According to the news reports, 2.5 million people experienced cancellations and/or delays on 7,800+ flights over the July 4th weekend. Ted and I were two of those people on four of those flights during the holiday week and it’s true: none of the flights left the airport at the originally scheduled time. Our nonstop morning flight from home to Seattle was completely cancelled by the airline, so they assigned us to an evening flight the previous day. The change of flight time gave us a longer layover for our slightly delayed commuter flight to Wenatchee. Coming home from Jeff’s house, we had a 20-minute departure delay on the first leg of our journey and a 2-hour delay on the last leg, bringing us home at 3:00 a.m. (Insert yawn here.) Between the flights, we had a great time.

It was wonderful to see our boys and their families again. Hadley was only two months old the last time we saw her. This time, we celebrated her first birthday with her. Sefton was getting ready to start pre-school last summer and now he’s looking forward to first grade. Here we are with Hadley.

Hadley isn’t quite ready to walk, but she has a unique–and rapid–style of crawling/scooting over the hardwood floors.

Sefton wore a fun NASA T-shirt. A space helmet visor reflects the American flag, which is made of sequins. When Sefton flips the sequins in the opposite direction, the flag becomes a blue sun visor on the space helmet. When Sefton stands in the sunlight, the sequins make him giggle at the sparking reflection on the sink front. Awesome!

Thom and Katie took us to a nearby park on the Columbia River during our visit. There was a salmon ladder, but the salmon weren’t spawning yet, so we didn’t see them jumping up the ladder. Even so, the views were pretty and the playground was fun. There was a slide that gave sliders a little boost on their way down so that they seemed to “shoot” out of the slide. Thom and Sefton had fun trying that. You can tell by Thom’s balancing act that he wasn’t expecting to exit the slide at that speed.

On another day, we took a “secret” hike in the Oglala Gorge. I say “secret” because the trailhead was on a secondary (maybe tertiary) road and the entrance was overgrown, camouflaging it. Katie knew exactly where it was, so we parked and took off with Sefton as our leader, carrying a big stick because–hey!–he’s a kid and he needs a stick.

When we reached the summit of the trail, it was time to rest and to enjoy the view of the Enchantment Range of the Cascades. You can see the stick beside Sefton. He needed it to guide us going up and again coming down the mountain.

Of course there was a birthday party for Hadley. Like most one-year-olds, the cupcake and the special candle meant nothing to her, but the frosting tasted good.

While the adults visited with each other, Sefton took care of Hadley’s car. First, he filled the gas tank; then he took her for a ride.

We enjoyed the beautiful weather by eating most of our meals outside. One evening, we had pizza cooked outdoors in Thom and Katie’s pizza oven. Later, we roasted marshmallows and on another evening, we enjoyed a pan of s’mores.

After spending several days at Thom and Katie’s house, Julian joined us and we all headed for Jeff and La’s house for more fun together. When we arrived, I noticed pretty wildflowers growing along the driveway.

Our first day together was the pick day of the week for water fun. Jeff and La contributed jet skis, kayaks, and paddleboards and we all had a great time.

All that activity made us hungry, so we needed an ice cream snack after dinner. Sefton made a sign with a picture of an ice cream cone and the notice that “Ice cream shop is open.” Then we dug into the ice cream and toppings.

When we were finished eating, it was much later than Sefton’s bedtime, but you wouldn’t know it to look at his pj’s.

In spite of the message on his pj’s, Sefton went to bed and fell asleep. The rest of us settled in for a movie in Jeff and La’s home theater.

Ted and I stayed a few more days after Thom’s family left for home. Jeff took us for a ride around the area. The nearest town is Big Fork, MT so we went to town. Sure enough, there’s a big fork in town.

On another day we hiked a 5-mile trail along the west side of Holland Lake. The views of the lake were beautiful.

In the evening, we enjoyed a pizza dinner on the front porch, overlooking Flathead Lake.

It takes a long time (until after midnight) for the sky to get dark enough to see stars this far north in June, but we were so far from urban lights that the Milky Way was clearly visible. What a treat for city dwellers like Ted and me.

It was finally time for Ted and me to head for the airport to go home. On the way, we stopped at Rosa’s Pizza–Jeff’s favorite local restaurant and the place where he plays mahjong weekly. The pizza was delicious. It’s no wonder he eats it every week.

As we watched the sun set each evening, I understood why Jeff takes so many sunset pictures. It’s a beautiful view every night. My cell phone photos of the sunset aren’t as stunning as this one that Julian shared with me. He took it with a “real” camera. The peace it evokes is a perfect finish for the time we spent with our sons and their families.

I included a small snack bag of Hershey’s kisses in my backpack for our trip to Provo for Ollie’s first birthday party. After boarding the plane to go home, I dug into my backpack and pulled out the bag of kisses. I offered some to Ted and to the man on my left as well. Choc-a-holic Ted said “yes” and took a few kisses; the other man said, “No, thank you.” As I was returning the snack bag to my backpack, one of the kisses fell to the floor. The man on my left reached down to pick it up, laughed, and said, “Ok, I guess I’ll have one.” I still had the snack bag in my hand, so I gave him another and told him we all know it’s true that if you eat one, you wish you had one more. He accepted and we all had a nice flight home.

After landing in St. Louis, Ted and I were heading out of the airport when the man hurried to catch up to us. “Thank you so much for the candy treat,” he said. “That was the best part of the whole flight.” What a nice guy and what an easy way to spread a little joy.

Today, Ted and I took Julian and Teddy to see the Cahokia Mounds. Cahokia Mounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally the site of a city of 10,000-20,000 people (larger than either London or Paris at that time), it was the site of the largest prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico. Monk’s Mound at Cahokia is the second-largest mound in the world. In fact, Monk’s Mound has a larger base than the Great Pyramid of Cheops (also a UNESCO WHS), although it is not as high as that pyramid. Eighty of the 120 original mounds at Cahokia have survived. The most direct route from our house to the park is I-70, so we crossed the Mississippi River via one of my favorite bridges: the Stan Musial Bridge at St. Louis.

The entrance to the park’s Interpretive Center is impressive.

These are called the “twin mounds.” Conical mounds like the one on the right are always burial mounds; flat mounds like the one on the left usually indicate a place where citizens lived. The higher one’s social rank, the higher one lived on the mound. Commoners’ homes surrounded the base of the mound.

We saw a herd of deer on our guided tour of the park. The tour guide said deer are everywhere in the park.

The park’s big attraction is Monk’s Mound, the largest one. This is also a flat mound, but it is so large that there are four levels of social importance on it. Because it is so large, it is likely that an important leader (a king-like official) lived at the top of Monk’s Mound. You can count three terraces below the top of the mound if you look at the outline of the mound on its left side.

Every visitor’s to-do list includes climbing to the top of Monk’s Mound, and our group was no different. The two young men nearest the bottom of the stairs are our boys. There are two flights of stairs on Monk’s Mound with a total of 154 steps. Julian climbed them twice.

Here are Julian and Teddy after they reached the top of Monk’s Mound.

Julian got creative on his way down. Teddy (at the top of the flight) simply used the stairs.

There’s a nice view of the park from the top of Monk’s Mound. You can see another, smaller flat-topped mound in the upper center of the photo below.

From the top of Monk’s Mound, it’s also possible to see the St. Louis skyline, including the Gateway Arch. (Due to the clouds, you have to look closely to see the Arch.)

Cahokia Mounds includes a structure called “Woodhenge.” It is the astronomical equivalent of England’s Stonehenge, with 48 poles set around its circumference and another pole in its center. At the spring and fall equinox, there are celebrations at Woodhenge. If you stand in alignment with two of the outer poles and the center pole at sunrise on the equinox, then look east, you can see the sun rise over Monk’s Mound in line with the center pole. The dark, flat surface behind the center pole in the lower center of the photo is Monk’s Mound.

Rain showers moved into the area on our way home and we saw a stunning rainbow. It was a pretty way to end an enjoyable afternoon with two of our grandsons.

For the first time in 549 days (but who’s counting?), Ted and I took an overnight trip. We haven’t seen our sons’ families since our 50th wedding anniversary celebration 754 days ago. During that time, both boys moved to new houses in new locations, Sefton aged from two to four years old (a huge developmental change), and we gained a baby granddaughter and a great-grandson. Of course, we kept in touch with emails and texts, as well as phone and video calls, but it’s not the same as being together. With a lull in the COVID pandemic, we decided it’s time to venture a little farther into the world to visit our distant family members.

Our flight was early–8:00 a.m.–so we ordered a cab for 6:00 a.m. There’s nothing like an early start to the day. (Not!) We had a scheduled two-hour layover for our connecting flight to Wenatchee, but it turned out to be a 30-minute layover, so lunch became the crackers, cheese, and apples we had packed for a snack. While we were waiting to board our–wait for it!–propeller plane, we sat beside a man whose luggage tags indicated he was going to FAT. I asked him which airport that was and he said “Fresno.” Since Ted and I were tagged to arrive in EAT (Wenatchee), the man and I decided the two airports were a good pair: EAT FAT.

Except for tour flights over the Grand Canyon and Denali, I don’t think I’ve ever flown on a propeller plane. It was another new travel adventure for me. Here’s our plane as we saw it while waiting for our baggage. The plane was so small that carry-on suitcases didn’t fit in the overhead bins. We dropped them off on a cart beside the stairs to the cabin and picked them up at the airport door after our 20-minute–yes, 20-minute–flight. You can see the bags coming down the ramp at the rear of the plane.

Little planes fly lower than big ones, and that made the mountains much prettier to look at. We had good views of the North Cascades and of the wildfire smoke.

In the photo below, you can see a strip of blue sky between the smoke (below) and the clouds (above).

As we neared Wenatchee, we could see harvested fields and irrigated apple orchards. Wenatchee promotes itself as “The Apple Capital of the World” and there are a lot of orchards in the area.

I noticed a weird phenomenon while I was taking pictures through the airplane window. This is how the fast-moving propeller looks in a photo. Julian told me later that this effect is due to the direction in which a cell phone camera scans the scene in the 1/24,000 of a second it takes the photo. It’s kind of cool, isn’t it?

Although there’s a sign at the Wenatchee airport indicating the direction to “All Gates,” there is only one gate, so it was easy to find our way out to the curb where Thom picked us up and informed us that, thanks to the burning wildfires, “You’ve arrived at the worst air quality in the country.” The best part of the day came when we arrived at Thom and Katie’s house: seeing Sefton and Julian again and meeting Hadley for the first time. When we brought Jeff to meet our parents, Ted’s sister reached for him, but his mother charged ahead of her and said, “Oh, no–Grandmas first!” and took Jeff from me. I think that’s a good rule, so Grandma got to hold the baby first. Grandpa greeted Sefton and we both greeted Julian, who is spending a few days with the family while we’re here. It’s so nice to see the entire family in person again!

If Hadley falls asleep in your arms (is there anything sweeter than holding a sleeping baby?), she likes to turn her face into your chest. I could hear her breathing, so I knew she wasn’t suffocating, but still, . . .

Meanwhile, Sefton, who is very interested in clocks, showed Grandpa the clock he made.

And then it was time to play “hide Grandpa.” Sefton had lots of things to tell us–two years’ worth–and every sentence seemed to begin with “Grandpa and Grandpa, look at this.” I tried to teach him that I’m Grandma and the other person is Grandpa, but most of the time, we were Grandpa and Grandpa. He’s four. It’s fine.

After greeting everyone and holding Hadley, the next item on the agenda was a tour of the new house. There’s a circular staircase to the basement, and Sefton made sure to tell us that “You have to hold the pole when you go up and down,” so we did.

After a dinner of Katie’s Special Recipe mac and cheese, we took a family walk along a canal near the house. It felt good to stretch our legs after sitting on planes and in airports most of the day. Spending time with the family in person after more than two years apart made this a great first day of our trip.

In early February 2020, Ted and I scheduled our next overseas vacation. Our plan was to arrive in South America on February 14, 2021 and to return home on March 16. Our first scheduled destination was a few days in Peru, including an excursion to Machu Picchu. After that, we were going to cruise our way around the continent, stopping in a variety of places in Chile (including Patagonia), Argentina, and Uruguay. Today, we would have been in Buenos Aires, and tomorrow we were scheduled to return to Patagonia for an additional five days in that area. Thanks to the pandemic, our travels this year were far more modest. The farthest we’ve been from home since we returned from Australia on January 15, 2020 was Kirksville, MO where we spent a day with Kathy and Annette in August.

This is beginning to look tempting.

It was a clear and sunny day. Suddenly, a brain shock hit. I was cleaning up our vacation photos and transferring them from my laptop to my PC when I noticed a bunch of pictures I thought were cute / interesting and wanted to post on my blog. Here are the “lost” pictures I found.

Seen in Auckland. Perhaps owned by an immigrant from the Badger state?

In British-founded countries, they don’t have trash; they have rubbish. In any country Ted and I have visited overseas, we’ve found public trash / rubbish cans to be rare, and we usually have to hold on to our litter until we get back to our temporary home base–wherever that is.

Window sign on a coffee / hot chocolate house. Check out Ted and me in the reflection on the window.

