No Golden Fetuses Were Used in the Making of this Non-Travel Post

Fun fact: my favorite travel buddy and I were supposed to be leaving for a long weekend in Singapore.

I’m sure it’s not as nice as the pictures make it out to be.

My travel agent/boyfriend had found a great deal on tickets to Singapore a couple of months ago. He, of course, jumped on it. We were supposed to leave Thursday night and fly back on Tuesday. Just a short little weekend jaunt halfway around the world.

But eventually we came to the decision that it wasn’t a good time or a great idea (especially since I’m still paying for my greatly reduced, but still substantial portion of the Australian-Thailand extravaganza), so we swallowed the cancellation fee and cancelled the tickets.

Koalas do not come free, let me tell you.

It turns out that it was a very good decision, for several reasons. For one thing, we’re ramping up the whole house-hunting thing. And by ramping up, I mean going from zero to intense. XFE does not fool around when he makes a decision. His absolute decisiveness is one of the things I really love about him and stands in stark contrast to my decision paralysis. (Paper or plastic? Can I have both? Red or white wine? What about a rose? Chicken or steak? Ummmm, which do you recommend? — Except for ranch dressing. Then the answer is always, always yes.)

Good thing we’re not house hunting in Singapore. From Bloomberg Businessweek:

Singapore should curb the increasing trend of so-called shoebox apartments because they are “almost inhuman,” CapitaLand Ltd. (CAPL) Chief Executive Officer Liew Mun Leong said.

Shoebox apartments? I love shoes, but I would not want to live in something referred to as a shoebox.

The government last week said it’s concerned that shoebox apartments are mushrooming in the city-state as private home sales surged to a three-year high with record purchases of units that are smaller than 50 square meters (538 square feet).

538 square feet??? That sounds like the efficiency I lived in when I was in college. I wouldn’t call it luxurious, but it’s hardly inhumane.

The island-state’s population growth, scarce land and surging property values have prompted developers to shrink apartment space. Home prices surged to a record at the end of 2011 in a city that’s about half the size of Los Angeles.

So, uh, how much are we talking here?

Developers sold 1,764 shoebox units in the first quarter, or 27 percent of all home sales, the most since the Urban Redevelopment Authority began collating the data in 2007. Apartments that cost less than S$750,000 ($587,000) made up 42 percent of new home sales in the first quarter, up from 25 percent in the previous three months, the data showed.

What the What?? $587,000 American?? Dang! That price is a crime against humanity. We need to get Amnesty International in on this.

The trend of shoebox units may not be unique to the city- state, said Pratik Burman Ray, an analyst at HSBC Holdings Plc in Singapore. Philippine developers have built homes smaller than 20 square meters, while those in Thailand and Indonesia are less than 35 square meters, he said. In Hong Kong, apartments smaller than 500 square feet house two or three people, he said.

Makes house-hunting in Alexandria seem like a freaking bargain.

The cancelled trip to Singapore made me a bit nostalgic about our recent vacations. Especially when I saw this item in the Wall Street Journal:

Australia is living up to its nickname of “the lucky country,” with a new survey marking it as the happiest industrialized nation in the world based on criteria such as jobs, income and health.

Yep, I would definitely agree with that. Just getting to go to Australia made me luckier than catching a drunk leprechaun holding a four leaf clover sitting on a pot of gold.

Having sidestepped the economic malaise gripping much of Europe and with near-full employment owing to a once-in-a-century resources boom, Australia has come out on top ahead of Norway and the U.S. in the annual Better Life Index compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Speaking of lucky, Lady Gaga is in Thailand as part of her world tour and she’s staying at perhaps the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at, the St. Regis Bangkok. According to fans on Twitter, she’s staying in the Royal Suite. I seriously can’t imagine it being much nicer than the Caroline Astor suite we stayed in when we were there. But whatever, if she feels like slumming it, that’s her deal.

I wore the exact same thing when we checked in to the St. Regis.

Gaga will be in Singapore June 3, so we would have just missed her. And you know how I love to hang out with my pop singers.

Perhaps the Royal Suite at the St. Regis is decorated with golden fetuses. From Huffington Post:

British citizen Chow Hok Kuen, 28, was arrested in Thailand on Friday after police found six fetal corpses in his luggage, according to the IndependentThe bodies, which belonged to fetuses between two and seven months old, had been roasted, and some were covered in gold leaf.

OK, what?? You roast cauliflower. You roast potatoes. Some places even roast chestnuts. You roast a lot of things, but you DO NOT roast fetuses. I don’t care how lucky that might be.

Me, with gold buddhas, in sepia. No golden fetuses though.

Thai police made the discovery after receiving a tip that a black magic services website was offering fetuses for sale, according to the New York Daily News. Roasting fetuses and covering them in gold is part of a black magic ritual called Kuman thong, which means “golden child” in Thai. The preserved bodies are thought to bring good fortune to the owner, according to the International Business Times.

