The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Category: Australia (page 1 of 3)

The Whitsunday Islands

I stood in crystal-clear, ankle-deep water, stunned into reverent silence by a vivid rainbow stretching across the sky and reflecting on the green water. I had been following the path of a giant sea turtle that had been sunning itself just a few feet from where I had waded into the water when the rainbow distracted me.

“Dolphins!” came a cry.

I wheeled to my left to see half a dozen dorsal fins cresting out of the water about 20 feet away.

“Is this even real?!?” I shouted ecstatically.

The Whitsundays had welcomed us with quite the show.

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We had boated out to a place called Langford Reef, just across from the posh Hayman Island and only 30 minutes from the Airlie Beach marina. We were testing the sea-worthiness of our boat for a two-day adventure that was due to start the next day, and snorkeling at the reef was the way we decided to test it.

The reef itself was alive with color – chartreuse and lavender and vivid green, with striped, spotted and sparkling fish darting throughout the coral. But when we decided to relax on the spit of sand that stretched out behind the reef, we were treated to a turtle, dolphin and rainbow show.

The following day dawned brilliant and warm (well, chokingly, tropically hot is probably a better word), and back to the Marina we went to start wending our way through a few of the 74 islands of the Whitsundays.

Once out on the water, the overwhelming humidity was washed away by the wind that whipped past us and the warm salty spray that occasionally made its way over the side of the boat.

Our first stop was a sheltered bay that was home to several dozen sea turtles. Once we’d cut the motor and started drifting, their little heads kept surfacing around us every 30 seconds or so. Occasionally they would dive, and their whole shell would surface for a moment before they disappeared into the depths with little more than a bubble to show they were there.

After that we went toward Whitehaven Beach, which at low tide was mostly above water. We dropped anchor on the large spit of squeaky-white sand that jutted out, marveling at the formations that the water had made in the pure silica sand. Having gotten sunburned enough for one day, we decided to head toward our accommodation for the evening on Long Island, which was still a good distance away. We stopped to top up our fuel and were treated with the sighting of a pod of porpoises.

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As we neared Palm Bay, our eyes widened. It looked like a deserted island paradise – a beautiful golden beach dotted with little huts and palm trees and… not much else. It had once been a resort that had been abandoned by the swish franchise that had built it, but since the huts were privately owned, they decided to leave it with a skeleton staff and have it be self-catered accommodation. Thus, it had all of the trappings of a 5-star resort (swimming pool, lobby, beachfront veranda, free use of kayaks, huge dining room) but none of the money-sucking aspects of such a resort (pricy bar and restaurant, staff to tip, etc.).  Within minutes my sister and I were both saying how much we needed to bring our entire family back to this place.

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Our ‘room’ was a two bedroom beachfront hut with a kitchenette and amazing front porch. We sat on the porch with glasses of wine and ooh-ed and ahh-ed over a stunning and broody sunset before we went to the BBQs to cook dinner. Rather than have a late night, we opted to get up early to watch the sun rise on the other side of the island, a short 10 minute walk from where we were staying.

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After watching the sun rise, we hopped back on the boat to catch Whitehaven Beach at a higher tide, which was a spectacular sight.

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A little more snorkeling at the reefs off the islands (with a couple of visiting turtles!) and were Airlie bound again, a little worn out but thoroughly enamored with the Whitsunday Islands.

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That Time I Stayed with a Stranger

What happens when you decide to avail yourself of the hospitality of a complete stranger? AMAZING things.

Years ago, I heard of a website called CouchSurfing. I thought it was a really cool idea – you get to meet people from all over the world, make some friends, have a place to crash next time you travel to Europe or wherever. Reviews and social media connections meant you could vet the people who wanted to stay with you or host you and make sure they weren’t axe murderers. I promptly signed up, and made all my roommates do the same (however, they weren’t as keen on the whole hosting idea that I was).

Fast forward 5 years, and as I prepped for my travels I decided to rustle up the old CS profile, partially to help keep costs low-ish, but mostly to meet people in the places I plan to travel and get the ‘inside scoop’. I hosted a couple of people at my place in Sydney (all AWESOME ladies) to work up the good karma, and some January I was ready to be a ‘surfer.’

So when we decided to head up to Airlie Beach, we looked around on CouchSurfing to see if there was anyone who seemed like they’d be able to show us around. We found a guy I’ll call “T”, someone with an overwhelming amount of positive reviews from a lot of people who had stayed with him. I sent a request, thinking maybe we’d get the inside scoop on good bars or restaurants.

What we got was probably worthy of being called: The best CouchSurfing experience anyone has ever had, ever.