Our hotel in Auckland not only had an unusual name–M Social–it also had an unusual decorating style. This wall almost made it feel like we were being watched while we relaxed.

It took me a moment (or two) to figure out how to do Roman numeral math, but it works out to the same answer. Try it.

I’ll bet you’ve never seen rest room signs like these.

And what is this thing with peek-through bathrooms? A sliding panel was available to provide some bathroom privacy. Our Bali hotel had the same thing, but there was a glass window with blinds, not an open wall. (Below)

This is a foreign country thing more than a hotel thing, but at breakfast, there was a choice of full or trim milk instead of whole or skim. Also, water is always offered as “still” or “sparkling.” Hint: sparkling water tastes awful!

Travel definitely broadens one’s experiences and viewpoints.

As Ted and I reflect on our trip to Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand, highlights of the trip come to mind. We have many, but here are ten of them, in no particular order:

(1) Lazy morning coffee and hot chocolate in the Viking Winter Garden.

(2) Summer fruit and vegetables in December and January. (3) Komodo–our new standard for “how hot is it?” If it’s not as hot as Komodo, it’s not bad. (4) Ted’s birthday dinner.

(5) Talking with local residents. (6) Petting a koala.

(7) Seeing the Great Barrier Reef.

(8) The onboard Christmas Eve Service. It made us feel less lonely to be with nearly 1,000 other people who were also away from their families at this special time of year. (9) Sightseeing in a jet boat.

(10) Choco-fest times two. Two chances to enjoy the Viking chef’s creativity with chocolate.

Ted and I brought home three small souvenirs from our recent trip. The little basket is handmade and was sold at a local market in Mataram, Lombok (Indonesia).

We bought the orange dish in Melbourne, Victoria. It was authentically crafted in Australia by an Aborigine tribal member.

The kiwi bird–the national icon and unofficial national emblem of New Zealand–was purchased in Rotorua, NZ. It was mass-produced, but it comes with an interesting story. Here’s the short version of the Maori legend:

Tana-mahuta, the god of the forest, was worried about his children, the trees, because the bugs were eating them. He asked various birds to give up the gift of flight to live on the ground and eat the bugs to save the trees. One bird refused because he was afraid of the darkness in the forest; another didn’t like the dampness; and every other bird had an excuse. Only the kiwi bird said, “Great! I have a fear of heights and I hate to fly anyway, so I’ll be glad to live on the ground.” Because the kiwi sacrificed its beautiful wings and feathers to live on the forest floor, Tana-mahuta made it the most well-known and best-loved bird in all of New Zealand. New Zealanders have been called “kiwis” since Australian soldiers bestowed the name on them in World War I.

All automobiles are imported to Australia. There are no auto manufacturers or assemblers in the country.

New Zealand was the first country to introduce the forty-hour work week, but due to the high cost of living in New Zealand, many people need more than one job to meet their expenses, in spite of the fact that the minimum wage is considered to be sufficient to make tipping unnecessary.

We saw no huge McMansions in either Australia or New Zealand. Expensive homes have two stories instead of one and are more like a middle-size U.S. home with a very small lot.

Sign on a chocolate shop: You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate.

In Australia, snowbirds are called “gray nomads” and go north to Darwin for the winter.

Only fish and flightless birds are native to New Zealand. All other animals have been imported. As a result, there are no predators, and animal overpopulation of some imported species has caused problems.

I started with a checklist of six things I wanted to see and/or experience on our trip. Bonuses not included on that list were: ghost gums, wallabies, koalas, kangaroos, and hearing people say “No worries.”

On our way to Australia, Ted and I ordered a pizza for lunch at LAX. We were carded to get a beer with the pizza. When I asked the server “Really??!!” he said “Yes.” So we look like we might be under 21? Lucky us at our age!

Mark is beyond a doubt the best driver we’ve ever shared a car with. Maybe it’s because he is a retired policeman, but he handled a car more smoothly and safely than anyone in Ted’s and my experience.

Want to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit? Multiply by 2, then add 30. Fahrenheit to Celsius is the opposite: subtract 30, then divide by 2. The answer will be within 0-2 degrees.

Passengers were introduced to the Viking management staff at a short program in the ship’s theater. Each guest was given a glass of champagne, and each crew member also had a glass of champagne. When he introduced himself, the captain raised his glass, then set it aside with the comment, “Designated driver. Again.” The beverage manager closed by saying “Stay hydrated.” The chef claimed responsibility “for the one pound per day you will gain on this cruise,” and the doctor said, “I’d love to meet each of you socially.”

It’s been an amazing six weeks since we left home. I loved the summer weather and we’ve seen and learned so many beautiful and interesting things. Ted and I agree we’d like to re-visit this part of the world.

At the same time, we’ve been breathing smoky air from the bush fires in Australia since we got to Newcastle on December 26. The winds are blowing to the southeast, so smoke and particulates were in the air all the way around Australia from Newcastle to Sydney, Melbourne, and Tasmania, and also during our time in New Zealand. As a result, Ted and I are both coughing and want to get back to clean air. I’ll bet the doctors in this part of the world are doing a booming business from smoke-related illnesses. Like the Australians, we hope rain will come soon, and we wish the firefighters well as they continue to make progress in controlling the fires.

Tracey did an amazing job of selecting train times and getting all the information we needed to find our way to the airport. Mark and Tracey drove us to the train station to see us off. Tracey had already decided which would be the best car to sit in and where to sit in the car, so Mark helped with our luggage (he’s so nice) and got us into our seats. We got off at the right station in Sydney, found the connecting gate to the airport, and arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Thank you, Tracey and Mark.

As we were walking around the airport (exercising before our 16-hour flight to Dallas), we saw these kids. I asked their parents if I could take a picture of them. They are so cute, and they reinforce my point that kids are the same all around the world.

Several years ago, Ted and I decided to fly business class on long flights, and it’s worth every penny. Today’s flight put us on an Airbus 380–the first time we’ve flown on the really big plane with two levels of seating. We’re happy campers (or fliers). The panel beside my shoulder can be raised to the seat top for privacy, if desired.

Naturally, we were among the first to board and we were directed to the upper level where there are only six (large) seats across; the main cabin has ten.

Ted had three windows to look outside (one more is beside him) instead of one-and-a-half like the main cabin.

There’s plenty of legroom.

While the main cabin was boarding, we made our menu selections for our upcoming meals and snacks, put the mattress pads on our seats (it makes them a little softer), put our footrests up, accepted a glass of wine and a bowl of nuts to snack on, and got comfortable. I picked out a movie and started watching it. Yes, that’s a nearly twin-size quilted blanket over my legs (white and charcoal to match the decor) to keep me warm on the chilly plane.

The business class food is delicious! This is the first course. I selected steak for the main course, and then dessert–all pre-ordered as the main cabin boarded, then served on china dishes, not in cardboard boxes. The tomato soup was amazing. I wish I knew which spices they added to it. We had choices for snacks–fruit, ice cream bars, cheese plates, chocolates, etc.–instead of the dry cookie or mini-pretzels served in the main cabin. In fact, we were invited to go to the galley and choose whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted something.

Business class also includes a pair of warm socks and pajamas for overnight flights. This was a Qantas flight, and they have the nicest pj’s we’ve seen–knit fabric with sweatpants-like bottoms and a pull-over top in S-M-L sizes instead of one gigantic size. I think everyone in our cabin put them on within the first 2-3 hours, and they were very comfortable. During most of the flight, when people moved around, it looked like we were all at a big pajama party in matching pj’s.

When we got home–35 hours after leaving Mark and Tracey’s house–it was only two hours later than when we left Sydney on the same day. There were 50 messages on the phone and a warning that the recording space was filled. One message was a reminder about an upcoming appointment; two were from the St. Charles School District (where Ted volunteers) announcing school closings for snow; and 47 were hang-ups. Who knows how many more robo calls we’d have had if there had been more recording space?!

In the kitchen, we found love gifts from Kari: a gallon of milk, a box of cereal, a loaf of bread, and fruit (apples, bananas, and blueberries). Best of all, thank-you notes from her family (we love reading those) and some Christmas candy she’d made because she knew I didn’t. We must have done a lot more right than wrong when we were raising our kids, because they are all adults we are proud of and thankful for in so many ways.

Thom’s family’s Christmas gifts were in the accumulated mail we picked up. The Lego exchange between Thom and me continues. I had to build this right away.

It was a great trip and we’d do it again, but we look forward to being with our family again next Christmas. Now, good-night. I think we’re going to sleep for a week.

Author’s note: We used seven airports for this trip, and DFW wins the prize hands down for grumpiest employees and most inefficient baggage retrieval. Either everyone at DFW was having a bad day or they all work for terrible bosses and hate their jobs. Ted and I always look forward to coming home from overseas and hearing “Welcome home” from the customs officer, but that didn’t happen this time. The DFW customs officer was barely civil to the people passing through. They need to attend a workshop in Australia or New Zealand to see what friendly looks like.

Today, Tracey and Mark took us sightseeing in their area. We drove to some pretty beaches and ended the morning at Nelson Head Reserve, the highest point (175 feet elevation) at Port Stephens. Because there is such a good view of the surrounding water, this point was chosen for the original (now “heritage”) Port Stephens lighthouse.

In my picture below, taken at the top of Nelson Head, you can see a peninsula jutting into the water. Tracey and Mark live on the facing side of the peninsula very close to its tip. That’s what we walked across last night for dinner. The water beyond and in the port area is the Karua River; the village below is Port Stephens, New South Wales.

Moving to the right from the above photo, the space between the two large rocky hills (ancient volcanoes?–I forgot to ask Mark) is the entrance from Port Stephens to the Pacific Ocean.

After our morning driving tour, we bought lunch at another bakery (aka café) and brought it to Lighthouse Beach (near Port Stephens). We sat at a picnic table overlooking the beach.

It’s another hot day and it’s still summer break from school, so there were a lot of people swimming at the beach. Even though I was sitting in the warm sunlight and watching all those school-age kids swim, I couldn’t wrap my head around “summer in January.” My inner logic says this should be July because January is a cold month.

There were some surfers at the beach as well, but the biggest attraction (available in a number of places in the area) is camel rides. It was fun to watch people mounting the camels and then follow their course around the area.

From the mounting area at the parking lot, the camels slowly (and I do mean slowly) ambled behind some sand dunes, then emerged and headed for the beach. They walked in the shallow water a little way and then turned and made the return trip to the mounting area. It was probably a 30-45 minute ride for those who purchased tickets.

We worked our way back around Port Stephens to Soldiers’ Point (where Mark and Tracey live) and stopped at a post office to purchase train tickets for Ted’s and my trip to the Sydney airport tomorrow. The airport is about a 3.5-hour drive from Soldiers’ Point; the train tickets cost us $20 each, That’s much better than Mark and Tracey driving seven hours round-trip to take us to the airport.

Our final stop of the afternoon was at Mark and Tracey’s bowling club, about two blocks from their home. Both of them participate in lawn bowling leagues, and that’s one of the reasons they selected this place to live when they moved here from Newcastle two years ago. Tracey is pretty good, but Mark is nearly professional grade. He regularly wins high-level championships.

Lawn bowls take about twice the width and at least twice the length of bowling alley lanes, so a number of games can be in progress simultaneously on this field. Under the tented roof, it was surprisingly cool and comfortable, given how high the temperature was (upper 80s?). Mark started by placing a small yellow ball on the far end of the field. He then showed Ted how to roll the red balls.

Ted did a good job for his first time, but it was obvious that he’s more used to lane bowling. Mark (after years of playing) could drop the ball smoothly on the grass; Ted had to fight the urge to give it a good thrust so it would make it across the field. With just a gentle toss, the balls rolled surprisingly far. They also curved easily, which Mark used to his advantage and which made some of Ted’s attempts go where he never intended them to go.

The goal of the game was to have the red ball stop as closely as possible to the yellow ball. Ted threw the ball in the foreground, then Mark threw the ball that landed on the white line. Good job, Ted. It’s your first try, and you came really close to the champ’s throw.

After bowling, we went back to Mark and Tracey’s home to visit with them and to give Mark a chance to start dinner. (He’s the cook in the family.) He made a pork roast with cracklings. He roasted the meat in a convection oven after rubbing seasoning into the fat on the top side. The oven made the fat brown and crisp. Mark cut it off and broke it into pieces that tasted like thick bacon. I’ve never had cracklings before, but I might have to try to make them sometime.

While the pork roasted, we went to a neighbor’s apartment and enjoyed appetizers with two other couples who were friends of Mark and Tracey. We all had a very enjoyable and relaxing time. One of the things we discussed was Mark and Tracey’s upcoming trip to the U.S. with these two couples. In June, they are flying to Alaska for a cruise that ends in Vancouver. From there, they are going to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, where they will have four days on their own. We’re going to see if it’s possible for Ted and me to join them in Las Vegas, and I’m going to contact Cheryl and Dave to see if they can come too. It would be so much fun for the six of us to reunite as a group this summer!

We enjoyed our last evening together, but it was bittersweet to end our time with our friends. Here’s hoping we can see them again in June.

