Vienna, AUSTRIA – July 2016 : PART ONE

We traveled to Vienna, Austria in July 2016! It was our first trip as a family of four!

As if through divine intervention, a few factors miraculously came together in the final days of nursery school before summer which allowed us to make last-minute travel plans: Henry’s passport finally came in; at the same time, we found someone willing to watch our dogs when all kennel facilities were booked; and we had enough miles and points for “free” flights and a hotel room. Score! Matt and I threw around a few ideas, then spontaneously booked a trip to Vienna, Austria.

Why Vienna? I mean, why not, right? Matt had had an interest in visiting for awhile, and we’d had friends who recently travelled there, piquing our interest.

Abu Dhabi Airport Terminal 1
Abu Dhabi Airport Terminal 1

So, the first week of July, we took off on our first vacation as a family of four. It was lovely to return to Europe; as if coming back home, which it was in a way.

We flew in on Qatar Airlines, passing through Doha on our way to and from. It was an easy, comfortable experience and the airline took great care of us as a family. So appreciated! Checking in, they always put us at the bulkhead seats where we were provided with a baby bassinet each flight – first that’s ever happened. They also gave out little activity kits and stuffed Mr. Potato Heads for the boys to stay busy. I have nothing but great things to say about Qatar Airlines.

look at all of us moms taking pictures of our boys here! i love it!

Since we had built up enough Marriott points to use on a hotel stay, we had a few places to choose from. Deciding on the Renaissance was actually a really great idea, in hindsight. The hotel itself, in the old Imperial Riding School, was great! The breakfast each morning had a nice variety of food, to include what I can only describe as “crack waffles” (so delicious). We also had access to the lounge, which we crashed in each afternoon for coffee (or wine…) after a long day out.

The hotel is ideally located right next to a train line, so we were able to buy cheaper tickets on a regular train into the city from the airport, rather than take the airport express train, which is not only more expensive but, if taken, would’ve been a further walk to the hotel. Each Vienna train/metro ride costs €2.20/adult (€1.10/child) no matter where you’re going, and is valid for all transfers. This made getting around the city easy and inexpensively.

Our first afternoon in, we just walked around the neighborhood to get our bearings. There is a grocery store, pharmacy, launderers, and a big park all within a mile – really convenient for traveling families. The neighborhood – Landstrasse – is (much like the rest of Vienna) beautiful to just walk around and enjoy what you see. One of my friends who had already been to Vienna told us it was enjoyable to just walk the city. I couldn’t agree more.

Stadtpark

Day 1 – Innere Stadt

Early the next morning we set out, again on foot, and as per usual for us, with no real plan. I have a hard time making a firm itinerary because I don’t know how easy a new city is to navigate and I can’t predict how the boys will be each day. So, we decided to just walk toward Innere Stadt – Stephansplatz to be exact – and see where we could go from there.

Mozart's House
Mozart’s House

Mozart's House

St. Stephen's Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral

St. Stephan's Cathedral

St. Stephen's Cathedral

St. Stephen's Cathedral

St. Stephen's Cathedral

St. Stephen's Cathedral

From the impressive St. Stephan’s Cathedral, we moseyed down Kärntner Straße, and over to Albertinaplatz. We popped into a cafe right there for a coffee + nursing session. Very important break for all members of the family.

Once satiated, we moved along towards Michaelerplatz to Hofberg Palace. Then we found ourselves winding through the streets, in a bit of a roundabout way, until we found Rathaus.

Austrian National Library
Austrian National Library
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace

Michaelerplatz
Michaelerplatz

Stopped in a few stores as well…

Vienna Starbucks
A Starbucks! For our mug.

Before continuing on…

Wiener Minoritenkirche
Wiener Minoritenkirche
Ferstal Passage Vienna
Ferstal Passage Vienna
Ferstal Passage Vienna
Ferstal Passage

Ferstal Passage Vienna

Ferstal Passage Vienna

Palais Liechtenstein
Palais Liechtenstein
Palais Liechtenstein
Palais Liechtenstein

Our visit happened to coincide with Rathausplatz being transformed into the Gastronomie/Vienna Film Festival event. Which…was amazing! Food stalls everywhere. Beer and wine on tap. Outdoor seating on a beautiful day in a beautiful setting?! Heaven.

