Australia 2011: Day 8

Today dawned before the chickens. My alarm went off at 6:15am. The sun was up, but barely. In fact, it was so early that neither of us wanted to go downstairs for breakfast. We finally found the hot water heater in our room (it took us long enough) and made tea and coffee in the room.

We met Trevor down in the lobby at 7:00 and slid back into his Landrover to start our drive up to the Blue Mountains. There was a nasty accident on the high way, but it was in the lane coming into Sydney, so we were fine. Trevor had on a radio station so he could listen to the traffic updates, but as they were playing solely 80s music, I quite liked it.

The drive up to the Blue Mountains is fairly long, about 100 kilometers (2ish hours). We were going farther than that (about 170 kilometers) because our first stop was Jenolan Caves.

Trevor kept us very entertained on the drive up. We talked about different car brands/markets, wine, and several other tidbits here and there. Once we got into the foothills he had lots of neat history to share with us.

The forecast was for rain today. We were afraid even though the main purpose of our trip was not the actual Blue Mountains that we wouldn’t be able to see anything on the drive. But fortunately it never really started raining.

Trevor turned off the main road and took a few little back streets (very back street) to what he told us was the best view in the whole mountain range. The lookout point (off an utterly invisible turn out if you don’t know it’s there) was called “Flat Rock.” As expected the main feature of the lookout point was an incredibly large flat rock followed by an 800 foot plunge down to the valley floor. Did I mention there was no safety railing?

It was a little bit foggy and cloudy, but we stuck it out for a few minutes and the clouds rolled through, briefly opening up a very scenic vista. As we looked out at all the greenery on the forest floor Trevor told us that everything we could see was Eucalyptus trees. There are apparently over 180 different species of Eucalyptus trees within a 100 mile radius of Sydney. After some careful study I could differentiate at least four of them.

There are the ribbon bark variety, the string bark kind, the reallyreallyreally tall kind (Eucalyptus trees are also the second tallest tree species in the world, growing up to 200 feet), and another kind with more oak-like bark.

Trevor pointed out a pretty flowering tree, called Waratah, which is the state flower of New South Wales. The one we saw as only about to my knees and looked more like a bush, but they actually do grow to tree size.

Trevor also cavalierly grabbed a handful of a bush with thin green stalks (I’ve learned grabbing anything in Australia is a no-no). Since it didn’t appear to have bitten or stung him I accepted a handful when he held it out. It was called “Tea Tree,” and when crushed up it smelled a little like the best rosemary you’ve ever had. It’s often used in women’s facial creams.

And the sounds! There were so many distinct bird calls! I recognized a few of them from the Zoo yesterday, including a Whip (think whippoorwill but only one ‘whip’ comes out). And there were two king parrots with a nest underneath the overhang. If you closed your eyes (which I was to chicken to do that close to the edge) you could tell the valley was so alive.

After our scenic stop, we hopped back in the car, and raced the cloud through Leura (Pamela’s old stomping ground), toward the iconic feature of the Blue Mountains, the Three Sisters. We lost. Oh well, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a picture of them somewhere, and I’m sure they look just like that in person.

After our failed attempt to see the sisters we continued on to Jenolan Caves. Timing is fairly important when visiting the caves because there is a long access road that is only one lane. During different parts of the day it runs different directions, so you do not want to miss your window of opportunity.

Fortunately we were very early. Driving into the caves is very spectacular because you actually drive through an enormous natural arch. Dad observed that there were more interesting features in the parking lot here than at Mammoth Cave in the States…

We picked up our tickets at the little guide center and saw a 3D model of the cave (did I mention the model was built in 1923?). We had about half an hour to wander  around the access road and the charming little stream. A sign saying “Caution: Watch for Snakes” put a damper on our exploratory urges (I’ll remind readers Australia is home to 9 of the 10 most venomous snakes on the planet).

Our tour was through Orient Cave. They offer a wide variety of tours, through several different caves, and with varying levels of athleticism required. For the most extreme tour you’re issued overalls, protective gear, a headlamp, and you crawl your way through muddy parts of the cave, using just the light from your headlamp. Ours was a little bit easier than that…

To get to the cave they vet their patrons by making you walk up and down an outside path with lots of stairs. It was very cool though because about halfway up the path there was a rock wallaby chilling by the side of the path. Now I’ve seen really Australian wildlife on the hoof.

After the walk you arrive at a locked metal door. The entrance to Orient Cave had to be dynamited in, because the natural way in involves crawling though the bottom. However, when they dynamited the entrance in 1956 they blew it. Caves “breathe” in and out, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to explore them because they would be full of carbon dioxide from the crystal formation. Blowing a hole in the side of the cave changed the way the cave breathed. That in itself wasn’t exactly a problem, but there was a boiler room just beyond the opening, which belched black soot all day. The soot got sucked into the cave and quickly coated everything.

They had no choice but to close they cave and clean every inch of it. It took them ten years! They built an elaborate steam cleaning machine to do the job. Now there are a series of three airlock doors that you must pass through to get from the outside world into the cave. As it is, with all the dust and fibers brought in by visitors they still have to clean the cave fairly regularly, but they’ve figured out that you can just use a normal hose.

In the cave you are of course not allowed to touch anything because the oils from your fingers stop the crystal formation, and this cave was ALL about crystals.

