Wednesday March 15, 2006
The ides of March are upon us, and that means two things: the end of the trip as well as repeating the day twice. After a few precious hours of sleep (I planned it this way so I would be tired on the flight and be able to stay up when I get home and try and get back on a schedule) we were off to the airport. Before we left, I did a quick email check and discovered my friend was not able to get the time to pick me up at the airport. He told me he would ask his brother to do it, but considering that I arrive at 7am, I might be looking at a Super Shuttle ride home from the airport – ugh! As we left the hotel and were driving to the airport, I kept thinking that there was more to do in Brisbane, and that I definitely will be back soon.
Checking in at the Qantas counter, we discovered that we were stuck in the middle section. I was on the left aisle with an empty next to me and then Mom and Gary on the other side. I did not look forward to having to sit next to some smelly stranger for 12 hours. We had a lot of time to kill in the airport, and we all spent a good deal of time trying to track down those last few souvenirs. Lunch was at Moms new favorite restaurant – Red Rooster. There was a somber mood in the group as we boarded the plane. The end of the trip is always a bummer, but this trip was very rewarding on so many levels. I had a great time with Mom and Gary – we always travel well together, and I got to go out on my own and meet people in various cities around the country.
My fears proved unfounded as the flight had numerous empty seats so we got the luxury of having extra room in our row. With the exception of the lady in front of me who reclined fully into my lap and the elderly ladies behind me who shake my seat every time they get up to use the toilet or walk around, it was a pleasant flight. I managed to get some good sleep on the plane thanks to the eyeshades provided by Qantas. I had wanted to use them ever since I got a pair on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, and I lost mine coming over to Australia before I could use them. Mom thought it was so funny she took a photo.
Arriving at LAX, I felt glad to be home. We breezed through passport control, but got stuck at baggage claim for 45 minutes while we waited for our bags to come off the plane. We had checked in together but somehow all of our bags came out 10 minutes apart. By the time we went through customs, it was 8am and I started to get a bad feeling about my ride home. I thought maybe David got confused and left since it had been over an hour since we landed. I said my goodbyes to Mom and Gary as they headed over to the transfer desk, and I went to look for David. Sure enough he was not there. Mom and Gary came out and I used her cell phone to call Daniel, but he had already let for work. I finally was able to get David’s cell phone, but it was off so I knew he had gotten confused about when to pick me up so I opted to take the Super Shuttle home. Of course, the one that I got on also had to take 6 people to John Wayne Airport since they had missed their Continental flight to Houston from LAX. It was a bit cramped in the van and I was a bit miffed I had to go past my house to the airport, but I just snoozed in the van. Finally, 4 hours after landing, I was home.
Tuesday March 14, 2006
We had to be up early for to get some shopping done and to take advantage of our Free Continental Breakfast. We have been so bad on this trip about not taking advantage of either complimentary meals or discount voucher, but then again, I suspect that the hotels and travel agencies expect it. To be honest, some of the hotels have bizarre rules and times for the free breakfast and in some instances it is better just to grab a baguette or something on the way out rather than deal with it.
The continental brekkie at the Pacific International was equally disappointing, but I have liked here and at some of the other places we have stayed at the selection of rolls and bread to make toast. I can always count on shoveling a few rolls down to fill me up and get me going in the morning. After breakfast, we headed out shopping. The only store I wanted to get something in was the Dome store located next to the hotel. They had this cute little outfit I wanted to get Sarah for her kid due in March. While I was there, I snapped up a nice polo shirt for myself and a T-shirt for another friend. Mom and Gary continued shopping, and I just went back to the room to chill until checkout time. The two of them made it back to the room right at check out time – it seems they were chatting up a storm with one of the shopkeepers in this shopping area that we had not hit together. We sat in the lobby for about 45 minutes until the shuttle arrived to take us to Cairns Airport.
For our flight to Brisbane, we flew on one of Australia’s discount airlines, Jet Star. It is like Southwest or Jet Blue back in the US. It is very no frills, and they have a severe weight limit on carry-ons as well as checked baggage. Thankfully, we were on an International Itinerary so they waved the overages we had. We booked the flight as a Qantas flight, so hopefully we will be able to get some frequent flyer miles. On board the aircraft, there was nothing complimentary. Everything from candy to sodas to wine and beer were for a nominal fee. One thing that was cool was that you could rent a portable media device that could play audio or video programs on demand. It was fairly inexpensive (AUS$7), but I had my iPod and as it has become custom, I chose to snooze on the plane.
