Another "Bucket List" trip in the books!

Thanks to diligent planning by our group leader, Janice! This was a phenomenal 25-day adventure of a lifetime. Trying to cram 25 days' worth of activities into a blog is intimidating. I'll hit the highlights, and by all means, please reach out for more details if your curiosity is piqued.

**All images within or associated with this Blog are taken by, owned, and copyright protected by Lisa Hale Photos 2024 unless otherwise noted. Use of this writing or any contents displayed within must be pre-authorized by the owner.**

BULA - Welcome to Fiji!

Travel to Australia from the East Coast of US takes approximately 30-34 hours, depending on flight connections, etc. We broke up the travel with a 2-night stay in Fiji! So Asheville to Charlotte, then to San Francisco and finally landing in Fiji (travel day 1 was about 20 hours.) Nadi, Fiji was H.O.T. and our resort was about 20 miles from the airport and reachable only by boat. We stayed at the Double Tree by Hilton, Sonaisali Island (website HERE). We arrived in the morning and enjoyed the pool in between raindrops. Evidently, Fiji was in its rainy season. We signed up to do a Cultural excursion at a local village. We were welcomed with song, home-made food cooked in the ground, a tour around the grounds, and an outstanding show including fire dancers. Note: the village also had the most mosquitos of any place we visited. Did I mention Fiji was H.O.T. and very humid. On the shuttle back to the resort, our driver was listening to the weather where it was announced that Nadi, Fiji was in the path of a Level 1 Cyclone, arriving in the overnight hours. EEK! Thankfully, our location on the island was unscathed by the storm. There was wind and a whole lot of rain, but the sun was visible the next morning, just as we were leaving. In the panoramic image below, you can see the storm on the right side.

While we may not have witnessed the beautiful blue skies and turquoise waters one sees in the magazines for Fiji, we did have the privilege of spending time with the people of Fiji. From the resort employees remembering all our names from Day 1, to the the golf cart drivers with big personalities and big families, retail store employees sharing their rich history with us, to the families cooking and performing for us at the village we visited - Fijians are some of the warmest and welcoming people I've ever experienced. Vinaka!

Pacific Ocean

Excited for Australia - Welcome to Queensland!

Leaving H.O.T. and humid Fiji behind, we flew via two legs to Cairns, Australia (pronounced "Cans") - flights were about 8 hours. We had a free evening and began our Land Tour the next morning. First up was seeing the Great Barrier Reef! We shuttled out to the middle of the ocean on a huge catamaran. To access the Reef, we tied up to a large pontoon-like barge where we had many options for experiencing the Reef. My roommate helicoptered along the reef, and others scuba-dived and rode the glass bottom boat. I stuck with snorkeling. We were issued gear and those of us with "special needs" i.e. asthma, or other issues, were given a brightly colored pipe so the lifeguards could see us better. I was fine with that as I wasn't trying to die out there. My fears were creeping in, not going to lie. To make it even more intimidating, we had to wear a skin-tight neoprene suit to protect us from stinging jellyfish and whatever else is out there. My new friend Gigi helped get me into the suit, zipped up, snorkel on, etc. I'm not a petite petunia, so having to wear this get-up was adding to my anxiety. I made my way to the water and put on my flippers. I sat there for a long time talking to myself about not dying and risk v. reward. I finally decided I was going to do it, and got all the way in the water. I also had my cell phone in a waterproof container around my neck to document my death, um, I mean document my experience. I turned the video on and just went under for the first dive. That's all it took. I forgot about dying. I forgot about being a round person in a wet-suit in public, and just focused what was in front of me. Jellyfish - that's what was in front of me. They said the bigger ones weren't the dangerous ones, and to just lightly push them away. The water was warm and the sun was shining. The brightly colored coral was swaying with the current just below me. The fish were darting around checking things out. When I came up from my first dive, I was surrounded by people in my group, but we were a long way from the barge. Next thing I know, a lifeguard showed up on a motorized boogie board and offered me a ride back towards the boat. Sure thing! She told me the current was strong and it was easy to get pushed out. There was a large ring of buoys (a perimeter) set up so I knew to stay inside that area. After catching my breath, I dove again - and came out of the water another long distance from the barge. I raised my hand and someone came and towed me back in. I probably did this 8 or 10 times. Literally, no effort made on my part trying to swim back to the boat. Just out there floating around living my best life. If I had known it was so easy, I wouldn't have wasted so much time worrying! The colors underwater were amazing! The coral, the fish, and the water were all just amazing. I've never seen anything like it. We had plenty of time to snorkel at leisure, lounge around in the sun, or view the underworld from a glass bottom boat, or submarine-like vessel with windows. Overall, a 10 out of 10 day. Here's the link to ReefWorld who manages the pontoon and tours. If you ever have a chance to experience the Great Barrier Reef (UNESCO World Heritage Site), I hope you will jump at the opportunity. Life. Changing! To say I pushed outside of my comfort zone is an understatement, and I didn't die! Click HERE for more information about the Great Barrier Reef.

Amateur Video Warning!

