Vacation down under: pictures of pictures

While we were on vacation with my parents, B and I came up with a seriously hilarious and sneaky game. The goal was to take as many secret pictures as we could of my Dad… taking pictures.

This turned out to be easier than you would think. And far more rewarding.

Apparently we all look a bit silly when we’re taking pictures, especially when, in the case of my Dad, you have recently gotten a new camera and have to concentrate particularly hard. But it was all in good fun, and in fact, I have to admit that many of the best photos in our recent vacation posts were his from the very moments we captured here.

Personally, this is my favorite album of all the ones I shared over the past few weeks. Love you, daddy!

Aussie Adventure Part 5 – Harbour tour

New Year’s day was our last day in Sydney. It was also my Dad’s birthday. We decided to go our separate ways for the day (since we got a lot more sleep than my parents did the night before), so we headed out early in the morning to catch a ferry ride around the harbour. We were planning to meet up with some friends near Luna Park – but unfortunately, the ferry changed its schedule without warning, so we missed our scheduled meeting! We wandered around the north shore for a while, trying to find internet access so we could contact them, but no luck.

The ferry tour was nice, though. We saw all the cool harbour views, closeups of the opera house and bridge, plus the tour guide pointed out some famous people’s houses and cool sights. I really needed to know where Oprah’s Sydney mansion was. The rest of the people on the boat with us were Japanese tourists, and spent their entire trip taking photographs of the sun – see, there was a bit of moisture in the air that day, and it made kind of a cool rainbow ring around the sun. It was okay, I guess. But they were super into it, taking weird-angled pictures of themselves with “V” signs or thumbs up, pointing at the sun. I’m talking an hour-long photo shoot of this. I’m not sure most of those are going to turn out, guys, cause, you know, you’re photographing directly into the sun

That night, we all wanted to have something special for dinner because of the whole final night/birthday/new year thing. So we headed down to a food area near the hotel. We walked and walked, not really finding anything good, so we stopped at the last place on the street, mostly because it looked ok and we did not want to walk any more. But OH MAN we hit the jackpot. It was this fantastic little French place with the best food I have eaten in my life. We all had steaks or lamb, and the kids had some yummy pasta. The owner even gave the kids some complimentary homemade gelato for eating all their veggies. If you are going to Sydney, tell me and I will give you directions to this place. A few nights previously, we ate at a Thai restaurant on the same strip. It was also some of the best food I’d ever eaten. Sydney knows how to do food right!

All in all, it was a really great visit. I would go back to Sydney in a second. I could even see myself living there – it was like a laid-back NYC, except, you know, with skin cancer. But I guess for now I’ll settle on watching their NYE fireworks on TV again this year.


Aussie Adventure Part 4 – New Year’s Eve

It was New Years Eve in Sydney! The whole reason we planned our trip at this time of year was so we could be there for the NYE fireworks at the harbour. Last year, we even watched the Sydney fireworks on TV, since they are such a big deal. It is pretty cool to be celebrating the new year almost a day before the rest of the world. It’s like time travel.

Our plan was to head downtown and wander around a bit, see some of the city sights before grabbing some dinner and finding a place to watch the ‘works. There are 9 pm “family” fireworks and then the midnight event. We were hoping to see both shows.

We got downtown around 11 am, and it was already packed. We couldn’t sightsee anything, because a lot of the downtown core was fenced for crowd control and people were milling about everywhere. We tried to get in to see the Opera House up close, but that area of the harbour was already shut down because it was filled to capacity.

We settled on a quick walking tour of the Rocks shopping area, grabbed an expensive and rather disappointing lunch at a cafe, and wandered around looking for a place to squat. It was noon. We found a pretty good place in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art and hung around. Now it was 12:05. Only 9 hours to go, then another three til the big ones. Dear lord. So we snoozed, we people watched, the kids whined, we played sudoku, the kids cried, the kids ate all the packed food too quickly, we bought more food, we took turns wandering around. A plane showed up to do some very cool trick flying.

Finally it started getting dark! Night time! Nope, just a rain cloud. It rained on us. Everyone scattered and we lost our sweet spot. By now it’s about 8:00 pm. The rain stopped and we waited anxiously for the fireworks to start.

At last, we saw them! B got one kid up on his shoulders and I got the other and we were ready for the show!

