Fancy a trip down memory lane? The Block Arcade in Melbourne, Australia, has lost none of the WOW factor, it had on its completion in 1893. When it was first built, the Arcade added not only glamour, but also prestige to this upstart city, which other cities on the continent could only dream of and try to emulate. It became an instantaneous success, and visiting it or “doing the block” as it had became known, became a national pastime in Melbourne. Fashionable ladies used the Block in the same way as a catwalk is used today and used the opportunity to show off their new dresses, outfits, and finery. But to the
general public it was a place to see and also a place to be seen.
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Even now a hundred and twenty years later the Arcade’s magic
still draws in the crowds. They can often be seen soaking up and savoring the 1890’s atmosphere as they stroll around the Arcade with camera’s in hand, taking pictures of the beautiful interior and architecture It’s a symbol of the late Victorian age, a standard bearer and beacon to the city’s success both economically and culturally. It was this Southern city’s answer to Bond Street in London and the Boulevards in Paris. Fashionable Melbourne had finally come of age!

Built in two parts, the first section from Collins Street was finished in
1892. The second and final part of the building was completed in 1893. There are entrances from both Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets. The end result was a building with a richly decorated interior, an exquisite mosaic tiled flooring, glass canopy and wrought iron.

Despite splendor and magnificence of the structure, architect David C Askew never lost sight of its need to be user friendly for the future. After all this was a practical commercial proposition that would increase landlords’ holdings. By offering ladies and gents a refuge from the dust, heat and noise of the street he could introduce them to a large shopping area where they could view and possibly buy goods from a wide variety of shop fronts. The Arcade was also one of the first to utilize state of the art technology then, such as electricity for lighting as well as having 2 lifts (elevators) to take people to the first floor.
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Visitors today can still enjoy a cup of tea in the iconic Hopetoun Tea Rooms, the only business to grace the Block original from those early days. Created by the Victorian Ladies Work Association and named after the Association’s founder, Lady Hopetoun Wife of Victoria’¦s 8th Governo. He went on to become Australia’s first Governor General from 1901 to 1903. Now in a different location in the Arcade a poignant reminder of the business’ beginnings can be seen on the back wall of the tea rooms, where an etched mirror from the original Tea rooms hangs. Patrons of the Hopetoun Tea Rooms could dwell on the George Orwell quote “All true Tea Lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes,”¨ as they sit and gaze around them … especially after capturing their vision in the spectacular etched mirror.
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What would David C Askew make of his creation today? A creation that that is still giving as much enjoyment and interest today as it did one hundred and twenty years ago. Whatever else he did, the Block Arcade stands as a fitting testament to this individual who turned his own personal vision into reality and was able to leave behind a building that has and will
stand the test of time.

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Photography by Yuri Krasov

The islands of Palau, all five hundred of them, big and small, oblong and round, belong to the largest archipelago in Micronesia and mostly look like Chia pets. Their bottoms are neatly undercut with a double razor of steady lapping waves and gluttonous snails that live underneath and eat algae while boring deeper and deeper into the limestone. Most of the islands are tiny and unpopulated, and seem to float atop the opalescent waters.
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Any way you look, everything is so incredibly beautiful here that the scenic views seem unreal. With about 20,000 permanent residents and only 30,000 visitors a year, Palau is a dream come true – for divers and eco-adventure seekers as well as for honeymooners and spa junkies. Tourist accommodations in the Republic of Palau usually provide vacation packages that include room and board, water activities, and sheer relaxation.
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Palau Pacific Resort in the capital city of Koror on Arkabesang Island has neat two-story cottages surrounded by tropical gardens, a secluded sandy beach, an open-air restaurant with freshly prepared island fare, a spa, and Splash Dive Center on premises. On our diving tour with the Splash, we visited a couple of the many famous diving sites of Palau – Big Drop Off and Blue Corner.
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The underwater world of Palau with 1,400 species of fish and more than 700 species of coral is nothing short of a miracle. Snorkeling by the Big Drop-Off, I found myself surrounded by myriads of sparkly fish gliding over the multi-layers and multi-colored coral floor. Giant clams were waiting, agape, for their prey among the fuzzy seaweed-covered rocks. They were doing a great job camouflaging with dazzling colors – midnight blue, deep purple, and even spotty green-and-brown, looking much like army camo.
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Palau is also home to a unique underwater wonder – Jellyfish Lake, the only place in the world where people safely swim and snorkel among the Golden jellies, harmless and beautiful to behold. Mastigias papua etpisoni lives in glorious isolation here, in the secluded marine lake surrounded by jungle-covered rocks – far removed from predators and, therefore, stingless. Slow moving jellies, whose size measure from the size of a golf ball to that of a basketball, ascend and descend around enchanted snorkelers, graceful and enviably serene. There is also some muddy business going on in the ecologically clean and otherwise pure-water Palau. What locals call Milky Way is a pristine cove with silky white clay bottom. This clay is made of organic deposits of the local snails that consume and digest limestone while feeding on algae.
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Applied as a facial mask, this clay is said to smooth out wrinkles, clean and reduce pores, and lend its silkiness to the skin. In a big hotel spa it’ll definitely cost you, but here, at the cove, boat operators just bring up a bucket of white cosmetic gold and let their passengers slather it all over their pasty touristy bodies. On a tour with Carp Island Resort & Palau Diving Center, we had plenty of time to indulge in Mother Nature’s own spa offerings – white mud and warm milky water of the cove to wash it off. And then there was time for dry land and red mud adventures. Fish ‘N Fins Dive Shop is one of the most famous local tour operators, offering diving, snorkeling, boating, and fishing tours. We embarked on their most exciting land activity – ATV (all-terrain vehicle) Off-Road Tour across the Martian-red hillsides of Koror.
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Don’t know why, but I was somehow persuaded that an ATV cannot overturn in any circumstances, so I boldly drove over the ditches as deep as a vehicle’s wheel and narrow slippery ridges between them. Puddles, turns, steep downhill inclines – bring it all in, I thought. Even when tropical rain started to pour into the open vehicle, inexplicably enhanced by still shining sunlight, I didn’t lose my determination. Later I learned that things happen, but nothing had happened to us!
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We could even see the rainbow at the end of our trip.

More information at: www.visit-palau.com, www.palauppr.com, www.carpislandpalau.com, www.fishnfins.com

Fifteen flashlights shone downward as we gingerly picked our way through the bush. At the appropriate signal, we extinguished our lights, and 15 expectant adults gathered noiselessly behind our boot-and-camouflage-attired leader. As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, remote seaweed-strewn beach, suddenly we saw her –- the elusive New Zealand kiwi. On orders to stay close, we waddled in muted tandem behind guide Philip Smith as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon her late-night supper, we were star-struck by this brown dumpling of a bird, head bobbing up and down, its long beak darting in and out of the sand single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries and crustaceans.
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Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles of land to the south of South Island that very few New Zealanders visit, much less anyone else, is the only place in New Zealand where you can spot kiwis, the native bird that few natives ever see. According to Wendy Hallett, owner of the Greenvale B&B where we stayed, many people first book a kiwi-spotting tour with Smith, THEN book their trip to New Zealand and Stewart island.

