Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Melbourne's artists take to the streets -- and alleys!


The variety and caliber of Melbourne's graffiti varies greatly, but the center portrait especially caught our eye.
Bruce Keller poses with an enchanting mural painted on a Melbourne, Australia, alley
wall.  Above right, Cookie listens while a guide shares fascinating tidbits about her city. 

WE ALL know the sadness and frustration of seeing a beautiful wall, bridge or fence blighted by graffiti.
Tasteless, vulgar, even obscene sometimes.

The hallways and arcades of downtown Melbourne are
admired for beautiful mosaics, elegant arches. In Block
Arcade, Cellini Melbourne offers fine jewelry and silver.
Why would anyone mar something old, historic, beautiful?
But in Melbourne, Australia, graffiti is art. Okay. It's not all art -- it's not all beautiful, provocative, funny or moving. But often, it's one or more of those.
Entrepreneur Fiona Sweetman devised the idea for Hidden Secrets Tours. Her passion is to share the best of Melbourne with curious travelers.
SHE INTRODUCED us to a brilliant Israeli-born guide on our recent seven-week adventure Down Under and Beyond. We gave her a rousing ovation for our three hour adventure.
Our tour focused on "lanes and arcades" and took us on a lively four-kilometer stroll through Melbourne's heart -- the downtown.
We began at the beautiful Federation Square and finished a few blocks away, after looping up, down and around a seven-block area.  We popped into lovely hallways, alleys, candy shops, jewelers, bakeries, cafes, flower shops, clothing stores and art galleries -- even a store specializing in honey made from bees encouraged to visit Melbourne rooftops. The honey is some of the most delicious we've tasted anywhere. We sampled a half-dozen kinds, all rich and flavorful -- made by bees lured by savvy businessmen and women to the very roof above the honey shop!
AS WE EXPLORED the city, we learned about Melbourne's history -- it's a fascinating one -- with lots of money and competition for jobs involving gold and wool.  Building in the heart of the city didn't begin until about 1835, so Melbourne is also a relatively new city.
"The Fed," is Federation Square, right, in the heart of Melbourne, with
a historic cathedral and train station just steps away.
Chocolate is a huge draw in Melbourne,
and its gorgeous arcades sport many shops.
Below, a rooftop bee helps make the honey
that Melbourne is known for worldwide.
This very international metropolis is home to four million people from all over the world.  They brought their fondness for chocolate, coffee and spicy cuisine with them, so Melbourne remains a foodie's heaven, with chic new restaurants such as Collins Kitchen in the Grand Hyatt, and the Langham's venerable Melba, named after the famed opera singer Nellie Melba.
THE MELBA sets the standard for Melbourne's discriminating range of fine restaurants, serving up fresh veggies and meats with local flair. Victoria's fertile farmlands and the rich Tasman Sea provide freshness and quality.
Hard to believe that now sophisticated Melbourne began as a rag-tag collection of tents and huts on the banks of the beautiful Yarra River. The river was used for bathing and drinking water but by the 1850s become polluted.  It became, in fact, the cause of an epidemic of typhoid fever which hit the town resulting in many deaths.  Though the Melbourne City Council opened the first city baths on 9 January 1860, people continued to swim and drink the river water.
TODAY, THE RIVER is still enjoyed by water sports enthusiasts and after the formal tour ended, we crossed the Yarra and strolled past several rowing clubs. Melbourne's attractive landscape is dotted with interesting architecture, including statuesque Art Deco buildings, neoclassical facades and contemporary towers.

We climbed stairs, smelled curry and garlic butter, stopped into a fortune teller shop, sampled hot chocolate with cinnamon and subtle chili seasoning, then enjoyed a pick-me-up double shot of espresso over vanilla bean ice cream.
THE GRAFFITI was a constant in the walking tour.  Some times it nearly moved us to tears. Other times it made us smile.
Melbourne is a city of art and greenery.
The tour meets in Melbourne's exciting downtown, across from a vintage train depot and an imposing cathedral.
Princes Bridge is one of Melbourne's
several delightful bridges. 
The modern, sleek aspects of Melbourne are complemented by its old-fashioned pups and small, village-like shops.
THE INTERNATIONAL feel is provided by the enticing mix of immigrants from every corner of Earth, who flooded into what is now Australia's second largest city and picked it for "home."  

