Category Archives: Travel Generally

Hither to Hamilton Island

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The Crew of the Spirit of Freedom 

Feb. 20, 2018:

Thank you, Dear Readers, for your patience!  I left you dangling in Queensland, Australia, but our journey didn’t end there.  For those of you who are curious, I’ll try to finish the story now.

Yesterday (Feb. 19th), we bid a fond farewell to the Spirit of Freedom and her crew in the port of Cairns. Then we went back to the Cairns Hilton, where we basically spent all day by the pool in the shade resting and reading after our vigorous dive trip (and having laundry done).  At dusk, we had fun again watching the resident bats (thousands of them) take flight across the skies of Cairns.

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Cairns at Dusk

This morning we flew to Hamilton Island (about an hour’s flight from Cairns), where we are staying at a super resort called Qualia. We’re still just off the coast in the northeast part of Australia, and the closest coastal town to us would be Airlie Beach. This island is probably the most developed in the Whitsunday Islands archipelago located at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The whole island was owned and developed by one company, Hamilton Island Enterprises, which probably explains why there is no piecemeal or junky development here. HIE still owns most of the property and about 97% of the businesses on the island. They even own the tour boats, which go out to the other islands, the reef, and the mainland. The island was pretty hard-hit by a cyclone about 18 months ago, but it is amazing how little reconstruction remains to be done.

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The resort where we are staying is a real gem, and features individual units positioned so most of them look out on the channel between Hamilton Island and Whitsunday Island. Surprising, the island is fairly large, but cars are essentially forbidden here so everyone gets around by golf carts (“buggies”). Upon checking in, Jim and I were issued our own buggy for the duration of the stay. Since our room wasn’t quite ready, we hopped in and took off the tour the island.

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Right outside the resort is the highest point of the island, which offers some stunning views! Photography bug satisfied, Jim and I lingered a while at the cute little bar/café located there. I ad a blast watching the resident cockatoo strut around. It turns out that there are hundreds of them on the island. Then we returned to the hotel to enjoy a quiet afternoon at our little casita gazing out on the channel and reading.

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Our room and deck

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This evening, we enjoyed a fabulous meal down by the harbor at the restaurant for the yacht club which is called Bommie. As you might guess with our proximity to the ocean, the menu was almost entirely seafood oriented. It turned out to be one of the best meals we have enjoyed here in Australia and we were blessed to have amazing service, as well.

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Amazing Cave, Cathedrals and Nonkies Bommie

Feb. 18, 2018:

We did not have so far to travel last night to today’s location off Holmes Reef. The downside of that is that we anchored about midnight, and the swell caused the boat to pitch hard from side to side. I don’t think many of us slept much for those last six hours until our wakeup call.

We are still out in the Coral Sea, but today we are diving the sites around Holmes Reef. It’s a bright sunny morning, and we all scramble to get ready for our first dive today at Amazing Caves, whose name says it all.

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Some kind of Sand Goby
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Some kind of Surgeonfish or Tang
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One of the Amazing Caves
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Jim and I swimming through one of the crevasses. Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Staghorn Coral
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Coral Canyon
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Hawk Anthias?
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Some kind of Banded Goby
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I can’t find the identification for this one, but it might be a Three Spot Wrasse
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Princess Damsel?
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Juvenile Blackfin Damsel?
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Squirrelfish
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Orange Soft Coral

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Then we moved to another of the Holmes Reef site; called Cathedrals.  I spent most of my time here chasing a Coral Cod around a coral head trying to get a good picture of him.

