My Favorite Things (Part 2)

And now, the second and final installment of my “best of” series. While the previous entry focuses on cultural sights and experiences, these categories mainly present our favorite encounters with the natural world.

Best mode of transit by air:
Helicopter in Réunion

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Our first helicopter flight, over Réunion Island, gave us glorious views of waterfalls and endless, lush greenery. It certainly beats the average commercial airline…

Honorable mentions:

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At the risk of sounding like an advertiser, AirSWIFT in the Philippines is no average airline! The small but comfortable planes offer great views. Plus, a welcoming committee (with snacks) is on hand to greet passengers at the tiny thatched-roof airport.
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A hot air balloon flight at dawn is a beautiful way to see the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s Temple in Luxor, Egypt.

Best mode of transit by land:
Electric bike in China

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I have to admit, I don’t always love the travel part of overland journeys. Long trips by bus, tuktuk, songthaew or shuttle van can leave me rattled and a little queasy. Enter the motorbike… Sweet, sweet, fresh air! And the electric version that we took around Dali in China was quiet as a whisper and gave a super smooth ride.

Honorable mentions:

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Train travel in Sri Lanka was a welcome change from the train experiences we had in several larger and more chaotic countries. Clean stations, cheap tickets, extraordinary views of the countryside, and best of all, you’re never more than a few hours from your destination!
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We couldn’t pass up the romance of a camel caravan through the desert in Jaisalmer, India. The context of this experience would probably give it the overall win in this category, except that, after a while, riding a camel really hurts!

Best mode of transit by sea:
Slow boat to Bagan in Myanmar

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The slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan might not offer hair-raising thrills, but I really enjoyed a full day (from pre-dawn to nighttime) with nothing at all to do but watch life along the riverbanks.

Honorable mentions:

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On the very first full day of our trip, we took turns steering a felucca down the Nile in Aswan, Egypt. Starting our adventures off with pizzazz!
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An afternoon aboard a Yapese sailing canoe gave us some insight into yet another style of sailing. This type of vessel is still being used for voyages to neighboring islands!

Best day hiking:
Sri Lanka

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From the famed Adam’s Peak climb to the trails around the hill town of Ella, there are so many rewarding short hikes in Sri Lanka. No guides needed. No expensive permits or overnight stays in mountain huts required. Superb vistas.

Honorable mentions:

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In a country like China, famed for its megacities and rapid industrialization, it’s heartening to find so many opportunities to enjoy nature. The variety of mountain hikes (in nearly every province we visited) was particularly notable.
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Hiking is the biggest draw to Réunion Island. We found many day hikes to tackle, but if we are ever fortunate enough to return, we would love to challenge ourselves with a longer trek.

Best mountain hike:
Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia

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The bottom three quarters of Mt. Kinabalu is simply the most unique and engaging mountain terrain I’ve ever encountered. With points of interest like orchids and pitcher plants to punctuate the trek, the experience is never dull. The final push to the summit was brutal (winds whippings across bare rock in the pre-dawn). But the whole package, including views from top, makes this my favorite mountain hike during our travels.

Honorable mention:

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Making local friends, staying in mountain huts, stopping at atmospheric stone temples, and emerging at the summit to find a break in the clouds – all highlights of our Emei Shan trek in China.
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Hiking Japan’s Mt. Fuji is a pilgrimage, just you and a thousand like-minded crazies. That sense of community and shared commitment to a goal is part of the fun. But, as an oft-repeated Japanese proverb reportedly says, “A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once is his life; a fool climbs it twice.”

Best adventure sport:
Black water rafting in New Zealand

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Thick wetsuits didn’t stop the cold, cold underground water from chilling me to the bone on our cave tubing adventure in New Zealand. But rappelling down the entrance shaft, ziplining in darkness, free climbing waterfalls, and floating underneath a “starry” sky of glowworms? Unquestionably worth it.

Honorable mentions:

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Sea kayaking around Palau’s Rock Islands felt like less of an “adventure sport” and more of a plain old adventure. It might not win this category, but it remains, overall, one of the highlights of our trip.
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Shark cage diving with great whites off the southern coast of Australia was a memorable experience. I loved meeting this predator with a fearsome reputation face to face.

Best waterfall:
Kuang Si Falls in Laos

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The blue pools of Kuang Si Falls in Laos are idyllic. The main cascade is over 200 ft. tall, but it is the whole site (complete with trails, swimming holes, and a sun bear sanctuary) that makes visiting the waterfalls such an enjoyable day trip.

Honorable mentions:

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The Tamarind Falls in Mauritius boast seven cascades, but again, it is the inviting swimming holes at the base of these falls that distinguish them as part of the highlight reel.
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The countless waterfalls in China’s Jiuzhai Valley make stunning backdrops to a day’s hike.

Best snorkeling:
The Philippines

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How could any snorkeling experience top the chance to swim alongside the world’s largest fish? During the right season, the village of Donsol in the Philippines gives visitors a chance to see the magnificent whale shark in shallow waters just offshore.

Honorable mention:

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It’s a rare site that allows snorkelers to swim out to see fish, rays and healthy corals only yards away from a white sand beach like we did in Coral Bay, Australia.
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The snorkeling sites around Palau deserve a mention. We found colorful juvenile fish in sheltered coves, soft corals, and fun rock formations to explore during our kayak excursion.