But there are many reasons to visit Stewart Island other than the kiwi. Alternately described as isolated, insular, undeveloped, natural, wild, Stewart Island beckons in a way few modern destinations do. The downside? All the things that make it so appealing as a destination (unless, of course, you’re looking for luxury resorts and chic nightclubs) might themselves be ultimately destroyed by those to whom it so appeals. Hopefully, it’s inaccessibility –- if the flights or ferry can’t travel because of the weather, neither can the tourists – and its uber-emphasis on conservation might preserve it against the expected onslaught.
There is a very lived-on, lived-in feel about the island; everyday life is happening here, albeit probably not your everyday life. As one of the waitresses at the Just Café noted: “We have no banks, no doctors, no t-shirt shops (not literally true, but more on that later) … and no stress.”
Ask anyone how many people in town and you might hear something like: “Well, 400 at last count – no, wait – Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 401.” And that number remained constant despite several efforts on my part to find an alternate answer. Eighty-five percent of Stewart Island was designated in 2002 as Rakiura National Park, making it the most recent addition to New Zealand’s vast string of national parks. While there are only 18 miles of road on the island, there are 174 miles of walking trails (called tracks), ranging from a 15-minute stroll through the bush to 3-hour hike to a 10-day trek. Basically, there are two ways to get around –- by boat and on foot. You gotta love a place that has more water taxis than land ones.
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A favorite hike was the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute water taxi ride from downtown — which, by the way, covers about a one-block area. Captain Ian, a 6th-generation islander, carried me effortlessly across the slippery, moss-covered log he parked the water-cab against. Alternately walking through bush so thick as to be impenetrable or hugging the craggy cliff overlooking the sea, we were bombarded by a new form of surround sound: the thrashing of waves crashing below and the concert cries of birds overhead.
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The varying vocals from tuis, bellbirds, kakas and kakarikais were reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant: sometimes individual cries dominated, other times, a general din prevailed. Then suddenly the birds were vying for attention once again with the breaking waves. We heard the water before we saw it, as the expanse of coastline made yet another appearance.
The most natural destination upon our return to town was the South Seas, of course – the only bar in the only hotel on the island. This gives “local bar” a whole new meaning. Stocking-cap-clad men, just off their fishing boats, with long beards and high boots best each other at billiards and darts. The room overflows with men and women drinking with gusto, laughing over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of light beer. What it does serve is good food in ample portions, the fish in the fish ‘n chips just about the flakiest I’ve had, and the fries, crisp and tasty.

The other must-do activity –- like the calling of the kiwi –- is to board another water-taxi for a visit to Ulva Island. “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks…” begins Walt Whitman’s famous poem, Evangeline. He also could have been describing Ulva Island, an untouched (“unmodified” is the technical term), predator-free, primitive slice of New Zealand the way it once was.
And that very nature of the island makes it an unparalleled sanctuary for birds, trees and plants that might otherwise be extinct. The hard-wood podacorp forest, literally of pre-historic ancestry, also houses species of plants 350 million years old. Rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods with impunity.

And the inhabitants are not the only things special about Ulva Island; there’s also Ulva Goodwillie, another 6th-generation Stewart Islander whose breadth and scope of knowledge covers every twig, branch and feather found on Ulva Island. The similarity in names may be coincidental, but it’s one hell of a marketing tool. She conducts half- and full-day tours of the island, communicating with the trees and the birds in very personal, intimate terms, distinguishing between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle emanating from the treetops.

One of my tour companions likened the sounds to an “avian symphony.” “If I could get them organized, I could take them on tour,” my musically inclined friend observed. Back on the mainland, a stop at the Ship to Shore general store provides another insight into island living. This is the place to pick up groceries, hardware, beer and wine, household goods, fishing and hunting equipment and videos. Videos? But for major food shopping, residents are dependent upon the supermarket in Invercargill, South Island (the real mainland). They pick up their orders at the Halfmoon Bay waterfront every Wednesday evening.
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Next to Ship to Shore is the previously alluded to T-shirt shop –- although the designation is really a misnomer. Dil Belworthy, like so many other Islanders, was a fisherman by trade and, like so many of his compatriots, several years ago “saw the writing on the wall.” As he tells the story, “I was drinking with some mates one day and we were discussing how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon.” With tourists as their new prey, the question became: “How do you catch a tourist?” The answer: “You sell them a T-shirt!”

So Dil and his wife, Cath, started hand-printing their art-shirts on their kitchen table in 1997, reproducing native Maori symbols and traditional images. Now, their Glowing Sky Studio sells these individually designed and produced wearable works of beauty for $35 per non-T-shirt T-shirt. For sure, Stewart Island as a whole has learned well how to catch tourists, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the islanders have mixed emotions about just how successful they want their new venture to be.

Until just recently, adventure travelers the world over have only dreamed of someday leaving their footprint on our planet ‘s 7th continent. This was one of their remaining ultimate challenges that seemed a far reach from possibility. But today, those dreams can come true. There is now an ultimately modern ship designed to meet the wants and needs of the majority of travelers.
In 2007, the travel industry witnessed the launching of the first high tech polar expedition cruise ship, the MS FRAM, from the Norwegian shipping company, Hurtigruten*.

Hurtigruten is a leader in exploring the Polar Regions. It has over 100 years of cruising the Norwegian coastline linking the very northern and southern limits of the country. It has also taken adventure travelers to some of the world’s most remote regions including Greenland, the
Arctic, Spitsbergen and Antarctica.

The new MS FRAM is a luxury, Baltic ice class 1B expedition cruise ship. It has a reinforced, strengthened hull that is stronger than previous vessels. With its more structural support, the MS FRAM can easily navigate through 2 feet thick sea ice. It also has the latest technology in the
MaK engine that provides low levels of noise, vibration, and emission. This contributes to quieter cruising and more stability than its competitive, older Russian ice-breakers which, until now, were the only vessels of choice for the frozen waters of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Along with its superior performance on the seas, the MS FRAM has been engineered to fulfill the lifetime dreams of older travelers with its attention to comfortable accommodation for both the mature and the physically challenged. As the newest world class expedition ship, every detail has been carefully considered in its design from the stylish cabins and suites to its indoor
observation and panoramic lounges, restaurant, and bistro. Because of the ship’s adventuring into colder climates, outdoor areas have been kept to a minimum at the bridge and rear of the ship. In keeping with its sleek and modern design, the entire decor of the MS FRAM is distinctly
Norwegian.