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Anemone on right; coral on left
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See all the baby black finned damsels hiding in the coral?
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Hawk Anthias
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Trumpetfish

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Scissortail Chromis

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Ocellate Damselfish
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South Seas Devil Damsel & Pacific Half and Half Chromis
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Hole in the coral reef wall
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Spiny Oyster?
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Princess Anthias
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Parrotfish
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Striped Surgeonfish
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Blue Damselfish or Blue Chromis in a head of fire coral?
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Mimic Surgeonfish
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Golden Damsel
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Humphead Maori Wrasses
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Bird Wrasse (on left), Slingjaw Wrasse (in center), Golden Damsel (on right)

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For the final dive of the trip, we moved a short distance to a dive site called Nonki’s Bommie. Legend has it that Nonki was a Japanese diver who discovered the site. A Bommie is a coral head that rises up from the ocean floor in a free standing hill. This was a very special because it has crevices you can swim though and some more great soft corals and fan corals.

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Pyramid Butterflyfish
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Fan corals and sea plumes hanging under a ledge
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Barrier Reef Anemone Fish and Half and Half Chromis

 

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Juvenile Mimic Filefish
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Nudibranch
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Fire Dartfish
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Blue Tang
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Feather Star
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Pencil Surgeonfish
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Dotted Sweetlips and Cleaner Wrasse
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Slender Grouper
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Longnose Butterflyfish and Big Longnose Butterflyfish-Dark Variation
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Barrier Reef Anemonefish in a Magnificent Anemone
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Arc-Eye Hawkfish
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Coral Beauty Angelfish
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View at the top of the Bommie
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai

Sadly, it is now time to head back to Cairns. We really treasured our time on the Spirit of Freedom.  The entire dive team was very well professional and experienced, but also very attentive to ensure each guest enjoyed a stellar experience. We would go back in a heartbeat!

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Welcome to the Deep Red Center of Australia!

Feb. 12, 2018:

We spent most of the day in transit today before arriving at Longitude 131° Resort. This resort is another property owned by the same couple who own the Southern Ocean Lodge (the Baileys), and it is similarly striking. In the case of this resort, the dwellings are all designed to resemble tents although they have solid walls and the tent ceiling is permanent and 100% attached. This is a very good thing as not only was it hot as Hades here, but in the summertime, the whole area is plagued with kajillions of small flies!

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The ground everywhere is an incredible shade of red! From our room, we can see Uluru in the distance. In fact, like Southern Ocean Lodge, upon arrival, we were given our activity schedule for the next three days.

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After enjoying a brief dip in our plunge pool on the deck looking at Uluru, we prepared for our first outing which was a sunset walk around the edge of Uluru with drinks and canapés. Sadly, tonight because there were some heavy clouds at sunset, we did not see the full splendor of the rock changing color in the dying rays of the sun. However, it was still spectacular (if fly-infested), and we could also see some great views of Kata Tjuta in the distance.

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Jim enjoying a sunset libation while evading the flies
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Kata Tjuta in the distance
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Uluru at sunset

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Following the sunset, we had a special treat in store, as our tour guide took us to a temporary light display in an open field called Field of Light Uluru.  The event organizers describe it as follows: “The exhibition, aptly named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’ in local Pitjantjatjara is Bruce Munro’s largest work to date. Overwhelming in size, covering more than seven football fields, it invites immersion in its fantasy garden of 50,000 spindles of light, the stems breathing and swaying through a sympathetic desert spectrum of ochre, deep violet, blue and gentle white.”

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Our evening wrapped up with a special starlit dinner outside the resort, and one of the resort guides did a stargazing walk for us afterwards. Fortunately, as the wind came up with the sunset, we did not have to beat flies away. The stars were truly amazing. Because there is virtually no light pollution out here, I think it was the best stargazing we have ever seen! Back at our room, we continued the pleasure of the stars out on our deck with a glass of the dessert wine Jim had bought for us at Primo Estate.

 

Watch Me Wallabies Feed, Mate!

Feb. 10, 2018:

After a fantastic sleep in our room facing the ocean, Jim and I had breakfast and then wandered down the cliffs to the beach. The sand is like rough sugar here, but a lovely shade of white from all the decomposing coral. K.I. has been the location of many shipwrecks over the years because of the strong tides, treacherous reefs and rocky cliffs. Fortunately, there’s now a lighthouse to guide the ships in, which we will see tomorrow.

