Australia 2006

Melbourne

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Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to visit Australia.  I am not sure where the interest started, but I always thought I would eventually make it.  In 2005, El and I had sold our townhouse and made a few dollars on the sale and figured that this would be as good a time as any to take that trip as we would have no idea when we would have the means to do it again.  We used our standby travel site www.go-today.com to book the trip.  The package included 4 nights in Melbourne and 4 nights in Sydney and was based on a departure from Los Angeles.  Figuring we would need some down time on the return, we decided to add 4 days in Los Angeles as a break in the return flight and take advantage of the time to see friends.
The flight to Australia was longer than even I expected.  We flew from Albany to Washington, DC 2hrs. DC to Los Angeles 5hrs. LA to Sydney 13hrs and then on to Melbourne 2 more hours. Add in the layovers and it was a long trip.
One of the things we learned from the travel company was the importance of an entry visa.  They are easy to get, in fact we got an e-visa that was done by email and when you arrive in Australia you are in the computer system and they waive you on. It seemed like every point we had to check in at an airport they were confirming our visa status. We had no trouble at all.

2/7/06
We arrived in Melbourne and there was some sort of skateboarding competition/convention in town so I remember frequently walking down the sidewalk only to be overrun by a group/pack/gaggle(?) of skateboarders.  I certainly have respect for alternate modes of transportation, but when you are walking and surrounded, if only for a few moments, it makes me put my guard up.  Also, our hotel was hosting many skaters and when we would go down to the lobby or down the front stairs to the street and there would be 10 or 15 persons sitting on the steps and blocking egress, it got annoying.  Skating to a destination is one thing, but skateboarding from your room to the elevator...that's just uncalled for.
Before our trip I found this company called Deck Of Secrets that has done an ingenious thing.  They sell a deck of 52 cards that are city specific and interest specific. You could by them in gift shops and you could get cards for bars or shopping or restaurants etc. So we bought a deck for drinking establishments in Melbourne.  Each card has a picture of the place (mostly interior, sometimes exterior) and a brief description including hours, address, phone, credit card acceptance etc. and the back of the card had a neighborhood map including bus and tram lines.  With the maps is easy enough to sort the cards by location and we were able to use every stop at a bar to plan out our next stop.  Some of the places are upscale nightspots and some are real dives. (believe it or not, the photos sometimes make the place look better than it is).  Nonetheless, when you are walking around a city bars and cafes are usually your best bet for bathrooms. So we tend to walk a little while, then stop in for a coffee (and restroom), then stop somewhere else for a glass of wine and a plate of local appetizer (and a restroom), then a cafe for a lunch (and a ...you get the point).
Unless El and I have a specific appointment or a time frame to do something, we usually spend our first day in a city exploring the neighborhood around the hotel.  With that said, in our first hours we were introduced to sweet chili sauce.  It is a condiment usually served with french fries, although I suppose there may have been other things to put it on. It was like a zesty duck sauce used in place of ketchup.  We found a little bar and just got a plate of fries to split and started mapping our route.  I had heard about AC/DC Lane right before our trip, so we looked it up and sure enough it was a real street named for the legendary Australian band, AC/DC.  I understand they had an ongoing issue with people pilfering the street sign, so today the sign is hung about 12 feet off the ground and bolted to the side of the building.  It was near our hotel, so we got our pictures and moved on (we would be back here later though).
When in any new city, usually our game plan is to learn the public transportation system.  Most of the time it's a subway or metro, but trams and buses are good too.  We try to get ourselves away from the hotel and then work our way back over the course of the day and then repeat at night depending on if we have a dinner reservation or a concert to see.  Our first evening in Melbourne we went to Chinatown for dinner where I got lemon chicken and rice and on the way back found a bar near the hotel with a few live bands playing.  A small, dingy, upstairs bar with a small cover charge and reasonably priced beer.
 