Vienna Rathaus
Vienna Rathaus

We had left the Middle East during the final days of Ramadan. During this time there is no eating in public during the daylight hours, for about a month. There is also not much alcohol around at any time, anyway. Here in Vienna, all of a sudden, we found ourselves picking out local craft beers at a stall in a public park, and faced with the decision: What food shall we try today? I’m not going to lie, it felt a little thrilling. It’s funny how quickly we adapted to being in Ramadan mode (not practicing, but being respectfully mindful), and how it felt weird going back to what is “normal” for us.

Of course given the option we choose to sample Viennese foods.

spaetzle in Vienna
spaetzle

Making ourselves at home in a secluded gazebo, I was able to nurse Henry while Porter freely played around. Matt ferried food and drink for us to imbibe in. It was perfect. The epitome of vacation.

Viennese Food

Vienna Rathaus
Vienna Rathaus

Once lunch was over, we moved on towards Museumsquartier, or the area “with about 70 cultural facilities”. We crossed through Naschmarkt not knowing what it was at the time (we popped through there another day), then stopped for Porter to play at a fun playground in front of Karlskirche. Finally, we went back to the hotel. Though we didn’t expect to walk so much, the exploration was definitely worth it.

Burgtheater
Burgtheater
Austrian Parliament Building
Austrian Parliament Building
Karlskirche Vienna
Karlskirche

Karlskirche Vienna
Karlskirche

So, because this is such a photo-heavy, long post, I will stop here for now.

To be continued…

South Island: Queenstown, NEW ZEALAND – Part Three

Lake Wakitipu, NZ

Queenstown >>

As we left Invercargill we decided to forgo a few hurried days of traveling through Fjordland in favor of staying and playing in Queenstown instead. I left the decision up to Matt, mostly, because it was a priority of his to see Fjordland. He spoke with a local gentlemen somewhere between Dunedin and Invercargill who suggested we drive to Te Anau and then take a boat tour to Doubtful Sound. We could also have driven to the famous Milford Sound as well. Both were very appealing and it was a difficult decision to make, but we ultimately decided to just head for Queenstown to relax a bit.

Traveling with our tiny companion obviously influenced the decision, but he actually did remarkably well in the motor home and overall. We had been breaking up the long drives each day with stops to play outside or eat (or both), or we timed longer drives around naps, and things worked out nicely (as I remember). That being said, it’s always nice to not force things too much with little kids. Sure, we missed out on some adventures in the Sounds, but take a toddler to trail, park, or lake and they usually have more fun getting to explore on their own. In New Zealand, there isn’t a bad view anywhere so watching Porter play and be happy while taking in the view, any view, was pretty amazing and always worth it.

Lake Wakitipu, NZ

Queenstown is an awesome city to spend some time in if you are into adventure sports. There is so much to do there! It’s a place that a lot of people come to play (snowboard, sky dive, bungee jump, adventure tours, etc.) – so pre-kids it would likely have been awesome. With a toddler, it still held a lot of fun possibilities, but we were also contending with some crappy weather for the couple of days we were there. In short, it won’t be remembered as our favorite time and place in New Zealand, but I can see why people love it.

Let’s back up a bit. Driving to Queenstown was fairly quick, and the road in from Invercargill (Highway 6) ends up traveling along Lake Wakatipu, on a section of highway called “The Devil’s Staircase”. I assume because it’s a winding road with mountains on one immediate side and the stunning lake on the other.

Devil's Staircase, NZ

It’s so beautiful. We stopped probably 5-10 times just to take in the views and snap some photos (there are frequent pull-outs and were few other cars around while we were driving).

Lake Wakitipu, NZ

Lake Wakitipu, NZ

The mountain range is called The Remarkables, I can’t imagine why?

