Glaciers, Glowworms, Glamping & Grapes!

We hopped on the ferry from Wellington to Picton with our car, for the start of our adventures on the South Island.  On the way we had a nice view of the Marlborough Sounds, later the site of our first tramp (hiking trip).   Before our tramp, we stayed a couple nights in the Marlborough Sounds wine area,  the largest wine producing region in NZ.   We had a great time visiting vineyards on bikes, tasting wines, and even buying a few bottles.   We biked around with two other couples from our backpackers, one from Vancouver, the other a young couple from Boston, or “Team America.”

From the vineyards, we drove to start our first tramp, the Queen Charlotte Track.  Instead of hiking the entire 4-5 day track, we opted for an overnight hike covering 30km.  Our weather wasn’t great, but we had nice views of the Sounds, and the track ended at a historic sound favorited by Captain James Cook ( the 1700’s navigator who kick-started the European settlement of NZ).  At the end, we took a shuttle boat back to our parked car.

This brings us to the concept of “glamping” – glamorous camping.   NZ has it down:  along many of the tracks, especially those along waterways, you can hire a boat to take your packs to the next stop each night.  You can even stay at posh lodges, or have a boat take you from one spot to another, if you don’t want to tramp yourself.  New Zealand trails have consistently impressed us with the quality of the trails, accommodations, and backcountry amenities.  The trails are full of gorgeous suspension bridges and fun wooden walkways.  Some backcountry campsites even have potable water, sinks for washing hands, and  flush toilets.  Flush toilets!!!

Further evidence of glamping can be found in Abel Tasman National Park, the site of our second tramp.  We did another overnight hike here, ending with a boat ferry back to our start.  We were incredibly impressed with the scenery, waterfalls, and flush toilets at the campsites.   Jon even hiked to the Cleopatra Pools, where he slid down a natural slide in the rocks.   Abel Tasman was amazing, but the sandflies were not.  Sandflies can drive hikers crazy.  Tiny little flies, their bites last for weeks and cause their victims to awake at 3 am to itchy spots.  Plus,  there are always tons of them around.   Despite the sandflies, Abel Tasman is all about the glamping.

In between glamping, we hung out in the town of Nelson, where Jon got to mountain bike, and relaxed a bit.  We also spent a night outside of Nelson Lakes National Park to get a glimpse of the beautiful lake.  We didn’t have time for a hike in Nelson Lakes, so we’ll have to come back.

In Franz Joseph, we get to the Glaciers and Glowworms portion of our post.  We visited both the Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers, and even did a night time walk to see some glowworms.   We saw tons of little green guys suspended on an upturned tree!  Unfortunately, the glow worm photos didn’t come out.   It was difficult to see too much of the glaciers from the walking trail, and we weren’t willing to shell out for a helicopter ride (we have seen lots of much bigger glaciers in Alaska!) so we headed on for the main South Island event in Fiordland.

North Island, New Zealand

Auckland & Waiheke Island

Flying into New Zealand on New Zealand Air, we were treated to the most hilarious flight safety video ever, courtesy of Peter Jackson.  A great welcome, but we’ll save the details for you, in case you end up on an Air New Zealand flight yourself.   (Or just look it up on Youtube.)  In any case, we arrived in New Zealand happy but desperately travel planning, because our first attempts at planning ended poorly when we realized there were absolutely NO double rooms available in Auckland during the few days we planned to spend there.  We thought that New Zealand would be booked all over during December high season, but, upon check-in, we found out it was because the Rolling Stones were in town.   And yes, they were sold out already.

Somehow we managed a few scraggly rooms, and enjoyed a short hike to a volcanic crater that overlooks the city, and some wine at a lovely vineyard on Waiheke Island, near Auckland.

Bay of Islands

We moved north to the Bay of Islands, for a chance to swim with dolphins.  We spent a fun day on the boat, and saw lots of dolphins doing backflips and swimming right under us next to the boat.  Sadly, we weren’t allowed to swim with the dolphins, due to New Zealand law prohibiting swimming with dolphins when there is a baby dolphin in the pod, but it was amazing to see them up close nonetheless.


In Rotarua, we enjoyed learning about Maori culture through a performance by locals, including the famous Waka dance performed at the start of the All Blacks rugby games.   We were impressed at the obvious respect for Maori culture and inclusion in all types of culture – the U.S. could learn a lesson from this.   Thermal features abound in Rotarua, from the city parks to the large geysers.   Jon also got to mountain bike, and Jen took a hike in a redwood forest.

