About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Matter of Influences

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.”                                                   Stephen King 

I came to photography, as a vocation, later in life.
Early image: Child in Shadows

Looking back over the myriad of photographs I took as child and young adult, however, you can see very early signs that I might have a talent for it. Framing, subject matter, etc. Rough, but there. But it had not yet manifested itself into a passion, nor had I done much beyond aiming a camera at whatever caught my eye.

I always thought -- and this was echoed by others in my sphere -- that I would write. Short stories. Articles. Maybe a novel some day. In college I studied journalism, then moved into Broadcast Management. (My steady joke regarding my education and unrelated career these days is "I can program a television network, but very few job openings in that regard".)

But it seemed, as I was growing up, that the blank page and not the blank film was the direction in which I was headed. I had made a few shots here and there with point and shoot cameras, thinking they were pretty cool, but for the most part I identified myself with the written word.

Believing myself on the cusp of a great novel or taking the literary world by storm, I enrolled in a course at Long Beach City College, where in my first semester met and fell in with a handful of people who were destined to become lifelong friends. (The chance that a single class would yield seven good friends is pretty profound. We would, later, go on to create the Long Beach Writers' Bloc -- which now is only remotely connected with Long Beach and/or writing; but that's a story for another time.) I wanted the life I saw in films like Romancing the Stone -- a life of writing books, meeting with publishers in chic restaurant in New York City. Drinking martinis and racing off around the world on adventures for my novels.
Early image: "Father's Day"

I studied writers, I studied writing. I read. A lot. My father was a publisher. His father before him was a bookseller. It seemed natural for me to continue in that tradition.

And then one day I picked up my wife's old Pentax camera and began playing around. Just a small thing. But it was that proverbial first step on a journey. I don't remember the reason for having it with me, but one evening on my drive home from work I had the camera in the seat next to me when I noticed the sun setting along the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach. At the time my morning and evening commute was an hour or so each direction along the PCH between Long Beach and Newport Beach, twenty some-odd miles south. Not a bad part of the world if you're forced to be caught in traffic.

Something caught my eye about the scene, so I pulled over and parked, got out and walked across to the bike trail that runs along the bluff overlooking the beach, camera in hand.

Early image: "Monument"
I had, at that point, always been a visual person. My wife and others would laugh when I stopped to admire a sunset, or clouds, or the view of something which caught my eye but somehow wasn't really in anyone else's attention span. My life's memories are far more connected to visuals and experiences than to anything else. In this regard, again, it seems that the camera was the natural art form. But I was going to write.

And I think I wrote pretty well. (To be fair, I would not be subjecting you to a written part of the blog if I didn't feel I could express myself in a competent fashion. Your mileage a a reader, of course, may vary.) But something about that evening caught my attention, drawing me to look at the world differently, and instilling in me a desire to record it, to make an image to keep that scene fresh in my mind. To photograph it.

The pictures from that evening came out pretty well, I thought. They show a natural understanding of light and shadow -- I am drawn to highly contrasting images such as a silhouette -- and an appreciation for telling a story through the image. Raw, in these early images, but there nonetheless.

Film image: "Bowl in Shadows"
And so, for a few years, I piddled around in private, read a few books and tried to emulate some of the photographs from artists I respected. In particular I found myself drawn to the landscape works of Ansel Adams, and the humanistic works of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Both men represent the epitome of works in those fields of photography, and as an nascent photographer I was able to use their "eye" to begin to discover my own. By studying their images, and comparing them to my own, I was able to see the flaws in my work and use that perception to make myself better. By chasing the best, you become better yourself. 

And so I progressed, on my own, occasionally subjecting my wife, my family and my writer (and other) friends to my pictures. My wife was particularly supportive, and after a few years of working with the old Pentax and a couple of fairly cheap point and shoots, she presented me with my first SLR for a birthday in the mid-1990s, a Nikon N6006. It was an excellent choice and it became my workhorse camera for many years, traveling with us across the country and to Europe on a number of occasions.