Crystals form when limestone is dissolved by slightly acidic water. The water carries the dissolved minerals through it until it finds a small crack to drip through. When the water droplet falls a small number of mineral are left behind, which harden, and then the next drip follows, and so on and so forth. White crystals are very pure. Any colored crystals (in this cave they ranged from cream to orange to red) contain impurities (like iron).

To satisfy your curiosity about what the walls feel like the guide had a fist sized sample of crystal you could touch. It was very smooth. The cave is about 52 degrees Fahrenheit  all year, and today, the weather outside was also about 50 degrees, but because there’s no wind in the cave, it felt much warmer than outside! When we were at the caves in Tennessee earlier this summer the guide observed that the constant temperature equals air-conditioning in summer and heating in winter!

This cave walk seemed like it had done an excellent job of making it tourist friendly without destroying the cave. They had added walkways (with handrails) everywhere, which on first glance made you wonder how much crystal had to be removed. But when you stop to think about it the handrails confine you, and in many places there was chicken wire to keep you from touching anything, so I’m sure that by confining you they save more crystal than other caves.

This cave was spectacular. It was the Great Barrier Reef of caves. The formations were just beautiful. The reason the cave is called the Orient Cave is that it reminded its discoverer of the oriental lands. The chamber we entered first is known as Persia, the next deepest is Egypt, and the final chamber is India. There are formations in each chamber that (with an imagination) you can see being reminiscent of those places.

Persia was the larges cavern, with a stunning domed ceiling. There was an optional walk down into the bottom of the cavern, 33 meters below the high point in the domed ceiling. Down at the bottom is a formation (actual a cluster of formations) known as the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Everyone is familiar with stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones on the ground). But in the Cabinet of Curiosities there were hundreds of helictites. These formations are squiggly little pieces of crystal that seem to defy gravity. They aren’t formed in the traditional manner of water dripping off of or onto a surface, but rather by the humidity of the cave causing water to be pulled into the rock, leaving crystal deposits at odd angles (microscopic crystals are rhomboid – rectangles that you leaned on – in stalactites and stalagmites they line up geometrically, in helictites they align randomly).

It was a really cool cave walk. It lasted about an hour and a half and there were 358 steps, not including the down and back trip to the cabinet of curiosities. I think Dad and I have now been spoiled for all other caves…

Once we resurfaced into daylight (let me assure you the sunglasses were the first thing to go back on when we got outside) we had a little more than half an hour to wait before the one way road changed direction and we could leave.

We grabbed a sandwich at the bistro at the hotel (you can come and stay at a hotel right on top of the caves and spend several days seeing all there is to see under the ground). It was pretty tasty. We quickly attracted a pair of very pretty king parrots. There are signs all over the place telling you not to feed the birds, but he was just so brave and inquisitive, hopping right up to us on the table… between you and me, he managed to wring a few crumbs from us. He gently took one right out of Dad’s hand!

Trevor collected us and we wound our way back up the snaky little access road, headed   back towards Featherdale Wildlife Park. We were here ten years ago, and it was definitely a hit. I was a little worried it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, but it managed to one-up itself in the parking lot, because there was a greeter holding a joey in his arms! The little baby kangaroo was so soft! And adorable, did I mention adorable?

I am a sucker for anything small, cute, and furry, and Featherdale is an animal lover’s paradise. You are allowed to touch anything you can reach (and doesn’t look like it bites). But best of all there are kangaroos and wallabies hopping around everywhere! You can buy an ice-cream cone full of food for them and have at it.

The park wasn’t too crowded so it wasn’t hard to find a group of kangaroos not being monopolized (okay, only the big grey one is a kangaroo, the two smaller ones are wallabies). I offered a handful of food to the kangaroo and he very gently took my hand in his two paws to hold it still and nibbled at the offering.

I didn’t get a good count, but it seemed like they had a large number of fingers on each paw. I’m not 100% sure but I think he had six fingers on each paw, as it seemed many of the others did. I was surprised how agile his fingers were actually. They seemed almost opposable as he held on to my hand. Kangaroos also have pads on their paws, they’re small like a cat’s, but feel more rough like a dog’s.

When the kangaroo ate out of my hand it was more like a horse shnuffling grain in your palm. The wallabies, while still gentle, pecked at the grain more like a bird, and you could feel their teeth.

However, the grain was not the highlight as far as either the wallabies or the kangaroos were concerned. The desirable item was definitely the ice-cream cone. Isn’t it amazing how animals of all species seem to always prefer the least healthy offering?

There are designated areas for the animals to retreat to if they don’t want to deal with humans any more. There were a significant number of kangaroos in this area, but they didn’t exactly look stressed, in fact, given the amount of food available, I think that area should be labeled “Full Kangaroos” instead of “Animal Retreat.”

Dad and I saw something we’d never seen before. One of the kangaroos was lying on its side and there was a joey in its pouch!

The other really cool thing you can do at Featherdale is pet a Koala and have your picture taken with it. The Koala was much softer than I remember from our visit ten years ago. He (his name was Clive) also seemed more awake and interested in what was going on. I’ve heard Koalas have a bit of a mean streak, but this one seemed quite friendly and his handler told me I could put my head right next to him.

All the animals at Featherdale are Australian and we got to see lots of them! The giant furry-faced wombats were a highlight. I decided I’d rather have a wombat than a dog.

Dad also got to touch an echidna (there is only one correct direction to pet an echidna in!). We saw dingos, several species of wallabies, crocodiles, and several other marsupials, including an albino kangaroo.

