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Trip Report Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, with Grand Circle Travel

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This is is a report that I previously posted on the GCT website.

This is a long overdue report on our month long Australia, New Zealand & Fiji trip with the Melbourne and the Outback pre-trip extension and the Fiji Islands Cruise post-trip extension, with Grand Circle Travel (GCT).

We left Boston on June 8, 2010 and returned on July 7, 2010. This was our 10th Grand Circle trip, along with 2 OAT trips, and because of the small group size, it felt a lot like and OAT trip. There were 31 travelers on the main trip but only 8 on the pre-trip and 14 on the post-trip, so we felt very comfortable with each other by the end of the trip. The ages ranged from 18 to the seventies. It was a trip with many flavors with latitudes ranging from the southern hemisphere equivalent of Portland, ME to San Juan PR, temperatures ranging from the upper 20s in Queenstown NZ to the upper 90s in Nadi, Fiji, climates ranging from the desert in the outback to tropical seas in Cairns, AU and Fiji, cultures from South Pacific native (Aborigine, Maori and Fijian) to almost American west in Alice Springs, AU to very British in Christchurch, NZ to cosmopolitan in Sydney, AU and Auckland, NZ.

The most difficult part of the trip was the flights to and from the US. We went from Boston to Denver, 4 ½ hours, Denver to LA, 2 ½ hours, before the 15 ½ hour overnight flight to Melbourne. Returning we did a red-eye 10 ½ hour flight from Nadi, Fiji to LA and, after a long layover, another red-eye 5 ½ flight from LA to Boston. In between we had a 3 hour flight from Melbourne to Alice Springs, 2 ½ hours from Uluru to Cairns, 3 hours from Cairns to Sydney, 3 ½ hours from Sydney to Christchurch, 2 hours from Queenstown to Auckland, and 3 hours from Auckland to Nadi, for a total of about 46 hours and 3 nights sleep in the air, Transfers between Alice Springs and Uluru, as well as Christchurch and Queenstown were by bus.

The amount of flying was probably the reason that we didn’t take this trip before, but it was well worth it. It was also a major part of the reason that we extended the trip on both ends, to get as much out of the trans-Pacific flights as we could.

Now to the trip. It was a very active one, as we took most of the optional tours and most of the downtime was in buses and planes, until we got to Fiji.

Starting in Melbourne, with 6 other travelers and our program director, Maree. After checking in, an orientation meeting and a brief nap, we took a good walk of the neighborhood around the hotel, finding it to be a very safe and walkable city, as long as you remember that this a member of the British commonwealth, as is New Zealand, and Fiji was once a British territory so they all drive on the left. Dinner was in the hotel that night, as was breakfast for every day of the trip, both were very good, We then took a morning bus tour of Melbourne stopping at the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial to Australian and New Zealander troops in the world wars, and the Royal Botanical Gardens, which were very nice, but very little was in bloom, as it was the end of autumn. We then stopped at the Queen Victoria Market, a huge European style covered market place with very many shops selling almost anything from food to clothes to souvenirs. We left the group at this point, as it was just going to return to the hotel, and wandered around this beautiful, well planned, city. We ended picking up the Circle Line Tram, which is a free tram line that circumnavigates the heart of the city, to get back to the hotel.
In the morning, after breakfast, we flew to Alice Springs, getting there in the late morning. We stopped in town and toured an excellent native art gallery and had some lunch. We then had time to walk around this small town with a large aboriginal population. In the afternoon, we went to the Outback School of the Air, which provides elementary education to the children of the outback on cattle and sheep stations, via the internet. It is a very small facility that is the only school for children in thousands of square miles of the outback. From there we went to the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, which paved the way for transcontinental communications and a train line that is still in use. Our hotel for the night was very nice, with a casino, but it was a little too far from town to walk to. It also had free internet access. We were to have an outdoor barbecue that night, but, due to a schedule conflict with the local vendor, we went to a casual bar and restaurant in town that specialized in bush trucker, kangaroo, crocodile, ostrich, etc. It was a very good time. The next day was spent at the Alice Springs Desert Park, which was basically a zoo of native species, in their native surrounding, due to its size and the desert heat, we rented mobility scooters to get around. Return time was flexible, as busses were returning to the hotels on a regular schedule. We stayed most of the day and ate dinner at the hotel. The next morning, after breakfast we departed by bus for Uluru, with a few stops along the way, including for lunch.

