Daron, Melanie, Stephen, Kassie, and Kenny

Monday, March 25, 2013

Hobbiton!

Day 12 ~

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Mel's favorite excursion ~ Hobbiton is the most enchanting little village! 40 hobbit holes (each with its own distinct mail box and landscaping), incredible gardens, streams, a lake, a mill and the Green Dragon Inn where we had some non-alcoholic Ginger Beer and sat by the fireplace.  Every attention to detail – from the size of the firewood to the distance of the fruit from the ground, all details straight from Tolkien’s book.  To stand at Bilbo’s Bag End home, and walk down the lane where Gandalf and Frodo rode in their wagon in the opening scene -- exactly as it was in the movie.












 
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Next off to Rotorua – an active volcanic area like Yellowstone, but it is a lived-in Maori village. Active geysers, mud pools, hot pools, and smelled like sulfur. The aboriginals keep it up and perform the haka for tourists. Next we visited an active kiwi farm… a big deal here because Australians are nicknamed kiwis, after the fruits they grow and the nocturnal birds that live here.



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NZ: Lord of the Rings!

Day 10 ~

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We had a fun day touring around Wellington today on a small tourbus with 4 other people.  These pics show some of the COOLEST LOTR scene locations that we got to visit in person – and in some cases, as with Daron becoming Legolas, to even re-enact. 8-)  The stone quarry with me in front of it – and a yellow/blue sign behind me.  Totally unremarkable little spot, but 13 years ago – this was where the massive set of Helms Deep was built. After they shot those scenes, they tore that mostly down, then built Minas Tirith on top of the remains for those scenes. Total time to build and shoot was 1.5 years.  The coolest part was that they used the stone in the quarry as much of the background, but then they built up a set using Styrofoam to look like stone for most of the castles.  Next we stopped at a lovely ordinary park with swings and potties, and this was the site of Isengard, the tall tower of the bad White Wizard Sauruman.  Daron and me walking in the exact same spot with our staffs.  Probably my favorite was the main river in Wellington, where the famous shot of Aragorn is floating down the river face-up after he went over the cliff and the horse comes to save him. It was cool hearing the other details that all the New Zealanders know also, like how long it took to train the horse to kneels down by him, and how Viggo loved the horse so much he bought it after the movie was done.  Next, we went to Rivendell, which is in a regional park. This was cool b/c Daron got to don the Legolas outfit and stand in the exact spot where Orlando Bloom took his promo poster pics.  Again, a lush, green, unremarkable park area, that you’d NEVER know housed these famous scenes. But my favorite part of this was how the production crew had to preserve the fauna/flora by taking tons of pre-pics, then digging up the trees and shrubs they wouldn’t need, clear them out and plant them in a nearby greenhouse, then build the set, brought in fake leaves b/c it was autumn and this area stays green year-round so they needed yellow fake leaves, and also created a new river next to the river that’s already there that they couldn’t use – they brought in chlorinated water and couldn’t dump it into the real river when they were done – just cool things like that.  When filming was done they replanted all the flora so it looked exactly like the original. The pole I’m next to shows the different heights of the main characters, and we learned all the tricks they used to digitally force perspective and create illusions of different heights.

NZ: Dunedin and Akaroa!

Day 8 ~



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Dunedin: Today was our 1st time to touch New Zealand soil, as yesterday we just got to look at the pretty Sounds.  So now we’ve experienced:
             Scotland look-alike scenery, since this city was settled by Scottish Presbyterians who wanted it to look just like Edinburough.
             The most photographed building in NZealand – the train station
             World’s steepest road: Baldwin Street – feels just like San Francisco with lots of steep roads
             A pretty 100-yr-old church… lovely, with an old cemetery behind it with unique-looking above ground crypts
             Agapanthus flowers bigger than our heads. Unreal
             “Give Way” signs instead of “Yield”. Cute
  

Day 9 ~
 
 
 
 
 
The 2 highlights of the day in Akaroa, New Zealand ~
             Watching sheep dogs round up the sheep, then sheep-shearing. This man has been doing this for 38 years, & he’s fit as a fiddle, approaching 60. So different from anything we know!
             Out of this world crazy beautiful botanical gardens.  This pic of me in the hydrangeas that tower over my head doesn’t even show a fraction of what was there – I had tears in my eyes as I walked around this place.  Probably a bit like what the Garden of Eden would’ve looked like.  Akaroa was settled by French, so it was fun to be bussed through La Rue Russard, etc.  The countryside was breathtaking. Tonight we have a comedian juggler.  Last night we heard a solo concert from Australia’s Vocalist of the year – she performed at the Sydney Olympics – unbelievable belting.



