A Travellerspoint blog

Part 8: Takeaways and Tips


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Wow! What an amazing trip! Everything aligned just right so that we were able to make the most of this opportunity as a family. I don't know that we will have the same opportunity for such an adventure in the future simply due to school schedules, future college plans, vacation bids, etc. so we were very blessed to have been able to see so many wonderful sites and enjoy this adventure as a family.

Trip stats:

  • We travelled 22,379 miles by airplane which worked out to about 45 hours inside of airplanes (not counting time in the airport).
  • We drove over 600 miles in our rental car, followed by approximately 200 miles by train and unknown miles by foot.

Tips or takeaways:

Our style of travel is not for everyone and we fully recognize that. We don't make a lot of plans outside of accommodations and even then those plans might be made on the fly, i.e. Toyko. However that allows us to see what we want to see on a timetable more to our liking compared to doing an organized tour type of deal. Each way has its own pros and cons so travel in the style that you like!

Regardless of how you travel I would suggest the following:
Be flexible in your travel plans. Something always pops up that might conflict with previous plans. When that happens just roll with it and do something else. Have a plan A, B, C and sometimes D.

Be patient. We saw quite a few folks become really upset at the airport due to late flights, overbooked flights, etc., which is understandable. But...It does not help to get upset with the gate agents or other airline employees, they are doing their job to the best of their ability with the resources they have at hand. Be patient and be kind to others, you will get to where you need to be although it may not be exactly as you had originally planned. In which case remember the part about being flexible.

Everything will cost more than you planned! We knew this going into it and just accepted it when prices were higher than we had estimated. Food, scuba, car rentals, etc. It's vacation so enjoy your time! You don't want to get worked up over something that you can't control.

Car rentals. If you are driving on the opposite side of the road or the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car take out the extra insurance. In Australia ANY damage will be billed to you and you can work it out later with your credit card company or insurance company. Most of the time you will be billed 5,500 or the actual cost of repair which is a lot to have to work out. With the extra rental insurance you are covered. And it does give help with peace of mind.

If you are in Japan get cash (Yen) as soon as possible. Credit card acceptance is pretty sporadic especially at restaurants. If you are only in Tokyo for a few days pay as you go on the trains. If you are going to be in Japan for longer than a week you will probably save money by purchasing one of the multi-day passes. There are local trains and express trains. Local trains stop at every stop = long trip. Express trains stop at every 4th or 5th stop which makes for much faster travel.

Use a neck pillow for long flights. Trust me it helps.

Buy a burner phone / international sim card or whatever it is that will allow you to have cellular service. It would have been worth it for us. There are also pocket wifi which is helpful but do not provide cellular phone service.

In Australia, if you are able, fly Qantas. Great airline!

Jet lag! Heading west jet lag was not that big of a deal. It was there, just not something that made a huge difference. Returning eastbound was another matter. Australia and Japan have a 15 hour time difference from CST (just forget about the dateline thing it will mess up your head). Making up 15 hours on an eastbound leg was really really tough. In hindsight we are all very glad we opted to skip Hawaii since we would have been wiped out while we were there. It has taken a full week to get back to almost normal from the jet lag. Imagine being fine one minute and then taking a 3 hour nap the next minute. Only you didn't think you were tired until you woke up from your nap. Said nap occurring at 10am.

VRBO, Air BnB and other sites that help with accommodations are great to use. However, when using the "book it now" feature be aware that it is not really booking it now. It may take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours before you find out if you secured the apartment/condo. You have to read the fine print to see if there is another 3rd party vendor acting as a go between which often times is the issue. If it is a hotel then the book it now feature is pretty instantaneous.

The size of a drink cup in the US is vastly different from those in Australia and Japan. A large drink cup in Australia/Japan would be the equivalent of a medium or even a small in the US. Knowing that helps to avoid the, "but I ordered a large drink....".

Unlike the US, tipping at restaurants is not expected in Australia or Japan. It actually caused confusion in Australia when I left a tip with my bill. The waiter thought I didn't know how to count even though I tried to explain that I was leaving a tip.

