A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: hidburch

Au revoir, Australia!

And we went out with a bang!

9:00 pm
Wednesday, 21 October 2009
Shangri-La Hotel
Sydney, Australia

Today was our last full day in Australia, and we did our very best to make sure we said goodbye to this spectacular country in spectacular fashion, starting off with a Sydney Harbor Bridge climb. I know you are all simply expiring to know whether or not yours truly, an avowed coward vis-à-vis high places (ask Mr. Varner about having to change certain light bulbs at my house!), managed to muster the internal fortitude to make the climb. Yes, I did!!! I made it all the way to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, over 400 feet in the air (that’s over forty stories!) without puking or peeing my pants! (I will not deny, however, that I was white knuckling it for a significant portion of the trip.)

Our bridge climb was scheduled for 9:40 am, and not wanting to miss one minute of the fun, we got there at 9:15...if you ever come to Sydney, the Shangri-La Hotel is right up the street from the BridgeClimb office, FYI. We started off signing the liability wavers, lest we die in a gruesome fall and you, our nearest and dearest, get motivated to sue them. Then we had to blow a breathalyzer to prove we were not under the influence. For heaven’s sake, it was 9:00 in the morning! I was under the influence of toast with marmalade! Then it was off to get suited up. We had to don little bridge jumpsuits over our clothes, then pass through a metal detector to prove we had nothing in our pockets that we might throw off the bridge. Next, we got our caps and hankies, which were clipped to our suits, along with a bungee for our shades. After that, we had to don fall arrest belts with which we clipped into the safety cable and cheekbone radios so that we could hear Bernie, our very odd little guide, throughout the tour. Then we were off.

Our climb was the bridge Discovery climb, which took us to the top of the bridge through the internal superstructure, rather than up the outside. I originally thought that there would be lots of engineering details about the bridge. Not so much. For the first 300 m, we walked under the roadway access ramp to the bridge, which was largely open underneath, which is my particular bugaboo: I don’t like to see underneath me. However, once we got to the bridge proper, we were largely climbing up stairs that were against large steel support girders; ergo, no view through and one happy little chicken. We were clipped into the safety cable in a particular order, so we had to stay in that order throughout the climb. David was behind me (my choice…it kept me going), and there were three college girls in front of me doing the climb to celebrate a birthday. Frankly, they were annoying: they were stopping to appreciate the view a little too much, which in my view simply delayed me getting to the top and getting the hell down again! Couldn’t they have just done a pub crawl instead? In front of them was a little 65 or 70 year old woman, and she’s who kept me going: I couldn’t let Granny smoke me!

Some observations about the climb: the bridge did not vibrate or sway very much underneath me, which was definitely appreciated. My radio headset did not fit me properly, so it made it very hard to hear Bernie during most of the tour, and there was a little breeze, just enough to make it not seem so hot.

It took us about an hour to reach the top, with a couple of stops for Bernie to take our pictures along the way. (Only the group photo was included: individual photos were extra, but who ISN’T going to buy them?? Duh!) We spent probably 15 or 20 minutes hanging out on the very top of the bridge (under the flags if you’ve seen pictures) before mercifully heading back down again. I had specifically fluid-limited that morning so as not to have to make a potty break in the middle of a friggin’ bridge) and was dying of thirst. Plus, I wanted to go shopping and the dilly-dallying descent was cutting into prime shopping time! We made it back to terra firma about 12:30, reversed the suit-up process, then stopped to be extorted for pictures and souvenirs. Like I said, after you’ve spent all that money to climb, who’s not going to spend the extra dough for proof thereof??? That’s one efficient monopoly for certain. Happily, some of the proceeds from the climbing fees and pictures go to bridge conservation and upkeep.

We literally hit the ground running after that: we hailed a cab to the Queen Victoria Building, which is a very glamorous shopping arcade on George Street. (Think Coach, Gucci, Marc Jacobs, etc.) We hurriedly ate a sandwich whilst I plotted the shopping plan of attach. In deference to David, I only hit four unique Australian stores, at which I found absolutely nothing I was looking for. (I really attribute this to the pressure of shopping with a somewhat unknown entity (David), ‘cause you all know I can shop with the best of them! Shopping is a hobby that might best be pursued solo, I think.)

We headed back up George Street, one of the main drags, popping into little shops along the way. Per Sara’s recommendation, we also visited several Post Offices. The Post Offices here sell lots more than stamps. They have calendars, collectible coins, Cds, DVDs, toys, office supplies…really, a little bit of everything! We wandered back into the Rocks area before I found what I was desperately seeking: another carry-on bag! I loaded up my big backpack and plan to check it as luggage (happily, international travel means you can check two bags for free), but needed some sort of bag to schlep stuff on the plane. And I found a lulu: a Drizabone weekender bag. It was more than I originally planned on spending, but you all know how I get when I see just the right thing. I brought it back and put what I needed in it, and there’s still some room for last minute airport purchases. Yahtzee! I figure I can use it for trips in the future, so if we amortize the cost over….never mind.

Speaking of shooting your wad, we certainly did with dinner tonight! I absolutely say without a doubt that tonight I spent the most money I have ever spent on a meal in my life. Lisa, our faboo tour guide, was able to get us reservations at a restaurant called Rockpool, which we’d read about in the New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, and several of our guide books. So we slicked ourselves up and headed on down. When we got there, we discovered there were basically two choices: the eight course chef’s tasting menu and the four course prix fixe a la carte menu. We opted for the four course menu--who wants to eat eight courses of anything?

