Two Days in Melbourne and the Park Hyatt Melbourne

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

IMG_6219

Park Hyatt Melbourne

We arrived quite late into Melbourne after a short flight from Sydney and quickly found the taxi queue.  From there, we hailed a cab to our hotel — the Park Hyatt Melbourne.  I booked the Park Hyatt with points for two nights, and with cash for the third night.  We chose the Park Hyatt over the Grand Hyatt solely based on reputation.  Up to that point, some of my best stays ever had been at Park Hyatt properties in Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich — so I was pretty sold on trying the Park Hyatt Melbourne even though the Grand Hyatt probably had a more ideal location in downtown Melbourne.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was a ghost town.  The Park Hyatt features a beautiful lobby, but we didn’t spend too much time in the hotel facilities.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

After waiting a few minutes for a check-in agent (like I said, it was a ghost time at 1am), we finally were given our keys to a room on the 11th floor.  We had a standard, Park Twin room.  The finishings in the room were extremely nice and high quality.  There was a generous walk-in closet and a very large bathroom.  The beds were very comfortable, and the room featured most of the creature comforts that I’d grown accustomed to staying at Park Hyatts.  The major drawback for me was the very small size of the television in the room — and this ended up being a big deal for me — I’ll explain later.  Though it was a perfectly nice room and property in general, I just didn’t possess the “wow” factor that I’ve felt at other Park Hyatt properties.  I was overall pretty happy with the property, but if I had to do it again, I’d probably choose the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne due to its more convenient location to downtown Melbourne.

We were pretty exhausted when we got to the hotel room, so we promptly went to bed.  The first full day in Melbourne featured absolutely perfect weather — it would have been a wonderful day to explore the city.  However, my attention was diverted elsewhere.

2014 BCS National Championship Game – Auburn vs Florida State

That day, I had zero interest in touring Melbourne because my alma-mater Auburn Tigers were set to play in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State that afternoon around noon local time (around 6pm local time at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California).  Since I’m a huge college football fan (I’d already been to four Auburn games that season in person), and this was essentially College Football’s Super Bowl, it was the only thing I really cared about that day.  As such, my nerves were out of control.  Thankfully, my dad is extremely familiar with my Auburn football “problem,” so he was a good sport about it and never once complained that we’d be spending the majority of the day in Melbourne watching a football game on TV in our hotel room.  He was obviously aware of the game, and much preferred watching it with me in Australia over me bailing on him to go to the game (Yes, I briefly considered flying directly back to LAX after our dive drip to attend the game in person at the Rose Bowl).

We grabbed breakfast and took a stroll around downtown Melbourne before heading into a grocery store to load up on some tailgating supplies — snacks and drinks for the room.   As kickoff neared, we headed back to the Park Hyatt, and I setup shop on the corner of the bed ready to watch our very small television as my Auburn Tigers played for the National Championship.  Like I said, I was a nervous wreck during the game.  I didn’t move from my spot on the bed for four hours.  I didn’t eat or drink a thing because my stomach was in knots.

It's Gameday!  War Damn Eagle!  Notice the small TV

It’s Gameday! War Damn Eagle! Notice the small TV

Yes, I take my Auburn football very seriously.  Irrational?  Maybe.  Am I sorry about it?  Absolutely not.

Despite starting out in complete control of the game, Auburn eventually succumbed to a last-minute Florida State touchdown, and lost the game 34-31.  I was pretty silent for about thirty minutes after the game, as I was pretty heartbroken.

Chinatown and Dinner at Hutong Dumpling Bar

Eventually, my dad suggested we go get food, so I agreed.  We decided to take a recommendation from Trip Advisor and tried a Dim Sum place in Chinatown called Hutong Dumpling Bar. The meal was excellent – I mean, it was very, very good.  I certainly recommend this place.  After dinner, we walked around the Chinatown area and then headed back to the hotel for the evening.  By this point in the trip, we were pretty exhausted, so we had no problem with being in somewhat early.

I’M FREE Walking Tour

We really, really enjoyed our free walking tour in Sydney, and thought that it would similarly be a fantastic way to get an overview of Melbourne in the limited time that we had.  The same company, I’m Free Walking Tours offers walking tours in Melbourne, so naturally we decided on that.  We met the group at 10:30am in front of the State Library of Victoria.  Once again, there was a large group ready to take the tour on another perfect weather day in Melbourne (about 76 degrees and sunny).  Like Sydney, the tour was excellent.  We walked from the State Library of Victoria to the Old Melbourne Gaol to the Royal Exhibition Center.  We then proceeded back  through Chinatown and through the many laneways of Melbourne, replete with urban art (basically classy graffiti).  We then walked through Burke Street Mall, and through the galleries to Flinders Street Station and Federation Square.  We crossed the Yarra River and ended the tour in the shadows of Eurkea Tower after about three hours of some awesome sites and wonderfully informative commentary.  The tour ended by the Yarra River with a great, panoramic view of the Melbourne skyline, so we took that in for a bit before deciding that we needed some food.

We backtracked to some of the really cool galleries that we’d walked through.   These narrow passages are located all over the downtown Melbourne area, and are lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops.  We settled on a burger joint called Huxtaburger in the CBD, and it ended up being the best burger we had on the trip (yes — we had a lot of burgers).