Author’s note: From the time we arrived in Sydney, Mark, Tracey, and their friends all called me “Di”–a nickname I’ve never used. When I mentioned that, they said the Australians shorten everything, so I paid attention, and it’s true. Tracey was “Trace” to Mark and their friends, and they all called it “San Fran” when discussing their upcoming trip. Lots of other words were similarly shortened. Tracey explained it as “same, same, different.” We all use English, but we have different names for many of the same things. It was fun exchanging some of the differences. Examples: road train = tractor-trailer truck; car park = parking lot; jam = jelly/jam; jelly = jell-o; lollies = candy; queue = line; petrol = gas; windscreen = windshield; thongs = flip-flops (never underwear). See? “Same, same, different.”

On our 2015 Grand European Cruise, Ted and I became good friends with five couples, and we all still keep in touch with each other. In the 2015 photo below, Ted and I are at the far end on the right side of the table. Since that cruise, we’ve exchanged visits (St. Louis and Las Cruces, NM) with Cheryl and Dave. Cheryl is in the center on the right; Dave is across from her in the baseball cap. Cheryl and Dave have visited Tracey and Mark (in the foreground on the right) in Sydney, and today, Ted and I met Tracey and Mark in Sydney. The other two couples are from Tennessee and California.

Our flight from Auckland arrived in Sydney around 6:00 p.m. We weren’t sure where to go to meet Mark and Tracey and didn’t see signs for “Passenger Pick-up,” so we asked two airport workers who were walking down the corridor near us. They were so-o-o friendly. (Author’s comment: Australians and New Zealanders are, beyond a doubt, the most friendly people we’ve met anywhere overseas. Not that the others are unfriendly, but the Down Under folks go all out. Even the customs officials laugh and joke with the people whose passports they’re examining.)

The two men thought we’d most likely need to go to a nearby doorway but, to be sure, they offered to call Tracey to find out where she was. Australians speak English, but they have their own accent and idioms, and they speak very quickly, so I often have to catch the main words and fill in the blanks. Especially for a phone conversation, it was better to have one Aussie speak to another. The man and Tracey had a brief conversation, determined where all of us were, and sent us to the door at which Mark and Tracey arrived simultaneously. Awesome!

Tracey and Mark live almost three hours north of Sydney, so Tracey made a hotel reservation for a two-bedroom / kitchen / living room / balcony suite for all of us in Sydney tonight. The plan was to spend the evening and tomorrow in Sydney, then go to their home in Soldiers Point for the next two days before Ted and I go back to Sydney to fly home. The hotel was right on the Sydney harbor, so the first thing we did was take a selfie of the four of us with the Harbour Bridge in the background.

After that, we had to take a picture of our 26th-story view of the harbor. You can see the Harbour Bridge in the center and the Sydney Opera House to the left of the bridge.

Ted and I ate on the flight, but Tracey brought some fruit, crackers, etc. for snacks, so we snacked a little bit, then took a cab to The Rocks–so named for the sandstone rocks along the Sydney shore. The area has been developed into an entertainment district. It was Sunday night, so there wasn’t much action, but it was a lovely night to take a walk. And there was a great view of the Sydney Opera House at night.

The next morning, Tracey and Mark performed just as Cheryl and Dave promised us–as an outstanding host and hostess. We started by visiting several wharves on some of Sydney’s quays (that’s pronounced keys in Australia). Each one had a variety of museums, restaurants, and entertainment venues. This one is the King Street Wharf.

A highlight for Ted and me was Bondi (pronounced bon’-dye) Beach. It’s a famous and fabulous beach in Sydney. It was a warm day and it’s summer break from school for the kids, so the beach was crowded.

It’s also a scenic beach . . .

. . . and it’s good for surfing.

We had lunch at a bakery. In Australia, bakeries are more like cafés than a place to buy breads and sweet rolls. Ted and I tried beef pepper pasties. I liked it better than Ted because I like pepper more than he does. It was an adventure for me, however. I had trouble figuring out how to open the ketchup packet. There was no little tab on the corner, but there was a raised hump in the top center. I bent the package backward to pop the hump open–and promptly squirted my shirt, my face, and my hair with ketchup! After a good laugh, Tracey told me you need to open them with the hump on the bottom, then squeeze the bubbles to release the ketchup. Lesson learned, although I didn’t encounter any more ketchup packets during our visit.

Mark and Tracey spent the past week caravaning (“camping with trailers” in the U.S.) with three of their four daughters and sons-in-law and eight of their eleven grandchildren about an hour-and-a-half north of Sydney. The kids were staying for another week, so we stopped to visit with them on our way to Soldiers Point after lunch. (Their fourth daughter’s family lives in the Blue Mountains, about three hours west of Sydney and wasn’t with the group this time.)

Tracey told everyone they needed to talk more slowly so their American friends could understand everyone. They were very hospitable and told the kids (all under 10 years old) that this was a great opportunity to ask us questions about America, so the kids did. Do we have license plates on our cars in America? Does it get cold? Where is St. Louis? After about an hour, one of the daughters said, “I-i-i’ve. Ne-e-ever. Ta-a-alked. Thi-i-is. Slo-o-owly. I-i-in. My-y-y. L-i-i-ife.” and we all laughed–but Ted and I understood every word that everyone said. How gracious and thoughtful of them!

When we arrived at Mark and Tracey’s house, they informed us that they’d invited three couples to join us for dinner at a local restaurant. Soldiers Point is located at the tip of a spit of land that juts into the Karua River. The spit is very narrow, so although Tracey and Mark live on the east side of the little peninsula and the restaurant was on the west side, it was less than a 10-minute walk. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting their friends and we had a delicious dinner and a lovely evening together.

Tracey’s food was so pretty, she wanted a picture of it.

The group eats here regularly, so they generously insisted that Ted and I take the open-air window seats at the table.

There were lots of pelicans in the water.

We watched the sun set while we ate.

The setting became even more romantic when the lights came on.

When we got back to Mark and Tracey’s home, I mentioned that I’d like to see the Southern Cross. We went up to the rooftop patio and Mark pointed it out to me. It’s not as bright as the Big Dipper, but it’s easy to find. Check! And that’s #6 of 6 on my checklist.

Today, Ted and I had a six-hour tour of Auckland and the nearby countryside. Mostly, the drive through the city looked very similar to driving through any American city.

Author’s note: Europe is very different from the U.S.–very old (dating back to medieval times), very crowded, and still using what are probably the original cobblestone streets. Australia and New Zealand are “new” to Westerners (1600s), and there’s lots of space, so we saw many SUVs and superhighways, skyscrapers, and not a single castle or ancient cathedral.

Cornwall Park, however, was unusual. There were lots of joggers, bicyclists, and walkers (Auckland must have a very fit population), but the unusual part was that the park includes a working farm–a condition of the land acquisition. As a result, there are many beautiful park vistas, and also grazing cattle and sheep.

New Zealand has a huge dairy industry. Its biggest customer is China, with a very high demand for NZ powdered milk.

NZ’s merino sheep are famous for their wool. Merino wool feels very soft and silky, and I would have loved to buy a merino wool sweater for myself. Unfortunately, even though it’s very fine/thin, merino wool is also very warm, and I knew I wouldn’t wear the sweater except on the one or two extremely cold days we get in St. Louis each winter. Darn!

After the morning city tour, we had lunch at the Soljan’s Estate Winery, just outside of Auckland. The food was delicious, of course, and so was the wine. We’ve eaten at a number of wineries on our overseas trips and it’s making me think that Ted and I should go to lunch more often at some of the Missouri wineries in the Augusta wine district, only about 20 minutes from our house.

After lunch, we went to Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, a nature preserve which provides a protected habitat for the kauri tree.

The kauri tree is unique because it produces very hard wood that doesn’t rot, making it ideal for building boats and buildings. It also grows very straight and tall–even the branches grow straight out from the trunk–and it is knot-less, so there is little waste when it is cut for lumber. Kauri trees are slow-growing and live for 600-1,000 years, so it takes time to replace them. The kauri tree used to be abundant in New Zealand, but it was cut to the point of near extinction (fewer than 19,000 acres of kauri trees remain) and is now protected by law.

There were several nature trails in the park, so Ted and I chose one and took a lovely walk in the woods. Before embarking on the trail, we were required to clean the soles of our shoes on stiff rolling brushes, then spray them with a disinfectant to avoid bringing contaminants into the forest. When we returned, we had to clean our shoes again before re-joining our group.

The park is set atop a high hill, with beautiful views from some of the trails and from the visitors’ center. If you need guidance, take your picture here.

Yes, it is a good place to take a picture. This is the view from inside the frame in the photo above.

The final leg of our excursion today took us to Auckland’s north shore, and then to Devonport Village, a quaint little town with lots of little shops. Neither Ted nor I wanted to spend our time shopping, so we sat on a park bench and talked with a young New Zealand man for an hour, which was far more interesting. His mother is currently visiting friends and family in Chicago and Toronto. It’s definitely a small world, isn’t it?

After leaving our ship and checking into our hotel, we spent today in Auckland on our own, walking around the city center. The weather was beautiful and the exercise felt good. This part of New Zealand has lots of dead volcanoes–there are 80 in the city of Auckland itself–so it’s a hilly place to walk. Here’s a view of Auckland’s skyline from across the harbor.

One of the first things we noticed downtown was the Farmers department store Christmas decorations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger Santa or bigger reindeer. Of course, it’s Auckland, so there are palm trees along the sidewalk.

The main attraction for us today was the Sky Tower, the iconic landmark of Auckland. The Big Question: Shall we go up the tower during the day and see everything clearly, or shall we wait until evening, when the lights of the city will twinkle into the distance? No problem. For an additional $3 above the senior discount ticket price, we had unlimited access to the top of the tower for 24 hours (within operating hours, of course).

For $225 (NZD) you can also buy a ticket for the SkyWalk and SkyJump. I have a strong will to live, so I voted against that, but we watched other people do it. After you buy your ticket to drop, an attendant opens the locked gate and you climb a few stairs to a platform to be outfitted and tethered to the apparatus that will take you to the top of the tower. This takes 15-20 minutes. Surprisingly, you make the upward journey feet first. I assume the large weight keeps you from swinging around too much in the New Zealand wind.

Question: Why not take the elevator up?

Then it’s another 20-25 minutes before you actually make the drop. I assume this is how long it takes to walk the 360 degrees around the 630-foot high SkyWalk before taking The Plunge. Here’s the guy from the above photo on his way down.

We later talked to a man and his son who had made the jump/fall. They had previously jumped out of airplanes and admitted (slightly disparagingly) that this is not a free-fall. As in “anyone can do this.” (Not me.) They described it as a “very controlled drop.” Notice in the photo above that the person is tethered to a horizontal line that is attached to three vertical lines (one attached to the person). This would certainly make it possible to control the speed of the fall. Still, the drop is 630 feet, and my video of this guy’s drop was 12 seconds, so it’s a short-lived thrill for $225. There’s a point near the base where the brakes are apparently applied, because the falling man slowed dramatically before touching the ground.

Then it was time for Ted and me to go up the tower–in the express elevator, not by wires. The views (also 360 degrees) are great. See the hills in the photo below? Those are some of the 80 dead volcanoes in Auckland.

Can you find McDonald’s?

The pink road is part of the annual breast cancer run.

I have no idea what the dots signify at this intersection.

Auckland is known as the “city of sails.” It definitely has enough wind for sailboats. You can see the harbor bridge in this photo, as well as a marina filled with sailboats.

While we were on the Sky Deck, we took time to enjoy the view and some ice cream. As we were eating, another SkyFall daredevil dropped past this window, adding a little thrill to our ice cream treat.

When we went up the tower after dinner, we were glad we’d gone in the daylight. At night, it was obvious that the windows are filthy–not that I want to be the one to wash them. Even worse, the windows are angled outward so people can look almost straight down, but the interior ceiling lights are on, making it difficult to take a picture without the reflection of the interior lights. Making my best effort, here’s the pink road again–at night (on the right).

Yeah, whatever. What does that mean? Is it a company name? An expression of indifference? A social statement of helplessness?

Here’s a picture of the harbor bridge at night.

Moon over Auckland. A beautiful summer evening.

I took pictures of the Sky Tower by day and by night. It’s a pretty landmark either way.

After our Sky Tower time, Ted and I walked along the waterfront for a little while, then back to our harborside hotel. Last night was our final night onboard the Viking Orion–our home for the past 30 days. We’ve enjoyed our cruises and are sorry they will be ending, but our vacation isn’t over, and it’s always better to leave while you wish you could stay rather than staying until you can’t wait to for it to end. Here’s our ship, ready for its next group of passengers who will be cruising from Auckland to Melbourne–the reverse of what we’ve just done.

Tonight’s onboard entertainment was provided by a group called “Mana Maori.” Mana means a special essence of life, so the performance featured a selection of Maori dances interspersed with spoken information about the Maori culture and some of its dances.

This dance is a peaceful, “let’s have fun together” dance. The skirts are made out of flax, like the demonstration we saw in Rotorua yesterday.

Here’s a celebratory dance in which the women swing white balls on strings around themselves in a variety of patterns. To keep their hands and wrists loose for this, they kept shaking them rapidly between dances. I tried shaking my wrists that quickly, but it’s like belly-dancing or Polynesian hip-wiggling dancing–it obviously takes a lot of practice to make your joints that loose!