Because I knew I could not accurately recollect what we ate (it was so off beat that I wanted to get it exactly right!), I asked our extremely sweet waitress for a copy of the menu to keep as a souvenir. (The waitress, Amy? Emily? April? We’ll call her Amy to make it easy. Amy, it turns out, has dual US and Australian citizenship and actually grew up in Eugene, Oregon before returning to Australia with her mother. I think she took a little shine to us because we are Americans, but whatever the reason, she provided absolutely FABULOUS service!) So anyway, here’s what we ate:

Heidi

Canape of fragrant crab broth with hand picked Queensland mud crab, dashi custard, tapioca, and wild bamboo pith.
This was okay, but the custard at the bottom was suspiciously slimey and the tapioca was pink! It looked like eyeballs!
Zucchini and parmesan tart with summer vegetables and green goddess dressing
This was probably my favorite of all the courses. The zucchini were sliced razor thin, and there was edible gold leaf on the vegetables! The veggies were chilled, though, which I always find odd.
Goat cheese cannelloni and white asparagus with broken carnaroli rice and hazelnut porridge
The goat cheese cannelloni was quite good, and I would have been down with the porridge if it hadn’t had ANISE in it. Yuck! I did pick the raisins out, though.
John Dory (it’s a fish) poached in tomato water with herbs, kipfler potatoes, fresh samphire, and sauce vierge
The fish was a firm, sweet white fish, and the potatoes were quite good. I could have done without all the grass decorating my food, though. I never did figure out the samphire and sauce vierge.
Amedei chocolate and hazelnut filled pain perdu with banana ice cream
This was awesome. Pain perdu is the French equivalent of French toast, but this was more like a bruleed crust around a little piece of sponge cake with Nutella in it. Yum-o! The banana ice cream was even good, and you know I’m not a fan of banana flavored food.

David
Same crab canape
Chirashi sushi of tuna, prawn, bonito, and squid
Grilled hervey bay scallops with sweet corn crepe and mussel butter
Pan roasted bass groper with king prawn, turnip, spring peas, and tea smoked oyster sauce
Rhubarb and strawberry compote, vanilla panna cotta, and syllabub (that’s a type of liquor and you could really taste it in the panna cotta!)

I imagine you all are wondering how we managed to mow through apparently so much food whilst still maintaining our girlish figures. Very simple: the portions were TINY! Midway through dinner, we were already discussing a pizza run afterward! However, after we finished dessert, Amy brought us little lagniappes: salted butter caramels (excellent), citrus madeleines (excellent), white chocolate bark with nuts and candied orange peel (excellent), and homemade passion fruit marshmallow (I almost had a “When Harry Met Sally” moment over the marshmallows. They were truly the lightest, most ethereal thing I’ve ever had in my mouth. I’m drooling just typing about them!)

After we sold a kidney to pay for dinner, we headed out, but were sadly still a little hungry. I think I told you earlier that there are lots of chocolate shops in Australia, and there was one called Guylian (pronounced Jillian) right at the end of the block that I had been dying to try. (David apparently does not see the need to make sure no chocolate shop goes unsampled…Knowing Carol as I do, I think this may be an indicator that I am her natural child and he is the adopted one!) So we traipsed up the street and got an apperitif: the chocolate special for David (basically a mocha with a ton of whipped cream on top) and a dark hot chocolate for me. When they brought me the chocolate, the cup had a square of dark chocolate in the bottom and hot chocolate in a pitcher to pour over the chocolate for myself. Oy vey, I almost swooned! It was not quite up to Angelina standards, but it was not far behind.

So that brings me to now. I am almost all packed and ready to leave. Australia has been superb, and it’s been great to be on vacation, but it will be great to get back home, sleep in my own bed, and see all of you. I hope you have enjoyed my telling of my adventures--I know I have enjoyed sharing them with you. So, as they say in Oz,

G’day mates!

Posted by hidburch 04:18 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

We are absolutely, positively, 100% in Australia!

(In case you weren’t sure before!)

9:15 pm
Tuesday, 20 October 2009
Shangri-La Hotel
Sydney, Australia

Even accounting for the fact that we just had to switch hotel rooms due to a lack of air conditioning in our previous room, today was absolutely, positively, 100% AWESOME!!! There is simply no other way to describe it! We started off the day by driving to Koala Park, a koala sanctuary in the West Pennant Hills section of Sydney. In addition to koalas, they have a variety of Australian animals, including kangaraoos, wombats, wallaroos, cassowary birds, emus, dingoes, and even peacocks. We got a private introduction to the koalas, which are not technically bears. They are marsupials that eat mostly eucalyptus, or gum tree, leaves. Apparently they are quite finicky and will only eat eight or nine of the almost 1000 varieties that grow in Australia. They grow to about 12-14 kg, and because of the low caloric content of the eucalyptus leaves they eat, they will sleep up to 20 hours per day. Facts aside, I can report that they are incredibly soft because I GOT TO PET ONE! That’s right, I got to pet a koala and have my picture made with it! That is so going on my Christmas card, but it’s going to have to compete with the picture of me HAND-FEEDING A GREY KANGAROO!

