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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

G'day from Queensland, Australia! Last week we left off from Uluru/Ayers Rock (here's a link to the archives). This week we're in for another very special -- and adventurous --locale. We visit the only place in the world where two Natural World Heritage sites meet: Daintree Forest and Great Barrier Reef. If you like the tropics and everything that comes with it -- bugs, reptiles, warm water, incredible water and fish � you don't want to miss this week's getaway. So turn off your cell phone and put on your sunscreen -- we're in Cape Tribulation, baby!

Getting from Ayers Rock to Cape Tribulation (also referred as Cape Trib), located in far north Queensland, requires a 2-hour, 25-minute flight on Qantas to Cairns (pronounced "Cans" by Australians). From there, seven journalist friends and I rented two Nissan Patrol 4-Wheel Drives from Avis for $70 AUD ($51 USD) a day. Before making the approximately 3-hour drive we stopped at the local grocery store for snacks. No Australian road trip is complete without Tam Tams!). The drive, hugging Australia's northeast coast most of the way, was easy and picturesque � even in the rain. Then again, I wasn't driving. I knew I was in for an adventure when I read the sign on the Daintree car ferry: "No Swimming. Crocodiles." Gulp. Good thing the car ferry took -- literally -- only two minutes. (FYI: The ferry operates between 6 a.m. and midnight every day.) For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Australia’s Red Center

Here’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Australia’s Red Center. With high-speed the video takes about one minute to load; with dial-up, please allow three weeks.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Because Uluru is of great spiritual importance to Anangu, they prefer visitors do not climb it. One reason is that the path where people climb was associated with important ancient ceremonies. The other is that if you get injured or die (36 people have been killed, including a German man last month), the Anangu believe your spirit will remain here forever. They will feel very badly if that happens. According to our guide, half of all visitors still make climb. I did not, not only because I don't want to disrespect the Aborginals (I don't need any bad karma), but because I'm afraid of heights. It's steep! In 1964 a chain was added to cut back on the deaths. Here's a highlighted map of the path to the top.

I visited Uluru up close twice. One time was a Sunrise Walk (5:45 to 8:45 a.m.). The other was a sunset tour. Both were amazing, but if I could only do one, it would be the sunrise tour. That's when Uluru is at its brightest and coolest (plus there are no flies). Walking around Uluru is very easy: a flat path that goes all the way around. It takes two and a half hours to make the lap.

Both Uluru and Voyages Longitude 131 can't really be described, only experienced. So the next time you make it to Australia, be sure to include a trip out to the Red Center. Voyages Longitude 131: rates $1,800 AUS ($1,300 USD) per tent per night (minimum two-night stay); includes all meals, beverages, touring and airport transfers. Tel.: 61-8-8957-7121.  Posted by Picasa

Friday, May 26, 2006

Visitors can participate in a number of tours and activities. Guests staying at Voyages Longitude 131 don't have to worry about pre-booking or coordinating anything; it's all been arranged, and included in the rate. Everyone is free to participate in all or none of the tours. There are usually two tours a day (morning and afternoon). You don't want to miss them. They are either to Uluru or Kata Tjuta, the two places you came to explore. The guides provide cold water and fly nets (which can also be purchased in town); they also bring snacks and/or serve Champagne). A very cool Aussie couple from Melbourne laughed when I put my fly net over my head. They said they'd never wear one of those silly-looking things. About two seconds after they stepped out of the van, they went straight to the guide and asked if they could have theirs back. That's how bad the flies are. They go straight for the moisture of your mouth and eyes. Your only defense is the Australian Salute (you wave your hand frantically in front of your face), or the fly nets. Fortunately, when the sun goes down it's like someone flipped a switch. The flies disappear.

The first tour I took was an easy walk through Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta. Kata Tjuta is an Aboriginal word meaning "many heads." More than 30 rounded red domes rise from the desert floor. The tallest is 1,800 feet high. The English names for Kata Tjuta are Mount Olga and The Olgas. My boy Ernest Giles named it after reigning Queen Olga of Wurttemburg. Kata Tjuta is a 40-minute drive from Longitude 131. The rocks are amazing to see. The Anangu people and geologists have differing views on how the rocks were formed. I won't get into them here - it would take way to long -- but here's a link that will help.

The Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre is a good first stop for visitors. Thirty minutes is enough time to learn about the rock and see some videos (no pictures are allowed). You can read some of the Uluru creation stories. Known as Tjukurpa, they describe the travels and actions of Kuniya (Woma python), Liru (poisonous snake), Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) and Lungkata (Centralian blue-tongue lizard). The Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre: tel.: 61-8-8956-1128; fax: 61-8-8956-2360.