For the summer season, the MS FRAM is positioned in Greenland. In winter, it cruises the seas around Antarctica – the white continent. Twice a year, the ship offers a special 67 day “pole to pole cruise. It was on this special cruise when I joined the ship for the last 19 days of its south bound leg to Antarctica. Just as the many other passengers, I was thrilled to be taking this journey which was fulfilling one of my lifetime dreams.
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My journey began in Santiago, Chile. After two days of sightseeing in the city known as the “cleanest capital in South America,” I traveled by land through a portion of the beautiful Chilean wine area enroute to the coastal port city of Valparaiso. There I checked-in and boarded the MS FRAM for an unforgettable adventure. Following our first night’s delicious dinner on board, Captain Rune Andreassen and his crew welcomed the new arrivals.

After two days at sea, our first landing was the important Chilean port city of Puerto Montt, the gateway to the Lake District. It is an unequalled picture postcard of magnificent lakes, turquoise rivers and glacier-formed valleys surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes.
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Germans were the first settlers to this region. Their architectural style can be seen throughout the area. Walking along the shoreline of Lake Llanquihue in Frutillar, about 12 miles from the port, I could imagine being back in Germany. However, after ordering a glass of wine in one of the tiny Black Forest-like restaurants in my almost-perfect German and then receiving a quizzical look, I realized the roots of the German language did not survive as long as their architecture.

During the days of cruising, the Andes Mountains captivated my imagination. There was always a beautiful view to capture with my camera. It’s amazing that this picturesque mountain chain extends over seven countries and ends at the tip of Chile. As we navigated through the Chilean fjords, I thought about how many millennia it took to create the glaciers, mountains and fjords and how much is still unknown about them.
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On day 5, after docking in the port of Puerta Natales, buses took us to the Torres del Paine National Park with its spiry mountain peaks and
lakes. During the drive through the park I saw condors, black neck swans, and guanacos that live at high altitude and are cousins to the llama.
Later onboard ship and peering through my cabin porthole, I realized I was now getting closer to the “world of white” that I was seeking.
Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia was a short stay where I met my first species of penguins, the Magellan penguins. This was nesting time and
they had left the sea and returned to their underground burrows.

Our next stop, Tierre del Fuego (the land of fire), has always held a special allure to those with a spirit of adventure. It has both Argentinean and Chilean sections. We were on the southern route through the Cockburn and Beagle Channels. Our next stop would be Cape Horn and the
dreaded Drake Passage which has swallowed men and ships since there were sailors on the seas.

This was our first landing using the sturdy Polar Circle boats. Much of the success of cruising in Antarctica is thanks to this new landing boat. It is designed for comfort, stability, safety, accessibility and ease of disembarking for polar landings on beaches, rocky outcrops, and ice floes. These boats are a vast improvement over the rubber Zodiacs of the past.
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After disembarking on Cape Horn, I climbed to the top of a hill to view a relief sculpture depicting an albatross in flight and commemorating those lost at sea. From here on, I would be sailing to the last great wilderness by the route of explorers, seal and whale hunters and today’s polar scientists.
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With the modern high tech MS FRAM, crossing the Drake Passage where the Atlantic meets the Pacific was, thankfully, uneventful. The cruise ship can handle weather and seas, which was a great relief to all of us passengers. We were now finally in the waters of Antarctica, often surrounded by sea ice and icebergs. Our landings were made on desolate islands to enjoy the nesting colonies of penguins along with seals resting on the beaches. On Aitcho Island, we observed three kinds of penguins: the chinstraps, the gentoos and a lonely, but hopefully not lost, king penguin.
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As we sailed deeper into the Antarctic Peninsula, the stunning beauty of the mountains, glaciers, sea ice and icebergs was everywhere. Every angle provided a unique picture for the cameras. Antarctica covers almost one-tenth of the earth’s surface. It is not an ocean ringed by land but a continent ringed by an ocean.

After many years of squabbling between countries, the sovereignty of this great continent was established by a global treaty. In short, no one country owns the land; however, many countries have established scientific research stations. Antarctic Treaty meetings are held annually to discuss laws and regulations. Today, no activity, whether governmental or private, can take place until sufficient information is available to determine that there will be no impact on the environment. For this same reason, I had to stop at the boot washing station at the ship gangway before and after boarding the small boats for landing in Antarctica. Every measure is taken to ensure the continent retains its pristine environment.
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For the next 6 days, MS FRAM made landings at many places on the peninsula and the mainland. Each landing had a unique environment. Some were the homes for different animal and bird species while others housed scientific research stations.

Neko Harbor is a rare place on the Antarctic mainland where I came ashore. In the afternoon of the same day, our ship cruised to a second stop, Cuverville Island, where the largest known colonies of the gentoo penguins are found.
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The Lemaire Channel with its extraordinary reflections is surely a Kodak moment, followed by a stop at Ukraine’s Vernadsky scientific research station on Galindez Island. After a warm welcome and a tour of the station, I learned that the 13 scientists are doing important work in
keeping records in their research on global warming. The group spends at least 18 months on site. I could only imagine how cold and lonely their winter stay must be.

On the same day, I visited a second station, the British Port Lockroy on Goudier Island, the most visited site in Antarctica because it operates a post office. Postcards to the U.S. take up to 6 weeks in transit via London. The two young ladies operating this base only in summer also study
the gentoo penguins.

We were next on to Whaler ‘s Bay on Deception Island which is a part of a volcanic caldera. The hot surface meeting the cold air and sea brought a foggy, eerie feeling to this deserted whaling station. It had its beginning in 1905 and was finally deserted after a mudslide in 1967. Everything from buildings to mechanical devices was left to the elements. It was amusing to watch some of the curious penguins that have swum to shore. Now realizing their feet were getting hot from the land surface, they quickly dived back into the sea in search of another island to rest.

Our last landing was Walker Bay on the most beautiful island of Livingston. It was like an “open air” museum with the most interesting collection of fossils as well as a shoreline covered with the
southern elephant seals. I could have spent the entire day observing and photographing these unusual mammals. Unfortunately, our authorized time for the visit expired, and I would now be returning to Ushuaia, the Argentine Tierra del Fuego and the end of the cruise.
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I have come away from Antarctica with strong feelings about travel to this incredible place. First of all, I would love to have everyone see and enjoy this fascinating white wilderness as I have done. At the same time,
I sincerely hope that all the signatory countries to the Antarctic Treaty continue to do everything possible to protect this valuable asset on our planet.

For reservations and information on MS FRAM and Hurtigruten:
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The MS FRAM is named after the first FRAM, built in 1892. It was originally designed as a wooden expedition schooner ship with the ability
to sail through the thick Arctic Ocean sea ice. It completed 3 historic expeditions. Its first exploration was to the North Pole. In what was
called the “race to the South Pole” in 1911, Roald Amundsen led the third FRAM expedition and reached the South Pole just one month
before Robert Scott.