The koala keeper, Linda, went into the koala enclosure, which was simply a pen with a waist-high Plexiglass barrier and pulled one of the koalas out of a eucalyptus tree and set her on the ledge. By bribing her with eucalyptus, she kept her on the ledge for quite a while, allowing everybody in the tour group to pet her back and have our pictures made with her. Her fur was incredibly soft and a little curly. She tolerated us exceptionally well--didn’t snap, bite, or scratch, which is amazing considering we woke her up from her nap! There was another koala across the way in a tree and I got several excellent pictures of him. I swear that koala knew what was going on because he posed for the money shot like you wouldn’t believe! He almost smiled at me!

I am always conflicted about experiences like this, because I love encountering the animals (in a controlled environment on my turf!), but at the same time I worry that we are exploiting them. I comfort myself by thinking that these animals have an extraordinarily cushy lifestyle with people taking care of their every want and need, much better than in the wild, and that they promote conservation for their free-roaming kindred.

From the koala exhibit, we headed to the wombat enclosure, but Mathilda wouldn’t come out of her den. Apparently she’s getting up in years and the keepers have decided that people encounters are too stressful for her. Plus, they are nocturnal, so we’d have had to wake her up. Here’s an interesting fact: wombats have an exceptionally strong spine and protect themselves from dingoes, their main predator, by crushing the dingoes’ skulls against the roof of the wombat’s burrow with their spines. Not elegant, but it works! The strength of their spine is also a probably because they can be a nuisance animal, not unlike a large possum, and if you hit one with your car, apparently your car comes out worse for the wear.

From the wombats, it was on to the second HUGE highlight of the day: the kangaroos! We got to go into the pen with several grey kangaroos and feed them! For the record, they eat Cheerios, and they ate them right out of my hand, just like a dog nibbling food! They were so sweet and friendly and just kept nuzzlign your hands looking for more Cheerios. We got to pet them, and they are quite soft too. One of the kangaroos even had a joey in her pouch who poked his head out from time to time! (Grey kangaroos are smaller and friendlier than reds, so they are perfect for this type of thing.)

After feeding the kangaroos, we wandered around the rest of the sanctuary. I saw a cassowary bird, which is uglier than homemade sin, emus, wallaroos (same idea as a kangaroo, only smaller), cockatiels, dingoes (they did not eat my baby!), and a tiny little penguin that wouldn’t come out of his house for anything. There were also peacocks wandering loose around the place, and one of the males put on a spectacular display for us, although he was a little far away. The one that walked right in front of me simply chose to ignore me, even after I implored him that all girls like a little tail!

After the sanctuary we drove around the city, doing a little R&L work. We stopped at Mrs. Macquarie’s chair, a lookout point with a spectacular view of the Opera House, the Bridge, and the Harbor. It is named after the wife of Governor Macquarie, one of the first governors of New South Wales. Apparently Mrs. Macquarie was homesick for jolly old England, and she would go to this headland every day to look out over the harbor. So the governor paid a bunch of convicts (in rum no less!) to carve out a stone bench on which for her to sit during her perambulations. Regardless of the story, the view from that spot is magnificent.

Then it was another HUGE highlight of the trip: a private tour of the Sydney Opera House. We drove to the Opera House and had a group photo made on the steps, then it was into the building for the tour. Our guide, Steven, handed out nifty little headsets that were tied into his microphone and the video systems in the building, so we could hear everything perfectly! There are actually two buildings side by side, the larger hall used for big concerts and the symphony and the smaller one that is used for the ballet and opera. Several interesting facts: to make the engineering of the famous roof work out, the shells are portions of a perfect sphere. The halls are actually two buildings: the concert hall inside the shell of the roof. The larger symphony hall is paneled in a soft tropical wood to give it a warm tone, while the smaller ballet hall is paneled in a hard wood so that sound reverberates more. The seats have the same absorbancy as human bodies, so rehearsals and concerts that are not completely sold out sound exactly the same regardless of the number of people (and more importantly, their acoustical absorbancy) in the theater. The building was originally projected to take 3 years and cost $7 million to finish, but in the end it took almost 20 years and cost over $100 million to construct (not unlike the Big Dig!) I could go on and on…I was fascinated!!

The Opera House tour was supposed to be the conclusion of our bus trip for the day, but Robert, our bonzer bloke of a coach driver, offered to take the group to Bondi Beach. He said he didn’t have anywhere to be with the coach until 4:00, and it was better to wait at Bondi Beach than the airport. (True!) This worked out great for David and me, because we’d planned to go to Bondi anyway, and this saved time and the figuring out of how to take the city bus there (you know how I feel about the bus. Mean little old women ride the bus.) Bondi was quite crowded, even on a Tuesday, and there was quite a bit of surf being kicked up in the water, which is the Tasman Sea. I hopped out and took several pictures of the beach, then walked up the beach a little way to look at the headquarters and first branch of the Surf Rescue Lifeguards (the guys on the Travel Channel)! By this time, it was after 2:00, and Bucky was off her feeding schedule, so I grabbed a yogurt and granola at a beachside stand, then it was back on the bus for the ride back to the hotel.