2/8/06- Notes from the trip say today was HOT.
The next morning we make our way to and take a tour of Old Melbourne Gaol (jail).  We take the self-guided tour and learn all about Ned Kelly, an Australian folk hero.  You got a little bit about the history of Australia as a penal colony and saw the death masks from people in Australian history who were executed there.  Of course, we didn't know any of them, but hey, it was something that the guidebook suggested for us to do.  It was certainly interesting and informative.   Once we knew we were coming to Melbourne, El had contacted a friend of ours who has relocated from Melbourne to see if there were any must dos for us.  She had recommended a lunch spot called the Stoke House in the St. Kilde section of the city.  It was right on the beach and so we figured out the bus routes and took the bus out to St. Kilde beach.  We found the place without issue and ate lunch there.  El had bought some postcards and we sent one to the recommender that was written in between servings at the Stoke House.  We started with fat chips and sour cream. Where the fries have are sprinkled with some spiceand served with the side of sour cream.  We learned about “rocket” salad. It’s like arugula and is served with balsamic vinaigrette.  We also split a margherita pizza.  The lunch was excellent and the circumstances made it that much more enjoyable.  After lunch, El enjoyed sunbathing on the grass at the beach for a little while reading and whatnot, while I went to find the Prince William Bandroom as the hottest show in town was scheduled to play 2 nights there.  I found the place and bought the tickets for the next night.  One thing I have noticed is that Australia has a pretty impressive music scene with bands that are very popular there, but virtually unknown outside of the country. The show we were to see was Tim Rogers and the Temperance Union opening for a hugely popular band called Dallas Crane.  I knew Tim Rogers because he was in another Aussie band called You Am I, but Dallas Crane was a new one for me.  On the one hand I was hoping for a more recognizable band than these, but in their absence, we went to this.  On our way back towards the hotel we stopped for ice cream/gelato.  Our notes for the rest of the day are a little incomplete, so I assume that we hit bars and eateries for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  I do see that we did have another margherita pizza at a place called the Hairy Canary that we found in the cards.  The place had a giant bay window that overlooked the street and they could open it like an awning opening the seating area in front of the window up to the street below.

2/9/06- Notes from the trip say today was rainy and cold.
There is a pretty good sized farmers market in Melbourne called the Queen Victoria market.  I remember the rain coming down and made it very difficult to navigate or enjoy the walking around.  We got breakfast there at a corner bakery virtually attached to the market.  They had a seating area on the sidewalk that was covered, so we each got croissants and sat before strolling through the market.   The market was covered, but even a large market where you are not planning to buy more than a single banana or some other portable food or drink, it doesn't take much time to walk through it.  That day we found an internet café called E-55 on Elizabeth Street, which we both like to do on our trips, got some coffee/beer (used the restroom) and waited again until the rain had let up.  By this time we have identified some of the record shops that I like to browse through when we visit other cities.  So between the shops and bars we make our way back to the hotel to get ready for the concert.  Our plan is to tram up to St. Kilde and get a dinner there.  We wound up at a hamburger place relatively close to the show.  (if I remember correctly, we hoped to find a decent selection of eateries near the show, but for some reason the selection wasn’t as good as we would have liked.) After dinner we went to the show at the Prince William Bandroom.  The show was sold out by showtime and it was very hot, sweaty and crowded in the room.  I got a good standing spot and El went to find a good sitting spot. Tim Rogers turned out to have a bit of a country vibe to him and Dallas Crane were quite good.  After an hour or so of Dallas Crane a decision had to be made as the trams stop running at some certain hour which was approaching.  Either we would have to leave the show and catch the last tram, or stay the show and catch a cab back.  With El tired and not as interested as I in the show, we decided to catch the tram back and call it a night.