Uluru is Australia's most famous icon. From a distance it looks really smooth, but up close there are all kinds of holes, caves, tunnels, natural sculptures, and even paintings. There are even gray streaks running down the side. They are caused by waterfalls, which form when it rains (a rare occurrence). At 986 feet high and 5 miles around, Uluru is one of the largest monoliths in the world. It's made of arkosic sandstone, infused with minerals like feldspar. The rust color comes from oxidation. It's amazing to see Uluru and Kata Tjuta change colors (from the reflection of the sun) -- particulary at sunrise and sunset, when it appears to glow. It changes so many colors, it's mind boggling. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Thursday, May 25, 2006

One company, Voyages, has made this barren place into an oasis in the Outback. Voyages named it simply Ayers Rock Resort. Almost all their lodging -- 4,500 beds -- are near each other (here's a map) in what residents call "town." It's similar to an attractive outdoor mall, with a few shops, hotels and a mini-market. Seven different accommodation options -- from two luxurious 5-star Hotels (Sails In The Desert and Longitude 131), to the 4-star Desert Gardens Hotel and the Emu Walk Apartments, to the 3-star modern Lost Camel Hotel and the 2-star authentic Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge -- meet everyone's budgets. The cheapest option is to camp, and Voyages operates those grounds as well. Camping rates start at $37AUD ($28 USD) per family.

The most incredible place to stay (and of course the most expensive) is Voyages Longitude 131. I stayed at this resort built on a sand dune. It has won many awards, including The Robb Report's Top Ten Haute Hotels in the World, and is eco-friendly. Voyages Longitude 131 is regarded not only as the best hotel in Uluru / Ayers Rock, but also one of the top hotels in all of Australia. It's definitely the most unique. Voyages Longitude 131 is modeled after a luxury Botswana safari camp, and cost $15 million Australian dollars ($11,500,000 USD) to build. The place burned down in 2003 after a bush fire, but it was quickly rebuilt and is now better than ever. There are only 15 luxury "tents" at this adults-only (over 16) palatial retreat. Thirty-three full-time staff members serve a maximum of 30 guests. As you can imagine, the service is excellent. It's located 10 minutes from Ayers Rock resort, 15 minutes from the airport, and is the closest hotel to Uluru (6 miles -- a 20-minute drive).

All 15 rooms (tents) are named after famous Australian explorers. The rooms have basically the same layout, but contain different artifacts of each explorer. I was in Ernest Giles' room. He led three major expeditions in central Australia (read more about him). The rooms are so incredible that I had to say "wow" when I opened the door. And when the bellboy said, "Welcome to your tent" I replied, "Now this is my kind of camping!" Each tent has mesmerizing views of Uluru. They can be enjoyed through an enormous glass wall that comes complete with a sliding glass door, and a screen for fresh air. Inside the room I didn't feel like I was in the Outback at all. There were marble floors, a very comfortable king-size bed, a desk, air conditioning, a large shower (with firm water pressure), and a mini-bar that was free for raiding (everything at the hotel is included in the price, except Champagne). Best of all, there were no bugs! Little touches included the bathroom mirrors, which slid to the side so I could stare out at Uluru while shaving or in the shower. And next to the bed, the light switch featured a remote control for the blinds. That meant each morning, when my dawn wake-up call arrived (so I could watch the sunrise), I didn't have to get out of bed. I just flipped the switch, opened the curtains -- and stared in awe.

The main building, the Dune House, is where the front desk is located, along with the dining hall, a 24/7 open bar with a good selection of Australia beer and wine, couches, chairs, and a computer with free but slow internet access (no wireless yet). Just in front of the Dune House is a small pool. Most guests come out to the Red Center for either two or three nights. Voyages Longitude 131 primarily attracts visitors from North America and Europe. However, I met a few Australian couples celebrating a significant birthday or anniversary. What's great about Voyages Longitude 131 is that everyone meets each other, because all the guests go on tours together and all three meals are communal. There is no room service.

At breakfast (6:15 to 10 a.m.) and lunch (12 to 2:30 p.m.), the dining room tables are split into threes. At dinner (usually around 8:15 p.m.), the tables are pushed together to make one gigantic seating. Before dinner the staff serves sunset drinks and h'ors d'oeuvres, either outside on the dune top or in the Dune House. If you're lucky and the weather cooperates one night (it is offered every other night), you can dine at table 131 -- outside under the stars. Unfortunately, the wind kicked up and I ate inside both nights. The food is excellent, and I enjoyed every meal. That's saying something, for a finicky eater like me. After dinner, a staff member well-versed in astronomy gives lessons on the Southern night sky. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The distance from Melbourne to Uluru/Ayers Rock is 1170 miles -- about the same as New York City to New Orleans. Over half a million people visit each year. Besides making a long drive from one of Australia's major cities, there's only one other way to get there: Qantas. The only commercial airline that flies to Ayers Rock Airport, Australia's flagship carrier offers daily service from Perth, Sydney, Cairns and Alice Springs. They fly four times a week from Melbourne. The flight took just under three hours, and the packed plane was a 737-400. The flight was really smooth, and at the very end -- when we flew over Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park � was very scenic. If you fly Qantas be sure to pack light, because they have strict baggage weight limits. Domestic economy class passengers are allowed to check only one bag, up to 70 pounds, which is pretty good -- but carryon bags can't weigh more than 15 pounds. That's not a lot, especially if you bring as much crap as I do on a plane. My computer bag weighed only a pound over the limit. Still, they made me put some of those belongings into my checked bag, and separate other stuff into another bag (I bought a cheap sack for $3 from the gift shop). Qantas: tel.: 800-369-6863 (or 1-800-DOWNUNDER).

