The following post was written a few days ago while we were still in Sydney but thought I would publish it nonetheless. We are now in Cairns and did indeed survive the scuba diving course. Read about the first few weeks of our adventures in Australia:
G’day from Australia! We’re in Sydney now after having spent three weeks in Melbourne, the city of my birth, introducing Steve to my friends and relatives and exploring parts of the State of Victoria that I had never seen. I realize it has been a mighty while since I have posted – I missed all of March for goodness sakes – and I have only the places that we have visited the past two months to blame. I had intended for this post to be about our epic lunch at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, but that will have to be for another time as I want to get my thoughts down on Oz.
Quick recap from last post: After Minnesota we flew to San Francisco where we spent nine days staying with our good friends Sean and Abby, catching up with friends and revisiting some of our favorite watering holes in the city (Toronado, thank god you haven’t changed) that was our home for twelve years. After the City By The Bay it was off to Hawai’i for some hiking up Diamond Head, snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, eating plate lunches and poi on the outskirts of Waikiki and drinking mai tais on the beach while watching the sun go down (good work, USA, for making these gorgeous islands part of the Union). From Honolulu we flew to Sydney, then Melbourne, where my uncle Raymond picked us up at Tullamarine and our Australia/Asia portion of The Grand Tour begins.
This is also where the warm weather of the Tour begins. We haven’t had a summer. Last July and August were spent in Scotland and Ireland, where the height of summer means grey skies, wearing one sweater instead of two and a high temp of 65 F. And that’s balmy. So you can’t blame me for wanting to be outside enjoying the rays (wearing sunscreen, of course), the fresh ocean breezes, the pretty parks and gardens, the awesome bridges, the eclectic architecture instead of hunkering down inside somewhere to write.
But I am writing this post from outside. I am on the other side of the harbour (yes, harbor is spelled with a “u” in these parts. My auto correct doesn’t seem to agree with this fact, though) in North Sydney, where I am sitting on a bench in a green area underneath The Coat Hanger aka the Sydney Harbour Bridge that boasts a fabulous view of the Opera House. Our accommodation for the week is an Irish pub and guesthouse under the bridge on the other side from where I am writing. The guesthouse is in area of the city called The Rocks, built on the rocky outcrop near the water, perhaps Sydney’s most famous neighborhood, partly due to the fact that it is was here that the first European settlement on the continent was established, partly because it quickly became a noisome slum full of taverns and brothels, partly because it was almost erased to be rebuilt in the image of 1970s developers (can you imagine the ugly buildings they would have created?) but saved almost in its entirety due to efforts by the builders’ union and its Green Bans. It is autumn in the Southern Hemisphere but the temps in Sydney have been outstanding, warm enough so I can wear shorts, an item of clothing that had been sitting at the bottom of my backpack for months until I broke them out in Hawai’i.
After Sydney we fly to Cairns in northern Queensland where we will take a scuba diving certification course and then dive the Great Barrier Reef. Assuming we make it through that part of the trip (people have told me tales of shark attacks, and crocodile attacks, and box jellyfish stings, and blue-ringed octopus stings, and strange people, and horrible beer), we will then fly to Perth, a city far across the other side of the country, a place I have never been to but am curious to see, and no doubt make a stop in the Margaret River to taste some of their terrific wines. From Perth we plan to fly to Singapore and there will begin the Asia portion of The Tour.
Sydney is spectacular – a truly wonderful city that has impressed us both. This is the first time I have really seen the city and had time to explore its neighborhoods, not just its beautiful harbor. There exists a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, there has for years (so much so that they decided not to put the Australian capital in either but rather opted to build a brand new city, Canberra, roughly midway between the two) and I have always been quick to defend Melbourne when people have commented that it is not as “good” as Sydney. Melbourne is the city of theatre and museums, the city of top restaurants, I would say. It is genteel and pretty. It has a river running through it and gardens in and around it. It’s the European-tinged alternative to Sydney’s racy American-style energy.