T happens to be an avid boatsman of all sorts, and has ready access to a number of marine vehicles. Because he had a few days off from work, he decided we should all go on a two-day private tour of the islands of the Whitsundays. After a day out at Langford Reef to ‘warm the boat up’ (more on that later), we departed on day two for a full tour of the islands, an overnight at a magical place called Palm Bay on Long Island (more on that later too), and an afternoon at Whitehaven Beach before we returned to Airlie for the rest of our stay.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘OK, nothing in life is free. What’s the catch? Clearly he was angling for a way into one of your pants.’

I know, I thought it too at first. I mean, this level of generosity just doesn’t exist. Right?

Wrong.

Our host was a 100% perfect gentleman, never tried anything, never even hinted at anything untoward. And I think he just really enjoyed seeing his homeland (which is STUNNING) through new eyes every once in a while, and exploring with people who he would never otherwise have met. Of course, we cooked dinner for him and his flatmate every night we were at their house, and left them with several parting gifts since we not only saved on accommodation, but also saved the hundreds of dollars that a three-day private boat charter would have cost as well.

I’m not saying every experience will be this way, but I do have to say that I had a little bit of my faith in the goodness of humanity restored by the utterly selfless experience I had with a complete stranger in Airlie Beach.

If you’re interested in Couchsurfing, this travel blogger has a pretty good set of criteria he uses when looking CouchSurfing hosts. As a woman, I usually also require a mix of male and female reviews (only girls is a little suspect), more than 10 positive reviews and no negative reviews, and verification. 

Til Next time, xoxo!

Trekking the Outback

I lurched forward at an impossible angle, leaning back as far as I could and clinging to the metal bar in front of me, desperately trying to keep myself from lurching into the red dust below. With another jerky movement, everything evened out again, and I was successfully astride a standing camel.

As a line of camels with human cargo began plodding forward, I was told that my glorious steed was named Bonnie, and that she was getting on in years but had been one of their best racing camels. I gave her a pat and whispered, “Let’s keep it below a trot today, okay Bon Bon?” Bonnie silently chewed her assent.

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Our girl, Bonnie

Behind me, a very large camel named Jack thrust his face dangerously close to my knee. Having been warned that he was a ‘proud camel’ and not to be overly affectionate, I tentatively scratched behind his ears. He impassively looked on, like this was the most boring thing in the world.

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This is Jack

And then we were off – trekking through the bright red sand as the sun slowly lowered itself toward the western horizon. Riding a camel was a surprisingly comfortable experience. Having learned to horseback ride as a child I expected the same necessity to squeeze/kick to get the animal going, but really our stirrups were just there for comfort. Once the lead camel started going, they all went. No sore legs after this trip!

We slowly slumped our way towards the border of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and were awarded with a phenomenal view of the sun setting behind Kata Tjuta and reflecting off of Uluru.

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We stopped for a short photo shoot (Bonnie out-posed us), and Jack thrust his head toward my knee again, baring his very sizable teeth and making me shrink away from him (well, as much as you shrink away with your leg pinned onto a 200-pound animal). I said a silent prayer that he wouldn’t take a fist-sized chunk out of my leg for daring to pet his proud head, and the guide laughed and said he was probably just barfing up his cud so he had something to chew. Charming.

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Glamour shots with Bon Bon

After about an hour and a half of trekking through the lands bordering the national park, we were treated to a couple of glasses of champagne and some ‘bush tucker’ snacks. My sister and I cheersed to another successful tick on the bucket list, gave Bonnie a farewell pat, and hurried back to our beds.

What: Camel to Sunset Tour
Website: http://ulurucameltours.com.au/ 
Cost: $125 per person
Booking Tips: If you’re in Uluru for a couple of days, call and book directly and ask how many are scheduled to be on the tour for the evenings you will be there, so you can potentially get a smaller group. If you want to splash out, you can trek via camel to the Sounds of Silence dinner too!

Uluru

Uluru is where all the veins of Australia open onto the earth, pouring its rich red blood into the soil. Where the pain, joy, determination, and conflict of thousands of years have soaked into the ground and left it brilliant with all of the crimson emotions: anger, passion, love, rage. Drive down a weathered two-lane highway and into an otherworldly landscape of silvery-sage, lacy leaves clinging in desperate wisps to burnt-black branches and trunks, grounded in earth a vermilion shade that borders unnatural, and a pale blue sky that looks as though it had to be stretched over twice the distance it was meant to, only thinly covering the heavens and ready to split at a moments notice.