Just after we landed, the flight attendant said the time change for the Northern Territory is 30 minutes behind Melbourne. She said it so nonchalantly, like it was no big deal. Australians might not think a 30-minute time change is much, but to me (and probably the rest of the world) it's huge. I'd never heard of such a thing -- a 30-minute time change?! (South Australia has the same time difference.)

I had heard many mixed opinions on Uluru/Ayers Rock. Those who hadn't visited said it's just a rock, while those who had seen it said it's so much more. They even went so far as to say that if you haven't been to the "Red Center," you haven't really been to Australia. I don't agree with the last statement, because that's like saying if you haven't seen the Grand Canyon, you haven't been to America. But now that I have been to Uluru, I agree it is a very special place.

It's a desert climate. The average high temperatures range from 66� F in July to 97 in January. Especially during winter, nights and mornings can get quite cool, so pack appropriate warm clothing. But don't forget sunscreen, a hat and solid walking shoes. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

G'day from Australia's Red Center! Last week when we left off from Melbourne (here's a link to the archives), I promised we'd head to a very special, remote place. Now I make good as we pay a visit to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park!

Uluru/Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta are two huge sandstone formations in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (over 311,000 acres). Fifteen miles apart, they are located almost smack in the center of Australia (here's a map), in the Northern Territory. (Australia is made up of six states -- New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia -- and two territories: Australia Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.) Australia is only slightly smaller than the continental United States, but has way fewer people: only 20 million, compared to our 300 million. That's one attribute that makes Australia so amazing. Keep in mind, there are so few people not only because it's so far from the rest of the world, but also because most of Australia's interior is uninhabitable.

Why do I keep writing Uluru/Ayers Rock? Uluru is the rock's original name. It has no real meaning; it's just a family name. It comes from the local aboriginal people (who refer to themselves as Anangu), who are natives Australians � similar to American Indians. Archaeological work suggests that Aboriginal people have lived in this area for at least 22,000 years. Just like Native Americans, aboriginal communities from each region have different names. The aboriginals of the central Australian desert are traditionally called the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people (say that three times fast!). When surveyor William Gosse first visited the rock in 1873, he named it after Sir Henry Ayers, the chief secretary of nearby South Australia (he had a mad crush on Ayers' daughter). In the early 1900s the Australian government declared ownership of the land. In 1985 they returned ownership of Uluru to the local Pitjantjatjara, on the condition that they would lease it back to the National Parks and Wildlife service for 99 years, and that it would be managed jointly. In 1993 the name "Uluru" began to make a comeback. Uluru was officially reinstated, and the area had the dual name of Ayers Rock/Uluru. In 2002 Australia officially reversed the order, so now Uluru is listed first. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Friday, May 19, 2006

Melbourne is a great walking city, but if your legs get tired two different light rail services can take you around. One of those is the City Circle Tram, which is free! Most of these trams look like San Francisco cable cars, but in keeping with the city's artistic image some have been painted creatively. The Circle Tram travels slowly around the city, stopping at all the major attractions and shops. Just wait at any of the specially marked stops. Trams run in both directions every ten minutes, seven days a week, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. (except Christmas and Good Friday). During Daylight Savings they operate until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

A good first place to get your bearings of the city -- and great 360-degree panoramic views -- is the Rialto Towers observation deck. At 55 stories high (823 feet), it's the tallest office building in the Southern Hemisphere. Admission includes a 20-minute film called "Melbourne and the Living City" -- what visitors can see and do while in Melbourne. Prices: adult $13.50 AUD ($10 USD); children $7.80 ($6). Melbourne Observation Deck, Level 55/525 Collins Street, Melbourne; tel: 03-9629-8222.

Two buildings you can't miss � not that you'd want to -- are Flinders Street Station and Federation Square. Federation Square, the more special of the two, takes up en entire city block. Its controversial modern design has everyone talking. It's full of neat things to see, including a digital scrolling message board that allows anyone to send text messages (send to: 19 767 333 or 19 SMS FED) for everyone to see. Inside are a variety of attractions, including the Australian Racing Museum & Hall of Fame; restaurants, cafes and bars. Federation Square, corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street, Melbourne; tel.: 03-9639-2800.

