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Week 49: Adelaide, Barossa and Goolwa

11-Feb-09 :: Arriving in Adelaide was very exciting because the airport has free luggage trolleys! This may seem trivial, but since we need 3 of them to manage our luggage, paying for them is material. Most airports in Australia charge $4 per cart! The rental car section was also conveniently located just outside the front door, which we love. Although the Melbourne car rental area was our favorite ... Our 2 nights in Adelaide were dominated by extreme heat. As many of you have seen on the news, people have been perishing due to heat related stress, and there have been rolling power black-outs throughout southern Australia. Fortunately, we were not affected much. The Sebel Playford gave us very spacious rooms during our stay and the kids were happy to get at some school work during the morning and then head off to the shopping mall to see a movie in the afternoon. Hotel for Dogs was a big hit! And our dinner from room service was a tasty accompaniment to watching the tennis on television (quarter finals of the Australian Open).

On Thursday we headed out of town in the late morning, but the temperature had already exceeded 40 degrees and keeping the car cool was a challenge. After a short but pretty drive, we reached the Novotel Resort in the Barossa Valley, a well-known wine-producing area in South Australia. Although numerous wineries were located in the vicinity of our hotel, the heat stopped us from venturing out. Our rooms were comfortable and cool, so Daniel and the kids relaxed indoors for most of the morning, while I visited the gym and treated myself to a facial and a massage in the spa! Later in the afternoon, we visited the local bowling alley in Tanunda, then returned to the hotel for a swim. The hotel had cleverly installed sail shades over the swimming pool, which helped to keep the worst of the heat off the pool. That evening, we dined in one of the finest restaurants in the area, Appellation at the Louise, where the children behaved beautifully and were very patient with the attentive but less-than-speedy service. Fortunately the food was up to expectations and everyone left more than satisfied. And by the time we left at 10pm the temperature had cooled substantially.

Saturday was another day with record high temperatures, so we stayed at the resort and did more of the same. I spent a bit of time in the gym and caught up on laundry, while the kids watched a bit of TV and read. That evening they ordered from room service, after which Daniel and I had dinner in the resort restaurant, Harry's, and managed to try a local wine. Leaving the Barossa Valley on Sunday morning, we felt a bit let down that we'd done so little, but there really hadn't been an alternative. The drive down to Hindmarsh Island, located directly south on the Fleurieu Peninsula, was short and pleasant, and we reached our villa by 3pm. After making some risotto for dinner, we ventured out to Goolwa Beach to take some photos as the sun set. Surprisingly, it was chilly enough to wear a jumper!

Monday the temperature finally dropped back to normal levels and we were all ready for some activity. We set off by 9am and drove to Milang, where we were expecting to take a boardwalk through wetlands. Well, we were in for a sad shock — the Murray/Darling River System has been suffering from the drought and from farmers draining the flow upriver, and nowhere is that more apparent than where we visited that day. The wetlands ended up being "drylands" and we moved on rather than waste time looking for bird life. From there, we drove south toward Clayton but stopped to take a detour onto Point Sturt, about 7km down a gravel road. After going about 4km, we turned back because the landscape was so desolate. A turn off to the side took us to the shores of Lake Alexandrina, where some wader birds were eating. Still, the area looked quite sad. Finally we carried on toward Clayton again.

Upon arrival, we parked near a jetty and walked out to see what sort of birds were about — surprisingly, an egret and dozens of pelicans were in residence! Most impressively, the majority of the pelicans took to the air and presented quite an impressive picture as they soared and swooped above the water. The egret fished between 2 boats, then took to the air and flew around the corner. The water levels seemed to be normal here, until we drove a bit further and saw a cluster of jetties protruding over dry land. From there, we drove around the town to the other side of the lake shore, where a large group of pelicans seemed to be gathering. Turns out that a couple of fishermen were emptying their boat over there, attracting dozens of pelicans for a free lunch. Describing that sight is quite difficult — pelicans are large birds with unusual characteristics, and to see dozens of them together is an amazing experience!

From there, we decided to proceed to the Currency Creek Vineyard, where there was a lovely restaurant. We were treated to a delicious salad, as well as a glass of white wine, for a reasonable price. The boys were keen to follow an on-site walk through the vineyard property, but shortly after they set off they realized that it, too, had dried up dramatically. So we skipped the walk and just wandered around the vines for a bit. Although the day had been somewhat disappointing, it had also been enlightening. By 3pm we were back in Goolwa, having spent the morning and early afternoon seeing for ourselves the results of the drought and mismanagement of water resources. Nothing other than this experience could convince us of the seriousness of the situation in quite the same way.

That afternoon we visited the Porter Street Wildlife Gallery in Goolwa. The boys were after some art depicting local wildlife to hang in their new room in the house in Vermont. After admiring original paintings of fairy wrens, kookaburras and kangaroos by Brenda Holden, we settled upon a print of a sea eagle and another one of an owl. The decision was not easy, since most of the prints were amazing! But the boys were happy with their choices and, as a bonus, the purchase didn't break the bank! We also made it back to the rental house in plenty of time for Daniel to take them off and have a round of golf before dinner. The girls and I stayed back and made tacos for everyone.

The following day, the boys decided to hire tennis rackets and use the court outside our house, with Miranda as their "ball girl"! In spite of our thoughts on heading out, the tennis tournament didn't finish until nearly 3pm. After that we drove in the direction of Victor Harbour, making a stop at Horseshoe Bay (in our opinion, not quite as pretty as its namesake in Bermuda) in Port Elliot to see the famous site and play on the playground. We then carried on to Victor Harbour, where we'd planned to eat at the Ocean Grill, located in the Anchorage Hotel. Although the food was a bit disappointing, the setting was very pretty.

On our final morning in South Australia we took a long time to pack up and didn't hit the road until after 11am. That left us just enough time for a lunch stop in Glenelg, a beach town just west of Adelaide, before we needed to be at the airport to check in for our flight to Perth. Although the flight was delayed by about an hour, Adelaide has a very nice airport with spacious shops and a kids' play area! So everyone remained in good spirits and we made it to Perth by 6:30pm (with a 1 1/2 hour time difference!). But more on that in the next entry ...



Click on any picture below to launch the first gallery of pics from Adelaide, Barossa and Goolwa.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.



Week 48: Melbourne and Philip Island

02-Feb-09 :: On Sunday the 18th, we returned to Hobart to catch our flight back to Melbourne and the Lindrum Hotel, which has a full-sized billiards table in the lobby! After settling into our spacious rooms, we got back in touch with Alice, who invited us out to their house for a swim the next day while she was at work. The kids were pleased to be together again and the day passed quickly. Daniel had found a Chinese restaurant near South Yarra station, and we treated ourselves to a tasty meal there on our way back to the hotel. Tuesday the hotel had arranged for a babysitter to take the girls for the day while Daniel and I took the boys to watch tennis at the Australian Open! To describe the day as hot would be an understatement — apparently the high was 40 degrees Celsius! But a cool breeze came off the ocean in the early afternoon, so that made the day tolerable. For the boys it was their first time viewing tennis and they were very interested and well-behaved. We met Alice's boys there, who have been to watch several tennis matches already, and the four boys had a good time together. After the tennis they came back to the hotel with us and had a game of snooker.

The next morning Alice had kindly arranged a hair appointment for me, which was very exciting! While I met her at the hairdresser, Daniel took the kids to her house and did some laundry while they all played. Later, I met them at Chadstone Shopping Mall where the kids bowled 2 games. It was nice to see the boys enjoying social time with friends! The traffic getting back into town was atrocious, so luckily we'd fed the kids at the mall before leaving. The babysitter was waiting by the time we reached the hotel, which gave me and Daniel about 10 minutes to get ready to go out. Fortunately Dick had booked a restaurant very nearby in the South Bank area, called Seagrass. Finally, we got the long-awaited delicious seafood I'd been hoping for! Not only that, but Dick chose excellent wines to go with each course and the meal was an absolute treat. All in all, thanks to Alice and Dick, Melbourne has come across as a place which would be very easy to live! Shame that it is so far away from our family and friends.

