Everything you’ve heard about Australia is true: the beaches are gorgeous, the people are friendly, and Aussies really know how to appreciate their beautiful coast, especially around the holidays. This is a huge, very flat country, and the effect of all that flatness is that it makes the land seem even more vast, since you can see so very far across the landscape without all those pesky mountains blocking your view.
Australia is pretty much the same size as the US (with only 5% the number of people), and we only saw the east side of the country, but still we were impressed by how much the states differed, especially in relation to the coastline. In New South Wales, it was all surfing all the time: pristine waters, big waves, vast beaches, and clear skies. In Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road, it was rocky coastline (sometimes it looked more like New Zealand than Australia), turbulent surf, and cold, cold water. And finally, in Queensland, the beaches were muddy, the sky was overcast (we were there during the stormy season), and the water was filled with deadly creatures (crocs and jellyfish). In fact, sometimes it feels like we visited three different countries, kind of like how it might feel if you visited California, New York, and Florida, for instance.
And finally, it’s true: Aussies really are super friendly, generous, and fun-loving people. We met a lot of new friends here that had no hesitation hanging out for a day or evening with two complete strangers (that’s us), and showing us all the hidden gems in their respective cities. We were so impressed with Aussie hospitality, hopefully that’s something we can bring home with us.
Days spent here: 38
Average daily expenditures: US$210
Prices: Accommodation was quite expensive in Australia, we typically spent between US$70 and US$125 per night here. Everything else is pretty equivalent to US prices, perhaps a bit cheaper due to a favorable exchange rate. Internet access is not cheap, except in Melbourne.
Weather: Australia is known for its sunny weather, and indeed, it is quite temperate in Sydney (between 80 and 90 degrees F most of the days we were there), growing hotter and wetter the further north you go, and logically, colder the further south you go. We were surprised at how chilly it could get in Melbourne…the weather is also quite unpredictable there (”four seasons in a day”).
Places we would happily visit again: Melbourne
Highlights: NSW: Valla Beach (the water was SO clear here), Yamba, Crescent Head, Pacific Palms, sailing in Sydney; Victoria: Fitzroy district and the laneway bars in Melbourne; Queensland: the Great Barrier Reef.
Places we want to see next time: The west coast of Australia, esp. Perth and south of Perth (we hear it is really beautiful and serene there), Darwin.
Phrases we never heard an Aussie say: “Crikey,” “g’day,” “shrimp on the barbie” (they refer to those delicious crustaceans as prawns…”shrimp” are tiny little things that would fall through a BBQ grate; and Aussies just say “barbeque,” like Americans do).
Phrases Aussies really do say ALL THE TIME: “Mate,” “How ya goin’?” (standard greeting), and “No worries” (the standard response to an apology or expression of thanks).
Our favorite Aussie slang word: “Bogan” (American equivalent of “redneck” or “hick,” kind of affectionate and derogatory at the same time, taught to us by Jackie in Melbourne. We love this word! And yes, we met many bogans on our trip).
Aussies and their sport: Oh my, do Aussies love their cricket. This is a very confusing game to us…it can last up to 5 days, there are all sorts of strange rules, and the point of the game is to knock two little pegs off of 3 vertical sticks. During our stay, we got a general idea of how the game is played, but we were not infected with cricket mania.
Aussies and their booze: Yeah, the rumors are true: Australians really know how to drink. First of all, each state has a beer of choice…in NSW, it’s Victoria Bitter (or VB), Melbournites seem to drink more wine than beer (though their local brewery Bright Creatures makes a mean bright ale), and in Queensland, it’s all XXXX, all the time (nobody but Americans drink Foster’s as far as we can tell). In addition, if you walk into a bar, you can’t just order a pint…there are all different size glasses that go by very undescriptive names like “pony” and “schooner.” Even more confusing, a “pony” in Queensland can be a different size than a “pony” in Victoria.
At the bottle shop (liquor store)…you can jump in the “browsing lane” or the “fast lane” if you’re in a big hurry to get your drink on.
We also heard about (but never witnessed) a ritual called “Sunday Sessions.” Basically, people of all ages start drinking at 10AM on a Sunday and don’t stop until they are passed out on the ground (usually in the early evening). Just another way that Aussies enjoy life to its fullest, we suppose.
Aussies and their feet: Wow, Aussies have tough feet. Seriously, everyone walks around barefoot like it’s no big deal. We tried this a few times and ouch! The sand is hot and the rocks are sharp! But really, everyone from little kids to old timers walk around on every surface without trouble. We’ll keep our flip flops on, thankyouverymuch.
Aussies and their giant fiberglass food products: On our drive up the coast of New South Wales, we saw a giant fiberglass banana near Coffs Harbour, and a giant prawn (REALLY giant) on the roof of a restaurant…somewhere else (we forget where it was). We’ve also seen photos of a giant pineapple in Noosa Head. There’s even an billboard featuring all the different giant food items. I don’t think we’ve ever been to another country where there were so many giant fiberglass foods.
