We’re experienced world travelers but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally make stupid mistakes. From flushing frogs down the toilet to being mistaken for a dominatrix, here are our top ten travel mistakes, so far: Read more

Christmas in New Zealand and Australia comes in the summertime so it was a bit different for us, northerners raised with visions of a “White Christmas.” In Auckland, we stood on the sidewalk waiting for the Santa Parade and took in the crowd around us; it was the usual mix of families, old-timers and teens traveling in packs. One thing was different though for a December activity, almost everyone was wearing t-shirts and shorts under the watchful gaze of palm trees and sunny blue skies.

Christmas in New Zealand Santa in Auckland parade

It’s beginning to look a lot like . . . wait, what?

Due to the balmy weather Christmas Day traditions include firing up some shrimp on the “barbie”, sailing on the turquoise tinged waters of Waitemata harbor or playing a game of cricket in the park. That may not be much different from warm places in America like Miami or San Diego; but we doubt that the highlight of those cities’ Christmas Parades is a giant balloon of a Kiwi bird wearing a Santa Claus hat.

Christmas in New Zealand Kiwi bird Auckland parade

A Christmas tradition in New Zealand, the kiwi bird.

A “White Christmas” even in summer

We joined the crowd in cheering on the floats featuring beach and surfing scenes. But when it came time for the big guy, Santa himself, the palm trees were just a memory. His float was covered in white with “snow” covered trees and a castle. Even Down Under, the dream of a White Christmas lives on.

Many smaller towns host Santa Parades as well. Dunedin on the South Island featured that old Christmas chestnut, Snoopy and longtime nemesis the Red Baron engaged in a blocks long dogfight down the main drag. We’re not sure what it had to do with Christmas but the kids seemed to eat it up.

Run, Santa, Run

Christmas in New Zealand Santa run for charity

Santas and surfers come together in New Zealand.

A new event is the Santa Run to raise money for the KidsCan charity. The race takes place in seven cities throughout New Zealand. For a donation each runner is given a Santa suit to wear. Race veterans often show up in homemade outfits as elves or reindeer. The run in Dunedin takes place on the beach with the starting line just across from the local pub. It’s easy to find affordable hotels in Dunedin close by. There was clearly a party atmosphere but fortunately the race, if it can be called that, was mercifully short so casualties were few.

Dunedin santa run on beach

Cue the “Chariots of Fire” music. 

New Zealanders also include customs of the first settlers of this land, the Maori. Christmas cards and decorations bear Maori motifs while many dig into a Maori treat called a hangi. Similar to a Hawaiian luau, hot stones are placed in a hole in the ground and then lamb, potatoes and whatever else strikes the chef’s fancy are placed on top of the stones to bake. A warm Meri Kirihimete is wished: that’s Maori for Merry Christmas. Not so different from the Hawaiian Mele Kalikimaka.

Maori float Auckland Christmas parade

A tribute to the original island people, the Maori.

Christmas in Australia

Across the Tasman Sea the Aussies have put a unique spin on Santa’s flight path. Apparently it’s too hot in the Outback for reindeer, so Santa is propelled by six white “boomers,” also known as kangaroos. One bush country resident, innkeeper Deb Wright, said, “It’s so hot that we usually have cold meats and salads for the main meal and much beer is also consumed due to the delirious heat.”  Despite the weather, stores are decorated with snow-filled winter scenes.

Queen Victoria building Sydney Christmas tree

The Christmas tree at the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney is the only one we’ve seen that visitors can walk under.

Christchurch recovers

The holiday season was a poignant time in Christchurch last year. The city suffered a devastating earthquake that destroyed the downtown and killed 181 people. There was talk of cancelling the annual Santa Parade due to the traditional downtown parade route being closed off for safety reasons. However, the parade was rerouted and went on.

Over 100,000 people, one-quarter of the town’s population, turned out for the event which provided a much need lift to local spirits. We spoke with one woman, a nurse who was preparing a patient for surgery at St. George’s hospital when the quake struck. “It’s certainly been a challenging year,” she said. “But we’ll survive and rise above it.”

Christchurch Angel Gabriel

In Christchurch a message of hope for the New Year.

The international symbol of the devastation wrought on the city was the heavily damaged Christchurch Cathedral. At Christmastime last year three larger-than-life sculptures of angels were hung from the rafters. However, due to the quake the building was rendered unsafe and will eventually be demolished. This year the angels are being suspended from construction cranes that are assisting in the rebuilding. The angels represent consolation, comfort and hope. What fitting symbols to watch over the residents of Christchurch during this season of birth and renewal.

Santa Ballantynes Christchurch New Zealand

You’re never too old to pose with Santa Claus, here at Ballantynes in Christchurch.

And if you are planning to visit New Zealand, don’t make the same mistake we did and make sure you have a roundtrip ticket. We almost got deported flying to New Zealand on a one-way ticket.

We’ve been traveling around the world as global nomads since 2011. To receive free monthly updates and valuable travel tips from us sign up here.

blue crabs at sydney fish market

The other day I read an article that highlighted the 12 worst tourist traps in the world. One of them was a place we were due to visit the following day, the Sydney Fish Market. We thought about not going there but were we really going to let something we had seen online influence us? (Said the two bloggers.)

I was wondering how a simple fish market could be a tourist trap. To do so it would have to meet certain criteria I’ve developed over the years:

1) It strays from its original purpose to sell trinkets, doodads and “arts-and-crap” items that are usually made in China and can be found anywhere in the world.

2) The number of t-shirt stores outnumbers every other kind of merchant (hello Key West).

3) There has to be at least one chain restaurant whose theme has absolutely nothing to do with the destination, preferably located next to a Madame Tussaud’s outpost, and

4) It’s a required stop on the tour bus route, Pier 39 in San Francisco comes to mind.

tusk fish at sydney fish marrket

I’m pleased to report that the Sydney Fish Market met none of these criteria. Half of the market is taken up by wholesalers who sell to retail outlets in the Sydney area. That seems pretty authentic. The remaining retail side was made up of fish vendors and restaurants. There were a few businesses that were not seafood related, but they would help you put together dinner for the evening. These included a baker, a produce market, and a cheese shop; hardly the stuff of tourist trap legend.

The fish stores were incredible. The goods on display were as fine as I have seen in any fish market anywhere, and we had just been at the Pike Place Market in Seattle only a few months earlier. Part of what makes the Sydney Fish Market so intriguing for a Northern Hemisphere person like me is that there were so many types of fish that I had never even seen before, let alone heard of.  In fact, it’s the largest fish market in the Southern Hemisphere and second only to Tokyo’s in the world.  We had read about Barramundi, the most popular fish in Australia but what exactly are Painted Sweetlips, Blue Throat Wrasse or Venus Tusk Fish?