My final example from the performance is a war dance. The purpose is to pump up the warriors and to frighten the enemies. Maoris stick out their tongues as far as possible to look fierce. The guy on the right in the photo did a great job of looking fierce. I didn’t want to meet him on the battlefield. Strangely, at the same time, he looked like he could be a lot of fun.

Author’s thoughts: What would happen to racial relations in the U.S. if we followed New Zealand’s example? In 1987, New Zealand passed a law to recognize English, Maori, and sign language as the official languages of the country. After years of punishing Maori people for speaking their native language, Maori is now a required language course in all schools. In addition, New Zealanders recently recognized that history cannot be ignored or buried; it is an integral part of cultural development in a country. As a result, in September 2019, Maori history became a compulsory subject in all schools. What if American schools included the histories of the indigenous Native Americans, the imported African Americans, and other groups of immigrants–including their contributions to American culture–rather than simply mentioning wars, treaties, and laws related to those groups whose histories are embedded in our culture. We are all people, we all have value, and we all like to be recognized for our value as human beings. Think about it.

Ted and I spent today at Rotorua on the northern side of NZ’s North Island. The area is known for its geysers, steam vents, and hot mud pools. We had to drive over an hour to get to Rotorua, and we passed miles of pretty beaches along the way.

We had a five-part day at Te Puia in Rotorua: visits to the Maori cultural center, followed by the Maori heritage workshop, lunch, a walk through the active geothermal area, and a visit to the kiwi habitat.

The cultural center was very much like the New Zealand part of the Polynesian Cultural Center that we visited in Hawai’i two years ago, but with the addition of a welcoming ceremony in which we took part. We selected a chief from our group (George), and he received instructions about his role in the ceremony. To begin the ceremony, a warrior of the tribe attending the ceremony approached the chief (George), making war-like noises and actions. George did not react (indicating he wanted peace, not war), so the warrior offered George a leaf as a sign that the warriors are attending in peace. The chief (George) accepted the leaf, gave the warrior a strong handshake, and bumped noses with him twice. This is a sign of sharing the breath of life and reminds us that we all live in this air together. One of the Maori also told us this is why the Maori have flat noses.

Inside the building, a performing group did six or seven cultural dances–some with the men performing, some with the women performing, and some in which they danced together, including a love song dance used for marriages. The white streaks above the girls’ heads in the second photo below are sticks that they toss back and forth–training for quick hand-eye coordination which is helpful in battle. We were reminded that the Maori don’t lose wars. They are the only indigenous tribe in the world that was not defeated by its invaders (the British). We were also reminded that early Maori were cannibals.

A number of men from our tour group were invited to come onstage to learn a haka–a chant that warriors (including the All-Blacks, NZ’s famous rugby team) perform to pump themselves up before a battle or a game. Do these guys look pumped up?

The next stop was the Maori cultural heritage workshop. In recent years, the Maori people have been increasingly recognized as an important part of New Zealand history. The Maori language and history are now required school subjects for all students, and Maori is one of the three official languages of New Zealand (English, Maori, and sign language).

In the recent past, Maori were punished for speaking their native language in school and in public. To keep their culture alive, this intense workshop accepts only five students per term and teaches them to become master craftsmen in the Maori arts. As a nod to progress, some of the Maori objects are now made out of metals and other more durable materials instead of wood. Although most students are young, some older people also take the classes because they did not learn these arts when they were younger.

Our guide showed us how the Maori make clothing and other objects out of flax (the green leaf he’s holding). First, lay the leaf on the light-colored board in front of the guide and score it with a sharpened clam shell to determine a pattern, according to marks made on the board in advance. Then use the clam shell to scrape the green outer layer away from the fibrous inner layer (like running a scissors blade over gift box ribbon to make it curl). Doing this repeatedly separates all the fibers and also coats them with wax from the outer layer, making the fibers stronger (the tan drooping part of the leaf the guide is holding). The part of the leaf with the pattern (white marks on his leaf) remains and is stained to produce the desired pattern. To make stronger fibers for belts, etc., the guide rolled the fluffy, separated fibers together by holding the two ends and running the length of the taut fibers up and down his thigh. We had a chance to hold his finished product and to test its strength. Very soft loose fibers; very strong rolled fibers.

Here are some wrap-around skirts the Maori make from the flax leaves.

There are carvings of Maori gods along the pathways of Te Puia and each has its name beneath it. Our guide told us that the Maori alphabet has no f, but the wh makes an f sound. That means this god’s name is pronounced “Fera.” Sticking the tongue out as far as possible is a Maori gesture of fierceness.

After lunch, we walked through the main part of the geothermal field. The mud fields don’t look spectacular, but they are dangerous. What looks like solid ground in these areas probably isn’t. As our guide put it, the good thing about falling into these is that you won’t have arthritis anymore; the bad thing is that your bones will be very clean, because you will be that well cooked. The mud in the second picture was actually bubbling because it was so hot. The arrows point to some bubbles that are bursting at the surface.

There are steam vents everywhere in this area. We could feel the warmth as we walked by them.

This is the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere (i.e., New Zealand). It is very active and erupts for about 40-50 minutes, then rests for about 20 minutes before erupting for another 40-50 minutes.

The lake on the right in this picture ranges from 50-100 degrees. It is illegal to swim in it, but our guide said people have been swimming in it for hundreds of years anyway. It’s very sulfurous, so it’s probably good for what ails you.

Our tour did not include a steam-cooked picnic lunch, but that’s an option. When you arrive at the park, you can order your meal. It’s put into the oven that straddles a steam vent in the first picture below. When it’s lunchtime, your meal has been cooked in a natural pressure cooker and is served to you at a picnic table in the geyser field.

There are steam vents all around this area of NZ, including on private property. Some people fashion a lid for a steam vent in their yard and put their dinner into the vent before leaving for work. When they come home, dinner is ready–a natural slow-cooker. You can see by this picture how widespread the steam vents are–there’s steam everywhere. In fact, the entire city of Rotorua smells like sulfur, but the people living there don’t even notice it and we didn’t either after being there all day.

Our last stop before heading back to our ship for dinner was the kiwi bird sanctuary. Kiwis like to sleep during the day and come out at night, so the sanctuary has a dark indoor habitat for some of the birds. No photos were allowed in the darkened building and we were required to remain silent because light and noise disturb the kiwis. I settled for a picture of a stuffed kiwi bird on display.

Ted and I have now seen geothermic land features in Yellowstone, Iceland and New Zealand. In our opinion, Yellowstone is the best place to see them because there’s such a wide variety of geothermal features in that park. Iceland is second, and we rank New Zealand third. All of them were worth seeing.

One thing Ted and I have noticed about combining two consecutive cruises (Bali to Sydney; Sydney to Auckland) with the same cruise line is that there’s some repetition in shipboard activities. A happy repetition is the choco-fest event. Tonight was the night to repeat that one.

For about 45 minutes, we watched the chef’s staff bring in tray after tray of chocolate goodies. Whatever they brought and placed on the table was then moved–sometimes very slightly–by the head chef so everything would be perfect. That colored stuff (blue, green, white) is sugar, boiled and combined with frosting, then formed into shapes for decoration.

Ted and I chuckled when we saw the staff bring in a blue plastic crate that busboys use to carry dishes around, then wrap it in a tablecloth and set it on the table to use as a platform.

Here comes the chef’s pièce de résistance.

The chef helps the staff set it carefully on the table.

How do we know it’s tonight’s masterpiece? Because immediately after placing it, the chef and staff lined up to take pictures of it.

Here it is–a special cake bringing attention to the severe fires in Australia, with the Australian flag, a koala, and a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch.

Here’s the finished table with chocolate galore. But Mr. Chef, . . . I saw that “Great Barrier Reef” piece of chocolate two weeks ago. Remember that busboy crate I mentioned above? Look at what the fondue pot is standing on.

Let the gorging begin.

Author’s note: Comments overheard from onlookers during this process included “I think I feel a cavity coming on” and “If this were Carnival instead of Viking, everything would be gone before it was all set up.”

I saw some interesting things as we passed through Napier this morning. One was a restaurant called The Frying Dutchman. My high school was the home of the Flying Dutchmen and had a wooden shoe with wings as its logo.

I also got a kick out of the Donut Robot. The cashier was sitting in the front behind the raised awning. According to the message on the back, he offers “hot, freshly made donuts all day long and tomorrow.” I’m not sure about the next day.

When we returned to our stateroom after our morning city tour, Ted and I heard band music. We went out onto our terrace and saw a band, a row of antique cars, and drivers dressed in vintage clothing singing along with the band. One of the city excursions today was a four-hour city tour in an antique automobile. The cost: $249 per person. After the tour, I think the drivers and the band stayed to perform as a farewell from the city to its visitors.

Ted and I decided to have lunch at the Pool Grill today. It’s the most casual restaurant onboard, allowing people to come in swimsuits (with a cover-up). It’s also a pretty setting and has great hamburgers.

The Pool Grill seating is–where else?–poolside. In the photo below, you can see a man showering before entering the pool. He looks like it’s the best shower he’s ever had.

Our time onboard our ship will end in a few days so, after lunch, we made use of the ship’s free laundry (one on each deck) to freshen our clothes for our upcoming off-ship time in Auckland and Sydney. It was tricky getting to and from the laundry because the Pacific Ocean decided to get active. The swells this afternoon are higher than we had in the Tasman Sea.

As I was heading out of our stateroom with a load of laundry, I found myself doing a little quick-step run toward the door because the ship rolled in that direction. People are zigzagging down the hallways as the ship rocks back and forth. I thought the swells were big when we left the port of Napier, but they keep getting bigger. My camera captured a rainbow above a splashing wave. I took these pictures from Deck 5 and the swells always look much higher closer to eye level. I’m looking forward to the ship rocking us to sleep tonight.

Ted’s and my day started with a bus tour of Napier, NZ. Napier was greatly damaged by the 1931 earthquake. Every building in the business district collapsed, fires burned for 36 hours, the infrastructure was completely inoperable, etc., etc. As a result, much of the city needed to be rebuilt and so, it reflects the art deco architecture popular in the 1930s. These small houses (more like cottages in the U.S.) sell for $400,000-$500,000.

Notice how small the lawns are. They’re not any larger on the other sides of the houses, and much of the property is used for a small garden and automobile parking. I didn’t see any swing sets, swimming pools, or patios.

There are not many two-story houses in Napier because they are too expensive. The neighborhood in the picture below was described as “posh,” and these houses sell for about $1 million; if they have a pretty view, the price goes to at least $2 million. For all that money, they don’t have very much land either. Overnight street parking is not possible, so garages are often built in front of the houses, or cars are parked on the front lawns or beside the houses.

I’m amazed at the way housing is built on the mountainsides in NZ. Yesterday, we saw houses with nearly vertical funiculars to avoid climbing several hundred stairs from the street to the front door; today we saw a steep staircase with a lot more steps than I’d want to climb if I forgot something in the house or in the car. Ted and I have seen carports that are level with the front of the house and have support posts at least 40-50 feet tall on the opposite end. Photos don’t provide the depth of field needed to show how steep the hillsides behind these houses are, but notice that there are several levels of homes all the way to the top.

Moving on to the shoreline, Napier has a beautiful park that seems to extend for several miles. There are swimming pools (the ocean water is cold here), sports fields, playgrounds, gardens, sculptures, and more. The “junior bike track” part of the playground provides driving practice for young children. They can ride their bikes and learn to follow traffic lights, signs, etc. Our guide suggested the kids probably forget all of this when they get behind the wheel of a real car.

The first park sculpture below is “Freedom Lady” and honors the women who took care of everything on the home front while the men went to war. It also represents the strength of women. The second sculpture is called “Millenium.” Napier decided it was the first city in the world on which the sunrise could be seen on January 1, 2000, so the disc in this sculpture is placed directly above the spot at which the sun rose on that day.

Other places in the park are simply beautiful. There were a lot of people biking on the bike trail, swimming in the pools, skating in the skate park, and playing on the playgrounds. I was surprised at the number of young children in the park on a Tuesday morning until our guide mentioned that the kids are on their summer break now and will go back to school later in January. Of course: summer break over Christmas in December and January, right?

Napier has a temperate climate and can grow just about anything; however when an Englishman came to Napier and decided to grow tobacco, he built this city-block-size building before he discovered that tobacco might be the only thing that doesn’t grow well in Napier.

As we headed back to our ship, I had a pretty view of the city. You can see how steep the land is; you can see how the houses are built up the steep mountainsides; and you can get a good look at how the needles on the Norfolk (aka Cook) pine grow only upward and not in other directions on the branches.

“Welly” is the nickname for Wellington, the capital city of NZ. It has the distinction of being the windiest city in the southern hemisphere and the southernmost capital city of any independent nation. We also learned today that Wellington is the coffee and craft beer capital of NZ. Woo-ee!

Welly sits on the Cook Strait, the water channel that separates the north and south islands of NZ, contributing to its winds which average 36 mph or greater 270 days per year. Here’s a wind chart that I saw today. We felt like Force 7 on land and Force 8 on the jet boat on yesterday’s excursion.