Yes, there is energy here in Sydney, and it is more L.A. than Paris, but boy oh boy is it fun. And it is beautiful. People have said to me (including my mother) that Sydney has the Harbour but once you get away from it there’s not much. WRONG. There is so much and it is easy to see why the Olympic Games Selection Committee chose it over several other candidates that year. It does have culture, with the Museum of Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Wharf Theatre, The Conservatorium of Music and Opera on the Harbour in addition to its iconic Opera House. It has overtaken Melbourne as the restaurant capital of Australia, with Tetsuya’s and Guillaume at Bennelong considered among the Top 50 restaurants in the world. It has narrow laneways throughout the city, most of them quite old, a couple still cobblestoned, with several containing vibrant little bars and cafes, not unlike Melbourne. Its neighborhoods, or villages, as they are called, are interesting with each having a distinct vibe, from Surry Hills, to Milson’s Point, Woollooroo to Redfern (a bit dicey in Redfern, but you can see that is an up-and-coming neighborhood that will most likely be the next “in” place to live), Ultimo to Paddington, Glebe to Kirribilli. To top it off, Sydney is Australia’s most populated city.
I am not knocking Melbourne. Far be it for me to denigrate it – I am a proudly born Melburnian, after all. In fact the purpose of this post is to talk about those three weeks in Melbourne and other parts of Victoria. The highlights, really. The things we wished our friends could have seen and done with us. I realize Melbourne is a long, long way from San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, London, Edinburgh, Dublin. But it is a lovely city, well worth visiting, and I always feel comfortable in it. There are also pockets of edge mixed into the gentility, which I like, although some are dangerously close to becoming Hipster/Douchebag-ville a la Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The overused word “liveable” always comes to mind with Melbourne, where you are close to beaches and mountains, cityscapes and scrubby countryside, superb dining and small cottage industry fare, the National Ballet and Aussie Rules Football, and an opportunity to experience all four seasons in one day.
Among the first of our impressions, something I have wanted to get off my chest for a while, is this: why are Australians so enamored with KFC? Yes, KFC. The old Kentucky Fried Chicken. They go gaga for this fried crap. The longest lines at shopping mall food courts and fast food drive-ins are at KFC. In one instance when my uncle Raymond, Steve and I made a pit-stop at a service center to refresh and grab a quick bite on our way back from Hall’s Gap in the Grampians where we had spent Easter, the line for the KFC stretched from the counter to the door, and the people waiting in it were undeterred by the prospect of having to wait in this monstrously snaky line because only one of the four cash registers was working. There was a sandwich shop/café right next to it without a line, and a McDonald’s across the freeway that looked surprisingly mellow. These people were jonesing for some of the Colonel’s greasy, fatty, fried poultry goodness and needed to get their fix fast. No wonder Australians are getting fatter, something else I have noticed, yet another Americanism that has landed on these shores. (Along with the Kardashians. Seriously, why does Australia have the worst of American TV???)
Another thing to get off my chest: Australia is expensive, oh so very expensive, thanks to the crappy state of our US dollar. This place makes New York City look cheap. When I first moved to New York City I was aghast – aghast I say! – at the cost of things, save for cab fare, which continues to be cheap. Take a pint of beer for instance. (We use the price of a pint of beer as a gauge wherever we travel, if you haven’t noticed.) We were spoiled at our local in San Francisco, The Toronado, as they served the best beer in the city at the cheapest prices. We would spend anywhere from $4 to $5 a pint on average. In New York the price for the same amount was $6, sometimes closer to $7, depending upon which of the amber fluid was in the glass. In the UK, an imperial pint, more than an American pint, cost 3 to 4 pounds. Here, for a pint of decent beer (are you ready?)…$10! Ten Aussie dollars! And that is on the low end. Some of the more specialty brews are closer to $12. Outrageous!
Anyway, back to the good stuff. Our first week in Melbourne was spent with family: dinners at my uncle Anthony’s house and my aunt Elaine and uncle Mark’s house, visits to the Yarra Valley for wine tasting with my uncle Raymond, spending time going through old photos albums and being mildly embarrassed and some of the clothes my mother made me wear. I was glad that Steve got to meet some of my cousins and I got to catch up with them again.
Our second week Steve and I were on our own, spending a long lunch that extended into a dinner with good family friends, Louise and Paul, in Canterbury, three nights in Melbourne, where I was able to have a quick coffee with a friend whom I have known since I was two, a weekend with good family friends, Joc and Andy, on the Mornington Peninsula, where we enjoyed Joc’s superb cooking, tasting wine at Paringa, Stonier and Duke and beer at Red Hill Brewing Company, and the remainder of the time exploring Victoria’s Gold Country and the well-preserved Gold Rush towns of Bendigo, Castlemaine and Ballarat. Australia had its own Gold Rush in the 1850s, an important event in the history of this country for it not only brought in money and notoriety, but also people from all over the world, many of whom stayed well after the prospecting heydays were over.
