Another Look at Sydney

With our responsibilities complete in Palm Cove, we bid farewell to homeowners Robert and Diane and took a three-hour flight to Sydney. Although we spent a few days in this city last year, both Stephen and I decided we needed a second look.  

We set aside two days to hike the Blue Mountains west of Sydney,

and then purchased tickets to attend a performance at the iconic opera house.

F277DE2A-7907-43F8-9A18-F24BD8C86B62Earlier in our travels we met Toby who captains a private yacht moored at Rushcutters Bay in the Sydney Harbor. He graciously gave us a tour of this well known yacht and then took us for a spin on a beautiful, sunny morning.

761F371C-E44E-450A-B34C-85D7180D26B2 It was an unforgettable experience.

We also happened upon the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations with festivals scattered throughout the city.  We attended boat races, ate lots of noodles and enjoyed the colorful decor.

 Finally,  we jumped on a small prop plane and headed for New Zealand where we prepared for some intense hiking.  Stephen and I are full to the brim with wonderful experiences.

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Life in the Tropics

Although we are not natives, Stephen and I have lived in Minnesota for 25 years. We call the Twin Cities home and are grateful that we could raise our children in such a wonderful place. Public schools are fantastic and the bike trails are the best in the country. Even with all that Minnesota has to offer, I admit that I’ve never fully embraced a Minnesota winter.  Skiing, ice fishing or any winter sport is just too cold for me.  The best I can do is cope with the deep freeze until the snow melts and then hope for an early spring.  Possibly a childhood in California robbed me of appreciating a true winter but at any rate, I’m always looking for a way to escape the Minnesota cold.  When an opportunity to house-sit in the Australian tropics was presented, we jumped and now that we’ve been here for a month, here’s what I’ve learned; I love the warmth and humidity that allows for walking outside anytime day or night without a coat.  I love the open-air restaurants with light ocean breezes creating the perfect air conditioner.  I love walking out my front door and picking passion fruit directly from the vine.  I love a daily dip in the pool for a quick cool down. Soft and smooth skin that requires no lotion is sublime.  Tropics life is less cumbersome… a pair of sandals and a bathing suit will do for most occasions.

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Psssion fruit vine at the end of the driveway

On the other hand…I’ve discovered some challenges of tropical living that rival those of cold temperature climates. It can rain for days with no breaks, leaving the streets and sidewalks overflowing with water.

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Soggy doggy

 Staying indoors is the best option with cyclone rains but after a while that stir crazy feeling begins to take over.  Torrential rains over the last five days have left us trapped and wondering if there’s such a thing as tropical cabin fever? With high humidity the laundry never quite dries, leaving the clothes feeling damp and clammy.  Ants love humidity and will parade across the kitchen lest you tightly secure all food in plastic containers. Sometimes the humidity is so oppressive that the only thing to do is take a nap. Snakes love the tropics.  Look what I nearly stepped on yesterday. Yep, I screamed!

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Extra-long scary snake

 This may be a case where literally the “grass is greener” but figuratively…not so much!  I’m not ready to face another Minnesota winter but the tropics with monsoonal rains, humidity and cyclones does present its own challenges.

Hello to all my Midwest friends and family… I’m  with you in spirit as you endure this winter of cold and colder.    

Great Barrier Reef

We knew a visit to Tropical North Queensland would not be complete without a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s the world’s largest coral reef with vast amounts of exotic fish and colorful marine life. Our first ten days in Palm Cove were spent acquainting ourselves with the area and recovering from a bad bout of food poisoning… presumably from an airplane meal.  Ugh.  We also had to learn the ropes of caring for a young puppy and protocol if a cyclone hits.  With all this behind us we finally had the perfect day to experience a day on the reef.

A bus collected us from our home in Palm Cove and drove us 25 miles south to the Cairns Marina.  From here we boarded a catamaran with other passengers and sailed 26 miles off the coast to Michaelmas Cay National Park.  It was a two-hour ride and rather bumpy but Stephen and I found seats on the deck with the wind at our back and a beautiful view.  A thirty minute orientation informed us of reef etiquette as well as hazards and then we received all gear necessary for a day of snorkeling.  Besides fins, mask and snorkel we were given a full-body Lycra suit to protect from stingers. The stingers are life threatening jelly fish that inhabit the tropical waters during the summer season.  We were glad to have the Lycra suit not only for sting protection but also from the strong UV rays.