Aussie sense of humor: OK, maybe it’s unfair to generalize and say that ALL Aussies have a weird sense of humor, but we saw enough evidence of it that we feel confident saying that many Aussies do. For instance, there is a commercial on Australian TV that has a beaver selling tampons. No joke. A girl walks around the city with her pet beaver, and the idea is “you wouldn’t treat your best mate badly, so why use another brand of tampons?”
Also, even though our Hippie van looked silly, at least we didn’t have a Wicked van…all of their vans are spray-painted differently and have phrases like “if it weren’t for money, women wouldn’t be interested in men at all” or “mobile breast exam” scrawled across the back. Can you imagine us tooling around Australia in a van like that? Or, you could get stuck with the “Dirty Sanchez” van (these also come in “Donkey Punch” and “Pirate Booty” versions):
Internet: Australia has a telecom monopoly going on (Telstra), and the result is that internet access is expensive and slow. We were quite surprised by this…we thought a first-world country like Australia would surely have fast, cheap access for its residents in order to keep it competitive in the world. Unfortunately, this is not the case…we have had better access in New Zealand and Asia. The friends we met/visited here tell us tales of confusing Internet plans that allow a certain amount of traffic a month and then once that allotment is met, access is either cut off for the month or it becomes excruciatingly slow. The one exception is Melbourne, where wi-fi was readily available for cheap or free.
Food: Overall, the food in Australia was good, but not amazing. We mostly cooked for ourselves the 2 weeks that we were in a camper and for the week that we had an apartment in Sydney. The meat and produce was all fresh and good, although selection was at times limited. We ate out a few times in Sydney and had one exceptional meal at an Indian restaurant, some of the best Indian food either of us has had. We hear that there are some fantastic restaurants in Sydney, but unfortunately, we had to skip for budget reasons. I guess that means we will have to come back.
Kangaroo meat is the big eco food in Australia, kind of like bamboo for flooring in the US. Kangaroos are plainly abundant in many parts and the meat is very lean. We have to admit, we were too squeamish at the time to try any. Some Aussies we spoke with refused to eat it. Others said “its not that bad”. Probably tastes a bit like venison.
Surf: The surf in Australia is, not surprisingly, amazing. On the East, South, and West coasts, there are endless beaches, points, and reefs with great waves. As long as there is a swell in the water, there will be a spot nearby that works with the current wind and tide. It is no wonder that Oz holds the spot that it does in surf lore.
Jeremy heading out for a session off Angourie Point.
The downside is that with great waves come lots of surfers—and in this case, lots of amazing surfers. Everyone seems to surf, and they all rip. The average surfer at a break in Australia would probably be one of the better surfers at a comparable break in the US. It’s fun to watch, but it is a little intimidating out in the water. Fortunately, the breaks that we visited had plenty of waves for all, so the vibe in the water was not at all negative.
There are definitely sharks in Australia and the guidebooks all make references to sightings and attacks. But, as is the case in shark infested Northern California you are pretty unlikely to have a problem. Car accidents and apparently falling coconuts are a much more real danger. But I was happy that an unusual and highly publicized string of 3 or 4 attacks in NSW in late 2008 happened right after I sent my surfboard home.
In Short: We’re glad we finally got a chance to visit this big island down under. If it’s a beach vacation you’re after (perhaps interspersed with some visits to a few world-class cities), Oz is your place! But for us, we enjoyed the people we met here more than the landscape—don’t get us wrong, we LOVED the swimming in the ocean and seeing life in Sydney and Melbourne—but it’s all beaches, all the time, and it seems the personalities we encountered varied more than the landscape did.
When we got off the OceanQuest II, we were very tired and more than a bit messed up from all the diving we did (clogged ears and blistered feet from the bad rental fins), but happy and looking forward to our the next part of our Cairns trip: a visit from my cousin Jasmine! Jasmine is in grad school in Brisbane, so she bought a plane ticket into Cairns to share a few days with us on our trip. We’ve met a lot of really nice people, but there’s nothing like seeing a familiar face while you’re traveling…and family at that!
Diving is by far the biggest tourist attraction in Cairns, but you can also hop around to some of the offshore islands via ferry. We chose Fitzroy Island, because we read that Green Island was more touristed and Fitzroy attracted more locals. The ferry to Fitzroy costs about AUD$63 return (approx. US$48), and it takes about an hour to get to the island. There are a few small beaches and one resort there, where you can rent snorkeling gear and stinger suits: ridiculous-looking full-body swimsuits that prevent you from being stung by the deadly jellyfish in the water.
After putting on the suits, your fins, and snorkel mask, the only skin exposed is on your forehead and around your mouth…and you still get stung around your lips (though only by harmless but stingy jellyfish and not the super deadly kind). We were both a little freaked out by this but once the current came up in the afternoon, it washed all the stingers away and you could get in the water without the Blue Man suit on.
It was a really lovely island and we spent the day relaxing on the beach, snorkeling, and checking out the new resort they just built on the island.