Trevor picked us up for the last time and we managed to make it back to Sydney in a little less than 45 minutes. Trevor gave us the names of a few of his favorite Australian wineries to look out for. I’m not sure how many of them Dad will be able to find in the states, but you never know.

Trevor’s parting gift to us was a dinner recommendation. He said we should check out Fish at the Rocks, a 10 minute walk from our hotel. It was delicious! We had the sampler meal for two, so we got to try a little bit of everything.

My personal favorites, from the appetizers: the tempura rock shrimp with sweet chili dipping sauce and the vegetable salad it was sitting on. From the entrees: the beer battered whiting fillet and the home-made chips dipped in the curry sauce.

Today was an awesome day.

Australia 2011: Day 7

Today we went to the Taronga Zoo with Pamela. The best way to get there is to take a ferry so we met her on the wharf at 10:05 when she came in from Cabarita. Unfortunately we missed the 10:15 ferry and had to wait until 10:45, but it was a pleasant morning so it was no hardship to sit outside enjoying it.

The zoo is only about fifteen minutes away by ferry and is located on the side of a rather large hill. Pamela (who is afraid of heights) was very brave and bought us tickets to go to the top of the hill on the skyrail. The line to buy tickets was quite long, but that was okay because there was a window into the tank of a very inquisitive seal (located in a gift shop, funnily enough).

The seal was very interested in what everyone was doing (especially the little people right next to the glass). He was doing more people watching than we were doing seal watching!

I also took the opportunity to purchase a hat (because I left mine in Florida). How times have changed, this hat was the first thing I’ve purchased on this trip! Ten years ago I would already have acquired four or five animals. (I admit I did have to work rather hard to resist a stuffed Red Panda…)

The zoo has a beautiful view of Sydney. Dad couldn’t resist taking a photograph.

The skyrail was quite fun because you were above many of the animal enclosures and we got a sneak peak at some of the habitats and animals. Pamela was very brave about the whole thing and only flinched once!

Once we got to the top of the zoo Pamela let me chart our course. Since Dad and I don’t get to see Australian animals very often we started with the marsupials. There was a neat indoor exhibit where they’d turned all the lights off so you could see nocturnal marsupials like ring-tailed possums. Once your eyes got used to the dark some of them were quite easy to spot. There were a bunch of little tiny gliders running around one habitat, but their feet were stuck to the glass! I didn’t know anything other than a gecko could do that!

The coolest thing about Taronga Zoo are all of the walk-through habitats. There were lots of them scattered throughout the zoo, some had lots of birds, some had a mix of marsupials, birds, and lizards.

One of them had a Rock Wallaby in it. We didn’t see it right away, but as we were about to give up it moved, and it turned out it was only about two feet from my head! It was very unconcerned about the humans wandering through its exhibit and posed for pictures.

We also got to see a Grey Kangaroo and Emu (classic Australian animals). After that we saw the Tasmanian Devils, which I think are actually quite cute (when they’re not snarling). Pamela didn’t seem to agree.

Sadly, scientists fear Tasmanian Devils might become extinct in the next 25 years. For once this isn’t due to human involvement. There is a type of cancer which is very contagious between Tasmanian Devils (because they fight over food so often and bite one another). If scientists can’t come up with a cure for this cancer the wild population of Tasmanian Devils might disappear.

The one we saw in captivity didn’t seem worried about imminent extinction however. It was doing its best roadkill impersonation.

For lunch we stopped at Cafe Harbour View. Unsurprisingly it had a beautiful view of the harbour and city. Pamela was less than thrilled with her sandwich, but Dad and I actually quite liked our chicken caesar salads. The dressing was unusual, almost sweet. But mostly the view was nice.

After lunch we saw lemurs (Dad’s favorite), gorillas (there were 8 in the exhibit!), and the Asian elephants. Last year (and the year before that) a baby elephant was born. This year’s elephant was named the Malaysian word for “Watermelon.” While we were there the two little elephants were playing with each other. And then zoo keepers came in with lunch! They strung up large hay bales and the elephants started to munch contentedly.

We wandered through the Rainforest section of the park. We saw a member of the largest bear species on earth (Dad pictured with the real one, me with the mock version). We also saw some playful otters and a tapir going on a scavenger hunt to find all the treats left by staff in its enclosure.

By that point we were all getting tired so we decided to call it a day. Pamela’s only regret was that we didn’t get to see the monkeys. We saw a few white cheeked gibbons (fun fact: all white cheeked gibbons are born blond, after six months they all turn black, but six years later all the females turn blond again. Isn’t that wild?!). I think Pamela will just have to bring Karina to the zoo so she can work on her photography skills and Pamela can see the monkeys.

We waved goodbye to the seal at the gift shop (exit through retail!) and caught the ferry home.

Dad and I have a very early morning tomorrow so we’re canceling our dinner reservations at Est and are seriously considering going back to Chat Thai for dinner…

Australia 2011: Day 6

Australia won the regional championship last night! Brett must be so happy…

We had no special agenda today. We had a leisurely breakfast and then decided to walk over to the Museum of Australia, which is a museum with exhibits about stuff-that-can-kill-you. It was a toss up between that and an art museum. Which would you have chosen?

Today’s weather was again stunning, and the walk over to the museum was cool but sunny. We walked along the edge of the park, which was quite scenic. We had actually been to the museum on our first trip to Sydney. Many of the exhibits were unchanged (see below) but there was a new exhibit on Indigenous Australian culture.