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All suited up for a day of snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.

Stephen and I collected all our gear and were ready to explore as soon as the boat anchored.  We discovered it takes some coordination to maneuver with fins, snorkel and a mask but with trial and error we figured out a rhythm.  The beauty below the surface was astonishing.  There were fish of all colors and coral in every size and shape.  It was like swimming in a gigantic aquarium and every where we turned there was amazing beauty.  Fish, turtles, and coral were at our fingertips….we had a front row seat and it was a spectacular show. 

Our little condo in Palm Cove is just steps from the beach.

We walk along the shore several times per day with Carmen the nine month old puppy.  She is a bundle of energy and needs a LOT of potty breaks. Tropical living is a new experience.  We’re enjoying the warm weather, the daily rain showers and the beautiful sunrises. We’re also discovering a few drawbacks and heeding the warning signs posted up and down the beach.

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Jelly fish and crocodiles keep humans from swimming in the ocean

We haven’t set eyes on a crocodile yet and just like the grizzly bears… I’d prefer not to have a run-in with one of these critters.

 

 

All Things Luggage

In late October we wrapped up our house-sit in Ponte Vedra, Florida and returned to Minnesota to prepare for the holidays.  Along with prepping for Thanksgiving and Christmas we also began making arrangements for three house-sits starting in January 2019. Often we have our camper with us and we keep our clothes in a small chest of drawers stored in the backseat of the car.  When we arrive at a new house, we simply carry the chest of drawers inside and no unpacking is necessary.  With our upcoming house-sits we won’t have our vehicle or camper in tow.  We are heading to Australia again and Stephen and I each need a small and sturdy suitcase. Frayed zippers and shaky wheels describe our current luggage so with some reluctance we decided it was time for both of us to upgrade. 

For several weeks I have been obsessed with all things luggage, searching and reading multiple travel articles about the perfect carry-on suitcase. There are a plethora of options with reviews about brand, size and price.  Does a higher price equal a better quality product?  Is it really necessary to spend $450 on a small piece of luggage?  My head was swimming with too much information so I finally set four parameters and made the leap.  Here is the criteria I set for our luggage purchase:

  1. Must fit in the overhead bin 
  2. Must cost around $100
  3. Must weigh under 5.5 pounds
  4. Must receive at least four-stars on Amazon reviews

Even though we are not traveling in our teardrop camper we made the decision to continue traveling light. It takes some extra planning and forethought but we’ve pared our wardrobes to the basics.  With the criteria set we finally settled on the Travelpro Maxlite 5 Expandable Carryon Rollaboard suitcase . What a mouthful!  We have used our new purchase on the first leg of our trip from MSP to SFO and my first impression is positive. The weight was much lighter and lifting the suitcase to the overhead bin was less cumbersome. I will hold my full evaluation until we have a few trips under way and the luggage has been put to the full test. Can we really function for five months with just a carry-on suitcase?3F5DDB40-24BD-426E-99B6-632D137FBAF4

Check out the map below with three circled cities…this is where  we will be house-sitting in Australia. We depart in early January and our first stop is Cairns in Far North Queensland.  With some trepidation we chose to purchase a one-way ticket to allow for flexibility and more spontaneous travel.  We are packed and ready to explore.

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Stay tuned for news from the Great Barrier Reef.

Happy New Year

Southern Snack Food

When flight attendants pass out peanuts on the airplane I usually turn them down or give my bag to Stephen.  If I get a box of Cracker Jacks, I eat the caramel popcorn and ditch the peanuts.  And when Stephen buys a bag of peanuts at the ballpark he eats most of them…I’m just not a fan of peanuts.  While exploring the inner coastal waterway this week Stephen and I spotted a road sign advertising boiled peanuts. We were curious about this iconic southern snack but honestlyI was more interested in the photo opportunity than actually eating the peanuts.  The sign was at the edge of town as we drove into Amelia Island, a charming area north of Jacksonville.

