Here be Dragons!

The quote “Here be Dragons!” hearkens back to the medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters, and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps where potential dangers were thought to exist. It seems particularly appropriate to use this phrase for this post for a couple of reasons. First, we visited Komodo, our first stop in Indonesia, to see the legendary dragons by the same name. The Indonesian public health officials required pre-visit temperature checks as a condition of entry for ALL passengers and crew before they would allow the ship to dock. In addition, Komodo was the first port to require all visitors to wear masks for the duration of our visit. We were willing to do just about whatever it took to visit this unique island, and so far this vigilance seems to be working, as all of the dragons we encountered seem to be in good health! Fortunately, all Viking Sun passengers and crew who wanted to go ashore were given the OK to go ashore. Later, we were informed that several tour groups before us were NOT permitted to visit. So although it was pretty steamy trekking through the tropical forest wearing a mask, with all that is unknown about the coronavirus, it can certainly be put into the category of other “uncharted areas where potential dangers are thought to exist!”

At just 150 square miles, the tiny island of Komodo is one of the 17,508 islands that comprise the Republic of Indonesia. Our approach provided stunning views of several of these islands, and our early morning arrival had an almost mystical feel to it. We learned that these waters are home to dolphins, whales, and over 1,000 species of fish.

Once we entered the Komodo National Park, we learned that it was initially established in 1980 to conserve the unique Komodo dragon, first discovered by the scientific world in 1912. Since then, the park’s conservation goals have expanded to include protecting the entire biodiversity of the region, both marine and terrestrial. It was declared a World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1991. We met our guide, Paul and our ranger, Abdullah, and we were given very specific instructions about staying close to them for the duration of our visit, keeping hydrated, staying with the group and on the path, and not littering. Given the choice of taking the short, medium, or long hike, we opted for the long hike and off we went. Our guides were very careful to tell anyone with an open cut or on her menstrual cycle to stay close to the stick-carrying ranger, because the dragons are very attracted to the smell of blood. Unfortunately, they didn’t mention the hungry mosquitos, and Denise learned that the lovely all-natural insecticide she brought is no match for Komodo’s tiniest beasts! She’ll be in search of DEET at our next stop!

The park is truly a magnificent menagerie of trees, plants, and other wildlife. In addition to the dragons, we came upon a small herd of Timor deer and heard the sounds of wild boar. We were told that special evening tours are offered for visitors interested in seeing some of the 28 varieties of snakes that call Komodo home. And because this is the wet season, the tropical forest was lush and green, with occasional flowers, fruits, berries, and even a tiny snail peeking through the leaves.

The dragons mate between May and August, and the females lay about 30 eggs that will hatch in March or April. They use three different nest types for their eggs: hillside nests, ground nests, and mound nests that are actually built by guinea fowl. Our park ranger, Abdullah, pointed out an active mound nest, and we were advised to be very quiet around the nest.

The dragons did not disappoint! As we approached their watering hole, we saw four large males lounging in the shade, and three youngsters running around. The largest lizard in the world, these breathtaking creatures can grow up to 10 feet long and usually weigh about 150 pounds. We were warned not to get too close to the dragons, as they are carnivores and can live off of one feed for a month. After two months of feasting on the incredible Viking Sun food, one of us could probably sustain an average dragon for longer than that! When one of the little guys got a bit too curious about Denise’s shoes, Abdullah used the forked end of his stick to re-direct him! We could show you literally hundreds of pictures, but here are a few of our favorites.

These are truly magnificent creatures, and we hope that the park remains open to visitors for many years to come. There are periodic discussions about restricting visitation to the park for a whole host of reasons, so it’s important for visitors to follow the rules…even if it means wearing a mask in the sweltering heat!

Two Days at the Top End

Darwin, Australia is the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory (also called the Top End) and a former frontier outpost. It’s also a gateway to the massive Kakadu National Parks well as to South East Asia. Its popular waterfront area has several beaches and green areas like Bicentennial Park, but we were cautioned to stay out of the water due to the presence of crocodiles! This laid-back city was named after Charles Darwin, who had sailed into the area on an expedition in 1838. Darwin today is a lively modern city, with practically everything built since 1974. In the early morning hours of Christmas Day in that year, Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin killing 71 people and leveling 80% of the city. A chilling exhibit at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) depicts the cyclone and its devastating impact (see below). This was actually the FOURTH time Darwinians demonstrated their resilience by re-building their city…twice before due to cyclones, and once as the target of the Japanese in World War II. Led by Naval Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who also led the raid on Pearl Harbor ten weeks earlier, the attacks on Darwin killed or wounded hundreds of people, leveled most of the city’s prominent buildings, sunk over 20 ships, and destroyed 23 Allied aircraft. Remnants of this destruction are seen all around town, where beloved landmarks like the Star Theater and Hotel Victoria are fondly remembered.