The High Roller in Las Vegas beckons next at lilianslastdance.
GET HIGH ON HIGH ROLLER on the Las Vegas strip: Take a ride up, next time you're in Sin City. Up, up and away, to tower above the city in the High Roller.
Remember to explore, learn and live, and check us out Wednesdays at: www.whereiscookie.com
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Elton John dresses the stage in new Vegas show
The lilian blog posts each weekend.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sin City treat: Stop in at Flamingo Hotel's unique wildlife habitat

A red-crested pochard is among dozens of exotic birds at the Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas strip, a wildlife oasis.  


A flightless pelican -- wounded by fishing line and unable to fly --
is among pampered guests at the Flamingo's wildlife habitat.
These unusual Asian white-faced
 ducks whistle not quack.

You'll see flamingos in the art at the legendary hotel -- and in the bird habitat.
THE BEST KEPT secret on the Las Vegas strip is not the view from a fancy hotel.
It's not a fabulous meal in a little known bistro.
It's not a two-for-one show ticket or a $3 blackjack table.
It's a fantastic wildlife habitat in the Flamingo Hotel.
The famed Las Vegas strip is just steps away from the Flamingo's
wildlife habitat -- and the fabled, much newer High Roller wheel. 
The charming hotel -- our favorite through many years of staying in Sin City, a town we love -- is the one with the familiar flamingo motif.  It was founded by the legendary Bugsy Siegel -- gambler, ladies man and improviser.  He's known as the man who invented Las Vegas, and he loved flamingos.
"WE DIDN'T build on the strip," a veteran bartender told us. "The strip was created around the Flamingo."
It's true.  Siegel, the visionary entrepreneur who lit up the desert with his casino concept, is memorialized on a bronze plaque near the hotel's charming little chapel. The remembrance is surrounded by flamingos, rare Asian and South American waterfowl and even a pelican who can no longer fly and is fed and pampered by the habitat's staff.
Both a morning and afternoon feeding and talk are offered free to the public.  We chose an afternoon session and thoroughly enjoyed it.
AFTERWARDS, WE caught up to congenial and devoted naturalist Lori Miller while she continued feeding the birds. She and two other bird tenders talks to guests, answers questions and explain feeding and care of the exotic and beautiful creatures in their care.
Naturalist Lori Miller is one of three trained professionals caring for
the birds and fish at the Flamingo Hotel's unique and lovely Habitat.
One of the city's most unique and beloved attractions, the Flamingo's Wildlife Habitat even has a wing in the hotel named after it:  We always ask for the Habitat wing, and that's where we stay.
WE ENJOY IT because we can view the lush habitat from our 15th or 20th story room.  We also love the hotel's dog friendly atmosphere. Well behaved pets are welcome and fellow guests are also animal lovers.  They clean up after their pets and use the pet run area, which like all of the hotel is nicely landscaped.
ON THE HIGH Roller wheel, we loved gazing down at the habitat -- an oasis of calm among the skyscrapers and busy streets.
Parents bring their children to enjoy the waterfowl, and to
stroll around lushly landscaped gardens, pools and ponds.
In a city where price tags can get exorbitant, the habitat is free. No admission charge.
People come from other nearby hotels to enjoy it, as it is open to the public and draws from the nearby Linq, Mirage, Harrah's, Caesar's, Planet Hollywood, Bally's and other top Vegas hotels.
WE MET guests from Germany, Italy and Australia  during our recent four days, and from a dozen U.S. states.
Nestled on the Flamingo's lush 15-acre grounds, the habitat is stocked with exotic birds, fish and sunbathing turtles.
Flamingos gave the Flamingo Hotel its name
and live on a lush island in the habitat.

A highlight of the habitat is "Flamingo Island," home to an impressive flock of Chilean flamingos.  The long-necked coral colored bird is the hotel's signature bird and inspiration for the name of the 1947 property.
The flamingos' supporting cast is a colorful collection of other feathered friends from around the world, including ring-tealed ducks and sacred ibis.  Guests of all ages stand and sit in fascination, watching the birds.  Seeing people and birds peacefully co-existing is a singular pleasure to staying in perhaps the most tranquil spot in Las Vegas.
 WHILE THE FLAMINGOS  preen on a single leg during the changing sunlight,  across the way, you'll enjoy  