Wellington sits on or near 10 major fault lines. Isn’t the Ring of Fire fun? There was a bad earthquake here in 2016, but the damage and loss of life was far less than that of the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch.

Welly is also the movie capital of NZ. “The Lord of the Rings” was filmed here and our cruise line offered several tours that took people to movie sites and studios used for the film. The director of that movie placed a Hollywood-like city sign on a mountainside overlooking the city. Because of Welly’s high winds, the “o” and “n” are blowing away. (Cute.)

Author’s note: There’s a city sign like this in Medora, ND too, but its fame doesn’t go too far outside of ND.

Every city in NZ seems to have a botanical garden, and Wellington is no exception. The garden was our first tour stop. There was a small fountain at the center of the garden. We were about 100 feet away from it when a strong gust of wind passed through and we could feel spray from the fountain–even at that distance!. As a windy city, Wellington beats Chicago, hands down. The trees with the red blooms are usually called “Christmas trees” because they bloom at Christmas. They were really pretty.

Wellington is known as a very bicycle-friendly city. The bike lanes are marked in green (first picture below). If you ride a bike, you also have the right to move to the front of the line in traffic without passing “Go” at stoplights (second picture below). In NZ, McDonald’s is referred to as “the American embassy.”

These houses are four of what are called the “Seven Sisters”–seven similar houses in a row. If you buy one of these, you must sign documents that say you may make changes inside the house, but must keep the exterior as it is.

The entire side of one building was decorated with fish. The red boards on top of the car at the bottom of the picture look fish-like too. Or maybe like lips.

New Zealand is made up of small islands, but they are mountainous, so there are very steep hills everywhere in Wellington. (So what makes the city so bicycle-friendly?) In many places, the house behind another house is higher than the roof of the house in front of it. People who can afford it often install personal funiculars to take them from street level up to their houses so they don’t have to climb all those stairs. The white tube on the right is a funicular track; the funicular car is parked at the house (red arrow), so I think the inhabitants are probably at home now. Notice how vertical the funicular track is.

This was the original Parliament building, now used by the university. It was thought that stone was too dangerous for the exterior because of earthquakes, so the building was constructed of wood. The architect, however, designed it so that the exterior looks like stone–more appropriate for a government building.

Our final stop was at the top of Mt. Victoria, named for the English queen, of course. From the top of the mountain, we could see the city beneath us in every direction.

At the top of Mt. Victoria, there is a striking sculpture. The opposite end of the structure has a flat face with a bust of Admiral Richard Perry.

Our driver told us that NZ is a very progressive country. They gave voting rights to women forty years before the U.S. did, and they have a woman Prime Minister who is very popular. After her election, she announced that she was pregnant, which led to many male leaders insisting she should have made that information public before the election and questioning how she would govern with a baby and toys all over the government buildings. Her response was, “I’m not dying; I’m having a baby.”

Another sign of NZ’s progressiveness might be the rest room doors. Gender identification issues? No problem.

Christchurch, NZ is named for Christ Church, Oxford (England). It is on the Canterbury Plains, a large, flat agricultural area that ends at the foothills of the Southern Alps. Christchurch is also a well-known gateway to Antarctica, so many Antarctic expeditions leave from the city. The USAF has an Antarctica weather simulator in Christchurch. It simulates any weather conditions that might occur in Antarctica and is used for training people who are going there.

Today, Ted and I had a two-hour ride through the Canterbury Plains on our way to the Southern Alps. Facts we learned on the drive: (1) There are more sheep than people in New Zealand; (2) dairy farms are prolific because China is a huge market for NZ’s powdered milk; (3) fields in NZ are paddocks; (4) farms in NZ are stations; and (5) forest fires in NZ are bush fires. The white spots in the paddock in the first picture are sheep. What else?

Strong winds are a daily part of life in this region, so the flat paddocks are broken by many, many windbreaks that enclose small areas. The windbreaks consist of a row of pine trees, trimmed along the sides and the tops by professional companies, usually annually. I had a glimpse of the top of a windbreak once and the full-size, sawn-off tree trunks were visible. They are cut off because, otherwise, they will become so tall that the winds will blow them over. The sides of the windbreaks are trimmed back so they will grow fuller. The windbreaks are 15-20 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide and they are so dense, you can’t see through them.

The field in the first photo below has windbreaks around three of its sides. The second photo is a “cloud picture” for my meteorologist travel partner. Note that both pictures feature lenticular clouds–indications of very high winds aloft. (That was meteorologist-speak.)

The real fun began today with a jet boat ride on the Waimakariri River through the Waimakariri Gorge. (Note to Jeff: You should have bought a jet boat instead of jet skis. Or maybe in addition to jet skis.) The weather is cold today (mid-50s) and the winds were 60-70 mph in the gorge–about 40-50 mph elsewhere. I think this area must have only one hairstyle: windblown. The boat pilots told us it hasn’t been this windy for weeks. (Yeah, right.) They also mentioned that the river is unusually low. Three weeks ago, it was flowing at 800 cubic meters per second; today it was flowing at 60 cubic meters per second. What a ride we could have had three weeks ago!

Here we are, outfitted in layers of jackets to keep warm, then protected by a “spray jacket” to keep us dry, and a life preserver. We were advised to wear sunglasses because of the wind blowing against the forward speed of the boat. There were times the wind blew so hard against my sunglasses that it was painful. I actually have small bruises on each side of my nose from the wind pressure against my sunglasses.

Our group was put into two boats. The boats go about 50 miles an hour–a little less upstream and a little more downstream–and are capable of spinning 360 degrees, creating a lot of spray. The pilots had fun spinning us around and zigzagging back and forth down the river as if we were slalom skiing.

The scenery was amazing. There was a beautiful view around every bend of the river. You can see how low the river is because the gray stoney material is usually underwater. The jet boats don’t need much water depth. They take in water through a port in the bottom and spew it out of a port in the back. Our boats launched at the point shown in the first picture and, yes, we went forward through that shallow water in the third picture.

This train bridge was built by the British because they didn’t trust the New Zealanders to do it (or so our pilot told us). The upright rails along the track are 15 feet tall and are separated to break the wind. Without them, there’s a strong possibility the wind would blow the train off the tracks.

After the fun of the jet boat sightseeing adventure (we did at least six 360-degree turns just for joy), it was time for lunch; then we piled into four-wheel drive vehicles for an off-road ride through more gorgeous scenery.

The “off-road” description was accurate: sometimes we drove across paddocks and, when there was a dirt trail, it had to be negotiated carefully by our drivers to avoid rocks, etc. that would damage the undercarriage. Our destination was a high point with amazing views in every direction. The river in the fourth picture below is the one we followed in the jet boats. Standing on a high point and seeing the Southern Alps in every direction reminded me of our views of the Swiss Alps from Gornergrat last summer, even though the mountains are different.

On the way back to our ship, our bus driver took us on a tour of Christchurch. We didn’t make any stops because we needed to return before the ship’s sailing time, but the Cardboard Cathedral was definitely a point of interest. The Transitional Cathedral was significantly damaged in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and the Cardboard Cathedral was erected in 2013 as a temporary substitute. It is made of 24-inch diameter cardboard tubes, timber, and steel. The roof is polycarbon, and eight shipping containers form the walls. It has become the most iconic landmark of Christchurch.

We also saw an interesting bridge. The structure is located on an overpass on the approach to the Christchurch airport. The architect intended it to frame the mountains behind the airport. Unfortunately, a hotel was built between the overpass and the mountains, so the bridge structure now frames a high-rise hotel instead. C’est la vie?

The mountains we saw were, technically, the foothills of the Southern Alps. There is a train that runs from Christchurch to the west coast of the southern island of NZ, crossing the Southern Alps. Our guide said it’s a beautiful ride in the winter when the mountains have snow. Unfortunately, we spent only one day in Christchurch, so there wasn’t time to include the train ride in our schedule. It’s a good reason for us to come back another time.

For 65 hours, Ted and I sailed across the Tasman Sea on our way from Melbourne, Australia to Dunedin, New Zealand. Just so you know, it’s pronounced duh-nee’-din. Dunedin is a Scottish city and its name is a translation of Edinburgh; therefore, the city is named after Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Tasman Sea is situated in latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south–otherwise known as the “roaring 40s.” Farther south are the howling 50s and the screaming 60s. The seas in these latitudes have high winds and high swells because of (1) the rotation of the earth, and (2) the lack of large land masses to break the winds. As a result, our captain, who gives us an update every day at noon, has been informing us of 30-foot swells and winds of 40-50 knots (gale force).

We haven’t been in danger, but it’s been difficult to walk a straight line on the ship. Last night, my dish of dessert was delivered on a plate and, due to a large swell and the rocking of the ship, nearly slid off the plate as the server reached to put it on the table in front of me. The server caught her balance by putting her hand on our table, thus avoiding falling into my lap. On the other hand, everyone has been commenting on how well we’re sleeping. It’s like being rocked in a cradle.

This photo was taken from Deck 7. The waves look much higher from Deck 2 when they are closer to eye level. The large swell on the right is probably a 30-foot one. When the swells are 6-10 feet high, the water looks calm from Deck 7.

Some of the very large swells are wide and curled on the top. We can often see wind-blown spray at the tops of the swells.

We expected to spend today in Dunedin, but had a surprise early morning announcement from the captain. The safety level for us to enter Port Chalmers (the port for Dunedin) is winds at 35 knots. This morning’s winds were blowing at 40-50 knots–gale force–and there was no indication of a change in the weather. We were unable to safely dock in Port Chalmers and will not be visiting Dunedin after all. The captain made arrangements to berth early in Christchurch, so we’re spending another day at sea and will be arriving in Christchurch this evening.

Ted and I went to the port talk about Dunedin yesterday. Port talks are presented by the cruise director and give us information about the city we’ll be visiting. At 19 degrees (35 percent), Dunedin’s Baldwin Street was the steepest street in the world until 2019, when it lost the title to a street in Wales that has a 37.45 percent slope. Baldwin Street is short (1.8 miles) and straight. Each year, the Cadbury factory in Dunedin sponsors a candy roll of 25,000 Jaffas down Baldwin Street. The candy roll benefits three charities, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The annual event is called “The Running of the Balls.”

We started the new year with a visit to Hobart, the capital city of the fabled island of Tasmania, located at the foot of majestic Mt. Wellington.

The city is currently considering whether or not to add a cable car line to the top of Mt. Wellington. Our guide compared the debate to building a casino: there are always some people for it and some people against it. Those in favor of the cable car think it will raise money and boost tourism; those against it think it will make Hobart like every other mountain city. They also think people should see Mt. Wellington as it is, not with a cable car scarring its face.

But back to Hobart. This city is the second oldest capital in Australia (after Sydney) and has the second-deepest natural harbor in the world (after Sydney). Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state, was originally founded as a penal colony for some 300 inmates. The island/archipelago is a picturesque setting of exceptional beauty.

As we crossed the Derwent River, our guide shared an interesting story about the Tasman Bridge, shown in the photo below.

In 1975, a zinc ore carrier went off course. (The captain was later charged for not paying attention to conditions.) Instead of going through the space between the two center pilings, the ship crashed into a piling in the wide space to the right of the center opening, causing a large section of the bridge deck to collapse on top of the ship, killing seven crew members. The bridge collapse also caused four cars to drop into the water, killing five more people.

It was dark and the bridge deck was unlighted, but one man managed to stop his car with the front wheels hanging over the edge of the broken deck. He escaped from his car and frantically tried to wave other cars to stop, but two drivers ignored him and even drove around him, falling into the river. The river is 115 feet deep, so the ship is still lying on the river bottom, stuck in silt. The name of the carrier ship was the Lake Illawarra, so locals like to say that this is the only river in the world with a lake at its bottom.

Our prettiest stop this morning was the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. This is a mixed garden, with things that will flower at various times of the year.

Here is some yucca and a beautiful azalea bush.

Japanese gardens are always pretty, peaceful, and have water features.

There was a mixture of plants around this pool.

This pretty display was in one of the greenhouses.

This afternoon, we left Australia to go to Dunedin, New Zealand. This is called crossing “the Ditch”–the Australian/New Zealand equivalent of crossing “the Pond” between the U.S. and England in the North Atlantic.

The Tasman Sea is known for frequent high wind activity, and our captain has cautioned us to “make good use of the handrails” over the next two days. The weather forecast is for winds of 45 mph or more, with swells of up to 30-60 feet. In the captain’s words, “the ship will experience some rolling.”

We crossed a portion of the Tasman Sea on our way from Sydney to Melbourne and had 50-mph winds and 15-foot swells that caused all of us to walk irregularly. It’s a weird feeling. As you walk, when one foot is in the air and heading for the floor, the roll of the ship forces you to put it down in an unexpected place to keep your balance, causing your forward motion to zigzag. As we maneuvered our way around the ship, we all tended to look as if we were drunk. With expected swells up to four times that, it looks like we have an adventure ahead. Note: Our steward, who is experienced being at sea, advised us to sleep with one leg extended and bent at the knee to provide support and keep us in our bed.