Lake Taupo & Tongariro National Park

We planned to do some big hikes in Tongariro National Park and the iconic Mt Taranaki volcano, but unfortunately, the weather would not cooperate.  In both places, we were rained out of the big hikes that we had planned, but still managed a few short hikes and saw some partial views.  We were told over and over that we had the bad luck of travel during an unusually rainy and cold end of spring.

Taranaki National Park & New Plymouth


Although our time was short, we had a great impression of the city.   It has a spectacular setting, with bays and hills and houses and city all around, with a vibe similar to the Pacific Northwest in the US.  There is a great hike which rises from downtown with great views of the bay. The highlight for us was Te Papau, five floors of museum giving a great history of all things New Zealand.

Overall, we enjoyed the North Island, but we’re looking forward to the South Island.  Because we had heard that the South Island packs a bit more punch, we dedicated only 10 days of our five New Zealand weeks to the North Island, compared to 3.5 weeks in the South Island.   Onto the ferry!

The Great Barrier Reef

After our Whitsundays trip on the southern end of The Reef, we were excited for the main event:  the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns.  We drove the uneventful 7.5 hours, anxious for our much anticipated trip out on the Reef – and we both can safely say we were not disappointed.  We both agree the Reef was one of the top experiences of our trip.   The water and reefs from above were spectacular; the fish were huge and the colors didn’t always come out in the photos.   We went to the outer reef and it was incredible.   Jon even tried an intro SCUBA at the reef.   It was a blast – we’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

We rounded out our time in Australia with one last day in Brisbane – a cool city with lots of bike paths surrounding the river going through town.   Onto NEW ZEALAND!

East Coast

After an afternoon wine tasting in the Hunter Valley, we drove to a national park for a night of camping near a waterfall.  We were on our way to visit yet another gracious host, Jon’s father’s cousin, or “Sledge.”  Sledge is an American who moved to Australia in the 70s, landing near Nimbin, a quirky town known for being very liberal.  Sledge and his beautiful partner, Danielle, live in a home completely off the grid and independent of local electricity, plumbing, water, etc.  Pretty amazing!  They live in a gorgeous jungle with beautiful trees and animals (and sometimes bugs!) all around them.  We also got to visit Sledge’s son, Sebastian, his partner Ruby, and their children who live on the property.

Sledge and Danielle took us all around the area, to Byron Bay, beautiful beaches, forests, and a hike to the “pinnacle,” overlooking a crater’s valley in a national park.  When we visited Nimbin, the nearby town, we were amused to be welcomed with open arms, as we’re from Colorado, the first U.S. state to completely legalize marijuana.   Sledge and Danielle were wonderful hosts, and we loved staying on their farm and enjoying their beautiful area!

When we left the Sledge farm, we drove to an animal sanctuary where Jen got to HOLD A KOALA (THIS IS NOT A JOKE) and we both got to pet Koalas.  It was touristy but cool nonetheless.  At a nearby beach, Jon took advantage of the beginner waves and had fun surfing for a couple hours.   We then drove through Surfer’s Paradise and skipped Brisbane and the G20 (sadly we weren’t invited), and stopped in Noosa.

Noosa was the most beautiful beach we saw on the coast.  We even saw a wild koala on a tree in a walk in the Noosa Headlands National Park.

Next, we joined a two night sailing tour out of the Whitsunday Islands.   We got to participate in the sailing, snorkel on the end of the Great Barrier Reef (including seeing another huge turtle!), and visit the gorgeous Whitehaven Beach, with the most pure sand in the world.  However, due to lack of internet and time limitations, we did not fully vet the tours or find out the details of our boat.  It turned out that there were about 28 people (by people I mean young backpackers) all sleeping bunk style in a large dorm in the bottom of the sailboat.   Overall, the sailing trip was amazing, but the sleep was lacking.

The Whitsundays were a great first taste of the Great Barrier Reef.   We were excited to head north and get to the heart of the reef, in Cairns (post on this soon to come).

Great Friends, Cities & Ocean Roads

We flew into Melbourne and immediately hopped in our two day rental to head along “The Great Ocean Drive.”   It’s a windy, scenic road that passes along small coastal towns, including some world famous surf spots known for consistently big, predictable waves – it was fun to check out the towns and watch impressive surfers.    We drove along for about five hours, soaking up the coastal town charm, then hit the big draw to the area:  the Twelve Apostles.   It was gorgeous.   After a night in one of the small towns near there, we headed back, this time opting for a more inland route, going through a National Park of dense, beautiful rain forest.   It was Jon’s birthday, so we celebrated with a nice lunch and beers from our first micro-brewery in a long time.   The area is known as the best mountain biking in SE Australia, but unfortunately we did not have the time…  surfing and biking will have to wait until further up the East Coast.