Another must stop is the Queen Victoria Market. This historic landmark, opened in 1878, is spread over seven hectares, making it the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere. Nearly a thousand traders sell everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to souvenirs. It's closed every Monday and Wednesday, and on major holidays. Queen Victoria Market, 513 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne VIC 3000; tel.: 03- 9320-5830. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

I was in Melbourne for only two nights. It was basically a resting point for me, because I had just finished an adventurous media trip to New Zealand and was about to begin another in a different region of Australia. Besides being exhausted, I did not feel well. So instead of running around like a madman trying to see all the sites I relaxed, and saw only a few. Believe me, I hope to go back for a longer period, and spend all my time on a food tour (food is not expensive like Sydney).

Because much of my time was spent catching up on sleep and working in my hotel, I�m glad I checked in to a sweet one. Hotel Lindrum, opened in 1999, is a stylish boutique in the heart of the city. There are only 59 rooms; all have high ceilings, plenty of space and a modern design with contemporary facilities (high-speed internet costs $25 AUD ($19 USD) a day. The hotel was formerly a billiard hall for the Lindrum family. They retained some of its history: The lobby still has one of the original billiard tables (guests can play for free). My room -- 101 � was on the first of four guest floors, with a view of the Rod Laver Tennis Center (site of the Australian Open) in the distance. The only thing wrong with my room was that I could hear some of the Flinders Street traffic below. It didn�t keep me up, but next time I would get a room on a higher floor. In two days I had three tasty meals in the hotel (breakfast is included with most bookings). Rates start at $210 AUD ($160 USD). Hotel Lindrum, 26 Flinders Street, Melbourne; tel.: 61-3-9668- 1111. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Melbourne's climate is temperate, with one of Australia's lowest rainfalls. Even with its mild temperatures Melbourne has four distinct seasons, and Melburnians joke that you better be prepared because you might experience all four seasons in one day. Summer (December to February) highs average 77� F; lows average 57. During autumn (March to May) the average high is 68, the average low 52; Winter (June to August) is cool, with average highs of 57 and lows of 45. Springtime (September to November) temps are 68 to 50. The day before I was in town it was sunny and 87, but the weather rapidly changed to a chilly 48-64�F.

It seems there is always an event going on in Melbourne (here's a list). While I was here the International Flower Show was taking place. Arguably the four most popular are the Australian Open (mid-to-late January), Australian Grand Prix (late March), Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (mid-March), and the Melbourne Cup (November). I hope to go to all of them one day -- especially the latter with my dad. He loves horse racing.

I arrived in Melbourne just before 9 a.m. It's 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles, 14 hours ahead of New York. From the moment I walked out of the airport and was greeted by these three statues I could tell this was an artsy town. Even parts of the highway are works of art. Reaching downtown from the airport takes about 20 minutes (without traffic). One-way fares for a taxi cost roughly $40 AUD ($30 USD), while a bus will set you back only $15 AUD ($11). Heading back to the airport I took a car service - Hughes Limousines (tel.: 1-300-30-66-44), which cost $75 AUD ($56). Hiring a private driver (Doug Male; tel.: 04244-84785) is just $45 AUD ($34). For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Monday, May 15, 2006

G'day from Melbourne (pronounced MEL-bun by Australians)!

I have been to Australia a bunch of times, but because I had never seen Melbourne I felt a void. I've always heard how great it is, and that it's comparable to Boston and Chicago. Now that I've finally gotten there, I don't think it's like either of those cities. Melbourne has its own distinct feel.

Melbourne is the capital of Victoria (one of Australia's six states), located in southeastern Australia. It's Australia's second largest city, with a multicultural population of 3.6 million. The largest ethnic groups are Greek (over 800,000), Italian (over 230,000), Jewish (approximately 50,000) and Vietnamese, though there are many other immigrant groups too. Melbourne is believed to have the biggest Greek and Italian populations outside those countries. No wonder why this place is renowned for its food! There are over 3,000 restaurants and caf�s. Residents love their food, coffee, arts (more than a 100 galleries), bars, shopping and football. I don't think I have ever been to a place where the locals are more proud of their city. They are very laid back, friendly and accommodating. Tourism Victoria has even organized Visitor Information helpers. They walk around the city, providing tourists with reliable information on attractions, activities and events. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Sunday, May 14, 2006

After flying back to Auckland and spending the night at John Sax's house (I wrote about that great place last week), I hopped on Qantas' 6:50 a.m. flight to Melbourne. Qantas was operating a 747-400 series airplane -- one of my favorites. By the looks of the gate area I thought there wouldn't be an empty seat on the plane, but I was wrong -- that's how big it is. In fact, business class was almost completely empty (I scored an upgrade). The 1,640-mile flight over the Tasman Sea took only 3 1/2 hours, and seemed too short. That's because the Qantas flight attendants are so friendly, and I had a slew of movies to choose from on my individual entertainment system. Breakfast wasn't fantastic, only because they served dishes I'm not a big fan of: French toast topped with salmon, and a mushroom omelette. Hey, at least they offered food. I don't know what it is about flying to Australia, but I always get so excited. Touchdown was smooth, and Qantas (an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Services) lived up to its perfect safety record. Qantas; tel.: 1-800-369-6863 (1-800-DOWNUNDER). For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Saturday, May 13, 2006