 The Aboriginal exhibit was neat, but I got fed up with it when we reached the section on missionaries and we skipped ahead to the stuff-that-can-kill-you section.

Lesson learned: Never go swimming in Australia. Anywhere. Period.

Basically, in Australia if it doesn’t bite, it stings, and will inject you with enough nerve toxin to kill 200 mice, and kill you in anywhere from 4 minutes to 24 hours. We’re talking jelly fish, blue-ring octopus, spiders, snakes… even the shells aren’t safe! These pretty little conical shells with cool patterns are called “Stinging Shells” and they’ll do just that. Sting you. Causing necrosis of the tissue, nerve damage, and muscle weakness.

Fun place, Australia.

But really, it actually is. Once you get past the stuff-that-can-kill-you section, where else can you find such wonderful wildlife? From penguins to sugar gliders smaller than your thumb to giant kangaroos, Australia has them all. And the macrofauna that existed here until about 20,000 years ago is wild! Giant marsupials! A giant marsupial “lion” with razor sharp teeth had to have been the ultimate predator. But the giant wombat was the cutest.

They had a really nice dinosaur collection, as well as an exhibit all about birds of paradise and their wacky mating behaviors/plumage (which actually parallel human mating rituals when you get right down to it…). Dad got a kick out of the geology exhibit. They had some really nice specimens.

Neither of us were particularly hungry for lunch (especially since we had dinner reservations that night). We started walking back towards the hotel keeping an eye out for something snack like. Nothing caught our fancy, but I am embarrassed to report our joking about going to McDonald’s turned into a real suggestion from Dad that we go there (I am not taking responsibility for this!).

So that’s what we did. We ordered things that are not on the American menu, but consistency is McDonald’s game and they are good at it. The Australian McDonald’s suffered from the same inefficiency problem all US McDonald’s have, they were also guaranteed to get at least part of your order wrong. Isn’t it comforting that you can get the same poor service no matter what continent you’re on…

Dad had a “Grand Angus” burger, which came on a square “sourdough” bun, with hunks of lettuce, onion, tomato, and mayo. I got a “Grand Chicken” sandwich, with crispy chicken, the same bun, lettuce, onion, onion relish (which I admit was pretty good), and mayo (this is the part they got wrong – I said no mayo, it seemed like I got extra).

 The most unique thing was actually the fries. For a “limited time only!” McDonald’s is offering something called “Shaker Fries”, which is basically a bag for you to dump your fries in and a package of seasoning to shake them up with. The seasoning was pretty good (I thought it tasted like day-glow-cheese-food was a key ingredient, Dad thought it was more like original shake-and-bake). Fries in Australia seemed to be saltier in general, and maybe a little crispier than American fries.

My reasoning is having mediocre McDonald’s for lunch will make dinner at Quay taste that much better. My cheeks are still burning with shame…

After lunch we took a side trip to circular quay to buy a few post cards. I found a mug I liked, but didn’t buy it because I didn’t think it would like traveling around New Zealand in my suitcase for two weeks… Maybe I’ll try getting one at the airport on our way home.

After that we were almost to the building where our dinner reservations are tonight. It looks cool and the view can’t be beat.

After that we headed back to the hotel to relax a little before dinner at Quay, a three star Michelin restaurant on Sydney Harbour.

For a description of dinner see Dad’s blog: http://stevealcorn.com/blog/?p=2113

Australia 2011: Day 5

For breakfast this morning I had a crumpet. Now, all of my American friends are probably thinking to themselves, “Ah, yes, a crumpet… wait, what exactly is a crumpet anyway?” It is a food that every American has heard of, but no one actually knows what it is. Yesterday I asked Pamela and Trevor what the exact difference between a crumpet and and English muffin was. The answer: Well, a crumpet is kind of like and English muffin… only it’s different.

First hand experience was clearly going to be required to answer this question.

So this morning I bee-lined for the crumpets. I had gleaned enough from yesterday’s discussion to know you were supposed to toast both sides and cover the crumpet in honey (I refused to touch Vegemite ever again). The resulting product was quite good.

For all my American friends, here is my explanation. A crumpet is what would happen if an English muffin and a pancake got together and had an offspring. One side is smooth and flat (like a grilled pancake), but crispy, the other is full of holes and has the consistency of the spots in a pancake where the bubbles form when you cook it. I highly recommend crumpets if you can find authentic ones.

After that, we went down to the same wharf where we’d met Pamela to catch a ferry to her neighborhood. The water taxi service is incredibly reasonable. An adult one-way ferry ticket is only $5.60. The ferries run on a timetable, much like a train system (only not the Chicago train system, because it never runs on time).

The ferry that we took had an open deck on top. We sat up there on our ride to Breakfast Point. This morning had unfortunately dawned foggy and hazy, unlike the crystal clear weather of the past few days. But by the time we got on the ferry enough had burned off (and continued to burn off) that the sights were fairly unimpaired.

I had some fun shooting a little video on my iPhone of the trip up the river, which took less than an hour. We departed Circular Quay (pronounced ‘key’) at 9:40 and arrived at Cabarita by 10:20. The ride was very enjoyable and we saw many interesting buildings along the river, including a camp ground and one little section that looked like a house with a beach (more on that later). The only unforeseen consequence of our outdoor ride was that my hair ended up thoroughly tangled by the time we arrived, but I hoped Pamela’s family wouldn’t judge me too harshly.

