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Travels of a Wine Blogger: Page 3

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March 8th – Darwin to Airlie Beach, on Whitsunday Island, Australia.

The New Guinea coast going through the Torres Strait

Leaving Darwin we sailed easterly along the north coast of Australia across the Arafura Sea, through the Torres Strait between New Guinea and Australia and into the Coral sea. Then on a southerly course we sailed inside the Great Barrier Reef through the Prince of Wales channel and continued south along the coast of Australia to our anchorage at the Whitsunday Islands. This four day sail gave us a real appreciation for the size of Australia…it was a two day sail from Darwin to the Strait and two more days sailing down the coast to Whitsunday Island.

The weather has become “picture-perfect” tropical with sunny days and lots of puffy clouds that occasionally produce a very brief shower, but the temperature is always in the mid 80’s, with light winds and glassy smooth seas. The smooth sailing and lazy walks on the deck produce a very relaxing environment.

Airlie Beach was a small town (population only about 4000 people) that has become a very popular sailing center and starting point for trips to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef. Everything was new and it had the image of a beach resort community. There was a very large man-made protected harbor packed with lots of serious looking sail boats and the hillsides were spotted with new modern homes overlooking the clear green water of the Coral Sea. We had a very leisurely day wondering up and down the main street and having local “XXXX” beer and pizza.

Airlie Beach nestled in the coastal mountains

Small beach in between the man groves

Although there was no comparison with Annapolis, the sailing at Airlie Beach did bring back memories and watching the boats healing in the brisk wind and sparkling sea really was nostalgic. We also found our first Australian wine shop…they call them “bottle shops” here and they carry both wine and hard liquor. The Airlie Beach bottle shop was tiny and had a very small selection of wines all of which were from the “big” Australian wine producers. But we did buy one bottle we will have for dinner en route to Brisbane and two that were on sale at two bottles for $20 (about $16 U.S.). Watch for our reviews of these samples at tastedonline.com. Were looking to Sidney for larger bottle shops hopefully with a big selections of Australian wines we can stock up on!!!

One sea day and we’ll be in Brisbane, and our side trip to largest koala sanctuary in the world.

March 3rd – Bitung, Indonesia to Darwin, Australia

Port of Darwin, Australia

We sailed out of Bitung with crowds waving goodbye and went south east through the Molukka Sea, than turned south and went between the islands of Seran and Buru, and sailed across the equator, the Banda Sea and the Timor Sea to the port of Darwin.

Darwin is the capital city of the Northern Territory, or the “Top End” as the locals say… and it’s remote even by Australian standards. We were told that Darwin was a pioneer outpost in the 1960’s and has grown to a city of more than 100,000 people. Looking at the port from the deck of the ship we could see new high rise buildings and a level of cleanliness that ‘s just like home. Because this was our first of seven ports in Australia we decided to jump right in and try to see some of the exotic wildlife only found in Australia. We joined a ship sponsored trip to the Territory Wildlife Park located about a one hour drive south of Darwin. And, it was a great introduction, we saw dingoes, kangaroos, nocturnal animals, birds of prey, exotic fish and took a walk through a monsoon forest. Because we were only here one day our sight seeing of Darwin itself was a quick drive-by in the bus going and coming from the Territory Park, but what we saw was a really nice low-density city with lots of green space. But, our lasting impression of Darwin was how remote it was…40-minutes out of the city and we were into the outback on the single southbound road to Melbourne… that was a 4 to 5-day drive away.

Check out the baby in the pouch

A nocturnal possum

An Australian eagle

A path through the monsoon forest

Darwin is only a short distance from the equator so it has a tropical climate and was REALLY hot and humid…our visit occurred at the end of the monsoon season so we got a good sample of what it would be like to live in this part of the world. But, in the end we had a great time and enjoyed Darwin and it’s friendly people very much. Were off again and have four sea days to get to our next port, the Whitsunday Islands just inside the Great Barrier Reef.

February 28th – Kota Kinabalu to Bitung, Indonesia

Leaving Kota Kinabalu we headed north-east around the top of Borneo then turned south and sailed across the Celebes Sea. Winding through the narrow straits we weaved between islands to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. We’re having warm temperatures, puffy white tropical-looking clouds in the distance and light winds all making for smooth very picturesque sailing.