It was about fifteen minutes to three when we got back, and we had to meet again in the lobby at 4:10 to walk to the pickup point for our harbor cruise. We certainly put that little nugget of time to productive use: we grabbed a cab in front of the hotel and cabbed it to the Bourke Street Bakery, the bakery that produced the cookbook I found in Melbourne. We hustled inside and got a sausage roll (David) and a chocolate sour cherry cookie (me). Sadly, there were no chocolate tarts available. I also got their cookbook, and for buying it at the store, I got a very lovely logoed tote bag in which to carry my new treasure home. We shagged back up to Crown Street and hailed another cab, driven by a delightful native Sydneysider, and were back to the hotel by 3:40. Plenty of time to come up to the room and drop our stuff before our harbor cruise!

The cruise, aboard the Captain Cook II, departed from Circular Quay, right outside the restaurant where we had dinner last night. We were originally scheduled to depart at 4:30, and we left about 10 minutes late. However, we had to return to the dock to pick up three of our group members who were late because their cab driver got lost. You can imagine the hemorrhage I almost had! A very informative guide named David provided running commentary as we cruised around Sydney and Darling Harbors. The mouth of Sydney Harbor is only about ¾ of a mile wide, leading Captain Cook to refer to it as a small harbor of little significance. However, it opens up considerably once through the mouth of the harbor, with almost 180 miles of shoreline. We got great photos of the Opera House, the Bridge, and Luna Park, the amusement park near the other side of the bridge. We even got a fairly closeup view of people climbing the bridge, where we’ll be tomorrow morning at 9:40 am.

We docked promptly at 6:00 pm, then walked around the Rocks area, poking in a few little shops. And I say a few not offhandedly: pretty much all the retail shops in Australia close about 6:00 pm. Restaurants and bars are still open, and the everpresent 7-11s, but that’s pretty much it. We set off for Hyde Park (not the one in London) because the International Food Fair is going on there this week, and we thought that would be a fun place to have dinner. And it was, but it was jammed! There were lots of Thai vendors, several seafood vendors, a couple of places to get wine, gelato stands. There was even an Indian food stand, where we elected to eat. I had a vegetable aloo roti, while David got the butter chicken roti, and we split an order of samosas. It took a bit of doing, but we managed to landshark a table, so we did end up eating it, not wearing it. We made our way back through the scrum and got scoops of gelato (peanut butter for me, yeay!, and kaffir lime for David) to enjoy as we meandered back to the hotel. I must say, Sydney seems quite safe--I saw lots of women walking by themselves after dark with no apparent fear.

When we got back to our room, that’s when the trouble struck: it was not delightfully cool. Not one little bit. In fact, it was downright warm. And if I’m warm, you know something’s wrong! We called the front desk, who sent up the building engineer. After fiddling around with the unit in the ceiling, he pronounced the A/C kaput and called the desk back to get us moved. We have a new room on the 26th floor, and it is deliciously cool.

Tomorrow is our last day in Sydney, and brings with it my personal nemesis: the Bridge Climb. I am as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. We are also going out for a fancy dinner to a restaurant called Rockpool. It was reviewed by the New York Times as one of the best places to eat in Sydney. In between I shall extract my payment for the bridge climb: we’re going shopping!

Ta for now!

Posted by hidburch 12:20 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

We’re In The Home Stretch Now!

Monday
19 October 2009
Shangri-La Hotel
Sydney, Australia

Boy, this vacationing stuff is hard work, but we’re in the home stretch now! We made it to Sydney this evening, our last stop before heading back to the U.S. It’s sad to know our vacation is winding down, and it was sadder still when we left Hayman Island this morning. After another excellent breakfast (though the chocolate doughnuts were a little dry) and saying goodbye to Dame Elizabeth with another slice of multigrain bread (this morning she was close enough to the edge of her pond that she ate right out of my hand), we boarded the catamaran for the ride back to the airport on Hamilton Island. The ride, which left late (you know how that makes me crazy), was smooth and had snacks and the omnipresent champagne. We docked right at the airport and simply had to walk up the ramp to check in.

Sadly, we did not get to experience the marvel that is QANTAS today. We flew an airline called JetStar, which is a QANTAS affiliate or subsidiary (not sure which), but it is a budget airline, I.e. it is similar to what we’re used to in the States. No group check-in (horrors!) so we had to schlep our own bags through the line to the checkin counter (horrors!) where a quite snippy sign informed us that we would be assessed a fee of AU$10 for every kilogram (we’re in Australia--it’s metric) over 20 kg that our baggage weighed (double horrors--I feared I might be on the hook for up to $50). Happily enough, even though my bag weighed 22 kg, the JetStar representative did not charge me anything. I’d read that this airline had open seating, a la Southwest, but I had an assigned aisle seat that I magnanimously traded with a guy in our group so he could sit with his wife. At the gate, I tried my little trick of working my way to the front of the line in order to be first on board, but this flight actually boarded by rows (horrors!).

Due to my altruistic seat trading, I ended up sitting next to a little four-year-old boy named Thomas. He told me he was going home to Sydney after holiday on his poppy’s boat. We had a lovely conversation before he took a nap. Now that’s the kind of munchkin that should be allowed on an airplane, not the ankle biter that screamed the whole flight.