Pamela met us at the dock. We folded ourselves into her little two-door BMW (which, I will point out as her children often do, is NOT and Australian car). She drove us back to her apartment, passing by her son Andrew’s on the way. He and his daughter Karina were on the balcony and we waved on our way past. The apartments are beautiful new buildings. Pamela’s had a two story garage underneath the building, with the storage lockers distributed throughout the garage rather than in one stuffy room, and an elevator up to the rest of the building.

The building had all the latest security, including electronic key fobs required to open any of the outside doors and which only allowed you to take the elevator to your own floor. Everything is brand new and all the lighting fixtures are on motion sensors, which I’m sure is very green.

Pamela’s apartment is just lovely! Everything is beautifully decorated. All the furniture is white and bright, which makes the apartment seem so light and airy, exactly how I imagined Pamela’s home would be. She has two bedrooms, a very practical kitchen, and a little study.

She also has art everywhere! And the coolest part is that more than half of it was done by her friends! Dad and I commented how much more talented her friends were than ours. Many of the pieces were by mountain artists, and all had a story to go with them. Three of my favorites were done by an artist who lives in Andrew’s building. They were three different paintings of flowers Pamela used to keep in her extensive garden in the Blue Mountains. They were gorgeous.

The most interesting however was an impressionist painting of children on a beach. Pamela pointed to the picture and told us, “This is a little bit of family history.” She gestured to the little girl playing in the sand and said, “This is my mother.” The house on the river with the beach we passed on the way in turned out to be where Pamela’s mother grew up! The painting was done by a friend of the family.

But it seemed to me the photos were what Pamela was most proud of. There was a lovely photo of her husband Tony that was taken in England. And there was a photo of all her grandchildren taken last year which she positively beamed over. But I was simply so touched that next to all those photos was a picture of me, her adopted granddaughter. I am so honored and humbled to have an adopted grandmother as amazing and kind as Pamela.

We chatted for a bit, admiring Pamela’s view (which unfortunately is becoming restricted by a new building going up in front of the river). I think all Pamela needs to do is get a step-stool out on her balcony and she’ll be able to see over the building just fine! One of the things Pamela told us she enjoyed most about the view was seeing the planes fly in and out of the airport at night from her bedroom window. I can see how that would just be lovely.

A call from Andrew’s prompted us to go over. He lives only one or two buildings away from Pamela and has a gorgeous view of Sydney in the distance. Dad and I were very lucky because today we got to meet all of Pamela’s family. Her two sons, Brett and Andrew. Brett’s wife is Sharon, and their children are Emma (the eldest grandchild) and Simon. Andrew’s wife is Wendy, and their daughter is Karina (the youngest).

 What wonderful people! They welcomed us with absolutely open arms. Andrew and Wendy had pulled out all the stops for our lunch with them. They had set up an enormous table, beautifully set, with so many different delicious foods. Andrew barbecued delicious Wagyu sausages, eggs, and bacon. Wendy provided absolutely beautiful quiches. Dad was even brave enough to try some Promite on his croissant for dessert (I stuck to triple berry jam).

And the conversation was just wonderful. Dad and I felt just like part of the family. We both reflected how we felt like we already knew everyone because Pamela has told us so much about them over the years. We talked about the differences in food/politics/culture between the states and Australia, we talked about Disney and all the projects my   Mom and Dad have worked on, and we talked about the differences in the university system.

Emma is in her last semester of university, studying teaching, and is about to take a well-earned break on a four month trip around the world. Simon just got back from his gap year between high school and university and is studying construction management. Karina is still in high school, so she has all this to look forward to.

What we decided was that in Australia you must have a much clearer idea of what you want to study in University before you start your first semester. In the states it is quite common to go through your first two years with no idea what you really want to major in. And, Dad and I think, it is actually possible to graduate from an American college and still have no idea what you want to do for a living. Australian universities seem to value practical learning much more, putting you to work in the actual industry you’re studying. I can certainly see pros and cons to both systems.

After a lovely lunch and conversation, Simon and his family had to leave so he could go work on a paper about green buildings (or something like that). Pamela suggested we take a walk over to the club house and Andrew and Karina joined us. Their club house would be the envy of any I’ve ever seen. And the view was definitely better!

We had some fun comparing Australian and American money. Conclusion: American money is boring as dirt. Karina wowed us by realizing that the little black lines on the corner of Australian five dollar bills are actually micro printed words. They say “Five Dollars” over and over again. Even I could only barely tell they were letters.

After that we strolled over to the ferry and caught the 4:15 towards Circular Quay. Some clouds had rolled in and it looked a little like rain, but it held off. Actually, the sun sunk below the cloud level and beautiful light rolled in, turning Sydney into a city of gold. We stood on the prow of the ferry on the way in, and the sights were even more beautiful than during the morning.

There were two delightful ladies standing next to us who chatted with me on our way into the harbour proper. They were very kind and moved over so that Dad and I could join them on the front of the boat and get the best possible view of the Harbour Bridge when we went underneath it. They pointed out the people climbing the bridge and they were so much smaller than I thought they’d be. The bridge must be at least twice as large as I thought it was…

The ladies were from Melbourne and were just in for a long weekend in Sydney. They shared a few of their stories about tramping (aka hiking) through the south island of New Zealand when they found out we were going there next week.