The following day, we rented a car and drove up towards Cape Tribulation, which the brochures describe as a place where “the rainforest meets the reef.” One thing I haven’t mentioned about Cairns: it’s hot. And wet. Like, 90 degrees hot and 100% humidity wet. Also, remember the deadly jellyfish? If not, there are helpful signs everywhere to remind you:
All you want to do is jump in the water when it’s this hot and wet, but you can’t because of the deadly jellyfish, and oh yeah, did I mention there are crocodiles here too?
All of this makes Cape Tribulation a bit boring, since you can’t really swim or walk on the beach and there isn’t really much else out there. BUT, we did do a “boardwalk” (literally, a boarded walkway) through a mangrove forest. And this was actually really cool because it turns out that Jasmine is some sort of mangrove expert and could totally be a mangrove tour guide if there was such a thing and she decided that life as a grad student wasn’t for her. She told us all these cool facts about mangroves, like the fact that the long pods that hang off the tree are actually mangrove seedlings that have already germinated, so they just fall off the tree, float in the water until they hit land, and immediately take root.
Mangroves also send up root stubs above the ground in order to get more air, like little snorkels:
We also spotted a cassowary! In case you don’t know what a cassowary is (I didn’t), it’s an enormous bird like looks kind of like a ostrich or emu, except its body is covered in black fur, and its head looks like a psychedelic turkey. They are weird, but super cool looking animals.
Mostly though, we just spent the time seeing some stuff around Cairns and getting to know Jasmine a bit better. Jasmine and I grew up together in San Diego and our families are really tight, but we really haven’t spent much time together as adults, and it was really cool to see the interesting human she has become. Thanks for coming to visit us, Jasmo! We had a great time with you and really appreciate you spending the time and money to come see us on our trip. xox
Cairns is on the northeastern side of Australia, in Queensland (apparently the only state where people actually say “crikey,” though we never heard any Aussies use this phrase). Cairns the city isn’t much to write home about, but it acts as a launching pad for the Great Barrier Reef. The GBR is unusual, first, for its size (huge), and secondly, for the fact that it exists so far away from the coast (usually, reef systems develop fairly close to the shore). As a result, to get the best diving experience in the GBR, you must stay on a liveaboard boat. You can do a day boat out to the reef, but you will spend most of your time in transit (it takes an hour on a motorboat just to get out to the reef) instead of doing what you really want to do, which is diving.
We did a 3 day/2 night excursion with Deep Sea Divers Den, one of the larger GBR touring operations (the other is ProDive). It is a large boat, with room for 48 people, but the boat was not at capacity since this is the low season in Cairns due to tropical storming (Aussies call it “the wet,” and indeed, it apparently stormed really hard the day before we flew into Cairns, as the surrounding plains were completely flooded). We had tried for a smaller boat—the Santa Maria is smaller sailing vessels that maxes out at 10 people per trip—but their leave dates did not work with our schedule. Nevertheless, DSDD is a great deal: a really nice double room, all food, and all gear for 12 dives costs AUD$560 (approx. US$420) per person. They do try to upsell you on a few things (guided and deep dives, a nicer flashlight for the night dives, etc.), which is annoying but I guess to be expected. The common areas on the boat are also really large and comfortable, so we never felt crowded or claustrophobic.
So here’s how it works with DSDD: you board a day boat early on the first day (DSDD will pick you up from wherever you are staying, which is nice). This first boat is where you will do your first 3 dives. After lunch, people who are staying overnight get transferred over to the liveaboard (the OceanQuest II). The day boat includes certified divers, people taking their PADI courses, and snorkelers, and it is pure mayhem. The dive deck is small and crowded, and it is pretty chaotic and hectic when all these different groups are trying to get ready to get in the water. But that’s not the worst part—apparently half the people on this boat did not realize that they were prone to seasickness…until they got on the day boat. I’m not joking when I say that there were people throwing up everywhere you looked. As such, we started referring to the day boat as the “Barf Boat.”
Needless to say, we were pretty happy to be transferred over to the OceanQuest II, where things are much calmer, more spacious, and less..barfy.
OK, on to the diving. When we tell people that we dove the GBR, the first thing they ask is, “Is the reef really dying?” And the answer is, well, yes, parts of it are. But other parts of it are still really beautiful and pristine. On the OceanQuest II, we moved dive locations twice a day, but all locations seemed to be clustered around the same area. We are not sure if maybe Queensland makes the large boats stick to a certain part of the reef in order to minimize damage, or maybe divers are only allowed in certain areas. In any case, it seems that you move very short distances from one cove to the next when you dive with these liveaboard operations.
I don’t think we had the best dive conditions when we were there. The first day was pretty bad because the storm had stirred up a lot of stuff and visibility was pretty poor. But by the second day the visibility was a lot better—probably up to about 10 meters—though we heard that when it is good here, you can see 30 or more meters under water. The early morning dives were the absolute best conditions: the sun is just rising, the reef is waking up, and the visibility is excellent.
