It’s Called the Mountains…

Back in June and July, life was a little hectic. We went to Alaska with my parents, my friend Lane came to visit, we went to Bali, and then I started grad school. I slacked a bit on this dear little blog, so I want to go back and revisit some of the adventures from this winter! (In case you forgot, the seasons are switched Down Under.)

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While Lane was here, we decided to take a day trip to the Blue Mountains. We’d heard lovely things and decided to check out the views for ourselves. We made two mistakes early on in our journey.

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First, don’t ever sit in the first or last carriage of a Sydney train unless you are alone or desperate for some quiet. Lane and I learned this the hard way. We boarded the Blue Mountains Line train to Katoomba at Central Station, excited for our adventure and surprisingly energetic for the early morning hour. We settled into our seats for the two hour train ride, just chatting away. We noticed this older woman, who vaguely resembled Professor Umbridge in her pink beret, gesticulating wildly at us and tapping the window repeatedly. She was glaring at us. We followed her pointing to a sign that clearly (and politely) stated that this was a “quiet carriage” and passengers should please keep talking to a minimum. Oops.

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We waited in silence (with lots of eye rolling and semi-silent giggling) until the train got to the next stop, ran out of the quiet carriage, and re-boarded in a normal one. Why didn’t we just walk through the connecting doors, you may ask? Because we literally couldn’t escape the quiet carriage! Everywhere we went, there were still signs. While we were waiting for the next stop, some boys down quite a bit from the Umbridge lookalike and her husband were talking and laughing until Umbridge’s husband bounded out of his seat, down the stairs, and shouted (in his polite Aussie voice) “I don’t like what you are doing and I wish that you would stop it Right. Now.” We died.

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I forced Lane to be in this picture. But seriously, how cute is that new puffy vest? 

If boarding the quiet carriage was mistake number one, we became aware of mistake number two immediately upon exiting the train at Katoomba Station. The temperatures had been in the high-60’s to low-70’s in Sydney pretty consistently, so we thought we would be fine in long sleeves and fleece pullovers in case it was cooler in the mountains. Well, it was cooler, by about 15 degrees. Despite being from Michigan, Lane is a giant baby when it comes to the cold, so we immediately headed into a hiking shop across the street to purchase some additional layers. While perusing a rack of puffy vests, we explained to the shopkeeper that it was much colder here than we were used to in Sydney. He kind of stared blankly at us and then said, “… it’s called the mountains.”

Armed with a cute, and warm, new puffy vest, we headed for Echo Point Lookout. The view was easily worth getting chastised on the train and freezing a bit. It was absolutely stunning.

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We decided to do a medium-difficulty hike that allegedly involved descending over 900 steps, and then continuing in a flat walk along the valley floor, until we came to a cable car that would take us up the incline to Scenic World. The steps were pretty intense, with most consisting of various-sized rocks and not actual stairs, but we were going down which was much easier than going up. We caught up to a group of middle-school aged kids who were not quite enjoying the experience. One kid in the back of the group decided this was “idiotic” and “not fun AT ALL.” Hah!

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Once we finished with the steps, our legs were excited to stretch out on this supposedly flat walk. However, what the woman in the visitor’s center failed to mention that was throughout the flat bits of the path, there were approximately 500 more steps and more steep inclines than could possible be part of any walk I would call “flat.” Luckily it was a gorgeous day, and after over a year of not seeing each other in person, we had plenty to discuss and enjoy along the way. Overall it was a fabulous hike– just not described quite accurately.

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Once we made it to the (world’s steepest!) cable car, we were kind of tired. We enjoyed a scary ride to the top of the mountain and had some fish and chips in the cafe. From Scenic World we took the trail back towards Echo Point, which involved hundreds (I kid you not) more stairs. Except for one moment when I refused to continue if there were more stairs ahead (spoiler alert: there were) I survived, and thankfully Lane the CrossFit champ kept me motivated. After our day of nature and adventure, we were happy to relax on the train ride (safely in a talking-allowed carriage) back to the city!

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To the Lighthouse

Donnie and I took on an interesting challenge for the month of May: No spending money on anything other than groceries and transportation.

Traveling is a major priority for us while living in Australia, so we wanted to see if we could save money while still enjoying our new home and not being boring homebodies. While Australia, specifically Sydney, is one of the most expensive places in the world, it turns out it is almost one of the best places for fun, free activities.