Burger

Huxtaburger deliciousness

After this late lunch, we were pretty beat from walking around, so we hoofed it back to the hotel for some rest and to pack for our trip home.

That evening, we took a suggestion from our walking tour guide and tried another noodle / dim sum place called Camy Shanghai Dumpling House.  Though it was much, much cheaper than our dinner the previous night, it was pretty disappointing — especially compared to our excellent meal we had the night before.  We strolled around downtown one last time before retiring to the Park Hyatt for our last night’s sleep in Australia.

 

An Evening in Cairns and a Flight to Lizard Island, AU

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

An Evening in Cairns

Upon arrival from Brisbane, we collected our luggage at baggage claim, and took a short taxi ride to the Holiday Inn Cairns.  We checked in and went to the room, which featured a great view of the beach and the Pacific Ocean.

After freshening up, we proceeded to walk around the town of Cairns.  The pier and marina were beautiful at sunset.  Cairns is one of the common jumping off points for tours of the Great Barrier Reef — and that too was the reason we were there.  Cairns is situated on the border of the Daintree Rainforest and the sea, so the vistas are pretty stunning.   The downtown area of Cairns was highlighted by the Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon — a freshwater, man-made beach where everyone was swimming at this time due to several of the beaches close to town being somewhat uninhabited due “Stinger Season” — meaning there were box jellyfish offshore — amongst the most venomous creatures in the world.

We strolled around the marina and the Esplanade and eventually had dinner at Cafe Thailand, a Thai place right near the Cairns Esplanade.  Dinner was tasty, but the service was pretty slow.  One of the creepy things about dinner was the abundance of bats, known as the “flying foxes” that reside in a tree in central Cairns.  Every evening, the bats fly throughout Cairns around sunset — it was pretty unnerving coming from someone who isn’t all that comfortable with bats.  After dinner and dodging bats, we headed back to the Holiday Inn for some sleep.

Flying from Cairns to Lizard Island on Hinterland Aviation

We were in Cairns to start our four night dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom — a live-aboard dive boat based out of Cairns.  We selected the four-night Coral Sea itinerary.  This particular itinerary started in Lizard Island — an island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef — and ended four days later in Cairns.  Included in the trip was a low-level flight from Cairns to Lizard Island — and it was pretty cool.

The Spirit of Freedom representatives picked us up from the Holiday Inn in the early morning of January 2nd and delivered us to the general aviation terminal at Cairns International Airport.  The main operator here is Hinterland Aviation — a small, regional and charter airline with operations in northeast Queensland.  The Spirit of Freedom chartered two flights to take the twenty-two passengers on the hour-long flight from Cairns to Lizard Island.  Our luggage was checked at the bus — and the next time we saw the bags would be on the boat.  We were all weighed in the terminal to ensure proper weight and balance.  After a fifteen minute wait, we were escorted down to the Tarmac to board our Cessna Grand Caravan.  Our plane held ten to twelve passengers and the captain.

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

We taxied along the runway with great views of the Jetstar 787 and Korean Air 747-400.  We took off to the South and immediately turned east and then north, above the Rhapsody of the Seas — the cruise ship we’d watched departing Sydney several days before.

The flight was about as scenic as it gets as we hugged the Queensland coast — rich with rainforest vegetation.  We then went off shore across the clear water of the Great Barrier Reef.  Eventually, we landed at a small airport on Lizard Island — smack dab in the middle of the GBR.  Upon approach to the island, we saw the Spirit of Freedom – our 122-foot home for the next four nights!

 

 

New Year’s Eve at Sydney Harbour

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

 New Year’s Eve at Sydney Harbour

I timed this entire trip in order to be able to take in the New Year’s Eve celebration in Sydney Harbour.  As the first major city in the world to usher in the new year, Sydney’s New Year’s celebration is followed by many people all around the world.  This event is decidedly a big deal in Sydney, and as such, lots of people flood into the Central Business District and fight for a good viewing spot to see the massive midnight fireworks display.  Queues to view the show started to form the afternoon of December 30th — a bad sign for us considering we really didn’t feel like camping out in one spot all day on our last day in Sydney.

An ideal solution would have been to arrange to be on a ferry or boat in the harbour during the show.  Alas, this option was prohibitively expensive, and I didn’t really know anybody in Sydney who had a boat.  So instead, we decided to splurge for a private event hosted at the Italian Village — a restaurant off Campbell’s Cove with a wonderful view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House.  This shindig featured endless appetizers and alcoholic beverages, and was pretty pricey.  But at that point, we’d figured that we had flown halfway across the World, so what the heck, why not?

The restaurant itself featured a large patio outside right on Campbell’s Cove in the Rocks neighborhood — it is the same small cove that stretches from the cruise ship terminal to the Park Hyatt, Sydney.

This basically meant that we’d have unreal views of the celebration.  The views did not disappoint!

Opera House Fireworks

Opera House Fireworks

Continue Reading →

Five Days in Sydney: Days Three and Four

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

The Sydney Opera House

After another quick breakfast at McDonald’s, we made the familiar walk from the Sheraton on the Park towards Circular Quay and Sydney Harbor.  We checked the times for the ferries and saw that we had plenty of time before the next boat left for the Taronga Zoo, so we decided to walk out to take a closer look at the Sydney Opera House.  The Opera House is just an impressive sight to behold on the outside.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

We walked around the base of the massive Opera House and inquired about the New Year’s Eve event being hosted there, but it was a bit out of our price range.    We then proceeded to walk around and zap some great pictures of the iconic building.

