Category Archives: Australia

When In Sydney

Finally, the conclusion to the Great Sydney Caper!

A good friend of mine once said, “When in Rome…do … something!” She had a momentary brain lapse and couldn’t remember the end of this famous phrase. That is how I like to remember the phrase now, “When in [fill in name of city here], do something!” This post is about all of the “somethings” we did in Sydney that haven’t been addressed yet: the Opera House, sailing on an America’s Cup class yacht, and seeing a cricket match.

The Opera House

OperaHouse3WM

One of the most iconic buildings in Sydney is the Opera House, so this was clearly a must do. We decided we would take a tour, and since neither of us had been to an opera before, we thought this would be a great opportunity to enjoy that particular experience. We bought “tour and tasting” tickets for the same day as our opera tickets. We understood this to mean that we would have our tour and then go to the in-house restaurant where we would order dinner from some kind of a tasting menu, which I assumed would be small plates, similar to tapas. It turns out that they have a set menu for the tasting. You don’t have to choose anything, they just bring you a huge array of food! (It was all delicious.)

The tour was really interesting. You learn a lot about the building, of course, but you also get access to a lot of spaces that you wouldn’t see without the tour. That’s the best part for me- behind the scenes stuff!

Rather than quote the entire history of the Opera House, which you can find on Wikipedia, a few things that struck me:

  • Jørn Utzon, the guy that designed it, didn’t have any clue how to make the structure actually work. It took years after he won the design contract for him to figure it out.
  • The roof tiles are self-cleaning. They are glazed ceramic and when it rains they clean themselves. There’s also more than 1 million tiles.
  • There are multiple theaters inside. I had no idea. I assumed it was one performance hall. Nope. The opera company has one hall and the symphony has another hall. Plus there are three other stages for plays and other types of performances.

So after the tour it was time for dinner. We had made “reservations,” such as they were, before the tour so they would have the food started for us. One thing the website doesn’t tell you is how much time to leave between the end of the tour and the opening of the show. We left ourselves an hour and we had just enough time to eat. Another half hour, or full hour, would have been good to enjoy our drinks and digest a little before going to our seats. Since the tasting package is listed on the website, I would have assumed that a lot of people take advantage of it. Apparently not, or at least apparently not that day. Everyone who walked by did a double take at our huge tower of food. They were probably just jealous.

The opera we chose was La Boheme. We chose it because I was obsessed with the musical Rent in high school and college and could probably still sing all or most of the words on the soundtrack. I have seen Rent at least half a dozen times, and Micah has seen it twice with me. For those not in the know, Rent is a modern day retelling of La Boheme. We thought La Boheme would be a good choice since we were both familiar with the basic story line. And it was. The set was gorgeous, the costumes were wonderful, and the performers (singers and orchestra) were fantastic. We really enjoyed our first opera experience!

Finally, we closed out the night with some decadent desserts. Because why not? We did the opera house tour on our first full day in Sydney. Why not kick off vacation with amazing chocolate creations?

America’s Cup sailing

On board The Kookabura, pre-race.  Notice Micah's sweet new hat.

On board The Kookabura, pre-race. Notice Micah’s sweet new hat.

The next “When in Sydney” thing that we did was supposed to be for Micah’s birthday. I talked before about this trip coinciding with a big birthday, and our quest for something “uniquely Australian” to do to celebrate.  Before we found the Blue Mountains tour, we found a sailing excursion on an America’s Cup yacht. We could choose a regular cruise around the harbor, or go on the race day and participate in a race! We both enjoy sailing and being on the water in general. I wouldn’t call either of us sailors by any means, but we know the basics of how to use a sail to propel a boat. So we appreciated the opportunity to be on a real America’s Cup yacht and get to try our hand at grinding (turning the cranks to let in or take out sail). And racing one sounded even cooler! So we booked that for the day before Micah’s birthday (the race day is once a week), with the intent of that being “for” his birthday. I’m glad we did both the race and the hike.

I wasn’t sure if the race would be “real” or not, but it was an actual race, probably 30-40 boats. I guess Wednesday afternoons in Sydney in the summer they have sail races. It seemed pretty friendly to me, more of a “something to do” than a cutthroat competition. (The sailing equivalent of a Fun Run?) I would say there were less than a dozen boats and crews, probably about a half dozen, that were very serious about racing. Everyone else looked like they were just out for the fun of it.