For the best views of Rotorua without going on a helicopter tour, take a 3,000-foot long 8-seat gondola. It goes 1,600 feet to the top of Mount Ngongotaha. This is Rotorua's most popular visitor attraction, and the short ride is definitely worth it. Don't worry if you're scared of heights: these brand-new gondolas are enclosed, and they don't travel far off the ground. At the top you'll enjoy panoramic views, and can go on the world's first luge ride. Travel halfway down the mountain on a paved, windy track in a 3-wheel cart. The carts are basic to operate; all you do is steer and brake. You can choose from 3 tracks: scenic (for those who want to go nice and slow, and stop along the way to take pictures), intermediate and advanced. Like an idiot I dropped and ruined my camera on the advanced track. It's fun for all ages -- especially those 6 and up, because they can take their own cart (younger riders have to go tandem). To get back up the mountain, there is a two-seat open air chairlift. That's a bit fearful for acrophobics. But there's a reward at the top: a 9-course buffet. Prices: gondola: adults $20 NZD ($13 USD), children $9 NZD ($6); luge: each ride is $7 NZD ($4.50); buffet lunch: $43 NZD ($27); buffet dinner: $55 ($35). Package deals are available. Skyline Skyrides, Rotorua, New Zealand; tel.: 64-7-347-0027.

Now for the real fun! New Zealand is famous for adventure sports. The most popular is bungee jumping (but I wasn't about to jump from any bridges). Slowly gaining in popularity is zorbing. This involves people going down a hill inside a giant plastic ball. "Zorbonauts"(6 years and up) begin by diving like Superman through a narrow hole, then roll down the side of a mountain at a maximum speed of 31 mph. There are two ways to Zorb. One is the dry way, where you pretty much roll end over end with the ball. The other is "hydro-zorbing." Staff workers put a bucket's worth of warm water inside the ball. This makes it very slippery. Therefore you don't tumble over and over; instead you slide (mostly on your arse). These 200-pound balls are so big that they can fit up to 3 people standing. I was nervous about being claustrophobic, but that didn't happen at all -- even after the door was zipped shut. You don't have to worry about drowning or suffocating either. The zorb has two skins. The area in between is inflated, but the inner chamber is always open to the outside so fresh air comes in all the time. I went hydro-zorbing, and it was so much fun I had to do it twice.

More on zorbing: There are two types of tracks to choose from. Straight down the hill is just over 150 yards, and takes about 10 seconds. The zig-zag course is about 50 feet longer, and makes riders much more queasy � or so I hear. Single rides cost $45 NZD ($28 USD); if you go with someone its $35 NZD ($22 each). Extra rides after that are $29 NZD ($18.50). Don't worry about getting your clothes wet; for $2 NZD ($1.25) they provide a clean zorbonaut outfit and towel. Although Rotorua is where zorbing was invented, it's already expanding around the world -- including the U.S. I bet within a few years it will be hard not to find a place that does not zorb. Zorb Rotorua: tel.: 64-7-357 5100 (toll-free within New Zealand: 0800-227-474); email: For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Friday, May 12, 2006

Since Treetops is so close to downtown Rotorua, it would be silly not to at least check it out. I know it's smelly (from the geothermal activity) and cheesy (there is one motel after another, interspersed with American chains like Burger King, Sizzler and Blockbuster). But there are a few worthwhile places to visit. The Rotorua Government Gardens includes a beautiful Victorian building that houses the Rotorua Museum. The 50-plus acre property features the Blue Baths, lawn bowling, even golf. Rotorua is also the place to learn about native Maori culture (here's a helpful link). I didn't go to a Maori show because Didi (the horse whisperer from Treetops) took me to a wharenui (Maori "meeting house"). There I learned all about traditions like the one in which women (not men) have to take their shoes off before entering the wharenui and "the share of hongi" (pressing noses to signify exchange of "the breath of life").

Before leaving downtown Rotorua, stop by Lady Jane's Ice Cream Parlour to try the "Hokey Pokey ice cream." It's the second most popular flavor (after vanilla) in New Zealand. Made with vanilla ice cream and bits of crunchy toffee, it's so good it might make you "put your right hand in�".

If you want to bring a great yet inexpensive gift home, stop by a Pak N' Save (grocery store) for some manuka honey. It has exceptional antibacterial and healing powers, and is used to successfully treat many ailments, including ulcers and sore throats. It costs $15.50 NZD ($10 USD) -- just one-third of what you'd pay at the airport. Pak N' Save.