Sydney fish market Swordfish (800x602)

Each fish outlet had a separate sashimi counter where a variety of sushi grade fish was being delicately sliced for discerning customers. What really caught my eye however was a giant swordfish sitting on a table of crushed ice. A sharp filleting knife was impaled into the ice beside a sign that read “Cut to Size.” It looked just like a steamship round-of-beef carving station that is the signature item at hotel buffets.

We’ve mentioned before how we prefer to rent apartments when we travel rather than staying at a hotel. Touring the Sydney Fish Market affirmed that decision. We wanted to buy everything we saw so we could take it back to our flat and cook it. For our first purchase we settled on Barramundi, a seemingly ho-hum choice but we figured we’d start with the most popular one. The next time though we’ll wade deeper into the depths of the fish market for a more exotic species.
By the end of our visit we decided that the Sydney Fish Market is definitely not a tourist trap. Here’s a link for more information about the Sydney Fish Market.
sydney fish market
We do offer one caveat if you go to the market. If you plan on eating there, then do so inside. Outside there are tables and umbrellas overlooking Blackwattle Bay. The dining area is under invasion by so many seagulls and other flying scavengers that sometimes it appears like a scene out of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. They quickly swoop down on unsuspecting diners to snatch part of their meal, but that’s not the worst of it.
The umbrellas are covered with so much gray guano that you could probably write your name on them. People dining under umbrellas with bird crap dripping off of them is one of the most disgusting sights we have seen; and it’s got to be some kind of health risk. So while we loved the market and would go back, we ate our food inside and recommend that you do the same.

That said, what tourist traps have sucked you in on your travels?

Interested in food? Click the link for more posts about food.

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Australia is often thought of as a laid-back nation whose relaxed citizens seem to be on permanent vacation. Perhaps this carefree attitude is due to more than 90% of the population living within the siren call of the beach. While much of their culture has been formed by an outlook based on surf and sand, the country has also experienced dark days and challenges throughout its history.

Victoria Barracks

victoria barracks sydney
There are several sights in Sydney that highlight the country’s military legacy.  A good place to start is at the Victoria Barracks, located on twenty-nine acres in the neighborhood of Paddington. Built in the 1840s by mostly convict labor, the colonnaded sandstone buildings are one of the finest historic barracks in the world.

Free tours are offered on Thursdays by the Victoria Barracks Corps of Guides, retired veterans wearing khaki Army slouch hats and blue blazers. Our guide, David, started our tour in the Guard House with a visit to the four cells that held “drunken and outrageous persons.” This being an Army base with young soldiers away from home, the cells were eventually expanded into another building.

victoria barracks sydney

David pointed out a metal badge on his cap and explained the significance of the crown in the center of the Australian Army symbol. The current logo has a female crown (yes, male and female crowns are different) representing the reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II. He pointed out that after “Lizzie goes” the logo will be updated to show a male crown for King Charles, or perhaps King William. Loyalty to the monarchy lives on in the Australian Army.

ANZAC  Memorial Sydney

The ANZAC Memorial is located in Hyde Park in central Sydney.  The term ANZAC is a revered one. It refers to the Australia New Zealand Army Corps that fought on the shifting sands of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey in World War I. It turned out to be a disaster; the soldiers were pinned to the beach and under constant enemy fire for eight months, only to be evacuated with tremendous losses.

ANZAC Memorial Sydney

Australians, being the positive creatures they are, view the battle as a supreme example of their soldiers’ gallantry and fortitude. One Korean War veteran explained that even though Gallipoli was a major defeat, “The nation was forged by that battle, it made Australia the nation that it is today. You can’t overestimate its significance.”

The square, 98-foot tall Art Deco memorial is clad in pink granite quarried from nearby Bathurst.  The interior’s main focus is a poignant statue of a soldier, whose lifeless body lies on a sword and shield, being held aloft by three women and an infant representing mother, wife, sister and child; those who were left behind by the brutality of war.

ANZAC memorial sydney sacrifice statue

The cruciform base of the Memorial houses a museum dedicated to Australia’s military history right up to the Gulf War. In the World War II section we were drawn to the display of Warrant Officer GN Milne’s diary; he was stationed at a hospital in Darwin, Australia when it was damaged by Japanese bombing raids.

The Australian National Maritime Museum

The last stop on our personal military campaign of Sydney was the Australian National Maritime Museum; perfect for a nation that is defined by the sea. The exhibition combines the finest aspects of a traditional museum—glass cases chock full of memorabilia—with the hands-on features of a “Please Touch” display.

The interactive displays include one where the visitor plays the role of a submarine sonar technician trying to decipher garbled underwater sounds. The player guesses what each sound represents and is promoted (or demoted) based on their response. We kept at it for some time until we could finally tell the difference between a group of porpoises and a damaged piston rod.

australian mational maritime museum lord nelson figurehead

At this point we had been to enough sobering military displays for one day. Fortunately the Maritime Museum also has an exhibit devoted to the nation’s surfing heritage. This is the Australia that lives on in foreign perceptions of the country. While the typical Australian’s outlook on life is pretty sunny, it is a nation that has witnessed dark clouds as well.

In one day we were able to witness both sides of Australia. A nation that was forged on the sands of Gallipoli was later nurtured on the sands of its beaches to create the vibrant country that it is today.

Visitor information:

Victoria Barracks/Army Museum of New South Wales

Location: Oxford Street in Paddington, a ten-minute bus ride from the center of Sydney. Buses 378, 380 and 382 stop right in front.

Web: Victoria Barracks and Army Museum of New South Wales

ANZAC Memorial

Location: Hyde Park South in the center of Sydney. Pretty much every city bus stops here. The nearest train station is Museum Station

Web: http://www.anzacmemorial.nsw.gov.au/

Australian National Maritime Museum

Location: Darling Harbour in Sydney. Easy access from the city center by foot, bus, light rail, ferry or monorail.