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One of the top places on my “free in Sydney” list was the Barrenjoey Lighthouse in Palm Beach. Palm Beach is located right at the tip top of the Northern Beaches, about 20 km from our neighborhood. We hopped on the bus and settled in for the hour-long journey.

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The lighthouse sits in the Ku-ring-gai National Park, where it was built in 1881. To get to the top, we took what was described as “an easy 1 km walking trail” to the top. The walking trail was short and paved, so there was no real hiking involved, but the trail was at one of the steepest grades I’ve ever encountered. There’s a chance we took a few “Oh look at that beautiful view” breaks that were poorly disguised “gotta catch my breath” breaks on the way up.

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Once we reached the top, the views were unbelievable. It’s supposed to be a great place to spot whales, but we didn’t have binoculars so we were unable to see if there were any passing by. With the bay on one side and the sea on the other, you are almost completely surrounded by water.

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It was an absolutely lovely day to sit and enjoy the views once we reached the lighthouse. Our late fall (or autumn, since “fall” isn’t really a thing here) has been almost consistently mid-70’s temperatures and warm, bright sunshine, so we’ve been spending as much as time outside as possible.

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While we were enjoying the lovely panoramas, I was overcome with gratitude. Australia is truly the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, and I have the freedom and opportunity to explore and enjoy each day here. My life has changed significantly in the three months I’ve called Australia home. I am surprised and thrilled with the direction my life is heading, and Australia is the gorgeous catalyst for those changes.

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As for our May challenge, we did great! With the exception of a ballet and a Swans (Aussie Rules Football) game, which we had bought tickets for prior to May, we limited our spending to groceries, transportation, and a few necessary household items. I was shocked at how much money we were able to save without feeling like we were sacrificing anything. The best part is planning the trips we’ll be able to take! I also got a part-time job this month, which has been really fun while also contributing to our travel fund. I’m teaching Kindy to Year 6 students in private and small-group literacy lessons. My kiddos are adorable and the center where I’m teaching is fabulous with really great materials, curriculum, and support. The hours are flexible and should work well with my class schedule once my masters program begins in late July.

May has been a pretty fabulous month!

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We’re All Going to the Zoo Tomorrow

Did you guys ever sing that song when you were little? “We’re all going to the zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow! We’re all going to the zoo tomorrow…” My favorite part was always, “…and we can stay all day!” Maybe because I loved this song, or because my Mama knows everything about every animal and made zoo trips into the most fun adventures, or maybe because animals are awesome, but I’ve always loved zoos. I’ve been to lots of the best zoos: Memphis, St. Louis, San Diego, Lincoln Park, even Prague, but the Taronga Zoo in Sydney comes in at my absolute favorite zoo in the world.

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The Taronga Zoo is located in Mossman, a short ferry ride from Circular Quay. If you’re planning to visit, you can use your Opal card to board the zoo ferry– no need to stand in line and pay for separate tickets (like we did because I’m dumb.) Donnie and I enjoyed some sun on the lovely ride over (and those are not our feet.)

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Once we docked, we walked up some stairs to board the Sky Safari. The Sky Safari is a motorized gondola that takes visitors to the top of the zoo. The zoo is built on a very steep incline, so starting at the top allows you to walk down as you progress. Donnie and I shared our gondola with a kind of creepy, pretty sweaty man who refused to even say hi. But we still enjoyed the views on our ride up!

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Once at the top of the zoo, we followed the main path down around the habitats. We got to see a koala walking across a tree branch, which is pretty rare, as koalas sleep about 20 hours a day and are almost always sitting, sleeping, or eating.

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The zoo was so shady, with paths covered by luscious foliage and pretty flowers. The animal habitats were large, well-maintained, and most of the animals were up and about as the day was nice and cool. The paths were pretty easy to follow, although we did somehow miss some of the Australian Wild area, even though Donnie memorized the map and was a great navigator!

The most impressive views are at the giraffe enclosure. Also, the giraffes were hilarious and really fun to watch.

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After pulling ourselves away from our long-necked buddies, we moved on to visit some more animals. It was hilarious listening to the little kids running around the zebras yelling about the “zeh-brahs!”

