Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The End of My Journey

It’s my last night in Sydney and the end of my Australian/New Zealand adventure. What to do on the final night? I decide to head to bar 360˚ on top the Sydney Tower. Jason and a couple from the wine tour highly recommended it. I wanted to go to the top of the City Tower in Auckland on my last night, but it was so rainy and cloudy there would have been no views. It’s a perfect night for some great views of Sydney.

Once I arrive, I am informed there is a $20 minimum spend at the bar. No problem. After reviewing the limited appetizer menu I decide, why not splurge? I order a glass of Veuve.

I’m sitting at a table in front of an all glass wall. As the bar turns slowly around, I am treated to the most amazing views of the city. Suddenly, I’m very sad to be leaving. I wish I had just one more day. I know there is still so much more to see. This is definitely a place I’d come back to.

Every trip I take, I learn something new about myself. As I sit here sipping my champagne, admiring the views, I reflect on what I’ve learned on this latest journey.

- I really have mellowed out. Things just don’t faze me like they used to. This trip has not always gone smoothly, but when the unexpected happened, not once did I get upset or let it ruin my trip. I just viewed the unexpected as chance to see/do/experience something new. Not once was I disappointed.

- Taking almost 3 years off from working full-time was really good for me. It truly has given me a new perspective on my life. While my career is still important to me, I am not defined by it. I can do a great job at work and still enjoy all life has to offer. There is so much more to life than work and it is not that difficult to find balance. You just have to make balance a priority.

- The Traveling Hillbilly is lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I’ve gained a true appreciation for California. When we live in a place for a while, we tend to overlook things and get bogged down in the day to day frustrations like traffic, high cost of living, etc. Despite some of the challenges of living in Los Angeles, the city has a lot to offer and should not be taken for granted. I need to go back to Los Angeles and see the city through the eyes of a tourist.

While this particular adventure has come to an end, the Traveling Hillbilly’s journey continues on. I have to go back to work soon. While, I’m sad to have my holiday come to an end, I don’t dread going back to work. I know in my heart that my next big adventure is just around the corner. I can’t wait to see what life has in store for me.

I thank you all for following this latest adventure. The only thing better than a great journey, is being able to share it with others. I truly have enjoyed sharing it with you and hope you share some of your adventures with me very soon!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Final Day, not Night, in Sydney

Unfortunately my holiday is coming to an end. What to do on this last day in Sydney? Well first let me say, THE SUN IS SHINING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I could not have asked for a better last day. I slept in, got some breakfast and then headed to Hyde Park. It was an area of the city I had not yet seen. Surprisingly, there was a Scottish Heritage Festival going on in the park. I got to hear some bag pipes and great Scottish music. Maybe these are the guys that were in the hotel last night walking around in kilts.

After walking through the park, I headed across the street to the Australian Museum. Lo and behold, they also have a dinosaur exhibit, as well as an exhibit on “Surviving Australia.” Similar to the museum in Auckland, it was very interactive. It makes a trip to the museum much more fun! After the museum, I walked to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens are HUGE and so beautiful. I know there is no way I saw all there was to see. I looked up at one point and was surprised to see a ton of bats hanging from the tree above. The further I walked, the more I bats I saw. They were everywhere, hanging from almost every tree. It was totally cool but also kind of creepy. Every now and again, one would spread its wings and take off and then grab hold of a branch on another tree and wrap itself back up in its wings. Amazing. I have to admit, I kept waiting for Batman to jump out!

I was getting hungry and so started to look for an exit out of the gardens and suddenly stumbled upon a river walk. I don’t know how I had not noticed this before, but there is a walk all along the river that takes you right to the Opera House. I followed the path back to Circular Quay (pronounced key) to look for a place to eat. Given it was lunch time, everything was packed. Since it was such a beautiful day, I decided to postpone lunch for a bit and took a ferry over to Darling Harbour. Even though it’s only about a 20 minute walk, I had yet to take a cruise through the harbour and figured today was a great day to do it. What a great way to see the city and for less than $5 US dollars a great bargain.

All in all, a good last day. Now as I sit in the lounge sipping my evening champagne, I’m contemplating what to do for my last Night in Sydney…

Drinking and Driving Don't Mix

It was time for some wine tasting in the Hunter Valley. Knowing that drinking and driving don’t mix, I decided to book a tour for this day trip. Let someone else do the driving while I get to sit back, relax and drink some great (we’ll see) Australian wines. After 4 days of hiking, sitting on a tour bus was just what the Traveling Hillbilly needed. Plus it was raining again, so not a great day to walk around the city anyway! I went with a company called Vistours (vistours.com). I highly recommend them. They take small groups (no more than 15) and tailor the tour to the group. They primarily go to boutique wineries unless the group wants to go to some of the larger ones like Rosemont.

We had a great group, primarily a mix of Americans and British folks. We even had a couple from Los Angeles, well the Palisades, and their son who is currently living in Sydney and works in advertising. What a small world it is.

We start our day at a beautiful winery called Iron Gate that looks like it is right out of Tuscany. We go in a private tasting room get treated to some great wines and fabulous mud cake! We try seven different wines including 3 different Shiraz’s, one of which is a sweet Shiraz..

After getting our first tasting down, we head on to Audrey Wilkinson (the oldest winery in the area) for the most amazing views in all of Hunter Valley. On the way there, I ask our driver, Jason, if we were going to be tasting any sparkling wines on our tour since there seem to be a lot of sparkling wines on the menus here. He says he’ll see what he can do. When we arrive at Audrey Wilkinson, he mentions to Steve, the guy doing our tasting, that someone in the group has asked about sparkling wines. So not only do we get to taste the several wines on the tasting menu, but he brings out a sparkling Semillon wine for us to try. Then when we get to the reds, he also brings out a Sparkling Malbec for us to try. What a treat! The general consensus of the group was they liked the wines at the first place better but everyone seemed to like the sparkling wines. I wonder how much it will cost to ship a case of that Sparkling Malbec back to the states.

Now it was time to head to Lucy’s Run. Given this winery is actually named after the owner’s 11 year old dog, Lucy, I have to admit it was my favorite. We actually got to meet Lucy and her bud Sophie. After visiting two absolutely amazing and picturesque wineries, this tasting was in a tin roof shed. Not at all fancy. The owner, a former pilot for Cathay Pacific, bought the land and built this smaller winery when he retired. He and his wife run it. They only produce 800 cases a year (and only 5 different wines) so it’s very small, but they had some great wines. Plus they also make olive oil which was delicious.

As we are sitting there enjoying our wines, the rain comes pouring down. It was raining so hard and the wind was blowing so strong, I thought the roof might just come off the building. We were all amazed by the storm considering when we first arrived the sun had finally come out! The weather here is so unpredictable.

Despite the sudden storm, a great tasting. It was very personal and truly fun. Plus how can you not enjoy a sip of wine with a pupper laying at your feet? A real treat. The Traveling Hillbilly highly recommends putting this on your list if you’re ever in the area.

It was time to head to our final tasting of the day, Ernest Hill. This place definitely had the best names for wines. There was Chicken Shed Chardonnay and Wrecker’s Block Shiraz. The grapes for the former are grown next to a chicken shed and the latter by the junk yard. The guy who did our tasting was quite a character too.

All in all a great day. I got to try, 6-8 wines at every stop. All included whites, roses, reds and at least on dessert wine. Plus I got to try some things I’ve never had before like Verdelho and Semillon.

Things I learned on this tour:

- -Boutique Wineries – make less than 10,000 cases a year
- -It reinforced my belief that I truly don’t care for most dessert wines
- -Harvest time in Hunter Valley is in January which is early compared to the other wine regions in Australia (March).
- - There are over 100 wineries in the Hunter Valley, the majority of them are boutique wineries
- - They are not allowed to add anything, like sugar, to the wines in Australia.
- - The majority of Australian wines are moving toward the screw cap. While there are arguments both for and against using a screw cap, those using it all said the same thing; the Australian wineries tend to get the lower quality corks (better quality going to countries like France and Italy) which can have bacteria in them and wind up ruining the wine
- - The wines here all tasted a little lighter than a lot of the wines I usually drink. The ones we tasted were not as full-bodied as the wines I normally like
- - When buying Australian wines in the states, make sure it states the actual region such as Hunter Valley and not just a generic area like Southeast Australia, otherwise you are most likely getting on of the massed produced wines that often aren’t as good a quality
- - A great salad dressing recipe – olive oil, w/ a dash of lime or lemon and black pepper

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A White Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving here, not that they celebrate it. It’s just Thursday, but for me it’s Thanksgiving. Given the time difference, I know it’s not Thanksgiving there yet but it will be soon so Happy Thanksgiving to you all and save some turkey for me. The Traveling Hillbilly LOVES turkey sandwiches made from leftovers.

What better way to spend Thanksgiving, then going on yet another bush walk?!

So I head off to the Blue Mountains and then on to Jenolan Caves. It’s a long day, but another great one. I just can’t get over how amazing the views and scenery are here. It is truly magnificent. I have to admit, it reminded me a lot of Kentucky. I did a short hike in the Blue Mountains and saw yet another amazing waterfall. In some places the trail actually takes you almost to the cliff’s edge. I did not realize how high up I was until I walked up to this look out point and realized that just inches from the fence was a straight drop down! Beautiful but scary!

After spending time admiring the beauty of the Blue Mountains and getting the obligatory shot of the Three Sisters, it was off to Jenolan Caves. I have not been inside a cave since I was a kid and we went to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. It was like being a kid again. The cave network is so intricate. It was just amazing. After hiking for four days in a row, I could have done without the 900+ steps though! My calves are killing me! Now it's time to go back to the hotel and get some dinner.

On the bus ride home, guess what? It starts to rain. Then suddenly we are in the middle of a hail storm! How wild is that? The hail stones are huge and coming down fast and furious. After just a few minutes, the ground is covered and it actually looks like it’s covered in snow. A white Thanksgiving in Australia, who would believe it?