Web: http://www.anmm.gov.au/site/page.cfm

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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When we were driving all over the world we saw some unusual animal crossing signs that were different from the typical signs for deer we see at home. As we bounced along some pretty rough roads we took these warnings seriously, can you imagine the damage an elephant will do to your car?

camel crossing sign Jordan

Camel crossing signs are common when driving the Arabian Desert in Jordan. Fortunately all the camels we saw were behind fences.

animal crossing sign deer israel

Who knew they had reindeer in Israel, but it sort of makes sense. This sign is unusual because it’s in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.

horse crossing sign dubai

In Dubai, horseback riding is a popular hobby among the Emirati. Apparently some of them break free now and then.

koala crossing sign australia

At the top of this post is a kangaroo crossing sign that is seen throughout Australia. You really have to take them seriously, particularly at dusk when the kangaroos go bounding across the road as if they are attracted to the car’s headlights and become “roo’d kill.” While the koala pictured above will do less damage, they are so cute that drivers really hope to avoid them.

cow and sheep crossing sign australia

Drivers get two for one on this sign in the Australian Outback as they look out for cows and sheep.

New Zealand bird (575x431)

We’re not sure why these birds in New Zealand couldn’t just fly across the road.

elephant crossing road sign

Elephants were a common sight in Namibia. But they lumber along so slowly we doubt they’d be much of a problem.

warthog crossing road sign

We saw literally thousands of warthogs by the side of the road in Namibia. They are one of the funniest looking animals around. Smart too, unlike the kangaroos in Australia, we never saw a warthog crossing the road.

meerkat warning sign

Meerkats, similar to prairie dogs, are all over Namibia. We stayed at one lodge where a local meerkat was pretty tame and scurried around the restaurant.

zebra crossing sign namibia

A multi-purpose sign for zebras, warthogs and kudu on the Erongo Plain in Namibia.

wild animals Africa two giraffes crossing road (575x440)We didn’t see a giraffe crossing sign in Namibia, but we did have to stop for these actual giraffes.

Larissa crossing road Namibia (575x403)

Namibia is so sparsely populated we never saw a crossing sign for this rare animal.

bull crossing sign in spain

Cattle crossing signs are fairly common around the world but we liked how they rakishly add horns in Spain. Ole!

turtle crossing sign

Watch out speed racers for slow crossing turtles on Tybee Island in South Carolina.

abbey road zebra crossing

Well in London this is called a zebra crossing so it fits here. Can you guess what Fab road this is?

If you have any unusual animal crossing signs please send them to me and I’ll credit you and link back to you blog. Thanks!

Cairns is a popular jumping off point to explore the Great Barrier Reef. There are many free things to do in Cairns, we’ll even give you some tips on how you can scuba for free.

Since Australia is so expensive, you have to take advantage of “free.” Here is a short list of free adventures I went on while living in Cairns recently. Most of these trips can be done in a day or two.

Visit the Botanic Gardens in Edge Hill

free things to do in Cairns botanical garden

The Botanic Gardens are located in Edge Hill, a leafy, quiet suburb of Cairns. Collins Street, where the Gardens are located, is known as one of the prettiest streets in Cairns. Have a wander in the Botanic Gardens and marvel at all the different exotic flowers. If you can, visit early morning or late afternoon to get the best lighting for photographs and to beat the heat.

Take a stroll on the Esplanade

free things to do in Cairns esplanade The Esplanade is one of the nicest I’ve seen anywhere to relax and unwind in Cairns. Take a walk along the beachfront and admire the contrast between rainforest, mountains and sandy mudflats. There are many bbq areas here (although use of the grills costs a few bucks) so bring some friends and food for a relaxing picnic under a shady tree.  There are showers, exercise areas, and a lagoon filled with fresh water so you can take a dip and cool off after all that sunbathing.

Are you into exercise classes? The esplanade is host to a variety of free classes including Beach Volleyball, Pilates, Yoga & Zumba- one night while we were eating dinner we watched over 100 people participate in a Zumba class! Classes are day and night so there is a time that will suit everyone! All you have to do is show up.

Go for a hike up Mount Whitfield

View from Mt Whitfield Cairns

The Mt. Whitfield Conservation Park is located just behind the Botanic Gardens. The entrance is clearly marked on Collins Avenue. Choose from 2 hikes that will leave your heart pumping: The Red Arrow trail, which is a little over 1k and has some steep parts with rewarding views, or the Blue Arrow trail, which is 5.5k and takes about 4-5 hours to complete. Watch out for the snakes and wild turkeys! Pause at the top of your Red Arrow climb and admire the sweeping ocean views.

Take a culinary journey through Rusty’s Markets

cairns Rustys Market

Every Friday thru Sunday off of Grafton Street in the heart of downtown visit Rusty’s, a wet market. With over 180 bustling stalls, Rusty’s has extensive displays of exotic fruits and veggies, organic and allergy- free products, and a wide mix of Asian veggies. Visit the cheese stall for some free samples. A particular favorite is the stall that sells local honey and fresh pizza dough. Explore the variety of products and if you can’t help yourself, splurge on a samosa from the a stall in the back next to the coffee shop, which sells Spinach & Cheese or Veggie Samosas. A special treat that usually sells out by noon! *Double splurge- get the refreshing lemon, lime and mint juice made fresh. Try not to gulp it down all at once.

Get a temp job on a reef boat and go diving for free on the Great Barrier Reef

Cairns great barrier reef clam island

You read that right. We’ve had a few couchsurfers stay with us in Cairns and they’ve done it, so it’s not so much a secret as it is about timing and luck. Head down to your nearest dive shop or the marina and ask for work as a “hostie”- you work a few hours on a boat in exchange for 1-2 dives out on the reef. The work is pretty easy and you get to dive for free! Some dive shops are making hosties buy a $25 t-shirt from the dive company, but $25 bucks for food and a few days of diving sounds like a bargain to me. Make sure to check that out ahead of time.

About guest writer Mica:

Mica Travel this earthMica has been traveling since 2005. Working as a Chef by trade, Mica blogs about food and adventure travel. Obsessions include fried plantains, cameras, cheese, and Pisco. Follow her blog at: Travel This Earth          

Pizza is our go-to food on the road, our favorite is New York-style. And when we return from a trip it’s usually the first meal we eat. On our year-long journey we tried pizza on six continents, including at its birthplace in Naples, to seek the best pizza in the world. But what surprised us most was where we found the best and the worst pizza.

 Pizza in Asia

best pizza in Hong Kong Paisanos

Paisanos in Hong Kong served up pizza that was very close to New York style.

pizza in North Korea

We hadn’t expected to see pizza in North Korea. But our guides kept referring to their own version of Pizza Hut. While it was a bit undercooked, it wasn’t bad for pizza in, well, North Korea. (Photo courtesy Russell Ng)

Pizza Chiang Mai Thailand

The owner of Pulcinella da Stefano in Chiang Mai, Thailand hails from Italy so his pizza was almost Neopolitan in style. 

best pizza dessert pineapple bali

A pineapple and banana dessert pizza in Bali. What a great idea!