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 black-necked swans, many kinds of ducks, koi and carp.
Miller told us that some of the carp weigh in at 50 and 60 pounds.  They're huge.
The Flamingo at night is a blaze of glorious color.
Migrating birds are also frequent visitors at the habitat, as well as four kinds of hummingbirds, attracted by the feeders kept in pristine condition by the naturalists.
A beautiful brown pelican -- unable to fly because of injuries -- joined the hotel's habitat three years ago, rescued in 2012 from a tangle of fishing line and hooks on a nearby bay.
We savored the hummingbirds zipping to their feeders, took photos of the signature flamingos and watched the water animals at feeding time. The habitat is an idyllic stop among the buzzing city boulevard and Linq district steps away.
The habitat's black-necked swan has a distinctive red growth on his bill.
MILLER SAID that all animals are carefully maintained.  A group of lively, squawking parrots is kept in another area, not far from the habitat.  Guests are welcome to enjoy them, pose for photos with them and contribute to the habitat by purchasing the photos.
What charmed us most about the place is the artful integration of landscaping and critters -- birds fly in and out and putz around in the water, enjoying elegant little islands, streams and waterfalls. The birds seem to know they live in hallowed ground, just yards from the asphalt, neon and high rise hotels of Vegas fame.
IT'S A MUCH loved place to slow down after a session of gambling, drinking, dining or otherwise carousing and over-indulging in one of our favorite towns.

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Melbourne's alleys, streets are artfully adorned by residents.  
COMING UP: We find hidden secrets, stunning artwork and surprising talent in the alleys and secret corners of Melbourne, Australia.  In a unique tradition encouraged by city officials, artists are welcome to paint, improvise, create in this delightful city Down Under. Remember to explore, learn and live, and check us out here Wednesdays for travel tips, hotels, restaurants, cruising and nature pieces:  www.whereiscookie.com

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wellington's wonders unfold with vintage autos, cable cars, rare organ

Cookie takes a turn at the three-keyboard Wurlitzer in Wellington's famous Southward Car Museum, invited by Len Fifield. 
 Wellington has an affection for bold design and color.

Cookie shops for dream car, gives an impromptu concert and shears a sheep -- all in a day's play in Wellington    

Cookie explored Wellington's famous car museum in search of a new auto.
Sheep ranchers and their dogs have a similar look the world over -- this one
works on a ranch near Wellington, N.Z., but would be at home in Montana.


OUR DAY in Wellington began with a ride on a cable car up a steep hill, a stroll around Parliament and a terrific cuppa. Great tea! Great town.
The day segued to a museum full of rare autos, and an even more rare three-keyboard organ. The Southward Car Museum has 250 cars, airplanes, train
engines and a magnificent organ. (After shameless hinting, I was invited to play it!) Talk about gilding the lily!
AFTER MY organ tunes and a mini-concert by magnificent theater organist Len Fifield, we headed to a ranch, where I attempted to shear a sheep. We lunched on lamb curry -- delicious, but unfortunately timed.
FOR THE SHEEP shearing, lucky I had help. It's hard work so I shall stick to writing and music. The sheep survived my shaky hands but I was a wreck....
WELLINGTON pitches itself as a highly liveable place where one season fits all.  It is ethnically diverse and gay friendly with an array of eateries, parks and shops.
Wellington also offers variety and charm, with plenty to do for free or on the cheap.
Besides fabulous food and shopping, the people are helpful and accommodating with a sly, wry sense of humor.
THIS NEW ZEALAND city is beautiful and user friendly, with streets made for walking, browsing, relaxing.
Arranged around an attractive waterfront, Wellington is easy to navigate. Wellington boasts more
In a country known for its love of boating, Wellington,
N.Z., boasts an inviting waterfront, walkable and pretty.
cafes, bars and restaurants than New York City, and its coffee and craft beer producers are famous.  The town combines a creative, cosmopolitan feel, with the sophistication of a capital (which it is!) plus the warmth and personality of a village.
Wellington is simply winning, and it's courting business and industry as well as retirees -- thus the mix of young and old which delighted us.
Come with Cookie to the 'Jeopardy' set
WELLINGTON HAS New Zealand's greatest share of high-tech companies. It promises techies shopping for change of venue that they can be part of a vibrant economy -- "open minded, globally-connected, yet collaborative and supportive."  They can indulge in this while enjoying "a healthy lifestyle, rich in cuisine, culture and the great outdoors." All true!
The city enjoys over 2,100 hours of sunshine each year, less rainfall than other New Zealand cities and some say the lowest air pollution in the world.
Minutes from downtown Wellington we walked along a green belt and enjoyed watching bikers, a sparkling harbor, and a picturesque waterfront designed for strolling and picnics.
Cookie took up the shearing device, with a little help from a new friend.
Wellington's cable cars are a treat to ride.
OUR RECENT Wellington visit offered crisp, cool mornings and we relished our walks beneath the hills surrounding this lovely town. The aptly named "City to Sea Walkway" starts in the heart of central Wellington near Parliament and ends at the South Coast. The Parliament square is an eye-catching mix of old and new buildings, nicely pulled together with gardens and walkways.
NEWLYWEDS have their photos taken on the steps of the Parliamentary Library, tourists click snapshots of a bronze of Premier Richard Seddon pointing to the sky. The Beehive – a structure known by all New Zealanders – stands beside the imposing grey facade of Parliament House.
The buildings have been modified, destroyed by fire, half-built and restored. Folks love them or hate them. Our eyes look for the novel; we loved them.
"The Beehive" Parliament Building in Wellington.
Wellington Botanical Garden was a highlight, too, with spectacular views, unique landscape, exotic forests, native bush, and colorful floral displays.
THE WATERFRONT walk will take you to Te Papa, with buildings used in early Wellington wharfing, and Civic Square, home to a nice library, art gallery, an engaging Visitor Center and Town Hall Complex.
Our day ended as it began, with a cable car ride. These historic red cars run from Lambton Quay in the city's commercial heart, to the top of Upland Road, with the Lookout, Carter Observatory, Planetarium and Cable Car Museum.
WELLINGTON offers something unique at every turn. On my third visit, I left with more to see.