 Neither of us were interested in doing the full tour of the Opera House, but we were able to pop our heads in a few times for some pictures.  After about an hour of walking around the Opera House, we headed back to the ferry terminal where we caught a ferry over to Taronga Zoo.

Taronga Zoo

The Taronga Zoo is about  a twelve-minute ferry ride to the north side of Sydney Harbor.  We’d heard great things about the zoo, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.  Though I’m not usually a fan of zoos, I was relatively sure that this would be my only opportunity to see some of the wildlife native to Australia, such as kangaroos and koala bears.  These animals along with many others were all at Taronga.  Probably the most impressive part about Taronga Zoo is the setting.  Perched on the hilly banks of Sydney Harbor, the zoo boasts an absolutely beautiful view of the Sydney skyline, including the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  I feel a visit to the Taronga Zoo is well worth the trip if you have a few days in Sydney.  We purchased a Taronga Zoo Combo pass, which included a round trip ferry ticket and admission to the zoo for AUD $55.

Lunch in The Rocks

We ferried back to downtown Sydney and headed to the Rocks in search for a happy hour spot and a late lunch.  We stumbled upon the Lowenbrau Keller — a Munich style beer hall right in the middle of Sydney.  The thought of some German food and a few liters of beer really sounded good, so we spend an hour over some pork knuckle, brats, schweinebraten, schnitzel, and a couple liters of beer.   It gave me a little taste of Munich — where I make an annual pilgrimage to Oktoberfest.  At this point, my dad was getting pretty worn out from all the walking around and the massive meal, so we decided to take it easy the rest of the day by lounging around in the room and watching a movie, “American Hustle” at a theater a few blocks away.

Bondi Beach and the Bondi to Coongee Beach Walk (sort of)

Today the plan was to visit arguably the most famous beach in Australia – Bondi!  We took the 380 bus from a stop across from the Sheraton on the Park straight out to Bondi Beach.  The trip took about 50 minutes by bus, and cost next to nothing — it was very cheap.  We arrived at the beach in the late morning with once again – fantastic weather.   We decided to walk the coast of Bondi Beach past the Bondi Icebergs Club towards Coogee Beach.  Apparently, one can make this walk in couple hours, as it is one of the most famous and scenic walks in the country, but we stopped after walking a little less than an hour and just enjoyed the wonderful vistas of the Australian coastline south of Bondi.

We returned to Bondi to explore the town and again decided on a burger for lunch at Moo Gourmet Burgers in Bondi (yes, I love burgers and eat them way too often).   The burger here was quite good, but I still do not understand the Aussie obsession with adding beetroot to the burger.  That’s just… strange.  The egg; however…. that, I encourage!

Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens

After a leisurely lunch, we hopped the bus back to downtown and chilled out for a little while in the hotel room.   We then set out to explore the Woolloomooloo Bay area, but stopped first to walk through the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.  I’m not a huge Botanical Garden fan, but they were pretty impressive.  At this point, we realized how crazy New Years Eve may be the following night, because there was already a line about 200 people deep, armed with tents and ready to overnight in the park in order to grab shore-side seats along the harbor in Mrs. Macquarie’s Park.

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels

Once we were tired of looking at a crazy assortment of plants and palm trees, we continued walking towards Woolloomooloo, and finally stopped for dinner at the famous Harry’s Cafe de Wheels.  Here, we enjoyed some traditional pies (the Harry’s Tiger was fantastic), and they were pretty darn good.  We walked back to the hotel through Hyde Park as it was getting dark, and called it a night.

Sydney Fish Market

At this point, we were both pretty exhausted from the endless walking we’d been doing around Sydney.  Since we planned to be out extra late for New Years’ Eve, we took it easy in the morning, and then headed to the Sydney Fish Market for lunch.   This was the only mild disappointment of our time in Sydney.  I guess I was expecting more after visits to other markets around the world, but I found this space to be entirely too crowded and not all that impressive.  We did eat a decent lunch at one of the many restaurants fish market nevertheless.  We spent the rest of the afternoon packing our bags for our flight to Cairns the following morning, and resting for the big New Year’s Eve celebration!

 

Five Days in Sydney: Days One and Two

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

Arrival into Sydney

After clearing Australian immigration and customs, I headed to the local cell phone retailer in the baggage claim area to purchase SIM cards for my dad and I.  For about AUD $30, we each procured SIM cards that gave us unlimited data, unlimited local text, and a $450 credit for international calling and texting.  Considering we would be in Australia for two weeks, this was a steal compared to the international plans offered by Verizon Wireless prior to the trip.  After SIM card shopping, we hopped a cab to our hotel – the Sheraton on the Park.  We chose this hotel due to both its location in the Sydney central business district, and the relatively decent rate considering the otherwise astronomical average price of most properties in the area.

Though we arrived at the Sheraton on the Park before noon, they had a room ready for us, which was a relief because we wanted to relax a bit and freshen up after almost two full days of traveling.  Though we were tired from our travels, I always try to make it a point NOT to go to sleep.  I’ve found the best way to adjust to the new timezone and to defeat prolonged jet lag is to get oneself onto the new timezone’s sleep cycle as soon as possible.  In this case, I wanted to do everything possible to stay awake until 8 or 9pm local time — simply so we could get a full night of sleep and awake the next morning more or less adjusted to Australia time.

