Adventures Down Under: Cairns

The plane landed in Cairns, the last leg of our Australian trip. As we walked to collect the luggage, after the dry Uluru, I could feel humidity return to my skin. Cairns is a nice little beach town – very humid, casual and tropical.

After a quick check-in, we went to the night market and got massage. You must go to the night market for massage.  Massages are so cheap in Australia than in US. We indulged at every opportunity. After massage, we walked along the esplanade and checked out restaurants all along before settling on an Indian restaurant. After dinner, with so many pictures taken, we were running out of disk space and went on a quest to find a place where we could copy our pictures to a disk.

Next 2 days were highlight of our Australia trip. We did an Liveaboard Intro Diving trip with Ocean Quest in Great Barrier Reef. We had 5 dives over 2 days. The first day, a transfer vessel took us to the outer Great Barrier Reefs. After about 90 mins, we reached the reefs. The transfer boat was pretty crowded but the staff was friendly and food was good. They took very good pictures after we geared up. I couldn’t dive on day one as I had some sinus issues, but Vipul did and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

In the afternoon, after lunch, we were transferred to Ocean Quest. I totally loved Ocean Quest as there were fewer folks on board. Rooms were comfortable and clean. There were only 4 intro divers on Ocean Quest. Almost immediately after lunch, there was call for another dive which we skipped and snorkelled  instead.

After snorkelling we had tea and chatted with other guests till dinner time. We went up to the deck to watch sunset and came down to the dining room for dinner. Dinner was fabulous and served piping hot by the crew- chef had earlier asked everyone for their dietary preferences. We made new friends at the dinner table and learnt about their diving experiences – some from different areas in Australia, some from South East Asia and Japan. Following dinner was a night dive for certified divers.

Next day we had 3 dives – the first one was at 6:00 am. The crew woke us up in time for the dive. Since the other intro diving couple was sleeping we had a private lesson. It was my first dive and the instructor was very patient. Over the 3 dives, we went down up to 12 meters, and were down for 30 mins. We saw sea turtle and tons of Angle fishes, butterfly fishes, clams, Christmas worms, nemos etc. the early morning dive was the best one – as the ocean was calm and conditions were perfect.

Stringer suits were complimentary – and wearing them prevented sunburns. We got a fresh suit for each dive (unlike the transfer vessel).Before each dive, we had a briefing on the reef map, currents, tide etc so that the certified divers who went in larger groups could explore on their own and come back in time. It was the most memorable time of the trip. I highly recommend Ocean Quest ‘s overnight diving trip. We reached Cairns by late afternoon.

After the trip we drove to Port Douglas – another scenic beach town with two Heritage areas – Daintree rainforest and Great Barrier Reef. We had booked Daintree rainforest tour with Tony’s for the next day and they don’t do pickups from Cairns. So we drove to Port Douglas. The drive is beautiful and hugs the coastline.We checked into a condo and then went off for dinner to Salsa bar and grill – their chocolate soufflé is to die for!

Our guide was a naturalist/botanist so we got to learn a lot on the rainforest trip – rare trees and plants, took a river cruise, saw poisonous fruits,  .  We saw Cassowary and her chick crossing the road and had some chickoo ice-cream.  Though we didn’t see any crocodiles as the weather was too hot.

For our last dinner in Australia we decided to go to Nautilus on a whim and totally regretted the choice. It was a bit stuffy compared to the light and fun Salsa bar.

Next morning saw us scrambling to pack, drive back to Cairns and on long flight to Hawaii via Sydney.

