Thursday, December 17, 2015

Most Liveable City in the World

Melbourne is apparently number one (then Vienna and Vancouver) and it's no surprise. Not only has it got a lot of interesting architecture, green areas, free trams, great weather, a giant Christmas theremin AND the largest LEGO Christmas Tree in the southern hemisphere.

This is our final stop in Australia and we're enjoying every last minute of it. The day after we arrived we had an all day tour of the Yarra Valley which produces a lot of Chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling wines. The first winery we visited was Chandon, known for their French champagnes. The day included a few more wineries (lost count), a cheese tasting and a beer/cider and tasting.
Nadine organized the tour and she and her mom helped give a toast to the morning:

On Wednesday we ventured over the Yarra river (which divides Melbourne) to the main shopping area - first stop Hopetoun Tea Room - very famous for their cakes (one slice of chocolate/fig tart)! 

Then a Circle Tour on the free tram which takes you around the outer rim of the Central Business District (CBD) with a recorded commentary describing some of the history. Melbourne has an eclectic mix of extremely modernistic architecture combined with grand 19th century structures - all of them very visually interesting. Lots of little laneways brimming with shops and restaurants. Many coffee shops that Scott has been checking out.

We had dinner at St. Kilda (a beach area just south of the city) then went to the pier in the evening where there is colony of penguins that climb onto the breakwater at sunset. They are very small, in fact they're called Little Penguins or Fairy Penguins - about the size of a large pigeon. It was too dark to get any decent photos.

The Melbourne precinct (area) we're staying in is the 'arts' area and there are many galleries, theatres and art schools within a few blocks of here. The exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria is by Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei - a Chinese activist and artist. Both very iconic contemporary artists with a good sense of humour (necessary for most modern art).

This sculpture was created by Ai Weiwei with 1500 "Forever" bicycles.

Heat waves are hitting many areas of Australia with temperatures expected over 40 in some place and it's a bit strange to hear "Let it Snow" in the middle of summer. However snow is starting to enter our consciousness as our departure date nears :(

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fish Pictures

As I started researching our trip it became apparent that a visit to Cairns was not only on the 'approved' list (people who had been here nodded approvingly when I mentioned it) but that the trip must include some version of a reef adventure.

The Great Barrier Reef is 2300 km long and is the "world's biggest single structure made by living organisms" (Wikipedia). Our trip took us about 40 km offshore to Michaelmas Cay and Hastings Reef which is on the outer reef. The pictures below speak for themselves - there was also an immense variety of corals of different shapes, sizes, colours and textures which are difficult to photograph.

This one was almost transparent:

I was often surrounded by schools of large fish. A bit unnerving at first. They didn't seem bothered by me. 
 A random brilliant blue fish:
 Rather ordinary Green Sea turtle
 HUGE (1 m across) giant clam hiding among the coral:
 No idea who this guy is but he's kind of funny looking:
 White tip reef shark. See the white tip.
 Angel fish (I think):
 Coral structure several meters high:

Not fish. But fishy looking characters at the end of the trip.
Technically I don't have a bucket list. But if I did, snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef definitely should have been on it!

[Note:  My camera is a Nikon Coolpix AW100 - not super great but does the job. Underwater pictures are difficult to get - the subjects don't want to stay still and the camera and photographer are subject to wave action.]

The Far North - Cairns

As well as being the 'gateway to the Great Barrier Reef', Cairns, in northern Australia, is a beautiful tropical paradise.

There are some beautiful beaches in the area but there's only one small problem - deadly stinging irukandji jellyfish which means that NO ONE goes anywhere near the water at this time of year! This particular type of jellyfish is very small (1 cubic cm) but very venomous and Cairns reported its first victim of the season a few days ago. Luckily she survived and was released from the hospital.
So, beautiful but abandoned beaches.