Here’s a video that YouTube decided to squish, sorry for the weird ratio:

Were they worth a 10-hour wait? Not one bit. Ten minutes of fireworks later, the kids were ready to go. We left my parents to enjoy the adult fireworks at midnight, dragged the kids back to the subway through a frighteningly densely packed stream of people, got to the hotel, put the kids to bed, and proceeded to watch the midnight fireworks on TV, again. At least we could hear the thunderclaps in real life this time, so there was that.

Aussie Adventure Part 3 – Beach tour

We started off Sydney right by visiting the famous Bondi Beach. It was beautiful. Well, I should confess that we didn’t really go onto the beach itself, we just kind of looked at it from the top of the hill nearby. We had taken the bus to get there, and we disembarked just beside the beach. Going all the way down to the sand would have been the end of our tour – once kids touch sand, there’s no moving from there. That’s it. An afternoon of them digging in sand. So we snapped some photos and shooshed them along. Our goal for the day was to do the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk.

We started up the trail, surrounded by shirtless joggers and dog walkers. We were seriously overdressed and frumpy by comparison. I know there’s the whole no-ozone thing in Australia, but that seems to just be a convenient excuse for explaining away all the skin cancer there. Really, Australia, put on some clothes. You’re as bad as smokers who smoke and then blame the cigarettes for cancer instead of the habit. I’ve never seen so many white-turned-brown people in my life. There was one old dude lying on the beach in a speedo – he was so sun-cooked, he looked tanned. I don’t mean tanned, like he has a healthy glow, but tanned like leather – like he was wearing an old man skin costume made out of used cowboy boots. Now that I think about it, he very well may have been dead and just lying there cooking the sun for a few days without anyone noticing.

The walk was beautiful, though. The ocean was a lovely dark turquoise colour that I’ve never seen before – too bright to be the Atlantic but too dark to be tropical. The waves were pretty rough, another reason not to visit the beaches themselves, but it looked like a good day for surfing. We stopped for a while to watch them. I like watching surfers – it’s like a little game, trying to guess what percentage of them will get tipped over or not get up on their boards at all. The answer is, pretty much all of them, all the time. Really, what a horrible sport, it’s like a never-ending exhausting fight against mother nature: You spend 86% of your time trying to swim to the sweet spot, 10% underneath waves, 3.5% drowning, and a fleeting but joyous 0.5% actually standing on your board.

After the surfers, we wandered through the old Waverley Cemetery. I like old cemeteries too. This one was cool, because the rows of graves were chronologically filled. It was also so huge that we only managed to make it through 1876.

Alas, we didn’t get all the way to Coogee. The kids conked out around Bronte, so we hopped on a bus to take us home!

Bonus gallery:

Here is my narration of my Dad trying to take photographs of the family. Yeah, it’s basically impossible, resulting in this series of hilarious and unflattering images that are pretty much unshareable with our family and friends. So, here you go internet, enjoy!

Aussie Adventure Part 2 – Around Sydney

Our Sydney holiday started with checking into our rental house for the week. It was in the Kings Cross area, just outside downtown, and I was looking forward to being within walking distance to lots of food and shops. It turns out we were very close indeed to some shops! Unforuntately, they were almost all *ahem* adult shops. LittleB was super excited to walk past a row of “toy” stores and really wanted to go in – we figured he should wait another 11 years or so before checking out those particular establishments.

But actually, the place we rented was along a very sweet little neighbourhood road nearby. The landlady was from France, so B and I woo’ed her with our language skills, and she was very excited to have her Canadian ‘cousins’ staying downstairs. We had the run of the bottom half of the family’s house, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, only a few hundred metres away from a subway stop and a grocery store, bottle shop, and plenty of restaurants.

We had six days to explore Sydney, and we barely scratched the surface. The first day, we decided to make the kids happy and visit the Aquarium. We showed up early to avoid the crowds – but it was still packed. We shuffled along, checking out all the fish, sharks and platypuses. The kids got these little quiz cards and got to move from station to station, answering questions and stamping their cards. They were so excited, and just wanted to run straight from station to station. So yeah, we basically paid $25 each for them to get a free piece of paper, oblivious to the wonders of the ocean all around them. But we did see some cool stuff. There are viewing tunnels through the tanks, where sharks, manta rays, and a lonely dugong swim right beside and above you so you can more easily check out the weird holes and crevices on their undersides. We also made it to the top of the tank during feeding time and got to watch all the sharks fight over chum. The aquarium also had all the other usual stuff – penguins, coral tanks, seahorses, jellyfish. It was a good time.