FRAM became the first ship to sail to points the furthest north and the furthest south. The old wooden schooner was retired and abandoned to the elements for many years. It was only in the late 1920 that concerned individuals restored the ship to its original condition. By 1935, the restored FRAM was put on land in its new home: the FRAM Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Information for Travelers to Oslo:

The FRAM Museum On the Island of Bygd, Oslo, Norway
Web Site: http://www.fram.museum.no/en/
Tel: +47 23 28 29 50
Fax: +47 23 28 29 51

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“The taro plant is important to the Palauan people,” explained Ann Singeo, our guide, and owner of Sense of Wonder eco tours. ” The legend of Palau is based on food. A simple version of the legend has it that a giant by the name of Uab was consuming all the food so the rest of the people were starving. The villagers placed him on a fire, he exploded, creating the islands of Palau.” Palau is an amazing group of islands and one of the most eco of all locations we have visited.
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Before we set out on our kayak tour of the mangrove, Spis, our other guide picked a sprouting coconut off the ground and split it. The white part had become spongy and Ann suggested we slather it on our exposed body parts, “It will keep away the mosquitoes and prevent sunburn.” Deep in the mangrove we pulled our kayaks up on land and a short hike took us to a where Ann explained another Palauan legend. The taro goddess brought back samples from the taro patches she had created on the various islands. Pointing to upright stones, Ann said that they were the taro plants planted by the goddess, which had turned to stone. We were totally unfamiliar with taro, a root that is an important source of food for Palauns. The taro patches are the exclusive domain of women probably because they have to wade in deep mud, sometime above their waist, to harvest the plants so they often work nude. At the end of the tour Ann had prepared a lunch that included taro soup and taro salad.
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The Rock Islands of Palau is a paradise for divers and snorkelers. John and I were dazzled by the brilliant blue starfish ad the giant clams but the most amazing experience was swimming with thousands of jellyfish, which are virtually stingless. On our return from a snorkeling tour with Fish ‘n Fins the talk turned to food. Tova Harel, the owner of Fish n’ Fins, said if we returned for dinner she and Cesar, her chef, would show us how to prepare fish and some taro recipes. It was an offer we could not refuse.
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As early as the mid-1800s, Australian railroads hauled grain and ore to seaports and carried passengers between state capitals. But it wasn’t until 1969 that tracks spanning the continent all conformed to one standard gauge. A year later, the Indian Pacific began running between Sydney on the east coast and Perth on the west and instantly became one of the world’s great transcontinental trains.
A second line, the Ghan, opened in 1929, rolling north from Adelaide on the Southern Ocean. But it stopped mid-continent at Alice Springs. Finally, in 2004, the route went the distance, stretching up to Darwin on the north coast.
Two great train rides and, taken together, they offer a full-credit course in Aussie 101.

From East to West …

My three-night rail journey across Australia won’t begin for another two hours, but I’m on the platform at Sydney’s main train station early to get my first look at the Indian Pacific, an almost endless line of elegant stainless steel rail carriages.
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A full two hours before departure, passengers begin to appear and spend the time savoring the anticipation of the coming rail journey.

This legendary train operates twice weekly between Sydney and the city of Perth, 2700 miles across the continent on the Indian Ocean and, at precisely 2:55 p.m., it glides out of the station, rattling through a series of switches onto the main line.
The lounge car is the social center of the train and it’s here the passengers have assembled 30 minutes later for a welcoming champagne reception. There are people from many different countries here, but all share the common bond of enjoying train travel, and conversation flows easily.
I’ll be having diner at 8:00, the second sitting in the dining car, so there’s time to relax in my compartment and watch the passing scenery as the train climbs up into the Blue Mountains.
If my first experience in the Indian Pacific’s dining car is any indication, we are going to eat very, very well over the next three days. I start by choosing a zucchini, leek and blue cheese soup, then segue neatly to pork escallops on a potato-corn hash with carrots, yams and a prune puree. Dessert is a generous slab of banana cheesecake topped with passion fruit sauce.
The berth has been made up by the time I return to my compartment and, after a steaming hot shower in my private phone-booth-sized lavatory and an hour of reading, the rocking of the train lulls me, and I drift off.
The sun is already up when I awaken. The Blue Mountains are well behind us now and we’re passing through low hills, the reddish soil dotted with gray-green brush and gum trees.
Our first stop of the day is at Broken Hill. Many of my fellow passengers take the hour-long bus tour of this mining town, while I opt for a brisk walk up and down the platform. It’s already quite warm and the temperature will pass 100 degrees well before noon.
Later, with everyone back on board and enjoying lunch, the Indian Pacific is rolling through wheat fields and lush pastures dotted with sheep. By mid-afternoon we reach Adelaide, the capital of South Australia – a comfortable city, with wide streets and spacious well-kept parks.
There’s a crew-change here and the new attendants and chefs and train managers pick up seamlessly; another excellent dinner served in two sittings with berths made up while we dine.
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Passengers chat with the engine drivers as they watch the Indian Pacific’s locomotives being refueled.

Just after breakfast on our second morning, the train eases to a stop at the town of Cook, well out onto the vast, desolate Nullarbor Plain, extending for hundreds of miles in every direction.  This was originally a service stop for steam locomotives when the railroad was constructed in 1917, but since the advent of diesel power in the early 50s, the town’s population has shrunk and, on this particular day, stands at two … both middle-aged ladies busily selling trinkets to passengers packing a little souvenir shop. Their husbands are away, but will be returning next week when, one of the women says with a laugh, the town’s population will double.
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Departing Cook, the India Pacific heads due west across the Nullarbor Plain toward the Indian Ocean, two nights and some 1800 miles away.

Thirty minutes later, the Indian Pacific is again heading west, rocking along on the longest perfectly strain stretch of railroad track in the world – 302 miles. Outside, the Nullarbor is constantly if subtly changing: quite barren and desolate for a time then, an hour later, rocks and boulders lie scattered beyond the horizon. Later still, trees appear – gnarled and scrawny, but with pompoms of bright green leaves at the tips of the branches.
Over lunch, I ask a garrulous farmer from the wine-growing region north of Sydney what constitutes “The Outback” here in Australia. “Well, mate,” he says, “I’d say the Outback is everything west of the east coast and everything east of the west coast.” And he guffaws loudly.
Framed by a miraculous sunset, the Indian Pacific arrives for a two-hour stop at Kalgoorlie. Gold was discovered here in 1893 and the town’s main attraction is the Super Pit, a monstrous “open cut” mine that’s a mile across and nearly 1000 feet deep. Many of the buildings have a distinct Victorian design, and there are even three legal brothels. As our tour bus slowly passes one called The Red House, two of the girls wave cheerfully from a picture window, prompting our driver to note rather wistfully that there were once more than 40 such establishments here in the town’s heyday.
When I awaken the next morning, the Indian Pacific is in the final stretch run of our trans-continental journey. In the dining car over breakfast, passengers exchange email addresses as we trundle through the outskirts of Perth on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Ten minutes later, the first part of my crisscrossing of Australia comes to an end.