Another non-QANTAS disappointment: no snazzily packaged free lunch. We had to buy our snacks (horrors). At least they had a credit machine on board. Since they were glacially slow with the food cart, it was only about two hours until dinner by the time they got to me, so I got some cheese and crackers. Thomas had chips and Schweppes lemonade, followed by a mint that he promptly spit out into his dad’s hand. That was pretty funny, and I gave the man a tissue to relieve himself of the spat-out mint. Who says American tourists are rude?

We boarded our coach and headed for dinner at the Waterside Restaurant, located right at the base of Wednesday’s nemesis, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and directly across from the iconic Sydney Opera House. It was completely surreal to actually see the Opera House--it is the most photographed building in all of Australia, and we’re so familiar with it that I almost can’t believe I really saw it!

Dinner was tasty: fish and chips and chocolate cake. Then we boarded up the bus again for the short ride to the Shangri-La, where once again we have that most precious of commodities: free Internet access!

Tomorrow is a big day: koala sanctuary, tour of the Opera House, Bondi Beach, and a harbor cruise. Gotta go rest up for meeting the koalas!

G’day!

Posted by hidburch 04:51 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

I Found Nemo!

Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef

sunny

Sunday, 18 October 2009
Hayman Island, Australia

(In point of technical fact, I am writing this on Monday morning, but as the Aussies say, I was too knackered last night…the story is still the same!)

Today was our day to visit the Great Barrier Reef, and we certainly did it in style! We were picked up about 9:10 am by this huge catamaran from a company called Cruise WhitSundays (the island chain of which Hayman is a part) for the 1 ½ - 1 ¾ hour ride to Knuckle Reef, a portion of the Great Barrier Reef. There were snacks and drinks available on the trip, including a lovely Australian dessert I had yet to try, called a Lamington. It’s basically a finger of sponge cake dunked in chocolate and rolled in chopped coconut (I know, I know, but I bore up in the interests of cultural investigation.). It was quite tasty, even taking the coconut into account.

We were given a safety orientation by the dive master, an absolutely riotous Scottish man named Stuart. I am sad to report that, although Stuart claimed to be an engineer, I have my doubts, as he maintained that the ocean temperature was 25 Celsius, or a balmy 84 Fahrenheit. I begged to differ with Stuart, as everyone with a calculator knows that 25 Celsius is a not-so-balmy 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps things are different in the United Kingdom, but in American engineering schools, the rule was, is, and always will be 1.8 times the Celsius degrees and add 32. Poor misguided Stuart. Perhaps this is why Stuart is a dive master on a pleasure cruiser and not a practicing engineer.

Our destination was a three-story pontoon anchored at Knuckle Reef. Imagine, if you will, that you are cruising through open ocean then, BAM! You come upon this three story party boat just simply floating peacefully over the reef! It was amazing: they had a semi-submersible boat, a glass-bottomed boat, a platform for scuba diving, a huge snorkeling area marked off with buoys, and even a three-story water slide! When we arrived at the pontoon, we immediately rode the semi-submersible, the first trip of which had been reserved for our tour group. It was a boat with a really deep hull (I think that’s what it’s called--it was the functional equivalent of going to the basement of the boat), and there were windows all the way around it, with little seats beside them. It shoved off and took us around some of the coral bommies, as they are called here (coral tufts or growths). We saw lots of fish, many of which I had seen in aquariums before, but few of which I could actually identify. The coral was also amazing--it’s so weird to look at it and know that it’s real! The colors are not as vibrant as you see on TV and in the movies, though. Turns out that footage is “assisted” with underwater UV lights to counteract the wavelength-filtering effect of the water. Even three or four feet of water washes out a lot of the color, which I didn’t realize.

After the semi submersible ride, it was time for lunch, a very nice buffet served on board the catamaran, which remained docked with the pontoon all day. (I would show you pictures, of which I took a couple, but they are not very illustrative.) Then it was time to get geared up for the big adventure of the day: the snorkeling. Robbie, the marine biologist on board, had previously advised us that stinger (jellyfish) season officially started in this part of Australia October 1, and bearing in mind poor misguided Stuart’s water temperature report, David and I decided stinger suits (aka wet suits), provided by the cruise company at no charge, were the order of the day. How best to describe donning a wet suit? It is like putting panty hose on over your entire body. It was, however, warm and protected us from sun burn at the same time. (Consequently, I remain butt white pale still.)

Before the snorkel swim, we decided to have a go at the water slide. That was awesome! It was one of those enclosed twisty-type slides, and you hopped in from the top level of the pontoon, so by the time you hit the ocean three stories below, you were moving! Some people inhaled a little water, but I just held my nose…no worries mate! It was so much fun that we shoved a few kids out of the way and went down again!

The aforementioned Robbie kicked off his guided snorkeling tour at 1:30, but this being Australia and their loosey-goosey relationship with time, it was more like 1:45 before he got it together. There were five of us interested in going, so he hauled this big PVC donut (big! Like five feet across) out into the ocean for us to hold onto while we swam around and he told us about stuff. It really needed to be bigger, though, because we all kept swimming into each other, and I kept getting a faceful of another lady’s pool noodle.

