Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in Sydney, Australia

Sydney pictures

After having such a lovely time in Melbourne celebrating Christmas early with our friends, it was almost a shame that we flew off to Sydney on Christmas Eve. It was more of a practical decision since hotels were cheaper over these days than over NYE.  Julie found us a really nice hotel in Pott’s Point near the famed King’s Cross area which is known for it’s neon-lit nightlife, travellers’ hostels and general rowdiness. Nearby though a new restaurant district has sprouted up and that’s where we were able to find a place open late on Christmas Eve for dinner. It was an intimate little French cafe whose garlic-breaded mussels were quite tasty – a hint of things to come in NZ..

Christmas Day – Canadian Christmas Eve

To make Julie’s mom happy (& my mom somewhat too, but probably mostly my Auntie Kay) we got up this morning and went to church. We attended a standing-room-only mass at the magnificent St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Sydney. It was a grand affair, with multiple priests doing their little bit of the show and choirs and thundering organs.  A strange sight was all of the girls from the hostels wearing their little clubbing outfits to a church – seemed a bit out of place.  Afterwards Julie phoned home on Skype to get a peek at the party going on back home. It was really good to see everyone and say a quick hello as people passed by the webcam. It made Julie homesick, and I would get my taste of it the next day when I kept my family up late in order to video-conference online.

But while everyone back home was digging into piles of perogies (you have no idea how much I miss kubassa and perohy right now!) weSanta hats & shorts @ Bondi beach headed off to the beach! Bondi Beach plays host to a massive  Christmas Day party every year – tickets for the actual event were sold out long ago, but there are thousands of people just hanging out on the beach.  And the weirdest thing is that I've never seen so many people sporting Santa toques as there were here. 

I was quite excited to tour this world-class city and see all of its sights. That meant we did a lot of walking around. Fortunately our hotel was within walking distance of most of the sights, so although a tad long, the walk from Pott’s Point to downtown takes you through parks and the Botanic Gardens with great views of the harbour and the bridge. Downtown Sydney got a bit of a facelift recently with new developments and other improvements to make it more people/tourist friendly. (Cockle Bay Wharf is a new one with loads of restaurants and bars and pretty people – sort of like Clarke Quay in Singapore.)  It is pretty nice downtown, especially near the ferry terminals with lots of people milling about. We wandered over to a big market where it’s basically a lot of Asian people selling cheap Chinese-made knock-offs but Julie did find some dresses for cheap and there are a couple local people who sell their crafts. 

Sydney is blessed with a lot of coastline and therefore a lot of beaches.  Bondi’s the one famous one. Manly is the other. Julie had been to Manly the last time she was here, but she mistakenly thought that the popular beach was the small dingy one near the ferry terminal. You have to walk across the spit of land to get to the ocean-facing good beach. The area of Manly is pretty cool: nice walkways, lots of shops and restaurants and a good vibe, plus there’s the sweet beach. Julie convinced me to rent a surfboard even though I’ve never even held one or had any sort of lesson. But we both gave it a shot. The surf here is like the biggest I’ve been in and for someone who’s not a great swimmer, it’s a bit intimidating.  After 30min or so of getting tossed around in the waves, I managed to catch the first wave I tried and rode it in to shore. With my confidence buoyed I paddled out again…and didn’t catch another one like that for a long time. Julie also gave it a shot but got tossed off the board and had a hard landing on the bottom which left her with a headache, and me with an hour' rental to use up. Eventually I could get myself to stand up on the board, but only after I’d basically made it to shore and the thing had stopped moving and I’d still fall off!  Sunburnt and beaten, we went home.

Our last day in Sydney we met up again with Kelly Stock and her friend Maria to do a little walk around Bondi Beach. it took us forever to get going - are we ready? i should pee. well, if you are then i will too. well if they’ve left I'll go get a drink. and so on. Funny really. But the delays got us in the end for as we started the hike around the point a mean-looking storm front rolled in overhead and the skies opened up on us.  A storm rolls in over bondi beachWe took shelter under a lifeguard stand and questioned the sanity of a guy standing out on the rocks jumping into the waves as they crashed up onto the rocks. At first, yes, he’s got a death wish. But then we see that he’s timing it so that when he jumps in, the surf is going out and then it comes back in and deposits him right back onto the rock he jumped off of. Oh, and then we see the waters turning black and realize that it’s the runoff from the streets and sewers.  We’d seen signs around saying “no swimming after heavy rains” and now we knew why. It’s gross to see the runoff turn the azure waters murky black along with the litter floating in it.

Our last night in Sydney, we went out for dinner to a Brazilian BBQ place. (For those who don’t know, this style of restaurant features unlimited meat. Servers bring around various meats, usually on large skewers, and slice off chunks for you. Fantastic!)  Julie’s friend Candice used to live/work down here and hooked us up with some of her old pals, Nathan & Gemma, who were quite friendly and gave us some tips for New Zealand.