Darwin is lighting up the city with a new program CITYLIFE Platform. According to the city’s website, “Public art enhances our natural and built environments, it builds upon our cultural heritage, diversity, sense of identity and provides opportunities for our artists to contribute to the development of the city’s cultural vitality. Our strategic approach to the commissioning and delivery of contemporary public art, recognises the need to build local capacity and skills, provide opportunities for diversity in the program and support a model that encourages community debate around the role of public art. This artistic program is being trialed over three years with the intention of transforming selected outdoor public spaces into outdoor galleries. CITYLIFE Platform showcases local artists and their talent in addition to encouraging dialogue in the community.” We think our readers will agree that this intentional approach to public art is adding a great deal to the city! Here’s just a smattering of the beautiful artwork that is popping up all around the central business district.

With only two days to explore this wonderful city, we decided to spend some time at MAGNT, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. This excellent collection of art and artifacts reflects the region, its diverse culture, rich history, abundant marine life, and its indigenous people. It utilizes a variety of mediums to depict significant chapters in Darwin’s history and to showcase the region’s beautiful Aboriginal art from nearby islands and the inner desert. On the waterfront, the Indo-Pacific Marine Exhibition recreates various underwater ecosystems. It would take multiple visits to see everything, but here are a few glimpses of exhibits we found to be of particular interest.

On our way back to the ship, we noticed a sign pointing to WW II Oil Storage Tunnels. Doug, a history buff who made his living owning an oil company for 29 years, was intrigued. The next couple of hours were quite interesting! We learned that in 1924, 11 above ground oil storage tanks were built on Stokes Hill Wharf near our dock. During the 1942 Japanese air-raids, 7 of the tanks were destroyed, spilling vast amounts of oil into the wharf. Later that year, 400 members of the Civil Constitutional Corps secretly dug hidden oil storage tunnels in the escarpment bordering the city. With temperatures and humidity reaching the 90s, the working conditions for these men were horrific! The ground was soft and unstable, and when the wet season came, the water poured in causing cave-ins and frustration leading to work stoppages. In the end, the tunnels never stored oil. It wasn’t until Australia’s conflict with Indonesia in the 1950s that an attempt to store jet fuel for the RAF and RAAF bombers in two of the tanks was made. This was short-lived, however, because during one night of heavy rain, excessive pressure caused the fuel to escape. The facility had to be abandoned. It is now open for tours, which we found fascinating.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Darwin. The people are very warm and welcoming, and their history of building and re-building is inspiring. It was a fitting way to say goodbye to Australia and hello to whatever lies ahead. While many of our fellow travelers have made the understandable decision to head home due to the uncertain path of the coronavirus, we’ve decided to remain vigilant, resilient, and flexible. We’re certainly adhering to the strong hand washing requirements and trying to be smart about our choices, but we strongly believe that Viking is putting our safety and good health at the top of their priorities. And we’re doing the same!

Ash Wednesday on Thursday Island

We awoke to a spectacular red sunrise over tiny (1.4 square miles) Thursday Island and realized that it was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Known by locals as “T.I.,” Thursday Island is one of the smallest of the Torres Strait Islands. TI was once home to a thriving pearl diving industry, but that has declined steadily over the years. To say that TI is “laid back” is an understatement! Many local residents live by a no-footwear policy out of respect for the spirits believed to live on the island. And although there are beaches all around, we were advised to refrain from swimming because of the current and marine life in the incredibly beautiful blue waters. Although we didn’t see any crocodiles, we did catch a very large turtle swimming around the ship in hopes of snapping up some of last night’s leftovers. And Doug found some “safe” turtles for a quick pic.

Denise found a charming little Catholic church along the main street. The priest had left a small dish of ashes near the altar, so she did a DIY and got her ashes.

We also saw a sign advertising “Australia’s Top Pub,” a reference to the location of TI at Australia’s northern most tip, but it was early morning so the pub was closed. And the Customs House makes an impressive statement near the tiny port.

There really isn’t much more to say about Thursday Island. It’s tiny, very quiet, and situated among some of the prettiest islands we’ve seen. From our first glimpse to our last, we certainly didn’t feel like we did any penance on this Ash Wednesday on Thursday Island…although it was hotter than Hell!