Thursday we had a lazy start to the day, taking advantage of the free internet at the Lindrum to plan our visit to Adelaide and the surrounding areas. Then at lunchtime we mustered up the motivation to drive northeast to Healesville, where we had been told to visit a wildlife sanctuary. The main draw was a show of predatory birds at 2:30pm, so we were racing out of town in the hope of making it on time. After visiting so many wild-life parks in various parts of Australia, we were expecting more of the same. Instead, we got a pleasant surprise! Healesville was definitely the best of its kind — very well laid-out and full of interesting and creative habitats. By arriving at 2:20pm we made it to the birds of prey presentation and then watched an Aboriginal man throw boomerangs! I was surprised to discover that these amazing devices are made for both right and left hands — naturally we had to purchase one of each. In spite of the wind picking up, we thoroughly enjoyed our time at the park and managed to take in all the exhibits before the 5pm closing time. The town of Healesville is located in the Yarra Valley wine-producing area of Victoria, and it's absolutely beautiful. The buildings are postcard perfect, and the drive from Melbourne contains a sudden and dramatic change in the scenery — from flat, monotonous suburbs to green, rolling hills dotted with grape vines! It is some truly stunning countryside. After returning to the Lindrum, we decided to try the on-site restaurant, "felt", for dinner with the kids. I have to say this was such a great surprise — the food was absolutely delicious and the service was perfectly attentive! All in all, our stay at the Lindrum was excellent and we experienced fantastic service.

Friday morning we packed up and hit the road, headed southeast this time in the direction of the Mornington Peninsula. The Silverwater Resort is located on the mainland in San Remo, just before the bridge across to Philip Island, another nature sanctuary. After checking into our apartment and buying some food, we planned the remainder of our weekend. Saturday morning we ended up leaving the apartment rather early to visit the Koala Conservation Center on Philip Island — we moved around on boardwalks up in the trees where koalas were visible up close. The kids enjoyed getting photos of the animals from different angles, but we enjoyed the variety of birds almost as much as the koalas (if not more!). The morning passed very quickly there. Our next stop was the town of Cowes, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch upstairs at Harry's on the Esplanade. After a short rest back in the apartment, we got back into the car to visit the far western end of Philip Island. Our destination was the famous "Penguin Parade", which begins every evening after sunset. So with a few hours to kill we first visited the Nobbies boardwalk, where many little penguins were visible in their homes, waiting for their parents to return with food from their day of fishing! Since that visit was rather quick, we then visited Swan Lake, located nearby the Penguin Parade. In contrast to the Nobbies, which had been teeming with people, the Swan Lake walk was deserted and completely peaceful! The bird hides at the end of the trail were perfectly located in order to get great views of the wildlife, including a variety of birds and a few wallabies. Unfortunately, the long-standing drought in southern Australia has had a noticeable impact on the terrain — the water had receded from the banks of the lake by quite a distance. After taking a number of photos there, we returned to the car and went on to the main event for the evening. Talk about contrast — the crowds were crazy and the temperature was dropping quickly. We picked up a few blankets in the souvenir shop and headed down to the beach to find a seat. Permanent bleachers are built into the dunes to contain the crowds, but people were pretty aggressive. We managed to get the kids parked in a good spot, but then still had to wait about 45 minutes before the first penguin made its appearance. Seeing the little penguins (which stand about 10 inches high) exit the surf was pretty difficult, but a couple of babies were camped out in the bushes next to us and they occasionally waddled out to check if their parents were among those returning. So at least we had a close up view of a couple of birds, but it's hard to believe that this is the best way to maintain their lifestyle. After battling the crowds to exit, we reached our apartment at 11pm and the kids were exhausted!

Sunday morning we got off to a slow start, but headed out to another walk located just outside Rhyll. Amazingly, this is a location where birds migrate from as far away as Alaska! Unfortunately we arrived at low tide, when the best time for viewing birds is at high tide. It was also quite hot by late morning and we'd left our bottles of water back at the apartment! The path was quite distant from the water's edge, where the birds would be found, so everyone lost interest pretty quickly. After that it was time for lunch, after which Daniel took the boys off for 9-holes of golf. All in all, though, a successful weekend out of the city!

Monday morning we packed up and hit the road by 8:30am, with a 90-minute drive to Melbourne ahead of us. Having purchased day tickets to watch the Australian Open tennis in Rod Laver arena, the plan was to return to the Lindrum Hotel and meet the babysitter at 10:30 and head off to the tennis for 11am. Surprisingly, we reached the hotel at 10:10am and the babysitter arrived just before 10:30am! I love it when a plan goes smoothly. So Erica took the girls off to the aquarium until the rooms were ready, and Daniel and I took the boys off to the tennis. The first match was Simon versus Montfils — 2 Frenchmen trying to reach the quarter-finals. Unfortunately, Montfils had to withdraw in the third set due to a wrist injury. So we took a break and wandered around some of the outer courts, watching some junior players for awhile until the next match on center court got started. Next up was Serena Williams versus Victoria Azarenka. After 1 1/2sets Serena appeared to be in serious trouble, when suddenly Azarenka started swaying and asked for a medical time-out. After she returned, it quickly became obvious that she couldn't continue playing and she also withdrew from the match! That was a bit of a let-down, especially after the first match. But next up was Nadal versus Gonzalez, and the boys were very keen to see as much of that match as possible. After a short wait they got their wish — although we needed to leave the arena by 5:30pm in order to make it back to relieve the babysitter, we were able to see almost the entire match between the world #1 and the Chilean player. And after picking up the girls, we headed back to the South Bank to meet the MacDougalls for a final dinner in Melbourne!

Tuesday we had to pack up well enough to get everything on a plane for the first time since leaving Sydney! With a late afternoon flight, there was enough time to meet up with Alice's boys for one last bowling outing at Chadstone Shopping Mall before heading off to the airport. The temperature was starting to climb while we were in the mall, and by the time we reached the airport at 2:30pm it was over 40 degrees. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a heat wave!

Click on any picture below to launch the first gallery of pics from Melbourne.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.



Week 47: Tasmania

27-Jan-09 :: The flight from Tullamarine airport, in Melbourne, to Hobart was uneventful and we arrived at the Henry Jones Art Hotel on the Waterfront before we knew it. Daniel and I were pleased with our deluxe harbour view room and Francesca was happy with her rollaway bed. We quickly made the discovery that the DVD player had disappeared. This was very discouraging, after all the effort I'd gone to in finding a multi-region player! Fortunately, after retracing our steps we called Avis and learned that they'd found it on a chair in their waiting area. Phew! With that mystery solved, the kids chose an Indian restaurant next door for dinner, one which had been recommended by our hotel. The food was certainly very good, although the service was a bit slow, and the we totally over-stuffed ourselves. After putting the kids to bed, Daniel and I snuck back downstairs for a couple of drinks at the hotel's outdoor bar since the weather was quite warm! A very pleasant day, all in all.

Wednesday morning we had an early start in order to catch a bus going over to Bruny Island on the ferry from Kettering. A 12-minute ferry ride and a 30-minute bus ride later, we reached the starting point for our boat adventure. After ordering our lunch ahead of time, we boarded the boat and donned the long raincoats we were given. The weather in Hobart was quite warm, in the mid-70s Fahrenheit, but once we got out on the water and started to head further south the wind became quite chilly and when Ben and I were sprayed in the face with sea water my skin became positively numb! By that stage we were bundled in jumpers, windbreakers and rain coats, but still felt rather cold. When we reached the furthest point south we were rewarded with a close-up visit to hundreds of Australian fur seals, playing and lounging, swimming and barking! But more amazingly, we saw a leopard seal, which the guides claimed never to have seen there before. That was exciting, since we'd seen them at the zoo in Sydney but assumed that nothing short of an Antarctic expedition would reward us with a view of one in the wild. Still, everyone was glad to return to the restaurant where our lunch was waiting — hot pumpkin soup never tasted quite so good! By the time our bus departed to catch the ferry my hands were nearly thawed out again, but we were pretty exhausted by the time we reached the hotel in Hobart again. That evening the kids ordered room service, while Daniel and I walked across the road to a seafood restaurant. The food was mediocre, at best, which was disappointing. Given more time, surely we could have found a spectacular seafood restaurant in somewhere like Hobart!

The next morning we checked out of the hotel (so much easier to do that with only half the normal amount of luggage!) and hit the road. Our first stop was the airport, where I collected Francesca's portable DVD player from the Avis counter. Yeah! The next stop was the Bonorong Wildlife Center, not far out of Hobart, where the kids were treated to a visit with some tiny baby Tasmanian Devils being fed from a bottle! They were very cute. Daniel also got his first up close view of a koala (I hadn't realized that all our other koala encounters had coincidentally been without him). The rest of the park was nothing special, although we had a chance to watch a wombat dig itself a hole. Once we'd finished walking around, it was back on the road to find some lunch. Once again, the kids were looking for meat pies and found some at a bakery in New Norfolk, a small town along the Derwent River. From there the drive to Taraleah was just an hour and a half, so we arrived around 4pm. Even though the sun was still shining, the extra elevation meant that the temperature was dropping. The boys and I took a short drive to some recommended spots in the vain hope of seeing a platypus in the wild, but were not lucky enough to spot one. However, one walk led us to a wild river with a couple of small waterfalls and Felix spotted a black snake in the entrance to a large pipe, which was pretty exciting. Upon returning to the cottage, we were delighted that Daniel had started a fire!