As I sit here typing this in the club lounge, sipping my champagne, dreaming about a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, there’s suddenly an explosion. I jump back and am completely frightened for a moment. Given all that has been going on in Thailand and Mumbai, all the guest here are a little jumpy. Then we realize the explosion is actually fireworks. All the guests in the lounge are treated to an amazing fireworks display. What a special surprise. I later find out it is part of the celebration of the lighting of the Christmas tree, in the courtyard below us. Wow I had the best seat in the house for the ceremony.

So while I did not get my turkey, I did get a nice holiday treat.

So Happy Thanksgiving everyone and be thankful for your family, friends and all the blessings we have. My heart goes out to everyone impacted by the incidents in Thailand, Mumbai and the Middle East.

“Things can be taken away and in the end all you have is your story.”

This is a line from the film Australia, spoken by the handsome Hugh Jackman. What a great line and so true. As most of you know, the Traveling Hillbilly has always said life is about acquiring experiences, not things, so this line really hit home.

It was opening night for the film Australia and y’all know the Traveling Hillbilly loves the movies, so I thought it was only fitting I go see it while I’m here. I’m sure my love and excitement over the film were heightened by my actually being here. However, it was a truly wonderful film. The Traveling Hillbilly highly recommends it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a film. I sat in the theater long after the film ended and I wasn’t the only one. There must have been at least two-thirds of the audience still there sitting.

Obviously it’s a major release here so there’s been a lot of buzz about it. I heard a review that said the acting was a little over the top and that’s true. But to me it works. The film is done in an old school style like some of the classics, such as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. If you watch those films today the acting might seem over the top, but they are still amazing films. It’s got drama, humor and the most beautiful scenery. It will make you laugh, gasp and maybe even cry. I think this film will make you all want to come here.

There are several great performances but the best performance is from Brandon Walters. This kid melts your heart.

So go see it and let me know what you think. And make sure your life is a great story!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Does the water really go down the toilet counter-clockwise?

Someone has asked the Traveling Hillbilly this question. I have to say, I've heard about this too and have been quite curious myself. After many days of observation, the answer is the water goes straight down. The water comes out of the top of the bowl but only on one side and it shoots straight down vs. going in a circular motion.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Porcupines, Kangaroos and Wallabies, Oh My!

Taking the advice of the girl working the entrance of the national park, I decide to head to the Murray Beach trail. On the drive to the trail, I come across a porcupine crossing the street. Now the Traveling Hillbilly has never seen a porcupine up close and personal before, so I can’t be 100% sure that is what it was, but that is certainly what it looked like. It looked quite prickly, but a little cute and it kind of waddled along. I stopped the car so he could continue his journey across the street, but he changed his mind and heading back to the forest.
I get to the Murray Beach car park and start my hike. I’m not on the trail 5 minutes when I see a kangaroo in the bushes. It’s so cool to see one in the wild like this. Not wanting to scare it, I continue to the beach. What a beautiful beach it is. It is truly picturesque. The water is so blue green that it looks like a picture that has been photo-shopped. I walk a long the beach for a while and then get back on the trail. I hear rustling in the bushes and jump back my heart racing. I look up and realize that it’s another kangaroo. Is this the same one from before or another one? I’m not really sure but this one is smaller and more reddish in color. I think it might actually be a wallaby. This is too cool.

After about 20 minutes on the trail, you get a great view of Murray Beach below. You are suddenly standing on top of sandstone cliffs overlooking the sea. Wow! After taking the time to soak the view in and snapping a few photos. I head on. As I walk, I suddenly think, I’m not in New Zealand anymore. They have snakes here in Australia! And once again, no one knows I’m here. No one knows, I’ve decided to rent a car and drive to Jervis Bay. Maybe it’s time to head back.

I see two more roos and/or wallabies, plus a bird that looks an awful lot like a parrot but luckily no snakes on my way back to the car. What a magical place.

Now I can go back to the cabin and actually cook myself dinner!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Driving a lawn mower on the wrong side of the road

On the flight to Sydney, I decide to rent a car and drive to Jervis Bay, home to Booderee National Park and where they are supposed to have the most amazing white sand beaches. I really want to see more of Australia before settling in Sydney for the last leg of my journey. Given my extended stay in New Zealand, I’ve had to give up my hope of going to Adelaide for wine tasting in the Barossa Valley with a side trip to Kangaroo Island. L

After going through customs, I walk over to the rental car area and look into getting a car. To my surprise, they only have large cars left and it’s going to cost $200-$300 for a 2 day rental. What? For that kind of money, I could fly all the way to Adelaide. Maybe I should rethink my decision. So I pull out my laptop, hop on-line and low and behold am able to book a smaller car online for less than $100. You’ve got to love the internet. I walk back over to the counter with my confirmation number and get my car at a much cheaper rate than what the staff originally quoted. As I’m putting my stuff away, another couple walks up to the counter looking for a car and am told the same thing I was, the cheapest rental is $289. I told them, go book it online and you’ll get a much better deal. So that’s exactly what they did too.

After missing a turn and getting completely lost, I finally get on the right highway and am on my way. I have to admit, driving here is more of an adventure than abseiling down waterfalls. Everything is completely backwards from what we’re used to. I have to keep telling myself, “Stay to the left, stay to the left.” I’m so afraid, I’m going to make a turn and wind up driving on the wrong side of the road. I must have turned my windshield wipers on at least 100 times instead of turning my blinker on. I even keep reaching to my left to put the seatbelt on. Did I mention my car sounds like a lawnmower? I keep checking to make sure it’s in drive. It sounds like I’m driving my Jeep down the 405 at 70 miles an hour in 2nd gear! I keeping thinking this car is going to blow up at any moment! Something must be wrong. It goes on like this for almost an hour. I finally pull over for lunch and when I get back in the car, everything seems fine. Still don’t know what was up with the car, but at least it doesn’t sound like a lawn mower anymore.

What a beautiful drive this is. I stop more than once to take some pictures of the majestic scenery. It reminds the Traveling Hillbilly of the recent drive along California’s Pacific Coast Highway to Carmel. At one point I see beautiful blue sunny skies to my right and dark, gloomy clouds to my left. My hopes of the sun moving in were quickly dashed as rain drops started to hit the windshield.

As I continue on, I pass a few wineries and drive through this quaint little town called Berry. It is like stepping back in time. It reminds me a little of Carmel. I decide to stop here and take some time to walk through the town. What a truly charming place. I might have to stop for lunch here or at least a latte on my way back through to Sydney.

I arrive in Jervis Bay. It’s a pretty little beach side town and I can tell it’s going to be a quiet sea side place. After driving around for a bit, I start looking for accommodations. I wind up renting a little cabin right by the bay. It’s painted a light blue and even has a front porch but of course, no internet access. I drop my stuff off and head out to explore Booderee National Park. How will the hikes here compare to Tongariro?

Sydney or Bust

I’ve been on the bus about 4 hours now and it’s been raining the whole time. The Traveling Hillbilly has yet to go to Ireland, but this is what I envision it to be like, cold, rainy, rolling green hills and lots of farm animals. It’s actually quite a nice ride.

We even stopped for afternoon tea around 4pm. How civilized. I’m wondering if it’s going to be raining in Auckland. I certainly hope it’s not going to be raining while I’m in Sydney. I know it’s been raining there for the last several days which is one of the reasons I headed to New Zealand early. I’ve actually enjoyed the rain here but the Traveling Hillbilly could sure use a warm sunny day at the beach!

I really have not done any shopping yet, but I’m telling you the light coat I bought at the mall the day after I arrived in Auckland has been the best purchase. It is no thicker than a piece of paper but it keeps me warm and dry! It may just be my new favorite jacket!

Once I get back to Auckland, I’m hoping to check into the hotel (I’m heading back to the Westin) and go grab a drink at the Sky Tower. I’ve been to the casino bar, but have yet to go to the top of the building. I hear the views are amazing. I’m not sure I really want to go all the way to the top though. I’m kind of hoping there’s a bar somewhere near the top where I can grab a drink and still enjoy the view. I bet the view of Auckland at night from there is stunning.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Another Great Hike, er, bush walk, tramp

I have just enough time to get in another hike this morning before I have to catch my bus back to Auckland. Before I get to the hike, let me first tell you a little about Tongariro National Park. It is New Zealand’s oldest national park (2nd in the world, Yellowstone being the oldest) and is considered a World Heritage Area. It is also home to three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, which actually erupted in 1996 and 1995. The weather can be extreme and as anyone in the area will tell you, it’s highly unpredictable and can change drastically in an instant. When I first arrived at the train station it was sunny and warm, but by the time we got to the hotel less than 20 minutes later, the clouds had moved in and the temperature had dropped. Even today as I sat in the hotel lobby sipping my latte waiting to head to the bus station, I notice I can’t even see the mountain peaks today. Yesterday when I came back from my hike, I sat in the hotel lobby and enjoyed the most amazing view of the mountains in the floor to ceiling windows. Today, you would never even know there’s a mountain out there. Now back to my hike.

I take the advice of the hotel staff and head out to the Silica Rapids trail. It’s about a 2 ½ hour hike that takes you through the wetlands. It rained last night so it’s quite cold and damp this morning, just what the sick Traveling Hillbilly needs! I think I’ve been sick most of this trip. Given the drastic changes in weather, it’s not to be unexpected. But, I refuse to let it ruin my vacation. I must push on through and keep going. Haven’t I sweated this out yet?!

I stop at the local café to grab some water and fruit and am on my way. This turns out to be another beautiful trail. The scenery is different from yesterday’s hike, but beautiful none the less. Once again, I pass through thick forest, cross over bridges and see a few small waterfalls. The most interesting thing is though that the vegetation is so thick, you can’t even see the rushing water, but you can hear it and know it’s nearby. It’s the same with the trail. At times you can’t even see the trail ahead. It seems to just disappear in the brush. Then suddenly I turn a corner and there are amazing rapids running downstream. It’s interesting how the rocks are different colors along the way. The water always looks crystal clear, but the rocks beneath turn from orange, to black even to an almost white color. When I get to the actually look out point for the rapids, I can’t believe the view. I’m standing on a hill and see waterfalls to the left, waterfalls to the right and rapids straight ahead. I can’t even take it all in. The view is just overwhelming.

