Tuesday, February 22, 2011

There's no place like home, but Oz felt a lot like it

My last day in Oz started at 4 a.m. local time. I popped out of bed and knew the hours were closing in, so I got in a workout, grabbed breakfast, called home to chat with Angie and the kids, and mapped out my day. A quick stop to get some Aussie jeans and a sportcoat on Flinders Street, an iced Chai at Starbucks (it had been 5 days, people; nations have gone to war over less), then off to the Melbourne Museum of Natural history. It was, in a word, impressive, with featured exhibits on animals, human science and Aboriginese culture, among others.

The modern design of the museum was open, with tons of natural light flooding in -- and there was plenty on this beautifully sunny last day in Oz. The exhibits were highly interactive, with a dream simulator (perfect for those who want to lie down for 3 minutes) and facts on how and why the human eye can play tricks on us and our depth perception.  I enjoyed the circus-type mirror that made my forearms look like Popeye's (see picture). There was an in depth feature on Charles Darwin as well (you know there's a Port Darwin on the northern coast).

As I left the museum, I spent some time around the adjacent Royal Exhibition Hall, one of Melbourne's great claims to fame. It was here that in the early 1800s the city played host to the World Exhibition. At that time, Melbourne was considered to be among, if not THE, richest city in the world -- evidence of the then-gold rush era and the affluence it brought. The world came to see what Melbourne had to offer not just once, but twice as the host of the World Exhibition, another claim to Melbourne fame (no other city ever hosted more than once).

On the other side of the Great Exhibition hall were the most beautiful gardens -- Carlton gardens, complete with fountains, benches, wide pathways and even wider open patches of freshly cut summer grass -- all to inviting to pass up. So I threw my pull over on the ground and took another one of those dream simulation experiences. And hour and half later (yes, I did stop to smell the roses), it was a stop for a quick lunch and back to the hotel to begin packing and making plans for my last evening in Australia.

Departure is tomorrow and I have both sorrow about leaving and joy about what I take with me. On the tram restaurant dinner tour last night, the Winnepeg tourists I mentioned told me that on their first trip, all their friends said to enjoy it because they'd likely never be back. They told me they couldn't wait to come back, and have done so many times. I nodded in complete agreement that this is a country that never lets go once you's spent time here.

From the cosmopolitan streets of Sydney to the outer outer banks of the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns and the culture of Melbourne, I have so think I worked a lot in, but only scratched the surface. So I won't say goodbye to Oz, merely "See you again, mates."

May all your journeys be as fulfilling, Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The energy of Melbourne

I find Melbourne to be much like San Francisco, only without the hills. It certainly has diverse sections of the city, from the busines/financial district, to China Town, shopping/fashion centers and even a special place or two for its finest restaurants. The Yara River runs through the city, and the local say it runs upside down because of the brown color of the water (fine silt causes that color).

A 3 hour bus tour took me through just about every part of the city, from the Victorian homes near Port Melbourne, to shops along St Kilda street. We swung by some beautiful gardens that lay claim to being Captain Cook's (one of the pioneering discoverers of this part of Australia) to the Shrine of  Remembrance of World War 1 veterans who gave their lives.

This shrine, in fact, has an hourly memorial ceremony in which a small ray of light from the sun momentarily passes through an inner chamber that has a memorial plaque with the words "he hath no greater love." It was quite moving...a tribute to Australia's fallen soliders.

After returning to the hotel and quick workout, it was off to explore the neaby retail district. With trams running constantly (thus the San Francisco connection again), aboriginese and other music performances, and the hustle bustle of  millions of Melbourne residents, I daresay this is one vibrant city.