I’m Free – Free Sydney Walking Tour

One of my favorite things to do on the first day in a new city is to get oriented with my surroundings.  I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is by taking a free walking tour, which is offered in many cities, all over the world.  I generally find these tours to be educational and really helpful in teaching one the “lay of the land” in an unfamiliar city.  These “free tours” operate on a tips-only basis.  If you participate in the tour, a tip is generally expected, and almost always is well-earned.  I encourage you NOT take one of these tours if you have no intention to tip — that’s just rude, as these guides are often local university students who do a really fantastic job.

After a quick Google search, I found a walking tour of Sydney departing a few blocks from our hotel at 2pm that day.  We went to meet the tour guides outside the Sydney Town Hall, just a couple blocks from our hotel.  There were quite a few people on the tour on this beautiful Friday afternoon, so the guides broke up into three groups.  Our guide walked us through the sites of Sydney taking us from the Sydney Town Hall, through the Queen Victoria Building and the Pitt Street Mall shopping district out to Hyde Park.  We continued towards Circular Quay with stops at Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital,  the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, and the bird cages on Angel Placebefore stopping for a break for water and ice cream.

After touring the Sydney Customs House, the group made its way around the edges of Circular Quay to the cruise terminal where we took in a wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House as a large cruise ship, the Voyager of the Seas departed.  The walking tour ended in the Rocks area after about three hours.  We found this tour to be extremely informative and well-done.  I’m not really sure what the “norm” for tipping is for a tour like this, but we tipped about AUD $20 per person, as we felt anything else would be pretty unfair considering the thoroughness of the tour.   I highly recommend spending a few hours one day in Sydney to take this economical and very nice “free” walking tour.

After the walking tour, we took he recommendation of our tour guide to try out a pub for dinner in the Rocks called, The Australian Hotel.  Here, we had a couple of beers and I tried a kangaroo burger.  The burger was tasty, but certainly a bit different.  My dad ordered some pizza, but decided not to try the somewhat famous “Coat of Arms” pizza that features both kangaroo and emu meat.  Australia is probably the only country whose citizens enjoy eating their national symbols — the kangaroo and emu.  Could you imagine walking into a bar in the USA ordering “Bald Eagle chicken wings”?   By the time we were done eating and having a few beers, we were pretty tired.  We took a leisurely walk in the late afternoon back to our hotel and called it a night at about 8pm.

Manly Beach

We awoke Sunday morning around 9am after a full thirteen hours sleep!  Of course, we were starving, so we walked down the street for a real Australian breakfast — McDonalds!  As we downed our egg McMuffins, we planned out the day and put together the things we wanted to do the next several days.   We knew we wanted to see more of the iconic Sydney Harbor, so we decided to walk that way to Circular Quay, and see what the options were.  What we found was a beautiful day in Sydney, where another Royal Caribbean cruse ship was docked at the harbor (the Rhapsody of the Seas).  Our two options for the day were to head to Manly Beach or the Taronga Zoo.  We opted to purchase roundtrip ferry tickets on the Manly Ferry out to Manly Beach since it was one of the longer ferry rides offered, and the weather was just perfect for a boat ride.  The cost was AUD $7.40, each way.

The ferry ride lasted about 35 minutes en route to Manly Beach, and the views were magnificent.  As we sailed out past the Sydney Harbor Bridge, we turned to the East and motored right past the famed Sydney Opera House.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We arrived at Manly beach soon after.  A bustling beach community, Manly features a rather large, inviting beach with a number of shops, restaurants, and bars that line the beach and go back several blocks.  The two of us walked the beach for a while, zapping pictures before settling down for some lunch at the Manly Grill.  We had a nice, outdoor patio seat where we enjoyed a bucket of prawns, burgers, and beers as we watched the people of Manly Beach walk by.  After lunch, we explored the town a bit before heading into a cool looking bar in the Manly Wharf Hotel, right near the ferry pier.  Here, we enjoyed a few beers and tried to figure out the game of cricket, which had the locals captivated, as The Ashes Tournament between England and Australia was on the television.  After giving up on cricket, we hopped back on the ferry for another late afternoon, scenic ferry ride back into Sydney Harbor.  

 Upon returning to Sydney, we headed over to the Rocks to view the Rhapsody of the Seas as she departed the Port of Sydney for her cruise, and we got some wonderful pictures of the harbor and the cruise ship.  By this point, we were pretty spent, so we headed back to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation.  After a couple of hours in the room, it was clearly time to eat again.  We wanted to do something low-key, but fun, so we walked about fifteen minutes to Darling Harbour.

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbor is a highly developed harbor in Sydney that is lined with restaurants, bars, shops, movie theaters, and other touristy things.  By the time we got to Darling Harbor, the crowds were growing for the upcoming fireworks show, which takes place every Saturday night during the summer.  There were thousands of people — locals and tourists who decided to spend the evening dining al fresco to watch the fireworks.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a doner kebab stand in a food court just in time to watch the fireworks.  The show was pretty nice, but I figured it would pale in comparison to the fireworks show we would see a few nights later on New Years Eve.  After the relatively quick fireworks display, we explored the area a bit more and made our way back to the hotel for another full night of sleep.

