Cairns, total solar eclipse and Great Barrier Reef

My timing for Cairns was only partially based on the solar eclipse. It just happened to fit in with my travel plans. So when I started looking for accommodations in Port Douglas in mid-September, I quickly discovered that everything was sold out or very expensive. I searched everywhere but it was the same story, finally went on Price Line and got a very sweet deal in the heart of Cairns. My find was Hides Hotel a double room with shared bathroom $70/night. The bathroom and showers were next door. Refrigerator in my room and breakfast included. Refrigerator in rooms seem to be pretty standard.

I had no idea what a big thing a total eclipse is. I met some Swedish people who had started planning as far back as 12 years ago, though it seemed that the majority had made their bookings 2 years ago. The area was expecting somewhere between 30-50.000 visitors. Every night the supermarkets were sold out, which made the headlines of the local paper, and I could confirm. It was a really big deal, but there was not a T-shirt to be had to commemorate the moment.

Since I was going snorkeling later that day I choose to watch it from the Esplanade, this is the street winding along the ocean since Cairns has no beach, but a manmade lagoon. It is 6 am and already quite crowded. 6.30 am a big black cloud obscures the sun and it is still there at 6.45 when the eclipse happens. The sky got darker until it looked like late dusk, all the birds disappeared, a few minutes later it started to get light again and the sun appeared. With my special glasses I could see the moon covering the sun or at least part of it and slowly it moved across the sun until it had disappeared. Quite the accidental experience to be had by me, then again, life often is made up of accidental experiences.

The previous two days I had spent on tours, Monday it was Daintree Rainforest, a river tour and Cape Tribunal. It was a perfect day slightly overcast and not too hot. Saw a crocodile in the river and some incredible mangroves. The Rainforest was teeming with birds and some quite incredible trees and vines. Saw the Orange-footed Scrubfowl , Lots of signs warning of Cassowarys but none sighted. It was a very rewarding day, despite the bug museum where you could see thousands of insects collected by this one man.

I wish I had been a better tourist or preparer because I agreed to take the cable car up and historic train down from Kuranda the following day. After having been in the rain forest for almost an entire day I didn’t need to ride on top of the canopy to arrive in a total tourist trap of a town. The train down was probably very interesting if you like old railways and trains, it was quite impressive actually when you consider the conditions that the men had to work under. Don’t know if it was worth taking an organized tour, especially since all that happens is the bus takes you to the cable car and picks you up at the train station. I am sure that you can have the same experience by purchasing your own tickets.

I don’t know what Cairns is like on non-eclipse occasions but it is a very touristy beach town with lots of travel agents, souvenir shops and backpacker hostels. It is also very clean, early mornings the streets are swept with automatic street sweepers, the sidewalks are pressure washed where necessary and you just don’t see any litter despite the hundreds of tourists of all ages.

Most days have had very early starts so at this point I am in bed very early am too tired to go out for dinner, buy some pate, local Brie and wine at the supermarket and picnic in my room.

When I booked my snorkeling trip I knew that I did not want a large boat with a pontoon and gift shop, and my instincts were correct. A smaller boat that anchors at the outer reefs makes for a so much more intimate experience. This was confirmed by one of the crewmembers who referred to the pontoons as snorkel factories. The smaller operators switch between reefs depending on conditions. It is also important to find out weather conditions. If it is very windy it is hard to snorkel, and horrible on the boat if you are prone to seasickness.

After the eclipse I make my way down to the pier for my first snorkel tour on The Great Barrier Reef, with Ocean Quest cost $140. I have never seen colored coral in the ocean usually it is grey, brown and beige, at our first reef I saw blue, pink and yellow corals and of course a lot of fish. Even saw a shark. What a thrill to be in a place I have only dreamt about. I was so pleased with my experience, that I booked a trip for the second day. This one was on the Odyssey a slightly smaller and older boat but the price was right $89 including lunch, plus wine and cheese for the trip back. If you like me, only snorkel and don't dive it was perfect. Wetsuits and dives were extra, whereas on Ocean Quest they were included with one dive. After I filled out the forms I was asked if taking of my medications would impede me in any way and I said jokingly “No, not at all but make sure you have the number to the flying doctors in case” little did I know that it was almost needed as I slipped on the wet sun deck and landed on my left new knee and twisted my ankle. Talk about being scared, I was so frightened that I had damaged my knee. Sat with an icepack and managed to go snorkeling at the second reef.

Our first reef was a disappointment all grey and very few fish then after lunch we arrived at Hastings Reef. O.M.G. I have never seen anything like it the most amazing corals, fish and giant clams. At times the reef was so close under me that I was afraid of touching it, but fortunately never did. I had brought a disposable camera, the pictures are not great. The colors of the corals, seeing the fish munching on it as well as smaller fish in real Technicolor and up close is an experience I would love for everyone to have.