Touring Around Townsville

Cyclone Damien prevented us from anchoring in Whitsunday Islands, where we had been looking forward to a visit to Airlie Beach. Described as a place where “pure white sands meet cerulean waters, swirling together at sandbars to merge into a palette of turquoise, cream, and emerald green hills. Glassy, invigorating, and impossibly blue, the waters provide the ideal oasis for relaxation and idling away a few hours on the beach,” this place will remain a myth to us…at least for this trip! Ever prepared, we sailed on to a new place on our revised itinerary, Townsville, arriving on Sunday evening when virtually everything is closed. Hopeful for a day without rain, we awoke the next morning in Cleveland Bay (no reference to Cleveland, Ohio and/or Cleveland, Tennessee) to yet another foggy, rainy day. Nonetheless, we were promised that the red sandstone monolith of Castle Hill is, was, and always will be in view, rising from the city center. And by the end of the day, the fog had lifted and we did, indeed, get to enjoy a view of this beautiful landmark.

Rather than walking around in the rain, we opted to take an excursion to the charming town of Charters Towers, a 90 mile drive inland through the Australian bush. To our surprise, the bush was not a barren wasteland, but rather a lovely, somewhat bucolic stretch of land dotted by farms, trees, and numerous termite colonies, with habitats as large as three feet high! We learned about “back burning,” the practice of starting small fires along a man-made or natural firebreak in front of a main fire front in order to control burning and wildfire events that have recently taken a toll on much of Australia, and saw the unintended result of blackened bark on the bottom of many trees. And we crossed the Burdekin, Australia’s largest river.

Arriving just in time for a lovely morning tea, we learned that Charters Towers was originally called Charters Tors after mining warden Charters and Tors for the hills in which gold was found. It was proudly known as “The World” during its post-gold rush heyday because it had everything one would need to live a happy, fulfilling life. The people of Charters Towers are justifiably proud of their town, and local folks are more than happy to share bits of information and history. We started our visit with a self-guided walking tour of the town’s beautifully preserved One Square Mile. Doug, of course, found a perfect latte, and enjoyed it as we strolled by numerous historic landmarks, many of which have been beautifully preserved. The Stock Exchange Arcade, where gold prices and claims were bartered, was built in 1888 and now serves as a shopping mall and pedestrian thoroughfare. The World Theater, originally the Australian Bank of Commerce, has been converted into a 660 seat performing arts center and cinema complex showing first run movies. City murals can be viewed throughout town, but the one that caught our eye is the one done by students from a local high school. City Hall is in the center of town, and the Post Office with its impressive clock tower, was built within six months of the discovery of gold in the area. There’s a department store, pharmacy, locally-owned toy store, book shops, grocery stores, bakeries, a railroad station and museum, newspaper, ambulance museum…indeed, everything one would need. There’s even a hotel that’s currently closed, but can be bought for the right price!

We learned that Charters Towers is becoming home to young families seeking affordable housing and excellent educational options and retirees looking for a place to live with beautiful weather and reasonable prices. Housing reflects the distinctive Queensland style architecture, with most of the historic homes being built on stilts to act as a kind of natural air conditioner.

The discovery of gold in 1871 by an indigenous boy named Jupiter Mosman plays a significant role in the history of Charter’s Corners. The gold fields drew thousands of miners to the area, and the vast quantities of gold in the massive quartz reefs led to the need for several crushing batteries to process the ore into gold bricks. Of the original batteries, only the Venus State Battery remains. Over its 108 years of operation, Venus produced over 15.5 tons of gold! Our guide was delightful, and took us on a journey back to the days of the gold rush, regaling us with stories about significant characters, some of whom are reputed to haunt the battery to this day. The iconic Venus Gold Battery is truly a unique, picturesque venue, and we felt very lucky to have been able to take this informative tour.

On our way out of town, we learned that Charters Corners played an important role in World War II. The United States Air Force had its airfield on the site of the present airport, and 15,000 US troops were stationed in the area. During the war, there were 42 bunkers on Towers Hill that were used by the RAAF and USAF to store munitions including bombs, ammunition, and parachute flares. The area around the bunkers offers beautiful views and is currently being developed with walking trails, picnic tables, and a museum.

This day really brings home the reality that just because things don’t go exactly as planned, they can still be wonderful! Weather and virus have seriously altered our plans, but with every change comes the opportunity to experience something new. We had never even heard of Townsville, Australia, and certainly never knew Charters Towers existed, and yet every day of this journey brings us new experiences and new learning…and at our age, that’s a blessing!

