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Entries about family travel

The Great Barrier Reef

Heron Island Resort

sunny 81 °F

No visit to Australia would be complete without visiting the most well-known geologic feature of this continent. In virtually every documentary you’ve seen on global warming or climate change, the Great Barrier Reef is mentioned as one of the most fragile ecosystems on earth. You’ve probably heard that just a few degrees of ocean temperature change will kill the reef, and further that there is evidence that it’s happening now. We did see evidence of coral bleaching, but the reef is still teaming with life and is absolutely stunning. No matter how big a cynic you are about climate change, this is the place that will convince you that we must change our behavior.

Location, Location, Location
The Barrier Reef runs along the north east coast of Australia. We are visiting in Australia’s summer months which are notorious for increasing numbers of Jellyfish as you travel up the coast. Tiny little “Stingers” are the most common and if you are visiting the northern parts of the reef, you are required to wear “stinger suits” when you enter the water, to avoid an “all over stinging”. Worse than this, there is the Box Jellyfish whose sting is lethal within minutes of the sting. Northern lifeguards place vinegar bottles on the beaches and post CPR instructions in case of a box sting, in the hopes of keeping the victim alive long enough to receive anti -venom. Hmmmm… I think we’ll stay in the south! So we started looking in the southern reaches of the reef to see what was available. Through a few internet searches we found a place called “Heron Island”. It is a 32 acre island surrounded by a HUGE reef. Heron is part of the Great Barrier Reef system, but stands alone and you can take a boat all the way around the reef. The island houses a very pleasant little resort with one hundred or so rooms and is also the home a University of Queensland Marine Research facility. The island at one time was home to a Turtle goods (e.g. Turtle Soup) manufacturer and was purchased by someone that decided to turn it into a tourist location that has gotten more politically correct over time – hopefully solving years of way-bad turtle karma.

The Sweaseys
We were inspired to take our trip around the world by some friends who were planning their trip around the world with their kids. As we planned our trip, we checked with them to see where we might overlap. Hal and Maria Sweasey are Carol’s and my good friends from San Luis Obispo, while their two kids, Kyle and Nate, are Griffin and Parker’s buddies. We knew we would hook up in Noosa for a long bit of surfing in December, but didn’t realize we would overlap on the reef. It turned out that we overlapped for almost the entire 5 day visit on Heron Island, giving the boys a much needed break from each other in the role of “sole playmate” and in a sense, doing the same for Carol and I 

Getting There
At 50km from the mainland, you can either take a ferry to Heron Island or you can take a helicopter service. We wanted to see the reef from the air at least once, so we opted to take the helicopter to the reef and take the ferry back. On the way out of the little port town of Gladstone, that proudly claims home to the 2nd largest aluminum production plant in the world, you couldn’t help notice the mess that man has created here. There was a huge coal factory to produce electricity, a giant electricity station, the massive aluminum plant, and many little factories supporting these behemoths. As we flew over Gladstone into the Coral Sea, we were struck by the contrast. 20 large tankers waited off shore to take aluminum around the world, and just five minutes past them, there sat the most beautiful reef system in the world. It just seemed wrong. As we approached the islands, the pilot trimmed our elevation and swept the ocean from a couple hundred feet. We saw beautiful turquoise water, coral atolls, sea turtles, and the most stunning view - a family of 6 Manta Rays whose “wing” span was easily 10-15 feet across. We could see our little island in the distance, and as we approached you couldn’t help think that it looked just a bit like Gilligan’s Island.

The Resort
The “resort” portion of the Island wasn’t really anything to scream about if you think about your typical Island resort. There were no giant pools, no swim up bars, and no incredible restaurant. There was one restaurant which usually had a buffet going on, and selection was pretty minimal. The rooms were modest and clean, plenty large but had no phones nor locks on the doors. The overall facility was sort of “best western meets community center,” complete with pool tables requiring change to operate, and 70’s furniture in the lounge. There was no internet, no cell service and only three pay phones. But you know what? Who cares. The staff was awesome, and this place is so beautiful, we could care less. We were surrounded by perhaps the most stunning snorkeling and diving in the world and views that you’d expect on a postcard. We were also surrounded by 10s of thousands of birds.

