Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Land Down Under

Hello mates! I am coming to you today from sunny and fantastic Melbourne, Australia. Sorry for the lack of updates recently but let me catch you all up on my recent entertaining adventures...

When I came to you last I was still in the cold resort town of Queenstown, where no visit would be complete without experiencing its famous nightlife. I joined up with a group of travelers at the Altitude Bar, the hotspot for backpackers, for "Big Night Out", a pub crawl organized by the locals. With drink and pizza specials along the way, it was an efficient and inexpensive way to take in the scene. The most interesting destination was the packed Buffalo Club, with a flaming firepit (!) and women dancing on the bar like in the movie "Coyote Ugly".

Friday was a long travel day across the Tasman Sea from Queenstown to Sydney, Australia. With a layover in Auckland the whole journey took around 12 hours, but fortunately Air New Zealand once again proved to be delightful. Contrary to what most Americans think, New Zealand and Australia are not that close to one another, but actually are separated by 1200 miles of water!

I was immediately struck by the contrast between quiet, calm New Zealand and the loud, audacious vibe in Sydney. It's a big city, with 4.5 million people, mobbed with pedestrians and club-goers in the bright lights of a Friday night. I had booked a room at a "boutique" hostel in the Kings Cross neighborhood, which I soon discovered was just blocks from the city's "red light district" of adult clubs on Darlinghurst Road! Welcome to Australia, mate!

After a long day of travel I needed another big night out, which I quickly found as a group of hostel-mates were headed on a free bus to Coogee Beach for a backpackers' special at the Beach Palace Hotel. It turns out that many bars in Australia are actually called "hotels" to evade old liquor regulations. In any event, I found a lively dance party with a DJ and scores of women in short skirts, most of which would be considered indecent in the States...certainly a difference in cultural standards. The vastly milder temperatures (from low 40s in NZ to mid 60s in Aus) helped make the evening palatable for the bare-legged party owl.

Saturday was yet another rainy day -- I seemed to have brought the rain with me from New Zealand. I was undeterred from exploring, however, and I found a 3-hour free walking tour group meeting on George St in the center of the city. Aussies call this area the CBD, short for Central Business District, and they do like their acronyms here!

The tour consisted of most of the major sights in central Sydney, and our guide was good at providing stories about the history behind the places we were seeing, most of which contained horror tales about the convicts who originally settled the area. The tour ended at the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which I don't find attractive, though it is iconic and MASSIVE.

The highlight of Sydney is certainly its legendary harbor. To get a better look, I took a ferry from Circular Quay (pronounced 'key') to the Taronga Zoo. The zoo was a treat, containing all sorts of native Australian animals such as kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and echidnas. I fortunately was there for the daily 3:30 PM koala feeding, and was able to see koalas nonchalantly chowing down on large branches of eucalyptus leaves. After a long afternoon at the zoo, I went out for pizza and beer in The Rocks neighborhood, Sydney's oldest.

Following another big night out with people from the hostel, Sunday took me on a walking tour from Kings Cross through the Royal Botanical Gardens to Mrs Macquarie's Point, with a picturesque view of both the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. The latter looks much better in the sunshine, which I finally had! From here I walked to the Opera House and took the tour. Contains two separate halls, with a combined seating of about 4000. Contrary to the name, most of the performances there are not opera, and one can buy tickets to the orchestra or dance troupes or even speakers (Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama have each spoken there).

From there I trekked out to the suburbs to the famous Bondi Beach, home to Australia's surf scene. With a storm brewing out at sea, the waves were massive, and the beach was packed with surfers and those watching. One guy shattered his board in the water and the jet skis were actively patroling -- like a scene from the movie "Blue Crush". Bondi is HUGE and is reminiscent of the popular beaches in Southern California.

I took a long walk along the boardwalk and around cliffs overlooking the sea to Bronte Beach. Had I continued I would have reached Coogee Beach, but darkness set in and I made my way back for an easy evening in the city.

I woke up Monday morning with salmon on toast and a latte at a great little coffee shop called Three Beans, then set out for some more walking on my final day in Sydney. Much of the day was spent dodging the remnants of a mini-cyclone that had blown ashore, forcing me to duck under buildings every couple hours to escape the wind and pouring rain. I walked through the boring but modern Darling Harbour area and grabbed lunch in Chinatown.

That evening I took the 90-minute flight to Melbourne on Virgin Blue, an airline with terrific customer service just like its American counterpart. Thank you Richard Branson!

I found Sydney to be too big, too brash, too overwhelming. I needed a change of pace and Melbourne has proved to be a terrific antidote.

Melbourne is known as Australia's cultural capital and most European city. Think of it as San Francisco with Sydney as LA. With a friendly tourist information ambassador at the airport and an easy-to-navigate tram network, I almost immediately recognized that Melbourne was more my style!

I'm staying with an old high school friend here, Michelle Phillips; reunited after ten years! Has been so wonderful to have my own room after nearly two weeks on the hostel circuit, and Michelle has been a generous host.

Michelle lives in the Carlton district near the University of Melbourne by the city's immense row of tasty Italian restaurants. More Italians here than any other foreign city!

Unlike Sydney, Melbourne doesn't contain any trademark tourist destinations, so I have spent a lot of time walking around this very accessible city. The Fitzroy neighborhood is littered with hipsters and Brunswick St has great coffee. This area also is Melbourne's graffiti capital -- there's a whole culture around here centered around this "urban art". Some of it is actually pretty good, though the tagging is still obnoxious.

Michelle then introduced me to the QVM (Queen Victoria Market), a massive food court and place to buy all the freshest produce. We ate lunch in Melbourne's immense Chinatown at a delicious dumpling restaurant, stuffing ourselves with pork and mushrooms and sweet red beans.

I spent the rest of my Tuesday walking off my lunch through the city, passing through Federation Square, walking along the Yarra River to the enormous Botanical Gardens. Nearby is Melbourne Olympic Park, home to the 1956 summer games, and Rod Laver Arena, which annually hosts the Australian Open for tennis.

Today I was up for more intense walking, so I took the train east to Dandenong Ranges National Park to try out the Kokoda Track Memorial Walk, more commonly known as the 1000 Steps. It was quite grueling and it's clear I haven't exercised like that in awhile. Unfortunately the park didn't have any cool views of the city, but it did have some interesting birds like cockatoos and the kookaburra, a bird that makes a grotesque laughing sound.

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