Pizza in Vietnam

We were surprised to find an upscale Italian restaurant in Hanoi, complete with marble columns and tuxedo-clad waiters. This being Vietnam though, it was still really cheap.

Pizza Siem Reap Cambodia

Pizza in Cambodia? Why not, we even ate an authentic Philly cheesesteak there.

Pizza in the Middle East

In the Middle East we ate authentic pizza along with an Arabic version that while not pizza, sure had a lot in common with it.

Pizza in Dubai

No one affiliated with this restaurant in Dubai was Italian, but they put out a pretty good product. 

Israel food Arab zatar flatbread

In the Arab market in Jerusalem we tried zatar flatbread. It was ‘pizza-ish” enough to be included here. Also, we really liked it.

Pizza Tel Aviv

We almost walked right past this pizzeria in Tel Aviv because we thought it was a Dominos. But look closely at the logo, it’s Pizza Domino and no relation to the American chain. It may be the closest we came to authentic New York style pizza.

Pizza in Africa

best pizza in the world Namibia

We don’t surprise easily but were gobsmacked to come across a pizzeria in Swakopmund, Namibia. It was pretty good too. 

Pizza in Italy

Many people have a love/hate relationship with authentic Neopolitan pizza. The type served in Naples is different than what many expect. (Particularly if they were weaned on New York-style since childhood.) It turns out that authentic Neopolitan pizza is kind of soupier than expected. Some say it’s due to using fresh buffalo mozzarella. Either way, it takes some getting used to.

Pizza Naples Italy tomato

A plain  pizza in Naples, a bit soupy for our taste. 

Pizza Naples Italy rocket

Larissa’s favorite topping, fresh arugula or rocket.

Pizza Italy french fries

This is what happens when a self-proclaimed world traveler can’t admit that he doesn’t speak his grandparents language and orders a pizza that he thinks comes with potato slices on it.

Pizza in Australia and New Zealand

best pizza in the world Auckland New Zealand Sals

Sal’s in Auckland, New Zealand boasted of authentic New York style pizza. It came pretty close, even with Wisconsin mozzarella.

Best pizza in the world Australia Clare Valley Stone Bridge winery

Craig from  Stone Bridge Wines in Clare Valley, Australia manages to serve up delicious  wood fired pizza and award-winning wines. This was the runner-up for best pizza.

best pizza in the world Perth Australia

The pizza from Embers Wood Fired in Gooseberry Hill outside Perth, Australia. Although no one working at the place seemed to be over the age of 12, the pizza was the best of our entire trip. This is the Pizza Siciliana  with fresh ricotta, cacciatore sausage & marinated eggplant. That’s right, our top two pizzas were both from Australia. What an upside down world we live in.

The worst pizza we had

worst pizza in the world Pizza Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is known for being half-Italian (just like Michael) so we were disappointed in this gooey mess. Three fist-sized hunks of mozzarella were placed in the center of the pie before going into the oven. Since they’re too big to melt properly, the chef just smears them around the pie after it’s baked where it turns into a gelatinous clump.

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Tasting pizza on six continents--which is the best?

On the flip-side, Argentina did provide us the greatest taste sensation of our trip: Read “Is dulce de leche the best flavor in the world?”

Is a coal mining town in Pennsylvania the “Pizza Capital of the World?”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at finding the best pizza in the world in Australia. We may have found the best gelato in the world in New Zealand, where it’s made by a mad scientist from Italy.

What type of pizza do you like? Do you eat pizza with your hands or a knife and fork? To us, a knife and fork for pizza is just plain wrong.

To follow our journey around the world in search of the tasty and quirky and receive valuable travel tips subscribe here.

From a kitschy throwback hotel in North Korea to a nudist B&B in Portugal, we found a few unique places to stay in the world. Here are some of our favorites:

1) Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Jordan

 

Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

The Little Petra Bedouin Camp is so named because of its proximity to Little Petra, a smaller cousin of the world-renowned site of Petra. Just like the name implies, it’s little, but worth visiting as it gets less than 1% of the visitors of Petra. When we visited there were only three other people there. The Bedouin camp offers accommodations in tents. However, we were a little concerned at check-in when the owner cheerfully told us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” So we spent a rather cold night in the cave but it was filled with blankets and pillows and ended up being quite cozy.

Website: Little Petra Bedouin Camp

2) Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel, Beijing, China

 

Unique places to stay Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

Keen observers will notice that while Larissa is waiting for the next performance she is engrossed in a game of Solitaire.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of small alleys and courtyard homes in Beijing that are rapidly being bulldozed over for new developments. While the hutongs are becoming a shadow of their former selves, will an art based on shadows help revive them? The Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel is in an old hutong neighborhood and showcases the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, shadow puppetry is being revived by another Mao, this one an artist.

Unique Places to stay Shichachai Hotel Beijing

The man behind the curtain is puppet artist Mao.

Mao makes his own hand painted shadow puppets as he revives the lost art. A theater was built into the hotel lobby to showcase regular performances for guests.. Staying here provides the visitor a unique opportunity to experience life in an old hutong while watching an ancient art.

Book a room at the: Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

3) Belar Homestead, Dubbo, Australia

 

Unique places to stay Belars Australia

The Belar Homestead sits in Australia’s bush country on a 3,000 acre ranch owned by 4th-generation cattle farmer Rob Wright and his wife Deb. In fact, the house was built by Rob’s great-grandfather. The setting off a mile-long driveway is perfect for someone seeking solitude with the only neighbors being a few cows, some chickens and the occasional kangaroo. The remote location provides a spectacular night sky for stargazing. It’s so clear that the Parkes Radio Telescope, which received the video of the first Apollo moon landing, is nearby.

4) Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge, Namibia

 

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Namibia has become a popular destination in Africa for independent self-drive safaris. Aside from the big game viewing, there are many areas with prehistoric cave art paintings. Ai Aiba sits within a 12,000 acre reserve boasting over 150 of these paintings. On a pre-breakfast hike we spotted some ancient artwork of giraffes while looking over our shoulder at real giraffes munching on the acacia trees. It was a sublime experience.

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Website: Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge

5) Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

 

Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Okay this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly wasn’t Larissa’s choice, but the Yanggakdo is the place to go when visiting the monolithic country of North Korea and experience some retro-70s style. There’s even a highlight of that era, a revolving restaurant on top. The rooms were nicer than we expected, although coated somewhat with several decades worth of tar and nicotine. The only way to visit North Korea is via an authorized tour operator. We recommend Koryo Tours. Extra bonus: There’s a two-lane bowling alley in the basement that comes with your own cheerleader.

