Monday, March 29, 2010

Manly Beach and Area

Experienced travellers will tell you that extended holdiays are all about Forks; as in - forking out the cash, and forking in the food! And we are doing a great job at both.

On the cash side of it; we find that the prices in the Sydney area are a little high compared to Canada; but not nearly on the same scale as London, England. Books, music and videos are way up there since there is little competition to keep the prices down. Movie tickets are around $17 – more for the 3D fad that the industry is pushing. Trade-size paperback books are $30 - 40, a DVD video might run $25, and a CD is around $20. All with the Aussie Dollar roughly par with the Canadian. And yet, there are good deals to be found; the other day I ate a large Salmon Benedict breakfast (heaping piles of smoked Tasmanian Salmon on scrambled eggs on toast) at a grill right on the beach for just $7. A number of the attractions around town are fee, but some of the best-know charge quite a bit; (Sydney Bridge Climb - $200 – make the climb to the Bridge Pylon (Tower) instead and save $190 each); the Opera House - $30 – (buy the 5-attraction pass for $109 instead), The Sydney Tower - $25 – (take the elevator to the top of the ANP building instead); and the Harbour Jet Boat or Cruise Ship – (use your all-inclusive Travel Pass to take the local ferries up and down the harbour and the cruise is free!)

Some of our favourite attractions are very modest in price, or free!
The Botannical Gardens;
• The Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park;
• The Barracks ($10) – Sydney's first walled prision
; (yes, I did look up the family name in their records, and found a Charles Rollins sentenced in 1825 for drunken behaviour);
The Rocks Discovery Museum.

As for food, despite my earlier queasy encounter with the flame-lashed Big Wombora on the beach (see my previous post), which is only topped on my all-time Culinary Cruelty List by my 2008 sampling of the infamous Double Bacon Butty in Victoria Station in London, Aussie food is very good, and is anchored on fresh seafood and their excellent local steaks. They really have the Grill / Bistro scene down to perfection here; aided immeasurably by the scenic beaches and the marvellous climate. Two can dine on the water while watching the sun set, share a bottle of fine Aussie wine and eat excellent fresh seafood and a steak for $75; - or you can go to Hungry Jack's or the dubiously-named local joint called Burger Me for $20 – max. Either way, you will have a meal that you won't soon forget! (Especially after the latter – when you spend the rest of the night Worshipping at the Porcelain Alter!).

The beach pictured above is the famous Bondi Beach.

People we meet here are really enthusiastic once they find out that we are from Vancouver and Victoria. They say that the Olympic coverage was great and that there were some really fantastic pictures of the area.

People are very friendly and laid-back out here on Manly Beach. We have already made the acquaintance of a fine fellow who lives just behind us, Ross McNichol. He has taken us to his local club, (The Skiff), right next to the Manley Ferry Dock; pointed out some of the area's best restaurants; and tomorrow is accompanying us to The Blue Mountains for a day-trip to one of Australia's premiere wing-growing areas. While quaffing the odd pint of really good Aussie beer or sipping some great wines, we have been passing on travel tips to Ross for his forthcoming trip to Calgary and Vancouver (like;
if you order 'moose' in a Canadian restaurant, you might not get the whipped-cream desert cake you are expecting;
in certain questionable eating establishments, if you ask the staff to 'Step On It', they likely will;
• ordering a 'Double – Double' in Tim Horton's doesn't ensure a really large Cup of Joe;
• a Dairy Queen is not a cross-dresser hanging out at the livestock barn;
• and, in BC establishments, Poached Salmon often refers to the method of acquisition, not cooking style.

In turn, Ross has endeavoured to educate us to the intricacies of everyday life in Australia. He is fond of pointing out that the Brits who originally settled here were common criminals banished as a form of punishment, and ended up in Paradise! What, indeed, is the Down Side of that!

