We awoke to sunny and warm weather on Thursday, making it a total of 3 days where I wasn't shivering and cold in Australia. If you want consistent heat and sun, you have to travel north to Queensland.
I was thankful for the calm warm weather because I was headed out on the ocean that morning. I booked myself on a two hour "Totally Wild" whale watching tour. The boat was a smallish vessel, of a type used by the coast guard, where we could speed out of Sydney Harbour into the open ocean. And do I mean speed! We traveled out so fast that we had to use hand grips to keep our butts in the seats as we flew over the waves. The ride was surprisingly smooth due to the calm weather, and the clear skies meant our visibility levels were very high.
The tour guarantees whale spotting or you get another ticket to ride. Within the first hour we spotted a seal, a small shark, shearlings (sea birds) and an albatross. These are all animals that you might occasionally get to see on this tour, but not frequently. We were lucky apparently. But this luck wasn't working in regards to seeing whales. The second hour was quickly passing, and still no whales seen by our boat, the company's spotter helicopter, or their second boat to the south. The captain was perplexed because there were massive schools of fish all around us, attracting all those other animals, and conditions were ideal for the whales that frequently swim in the area.
Then a small pod of dolphins ran alongside our boat for a while. Where there are dolphins, there are whales says the captain. Time was running out however, and it seemed we'd be getting what amounted to a free boat cruise in the sunshine and the calm seas. Not a bad prospect. A few more false alarms, as we kept spotting fish traps instead of dorsal fins. There were 9 of us on the boat, scanning the swells in all directions. Then I thought I spotted something about 20m to starboard, and pointed it out to the crew. Aha!! A whale!
There was a mother humpback and her calf. We stayed out on the ocean beyond our allotted 2 hours to watch the pair through 4 cycles of coming to the surface to breathe then dive below for several minutes. The mother was comfortable enough with us to allow her calf to surface and swim between herself and our boat.
We even got to see several types of whale behaviours in the short time we watched them: tail dives, blowing etc. I've got some photos to post once Kevin returns to Canada with the camera, but unfortunately I didn't get a good shot of the tail.
We returned to the docks, passing under the Harbour Bridge and seeing the Opera House from a great angle on the water. I arrived back at the hotel in the afternoon just as Kevin returned from the product demonstration. To his disappointment, the only time the device failed to work perfectly was the demo itself. We joined his colleagues for a much needed drink and mutual commiseration down at Circular Quay. The sunshine, warm weather and harbour views made for a pleasant afternoon despite the disappointment. Everyone was philosophical about the demo, and simply enjoyed being finished after weeks of long hours. The real work would start later, so they may as well enjoy the small break afforded them.
We spent our last night in Sydney packing, shopping, then out for dinner at a steak house on the harbour. Goodbyes were said, and everyone headed home to hotels or airports. Friday morning saw Kevin headed to visit Jason & Vanessa in Brisbane, and I was back on a 15 hour flight home to Vancouver, just in time to attend our friend Emily's wedding Saturday.
I woke up bright and early to have breakfast with Kevin (ham & cheese croissants and long blacks) before getting picked up for my wine tour at 7:30am. I chose a small van tour that focused on small boutique wineries in the Hunter Valley. This is a wine growing region 2-3 hours north of Sydney. I'd stopped briefly in the Hunter Valley on our first trip to Australia 10 years ago, but was looking forward to revisiting the area now that I actually enjoy wine.
The drive north was lovely, with great views of the Hawkesbury River and gum tree forests. The Hunter Valley itself was green with tree lined roads and back lanes. We visited 4 wineries in all, and tasted many wines. The valley is known for its semillon (crisp & fresh), verdelho (tropical fruits) and shiraz (robust & peppery) grapes. On the way to the final winery, we spotted two families of kangaroos hopping through the vineyards. Apparently they like the atmosphere in the vineyards, but don't eat the grapes at all.
I returned to Sydney by 6pm, and freshened up before joining Kevin for dinner in Darling Harbour. We tried the barramundi (an Aussie River fish) and a seafood risotto. Tasty.