We arrived at Uluru in the afternoon and toured around the park, before heading for the hotel which was beautifully landscaped, checked in, and then left for sunset at Uluru, where there we tables and stools set up to have canapés and champagne while enjoying the changing face and colors of Uluru, as the sun set. In the morning, after breakfast, we had some time to relax after breakfast before heading back to Uluru to circumnavigate it, and, if you chose, climb it part way, as well as visit the local cultural center. In the afternoon, we headed for the airport for Cairns to join the main trip.

In the early evening we arrived at the hotel, which was right across a beautiful boulevard from the Coral Sea. There was a nice pool and the area was great for walking. Many of the rooms, including ours, look right out on the sea, with a balcony, and there were nice breezes. We left the sliders open all night. In the morning, after breakfast, we met with the rest of the group for an orientation on the rest of the trip. We the departed for a crocodile & wildlife park, to see crocs in somewhat of their native environment, meet and get a photo op with a koala, feed baby kangaroos, etc. Then we went to lunch in Port Douglas, an upscale resort town. In the afternoon, we went to a cattle station up in the nearby hills, stopping at a pub along the way. At the station we received a lecture on station life and history from a station hand on horseback and a demonstration on how horses work the cattle. They then provided o very good dinner on the porch with the station hand playing the guitar and singing ballads. After dark, we returned to the hotel. In the morning, we boarded a bus to the ferry pier to take us out to Green Island for snorkeling. This island is on the edge of the reef. If you wanted to go further out you could, bet we chose to stay there. Although we are quite used to the ocean, we found it fairly rough going out, with a strong cross wind. We didn’t see anyone getting seasick, but quite q few did seem uncomfortable. It was a beautiful island with a resort hotel, boardwalks, beaches, a restaurant, ice cream shop etc. As soon as we arrived, we went out in a glass bottom boat to see the coral and the tropical fish. In the late afternoon we headed back in, choosing to walk back to the hotel, which was only about ½ mile. In the morning we had a very early wake up to go on a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Cairns is one of the prime hot air balloon centers in the world, due generally good weather, predictable winds and plenty of open land to land in. The bus took us up into the tablelands above Cairns to a staging area that had toilets to wait for the launch area to be determined, as they had a planned landing area and the winds determined the launch area. When we received a call, we went to a field where they we inflating the balloons, It was pitch dark and the flames from the burners illuminated the colorful balloons. These were among the largest class of balloons in the world, with about 20 passengers plus the pilot in each balloon. The liftoff and flight were very smooth and the pilot was constantly varying altitude to catch the right winds to navigate to the landing area. It was my first flight in a hot air balloon, as I am not good with heights, but it was Ann’s second. It was very enjoyable. The bus picked us up and brought us to a breakfast pavilion run by the balloon company for a good breakfast and a champagne toast. The bus then delivered us to an aboriginal park for a movie on the history of the British and aboriginal early contact and the demonstration and lessons with boomerangs and spear throwers, as well as a musical presentation with aboriginal instruments. When were done there, we went next door to a gondola station that took us up through the canopy of a rain forest, finishing up in a village up in the mountains. There we wandered around and had lunch at a street side stand. We had traditional Australian meat pies and local beer. The bus met us there and brought us back to the hotel, where we rested before a presentation in the hotel on aboriginal heritage. In the morning, after breakfast, we headed for the airport with a stop at a small but very nice botanical garden, which was in bloom as we were much closer to the equator than in Melbourne.

