Vacation Fiascos

Not every trip is paradise perfect.   I’ve had my share of travel mishaps. In Buenos Aires, three gold chains were ripped from my neck (my fault for wearing them).  I missed out on an excursion to the Brazilian side of Iguaçu Falls because I did not have a Brazilian visa.

I never made it to the Brazilian side.  No one told me I needed a visa.
I never made it to the Brazilian side. No one told me I needed a visa.

The trip had been prepaid, but the travel operator failed to tell me that as an American I needed a visa, and there was no time to get one.  $100 out the window.  In New Zealand, I was so excited about the chance to swim with dolphins – something I’ve always wanted to do.  Alas, I swam in frigid water, but nary a dolphin to be seen.  (I’ve written about these catastrophes in previous posts. “Misadventures in New Zealand,” Apr.27, 2012;  “Cry for me Argentina,” Oct. 30, 2010; “Iguaçu Falls,” Nov. 19, 2010 )

Last fall husband Bob and I had some frustrating experiences thanks to GPS.  We are slow to get on the technical bandwagon, but finally decided to purchase a GPS gadget for this drive trip.  All went well in Germany.  Without it, we might still be driving around looking for some of those off-the- beat- and -track hotels I had booked.

When we got to northern  Italy and were trying to find my friend Trina’s apartment on Lake Varese, another story.  Suddenly we were crossing the border into Switzerland as directed by our GPS mentor.  (She’s British, and her pronunciation of Italian, French and German  street names is abominable, but good for a laugh.)

GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.
GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.

This can’t be right?   What’s with this wacko woman directing us?  What’s with GPS?  We stopped at the nearest gas station, and were told she was all wrong.  Reverse directions and go back to Italy.  We eventually found Trina, but with a map.

After the Italian/Swiss mishap, I verified GPS instructions with a map.  Until we were driving back to France on the autostrada in northern Italy, a stretch we had driven many times.  I relaxed. All seemed well.  Then out of the blue  we ended up at the toll booth for the Frejus Tunnel, 39 euros, no turning back.  Strange.  We had not remembered going through this tunnel before. Perhaps our GPS genius  knew a shorter route?  We had no choice but to continue.

It’s a long, long tunnel.  When we emerged, I checked the map.  Holy S—!  Where are we?  We had driven far out of our way to get home.  And, that GPS crackpot was leading us farther astray.  So much for advanced technology.

Time for another gas station inquiry. I was obviously distraught,  thinking about all those extra miles and hours lost.  The kind woman in the gas station took pity on me and explained that we had two choices, one route via Grenoble, much longer but all on the speedy autoroute, and one over the Col du Galibier, a slow but scenic mountain pass.  We opted for scenery. It was an adventure, up and up a twisty road into the wilds of mountain tops with no civilization in sight, but incredible views.  It was getting dark and this was not a road for sissies, so we took no time to stop and ponder the surrounding beauty. But, it’s a drive to repeat.  Sometimes bad leads to good.

Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..
Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..

And, sometimes, as with the jewelry theft in Argentina, you learn from the disasters.  Such was the case in Singapore.  I needed a few accessories for my new camera.  This was the beginning of a long trip, so best make the purchases here.  We paid a visit to a camera shop in Singapore’s Chinatown where a very eager and fast-talking salesman convinced me to buy, not only the needed accessories, but a few other items – including a very costly filter, which, he cleverly demonstrated, would do wonders for my photos.  I was taken in and made the purchases – over $400 worth.

As we ate lunch, I pondered the purchase.  Something did not seem right.  Should they have been that expensive?  I went back to the hotel and checked the items on Amazon.  I had been royally ripped off—the total for the items at Amazon prices would have been no more than about $50.  How stupid I was.

Not to be outdone, I printed out copies of all the Amazon data and marched back to the photo shop for a confrontation. I was all smiles and friendly and took photos of our chatty salesman before presenting the evidence of his deceit. I threatened to put his photo and the shop on Facebook with a warning if he did not give me a refund. The manager, another slick operator, appeared.  He was wary and not about to risk bad publicity.  I could have the refund, but first he wanted to delete the incriminating  photos on my camera.  I obliged, took my money and ran.