2/10/06
We didn’t have any big plans for the day until the evening.  We knew that we had dinner reservations at a place that was supposed to be fabulous.  So we decided to explore farther afield.  We had mapped out 2 different areas with a concentration of record shops that we could tram or bus to and casually work our way back. First we went to the FitzRoy neighborhood and then to the much farther out Camberwell area.  Knowing we have a big dinner ahead of us, I am certain that we eat conscientiously throughout the day so as not to spoil the appetite.  There are no food notes between a small breakfast on the go and our dinner, so we certainly didn’t have anything too substantial or memorable.  I do remember the bus ride to Camberwell (that we not-so-cleverly bastardized to Camembert).  Walking along the main thoroughfare there and once at the end of the shopping district, hopped a bus back to the center of town.  Another place that came up in our guide books and also in conversation with people we chatted with was the observation deck in the Rialto Tower.  It is the tallest building in the southern hemisphere and gives you a 360 degree view of the city.  We went up and got a great view of the Yarra Valley (wine country) and the surrounds of the city.  But, after the observation decks of the Empire State Building and World Trade Centers in NYC everything else sort of pales in comparison.  It was fine, and a destination the people are proud of.  Our final night in Melbourne we had made dinner reservations to eat at Ezard, an haute cuisine establishment whose chef is renound for his creativity and presentation.  We each got the chef’s tasting menu.  Since I did not take notes at the time, I don’t remember that much about the specific dishes.
Course I
Prawn dumpling in an Asian flavored soup served in a demitasse.
Course II
Tuna tartar with frizzled leeks with benito flake mayonnaise (tasted like fish food smells…terrible)
Course III
Pork dumpling in demitasse of short soup (dark chicken stock)
Course IV
Zucchini flower stuffed with mascarpone and goat cheese
Course V
Prawn rolled in wonton
Course VI
Squab wrapped in Moo Shu pancakes with plum sauce
Course VII
Crisp duck over bok choy and string beans and coconut rice
Course VIII- dessert
Calpis sorbet with watermelon
(the wikipedia entry for Calpis is as follows…“Calpis (カルピス, Karupisu) is a Japanese uncarbonated soft drink, manufactured by Calpis Co., Ltd. (カルピス株式会社, Karupisu Kabushiki-gaisha) , headquartered in Shibuya, Tokyo. The beverage has a light, somewhat milky, and slightly acidic flavor, similar to plain or vanilla-flavored yogurt, or Yakult Its ingredients include water, nonfat dry milk, and lactic acid, and is produced by lactic acid fermentation.”)  
This dessert was a huge letdown.  Of course we asked what was in it and when they gave us the explanation of the ingredients and that just made it worse.  The dinner overall was good, but not over-the-top good and certainly not worth the extraordinary expense.  Glad we went, wouldn’t recommend it to others as I’ll bet there are finer dining establishments in Melbourne and some further research might have steered us to a different place.  Sort of a letdown as the last dinner in Melbourne.  We were able to walk from the hotel to Ezard and if we can we usually like to walk to digest after a big special meal like that.  On our way back we planned to hit a bar on AC/DC Lane called the Cherry Bar.  A really small place with a local feel.  The beer selection was acceptable, but what set this place apart was the music.  They had a turntable behind the bar with crates of records to the side.  Anyone could flip through the records and make suggestions.  Of course, I did, and pulled out Desolation Boulevard by The Sweet.  With it being a slow night the bartender put it on and let it roll through side one.  What a fun way to finish our time in Melbourne.

In conclusion, having traveled around the world to several cities, many have a very different feel. Some are great, some indifferent, not many bad, but still, as you wander and explore a city you experience the feel of the city.  As we spent our time in Melbourne, it was impossible for me not to make the connections between it and Boston.  I love Boston and after NYC, it is possibly my favorite city to spend time in, so this is in no way a knock on Melbourne, but I couldn’t help making a mental note that I just spent all of this money to fly literally half way around the world to visit “Boston”.  We had a great time travelling together in this city, we look forward to Sydney and expect if we ever made it back to this continent that we might take advantage of some of the more unique offerings like the Barrier Reef or some of the outback territory.