Well after the disappointment of not finding a wild man on Borneo I can report he was waiting for us on the dock in Bitung. Although he was really just there for atmosphere, he was very in keeping with this remote picturesque jungle island. The town was pretty quiet even though it is a major Indonesian container port, so we went on a “jungle trek” that was really interesting and lots of fun. We went to a national nature reserve that was an area of jungle that borders the beach about two hours from Bitung. It really was only about 20 miles but the road was over the mountains, very curvy and one lane wide for two way traffic. We found the Indonesian jungle to be very interesting because it was so different from the Amazon jungle in Peru. We did see lots of black, tailless monkeys, Tasius Tarsiers, the worlds smallest primate, exotic birds and butterflies and very interesting flora. After our trek we explored a beautiful deserted black sand beach for a while, and although this island is known for it’s sea slugs, unfortunately we didn’t see any.

The city side view from the ship

From the other side of the ship we looked at Lembeth Island

A black tailless monkey

A nocturnal Tarsius that had his sleep disturbed

Fantastic buttress rooted trees

More vine than tree

Bitung was a VERY fun and interesting port and our memory about the port will always be how friendly all the people were. It looked like the whole town came to the dock to see and greet the passengers as the got off the ship. As we returned to the ship at the end of the day people were stopping us so they could take selfies of us with them in the photos…and as we sailed away it really looked like all the people in Bitung were on the dock waving good bye!!! After another two day sail we’ll slip into the southern hemisphere and be in Darwin, Australia.

February 24st – Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

Light breezes and calm seas in the South China Sea

We sailed out of Hong Kong harbor and went due south through the South China Sea, with the Philippines a couple of hundred miles off our left side. Almost as soon as we left Hong Kong the weather cleared up and we had sunny days with temperatures in the high 70’s and light breezes. It’s perfect smooth sailing out here in the South China Sea as we go past the much disputed islands that we frequently read about in the news.

With a very different mix of passenger nationality since leaving Hong Kong, life on the ship has dramatically changed again. Very few people are sitting in deck chairs or walking around the decks; you would never know there is a dress code in the evening and beer (right from the bottle) is now a common drink at meals. Since leaving Hong Kong the percent of UK passengers went from 35% to 26%, the Australians climbed from 20% to 57%, asians dropped from 20% to only 2% and the few U.S. passengers on board dropped from 5% to only 3%, and lots of people who have been with us for a while have said they are leaving the ship in Sidney so there’s probably another big nationality change ahead.

These young ladies greeted us on the Kota Kinabalu dock

As a child I was always told about the “wild man from Borneo” and the big pots he cooked people in on an open fire. Well if there is a wild man he now drives a new shiny car, speaks english and lives in a place with all the modern conveniences. Yes it’s hot and humid, and yes outside the city the vegetation is jungle-like, but aside from that it’s quite a well developed place. Excellent infrastructure, pretty clean and populated with smiling friendly people. In other words it’s much different than expected and quite a fun place to visit. We were traditional tourists here in Borneo and went to a wildlife park that is run by the government and had a great time with the animals; took in a botanical garden, that really amounted to a improved path through the jungle vegetation; and went to a heritage village and saw the Borneo life I use to hear about as a child.

Orangutan family

Vicky feeding a Borneo Pygmy Elephant

The path through the jungle vegetation

Exotic flora everywhere you looked

shops along the dock

Even a Borneo Dunkin Donuts

We don’t stay long at each port, but they sure are “eye-opening” experiences and we’re capturing the flavor of places we really know nothing about…and probably never would have visited unless we went on a decadent, care-free trip like this. In a couple of sea days we’ll be in the Bitung jungle.

February 21st – Sanya, China to Hong Kong

Crossing the overcast harbor in a ferry

For our one sea day from Sanya to Hong Kong we sailed due east out into the South China Sea, than made a 90o turn and went north right into the Hong Kong Harbor. Unfortunately the weather became overcast as we sailed and our two days in Hong Kong were overcast, with the temperature in the high 60’s, but no rain. We docked at the Kai Tak Terminal, which used to be the airport and now is really a pretty remote part of Kowloon…if there is such a thing. Cunard transported us by bus to the Ocean Terminal which was a jumping place and located next to the subway, bus and the Star Ferry Terminal where we could catch a boat to Hong Kong Island. The Ocean Terminal was a GIANT mall with all kinds of upscale stores and it was a real jaw-dropping experience walking around. We have never seen so many people in a mall, but the real shocker was the HUGE number of people jammed into the stores buying things…it looked like a “feeding frenzy” and I’d be surprised if there were any Rolex watches left in any store at the end of the day!!!

