Racing and Remembrance

Arriving in Melbourne after the peace and tranquillity of the Wolgan Valley was a real shock to the system. We were staying in the Crown complex on the South Bank and all I can say is that it was hell on the Saturday night. It was the end of Australia’s most famous racing festival so the complex was packed with race goers, stag and hen parties, several weddings and gamblers aiming to win their fortunes in the casino. The noise was an assault on the eardrums. There were women in hats and fascinators, some dressed as showgirls complete with feather headdresses and men in shorts and flip flops (or thongs as they are known here). Not the best start for the next five days.

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It did improve. On the Sunday morning we found that the hotel was rapidly emptying of the weekend hordes. The sun was shining so off we went on a tram ride to sample the seaside delights of St Kilda. We passed the home of the Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park on the way.
Like Manly, this was a town that reminded me of seaside resorts of a past era. The buildings were showing their age and there was feeling of neglect. Despite this there were crowds of people. The Sunday Craft Market (which my husband told me was really a ‘hippy market’) stretched along the pavement. There was everything from jewellery to hot chilli sauces – artisan this and authentic that.
The scary clown at the entrance to Luna Park sent chills down my spine which contrasted with the screams and laughter coming from inside this traditional amusement park. Alongside is a community garden which looked as if it should belong to another era (think the 1960’s). Lovingly tended and a real asset to St Kilda.

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As it was Sunday we felt the need to indulge in a Sunday Roast and we found an establishment that could provide. Nothing beats roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes when you are feeling a tad homesick. A walk along the prom to burn up the calories brought us to a small colony of Little Penguins. Hiding under the breakwater they are most active in the evening but we still managed to catch a glimpse of them during the day.

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Monday was hot, very hot and we spent some time in Fitzroy Gardens trying to find some shade. The family home of Captain James Cook is here, having been dismantled in Great Ayton and transported to Melbourne. A little piece of England in Australia. It was a chance to catch up with an ex-work colleague who emigrated ten years ago and hear how she has prospered, taking every opportunity offered and enjoying a lifestyle which wouldn’t be possible in the UK.


No visit to Australia would be complete without a visit to the Yarra Valley vineyards so off we went. Our tour guide, who purported to be an ex-sommelier, talked us through the wine tasting experience before we started on an array of wines in each vineyard. The Yarra Valley is beautiful and it was another very hot day. On our tour we visited some small producers; Punt Road, Yering Farm and Soumah where we had lunch.

Our final vineyard was Domaine Chandon – part of the Moet and Chandon conglomerate. A tour of the production plant ended with a choice of one of the sparkling wines they produced. This vineyard was extremely busy due to the Chandon connection. All of the vineyards afforded stunning views of the Yarra Valley. By the end of the day I was sick of the taste of wine and one just blended into another. I am sure if they had given me a glass of cheap plonk I wouldn’t have known the difference.


Wednesday took us to the Shrine of Remembrance. Having missed the British Remembrance Day we had our own service. There is a short act of remembrance every half hour where they reproduce the sunlight moving across the stone. The playing of The Last Post and the reading of part of ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon was extremely moving especially when you are so far from home. It brought back memories of my Granda telling me he learnt to swim in the Nile when he was a soldier in the First World War and my Dad’s brother William killed in action in the Battle of Asiago in Italy in 1918. It was important for me to reflect on the solemnity of the event but there were those around us who filmed everything on their mobile phones.

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We then sampled the delights of the Botanical Gardens including tea and scones overlooking the small lake. In the background there was a rock band doing a sound test for later that evening. We subsequently discovered that Take That were also in town playing at the Rod Laver Arena.


Melbourne is a great place for food and we had some really good meals, namely Lucy Liu Kitchen and Bar and Red Spice Road.
I am beginning to think that Australia is a building site. After the fiasco that was George Street in Sydney I found the iconic Flinders Street Railway Station shrouded in tarpaulin undergoing restoration works. I am sure it will look amazing when it is complete. It would have been good to ‘meet under the clock’ which is a Melbourne tradition but sadly it was not to be.
We came to see Australia’s cities and you can’t visit cities without going shopping. Melbourne has some quirky shopping arcades including this one, the Royal Arcade with statues of Gog and Magog.

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Christmas was beginning to emerge and the equivalent of Fenwick’s Christmas windows namely Meyer’s department store was attracting young and old alike. The only difference being the temperature, which was in the low 30s.
Our next stop is Brisbane.

Paradise and Kangaroos

A two hour drive into the Blue Mountains from Sydney took me to a place I had only dreamed about. Set in the Wolgan Valley, the Emirates One & Only resort is surrounded by rock escarpments under deep blue skies.

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I wanted to see a different part of Australia from the big cities and this two day stay did not disappoint. We stayed in a ‘Heritage Villa’ which sounds as if they are authentic homesteads from the 1800’s. They are definitely not. Gas fires built to heat both the lounge and bedroom, four poster bed and a bathroom where the bath looked out across the valley. There is an original homestead where it is alleged that Charles Darwin once stayed. A more rustic affair. To me this was my own little piece of paradise. I came here not for the luxury but the wildlife. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see what the valley has to offer.