… and from North to South

As my Qantas flight settles through cloud layers on its approach to Darwin, I recall a fellow passenger on the Indian Pacific who had said – quite proudly, I thought – that Australia was “either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.”
He was right: Darwin is steamy-hot and it’s pouring rain. Sightseeing is often not an option in the Wet Season here, so I spend a relaxing afternoon reading in the plant-filled lobby of the Novotel Atrium Hotel.
The dining room features smoked crocodile on the menu and a half-dozen servers from various European countries. My dinner is brought by a young woman from Estonia who says she is here to make a little money and to improve her English which, I note, is already liberally spiced with an Aussie twang.
The sleek silver Ghan stands waiting at the station platform the next morning: 23 rail carriages behind two 4000-horsepower locomotives. The train’s name comes from the nickname given to Afghan herders who came to Australia along with the camels that carried men and supplies into the Outback during the late 1800s.
A rail line linking Adelaide on the Southern Ocean with Darwin in the far north was always the plan, but the final link – the 882 miles between Alice Springs and Darwin – wasn’t completed until 2004.
As we rock along heading due south along this newer stretch of track, the landscape is lush and green. Flocks of white egrets follow cattle grazing in knee-deep grass among the red gum trees. Dark brown termite mounds  – many six to seven feet high – rise up from the pastures, silent testimony as to why Australian railroads are built with concrete, not wooden, crossties.
Just after lunch, the Ghan comes to a stop at Katherine, a town of some 7,000 people. One of the first “Flying Doctor” services was located here, with pilot/physicians answering emergency calls from ranches and farms hundreds of miles away in the Outback. Dr. Clyde Fenton was one of the first and his canvas-covered bi-plane, a 1934 deHaviland Gypsy Moth, is on display in a corrugated metal hangar.
Across town is the Katherine School of the Air, with a faculty of 17 teachers conducting classes by satellite and TV monitors for 208 children scattered over half-a-million square miles of Outback.
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The Ghan stops for several hours at Alice Springs, allowing passengers to tour the area. The statue depicts an Afghan camel herder, from whom the train got its name.

The next morning, back in the desert and not quite halfway through its journey, the Ghan reaches Alice Springs. This small city sprang up as a telegraph relay station for the railroad when fresh water was found here, and was originally called Alice’s Spring, after the wife of the telegraph operator.
At first blush Alice Springs seems very familiar. Just over there is the local K-Mart and the anchor store of their air-conditioned indoor mall is a huge Woolworth’s.
But an exotic touch comes from the large number of Aborigines moving through the mall, stopping for an ice cream cone or peering into shop windows, and chatting in one of their tribal languages. One, a “stockman,” – that’s what the Aussies call their cowboys – cuts a very impressive figure: long sleeved plaid shirt with a dark blue bandana at his throat, slim jeans cut just so over western boots, and a traditional wide-brimmed hat.
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Late in the afternoon the Ghan crosses the Finke River, described as “a major and intermittent river.” It’s impressively wide, all right, but bone dry save for a bit of water here and there in low spots.

According to the conductor, it was full of water just two weeks earlier.

The harsh desert is left behind during the wee hours and by mid-morning we’re back in the more temperate south, rolling along between pastures and farmland. In less than two hours, we’ll be in Adelaide, final stop of the Ghan’s 1851-mile journey.

In the lounge car, I shake hands with some of my fellow passengers in case we miss each other on the platform, and I return to my compartment, alone with the touch of melancholy I always get during the last few hours of any long distance train trip.

From Adelaide, Qantas takes me back to Sydney where my final night in Australia is spent at the magnificent Opera House and a brilliant performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Still, on the way back to my hotel, I find myself reliving memories of the Indian Pacific and the Ghan, the two magic carpets that carried me twice across this astounding country.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney from Los Angeles; Hawaiian Airlines and American Airlines have non-stops from Honolulu.

Schedules

Both trains run twice weekly in each direction; the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth, the Ghan between Darwin and Adelaide. Both trains share Adelaide as the one major town common to both routes and the only practical spot to switch from one train to the other.

On Board Accommodations

Platinum Class (Ghan only) offers a full-size double bed in an extra-large compartment. Gold Class compartments are somewhat smaller with upper and lower fold-down berths. Both classes have en suite shower and toilet facilities. Red Class includes large reclining seats with lavatory and shower facilities in each car. Very compact bunks are also available in Red Class.

Platinum and Gold Class passengers have access to a lounge car and dining car meals are included in those rail fares. Alcoholic beverages are additional. Red Class passengers purchase meals and beverages in a café car.

Fares (per person)

Indian Pacific (Sydney-Perth): Gold – $1400, Red (sleeper) $950, Red (coach) $500. Ghan (Adelaide-Darwin): Platinum – $2090, Gold – $1380, Red (sleeper) $915, Red (coach) – $500. Note: Fares shown in US dollars and will fluctuate with rate of exchange. Fares to intermediate stops are proportionately less.

Some considerations

Australia is a long haul from the U.S. mainland. I suggest flying to Honolulu, pausing for a day or two, and continuing to Sydney on Qantas or Hawaiian Airlines.

Stuff happens, so plan to arrive in Australia at least a day before your train departs.

Do take advantage of the optional tours offered at the various stops along either route which last from two to four hours. They vary from simple bus tours to boating adventures, but all will enhance your understanding of each area and add immeasurably to your total experience. Coast range from $20 to $60 per person and reservations may be made on board.

Appropriate dress aboard either train is “smart casual.” Pack light, because space is limited in sleeping compartments.

Electrical current in Australia is 220 volts. Bring a converter for any small appliances or laptop. A surge protector is recommended for laptops while aboard the train.

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One summer 2000, after kayaking for a week in the outer islands of Tonga, I touched a whale.
Tonga is an island nation in the South Pacific, the only island group in Oceania that wasn’t conquered or colonized by a Western nation. It is the only surviving hereditary monarchy of the Pacific island nations. Tongan kings traditionally weigh over 300 pounds and wear an apron woven from pandanus reeds.

The week of kayaking was guided by a local company, Friendly Islands Kayak Co., which is owned by a Kiwi couple. Our group was an eclectic and cosmopolitan group made up of a Swiss couple, an Aussie couple, two Canadians, a Swede, me (American) and two guides, a Canadian and a Tongan.