The Birds:
Heron Island would be nothing but sand, if it wasn’t for the bird guano that has made it possible for plants to germinate, and boy have they germinated. There is a pretty good size forest on the island now that would make Gilligan and the Skipper proud. Huge trees, vines, grasses and shrubs cover the island providing a terrific home to well over 20,000 birds. The birds and their nests are so thick on the Island, that you have to duck down the pathways as you head to your room, so you don’t get hit as they fly by. Every one of us at one point or another got dumped on by a bird. Since this is an eco-resort, birds seem to know that no harm will come to them regardless of their behavior, so they don’t try to avoid us humans. Watch your bag of chips carefully or it will fly away. Watch over your head or you will leave with a eco-reminder of Heron Island on your shoulder. We all did. Another amazing thing about these birds is the incredible freaking sounds they make. They sound like people. I swear to god this is true. Close your eyes and imagine the sound of someone writhing in pain, lying in the curb, after being struck by a car as they crossed the street – it’s sort of a low moan in surprised kind of way… Woooooooaaaaa… and then imagine that same person finishing his moaning with a question about who hit ‘em? Whooo? That’s what it sounds like: Wooooaaaaawhoooo?!! Wooooaaaaawhoooo?!! Wooooaaaaawhoooo?!! And guess what? They don’t start making the sounds until the sun goes down and then they do it until the sun comes up!! Isn’t that great! Man, I love wildlife! Only better than this is the sound the baby birds make in their nests at night which is a bit louder and sounds like a new born baby that has just sucked boiling breast milk through their bottle…. Waaaaaaahaaaaaa!!! Waaaaaaahaaaaa!!!! No surprise that the hotel furnished 6 pairs of earplugs in our room. First thing I’m going to do when I get home is join the Audubon society! God I just love birds!

Snorkeling within the reef:
We snorkeled every day, multiple times a day. The difference between low tide and high tide was quite a few feet, so the beset snorkel sports changed hourly. We would snorkel by an old ship wreck, which was incredibly eerie, then up to sharks bay, and we even took a boat out to snorkel the outer reef surrounding the island. Sharks bay was a very shallow area that teamed with Rays and a variety of Sharks. The Sharks were up to 6 feet in length, but we were told that they really don’t harm snorkelers, so we shouldn’t be afraid of them. OK! How about a family snorkel with the sharks? We did this and it was a blast. We swam with Black Tip and White Tip reef sharks, guitar fish (a bizarre shark-ray thing), thresher sharks, sting rays and manta rays. We lazily followed sharks around close enough to touch them, while the rays would steer clear of us. Only on a couple of occasions did I think “Holy crap, that’s a big shark!”, and one of these occasions came when a shark ripped a jerky trail in between parker and I because we had startled it. Man, those things are wicked fast. There was on old ship wreck in the harbor entrance that we snorkeled to a number of times and it was as beautiful as it was creepy. We saw fish of every size and color and the reef colors were beautiful. This was contrast by the rusted and rotting hull and deck of an old ship that ran aground on the reef years and years ago. Fish love to hang out there in the skeleton of the ship as do the sharks. We would swim out to the ship, hang out for a few minutes, get a bit freaked out, and then swim safely away to shallower, far “happier” water. Carol and I went out one morning to the shipwreck and saw a pretty good size Octopus that was hanging out on the reef. I was able to snap a picture of this Octopus. It’s camouflage is so good, you can barely see it.

Snorkeling the outer reef
At low tide, you can’t snorkel near the island because the water is only knee deep, but you can use this opportunity to take a boat to the outer reef. At low tide, all the fish that were swimming near the island move to the outer reef that surrounds it. The outer reef rises up from the ocean bottom forming walls, hills and jagged cliffs of Coral that form the atoll surrounding Heron. The fish that were in the inner reef now team in the cracks and crevices of the outer reef. A boat took our families, some scuba divers and a few snorkelers to a spot on the outer reef, and then drifted with us for an hour (or about a mile). We lazily floated face down rolling in the swells, diving occasionally to get a closer look at brilliant colors, be it coral or fish. We were also treated with a sea turtle, two dolphins, and a shark or two. We also saw scuba divers forty feet below us looking much more closely at their surroundings than we were. Hmmmm… we gotta try this…..

The Scuba Lesson
We adults had watched longingly at the scuba divers on the outer reef as their bubbles rose to meet us. We sure wished we could do that. Be careful how you wish. It turns out that Heron has a program where you can get trained in the morning and take a real dive in the afternoon. Hal, Maria, Carol and I thought we’d try it out. After filling out wavers that would relinquish the resort of any liability for what we were about to do, we met our 19 year old instructor. He began our instruction with a video that explains the risks of Scuba and what you should and shouldn’t do. It was a damn long list of do’s and don’ts and all of us walked away with one important lesson: Don’t stop breathing. Even if you are scared shitless, have thrown up in your mouthpiece, filled your mask with stingers, or have soiled yourself, don’t stop breathing. And don’t stop breathing as you are rising to the surface or your lungs will explode. Man, this is relaxing isn’t it!