Website: Koryo Tours

6) Casa Amarela, Algarve Coast, Portugal

 

Casa Amarela Naturist resort Portugal

If you’re seeking a vacation where you can pack light, really light, the Casa Amarela may be what you’re looking for. The guest house run by Brits Jane and Stewart is clothing optional. The feeling of diving into the pool and then drying off au natural in the warm Portuguese sun is so … well, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. And while you’re relaxing just think of all the money you saved on baggage fees.

Web site: Casa Amarela

7) Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali

 

Unique places to stay Munduk Moding Bali

If you’ve dreamed of waking up to a view of a coffee plantation on the island of Bali then this is the place. True coffee addicts can hike the plantation then retire to the lodge for a fresh cup of Kopi Luwak. Made famous as the java of choice for Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List,  it’s brewed from beans that have first been eaten and shat out by the civet cat. Despite that history, Larissa tried it. Fortunately for Michael he’s not a coffee drinker. As an added bonus you can visit the civets in cages and watch them prepare the beans for roasting.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Website: Munduk Moding Plantation

What unique places to stay can you recommend?

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One of the more sobering aspects of our journey has been the environmental abuse we’ve seen, sometimes in the least likely places. Although we’ve traveled all over the world and written about some incredible sights, the story that resonated the most with readers is the one we wrote about the plastic trash on the beaches of Bali.

The tropical paradise of Bali was anything but. We visited during what some locals call the “trash season.” This coincides with the rainy season as garbage-filled storm drains flow rivers of plastic into the ocean, which then flings the trash back in waves onto the beach. It’s not exactly the recycling program that they need. Despite all the pretty pictures we have posted, the one below has garnered the most worldwide attention to our site.

Bali Kuta Beach trash

A lonely mermaid washed up from a sea of trash in Bali.

A week before our visit to Bali we saw the result of an aggressive trash awareness program. Perth, Australia boasts miles of spotless beaches that were cleaner than any we’ve seen. The local Waste Authority, with the catchy slogan “Too Good to Waste,” promotes an active recycling program. But recycling alone won’t solve the problem. The main issue is the abundance of plastic being produced.

In the US alone over 40 billion plastic water bottles are used each year. And that’s in a country with a potable water supply. Reusable containers are gaining in popularity but as yet are not as ubiquitious as disposable plastic bottles.

Plastic shopping bags are being eliminated in many communities but are given out with abandon in much of the world; as if the cashier made a commission on every bag used. Sometimes this has led to comical situations where each piece of fruit is nestled in its own plastic bag. Even when we showed the vendor our recyclable cloth bag at markets in the Middle East, they would wave it away and shove our purchase in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, just halfway across the Mediterranean, the island of Malta charges for plastic bags so shoppers are diligent about bringing their own reusable bags with them.

Israel plastic recycling cages

This container on a street in Tel Aviv promotes plastic recycling. Unfortunately, due to security concerns it has to be an open cage.

After we published our story about Bali we became aware of an Australian group called “The Two-Hands Project.” Founded by Paul Sharp and Silke Stuckenbrock in 2010, the volunteer organization focuses on cleaning up the world’s beaches and making people aware of the dangers of plastic. They’ve used social networking to encourage clean-up efforts in over 35 countries. Their Facebook page highlights photos of successful clean-ups from around the world.

We asked Paul what primary message he’d like to get out to readers about their mission:

 “Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Cleaning up is important and helps protect wildlife, though it will not fix the problem. Manufacturers need to move away from disposable design and implement reusable packaging and refund systems to ensure near 100% recovery of packaging and end-of-life products.”

He’s got a point, all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent in the huge amounts of plastic trash being produced daily. Until the plastic trash generation is cut off at the source, groups like theirs will be fighting a losing battle with their clean-up actions.

Thailand temple plastic recycling

This Buddhist temple in Thailand promotes biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

Part of the mission of the temple in Chiang Mai that is pictured above is to increase awareness of alternatives to plastic. Food containers made of compressed banana leaves instead of styrofoam are becoming more popular. We’ve also seen biodegradable “plastic” utensils made out of corn and other plant sources. While not a perfect solution, at least they won’t be floating onto the world’s beaches for decades after their use. Perhaps by then Bali’s “trash season” will become an unwelcome vestige of the past.

Click the link for more information about the Two Hands Project and see how you can lend a hand.

There could hardly be two more disparate Australian films than Mad Max, the post-apocalyptic tale of a policeman trying to survive in a world without water, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the story of three drag queens driving a lavender bus across the country to put on a drag show. Priscilla is the name of their bus, by the way.

What Mad Max and Priscilla have in common, other than being road movies, is that they were both filmed on the outskirts of the Australian Outback, in and around the ghost town of Silverton and the nearby village of Broken Hill. Silverton has become the Australian equivalent of those fake towns that appeared in Westerns in the 1950s. Yet this town is real, it’s just not very populated.

Mad Max Australia Outback Silverton

Rush hour traffic in Silverton.

We had left Sydney two weeks earlier seeking the Outback but every place we stopped the locals told us, “Ah, this isn’t the real Outback yet. You’ve got to keep driving a few days more.” Finally in the orange haze we spied a sign that said “Welcome to Broken Hill – Where the Outback Begins.” At last we had made it.

Broken Hill is an old mining town that now hosts the School of the Air for students living on far-flung ranches and the legendery Royal Flying Doctor Service. We visited those sites and used Broken Hill as a base for exploring the Outback.

The next day we were tooling around when in the distance a handful of old buildings rose up out of the tumbleweed strewn plain. Two cowboys staring each other down before a gunfight in an old Western movie would not have looked out-of-place.

The idea of a movie filming there is not so farfetched. The ghost town of Silverton has been the site for many film shoots. We ventured into Silverton and even ended up meeting the man who supplied the weapons for the first Mad Max film.

Click to read the rest of this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer

I’m usually not much of a nature boy, saving the passion of the outdoors for my forester brother. But in the Southern Hemisphere I couldn’t help take pictures of trees that are really different from the ones at home.

The tree picture above is planted near One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand, the site made famous in the U2 song. Ironically, the actual One Tree Hill is treeless due to a dispute between the native Maori and the later arriving Kiwis about what type of tree should be planted there, a native one or a colonizing intruder.

Here are a few photos of some other unusual trees we’ve seen along the way:

Pictures of trees

Alongside the road in the Australian Outback people place bottles on this tree, probably to relieve boredom.

tree pictures

These trees at Angkor Wat reminded us of heart-shaped lollipops.