Best scuba diving:
Palau

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Sharks galore! Also, sea turtles, giant clams, cuttlefish, octopuses, pygmy seahorses, leaf scorpionfish, rays, moray eels and the fulfillment of my dream to see a mandarinfish underwater. Palau delivered.

Honorable mentions:

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Up-close encounters with manta rays were just a subset of the many highlights of diving around the Similan Islands of Thailand.
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Indonesia’s Komodo National Park deserves acclaim for its vibrant underwater realm to rival that of its famed dragons.

Best wildlife:
Australia

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Oh, Australia! The best thing about the wildlife in this country is that it’s not confined to tiny reserves. Kangaroos still own the vast outback. You might encounter an odd little echidna digging for ants by the side of the road. And quiet, patient vigilance on the banks of a pool or stream might reward you with a platypus sighting! Australia’s fauna is weird, wonderful and still relatively abundant.

Honorable mentions:

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Sri Lanka’s green spaces play sanctuary to Asian leopards, Asian elephants, mongooses, sloth bears and many other stars of the animal world.
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Madagascar’s resident lemurs range from agile sifakas to diminutive mouse lemurs. Fossas, chameleons, and many other interesting species round out the island’s remarkable, diverse wildlife.

Best flora:
Baobabs in Madagascar

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The Avenue of Baobabs in Madagascar provides an alluring setting for a sunset. Six different species of the unusual tree are native to the country.

Honorable mentions:

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With a rotting odor that attracts flies, the rafflesia may not be the most conventionally attractive flower. But, Thailand’s Rafflesia kerrii vies with a species in Borneo for the wor’d’s largest flower.
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Carnivorous pitcher plants use enzymes or bacterial action to digest their prey, which can include insects, frogs, or small rodents depending on the size of the plant! We enjoyed gawking at them with morbid curiosity while hiking in Malaysian Borneo.

A big thank you to everyone who has followed along with our adventures! We have appreciated your encouragement and support. See you out there in the world!

My Favorite Things (Part 1)

Now that we have a few months of perspective-generating distance from our travel marathon, I thought I’d make an attempt at a recap. In our reunions with friends and family, we’ve found that most people want to hear about our favorites — asking us to make those impossibly agonizing calls about our favorite country or favorite overall experience. That’s tough; my answers to those questions vary by the day! Some places offer savory foods, some have beautiful wildlife or scenic hiking, and others are memorable for their cosmopolitan cities or welcoming people. I can’t choose just one highlight from these 15 months, but since you asked… here are 22 categories of highlights from the 22 countries we visited.

Best world wonder:
The Giza pyramids in Egypt

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Standing since 2560 BC, the Great Pyramid is the oldest and only extant of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That kind of a resume wows me and earns my top honors.

Honorable mentions:

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Shah Jahan’s monument to Mumtaz is, in my opinion, the world’s most beautiful edifice, deserving its spot as a modern wonder.
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Hiking the Great Wall near Jinshanling gave us an appreciation for the setting and scale of this wonder.

Best cultural site that really could be a world wonder:
Angkor Wat in Cambodia

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More than 500 years older than the Taj Mahal and nearly ten times as vast, the Angkor Wat temple complex is worthy of serious exploration.

Honorable mentions:

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Borobudur in Indonesia can claim the title of world’s largest Buddhist temple.

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Rudyard Kipling describes Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda as “a golden mystery […], a beautiful winking wonder.”
Best cultural performance:
Women’s dance in Yap

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One part family picnic, one part backstage prep, the rehearsal of women’s dance that we saw in Yap radiated emotion and community connectedness.

Honorable mentions:

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Sufi whirling, known as tanoura in Egypt, is a joyous form of meditation or act of worship.
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Lightning-fast “face-changing” at the Sichuanese opera was one of the most impressive performances we witnessed.

Best local celebration:
Diwali in Mauritius

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Celebrating the Hindu festival of lights in Mauritius gave us the chance to join in the festivities. Kind locals offered us delicious treats, while we checked out their colorful light displays.

Honorable mentions:

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Gion Matsuri, a festival in Kyoto, is a wonderful excuse for parades, performances, street food, and fancy dress.
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Chiang Mai’s Flower Festival includes a fair ground with judged flower displays and an epic parade of flower-decked floats.

Best sporting event:
Taekwondo in South Korea

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I was thrilled to see a skilled demonstration of my former sport in advance of the World Taekwondo Hanmadang at Kukkiwon in Seoul.

Honorable mentions:

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We couldn’t tear ourselves away from the informal archery competition we happened upon in Bhutan.
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Sumo wrestling in Japan is a spectacle to behold. It was fun trying to predict the winner of each match-up (sheer size did not always ensure victory).

Best arts and crafts class:
Batik making in Indonesia

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In Yogyakarta, we learned about the wax-resist and dye process used to create beautiful batik fabrics.

Honorable mentions:

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We spent an enjoyable afternoon in Siem Reap learning to make bamboo flutes.
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In Seoul’s artist villages, you can try your hand at craft techniques like gilding.

Best cooking class:
Shashi’s Cooking School in India

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Oh how I loved the food we made under Shashi’s expert tutelage! It ranks as one of our favorite meals on the whole trip, and the private class made for a great learning experience.

