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Trip Report From Singapore to NZ: A Remarkable Safari Through Time and Across Cultures

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Greetings Fodorites, here is my attempt at a report of my travels across Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand, a trip that took exactly one month to complete.

Before I begin, I want to say thank you once again to everyone here for all the help and advice I've received over the past several months as I planned for what was indeed a fascinating trip. And thanks for the wealth of information you've shared about your own trips, as it really helped me think about mine and put information that I read in guidebooks and on websites in a more useful context.

And also some background: I love to travel. I travel frequently for work, and about once a year (sometimes two) for pleasure. My travels have taken me across the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. This is my third trip to Asia (previous trips were to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, and Malaysia) and my second to Australia.

The spark for this trip: I first visited Australia in 2006, the first time I stepped outside of North America, and immediately fell in love with the country. I've longed to return to Australia, Sydney in particular, since 2006 but the desire to explore other lands, coupled with an unfavorable exchange rate, has kept me away. I knew I also wanted to visit Borobudur Temple. I remember seeing images of the place at my local temple (I'm a Buddhist) at a very young age, but reading about Kathie and Cheryl's trip there lighted a fire. Singapore was a logical starting point before Indonesia giving my flight options and New Zealand touched upon my curiosity.

Wheels up: I arrived in Singapore several time zones and a couple of days later by way of Tokyo and Newark, where I boarded my first flight. United Flight 79 departed on-time at about 10:30 in the morning. My economy class seat was fine for the trip - not the worst I've taken but certainly nothing to write home about. The meals were decent, and the entertainment system kept me occupied between a couple of naps. My plane touched down at Narita fourteen hours later, and after a brief layover, I was on United Flight 803 bound for Singapore. I slept for most of the Tokyo to Singapore flight, and arrived shortly after midnight at Changi airport. Immigration was a breeze. My baggage arrived soon after. And I was in cab on my way to my hotel - the Swissotel Merchant Court, located near Clarke Quay.

Next: My first full day in Singapore...

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    >>>I was on United Flight 803 bound for Singapore.<<<


    Warm greetings tripplanner, from New Zealand holiday, and many thanks for the brilliant opening post - and bringing back some UA803 memories. (Before Singapore Airlines became my primary business travel carrier, have fond UA (yes!) recollections of flying 803 into SIN for meetings. These days, my NRT-SIN business travel flights are mostly SQ 637 & 11.)

    Looking forward to your impressions of our fine home of Singapore... Warm wishes to you and all from what has been (to date) a most satisfactory New Zealand holiday,

    macintosh (robert)


    ... Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly ...

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    me too [looking forward to reading it, i mean]. we just got back from a trip with not dissimilar starting and finishing points [HK and NZ] but i suspect that our trips were very different. It'll be interesting to read your views, tripplanner, about the places we both saw, and the places we didn't.

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    Thanks for the encouragement, everyone.

    AskOksena, glad you're having a great time in New Zealand. What parts of the country are you visiting?

    Kathie, you're welcome. Having done quite an extensive read through these forums, I've learned to seek out your reports as I know we have a similar interest in temples and Buddhist art and iconography.

    Ann, welcome back! Will you be posting a report as well? In one of my posts on Singapore, I will speak a little bit about my impressions vis-a-vis Hong Kong, which I visited a few years ago.

    I'll put up another post or two later today. Right now, there's a little something called work that's calling my name ;)

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    Introduction to Singapore

    After a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast at the hotel's restaurant, I set out absorbing the sights and sounds of Singapore like I do most cities I visit for the very first time - a nice walk around the central part of town, taking in a museum and / or a few key landmarks.

    As my hotel is a block from the Singapore River, this is where I began my morning promenade. I followed the river from Clarke Quay towards its mouth, passing through Boat Quay and the Fullerton Hotel, where I stopped for a quick peek, ending at the Merlion. As this is the financial heart of the city-state, I expected to see office buildings and other high-rises like I see in every other city in the world, and it was just that. What I didn't expect was the row of historic buildings at what is now Boat Quay. The contrast between the rowhouses along the river and the steel and glass right behind felt stark to me. I anticipated some sort of architectural transition between the two, and it just wasn't there. Except for the brief architectural observation, I didn't linger. The rowhouses have all been converted to restaurants and bars, and none were open when I was walking by.

    After the Merlion, I retraced my steps towards the Fullerton, went across the Cavenaugh Bridge, and paid a visit to the Asian Civilizations Museum. The museum is very well laid out. I found several of the exhibits interesting. I especially enjoyed the sections devoted to Southeast Asia and China, as well as India / South Asia. However, I did find the section on the Middle East a bit oversimplified. Perhaps I was making comparisons between it and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, both of which are focused on that part of the world. Overall, though, I thought this was the best museum I visited in Singapore.

    After a couple of hours at the museum, I headed past several colonial-looking buildings, all of which were under scaffolding, and across the Padang towards Esplanade - Theaters by the Bay. I've seen pictures of this building prior to my trip to Singapore and was intrigued by its architecture. Up close, it felt underwhelming.

    Exiting the theaters, I made my way back across the Padang and towards the Raffles Hotel, but not before stopping for a quick bite at the food court inside the Raffles City shopping mall. They were not permitting visitors into the main lobby of the Raffles Hotel on the afternoon that I visited, but I was able to walk along the arcades where the shops are located. I took a peek at the Long Bar, and did not go inside for one of the famed Singapore Slings. I had read that it's more of a tourist gimmick than anything else, and didn't feel I was missing something.

    Next is the Peranakan Museum. For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, Peranakan refers to people from Singapore and Malaysia of mixed local-Malay and Chinese-or-Indian-settler ancestry. Another term for Peranakan is Baba Nonya.

    The Peranakan Museum was a good place for me to spend the rest of my first day in Singapore. As someone with a significant family ancestry from this corner of the world, I felt a special connection to the story that was being told. I found the exhibits about the traditional wedding and funeral ceremonies to be very accurate to what we continue to experience to this day.

    I left the museum right around closing time, and hopped into a taxi back to my hotel to freshen up and meet some friends for dinner. Yes, I tried the local chili crab as well as the black pepper crab; while I liked the chili crab, I preferred the black pepper crab.

    Next up: Green Singapore...

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    Hi tripplaner - interesting start to your trip. We debated lang and hard as to whether we should stop-over in HK or Singapore and eventually went for the former, but we found it almost impossible to decide having been to neither; in the end we more or less tossed a coin!

    I'm really intrigued, therefore, to find out what we missed!

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    Kathie, is the Raffles museum accessed from the main lobby? Either that or I missed it.

    Ann, having been to both, I would give HK a leg up over Singapore. This is not to say that Singapore's not worth a few days, although I could easily have spent a couple of weeks in HK. I'll do a pros and cons post after I complete an account of my time in Singapore.

    And now Green Singapore...

    After a full day wandering through the urban landscape of downtown Singapore, the next day was devoted to greenery and "hiking". When I visit a place, I like to mix things up for changes of pace and schedule some down days every 4th or 5th day, sometimes more depending on how strenuous the activities have been.

    My second day in Singapore began with a visit to the Botanic Gardens. I started earlier in the day to take advantage of the cooler weather and spent a good two and a half hours at the gardens. Admission to the gardens itself is free, but there is a separate fee to enter the National Orchid Gardens, S$5 I believe. The orchid gardens are definitely worth the entry fee. It is well laid out and there was a lot to see. In the main gardens, I especially enjoyed the valley of palms. You can walk among the different types of palm and there are large expanses of grass where you can sit down and just take in the scenery. I highly recommend that you include a visit to the Botanic Gardens on any trip to Singapore, even if it's for a couple of days.

    Following a visit to the gardens, I grabbed a taxi and headed to Reflections at Bukit Chandu. Bukit Chandu was the site of a British military fort and was the scene of a major battle in the fight between the Brits and the Japanese during World War II. Today the site houses a small museum that tells the stories of the fight. The museum does a good job with the videos, including one that recounted Malay village life there and how they were affected by war. It's worth about an hour.

    Leaving the museum, I turned right and followed signs to the Canopy Walk, the start of a "hike" along the southern ridges that make up a portion of the island. The Southern Ridge hike is more of a walk over paved concrete, steel, and wooden walkways than outdoor terrain, and even wheelchair accessible. It starts at the Canopy Walk and ends at Vivo City shopping center, the jumping off point for Sentosa Island. Along the way there's interesting flora, good views of the Singapore skyline, and glimpses of Sentosa Island and the Straits of Malacca. The walk took about three hours at a leisurely pace and included an hour break for lunch at a small bistro atop Mount Faber that served decent-quality food.

    Understanding that Sentosa Island is pretty much an amusement park, geared towards kids, I decided to give it a miss. I rounded out my day with a visit to Chinatown instead. Highlights of my visit there we're the Chinatown Heritage Center and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The heritage center told the life stories of Singapore's early Chinese settlers. It includes a good reproduction of what a typical rowhouse was like, with a storefront on the ground floor and housing quarters above. The tooth relic temple supposedly houses one of the Buddha's teeth; all you can see is a gold covered stupa in a very large room, part of which is covered in glass. There's also a small rooftop garden at the premises, in the middle which houses a large Tibetan-style prayer bell. The main religious icons on the ground floor were under scaffolding when I visited, undergoing three months of top to bottom cleaning. Nevertheless, I did spent a good amount of time there and joined part of a prayer service that was going on at the time.

    Tomorrow is another action-packed day comprised of visits to Little India, Kampong Glam, Gardens by the Bay, and the Marina Bay Sands. Stay tuned...

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    No, the little museum in Raffles is not accessed via the lobby. It is sort of tucked away and would be easy to miss if you didn't know it was there. But it sounds like you saw plenty during your stay in Singapore.

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    Vacillating between a trip to southern India, having done Rajasthan and Varanasi previously or a trip through Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia including bali (all if which we have not yet been to). Your report is very informative and I'm looking forward to more.

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    Kathie, you're right. I had my fill of Singapore being there for four nights. I'll make sure to check out the Raffles museum on my next visit.

    Dgunbug, I've never been to India so I cannot make the comparison for you. Central Java and Bali will come in subsequent posts, and I'm happy to try and answer questions you may have about those places.

    Ann, gardens are definitely my thing, although I also enjoy temples, architecture, and hiking the great outdoors. I was only in NZ for five nights and spent all of it in Auckland, so my only garden stop was in the Domain. Will be eager to read about your discoveries though.

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    I was only in NZ for five nights and spent all of it in Auckland, so my only garden stop was in the Domain.>>

    tripplanner, the only part of Auckland that WE saw was the airport, so we never saw anything of Auckland proper. Sadly we didn't get to the botanical gardens in Wellington either because of the awful weather. But we did visit the gardens in Christchurch, Oamaru, and Timaru, all of them excellent. And in OZ we went to the botanical gardens in Brisbane and Sydney; both were lovely too.

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    Femi, thank you for your interest. I'm enjoying the ability to relive some of my experiences through sharing with everyone here.

    And without further ado, here's the next installment...

    Little India

    One of the things I most wanted to get out of my time in Singapore is to experience the cultures that call the city-state home. I had already seen Chinatown yesterday, which leaves Little India and Kampong Glam. For this neighborhood visit, I used Lonely Planet's suggestion for a walking tour. I started at the Boon Keng MRT station and worked my way down to the Little India MRT station, going down different streets and alleyways as the guidebook suggested. This took me to a few houses of worship - Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple, Leong San See Temple, Sakayamuni Buddha Gaya Temple, and Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple. This was the first time I've been inside a Hindu temple so I took my time looking around, taking time to understand the layout of the temples, admiring the fine carvings, etc. At Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, I was able to make friends with a local worshipper who kindly explained to me some of the different religious iconography found there. At both Leong San See Temple and Sakayamuni Buddha Gaya Temple, I gave incense offerings. For the remainder of the walking tour, except for a couple of buildings of note, I was mostly strolling, making notes of some of the everyday items for sale, and just observing locals go about their daily business. The walk ended at the Tekka Center, where there were plenty of people purchasing their seafood and poultry. In all, I probably spent about three hours here.

    Kampong Glam

    Kampong Glam is one of the primary gathering areas for ethnic Malays and people of the Muslim faith in Singapore. Highlights of the area were a visit to the Malay Heritage Center, which gives a good overview of Malay life in Singapore both past and present, and the Sultan Mosque. I also did a quick pass along some of the streets hawking souvenirs, fabric for traditional Muslim wear, etc. Of the three "ethnic" neighborhoods I visited, Kampong Glam seemed most "too tidy" to me, to the extent that it felt "artificial" / "set up" for tourists in some ways. There were certainly some elements of this in Chinatown as well, but I suppose it didn't hit me the same way that it did here.

    It was about 3:30 by the time I finished my walk through Kampong Glam. I then hopped into a taxi, which took me to Gardens by the Bay. I spent the remainder of my day there, followed by dinner in the food court of Marina Bay Sands and a trip to the SkyPark for a birds-eye view of the city afterwards. This portion of my day will, I'm afraid, have to wait until another post.

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    Gardens by the Bay

    Gardens by the Bay is a relatively new attraction, having only been opened to the public in 2012. It is located in reclaimed land east of downtown. Other than the Gardens and the adjacent Marina Bay Sands, almost all of the area is under construction or preparing for construction.

    The gardens are very extensive. I spent four hours there and saw maybe 50-60 percent of it. Knowing that I could spend days here, I focused on the highlights: the two domed conservatories and the Supertree Grove. I started at the Flower Dome, which showcases flora from different regions of the world. Particularly noteworthy to me were the Sunken Gardens and the Avenue of the Baobabs. Sure there we're many visitors inside the dome when I visited but it wasn't hard to find relatively quiet spots where you could sit down, enjoy what's around you, and just try to take it all in. The Avenue of the Baobabs is a path lined with huge baobab trees on either side, interspersed with succulents everywhere. It's hard not to take a step back and appreciate the stateliness and grandeur of the exhibit. This is one of my favorite parts of the gardens, along with the Supertree Grove.

    After the Flower Dome, I moved on to the adjacent conservatory - the Cloud Forest Dome. This some is revolves around a seven-story manmade mountain covered with flora you would find at different elevations. You begin by walking along a path that leads to an elevator that leads to the seven floor and then you make your way down the structure through a series of escalators. There are steel walkways on each level that allows you to see some of the flowers and plants up close. You also get some nice views of the Flyer and the Sands not too far away. On one of the lower floors is an exhibit on climate change that focuses on what would happen as temperature rise. While I enjoyed the Cloud Forest Dome, it was somewhat hard to forget that you're in an "artificial" environment. For this reason and for the variety found in the Flower Dome, I would recommend that one focuses on the Flower Dome if pressed for time.

    After visiting the two conservatories, I made my way to the Supertree Grove. There is a walkway that connects these Supertree, allowing you to see these impressive structures up close and also giving you a good birds' eye view of the surrounding area. The walk is easy (it's a short winding path that begins at one elevator and ends at another) and it's a good place to take in what you've just seen and what else you may have missed. I also recommend coming up here close to dusk so you can see the lights come up on the Supertrees and the buildings nearby; it had a magical quality about it.

    There is also a section within the complex dubbed the heritage gardens, which displays flora from China, India, Malaysia, and England, if memory serves me right. I only had a brief chance to walk through a couple of these before my stomach started to grumble. It was getting dark quickly too, so I made a way across a pedestrian bridge that connected the Gardens to the Marina Bay Sands.

    Gardens by the Bay is very different from the Singapore Botanic Gardens. I would highly recommend that you see both, assuming you have the time. The Botanic Gardens are what you would expect from one of the great gardens of the world; it is very well done. Gardens by the Bay had a novel quality about it. It looks and feels shiny and new, like much of Singapore. You could easily spend an entire day at either place. Both are easy to reach. I went to the Botanic Gardens via a public bus; it was a one-bus ride; no transfers we're needed. I arrived at Gardens by the Bay via taxi, but there's also an MRT station that drops you off at Marina Bay Sands, from where you can access the complex using the pedestrian bridge. I don't think I can recommend one over the other; they are just very different and each worthwhile for different reasons.

    Marina Bay Sands

    I came here to grab a quick dinner at the nice food court in the basement as well as a visit to the SkyPark observation deck. The Sands houses a casino, a hotel, and the usual higher end shops that you find everywhere else around the world these days, which I didn't care for. The SkyPark is accessed from the hotel lobby. It offered a nice panoramic view of the downtown area and was an enjoyable way to cap my stay here.

    In my next post, I will attempt to wrap up my report on Singapore with some more observations, comparisons with some of the other places I've visited in Asia, etc., and reviews of the Swissotel Merchant Court, a couple of restaurants I enjoyed (although all the food I had in Singapore was good), transportation, weather, etc.

    Enjoy!

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    Thanks for your review of the Gardens by the Bay. We had planned to get there when we were in Singapore at the end of 2012, but just didn't have the time. We will put it at the top of our list for next time.

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    Kathie, you're welcome. I've come to accept that one cannot see everything no matter how much time one spends somewhere. Even visiting the same places over and over again, you get to see it from different perspectives and get different experiences each time. Gives me a good reason to return.

    Ann, Gardens by the Bay was certainly one of the main highlights of my visit to Singapore, along with the Botanic Gardens and the Asian Civilizations Museum. I would not be disappointed that I chose HK over Singapore. There's always the next trip.

    Dgunbug, glad you're enjoying my report. I'm having a good time sharing my experiences and the interactions that I get with all of you. I find these reports from fellow travelers here extremely helpful in helping me think about my adventures and you're giving me ideas about places I may not have thought about or considered.

