New Zealand: Panorama Mania

Do you know that feeling when you look at something and think, this is simply too awesome to fit into a normal sized photo? That feeling is what this post is for— the below photo-heavy collection of all the best panoramas I took in New Zealand.

A view of Hobbiton

A view of Hobbiton- can I just move to the Shire and live there?!!

These are the "Pancake Rocks" in Punakaiki on the South Island's western coast.

These are the “Pancake Rocks” in Punakaiki on the South Island’s western coast.

LOTR filming site stream in Glenorchy

A stream near Glenorchy, where a scene from Lord of the Rings was filmed. Can you just picture Sam and Gollum arguing about how to eat rabbits and chips, right before Frodo looks over at the Southern Armies and their Oliphants? Because that was right here.

Just standing in Lothlorien, enjoying the forest and the trees.

Just standing in Lothlorien, enjoying the forest and the trees.

This is a field outside of Glenorchy (in the small town of Paradise) that holds the backdrop for Isengard, and has since been the filming site for other movies such as Narnia Prince Caspian and Wolverine.

This is a field outside of Glenorchy (in the small town of Paradise).

A nice shot taken of the lake in Queenstown.

A nice shot taken of the lake in Queenstown.

The coastline outside Greymouth

The coastline on the drive to Greymouth

Sunset on the beach in Greymouth city- you can also walk along the beach looking for stones and jade. I found some rocks that may or not be jade; I'm not an expert and can't tell. The sunset rocked anyway.

Sunset on the beach in Greymouth city- you can also walk along the beach looking for stones and jade. I found some rocks that may or not be jade; I’m not an expert and can’t tell. The sunset rocked anyway.

New Zealand Vacation Time!

So, this will be the first post of many detailing my vacation to New Zealand, because there is simply too much to cram into one post.   First of all, New Zealand is a beautiful place with wonderful people, delicious food, awesome wine, and tons of gorgeous scenery.  I know it is hard to get to for a lot of people because of its location and the cost of airfare these days, but it’s still well worth traveling to at some point in your life.  I think there is something for everyone no matter what kind of vacationer you are.  For this first post, I am going to share some highlights and some insights!

Queenstown

Timing and Budget

There is so much from New Zealand that it is impossible to see everything, so you really have to pick your priorities, and base it on how much time and money you have to spend! My trip was about six days, and included the north and south islands.  Most online sites and guidebooks probably would have recommended two weeks for what I accomplished in my six days, but I still felt like it was well worth going, even if I skipped some stuff. As for lodging and transportation, there are of course different ranges, so if you want to backpack the whole thing, many people do that, while others opt for the full-on guided tours and hotels the whole way.  I picked the middle ground of staying in motels (that were still very nice!) and renting a car so that I could go wherever I wanted, and didn’t have to pay tour companies to show me around.

Nerdcation

(nerd alert!!) If you’re a Tolkien fan, or fan of any movies really, New Zealand is great for wandering around and looking at sites where the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were filmed.  At one point, I stood in the forest of Lothlorien staring at the tree they modeled Treebeard after.

In a hobbit's house!

In a hobbit’s house!

My first day after arrival I headed to the Hobbiton movie set-  this is where they filmed the shire from the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies.  The sets for the Hobbit movies were made out of permanent materials so that they could remain there and be set up for tourism.  Although I am not a huge proponent of silly tourist traps, I am a big nerd and I admit this was absolutely awesome.  Tours are a few hours, starting from The Shire’s Rest cafe, and are guided, ending at the Green Dragon Pub for some nice brew (made on site).

Wine and Culinary Deliciousness

Do you like freshly prepared and amazing tasting food? Do you like wine? If you answered yes to either or both of those questions, you will enjoy eating and drinking in New Zealand.  There are several wine countries, and I visited wineries in Marlborough (top part of south island) and Otago (south island near Queenstown), but there are many different options for wine tasting and exploring.    And of course, any restaurant you go to has many local wines for you to enjoy with your meal. Sauvignon blanc for the win.