We arrived and caught our bus into the CBD of Brisbane. Just from the impression of a drive through a city can give, I rather liked the city – certainly as much as Melbourne. It is weird because I had not done any research on what actually to do in Brisbane, so all of my judgments were based on feelings alone. Once we checked into the hotel and read the activities map, we were all disappointed we hadn’t spent more time in the city. When we opened to the door to our hotel room, it just made matters worse. Instead of the cramped quarters of the last 5 days, we got a one-bedroom suite. I still was on the sofa bed, but we had a kitchenette, washer/dryer, and Mom and Gary got some insulation from my snoring. We chilled for a bit and then headed out to eat. We kept seeing these ads for Sizzler’s newly staffed and security monitored salad bar, which cracked us up. Why did they monitor the salad bar? Were people stealing from it? Were all the ads tongue in cheek? We didn’t know. So we went to the Sizzler down the road – mainly so we could tell people that we went to a Sizzler in Australia, but also to check it out. I can tell you that the food was not that good, and I can’t recommend it. When we got back to the room, I did some research on the net and found that some psycho lady put rat poison in the Salad Bar at two Sizzlers – including the one we ate at! We laughed pretty hard over it.
I decided to head out one last time in Australia and ended up chilling with a Brisbane native named Chris for most of the night. I think we both made each other laugh making fun of each others accent. He kept asking me to say random phrases and I obliged. He did tell me that he was going to call his friend up and have me say something to her, but we never got around to it. One thing that did crack me up was we were in the middle of chatting and all of a sudden he said, “Right that’s very nice. Its unusual.” He was so puzzled when I burst out laughing. I explained to him that he sounded just like the characters on Kath and Kim. He seemed to be a bit puzzled that I had actually seen it. I had a great time, and by the time I had to catch a taxi back to the hotel, I think we both felt that we had made a new friend. Meeting locals like Chris is something I love to do in foreign countries. It helps drive home the fact that despite our sometimes-amusing differences, we have a lot of similarities. We are all facing the same demons and challenges in life and I think we are both a bit happier knowing that there are others in the world just like us.
Monday March 13, 2006
Today was reef recovery day. It was another good sleep and be lazy in the morning day – surprisingly the weather was good too! By the time we headed out of the hotel, the free continental brekkie was over. We headed over to the Reef Hotel and Casino (conveniently located across the street from our hotel) to get some food and check it out. One of the things that drew us inside was the Rainforest Dome at the top. It turned out to be a zoological garden with all sorts of Australian animals. Since we had seen most of them in the bush, we decided to not pay the AUS$22. After a quite good steak sandwich in the lounge, we headed into the Casino to check it out. Most of the slot machines were bizarre in that there were no normal 3 line slots, instead all of them could play up to 20 different lines. I decided to try my hand at one of my favorite machines – Wheel of Fortune. A quick AUS$20 later and my streak of no luck in Vegas continues down under.
We went back to the hotel and decided since the weather was holding out – actual sunshine today – that we would try the Skyrail up to the village of Kuranda and to get a fly over the rainforest. The Skyrail as well as the Kuranda Scenic railway is one of the tourist trips that everyone does in Cairns (other than the Great Barrier Reef). Unfortunately due to our laziness, we were stuck only doing the Skyrail round-trip since the train departure did not leave any time to get off at the Skyrail stations along the route and see the waterfalls and the rainforest or even see the town of Karunda. We timed it just right so that we only had to wait 30 minutes for the bus to collect us and head out. Gary was a bit nervous especially due to the gusts of wind that were still blowing, but the ride actually turned out to be a pretty good one. The cable car system must be well manufactured because even in 25-30km/hr gusts there was not much movement. The scenery was spectacular looking out into the Coral Sea as well as looking down into the rain forest and out at Barron Falls.
Kuranda was just another typical tourist town up in the rain forest. I had imagined that it would look like it was a bit more isolated, but it just looked like a random town with a bunch of souvenir shops. I am glad we didn’t have to spend too much time there before it was time to head back down the mountain. Coming back, we stopped at the overlook to the Barron Falls instead of just looking at it from the tramway. Thanks to the abundance of rain yesterday – 230cm in 24 hours, the falls were at full flood stage and made a deafening roar. It was difficult to get a good shot of the falls since there were some Chinese and Italian groups pushing everyone else out of the way, but I managed to get a good shot. The other stop at the rainforest boardwalk was a bit disappointing. I thought the rainforest walk in Sydney was more entertaining, more informative, and most importantly longer. The rest of the trip was uneventful, but the whole experience was certainly worthwhile. We talked with people who had did the train portion and they thought that it completed the experience and made it better so I would certainly recommend if you are in Cairns, you should do both.
Back in town, we vegged out a bit in the hotel room and then headed out to dinner. We found an outback style restaurant and each had more steak to eat. I had a fillet, which was quite good, and my first Aussie baked potato. If I closed my eyes, I would be back at the Outback Steakhouse back home. We then did some souvenir shopping on the way back to the hotel. I picked up a good chunk of what I needed to get. I only have a few more people to buy for and I think I can get it wrapped up tomorrow before our flight to Brisbane.