Authorities believe that Chow was planning to smuggle the fetuses to his native Taiwan, where one corpse could sell for up to $200,000 Thai baht, or $6,376, WCVB reports.

Chow faces up to a year in prison on charges of hiding and covering dead bodies, according to CNN.

Investigators say it’s unclear where the fetuses came from, though forensic tests are currently being conducted on the bodies.

I mean, honestly. That’s some really, really weird crap, pardon my Italian.

Which brings me to my last travel update. This came in the mail today:

Here’s the story: We went to Milan as part of a 14-day trip to Northern Italy and Switzerland in March 2011. Milan was our first stop and was also where we got a horrible case of food poisoning from some salami. We were sick (seriously, seriously, disgustingly sick) for 10 days. That’s no exaggeration. 10. Days. Wave after wave of disgusting symptom and discomfort for 10. Whole. Days.

So not only was Milan terribly expensive. Not only did Milan try to poison and kill us. Now Milan wants us to pay a traffic ticket that we think comes out to around $133 dollars.

Look for us on the Interpol Most Wanted list because we are not paying that nonsense.

Milan, I am currently giving you the Italian backhanded brush under the chin.

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The Future Mr. Pickwick

Since we’ve gotten back from Australia, one of us (the male edition) won’t stop lobbying for a new pet. Seems my Outback-Jack-boyfriend-for-life, XFE is unsatisfied with the pet we currently house, feed and lavish with love.

No, he wants a new pet. A different pet. An entirely more exotic creature.

XFE wants a damn kangaroo. (And yes, before y’all ask, I did see the recent Millionaire Dollar Listing on Bravo featuring the young finance millionaire who couldn’t find a condo to buy in his $4 million price range that would allow him to keep his pet wallaby Inky.  I must say, it was pretty creepy seeing that dude walking around with the wallaby in a pouch.)

Yep, that's normal.

Being the super-awesome and supportive girlfriend I am, I immediately said, “absolutely not.” This seemed to fall on deaf ears, as the clamoring for a pet kangaroo only increased.

“Fine,” I thought, “I’ll show him. We don’t even have kangaroos in the U.S., so this argument will soon end, with me, as the winner.” (This was all mumbled to myself while fantasizing about the awesome victory lap I would soon be completing, finished with a Poe-patented I-Told-You-So-Dance.)

Except, I was wrong. There are lots of kangaroos for sale out there. Including, of course, a whole bunch of crazies in Texas selling them. I swear, you can literally buy anything in Texas. Looking for miniature zebu cattle to go with your wallaby? No problem, says Dr. Zoo Little of Munch Ranch near Athens. What about a camel or zebra? Sure thing, says Nueces River Ranch

(Although, upon further inspection, it does appear that this is a hunting ranch providing hunting animals, which is very, very troubling. Also: “We DO NOT ship outside of the USA or TX.” I’m confused, which is it? Texas or the U.S.? Nevermind, just….skip these guys. They’re stupid and they might be shooting at kangaroos.)

Who would shoot such a cutie? (sorry I don't want you to come live with me)

Anyway, once I surmised that you could in fact, despite all logic to the contrary, buy a damn kangaroo in the United States, I figured at least the law would be on my side. There’s no way you can legally own one of these things (outside of Texas, of course). Right? RIGHT??

Only, the law kinda wasn’t helping me out. I don’t know. It’s not really 100% clear. It’s one of those situations where they list a whole bunch of exotic pets that you would need a license or permit for but they don’t mention kangaroos, wallabies or even marsupials. Is this one of those loopholes where you can say, “Well, you never told me specifically that I COULDN’T have one, ERGO, I got one?”

Here’s an ambiguous “summary” of the Virginia laws:

Virginia

Category: Partial ban on private ownership of exotic animals – allows ownership of some exotic animals but precludes ownership of the animals listed.

Summary of Law: No person may possess nonnative exotic animals that are classed as predatory or undesirable as a “pet.” Nonnative exotic animals include, but are not limited to: bears, wolves, coyotes, weasels, badgers, hyenas, all species of non-domesticated cats, alligators, and crocodiles. Persons may possess these animals if they are a licensed exhibitor, i.e. commercial, educational or scientific uses. However, there are no state requirements for a person possessing non-human primates.

Citation: 4 VAC 15-30-1015-30-40

Ah, and therein lies the crux: “include, but are not limited to.”  Even reading the underlying citations, I couldn’t find anything that actually precluded owning a kangaroo.

Suddenly, XFE was feeling quite encouraged and was putting on his own special pair of I-Told-You-So-Dance shoes.

