New Zealand’s Extraordinary Fiordland

It’s all about scenery: dramatic, magnificent, mystical. We awoke on board a ship in Doubtful Sound, the largest of the area’s 14 fiords, to watch the sun creep over the towering cliffs which surrounded us, casting mirror images of the mountains on the sparkling water.  The only sound was a raging waterfall plunging from high above into the deep inlet. Waterfowl flew above.

We were in awe, mesmerized by the splendor of nature, the beauty all around in this desolate paradise.  Every day during our five-day visit to the region last November was filled with more overwhelming, spectacular sights.

On New Zealand’s South Island, Fiordland National Park is a World Heritage area and the country’s largest national park. The fiords, narrow inlets with steep sides carved by glacial activity, indent Fiordland’s West Coast.  In addition to exploring the fiords by boat, you can hike legendary trails in the mountains, trek through primeval forests and enjoy thrilling views from a seaplane.

Husband Bob and I did a bit of all.  We also enjoyed an exciting boat adventure in a Glowworm Cave through eerie darkness to a grotto where thousands of tiny glowworms glimmered on the walls. It was hard to believe this was a natural phenomenon and not an amusement park attraction.

Our Fiordland base was the town of Te Anau from where we set off for our first fiord excursion to Milford Sound. Early European settlers who were not familiar with fiords called them “sounds” which are actually river valleys flooded due to land sinking below sea level.

A bus trip on the Milford Road through the National Park leads to the Sound. There’s grandiose mountain scenery en route, with stops for photos.   And, once on board the ship sailing through the fiord’s National Geographic scenery, it’s hard to put the camera down.

On the way back to Te Anau, we stopped for a hike led by a guide to a summit.  We crawled under fallen logs en route, jumped over streams, through woods to open spaces above the tree line with superb views in every direction. By the time we reached the top it was raining. Our guide pulled out a thermos from his backpack and served us tea and cookies in the drizzle.

More hiking, but at a lower elevation, was on the next day’s agenda, a nature walk along Lake Te Anu through a dense beech forest.  The guide provided fascinating commentary on the flora and fauna, including the illusive kiwi, the country’s flightless nocturnal bird and national symbol.

Moss thrives in this dark green paradise and can be a meter deep. Step off trail and onto the lush carpet which is like a sponge, squishy strange to sink into.  Along the trail all sizes and varieties of forest ferns grow in abundance.  Kiwis (the people) are passionate about the environment and especially their bird population.  Our guide pointed out many species, including ducks which nest in tree tops.

Fiordland, we learned, has 200 rain days per year, dumping between six to eight meters of water each year. During our Doubtful Sound cruise, we experienced some of that rain. But it not dampen the spirits of those on board who wanted to try sea kayaking.  After our miserable failure with this sport which plunged us into the icy sea (see previous post: Misadventures in New Zealand), we stayed safe and dry on board.

During our cruise through this remote and romantic fiord, we saw penguins, seals and dolphins.  We marveled at haunting dark skies and fantastic cloud formations.

A different but exciting boat ride ended our Fiordland visit. We boarded a speedy jet boat on the Upper Waiau River to Lake Manapouri.  From our craft we boarded a float plane – tricky to get on this plane which was bobbing in the water – for a thrilling aerial view of the stunning countryside.

Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound “the eighth wonder of the world” I think the same could be said for all of Fiordland.

For more on Fiordland, see

Watch the slide show below for more outstanding scenery.  For summer grilling, try my old standby: Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Mustard Cream Sauce.  See the Recipe list on the right.

If you’d like to read more of my tales and adventures, click on “Email Subscription” at top right of post.  Comments are welcome.  Click “Leave a Reply” 

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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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Misadventures in New Zealand

 Swimming with dolphins, kayaking on the open sea, hiking along the shore, plus visits to wineries and fabulous meals.  My kind of trip.

It was the Marlborough Nelson pre-trip on our voyage to New Zealand last November to attend the convention of the Society of American Travel Writers.

The food and wine were over the top.   Dolphins and kayaks – another story.

“These are very sturdy kayaks.  No one has ever capsized on one of my trips,” our perky kayak guide assured us as we prepared to put the boats in the frigid Pacific.   Maladroit Bob and Leah had obviously not been on one of her trips.

We were the retards in the group of six  or so kayaks – always way behind the others.  He (Bob)  kept yelling  at me to switch the paddle to the other side, to dig the oar deeper into the water.   I must admit, I was not adept with the blasted paddles.   And, I was always a bit nervous as I feared we were holding the others back, so I constantly tried to paddle faster and faster which was exhausting  and left my arms throbbing.  The scenery, however, was stupendous.