Uluru is a place where history is dreamtime, and it seems as if this part of the world has never woken up from the dream, and keeps spinning natural wonders that are as strange as they are awe-inspiring. A rock that looks incongruously soft, like a pillow for the gods, beckons on the horizon. The sky is dotted with cottony clouds, billowing up and flat on the bottom, as if even the heavens dare not get too close to this sacred earthen altar. Approach this sandstone mesa in a sea of red sand, and you soon find that its complexities outweigh even its awesomeness. Curious patterns carved by nature throw shapes and shadows that spark the imagination and many a myth. Heat presses down from above and even more insistently up from the ground, pinning you into a desert trance somewhere between reality and someplace you’ve never been before.

Watch the rock as the sun sets, and see a wild array of color on the low end of the color spectrum that only nature could create. As the sun sinks out of sight over a stretch of land as unending as the sea, Uluru settles into dark shadow on a purple horizon, ringed by the atmosphere, keeping its secrets for another day.

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The Great Ocean Road

“I’m freezing” I hissed at my sister, trying to avoid being overheard by the throngs of camera-wielding tourists nearby.

“So am I,” she whispered back, and wrapped the towel that had become a makeshift shawl tighter around her shoulders.

Our first experience with the state of Victoria had been a wild one, with hail, thunder, lightning, and buckets of rain as our greeting party. After a wet and chilly 24 hours in Melbourne, we were now nearing the end of Day 1 of our Great Ocean Road trip, gazing out at the famous Twelve Apostles standing like sentinels against a churning grey sea.

We had been optimistic when we packed – it was the middle of summer in Australia after all. Sydney had given us warm humidity and sunny skies, why would Victoria be any different? Because she’s moody, that’s why. They say that in Melbourne you can experience all four seasons in a day. Well, we only got one, and that was winter. And the tank tops and shorts in our backpacks meant that we had nothing to ward off the chill or the drizzle.

We had been enthusiastic when we’d started off, eagerly pulling off the road at every brown sign that mentioned some point of interest: a quick view of Point Roadknight Beach, a nearby lighthouse, a few roadside turnoffs to snap some photos. We stopped for lunch at a bustling Apollo Bay after inching through Lorne, which was jam-packed thanks to a big ocean swim and festival that was taking place. It was after Apollo Bay that the air decided to cool about 10 degrees and the drizzle picked up. After that, we weighed up those brown signs very seriously, debating whether or not it would be worth getting out of our cozy car.

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I pulled on my leggings, the only pair of long pants I had with me, and gave Beth a long-sleeved denim shirt that was supposed to be a cute bikini cover, but had quickly become a necessity. We turned off at Great Otway National Park, a place known for it’s wild koalas, and were treated to an up-close and personal mama and baby koala show after about 7 minutes of driving through the thick gum trees. I immediately forgot about the temperature as myself and a dozen other delighted tourists snapped photos and shot video. As we continued on, koalas seemed to be on every limb, a grey-brown lump at the end of the branches. Some were sleeping, some were eating, all were thoroughly unconcerned about the cars pulled off the road and the humans snapping photos of them from below.

As we got closer to the coast in Great Otway, we came across a forest of trees that looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie. Every single branch had been stripped bare, and ghostly pale trunks and branches reached for the sky like damned souls desperate to escape Hades. With the mist and the clouds, it looked like the perfect spot to shoot a horror movie.

About 40 minutes later, we were shivering at the end of the walkway to see the Twelve Apostles. As if the weather knew were nearing the end of the first day’s journey, it had whipped up into a froth of (what felt like) subzero winds that invaded our poor excuses for chilly weather wear. We took our obligatory photos and hurried back to the car, feeling like bad tourists that we hadn’t stayed to soak in the beauty for an appropriately long time, though that would have been difficult with the amount of jostling and shouting that was happening at the crowded viewpoint.

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We did an overnight in a co-ed dorm in Port Campbell, which smelled like serious man-breath by morning thanks to the lack of a fan and the amount of men in the room. However, we were heartened by a forecast that included sunshine. After heading 10 minutes south to see the London Bridge, which is a sandstone formation in the sea that looks like (you guessed it), a bridge, we decided it was time to head back to north to catch our evening flight.

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As we went north, the clouds slowly dissipated and the mercury started to climb from frigid to bearable. When the sun came out the sea exploded from moody grey into a kaleidoscope of greens and blues, and we started to really understand what all the fuss was about with this drive. We made a few stop offs to catch the things we had missed on the way down, like a hike to an underwhelming waterfall and another so-so lunch at Apollo Bay, but the highlight was a visit to a small animal reserve where we were able to get up close and personal with kangaroos, wallabies, deer, dingoes, and many other animals. The dingoes surprised me both with their friendliness and their overwhelming desire to crawl to the highest point in your body – we were covered in muddy paw prints by the end of our visit with them, but we didn’t mind in the slightest.