We did 4 dives the first day, 5 dives the second, and 3 dives on the final day. That’s a lot of diving! I think I had only done about 10 or so dives before this and Jeremy had done 6, so with 12 more dives under our belts, we doubled and tripled our logged dives. It was a pretty intense schedule. On the second day we did the following:
6AM: Morning dive
7PM: Night dive
Oh, one thing to take note: all dives on this boat were unguided (you have to pay AUD$15 or US$12 for guided dives with DSDD). This was really unusual for us, as we have always been diving with a divemaster, but we came to really like the freedom of unguided diving. DSDD does a little dive brief beforehand to go over the dive area, and then you get thrown into the water.
We saw fabulous coral systems, a shark (Jeremy did, I didn’t), a guitar fish, giant clams, rays, turtles, and lots and lots of tropical fish. By far the star of the underwater show, however, was Wally, a giant Napoleon fish who is so tame we were calling him “the puppy dog of the sea.” Seriously, he would swim right up to you and let you pet him and everything.
The phrase “diving the Great Barrier Reef” elicits all sorts of fantastic thoughts in the imagination, and though we’re not sure that our experience met these very high expectations, we are really glad we did the trip. We mets many really fabulous people, did our first night dives, logged several more dives in our books, and overall had a really great experience…except for the barf boat.
We really thought we loved Sydney…until we got to Melbourne. There is a HUGE rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne (kind of like the rivalry between Northern and Southern California), and we have to say, we side squarely with the Melbournites on this one. To be fair, we DID really love Sydney—physically, it is much more impressive, and there are a lot more activities for visitors. It’s just that Melbourne aligns itself more with our temperaments, our interests, and our philosophies towards life. Actually, the easiest way to explain it is to say that it is very similar to San Francisco…so much so that we got really homesick walking the streets of Fitzroy (a neighborhood in Melbourne that is similar to the Mission, where we live). Also, it’s pretty cold in Melbourne: “four seasons in a day” is what they say around here, and they’re not joking. We never thought we could be so cold in Australia! But it can also be quite nice here, and when it is, it’s heavenly.
We started off our jaunt in Melbourne with a visit to Federation Square, which is a huge, modernist building housing several art institutions and cafes—kind of like a cultural center, if you will. There are lots of Victorian buildings in Melbourne, but they are contrasted with ultra-modernist contraptions like Fed Square, and I find the juxtaposition really interesting.
Inside Fed Square is the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/), where we checked out some really cool exhibitions featuring incredibly interesting work from an Aussie photographer named Rennie Ellis, and a mixed media artist named Rosalie Gascoigne:
By far our favorite activity in Melbourne was the Rooftop Cinema. You go to the top of this building where they have beach chairs set up on astroturf to watch movies right as the sun sets over the CBD. There is a bar and a small stand selling yummy crepes, and you can hire a blanket since it can get quite chilly up there. It was incredible! We saw a cheesy surf film from the 1960s featuring Gary Busey and Jan Michael Vincent.
Another super cool feature of Melbourne is its laneway bars. Tucked behind the main streets in the CBD, these cute little venues are hidden from the masses—good thing we met a local who told us about the best one (Sista Bella)!
Speaking of locals and bars, we met some new friends for drinks at a bar by the river called Riverland Bar and Cafe. They are friends of Jeremy’s friend Ken, who lived in Melbourne for a while. We are LOVING this friends-of-friends business! Everyone is so kind and we’re constantly amazed by their willingness to spend time with total strangers. The weather was spectacular that day and it was the perfect way to spend an evening.
Incidentally, since we gave our propers to Bob for his Tour of New Zealand’s South Island, then we also need to mention that we basically did Jackie’s Tour of Melbourne. She’s the one who told us about the Rooftop Cinema, urged us to check out the NGV, invited us to her birthday party at a cool rooftop bar, and took us to a great dumpling house in Chinatown. Thanks Jackie!!!
We also visited St. Kilda, the beach closest to Melbourne, but it was freezing that day, so we just checked out some of the shops and watched the kite surfers.
And something we will DEFINITELY do when we go back to Melbourne: the Queen Victoria Market. Oh my god, it is like dying and going to foodie heaven. We have never seen a market this good! We started off in the meat section, where you could buy hard-to-find items like pig’s trotters and ox tongues at unbelievably low prices. They even had live chickens for sale! But the fun doesn’t stop there…you can also get nice wine, incredible cheeses, fresh veggies, and beautiful salamis. Outside of the market in some of the street stands, you can buy everything from electronics to toys to clothes. It was incredible.
While we were in Melbourne, we stayed at a really great hostel/hotel called The Nunnery. It is, you guessed it—an old convent. We HIGHLY recommend this place if you are ever in Melbourne. It has a big beautiful sitting room, a shared kitchen, and it is located in the Fitzroy district, in our opinion the best part of town…and only a 10 minute walk to the CBD.
In the middle of our Melbourne stay, we hopped in a car and headed southwest towards the Great Ocean Road. This is considered one of the great drives in Australia, and the star attraction is the 12 Apostles (though there are only about 8-10 or so left since several of the Apostles have crumbled):
There are also several shipwrecks along this cost, and after seeing how rocky this coastline is, it’s not hard to understand why. We saw the remains of an 1890 shipwreck: a lonely anchor on a rocky beach.