We paddled around the Vava’u group of islands, tent camping and cooking out on pristine sand beaches. We had several tough paddling days battling wind and surf, but each day we arrived at our campsite with time for snorkeling and exploration of the mostly deserted islands.
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The social highlight of the kayaking expedition was an ‘umu feast in a remote village called Mata Maka on one of the outer islands. We dined with the village elders while the village girls entertained us with traditional dancing. The dinner featured pig, which was roasted in a wood-fired pit-oven for twelve hours. But it included about thirty different dishes spread out on the floor in front of us. Our group made a small dent in the massive amount of food prepared for us. But no one felt bad about the leftovers, because everyone drank so much kava (the Polynesian version of distilled spirits) that no one felt anything other than a delightful alcohol-induced party high.
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Umu Feast

After we paddled back to Neiafu, the only city in the Vava’u islands, I had a few days of free time before my flight to Auckland and then home. Neiafu turned out to be a wonderful place to kill time. I participated in a fruit bat hunting (with cameras) expedition in the jungle led by a New Zealand research biologist; crewed in a yacht race on a French-captained yacht; hung out with a couple Englishmen sailing around the world; shared poetry with an American who was sailing around the world but met and married a Tongan woman and had instead anchored off Neiafu for ten years; and had tea each afternoon with four Kiwis in their seventies who had spent their childhoods in Tonga but had to flee the islands to avoid capture by the Japanese during World War II. The most memorable experience, however, was swimming with a humpback whale and her calf.

I spent half a day on a whale watching boat. We spotted a bull, mother and calf humpback whales. Several hundred humpbacks spend July to October around Tonga mating and birthing and then training their calves before swimming south to their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Adult humpbacks are forty to fifty feet in length.

The bull kept its distance, but the mother and calf teased us. Whenever we got within fifty yards of them, the whales would dive. Anjo, a speedboat captain who I had met in my wanderings around Neiafu, offered to take three of us off the slow moving whale watching vessel to try to get close enough to the whales to swim up to them. The superior speed of the speedboat might allow us to approach the whales before they dove away from the boat. A Floridian, a Japanese guy, and I jumped at the chance.

Fifteen times we approached the mother and calf when they surfaced, and then we jumped in the water and swam as fast as we could toward them. Each time the whales sounded before we reached them. The boat captain gave us one last chance as he was low on fuel and it was time for us to get back on the slower boat to be taken back to Neiafu. The three of us dove in with fins kicking as hard and fast as we could. Anjo told us splashing bothers whales, so we kicked with our fins below the surface and didn’t stroke with our arms to minimize splashing.
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Mother Humpback

The mother and calf didn’t dive this time. They swam just below the surface staying about twenty yards ahead of us. Tashio, the Japanese guy, tired from the fifteen times we had already swam after the whales, gave up the chase after about fifty yards. Kevin, the Floridian, broke off after one hundred yards. I kept kicking. After another fifty yards of pursuit, the whales stopped. The mother let me swim up beside her, but kept her baby on her other side away from me. I swam up beside her huge eye, turned on my side and looked through my snorkel mask into her eye, which was as big as my head. She looked back at me. Our eyes locked. Time stopped. It was if we were looking into each other’s souls.

She rolled and nudged her calf with her flipper to encourage the calf to swim over to me. The baby whale swam up to me, swam under me, then circled around me, and let me caress its tail. It was extraordinarily smooth to my touch. The calf returned to its mother’s side. They began to swim off slowly. I swam with them for about one hundred yards, but then another whale-watching boat approached. The mother gave on great flick of her tail and they vanished deep into the dark water below me.

I stroked back to the speedboat and clambered up the ladder and dropped over the gunwale. I could barely stand. My legs were vibrating and shaking so much from the thrill and power of the encounter. For a few moments, the otherness separating the mother whale and me had vanished. We looked into each other’s eyes and saw trust and acceptance, instead of fear and danger. She trusted me to caress her baby. I trusted that she would not crush me like a minnow with her gigantic tail. I can still see her awesome eye in my mind’s eye. And I remember how she trusted me with her baby. It would be a good thing for our finite planet if humans could see the soul of all other species, especially the endangered ones.
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The Author; Nightfall on the Outer Islands of Vava’u

The Holland America Line voyage on the MS Volendam with Captain Peter Bos at the helm would take us—my adult daughter and me, to the other side of the world, land of Maori culture and legend, from rugged sea coast where toned bodies surfed the huge waves in the western part of the Bay of Plenty, to lush vineyards that stretched against a backdrop landscape of eye-blindingly blue sea and, most importantly, to friendly locals. At the end of it all we would see the famed Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia, voted the world’s best city to live in for the second year in a row.

Cherie and I would fly Qantas Airline from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, to join the ship in harbour. The Volendam would circumnavigate the North and South Islands of New Zealand to ports of call with exciting names such as Tauranga, Napier, Christchurch and Dunedin. We would cruise Fiordland National Park—part of the Te Wahipounamu (native Maori name)World Heritage Area— to see immense valleys sculpted by glaciers during multiple ice ages, to get close to waterfalls, and to cruise into one of the park’s longest fjords, Milford Sound, visiting also visit Dusky Sound.

Two days at sea and we’d reach Tasmania, a southeastern state of Australia. But first we would cross Bass Strait overnight to reach in the wee hours of the morning Australia, the world’s smallest continent in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. First stop would be Melbourne. The next day we’d sail to Sydney before flying home.

On the Qantas flight to Auckland, we settled in for the fourteen hours’ flight with complementary wine from some of Australia’s best known vineyards: Yering Station, Adelaide Hills and St. Hallett. If it hadn’t been for the fine wines, top flight service and excellent dinner served by Qantas, the long flight would have been an ordeal. Cherie chose Moroccan-styled roast chicken and I chose seared tuna with lime and pepper sauce. While Cherie slept I watched half of the epic film “Australia” starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, both actors Australian born. I had never seen the film and found the Qantas screen too small to capture the full scope of the film. I hoped the Volendam would show Australia in its Wajang Theatre so I could really appreciate the film on the wide screen. I wasn’t disappointed and watched it twice, once with my daughter.

We arrived to Auckland around 6 a.m. After we passed through Auckland airport customs we took a bus to port where the ship was in harbour. Once through port customs we went aboard. Champagne greeted us in our cabin. A large picture window covered the room in natural light. It was fun to watch the action on the pier as people began to arrive to the ship. But this wasn’t the time to take in the true beauty of our home for the next two weeks. The Renaissance-era themed ship with fountains imported from Italy, valuable works of marine art by Captain Stephen J. Card, and elaborate fresh floral arrangements throughout the spacious common rooms would have to wait. The Volendam wouldn’t leave Auckland with her 1,351 guests until midnight. We made our way to the very top deck and enjoyed lunch in the Lido restaurant with views overlooking the city of Auckland and the harbour. Once off the ship we took the harbour seabus (five minutes by ferry) to Devonport—a small town with heritage charm with signs of Maori settlement that date to the mid 1300s. We found a naval base there. Massive trees along the seaside with thick roots spreading out from the base in search of deeper soil line many Devonport streets as the Pohutukawa tree is the national tree of New Zealand. We poked our heads into cafes, book stores, restaurants and gift shops. After we took pictures of clusters of sailboats with colourful sails we headed back to the ferry for the mainland.

