Rachel Down Under!

Mom Down Under!

Posted in Australia, Sydney, Whitsundays by rssmith218 on April 23, 2011

Two weeks ago, my mom made the long trip across the US and the Pacific Ocean to pay me a visit in the land “down under.” We had a lovely visit, and we packed an enormous amount of activity into our short time together. For the first half of our trip, we enjoyed Sydney and then for the second bit of our visit, we headed north to the Whitsunday Islands at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

Despite the long flight, Lenore took quickly to Sydney, and we immediately began to see the sites.

Within her first 8 hours in Sydney alone, she not only glimpsed the lovely Bondi Beach,

experienced her first flat white,

and explored Sydney’s Botanic Gardens,

(and caught a glimpse of the infamous flying foxes!)

but she also caught her first view of the Sydney Opera House, and of course, had her first taste of some delicious Australian wine.

The busyness of her first day in Sydney continued for the rest of her time in Sydney, and I had a great time showing her around my favorite parts of Sydney. Here’s a top 5 “hits” list of my favorite things in the Sydney area that I got to enjoy in the company of my mom!

In no particular order….

1. Manly

We took the Manly Ferry out to the beachside neighborhood of Manly, where we spent the day scouring the sands of  Shelly Beach for shells and enjoying the views from atop the Manly Cliff Walk.

Find anything good?

What a view!

2. Circular Quay

My mom treated Thomas and I to a fancy dinner at Cafe Sydney, which has amazing views of Ciricular Quay. Dinner was delicious, and check out these views!

Afterwards, we met Aisha at the Opera House for a Bell Shakespeare theatre production of “Much Ado About Nothing”, a great comedy about two pairs of lovers who are tricked in different ways.

3. Hunter Valley- wine!

What would a trip to Sydney be without a foray into Australian wine country? My mom and I made the trek to Hunter Valley for a day of wine tasting- Yum!

4. The Blue Mountains

Another one of my favorite Sydney activities is hiking in the Blue Mountains. We began our day in sunny Sydney, but by the time we got to the Blue Mountains, the weather had turned cloudy and rainy. Still, we managed to grab a shot of the Three Sisters (with a rainbow in the background!) before the storms set in….

Despite the rain, we enjoyed a cliffside walk from Katoomba to Leura. By the end, we weren’t too wet, were we?

5. Watsons Bay

Watsons Bay is perhaps my favorite Sydney spot, and we welcomed a full (and sunny!) day of wandering the cliffside trails and relaxing at the quiet harbourside beach.


As you can guess, our time in Sydney passed quickly, and we soon headed up north to the Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef. Here’s a map to give you a bit of perspective….

Upon landing in the Whitsundays, we were convinced that we had arrived in paradise. For example, check out this view of the airport from the ferry that took us to Airlie Beach on the mainland.

Have we landed in paradise?

From there, the ferry trip through the islands to our lodging on the mainland was just gorgeous….

Do you feel like you’re on vacation yet?

Yep! Upon arrival in Airlie Beach, we checked into our bed and breakfast and made arrangements for our sailing trip, which would leave the next morning.

After a delicious breakfast,

we trekked down to the marina to meet our boat and to begin our sailing adventure. We were led aboard the Eureka, a beautiful racing boat, and our captain, Mal, proceeded to get us out on the water.

Of course, we all had to lend a hand as well…

Our sailing trip was amazing. We spent 3 days out on the water, during which we explored many of the Whitsunday Islands, visited some truly stunning beaches, and went diving and snorkeling on the reef. There were only 8 other people on our boat, 7 of whom were female, and we passed a happy few days out at sea.

Here are some photos from our time on the boat:

On the first day, we sailed across the Whitsunday Channel to Blue Pearl Bay, next to Hayman Island.

There, I went for a dive, and the rest of our boat went for a snorkel in the clear blue waters of the Whitsundays. The reef was incredible to say the least; I wish I had photos to share, but unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera. The number and diversity of fish and corals was astounding; I could have spent all day taking in the underwater scenery!

After our snorkel, and Mal dropped us at Cataran Bay to watch the sunset from this quiet beach. Beautiful!

Sunset view of our boat!

The next morning, we were dropped at Whitehaven Beach, probably the most breath-taking beach I have seen in Australia. Pure white silica sands met the clear blue waters. We firs t walked to a lookout where we viewed the beach from above….

….and afterwards we all ran down to the beach to enjoy these beautiful waters!

But don’t go swimming without your stinger suit! We had to wear these truly fashionable suits to protect us from dangerous jellyfish stings….although mostly I was glad for protection from the sun!

The tide went out during our swim, so afterwards I walked down the beach to check out how things had changed. Can you believe how beautiful this is? I love the patterns in the sand that are left behind by the outgoing tide….