Pictures of trees

We try to make like Lara Croft and climb this tree at the Ta Prohm temple.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm Angkor Wat Lara Croft (444x525)

At the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat the trees have sort of taken over.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm hidden statue (422x525)

The only remaining Buddha statue face at Ta Prohm barely peeks through an overgrown trunk.

The Buddha statue pictured above is the only one at the Ta Prohm temple of Angkor Wat that still has its head.  Through decades of political turmoil and strife, including most recently the Khmer Rouge regime, the tree has protected the little Buddha.

Tree pictures Ta Prohm Angkor Wat

Imagine planting this tree next to your house?

My Lai tree

This tangled tree at My Lai reflects the area's tortured history.

Tree picutres

Wispy branches reach for the sky in Australia.

Pictures of trees

The trees in Auckland are huge and gnarly. Larissa makes like a Keebler elf in this one.

Pictures of trees

Thailand suffered from huge floods last year. This tree soaking in the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok shows the waters have not fully receded.

Picutres of trees

A 750-year old Boab in Perth, Australia.

Pictures of trees Clare Valley sunset (439x525)

Sunset filtering through branches in the Clare Valley of Australia.

This is our very first black-and-white photo essay. We’re curious, what do you think about it? 

 

We’ve come across some unusual signs in our journey. Some funny signs caution people about not doing things that would seem to be self-evident. Like the sign posted above. It’s in the bathrooms at the Adelaide Airport in Australia. Not that we’ve ever been tempted to drink from the toilet, public or otherwise, it’s nice to know they care enough to give us another reason not to. Here are a few more funny warning signs:

Sign Bangkok taxi no humping (515x402)

These no-nos were posted on a taxi in Bangkok. We understand no animals, we didn’t realize the other one was such a major problem.

Dubai metro fish warning sign

Apparently people carrying fish is a real issue on the Dubai metro.

funny signs

I guess in the land of the hopping kangaroo, Aussie drivers need to be reminded that not everything bounces.

Spit Junction Sydney

An actual Metro stop in Sydney, it can’t be good for property values.

Sarah Palin passport

There was something about the face in this photo shop in Australia that looked familiar but we just couldn’t place it.

A clean toilet seat costs about 60 cents at this Kuala Lumpur Mall. If you’re not so particular you can go down the hall for free.

Squat toilet sign

Okay, in Asia there are Western style toilets and there are squatters. This sign in Cambodia warns against combining the two concepts.

durian warning sign

Durians, also known as stinky fruit, are banned from most hotels in Asia. Their stench is noted for its quite remarkable lingering effect.

What unusual signs have you seen in your travels?

We love road trips. Most of the ones we’ve taken in the past have involved cruising America on old roads like Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway. But driving in the Australia Outback presents the ultimate road trip challenge. Towns and gas stations are hundreds of miles apart. At dusk, kangaroos turn the highway into a marsupial obstacle course. The harsh conditions and endless terrain even formed the backdrop to the post-apocalyptic Mad Max movies.

Perhaps our rental car, a bright red sports sedan with a rear spoiler wasn’t the best vehicle to attack the Outback with. But it was a Holden, an Australian-made car which has in its genes the ability to weather all conditions. It handled the dusty roads and orange Martian landscape like the native that it is. Here are a few images from our three-week drive across the Australia Outback.

Silverton churches

Two churches from the 1880s remain in the ghost town of Silverton.

Australia Outback

Some of the toilet facilities are a bit dated.

Australia Outback kangaroo warning sign

The sign should leave off the mileage marker since kangaroos are everywhere.

Australia Outback kangaroos

The roads become dangerous at dusk when kangaroos start bounding across them.

Outback shoe tree

A different kind of shoe tree, no doubt placed here by bored drivers.

Australian outback water tower

After a few hours of nothing even a lonely water tower becomes a pleasant diversion.

Australian Outback butcher

The harsh conditions haven't been kind to some towns whose glory days are in the past.

Trip planning is essential.

Outback Volkswagens Silverton

Occasionally we'd see some unusual artwork.

The endless landscape can lull a driver to sleep.

Outback sunset (510x413)

Another day of driving is just about over on the Australian Outback.

What are your favorite road trips?

Larissa was staring at a beautiful a tree frog; its tiny, bright green body with huge black eyes and cute little pods on its feet that were perfectly designed by nature to stick to any surface.  There was only one problem . . . those cute little pod-feet were perched on the toilet seat she was about to use, and they weren’t letting go. This was not a camping trip or a Porta-Potty in a national park.  This was our home life in Australia’s bush country.

Australia frog

Perhaps it’s a prince

After a month in cosmopolitan Sydney, we were itching to see “the real Australia”—the land famous for wide-open spaces and wild kangaroos.  We drove about 300 miles west of Sydney to The Belars, a circa-1898 homestead on a 3500-acre cattle ranch. To give an idea about how big that is, the dirt driveway was a mile long. Our host, Rob Wright, is a 4th-generation farmer who looks a bit like Crocodile Dundee—dusty hat and all.  He and his wife Deb have created a secluded retreat in the home his great-grandfather built.

Belar Homestead Australia

Host Rob Wright is the 4th generation to live at the Belar Homestead.

The bathrooms were accessed via the veranda, so it was convenient for the frogs to visit as well. In the arid climate, toilets provide a cozy pond so they had a habit of hanging around in there.  Add to this the warbling of a few free-range chickens (or “chooks” as they are known) and a motherless calf named Bella and we had quite a menagerie on our hands. Bella and the chooks seemed to like hanging out with us, so we offered to feed them for Rob.  Bella took a bottle twice a day and the chooks ate everything in sight. With the odd kangaroo bouncing by at dusk we had a kind of “Green Acres Down Under” experience going on.

Australia chook chicken

One of the chooks playing chicken

Life in the bush country is a surprising blend of rural life coupled with world-class scientific research.   The wide-open spaces and pristine skies make it an ideal place for stargazing. About 45 miles south is the Parkes Radio Observatory and Telescope.  Operated by CSIRO, the Australian equivalent of NASA, it relayed the first television signals to Earth of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  The story of this achievement was later made into the offbeat film The Dish.

Perched in a grassy field, the 210-foot diameter telescope towers over the surrounding landscape.  Its neighbors are mostly sheep, who graze contentedly just outside the fence, indifferent to their proximity to such a celestial celebrity.  Displays in the visitor’s center explain the telescope’s ongoing role in space exploration.  The outdoor café provides the best spot on the planet to sip a cappuccino while gazing up at a giant dish that, among other things, is seeking life in the great beyond. In an unusual afternoon moonrise, the moon peeked over the dish, providing a view of both our closest neighbor and the device that relayed the first images taken on it.