Early image: "Houses of Parliament"
Then came the digital revolution. Not only in camera and filmwork, but printing, editing, and manipulating images. Then came the internet itself, which has had an extreme impact on so many different aspects of entertainment and art. Despite a lot of trepidation and -- honestly -- a lot of puritanical snobbery about film versus low-res digital, I picked up a relatively inexpensive Minolta S414 for a trip to Florida. Until that point the Nikon was my baby, but the images from the Minolta weren't bad, and I had to admit I liked the ability to see the image quickly and decide to reshoot, or move on.

A few years later -- working with both the digital and film cameras simultaneously -- I had the unfortunate experience of smashing my N6006 all over Route 66 in the Mojave Desert. Foolishly I put the camera down on the trunk of my car as I was shooting with the Minolta. I got into the car without thinking and drove off. As I stopped a few miles further -- to photograph the landmark Amboy Crater cinder cone, I realized what I'd done. Returning to the original spot I found, stretched across maybe twenty feet of highway, the remains of the Nikon. It was, and remains, one of the most heartbreaking moments of my photographic career. (So much so I bagged up the debris, and refused to let my wife throw it away for at least five or six years. The bag remained on the shelf above my desk, where I could remind myself of the need for care and respect of my photographic equipment.) My wife, bless her, responded to my very upset phone call by finding another Nikon N6006 on eBay and ordering it before I could even get home from the desert. I still have that camera, and likely always will.

Digital image: "Two Sisters"

But what that moment showed me was that photography had become a part of me, had become more than a hobby and allowed me a new art form I truly enjoyed creating. It was, if there was such a thing, the moment that I moved from wanting to be a writer who made photographs, to being a photographer who writes. The image, for me, is the thing.

In my years of work I have been fortunate to have met, studied from or been in touch with artists who I believe represent the very best of modern photographic creativity. 

My first "mentor" and instructor was Sierra Club photographer Craig Fucile. His works documenting the Mojave Desert and Death Valley are spectacular, and he worked with me directly and in a classroom environment to guide me and help polish my work. In fact, it was his inspiration and influence which led me to photograph Joshua Tree National Park a couple of years ago. (Sadly I've lost touch with him -- perhaps he'll see this and reach back.)

Others whose work I admire and have managed to connect with include Jean-Philippe Piter, an extraordinary fashion and lifestyle photographer with a keen eye for beauty and composition. I ran across his work in PURE St. Barth, a beautiful publication he edits and contributes to, which is readily available throughout that wonderful little Caribbean paradise. Some day I look forward to meeting him in person, but for the moment I am content to appreciate his work and every once in a while exchange notes.

Ralph Velasco is one of the very best travel photographers working right now, with an emphasis on not only the image, but the cultural background of his destinations. The "who" behind the "where". I was fortunate to take a course from him one Saturday afternoon, which helped codify things I likely knew, but had never stopped to understand. To internalize. In a way, he gave me a perspective on travel imagery in particular, which has contributed to my current approach and perspective.

Likewise Jay Dickman, a National Geographic photographer who just might be who I want to be when I grow up. I met Jay at  a National Geographic seminar of photography in West LA a couple of years back and have followed his career since. 

Digital image: "End of Day"
In a different way, Jason Little's work and portraiture drives into a more visceral realm. He tells a story with each image, and is possibly the photographic equivalent of writer Harlan Ellison. In his own way, Jason "opens a vein" every time he creates an image. He pisses me off being as good as he is at the age I was just picking up my wife's Pentax. We don't really know each other -- friends on Facebook -- but his work is inspiring.

And there are others, both peers and betters, who have worked with me and given me their support. The late George Metivier. David Rodriguez. Christine Valada.

In their own ways, each of them have had an affect upon my own work. Again, you learn from the best -- which I define as the works which make the most impact upon my sensibilities. As noted, to make we want to be better every time I grab my Nikon.