Back at the hotel, I related the experience  to the desk clerk who had helped with the copies.  Never do business in Chinatown, he said.  And, never be so dumb and shell out big bucks for items if you have no idea of the going price.

Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.
Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.

No trip is without some minor aggravations.  In Sydney, when we purchased our tickets for an opera house tour, we were given coupons for a free cup of coffee valid until 5 p.m. at the opera house café.  We showed up at 4:40 pm.  “Sorry. Too late.  We had to close early today.”  No big loss.  Back to the hotel, but by bus as it was raining. We waited and waited.  Finally bus number 53 came.  We proceeded to pay the driver for our passage.   ”Sorry.  No tickets sold on buses after 5 p.m. “  They must be purchased ahead at a ticket office, he explained, but we weren’t about to track down the office, which, by then, probably would have been closed anyway.  O.K.  We’ll take a taxi.  We wandered from street corner to street corner and hailed many a taxi.  All full.  Distressed and soaked, we gave up and trekked in the rain back to the hotel – a good hour’s walk.

Not our lucky day, but far worse could happen. It’s all part of the adventure that can make travel a challenge – and an educational experience.

Black Bean Pumpkin Soup was the overwhelming favorite at a lunch I recently prepared for friends. Several requested the recipe which is listed in the column at right.

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Down Under Delights – and Disappointments

“Be sure to climb the Sydney Bridge.  It’s amazing,” friends advised.  So, on our visit Down Under last November, we did —and are $524 Australian dollars poorer.  (The Australian dollar is about at par with the U.S. dollar.)

Yes, $212 per person for this “once in a lifetime” experience.   Who could afford to do it twice?

Our conclusion: A rip off.  Not that the experience was without thrilling moments.  And, the views are dynamite.  But, think of the gourmet meals that $524 could have purchased.

We joined a group of 12 others for the 3 ½ hour adventure.  The first hour was spent getting attired:  a loose fitting protective body suit with a belt from which a carabiner dangled, a head set, a baseball cap. Then, practice. We had to climb and descend a ladder, attaching and releasing the carabiner to a cable.  For security, climbers are attached to a cable throughout the climb.  We listened to safety briefings, warnings etc.  The adrenalin was in high gear.

At last we were off – a single file behind the guide who kept up a commentary heard on the head set. The first part in the guts of the mammoth steel structure was not too exciting, just lots of steps and long stretches across cat walks.  Once we started climbing outdoors, precariously  on the edge of the bridge,  a strong wind whipped around  us.  We were so high, it seemed as if we could touch the sky, and the water below appeared to be miles and miles away.  It was all  exhilarating with spectacular views in every direction.

We stopped for photos.  But, not with our cameras.  Personal cameras are not permitted – too dangerous.  An official bridge photographer was on the scene.  Each couple or individual was photographed with the appropriate spectacular background. This took time, too much time. There were five of these stops, each with a slightly different background.  And, we usually had to wait for the group ahead to finish before our group moved up to the perfect photo slot.

Plenty of time to ponder the scenery, and to look down. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, at 440 feet from top to water, is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge.  That’s a huge drop, and scary to view. The guide added to the fright factor with tales of those who plunged to their deaths.  Sixteen workers died during construction which was completed in 1932. The sight that amazed me during the climb was a lonely bird in his nest built on steel beams that had to be higher than any tree.

The finale of the “climb of your life” was aggravating.  After we had changed back into our street clothes, we proceeded to a room with pretty young girls sitting behind computer monitors.  Here’s where we could get those photos, we thought.  We were right.  Give your name and your individual photos pop up on the screen. For a mere extra $25.95 per photo, you could purchase a picture souvenir.  We passed, content with the one complimentary group shot.

Others in the group (the elderly gentleman from Chicago, the honeymoon couple, the couple celebrating a birthday…) eagerly parted with the extra cash for the pricey souvenirs.  They all seemed happy with their costly climb.  Perhaps we’re jaded?

After the experience, we headed to a nearby pub for a much needed beer.  We related our disappointment to the bartender.  “I wouldn’t do it.  You can walk across the bridge for free.  It’s not worth it,” he said.  We agree.