Parkes Radio Telescope

Two movie icons face off

The clear atmosphere provides unimpeded night skies for telescopes of the visual kind as well.  Coonabarabran, known as the “Astronomy Capital of Australia,” is about eighty miles north of Belars. It is home to the Siding Spring Observatory, regarded as one of the best sites in the world to see the stars.  The observatory is open to visitors, but only during the day, which doesn’t do a would-be stargazer much good.

However, a town with a world-class observatory also means a town full of rocket scientists, many of whom search the heavens in their spare time.  Thus Coonabarabran sports a unique landscape of mysterious white cylindrical structures dotting its hills.  These supersized R2-D2s are silos housing professional-caliber personal telescopes.  Some of these folks offer views of the night sky for a small fee.

We visited the Warrumbungle Observatory, where the wonderfully named Peter “That’s really my name” Starr leads two-hour astronomy sessions looking at galactic objects through a 20-inch telescope.  Five silos are planted on his front yard, a few of which belong to amateur astronomers from around the world who, via remote access over the Internet, are renting his piece of the sky.  He jokingly calls it his “telescope farm.”

Warrumbungle Observatory telescope farm

The telescope farm at Warrumbungle Observatory

The blazing sun packed it in for the day, allowing the creeping blackness of night to envelop us. The star-studded dark sky looked like a planetarium show from a class trip; but this was all real.  Using a laser pointer, Peter traced the outlines of several constellations including Scorpio and Capricorn. Due to the flawless sky we could visualize the figures that the ancient Greeks saw. We had such a clear view of the Sea of Tranquility on the moon that we could almost imagine the footprints left behind by the Apollo 11 crew; a perfect bookend to our earlier lunar-themed visit to Parkes.

After a night in the heavens it was time to get back down to earth at The Belars.  At dusk the next day we hopped into Rob’s pickup truck for a bumpy excursion out to the back paddocks. We watched exuberant troops of kangaroos bouncing through the fields before they bounded over the fence to visit the neighboring farmer.   In the low-lying bush, we also spotted a few wallabies, the kangaroo’s smaller, timid cousin.

Bella the calf

Bella reminding us it’s dinner time

By now we had settled into the rhythm of country life, and had our menagerie well in hand.  When we needed to we shooed the frog off the toilet seat and he happily hopped outside, no doubt looking for another toilet “pond” somewhere.  The chooks waddled over to be fed, and then obediently went into their pen.  Bella took her evening bottle like a good little calf and sat down under a tree while we made our dinner in the big country kitchen.

Later that night we stood under a canopy of stars using our newfound astronomical knowledge to spot constellations and planets.  We felt a nudge at our legs—it was Bella, coming to join us with a gentle moo.  We spied the shimmer of a passing satellite and then a shooting star.  It was a special bush country moment, for the three of us.

Visitor Information:

The Belars Homestead: 20 miles northwest of Dubbo, Australia. Contact Deb or Rob Wright at http://belarhomestead.com.au/Rates vary based on length of stay and number of people.

Parkes Radio Observatory: 12 miles north of Parkes, Australia on the Newell Highway. Open 8:30am to 4:15pm daily. Free admission.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 15th, 2012

Here’s Larissa feeding the chooks:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Q7TQLRQt3U[/youtube]

The shiny new Emirates 777-200LR was zooming down the runway right  towards us, its General Electric engines screaming to create 110,000  pounds of  take-off thrust. Along with dozens of other plane geeks we were leaning over the railing like kids at a petting zoo at the new Perth Airport runway viewing area. Fortunately for us it had just opened the day before.

If you ever drive around the periphery of an airport you’ll notice a mass of mostly middle-aged, mostly men sitting at the end of the runway in beach chairs. Every few minutes they turn as one and point their cameras upwards into the sky. These are plane spotters, people who track and take photos of planes at airports. Their goal is to find as many different types of planes as they can and upload the pics to web sites that specialize in this arcane subject.

We met one such aircraft spotter at the new viewing area. Jens, a Dane who had flown in from South Africa, ostensibly to visit family living in Perth. But one look at his t-shirt, emblazoned with the logo of a Danish plane spotting web site, the way his head swiveled like a puppy in a sausage factory whenever he heard another jet roaring down the runway, and the massive zoom lens attached to his camera, made us think that visiting family was just an excuse to see the newly opened viewing area.

Aircraft spotter Jens captures another one

But not all plane spotters are so hardcore. Like most avid travelers, we happen to be plane geeks ourselves but are content to just watch the planes without recording them for posterity. Like many airplane geeks though, as much fun as it is to watch the planes take-off, we wish we were on one instead.

Here’s a video of a plane taking off from Gibraltar International Airport, one of the 10 most unusual airports in the world.

If you’re into airplanes you might like this story about our biplane ride in New Zealand over the Lord of the Rings sites.

When we were kids and dug around in our backyards our parents would ask if we were digging a hole to China, so we always assumed China was directly opposite our little patch of Earth. As we got older we finally realized that China and the US were both in the Northern Hemisphere, so how could they possibly be opposite each other?

But thanks to the Internet, and people who really have too much time on their hands, it is possible to go online and find what spot on the planet is directly opposite where you are currently sitting. Geographers even have a fancy name for it, the antipodal point or antipode. There is a web site that will calculate this location for you.  If you start digging today you can look on the map to see where you will eventually emerge.

Right now we’re in Perth on the West Coast of Australia. The reason we’re here is because it is often described as the most remote large city on Earth; that seemed as good a reason as any. But it is also the closest land mass to the antipodal point of our home city of Philadelphia. In other words, we’re about as far away from home as we can get and still be on dry land.

It’s a sort of benchmark on our journey. Even though we are not yet halfway through our trip chronologically, we are already halfway around the globe geographically. But it also means there is a lot left to explore. After Perth we will meander around Southeast Asia for a few months. We have a feeling that part of the world will seem farther away from home than English-speaking, easy to navigate Australia.

Perhaps there should be a new kind of antipodal point, defined as the place on Earth that is not necessarily the farthest away geographically, but the farthest away with respect to culture, customs and surroundings. The place that is the most unlike anything you have experienced at home.

 

Toto, we’re not in Philly anymore

We stood at the center of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a breezy sunny day.  Down below us ferries cut through the turquoise water as they carried passengers to hidden coves shaded by palm trees. White sails of pleasure-craft swelled in the wind and mimicked the roofline of the famous Opera House as they passed by.  The view was stunning and best of all it was one of our favorite free things to do in Sydney.

Sydney can be an expensive place to visit. Fortunately, much of what makes Sydney special is its spectacular scenery, all of which is available at no charge.