New Zealand Sounds

Day 7 ~

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1. Exceptionally rare weather.  We got up at 6:30am so we could get a good front-of-the-boat spot for our trip thru the Sounds of New Zealand Fjordland National Park.  The onboard Naturalist who narrated as we sailed said this day was 1 of probably only 2 good weather days during this season – the rest of the time it’s overcast and rainy, so we were SO LUCKY!
2. The Shock and Awe Buffet.  We chose a very very wrong time to commit to better eating. We came upon the MOST BEAUTIFUL food display today for brunch than either of us have ever seen in our lives.  The pictures won’t do it justice.  It was pure shock and awe meant to break our will and succumb to their out of this world food offerings, which included bananas foster, fondue white and chocolate fruit dipping, and frozen chocolate covered ice-cream balls; that was hardly a beginning of just the sweets… the food included everything you could possibly dream of, housed in breathtaking ice sculptures and life-sized edible gingerbread house toasters.
3. Penguins, sea lions, hundreds of dolphins all at once, and albatross.  All the animals we saw today as we went through the most gorgeous something-you’d-see-in-a-movie scenery… the sea was alive, and we felt humbled to watch all this wildlife around us. Including all the things we couldn’t see under the water that didn’t show their faces or tails.  Daron wants me to add here that his favorite thing he saw was a Balrog. He just wants to see if anyone’s reading this.
4.  Kangaroo horror story.  As we all stood on deck admiring the beautiful sounds, we met sweet Kris (and her hubby Doug who was just diagnosed with liver cancer, so they planned this last fling trip – their story brought tears to my eyes) who told us about how their 4 acres back home in Australia are overrun by rabbits and kangaroos who eat her garden foods.  One day she went out to pick some carob from her tree and she heard a grunt behind her, and next thing she knew, an adult female kangaroo AS TALL AS HER, with her joey in her pouch, jumped on her back and attacked her. She got it off and ran as fast as she could (this happened 2 years ago, when she was 70) and she tripped, then tried to get up quickly, when the kangaroo reared up on her tail and with her raptor-like middle toe claw, scraped her entire back leg from thigh to foot. She barely got away to her house when her hubby saw the commotion, opened the door for her, and the kangaroo left. Unreal.
5.  Kuthrapali.  We have onboard a Big Bang Theory Kuthrapali-lookalike and his Indian bride.  We have taken to calling him Kuthrapoopi, after our last excursion which we were all on together.  After taking our seats on the bus and starting the tour with the other 25 guests, we made our first stop, then everyone got back on the bus IN THEIR SAME SEATS – duh – except for Kuthrapoopi and his bride. They had weaseled their little booties into our seats.  Everyone’s looking at them, and when we get on the bus and see them in our seats, we just looked at them and Daron said – I believe these were our seats – and Kuth and his huzzy just looked at us – then Daron said – well, where were you sitting? So we can sit there since you’re sitting where we were, and we need to sit in your seats now – so he said – ‘oh we were in de back and you kahnt hear anyting back dere, so dat’s why we’re here now.’ Wow. I said – oh let me grab my things then (I’d left my waterbottle in the pouch on the seat) and huzzy just watched me.  At the next stop, a nice older man came up to us and said, I can’t believe they didn’t give you your seats back. That wasn’t fair – you should get those back.  We were so wronged.  Now when we see Kuth onboard we give them a friendly glare… 8-)
6.  The One year mark. I say with sadness that today, March 10th, is exactly one year to the day that our family permanently returned from Switzerland.  Steebie and Kas had already come home with Aunt Kas and Uncle Sterl on the 4th, but today Daron and I arrived with little Kenny-Boo, and our European adventure officially came to a close.  Today brought tears as we reminisced on this – it will always be such a wonderful time in our lives, and we’re so glad we got to share it with all of you who got to visit… and those of you who didn’t, via email , skype and phone. 8-)



 