Honorable mentions:

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Cooking Thai food at Asia Scenic was no lackluster affair! We prepared our own curry pastes and picked some of the ingredients from the on-site garden.
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Learning to make chicken adobo was a fun part of the class we took in El Nido to learn more about the culture of the Philippines.

Best cuisine:
Northern specialties in Thailand

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No photo does justice to the spicy and delicious thai food at the Nest 2 restaurant on the outskirts of Chiang Dao. Overall, Northern Thailand offered us the most consistently tasty (and affordable!) cuisine of our travels.

Honorable mentions:

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I’ve never had Chinese food in the US as yummy as the fresh Sichuan meals we enjoyed in southwestern China.
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Japan is a culinary marvel if you can afford it. We splurged on a meal of Kobe beef that was worth every yen.

Best hospitality:
Bhutan

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We loved our time in Bhutan, and the people we met there were a big part of that take-away. Seeing our friend, Utsha, in her home country made the visit especially memorable.

Honorable mentions:

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From park rangers to skilled artisans, the people of Madagascar are full of knowledge and, fortunately, willing to share with visitors!
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Throughout Indonesia, we found friendly people and easy conversation, especially with the owners of our guesthouse in Bali.

Best modern culture:
Japan

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In a world that changes at a dizzying pace, Japan remains so profoundly itself. Traditionally-dressed sumo wrestlers blend with commuters on the train, and life proceeds as a colorful fusion of old and new.

Honorable mentions:

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Beautiful Thailand showcases its traditions with countless festivals throughout the year, including the ones we caught in Bangkok.
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In downtown Seoul, you can see an imperial palace on one side of the street and modern skyscrapers on the other.

Best multi-cultural city:
Singapore

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Incorporating Chinese, Malay, and Indian heritage and attracting expats from all over the world, Singapore is a vibrant and thriving city-state with the world’s third highest income per capita.

Honorable mentions:

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Hong Kong impresses with its New York-style grittiness and glamor and a multi-ethnic community of locals.
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Australia’s Sydney is a global financial hub and boasts a high quality of living. Over a third of the city’s inhabitants are foreign-born.

(US)A to (N)Z… and Back Again

We had long anticipated our visit to New Zealand as the grand finale of our backpacking journey (though we never ruled out the idea of stopping by some islands in the South Pacific on the way home…), and we planned to leave ourselves several weeks for a proper visit. So, when circumstances changed and we made the call to head home a little early, we had to improvise. The challenge: could we see anything meaningful of New Zealand in just three days?

With our flight into Auckland already settled, we decided to look at this long layover as a preview rather than a main feature and focus on places no more than a couple hours’ drive from the capital. Our first stop was the pastoral site of Hobbiton, the well-preserved (and very popular) movie set constructed for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. We were a bit surprised to discover the set’s location — right in the middle of an active sheep farm — but it’s clear to see why the setting works so magically for the films. The picturesque rolling hills capture the mood of the Shire and of New Zealand perfectly, and the attention to detail shown in all the property’s buildings, props, gardens, and landscapes is exceptional.

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We expected a rural locale and rustic ambiance at Hobbiton, but we didn’t expect to find an operating sheep farm complete with stampeding sheep!
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Visiting hobbitses is always a good time, but sometimes Bilbo just wants his privacy.
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Visitors are able to peek inside some of the hobbit houses, though most of the carefully crafted props and textures are on the exterior.
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Many of the original, temporary structures from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy were deconstructed after filming. For filming of The Hobbit movies, more permanent ones were built.
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This exceptional “party tree” was one of the reasons that Peter Jackson selected this site for filming. Today, children play on seesaws beneath the tree.
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Visitors can have a “Second Breakfast” at the café, or a pint of ale at the beautifully crafted Green Dragon Inn, seen here.

Having explored the kitschy tourist angle (and not regretting it in the slightest), we hoped to take in something a bit more substantial for our next stop. In the town of Rotorua, southeast of Auckland, people of Māori ancestry make up a full third of the population, a much greater percentage than the national average. Though this indigenous culture was oppressed and brutalized by British colonizers for much of the 19th century (stop me if you’ve heard this one before…), interest in Māori culture and traditional practices has experienced a vigorous resurgence in recent decades.

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By the mid-20th century, Māori language and culture were on the verge of being forgotten and replaced by their western counterparts. Today, many Māori strive to keep the old traditions alive, putting on regular shows for tourists.
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The Māori historically had a reputation for being fierce warriors, and would intimidate their enemies with contorted faces.
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The women can be every bit as intense as the men.
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As with many Polynesian cultures, the Māori were masters of the sea. New Zealand is so remote that it is hard to fathom the long ocean voyage of the original inhabitants.

But the flourishing Māori communities are only half the draw to Rotorua. In fact, the town can be a bit off-putting at first, because of the ever-present smell of sulfur wafting thickly through the air. The area is a hotbed of geothermal activity, with gushing geysers and steaming, technicolor pools fed by hot springs. It’s thrilling to be able to see these features from such close range, but take care not to get scalded!

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Steam billows from a geothermal vent at Whakarewarewa.
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The Prince of Wales Feather geyser erupts high into the sky.
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Ellen enjoys a hangi pie. This delicious savory pastry was cooked in the traditional way, using steam from the geothermal vents.
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Local children enjoy swimming in the mud-rich waters near the vents.
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A nice circuit trail near Whakarewarewa allows for up-close views of the geothermal pools.

