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).
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.
We had a blast in the capital of Australia's Northern Territory - at the free Museum and Art Gallery, the saltwater wave pool, Aquascene fish feed, and Crocosaurus Cove. We also especially loved eating at Hanuman, Parap Market and Magic Wok. Thanks again to DoubleTree by Hilton for an amazing finale to an epic three-week #DTour of a Lifetime!
You can't get any more classic-Australian than with a trip to Alice Springs. Our four busy days included touring the Desert Park with Doug, holding lizards and snakes at the Reptile Centre, visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuta, riding camels at Pyndan Camel Tracks, and swimming in waterholes at the West MacDonnell Ranges. Who knew the desert has so much to offer?
Apparently Cairns, a tropical Australian town sitting between two World Heritage sites, was built around a huge colony of fruit bats that refused to leave. That’s fine by us, because we love just about all animals. And as weird as it may be that there are mammals that can fly (basically rats with wings), we think they’re pretty cute. These particular guys are as large as cats and mostly live in a cluster of big trees right in the middle of the city. Every night around sunset, they slowly wake up and stretch, and then take flight in search of fruit to munch on. We were lucky enough to have an excellent view of the mass ascension from the 9th floor of the Hilton Hotel. And we were so captivated, we went back each night of our stay to witness the amazing event.
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.
Being able to watch hundreds of hot-air balloons unfolding, filling and lifting off into the sky is an experience I'll never forget. While we did capture some great photos of the event, I decided to throw together a quick video showing just how amazing it is in motion. I shot several short videos with Vine and then later edited them together on my iPhone (with the iMovie app). Let's just call it an experiment in phone video production. The video quality leaves much to be desired, but maybe that's a good thing; you'll just have to go experience Balloon Fiesta for yourself.
Two weeks with family on our favorite Caribbean island.
A couple of months ago, I heard DoubleTree by Hilton was asking for travel video submissions to their new online community, DTour. I jumped at the chance to participate. First off, I had already made a bunch of travel videos in my spare time and posted them on YouTube. Secondly, Kristen and I love Hilton hotels and DoubleTree will always have a special place in our hearts: we stayed at the Doubletree in Charlottesville, VA, the night before our wedding (in separate rooms, for tradition's sake). Oh, and there was some vague mention of a prize, to boot.
Here is one of the videos I submitted, from our trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam:
A month or so later, I found out that I was a finalist in a contest much bigger than I had expected. I could become one of six DTourists, to win a free trip to one of six continents, stay in DoubleTree hotels, make videos, post photos, and blog the whole way. To be considered, I had to answer a questionnaire and make a minute-long video, describing why I'd make a great DTourist. Here's my video submission:
A couple of weeks after that, while we were traveling in Puerto Rico with my whole family, I got on a phone call with DoubleTree, and they said I'd won! We were at lunch in Old San Juan, so we ordered champagne and celebrated! (See picture above.)
It wasn't until two weeks later that I found out where I'd be going. The big reveal happened during a live Google Hangout with all six winners, aka DTourists, the DoubleTree team and Julia Dimon. When they announced my trip would be to Australia, I was totally floored!
I'm super excited about setting foot in the Southern Hemisphere, but most of all I can't wait to see the wildlife. Kangaroos, koalas, wombats, platypuses, echidnas... this nation/island/continent sounds amazing.
Here's what I know about the trip so far: it's free, it's for 19 days in late January, and it will include stays in DoubleTree and Hilton hotels in Darwin, Alice Springs, Brisbane and (hopefully) Sydney. Plus, they've got a surfing lesson lined up for me in surfer's heaven - on the Gold Coast! The rest is up to me. I'm just beginning to do my research...
But, we all know that some of the best travel tips aren't published in books, they come from friends. So, if you have been to Australia, what are your favorite things to do there? Where should I go, who should I meet, and what should I eat? Please comment below. G'day, mate!
Disclosure: I am traveling to Australia as a DTourist on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton.
Two weeks in Japan - Tokyo, Kyoto and Yokohama. Best sushi of our lives.