We held our own until we had to round a point to get back to shore. The winds were strong, so strong we weren’t moving, even though we were paddling hard.  The guide explained how we could use the paddle as a sail – just hold it up and the wind would blow us forward.  Bob was screaming at me, “Paddle left,  Paddle left.”  As I switched to the left, a gust caught the paddle and over we went.

A rude  shock.  12 degrees C. ( 54 degrees F.)  water is none too pleasant, but I popped right up and out of the kayak.  Where was Bob?  I was concerned as he does not know how to swim.  Fortunately he popped up instantly too. Nonetheless  I panicked.  My camera, my precious new Canon Rebel?  It was in one of those waterproof bags strapped to the boat, but I was devastated, convinced  it had drowned.

How to get back in the kayak which had righted itself?  The guide, no doubt eating her words, arrived at the scene of disaster and told us to turn the kayak upside down to empty it of water.  I refused, certain this would spell death for my camera if in fact it had survived.  I told her to help Bob, and that I could swim to shore which  did not seem that far off.  She was adamant – no way should I swim.  So, she gave us instructions and somehow, but with great effort and none too gracefully, we managed to manipulate our soaked and freezing bodies into the boat.  Then, she instructed  us  to pump the water out.  We pumped and paddled, but we were trembling with cold and making little progress.  Finally another guide came and towed us to shore (farther away than I thought – good I did not swim).

I  could not stop shivering, but once on shore I ripped open the bag with the camera. Unbelievable.  It was OK.  Bob’s expensive sunglasses did vanish to the bottom of the sea.  My prescription sunglasses, which I had been wearing, managed to stay on my head.  Another miracle.

We had been toId to bring an extra set of clothing.  Certain that it would not be required, I only brought a pair of jeans  — better than nothing, but more was needed.  Others in the group lent us T-shirts and sweaters.  Nonetheless, we quivered from the cold for what seemed like ages… (This kayak catastrophe brought back memories of our failed attempt at dancing lessons.  There, too, we were the duds in the group.  We best stick to bicycling.)

Then there was the boat excursion to swim with dolphins.   The lovely creatures were sure to appear, we were told.  Those in the group who planned to plunge into the freezing water, this time about 14 degrees  C ( 57 degrees F.) , were given wet suits.  Bob, not a swimmer, passed on this adventure.

The boat trip was scenic, and eventually we spotted dolphins.  The playful creatures followed right alongside the boat, jumping and soaring out of the water at times. Watching them was thrilling.  Swimming with them would be even better.

The boat captain maneuvered the craft  to get ahead of the dolphins, then we were told to jump in.  As dolphins are said to be curious and like humans, they were supposed to come and join us in the water.  We were told to make noise, to sing, through the snorkel mouth piece. This would surely attract the dolphins.

Nine bodies swimming around in frigid waters emitting bizarre sounds.  It was comical.  The wet suit did help, but after awhile, the cold penetrated.   We swam and sang, but the dolphins did not show up, so one by one we’d get back on board.  This ritual was repeated four different times as the captain tried yet again and again to position the boat where he thought the dolphins would be. And, time after time, we plunged into the icy water for naught.

The dolphins were nearby.  Why didn’t they join us? According to one of the guides, they were probably mating, and sex was more exciting than a bunch of crazy humans.  Can’t say I blame them.

Not all was amiss on our excursion in the Marlborough and Nelson regions which are at the top of New Zealand’s South Island.  Marlborough is the country’s largest wine-growing region, especially known for sauvignon blanc.  We visited several beautiful wineries where we tasted and savored some excellent vintages.

We also enjoyed a delicious boat excursion to mussel beds   Lunch was on board – a feast of succulent greenshelled mussels, the best I’d ever tasted.

And, we had a delightful overnight stay at the Lochmara Lodge Wildlife Recovery Center.  The lodge is accessible only by boat.  Hiking trails lead up in the hills above the cluster of buildings, offering super views, as well as interesting outdoor art and sculptures en route.

Watch the slide show below for more photos of New Zealand.  And, try the recipe for “Two Cheese Spinach and Mushroom Casserole” listed in the column at right.  It’s a winner – and easy to prepare.

If you would like to continue to read Tales and Travel posts, please click the “Subscribe” bottom in  the upper right corner. Comments are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below.

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Meandering around Melbourne

This was the best part of our visit to Australia.  It’s all due to the warm and generous hospitality of our friends Meg and Brendan Downie who took great pains to show us the sights and treat us to excellent meals and superb wines, not to mention comfortable accommodations at their attractive home in Donvale outside the city.

We met Meg and Brendan years ago when we lived in Germany where we were members of the Porsche Club.   I had a Porsche 944 (considered by many not to be a real Porsche), but it was my baby, my pride and joy, which I drove for 17 happy years.  Brendan had both a Porsche 356 and 911.  He still has these, and a 1936 Ford.  Attendance at a Porsche event was a highlight of our visit.

