Adventures in Australia and New Zealand

The anniversary cake that Celebrity Solstice gave us on our first formal night
Warning: I'm going to quickly run out of synonyms for "beautiful," "amazing," and "gorgeous" to describe Australia and New Zealand.

My wife and I took off for this grand adventure at the end of October for our 25th wedding anniversary (which is in December, but the timing worked out better to go when we did). 

We departed Edmonton on October 29, and immediately ran into our first travel glitch (and, fortunately, our last). We were booked on a 1:30 p.m. flight to Vancouver. Whenever we checked the flight number on Google, it showed a 2:20 p.m. departure. We didn't think much of it - maybe Air Canada just changed the flight. Which is what happened. But Air Canada forgot to move our reservation over to the new flight and, at that moment at the airport, we had no flight to Vancouver. At all. Bob from Air Canada got us on the 2:20 flight and we were on our way.

Our new credit card has a nice perk that gives us a free stay in the fancy airport lounge, and we had a looong layover in Vancouver (like, about 9 hours long), so we ate the free food, took advantage of the free wifi and enjoyed some down time.




Sunrise from the plane over the Pacific Ocean
After a 15-and-a-half hour flight, at long last, Sydney:

Sydney Opera House
We stayed at the Grace Hotel downtown. It was a nice place - they checked us straight into our room at about 10 a.m. and we immediately went exploring the CBD - Central Business District (or what we would call "downtown"). Lots and lots of great places to shop, little stores, big stores, restaurants, etc. Really, we spent pretty much two full days walking around what I called our five-square-kilometre home base in Sydney, including watching the fireworks at Darling Harbour, and taking in the absolutely breaktaking Royal Botanical Gardens.

Funny story: While waiting for the fireworks at Darling Harbour, we started talking with a British couple and found out they were also on the same cruise as us. Then the conversation went like this:

THEM: "So we'll see you on the boat on Tuesday!"

US: "Um, no, we leave on Monday."

THEM: "No, the ship leaves Tuesday."

US: "Um, no, it's Monday. The Celebrity Solstice leaves Monday. We're sure of this."

THEM: "We better check our tickets! Good thing we ran into you!"

Indeed.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour
The gorgeous Jacaranda trees that are all over Sydney
Wild parrots at Darling Harbour

Wild parrots at Royal Botanic Gardens
Benny, the fur seal that lives in the harbour on the steps down from the Opera House

Sydney Harbour panorama
Fun fact about Australia (and New Zealand): they don't do "coffee." At least, what we call coffee. Straight coffee from a coffee maker is called "filter coffee" down under and it's not terribly popular. They're all about espresso based drinks and there are approximately 150 coffee shops per city block. As a big coffee aficionado (of any variety), this was perfectly fine with me. The one time we got "filter coffee" in Sydney, however, it was TERRIBLE. (I'm looking at you, McDonald's on George Street.) We threw it out and went to a real coffee shop for a flat white.

The biggest surprise in Sydney was that food is ridiculously expensive, at least by Canadian standards. At one point, we paid $30 Australian for a 10-inch pizza at a place in Darling Harbour. And most anywhere we went, even a basic sandwich was $16 or more. Now, the big difference is that there's no tipping in Australia and the GST is included in the price of everything, so the price on the menu at a restaurant is what you pay. But, still... THIRTY DOLLARS for a pizza? It's cheaper to eat in Las Vegas. And because there's no tipping, the service isn't anywhere near what we expect in North America - they don't fill up your water glass repeatedly, they don't come to the table to see how your meal is, etc. It's a food industry, not a food service industry.

After two days of walking around our little section of Sydney, we got on our ship - the Celebrity Solstice - for a 12-day cruise. The ship was very impressive, and we have no real complaints about Celebrity. It was a good cruise line and we were happy with the ship and its amenities.
Celebrity Solstice docked at Sydney Harbour

Sunset behind Sydney Harbour Bridge as we leave port
A plane comes in for landing over Sydney Harbour Bridge
Tasmania

Our first stop was Tasmania, where we went to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and FED KANGAROOS! IT WAS GREAT!




Kangaroo selfie!
Surrounded by hungry kangaroos

Also, KOALAS!



And Tasmanian Devils! They were pretty ugly.


After Tasmania we had two days at sea, where everyone on board had to go through New Zealand customs. We took advantage of the time to enjoy various things on the ship, like a tour of the big kitchen on board where most of the food is prepared, and a lesson on how to cook steaks properly.

We also attended a demonstration by the ship's pastry chef on making flowers out of fondant, and Char volunteered to go on stage and help with the demonstration! It was a really fun experience for her, and the Chef complimented her on her skills.

Watermelon carving

The master list of all meals on ship, including plating instructions

Learning how to cook steak from the Solstice's head chef, Robert Sauer

Char gets on stage to assist the ship's pastry chef with a demonstration. She was great!