Sydney

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2/11/06
It looks like we had an afternoon flight from Melbourne to Sydney.  One of those situations where you can't do much in the morning except grab some food, check out of the hotel and make your way to the airport.  The flight between the two cities is about 2 hours and with giving yourself enough check-in time it's not really much of a day in the departure city.  We make our flight and arrive in Sydney in the mid-afternoon.  We took a shuttle bus from the airport to a bus stop around the block from the hotel.  We make our way with luggage in tow and get checked-in to the room.  There is still enough of the day left that we don't have to unwind and just explore the area near the hotel.  We know we want to get to a tourist center to buy the Deck Of Secrets for Sydney and get our maps and find out what tours are available.  Our first stop is Darling Harbor which is on the west side of the city, and if I remember correctly they closed at 4pm and we had only minutes to get there.  We hustled as best we could, but they did not sell the Decks.  We did get directions to another tourist center at The Rocks a cultural center in Sydney.  The most recognizable attractions in Sydney are the Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Opera House and they are both close to the Rocks.  We made our way by bus to Circular Quay and walk to the tourist center from there.  We find everything easily enough and they have the Decks we are looking for.  It's around dinner time and we grab some pub food while we plot out our first night in Sydney.  Burgers and beer in a place I do not recall the name.  After dinner we walk up to the far side of the Rocks and go to an old brewpub called Lord Nelsons. We get a beer that is advertised as greater than 6% alcohol (good thing we are walking). Next we head to the Harborview pub, which sadly does not live up to its namesake. The view sucks, so we move on to the Rooftop Tavern that does have a wonderful view of the harbor all lit up as dusk exits and night enters.  After taking some pictures, we move on to one more place called the Australian Heritage which was too crowded for us to stay much longer than a beer or two.  We are starting to notice a pattern of very loud dance beats at all of our stops.  Alas, we decide to leave The Rocks and take the subway back to the area of the hotel for a nightcap and call it a night.  We found a place that was not too loud next to the hotel.  We call it a night from here.

2/12/06
Eggs, bacon, toast, latte for $4 at an internet cafe.  We head back to Darling Harbor and take a group ferry around to the north side of the city into Sydney Harbor.  Go under the bridge and see the Opera House from the front side.  We get off at Circular Quay and take the Jetcat (high speed ferry) to Manly Beach.  The ride is very breezy, but the walk around is fine. There is a promenade that is lined with shops and restaurants that leads to the beach.  We walk to the beach and find a place to grab lunch and ice cream.  We make our way back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner at The Observatory Restaurant.  I tried to get us into a place called Tetsuya's, unfortunately they were closed on Sunday's, so I went with another place that got high marks.  We figured out the bus system and after we had gotten dressed headed off to dine.  We start off at the bar with a round of martinis and bar chips for $36 so we know this ain't gonna be cheap. We both ordered the tasting menu as we did at Ezard's in Melbourne.
Course I
Soft boiled quail egg served in the shell with fois gras and truffle oil
Course II
Mushrooms diced with pickled cauliflower
Course III
Caesar salad with benito (fish flakes), braised fennel and pickled artichoke hearts
Course IV
An oyster with venison tartar
Course V
Beetroot pasta with lemon
Course VI
Potato risotto with truffle oil where the potatoes had been finely shredded like rice.  We both really enjoyed this portion of the dinner.
Course VII- dessert
Watermelon sorbet served in a shot glass
Green tea mousse with chocolate lentils and a chocolate round wonton- a little weird
4 spice mousse with vanilla sorbet and macadamia nut cookie
After dinner we take the bus back to the hotel. We are both full and tired. We decide to just find a pub near the hotel and call it a night.  We head off to find a nice quiet place but don't have much luck at all.  After walking in what amounted to a great big circle, we went to a place across the street from the hotel and had our nightcap.

2/13/06
We decide that today is gong to be our best day to split up.  We are both independent enough to be able to do our own thing and then plan to meet to do the together stuff we want to do.  El takes advantage of her time to bus out to Bondi beach which is supposed to be the quintessential Australian beach.  I on the other hand spend my whole day walking around checking out the record shops and pubs.  The last one was called The Prince Albert Hotel, a really fun experience for me.  It was just a quit neighborhood pub with a couple of regulars watching a cricket match and a bartender- named Mitch.  Noticing I was not a local, I had a nice afternoon chatting with these guys. One guy tried to explain the game of cricket to me, which I guess, is way more complicated than you would expect.  They were all interested in my impressions of Australians and their country.  I gave him my "Boston" analogy and told him exactly what I thought of his city and country.  We all had a good laugh when they asked if I had once during my trip heard ANYONE use the word "crikey" (a very popular Steve Erwinism at the time).  I admitted that I hadn't and that I thought that "shrimp on the barbie" might also have roots ust about as far from Australia as you could et (if anything they say prawns).  Nonetheless, we had a fun afternoon chatting until I realized I had to get back to the room to meet El.  Our plan is to met back at the room at 4pm. Thankfully, I am not driving as it turns out I have had a little more than I expected.  I'm not stumbling or ill, just a little overindulged, that's all.  We met up, showered and found a cheap Indian restaurant for dinner.  Afterwards, we plan to take the night time harbor cruise when Sydney Harbor is all lit up and looks nice.  We take a few pictures and it is a very cold ride.  It starts to rain, which, pardon the pun, puts a bit of a damper on the cruise.  Not a washout, but we could have had better circumstances.  Afterwards, we head back to the hotel for the night.