The village of Taraleah is quite unique. Apparently it once boasted a population of approximately 1200, but was down to just 4 by 2005, when the current owners purchased the entire town. So it is now a resort, with the remaining houses of the town renovated into rental cottages, plus a lodge containing some hotel rooms. There is also a caravan park, and the gym and recreation area, as well as a pub. But the highlight must be the Wildside Restaurant, which has won several awards and is renowned for its use of fresh ingredients. Sadly, Daniel and I never got our act together during our stay to make a reservation, so it seems we missed out on the best aspect of the resort! Apart from the restaurant, my assessment would be that the resort/town has quite a long way to go. The staff we encountered were uninspiring and although the cottage could claim to have very comfortable beds, the house itself was quaint rather than luxurious. Of course, given the unseasonably low temperatures we were grateful to the staff who saw that we had plenty of fresh logs for the fire!

The temperature continued to drop Thursday night, and the following morning it reached 8 degrees Celsius (about 45 degrees Fahrenheit) plus the rain was coming down nearly horizontal. Faced with a day of bad weather, our normal response would be school work. However, we had left the school books in Melbourne and Taraleah offered no internet access, so sadly that was not an option. In order to make the most of our time, the boys played table tennis in the recreation room and made a new friend. We felt for his family, who were staying in the caravan park in this awful weather. Later that day, Ben and I followed the signs for the Eagle Walk, which took us down into the valley and back up in a circular path, in just over 1 hour. Although no eagles were spotted, Ben did notice an echidna, in spite of its ability to camouflage itself in the underbrush. Once we walked past it and stood still, the echidna felt safe again and wandered freely, giving Ben a chance to photograph it!

The following day we were hoping to try canoeing and the weather was meant to be sunny, but the morning was overcast and still quite cool, so we decided to scrap that idea. Instead we drove to Lake St. Clair, from which many day walks commence (as well as being a stop on the famous Overland Track through the national parks of Tasmania). We settled upon a 3km walk to Platypus Bay — Benjamin had seen a book in the information centre which recorded sightings of platypus in the wild, and this particular location was mentioned almost daily in that log. So off we walked, feeling hopeful. By this time the sun had come out and the temperature was again quite warm, so we didn't really need our sweatshirts on the walk after all. Although we were not lucky enough to spot any platypus on the walk, it was enjoyed by all and we returned to the cottage in time for the boys to play 9 holes of golf and for me to have a massage. Daniel and I drank some nice wine that evening at the pub, where the staff controlled their impatience with us because we were still there at 9pm. We got the message and returned to our cottage to finish laundry and pack!

The next day we had to leave at 9am in order to catch our mid-day flight from Hobart back to Melbourne. As we neared Hobart, the Derwent was positively covered with black swans in the hundreds! It was quite a sight. Still, I think we were relieved to get back to Melbourne, where we hoped the temperature would be a bit higher! The flight went smoothly, and we were not disappointed by the temperature.

Click on any picture below to launch the first gallery of pics from Tasmania.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.



Week 46: Great Ocean Road

20-Jan-09 :: Our departure from Sydney had been decided by the fact that we were generously invited to stay with Alice and Dick MacDougall at their farm outside Melbourne, near Torquay. Since Alice was back at work on the 12th of January, the week of the 5th seemed to be a good time to visit them. Having not seen them for 10 years, I was unsure what to expect and how long to impose on them! We first met each other during a weekend crash course of the National Childbirth Trust in London, learning what we needed to know to give birth to our first child (back in 1996!). The ladies from that group also got together regularly after giving birth, so we shared some pretty unique experiences. But Alice and Dick had moved back to Melbourne in 1998, while Alice was expecting their second son, and we had not seen them since.

Our flight to Melbourne went smoothly and we managed to leave the airport quickly, headed away from the city. We reached their place at about 6pm and the four boys quickly discovered some shared interests. Surprisingly, they spent a lot of time playing croquet on the lawn and things got quite competitive! Tuesday was a warm, sunny day, so Alice and Dick introduced us to their favorite beach, Jan Juc, where everyone except me braved the cold water and had a swim or surfed. But the sun was shining and the sand was soaking up the heat, so the cool ocean breeze was very welcome. But things cooled off dramatically in the evening, which really took us by surprise. We thought we'd left cold weather behind for good! Luckily we'd kept a couple of pairs of long pants for each person as well as a sweatshirt, and we got a lot of use from them that week. But staying in Torquay was very relaxing — with playmates at hand, the boys were no longer asking to go anywhere and they all entertained themselves quite well! I managed to sneak off with Alice for a walk along the cliffs and a view of the famous Bells Beach (of Point Break fame). I also made it through a novel during the week, and Daniel researched and booked our trip to Tasmania for the following week. All in all a very productive time!

Alice and Dick raise sheep and grow grapes on their farm, so Daniel and I had a small tour of the property (not the full 100+ acres, but we saw the sheep and the grape vines!). If I remember correctly, we walked through the shiraz vines and saw the sauvignon blanc plants from the road. We then made a visit to the cellar door and shop, where the public can stop by and taste their wine, called Longboard. You can see the selection on their
website and even order cases of wine! Not that we've figured out how to ship it to the States, but we're working on it. Needless to say, we had the privilege of trying a wide variety of delicious red and white wines during our stay, which was very enjoyable! We also had a chance to watch the sheep get cleaned up before being passed along to their new owners. Other highlights of our stay included watching some very talented para-gliders at the beach and a nature walk near Lorne where we saw a koala in the wild.

After agreeing to get together again in Melbourne, we said good-bye mid-day on Saturday and headed off down the Great Ocean Road, which winds its way toward Warrnambool. The day was warm and sunny, and the drive incredibly picturesque. Passing through Lorne, we caught glimpses through the crowd of the Pier to Pub Swimming race, then stopped off in Apollo Bay for lunch. After that the road heads inland temporarily through Otway National Park before returning to the coast near Port Campbell in time to view the Twelve Apostles, which are impressive rock formations just off shore that stick up out of the water. Hopefully some of the photos have made it onto this website! Between there and Warrnambool we stopped at two more scenic lookouts to view rock formations — the Arch and the Bay of Islands. Any description of the scenery just does not do it justice — even the kids were impressed with the natural beauty of the area and we had no trouble believing that the drive ranks as one of the most scenic in the world. After reaching the apartment in Warrnambool, Daniel popped out and returned with a delicious Thai takeaway and everyone was very happy.

The next morning we spent a bit of time in the apartment researching future destinations online (free wireless internet!) before heading out to Tower Hill, an extinct volcano with a lake in the centre which boasts lots of wildlife. The first thing we saw upon entering were wild emus! They were everywhere. Unfortunately the drought (ongoing for the past 7 years) has left the crater lake nearly dry, so many of the expected birds were not in residence. Combined with the presence of irritating flies, we decided not to spend too much time there and drove on to Port Fairy in search of some lunch. The town is very picturesque and we found a place to park on the main street so we could walk around and look at restaurants. After some meat pies and ice cream, we headed back toward Warrnambool, where we headed down to the beach area and the kids requested some time at mini golf. The crowds were amazing, due to the lovely weather and a classic car show taking place, but the playground was pretty impressive so the kids played there for awhile before embarking on a round of mini golf. By the time they finished, we were all exhausted and ready to head back to the apartment for pizza. Monday we packed up and headed back to Melbourne, via the straight, inland route, where we spent one night before catching our flight to Hobart.

Click on any picture below to launch the first gallery of pics from Great Ocean Road.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.



Week 46 (bonus): Portrait

20-Jan-09 :: One evening about 2 years ago we were invited to an unveiling of a portrait of some friends. Little did we know that we would be inspired to commission the artist ourselves and just this month we received the finished piece. It can be viewed in our flat in London or at the National Portrait Gallery whilst entered into a competition! The ladies will sit their turn later this year in Vermont. The artist is Henry Ward and his work can be viewed
here.





Week 44/45: Rolex Sydney To Hobart Race

13-Jan-09 :: So that's a tick on the bucket list against Australia's iconic ocean race. As the memories fade and before they re-arrange themselves into epic struggles against the mighty seas I shall pen my thoughts of those 2 days and 7 hours and the days leading up to the start line.

