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Australia, Destinations, Oceania

A stopover in Queenstown, New Zealand

January 9, 2013 • By

On my final stop of a two-month holiday, I can think of no better place on earth to relax and contemplate my future than Queenstown, New Zealand.  A resort town located on the country’s South Island, Queenstown is known for tranquility, adventure sports, outdoor activity (skiing in winter, hiking and biking in summer) and genuine beauty.  It is situated on Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by breathtaking mountains most covered with clusters of towering evergreen tress and lush vegetation, while others peaks remain snow covered year round.  One mountain range seems perfectly named, the Remarkables.  The locals believe the early settlers named the range the Remarkables upon seeing the “remarkable sunset” on the mountains one evening.  I agree.


Queenstown has a population of roughly 23,000 people but that doesn’t count the influx of tourists from Australia and around the world in the peak winter and summer months.  The indigenous Maori population is very small in Queenstown numbering only about 1,300.  *It’s suggested the Maori’s arrived in New Zealand in the 13th Century AD from Eastern Polynesia. This is a place where everyone knows your name and if they don’t give it a day.  It’s an appealing lifestyle on many levels if only the jobs paid a decent wage.  Salary workers, short-term holiday workers and backpackers make up the bulk of the economy.  My 25 year-old concierge told me he was “getting out” in the next month.  Here I thought he was moving to Auckland or Australia or something big and he informed me he was moving to Dunedin a simple three-hour drive.  Why Dunedin?  He can make more money, work less and ski more.  It sounds like the desired life of a Kiwi (nickname for New Zealanders) and maybe me.

I first visited Queenstown with my friend Erin Garvey in 2004.  We were young, spirited and full of energy.  Having met on the John Kerry/John Edwards Presidential Election we developed a bond and love of travel.  After experiencing defeat in Boston on that cold November rainy night, we planned a road trip through the South Island of New Zealand.  It’s hard to imagine all that has transpired in eight years.  Queenstown has changed.  I have changed and Erin is now married with a newborn baby girl.  John Kerry probably wishes he never met John Edwards and John Edwards is likely regretting his foray into politics.

While Queenstown has added more restaurants, bars, shops and swarms of tourists, it still possesses the same allure and magic of a land forgotten.  It’s why Hollywood beckons.  An artist could not possibly produce anything more awe-inspiring than the images of Lake Wakatipu and the mountain ranges.  Movies such as the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Vertical Limit, 10,000 BC and Prince Caspian have all been filmed in Queenstown or nearby.  Just steps away from town, I could find myself completely alone away from the activity and in the presence of nature.

Since my injured foot prevented me from a six-hour trek, I made the most of the easy grade walks.  I hiked from the Village of Kawarau on the shores of Lake Wakatipu for two hours pondering how I could get my father to visit here and buy a vacation home–for ME!  As if the gods were somehow listening to me, a fatigued out of shape version of me stumbled upon a golf course.  He could surely not resist these views and these prices (it’s the only place the dollar fares well).

I couldn’t help notice the clear blue skies, the manicured lawns, magnificent homes and incredible views as I walked. Every direction produced a better snapshot.  A spectrum of blue reached from the shores to the middle of the lake contrasting with the trees and earthy tones of the mountainous landscape.  The lake is the focal point of Queenstown.  Kids play in inner tubes and swing from trees, locals sunbathe and picnic on its shores, people boat and swim and make the most of these warm summer days.  While the lake is appealing, it’s cold.  Most people wore wet suits and after testing the temperatures on a dock one afternoon, it didn’t take me long to figure out I would suffer from hypothermia rather quickly.


The average air temperatures are 60-70F this time of year but there are spurts of 80s and 90s too.  In other words, this is not a place with predictable weather patterns.  I’ve been here four days and experienced spring, summer and winter all on one day.  This much I recalled from my 2004 visit and was well prepared for my 20-mile bike ride.  I dressed in layers and stuffed my rain gear in my backpack.  The bike proved more challenging than the walk but I couldn’t resist the rolling hills and amazing views.  Even the wind and rain could not stop the flow of adrenaline.  I even contemplated skydiving and bungy jumping before my common sense caught up with me.