The island is rich with history and quite picturesque with its antebellum architecture and grand estates.  The entire town oozed southern charm and the boiled peanut sign moved the charm factor up a notch.  We just had to pull off the road for a photo and maybe a small taste of this famous southern snack.  I learned from Wikipedia that peanuts are harvested in the fall and while most farmers send out their peanuts for roasting others take a portion of the raw or “green” legumes and boil them in salt water.  There is a specific window of time for eating fresh boiled peanuts and we hit the bullseye.   E2D95E75-E4D4-47B6-AC9A-8482F559757F As Stephen and I stepped from the car the woman behind the farm stand offered us a sample.  She said with a thick southern drawl that her peanuts had been boiling for twelve hours and were ready to eat.  With her handmade colander she dipped into the pot and strained out a dozen soggy brown peanuts with shells intact. She explained that boiled peanut etiquette requires that you suck the juice from the shell and then bite it open and dig out the peanuts with your teeth. The peanuts looked rather mushy but I was willing to give them a try.  I bit open the shell and sucked out the hot briny liquid and just like that…I was hooked. They were delicious!!  I loved the salty peanut flavored water while the first bite tasted like baked potatoes infused with butter.  I cracked open several more shells and immediately devoured the little morsels of salty goodness.  While Stephen wasn’t as enamored with the hot peanuts we agreed to buy a bag and I continued to shell and eat half the bag as we drove down the road.

I finished the bag for dinner and now I consider myself a boiled peanut convert. I think baseball parks and the airlines should offer both roasted and boiled.  As for Cracker Jacks…I’m not sure it would be a good idea.

 Here are some other things Stephen and I like about Florida:

-Key Lime pie from Publix grocery store

-Never having to put on a coat and shoes when taking the dog outside

-Beaches with beautiful scenery

 

 

Who is That Pushing a Stroller?

Our latest adventure has taken us to Jacksonville, Florida to care for a sweet Pug named Bella.28584845-2522-41B5-8B3A-7AC6EA1CE486  This dog loves riding in a stroller so yesterday the three of us toured the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine. While Stephen pushed the stroller,  I navigated around the crowds and Bella watched the people.  

When I last posted an update in mid-August we were still house sitting in Alberta Canada …let me rewind and fill in the details. We had a wonderful time in Canada and were sad to see the daily pet parade come to an end but with snow in the forecast it was time to get out of Drayton Valley. We also had a big event to attend in late September and wanted some time at home to prepare. We hoped to visit Glacier National Park en route but fires were still plaguing this area and the smoke was unbearable. Sadly we postponed until another year.

After a lot of discussion and weighing options we decided not to drag the Vistabule back to Minnesota but instead store it in Montana. With more travel in Australia this winter we calculated that it would be at least nine months before we could continue with our western state camping adventures.  It seemed easier to leave the Vistabule in Montana and then continue our travels from this point next year.  We had a challenge locating an indoor storage unit but after numerous phone calls and emails Stephen located a place in Three Forks, Montana and we put the Vistabule “to rest” until next year.

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The Vistabule in storage

We made it home in time for the big event I mentioned earlier and together with family and friends we had a wonderful day celebrating the wedding of our son Tim to Anneli.

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Tim and Anneli

Just after the wedding Stephen and I departed for Florida.  It was a big change to leave both the Vistabule and our car behind but timing required that we travel by plane.  Our house sit is in a 55+ community and we are enjoying all the amenities this place has to offer.  Golf carts are the best way to navigate around the community and activities at the clubhouse keep us occupied. D7E99D10-798B-4CE2-8D78-FD057E60CD48We look forward to exploring both Savannah, and Charleston….cities rich with history while we are here for the next three weeks.

Neither Stephen nor I have had much opportunity to push a baby stroller in the past 20 years (and never with a dog in the stroller) but we are both enjoying it….just sayin’

O Canada

I am embarrassed to admit how little I know of my Canadian neighbors.  I would be hard pressed to list all ten provinces let alone locate them on a map. Even though Minnesota shares a border with two provinces (Ontario and Manitoba), I’ve only crossed the line a handful of times and only for a short period.  Now that we’ve spent a few weeks in Canada,  Stephen and I are acclimating and learning all about our neighbors to the north.

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Drayton Valley, Alberta Canada

We are currently house sitting in Drayton Valley, Alberta a small town known for its oil reserves.  The population is 7,000 but fluctuates when the demand for oil surges.  Higher demand brings lucrative jobs and attracts workers from all parts of the country.  Four years ago during the oil boom this was a hopping town where it was impossible to find a hotel room and the unemployment rate was in the low single digits.  There are still oil rigs throughout the area that pump  24/7 but for now the boom has slowed and life in Drayton Valley is a bit quieter.