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The highlight of the day was the seal and sea lion show! They had three seals, one from California, one from New Zealand, and one from somewhere I can’t remember. Donnie had never seen a seal show, so he really loved it. The seals waved, jumped off the dock, jumped super high, splashed the audience, and were all around adorable.

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We spent an absolutely magical afternoon at the Taronga Zoo. I plan on acquiring season passes and bringing all of our visitors here. The only thing that would make this place better is if they had some pandas!

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All the Best Food

Finding the “good food” is an important part of any trip. It can be challenging in some areas (Evansville, IN I’m looking at you) or plentiful in others, like Charleston, SC, where I’m pretty sure I could spend months visiting different restaurants and never run out of delectable options. I’d read a lot about Sydney and the surrounding area before we moved here, so I was aware of the vast international presence that exists, both in population and culinary options. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how good the food is here.

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Food here surprised me in both quality and quantity. There are numerous restaurants, even in small areas, and a vast variety of types of food: Thai, Italian, Vietnamese, fish and chip shops, seafood, Chinese, Malaysian, Mexican, and probably dozens more. Except for Mexican food, which is woefully lacking in cheese dip and LP Specials, everything we’ve encountered here has been fresh, authentic, and delicious.

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Thai 

If I have a kryptonite, it is chili jam chicken stirfry with cashews. This dish is the perfect balance of sweet and spicy, with plenty of veggies (although in Australia they spell vegie with one “g”) and perfectly roasted cashews. I’ve ordered this dish with rice, eaten it by itself, and also with wide, flat noodles– it’s incredible all three ways. Apparently I’ve never been able to take a picture without diving in, so here’s a beautiful Pad Thai to fill in.

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The Thai food we’ve had here puts anything I’ve ever tried in Nashville to shame, including my beloved Thai Phoo Ket. Maybe I’m just really hungry, but I would say the Thai food alone is worth the plane ticket to Sydney. And that’s a long flight.

Italian

Australia has a pretty significant Italian influence, which has resulted in two glorious treasures: pizza and coffee.

The pizzas here are very different from American-style pizza. If you’ve been to Europe, especially Italy specifically, you’ve probably encountered the wonder that is the thin, crispy yet chewy, wood-fired pizza with fresh toppings. My favorite is a tie between traditional Margherita (tomato base, super fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil) or ham and pineapple. There are also loads of more “adventurous” style pizzas, including the Tandoori Chicken with mint-yoghurt drizzle (pictured below), prawn and seafood, and interestingly enough, a “Coat of Arms” pizza that features meat from Australia’s coat of arms– emu and kangaroo. Can’t say that I’ll be digging in to that last one anytime soon.

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And about Australian coffee. Let’s just say it lives up to its reputation. I honestly can’t compare the coffee here with Italian coffee (mostly because my idea of coffee, when I spent two weeks in Italy at age 20, consisted of a French Vanilla Bean frappuccino from Starbucks) but it is an entirely different substance than what we consume in America. Everything is espresso-based and treated with care and precision.

I was very skeptical before trying coffee here, especially since I had become somewhat dependent on my morning drip coffee, usually consumed black or with one sweetener. Then I tasted my first flat white, and I haven’t looked back. Coffee is an art in Sydney, and it is taken very seriously, with incredible results.

Chinese

A few weeks ago, Donnie and ferried over to the CBD and went in search of the lauded yum cha I’d read so much about. Yum cha, literally “drink tea,” is a term used to describe the brunch-like meal originated in Cantonese-speaking areas of China. We usually hear this referred to as “dim sum” in the States, which translates to “touch the heart” and is a description of the wide variety of options available on the menu– anyone can find a dish they love.

After a bit of research, I landed on Marigold (which was then confirmed as “one of the best for yum cha” by our Australian dining partner on our cruise) for our first foray into “Chinese Brunch.” We took the train from Circular Quay to Town Hall and walked the 15 or so minutes into the heart of Haymarket, home to Sydney’s Chinatown. We entered a brick building, waited with a small crowd for an elevator, and journeyed to the top 5th floor. The doors opened on a large, bright room packed with diners and a long line of patrons waiting for a table.

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The woman in charge was all business, bustling customers to tables with impressive efficiency. As a result, we were seated within minutes of joining the long queue. Then the fun began!

