnight and farewell Sydney.
Goodnight Sydney.

 

 

 

Honeymoon in The South Pacific, Part I

Honeymoon in The South Pacific, Part I

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.

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Jammin’ with the 747 Orchestra.

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.

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Will it ever stop?!

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.

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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.

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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.

Bungalow in the Jungle
Bungalow in the Jungle

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.

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Swimming was off limits due to the deadly jellyfish.
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Where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Coral Sea.
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The view from Osprey’s Landing Restaurant at Thala.

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.

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Jammin’ at a bar in Port Douglas.

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.

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Off in the distance, Batt Reef. Steve Irwin’s last dive.
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Studying up on the species.

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.

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Our rescue boat.

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.

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My breakfast date

A magnificent refuge, we spent all day with the wildlife.

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Who doesn’t like to be scratched on the back of the neck?
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A highlight!

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.

Stay tuned for The Honeymoon, Part II.

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Newlyweds!