The Great Barrier Reef

The absolute highlight of our two day visit to Cairns (pronounced “cans”) was the day we spent with Sunlover Reef Tours at the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest continuous coral reef system on Earth. It is composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 1,500 miles and an area of approximately 130,000 square miles. The reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland, Australia. One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the reef is home to an incredible array of sea life, including thousands of varieties of fish, hundreds of species of colorful hard corals, and one-third of the world’s soft corals.

Sunlover offers outstanding options to explore the reef. We boarded their large, comfortable catamaran in Cairns, and settled back for the hour-long journey to the permanent pontoon marine base at the reef. En route, a marine biologist shared interesting information about the reef, and described the various options available to explore the reef including snorkeling, a glass-bottomed boat, diving instruction, and individual and group tours. We opted for snorkeling on our own, and Denise rented a water-proof camera to practice her underwater photo skills (heretofore untested!) We learned so much about the different varieties of corals and sea life, and the natural and man-made threats to this magnificent place. We also learned that conservationists and scientists with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are concerned that building heat is threatening more coral bleaching along the reef on Queensland’s north coast by destroying the reef’s colorful algae, leaving the coral to starve to death. He added that if temperatures don’t drop from current levels over the next two weeks, the reef is likely to experience the third “mass bleaching event” in five years, noting that 2020 is likely to be the most extensive coral bleaching event to date. We were therefore instructed to be extremely careful to avoid touching the delicate, vulnerable coral in any way.

Upon arrival at the marine base, we were fitted for mandatory stinger suits (it’s jellyfish season!), masks, snorkels, fins, and life vests. Once “suited up,” we made our way into the water for a truly extraordinary experience.

Our time in the water literally flew by! Mesmerized by the marine life and astonishing variety of coral, we were surprised when we realized we had been in the water for over two hours! The underwater camera worked pretty well, so here is a sampling of the photos Denise captured. Note the photos of white, bony coral which sadly show that coral bleaching is real.

Back on board the catamaran, we enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch and swapped stories of what we had experienced with our fellow passengers.

We’re so thrilled and grateful to have been able to enjoy the beauty and magic of this astonishing part of the world.

World Cruise Becomes Magical Mystery Tour!

As the World Health Organization and public health professionals around the world are working tirelessly to contain and combat COVID19, the current novel coronavirus, the Viking teams on board the Sun and back home at corporate headquarters have been working around the clock to keep us safe. From enhanced screening, to increased emphasis on frequent hand washing, to strategic changes to our itinerary, these travel professionals are doing everything possible to ensure our health and well being while we’re enjoying this world cruise. The latest itinerary changes include significant re-routing in and around Australia; the elimination of our visits to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kota Kinabalu, and the Philippines; more days in Cairns, Darwin, and Bali; and the addition of visits to New Caledonia, Townsville, and Surabaya in Java. The itinerary will also include Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Cochin, Marmagoa and Mumbai. We’re pretty sure there will be more changes ahead between Bali and Mumbai, but for now this is what we know. In addition to the port changes, the team is making significant changes to the excursions available while in port, so one can only imagine the scheduling, pricing, and charging nightmares they’re enduring to get this right for each of 900 passengers! We’re choosing to go with the flow and make the best of each day.

We left the beautiful city of Brisbane a couple of days ago and headed east on the Coral Sea en route to our “new” port of Noumea, New Caledonia. British explorer Captain James Cook first landed on this beautiful island in 1774 and named it New Caledonia because it reminded him of Scotland (Caledonia in Latin.) A special collectivity of France, New Caledonia includes the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Chesterfield Islands, the Belep archipelago, the Isle of Pines, and several remote islets. French people, and especially locals, refer to Grande Terre as Le Caillou (“the pebble”). French is the predominant language, and all residents can vote in French presidential elections.

The capital city of Noumea, our “home” for two days, reflects a unique mix of French, colonial, and indigenous Kanak culture. During World War II, Noumea served as the headquarters of the US military in the South Pacific. The five-sided US military headquarters complex was adopted after the war as the base for a new regional intergovernmental development organization now known as the “Pacific Community.” The US military introduced many modern conveniences to the area, and a stylized US flag stands as a prominent monument near the center of town expressing the warmth New Caledonians feel towards Americans.

A visit to The Musee de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (WW II Museum) provides a glimpse of what it must have been like for the population of New Caledonia to double with the presence of 50,000 Allied Troops during WW II. This small museum, housed in former Quonset huts, outlines the story of the important role New Caledonia played in the Pacific Ocean Theater. Although most of the exhibits are in French, there is enough English for most visitors to follow the story line. Doug, however, was longing for Gina to translate every word, ‘cuz that’s how he “does museums!”