Homestead
Dragging myself away from the villa I encountered wallabies or were they wallaroos or kangaroos? By the end of my stay I knew the difference. A large, furry creature was ambling across the field – a wombat that had emerged from its underground home. When I was a child in the 1960’s there was a programme on a Sunday – the Tingha and Tucker Club – two koala bear glove puppets and Willy the Wombat, all of the memories came flooding back and I recall joining the club and receiving a boomerang which never worked!

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In the evening we attended the Stargazing talk. Being in the southern hemisphere I expected the sky to be different but the Plough was still there and this made me think of my Dad who was the first person to show me this constellation. Because there was no light pollution we saw Magellanic Clouds which are dwarf galaxies only visible in the southern hemisphere. A magical moment.
The following morning I was up early and sat on the steps outside the villa watching the wallabies having an early morning feed. It was cold and there was dew on the grass and droplets of moisture on the wattle bushes. A stillness pervaded the valley and it was a time for contemplation and appreciation of the beauty of nature. My feet became cold and I attempted to go inside but couldn’t get in.  I had inadvertently locked myself out. Knowing my dearly beloved was fast asleep I patiently waited another 30 minutes in the cold before knocking on the bedroom window to be let in. The waiting time was spent watching three crimson rosellas in the trees above the creek.
After a hearty breakfast of porridge which made me feel like Goldilocks eating Daddy Bear’s porridge we prepared ourselves for the day. We kitted ourselves out in long walking trousers and stout walking boots as the ranger who briefed us told us this would protect us from snake bites. Yikes. We also had to take a radio in case of emergencies. They weren’t really selling the experience with all this risk mitigation but off we went for a leisurely 10 mile hike.
The air was clear and the sky a deep blue with the sun high above the mountains. Under all the trees were family groups of kangaroos. There was always a male at the front – standing up straight and showing us who was boss! Joeys were hopping around until they saw the perceived danger and proceeded to disappear, head first, into their mothers’ pouches. How I longed to see one peeping out at me. As a child who watched Skippy the Bush Kangaroo this was the ultimate in kangaroo viewing.
There were wombat holes everywhere and armies of ants across the whole area. Fortunately we didn’t encounter any snakes. Tucked under the trees were the smaller, shy wallabies that watched us for a while and then bounced off into the forests of eucalyptus and cypress. The air smelt of resin and reminded me of home. There were curious squiggles on some of the tree trunks and I learned that they were Scribbly Gum trees. The marks were caused by the larvae of the Scribbly Gum Moth.

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Although we could hear birds in the trees they were elusive, apart from the magpies and pigeons which were ever present during our stay. There were beautiful plants which appeared in clearings in the eucalyptus forests.

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On the final day I was out early to see the wildlife feeding before the sun became too hot. I walked for over two hours taking in the wildlife, landscape and the memories of this place.

On a wooden post sat a Laughing Kookaburra and I remembered a song from my time in the Brownies:
Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree,
Merry, merry king of the bush is he,
Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra,
Gay your life must be

The variety of birds was amazing; Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, Fairy Wrens, White Naped Honeyeaters, Australian Wood Ducks, Dusky Moorhens and the incredibly Noisy Friarbirds.
Towards the end of my walk I was rewarded with the sight of a kangaroo family and a joey peeping out of its mother’s pouch.

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The two day experience was unique; memories made and memories retrieved from my childhood. A place that will stay with me forever.

 

Jacaranda and Jasmine

Flying into Sydney I was enthralled by the purple trees below. What were they? Our taxi driver from the airport told me they are Jacaranda trees and said that there was a tale about a midwife in Sydney giving a tree to the parents of every newborn. That is the reason for so many in the city. On a return trip in a taxi the story changed, to each district giving those who became citizens of Australia a jacaranda tree for their garden. Who knows which is the correct story of the trees.

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Sydney was not welcoming. It was cold and raining and the newspapers told me it was the coldest November weekend in ten years. Great. The Opera House and Harbour Bridge were wrapped in grey clouds and I was enveloped in a fleece and waterproof. Our hotel was just off George Street. I had heard great tales of what a wonderful street it was. The problem is George Street is a building site – a new tram line is being installed, already over budget and running over time. You couldn’t see from one side of the street to the other due to the hoardings. Very disappointing. It got worse. No one seemed to be working on it through the day but night time the jack hammers came out in force and sleep, at times, evaded me.
So what did I see? Other than the obvious ‘Big Two’ I spent a very leisurely time on a lunchtime cruise around the harbour. I found out where Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett live (Finger Wharf in Woollooloo if you’re interested). The house where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman used to live (I wasn’t impressed), and the fact that Prince Harry likes the Shangri La hotel when he visits Australia. A barbecue lunch with Australian wines shared with other tourists – one English couple, the rest American and a crew member who was born in Byker.