What I find most appealing about Queenstown and what I appreciate about travel is the constant thrill of the unknown.  I find myself on a walk, the skies are clear, it’s warm I am breathing fresh air and then the clouds descend and the rains fall.  My journey starts out with a quick bike ride to town and back and I find myself eating pizza at one of Queenstown’s most famous haunts, Cow’s Pizzeria, drinking wine and wondering how I might return back to my hotel in one piece.  It’s about the undiscovered for me and the search for something different.  In Queenstown, I could be a tourist, ski bum or restaurant owner and people would treat me with the same kind of respect as a garbage collector.  It’s the authenticity of the Kiwis that I find most attractive.

Yesterday, my butt was sore from my bike ride and my foot swollen from my strenuous “stroll” the day prior so I figured I would write and taste test my way through Queenstown.  Here is my recipe for the perfect Queenstown stay:

Vudu Cafe serves the best Chai Lattes (in 2004 Erin and I drank chai lattes two times a day in search for the best – I thought I would give Queenstown’s newest cafe a chance) and the most delicious desserts of which I gorged myself on throughout the day.  Don’t miss the carrot cake.

Captains makes the finest blue cheese and broccoli soup and New Zealand mussels

Eichardt’s Hotel sample the mouthwatering oysters and tapas plates

Pog Mahones Pub to watch Notre Dame’s demise, visit with Irish tourists and catch a sunset view with a local glass of wine or mug of beer.

*Pog’s is also the best place to meet strangers and that I did–loads of them.

My new friend Pete is a Kiwi living in Melbourne.  He’s been all over the world and had some crazy stories to share.  He made me feel like a hermit.  I gathered a few insights into the New Zealand culture.  Pete is half Maori, half Scottish but I would have believed he was English or German too.  We had a great afternoon comparing the culture of the United States and the lifestyle of the average Kiwi. Life is here is simple yet complicated.

We finished the evening after a few cocktails and live music on the wharf at Tatler’s Restaurant where I should have ordered the Prime Rib but hesitated because I was in a pub.  I was wrong-Big Mistake.  The chicken was decent but don’t miss the prime rib with horseradish-mashed potatoes.

I’m leaving for the USA today but not before I take one more stroll around the lake, breathe in the fresh air and thank all those who have given me an opportunity to experience this “remarkable” place.  It’s not always the spot that you land but the journey you take.  In Queenstown it’s the people, the food,  the sights and sounds of nature and a small slice of perfection.

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Australia, Destinations, Oceania

Christmas in Sydney to Adelaide – Australia

January 8, 2013 • By

My four days of freedom were only slightly interrupted by the arrival of Patrick, my brother. This is the same brother who would not normally venture to a foreign land 20 hours away and not with his sister of all people. Everyone can exhale. We both survived in spectacular fashion.

After a herculean effort to make his flight from San Francisco to Sydney, Patrick arrived jet lagged and in need of food. We ventured straight to my favorite spot – the Sydney Harbor. It’s a tradition that I started with me, myself and I on my very first visit to Sydney in 2004. Upon my arrival in Sydney, I go directly to Starbucks, grab my coffee (now a whopping $7.15 for a Grande Frappuccino) and do not stop until the bridge and opera house greet me with open arms. It struck me that Patrick did not seem as impressed with my routine but maybe a 22-hour flight and 80 degree heat will do that to a person.

As this is Patrick’s first time in Australia, I wanted him to share the appreciation and I had for this incredible city. We taste tested the Mercantile Hotel’s burgers, a town pleaser and beer and Patrick retreated to his hotel for a whopping 15 hours of sleep, while I visited with New York friends for dinner at Manly Beach.

Finally, the big day arrived and Santa located Patrick in Sydney but somehow neglected my stocking–typical I suppose. My dear Australian friends Angus and Maryam invited the foreigners to a Christmas barbeque Brazilian/Aussie style. The weather did not cooperate but who can complain about 70 degree temperatures even if it’s raining. Within moments of our appearance, Maryam’s brothers visiting Sydney from Brazil conjured up cherry cocktails and mouthwatering (truly) bites of seasoned beef. The booze and beef flowed throughout the afternoon and we spent a lovely day chatting about politics, guns (right after Connecticut shooting), the U.S. economy, travel and family. When I first experienced an Aussie Christmas in 2010 with Jono and Jill, I figured Jono’s mother was either a master cook or a glutton for punishment but now that I’ve eaten my way through another Christmas, I’ve concluded an Aussie Christmas warrants overindulgence. This Christmas afternoon we consumed eight kilos of meat (17 pounds), a case of wine, two cases of corona, two boxes of scampi, half a ham, a salad, potatoes and somewhere in between the courses of various cuts of meat, we disposed of a cheesecake. A cast of characters joined in our demise- friends of Maryam and Angus who stopped by for a spoonful here and there but mostly the core group of eight of us made for a silly afternoon and an even more dramatic morning.

