Springtime in the Desert

I live in Phoenix Arizona.  People think of the desert as a hot, dry, brown place.  That could not be further from the truth.  This year during monsoon season Phoenix experienced heavier rainfall than is typical.  Following those torrential rains comes the promise of spring wildflowers.  Super bloom time has arrived in the Sonoran Desert.

The desert is bursting with wildflowers.  It’s a beautiful time to see the colors of the Sonoran desert.  Even though I can’t hike yet due to my injury, I did drive to a trailhead to experience that beauty firsthand.

temporary
The buds of the Jumping Cholla  ready to bloom
temporary
Honey bee feeding on Baja Fairy Duster Flower

 

temporary
Close up of a Pink Baja Fairy Duster Flower
temporary
This is not the brown deser, this is super bloom time..
temporary
Saguaro in the colorful desert
temporary
The Creosote bush emits a lovely scent following a rain storm, we think of it as the smell of rain.
temporary
Eleganat Brodiaea

temporary

Desert Marigold dot the landscape throughout the Sonoran desert.

temporary
Lupine flowers

 

IMG_5070
This ridge of iconic Saguaro cactus is near my home

For years I’ve driven along one particular road and never noticed the majestic ridge of Saguaro cactus, until the other day.  This time it wasn’t about completing a hike, it   was about taking time to notice and see the beauty around me. The old adage is apropos.  Take time to smell the wildflowers.

Getting Older, Apparently it’s Unavoidable

Getting older is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Age is a sticky subject for me.  I don’t like to admit that I’m getting older but the reality of life is that getting older is better than the alternative.

I guess when you admit that you are getting older you also become more accepting of the reality of your own mortality.  And that is something I’m not ready for.

Maybe one of the positive things about age and maturity is that your perspective changes.  Now I don’t worry about what people think about me.  Gone are the days of insecurity.  You can like me if you want, but it’s not something that I crave any longer.  I am not afraid to give people my honest opinion.

Knowing that life is precious and fleeting, I really want to experience everything I can.  I do try to live my dreams.  Going to Australia and seeing the Great Barrier Reef last month was something I wanted to do since I was a kid.   I fell in love with the spectacular pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, and the idea of visiting a far away place.  My brother Neal, who keeps EVERYTHING  from our childhood (and archives it  )recently sent me the National Geographic School Bulletin from 1968.  This was the magazine that ignited my desire to to see Australia.   On the cover was Australia’s Barrier Reef.   As a nine year old,  I saw those pictures and knew I had to go there.   It was on my Bucket List.   It may have taken me almost fifty years, but I got there.  It no longer looks like it did in 1968, but it was wonderful nonetheless.

 

IMG_4914
Captivating article about Great Barrier Reef “one of the most awesome spots on earth.”

I was finding Nemo inside the magazine in ’68, thirty five years  before Pixar even dreamed of the movie.

IMG_4886
Clownfish from 1968 magazine

Right now I’m dealing with the realization that my body doesn’t always do what I want it to.   I fractured my foot a couple of weeks ago, climbing the stairs.  No, it didn’t happen when I bungee jumped off a building, or when I was snorkeling , or hiking or riding a speed boat.  It happened when I was just climbing the stairs!

IMG_2158
My new “boot”

I’m in a walking boot now  and it is very uncomfortable to walk in.  When I went to the store yesterday I sat in a cart scooter, acknowledging my disability .  I drove around Costco and knocked over a couple of displays, but no people.  Those things are really slow, and loud when you back up.  It took me twice as long to shop as it usually does.  I felt vulnerable and old.  Two things I wish to avoid.

I may accept the realization that my body isn’t as strong as it once was, but I am not giving up.  I realize this is my new reality. It’s probably time to give away my roller blades.  But I refuse to let it slow me down.                                                                                Age is only a number.