Circular Quay is so close to the hotel, it is simply fabulous. We had time to go back to the hotel and comb our rats-nest-hair before dinner at the Rockpool Bar and Grill.

It was a beautiful room, which I suspect may have been a bank in another life. There were so many wine glasses everywhere! They must have been mostly for decoration because they simply could never use that many glasses at one time. The bar had taken the racks of glasses above the bar to the nth degree. There had to be 12 rows of them all 5 or 6 glasses deep!

The menu was incredibly extensive and long and everything sounded wonderful. They seemed to be famous for their wood stove rotisserie, so I had rotisserie chicken and dad had rotisserie lamb shoulder. Both were excellent but the lamb was better (although I had pea puree under mine which was to die for). The side items stole the show however.

In my opinion, the two best sides were the melt-in-your-mouth brussels sprouts and the roasted parsnips. I don’t know why parsnips aren’t more popular in the US, they’re like sweet potatoes, only with better mouth feel. The other side was also delicious (Dad and I both agreed it would be the one Mom liked best if she were there) and it was a potato and cabbage gratin (don’t worry Mom, the cabbage wasn’t at all detectable).

The desserts were all quite expensive (all $20 or more) and I was pretty full anyway, but I saw they had some petit fours that were between $6 and $8. I decided to try the chocolate devils food cake cupcake and Dad had chocolate bark with sesame seeds and cashews. I’m not sure what made these things petit fours instead of dessert, because they were both very generous portions. Dad’s bark was very good (for lovers of salty chocolate) but my cupcake hit the spot. It was no-nonsense chocolate cake, super moist, and very tasty.

On our walk back we heard many people celebrating. Tonight the Australia rugby team is playing the New Zealand All Blacks. I don’t think they’ve actually won yet, because I keep hearing periodic cheers from outside out hotel room, but even though Brett didn’t think Australia had a chance, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for good news in the morning.

Australia 2011: Day 4

Today we went to the Hunter Vally wine country. This was in some ways very exciting for me because it is the first time I will be on a wine tour someplace where I’m over the legal drinking age.

Morning came a bit to early after our late night, but I felt mostly rested after sleeping like a log all night (the bed at the Four Seasons is very comfortable). Dad and I served as Pamela’s wake-up call and then headed down for a quick bite of granola cereal for breakfast.

At 8:30 we met both Pamela and our guide/driver for the day, Trevor. Trevor loaded us into a fairly comfortable four wheel drive SUV and set off for wine country. There was some confusion over names at first (Trevor started calling Pamela “Barbara,” and she started calling him “Henry”) but after the first few kilometers everyone was properly sorted.

The drive up was very scenic, even though we kept on the main highway to save time. Large swaths had been cut through sandstone mountains to make room for the road in spots. When we asked Trevor why one side of the bluff had so much water running down it and the other side was bone dry, he proved very knowledgeable and explained how water collected on internal deposits of clay and lime stone, only to trickle out. The other side was dry because it got the brunt of the sun everyday and dried out quickly after rainfall.

Trevor was very knowledgeable about everything from wine, to geography, to history. I’m really looking forward to our trip up to the Blue Mountains with him on Tuesday.

We arrived in wine country by 11:00 and Trevor knew his way around brilliantly. He and Dad negotiated several must-see-stops. The first was Audrey Wilkinson. They had several very nice whites, including a semillon and a very nice light-oaked chardonnay with a nose that smelled smoky, almost like a smoked sausage. The reds were (surprisingly) a little disappointing. However, the view from the winery was spectacular. The “cellar door” (in the US it would be called a tasting room) was on top of a hill overlooking the valleys on both sides. Trevor told us that during the summer when there are lots of leaves on the vines to provide shade, kangaroos come out and lie in the vineyards on the slope.

After that we went to Brokenwood winery. The girl working here got major brownie points because once she figured out how much Dad knew about wine she exchanged out small tasting glasses for real Bordeaux glasses, which definitely showcased the wine better. This was a very nice winery and the girl was very knowledgeable about exactly where the grapes for the various wines were grown, what kind of soil they grew in, and what that did for the flavor/smell of the wine. She poured us lots of different wines to compare.

Brokenwood was also nice because they have a US distributor, which means that we could actually order some wine shipped home. Most Australian wineries are unable to ship to America because the alcoholic control laws are different for every state so they need an importer to make it cost effective/possible to sell wine in the states.

After Brokenwood we took a break from wine and went to a shop called (honest-to-god here) “The Smelly Cheese Shop.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t actually that smelly (all the cheese had been wrapped up). We selected some triple cream brie to take to Pamela’s cousin’s for lunch. Her cousin, Janis, and her husband Adriaan had graciously invited us over for lunch.

They live on a unique property. It is a residential winery. Everyone who lives there owns a share of the grapes produced. Their house was just lovely. The view was beautiful, Adriaan’s garden was in full bloom, even in winter, and their kitchen reminded us of ours at home. Janis set a table outdoors on the patio in the shade. The weather was just perfect for an outdoor lunch, low 70s and breezy.

Janis downplayed her cooking, saying lunch was “only a light salad” but what she made was so tasty! The salad had prawns, pineapple, lychee fruit, cucumber, diced red onions, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, cream, and a dash of olive oil. It was just delicious. This was accompanied by fresh bread from the market in Cessnoch and a selection of cheeses. Adriaan opened a couple of bottles of wine from their winery, Kelman, which were just delightful and refreshing (a semillon and a semillon/sauvignon blanc).