Barossa Valley
I continue to make this mistake and maybe one of these days I will learn but I should never ever book a flight or get on an airplane the day after any type of celebration. Boxing Day here in Australia is a holiday for a reason. People need rest and recovery time after Christmas festivities. Instead I found myself at Sydney airport early in the morning dry heaving and wishing I had not left my Excedrin in the extra bag at Angus’ house. Patrick seemed to be in much better shape and even enjoyed his first Pie Face experience at the airport. It’s still foggy but I boarded the plane to Adelaide and even managed to sit in my seat for a few minutes before bolting to the bathroom in what would be come my craftiest move to date. Pleading motion sickness the flight attendant found me an empty row to sleep off my massive hangover. It’s important to note, Patrick left me to my own devices, which worked to my advantage. I awoke minutes before landing, fully covered with a blankie and my head resting gently on a fluffy pillow (a rather comfy pillow for an airplane) and a much-needed ginger ale at my side.

An hour and twenty minutes later, Patrick and I arrived in the Barossa Valley, a famous wine region outside of the City of Adelaide in South Australia. I faired the transfer ride rather well but missed on an important opportunity to converse with our driver–my favorite activity. We stayed at a beautiful resort, (the Louise) situated on a vineyard and home to the top restaurant in the region. Patrick pointed out the obvious. He much preferred visiting this hotel with a significant other but would settle for me.

The Barossa Valley population is small with only about 200,000 residents and an area of about 32 miles wide. It consists of 85 cellar doors and more than 100 wineries. The Mediterranean temperatures are perfect for grape growth and wine production with warm, dry days and cool nights. After sweating for nearly three weeks, Barossa proved to be a place I could finally enjoy a day in the sun. Patrick made the most of our first day in Barossa hitting the wineries by bike, while I spoiled myself with cheese and sunshine and a nap on our terrace. Our tasting dinner at the Appellation was equally delightful. The chef prepared the meal with local and seasonal produce. It was just a shame I overdid it on Christmas.

Our time in Barossa was quite peaceful. We enjoyed a wine tasting day where we visited some of the regions (and Australia’s) best vineyards: Henschke Cellars, a high-end, family owned winery in Eden Valley; Yalumba, our favorite and also family owned with delicious shiraz and cabernet sauvignon; Rockford, an old fashioned stone tasting room with great sparking reds; Hentley Farms, Peter Lehmans, a winery with decent wine but gorgeous grounds and Tsarcke’s, a winemakers successful experiment with shiraz. Shiraz is the wine of choice (Syrah to the rest of the world) but the area turns out some great bottles of Grenache, Tempranillo, Cabernet and Riesling as well. A few of the wineries produce a sparking red not to be confused with a Rose but it’s the Barossa Valley’s answer to black gold. A small amount of sparkling red is released and they are typically gone by the end of the month. Harvest in Barossa occurs anywhere from the end of March to mid-April depending on the weather. Tourism and wine are the mainstays of the Barossa Valley and after sampling some of the best and worst I can see why. Even the less known varieties and labels were excellent.

Balloon filling up.

Balloon filling up.

The Balloon Ride
I have a bucket list. It gets smaller each year but as a planner I like to check things off the list. I’ve been trying to fly in a hot air balloon for about four years. It seems Mother Nature needs to provide clear skies and mild winds in order for balloons to fly safely. Alas, in the lobby of our resort, I scan a brochure of a multi-colored balloon and an opportunity to fly high above the Barossa Valley. I asked Patrick if he was interested and he clearly didn’t seem to be as excited as I was but agreed to come along for the ride. With a pick up time of 3:45 am, it’s tough to appreciate the experience on such little sleep but with the momentum and clear skies in my favor, I savored every minute. Our guide drove us around to a few locations to test the wind speed and when we located a spot for launch a group of 12 of us nervously awaited the next step. The balloon was unrolled from its packaging bag and a massive fan filled it with air while the basket was tilted over helplessly awaiting passengers. Keep in mind it’s pitch dark and now approximately 4:45 am. It took about 30 minutes before the balloon took shape and the basket could be pushed upright.