IMG_2174
My rollerblades, not for sale……. yet

 

 

 

 

Exploring Down Under

Taking in the sights, sounds and flavors or Sydney and Auckland

When our cruise ship arrived in Sydney at sunrise I was awed by the absolute beauty of the city.  The Sydney Opera House, Harbor Bridge and gorgeous downtown were all so spectacular.

temporary
Harbor Bridge, Sydney
temporary
Downtown Sydney at sunrise

We had only one day to spend in Sydney before we headed to Auckland, New Zealand so we wanted to make the best of it.  We checked  into our hotel and because it was a Sunday we headed over to the Market at The Rocks.  The Rocks are located on the site of Sydney’s historic city center.  We shopped some of the stalls of hand made and recently imported items then ate a terrific lunch along the way at playfair cafe.  They offered sandwiches and salads but we also decided to order the berry crumble, which was the better than you could ever imagine.  The owner, Sean told us it was worth the wait and was going to change our lives.  It was and it did.  We ate it so quickly I forgot to take a photo of it in all of it’s deliciousness.

temporary
Home of the life changing “crumble”

We walked along the ferry terminal to the  Opera House.  It is spectacular up close as well .  I had no idea that the surface was covered with tiles.

 

temporary
A bit of a different view of the Sydney Opera House

We have some friends from Phoenix who now live in Sydney so after our shopping we met them for dinner at Ripples.  It is located outside a community pool and has a beautiful view of both the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge.  The food and wine were so delicious and it was so very nice to spend time with our expat friends.  After dinner they suggested we walk the bridge.  It was a short walk and the evening views did not disappoint.  It was also free, not the  $250 charged by the company that escorts walkers slowly across the highest point of bridge.

temporary
Seafood salad from Ripples

 

temporary
My friend Brooks and I outside Ripples Restaurant in Sydney

 

temporary
Beautiful bridge architecture
temporary
View of the Sydney Opera House from the bridge

The next morning we were at the airport headed to Auckland, New Zealand for a few days.  We arrived in Auckland and recognized the SkyTower before we even hit downtown.  We checked into our Airbnb in the center of town and were ready to explore the city.  Since we only had four days in New Zealand, we decided to explore Auckland and the surrounding area by foot and by ferry.

We went to the ferry terminal and took Fuller’s  Harbor tour, which provided us with a nice narrated cruise with view of Auckland’s downtown from the water, Bean Rock Lighthouse, the Auckland Harbor bridge and stops in Rangitoto, an island created by volcanic rock, and Davenport.

temporary
Downtown Auckland from the harbor
temporary
Bean Rock Lighthouse
temporary
A seagull perched on top of a roof in Rangitoto

I may get scared easily, but ultimately I am an adrenaline junkie.  I like to be scared.  As soon as I saw people bungee jumping off of the Sky Tower, I knew I had to do it.  A thrill, with very little risk in my estimation.  After you sign your life away, participants are weighed, placed in jumpsuits and harnesses and sent up to the top of the tower to free fall for about twelve seconds.  It was terrifying and exhilarating. I screamed the entire way down and loved it.

img_4720
Freefalling from the 630 foot Auckland Sky Tower

We celebrated after the jump by enjoying a New Zealand delicacy, Green Lipped mussels.  They were gigantic and fabulous.

img_2106
Green lipped mussels, order the small portion

For our final day in Auckland we booked a day long wine tasting tour with Waiheke Island Wine Tours. We were met by our driver Wayne, a life long resident of this picturesque island, who explained the history of winemaking on the island as well as information about native Maori culture.  We visited three wineries and finished with a gourmet lunch at The Shed at Dunleavy Vineyards.

temporary
A view of the small marina from Waiheke Island
temporary
One of the many vineyard in Waiheke Island
temporary
Wine tasting at Miro Winery
img_2124
Luggage for the trip home

The next morning we woke up early for a very long travel day back to America.  We were able to keep our baggage down to two suitcases and two backpacks. For our return We did check our luggage since they were now heavy and expanded to maximum capacity, also we needed to put our wine somewhere..

We have completed our journey of thirty one days visiting the other side of the world.  We tried new foods, met new friends and experienced things that we will never forget.  There is no one else in this world that I enjoy traveling with more than my husband.  As we waited for our Uber to arrive a bus passed us by and on that bus was the message of our travel.

img_2113

 

 

 

A Great Cruise: What Azamara Cruiseline Does Right

Review of Azamara Journey cruise

We enjoy cruising.  Really, what’s not to like?  You are provided with food, lodging, maid service, entertainment and alcohol and get to visit beautiful spots in the world.