Not yet entirely ready to throw in the towel, I decided to contact one of these crazy sellers. I was certain that they would see where I was from (civilization) and refuse to sell me a kangaroo. I decided to contact Castleberry Safari because, well, it sounded like the fanciest, and most uptight, and therefore the most strictly official one of the bunch. People named Castleberry must be quite high-faulutin’ and not into risking their good name or business license selling pets to people that should even have them, right?

I explained via email on their website that I was interested in learning more about their fine selection of varmin, but I had some concerns about my own state’s licensing and permitting requirements. Would they, perchance, know if they could even legally sell me the mystical little creature?

Within seconds my inbox was inundated with kangaroo collateral from one Janice Castleberry, including tons of information on how to care for my future pet, a subscription to their newsletter (which appears to come out quite frequently), back issues of the newsletter going back to September, information on how to order a book written by Rocky Castleberry, and a pricing sheet, which informed me that to bring this new critter into my life would run about $1,700 for a boy and $3,500 for a girl. Also, that they ship COD through Delta and the cost is $235. (Can you really ship anything—let alone a kangaroo—COD anymore??)

Finally, Janice emailed me again with the information I had been originally seeking: “Check with your state’s Fish & Wildlife Department to see if they are allowed and if a permit is needed.”

Lord knows the Castleberry’s weren’t going to stop XFE from getting his stupid kangaroo. Which makes sense, honestly, since they are a business at the end of the day. XFE wasn’t even phased by the cost, loudly proclaiming that he’d wanted a boy the whole time (since Petunia is a girl and XFE hasn’t had much luck with her) and wasn’t that just a bargain that they were about half the price!

This was not going well.

Fine. I will indeed check with my state’s Fish and Wildlife Department. I looked all over their website and the only option seemed to be sending them an email in their general box. I guess whoever is in charge of checking that thing thought it was spam because despite leaving all of my contact information, I never heard back from anyone at the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Department.

Yep, that's XFE with his new pet wallaby. They look so happy, don't they?

I tried. I really, really tried. So state of Virginia, you really do have me over a barrel here. I’m trying to do the right thing here and NOT have an exotic, unnative pet hopping uninhibited around the tiny patio of my tiny row house in tiny, civilized Old Town Alexandria. We don’t even have grass for crying out loud! We don’t even have a banana pepper plant, thanks to vandals.

Not that I think kangaroos eat banana pepper plants, but they might. Maybe I need to get that Castleberry book after all.

Hotel Crashing: Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas

Last week, I talked about my favorite place that we stayed at in Australia. Today, I’m talking about my least favorite place. Actually, that’s a bit harsh. I didn’t dislike the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, but it definitely was not my vibe.

So let’s take a trip in the way-back time machine to our vacation to Australia, specifically, our time up north in Queensland, which is the equivalent of Australia’s Caribbean, very tropical, lots of sun, lots of rain.

The Sheraton Mirage is very much in the vein of Caribbean resorts. It totally reminded me of all-inclusives we’ve stayed at in Dominican Republic and Mexico – huge, multi-building properties set on lush, gorgeous grounds, acres of lagoon-like pools, with private access to pristine beaches.

However, staying at the Sheraton Mirage is like travelling back in time, to the 1980s, specifically. To a time where white wicker furniture was accented with peach and turquoise cushions featuring a tropical, palm pattern.

The place was massive. The lobby, which I think had recently been updated, was the size of an airport terminal. Huge. Like, we’re talking an echo huge. And it was never very busy, so I don’t know why it needed to be so large.

Welcome to the Jungle.

The desk staff when we arrived was very nice and courteous. No check in drama. (And I will say, the management responds to every comment onTripAdvisor, which is very impressive.)

We made our way to our upgraded room, which was miles from the front desk.

The room was ginormous. It had a patio and large windows with plantation shutters overlooking part of the lagoons. The 1980s design aesthetic was in full force. There was even a control panel by the bed that was fabulously 80s.

But the bathroom! Oh the bathroom. It was a marble temple dedicated to the God of 80s Excess. Gordon Gecko would have been quite comfortable in there.

We only stayed there for two nights and we really didn’t make use of the facilities. We were out early in the morning and back fairly late in the evening. We had our own car so we didn’t have to rely on the shuttle to go into downtown Port Douglas, so I can’t speak to how that works. We also didn’t really eat there (I think we had room service one night, but I don’t really remember it), but we did notice that the menu prices seemed really, really high.

Yep, that's a boom box.

It’s a nice resort, I suppose, if you just want to go somewhere and relax by the pool (you can’t go in the ocean most of the year because of jellyfish). We saw a lot of families and older people there, probably people who had been going there for years and years.

The deluxe mini bar set up. Yep, those are cheese AND crackers.

Oh, and speaking of older people, we noticed that there were warning signs on everything! Signs warning you how to use the tub, signs warning you about how to use the shutters, signs warning you about the weight of the doors. And, of course, a warning about ants. It was crazy.