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    Singapore Impressions

    Singapore is a very modern city-state situated in the heart of Southeast Asia. It lies at the center of a vital shipping lane, at the entrance of the Straits of Malacca, and as such, has always been a place where people, ideas, and cultures from different parts of the world come and intermingle. The diversity is reflected in the fabric of life on the island, but in order to find it, I had to look pretty hard and dig. On the surface, Singapore looks and feels very Western. I could easily be in New York or London. But the culture is there: in the wet market in Little India, during prayer service at the Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown, and yes, even in the modern office towers and shopping centers of downtown as modern life is a defining characteristic of the city. My one major knock is that it is too tidy and at times can feel a bit staid and artificial. After visiting for myself I can understand how some people may come away with that impression - and I didn't even spend any time on Sentosa!

    For someone visiting Asia for the first time and looking for an easy introduction to the continent, Singapore is probably the best place to do that. It's clean, safe, and easy to get around. The people are nice and ready to help, and you can find any type of food that suits your fancy. It has good connections across Asia, and an easy place to include on any trip to Southeast Asia. Singapore is a good place to decompress, a place to clear your mind after more "chaotic" destinations.

    Although I had a fantastic time in Singapore and look forward to returning, I would give priority to Hong Kong or Bangkok. Both cities feel more exotic to me. The culture is harder to miss. There seems more to do, and easier to get away for a day or two to do something else and come back for me. In HK, I could easily spend a week visiting the city center, wandering the villages in the New Territories, going on day trips to Lantau Island, etc. And when I'm tired of it all, Macau is a quick ferry ride away, where I could easily spend a couple of days. Bangkok is similar in the wealth of things to do within the city and the surrounding countryside. I could spend days temple-hopping, enjoying lazy hours just plying the Chao Phraya River, going to the markets, etc. There's something magical about Bangkok that feels missing in Singapore.

    On the flip side, I would choose Singapore over Kuala Lumpur any day. I especially enjoyed spending time in the gardens in Singapore, at the museums, and just strolling its neighborhoods. Boredom set in for me in KL in a couple of days, although the Bird Park there is a must-see, and much of what you can find in KL, the colonial architecture, the markets, the ethnic neighborhoods, you have in Singapore.

    Transportation

    Of all the cities in Asia I've visited I found Singapore the easiest to get around. The MRT goes to all the major tourist sites. It's clean and easy to use. It's not overwhelming as in Tokyo. The buses supplement the MRT well. And the city is very walkable. If I chose, I could walk from downtown to Little India to Kampong Glam to Chinatown to Marina Bay. Taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced. A trip from the airport to the center of town took less half an hour and cost approximately S$30. And if you want to get to and from different points along the river, there are also ferries plying the downtown section with several hop-on, hop-off points.

    Weather

    Given that Singapore sits close to the Equator, the island is hot and humid pretty much year-round. I found the mornings the most pleasant. It's the best time to go for walks and do outdoor activities if you're someone for whom heat and humidity wear you down quickly. The weather was largely pleasant the three days I was there. It rained on a couple of afternoons / early evenings I was there, but each lasted about 30 minutes.

    Food

    What can I say? I did not had a bad meal in Singapore. There are many, many options, both in variety of cuisines and prices. You can go to a food court or hawker center and grab something on the cheap. Or you can sit down for a fine meal at a fancy restaurant similar to what you can find in Hong Kong or Paris. The seafood dinner I had at Jumbo along the river on my first full night there was especially memorable; the seafood was extremely fresh and the meat and vegetable dishes that my friends and I order was as good as similar dishes we ordered elsewhere.

    The hotel: Swissotel Merchant Court

    The hotel is well situated, at the edge of the Singapore River and a half-block walk to the Clarke Quay MRT station. It has easy access to the shops and restaurants at Clarke Quay, and Chinatown is a 5 minute walk away. The lobby as well as the rooms has a modern feel. The attached restaurant, the Ellenborough Cafe, offers a good selection of Western and Asian food items at its breakfast buffet; I did not eat lunch or dinner there so I cannot comment on those. The hotel offers complimentary wifi throughout the property and it was speedy. I only wished that the rooms had a bit more character but I recognize that it's a business rather than a heritage hotel. And at US$150 a night I thought it fit the bill.

    Next stop: Central Java, Indonesia

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    thank you tripplanner, for that thoughtful comparison of HK, Singapore, Bangkok and KL, as we will undoubtedly need somewhere like that for a stopover on our next trip "out east" whenever that might be.

    Looks like we'll have to look carefully at Singapore and Bangkok, and forget about KL.

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    Kathie and Dgunbug, thanks for your comments.

    Ann, if I had to prioritize, it would be Bangkok, then HK, then Singapore, although each has its qualities and merit visits.

    Without further ado, here's the next installment of my report:

    The Flight to Java

    After a mid-morning flight on Air Asia Flight 8103, I arrived in the city of Yogyakarta, located roughly in the center of the Indonesian island of Java. Yogyakarta is significant in that it briefly served as the capital of Indonesia during the country’s struggle for independence from the Netherlands in the late 1940s. While there are a handful of sights worth visiting in Yogyakarta, the city more popularly serves as a convenient springboard to two UNESCO World Heritage wonders: Borobudur and Prambanan. The area also hosts a number of smaller Hindu and Buddhist temples dating back more than 1,000 years.

    The flight from Singapore to Yogyakarta was short and uneventful. However it did not prepare me for the chaotic arrival at Yogyakarta airport. Upon exiting the plane, I was directed towards a very slow moving line alongside the terminal building. There must have been two or three other planes arriving at about the same time, as it took us a good 20 minutes or so to make my way into the terminal building. The signage here could use some help. As you walk into the building, you immediately see two signs before you – one pointing to Indonesian passports and one pointing to foreign passports. There is also a third one further to the right marked Visa on Arrival, but you cannot see it as you enter the building. After I spotted the sign I immediately made my way to the desk, only to find out that I needed to purchase my visa at a separate window close to the entrance of the building on the right. I along with about a dozen others seem to have missed that, so we made our way over to the window. Once we went to the right place, the process went smoothly. I paid my $25 for my 30-day visa, and then proceeded to the Visa on Arrival desk to have my passport stamped. Immediately past the desk is the area from where you collect your baggage. The downside here is that there is not much space to maneuver between the visa purchase window, the immigration desks, and baggage claim, and with several planes arriving at once, it became crowded very fast.

    My family and I had hired tour guide and driver, Wiedy Antara, during our time in Yogyakarta. Wiedy was there to greet us as we exited baggage claim and took us to my hotel, the Phoenix, where we stayed for three nights. He had offered to take us to a local place for lunch and asked us if we wanted to go shopping for batik, etc., but we declined. After several days of active sightseeing, today was supposed to be the day we chilled out and we wanted to keep it that way. Plus we knew we had to get up early the next morning in order to be at Borobudur before sunrise. We simply spent much of the day relaxing by the lovely pool of the hotel, followed by an early dinner, and then off to bed.

    Wiedy came at the recommendation of Kathie, who used his services during her trip to Java last year (thank you Kathie!). I understand that several other Fodorites have used his services over the years as well. My family and I found Wiedy to be a wonderful tour guide. He was always on time, very easy-going, and courteous. He was mindful of what we wanted to do or not do and did not try to push anything on us as some of the other guides / drivers we’ve used in the past sometimes do. He always made sure we were comfortable, and drives very safely. At first Wiedy’s English seemed a bit hard to understand and I was worried whether or not I would be able to communicate with him, but this wasn’t a problem by the time he dropped us off at the hotel the first day. Language never became an issue during the next two days I was with him.

    Borobudur

    Borobudur Temple was built sometime around the 8th century by local rulers who reigned over this part of central Java at the time. The temple sits on top of a hill, and was constructed by piling stones on top of one another and cut in such a way as to fit together without the use of a binding agent. The temple site was abandoned sooner after it was constructed, covered by volcanic ash from eruptions from the nearly volcanoes over the years, and forgotten. It was not until the last century and a half that Borobudur was rediscovered and restoration began. Subsequent volcanic eruptions have spewed ash on the site and a lot of work had to be done to clean up from its aftermath. The last major eruption occurred in 2010, and the site was cleaned subsequently. Borobudur remains a religiously significant site today; it is one of the site’s of local prayer ceremonies during Wesak Day in early May every year.

    Today called for an early morning wake-up as we wanted to visit Borobudur at sunrise. We assumed the weather would be cooler and the complex wouldn’t be as crowded with visitors as later in the day. After all, this was the primary reason for my visit to Java!

    After about an hour of driving, we arrived at the site. We got there about one hour and thirty minutes prior to sunrise. Upon arrival, we completed the required paperwork and received our tickets, along with flashlight and obligatory sarong, for our visit. About thirty minutes later, we were met by our guide for the temple and headed over to the site. It was pitch black so we were unable to see much except for the ground immediately before us. As I approached Borobudur, I was able to make out the rough shape of the temple, but it was too dark to see any of its details. We made our way up the steps from the ground to the eighth level (there are ten levels total at Borobudur, although the tenth level cannot be “accessed” by human beings). The ascent was much quicker than I expected. I guess I had pictured steeper steps and many more of them. Anyway we got up there and the guide helped us stake out a place from where we could watch the sunrise. It was perfect! There were about 25 people total there with us that morning, and we felt like we had the place all to ourselves. I was able to take a few good pictures of the monument and the surrounding mountains as the light was beginning to show itself and settle in. It was absolutely amazing to see the place at this time of day.

    Following the sunrise experience, we spent a good hour and a half just walking among the site. The guide did an excellent job pointing out the religious iconography, the different Buddha poses, and walls filled with panel after panel of Buddhist stories and imagery, with some Hindu influences as well. After a while, we started to explain the various stories we saw depicted on the walls to one another; I was surprised to find the degree of similarity between what he learned and I was thought growing up, even though he grew up in central Java and I came from a Chinese family. The guide who accompanied us was very knowledgeable, funny, and absolutely a joy to spend time with. Before I knew it, it was time to leave and I really didn’t want to say goodbye to him – and to Borobudur.

    As I mentioned earlier, I made this journey to Java to experience Borobudur in mind, and experience it I truly did.

    Dieng Plateau

    After touring Borobudur, we made our way to the Dieng Plateau, located about a 2.5 – 3 hour drive from Borobudur. Here we visited Telaga Warna, a multi-hued lake, and Sikidang volcanic crater. Telaga Warna is actually two lakes, and there is a path that circumnavigates them. It’s an easy walk, although there’s a couple of sections there were quite muddy. You get nice views of the lake along most of the walk, as well as awesome views of the surrounding mountains and rice terraces. If you had the time, you could actually wander off from the main path and walk into some of the small villages nestled beyond the lakes. During our walk, we ran into a tour guide who was taking a small group from Europe into one of the villages for the day. From speaking with her, I learned that there were a couple of mountains that had religious significance to this day, and are the sites of some old Hindu temples.

    After visiting the lakes, we made our way to Sikidang volcanic crater. There’s a rather large pool of boiling water at the site along with some rock formations that came about as a result of volcanic activity in the area. Sikidang reminded me of Owakudani in the Hakone area of Japan. Owakudani covers a larger area, although Sikidang is a lot less commercialized.

    Candi Mendut

    After a good couple of hours at the Dieng Plateau, we stopped for a nice lunch at a restaurant near Borobudur and then paid a visit to Candi Mendut before returning to Yogyakarta. Candi Mendut is one of the dozen or so Buddhist or Hindu temples that dot the landscape around central Java. Inside the temple are three well-preserved stone statues: the Vairocana Buddha in the center and a boddhisatva on each side of it. On the outside are several bas-reliefs of various boddhisatvas including one of Hariti, to whom Buddhists pray to in hopes of having children.

    By comparison to Borobudur, it is a much smaller temple. However it is one I enjoyed very much.

    We visited downtown Yogyakarta the next morning. This was followed by an afternoon at Prambanan and a very memorable performance of the Ramayana in front of the temples. Stay tuned for these and more…

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    Enjoying your account. We had a guide at Borobudur who grew up in the village at the base of the monument. He told us of playing there when he was a child and of the move of the village away from Borobudur. Candi Mendut is really remarkable. Have you ever seen a Buddha in that pose? I haven't.

    Looking forward to more!

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    Kathie, our guide lived in the same village and was forced to relocate in the 1980s, I believe. Agree with you about the Buddha post; I certainly haven't seen something like that elsewhere.

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    Apologies for the brief hiatus from the forum this week as work called. And without further delay, here’s a report of my final full day in Central Java.

    The day began with a morning visit to the central part of Yogyakarta, taking in visits to the Kraton and Taman Sari, also known as the Water Palace, followed by a walk through some of the side alley streets and a pleasant horse carriage ride back to the Phoenix hotel.

    The Kraton

    The residence of the sultan of Yogyakarta, the Kraton is located in the heart of the city. It is comprised of the residential quarters as well as several galleries of exhibits that showcase the history of the site and the lives of some of its residents.

    Even though I arrived at opening, the place was crowded with visiting schoolchildren. It seemed as if every school-age child in the city was there that day. In spite of the large number of visitors, we were able to get away from the crowds at times as it is a sizable complex. Much of the living quarters were closed off to visitors except for the main reception hall, which was elegant but showing its age. I walked through several of the galleries, but did not linger in any particular one as none really grabbed my attention.

    Taman Sari

    Exiting the Kraton via a side entrance, I made my way to the Water Palace. There were several guides offering their services in front of the entrance to the palace, and I hired one after speaking with three; his English was the best among them and he seemed to have adequate knowledge of what I was seeing. Taman Sari was more enjoyable than the Kraton. It may have been because it was not as overrun with visitors, but I felt that the place was more accessible and less formal than the Kraton. There were a couple of spots where I was able to climb some stairs for a good view of the site, which I enjoyed, but the main pool area was my favorite spot within the complex.

    Following my visit to Taman Sari, I took a stroll among some of the side streets. The streets were lined with vendors selling everything from your typical cheap tourist souvenirs to everyday goods for locals. There was one section that was devoted to selling pet birds. After about half an hour of walking, I went for a ride on a horse carriage to my hotel. (The first driver we flagged asked for 100,000 rupiah and wasn’t willing to bargain, so we didn’t use his services. We walked about half a block and were able to find one who charged 50,000, to which we agreed. While we didn’t know what a reasonable rate was, I simply used my taxi ride from the hotel to the Kraton in the morning for comparison and figured it would be a little more; the taxi ride cost 18,000 rupiah.)

    Prambanan Temples

    The highlight of my afternoon was a visit to the Prambanan Temples. Prambanan is a 9th century complex of a couple hundred Hindu temples. There are eight large temples within the complex that are open to visitors. On the grounds surrounding these temples were numerous smaller temples that have been reduced to piles of stone as a result of several earthquakes that struck the area over the years, the last major one being in 2006. Approaching the complex, I was awed by the beauty and grandeur of the temples. However, as I walked closer, I cannot help but feel some sadness seeing the many piles of stone that just lay in front of the main temples. The number of piles was a bit overwhelming to me.

    We began with a visit to the temple dedicated to Brahma, followed by visits to the temples dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva. We were required to wear hardhats to climb Vishnu temple due to the danger of loose stones; also, the main sanctuary was closed for repairs from the earthquake damage. We also visited the temples dedicated to Nandi, Garuda, and Hamsa. The stonework that covers each of these temples is extraordinary. The only disappointment was the guide, who seemed very anxious to get through the visit very quickly and kept on asking us if we wanted to go up the steps as we went from temple to temple.

    Candi Sewu

    When we finished our visit to the main temples, we boarded a free mini-train that took us to Candi Sewu. Unlike the Prambanan Temples, Candi Sewu is Buddhist. The stupas at Candi Sewu somewhat resembled those at Borobudur in quality.

    I was even more overwhelmed by the devastation of the earthquakes at Candi Sewu, in part because it seemed that, at least from what I could see, little was being done in the name of restoration. Nobody else on our train bothered to get off, which meant that we had Candi Sewu to ourselves. The lack of other visitors coupled with the extent of the damage also lent it an eerie atmosphere.

    Sambisari and Plaosan

    With some time remaining after our visit to Prambanan and Sewu, Wiedy took us to Candis Sambisari and Plaosan for quick visits. Candi Sambisari resembled a smaller version of one of the Prambanan temples from the outside. Unlike the other temples, Sambisari is below ground level; we accessed it by descending a flight of stone steps to the base and up into the temple.

    Plaosan is a Buddhist complex. Here, the twin main temples are what remained standing, along with some of the retaining walls that surrounded the temple complex.

    Ramayana Ballet

    What can I say?! The Ramayana ballet was truly amazing. The dancing, the costumes, the music – all of it was well put together and choreographed. And to make it even better, the ballet was performed with a backdrop of the Prambanan temples bathe in light. It’s an experience I would recommend to everyone who visits the area. If you have the opportunity, please go see it for yourself.

    A few observations about my hotel and a couple of restaurants

    My family and I stayed at the Hotel Phoenix, a heritage hotel located near the Tugu Monument not far away from the main railway station in town. We booked two rooms with balconies overlooking the pool in the newer room. The rooms were nice in size and tastefully appointed. The bed was comfortable and the evening turndown service was a nice touch. I had several meals at the hotel including an a la carte dinner, a buffet dinner, and a buffet breakfast. Both dinners were wonderful. There were a good variety of selections at the dinner buffet, with a mix of Western, Asian, and traditional Indonesian dishes. While the breakfast was good too, I felt that the ones in Thailand are better.