I first met my fellow adventurers on a weekend safety at sea course 10 days before race day. There is nothing like a cold dose of reality about the downside to brush away the romantic notions of the race. With crew members ranging from novice to Tony Cable attempting his 45th Hobart (a record he now holds!), a mouth full of inner Sydney Harbour water in wet weather gear was enough to convince us that ditching in the Bass Straits is a no-no. On to my first day out on the water and the Solas Big Boat Challenge — our 63 footer being just big enough to play with the likes of Wild Oats and company. Any dreams of line honours glory in Hobart was quickly dispelled, though, and for the team from Getaway Sailing I'm sure a shakedown to see who could do what on a boat. Several hours of organized chaos later it was clear this was not a boat of shrinking violets, but rather a mixture of experience with the odd Alpha male or two thrown in. Trying not to be ballast I found myself on the grinder (gym device for hunchback of Notre Dame) assuming I could little damage there. Maybe a little physical training would have come in handy! Next day out was a longer affair and by the time I returned to my warm bed at 1:30am also a very tiring day. But this was more like the adventure I had imagined all those months ago with my co-conspirator, Garth, back in warm, sunny Bermuda. Outside of the Heads to Sydney harbor we sailed, wind and spray in our faces as the sun dipped behind what must be one of the most beautiful city skylines. My sea legs were solid and I thoroughly enjoyed the sail that day.

A few last minute shopping items ("he who has the most toys wins" — comment from sailor in the Bass Straits, regarding preparations) and the festivities of Christmas Day were upon us. Sleep that last night was tricky though helped by forecasts of a fast race and friendly weather down to Hobart. Packing my toffees from the children off I set the following morning at 8:00am. The hours flew by in loading sails (surely we don't need this many?), food (Felix and I cooked the 2nd nights meal for 19!), last visit to a 5 star toilet (only for the brave on board) and goodbyes before the start line at 1:00pm. Now at home on the grinder, off we flew into the mayhem that is the start. For those not familiar with the spectacle, imagine a Formula One race start with 100 tonne craft. An altercation with another boat brought down a portion of a mast onto yours truly's noggin which resulted in plenty of blood and retired me to the sidelines briefly. No lasting effect, though the race hat and shirt never quiet recovered.

Off we flew down the coast that afternoon as we settled into our watches, 3 hours on during the nights and 4 hours during the day. A hearty and well received dinner later and the first inklings of damp cold crept in. Forgive me for the lack of continuity here but the next 36 hours are a jumbled collection of memories: Jason, our watch captain, referring to an obese female dog at full wail in a moonless night as he encouraged the boat up onto a wave and surfed down at 25 knots is one memorable image. The first time one of the bow men, Dave, went up the mast (apparently a whale off the stern!) is another. Why or how he and Macca perform that role I do not understand and hats off to them. Sammy's energy level and professionalism and Fitzy's first into battle attitude are amongst others. I wonder how I am to be remembered? I donned my cold damp gear and climbed out into the wet cockpit that was my work station at the appointed time and that in itself was an achievement (though remembering that Tony was 67 years old and ahead of me!). I pulled the odd sail in from the bow and marveled at the tilt of the deck and the churning waters below. As the last light faded that second night and tired bodies picked at their meals we were a crew. Routine jobs left behind, roles reversed for some and coarse language thrown freely in the heat of the moment with not a lasting grudge. The three brave ladies reminding us heroic males not to feel the cold damp or tired muscles.

The final day beckoned and Tasman Island was in our sights at last. Goldy, our Captain Bligh, was back on deck to manage the changing weather and after several expletive-fueled maneuvers around we went and across Storm Bay to the finish line. Feeling rather pleased with ourselves we dropped sails, moored up and cracked the first of many drinks as light faded one last time on Getaway. A blur of a night followed for many, though having chosen to fly back at 6:30am the following morning I weathered the rum and coke and left rather less smelly than I imagined from the infamous Customs House pub as dawn rose slowly across the Derwent River. Back to Sydney and the warmth of the family waiting for me at the airport was all I needed to complete the adventure. To my fellow adventurers I salute you all, for some I will see you the next time and for others wish you well for 2009. Finally, I must dig out that list and see what I can tick off in 2009.

— Daniel

Click on any picture below to launch the first gallery of pics from the Rolex: Sydney to Hobart race.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.



Week 43: Holidays in Sydney!

31-Dec-08 :: So December 24th was a bit cloudy and cool, but we made the best of it. First thing in the morning, the kids and I went with Daniel to see the Getawaysailing.com boat, which was where he'd been spending his time training. I was expecting something with a little more structure down below, but the "bunks" looked more like netted shelves stuck on the side of the hull than beds! The interior, in particular, was very basic and really geared more toward stowing extra sails than accommodating crew members. By this stage he had accumulated all of his gear and it was all feeling quite real. He had warm boots, waterproof clothing, a set of thermals, a very smart racing uniform consisting of Gill shorts and a collared shirt, as well as various torches and safety items. The weather forecast had also been fine-tuned by this time to pretty accurately predict favorable winds to take the boats down the east coast of Australia and past the Bass Strait to Tasmania. Some experts were predicting record finishing times for the larger boats, and the send-off on Boxing Day was predicted to be a gorgeous one. Still, I admired his determination to spend 2 nights in such discomfort. We all returned to the flat to round up the rest of the group for a nice lunch at the Bathers on Balmoral Beach. Although the weather wasn't perfect, the restaurant was lovely and we had a memorable Christmas Eve lunch with some sparkling wine and toasts to the visitors who had traveled all that way to spend the holidays with us. Miranda and Anna also hit it off effortlessly, teaming up again the boys as they played on the beach after lunch! Martin and Sarah were even brave enough to enter the water, in spite of the lack of sunshine. The rest of us watched from the shore, feeling a little sleepy after a big lunch. We eventually returned to the flat, where only the kids really felt like eating again. The rest of us managed to find a quiet pub with an empty pool table, which even sold the Brokenwood Chardonnay I like so much!

Christmas morning the kids were up ridiculously early, at around 6am, rooting around in their stockings and looking for any presents that were unwrapped. I think they ended up eating half their chocolate before breakfast! But they were all happy with what Santa had brought them, and soon the rest of the gang came up to open group presents. The kids were then allowed to open their gifts to each other, which they really enjoyed — there's nothing quite like seeing your brother or sister's face when they open a gift you know they are going to love! The kids were especially excited about Francesca, for whom they had chosen some toy cooking utensils. She "cooked" for all of us the rest of the day! For Christmas lunch, Anne Marie and Sarah had battled the queues at the David Jones food halls in Christmas Eve morning to collect some special picnic food for all of us. We packed it all up in the cars and headed off to Bronte beach, which has a playground and a lovely grassy area for picnics. Our picnic blankets made for a perfect place to relax and enjoy the gourmet spread — the sky remained overcast until about 2pm, when the sun began to shine brilliantly! Most of the group eventually made it into the water, and the kids really enjoyed the chance to play in the surf with some keen adults. I avoided the crowds in the water and lounged on the blanket in the sun, watching Francesca play on the playground and "cook" in the sand! By about 5pm everyone had enough and we headed back to the flat to recover. Daniel needed some time to assemble his gear in order to be ready to head off the following morning, so the kids were happy to play with their new Christmas toys while he did that. Seeing as he wasn't expecting much sleep over the next few days, we headed to bed early to make sure he at least started off the race well-rested!

Next morning, Graham came along to see Daniel off and we got him to the dock at about 8:00am. Sadly there were no coffee shops open so our plan to get breakfast backfired. Daniel had asked that nobody make a big deal about him going off, but most of the other crew members had their families with them to say "good-bye" and it felt strange to leave him there. Graham and I eventually headed off at about 9:45 to get back and plan where to watch the start of the race. Martin was our resident expert, having lived in Sydney for many years, and he suggested that we head off to Dover Heights, where we'd have a good view of the boats just after they rounded the south heads out of the harbor. So off we went on a relatively hot and sunny day — the race started at 1pm, so we were aiming to be in position by about then in order to see the lead boat come around the corner. Amazingly, we encountered almost no traffic on the way to our viewpoint, and parking was a breeze! We had a lovely view of the boats and watched as Daniel's boat came around the head and struggled to get their spinnaker up. Still, it was exciting to be able to pick them out from that distance and watch them for a relatively long time. By the time the boats sailed off into the distance, down the eastern coast, it was nearly 2pm and the parking lot was emptying slowly. Again, we didn't encounter any traffic problems in leaving and we decided to head over to Bondai and find something to eat. I had left the kids to watch the beginning of the race from the flat with Kate, where they had a full view of the harbor. They really were most keen to hang out and play with their toys, but I convinced them to go out to watch an IMAX movie, at least. They enjoyed having Anna along and ended up spending a brief time at the playground as well. I told Kate I'd be back by 8pm, which gave me time to relax on the beach and watch people for awhile and then to have a couple of drinks with our visitors. That was Friday, and the rest of the weekend was mainly devoted to watching the race on the internet and looking for whatever television coverage was available. Daniel's boat seemed to be doing quite well, maintaining a position of about 15th overall and leading in their division, which was amazing! Daniel has written about the race, so I will resist the urge to comment further. But the weekend felt very long for those of us on land! I went out to the Dolphin Pub on Crown Street with Anne Marie, Rachel and Sarah, and they reminisced about nights out at the same place 20 years ago. Martin came along with a couple of his mates to join us for dinner and drinks, and the evening went by fairly quickly with all their company.