It’s an interesting place. They’re definitely trying hard, but it’s just really old and dated.

Yep, those are fish. The carpet has a fish design.
A close up. Yep, still fish.

Hotel Crashing: Barossa Pavilions

It might have been breakfast with the kangaroos that made Barossa Pavilions my favorite place of all the places we stayed in Australia. But more likely, it was the light-up rubber ducky.

We approached Barossa Pavilions in the dark, after a long day of travelling and celebrity spotting. Since it was dark, we couldn’t really get a sense of how amazing the place (and the view) was. But we did get a sense of how great our pavilion was from the moment we walked in.

Barossa Pavilions consist of six separate freestanding little houses, well-spaced apart to guarantee absolute privacy and amazing and unobstructed panoramic views of the Barossa Ranges. They are located on 75 acres of stunning hillside near the town of Lyndoch, which is about an hour-and-a-half northeast of Adelaide.

It’s so private we never saw another person during the three nights we were there. Each pavilion is controlled by a keypad and an access code, so there’s no front desk or check in. The owners text you the access code on the day you arrive and you just drive up and park in front of your pavilion.

The location could not have been better. It never took us longer than 30 minutes to drive to any of the wineries we visited or back at the end of the day.

The pavilions themselves were adorable. They were very modern and minimalist, with a simple open floor plan and wall-to-wall windows running the entire length of the unit. They’re all the same (with some slight decorating differences) and are designed for couples (no kids allowed).

The owners really did think of everything. The well-decorated living room had a selection of DVDs, magazines and even an iPad. The sectional couch was very comfortable and cozy.

Each villa is totally equipped with a modern and well-stocked kitchen with just about everything you could possibly need, including breakfast provisions featuring local foods.

It had cereal, handmade muesli, locally baked wood oven bread, selection of spreads, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, bananas and pancake mix. In the fridge were champagne and orange juice, butter, free range eggs, double smoked bacon, cream and milk, yogurt. Seriously, it was more food than we could finish.

There was also fresh coffee beans for the slightly complicated and oh-so-fancy espresso coffee machine, a selection of fine leaf teas, homemade cookies, chocolate fudge and a very nice small bottle of local port.

The amazing deck ran the length of the pavilion and had a porch swing and a barbecue grill, which we made use of each night, rather than eating out. By this point, we were pretty sick of eating out every meal, and we really liked feeling like locals and going to the butcher, the baker or checking out all the mysterious items at the grocery store.

We’d pick up something each day on our way back to the pavilion, I’d sit on the porch swing, and XFE would get his grill master on. His lamb chops are better than anything at any restaurant anyway. Plus, it gave us the opportunity to enjoy one of the wines from the wineries we had gone to that day.

The front bathroom had a washer/dryer unit as well as a shower and L’Occitaine toiletries, while the back bathroom had a Jacuzzi tub, bubble bath, candles and matches, and even a rubber ducky.

The property was so peaceful, you really felt like no one else was around. We’d walk around in the evenings and look at the bazillions of stars.

And then there were the wild kangaroos.

We saw them two of the three mornings we were there. You’d see a group of them – usually 3-4 — (fun fact: a group of kangaroos is known as a mob) calmly munching away at the dry grass, rooting around with their forepaws. We would try not to startle them and go about our morning, but checking every few minutes to see if they really were there.

They’d eventually get full and look for a bit of shade where they’d collapse on their side before the heat got too much. They’d loll around, scratching their stomachs with their short arms. It was so indescribably awesome.

Between the amazing accommodations and the great kangaroo show, we really did have to pull ourselves away each day. By far one of the best places we’ve ever stayed.

Someone here in the Virginia wine country should really take note and replicate this type of accommodation. There’s way too much of what XFE and I call “Colonial Chintz Chic” in the accommodation choices up here.

And there’s not nearly enough wild kangaroos.

Can we just talk about how adorable these matches are? As a redhead, I thought they were the cutest things ever. I did not take them, however. Only the ducky. (Did I mention he lights up?)

 

 

You Fancy, Huh? Review of Thai Airlines First Class Service

Just in case you were wondering: first class on Thai Airways does not suck. No, actually, I’m even willing to go a step further and say it’s quite nice. Alright, alright, the truth is it was fantastic. Un-freaking-believable.

Oh, and for the record, in general, (and I say this with some expertise now) the first class experience on a foreign carrier overall is leaps and bounds nicer than on a U.S. carrier. Sorry, but it is true. I don’t care if I do cause some diplomatic incident here.

For example, the state of our first class lounges in the U.S. is a national embarrassment and I fully expect Congress to get on this issue immediately. They are a disgrace compared to our international cohorts.