2/14/06
Our last full day in Sydney.  We look around for an internet cafe on our way to the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  We find one for a quick email check and then head to Darling Harbor for breakfast.  The access points to the bridge are from The Rocks, so we make our way back to that area and find a stair tower to get to the bridge.  They do offer tours where you can actually climb the superstructure of the bridge but it is an extraordinary cost and neither of us was that interested.  There is a free walking path across the span where you can walk out and get a great view of the harbor from it.  We did and got our pictures.  Afterwards, we took the Sydney Explorer bus which is a series on continuous hop on/hop off buses that run around the city offering guided tours and stops at some points of interest.  We had heard a lot from the people (and guidebooks) about a local landmark called Doyle's, a seafood restaurant at Watson's Bay.  Our game plan to take the Explorer bus to the restaurant, eat lunch, and take the ferry back to Circular Quay afterwards.  With not a second to spare, as the ferries don't run all that often, our plan goes off without a hitch.  The only bummer is that this landmark has been around for ages and has built quite an impressive reputation, but our single experience led us to think that this is more of a tourist trap that lives on its past glories than a cutting edge killer seafood place.  It seems like it may have been the "it" place some time ago, but now no more than a shadow of its former self.  On the way back still taking more pictures of the harbor and opera house.  Once back at the wharf in Sydney Harbor we decide to take the bus back to the hotel.  We accidentally got on the wrong direction, but eventually right ourselves and once back at the hotel we walk back to the Prince Albert Hotel.  Some of the patrons and Mitch remember me from the day before.  This time with El in tow, they talk to us about our trip and we fill them in on our impressions of Doyle's.  It turns out that the wife of the owner of the bar is a chef and every night she has a dinner special.  Tonight it is tacos.  So El and I place and order for tacos (which turn out to be excellent), chatting with locals, watching cricket on the TV, drinking beers and generally having a fantastic last night in Sydney.

As we ready to leave Sydney I look back on our experiences here and can't help but make the similar comment from 4 days ago, that this place reminds me all too much of New York City.  Believe me, I love New York and enjoy any time I get to spend there.  Walking around Sydney, the comparisons are as striking as the comparison of Boston to Melbourne. So I say again, gee, it seems like we flew half way around the world to visit New York City.  These (Sydney and Melbourne) are great cities and if I lived a lot closer to them I would love to be able to visit them more often.  Unfortunately, unless I win the lottery, I will most likely spend my money on much less expensive trips- and if I feel I need a Sydney or Melbourne fix, I can hop in a car and drive to NYC or Boston for a similar experience, complete with a "crikey" or a "shrimp on the barbie"!

One final note, we flew back to Los Angeles on Wednesday and the plane was virtually empty.  There is no possible way Qantas made money on that flight. There were so many empty seats that anyone who wanted to lay down across several seats could.  remember the point I made about how important it was to have your visa in order to enter the country? Well, as we were getting on the plane to come back to Los Angeles there was a woman on our flight who had arrived in Sydney from Los Angeles (a 13 hour flight) without the proper visa and the customs literally put her right back on the plane she came in on and sent her back to Los Angeles.  We were thankful that the agency and airline attendants kept asking us about ours. The flight back to Los Angeles was the first time that we were served any vegemite (the fermented yeast paste that Aussies put on bread like butter).  We actually got a little butter-like pat of the stuff.  I held onto it to share with our friend who enjoys culinary oddities.  We all agreed it tasted horrible when we put it on a cracker to taste.  Interestingly we woke up in Sydney on Wednesday and went out for a final breakfast.  We got to the airport via shuttle and had lunch at the airport.  Got on our 13 hour flight and arrived in Los Angeles at 8:30am...on Wednesday where we went out out for breakfast and later had lunch.  Talk about a Groundhog Day experience.

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