The Wednesday night before the United States became crazy about their toilet paper because of the Coronavirus, we boarded a Southwest flight to wing our way south to Phoenix where we planned to rent a car and drive to Tucson for a four day weekend. Our plane was full with kids going to baseball tournaments and adults wanting to see spring ball. By the next day spring ball and all the kids tournaments were cancelled. We continued on with our plans to go to Tucson. We had no clear agenda from the beginning. The weather in Tucson is so inviting in the spring, it is easy to stay outdoors and away from others.
Thursday, my husband picked up the rental car from the Phoenix airport. Rentals are expensive (or were when we started because this is high season). We chose the “managers special” to save money. That means you get whatever car is available. We got a new Jeep Compass which was a great car for touring the countryside. On our way out of Phoenix, we stopped by the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The Casa Grande site is a tribute to more than 650 years of irrigation in the desert. Archeologists are not sure of the purpose of the site but the monument houses the remains of the largest earthen building in North America. Civilization in this location lasted over a thousand years until about 1450 C.E. The location was abandoned. Without written word the people responsible for an elaborate irrigation, farming, and trading culture remain a mystery.
When we arrived in Tucson we checked into the Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort. The Wyndham is located in the Sonoran Desert. When looking for a hotel in Arizona make sure to pick one with outdoor pools, and places to sit. The sunsets in Tucson are gorgeous and free. There’s nothing like sitting on your balcony after an afternoon soak in the pool with a glass of wine and watching the sun set in a colorful sky.
Friday we headed to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. The drive took us through the Saguaro National Park. Named for the large saguaro cactus, native to the area, we had our lunch sitting on a rock looking at the grand landscape. The afternoon we toured the museum which is actually an outdoor adventure showcasing native desert plants and animals. I particularly enjoyed the hummingbird exhibit. If you have kids with you, plan your trip to see the raptor flyover scheduled once a day right now.
Saturday we headed to the Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. There are 30 miles of trails in the recreation area. Once again we took a picnic lunch to eat outdoors. We had bought tickets to go on the tram which proved to be an open air crawler. Because of recent rain in the area, we were only able to get to the dams and see the flooding, rushing river. In dryer seasons, the crawler takes you all the way up to two glorious waterfalls.
Sunday we met friends. But by Sunday, the country was awash with alarm over the Coronavirus and things were starting to shut down. We were literally one of about 10 people on the usually bustling University of Arizona campus. If you were traveling during more usual times, I would recommend you plan Sunday to drive to Tubac about 40 minutes south of Tucson. Established in 1752, Tubac is a charming artist colony with gorgeous colors and eclectic items in all their stores. On the way down or back stop at the Mission San Xavier del Bac, meaning White Dove of the Desert. The Mission was built by Spanish Franciscans in the 18th century and sits on the Xavier Indian Reservations. You can’t miss it’s rising dome as you drive by on the highway.
Monday we headed back to Phoenix and an amazingly uneventful flight home. The plane was packed. As we walked through an empty Boise airport, we saw 6 or 7 people waiting for a plane to San Fransisco, one of the hot zones for the virus.
At some point, life in the US will return to normal. Americans love to travel abroad as witnessed by the lines at the 13 funnel airports this weekend. But we have wonderful sites here in the states. If we have to stay in our country’s boundaries for while so be it. We live in a glorious, mysterious place.
I spent three weeks in January, 2017, traversing Australia with my husband and son. We flew from Boise, Idaho, USA to Auckland, New Zealand to Sydney, Australia for 4 nights to Cairns for 3 nights and to Melbourne for 3 nights. My husband left us in Melbourne to return to work. My son and I rented a car and spent three nights driving the Great Ocean Road and Australia’s outback. We ended our trip with 3 nights in Adelaide, considered some of Australia’s best wine country. All totaled we traveled about 3,780 miles in Australia and saw major cities in the East and South along the South Pacific, Tasmanian and Indian Oceans. We moved from sea coasts and rain forests near the equator to beaches where wind from the arctic oceans cooled the air. While we covered vast expanses of land, we saw less than half of the country, none of western or northern Australia and none of the interior. Here are some of my observations:
1.Kangaroos are old hat, quite literally. You can buy men’s hats made from kangaroo. Kangaroo pelts are for sale everywhere. Weird tourists gifts like kangaroo balls made into flasks are on display in tourist shops. Kangaroo filet is on some menus. At the Sydney Zoo, I heard a mom shout to her child, “You don’t want to look at that—it’s just a kangaroo!” We saw only four kangaroos hopping in the wild. The one’s I saw were magical. One was as tall as my son, 6 feet 3″. He turned and glared at those of us who had jumped out of cars to watch. The animal troupe made short work of hopping across the pasture, across the road and into the bush. When we drove the outback, I expected to see lots of kangaroos and emu. We saw lots of warning signs to watch for kangaroos and we saw at least five dead ones by the side of the road. But I only spotted one kangaroo in the bush and no emus outside the zoos. As an animal advocate, I worry that all the tourist items will make the kangaroo, like so many other sought after animals of yore, into a an endangered species.
