With Kristen still on maternity leave, we wanted to spend some time traveling, so with our two and a half month baby in tow and only our first Airbnb booked, we hopped on an overnight flight to Paris. The mission: see and eat as much as possible and get to Rome in two weeks time to fly home. We brought one baby carrier and no itinerary. We missed one of our trains and briefly lost all of our money (but don't worry, we took the next train, and, got all our money back).
We're not going to downplay it, 2014 was a big year for us; probably our best so far. We covered a lot of ground, with four beautiful weddings that enticed us across the country, a long-anticipated move to a new state, and more than one free hotel stay. Since we didn't blog about every trip, we thought another yearly roundup would allow us to share a little bit more of our travels. Here are our ten favorite places that we visited in 2014.
For over a year, the Duke City was our home, and we had a blast. We were lucky enough to experience the city in the midst of its transformation into a foodie (and drinkie?) destination in its own right. ABQ was recently rated the 4th best city for beer lovers in America, it boasts the sixth best hotel in the US for food lovers, Los Poblanos; and, its new weekly farmers market at The Rail Yards is impressive. It didn't hurt that we lived a 5-minute drive to prime hikes in the Sandia Foothills; we regularly wandered up there at sunset. If you're ever headed there, let us know. We've got a good list of musts!
9. Rhode Island
Both of us spent four years living in Providence during college, and this small New England city will always hold a special place in our hearts. We were only in town for a weekend, but we loved revisiting old haunts (Brown and RISD campuses, for starters) and exploring re-vamped parts of the downtown. The trip was even more special because it reunited us with many of Kristen's best friends from Brown for a stunning wedding out at Bristol overlooking the Narragansett Bay. We were even able to spend the last day around town with one of Loren's best friends from RISD. Providence, we love you.
8. Key West & Miami
Another wedding brought us to South Florida, where we surprised Kristen's mom on her 60th birthday, traveling incognito on a redeye from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale. After the big surprise, the whole family set off on a roadtrip down to Key West for our cousin's beautiful beachside wedding and sunset catamaran reception. Over the course of a few days in paradise, we had our fill of Cuban coffee (cortaditos, por favor!), Cuban sandwiches, and lots of fresh seafood. Just before flying out, we caught some cool street art in Miami, met up with a friend in Little Havana, and even got to South Beach to put our feet in the water.
7. New York City
We can't ever pass up an opportunity to visit New York, so when we found out that Loren's best friend from high school would be married in Brooklyn in May, we were stoked. Aside from fun wedding festivities, our trip also included amazing pizza at Roberta's, Momofuku Milkbar cookies and cereal milk soft serve, dinner at St. Anselm, a star-studded Broadway play at the Lyceum theater (Toni Colette, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei, in person!), and a late-night bacon-wrapped Crif dog.
To say that LA has grown on us would be an understatement. We have totally fallen in love with the amazing food, the artsy neighborhoods, and the near-perfect weather that the city offers. In April, we made it to LA to see one of our best friends get married beachside, and the next day was spent eating and drinking our way around town. After a caffeine boost at G&B Coffee in Grand Central Market, we wandered around Frank Gehry's shiny masterpiece Walt Disney Concert Hall and more of the downtown, which is in the midst of a revival. We shared a delicious lunch with a friend at Chego, and then capped off our day with boozy slushy drinks at the ultra-hip Ace Hotel.
6. Washington, DC
When Loren won free airfare for two and a four night stay at a centrally-located hotel in DC, we embraced a revisitation to the area in which we both grew up. We acted like tourists, riding Bikeshare all over town doing as many new things as possible. Highlights include the National Building Museum, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and lots of eating and drinking with longtime friends. We purposely aligned the visit with our third anniversary, so after checking out we headed to the Inn at Little Washington for the best meal of our lives, followed by camping in Shenandoah.
4. Utah/Arizona/Las Vegas
With two free night vouchers for any DoubleTree hotel, time to spare, and Loren's birthday as an excuse, we set off on an impromptu roadtrip with an end destination of the Tropicana Las Vegas. Our wild west adventure included first-time visits to Arches National Park, Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and Lake Powell, all of which are spectacularly gorgeous. We even got to visit one of our favorite national parks, Zion, and did one of our bucket-list hikes up to Angel's Landing, before cruising into Sin City for a reunion with most of Loren's family. Dinner at a fancy restaurant, a Cirque du Soleil show, a Blue Man Group show, and an afternoon at the Tropicana's poolside made for a fabulous way to ring in Loren's 31st year.