    I also recommend BS Resto, a restaurant not too far from Borobudur. The restaurant had an indoor seating area and an open-air tented seating area. We sat in the tented area. I thought the food there was very good. We had ordered several dishes, all of which were quite good, but I especially liked the crispy duck, the whole fish, and the grilled octopus. It was among some of the best food I had during my visit to Indonesia.

    Bali is up next...

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    Lots of good info here. By the way, have you traveled to southern india? We were debating between our next trip being Malaysia, Singapore, Central Java and bali or southern india. Curious as to your opinion. While Kuala Lumpur and Singapore did not seem to be your favorite cities, it's hard to consider going to that area and not devoting a few days to each.

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    Kathie, thank you. Central Java was everything I anticipated and more.

    Dgunbug, I've never been to India. I want to bite the bullet and go but am not sure I'm prepared for the assault on the senses. Singapore is definitely worth a few days and would be a great combo with Central Java. Personally I would give KL a pass.

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    Goodbye Java, Hello Bali

    This morning calls for another early wake-up as we booked ourselves on a 6:30am AirAsia flight to Bali. The short flight departed and arrived on-time. Upon arriving in Bali, we weaved our way through the construction and made our way to the taxi stand for the one-hour ride to our hotel – the Alam Jiwa. Located just outside of Ubud, it would be our home for the next five nights.

    Upon arrival, we were greeted with a warm welcome complete with refreshing glasses of fruit juices and towels. We completed our paperwork and headed to our rooms, where we would spend most of the morning and afternoon. We booked the Hanoman and Ganisa Rooms. Hanoman had better lighting and was more spacious, although Ganisa had a stronger air conditioning unit and did not seem to be frequented by as many little critters. Aside from the number of ants and mosquitos that made their home in the Hanoman Room, both were very enjoyable. Each came equipped with a large bed complete with mosquito net, a day bed, large semi-open bathrooms, and nice breakfast areas overlooking the nearby rice paddies.

    The tasteful rooms are complimented by the awesome staff. They greeted us with smiles each time they saw us, and responded to our requests quickly and professionally. The afternoon tea and cake service was a nice touch, and the daily morning breakfast made to order made our stay even more enjoyable.

    For dinner, we took the hotel’s complimentary shuttle service to a restaurant owed by the same proprietors, Café Wayan. Café Wayan is located on Monkey Forest Road, one of the main arteries of downtown Ubud not too far from the city palace. We had a very nice meal to round out our first night on the island. Cafe Wayan became our favorite place to eat in Ubud, and we returned to eat there several more times during our stay. Its crispy duck was the best we had in Indonesia. Everything else I had there, from fish to steaks to a couple of traditional Indonesian dishes I ordered, was prepared perfectly.

    We spent the next day touring Ubud on our own. Following breakfast, we decided to go for a morning walk of the Campuhan Ridge. Our shuttle dropped us off at the Warwick Hotel, from where the trail began. The morning was rather cool and the path lined with alang alang grass was easy to follow. The first part of the walk offered vistas of beautiful homes and villas and swaying palm trees. This soon gave way to a couple of small art galleries, country inns, and restaurants, followed by rice fields. We took a break at Karsa Café. At Karsa are three thatched huts set in the middle of the rice fields. It was quiet when we arrived, so we were able to grab one of these huts. We sat there for about an hour, enjoying some drinks and desserts, and just taking in the scenery.

    Depending on the weather and how much you like walking, you could turn back after a much recommended stop at Karsa Café. Refreshed and rejuvenated though, we decided to forge on and continued until we reached a fork in the road, turned left, and took a road that cut across the rice fields towards the villages of Payogan and Sanginggan. This part of the walk took us down towards the banks of the Wos River and back up along a semi-busy road, where we passed a couple of Hindu temples. It was fun to walk through the two villages, catching glimpses of the traditional homes, courtyards, and family temples, and people going about their business – making offerings, minding their storefronts, chatting, etc. Along the way we saw rows and rows of decorated bamboo poles lining the streets. I later found out that the poles were put up for a month-long celebration taking place across the island. Our last day in Bali was the day the celebration concluded, so we saw families make offerings as they took the decorative poles down.

    We made our way to Jalan Raya Sanginggan, where we took a left. Jalan Raya Sanginggan is a busy street lined with numerous art galleries, restaurants, etc. Also on the street is the Neka Art Museum. We spent a couple of hours here, browsing the extensive collection of Balinese art on display. I especially liked the Ubud-style paintings and the works of Arie Smit. Located on the property of art collector Suteja Neka, the museum was just a very enjoyable setting to take things a bit more slowly after our three hour walk.

    It was starting to get hot by the time we finished our visit to Neka, so we decided to head back to our hotel for afternoon tea and a quick nap. We went to Casa Luna in the center of town for dinner that evening. Located in the center of town across the road from Museum Puri Lukisan, the restaurant and pastry shop is owned by Australian author Janet De Neefe, who wrote about her travels and then experiences moving to and living on the island in her book Fragrant Rice. Having read and enjoyed the book, we knew we wanted to check out Casa Luna during our visit to Ubud. The food there was very good, and it’s certainly someplace I would recommend to anyone visiting the area.

    Tomorrow is spent wandering around the streets and alleyways of downtown Ubud and an excursion to a pair of important Hindu temples just outside of town. Stay tuned for these and more…

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    tripplanner - i was thinking about India next but your TR is making me revise my ideas. Java and Bali sound terrific.

    BTW, if you are feeling nervous about India [i was and am] how about Sri Lanka? It is a lovely and fascinating place and doesn't have many of the "issues" that beset India.

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    Ann, I had plans to go to Sri Lanka last March, but had to cancel last minute after being sidelined for a few weeks due to an infection. I'll make it to India someday, but thought Sri Lanka or Nepal would give me a taste before I jumped in head first.

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    TP - we were originally going to go to Sri Lanka about 25 years ago, but they started the war so we gave up the idea, and then family life took over.

    We finally got there last year and absolutely loved it.

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    Ann, Sri Lanka remains high on our list of places to see in Asia, along with India and Burma. We're going to South America in July / August, so my next visit to Asia will probably be late-2014, early-2015, although I want to see Iran before it really "opens" up.

    A Day in Ubud

    This day began with a visit to the Ubud market. Here you will find the usual cheap tourist knick-knacks. We made the stop in order to purchase our sarongs for the next few days, as we intended to do a bit of temple-hopping. After we made our purchase, we headed to Ubud Palace, located across the street from the market. We wandered through the complex, admiring the very detailed woodwork on the doors, gates, etc. Except for a handful of Japanese tourists, we had the place to ourselves. Next we visited the Hindu temple opposite from the palace and spent some time strolling up and down Jalan Suweta, where we peeked at a couple more temples. We then walked west along Jalan Raya Ubud, coming upon Pura Taman Saraswati.

    Pura Taman Saraswati is one of the larger Hindu temples found in the center of Ubud. The temple was built by I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, a well-known Balinese architect and sculptor. Entering the temple is a scenic lily pond bisected by a walkway leading to the temple. The centerpieces of the temple are a 10-foot statue of Jero Gede Mecaling as well as a shrine dedicated to the Supreme God. We rather enjoyed this temple, and spent some time just sitting around and taking in the religious iconography and architectural details.

    Pura Taman Saraswati was followed by a visit to Museum Puri Lukisan. The museum is housed in several buildings set in a beautiful garden. It focuses on 20th century Balinese works of art. I was again drawn to the Ubud-style paintings, much as I was over at Neka yesterday. I really like the riot of colors, the details in them, and the intensity of each one. I was also drawn into some of the fine wood sculptures, most notably the one dedicated to the rice goddess. After our visit, we stopped at the café, where we enjoyed our complimentary dessert and drink, included with our admission ticket. The dessert was better than anticipated.

    After we were done, we walked over to Café Wayan for lunch, and then it was a shuttle back to our hotel to refresh and wait for a driver we hired through the hotel to go to Gunung Kawi and Tirta Empul. Gunung Kawi was very different from any of the temples we visited on Bali. It is accessed by descending a long flight of stairs lined by vendors hawking the usual tourist items and across a footbridge spanning a river that separates the complex. Most of the temple sits on the far side of the river. Along this walk on the right-hand side are gorgeous vistas of rice terraces. The highlight of this temple is a series of ten shrines carved into the sides of the cliffs on each side of the river, five on each side. While Gunung Kawi served as a Hindu temple, we saw some Buddhist iconography there as well.

    As we made our way towards the exit, it started to rain. It was pouring by the time we made it to our vehicle, and we weren’t sure if we had to save Tirta Empul for another day. We decided to head over there and wait and see if the rain subsides. This was the first day on our trip that rain was an impediment to our sightseeing, and it pretty much continued this way during our time on Bali. Luckily, the rainstorms only lasted one or two hours, and it really brought out the green among the ricefields all over the island.

    We sat in the parking lot for about an hour before the rain started to dissipate. We decided to take our umbrellas and go in. The significance of Tirta Empul is the bathing / purification pools used by Hindus coming here for pilgrimage and worship. Because of the rains, we only saw a couple of people using the pools.

    We went to Laka Leke for dinner that evening. Laka Leke is also owned by the group that owns Alam Jiwa. We opted for its buffet dinner, which was quite good. Following dinner was a kecak performance. It was interesting to see as we had not experienced something like it before, but I assume the rain put a damper on things and some of the performers seemed to want to wrap up sooner rather than later (and honestly, I couldn’t blame them).

    Central Bali is up next…

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    Central Ubud

    Today is the first of three days of touring the island with a tour guide and driver recommended by Bob and a few other Fodorites here - Putu Arnawa. Putu is among one of the best tour guides I've had in all my travels around the world. He is friendly, responsive, and always on time. I enjoyed many conversations with him during my three days with him. We talked about everything from Balinese life and culture to Indonesian history to global politics and economics to soccer. His English is excellent, and his van is very spacious and comfortable. Putu is someone I would recommend highly.

    We began our first day of touring with a visit to Pura Ulun Danau Bratan. Sitting on the shore of Lake Bratan with a view of the nearby mountains, this is, in my opinion, the most scenic Hindu temple I visited on Bali. The temple is featured on the 50,000 rupiah note. The temple was very quiet during our time there except for a couple of local families going there for prayer. We went for a stroll along the lakeshore, and checked out the Thai / Burmese style Buddhist pagoda located on the grounds of the complex.

    Next we continued westward to the Munduk area, where we went on a walk through the forest, visiting a couple of temples nestled among the trees, and for a very relaxing 45 minute canoe ride across Lake Tamblingan.

    We then stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant (I don't remember the name). The food was okay but the views were fantastic. And the drive there was very pretty as well.

    Following lunch, we visited the Munduk waterfall. The walk comprised of a couple hundred steps broken up by footpaths. The walk was lined with plants and herbs of several kinds grown by the owners of the land the waterfall sits on.

    After about 20-30 minutes there, we went for a short visit to the Bali Botanical Gardens. We did a combinations walk / drive. We were not very impressed with the gardens here. While there are a couple of nice displays, there was not enough to justify lingering, which I suppose was just as well as we had a couple other sights on our itinerary.

    A visit to the Jatiluwuh Rice Fields follows. The rice fields and its subak irrigation system was recently inscribed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. Here you can see rice fields go on and on, as far as the eye can see. It was a very pretty side, even in the afternoon rain. It's one of the images if Bali I will always remember. Because of the weather, we opted for a short walk along the main walk, taking several picture-postcard-perfect snapshots. We had very much wanted to spend an hour or so walking in the rice fields but it would just be too slippery with the rains. Next time!

    Last on the day's agenda was a stop to the Royal Temple of Taman Ayun. Built by a Mengwi king who ruled the area in the 1600s, this was one of my favorite temples on Bali, along with Pura Ulun Danau Bratan and Besakih or the Mother Temple. The grounds there are very well kept and it was very enjoyable to walk around the walls of the inner temple, admiring its gateways and numerous pagodas.

    After the temple, we returned to our hotel to freshen up for yet another fantastic dinner at Cafe Wayan.

    The upcoming installment of my report will cover my final two days on Bali. Stay tuned and thanks for reading so far.

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    What were the dates of your trip? I am wondering what the best time of year would be to travel to this region. I'm particularly interested in seeing the rice fields at its lushest. When we traveled to sapa in Vietnam, the fields were beautiful, but just being planted. Did you feel like you had enough time in bali and if not, how much time would you have liked? Also, do you remember what the cost of the guide was for three days?

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    Thanks Kathie. It's encouraging to know that someone is reading and acknowledging it. I know sometimes I personally don't do a good job of it myself. And there are times when even reading old reports have helped me in my planning and research.

    Dgunbug, we were in Bali at the end of November, supposedly its wet season. We generally encountered sunny morning, rain sometime between 2 and 5, and then sunny or overcast afterwards. I spent five nights, which was perfect as it was part of a much longer trip. I could have easily spent a week or more and have had enough to see and do. If you like rice fields, Ubud is a good base. There are plenty of rice field walks that you can do from the Ubud area, but you've got to make the trip to Jatiluwih; it's just that spectacular. As for the cost of hiring Putu, it was about US$65 per day (there were four of us) not including tips.

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    Tripplanner - I'm sure there are lurkers out there, but from my own past experience, I know how discouraging it is to put such effort into writing a report without hearing from anyone. This report is very good though and greatly appreciated, as was kathie's prior reports. Keep it coming. By the way, was the guide's price per person or for everyone?

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    Hotels are very reasonable in Java. We stayed in gorgeous suites at all of the hotels, and most were in the $150-$160 range. Food is also quite reasonable. Car and driver for the day is very affordable.

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    Me too! Great report. Even though I've been traveling to Bali for 25 years and living here for 2, I keep learning about more things to do and see.

    dgunbug, My best times for Bali would be April/May (but not Easter week) and September/October. Good weather, low tourist season.

    During the height of the rainy season, mid-December to mid-February, you will get whole days -- sometimes several days -- of rain and gloom. In most of Bali you can cope, but at the beach grey days can be discouraging. But then the sun comes out and all is forgiven.

    Rice fields are cultivated in rotation so there's no particular month for flooding, planting, transplanting, harvesting and burning off. You're likely to see all going on simultaneously.

    annhig, All of Indonesia is a good value right now because the Rupiah is quite weak against the US Dollar and other Western currencies. Imported foods like beef and all alcohol (which is severely taxed) are very expensive.

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    Dgunbug, the price of the car and driver was per day, not per person.

    Ann, Kathie gave you a good sense on prices. We paid about US$135 per room per night. Food is very inexpensive, as Kathie mentioned. I think at most our dinners cost US$20-25 per person, and that includes a couple of drinks each.

    Marmot, thank you. I remember you helped answer some questions for me when I was planning.

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    Volcanoes, Temples, and More

    Our next to last day on Bali began with a visit to Kintamani. Situated on the rim of a volcanic crater, Kintamani offers scenic views of Mount Batur and its crater lake. We were able to see about 80% of the mountain during our visit. On a clear day, we’re supposed to be able to see two other volcanic mountains, but they decided to play hide-and-seek with us.

    Following a brief visit to Kintamani, we made our way to Besakih or the Mother Temple. During my planning, I’d debated whether we wanted to visit Besakih; I was put off by the accounts of aggressive “guides” and touts that mar the site on any given day. Our guide, Putu, also warned us of a potentially unpleasant experience. We decided to give it a try, but to get there early. We arrived close to 9am and to our pleasant surprise, there were no “guides” there to push their services onto us. Other than a Western couple and a local family coming for prayers and offerings, we had the whole site to ourselves. After a few photos, we ascended the steps leading to the top of the temple, admiring the rows and rows of family shrines to the right and the many pagodas to the left. At the top, or what we assumed was the top, we were afforded with fantastic views of the entire temple below. We were then informed by Putu that we could go up further if we liked, and we obliged. From the higher viewpoints, the pagodas below look very distant and looked as if they were floating. Coming back down, we lingered along the steps for a bit, peeking over the walls to the inner courtyard as worshippers were performing a ceremony. When we left about 90 minutes later, we were only approached by a couple of women selling postcards, still no “guides”. Either we simply got lucky that morning, or they really don’t show up until later.

    We then stopped for a buffet lunch at a restaurant overlooking some rice fields. On a clear day, we could see all the way to the volcanoes but not today. The lunch was very enjoyable and the satay quite good. Sidemen Road was next on the itinerary. We had wanted to go for a walk in the rice fields, but it was not meant to be on this trip – it began to rain and it was coming down pretty steadily. So instead we went for a scenic drive and a few photos in the area.

    We had only one additional stop planned for today – Taman Gili – so Putu suggested we visit a nearby traditional village. This was probably our least favorite stop. The place was too touristy for me. The men in the village served as village guides while the women either made items for sale to tourists or they minded the souvenir shops. Walking through the village, I cannot help but notice that all the homes doubled as storefronts and the entire economy revolved around selling items to tourists. It just seemed and felt too artificial for me.

    Our last stop of the day was Taman Gili. Most of the 16th century palace was destroyed during the battles with the Dutch in the early 1900s. Remaining are the Court of Justice and the Floating Pavilion. Both of these structures contained well-preserved ceiling paintings depicting traditional Hindu stories. The paintings were done in the Klungkung style, for which this area is well known.

    We headed back to the hotel a bit earlier in order to enjoy our last evening at the property.

    Beaches, Beaches, and More Beaches

    Our final day began with late morning visit to Sanur Beach. We chose Sanur for a beachfront stroll because we want to spend some time and see what makes Bali’s beaches so famous, but did not want to go somewhere that was overrun by beachgoers of the “Spring Break” variety. Sanur turned out to be a good choice. The sand was nice. It was not crowded. And there was a good breeze that kept us cool during our walk.