We only had an hour to spend with Janis and Adriaan, but they were simply lovely people. Janis is originally from Australia but Adriaan is actually Dutch, though he grew up in Brussels. They met while Janis was traveling, married, and lived together for many years in France. About five years ago they moved back to Australia and built their house on the winery. Now they’re thinking of moving in closer to Sydney, though they still love their winery.

Trevor collected us again and took us to two more wineries, Pepper Tree and Tower Winery. Pepper Tree was in a lovely spot, but their wines were the weakest offerings of the day (although they had a lovely merlot with lots of guts and far more tannin than I ever associate with merlot — if all merlots were like that I might drink more). The best red wine of the day was actually one of Dad’s experiments at this winery. There was a cabernet from Adelaide with a really great structure and a cabernet/merlot blend from the Hunter Valley that had a very pleasing vanilla nose. Dad made a 50/50 mixture of the two and ended up with a really great wine.

Tower had some nice reds that were more what Dad was looking for in an Australian shiraz. What we discovered today is that the Hunter Valley’s styles for all their varietals is very consistent. A semillon from Audrey Wilkinson would taste very similar to a semillon from Tower, and so on. The way the Hunter Valley makes its shiraz is not exactly to Dad’s taste. They’ve gotten away from the huge fruit and alcohol, and end up with a wine that is more about cherries and bright fruit. I think I liked them slightly better than he did, although I consider they styles of Australian shiraz two completely different wines.

Hunter Valley shiraz would go very well with food, especially hard to match dishes, like pickled rhubarb (which we actually had last night) or cherry cobbler.

The traffic getting back into Sydney in the afternoons can be beastly, so Trevor warned us that we needed to leave the valley by about 2:30. We dropped Pamela off at her new apartment on Breakfast point, just north of Sydney, and then returned to the hotel.

Trevor will be taking us to the Blue Mountains next Tuesday, but I was struck by how trusting Australians are, because he did not require us to pay for today’s excursion, but just shrugged and said we could pay for both next week. Australia is such a wonderful place…

Dinner tonight was a low-brow affair. Dad and I walked a few blocks over towards The Rocks, a shopping and dinning district that is very trendy. We found an Italian place that had outdoor seating (with heaters) and decided we were in the mood for pizza.

All in all a very good day.

Australia 2011: Day 3

I am pleased to announce that despite the 14 hour time difference we are totally on schedule. This morning we both got up at about 8:00am, although, as we discovered yesterday, the blackout curtains cannot safely be opened until about 9:30 due to the intense morning sunlight reflecting off the harbour and opera house. By 10am we have a wonderful view however!

This morning was spent with bated excitement as we waited for Pamela to arrive. We breakfasted in the hotel, which has a lovely assortment of cereals, fruits, smoked salmon, breads, and pastries. Then we headed over towards the Circular Quay (pronounced “key”), which we can actually see from our room, to meet Pamela’s ferry. We were early so we took some of the standard tourist pictures in front of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Pamela told us the ferry would arrive at Wharf 5, which we were dutifully standing in front of at 11:06 sharp. But we were surprised when a voice from the side called out to us, as her ferry had at the last moment docked at Wharf 4.

It was so good to see Pamela again! Dad was lucky enough to see her a few years ago in New England, but it had been a very long time since I’d seen her!

We dropped her bag off in our room (hers wouldn’t be ready until after lunch) and went on a walk towards the Opera House. Pamela pointed out some of the more interesting sights while we walked. We went up to the steps of the Opera House, and then wandered through a charming public park (surrounding the Governor’s house) and chatted.

 We angled back toward our hotel and had lunch at a little outdoor café by the Museum of Sydney. After a delightful lunch whose highlight was sourdough rolls with oil/balsamic and a crumbly nutty substance known as “dukkah” (made of crushed hazel nuts and a plethora of other nuts and seeds) we strolled back to the hotel, where we parted company for afternoon naps.

We met Pamela in the lobby at 5:30 and headed over to Bécasse for dinner. The restaurant was located in an upscale mall ad was very small (only 24 seats we found out later). You got to it by passing through a wrought iron door threaded with ivy and then walking down an exceedingly long hallway decorated with trees whose seasons changed as you approached the “main” seating area.

 I thought the restaurants decorations were very nice, if a little unconventional. The service was very friendly (all Australians are known for being friendly) and very professional. Dad and Pamela did the wine pairing, which was excellent.

There was a bit of discussion about which menu (5 course de gustation, 9 course de gustation, or 3 course a la carte) we were going to have. Three guesses which one Dad wanted… Pamela wasn’t sure she could handle 9 courses, but Dad convinced her she didn’t have to eat all of them if she didn’t want to.

That settled we sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed a very pleasant evening. Dad and I felt the food wasn’t entirely up to snuff for a restaurant that was so clearly high end and knew what it was doing. We felt like while we had many excellent individual items none of the dishes combined to be more than the sum of its parts. This might be due to the fact that the restaurant has recently moved locations and has only been in the Westfield mall for a few months.

However, the company at dinner was excellent.

Many hours later we strolled home, enjoying the cool night air.

Australia 2011: Day 2

Amazingly our room was ready at 7:30am. We went upstairs deposited our stuff and got to take amazing, heavenly, hot showers. We mostly believed it was morning, but I started to feel a little like I had ADHD sitting in the room trying not to look at the bed. Dad and I decided to take a walk over toward Darling Harbour and the Sydney Aquarium which we remembered fondly from our first trip to Australia.

