Category Archives: Australia and Oceana

Shipboard Gingerbread house

Cruising with Santa on the Holland America Cruiseline

Special to Vagobond with 4 original photos © Susan McKee

New Zealand Santa ClausSanta Claus just doesn’t look quite right standing next to palm trees and bougainvillea wearing his red suit trimmed in white fur in 80 degree temperatures. But, the earth’s rotation being what it is, summer begins in the southern hemisphere just as radio stations in the northern are playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Dashing Through the Snow”.

It’s all rather routine to Australians and New Zealanders, of course, but Christmastime Down Under provides a bit of cognitive dissonance to those of us from North America. We’re more used to wearing parkas and boots than shorts and flip-flops as we browse shop windows during the holidays.

Fleeing winter does have a certain appeal, however, so I took advantage of an invitation from Holland America Line to join one of their Australian cruises from Sydney, Australia, and around New Zealand earlier this month.

Cruise Ship ChristmasAbout halfway through the voyage it occurred to me that I could avoid cold weather perpetually by arranging to spend half the year in Oz. Like those legendary surfers pursing the perfect wave around the globe, I could find “Endless Summer” by dividing my time between North America and New Zealand.

While my friends back home were battling sub-freezing temperatures as fall segued into winter, I witnessed spring bursting forth into summer while holiday tunes played in the background.

“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” blared from loudspeakers as rollerbladers zipped past shoppers on the sidewalk in Napier. “Good King Wenceslas” contemplates snow that’s “deep and crisp and even” as shellers in Akaroa scan the beach for that perfect specimen.

At every port – and there were seven along our route – traditional symbols of the holiday decorated houses and shops. The major department stores in Wellington and Auckland had the usual animated windows with artificial snow, icicle-trimmed houses and all the other traditional markers of the holidays.

Christmas tree in New ZealandEverywhere, there were the usual Christmas trees – the pine varieties (albeit mostly fake) trimmed with ornaments, lights and tinsel. Snowmen complete with black top hats were crafted from metal, adorned with lights and set to guard downtown intersections.

Peppermint candy canes, Christmas cookies, and imported holiday specialties such as Stollen cakes imported from Germany and panettone from Italy filled store shelves – it all seems just like home, until you run into the native New Zealand Christmas trees.

These don’t look at all like their Victorian pine and fir namesakes. Known formally as P?hutukawa, the Kiwi Christmas tree is a type of myrtle often planted along coastal roadways and sidewalks of the North Island as a landscape ornamental – bushy dark green and (usually) stubby evergreen trees that, conveniently, burst forth with crimson blooms in the days leading up to December 25.

My ship, the ms Volendam, was festively decorated for the season, with lavish swags of greenery, red ribbons and glittery ornaments everywhere. The culinary staff explored their artistic side by using gingerbread, icing, gumdrops and other candy bits to create fanciful (but, alas, inedible) mansions and castles. (These are much grander than the usual gingerbread houses because they start with plywood bases rather than cookie slabs.)

Confections abounded on this cruise. Not only were the desserts varied each meal, but there was an ice cream bar offering sundaes and cones open every afternoon. On one evening during the cruise, the culinary staff whipped up a dessert extravaganza with massive ice carvings, chocolate sculptures and all sorts of fanciful sweets served buffet-style at the unusual hour of 10:30 p.m.

I’d not been on a cruise like this one before, so I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a range of dining opportunities. There was the usual: a cafeteria-style buffet with everything from sushi and salads to prime rib and sandwiches. But there was also a white-tablecloth restaurant with flowers and candles and a menu that varied each day, a small bistro featuring Italian delights — and the Pinnacle. As its name suggests, this was the fine-dining option (with a small surcharge – the other locations were included in the cruise price). Here’s where I found lobster macaroni and cheese, lamb grilled on a skewer, baked Alaska and chocolate truffles served with after-dinner coffee.

Kids (and grownups) celebrating birthdays during the cruise are serenaded at dinner by the mostly Indonesian dining room crew with a traditional Southeast Asian song
(thereby avoiding all the “Happy Birthday” copyright issues).