When my children were very young we embarked on several low cost cruises that allowed the five of us stay in the same 120 square foot room.  What the heck were we thinking?  What parent doesn’t want to get into a closet size room with their spouse and three active children?  My kids loved cruising because there was 24 hour pizza, ice cream and a family vacation all rolled into one.  But once we went to bed,  NO ONE could get up, unless everybody got up.  Since there were bunks on top of bunks, I’m pretty sure at least one of my three kids needed to step on another to get in or out of bed.

Things have changed.  We’re retired now and our adult children don’t usually cruise with us.  When we choose a cruise we look for great itineraries .  We found a fabulous itinerary on the Azamara Journey eighteen nights from Singapore to Sydney with stops in Bali, Komodo Northern Australia and The Great Barrier Reef.  We had never heard of Azamara before but after some researching, we decided to try this cruiseline owned by Celebrity.  Customer ratings were positive so we booked our cruise.

Things Azamara does differently

1. The food was exceptional.  Because the kitchen staff is only preparing meals for 600 or so passengers the quality and preparation of the food was spot on.  At every meal you can eat at either the Windows Cafe or Discovery dining room.  There is not assigned, fixed seating so you have an opportunity to either enjoy your meal as a couple or ask to be placed at a group table.

temporary
Lobster tail from specialty restaurant

2.  The entertainment was diverse.  Guests can enjoy dance lessons, card games, painting, trivia, destination lecturers as well as small and larger scale musical shows.  One interesting note about the entertainment was that the Cruise Director, Eric was also an amazing performer. He sang, danced, skated, told jokes and performed in drag on our eighteen day cruise. There is really nothing quite like watching a six foot six performer skate, sing and dance in drag.

temporary
Cruise director Eric with my friend Pat

3.  On every cruise Azamara hosts a White Party where guests and employees alike all dress in white and enjoy a sumptuous lobster barbecue on the deck, complete with drinks, entertainment, line dancing and also a few people in the pool at the end of the night (myself included). The night was a brilliant seventy degrees with clear skies and a full moon.

temporary
Enjoying White Party with new friends Jeff, Jennifer, Gail and Marilyn
temporary
The ladies decided to take a dip in the pool at The White Party
temporary
Dancing in the pool at the end of the White Party

4.  The people that work at Azamara are friendly.  Not the fake smile and nod friendly, they are really friendly.  From the room steward to the captain everyone greets you on the ship and they will engage you in a conversation.  You can’t fake that.

5.   Azamara also hosts an AZAMAZING EVENING at one of the ports where locals provide a night of culture and entertainment for the guest. On our night in Cairns we were treated to  face painting, dance and music as we learned more of the natives aboriginal culture.

temporary
Face paint courtesy of the performers

6.  Azamara has only two ships, each hold approximately 600 passengers. They are often able to get into much smaller ports than the mega ships. The ships were refurbished recently and are decorated in warm gray hues. They change the itineraries frequently and often stay at a port late or remain overnight. This really allows the opportunity for passengers to spend time enjoying the destinations. For my husband and I, really IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DESTINATIONS.

temporary
Bali 

7.  I may be new to Azamara but we are not new to cruising. Azamara does things differently.  They use technology throughout their ship, from the USB plugs by the bed lamp to photos from the ship’s photographer that can be viewed on your stateroom television.  The same was true for your bill.

temporary
A nightly treat with our fresh fruit and flowers

8.   Azamara Includes the price of your basic alcohol and tipping with the price of your cruise. It makes it so much easier to budget cruise costs this way. You do have the option to buy premium alcohol packages, internet packages as well as dining in the two specialty restaurants.
9.  We usually choose an inside stateroom.  Basically we would rather spend our travel dollar on more travel rather than on a more expensive cabin.  We also were very pleased with our room, the comfortable bedding, linens and the fruit and fresh flowers in our state room daily. Who else does that?  Especially for an inside stateroom.  Azamara has some terrific common space that made it easier to spend time getting to know new friends.

img_3700
The “Living Room” offered a place to enjoy conversation, drinks and tapas with friends

9.  Timing is everything. Our ship, The Journey arrived at our final port of Sydney at sunrise.  Passengers were all informed that we would be sailing by the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge as the sun was rising.  We were met on the top deck to greet the new day in beautiful Sydney with mimossas and pastries.

temporary
Sydney’s iconic Harbor Bridge and Opera House at sunrise

 

We know that we will sail with Azamara again.  They are not the cheapest, the largest, the newest, but for our money they are the best.  They are a cruiseline with heart.