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After all was said and done, we decided that the stormy weather hadn’t been the worst thing in the world – it was nice to see the rich red sandstone contrasted against a tempestuous sea instead of a serene green one that is always featured in the tourist brochures. But we did learn a valuable lesson for our future travels – never leave home without a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt!

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Til next time, xoxoxo

The Wizardess

The Road to Melbourne: Day 2

Day Two dawned beautifully – sun shining and a perfect breeze to keep the temperature from overpowering us. We were really getting into the true countryside now – farther south than I’d ever ventured before. And the payoff was spectacular: wildflowers accompanied the road without a break, and the rolling hills seemed to stretch out in unending waves in every direction. Our first stop was a small town called Mogo for a quick bite and some coffee at a quaint roadside cafe.

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That inevitably led to exploring the nearby craft and furniture shop that was packed full of incredible handmade items. We marveled at side tables carved out of solid wood and coffee tables from appropriated farm equipment. Though we desperately wished we could bring everything home, we continued on. Until I nearly careened Big Al off the road when we saw a big barn with “Bodalla Dairy Shed” on the tin roof. If you know me at all, you know my unhealthy obsession with anything dairy-related, but especially cheese.

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We wandered through the shed (okay, I made a mad dash from the van that I’d haphazardly parked up the road), sampling cheeses made with indigenous Australian plants like saltbush and bush sage. Each taste was a creamy explosion of amazingness and flavor, none like the last. This one was savory and salty, this one had a serious spicy kick, this one was earthy. We promptly purchased three of our favorites for an appetizer later that night, claiming there was no way to choose just one.

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After touring the unique little country shops in Bodalla for a bit, it was back to Big Al to continue the journey. Hunger struck when we were near a town called Tathra, so we stopped off at a cliffside cafe for a sandwich and an incredible view of the far south coast of New South Wales. After that, there was no stopping til Victoria.

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Victoria welcomed us to the state with a wild storm, tossing hail, lightning, and a driving rain that reduced visibility to nearly zero as we crossed the mountains at the state border. After a harrowing 45 minutes navigating the storm and the mountains, we made it out the other side into a dripping, sodden caravan park near Lakes Entrance. Our ideas of visiting the beach were dashed, but we set up camp, ate most of our cheese, cooked some burgers and shared another bottle of wine, ready to get into the city the following day to celebrate Beth’s birthday.

And thus the day ended in the direct opposite manner from which it began, soggy and worn out, like a switch was flipped when we passed into Victoria and she promised us that we were going to have to earn our time in this great state.

Big Al and the Road to Melbourne: Day 1

Over the course of my time in Sydney, I’ve made an effort to get out to the more rural parts of my state of residence. It was during one of my weekend jaunts that I found my favorite place in the country – the south coast of New South Wales.

Head south from Wollongong and you enter into a wonderland of cute coastal towns and the most beautiful farmland you will ever come across in your life. Wide fields and rolling hills punctuated by barns, farmhouses, wildflowers and groups of dairy cows or sheep, a wide expanse of blue sky dotted by cottony clouds; it’s my idea of heaven on earth. When Beth mentioned wanting to see Melbourne at some point during our time in Australia, I knew the only way we could get there was to drive through this glorious place.

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In my research phase for this trip, I had come across a few blog posts about car and campervan/RV relocation. This is where a rental company has too many cars in one city, and too many reservations in another. So they offer ridiculous deals to anyone willing to take one of these vehicles from one city to another, usually in a pretty short space of time. Because I knew we didn’t have time to spend a week getting from one place to another, this suited our travel plans perfectly.

I signed up for alerts departing from Sydney, and a couple of days before we planned to leave for Melbourne, the perfect opportunity came up: transfer a campervan from Sydney to Melbourne in 2 nights and 3 days, at the steep price of $5 per day plus the cost of gas. And this was how Big Al came into our life.

It wasn’t easy – at first we were assigned the smallest campervan they had, which turned out to be a manual transmission vehicle. I had learned once how to drive a stick shift, and promptly forgot since every car I’d ever owned was automatic. The nice German guy who had processed our paperwork casually pointed to the gearshift and said, “And it’s manual,” to which I gasped and immediately lost all color out of my face. He said I had two choices: Try to remember how to drive a manual, or cancel the deal. I opted for the first option, not ready to give up on my campervan dreams. It couldn’t be that hard, right?