My last day in Cairns, had planned to go to the botanical garden before my flight to Sydney tonight. It is the first really sunny and very hot day, my ankle is aching and it is too hot to walk, so I am sitting at a café writing Left that afternoon for Sydney where it was pouring with rain.

When I checked in I found out that Delta in its infinite wisdom had booked me Sydney-Los Angels-Atlanta-New York with a 12 hour layover in Atlanta. Fortunately I was able to get a direct flight but had to hang around for 6 hours. Great, let me go to the Delta lounge except I had left my Amex card at home. Fortunately there was a kind gentleman who let me in on his card. Uneventful flight home and now I am left with lots of good memories of Australia.

Mornington Peninsula

Mornington Peninsula

When we finally arrived in Melbourne I was warmly greeted by Peter and Barbara my hosts for 2 nights. They are friends of a friend of mine, who very kindly offered to take care of me when they knew I was coming to Melbourne.

Peter is the absolute best guide imaginable, closely followed by Barbara. First we drove around to Lygon Street, the Little Italy part of Melbourne, we went past Victoria Market that had much to my regrets been closed the whole time I was visiting. Peter regaled me with stories of how much of Melbourne came to be. He had certainly not exaggerated when describing the marketing techniques, unique to Lygon Street, of the restaurateurs. As we walked by, they all but offered us the lease to the place if we ate there. We ended up at Papa Ginos an excellent place with delicious food, which they knew about, by the time we left the line was out the door.

On our rather lengthy drive I appreciated even more their offer to pick me up. Somehow Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula is so synonymous that one thinks of them as one, or at least I have. They live in a charming house not far from the ocean. The first thing that struck me was a gorgeous quilt hanging on the wall. It turns out that Barbara is an extremely talented quilter as well as superbly organized.

Next morning after breakfast we drove around to the small towns and then picked up their son Tim before heading to T’Gallant winery for a tasting and lunch. It is an Italian winery and I think we tasted almost their entire production but settled for a great Pinot Grigio to go with our lunch which was delicious.

We then drove around to the different outlook points overlooking Port Philip Bay with beautiful vistas everywhere. One stop was by the Flinders golf course where we watched Para Gliders. As we stood there a man preparing to do some hang gliding asked me to be his co-pilot, which meant that I held the wings while he got ready to take off. It was exhilarating watching them flying around on the winds.

After having absorbed as much as I could of the history and geography of the peninsula we headed back home for dinner. Barbara had prepared lovely salads and Peter barbecued some steaks. It was very fascinating listening to Tim who has traveled the world as a mining engineer. We tried the sparkling Shiraz and decided we didn’t like it. Barbara came to the rescue with an excellent wine and we had a lovely and interesting evening ending with some awesome confectionery and mince pie.

The next morning it was a very early rise since my flight for Cairns left at 9.20 am and the drive as I said was long from Tootgarook to the airport.



Arrived, after yet another miserable experience going through security. So far every airport except Ayers Rock has greeted my information that “I have an artificial knee and it will beep” as if I am this criminal trying to get away with something. There are body scans, pat downs and every piece of belonging is scanned and rescanned. This time I was scanned for explosives as well.

My hotel is located diagonally across from Southern Cross Station where the airport bus lets you off. When I checked in I was told I had been upgraded to a junior business room. Very nice, I now i have my own bathroom, coffeemaker and refrigerator. However internet is $2 for 6 minutes. Went to the local IGA on the next block got yogurt and bananas for breakfast. Learnt something new, always thought IGA was chain of grocery stores mainly in Connecticut now I discover it stands for Independent Groceries Association. Woolworth and Coles are the main supermarket chains here.

Then I get my fare card which is called MYKI, which has replaced the regular fare tickets, it is refillable with lots of bells and whistles for $20. Most likely an extravagance on my part given that Melbourne has a free tram that goes around the center as well as a free bus that seems to cover a very large area. No matters I am off to explore. The regular tram that stops close to the hotel takes me to the Greek Quarter, I have been longing for grilled fish. The Greek quarter consists of approx: 6 restaurants, had expected a slew of them, but there are only a few on Lonsdale Street. I stop at one and have grilled Whiting and a glass of wine it sets me back $40,

Next morning I oversleep badly, take the free tram and see part of Melbourne with a very nice guide who explains that all the new high rise apartment buildings have water saving features built in. This is further expounded on by the guide who takes me to Philip Island. Apparently after the severe drought all new homes have rainwater cisterns built in, the water is used for baths, toilets, showers and watering the gardens. In the event that the rainwater is depleted a switch turns on the water main. The sightseeing tram is obviously old and very charming. Again I am struck by the civic mindedness of Australia providing free sightseeing with a knowledgable and charming guide. I never did get to try the bus.