After a circuitous route we eventually made it to the Aquarium. A new attraction is opening next to the Aquarium in September called “The Sydney Wildlife Experience.” It looked like they had a little bit of work ahead of them, but who doesn’t like furry little marsupials? Oh, and they might have had some butterflies too… maybe we won’t bring Mom on our next trip…

The Aquarium was fun to explore again. We got to see a Platypus, but it wasn’t in the same playful mood as the last time. They are exceptionally strange creatures… definitely designed by a committee. I learned a new fact at the exhibit though. I knew that Platypuses had venomous spines on their back feet, but I didn’t know that females shed theirs after one year. It explained some of the pictures under the “research” heading, where scientists were cavalierly holding up a poor Platypus by its tail.

The Aquarium had replaced an exhibit of harbor seals with an under water exhibit of Dugongs (aka Manatees). They also had an impressive collection of sharks, including several of the highly endangered Grey Nurse Sharks, which, too me, did not look anything like the nurse sharks at SeaWorld. These sharks were big, brooding, hunchbacked monstrosities, with rows of jagged teeth. Let us just say they did not look cuddly. While these poor sharks are in imminent danger of extinction there were no cute signs up at the exit urging guests to “Adopt a Grey Nurse Shark Today!” as there were at the Dugong exhibit.

After the Aquarium, it was lunchtime and Dad and I were startled to find that we were actually a little bit hungry (I suppose we should have expected that, since we did eat breakfast at 4am). We decided to forgo the touristy waterfront restaurants and head back into the business/shopping districts.

We ended up in a mall in Westerfeld and on the street we spied the door to where one of our dinner reservations later in the week was. We decided to check it out, and took an incredibly long escalator up to the fifth floor of the mall. Bécasse looks nice, but even better, we found ourselves surrounded by restaurants open for lunch!

We wandered around for a while, eyeing our options. I voted for skipping lunch and just ordering one of everything at the absolutely delectable looking Bécasse bakery, but after going up another floor I found a place called Chat Thai, that looked amazing. There was already a line a little before noon. We decided to see if they could seat us, and amazingly they could (even though they had their plate full with reservations).

It was a neat place, there were two kitchens, on in the back doing the heavy lifting, and one in the front, visible to the mall, where it seemed like a lot of prep work (and perhaps dessert) happened. The inside was trendy brick, cool lights, and lots of tables.

Our lunch selections:
    To start:
        Fresh spring rolls (unlike any we’d had before)
        Chicken satay skewers
        Pork skewers (to die for)
    For main course:
        Dad: Spicy chili fried rice, with pork and a fried egg
        Me: Wide rice noodles, chicken, and Chinese kale, in a dark soy sauce (absolutely the
               best thing ever. We almost cleaned the plate)

After lunch we headed back to the hotel. The highlight of the afternoon was receiving a telephone call from our friend Pamela, telling us she would see us the next morning! It was so good to hear her voice again. She is coming to visit us several times this week. Tomorrow she’ll come in and spend the afternoon with us and then join us for dinner at Becasse. She has made reservations at our hotel for the evening so that she can join us tomorrow for a tour of the Hunter Valley wine country. I cannot wait!

After that, I managed to keep myself busy for a couple of hours checking my e-mail/facebook and reading a Stephanie Plum mystery on the iPad.

But we were kind of fading. Ultimately we both ended up taking naps.

I slept a little longer than I intended but woke up in time to seek the sun set (at around 6pm) so I felt like I was still marginally on schedule.

We made 7:30 dinner reservations in the hotel to use up our $90 credit from American Express and were pleasantly surprised by a delightful restaurant. The menu is designed to be small tasting portions so everyone can enjoy between three and four small plates. The bread was fantastic, the sparking water (rain water from Tasmania) was even better.

We returned to the room a little after 9:00 and were again ready for bed.

Australia 2011: Day 1 (and a half)

Our flight was slightly delayed getting out of Orlando due to afternoon thunder storms, which delayed the catering trucks. Since our layover in LA was only an hour and a half and we were more than an hour late taking off, we were a little bit nervous.

As it turned out we had no difficulties at all. Our flight landed in LA by 10:00pm in the same terminal we were taking off from at 11:00pm. We boarded an enormous Bowing 777LD and prepared for our long night… in First Class! The seats were amazing. Everyone had their own little pod. The seat flattened out creating a bed, and a nifty safety belt with one padded end (and a push release) meant that you could comfortably roll over without feeling stuck.

By this time we had already been at the airport/in flight for 8 hours so we were kind of tired. But Delta served up a very tasty dinner (or in our case, second dinner). Dad and I both had the short ribs, which were actually quite good.

Immediately after they cleared the last plate, I put on the nice noise canceling headphones they provided, donned my sleep mask, and flattened the turned the seat into a bed.

I actually managed to conk out for about seven hours. When I awoke it was in time for our midnight snack (or something, who really knew what time it was anyway…). I read a little, and did a few sudokus, before napping for another hour or so.

The sun had just started to rise by the time we approached Sydney. Our 4am breakfast pancakes were pretty good, and after all the sleep I felt marginally ready to great the day. Delta gave us what where essentially “fast passes” through immigration and customs (which we were able to skip entirely). The air was crisp and cool, at about 55 F. Wonderful after a hot Florida summer.  A nice driver met us at the airport and shuttled us off to the Four Seasons.