It truly makes you feel so small, so insignificant and alone. It feels like you are the only person left in the world. I know you’re thinking that must sound sad or upsetting, but truly it isn’t. It is something the Traveling Hillbilly hopes you all get to experience at some point in your life. It is a great moment of solitude. As much as I travel, I continue to be stunned and amazed by the beauty of this world. Each trip makes me appreciate it so much more. It makes me think twice about what more I can do to conserve our national resources. New Zealand really has made a concerted effort to preserve the natural beauty of their country. The Traveling Hillbilly commends them on the magnificent job they’ve done.

I’m typing this as I’m sitting at the bus station. Well it really isn’t a station at all; it’s a pole in front of a closed ski shop. It’s cold, it’s rainy and there’s no place to go. The hotel dropped me off so early (not sure why) so I have almost 45 minutes to kill before my bus gets here. I’m sitting under the shelter of a restaurant porch across the street. Of course the restaurant is closed as well. It’s very quiet, very cold and very wet, but it makes for a neat day.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Australia tomorrow. I’m not looking forward to having to catch a 6am flight to Sydney though! Since I have another week left and I get to Sydney at 7am, I might just rent a car and drive along the coast for a day or two before heading back to Sydney for 4 or 5 nights. We’ll see what happens.

This was an expensive little journey to do a couple of hikes, but it was well worth it. The experience here and the solitude of the place really gave me time to reflect on my journey so far. It’s been a little disorganized and even hectic at times, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Best Hike Ever

First I have to talk about the train ride. Well actually first I have to mention that as I’m walking along the harbour at 6:45am (yes, in the morning) to catch my train, the bars are packed! Are these people still here from Saturday night or did they come out this early to watch the game?

The train ride is truly magnificent. What a beautiful country. The rolling green hills remind the Traveling Hillbilly of my roots. The scenery is actually a lot like Kentucky; the mountains, the cows, the rocks. There are definitely more sheep here than in Kentucky.

We pass over several bridges, through tunnels and the famous Rourimu spiral which was built to ensure the trains could actually get up and down the steep mountain. At points we run along the river and the Traveling Hillbilly sees more than one waterfall along the way. The train ride is so relaxing and scenic; it makes the Traveling Hillbilly think about taking a train ride in the US.

So, the hike. The Traveling Hillbilly arrives at the National Park station and there is someone from the Chateau Tongariro ready to take me and some other guests to the hotel. The train had been running late, so I check in to my room, change clothes and quickly head out for a hike. I’m told I have just enough time to do the hike to Taranaki Falls. As I walk along, I suddenly realize no knows I’m even here. Given the reservations for this trip were made at the last minute, I have not done a blog posting. No one knows the Traveling Hillbilly has even left Auckland! Luckily there are no snakes or nasty creatures here so I should be okay, unless of course I slip and fall into the rocks below or the land gives way. These are the thoughts that cross my mind as I walk through the thick and spooky forest feeling completely alone. Then suddenly I hear water. I turn a corner and start walking along a beautiful fast running stream. I walk for almost an hour before I see another person. Even though he’s quite far ahead, I take comfort in knowing someone else is out there. When I come across a bridge with a beautiful view of a waterfall I assume, I’ve reached Taranaki falls. It’s beautiful and I pause to take some photos, although quickly, because as you know the Traveling Hillbilly is afraid of heights and standing on a bridge over fast flowing water and rocks is truly frightening. It turns out the Traveling Hillbilly is wrong. About 10 minutes later, I turn a corner and see a huge waterfall cascading over black lava rocks. It’s truly a spectacular sight. I have to pause and just appreciate the beauty that is before me.

Despite the cold wind, this is one of the most beautiful hikes the Traveling Hillbilly has ever done. It truly was glorious.

Now it's time to head back to the hotel, grab a glass of wine, warm up and get some dinner.

Saturday's Plans Get Derailed...

The plan was to get up and go to the museum in the morning and then catch the 12:15 ferry over to Rangitoto Island to hike up the volcano. The Traveling Hillbilly must admit, I got a bit of a late start but still made time to swing by my favorite coffee shop in Auckland for my morning smoothie (fruit, not coffee flavored) and muffin. They have great cafes and coffee shops here.

I catch the Link bus over to the museum and go see the T-Rex exhibit. What a beautiful museum. It has to be one of the better ones of I’ve seen, and today I actually get to see the inside of it! Before I get to Sue, that’s the T-Rex’s name, I pass through an informative exhibit on volcanoes. Just as I’m about to exit the volcano section, I notice a little sign that says come inside for a sneak of what would happen to Auckland if a volcano actually erupted. I figure it would be one of those 10 minute historical/informational films you see at museums. I step inside and it’s like stepping into someone’s living room. There are couches in two corners of the room, a TV opposite them and a huge sliding glass door overlooking the harbour. Well, it’s not really overlooking the harbour, it’s just a screen but still it’s a pretty cozy space. A few more folks wander in and suddenly the TV comes on and it’s a news report announcing that Auckland is being evacuated due to the volcanic activity and the possibility of an actual eruption. The news report is done in a very authentic way and completely draws us all in. Suddenly the TV begins to scramble and the “living room” starts to shake. A kid screams and our scenic view of the harbour suddenly turns dark and fire and ash explode out of the top of the mountain. A sudden rush of ash comes at the screen, the entire room goes dark. We sit in the dark for a bit, rumbling in the background and then the screen shows the aftermath. All in all it was only about 12 minutes, but I have to admit, it was a little scary. It was almost like a ride at an amusement park, right in the middle of the museum. It was informative and quite thrilling.

A bit shaken, it was time to head to see Sue. Sue was AWESOME! She’s one of the biggest dinosaur finds in years. She was found on a ranchers land in the states. Apparently the land was part of an Indian reservation and was held in trust by the government for the rancher so of course there were years spent in court over who owned the bones recovered. After several years, the court found the bones belonged to the rancher, who decided to auction off the bones. Anyway, the exhibit was great. Very informative and very interactive.

The Traveling Hillbilly was truly impressed by the museum and could have spent many more hours there, but it was time to head back to the harbour to catch the ferry. Unfortunately the bus was late and the Traveling Hillbilly missed the ferry by 5 minutes. Since it was the last ferry, and the only way to get to, Rangitoto Island, it was time for plan B.

During a quick stop for lunch while perusing the guide book, the Traveling Hillbilly decided to head to the aquarium to see the Penguins and the sea life of New Zealand. The gigantic sting rays were really cool, but as far as aquariums go, it’s mediocre. I guess it would be really cool for kids, but the Traveling Hillbilly has been to several aquariums and this one is not a must do. It can’t hold a candle to the one in Bangkok.

The good news is I still had time to head back to the station and make reservations to take the train to Tongariro National Park on Sunday. Since it’s not officially summer, the train only runs Friday-Sunday, so I have to take the bus back to Auckland on Monday in order to catch a flight to Sydney on Tuesday.

The Traveling Hillbilly is truly excited about the train ride. It will be great to finally see more of the country. Plus I’m going to stay at the Chateau Tongariro, “the grand dame” of Tongariro according to the Frommer’s guide book. Given that it’s off season (it’s a major ski resort in the winter), the rates are great! I’m hoping it will be like the Grand Hotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. We’ll see.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Woo Hoo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As many of you may know, New Zealand is known for it's wild, adrenaline pumping adventures. They have an appetite for adventure and extreme sports.

Today I had a truly New Zealand experience. It was one of the most amazing days the Traveling Hillbilly has had. I went canyoning in the Waitakere Forest. We hiked, jumped into pools, slid down rocks and abseiled down waterfalls. I met some great and fun people, a couple who were fellow Californians. It was a truly exhilarating experience!

The hike itself was quite an adventure. We hiked for just over an hour before we got our first jump into a pool. The first 20 minutes was down hill and the rest was a constant uphill climb. The climb was tough enough, let alone carrying all our gear (wetsuit, harness and helmet) as we hiked through thick brush, over rocks, through the streams. Thank goodness there are no snakes in New Zealand!

By the time we got to the top, we were hot and thought we were ready to jump in the ice cold water. But that first dip was shockingly cold! The rest of the day, was spent jumping off rocks into the pools below, abseiling down/through waterfalls and sliding down rock waterslides.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at the bottom of a waterfall for a quick lunch and met Unger, an eel that lives in one of the pools. There were actually a couple of eels in the water here. They are scary looking things. After our quick bite, we continued on.

The only bad part of the day, was the last 30 minutes of the hike back. It was uphill and if I thought the gear was heavy earlier, it was really heavy wet!

All in all a great experience that was all the better because of the great people we had in our group. When we got back to the city, a few of us went out for drinks and toasted the surviving our adventure. We then headed out to dinner. That’s one of the best things about traveling on your own, you get the chance to meet some great people and make new friends.

Something is going to have to come off the Traveling Hillbilly's Top 10 list.

Hey you may even be able to see a video of our adventure soon...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

New Zealand Malbec's?

Finally sunshine again! After the rain in Brisbane and the cold cloudy days in Auckland the Traveling Hillbilly was glad to see the sun shining again. I was ready to get out of downtown Auckland so I took the ferry over to Waiheke Island today. It's just about a 30-40 minute ferry ride from Auckland.

What a truly stunning place. Every corner had a view more amazing than the one before. It was truly picturesque. After a 1 1/2 hour tour of the island, I decided to rent a mountain bike and explore it on my own. I can't even begin to describe how beautiful this place is. It was like riding through the hills of Tuscany but with beautiful blue/green water surrounding all the wineries. It left me speechless. I'll be posting pictures soon, but they'll never do it justice.

It was great to tour on my own, but those long, winding and hilly (very hilly) roads are not easy to navigate on a mountain bike. Especially when one is sick! Despite being sick, I decided to do a little wine tasting before heading back to the pier to catch the ferry home. You know how the Traveling Hillbilly hates to waste good wine, but when in Rome. If you ever make it to Waiheke, be sure and stop by Cable Bay Wineyards. They have a great Syrah and a wine called Five Hills that is a Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet blend and the most amazing view! This winery was like an upscale hotel. It was truly beautiful.