Armed with our Octopus Cards (a flash-pass that lets jump on the subway, bus or ferry) we went to Stanley and its famous market the first day. Located on the opposite side of the island than Hong Kong it’s a great ride over the mountain and a very picturesque harbor. The market is sort of a maze like tunnel with stalls on each side of the narrow walk-way. Once we figured out the wonderful exchange rate for the Hong Kong dollar we just couldn’t resist all the bargains. But, remembering we had to get everything in our suitcases when we leave the ship, our purchases were limited to squeezable and tiny items.

An old colonial building near the entrance to Stanley

Outdoor restaurants along the waterfront

Sure didn't look like Main Street to me!

Everybody has an Apple phone on a stick to take selfies

Botanical Garden

On our second day we hopped a ferry over to Hong Kong Island and visited the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. We enjoyed this area of the city when we were in Hong Kong a few years ago with Vicky’s brother and just had to go back. We got an early start and it was Sunday so we thought the crowds might light…but, we were wrong, it looked like every local with a small baby was there with the family. It was still fun to see this tropical paradise in the middle of the tallest buildings in the world and the people watching was great…brides were getting their photos taken, water-color artists were located at every vantage point and kids were soaking wet playing in the fountains.

The garden is on the side of the hill going up to the Peak and along the way is the bird house, a huge net covered side of the slope that is a mini tropical forest filled with birds. This too was a special treat to see again and we spent a couple of hours walking along the elevated walkways watching the birds.

The vast mixture of tropical plants in the bird house

A small bird that landed on the rail in front of me

Our last site was the buddhist nunnery in Kowloon. We jumped on the subway and eventually found our way to what is called the Hollywood Center, which has a very unique garden right across the street. Again there were lots of people, but the garden is so unusual and setting and maintenance so outstanding it is a garden everyone should see at least once in their life. This was our second visit to the garden and it probably was better this time simply because it was not so overwhelming and we could look more closely at the garden details.

There are whole bonsai forests of Podocarpus

A small pool next to a tea house

An Apple store build over a street

And one final snap-shot. On the way from the ferry terminal to the botanic garden in the early morning this is what the Apple store looked like, and when we came back in the late afternoon the picture looked just the same. It seemed like everyone in Hong Kong was using an Apple phone, but before seeing this I didn’t know what they went through to buy them…there must have been literally thousands of people waiting in line to make a purchase!!!

A great two-day port, no an OUTSTANDING port and now we have two sea days on our way to Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo.

February 19th – Phu My, Vietnam to Sanya, China

The tender landing pier at Sanya, China's southern most location

For our one sea day to Sanya we sailed north along the coast of Vietnam through the South China Sea to the island of Hainan, the body of land that encloses the Gulf of Tongking. Sanya is known as China’s tropical beach resort and that’s a pretty good description. Because there wasn’t a pier large enough for the ship we anchored out in the harbor and used the lifeboats to get passengers to and from the shore. The big attraction here in Sanya is the beaches, but it was overcast so we went into town and looked around the “upscale” mall. We saw most of the designer brands we have at home plus a lot of European brands we never see. No bargains though…Gucci watches were very close to what we would pay in any United States Gucci store. We did browse a very nice wine store and were floored by the prices. There was lots of inexpensive Australian wine we buy at home for around $10 that were selling for $20-40, but the real shocker was the Opus One priced at $850…Vicky said she was going to run home and buy a case it was such a bargain in California!!!

Today was the first day of the Chinese New Year celebration so everything was decorated with flowers or red lanterns and looked very festive. Sanya is referred to as the Hawaii of China, but I don’t think who ever said that first had been to Hawaii. There was quite a bit of new construction throughout the city but it still had the look of other Chinese cities, lots of traffic, lots of people and a general lack of maintenance to buildings that gives a warn look to the city.

One of the displays of potted plants in the terminal

New condos near the port

Wide beaches lined with palm trees

Typical street where parking covers the sidewalk

Cleaning up around potted plants at a new residential development

One sea day and we’ll be in Hong Kong and complete another leg of the world Cruise. We spent a couple of weeks in Hong Kong with Vicky’s brother three years ago so we have lots of destinations planned and are really looking forward to our two-day stay.

February 17th – Sihanoukville Cambodia to Phu My, Vietnam

We noticed there was quite a change in the ships passengers since we left Singapore. When we checked the difference between passengers getting on in Dubai and those getting on in Singapore was substantial. The Britts went from 75% down to only 35%; those from China went from 0% to 20%; those from Australia went from 3% to 20% and those from the United States rose from 4.5% to 5%. Although you might think this does not make a big difference but it really does. The deck and lounge chairs around the pool were jammed before the passenger change in Singapore, now they are empty. The noise level in the dinning room at night has doubled or even quadrupled and almost everyone takes the Cunard tours and does not venture out on their own. At the end of the day it really does not change what we do, but it really makes for interesting people watching!!! It appears a VERY LARGE number of both crew and passengers are going to leave in Hong Kong so it will be interesting to see what happens at that point…probably nothing we can imagine.