And that’s how Beth and I ended up jerking, stalling, pealing out, and cursing our way through a giant circle throught Mascot in Sydney’s south. We jerkily made our way back to the rental center, defeated and looking up bus and train timetables as a plan B.

That’s when our German friend came over to us and said, “Actually, there may be another car, but it’s the biggest one we have.” My face lit up and I said, “But it’s an automatic?” He nodded and I nearly shouted, “That’s fine! That’s totally fine! I can drive it!”

Enter: Big Al. A beastly 9-foot-tall, 20-foot-long, 6-person-sleeping home on wheels, replete with sound system, air conditioning, and fully functioning bathroom and kitchen. UPGRADE!

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Beth and I were excited to get on the road, and driving Big Al wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought once I got the hang of it.

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We headed south through the National Park, with a quick stop off to marvel at the view of Wollongong and beyond from the Mt. Keira lookout point.

From there, we jetted straight to Hyams Beach to see the turquoise water and to sink our toes into the fine white sand and take a little break from driving.

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On the way, we called around to a few caravan parks to see who had a space for us and Big Al. Because school was on holidays, most of the state-run camping options were fully booked and not bothering to even answer the phone, especially around the uber-popular Jervis Bay area. So we looked a little further south and found a place called Mollymook Beach, which had a site that could accomodate all of us for a night. After help from our neighbor backing Big Al into our space, Beth and I set up camp. As we were prepping dinner, I noticed the door to the camper swinging, and a little girl of about 4 poked her head into the van with a shy smile. And that was how we made friends with little Uma. For the rest of our night there, we had a 3-foot tall shadow following us around, asking us questions and drawing us pictures to decorate Big Al with.

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After some quality time with the friendly families around the park and a bottle of wine, it was off to bed. A king sized bed over the driving cab for me, and a queen bed at the back of the camper for Beth. We said a sad goodbye to Uma the next morning, early enough so we could make some distance while still stopping off where we wanted to stop.

It had been a long and busy day, but even that didn’t prepare us for what was next…

Cockatoo Island Glamping

I sat in the middle of Sydney Harbour with a chilled glass of white wine in my hand and a plate of gourmet meat and cheese on a table between me and my sister. ‘If this is camping,’ I thought to myself, ‘I could camp every day for the rest of my life!’

Sydney had graced us with a glorious day when my sister and I got up and made our way to Circular Quay to take a short ferry to Cockatoo Island. Part of my Sydney bucket list had been to do the ‘glamping’ on offer from the Sydney Parks and Recreation service on the island. You show up with some food, and they take care of the rest.

After we had checked in, we found our way to our tent, if you can call it that. It felt like a much more permanent and sturdy structure than the tents of camping trips past, usually precariously set up in the dark. It was roomy enough for me to stand up straight in the middle, and was already set up with two twin cots, two lounge chairs for the front porch (yes, it had a porch), and a cooler that doubled as a bedside table. We unzipped windows and doors to let in the breeze, gave the cots a comfort test (they passed with flying colors), and set out to explore the island.

My previous experience with Cockatoo Island had only been a couple of day trips to the Island Bar for day drinking adventures with friends. I didn’t realize that the island had a rich history of it’s own. It’s the funny thing about being an expat instead of a traveller – you tend to miss out on the local history, usually because you aren’t always actively seeking it out in your day to day life. So we learned about the shipbuilding history of the island, the role it played in WWII, and snuck in a beer from the bar made out of a converted Airstream trailer.

In true glamping form, Beth and I had visited the gourmet grocery near my house and picked up cheese and charcuterie fit for a queen as our meal for dinner. Cockatoo Island forbids bringing booze onto the island (though you probably could get away with it if it isn’t a busy weekend), but they do sell it for a pretty hefty price at the bar/kiosk near the information center. We picked up a bottle of white and a bottle of red, cracked it open and began to hoe into the cheese and meat, much to the delight of fellow glampers who passed by and made friendly conversation about what a posh spread we’d organized for ourselves.

After a shower in what have to be the nicest public showers I’ve ever experienced on a campground, Beth and I tucked ourselved into our comfortable cots and drifted off with the sound of the Harbour on the rocks a few feet from our tent lullabying us to sleep.

My advice: If you plan a trip to Sydney in the summer, make sure you book at least one or two nights glamping on Cockatoo Island – it is probably the most unique way to experience the city and it will cost you less than most hotels! Beth and I didn’t want to leave the next day, but our road trip to Melbourne was beckoning.