We had a great time in Australia. I wish we had more time in Melbourne to drive the Great Ocean Road and see the twelve apostles drive down the Gold Coast and learn to surf, sail the Whitsundays … if things work out, we will probably visit again – with more days to spare 🙂

Adventures Down Under: Striking Uluru

After Melbourne and Sydney, we flew to the great Australian Outback – Uluru ( also known as Ayers Rock). I had seen pictures of the Uluru monolith when one of my colleagues had visited Australia. She winged this trip with her then four-year old. I was hooked and had mentally filed this away. Uluru is remote and even though there are connecting flights available, they are $$$. Imagine flying to Grand Canyon Airport without having a Phoenix or Las Vegas airport around. The $$$ add up as the place has 4 types of lodging owned by a parent company – so pricing is monopolistic. Take it or Leave it. But this was our once in a life time trip. We had endured a 23 hour flight to get here. And also this was our special anniversary edition – that’s how we justified the expense 😉

This was the most busy part of our trip. Having come this far, we wanted to hike the Kings Canyon as well as take an Eco-tour with the Aboriginals. Sunset over Uluru is a must-do. And of course we didn’t want to miss the Kata-Tjutas ( or Olgas ). These places are not only of sacred to the aboriginals but have breath-taking desert beauty.

After a morning flight, we landed on one of the smallest airports I have ever been too.  We picked up our rental car, had lunch and first drove to Kings Canyon. The drive was monotonous after Mt . Conner through dry dusty brush and we had to keep “singing” to ensure we didn’t fall asleep 😉

A refreshing swim at the Kings Canyon resort and we were ready to watch the sunset. We had beer we watched dingo’s or wild dogs run around in distance. By then, the dry warm desert air started to cool off a bit.

Dinner was at the bar since the only restaurant was not open.We slept early that night, as we planned to do the Rim walk early next morning. At 5:30 am we were at trail head and watched the sun rise over the valley: very calm and peaceful.

Rim walk is definitely a must-do! The Garden of Eden is simply amazing so are the rock formations and the sheer cliffs. We came back to resort by 8 am, showered, had breakfast and drove back to Uluru.

En-route we saw a herd of wild camels. So exciting!

After check-in at Desert Gardens hotel, we had a late lunch at the Café next to the only supermarket and photo shop in Uluru- amazing sandwiches and ice-creams and then headed to Kata Tjuta Cultural Center for the 4:30 pm Kuniya Walk with Eco-tours.

The Cultural centre itself is nice and has video presentation of native culture, fruits/plants.It was fun taking the tour with the natives. We heard about the mythology (similar to Indian mythologies), traditional medicines and dwindling interest of next generation in preserving those and how foreign workers are staying in Uluru for extensive period to learn their language, art and craft so they can protect the aboriginal culture.

We even got to sample some bush figs that they hand-picked on the tour.

Our native tour guide was also selling her paintings at the end of the tour – for less than the gallery/store prices. The tour ends just in time for sunset and we had ample time to drive back to the parking area to enjoy spectacular sunset over the Uluru. There was an option to do a Dinner under the Stars tour along with private Sunset viewing but we didn’t really want to be with large group of people and loved this plan instead. This was more us – enjoying a romantic moment gazing at the magical monolith.

We drove back to resort, grabbed dinner and then headed to Outback Pioneer for our night show  pickup. As city slickers, it was awe-inspiring to see so many stars in the sky. We saw the milk way, galaxies, Jupiter and lots of constellations. We fell asleep on the way back as we had a really long day and had another long one ahead.

Early morning, we drove to Olgas for sunrise. There is a sunrise point about 7 miles before the Olgas. Very picturesque views of sun rising over the Olgas and distant Uluru. Totally worth the effort to get up early and drive to Olgas .

We did the Valley of the Winds hike soon afterwards. There was absolutely no one around. We had the whole place to ourselves. We went up to second lookout and turned around. The first tours started coming in after we had returned back to the first lookout. The “martian” surface of Olgas is amazing to look and feel.

We personally didn’t like Valley of Winds hike as much as the Rim Walk in Kings Canyon but Kings Canyon is not worth driving all the way for if you are not doing the Rim Walk hike. Oh, and it was windy near the Valley of the Winds walk. It was hotter once inside the Olgas gorge we drank more water on this hike than the Rim walk. Luckily, there is potable water on the trail. And we also spotted a wild kangaroo while we were coming out of the gorge.

We came back, showered, bought some souvenirs and then drove around the Uluru, stopping along the way for photos and short walks.