The port of Phu My on the Saigon river

We left Sihanoukville for a one sea day sail around the tip of Cambodia then turned north through the South China Sea to the port of Phu My. This was about two hours up the Saigon river, and about a two and a half hour drive to Ho Chi Minh City. Because there was nothing at this port we had a choice of going via bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or a bus to the city of Ba Ria (about 45-minutes from the port). Our choice was to get a flavor of Vietnam and just go to Ba Ria.

Our day in Vietnam was the eve of the Vietnamese New Year (Tet Nguyen Dan) which is the biggest and most popular festival of the year so things were jumping. Most stores were open and people were buying all kinds of things in preparation for the celebration. We were most taken by the number of yellow potted flowers that were being sold. Everything from bonsai plants to large pots of sunflowers were everywhere.

A large bonsai plant with yellow flowers

Ba Ria was a small city and the streets and sidewalks were packed with motor cycles and scooters. It was clearly the mode of transportation here in Vietnam. The interesting thing about the traffic was there were almost no traffic lights and no pedestrian cross walks. We were told to walk across the streets with a steady pace and not to stop or hesitate so the motor bikes could drive around us. It took a few crossings to get the courage to venture out into the street, but in the end it worked pretty well. The streets were wide and because there were so few cars not congested at all.

A main street in Ba Ria

Typical stores at ground level and housing above

Vietnam was definitely third-world and Vicky described it as just the way she remembers Mexico in the 1960’s…poor and dilapidated…but, it’s sort of exotic and much cleaner than India. Most development was along the main roads with rice patties in between the houses or buildings. As we arrived into port the Captain told us we were tied up to the container pier that was completed more than a year ago and that only one ship had unloaded containers since the facility was built., and that pretty much sums up the way things look.

A quiet side street

One of the nicer single family houses we saw

One sea day and were in the port of Sanya, China.

February 15th – Singapore to Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

We sailed around the southern tip of Singapore and then headed north across the Gulf of Thailand as we passing along the east coast of Malaysia. The weather is still clear, in the high 70’s-low 80’s with light winds.

We anchored about two miles from shore because of shallow water and used the life boats to shuttle the passengers from the ship to Sihanoukville. When we climbed ashore there was only a large parking lot and a few old warehouses in sight. Cunard had buses lined up to take us to the Sihanoukville Trade Center. I would describe it as a local open air market in a third world country. Locals were selling and buying all kinds of stuff including clothes, shoes, food and almost every kind of junk imaginable. The trade center was also the place for local guides with tuk-tuk’s to find customers for a tour to the beach or the local spot where you can see monkeys.

A street through the market

Fish drying in the sun

Store selling fresh fruit

A chicken ready to fight...or eat

Unusual fruit except for the Washington State apples

At the end of the day this was an interesting but pretty bleak port to visit and clearly it’s not on our list of places we would like to return too. One sea day and were in Phu My, Vietnam.

February 13th – Port Kelang to Singapore

Arriving in Singapore was a very different experience than any port so far. The cruse terminal was modern, clean and able to easily handle large numbers of departing and arriving passengers. In addition, the immigration and security moved without any delay and when you exited the terminal there were taxis right there under a roofed area. It really made us wonder why New York and South Hampton couldn’t be as well organized and pleasant.

Singapore was a special port for us; not only were we going to see the city for the first time, but we were also meeting an old friend Ray went to school with at the University of Pennsylvania. After meeting our friend we took a quick cab ride to the Marina Bay area, home to the new finacial center and famous three-towered hotel and casino with the “sky park” on top. We had a quick breakfast in a restaurant at the Gardens by the Bay, than took a short tour of the new, very extensive, garden complex near the port area.

Next we visited the Singapore Botanical Garden which was high on Vicky’s “must see” list since the beginning of our world adventure. This garden has everything from a virgin jungle to a collection of more than 3000 species of trees and shrubs and one of the largest orchid displays in the world. We had lunch in a restaurant located in the Ginger Garden, and of course the food was spiced with ginger. Our lunch was very delicious and accompanied with a “not bad” bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The wine prices were high, but we found the most shocking item on the wine list to be a bottle of Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot for 735 Singapore dollars (about $553)…a wine that is sold in the grocery stores in California for about $7.00!!!