All in all a good day.

What's the plan for tomorrow? Well the Traveling Hillbilly had planned on taking the train to Tongariro National Park for some hiking and an overnight stay. Turns out there are no seats left on the train. Time for plan B. Rotorua National Park? Rappelling down a waterfall? The Bay of Islands?

We'll see. Log on tomorrow and find out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The First Travel Crisis Averted

So given the major storms in Brisbane and the forecast of nothing but rain for the next several days, it’s time to move on. While the T raveling Hillbilly sits on the Miramar on the way to the Koala Sanctuary, it’s time to decide what’s next. After much consternation and research the Traveling Hillbilly decides to head to Adelaide for a few days of wine tasting in the Barossa Valley and a quick side trip to Kangaroo Island. The Traveling Hillbilly figured it would be best to get there and tour the wineries during the week versus fighting the weekend crowds!

The Traveling Hillbilly was wrong! After a long wet day, the Traveling Hillbilly hops online to book the flight and hotel in Adelaide. However, for some reason, there was not a hotel available for the beginning of the week. Something big must be going on in Adelaide. What’s a Traveling Hillbilly supposed to do? Well continue searching online for plan B. Should the Traveling Hillbilly head to Sydney instead? Maybe Melbourne? Ayer’s Rock or Alice Springs? Or maybe head to New Zealand earlier than expected.

The Traveling Hillbilly decided to head to New Zealand. Unfortunately the flight out was a little early. Maybe the Traveling Hillbilly should spend one more day in Brisbane and then head to New Zealand. It was just too much to contemplate, so the Traveling Hillbilly went to bed. Upon awakening at 4am and realizing there’s nothing but rain in Brisbane for the next few days, the Traveling Hillbilly decides (early or not) to head to New Zealand. So I go online, book my one way ticket to Auckland, book a hotel and start packing.

I arrive at the airport at 7am, 2 hours before my scheduled departure, and wait in a very long line for about an hour. I finally get up to the desk to check in, only to be informed that I can not leave the country without having a return ticket! What, this is crazy! Why was I allowed to book a one way if I can’t even use it? Now after some thought, it makes sense. It is considered an “international” flight from Australia to New Zealand. So now I have like 45 minutes to book a return flight back to Australia so I can actually take my flight to New Zealand. The Traveling Hillbilly runs downstairs to find an internet connection, does some quick searches for a cheap return ticket, books it and runs back up to the counter. The Travailing Hillbilly gets checked in, literally 5 minutes before the airline closes check in, makes it on the fly and is on the way to the next adventures!

The first of the travel panics averted!

Is Oprah's House Okay?

Oprah’s House?

I thought I should do a posting to let you know that I’m okay. I’ve been in Brisbane for a couple of days and they’ve had some major storms here. It’s officially been declared a disaster area. So I thought I should do a posting to let you all know I’m okay. I was not drastically impacted by the storms. Then I realized, wait, no one in the states probably has any idea that there have been major disastrous storms in Brisbane. I’m sure the big news in the states, at least California, is how close the fires in Montecito are to Oprah Winfrey’s house! Everyone here is asking about the fires and wants to make sure that my house is okay. They want to talk about the great new president elect. They are curious about how Prop 8 passed in California. Bottom line, they are aware of what’s going on in the world, where we are just focused on ourselves!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud and thrilled to be an American. I just wish we were a little more focused on what’s going on in the world around us.

Okay enough of the political soapbox. The Traveling Hillbilly will post about winding up in Auckland!

Like a Kid at Disney World

So what did the Traveling Hillbilly do today? Pet Kangaroos? Cuddle a Koala? Look an emu and a dingo in the eye? See thousands of bats hanging from the trees? Cruise down the river on a pontoon boat?

All of the above! What a truly magical day! The Traveling Hillbilly hopped aboard the Miramar and cruised down the river to visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. It was quite an educational and emotional experience. Believe it or not, but Koalas have become endangered in Australia so a gentleman that owned a bunch of land decided to turn it into a sanctuary for Koalas. They have over 130 Koala’s on the property as well as kangaroos, emus, wombats, cows (random) and other exotic animals and birds.

You can actually walk among the animals, well at least the friendly ones. It was a truly unique experience. Although when walking amongst the kangaroos one must watch their step! The Traveling Hillbilly was like a 5 year old at Disney World. Kangaroos and Koalas are something you read about and see pictures of in books. They’re almost things of fairly tales, not real. But here they were. Walking, well hopping, up to the Traveling Hillbilly. The Traveling Hillbilly was actually able to pet them. I wanted to pet the emu too, but he looked a bit intimidating, like he could lunge at any moment, so I opted to take a picture (up close and personal) instead!

All in all a wonderful day. The cold wet rain actually added to the mystique of the day.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Traveling Hillbilly Has Arrived in Brisbane

After a long and somewhat delayed flight, The Traveling Hillbilly arrived in Brisbane. It was just 8am local time, on Sunday. Where did the weekend go?

The Traveling Hillbilly’s first thought? Wow, how beautiful. Sunny blue skies, a slight breeze, a little warm, but all in all a beautiful day. The Australian adventure is off to a good start.

I arrive at the hotel and believe it or not, they let me check in. Even though it’s just 9am! I’m very pleasantly surprised. The hotel is right on the river and I have a great view of the river from my room. I’m exhausted but don’t want to waste the day. James, I know you told the Traveling Hillbilly to go a pub straight away, but I had to brush my teeth and shower first. I decided to head down to the river walk and find a bite to eat. I found a great little café along the river, order a sandwich, some chips (translation fries) and a glass of Australian wine. So James, I had my first glass around 10:30am. Hey, it was after 2pm on a Saturday afternoon back home.

After lunch, I continued my walk along the river and wound up at the Botanical Garden. After an hour or so of enjoying the flowers, the birds and the trees, I continue along the river and see the Kangaroo Cliffs on the other side. I cross over to walk along the cliffs and walk back on the other side of the river. The bummer is once I get close to the hotel, I realize there is no bridge to cross over on this end. Luckily, there’s a CityCat dock nearby. In Brisbane, their city transportation consists of buses, subways and ferries along the river. You can buy a pass and use all three to get you where you need to go. For less than $5 Australian Dollars, you can ride the CityCat and get a great river tour of the city! How cool is that?

A storm has moved in so my evening out gets cut a little short. But hey it’s 4am in Los Angeles, so I’m doing pretty good to still be up! I’m hoping to head to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary tomorrow but have been informed the weather forecast may not make that a good option.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Traveling Hillbilly Goes to Australia

Australia was the first destination on the Traveling Hillbilly’s wish list of places to visit. The beaches, the people, the beauty, the koala bears, the kangaroos. How could someone not want to go? So how is it with all the traveling the Traveling Hillbilly has done, Australia has yet to be on the list? Even the Traveling Hillbilly doesn’t have an answer for that. But that’s about to change. This November the Traveling Hillbilly tours Australia & New Zealand.

It’s been a while since the Traveling Hillbilly has taken a trip alone. It’s time. So Australia it is. Now I just have to decide where to go. Two weeks to do Australia and New Zealand just isn’t enough, Sydney? Melbourne? Tasmania? The Northern Territory? The Great Barrier Reef? Auckland? Christ Church? A bike tour of the wine region? A mountain bike tour through the Outback? What gets crossed off the list? How does one decide?
For those of you who’ve been, I’d love your suggestions. Please email the Traveling Hillbilly your Australian adventures.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sleeping in the City that Never Sleeps

As a lot of you may know New York is known as the city that never sleeps. Is that because of the energy of the city itself? Is it because of the constant noise, sirens and horn honks that go on all night? Is it because people live in such small places, home is the last place they want to be so they stay out all night? Who knows? I do like New York though. There is just such energy to the city and you can’t help but feel alive just walking down the streets. It is such a fabulous place to visit.

So given all that how is it the Traveling Hillbilly managed to sleep for hours in this great city? I actually slept through the night both nights I was in New York, something the Traveling Hillbilly has not managed to do in months. Given the time difference, I was totally expecting to wake up in the middle of the night and lie awake for hours, only to be miserably tired the next day. However, I found myself well-rested and ready to take on the city. It was unseasonable warm but not hot, so the weather was perfect for walking the streets,

Two nights in a great hotel in So Ho, a little room service, perfect fall weather and this is part of work? What more could the Traveling Hillbilly ask for? Well, maybe another day or two to explore the city.

So for those of you who’ve never been to New York, the Traveling Hillbilly recommends you go and now. New York is a must on anybody’s travel list and fall is such a beautiful time to go. It truly is a great city. Don’t forget to take your walking shoes!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Final Thoughts on Maui

I truly loved my adventure on Maui and the best thing about it was being able to share it with my mom. I learned some things I never knew about my mom and we created some great memories I’ll cherish always.

It’s amazing how friendly and happy everyone is on Maui. The island just moves at a slower pace and I guess everyone instantly gets in a relaxed and happy mood. If only we could bottle the positive energy created on the island and bring it back to the mainland. The world would be a much more positive, peaceful and joyful place. Hopefully all those that visit bring a little piece of the island outlook back with them and can hold onto the peace of mind the island brings. If we can do that, and remember that feeling the next time we start to get caught up in all the day to day crap, we’ll all be a little more at peace.
So I’ve been asked which did I prefer, Maui or Oahu? It really depends on what you’re looking for. Honolulu is much bigger and much more developed than Maui. It’s like a lot of big cities and has a lot to offer. Maui is smaller, less developed and much quieter. If you’re looking to just kick back and relax, Maui is a great option. For the Traveling Hillbilly though, I have to say I prefer Oahu. Don’t get me wrong, Maui is stunningly beautifully and I truly enjoyed my time there. However, when traveling alone Honolulu gives you the best of both worlds. You can kick back and relax, but there are still plenty of options if you want to get out and about

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Last Moments in Maui

After an exciting day of zip lining across the valleys of Kaanapali Beach, it was time for a dip in the pool before heading out to a traditional Hawaiian luau. After reading a variety of tourist magazines, we had settled on the Old Lahaina Luau. It is known as the most traditional luau on the island.