For a dose of adrenaline, why not try rafting? Not just regular run of the mill whitewater rafting, but the more mysterious variety known as “blackwater” rafting. That is to say, underground, in streams of water rushing through subterranean caves. With constellations of glowworms strewn across all the rock faces.

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This top-down view shows the small, vertical entrance that can be used to abseil down into the cave.
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Don’t let this long-exposure photograph fool you; when the headlamps are off, the caves are completely dark except for the light of the glowworms above.
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Our group stops in an area of the cave known for its resident freshwater eel (named Cecil). We later caught a quick glimpse of him.
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Ellen maneuvers through the appropriately-named “lemon squeezer.” It’s extremely narrow at its tightest point.
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After free-climbing up two different waterfalls inside the cave, we’ve made it back to daylight!

With a flight to catch, we headed back to Auckland and tried to make the most of the little time we had left. During our visit, we still caught the city decked out in full Christmas decor. We explored the waterfront and ate some delicious farewell meals, and paid a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum just hours before our departure, learning more about how the nation’s history and native culture are related with those of greater Polynesia.

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An intricate LEGO Christmas display outside of the Auckland Town Hall building.
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Giant Santa with a couple of his reindeer.
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One final rainbow to mark the end of our travels.
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The Auckland city skyline as seen from the waterfront.
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Displays of Māori artifacts at the museum.
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The Hotunui Preservation Project aims to conserve an ancestral meeting house through a collaboration between conservation staff, expert weavers, and community leaders.

Our preview of New Zealand certainly left us wanting to see more. The whole South Island is still beckoning us, and now we have a much more tangible sense of what we’re missing. We will be back! (Yes, we’re building quite the list of hope-to-get-back-there-someday destinations, but plans for our return to New Zealand are already in the works.)

But… for now, we’re officially back in the States. After 15 months of travel, which sometimes seemed interminable and at other times felt as it though it was racing by, we now find ourselves stepping away from our nomadic lifestyle. We’ll try to collect our thoughts for a wrap-up post in the near future. Thanks to friends and family for your support and encouragement of what has been a dream adventure.

Devils’ Kitchen

Tasmania is home to some of the world’s cleanest air. You feel, on arrival from the mainland, that it has the familiar Aussie vibe and is also a world unto itself. Knowing that this was the last hurrah of our Australian adventures, we set out to track down a few more odd and awesome creatures and to savor the experience to the fullest.

Visiting during the peak summer growing season certainly made the latter goal easier. You’ve got fresh fruits and veggies everywhere, and lots of venues offer tastings. And I must admit to being a certified sucker for factory tours as well as pick-your-own opportunities and really anything that feels like a glimpse behind the scenes. Tasmanians seem to understand this. In the northern region, around the Tamar Valley, the concentration of farms and dairies and orchards and vineyards is so dense that the whole route has been dubbed a “tourist trail” and you can find thick pamphlets comparing the relative merits of these establishments. We took full advantage, coming away with enough treats to turn our humble camper van meals into multi-course feasts.

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Goat cheese? Figs? Beets? Be still, my heart!
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Blooming fields at the Bridestowe Lavender Estate.
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We ended up eating quite a lot of those cherries over ice cream, possibly negating the healthiness….
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Vineyard dogs are a thing. There are calendars. Look it up!
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It’s difficult for me to look at this picture, knowing that these delicious, hand crafted chocolates are now so many miles away.

Cute towns in the foodie region vie for attention with various eye-catching superlatives. One town has made itself into a topiary wonderland, transforming hedges into sharks and emus for the novelty and the inevitable cheesy photo ops. Another community has commissioned murals with scenes of local interest on many of the buildings. Of course, there are also some genuine historic draws in Tasmania, including St. John’s, the oldest Catholic church in Australia, built in 1836.

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A lovely setting for an intimate little church.
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The Richmond bridge, dating to 1823, faces St. John’s and is Australia’s oldest functioning bridge.
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Kevin cozies up to a pair of what I’m going to say are bird topiaries.
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Those teeth are intimidating!
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Animals of Tasmania embellish a building in Sheffield.

But, the most important historic site in Tasmania is found in Port Arthur. Part of a World Heritage Site including 11 penitentiaries around Australia, the penal station at Port Arthur helps to tell the story of the country’s colonial period. Beginning in the late 1700s, Australia became a convenient answer to England’s musings on what to do with its sizable convict population. Penal colonies such as Port Arthur existed to punish those criminals who were unfit to serve as indentured laborers on cattle ranches or farms throughout Australia. Through Port Arthur’s informative exhibition center and guided tours of the site, visitors come to understand some of the harsh realties of life as a prisoner there. Each visitor is given an identity card upon arrival, which highlights the life of one real prisoner, with detailed information on the man’s background, criminal offense, and incarceration available in the exhibition galleries. For example, my prisoner card led me to the story of Charles Tossante Brown, an educated man who was ultimately sentenced to hard labor in a chain gang for the crime of stealing nine shillings. He died at Port Arthur in 1841.