Dear Congress, Do you know that I once spent a wonderful morning in the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul and I swear on all the Real Housewives that they had a mini-theater? Sure, it was showing some philharmonic something-or-other, followed by some nature stuff, but it was a mini-theater, none the less. There was also a pool table. And a hanging honeycomb in the breakfast buffet so you could slice your own pieces of wax and honey and slather them over delicious biscuits and butter. HONEYCOMBS HANGING FROM A STRING, people!

What do American first class lounges offer? Some sad little goldfish snacks and well drinks. (OK, they’re slightly better than that, but not by much.)

But even more delightful than that Turkish Airways lounge (did I mention the honeycomb?) was our experiences as first class passengers on Thai Airways.

Continue reading You Fancy, Huh? Review of Thai Airlines First Class Service

Getting It (Sorta) Done, Qantas Style

If you want something difficult to get done, let’s say, getting your child into a certain daycare facility or, maybe, getting to the bottom of an insurance bill, let me just offer up a suggestion — get someone at Qantas on it. No, seriously. These guys take care of difficult stuff, quickly and efficiently and very pleasantly.

This is a real Qantas employee. Doesn't she look nice?

Let me explain: So, after three days of wining and dining and lazing our way through the Barossa Valley, we reluctantly drove back to Adelaide to board a 7 pm flight back to Sydney. We planned to fly to Sydney the night before our 10 am flight to Bangkok so that we’d have one last night in Sydney and plenty of time to get up and make our way to the airport in the morning.

You probably see where this is going already, don’t you?

Yes, there was some rain and weather in Adelaide. And yes, our 7 pm flight to Sydney got cancelled. And, of course, there were no more flights out that night. All of us on the Sydney flight were told that we’d been put up in a hotel in Adelaide, given vouchers for meals and cabs, and been rebooked on a 7 am flight the next morning.

However, a 7 am flight would not work for us since we had a 10 am connection in international, and would need to pick up our luggage, recheck it, go through security in the international terminal, and be in the boarding area about 45 minutes before the flight.

We explained this to the lovely Qantas people in the business lounge at the Adelaide airport and not only did they deal with the other 100-plus passengers (most of whom were typical, laidback Australians about the whole thing – “no worries,” — but a few of whom were THOROUGHLY disgruntled and unpleasant), but the lovely Qantas people also worked their butts off getting us on an earlier 6 am flight.

And, Lisa (that was the manager on call in the lounge that night) checked through our two largest bags on through Sydney onto Thai Airlines, so we wouldn’t have to pick them up and recheck them. Just check in at Adelaide in the morning, give them our bags and we’d see them waiting at the carousel in Bangkok.

We finally left the airport around 9 pm to hightail it to the lovely Majestic Roof Garden Hotel (no St. Regis, but it was fine) for a night of one last bottle of Barossa wine purchased at the airport gift shop as it was closing (a Turkey Flat Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre blend), and a pretty bad lasagna ordered from room service, before getting up at 4 am to return to the airport.

Alas, Lisa’s efforts came to naught, although we do genuinely appreciate the effort.

"What am I supposed to do without my Kerastase?"

No, our primary luggage remained in Sydney for the two days we were in Bangkok. We’re not sure who is to blame (Qantas in Adelaide for thinking they could check it through? Qantas in Sydney for not paying attention to the international connection tags? Or Thai Airlines, who let us check on our two additional carry-on bags at the departure counter in Sydney, but seemed to have an awful lot of technical difficulties doing it, which makes us wonder if they did something to override the earlier bag check-ins?)

Luckily, we’d had the foresight to repack our smaller carry-on bags while at the Majestic in Adelaide. We both packed a couple of changes of clothes, our bathing suits and a few other essentials.

Things like my full-size hair products (which I desperately need all three of, and will defend them to my dying breath) had to be clawed from my frizzy-headed grasp and placed in the full size suitcases since we weren’t sure what the Thai-TSA-equivalent rules were exactly. If they weren’t all so damn expensive (including a curl cream I have to order from Canada – yes, I am spoilt and high-maintenance), I would have risked it. As it was, I just made sure I had some spare barrettes on hand.

Our bags did eventually catch up with us in Bangkok. Unfortunately, they were actually delivered around midnight of the morning we were departing. We had them brought up around 7 am, just so we could grab some clean clothes and my beloved hair products out of them, before hauling them right back to the airport.

So, while I started this post by saying that Qantas can do just about anything, I should say, they aren’t superhuman or anything. But they really do the best they can, and they’re very pleasant about it. I can say their customer service that night was way beyond what we’ve experienced in similar situations here in the U.S.

Now if Qantas could just find a way to let a poor girl carry on her full-sized, over-priced, difficult-to-replace hair products, I’d be their absolute biggest fan ever. I’d probably even get their logo tattooed on my ankle or something. It’s a pretty cute kangaroo.

Pink Mink and Rubber Duckies: Wine Tasting in the Barossa

After escaping death’s watery clutches, mastering the art of koala whispering, and rubbing elbows with popstars, there really was only one thing left to do: Drink a bunch of wine.