We arrived in Sydney in time for dinner in an Italian Restaurant, down on the waterfront. On the way, we had stopped down by Cockle Bay in Darling Harbor to see the life of the city. This is party central. They were getting ready for the next night’s World Cup Soccer match, with huge TV screens. The restaurant was very good. We then check into the hotel, which was very well located, with a major bus station and plenty of reasonably priced restaurants and an internet café. In the morning we did a back of the house tour of the Sydney Opera House. It is a very impressive building. From there we went to a park for a group photo with the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge (the coat hanger) in the background. The bus then took us around the eastern suburbs and over to Bondi Beach, the mecca of Australian surfing and their famed lifeguard clubs. People had snacks there, and we went back to the area of Circular Quay, where we visited an opal dealer for a lecture and film and an opportunity to spend money. We walked around Circular Quay enjoying the beautiful day and all the people and took a public bus back to the hotel. In the evening, we took a bus and walking tour of Sydney, Down at Darling Harbor, things were really jumping with the world cup game coming up and all sorts of activity and entertainment. We were dropped off at Cockle Bay, near the parking garage, east of the bay, to meet at the Sydney Aquarium We walked around the bay and over the Pyrmont Bridge. The entire south and east sides of the bay were cordoned off, and we had to get carded and our hands stamped to get into the area. We all met at the aquarium at about closing time. We were broken up into a couple of groups and given private tours. It was very impressive and educational. Without crowds, it was a great experience. Water taxis pick us up and took us to a restaurant on a pier down by Circular Quay for dinner. When we came out, we were treated to a magnificent view of the Opera House, as they were having a light show with changing colors on it. In the morning we had a walking tour of the Rocks, the oldest neighborhood in Sydney. Unfortunately, this was the only really rainy time on the trip. We ended at Circular Quay, where we boarded a cruise of Sydney Harbor, You really get to appreciate how immense the harbor is and how it is the heart of the city. In the evening we picked up box breakfasts for an early morning flight to Christchurch.

Upon landing in Christchurch, we went straight to the International Antarctic Center, which was right at the airport, Christchurch is the closest city outside of South America to Antarctica. There we many exhibits on Antarctic explorations. From there, we took an orientation drive around the city and checked in at the hotel. The hotel is very centrally located and in easy walking distance of most things to see in the city. After checking in, we had an orientation walk before dinner. After dinner, we turned in early, given the early morning start. The next day was really a much needed free day. Maree took us for a longer walk to show us what we might want to see, We then had the rest of the day on our own. We went by the Avon River, where they were punting, regardless of it being the first full day of winter. It was raining lightly, but not enough to dampen our spirits. We visited several museums and the Royal Botanic Gardens. It is a great walking city that is very British in character, In the evening, most of us went to a nearby Irish pub, where musicians gather to play. We felt very welcome, drank good beer and sang Walking back to the hotel felt very safe when we left. After breakfast in the morning, we walked to a blue pearl shop in the neighborhood, for a film and a lecture and another chance to spend money, but there was no hard sell. The only money that we spent was at the good souvenir shop next door. The bus picked us up there and we went to Lyttleton, which is where the first settlers landed, before they moved to Christchurch. After that we went to a private wildlife reserve outside the city to see endemic New Zealand species, including Kiwis in a dark house, as they are nocturnal. We had lunch there. Arriving back at the hotel, we had a period costumed storyteller, telling the story of the early settlers. Tonight we were going to go on a home hosted stay with a local family. The husband picked up three of us, while the wife was home preparing dinner, they had a very nice home in the outskirts of the city, with 3 bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor for guests, It was very comfortable. Discussion over dinner and after dinner included the economet and politics, In the morning he brought us back to the hotel to meet the bus for our drive to Queenstown.

Unfortunately Christchurch is not on the tour at this time, due to 2 major earthquakes since we were there. The downtown area was largely granite and concrete construction, apparently without rebar and suffered severe damage. I’m sure that replacement itinerary will be very good, but Christchurch is a unique experience.