Use noise cancelling headphone or soft ear plugs on the airplane. It helps to reduce the noise and makes the flight more comfortable.

Enjoy every minute with your family, time goes by too quickly!

Posted by WaghVenture16 06:15 Comments (0)

Part 7: Heading home


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Tuesday, July 12. The flights from Narita to Houston were all full. So were the flights from Narita to just about anywhere else in the world. It looked like our best way home would be to go from Narita to Honolulu then Honolulu to Houston. Plan B involved a stop over in either LA or San Francisco. Since the flight from Narita to Honolulu was getting overbooked with airline employees we opted to buy tickets for that leg.

The flight departed in the early evening so with the checkout time there wasn't any time to sightsee (especially with our bags in tow). We went to the train station and decided to take the Narita Express since it allowed for reserved seating and shaved about 30 minutes off the regular train ride. We were looking to kill about 5 hours from when we left on the train until our flight. Glad we left early....the train got delayed and we arrived at the airport about 30 minutes later than advertised. Then when we went to check in Alyson's ticket would not show up. We went to the customer service desk and they said that there was no record of us buying a ticket for Alyson. Fortunatley I had saved my confirmation email showing all of us listed on the booking as well as the payment confirmation. The customer service representative made several phone calls and explained that I may have to purchase a new ticket for Alyson and then work on a refund after returning home. I explained that wasn't an acceptable option and she made some more phone calls. It all gets worked out and we all have our tickets to HNL. It took over an hour though so we are very glad we arrived early. After we have our tickets it takes another 40 minutes to make it through security and make our way to our gate. At this point we are all pretty hungry but food options are limited. Lo and behold we find a McDonald's so Macca's it is (big surprise...). But here is a surprise, the price for the food at Narita's Macca's was nuts! If you eat there be prepared to drop about 12 bucks per person.

The flight is a red-eye as it leaves NRT in the evening and arrives in HNL at about 7:30am. The flight was uneventful, smooth and one where we all tried but couldn't really get any sleep. We arrive on Tuesday the 12th since we passed the international date line heading east. Crazy right! We clear customs in HNL and it feels good to be back in the States. Especially since we can now use cell service! Wifi is ok but when you are used to having a data connection all the time it feels like you lost a body part when you are restricted to wifi only. Turning the cell service back on was like getting an early birthday gift.

After customs we have 10+ hours to kill so we decide to take the kids to Pearl Harbor. We call a bag storage company and they come pick up the bags at the terminal. We grab a fresh Starbucks and make our way to the city bus that goes directly to Pearl Harbor. A quick 5 minute bus ride and we are there. We are in line for tickets to the Arizona memorial at approximately 0915 and the only tickets left are for 2:30pm. So we decide to walk through the muesums and then do the tour on the submarine (The USS Bowfin).
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While walking the grounds we see an elderly gentleman on a motorized scooter with a Pearl Harbor survivor hat. There were serveral people talking to him so we went over and were so fortunate to meet him. Herb Weatherwax. Herb is 99 years old and was in the Army based at Schoefield Barracks. He witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and then went on to fight in the European Theater and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. This guy is a true American hero. He gestured for the kids to come over to him and they all got to meet him and get their picture with him. It was really amazing!
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We went through the muesums and then did a tour of the USS Bowfin. All I can say is WWII submarines are pretty cramped for space. We had lunch at Pearl Harbor but then decided to head back to the airport since we had to get our bags back, go through security, etc, etc,. And really we were all wiped out. Jet lag was starting to catch up to us and we were all exhausted. We get back to the airport and after about an hour make our way to the gate where we all just collapse into nap land.

After getting the quality sleep you can only get in an airport chair in a terminal where announcements are made every 5 minutes we were ready for the flight! We were hoping for plan A which was the direct flight to Houston but it was going to be tight on available seats. We lucked out and made the flight with 4 seats to spare.
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The flight to Houston is a red-eye and is scheduled to arrive in Houston at approximately 7:30am. Sleep was elusive my friends. The flight was smooth and we arrive on time. We go to our car and drive home. The trip is over!