It turns out that Loren's many hours spent making travel videos weren't a complete waste of time. An international hotel brand, DoubleTree by Hilton, sponsored him to travel around Australia for three weeks in January to share videos, photos and blog posts along the way. Thankfully, Kristen was able to come along for the adventure. Throughout six cities, we cuddled koalas, scuba dived at the Great Barrier Reef, toured the Outback, and fed huge saltwater crocodiles. We loved the country so much, every once in a while we find ourselves searching for apartments Down Under.
2. New Zealand
Since we were going to be flying halfway around the globe to spend twenty itinerary-packed days "working" in Australia, a personal vacation to New Zealand was in order, so right after Melbourne we flew to Auckland, rented a car, and spent two weeks roadtripping throughout both islands, booking each night's hotel or hostel as we went along. It's difficult to express how utterly gorgeous the views are; almost everywhere you set your gaze, it's breathtakingly beautiful. Plus, the cities are full of craft coffee shops and delicious restaurants. Our last hoorah before flying out of Queenstown was bungee jumping off the third tallest jump in the world. (Watch the video if you haven't!)
And our number one place this year is...
After years of talking about it, we finally moved to Colorado! June marked the first time that we were able to unpack our belongings in two years. We're now situated in a cozy 1940's era duplex in one of Denver's best neighborhoods, West Washington Park, and could not be happier. It's been a busy six months of exploring the restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, libraries, galleries, and parks in Denver, not to mention scoping out good camping and hiking spots in the mountains. Now with winter upon us, we are eager to put our Epic passes to use and hit the slopes as much as possible. Life in Colorado is everything we wanted and more, which is why we are proud to put Colorado at the top of our 2014 list!
We hope you were able to get out and explore this year too! Wishing you a 2015 that's happy, heatlhy and filled with adventures!
Normally, I like traveling to new places, getting a taste of a different culture perhaps, or stepping into someone else's shoes. So when I found out that I had won another free trip, this time to Washington, DC, I couldn't help but laugh a little. DC isn't in any way new to Kristen and I: we both grew up in Northern Virginia, and then after college we lived just outside the city for several more years. But still, I couldn't turn down free airfare for two, a king-sized bed at the DoubleTree by Hilton, and four nights in a central DC location.
No matter how well you think you know a city, there is always more to discover. They're in a constant state of change. Rising chefs open new restaurants, galleries cycle through new exhibits, neighborhoods are revitalized. I was excited to put myself in the shoes of a tourist in a city I thought I had already figured out. What haven't I done here? Where haven't I been? My goal: do as many new things as I could think of, while minimizing my exposure to the familiar.
In true tourist fashion, we were without a car and completely reliant upon public transportation. Instead of taking the metro system to get around, we opted for the recently-installed Capital Bikeshare, which has tons of convenient locations all over the city. Riding right in the thick of it above ground, all the while getting exercise, was refreshing and arguably more fun than the alternatives. We rode all over town, visiting neighborhoods I'd never been to before, including the up-and-coming Southeast Waterfront. It was here, over numerous beers at the impressive new microbrewery Bluejacket, that I realized how much the city was changing and that visiting DC (or any city, for that matter) would never get old.
My long list of restaurants, ranging from classic to brand new, has continued growing even after we moved away from DC; this trip gave me the chance to start crossing them off. We finally popped into Old Ebbitt Grill, the city's oldest saloon and a place where 19th century presidents would go for a drink (it's a short walk from the White House). Newer ones like DGS Delicatessen, Daikaya, Le Diplomate and Doi Moi were walkable from our hotel and delivered memorable meals. One of the eateries high on our list was a new one we'd been hearing about called Rose's Luxury on Barracks Row. We ordered most of the menu with Kristen's parents and were floored at just about everything: the food, the service, and the space itself. It was pretty cool when a couple days later Bon Appetit named it the best new restaurant in the country. (Note: If you go, get in line before 4:45pm.)
A few times, though, we did slip back into our old ways. We couldn't help taking a look at the National Portrait Gallery's American Cool exhibit, and when we rode too close to the National Gallery of Art we were drawn in like bugs to a lightbulb to check out new exhibits for Wyeth, Cassatt and Degas. We didn't feel guilty at all wandering through part of their permanent collection, for old time's sake.
At the end of our stay, we ventured into rural Virginia to The Inn at Little Washington for our best anniversary dinner to date. Consistently rated as the top restaurant in the DC area, the Inn (which also has 25 rooms) serves up world-class, seasonal tasting menus that are surprising, delightful, and super duper tasty. We were by far the youngest patrons in the restaurant, probably owing to how rough it is on the budget, but we relished every bite throughout our four-hour meal.