It's a far cry from picking up a pen and telling a story, but if I am successful the stories are still there and I am energized by the opportunity to make more of them in the future.

If you're at all interested in seeing some of these artists' works, here are the links. Highly recommended.

Jean-Philippe Piter:    http://jeanphilippepiter.com/
Ralph Velasco:   http://ralphvelasco.com/

PURE Magazine - http://www.purestbarth.com/

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." 
                - Albert Einstein

It has been on our No Opportunity Wasted to-do list since the first lists we made back in 2007. 

The Great Barrier Reef conjures, in our mind's eye, hundreds of images and emotions -- in particular, for many fans of Disney movies, the stunning visuals from Pixar's beautifully made film FINDING NEMO. Or, if you're older, perhaps it's Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

Regardless, we all have our images which are conjured up simply by the name: The Great Barrier Reef. Or its geographic corollary, the Coral Sea.

The Reef itself is certainly one of the world's "legendary" natural wonders, alongside such landmarks as The Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest and the harbor at Rio de Janeiro. As a traveler I find myself more enthused and impressed by natural wonders than I am by those

man-made, though certainly there are spectacles with our human thumbprints on them. The grandeur of nature, however, never fails to put mankind in our place, and I love that.

Queensland, along the northern eastern seaboard of Australia, is a diverse and beautiful part of the world. For our visit we chose to bypass the city-like Cairns area, favoring instead a short jaunt north to Port Douglas, a wonderful little seaside town with a laid-back and decidedly tropical flair.

We stayed for four nights at ...By The Sea Port Douglas, our little inn at the beach while in Far North Queensland. (We were amused at the label "The FNQ" as pronounced by most Australians -- more like Effen Q, and not entirely by accident.)

The beach at Port Douglas, just steps from the inn
The inn is perfectly situated within an easy walk to the beach, as well as just a few minutes on foot from the primary shopping and dining district in Port Douglas, along Macrossan Street. The rooms are quite nice, and the views of the tree-lined beach from the third floor are tremendous. The only caution is that the inn does not have a lift, which makes luggage a challenge and any kind of physical impairment a challenge for the upper floors. Still, the location, property, and people make the inn our first choice next time we head back to the FNQ.

Our adventure on the Reef began early in the morning, as the shuttle for Calypso Reef Cruises arrived at the inn to pick us up. The staff at ...By the Sea had equipped us with towels, and the Calypso had the rest of what we needed. I packed only my brand-spanking-new Nikon AW1 underwater camera for the voyage. I'd bought it specifically for this trip, and was excited to see what kind of results it would yield. (And, to be honest, a bit nervous about dunking a thousand dollar camera into salt water...but more about that later.)

A few minutes later we were deposited at the marina, and escorted down the short pier walk to the Calypso, a double-hulled 25 meter vessel designed for snorkeling and scuba tourism. Given the rumors of rough weather later in the day, I was pleased to see a fairly large vessel with a competent crew.

Leaving Port Douglas
We boarded The Calypso, removed our shoes and were encouraged to make ourselves at home. As we arrived we were evaluated and fitted with flippers, snorkel gear and a wet suit. It was explained to us a little later that the water wasn't cold, but that suits were required because we were at the very end of the jellyfish season. The suits would protect us from stings should we meet up with one of the locals. Of particular concern, of course, are Box Jellyfish, among the deadliest in the world. Again we were reassured that it was extremely unlikely we would encounter anything of concern.

Not long after casting off the crew conducted an introductory review of the day and safety regulations. We got to know a few of the other passengers, most of whom were from around the world. (Britain and Australia, naturally, dominated the passenger manifest.) As we made the hour and a half voyage to the Outer Reef, people congregated on the first and second levels -- and a few tanning types made for the third deck sunlounges. morning tea was served and we all chatted excitedly about the day before us.