We stopped along the way at a woolen shop and for lunch, arriving in Queenstown late in the afternoon. The city was breathtaking, on a lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. These mountains are where The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was filmed. It is also ski country, with a gondola going up in the mountains right from the center of town. As this is the first Friday of winter, the Winter Carnival is starting and the town is very busy with a lot of skiers in town. The guest rooms in the hotel all face the lake, giving an outstanding view. After checking in and getting settled, we went to dinner. As we were eating, a fireworks show began over the lake. It was like they were welcoming us. In the morning, we walked down to the dock, in the middle of town, about 1/3 mile to take a jet boat ride. The temperature is in the 20s with frost and ice on the docks. They outfit us with heavy parkas and lifejackets to go on over whatever we were wearing. These boats seat about 20 people and are very powerful. There are supposedly heated hand rails to hang on to during the boat’s hard turns and spins. The heating was not particularly effective. It was a thrilling ride across the lake and up the Kawauru Falls and the Lower Shotover River. We thought the ride was great, but we like the water and boats and we’re from New England so we’re used to the cold. Some of the others were not as happy. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to warm up and shed layers. Then it was back to the dock to board a boat to a sheep ranch about 8 miles up lake. Here they raised sheep primarily for wool with pastures extending thousands of feet up the surrounding mountains. They demonstrated sheep shearing and herding the sheep with dogs, as well as carding and weaving wool. The also served us afternoon tea with cakes and cookies. The next day was a cruise of Milford sound for those that wanted to go. It was a long bus ride, but there were spectacular sights with sheer cliff and waterfalls. It is not really a sound, but a fjord. The served us a box lunch on board. In the morning, we fly to Auckland, after a long delay waiting for the fog from the lake to clear.
On arriving in Auckland, we head for a marae, a Maori cultural and ceremonial center, where we are introduced to the Maori culture in the modern world. We also had a light lunch with them. We then checked into the hotel, which was reasonably centrally located, but not really near any tourist locations. In the morning went down to Auckland Harbor for a sail on the Pride of Auckland, an America’s Cup like sailboat outfitted to carry tourists. It was a beautiful day for a sail and anyone who wanted to could take the wheel. We then took a bus tour of Auckland stopping at Mt. Eden, volcano crater right in the middle of the city, and finished at the Auckland Museum for a Maori cultural show and Maori exhibits along with photo ops. Afterwards we took a local bus back to the center of town and walked back to the hotel. In the morning, it was off to Fiji.

We arrived in Nadi Fiji at about 4:00 and were transferred about 1 hour by bus to the hotel. The hotel was a beautiful resort on a private island connected by a causeway to the main island. The hotel was name the Shangri-La Fijian, a very appropriate name. It was a paradise, with a golf course , a beautiful beach, indoor and outdoor dining, a free internet room, and fantastic views. The only disadvantage to the place was size so that it took a while to figure out how to get around. Maree’s parents joined us for this part of the trip. Maree gave us an orientation on the resort and what was happening over the next couple of days. In the morning, we had an excellent breakfast on an open deck overlooking the water. We could have spent all day just sitting there, but there were things to do. We went to a local town to visit a market and see how the locals live. The town was not clean, by our standards, but was safe and easy to get around. We also went into a supermarket to but snacks and gifts for a school that we would visit later, and then to a gift shop. We then went to a small village within the borders of the town. We visited the local ceremonial center where they held a welcoming ceremony for us and did crafts demonstrations. Afterwards to broke up and went to local houses and had a light lunch sitting on the floor and eating with our fingers. They spoke excellent English so we were able to carry on conversations on differences in life style and family life. On the way back to the resort we stopped at a local school that Grand Circle Foundation sponsors. There the children put on a show for us and showed us what they we doing in school. They were quite outgoing. The next day, after another excellent breakfast, we went to a private nature reserve. It was a beautiful site, with bird, lizards of various kinds and mammals. It had a very good boardwalk going up into the forest. The footing was excellent. We arrived back at the resort at about 1:00 and had the afternoon free to enjoy the resort, until our farewell dinner tonight. In the morning, those of us going on the cruise would be leaving early, and the rest would have their day at leisure, until it was time to go to the airport. Most of them came down to see us off. It had become a happy family.