Australia:  My Travel Fantasyland

My visit to Australia is a dream journey, that is not only meeting, but exceeding my expectations.  Ever since I was very young and viewed a copy of National Geographic Magazine featuring the Great Barrier Reef, I knew in my heart that I would some day visit the Great Barrier Reef.  I longed to see the bright colors and spectacular undersea life there.  This past week my husband and I have traveled to several cities in Australia where a childhood dream became a reality.

temporary
Port Douglas, Australia

Our ship pulled into Port Douglas and after a sleepless night we were at Port Douglas.  It is a lovely  town filled with shops and a harbor filled with boats ready to take the willing to The Great Barrier Reef.

img_4053

In reality, the Great Barrier Reef is a series of several hundred reefs along northern Australia.  Climate change, warmer water, pollution, human behavior and some predators have changed the reef.  But the Great Barrier Reef is not dead.   Although it is obvious that it is not as healthy as it could be.   It is one of the seven wonders of the world.

We boarded a gigantic catamaran from Quicksilver with two hundred and fifty of our closest friends.  We traveled to a  location nearly two hours away to a diving platform on the reef.  Quicksilver charges about $200 per person to snorkel or ride the undersea submarine.   We reached the platform which included changing rooms, observation decks, a restaurant, a helicopter landing pad and a variety of places to observe the sea life, including an underwater observation chamber and a mini sub.  Even with all of the  infrastructure and the people, the reef is simply magnificent.

temporary.jpg
The Great Barrier Reef

I’m not going to lie, my expectation was more of an intimate experience with nature.  But, with that being said it was a fantasy, a dream come true to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.  We snorkeled with a marine biologist and about five other people into the choppy current.  We put on our stinger suits, which are similar to a full body Spanx and along with our snorkels, goggles and fins we jumped into the water with lots of enthusiasm.

Our marine biologist braved the water with us and showed us up close some of the magic under the sea.  We held jelly fish (the nice ones), watched giant clams open and close their shells, followed turtles playing, and watched the colorful coral dance.  This was something my dreams were made of.  Yes, even with the helicopter flights, the mass of humanity, the trip was fabulous.  My husband and I were absolutely exhausted when we finished but as we dozed on the return trip back to town we both had smiles on our faces.

img_4211
Colorful coral at the Great Barrier Reef

Our next port was Cairns, where we booked an excursion to the Franklin Islands for more snorkeling and beach time.  Normanby Island could have been from the TV show Fantasy Island.  It was filled with breezy palm trees and coral covered the beaches.  Snorkeling from the beach so close to the Great Barrier Reef was a joy.  This was a small excursion, there was ample room for snorkeling and the water was calm and clear.

temporary
Normanby Island, part of the Franklin Islands Australia

We saw a great deal of fish, stingray and the coral colors were vibrant.  Towards the end of the trip, we hiked with the marine biologist and learned about a rare tiny star shaped protists  that is found only on Frankli Island and Okinawa, Japan.

temporary
Rare star shaped protists that leave behind their skeletons making a star sand beach

At Hamilton Island we took a Reef Rider speed boat to Whitehaven beach.  On the way there I was unexpectedly surprised with a ride that was reminiscent of a log flume but it goes on for over thirty minutes.  Who doesn’t like a bumpy, wet, scary ride on the shark infested ocean in a foreign country?  Me.  No, I didn’t like it!  In fact I screamed through most of it, until Greg reminded me that even the children onboard were not screaming.  Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.   Yeah right. But we all survived and loved the silky sand and cerulean blue ocean.  The ride back to civilization was a bit better, beacause we were going with the tide.  I did consider asking the pilot of the float plane to take pity on me and bring be back to Hamilton Island.

temporary
The Reef Rider, AKA wet, rollercoaster
temporary
The float plane that refused to take me back
temporary
Beautiful WhiteHaven Beach, Australia

Hamilton Island is a wonderfully small, idyllic and expensive island where you can expect to pay about 9 bucks for an ice cream cone.  Billionaires live here among the palm trees, flora and fauna.  They arrive via their small private planes and come and go as they like.  Pretending to be local, we rented a golf cart (no cars on the island) with friends and explored.  We stopped for a drink and I learned what is in a Pimms, which will become my new summer drink.  It’s a gin based and when soda and fruit is added it is both refreshing and delicious.

temporary
The Harbor at Hamilton Island, Australia

Hamilton Island is our last port in Australia before Sydney.  One of the things I really wanted to do was to see a koala bear.  The koala is a marsupial not a bear but in my mind all I wanted was to see that gorgeous, gray fuzzy cherub.  As luck would have it, and I do have a lot of luck; Hamilton Island is home to a Wildlife Sancuary with KOALAS!!!