Australia: Melbourne and the ship

Day 3 ~






1st day at sea – a wonderful breakfast – it’s actually been great food all day everyday.  That’s the most important part, right?? 8-)  First day to sleep in – then we just explored the ship.  LOVE LOVE LOVE the feel of the ship and the people here – cute widowed black bling-from-head-to-toe lady Molly chatted with us for awhile about how great it is to see people enjoying their older age, and how great it is that we’re here as a younger couple b/c people usually grow old and don’t get to do the fun stuff b/c they’re not able to. Good reminder to live everyday to the fullest.  The captain made his morning announcements, then said – “thought for the day: We all have photographic memories.  But some of us just don’t have the film.”  Hilarious!  One entire upper deck has grass growing – right next to a Venetian-style glass-making class.  We realized why the ship feels so much more empty – this cruise has only 2800 people compared to the 4000 of our usual ships.  We enjoyed the Skylounge – a big room at the front of the boat – we saw dolphins and a whale as we sat on our comfy chairs and read for hours.  After lunch, we did a couple miles around the track with all the other cute walkers – everyone walks!  Formal night dinner and a show…

Day 4 ~



Melbourne : hopped on a tourbus that took us all around town to look at everything.  Pics are from a nice botanical garden and Australia’s version of all our war memorials rolled into one single shrine, honoring all the Aussie’s and New Zealanders who’ve died in all their wars.  Daron told me I’m NMI at dinner tonight – so rude – just because I took the first bite of his chocolate NY cheesecake before I tasted my own dessert, but his looked better so it’s not my fault. He says I’m Nautically Mannered Ignorant which is totally not true.  He is. Mostly because when I say I can not eat another thing, he walks STRAIGHT back into the buffet and gets another ice cream and pizza, and what am I supposed to do? Just sit there and not eat too? He’s the one with NMI.  We’re in the Indian Ocean now, heading toward the lovely Sounds of SW New Zealand – will arrive in 2 days. We sat in the hottub today with 2 colorful characters – an aeronautical engineer from Boston who designs guidance systems for submarine-deployed missiles, and an RV repairman from California who hates his welfare-dependent neighbor… it was very entertaining.   Tonight we enjoyed a performance from Australia’s 7-time Outstanding Instrumentalist of  the Year Winner – Bernard Walz . A pianist who’s fingers were practically on fire – unbelievable.


Day 5-6  ~



 

This morning we were awakened by the Captain doing his regular morning announcement at 10am, although it was only 9am to us because we had to move our clocks ahead an hour last night.  Have to do the same again tonight.   All of these time changes are great except for the fact that we have now been cheated out of 2 hours of our cruise – that is not fair!  They didn’t say anything about losing 2 hours when we booked the cruise.  After pulling our exhausted bodies out of bed, we meandered up to the exercise room where we watched the pretty mountains of Tasmania float by while we walked and talked for a good hour.  We then got cleaned up and catapulted ourselves to the 14th floor (hereafter referred to as “food heaven”) and enjoyed a marvelous variety of food for lunch.  The food is really quite stellar on this cruise and makes us want to cry tears of joy…real tears, and real crying.  Thus far, Mel claims that the custom made eggs benedict (poured over Canadian bacon and English muffin) is her favorite solid food, while the mint chocolate chip ice cream is her favorite semi-solid food.  The ice cream assortment of about 10 flavors changes every day, so there is always a lot of work waiting for us every day as we have to sort through all of the new flavors and re-classify our favorites.  I do not have an overall favorite – although I do enjoy the startling variety of foods – today I had some food from the Indian bar, salad bar, soup bar, custom pizza/pasta bar, BBQ bar, stir fry bar, fruit bar, bread bar, and of course the desert bar.  They also have a theme for a special bar every day.  Yesterday it was Australian food, and today it was Greek food.  After lunch we were treated to another gift from the ocean (we got to see some giant jelly fish yesterday) as we saw two large families of dolphins swim past the ship.  The second group had about 15 dolphins and was incredible to see them all playing in the water. 

Australia Day 2 - Blue Mountains!

 
Daron wearing a python around his neck. 

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Feeding a live koala! So amazing – koalas were originally hunted almost to extinction because their fur is the warmest, strongest, softest and most water-proof of all Australian animals.