The boat we were on was called The Kookaburra. As we left the dock, the crew did a safety briefing and gave us instructions on the grinders and how to move across the boat and such. There were 5 crewmembers, 3 were obviously life long sailors and 2 were college aged. One of the older guys, Bruce, explained that this was an actual race. He said, “There’s a guy out there who built a $2.5 million boat specifically designed to win these Wednesday afternoon races. We are going to try to beat him.” Someone asked the name of the boat, The Black Hand, and who wins more. Sounded like The Kookaburra wins at least from time to time. So we cruise out to the starting point and Bruce yells, “Ladies and gentlemen! THAT is The Black Hand!” Obviously most of us had never seen that boat before, but all of a sudden we wanted nothing more than to beat it. It was a great way to get us involved in the competition and really invested in the day. The Black Hand crossed the finish line before we did, but The Kookaburra won due to the various handicaps the boats were sailing under. If I remember correctly, they would have had to beat us by around 5 minutes to actually win, and they only beat us by 2 or 3 minutes.  I don’t think anyone actually wins anything, except for possibly bragging rights, so I can’t believe a guy designed a multi million-dollar boat just to win these races. I guess he didn’t have anything better to do with $2.5 million…

It was a really great afternoon. It looked like most of the people on board had at least some familiarity with boats and sailing but most were probably on the beginner end of the range, like Micah and I.  After the race, when we were just cruising back to the dock, we got in a conversation with some college aged guys. They had a friend who was studying abroad at the University of Texas, Austin, so we talked about that a little, and then talked more about general “what’s it like to live here/there” kinds of things. One of the guys was suitably impressed with Micah’s new hat, which we had actually just purchased that morning. The day before, we had done the Manly Scenic Walk and got sunburned. Micah’s ears and the back of his neck were really badly burned, so he wanted something with more sun protection than his ball cap. Especially being on the water all afternoon for the race and then hiking the next day. We had read about a great hat store in The Strand, an old arcade-style mall, so we went there. After looking at all the options, and discussing his wants and needs with the sales guy, he picked out an Akubra hat. Apparently this is similar in history and street cred to a Stetson cowboy hat in Texas. So we felt good that he had “chosen wisely.”

We kept our camera stowed during the race, so unfortunately we don’t have very many pictures of the sail or boat. The sail was massive though. I don’t think I could have envisioned the scale relative to the size of the boat. If you are someone who enjoys sailing, and you have the opportunity to go on an America’s Cup class boat, do it. It was really different from the other sailboats I’ve been on.

Cricket

The fancy members-only area at the Sydney Cricket Grounds.

The fancy members-only area at the Sydney Cricket Grounds.

The last “when in Sydney” thing we did was see a cricket match. Neither of us have ever seen cricket, and neither of us had a really clear understanding of the rules beyond the basics. We do love sports though, especially baseball, and we wanted to see something “uniquely Australian.” It was not Australian Rules Football season (our top choice), or rugby season, so cricket won. As it turns out, there was going to be a “One Day International” match between Australia and England, so we got tickets for that. I mean, go big or go home, right? If you’re going to see a cricket match, why not see an international match! And the benefit is that it was a one-day match, rather than something that would be stretched out over multiple days. I didn’t even know that was the normal type of cricket match until we got to Sydney and started talking to people about it.

We were advised that the match probably wouldn’t end until 9pm or later, so there was no real reason to be there for the 2pm start time. So we walked the Bondi to Coogee cliffs walk that morning, and got to the game just after 4pm. This was really excellent timing because our seats were in the shade and, as it happened, we got there for the last 30 minutes or so of England’s innings (their turn at bat). We got to get a feel for the game and figure out what was going on without having a real rooting interest in the play. We only had to ask the guy next to us for clarification on something a couple of times, so I’m going to call that a win.

Of course almost everyone else in the stadium was rooting for Australia, so when it was Australia’s innings, it was easy to get caught up in the action and know when to cheer or be upset. Australia won, and one of the players scored a century– which is a big deal in itself, but it was an even bigger deal because it was the first century Australia had scored against England in Australia.

