September - October, 2014
NYC to Australia:
• Brisbane - Cairns - Mossman vicinity - Cape Tribulation - Geelong - Cape Otway - Melbourne - Cradle Mountain, Tasmania - Bronte Park - Hobart - Freycinet Peninsula - Launceston
• Kuala Lumpur: stopover
• Bali: Ubud - Pejeng - Sideman - Nusa Lembongan -
• Kuala Lumpur: stopover
• Laos: Vientiane - drive to Vang Vieng - drive to Luang Prabang
• Vietnam: Hanoi- private junk at Bai Tu Long Bay - Ninh Binh
• Hong Kong - NYC
Albums of photos are up on Flickr now for Queensland, and I'll keep adding more for other areas as I add to the trip report:
They look best large. To see them larger, click the first photo, and after it opens, click on the icon that looks like 2 diagonal white arrows going in opposite directions. This is located on the upper right of the page.
You may find navigating forward and back through the photos is easiest by using the left and right arrows on your keyboard.
Why would a fearful flyer book a trip with 13 flights in 2 months? Well, if you love to travel like I do, and have a large cache of frequent flyer miles, you want to squeeze as much travel out of them as possible. So I booked a OneWorld mile-based award, based on distance flown, with as many as 16 flights allowed on one ticket (which sadly has been discontinued).
The Great Circle Mapper website and I soon became close friends, as I had to make the trip come in at a total of no more than 25,000 air miles. To keep the mileage below that, we opted for an open jaw between Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, traveling on cheap flights as well as driving through Laos.
We were still a little short of miles needed, so to get more, we made the ultimate sacrifice and endured a 3-week trip to Italy previous fall - Rome, the Amalfi Coast (Naples, Capri, Nocelle, Atrani), Siena, Venice and Varenna before flying home from Milan.
Shortly after returning, AA deposited the frequent flyer miles from the Italy flights. It was time to finalize planning for the award trip. I poured over maps, airline routes, weather patterns, temple festival dates, sea conditions, even lunar calendars! Weather patterns were a big factor, so here was our plan:
1) Get to the Great Barrier Reef early enough in the Australian spring to increase our chances for sunshine, as it would make snorkeling more beautiful. So we made Queensland our first stop.
2) Then we'd fly south, where the weather would hopefully be warming in Victoria and Tasmania. Tasmania seemed to be especially tricky, because there was a real chance we'd encounter snow at Cradle Mountain in September, making packing more complicated. We really didn't want to drag a lot of heavy winter clothes and snow boots all over steamy Southeast Asia, so I looked for strategies like mailing the warm clothes home when we were leaving Australia, renting clothes for a week, or purchasing in Tasmania. None of these ideas turned out to be practical, so we ended up just taking a few items, and crossed our fingers it would be enough, and we lucked out, with warmer than normal temperatures.
3) Then on to Bali, where hopefully the rainy season would not yet have started.
4) Then Laos, the complete opposite, where hopefully the rainy season would be ending.
5) Then North Vietnam, where the weather promised to be especially good by the time we arrived. Spoiler alert - it lied.
6) And by this point in the planning, we were ready to just give up and let Hong Kong be whatever it would be!
Actually, we were very lucky. With the exception of North Vietnam, the weather was ridiculously perfect throughout most of this long trip. Actually, the rain in North Vietnam was perfect, too, as it ended up enhancing the experience.
I started by trying to book what is for several reasons the hardest flight to get - New York City to Australia. I managed to bag 2 business class seats through a combination of perseverance, strategy, and luck. We needed to fly all the long flights in business class, as C has a disability that makes such long flights too painful for her unless she can lie down for part of the time.
The rest of the booking was made over a period of weeks, grabbing individual flights as they became available. Finally I had the entire itinerary of 13 flights booked. Or so I thought. To make a long story short, I discovered that an American Airlines agent had made a technical mistake while entering the booking, and I almost lost the entire trip. But after some long scary phone calls with multiple agents and supervisors, it was reinstated, and on the AA website, our trip which had for so long been listed as being "On Request" finally changed to "Ticketed".
I stared at it, hoping it wasn't a mirage. Then, just to be safe, I took a screenshot!
We had a lot of hotel reservations and rental cars reservations, so I compiled all of the email confirmations in a single PDF, so in case there was a problem, I could pull out my phone and have a copy to show. I also stored them on the cloud as a backup, along with photos of our visas, passports, health insurance cards, etc. Any of a number of things could have gone wrong during 2 months of travel, and perhaps being so cautious appeased the gods of calamity, because almost everything went smoothly.
If we had paid cash for these 13 flights, the total cost would have been obscenely high, but instead the costs (we paid just taxes and fees) were so low we felt giddy.
I guess I should be breaking up this trip report on the Australia and Asia Forums, right? So when I start the Asian segment, I'll link the trip reports for both.
Anyway, now I'll start the Trip Report here on the Australia Forum, as that was our first destination:
Chapter 1 - In which we commence our meander.
September 7th, was a Sunday, so traffic was light on the way to LaGuardia Airport. We were flying American Airlines to Dallas/Fort Worth where we'd connect with the Qantas non-stop to Brisbane. At the checkin, the AA ticket agent stared at our complicated itinerary and looked confused. But then it appeared that a light went on in her head and after a flurry of keystrokes at her computer, her printer began spitting out a sizable pile of boarding passes. "Looks like great trip" she said, and we smiled and agreed!