Across the street from the museum are the remains of the Gaston Bourret Hospital. Originally built as a fort in 1854, the Gaston-Bourret grew to 500 beds and served the military and local residents until a new, modern facility was built in 2016.

The French began sending convicts to New Caledonia in 1864. Over the next 30 years, about 25,000 “hard-labour convicts and petty offenders” made the six-month sea journey from France, and those who survived were housed in a penal colony. The convicts carried out most of the original construction in and around Noumea, including public buildings, churches, and even some homes. Once freed, the ex-convicts who were sentenced to eight years or more were subject to “perpetual residence in the colony” even after they had served their sentence. Most of them established families and became productive citizens. Today, a penal colony museum stands as a memorial to these earliest settlers. While some of the buildings have been restored, the original prison bakery and the former penal psych hospital are probably better reflections of the difficult times. The handwriting on the wall isn’t legible, but if those walls could talk, oh the stories they’d tell!

A panoramic tour of Noumea reflects the colonial and strategic military history and more contemporary nature of this capital city. With picturesque, relaxed beaches and clear, azure waters all around, it is also becoming a popular tourist destination. The discovery of nickel deposits has turned this city into a major seaport, and has drawn migrants from Europe, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China who are contributing to the dynamic multi-cultural artistic, architectural, and culinary scene. A focal point of Noumea is Coconut Palm Square, with its pedestrian-friendly walkways and colorfully-lit fountain.

The Bibliotheque Bernheim was a highlight during our visit to Noumea, for its design as well as its history. The Exposition Universelle of 1900 was a world’s fair held Paris to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. The fair, visited by nearly 50 million people, displayed several major structures that remain to this day, such as the Grand Palais, Petit Palais, the Gare d’Orsay (now the Musee d’Orsay), and two of the original entrances of Paris Metro stations by Hector Guimard. It also brought international attention to the Art Nouveau style. In addition, they included pavilions of French colonies featuring their traditional architecture and local products. The French colony of New Caledonia highlighted its exotic varieties of wood and rich mineral deposits in a pavilion designed by a Monsieur Bley. After the event, at the request and expense of Lucien Bernheim, a French industrialist who moved to New Caledonia and established nickel and chrome factories, the pavilion was dismantled and shipped to Noumea to become the town library and museum.

Although New Caledonia wasn’t on our original itinerary (in truth, we had barely heard of it before our visit!) we really had a great time and could have stayed longer. We barely saw the beaches, art museums, and restaurants, and we’d like the chance to meet more of the friendly, welcoming people.

Beautiful Brisbane

Brisbane is Australia’s third largest city and the capital of Queensland. Situated on its namesake river, it is famous for its amazing climate that is near perfect all year round, as well as its proximity to many of Queensland’s major tourist destinations. And while today’s weather was, indeed, “near perfect,” torrential rainstorms over the past two days led to a decision to delay our arrival by about four hours to ensure that the pilot could board the Viking Sun in daylight. This meant an abbreviated visit to Brisbane, and since we had made arrangements to visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary (more on that later in this post), we were only able to enjoy brief drive through this beautiful city.

This delay, along with witnessing the difficulty of Sydney’s pilot getting back onto the pilot boat the night before, led us to investigate the exact role of the pilot boat and its importance to our safety. We happened to be seated near the window where the Sydney pilot boat was trying to get close enough to the Viking Sun for the pilot to jump safely from our ship back onto his deck in very heavy waves and wind. After several unsuccessful attempts, the pilot boat finally got close enough and the pilot made it back “home.” But we did a little digging, and this is what we learned. Most ports throughout the world require “pilotage,” the practice in which a local pilot comes on board near the entrance of a port to assist the ship’s captain with bringing the ship into port and docking or anchoring at the designated spot. The pilot also helps provide safe passage when the ship departs. Contrary to what we had thought, the pilot doesn’t take command of the ship from the captain. Captain Lars always stays in command of our Sun. Pilots are usually licensed master mariners with years of experience in their local port. As such, they have a wealth of knowledge about local currents, piers, docks, water depths, communication procedures and regulations, and local users of the waterway. Since no two ports in the world are alike and can change over time, this knowledge can be invaluable to the captain. On arrival at the breakwaters or fairway buoy, the ship is met by a pilot boat. The ship’s speed is adjusted to 8 to 15 knots, and course alterations are often necessary to ensure a safe and efficient transfer from the pilot boat to the ship. The pilot boat matches the speed of the ship and comes alongside near the pilot ladder, which is connected to an opening in the hull called a “shell door.” Wearing a harness, the pilot uses a rope ladder suspended from the shell door to board the ship, and is met at the top of the pilot ladder by a deck officer who is in radio communication with the bridge. This officer escorts the pilot to the bridge, where the pilot and captain decide on the appropriate arrival plan. At the time of departure, this process is reversed. We were lucky to capture the exciting departure of our Sydney pilot as well as the more peaceful arrival of our Brisbane pilot. We’re grateful to both for the role they play in keeping us safe.