Plus, a spectacular drive through the Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley, a visit to an animal sanctuary, an aborigine art gallery and more.

During a visit downtown, I had the opportunity to talk to John McGaw, senior business development manager with Destination Melbourne.  “I’ve worked in the tourism and wine industry for years,” he said.  “I’ve lived in Syndey, Adelaide and now Melbourne.  I prefer Melbourne.  It’s such a friendly city.  Everything is easy here…We’re a shopping and dining capital.”    The city has 80 different kinds of ethnic restaurants, he pointed out.

According to John, Melbourne, a city of almost four million, was just voted “the world’s most livable city.”  “It’s as safe a city as you’ll find anywhere,” he boasted.   Tourism is important to the multi-cultural city, with China considered the largest future market, followed by India.  Then there’s Greece.  John said that Melbourne has the second largest population of Greeks after Greece.  “They’ve been coming here for 40 years.”  The city’s Greek Quarter, as well as Chinatown, is fun to visit.  For Vietnamese fare, there’s Victoria Street lined with noodle shops and grocery stores.

The downtown is lively, vibrant, with street entertainers, hucksters, and plenty to admire, including 50 shopping arcades, the oldest, the Black Arcade, dating to 1892.  John recommended we visit an old world Victorian tea shop whose window was filled with luscious pastries.   The place is so popular, we had to stand in line to wait for a seat.

Federation Square is an innovative mix of glass and steel structures with shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars — and the venue for some 2,000 events every year.  Docklands on Victoria Harbor offers more shopping and dining opportunities.  The Queen Victoria Market is food paradise.  Meg and Brendan shop there every Saturday, visiting favorite stands for fruits and veggies, as well as delis and bakeries.

Within just 90 minutes of the city center, stunning scenery awaits.  We made many photo stops on our drive through the Mornington Peninsula. The Yarra Valley, a wine growing region, is also picturesque with wineries where you can stop to taste fine chardonnays, pinot noirs and more.  Our drives took us though areas devastated by the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 which ravaged southeastern Australia   —— past slope after slope of still barren trees.

Wildlife is a major attraction in Australia. Meg took time from her duties as ward councilor for a visit to friend  Neil Abbott, a jovial farmer with 100 acres where 70 – 80 kangaroos usually hang out.  As luck would have it, the beasts were missing the day we visited.  The day before there had been a major fire drill with helicopters hovering over the area.  The noise drove the kangaroos away, but we did spot one or two during a tour with Neil in his four-wheel drive vehicle  through the hilly terrain.   And, we learned about kangaroos.

“The aborigines used to eat them.  The dingoes (Australian wild dog) used to eat them.  But now they have no natural enemies,” Neil said.  So, they proliferate and become pests, destroying trees and fences.  They sharpen their claws on the tree bark.  “Their claws are longer than your finger,” he explained.   Some people shoot them, but this is an outrage.  “People are up in arms about those who shoot our national emblem,” he said.  He can no longer farm due to the kangaroo population on his land, but he won’t shoot the animals.

“The kangaroos are a wild animal.  They should be in the bush.  It’s cruel to have them in these areas where they are chased by dogs, where they ruin fences, and are a danger to cars and people… I believe there are a lot of accidents, people killed, veering to avoid hitting a kangaroo,” he said.

During our drive through his farm, Neil said he had a surprise for us.  He knew where a wombat lived and would take us there.  He got out and went ahead down a hill.  “Be quiet…he’s here,” he told us.  We crept behind, me with camera ready.  Voila, I focused on a furry brown head.  Wait, something seemed amiss. It did not move. It looked a bit suspicious.  No wonder.  It was a stuffed wombat Neil had buried under leaves – a joke he often plays on naïve visitors.

We saw more wildlife on a visit to the Healesville Sanctuary where demonstrations and lectures on the various critters are scheduled throughout the day.    The Koalas drew big crowds.

Colin McKinnon is another friend Meg took us to visit.  His Mia Mia Gallery features an amazing collection of beautiful aboriginal art.  The gallery is owned by aborigines, and the profits are returned to aborigine communities.  Colin, himself an aboriginal artist, explained the symbolism of many of the intricate and colorful works, and he generously gave me a print which now hangs in our living room, a treasured souvenir of our memorable visit to Melbourne.

More on the Mia Mia Gallery at

More on Melbourne at

More on the Healesville Sanctuary at

For more views of Melbourne and surroundings, watch the following slideshow.  For a taste of  Greece, whose  influence is prominent in  Melbourne, try Meg’s Baklava, recipe in column at right.

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