 
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Today was so much fun!  We had an AWESOME tour guide David who’s been at it for 20 years giving tours all over Australia, so he was funny and had amazing stories! Taught us about blokes and sheilas, and how to speak Aussie in general – you just talk lazily and abbreviate your words – g’day mate!   96% of roads in Australia are unpaved, but the paved roads carry 96% of the people. Crazy!  David once went fishing/camping with a mate for 3 days and only saw 1 car pass them on the road in that time. Australian govt paved the 2nd main road out of Sydney in 1942 after it became likely that the Japs would attack Sydney and they’d need a way to evac the people. We passed a county records building that recorded births, marriages, and deaths, or the ‘hatch, match, and dispatch’
house. Funny. Our tour into Bush Country to see The Blue Mountains was amazing – they aren’t really blue, just the vapors which rise from the eucalyptus trees covering the mnts give the blue look – depending on the time of day and sunlight angles, etc.   First stop was this cool Animal Preserve – “Featherdale Wildlife Park - where we saw, fed, and played with kangaroos, koalas, tazmanian devils, pythons, and wombats! Roos can grow up to 6ft and can disembowel you with their sharp middle claw like a raptor.  Cute baby joeys in the pouches, and Daron became a snake whisperer and wore it around his neck. I about died, and was proud of him at the same time.  Next stop a lovely Botanical Garden with all kinds of unique flora and fauna – you can imagine I was in heaven and bought 2 seed packets to bring some Australian love to my Texan garden!  Rather fast circle of life for Australian greenery b/c the growing season is so long – 3 months after a forest fire, there’s already new growth, and a few years after, you can hardly tell there was a fire. Cool. Aboriginal info was fun to learn – they had no written history at all – just songs and stories passed down. So when they wanted to tell how far a journey would be, they’d say it was just really really long… and they repeat names for things to designate many or alot, like Woola Woola or Cooge Cooge.  So David said although Booggee Booggee means ‘deep water’, he didn’t know which Booggee meant deep, and which meant water. Funny.  We off-roaded then hiked up to Anvil Rock and looked all around – got the crotch pain when I peeked over the edge b/c it was so high – like a green version of the Grand Canyon.  David played a Derigidoo for us – a long narrow eucalyptus tree branch hollowed out by termites that aboriginals play for music.  Since I had already played the Swiss alpenhorn in Geneva I went ahead and passed on this one, especially since every other bloke and sheila put their saliva-filled lips on it.  Daron and I are standing in front of the “Three Sisters”, which in aboriginal folklore, were 3 beautiful sisters turned to stone by a witch doctor to save them from an evil spirit who they accidentally awakened when they rolled a boulder down into the huge canyon. I say the story is malarkey, but you can see the breathtaking vista behind us, which is part of the Blue Mountains.
As our ship finally pulled out of the harbor tonight, we had first class dinner seats by the window, watching the Sydney Opera House as we floated by it. If I may humbly say, this is a pretty dreamy cruise.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Australia and New Zealand ~ 2 week heavenly cruise!

Day 1!








 
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The greatest trip EVER! 19 hours of total flight time (4.5 to San Fran, then 14.5 to Sydney) and I didn’t sleep a wink. But Daron did off and on, and I almost finished 1 of Kassie’s kindle books, and I enjoyed looking out at the HUGE ocean we crossed! There was one crying baby on the plane, which made us both miss our kids, as well as be thankful they were in a happier place than being cramped on a plane for so long! But no complaints here… there was nothing like flying over the Sydney Operahouse and famous bridge and seeing all the pretty blue water as we landed. So we dropped off our luggage to the boat at 9AM and then went to play on the Hop On/Hop Off red 2-decker tourbus (just like we did in London and Scotland).   Lots of joggers. Perfect sunny weather – we actually both got sunburned from sitting on top of the tourbus! Also one of the prettiest beaches we’ve ever seen – right up there with Megan’s Bay in St. Thomas – unreal blue water, white sand, gorgeous. It reminded us of the beautiful bay at Monte Carlo, in Monaco.  Australia is just beautiful. Lots of foliage and greenery and uniquely architecture buildings. Then we ended up back at the boat checking in at 4PM.  Very beautiful ship– totally different feeling from Carnival – fancy everything. Glass walls/windows – fancy shooty-uppy water fountains in the pool area – many older couples, only 2 little kids so far. The formal dining is self-seating at anytime, so that’ll be easier and fun. Buffet is nice – one big level 14, with lots of little stations of different kinds of food. We ate right at 4 when we boarded, then headed back at 6 for round 2. Totally gluttonous.