We were not disappointed. From the time we walked in until the evening was over, we felt welcomed. They put on a truly great show! It’s educational, colorful and exciting. Plus the food was delicious and all drinks were included. We tried a variety of foods and each one was more delicious than the other. We sat at a table with six other people who were all very friendly. Our waiter was exceptional. All in all is was a truly wonderful experience, one The Traveling Hillbilly highly recommends! Want more information? Then click here

After our exciting evening at the Luau, it was almost time to say goodbye to Maui. Since our flight did not leave until very late in the evening, we decided to rent a car and explore some of the island on our own. We started the day having breakfast at The Gazebo Restaurant, which the Traveling Hillbilly also highly recommends (click here for review and restaurant info). The banana, macadamia nut pancakes are truly spectacular!

With completely full stomachs, we went off to explore Kapalua and the rest of west Maui. The drive is like a mini-drive of the Road to Hana. It’s full of twist and turns and some truly beautiful scenery. Unfortunately neither of us had a camera! We’ll just have to keep the pictures stored in our memories.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Me, Mom and the Zip Line!!!!!

Today is the day. Today is the day the Traveling Hillbilly is finally going to do a zip line. What would it be like? Would the Traveling Hillbilly actually be able to go through with it or would the Traveling Hillbilly’s mother do it, while the Traveling Hillbilly sat by watching, too scared to take the leap? Would it be anything like sky diving?

It’s 7am and we are about to find out! We meet at the Eco Adventures store, sign a waiver too scary to read (one line on the form tells you, you are not allowed to turn upside down intentionally) and then hop in the van that will take us up the mountain. The ride up the mountain was an adventure in itself. It is only accessible in a 6 wheel drive. Talk about off-roading, we were tossed, turned, bounced up, bounced down before finally coming to a stop. We are fitted with harnesses, given helmets and some instruction about what to do when we start to spin! Spin? You mean we will start spinning? What about this turning upside down thing? I certainly would not do that intentionally but is there a chance that will happen accidentally? Are these things really possible, probable? Will I panic? My mind is running a mile a minute as we get back in the van for the remaining ride up to the zip lines. They should have given us helmets in the beginning. This last bit of ride was not nearly as bad as the first leg.

We make it to the top and it’s time for that first zip! There are 8 lines in total, each one longer than the other. The Traveling Hillbilly is shaking with fear. Will I accidentally turn upside down? Will I panic when I start to spin and not be able to turn myself back? After watching a couple of people do the first line, I realize it’s now or never for me. The longer I wait and watch other people go, the more nervous I’ll get. So I walk up, get snapped in and walk slowly down the steps before launching across the valley below. Wow! I scream all the way across! Some even said I was cursing along the way.

A few more people make it across and then I see Mom step up! There she is up on the platform, getting ready to do her first zip line as well. She takes a few steps down and then she’s flying across the valley! She’s actually doing it. Suddenly she turns and winds up landing on the platform backwards. It’s a little frightening but she handles it like a trooper and is ready for the next one.

Mom does four zip lines in all and I have to say I was so proud of her. Who knew mom had such an adventurous spirit? She has walked, hiked, climbed over rocks and zipped across the valleys above Kaanapali beach. I hope I still have her sense of adventure when I get to be sixty!

By the end of the tour, I’ve taken running jumps off the platforms and even pushed off backward! It never got an easier. I was nervous every time. My biggest fear was getting halfway across and stopping and having to just hang there for a while or seeing it happen to someone else! By the time we get to the last line, which is over 1,100 feet across, I decide to go first. I step up and zip across all 1,100 feet, thrill to have survived the day, adding one more amazing experience to my life and happiest most of all to have shared this adventure with my mom.

Interested in a zip line in Maui? Check it out

Me, Mom and the Road to Hana

We decided to take my little sister’s advice and have someone else drive us along the road to Hana. We were very glad we did. There are over 600 hairpin turns and 50+ one lane bridges. During most of the drive, there’s the mountain on one side and a steep drop on the other. Often when two cars are approaching each other, whoever has the “widest” part of the highway has to stop so the other car can pass. Cars pass within inches of one another. We brushed mirrors, tires and one car even scraped the side of the mountain trying to pass us. There is no way the driver would get to enjoy the beauty along the way. We saw several waterfalls, although most were rather small, bamboo forests so thick it didn’t even look like bamboo, and even a few mongooses. It truly was a scenic drive. I’m glad I did the scenic drive up the coast in California recently. Had I done it after seeing this scenic drive, I may have been a little disappointed.

The changes in weather were quite amazing as well. We went from beautiful sunny skies to dark low clouds to rain, back to beautiful sunny skies and then rain again. We had nice balmy breezes in some places and then just a few miles up the road we had humidity so thick you could cut it with a knife.

After about 4 ½ hours on the road we stopped for lunch at the Hana Ranch. Then it was on to Haleakala National Park for a quick dip. About 10 miles past Hana, there are pools that are carved from volcanic rock and fed by a stream. The pools are connected by waterfalls. They used to be called the Seven Sacred Pools but are now referred to as the pools of Ohe o Gulch. We hike down the path, ready to jump right in and take a dip in these amazing pools. We were in for a bit of a surprise. Once we got to the pools however, we quickly realized we couldn’t just jump in. You have to climb over rocks to make you’re way into the water. It was quite a treacherous trip and is not done very gracefully by anyone. However we made it! Once you’ve navigated your way through, the water is quite inviting. It was definitely an experience.

All in all in it was a great day. The Traveling Hillbilly was very proud of mom today. She was quite the brave trooper, hiking, navigating the rocks and taking a dip.

Even though the road to Hana is only like 52 miles, it was almost a twelve hour day. Every time we saw a steep drop off, all the Traveling Hillbilly could think of was, is that what the zip line would be like? I must admit it started making me nervous!

Advice: If you ever decide to take the trip, allow yourself a full day to do it and let someone else do the driving. This is probably not the best road for those who get carsick.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Me, Mom & a Zip Line?

So we're officially on island time! Mom has commented more than once how it seems like time has just slowed down since we've been here. It is amazing how much one can enjoy a day when it's not taken up by 8-10 hours of work!

The Traveling Hillbilly's mom actually had fish tacos for the first time last night. She was a little afraid to try them at first, but after the bartender (who actually has a mamaw and papaw from Hazard County, Kentucky) told her they were the best thing on the menu, she decided why not and went for it! She was very happy she did. I didn’t think they were bad either. Most of you know how much The Traveling Hillbilly hates seafood, but this fish had the texture of chicken. Not bad.

Apparently Fish Taco's aren't the only thing the Traveling Hillbilly's mom is ready to try. She's actually agreed to do a zip line over the jungles of Maui! We scheduled it this morning and we're going on Saturday. This Traveling Hillbilly has wanted to do one for years. As most of you know, The Traveling Hillbilly is truly afraid of heights, but it seems like it would be so exhilarating. If you’re going to do it, why not do it over a place as beautiful as Maui?

I'll keep y'all posted on how it goes.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Me, Mom and Maui

The Traveling Hillbilly is sitting in a hotel in El Paso, Texas waiting to catch a flight to Maui first thing in the morning. The Traveling Hillbilly's mom has always wanted to go to Hawaii. What will Maui be like? Will Mom like it? Will it be all Mom dreams it to be?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Fabulous Weekend Cut Short

After a long and amazing day, it was time for a little relaxation. Before heading back to the hotel, The Traveling Hillbilly made a quick stop to do a little wine tasting at Bernardus, a lodge just down the road from the hotel. The lodge is actually on the grounds of the winery and it truly is charming. However, the tasting room is about 2 more miles down the road. The folks at the tasting room were fun, friendly and you could tell they were enjoying their jobs. I must admit though, I was not thrilled with the wines there. After the great wines I had in the Paso Robles region, the bar was set pretty high.

I had originally only booked two nights at the hotel to give myself some flexibility for the weekend. Would I want to continue my drive North or head back home? I decided I’d get up in the morning and head back to Paso Robles. It would give me a chance to tour some more great wineries in the region, get a good night’s rest and I’d even be a little closer to home when it was time to leave on Sunday.

Unfortunately, my car had other plans for me. I got in my car, started it up and drove a few feet before several lights/codes started flashing on, traction control failure, stability control failure, my ABS light came on. I pulled over stopped the car, thinking maybe it’s just a computer glitch and needs to be “re-booted.” The dealer had mentioned to me at one point that sometimes happens. Unfortunately when I went to restart the car, I got nothing, absolutely nothing. The car was dead. I was stuck. Hhhhhmmmm what to do?

By some stroke of luck, it finally started about 20 minutes later and I decided I just better head straight home. I didn’t want to risk stopping for another night and not being able to get the car started again. At least if I had problems on the way home, I’d still have time to deal with the car and make it back home by Sunday.

I was about 40 minutes from home when my “engine coolant” light came on. Was this another technical glitch or a real issue? Was it worth the risk to stop the car and see? I decided I’d try and make it home. About a mile from home, all the lights came back on again, but I did make it home.

So my weekend was cut a little short and who knows what the repairs will be when I take the car in Monday morning. But the weekend’s not over yet and I truly had an amazing time. I still have one more day to relax and reflect on my journey.

When you travel often, there are always bumps in the road and these things happen. You just have to remember what’s really important and not let it ruin your trip. It’s just another part of the journey and often adds to the adventure.

After all one of my favorite travel memories is being “stuck” in Paris for 9 days after the rail workers went on strike and I couldn’t catch my train out of Paris to head to Italy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The 17 Mile Drive

I decided to walk around Monterey for a while before doing the drive. I was still thinking about the hike through the state reserve and wanted some time to process all that I had scene before doing another scenic journey.

I started at Fisherman’s Wharf and then just wandered around the area for a bit before stopping for lunch. After a quick lunch, it was time for the drive. The Traveling Hillbilly has heard a lot about this scenic drive over the years, so it was a must for any trip up the coast.

Well it’s true. The Traveling Hillbilly has now been to Pebble Beach and done the famous and scenic 17 Mile Drive.