We were fitted with our scuba gear and headed for the resort pool where we did our first “dive”. We tried out our mouthpieces, hung around under water and learned to breath. We all had to clear our masks before we were allowed to dive in the open ocean, which consisted of filling our masks full of water, flipping over on your back, and then blowing air into them through your nose until there is no water left. This actually works – in a pool. The ugly side affect being that anything that was in your nose before your blow is now in your mask. We were now ready for the open ocean? Oh, that’s supposed to be a sentence, not a question. We were now ready for the open ocean.

At noon we took a boat with experienced scuba divers and snorkelers and we headed for the outer reef. All the other folks were in the water and now it was time for us to marshal down the anchor into the water. I gotta tell you that it’s different than snorkeling in the pool and we all had panic attacks at one point or another. Maria went first, then me, then Carol, then Hal. As we descended down the anchor line to 30 feet, we let the air out of our floatation vests, and we sunk, at least we were supposed to sink. After about two minutes from being on the ground floor, I took the express elevator to the surface – without trying – I just rose up. I looked at my instructor shrugging my shoulders and he indicated with his fingers that I have to kick downward like I was swimming to the bottom of a pool… Duh! I looked down, and started kicking and was soon down at 30 feet again. We stayed down for about 40 minutes and it was soooo cool. We were all concentrating on the task at hand so hard that I think we missed much of the views we enjoyed as snorkelers, but it was super cool nonetheless. I took pictures galore with my underwater camera and traded the camera with Hal at one point. You did want to stay away from everyone else, as you were certain that if someone touched you, you would forget to breath, shoot up to the surface and see your chest expand and explode red-pink as you looked on in horror . None of us wanted that. Seriously – it was really fun and we hope to do it again someday.

The Last Day
The last day on the island started with a nice but overcast morning. At about 6:30 am I ran into Maria an Hal who were running around the island and had just spotted a green turtle that looked to be either laying or coloring her eggs. I ran to get my camera and took off for the site on the east part of the island. We sat and watched for an hour or so as this beautiful and huge turtle covered her eggs to protect them from the birds and then lumbered back to ocean before the tide went out. This was a real treat and Carol watched every last movement having encountered a turtle in Sydney who she thinks was somehow related to her. We all think it was somehow.

As we walked back to the resort area, it started to rain and the wind began to pick up, soon blowing at about 20 knots and driving heavy downpours completely sideways. We were about to get on a ferry and cross the 50 km of ocean in this storm. Oh goody! We and about 50 other guests had checked out of our rooms already and we were now ready to catch the ferry. We hung out in the lounge for a bit, and then moved to the dock when we were told the Ferry was almost here. While huddled under a roof on the dock as we were lashed with wind that turned umbrellas inside out, and pushed the rain sideways under the roof. After waiting 20 minutes or so on the dock for the Ferry to poke its bow through the grey, and then waiting for passengers to exit the boat, we all climbed on board. All of us were soaked and a bit apprehensive about getting onto a boat in this weather. We felt a bit like evacuees leaving an island in a hurricane. Man, I’d hate to experience that. As it turned out the Ferry was new, smooth, fast, and felt very safe even with an occasional lurch, and it had us to the mainland in less than two hours. We passed the time by playing cards and goofing off, trying to do all we could to keep our minds off of the nasty swells outside. We made it into Gladstone Harbor without any scary moments or sea sickness, and the passengers let out a collective sigh of relief when we tied up the boat. After 6 days on Heron Island we were all ready to head to Noosa for some quality surf and sun.

Posted by Blakei 17:13 Archived in Australia Tagged family_travel Comments (2)


The "other" city

overcast 70 °F

We had heard “Sydney is like LA and Melbourne is like Seattle” enough that we were a little predisposed to the analogy. It wasn’t far off. We arrived in Melbourne to temperatures in the 90s, and as we cabbed our way to our hotel in the Central Business District, it was apparent that this city wasn’t used to the temperature. While Sydney would be wearing mainly short pants and flip flops to cope with the heat, Melbourne was wearing suits, dresses, long pants and dripping sweat. The next day, it rained all day with temps in the 70s. The analogy was fitting. Melbourne was very different from Sydney. It had a very cosmopolitan feel to it, more so than Sydney, but didn't feel like an international city. Sydney felt like an ethnic melting pot, where languages from all over could be heard just in our hotel lobby, while Melbourne seemed very Australian with most folks sounding and looking quite Australian.