Shortly after our arrival in Brisbane, we headed to Lone Pine, where we enjoyed the world’s first and largest koala sanctuary. Starting with just two koalas named Jack and Jill, Lone Pine is set in a beautiful, natural environment and is home to more than 130 koalas and a menagerie of other exotic Australian wildlife. We met some of the dedicated animal handlers and learned about some of the fascinating wildlife research that takes place here. We captured some delightful photos of koalas, kangaroos, various reptiles, turtles, flying fox (a type of bat that looks like a fox with HUGE wings), and even the elusive Tasmanian devil.

After that, we only had time for a whirlwind tour around Brisbane, where we caught glimpses of the ways distinctive Queenslander and modern architecture blend into an eclectic mix of old and new, often side-by-side, and sometimes even within the same structure, as shown in the bottom left picture of a new, modern hotel that had to incorporate a protected historic Queensland home into its new design.

Once again, we were left with a sense of “unfinished business,” and a desire for more time in this beautiful city that is rich with history and an unparalleled arts and design scene. Art galleries, museums, and a host of chic boutiques and cafes made us long for an opportunity to linger just a bit longer, but perhaps one day we will return. Until then, we left with fond memories of this city by the river.

Spectacular Sydney

Sydney, capital of New South Wales, is home to the world’s largest (and in our opinion, most spectacular!) natural harbor. Founded as a penal colony in 1788, Sydney is probably best known for its crown jewel…the iconic Sydney Opera House. Ironically, we learned that Jorn Utzon’s design for the opera house was the result of a competition, and his design was initially discarded! Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its distinctive sail-like design is a signature landmark for the city. There’s so much to see and do in Sydney, so we split up for part of our three-day visit to pursue our own interests.

Doug spent almost an entire day experiencing the majestic Blue Mountains, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result of a two day torrential rainstorm (which we sailed through to get here!), the Katoomba Falls were raging, and the bush fires that had threatened much of the Jamison Valley were extinguished. From Echo Point, he was able to take in some magnificent views of the valley from high above the clouds. He also captured an etherial shot of the famous Three Sisters before making his way to Scenic World where he experienced the thrills of traveling the world’s steepest scenic passenger train at a 52 degree incline; gliding between cliff tops in the glass-bottomed scenic skyway, Australia’s highest cable car; and descending 545 metres into the Jamison Valley in the scenic cableway. He learned that this area was named Blue Mountain because of the blue hue created by the evaporation from the eucalyptus trees, which are very prevalent throughout the lush area.

While Doug was enjoying the mountains outside the city, Denise took a photographic walking workshop with professional travel photographer Alfonso Calero, owner of Alfonso’s Photo Tours http://www.alfonso.com.au Alfonso led us on a 3-hour walk around Sydney, and freely shared his expertise about camera settings, composition, lighting, and creative camera angles (full disclosure…the image above is my work, but his idea!) We started off in The Rocks – Sydney’s oldest village named for the sandstone from which its original buildings were made, where we played around with angles and leading lines. This area, once home to drunken sailors and ex-convicts, now hosts harbor side boutiques, craft shops, cafes, and interesting markets. We moved on to the Sydney Opera House, one of the most photographed points of interest in the city. We were inspired by the Sydney Harbor Bridge, where we experimented with light and angles, and we were lucky to capture some walkers high atop the bridge. Alfonso gave us some “cheat sheets” to help us tell our travel stories more vividly, and we celebrated our new knowledge over an authentic lunch of meat pies with mashed potatoes and peas and beer at the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, Sydney’s oldest continually licensed pub. There’s much debate about which pub is oldest, but the Lord Nelson is a favorite with locals, and definitely has yummy food and delicious beer.

After lunch, Denise continued on her own walking tour of this beautiful city, where she got lost no fewer than 10 times! Along the way, she logged in over 20,000 steps and visited St. Mary’s Cathedral; the QVB – Queen Victoria Building (an incredible indoor shopping mall built in 1893); the Sydney Tower Eye Observation Deck (Sydney’s tallest structure and the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere); and the opulent State Theater and adjacent QT Boutique Hotel which is housed in the State and Gowings Buildings. It’s really wonderful how sleek, modern skyscrapers have been incorporated into the skyline alongside historic, beautiful sandstone structures from Sydney’s earliest days.

