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On Our Way Again

Escaping a nasty winter for down under - we are finally underway

sunny 23 °C

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We left a country which has set record low temperatures to travel to a part of the world which has been having record high temperatures. We had snow early and often this year along with those record lows and a brutal ice storm and so were anxious to leave behind scenes like those above.

The first leg of our adventure was a good test of our stamina. The air flight from Toronto to Auckland was a challenging 28 hours with a touch down in Vancouver and a stopover in Sydney of several hours before reaching our jumping off point of Auckland, NZ. In fact every leg of the trip was delayed. The first delay was in Toronto when they needed to change to a different aircraft due to mechanical issues. Once we were all aboard, the crew realized that they didn’t have enough water on board this substitute aircraft so they hooked up the hoses to add water – then given the frigid temperatures in Toronto – the hose connectors froze and they had to get heaters out so they could disconnect. In Vancouver we had to deplane, have our documents checked and re-board. In Sydney they changed gates and there was another delay. We departed January 29 at 9:30 pm, crossed the International Date Line in the middle of the night and arrived in Auckland at 7 pm on January 31, Auckland time. It was an interesting flight because most of it was in darkness – we chased the night as we travelled west until the sun finally caught up with us over the Pacific as we came closer to Australia. The final leg of our journey from Sydney to Auckland was a commuter flight on Air New Zealand. Air NZ is a little like West Jet – it has a personality and is quite a bit of fun. The safety video was a delightful Hobbit-inspired piece which was actually so entertaining that we all watched it – it even had Gollum lurking behind some of the seats.

Auckland Airport

Auckland Airport

Once in Auckland, we found the van Sue had reserved for us and were on our way to the Chifley Suites – our home for the next 3 days. Our hotel is very centrally located only about 5 blocks up from the pier where we will be boarding our cruise ship, the Celebrity Solstice which will eventually be our base of operations for the next five weeks as we circumnavigate first New Zealand and then Australia. Our hotel is very close to the very tall space Needle, an easily recognized and seen landmark and is the tallest tower in NZ.

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The Needle from our hotel lit up at night.

We are travelling with Sue and Roy Vanderkwaak, (Hazel’s daughter Emily’s in-laws), and friends of theirs, Joan and Cal Break. Once settled in Auckland the 6 of us met up with Jim and Eileen Cully who are Kiwis and other good friends of Roy & Sue.

Jim and Eileen Cully

Jim and Eileen Cully

Jim & Eileen have only recently moved back to NZ after living in the UK for 8 years. Prior to leaving Canada Sue had rented a 12 passenger mini bus in Auckland. Jim and Eileen picked up the mini bus and met us in the lobby of our hotel on our first morning in Auckland. They then spent the next two days touring us around all over the North Island. What a wonderful act of hospitality and it gave us an experience we otherwise never would have had.

New Zealand is a small country composed of 2 major islands and similar in size to Great Britain or Japan but with only 4.5 million people. Auckland is a little more than half way up the North Island and is about the same distance from the equator as Virginia Beach VA. Even though it is summer here, the temperatures are in the low 20’s in the day time and high teens at night.

Our first day tour took us northwards from Auckland up the eastern shore where we visited nature reserves, historical sites, a local farmers’ market, a number of gorgeous beaches and a cottage winery for a wine tasting. One of the things that strikes you right off is that NZ is a very neat, tidy and clean country. There is no trash anywhere to be found. It is lush with the most amazing trees and gorgeous scenery. Everything seems to be very orderly with everything in its place.

This is the McKinney Kauri – a tree estimated at over 800 years old.
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It is over 12 metres to the first set of limbs and has a centre girth of 7.6 metres. Here is what it looks like when you look up from its base.
Kauri from below

Kauri from below

We visited a little historical site, the old village of Warkworth, NZ, which had interesting and very tiny buildings.

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Mahuraugi Heads Post Office 1867

Warkworth Jail

Warkworth Jail

Dave where he belongs

Dave where he belongs

The beaches on the east coast are plentiful and amazingly beautiful. While many people here swim and surf, they are less crowded than we are used to seeing in N. America or the Caribbean.

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Besides the famous Kauri trees, there are many other beautiful ones.

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On our second day of touring the Auckland area, Jim and Eileen took us over to the west coast north of Auckland. Here the terrain is much more rugged and the beaches are more dangerous to swim in. They have rougher surf and “rips” – rip tides. They have darker sand – quite dark brown, fine and sparkly. We went to Muriwai Beach and saw a gannet nesting colony.