After the kids left home, a typical New Year’s Eve for Ted and me (if he wasn’t working) included Ted, me, Christmas cookies and candy, and a DVD movie in the family room. This year, we celebrated with lots of new friends–our shipmates and crew.

We started with dinner in one of the nicer restaurants onboard. After that, we went to a movie with 200+ other people–An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (1957). We’d seen it before, but it’s a classic for a reason.

After the movie, we joined at least 400 shipmates in the Winter Garden, which opens to the pool deck. The party was already underway when we arrived.

The Viking band and entertainment crew provided upbeat, energetic live music, so we danced, we twisted, we sang along with “Sweet Caroline” (“bop, bop, bop, . . . so good, so good, so good”), and we formed all the letters of “YMCA.” You’re never too old to party!

It’s 11:45 p.m. and we’re ready for midnight.

Here comes the countdown.

When the countdown reached zero, the ship’s horn belted out a long, deep blast (we’re at sea with no one around) and the party room was filled with cheering, noisemakers, good wishes, and “Auld Lang Syne.” Happy new year from both of us. It’s a new decade with new adventures on the way.

First, it’s not “Mel’-born” or “Mel’-burn,” it’s “Mel’-bn.” It sounds like you might be saying “Melvin.” BTW, we also figured out that “eye’-deen” means “eighteen.”

It was hot in Melbourne today. Tomorrow’s forecast high is 68 degrees–quite a change. In Melbourne, the weather adage is “We can have four seasons in a day.”

Because of the heat, three outdoor excursions were cancelled by the tour operators, including ours. We expected a nine-hour day beginning with a ride on a vintage narrow-gauge train through the mountains to a winery for lunch and wine tasting. After lunch, we’d continue on the train across the Great Dividing Range and stop at a wildlife sanctuary with 200+ species of native wildlife in a natural bush setting. Instead, we got a refund and had a five-hour tour of “Melbourne by land and by water,” which meant a city bus tour and a river cruise. It was disappointing, but at least we saw something in the area.

We lucked out because most of the morning was cloudy, so the heat wasn’t unbearable. Shortly after lunch, however, the sun burned off the clouds and the temperature skyrocketed. At that point, it was obvious that cancelling the outdoor excursions was a good move. Like the Southwest U.S., Melbourne has a dry heat, but 107 degrees under a burning sun is still mighty hot.

Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria, was built on gold mining and is the wealthiest city in Australia. It has also been called the world’s most livable city. It’s very clean and has great public transportation, a thriving economy, and lots of recreational green space. The Yarra River flows through the city and there’s a “bike track” on both sides along its entire length. In places, it’s such pretty parkland that you could forget you’re biking in the city. Spanning the river is a pedestrian bridge decorated for Christmas.

The building in the picture below is the Memorial of Remembrance. It was built to honor all those from Victoria who served in wars since the Boer War in Africa in 1899.

Two high-rise buildings mark the city’s skyline. The building on the left is not quite finished. It was supposed to be 108 stories tall, making it the tallest building in Australia, but at some point, people who know this kind of thing realized that 108 stories would cast a shadow on the Memorial of Remembrance, so construction stopped at 102 stories. The building is now known as “the 102.”

The building on the right has a red stripe on its side (beginning in the yellow area near the top of the building). This red stripe also pays homage to all the soldiers from Victoria who have fought and died in wars.

To the right of the tall buildings is a narrow white structure. It was a gift to Melbourne from France and is called the little Eiffel Tower.

Our final stop was the city’s Fitzroy Gardens, a 64-acre slice of England in Australia. Within the garden is a building known as Captain Cook’s house. The bricks and building materials were shipped from England in barrels and the house was constructed in Melbourne. Captain Cook never lived in it.

There were a lot of pretty scenes in the park and also a miniature Tudor village and an interesting tree called the Fairy Tree.

As we were walking, riding, and sailing through Melbourne, I saw some oddly interesting things. If you live above Goody’s Burger House and don’t have a yard, put your inflatable Christmas decorations on the balcony.

The Travelodge hotel had a large golden bee on its roof (referring to the city’s wealth from gold) and another crawling up an exterior wall.

The Finders (short i) Street train station–which is huge–has lots of clocks on its front. Since digital time is so popular now, none of these clocks works.

I saw more than one of this style of sculpture around the city. I can’t even guess at the artist’s message.

Back in our stateroom, we looked into the adjoining harbor. The blue and white ship must be very tall, because it looks like it’s resting on land.

After our tour and a late lunch, Ted went somewhere on the ship for coffee and I went to what’s called the living room, to read my book for awhile. There weren’t many people there, it was quiet, and there was some soft music playing. Lovely. And cool.

After dinner, we went to the ship’s theater for a presentation by the Gertrude Opera Company, a small private group from Melbourne. The narrator was very amusing, and told us he’d take us through 400 years of opera in 45 minutes. He did. I found it interesting that opera is the most enduring form of musical entertainment, that it was very popular in the western frontier states in the U.S., and that it is, indeed, the basis of soap opera. He referred to Giuseppe Verdi as “actually, George Green,” and pointed out how many operas have been used in advertising and even in Bugs Bunny cartoons, e.g., “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Barber of Seville.” Opera can be fun.

We sailed into Sydney in the darkness of the wee hours of the morning two days ago, so I doubt if many people were out on the decks admiring the harbor. However, we left Sydney shortly after 6:00 p.m. last night (sunset around 8:10 p.m.), and the decks were filled with passengers and crew, cameras in hand. Sydney has the largest and deepest natural harbor in the world, and it’s also one of the most beautiful. Because our ship is small, it fits under the Harbour Bridge, so we docked closer to the city and sailed out under the bridge and past the Sydney Opera House. Leaving the city (or entering it) is a scenic trip in itself. I’m not surprised there are so many harbour cruises available from the city docks.

If you look carefully at the pictures below, you can see people standing on the upper levels of the bridge towers and on the bridge girders. They are doing the Bridge Climb. It costs $174 AUD to climb the bridge. If you do it, you get a blue baseball cap that says “Sydney Bridge Climb” in discreet small letters on the back. The topmost part of the bridge is 440 feet above the water. I’m not sure how high you have to climb to get the cap. Did I say that the harbor winds (the harbor is a wind tunnel) were blowing at 50+ mph as we sailed beneath the bridge? Note that the wind is holding the flag straight out. Another thing to mention: no backpacks, purses, cameras, or cell phones are allowed on the Bridge Climb. You can’t even take a picture from the top!

We have some beautiful pictures of the Sydney Opera House from the harbor side and some views of the city skyline. You can see the reflection of the red wildfire sunset on the water.

Yes, we were here too. We were at the stern of the ship, so this area had some protection from the wind. Walking forward into the wind along the side of the ship was a challenge.

It’s easy to see where the edge of the wildfire smoke is.

Ted and I both liked Sydney and we’re glad we’ll be back here in two weeks.

Yesterday, Ted and I had a 9-hour excursion on shore. We traveled almost two hours west of Sydney to the Blue Mountains. The mountains got their name because there are many eucalyptus trees in the forests. The trees produce so much moisture through transpiration that a mist forms over the rainforests. The result looks a lot like the Great Smoky Mountains in the U.S. When the sun hits the mist, it reflects a blue color; thus, the Blue Mountains. We saw shrouded mountains, but not because of the blue mist. Large wildfires are burning west of Sydney and the air was filled with smoke. Sometimes we could even smell the wood burning.

We drove from sea level (Sydney) to about 3,500 feet in elevation and saw beautiful mountain scenery. Our destination point for the morning was Scenic World–a privately-owned operation set in the Blue Mountains. My closest analogy would be licenses for the private tour boats, etc. that take visitors through the Wisconsin Dells, which is not private land.

Scenic World begins with a Scenic Skyway tram taking us to the Scenic World Top Station. My limited creative juices urged me to take a picture of the incoming tram through a knothole.

We had free time to spend at the top of the mountain and enjoyed many pretty views. The most famous is the Three Sisters.

The sisters’ father was a witch doctor of the aboriginal Katoomba tribe. (There were over 200 aboriginal tribes in Australia.) The girls fell in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, but tribal law forbade them to marry. The brothers didn’t want to accept this law, so they decided to use force to capture the sisters, causing a major tribal battle. The sisters’ lives were endangered, so a witch doctor turned them to stone to protect them from harm. He intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, but he was killed. Since only he could reverse the spell, the sisters remain in a magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle. There are other versions of the story, but they basically follow the same pattern–sisters turned to stone by witchcraft and destined to remain in stone because the one who cast the spell died before he could reverse it. The Three Sisters are the group of three rock formations in the center of the picture below.

Proof that Ted and I were here.

Here are some of the pretty views from the mountaintop. Remember: that’s not mist; it’s wildfire smoke.

The mountain area in which Scenic World is located was once a rich coal mining field. To reach our next destination in Scenic World–the rainforest–we took a modernized version of a mine car called the Scenic Railway (several connected modern mine cars) to the bottom of the mountain. The incline down the mountain was at 52 degrees. Look at the seats in the picture of the original mine car; then look at the people in the front seat of the modern car. The position of the seats in both cars is the same. When we got into the car, we felt like we were reclining (we were!), but going down the hill, we were sitting upright because of the steep drop.

After arriving safely at the bottom of the mountain, we followed the Scenic Walkway through a rainforest. Ted and I have already visited two rainforests in much greater depth than this, so I’m only including an interesting rock formation we saw that reminded both of us of the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire. It might even look a little bit like Abraham Lincoln. (The NH old man lost his nose a number of years ago.)

When it was time to return to our starting point to drive to lunch, we took the Scenic Cableway back to the mountaintop. In case you didn’t notice, there’s a running theme in the park’s name and its forms of transport.

We had a delicious lunch at a hotel in Leura, a small mountain town. While we were eating, we noticed that the smoke outdoors became much denser and even reached a point at which we could see no farther than the hotel patio outside the dining room windows. The waitress told us the firefighters were doing a back burn, trying to stop a nearby wildfire.

Driving east back to Sydney, the smoke density decreased, although Sydney’s skies are brown and the sunsets feature a bright red ball of sun in a hazy sky. We passed the park in which Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympic Games. It was easy to find the park from the highway because it’s marked with a huge athlete that towers over the landscape.

It was an interesting day, but after nine hours, it was good to come “home” to our ship.

The Queensland license plate. Queensland averages 300 days of sunshine annually. That trumps Florida.

Seen outside a shop in Newcastle.

Bird rest stop? Luckily, this wasn’t our dock in Newcastle.

Interesting trees in Newcastle–some young, some more filled out. All the needles grow vertically upward on the upper side of the branches instead of outward all the way around the branches.

Why include the figure of an entire person on the pedestrian sign when it’s the feet that do the walking?

Alvin, our steward, keeps our minifridge stocked with Toblerone bars daily.

As we sailed in the Bass Strait, we saw a school of dolphins at play.

Yesterday was the last day of our first cruise, so a lot of people headed for the airports and other destinations this morning. New passengers who will be visiting southern Australia and New Zealand with us on our next cruise are coming aboard. It’s been a busy day for the ship’s staff.

Ted and I, on the other hand, had no plans, so we took the cruise-provided ferry shuttle from our port to the Circular Quay, where the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House are located.

When we got off the ferry, it was immediately obvious that the Circular Quay (pronounced “key” in Australia) is a happenin’ place.

The Circular Quay is exactly that–a circular shaped body of water with an open end. At the end of one arm is the Harbour Bridge, spanning the passage between the Circular Quay and other parts of the harbor; at the end of the other arm is the Sydney Opera House. There’s a great view of the Opera House from the bridge side of the Quay. . .

. . . and a great view of the Harbour Bridge from the Opera House side of the Quay. For $174 AUD, you can do a “bridge climb” and walk across the upper framework of the bridge span. If you zoom my bridge picture below, you’ll see bumps at the top of the span. Those are braver people than I.

We wanted to spend our time at the Opera House and were obviously not the only people interested in doing so.

Here’s my trusty scale figure, Ted, standing beside one of the Opera House “sails” so I can take his picture to show the tiles that cover the Opera House roofs.

And here’s a distance shot of Ted in the same place, to give you an idea of the scale of those sails. Look for Ted’s dark shirt at the bottom of the intersecting roofline.

Sydney is a world-renowned New Year’s Eve destination. Workmen were setting up scaffolding for stages, and other things for the big show coming up in a few days. It looked like the performances will be done at the foot of the Opera House stairs and people will sit on the (hard) concrete stairs as an amphitheater to see the show. Fireworks are launched from the Harbour Bridge.

As we were walking down the stairs from the Opera House, I spotted this flower bed (center, yellow) in the Royal Botanic Gardens. I’m not sure why the gardener decided to send this message.

When we felt like we’d seen all we needed to see of the Opera House and the bridge, Ted and I walked around the downtown area and visited some of the shops. Sydney looks like a very nice city and we’re glad we’ll be returning to it on January 12. Our Newcastle friends will pick us up at the airport and we’ll all spend the night and the following day in Sydney before we go to their home in Newcastle.

Before going to our stateroom tonight, Ted and I took a walk around the deck to see Sydney at night. It’s beautiful.

