One of Sydney's most outdoorsy activities is the Scenic Walk to Manly, which is indeed scenic. So much so that we stopped every five minutes and the four-hour walk took us much longer than that. After getting fresh barramundi fish and chips overlooking the sea in Manly, we hopped aboard the ferry back to Sydney for another scenic view: the beautiful harbour.
Apparently Cairns, a tropical Australian town sitting between two World Heritage sites, was built around a huge colony of fruit bats that refused to leave. That’s fine by us, because we love just about all animals. And as weird as it may be that there are mammals that can fly (basically rats with wings), we think they’re pretty cute. These particular guys are as large as cats and mostly live in a cluster of big trees right in the middle of the city. Every night around sunset, they slowly wake up and stretch, and then take flight in search of fruit to munch on. We were lucky enough to have an excellent view of the mass ascension from the 9th floor of the Hilton Hotel. And we were so captivated, we went back each night of our stay to witness the amazing event.
Apparently, you don’t need to be certified to scuba dive in Australia. After a quick lesson aboard the “Calypso” and a standard sign-my-life-away waiver, I donned a full-body stinger suit and scuba gear for the first time. Then, beside the boat, I had a quick three-part safety test underwater with Jenny, our guide for the day. Though I didn’t ace the quiz, I passed. Down we went, three of us following her slowly into the depths along a thick, moored rope.
We couldn’t not try scuba; we were at the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest single structure made of living organisms. Totally bucket-list material. It’s a good thing we got the chance, too, because the fragile system is not going to be around forever. Some experts give it only another 50 years or so, which is why scientists are racing to photo-document its current extent. Though it’s shrinking every year, it’s still so big that it can be seen from space, and we were lucky enough to get a closer look.
About 7 meters down on a small patch of sand, Jenny motioned for us beginners to kneel down in a circle. She then picked up a sea cucumber and handed it to me. It was slimy and weird-looking, so after a quick inspection, I passed it down the line. A few minutes later, she led us to a giant clam about the size of checked luggage with a wavy gaping mouth, and motioned for us to each touch it gently. It flinched shut with a slight creaking sound when my finger grazed its lips.
The dive lasted only about 30 minutes, but it was so amazing, we couldn’t turn down another opportunity and decided to spring for a second dive at the next site ($50 each extra). That time, I was allowed to bring my GoPro camera. I reached a depth of 10.1 meters and saw more amazingness, like a clownfish (Nemo!), a sea turtle (Crush!), and a lot more otherworldly corals. Check it out:
On the ride back to shore, Kristen and I were a bit delirious with the things we’d witnessed deep in the Coral Sea. Full scuba certification might be in our future. And just maybe another visit to the reef.
Disclosure: My trip to Australia as a DTourist is sponsored by DoubleTree by Hilton.
By the time we were sipping our soul-warming coffees in the glitzy downtown city of Surfers Paradise, the storm had passed and the skies had resumed their brilliant blue standard. The main sunny beach, extending as far as the eye could see in either direction, was still closed to swimmers, though, because of strong currents. Cyclone Dylan was brewing offshore.
Earlier that day and further up the coast, a limo dropped us off for our surfing lesson, part of my DoubleTree-sponsored DTour of a Lifetime. Craig from Get Wet Surf School got busy teaching us to pop up on our boards, which was easy enough on the steady sand. After walking us through the basics, he led us into the rumbly waters, determined to help us catch some gnarly waves on the Gold Coast.
With its famously perfect waves, it’s no wonder this laid-back city has become a popular destination, and not just for surfing. A surprisingly built-up place, Surfers Paradise has plenty of cafes, shops and (so we hear) nightlife. That day, however, the easy-going vibes around town stopped at the water’s edge.
Even just finding the right wave was a challenge, but once I did, that’s when the fun began. The brief, rewarding lift back to the beach felt so liberating. No fighting waves, just sit back and enjoy the ride. The two-hour lesson guaranteed that we would stand before our time was up. Thankfully, there was no need to recollect our money. But next time, we’ll keep a better eye on the weather.
Now try not to laugh too hard at our lack of skill...
Disclosure: I'm traveling in Australia as a DTourist for DoubleTree by Hilton.
Imagine a place where you can hold a koala like a baby, walk right up to lounging kangaroos and curious emus, and feed wild lorikeets. Add in a dozen or so more quintessential Australian icons and you’ve got the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the best hands-on zoo experience we’ve ever had.
Once inside, we were on a mission to accomplish our main goal: cuddling a koala. Mine was adorably named Bagel, and he was surprisingly heavy for his compact size, probably around 15 pounds. His coat was hardy, feeling more like felt then velvet. His long dark claws, normally used for grabbing branches, pressed gently against my chest. I wish I could have held him forever. Kristen’s koala was named Byron, and she also immediately fell in love. I think we had found our new favorite place in Australia.