Posted by WaghVenture16 16:08 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Part 6: Tokyo

sunny 91 °F
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We arrived at Tokyo's Narita International Airport on Friday the 8th of July. We cleared customs and as soon as we had a wifi signal found out via email that the apartment we booked from Brisbane was available. We confirmed the payment and I called the owner from a payphone at the airport (cash only so I had to find an ATM). Upon making the call I found that the owner does not speak much English and I don't speak any Japanese. I asked an information desk representative to speak to the owner to advise him that we would be there in about and hour and a half....and could we get directions to the apartment. We get that worked out and then make our way to the train station. The ticket agent was very helpful in explaining which trains we would need but that we would need cash for the tickets. Back to the ATM.
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Note on Tokyo and cash: If you are visiting Tokyo your credit card will be accepted in about 3 out of 10 locations. Go to an ATM and get cash, you'll need it.

We secure the tickets and get on a looonng train ride from Narita to our apartment. To be fair everything is a long train ride from Narita. We leave the train station and according to Google Maps have about 3 blocks to walk to the apartment. Thankfully two gentlemen see us working on which way to go and offer to help us out. With their help we find the apartment and the owner is there waiting on us. At this point it is about 11:00pm and we are very tired.
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We go to the apartment and love it. New building and new apartment with modern appliances yet traditional Japanese touches, like slippers at the door and futon style floor mattresses in one of the bedrooms (kids room). Fortunately there is really good wifi at the apartment which allows me to use Google Translate. GT allows you to take a picture of one language and translate that into another language. In this case Japanese to English. Very helpful app for how to operate the toilet seat (no kidding) and the microwave, etc. I have to brag that who needs to learn the language when you have an app! We can operate anything! Just push enough buttons and it'll all work out. Although that came back to bite me later.

Everybody gets unpacked and goes to bed for some much needed sleep. The next morning we wake up to a steady rain outside. We decide to stay in the Yokohama area and check out Chinatown, Yokohama Bay, some parks and do some shopping at the Red Brick Warehouses. We step outside and quickly determine that we will need umbrellas. We find a drugstore on a corner and buy 6 umbrellas (we still have those umbrellas!). Although it is a little early for lunch we are all starving and find a really cool noodle shop. Noodle Shop Info But guess what? Cash only. Back to the ATM and then back to the restaurant.
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Lunch was just what we needed to recharge and afterwards we head out for Chinatown. We check out different shops and find a place that advertises a foot massage with fish. Well that sounded just plain weird so we had to check it out. Turns out the fish tickle your feet while they eat dead skin cells. We are all laughing as the fish work on our feet and must have been quite a site. We grab some great coffee afterwards and continue sightseeing/shopping. We make our way through Yamashita Park over to the Red Brick Warehouses. Overall great time walking around sightseeing. We get back to the apartment that evening and make plans for the next day.
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Sunday morning we make plans to meet a family friend at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. We start the day however at the 7-11 a block away from us. We get some cash from the ATM and find that 7-11 has donuts and really cool pastries along good coffee. We also load up on snacks and waters for the day. We plan out the train ride and head over to Meji-jingumae "Harajuku" Station. When we arrive it is hot and humid outside! Temps and humidity are both in the 90s. The Meiji Shrine is surrounded by beautifully forested gardens and walking paths. We meet our friend Yugi and have a great visit. We submit prayers on a small wooden tablet and offer our respects at the shrine. After saying our goodbyes to Yugi and his family we make our way to Takeshita Street to find lunch and sightsee.
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We find a sushi restaurant (Sushi Nova) where you order your meal from an iPad at your seat and your food comes out to you on a moving belt. The kids wanted to keep ordering just to watch the food come out!
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After lunch we walked to the next train station and headed over to the Imperial Gardens and Edo Castle. The grounds and the surrounding areas are really amazing. It was cool to see the surrounding Tokyo skyline as a backdrop to the 500+ year old castle and gardens.
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We walked from there to the Tokyo Train Station and made our way back to the apartment. Patrick and I were getting hungry for a little dinner but Mary and the kids were still full from lunch. Everybody was pretty tired so dinner became a free for all with snacks. Patrick and I headed over to Chinatown (only 4 blocks away) and found a great little restaurant with dumplings and pot stickers as the specialty. We brought food back with us and called it a day!
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Note: If you don't know what the button is on a panel don't push it. I pushed a button that I thought would activate the video doorbell. Since I don't read/write or understand Japanese it stands to reason that I had no idea what I was doing although I felt pretty confident. Until the alarm started going off. Apparently that little button means "emergency". So after the building manager, apartment manager and the police all came by I learned my lesson. Very friendly folks.