We earlier thought of doing the Climb but the high temperatures deterred us.It was 36-37 C while we were in Uluru and the Climb was closed due to high temperatures.

Our flight to Cairns was at 3:30 pm and we had to return the car.

Off we went to the hotel , packed and went to the airport for the last leg of our Australian adventure.

Adventures Down Under: Vibrant Sydney

A late night flight from Melbourne, brought us to Sydney.

Sydney is a city of my dreams. Waterfront setting, secluded beaches, great seafood, ferries to transport you from different area, vibrant night life and awesome people. Our this part of the trip was so amazing that we just want to settle here once we retire. But be warned, the city is expensive – probably even more so than NYC.

We stayed in Circular Quay – very close to iconic Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Rocks and Ferry terminal – once again, at Sir Stamford. It was late at night, so we simply crashed.

The next morning we woke up late and after breakfast, took the 11:00 am ferry to Manly. There is simply no other way to take in the  lovely views of the bridge, opera house and the harbor. What an introduction to this beautiful city!

At Manly, we walked over to Shelly beach and had a really nice lunch at Le Kiosk. There is a walk along the cliffs very close to Le Kiosk with stunning views of Northern beaches and the sea. We went part way but then decided to watch the school kids playing on Shelly beach. Oh, and the rockpools along the way are tempting – safe way to swim in sea water 🙂

The city views on the way back are equally stunning, though we were smitten by the Bridge and the Opera House.

We came back to the hotel around 4:00 pm, changed and walked to the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb check-in location.The climb was highlight of Sydney. after changing into their gear and going over safety rules, we went out to the catwalk and ladders. It was a bit cloudy when we started climb, but luckily it didn’t rain. . There are four ladders that are fairly steep, but since we were “attached” to the bridge it wasnt scary. The actual bridge climb is very gradual. Our guide was funny and we took lots of pictures en-route. At the top it was surreal to see the city , opera house and the ferries making their way across the bay. On the way down city lights had begun to twinkle and it really looked spectacular.

That night we went to Seoul Ria – a Korean restaurant in Haymarket- highly recommended for authentic Korean food. The massive spread was a must after the  Bridge Climb!

Following morning we went to a bakery in the Rocks for breakfast. We wandered around various stores in the rocks and then our plan was to tour the Opera house. But due to some rehearsals, the main theatre was closed. So we decided to go later in the day.

We spend some time walking in the Royal Botanical Gardens and then took the bus to Bondi beach, to people watch. We went to Bondi icebergs with intention to swim in the rockpool, but as the weather was cloudy and water was cool, we just came back after taking in the views.

We had a nice lunch at a noodle shop at the promenade and we came back to the city by bus. It was almost time for the Opera house tour. The main theatre of Opera house is very ornate. We even saw a troop rehearse while we were on the tour.

We spent the evening at Red Oak – a boutique Brewery near Darling harbor. Again highly recommended even if you are not a beer fan (like me). Good food and great ambience – frequented by locals.

Our last day in Sydney we took the train to Blue mountains. It was easy to catch the train and find the explorer in Katoomba. We left early, so we could hike for a couple of hours. It was a nice sunny day with beautiful views of the mountains and the valley. Personally I thought the three sisters are over-rated, but nevertheless it was a nice day out of the city.

We came back to the city around six. As the train entered Sydney, we saw newspapers screaming with Mumbai Attack headlines. I panicked and dashed out of the train as it came to a halt to the newspaper stand to read more about the news. Alas, I couldnt find a paper so we ran all the way back to the hotel to call home and check on my parents.It was a relief to check in on friends and family and find that everyone was safe and sound at home.

Later that night to change our mood, we went pub hopping. Lord Nelson ( good brews, slightly older audience), Australian ( younger crowd, tried Emu wings – nice!, crocodile pizza  OK ) and lastly went to the seamier Kings Cross. Our plan was to go to Candy’s apartment, but it was closed so just grabbed a drink at one of the many bars and got an amazing foot massage.

The next morning we woke up early to catch a flight to Uluru-the great Australian outback!