    Following Sanur, we headed to Jimbaran Beach for lunch, but not before making a detour through Kuta, just out of curiosity. As expected, Kuta was packed with tourists and the shops reminded me of what I would see at beachside towns up and down the U.S. East Coast.

    At Jimbaran Beach, we had a nice seafood lunch overlooking the sand and ocean waves. We ordered two lobsters, a large crab, some squid, and a whole fish. Everything was prepared and grilled to perfection. The seafood was accompanied by a large complimentary helping of rice and vegetables.

    After lunch, we made our way to Uluwatu to see the temple and the seaside cliffs. There were several tour buses there when we visited, and the place was overrun with package tourists. We did a brief walk along the coastal walkway, but did not linger.

    Uluwatu was our last stop on the itinerary. We headed to the airport, where we reluctantly said our goodbyes to Putu. He has been such a good tour guide, so we wanted to make sure we properly expressed our thanks in the form of a large gratuity.

    The international terminal of Bali airport is newly renovated, with several areas boarded up and still under construction. It was hard to find any decent dining options in the airport. There were none that we could find before security, and there were only a couple of kiosks to be found after security. We wound up purchasing just a couple of snacks, and waited to eat when we boarded our flight.

    Next stop, Australia, although I probably won’t get to this until the weekend.

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    Kathie, I had a wonderful time on Bali. Five nights was just right, enough for me to get a good taste of the island and wanting to come back for more. Between my time on Bali and Java, I feel I had a good introduction to Indonesia. For my next trip, I want to do more temple-hopping in Java, maybe go out to Sumatra, and come back to Bali to do walks in the ricefields.

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    Finally got around to reading this. Thanks for the detailed TR. Sounds like I should consider return visits to Singapore and Indonesia. (But I have to put in a good word for KL which I enjoyed.)

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    Hey TP - I'm reading too and can't wait to hear about your travels in my country Australia.
    Bali is beautiful isn't it ? We resisted going for so many years due to the reputation of it being packed with partying Aussies. We finally relented (well actually got husband to relent - I was always keen) and had a fabulous time in Seminyak.
    Keep up the fantastic reporting !

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    Sartoric, thank you for your comments. Bali is indeed very beautiful, and I did not find the areas I visited to be overrun with tourists, except for my 10 minute drive through Kuta and perhaps the center of Ubud in the middle of the day. We stayed out in the countryside just outside of Ubud and it was wonderful.

    As for Australia, I could go on and on. If I can have a second home anywhere in the world, it would be in your stunning country.

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    Ahhhhhh, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, thank you.

    I hope you've seen what I think is the most stunning part of this stunning country, it's the Kimberley region in the north west corner. If you haven't, a good reason to return !

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    Sartoric, you're welcome. I visited Darwin, Litchfield, Uluru-Kata Tjuta, and greater Sydney on this trip. I've not made it to the Kimberley yet, although I have dreams of hiking the Bungle Bungle range.

    Dgunbug, I hope to post the next installment this weekend.

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    G'Day Australia!

    After a quick three hour hop across the Timor Sea, we landed in Darwin. Darwin, the capital city of Australia's Northern Territory, feels more like a small town than a major city. The central core is easy to explore on foot, while it's outlying areas are reachable by bus or taxi.

    Our introduction to Darwin consisted of a morning walk downtown. We began along the Smith Street Mall, exploring the few turn-of-the-20th-century buildings that stand. From there we made our way to the harbor for a stroll along Stokes Hill Wharf, which houses several cafes and restaurants along with a few exhibits recounting the Japanese bombing of Darwin Harbour during World War II. Following a visit to the wharf, we returned inland and proceed to the oil storage tunnels, only to find out that it was closed due to roadwork in the area. We then headed over to the Parliament building for a peek before a return to our hotel for a quick break. We wanted to walk around some more but didn't want to overdo ourselves as it was beginning to get hot and humid. Given that we visited during the wet season, we mostly saw days in the 90s with afternoon thunderstorms.

    After lunch in our hotel restaurant followed by some down time, we took a taxi to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. The museum is laid out very well. I was drawn to its exhibit on aboriginal art and culture as well its displays about the destruction caused by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and about the saltwater crocodiles that live in the area. We spent almost three hours here.

    The visit to the museum was followed by a nice dinner at Noodle House, a restaurant on Mitchell Street, Darwin's main drag. Noodle House serves Cantonese-style Chinese food. It was packed that evening, but we managed to snag the one open table they had. We ordered several dishes including a very good crispy chicken and a delicious mud crab with black pepper sauce.

    Following dinner, we decided to take a walk in the Esplanade, a park that runs the length of the Indian Ocean shoreline.

    Up next...crocodiles, termites, waterfalls, and rock pools.

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    Crocs, 'Mites, and More

    Today is a day tour of the East Alligator River and Litchfield National Park. I really wanted to visit Kakadu National Park, and stay for a couple of nights, but was unsure of what weather conditions would be during our time in the area. As we visited during the Wet, there's always potential for severe flooding and impassable roads. We did not want to take our chances. Our next best option was Litchfield, which seemed interesting to us. We wanted to go with a private tour but costs in Australia are simply too high, so we went settled for a smaller group tour. We used the services of Wallaroo Eco Tours. There were 18 people on the tour (the max is 20). It turned out to be a good group of people, mostly from Europe with another couple from the U.S.; we got along well and the endless conversations and laughter definitely enhanced our experiences.

    After picking up each of the passengers at the respective hotels, we set off to the East Alligator River for our cruise in search of crocodiles and other wildlife. The cruise was an hour long and we saw about six saltwater crocodiles. We had a very good view of them as they came very close to our boat. We also saw several raptors and other birds. We had a great naturalist, who made all the difference.

    After an awesome morning, we were on our way to Litchfield, going by the way of the village (really a collection of buildings) of Batchelor. On our way we stopped just outside of Batchelor, where a farmer was selling mangoes out of the back of his pickup truck. The mangoes were among the sweetest I ever eaten, so we bought a dozen. They were so good that none made it back to the hotel with us that evening.

    Entering Litchfield, we began to see several orange-red structures that seem to grow out of the forest. There were on both sides of the road, and were of varying heights, some as tall as 7-8 feet. These turned out to be termite mounds. Soon enough, we stopped for some photographs among these unbelievable structures. One of these structures rose to over 12-13 feet tall. Off to the side were as many of these structures as the eye can see, only these were brown-gray in color and more rectangular. Resembling tombstones, we almost felt like we were walking through an old cemetery. The termite mounds are constructed out of dirt and termite spit and excrement, and oriented to keep the termites living inside them warm or cool depending on the weather.

    It was soon approaching lunchtime. We made our way to Wangi Falls for a nice picnic lunch of salads and sandwiches followed by a walk at the falls. It was very warm that day but most of the walks were shaded. Wangi is characterized by a waterfall plunging over a red rock cliff into a large rock pool. Swimming is not permitted at Wangi due to several recrnt accidents.

    After a visit to Wangi Falls we continued onwards to Florence Falls and Buley Rock Pools. Like Wangi, Florence is surrounded by red rock. It is more of a walk to reach Florence, but you're rewarded with a spectacular rock pool fed by twin waterfalls. The water was warm and perfect for swimming. As we are not swimmers, we decided to take an afternoon bush walk in the park. We walked from Florence all the way to Buley, where we met up with the rest of the group, who arrived by our tour van. Buley is a collection of six rock pools of varying depths. It was a good place to relax and just dip our feet into the pools after our walk.

    Following our visit to Buley, we made our way back to Darwin. Just outside of the city center, we stopped along the shores of Fannie Bay to watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean. The sunset viewing was accompanied by shrimp and champagne, a perfect end to a very memorable day.

    The tour operator: Wallaroo Eco Tours

    I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical at first. I am normally not a big fan of group tours and I thought 18 was a larger crowd than I would have like. Largely because of the makeup of the group, the size did not turn out to be a problem as we got along well and enjoyed each other's company. Our guide Bill was very attentive, made sure we were all comfortable, and really knew the part of the country we were visiting.

    Our hotel: the Hilton Darwin

    The Hilton was one of the few four-star properties to be found in Darwin. It is your standard business hotel, but given the options available, it fit our needs for price and convenience. It's only two blocks away from the Parliament building and about a 5-minute walk to restaurants along Mitchell Street and along the Smith Street Mall. The couple of breakfasts we had at the lobby restaurant, along with one lunch, were all satisfactory. The staff was also friendly and helpful. They also had daily laundry specials where we could fill up a fair size laundry bag for next day service at the cost of A$18, of which we took advantage.

    Weather

    Darwin has two seasons: the Wet and the Dry. We were there during the Wet, which runs from roughly November to April and is characterized by warm mornings, hot and humid afternoons, and spectacular thunderstorms. As during our visits to Indonesia and Singapore, we tried to do our walking during the mornings and saved museums and other indoor activities of the afternoons when we could take advantage of the air conditioning.

    Overall impressions of Darwin and the Top End

    Unless you are coming this way to visit Kakadu, Litchfield, or one of the other nearby national parks, I would suggest giving Darwin a miss. There's just not very much to do in Darwin itself, especially in a country as beautiful and diverse as Australia. We didn't mind it as much as it was a good excuse to slow down after an active couple of weeks in Southeast Asia and an even more active couple of weeks ahead. And it was a logical stopover between Bali and the Red Center, given the lack of flight options between the two.

    Tomorrow we fly to the Outback. Stay tuned for my next installment...

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    nice start to the OZ section of your trip. We never made it to Darwin but we did meet a couple of chaps who are stationed there [in the Navy I think] at the test match at the Gabba.

    They said it was hot!

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    I've finally had time to read your TR and want to thank you for your excellent report. As I've not visited any of these countries, but have some of them on my radar for future trips, I am very appreciative of the many details and personal reflections you have included. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

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    Ann, Darwin was in the mid-30s both days we were there. It was similar to what we experience on the U.S. East Coast on a typical summer day. If you're thinking about going there, I would say sometime May to October is your best bet.

    Shelleyk, you're welcome. I'm glad that my report helps you think about a future trip. Feel free to ask me any questions if any come to mind as you follow along.

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    Into the Outback

    The Australian Outback: In my mind, it's a place that conjures up images of red rock canyons, expansive deserts, camel caravans, native bush, aboriginal peoples - a mythical, romantic place... It's what comes to mind when I think of Australia, aside from kangaroos and koalas.

    Today we journeyed into the Outback. We flew from Darwin to Uluru by way of Alice Springs. The total journey took about five hours including a 90 minute layover in Alice Springs. Both legs of the journey were on Qantas and very pleasant. Boarding was very smooth, the seats were comfortable (economy class), and the staff was very pleasant. We were served a nice warm breakfast on the flight from Darwin to Alice Springs and a hearty snack box on the one from Alice into Uluru. Before I knew it, our flight was approaching the airport at Uluru. From our airplane windows we caught our first glimpse of the massive red-purplish monolith. Needless to say, we were very excited as we had wanted to come out this way several years ago when we first visited Australia but weren't able to make it out here.

    Upon arriving at Ayers Rock Airport (Ayers Rock is the Western name for the world's largest rock monolith; it is known among the aboriginal community by its traditional name of Uluru), we collected our bags and proceeded to the shuttle bus to take us to our hotel. There are shuttle buses that meet each of the flights coming into and out of Ayers Rock Airport, transporting passengers to Ayers Rock Resort, the only accommodations facilities available for guests visiting Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta.

    Ayers Rock Resort is managed by the Accor group. The resort consists of Sails in the Desert, a 5-star property; Desert Gardens, a 4-star property; Emu Walk, serviced apartments; Outback Pioneer, a 2-star popular with backpackers and budget-minded travelers; campgrounds; and several restaurants, shops, art galleries, and everyday conveniences such as a supermarket, a bank, etc. The resort grounds are connected by a shuttle that runs about every 15-20 minutes, which came in handy for us car-less guests.

    We stayed at the Emu Walk, in a 2-bedroom apartment. The apartment was very spacious; it came with a living room, dining room, kitchen, decent size bathroom, and two bedrooms. Our only complaint was that there is no Internet access in the rooms, which meant that I needed to go to the reception area or one of the common resort areas every time I needed to hook up. Apparently they are upgrading connectivity in the coming months so this may not be a problem moving forward.

    About 20 minutes away from the resort is Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The only ways to access the park are 1) via a rental vehicle, 2) joining a group tour, 3) purchasing seats on a shuttle service, or 4) a combination of the above. We chose the shuttle service and supplemented it with a couple of tours that most interested us for a well-rounded experience. The shuttle service is operated by Uluru Express. We purchased a two-day pass, which allowed us unlimited access to shuttle services over the period. The shuttles were very prompt, although you needed to reserve them in advance (through the resort, via phone or email, or directly with the drivers) and the drivers were very helpful in answering questions and giving us suggestions.

    We spent three nights at Uluru-Kata Tjuta, which gave us two full days. I understand that this is too much time for some, but it worked out well for us as we wanted to do a good bit of walking / hiking.

    On our first day there, we checked into our apartment, made sure all our reservations for the next three days were in order, and then paid a visit to the supermarket to purchase several bottles of water (park authorities recommend 1.5 liters per person per hour, especially on days when the thermometer hits 95 degrees or more; it was 105 on both days we were there, although the dry heat made it more tolerable) and some snacks for our hikes the next day. To our surprise, given the lack of competition, the supermarket prices were very reasonable, in line with what we see in the U.S., and more affordable than what we see in supermarkets in Sydney and in Darwin. After our visit to the supermarket, we spent a couple of hours relaxing in our apartment and getting ready for our first night in the Outback.

    For our introduction to Uluru, we made reservations for the Sounds of Silence dinner that evening. It's a popular experience and usually sees upwards of 150 guests each evening. We had about 120 guests that night. To be honest, I was unsure of whether or not the experience was worthwhile, especially with the number of negative reviews I read on Tripadvisor. We debated about it but decided to go ahead with it. And in the end we were all glad we did.

    We met in the lobbies of the resort at about 6:00, and were boarded onto three tour buses for the short ride over to the areas where the experience takes place. Our evening began with a cocktail reception in an open dune-like area with wonderful views of Uluru. We were welcomed with an open bar of beer, wine, juice, and water, and accompanying hors d'oeuvres. There was a musician playing songs on a traditional digeridoo, which really added to the ambiance. Naturalists and aboriginal interpreters were also on hand to talk about the lands we were visiting, the Anangu people who called this area home, and what made this area special. We stayed here for about an hour, and watched as the sun set over the Outback sky.

    Following sunset, we made our way by foot to another open area that was set up for a candlelit dinner. There were about a dozen large tables, and we were ten to a table. At our table were a couple from Melbourne who came with their two friends visiting from England and a couple from Germany. We enjoyed our table mates very much, and spent the entire evening trading travel stories with them. Dinner began with a nice pumpkin soup followed by a buffet of salads, meats, vegetables, etc. The fish and kangaroo filets were very tasty, and the lamb chops were superb. The salads were very good too. The buffet was followed by a wide selection of desserts, along with more wine as well as tea and coffee.

    After dinner, we were treated to aboriginal dancing and a fabulous viewing of the night sky. All the candles were blown out and the stars came into full view. The astronomer did a great job pointing out the different constellations and heavenly bodies that we saw and talked about its significance to the native peoples of the area. Around 10:30, it was time to conclude our evening. We reluctantly said goodbye to the friends we made and boarded the coaches that took us back to our hotels.

    In response to some of the critics, yes, we were in contact with some insects and bugs. They are attracted to the candlelight on the tables. The number of critters varies from evening to evening, depending on the rains. It rained quite heavily the night before so we probably saw more than usual, but they were not bothersome and did not affect our experience. As for the food, we thought that there was a large selection, and it would be hard for someone to not be able to find anything that they like. Everyone we spoke with thought the food was good and seemed to want second helpings. The size of the crowd did not bother us, especially at dinner, although I can see how people looking for a quiet evening may not enjoy the number of people at the cocktail reception. We enjoyed the opportunity to talk to people from different parts of the world, share stories, and make friends; I've made some of my best friends through my travels.

    I highly recommend the Sounds of Silence dinner. I suppose you make what you want out of it, but for me, it was a magical evening, an experience that I will remember and cherish for a very long time.

    Now it's off to bed for me (in this report, at least). Close encounters with Uluru and Kata Tjuta are in store for tomorrow.

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    Kathie, thank you. The star show was truly a highlight of our visit to Uluru. I'm looking forward in partaking in the experience again, if only to view the Southern Cross, which we couldn't see on this visit due to the time of the year.

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    Thanks for your detailed report TP. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    I'm ashamed to say that I haven't been to the red centre (it is on the list) although I do recall sleeping under a million stars in outback WA, really spectacular stuff.

    Keep up the good work !

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    Sartoric, I really recommend Uluru and Kata Tjuta, especially if you enjoy hiking and the outdoors. I've never been to WA, but Perth and the Kimberley are on my list for a future visit, along with Kangaroo Island and Tasmania.

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    Marija, you're welcome. Sorry the weather didn't cooperate during your visit. If anything, weather can make or break the experience. We spoke to some guests that were supposed to go on a previous night but had the experience cancelled due to thunderstorms.

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    Bokhara, you're welcome. Glad you're enjoying my report. I hope I'm doing your homeland justice.

    Emdee, thank you. Glad my report may help you think about your trip to the area.

    Dgunbug, yes, I have pictures, about 1,000 of them. With work the way it is right now, I don't think I'll get to them for another couple of months.