By staying in a hotel and biking around (sometimes aimlessly), we were able to see the city from an outsider's perspective. Instead of a guidebook, we were armed with a personal list of things-to-do, and we managed to go to about 15 different restaurants, bars, museums, monuments and parks that we'd never seen before. Plus, we got to meet up with lots of friends and family along the way. It turns out, being a tourist in your hometown can be just as exciting as being a tourist elsewhere.
Australia has something for every palate, whether you’re an adventurous eater or a comfort seeker, a fine dining guru or a streetfood junkie. But with so many food options at hand, making the decision of where to eat can be daunting. Lucky for you, we've gone and done all the (delicious) work. So here is the list, in order, of our top 10 meals Down Under. Happy dining!
10. Little Creatures, Melbourne, Fitzroy
Walking into this warehouse-turned-eatery in Melbourne’s hippest neighborhood, it’s hard not to fall instantly in love. An impossibly expansive dining room, smart industrial-chic decor (we loved the palette tabletops and beer bottle chandeliers), and a wall of windows looking out to the street make this place a perfect spot to sit and ponder your next moves over a flight of their craft beers and delicious pizza.
9. Grill'd Healthy Burgers, Sydney, Darlinghurst
A glowing example of how to do fast food right, Grill’d caught our eye for its food philosophy, serving up the highest-quality local ingredients for their burgers. We absolutely loved the Darlinghurst location, with its vertical subway tiles and bold wall graphics. Since this chain has hit it big, they’re sprouting up locations all across Australia, so get out there and find one near you. We devoured the Baa Baa Burger (local grass-fed lamb, avocado, cheese, spicy mayo, lettuce, and tomato on a sourdough roll), which we would order again and again and again.
8. Nina's Ploy Thai, Sydney, North Bondi
Tucked on a side road just off the main drag in Bondi, this restaurant is as unassuming as they come: white walls and pink tables topped with tissue dispensers make it clear that this is a no-frills kind of place that is well off the tourist map. The hand-written Chef Suggestion chalkboard caught our eye as we were seated, so we ordered two dishes from it: drunk noodles and duck noodle soup. All it took was a whiff of our quickly delivered meal for us to realize why this restaurant is a favorite of locals: it’s totally authentic.
7. Overlanders Steakhouse, Alice Springs
This is the kind of place Outback Steakhouse is trying to emulate. Upon walking in, patrons are instantly transported back in time to Central Australia’s cattle driving cowboy days, with saddles lining the rafters and livestock hides displaying the region’s various branding logos. This is a classic outback saloon, serving up standard grilled proteins like beef and chicken, along with Aussie delicacies like kangaroo, emu, camel and crocodile. Get a flag of your country placed on your table and then order the sampler to try it all. Tip: go in the high season and be treated to a wobbleboard show.
6. Magic Wok, Darwin, CBD
Normally, create-your-own dish places seem more gimmicky than about the food. But when we heard about a place described as both an “experience” and “institution” on more than one occasion, we ditched our preconceptions. Where else can you get customized wok stir-fries with obscure Australian ingredients? A friendly waitress gives newcomers a rundown, and then the fun begins: assemble a tray of veggies and meats like crocodile, kangaroo, emu, camel and even horse; then, pick your sauces and pass it into the fiery kitchen. It turns out delicious no matter what you pick. Just don’t get too ambitious: you pay based on how much your wok weighs.
5. Mondo Organics, Brisbane, West End
Set in a quiet Brisbane neighborhood, this open-aire restaurant absolutely floored us. Australia’s first certified organic restaurant, Mondo Organics opened in 2000 and has built a name for itself using ingredients that, along with its namesake, are local, sustainable, and seasonal. The elegant-yet-casual interior is warm and inviting, with an upscale beachy feel owing to the large windows with wooden shutters. We dined on two home run dishes: pork belly and slow-roasted pork shoulder. Next time we’re in town, we’ll enroll in one of their cooking classes!
4. Parap Market, Darwin, Parap Village
A walk around the food vendors at the Parap Saturday market in Darwin is a trip. Passing by the dragon fruits, the bubbling curries, and fiery woks, you may begin to wonder if you somehow teleported to Southeast Asia. This buzzing market scene is exactly the stuff of our travel wishlists, and part of the reason why Darwin is known as the market capital of Australia. Try the laksa, a spicy Indonesian coconut noodle soup, by hopping into the line for Mary’s (it’s the longest one). Guaranteed bliss.
