Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Downunder Experience That Was Over and Above Our Expectations

Our trip downunder to Cairns, Australia was almost delayed as Aussie news warned travelers of a powerful cyclone not too far off of the coast in the coral sea.  After receiving updated news from our booked hotel and discovering the over inflated hotel costs for another night's stay in Guam I decided to brave the potential high winds and heavy rains and head south to the land of vegemite, cute kangaroos and where the barbies (BBQ,…not the blonde bimbo children's doll) are warm and the cold beer is brewed by Fosters.  We landed after a 4.5 hour flight to a curiously and unanticipatedly warm and clear night in Cairns in the state of Queensland.  We checked into our Bali themed hotel in the city center at around 1am.

The next day we walked around and performed the typical exhaustive task of familiarizing ourselves with our new surroundings.  The intense heat took us a bit to get used to, but we were happy that all reports were now saying that the cyclone turned back to sea and was now about 300 miles off shore.  We were initially impressed on how fit and outdoorsy the Cairns locals were.  This automatically got Amy excited and motivated to up her running routine, but took me back a bit and almost drove me to drown my lack of build and fitness level in some more of Australia's famous brew.    
There wasn't much to the beach as the cyclone out in the coral sea still caused a surge that washed out much of it and clouded up the water.
The Cairns city center is in the background to the right.  The two skiers in the water were being towed at extremely high speeds by the jet boats racing around the bay.  We sat and enjoyed a taste of just how high adrenaline and tough this Aussie lifestyle is.
This tree was a close second to some of the red palm trees and fuzzy palms we saw while in Queensland, Australia.
At 9pm on our first night people were still swimming in the public pool in the city center.
Cairns is a very well planned oceanside city.  The skyline is quite low as there are no skyscrapers and the coastline is quite expansive with a well developed coastal walk/boardwalk with one of its main attractions being that of the public pool.  The public pool is only a couple of yards across the road on the main drag, smack dab in the center of the city.  This massive approx. 100 feet long pool is shallow on one end and a bit wider and deeper on the other end.  From the main street you could walk right into the pool and swim straight and arrive just feet away from the start of the boardwalk and the ocean.  Along the sides of the pool there are both sandy and grassy areas.

The next day we spent looking around town some more and dedicated some time to cool off by our hotel pool. On the third day we planned a day at the "beach".  We went to the local Woolworth's Supermarket and bought some skewers and snacks and headed to the city pool for a day preparing an Aussie barbie.  The barbie we used was one of many public "barbies" (more like a giant, gas frying pans for public use) located right next to the city pool.  It was a perfect day of intense heat, some good eats and some enjoyable people watching.
Our salt water pool at our hotel.
For $15 Aussie dollars we were treated to a 40 min. foot treatment and back/shoulder massage at the night market downtown Cairns.
Me at the "barbie" with the pool behind me.  It was nice to see so many people appreciating the outdoors and cooking next to each other.  The area had music playing, a non rowdy, pleasant crowd of locals and tourist young and old with the public respecting each other's space and enjoying each other's company at the same time.  A tough task to do in America. 
We took in a mini aboriginal rugby match.  Amy got a kick out of the player in the black shorts having a difficult time running with the pack and keeping his big guy shorts on his little guy hips.
These aboriginal women were singing a song near the public pool.  We took a walk closer to them to hear their tunes.
After lunch we took a long walk on the boardwalk past the pool to the harbor.
These "bats" (flying foxes) were yapping at dusk all around town.  As it got darker they took flight over the city.
We got accustomed to seeing them and smelling them as they passed overhead.  Doesn't it look like a scene out of a horror movie?
These were posted along the esplanade downtown Cairns.
The town was very health conscious.  We thought these advisements were helpful and a nice way to protect the community.
From this photo you can make out the whole length of the pool.
Amy teases me about taking these license plate photos that I love so much.  This one puts it bluntly.   After seeing how health conscious and how well planned out this city is, we would have to agree Queensland.  Now we are off in our rental car to Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef.
Sadly, the excellent weather did not last too long on our drive up north to Port Douglas.  In between kangaroo sightings and beautiful vistas and walks through the giant rainforest we were met with some sporadic rain showers.
Our first roo crossing sign and we were on guard.
We decided to take a walk in the rainforest in Karanda.  You can see that they don't call it a rainforest for no reason.  
I forgot that I still had my passport in my shorts and when the rain started to drop I discovered that both my jacket and the American passport do not repel water well.  I just had 48 new pages added to my passport in Argentina.  Now I had a passport with one thick glob of pages that Amy later graciously took the time to dry out and separate.  Luckily, only a few of my stamps smeared.
Entrance to the rainforest
Pretty flower number 2
Pretty flower number 1
The bridge over the Mossman Gorge had a great waterfall. 
At Mossman Gorge with no one around.
While driving Amy spotted this pack of kangaroos.
…we come in peace Mr. and Mrs. Roo and son Joey.  We stopped the car and walked in for a closer look and introductions.  
With all of our stops the drive to Port Douglas took us about 4 hours which got us to our hotel at about 5pm.  Port Douglas is a cute seaside village that matched the sophistication of a Santa Barbara or a Carmel with the country, small town Aussie charm.  This town triples in size during the busy season and luckily we just missed it.  As a result, we felt as if we had the whole town to ourselves.  On the downside it was stinger (jelly fish) season, so we were not able to get any beach time in.  The walks and bike rides on this four mile stretch of beach were a nice alternative way to take in the sights and enjoy the beaches north Queensland had to offer.
A view of our beach only a block away from our hotel.
The yellow sign first caught my eye, but the smaller one off to the side with the crocodile head really had me on alert.  If you cannot read it it says, "Crocodiles may be present in THESE waters".  See Amy in the background looking over her shoulder.
Amy and her helmet cruising the beach on her beach cruiser.
Amy in front of the main street in Port Douglas.
Our trip downunder would not be complete if we did not swim next to the largest living thing, get up close and personal with a joey and his mother, cuddle with a lazy bloke named Samson and greet an ostrich sized, mohawked horned man killer.  Of course, I am talking about diving the Great Barrier Reef, feeding the kangaroos and wallabies, holding a koala named Samson and getting to see the exotic cassowary.  The wildlife experience and the massive rainforest we encountered were impressive and something that pictures cannot do justice, but here is our attempt at sharing them with you…
We went diving with Silversonic. The trip took a little over a hour to make it out to the Great Barrier Reef.
As a result of the cyclone the visibility was not excellent.  The dive operations here are a bit packed and Amy and I could not help but tell each other that this world class dive spot did not compare to the other world class dive spot we just visited in Palau.  Our camera was packed in the inside cabin, so sorry no photos of the reef.  Check them out on google.
Aussies are one tough bunch I tell you.  They watch triathlons on TV, ski at extremely high jet boat speeds,  drive mad max looking utility vehicles with encouragement to speed up while driving to clear the roads of animals, brave the ozone hole on a daily basis, survive treacherous outback conditions, fight huge bush fires and live happily with crocs, shark and among the most poisonous and deadly snakes in the world.  
Me feeding my new friend.
How YOU doin!
Kangaroo extasy 
Do you think I'm sexy?
The Cassowary.  
Wow, a koala awake.
Samson was cute, but very stinky.
Samson is only out to take pictures 15 minutes a day and then sleeps the rest of the time.  The keeper told me that holding koalas will be restricted in a couple of years.  
Big daddy salt water croc.