Gennet Nesting Colony

Gennet Nesting Colony

Gannets nest right on the ground. The chicks are very fluffy and white and quite large. They gradually grow grey and black speckled feathers. Many at this stage were fully as large as their parents. It was quite comical to see them being fed by parents pretty well the same size. The adults are quite beautiful – mostly white with yellow heads and black markings on the ends of their wings.

Gannets from chick to adult

Gannets from chick to adult

We visited several regional parks and visitors centres and were able to look back at Auckland in the distance where you can see the Needle.
Auckland from the West Coast

Auckland from the West Coast

We returned to Auckland, had a lovely dinner and then said good bye to our wonderful Kiwi Tour Guides – Jim and Eileen.

The next morning after we took a walking tour down to the pier where our ship, the Solstice, was tied up we walked back to the hotel packed all of our belongings and took a taxi to the departure area for boarding the ship along with 2800 fellow shipmates.

Posted by DavidandHazel 16:50 Archived in New Zealand Comments (5)

All Aboard

The North Island

semi-overcast 20 °C

After two days of touring around the North Island of New Zealand (see previous post) is was time to board the Celebrity Solstice. So after a leisurely morning of walking around we finally got a taxi to take the six of us and all our luggage to the cruise port terminal and started the somewhat chaotic embarkation process. We have over 2800 people boarding the ship in a period of about two to three hours. Embarkation in Auckland was a bit slower than we have experienced in other ports probably because the cruise port is somewhat smaller. However, staff were very polite and friendly and most of the travelers are in a jovial mood as everyone is headed for a great vacation. The lines moved steadily and within an hour we had dropped our checked bags off at the baggage drop off, cleared immigration and security, had our ID pictures taken and cards issued and made it onboard the ship. Getting our bearings was easy as we are familiar with the ship’s layout since we have sailed on her sister ship a number of times in the past.

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Sue and Hazel on deck Auckland

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Cal and Joan on deck in Auckland

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Auckland Harbour

Unlike our previous cruise experiences the crew had managed to get the rooms turned around and our rooms were ready as soon as we had boarded. This is quite a challenge as the previous cruise only landed earlier this morning. We were able to locate our rooms and get our carry-on luggage all stowed away. We gathered with Roy, Sue, Joan and Cal for a late lunch on the back deck. We returned to our rooms to find our main luggage had arrived so we were able to unpack, get our rooms organized and get changed for dinner. We gathered at Sue and Roy’s for champagne and canapés before heading for dinner.

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Cocktails in the Cabin

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Auckland Skyline as we departed

This trip we had selected the fixed dining option so off we headed for the 6:00 pm sitting and table 276. As expected our four course dinner was excellent. Celebrity is the third cruise line that we have sailed on over the past four years and we have found that they are consistently the best in terms of food quality. There are two main dining rooms plus the main buffet area plus four specialty restaurants so no one area is too crowded. Each area also has their own separate kitchen so food arrives at our table hot and fresh. Two hours after entering the deck three dining area we waddled out with full bellies and sated palates. Off we headed for the main theatre at the other end of the ship. The theatre seats just under 1000 passengers and is a great set up. The stage is huge and has at least four elevators allowing the performers in the more elaborate shows to appear and disappear into the floor. The theatre is also equipped with major overhead rigging in order to handle Cirque style shows that have performers flying around over the stage and way out over the audience. Tonight’s show was more or less a sampler of what we will see over the next few weeks and was enjoyable and not too long in order for us all to get back to our cabins by 10:00 pm for a good first night’s sleep this first night out. For the night hawks there is entertainment of all styles going on in a number of different venues until the wee hours.

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Opening Stage Show

The ship cast off from Auckland and headed northwards while we slept along the eastern coast of the North Island up to the Bay of Islands area which is almost at the north tip of the North Island of New Zealand. It is closer to the equator and a subtropical micro-region known for its stunning beauty & history. Bay of Islands is very small in population but plays a significant historical role in the founding of the nation of New Zealand. One of the unsettling things we have to get used to here in the southern hemisphere is that going southward means getting cooler and going northward towards the equator means getting warmer.