We both enjoyed a visit to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where the highlight of our day was holding a baby koala! We also saw kangaroos (some moms with joeys in their pouches, and one adorable albino joey nursing with its mom), sassy pelicans, wombats, fairy penguins, echidnas, a brahminy kite, and dingos, to name a few.

On our third and final day in Sydney, realizing that we were NEVER going to see everything we wanted to see, we took a guided half day panoramic tour and saw and learned so much! Our lovely guide Hayley shared fascinating stories about Sydney’s past and present, and introduced us to some of its historic and colorful characters. We traveled to Circular Quay above Sydney’s picturesque harbor on a peninsula that juts out over the sea. From there we enjoyed great views of many of Sydney’s top attractions. We found historic Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair and Denise took a seat. Formed of exposed sandstone that was hand-carved into a bench by convicts in 1810, it was built for Governor Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth. According to legend, she spent a lot of time sitting on the rocks and gazing out to sea, spotting ships that were sailing from Great Britain (her home) into the harbor. From her timeless chair, you can cast your eye over the skyline, the opera house, the harbor bridge, and the rising mountains in the distance. You can also admire Pinchgut Island and the Navy dockyards at Wooloomooloo (which means place of the baby kangaroos in Aboriginal.) From there we headed to the cliffs of Sydney Heads with its own breathtaking views, and learned that the cliffs often lured people in search of their final few moments of life. It is said that a gentleman living nearby kept watch on the Head, and invited some of these people in for tea, thereby saving many lives by his selfless acts of kindness. From there we traveled to the sweeping white sand of Bondi Beach, where young and old were enjoying a beautiful summer day on the sand, in the water, on the walking paths, and on two, three, and four-wheeled vehicles. We also learned about the often treacherous currents that can be deadly to surfers unfamiliar with the area. To address this issue, Waverley Council employs a corps of elite paid lifeguards to protect beach visitors. The professional lifeguards wear blue uniforms and work 365 days a year. In addition to the professionals, Bondi is also home to a dedicated corps of volunteer lifesavers who wear red and yellow uniforms and assist the lifeguards on the beach on weekends and public holidays during the summer. The volunteer members of the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club and the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club have been saving lives since the early 1900s. Bondi Rescue, an Australian TV program also available on Netflix, follows the daily lives and routines of the lifeguards at Bondi Beach.

Later that day, we took a ferry across the Sydney Harbour to Manly. Sandy, tree-fringed Manly Beach is one of the city’s famed surf spots, and there are broad coastal views on the oceanfront walk to sheltered Shelly Beach. Although signs posted that the beach was closed, we spotted several surfers out there practicing their sport. The Corso on Manly is a buzzing pedestrian strip lined with laid-back pubs and family-friendly eateries, where we sat across from the beach and enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh oysters and fish&chips at the Manly Grill. We also picked up a few mementos of three beautiful days in Sydney before heading back to the Viking Sun.

We can’t say enough good things about our visit to Sydney. The sights, sounds, and the warm hospitality left us wanting to stay a bit longer, but that’s just one more reason to add “return to Sydney” to our bucket lists!

A Taste of Tasmania

Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state, was named after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. Its capital city, Hobart, was founded as a penal colony for hundreds of convicts who were relocated here by the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, residents of Hobart celebrate the many hardships these people endured to give their community a strong start. Our guide expressed a sense of pride and gratitude for the solid foundation these earliest settlers established for what is a charming city today. It touched us that people still recognize and truly appreciate the role these marginalized citizens played in their history. In fact, our guide shared that through years of genealogical research, her son finally discovered their “ancestral convict.” It happens that she was a 12 year old girl who was found guilty of stealing hair ribbons. For this, she was sentenced to 7 years and relocated from her home and family to this strange new land. While her story had a happy ending (she married the son of the people with whom she lived) some of the convicts ended up incarcerated in a penal colony in nearby Port Arthur. Today this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an open air museum chronicling this dark time in history.

We started our day with a map and walking shoes, and ended up logging in over 20,000 steps! The City of Hobart has a remarkable blend of well-preserved architecture ranging from charming neighborhood cottages to imposing Art Deco, Georgian, and Victorian public buildings. And everywhere the people were warm and inviting, offering to provide directions, historical details, and recommendations.