It was definitely a drive worth making. Some folks had even told the Traveling Hillbilly it took them over two hours to make this 17 mile drive and I thought how on earth could it take two hours to drive 17 miles? After making the drive, I can see how. There are so many great places to stop along the way and just soak in the scene. The Traveling Hillbilly stopped at one point to watch some of the golfers play. My grandfather was a golfer and he often took me to the course growing up. As I watched these golfers I thought about how wonderful it would have been if my grandfather had gotten the chance to play on this amazing course, just steps from the ocean.

No trip to the Carmel/Monterey area would be complete without this drive, but I have to admit, I should have done this drive before the hike. After my experience at Point Lobos State Reserve, my expectations were set extremely high. I can’t say this was a disappointment, but the scenery at the park was nothing short of spectacular.

However, the Traveling Hillbilly wouldn’t mind having an address along 17 mile drive. Can you imagine, the Traveling Hillbilly at Pebble Beach? Who knows one day, you may be mailing the Traveling Hillbilly at XXX 17 mile drive.

The Best Hike Ever

Before I get to the 17 mile drive, I have to mention the great dinner I had at Little Napoli in downtown Carmel. It’s a quaint little Italian restaurant where the staff is friendly and the food is wonderful. There was a bit of a wait, but it was well worth it. It was the perfect way to end day one of my journey.

I awake on Friday morning, still feeling like a kid playing hooky. It’s so wonderful to be out and about enjoying the world on a work day! It makes the experience that much more fun.

I decide to start the day with a hike. Someone gave me this great book on California Hikes years ago and I pulled it out the day before I left, looking to see if there were any hikes in Carmel and Monterey that would be worth checking out. I was so excited to find one called Sea Lion Point Trail that promises sightings of harbor seals and sea lions. The Traveling Hillbilly got that and so much more. The trail is located in Point Lobos State Reserve.

I pull into the park and stop to pay my $10 entrance fee and am met with a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic ranger. I ask about the sea lions and he pulls out a map shows me the trail and tells me about several other trails and points that are “movie set beautiful.” You could tell he truly loves his job and his passion and enthusiasm for the park and all it has to offer are infectious! I’m excited to hit the trails.

The park is much bigger than what I was originally thinking and there were a ton of trails. I actually wound up starting at Whaler’s Cove and hiked all along the coast, including the Allan Memorial Grove (another must see) before seeing the Sea Lion Cove. All in all it was only about a 5-6 mile trek but it had the most beautiful scenery the Traveling Hillbilly has ever seen. The ranger was correct, it was movie set beautiful, actually it was more than that. You are walking along the coast, high up on a cliff over-looking the ocean surrounded by rocks, mountains and trees. It is truly magnificent.

I saw Sea Lions way before I reached Sea Lion Cove. They were sunning themselves on rocks and in the quiet little coves all around the trail. They were fun to see. After being in awe of the sea lions everywhere, the Traveling Hillbilly suddenly turns and there’s a deer in the bushes, nibbling away. I was so amazed that a deer would be that close and it didn’t even make an attempt to run away. Turns out that wouldn’t be the first deer I’d see. They were everywhere and I guess they’re just used to people and don’t scamper away.

It was a very moving and emotional experience. It really made the Traveling Hillbilly stop and think about life and made me appreciate the beautiful country we are all lucky to live in.

Pictures coming soon!

After taking a whole roll of film and starting on another, it was time to head to Monterey. I was excited to see Monterey and to do the 17 mile drive, but how would I ever be able to top what I had just seen?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Traveling Hillbilly Drives the Coast

After all the years of living in Los Angeles, not once has the Traveling Hillbilly driven the scenic drive up the coast. It was about time! What a beautiful drive it is. Very long and winding road, but a must see.

The Traveling Hillbilly awoke very early on Thursday morning to start this magnificent journey and what a magnificent journey it’s been so far. As a lot of you know, the Traveling Hillbilly likes a glass a wine every now and then so after a few hours in the car, it was time for a little detour. If you’re going to drive north, why not take a few hours of the day to do a little wine tasting in Paso Robles? I’ve never had a bad wine from this region and often look for wines from Paso Robles when at a restaurant.

First stop, Robert Hall. Great wines and the Traveling Hillbilly must give a shout out to Tim from Robert Hall. He was so wonderful and fun and did not give one bad recommendation for other wineries to tour. Thanks Tim! The Traveling Hillbilly LOVED Four Vines. Every wine tasted was fabulous. It is must for anyone who likes wine. Summerwood was good as well.

The Traveling Hillbilly has always wanted to go wine tasting in this region and must go back when there’s more time to explore.

Tomorrow, a posting on the famous 17 mile drive!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cheap Trick and The Beatles?

Seems like an odd combination to me, but the minute I saw the email, I was intrigued. There it was an evening at the Hollywood Bowl entitled, Sgt. Pepper’s Revisited with Cheap Trick. Was Cheap Trick going to actually perform Beatles music? Or were they just going to be a special guest for the evening. Either way, the Traveling Hillbilly was up for it. I like Cheap Trick. I like the Beatles, so why not give it a shot? For those of you who live in Los Angeles, you know how magical a night at the Hollywood Bowl can be. For those of you don’t live in Los Angeles, imagine a night under the stars, a cool breeze blowing, sipping a lovely wine, as you listen to some great music. It truly is a nice evening.

Turns out it was Cheap Trick actually performing Beatle’s songs from the Sgt. Pepper’s album. There were several special guest, including Ian Ball, Simone (boy that girl’s got some pipes), Rob Laufer and Billy Corgan. The conductor, Edwin Outwater even sang back up at one point.

All in all it was one fantastic evening.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Final Thoughts, Observations and Learnings...

As I sit here at the Coffee Bean (my first Bean fix in 3 weeks if you can believe it) reflecting on this latest adventure, I’m having a difficult time deciding what to highlight from this magnificent journey. There’s just so much more to share with you. I never did a posting on the amazing show we saw in Bangkok. It was quite a production. There were elephants and goats on stage, people flying around and even a canal built into the stage. I mean someone actually dove into the water and it was neck deep. It was wild.

I also never blogged about the amazing 4-D show my friend and I went to at the aquarium. It was one of those IMXA films and was only 20 minutes long but it was really cool. It was called Monsters of the Deep. It was a 3-D film with the kind of chairs that move and jerk. It was like a ride at Universal. I screamed more than once. The funny thing was, right before it started this family of five walked in and the dad was telling one of the younger kids that it was going to be scary. He told his son; if you get too scared just take your 3-D glasses off for a minute. I kind of smiled to myself, thinking how scary can this be? Honestly, I had to take my glasses off twice doing the movie!

Okay, I know most of you don’t have hours on end to read this, so I’ll try and be brief. I said try. Here are some of the Traveling Hillbilly’s final random thoughts, observations and learnings.

1 - The Traveling Hillbilly has never met more gracious people than those of Thailand. They truly do inspire one to be a better person.

2 - True happiness really is all about perspective. It’s about being grateful and appreciative for what you have, not something we should always be searching for. The Thai people seem to be very happy in general, regardless of their financial situation or what material things they have. They seem to have a genuine appreciation for life itself.

3 – Everyone drives scooters and it’s amazing what you can do with a scooter. It was nothing to see an entire family on a scooter, often carrying dogs, groceries or any number of items. Folks make “taxis” (tuk-tuks) and food stands out of them. In both Thailand and Cambodia, scooters seem to be used like we would use a pick up truck here. It was crazy.

4 - The Traveling Hillbilly is always so relaxed and happy when traveling. I wish I could bottle that feeling and maintain it long after coming home.

5 – I think it would be more difficult to learn Thai than Chinese or Japanese. They have 44 letters in the alphabet and 24 of those are vowels! In my time there about the only word I learned to say was “Thank You” and it still took over a week to get it right!

6- There really is no shame in “serving.” Here in the states we seem to look down on jobs that seem to serve others. A lot of folks don’t want to “work for the man.” People strive to be their own boss. “It’s an honor to serve” is part of the Thai culture and my time there gave me a whole new perspective. I am truly inspired by the way they live their lives and what proud people they are.

7 – As a non-seafood eater, the food in Thailand and Cambodia is better than a lot of places in Asia, certainly better than the food the Traveling Hillbilly had in China (no chicken feet). It is however, a little blander than the Thai we typically have here. One of the things I love about Thai food is all the spices make it so flavorful here. However, they like it spicy, as in HOT, very HOT, so I think they tone the spices down a little for us. I have to say though, no McDonald’s for the Traveling Hillbilly on this trip! Did I ever mention there actually was no McDonald’s in Siem Reap? Can you believe it? There may actually be some folks who have never tried a Big Mac! Of course 10 minutes after arriving in Phuket, we saw a sign for a McDonald’s open 24 hours!

9 – I have never seen such HUGE jellyfish as the ones in Phang Na Bay. Forget about sea snakes, the jellyfish were reason enough to keep this hillbilly from jumping out of the kayak!

10 – There were not many American tourists in either Thailand or Cambodia. I guess the 18+ hour flight scares a lot of us off. Maybe that’s why there isn’t a McDonald’s on every street corner.

11 – I’d love to see more of Cambodia. My brief time there was amazing. Angkor Watt and some of the other temples there are truly sites to see. They are unlike anything the Traveling Hillbilly has seen before. Plus interestingly enough, the cars there have the driver’s side on the right just like in Thailand, but they actually drive on the same side of the road as we do. It was a little unnerving.

12 – As crowded as some of the streets were between the people, the scooters and cars (especially in Bangkok) you never really heard horns honking. Again, I think this goes back to the graciousness of the people. They just get along, don’t complain, aren’t in a rush. It’s all very civilized.

13 - 4 cities is just too much to try and do in only 15 days. In order to give yourself time to truly get to know and experience a city, you need at least 4-5 days there. You don't want to always be rushing to the next destination. You need time to kick back and relax. After all you are on vacation.

14 - Would I go back? I definitely want to go back to Cambodia. I think there is so much more there to see and experience. I would like to go back and see more of northern Thailand but as I mentioned before, I don't care to go back to Bangkok.