And we finally saw koalas in the wild!
We stayed in Apollo Bay, which is farther from Melbourne than Lorne (the other place people stay when they travel the Great Ocean Road), and we MUCH preferred it. Maybe it was because there was a big event in Lorne that weekend, but it seemed really hectic to us, as opposed to the laid-back nature of Apollo Bay. If you ever make it there, be sure to go up to Mariner’s Point…there is an incredible view of the town!
Overall we had a nice time on the Great Ocean Road, but we found it somewhat overrated. We’re fully prepared to accept that this opinion may be due to the fact that we just came from New Zealand…the driving and the coastline here is VERY similar to its Kiwi neighbor. We had a great time, but we were glad we only spent 2 days in this area before heading back to Melbourne, where the action is.
We love Melbourne! The food is incredible (Lygon Street for Italian, Victoria Parade for Vietnamese, Smith and Brunswick Streets for cute outdoor bars and cafes), the shopping is great, and the culture is very bohemian. If we were to choose any place to live in Australia, Melbourne would be it.
We came to Sydney for the New Year holiday, but we also spent 9 other days in this great city, and it never disappointed. Sydney really is an incredibly gorgeous place. With so many amazing landmarks and that stunning Harbour…how can it disappoint?
Let’s start with the Opera House. It really is one of the world’s amazing buildings. As we were walking under the Harbour Bridge one night, with the sky a shade of cobalt and the building glowing yellow, Jeremy looked towards the Opera House and said, “Seriously, what building is more beautiful than that?” And I admit, I had a hard time thinking of one that could compete. Not only is the form aesthetically pleasing, but the way it is constructed is a marvel of modern industrial engineering. The “shells” are created using long concrete arches derived from a single sphere so that they all have the same curvature (i.e., each arch can be constructed using a single mold, rather than several different molds gradually decreasing in size). This modularity is a huge tenet of modern, eco-friendly design, and the Opera House was way ahead of its time in these terms.
The interior is quite impressive too, though it was designed by a completely different set of architects due to some political wrangling, and it is completely separate from the exterior of the building. Thus, the Sydney Opera House is a “building within a building.”
The other big focal point in Sydney is the Harbour Bridge. While not as lyrical as the Opera House, it is an impressive landmark (and it looks great with fireworks shooting off of it on NYE night).
The closest beach to Sydney’s CBD is Bondi Beach, world famous for its sand and scene…and what a scene it was! This beach easily had 50 times more people on it than any other beach we visited in New South Wales. We were very amused by the posing and primping that occurred during the 2-3 hours we were there. It is so crowded that surfboards were bouncing off heads and people were getting knocked into each other every time a wave crashed. It is less a swimming beach and more of a posturing beach. Still, we were very entertained, the sun was shining, and the water was refreshing, so we had a great day. Note: Do NOT walk from Bondi Junction to Bondi Beach! Save your energy for the walk from Bondi to Coogee or Bronte. The trip from Bondi Junction is hot, sweaty, and unscenic.
The Commodore also took us out for another day of sailing on his boat, the Sommerbreeze. We had a wonderful time exploring the Sydney Harbour, and we got to meet his lovely daughter Jo, her husband, and their adorable kids.
An extremely worthwhile tourist thing that we did was to get a tour of the Sydney Fish Market…despite the fact that you have to get to the market before 7AM! You get to go down on the trading floor and see the buyers bidding on the fish, and you learn how to check that your fish is fresh (Hint: Check the gills! If you pull up the gills and the hairs underneath are red, your fish is fresh). We also got to see enormous tuna in the sashimi pen that sell for $6000…for a single fish!
Kind of a funny segue, but we went to the Sydney Aquarium right after the fish market tour. It was definitely worthwhile…they have these cool tanks where you can walk inside and see the fish from underneath. We got to see the mighty dugong (the cow of the sea), and many many sharks…they are weird looking from the bottom!
We also wandered through the Botanical Gardens and saw the Sydney bats (actually flying foxes) asleep in the trees, visited with the Writers (Jeremy’s old family friends he hadn’t seen in 27 years!), went to the weekend market at The Rocks (not that great), and window shopped along Oxford Street. But overall, we just enjoyed the great food and sights that this lovely city had to offer.
Next time we go back, we’d love to see Manly Beach, the Paddington Market, and explore some of the outer suburbs. We had a great time in Sydney…there is tons to do and see for visitors, and it’s fun just to hang out in the city too. The food is great and varied, the city is beautiful, and the harbour is huge so many of the apartments and restaurants have water views. The more we see of Australia, the more we have come to believe that Aussies really have it figured out.