 

Details:

Website: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/stay/glamping
Cost: $150/night for twin share oceanfront glamping
Booking advice: Book at least 6 weeks in advance in order to secure your dates, and aim for weeknights vs. weekends. If you will be in Sydney over a holiday, book 4 – 6 months in advance, possibly 12 if your heart is set on a New Year’s Eve date. It’s VERY popular!

And We’re Off…

My sister arrived in Australia on the 3rd of January, and instantly we launched into the frenzied, rapid type of sightseeing I’d been told to avoid.

I started off showing her around Sydney, able to see a familiar city through the fresh eyes of my little sister. We stayed at a friend’s apartment in Bondi the first couple of days, proudly flaunting to a jet-lagged Beth the beautiful blue-green water and golden sands of the Eastern Beaches of Sydney. The weather had come out in force, rising up to the 80s and pressing into us with its humidity. We soldiered through it on the Coastal Walk to Bronte, catching a light sunburn by staying on the sand a little longer than we knew we should. It was fun to play host to a family member again, since the only other relatives to come visit had been my parents over two years ago. We capped off our weekend with an ocean view BBQ on the deck and a visit to the famous Gelato Messina on Hall St.
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As the clouds blew into Bondi, we blew out of it, back to Paddington to see some of the city the following day.

And see it we did, walking from the peaceful Botanic Gardens to the Opera House and refreshing ourselves with a quick white wine at the Opera Bar. From there we waded through the tourist throng in Circular Quay, through the Rocks, and onto the Harbor Bridge. We’d been told about a way to see great views from the first pylon of the bridge, getting essentially the same experience as the pricy Bridge Climb for a fraction of the cost. So we walked toward North Sydney, and sure enough there was an inconspicuous sign announcing the Pylon Lookout</acceptancn.
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After a butt-burning 200 stairs, Beth and I were high above Sydney Harbour, with an incredible view of the Opera House just as the last of the clouds blew away. We enjoyed the breeze 87 meters above the water for about an hour, trying to recover from all of the walking we had done already that day, and starting to feel the pressures of our old lives slip away.

It was the first day back to work for most of my former coworkers after the Christmas holiday, and here I was, stretching in the sunshine and getting more exercise than I had in the last several months combined. The acceptance that I had shed the life I’ve always known was slowly seeping into my consciousness, and trepidation was slowly being replaced by the delicious feeling of freedom.

Not a bad start to this adventure at all.

Up next – the Cockatoo Island Glamping adventure!

The ULTIMATE Guide to Sydney

One of the most common questions I get is, “What should I see while I’m in Sydney?” I’ve decided to write up a guide, in case anyone stumbling across the interwebs happens to Google: What should I do in Sydney? This is my own personal guide, so if you love amazing food prepared by the masters, a good drink, and nature and the outdoors, read on!

In and Around Sydney:

Cockatoo Island:
Just in the middle of Sydney Harbour is Cockatoo Island – a quick ferry from Circular Quay. On weekends in summer they have The Island Bar – an outdoor bar where you can day drink and enjoy the sun. You can also go glamping if you’d like to stay overnight!

Sydney Harbour Bridge:
You can walk over this for free, or pay hundreds of dollars to do the Bridge Climb. If you walk from North to South, you land in the Rocks – grab beers at Lord Nelson Brewery.

Museums:
Sydney doesn’t really have anything on Europe when it comes to art, but the Art Gallery of NSW usually has some decent exhibitions.

St. Mary’s and the Royal Botanic Gardens:
You can check out the impressive St. Mary’s Cathedral in Hyde Park if you like old churches, then walk north from there to the Royal Botanic Gardens & Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. It’s a huge park right on the Harbour, really beautiful and great views of the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge behind it.

Beaches:
The day itineraries below have all the beaches you could ever want to see around Sydney. If you don’t have a whole day, you can still get to these within 20/30 minutes from CBD. The main beaches to see are: Bondi, Manly, Bronte, Tamarama, Balmoral, Watsons Bay. Secret Beaches are: Red Leaf Beach, Milk Beach, Store Beach (reachable only by kayak/boat!). Note that beaches in italics are Harbour Beaches, which means no getting your surf on here.

 

Special Events Worth Checking Out:

Sculptures by the Sea:
Usually in late October/early November for about 3 weeks, Sculptures by the Sea gets PACKED on the weekends. If you’re able, go on a weekday and take your time looking at art in the most beautiful gallery in the world: the Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. If you are caught in the crowds, I recommend starting in Bronte and ending in Bondi with a meal or a Gelato Messina on trendy Hall St.