Lake Wakitipu, NZ

When we arrived in Queenstown we checked into this holiday park close to the downtown area and proceeded to let Porter play for a while at the playground. The holiday park was very nice, very well maintained, and I appreciated the mid-century/modern flair it had. We set off that first evening to just mosey around downtown, check out what was around, and grab some groceries for a low-key dinner which we made at the holiday park kitchen. It was nice to eat a simple homemade meal that night.

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The next day we got out early enough to do some more walking around, grab breakfast at a local place, and pick up the last of our souvenirs. See, we wanted to get Porter a rugby ball; not content with a small toddler-sized one, Matt bought an official All Blacks one – deflated so we could easily pack it. Porter desperately wanted to play with it though, and since we sometimes can’t say no to his sweet little face (and just wanted to quiet him down…), we ended up getting him another tiny rugby ball, which he then clutched for the remainder of the trip 🙂 We managed to make it back to the holiday park just as the weather turned for the worse (wind, snow), so the afternoon was spent napping and chilling out.

Queenstown, NZ

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Before our afternoon flight on our last day we decided to do the Queenstown gondola ride up the mountain. It was literally a 2 minute walk from the holiday park, and a cool ride up the “steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere.” It scared the sh*t out of me.

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Queenstown Gondola

Queenstown Gondola View

The Māori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which loosely translated can mean “the land of the long white cloud”. You will see often see this referenced around NZ, and as you can see above: the long white cloud!

At the top, there is a cafe, gift shop, views for miles, and a pretty awesome luge ride you can do with your family. Check out that link for even more that you can do up there. Like the Swedish-brainwashed expats we are, we had to first grab a coffee at the cafe up top, of course. Million dollar views are even better with a drink 😉

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Queenstown Gondola Views

Queenstown Gondola Views

Queenstown Gondola Views

Queenstown Gondola Views
I don’t know if that’s just extreme lens distortion or if the pole was quite slanted…

On the way down Matt spotted some chamois and it was a very exciting moment 🙂

Queenstown Gondola Views

Queensland Gondola Views

At the bottom of the mountain, where you can park on the street and/or 2 minutes from the holiday park, there is also the Kiwi Birdlife Park. If we had more time that day we would have definitely spent a lot of time inside the park. Alas, we needed to head out.

We returned the Jucy motor home at the Queensland office where we had a significantly better experience with the employees compared to Christchurch. From the Jucy drop off area, we just walked to the airport to wait for a bit before flying out Brisbane.

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My biggest accomplishment and realization is that I have trained my baby to sleep on planes. HIGH FIVES ALL AROUND.

All in all, it was a great time in New Zealand. The South Island is an incredible playground full of adventurous opportunities, wonderful people, and wine (but of course I had to get knocked up before this trip, WTF). There are a lot of things we missed out on, not only because there is just so much to do there, but because we had some limitations placed on us (toddler, pregnancy, etc.) I certainly hope this was NOT a once in a lifetime trip because it’s too stunning of a place to not go back. We need to do/see/hike/skydive/camp/photograph more, definitely  get up to the “winterless North” Island, and hello… sample the wines! You can be sure if/when Matt and I get too antsy or have a joint mid-life crisis, we’ll be selling everything we own and up and moving to New Zealand.

South Island, NEW ZEALAND 2015 – Part Two

Lake Wanaka New Zealand

Part two of our South Island, New Zealand road trip! From Wanaka to Dunedin, through the Catlins, and on to Invercargill.

Wanaka -> Dunedin

Google Maps Wanaka to Dunedin Driving Route

Waking up in Wanaka, we were excited to get the day started and to see some more of the town. Again, a lot of NZ felt like “home” to us, because of a general similarity to many of our places in the Western USA, Wanaka was no exception. It’s a nice small town on a lake, surrounded by mountains – which can describe a lot of Colorado and Washington, so hopefully you can understand how happy it was for us to be in a place that feels anything like the home you have been away from for so long.