Not much to look at...
Despite the distance, it seemed we arrived before too long. Since the Reef, of course, is underwater, the only suggestion of a destination is the brown shadow in the water below. The arrival is almost uneventful as the captain selected his spot and the crew (carefully) dropped anchor and got the rear deck ready for the passengers.

For this particular visit, the captain had chosen Opal Reef, one of the regularly mentioned "beautiful" sights/sites on the Outer Reef. Despite its reputation only two boats -- ourselves and one from Wavelength Cruises -- were present, both giving wide berth to each other to ensure a "private" reef experience.

As I sat on the rear deck at the first (of three) site, fins on my feet and feet in the water, I looked out at all of the other passengers who were already in the water. Holding fast to their noodles -- supplied by the Calypso to make our viewing a lot easier -- they moved slowly, fanning out and across the Reef's shadow, heads buried in the water. My wife had already cast off and was joining the group -- roughly fifteen passengers. Five others, true scuba divers, had already departed and were somewhere below.

Nervously I looked down at the camera in my hands. The moment of truth. I should note that the idea of putting a camera into water -- let alone salt water -- goes against my every instinct as a photographer. And what if I had done something wrong? A grain of sand, and speck of dust that compromised the water-proofing? All sorts of things went through my head, not the least of which was "I just GOT this!"

Sucking in air, I leaned forward and dunked the camera, probably wincing as I did so. I looked at the display. It worked normally. So I dunked it again. Again, no problem. Finally, figuring it was "in for a dime, in for a dollar" I accepted this was why I bought it and slid into the water. The camera worked perfectly.

Moments later I was fighting the waves, swimming and drifting a few meters over the top of the first section of reef. In this area the reef was two to four meeter below the surface, which partially muted the colors, but still stunned me with the variety of fish, coral and other life. For a half hour or so I pushed around the camera, making photos with and without the flash, including a handful of videos. (Later I would discover than the constant wave action made the videos a bit loopy to watch, but once I get a chance to edit them properly I will post a few at a future date.) Not knowing what to expect with underwater photography, I was covering all of the bases. Fortunately the Nikon AW1 is sophisticated enough to compensate for my inexperience in underwater photography and allowed me to produce some truly stunning shots.

Time came to pull up anchor and move to a second spot, the duration of which they entertained a few of us with a short presentation on the bow sun deck. One of the crew, a biologist, walked us through what we had just seen, and what we could expect to see at stops two and three. Despite the already-impressive views, we were assured that stop number three would be stunning.

One amusing side note: during the first and second stops, several people were slightly distressed by the presence of small jellyfish, roughly the size of a human thumb, that were floating freely through the water. Plentiful enough that they were difficult to avoid. I found myself pulling back and dodging sideways at times to avoid them...until someone asked our biologist friend about them. All of us were dreading the Box Jellyfish, so really wanted to know if we should be concerned.

"Oh, those," she said. "Nah, they're not dangerous. You can even grab one and put it to your lips for s little buzz." Un-huh. Several of us thanked her, but said this was not likely to happen. But at least we didn't have to contort ourselves unnecessarily -- looking, no doubt, like a marlin caught on a fisherman's line -- next time they drifted into view.

The second stop was equal to the first, but when we arrived and got in for the third and final dive, the change was immediate and stunning.

The first two stops were at reefs several meters under the surface. While spectacular, the colors, as noted, were muted a bit and we, being on the surface, were sufficiently distant as to make the experience wonderful, but not sufficiently different from dives in Hawaii or Mexico.

The third stop explained, in full, why the reef -- The Great Barrier Reef -- is what it is. The surface of the particular structure was a meter or so down, so that we were drifting just inches off the coral. The fish, too, were much shallower, allowing the sun's light to bounce brightly off their scales, enhancing the amazing colors. It was as if the visuals from FINDING NEMO had leapt off the screen and lay before our eyes in real life. Fitting, since that's exactly what had happened, only in reverse. At the third stop you could see the diversity, the amazing beauty of the reef in full sun-drenched brilliance. 