After an indifferent lunch of Lamb Vindaloo I go to meet the Grey Line bus I am off to see the Fairy Penguins as they emerge from the ocean and make their way into the burrows to feed the babies left behind.
Thanks to another internet friend I had bought a discount ticket on Travel Zoo.

Our guide was exceptional, as we got to Philip Island early he made a detour and we got to see Wallabies and Echidna an animal unique to Australia it is a mammal that lays eggs and looks like a porcupine. My camera was too slow to catch the Wallabies, they are similar to Kangaroos but much smaller. It was such a treat to see animals in the wild. Apparently I had a ticket to the secluded viewing area. It quite sight to see a few thousand of the world’s smallest penguin emerge from the water and start their walk home. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures, it was a most amazing and awesome moment to witness this. This is a picture I found on the on the internet.

Tuesday Melbourne Cup Day, it is the horse race of the nation, in Victoria this is a holiday so everything is closed. The rest of the country stops while the race is going on.

It is truly astounding to see all the young girls and not so young with fascinators and other kinds of hats ready to go to the horse race. It also seems that regardless of the shape of legs and thighs the hemlines are minimal.

I decide to go to Healesville Sanctuary in the Yarra Valley a 2 ½ hour trip by train and bus. The animal sanctuary is a remarkable kind of zoo. Most of the animals are clearly viewable and available for supervised petting by the park rangers. Spent a few hours enjoying myself, had a meat pie for lunch, and then it was time to catch one of the few buses that would connect me with the train. Going through Yarra Valley I was sorry that I don’drive, then I realized that it is a blessing since I couldn’t have driven and tasted all the wines grown there. There are acres upon acres of grapevines, verdant hills and lush grazing grounds for what I think are Heresford Cattle. It is truly a magnificent bucolic landscape with mountains in the background.

Back to town and a quick tram ride down to St. Kildas beach, where the crowds continued to celebrate their day off . It is still early but I am hungry and pop into a Spanish restaurant and order a grilled pork chop. It arrives very artfully presented on a wooden board with a minuscule amount of salad in the upper corner cost $15. However the wine was cheap $3 a glass because it was happy hour. I am still hungry when I leave so I pop into one of the many bakeries that line the main street. I buy a piece of cheese cake and an almond croissant to have with my coffee the next morning.

Wednesday morning I start the day by walking along South Bank before going to the Melbourne Arts Center hoping to see an exhibit of Nigel Triffin’s aka “the Dogster” stage models. Unfortunately the exhibit had finished a few weeks earlier.  Again I am struck by the thoughtfulness one encounters. One restaurant had a suntan lotion SPF30 dispenser and umbrellas for the guests to borrow.

 I continued on to the botanical gardens where I spent several very happy hours walking and enjoying the environs. Also learnt a lot about Australian forests only 21% of the country is forested. This is one botanical garden not to be missed Had a very good calamari salad and a glass of excellent Chardonnay.

My original plan had been to go to the Arts Museum followed by the Botanical gardens somehow that got sidetracked. This trip has been all about the flora and fauna and to my own great surprise not even about the food. Probably a mistake since this is a country for foodies, but I have not suffered or felt deprived.

As I exit the botanical gardens am trying to find some sort of public transportation but none is to be had. I walk along the north side of the Yarra river, it seems for miles, until I reach Federation Square. These are the most marvelous super modern buildings and square juxtaposed against Flinders Station and St. Pauls two Victorian sand stone buildings. Unfortunately I never got a good picture of it.I step inside and there is a huge TV screen showing CNN and the election results. I go to get a beer and sit down in this large space to watch my President get re-elected. Hear Romney’s concession speech and President Obama’s acceptance speech. I was very happy and also sad that there were no fellow Americans to share this with, However all Australians I have met so far are extremely happy by the outcome. Actually I am amazed by how well versed and knowledgable people are about our politics.

During the day as I walked by all the great looking menus and restaurants on the South Bank I had decided to have dinner at one of them. Changed my mind I didn‘t want to have a great meal by myself in a fancy place. Ended up in Chinatown, where to my surprise I found Singaporean Chicken and Rice, one of the great dishes of the world.

Next morning it was an early awakening, because I was going on a two day trip to The Great Ocean Road and The Grampians a National Park with many wild animals.