Wanaka

We set off first thing looking for a good breakfast place. The map from the holiday park suggested a place “all the locals go to” with something like the best coffee in town, so we tried to find that. It wasn’t in the main “downtown” part of Wanaka, but it also didn’t exist at all where the map said it was. What we got out of the search for it was a nice drive all over a few neighborhoods and general sense of the town. We ended up falling in love with the area and in the end wish we would’ve spent more time there.

Wanaka, like many small towns, has a downtown area with all the shopping you could need, and where we found a replacement travel tripod, a nice man in a hunting/fishing shop to help Matt fix his pole, a few souvenirs, and a couple of books to keep us entertained (a coloring book for me and Pee Wee the Kiwi for Porter).

Lake Wanaka

If you’re shopping, you can’t miss the picturesque Lake Wanaka, as it commands the view wherever you are. We watched some ducks paddle around and then toddled around looking at the water toys on the beach before deciding to head out. BUT WAIT! Before we left I needed to see what all the “Wanaka Tree” fuss was about. During breakfast, Matt was looking behind me at a picture on the cafe wall, saying he thought it was awesome. It was of the famous tree, so it was easy to convince him to go see it. Just a bit of a drive around Roy’s Bay, you can park at a walking trail on the lake and just walk down to find the tree. What is it? Literally a little tree growing in the water. The background of the lake and mountains provide for some really fun landscape shots with a unique subject in the foreground. I want to be one of those people who make glory out of any situation, buuuut, it was a cloudy, gray, late winter’s morning and the photos I could take just can’t compete with something more colorful.

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That Wanaka Tree

It was definitely cool to see, and try my hand at photographing, but I fell more in love with the neighboring houses (swoon) and all the people running on the trail, again noting, YES, we could happily live here.

Now, with all of the above accomplished, we needed to set off to our next destination, Dunedin, because Matt had made plans to hunt with a guide down there the next day.

The drive to Dunedin was of course amazing, the landscape changing regularly, dramatically, and breathtakingly. We stopped once along the way for some coffee and ended up chatting with a couple very nice ladies who were loving asking us questions about where we’re from as much as we loved talking to them about NZ 🙂

Dunedin >>

Forgive me, but I have no photos of Dunedin useful for this post! Hands full of toddler, stroller, and coffee are my excuse!  

The evening that we arrived in Dunedin, we booked two nights in a hotel (quite nice, but don’t piss them off and park your Jucy Lucy where they don’t want you to…), stocked up on a few more necessary groceries, and had a casual sushi dinner out. A hotel wasn’t necessary, but there were no holiday parks within walking distance to much of anything to see, and it was overcast and rainy for that weekend, so I didn’t want to keep the kid and I cooped up in a vehicle somewhere remote when we could be using our time to explore this town that friends had told us they loved. All in all, the expense was worth it, as was the ability to take hot showers in a real bathroom!

Part of the appeal of NZ for Matt was the hunting aspect, and he wasn’t about to travel all that way and not take a day (at least) for himself. If you know hunting at all, there is no guarantee that you will get an animal, and that wasn’t the point for Matt, he wanted the experience overall. But since he was going, I joked with him as I always do and told him to find me the biggest red stag in NZ and make it worth our time and money. And…he did!

New Zealand Hunting

It’s a pretty cool story, and he had a great day. His guide, Mark, was super awesome, as was his wife whom we met with later at her cafe. Maybe Matt will write up something for the blog one day…

While Matt was out hunting, Porter and I slept in, then set about walking all over the cute town of Dunedin (seriously, Google images Dunedin, you’ll find far better photos than I’d have been able to take!). While out we did some necessary errand running: a refill on cell data, a Starbucks mug purchase, and probably the number one thing we bought on vacation: an All Blacks kiwi bird that chants the Haka! Porter has camels from a few countries in the Middle East, each with their own song, so this kiwi purchase just made sense.

Let me tell you, my child did not go to bed without playing the soothing sounds of the Haka at least 20 times each night for the rest of our entire trip 🙂

There was the Otago museum, as well as Cadbury World, that I’d like to have gone to that afternoon but the timing didn’t work for either.