We arrived in Sydney on the 27th of December, ready to settle into one of the world’s great cities for 10 days. As we were planning our trip, I told Jeremy, “I don’t care where we are any other time, but I want to be in Sydney for the new year!” This turned out to be a somewhat stressful requirement, as we started looking for places to stay when we were in New Zealand (about a month before the new year), and most accommodation in the good neighborhoods over the holiday are either booked or they cost about $500/night. Ouch! So here’s a tip if you’re ever thinking of staying in Sydney over the new year: book early! Seriously, booking a place a year in advance would not be overly cautious. I bet a lot of affordable places with a view of the Harbour Bridge get snatched up before the fireworks go off the year before.
After talking to a friend of a friend who lives in Sydney, we started off looking for apartments in Potts Point, Kings Cross, Woolloomoolloo, and Darlinghurst. These are the affordable suburbs in Sydney that have a view of the Harbour Bridge, where all the action happens on NYE night. Actually, it is not essential to have a view of the bridge to see fireworks since they are pretty much all over the city—there were at least 10 barges around the harbour and multiple buildings in the CBD set up with fireworks—but the most spectacular show is the one around the Harbour Bridge.
We got incredibly lucky and found a 1BR apartment in Potts Point listed by SydneyLinks on the website Gumtree for AUD$150/night (US$125). This was a little more than we wanted to spend but it turned out to be very reasonable for Sydney (and the neighborhood) over the holiday period. Our apartment didn’t have a view of the Harbour Bridge, but most of the places that did were serious money. On the bright side, it did have a lovely deck with a view of Elizabeth Bay in the Sydney Harbour:
And the interior wasn’t too shabby either…imagine going from the Hippie camper to this!
The neighborhood was really great, too: walking distance to King’s Cross (sort of the red-light district in Sydney, but also a major transportation hub for the trains and busses), across the street from a great Woolworth’s supermarket, and a 15-minute walk to the Botanical Gardens, Hyde Park, and the CBD (Central Business District). We were really happy with our digs.
OK, now on to the main event…New Year’s Eve! NYE is a huge event in Sydney—they close off some of the parks with nice views of the bridge and people start camping out (sometimes) days before the event! Jeremy and I were just starting to get a little worried about where we were going to go—we heard that the streets of Sydney could be pure madness and we were worried about getting a good view. We were just starting to scope out some locations in our neighborhood when the most amazing thing happened—the heavens opened up, the stars aligned, and we were sprinkled with magical good karma dust: we got invited to go out on a boat in the Sydney Harbour! New Year’s Eve night! With a Commodore! On a boat! In the Sydney Harbour! New Year’s Eve night!
Basically, what happened was this: Randy and Laurie (Jeremy’s parents) share a work building with an Aussie woman named Sonia. They mentioned to her that we were on this trip and said we were in Australia. She emailed us and said, “You have to get in touch with my Dad. He has a boat and loves to take people out sailing. Oh and by the way, he was the Commodore of the yacht club in Sydney.” We were excited about the idea of going out on a boat in the Sydney Harbour, but never expected to be invited out on NYE night!
We met Commodore Hans and his partner Val (and about 10 other friends of theirs) at the yacht club in Rushcutters Bay on NYE night. We had a few drinks there and then we headed out on the boat before the 9PM family fireworks. The sun was just starting to set over the CBD (central business district), and it was coloring the sky the most incredible shades of blue and orange. The harbour was ultra calm and clear…in other words, it was the perfect night!
Just as dusk finally fell on the city, they set off the first round of fireworks.
It was amazing to see the brightly colored fireworks lighting up a night sky that was still bright orange near the horizon. We were happy campers.
We headed back to the dock after the first round of fireworks, and that’s when Val busted out the champagne, Sydney rock oysters, Balmain bugs (they don’t have “bugs” in the States—they are kind of like a cross between a lobster and a prawn and they are really delicious), and other delightful treats. Not only do Hans and Val know how to party, but they are amazing hosts as well! We all feasted on the boat while waiting for the midnight fireworks.
Finally, it was time…we pushed out of Rushcutters Bay around 11:40ish. Many other boats had already claimed their spots and anchored in the harbour. It was pretty congested in many of the best viewing areas, but the Commodore had a plan. We crept slowly, slowly out towards the harbour, and as soon as the fireworks went off, he glided straight into the secret spot. The patrolling officers are busy watching the fireworks and don’t bother you until after the fireworks are over…and you get to watch the show in the middle of the harbour, with no one else around you (apparently he has repeated this same program several years in a row now).
It was a beautiful show. The fireworks danced off the water, and since there was no one around us in the exclusion zone, it was calm…almost peaceful, despite the loud explosions and the bright lights. What a way to ring in the new year! It’s gonna be a great 2009.
To help keep costs down and because we love cooking (and eating!), we prepared as many of our own meals as possible while traveling around New Zealand and Australia in our camper vans. It turned out to be a great decision, as the meat and produce were fresh and delicious almost everywhere we stopped and many of the smaller towns didn’t have appealing (or in some cases, any) restaurants. For the price of a mediocre meal out, we could prepare something more extravagant ourselves.