The driver Adam was very funny, it was his last day on the job so in one way he didn’t care, yet he was extremely knowledgeable and made sure to share that knowledge with all of us. I am now an almost expert on the mating practices and mating sounds of Koalas. The GOR as it is called was built after the First World War by returning veterans It is a long winding road with magnificent vistas and quite remarkable rock formations in the ocean. We were regaled with shipwreck stories, and Adam made the surviving characters come to life. We also stopped to see Koalas and for lunch in a small town. Small Australian towns are very charming we two story buildings and a retro feeling to them. Late that night we arrived in the Grampians at a hostel.

Next morning was another early riser and we set off to do some walks. I managed to bite off 5 km 3.125 miles before 10 am. Both my knee and back are doing very well. On the second walk I choose to go to an outlook, instead of going down and then up 265 steps, to see a waterfall. On my solitary walk I saw a Wallaby just sitting there staring at me. What a is to see animals in the wild. Earlier in the morning we had seen a large group of Kangaroos.

Before leaving The Grampians we visited an Aboriginal information center. Though set in very beautiful award winning buildings, it was so sad to see the eyes on the photographs. There was very little in the way of modern life. What has struck me wherever I have encountered Aboriginals regardless of tribe, they don’t look at you, actually you don’t exist. The other is you don’t see any of them working in stores or any other visible occupation. In Kuranda this total tourist trap of an Aboriginal village with 5 zillion stores not one Aboriginal clerk or shop keeper.

On our ways back to Melbourne we stopped for lunch in a small town that had more roses in the front yards than I have seen in years. Later at a winery for a tasting. I got suckered in to buying a sparkling Shiraz that ended up not being so good


It is always difficult to take time to write, especially when you are with other people you want to be with and not on the computer. Having just spent 3 wonderful days in Brisbane, with my ex-neighbor Caren and her wonderful husband Paul and their two children. Caren and I got to know each other 20+ years ago in NYC, I always promised I would visit and now I have kept my promise.

Despite the fairly late hour of arrival I was met at the airport and taken to their lovely home in Brisbane. I forgot to mention they also have a Cavapoo named Peppa. She and I became instant friends and for the
rest of my stay I had a bed companion.

The first day we started out to explore Brisbane, our starting point was an outlook that elicited many wows from me, then on to the Regatta Hotel. A hotel is a bar that was at one point a hotel, there may or not be rooms to rent upstairs. There are hotels everywhere in Australia and most of them go back a long time. This was a very cute place with wrought iron works. Being in Oz a beer was in order which was delicious.

Next door there was a huge liquor store with more beer varieties than I could imagine and a tremendous selection of wines.

We then proceeded to South End which has beautiful walkways edged with bougainvilleas and a lot of restaurants. We ended up at a Vietnamese place where I had Pho, trying to cure my persistent cold. It was totally amazing to see how a large swimming area called “lagoon” had been created by the river with sand surrounding it.

There was also a freestanding bike repair stand with tools for use by anyone. All in all I feel as if this country really cares about its people. It seems there are public bike rentals in every city. Wonderful open spaces for enjoyment. Lots of public art everywhere, even public barbecues in the middle of the city.

The next couple of days were spent traveling around, first the Gold Coast, where it was so windy that I had problems standing upright, hence few surfers. The Gold Coast is a ticky tacky town but we did take the dream ride in the “Duck Boat” The less said the better, but for those who don’t know, it is a car that becomes a boat. Much loved by children since their parents buy the Quacker which they blow continuously.
The boat ride took us past incredible mansions, one even had a helicopter in front of it. Another was built almost completly by bullet proof glass!!!!

Dinner much to my happiness was eaten at home every night. How could I be here and not have a barbie
(BBQ) Following day we went in the opposite direction to the Sunshine Coast.We started at Eumundi Market there were more than 1000 stalls selling everything you can imagine. It was great, just like a street fair but much higher quality.
Then we proceeded to some really cute little towns and had lunch in one of them. The landscape is breathtaking and quite varied. It was a beautiful day for this kind of outing. We ended up at a guest house where Caren and her daughter were staying later in the month. The view from the back porch was fantastic.
It also didn't hurt that there was a resident chicken who had just laid an egg on the sofa.

Since we were having dinner at home we stocked up at a most exquisite grocery store, James Street Market. Each and every item was like a jewel with prices to match. We also stopped at Coles, a super market chain, to pick up Tasmanian mussels which I was going to transform into a Paella. Fortunately the went on before we had a chance to eat anything or even start preparing. These particular mussels we were warned were very toxic having been exposed to an algae and had been recalled. How fortunate that we watched the news that night, and at that moment, wouldn’t relish the thought of cutting my trip short.
According to Caren it never rains in Brisbane. It is always sunny or sunnier. Anyway for your information it rained the morning I left which I was very sad to do. Am glad the weather matched my mood. It was so nice to be with friends, have a sweet bed partner, and in general a fabulous time. Their hospitality was exceptional and I am looking forward to reciprocating in January.