The 12 strangers and fast friends climbed into the bucket by section putting our lives in the hands of our pilot, Captain Justin. He pulled on some strings firing up the balloon and we began to sway side to side. It was time…up, up and away we went soaring over farms, meticulously manicured vineyards, homes, kangaroos, roads, hills and valleys of the Barossa. The best seat is the house is always the front row, the best apartment is the Penthouse and the best view is unobstructed. In other words, the view from the balloon suited me perfectly. The sun peaked through the clouds announcing a new day. We snapped a few shots and the sun disappeared as quickly as it presented itself. It would have probably made for brighter pictures but the scenery was remarkable either way. The ride only lasted an hour, the experience a lifetime. The smile on my face said it all but the pounding of my heart made it more real, more magical. Our powerful landing had us skating on farmland, as our balloon was not quite ready to stay grounded. The comment provided by our fellow British traveler and directed at Patrick said it all, “You looked like you were going to shit yourself.”

After our successful voyage, we celebrated with a breakfast of champions including champagne, local cheeses and meats, quiches, pizzas and tea and coffee. The air still cool but the sun fighting through the clouds blanketed us with warmth. Another adventure to cross off the list but more importantly another dream realized. I loved it.

A small city located in South Australia, Adelaide has a population of about 1.2 million and is the fifth largest city in Australia. The British founded Adelaide in 1836 but there are people from all over the world living in the city and its suburban parts. In 1838, six German families landed in Adelaide having left Germany to avoid religious prosecution. Most of these families headed to Barossa to make use of their wine making and agriculture talents. There are also, Italians Scottish, Vietnamese and Greeks calling Adelaide home. It wasn’t hard to figure out why Adelaide was coined the City of Churches. Walking around the Central Business District and the surrounding areas one would be hard pressed to not find a church on every block. The irony being the last Census in 2011 found Adelaide one of the least religious cities in all of Australia. Most the population identifies itself as Christian with the largest denominations being Catholic, Anglican, Uniting Church and Eastern Orthodox.

Most Adelaideans work in the healthcare or social service arenas but the area is very well known for its universities, education and sports. There is also a large manufacturing base present. There are some international banks in the Central Business District and lots of shopping opportunities. I most enjoyed my visit to the Central Market where I sampled lots of local produce. My new favorite dishes are Bircher Muesli and passion fruit swirled with a delightful Greek yogurt. It’s not like I ever find myself lacking for meals but this market filled with fresh fish, meat cuts, Thai massage, souvenirs, ethnic spices and dishes could make even the most healthy eater get a little crazy. Somewhere between Bali and Australia I became obsessed with finding the perfect bowl of Muesli, a breakfast meal with rolled oats, fruits and nuts and you can have with milk or yogurt. Adelaide proved to be the winner.

In Adelaide, Patrick and I met up with my friends known to most as the “Germans.” I met Corinna and Ingmar on my last trip to Australia in 2010 on a tour along the Great Ocean Road (Melbourne). Since our spontaneous meeting, the Germans have visited NYC (Corinna twice) and I have gone to Hamburg, Germany. Here in Adelaide we meet again. It’s comforting and personally rewarding for me to have friends all over the world. I get a kick out of Corinna’s planning and Ingmar’s calming ways. They are beautiful, kind and sincere people and I am fortunate to call them friends. We celebrated our Australian reunion over some fine wines and food South Australian style.

Our inaugural trip to South Australia provided me (and I expect Patrick) with a different outlook on Australian life. People move at a slower pace, there isn’t the hustle and bustle of the big city and food and wine is part of the daily life not just for celebration. People live in towns with a population as small as 20,000 and then commute to Adelaide or surrounding areas. Adelaide is situated between the Indian Ocean (St. Vincent’s Bay) at the Adelaide Hills and the charming River Torrens runs through the heart of the city giving way to parks, gardens and lots of open space for running, biking and picnicking.

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