Next up… More from Sydney:

  • Sydney:  Day Three and Four (Sydney Opera House, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, Woolloomooloo, and the Sydney Fish Market)
  • New Year’s Eve in Sydney

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions

In honor of the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve decided to publish some previously un-published blog entries that I already had written about my trip there last September.  I’m not going to change anything since these were my thoughts immediately upon returning from Rio.   Also included are some pictures from the soccer futbol game I attended at the famed Maracana Stadium.


 

For previous installments from this trip, please see the links below:

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Revew:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

An entry from a previous stop in Rio:  

Eight hours in Rio de Janeiro


Getting there and Getting around

As previously mentioned, a group of friends and I booked this trip down to Rio due to an extremely low price that was offered by United last February for Rio flights leaving Orlando. This forced me into a pretty crazy routing, as I flew all over the place to and from Rio. Getting down there, I flew Washington to Orlando to Houston to Rio. And on the way back, I flew Rio to Houston to Denver to Orlando to Washington. Yeah — that’s a lot of flying. But hey, I got mad miles for it, and I slept most of the time, so it wasn’t all that bad!

My routing:  US Airways in Red; United in Blue

My routing: DCA-MCO-IAH-GIG// GIG-IAH-DEN-MCO-DCA; US Airways in Red; United in Blue

The flights were nothing terrible, and nothing great to speak of. Since my long flights were in economy class, I don’t find those particularly interesting, so I’ll hold off on a full-fledged flight review.  I did get a very roomy first row of economy plus behind BusinessFirst on United’s B777-200 (two-class, pre-merger Continental configuration).  This was great because it featured even more leg room than the standard Economy Plus, and there was only a bulkhead in front of me — not another seat.

Getting to and from the Beaches from GIG

Ground Transportation to and from the beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, and Barra)

We arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galieleo International Airport around 9:30am and proceeded directly through immigration and customs. Since this was not my first time in Brazil, I already had obtained a Brazil Visa, which is necessary for entrance to the country for US citizens. We pre-arranged a shuttle to our hotels through shuttlerio.com. This cost 20 real per person, each way, and it a pretty good deal. Considering the Real Onibus is 13 real per person each way to the beaches, the extra 7 real is definitely worth it since the shuttle takes a much more direct path to the beach with fewer stops. The shuttle took a little less than an hour to get to the JW Marriott on Copacabana, while the bus can take 90 minutes to two hours at times.

For detailed information on taking the Real Onibus to or from GIG to the beaches, see this post:  Eight Hours in Rio de Janeiro.

Our trip back to the airport took well over two hours on the Real Onibus from Copacabana, so be sure to allot plenty of time.  In fact, be sure to allot plenty of time no matter which mode of transportation you choose — the traffic in Rio is horrendous.

During the next three days, I did a whole bunch of different activities. From lounging on Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches to visiting Cristo Redentor to attending a Botafogo soccer game at the famed Marancana Stadium – I had a packed three days.

Transportation along the beaches

The three major beaches in Rio are Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon (from north to south).  While Ipanema and Leblon are connected, there’s a mountain between Copacabana and Ipanema, so transit is needed.  There are a series of public buses that run every 5-10 minutes from multiple stops along all beaches, so that’s the cheapest and easiest way to get from one spot to another.  Since I was with a group, we found it easier to just take a cab to meet different parts of our group at Ipanema.  Split three ways, the cab was quick and cheap.

 Seeing the sights (Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain)

There are various tour operators that can arrange a trip for you to either of these landmarks.  Since we had a group, we hired a guide who took us everywhere in a minibus — it was really fantastic, and I highly recommend you look into that route just for convenience sake.  Otherwise, you can easily take a cab to Sugarloaf Mountain.  Cabbing to Christ the Redeemer could be a little more complicated.  You can either cab to the base of the mountain and take a tramway up, or you can cab all the way to the top.  You can likely negotiate a round trip rate for the cabbie to wait for you up top, but I imagine it would be a tad pricey.

General Impressions

Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about my trip to Rio, simply because of Brazil’s somewhat negative reputation due to the violence in Rio and other large cities.  After spending four days there, I am happy to report that at no point did I feel in danger in any way, shape, or form.  Granted, you need to be aware as you do in any large city, but from my experience, the danger of Rio did not apply.  Now, do keep in mind that I stuck to the upper end beach communities of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon during my time, there – it wasn’t like I was roaming favelas at 3am.  Still, most tourists – especially from the US – focus their time on those beach communities anyway.

One big takeaway from the time I spent there was the terrible, terrible traffic.  It took two hours to get from the beach to the airport, and traffic in general was gridlock – especially during anytime close to traditional rush hours.

The single most attractive quality of Rio – its location on the ocean and along the mountains are it’s single biggest challenge.  Due to these geographical restrictions, infrastructure is pretty poor in Rio.  I honestly cannot imagine how they will successfully rectify their infrastructure and improve it enough to successfully host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.  I imagine the city will come to a literal stand-still for those 16 days.  Rio may survive next summer’s FIFA World Cup, simply because the event will be spread throughout 12 different cities in Brazil, and only 5-6 games will actually be held in Rio.