Our favorite meals revolved around the great meat and produce that both countries had to offer. In both New Zealand and Australia, the beef and lamb appears to be grass fed by default. There is plenty of pastureland and no subsidized corn industry, so the the sheep and cows spend their days in the gorgeous open pastures munching on grass. Happy grass fed animals made yummy meat. (Interestingly, we did just notice a restaurant in Sydney that advertised “grain fed rump steak”. Apparently some prefer the fatty taste of grain fed beef. Not us!)
It did take a little while to figure out and get used to the way that meat is butchered down here. The most common cut of beef is the “Scotch fillet,” which we eventually figured out is the same as an American “ribeye”, although it tends to be cut thinner. We preferred the Porterhouse steaks because because they have less marbled fat and gristle, and were able to find them most places except for the really small towns.
We tried a few different cuts of lamb, but rack is far and away the best (and most expensive). The loin chops were quite good too, but they tended to have a lot of bone and fat so are a little more difficult to deal with. We tried the leg chops once and didn’t like it as much: tougher meat with more fat and connective tissue makes the leg a better candidate for roasting or braising.
Rack of lamb with roasted cauliflower.
It was more difficult to find cuts of pork that we liked; but when we did they were always great. The Kiwis, at least, seem to prefer loin chops with lots of bone, fat and skin. Yes, they leave the skin on the meat (”with rind”)! Maybe the skin fries up nicely, but it made us squeamish and we always cut it off. Not surprisingly, we loved the bacon, and in New Zealand the bacon section in the market was often as big and varied as the sections for lamb and beef.
Although we ate less seafood, the Atlantic Salmon (farmed raised in New Zealand and Tasmania) and the green lipped mussels from New Zealand were really yummy.
Pan-fried Salmon with paprika, green salad, and broccolini.
Most places we stopped had great produce, although it was expensive at times and there was typically less variety than in the US (probably because it was all local rather than shipped in from around the world). Avocados, onions, cucumbers, green beans, asparagus, broccoli and broccolini, cauliflower, and lettuce were all very good. We were surprised at how was difficult to find good garlic: it all seemed to be imported from China and was often old and sprouting. Whenever possible, we stopped at some of the local farms or veggie stands for our produce, as the prices were lower and the selection fresher.
In New Zealand, there was some very good (but also very expensive) cheese. Apparently, parts of Asia are developing a taste for cheese and as a result it has become a big New Zealand export, and to the dismay of the Kiwis, this is driving up the price at home. (I think I heard that the price has tripled in the last few years). The eggs in New Zealand are also amazing…the yolks are a bright orange color and they are super fresh and delicious.
Both of the vans that we rented came equipped with stove, fridge, sink, pots and pans and utensils. It was actually quite liberating to cook and eat with one pan, two plates, two forks, and two cups (Hope’s comment: especially for Jeremy, the “use-every-utensil-in-the-kitchen” type of chef!). We became masters of the “one pot” meals. All holiday parks in New Zealand come equipped with a fully-stocked kitchen, though this is not the case in Australia. Typically, Aussie “caravan parks” only have a barbie (though their barbecues are simply large outdoor metal pans with a hole in the center for drainage). Even in New Zealand, we preferred to cook over our little propane stove, as our camp views were typically much nicer that the inside of a kitchen.
The fridge and storage space were limited in the van, so we shopped every day at times. We bought a few staples to stock our pantry, but overall tried to keep things simple.
- Sea salt flakes
- Black pepper grinder
- Olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Red pepper flakes
- Smoked paprika
- Fresh rosemary and thyme
As mentioned in my previous post, it took us a few days to find our new Aussie rhythm. It’s funny…our two weeks on the beach is exactly the type of vacation I would normally prefer: warm weather, swimming in the ocean, relaxing on the beach, and generally getting away from it all. But what I learned from this experience is that when you don’t have anything to “get away” from—when your life is not that stressful on a daily basis (save those moments when we’re lost in a big city or really hangry)—relaxing on the beach can be really boring. Like, “counting-down-the-days-until-we-return-the-van” boring. You need something to occupy your mind and feed your curiosity when it’s just miles and miles of “sun-drenched sands and crystal-clear waters with the constant soundtrack of rolling surf,” however nice that sounds. It took me a couple of days, but I finally realized that I needed to chuck my boring non-fiction book and start reading something that I was really engaged in. Once I did that, our new routine fell into place, I started enjoying the uneventful nature of the beach, and didn’t even mind the hippie camper. It’s interesting how simple the solution can be sometimes.
Another simple solution that helped solve our issues with the creepy flesh-colored vinyl curtains and general ugliness of the hippie camper’s interior: we rigged up our travel mosquito net! Not only did this allow us to sleep in peace with the windows open, but it added some ambience to our dreary camper interior. It was a total McGuyver job—we set this puppy up with dental floss and duct tape (no joke):
Our NSW routine consisted pretty much of the following:
1. Drive somewhere nice. Or not.
2. Yoga or run on the beach (Hope) or surf (Jeremy) in the morning, followed by swimming in the ocean, or any combination of the above.