Wine at Dinner

Majesty of Nature

I was also blown away by the scenery I encountered throughout the whole trip.  There are so many interesting and unique geological wonders to discover, and there is a place for you whether you like beach or forest.  On my trip down the west coast of the south island, I saw glaciers, the very aptly named “pancake rocks” lovely beach sunsets, lots of farmland and sheep of course, lakes that stretched for miles, and mountain forests with mixes of trees I had never seen before.  Oftentimes when I was driving, I had to pull off the road (on the designated look out points of course), and just get out of the car and stand in awe at the beautiful views in front of me.  And then I snapped pictures of said views and immediately posted them to social media because I couldn’t help myself.

Pancake Rocks

Stay  tuned for more posts detailing a few of the cities I visited, and obligatory awesome photographs!

Canberra Countryside

I traveled to Canberra last week, and now have a new-found appreciation for the public  transportation in Melbourne! Don’t get me wrong, Canberra is a lovely and beautiful (and very quiet!) city, but I don’t think it’s possible to live there without a car.  Of course, I’m basing this on about 3 days of wandering around, but, that’s my first impression. Needless to say, there were lots of taxi rides.

Hotel Christmas Tree

Still, I had a fun time visiting Australia’s capital. For one, my hotel was all decorated for the season! Also, I got some shopping done and bought some lights for my apartment, which was a definite win.

Over the weekend a friend drove me out of the city, and we headed to Gundaroo (doesn’t that just sound like it’s in Australia?!), which is a quaint little village out in the countryside, home to wineries and fresh yumminess!

Canberra Countryside

At the appropriately named restaurant Grazing, we got this lovely fresh food platter, and I enjoyed it with some wines from Capital winery‘s Ministry series. I tried a nice Riesling (The Whip) and a delicious Tempranillo (The Ambassador).  Verdict: I just might have to order a whole case.

Platter of yummy food

I promise on my next visit to Canberra I will make it out of the one circle I spent this trip in, to explore the art galleries and many mini districts of cafes, bars, and restaurants.  For now, you’ll just have to settle with the fact that I noticed the Old Parliament House and the new (current) Parliament House via taxi ride drive by and leave it at that.

Restaurant

Nature Walkabout

After the joys of seeing some animals at the Moonlit Sanctuary, I was really excited when I found a tour for seeing them in the wild!  There are some protected spaces near Melbourne in the Great Western Planes which are natural habitats for kangaroos and koalas, so I headed out for a full day of wandering around with a researcher guide and seeing what we could spot.Birds

We ended up seeing so much wildlife, I think it’s best to just make a list!

  • 3 koalas spotted napping in trees,
  • 2 wallabees jumping through the countryside,
  • A mob of Eastern Grey kangaroos lounging in the shade,
  • An echidna waddling through the forest,
  • A kookaburra singing in the trees,
  • A jacky lizard darting under a bridge,
  • Birds a plenty, including magpies, willie wagtails, and a group of emus,
  • A whistling kite flying off with a snake!

It’s one thing to see an animal in a zoo or enclosure where you know they’re going to be there, but it’s quite another to try and traipse through a large forest looking for animals that are specialized for hiding.  Here’s the “Where’s Waldo?” Edition of my tour—can you spot the koala, kangaroo, and echida in these photos?

Photos of echidna, koala and kangaroo

The researchers who work in these parks note the GPS coordinates if the find a koala, so that the next researcher with a tour group can try to see if they can find it in the same spot.  Since koalas are very restful, they might be in the same tree for several hours.  Even with GPS tracking, it can still be tough to navigate the forest and find them. The tour I went on was small- there were only five of us, plus our guide, who is a trained researcher.  Because of this, the tour was very focused on conservation efforts and respecting the animals.  We were sure to keep a safe distance from any animals we did find so that we didn’t make them nervous.  It also ended up being one of the most educational tours I’ve ever been on.  Did you know that you can identify individual koalas by the patterns on the inside of their nose that are unique to each one? This of course requires you to get the right angle with binoculars, but the researchers have named many of the koalas they have found, and could tell us if they were young or old, and history about them, which was really fascinating.

Koala

We ended up spotting three different koalas on our tour through the You Yangs, which is pretty amazing considering how difficult they can be to see up in the trees!