I am staring out the window of the lobby of our hotel and I am reflecting on what an incredible experience the whole trip has been. I am a bit weary after all the traveling, but I do feel like I have a bit of inner peace being away from the stresses of my life back home and that is what vacations are all about. I am very happy with this vacation – it certainly has been one of the best I have ever had. Hopefully I can squeeze in some more memories in the last day.
Sunday March 12, 2006
It was an early rise again today as we headed out on our Quicksilver Outer Great Barrier Reef Tour. The weather was still tropical and full of heavy rain bands, but we still held out hope that we would get a break out on the reef. Our driver informed us that there was a high wind advisory and that would translate into heavy surf. We picked up the rest of the busload of people and headed up to Port Douglas to catch our catamaran. Our driver informed us that there were 277 people on the boat out of a possible 450. We arrived at the pier and I was amazed at how crowded the boat was considering that it was not even at full capacity.
We set off onto the approx 1.5-hour voyage to the edge of the barrier reef. There had been lots of warnings from the crew before we left about the big swells on the Coral Sea, but no one changed their mind. Once past the protection, the boat began to roll. I decided that instead of sitting in the sure-to-be-vomit scented air of the interior, I would try and tough it out up on the top deck. It was not bad at first, but I ended up getting pretty wet. I could not figure out why my eyes kept burning. I thought maybe my Target brand sunscreen was getting into my eyes, but then I figured out that it was salt water..Duh. I took the cameras downstairs to where Mom and Gary were holed up, and then rode the rest of the way up there – save for a couple of heavy downpours which forced me to the back patio of the ship. I liked being up there by myself (there was another couple, but they were sitting out of sight on the ground out of the elements, so I pretended to be there on my own) it gave me a chance to just clear my mind and enjoy where I was without any worries of reality.
The Quicksilver VIII arrived at the moored pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef in thankfully calm conditions. All around us you could see massive storms dumping rain, but I was determined not to let it spoil my time. Mom was a little woozy from the journey, so I was on my own in the Semi-Submersible. This reminded me of the Subs at Disneyland so much! I took some photos to bring back to show people at work. Due to the fact it was cloudy, there was not that much color on the reef. To me, it added to the sense of this looks like a Disney re-creation of the GBR and not the real thing. I think some people were certainly disappointed, but I loved every minute of it. After my 20-minute ride, it was time for lunch. They had a huge buffet set up for everyone. Basically, the pontoon is rigged to the bottom of the ocean and is two stories tall and features showers, a changing area, gift shop, buffet line and ample seating. It also had all the boats attached to it, a room to walk down and look at the reef fish as well as places to get snorkels or SCUBA gear – depending on what your fancy was.
I ate my lunch and then climbed into the tightest lycra outfit imaginable. This suit only looked good on about 3 people on the entire pontoon and everyone else looked like some sort of freakish blue seal. I popped on my flippers, mask, and snorkel and headed out onto the reef. It was a bit scary at first, but once I relaxed I was OK. I even managed to get some shots of the Gorn in the water. I had an underwater camera, so I hope these pics come out and not get destroyed like the Tahiti ones. I really had a great time. I do wish the weather was postcard perfect so I could see all the colors of the reef, but at the same time how could I not enjoy the fact I was snorkeling in one of the greatest places on the planet?
After a good hour in the water I was pooped. The weather started dumping rain again and the current was getting too strong to maintain a good position in. Before I got out, I had Gary go get the camera and snap a good photo with the digital camera of me in the water with the Gorn. I then lumbered into the pontoon and dried off. Mom had secured a better spot on the lower deck for the long slog back to the marina. I knew it was going to be a tougher trip back because the weather had gotten nastier. Sure enough, once we were off the reef we were rocking and rolling big time. About an hour into the return trip, crew members were running around frantically with motion sickness medicines and first aid to one person who twisted their ankle. Then it happened. I don’t know who started it, bit someone got sick on the lower level and it just cascaded through the entire ship. I noticed a few full bags starting to be carried through the ship and then I saw the nice Irish ladies who were sitting at the table ask for sick bags. I then decided to make a break for the upper deck and some fresh air, lest I get caught up in the whole moment. I made my way up the first flight of stairs and then the boat took a HUGE lurch to Port side sending me off balance into a Japanese family. The dad tried to push me away as I was being slammed into his table knocking his food off the plate all over the floor. Then like some bad Star Trek episode, we lurched starboard and I went flying back the other way. This nice English gentleman grabbed me and told me to sit down before I got hurt. I was determined to get outside to avoid the sick bag, but the boat would not let me. I took a seat next to him and held on for dear life.