Aussie Oddities

• (right) some of the plumbing shows its distinctly British origin;
• (below) a Band of locals, entertaining us with music down by the harbour;
• (left) Freshly Coffee?
• There are no government-run liquor stores in Australia; all are privately owned. And there is no bottle deposit; empties pile up all around the town.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Manly Beach (II)

You can just make out the tiny dots on the very top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the photo above; these are people who have paid $200 each to climb the outside of the span to get a view of the harbour! (it might help if you double-click on the image to enlarge it)
Today was a day for the harbour and the water, of which there are copious quantities in the area. We started with a 10-minute walk to the Manly Wharf, from there we caught the ferry for a 30-minute ride into the heart of Sydney. Next on the list was a tour of the spectacular and iconic Sydney Opera House, which occupies a prominent spot on the harbour. Among the many things that I learned on the tour were:

• the winning entry for the 1959 competition was submitted by an unknown, 38-year old Danish architect;
• the entry, which was little more than a conceptual drawing, had already been rejected by the design committee, but a late-joining member insisted on reviewing all of the entries again, and the design was resurrected;
• the conical slices used in the exterior shell, when properly assembled, would form a large semi-sphere;
• the structure uses four times the amount of steel in the nearby Sydney Harbour Bridge;
• expected to be built in 3 years, it took 16 years to complete; likewise the $7 million budget for the task eventually rose to more than $102 million;
• due to all of the controversy over construction delays and rising costs, the Danish architect was replaced by a design committee, and returned to Europe. He died in 2008; having never viewed his completed masterpiece.
• The Opera House was officially opened in 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II;
• the building has gained World Heritage status; the youngest structure to do so.

The Prime Minister's home is located on a point of land right across the harbour from the Opera House.

[Picture at left; Jean standing in front of our place; we have the top two floors on the left. Below; the view from our front balcony.]

Following lunch we took a ferry headed to a number of spots further up the harbour, which afforded us numerous occasions to take photographs and admire the many urban vistas possible in this spectacular city. I got accused of taking pictures of nothing but the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but it is impossible to ignore such an iconic and impressive structure. Before his film career as Crocodile Dundee, actor Paul Hogan spent 7 years employed full-time doing nothing but painting the bridge. Now, for just $200 Au you can climb the top of the outside span for an incredible vista of the harbour and city; all day there is a constant stream of little dots making their way up and down the huge span. Unfortunately, driving across the bridge does not offer the view one hopes; the pedisterian walkways have been enclosed in large, wire fencing to deter 'jumpers' and this spoils the view.

Next on our stop was a visit to The Victoria building; a marvellously-restored old building right downtown. While its restored tile flooring, brass rails and stained-glass windows are beautiful, the most impressive thing were two large hanging clocks. One represented the early explorers of Australia, with a wooden sailing ship making its way around the world. The second clock was an English castle. At the stroke of the hour the castle boomed out the time with exactly the same carillon and chime as Ben Ben in London, following which four trumpeters rose in the turrets to play a fanfare. Next, a window on the face of the clock illuminated periodically to show a miniature scene from British history. There was Henry VIII with his court, the signing of the Magna Charter a, and Sir Walter Raleigh being knighted. The show concluded with an execution, presumably Charles I. A masked man swung an English Broadaxe onto a chopping block, and the little head rolled into a basket. This caused the gathered crowd to chuckle, and left me wondering what all of this has to say about our heritage!

Afterwards we stopped in at The Marble Bar, a restored vintage bar that was moved in its entirety from an old hotel in the area. From there we took the ferry back to Manly Beach and headed out to supper.

The next day we again took the Manly Ferry to downtown Sydney and then switched to a local ferry to take us across the harbour to the zoo. This is located on a prime slope of land overlooking the city and is home to a huge number of unique specimens indigenous to the area; including Koala Bears, Wallabies, Kangaroos, Wombats, the Duck-Billed Platypus and all kinds of birds, lizards, etc. The zoo is the only one in the world that raises the Platypus. In addition, the usual bears, tigers, lions, giraffes, leopards, penguins and hippos were on display.

We have found that the Sydney area features food from around the world, and to this point we have eaten in Mexican, Italian and Indian restaurants, and enjoyed some very good meals. Likewise, we have tried some really excellent beer, and each of us has their favourite. Remarkably, the restaurants do not expect a tip; they are well-paid workers. Here on Manly Beach, a lot of the restaurant staff are young people working their way around the world. Manly attracts them because of the resort atmosphere and the beach attractions. I have already talked to restaurant staff from Serbia, Croatia, Russia, and the US. The other day I had a good chat with a young man from France, who especially appreciated being able to converse in French; he (charitably, I think) said that he liked the Quebecois accent, which immediately identified me as a Canadian.