3. PUBLIC, Brisbane, CBD
A short walk from the Queen Street Mall, this sophisticated yet casual fine dining spot in the heart of the Central Business District is sure to wow. Truth be told, we found this place on a chance recommendation from a tweeting stranger based out of Brisbane. But we would keep coming back to this beautiful restaurant for the craft cocktails, friendly servers and clever menu. Anyone who’s heard of Kentucky-Fried Chicken must try the KFD (D as in Duck), for a poultry revelation. Our most memorable dish? Hands down, the “can o’ worms:” fried mealworms with bean sprouts tossed in soy sauce, served in a can and eaten ever-so-elegantly with chopsticks. Crunchy, salty and delicious!
2. MoVida Aqui, Melbourne, CBD
We thank the dining gods (and Frank Camorra, executive chef) for making MoVida more accessible, with restaurants scattered across Melbourne and Sydney. The bright and airy Aqui location is chic and adorable, with its smart design touches like bright plastic crates hanging over the bar and hand-drawn cartoonish illustrations of octopus and other ingredients, which give the otherwise ultra-modern space a playful touch. Start with the out-of-this-world delicious anchoa tapas: house-made crackers topped with anchovies and smoked tomato sorbet. Even after sharing three more spectacular courses (wallaby tartare, calamari sandwich, and braised beef), we were sure to save room for the flan, which was silky perfection.
1. Hanuman, Darwin, CBD
Neon purples, pinks and blues illuminate the dining room, a testament to the unique experience Hanuman is sure to offer every diner. Our interest was piqued as soon as we heard the food described as Thai-Indian, which sounded like a win-win to us. Eager to sample as much as possible, we ordered what seemed like the whole menu: butter chicken, coconut prawns, beef massaman and spicy eggplant, along with the mind-blowing must-try signature dish: lightly steamed oysters with lemongrass, basil, ginger, chili and fresh coriander, served in little clay pots. The unique bold flavors won our tastebuds over, but our above-and-beyond server, who helped us navigate the menu to create such a memorable meal, won our hearts.
We know there are many more amazing meals out there, so if you've been to Australia, where's your favorite place to eat? Let us know in the comments!
After the sponsored DTour to Australia, we had a choice: go home or keep traveling. We opted for the latter and found ourselves in New Zealand for an extra two weeks of adventures, this time all on our own. We flew into Auckland, rented a car, and set out to see as much as possible on both islands before catching a flight home out of Queenstown. Here's how our improvised roadtrip went down.
Narrowing down three weeks of Australian adventures into just ten favorites is not easy. We tried to make the most of our waking hours in Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, Alice Springs and Darwin, and could've easily made a Top 20. The trip was lavish (to us) and would’ve been a total splurge, but DoubleTree by Hilton provided my airfare (not Kristen’s), all accommodations, breakfast, and even a few special experiences like riding camels, surfing, and two fancy dinners. The rest of the itinerary was up to us, and we made sure to do as much as we could. So without further ado, here are our top ten favorite experiences from down under:
Though a cyclone offshore made for rough surfing conditions, we were in the surfing capital of the country, determined to catch some gnarly waves. We had been swept away by a limousine in Brisbane and dropped in Surfers Paradise (that's really the city's name) for a private lesson. Craig, our rad instructor, got us riding in no time, but towards the end I struggled to even stay upright in the choppy ocean. Afterwards, he gave us a lift to the main drag in the hip town, where we found some Aussie food, coffee and sunshine, glad to be back on stable ground. Hopefully next time we'll have better weather.
9. Bondi Beach
I almost included all of Sydney as one of these top ten experiences - that’s how much I loved the city. But to be fair I narrowed it down to Bondi, the hip beachy neighborhood rivaling Venice Beach in LA. We happened to arrive on a blustery day when the sandswept beach was nearly empty, so we paid a tiny fee and went for a swim in the saltwater pool right on the ocean at Bondi Icebergs, where the cold water actually made my wedding ring fall off. Thanks to a local who lent us goggles, we found the ring, recharged in the sauna, and then went for superb Thai food and gelato. Not only was it an epic day, we felt like we'd uncovered a hidden gem, and connected so well with locals that we started seriously considering a future in Sydney.
Not only is this place free, it's awesome. An art gallery and museum in one, it boasts gorgeous Northern Territory aboriginal art, an eerie exhibit about Cyclone Tracy (which destroyed tropical Darwin in 1974), and a fascinating room devoted to Australian wildlife and evolution. Besides the 5.1-meter-long stuffed saltwater crocodile, there are hundreds of preserved specimens like a box jellyfish, the most venomous creature known to science. Two hours was barely enough time to scratch the surface. Next time, we’ll spend a full day there, enjoying the illuminating exhibits while basking in the free air-con.