Nothing spectacular, just my first dive 'downunder' at the Reef. No future in film making for me..haha. You can see how close the Reef is under me and how far the current pushed me from the barge. I wish I could say my videos got better as the day went on, but...nope. This is it. Just out here trying to not die.

Visiting Australia's Rain Forest

The next day we headed up into the mountains to a place called Rainforeststation and Kuranda Village. We took a cable-car up, saw a ginormous waterfall, went into the Kuranda Koala and Wildlife Park, rode in an Army Duck, learned the basics to didgeridoo, throw boomerangs, and watched Aboriginal dancers. We did a lot in a short amount of time. The weather was good: sunny, and it was hot, but not Fiji H.O.T.

I'll share a few details about Kuranda. I encountered many "new" animal species this day. While we were boarding the Army Duck, the two-way radio traffic got busy about a wild Cassowary bird roaming the grounds. Not knowing what a Cassowary was, our guide pointed it out. The thing was huge and colorful! It was coming in to eat from their fruit trees. If a peacock, turkey, and emu had a baby - it would be the Cassowary. It's beak and spiked talon toes were impressive and we nicknamed it 'the murder bird.' Rightfully so. We encountered another one later in the trip, but it was in a large cage. The one at the Duck Center was WILD! Other animals were kangaroo, koala, Bilby, crocodiles, flying squirrels, many species of lizards, owls, and a Dingo. The frog picture below is one of my favorites. They are nocturnal and the enclosure had blue lighting. The frog was on the glass and made for a great shot.

Hello Sydney! Welcome to New South Wales, Australia

Our 4-hour flight went well and we arrived to Sydney Harbour to our waterfront hotel in the area known as "The Rocks." The area was very walk-able and had a plethora of shops, delis, waterfront views, and restaurants. The hotel overlooked the cruise port and each evening we watched the ships sail away. The views from the hotel were breathtaking, especially from the rooftop (with pool) at night.

More Sydney...

We did a city tour by van and then boarded a private chartered boat for a 1/2 day sail around all the different harbors. After hours, we treated ourselves to a night at the Sydney Opera House to see The Gatsby, a Vaudevillian-type performance. So incredible! The next day we loaded up and went up into the Blue Mountains National Park. The mountains reminded us of 'home' in the mountains of North Carolina. We also visited another wildlife park which included more kangaroos, koala bears, a Wallaby, and the 2nd Cassowary (which almost pooped on my shoe!) Here we saw the rock formation "Three Sisters" which used to be "7 Sisters" at some point. The view here was incredible and I never knew Australia had mountains. We also stopped at a Botanical Garden, and I was supposed to take a photo of a rare species of pine tree. I failed to get the photo, but I did get a great coffee and a snack. **Roommate Betsy sent photos of pine tree to add to post - the Wollemi Prehistoric Pine tree has made it!** Bondi Beach was amazing and loaded with surfers! The next day we said goodbye to Sydney with an awesome fireworks display over the harbor and started OUR CRUISE!! (Fireworks photo by Janice.)

Royal Princess - here we come!

We had been traveling for 9 days, and the cruise ship was a welcomed sight. Finally, we could unpack and relax into our cabins. We were on Deck 9, mid-ship in a Deluxe Balcony Room (thanks to a last-minute upgrade!) We rested, we spa'd, we ate, we did all the things for the 13 day cruise. Our cruise route is posted below for Princess Cruise.

Melbourne, Victoria Province

As we arrived in port, the fuel tanker was waiting for us. One last top-off before crossing the Tasman Sea. For me, Melbourne was an average city with a sporting habit (i.e. cricket and football!) We also drove on the Grand Prix track that was being built for an upcoming race. We did a city tour with our driver, Rachel. We visited a cricket stadium, St. Patrick's Cathedral, a Shrine of Remembrance, a theme park entrance (it's sad that this is a city "highlight", but here we are), and lastly, we visited a city garden.

Ariving in Hobart, Tasmania (technically, still Australia)

After a long day at sea, I was glad to arrive in Hobart the next morning to get my feet on solid ground. The Tasman Sea was churning with 8' waves (the Captain said it was 'moderate seas'; I disagreed.) Hobart was a vibrant city and our guide was lovely. He hauled us up to the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and Animal Hospital where we saw the famously elusive marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil. (Give yourself 1 point if you already knew what I was going to say.) I saw lots of new-to-me animal species including Laughing Kookaburras, tawny frogmouths, short-beaked echidnas, wombats, quolls, and I'm sure there are several more I'm forgetting. The kangaroos were on free range of the place and visitors could hand-feed and pet them.

After leaving the Sanctuary, we visited a town called Richmond, Tasmania. It felt a bit old-timey, but was quaint in its own right. Old limestone buildings, narrow streets and alleyways, small delis and an ice cream shop/candy store welcomed visitors. Meat Pies are popular in Australia and our driver recommended a meat pie made with curried scallops. It was a great bite for such a small town. (Sorry Foodies, no photo.)