It turned out to be the best thing that happened to me. I started talking to the man. He and his wife were on holiday from the UK and were heading out to Uluru on Wednesday so I told him my thoughts on the whole area. He and his wife were a delight and it kept me focused and not inclined to toss my cookies. Thankfully the torment came to an end as we pulled into the harbor and marina in Port Douglas. It was a trip to remember for sure! I went back downstairs and discovered that the two Irish ladies as well as my mom all tossed their cookies in the onslaught. I am sure glad I bailed before I got it too. Our bus ride back to Cairns was nice and uneventful and gave us all a chance to get our land legs back. We decided to lay low tonight and got some fast food and Baskin Robbins to make us all feel better. I finally got the net to work on my laptop, but only in the lobby of the hotel. So as I type this update, there is the ever present MUSAK that churns out the latest from the 70s, 80s, and today as well as some German Soprano who is belting out tunes from “The King and I” as well as some random German songs. I honestly do not know which is worse.
I think tomorrow we are playing it by ear. There is some desire to do the Skyrail/train trip up to the rainforest, but we are all getting a bit money weary with all the extra trips we have decided to do while we are here. I really want to rent a car and drive again, so we will see how it goes.
Oh and a big shout out to Hans-Jorg who I met and chatted with last night and found the site.
Saturday March 11, 2006
Happy Birthday Kris!! Just a pause in the trip diary to give a shout out to one of my favorite people on the planet. He is 34 today and despite the fact I am on the opposite side of the planet, he is in my thoughts.
The Yulara/Ayers Rock Resort has a super early check out time of 10am to accommodate all of the travelers arriving on various planes from around Australia. A quick check and it looks like Alice Springs, Sydney, and Cairns are the big transfer points to Ayers Rock Airport, with occasional flights from other cities like Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, etc. Unfortunately for us, it meant that we had 3 hours to kill in the resort sans hotel room. I think we lucked out a bit since it was raining the flies were kept at bay. Over at the Resort Center, we sent some last minute post cards and then settled on the Gecko Restaurant for lunch. I had the spaghetti which had the “boiled in rainwater that might not have been filtered” aftertaste. Mom and Gary were smarter and ordered the pizza which according to them was very good. The slow pace of service and our general blase attitude about venturing out and waiting for the bus allowed us to kill all but 30 minutes before the bus came for the airport.
We made a quick dash for the observational lookout point near where the cell and radio towers were located and then headed to the hotel lobby. By this point the rain had stopped, the clouds were clearing and it was quite beautiful. Of course no rain meant the return of the flies and they almost consumed us alive as we dashed for the hotel. Unless you have the experience at Uluru with the fly swarms, you really cannot appreciate it. I think I did fairly well considering I am not a big fan of bugs swarming the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. The bus finally picked us up and we made it to the cozy and quaint airport. My backpack was overweight for a carry-on, but I was allowed to take my little Flight 001 Travel bag (the best purchase ever!) out and carry it on separately. It made no sense, but when I am at the airport, I follow the rules. At the X-Ray machine, I took the lap top out but forgot to ask about my disposable cameras. I am worried that the underwater disposable might have been compromised by the X-Ray machine, but I remember in Sydney they said that it was ok up to 1400.
Gary got caught at the security checkpoint with a pocket knife that somehow managed to elude the carry-on screeners at LAX, Sydney, and Melbourne. After a bit of stress, he finally was able to check his bag and proceed to the waiting area. When it was time to board we had another scare as Mom’s boarding pass came up invalid. More hilarity ensued as all the passengers were now waiting on the tarmac to go up the stairs or were on the plane by the time they cleared her. They gave her another seat, but she was able to sit with us. The flight to Cairns was nice and smooth. Ayers has that weird 1.5 hour time difference from Melbourne and Cairns, so we lost that time when we got into the airport.
Cairns, being the tropical paradise, was in the middle of a warm downpour of rain. We checked into the hotel with minimal fuss (we had to ask for brekkie vouchers, that’s it). I knew the hotel had wireless internet, but sadly it is not functioning correctly. The front desk assured us it would be back to normal by tomorrow. We headed out to the Night Market to do a bit of shopping. It was nothing too special, but we managed to find a super-friendly tour information lady who sweet talked us into the expensive Quicksilver tour to the outer barrier reef for tomorrow. I am a bit worried about the weather, but she assured us that since we went so far out on the reef, the weather should be better. She also told us that in case it was still rainy, they had a platform that was secured to the ocean floor that didn’t move and provided shelter in between dives or glass bottom boat rides or semi-submersible rides. I can’t wait! She also recommended a good place for dinner just around the corner. After dinner, I went to the Internet cafe so I could post the diary updates. I hope that they get the wireless working in the hotel again so I can post some of the amazing photos from the last few days.
Photo note: I am a bit behind on Flickr due to the Internet outage, hopefully I will get caught up soon!