After meeting Ruby, the friendly and curious meter-long goanna lizard who freely roams around the Reptile Centre, our hearts were forever opened to the scaly but soft reptilian creatures. With dozens of fascinating lizards, geckos, and venomous snakes on display, it is an excellent place to learn about the hardy native animals that have somehow managed to adapt to the harsh Australian outback. Since our visit coincided with a 3:30pm show, we even got to handle a blue-tongued lizard, a scary but somehow cute olive python, and an adorable bearded dragon. When our time was up we really didn’t want to give "Beardie" back, and the thrill of holding a (rather large) snake for the first time had us feeling energized and empowered long after we left.
An easy two-hour train ride west of Sydney, the Blue Mountains are as accessible as they are beautiful. The area’s namesake hue, which exists because of eucalyptus oil droplets in the air, made for stunning views at every opportunity. Our escape from the city featured plenty of wandering hikes with glimpses of exotic birds and countless waterfalls. When we missed our evening train back to Sydney, aka the “big smoke,” while relaxing with a cold beer, we weren’t all that upset; we didn’t mind staying a little longer.
Words can’t describe how happy it made us to cuddle a koala like a baby, pet lounging kangaroos, and feed wild lorikeets. Among the other treasures in residence at Lone Pine: emu, cassowary, dingo, and wombat, just to name a few. And just when we thought we’d seen everything in the park, we stumbled into the platypus aquarium and stood mesmerized, watching the adorable duck-billed monotreme diving over and over to catch a prawn. Even though it's technically a sanctuary for animals, it's most certainly a haven for animal-lovers like us.
Learning about the vast history surrounding the iconic red monolith in the middle of the outback added a much deeper layer to our understanding of Australia, but nothing could prepare us for experiencing the powerful presence of these sacred rocks in person. Apart from their infamous beauty, Uluru and Kata Tjuta practically radiated with significance, having been woven into aboriginal culture for tens of thousands of years. Just being near the rocks felt more meaningful than any other place we’d experienced. Our favorite part of the day was sipping champagne and watching the sunset paint the classic rock in oranges, reds and purples.
Saltwater crocodiles, or "salties," are some of the largest and most dangerous creatures in Australia, and normally best avoided. But at this Darwin fixture, I was offered the rare chance to interact with these lethal giants. I got to hold a baby croc, feed juvenile crocs, and swim inches from a massive, full-grown croc named Chopper from the safety of the plexiglassed Cage of Death. And as if that weren't fun enough, they also have a menagerie of impressive fish and reptiles. We got to hold another (smaller and much cuter) snake, cradle another beardie, and witness a python eat a rat whole, which was weirdly captivating. Our time at Crocosaurus Cove was a total thrill ride start to finish.
Amid our day of touring gorgeous sights like Simpsons Gap, the Ochre Pits and Standley Chasm, we took relaxing dips in several stunning swimming holes in the West MacDonnell Ranges with our guide, Ben, and a group of six others. The recent summer downpours had transformed this part of the Red Centre into a green paradise, leaving the natural outdoor pools filled to the brim. We jumped in the water at three fantastic spots including the idyllic Ellery Creek Big Hole (pictured below). It was a casual day spent in good company, soaking in the many surprising splendors of the outback.
The most amazing experience in Australia, hands down, was our day exploring the world’s largest living organism. This was no park or sanctuary or aquarium - this was the real deal, a wild and colorful underwater wonderland that won't be around forever. On our full day aboard the Calypso, we snorkeled and then completed our first-ever scuba dive at the Great Barrier Reef. After descending a thick rope with our guide, Jenny, we spotted clownfish, sea turtles, and gigantic clams that flinched when we touched them. We even knelt down on a patch of sand ten meters down and passed around a slimy sea cucumber. Our minds were so blown that we paid extra for a second dive, just so we could do it all over again.
Those 21 days definitely lived up to a "DTour of a Lifetime,” and I can't thank DoubleTree enough for giving me (and by proxy, Kristen) such an amazing opportunity. The trip was jam-packed with adventures, and ultimately added up to one of the most unforgettable vacations of our whole lives.
On the twentieth and final day of my free (thanks DoubleTree by Hilton) trip around Australia, I found myself underwater and face-to-face with a deadly, 1,700-pound beast. Submerged in the ominously named Cage of Death, I was staring at the eyeball of Chopper, a 5.5-meter long, 80-something-year-old saltwater crocodile who lives in Darwin, Australia. Thankfully there was thick plexiglass between us, because he was hungry.