The tour was very cool, because he was able to tell us all about what we were looking at. He also went down the bottom (maybe 20 feet?) and brought up stuff for us to see, including a mushroom coral and a sea cucumber that we got to touch! He even swam down and tapped a giant clam so we could see it closing. Wonder if there were any pearls in that bad body? We saw angel fish, parrotfish, some yellow and black stripey fish, something called a poncilier?, and the best find of all: we saw Nemo! Technically, we saw what Robbie called an emo Nemo. It was a black-and-white striped clownfish (apparently there are several varieties), which apparently are somewhat nasty-tempered: they bite! That wasn’t in the movie!

Now, I must confess something at this point. I know snorkeling is supposed to be this transcendent experience where you are communing with nature and being transported by the beauty of the fish you are seeing, but frankly y’all, I just don’t feel it. First of all, I am not a huge fan of ocean swimming because of the wave action and the untreated water. Second of all, they have many, many lovely aquariums where I can see the same things while standing bone dry on the other side of a piece of glass. Third, the ocean is their turf. I view it as part of the unspoken compact I have with nature: I don’t go into your turf, and you stay out of mine. Fourth, I was cold and I had to pee. Item number four was resolved in a time-honored fashion, however (read between the lines), but that was only a temporary fix for being cold. I was quite delighted when Robbie pronounced himself knackered (undoubtedly from towing our fat butts around with his PVC doughnut, poor guy) and I could get back on the pontoon, out of that blasted stinger suit, into dry clothes, and get an ice cream cone. A girl’s gotta have her priorities, and it turns out snorkeling is not so much one of mine!

Even after drying off, I was still a little cold (perhaps I shouldn’t have had the ice cream?), so I went in search of hot chocolate. What I found was something I had never heard of, a drink called Milo. It was warm and chocolately, but not quite hot chocolate. The crew man mentioned something about whole grains, so I may have to research this to find out exactly what I consumed. We arrived safely back at Hayman around 4:45 pm, despite the extremely rough trip home--people were knocking into each other like bowling pins. I kept my butt in the seat and quietly read my book. I observed no puking, which was good. I did detect one slight after-effect though: sitting at dinner last night, I felt like the table was rolling under me! I guess I had to get my land legs back under me!

We had a lovely dinner at the Italian restaurant here at the resort, La Trattoria. Caprese salad, fried polenta sticks, seafood risotto, and the most innovative pizza. It had pumpkin, sliced almonds, roasted garlic, and mascarpone cheese on it. It doesn’t sound good at first, but it was delicious! After dinner we flipped on the TV and discovered a mother lode of American shows: the “Bones” season premier was on (the one with Cyndi Lauper as the psychic…it’s just as good the second time around), we’d just missed “The Big Bang Theory”, and after “Bones” was “Castle”. We also caught a portion of that “Wipeout” show. I am not sure that all parts of American culture are worth disseminating, quite frankly!

Australian observations for the day: Australians do not use pennies--all prices end in 5 cent increments. This works out because they also do not have sales tax. They have something called GST, or goods and services tax, which is already included in the price of an item, so the price you see is the price you pay.

Tomorrow (Monday) we depart Hayman <sniff,sniff> for our flight to Sydney. We get there about 5:30 then go directly to dinner, before a trip to the koala sanctuary and the Opera House, and a harbor cruise on Tuesday. Lots more left to see before we head home, so I’ll say G’day!

This just in…I snagged a piece of bread from the breakfast buffet this morning (excellent French toast, not so much on the little chocolate doughnuts) to feed Dame Elizabeth, the swan. I did the same thing yesterday morning and had to throw it to her in her pool, but this morning she was right beside the steps and ate it out of my hand! That’s my kind of wildlife encounter.

Posted by hidburch 14:55 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

I have found Paradise!

Please forward my mail to Hayman Island, Australia

sunny 28 °C

7:00 am
Saturday, 17 October 2009
Hayman Island Resort
Hayman Island, Australia

I can’t help myself, I have to rub a little salt in your cold, rainy wounds. I am sitting at the salt water pool at the Hayman Island Resort on Hayman Island, Australia. The sun is shining, the birds are doing bird noises, and the air temperature is probably already 75 degrees. I have a view of the Pacific Ocean and free wireless internet. I am truly in Paradise!

Rather than write two separate updates for Thursday and Friday, I will bless you with one combined update for both days, that way I can get on to the serious business of vacating properly.

If you cast your mind back to Wednesday evening (or roll your scrollbar down) we were at Uluru/Ayers Rock that night, and I was doing my mistress of the suds watch over the laundry. So we woke up Thursday morning still in Uluru (no magical transporters on this trip), with more Uluru viewing on the agenda, followed by a flight to Cairns. After a lovely breakfast (all the breakfasts are lovely here…heck, all the meals are lovely. Thankfully my traveling pants have a drawstring waist), we loaded up the bus and headed out to view Kata Tjuta, otherwise known as the Olgas. It is the other rock formation in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (duh!). Rather than being a monolith like Uluru, it is considered a composite rock formation, with 36 domes making up the formation. In fact, Kata Tjuta means “many heads” in the Aboriginal language. It is a sacred initiation site to the Aborigines, so they tell no stories of its “dreaming” or creation, to white people. The highest dome within the formation is Mt. Olga, at approximately 550 m high.

