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MNTravelogue

A Summer Down Under





By Wilfredo (Sonny) R. Valenzuela
August 28, 2015

 
 



February 25-March 27 2015: It has been months since we went on vacation in Australia and New Zealand but vivid images of the exotic places we visited have not faded from memory.  It was my first time in the southern hemisphere.  The month was February, summertime down under.  Rico Enriquez and his wife Frieda, my sister-in-law Cindy’s sister, were our gracious hosts in Sydney. 


After dropping off my luggage and a quick lunch at their house on the day I arrived, our tour began with a trip to downtown Sydney.  We spent the afternoon strolling around the Sydney Harbor and visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens.  From there, a short walk took us to the iconic Opera House. 
The sun shone brightly the next day, perfect for a wine tasting trip to the Hunter Valley wine country, about a couple of hours drive north of Sydney.  Tony Errebe, my brother Danny’s long-time friend who now lives in Sydney, drove some of us in his car to Hunter Valley, since all of us would not fit in just one vehicle.  We brought home more than just a few bottles of wine to consume during our vacation.   It was a very enjoyable wine tasting experience for all, including Danny’s young granddaughter Kaye.  

We woke up early the following morning for our flight to Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand.  From Queenstown, we drove to Wanaka, stopping by a fruit stand along the way to sample fruits grown in New Zealand.  We rented two apartments in Wanaka to use as our home base while in New Zealand - one unit for the older crowd, another for the young adults.  Wanaka is a resort town with many outdoor activities nearby.
Our tour party was quite big.  In addition to our hosts Rico and Frieda, our tour group included my sister Quiding, her husband Eddie, Danny, his wife Cindy, Cindy’s sisters Bettina and Annie, their brother Arnel, his wife Ginny, and their families.  All in all, twenty-one people stayed at Rico’s and Frieda’s house!  Also with us were Danny and Cindy’s children Jennifer and Kitt, their grandchild Kaye, Jennifer’s fiancé Dave, Arnel and Ginny’s sons Nick, Mark, and Marty, Nick’s fiancée Marylou, Annie’s son Dave, and Rico and Frieda’s son Jason.  Rico and Frieda’s daughter Gisele was unable to go with us to New Zealand.    
Every day, we all looked forward to dinner.  Arnel, the group’s master chef, prepared a culinary delight or two each night.   There was always enough to please everyone.   We went to the grocery store and came home with cart loads of food items almost every day.

On Sunday, we attended a church service in Wanaka where we received a very warm welcome from the parishioners.  We had to decline their offer to join them for tea because we were going to the Rob Roy Glacier Track. 

From Wanaka, we drove for about an hour along the scenic Matukituki Valley to get to Rob Roy.  The trail starts along a river running through bucolic grasslands where sheep graze.   We followed the trail and crossed a swing bridge over the rushing river.  We could not stay long since other members of our tour group were just arriving in Wanaka that day.  We would return to Rob Roy a few days later for a longer hike to a lookout point with a view of the glacier.

We went back to Queenstown the next day to spend the afternoon riding the luge.  Gondolas offering magnificent views of the alpine landscape and the lake below took us to the luge track up the mountain.
The following day, we headed to South Island ‘s Fiordland.  The road trip to Milford Sound in the Fiordland took a few hours.  It was a rather long drive for Rico and my nephew Kitt.  But the sceneries both along the way and at Milford Sound were well worth it.  The boat ride on the fjord all the way to its mouth at the Tasman Sea featured close up views of waterfalls rushing down vertical rocky cliffs.

We went back to Rob Roy the next day for a longer hike uphill through the forest to the glacier view point.  Waterfalls, the swiftly flowing stream, verdant trees and ferns kept us company all along the way.