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Our activities for the day include a visit to a sea lion nursery, and later tonight, to do a nature walk in the nearby preserve (Hansen’s Bay Conservation Area) to see all the nocturnal animals. Although I could have spent my free time visiting the amazing spa here, I mostly just stared at the ocean and edited photos for your viewing pleasure, dear Readers.

K.I. has both a sea lion colony and a fur seal colony, both of which are protected by the Parks Department. For this afternoon’s trip, we were assigned one of the Lodge’s naturalists to guide our visit to the sea lion colony at Seal Bay Conservation Reserve. No one is allowed into the sea lion viewing area unless accompanied by a ranger. We are very fortunate in the timing of our visit because there are still small pups with their moms, but breeding season has begun, so the males are challenging each other and looking for mates instead of just laying on the beach. I don’t even want to tell you how many photos I took, but here are a small selection of them and the colony area.

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After enjoying another awe-inspiring sunset while we had cocktails on the main deck of the Lodge, we had an early dinner. Then it was off to see animals in the wildlife preserve as they begin to come awake. Our main targets this evening are koalas (not to be called “koala bears, as they’re not bears, mate”) and Tammar wallabies, although we also hope to see some possums, and maybe an echidna (like a small hedgehog). Koalas are only awake four hours a day, and they must eat enough eucalyptus in that time to fuel them for the twenty hours. Here’s a crazy story about the Koalas; they were extinct on mainland Australia by about 1920. Fortunately, they were introduced to Kangaroo Island just before they became extinct on the mainland, and they have prospered here!  Wallabies are true nocturnal animals unlike kangaroos (which are “corpuscular” meaning they are mostly active in the cooler hours of the day around dawn and dusk).

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Brush-tailed possum
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Brush-tailed possum and koala joey hanging out together

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Fabulous photo of mom and baby koala. Hold your applause!
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Tammar Wallaby

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Ring-tailed possum

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Wallaby drinking from a birdbath

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Making Tracks for McLaren Vale

Feb. 8, 2018:

So in another example of my proclivity to over-schedule, today’s plan involved a jaunt of 2 ½ hours to the other major wine-tasting area here in Southern Australia: McLaren Vale. To my credit, I had no idea how far McLaren Vale was away from the Barossa Valley, and I think our travel agent might have mentioned these logistical issues when we were planning the trip. Nonetheless, our wine guide for the day had called us yesterday and asked us gently if we knew how far away McLaren Vale was from where we were staying. Since it was already arranged, and since our guide offered us the opportunity to drive through the scenic Adelaide Hills on the way, Jim and I decided to go forward with the original plan.

Our guide, David, was a very knowledgeable local guy, and very informative. On our way, he took us by a major viewpoint outside of Adelaide called Mount Lofty, whom which we could see all of Adelaide proper. Unbeknownst to us, the Adelaide Hills is its own wine growing region, but there was no time to explore it today.

 

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View of downtown Adelaide from Mt. Lofty

Along the way, we passed through several charming small towns, where everyone is quick to tell you that unlike other parts of Australia, their area was not founded by convicts, but by German Lutherans escaping Catholic persecution. It would have been easy to stop and sightsee in these towns, like Clarendon, but we had some wine-tasting to do!

 

Finally, we arrived in the McLaren Vale area, and went first to the cellar door at Coriole Vineyards. I have to say, I was not very impressed with their wines, and was thinking that most Australian wines must be blended with a goal to produce very dry (and sour) wines. Fortunately, I was wrong.

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Our next stop was at D’Arenberg Vineyards, which is a really trippy place. For one thing, the “cellar door” is located in a very modern square building (called, the “Cube”), where every other floor has been twisted off the square. The inside is decorated in cartoons and garishly bright furniture. There is even a “scent” room, where you can puff various aromas found in wines into the room to sniff. The puffers are old bicycle horns! Fortunately, the wines were excellent, with a much broader selection of varietals than you usually find in this part of Australia.