We enjoyed Melbourne for different reasons than Sydney - primarily the shopping and the food. The shopping was great, and there were streets specifically for different types of shopping. Jewelry on one street, outdoor stuff on another street, vintage clothing on another, skateboard and surf gear on another. And the quality of the shops was about as good as we’ve ever seen. There was fabulous selectoin and sizes to fit everyone. There was a great walking street, (Bourke Street), in the center of town with little alleys that offered great shopping and lunch that was hard to believe. Sure, I’ll have mussels for lunch if they’re available and delicious. They were. One thing that we noticed was that Australian’s shop and they BUY. I know that Americans get pegged as the world’s biggest spenders, but holy cow, the Australian’s really know how to lay down the cash for goods. We were surprised to see so many folks shopping and holding bags stuffed to the top. Maybe it had to do with Christmas being around the corner…

The dining was fantastic and there were little alleyways filled with outdoor restaurants again with different themes. One alley was Italian, one Chinese, one continental, etc.... The Italian alley was right near our hotel and we took full advantage. Combine the shopping with the food, and for us, that kind of captured what Melbourne seemed to be about. It was an active and athletic city by most American comparisons, but it didn’t feel like life rotated around athletic endeavors the way Sydney did. The architecture was pretty cool in Melbourne as well, counter positioning very modern art against older buildings.

We took a trip about 100km outside of Melbourne down to Bells Beach, home of the Rip Curl pro surfing event and we visited Torquey, which is the corporate home of Rip Curl, and the Australian surfing museum. We intended to make it out to Philip Island on the Ferry to watch the penguins at sunset, but unfortunately we missed the Ferry by about 5 minutes. In Melbourne proper, we did find a nice skate park by the river (Riverslide) and the boys frequented the park after completing their homework, getting there and back on their own most of the time. The boys ran into Louis Marnell, one of their favorite skaters from the “Let’s Live” Volcom video. Griffin and Parker both chatted him up and got an autograph.

There seems to be a pretty fun but serious rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne with folks landing on both sides of the fence arguing which is better. They are so different it's really hard to make an apples to apples comparison. Both are awesome and we could frankly live in either place if it came down to it, but for our family, Sydney was tops – making this a pretty short Blog entry.

Posted by Blakei 19:27 Archived in Australia Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Ohhhh.... Sydney

We just can’t go back to the US now …

76 °F

Well, that’s not really true, but Sydney was so nice, that we couldn’t help but contemplate a life without moving back to the US. The people, the harbor, the skyline, the CBD, the shopping, the food, the weather, the kid friendly venues; this city has got it all. As much as we love our favorite big cities in the US, there is no city in the states that compares favorably.

For the first time on our trip, we didn’t have to stay in a hotel. We stayed in a serviced apartment that had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a laundry room (yeah!), and a full kitchen (yeah again!). Better than that, it was on the 76th floor or the Meriton tower and had great views looking west over Hyde Park on to Bondi Junction, and we could see Airplanes land and take off from the Airport 12 km away. The Meriton tower was on the edge of the Central Business District, in a lively neighborhood, and literally sat atop a mall with some great shops, convenient restaurants, a large grocery store, and even a monorail stop. We could easily manage downtown with a quick monorail ride and a little walking. Most days, we didn’t really get started until noon or later after the boys had completed their homework, so the speed of getting around town was very nice.

Animals, Animals, Animals:
Griffin is all about animals, so we had to check out all the animal venues in the city. We had heard that there were some great places in Sydney for viewing animals; The Sydney Zoo, the Sydney Aquarium and right next to the aquarium, Sydney Wildlife World... so we of course had to see ‘em all. We started our animal adventures viewing the native animals at Sydney Wildlife World. It was great to learn little facts about indigenous animals, for instance, did you know that if a stick insect looses a leg in an accident, it can grow a new one, or did you know that during mating, a female praying mantis may bite the male’s head off.. see the photo for the rest of the incredible (though predictable) fact. We also got up close and personal with some Koala Bears for some photos … who, just like Pandas, are super cute. However, unlike pandas, aren’t really bears, are perpetually high on Eucalyptus leaves , and present no risk of gouging your eyes out. From there, we ventured over to the Aquarium which featured underwater glass tunnels that allowed you to view fish around and above you. Sharks, Rays, Turtles, and giant cod swam around us and made us all feel so relaxed. .. Carol came nose to nose with a turtle and she swears it followed her around the tank. I think it just might have – perhaps foreshadowing for events later in the trip? A little more about the Zoo in a minute.