The Sounds

Our first stop in New Zealand didn't involve us getting off the boat. We were supposed to tour three sounds (fjords) - Milford, Doubtful and Dusky. But due to really bad weather and rough seas, the captain cancelled the trip into Dusky Sound. Fortunately, the beauty of Milford and Doubtful Sound was such that while we were disappointed, we were still pretty much in awe of what we'd seen in the first two stops. Words can't express the beauty in these sounds. Absolutely amazing.








Dunedin

After several days at sea, we were happy to have our feet on land again. Our tour of Dunedin included a visit to a picturesque train station that had lovely architecture, but the main event was a visit to a privately-run penguin sanctuary that is protecting yellow-eyed penguins.



We were blessed with seeing a penguin actually leave the ocean and toddle up the beach. 


Yellow-eyed Penguin, Otago, New Zealand






The guides brought us through underground bunkers to see the yellow-eyed penguins nesting. We shot photos through spaces in the wood slats.


Walking through the bunker to see yellow-eye penguin nests

Nesting yellow-eyed penguin
There were also blue penguins that lived in little boxes. They were more difficult to photograph even though we could basically walk right up to their habitat boxes because we weren't allowed to use the camera flash.

Blue penguin half visible in its habitat
And there were tons of fur seals in the area as well.
Fur seals

We finished the day in Dunedin with a quick visit to the botanical gardens.

Giant tree. Spot Char in the picture next to the trunk
Akaroa

Our Akaroa excursion was a visit to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch and an "authentic Maori Cultural Experience." I put that in quotation marks only because I honestly couldn't tell you if it was "authentic" or not, but it was fun and included audience participation that included both my wife and I getting up on stage and taking part in particular aspects of the Maori cultural dances.

The female guests take part in a traditional Maori dance

The men do their own dance. Love the tongue.
A Maori haka. The scary faces are part of the dance. And the girl on the left was excellent at them.

We only got to see a couple of parts of the wildlife reserve due to time constraints, which was a little disappointing, but the parts we did see were great. The Kea birds - wild mountain parrots - are fascinating creatures that are apparently as smart as a seven-year-old child and will conspire with their cohorts to basically rob you of your food. Our guide said they've also been known to BREAK INTO CARS to steal food. Basically, don't mess with these birds. But they're really fun to watch and interact with.


Char gets friendly with a Kea
From the Kea enclosure, we got to see some kiwi birds in their own little enclosure. As kiwis are nocturnal animals, they keep it very dark in their enclosure, and getting good pictures was very difficult because you can't use a flash. Good thing Char's iPhone 6 takes great low-light photos and we snagged this one:

Kiwi bird
We also did a quick drive through some of Christchurch, but due to mechanical issues with our bus, we couldn't stop there as long as had been planned. Because of the small issue with our bus, we actually got a quarter of the tour cost refunded to us as a ship-board credit, which was nice (and we didn't ask for it, but they did it for everyone on the tour).

Leaving Akaroa, we encountered heavy, dense fog at sea where you basically couldn't see 10 feet off the boat. So the ship had to blow its fog horn. Every three minutes. All night long.

Yeah.

We didn't sleep much that night.

Wellington

When we first booked this trip and looked at the shore excursions in Wellington, we were going to do the WETA Studios tour because LORD OF THE RINGS! And then when we got around to actually booking the shore excursions a while back, we started to second guess the WETA tour because we were already doing Hobbiton later on in the cruise (more on that down below) and we weren't sure if we wanted to do two LOTR tours on the same trip even though we're big fans of the films.

And there was this intriguing sounding "gourmet walking tour" of Wellington that appealed to my inner foodie. It was an expensive tour - probably the most expensive shore excursion we've done - but we ponied up and took a shot at it.

It. Was. Awesome.

Like, seriously one of the best things we've ever done on a cruise tour.

There were lots of reasons for that. First, it was a small group of just 8 people - four couples, actually. And there were no jerks in the group. Everyone was nice and we all got along. Second, our tour guide, Fabs, was fantastic - a former chef with lots of experience at different things who was passionate about what she was doing, friendly, approachable and a great story teller. And that made for a very enjoyable experience as we went through the day.

Finally, it was a walking tour - while we took a little tour van to the first location, after that we walked several kilometers through downtown Wellington over the course of the late morning and early afternoon.

We went to a little coffee shop and saw coffee get roasted and had a choice of beverage to try. We went to a fresh market where we sampled cheese and chutneys, hit up a yogurt food truck, went to a boutique chocolate place to learn about regional variations in chocolate and sample different kinds, sampled EVERY GELATO in a gelato place and then finished with a gourmet meal at a local restaurant that was probably one of the best meals I've ever had.

Seriously, I can't say enough good things about this tour.