In Melbourne one of the places we went to was the State Library of Victoria where we saw Ned Kelly’s homemade piecemeal armor (or armour) on display. The State Library was a surprisingly enjoyable find for it is a lovely building to behold inside and outside, it contains many artifacts of Australiana, not many people seem to visit it and to enter doesn’t hurt the pocketbook for it is free. Who is Ned Kelly, you ask? Why he is Australia’s most famous bushranger, or outlaw, sort of a Jesse James meets Dick Turpin with a splash of Robin Hood thrown in. Depending on which side of the argument you are on, you may consider him to be more Jesse James than Robin Hood, or vice versa. He was born of Irish convict parents, grew up in poverty and was often in trouble with the police, sometimes for no cause other than reputation. After a shoot-out with police, Kelly and his gang, which included his brother Dan, went on the run, robbing banks and finding new places to hide, until the final gunfight with troopers who came to take them dead or alive. Kelly emerged from his hideout at the Glenrowan Inn dressed in his homemade armor (fashioned from a plow), the one we saw at the Library, and was able to withstand the bullets (28 I read) until one got him in the leg. He was arrested, tried, convicted and hanged at the Melbourne Gaol in 1880. He became a folk hero during and after that and the subject of many T-shirts, fridge magnets, badges and other souvenirs that you can purchase in most gift shops. To find out more, you can read Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, or watch one of Hollywood’s celluloid interpretations, the most recent starring the late Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom, or a less recent version starring Mick Jagger as Ned Kelly. Yes, you read that correctly. Mick Jagger as Ned Kelly. Such is life.
Our timing was right for the start of the Australian Rules Football season, so we caught a game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the MCG (or the “G” as they apparently call it now. Has it always been called the G? I don’t remember hearing that growing up here) where we watched the Collingwood Magpies play the Hawthorn Hawks. From birth I have been a Collingwood fan, thanks to my uncle Bernard who got me a membership to the club when I was a few hours old and indoctrinated me on the ways of the Mighty Magpies. Since I left Australia, Collingwood has become the most hated team in Aussie Rules. The vitriol leveled at this team is unbelievable. Sort of like the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys, teams that non-Yankee or non-Cowboys fans love to hate. Why? What gives? Is it because they have won all those premierships? Is it just pure jealousy or is something else going on? (A woman working at one of the Mornington Peninsula wineries we visited was discussing Collingwood with another guest, talking about how the Magpies are such an “evil team” and how everybody hates them. I should have asked her why but I was shocked at the utterance!) Anyway, I remembered most of the rules and Steve was able to figure out the gist of the game that we watched with 78,000 other people at the stadium. Unfortunately for me Collingwood lost after running out of steam in the last minutes of the fourth quarter. Steve became a quick Hawthorn Hawks convert and proudly snatched a brown and yellow flag that a Hawks fan had left in the seats, something that will no doubt go into the second incarnation of The Cavalier someday.
Our last week took us to the western part of Victoria, to Hall’s Gap, in the Grampians Mountain Range. The town (Village? Hamlet? I am not sure of the correct term) is surrounded by native trees and brush, soaring rocks and ridges, and populated by grey kangaroos, cheeky kookaburras (they do sound as though they are laughing), cute spinebills, flamboyant rosellas, raucous cockatoos and a number of other birds native to Australia. From there we went on a few hikes, most notably to the top of Mt. Chatauqua, where we were both outdone by my 66-year-old uncle in speed, agility and breathing capacity.
Steve and I had another opportunity to test our breathing capacity and endurance skills at the 5K Fun Run/3K Walk at Stawell, about 15 miles away from Hall’s Gap, along with my uncle Anthony, a seasoned runner who jogs 10K every day. I opted to walk – to run is not fun – along with my cousins Helen, Emily and Luke. Steve chose to run with his goal being to finish, and hopefully at or under 30 minutes: he did it in 24! Go Stevie! Anthony did it in 19. And went for a jog right afterwards. But it was I and only I who was selected the random winner and I have the sash to prove it:
Our last night in Melbourne was spent celebrating Uncle Raymond’s birthday who turned 67. This is the same uncle who outdid us on the hike up Mt. Chatauqua. It shows you that hiking every day, drinking cups of green tea, eating lots of oatmeal, almonds, blueberries, salmon and avocados pays off!
We’re only halfway through our journey through the land of Oz so there’s more to come. I’m posting this update without the photo album. It always takes so long to upload especially with the weak wireless connection. The pics will appear soon! In the meantime Steve and I will continue to enjoy the beautiful autumn weather while watching the yachts glide across the gentle sapphire waves surrounding this beautiful city.