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The Cube

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Jim checking out the “fruit scent wall”
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The floral scents
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The tasting room …check out the wild furniture!

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We then had lunch at a super good local restaurant which specializes in locally sourced foodstuffs, Salopain.

For our final stop of the day, David took us to a family-owned vineyard, Primo Estate. This vineyard is a little out of the norm for this area as it features some Italian varietals in addition to the normal Australian wines. Of particular note was their dessert wine, which was so good that Jim purchased a bottle to drink watching the sunset at Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), where we will visit in about four days.

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The Primo Estate tasting room

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Then it was a drive back to the Louise, where Jim and I again enjoyed an incredible sunset looking over the vineyards. Tomorrow, we are off for Kangaroo Island, which is only about 20 kilometers off the southern coast. In fact, if we had had our logistics better straightened out, we could have stayed in McLaren Vale or one of the other cute coastal towns just about 20 miles from here and taken the ferry across the K.I. Instead, we are booked on a small commuter flight, which we necessitate leaving our two big bags at the Adelaide airport. Fortunately, Rex (Regional Express) Airlines will store them for you for a small charge.

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Another glorious sunset at the Louise

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Lazing Around in Lautoka

Feb. 2, 2018:

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This morning we docked on the other side of Viti Levu, in the port of Lautoka. The rainstorms of last night have passed and we sailed in to a beautiful sunrise. Jim and I signed up for a boat excursion to a tiny island offshore called Savala Island. The whole island is about two acres big, with one house on it, but they are all set up for visitors. We have our choice of water sports, and there is a small reef encircling the island. We basically spent the day snorkeling and laying in the shade of our beach umbrella. Suffice it to say, today was just a perfectly lazy beach day!

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Sweet Suva

Feb. 1, 2018:

Near midnight after sailing out of Pago Pago on Jan. 29th, we crossed the International Dateline, which made Jan. 30th disappear. Woe to the poor passenger aboard whose birthday was Jan. 30th! No cake for her!

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We sailed into our next port of call; Suva, Fiji; on Feb. 1, 2018. We are on the big island of Viti Levu, which is home to both the major towns of Suva and Lautoka. We had a fairly late arrival in port this morning (about 10:00), but we were able to put together a dive excursion for after our arrival with several other passengers. The dive operator, Aquatrek, took us about a half hour up the coast to an area known as Pacific Harbor, which is where several of the resorts are located. Their dive operation is run out of one of those resorts, which has open water access from a kind of bayou area. There were six of us from the ship, and the pick up at the harbor went fairly smoothly.

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James and Gina, 2 of our dive companions du jour

Our dives today are going to take place just off the coast near a small island called Beqa. Many of the dive operators in Fiji are located on the outlying islands, or operate from live-aboard dive boats. In fact, this was the only dive operator I could find close to Suva on the mainland. However, what I didn’t know was that the currents come up pretty strong on this side of the island in the afternoon. This made for a couple of very strenuous dives, and resulted in a lot of particles in the water. However, we saw some great things (even if the photos don’t do them justice).

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Blue-banded Angelfish

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Bullethead Parrotfish
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Green Sea Turtle
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Thick-lipped Wrasse

 

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Common Lionfish
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Wedge-tailed Blue Tang

This area of Fiji is known for two things: brilliantly colored soft corals and plentiful shark life. The dive we selected was the coral dive, and I was really looking forward to trying to continue improving my camera skills underwater. We were also excited to learn that there were tons of varieties of reef fishes that we had never seen before. I didn’t even have a “fish finder” to tell us what we had seen! The corals were every bit as spectacular as advertised. We even saw a sea turtle! This is definitely an area to which we must return.

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Soft red coral and Spangled Emperorfish?
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Orange Fan coral

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Golden Damselfish in red coral