The Traveling Hillbilly has always loved to travel. There are no ‘to do” lists, no agendas, no stress. You get to meet amazing people, try new food and learn about new cultures. I always come back a better, more enriched person. This trip was no different.

Thanks for allowing me to share this amazing experience with you. I hope you enjoyed the journey and learned something along the way.

Now the big question is, where to next?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm Back

Yes The Traveling Hillbilly made it back home. Final thoughts and favorite pictures will be posted very soon.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Visiting Another World

I’m sitting on the beach, still amazed at what I saw today. I took a boat out to Phang Nga Bay, about 1 ½ hours outside of Phuket. There are these enormous limestone rock cliffs jutting from the water that create more than 100 small islands. Within these cliffs there are caves and chambers to explore. It’s truly a stunning site. I can’t even begin to describe the magnificence of what I saw today.

I hop in a Kayak and we begin exploring the islands and sea caves up close. The caves are so narrow and shallow in some places you actually have to lay down in the kayak to be able to get through. A couple of times, the Traveling Hillbilly got a little claustrophobic. It was almost like being in an MRI machine, but much cooler. It was so dark in some of the sea caves; you couldn’t see a thing without the flashlight. As we shined the light on the cave above, we could see hundreds of bats napping. I must admit, they are a little creepy. But it’s worth it, bats and all.

After passing through the caves, you come out into these amazing lagoons. I mean right in the middle of these huge rock cliffs are these serene, beautiful lagoons. You come out and are completely surrounded by the rocks. There are trees and all kinds of plant and wildlife. It’s like this whole other world inside. You can’t help but feel insignificant. It truly is breathtaking.

Aside from the bats, we saw these totally cool walking fish. They actually have little gill legs and they walk along the trees that are jutting up from the lagoon. They’re kind of lizard like, but they’re still fish. They glide through the top of the water. They were very interesting little critters. Luckily we didn’t see any sea snakes.

Who would have thought that one day the Traveling Hillbilly would be exploring bat infested sea caves, in a kayak, in Thailand? It does give one a new appreciation for nature and all the beauty that’s been created in this world. This was one memorable adventure for the Traveling Hillbilly. I can’t wait to share the photos with you.

This has been quite an adventure, but it's time to head home. One more day and then it’s back to LA.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Who Works out on Vacation?

I started the morning with a great stretch class. There’s just no better way to wake up. After the class, I do some weights and then it’s off to the pool to cool off and start a day of quiet relaxation.

I’ve been working out often on this trip. It started when I went for a run in Chiang Mai the second day of the trip. It’s great to run through the streets in the early morning before the city has really woken up. I had not been on a run in ages and it felt so good. I had my new ipod on and just wanted to keep running. All the hotels have had some great gyms and amazing swimming pools. The pools have been so inviting. After a long day of walking the hot streets, a quick dip in the pool is just what’s needed. A few laps in the morning are also a great way to wake up. It’s so invigorating and gets you ready for the day ahead. Considering all the food the Traveling Hillbilly has been eating, the work outs are much needed!

A lot of people are like, “working out, you’re on vacation, work out when you get home.” But I have to say, The Traveling Hillbilly loves to work out on vacation. There’s no time schedule, no rush to squeeze a class in before work or rushing through traffic to get to a class after work. It’s all on your own time, no stress, no worries. It gives me time to reflect on the experience so far and get excited about what still lies ahead. Why I can’t I live at this pace back at home? Why can’t I maintain this stress free state of mind? Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that during tomorrow morning’s workout.

The Traveling Hillbilly highly recommends vacation work outs. They truly are good for the mind, body and spirit.

The Sky Is Royal Blue

As sad as I was to leave Cambodia, I’m very excited for the relaxing days ahead. It’s been a busy trip so far and now it’s time to slow down just a bit. It was a long day of travel considering it was really only 2 hours of flight time! But after being in 3 airports, we gather our luggage, start the hour journey along the causeway and finally arrive at our final destination.

What a picturesque place. The sky is literally royal blue here. The water is sparkling and the grounds are a lush green, very tropical. It really looks like a picture that’s been doctored to make the colors seem brighter! It almost doesn’t seem real. My first thought is, I feel like I’m in Hawaii and the Traveling Hillbilly loves Hawaii! Aaaaahhhhhhhhhhh.

After checking in and being a given a welcome drink, I’m escorted to my room. As the desk clerk opens the door to the room, she mentions they’ve upgraded the room for me since I’m a club member. I step in and am like wow! They have provided me with a mini-suite with an amazing ocean view. I also discover I have a huge deck outside that overlooks the ocean on one side and the garden on the other. I could have a party on this deck it so big. This is the place to get the room upgrade! It is truly stunning. I feel like I’m in an oasis in the middle of the jungle. I’m instantly relaxed. Massage anyone?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Hard to Say Goodbye

I can’t believe my time in Cambodia is coming to an end! After a fully day of touring the temples in Siem Reap, it’s time to pack up and get ready for tomorrow morning’s flight. I will never be able to do justice to what we saw today. The temples for the most part are in complete ruins, but they are still amazing to see. The sheer size of what these people built is astounding. Most of the temples were never even finished because the kings who they were being built for generally died before they were completed. I spent the whole day in awe. A lot of the temples are surrounded by the jungle setting and one of them actually has trees growing right on top of it and even right through it. The jungle has just taken over, but somehow it adds to the splendor and mystic of it all. Angkor Watt is one of the Ancient Wonders of the World and is truly a site to behold. It is not to be missed by the well seasoned traveler. The Traveling Hillbilly was truly impressed. So far, Siem Reap has been the highlight of the trip. I can’t wait to post pictures for you all to see.

I really wish I had at least one more day here. There’s so much more to see. I’m very sad to leave Cambodia, but it’s time to head to Phuket. After several days of running around, a few days relaxing on the beach sounds great. I’ve been sick since day one so a day or two in the sun is just what the Traveling Hillbilly needs.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Even from the plane, it was beautiful

As the plane descended into Cambodia, I knew I would love it. From the muddy fields, to the green landscape, to the tiny little airport, Cambodia was exactly what I was hoping it would be. It sucks you in with its charm the moment you step off the plane. It's truly a beautiful place. After the craziness of Bangkok, the slower pace was exactly what the Traveling Hillbilly needed.

As we drive along the narrow road to the hotel, the street is filled with bicycles, scooters and even some chickens and cows. We definitely aren’t in Bangkok anymore. We pass a few road side markets with locals selling their farm goods and my heart aches just a little. I’m already wishing I had more time here.

After checking into the hotel, which is wonderful, we head in “to town” to check things out. It’s just a short tuk-tuk ride away. The town is filled with restaurants, bars, small shops and spas catering to the tourist. You can get an hour massage here for only $5 and surprisingly, they accept US dollars here. It’s going to be difficult to go home and pay $90+ for a massage at some spa.

We have dinner at the Red Piano, now famous since Angelina Jolie dined there while filming Tomb Raider II. It’s a quaint little restaurant (with red walls) on the corner and the food is great. We sit outside and watch the people go by. I’m amazed at how beautiful the women here are. I expected the Thai women to be beautiful, but wasn’t sure what to expect here, but they are stunning. The children are truly lovely too.

I can’t wait until tomorrow. The Traveling Hillbilly is really looking forward to seeing Angkor Watt!

Goodbye & Good Riddance

I really have to say I was not sorry to leave Bangkok. It was just a crazy, bustling and dirty city. The Traveling Hillbilly has been to a lot of places and of all the places I've been, I think Bangkok is my least favorite. I'm glad I went and got the chance to see it, but I really don't think I'd go back again just to visit. It just didn't seem to have much to offer. As for the the Shangri-La hotel it's totally over-rated! Look for a detailed review of the hotel soon.

Up next? Cambodia!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Wild & Crazy Night in Bangkok

So the big night was finally here. What to do in a city with so many options? Well how does a nice Italian dinner sound? I know Thai would have seemed much more appropriate considering my location, but hey you can only have so many Thai meals in a row. I mean when I’m home, I don’t have Mexican or Italian every day. So off we went to this Italian restaurant that came highly recommended by our hotel concierge, as well as, a British girl (who lived here a few years ago) we met on the Sky Train.

The recommendation proved to be a good one. Dinner was fabulous, plus they had a great wine list, a major selling point for the Traveling Hillbilly. After our dinner, it was off to see the nightlife. We walked over to the Banyan Tree hotel for a drink. The bar is outside on the 61st floor and offers stunning views of the city. It truly was beautiful. As some of you know, the Traveling Hillbilly is afraid of heights so when the wind started to pick up, I have to admit, this hillbilly got a little spooked. However, I still had a great time.

Then it was off to the Night Market, which is in the “red light” district of Bangkok. Now this is an interesting area but I won’t go into to detail. If you want the real scoop, post some questions on the guestbook and The Traveling Hillbilly will email you the real scoop. Luckily we didn’t encounter anything too seedy, aside from the names of some of the bars (many of which I don’t want to print on this blog). At least I can say I went.

Then it was off to The Dome at the top of the state tower, another place for great views of the city. It was actually on the 63rd floor! But it was a little more enclosed so there was not as much wind. Plus they had some great couches to lounge on. This is the place I mentioned that had an issue with “plastic bags.”

So it wasn't truly a wild and crazy night, but all in all, a great way to celebrate the big day. I had a fabulous dinner, drinks at two of the places offering the best views in the city, all spent in the company of good friends. This is truly one lucky hillbilly.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Snow Flurries in Bangkok

What better way to start a birthday celebration than a massage and facial? I tried the reflexology massage and it was still less only like $20 for both! It was so relaxing I think I actually fell asleep for a bit. At one point during the facial, there was suddenly very cool air on my face. It was like I was sitting right in front of an air conditioner. But then I realized there was no air blowing. It was very interesting and it took me a moment to find a way to describe it. It actually felt like little snow flurries on my face. I’m honestly not sure what it was, but given the heat and humidity here, it was a nice treat.