The experience is one no words or pictures can convey fully, but I will try. Drifting over the tops of the coral structures, you get a sense of awe, of amazement that the natural world can produce such an astounding place. Each new area brings another thing of beauty into your view. As beautiful as areas one and two were, the third one was exponentially better. All of your senses are alive, including the sounds of the water lapping in your ears and the crash of light surf on the edges of the reef. Physically you're being bounced around, trying carefully to avoid hitting of touching anything below. Your nose is clamped tight, but the light taste of salt water permeates your mouth. And visually you're on overload.

Just before climbing back onto the Calypso -- exhausted and yet energized -- it occurs to me that so rarely do you find things for which you have built up expectations over a lifetime, which then turn out to be everything you've dreamed. This was that sort of thing.

As we clambered back on board, everyone was talking excitedly and yet also saddened that the reef was now dropping behind us. A storm was blowing in, and as we took turns in the bathrooms peeling the wetsuits off (not easy in a four x three foot room), people drifted into small groups, talking briefly then beginning to stare off into the distance, as if holding onto, for one more moment, the experience. As the Calypso headed for shore the squall caught up with us, making for a rough ride in -- but somehow fitting that the sea, after showing us the beauty if was capable of protecting, was also sending us a warning regarding the fury it could produce. We could look, but do not touch.
Look...but do not touch.

The Great Barrier Reef, all 1400 miles in length, 2900 individual  reefs, 900 islands and 344,000 square kilometers of it, is truly a global treasure -- it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a recognized Natural Wonder.

And as I check this off my No Opportunity Wasted list, I have to wonder: what could possibly replace it as my next goal. 

Maybe Antarctica....

List of World Heritage Sites: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list
...By the Sea:  http://www.bytheseaportdouglas.com.au/
Calyspo Reef Cruises:  http://www.calypsoreefcruises.com/


Monday, May 19, 2014


"There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."
                                             Nelson Mandela

I'm sitting at my desk, in the dark, wearing an "Air Mango" collared shirt, purchased at a Jimmy Buffett store in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten. 

Yesterday, all day, I was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the palm of a hand and the words "Bandolier National Monument". New Mexico. 

Two days ago it was a green t-shirt, unfortunately "tie-dyed" over the years by the California sun, from the very chic Caribbean island of St. Barth. The design is of a stylized air plane on a runway with the words "L'avion" on the front of the shirt, a reference to the island's famous air strip -- an e-ticket ride for anyone who has even flown into or out of there. Or both.

In our kitchen and the back laundry room are display cases with more than a hundred forty shot glasses from around the world. I started my adventures, decades ago, by collecting coffee mugs, but this quickly grew unwieldy. Shots glasses are far easier to display and collect. Both cases are full, with the overflow sitting atop the display, begging for the next earthquake to send them flying into the air and onto the floor tiles six feet below.

Travel is a fundamental in my life.

A few weeks ago, as we returned from a tremendous trip Down Under, I put this blog on pause. Coming home, with the perspective on having a great adventure fresh on my mind, I pounded out a handful of essays and started to post. But something was missing. You noticed it too. Usually when I post a new blog entry I get quite a few first-day visitors. But something was wrong. Only five people checked in that first day. And only six the next day.

Something was wrong. So I posted that I was taking a brief sabbatical to figure things out. It wasn't much fun any more, and this was bleeding through in a way that it wasn't much fun for the reader either. So I posted notices here and elsewhere that I was taking a breather to figure it all out.

Being the good friends that they are, a couple of people offered polite suggestions and thoughts, while most people sent me a note saying they would miss "living vicariously". And I appreciated them all. But it didn't really help put the finger on the problem. Why was it no longer fun, and why was no one coming to the blog. 