After returning our car downtown, we were lucky to stay with our unbelievable our new friends Jon and Poppy in Melbourne.  After having met us on a boat trip in Vietnam, they welcomed us into their home for three days!  (Probably against their better judgement.)  They were such incredible hosts: they took us to great restaurants and bars in their area, St Kilda, one of the hippest areas of Melbourne; they lent us their bikes so we could ride along the beaches from their house to downtown Melbourne; they even drove us 1 hour to drop us off at our airport!   We loved Melbourne, found the city very liveable, and especially loved spending time with Jon and Poppy.  They are such great friends, we hope that we can host them in Colorado!

We got off the plane in Sydney and we were welcomed at arrivals by Karina, Jen’s good friend and roommate from University, along with her husband, Tony.   They were also incredible hosts.   Taking us shopping for much-needed errands, having “Sunday family fun day” in downtown Sydney, giving up their room so we could sleep soundly.  Best of all, we got to know Gabriella,  affectionately known as “Baby G”.   She is adorable, and we had a blast hanging out and getting to know her.   Sydney was great, the harbor and surrounding towns and beaches are fantastic.  Overall we loved our time in Sydney, most of all being able to slow-down a bit and hang out with Karina, Tony and Baby G.

From Sydney we rented a car and begun our 14-day road trip up the East Coast, with our final stop Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.  Our first stop was the Hunter Valley, two hours from Sydney, an area similar to Napa Valley, known for its wines and vineyards.  We had a nice day tasting wine and relaxing.

Next post:  up the East Coast of Australia!

Bali and the Gilis

Arriving in Bali, instantly you can feel a laid back island vibe,  much more so than Java.   Ubud is known as the cultural center of Bali, and it’s a great place to spend a few days.   It has a lot of yoga, total well-being type places, vegetarian and all-natural food galore, a lot of western influence in its shops and restaurants, but still brimming with Balinese culture.   We were lucky enough to be there for the end of one of their bi-annual festival, tied to the predominantly Hindi religion (vs. Java, which is mostly Muslim).

From Ubud we headed to Legian, which is on the same stretch of 15km sand between Kuta (BIG party scene, overrun with young Australians) and Seminyak (quiet, expensive resort filled).   We cashed-in Marriott points to stay at a really nice hotel and could celebrate Jen’s birthday in style.   Thanks to her special day, we were upgraded to a private “plunge pool” suite.

Our lost stop in Indonesia was a five-night stay in the Gili islands, a set of three islands off the coast of Lombok.   As you can see by the pictures, we were obsessed with the crystal clear, warm, turquoise water.   It was gorgeous.   We snorkeled every day.   Reefs were really cool, lots of fish, starfish, corral, two SEA SNAKES and a dozen or so turtles, a few of which we swam with for up to 10 minutes!   Beautiful undersea wildlife and sunsets made this one of our favorite spots of the trip.


Java and Borneo

We flew to Jakarta and used some hotel points at the Marriott.  We were confused to arrive to metal detectors and bomb dogs at the hotel.  Apparently the Marriott in Jakarta was a victim of terrorist bombing in 2009.  Jon visited a few sites in town while Jen relaxed.

We flew to Borneo (Indonesian Island of Kalimintan) via Tragana Airlines – known for being late and at times taking off early!  We were a few hours late, but we made it into the jungle in Tanjung Puting National Park in our klotok, a boat that glides through the jungle in Indonesia.  We had the boat to ourselves, as well as a captain, assistant, cook, and guide!  We visited orangutans at a rehabilitation center in the jungle.  At one point, a mama orangutan grabbed our guide’s arm, hoping for food!  We also saw proboscis monkeys and a gibbon!  It was truly awe inspiring to see the giant mammals move about the trees and feed.

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We headed to Yogjakarta to visit two ancient temples:  Prambanan, Southeast Asia’s largest Hindu temple, and Bodobudur, a huge Buddhist temple, both built in the 9th century.

We had planned to visit a Volcano, but fate struck, with a nasty case of conjunctivitis.  (We believe picked up from a fellow traveler in Myanmar.)  We named it EYE-bola, and we had to visit an Indonesian eye doctor and cancel the trip.  We opted to fly to BALI instead!

Jon & Jen's Excellent Adventures


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