The whole reason we're in Australia was for a technical demo of an upcoming wireless product. Here's an article about the product, which glossed over the fact the demo didn't actually run very smoothly. The device was working fine before and after the demo, however.
Tuesday was overcast yet again, so I headed to an indoor activity: the Sydney Aquarium. The displays seemed a bit tiny at first, so I was worried I'd wasted my money. There were interesting things though, like seahorses, small crocodiles, platypus, & tree frogs, plus a ton of wee fishes. As I moved further into the aquarium, I learned the seal exhibit was closed. Still not impressed. Then I headed down these long ramps into the shark/big fish oceanarium tank. It is enclosed but floating in the harbour, so you could feel the floor rocking like a boat. The tank was finally revealed when you got to the bottom, and it was spectacular! Large windows on either end and two clear glass tubes to walk through on either side. There were various sharks, rays, sea turtles and fish swimming all around you. Most were enormous. Good exhibit... made me wish the seal oceanarium was open as well.
After the aquarium, I walked back towards the hotel for a rest. This was the day of the Melbourne Cup, so the streets were filled with very well dressed people rushing to various Racing Day parties. Hats on women were de rigueur, as were frilly brightly coloured spring frocks. By race time at 3pm, the streets were deserted. It was fun to see that the entire country celebrated this event: it's known as "the race that stops a nation". The race was happening in Melbourne, but even Sydney got dressed up and participated. I watched the race aftermath on tv, where the winning horse Viewed won by a nose. Most of the coverage focused on the party atmosphere surrounding the race, with fashion critics pointing out their best dressed picks and colour commentators interviewing tipsy patrons.
I got first hand confirmation that race day is an excuse to go out drinking when I walked down to The Rocks later in the day. All the pubs, bars and cafes were overflowing with people celebrating. I walked through the historic neighbourhood (think Gastown) to the visitors centre, and booked a couple of excursions for the next few days.
The weather has been windy and slightly overcast & chilly most days, except the 30 degree day last week. Monday finally dawned sunny and warm, so I headed to Bondi to lounge on the beach. A long bus ride later (since I got on the slowest bus possible, go me!) I landed in surfers' paradise. The famous beach was a long crescent of soft orange sand, bounded by two high cliffs on either end. The water was bright blue, and the waves were steady but not too high.
I lunched on some fish n' chips, then hit the sand with my book and my iPod. There was a light breeze that kept me from getting too hot. At one point I glanced up to see I was surrounded by seagulls and pigeons, pecking at the sand around my blanket. It was a little weird, because there were a LOT of them. Then I realized the wind had brushed the sand away from a scattering of chips that someone had buried, and the birds were getting excited to find treats. I quickly moved to a bird-free zone... Sydney seagulls are crazy.
When I was getting ready to leave, a slightly intoxicated girl ran over to invite me to a beach party since they were short on women. She was devastated to learn I was married and moved on to the next solo girl on the beach. Laughing, I started to gather up my things, then a massive wind came up and started blowing everyone over. It was insane how fast it arrived and how strong it was. I was having trouble walking straight against the wind force. Apparently the beach party was canceled. :)
Sunday morning was slept away, as we had a very late night before. Thankfully, Sydney offers a plethora of all day breakfast options. We walked to Darling Harbour, crossed the bridge to the north side, and located Concrete. The restaurant/cafe is next to a pleasant park, and had some decent breakfast items. The lamb sausage is still not our favourite thing to eat. Luckily the bacon is tasty.
Kevin located a pick up ultimate game online, so we headed to Manly on the ferry to find it. The weather has been cool and cloudy since Friday, so it wasn't ideal beach conditions for sunbathing or swimming. Kev played Ulti with some Aussies, and I chilled (literally) on the sand, watching the waves & the surfers.
We grabbed some dinner at a woodfired pizza joint, and we're again impressed by the low price of wine on the menu. A bottle of wine never topped $33 AUD, no matter what kind it was. We had a nice Penfolds Koonunga Hill Cab/Merlot ($26).