CricketGrounds1WM

Australia was gearing up to host the Cricket World Cup, so Micah bought a jersey. It was fun to follow the headlines as Australia won, and cool because we felt a small connection since we had seen the team so recently.

All in all, we had a wonderful vacation in Sydney. It was a very welcome change from KL for a week. We had intended for our week in Sydney to be our “big” trip during our expat year, and it did not disappoint at all. It’s easily among my favorite places that I’ve ever been and Australia remains on my list for future travel destinations.

Sunset over the Anzac Bridge.  Sydney's

Sunset over the Anzac Bridge. Sydney’s “other” bridge.

Coming Soon: The beginning of the end. After 8 months in KL, we are beginning the final countdown of our expat year!

Blue Mountains Hike

Part 4 of the Great Sydney Caper

We specifically planned our Sydney trip in January to coincide with Micah’s birthday. It was a pretty big number, the one that is typically associated with hills in the U.S. I had been looking for a unique way to celebrate, something that would be an experience, and something we could only do in Australia. I was perusing the Trip Advisor recommendations and found Blue Mountains Eco Tour. They offer a few different tour packages at a reasonable price, including one that gives you the opportunity to see kangaroos in the wild. Wild kangaroos with some hiking?  We knew immediately this was the experience we were looking for!

We booked the tour over email and Paul, the owner, and Jenny, his partner, were incredibly easy to correspond with.  Booking the tour couldn’t have been smoother.  On the day of the tour, Paul picked us up at our hotel in the morning. We drove about an hour out of Sydney to get to the first overlook point. On the drive, Paul told us a lot about the history of the area. We knew the basic history of Australia and of Sydney, but hearing more about how Europeans settled the specific area we were driving through was really interesting.

We spent about 10 minutes at the first overlook point, to get oriented to where we would be spending the rest of our day. It was an amazing view and a great way to appreciate the grandeur of the landscape. At several points during the day, looking at the valley really made you aware of how small you are in the world. How big a place the world really is can be easily masked in cities sometimes. Being confronted with something like these views does wonders for realigning your soul.

First overlook, into Jamison Valley.

First overlook, into Jamison Valley.

The first “real” stop and hike was to see Katoomba Falls. We parked at Scenic World, which is a very touristy place that offers train and gondola rides and things like that. But they also had some very nicely maintained trails. It was an easy hike down to the falls through a beautiful rainforest. (The hike back up was only marginally more difficult because it was going up, otherwise it wasn’t bad either.)  The scenery was amazing, and even more amazing was that there was no one around. We didn’t see people until we got to the Falls, and even then there were only a few others. This was in contrast to the parking lot at Scenic World which was pretty packed with other tourists.  I guess the train and gondola are a big draw.

Next up was lunch in Leura. Leura is a very quaint town, I believe built as a railroad depot. There were a lot of great restaurants to choose from, we picked a place with great sandwiches based on Paul’s recommendation. After lunch, we went to Pulpit Rock. Pulpit Rock is situated at one end of the valley so we had an incredible view of nearly the entire valley. The overlook point is down a little bit from the ground level where you walk in, it’s easily accessed on a small boardwalk and stairs. It was really windy! The difference of maybe 50-100 feet was astonishing. At the ground level, our hats were in no danger of blowing away. At the overlook point, we had to take them off or risk losing them.

View from Pulpit Rock

View from Pulpit Rock

After Pulpit Rock, it was time to find some kangaroos. We drove into the valley to a secret spot that Paul knows about, called Shipley Plateau. (Actually, I have no idea how secret it really is.  It just happened that there was no one else there when we were there, so it felt like a secret.) To reach the specific area we had to pass through some privately owned farmland, though the Plateau itself is on public parkland. I think that’s probably why more people weren’t there to check it out, unless you know the drill it is easy to think you aren’t supposed to be there. On the way in, we were on the lookout for kangaroos and wallabies who were just starting to stir. Apparently they are nocturnal; I didn’t know this but it makes sense given how hot it is in Australia during the day. Our first view of kangaroos was magical. This is not hyperbole. It felt like that scene in Jurassic Park where Laura Dern’s character sees the live dinosaurs for the first time and she is astounded. We saw about 3 of them hopping through a field; it was such a quick glimpse of them, but even so it was wonderful. I felt like I had seen something amazing.  We saw some wallabies and a few kangaroos on our way in, but we didn’t stop because Paul said he knew a good place where we would probably see a lot of them. He wasn’t wrong! In the middle of a small valley, we saw probably 30 kangaroos lounging on the grass. Some of them were getting up and moving around, some of them were staying put. It was so peaceful to be there, with no one else around, and see so many kangaroos going about their day and basically ignoring us.

