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!

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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Peony Festival in Henan Province

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I wasn’t really sure what to expect at the Peony Festival, aside from flowers, of course.  The festival happens every year in the spring time, and in mid to late April is when most of the blooms are out. Luoyang is a city of upwards of 6 million, but it’s clear they’ve made a large tourist industry out of the festival.

PeonyFestival

There were vendors everywhere, outside the temples, and inside the festival.  When I visited the Longmen grottoes that morning, I had seen lots of funny hats, and at first I thought, Well, maybe it’s a trend to wear funny hats on tours?  Then I saw the vendors and realized all the hats with huge fake flowers were from the peony festival.  I really can’t make fun of them too much, because I ended up buying one- I just couldn’t resist!

PeonyHat

Of course, then I was a foreigner wearing a funny hat, and I ended up in lots of peoples’ family photo albums.  At one point, one of the vendors sent her young son over to me to give me a few flowers as a gift.

PeonyGreenhouse

Capitalism aside, the actual flowers were really fascinating. During this week, many different colors of blooms were out, including white, pale pink, bright pink, purple, and even some yellow ones.  I couldn’t help but take lots of photos.  Peonies are quite large blooms, so the stems have to be really sturdy to hold them up.

PeonyYellow

It had rained the day previously, so everything was well-watered.  The day I went was very nice, and I even got a little sun burned. I am still thinking of the cold winter days of Beijing over the last few months, I guess I have to adjust back to warm weather!

Peonywhite

Overall it was really interesting to see how this small place has turned into a tourist destination.  The flowers were gorgeous, so if you find yourself in the area between March and May, it’s a fun trip.  The festival itself really only takes a couple hours to tour around, so you’ll probably want to look up some other things to do in the area. To read what else I did in Henan province, you can read my blog post on the Kung Fu school.

PeonyPurple

A trip to Benxi Shuidong National Park

I spent the last week in Shenyang, enjoying some more cold northern China weather, and decided to get outside the city a bit to see what’s out there! About an hour away is a good mountain for winter sports, but since I’ve already seen the Harbin International Ice Festival, I decided to go see a different nearby site instead- the water caves at the Benxi Shuidong National Park.  These caves actually have a river running through them, so you can take boat tour to see the different cave formations (in different colored lighting of course).  If you ever find yourself in Liaoning, China, it’s worth a stop to go see.  Because the park has a lot to offer as far as hiking trails, I suggest going a little later in the year than I did.  The caves of course are accessible year round since they stay about the same temperature, but I wasn’t very tempted to walk around outside considering all the snow and ice covering the ground!

Benxi Lake

There is a small lake as you walk to the entrance of the caves, as well as a small museum.  This is why I think it would be a great spring or summer mini vacation, since there is actually quite a lot to see if it’s not all covered in snow!

Benxi Tower

The park is about an hour and a half from Shenyang if you drive there directly, but you can also take a bus to the city of Benxi and then take a taxi or tourist bus to the park as well (total two hours).  My taxi driver turned park navigator snapped a photo of me outside the cave entrance:

Benxi Me

Luckily the visit to the caves required no advance planning on my part- upon entering the park I paid a fee (150 RMB) that granted me entry to the different sites.  As I entered the cave, I just joined the line and hopped in a boat!

Benxi Entrance

The cave itself was really impressive, as they had installed lights to show many of the different formations.  I enjoyed the colored lights, but I think some people might want to see normal lights to get a sense of what the stalagmites really look like.

Benxi Lights

What is it like to take a boat tour through a cave? I planned ahead and brought my GoPro Hero 2 along on my journey with me, and took a video of some of my journey:

I’ll post a more detailed entry later on what it was like in the city of Shenyang, but I hope you liked seeing the water caves! Next time you go to a park, don’t forget to love the nature there, even if it’s covered in snow.

Benxi Sign