Friday March 10, 2006
Another early rise as we had to meet the airport bus at 6:30am. We had a bit of difficulty at check out as the hotel tried to charge us for our room even though we already had paid for it when we purchased our package. The driver was getting testy and we left for the airport about 10 minutes late. We made it to the airport and checked in without difficulty and took the opportunity to do some shopping at the shops.
The flight to Ayers Rock Airport was fairly smooth – I plugged in the iPod and fell asleep for most of the trip. We arrived a bit early at the airport to a swarm of flies and gorgeous scenery. We found the shuttle bus and received an overview of the area as we drove to the resort area. We checked into the hotel and noticed that most of the people were wearing these fly nets around their head. It didn’t take long before we realized that the flies and moths were particularly voracious. When we got to the room we found a Goodyear Blimp sized moth already occupied it. We had Gary chase it and flush it. That would have settled it, but there were other creepy crawlys about the room. We headed over to the tourist information center to book a sunset tour of Uluru. The gentleman behind the counter was of German origin and threw a big fit whenever anyone required him to do something that would take longer than a few minutes. After getting the base and sunset tour, we headed over to the central area of the resort to eat. By this time the flies had become so prevalent, we opted to join the cool ‘net kids’ and each got a new piece of netting for our heads. The shopping center at the center of the resort contains a few shops, a central tour booking center, a few restaurants, a grocery store, post office, and a bank. We opted for take away burgers so we could eat in the relatively bug free area of our room. It took awhile for them to be made (but hey at least it is fresh to order!) and we chowed down at the room.
We then had several hours to kill before our tour and there was not really much to do other than shop or swat flies. It was decided that a nap would be appropriate so we turned on the TV to one of our 4 TV stations. We ended up watching the seminal classic – Rich and Famous starring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset. The movie was really bad, but it passed the time and caused us to snooze until it was time for the tour.
The tour guide showed up promptly at 1530 and we headed off to Uluru for our close up look at the reason we all came here in the first place. I neglected to get the Tour Guide’s name, but he was rather pleasant and gave us some insights into the area. Our first stop was the Cultural Center. The Uluru-Kata Tjuga National Park is jointly run by the Aboriginal owners of the land and the National Park service, which has leased the land back in 1985 for 99 years to run the center. It had some interesting displays, but what I found interesting was that there were no Aboriginal people working at the cultural center. There were lots of displays and stories of the legends of Uluru, but no one there to put a face on it. It would have been nice to see and experience the monument from the people who it meant a lot to and since the center did not have this element, it came off as a bit hollow and preachy and not heart-felt. I do not know why the Aboriginal people are not represented. If they object or do not like people on their sacred land, then why do they allow people to experience the area? Also, if they feel so strongly about people climbing on Uluru why do they still allow it? It was all very confusing and reinforced my belief that there should be some native presence at the center.
We then headed out around Uluru to get a close up look at some of the rock formations, watering holes, and sacred Aboriginal sites. It was neat to finally see something I have wanted to for as long as I can remember. The nets came out again as we started walking close to the water areas as well as some of the more popular points of interest. I think the flies know where the juicy watery eyes on people tend to congregate and thus swarm accordingly. After a nice tour of the base and a look at the beginning of the Uluru climb (complete with more Aboriginal pleas to not climb) it was time to head off to the Sunset viewing area. I did not have high expectations for post card like views since it was overcast and the forecast was for rain. At the Coach parking area it was a mad house. There were at least 10 huge busses full of tourists all along a fence looking at the rock waiting for it to change color. I thought the whole sight was rather amusing. Our tour company offered us free red or white wine or Sprite to make the evening memorable. I suspect there were some suckers who ponied up for the ‘upgrade’ to champagne. Sunset came, and actually there was a noticeable shift in color on the rock. We then packed it up and headed back to Yulara – the Ayers Rock Resort. On the way back, Mom had mentioned to a family that I worked for Disneyland and thus they asked me some questions about some admission tickets they had. I told them I would contact one of my supervisors and email them when I got to Cairns since I was out of contact for the time being. They got my name and promised to look me up when they came out in June.
At the hotel, we discovered that dinner reservations are a must and we had to wait over an hour for a table at our hotel (worse than Red Lobster on a Saturday night in Brea!). We ended up being the last group seated at the restaurant for the evening. The food was pricey – as all things in the resort are – but at least it was not bad. We then retired for the night completely wiped out from the combination of flies, humidity, and heat. In the middle of the night, it started to pour rain and Mom swears that in between the lightning and thunder she heard critters trying to get in through the sliding glass door out of the rain. Thank goodness I was sound asleep!
Thursday March 9, 2006
Finally a day to sleep in! We woke up mid morning, but by the time we made it out of the hotel it was after noon and we needed to return the rental car. We had to make a quick stop to fill the gas tank and then over to Budget to return the car. Thankfully, I made it out of Melbourne without having to make the hook left turn where you have to pull off to the left to make a right turn. It is very bizarre to watch and it looked even worse to try and do.