2. Koalas are as cute in person as in pictures. These fascinating creatures are said to be “punch drunk” because they sleep about 19 hours a day. We paid for pictures with them both at the Sydney Zoo which did not allow you to touch them and in the Kuranda Koala Gardens where we were allowed to hold the Koalas and feed wallabies and Kangaroos. Koala fur is not as soft as kangaroos’ hair. The only way we saw koalas in the wild was when other cars were stopped to view them. We would jump out, ask where the koalas were and people were kind enough to point them out nesting in the high tree branches. Their gray fur blends in with the bark. My old eyes weren’t good enough to spot them from the car as we drove along. The process reminded me of when bears or moose are spotted in Yellowstone National Park. Everyone pulls their cars over and jumps out to spot the animal and if possible capture them on film.
3.Visiting Australia is like falling down Alice’s proverbial rabbit hole. When we left Boise, snow was falling and the plane had to be deiced to make it off the ground. When we arrived in Sydney it was summer and 80 degrees. Christmas decorations were up everywhere we went but it never got colder than about 60. Not only were we visiting in summer, the continent was headed into fall starting in about March. We heard on several tours how gorgeous the fall colors on the trees were in late fall (beginning in March). Australia broke away from Africa over 400 million years ago. The warm climate led to the evolution of an econ-system different than anywhere else in the world. Australia is home to fabulous creatures living on the Great Barrier reef, in rivers such as platypuses and crocodiles (both fresh and sea water) to billibies to emu to wallabies, to koalas, to kangaroos (just naming a few). I had one lady on a bus who wanted to discuss deer with me because she had never seen one in the wild. I, on the other hand, wanted to discuss kangaroos. Apparently, kangaroos are like deer in Idaho. They are pretty to look at but can get in your yard and eat your flowers and trees. Australia was settled in 1788 by the British as a penal colony after the American War of Independence when the U.S. refused to take any more English convicts. As an English colony everything in Australia like England is focused on the left. You drive on the left and walk on the left. Signs are posted on the roads to remind you that you are to drive on the left. While everyone speaks English, we sometimes couldn’t understand what was being said. Australians can understand us because American movies are everywhere at the same time as they are released in the U.S. but Australians have their own unique accent which becomes more pronounced in rural areas.
4. Australia’s diverse and unique ecosystem encompasses vast expanses of mountains, rain forests, beaches and scrub bushes.
Blue Mountains: During our time in Australia, we visited the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. The mountains are named for the blue mist created by oil from the Eucalyptus trees mixing with the environment. While touring the mountains, we saw a burst of white birds rise from the trees far below circle below us and disappear into the rocks. The sight was breathtaking and mystical in its beauty and silence.
Great Barrier Reef: We took a tour boat to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling the reef was the first time, I personally realized the power of the ocean. At our first snorkeling site, the crew started shouting “Current!” and throwing out ropes to the divers. When I got in the water, I could barely swim the current was pushing so strong against me. The divers used the ropes to pull themselves down to the reef. Fortunately, the other two snorkeling spots were less strenuous. The Barrier Reef is clearly suffering. There are large expanses of white or dead reef and the colors are not as gorgeous as we saw when snorkeling in November in Hawaii. There may be no reef to see in 20 years from now.
Rainforests: The rainforests flourish throughout Australia’s costal areas. There is beach at the sea and a few miles in major forests where ferns weighing as much as a thousand pounds hitch a ride on the top of a tree to sunlight.
Oceans, the defining boundary: Cairns was so humid my swim suit wouldn’t dry and when we reached the Great Ocean Road, the wind from the arctic was so cold one had to push into it head first to make it to the look-out stations. Along this rugged coast, the twelve apostles, large rock formations carved from limestone stand guard against the crashing waves of the ocean. Beaches in the city are jammed but the beaches near the outback are long, beautiful stretches with almost no visitors.
5.Australian cities are home to amazing architecture. Most people are familiar with the iconic Sydney Opera house, a multi-venue performing arts center at the heart of the Sydney harbor, graced with a roof of sails rising towards the sky. The Sydney Opera house is just one of many architectural symbols of Australia’s technical and creative achievements, we saw during out trip. We were more amazed and delighted by how much creative architecture is found throughout Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. The buildings are multi-shaped, decorated in bright colors. Some feature art, others host glass triangles or pyramids for windows. We visited open-air malls in Melbourne and Adelaide which were full of wonderful sights, sounds and smells and gorgeous to boot. We saw elaborate winding staircases of shiny aluminum and pure wood in the universities. Seemingly weightless bridges soared over harbors and rivers. The city skylines were traversed by huge cranes building new towering edifices. Australia is a country that is growing in a vibrant, creative way we do not see in America.
6.Australia is a good place to call home.