Good Food Month:
Put on by the major newspapers in each major city, Good Food Month for Sydney is in July and October, usually. This means you can go to some insanely expensive restaurants for lunch or dinner, and pay a flat cost for a 3 course meal at a fraction of what you normally would pay. The menus are more limited, but the chefs are the best in Australia, and arguably the world. It’s a great way to try some five-star dining on a budget. This also hosts the Night Noodle Markets in Hyde Park – a great evening of cheap food stalls worth exploring.

The Sydney Royal Easter Show:
Set in the 3 weeks surrounding Easter in March/April, the Sydney Royal Easter Show is a spectacle that you can’t miss if you are a lover of fairs. There is something for everyone here – petting baby farm animals, checking out the best livestock in the country, carnival rides, rodeos, dirt biking competitions, all sorts of horsemanship competitions – it’s really something to behold.

Festival of the Winds:
If you’re able to time your visit to Bondi with the Festival of the Winds [usually in September], you will be treated to a sky full of incredible wind-borne colors and creatures. I stumbled across this on accident my first few months in Australia and was delighted!

Sydney Festival:
Art installations pop up in the city after the New Year, and you know the Sydney Festival is on its way. Theater, circus, opera, modern music, and more, this is where Sydney does what she does best: Preens in all her glorious, artistic and hipster glory.

Vivid Festival:
Light, Music, and Ideas is what this festival is all about. Usually held in May or June, you’ll get to see iconic Sydney landmarks lit up with incredible light projected art, there are musical performances, TED-like talks and panels, and the whole city comes alive at night.

Day Itineraries:

Eastern Beaches:
Go to breakfast at Three Blue Ducks in Bronte (go early or on a weekday, very popular), then make your way down to the beach. You can hang out there for a bit, or jump on the coastal walk to the left of the beach when you’re facing the ocean and walk past Tamarama Beach and up into Bondi. If you do this in the beginning of November you’ll be able to catch the Sculptures by the Sea art installation along the walkway. It ends in famous Bondi Beach; grab lunch/dinner at Bondi Hardware on Hall St and finish off with a Gelato Messina about a block away.

Northern Beaches:
Take a ferry from Circular Quay (right by the Opera House) up to Manly Beach. Best and cheapest way to see the Opera House and Harbor Bridge from the water. Once in Manly, take a right out of the ferry building and go to Four Pines Brewery for lunch and local beers. Walk down the Corso to the beach and spend some time there. They do beach volleyball if you happen to play. You can also do a hike around the point; the pathway starts on the right of the beach when you’re facing the ocean and goes all the way around to harbour.

Blue Mountains:
‘Mountains’ here are kind of a joke (more like big hills), but it’s an interesting way to see some of the wilderness around Sydney. There are a lot of tour companies that will pick you up in Sydney and take you around; I went with Oz Trails on the Blue Mountains Special Tour and it was a good day. Their itinerary covers off pretty much everything worth checking out over there. Here’s my trip to the Mountains if you’re interested.

Hunter Valley:
This is a famous wine region outside Sydney famous for its Semillion and Shiraz. You can do a day trip here, but a weekend would work as well. If you go, you have to make sure you stop at Tallavera Grove for a tasting. The wine is good, and the view is one of the most amazing in the valley. If you go with a tour they will probably drop you off at Tempus Two, but it’s not really that great – just a lineup of tasting rooms and restaurants & a bit of a theme-park vibe. I’m a wine snob though so I like to taste it where they grow it – you may not mind! If you do an overnight, go for brunch at Peterson’s Champagne House. Click here to read about my trip to the Hunter.

Palm Beach:
About an hour north of Sydney is Palm Beach and Summer Bay. They film a show here called Home and Away that is very famous in Australia and the UK, but no one from the US has ever heard of it! The beach here is great, as is the bay. You could rent Kayaks, SUPs, or a boat in the bay and hang out there during the day. The restaurant up there is the Boathouse.

 

Restaurants:

If you want to splash out big:
Rockpool Bar & Grill on Hunter Street [NOT the Bridge Street one]:
Famous for their burger and steak, amazing food all around, wine list that will blow your mind. In an old bank so the architecture is pretty cool too. Ask for a table on the second level.

The Cut in the Rocks:
Also amazing steak, some say better than Rockpool. It’s hard to pick a winner so just go to both.

Aria or Quay:
Both white tablecloth, internationally renowned restaurants from some of Sydneys best-known chefs. Pick the one with the menu that appeals to you more.

Guillaume in Paddington:
This guy was running the restaurant in Bennelong at the Opera House and just opened up a new place in my neighborhood. I haven’t made it in yet, but it’s high on my list.

The Bridge Room:
Best lunch I’ve ever had in Sydney [and I work in advertising, I go to a lot of lunches!]