After turning the car in, we headed over to the Queen Victoria Market, which reminded me of Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax. Unfortunately, it closed at 2pm and that was the time we arrived. We quickly made it through as many stalls as we could while they were packing up. Mom managed to score some charms for her bracelet, and I just enjoyed looking in the stalls. We then decided to try and get something to eat. I wanted to get a slice of pizza on the go, but after a few blocks, we just decided to try Aussie Subway. It was OK, but not the same flavor as the US variety. We then headed down to the Rialto Tower – the highest office building in the Southern Hemisphere. As I read that in the brochure, I couldn’t help but thinking that this building might fall on hard times when the new taller Eureka Mixed-Use building on South Bank opens.
The first part of the Observation area is a movie in “Rialtovision”. It was a welcome to Melbourne video (on sale in the gift shop) and was even cornier than the Canada Circlevision movie. Sadly it was not even Circlevision, but I did feel like I had seen all of Melbourne when I was done. We then headed up to the 54th floor observation area. The weather was great and you could see pretty far. Someone in the tower mentioned that there was some haze in the sky, and on a clearer day, you could see all the way to the other side of the bay where the two points of land almost meet. After some photos and videos, we headed downstairs and then went over to the Something Aussie Store. We thought due to the hype it would be full of cool souvenirs and such, but it was a bit of a let down and was in a shifty part of downtown. We decided to hop on the free tram and head back towards the main part of downtown and the Bourke Street Parade. We popped into Target to see how it compared to the US version. It was identical – just some of the fashion was different. I decided to check out the local HMV store and managed to score the Kath and Kim Christmas special DVD and the Party album. We then popped into the Meyer Department store and scored a Melbourne 2006 polo shirt for the Commonwealth Games.
We then headed back to the hotel to pack and get ready to head out to Uluru. We had planned to head over to Lygon Street for dinner – it is the main Italian community in Melbourne and supposedly home to some of the best Italian food in Australia. The front desk person at the Sebel recommended that we try the Southbank area since it would be buzzing with people and it was a lot closer. We headed down to the Crown Casino and shopping center. It was straight out of Las Vegas – complete with a mall/casino hybrid and flames that fire off the riverfront every hour on the hour. We ate at a place called Automatic, which had excellent drinks (I had Midori, Vodka, and Cranberry) as well as good pizza. We then took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel. It was a nice evening and I look back at the time in Melbourne I have mixed emotions. I love the city, but I think my expectations were a bit high from everyone telling me it was there favorite city so I left feeling a bit disappointed since Sydney really blew my socks off.
It is time to mentally prepare ourselves for a bit of rough Outback as we head off to Ayers Rock Resort. Matt has told me that it’s a bit of rough country, so I am anticipating the worst.
Wednesday March 8, 2006
This was supposed to be an early day, but we never set an alarm or got a wake up call so we were late heading down to the Ocean Road. We left around 10am and opted to take the inland route to get to the highlights of the road – the Twelve Apostles. We passed through Geelong and filled up the tank with gas and then a quick stop at the Red Rooster fast food restaurant that Mom had been itching to see what was inside.
We were then on the road. It was a very beautiful drive through areas reminiscent of the coast ranges of California and lots of wonderful little neat towns like Camperdown and Colac. We decided to take another back road to Port Campbell to be more directly on the Ocean Road instead of going to Warrnambool where we would have to backtrack. It was along this route that I almost burst a kidney and had to stop at the side of the road to pee. Nothing like peeing in the open air when a car comes by. Gary then took over driving duties for the rest of the day. I was feeling a bit sick to my stomach, due to a combo of a bad croissant at brekkie and maybe a bit of the Red Rooster. It was not that much longer and we began to see the scenic wonders of the Great Ocean Road. I have to admit it was a mixed bag of sights. Some were so-so and others were breathtaking. I particularly liked the London Bridge feature and the Loch Ard wreckage site.
The next stop is the Twelve Apostles. It is the big attraction and the main tourist point for the trip. Sadly, the area is way overcrowded. I guess it has to be expected giving how much they promote this section of the road. There were tons of tourists – Japanese, Chinese, German, American, and some unidentifiable. The walkways were nice and wide, and it looks like they have recently upgraded the facilities. The part that was the biggest disappointment were the scenic overlooks. Some of them did not offer many vantage points and the ones that did were severely overcrowded. I did manage to get some good photos, but overall the experience left me disappointed.