In fact, there never was a dull moment on board. There was internet access via satellite, game tables for chess and checkers (not to mention a whole cabinet of board games), jig-saw puzzles, jewelry shops, a casino (this was the only indoor smoking area onboard), daily trivia and bingo games, a library, DVDs for the television in the cabins), presentations on everything from “eating right” to the aboriginal culture of Australia, two swimming pools, a hot tub, ping-pong table, spa, art auctions, gym, yoga classes, Tai Chi, religious services and AA meetings.

My personal favorites were the frequent demonstrations in the Culinary Center. Ever heard of Lamingtons? I thought not! This Aussie specialty is a sinfully rich dessert that starts with an egg-and-butter cake dipped in chocolate and layered with icing, whipped cream embellishments such as coconut, banana and honey. I even learned how to create marzipan roses and fold towels into fanciful animals during the demos.

The lure of the cruise for me, however, was the chance to explore both the north and the south islands of New Zealand. Port stops began at Oban on Stewart Island (off the country’s extreme southern tip) and continued at Port Chalmers, Akaroa, Wellington, Napier, Tauranga and Auckland.

Rain interrupted my visit to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, obscuring the signature skyline with fog. By the time I got back on board, I was soaked through.

Unfortunately, the last scheduled stop, Bay of Isles, had to be scrubbed because of high seas. A storm to the north of us meant that we’d need the extra time to steam around the high winds and waves on our way back to Sydney. Total distance round trip? 3290 nautical miles.

(Full disclosure: I was the guest of Holland America Line aboard the ms Volendam earlier this month on its 14-day New Zealand & Australia cruise.)

Great Barrier Reef

Top 5 Australia Gold Coast Adventures

The world is a big place and while I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of it – there is a lot more of it that still beckons to me. I look forward to exploring far off India, Japan, South America, and lest we forget – Australia!

One of the destinations that I’ve not yet had the pleasure of exploring is the Gold Coast of Australia. I want to experience some Gold Coast Adventures. This is a region that offers everything I could want – warm waters, great food, sunshine, and exotic wildlife. I want to go the Gold Coast and here are the top 5 adventures that I will do while I’m there…

Lady_Musgrave_Coral__Island

Diving the Great Barrier Reef
Of course, the top adventure is diving on the Great Barrier Reef. One of the world’s 7 Natural Wonders – I’ve always wanted to explore this reef wonderland and see turtles, rays, sharks, and the abundant sea life living in this spectacular living monument. I know that it can be dangerous – but there is very little in life that isn’t dangerous while being worthwhile.

Feeding Crocodiles
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to be the meal that they eat, but I’d love to get close enough to these incredible reptiles to see their gnashing teeth and chomping jaws. These are as close as you can get to seeing real dinosaurs and they scare the crap out of me – I’d just love to feel that primal fear but in a safe zone. Know what I mean?

4×4 Adventure Touring
Whether it will be in one of the 4×4 buses of a company like Sunset Safaris or a private vehicle – I definitely plan on getting out into the jungle and onto the remote beaches of the world’s largest island. Yes, I want to see the cities – I want to explore Brisbane and see where the people live – but a 4×4 tour of someplace like Fraser Island is all about getting away from civilization – which I think is one of the best reasons to go to Australia in the first place.
Australia 4x4 tour

Meet the Australian Wild Life
It wouldn’t be a trip to Australia without meeting koala’s, kangaroos, wallabies, and my favorite – the duck billed platypus! I want to hike in the Australian rainforest and check out the birds and marsupials up close and in their native habitat. Did you know that a platypus is the only egg laying mammal? It looks like a duck, has fur like a beaver, a tail like a beaver, has warm blood, and lays eggs! How odd is that?