Newcastle, in New South Wales, has some of the most picturesque coastal vistas in Australia. The city was built on the coal export industry and is still a major exporter of coal. Along the shore, locals have built ocean baths–man-made pools that collect sea water during high tide. As we travel south, the weather cools, and we had a beautiful, sunny 80-degree day today with lower humidity and a nice ocean breeze.

Just as advertised, Newcastle has stunningly beautiful coastal scenes. It was hard to select only a few to include here.

At the top of the cliff/hill in the picture below, you can see Fort Scratchley. The fort was built to protect the city from the Russians, but the only shot fired from it was in June 1942, against a Japanese submarine during World War II.

You can see two ocean pools in this photo. These pools fill with ocean water at high tide. It’s low tide in my photo, so the rectangular outlines of the pool borders are visible.

One of the biggest attractions in Newcastle is the Memorial Walk. Engraved on the figures of the wall are 3,859 family names of the 10,947 known Hunter Valley (where Newcastle lies) men and women who enlisted in the Australian armed forces to serve during the Great War–now known as World War I.

The Walk follows the edge of an oceanside cliff, above the city of Newcastle. There are four sets of soldiers’ silhouettes, engraved with names in alphabetical order from one set to the next.

Here’s an overview of Newcastle, as seen from the Memorial Walk.

The first picture below shows the Memorial Walk from the street level. The others were taken on the Walk. You can see some of the soldiers’ silhouettes on the left end of the Walk in the first picture.

Ted and I will be returning to Newcastle at the end of our cruise. That’s where our Australian friends live, and we will be staying with them for a few days before coming home.

Our ship was at sea today, and that was good planning on the part of whoever schedules the cruise dates because I’m sure most businesses were closed for Christmas Day. The staff did everything possible to make the day special for us. In addition to the holiday decorations that have been in place since we came onboard, there were special meals and activities. Everyone was in a very good mood and whenever we met other people, we all exchanged Christmas greetings and smiles with each other.

The best part of the day was the evening entertainment in the theater. First, the entire crew of 464 people wished us a merry Christmas in a slide show presentation that was enjoyed by all. We’ve come to know many of the more visible crew members over the past 14 days, so we laughed and clapped as various crew members appeared in the slide show. There was a wonderful picture of the entire crew lined up on all of the forward decks.

At the end of the slide show, all nonessential crew members came down the aisles and went onstage. As the captain said, he left a few people on the bridge to keep us on course during the show. Our favorite crew member is Alvin, our room steward. Alvin is the best!

The next part of the program featured the Viking band and singers (we’re on the Viking cruise line) and they performed lots of Christmas melodies, showed us some pictures of their families (slide show again) and made us all feel happy. They included a comment about how special it was that all of us who are spending Christmas away from our families can celebrate together. With 464 crew members and around 750 guests, I’d have to say this is the most people Ted and I have ever celebrated Christmas with.

Here’s the Viking band playing until the singers come onstage.

Check out the really short guy. He is the cruise director (in charge of all entertainment onboard) and is 5’3″ tall. He said he’s just tall enough to get on all the rides at Disney World (he’s from Florida), and he saves $20 per shirt by buying his shirts in the boys’ department. His speaking voice is kind of high and nasal, but he’s a trained opera singer and, when he sings, he has an amazing, full voice that rocks the house.

A good time was had by all. Next Christmas, we’re looking forward to being with our family again. We miss you guys, but we’re having a ball.

I forgot to check the Great Barrier Reef off my Down Under checklist, so check #4 for that. Yesterday we went to Mt. Tambourine, so check #5 for that. I’m down to my last item–seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky.

I only included “G’day, mate” as an Australian phrase I wanted to hear, but yesterday I heard “No worries,” and that’s a good Australian phrase too.

What a great trip. We’ve done, seen, or heard all the things I was most looking forward to and had a few bonuses I hadn’t thought of before leaving home–“no worries” and kangaroos. If my life were a holiday movie, it would be It’s a Wonderful Life.

Today our ship docked in Brisbane. Ted and I spent the entire day on a “scenic off-road drive.” This region of Australia is getting lucky; we tourists, not so much. Our guide started this gray, rainy morning by telling us that this region hasn’t had rain for over six years. To put this into perspective, he said there are children growing up who have never seen rain. That’s hard to imagine isn’t it? Because of the rain, our excursion was slightly altered, but still fun.

We drove for over an hour through Brisbane and Australia’s Gold Coast, named for its expensive oceanside real estate. Then it was time to stop at a charming little restaurant for morning tea. We had tea, coffee, and hot chocolate with warm scones, strawberry jam, and clotted (whipped) cream. Christmas decorations abounded.

Our next stop was a national park rainforest. It’s a popular destination, judging by the number of individual visitors. This rainforest was more interesting than the one we visited on Whitsunday Island. Walking with our guide gave us a huge advantage over visiting the park on our own. He was not only knowledgeable, but had sharp eyes and detected things the average visitor probably wouldn’t even know about.

Here’s a picture of our guide fearlessly entering the darkness of the dense rainforest.

Fortunately, we followed the original trail of pioneers deep into the rainforest; otherwise, it would have been hard to find our way back.

The pile of leaves behind the trees in this picture is a wild turkey nest. The male turkey builds the nest and tries to make it nice enough that a female will share it with him. If she does, she lays one of the 15-20 eggs she lays during the mating season. The male tends the egg and the chick for six months. After that, there are no bonds; the chick is on its own. Tough love in the wild, I guess. Meanwhile, the female goes around to other nests, and lays one egg in each, although sometimes she re-visits a nest and lays another single egg. She’s a loose woman who likes variety. Maybe she goes back to the guys who had the nicest nests for her. Once we knew what to look for, it was easy to spot turkey nests. We even saw a male turkey, but he didn’t hang around in our camera fields for more than a few moments.

Here’s a picture of a well-camouflaged lizard we spotted as we walked down the pioneer trail. Just like the Whitsunday Island rainforest, it was downhill on the way in, uphill on the way back. Thanks to being farther south on a cloudy day, it was also cooler. Only three water bottles needed today.

One of the most interesting animals the guide pointed out was a kind of spider that digs a hole in the dirt, makes a cover for the hole, and waits in the hole until it feels the vibration of prey walking near the opening. At that moment, the spider makes a wickedly quick grab and pulls the prey inside for dinner. Again, once you know that the faint circle on the ground is possibly a spider hole door, you can spot them. The guide used a knife to open the hole because the spider has a dangerous, although not lethal, bite.

We learned some interesting things about the rainforest trees as well. Rainforest trees grow very tall, but their roots are quite shallow. To support themselves, the roots grow in a radius as large as the tree’s canopy. Some trees grow very strong roots for support.

Eucalyptus trees are so hard that if you strike them with a rock, it sounds like you’re hitting another rock. Rangers had cut and removed part of a eucalyptus trunk that had fallen across the path. Because the wood is so hard, every cut wears down the saw blade so much that a new blade is needed for each cut.

Termites like eucalyptus trees, but can’t get through the hard wood to the softer core. To reach the center, termites look for a little hole or a crack in the tree’s surface that allows them access to the softer wood. It might take nearly 200 years, but the termites devour the entire inside of the tree, eventually killing it. The tree in this picture has been hollowed out by termites, but it’s still healthy. There was a bee’s nest high in the tree. If we put our heads in the open hole, we could hear the buzzing of the bees a hundred or more feet above us. Locals have dubbed this tree the “little boy” tree.

Our trail destination was a “plummeting waterfall” with an opportunity to swim in “crystalline waters of a stream in the company of wallabies or kangaroos.” That was apparently an old description of the waterfall. After six dry years, the waterfall has nearly dried up and the waters of the pool are murky. We were advised not to swim in them.

Our journey to and from lunch was the “off-road” part of this day trip. The gravel road provided us with a literally jaw-jarring ride. On the way to the back country restaurant, our guide stopped the van repeatedly to show us wildlife. He spotted a pretty face wallaby with a joey in her pouch. This is also called a whiptail wallaby because of the distance it can cover with a whip of its tail.

There were eastern gray kangaroos everywhere. These really count as seeing kangaroos because they weren’t caged; they were wild. Many years ago, I read that kangaroos are a suburban nuisance because of their numbers. This was farmland, so maybe it’s equivalent to having rabbits or deer on your land.

The baglike objects in these trees are flying foxes. We call them bats in the U.S.

We had lunch at a back country campground. They offer true back country camping for which campers must bring everything with them, including their own water. After the camping experience, showers, toilets, and food are available at the main office site. We stayed for lunch that included barbecued beef, chicken, or fish, but we didn’t camp.

After lunch, we were treated to a boomerang lesson followed by a chance to try our boomerang-throwing skills. There are left- and right-handed versions of boomerangs, and both were available. The first picture shows the instructor; the second lets you see the thrower and the boomerang in the air (upper right quandrant); the third shows Ted. I think his boomerang went higher than my camera field because we can’t see it, but he’s obviously watching it fly.

After the boomerang fun, we headed back on the jaw-jarring road and had a chance to stop at the top of Mt. Tambourine, the highest point in the area. There was supposed to be a “sweeping panorama” with a view of a distant mountain range. Due to the clouds and rain, we couldn’t see that far, but the view is still pretty good. We also crossed a pretty stream. Not surprisingly, it used to be filled to the top of the rock banks.

We had dinner on the ship with a special treat for Christmas Eve: baked Alaska.

Dinner included an unexpected spectacular light show, as nearly steady, brilliant lightning flashed outside the dining room windows. The wind was fierce and the rain was heavy. At least while we were on our day trip, we had only gray skies and a single light shower.

At 10:30 p.m., there was an inter-denominational Christmas service onboard. Ted and I and about 350 other people attended it. It was very nice and, for the first time this holiday season, I feel like it’s really Christmas.

Merry Christmas, and may there be peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind.

Tonight, there was a special event onboard our ship. The shadowed violinists at the bottom of the screen are providing live music for the event.

Never trust a skinny chef, so we’re safe. The assistant chefs were thinner. They’re probably still growing as they work their way up the chef ladder.

After the 15-minute photo op, there were plates and napkins for all. If you think, “Hey, that fruit isn’t chocolate!” notice that beside the fruit on one side of the table is a heavily-flowing milk chocolate fountain, and on the other side, there is a white chocolate fountain for dipping the fruit. You might also want to notice that there are chocolate crinkle cookies on display. I got my recipe from Betty Crocker. Did the chef read the same cookbook?

I have nothing more to say because the chocolate speaks for itself in the pictures below.

Tonight, Ted and I had a dinner reservation at another upscale restaurant on board. It’s called “The Chef’s Table” and offers one five-course menu with paired wines for several nights, then another menu for several nights, and so on. There are no choices to be made after you arrive, but you can view the menus in advance to select when you want to eat in this restaurant.

The current menu is focused on the spice trade, so every dish featured a specific spice–saffron, cinnamon, etc. The server describes each dish and its special features (spices tonight) as it is presented. Plan on a minimum two-hour meal, which is relaxing. Who cares? We’re at sea on the way to our next destination, so we’re in no hurry.

Every dish is artfully presented and servings are very small compared to other restaurants. After five courses, however, even the small servings are more than enough. The main course tonight was beef tenderloin featuring paprika, curry, coriander, and cinnamon. I never would have thought of using cinnamon with meat, but it added a very nice taste to the meat and the sauce. The meat was the most tender Ted and I have ever had. We wondered if it was Kobi beef, but forgot to ask.

The final course was called Apple Délice Façon Tarte Tatin–an apple tart. Again, the presentation was artful, but I had to hold back my smile until the server finished his spiel and left our table. All I could think of was “bunny ears.” Did anyone dare to mention that to the chef?

Capt. James Cook stumbled on the Whitsunday Islands 49 days after Easter (Whitsunday). The islands are in the Coral Sea “amid” the Great Barrier Reef (as our tour information described them). The waters around the 74 islands in the archipelago are an almost impossible blue color. Our tour guide said people often think pictures of this area are photo-shopped, but they’re not–the beautiful color is natural.

We docked in Airlie Harbor, a city and a harbor that didn’t exist until about 25 years ago. The Whitsunday Islands have become such a tourist destination that the city and the harbor were developed for the rapidly-growing tourist industry. The islands are an extremely popular wedding destination, with the cost of a wedding averaging $47,000. Ted and I are already married, so we opted for a “Tropical Paradise Rain Forest Walk” instead.

We’ve been in rainforests in Washington and in Hawai’i, but each one is a little different. We were bused to Conway National Park, home of the largest lowland tropical rain forest in Queensland. We followed a very knowledgeable guide down a trail for over two hours. It was literally down a trail for the first half; it was up the trail for the walk back to our bus. The heat and humidity required five bottles of water for Ted and me.

It’s interesting to compare how bright, fresh, and alert our tour groups always are as we embark on our day, and how limp and sweaty we look at the end of the day in this hot, humid climate. Here’s our happy little (16 people) rainforest group starting out fresh and eager for a new adventure.

The rainforest is dense. It’s nearly impossible to imagine fighting one’s way through the thick foliage. Thank goodness someone with a bulldozer made a path for us.

