Jim and Ellen’s Big Oz AdventureAngela | June 18th, 2006 | 11:06 pm
After a bit of a blog hiatus, we’re back. My mom and dad came out to Australia for a 9-day trip in late May. They made a stopover in New Zealand for a week on the way and then spent 2 days in Tahiti on the way home. They covered quite a bit of geography, mainly in the form of islands.
They arrived in Sydney Sunday evening the 23rd of May and Eric and I met them at the airport and brought them home for dinner and a bottle of wine so that we could catch up on their New Zealand exploits. They loved New Zealand and felt that a week wasn’t nearly enough time. You can check this link to see more photos from the north and south islands and the rest of their Australia trip (New Zealand pictures begin on page 5, 2nd photo from the bottom left).
Ellen looks out upon Wellington NZ
On their first full day in Sydney we made a quick jaunt up to Chatswood on the train so that they could see the 2nd Road office where I work. After a quick tour of the studio and a round of introductions to all my coworkers, we were off again to start a day of sightseeing. This week was my chance to see Sydney all over again through new eyes. We got off the train at Circular Quay,
Ellen & Jim at Circular Quay (pronounced “Key”)
one of the best views of Sydney, right at its heart. We strolled up to the Rocks, the touristy “old settlement” part of the city and then right up under the Harbor Bridge. The bridge really is stunning in its scale, both from a distance and especially right up close. We actually rode over it earlier that morning, before Mom and Dad even got a good glimpse of it from below.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge seen from below at ‘The Rocks’
Then it was off to the Opera House where we stopped to rest our feet and have a coffee. At this point, our lovely sunny day faded and rain clouds began to threaten, but we braved the Botanic Gardens anyway, strolling until dusk, as we made our way windingly down the mile of its length. It’s amazing how different and exotic the trees and plants are here, though some of the palms and strangler figs are the same as those back home. As we left the park in darkness we were able to witness the flight of the more than 5,000 fruit bats that roost in gardens during the day. The park guides refer to them as grey-headed flying foxes, but that seems rather kind. Foxes make you think of something cuddly and dog-like, but these are really large bats that have a wingspan of up to 3 feet and can weigh 2.5 pounds. It was truly a batman-esque scene, as scores of bats flew southwards overhead in an unending ribbon for more than 30 minutes, when it became too dark to see them.
We continued our long, long day’s walk to Kings Cross, where we met Eric for dinner at a great Czech restaurant called Prague. Alas, they were out of goulash that night, but we had some wonderful beers and traditional fare including roast pork and kraut and some version of head cheese that my dad savored.
Enjoying Gambrinus 10âˆ˜beer at Prague Restaurant in Kings Cross
Eric and I got up early (actually, mom and dad got up *really* early, so they were showered and ready to go before Eric and I even rolled off of the air mattress we set up in the living room) to go and fetch our “hired car” for the drive up to the Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s wine regions. This was more of an adventure than you can imagine, as this is the first time we have ventured to drive in Australia – which is internationally famous for driving on the other side of the road. Eric was ‘volunteered’ as the designated driver and Angela the navigator. Eric managed to stay on the correct side of the road, but finding our way out of Sydney proved to be quite a challenge. After taking a wrong turn and finding ourselves heading under the city in the wrong direction, we righted ourselves and finally made it across the bridge and onto the Pacific Highway that would take us north up the coast. Note to City of Sydney: your road signage leaves a lot to be desired. God help you if you don’t happen to know what direction Woollahra, Woolloomooloo or Wollongong happen to be from the unmarked road you are currently traveling on. Luckily a coworker’s tip on driving in a foreign country proved most valuable when push came to shove. The advice? “Follow someone else”. You may go the wrong way, but at least you will be on the correct side of the road…
Once we were finally flying up the highway past the dramatic coastal landscape towards Newcastle, we relaxed a bit (or at least I did). We decided to take a detour for the more scenic route up towards the Hunter Valley. Mom found that journey a little harrowing as we slowly climbed into more hilly ranges and found ourselves crossing more and more primitive bridges and sections of dirt and gravel roads. We were all disappointed to see many kangaroos and wombats as road kill along our way, without sighting a single live creature. We even stopped the car and got out to inspect a flattened wombat, just because we’d never seen one of the round, badger-like animals before. We arrived in the township of Pokolbin around 2:00pm, and we didn’t have much company along a highway lined with vineyards and olive groves.
Although that is our car in the distance, the Wombat was already a goner
Desperate for food, we found a surprisingly good lunch at the tourist information centre, of all places. It was actually about the only option we had come across in the last hour of driving. Based on my previous experience visiting Napa Valley, I was expecting the Hunter Valley to be quite a bit more commercialized. A winter mid-week is obviously a slow time, but it really is just a landscape of vineyards and wineries, with a smattering of tasteful guest houses and hotels. Nary a fast food chain around for miles.