Dunedin -> Invercargill, via The Catlins

Catlins, NZ Driving Route
5 hour drive +/- with stops at two waterfalls and slope point

Very early the next morning, we woke up, loaded into the Jucy motor home, and set off to the taxidermist with Mark to take care of that business. Matt arranged for his big beautiful stag to be mounted and sent to us here in Abu Dhabi (while the meat was donated). On the way out of Dunedin we stopped at Mark’s wife Sarah’s cafe (Cafe Vega, Green Island area of Dunedin) and tried to buy one of each sandwich and treat the cafe sold. Everything in the display looked so good! Sarah definitely hooked us up that morning, and I’m not saying this because they were genuinely so incredibly awesome, but the latte they made was the best I had in the entire country. If/when you’re in or passing by Dunedin, stop in for a meal and you won’t be disappointed, I promise.

Our goal for the day was to meander our way towards Invercargill, taking our time exploring Catlins Forest Park. There is a main road leading through the fairly vast area that comprises the Catlins, but it is certainly not like a main thoroughfare (there is a highway if you want to take a more direct/fast route). Many of the roads that lead to the spectacular waterfalls and other sites are down winding, dirt roads that are quite the experience in a motor home, haha. It was drizzly that day, so we muddied our Jucy Lucy up like CHAMPS.

First stop was at Purakaunui Falls! A quick walk through a really cool forest and you’re at this fantastic waterfall.

Purakaunui Falls

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Purakaunui Falls New Zealand

Purakaunui Falls New Zealand

Purakaunui Falls New Zealand

The landscape and flora in the Catlins makes it worth a visit, for sure. It’s so unique, with a mix of farmland and forests that consist of this mix of “normal” looking trees and very tropical, rainforest-like trees. We next drove to the trail for McClean Falls, but with the quite cold, windy, rainy weather and it being a longer walk to the falls, we decided against getting out. I KNOW! YOLO! But with a two-year old to consider…we weren’t really willing to get that adventurous…or sick. There was also the road to Cathedral Caves we saw, but those weren’t accessible at the time, anyway.

Catlins New Zealand

There was one sight that I was unwilling to compromise on and that was Slope Point, the southernmost point of New Zealand. Right on the coast, looking toward Antarctica, and with views of these crazy ass wind-swept (beaten?) trees!

Slope Point New Zealand

Funny thing was…the wind was blowing the opposite direction of what these trees would suggest, ha.

Slope Point New Zealand

Slope Point New Zealand

The walk out to the distances sign was brutal, folks. I know I just said we weren’t willing to walk to an insanely spectacular waterfall, and to tell you now that we walked through a sheep field with no natural protection from the wind, and eventual rain, must sound really stupid. It felt stupid and irresponsible taking Porter out there like that and we questioned every ten steps if we should keep going. There were sparse signs, casually pointing in a southerly direction, and a path that we mostly guessed at, but we made it to the sign! Along with one other couple (who stubbornly wouldn’t move out of the way for a few photos despite there being no one else around and like ONE obvious thing everyone goes out there to take pictures with. WTF?). But at least we made it out there when we did because it was about to be locked off due to baby lambs being born.

Slope Point New Zealand

Slope Point New Zealand

Then we nearly ran back to the motor home and decided to just enjoy the sights from inside until we reached Invercargill – not much further of a drive.

The evening in Invercargill was pretty chill. We set up camp at a great holiday park and went out to eat at Speight’s Ale House where we had a much wanted dinner of pub food while the local rugby team played on TV. We met and chatted with quite a few people between the two places that evening and it was great! Very nice people all around.

Invercargill New Zealand

The next morning was sunny, finally! And the town actually looked far more charming in the sunlight 🙂 We weren’t sure even as we were leaving what we’d do next as we had a couple more full days before our flight back to Australia. It was a toss up between more long drives into Fjordland, in the southwest corner of the South Island, or just heading to Queensland to spend a few days slowly enjoying one of the towns we kept falling in love with for once.

To be continued…