The day was quite cloudy and fairly cool. Disembarking was slower than usual as we cannot dock at a pier. The water is fairly shallow in this area so we have to anchor the ship about 3-4 kilometers off shore. The ship lowers 6 of its especially equipped life boats (tenders) that hold about 100 passengers each. They are fully enclosed and look like a big bus inside. They are powered by twin diesel engines and are quite comfortable. We board them from a gangway that juts out from the side of deck three of the ship. There are two loading points so they can load two tender boats at a time. This is called “tendering” ashore. We will only be using this method several times as in most ports we are able to dock at a major pier and just walk down a gangplank to the pier. Once we boarded our tender it took about 20 to 30 minutes to get to the town pier.

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Tender

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Passengers inside the tender

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Dave and Hazel in the tender

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Sue and Roy in the tender

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Crew driving the tender

They had large shuttle busses to transport us from the pier into the center of the little town of Paihia – about 3 km from the Waitangi Wharf where the tenders docked. We walked around town and then returned back to the ship. While taking the tender back to the ship we spotted a Maori war canoe and crew practicing for a major cultural celebration in two days time.

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Maori War Canoe

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Solstice from the tender

Once back on the ship, they offered a Maori Cultural Show which gave us an insight to their culture through their song and dance. We were struck with a number of similarities they have with the Polynesian culture which we learned about in Hawaii (dance, song, and hand motions) as well as the differences (facial tattoos, and fierce expressions designed to frighten their enemies).

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Maori Dancers

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Maori Dancers

We were treated to an authentic Haka, the war dance of the warriors which you may have seem if you have watched the New Zealand Soccer team – the All Blacks – perform before their games.

After leaving the Bay of Islands area at dinner time the ship back tracked southwards past the Auckland area to Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region. This is the general area where they filmed The Lord of the Rings. Tauranga is about the same distance from the equator as San Francisco.

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Welcome to Tauranga

Tauranga is a lovely little town situated on a peninsula which ends at Mount Maunganui

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Mount Maunganui

We walked along the streets in the shopping district and found a place to sit where we were able to access free Wi-Fi and check our e-mail and Facebook messages from home.

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Tauranga Street

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Port Office with the Solstice moored in the background

We left Tauranga and spent the next day sailing around the easternmost tip of the North Island towards the South Island. Because this was a sea day there were many activities offered to us. Sue and Hazel went to a cake decorating demonstration. We all went to a very entertaining lecture on marine life by Milos, a professor of marine biology from the San Francisco area. Milos is the resident naturalist on this voyage and speaks on a variety of topics on a number of the sea days. We also went on a guided tour of one of the main kitchens.

It was the first formal night so we got all dolled up for an especially nice dinner – David and I both selected the wonderful rack of lamb off the menu.

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Sue, Roy, Joan, Cal, Hazel, and Dave

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One of the ship’s photographers

The main stage show was a presentation by the full cast of song and dance numbers from Broadway and London West End productions. Probably the highlight was a medley of songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber productions. We returned to our room to find a new pet.

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Towel animal

Posted by DavidandHazel 21:10 Archived in New Zealand Comments (3)

South Island, NZ

semi-overcast 19 °C

Early this morning we dropped anchor near Akaroa which is 84 km from Christchurch and is situated on the Banks Peninsula. This beautiful little resort village is on a sheltered harbor surrounded by craggy volcanic hills. The Banks Peninsula is named after Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain James Cook. The region was later settled by a group of French settlers. Akaroa is about the same distanced from the equator as Halifax, NS.

This is another very small port with a shallow harbour so once again we had to tender in. The day was very chilly and the sea choppy so the tendering process was halted several times for safety reasons. The wait was worth it as Akaroa is a lovely little town to wander around in.

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Hazel and Sue, Akaroa Harbour

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Roy and Dave, Akaroa Harbour

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Celebrity Solstice at anchor, Akaroa Harbour

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Main Street in Akaroa

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Dave in front of the war memorial

After our visit to Akaroa we returned to the ship for a late lunch and spent time organizing our pictures and working on this blog. We left Akaroa and sailed further south towards Dunedin.

Early the following morning we tied up at a commercial pier in the small industrial port of Port Chalmers which is further down the South Island. The city of Dunedin was about 20 km from Port Chalmers so we took a bus ride into town. They had erected a large tent at the port which was set up for free Wi Fi which many of the ship’s passengers and crew took advantage of.

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Free Wi Fi area, Port Chalmers

We understood that there was lots of free Wi Fi available in Dunedin so decided to proceed straight into town.

Dunedin is about the same distance from the equator as Quebec City so temperatures range from an average high of about 19 C and a low of about 12 C at this time of year.