Great Barrier Reef

Exploring Cairns
Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney all have their draws – but the city I want to stay in for a while is Cairns. A tropical climate, a goldmining history, and an urban layout – this is the city for me. I want to cruise in the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and watch films on the beach – I want to surf and eat steak for dinner! This isn’t a huge capital of culture but it holds the cultural artifacts I hold most dear – warm water, great diving, rainforest hiking, abundant natural resources nearby and some great dining.

road trip

Driving on the edge: A guide to some of the world’s craziest road trips

Written by Jessica Langlands

Although road trips may have originated in America, the rest of the world has quickly caught on. Now with car hire companies like Economy Car Hire offering their services in thousands of locations worldwide no destination is unreachable. You quite literally have the world at your fingertips!

Whilst the thought of driving for hours on end along an endless highway may conjure up memories of being cooped up in the back seat of your parents un- air conditioned car, wedged between a suitcase and the kitchen sink that your mother insisted on bringing, road trips today have evolved into something truly extraordinary.

Nothing gives you freedom like the open road, whether you’re driving fast or slow, have a destination in mind or are simply following your nose, or should I say bumper? road trips are the ultimate example of independent travel. Without having to rely on public transport timetables and guaranteed you’ll always get a window seat there really is no better way to see the world your way.

So, if you are looking for a thrill then look no further then these fantastic driving experiences.

1. The Pacific Coast Highway, USA.

road trip

Although it is one of the most well-known road trips it is by no means any less exciting. Navigating the winding two lane highway, with imposing rocky hills on one side and sheer cliff drops into the ocean on the other, makes for an interesting drive to say the least. The 200km stretch of highway should take around 5 hours to complete and with features such as the Bixby Creek Bridge it is a truly exhilarating experience. Simply wind down the windows,
feel the wind in your hair and soar over the Santa Lucia Mountain Range as it plunges into
the sea.

2. Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway.

road trip

This coastal road is something of a worldwide architectural accomplishment. An 8km stretch of highway made up of a series of bridges that hop from island to island, the Atlantic Ocean Road is without doubt a unique experience. Passing through the incredible Hustadvika coastline, which is renowned for being exhilaratingly dramatic when in storm and the perfect spot for fishing and whale watching in calmer weather. This road has been awarded the status of national tourist route. The almost rollercoaster like peaks and curves of the bridges give the impression that you are teetering on the edge of the ocean. A feeling that is only enhanced by stopping at one (or all) of the four panoramic view and rest areas incorporated into the design of the road. These viewing points offer spectacular vistas so be sure to stop and experience the expert harmony of the natural world and this man-made construct.

3. Icefields Parkway, Canada.

road trip

The Icefields Parkway is not only one of Canada’s national treasures but one of North America’s most impressive landscapes. Drive through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains amidst a world heritage site and two national parks. This is truly a world-class experience that offers access to a breath-taking wilderness of majestic sweeping valleys and glassy, turquoise blue mountain lakes fed by ancient glaciers. This route is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal to one of the world’s most unforgiving environments. It is in fact one of the only places in the world where you can drive right up to a glacier. With highlights such as Bow Lake, Panther Falls and the Ice fields themselves, every turn through this unique landscape is an ‘Oh my gosh!’ moment.

4. The Savannah Way, Australia.

road trip canada

Also known as Australia’s adventure drive, The Savannah Way stretches across the country’s north region from Cairns to Broome. Whether you choose to traverse just a section or cross the continent from coast to coast, drivers on this route are never short of views across striking landscape. It is a journey rooted deeply in the Aboriginal and pioneer heritage and links 15 national parks and five world heritage areas, guaranteeing you wide horizons, ancient gorges and abundant wildlife. As you head west from Cairns’ rainforests and reefs you will have the chance to see iconic waterfalls, embark on your own pioneering adventure on a bush walk and explore the caves of Undara Volcanic National Park. But be warned this route can be dangerous. As you drive through its remote centre, don’t expect to see a gas station or another person for several hours. Make sure you leave well prepared with plenty of supplies.

The natural world is a thing of great beauty and picturesque scenery is not that hard to find, but for truly unforgettable experiences and memories that will last a life time these road trips are a set of adventures that will get your heart racing with views that will make your stomach drop.