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    tripplanner001-Trip details and descriptions are terrific. I am traveling right along with you. I look forward to your post on Sydney and New Zealand as we head there next month

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    Re, thank you. I appreciate your comments and hope to be able to give you some ideas on Sydney and Auckland in the coming days. Please feel free to ask questions too as you do your planning.


    The Big Rock: Up Close and Personal

    Located in the central part of Australia, Uluru, also known by the name Ayers Rock, is the world's largest monolith. The rock measures approximately 1100 feet high, and has a circumference of about 6 miles. It has spiritual significance to the Anangu people who live in the area, and features in their "dreamtime" mythology.

    Today is my date with Uluru. The day began with a 4:45am shuttle pickup from my hotel. The early departure gave me the opportunity to see the impressive structure at sunrise and to circumnavigate Uluru before the midday heat settled in. As we visited during summer, the temperature at Uluru hit 42 Celsius / 106 Fahrenheit each of the days we were there. The mornings were coolest, at about 70 degrees, while the evenings hovered around 85 degrees.

    Back in the vehicle, we purchased national park entry tickets with the driver. The tickets cost A$25 per person for three days of access into the parks. The driver took us to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing platform, from where we watched the sun rise over the Outback desert and the effects that the changing light had on Uluru. It was just a magical experience.

    After about 30 minutes there, we returned to our shuttle, where our driver had tea and coffee waiting and was eager to go over our plans for the morning. Plans confirmed, she dropped us off at the Mala car park, from where our base walk around Uluru began.

    There are many ways one can experience Uluru but the best way to get up close and personal is to do walks to and around the impressive work of nature. The suggested walks are of varying length, some of which are even wheelchair accessible. We chose to do the base walk, which allowed us to completely circumnavigate Uluru and see it from as many sides as possible. On some days one can climb Uluru, but the Anangu people who care for the site prefers that tourists don't as it's a sacred place for them. We already made up our mind long before coming that we wouldn't climb, although the climb was closed the day we were there due to high temperatures anyway.

    We began our walk around Uluru at the Mala car park and followed the Mala path, which was also the start of base walk. Along the way we stopped to admire the beauty of the rock and the cracks, crevasses, curves, and formations that truly made each section of the monolith unique. We took time to explore the caves that were found along the walk and tried to imagine the aboriginal people performing the rituals at the sites. The first section of our walk took us to Kantju Gorge. The gorge was very green and lush when we visited and the waterhole was brimming with water from recent rains. It really felt like we were in a desert oasis, and we spent a good half hour here to just enjoy what was before us.

    Following our visit to Kantju Gorge, we retraced our steps towards the main path, from where we continued our journey around the base of Uluru. Not long after we joined the main track did we find ourselves going from a dirt path to a paved road. We were on this road for about an hour to an hour and a half before it led back to the dirt path again. This section of the walk took us further way from the rock but afforded us with more panoramic views of Uluru. We took many pictures of the rock, but were mindful of signs along the path that asked tourists not to photograph certain parts due to its religious significance.

    We reached Kuniya Piti about two hours after we began our walk. Kuniya Piti marked the furthest point from Mala car path, roughly the halfway mark of our base walk. Here we took a short break, filled up our water bottles, and continued on our way.

    We were now on the Kuniya section of the walk. This along with the Mala sections were my favorites. It's here where I felt I was really able to get up close to the rock and study its myriad features. The Kuniya walk led to another lush oasis - the Mutitjulu Warerhole. I had read up quite extensively about this area prior to my visit and was familiar with the dreamtime stories associated with this section of the monolith. I also slowed down here to take in everything and appreciate the grandeur that was before me.

    Following about 45 minutes here, I continued on the walk, this time taking the Lungkata trail, which led back to the Mala car park. The entire walk took more than four hours, but we took a lot of time to really enjoy the site. If walking at a brisk pace, the entire walk could be done in about three walks.

    The early morning was the best time to do the walk. It was sunny and the temperature was very mild and pleasant during our entire walk, even though it reached over 100 degrees midday. Along the entire trail we came upon only about a dozen tourists throughout the morning. It was only at Mutitjulu Waterhole that we saw about 20 people, but they were dropped off and picked up by a tour bus, spending only about 15 minutes there.

    Following the completion of our walk, we were picked up by our shuttle and taken to the nearby cultural center. The center is beautifully laid out and gives a good overview of the significance of Uluru, including live demonstrations of dot paintings and other aboriginal crafts. While we could have easily spent a couple of hours there, we decided it was time to leave in about 40 minutes, as the center lacked air conditioning and it was starting to get hot. And our stomachs were letting us know that it was time for lunch.

    We caught the shuttle back to the hotel as the midday sun began to heat things up, grabbed a bite to eat, and spent a couple of hours in our apartment before meeting up with another shuttle driver for a visit to Kata Tjuta, the other highlight of any visit to this part of Australia.

    Next: a visit to Kata Tjuta...

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    Thanks again TP

    Red centre definitely moving up the list for me, after your fantastic telling of the experience you had, I know I just gotta go.

    If you never never go, you'll never never know. (The NT Govt tourist logo)

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    Sartoric, you’re welcome. I’m guilty of letting places within my own country slip off the radar sometimes too. While I’m particularly drawn to the western half of the U.S., two states that are on my list but I haven’t visited are Hawaii and New Mexico. With the desire to see places more “exotic” and faraway, it’s easy to forget that there are gems lying right at our own back doors. With that, let me go back to your back door…


    Kata Tjuta

    After some sustenance and rest, we headed back out in the afternoon for the one hour trip to Kata Tjuta. Kata Tjuta is the other jewel of central Australia. Part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, is a group of 36 dome-like rock formations found in the Outback desert. The tallest of the domes are even taller than Uluru itself.

    From a distance, Kata Tjuta doesn’t seem as impressive as Uluru, but it is every bit as spectacular – and I would argue, even more so – from up close. Because it lacks the fame of Uluru, Kata Tjuta only gets a fraction of visitors that come to see its cousin.

    Walpa Gorge

    This afternoon was the first of two visits to Kata Tjuta. We aimed to do the Walpa Gorge walk today, as it’s shorter, and the Valley of the Winds hike tomorrow morning, when we hoped will be cooler. The Walpa Gorge is located between two of the 36 domes and it is a fairly easy walk into the gorge and back. The entire walk took about 30-40 minutes, and along the way we saw massive canyon-like walls and other rock formations. At the end of the walk is a viewpoint overlooking the beautiful valley below, although you’re not permitted to actually go into the valley. It was still quite hot when we did the walk – about 100 degrees – but it was our only opportunity to do it, so, after consulting with the shuttle staff this morning, we decided to go for it. I’m glad I did as it gave me a taste of what is in store for the next day. My advice to whoever attempts the walk during the summer is to bring a hat and sunscreen as there is not much in the way of shade, and also plenty of water. And I would note the seeming abundance of flies in the area; they seem to congregate especially at the beginning of our walks and on the viewing platforms atop the sand dunes just outside of Kata Tjuta.

    Speaking of the viewing platform, this is where we headed next. We arrived about 20 minutes before sunset and were able to take in the beauty of the sunset has on the rock formations. From up here you get a nice panoramic view of both Kata Tjuta and of Uluru, although Uluru is much further off in the distance.

    Following the visit is a drive back to the resort, where we changed, went out for a nice dinner to cap off our day, and then off to bed.

    Valley of the Winds

    It was another early start for us the next morning as we wanted to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures. Our driver picked us up at our hotel at 4:45 for the drive to Kata Tjuta. It was raining this morning, and the rain was coming down quite hard. We thought we may not be able to do the walk this morning, but the storm ended shortly before we arrived at the dunes platform we visited yesterday for our sunrise encounter. Between the two, I enjoyed the sunset experience more, as it seemed to have more of an effect on the rock formations. The changing colors seem to be more visible and vivid.

    At 6:30, we arrived at the entrance to Valley of the Winds. Compared to Walpa Gorge and even to Uluru, Valley of the Winds is much more of a hike, and can be difficult for some in parts. We entered via a dirt path that took us into the domes. We first noticed that the distance separating the domes on the two sides seemed greater here than at Walpa Gorge. Our attention to the massive walls soon shifted to the stones beneath our feet as the dirt path soon gave way to rocks, many of them loose, along this section of the walk. It took us about 30 minutes to reach the first lookout point. From here, the path opens up to a garden of trees and bush plants surrounded by several red-orange domes that reached towards the sky. It was a truly spectacular sight.

    On summer days when the temperature hits 95 degrees or higher, park authorities close the hike beyond this first lookout point - yet another reason for us to do the hike early in the morning. At the first lookout point, we crossed a small footbridge and came to a fork in the road. At the suggestion of our driver, we took a right and proceed to the second lookout point from there. This second section was more difficult than the first, at least in a couple of parts where we had to scale some rocks. We took this section of the hike slowly, both to pace ourselves but also to take in all the grandeur that was before us. At this point, we felt like we were in a garden in the sky of sorts, with interesting rock formations and lush greenery at every turn. The views just got better and better, all the way until we reached the second viewpoint. At this point, I’m lost for words to describe the beauty of the place – you just have to take my word for it!

    After a 20 minute break, we continued our way along the well-marked path, descending a series of rock-carved staircases that led to the valley floor. The walk became much easier to navigate as soon as you completed your descent. Soon after, we came into another wide open space, this one several times larger than the open space we saw at the first lookout. We’ve now reached the further point of Kata Tjuta permitted by park authorities. Here, we were rewarded with a wide open plain of native bush surrounded by rock domes in various shades, some red, others with more of an orange hue, and still some green with vegetation. And just when I thought it wouldn’t get any better, we were greeted by a couple of playful wallabies hopping across our path. It was here where we just sat down to watch the wallabies play. The two creatures were there for about 10 minutes and we almost lost track of the time. Soon after the wallabies were on their way and so were we.

    At about 10 o’clock we made our way back out to where our shuttle was meeting us to take us back to our hotel. We found it really hard to leave, as the place is just so beautiful and peaceful. The weather held up the entire time we hiked through Kata Tjuta, starting at about 75 degrees when we started and heating up to about 80-85 degrees by the time we had left. Along the walk, we encountered a small tour group of about 15 people in the very beginning and then about a dozen people throughout our walk. As I said, I don’t have words to describe the experience and whatever photos I have does not do the place justice. My only recommendation would be to go see and experience it for yourself if you find yourself in this part of the world. For me, it’s among the best travel experiences I’ve had the fortune to enjoy.

    In my next and final post on central Australia, I will share my experience of seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta from atop a camel as well as some feedback on some of the resort’s restaurants. Until then…

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    What an adventure!

    For our final evening in the Red Center, we had made reservations for a sunset camel ride to cap off what has been a most rewarding visit. The outfitter is a company by the name of Uluru Camel Tours. Our evening began with a shuttle pickup at our hotel just after 5. There were 18 of us on the tour. Following a circuit to each of the hotels, it was about a 15 minute drive to the camel farm, where we were given our safety briefings, introduced to our camels for the evening, and saddled up, two guests to a camel.

    As this was the first time I’ve ever ridden a camel (or any wild animal for that matter), I was a bit nervous. I spent the first few minutes making sure I had the right balance. I remember thinking I was going to fall as the camel rocked back and forth as he moved along, even though the camels were strung together and there were professional cameleers both at the front and at the back of the camel train. A third cameleer, Wade, walked alongside the camel train and talked about the camels, how they came to Australia, the surrounding landscapes, etc.

    About 15 minutes into the ride, I began to focus on Wade’s talk and the scenery around me that I began to lose the thought of falling. The evening was rather cool and there was a nice, warm breeze that made the ride very comfortable. We stopped at a quiet spot atop a sand dune to take in the surrounding landscape and pose for photographs atop the camels. We then made our way to a second dune from where we stayed to watch the sunset. Even though we were still quite a distance from Uluru, the massive rock seemed much closer from atop a camel. And tonight, we could really see the colors change from orange to red to purple. I think having the clouds in the sky actually help bring out the rock’s many hues.

    Before I knew it, the hour was up and we headed back to the farm, where the guides prepared a nice reception of damper (Australian for bread), snacks, and beverages for us. Here, we had the opportunity to chat with our fellow guests and also to get up close with the camels for a final time. It was a wonderful way to round out our visit to this truly amazing part of the country.

    Final thoughts

    What can I say? Uluru and Kata Tjuta were everything I had hoped for and more. This is truly a remarkable part of Australia, and I felt that I had the opportunity to really get to touch it, feel it, know it. There is so much to see and do, especially if you’re into walking / hiking and don’t mind getting your hands and feet a little dusty. It’s definitely one of those places that will stick with you for a long time.

    Because of its desert location, the Red Center is best visited between the months of May and October, when the temperatures are cooler. However, if you, like me, can only come in the summertime, by all means do so; just remember to prioritize your most strenuous activities for the mornings when it is significantly less hot, and to bring a hat, sunscreen, and lots and lots of water.

    Ayers Rock Resort

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Ayers Rock Resort is your only option for accommodations here, although there are options ranging from a five-star hotel to budget facilities and even campgrounds. There are also plenty of dining options, ranging from a supermarket from where you can purchase and prepare your own food to higher-end restaurants where you're paying Sydney prices for similar quality food.

    We especially enjoyed our meals at Gecko’s Café, located in the resort’s town square, and at White Gums Restaurant, just off the lobby of the Desert Gardens Hotel. Gecko’s features a simple menu of pizzas, pastas, salads, and a few entrees. We enjoyed everything we ordered at Gecko’s, although I would point out that the downside there was that they had the same menu for lunch and for dinner.

    White Gums is more of an upscale, sit-down restaurant, and we enjoyed both the dinner we had there and the buffet breakfast we enjoyed during our last morning at the resort. The lamb that I ordered for dinner was delicious, and my traveling companions enjoyed the dishes they selected as well. The buffet breakfast comes with a wide selection of options including the usual fair, sushi, and made-to-order egg and pancake dishes. The only regret is that I was only able to eat breakfast at White Gums during my stay. Breakfast was included with our rooms during each of the three mornings we were at Uluru, although early departures meant that we had to trade in the heartier breakfast for boxes that we could take with us to our morning walks. The to-go breakfast boxes were satisfactory, and kept us fueled up for the day’s activities.

    Sydney is next on the itinerary, but I’m afraid it will have to wait until another day.

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    Craig, thank you for following along. You along with Kathie, Bob, and several others here gave me wonderful advice while I was planning the Asia portion of my trip, including when I was considering visits to Burma and Sri Lanka. Hopefully I'm able to give you some good ideas. Please feel free to ask any questions that you think of.


    The one and only...Sydney, Australia!

    Sydney. Even the name conjures up a warm and fuzzy feeling in my mind. If one can really fall in love with a city, for me, this is it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled to many corners of the world, and I like, even love, some cities more than others. On the very top of my list are Paris, Bangkok, Kyoto, Florence, and Istanbul, but Sydney stands above all of them, in a league of its own. There’s something magical about the city, something tantalizing, something special, something that one has to feel, hear, taste, smell, touch, and experience in order to understand. And did I mention the gorgeous harbor that the city seems to float on?!

    This is my second time in Sydney. I first visited the city in July 2006. That was my first trip to Australia, and I had spent four nights in the city, along with visits to Canberra and Melbourne. From that point on, Sydney has had me hooked. And I wanted to return ever since.

    For the first couple of years since my visit, new cities and new continents called my name. I wanted to check out more of the world. But Sydney kept whispering in my ear, tempting me to return. After visits to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and each gave me reasons to return, Sydney kept drawing me closer and closer. I was ready to return for several years, but the unfavorable exchange rate held me back. I thought about tagging Sydney onto previous trips to Thailand, then Japan, but for one reason or another, it just didn’t work out. Finally, in spring of last year, I bit the bullet and decided it was all or nothing. I wanted to see Java, especially Borobudur, sooner rather than later. I looked at a map and thought, “Hey! Here’s my chance. Australia is really next door from Indonesia.” This was going to be my best opportunity. I was returning to Sydney!

    We arrived in Sydney at around 4 in the afternoon on Qantas coming from Ayers Rock by way of Alice Springs. Upon arrival, we quickly retrieved our luggage, hailed a taxi, and headed to our hotel - the Sir Stamford at Circular Quay, our home for the next six nights.

    We chose this hotel partly for its location but more so for its character and charm. And it more than delivered. The Sir Stamford is a medium-sized boutique hotel with the dark wood lobby that you would find in many historic, heritage hotels. The rooms are very tasteful as well, and came appointed with comfy furniture. The staff was very helpful, especially the concierge, Dmitri. And I cannot forget to mention the afternoon tea; it's among the best I've had anywhere.

    After dropping off our bags in our rooms and freshening up, we walked over to Circular Quay, one of the city's main transport hubs. We immediately went to the ticket booth and purchased a MyMulti pass that was good for a full week of unlimited travel on the city's trains, buses, and most important of all, ferries. At a cost of A$63 per person, it's the best investment any visitor to Sydney can make. The ticket is even good all the way to the Blue Mountains, to where we would head for a day trip.

    With passes in our hands, we boarded the ferry bound for Darling Harbor and dashed for one of the seats at the bow. There laid before us were the now familiar Opera House on one side and the Harbor Bridge on the other. "Hello Sydney! I'm back!" I thought to myself, and what a great way to reacquaint me to the city I love so much. Yes, we've all seen countless photographs of the twin icons, but it's still a thrilling sight to see in person nonetheless. And second time around, this harbor drew me in just as it had during my first visit eight years ago.