On the 28th we left for Auckland, New Zealand.  It would end up being a bit of a silly move as we left Sydney where we could have seen one of the world’s premier fireworks displays on NYE while the show in Auckland was a giant let down.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Auzzie Auzzie Auzzie

G'day mate! A pleasant overnight flight on Singapore Airlines put us Down Under this morning and we found ourselves at the Greenhouse Backpackers in central Melbourne. And I finally learned what Julie had been talking about all this time through Asia – why don’t the hostels there look like hostels here? It’s true; these facilities are mass-producing backpacker experiences in a large-scale efficient manner. Big buildings taking up multiple floors, dedicated front-line staff, industrial stainless-steel kitchens and big common areas.  However it all comes at a price – I’m suffering sticker shock from Asia. That fact would become all too evident in a month when I went to pay our VISA bill. ouch. Should’ve spent longer in Asia.

Anyhow, I’m writing this half a year after the fact so this is going to be a super quick summary of 3 weeks in Oz.

First off, Melbourne’s a cool city and I was really looking forward to meeting up with a friend from MacDon who happened to be down there visiting MacDon’s Australia office.  Bruce & Julie & I met up one afternoon and had a great time hopping around pub to restaurant to cafe lapping up the tasty Auzzie wine.

We moved out of the downtown to a trendy little suburb called St. Kilda while we studied the maps to figure out how to see the Great Ocean Road and all the rest.  We debated getting one of these little campervans but after looking at how cramped they were inside we decided against it and just rented a car. We didn’t make it too far out of Melbourne that first day, nor the next day as we got trapped in the outlet shops of the major surf-wear brands in Torquay. Finally as we entered the G.O.R., it started raining and it didn’t stop for days so we were quite happy that we weren’t stuck in a van in the rain.  As such we aborted the Ocean Road and headed towards the wine regions of South Australia.  It’s a long freakin way! A solid 12hr day took us Wynn's Estates, Coonawarrafrom Lorne all the way up to Murray Bridge, with a short stop in the Coonawarra wine region near the South Australia-Victoria border.  We discovered a new blend Shiraz-Viognier in a little shop in Penula, but unfortunately it’s not exported.

I cannot describe how excited Julie Jacob's Creekwas to see the sign “Jacob’s  Creek” as we drove through the famed Barossa Valley wine region.  We sat at the tasting bar in Jacob’s Creek’s visitor centre for nearly 4 hours I think tasting their entire line-up. We got to know the fellow (a commercial pilot trainee) serving us pretty well and he offered to show us around Adelaide, but we didn’t have the time to do so. Suddenly we realized that we were running IMG_9204out of time and Julie still wanted to go to Wolf Blass and Penfold’s, so off we went!  I had  forgotten about the little 1/2 hour time change between Victoria and South Australia and if I’d have remembered I wouldn’t have had to try to drive as fast from one winery to the next. And we also probably would have stopped into Penfold’s instead of just taking a picture of the building.

Penfold's WineryThat half-hour time difference hit us once again the next morning when we awoke @ 5:30am to drive from Adelaide to the south coast to catch a ferry to Kangaroo Island. As we were leaving town I was trying to figure out why the clocks around us were all “off by 30 minutes” until I finally clued in and remembered the guide book saying that South Australia has it’s own time zone.  We had a lot of time to kill at Cape Jervis waiting for the ferry, and nothing was open to serve us breakfast.

Kangaroo Island is a large island south of Adelaide that’s home to many species of wildlife.   I saw my first wild ‘roo driving there – nearly hit them as they bounded across the road but we had to wait until the very end of our tour to see a kangaroo on kangaroo island. Just like deer, they don’t come out until late afternoon to feed so our bus driver pointed out the brown roos as our bus drove past them in the fields.  We opted for the bus tour of the island since getting your car over on the ferry is expensive and then we didn’t really know where to go, plus we were super tired after being up so early.  Australian Sea Lions @ Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island Seal Bay is home to a large breeding population of Australian Sea Lions and with a guide you can go down onto the beach to see them. It’s pretty neat. Especially when one decides to walk straight through the group of tourists.  A buffet lunch finished off with fresh fruit doused in island Nose to nose with wedge-tailed eaglecream set us up for the bird of prey show hosted by Crocodile Hunter’s cousin Dave Irwin.  Julie got up close and personal with a  laughing kookaburra while I got a visit from a little barn owl. I wanted to hold the eagle but apparently cannot do that.

The tour wrapped up with some views of rocks. Remarkable Rocks, but they’re just rocks. The landscape around them was more interesting to me.

So, now we’re heading back to driving along the southern coast of South Australia and we stopped in a lovely seaside town of Victor Harbour and stayed in a grand old hotel for a good price. It was a cool night so we were glad to have a big comfy bed complete with a mattress warmer.  We’re getting too spoiled I think!