Those interested in seeing a real life kiwi (New Zealand's national symbol, a flightless bird on the brink of extinction) should hop on over to Kiwi Encounter for a 45-minute guided tour. You'll pass by a working hatchery and nursery. Go to the nocturnal area to see these eccentric birds come out and look for food, and view a "Kiwi Culture Exhibit." Tours depart every hour, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission prices: adult $26.50 NZD ($17 USD), children 5 to 15 years $16.50 NZD ($11 USD), children under 4 free. Family pack (2 adults, 2 children): $79 NZD ($50 USD). Kiwi Encounter, Fairy Springs Rd, Rotorua, New Zealand; tel.: 64-7-350-0440. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

As you read in last week's newsletter (here's a link to our archives), Treetops has it all! Guests really don't need to leave the 2,500-acre property unless they'e looking for some over-the-top adventure, and Treetops can arrange even that. The most exciting tour begins with a pickup by the local helicopter company, Helipro. They pick you up in one of their sweet helicopters on Treetops' landing pad. You can choose from a number of different tours. I took Mount Tarawera. We flew over spectacular volcanic crater lakes before landing on 3,680-foot high Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1886. Once on the ground, we walked to the Mount Tarawera lookout. The views were incredible, but the path was a tad hairy -- especially for those (like me) with a fear of heights. Instead of going back to the lodge we flew to Lake Tarawera, passing breathtaking waterfalls along the way before landing on a beach next to a 50-foot yacht. Helipro (tel.: 64-7-357-2512) offers an array of tours, including a city flight that takes only 8 minutes and costs $85.00 NZD ($53 USD).

Talk about feeling like a rock star: We went from a sleek helicopter to a 50-foot luxury power catamaran in 30 steps. For a second there I felt like I was Puff Daddy, but when I didn't see 50 bikini-clad women -- that's how many the boat holds -- I realized I was still me. Lake Tarawera is a huge, calm, deep and clear lake filled with an abundance of rainbow trout. I tried to catch one deep trolling, but after 10 minutes my ADHD kicked in and I moved on to the next activity: swimming. The surface water temperatures range from 53 F (the winter low) to 71 F (in the summer). However, there are beaches where the natural thermal waters spew out, making it too hot to go in. Instead of swimming in the lake, the captain took us to a popular hot spring just a short walk through the woods. A bunch of people of all ages just sat there, soaking in the warm water. After enjoying ourselves we had a late lunch, then drove an hour by carback to the lodge. Clearwater Charters. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Monday, May 08, 2006

2 Minute Johnny Jet Treetops Video

Click the link above! With high-speed the video takes about one minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Now for one of my Top 10 travel experiences of all time. Treetops employs a man named Didi Rice. Didi is half Maori, with European blood, and is a real character. He's also a horse whisperer. When I signed up for this 2-hour ride I had no idea what I was in store for. Didi took me on an exciting, jaw-dropping tour of the Treetops property. Although my sister Carol has always had horses I've never felt entirely comfortable, especially going down steep hills and over rivers as Didi took me on. But the combination of Didi's knowledge and the sheer beauty of this property made the ride truly unforgettable. To make it even more exciting, we were riding during "elk in heat season." These guys were monsters, and would not stop howling! Didi explained how these elk were busy rounding up as many hinds (female red deer) as possible. It was like watching something out of National Geographic as they lined all their girls up, and chased all the horny loser stags away. If these elk could write a book it would be an instant bestseller. On the way back to the lodge a huge elk was blocking our trail home. Fortunately we were on horseback so they didn't charge us -- otherwise I would have became an instant cowboy. Yee haw! Along the way we rode by water buffalo, pheasants, peacocks, wild pigs, even trout.

Treetops, 351 Kearoa Road, RD1, Horohoro, Rotorua, New Zealand; tel.:64-7-333-2066; email: Rates begin at $490NZD ($308 USD) per person and include breakfast, dinner and cocktail hour. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Saturday, May 06, 2006

As you can see, when it comes to activities Treetops has it all. To begin with, there are over 47 miles of hiking trails. Some lead to incredible vantage points. My two favorite tours were the Maori Indigenous Food Trail and horseback riding with Didi.

The Maori Indigenous Food Trail takes about 2 � hours. It's a very easy, mellow walk through the woods where Charles P.T. Royal, a Maori and New Zealand's 2003 Innovative Chef of the Year, teaches guests which plants can and cannot be eaten. New Zealand has the greatest variety of ferns in the world -- over 200 -- but only 7 are edible. Charles taught us all about the indigenous herbs and plants. He said the only things in the New Zealand forest that will hurt you are bees and needles. Phew! I was so relieved there are no snakes in this country, and only one poisonous spider (it's not found in this region). Another interesting tidbit is that newborn fern fronds are called "the koru." This Maori name symbolizes new life, growth, strength and peace. It is a major symbol in Maori carving and tattoos, and is also the symbol on Air New Zealand's tail.