I was starving at this point, but we wanted to get to the Cape Otway Lighthouse. We drove and drove and drove and drove, and finally we reached it only to have the gate practically slammed in our face since they closed at 5pm and we got there at 4:58. I think they need a sign that says that they close at 5 since most of the signs just say that they open at 9am. I was disappointed because instead of telling people that the Cape Otway Lighthouse is the farthest south I have been, I have to settle for the admission gate for the lighthouse. We then headed to the city of Apollo Bay. We ate at the Apollo Bay hotel – a very English restaurant. You needed to pick a table and then go to the counter to order. They then brought your food out after a bit. I had a porterhouse which was OK – a bit bland but filling. I was going to have some of the awesome looking chocolate cake, but the lady said it had a toffee filling and since my stomach was doing flip flops I did not want to risk it.
The rest of the drive was long and winding and I nodded off most of the way back. When we got back to Melbourne I got a second wind and went out exploring. I chatted with Nach from Thailand and he gave me some inside tips on what to see and where to go. We are planning on sleeping in tomorrow and taking it easy, but hopefully we will get to see Little Italy as well as get some shopping done. I also need to write some postcards!
Tuesday March 7, 2006
Today it was time to bid adieu to Sydney and head off to Melbourne. Melbourne has been considered a more European city than Sydney due to the large number of Italians and others that emigrated here at the beginning of the 1900s. The flight was pretty full and full of amazing aromas, but was rather pleasant. One thing about Qantas though is that they have very bizarre food on their flights.
We arrived in Melbourne and I headed over to the CityLink desk to ask about whether I was getting frequent flyer miles for the intra-Australian flights. The best part is that her name was Kim and she sounded exactly like Kim from “Kath and Kim”. I nearly fell over laughing. We met our driver to the hotel, and I anticipated that it would be a quick trip to the city center. Unfortunately, our driver seemed to be driving around in circles trying to ind the hotels of the passengers and it took him over an hour to get to our stop.
Our hotel is the very nice Sebel Suites – another hotel that was made out of an office building – just like the Grace Hotel in Sydney. Of course due to our early arrival, our room was not ready yet so we set out and explored Melbourne CBD. Gary wanted to get his Hard Rock shirt so we decided to eat there. The food was pretty sub-par for Hard Rock standards, but at least it was filling. We decided to take the free circle tram back to our hotel. Since this particular tram was free, it was crowded and had a bit of the pee smell. We hopped off at our street and headed back to our hotel. The room was ready and it was super nice. Our room has a bedroom and a front room with a sofa-bed which I get to crash on. It actually was pretty good – you can barely feel the bar through the mattress.
After hemming and hawing for a bit, we decided instead of paying for an escorted tour to the Penguin Parade and the Great Ocean Road, we would just rent a car. I was excited that I was finally going to get to drive on the left side of the road. Thankfully, Budget gave us a Toyota Corolla, a car that I have driven in the states. I will admit the first few minutes out on the road were full of sphincter-pleasing moments, but without much delay we were on the main road out to the Penguin Parade. We were trying to get there before sunset since the Penguins come on to the beach after dark. On the road we passed many interesting and bizarre stores, and I think because we were distracted we missed a turn. When we crossed the freeway again, I new we were in trouble. We finally pulled off and I figured out how far we were past the turnoff. Luckily we discovered an alternative route. It was on these alternative routes that I learned that not all roads in Australia are sealed. Luckily, when there was no asphalt it was a well-groomed road and there was no rain for mud so we managed to navigate without much difficulty.
After a 30 min detour, we were back on the path to the Penguins. We were worried we missed the action since we didn’t arrive until a quarter past 8. The Penguin Parade is a crazy tourist trap. It cost money to get into the amphitheater built on the beach and the visitor center. Since we came so far, we ponied up the cash and went in. I was very disappointed that there was no photography or videotaping. It was quite humorous to see so many tourists freezing in these concrete bleachers watching a bunch of penguins come out of the surf, walk past them and then head into the shrubs. They made a bunch of noise, and Mom really thought it was neat. I nearly got busted trying to sneak a photo when my flash accidentally went off, but I played it very nonchalant and didn’t get busted.
We shopped for some souvenirs and then headed back onto the road to get back to the hotel. It took us about 2 hours to get back to the Hotel. One of the difficulties I had driving was the white backed gauges on the Corolla which glared off my glasses causing me to not be able to see the road signs. The best part of the evening was when we got into Melbourne. We somehow managed to end up right back in front of the hotel without knowing exactly where we were. Whew! Tomorrow we are off to the Great Ocean Drive!
Monday March 6, 2006
If yesterday was a sleep in day, today was the up at the butt crack of dawn day. We were down in the hotel lobby at 7am (which with three people sharing one bathroom meant early wake up) and met our tour leader Justin. He fit the role model of Bush tour guide – thick Australian accent combined with weathered features. No goofy Paul Hogan hat, but he did mention his name along the tour out of Sydney. Apparently Paul was a maintenance worker on the Harbour Bridge who was entertaining his fellow workers when one of them mentioned he should try out for a comedy show. He won the competition and the rest of the world has been living with it since.