Fourteen of us got on the bus and headed for Port Denarau to board our ship. Fijians are not quite as punctual as Americans, so we had to hang around for a while trying to stay cool in the shade, as it was quite warm even on the water. We were shuttled out to the Reef Endeavour and a smaller boat, probably one used for day cruises. The ship had small but comfortable cabins, a lounge, dining room and library, as well as 3 launches, one of them a glass bottomed boat. There were about 80 passengers on board, mostly Australians, After the obligatory safety briefing and issuing snorkeling equipment there was a a short snorkeling expedition and lessons on a beach, then back on board for cocktails, dinner and a crew show, followed by entertainment until about midnight. The next day, there were two snorkeling excursions, both off beaches. Those who wanted to were taken ashore for church services in the evening. Since this was the 4th of July, Maree arranged a party for us, including the other 2 Americans on board, with champagne and snack. The next day there were morning and evening snorkeling expeditions at different sites. This time a masseuse came ashore with a table to give reasonably priced massages on the beach. In the evening we had a traditional Fijian meal cooked in the ground and a tribal ceremony on the beach. In the morning during breakfast we sailed back to Port Denarau and disembarked. We were brought to a excellent resort hotel and assigned day rooms to wait for our evening flight. The resort had a golf course and reasonable internet access, but it was so brutally hot that we stayed in our room for most of the time. Then it was time to go to the airport for two red-eye flight back home

CLOTHING

For this time of year, with the wide temperature variations, dress in layers. Fleece jackets and vests topped with hooded windbreaker, warm hat and gloves, nylon convertible pants, sandals and sneakers.

IF YOU IMBIBE

Liquor prices in all 3 countries are very high. Do your shopping in the duty free shops at the airports. It appears that you can use them on departure and arrival. Check to be sure. I’m not sure if you can even use them if you are taking domestic flights.

RYDGES

If you are staying in Rydges hotels, get a Rydges card, either in advance or at you first hotel. You get a free drink at check-in and discounts in the restaurant

For further information

I have also written a blog on this trip. A lot of the information is the same, but it includes links to the web sites of all the hotels and most of the attractions as well as links to maps to go along with the trip, and pictures. There may be some minor inconsistencies between this document and the blog, as I am working primarily from memory, and details come back to me as I write.

To get the blog click here or enter (http://www.travelpod.com/dashboard/trip/3) in your browser. You can sign in using your facebook ID or sign up for a free account.
Overall this was a great trip. It can't be classified in any one way There was three different South Pacific cultural groups, Aborigines, Maori and Fijian, beautiful cities and desolate wilderness, deserts and oceans, as geographically separated as San Juan, PR and Portland ME, with temperatures ranging over 70 degrees from the high 20s to the high 90s

I would be glad to answer any questions about this trip, on this forum, on the blog, by Email, telephone or Gmail or Skype video chat. Talking about trips helps us to relive them. We can figure out a mutually acceptable way to set up person to person communication. You can also contact me by posting questions on the Travel Forum on gct.com under the Destination South Pacific

If you book a trip with Grand Circle, or their sister company, Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), for the first time, you can get a $100 per person discount by using a referral from a current customer. They will also get a credit for future travel or cash for referring you. If you have a friend or relative who has traveled with either company, get their customer number and use it when calling to book. Once booked you can not go back and get the credit. If you do not have anyone that has traveled with them, you can contact me and I will give you my number, It will benefit me as well as you, so I would be glad to do it.

Jack and Ann Donoghue

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