Next destination for the older crowd was Mount Cook.  A hike to the top of a rocky hill took us to a view point with a breathtaking panorama of the Tasman Lake and the Tasman Glacier.  Meanwhile, the young adults went skydiving in Queenstown.  Dave proposed to Jennifer that day.
We visited the historic city of Dunedin and spent part of the day in a museum.  The Maoris, the first human settlers of New Zealand, are said to have migrated in the 14th century in the area of what is now Dunedin.  Europeans arrived in the 18th century.  Gold was discovered in the mid-19th century, making Dunedin the richest and most populated settlement in the country at the time.

The day after returning to Sydney from New Zealand, we went fruit picking.  We picked bags and bags of different kinds of fruits - apples, pears, peaches, quinces.  Ginny baked her specialty – apple pies.

We spent a day in the Blue Mountains, a mountain range near Sydney.  There, we hiked at the Wentworth Falls Track in the morning and enjoyed spectacular views of waterfalls.  After a picnic lunch in a park, we proceeded to the Blue Mountains’ Queen Elizabeth Lookout with its panoramic view of the expansive Jamison Valley, the Kings Tableland plateau, and the Three Sisters rock formation.  The rest of the day was spent at the Katoomba Scenic World.  We took the Cableway to enjoy the view from a cable car.  We rode the steep cable-driven railway, originally constructed for coal and oil shale mining operation in the Jamison Valley.  We also went on the Skyway across the gorge above the Katoomba Falls. 

In the evening, Rico and Frieda took our whole tour group out to a dinner of exquisite dishes in a Thai restaurant to celebrate their daughter Gisele’s birthday.
 
The next day, we flew to Cairns in Queensland, Australia.   We drove to the zoo immediately after dropping off our luggage at the time share unit that Rico and Frieda booked.  It was a thrill to see Australia’s exotic animals – koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, crocodiles, snakes, and birds with feathers of vibrant colors.   The birds flew around us, sometimes landing on our heads or shoulders.  Eddie lost his hat button to one of the birds.  I was looking forward to my first sighting of a cassowary, but the tall flightless bird would not come out from behind the thick bushes where it was hiding.

Cairns has a tropical climate.  The city is a convenient starting point to the Great Barrier Reef.  It rained considerably while we were in Cairns.  It rained the day that we planned to see the rain forest.  We ended up spending that day in the swimming pool and spa instead.  It was also raining the day that we boarded a boat to the Great Barrier Reef.  There were two cyclones, one north of us the other east.  Big waves made the boat ride very uncomfortable for many of the passengers.  The boat attendants were busy handing out sickness bags.  During this trip, nothing was more disappointing to me than reaching the Great Barrier Reef but being unable to snorkel and see the coral reef because the rough and choppy water prevented the boat from being moored to the pontoon in the middle of the ocean.  We made it back to shore safely and comforted ourselves with hot soup and lunch in a Chinese restaurant.

We spent our last evening in Cairns at the Cairns Night Zoo to experience Queensland’s tropical nocturnal wildlife.  After a hefty dinner of Australian barbecue, our friendly guides provided us with flashlights, then took us to meet the exotic nocturnal animals.  It was another rainy night in Cairns.  Donning our disposable raincoats, we fed kangaroos, touched furry koalas and wombats, and wrapped a snake around our shoulders; well, some of us anyway did the last.  It was a unique experience that was capped with drinks, dancing and singing with our guides who led us in a rousing rendition of Waltzing Matilda.  Danny was most thrilled, belting out the song which he learned by listening to American pop singer Jimmy Rodgers during our childhood days.

We spent my last day of vacation in Australia enjoying a sampling of taste-size dishes at the Taste of Sydney festivities at the Centennial Park.  The occasion offered Cindy and Jennifer some quality time to plan Jennifer’s wedding as they sauntered the park and sampled the cuisines and the wine, lots of wine.  We ended the day and my summer vacation down under with a sobering walk at Bondi Beach.

For the group, it was indeed a perfect summer vacation Down-Under…. not a single day of dull moment….organized to the detail…itinerary, transport, logistics… beautiful destinations in Australia and New Zealand…. Thanks to our host family….Rico, Frieda and their children Jason and Gisele.!!!

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