Monday we wanted to check out the Tsukiji Market (Tokyo Fish Market). We did our 7-11 breakfast and hit the trains over to the market. That place is crazy! Packed full of folks buying, selling, eating, serving and sightseeing. We saw all sorts of sea creatures being sold at open air stalls some of which we couldn't even recognize. We have a sushi lunch at a tiny sushi restaurant tucked off among the market stalls. Awesome sushi! After walking throughout the market we decided to head back towards Takeshita Street and do some souvenir shopping so we can get back to the apartment before rush hour hits. Once back at the apartment we decide to do Italian for dinner and had one of the best pizzas that I can remember. It was funny because as soon as we walk in we notice that everything is in Japanese to include the menu. Thankfully the owner comes out and hands us an English menu. 90_20160711_105514.jpg90_20160711_111411.jpg20160711_111828.jpg90_20160711_112604.jpg90_20160711_115602.jpg90_20160711_121719.jpg90_20160711_130559.jpg90_20160711_161853.jpg20160711_162907.jpg20160711_201140.jpg

We get back to the apartment and start packing and planning our flights back to the US. Our original plan had been to spend 4 days in Hawaii before heading home. The kids all said they were ready to go home. After two weeks they were travelled out. Mary and I double and triple checked with them and they were ready to go home. So we checked flights back to Houston and found everything book up. I mean everything. Our only shot back was to go through Honolulu and then make our way to Houston, if not directly then through LA. As the evening went on the flight from Narita to Honolulu was becoming overbooked with other airline employees so we opted to just buy tickets for that segment. If we had not purchased tickets we would still be in Tokyo.

Next up: HNL and the flights home!

Posted by WaghVenture16 18:16 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Part 5: Great Barrier Reef


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Wednesday morning we woke up a little early so that we would have time for a small breakfast and to make sure we were packed for the day. Our check in time at the boat terminal was 0720 so we were out the door by 6:45am. We checked and made our way down the pier to the boat, the MV Evolution. The Evolution is a really big catamaran style boat with 3 levels. We find a large table with room for our gear and start filling out paperwork for the snorkeling and the dives. Standard stuff about getting eating by sharks and whatnot. We then get fitted for our snorkeling gear and stow it in an outdoor locker. Before we know it the boat is heading out.
Dive Boat Website

The trip out to the reef takes a little over an hour and the waves in the open sea were about 2 feet. When we arrive at the reef it is an amazing site. You can see the reef just under the surface and it is crazy with color.
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We all dress out in our snorkeling gear and hit the water.
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There is so much diversity to the reef it is hard to describe. Tons of fish swimming about, coral heads with all sorts of different types of coral, it is all just amazing. Before too long Patrick and I are called to our dive group for our dive. The dive was a ton of fun, we were able to see a reef shark and so much more sea life. After the dive we continued to snorkel and spent about 2 hours at this site.

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After everybody is back on board (they do a very thorough check) we head over to the next site. While motoring over we enjoy the buffet lunch. For a lunch at sea it was pretty good! We arrive at the second site and it is even better than the first. The reef area is larger and more colorful. Patrick elects to do a second dive and has a blast. The rest of us snorkel about for close to 2 hours before it is time to head in.
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We arrive back at harbor around 5:00pm and are all pretty wiped out. We elect to do a drive through at Macca’s and everybody calls it an early night back at the hotel.