The indigenous people’s diet consisted of mostly bland or bitter foods. As our guide told us, they learned what to eat and what was poisonous by trial and error over hundreds (thousands?) of years. The guide’s example: If you’re unsure, feed it to the youngest child or the least favorite family member. If they don’t look so good the next day, cover them with stones and don’t eat that again. If they look ok, it’s safe to eat. The indigenous people’s knowledge of survival in the rainforest is very deep.

The picture below shows a “honey pot”–a beehive. It’s the pointy thing hanging from the tree. Because their diet was bland or bitter, finding a bee’s nest was like Christmas Day for the indigenous tribes. It was sweet and a wonderful treat.

The first photo below shows the density of a ficus tree in the rainforest. Ficus is a popular fake tree in a pot that people in the U.S. use for decorative purposes. (The ones from my office are now in our basement.) You can’t see through this rainforest ficus. The second photo shows more of the ficus trunk and its top. It kind of looks like the fake ficus trunks, only much bigger.

Another interesting tree we saw is called a strangling tree. It begins growing from seeds in bird poop dropped at the top of a tree. The seeds germinate and grow vines downward. When the vines reach the ground, they take root. Eventually, the strangler tree literally strangles the host tree and kills it. This one is quite large. If you look carefully, you can see daylight through the lower part of the trunk just above the person’s head. The second picture shows one of our group members who climbed inside the strangler tree’s vines and walked through them.

We learned that vines are an important part of the rainforest because they bind the trees together to help hold them upright. Sometimes, trees will grow crooked in search of light above the canopy. In this picture, there’s a vine on the left of the tree trunk and two smaller ones angling across the right side of the photo.

Our guide picked some leaves from a tree and gave one to each of us. When you split the leaves, they smell like fresh lemon. Mm-mm good.

After our rainforest walk, we drove to Cedar Creek Falls, described as Whitsunday Islands’ best-kept secret. How it can still be a secret, I’m not sure, since it’s a popular place for cliff-jumping. There is supposed to be a “majestic” waterfall and a pool under the waterfall for swimming, water (not weather) permitting. This is the dry season, so there is no waterfall. Look carefully in the upper center of the picture to find some people in swimsuits on a high rock ledge. This is the point from which people jump into the pool below. Then look at the high water mark at the bottom of the rock face. This is one of the reasons they did not jump.

We ate lunch at the nonexistent waterfall. It tasted as good as it looks. After sweating a lot while we walked, the moisture in the fruits and veggies was welcome and tasty. There was even a sparking wine beverage for those who wanted some.

We enjoyed some sightseeing on our way back to the ship, including a lot of sugar cane fields. Not only is Australia one of the world’s leading sugar exporters, but Queensland leads the rest of Australia in sugar production. This is a sugar cane field.

We had just enough time to stop at a high point for an overview of Airlie.

On a cruise we took with a different company, they nickel-and-dimed us for everything except meals. On a ship with 2,000 passengers, bottled water had to be purchased, and there was only one spigot on the entire ship (in a secluded out-of-the-way location) to fill water bottles at no cost.

Viking, the line we’re sailing on now, does the opposite: yes, they charge more up front, but they’re very generous onboard with many amenities. One example is bottled water. They provide as much bottled water as we want in our rooms and we may take as much as we want when we leave for an excursion. In addition, they have more water at our destination points, on the tour buses, and on the tenders. When we boarded our tender today, hot and thirsty from our rain forest walk (on which we drank five bottles of water), we were presented with more water at the dock and were greeted by this water on the tender. Overall, I bet it’s cheaper to provide water than to pay for medical care for dehydration or heat exhaustion. Thank you, Viking.

Today, Ted and I visited the Billabong Sanctuary in Townsville, Queensland. It’s a tropical bushland setting and our group had a private tour with one of the rangers. I wasn’t sure what a billabong is and mistakenly thought it was an Australian animal. I now know that it’s an oxbow in a river, which describes the sanctuary’s location. A billabong lake is one that fills the oxbow. That’s not the case here.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t put kangaroos on my Down Under checklist, because I learned today that they don’t like to go out in the heat (and Queensland is hot), so they are seldom seen except in the early morning and evening. We saw some who were moving around as we walked through the sanctuary.

Our first stop with the ranger was the crocodile pond. The ranger provided a lot of interesting facts about crocodiles including the fact that, in Australia, if there’s warm water, there are probably crocs. There’s another adage that warns “If you’re going to camp by a stream, don’t stay two nights. The crocs will watch you the first night and attack you the second night.” Note: This is not true for southern Australia, where it’s too cold for crocodiles.

Male crocodiles can grow to 16 feet long; females only grow to 4-6 feet long. The crocodile in the photo below is about 14 feet long at a hefty 1,500 pounds. Males are usually placed with three females in the hope they will like one of them. If there is only one female and the male doesn’t like her, he will kill her. Not necessarily eat her, but kill her. Crocodiles have not changed in 30 million years. The ranger said this indicates that they have evolved to perfection and can do everything they need to do with precision and efficiency. In the photo below, the ranger is feeding the crocodile raw chicken.

The ranger also showed us a much smaller crocodile. People were allowed to hold it, but Ted and I passed, even though its jaws are clamped shut. We’re not big fans of reptiles.

We walked by some dingos on our way to the koala stop with the ranger. This dingo is white, but some were brown or gray.

Not surprisingly, the koalas are very appealing. The ranger told us they will be extinct in the wild within 30 years. Koalas eat only the tips of eucalyptus leaves because that’s where the nutrients and the water are. They become stressed very easily, which is one of the reasons they sleep up to 22 hours / day. I don’t remember the details, but there is something in koalas’ DNA that makes them very ill and usually kills them when they become stressed. To protect the koalas, they are only available for pictures, etc. for very limited and strictly enforced times so they won’t become stressed.

There are five koalas in this picture, but it’s hard to find them. The ranger is revealing one that was hiding behind a leafy branch.

Ted had his picture taken with a koala. Its fur is very soft, like a teddy bear.

The ranger placed a cockatoo on his shoulder while he talked about the birds. He said this one will say “hello” and we should respond to it, but the bird was silent (nervous?) while we were with it.

Next: the strange wombat. Wombats live in burrows they dig with their front legs. They are extremely well-equipped to allow the back ends of their bodies to remove dirt behind them as they dig. Near their back end (hip area) is a very hard plate made out of one-inch thick cartilage. The ranger knocked on it repeatedly and the wombat didn’t even react. The ranger said the wombat was aware he was being struck, but didn’t care. When wombats are in their burrows, they use this hard part of their bodies to fill / close the opening. Attacking predators can’t hurt them while they sleep because of this cartilage plate.

Until the ranger picked it up, this lazy wombat just laid on the bench without moving (like in the bottom picture) and it surprised me to see how much bigger it was with its legs extended. Ted said the fur was very bristly and the plate was definitely hard.

On to the snakes. Eew. Australia is home to more venomous snakes than any other country in the world. This snake is a variety of python, but not lethal. It has a black head and, when it hides, it allows its head to show because that makes it look like it’s a different variety of poisonous snake. That subterfuge keeps predators away. Neither Ted nor I volunteered to touch the snake. Again, eew. And that was the end of our time at the Billabong Sanctuary.

Today, Ted and I had a bus tour of Townsville and then went on to a wildlife sanctuary. Townsville has a very dominant rock structure called Castle Hill that rises above the city. Castle Hill is only 26 feet short of being a mountain. I didn’t realize there’s a “you must be this tall to be a mountain” rule.

Thorn Birds lovers, these are ghost gum trees. They are gum trees like we have in Missouri, but with very white bark. They really stand out in the woods, similar to white paper birch trees in the U.S.

Someone painted a Santa stick figure on one face of Castle Rock. (Left of center, near the top.)

We saw some interesting things on our way through the city. Someone who loves garden gnomes lives here.

We passed a local radio station with this mural painted on the side of the building. It’s eye-catching for sure.

The finale of our city tour was a view of the city and its harbor from the top of Castle Rock.

For our visit to the Great Barrier Reef, our ship docked at Cairns, Australia. There were some Australians from Adelaide in line with us to leave the ship, so I asked them how to pronounce the city’s name. Well, it varies. The people in Adelaide are “free” (an Australian historical distinction) and they say something like “Can”; the rest of Australia pronounces it more like “Cane.” Either way, there’s no “s” sound, and they inject a very soft “r” into the word. It’s hard to duplicate if you’re not Australian.

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stretches 1,400 miles and is the largest continuous coral reef system on Earth. It can even be seen from space, and is home to about 1,500 varieties of fish, 360 kinds of colorful hard corals, and one-third of the world’s soft corals.

We’re in Queensland, which the license plates denote as “The Sunshine State” and where they average over 300 days of sunshine annually. Locals told us it hasn’t rained here for six months and it’s currently the dry season, but it rained all day today. There were some breaks in the showers, but no sunshine. It didn’t spoil our day, but the coral would have been more spectacular with sunlight shining on the water.

We took a catamaran out to the reef where we docked with a pontoon.

There were a dozen things to do on and from the pontoon, but even with a full day for this excursion (including 1.75 hours each way on the catamaran from the ship and back), there wasn’t time to try everything. Lunch was being set out when we arrived, so Ted and I walked around, checked things out, and decided to start with lunch while we were still dry, then go on to other things.

The glass bottom boat ride over the reef was one of our priorities, so we got in line for that. The line was long the entire time we were there, so it’s just as well we did that first.

We had a bit of luck during our ride because the rain stopped. The group just before us went out during a shower and said that the raindrops on the water’s surface made it very difficult to see the coral below. The colors would have been much prettier with the sun shining on the shallow water, but we saw some interesting coral formations.

Still in viewing mode, our next stop was the underwater observatory where we could see schools of tiny fish swimming by and get a close-up look at some coral. Coral is a living animal, so it sways and moves in the water. The coral in the second picture below was especially pretty as it fluttered underwater. The black and white striped fish is a (surprise!) zebra fish.

After that, a marine biologist gave a scheduled talk on some of the other marine life on the reef. The large, slug-shaped animal he’s holding is one variety of a sea cucumber.

Below is a different variety of sea cucumber. Its top and bottom sides look very different. We were allowed to touch it, and the star-shaped things on its back are very soft and a little mushy feeling. When you lift a sea cucumber out of the water, it releases sea water out of its bottom. (Third picture.) Tiny cleaner fish live in the sea cucumber’s bottom. I’ve heard of cleaner fish being used for pedicures–put your feet in the water and feel the tickles as the fish clean them. I haven’t tried that yet.

This is (obviously) a sea star. It looks black, but it’s really navy blue. We were allowed to touch it as well, and it feels like something firm (not hard) with a leather-like “sleeve” over it. Its legs moved slightly as it was being held, curling over a little bit on the ends.

The masseuse’s time was almost up and there were only two people in line, so that’s where we went next. Those who’d already had a massage repeatedly said how wonderful it felt and convinced us we should do this. The masseuse wore a toolbelt-like sack with some odd massage tools in it. One looked like a slingshot minus the sling and one looked like a chisel. Surprisingly, the chisel felt really good when he tapped it over tight muscles. It felt like the knots were being broken into tiny little pieces that dissolved.

We brought swimsuits along so we could snorkel, but the few people who did said that, due to the rain and the lack of sunlight, views of the coral were much better from the glass-bottomed boat. Stinger suits (black, tight-fitting head-to-toe garments similar to wet/dry suits) were issued to snorkelers to protect them from jellyfish bites. Even with the stinger suits, snorkelers said the water was very cool. Because of those comments, and because it was nearly time to leave, we passed on the snorkeling and took our dry swimsuits back to our stateroom. Maybe we’ll have another chance to snorkel at another beach on a sunny day. Here are a few snorkelers in action. And, of course, the next shower in the distance.

When we got back to the ship, we showered and changed into the required “casual elegant” clothing for dinner. In honor of Ted’s first summertime birthday today, we had advance reservations for dinner tonight at one of the two high-end restaurants onboard. At the maître d’s desk, Ted was greeted with a “Happy birthday, Mr. Schroeder” (pronounced “Schroder” of course) even though we didn’t tell anyone it was his birthday. I guess that’s included with our personal information for the cruise.

After we finished our main course, we were again surprised with a special dessert for Ted–a delicious chocolate mousse birthday cake topped with blueberries, his favorite fruit. It was far too much for the two of us, but they sent the remaining cake to our room, complete with plates, forks, napkins, and a knife. The leftover cake actually beat us to our room, where we also found a bottle of champagne chilling in the mini-fridge and two champagne flutes on the desktop. Happy birthday, Ted. It’s a destination birthday I’ll have trouble matching when it’s my turn.

On my Down Under checklist, I’m checking off #3 of 6.

After spending ten days where temperatures have averaged 90 degrees with matching humidity, I’m having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit. Last night’s onboard performer asked people to raise their hands if they were married more than 20, 30, 40, 50 years, etc. The winner had 62 years with the same spouse. The lady next to me marveled at that and I mentioned to her that my aunt and uncle (Ruth and Ken) have been married 63 years and will have 64 years in September. As I said that to her, I was thinking of September as just a month or two away, when actually, it’s nine months away.

If I’m that locked into a July mindset, I can check off experiencing summer in December. Check!