I was sent to the Crocosaurus Cove by DoubleTree by Hilton with an all-expenses paid visit. Even though it’s located in the heart of a city, upon walking through its doors, all of the nearby restaurants and bars suddenly seemed worlds away. There were massive crocs everywhere, including a movie star named Bert from the Crocodile Dundee movie.
To help set the mood, someone promptly thrust a baby croc into my hands. She was smooth and lightweight, probably about the length of my arm. With a rubber band around her little snout, I felt her surprising strength between my hands as she writhed for freedom. And this was just a baby. I could only imagine how powerful an adult must be.
From my clear, underwater cage, I watched the full-grown male inch over, calmly eyeing me with suspicion. When a bite of meat lured him above, he sprang up and chomped down hard with his massive teeth. Soon after, as I got hoisted out of the aquarium, he snapped his formidable jaws at my feet. He obviously had an appetite, and I doubted the taste of human flesh was a stranger to his palate.
After toweling off and changing back into my clothes, my expert guide led to me to a different saltie’s tank. Perched safely up above his habitat, a piece of beef heart dangling from my fishing pole, I waved meat in front of the giant beast’s head. When he felt like exerting an effort, up he sprang, chomping down hard with his massive teeth. Turns out, these deadly beasts have the strongest bite ever recorded in the animal kingdom. They lie and wait in rivers and near beaches, and when an animal ventures too close, their jaws take over. For especially strong opponents, they’ll clamp down tight and roll over and over until their prey is immobilized.
While Crocosaurus Cove specializes in a controlled danger, they also have a huge fish tank and feeding show, and an Australian reptile exhibit. Inside the darkened exhibit filled with lit-up terrariums, we got to hold (another) bearded dragon and blue-tongued skink, and for the first time ever we watched a python eat a rat whole, a process which took about 20 minutes start-to-finish. And no, it wasn’t behind glass - it was right on the floor in front of us.
We were getting hungry too, so with crocodiles still on our minds, we ventured a few blocks away to a unique hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Magic Wok, which offers a wide assortment of animal protein, salties included. We each tonged veggies and meats (like croc, kangaroo and emu) onto our trays, selected sauce and noodle cards, and handed them into the kitchen window. The cooks immediately went to work, using their hands and body weight to engage the ingredients in a kind of circular dance in and above the big, steaming woks. I’m almost certain you can’t go wrong at this place. Both of our random concoctions were absolutely delicious.
Full and happy, we started back to our hotel down the brightly-lit street. I couldn’t believe this was the final day of our whirlwind DTour around Australia. What a wild ride it was. It seemed appropriate to be ending it with a full immersion of all things crocodile. We had seen this country’s most venomous snakes, a deadly box jellyfish, and a huge cassowary capable of tearing open your chest. But the saltwater crocodile is the largest predator of the bunch. And aren’t you supposed to go big and then go home?
All around me, rocky orange cliffs towered toward the cyan-blue sky. Below me, fish were swimming in a higher-than-usual river. I couldn’t believe this was the middle of Australia. With a nickname like the Red Centre, I’d never imagined finding this much green in the desert. But here I was, in the heat of February’s summer sun, soaking in a lush paradise.
It was our last of four days in Alice Springs, and it was to be a busy one. The DoubleTree by Hilton had booked me a day trip into the West MacDonnell Ranges, followed immediately by a sunset camel ride with Pyndan Camel Tracks, which the rain had canceled days before. Waiting in the lobby at 7am with a friendly smile was Ben, our guide from Alice Wanderer (we’d later find out that this day was his first-ever solo guide). After our previous day’s time-regimented tour of Uluru, his casual style was welcome. At his emphatic urging, we ran back to the room to grab bathing suits and towels, not quite sure why we’d need them in the desert.
Three days earlier, while looking down from the plane at the “West Macs,” the ancient mountains that extend out from the city’s east and west sides, they looked like brown carpet wrinkles. Our initial impressions: not great. But on the ground and up close, they easily take on a majestic tone. And lucky for us, in the few short days since we had landed, the oft-dry Alice had received a whopping 40mm of rainfall.
Ben pulled the bus into a forested parking lot and the eight of us piled out and began hiking through green-ferned canyons and spring-fed creeks, craning our necks to look for rock wallabies. Fifteen minutes in, we stood inside Standley Chasm, a skyscraper-tall quartzite gap with a small creek at one end. The sunlight illuminated the walls like glowing terra cotta. I spotted a few frogs perched on tiny ledges above the water, reminders of this land’s ancient rainforest.