We enjoyed dinner most evenings in the elegant Rotterdam dining room, taking Chef Rudi Sodamin’s recommendations. Does sashimi of salmon with wasabi mayonnaise as an appetizer sound good? A Merlot, Veramonte Reserve wine from Chile was served. The Rotterdam faced the ocean and offered a sweeping staircase leading from the upper floor dining level to the main floor. We enjoyed Trinity Hill Sauvignon Blanc from the famous Hawke’s Bay area of New Zealand the first evening. Some evenings we dined in the intimate setting of the Pinnacle Grill where fine wines from around the world were served. Pinot Gris from the Whitehaven vineyards in the Marlborough area was a feast in itself. Seafood and fine cuts of beef are a speciality. The exquisite cuts of meat are displayed on a silver trolley as sample that a waiter brings to your attention before you select your meal. The wine list was superb as was the dining. Porthole magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Bill Panoff, says the Pinnacle Grill offers an unmatched anywhere on the seven seas sophisticated dining experience.

We would be at sea for the next two days. We’d eventually circle White Island, the site of an active marine volcano. Spencer Brown, Travel Guide, offered expert commentary over the outdoor loudspeaker as the ship silently turned this way and then that way for an up close and personal vantage point of the spewing volcano. The ship is truly an engineering wonder. When in open sea, the top cruising speed is 18 knots. Environmental Officer Dolf Kramer, born and raised in the Netherlands, answered questions about how the ship preserves the environment. Long gone are the days when anything went overboard. Hotel Manager at sea, Robert Versteeg from Bithoven, Holland, and Cruise Director Rebecca, are just two of the “go-to” people on the Volendam if anything isn’t to your liking.

Over the course of our cruise, Cherie and I could be found just about anywhere on the ship involved in any number of exciting activities: the state-of-the-art Culinary Arts Center, sanctioned by Food & Wine magazine, where we learned the fine elements of creating an exotic martini, the history of coffee, or how to make Pannatone Tiramisu—a holiday tradition desert in Italy. There’s even a kid’s cookery program. We took part in many daily programs (Travel Guide Spencer Brown gave a talk on the First Peoples of New Zealand followed by a live didgeridoo performance). We caught nightly live Broadway-style shows in the two-story Frans Hals Lounge. The gym and spa offered ocean views. One of the cruise highlights was the Indonesian Afternoon Tea ceremony with organic teas and coffees from the world’s finest plantations and Indonesian sweets. Keeping in touch with the world and friends was a snap in the Explorations Internet Café.
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Our first port of call was Tauranga, New Zealand, a land settled and still revered by the Maori native people. The area is known for kiwi farms. We took a shuttle bus into town. The weather was unbelievably enjoyable, bright and sunny without a beating-down-on-your-head sort of feel. We bought cotton shirts and ate local oysters at a fresh seafood shack by the water where a seafood festival is held in November. We wanted to taste kiwi wine but couldn’t find it. The oysters were big and plump and tasted of sweet milk. I’ve never tasted anything like it. We hiked the rest of the afternoon, unexpectedly finding ourselves at the ocean amongst surfers. I found myself suddenly kicking up my heels at the edge of the surf while my daughter snapped photo after photo.

Still cruising the South and North Islands of New Zealand, we stopped at the port of Napier, a community founded in 1856 by Sir Charles Napier, a British official in India. A lively musical band and antique automobiles greeted us at port. Cherie took a stroll along a black sand beach in the morning while I myself toured some of the top vineyards of Hawke’s Bay. The vineyards are so lovely an entire week in the area wouldn’t be too much. At Church Road Winery, founded in 1897, I ventured deep inside the original concrete wine vats that now offer an intriguing wine museum. Mission Estate Winery, founded in 1851, is a vast estate ideal for weddings, fine dining and wine tastings. Mission hosts an annual concert. February 13, 2010, celebrates The Legends of Motown with The Four Tops, The Temptations, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas and many top names from Australia.
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The city of Wellington with its pretty harbour and picturesque architecture saw Cherie and me on the Kelburn Cable Car in the centre of the city and up a steep hill to the Botanic Garden with Carter Observatory. Get your cameras at the ready for the view is wonderful as are the formal gardens. The Lady Norwood Rose Garden was spectacular. There are countless shore excursions from which to choose, including where the film “Lord of the Rings” was filmed.

In Picton, originally called Waitohia, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, we were presented with a tiny nosegay of fragrant Old-fashioned roses when we got off the ship. The still floating hull of what is believed to be the ninth oldest ship in the world is that of the East Indian Edwin Fox. See it near the museum and the ferry wharf. We enjoyed a private lunch of locally caught river salmon at Barewood Garden after touring Yealands Estate winery. Peter Yealands is a local fellow who looks very much like a charming character straight out of a period swashbuckling Hollywood film, gray beard and hair in somewhat need of a trim; but highly knowledgeable when it comes to wine and the environment.

In Christchurch Cherie and I visited ChristChurch Cathedral in Cathedral Square where the annual Festival of Flowers (19 Feb. – 14 March 2010) decorates part of the church. We ate sushi in Cathedral Square, drank McDonald’s coffee, strolled along the Avon River but couldn’t rent an antique punt because we only had credit cards, and walked to the must-see nearby botanic gardens on Rolleston Avenue. Just minutes from Cathedral Square you can swim at the Centennial Leisure Centre. We watched the open tram rattle by and wished we’d first taken this for a firsthand view of the city. Nonetheless, Christchurch is ideal for walking as major cultural attractions are within one square kilometre of the city centre.
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In Dunedin we took the heart-stopping Taieri Gorge Railway over the southern hemisphere’s largest wrought iron structure to travel through tunnels and high up into the alpine hills. At one of the train stops I bought Strathdale organic clover honey and New Zealand Paua Shell jewellery used traditionally by the Maori and wished now that I’d bought more of both.

New Zealand’s daylight is of an extraordinary and luminous quality which made the cruise into Fiordland National Park all the more spectacular. The park is New Zealand’s largest national park at 3,000,000 acres with immense valleys sculpted by glaciers during multiple ice ages. Novelist Rudyard Kipling considered the Fiords the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In Tasmania, the 26th largest island in the world with a population of 500,000 mostly around Hobart and more than a third of the state World Heritage national park and forest reserve, we along with other Volendam passengers met Mayor Alvwyn Boyd and his wife Gwenda at Burnie pier. Lovely pewter “Burnie” pins were handed out. We took the free shuttle bus into town and walked along the short beach front before searching out a health food store to buy tee tree oil at The Soapbox on Mount Street. We learned that the highly praised local Angus beef is exported to a Japanese market.