We left Kata Tjuta and drove back to Uluru, which, let’s face it, is the star attraction of the place. Poor Kata Tjuta is sort of like Uluru’s slightly famous sidekick (I am striving for a metaphoric pair here, people, but the grey matter is not engaging this morning--insert your favorite duo.) We drove around the entire base of Uluru, approximately 22 km. We popped off the bus at one point and visited the Montitjulu Watering Hole, which is a pool of surface water that accumulates from the tiny bit of runoff from the face of Uluru. In a little sheltered overhang near the watering hole, Brian, our bus driver, showed us some Aboriginal caving paintings. The Aborigines painted their artworks on the cave with ochre paints, rather than chipping them into the rock, because they used them like an early version of Mapquest: this set of paintings represented directions on how to get to Alice Springs, including information about water and food stops along the way. If a water hole dried up, they simply didn’t repaint that hole back on the map to notify others that it was no longer available. Smart, hunh? We also got our picture made standing on a little piece of Uluru, so now I can say I have climbed Uluru (sort of. Actually, the Aborigines ask that people respect their wishes and not climb the rock. They don’t forbid climbing yet, though.) After Montitjulu, it was on the Aboriginal Cultural Center, where I am not embarrassed to say that I powered through on my way to the potty and the gift shop. You know I do love me a good gift shop!

Here’s a little heads-up for you should you decide you ever want to go to the Australian Outback: there are flies EVERYWHERE. Thousands of the little buggers, and they are f’ing annoying. For that reason you might see me styling an ever-so-attractive fly net in several pictures. You can’t stand to be without it. And apparently we’re here during the not-so-bad part of the season. As it gets more toward summer (December/January here) you simply have to wear the nets or they’ll fly up your nose and in your ears. Good timing on our part, then, to visit in October.

We got out of the flies back at Sails in the Dessert, where we had another lovely lunch (I tried panne cotta…yummy, but not unlike flan or crème caramel, in case you are ever presented with the opportunity). I did a little more (okay, a LOT more) retail therapy in the hotel gift shop: I bought a watercolor painting of Uluru from a watercolor artist named Brian Dobson. He’s the artist-in-residence at the hotel gallery. It’s being shipped back home--it was already framed and I didn’t want to take a chance on anything unfortunate happening to it. Plus, suitcase space is at quite the premium. I might truly have to throw away socks and underwear on this trip!

Back to the airport for our flight to Cairns. This was actually a helpful flight, because the Uluru airport actually weighed our luggage and we’re still under the limit. Yeay! Aside from the fact that QANTAS somehow transposed two of the couples on the trip and I had to trade identities with one of the ladies in our group, once again QANTAS ruled supreme. I am getting quite adept at working their gate boarding procedures, so I was the first one on the plane once again. Heh heh heh! It was about a three hour flight to Cairns, which is on the coast, so we were fed a free dinner (none of this buy-on-board crap) of pasta with some sort of beef ragout on it. There were mushrooms in it, but I assiduously avoided them.

We landed in Cairns about 6:15 or so, then schlepped to the Shangri-La Hotel, from which we would depart the next morning at 6:30, so there wasn’t a whole lot of time for site-seeing in Cairns. David and I walked down the Esplanade and to the Night Markets. As near as I can tell, it’s basically Myrtle Beach with an Australian accent. Lots of T-shirt and souvenir shops, (No “Wangs”, though!) ice cream stands, restaurants, and the like. It seems to be populated with surfers and college students backpacking the world in an effort to “find” themselves. I found ‘em: they’re in Cairns, Australia and based on the smell, they’re smoking a lot of weed. We did partake of a few souvenirs and some gelato at the Night Market. I had Tim-Tam gelato, and it was delicious!

Pardon us while we interrupt your regularly scheduled blog for a breakfast break…we will resume our programming shortly.

Okay,so the break included breakfast, a garden tour led by the island’s horticulturalist, and some retail therapy (I bought a lovely teal blue one-piece swimsuit at the hotel boutique that was on sale 50% off and it was the only one in my size…it was meant to be mine. I also got an equally lovely multi-colored sarong and a sarong-tying lesson from the store clerk!), but I’m back poolside, ready to tell you all about our trip from Cairns to Hayman Island, as well as our some-what ill-fated sea kayaking expedition (think S.S. Minnow).

We flew from Cairns to Hamilton Island, which is a much larger airport than you would imagine. It was a turbo-prop plane, and there was initially some fracas among the oldsters because, due to the plane’s size, you were only allowed one checked bag. Any in excess of one would be checked standby and might not arrive until the next day. Fortunately for the saintly Lisa, our tour director, the plane was not full and everyone’s bags came immediately. A crisis averted. (Personally, I read and believed the rule that you could only bring one bag, so I didn’t have an issue. Perhaps they should do the same.) Once again, I managed to smoke the rest of the group and get on the plane first, and once again QANTAS served a lovely breakfast: a scone, dried apricots, and orange juice, all in a tidy little expanded polystyrene case.

We landed at Hamilton Island and immediately boarded the Sun Goddess, a luxury catamaran, for the hour or so ride to Hayman Island. And when I say luxury, think mimosas and canapés on boarding. And once again, the oldsters were freely availing themselves thereof. We arrived at the resort, and were immediately met by a tram to take us from the dock to the hotel, whereupon we had an orientation. Yes, this resort is so chic-chic that you get an orientation!!! All I can say is, I think we have arrived. It is absolutely stunning here. The water is incredibly clear and blue, with palm trees everywhere. Hayman Island is part of a group of barrier islands called the WhitSunday Islands. It belongs to the state of Queensland, but is leased to the resort, which is currently the only thing on the island. They are, however, beginning to build some luxury vacation home here, and if I had a spare $4 million, I might consider buying one!