Afterwards, we wandered around Darling Harbour, checking out the boats and other tourists. Then we found Paddy’s Market – a huge asian flea market, where we bought some touristy junk (probably made in Indonesia) and paused at a playground nearby to let LittleB climb around on some kind of rope death trap structure. J tried to climb it but only managed to get stuck and then complain loudly and anatomically accurately about the rope hurting her lady parts. Yeah, I think Australia is going to miss us.

On our way back to our subway stop, we took a break in a park to rest our whiny children. Afer a few minutes, we started noticing that there were a lot of rather scruffy characters around. It appeared we had stopped in what might have been the local homeless park. My dad suggested the bench we were on was probably someone’s bed, so we moved along. But I’m not convinced the park was entirely full of homeless people, and I think most of them may have just been scruffy regular folks. In fact, most of Australia seems to be full of scruffy regular folks. So much so, that B and I started playing a game called “Hobo or Hipster?” – every young person in the city was put to the test. It came out pretty even, I think.

Overall, one thing we were particularly looking forward to on our trip was Australian wine. My parents make a point of buying Australian shiraz even back in Ontario – we definitely needed to visit the source of this nectar. So I booked us on a day tour into the Hunter Valley. I checked around online until I found a tour that first, would take all six of us, and also, would include stops not only at wineries but at a chocolate factory, a brewery, a cheese shop, AND an animal park where we would get to hug some Aussie animals. I should tell you that for the six weeks leading up to our trip, J would say every day that she just wanted to hug a joey. That was it, hugging a joey was all she wanted from the entire country of Australia. Luckily, this was the place!

On the day of the tour, we stopped at the animal sanctuary first. Our guide took us to meet the koalas right away. First of all, they were much bigger than I was expecting. And much more active – I guess I always thought they were more slothy. But no, they are actually more like curious kittens, except with huge razor claws that they want to use for climbing up your soft human flesh. Ok, they’re actually pretty horrible creatures. I mean, they were cute to look at and their fur was spongy and oh so soft, but they are not cuddly at all, despite what childhood books on the other side of the world may teach you. I’ve also heard that they all have gonorrhea, so there’s that.

Next, we entered the roo pen. The friendliest one was this old crotchety guy, much smaller than the others, and who, as it turns out, was actually a “walleroo”. I made some kind of (possibly rude) inference about awkward cross-breeding between a kangaroo and a wallaby, thinking that why else would you name an animal after a mix if it’s not actually a mix, right? Like a Liger. Nope, the somewhat offended guide told me that they are a completely separate species. Sure they are, Australia.

Anyway, finally we found the friendly actual kangaroo (she had a collar to set her apart) and J got to hug her! Wish fulfilled!

Inside the sanctuary building were some other crazy pets. Like a dog that was totally blind and deaf, so she just ran up to every person to sniff out who it was, while the owner called her to no avail. Then there were these two sneaky parrots that used all us humans in the room like a bridge, hopping from one to another until they reached the cookie shelf to steal treats. They were bitey.

Next we moved on the the chocolate factory. Ok, we grew up in the town near the Hershey factory, so I wouldn’t call this place a factory in comparison. There was one tiny chocolate stirring machine and then some chocolate for sale… so I guess it was a chocolate producing place at least. It was expensive but tasty.

Luckily the wine was great. The first place we visited was a family vineyard, where we bought a bottle of delicious and expensive merlot to bring home with us. We also visited another vineyard in the afternoon, where we took home some yummy dessert wine. That place had a strange quirk of scattering the ashes of dead family members on rows of grapes and then naming the wine after them. I still can’t decide if that is sweet or a bit creepy. Either way, we drank some “Rosie” and she was pretty tasty.

Lunch was a stop at a big vineyard called Tempus Two, where we had some awesome umami burgers and did our cheese tasting. That was a bust, since all the cheese was just spreadable goat cheese with different flavorings. Um, where is all the actual cheese? Anyway, at least we got to drink some more wine with it.