We returned to the ship for a light lunch and then our shore excursion took us by bus to Gunns Plains Cave, about an hour’s drive from Burnie in Leven Canyon. We drove past lush vegetation where huge ferns seemed out of a prehistoric era gone berserk. Named after famed botanist and Tasmanian explorer Ronald Campbell Gunn, the Cave opened in 1909. The air is fresh even though the walkways are a touch damp. The limestone cave opening leads to a steep flight of 54 cement steps. The largest “ribbon” stalactite in the world is found here as well as stalagmites and flowstone suspended from the vaulted ceiling. When the lights were turned out momentarily, glow worms dotted the black space far above our heads like so many stars in the night sky.

The Volendam’s Greenhouse Spa and Salon continued to beckon with ocean views, terrace, steam rooms, hot tub, exercise facility and best of all heated ceramic lounge beds. The cruise ship has two pools on the Lido deck—one salt water and open to the elements, and one beneath a covered dome revealing natural light. One day while my daughter enjoyed a spa treatment I stretched out like a lazy cat over the smooth wood trim surrounding the outside pool. Blue skies above, warm breezes and, best of all, the gentle rocking of the ship lulled me to near sleep. Other times from various decks that were almost vacant of passengers I watched the Shy Albatross in flight with a wingspan of over two metres gliding above the southern oceans following the Volendam.
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Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia with a population around 3.5 million and the capital of Victoria. About 150 languages are spoken. Lively shops and restaurants line the harbour where the Volendam docked. We took a morning shore excursion into the country to see wildlife—Kangaroos, Koalas and the protected Black-tailed Wallaby. In the afternoon on our way back from a tour of the city by foot and historic rattling trolley ($3.70 each for 2-hours) we sat on a bench in the harbour and simply gazed out to sea and understood perfectly the many accounts of how friendly the people of New Zealand and Australia are.

We’d heard about the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb—one of the world’s preeminent engineering marvels—over 1500 metres of steel; but didn’t have the four hours’ needed to complete the climb. You can do this climb by day or by night. We can only imagine what the sensation would feel like to be atop Sydney Harbour Bridge: the Blue Mountains in the distance, the city at our feet.

The Sydney Opera House was all and more that photographs suggested. Sydney’s 4.2 million population is said to be the most densely populated in the world, but it’s hard to believe. The city appeared spacious and languid. There are chic terrace restaurants at the Opera House. We had signed up for a bus tour of the city and now found ourselves looking at the Opera House from a multitude of vantage points. Soon we were at the crest of a hill that overlooked Sydney. This was just a taste of a beautiful city, of a memorable cruise but a taste that tantalized.

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Few places on earth can match the astonishing natural beauty of Palau. With a population of 20,000, it is a paradise with over 500 densely tree-covered islands of which only nine are inhabited. Once the scene of horrific battles during World War II, nature was the ultimate the winner. Dense vegetation has covered the war scars on land and the sea is slowly wearing away the downed WWII planes including the “George Bush Wreak,” the first President Bush’s plane. Today pristine Palau looks like the “Land Before the Hand of Man.”

Palau’s Rock Islands, relics of ancient coral reefs, are one of the world’s most unique phenomena. The largely uninhabited, mushroom-shaped islets are located in a vast lagoon that is a habitat for one of the world’s greatest concentrations of coral and marine life. The islands may be “green”, but the waters around the islands are so many beautiful shades of blue it is breathtaking. The blue starfish and the blue Napoleon wrasse share the waters with other colorful tropical fish, black-tip reef sharks, sea turtles, giant clams and coral of all colors.

Most unique among the wonders of Palau is Jellyfish Lake. After a boat ride to an island there is a short but steep climb up then down the ridge that isolates the hidden lake. In this intriguing lake the jellyfish have flourished and lost their sting because they have not had to fight off predators. Snorkeling with the translucent, pale pink jellyfish is like being part of an underwater ballet. On the way the tourist boats usually stops at the Milky Way, a narrow stretch of water between two rock islands. The guide dives in, scoops up a handful of the white sand that is as soft as cold cream and encourages people to slather it all over their body claiming it has rejuvenating qualities. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing are all over-the-top activities with more than 1,400 species of fish and 500 species of coral. It is easy to understand why Palau is often referred to as the “Eighth Natural Wonder of the World” and “One of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World.”
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Land-based tours explore remote waterways that have been changed little by the hand of man. The Sense of Wonder Eco Tour is an environmental and educational program that includes kayaking through the mangrove forests that serve as a nursery for a plethora of land and sea creatures. At the start of the tour a sprouted coconut found laying on the ground is split open and the coconut meat, which has turned spongy, is applied to exposed body parts. It is the time-honored traditional method to prevent sunburns and keep the mosquitoes at bay. Quietly kayaking through the primeval-looking mangrove it is possible to hear a bird that imitates the call of a monkey and spot the large fruit bat hanging out waiting for nighttime.

A short trail in the mangrove leads to a place where, according to Palauan legend, the taro goddess brought back samples from the taro patches she created on the various islands. She placed them in the area where she got married where they turned to stone. The tour includes an expansive lunch featuring a variety of delicious items made from the taro plant.

The Jungle River Boat Cruise is another eco-friendly tour that starts with a nature walk through the jungle stopping to see the Gorilla Arm Tree and learn about the Noni Tree, the fruit of which is said to cure just about everything. There are carnivorous picture plants, 23 varieties of orchids, and ancient fern trees. As the riverboat plies the Ngerdorch River crocodiles sunning themselves on a spit of land slip into the water and kingfishers burst up out of the vegetation. Other jungle treks explore more of the wonders of Palau including beautiful Ngardmau Waterfall, one of the republic’s largest. For a taste of culture there are traditional men’s houses, mysterious stone monoliths, Yap stone money, cultural shows, and local crafts.
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Palau was “green” long before “green” became fashionable. Realizing the environment is their greatest asset, they continue to preserve and protect their Eden. To increase awareness of the environment’s fragility the Palau International Coral Reef Center celebrates Palau’s environment with exhibits that recreate the various ecosystems. It, along with the Palau Conservation Society, partners with scores of other organizations in developing sustainable tourism strategies. A good example is Carp Island Resort where they have started their own farm. The pigs, chickens, tomatoes, egg plants, along with the fruit trees will provide guests with fresh food. Filtered water from the mangrove is used for shower and toilets. They are looking into the feasibility of wind or solor power.

Palau’s former President, Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr., developed the Micronesia Challenge, a regional inter-governmental initiative in the western Pacific region that called on other countries in Micronesia to join Palau in conserving 30 perecent of shore coastal waters and 20 percent of forest land by 2020. The Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, the U.S. territories of Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands accepted the challenge. For his efforts, ex-President Remengesau, Jr. received an award from TIME magazine as one of the Heroes of the Environment in 2007.

Palua is an iconic tropical Pacific island unspoiled by rampant commercialization. It truly looks like a “land before the hand of man.”