The diversity of tropical plants was daunting

Lunch at a tea house in the Ginger Garden

Our friend also had made arrangements for us to meet Boo Chih Min, the author of Plants in Tropical Cities (possibly the definitive book on tropical plants) who give us a guided tour around the Garden. It was a real treat for us and made our visit to the garden even more enriching. Watch for elaborate posts on both the Gardens by the Bay and the Singapore Botanical Garden on KarenGardenTips.com in the near future.

We did have a short drive through the financial/shopping district of Singapore and in a nutshell were very impressed with how nice the city was, in both appearance and efficiency. Not an inexpensive place, but one we would come back to visit in a heartbeat.

In ending todays rambling, here’s a little tid-bit about the way Singaporeians value the plants in their botanical garden. On the $5 bill there is a picture of a old tree with a very distinctive low branch that rests on the ground. Our friend told us about this and when we walked by the tree in the Botanical Garden we immediately recognized it as the same tree with low branch. What does it say about people who put a picture of a tree on their money instead of their dead rulers or old government buildings???

Tree on the Singapore $5 bill

The same tree growing in the Botanical Garden

One sea day and were in the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

February 12th – Penang to Port Kelang, Malaysia.

Another overnight sail through the Malacca Strait and we docked in Port Kelang. This was really one of those ports that has nothing for tourists. Cunard had a long bus trip to Kuala Lumpur, but we took a shuttle bus into Port Kelang and looked around. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to see and since the bus dropped us off at a multi-story mall we wandered the mall for a short while. There were lots of American fast food and stores that sold everyday goods to the locals…just like our malls.

When we returned to the ship there was a full scale loading activity taking place. Cunard had a whole batch of containers lined up on the dock and fork-lift-trucks were moving pallets of cargo out of the containers and onto the ship. The alarming part of this picture was we were watching pallets of beer (in bottles and kegs) taken out of the containers and loaded on the ship. That evening our wine steward said they had take on new wines that day. Here in Port Kelang were just off the equator and it’s very hot and humid even in the shade, but inside one of those containers sitting in the hot sun it must be REALLY hot…I’m beginning to understand why we have not been getting good wine!!!

Unloading supplies for the ship from containers

Another overnight sail and we’ll be in Singapore tomorrow morning. We’re going to meet an old friend from our University of Pennsylvania days and are really looking forward to our visit. As a fringe benefit, he is a landscape architect and going to give us a guided tour of both the Gardens by the Bay and Singapore Botanical Garden.

February 11th – Phuket to Penang, Malaysia.

We lifted the anchor and sailed through the Malacca Strait and were at the dock before day brake. Penang is the second smallest state in Malaysia and the city of George Town, where we landed, is one of the most populous. This was one of those ports we thought was going to be a real bust with nothing of interest to see. Vicky did some research the day before to be sure we didn’t miss anything important for her worldcruiseportsblog.com post and discovered that there were several things we should put on our “to do” list and the best part was most of them were easy walking distance from the port.

Our first site was the Cheah Konsi. When the Chinese families who came here wanted to show off their wealth and power they constructed family compounds. One of the oldest was the Hokkien clan and the center piece of the property was their temple that was completed in the 1870’s

Entrance to the Hokkien clan property

Other clans built large complexes out on the water. Here they constructed long piers with small buildings off each side. The buildings were constructed on wooden poles that have now been converted to concrete piers to handle the large number of tourists that flock to the very picturesque stores,

A map of the jetty and buildings

Photo of the jetty compound in the past

The jetty compound today

The main walkway between buildings

One of the houses converted to a store

Another very interesting site, actually many sites, was art work on buildings. In 2009 the government held a competition for development of art in public spaces and the winner was a concept that included humorous illustrations in the form of iron rod sculptures that were installed against the city’s existing building walls. This was so successful that in 2012 the City commissioned an artist to paint a few murals, including the world-famous “kids On Bicycle” and since then many other artist have contributed to this street art

Close up of iron sculpture

Skippy the cat

Kids On Bicycle

And in the few minutes we stood by the Kids On Bicycle street art it was really interesting to see what happened. This is all taking pace on a little ally street and is all spontaneous.

Since the city started promoting this art work it has taken off and now lots of people are including some form of art on their building walls. Here’s one I thought was quite clever when I saw it.

And a couple of other Penang snap-shots of a mosque in the Indian sections of the city and the one-man power taxis.

Little India section of Penang

Penang taxi

Another overnight sail and were in Port .Kelang, Malaysia tomorrow.

Continued on Page 2