Despite these infrastructure deficiencies, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Rio.  It is one of the most beautiful cities I have  visited anywhere in the World.  I am completely looking forward to returning sometime soon… will I be there for the World Cup next summer?  There’s a very good chance!

Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 17

We awoke after a great night sleep at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway, and headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Breakfast was included in the room rate, and the spread was downright impressive.  They really had a little of anything you could think of, and it proved to be a wonderful start to the day.  After we checked out, the only plan for the day was to make it down to see the Cliffs of Moher — about a 90 minute drive from Galway.  The drive followed along a scenic, windy road as we followed the west coast of Country Clare throughout he Burren National Park.  When we hit the fork in the road in the town of Ballyvaughan, we decided to take the scenic route to the Cliffs of Moher — via the Ocean Road.  This proved to be a wonderful idea, as the scenery was simply stunning on this wonderfully clear day.   We thoroughly enjoyed driving and then just pulling over to take in the sights of a scenic coastline vista and the occasional castle.

After a couple of hours, we found ourselves in the small, port town of Doolin around noon.  Located about 6km from the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin is host to a ferry fleet where one can take a ferry for a scenic cruise of the Cliffs, or to one of the Aran Islands.  We went down to the pier to inquire with the O’Brien Line about their ferry tour to the Cliffs of Moher, and we were met by a friendly, older Irish man named Bill O’Brien, who happened to be the owner of the tour company.  He informed us that the next ferry was to leave at 3:15pm, and then gave us the “lay of the land” and ensured us that we’d have time to visit the Cliffs of Moher from above before coming back to Doolin for our ferry ride.  The ferry cost €25 for the estimated hour-long trip to the Cliffs and back – a fee that we gladly paid.

We heeded Bill’s advice and made the short, 15-minute drive from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher.  There is a €6 entrance fee per car at the Cliffs, and it is well worth the price of admission.  The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most famous geographical features of Ireland, as they feature a set of jagged cliffs that drop straight off, about 1,000 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.   The views are simply stunning.  We were lucky to have perfect weather that day, so we were not impeded by fog, rain, or mist!

After about an hour of taking in the vistas and snapping dozens of pictures, we headed back to our ridiculous mini car and drove back to Doolin for lunch.  We settled on lunch at Gus O’Connors Pub.  Gus O’Connors was quite crowded, as a tour bus group had just been dropped off, but even still, we were able to receive our food and pints pretty quickly.  I enjoyed a beef and Guinness Stew, which was great.  However, my girlfriend struck out with her chicken and cheese sandwich order, as it wasn’t the most appetizing thing she’d ever seen… or tasted.  After lunch, we returned to the pier for our ferry ride.  As we were waiting for our ferry to return, the weather started to turn as a storm started to pick up.  As the wind increased and the sea appeared to get a little more rough, we decided to go ahead and take our last two Dramamine tablets, just in case.

Good decision.

By the time we got on-board the vessel, the supposed ten minute ride took closer to 30 minutes, as we took ten foot seas over the bow on our short trek to the base of the Cliffs of Moher.  The Cliffs themselves were overwhelming from the bottom.  We looked up to where we stood a few hours before, and the sheer height of the Cliffs sank in as we could barely see the outline of people looking over the towering cliffs, 1,000 feet above.  The ride back to the dock was equally as choppy, and we were two of the only non-seasick passengers on the ferry.  Folks were getting sick left and right, but we had a blast!

By the time we got back to the dock, we were running about an hour behind schedule, so we hit the road en route for Bunratty.  Bunratty is a small village about five kilometers from the Shannon Airport.  We had reservations at the Bunratty Meadows Bed and Breakfast, where we planned to stay the night before our flight home to the States.  We arrived at Bunratty Meadows at around 6:30pm, and were greeted by the hostess, Dariena.  We were shown our room in her beautiful house located on a large meadow overlooking the River Shannon.  The room was extremely comfortable, and had all the creature comforts that we could want. Dariena recommended that we go into Bunratty to check out the famous Bunratty Castle, and then eat at a nearby restaurant for dinner.  The Castle is one of the larger ones you’ll find in Ireland, and it is open to the public along with a folk park that showcases Medieval Irish life.  We got to the castle too late to take a tour, so we just zapped some pictures, took a stroll throughout the famous Durty Nelly’s Pub, and walked across the street to the Creamery Bar for dinner.

I had a delicious dinner of fish and chips with a couple pints of Guinness — a perfect last supper for a wonderful four days in Ireland.  By the end of dinner, we were pretty exhausted from the long day of touring, so we made our way back to the Bed and Breakfast for our last night’s sleep on the trip.

May 18

We’d arranged for breakfast to be had at 8:30am, which would leave us plenty of time to get to the Shannon Airport for our 11:40am flight back across the pond.  We woke up, cleaned up, packed, and headed downstairs to the cute breakfast room where Dariena had four tables set for the four sets of guests that she was hosting the previous night.  There was a selection of cereals and coffee to choose from as Dariena brought out freshly baked scones with an assortment of jams.  I ordered the pancakes, and my girlfriend had the traditional Irish Breakfast.  Both were absolutely delicious, and we completely loved everything about the breakfast that was prepared for us.  Sadly, we had to say our goodbyes and head to the airport.