Thursday is our last full day and we decide to drive up to Port Douglas (about 30 minutes northwest of Palm Cove). The drive follows the coast line and is really scenic. We souvenir shop in Port Douglas and enjoy coffees and drinks while walking around all the shops.
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We had some road snacks and had lunch at a food truck near Palm Cove. The kids are pretty much beached out so the two young ones decide to swim in the hotel pool. Patrick decides to get his hair cut in Australia and visits the stylist at the hotel. Mary and I enjoy some Australian beers while sitting in the breeze overlooking the esplanade and the beach.
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Our last night’s dinner is at Wok On and we were not disappointed. Dinner was great and we followed up with ice cream while strolling the beach. We head back to our rooms to pack and try to get some sleep as we are waking up early to drive to the airport for our flight to Tokyo.

Friday morning comes quickly and we are out the door by 3:45am. On the drive to the airport we see tons of kangaroos lurking just along the shoulder of the highway. Kinda spooky looking. We arrive at the airport, drop off the rental and check in for our flight. We are using Qantas again to fly to Brisbane and then connect to the Qantas flight from Brisbane to Tokyo’s Narita airport.
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All the Qantas staff are again very helpful and we have our seats in no time. It was sad to be leaving such a beautiful place but exciting to be heading to Japan. We enjoyed breakfast on the flight and arrive in Brisbane right on time. We make the transfer to the international terminal and upon check in we get our seats to Tokyo.

Up until this point we had not made any hotel arrangements in Tokyo. We did not want to get too far in front of ourselves with accommodations since we did not know how the flights would work out. We knew Tokyo had plenty of places available so we had decided to wait until we were sure we would make the flight there. Once we had our seats we started looking for an apartment in the Tokyo area. Looking for an immediate booking we found a three bedroom apartment in the Yokohama area that, although a little south of where we were wanting to stay, had everything we wanted. We sent in the booking request and boarded our flight without receiving the confirmation. Plan B was a hotel room. Always have a plan B or C or D.

The flight to Tokyo was about 8.5 hours and was great. We had plenty of space and the cabin crew spoiled us! Between the meals, movies and naps we were arriving in Tokyo before we knew it!

Posted by WaghVenture16 08:36 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Part 4: Cairns

sunny 83 °F
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Brisbane, Sunday July 3- Waking up early at 3:45am in order to take the 4:30am shuttle to the airport. Upon arrival we will check in with JetStar for their direct flight to Cairns. We feel pretty lucky to have found rooms in Cairns on the beach. We have learned that students in Australia are on their winter break and that Cairns is a very popular destination for Australians during the break. Our rooms are booked at the Grand Mercure Rockford Esplanade in Palm Cove (just west of Cairns). The rooms are prepaid and there is no refund at this point for a cancellation.

We arrive at the airport in Brisbane and go to the JetStar counter for check in. We are advised that there are no available seats on the next flight to Cairns. We also learn that there are no seats available on any JetStar flight to Cairns that day or the next day. When you get pitched a curve ball you have to adjust your swing!

We hightail it over to the Qantas Airlines service desk to find out if they have seats available. We really don’t want to do an 18 hour cannonball express car rental. Qantas has seats open and we quickly book tickets with them for the next flight.

Note about Qantas: The folks at Qantas are amazing. They helped walk us through the pass travel procedures and were so kind. Customer service representative, gate agents, flight and cabin crew all did an outstanding job. Safe, clean, on-time and with inflight amenities (breakfast, lunch, etc) on every flight. We are huge fans of Qantas!