The sanctuary itself, dating back to 1929, is the oldest and largest of its kind, and lies in a quiet suburb just outside Brisbane. Popular among tourists, it also seems very pampering to the resident marsupials: the koalas need no cages, because they don’t want to leave. We were astonished to hear that koalas spend 18-19 hours of their day sleeping, and the rest of the time slowly chomping away at fresh eucalyptus leaves. And sometimes (for no more than 30 minutes a day), they pose for photos with eager animal-lovers just like us.
After holding the koalas and picking up dorky photo prints to prove it, we were a little giddy to say the least. We meandered through the rest of the park, spying exotic birds, bizarre reptiles, amphibians, lazy dingoes, a giant cassowary, and a wombat.
We were thoroughly entertained by all of the sights until we wandered into the dark building housing one of the most amazing animals we’ve ever seen: a platypus. We had the room to ourselves, and the small reptile/mammal - a monotreme, we’re told - unknowingly put on a show for us. With his beaver-like tail and duck-like bill, he buzzed around in his tank, hunting excitedly for a little prawn, which he eventually snagged. Unfortunately, none of our photos turned out, but we did capture his cuteness on video:
Leaving the sanctuary, we again realized that Australia, having been separated from the other continents for eons, has some of the most unique and amazing wildlife. Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary just might be the best way to explore it close up.
Time slipped away from us while we sipped our cold beers, the sun shining brightly over a blue-green landscape through the pub’s windows. It was a serene scene until our train, the 6:30 back to Sydney, suddenly pulled into view, catapulting us from our relaxing bar seats and into an immediate sprint. The bartender’s last words: “I can tell you right now, you’re not going to make it.”
We’d spent the day exploring the Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s a quick 2-hour train ride west of Sydney (‘the big smoke” as the mountain locals say). It’s a lush tropical forest carpeted with eucalyptus trees that fill the air with tiny oil droplets, scattering light into a predominantly blue hue.
The region’s beauty was striking. Steep staircases led us to the base of skyscraper-high waterfalls. Fern-laden winding walks ended in super-scenic overlooks, showcasing the famed Three Sisters rock formations and Mount Solitary. Brilliant reds from tropical birds (crimson rosellas and red-tailed black cockatoos) stopped us in our tracks while we oohed and ahhed their every move. It’s the perfect escape from the city bustle, with so many chances to pause and soak it all in.
In the end, the bartender was right. But missing our train didn’t sour our mood. We laughed as we walked out of breath back to the pub, past locals literally applauding our efforts. Our spirits lifted as we came back to our spot to find my half-finished beer still on the table. We ordered a second round and settled in to watch the setting sun and wait for the 7:30 train. And you know what? It wasn’t a bad place to have to spend another hour.
Judging by the fact that two different locals asked us how we found it, I’m guessing the Bondi Icebergs Swimming Club is somewhat of a hidden gem. At $5.50AU per adult for a scenic oceanside swim, I’d say it’s a steal. Since 1929, the saltwater pool has given people the chance to swim laps (sans-sharks) by the sea, with crashing waves spilling in and seagulls flying overhead. The bar upstairs, perfect for a glass of wine and breathtaking view after a swim, doesn’t hurt either.
Unfortunately for us, the weather in Sydney had been unseasonably chilly for mid-summer, even moreso at Bondi Beach where the wind was blowing unforgivingly. After watching the swimmers for several minutes and seriously contemplating a hot coffee instead, we decided that leaving without a dip would be a regrettable choice. So we paid the small fee, changed into our swimsuits, and braved the chilly turquoise waters.
It really wasn’t all that cold once you got in and moved around, but my fingers didn’t get the memo. Within a couple of minutes, my wedding band abruptly slipped off (for the first time ever) and sank. Immediately, I stopped and flagged down a nearby lap-swimmer and asked if he could find my ring. His eyes weren’t too good, he told me, but he tried briefly anyway, returning empty-handed. Surrendering his goggles, Kristen dove down and within her first breath, surprised both of us and found it no time (see her face in the video: genuine disbelief upon surfacing). Good thing too, because if I'd lost it, she would’ve had a fit.
Cheers to this local who lent us his goggles:
During our post-swim de-stressing sauna session, we chatted with an expat from Tucson who has lived in Sydney for 8 years (spoiler alert: he loves it). He recommended Nina’s Ploy Thai for dinner, so we took his advice and, after a short walk down the beach, found the BYO hole-in-the-wall restaurant filled with decidedly Australian locals. The bare, white walls and simple tablescapes (read: a box of tissues) made us feel right at home. We ordered duck noodle soup and drunk noodles, and savored every mouth-watering bite.