The highlight came when we reached the Bridal Vail waterfall. This 80-foot cascade was one of -- if not the most -- beautiful acts of nature I have ever seen. It really can't be described, only experienced. It was absolutely amazing! There we set up camp for lunch. I knew it would be an interesting meal when Ian, a Treetops staff member, started chopping logs in half for the appetizer, and pulling huhu grubs (worm larva) from the wood. I passed on eating these high- protein worms raw. But as you can see in the video below, after Charles saut�ed them up and presented them so deliciously with pikopiko (New Zealand fiddlehead fern) and on rewana (bread), it was too difficult to say no. We washed them down with Taakawa beer. The main course was salmon smoked in horopito with manuka honey and kararengo (seaweed). Maori Indigenous Food Trail starts at $185 NZ ($115 USD) an hour. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Friday, May 05, 2006

The food at Treetops is delicious. One chef was quoted as saying: "In keeping with Treetops� eco-friendly ethos, a key focus of the fine cuisine that is prepared for guests with locally-grown produce includes sourcing and utilising native herbs and ingredients found on the property that were traditionally used by Maori.� Everything is fresh, and the game is locally grown. Each night a 5 course meal (soup, salad, meat/fish, cheese, dessert) is featured. Before guests head out for the day, the staff -- mostly from Germany and nearby European nations � describes the menu. If there is anything you don�t like, they will make something you do. For breakfast guests can order typical dishes, or a New Zealand specialty: salmon and eggs. I really loved the Eggs Benedict and cereal with the most incredible-tasting dried fruit (raspberries, blueberries, strawberries�) I�ve ever had. They were addictive! But my favorite meal was a small picnic packed by the kitchen so we could dine on Day Dream hill, overlooking the valley. It is magical at sunrise.

Treetops can accommodate up to 40 guests. There is a choice of rooms. One option is a 4-bedroom suite (twin share or double) located down the hall from the Great Room. It comes with a kitchen and living room. This is where I stayed. It�s perfect for families or friends traveling together, because it felt like a house. For ultimate privacy (two of the four bedroom walls are kind of thin at the suite), choose one of the eight private villas. Some are so far away, they entail either a long walk or a 3-minute golf cart ride. Each guestroom is built with its own unique style and design, but all have a homey feel. Each villa has fireplaces and spas (the bathrooms are really nice). Maids clean the rooms twice a day, and at night they leave handmade chocolates beside the beds. Mmmm! There is no minimum age (some exclusive lodges have one, so double check), so this is a great place to bring the family. When I was there the lodge was filled primarily with couples from North America and Europe (many from the U.K.). However, at dinner one night I sat next to twin 13-year-old girls from Beverly Hills. They said they loved Treetops, and were sad to check out because everyone was so nice and there was so much to do.

Treetops� service starts the moment you book your trip. Prior to your arrival an email is sent with questions like: Are there any particular foods (New Zealand lamb, seafood, Treetops venison, pheasant, trout, New Zealand beef, vegetarian, other) you would like to experience at Treetops? Are there any particular health issues we should be aware of? How can we help organize the ultimate setting for a special or romantic experience? Please indicate any activities you would like more information on, or ones you would like us to pre-arrange for you. Choices are: 4WD experience, 4WD motorbikes, abseiling (a dangerous climbing technique), archery, bird watching, black tie pheasant, clay target shooting, eco-tours, fishing at Treetops, fly fishing, fly fishing tutorial, hiking, hunting, horse riding, kayaking, Maori Indigenous Food Trail, mountain biking, photographic safari, sailing, waterfall walk, wild animal spotting, wilderness fly fishing, yoga, and zorbing (I will explain this next week). For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Treetops Lodge is built on 2,500 acres of restored and native virgin forest. Much of the property was bare and bleak, because in the old days it was used for forestry. But in the past 10 years Mr. Sax has nurtered the land back to life by breeding wildlife, creating lakes and planting more than 70,000 trees. They released over 5,000 pheasants, and wildlife has returned in abundance. To build the lodge they cleared only a few trees, and even kept a stream running directly below the main entrance (there are seven trout streams on the property). The lodge, completed in 2003, is made of schist, stone and timber. Everything is from New Zealand -- except the shingles. They were imported from California.