It is considered to be one of the 4 main cities of NZ for historic, cultural and geographic reasons. It was the largest city in NZ until 1900 and now has about 126,000 people. It was an active whaling port in the mid 1800’s. There was a gold rush in the area in the mid 1800’s as well. There is lots of evidence of its past prosperity in the beautiful buildings and architecture.

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Fortune Theater, Dunedin

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Cathedral, Dunedin

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Law Courts, Dunedin

The harbor and hills around Dunedin are the remnants of an extinct volcano which is the reason Dunedin is very hilly. It is the home to Baldwin Street which claims to be the steepest street in the world. It was on the other side of town, so we did not venture that far.

When we arrived we learned that they were celebrating Festival Week so the city centre, the Octagon, was closed to traffic and filled with market stalls, children’s games and activity areas. We walked around enjoying the bustle and energy of the place.

We visited the Cadbury chocolate factory and then headed over to the gorgeous train station.

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Dunedin Train Station

Inside there was gorgeous tile work everywhere – here is the floor in the main area.

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Dunedin Train Station Floor

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Dunedin Train Station Track level

On our way back to find our shuttle bus, we found the very active main library and settled in to access Wi Fi and upload our first blog post – it was painfully slow but free of charge. The Wi Fi service aboard the ship can cost as much as $1 a minute depending on the minutes that you purchase in advance. When checking our e-mail a few minutes later we were delighted to note that someone had already viewed the first blog post and left a comment. Due to the very slow upload speeds on the ship and the expense of Wi Fi time we have been a bit slow in getting our updates loaded.

Finally, in the late afternoon we boarded the shuttle bus and headed back to the ship for yet another wonderful meal and the after dinner stage show.

As is our usual practice we cast off from Port Chalmers/Dunedin just as we sat down to dinner. While we slept we sailed around the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand and cruised in a northerly direction up the west side of the island.

Posted by DavidandHazel 21:31 Archived in New Zealand Comments (3)

Cruising the South West Shore of NZ

Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound

sunny 17 °C

This morning we woke up to cool sunny skies and a strong breeze. This southwest coast of New Zealand is renowned for the mountainous terrain spotted with spectacular sounds and fiords. We were told that it is most unusual to have a sunny day down here as they average 3 metres and 200 days of rain a year. According to the ship’s crew this is the first sunny day they have had while cruising this area THIS YEAR.

Just as we finished breakfast we entered Dusky Sound which is the largest at 40 km in length and 8 km at its widest point. From the open ocean the entrance to the sound just looks like a small indent in the shoreline. For this reason early explorers often ignored these inlets for decades. Our huge ship nosed its way into the narrow entrance and proceeded up the sound. The further we sailed the more spectacular the scenery became. The mountains towered up on both sides reaching heights of over five thousand feet. In many areas the sides of the mountains were sheer cliffs extending up and up. It was like sailing along the bottom of the Grand Canyon except the sides are a verdant green only broken up by sheer rock out crops from time to time. The whole area has to be experienced to be believed it is so beautiful. The icing on the cake was the spectacular weather. Every rail both Port and Starboard from Deck 5 to Deck 15 was lined with people. We have never seen so many people on the decks. Every view was a spectacular one.

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After ninety minutes of cruising the sound we emerged back into the open ocean. We had just enough time to talk to everyone about the amazing sights and grab lunch before the announcement came that we were approaching another sound. This time it was Doubtful Sound which is actually a fiord. Once again the ship nosed into another narrow opening in the mountains lining the coast. Again the sights were spectacular. This time we had an interesting experience as another cruise ship appeared coming around a corner in one of the wider areas of the channel. The ship was one of Holland America’s older and smaller cruise ships. We passed each other within less than a kilometer of each other as we all waved to each other.

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Milford Sound is NZ’s most famous tourist destination and is one of the top 10 travel destinations in the world. It is named after Milford Haven in Wales. The sound runs 15 km inland from the Tasman Sea. The mouth of the fiord is surrounded by sheer rock faces rising 1,200 metres on either side.

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Our only disappointment was that we didn’t see any of the dolphins, penguins or whales which inhabit the area.

As we settled down for dinner we left this beautiful area and headed north west (course set at 310 degrees for the navigators) across the Tasman Sea – a distance of 2000 km. This part of the trip will take 2 ½ days. This sea, known locally as “The Ditch” is a region of disproportionately high winds for its latitude. The weather and seas can vary greatly and change quickly so we were prepared for the possibility of rough seas on our crossing. Our luck held, however, and we had a beautiful crossing with only partly cloudy skies, swells of only 2 metres and light winds.