While house sitting we are responsible for the care of an 18-year-old dog and a big tabby cat.  Patch the dog is content to sleep most of the time but does insist on a walk everyday at the exact same time.  He has an amazing internal clock and when the clock strikes four Patch steps off his dog bed, stretches and then shakes his whole body while walking to the front door.  Time for the daily stroll!   No leash is required as he ambles four houses up the street, crosses the road, does his business and then returns home.  Gingy the cat who is usually out hunting for mice appears for this walk and accompanies Patch.  They spend ten minutes together on the daily ritual and then the dog returns to bed while the cat does cat things.   We call it the four o’clock pet parade.

Edmonton, which is 85 miles east, is the closest big city to Drayton Valley.  With the population at more than a million,  it is a bustling place.  We spent a few days exploring and searching for typical Canadian food.  The cuisine is not much different than ours  but we had to try the coffee and timbits at Tim Horton’s as well as poutine…French fries drowned in gravy and cheese curds.  

After all this food we walked the city and discovered a beautiful skyline with the Saskatchewan river running though the center.

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Edmonton skyline

Although we did have to show our passports at the border sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m not in the U.S.  Many retailers are the same and fortunately Canadians drive on the right.  The currency is different but I have yet to touch any paper money or coins. It’s easier to use a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Alberta.  Our hosts Dieter and Antoinette have welcomed us and made us feel at home. They are also seasoned travelers and have suggested several new places for us to explore.  Our world is expanding and we can’t wait to see what comes next.  

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Peak

On our final day in Banff we hiked up the Larch Valley to see the famous Larch Pines that turn brilliant yellow in autumn.  At the start of the trail Stephen and I encountered an older gentlemen in full hiking gear and we struck up a conversation.  Gary is a 76-year-old retired car salesman and a local. He loves to hike and was delighted to be back on this trail after a two-year hiatus while caring for his late wife. He gave us some history of the area and then we parted ways as his pace was slower and he did not want to hold us up.  An hour later we reached the valley floor and marveled at the pines that were just barely showing a tinge of yellow.  Stephen and I both commented that the yellow glow in fall would be amazing. (Maybe a return trip is necessary.)

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Larch Pines and unintentional matching blue shirts

 Just as we were ready to make our descent, we spied Gary coming around the bend and he encouraged us to hike another mile to the base of Sentinel Pass.  He promised the  scenery would be worth the effort so for a second time we said goodbye and carried on.

 Gary was right, the scenery was wonderful as we passed by glacier fed lakes and then climbed above tree line.  In the mountain before us we could see a Z pattern and it slowly dawned on us that this was the trail to the top of Sentinel Pass.

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Z trail carved into the mountain

It was a LONG way to the top and if we squinted we could see tiny humans at the peak. Stephen and I looked at each other and said  “WE ARE NOT CLIMBING TO THE TOP…NO WAY!”  Once again Gary showed up and encouraged us to traverse to the top.  Fortunately we had a good excuse.  “Um, we didn’t plan for a long hike and both our water bottles are empty.”   I was relieved that we could gracefully back out of this difficult hike.  Gary then opened his backpack and declared  “I brought an extra water bottle and it would be helpful if you could relieve me of the additional weight.”   He promised that the view was superb and the climb only appeared difficult.  With our water bottles refilled, we said goodbye to Gary for a third time and promised to see him at the top.  It took both physical energy and mental fortitude to keep us on the trail….we put one foot in front of the other and slowly climbed toward the peak.  As we made our final steps the 360-degree view was stunning. It was a relief to sit at the top and simply rest.

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Sentinel Pass….made it to the top!

Gary commented earlier in the day that this may be his last time climbing this mountain so I was happy to see him arrive just a few minutes after us. I had my camera ready and was able to document his arrival.  For all of us it was a memorable day.  5E3B88B5-8438-4EE1-8DE4-965E1B9DB8DC Our short three-mile hike turned into eight miles but we’d never trade the experience or the opportunity to meet Gary and learn of his hiking expertise and persuasion skills.

Our trip to Jasper was rainy and shrouded in smoke from the western fires.  We didn’t have much time to hike but the wildlife viewing was abundant.  I spotted two bears from the safety of our car.  No bear spray needed!

7439819E-037A-4F96-96DF-C29131B3596BWe are arrived at our house-sit in Alberta earlier this week and the Vistabule is stored in the garage for a few weeks. More about this experience next time.