Last stop was a local microbrewery, where we tried some strange options like “Christmas pudding” and some other ones I can’t remember. Also there was a bouncy castle to keep the kids busy while we drank. They knew how to do drinking right. Oh yeah, and I forgot to tell you that we were on this tour with another family – a family of Irish folks, half of whom were not drinking and the other half who barely drank anything/could not hold their liquor. Talk about going against stereotype. At least B and I drank enough for all of them combined, you know, just to make up for it. It was the least we could do.


Aussie Adventure Part 1 – Blue Mountain Christmas

Our first day in Australia, we woke to a grey Christmas Eve morning, but excited to pack up the van and drive a few hours west into the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains are not exactly mountains, rather a higher-elevation chain of sandstone foothills just outside of Sydney. Indeed, I was expecting something a bit more… mountainous… but actually the region is almost tropical. I guess having driven through the Canadian Rockies many times makes other mountains just look like adorable little hills. The Blue Mountains are still beautiful, though!

The drive up was rather uneventful. The day stayed rainy and misty, so we didn’t manage to do any kind of sightseeing along the way, even though the route we took was apparently teeming with “breathtaking views” of valleys, forests and cliffs. Mostly we just saw fog, clouds and mist. But before long, we made it to the cottage and settled ourselves in for a cozy few days.

We rented a lovely little cottage in Katoomba. It was a large enough town to have decent shopping and restaurants, but small enough that we had a nice break from big city life. The cottage itself was just the right size – room for six to sleep, a modern kitchen, woodstove in the sitting room, and an updated bathroom complete with a claw-foot tub. Perfect for a Christmas getaway!

Even though we had celebrated an early Christmas before the trip, we still had another Christmas Eve birthday cake for LittleB and little visit from Santa the next morning. I guess he figured out that we were travelling… Us parents and grandparents celebrated Christmas Eve festivities with a fridge full of wine and beer, a BBQ full of steaks and an all-night game of Hearts.

The gloomy weather stuck around into the afternoon of Christmas Day, but we decided to try a bit of local sightseeing. Our cottage was situated directly on a tour route with many lookouts and famous sites – like the Three Sisters. The first stop we made was at the Cliff View lookout, so we were, understandably, excited for some cliff views. Not so much.

Next, we drove down to Echo Point to see the Three Sisters. But we could barely see the parking lot. We didn’t even bother stopping. Instead, we headed back to the cottage for an afternoon beside the fire!

Fortunately, the next day, the weather cooperated and we managed to do several hours of touring and exploring within Katoomba and beyond. First we revisited the Cliff View lookout and saw many lovely cliffs. We also ran into some bush firefighters on patrol, and they told us a cool story about the Dog Face rock. Then we took a peek at the Three Sisters, along with several bus loads of tourists.

That afternoon, we drove further west to check out the Blackheath area and beyond, seeing many more cliffs and some fire-ravaged hillsides. Most memorable, we took a tour off the beaten path to visit “One Tree Hill” – the highest point of the area, and we were looking forward to a view from the top. Well, it turned out to be a water tower and some scraggly trees, without any view at all! We also checked out an area that had suffered from wild fires in November – the burned trees and colours looked almost like Autumn. Only, you know, burned up.

On our last day, we packed up and shipped out, stopping at two more lookouts on the way. At the last site, we spent nearly an hour watching the morning mist burn off as the sun heated up the valley below. It was magical.

At the end of the road, we passed back down the mountain and into Sydney for a week of sightseeing.

Home for a rest

Happy New Year!

We’ve arrived home safe and sated after an amazing three weeks in the land(s) down under.

We saw breathtaking mountain scenery, watched world-famous NYE fireworks, tasted wine and hugged koalas, fed great white sharks, walked in a giant redwood forest, drank hot chocolate beside a bursting geyser, dug a private spa on the beach, peeked into hobbit holes, and spiraled down into a damp, sacred cave lit only by the light of a million twinkling glowworms.

We welcomed Grandma and Grandpa to this side of the world, celebrated two Christmases, three birthday parties, drank wine, played cards, soaked in the hot tub under the stars, danced the Hakka, laughed, whined, stopped at every playground in Australia and New Zealand, ate the best meal of our lives, said goodbye… It was a perfect vacation, and I can’t wait until the next one!

Much more to come!