We elected to enjoy our afternoon tea break while we pondered the kangaroos. Paul had a thermos of hot water to make tea and coffee, plus fruit and biscuits (known to us Americans as cookies) for a snack. I had also arranged for a birthday surprise for Micah. Jenny, Paul’s partner, handles the communication for the business. When I was emailing her to get our tour set up, I asked about the possibility of getting a small cake for Micah. She got in touch with Louise at Cake Love by Louise, who makes custom cakes, about making something for us in Micah’s favorite flavor (Red Velvet) which isn’t very popular outside of the American South. Louise came through and Cake Love was able to make it for us, and I had a choice of a standard birthday cake or cupcakes with fun Aussie decorations. Since the theme of the day was “doing something uniquely Australian,” of course I went with the cupcakes! They were adorable, and more importantly very delicious. Micah was surprised by the cupcakes, and I was thrilled to have pulled off the surprise. A very big thanks to Jenny and Louise at Cake Love for their extra work to make it happen!

Our last stop was at Echo Point for sunset. We arrived just in time and found a great spot. It was easy to access, it didn’t involve much/any hiking, and had a parking lot near by. I was really surprised that there weren’t more people there, since it was so easy to get to. There were some, probably the most we had seen all day, but we didn’t have to elbow our way to a good view or wait for an opening in the crowd to get nice pictures with no one else in them. It was a great way to end the day.

On the drive back to Sydney, Paul talked to us about cricket. Seeing a cricket match was on our agenda for the next day, and we didn’t have much of an idea about the rules. So it was really helpful to get an intro from him before diving in to the game the next day!

If you find yourself in Sydney and you’re interested in some (relatively light) hiking in the Blue Mountains, I cannot recommend Blue Mountain Eco Tours enough. It was a great, private tour for a really reasonable price. That alone would be reason enough to recommend it. However, Paul and Jenny went above and beyond to work with us on the birthday surprise and were all around wonderful people to deal with from a business perspective. Paul was one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had. He had an incredible knowledge of the history of the area and his knowledge of plants and animals was beyond what I could have hoped for. Like, he knew a truly impressive amount of diverse things. On top of all that, he has an interest in photography so he very frequently pointed out great vantage points for pictures and even shared with us some tricks and tips for taking better pictures (in terms of camera settings). I think this was above and beyond his strict job description as a tour operator, and it made our experience with him that much better.

Great tour, great experience, great birthday for Micah.

Coming soon: The final installment in the Great Sydney Caper – “When in Sydney…” The Opera House, racing on an America’s Cup class boat, and our first cricket match.

Exploring Natural Sydney

Part 3 of the Great Sydney Caper!

We are fairly active people and like “doing” things on our vacations. Our beach weekend in Phuket was a little out of character for us, way too much potential for sitting around. One of our favorite vacation activities is hiking and visiting National Parks of all shapes and sizes. Sydney has a lot of National Parks around the harbor. We knew we wanted to visit as many as we could, but there were way too many to even try to see all of them in one week!

On our walking tour of the Rocks area, we stopped in at the Visitor’s Center to get some recommendations on how to prioritize the Harbour National Parks. We had scheduled ourselves an activity each day and we basically had one day to devote to the parks. So which ones should we absolutely not miss? The woman at the Visitor’s Center gave us a few ideas, and then suggested the Eco Hopper Ferry that stopped at many of them. We probably could have saved money by taking the public transportation ferry, but it was nice to have a little bit of a guided tour as we went between locations. Plus, the Eco Hopper only went between the National Parks, so it was a little easier than figuring out the public transport schedule where we might have had to change at a central location or something. We ended up buying a Hop On/Hop Off pass that was good for all day; even though it was more expensive, it was very convenient.