We really, really enjoyed Bunratty Meadows.  Though it was the only bed and breakfast on our trip, it was one of my favorite accommodations.  Based off this experience, I’d certainly be open to staying at bed and breakfasts more often since they really provide a fantastic value and have much more personality than do most hotels.  I also highly recommend Bunratty Meadows to anyone in the area — it’s especially great if you need to fly out to Shannon the next morning, as it’s only about five kilometers away from the airport.

 

 

The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 16

We awoke around 6:30am to start our drive across the Emerald Isle since we had an 11:30am flight from Connemara Airport, about 45 minutes west of Galway.  The prior day we rented a car, so that was sitting for us in the parking garage.  And oh, what a funny little car it was!  The thing just screamed “European car” and I looked absolutely ridiculous driving it with my 6’4″ frame.  We left The Morrison and proceeded through the outskirts of Dublin right around the beginning part of Friday morning rush hour.  We were headed out of the city, so traffic was light.  We then got on the M4 and then the M6 motorway (very similar to US Interstate Highways), and drove clear across the country in about two and a half hours!  The next thing we knew, we were on the outskirts of Galway.  After proceeding through about a half dozen traffic circles, we were on an ocean-side highway hugging the Galway Bay between Galway and Connemara.  We stopped for a scone and a coffee of a picturesque beach overlooking Galway Bay.

Several months earlier, I arranged for a scheduled flight to take us to the Aran Islands and back.  After tons of research, we decided that we wanted to see the Aran Islands.  We decided on Inishmore since it was the largest of the three islands, and seemed to have lots to see.  Since they’re relatively remote (about ten miles off the West coast of Ireland), the only two options to get to the islands were by ferry or by plane.  The ferry was said to take 90-12o minutes and cost €25-30, while the plane was said to be an eight minute flight for €49 round trip.  Given our time constraint (we needed to do it in one day), the decision to book the flight was an easy one.  We booked the flight directly on Aer Arann Islands’ website, and the process really couldn’t have been any easier.

We arrived at the airport about 45 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time of 11:30am.  We checked in and were situated in the small lobby of the Connemara Airport.  After a safety briefing on TV, the two of us and a third passenger were gathered for boarding for this eight-minute flight that would cover 12 miles — currently the fifth shortest scheduled flight in the world!

We flew a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander — an eight-seat aircraft (including the two pilots) from Connemara (NNR) to Inishmore (IOR) in the Aran Islands with one pilot and three passengers, including the two of us.  After a scenic approach to the island, we touched down and were immediately met by Aer Arann Island officials who had a mini bus waiting to take us to town.  Upon arriving into the main town in Inishmore, called Kilronan, we grabbed a pint of Guinness and lunch at the bar, appropriately named, “The Bar.”  We then walked across the street and rented bikes for €10 each.  The bike shop owner pointed us out the sights we should see on the map, and off we went!

It was about a 6km bike ride along a very hilly and scenic road to the entrance of the must-see prehistoric fort of Dun Aonghasa.  From the entrance, there was another 1km walk up the hill to the ridge of the cliff where the fort lies.

The views from here were magnificent, as the cliffs dropped off some 300 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.

We walked around Dun Aonghasa for about 45 minutes, snapping pictures left and right.  Interestingly, there was no railing along the edge of the cliff, and one could hang their legs off the ledge if they dared — definitely a harrowing feat.  I myself didn’t play that game… I’m way too scared of heights, and I even had weak knees when I walked within five feet of the ledge!

After touring the fort, we descended the hill, got back on our bikes, and made the scenic drive back to town where our minibus picked us up for our return flight back to Connemara.  Inishmore was a MUST see.  If you have time in Ireland, or if you’re in Galway, it’s definitely worth spending at least a day out in the Aran Islands.  I much prefer the flight over there since it saves a ton of time, and you don’t need to worry about the frequently rough seas that you may encounter on a ferry ride.

Upon arriving back in Connemara, we hopped into our mini-car and proceeded to the town of Galway.  We were booked for one night at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway.  We chose this hotel because it was comparably priced to other places, it was within walking distance to the main part of town, and it received some pretty good reviews online.  Parking cost €5 and check-in was a breeze.  Much to our surprise, breakfast seemed to be included in our room rate — win!  The room was basic — comfortable and somewhat modern, but nothing overly special or memorable.  The lobby of the hotel was quite pretty, but we really didn’t spend any time there.

After freshening up, we set out to explore Galway for the evening.  And what an awesome little town it is!  Most of our time was spent along Quay Street in the Spanish Arch area.  This street was lined with pubs and shops, and just had a genuine Irish feel to it.  Galway is right on the water, so that made the town seem especially scenic.  We went into a couple of pubs for pints:  The Quays and The Dail Bar.  We enjoyed both of them, and honestly could have just pub-hopped all night in this cute little town.  Alas, we were starving at this point, so we headed to Finnegans Corner Restaurant & Bar where my girlfriend enjoyed some Shepherd’s Pie, and I had fish and chips, yet again.  The food was really quite fantastic, and we left the place pretty full.  At that point, it was approaching 10pm, and we were exhausted, so we made our way back to the hotel for a decent night’s rest.