Skating Maroubra:
Skate boarding in Australia is like nothing I’ve seen in America, and we’ve only seen the Sydney area so far. The boys skated Maroubra, Bondi and Monster , which were the parks we researched from the states and each park was better than the last. Not only that, the ability of the skaters was off the charts. Young kids, 20 year old and even 40 year old skaters were fantastic. It seems every community has a skate park, and in beach communities like Maroubra and Bondi, the parks are right on the boardwalk. We took the bus to Maroubra, a beach town toward the south of Sydney that was very local and apparently used to be a pretty sketchy neighborhood, sporting race riots a few years back. It seemed to be a pretty nice community beach and I’d wager a place ripe for investment as it swings up. Carol and I hung out on the beach as the boys skated. I tried to skate but my knees were toast. Taking the bus to and from Maroubra was super easy and made the Sydney area seem so small (it isn’t).

Bondi Beach:
I have a buddy that I’ve known for some time who lives on Bondi Beach. Julian Holman is a super-fun, high-energy Aussie who is virtually impossible not to like. I hit it off with him the first time we met, and we’ve stayed in contact ever since. We were lucky that Julian was in town given his hectic schedule, and he arranged a breakfast at his business partner’s condo (Daniel Haigh) in Bondi Junction. The breakfast was awesome, and we took in the views from Daniel’s top floor apartment. We could see downtown Sydney and the water toward Bondi Beach as we ate our breakfast. After a delicious breakfast and great conversation with Daniel, Julian and their significant others ,(Lucia and Tanya respectively), we were off to Bondi beach so the boys could have a skate and Carol and I could lay out and swim or body surf. As it turned out, there was a press conference and peaceful protest at Bondi Beach that day protesting the Japanese slaughter of Humpback whales. To gather media attention, an American artist was trying to break a world record by creating a giant mural of a humpback whale, out of human bodies on the beach. Carol and I thought it would be novel to be a part of this, so while the boys skated, we joined the throng of nearly 2,500 people that created the outline of a humpback whale. Surfers, shoppers, grandmas and kids sat on the sand in the outline of the whale, while an aborigine blew whale songs on a didgeridoo. Helicopters hovered overhead and took pictures of the mural which garnered local media attention, but unfortunately didn’t break the world record, (hard to believe there was one to break). It was fun nonetheless, we learned some new things about whaling issues, and we met some great people that had also decided to be a part of this event. We picked up Griffin and Parker at the skate park and watched them throw down with some of the locals who were pretty skilled. It was fun seeing both the boys improving and gaining confidence in the mix with other skaters.

Monster Skate Park:
The boys and I left our condo at noon after studying to take the train to the Sydney Olympic Park where the new Monster skate park was built only two years earlier. Again, lending to the sense that this big city was small, getting there was a breeze in spite of it being 20km or so out side of the CBD. We had to transfer trains only once and the second train dropped us to within 600 meters of the park. The trains were clean , comfortable, fast and quiet, and made us all realize how cities like LA or even the bay area suffer from a lack of reasonable public transportation. This skate park was insane with outdoor wooden ramps, an indoor street section and a on-site shop. Also insane was the number of skaters. There must have been 200 or 300 skaters celebrating Monster’s second anniversary. A competition was being held and the boys recognized some of the skaters from skate videos and U-Tube. The quality of the skaters was incredible – and both Parker and Griffin held their own, but steered clear of the competition area until it was open for casual skating. I was ready to strangle the announcer of the event who belted loud “wooohooos!!” and nicknames, and phrases into the microphone without noticing that his comments were being broadcast at approximately one billion decibels to the entire park “ YAH JESSE!! LAYIN DOWN A 360 FLIP TO AN OVERCROOK GRINDAH!! YAHHHH JESSE! Followed by me and a few other folks “FREAKIN SHUT UP DUDE!” The train ride back to town was uneventful, but we had to switch trains a couple more times due to a track repair closure. Carol took the opportunity to hunt for some last minute things in downtown Sydney for Griffin’s Birthday which was taking place the next day.