Melbourne, Australia, encourages artful graffiti.
COMING UP: We find hidden secrets, stunning artwork and surprising talent in the alleys and secret corners of Melbourne, Australia.  In a unique tradition encouraged by city officials, artists are welcome to
For theater, movies, and a fun new book: click on lilianslastdance.com 
paint, draw, create and change artwork on the walls of many buildings in this delightful city Down Under. Remember to explore, learn and live, and check us out here Wednesdays for travel tips, hotels, restaurants, cruising and nature pieces:  www.whereiscookie.com

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dunedin offers southern comfort in classic New Zealand city

Dunedin is known as the Edinburgh of New Zealand, and has the green one sees in Scotland.
Dunedin's Railway Station is beautifully restored to its 1906 grandeur. 

WHEN THE Scots came to Dunedin in 1848 they brought their culture along -- from bagpipes to cattle to a love of flowers and , yes, haggis.
But if you don't like the squeal of the pipes or the mess of innards and arcane cooking methods, never mind.
Dunedin has plenty of modern day appeal.
The approach, via a pretty bay, previews the day.  You'll see lumber -- a major industry, and a well planned one -- an interesting skyline and plenty of critters, trees and flowers.
Dunedin offers art aplenty, often
 in unexpected places.
DUNEDIN has the feel of a big city minus the crime, pollution and sleaze.  The country's second largest town has a distinct, rural feel. You'll see plump sheep grazing on the drive into town -- the harbor is a few miles from city center.  And you'll see dairy cattle, responsible for beautiful cheese you'll find at the fashionable shops.  Once in town, head to the train station to book a trip on the famed Taieri Gorge Railway, then enjoy the galleries, churches and restaurants galore -- we had a Turkish wrap and Greek food one day, and gorgeous lamb chops another.
Rare penguins on the south island.
For theater, books and art, click for lilianslastdance.com
DUNEDIN ALSO has plenty of city allure, including the southern
hemisphere's second-most-photographed building, the iconic Dunedin Railway Station.  Fully restored to its 1906 splendor, it hosts a weekly farmers' market and is where you'll go to book any of the exciting trips to the Taieri Gorge or elsewhere.

Lumber is a huge industry in Dunedin.
Left, the Taieri Gorge Railway offers
a spectacular country ride.
Dunedin's famous Railway Station.

Known as the Edinburgh of New Zealand, Dunedin is the country's city of the south, wearing its Scottish heritage with pride. Surrounded by dramatic hills and at the foot of a long, picturesque harbor, Dunedin is one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere.
ACCOMMODATIONS are varied and abundant, from charming B&Bs to luxury hotels such as the Hotel Regis, the St. Clair or Southern Cross. There's lots of nightlife, including funky, colorful places that reminded us of Melbourne's showy "after hours" places.  The food is as varied as the hotels, the bistros architecturally unique and fascinating.
Come with Cookie to the 'Jeopardy' set
Wellington's people are rightly proud of her
cable cars and the views they offer of the city. 
WE DROVE up the Otago Peninsula - the views are broad and beautiful and the beaches are rugged.
Nestled at the foot of Taiaroa Head is the Royal Albatross Center, the only place on the mainland where you can view Northern Royal Albatross in its natural habitat. You'll also find near Dunedin a remarkable, rare penguin colony. We even found a shop selling vegetarian haggis! No mess, no fuss!