Aussie Oddities

The children are mild-mannered, disciplined and polite. All school-kids are required to wear uniforms.

There is little garbage thrown around, and almost zero graffiti on buildings and walls.

The adults appear to be in better shape and slimmer than North Americans.

There is little canned beer; you are served with either draught in a glass, or bottled beer.

The electrical system runs on 220-volt; this requires some fancy, ad-hoc patchwork to keep all of our electronics (cameras, computers, GPS, etc.) going. The photo shows the collection of transformers, adapters and wires needed to keep our gear going.

Manly Beach got its name from the natives; when the British arrived they described them as being 'manly' in bearing.
An Auto Repair Centre is known as a "Preferred Smash Repairer; much better, eh!
This is the preferred breakfast of choice for the surfing crowd down here in Australia; it is known as the Wombora - roughly meaning The Big Kuhuna. It has two sausages, 4 slices of bacon and a fried egg; all slathered in fried onions and slammed between two pieces of white bread. It is prepared on an outdoor Aussie Barbie in order to give it that authentic Black Char coating that appears to be an essential taste element in the treat. You douse it liberally with some type of red sauce, assume The Hunch Position, and then try to cram as much in your mouth as possible. I do hope that my cardiologist isn't reading this blog!
Cheers, Mate!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Manly Beach

This morning we toured the Sydney Aquarium on Darling Harbour; a very impressive and and large building on the waterfront. It featured all kinds of indigenous wildlife in their natural settings. A big hit was the Shark Tank, which allows visitors to pass under the tank in big glass tunnels. A number of historical boats and ships are moored outside on slips, including a full-sized replica of the Endeavour, with which Captain Cook first discovered Australia, and HNS Vampire, a retired World War II warship.

In the afternoon we transferred to a condo on Manly Beach; across the bay and about a 30-minute ferry ride outside of Sydney. It is a small community backing onto one of those sparkling beaches that dot the area. As such it has the feeling of a resort, and yet is only a short commute to the big city. The beach is not packed, given that it is a weekday and it is the early Fall here in Australia, but there is still lots of activity on The Strip. On weekends and holidays, and all during the summer you can tell from the many restaurants and large beer-gardens that front beach that it has to be swarming with people at times. For you Vancouverites, think Kitsalino Beach.

Our apartment is located right on the beach, and from our windows and balcony we can watch the surfers trying out their boards, cruise ships steaming by for exotic destinations in the Far East and Pacific, and all of the activity on the beach. As would have been expected, strolling and jogging the shore rates high on the list of things to do, as well as sunbathing and lounging, but surfing and beach volleyball are also very popular. The water offshore is dotted from pre-dawn right through to dusk with people trying to catch the perfect wave. It has been unseasonably warm here, (25 – 27 degrees), but we rest comfortably with a refreshing breeze blowing through our bedroom window, and the soothing sound of the surf to lull you to sleep at night.

Yesterday we armed ourselves with a 5-day City Attraction pass, which allows us to choose from Sydney's many interesting attractions, and today we are going to purchase a 7-day Transportation Pass that allows the use of city bus, ferry and tram lines. As a result, we will take the 30-minute ferry ride into town and then use the transportation system to get around. For the next week we expect to spend our time either touring in Sydney or enjoying the life at Manly Beach. I will report back soon.

Aussie Oddities:

When the Burger King chain moved into Australia, everything went well at first, but then they got sued by a local businessman for infringement; it seems that there already was a Burger King outfit in the area. A costly court ensued, and the American chain lost the right to the name. Nor was the Aussie Burger King willing to sell its name. So, Hungry Jacks was born; it has the look and feel of Burger King, but, Down Under, it isn't!

The Big Three chain restaurants in the Sydney Area are; MacDonalds, KFC, and the afore-mentioned Hungry Jacks. The fare is pretty much the same, but the portions appear smaller than back home.

That old standby, Woolworth's, has survived and appears to be doing well down here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From Sidney To Sydney!

Time for another vacation; this one is headed Down Under, a place that we have never been. The flight down is a bit of an ordeal; a 15-hour grind spend in the equivalent of a vertical shoebox. Also, I am not one to carp about airline food, but I have to admit that the standard has plummeted to the lowest common denominator. We were given an unremarkable pasta dish, a dismal bun for a snack, and an adequate breakfast (eggs or waffles?). I can remember some really excellent meals on international flights of the past; at least I have that to fall back on when confronted with the gruel that is slopped out these days.