That was my second error. My day to day stats were actually up. But not for the newer stuff. I was getting (and continue to get) regular hits to previous posts dealing with New Mexico Chocolate; the sunrise on Mount Haleakala; what it's like to fly above the clouds on a bright morning; and other things. Of particular note is the stratospheric popularity of the film locations for Under the Tuscan Sun.

Then the phone rang. It was a good friend of mine, a well-known writer who is one of the most solid and supportive people I know. We talked for a couple of minutes, exploring different possibilities, ideas, and direction. I argued a bit -- we rarely argue -- and kept pointing out that I couldn't do things because it didn't fit in with the business model I had in mind. The branding of The Thumbnail Traveler, and the eventual direction I wanted to go. 

He listened, patiently. Then, as he is so very able to do and do well, he nailed it.

"It sounds to me like you've lost the passion."


"You're not creating from a sense of passion. You're just doing business."

I argued some more. 

Our conversation drifted to other topics, but I could hear a sense of disappointment in his voice. I wasn't getting it.

Fifteen minutes later the penny dropped. He was right, the bastard.

Two of my very favorite passions in life -- beyond my wife and our respective families and friends -- are travel and photography. The combination are what drove me to create The Thumbnail Traveler in the first place. It's what adds so much texture and complexity to my life, and gives me perspective on who we are and what we have. I look back at my original blog entry and realize I wasn't talking about the wonder and talking about the photos -- I was treating them as incidental and just basically talking instead of enthusing.

I was treating it like a job.

(Don't get me wrong. Jobs can be fun and fulfilling. But taking your passion and allowing it to become mundane is a sad thing.)

I look back and realize that my photographs -- almost entirely lacking in the last four posts -- devolved into simple illustrations. To me, as a photographer, they are (or should be) the -- *ahem* -- focus of this blog. So why wasn't I treating them that way? I loved the places I was going, the adventures I was having, but the explanation of them became simply about providing content. Not telling my friends (that would be you, the reader) about the experiences I'd had. The fun. The adventure. When things went wrong, and when they went so very, very right.

And what I learned along the way, about myself as well as about the place I was visiting. The people I met. The flavors, the smells, the worlds I encountered. I was missing -- in the last six months or more, I think -- what it feels like to have the Indian Ocean lapping at your ankles. Of the insanity of the Vegas Strip. The taste of coal oven pizza in The Village. Gazing down upon Paris from the heights of the Eiffel Tower.

That is what this is all about, this moving from one spot to another.


I like to think I'm back. I called my friend and called him the appropriate names, while at the same time thanking him for the insight. My wife, hearing what he'd said, reinforced the message. It's about the passion.

So please, rejoin me on this adventure. Keep me honest. Let's have some fun. Tomorrow I will post the first of what I hope is a long series of true adventures, based on the visuals I have created to bring you along with me.

After all, I've heard somewhere that All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Taking a break while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, a life-long dream come true.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


 “You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could've, would've happened... or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on.” 
 Tupac Shakur

Hey kids -- after a long period of introspection, and nearly three years of effort (more than a hundred twenty blog entries, and fifty plus galleries on Facebook), I am pausing The Thumbnail Traveler blog, and removing the vast majority of content from the Facebook page. Just not enough of a response or interest for the level of effort it requires.

The Twitter feed will continue.

Over the next couple of days I'll be deleting content from FB. Last chance if you want to see some of the galleries. I will be posting one final note (this one) to the Blog, then letting it rest until I come up with a more interesting approach to attract a much larger audience. I had hoped the excursion to Australia might pick us up a bit, but aside from the infrequent "Like" to a couple of pictures on FB, I've gotten crickets -- and the viewership on the blog has dropped to an all-time low.

For the many people who have visited in the past, and the few stragglers who still check in once in a while, I thank you. I gave it a valiant effort -- this is not a "woe is me" decision -- and simply need to find something that will be of more interest to more people. Attracting 10-15 people per day isn't bad, but it needs to be far better to become a true business.