After a short bus ride, we arrived at Ellery Creek Big Hole, and finally changed into our “swimmers” before walking off down a path. The enormous outdoor pool was a genuine oasis, framed with cliffs on either side. “This isn’t even my favorite spot," Ben confessed plainly. We swam and waded lazily in the high water, wondering how it could get any better than this.
To get to nearby Glen Helen Gorge, we’d have to cross the Finke River. Normally, the slow trickle of the world's oldest river wouldn't pose any problems, but that day's calf-deep waters and wobbly rocks sought to test our determination. Once across, we laid out our towels and jumped in while black swans eyed us from a safe distance.
The local Arrernte people call these rippling ranges Yipirinya, for their resemblance to caterpillars caravanning in long, wavy lines. It’s easy to see why all of these cliffs, gorges, gaps and chasms have been so inviting for thousands of years. The ochre pits were plentiful sources for pigment. Many natural rocky alcoves became sacred gathering places. And the waterholes continue to be perfect for playtime.
By the time we arrived at Ormiston Gorge, our final swimming hole of the day (and our guide’s favorite), our excitement had still not faded. Pointing with his outstretched finger, Ben told us that down the river and around the bend was a magnificent view of the whole canyon. Being the only “adventurous types” in the group, we accepted the challenge and swam through the deep water. We had the entire sundrenched view to ourselves. We turned back reluctantly, and (per usual) we were the last ones back on the bus.
In the end, we made it to our camel ride just in time. Though camels aren’t native to Australia, they’re perfectly suited to the dry environment and have become a bit of a nuisance. In the 1920s, workers released thousands of them after the completion of the railroad, and today there are an estimated one million roaming Central Australia. After mounting the enormous animal and marching west against the darkening sky, the low mountains fading into dusk, I listened to the breeze rattling in the dry bushes. The greens and reds and blues slowly blended into night, and I soaked in the cool desert air.
I didn’t need to take off my shoes to enter these temples, though I did cover my head with a scarf to avoid the unforgiving summertime sun. “We’re going to power through the first kilometer,” warned our guide, brushing his horseshoe mustache before adding, “See you in the shade.” Ten minutes later, our group congregated at a platform overlooking a curved opening not unlike a cathedral’s apse, the walls painted with a waterfall that quietly dripped into the pool at its base. We were in the shadow of one of nature’s most grandiose creations.
The famous red monolith in the middle of Australia, known as Uluru, Ayers Rock, or simply “The Rock,” is the kind of ethereal place that people travel the world over to see. A stunning beauty, Uluru is a photographer’s dream, slicing unabashedly out of the otherwise flat desert landscape. It has become a symbol of the Australian Outback, representative of the land of dingoes (some of which eat babies), kangaroos, and ultra-venomous snakes. In short, we couldn’t miss this place.
Five hours seemed a meager pilgrimage, considering the trip from Alice Springs to the remote Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park took 3 days before the highways were built. We set out with Emu Run Tours on a bus with about 30 other eager tourists and two tireless guides, Tick and Mark.
“Over to your right, we’re coming up on a rare sight,” Tick remarked about 3 hours into the drive. The entire bus perked up, prepared for a glimpse. Tick and Mark had spent most of the journey teaching us about this vast territory and its humbling history. “If you look carefully, you’ll see an Australian Rubber Tree, with big black fruit hanging from its branches, distinguishable because it grows without foliage.” We rounded the bend and just then Tick burst into laughter. Rubber tires were strewn about a lone skeleton of a tree near the road. “Gotcha,” he said triumphantly. Cheeky Australians.
The park’s namesake behemoths, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, can be seen for miles in any direction, so it’s no wonder they became important meeting places for the Anangu, the group of aboriginal tribes who’ve lived here for over 30,000 years. Remarkably, the rocks also form the backbones of Anangu Creation Stories: in the absence of a written history, the natives use Uluru and Kata Tjuta as their physical records. Whereas organized religions have holy texts, the Anangu have these rocks. With their decipherable contours, the rocks are used as cues for recounting ancient stories that teach morals, social norms, cultural history, and even survival skills. Considering that the rocks are timeless, more permanent than any written words or man-made reminders of ancient stories, it’s a pretty ingenious system.
Staring at the simple shape of Uluru from afar, you’d never guess that this chunk of rock continues underground for kilometers. In fact, what we can see above ground is really just the tip of the iceberg. If you were to follow its underground geologic path twenty-five kilometers to the west, you’d arrive at Uluru’s lesser-known but just-as-sacred cousin, Kata Tjuta. To this day, the Anangu still use Kata Tjuta for their age-old rituals and ceremonies, during which times it is closed off to the public. A conglomerate sedimentary formation of 36 domes, its name means “many heads,” and it was borne out of the same uplifting process as Uluru some 500 million years ago. Though it’s not as iconic from a distance, it’s breathtakingly beautiful up close.