Another big English breakfast started the day today – they make better English breakfasts here than in England! The bacon here is fantastic - Oh so good!  We made it all the way to Mount Gambier today, driving beside massive sand dunes in one spot, arid dried-up lakes in another before the landscape turned into hills and large tracts of pine forest.  The area around Mount Gambier is full of ancient volcanoes and sink holes and other limestone features.  WeJulie lauged that I convinced her to climb another mountain spent 2 days touring the area, climbing some mounts and descending into some caves too.   As a spur of the moment, we hustled to the coast south of town to catch a sunset and to see these little fairy penguins come ashore on the rocks at Cape Northumberland.



It took us a week, or more, but we hit the Great Ocean Road today under sunny skies.  This coastline is amazing and there’s fantastic scenery all around it, let alone the interesting formations worn into the limestone cliffs. We saw all of the highlights (12 Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge, etc.) and you can see them too by clicking into the smugmug photo gallery.

One activity that was suggested was the Otway Fly Treetop walk, which is like walking on a boardwalk except you’re 40m up in the tops of the gum trees. As usual we’re always making these plans when the day’s half done so we barely got to the place on time. We Otway treetop walk. Not the best footwear for a hike! pulled up to the gate at 4:25 only to read that “last entry at 4:30pm” so Julie hops out of the car and runs to the ticket office, which turns out to be like half a kilometre from the parking lot. I park the car and run in as well, but neither of us wore good shoes or warmer clothes. So we quickly walk through this forest preserve as the sun goes down making it quite cool in there. It’s a neat thing to do though and we’re glad we just made it! And speaking of just making it, I decided to take a short cut back to the main road and took us down this gravel logging road through the hills of the Otway Ranges. Saved some time I think, but it’s a heckuva windy road that requires full driving attention – let your passenger control the radio!

As you drive along the Great Ocean Road, there are a multitude of tourist traps, notably the helicopter tours. We’d watched the helicopters fly past while we were at the 12 Apostles and were debating taking a ride ourselves. We looked into it and we just could not justify the hundreds of dollars for a meagre 15-minute ride. We’d both been on helicopter rides before (Julie up to the Franz Glacier here in NZ, Andrew around Mt. Rushmore) so it wasn’t that click to view photos of our plane ride over the Great Ocean Road much of a novelty. While in Apollo Bay we saw a sign for plane rides though and they’re a lot more reasonably priced. So we booked with the pilot for a 45min morning flight along the coast in his Piper aircraft. It was a pleasant flight and a great treat to see all of the interesting formations we’d seen the day before but this time from totally different perspectives – once from the ocean side and from the land side on the way back. The coastline is so jagged in spots but rugged in others and the evidence of erosion so drastic.  We were lucky to have sunshine on the way out, but hit a bit of turbulence flying over the Otways on the way back.

Arial view of Loch Ard GorgeWith that highlight, we drove away from the Great Ocean Road having thoroughly enjoyed its scenery and fantastic landscapes.

Bidding farewell to the GOR 

Andrew had made contact with another former Mordenite who was living in Victoria so we made plans to drive up to Ballarat to visit his friend Kelly who’s teaching at the University there.  We managed to find her place tucked into the hills and we had ourselves our very first Aussie barbie!  It was a great visit and pretty cool to reconnect with an old friend was down here “dauwn unda”.

Melbourne, take 2

We continued crashing at friends’ places upon our return to Melbourne where we connected with Andrew’s friend Megan and our new friend Ted (whom we met in Mabul) and took off on another wine tour.  This time we explored the Yarra Valley just northeast of Melbourne. There’s heaps of great wine in this country, and even though I’m not a wine drinker, I’m slowly becoming one on this trip. Julie’s full on into it though, and our trunk (sorry, “boot”) is getting quite full of bottles! The worst thing about going on these wine tours is that you find a bottle that you quite like but then learn that you can only buy it directly from the winery.  (that’s our excuse for not taking any of it back to Canada to share!)

Julie and I haven’t done much cooking at all during this trip but we took control of Megan’s apartment and invited over Ted to join in our Christmas dinner, as all of us were ‘orphans’ for the time-being.  We ventured into the fantastic world that is the Queen Victoria Market in downtown Melbourne to source our ingredients. This is a fantastic market! Heaps of fresh fruit stacked in massive piles, luscious green veggies and big Mediterranean fellows shouting out their bargains - “cherries! 8 dollars a kilo!”  That night we all shared  in a super tasty meal of yearling beef roast with potatoes & veggies, along with various chocolates, Italian cake and 5 bottles of wine from the various wineries we’d sampled 2 days prior.  Super good time Christmas cheers!and a great bit of Christmas cheer down under.  And it was funny how word of our cooking spread to Canada and back so quickly, since Megan’s mom and my mom go to church together.