Buying the pass the day before we planned to visit the parks was a really good idea. It gave us time to strategize which parks to visit, in which order, and to find out what we should do and see while we were there. We definitely wanted to go to Watson’s Bay and to Manly. We thought that would take up most, if not all, of the day. There were two other stops on the Eco Hopper that we agreed would be interesting to see for their historical value, but we decided just to photograph them from the ferry. The first one was Fort Denison, in the middle of the harbor. Apparently it has the grisly distinction of displaying the bodies of executed convicts, to serve as a warning for others. From the ferry, it looked as though we would have exhausted the exploration opportunities in about 30 minutes, so we both felt satisfied with our decision not to see it up close.

Fort Denison.

Fort Denison.

The second site we elected not to explore in detail was the Q Station. I guess the full name is the Manly Quarantine Station, but I only just learned that when I was researching facts to write this. Everyone there just calls it the Q Station. That’s even the official name of the ferry stop. It was used for about 150 years as a place to isolate patients with epidemic-causing diseases. It looks like it was still in use until 1984 (the quarantine purposes ended in 1972) to house illegal immigrants. It reminded me a little of Ellis Island in New York, the buildings had the same institutional-quality feel. This is one place I would like to visit on our next trip to Sydney. There is a lot more to know about the Q Station than we could get from the snippet in the guide book and from our brief view while the ferry docked.

WatsonsBayWMOur first real stop of the day was Watson’s Bay. Watson’s Bay is a neighborhood, with a waterfront that had a lot of good-looking cafes, a small beach, and a really nice park. It would be the perfect place to take a picnic if we actually lived there! But the thing to see is The Gap. The Gap is a scenic overlook over limestone cliffs, through “the gap” in the cliffs, to open ocean. It has a boardwalk so that you can safely enjoy the view from many different vantage points along the cliffs. The part that was part of the National Park was, at one point in Sydney’s history, a military base, and there are many places where you can still see vestiges of this history. Now, native plants are retaking the area. For the first time since arriving in Sydney it really struck me that we were in an entirely different ecosystem to any I had ever seen before. Not only were the plants different, but the usual animal and bird noises were different also. It was exciting to explore something so new, but I also wished we had bought a bird book or something to help us identify what we were seeing. (Although an app designed to identify birdcalls might have been better! We actually saw very few birds, in comparison to what we heard.)

At the entrance to the Sydney Harbour National Park in Manly, you can hear kookaburras laughing.  It was really distinctive, and never having heard it before we knew what it was right away.  We think this is a kookaburra.  (If it's not, please don't inform us otherwise.  We are happy in our ignorance.)

We think this is a kookaburra. (If it’s not, please don’t inform us otherwise. We are happy in our ignorance.)

Our next stop was Manly. We were told both at the Visitor’s Center and by several friends that Manly was not to be missed. Indeed it wasn’t! There were a lot of great views and scenery.  We started at Manly Beach where we enjoyed some fish and chips for lunch. By this time, what had started as an overcast and potentially rainy day had turned into a really hot and sunny one. Fortunately for me there were plenty of surf shops around where I could acquire a sun hat, since I had elected to leave mine at the hotel on the chance of rain. Then, we were off on the walking tour from Lonely Planet that would take us to the Manly Scenic Walkway (MSW), only we didn’t realize that’s what it was at first. There was at least one point when we were standing under a directional arrow that said “MSW” and consulting our map in our book to figure out where to go. This comes back to my point that as great as the small maps are in Lonely Planet, having something with more details is very important.

The entire walk was 10km, one way. We knew we wouldn’t make the whole thing, based on the time we started and the time the last ferry was leaving. Our goal was to make it to a certain point, where there were Aboriginal rock drawings. We made it about half way to that point, about a quarter to a third of the way on the whole walk, before we had to make the tough call to head back to catch the last ferry. It would have been amazing to see the rock drawings, but given our after lunch start, the heat of the day, and the fact that we only brought one bottle of water each, it was just not to be. Oh well. It was only Tuesday and we already had a definite reason to come back to Sydney!

One of the lizards we saw along the MSW.

One of the lizards we saw along the MSW.