Lots of public parks are tucked in among the buildings, offering plenty of green space and more history. Princes Park with its beautiful fountains sits across from the imposing Treasury Building. We were particularly enchanted by St. David’s Park, where we spent considerable time enjoying the lush grounds and beautiful monuments. Built in 1802 as Tasmania’s first cemetery, it was closed in 1872. In 1926, it was re-opened as a public park, and most of the old headstones were fashioned into rows of walls and terraces.

After all that walking, it was time for a break. We made our way to Salamanca Place for a snack. The historic sandstone buildings, formerly warehouses for the port of Hobart, have been converted into an outdoor collection of trendy boutiques, galleries, public art, and cafes. In the mid 1990s, a public square was added with a centerpiece fountain and playgrounds, making it a popular meeting place for young and old. Here we had our first taste of Australia’s famous Vegemite. A popular sandwich ingredient among Aussies, it is a thick dark brown vegan food spread made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives. Yummy?! We opted for a Vegemite scroll, which we enjoyed, but the tune of the Men at Work song “Down Under,” with its reference to a Vegemite sandwich, kept going through Denise’s head for the rest of the day. The bronze statues of “Paparazzi Dog and Marilyn Rabbit” caught our eye. We learned that they are the work of global public artists Gillie and Marc, whose website states “Through collaboration with both individuals and organizations, we work to create art that makes a difference and affects change. Whether it be for humans, animals or the environment, our art evokes the need for love and protection of all. We call on everyone to join us in this effort to create meaningful change.” We think they’ve succeeded here!

Next stop was St. David’s Cathedral, a place of Anglican worship for over 200 years. Our timing was perfect, as today starts their annual Bloomfest, where every part of the cathedral is decorated with beautiful floral displays. The cathedral’s stained glass windows are truly spectacular.

Later in the day we made our way through the Tasmanian countryside to Cambridge and the Barilla Bay Oyster Farm. Here new methods of growing these tasty mollusks have been developed in the bay’s cold, clean tidal waters. We viewed the oyster beds, and learned about how they’re grown from tiny spats into various sizes of oysters. Our affable guide then demonstrated the fine points of shucking. Also on site is Gillespie’s Ginger Beer factory, which makes traditionally brewed ginger beer using a secret family recipe handed down from three generations. Finally, we got to sample some delicious oysters, and washed them down with the ginger beer…a great combination! Barilla Bay is also home to Candy Abalone, and we learned all about how this delicacy is caught, dried, and packaged.

Tasmania is also home to a vibrant wine industry, so on we went to the family-owned Puddleduck Winery in the Coal River Valley. This boutique family owned and operated vineyard was established in 1997, and produces premium Tasmanian wines from  grapes grown at their single site vineyard. All of their wines are processed within an hour of picking in the energy neutral, organic winery. Guiena fowl are the only method of pest control, and they added to our entertainment as we watched them patrol the vineyard chattering away all the time. Apparently, they’re great at controlling ticks, insects, small snakes, and rodents (useful knowledge for future reference!) We sampled 5 of their delicious wines along with some tasty local cheese, and then had some time to stroll around the beautiful grounds. What a lovely way to end our day in Tasmania!

Fiordland National Park

Sailing around and through New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park on a rainy, cloudy, overcast day is an almost surreal experience. Although we were scheduled to visit three of these astonishing fjords, several days of torrential rains in the Milford Sound area prevented us from seeing that one. Mudslides, road closures, and rising rivers resulted in close to 500 people (195 tourists and 300 staff) being stranded at lodges and on tour boats until they could be safely evacuated by helicopter. The government declared a state of emergency, and the Viking Sun was denied access to Milford Sound.

Nonetheless, our visit to the Dusky Sound was pretty spectacular. Named by Captain Cook when he sailed by at dusk on his first voyage in 1770, this spot holds one of the area’s largest, most intricate fjords, at almost 25 miles long. Because of the recent rain, we saw lots of waterfalls cascading down from the verdant green hills into the dark deep waters. As we sailed through, we were delighted by incredible views of diverse terrain and Resolution Island. Although some of these shots look like black and white, this was the actual color we saw until the sun peaked through the clouds, revealing the tree-covered hills.

By the time we arrived at the Doubtful Sound (also named by Captain Cook who, when he encountered its maze of rocks and cliffs wasn’t sure he would be able to navigate through it) the weather had taken a turn from bad to worse. The resulting waterfalls cascading through crevices and valleys provided the silver lining we needed to get through this visit. The views on both sides of the ship were absolutely breathtaking, and it was well worth braving the elements to experience this astonishing place.