COMING UP: Cable cars, vintage autos and organ music as we take to Wellington, New Zealand. Remember to explore, learn and live and visit us Wednesdays at: www.whereiscookie.com

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Birds of a feather abound in Kiwi country and Down Under


We watched two pair of Australian white ibis -- at two different times -- intrigued by their mating rituals and beauty. They are so much a part of the scenery that they are sometimes ignored in the cities.

This friendly gull is waiting for the appetizer, not 
the fake wine, with Sydney Bridge and Harbour
 behind him and a patient Bruce Keller.

HAVE YOU ever looked a kakapo in the eye in the middle of the night? Or watched an ibis vie for your fish and chips at an outdoor cafe?
Birds are so much a part of daily life in Australia and New Zealand that residents give scarcely a glance to feathered friends exotic to us.  After widespread bird extinction, the abundance and "come back" seems ironic.
Today's flightless birds include showy ostriches, emus, kiwis and other winged non-flyers. They're called ratites.
At a Sydney cafe, this ibis caught
our eye.  Other diners didn't notice.
THE ODDITY and variety of the Southern Hemisphere birds has helped biologists define a larger group of mostly extinct birds, many of them flightless.  They're called paleognaths, who knew?
The kakapo or night parrot has alluring beauty
 and is making a comeback from near extinction.
We learned that these feathered wonders are key to studying evolution of birds. To our amazement, all living ratites are found in the Southern Hemisphere, or S.H.

A tern on New Zealand's south island near Milford Sound. 
MANY FLIGHTLESS birds were wiped out by European and Polynesian settlement and introduction of rats, cats and predators  -- no surprise. We loved our time with the kakapo, observed at night in a sanctuary. They have a voice like a foghorn, gorgeous greenish-yellow plumage, a pleasant musty smell and intelligent eyes. Thanks to a successful recovery program for this unique parrot, they've gone from near extinction to 126 in number. The kakapo possesses flightless features: small or absent keels on breastbones; smaller, simpler and fewer wing bones; larger leg bones and body; and feathers not inclined to aerodynamics.

ANOTHER OF our favorite southern hemisphere birds can fly, as we witnessed.
The beautiful Australian white ibis is as common Down Under as is our North American pigeon. Folks call them "bin chickens."
Gannets in New Zealand's Muriwai Park are protected.

We watched them at outdoor cafes -- as people shooed them with newspapers, sometimes smiling at their beauty, sometimes not.
We observed a mating pair for a couple hours, while we munched on fish and chips.  They swooped in on a next-door table's remains with the confidence of seagulls in our San Diego coastal parks.
 Maori hunted birds, eating their meat and using their feathers
 for capes. They pay homage to feathered friends in this
 Okains Bay Maori Museum.
This red billed swan enjoyed a
swim in Melbourne's Yarra River.
Fiordland's colorful
crested penguins
often mate for life.

THE IBIS HAVE an elaborate courtship and nesting ritual -- almost dance like -- involving bowing to show off white plumage and black head and neck. The female plays hard to get, but finally gives in. The male finds twigs and she builds the nest. In flight, flocks of Australian white ibis form distinctive V-shaped flight patterns, much like our Canada geese.

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The Southern Hemisphere is also known for its fabulous gannet colony in Muriwai. Thousands of these graceful birds nest in the crags and cliffs north of Auckland and are protected by the New Zealand government. We also viewed that famous black and white flightless bird -- the penguin. Mainly residing in the Antarctic, penguins migrate to the southern tips of Australia and New Zealand. We love knowing that the handsome Fiordland crested penguin is monogamous and mates for life!
The Dunedin Train Station is the second most photographed
landmark in the Southern Hemisphere, behind the
world famous Sydney Opera House in Australia.

 DUNEDIN DELIGHTS: Coming next Wednesday, we visit Dunedin, one of New Zealand's charming cities. Delightful Dunedin, settled by the Scots in 1848, is known for its remarkable train station. Remember to explore, learn and live and tell your friends about www.whereiscookie.com
where you'll find pieces on travel, adventure, hotels and cruising.
For theater, books, film and the arts, check us out at our new blog: www.lilianslastdance.com