G'day mate!  If you think I am bright…stay tuned to see Mike and Amy's sun soaked adventures in Fiji.

Friday, February 7, 2014

So Far Away, But Still America!

While talking with another airline employee we met in Palau he recommended a place to us named Saipan.  He said the cost was not too high, it was pretty quiet, and the beaches were beautiful.  In addition, and surprising to us, Saipan is part of the USA.  The place has a lot of history, and aside from the beaches, was going to be a learning experience for both of us.

Curiously United Express has a handful of flights to the island of Saipan from Guam.  It was only a half hour flight and along the way we flew over the island of Rota and the historical island of Tinian where the Enola Gay took off before dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.

We spent four days on Saipan before making our way back to Guam.  Both islands reminded us of what Hawaii must have been about 40 years ago.  Guam was much more developed than Saipan and unfortunately, way too expensive for what we had budgeted.  The culture of the Chamorro and the Carolinian people of these islands also resembled that of the Hawaiians.  The language on the other hand resembled a mix of Tagalog (Filipino) and Spanish.
This sign welcomed us at the airport.  Everyone was chewing it on Palau and in Saipan, from grocery store clerks to police officers and they had the stained teeth to prove it.  
We had rain most days, but on this one the sun was out and we took advantage of it.
Amy enjoying the waterslide.

Me having a workout in the hamster ball.

This was a view from our room.  The shipping vessels stayed there the whole time.
We spent some time using the hotel amenities before we rented a car and ventured out.  Almost everywhere we went the food was too expensive, so we bought some groceries and prepared what we could in our room.  The weather wasn't always bright and sunny, so we had to spend some time indoors.  It was nice to have a TV again in our room although the feed from Guam was unimpressive.  It was still welcomed on those rainy days.  One of the nights we were there the hotel had a buffet put on by local vendors.  For five dollars we bought some tasty local Chamorro (native people) food and some asian treats like dumplings and sushi.  We then ate outside listening to an excellent singer sing a combination of Russian and American songs by the pool.  Since Saipan and Guam have their own immigration laws the Russians are able to travel there without a visa.  In addition to the Russians, we were in town just before the Chinese New Year, so we were the minority among our asian neighbors and our Russian friends.
Visited the WWII memorial behind the national park.  3000 American soldiers lost their lives on the Northern Mariana Islands which Saipan is a part of.
This was the last Japanese command post right outside of Garapan, Saipan.
An old Japanese tank that was in front of the last Japanese command post.
Although beautiful, these locations (above and below) were the infamous locations where 8000 Japanese soldiers and civilian residents committed suicide.  The Japanese told the civilians that when the Americans came that they would cause great personal harm to all, so many opted to take their own life.  Many of the suicides were the soldiers that were instructed to kill themselves in honor of their country before capture by the Americans.
This is a photo of suicide cliff.
This is a view from on top of the suicide cliff.
Bird island is another tourist attraction on the island.
These objects in the water close to the coastline were military tanks.  On the right you can make out the tank gun sticking out of the water.  
Unfortunately the weather stuck around with us for our 3 day visit in Guam.  The beaches on Guam were much better than in Saipan.
It was still hot out while the rain poured down.
One of the highlights of the trip to Guam was our visit to the Chamorro Night Market.   I didn't try these baby octopus on a skewer, but the vendor said they were tasty.
Here I am selecting my plate lunch items for $9.
Not sure what it all was, but I do know it was delicious.