Sunday was a fairly hot day, and since Kate had offered to take the kids to the Olympic Park, I decided to drop them all off there with some rental bikes and take Francesca back to the flat with me for a good nap. She had been running on empty and really needed some recovery time! So while the older kids rode around in the hot sun, played golf and went swimming, Francesca had a long nap and I watched the race on the internet and answered e-mail. Daniel had booked a flight back from Hobart on Sunday evening, based on the predictions of a fast race, but as the day went on it became clear that he would just miss that flight. So I started looking into alternatives, finally settling on an early morning departure from Hobart on Monday. I first heard from him Sunday night when they reached Hobart at around 8pm. Unfortunately, the crew had no place to stay Sunday night because of the unexpectedly early arrival, so Daniel spent the night watching everyone else get drunk in the pub while he waited to catch a taxi to the airport at 5:30am! The kids and I were very excited to get to the airport and meet him Monday morning, and I think he was pretty happy to see us as well. We got him home and tucked up in bed for some sleep, while the kids went out with Kate to see a movie and get a snack. Amazingly, after about 6 hours in bed Daniel awoke looking very fresh and ready for a nice meal out! I had booked a table for all the adults at Quay, an award-winning gastronomic restaurant in the international terminal building, with fantastic views of both the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. We arrived there at about 8pm and toasted Daniel's return with some sparkling wine, then went to our table for a fantastic meal. The four courses were all exquisite and the service was just perfect — the ultimate combination of attention and discretion. By the end of the evening everyone was very satisfied and we all felt a pleasant glow!

Tuesday saw us returning to Bondai beach for the afternoon, followed by a quiet evening in the singles' flat, as we called it, drinking Anne Marie and Sarah's wine! On New Years Eve, Daniel had the idea that we should return to the north side of Sydney and head to Cottage Point where we could rent a couple of little boats and potter around the Pittwater for the afternoon. After arriving at around 11am we managed to rustle up some food to take out with us. Once we came upon a protected cove, we anchored and swam, ate and chatted, sunbathed and drank. It was an idyllic afternoon, and we were all feeling a little sleepy by the time we made it back to the flat. But the time had come to make a decision regarding what to do for the fireworks! There was some talk of wandering up to the Botanical Gardens to see how crowded it was, but that was put to rest when the kids used the binoculars to spot the queues snaking away from the entrance. In fact, we could see the extent of the crowds developing all around the harbour to watch the fireworks! I, for one, had no interest in battling crowds in the dark with the kids, so I was quite happy to stay in the flat and take my chances with the view. Because we didn't have a great view of the bridge, there was concern that the fireworks might not be visible. When 9pm rolled around and the first set of fireworks began, we got such a shock! Not only could we see the display, but we could see it in several directions! As Miranda said, you just didn't know where to look. After that, I think everyone was relieved that we'd stayed in and settled in to wait for the midnight display. Francesca didn't make it, but the other kids danced and played until midnight and were very pleased with themselves. And I was relieved that when it was all over we were already home and the kids could go straight to bed! There wasn't even much cleaning up to do (just a lot of glasses to wash!), since Felix had made risotto for dinner, accompanied by Anne Marie's salad.

January 1st was a special day for Miranda and Anna, as we had tickets to see High School Musical live on stage! Fortunately, we discovered that the theatre was just a short walk from the flat, which made the day easy. The show was great and the girls enjoyed dressing up and singing along. Daniel spent the afternoon at the beach with the others, since it was the last day for Anne Marie and Sarah. He also arranged that we all have dinner at the Imperial Peking Harbourside, which had managed to clean up from the previous nights festivities. The meal was absolutely excellent, and we were pleased to see the kids trying new dishes (they just love the lazy Susan!) — the girls were sucking meat from crab legs and the boys were devouring lobster with chili sauce! Catching taxis for 12 of us proved rather chaotic, but we all made it back to the Meriton building safely and quickly. The following morning we wished farewell to Anne Marie and Sarah, who had a couple of days in Melbourne before returning to London. Once Daniel returned from taking them to the airport, we sent the kids out to an adventure playground with Kate, while we searched for some new reading material at Borders for the New Year. That afternoon, the plan was for Daniel and Graham to collect the boys from Kate and take them golfing down the coast at St. Michael's course. The boys really enjoyed their golf, and the dads returned just in time to join Martin for a guys' night out. Rachel and I fed the kids some pasta and put them to bed early. And then I moved the incomplete puzzle back to its spot on the dining room table, determined to finish it before our departure! I didn't manage it that evening, since I crawled into bed at about 10pm.

Saturday was a bit of a slow starter, but we managed to get the kids out to see Bolt, which we all really enjoyed. Since Martin was leaving on Sunday, the plan was to meet up for sushi at the elusive Makoto on the corner. By arriving at 6pm, we managed to get seated by about 6:30, albeit in 3 separate groups. Graham had spent the day watching cricket, so he was a no show for dinner, but everyone else enjoyed a delicious meal (again, though, no alcohol sold there). Daniel went off with Martin to return his rental car and grab a drink, so the kids and I got ready for bed at a decent hour because we were planning a big outing to the zoo the next day. And I finally managed to complete the puzzle while he was out! The next morning, he headed downstairs to say "good-bye" to Martin, who was off for a week of skiing in Montana. Unfortunately, a couple of lifts were out of order, which was making it very difficult and slow to leave the building. By the time we were ready to leave for the zoo, the place was pretty chaotic, with people trying to check out and waiting over 30 minutes for a free lift! We finally managed to all congregate in the car park and hit the road, as the temperature climbed above 30 degrees. Our expectations of Tauranga Zoo were pretty high, as we'd heard so many accolades. The zoo certainly sits in an amazing position — the views of the harbor, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are all unbeatable! The displays are on a hillside, however, requiring quite a few stairs and lifts to get around. I think we all enjoyed the leopard seals the most — something we're unlikely to see in the wild. Overall, I would put the animal enclosures and displays on par with the Milwaukee Zoo, which probably means that I unknowingly grew up visiting a really great zoo! We barely managed to see just about everything before they closed at 5pm.

On the way back to the flat, we stopped off to see Karen, Dave's sister, and her husband Peter. They live in a lovely neighborhood just off the Military Road in Mosman, in a really pretty house with a garden. The kids, for some reason, seemed to have built up excess energy (thought they might have used most of it up while walking around the zoo in the heat) and spent their time wrestling and chasing each other around the garden. Karen and Peter graciously invited us to stay for a BBQ and cooked up a storm, which we really enjoyed. Finally the kids calmed down and watched some TV so we could chat! It was nice to finally get together with them in Sydney, and particularly to see where they live. We dragged sleeping children out to the car around 9:30pm and headed back to the room, where a huge packing project awaited us. The decision was made to leave it for the morning, and Daniel took the boys downstairs to say "good-bye" to Rachel, Graham and Anna. They were heading off to New Zealand on Monday morning to visit Rachel's sister and her family for a few days before returning to work and school in Geneva.

Next day the packing dominated the morning. One of the lifts had been repaired, but leaving the building was still slow. And after settling down in one place for over 3 weeks, our packing system was thrown off quite a bit. Not only had our belongings strayed all over the flat, but we'd added a number of items, what with Christmas gifts and a bit of shopping. We also had a kitchen full of barely used food, having gone from eating in a lot in the first week to eating out most every night toward the end! So getting everything in our suitcases was a challenge, and at the end I was left with quite a few things that were brand new and really nice but just couldn't come with us — a Donna Hay cutting board and rolling pin, a couple of puzzles, a lot of new Christmas decorations and other miscellaneous items. Karen had expressed interest in the cutting board, so I called her at work and dropped off all the stuff with her. She graciously accepted the task of finding good homes for everything — I just couldn't bear the thought of leaving it all behind!

As we headed off toward the airport to catch our flight to Melbourne, it felt as though we hadn't found the time to do justice to Sydney. We had stayed in one of the most beautiful cities anywhere and been spoiled by a fantastic view of the place, we'd had a laundry room (amazingly important to us!) and access to convenient parking during our stay. I had been reminded how inconvenient food shopping can be in the middle of a city. We'd also eaten at lots of wonderful restaurants and enjoyed some great shopping. And we finally managed a visit to the zoo, though we'd missed out on some museums, which was a shame. But it was a great place to welcome 2009!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Sydney.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

And here's a clip of everyone celebrating New Years Eve in Sydney.