On the ferry ride to the island, David and I decided that we would go sea kayaking. I have sea kayaked once before, up in Bar Harbor, Maine, and thought it would be fun. Sea kayaks are two-person affairs, and unlike the one person river kayaks that we are more accustomed to, they are very stable and you are not strapped into the thing. Consequently, you do not have to be able to self-rescue, which is where, if you get turned upside down, you roll the kayak back upright with your abdominal muscles. This is significant to my story, so keep it in mind. Lunch was provided as part of the trip, so we popped to the café to grab a bite before our kayak excursion. We had an hour, so I thought we had plenty of time. Serious misconception on my part. The kayak excursion was scheduled to start at 1:30, and we didn’t get our food until about 1:10. Knowing my intolerance for tardiness (it is a character flaw, you know), you can imagine the height of the wall I was climbing at the time. We inhaled our lunch, and made it to the pickup spot about 1:28, which is my definition of being late. This did not put me in the best emotional state for the subsequent voyage of the Minnow.

We met our guide, Rama, and the other couple who would be kayaking with us, Beth and Mark, picked out snorkeling gear, then hit the water. We were to kayak around one side of the bay here, then over to a beach for some snorkeling before heading back in. Everything was going reasonably well until we got hung up on a patch of coral. I was trying to back paddle to get us off and David was trying to paddle on one side to effect a similar result when it happened: we dumped the kayak and into the drink we went! We were not in mortal jeopardy because we were, of course, wearing life jackets. We were also, however, wearing clothes over our swimsuits, hats, and sunglasses, so picture going into the ocean fully clothed! Our guide quickly came to our rescue and righted the overturned kayak, but then the poor little lad instructed me to “climb back on in.” Yeah, right. It is for this exact same reason that, when I white-water raft, I keep my ass in the raft: I’m not strong enough to pull myself back in if I can’t get my legs back under me. It wasn’t pretty, sports fans! Poor little Rama had to physically drag me back into the kayak by the life jacket! If someone had had a video camera handy, I’m sure the footage of me beaching my fat ass on that kayak like a whale would be a guaranteed $10,000 winner. Poor Beth and Mark: I’m sure it was at this point that they thought, “Dear Heaven, what have we signed on for?” To add insult to injury, all the towels for snorkeling were stored in the hatch of our kayak, which leaked.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip was significantly less eventful. We made it to the beach with no problems, and even saw three sea turtles and a reef shark for our trouble. Snorkeling from the beach was spectacular: I saw a striped fish that looked like an angel fish, some white fish, and a fish that was purple, pink, orange and green--stunning! Rama said it might be a parrotfish. I also saw a tremendous amount of different types of coral, including brain coral and wavy looking stuff. It was so surreal: I’m used to seeing mostly simulated coral at the aquarium. To look at it and know that it’s all real is mind-bending. The only problem was I thought the water was a little cold, even though the sun was very hot. Afterward I went to the boutique and bought a “rashie”, which is basically a swimsuit T-shirt, to keep from getting cooked tomorrow at the reef. And I can still move my arms this morning, so it wasn’t a total failure.

We made it back to the marina without further incident (Thank God!), then went to wash up before dinner. Last night’s feast was an all-you-could-eat seafood buffet, and it definitely wasn’t Shoney’s, that’s for sure. Shrimp, or prawns as they are called here, smoked salmon, steaks, lobsters, crabs, mussels, oysters, fish curry, salmon and potatoes, veggies, fruit…that buffet just went on and on, and we won’t even go into the desserts. Have mercy! Y’all, it was so fancy there was even an ice sculpture! The only drawback was that the prawns still had their heads on them. I just couldn’t look them in the eye and eat them, so they got a reprieve!

Today, we are power vacating. Somebody’s got to take the vacation, and it might as well be us! The garden walk I mentioned was lovely, but the coolest thing happened at breakfast. Cockatoos are native to the island, and they are apparently a bit of a nuisance, and they certainly were at breakfast. I saw one grab an entire piece of toast of somebody’s plate, but the funniest thing was the one that grabbed an empty jelly packet, flew up onto the top of an umbrella, and proceeded to lick the jelly out! The garden tour guide told us they are very smart and love sweets, and that he’d witnessed one OPEN a can of Coke to get a drink! I also saw the two swans that live here on the island: Dame Elizabeth and Agro. Apparently their mates have each died, and because swans mate for life, they won’t have anything to do with each other! I guess they need better matchmakers!

Australia observations for the day:
Ketchup = tomato sauce
Cantalope = rock melon
I have yet to find oatmeal for breakfast anywhere.
Scrambled eggs are served VERY runny (yuck).
The electrical outlets all have little switches on them that you have to flip on before your stuff will work.

The rest of today’s agenda is pretty much ABSOLUTELY SQUAT!! The sun is hot, the drinks are cold, and the living is easy. Tomorrow it’s off to the Reef, so I’ll be sure to tell you all about that!

G’day!

Posted by hidburch 21:04 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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