This isn't goodbye to The Thumbnail Traveler, it's "Stay Tuned".

Friday, May 2, 2014


 "The Rocks, inhabited by the most profligate and depraved part of the population..."

                                - Commissioner Bigge, 1823

The Australian Adventure continues as I find myself 30,000 feet over the continental East Coast on a flight from Sydney to Cairns, looking back at the myriad of adventures from our first destination, New South Wales. From Cairns we will drive roughly 40 miles north to a town called Port Douglas, where we have several world-class activites planned, particularly involving a snorkel out at The Great Barrier Reef.

The visit to Sydney was a whirlwind, no doubt. In four days we managed to pack a variety of things in, spending two days afield and two days in town. Despite the obvious touristy trappings, I find myself once again, endorsing the Hop On Hop Off bus tours as a marvelous way to get the lay of the land -- which in the case of Sydney was vital to getting a glimpse of a few things we would otherwise have completely passed by without any knowledge that we'd missed a thing.

Of the in-town activities, our favorite, without exception, was the evening we spent with our friends in an area of the town called The Rocks. Our day trips were terrific, and we quite enjoyed several other activities, but The Rocks simply was the most fun and the most relaxed part of our short stay in New South Wales.

In any other city this kind of a gentrified neighborhood with Bohemian roots would be called something less creative: like "Old Town", or "The Wharf". But in typical Aussie fashion it's much more characteristically called The Rocks. Despite the name, suggesting you might require some form of athletic gear to make your way around, it's really just an area of gently sloping knolls with old and new buildings interspersed with each other, trying for a singular, cohesive style. Shops, galleries and eating establishments line the streets and walkways, a conveniently easy destination for visiting cruise ships at the Quay. At the far end northeast end of this little peninsula of land jutting out from downtown, nearly invisible as it huddles beneath the world-famous Coat Hanger (the Sydney Bridge), lies the very chic Parc Hyatt Hotel, and next to that a wonderful three-masted wharf development with a line of outdoor restaurants inhabiting some of the former import/export warehouses and other shipping buildings dating to the early 20th century and before.

Among the most amazing views from this perfectly situated spot feature are the Sydney Opera House across the bay; a wonderfully photogenic angle on the Sydney Bridge; and, looking back over your shoulder, a nice angle on The Rocks with the towers of downtown Sydney rising behind them. Photogenic and exciting, with a whiff of a cosmopolitan history in the air.

Our small group of four had dinner at the center most restaurant, the Waterfront Grill, feasting, in my case, on an excellent variation on Coq au Vin -- and the indulgence of a couple of martinis.

As might be assumed, the best time to visit this area is in the early evening, when the lights of the bridge and Opera House make for truly spectacular and memorable views. The walking about is pretty easy, though the sloping sidewalks might give pause for anyone who might have a hip or foot problem. My suggestion is to take advantage of the frequently-placed bench or convenient low wall and make your visit a leisurely and unhurried walk through the area to absorb the energy and vibe. Find a spot to sit, and simply watch the scene as it unfolds. In its own way, The Rocks is every bit Sydney's equivalent of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, New York's Village, Paris' Bastille, or New Orleans' Veiux Carre. It's a fun, historic and slightly bohemian section of town, excellent for people watching. (On this particular Saturday night we saw everything from awestruck wandering tourists to families enjoying a night out to highly fashionable couples to roving bands of college students looking for an exciting place to drink and mingle.)

The Rocks is conveniently situated between the rail and boat stations at Circular Quay (easily accessible by Taxi and Hop On Hop Off busses), and the southern foot of the Sydney Bridge. Taxis are frequent, and finding a table for a meal isn't too difficult, though lines for night clubs could be extensive late in the evening.

Best at night, and bring a solid credit card because -- like all of Sydney -- The Rocks will give foreigners a bit of sticker shock. Well worth the cost given the experience, view, fun and memories you will take home.