To round out our Bondi bonding time, we strolled over to Gelato Messina, a top-notch cold treat destination that our goggle lender had raved to us about. The open-air “bar” felt like a movie premiere, with excited fans queueing up and spilling onto the sidewalk. Our espresso/chocolate and pear/rhubarb scoops were decadent and delicious. As we walked off in search of a bus back to our hotel, very full and very happy, we had absolutely zero regrets.
Disclosure: Even though I'm traveling in Australia on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton for my DTour of a Lifetime, what I write about is up to me.
It’s about the journey… not the destination.
Sure, you could take the ferry to Manly, a funky upscale surftown northeast of Sydney. Or, you could go at your own pace on the four-hour Manly Scenic Walkway (MSW). The first step for us was a bus ride about 30 minutes or so from city center, darting over the landmark Harbour Bridge with quick peeks at the tips of the famed Opera House and charming, hilly neighborhoods. At the second bridge, called the Spit, we hopped off (or, as they say here, “alighted” - new word for us) to let our feet do the rest of the job.
The MSW is a 9.5km path that winds along the varied coastline of the middle and north harbour between Spit Bridge and its namesake peninsular suburb (stay tuned for jokes about manliness), cutting right through the Sydney Harbour National Park. The walk showcases some of the city's best outdoorsy assets, including beaches, forests, rock formations, a waterfall, and even some wild animals.
Our walk began in lush tropical greenery, with large leaves encroaching on the path and small lizards eyeing us nervously as we brushed by. They seemed like a cross between iguanas and bearded dragons; we later found out they’re basically just that, called Eastern Water Dragons. With each sighting, the lizards got bigger and bigger. A sudden wave of fear washed over us. “Oh crap,” we thought, “We’re hiking in Australia, where everything can kill us.” But the anxiety soon subsided and we continued on, only slightly weary of impending doom from poisonous creatures.
Happy families played at the beaches and friendly locals passed us on the trail with warm smiles and waves. Weaving in and out of coves, climbing up and down wooden steps, and catching spectacular views was the standard. During the final stretch, we even stole glimpses of a few kookaburras (iconic Australian birds), who called attention to themselves with their monkey-like cackling.
Arriving in Manly brought on a change of scenery: hordes of tourists and locals (Manly men and women), most in swimsuits and flip-flops. Around town we saw a Manly Italian restaurant, Manly salon, and even a Manly pharmacy (their number-one seller is, I presume, testosterone). Wet-suited surfers were out catching waves and strutting their Manly-ness.
We were famished, so we bee-lined through the crowded esplanade and right into the first oceanside eatery serving fish and chips. The Fish Shack, with its chalkboard signage and hand-painted wall art, was proud to serve only sustainably-caught seafood, so we were immediately on-board. We opted for local Manly beers and the national specialty of barramundi - Kristen’s beer-battered and fried, mine grilled (perhaps not the Manly-est of choices). After a four-hour hike, it was exactly what we needed.
The return ferry back to Sydney took much less time than our exhausting walk, but it was a perfect way to end the day. We sat lazily and shuttled past the same cliffs and coves that we had laboriously trekked through hours earlier, catching a much different perspective of the beautiful bay. Further on, our new and improved view of the Sydney Opera House was a welcome reward for a long day of hard work.
Disclosure: I'm traveling on a #DTour in Australia on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton, but it's totally cool because I still do and write about the things that interest me. Hope you enjoy it!
One day in Sydney, and we're already in love.
After a slight visa mishap at LAX followed by a surprisingly restful 14-hour flight across the Pacific, we were whisked away from the airport in a black BMW, and delivered to the stunning Hilton Sydney in the Central Business District. At the reception desk, it was hard not to stare up into the ceiling, mouth agape, stealing looks at the giant wire sculpture that dominates the atrium (to us it began to resemble campfire smoke billowing upwards). Our slightly disheveled travel attire seemed out of place in the shiny lobby, so we took advantage of my new HHonors Gold Member status and retreated to the 36th floor executive lounge to wait for our room. By 11am, our suite was ready.
As a home base in Sydney, the Hilton couldn’t be any better situated. It’s in the heart of city center, surrounded by shopping options, a block from the gorgeous Hyde Park, and a short walk to nearly everything. Once we were settled and refreshed, we stepped out through big revolving doors (they spin the other direction!) on a mission for the one thing I really needed: a haircut. My enormous winter beard was in need of some taming and, after all, it’s summer here.
A 15-minute stroll through the park landed us in hip Darlinghurst, a quiet neighborhood by day full of young, fit hipsters, cafes and bars, and interesting street art. With its tree-lined streets and diverse architecture, Darlinghurst seems to be the perfect city neighborhood.