Other Random Thoughts & Observations

1-The lack of cell phones here. You seldom see cell phones being used here. It’s actually quite refreshing.
2-The smoke is not as bad here as I expected. For some reason, I thought everyone here would smoke, but that doesn’t seem to be there case. What a nice surprise.
3-The Thai people are truly lovely. The have amazing patience and are so sweet and gracious. It’s quite inspiring.
4-Jack Fruit – I finally found out the name of the fruit I love so much.
5-The cars are much bigger than expected. I mean there aren’t SUVs everywhere, but there aren’t a bunch of those tiny little cars you see everywhere except the United States. Plus I think Toyota must have at leas 70% market share. Toyota’s are everywhere.
6-Dogs are everywhere. There are so many homeless dogs roaming the streets of Thailand. It makes me want to bring them all home.
7-There’s an odd disparity in this city.
---Where else can you get an hour massage for $10 and pay $30 bucks for a glass of wine? A cheap wine at that.
---There is such pretentiousness here. Given the graciousness and sweetness of the people, it seems to go against the culture.
---I just can’t seem to figure out the dress code here. A lot of bars and restaurants have a “smart casual” dress code, but that seems to mean something different at everyplace. Given the culture, I would think they would be more formal and maybe even more modest, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Jeans, t-shirts and sneakers are okay, but opened toes shoes aren’t. Short skirts are okay, but no dressy/long shorts. A strapless dress or spaghetti strap dress is fine, but not a sleeveless shirt. There are things I would wear to work in LA that you can’t wear even in the hotel’s restaurant. I understand the code for temples and such, but I just can’t figure out from day to day what “smart casual” means. At one place, they told my friend they didn’t allow plastic bags in the bar. They gave her a free “paper” bag to put her stuff in. She just had plastic bag with some stuff from the drugstore. So it seems to be okay to look like a hooker or homeless person as long as you’re in a dress or jeans, closed toed shoes and aren’t carry a plastic bag. Odd. Odd. Odd.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bangkok Birthday

So I’m sitting here having breakfast and thinking, wow, today’s my birthday. Where does the time go? I remember being excited every year about what kind of cake I would get. I mean, my mom always made me a banana cake, my absolute favorite, but it was in the shape of something different every year. I think my absolute favorite was the panda bear cake. It was totally cool. It actually sat up so it was a tall and it had little brown paws and a little brown and white face. It was such a cool cake I didn’t want to cut into it. But hey, it was banana cake, so I got over that fast and dug in. There’s just nothing better than my mom’s banana cake. I think that was also the year, I got my snoopy electric toothbrush. What a birthday!

As a lot of you know, the Traveling Hillbilly LOVES birthdays. I think they are something to be celebrated and embraced, not be afraid of. I think this love of birthdays stems from my childhood. Birthdays were always such a special thing growing up. Whenever it was your birthday, the whole family got together to celebrate and you were made to feel so special that day. I have some great birthday memories, not just my own but those of other family members as well. Birthdays were always a good time.

So I sit here, excited that it is my birthday, but also a little sad. There will be no banana cake made lovingly by mom, no big family celebration. But don’t feel too bad for the Traveling Hillbilly. I mean I am in Bangkok after all. I’m sure the Traveling Hillbilly will find something exciting to do in this big city. Actually I’m hoping to go to The Dome tonight. It’s a restaurant and bar on top of the State Tower so it has amazing views of the city. Sounds like a great place to start the birthday celebration.

You know what? I just realized it’s actually only my Bangkok Birthday. It’s still 5pm on the 31st in Los Angeles. So due to the time difference, my real birthday won’t be until tomorrow here. Hhhhhmmmm, it seems like I may have to celebrate again tomorrow. The Traveling Hillbilly likes this idea of the 2 day birthday!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How's the Food & Other Quick Observations.

MJ wants to know how the food in Thailand is. It's awesome. After some pretty hairy experiences in China, I was a little nervous about the food here, but it's delicious. The cocktails are great too. Just tonight I had a Spicy Lip! It was chili-infused vodka, with lime and lemongrass. Hhhhmmmm. Who knew I even liked lemongrass? As a lot of you know, the Traveling Hillbilly likes cocktails straight up, not all those fancy sweet drinks that have become so popular, but there have been some interesting and spicy options here, so I just had to give them a try. Other random things to note:

1) The weather in Chiang Mai was perfect. It was like being in Hawaii.
2) The fruit is amazing! I don't normally like pineapple, but the pineapple here is great. Plus there's this one fruit that I have no idea what it is but it's delicious! I've had fruit everyday.
3) Traditional Thai massage? I highly recommend! The Traveling Hillbilly had the first one yesterday and it was fabulous. Clothing is a must when getting a real Thai massage. Given the great prices, it just may have to be a daily ritual. How can you beat a One Hour Thai Massage and 45 Minute Facial for under $30 US? And that's at a nice spa.
4) The Traveling Hillbilly actually went 2 days in Chiang Mai without seeing a McDonald's! Of course did see a Starbuck's the first day.
5) There are a lot less American tourist here, but a lot of German's, Aussie's and Brits. I guess the 18 hour flight scares a lot of Americans off.
6) As anticipated, it's much warmer and more humid in Bangkok. Plus I expect it will be more expensive. Oh and saw a McDonald's, a KFC and a Pizza Hut within an hour of arriving!
The Traveling Hillbilly just arrived in this bustling city today so more observations on this city to come.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Elephants & Tigers, Oh My!

As mentioned in the last posting, the Traveling Hillbilly went on an elephant trek through the jungle. Now I was excited by this idea, but figured the description was probably a little over-blown and that it would be pretty touristy. But this adventure totally exceeded the TravelingHillbilly's expectations! I mean we were literally on the back of elephant riding (albeit, very slowly) through the jungle. It was amazing. The path was basically a little stream that ran through the jungle. I can’t believe that thess big huge elephants make their way through this little stream, over rocks and logs so gracefully. Then just when I thought we were almost back at the elephant camp, we took a detour. The guide steered the elephant toward the river and we actually trekked through the river back to the camp. The whole time I was on this journey, I kept saying to myself, whoever would have thought that this hillbilly would be riding on the back of an elephant through the jungles of Thailand? It was truly awesome!

But the day was not over. After the magical elephant ride, it was time to raft down the river. Again this was in true Thai style. We had our little straw hats on just like you see on the folks in the rice paddies. And we actually floated down the river on a little bamboo raft. It was just poles of bamboo strung together. The Traveling Hillbilly felt just like Huckleberry Finn! As we floated down the river, we had several elephant sightings!

I know this all sounds very touristy but it felt like the Traveling Hillbilly was on an African safari. Okay, so there weren’t really any tigers, but it was truly a magical and very memorable experience.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Where did my weekend go?

Eighteen hours on a plane? Are you kidding me? Unfortunately, no the 18 hours is not a joke. The non-stop flight from LA to Bangkok is 17 hours and 53 minutes. The Traveling Hillbilly was in for a long and painful flight. With the long flight, plus the time difference, the odd thing was the Traveling Hillbilly left LA on a Friday night and got to Thailand and it was already Sunday. Where did my weekend go?

I have to admit though, the flight was not nearly as bad as anticipated. There were plenty of on- demand TV shows and movies to watch, as well as some really fun games. Plus Thai Airways kept us well fed and the service was excellent! I would highly recommend Thai Airways for any future travel plans to Asia.

After almost eighteen hours, we finally hit land again. Yeah! Unfortunately Bangkok was not the final destination for this first leg of the trip. After going through customs, which took all of 5 minutes, it was time to catch another plane to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is in the northern part of Thailand and is the 2nd largest city, next to Bangkok, although still much smaller than Bangkok.

We arrived yesterday, exhausted but truly excited about the adventures to come. The Traveling Hillbilly was very excited to arrive at the hotel, Rachamankha. It's a small boutique hotel and is true Thai style. It only has like 25 rooms and is set up in square with a beautiful courtyard and pool in the center. It's unlike any place this hillbilly has stayed before. As tempting as it was to just check in and go to sleep, we decided it was best to power through and spend the day sightseeing. We wanted to get on Thai time as soon as possible.

We walked around the old town area and down by the river. We wandered through several outdoor markets and finally stopped for a drink right on the river. With the long plane ride and all the walking, the legs finally gave out and we took a Singtao (basically a small covered pickup with the bench seats in the back) to get back to the hotel. We finally called it a night around 8pm. Boy did that bed feel good. The hillbilly was asleep about 10 minutes after the head hit the pillow.

The Traveling Hillbilly got up early this morning and decided to jump in the pool and do some laps. What a great way to start the morning. After a few laps, I met my friends for breakfast, which was actually excellent! After breakfast, we headed off on foot to see some temples. There are over 700 temples in this city, so there's no way to see them all.

After seeing a few temples, it started to rain. We decided it would be a good day to go over to see the new Mandarin Oriental hotel and have a drink. Since the Mandarin Oriental is on the complete opposite side of town, we hired a car/driver to show us around the city and take us over to the hotel. It cost us a whole $30 dollars for almost four hours! What a bargain.

We stopped at a silk factory, a silver factory and a pottery factory. All were very touristy places, but still great to see. As for the Mandarin Oriental, I can't even do it justice. People laughed when they were building the place. They thought there was no way such it would do well in Chiang Mai. But this Traveling Hillbilly was in awe! They did an amazing job on this place. You cross a moat to get into the place and they take you around the compound in a horse drawn carriage. It is truly over the top. It kind of reminded of Venice, Italy. Not that it looks anything like Venice, but when I was in Venice I kept thinking this seem like Disneyland. It is just so over the top, that you think it can't be real. It seems like a fantasy place created by Disney. That is how I felt about this hotel. You can't even call it a hotel. It's a world all it's own. I can't even begin to describe how beautiful it is. I'll post some pictures soon. I know they won't do it justice, but hope they'll give you some idea of how amazing the place is.

Tonight, it's off to the night market and some dinner along the river. Tomorrow is the big elephant safari and river rafting adventure. I'm very excited, but also nervous about tomorrow. As a lot of you know, this Traveling Hillbilly is afraid of heights. Now horseback riding is one thing, but riding on an elephant is quite another. Hopefully I'll have some interesting stories to share.

Stay tuned...