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Many prisoners like Charles Tossante Brown were sent to Australia for petty crimes, like theft.
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It looks so scenic, but you wouldn’t want to be imprisoned at Port Arthur. Convicts sent to Australia would have little chance of returning home and seeing their families again.
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Kevin’s glad to be here to visit and not to stay.
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The prison buildings were constructed by the convicts, who were later used primarily to secure timber.

While the history of civilization on Tasmania is fascinating, though often grim, it’s the wild country that makes the island so unique and mesmerizing. I know that I’ve already gushed about Australian animal sightings on the mainland, but in Tasmania, it’s the density of wildlife that’s so impressive. And after nearly nine weeks on the mainland, we still enjoyed some unique finds — from wombats and spotted-tail quolls to the endemic pademelons and Tasmanian devils. Also, don’t get me started on the monotremes! Our few hard-won sightings of platypuses and echidnas on the mainland soon seemed quaint after a couple of weeks in Tasmania. On one hike, we actually saw three (three!) echidnas casually going about their business searching for ants. We stood very still, and one of the spiny little (nearsighted) oddballs crossed the path just inches from my feet.

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The spotted-tail quoll is a carnivorous marsupial in the same family as Tassie devils.
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We believe this to be a fleeing Tasmanian devil at Mt. William National Park.
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While staying at a private nature reserve, we had the chance to see these charming creatures (with fearsome reputations) at much closer range.
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At Cradle Mountain, we were treated to the sight of a pademelon joey feasting on grass from the safety of its mother’s pouch.
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The sleek black currawong is endemic to Tasmania and the Bass Islands.
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Just try not to be affected by the cuteness of this wombat!

And the scenery playing home to all of these interesting creatures? It’s spectacular. From the Freycinet Peninsula to the Bay of Fires to Cradle Mountain, Tasmania easily ranks as one of our most beautiful travel destinations in 15 months full of superlatives.

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I’m always wowed by rainbows.
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A pretty cove for watching the sunset.
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This stunning view over Wineglass Bay is accessed via a steep and slippery climb up Mt. Amos.
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A sandy beach near St. Helens.
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Checking out the iconic view of Cradle Mountain.
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The trail from Cradle Mt. to Ronny Creek yields more beautiful overlooks.
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We give Tasmania five gold stars!

With family circumstances calling us home and our big endeavor drawing to a close, the time we spent in Tasmania felt precious and meaningful. It’s the kind of place where you can hit pause for a while and still come away with rich new observations. And, with only a brief stopover in New Zealand as our final port of call, Tasmania gave us a chance to process the transition we would soon be making. It wasn’t a bad way to celebrate a birthday, either!

Migrating South

Our experiences on the south coast of Australia were so epic and diverse that it seems almost a crime to shoehorn them into one massive post… but I’m still going to try. I had long been eying this region as the Holy Grail of our already highlight-strewn quest to discover Australia. And, truly — not to shortchange any of our other destinations in this sizable country — but if I had to recommend just one pocket of Australia to wildlife lovers in particular, I think it would have to be the great stretch of coast between Port Lincoln and Wilson’s Promontory. More than 1,100 miles of rugged seascapes studded with national parks and nature reserves, it may not be the outback, but it has plenty of terrain to house the wild things (and what varied wild things they are!).

Let’s start with the most fearsome of the bunch, by reputation, at least. Around the Neptune Islands, just offshore from Port Lincoln, great white sharks patrol the waters in search of fur seals and other prey. We decided to join an expedition to observe these impressive beasts from the relative safety of a shark cage. Often depicted as ferocious man-eaters, great whites are indeed responsible for most of the shark bite incidents on humans, but, fortunately, the vast majority of shark bites do not prove fatal. And a preplanned encounter with these awesome predators need not be a terrifying event. Incredibly curious, great whites move in the water with speed and grace and a much more assertive presence than your average reef shark. Like us, our fellow divers mostly came away from their shark encounters feeling awed and inspired rather than fearful.

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Look at that face! Does this look like terror to you?
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Several great whites, like this sleek fella, circled our boat.
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The cage was rocking violently with the surge, giving the whole experience a dream-like quality.
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Great whites, unlike most other sharks, have the ability to retain and circulate body heat, allowing them to function more efficiently in colder waters.
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Great white sharks can grow to more than 20 feet in length. This one is more like 12 to 14 feet, average size for males.
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I know this photo isn’t doing anything to dispel the idea of great whites as killers, but posing with a shark jaw is just plain fun!

If I haven’t managed to sell you on the idea of sharks, maybe a smaller, frillier creature with a crustacean-based diet would be more to your liking? Those who are wowed by natural camouflage will love the leafy sea dragon. We spent a day seeking these seahorse-relatives around the pilings of the Rapid Bay Jetty located off the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide. The area offers rich and interesting sealife, from rays to cuttlefish, but when I finally caught sight of the first of several “leafies,” my attention was locked. Larger than I expected, around eight to nine inches, sea dragons cannot coil with their tails as seahorses do. Instead, they slowly propel themselves by means of small pectoral and dorsal fins, seeming to undulate with the currents like floating seaweed.

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A school of old wives, originally grouped with typical butterflyfish, but now classified as the only extant species in their own family`.
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A pair of cuttlefish, always a favorite sighting.
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This large, tailless New Zealand eagle ray paused just long enough to be photographed before scooting away at great speed.
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Oh, hello!
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Don’t be shy. You don’t have to leave so quickly!
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It’s a rarely-seen pregnant leafy! A male, as with seahorses. Those are the eggs, on the underside near the midsection.