Week 42: Sydney (pre-holidays)

23-Dec-08 :: After the drive in the pouring rain on Friday, our first full day in Sydney was beautiful! The sky was clear, the sun was shining and the view from our 74th floor apartment was finally on display. The kids were very excited about looking at the map of the city and putting a name to the many places we could see out the window. From one end of the apartment, Darling Harbour was visible — from the other, the entrance to the harbour and the ocean! Unfortunately, other tall buildings blocked our view of the Opera House completely, and partially blocked our view of the Harbour Bridge. But we had a good view of the Botanical Gardens and a couple of museums. That day Daniel was off to train for his sailing expedition, so the kids and I were on our own. I'd developed a long list of shopping (e.g. socks, sandals, pajamas — everyone needed something different) which I'd planned to finally attack in Sydney. The kids were rather patient as we plodded around the shops and tried to find all the items we needed (I had bribed the boys with the promise of a visit to the "Golf Mart"), and the day passed quickly. The next day Daniel was off for another full day of training, so the kids and I decided to see Madagascar 2. Although the official release date here in Australia was not until the 18th, a cinema nearby was advertising a showing that Sunday morning! So off we went to collect our popcorn and treats, but when I tried to pay, the cashier informed me that it was a special showing by invitation only. A rather annoying discovery, given that we already had our treats and the advertisement had not mentioned anything about a private showing. Seeing our disappointment, the cashier found the manager who offered us 8 free passes as compensation! Not bad. So we left the cinema and went off to EB Games, the video game store. The boys had a pile of old PSP games that they hoped to trade in for a new one, but unfortunately it's only possible for an adult with a photo ID. Daniel keeps my driver's license, since he usually rents the cars, so I had no photo ID! Another failed task for Sunday morning. But we spent the rest of the day exploring the shops and checking off more items from our lists. That evening Daniel found a fantastic Indian restaurant near Kings Cross, where we all enjoyed the most authentic meal we've had yet! Monday was Daniel's day off from training, so we spent the day together. The kids were keen to take the monorail, so we bought a family ticket and visited the Wildlife Center and had lunch at Darling Harbour. And that afternoon our Christmas tree was delivered! Once we saw it, off we went to David Jones (Sydney's main department store) to buy some decorations. Daniel also had a long shopping list of items that he would need for the race, so he went out and made an effort to purchase some of the them. That evening we decided on Japanese for dinner, but the highly rated restaurant on our block of Liverpool Street, Makoto, was packed so we tried the Sushi Train next to the cinema. It was also packed, but we managed to get seated separately around the bar. Great sushi, but strangely they served no alcohol! During our weekend of shopping we had also purchased a few puzzles, so the first one came out onto the table. It had 1000 pieces and a really difficult picture of a hot air balloon with tiny photographs hidden inside the main picture. The kids kept talking about how we needed Granny to help us! This was our first opportunity to work on a puzzle since the ones we'd done on the boat with Granny's help.

Tuesday began a series of busy days, full of activities. Francesca started her first day at the nursery in the next building, so we dropped her off at 8:30am. Miranda started her first day of horseback riding camp, which meant I had to learn my way around a new section of town. So after a couple of wrong turns in busy traffic, Miranda was a bit late for her 9am start. Upon arrival, I also discovered that she would need a packed lunch, since there was no place to purchase any food. I had promised the boys an hour at the driving range, so we headed over to the Moore Park Golf Course on the other side of the park. The driving range is on several levels, so they were suitably impressed. As it turned out, a golf pro named Ramon was available that morning to give the boys a lesson for half an hour, so they got some instruction while I went for a jog around the park. When I returned, I bought them some balls to hit while I went off to find some lunch for Miranda. At the equestrian centre, I parked and dropped her lunch off in the lounge near the stables and I could see her with a few other girls in the riding ring. She was so engrossed in what the teacher was saying that she didn't even notice me standing there! I was pleased to see her enjoying her day so much. Then it was time to return for the boys, who wanted to hit more balls (are they ever satisfied?) but were convinced that lunch would be a good idea. After a short outing to do some Christmas shopping, it was time to pick up Miranda from horseback riding. No wrong turns this time so I made it in time to see her helping to groom and feed the horses. She seemed to enjoy the company of the other girls, which was nice. Then we returned to the nursery to retrieve Francesca, who had a good first day. Daniel returned from his first afternoon of actual sailing, which had him very excited. Everyone was sufficiently worn out to hang out in the apartment and decorate the Christmas tree! Wednesday was more or less a replay of Tuesday morning — Francesca to nursery, Miranda to horseback riding camp — but this time Daniel came along and we managed to get Miranda to camp a little early! The boys had a golf lesson with Ramon scheduled for 11:30am, so Daniel decided to show us Bondai Beach — it was not especially crowded at 9:30am (particularly since the school holidays had not yet begun for many kids) so we had a nice walk and ended up at a diving shop, where Daniel found more items from his shopping list. After an early lunch, we dropped the boys off at the golf course and I took Daniel back into the city to meet a former colleague for a drink. I squeezed in an hour or so of Christmas shopping before picking up Francesca from the nursery and getting Miranda and the boys. That evening Felix was invited to visit the kitchen of a well-known restaurant in Surry Hills, called Bill's. The visit was arranged by Patricia, who had agreed to give Felix a cooking lesson at a later date as well. Daniel took Felix to meet Ian, the chef at Bill's, and they both enjoyed their tour of the professional kitchen. When they returned the babysitter arrived so Daniel and I could go out for some late night Christmas shopping back at David Jones. Although we had both completely forgotten, it was our 14th wedding anniversary! We managed a light seafood meal in the food hall downstairs before we started shopping. In the end it was not a very productive evening of shopping, but we enjoyed wandering around the store and strolling back to the apartment.

Thursday morning I decided to give Francesca a break from the nursery so she could come along and meet the horses at the equestrian centre. Miranda was thrilled to introduce her to them! The goal after that was to find a playground for Francesca and a place for me to jog, so we headed to the Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately there was no playground, but Daniel and the boys took Francesca for a walk and took photos of the Opera House while I jogged around — it was an absolutely beautiful place to do so. After a snack, we headed back to the car and resumed our search for a playground. By the time we finally found a rather small one, it was scorching out so we didn't last very long. Daniel had his first evening sail that day, so he went off just after I picked up Miranda from camp. She had made a new friend named Grace, who she wanted to invite along to see Madagascar 2 with us. Yes, it was finally opening for general admission that day and I'd promised the kids we'd use our vouchers to see it! Fortunately the film lived up to expectations and we all enjoyed watching Francesca dance in the aisle with her popcorn. The kids and I then ordered pizza and added some more ornaments to the tree. Although Daniel returned late Thursday night (around 10:30pm) he was keen to head off to Manly in the morning. We took Francesca to the nursery and headed off to Circular Quay to catch the ferry. By walking slowly and stopping off in several shops, we managed to stretch our walk out so that it was noon before we caught the ferry! Manly was quite busy, but the walk from the ferry terminal to the beach is a nice one and we all marveled at the people sunbathing, swimming and playing volleyball. Felix was keen to have another go at surfing, but couldn't convince Miranda to join him. The surfing lesson wasn't quite the same as it had been with Shane up in Palm Beach — Felix was put with a bunch of adults for whom it was their first time, so I guess he ended up riding at least twice as many waves as anyone else in his group! The lesson went on a bit later than I'd hoped, so in the end Ben, Miranda and I returned to the other side of the harbor to collect Francesca from the nursery and head back to the apartment, while Daniel waited for Felix to finish. Daniel and I had tickets that evening to a Christmas performance at the Opera House (the only program for which we could manage to get tickets!), beginning at 6pm. So although we cut it a bit close, I managed to get myself ready and have Daniel's clothes waiting for him when he returned with Felix at 5:30pm, so we did a quick turn-around and caught a taxi up to the Opera House. The show was really lovely and helped get me into the Christmas spirit, which was a bit hard with the warm weather and the distance from family and friends. The performance ended by 8pm, so we walked around The Rocks until we found a place to get a steak in the international passenger terminal. It was a surprisingly chilly walk back to the flat, considering that it's summer!