We headed to the Barossa Valley, a wine region in southern Australia. It’s kinda like Napa but without the crowds or the tasting fees.

Barossa is an hour drive from Adelaide and was settled in the mid-1800s by Europeans, mostly Germans and the British. Almost immediately, it seems, they began producing wine. Some of the vines at one winery (Langmeil, which also happened to be our favorite) are 169 years old, which is pretty crazy when you consider that after 20 years, vines start to produce smaller and smaller yields (something I learned during a tasting at our second favorite winery Turkey Flat – where our extremely attractive hostess claimed that they had the oldest vines. This would become a common theme throughout our visit).

The region is made up primarily of three communities – Angaston, Tanunda, and Nuriootpa (which is the Aboriginal word for “getting your swerve on with good wine.” Actually, that’s not a literal translation. It really means “meeting place.”  All three towns are relatively close together (within miles of each other) and there are tons of little communities dotted in between, including Bethany, which was one of the oldest settlements and had a lovely winery built into a rock quarry. It also claims to have the oldest vines in the region. Shocker.

The Barossa is visually stunning – lots of rolling hills and expansive vistas. It wasn’t at all crowded when we were there – generally there were a few other people at any particular tasting room, but nothing crazy.

Almost all of the tastings were fully inclusive, meaning you could try absolutely anything they had. Anything. It was crazy. A wine free-for-all. My wine-for-life-partner XFE and I shared tastings to keep the tipsy at bay, but the generosity of the pours overall made this a challenge.

The tastings were free almost everywhere, or $5, reimbursable with a purchase. And in the couple of cases where there was supposed to be a fee (for example, the wonderful Seppeltsfield Winery – which ALSO claims the oldest grapes!), the shopkeepers even waived that small fee because we were American and couldn’t really buy much to take with us.

(Seppeltsfield was very interesting because they specialize in fortified wine, which are things like sherry, port and tawny. What makes it fortified is the addition of a liquor, in this case brandy. I’ll tell you, I was learning stuff all over that valley.)

Even the big guys like Penfolds and Peter Lehmann didn’t have fees. These were the two largest, most commercial wineries we went to, and we actually bought a very, very nice bottle of wine at Penfolds to have with dinner that night, but we generally like to seek out the smaller, lesser-known wineries. Needless to say, we avoided Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass.

But the Barossa specialty is the Shiraz and I swear, we didn’t have a bad Shiraz the whole time we were there, including the sparkling Shiraz, which was wonderful.  They also have a popular blend GMS, which is Grenache, Mataro or Mouvedre, and Shiraz that I liked.

On the white front, they had some very interesting Rieslings, which were for the most part very dry. Not sweet, like the German versions. And, surprisingly (since it’s so popular here in Virginia) we tasted a few Viogniers. We also had some great, great roses, including the above mentioned Turkey Flat, and at a small winery called Rockford.

We went to 14 wineries over the course of two days, which seems like a lot, in retrospect. But we were generally out the door at 10 am and back by 5 pm, so they were pretty spread out. And, like I said, we did share tastings and we didn’t go through the whole list at each winery, instead, picking and choosing a few that we wanted to try.

Plus, we had nice long lunches each day, including lunch in Angaston twice at a place called Wanera Wine Bar. They had this octopus and chorizo dish that was to die for. XFE and I both shared a tapas sized portion the first day we went and then two days later, went back for the larger portions. Just thinking about it right now is making me crave it.

Mostly we stood around talking to the shopkeepers and winemakers, who were a very gracious and helpful bunch. I really did learn a lot. For example, at Whistler Wines, I learned that kangaroos like apples. That’s because the owner keeps kangaroos and gave us some sliced apples to take out there.

We bought a few wines, including a couple of wonderful Tawnys, one of which, Mr. Pickwick’s Particular Tawny from Saltram Wine Estates, which we had had during my birthday dinner at Ochre. We also bought a small bottle of Tawny from Langmeil.

But our best purchase had to be a lovely sparkling concoction we bought on our way home one night at a winery that was just down the street from where we were staying in Lyndoch.

Kellermeister Wines has quite a distinguished billboard – very understated and regal – that proclaims that its wines have received a whole bunch of stars from renowned Australian wine critic James Halliday. This is apparently quite the big deal, according to the very posh young man who was serving us that day. And, according to the Kellermeister website:

We’ve been quietly handcrafting Kellermeister wines in small batches at our boutique winery in the beautiful Barossa Valley for a long time now. But in true Aussie fashion, we’ve managed to keep just how exceptional the wines are pretty quiet. Well, until recently that is, when Australia’s leading authority on all things wine, James Halliday, spilled the beans in his definitive Australian Wine Companion.