One major discovery was made on this trip; it is way better to sleep horizontally, rather than vertically. In any event, we arrived tired and on the edge of starving, thinking that the worst was over, only to realize that the flight itself was merely the softening up process for the knockout blow to come. Immediately upon landing, we were 'quaranteed' while the cabin crew sprayed insecticide throughout the cabin. We were cheerily informed that the spray was the 'safest on the market', but I figure that anything not good for bugs can't be good for humans, either. One flight attendant passing through the cabin remarked; 'All you have to do is not breath for the next 15 minutes!'.

So, having inhaled the equivalent of a Mustard Gas Attack on the Western Front in World War I we were then released to the next round of punishment; Immigration. I must have looked dreadful, since the officer examined my Declaration and Passport, and without asking a single question simply stated 'It's a long flight from Canada, isn't it! Welcome to Australia!'. With a grim smile I then ran the gauntlet of the Customs Officers, who were lounging just behind the immigration booth, looking for likely targets (ever watched vultures circling a wounded animal in the desert?). I was a lucky guy; unlike the gentleman who, when asked by the Immigration Officer if he had a criminal record replied 'I didn't realize that was still a prerequisite to come to Australia!'

Anyway, once we had tip-toed past the Customs Officers, looking as innocent as possible, we got to play Hunt For Your Luggage; always a crowd pleaser to the weary traveller. Fortunately, after little more than 30 minutes playing this game, we then faced our final challenge; Agriculture. It seems that the Aussies like anything living that carries cash, but nothing that doesn't. A charming lady grilled us about meats, vegetables, snacks, foods, and just about anything that moved at some point in its existence on this planet. She zeroed in on our snacks, and pounced on our almonds, which promptly ended up in the landfill. With that we were finally flung into the terminal to find our way to our hotel.

It is a challenge to walk from early spring into a hot and humid 27-degree day with an intense sun pummeling your lily-white skin. I already have a Farmers Tan on my neck and arms, and managed to burn the tops of my ankles. No matter; we are here!

So, flinging our luggage into the room and a quick shower later, we headed up to the nearest pub to sample some Aussie Beer. One thing that I have noted is that while some nations (notably China) simply can't seem to turn out a decent wine, and also have some dubious Spirits, every country can brew some good beer, and that proved to be the case again. Over a few pints we discovered that this being Sunday, the annual St. Paddy's Day Parade was being held, and we watched the start from the pub.

That evening we were strolling in the Cockel Bay and Darling Harbour area when we came across the Greek Festival in full swing. It seemed to be a little odd to see the odd drunken local in full Irish regalia fumbling about the Greek mob, but it all worked. The next day we took a bus tour of downtown Sydney and the surrounding area to get a good overview of the place. Sydney is a sprawling metropolis of some 4 million people and it has a very international vibe to the city. There are all kinds of ethnic restaurants, and many interesting parks and museums to visit. That evening we dined at the Yaght Club, right on the harbour.

The following day we spent the morning at the big Naval Museum in Darling Harbour, and then strolled over to the Anzac Memorial Building in Hyde Park. From there we examined the Botanical Gardens and then walked along Sydney Harbour to finish up at the iconic Opera House, and Sydney Bridge. You could just make out the tiny dots of people climbing the top of the Bridge, which would have to offer a remarkable view of the downtown area. That evening we dined in the Chinatown area; which is right next to the hotel.

My early impressions of the city is of the many urban parks, with some beautiful natural beaches, such as Bondi Beach, only a short distance away. The vegetation is lush and quite tropical, and the locals seem quite relaxed and friendly; not at all like New Yorkers! The only downside appears to be the Internet; it is quite expensive (about $20 a day), and very slow. I guess we are spoiled in Canada, but it is hard to get used to working online at a snail-pace (i.e. about 5 minutes to bring up a single page!)

So we are off to a good start down here, and we will keep you posted on our travels soon.

Aussie Oddities

As expected, there is a wide variety of new and unusual wildlife and plants. Somehow, the birds seem oddly attracted to us!