Saturday was meant to be Daniel's longest day of sailing training yet, so I arranged for Kate, the babysitter, to come in the late morning and spend the day helping out. The kids had a great day at the aquarium and I managed to get some shopping done. Felix and Miranda, in particular, were really keen to make the Christmas cookies that we always make. Since the kitchen in the flat came with only the most basic of cooking materials, this meant that I spent the afternoon searching for all the items we would need to make the cookies. I found a wooden board and a rolling pin at David Jones, cookie sheets, measuring cups and a mixing bowl, as well as the food ingredients, at Woolworths, and 2 cookie cutters (a star and a Christmas tree!) at Victoria's basement! We worked hard all evening, mixing dough, rolling it out, putting the cookies on trays and baking them, while watching TV — Daniel didn't get back until nearly 2am! I'd managed to wait up for him by working on the puzzle and reading. Needless to say, we didn't have an early start on Sunday. Since Kate had agreed to come back again, Daniel and I decided to head off to meet Martin, the first of our visitors to arrive from London. He suggested we visit a café near the beach in Bronte, so off we went. It was very exciting to spend the afternoon having adult conversation without feeling pressured to rush! The afternoon was sunny and dry, without being too hot. For Martin, it was an exciting change from the London weather he'd left behind, and we enjoyed catching up on his news. Before we parted, he agreed to meet Daniel and the boys for golf the following morning. That evening we iced the cut-out cookies and covered them with sprinkles (though I hadn't been able to find any red or green sugar), which was quite a project. Felix definitely had the most staying power and kept going until the entire bowl of icing was used up.

Monday Miranda took a plate of cookies to share with her teachers at her horse riding lesson, after which she was invited to Grace's house for the afternoon. She had been starved of friends for months (since we stayed with Tate in August, in fact) so she was more than excited. Meanwhile, Daniel entertained Francesca while I went for a jog, only to pull a muscle in my calf. Excruciating! I ended up hobbling around for a good week as a result and anticipate a long recovery, which is incredibly annoying. After Martin arrived at the golf course, Francesca and I headed back to the flat to cool off — before I knew it Daniel had returned from golf with the boys and it was time to find Grace's house and pick up Miranda. Grace's family live in Vaucluse, which is a very beautiful eastern suburb of Sydney. She'd had a wonderful afternoon as Grace was more than happy to spend hours in the pool with her (something her brothers are rarely interested in), and she was reluctant to leave. After a bit of embarrassing cajoling, we finally headed back to the flat. Tuesday morning, the 23rd of December, the remainder of our visitors arrived, so Daniel was off to the airport at 6am to pick them up. Rachel, Graham brought their daughter, Anna, who is just a bit older than Miranda, from Geneva, while Anne Marie and Sarah had come from London. Miranda managed to say "hello" before heading off to her last horseback riding lesson, where she took her first tumble from the horse (she was able to laugh about it so I took that as a good sign). The visitors all spent the better part of the day recovering from their jet lag. Meanwhile, Felix finally had his cooking lesson with Patricia — Beef Wellington and chocolate tart were on the menu! The kitchen smelled heavenly all day and we ended up with way more food than our family could eat. Fortunately, most of our visitors felt sufficiently recovered to join us for dinner and drinks in our flat, and Felix had many compliments on both his dinner and on the cookies! Of course, we first had to move the still incomplete puzzle from the dining room table, which was a bit sad. I worried that we'd end up leaving Sydney without having finished it!

And after that we started to celebrate Christmas!



Week 41: Hunter Valley and Palm Beach

16-Dec-08 :: Our rental house in the Vintage development at Pokolbin was quite nice. We were initially discouraged to see the house next door (about 3 feet away) was under construction. But although the builders turned up the next morning they were incredibly quiet and we had no complaints. The boys were impressed by our location — overlooking the 6th hole of the championship golf course! They headed directly to the clubhouse in the hope of securing a bucket of balls for the driving range. Unfortunately they were a bit late — the pro shop had closed and they walked all that way in the heat for nothing. But they made up for it the next day, when they spent over an hour hitting balls while the girls played in the swimming pool and I tried out the gymnasium. That evening the girls and I got dinner ready while Daniel and the boys played 9 holes. Surprisingly, they returned with more balls than when they went out! Apparently there were balls lying all over the place in the rough areas off the fairways, so the boys just cleaned up. It was only later that we discovered the reason why so many other golfers had decided not to recover their balls — apparently those are the areas where the snakes like to hang out! The next day they found some inexpensive practice balls at Woolworths and bought those instead of collecting balls from the snake areas!

Wednesday morning Daniel took Miranda on her first horse ride for awhile, where they saw a lot of gorgeous views of the valley and encountered some wildlife. By the time they returned the sun was shining down pretty hot, but we still dragged everyone out to a park for a casual picnic and some time on the playground. The kids also got in a round of mini golf before we returned to the Vintage course for Daniel and the boys to play another round of 9 holes. The girls and I had a swim and returned to the house to get dinner ready again, and we all had a quiet evening. Thursday morning we got ourselves organized for a visit to John and Joan McKendry's place. They used to live in Bermuda and Joan was one of the original members of the book club, but we hadn't been in touch to let them know we would be in the Hunter Valley. So when I called, Joan was quite surprised to learn that we were in the area! But her first thought was that she could look after the kids, enabling me and Daniel to visit some vineyards, which was very sweet of her. She invited us all over for lunch on Thursday, which was lovely, and we got to see their beautiful house and property. Then Daniel and I left the kids behind for a few hours and went to taste wine!

Since we were driving, we had to sip and spit. But we still enjoyed trying the different wines and managed to fill a case with reds and whites from the places we visited. First was Audrey Wilkinson, where we had a very chatty Scottish fellow guiding us through the different options. The position of their building was also fantastic — right up on a hill with sweeping views of the valley! Our next stop was Mount Pleasant, where we purchased some award winning bottles of red. Our favorite was the Brokenwood, where I bought a bottle of Chardonnay that was bottled with grapes grown out past the Blue Mountains, in Hastings. Even though we were mainly aiming for Hunter Valley varieties, I really enjoyed that Chardonnay! We also bought a beautiful Shiraz from Brokenwood, as well as some of their Cabernet which is grown in South Australia (cheating, I know). Our final visit was to the Capercaillie, where I fell in love with this very unusual sparkling red wine! I made a point of keeping warning label which came with the bottle, warning that it should be opened facing away from anything that could be stained! Not something that's generally a worry with sparkling wine, so I want to make sure I don't forget ....

So our visit to the Hunter Valley was very successful — the boys played lots of golf, Miranda had a chance to ride a horse, I made it to the gym every day, we found some fantastic wine, and as a bonus we managed to catch up with Joan and John about their life and their family! We couldn't have scripted it better. We drove out of the valley on a hot Friday morning and headed toward Newcastle, where Ben had found a bird sanctuary he wanted to visit along the way. We braved the heat and saw some amazing , and managed to have some lunch as well before hitting the road once again. By the time we reached the end of the peninsula where Palm Beach is located, it was nearly 5:30pm! The wind was blowing pretty hard and we had to navigate a very steep driveway to get into the garage, but when we had a look around the house we were very happy. The floor to ceiling windows provided us with amazing views of the beach and the ocean, plus the house was furnished very comfortably and the kitchen was very well equipped. I immediately saw that we would have a productive week of school work there!

Basically we had a very lazy week, spending all our time at the house enjoying the pool and the views, and popping down to the beach for a few hours each day! The kids tried some surfing, which got us out of the house early on a couple of mornings, and I managed to jog all around the area as well. We had one Indian meal out at a restaurant, but cooked at home the rest of the week. I only saw the supermarket once, since Daniel did all the shopping. The kids all accomplished a lot in their studies that week, working on the computer as well as reading and making progress in their workbooks. They definitely earned a break for Christmas! The weather was not quite nice enough for us to take a boat ride in the Pittwater, but otherwise we got exactly what we wanted out of the experience. Having the beaches fairly empty for our stay was a real treat, and we appreciated it more after seeing the Sydney beaches absolutely heaving with people!

Our stay in Palm Beach came to an end on Friday, when we packed up the car to drive down to the city. Unfortunately the weather that day was just awful — torrential rain and poor visibility. So although we crossed over the Harbour Bridge, we only saw it a few minutes before! The city didn't look very inviting in the rain, but everyone was excited anyway. By the time we reached our apartment building and figured out the parking, got our bags upstairs and picked up some food from the supermarket, it was dinner time! Although our apartment was located on the 74th floor, the rain made our visibility virtually non-existent and all we saw was white, with an occasional glimpse of a building through the fog. So Saturday morning was a real revelation, when we awoke to clear skies and sweeping views of Sydney Harbour and the ocean!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Hunter Valley and Palm Beach.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

And, lastly, some clips of riding the waves at Palm Beach.








Week 40: NSW

09-Dec-08 :: We departed Brisbane on Tuesday morning with the sun shining once again. What luck! Daniel and I had promised the kids some time at a water park on the Gold Coast, en route to Byron Bay. They agreed on "Wet 'n' Wild", where we arrived just before lunch. The Packers were playing on Monday night football against the Saints, so I parked myself near the small kids area with our gear and followed the plays on the Blackberry. Unfortunately the Packers lost badly, which made me feel as though I'd wasted my time (in my defense, the score was tied at half time so I had hope!). The boys ran around trying to tick off as many water rides as possible, checking in with us occasionally. The wave pool makes me quite nervous, so I was happy to avoid it. The weather held out until early afternoon, when black clouds took over and finally let loose. On the plus side, the park cleared out (not that it was ever very crowded, to be honest) and we were able to get on all the rides with little wait. I surprised myself by going down a water slide twice! By the time we rounded up the kids and got everyone changed for the drive down to Byron Bay it was nearly 3:30pm — then we had a slight surprise when we discovered that there is a time difference between Queensland (which does not honor daylight savings time) and New South Wales (which does), meaning that when we crossed into NSW we lost an hour!