We inquired about seeing the koalas and were told to come back in the afternoon for an “koala encounter” and photo for twenty bucks.  This was a far better deal than my ice cream cone so I booked it.

Anyone who knows my husband Greg, knows he is a saint.  He is calm, organized, generous and selfless.  He knew how much I wanted to see the koala so he waited around for Koala time.  There are specific times for koala holding (only in the morning) and only one time in the afternoon for an “encounter”.  I would be allowed to pat the koala, but not to hold him.  When the time finally came I was so excited.  My new friend, Billy the koala came out to the eucalyptus trees.  He allowed me to pet him, he was so soft and fluffy.  He watched me and we even exchanged a loving look at one another.  I’m pretty sure he will be visiting me in Arizona soon.

This is the stuff dreams are made of.  Koala amore.

temporary
Billy, my new koala love

Dragons,Termites and Snakes Oh My!

Our cruise ship, Azamara Journey stopped at Komodo Island.  It was a rainy day but we decided to continue to our excursion without umbrellas or jackets.  Along the way we passed some other beautiful islands in Indonesia.

temporary
Picturesque islands in Indonesia 

We joined a tour with Go Komodo Tours.  Komodo Island is a national park, but because of the inhabitants, entrance is only permitted with a guide carrying a very large stick.

temporary
The guy with the big stick that we followed closely

 

Komodo dragons are the main inhabitants of the island.  They are the world’s largest lizard, they hunt their prey in groups and kill  with their bite and poisoinous saliva.  As we are walking into the jungle, it looks and sounds like the beginning of the Jurassic Park movie.  The ranger explained to us about the habitat of the Komodo dragon and their diet of birds, wild boar, deer and an occasional tourist.

temporary
Komodo dragon
temporary
Up close and a little too personal with the komodo dragon

Not far into the tour I began to question my sanity.  I really don’t like lizards, scary jungle and being eaten up by a dinosaur.  Our guide did take us to a Komodo dragon and we were able to get a great pictures with him.  After viewing a few more komodo dragons, we hit torrential rains.  We exited the jungle and boarded a small covered boat where we enjoyed a delicious lunch provided by our guide.

Next we took off is very questionable seas to a magical pink beach.  The local water taxi service of a ten year old and his dad provided us with a lift to the beach.  The water taxi was powered by what looked like an old lawn mower engine.  We boarded the risky boat, knowing we were strong swimmers and headed to the beach for some great snorkeling.

temporary
The pink sand beach that we snorkeled at

 

Following two days at sea we arrived at Darwin, Australia.  We booked a tour recommended by people on Cruise Critic with Way Outback Tours.  We had a lively group of Canadians, Brits, Aussies and Yankees.  Together we toured Litchfield National Park in the Australian outback.  We saw beautiful scenery, got close to several huge termite mounds and had the opportunity to taste the local ants, which were reported to have a lime flavor, oh hell NO!  The termite mounds are made with the poop and saliva of the termit.  No, I do not wish to touch the mound either.

temporary
The twenty foot tall mound of the cathedral termite made of poo and saliva
temporary
Not sure of the official name of this ant, but Iwill refer to them simply as lime flavored

For me the best part was the captivating waterfalls.  We hiked a bit more in yet another downpour, but this time we were smart enough to bring an umbrella.

temporary
Waterfalls in Litchfield National Park,

After the tour we were treated to an Australian barbecue and took some pictures of the wild wallabies.  Everyone was then given the opportunity to hold a “children’s” python.  I did hold her but was not too happy about it.

img_3869
A Children’s python that I was terrified of

 

At the end of the tour we were all wet, well fed and I, for one was happy to not see any more bugs.

temporary
Two curious wallobies