I have done several multiple day, very long distance walks for charity in the past. On several of them, I have experienced what the medical crew calls “road rash” on my legs. It’s apparently a form of heat rash, one gets it from the heat reflected from the pavement. I usually get a nice swelling of my feet, ankles, and lower legs as well, which makes walking sometimes painful. About an hour into the 3-4 hours we spent on the MSW, I started to experience these very familiar and unwelcome symptoms. I was unwilling to give up and go back, so I just stopped to sit and rest more frequently than I would like to admit. Micah took these opportunities to take pictures of plants, animals, and scenery, so it worked out OK. At one of these rest stops, we met a family out for an afternoon nature hike. I chatted with the mom while the 4 kids showed Micah the various plants and flowers they had found, and even a lizard! Eventually, we all started talking together and the mom asked what else we had planned for vacation. When Micah told them about going to our first cricket match later in the week, the oldest girls (about 9) were shocked (shocked!) that we had never seen cricket. They couldn’t fathom a world where two grown adults wouldn’t have watched even a little bit of cricket before. We explained that it wasn’t popular in the US, and she was equally outraged by that piece of news. It was really sweet, actually.

My favorite part of the day was the rock pools. In the area where I grew up, we might call these tide pools. The rocky landscape reminded us of something lunar. We both really enjoyed exploring the pools and just watching the water.


Shortly after meeting the family, we made the decision to turn around and go back. Because we had already taken a lot of pictures and enjoyed a lot of scenery, the trip back was much faster than the trip out. We had enough time to enjoy a beer or two at the bar on the dock while we waited for the ferry. Pretty good timing, I’d say! The ferry ride back was really nice because there weren’t a lot of other people on board. We had the whole top deck to ourselves and enjoyed a private sunset cruise of the harbor.

We got back to our hotel totally exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. We showered and went downstairs for dinner. We discovered in the whole “getting cleaned up” process that we were both very sunburned. I thought I had done a good job applying sunscreen periodically, but apparently I missed random small parts of my body- like the top of my thumb, as well as the tops of my feet. The heat rash had also spread to my feet, so that was really fun. Micah had a really terrible sunburn on his forearms as well as his ears. We discovered later in the week that the intensity of the sun is much stronger in Australia as compared with other places we have been because the atmosphere is thinner. I remember learning about the hole in the ozone layer in elementary school, but to be honest I hadn’t thought about it very much since then. The rest of the week though, we thought about it every hour as we reapplied our SPF 1million.

The other really great “natural” walk we did was the Bondi to Coogee cliffs walk. I don’t think any parts of this were officially included as part of the Harbour National Parks, but it was just as beautiful. It was a very hot day, just like the day we did the Manly walk, and this one had very little opportunities for shade. But it felt easier than the Manly walk for some reason. Perhaps we were better prepared mentally, and with more water, or maybe it was flatter and therefore actually easier. I’m not sure. We were never far from the ocean though, so I’m sure the ocean breezes went a long way to helping us stay comfortable.

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Bondi Beach is famous for surfing, so once we got there we walked the beach and watched the surfers for a while. There were a lot of beaches along the whole walk; some were more popular with surfers, some with body borders, some with families. There were also several “ocean pools” along the route- actual pools on the beach, I assume filled with seawater, where people could get their exercise swimming in. Sometimes a wave would crash over the edge, which must have been fun if you were trying to get your laps in! This walk was probably one of our favorite outings of the week. The boardwalk was right along the cliffs so we heard the sound of waves (my favorite sound) for nearly the entire distance. The walkway was well maintained and very easy to follow, and despite its popularity it never felt like there were a lot of people around us. Another great thing was that the city or local neighborhood groups had placed drinking fountains along the way so you could fill your water bottle. Having easy access to clean (and free!) drinking water was so nice. One extra perk of these fountains was they had a spigot on the side specifically to make it easier to fill your bottle, rather than having to tip it at a funny angle as you would at a regular water fountain (or bubbler, in my neck of the woods). Even with sun hats, copious sunscreen, and plenty of water we both felt hot and exhausted at the end. The walk is 6km, and the book says it takes 2-3 hours to complete. I would guess it took us about 4.5, given the time we spent to take pictures and soak in the ocean air. This walk is something I would do every time we are in Sydney. It was that fantastic.

The last “natural Sydney” expedition we made was to the Blue Mountains.  Details of that outing are here!