Walking into Sedition, a hole-in-the-wall barbershop, feels a little overwhelming at first. The two-seat shop is filled floor to ceiling with loud, playful, anti-establishment work: giant papier mache phalluses plastered with repeated words (a series of "financial" works called his "Stimulus Package") looms over the interior doorway; plastic zip-tie flowers with colorful plastic petals; canvases of colored duct tape. It's as much an artist's studio as it is a barbershop.
Mick, the owner/barber/artist was quiet and laid-back, with bright, thoughtful eyes and quick hands. Music pulsed through the shop. With minimal direction, he sculpted my winter shag into something a bit more suitable for summertime. It was truly the best cut I've had in years.
Newly liberated from my beard, which had grown a bit unwieldy and had hampered my eating for 3 months, I was excited to sink my teeth into a good burger. So when we stumbled into Grill'd, a local grass-fed burger chain, demonstrating that fast food can be done locally, sustainably, and ethically, it felt as if the stars had aligned. We quickly ordered a Baa Baa Burger to split: lamb, avocado, cheese, spicy mayo, lettuce, tomato. Served on a sourdough roll (sandwich-style), it hit the spot bigtime.
Next up, drinks. We ventured back toward a place we had passed earlier and plopped down on some stools at Pocket Bar, a cozy hipster-saloon with plenty of character: large pop art painted onto the walls; sheet music plastered along the ceiling; deep-set bookcases supporting the glass-top shadowbox bar; knick knacks worthy of any vintage consignment store lining every inch of every shelf. Being the only patrons at 4:30 in the afternoon, we had the chance to chat up both bartenders while sipping cocktails. The first one asked if we were meth heads after hearing we were from New Mexico (Breaking Bad fan). The second gave us helpful tips about avoiding death in Australia (which is everywhere). And we even got a couple on-the-house drinks.
Before leaving the neighborhood, we decided to grab a quick bite at Red Lantern, owned by Luke Nguyen, an Australian-Vietnamese celebrity chef we have watched on Cooking Channel. The Bun Thit, lemongrass pork and herbs you roll up in lettuce and eat with your hands, was rather expensive for what it is, but also the best Vietnamese food we’ve eaten since Hanoi.
By that time, the jet lag was catching up with us and we reluctantly started back to the hotel. Walking back through Hyde park at sundown had a different feel, so we lingered. Street performers, skateboarders, tourists and Sydneysiders alike were enjoying the mild summer evening among the tall trees. People were even lined up for the Stonehenge moonbounce, part of the ongoing Sydney Festival. Huge bats flew overhead. Huge, like the size of our cat, with wings. Sitting on a bench until night officially fell, we realized that Sydney already held us in its spell. We could get used to this.
Take a look at our first day in Sydney in action:
Disclosure: I am traveling in Australia on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton, but no worries, they just booked my airfare and hotels; what I do and what I write about is all me.
2013 was an unusually lucky year for me. My winning streak included: free tickets to a concert in Denver, an awesome tote bag from Sweetgreen, and best of all, a three-week trip to Australia sponsored by DoubleTree by Hilton, now just days away from reality.
Just after Christmas, a care package from DoubleTree arrived on the doorstep. Among the goodies, a brand new GoPro Hero 3+ Silver Edition. And yes, I get to keep it. Needless to say, I am unbelievably excited to head out in less than a week and share my adventures along the way. And get this, Kristen is coming with me!
The stars aligned for five other DTourists, and already I've witnessed three fellow travelers take their turns. Jenn Winter toured Europe, Virginia Stuart-Taylor traversed North America, and Jenny Lowthrop ventured across Africa. Soon it'll be my turn. (Look out for MJ Tam in Asia and Megan Donoghue in South America.)
Here's a quick rundown. Kristen and I will kick off our 20-day trip in the big city of Sydney. Next, we'll go to Brisbane, where I'll be treated to a private surf lesson. Further north, we'll go to Cairns for a first-hand look at the Great Barrier Reef. Our fourth stop will be Alice Springs, epicenter of the Outback. Finally, we'll head to Darwin for more tropical and beachy stuff. It's gonna be epic.
Now that I've read Bill Bryson's "In a Sunburned Country" and watched a few DVDs about Australia, I'm nervous and excited all at the same time. The continent sounds incredibly diverse and beautiful, as well as pretty dangerous. According to Bryson, "five of Australia's creatures — the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish — are the most lethal of their type in the world." Good thing I like extreme things; I gladly accept the challenge. And if a deadly creature does get the best of me, at least it'll all be captured on camera.
Full disclosure: I'm traveling to Australia as a DTourist on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton, but don't worry, they don't own me. All of the content is mine, and I promise I'll be sharing my honest opinions.