The Crown Jewel of Canada

While traveling this summer we’ve adopted an early to bed, early to rise lifestyle.  It’s not our preference but the popular parks like Yellowstone and Banff require a different strategy to avoid crowds and traffic jams.  This means we prepare and pack our breakfast and lunch the night before and leave only one task for dawn; brewing a pot of coffee and transferring it to portable mugs.  We are usually on the road by 6:30 am.

When we arrived in Banff on a holiday weekend after a long day of travel, there were enormous crowds and endless lines of cars. img_8037-1

I was travel weary and not in the mood to tour but Stephen stayed strong and pushed me through the low moment.  After a good nights sleep and a 5:30 am wake up call, we drove 30 miles up the mountain towards the renowned Lake Louise.  The Trans-Canada highway was busy and all cars were headed in the same direction. We were elated to secure a coveted parking spot and then finally relax knowing we had the rest of the day to explore.  It was just 7:00 am.  

Before donning our backpacks and hiking gear we decided to scope out the area and collect hiking maps. We walked across the lot full of cars, down a long tree-lined path with streams of people carrying all sorts of camera equipment.  The crowds were almost too much but then we rounded the corner and got our first glimpse of the famous lake. It stunned us. 

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Lake Louise

The beauty was breathtaking.  The large oval lake glimmered with an emerald-green glow and the jagged mountain backdrop frosted with glaciers added to the drama.  Stephen and I were both overcome with emotion…I had tears running down my cheeks. Now I understand the hype!  We both stood at the edge of the lake and soaked in the beauty.  

Afterwards we hiked up the mountain to the tea house at Lake Agnes and enjoyed many more views but that first glimpse of Lake Louise will always be etched in my memory.

Stephen and I were both content with an early return to our camp site for an afternoon break.   We had to catch up on laundry and chase the sun with the solar collector.

We’ve had very few electrical hookups on this trip so we are grateful for the solar panel that keeps our battery charged and the refrigerator running.  

Next stop…Jasper.  

Bear encounters: zero

Towards Banff and Jasper

We have hitched up the camper and headed west which means it’s time to bring you up to date.  The freak snow storm in early April melted quickly and this allowed us to jump on our bikes and cycle the new trails along the Mississippi River. With all the extra moisture the wildflowers were abundant and the trails bursting with color.

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Schaars Bluff trail

Although the weather was cold in April,  Stephen was able to usher 35 baseball games for the Minnesota Twins and complete his yearly obligation.  He even got some choice assignments in the lower deck which allowed him to keep one eye on the game.  I spent many days sewing quilts and also teaching two young friends how to drive. It was a happy day when both kids passed their driving test.

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Yar and Paw pass the driving test!

Everyday I reviewed  the Trusted House Sitters emails for potential house sits that would allow us to combine a sit with camper travel.  I found the perfect three week opportunity in Alberta near the Canadian Rockies.  It included caring for an older dog and a cat. We could visit Banff and Jasper National Parks for eight days and then house sit afterwards.  Stephen and I have both wanted to see these two iconic parks so when our house sit application was accepted we were thrilled.  

The actual house sit begins in August so we decided a mid-July departure would give us time to leisurely explore along the way.  

We have been on the road for a week and our first stop was Devils Tower. Located off the beaten path in northeast Wyoming, it is the first declared National Monument in the United States.   From a distance the rock looks quite smooth but as you get closer you see weathered striations cascading down the rock face.  We hiked around the perimeter and enjoyed photographing from many angles.  This was a quick overnight visit as we headed further west.  

Neither Stephen nor I have spent much time in Wyoming so we made a point of spending several nights in the Bighorn National Forest.  The mosquitos were a nuisance but the coyote howls and forest scenery made up for a few itchy bites.  While in the forest we braved many gravel roads to explore the hidden gems of the area.  A ten-mile bumpy trek to Castle Gardens brought us to a deserted area with interesting  rock formations. It’s not very often that our cell phones register “no service” but we were completely off grid for a few days.

We are both excited to be back on the road exploring.  Everyday we see breathtaking beauty and without fail we connect with interesting people.  We are grateful to Steve and LuAnne who we met at our last campsite and had tools to help us with an unexpected camper repair. (Squeaking tire rotation).  Our fears were allayed and peace of mind restored.  

I’ve had numerous questions about our house sitting  experience and will try to address them in the next blog.