Maybe you’d rather ogle the storied creatures of Australia’s history. East of Adelaide, the main highway eventually leads to Naracoorte Caves, a national park and South Australia’s only World Heritage site. The spectacular limestone formations in the cave system are only a fraction of the draw. Visitors to the Victoria Fossil Cave can see a remarkable cache of skeletal remains from Australia’s extinct megafauna. Species such as the marsupial lion and the wombat-like diprotodon are thought to have gone extinct after the arrival of humans to the area many thousands of years ago.

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Kevin poses with a model of a giant leaf-eating kangaroo.
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Cave formations are the appetizer.
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The collection of fossils is the main course!
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Partially excavated rib bones.

In the Grampians National Park, the wildlife is very much alive and thriving. The natural beauty of this area is astounding, providing some of my favorite hiking trails in Australia. Long days gave us many hours of mellow afternoon light and a long awaited encounter with an echidna! I kid you not, we saw this spiky oddball (after many weeks of fruitless searches in other supposed hotspots) when we politely requested info from a grazing wallaby. As we laughingly asked about any recent echidna sightings, we turned our heads in time to see the skittish monotreme rustling in the undergrowth and hunting ants. And, with that, the hike instantly earned near-legendary status in our eyes.

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A mountain dragon, of the family Agamidae.
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A small group of yellow-tailed black cockatoos.
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And don’t forget about the sulphur-crested cockatoo!
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Many of the trails in the Grampians are accessible directly from Halls Gap, where the majority of accommodation is located.
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So much to love about these trails.
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It looks like an ordinary wallaby, but this may be a spirit being of incalculable power.
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A short-beaked echidna! At last.

Back toward the sea, we found more stellar hikes along the Great Ocean Road. This ultra-scenic stretch of rocky coastline offers postcard views of famed rock formations like the Twelve Apostles and London Bridge. A variety of short walks, like the Tramway Track, and longer treks, like the Great Ocean Walk, provide opportunities to stretch your legs and feel the ocean breeze.

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Wave-battered coasts with many sandy coves.
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Great Ocean Road’s The Arch.
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The 86 Gibson Steps lead to a large (and largely empty!) beach.
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The pinnacles of the 12 Apostles change with wave and weather action over time.
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The 12 Apostles look even prettier with a sunset backdrop.
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Split Point Lighthouse in Aireys Inlet.
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The winding and picturesque Great Ocean Road.

I was certainly anticipating the natural attractions of the southern coast, but I wasn’t expecting a foodie mecca! From the small shops in the German settlement of Hahndorf to the farms and dairies of Timboon on the Great Ocean Road, we made ample stops to treat our tastebuds and stock up on camping supplies. Our trip through the region coincided with early summer and the peak growing season.

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Kevin enjoys a lamington, an Australian dessert made of sponge cake, chocolate, and coconut.
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A free cheese tasting in Hahndorf. How could I turn it down?
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This cellar door features vintages from McLaren Vale, the Barossa Valley, and Coonawarra, all local wine-producing regions.
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Checking out a tasting at the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery. They have delicious sandwiches too!
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So many delicious, ripe strawberries!
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Caramel-filled echidnas from Gorge Chocolates!

Ok, I’ve covered sharks and echidnas, but in my intro I did advertise quantity and variety…. And I’ve got the stats to back it up: emus and kookaburras at Mount Remarkable National Park, adorable koalas and peeping marsupial possums at our campsite near Brownhill Creek, vibrantly-plumed parrots at Kennett River, a field of kangaroos at Wilson’s Promontory, and the nightly parade of little blue penguins on Phillip Island! Convinced?

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Kookaburras do, in fact, sit in the old gum trees. The unmistakable trilling laugh can be heard from a great distance.
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This emu looked a little too interested in the lunch we were surreptitiously trying to prepare….
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The western slopes hybrid of the crimson rosella.
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The common brushtail possum, a marsupial, eats eucalyptus leaves and forages for other varied foods.
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Nothing challenges the koala for eucalyptus consumption. It consumes roughly 14 ounces a day in four to six feeding sessions.
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Because the calorie content of eucalyptus is so low, koalas must spend about 20 hours a day sleeping.
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A gorgeous Australian king parrot happily accepts an offering of seed.
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Now all he needs is an eye patch and a hook, and Kevin could run off to become a pirate!
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Eastern grey kangaroos roam the fields in Wilson’s Promontory.
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The smallest of the penguins, a little blue, poses outside its burrow just before dusk.

We became so accustomed to our daily wildlife sightings that a pit stop in Melbourne almost seemed exotic. It’s a fun, energetic city always in a bit of a competition with larger rival Sydney. Staid architecture like the Royal Exhibition Building and the Town Hall near Federation Square represent Melbourne’s history, while less formal artwork showcased in the lanes and alleyways throughout the city has earned it a cutting-edge reputation internationally.