We then went on to a first tasting visit at the small winemakers centre, where we sampled a number of interesting wines from wineries too small to run their own cellar doors. The tasting was a first for mom and dad, and we had a pleasant tasting guide and the place all to ourselves. Naturally, we walked out of there with half a case of wine and then decided to drive out and find our accommodation, as the long shadows of the afternoon sun were getting longer.
We didn’t encounter a live kangaroo until just as dusk was arriving, and then Eric almost had to swerve and stop to avoid hitting one that bounded across the road in a jig-jaggy pattern. We saw many grazing kangaroos on the last couple miles before reaching our guest house. We drove up a gravel driveway a little distance from the road to Thistle Hill. They have a main house with five guest rooms, plus a separate cottage with 2 bedrooms that we had booked for 2 nights. It turned out to be even lovelier than the website suggested.
The cottage at Thistle Hill
Lavender Cottage was a charming tin-roofed bungalow with a verandah running all the way around. Inside was decorated with antiques, and there was a fire in the fireplace to greet us, along with cheese and crackers and a chilled bottle of semillon made from grapes from the Thistle Hill vineyard (which provide grapes for the Piggs Peake winery up the road). Once we all settled into the cozy sofas in front of the fire, we thought we’d never get up again.
Inside the cottage enjoying the warm fire
You may be wondering where fireplaces come in to your vision of the Australian bush, which would be naturally visions of dry, heat-soaked red earth and lots of flies. Well, that’s probably what it’s like in the summer, but mom and dad arrived just as we were moving into winter in the southern hemisphere. This meant sunny warm days in the 60’s, but evenings in the mid 40’s out in the country. And though we were tired and full of wine and cheese, we did manage to tear ourselves away from the fire to venture out to a nearby pub for a light bite to eat, and this proved to be one of our worst dining experiences in Australia yet. The Hunter Valley seems to offer a good range of fine dining. Harrington’s Pub was not one of them (Eric notes that his Fish & Chips were yummy and the Guinness was even better). The claim to fame was you could cook your own steak. Who wants to cook their own food? You can’t even pay them to cook a steak for you, except for the steak sandwich – which was as tough as shoe leather. So, avoid Harrington’s Pub at all cost. I repeat – at all costs.
Wake up to a hazy, chilly morning that soon cleared. Mom was out for walk around the property at the crack of dawn and was amazed that deer are not among Australia’s wildlife. Our cottage was stocked with eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and bread, so we prepared a large breakfast to feast on (and forget our memories of the previous evening’s leather-like steak sandwiches).
Before heading out, we visited with Chloe, Thistle Hill’s tamed resident kanagaroo, and gave her a piece of bread to munch on while we chatted with Glen, the proprietor.
‘Chloe’ the resident Roo at Thistle Hill. You can pet her as long as you feed her. Fair enough.
Our first stop was a tour at Wyndham Estate. Some of the larger wineries offer tours, and it seemed a good way to get an introduction to the region. I also thought it would be interesting to visit a few wineries that made wines that are available back in the US, so that my folks might be able to find some of what they tasted here back home. It turned out we were the only people on the tour (the bonus of going mid-week, I suppose), so it was customized just for us. Wendy, our guide, gave us a very generous tasting, going through at least half a dozen whites before we even got to the reds. We were all charmed by a sparkling shiraz (Wendy said that the bubbly red was all the rage right now), and we brought some of that home along with some chardonnay and semillon dessert wines, or stickies, as they call them here.
Medals in the ‘Trophy Room’ at Wyndham Estate
We then dashed off to Tyrell’s winery, skipping lunch, and ended up on another informative tour given by a very animated Irishman. Actually, our afternoon tour, which was all about the winemaking process, complemented our morning tour, which had been more about the history of the area and the grapes. We stuck around for a large group tasting with 10 others from our tour and went through so many wines that we lost track of what we were tasting. We did notice that to us, the Hunter wines, especially the shiraz, had a strong vegetal quality that we weren’t entirely fond of. The wines we appreciated most were the whites, the chardonnays and the sweeter semillon varieties. However, we left the winery with some shiraz, pinot noir, and gewÃ¼rztraminer.
Rows of oak barrels used to store the wine at Tyrell’s. The white powder along the edge of the rows is lime – used to keep anything from growing in any wine that drips to the floor
We stopped at an artisanal dairy on the way back to the cottage and picked up a couple of interesting cheeses, since we had skipped our lunch. We booked a table at a recommended restaurant called Amanda’s that evening, and had a really wonderful meal. Eric had barramundi, a popular Australian freshwater fish, and mom and I both had steaks. Dad opted for a curry that was on special. We had a good cabernet from the winery that owns the restaurant (Windsor’s Edge), and I finished off with a warm date pudding. Mmm. As we drove back to the cottage we marveled at the incredible amount of stars visible in the sky.
The night sky in the bush. This was taken with a digital camera at 30 second exposure. You can see how many stars there are and it’s not a tenth of what could be seen. Breathtaking.
More to come soon…