Tetsuya:
Famous Japanese food in a really cool heritage building in the city. Go for the degustation so you can get a taste of everything.

If you want good food but not as big of a bill:
Movida in Surry Hills:
Tapas; I’m told their Melbourne location is better, but not sure how that’s possible.

Felix Restaurant:
French; Great value for money; oysters are amazing, the wine list is long, and everything on their menu is good.

Apollo:
Greek; Some of the best Greek food you will ever have. If you go with a group, ask for the chef’s table in the kitchen.

Toko:
Japanese Fusion; Really interesting menu – combines flavors you wouldn’t think about and manages to pull it off. A little pricy so you could put it in the ‘splash out’ list.

FourFourteen:
Australian; A friend of mine works in the kitchen here – just really good, hearty food in the heart of Surry Hills.

Mr. Wongs:
Chinese; A classic for a good advertising lunch, amazing Chinese food. Duck pancakes and pork dishes that will make you very, very happy.

If you aren’t in the mood to splash out:

Hamburger Mary’s:
Burgers; Booze, burgers, and live music. A very fun place in a cool neighborhood most tourists don’t usually see [Newtown].

There are so many great smaller cafes/restaurants it’s hard to pick; I’d suggest checking out Broadsheet Sydney or TimeOut Sydney for their recommendations.

 

Best Pubs/Bars:

The Clock in Surry Hills; fun for a night out right in the heart of Surry Hills.

The Royal Hotel in Paddington; best for day-drinking. Go to the roof for a great view.

Cliff Dive in Darlinghurst: late night; go here for a Sydney version of a dive bar.

The Glenmore in the Rocks: arguably the best roof deck in Sydney

The Beresford Hotel in Surry Hills; a massive bars-within-a-bar complex, this has a pub, a restaurant, an outdoor bar, and dancing on the second floor. You can spend an entire evening in here and feel like you’ve been on a pub crawl.

Shady Pines Saloon: down an alleyway in Darlinghurst/Surry Hills border off Oxford St.; a fun way to see how Australia does an American bar. They have PBR signs on the walls but sadly don’t sell it. However, they do have an impressive local beer list.

The Baxter Inn: Whiskey and Bourbon heaven, with really knowledgeable bartenders. In a basement and full of dark wood and green velvet; free peanuts for all. A really cool spot.

Four in Hand: On Sundays they do a Sunday roast [pork belly or roast beef, usually] with a full plate of really good food for about $24. They also do Toss the Boss, where you flip the bartender heads or tails to see who pays for that round of drinks.

Palmer and Co.: A bit pretentious, but classic speakeasy style where the bartenders and waiters/waitresses all dress in 40s style. Good prohibition-era cocktails too. Also in a basement.

The Opera Bar: right next to the Opera House, a bit touristy but kind of a must-do if you haven’t been to Sydney before.

 

Weekenders Near Sydney:

DRIVES:

Jervis Bay & Hyams Beach:
Rent a house in Hyams Beach for an overnight and stay at the whitest beach in Australia for a couple of days. There isn’t a ton to do other than relax, but the beach is incredible and you’ll feel like you’re on a tropical island. There is a national park with a hike/walk at the right end of the beach when you’re facing the ocean. It’s a 3 hour drive south of Sydney.

Seal Rocks:
An on-beach campground with campsites and cabins you can rent, it’s a great place to surf and hang out on the beach. I camped there last year and saw my first wild dingo! It’s about 3 hours north of Sydney.

Kangaroo Valley & Berry:
The epitome of Aussie countryside, there are some stunning outlooks and a very cute small town in Berry to explore. Check AirBnB for adorable farmstays; we stayed at the Dairy at Beauridge Farm for a weekend and absolutely LOVED it. This is a 2 hour drive south of Sydney.

FLIGHTS:

Cheap airlines in AU are Jetstar and Tiger Airways, but Tiger tends to have an unexpected cancellation problem & isn’t as reliable. Virgin Australia also sometimes has deals. Follow them on Facebook or sign up for their emails if you want to know when they have sales!

Some suggested places:

  • Byron Bay [airport: Ballina Byron]
  • The Whitsundays [airport: Hamilton Island, Mackay Island] You can see the Barrier Reef from the Whitsundays
  • Uluru/Ayers Rock [airport: Uluru]
  • Noosa [airport: Sunshine Coast/Maroochydore]
  • Melbourne [airport: Tullamarine and Avalon]

Okay friends and fellow travelers, what have I left out of this Ultimate Guide to Sydney?

xoxo, The Wizardess

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