    We made our way under the Harbor Bridge, around the city center, and down to Darling Harbor. We got off the ferry at King Street Wharf and headed towards Chinatown. For our first night in the city, we wanted to eat at our favorite Chinese restaurant in the city - Golden Century. Just as I remembered it, the restaurant was packed with guests. We waited for about 30 minutes and were then shown to our table. We ordered several items including a live Australian lobster. The ginger and scallion lobster was absolutely divine as was the barramundi steamed whole. Satisfied and full, we took a short walk towards Town Hall, from where we boarded a train bound for Circular Quay and back to our hotel.

    G'Day and welcome to Sydney! Much more to follow...

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    Marija and Kathie, thank you so much for your comments. It's always encouraging to know that I have friends sharing in my trip.

    To my Australian friends, a very happy Australia Day to you.

    And without further ado, here goes...

    Sydney in a Day – by Land

    Even though you could easily spend a week or two in Sydney and not run out of things to see and do, it’s also possible for a first-time visitor to receive a very good introduction to the Harbor City in just a couple of days. With limited time, I would recommend at least a day ferry-hopping Sydney Harbor, getting on and off at various stops and exploring the areas that most interest you. And to compliment a day on the water, I like to recommend a second day exploring the city center on foot.

    For this trip, we decided to reverse the two, having checked the weather for the week we were there. While we were fortunate enough to have Sydney in all its sunny glory on each of the days we were there, our first full day in the city was a bit on the chillier side, so we decided to stay on land.

    We began the day with a brisk morning walk in Hyde Park, a nice city park located in the midst of Sydney’s office buildings, to get our juices flowing. Hyde Park is easily accessible by train and by bus; by train, it’s right above the Museum stop. We started at the ANZAC Memorial, walked past the reflecting pool, through the avenues of trees, and past a couple of fountains, one of which was under renovation. From there we skipped across to St. Mary’s Cathedral for a quick visit inside. Next, we headed up Macquarie Street, lined with its many, 18th-century, Georgian-style buildings. First up is Hyde Park Barracks, which served as the principal place of residence for the city’s male convicts about twenty years. I highly recommend a visit to the Barracks, as it houses some of the best exhibitions of Sydney’s beginnings as a penal colony and of the lives of the city’s earliest settlers. Having spent quite some time there on our last visit, we didn’t go inside this time. Next door are the historic Mint, now a museum (it was closed for a private reception the morning we went by), and Sydney Hospital, still operational today. Further up the block is the Parliament of New South Wales. As there were no lines, we decided to go inside for a quick peek of some of the ceremonial rooms and chambers. Just north of the Parliament building is the State Library of New South Wales. It took us just a little more than two hours to get from Hyde Park to the State Library, including time to go inside St. Mary’s and the State Parliament. With a visit inside Hyde Park Barracks, figure about three and a half to four hours.

    Continuing north on Macquarie Street, across from the State Library, we reached the Royal Botanic Gardens. The gardens are a great way to spend a morning or an afternoon. It’s quite expansive, and has a rather extensive collection of native flora as well as items from other parts of the world. However, one of the gardens’ main draw is its geography, as the grounds sit right on the shore of Sydney Harbor and comes with gorgeous views of the Opera House, the Harbor Bridge, as well as the multi-million dollar homes hugging the northern shoreline and the city skyline just to the west and south. We spent a couple of hours at the Royal Botanic Gardens, perusing its Pioneer, Palm, and Succulent Gardens. From the Succulent Gardens, we followed Mrs. Macquarie’s Road up towards Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair for some picture-postcard views of the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge. This is one of the most popular spots for photographs, and you’re more likely than not to find visiting tour groups there. My recommendation is to visit the Chair and then follow the shoreline around the cove, towards the Opera House. You don’t have to walk very far to get away from the crowds, and you’ll more than likely to find a spot all to yourself. After some lingering to take in the scenery, we continued along the foreshore, following signs to Government House, the official home of the Governor of New South Wales. It’s open to the public on some days, not when we visited. As some of you know, we really enjoy gardens and could easily spend an entire day here at the Royal Botanic, but a couple of hours would have to do for this visit as the rest of Sydney was calling our names. From Government House, it’s a short walk through the garden gates and into the forecourt of the Opera House.

    We circumnavigated the Opera House, taking a nice stroll along its waterfront promenade. If you’re looking for good photographs of two of Sydney’s most well-known icons, this is the place to go. We were able to get several nice shots of the Opera House, including some close-up shots of its signature sails, as well as panoramic shots of the Harbor Bridge.

    It’s now about one o’clock – time for lunch. I cannot think of a more scenic place for lunch in Sydney than at the Opera Kitchen, located in the lower concourse of the Opera House itself. The Opera Kitchen serves basic fare – salads, sandwiches, a few entrees, all at reasonable prices. For more upscale options, there’s Guillaume at Bennelong, housed in one of the sails of the House (Guillaume closed just a few weeks ago, and is making way for a new restaurant that is scheduled to open sometime in the middle of this year). And along the waterfront between the Opera House and the ferry terminal at Circular Quay are a wide variety of choices at different price ranges so you’re more than likely to find something that suits you.

    Refreshed and refueled, we headed around Circular Quay and into the Rocks, the site of Sydney’s oldest settlement, where we spent the rest of our afternoon and evening. You can easily spend an entire day exploring this historic neighborhood, visiting its excellent museums (I highly recommend the Rocks Discovery Museum and the Susannah Place Museum; if you’re into contemporary art, there’s the Museum of Contemporary Art; if you fancy astronomy, the Observatory may be worth a visit), browsing its galleries and shops, or just walking along its streets. And there’s even a street market on the weekends. For us, we simply wanted to take it easy. We checked out some of the galleries and went for a walk underneath the Harbor Bridge and up onto Observatory Hill, for more awesome views of this great city. For dinner, we settled down for a fancy meal at Quay Restaurant, located in the cruise ship terminal with gorgeous views of Sydney Harbor. The food was even more spectacular; everything from the raw wagyu appetizer to the fish I ordered for my main course down to cherry chocolate almond nougat dessert was heavenly. After our very satisfying meal, it was a short walk back to our hotel.

    An entire day on the Harbor is on the agenda for tomorrow. This and more in the next installment of my report…

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    Great report on my favourite Australian city Sydney. I need to go again.

    Thanks for the Australia Day greetings, we have been celebrating, and a public holiday tomorrow is always a good thing.

    Cheers !

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    TP - nice to get your perspective on Sydney. we had 5 nights there, which for us might have been one day [and night] too long, but we certainly liked what we saw.

    Shame you missed the inside of the Governor's house - not only is it very interesting to see, but our guide [a young american who is on the governor's staff] was most informative about the history of the post of Governor and the state. and the garden was spectacular. Trust the Governors to have got themselves a prime position on the bay!

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    Sartoric, you're welcome. I've thought about timing my next visit to Australia around Australia Day. I'm hoping it's slightly easier on the wallet than New Year's Eve.

    Craig, thank you. Do you know where you'll be staying yet? September should be a wonderful time to visit Sydney as it will be coming out of its wintertime slumber (if there is such a thing in Sydney) and into the spring. I hope to get the rest of my posts on Sydney up this next week, but if you have questions as you're planning, please feel free to ask.

    Ann, did you spend all of your days in Sydney or did you venture outside? Glad you made it to Government House and enjoyed the visit; I'll just have to put it on my list for a return visit.

    I'm aiming to get another post up, but it will probably be sometime this evening.

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    tp - we used the boats quite a lot - one day we went to Manly, another to Bondi, etc. but we never got beyond the area of greater Sydney.

    I suspect that I didn't plan that aspect of the trip too well - it was at the end of the trip and somehow there never seemed to be the time as we were travelling to look at what we were going to when we got there.

    lesson learnt.

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    tp - we are staying at the Intercontinental - King Club Deluxe, Easton Harbor Room at the "Friends and Family" rate. Reviews are pretty good, location seems to work and we have enjoyed staying on the Club Floor at Intercontinentals in Bangkok and Singapore.

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    Ann, I like doing day trips when I'm in any city for an extended period of time, if only to break up the "routine" and see more of the area. In and around Sydney, there's so much you can do in a day's time or even better an overnight. Top on the list for me is the Blue Mountains, as I enjoy hiking, but the Hunter Valley is another favorite, especially if you like wines and gardens.

    Craig, I think you are going to enjoy the Intercontinental. It's in a fabulous location, just around the corner from where we stayed. The Intercontinental is only a block from the Royal Botanic Gardens, with both the Circular Quay transport hub and the Opera House a 5-minute walk away. And make sure to check out the Museum of Sydney, kitty corner from your hotel. I will say more about it in an upcoming post.

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    A Day on the Water

    Sydney is a city defined by its beautiful natural harbor. Much of the city’s life hugs close to its shorelines and the waters that it contains. Many Sydneysiders commute to and from work by ferry. And given its favorable climate for most of the year, you can almost always find them on the city’s many gorgeous beaches, sailing in its many coves and inlets, and interacting with the water in every which way possible.

    Today was our day to really know Sydney by interacting with its harbor. Our goal was to set out to explore as many parts of the harbor as possible, hopping on and off different ferries and exploring its wonderful sights.

    Our day began at one of the focal points of Sydney Harbor: the Opera House. At about 6:30 in the morning, we set off from our hotel and walked over to the Opera House, where we made reservations for an exclusive backstage tour of its facilities. I had taken the run-of-house tour the last time I visited, and wanted to get to know this world icon on a deeper level. The two-hour backstage tour runs almost every day of the year, at 7am, and is limited to 10-12 people per day. Each tour is unique as access is determined by the program of the day. After brief introductions, our tour guide, Daryl, took us to see the different theaters that the complex holds, including its two largest – the Concert Hall (concerts and other events) and the Joan Sutherland Theater (opera). During our tour we were able to walk up onto the stage, down into the orchestra pits, and inside dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, etc. While interesting to me, I will admit that the tour isn’t for everyone, especially those who get bored by the technical and mechanical operations of a building as complex as this one. For most, the standard run-of-house tour would be enough, and I highly recommend doing at least this. The backstage tour lasted a little over 90 minutes and ended in the staff cafeteria, where we sat down for a delicious hot breakfast with our tour guide, other staff members, and a handful of entertainers (nobody famous on the day we visited). I enjoyed meeting and interacting with the people who really know this building; I seemed to be full of questions that morning.

    Following a visit to the Opera House, we walked over to Circular Quay and hopped on a ferry bound for Taronga Zoo. Taronga Zoo is located on the north shore of Sydney Harbor, and is best accessed by ferry. I highly recommend a visit here. Even if you aren’t interested in seeing the animals (although I would never turn down a chance to see kangaroos and koalas), I would go just for the views. We could easily spend a full day here, although for this visit, we had about three hours. The exhibits are very nicely laid out, and the paths are easy to follow. The experience is supplemented by numerous talks and demonstrations in which you can partake, including a few close-up encounters with some of the wild animals (there is a separate change for some of these encounters). We spent most of our time in the section of the zoo dedicated to Australian animals, including time with some of the park’s koalas. I probably spent a good 20-30 minutes just watching the kangaroos and wallabies playing and bouncing around. Oh, and I cannot forget the photographs of this pair of gorgeous giraffes with the Sydney skyline in the background!

    If you’re someone, like me, who enjoys hiking, walking, or spending time outdoors in general, then there’s so much for you to see and do in Sydney. Instead of talking a ferry ride back to Circular Quay after our morning with the animals, we decided to take a nice brisk walk along the shore. Exiting Taronga Zoo using the cable car to its lower gate, we took a right at the ferry dock and followed a marked trail all the way to Cremorne Point. Along the way, we were rewarded with secluded beaches, quiet coves, and row upon row of multi-million-dollar homes that blanket the seaside cliffs. It took us about two hours to walk from the Zoo to Cremorne Point, from where we caught our ferry back to Circular Quay. [If you are interested in doing this walk or any of the highly-recommended walks in the Sydney area, I recommend that you check out the website www.WildWalks.com. It comes with descriptions of many different walks that you can do in the Sydney area, including some in the Blue Mountains. For this walk, take a look at http://www.wildwalks.com/bushwalking-and-hiking-in-nsw/sydney-harbour-north-side/cremorne-point-to-taronga-zoo.html, although keep in mind that we did it in reverse.]

    Back at Circular Quay and after a nice coffee break at Customs House, located directly across from the ferry terminal / train station, we were back on the water, this time headed for Milson’s Point. Milson’s Point is the closest ferry dock to the Sydney Harbor Bridge’s northern access point. Starting at Milson’s we went for another walk along the city’s spectacular foreshore, this time through Luna Park, an amusement park of sorts (more like a street carnival with a handful of rides and games) and around Lavendar Bay to McMahon’s Point. Along this walk are more views of the city center as well as its many icons. At McMahon’s Point, we hopped on another ferry, this time bound for Balmain. Balmain is a working class neighborhood; here, you can find numerous homes dating back to the late-1800s / early-1900s with fine wrought-iron balconies. We walked through Balmain and ended up at the Balmain East ferry dock, from where it’s a quick ferry ride to Darling Harbor, where we spent the rest of the evening.

    For Americans, Darling Harbor very much resembles New York’s South Street Seaport or San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, with its many restaurants, shops, and museums. And after dinner and a short after-dinner stroll, it’s another ferry ride back to Circular Quay and to our hotel.

    Think we had our fill of ferry-hopping and walking? Think again! Tomorrow is another entire day devoted to Sydney’s magnificent harbor including a four-hour ramble all the way to Manly Beach. This and more in the next installment of my report.

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    That Zoo - Cremorne Point walk sounds perfect for us. The 7 AM back stage tour - not so much. We will take the "standard" tour. Can't wait for day 2 on Sydney Harbor...

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    >>>AskOksena, glad you're having a great time in New Zealand. What parts of the country are you visiting?<<<


    Warm Tuesday morning greetings again tripplanner; can't thank you enough for your superlative, thoughtful posts.

    [As for New Zealand, New Year's brought perfect mix of N. Island holiday (Kauri Cliffs) and work (Hilton Auckland). As for Kauri, well, my review just touches on her serenity. Perhaps for future special celebrations for you...]

    Appreciate your thoughts regarding our fine home of Singapore. (SIN is most certainly not for everyone.) Owing to ongoing and rather pronounced family and business concerns, it is current and truly blessed residence. Should you ever return to Singapore, would be honoured to offer additional lodging (and even aviation) suggestions.

    Love your Sydney impressions. Any thoughts regarding Sydney Harbour 'Bridge Climb'? Enquire, because ~ 14 years back did the 'ascent'; so much fun. (Then, have always loved any form of climbing, natural or man-made.) Will always have fondest memories of Sydney's Park Hyatt property.

    Work (flight) calls; keep up the brilliant writing tripplanner; best to you and all,

    robert


    ... Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly ...

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    Craig, Sydney is the city for superlative walks including the classic walk from Spit Bridge to Manly Beach as well as the one from Coogee Beach to Bondi Beach. Both of these will be featured in my upcoming posts. I hope to get the next one up tomorrow.

    Robert, thank you for your kind comments. Glad you had a nice time in New Zealand. I've read great things about Kauri Cliffs. And I must say I enjoyed my visit to your home of Singapore; I see myself coming back. As for the Bridge Climb, I haven't done it yet and hope to someday; I did have a close-up with the Coathanger and will share in my next post. Stay tuned...

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    To Manly!

    Today is another busy day characterized by scenic walks along the harbor foreshore. As we began the day yesterday with a visit to the Opera House, we kicked off today with a close up of Sydney’s other famous icon: the Harbor Bridge. To access the Harbor Bridge, we walked about half a block north on Macquarie Street (just past Alfred Street) and up a staircase that leads to the Cahill Expressway (there is a small sign that says Cahill Walk; make sure you look out for it as the sign isn’t that large and could be easily missed). From up here, you have some nice views of the harbor. The Cahill walk takes about 15 minutes and ends at a staircase that leads down to the lower deck of the Harbor Bridge. We continued along the pedestrian walkway until we reached the southeast pylon, which is open to the public. Unless you are doing the Bridge Climb, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet (maybe next time!), I highly recommend a visit to the Pylon Lookout. It’s a couple of hundred steps to get to the top, but from here, at least in my opinion, you get the best views of the Bridge, the Opera House, and the city center in general.

    After our visit to the lookout, we made our way across the Harbor Bridge and into the neighborhood of Milson’s Point. Once you get off the bridge, simply make a right on Broughton Street and keep going until you hit water. From here are some more picture-postcard views of the harbor. (Tip: We also saw very few tourists on this section of the foreshore, so you may want to consider this spot for some nice photographs away from the crowds. You can also access this area by taking a ferry to Milson’s Point, making a right, and walking underneath the Harbor Bridge to the other side – directly opposite from where the Opera House is located.) After a few photographs, we made our way back to Broughton Street, from where we caught a taxi headed for Spit Bridge. (You can also get to Spit Bridge by taking the train from Milson’s to Wynyard or North Sydney and catching a bus headed to Spit Bridge. We didn’t bother with it as we did the walk on a weekend and the buses don’t run as frequently.)

    Spit Bridge is the start of the classic Spit to Manly walk that winds its way from Spit Bridge around the shoreline of Middle Harbor and over to Manly Beach. The walk is just under 6 miles long and takes approximately 3-5 hours to complete, depending on how much you linger. And it’s relatively easy; it’s mostly dirt paths along with some staircases along the way. The Spit to Manly walk is by far one of the most spectacular walks I’ve done anywhere in the world. I highly, highly recommend it. [Information on this walk can be found here, but you can also Google Spit to Manly as there is plenty of information online about this. http://www.wildwalks.com/bushwalking-and-hiking-in-nsw/sydney-harbour-north-side/spit-bridge-to-manly.html]

    Before starting on the walk, it’s time for lunch. After taking a look at a few dining options, we settled on Plonk! Beach Café, right on the water overlooking Spit Bridge (it’s on the right hand side of the street as you approach the bridge). We were very happy with our choice as the food was very good. A couple of us ordered the filet, which was prepared to perfection, and one had the Peking duck risotto, which was also very good. And the fish and chips was a hit as well.