While the bridge climb left us somewhat underwhelmed, we were overwhelmed with the Sydney Opera House.  During a guided tour, we learned the fascinating background to this iconic structure. Both inside and out, it seems so ultra modern.  Yet, it was constructed between 1959 and 1973.  Glass for the gigantic windows came from France.  The ceramic tiles on the exterior are from Sweden.  Its exotic shape of undulating sails permits self-cleaning by the rain.  The acoustics in the large auditoriums are such that no microphones are needed….

Danish architect Jorn Utson designed the incredible structure.   Building costs far exceeded original projections.  In 1966 due to a conflict over finances with a new minister of public works, Utson resigned, vowing never to return to Australia.  He died in 2008 without seeing his completed masterpiece, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

Other delights of the Sydney visit included the city’s bustling fish market, a ferry excursion to Manly where we watched surfers – and our reasonable room ($135 per night) with an exceptional harbor view at the Macleay Apartment Hotel (

We found Sydney – actually all of Australia – expensive.  Here we had a mini kitchen so we could save on meal costs.  The hotel location in Potts Point was ideal with both delis and a super market nearby for purchase of take-home, ready-to-eat meals.

Well-traveled friends also advised that we visit the Great Barrier Reef during our sojourn in Australia. Many, many year ago, I took the required course and earned scuba diver certification.  I’ve only been on a few dives, but as the Great Barrier is said to be one of the world’s best diving sites, I had to experience it.

We flew from Sydney to Cairns where we rented a car for a 1 ½ hour drive north to Port Douglas, an inviting seaside town of restaurants, quaint shops – and excursion boats to the Great Barrier Reef.  Husband Bob is not a diver, but he joined the party, 80 tourists, on the dive/snorkel boat.

I was nervous since I had not been diving in so long.  I joined a “beginners” group and once in the water, my confidence returned.  The coral formations were intriguing, even mystifying.  But, they were dull — beige and bland in color.  A far cry from the vivid colors of the postcards.  And, the fish were not as plentiful as the postcards depict.  I did see a gigantic clam, a ray glued to the bottom, some bright yellow fish.    I submerged three different times, but each time returned to the surface a bit disillusioned.

I was not the only one.  Several on board expressed the same feelings.  One diver said there were too many of us.  We scared the fish away.  Later someone said the coral had been killed by El Nino. (According to an article on the web, El Nino bleaches the coral.)   Jakob, the friendly proprietor of our Port Douglas hotel, said you need to get accustomed to the underwater surroundings, to adjust your eyes, and then you will see color.  “All those postcard photos are made with strobe lights,” he explained.

I am still happy I had the chance to dive again, but what really made me happy was a swim in an idyllic pool at the Mossman Gorge in the Daintree National Park not far from Port Douglas.  For me, swimming is right up there after skiing.  This body of clear, cool water with huge granite boulders along the sides, as well as in the middle, surrounded by lush jungle, was a bit of paradise.  The pool is in a section of the Mossman River, touted as  “without crocodiles.”  But, there were lots of birds, including a wild turkey poking among the picnickers along the shore.

We saw more feathered friends at Habitat, a fun place where you can dine in a large enclosed area among birds, small and large and brightly colored,  who fly above, prance around on the ground, squeak, chirp, sing, and screech.  A caretaker walks by and gladly perches a bird on your shoulder.  Habitat also has more wildlife: kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, crocodiles.

We rented bikes for the trip to Habitat, just outside of Port Douglas, and rode back along the beach, which, except for a jogger or two, was deserted, even though it was a hot, sunny day.  Jelly fish, we learned.

The Palm Villas, our home in Port Douglas, was ideal – reasonable, excellent location, lovely pool, helpful proprietor.  We paid about $95 per night for a spacious studio apartment with kitchen and balcony on a quiet street.

In case you’re tempted, more on Sydney Bridge climb at  More on diving excursions in the Great Barrier Reef:

Have you been to Australia, climbed the bridge, been diving at the Great Barrier Reef?  Share your views. Click on “Leave a Reply” after the slideshow below.

If you’d like to read more of my tales and adventures, click on “Email Subscription” at top right of post.    New Zealand’s magnificent Fiordland  coming soon.  And, a new recipe appears with each new post.

Learn about the famous melons of Provence.  Try a tasty melon salad.   See “Melon Salad with Feta and Pine Nuts” under recipes at right.


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