Echidna

Now on to the echidna- this animal has quills like a porcupine, but eats ants and can burrow into the ground to hide.  Also, if it feels endangered, it will protect itself by moving into a ball, only exposing its quills to the outside.  Because of all their survival techniques, they can be incredibly difficult to spot, so imagine our delight when we actually saw one! I even got a video of it waddling around.

Panorama at You Yangs

We stopped by a lookout and could see the whole area from high up, which was a spot for indigenous groups to gather.  The rock ledge still had a well they made to gather water on top of the rocks.

Hawk

After so much wildlife fun, it was time to sit down for a nice lunch. The park we were in has a great picnic area, so if you’re in Melbourne and want a little hike through some nice terrain right outside the city, this is definitely good to keep in mind. Our picnic lunch was interrupted though, when we saw a bird of prey (our guide identified it as a whistling kite) fly off with a snake in its talons! Looks like were weren’t the only ones enjoying lunch J.  The bird came back a bit later and I got a quick photo of it.

kangaroos

After we left the koala forest, we headed to a different area, the Serendip Sanctuary, where wallabies, kangaroos, and a whole host of birds live.   Here we walked around and found a mob of kangaroos. Did you know that male kangaroos never stop growing?  If they live long enough, they can end up being quite large, and one of them from the group we found was indeed very tall!

kangaroos hopping away

Walking through the natural habitats was so peaceful, and it’s really great to see these areas that have been protected and made into natural areas for these animals.  Researchers still predict that in 20 years, there might not be any koalas in the wild, because of loss of natural habitat. They are very selective of which types of eucalyptus leaves they will eat, and their populations can be severely affected by the bush fires that rage through the Australian forests in the summer.  I did my small part to help them on the tour- we pulled up Boneseed, which is an invasive weed that threatens the koala habitats, and hope that they can be protected in the future!

Eums

If you want to know more about the tour I took, here is the company website for Echidna tours http://www.echidnawalkabout.com.au/

Day Trip: Kangaroos, Koalas and Penguins!

For my first trip out of Melbourne city, I hopped on a bus tour out to Phillip Island.  It was a full-day kind of thing, with lots of stops on the way.

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It started with a trip to Moonlit Sanctuary, a wildlife conservation park boasting natural areas with all kinds of Australian wildlife!  They have a large, fairly open area with kangaroos and wallabies, a pond with tons of birds, and some smaller animals in little exhibits.  I thought they did a really good job of making it a sanctuary, and not a zoo.  I loved seeing all the unique animals!

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There are some optional photo ops (an extra charge from the park admission) that were well worth it- I got to meet Louie the koala as he snacked on his eucalyptus leaves, and I got to pet a kangaroo as it ate special kangaroo food out of my hand! I was surprised that their fur was actually really soft.

KoalaNMe KangarooNMe

If you want to shy away from the cute and cuddly, the Sanctuary also has a large python. I chose not to hold it though! 😛 The dragons were pretty cute though…

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Our group had a nice picnic lunch at the sanctuary (there is a large covered picnic area with grills), too. I think this would make a great place for a fun outing, and you can listen to the parrots as you eat your lunch!

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After that, we headed down to Phillip Island. Along the way are loads of small beach towns (San Remo and Cowes), which make great stops for some sand, pretty views, and fish ‘n chips.  The main attraction at Philip Island (penguins) doesn’t really get going until after dark, so I got to enjoy the sunset from the small beaches we stopped at along they way.

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So what’s the big deal with Phillip Island you ask? Every evening, the penguins swim in, and make their descent up the land to a nice area where they burrow and sleep for the night.  It’s a spectacular natural phenomenon as the penguins, usually in groups, trudge and waddle up the hill.  Because it’s so popular, they have to institute some pretty tight controls of the tourists.  No photography/videography/cameras of any kind are allowed, since the rangers don’t want the flashes of thousands of cameras to scare the penguins away.  Of course some people sneak some photos while the rangers are not around, but in general, most people respected the rules.  Everyone gathers around a raised walkway to see the penguins swim up onto the beach. And then, it’s a few minutes wait as all the penguins make their way to their sleeping spots.  Once they are near the walkways, you can get really good looks at them as they wander around, looking for a place to sleep, often traveling in small groups.