New Zealand's Parliament building - the Beehive

Inside a gorgeous Catholic church in Wellington

Lots of amazing stained glass




Flat white
We tried a variety of cheeses and chutneys made from local ingredients

Got to sample yogurt and berries at this food truck

Learning all about how to make chocolate and how beans from different regions have varying tastes

Learning all about how to make chocolate and how beans from different regions have varying tastes
Gelato: We got to try them all!
This was our special lunch menu. Actual dishes are below. The food was amazing!



Our wonderful food tour group. Fabs, our guide, is on the far right of the photo wearing the blue scarf
After Wellington, we were at sea for another day, during which time the ship hosted its own Top Chef challenge featuring guests from the audience going head to head, and then the winning team then facing each other with a ship's sous chef as assistants. It was good fun.
Top Chef at sea
Tauranga

So the one thing we absolutely, totally HAD TO DO when we were in New Zealand was see Hobbiton.

OH MY GOODNESS! WE SAW HOBBITON! I'M GEEKING OUT HERE!

No, seriously, WE SAW HOBBITON! AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!



On the gate at Bag End

Bag End - the home of Bilbo Baggins. This was very, very cool.

A panorama of Hobbiton area, with the Party Tree from FOTR on the center right

The Fellowship of the Ring's Party Tree

Having some ale at the Green Dragon Inn
Sam's hobbit hole

After Hobbiton, we went back to Tauranga and did a big hike around this mountain. In the rain. We got wet. It was still fun.

We walked around this mountain and back to the ship to end our day in Tauranga


Bay of Islands

The penultimate stop on our cruise was Bay of Islands, which was the port closest to New Zealand's version of a Carribean resort destination with beautiful beaches, sailing and, like everywhere else in NZ, amazing scenery. It was also the day we had the most disappointing tour of the trip, not because the locations were bad but because our tour guide lost control of the time and had us running behind all day. Our first stop was Manginangina Forest, which has a lot of protected Kauri trees. From there we were supposed to go to the glow worm caves but we made several unscheduled stops and didn't actually get to the caves until after we were already supposed to be back at the boat. And then you're not allowed to take pictures in the caves, so sadly, no pictures to share of that.

But, as noted, Bay of Islands is fantastic.

Walking in Manginangina forest

A rock with a hole in it.

Beautiful!
Auckland

Our final stop was Auckland, where we spent basically two days before we flew home, staying at the Rendezvous Hotel in the CBD (which was another very good establishment). Top of our list of things to do was the Sky Tower, which was suitably impressive and provided a lovely view of the city.



Otherwise, we walked, did a little shopping, visited some parks, and watched an anti Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement march/rally/demonstration taking place outside our hotel from the window of our room. And then it was time to head back to the airport for the 13.5 hour flight back to Vancouver. It was very weird because we left Auckland around 8 p.m. on Sunday night and because of the time zone changes and such, arrived home at 9:30 p.m. the same Sunday night. In the meantime, what seemed like approximately three weeks passed in an airplane.

And then we were home. And the great adventure was over.

Food

Even though we did the gourmet walking tour, I wanted to write up a separate section about food on the ship, which was, for the most part, good to great. Dining in the big dining room on the ship is giving yourself permission to try different foods you wouldn't normally eat because if you don't like them, you can send them back and order something else and it doesn't cost you anything. Which is good, because not everything we ate was a hit. Some of the highlights:

Crocodile. Tastes like chicken. I ordered this at dinner when it was on the menu on the ship and it was actually really good. This was something I'd always wanted to try and it was a success.

Crocodile skewer. Tasted like chicken. Very good.
Frogs legs. Less successful. Didn't taste like chicken. Not sure what it tasted like. Looked too much like a frog and that was part of the problem. (The nice, cubed crocodile pieces don't look like a crocodile.) Neither Char nor I liked them so they were sent back.

Frogs legs. Nope. Didn't like.

Duck. I love duck. I never eat duck (except on a cruise) but I love duck. I loved this duck. It was enormous but I ate every bit of it. So good!

Duck. Delicious.

Lobster. My wife was going to order the lobster when it was on the menu as she loves lobster but, like my duck, we never eat it at home. So she savoured this and enjoyed tremendously.

Lobster. Also delicious, I'm told

Final thoughts
In the end, how do you sum up an adventure like this? I've got thousands of more photos that I could post, each with their own story that's gone untold here. I've really still only skimmed the surface of what we did, the people we encountered, the food we ate and the many many (MANY!) kilometres we walked. 

But if I had to put it in a paragraph: 

It was so much fun. It was amazing to be on the other side of the world seeing mountains that don't look anything like our mountains here, seeing creatures like kangaroos and penguins that are cool and exotic to us but commonplace to locals there. New Zealand is gorgeous, beautiful, fabulous, and every other superlative I can think of. And I saw just enough of Australia to know that I want to go back and see a whole lot more of it. And for the most part, the trip went from one "this is the coolest thing I've ever done" experience to another - from the kangaroos, to the penguins, food tour, Hobbiton, and on and on. We were so blessed and we had a great time, and I'm glad I got to do it with my lovely wife for such a special occasion. 

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