We were supposed to travel up into the mountains; however, there was a high wind warning (note the rough seas) and forest fires in the area which closed the only road in. Our driver took us to some safer lookout points around the city instead.

Cruising the Fjords of New Zealand!

After more rough seas, we were treated to a breath-taking cruise through Milford Sound. The fjord was barely wide enough for the Royal Princess leaving maybe 80 yards of clearance on the sides. I had seen photos of this area prior to sailing and was aware that weather (fog, rain) were common. We arrived at day break to low fog, but there was sunshine behind it. It was an epic view! We were able to see all of this from our ship's balcony. Use the photo slider below to see the photos.

Welcome to Dunedin, South Island of New Zealand

Dunedin was the first stop after more rough sea days on the ship. My roommate Betsy and I hopped on a scenic train and headed for the mountains. The Taieri Gorge route aboard the New Zealand Railway passed through 8 tunnels and crossed several viaducts over the Taieri River. We stopped in Hindon and were allowed to get off the train and explore the area. The engine and generator were re-positioned to take us back to the station in Dunedin.

Leaving the port, we passed by a colony of Albatross birds and a lighthouse. I wish we had more time as I would love to get a closer look. The photo of an Albatross is from the interwebs and not my photo.

Welcome to Wellington, on the North Island of New Zealand!

Wellington was the first stop after another 2 days on the ship. An electric bicycle tour was our scheduled activity. No matter how much I didn't want to ride a bike, staying on the ship another day wasn't an option. To sum up the bike tour, lets just say I won't be riding a bike for another 30 years (if ever). Also, when someone says, "it's like riding a bicycle" just know it IS possible to forget HOW to ride a bicycle. It is also possible to have an ill-fitting seat and lose all feeling in your nether region for a couple days. It's okay to wince right there. Thankfully, bikes have come a long way and there was a feature called pedal assist. I never found the seat assist feature though, sadly. Of course it rained and was a chilly 60 degrees. We biked around the harbor, through city streets, and rested at a coffee shop at the turn-around point. Two in our group fell (no injuries), two got flat tires, and I veered off the bike lane into the street at one point (no cars, thankfully.) I think I would have done better if I had my old yellow banana seat from my childhood and a tall orange flag on the back.

Welcome to Tauranga, New Zealand!

Back into a warmer, dryer climate, we arrived at Tauranga! This is an area that I'd consider visiting again for a vacation - it was beautiful! There was a natural beach that went on and on, hiking and walking paths, a mountain and cultural center in town, and very walk-able. We headed up to Rotorua and visited the Agrodome for a sheep presentation - who knew there were so many species of sheep!?! We visited the Whaka Maoiri Living Village (population 87.) It's a geothermal area with hot springs and geysers. The village uses the mineral pools to boil vegetables for the restaurant (they were cooking cabbage and corn on the cobb.) The Maori Tribe performed a HAKA for us - incredible!

On the ride back to the ship, we stopped at New Zealand's Redwood Forest. There wasn't any parking available so we only had about 10 minutes here. Last stop of the day was at a KIWI grove. I didn't know kiwis grew on vines like a grape. It was about two weeks before harvest so the vines were loaded. The tall ferns are grown around the perimeter to protect the grove from wind damage. "If anyone from Customs asks, we did not visit an agriculture area" and that's why stayed on the outside and weren't allowed to taste (or even touch) the kiwi.

The last night on the ship and the skies finally cleared out to showcase the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Around 10 pm we saw the Southern Cross (Crux) constellation. Yahoo - another bucket item to check off!

Disembarking in Aukland, New Zealand

We had seven different time changes on the trip and our last day in New Zealand started in the wee morning hours (still dark outside.) I snapped a few photos of the city-scape before the disembarking process. Long day of hurry up and wait. We had to catch a shuttle to the airport with the last shuttle being 4 hours before our flight. So we sat at the airport and waited. We flew back to Fiji (4 hours), then waited another 4 hours for our long flight to Los Angeles (10 hours + 10 minutes.) So yes, 22 hours just to get to LAX. We got through Customs back into the USA and caught a shuttle to our hotel. We had lunch while we waited for our rooms. Two hours later, your girl was in PJs and snoring away (note it was 4pm West Coast Time.) Awake early and back to the airport by 7:30 am for two more flights (LAX to Atlanta, then home to Asheville.) I got home about 10:30 pm East Coast Time, with a total of 38 hours of travel in 2 days. And yes, I worked the next morning (Monday) and kept hearing that same self talk again about not trying to die and the risk (not going to work) v. reward (future vacations). I was a full 7 days (plus another time adjustment for Daylight Savings) before I felt "normal" and lost my sea legs.

That's a Wrap - Amazing Adventure Complete!

Again, thanks to Janice for coordinating this amazing trip! There were 8 of us traveling together, all solo travelers. My roommate Betsy and I were a great team and had several midnight conversations and laughter. I made many new friends on the journey. We had some great meals along the way. So much seafood! I didn't take near as many food pictures as I planned. I'll post them here and any remaining photos that didn't find a home in blog.

As always, thanks for following along on my journey!

Love and safe travels to you all,