 

Two Days in Dublin

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 14

We arrived into Terminal 1 at Dublin International Airport’s and proceeded through immigration easily in about five minutes. While my girlfriend sipped on a coffee, I purchased a €25 SIM card for my phone since we would be in Ireland for four days. For €25, I received unlimited data, and  €50 worth of international calls and txts. For the data alone, I feel this is a steal.  Since we would be renting a car, I really wanted unlimited data since I’d be living in Google Maps to direct me as to where to go. If I were to have purchased the International Plan through Verizon, it would have cost me $29 for only 100MB of data. Given my normal consumption, Id be through that after a day or two. We then took a cab into Central Dublin where our hotel awaited.

We stayed at The Morrison Hotel. A newly refurbished Double-tree Property, The Morrison is decorated with a rather modern look, and it’s certainly a very sharp property. My favorite thing about the property is it’s fantastic location on the River Liffey across the pedestrian bridge from the heart of Temple Bar.   Upon check-in, I was granted an upgrade to a Junior Suite that I requested several weeks before for €25. The upgrade to the Junior Suite gave us a ton of extra room. The bed was super comfortable, and the whole room was decorated in a contemporary look with clean edges and pink neon back-lighting.

After settling in and getting refreshed, we headed to check out the The Guinness Storehouse at St. James’ Gate Brewery. I visited the Guinness Storehouse two years ago, but we really sped through the tour since we were extra thirsty that day. This time, the two of us really took our time to enjoy the entire self-guided tour through the Guinness Storehouse, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Highlights of the tour included taste testing and the Guinness Academy, where we learned how to properly pour a pint of Guinness. We were also impressed by the rich history and the pride that the Irish people have in the beer. At the end of the tour, we brought the pint we poured at the academy up to the panoramic “GRAVITY Bar” atop the storehouse and enjoyed it with a panoramic view of Dublin.  This is one of the better brewery tours out there – certainly in line with the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam – and we felt it was well worth the €16 entrance fee.

After a pint at the Guinness Storehouse, we wanted to make our way back to the Temple Bar area for dinner, but on the way we stopped into the The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub. Dating back to 1198, the The Brazen Head is a must see when you’re in Dublin, and I enjoyed another delicious pint of Guinness there.

By this point, we were famished, so we proceeded to Temple Bar where we had a wonderful dinner at Gallagher’s Boxty House in the heart of Temple Bar. We each ordered the boxty specialties for our entrees along with the bacon ribs as the appetizer, and it was all wonderful. I dined here two years ago and loved it, and it surely didn’t disappoint the second time around.

After dinner, we decided to take a little self-guided pub crawl. We started across the street from the Boxty House at the famous Temple Bar. As usual, the Temple Bar was pretty packed and jamming with live Irish music that we enjoyed for a bit. We then headed a bit away from the Temple Bar area and took a stroll up Grafton Street and stopped in a pub called The Hairy Lemon. We really enjoyed this place, and a friend of mine even recommended the Irish specialties here, but we were stuffed from dinner. After a few drinks at The Hairy Lemon, we wandered around taking in the night scene in Dublin before stopping at The Long Hall for one last drink before heading back to The Morrisson for bed.  All in all, we enjoyed the pubs much more that were several blocks south of Temple Bar, near Grafton Street.  We found them to be less touristy and filled more with locals.

May 15

We slept in the following morning a little more than expected and just did get to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, which was included in the room rate. The Morrison featured a great buffet spread that was heavy on pastries and hot dishes consistent with the traditional Irish breakfast.   One can also order from the menu in addition to the buffet, and we each did that. I had the eggs benedict, and my girlfriend ordered the French toast – each of which were cooked perfectly and deliciously. All in all, it was a very solid breakfast offering.

We walked into town a bit to visit the Post Office and the Dublin Spire.  At that point, it was well past noon, and I needed to pick up the rental car for our drive the following day, so we took a cab to the “City Centre” location of Budget Rental Car.  Sadly, this location is not exactly located in the city center, and instead is in Drumcondra, but I guess it was close enough. Picking up the rental car was painless. Once I started driving back to the hotel, driving on the left side (“wrong side”) of the rode definitely took some getting used to, but I managed just fine. After parking the car back in the garage, we set out for some more sight seeing in Dublin.

We headed directly for St. Patrick’s Cathedral where we enjoyed the park, and took some pictures, but opted not to go inside because we were ready for lunch. We were craving fish and chips. We went by Leo Burdock (probably the best fish and chips in Dublin), but felt more like a sit-down style place, so we went to a place where I’ve enjoyed before called O’Neil’s Bar and Restaurant, right near Trinity College. We both enjoyed some delicious fish and chips along with a pint. After lunch, we walked through Trinity College and then took a stroll through St. Stephen’s Green, the city center park in Dublin. We then hit up Grafton Street (Dublin’s main shopping district) for some shopping with a stops at Harry’s on the Green along the way.

At that point, the only type of touring we really felt like doing was pub touring, so that’s exactly what we did! We had a drink or two at several places in the Temple Bar district, including Oliver St. John Gogarty’s, The Auld Dubliner, The Ha’Penny Bridge Pub, and The Palace Bar.  All of a sudden, it was past 9pm (and still very bright out), so we headed back to the hotel for a dinner snack of sliders and fries at the hotel bar, which was delicious. We then retired for the evening, as we had an early wakeup the next morning for our drive clear across Ireland to Galway and Connemara, where we were to catch a plane for the Aran Islands!

Next stop:  The Aran Islands…