I have a dinner on board a moving trolley this evening, but I thought I'd close this with a few random observations about all things Australian I've seen in the last week:

  • Just about every toilet in every place I've been to has a full and half flush option -- quite the sustainable water practice, don't you think? And if you get it wrong, you can still flush again.
  • Pedestrian traffic passing -- just as cars do it on the left side, pedestrians are supposed to pass on the left, which is really hard if you're used to doing on the right your entire life, and can't move your 6-3 frame fast enough once you do remember -- (or are reminded by the grimaces on the faces of aussies you pass, who are quite irritated)
  • Rockets -- a common bitter lettuce type vegetable, often served in salads with something sweet, like pears
  • Prawns -- served not only with the legs on, but whole heads and beady eyes that say "eat me" -- really
  • On/off switches -- every hotel room as on off switches for each electric outlet. I suppose it's a sustainable enrgy practice, but speaking of irritating.
  • Take-away vs eat in -- nothing major here but when you order, you're asked if you want take-away (vs carry out). Also Yield signs in the US are "Give Way" signs here. "Way" better. So shoot me.
  • Lemonade -- ice tea here is a rarity, so lemonade is what I've asked for. In every case, it's served carbonated.
My last full day in Oz is tomorrow, so I'll make it one to remember. The good news is that I'm feeding off all this Melbourne energy!


After a 3 hour flight from the northern tropic of Cairns, I arrived in Melbourne this afternoon, a city with a population of about 4 million located in the southern coast of Australia.  The temperature difference was startling to say the least, about 60 degrees with a chilly wind.  A thirty minute trip to downtown Melbourne and I checked into the hotel , completed all my confirmation calls for tomorrow, and talk a walk downtown.

Like Sydney,Melbourne has a very metropolitan feel to it, wtih trams running (cable cars) around the city. The driver told me tourism is the big industry of Melbourne, but the Australian Stock Exchange is also located here, so there's quite a bit of financial industry here as well.

Tomorrow is a bus tour of the city and a gourmet dinner aboard one of Melbourne's famous tram cars. Tons of things to do, and so very little time left. Pictures and updates tomorrow!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A natural and fitting Wonder of the World

The Wandering Yank marvelled at the beauty of one the bonafide Wonders of the World today: The Great Barrier Reef. It took an hour bus ride and a 90-minute boat ride from Port Douglas, on Australia's northern shoreline, to get there. But it was well worth the wait, and the rides.

The group that does these outings is Quicksilver, and they're pretty buttoned up.  Quick transfers, all the prep on videos and you hit the pontoon boat in the middle of the Coral Sea running. I donned goggles, snorkel and fins quickly, as well as the $5 spandex suit rental to protect myself from the stray jellyfish and certain death. "A sucker born every minute Mark," you say? "You don't need that."  Well I emerged from the watter stingless. And the $300 I spent on an underwater shark repellent horn, and human blood de-scenter was really well spent, too.  As you can discern, I'm writing this after emerging from the sea with all my digits. We'll see who has the last laugh when the great whites and tiger sharks show up. Yeah.

Anyway, the snorkeling experience was amazing. Coral in blue, red, neon green and yellow were the backdrop for an array of fish I'd never seen up close. From zebra fish to big black surgeon fish, they swam literally inches from my entombed and ulta-protected body. I took a semi submarine ride and went out a little further and saw a huge sea turtle.

The 90 minute ride back was spent in sunshine and ocean breeze on the bow of the super luxury Katamaran owned by Quicksilver. It was a perfect time to reflect on the blessing of travels, the wonders of nature, and the support of family and friends. Seeing the Great Barrier Reef was a dream inside and dream I've had since I was a boy my boy's age.

I could share more details about dinner and looking around downtown Cairns, but the truth is, they all pale in comparison to seeing a true natural wonder.  So I'll let this be it for today. Headed to Melbourne tomorrow, but what a memory to pack with the bags and into my memory bank.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A day of transitions...

I journeyed from Sydney to Cairns today, courtesy of Quantas Airlines. It's a 2.5 hour flight, puctuated with a hot breakfast (did you read that United, American USAirways, and Delta?), and a light snack. I felt like I was flying in the 80s.

I arrived in Cairns (prounounced Cans) mid-day, and discovered what happens with a 50-year old guy who normally gets 8 hours of sleep a night, gets 5 to 6 for -- say -- 6 straight nights. Keeping with today's theme, I'll call it "transitioning." It involves sitting in the sun for about an hour, going back to your hotel room and losing consciousness for about three hours. In the immortal words of Billy Crystal in City Slickers, "I'm on vacaaaaaaaaaaa-shuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun."