We are sorry to leave the beautiful country of New Zealand. We have found a real kinship with the people – after all, we both have a single huge, powerful neighbor and have to stand up for ourselves quite a bit! Everyone we talked with was friendly, open, helpful and most welcoming. We found that besides a huge pride in their country, they have a wonderful sense of humour. In just the few days we were here we found that humour in these signs.

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Message to Cupid in a storefront

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Parking sign

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Promo to donate blood

Good bye New Zealand. We will remember you fondly and hope to return.

STOP THE PRESSES: For several years we have been following the skiing career of Dara Howell, granddaughter of friends Jack and Jacquie Howell of Huntsville and niece of our friends Kim & Geayt Spiteri. We have been anxiously following Dara through the women’s Slope Style qualifying runs at Sochi as we sail across the Tasman Sea. Then early this evening our time Dara laid down an amazing run that blew away the other competitors and captured the Gold medal thrilling our little group of travelling Canadians. Congratulations to Dara and her entire support group of family and friends from Huntsville who made the trip to Sochi to cheer on Dara especially Grandma Jacquie Howell, Dara’s biggest fan.

Posted by DavidandHazel 21:45 Archived in New Zealand Comments (3)

Sydney

Feb 12, 2014 Day 10

semi-overcast 23 °C

By the time we got up this morning we had arrived at Sydney and were already tied up at the dock. We were right in the middle of the action as our pier is located between two Sydney icons, the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. These were our first views from our cabin.

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We were here all day until 10 tonight so had lots of time to explore Sydney and get some work done posting the blog. Sydney is about the same distance from the equator as Phoenix AZ which means it is lovely and warm although the day started out overcast and was threatening rain.

Sydney is located ¾ of the way down the east coast of Australia on the Tasman Sea. It is the most populous city in Australia with 4.6 million Sydneysiders in the greater metropolitan area, similar to Toronto or Chicago. Like many Australian cities, it was established as a penal colony. It is surrounded by national parks. The coastal regions feature many bays, rivers and beaches including the famous Bondi and Manly beaches. We will return here at the end of the second cruise so we figured this was a good opportunity to get an overview of the city so we could plan our last couple of days before heading home. Right after breakfast we headed out to find the “Hop On Hop Off” bus. We frequently use this tour when we visit new cities. For roughly $30-$40 each we get a full day pass to the service and can get on and off their many open topped busses as many times as we like in the 24 hour period that the pass is valid for. It is a great way to get an overview of a city and helps you decide what you may want to visit later on.

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Cal and Joan in front of Solstice at the dock

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Roy and Sue

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The Hop On Hop Off Bus

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Sydney street from the bus

Sydney has some gorgeous architecture.

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St. Mary’s Cathedral

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This is a statue of Queen Victoria which was donated by a small town in Ireland. It is right near the Queen Victoria Building

Here is the Museum which currently has a display on the Tyrannosaurs – you can see one which has its tail protruding from the window at the left and its head coming out of the window on the right.
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The Public Library of New South Wales

This is a statue of a wild boar outside the Sydney Hospital. It has a very shiny nose because legend has it that you will heal and be well if you rub its nose.
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We returned to the ship for a lovely lunch on the back deck looking over the harbor and then returned to the city for more of the Hop On Hop Off bus – this time to the famous Bondi Beach.

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Bondi Beach from the north

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Bondi beach from the south

We had some good views of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. They have a “Bridge Walk” which is not for the faint of heart. You can walk along the top or along a lower level walkway. Here is a close-up of the bridge showing both walkways and some brave people who don’t mind heights.

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Sydney Harbour Bridge

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Celebrity Solstice and the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Here are some night shots from the ship as the Solstice sailed out of the Sydney Harbour and headed south towards Melbourne.
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We spent the next day “at sea” heading south and around the southern tip of Australia between Australia and Tasmania and then a little west to Melbourne. For the navigators in the crowd our heading was 238 degrees for much of the day. The day was overcast with a few showers and a temperature of 20C. It was fairly hazy which meant there was little to see. We spent the day reading, relaxing, going to a lecture on forensic investigations and also watched a fairly good Neil Diamond tribute performer. We also attended an information session on the tour which Celebrity offers to the Galapagos which is the next cruise we are planning for 2015. For now though we are headed towards Melbourne.

Posted by DavidandHazel 18:00 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

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