The ferry ride back to the city ended with a bang. A fireworks show went off beside the Sydney Harbour Bridge just was we were docking at Circular Quay. It was a nice way to end the evening.
Shockingly, Kevin was given the weekend off! We celebrated by leaving the city and taking the train out to the Blue Mountains (2 hrs west of Sydney). We arrived in Katoomba just as the weather turned misty and threatened rain. After considering our options, we chose to do the 3 rides at Scenic World immediately, before the weather turned ugly and stopped us from seeing anything.
Scenic World is a touristy way to see the Jamison Valley and the Three Sisters rock formation. First we rode the Skyway, a gondola with clear walls and a glass floor. There were cockatoos and parrots flying around us as we passed over a deep forested valley from peak to peak. The next step was to ride the Railway down the steep valley side to the forest below. The track runs at a 52 degree incline. Basically it was far vertical as you can go without falling out. Short trip but thrilling. Then we walked through the rainforest along a boardwalk for 40 minutes before taking the Cableway back up to the cliff side.
Lunch in Katoomba was followed by a trolley bus tour of the town and the neighbouring town of Leura. We saw a few good viewpoints of the Jamison and Megalong Valleys, and ended the trip at Echo Point. This was the premiere viewpoint of the Jamison and the Three Sisters. The valley stretches on forever, and is filled with trees and mist, bordered by colourful rock cliff escarpments. The rain never really happened, and the low cloud held back just enough to allow us to see most of the valley.
After taking the train back into the city, we walked to The Rocks to find some dinner. Kev chose an excellent Thai restaurant called Sailor Thai, and we thoroughly enjoyed our pork satay and spicy eggplant tofu. Since we were in The Rocks, we walked over to the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel to meet up with Kev's coworker and his friends. Many drinks later, and getting booted from Lord Nelson at 11pm, then another hotel pub at 12pm, we ended up at Lowenbrau... a cheesy club/bar that was playing Shania Twain and Bryan Adams as we arrived. Many apologies for the terrible music were offered to us by the Aussies.
Friday was the hottest day in Oz so far... about 30 degrees. I decided to walk to the harbour and get a good view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. There were some good busking bands playing, including some didgeridoo music. Unfortunately the cafes near the Opera House were overrun by cranky children, so I didn't stop for lunch there.
I tried to locate the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which I knew was a few blocks south, but since I didn't bring a map with me I didn't find it at first. I was feeling the heat at this point, so a few hours in the air conditioned gallery would have been perfect. By the time I walked to Hyde Park, and couldn't find the turn off to the gallery, I chose to eat lunch instead. There was a nice Italian cafe in the park, where I had a risotto with prosciutto and mushrooms and a glass of wine.
I figured out where I was in relation to the gallery (food helps the brain) and walked through the park to get there. I got to pass by some beautiful stone buildings en route, a parliament building and St Mary's Cathedral. The gallery was free admission again, so I stayed for 2 hours and saw some Cezanne, Pissarro, Picasso, Braque, Bronzino, de Kooning, Rodin, Giacometti, an Asian art collection and an Aboriginal art exhibit.
I wandered back to Hyde Park, and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the lawns under jacaranda trees. It was lovely.
Later that night we joined another 2 coworkers of Kevin's, plus their wives/girlfriends, and walked to Darling Harbour for dinner & drinks. Kev had the kangaroo... very lean red meat with a gamey flavour.
Arrived in Sydney a bit late on Thursday. The plane we waited for in Melbourne was hit by lightning on the way in, and they decided to pull it from service for a systems check. We were all bumped to the next 2 flights (30min later) but that didn't stop a litany of complaints from all the Aussies "inconvenienced by Qantas". What a bunch of wankers.
We are staying at a very nice hotel in downtown Sydney, called The Grace. It's a restored Art Deco-style heritage building. The room was so inviting and cozy, I decided to chill out for the rest of the evening while Kev went to work. I left the hotel briefly to find some dinner, and ended up eating at the food court of the Queen Victoria Building. It's another restored historical building, with ornate ceilings and mosaic tiled floors. The food (Thai green curry) was an excellent meal for the cheap price paid.