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Day 1 of our tour starts in PORTO! This historic city offered it's name to the well know fortified wine known as Port, and there's no shortage of Port houses here or Port Wines for that matter.

It's our first day in this beautiful city, and we check into the Teatro Hotel about 3pm, and the group meets together in the lobby at 4pm for a city walking tour. It's a perfect district for a walk through the historic waterfront where Barcos Rebelos boats would haul "pipes", as they were termed, (or barrels) of port wine down the Douro River to Porto for the long journeys to Great Britain and the Americas.

The walking tour takes us through parts of the dock where these boats are used for tourism and regattas now, they're painted with pretty Portugese colors that resemble the charming pottery produced here.

Porto lies on the mouth of the Douro River and has a long history dating back to Roman times. Porto is a Celtic-Latin name, Portus Cale, or the port in English. The historic center of the city was named an UNESCO world heritage site in 1996 and Porto was elected The Best European Destination in 2014.

We enjoy the afternoon sun, albeit hot, the breezes from the sea and the confluence of the Douro River help bring in a cooling off respite in between the heat. The sun is still quite high at 5pm so we need a pit stop for a beer, everyone piles into a small cafe along the river where our wonderful translator orders beer all around and insists on several plates of fresh sardines, one of the specialties here in the land of Bacalau.

Our fishy nibbles and beer get us through the heat, jet lag and broke up the afternoon nicely, but we want to get back to our city tour that encompasses São Bento, Porto's central station, a luxuriously ornate and glorious structure. São Bento Railway Station opened to the public in 1916. The main hall is breathtaking with over 20,000 tiles that reflect the history of Portugal. Tiles and ceramics in general are one of many artistic mediums in Portugal, the clay from their soils is used to create magnificently expressive ceramics and tiles in particular. Igreja de San António dos Congregados is the church alongside the station that has equally magnificent tiles adorned on the walls of the church, we park ourselves on pews in the church to gape in awe.

We finish in Liberty Square, there's so much more to see but those sites will have to wait as our dinner hour approaches and we need to freshen up. We have a Fado music trio that will accompany our dinner and we don't want to be late.

Dinner is delicious and we practically have the place to ourselves - since it is earlier than most Porto residents eat we're serenaded during dinner and at the breaks in the meal, which aren't many since they serve so many courses. What a great first day, and it was only 1/2 a day too, imagine the rest of our journey!

Overall we are glad to dine a little earlier, the eyelids are heavy, the bellies full, and the music sad and sweet. We wander back to our hotel happy and content to be here in this charming city, and so happy to begin touring this beautiful and magical country!

Obrigada Porto and Portugal we love you already.

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Lake Wakatipu or “bay of spirits" is glacier fed ancient glaciers that surround and encircle the lake and environs. And our hotel Ramada Central is located on the shores of this enormous lake.

The Dart and Rees Rivers coming from the snowmelt on the rugged Southern Alps flow into the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. This lake has so much energy that it has it's own as a tidal flow and occupies a single, glacier-carved trench bordered on all sides by steep mountains, the tallest is Mount Earnslaw over 9,000 feet. Communities that surround the lake are Queenstown and the towns of Kingston, Glenorchy and Kinloch. Maori claims that the tides are the heartbeat of a huge monster named Matau, who is said to be slumbering at the bottom of the lake.

There is so much to do here that most of us will stay behind after today, but we're all boarding the morning cruise on the lake that feels like a Great Lake and takes us through the the upper - northwestern portions of the lake towards Walter Peak High Country Farm where we will disembark the boat for a walking visit on the farm to feed the sheep, watch the sheep dogs in action, try spinning wool and finish with tea and scones. Damn good morning for all of us, although Pam, Traci, and Dawn were hoping for Sparkling wine with the scones, they finally settled down to enjoy a cup of English tea.

Our afternoon started with lunch in Queenstown. We docked close to plenty of local cafe choices and had a quick lunch. We headed out of town towards wine country after lunch; our visit with Rippon Winery was wonderful, it's located right on Lake Wanaka, the region within Central Otago that takes it's name from the lake. Ken and Terry wanted to buy property here, they kept asking questions about the region, the people, the economy and the opportunity! I hope it happens because I really want to come back too! Fernando and Denise were also talking about buying property here but they talked about it everywhere we went! The wines at Rippon were stellar, and the people were so awesome to us, they opened everything: Pinot Noir - all 5 of them, from different blocks and vineyards, the Sauvignon Blanc was delicious here, and different from Marlborough (don't even bring up Marlborough while you're here...Jan!!!) Poor Jan, a simple reference to it and we heard a long explanation about how Otago and Wanaka is better! The other white wines were delicious too, and the lake effect was evident here, nice diurnal swings but no frost.