James classified our winery with the highest possible winery rating – five bright red stars. This prestigious designation is only bestowed upon a handful of wineries across Australia in recognition of the consistent production of wines of “exemplary quality and typicity” – just the sort of wines that we’ve been making for over 30 years.

We tried a few of the Kellermeister wines, including, of course, the Shiraz, nodding and murmuring our appreciation, when two intriguingly named Moscatos caught our eye. “Could we try the Black Fire and the Pink Mink?” we asked.

It may not be from the oldest vines in the Barossa (although the label hasn’t changed since the 1970s), but that Pink Mink sure did taste good after dinner while we gazed out over the dark hills and impossibly starry skies from our uber large Jacuzzi bathtub, pink rubber ducky included.

Doing It Like a Dude Down Under

Hello kitty cats! I am back from my travels. But don’t worry, I have a backlog of posts to write about the trip, including some hotel crashing posts ranging from the uber-luxurious (St. Regis Bangkok) to the way-back-in-time machine that is the Sheraton Mirage in Port Douglas.

But first, did I ever tell you about the time I flew with an internationally recognized pop sensation, fan of heavy bangs, and judge on the new UK version of “the Voice”? No? Well, buckle up, buttercup.

We flew from Cairns to Melbourne on Quantas and connected to our flight to Adelaide on business class. Immediately after getting on the plane and stowing our stuff, I went to the bathroom. When I came out, business class was suddenly full. I squeezed into my seat and my co-celebrity-hunter-for-life, XFE, nudged me and mouthed “I think Jessie J is sitting in front of us.”

I mouthed “bullshit” and started craning my neck every-which-way to see if he was right, but all I could see was long black hair with hot pink tips and while that certainly is rock-n-roll, we all know that Jessie J sports a sharp black bob.

After some more silent, furious gesturing (“It is her!” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is.” “You think everyone with bangs is Jessie J.” “But this really is.”), we settled the issue via XFE’s phone: We searched for news stories on whether she’d been performing in Melbourne recently. She had. And the accompanying photo confirmed it: We were sitting directly behind Jessie J.

You could have knocked me down like a domino. (HA! See what I did there? Domino? Like her current hit song? I’m telling you, my humor kills in Australia. I’m a very big deal down there.)

She did eat during the flight, opting for the antipasta salad, which by all rights, should have been mine. They ran out before they got to me, thanks to her large entourage of about nine people.

The fabulous Miss J and her young, female seatmate perused the current issue of Cosmo and played with her very fancy camera, including recording a video blog as we were landing. (Which, by the way, aren’t we supposed to turn off electronic devices while taking off and landing? Tsk tsk. And while we’re on the subject, how in the heck did she get on a plane wearing a hoodie adorned with very sharp spikes on the cuffs? What? I can’t bring on more than 3 ounces of much-needed hair product, but pop stars can wear weapons capable of flattening car tires?)

I am positive that when the “Jessie J: Flight from Crazy Fans Sitting Behind Her” v-log finally makes its’ appearance on her website, you will hear me laughing-snorting in the background. I would not hold your breath though — she’s a bit behind on the v-logging: her last update was in January. (Yes, I did spend some time today checking out Jessie J’s official blog. I’m not proud of it. But it is very slick.)

I guess she doesn’t need the “money, money, money. Cha-ching, cha-ching. Ba-bling, ba-bling.” Again, see what I did? Lyrics from Jessie J’s first hit, Price Tag? Comedy gold, people.

Oh, and for the fashionista’s out there, in addition to the black and pink wig (she confided to me that it was a wig when I stood next to her to get an XFE-requested photo. This was after she spoke to and took photos with about six tween girls. So, for the scoreboard, that’s Jessie J fans under 40 asking for a photo: 6; Jessie J fans over 40 asking for a photo: 1.)

Back to the attires: so in addition to the wig, she was wearing high-waisted faded denim mom-jeans, the aforementioned black hoodie with spikes, red suede shoes (sort of like old Doc Martens), and a black fanny pack decorated with gold metallic dollar signs. And, as the ultimate accessory, she was carrying a hula hoop that she kept flinging through the airport and the baggage carousel on her way to her private car (one of her lackeys waited at the baggage carousel).

 

More Animals that Will Kill You in Australia

Having survived, and even, begrudgingly liked, scuba diving, we decided to further take out lives into our hands and rent a four-wheel drive to take up into the Daintree Rainforest.

Finally, a vehicle that does not make our bags seem too large.

We picked up our car in Cairns right after getting off the scuba diving boat and drove along a beautiful stretch of highway known as the James Cook Highway. On one side there was rainforest, on the other, the ocean.

We stopped in a charming seaside town called Palm Cove, which was full of resorts and restaurants, but wasn’t very busy this time of year. Interesting fact: they have to set up nets so people can swim in the ocean without being stung by these deadly box jellyfish, known as “boxies.” Needless to say, I did not go near the ocean.