It's quite hot here (30+) but not as humid as Bali.  Fortunately we have a pool at our apartment and downtown Cairns has a beautiful large lagoon (pool). One other nice feature of Cairns is the Esplanade, a 2 km strip park all the way down the water's edge. It's a very clean, well maintained park, with a large children's play area, various exercising areas and many, many beautiful trees (lots of banyans) full of red and blue birds (rainbow lorakeets) or perhaps giant fruit bats; groups of pelicans by the marina. The downtown area is mostly restaurants, gelato bars and tour operators - a real holiday/party atmosphere. Ross managed to find both the Irish pubs!

There is a huge area of tropical rainforest just north of Cairns where there is a sky rail (gondola) and train ride through the rain forest. We opted to rent a car for the day and hiked down to the Barron Gorge just near the small town of Kuranda. The Barron Gorge is over 250 meters high and becomes quite a rushing torrent during the rainy season. The rainy season has technically started although we have seen very little rain during our time here. In fact, I'm considering ditching my rain coat that I brought as it's taking up precious suitcase space!

I continue to be amazed at the wide range of fruits and unusual birds and animals. It's obviously mango season - not only can you buy them for $2, if you manage to find a tree by the side of the road you can just pick them up off the ground, which Mike has done several times now.  It's like being in some kind of paradise! Also saw a herd (?) of wallabies on our drive back into Cairns. Smaller than a kangaroo but very similar looking.

We drove farther past Kuranda to the Daintree Rainforest and took a cruise along a mangrove lined river. It was pretty quiet in terms of wildlife since it was mid-day, but we did manage to spot one crocodile lurking by the water's edge.

And this elegant great egret.

Next up....Great Barrier Reef.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Wine. And Kangaroos too!

I shouldn't have given it away in the title but yes, our wine tour today ended with kangaroos. We booked a 1/2 day tour ( that started at 10 am - a bit early for wine tasting unless you're us! We were picked up about 9:30 from our little house in the Hunter Valley and headed off to the first of three wineries.

It was all a lot greener than I would have anticipated around here.

The Hunter Valley produces 4% of the wine in Australia so it's relatively small. Although there are plenty of vineyards, there are also a lot of open grazing spaces. The main wines are Shiraz, Chardonnay and Semillon.

I very quickly lost count of the number of wines we tested although I know at our 2nd stop we had a pairing of 9 different wines and mostly local cheeses. The wines were great but the cheeses were to die for. Can we get cheeses like this in Canada?

While conversing with the driver, I mentioned that we STILL hadn't seen kangaroos so he promised he'd find us some by the end of the tour and indeed he kept his word. It wasn't hard, there was a mob (that's the collective noun) of about 20 sitting there waiting for us around under a tree at a little accommodation stop off the road. Bingo!

This mommy has a passenger:
 They are so funny!

I must admit it was lot easier than finding moose in NFLD - now we'll likely see them all over the place.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Birds and Beaches

We had such a fabulous apartment in Sydney we were all a bit disappointed when we had to pack up and leave for Palm Beach. I did manage to gather the group for a photo on the deck before we left.

While in Sydney, Ross and I did the requisite hop-on hop-off bus, then Mike and Liana joined us a few days later for the hop-on hop-off ferry around the harbour. This gave us an excellent overview of the entire area, from Bondi Beach to Manley. Also did a tour of the opera house which took 14 years to build and went massively over budget ($7 million to $102 million). The tour focussed a lot on the architecture of the building which, as you know, is unique. Construction started in 1959 before they had any idea of how they would put it all together. Obligatory tourist photo:

Palm Beach is kind of the holiday or weekend get-away area for Sydney-ites (is there another word for them?). It is situated on a narrow peninsula just an hour or so from the city and dotted with beautiful beaches on all sides. Lots of surfers around here and dangerous waves/currents that often require beaches to be closed. We're staying in a lovely house with amazing birds in the backyard. It's a bit jarring to be woken up to sounds I've never heard before. As well as the kookaburras that come and sit in the gum tree, yesterday there were three of these beauties enjoying the pink flowers.

We saw these black ones (ducks?) with the yellow and red beaks in Sydney:

Long legs and a yellow beak.

I'll have to consult our local guide to get the correct names for these and I'll add them later.

Tomorrow we head to the Hunter Valley for a few days, one of many wine growing regions here. If you don't see any new posts perhaps it's because I'm too busy testing the wines!

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