So we reached The Byron, our beautiful resort, after 6pm. Our rooms were lovely and we immediately wished we'd arranged to spend more than 2 nights! After ordering room service for the kids, Daniel and I dressed up and made our way to the restaurant. The meal was exquisite and we had fantastic service! Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side. We awoke the next morning to rain, rain and more rain. Every time we thought the rain was going to let up, it came down even harder. What a shame that we didn't have a chance to walk to the famous lighthouse or explore the boardwalk in the surrounding 45 acres of rainforest! Instead, the kids devoted a number of hours to school work and I went off to the gym and spa, where I had the most amazing 90-minute massage! Francisco was some kind of genius — definitely one of my top 3 massages ever. Anyway, by the time I returned to the room, Felix was busy making risotto for the kids' dinner and Daniel was ironing his trousers for dinner. We dressed up again (kind of fun, since we hadn't done so for awhile!) and headed off to the restaurant again. In spite of the constant rainfall, we enjoyed a lovely meal sitting outdoors, accompanied by delicious Australian wine.

Thursday morning the rain continued to fall, but after breakfast it let up long enough for Ben to head out and explore the boardwalk through the rainforest. The rest of us finished up the packing (which had to be pretty tight, since we were catching a flight that day) and waited for him to return. By the time we had loaded up the car there was still no sign of him, so Daniel and I had to run around the boardwalk shouting until we found him (about 10 minutes later). Turns out that he had not changed his watch from Queensland time .... We headed back up the coast to the Brisbane airport in order to catch our 12:45pm flight to Sydney, and all went smoothly. Next thing we knew, the plane had landed and we were wheeling our luggage to another Toyota Turago — this time we got a black one!! So far we've had a white one and several silver ... The traffic leaving Sydney airport was daunting, but we were hopeful of leaving it soon as we were heading west toward the Blue Mountains. Our optimism was, however, misplaced. The traffic stayed with us well into the western suburbs and a 100 kilometer drive ended up taking nearly 2 hours! Once again we reached our hotel around 6pm.

The York Fairmont in Leura was not exactly what I was expecting — we all longed for The Byron ... Turns out that it was an award winning resort in the 90s and early 00s, but has recently been bought out and had the staff severely trimmed down. I should have known based on my experience booking on the phone — the reservationist really couldn't seem to care less whether we booked a room or not, and our stay basically followed that theme. Daniel and I exchanged looks that said, "We should have stayed at the Lilianfels Resort" — but reminded ourselves that it didn't appear to welcome children. At least the location of the Fairmont was good. The hotel had decided to close all restaurants for dinner on weeknights, so our only dinner option on Thursday was the bar menu. I have to say that the bartender was very cheerful and provided good service — the kids were also happy with their meals, so there was nothing to complain about. Our room rates included breakfast, but it wasn't very good (I tried to eat as much fresh fruit as possible!). The weather (again!) on Friday was not great — the forecast called for lots of rain. Once again, we refused to let that slow us down and headed out around 11am.

The main attractions of Katoomba (including the Three Sisters) have been combined into "Scenic World", which involves walking through a massive souvenir shop to catch a funicular down onto the valley floor. From there, a boardwalk (we are a big fan of these!) runs through the rainforest to a cable car ride back up to the massive souvenir shop. I don't remember any of this from 15 years ago and was a bit disappointed, except for the fact that the walk was easy with the kids. We also managed to avoid the heavy rain showers and stay pretty dry, which was very lucky. After getting some lunch in the café, we took the other ride — a cable car with a clear floor, revealing the rainforest and waterfalls below! The kids loved this one, and once we reached the other side we opted to walk back along the top of the cliff (not as treacherous as it sounds). By this time, we'd had a sufficient dose of "Scenic World" and returned to the hotel, making a brief stop to view the Three Sisters close up from Cliff Drive. We returned just in time, as the skies opened up and the rain fell heavily. Daniel challenged the boys to a few games of squash, while the girls and I explored the indoor swimming pool. Then Daniel and the boys joined us by the pool, enabling me to have a quick work out in the gym. The rain stopped just in time for us to head out to a restaurant for dinner — Bon Ton turned out to be wonderful, since we all had great meals with the quickest service in any nice restaurant! Nothing but good things to say about that place.

Saturday morning looked a bit more promising, with a few clouds but the promise of clearing skies. Daniel had always wanted to visit the Jenolan Caves, located about 70 km southwest of Katoomba, so off we went. The kids were not impressed with spending more time driving in the car, and made no secret of their displeasure. I'm sure you all know what that means! But when we reached the caves, they slowly changed their minds. Our tour of the Chifley cave started at noon and included 2 other families. Ted, our guide, was excellent! By the end of our 1 hour tour, the kids had taken about 100 photos and enjoyed every minute of it, in spite of themselves! After our tour, we sat down for a picnic lunch and then took a walk along the river. Everyone was relaxed until a sign warned to be on the lookout for snakes — then Miranda got very jumpy. The path was not pushchair friendly, but we managed anyway. Our final experience for the day was a self-guided walk through the Devil's Coach House and Nettle Cave, which involved an awful lot of steps! Daniel and I both got our share of exercise by carrying Francesca. At the end we were all suitably impressed, not least by the fact that we only managed to see a small fraction of the caves available for exploration. After an hour drive back to Leura, the boys decided to head off to the golf course and see if they could still fit in 9 holes, while I squeezed in a quick work out in the gym. The boys were rewarded with playing 9 holes free of charge! They made it back just in time for us all to head off to the local sushi restaurant, which was absolutely packed. Having ordered enough food for about 10 people, I was impressed at the end of the meal when there was virtually nothing left. We received many approving nods from the chefs and other staff on the way out as well!

Sunday ended up being a totally gorgeous day, but after breakfast we sat in the room for a bit and struggled to come up with a plan. Finally, Daniel and Ben worked out an itinerary which involved a visit to a playground, situated along the lake that feeds Wentworth Falls, for Francesca. Spending half an hour there proved to be no problem, but after that everyone was getting antsy. So we headed down toward the falls and some challenging walks. After grabbing lunch in the famous "Conservation Hut", Ben and I settled upon a walk that we could all manage. Although there is no boardwalk, Daniel carried Francesca most of the way and we were rewarded with amazing views of the valley, Wentworth Falls and various other points in the Blue Mountains. The coloring really is blue! We started out by taking hundreds of stairs down to a viewpoint, followed by the "undercliff" walk, which is exactly what it sounds like. The path was a bit unclear in some places, but we persevered in spite of seeing only one other person! We then reached the falls, which we crossed on stepping stones (not as adventurous as it sounds). We then crossed back over the falls and followed a path up the river and circled back to the Wentworth Falls Picnic Area, which is the departure point for most of the "easy" walks. Enjoying the beautiful weather for and hour and a half in this way made all of us feel very pleased with ourselves, and we were happy to return to the hotel. Once again, the boys managed a free 9-holes before dinner, which we had arranged to eat at the Solitary Restaurant and Kiosk, located on Cliff Drive. The view was incredible, and the meals very tasty. The restaurants in Leura very much exceeded our expectations and made up for the disappointing aspects of the hotel.

Monday we had to say "good-bye" to the Blue Mountains. Daniel and the boys played snooker in the games room while I packed up the suitcases, and we hit the road at about 11:30am. From the Blue Mountains, which are due west of Sydney, we were headed for the Hunter Valley, which is north and slightly inland from Sydney. Since we wanted to avoid any city traffic (after our experience Thursday evening), Daniel came up with a scenic route for us to follow which completely avoided Sydney. Although it was a bit longer, we all agreed to give it a try. Our adventure took us through, Richmond, Windsor and Wisemans Ferry, where we caught a car ferry across the Hawkesbury River! It also took us along at least 30km of gravel roads through "The Hawkesbury", which is all protected parkland. Although we enjoyed the scenery, and the girls were in heaven due to the proliferation of horses, the gravel road ended up being a bit more than we'd bargained for. We reached Cessnock, the heart of the Hunter Valley, by 4:30pam and managed to stock up on some groceries before heading to our rental house at the Vintage Golf development. Upon arrival, we began planning the next few days in the area — playing golf, horse riding and visiting vineyards!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from NSW.



Or check out some more pics at Flickr.




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