Griffins Birthday:
Griffin turned 11 in Sydney and called all the shots for his special day. He decided we would start our day by taking the Ferry to the Sydney Zoo, then either going to Monster Park again, or doing a street skate all over Sydney’s CBD. We would follow this by opening presents, eating Pizza in our room and watching scary movies until late. That is the perfect day for Griffin. It was about 80 degrees and beautifully sunny. We took a Cab to the Ferry which takes you across Sydney Harbor to the Zoo. From the Ferry we were treated to gorgeous view of downtown, the opera house and the rocks, so pretty it felt almost cliché, where every picture we took reminded us of a post card or advertisement we had seen before. Incredible. The Sydney Zoo is the most gorgeous zoo we have ever been to, and we had debates about whether San Diego or Sydney was the best. Sydney is smaller than San Diego, but it is well laid out a bit more walk-able, cleaner, and has the great views of the Harbor and Skyline. We cruised the Zoo for a few hours and took in the animals and then took the Ferry back. We wouldn’t have time to go to Monster again as it turned out, so Parker, Griffin and Dad got on Skateboards and skated all over downtown, skating from our Hotel all the way to the Opera House, through the Rocks (the original settlement of Australia), and almost all the way back to the Hotel through Darling Harbor. The kids stopped all over town to do tricks when they saw a spot they recognized from their favorite skate videos. The kids would gasp excitedly when they recognized one, in the same way an artist might gasp when coming upon a well known piece at the Louvre. The kids got pretty tired on the skate back to the hotel and so we caught a very quick cab. We ate Pizza, opened presents and watched “Lady in the Water” and another unmemorable scary movie that kept us up past midnight. We needed some sleep because the next day was planned to be a big one.

The “Boat”
I met a business friend of mine for lunch in Sydney the second day I was in town. He had always said “when you come to Sydney, you must look me up and we’ll do lunch or take in a surf or something”. I didn’t expect to be retired when I got there and was hesitant to visit, but after some encouragement from some friends at Microsoft and yahoo, decided to ask James Packer if he’d like to do lunch. He said sure and so we had a great lunch and a lively conversation. James is an excellent businessman, a great guy that anyone would be glad to have a pint with, and someone who is incredibly unassuming. At the end of lunch, James asked if the family would like to take the boat out. I thought that would be a lot of fun and said sure. I had no idea what to expect. I talked to the captain of the boat and asked if 4 friends could come along and he said no worries, and so I invited Julian, Daniel, Tanya and Lucia. When we showed up at the designated boat dock (at the opera house), I was astounded to find a 110 foot Yacht with a 43 foot tender boat to take us back and forth the Yacht. This “boat” had a full crew, a fantastic chef, and sported a couple of living rooms, four bedrooms, two 4,000 horse power diesel engines, and a couple of Jet Skis for having some more fun. We were flabbergasted. We cruised to Palm Beach and dropped anchor in a protected bay. We dove off the sides of the boat and swam around. The back of the boat opened up and two Wave Runners were hoisted out by electric winch. Griffin was taken to a secluded shore about 600 meters away, where he built a fort and hunted for Geckos, while Parker and all the adults raced around on the wave runners (which could go 90kmph), swam, dove and listened to great tunes. Carol swam to “Griffin’s beach” and both were brought back on a Wave Runner. At the end of the day, we were all pulled on a “tube” just like you would on a ski boat behind the wave runners. That was incredible and the highlight of our Sydney visit to be sure.

When we arrived back at the dock, the kids just wanted to go to the condo, so gave them the keys and cab fare and off they went. The adults stopped for drinks at the opera house and had a great dinner at the Rocks. What a perfect end to a perfect week in what feels like the perfect city – ahhhh Sydney. We’re coming back for sure, but we’re not sure we can really leave…

Posted by Blakei 00:01 Archived in Australia Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Hong Kong

This is China?

The last city on our China itinerary was Hong Kong. We were actually a little hesitant to put it on the itinerary, thinking it wouldn’t be different enough from Shanghai or Sydney to warrant a visit. I was wrong. Hong Kong is exceptionally unique and it doesn’t “feel” like the rest of China we visited. Of course it shouldn’t, having been under British rule only 10 years ago. Hong Kong looks and feels more like London or New York City while simultaneously reminding you that you’re in China through a barrage of Mandarin or Cantonese signage. Like New York or London, the neighborhoods differ noticeably from each other, but all are interconnected by a common and excellent public transportation system. Also like New York and London, just about everyone spoke English. We traversed Hong Kong neighborhoods using just about every form of Public Transportation available to us. We used buses, taxis, trains, subways, ferry’s, and old rail cars. We visited suburban communities where we were the only european faces and still had no problems communicating. Compared to Shanghai, getting around in this densely populated city was a piece of cake.

We stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kowloon, which is on the mainland across the bay from Hong Kong Island, but still considered Hong Kong. Kowloon tends to be more frenzied than Hong Kong Island, and seems a bit less orderly and messy, which we loved. Kowloon offers a great combination of back alley souvenir shops, custom tailors, jewelry stores, eateries of all kinds, high end boutiques, and picturesque strolls. Our hotel lobby and our room had awesome views of the HongKong Skyline and had a pool and a glass hot tub outside that shared the same view. Very cool. The most significant ting about the hotel for the kids however, was that we passed Dakota Fanning and her parents on the way into the hotel while they waited for their car, and Dad, not knowing that “THAT WAS DAKOTA FANNING!!!” was unaware enough to have engaged in a brief conversation with her and her folks about the gigantic pile of bags we were toting.

We started our visit with a trip to the Hong Kong Museum in Kowloon which chronicles the history of Hong Kong from early man, then details the social/political/economic situation that lead to British rule, then the Japanese Occupation, all the way through the return of Hong Kong to China. It was interesting and fun to see how the history of Beijing and HongKong were intertwined, (e.g. the burning of the summer palace) and it was fascinating to see a Chinese representation of the situation.

The next day we ventured over to Hong Kong Island on the Ferry and took a full day roaming the northern parts of the island, using a winding bus to scale Victoria Peak, and using the cable car to get back into the city. We spent some time shopping a bit on the Island, going to some “higher end” stores and some flea market alleyways. We did some skyscraper gazing as well. The Hong Kong skyline has to be the most beautiful skyline of any city – not just from across the bay, but from Downtown as you gaze upward. Parker gawked his way around the city – knowing so much about many of the buildings “that is the so and so tower, and it is the tallest residential tower in the world at blah blah feet”. He was in his element.

We finished our time on the Island with a quick bite at “El Agave” a Mexican restaurant with a fabulous tequila selection. Eric Duerr, a good friend from Seattle had given us a business card a year ago with the address of this place, and told me if I was ever there to look it up. We did. It was fantastic and we ran into some very friendly Australian’s at the restaurant who were related to Dustin Dollin, the kids favorite Aussie skater. We shared some laughs and emails, and hope to run into him while in Australia. We took the train back to Kowloon, crossing under the bay to go to the Mong Kok shopping area that featured a street lined with athletic shoe stores. Every store seemed to have the same stuff. This place was crazy, teaming with Chinese shoppers, and we were the only Blue eyed folks around.

Carol and I did something that isn’t typical for us. We went to a “custom” tailor and had some clothes made for us. Carol had a jacket made for her and I had a couple of sport jackets, pants and some shirts made. It was a pretty cool experience and the prices were super low. A whole lot of “stars” use these tailors in Hong Kong and their autographed pictures are proudly displayed on the walls. There is clearly no lack of money in Hong Kong with Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin’s all well represented, but everyone still seems to be shopping for a great deal. At a high end watch shop, where we were really just ogling the beautiful Franc Mueller watches, with no intention to buy, the salesman kept lowering the price every minute or so, and throwing in “special gifts”… it was pretty funny.
The last day in Hong Kong, I took the boys to Mei Foo Skate Park, out in a Hong Kong suburb by the same name while Carol strolled Kowloon. After hunting around the area for a fair bit, and getting directions from some locals, we found the park the kids skated for a few hours there. This was a big deal because the kids have numerous pictures of their favorite guys skating Mei Foo.
The Hong Kong Opera House was right next to our Hotel and as fate would have it, Lee Ritenour was in town and I was able to catch him with a great band our last night in town. So after the skate park, I walked to the opera house to catch the show. Carol and the kids aren’t huge fans, so I went solo. Lee had a great band with Melvin Davis on Bass, Barnaby Finch on Piano and JJ Williams on Drums. I have seen all of these folks in bands dating back to the early 80s and even sat in with Melvin in the 90s, so it was a real treat to get a dose of West coast jazz while we were in Hong Kong. Lee has quite a following in Hong Kong, and there were a bunch of locals who appeared to know his songs well, and appreciated Lee and his band.