3. Hide from the sun when it gets too hot.
4. Buy groceries (we shop on a daily basis since the camper fridge is tiny).
5. Make food.
6. Clean up from making food.
Just a few photos of the places along the coast we really liked:
We got as far north as Byron Bay, which is a big beach destination in NSW. We heard and read a lot about this area, but I think our timing was unfortunate…we showed up the day before Christmas Eve and the place was a madhouse: very scene-y, very busy, lots of posers. We were there about 45 minutes before we decided to get back in the car and drive back to some of the more secluded beaches that we saw on the way there. It’s funny, many people drive from Sydney to Byron Bay in a single day…it took us about a week and a half. Our sluggishness could have been a reaction to our more “motivated” pace in New Zealand, but I prefer to think that we were just responding to our environment. In NZ, the scenery changed dramatically every half hour and we were engaged in both the activities and the new sights around every corner. In Australia, where you just take your pick of beautiful beaches, we slowed it down a lot and just moved when we wanted to (we averaged less than 100 km a day during that first week and a half). So, in hindsight, some of the original anxiety I had about moving too fast was unfounded, I think…we were moving as fast (or as slow) as felt right according to the environs.
One last thing I do want to mention about the NSW coast during this time…about a week into our drive, the school holidays began, and entire families moved out to the beach for 3 or more weeks to celebrate Christmas and the new year. This is a big thing in Australia and it was so cute watching all the families open presents on Christmas morning. What a great environment for kids!
After a shaky start, it turned out it wasn’t a bad environment for our Christmas, either.
We arrived in Australia on a Saturday afternoon, a little sad to say goodbye to amazing New Zealand, but nonetheless excited to start a new chapter in our adventure. We saw and did so much in NZ…our camper van rental peeps were shocked at the amount of mileage we put on the van given the amount of time we were in the country. They said they expected (for a 28 day rental) around 2000 km—we drove over 5000 km. But instead of feeling proud of how much we were able to squeeze into our month-long trek in NZ, I grew contemplative. Wasn’t the point of this trip to try and slow down? Did we just transfer all of our anxieties from daily life in SF over to our trip? Was I still living too fast, just with a prettier view?
These thoughts were in my mind as our plane approached Sydney. OK, first things first: Sydney is HUGE. And flat. And beautiful. And HUGE. I turned to Jeremy and said, “we’re not in New Zealand anymore.”
It’s funny…I would totally expect a huge culture shock when traveling from an English-speaking country to Asia, for instance. I didn’t expect any difficult transition from New Zealand to Australia. And perhaps that’s precisely why we had such a hard time adjusting the first few days. We were so focused on trying to squeeze every last experience out of NZ that we completely forgot to prepare ourselves mentally for a new country, a new routine, and a new (much smaller) van. A van that, quite honestly, looks pretty ridiculous:
We got off to a pretty rocky start in Australia. Because we changed our flight to a later time, we ended up getting in later and were charged AUD$75 by the rental van company because we showed up 10 minutes after closing time. Then we headed out of the city and both of us were WAY past the point of hangry and bonking before we finally got something in our stomachs. And when we rolled up to the holiday park, the place was bigger than most of the cities in New Zealand and cost AUD$45 per night. That’s right…we’re not in New Zealand anymore. And on top of all that…the van. Jeremy wasn’t sure we were going to make it the full two weeks in that tiny van. We were too tall to sit up straight in it and it had flesh-colored vinyl curtains. I repeat: FLESH COLORED VINYL CURTAINS. He even suggested trading the van in for a bigger one after our first night in the car.
Before you all get too concerned, I’m happy to report that we worked all of these issues out. I think we were both on edge the first few days driving up the coast of New South Wales (NSW), and we didn’t really like the areas directly north of Sydney (too scene-y for our tastes). But once we got about 3 hours out of Sydney, we started to find our new groove and settle in to this new, bigger, hotter, and still-beautiful-but-in-a-different-way-than-New-Zealand country.
I think the biggest adjustment we had to make was to get used to the fact that in Australia, the natural beauty is much more focused towards the beach. Once we accepted this fact, we were able to open our hearts to this land they call Oz. And now I’m going to lift a line directly from one of our guidebooks because it so perfectly and accurately describes the experience of driving the coast of NSW that I wouldn’t be able to find better words myself:
“The north coast of NSW stretches almost 900 km from Sydney to Tweed Heads, a seemingly endless string of beautiful beaches, bays and headlands, crystal clear waters and national parks. There are so many stunning natural features that, after a while, they all seem to merge into one golden memory of sun-drenched sands and crystal-clear waters with the constant soundtrack of rolling surf.”
Indeed, I can’t remember anything from the two weeks we traveled the coast of NSW. That is, I remember that we saw this lighthouse and that incredible sunset, and we walked on those rocks and swam in that cove, but I can’t remember where we were when we did those things. Compare this to New Zealand, where I could remember the name of every podunk little town we passed through, even if it was some crazy Maori name. I kept having to ask Jeremy, “where did we do that again?”
Still, a few things do stand out, and I think it’s best to say it in pictures:
to be continued…