    Fueled up for the walk, we crossed Spit Bridge and began our walk towards Manly Beach. You access the path from the north side of the bridge; as you past the bridge, there is a staircase on the left hand side that leads underneath the bridge (there’s a sign that says Manly Scenic Walkway), and on the right is an unmarked path / driveway that leads you to the water. The first part of the walk is along a combination of dirt paths, steps, and sandy beaches, and we mostly saw bushlands and cliffside and waterfront homes along with some decent views of the harbor. About half an hour into the walk, we came upon Clontarf Reserve. We saw more people at Clontarf than another other section of the walk; the beach was packed here and there were lots of people barbequing and picnicking in the adjacent park. From Clontarf we wound out way through a residential street and then back out to the shoreline (There are some coastal sections of the walk that aren’t accessible during high tide, which requires a detour into some residential streets. Signage is good in some sections, adequate in others, and not so great in a handful of sections. However, you will most likely run into others on this walk. And you can always ask the locals if you’re not sure; folks who live around this area are used to seeing tourists and are happy to lend a helping hand.).

    The trail continues through bushland for 45 minutes to an hour or so, until we reached Grotto Point. At Grotto Point, we made a short detour to see some of the aboriginal rock engravings that can still be seen here. The engravings were not very interesting to us, and certainly did not compare to what we saw at Uluru. Back on the main trail, we came upon several spectacular overlooks at and near Arabanoo Lookout. The views from here across this section of Sydney Harbor with North and South Heads prominently jutting out into the Harbor and the Tasman Sea beyond are simply breathtaking, not to mention the vistas of Manly.

    The views along this section of the walk between Arabanoo Lookout and Manly make this entire jaunt worth the time and energy. In addition to the amazing harbor views, we noticed our anticipation of reaching Manly growing with every step. Along this section are numerous quiet beaches and coves much like what we saw along sections of the Taronga Zoo to Cremorne Point walk we did yesterday. Some of the beaches were sandy while others were rocky. Along one section of beach, we decided to take a break on the nice sand. We sat there for about an hour and were pretty much undisturbed except for a handful of walkers passing by along the trail above us.

    Rested and relaxed we pressed on towards Manly. Along the last section of the walk, it became more residential again. Multi-million dollar homes line the main stretch of coastline leading to Manly Beach. Soon enough, we arrived at Manly, where we spent the remainder of our evening. I especially enjoyed walking along the stretch of Manly beach facing the Pacific Ocean, just walking on the fine sand and among the stately Norfolk pines that line the green adjacent to the beach. We walked from the Corso down to the sea and northward towards the section where surfers congregate. After spending some time watching the surfers in action, we turned around and walked the length of Manly beach towards Shelly beach and back.

    As dusk began to descend on Manly, we went for dinner at one of the restaurants lining the main street overlooking the beach. Following dinner, we walked back across the Corso and to the ferry wharf, from where we caught our 30-minute ferry ride back to Circular Quay with the lights of the Sydney skyline all aglow. What an extraordinary day!

    On tomorrow’s itinerary, we reluctantly tore away from Sydney for a fantastic day trip to the Blue Mountains. Thanks for your attention and interaction so far.

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    A Day in the Blue Mountains

    With three full days in Sydney under our belt and as much as we were enjoying ourselves in the city, we were interested in a change of pace. Today is the day we took a day trip to the Blue Mountains. Located about two hours west of Sydney and easily accessible by train or by car, it’s a wonderful way to spend two or three days, especially if you’re interested in unwinding, doing some good hiking, etc. For this trip, we only had one day, which meant an early start if we wanted to get there before the tour buses arrive.

    We hopped on a train from Circular Quay to Central Station, and from Central Station caught the 5:48am train to Katoomba, one of the main towns situated among the Blue Mountains. We arrived in Katoomba at 7:50 and walked a couple of blocks over to the Carrington Hotel for a nice morning breakfast to start off our day. The Carrington is an old heritage hotel located in the heart of town, and easy access to the town’s restaurants, shops, and galleries, as well as transportation. There is a large but rather cozy living room off the lobby. The made-to-order hot breakfast was good and inexpensive, although service was a bit on the slower side and the hostess / server had to check with the manager to make sure it was okay for them to accommodate us as we weren’t hotel guests.

    Fueled up and ready to go, we took a taxi from the hotel to Echo Point, one of the more popular overlooks into the Blue Mountains. As we were there before the tour groups began to arrive, it was relatively quiet. We spent about 5-10 minutes here to enjoy the panoramic views of the Blue Mountains with its iconic Three Sisters rock formation. From this vantage point, the mountains looked more like a large blue-green canyon covered with trees, bushes, and shrubs. It was a gorgeous, sunny, warm day when we visited so we were able look on for quite a distance.

    After our visit to Echo Point, we then walked over to the visitor center / gift shop, from where we purchased some water and snacks for our morning hike into the mountains. There are numerous trails of varying degrees of difficulty all throughout the Blue Mountains so you’re likely to find something that suits your interests and abilities. For us we decided upon the Echo Point to Scenic World via Giant Stairway walk [http://www.wildwalks.com/bushwalking-and-hiking-in-nsw/blue-mountains-katoomba/echo-point-to-scenic-world-via-giant-stairway.html], which is considered one of the more challenging walks / hikes. The walk turned out to be much easier than expected, and can be completed by most visitors with a moderate degree of fitness as long as you’re able to navigate the 900-plus rather narrow and sometimes steep stone and metal steps that lead into the canyon.

    The Echo Point to Scenic World walk begins behind the visitor center / gift shop, passing underneath an archway that leads to a path down to the first of the Three Sisters. After a visit to the Three Sisters, we followed signs leading to the Giant Stairway, stopping for breaks and the obligatory photo stop or two. After we reached the bottom of the stairway, we made a right turn and followed signs pointing to Scenic World. Along the way we mostly saw Australian bush and a few native birds. After a brief break at Katoomba Falls, we continued our way west, following signs that lead to Scenic World, another popular stop for day trippers. The walk from Echo Point to Scenic World took us about two and a half hours, including several stops along the way. At Scenic World, we took the train that took us back to the canyon rim. Although most people purchase tickets at the Scenic World ticket desk at the top of the mountains, you can easily get on one of the trains and just pay as you exit. The Scenic World railway claims to have the steepest grade of any railway line in the world. Most important, it beats climbing about another set of 900-plus steps, this time going up (if you are interested in taking the stairs, follow signs to the Furber Steps, which leads you to the top).

    Scenic World is comprised of three attractions: the railway, the cableway, and the skyway. These rides are extremely popular with tour groups and are usually very crowded. However long, the lines move quickly. After a quick bite to eat at its café, we took the skyway heading back east, towards Echo Point. From the skyway, you get nice views of the Three Sisters, as well as Solitary Rock and Katoomba Falls. When we reached our destination, we were interested in doing another walk, but we followed an easier route this time – the Prince Henry Cliff Walk [http://www.wildwalks.com/bushwalking-and-hiking-in-nsw/blue-mountains-katoomba/prince-henry-cliff-walk.html, we only did the portion between Cliff View Lookout and Echo Point]. Starting at the cableway station, we headed towards Echo Point. The section of the walk between the skyway station and Echo Point took about 20 minutes to complete. What really grabbed my attention here were the number of trees that were destroyed by the recent wildfire that hit the Blue Mountains just a few months ago. We saw entire sections of fallen trees as well as trees that we still standing but dead.

    Back at Echo Point, we went for an ice cream break at one of the nearby cafes. From here we took a taxi to Everglades Historic House and Gardens, an Australian heritage property. Located just outside the mountain town of Leura and nestled among the Blue Mountains, Everglades was the home of a Belgian businessman who built his residence and gardens here in the early 1900s. The site is known for its sizable gardens, designed by a well-known Danish landscape artist, Paul Sorensen. We spent a couple of leisurely hours touring the home and walking among the gardens, terraces, and paths that make up the property. Everglades was a nice way for us to spend a quiet late afternoon after a more intensive morning and midday of rambling among the mountains.

    Following our visit to Everglades, we asked the clerk at the ticket desk to call us a taxi, which took us to the Leura train station. We spent the remainder of our day in Leura, browsing some of the stores that line the main street. For dinner, we went to Silk’s Brasserie, a French-Australian restaurant along the main street. The food was very good, but the dessert was even better; I ordered the citrus cheesecake and enjoyed every delicious bite of it.

    After dinner it was time to head back into Sydney.

    Stay tuned for our final full day in my favorite city…

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    TP - given that we have 2 nights in Katoomba, your itinerary for the full day sounds perfect for us, sans the commute back and forth to Sydney. Would you agree? Or have you been to the Blue Mts. previously?

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    Craig, yes, I agree that my full day itinerary will give you a well-rounded experience of the Blue Mountains, and with two nights, you will be able to enjoy it without having to get up too early. However, if you want to avoid crowds, do try to get to Echo Point before 9:30. I did venture to the Blue Mountains during my last visit to Sydney, but it was a rainy day, so I didn't get to do any hikes / walks. With the extra time, you may want to visit Euroka Clearing during on a late afternoon for a chance to see kangaroos in the wild.

    Kathie, thank you. It's always encouraging to know that folks are following my report and acknowledging it.

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    Thanks TP for your excellent report, following along here as well.

    Now I have to somehow convince DH to go again to Sydney. He's a Melbourne boy and there is a traditional rivalry between those two cities. His attitude is also coloured by a bad experience when last there, only car related, but frustrating and time consuming.

    Can't wait to hear about your time in NZ !

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    Sartoric, you're welcome. Melbourne is a wonderful city as well. I didn't get there on this trip but spent a few days there on my last visit to Australia. There's so much to see and do in the city and in the surrounding area (Phillip Island, GOR).

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    tp - I'm following avidly as well; as you know we were there at roughly the same time.

    a query - what were the temperatures like when you were in OZ? - we would have found it too hot to do all the walking you did when we were in Sydney.

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    Ann, thanks for continuing to follow along. Highs were about 75-85 (23-29 Celsius) and lows were about 55-60 (12-15 Celsius). At Uluru and Kata Tjuta, it was 95-105 (high-30s, low-40s). It was similar in Darwin, but more humid.

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    A Lazy Day in Sydney

    After four back-to-back days of active sightseeing, we decided to just take it easy today and simply enjoy our last full day being in my favorite city. Our day began with a late breakfast at Mos Café, located at the Museum of Sydney, kitty corner from the Intercontinental Hotel and a 5 minute walk from Circular Quay. I ordered a dish of eggs and ham that was absolutely delicious. Others ordered the country style corn fritters, a banana and coconut porridge, and pancakes with fig gelato and chocolate sauce. Everything was very satisfied with what they’d chosen.

    Following breakfast, we went for a visit inside the Museum of Sydney. The Museum is focused on the history of and life in Australia’s largest city. I was particularly drawn to the exhibits on the arrival of the first British fleet to Sydney, as well as those telling the stories different the different early settlers, what their lives were like back then, etc. There was also a special exhibition dedicated to the history of food in Sydney, which I thought was quite interesting. The short film about the development and growth of the city was good too.

    The remainder of the day was mainly about milling about the city center, visiting various shops and finding a couple of interesting items to bring home. We ventured down to the Queen Victoria Building, walked through the Strand Arcade, and wandered around surrounding streets. We were mostly drawn to the aboriginal art galleries and the jewelry stores specializing in opals. We ended up purchasing a nice aboriginal dreamtime-style art piece, which just arrived last week (yay!), as well as some opal jewelry.

    For dinner, we returned to Golden Century for some more fine Australian seafood. We capped off the evening with drinks at the Opera Bar, located along the promenade adjacent to the lower concourse of the Opera House. With a couple of drinks in hand and the twin harbor icons bathed in light sandwiched between us, I couldn’t think of a better way to cap off our final evening here.

    Saying Goodbye to Sydney, Australian Style

    An evening flight out of Sydney meant that we had a few more hours in the Harbor City before heading to the airport. We left our luggage with the hotel bellman and headed for the eastern shores. We traveled by train from Circular Quay to Bondi Junction, from where we caught a city bus headed to Coogee Beach. It was a warm, sunny morning, and we decided to conclude our visit to Sydney with one more scenic walk followed by a nice lunch overlooking the beach. [http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/city-guides/sydney-walking-tour-3/, although we did it in reverse, so that we can end at Bondi for lunch]

    The walk took us from Coogee Beach northward to Bondi Beach. Similar to the Spit to Manly that we completed earlier, the Coogee to Bondi walk also follows a path that snakes along seaside cliffs. Unlike Spit to Manly, Coogee to Bondi fronts the Pacific Ocean instead of Sydney Harbor, which translated to nice ocean breezes and spectacular ocean waves. The walk passes through five remarkable white sand beaches – Coogee, Clovelly, Bronte, Tamarama, and Bondi – and takes about two and a half hours to complete, not factoring in time for lounging, swimming, etc.

    Starting at Coogee, we slowly made our way to Clovelly, taking time to admire the rock formations found along this section of the trail. Clovelly is one of the smaller of the five beaches, sandwiched between two large cliffs that give it more protection from the fierce ocean waves. From Clovelly, we wound our way past more scenic rocky coast and past a cemetery to Bronte Beach. The walkway adjacent to the cemetery offers some of the best ocean-facing views in the greater Sydney area. Just beyond the cemetery is Bronte Beach, which was abuzz with people this morning. The pool by the beach was also packed with people looking for a nice swim. We continued on to Tamarama and then from there, pushed onwards towards Bondi.

    Before we stepped by Bondi’s world-famous sands, we stopped for lunch at the renown Bondi Icebergs dining room. Through our hotel concierge, we were able to make a reservation for a window table overlooking the sands of Bondi and the ocean beyond. The views were incredible and the food equally so. It’s an experience I would highly recommend, and for us a very memorable way to end our visit to Sydney.

    Following lunch, we went for a relaxing walk on Bondi’s sand and spent some time just lounging in the sands and watching the surfers ride the waves. Before long it was time to leave. We caught a taxi back to our hotel, from where we retrieved our bags, and continued on to the airport.

    It was at this point that our visit to Sydney really came to a close. Sydney the second time around was all that I had hoped for it to be and ten times more. And I left with the tugging desire to return for more. In fact, I’m thinking about a return visit as soon as next winter as I write this report. I’m looking into flight options that connect some of the places in Asia I’m interested in visiting with yet another week in Sydney.

    Next stop: Auckland, New Zealand

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    Thanks so much for posting this. Our travel styles, (especially the walking, the museums, and the sites) are quite similar and this will be very helpful for our planning...

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    Auckland in a Day

    My first full day in Auckland began with a visit to Viaduct Harbor, home to restaurants, shops, ferries to various points throughout the Hauraki Gulf, and the wonderfully-done Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum. After a short harbor stroll, we paid a visit to the Maritime Museum. The exhibits began with a story recounting the founding of New Zealand by the native Maori people, the arrival of the British and immigrants from different parts of the world, and its history of seafaring and sailing. With the island country surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the seas played a major role in New Zealand history. The museum houses many interesting exhibits displaying the types of ocean-going vessels used over time, including a look at some of the native vessels and a yacht that sailed into victory during a recent America’s Cup sailing competition. I enjoyed a visit to this museum more than I originally thought I would, and wound up spending two full hours here.

    From the museum, we walked west towards the Wynyard Quarter for a quick look around this waterfront precinct. We stopped by the Fish Market for some coffee before making our way to Queen Street, downtown Auckland’s main shopping thoroughfare. We made our way down Queen Street, taking a look at some of the historic buildings still standing. We walked by Aotea Square and stopped to watch a group singing Christmas carols in the public square. From there, we continued on Queen Street, until we reached Karangahape Road, known by locals as K Road. From there, it was a short walk to our hotel – the Langham – for lunch.

    Following lunch, we took a taxi to Auckland Domain, the green lungs of the city. We spent the rest of our afternoon here, visiting the fantastic Auckland War Memorial Museum and taking a walk through the Winter Gardens. The museum is huge, and could easily take a full day. Given our limited time, we decided to concentrate on the Maori exhibits as well as the ones dedicated to other native Pacific peoples. We especially enjoyed the meticulously detailed replications of a traditional Maori ceremonial house as well as its very impressive 100-man canoe. The museum also houses an extensive collection of Maori woodwork, as well as crafts, jewelry, and tools from the peoples from the neighboring Pacific nations. We also enjoyed the 30-minute Maori concert that the museum puts together, even though it was very short and felt very much geared towards tourists. The upper floor of the museum houses exhibited devoted to New Zealand’s military history as well as memorials to its fallen; we didn’t spend much time here as we wanted to go outside and enjoy some of the greenery.

    We spent the next hour walking through the Winter Gardens and its two beautiful greenhouses. We also rambled about some of the paths in the park, snapping photographs of the city center, its adjacent harbor, and some of the volcanoes that were visible from here.

    We made our way out of the Domain around 5 and headed over to the Parnell neighborhood for a nice evening stroll and dinner. Parnell is dotted with numerous boutiques as well as many Italian restaurants, cafes, and pastry shops. During my five nights in Auckland, I found it most difficult to stay away from its cafes and patisseries, sampling the delicious desserts on offer; I don’t think I ordered a dessert item that I didn’t like in Auckland.