Cairns is a city of about 200,000 on the norther tip of the Australian continent. I'm struck by the natural beauty of the mountains meeting the waters of the Coral ocean. I'll see lots more of that tomorrow on my Great Barrier Reef Tour. Cairns is also home to the the world's longest cable suspension lift, over the rain forrest. Hoping I can work that in Monday morning, but timing doesn't look good for that.

It's a charming small town from what I can see of it. I will say it is significantly more laid back than most metropolitan cities. Translation: jeez it takes these people forever to take your dinner order. Okay, it's the ugly American coming out for just a moment, but I only got 3 hours of sleep back, and woke up with raging hunger and thirst. I did refrain from showing any histrionics.

It's a beautiful place and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow, sharks and all.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A farewell to Sydney

My last day in Sydney was spent with no specific agenda, other than not to have one. After breakhast and a workout (no, I'm not slacking), I put on my tennis shoes and ventured out on a couple-mile walk in the opposite direction from where I'd spent most of the week. In other words, away from Sydney harbor. It was a refreshing change of pace to see working classs people shuffling to business meetings, to see where they live in neighborhoods filled with condos and flats, some townhouses and Subway restaurants on just about every corner.  So many city dwellers walk, or use bikes or public transportation. Not that there isn't traffic here, but I think far more Sydney siders hoof it. The clicking sounds made by pedestrian signals is pretty helpful for those hard of hearing, or whose attention span rivals that of a gnat. I'm just sayin.

I wandered through Darlinghurst, a neighboring community near city center, and enjoyed everything from people watching to window shopping and yes, my first Aussie hamburger. I went with The Works in a restaurant called "the Healthy Burger."  Yes, friends, it was all about making some horribly unhealthy but delicious angus creation ever so slightly -- shall we say -- better for me.  I was told there were no preservatives, all natural ingredients, no artificial flavor enhancers and everything was made right there on site. With that kind of intro, tt might as well have been oatmeal and broccoli. I was good to go.

I reflected on something I'd heard the tour bus driver say the other day {"McDonand's doesn't know burgers; if you want an Aussie burger, you have to go to an Aussie pub and ask for "the works.") So I announced to Collie, the woman behind the counter, that I'd come from New York, had waited to experience my first Aussie burger, and I'd selected The Healthy Burger to make it happen, No pressure, Collie,.

The Works, you see, comes with tomato relish, lettuce, tomatoe, bacon, eggs (yes eggs), onion and some special dressing."  What they don't tell you when they serve it to you is how to eat it without looking like you're 95, have no teeth, and have no muscle control to hold your spoon with tapioca pudding. This stuff slips and slides, explodes and dribbles in ways I cannot desribed. One of the beets slipped out so I didn't quite get that in, but successfully downed the rest of The Works with my Pepsi Max. I recorded proof with dear Collie, and you can see her testament on my facebook acct,

With The Works behind me, it was on to the Australian Museum, to see dinasours, minerals and a host of insets and reptiles with enough venom to kill me by looking at me.  The blue ringed octopus, funnel web spider didn't look so tough stuffed and mounted in their unnatural display cases. But in truth, I didn't look at them long, as I found myself trembling like a 10-year old girl. No offense, 10-year old girls.

Tonight it's an official farewell to Sydney, as I have an early departure for the airport tomorrow..flying Quantas to Cairns, which just escaped a category 5 Typhoon recently. The Great Barrier Reef awaits, but not before I head out this evening to take a few photos of Sydney at night.  It's all good.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Walk about

It was a day of all walking, all day. From city center and Hyde Park I walked to my tour of the Sydney Opera House. Now mostdays you get the standard tour of this architectural masterpiece. But my tour group lucked out; the Sydney symphony orchestra was in rehearsal for their Show Tunes concert. As we walked in the theater, trumpeter James Morrison was featured as the FULL orchestra played the 007 Bond James Bond favorite Goldfinger.