We headed out through some of the same neighborhoods that Margaret had initially drove us through, but then we veered off the beaten bath and went through some of the lower income suburbs. Besides the people driving on the left, it looked very similar to parts of South Central LA, but with Lebanese and Asians instead of Hispanics and African Americans. Our first stop on the tour was the Fetherdale Wildlife Park. Despite its grandiose name, it really is a small compound in the middle of a suburb featuring some enclosures with various native animals.
After our complimentary breakfast, which included a clip-on koala holding onto some Vegemite, one of the handlers brought in a Koala for all of us to pet and get close to. The photo Koala was outside, so after we were all done we all headed outside for pics with the various animals. I managed to take photos with Kangaroos and Koalas as well as get some candid photos of the various animals in the sanctuary like Dingos, Wallabys and the like. Overall, it was a neat little place, but I think it is more an artificially created “sanctuary” that gears towards tourists like me who just want that photo op rather than a place that benefits animals. I am not sure, they might do some good work and perhaps I am just spoiled by the glitz and glamor of the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park.
We then headed up into the Blue Mountains. We were on the 4-Wheel Drive tour, but really it just meant we went up a couple of dirt roads – no real cross country stuff. We stopped at a few scenic overlooks while Justin told us some of the history of the area. I was lucky I got to sit shotgun since there were 17 people on the tour. Two of the groups were especially grating – one from Hong Kong and the other from Canada. It is not that they did anything especially bad, just the HK people were kind of loud and the lady that was translating for the older couple was talking over Justin causing him to glare at her a few times. Lastly, the large group from Canada just reminded me of the Weaver family from the Amazing Race Family Edition. The daughters just seemed disinterested and rather have someone like Rolly who was at least helpful, their son was a complete buffoon who managed to scare the crap out of a kangaroo in the enclosure and then drop his silverware at lunch. Then again, I did drop my fork at lunch and kept taking pictures of an action figure so I don’t really have room to talk.
Lunch was at the Imperial Hotel in Mt. Victoria, NSW. The food was buffet style and OK, though the potatoes were cold. The most striking thing about the place we stopped was that I could not stop thinking about LivingTV’s Most Haunted. This place is right out of that show and I half expected Yvette, Richard, and Derek to come around the corner with their cameras. Seriously – it was around noon and the place was creaking and spooky. I took some video so maybe I can use it later. After lunch, it was time to head over to Govett’s Leap for a quick photo op. Apparently a “leap” is Australian for “waterfall”. We then headed out to Scenic World. This is a big tourist trap at the edge of a box canyon. When you are here, you can take a tramway down and then a rail car back up. The catch is that it’s almost a vertical drop off the edge of a cliff. It was pretty steep, but not nearly as scary as some of those tram rides I have been off the sides of mountains (e.g. Palm Springs or Zugspitze). Once down at the bottom, you get to walk along an elevated boardwalk and see some of the rainforest up close. This was not tropical by any means but it was neat and you got to see several cheesy scenes of miner life. Think Knott’s Berry farm on a bad day. It was then time for the train ride back up the cliff. It was more like a thrill ride that an actual form of transportation. It was kind of scary as it shot up the hill pretty quickly. At the top it was time to board the bus and head back towards Sydney.
Before the end of the trip, we stopped at a Euroka Clearing where we had champagne and listened to our driver try and play the didgeridoo. He was better than I’d ever be at one so I can’t complain. We also had a chance to see wild kangaroos and a Guiana lizard. I think it was some sort of Monitor Lizard, but I am not sure. We then headed further down to Parramatta to catch the ferry back to Circular Quay. The ferry was very crowed with 6 tour groups on it and the weather had heated back up so it was hot and stuffy. We finally reached CQ and then headed back to the hotel after a brief stop at McDonald’s – yay! It was good tasting unhealthy grease for the first time in a week. I also has a coke which was my first since December. I have had a few sodas since I have been here. My New Years resolution was only till March when I went on the trip, but I think my soda consumption will continue to be low when I get back. We then crashed at the hotel and watched a bit of the Academy Awards. I was mildly surprised Crash won, but considering how many Academy voters said they didn’t even watch Brokeback Mountain, it was not that surprising. Besides, I thought it was a bit long myself. Watching the awards in Sydney just underscored how out of touch I was with most of the films this year – they seem worlds away. Mom and Gary did some last minute laundry to get the stench of sweat out of our clothes. They were up late and I am glad I was able to throw some shirts and socks into the mix. Mom blames my clothes for the stench, but we were all sweating on that bridge so I am not sure.
Tomorrow we are off to Melbourne where we hope to go along the Great Ocean Road and see the much-hyped Penguin parade.