    On tomorrow’s agenda – penguins, volcanoes, and more…

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    Penguins, Volcanoes, and More

    The day began with a morning visit to Kelly Tarlton's Sea Life Aquarium, located on Tamaki Drive just east of the city center. We hopped on a city bus going out to the aquarium, which was about a 20 minute ride from the Britomart Transportation Center. A special treat was in store for us this morning. We had booked the aquarium's On the Ice encounter. Limited to four guests each day, the encounter is an unique opportunity for penguin enthusiasts like us to get up close and personal with the facilities's dozens of king and gentoo penguins.

    We arrived at the aquarium at 9:30 and was shortly greeted by Darren Cross, one of the aquarium's managers. Darren chatted with us about the aquarium's resident penguins and took us for a behind-the-scenes tour of its extensive facilities. On the tour, we saw much of the heavy machinery and equipment that keeps the facilities operational. We also met with a couple of the aquarium's chefs and saw how food was prepared for the different animals. We even had the chance to feed some of the fish found in one of the facilities' largest tanks.

    After our eye-opening tour, which alone was worth the steep price of the encounter, our appointed hour had come. Darren gave us a quick safety briefing and showed us to a room where we were suited up and introduced to two of the aquarium's penguin caretakers. Darren and the two caretakers escorted us to the penguin enclosure, and took us to an area where we would sit for much of the visit. We had a good 45 minutes with these beautiful animals. We spoke to them, observed their behavior, and experienced their attempts to interact with us. These penguins are very curious animals to say the least. A couple of the king penguins, especially Tutty and Maggie, as well as a few of the gentoos were very eager to come up to us to say hello. Tutty enjoyed rubbing his body against us. Needless to say, our time with the penguins was too short.

    Following our unforgettable encounter, we bid goodbye to the aquarium staff, who were all awesome, especially Darren. We proceeded to take in some of the other exhibits before picking up our precious photographs with the penguins (as the caretakers and we interacted with the penguins, Darren acted as our personal photographer and snapped numerous memorable shots for us).

    At about 12:30, it was time to move on. We hopped on an aquarium shuttle that took us to Viaduct Harbor, where we ate lunch. After lunch, we were on our way to Devonport, a suburb located on the other side of Hauraki Gulf directly opposite downtown Auckland. Devonport is about a 15 minute ferry ride away. We spent the rest of our day here.

    Leaving the ferry terminal, we turned right and proceed along King Edward Parade past the beautiful waterfront homes until we reached the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum. We had only spent about 30 minutes at the museum as the exhibits didn't really capture our attention.

    From here we made our way along some residential streets and up to North Head, one of two dormant volcanoes found in Devonport. We walked up to the crater, looked at some of the military fortifications left behind by the British during colonial times, and watched a couple of short films that told the story of the significance of this place. North Head also offered some incredible views of Devonport and over the water to Auckland. I would recommend coming up here for the views if nothing else.

    After about an hour up here we followed the shoreline and a few series of residential streets over to Mount Victoria, Devonport's other dormant volcano. Unlike North Head, there are more homes at and around Mount Victoria. Between the two I liked North Head better because there is more to do from up top and the views seen to be more scenic. However, Mount Victoria is easier to reach from the ferry dock.

    Between Mount Victoria and the ferry terminal is Victoria Road, the main commercial artery of Devonport. Here we did some shopping and took a break at one of the very inviting cafes for dessert and coffee.

    At about 6, we caught a ferry back to downtown Auckland. Our last stop of the day was a visit to Sky Tower, the tallest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. From here we enjoyed a panoramic view of the city skyline as well as several of the volcanoes that dot the region. From here it was back to the hotel where we enjoyed a quiet dinner and some time lounging by the pool.

    Up next: a visit to Waiheke Island

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    Tripplanner001, Thanks so much for your excellent report. We head to New Zealand at the end of February and then on to SW Australia. Your detail and suggestions are of great help. Where did you stay in Auckland? Any restaurants in Auckland that you recommend?

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    Re, you're welcome. We stayed at the Langham Hotel, just off K Road. It's a bit further away from Viaduct Harbor, but close to restaurants and shops. I will write about the hotel in an upcoming post. As for restaurants, what types of cuisine are you interested in? I enjoyed most of the meals I had at and around the harbor, as well as in Parnell.

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    triplanner001, We are staying at Langham. As for restaurants, we are foodies. Don't need fancy places or beautiful views or over the top fusion cooking but do need good food. We enjoy ethnic places - Thai, Chinese, fresh fish, wood fired thin crusted pizza. One other question - From Melbourne to Canberra and then the train to Sydney. We find that have a few extra days. Thought of driving the Great Ocean Road but have now decided it maybe to similar to coast drives that we have taken. Should we head to the Blue Mts, visit Hunter Valley or ???.

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    Re, you will enjoy the Langham. It is a well-appointed, but not over the top hotel, situated away from the hustle and bustle of Viaduct Harbor, but close enough that it's a 10-15 minute hop via the hotel's shuttle or using any one of the city buses that stop in front of the hotel.

    As far as restaurants go, if you like fusion, check out Eight, the hotel's restaurant; I enjoyed the meals I had there. A nice pizza / pasta place is DaVinci, in a nondescript basement across the street from the hotel. For Chinese food, I would recommend Grand Harbor near Viaduct Harbor; it has some of the freshest and tastiest seafood. I also enjoyed dining on Waiheke Island; both wineries I visited, Mudbrick and Cable Bay, had good food and excellent wines.

    There is a lot to do in the area around Melbourne and Sydney, depending on your interests. You can certainly do the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne, and you can also visit Philip Island for its nightly penguin parade. You can also visit the Dandanong Ranges or sidetrip to Ballarat, a 19th century gold mining town. If you enjoy wines, there's the Yarra Valley outside of Melbourne and the Hunter Valley, as you mentioned, outside of Sydney; I liked Hunter better. And I really enjoy the Blue Mountains, but I would only recommend it if you like hiking / walking. Depending on your interests, there's enough to do in Sydney to occupy your time. Is there something in particular that you like or would enjoy doing? How much time do you have in this corner of Australia?

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    Waiheke Island

    A day trip to Waiheke Island is in order for today. Located about 35 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland, Waiheke Island seems a world away from modern city life. The island is a popular getaway for locals and tourists alike. Here you will find excellent wineries, fine beaches, and scenic walking trails. On our short one day visit, we focused on the western end of Waiheke Island.

    Using the city's suggested Ferry to Church Bay walk as a guide (http://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/EN/parksfacilities/walkingtracks/Pages/waihekeindividualwalks.aspx#ferry), we began at the ferry dock, made a right upon exiting, and made our way to the start of the trail just beyond the parking lot (make sure to be mindful of where you are going as the signage is not particularly easy to follow, even at the points where there are signage). From here, we followed the dirt path that ran parallel to the coast, taking in gorgeous views of the bay immediately below us and the Hauraki Gulf beyond. The walk soon took us to the edge of private property, from where we followed a fence line as instructed. We continued until we came close to Church Bay, where we were greeted with a pod of wild dolphins swimming in the waters. We stopped here for a good 45 minutes just to watch the dolphins play in the water.

    As the dolphins were ready to go about their merry way, so were we. We continued along the trail past a farm by the water. Not too far past this point, we realized that we walked to far, made a quick turn back, and started following signs leading Oneroa. Here we walked up a narrow path separating two properties, a sheep farm on the left and a vineyard on the right. It was nice to come upon the flock of sheep grazing on the grass, as it's one of the classic images I had in my head of New Zealand. At the top of the ridge, we walked passed a couple of gates and continued on a path leading downhill, towards Cable Bay Road and Nick Johnstone Drive. Not too long after we hit Nick Johnstone Drive did we come upon Mudbrick Vineyard.

    We stopped at the vineyard for a visit, sampling some of their wines. We enjoyed sitting in its patio, enjoying a few of their wines over a couple of delicious sampler platters on offer. It was a fun and relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. We wanted to have lunch there but the entire restaurant was booked solid by a wedding party there that late morning.

    We continued along Nick Johnstone Drive until we reached Cable Bay Vineyard, where we stopped for a leisurely lunch. I ordered the lamb, which was paired with its Syrah - absolutely delicious! And its "Black Forest" dessert, divine!

    Following lunch, we decided to deviate from the suggested path, and skipped down to Blackpool for a nice walk along the beach. This beach was very quiet although the sand seemed more rocky than I would have liked. After a short walk, we made our way through some residential streets to Oneroa Beach. Oneroa was more crowded with beachgoers but the sand was finer. We spent some time here just enjoying the sunny, warm weather and the nice breeze, before walking around some of the shops in Oneroa town. From Oneroa, it was a relatively short and easy walk back to the ferry terminal for our ride back to Auckland.

    All in all, the walk could be done in three or four hours, but we chose to linger in different spots and enjoyed our time at two wineries. It made for a very full but rewarding day.

    If you are in Auckland for more than a day, I highly recommend a visit to Waiheke Island. It's a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle. And for us, it was the perfect way to begin winding down our visit.

    Our last day in Auckland is tomorrow. Stay tuned...

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    Thanks for your thoughts. After reading information on Blue Mts and Great Ocean Road I think we have to head in a different direction. Driving up to Hunter valley from Sydney is about 2 hours. I am not sure that would be a good use of our time. We live in a state that produces a lot of wine and have visited many wineries. Been looking at Tasmania. Have you been? The island seems to offer much. Historical areas,and museums appeal. We were planning to spend 3 days in Melbourne and then 3 days in Canberra before taking the train to Sydney. May cut back on those cities and visit Hobart, and Port Arthur.

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    Kathie, thank you.

    Re, you're welcome. I have not been to Tasmania, but want to get there someday. I would cut back a day in Canberra, and add it to Melbourne.

    Ann, please don't count yourself down. I enjoy your travel musings quite a bit.

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    Goodbye Auckland

    For our final day in the City of Sails, we decided to set out on a morning visit to Auckland Zoo, with the goal of seeing a kiwi or two as well as a few other of the islands' native animals. We took a taxi from our hotel straight to the zoo, located west of the city, about a 25 minute ride. We spent our entire morning at the zoo, mostly focusing on the local animals. We spent a good amount of time in the kiwi enclosure, and got close to a kaka, a tui, a blue duck, and a little penguin. We also walked around some of the other exhibits as well, before heading to Viaduct Harbor for a quick lunch at a nearby pub.

    In the afternoon, we booked on a half day tour out to the areas west of Auckland. We chose to go with TIME Unlimited Tours, and had a fabulous guide named Neil, who grew up in and really knew the area. Our first stop was the Arataki Visitor Center, where we learned about the flora of the area. We then visited a nearby waterfall before heading to Piha Beach. Piha is spectacular. The scenery is gorgeous, and the black sand was very nice to walk upon. We spent a good hour here, just walking along the sands, taking some nice photos, and enjoying some snacks and refreshments. Our final stop was to see a giant kauri tree that used to be more prevalent in NZ. For us, it was a good way to round out our visit to Auckland. Neil was a terrific guide; he always made sure we were comfortable. The van itself was pleasant; the seats were good and the snacks and beverages that were provided were a nice accompaniment.

    Following our tour, we were dropped off at Viaduct Harbor, from where we made our way to Grand Harbor for dinner. A Cantonese-style seafood restaurant, we decided to have our final meal in the city here, as we enjoyed it so much earlier in the week.

    Going Home via Tokyo

    The next morning, we flew on Air New Zealand Flight 99 from Auckland to Narita, the first leg of our journey home. The economy seats were rather standard, and seemed less comfortable than our United economy seats. The entertainment system was fine, and the food was okay. We arrived in Tokyo at about 5pm and took a train into the city. We could have taken a flight back to the U.S. on the same day, but decided it was safer to have a layover as it would have been a short connection and we would have had to deal with two 12-plus hour flights.

    In Tokyo, we stayed at the Hotel Monterey Hanzomon, a three-star facility with Japanese-size rooms within walking distance from the Imperial Palace.

    After a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast of udon noodles at a nearby place, we hopped on the subway headed for the Tokyo Skytree for a quick visit as it was a clear day. We were able to have a good view of Mount Fuji as well as the myriad skyscrapers. We then headed over to Asakusa for a return visit to the Buddhist temple and some souvenir shopping before returning to our hotel, where we retrieved our bags and headed back to the airport for a 5:45pm flight to Newark.

    Our flight, on United 78, was uneventful. While we could have stayed longer, we also didn't mind coming home after our 32 day trip.

    Further musings...

    Overall we were very satisfied with our trip. We enjoyed most of the sights, sounds, flavors, and smells of each of the places we visited. We appreciated the opportunity to get close to some of the places we've had on our lists, and the chance to revisit some of the places that had really captured our hearts and minds in years' past. And we're especially glad to be able to get to know the people, their stories, and their perspectives. While Sydney will always have its special place in my heart, I truly enjoyed the Australian Outback and Indonesia; they were special. And I would happily recommend Singapore and NZ, or what little I saw, to anyone thinking about a trip to this part of the world.

    As I write this, I'm deep into planning for my next adventure - to South America this summer. For my next Asian sojourn, I'm thinking Sri Lanka or Nepal, given my love of culture both traditional and urban, hiking, temples, etc. I don't think I'm ready to plunge into India yet, but hopefully one of the latter two destinations will give me a good taste of what to expect. And of course, Australia is on my list for yet another visit, either as part of a longer trip or as a standalone.

    Above all, I want to thank each and every one of you for giving me the opportunity to share and relive my travels with you. I hope I was able to give you a sense of each of the places I experienced as I experienced them. I appreciate your encouragement, feedback, comments, etc., and hope that this was useful or at least fun to read.

    Thanks again.

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    tp, thank you so much for your highly informative and entertaining TR.

    you've certainly given me food for thought about the Outback [which I'd more or less written off] Indonesia, and Singapore.

    as for your future travels, we just loved Sri Lanka, if that's a help.

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    Hey TP

    I'm a bit sad your report has come to an end, it's been a fantastic journey which I've thoroughly enjoyed.

    Thanks for taking the time to share it with me and the (probably) thousands who have followed along.

    I look forward to your next adventure !

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    >>>Robert, thank you for your kind comments. Glad you had a nice time in New Zealand. I've read great things about Kauri Cliffs. And I must say I enjoyed my visit to your home of Singapore; I see myself coming back. As for the Bridge Climb, I haven't done it yet and hope to someday; I did have a close-up with the Coathanger and will share in my next post. Stay tuned...<<<



    Most welcome, tripplanner; pleasure. And, thank you kindly once again for your wondrous trip report; just caught up with her conclusion this morning. You are a most gifted and thoughtful writer; please continue the exemplary work.

    Noticed S. America is on your future agenda. My (potential) SA suggestions for you are all rather antique (20+ years), but will always have the finest memories of mountaineering expeditions with some cherished climbing friends in Argentina, Ecuador and Peru - as well as some fine lodgings in Buenos Aries and Uruguay. Honoured to assist (and even with a certain Singaporean airline).

    Thanks again for the wondrous writing and warmest Valentine's Day morning wishes to you and all,

    robert


    ... Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly ...

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    I just found this TR and am really loving it. You've covered some fascinating and diverse areas in such a short time, and your detail is so great that I'm experiencing each of these places as if I'm there, too. You've now thoroughly whetted my interest in these countries, making the choice for the next Big Trip a very difficult one. Thank you for an amazing report!

    I loved our trip to India last year, by the way, and think you would really enjoy it, too.
    Paule

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    Thanks, TP,

    I'm actually just beginning to think about 2016; I get one annual vacation , and we just got back from a great trip to Thailand, Laos & Cambodia. Next year, we are going to southern Spain, a planned trip that got "bumped" after going to India last year! I knew I had to get more of the East before we returned to the "safety" of Europe. Next year, the Alhambra calls...

    So right now, I'm 2 years ahead, and have how many more years of trips planned! But, assuming I get my 3 weeks vacation, my choices are Bali/Central Java/Australia; Myanmar/Vietnam; South India. All 3 are now rising to the top of the list and clamoring, "Me first!" For now, this will be my dreaming. A year from now, I'll start to make serious plans.

    We went to Rajasthan, Varanasi & Agra last year and loved the trip. It was life-changing in so many ways, but an amazing experience. Of all, Varanasi was probably the most remarkable experience, but India really got into our soul by the end of the trip.

    Both of my trip reports are on the board, so it shouldn't be too hard to find them if you're interested.

    Paule

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    Paule, you're welcome. I went and read your report on India this morning; definitely gives me some food for thought. Sounds like you have some great options and planning ahead of you. I cannot comment on Burma, Vietnam, or India, but you will have marvelous time at the Alhambra, especially if you enjoy Islamic architecture. It's one of the finest constructions in the world.

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    tripplanner, what a great report. Thank you for taking the time and detail to tell us about your trip. It sounds like a fabulous time. I especially enjoy all of your walking tours and detail. I am trying to imagine my time there via your walks. You give me some good ideas of where to invest our time in Sydney, especially.
    Thank you!

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    Cristeen, you're welcome. Glad to be able to give you some ideas. If you only have time for one walk, I would recommend Spit to Manly, followed by Taronga Zoo to Cremorne Point.

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    Hi, tripplanner,
    Yes, I'm gathering up all my info now -- that is, reading lots of trip reports, and have time to decide. We are definitely looking forward to visiting southern Spain -- seeing the Alhambra, as well as the many other wonderful structures, is something we've been wanting to do for a while.

    Glad my TR from India gave you some food for thought. Your TR has given me plenty!

    Paule

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