All too soon, we were picked up by our boat and we spent the afternoon snorkeling on the reef, sunning ourselves on the deck of the boat, and sailing to our evening resting place, where we watched the sun slowly set over the islands.

Of course we need some snacks to accompany the sunset!

Can you believe these colors?

We spent the last day of our trip as we had the previous days; we sailed around the islands, stopping at prime stretches of reef for a snorkle.

Our captain also dropped us off on a sandbar that was slowly being uncovered by the outgoing tide.

Here we passed a pleasant afternoon of snorkeling,

wandering, and of course, bumming on the beach!

Soon enough, it was time to set our sails for Airlie Beach and, with the wind behind us, we sped to the mainland. Our sailing trip had finally come to an end! After another night in Airlie Beach (and several drinks at the local Rum Bar….), we were on our way back to Sydney. It was to be my mom’s last night in Australia, and after a quick and rather fruitless search for some Australian beer, we returned to the apartment to pack for my mom’s departure.

My mom’s time in Australia was full of action, and I feel like I was able to show her a good bit of what my life is like in Australia. I hope she enjoyed the trip as much as I did, although I’m sure she’s glad to return to her garden in Virginia!



Posted in New Zealand by rssmith218 on April 12, 2011

For the first time, my adventures “down under” took me outside of Australia, and last week I made my way to New Zealand, the Land of the Great White Cloud.

Christine, Aisha, Thomas and I only had time to tour the South Island, and even though we spent 9 days exploring the island, I feel that we barely scratched the surface of what the South Island, yet alone the rest of New Zealand, has to offer. From sheep to towering mountains, from the coastal fiordland to the icy glaciers, New Zealand was one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever visited. Many of these photos were taken by Aisha and Christine- thanks girls!

Here, I will briefly recount our journey. Below is a map of our trip….

….along with a day-by-day break down of our travels.

Let’s get started!

Day 1: Sydney to Christchurch

Our flight from Sydney brought us safely (if not smoothly) into Christchruch at 1:00 am on Friday night, and after picking up our rental car, we headed to probably the sketchiest hostel in all of New Zealand. I’m not sure whether it was comforting or concerning to know that our hostel proprieter was available for help at all hours of the night from his bed in the blue van parked outside our door, but we got enough sleep to prepare for our first real day of adventuring….

Day 2: Christchurch to Franz Josef

We awoke bright and early the next morning and began our drive to the western side of the island. We limited our stay in Christchurch because of the recent earthquake and stayed safely away from the Christchurch city center, as it was most strongly affected by the quake.

To the west!

Within a half hour of leaving Christchruch, we came accross the town of Sheffield, which was hosting a local fair in the foothills of the Southern Alps.

Of course we had to stop! Here we got an excellent taste of rural New Zealand culture, as we watched a woodchopping competition,

dogs jumping over increasingly higher stacks of hay bales,

and, yes, a speed sheep-shearing competition, among others.

After spending several hours at the fair, we realized that we still had almost 400 kilometers to drive and we set off for the west, with a new resolve not to make any unnecessary stops. It was a beautiful drive…

…..although some of us may have enjoyed the scenery more than others…

We finally arrived in Franz Josef, and prepared a quick dinner to fortify us for the day ahead.

Day 3: Fox Glacier

The next morning,  we were greeted with rain and clouds, but undeterred, we headed to Fox Glacier for a day of glacier hiking! After bundling up in countless layers and sturdy rain jackets, we were finally ready to face the rain….

….and so we did! Our guide took us through the pouring rain up a rocky path that eventually led to- what else- the glacier!

From there, we strapped crampons onto our shoes and headed up onto the glacier.

Despite the rain, we were able to reach some pretty amazing features…..Like this beautiful blue ice,

…and this ice tube!

Hello Thomas!

Despite the rain and the cold, we had a wonderful hike…

….but we were definitely ready for a hot chocolate and a nap in our cozy cabin!

After we recovered from our hike, we wandered around Franz Josef, and Thomas and I made a quick excursion to some local hot pools before dinner.

Day 4: Franz Josef to Queenstown

We were sad to leave our cozy cabin the next morning….

…and on our way out of town, we stopped by Lake Matheson for a quick hike. The calm, dark waters of Lake Matheson perfectly reflect the peaks of nearby Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.

Beautiful, eh?

And of course we had to try our own hand at reflecting, although I think the mountains definitely had us beat…

From Lake Matheson, we continued south along the west coast, taking in the sights as we went. We had a quick glimpse of the ocean from the top of this cliff,

checked out the fish at a local salmon farm,

and drove through Mount Aspiring National Park, one of the most beautiful stretches of road that I have ever seen.