Since I didn't take photos, this is a photo I bought at the gift shop

Since I didn’t take photos, this is a photo I bought at the gift shop

Overall, it was a great day, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to see some of Australia’s very unique wildlife.  Everything was relatively close as well- Phillip Island is only about a 2 hour drive from Melbourne city proper, and well worth the trip!

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First Weekend in Melbourne

My first Sunday in Melbourne I toured around downtown Melbourne with not too many plans, and was so excited by all the things I found!

Melbourne Cricket Ground Open Day

I arrived in Melbourne just in time for the AFL Grand  Final, where over 99,000 people packed the MCG stands to watch the season’s final game between the Hawthorne Hawks and Sydney Swans.  I caught the game from home, but I still got to see the stadium when they opened it to the public the next day!

Skyline

First of all, the walk from the tram station to the stadium was awesome — Blue skies and lovely views of the Melbourne city skyline.  It was a really perfect day weather-wise, and a great one to spend outside.  The stadium was packed with people and families who could all go wander onto the field, many bringing their own footballs to kick around.  It was really neat to be able to walk around on the grass and see the shape of it.

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After touring the MCG, we headed back to Federation Square, which hosts all sorts of public events and many coffee shops and restaurants.  The Square was hosting an exhibition educating the public about the history of Albanian immigrants, and we even got to watch some Albanian dancing.   There is a more in-depth gallery in the Immigration Museum all year-round. It just amazes me that things like this are always going on.

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After having worked up an appetite wandering around, it was time to grab some lunch! Down the street a few blocks from Federation Square is Flinders Street Station.  I tried to find Flinders Lane, which is supposedly a host of many restaurants, but wandered down Flinders Street instead, and still found my way into a delicious fish n’ chips eatery!  The fish was delicious at this place (which also offered some fresh sushi, salads, and grilled fish if you want some variety) and a great introduction to some of the Melbourne fair.  After lunch it was time to head back to Federation Square, where there was a free orchestra concert hosted in the Deakin University auditorium there.  What better way to finish off lunch with a glorious performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony? The conductor and musicians performed beautifully, and it was truly awesome to see it in the sunny auditorium in the middle of the square.  There was even a bird who stayed to watch- some might say he got stuck in the building, but  I maintain he was just a fan of the music. 😛

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After the performance, it was time for a spot of coffee, and we hit the road to wander around.  Before arriving in Melbourne, people had told me that coffee is a very serious thing and that there would be coffee shops everywhere.  I didn’t fully realize what that meant until I got here and realized you can find coffee EVERYWHERE. And it is AWESOME.  So, on the quest for a flat white (that’s my favorite, coffee with plenty of milk in it!), I spotted a nice tapas restaurant, and looked in.  I realized the building itself was covered in graffiti, and then as I looked down, I realized the ENTIRE STREET I had found was covered in graffiti. Lo and behold, I had happened upon the famous graffiti alley I had read about in passing before arriving.  This alleyway, closed to vehicles, is a smattering of wall art of all styles, and a true fascination to walk down.  Artists will often add to others’ works, or paint over them periodically, so it’s an ever-changing landscape of different visions from all over the globe.  After our awe-inspiring impromptu art show, it was really time to settle down for a bit of caffeine, and what did we find? Brunetti’s!  Another coffee shop I had heard people mention and added to my mental list of “I’ll try to go there someday.” Well, someday turned into a day much earlier than I expected! The seating area of this iconic shop is outdoors in a pretty square with fountains (ok, everything here is architecturally interesting and I love it), and the coffee and back shop is all perfection.  After my delicious coffee and pastry, it was time to hop back on the tram and head home.

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At the beginning of the day, I had set out to take a look at the Cricket Grounds and then let myself wander around to see what else I could find.  After a full day breathing in the city skyline, indulging on delicious eats, and pondering the lovely music and art of Melbourne, I couldn’t help but arrive home and be thankful for the amazing day I had just experienced.  And here’s to each and every magnificent day in Melbourne still to come!