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The Royal Exhibition Building, built in 1880, is one of the last surviving 19th century exhibition buildings.
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At the Melbourne Museum, a taxidermied figure of the racehorse Phar Lap is a much-beloved icon. Something like what Seabiscuit represents for Americans.
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Colorful hydrangeas at the Fitzroy Gardens Conservatory.
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Ye olde-timey portait in borrowed duds at Captain Cook’s Cottage, transplanted from England. Kevin’s jeans and sports sandals do kind of undermine the effect.
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The State Library of Victoria, opened in 1856, was, like the Royal Exhibition Building, designed by architect Joseph Reed.
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A view of the Yarra riverfront.
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True dat, Banksy.
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It was interesting to catch a Banksy exhibition in town. The street artist’s work has now been sanctioned and lauded by the art world, but he got his start painting (illegally) in the streets like the artists shown above.
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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…. At least, it looked that way a month ago when we were still in Melbourne!

What a way to conclude our time on mainland Australia! Finishing with South Australia and Victoria, we visited every state except the tiny Capital Territory of Canberra. But why stop? From Melbourne, it’s just a short flight over to Tasmania! Why not head a little further down under and delay our departure from this big, beautiful country? See you in Tassie!

Pearl of the Harbour

The first thing you notice when you’re flying into Sydney is the water. Lots of it. The constellation of neighborhoods comprising the city stretches along miles of waterfront on the twisting shores of Sydney Harbour. And if you look closely enough you’ll spot the instantly recognizable Sydney Opera House, its sails poised to lift it straight out of the scene below. It’s an iconic view.

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Crossing the Harbour Bridge makes a great walk with superb vantage points.
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From the roof of this swanky building, great views of the Opera House and the Bridge.
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Ellen checks out the Opera House from the neighborhood across the harbor.
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A passing sailboat looks just like part of the Opera House roof.
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The waterfront is a popular dining area around sunset.
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It’s an eye-catching scene no matter which way you orient your gaze.
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Waiting for the start of a show. The Opera House interior is just as striking as the facade.
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We caught a performance of A Flea in Her Ear, a modern interpretation of a bawdy Belle Époque era French comedy.

One nice feature of any city on the water is that beaches are often just a short distance away, and in Sydney you’ve got your pick. There are dozens of beaches in the city’s vicinity, with the closest (and most infamous) being Bondi Beach. That’s also the starting point for an enjoyable walk along the rocky coastline past Tamarama and Bronte Beaches, and onward to Coogee Beach. Aside from surfers and sunbathers, we saw plenty of locals enjoying outdoor swimming pools and fitness equipment or bowling along the greens opposite the beach. With colorful birds peering out to survey the whole scene, we were struck by the allure of nature so close to cosmopolitan life.

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A popular destination year-round, Bondi Beach becomes especially lively during the warm Christmas season.
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Talk about a pool with a view! The swimmers in the outer lane of this saltwater pool are occasionally surprised by the arrival of a big wave.
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The rocky coast with cheerful flower beds.
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Plenty of room to go sit out on the rocks for a while.
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A rainbow lorikeet enjoys its perch by the sea.
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Would anyone care for a bit of bowling?
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Coogee Beach’s sheltered swim area makes the job of the Coogee Surf Life Saving Club a bit easier.

Sydney’s CBD (that’s Central Business District, which is the downtown area) is also where some of the city’s finest museums can be found. Among the most well-known is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, founded in the late 19th century with collections ranging from Australian Aboriginal and Pacific Islander artworks to pictorialist photography to ancient bronzes from East Asia. For a more interactive museum experience, though, the Museum of Contemporary Art has a variety of more exotic takes on art. One particularly creative display involved light-up neon tubes and strains of classical music triggered by the movements of passersby.

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The Art Gallery of New South Wales does feature works from artists around the world, but the Italian masters named on the facade are not among them. The names are intended as more of an aspiration than an advertisement.
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The art-deco style exterior of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
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Dark paintings intended to evoke strong emotions.
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Another interactive display. Eerie sound effects would emerge in response to feet and hands completing the various electrical circuits.
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Inventive totem-style artwork by Aboriginal artists.
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Objects in mirror may appear distorted.

Certain elements of Sydney reminded us of home, as if we had wandered into an alternate-reality version of America. We were passing a local restaurant when the enticing smells from the kitchen gave us pause, and an effective advertisement poster for their burgers lured us inside. By the time we hit Australia, burgers had begun to seem a little exotic to us. Sydney’s offerings turned out to be the best burgers we’d had (of an admittedly small set) since leaving home, and probably near the top of the all-time best list. On the healthier side, a farmers’ market inside an old warehouse impressed us with stall after stall of fresh produce, farmer’s cheese, and locally baked breads (with free samples!). It was a scene that would not be the slightest bit out of place back home in New England.

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One of many elaborate murals on the streets near our home away from home by the St Peters metro stop.
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At last, a hotel complete with a Christmas tree and well-groomed facial hair.
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Aussies do love their beef.
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A church across the Sydney Harbour Bridge advertises a holiday themed sing-along.
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Sydney’s pedestrian-friendly streets make it easily walkable, especially for a city of its size.
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You won’t leave the Carriageworks Farmers Market emptyhanded, nor with an empty stomach.
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The interior of the Queen Victoria Building, featuring many fashion boutiques, cafés, and other shops.
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St. Mary’s Cathedral, built in the 1800’s in the Gothic Revival style and modeled after similar cathedrals in England.
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Some beautiful landscaping outside of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

In the end, the opportunity to have a somewhat familiar experience in a new and exciting destination was exactly what we wanted. We felt completely at ease staying in a beautiful and well-located Airbnb apartment, cooking for ourselves, and transiting across the city by metro. Sydney’s exceptional livability makes it natural to envision as an alternate home. But for this visit, we couldn’t linger in Sydney forever… next on the agenda: Australia’s south coast!