There are plenty of opportunities for tours that promise impressive views, but they can be expensive.  There are plenty of tantalizing glimpses of the harbor from many spots throughout Sydney, thus we set out to see what we could without opening our wallets.

free things to do in Sydney view from Harbour Bridge

The free view from the Harbour Bridge. 

We started with the Harbour Bridge.  Along with the Opera House, it is the most recognized site in Sydney.  There is a popular tour that allows the intrepid traveler to actually scale the arch of the bridge, but it’s pricey ($180 and up per person) and restrictive; climbers are clipped onto a lifeline and can’t bring a camera.  We opted for the pedestrian walkway that is entirely free, and camera-friendly (really, the whole lifeline thing had nothing to do with it-honest!)

Completed in 1932, the bridge is one of the longest, and perhaps most-photographed, single-arch bridges in the world.  The approach to the bridge’s pedestrian path is well-marked.  At the center point of the bridge the walkway is 160 feet above the harbor, which for us was plenty high enough for good views and several magnificent photo ops. The total distance across is less than a mile and is pretty flat, except for the fifty or so steps climbed to reach the walkway.

free things to do in Sydney milsons point

The view from Milsons Point is worth the hike over the Harbour Bridge. 

At the northern end lies Milson’s Point, a small well-landscaped park that extends under the bridge and provides a spectacular sea-level view of the Opera House.  We followed the walkway under the bridge and arrived at Luna Park, a 1930s amusement park reminiscent of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.  Much like other parks of its era, admission is free while tickets are purchased for each individual ride.  We walked around at our leisure, admiring the views—including great carnival art murals, and only paid for a cotton candy (kids at heart that we are).

Crossing back over the bridge brought us to Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House.  Circular Quay is the heart of Sydney Harbour; the city’s vast network of harbor ferries is based here along with a large modern cruise ship terminal.  On this particular day the cruise ship Radiance of the Seas was docked, dwarfing the nearby ferries.  Small cafes, souvenir shops and street performers dot the Quay, especially on weekends when a festive atmosphere prevails.

We continued eastward along the Quay to reach the most well-known building in Australia: the Sydney Opera House.  Up there with the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal and the Rocky Statue as one of the world’s great iconic sites, this structure really is magnificent.  Since its completion in 1968, the signature serrated white roofline has been likened to sails, shark fins, a snail-shell and our personal favorite, a conquistador’s helmet.

Free things to do in Sydney Opera House

The view of the Opera House from Circular Quay.

This architectural masterpiece juts out into the harbor amidst a pedestrian plaza that is accessible from all sides.  Those unique arched white roofs are actually made up of over a million glazed ceramic tiles, and they drape so low to the ground that we could reach out and touch them.

The Opera House complex consists of three interconnecting structures, the two largest being theaters and the third smaller “shell” a restaurant and bar.  Visitors can wander around inside the lobbies and vestibules (and gift shop, natch) at no charge, and view the famous rooflines from underneath.  The Opera House does offer a variety of tours, but these range in cost from about $25 to $150.  Unless you’re really into opera or theatrical architecture, the free offerings are probably enough.

All this construction-heavy sightseeing had us itching for some nature and we were in luck.  At the base of the Opera House steps we walked right into the Royal Botanic Gardens.  This 76-acre parcel of green was established in 1816 as a site for horticultural study along the harbor; it opened as public gardens in 1831.  Imagine the British passion for gardening coupled with a sub-tropical climate that can grow almost anything and you’ve got a winning combination.  The gardens are very welcoming—a sign at the entrance proclaims, “The Park is for everyone to enjoy.  Please walk on the grass and hug the trees.”

Free things to do in Sydney Royal Botanic gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens provide a free respite from the noise of the city. 

A walk through the gardens took us through a horticultural sampling of the former British Empire.  On a hill overlooking the Opera House we meandered through the classic English rose garden, where the fragrant blossoms of every color bloom almost year-round in this temperate climate.   Further down the hill lies the Palm Grove, with one of the finest collections in the world of these stately trees; many of which are native to Australia.

Of particular interest is the Rainforest Walk, where we trod softly on mossy paths amid giant ferns under shade trees.  Hundreds of flying foxes—we know them as bats—hung from branches and snoozed in the sun high above.  Every now and then one of them spread their wings as they shifted positions and showed off what majestic creatures they are; although it’s a good thing it wasn’t nighttime because they are a bit creepy.

Free things to do in Sydney Royal Botanical gardens bats

 Walking under these trees must be a doozy at night.

The gardens are free, brochures detailing self-guided tours are available at all the entrance gates.  Free one-hour descriptive walks are offered twice daily by volunteers.  We opted for the self-guided version, allowing us to wander at our own pace to the features that interested us most.

Inevitably we drifted down towards the reflecting pools at Farm Cove, located right on the water next to the Opera House. A promenade for strolling and several benches provide unique vantage points to view the structure.  We sat on one of the benches and watched the sailboats plying the water, their billowing white sails providing a soft counterpoint to the tiled roof of the Opera House.  The setting sun lit up those tiles and the Sydney Harbor Bridge beyond. As the Radiance of the Seas slowly eased by and headed for open waters we remarked that it was a “million dollar view.”  And like the entire day it was totally free.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Location:  All attractions listed below are next to the Circular Quay, a main stop for many City buses and trains, and all Sydney ferries.

Sydney Harbour Bridge:  Free pedestrian walkway open 24 hours a day, on the eastern side of the bridge.  Note: a bike path is also free, open 24 hours a day and on the western side of the bridge.

 

Little Rocky "Down Under"

Vegemite, a yeast-based extract, is the official food of Australia. It is smeared on toast and crackers just like we would use jelly or butter. The dark brown substance looks a bit like Nutella but please don’t let that fool you. It may look sweet but it derives its unique bitter flavor from being the byproduct of the process for brewing beer. Vegemite has been compared to road tar, solid gravy mix, intestinal fluid, engine sludge, the gunk that gets trapped in sewer vents, brown epoxy glue, road kill effluent and other things too unmentionable to mention, so we won’t. And those are from the people who like the stuff.

Vegemite

Workers operate 24/7 stocking Vegemite

As part of part of our trip Down Under we decided we just had to try this food that almost everyone in Australia loves and has become as much a part of the national psyche as kangaroos, boomerangs and Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s waning poll numbers. Click the video below for the first Changes In Longitude taste test. BTW, that clucking noise you hear in the background does indeed come from a live chicken who just wouldn’t cooperate.

Are there any other foods you’d like us to try?

Click the link for more stories about our Australia travel