Servers passed through with carts full of mostly steamed delights. We began accepting dishes and requesting bamboo baskets full of dumplings, buns, and all kinds of treats.

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My favorite item was the silky, piping-hot prawn dumplings, while Donnie was taken with the pork dumplings, and we were both obsessed with these lightly fried noodles dipped in a peanut butter-chocolate sauce. Marigold boasts a busy, loud, and simply fun atmosphere. Tables were packed with friends catching up, families enjoying time out, and the occasional couples. Every dish was fresh and very hot, and the pot of tea I enjoyed was light and fragrant. Yum cha was definitely an experience that I would recommend any visitor to Sydney enjoy, and I would highly recommend Marigold.

Fruit and Veg

Now that we are settled in our apartment, we’ve been cooking at home each night instead of going out to eat. It’s honestly been very enjoyable to explore Aussie grocery stores and have a kitchen at my disposal again, even if my new kitchen is approximately 1/5 the size of my previous kitchen. I’ve been impressed by the quality of the fresh produce at our disposal and the prices are quite reasonable (for most items.) Some fun new things I’ve had to learn include converting recipe measurements from cups to millileters, pounds to kilograms (I almost ordered over 2 pounds of deli turkey on accident!) and figuring out new names for common items (a bell pepper is a capsicum, ketchup is tomato sauce, and cantaloupe is rock melon.) Overall, food here is incredibly fresh and almost everything is free from preservatives.

Also, the major grocery stores deliver your shopping to your door, which is an absolute miracle, especially when you hate grocery shopping as much as I do!

Saturday in Sydney

Saturday dawned bright and clear, a perfect day for some city exploration. Donnie and I got ready and jumped on the “fast ferry” to Circular Quay. There are several options for getting to Sydney from Manly Beach, which is where we are currently living. There are two ferries– a regular one and a fast one. We pay a little more to ride the fast ferry ($17 for a return ticket/person) because it is nicer, takes half the time as the other ferry, and you can sit on the front of the boat to enjoy the view and the occasional sea spray. You also get a killer view of the skyline as you come into the harbour.

IMG_2740.jpgOnce we disembarked, we headed beyond the Opera House to the vast Royal Botanic Gardens. These gardens are beautiful, with all kinds of exotic and endangered plants and trees, as well as flowers, statues, and sculptures. We meandered through the gardens with the goal of visiting the Government House and then continuing to a rock formation known as Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.

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IMG_2758.jpgWell, we ended up a little lost, and the building we thought was the historical Government House was actually an InterContinental Hotel. We ventured back into the garden to find our way. We discovered a beautiful section of flowers and Donnie found a map, so we were well on our way.

IMG_2762.jpgThe sun was out in full force. I put on sunscreen (or suncream as they call it here) but conveniently forgot my face. Oops. We finally made it to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. This sandstone bench was carved by convicts in in 1810 for the then-governor’s wife. There are some of the best harbour views from this point.

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IMG_2784There was a lovely breeze and lots of shade, so Donnie and I took a little break by the water to soak in the sights and sounds. There is something utterly peaceful about the sound of water punctuated by Aussie songbirds. You can also see my lovely sunburn setting in.

IMG_2788After our little rest, we headed back to Circular Quay to find a Hop On-Hop Off bus. We still hadn’t seen much of Sydney beyond the harbour and we wanted to understand how things were laid out.

While buying tickets for the tour bus, one of the teenage girls working the ticket booth asked Donnie where we were from. When he said Nashville she exclaimed, “Ah! I watch that show all the time! I feel a little starstruck.” Hah!

We hopped on the bus and enjoyed a narrated tour through the CBD. We learned that we’ve basically been pronouncing everything wrong: Bondi is Bond-eye not Bond-ee, Macquarie is MahCory not MaKerry, and I still can’t say Woolloomooloo, though we learned that it’s an Aboriginal word for “baby kangaroo.”

IMG_2797After our tour we felt like we had a much better handle on the city, and we’ve planned several trips to different areas for future weekends. I’m really excited for Chinatown yum cha (what we call dim sum in America) and taking my picture with a koala at the Sydney Wild Life Zoo.

After our busy day, we were happy to grab some gelato and hop back on the fast ferry to Manly.

Do you have any suggestions for things to do in the Sydney area?

Best sunscreen that doesn’t make your face break out? (This is becoming a daily necessity.)