The entrance to the lodge takes guests past a manmade waterfall near a small path over a trout stream, and to a double-door entrance big enough for Sasquatch. This is definitely a guy's place. The lobby -- appropriately called the Great Room -- has 35-foot high ceilings, cozy furniture, hand-carved beams depicting Maori folklore, local artistry, fly fishing poles, and a giant stone fireplace with two stuffed animals on the top. This is where all the guests gather for the 6:30 p.m. cocktail hour. (It's also the room with the strongest wireless internet signal, though most guests use the free computer in the day room). The other rooms in the lodge include a library (with plenty of books and trophy heads), games room (there's a giant antique billiards table), conference room (the lodge is a popular host to small conferences), dayroom, conservatory (a bright, airy space where breakfast is served), open air "interactive" kitchen (guests can watch the chefs make their dishes), and an unforgettable dining room. Most guests dine together at 7:30 at a 22-foot table, with a willow branch chandelier hanging above. Those looking for a more romantic setting can dine in the library, or their own villa. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Treetops is no ordinary lodge. To fully understand it, you have to know about its creator. John Sax, a New Zealand native, is the chief executive and sole shareholder of over 20 companies in New Zealand, including Southpark Corporation (Auckland�s largest industrial landowner). He designed most of his properties, including Treetops Lodge. A key element in all is that they be eco-friendly. Many of the Treetops rooms have light sensors, to avoid wasting electricity. Mr. Sax is a family man, and his dream was to build a sanctuary that reflected the very best of what New Zealand has to offer. He said: "My hope is that God's creation may be what really inspires you, that encourages you to reflect on the things that are truly important: family, friends, community and what it brings us life's real joy and satisfaction." After spending a few days with him at his lodge, and then at his Auckland home, I learned about his foundation (For the Sake of Our Children Trust), and what an incredible man he really is.

Mr. Sax is invited each year to a White House breakfast with heads of state from throughout the world. Many U.S. senators and celebrities have stayed at his home in Auckland. Mr. Sax is a very wealthy and powerful man, yet he is so humble and approachable. On the way back from his lodge, I had an overnight layover in Auckland. Mr. Sax surprised me by picking me up at the airport (he was waiting by my gate!). He insisted on carrying my heavy bags and drove me to his house, where his wife made a lovely dinner and I spent the night. In the U.S., most people of his stature would have sent a driver and had a chef whip up supper. This says a lot about Mr. Sax, and about Kiwis (New Zealand natives) in general. I found them all very friendly, and down-to- earth. BTW: The Saxes� home in Auckland is called Florence Court. It�s a Category 1 historic 12,000-square foot mansion (there are not a lot of these left in New Zealand, which means this place is an outstanding historical building). The exterior is a fine example of Edwardian architecture, while the inside is filled with Louis XV antiques. Besides the Saxes� bedrooms, there are four rooms and one self-contained cottage (where I stayed) that are sometimes available to the public. The Saxes' occasionally operate their home as an upscale B&B, and rent the house out for parties and weddings. Florence Court, 6 Omana Ave, Auckland; tel.: 09-623-9333.

Traveling to New Zealand is like going back in time. When Mr. Sax picked me up at the airport, he parked his car curbside. Keep in mind this was at the country�s busiest airport, Auckland International -- not some Podunk landing strip. How nice is that? He didn�t have to worry about tickets, tow trucks or bomb squads. No wonder so many Americans are buying second homes in New Zealand. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fortunately, I wasn't staying in downtown Rotorua (the smell really is ridiculously bad). I was 30 minutes (12 miles) away in the remote village of Horohoro where the air is fresh, crisp and clean. As I pulled into the Treetops Lodge driveway the terrain quickly turned from smooth flat pavement to bumpy dirt. The road was occasionally very steep. The 2-mile driveway seemed to take much longer than the actual 10 minutes. It must've been all the anticipation to reach the lodge -- I read so many incredible things about this exclusive retreat, which has won all kinds of awards, like Harpers' Hideaway of the Year. In fact, a 5-night stay was even included in the 2005 Oscar gift basket (no wonder so many A-list celebrities have stayed there). For more click HERE.
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Monday, May 01, 2006

Kia ora! (That's "Welcome!" in Maori.) This week travel back in time without leaving the luxuries of the modern world, as we check into one of the most amazing and exclusive lodges in the world: Treetops. There we explore some of New Zealand's beauty, culture and adventure sports! Boy, are you going to love this place! If you're ready for that mini-virtual vacation, put down your phone, grab a cup of java or glass of wine, sit back and relax. I'm about to take you to a place you will never forget.

Last week (here's a link to the archives) we left off just before touching down in Rotorua, New Zealand. Roturua is 137 miles southeast of Auckland -- a 40-minute small plane ride, or a 2 �- to 3-hour drive). Rotorua is probably the most touristy location on the North Island, and is famous for its smell. That's right: The many geothermal hotspots carry the unpleasant aroma of rotten eggs (blame the sulfur). But don't let the smell stop you. Rotorua is known as the place to go for adventure sports (we will try some shortly), and the trout fishing capital of the world (there are 11 major lakes). Visitors also come to Rotorua to learn more about New Zealand's native population: the Maori. A third of Rotorua's 70,000 residents are of Maori descent, the highest percentage of any city in New Zealand. As for the weather, Rotorua has a mild climate. At 950 feet above sea level, it never gets too hot. The average summer highs range from 68 to 78 F. Wintertime highs hover between 50 and 55 F. Remember: New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, so its seasons are the opposite the U.S. The warmest months are January, February and March. For more click HEREPosted by Picasa