We left our gracious guests and boarded the bus back to Queenstown and towards our Hot Pools Adventure! It was about an hour from hot pooling so of course it was enough time for Jonelle's bubbly! She'd be saving it since the North Island and had squirreled it away for too long... according to Annette and Barb, it turned out that they were the BIGGEST bubbles fans of the group!

We arrived at Onsen Pools, and not soon enough, the sun was so low in the sky that Richard's shadow was as long as the trees were high, and he was the first to bare his bathing suit for the pool visit. After luxurious soaking, giggling (the bubbles on the bus), and gawking at the magnificent sunset, we rinsed off, dressed and headed back to our hotel, a short 10 minutes away.

The farewell dinner was delicious barbecue, New Zealand style! We gorged and cried, drank and teared up, laughed and cried, and everyone told a fun and emotional story of their favorite time or place during our tour. Denise Bender had everyone laughing so hard and loud I thought that they'd kick us out. Colleen's story was so beautifully moving that everyone teared up immediately, we had to pass a clean napkin to Carol. But one of the best stories came from Al, it was so funny and straight-man dry humored and hysterically funny - mostly due to his deadpan manner. We awarded him the prize for best humor, Bender got second place for humor, Colleen got the award for most moving, Carol for most tears! Traci was awarded for being the bossiest, and Reggie for putting a stellar tour together with a wonderful group of loving and happy people. We learned, we loved and we left with full hearts. Thank you North Island, thank you South Island, thank you dark sky and lakes, thank you coastline and rivers, thank you wineries and cafés, thank you Maori people, and Kiwi communities, and most of all thank you planet earth for creating a beloved country to enjoy.

Kia mihi New Zealand, you will stay in our hearts and memories forever.

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Tēnā Koutou Travelers!

We are making our way towards Lord of the Rings Country!

It is extremely colorful due to the autumn leaves and brush changing with enormous mountains as a backdrop, snow covered slopes and so many rivers, lakes, streams, creeks and ponds along the route. I've always said: "Where there are mountains there are rivers, lakes and streams!" and it's so true here. We are definitely in Middle Earth now.

We're on the road headed towards the middle of the South Island and intense Southern Alps Mountains were gold and other precious metals were mined. The weather conditions are changing to warm and dry, and where there is cultivation of tree fruits, more vines for award winning wines and Merino sheep graze. Wildflowers line roadsides, and powerful rivers cut deep gorges lakes along the way.

Arrowtown and Bannockburn were successful mining settlements that are still thriving as tourist locations with communities that cater to the activities in the lakes, rivers and on the slopes. The architecture from early days gone by remains today and is preserved as though it was still 1860. To the north of Bannockburn, you can see the remains of the Bannockburn Creek area where there was once extensive coal mining that supplied coal for use on gold dredges working the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers. Our guide answered all our questions and delivered the long history of the area, we stopped at the towns along the way, had lunch and continued on towards our winery visit in Gibbston Valley. The Brennan Winery is located on the way to Queenstown, and with their 10 hectares (25 acres) of vines we see and smell ripe grapes as we arrive. They're actually growing Tempranillo here and making a Rosé from it, they say that it occasionally ripens but mostly doesn't get enough sugar so Rosé makes the most sense. Brennan is known for their Pinot Noir, and now we understand why, they were so lush, fleshy and plump, but also refined and clean. A lovely vineyard walk to explore their organic methods, they even have some bio-dynamic methods included in their farming practices. After our visit we head into Queenstown to spend our last day of the tour - tomorrow in Queenstown. We're already feeling the sadness of missing this group, the visits, and the beautiful people of this country. We have an exciting ride up on the Skyline Gondola to our restaurant that holds 360 degree views of Queenstown and the surrounding area. It's amazing, beautiful, and breathtaking. Pam is so excited to arrive to the top, we had to crowd around her so that she wasn't freaked out, we had a group hug with her while gathered around her. It was a perfect excuse to enjoy Pam's excitement and our enjoyment of each other. Thank you Pam! As usual our dinner is filled with chatter, the excitement of the day, the wine, the company and the view all stimulated our enjoyment and evening together. Kia kaha Travelers!

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