Posted by Blakei 12:12 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged family_travel Comments (1)


the BIG city

68 °F

There’s almost no way to describe to someone how large Shanghai is and how it appears to be even larger than it is. Parker is a complete big city and tall building freak and I have often told him this every time I’ve returned from Shanghai. It is overwhelming. He has asks “Is it bigger than New York City?” I say, “Yes, much bigger”. He says “Emporus (the web site for everything that is tall buildings) says that New York is bigger”. Well, I’ll never have that conversation again. We stayed in the Hyatt, which is in the Jin Mao Tower, the 4th tallest building in the world. Parker looked out of the Window and just shook his head, gawking and said, “This is the most giant city I have ever seen” The view from our room on the 71st floor stretched across Shanghai and the bund, and as far as you can see it was skyscrapers. There were four reasons we came to Shanghai. First, was to Experience the size and pace of the city which I personally believe is unmatched in the world (even NYC). Second, was to experience the SMP skateboard park without injury which is the largest skateboard park in the world. The third reason was to visit Friedbert and Eleanore Wall, good friends who had been living in Shanghai for the past two and a half years.

Shanghai’s gigantic main attraction, day or night, was right outside our hotel windows, so it seemed like staying at the hotel was a fine thing to do. Even with that, we ventured out every day and night to get a real sense of the city. The boys’ entire goal was to skate SMP, and even Dad wanted to give it a shot. We all went the first day including Carol just to take it in. It was scary and huge – and deserted. We rolled into the park at about 10:30am and it was empty. There were no skaters. Zero. The biggest park in the world was empty. And it was free. The Park had drop in bowls that were 18 feet tall, vertical everywhere and over vertical pipes in many places. The kids were in heaven and they would be here three days in a row – of course with some studying and eating thrown-in in the mornings and evenings. Dad skated two of the three days, but bailed on the third to spend time with friends and nurse his aching bones from the first two days. Rune Glifburg, a very famous award winning professional skater from Denmark showed up at the park the third day and the kids got his autograph and enjoyed watching him shred, and just talking and hanging out with him. The emptiness of the park was one of those odd ironies we kept running into in China. There is a real sense in almost every city of “if you build it they will come……someday”. In some cities, it’s clearly a long way off and in others, it’s already here.

The third day in Shanghai, Carol and I met Friedbert and Eleanore at our hotel while the kids left for the skatepark with an interpreter for some adult supervision and emergency insurance. Carol and I went to the Yuyuan Garden featuring a collection of 800 year old buildings and courtyards, surrounded by af colorful and very active market with shops, peddlers and guhzillions of tourists. It was fun for me having never been in a touristy part of the city before and it was abuzz with activity. The strangest thing happened in the Yuyuan Garden before lunch though…. I noticed a guy that looked exactly like Brad Silverberg, an old friend of mine from Microsoft. I looked at him and thought “Geeze that guy looks like Brad Silverberg!” He turned and looked at me as well, in a sideways glance kind of way, and after he took his reciprocal double-take, a broad grin crossed his face, I’m sure mirroring my look of “what the f#%… ?” We were mutually flabbergasted and laughing ironically by the time we reached each other. I see Brad rarely in the states and I run into him in a courtyard in Shanghai was south of bizzare. I bet this happens again on the trip, but I’d wager it won’t be Brad next time  . We parted ways quickly to keep up with our respective groups, but had time to snap a photo. It was a great way to reemphasize our lesson to the kids about how large and small the world is simultaneously. It’s a giant and diverse place, but you’re still quite likely just a degree or two away from someone you know, probably within feet of you, regardless of where you are standing. This albeit, was an extreme case. We went to an excellent dumpling place in the Yuyuan garden for lunch that had a 100 yard lineup of local folks, just for the takeout window. That’s no exaggeration. I could tell if it was the dumplings that wer e so awesome or perhaps it was the message on the window that read “Dumpling stuffed with the ovary and digestive glands of a crad”. Yes, I am totally serious, and no I have no idea what it meant, nor if we actually ate one.

After lunch, Carol, Friedbert, Eleanore and I visited the Shanghai planning museum which has a full layout of the city of Shanghai and the next 5 years’ development footprint. It is said that locals come to this museum to see if their neighborhood will still be standing in 5 years. It won’t be.

The next morning we awoke to take the Maglev train to the Pudong Airport. The Maglev stands for Magnetic Levitation and the train never touches the track. Magnets support and propel the train. We watched a Discovery Channel short on it the night before and it said that Maglevs can accelerate fast enough to kill you. Well, it didn’t do that obviously, but it did reach 430km per hour and travel the 30km to the airport in under 8 minutes. Even with that speed, this train isn’t as fast as this city.

Posted by Blakei 17:55 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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