The cities have excellent infra-structure. We were able to get everywhere by mass transit which was either affordably priced or free in certain areas of the city. Some of the cities provided free wifi through the downtown but even when they didn’t, wifi was readily available whereever we went. Walking paths with lots of green spots and benches to take in the moment, clean public restrooms and facilities to fill water bottles were available everywhere tourists might be. Street concerts, modern art displays, and sporting events, including the Australia open meant something was happening all the time.
The food is diverse and we found universally great. We ate everything from dumplings in China town in Sydney to hot curry Tia in Adelaide to pizza covered with greens in Robe, to salads packed with delicious nuts and berries in Cairns–all excellent and different. Our last night in Australia, my son and I treated ourselves at a high end restaurant recommended by our hotel (Blackwood) for a true Australia meal. My son is a vegetarian and had potato gnocchi and I had fish cheeks made into some type of fried cake delicacy over green beans. It was a great ending to our adventures.
The cities are safe. When we were getting off the plane in Sydney, one of the American tourists said he came every year to Australia and he loved everything about it, “except the gun laws. The Australian gun laws are terrible!” This led to extremely odd looks from the Australia citizens on the plane because the gun laws are one reason Australia is so safe. Australia first introduced its gun laws following a tragic mass shooting in April 1996, The government responded by banning all rapid-fire long guns, including those that were already privately owned, and introduced strict punishments for anyone caught in possession of the weapons – including jail time. In the past 20 years, since the passage of this law there have been no mass shootings.
Pay is good. My son visited a friend who he met during a semester abroad in Spain. She was working part-time as Christmas retail assistant making $55 Australian dollars an hour for retail services (holiday pay), a lofty sum in our minds. She told Scott she wouldn’t work for under $17 an hour.
Health care coverage is available for all. Australia provides national health insurance to its residents but encourages higher income families to purchase private insurance by penalizing high income earners using public insurance with additional taxes.
Australia is expensive to visit and to live but the high quality of public services makes up for much of this cost.
Final Reflections: This trip had been on my bucket list since 1984 when I saw an exhibit about Australia at the New Orleans World Fair. Thirty-three years later, I was able to take the trip I had been planning for about half of my life. I could write on for hours about rain forests, riding on trains to the Blue Mountains, women striding through city streets in the shortest skirts and highest heals I’ve every seen, gliding through tree tops in gondolas and watching thousands of bats take flight at sun down in Cairns. But I know there is a limit to what a reader will read and I have far surpassed the usual 800 words. I had a wonderful time on a trip of a life time. I think the best recommendation for those considering a trip to Australia is I would do it again in a heartbeat even though the flight over and back is over 25 hours each way and it took me several years to save the funds to go.
The Big Island, Hawaii is a land of white, black and green sand beaches, flowing lava, gorgeous flowers and rainforests. If you want to go to fancy restaurants or walk long stretches of sandy beaches with small waves choose a different Hawaiian Island. I say this from experience. We have been to Hawaii five times and visited three different islands. If you are like us and like to set out each day to explore a new locale, the Big Island is for you.
My family of four(my husband and I, my 17 year-old-daughter and my college-age son) spent Thanksgiving week in Kona at a Vacation by Owner condo near the water. Exploring the island requires a rental car. Since some of the so-called roads are like traveling the moon in a rover, I would recommend an SUV. We would be giggling as bounced we bounced along in our jeep and see some cars turning around because they were too low to navigate the terrain. I likened it to the jostling on the airplane (our flight in was really rough and we were at the back of the bus). My son, Scott, said, “Yeah and we’re on the ground.”
We carried snorkeling gear, beach chairs and towels and boogie board with us every day. No telling when that special black rock road will lead to great snorkeling. Flip-flops are a failure on lava. Bring a good pair of hiking sandals. When headed towards the rainforest have rain gear with you. You will need it. Buckets of rain can pour down on you without warning and then disappear in a few minutes. The rain is warm but you’re still wet. The scenery is so breathtaking it’s hard to know when to stop taking pictures and just sit and soak in the view.
I had clothes for a week and I spent most of my time in a two piece swim suit, long-sleeved sunbrella shirt and sun visor. I burn badly so sun screen and lots of it was a must.
The nights were mild. We never needed long pants except at the high elevations when we went to the Volcano National Park. The temperature dropped to the low sixties causing me to pull on my lightweight workout jacket. At the volcanoes, we wore our hiking shoes not our sandals.
When looking for places to eat, we would ask our trusty friend Siri for local restaurants and then make our decision based on reviews and dollar signs. We found many unlikely places to dine off the beaten track with great local food distinct from the usual tourist fare. Of course, Kona coffee is world renown for its dark color, thick texture and strong body flavor. A daily cup helps keep the group going.
Our adventure was appropriate for teenagers, young adults and active seniors. Young children would have a terrible time driving so much and many of the beaches were too rough for children to just play in the sand. For people seeking active adventure, the Big Island has so many choices the hardest thing you will do each day is decide where to go next.