The first flight was in First Class (there was no business class on that leg), but it was First Class in name only. Things started out less than swimmingly when the pilot announced that due to AA not getting their paperwork delivered on time, the plane wouldn't be allowed to fly above 20,000 feet! I couldn't hear it clearly on the tinny speaker, but it seemed to be something about not having proper certifying papers for the air conditioning?! This meant the plane would fly slower, giving me more time in the air for my fear of flying to kick in. An inauspicious start. It also meant that we'd have to fly right through turbulence instead of being allowed to fly over it at a higher altitude. I hoped this wasn't an omen of things to come, as the prospect of another 12 flights already had me quite nervous. I was beginning to question my sanity for having booked a 13-flight trip. Sitting back in my lumpy First Class chair, I decided to pass on the movie being shown on a monitor mounted at a neck-aching angle near the ceiling (made worse by considerable glare), and instead concentrated on the food that was coming down the aisle. That turned out to be a mistake. Remember Swanson TV dinners? The Chicken Piccata being served was of that level of quality. Still, I did enjoy the warm chocolate chip cookies that followed!
On the ground at DFW, things improved markedly as we relaxed in the peaceful Qantas lounge and enjoyed a snack. We had 2 1/2 hours to wait, but it was so comfortable that the time went quickly. Then it was time to board. One nice thing about flying business class is that there are many distractions to take my mind away from the fear of flying, starting with the seat. Extremely comfortable, with lots of controls and settings to learn. We shared a glass of champagne before takeoff, and settled in for the 16 hour flight. I have to say that some of the food Qantas served was surprisingly good. We really enjoyed the sea bass as well as the shrimp ceviche with avocado, lime, coconut and tortilla chips. In fact the only negative was that an old song "Put The Lime In The Coconut" started playing in my head over and over.
Here's a suggestion aimed at whoever picks the content for the Qantas entertainment system - you might consider omitting "Cast Away" from the movie offerings. Since we were flying thousands of miles across the Pacific with no place to land if there was a problem, a movie commencing with a harrowing crash landing in the Pacific wouldn't be my top choice for viewing!
A little while later, the plane's "mood lighting" suddenly went berserk, rapidly changing colors, and making the interior of the plane look like we were in a 1970s disco. Several flight attendants struggled to quell it. At any moment it seemed likely that the pilot would commence singing "YMCA" over the cockpit microphone while flight attendants would dance The Hustle amidst a flurry of tinfoil confetti and fog descending from the cabin air-conditioning vents. Mercifully, the flight attendants were soon able to end the problem before any of that could come to pass.
When it came time to sleep, we were very happy to find that the Qantas flat beds were fairly respectable. As I nestled under the quilt, mid-Pacific turbulence began to shake the plane and didn't allow me to sleep more than 2 or 3 hours. But even though I was sleepy when we landed in Brisbane at 5AM, I was physically in much better shape than I would have expected, and was very happy that we chose Qantas. And I have to confess that we've already worn the kangaroo-emblazoned Qantas pajamas in our home on a couple of chilly nights.
When planning, we'd decided not to stop when we landed in Brisbane, as we wanted to get to the less city-like Cairns and have our rest there. We live in New York City, and also visit a lot of other cities, but on this trip we wanted to focus on places outside of cities. Also, I'd stayed in Sydney and Melbourne for a month during a work trip, so I didn't feel a need to visit either again on this trip.
We had reservations for one night at the Pullman Reef Hotel, which looked like a very comfortable place to rest, as I assumed we'd be doing during the first day of our arrival. I'd written requesting an early check in if possible, as we were landing in Cairns at 9AM. The morning was beautiful, with blue skies and some puffy white clouds, and we were lucky to find that a room was indeed ready for us. But it was not the room with a sea view I'd paid for months before. If we wanted that room, we'd have to wait. We decided to wait, and had a very good breakfast at Tamarind, the hotel restaurant which had a buffet and hot dishes cooked to order. Their eggs benedict were great.
Our room turned out to be as comfortable as hoped, and had a balcony looking out at the sparkling water and boats. It was that view which drew us back outside before we could succumb to drowsiness, so luckily we avoided any napping that might interfere with acclimating to the new time zone.
We walked across the street to stroll on the Esplanade along the water, which was very pleasant, and there we saw the first Lorikeets of our trip streak noisily (and colorfully) low above the water in front of us. Later we took our time-confused bodies to a lunch/dinner of hamburgers at Grill'd. The very friendly young woman behind the counter answered our query about where best to spot Lorikeets with an authoritative "Oh, you won't see them anywhere in Cairns". Then we walked back to the hotel, listening to the scores of Lorikeets sitting in the trees above us.
We were granted a beautiful sunset as we walked back along the water and then stumbled into our room. That was about as much as we were going to do that first day!
The next morning, after another tasty Tamarind breakfast, we picked up our rental car. Then we bought some savory pies for a picnic lunch, and proceeded north up the Captain Cook Highway… (to be continued)
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A major meander through Australia/Tasmania, Bali, Laos & Vietnam.
September - October, 2014