Although we were there for 3 days and they were party cloudy shoulder season days, we totally loved Sydney. Its a city I would love to live in someday. Till then, the memories will have to suffice 🙂

Adventures Down Under: Melbourne Dash

A few years ago, Vipul and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary in Australia and Hawaii. This was long before Varun – the days were long, carefree and filled with adventure. Long flight trips didnt exhaust us as much and we could travel light and spontaneously.

We visited several cities on one trip and some for a day or two just because we were interested in one point of interest in that city.

Melbourne was on the itinerary for two reasons: Melbourne Cricket Club and Penguin parade on Philip island. Well, also because flight tickets from Seattle were cheaper to Melbourne.

Vipul and I flew into Melbourne on Nov 21st from Seattle, arriving on 23rd morning around 9:30 am. Yes, you lose a day in travel as you cross the International Date Line but then you more than make up for it on the return flight. Immigration was painless, but customs took over 1 ½ hours. Melbourne is very stringent about customs and check for soil, fruits, food etc. We even declared our hiking shoes and personal medication – though it was probably an overkill. A short shuttle ride and we checked into our hotel Sir Stamford by 11:45 am.

We had booked the 3:30 pm tour to Philip island with Melbourne Day Tours but unfortunately it was cancelled as there were not enough people, and we were transferred to Grayline 1:00 pm tour. Our tour operator had left message for us at the hotel, so we had to quickly shower, change, eat and reach their pick up point in time. Luckily , there are tons of places to eat in around our hotel and also the pick up point was around the corner – which saved us some time.

The drive to Philip island – atleast the suburbs of Melbourne- was boring – and we dozed till we reached the Warrock Cattle farm. At the farm, we had tea and scones, watched native Australian animals and stretched our legs. It was fun to hand feed the kangaroos and the emu’s. We then went to see koala bears – lots of them in the nature park on the island.

Finally, we made our way to see penguins at dusk. It was cold at Phillip island. Brrr…the winds that blow there are straight across from Antarctica and we under estimated them.We considered upgrading to the ‘glass box enclosure’  just to get out of cold, but they only had one seat available. So we ended buying fairly expensive fleece blanket.

At dusk, the penguins starting coming out, in groups of three’s and fours and then in larger packs. It was adorable watching them wobble in and scamper back into the waters at the slightest noise or perception of danger. We moved to the board walk to see them up close. They were absolutely adorable! BTW, photography is not allowed as the penguins go blind due to constant flash exposure – the above is a picture of a poster.

After following them along for about half an hour or so back to their burrows, we headed back to the bus. The long flight and the long day finally hit us and we slept on the way back. The bus dropped us a short walk from the hotel and we were fast asleep in no time.

Its possible to do this trip on your own – but we didnt want to risk it being jetlagged after a long overnight flight from Seattle. And also I wasnt sure we understood the J-hook turns in Melbourne.

Next day, after breakfast, we walked to MCC stadium. The stadium is grand and the tour guide was fun. We had a team of  senior citizens (60 yrs + old) cricketers from UK, so the guide went extra lengths to indulge them and their cricket interests. We briefly stopped at the museum the 3D hologram presentation of Shane Warne is not to be missed. After spening two plus hours in the stadium, Vipul was in cricket heaven! We walked back to tram station and went to St. Kilda for Lunch. Trams- they are such unique and aweosme way to get across the city.

After lunch we came back to South Dockland for a stroll and on a whim went up the Eureka Tower– amazing views, pretty cheap and no lines (compared to ESB in NY). We stopped at one of the many coffee shops along the river and had a nice hot chocolate (they come with marshmallows)…yumm!

We had a late evening flight to Sydney so it was time to walk back, collect our luggage and head to the airport.

I love cities where you can stroll along the river and take in the cityscapes. Paris, New York, Lucerne – Melbourne is no exception. A truly multi cultural city, we will definitely return to Melbourne. We didnt get to drive down the Great Ocean Road, visit the wineries and take in more of the café culture.I think Varun would love Melbourne too. Maybe we can plan another trip for our tenth wedding anniversary.