We also drove through Lake Wanaka…

…but we made a long stop in the town of Wanaka to explore the strange, but surprisingly fun “Puzzling World”.

And what did we do there?

Well, we hung out with some Romans in the toilets,

had our balance challenged by a tilted room,

and we played with perspective in a crazy disproportionate room.

Probably the most intense aspect of Puzzling World was the lifesize maze. The goal was to reach 4 different colored towers in a specific order.

At first, we were all enjoying the maze….

….but some of us began to take the challenge more seriously than others.

In particular, after an hour or so of running in circles, Thomas cracked from the pressure of the maze.

We left Puzzling World exhausted and slightly frazzled, and continued on to our night’s destination- Queenstown!

We grabbed a burger at the famous Fergburger,

and settled down in our hostel for the night, although not before checking out a few of Queenstown’s souvenir shops.

Day 5: Queenstown to Milford Sound

From Queenstown we made our way to Milford Sound out in the fiordland. We stopped in Te Anau, where we went on a tour of a glow worm cave. We had to take a boat out into the fiords to reach the cave, but it was a beautiful journey, as you can see below.

We weren’t allowed to take photos in the cave to keep from scaring the glow worms, but this silly promotional video actually sums up our experience surprisingly well.

We were brought into the lower portion of the caves, where we walked alongside a loud and beautiful series of rapids and waterfalls. In the total darkness of the cave, we were led to a boat and we then floated around the “Glow Worm Cavern” and watched the glow worms shine their little lights.

At the end of our tour, we returned to the road and began the scenic drive to Milford Sound. The landscape became extraordinarily large over the course of our drive, and we stopped several times just to enjoy the scenery.

Day 6: Milford Sound to Queenstown

After a restful night in Milford Sound, we awoke for an early morning of sea-kayaking in the sound. We were outfitted in some truly flattering thermals,

before starting our kayak into the fiordland. The sound was so beautiful, as you can see here, and we spent a lovely morning slowly paddling around the sound.

On our way back to Queenstown, we stopped to hike Key Summit, which offered stunning 360-degree views of the surrounding area.


Day 7: Queenstown

The next day, Aisha and I took a ride on the Queenstown gondala, where we had a great view of Queenstown and the surrounding area, as you can see here.

What do you see out there, Rach?


We returned to town and Thomas, Christine, and I got ready for our Queenstown adventure sport- white-water rafting on the Shotover River! I was expecting to be thrown from the raft by the intensity of the rapids, but our raft safely maneuvered through the raging currents and it was actually the windy cliffside drive to the start of our journey that was most terrifying. We obviously weren’t able to take photos on the trip, but Christine this snapped this shot before our rafting adventure.

After our rafting trip, we made some great friends at the hostel,

and we enjoyed a night out on the town in Queenstown!

We went to a pub that served cocktails in teapots, and as you can see, we had a very enjoyable night.

Day 8: Queenstown to Lake Tekapo

With a cup of New Zealand coffee to get us started, we drove to the beautiful Lake Tekapo, stopping for a picnic lunch along the way.

Lake Tekapo was a beautiful place to stop for the night, and we spent the afternoon enjoying the lakeside views.

While Thomas and Christine enjoyed some local hot pools, and Aisha and I ventured up to the Mount John Observatory to see some stars. We watched the sun set over the mountains surrounding Lake Tekapo, and waited as the stars started to come out.

Can you tell that it was cold?

Stars out yet?

It was a clear night, and we saw the many constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, including Orion (upside down!), the large and small Magellan galaxies, the Southern cross, and my favorite, Saturn!

Aisha also learned a bit about astrophotography and was able to take photos of the night sky with her camera. The images are pretty amazing; for example, can you spot the Southern Cross in this photo?

We returned to our hostel to an excellent dinner cooked by Thomas and Christine (mostly Christine) and were lulled to sleep by the heated (!) mattresses in our hostel.

Day 9: Lake Tekapo to Christchurch

Our last day! We backtracked from Lake Tekapo in order to visit Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand/Australasia at a whopping 3,754 metres (12,316 ft). Our journey to the national park was hindered by some passing sheep…

…but once we made it through the sheep blockade, the views were beautiful!

We hiked out to Lake Tasman, a glacial lake formed from the remains of the Tasman Glacier. It was a great walk, with views of the surrounding mountains and the giant icebergs floating in the lake.

Mount Cook!

All too soon, it was time to head back to Christchurch, where we stayed the night before catching an early morning flight the next morning to go back to Sydney. I wish we had had even more time to explore New Zealand, although I guess now I have a wonderful excuse to go back. For now, though, it is on to the next adventure- the Whitsunday Islands with my lovely mom!