Tropics of Interest

After enjoying a few weeks exploring some of Australia’s more remote, arid regions, we were curious to see a different side of the land Down Under. We ventured over to Queensland next and discovered quite the contrast. This corner of the continent resides firmly in the tropics, with a much wetter climate and beautifully verdant landscapes.

We started by spending some time in the Atherton Tablelands, where the high elevation ensures that the hilly countryside remains cool even in the thick of summer. Farmland abounds here amongst the lakes and waterfalls, and it’s possible to stop for tasty fresh cheese and produce in between viewings of the region’s unique wildlife. The highlight of our visit? Within walking distance of our lodging in the town of Yungaburra, a small stream has become well-known for its resident platypuses, which can be viewed close-up with a dose of patience. We had been told that these weird creatures can sometimes congregate by the dozens here, but we were content to spy one furtive platypus at dusk and then another, bolder one at dawn the next morning.

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Australia’s marsupials are strange enough, but monotremes (egg-laying mammals) are even more bizarre. Platypuses and echnidnas are the only extant monotremes.
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The bill looks like a duck bill, but it is flexible and highly sensitive. Together with the beaver-like tail and the webbed feet, it’s a sight to behold.
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The volcanic hills of the Atherton Tableland are fertile ground for agriculture.
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Only fresh, local ingredients go into this Ploughman’s Lunch at one of the local farms.
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Standing precariously at the edge of one of the region’s many waterfalls.
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The view from the bottom is just as good, though less vertigo-inducing.
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It’s not every day that you come across a world heritage-listed tree, but Curtain Fig Tree is special. This strangler fig is speculated to be about 500 years old.
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A peaceful walking trail forms a circuit around Lake Barrine. The area provides excellent birdwatching and wildlife viewing.
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And what wildlife there is! Here, a Boyd’s forest dragon perches on a tree trunk. These lizards are rare in that they don’t need to sun themselves to regulate body temperature.
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On several occasions we could hear an Australian brushturkey vigorously kicking up leaves and soil, which they build into enormous mounds.
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You dirty rat! Actually, the musky rat-kangaroo is a marsupial, and can be seen scurrying about in broad daylight.

One of Queensland’s best-known attractions (on land, at least) is the Daintree Rainforest. With an age comparable to that of the Danum Valley in Borneo, it’s among the oldest rainforests in the world. Though the Daintree lies only a few hours away from the city of Cairns by car, it feels much more remote; it’s reachable only by a ferry crossing of the Daintree River, and on the other side, the narrow road wends its way underneath lush tree cover. A night walk through the jungle is one of the best ways to appreciate the abundance of fascinating life hiding in the foliage.

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The UNESCO-listed Wet Tropics of Queensland is home to a staggering number of endemic, rare species.
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Strangler figs can grow in distinctive shapes and arrangements as they kill their host trees.
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An orchid like this would normally be high in the forest canopy, far from human eyes. We were lucky that this one fell to the ground where we could examine it closely.
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An orange-footed scrub fowl pecks at the leafy detritus.
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Seeds of cassowary plums are unusual in that they have a much higher success rate sprouting into new plants if they’ve passed through the digestive tract of a cassowary bird. Looks like these seeds are off to a good start! 
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This phasmid can expertly conceal itself among the stalks and stems of plants.
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Best not to get too close to this aggressive-looking red lizard.
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The convincing camouflage of the leaf-tailed gecko makes it a difficult animal to find.
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A well-hidden monitor lizard perches next to some vines.
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The clear streams at Mossman Gorge are the perfect spot to bathe after a hike through the forest.

And, of course, no diver’s visit to Queensland (or to Australia) would be complete without checking out the Great Barrier Reef. We were a bit apprehensive about what we would find there, as the headlines of widespread coral bleaching and massive die-off did not paint an encouraging picture. But, in our experience, there’s still room for optimism. Though the extent of the damage is staggering, it’s still possible to visit reefs that look healthy, populated by families of anemonefish along with the occasional sea turtle or bumphead parrotfish. We spent several enjoyable days exploring shallow reefs via liveaboard and had to conclude that it’s an area well worth protecting.

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A vibrantly-colored giant clam.
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A clownfish nestles in an anemone. (Insert requisite joke about finding Nemo.)
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A pair of barracudas.
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Watching a small ray swim by (see lower left).
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Sea turtles have exceptionally long life spans, and some individual turtles on this reef have been observed by divers over many decades.
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Schooling anthias.
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A cluster of batfish. 
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A large bumphead parrotfish.
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Waiting for the sun to go down so that we can go on a night dive.
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Directly opposite the setting sun, check out the size of this full (super)moon!

Queensland’s inviting climate and sprawling coastline make it a magnet for Australians on holiday, but we found a lot more to the area than its stunning beaches. From ancient rainforests to rolling pastures, Queensland deserves a close look. In fact, if we find ourselves in Australia again some day, it’s the region we’d most like to revisit. (Maybe next time we’ll see a cassowary itself and not just the droppings!)