Anyone who knows me know I'm a James Bond die hard. This music in this space with this trumpet virtuoso was nothing short of spectacular. I had do do the James Bond pose with the finger gun. Tour guide: not impressed. Really a fantastic story of how this opera house was built.

So I walked up 48 steps to a nearby park, put on some sun screen(yes the sun was out and it is HOT here) and just sat on a grassy knoll and watched the boats go through the harbour for an hour. Grabbed a quick lunch at circular quay, then
wandered through The Rocks, nurses walk ( where convicts walked from their prison to the local hospital), then on to Darling Harbor and back through downtown to city center. It's amazing how quickly you can move from one neighborhood to the next so quickly and seamlessly. People seem noticably healthier than
many places I've seen. I suspect all the walking keeps Sydney siders as they're called at healthier weights. Good on ya.

It's an expensive city. I don't think I've paid less that 3.50 for any beverage I've purchased since I arrived.

So back at the hotel and a dip in the pool on the top floor (22). What a view!

On to and afternoon glass of Xanadu shiraz and people watching. My last day in Sydney is tomorrow and still have plenty to do. I'm playing Australian rules football.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sights and sounds of Sydney

Today was a full day of guided touring of Sydney. Starting with a 3 hour bus ride all over this city of over 4 million. Over 90 percent of the Aussie population lives within 100 km of a beach, which says a lot about who lives in the vast expanse of the Outback. We toured Darling harbor and the Rocks, one of the oldest parts of the city, where the first setlers from England set up shop. Trouble was that most of that part of land is set on sandstone which -- when it decomposes--- created the most infertile of soils... Bad news for settlers. We moved on to circle cay and Sydney's most famous beach... Bondi ( aborigines for "where water makes a sound"). I stuck my feet in the cool Ocean water and blinded the other tourists as I took my shirt off and the sunlight reflected off my back. "Don't worry folks; it'll all be over soon. Nothin' happenning here."

After Bondi (pronounced Bon- die), we went back to Darling Harbor and I dashed aboard captain crook's harbor tour cruise. Big boat with an all- you- can- eat buffet. I limited myself to four half chickens and some fruit compote that I couldn't quite recognize. It was me and 3,500 Japanese tourists, but my height was a definitie advantage in seeking the dessert bar first.

I also saw Mrs Macquarie's chair, a stone chair carved by convicts for one of the founding governor's wife. It was set outside on an end point of a jetty. She loved looking from this chair across the water... Longing for letter from home. I have the Internet.

I have tons of pictures and videos but can't find a way to post them yet. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Top of Australia

After 20 hours of flying, I arrived in Sydney this morning and completely passed over Valentine's Day, courtesy of the International dateline. Faddy, the driver who picked me up, is a native of Sydney and graciously took my iPhone and said g'day to Angie and the kids upon my request. Quick workout and a stop at Starbucks for iced chai (note; a Venti here is like a grande in U.S, so I have recalculate pumps)
and off to wander Sydney.

So I cruised through Hyde Park in the center of Sydney, cruised through St Mary's cathedral the most magnificent I've ever seen), a tour of the Sydney Tower ( the tallest structure in all of australia at over 300 meters). Getting used to meters, kilos and watching for drivers on the left side of the road. The clouds and rain a
have moved away, leaving a gorgeous 38c degrees and sunny skies. I know I'm jet lagged and the crash is coming but WOW what a city and I'm ready to venture out again. Is it possible to fall in love with another country?

Still on the look out for funnel spiders and box jellyfish. So far so good for the wandering Yank.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What a difference a few weeks make

When my Dec 26th scheduled departure crossed paths with a wicked Nor-easter, I had no idea it was only the first of about dozen snow storms to batter the northeast. Coming home from the ill-fated attempt to 3 feet of snow on the 27th, followed by 8 more inches, then 12 more, then 13 more (well you get the picture), ended up making January the snowiest month in NY in weather history. So it makes the anticipation of going to a place where summer is in full swing all the better. Add to that the craziness of work (and the fact that I'll soon be leaving my employer of 16 years), and it makes this trip absolutely/perfectly timed. So I'll make another go of it on Sunday, only this time I will not be denied.