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We took the Hop On/Hop Off bus to the Fish Market. Yes, I am becoming a bit obsessed with these tourist buses but they are a great way of seeing parts of the city without ending up with aching feet. This was the place for oysters and fish platters – both at a reasonable cost – unlike the rest of Sydney.
The Rocks, apart from being very touristy and expensive has some hidden gems. Susannah Place is a line of cottages decked out in furniture and fittings from a bygone age. For my North East readers think Beamish in miniature. The houses were tiny but were still lived in up until the 1990’s. The end property was also a shop selling such things as Tunnocks Wafers and Teacakes. What’s that all about? As well as household implements from another era – wooden pegs, carpet beaters and brooms.

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The harbour seemed to be constantly occupied by a cruise ship (four while we were there). The daily expulsion of its inhabitants swelled the tourist population and like Venice they ebbed away when the ship sailed off into the Pacific.
We had the misfortune of being in Sydney on Melbourne Cup day – hotels were offering Melbourne Cup special deals with champagne and competitions for the best dressed on the day. It was the equivalent of Derby Day or Northumberland Plate Day in Newcastle. As with Plate Day the evening casualties were plentiful. Women walking around carrying heels and what were once well dressed men, now looking worse for wear. To cap it all while we were eating in the Rocks the waitress came in from an outside table shouting ‘the man on table 34 has wet himself’. Such class.
Sick of the city on the day before we left we took the ferry to Manly. It was like a British seaside resort from the last century but with surfers. A walk to Shelly Beach and around the North Head Sanctuary gave spectacular views across to Sydney.

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The houses were quaint and many had jasmine hedges. It made you feel as if you were walking through a perfume cloud. In the trees were lorikeets, noisy but colourful. A paddle in the Pacific to ease aching, hot feet was the perfect ending to our few days in Sydney. Like a child waiting for Christmas I was excited for my next location – the Wolgan Valley in the Blue Mountains.

Hot and steamy in Singapore

Don’t get too carried away with the title of the blog. After leaving a cold UK and two seven hour flights with Emirates via Dubai I took my first steps in the Far East.
Singapore is beautiful. Clean with no litter, chewing gum spattered pavements or cigarette butts. Why can’t the UK be like this? The island still has a colonial feel to it in parts and we couldn’t visit without a trip to Raffles for a Singapore Sling at an eye-watering $34 each. I have OCD tendencies and the peanut strewn floor did nothing to help this. As I walked across the bar and felt my feet crunching I wanted to find a brush and sweep the floor clean. Tradition it may be but it just doesn’t seem right in a country so clean. Raffles is looking a bit sad as it is in the midst of renovation work. Hopefully, a return visit to see it in its new clothes will be part of holiday plans in the future.

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The skyline is dominated by the Marina Bay Sands Hotel – why would you build a hotel and put a ship on the top? Is it a 21st Century Noah’s Ark for when the sea level rises and the chosen few can sail off into the sunset?

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My favourite parts of Singapore were the Gardens by the Bay with the Supertrees lit up at night and the Botanical Gardens. Both had a certain magic but for different reasons. Every night there is a light and music extravaganza in the Gardens by the Bay. We arrived just in time to hear the Christmas Edition of the show. Lying horizontal beneath the trees watching the changing lights with the sound of Santa Claus is coming to Town and Last Christmas seemed so wrong in temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius. Unlike the hundreds of people who watched the spectacle through their cameras, I attempted some mindfulness and lived in the moment. Magic.

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Although much is made of the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, I wasn’t too impressed. It was clever how it had all been constructed but the floral displays weren’t that mind blowing and it is really a tourist attraction rather than something for people who admire plants.
The other hand the Botanical Gardens house a wonderful orchid collection which is not to be missed. Although species named after both Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron were looking a little worse for wear. I wonder why? There is a wonderful stillness about the gardens with trees harbouring birds that you never see but hear. You could spend a whole day here just walking around and being at one with nature.


The Hop On/Hop Off Bus is a great way to see the city and we ‘hopped on’ halfway along Orchard Road which was ‘beginning to look a lot like Christmas’ with decorations and Christmas trees everywhere. A quick whizz around Singapore took us past the F1 racetrack, SunTech centre and a swathe of luxurious hotels.

Food is plentiful here with offerings for all tastes. We were lucky to go out for dinner with a past business acquaintance who took us to a fish restaurant next to the beach. Deep fried baby squid, followed by Black Pepper and Chilli Crabs was sublime. A mango dessert served on dry ice added to the spectacle. This was the culinary highlight of our trip.

Sadly we only had two nights here before we were off to the airport and our Qantas flight to Sydney. Having encountered high levels of service with Emirates, the Qantas offering felt a little like Ryanair. Luckily the flight was overnight and a combination of The Seagull by Ann Cleeves to remind me of home and some sleep we were soon landing at Sydney ready for our Australian adventure.