The flight to Cairns is smooth and the breakfast was really good. I know, I know.... you’re thinking it’s airplane food. I was thinking that too but seriously it was a good breakfast. Anyway, we arrive in Cairns and the temperature is about 78-79 degrees with tropical humidity. Big change from the 50 degrees in Brisbane. We pick up our rent car from Thrifty and find that we have a brand new Hyundai H1. I am a little used to the controls at this point and only hit the windshield wipers every now then when signaling a turn. We head towards Palm Cove to check into our rooms and hit the beach.
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Note about Palm Cove: Cairns doesn’t really have many beach areas in the immediate area. There is a beautiful esplanade walkway that goes to the water’s edge but the area is not really suitable for swimming. Most of the beach areas are west of Cairns i.e. Palm Cove.

Palm cove is about a 25 minute drive from the airport. The scenery along the drive is beautiful; cane fields, mountains and kangaroos. We arrive at the hotel early for check in and find that only one of the two rooms is ready. No big deal, we go to that room and then head down to the beach. By the way, the rooms are really nice. It is more along the lines of a two bedroom condo than a hotel room. There is a kitchenette, dining area, living room and a washer/dryer in the units. Very clean and nice views.
Hotel website

By now it is close to lunch time so we elect to have lunch on the esplanade overlooking the beach at a restaurant called Wok On. Great food and the owner / chef and his wife are awesome folks. As we sit there enjoying lunch it is amazing to think that we are in Cairns, Australia overlooking the beach on the Coral Sea. It is absolutely beautiful.
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The rest of the day is just relaxation time. We get settled into the rooms and explore around the hotel, swim in the surf, walk the beach and just take in the sights around us. That evening we head over to a local market to pick up some breakfast items, snackage and beer/wine. Australia has the craziest flavored chips you will ever find. We saw flavor combos that were off the hook. Chicken flavored chips, sweet chili and lime, it’s all there. Oh yes and Tim Tams the best cookies in the world. You can get them in the States!
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When we got back to our hotel rooms we booked a snorkeling / dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef for Wednesday. Beyond the dive trip we really didn’t plan out what we did each day other than to just explore at our own pace. To that end, the next day (Monday) we decide to go to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure since it was highly recommended by the hotel staff. If you are even remotely close by this is a must do! In addition to the saltwater crocs (they are freaking huge) Hartley’s is a huge zoo. Koalas, kangaroos, birds, reptiles and all sorts of other animals. The boat tour and feeding show for the crocs will keep you from ever wanting to swim near croc areas, ever.

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On the drive back from Hartley’s we passed a section of beach that had a bunch of stacked rock piles. We stopped to check it out and found that it was just something folks did for no real reason other than it looked cool. So we added to the stacks! We then drove down towards Cairns with the intent to do the SkyCar cablecar ride to Kuranda. It is basically a cable car that goes through the rainforest and over a mountain to the village of Kuranda. Unfortunately that attraction is booked full for that day and for the rest of the week.
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We headed back to the hotel and enjoyed some beach time. We went out for dinner at Neptune’s on the esplanade. Great seafood! Ice cream cones on the walk back and we were done for the day!
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Tuesday. Since the cablecar was booked up we decide to drive to Kuranda ourselves. Let’s just say the drive was interesting since the road has more curves than a pig’s tail. Along the way we see a rainforest station and stop in to check it out. We find that they offer duck boat rides (amphibious boat style rides) through the rain forest so we buy seats and off we go. It was really cool to find how many different plants and insects there are that will kill or maim you in the rain forest. When we get back from the ride we find that we can hold a koala bear for a picture. Game on! The kiddos all get their picture made while holding Noobie the koala.
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We leave the rainforest station and make our way to Kuranda Village from which we hike over to Barron Falls. The waterfall was more of a trickle this time of year but the scenery was still amazing. After we hike back we head back to the hotel stopping for a drive through lunch at Macca’s. On the beach we rent some paddle boards and find that it is harder than it looks to stand up on those things. The kids have a blast though and that’s what matters. Dinner was fish and chips while sitting at a table on the beach. Fish and chips are sooo good.
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Next up, the Great Barrier Reef.

Posted by WaghVenture16 20:21 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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