After a quick snack and a fruity drink, we headed into Port Douglas.

The next morning, we went further north to catch a ferry across the Daintree River and explore the rainsforest. We drove through fields and fields of sugar cane, which is a primary industry around this part of Queensland.

Daintree is the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest, and a World Heritage area. It supposedly contains hundreds of rare and threatened animals species, including the musky rat-kangaroo and the southern cassowary, and supposedly 51 species of frogs, but we only saw this butterfly, which I think is a Ulysses butterfly.

We did, however, see signs warning us about roving cassowaries everywhere. Apparently, the signs are not endangered.

We took the truck up onto the Bloomfield track, an unpaved, gravel road for 4WDs.

We stopped a couple of places to get out and walk around in the rainforest. They had these “boardwalks” that cut through the forest and really gave you a sense of the scale of the place, which was massive. It really felt like Jurassic Park in there.

We stopped and had ice cream at the Daintree Ice Cream company, including a taste of wattleseed, durian, and black sapote ice creams. The ice creams are homemade and are made from fruit grown in the orchard on the property. The wattleseed tasted a bit like cappuccino, while the black sabate tasted like chocolate, and the durian tasted like banana bubblegum, if that makes sense.

Always a sucker for waterfalls (seriously, we’ll pull over on the side of the road to take  picture of water tumbling over any rock formation whatsoever), we went to Mossman’s Gorge, which is an area where the Mossman River tumbles over these massive granite boulders creating freshwater swimming holes.

Roadside waterfall.

After we’d had enough of being hot, sticky and damp (they don’t call it the rainforest for nothing), we headed back to Port Douglas and made our only mistake of the trip up till this point….eating at a place called the Central Hotel. Not only was the food just really bad (steak was overcooked and had to be sent back), it had taken an hour for it to come out in the first place.

Not exactly a high note to end our Northern Australia excursions on, but overall, we really liked Queensland. Even if the elusive cassowary never made an appearance.

And Then it was Time to Scuba

Despite my best efforts, we boarded a ship in Cairns and sped out to the Great Barrier Reef, to fling ourselves down into shark-infested waters and look at fishes.

And guess what? It was awesome, amazing, breath-taking (literally), awe-inspiring and exciting.

We boarded the SeaQuest on Wednesday morning.

It’s a big catamaran type ship that has a ton of people out for just a single day of diving, so right after the second dive, it turns into quite a party. It’s pretty manic overall, filled with hungover college students with varying degrees of experience. The crew, including dive director Katie, was amazing amidst the chaos.

After the second dive and lunch, a few of us transferred over to the OceanQuest, a larger ship, sporting some very luxurious accomodations.

Actually, as much as I make fun of it, you can believe I CRASHED out every night. And it suited me just fine.

Aboard the OceanQuest, we had 4-5 dives a day, including a morning dive at 6:30 am (dive briefing at 6 am) and a night-time dive (sharks included) at 7 pm. It added up to 11 dives over 3 days, which at the time sounded like a lot, but was manageable.

I did one night-time dive, but it was so dark, it felt like being in a cave. Since I’m claustrophobic and not interested in cave diving (which was also an option on our trip), one night-time dive was enough for me. I’m glad I tried it (with our awesome, yet incredibly young looking guide Frasier, which made me very nervous,) but I won’t be doing it again.

Sharks, in a frenzy off the back of our boat RIGHT before our nighttime dive, clamoring for Poe.

Most of our dives took place in the morning, when the light was very good and the fish were active. We usually started at around 18 meters (60 feet) and worked our way backwards, getting more shallow throughout the day.A lot of our dives were off Norman Reef, but we also went to Saxon Reef.

We generally went with guides, but also did a couple of very nice (and slighltly more shallow) solo buddy dives. We saw tons of everything, including loads of clown fish (such as the spiny cheek clown fish – only in the GBR, according to our guide Kaz), a few stingrays, some yellow devilfish (which swim upside down — also only in the GBR, according to Kaz).

We got very cuddly with a Humpheaded Maori Wrasse named Wally – seriously, he practically came home with us — and some friendly angel fish. We got less close to many, many reef sharks, which weren’t quite as scary as I’d built them up to be.

Jo, the exceptionally excellent dive director on board the OceanQuest, set us up with a camera the second and third day.She was so helpful and cheerful in every single situation, as was almost everyone aboard the OceanQuest. The only outlier was the cranky chef, who despite putting out crowd-pleasing grub, was very shy/cranky. Take your pick.

We took pictures and like many before and after us, I am supremely disappointed and don’t feel they even begin to capture the majesty we saw underwater. What the hell? Why can’t we get some better underwater cameras out there?

But, here you go, nevertheless. A few meager and inadequate glimpses into the unbelievable and undescribable Great Barrier Reef.

Giant clam, anyone? I prefer oysters.