Red walls rose up on either side of me, plunging into the electric blue of the sky. The wind blew at my back, gently coaxing me deeper into Kata Tjuta’s Walpa Gorge. To my left, I could hear a stream that paralleled the path, hidden from view by bright green trees, bushes, and grasses, all guzzling from the stream’s lifeline of water. We took our time, stopping every few moments to snap photos, stare, and listen. Time slipped further away when we came upon a series of small ponds with tadpoles. They darted around just under the surface, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were in a desert.
A faint horn sounded, jolting us out of our inquisitive daze. Was that our bus, sounding the final notice before pulling away? Sprinting the whole rest of the way back, we jumped on with smiles of exasperated relief plastered onto our faces, gasping for air. We weren’t even late; apparently the bus horn is a prank the guides pull on the last to board the bus. “Told you they’d be running!” Tick hooted as we took our seats.
Though some affectionately refer to it as such, Uluru is no ordinary rock. Even just saying the word feels like the start of a sacred chant: OOH-loo-roo. Its name has no translation, adding to its mystical allure, and its immense cultural significance really sets it apart from the average mountain. In the days leading up to my Uluru trip, I was sure that I’d want to climb the controversial path that leads to its summit. As a climber, I love to interact with rocks, experiencing them at close range, accepting their challenges. But after all that I’d learned about this sacred place, my mind had changed. The fact that these formations continue to play critical roles in the preservation of the world’s oldest surviving culture warrants, I think, some heavy respect.
Fortunately, the decision was made for us that day, with the climb to the top closed off due to the sweltering February heat. Instead, we followed our guides around parts of Uluru’s base, peering at 17,000-year-old murals, gazing up at temporary waterfalls from the previous day’s rains, and entering alcoves so sacred that, out of respect, photography was prohibited. In the end, it didn’t feel like we’d missed out on anything.
With the sun loosening its grip on the day, temperatures dropped to a much more palatable 90 degrees for our final stop. Even amid the hordes of camera-wielding tourists that were arriving by the busload, it was a serene scene. We sipped on cool champagne and nibbled our picnic dinners as the sun began its spectacular light show. Uluru reflected every color on the spectrum between red and purple. As the sun lowered, features that resembled buttresses cast shadows in stripes across its length until eventually the sun dipped below the horizon, leaving in its wake fluorescent clouds that hovered to the west over the silhouette of Kata Tjuta.
As I gazed out at the impressive figures before they disappeared into the dark, I slipped off my sandals and dug my feet into the warm red sand for one last chance to get closer to this place that is the heart of a continent, the soul of a civilization.
Apparently, you don’t need to be certified to scuba dive in Australia. After a quick lesson aboard the “Calypso” and a standard sign-my-life-away waiver, I donned a full-body stinger suit and scuba gear for the first time. Then, beside the boat, I had a quick three-part safety test underwater with Jenny, our guide for the day. Though I didn’t ace the quiz, I passed. Down we went, three of us following her slowly into the depths along a thick, moored rope.
We couldn’t not try scuba; we were at the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest single structure made of living organisms. Totally bucket-list material. It’s a good thing we got the chance, too, because the fragile system is not going to be around forever. Some experts give it only another 50 years or so, which is why scientists are racing to photo-document its current extent. Though it’s shrinking every year, it’s still so big that it can be seen from space, and we were lucky enough to get a closer look.
About 7 meters down on a small patch of sand, Jenny motioned for us beginners to kneel down in a circle. She then picked up a sea cucumber and handed it to me. It was slimy and weird-looking, so after a quick inspection, I passed it down the line. A few minutes later, she led us to a giant clam about the size of checked luggage with a wavy gaping mouth, and motioned for us to each touch it gently. It flinched shut with a slight creaking sound when my finger grazed its lips.
The dive lasted only about 30 minutes, but it was so amazing, we couldn’t turn down another opportunity and decided to spring for a second dive at the next site ($50 each extra). That time, I was allowed to bring my GoPro camera. I reached a depth of 10.1 meters and saw more amazingness, like a clownfish (Nemo!), a sea turtle (Crush!), and a lot more otherworldly corals. Check it out:
On the ride back to shore, Kristen and I were a bit delirious with the things we’d witnessed deep in the Coral Sea. Full scuba certification might be in our future. And just maybe another visit to the reef.
Disclosure: My trip to Australia as a DTourist is sponsored by DoubleTree by Hilton.