Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Long Weekend in the Land of Oz (subtitle: more pictures, less words - well, I'm trying at least)

We almost didn't get to Sydney this past weekend as planned (rather last-minute when Alex got Monday off for a teacher training day and we used that as an excuse to all play hooky). It was reminiscent of the time we nearly missed our flight to Disneyland because Mark forgot to set the alarm and the kids (much younger then) stood with the saddest looks on their faces when the not-very-nice airline counter lady said, essentially, "Too bad." Luckily, Mark had a connection (read, patient) manning the gate and all was saved.
But I digress and Mark told me to make this next post, "Less New Yorker, more USA Today." I don't think he was talking about writing caliber so much as subtly suggesting: less words, more pictures. So, suffice to say, we had absolutely no idea you needed a visa to travel to Australia for a three-day weekend (an American would not need such a thing to come to NZ, say if they were living for seven months in Australia), but we were informed of this requirement as we checked in less than 40 minutes before our plane's scheduled departure. Apparently, we aren't the only idiots in the world to have done this and Qantas customer service seemed accustomed to issuing last-minute visas which didn't take too long, but long enough that we made it onto the plane with only a few minutes to spare -- and a few jangled nerves. Thank heavens it all worked out because we had a truly fabulous weekend in Sydney, jampacked with food, culture, nature, science, and even a little beachtime.

Arriving early Saturday morning, we headed quickly to the Sydney Tower from which you get a 360 high above the city, which is quite striking with water undulating all around its tall buildings, gardens, and many attractions. (The visit also includes a pair of movies about Australia which involve 3D and moving chairs, a hit with the boys of course.) Oh but first we stopped at David Jones, a big department store known for its food hall - a bit like Harrods but not as posh or huge. We indulged in our favorite snack of bread and cheese. The bread was fine (I've yet to find a great crusty baguette in this hemisphere), but we had two very good Australian cheeses - with the distinctive personality I've been missing so far in NZ cheeses - a natural rind blue from Tarago River and Stokes Point smoked cheddar. We threw in some good salami and chocolates and cookies for dessert. The array of meats, pastries, prepared foods, and cheeses was really impressive, including fruits like spiky rambutans and preppy pink and green dragon fruit, which has to be the most arresting fruit, outside and in, although we bought one later and it looks more interesting than it tastes; it's kind of got a kiwi-like texture, but flavor is just generally a little sweet with not much else going on.Displays of creamy rich Australian yogurt there, and in many stores, were topped with different kinds of fruit and also muesli, sort of evocative of an Italian gelateria (see below).

We continued our day with one of those hop-on, hop-off buses that gave us a good overview of the city, its history and layout, and a chance to rest our legs between explorations. We did get off at the Sydney Fish Market -- the second largest in the world after Tokyo -- for oysters they shuck by the 1000's on a busy weekend day and sashimi sliced to order from hunks of very fresh fish. There were blue crabs, abalone, sea snails, and scallops sitting pristine in their pink shells, big curls of octopus and smaller squiggles of baby octopi, huge whole fish and piles of heads and scraps for stock. Alex managed to conquer his first oyster and I particularly enjoyed the native Sydney rock oysters with their sweet, gentle salinity and frilly-edged white and black shells.

We wound down at the end of the afternoon with a stroll through the beautiful and varied botanic gardens that flow along the water and have fantastic views of the harbour, the harbour bridge (and the crazy people who've paid lots of money to creep gingerly along the top of the bridge), and opera house. Its lawns, groves, and weather-carved sandstone cliffs must have been the site of at least half a dozen weddings on just this one summer afternoon. Between the gorgeous flora and the great numbers of fascinating grey-headed flying foxes (aka fruit bats) hanging and swooping in the trees, we'd turn a corner and come upon yet another couple being photographed.

We were exhausted, having gotten up at 4 am in a time zone two hours ahead, but Mark had found a great performance to attend at the Sydney Opera House so we took power naps, chowed down some food at an outdoor cafe within view of the opera house, buzzing with many performances and audience members (see below), and headed to a very impressive performance of Midsummer Night's Dream - the Sydney Symphony and women's choir under new conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Mendelssohn's music with a small cast performing an abridged version of the classic, literally among them. We did not know at all what to expect, but it was really cleverly done with references to the musical partnership such as Bottom's donkey head being a construction of two tubas like a pair of huge ears. Nikko seemed to appreciate both being able to see the musicians up close and a little of the Shakespeare, which he is studying in school here. Alex made it through the first half and then fell asleep --understandably. It had been a long day.

Day two in Sydney involved a ferry over to the Taronga Zoo (just like in Helsinki a few years ago), a huge and very modern zoo with more amazing views back onto the city. Among other sights, we saw the iconic Aussie symbols: koalas (and Alex bought one with gift money from family back home - thanks!), Tasmanian devils, kangaroos, and wallabies. Other highlights included a wonderful bird show concluding with a bird trained to take donations from the hands of children (see Alex below), elephants having water fun, and riding the gondola up and down to the top of the zoo.

We finished off Sunday with a bus ride to the famous Bondi Beach, a perfect crescent of golden sand with good surfing and a polyglot of tanned bodies from all over the world (mostly young of the backpacking species). The boyz took a dip and I people-watched, trying to figure out if the attractive couple next to me conversing in northern European-accented English (him, long blond rasta braids and a fantastic tentacled tatoo; her, short pixie haircut and perfect bikini body) had known each other for a couple hours or a couple days. We then followed a guidebook suggestion and had supper at an Italian pizza and gelato place called Pompei's (yes, missing an i) with super-good, crisp-crusted pizzas; really lovely beet-filled ravioli sauced with poppy seeds, butter, and crispy sage; and wonderful gelato and sorbet including fig and blood orange, before taking a walk along the cliffs away from the beach until the lights back at Bondi twinkled and beckoned us to bus it back to the hotel. We fell into bed sandy, tired, but satisfied.

Monday brought us to the renowned Sydney Aquarium where we saw the live versions of many of the creatures we had seen "harvested" at the fish market on Saturday. The more exotic animals on display included lots of sharks with a tunnel under them for best viewing, dugongs (closest relatives are elephants and they look like a big elephant seal), and platypus (platypi?) We did learn they are one of only two monotreme species in the world, combining characteristics of birds, fish, and mammals and they're too darn cute, twirling through the water with the energy and grace of otters - see below, although the dimness of their habitat made them hard to capture.

And then we took a little tour of the Chinese Garden of Friendship, an oasis in the middle of the business district (though not far from Chinatown where we grabbed a burnished and completely messy bbq duck for lunch from the recommended Tai Wong BBQ where, when I asked for napkins, the counterperson gestured weakly at a box of tissues, knowing full well they would be as effective as using a teaspoon to dig yourself out of a snowstorm). At the garden, we were lucky to find the young man in charge of the plants, recently returned from a trip to China and starting work on trimming back, he said, two months of rampant growth (didn't look rampant to us). He was working on one of the Penjing trees, the Chinese precursor to Japanese Bonsai, he explained. He told us how he was grew up in Hong Kong and was influenced by an elderly Chinese neighbor to fall in love with the art at the age of seven and then started working at the garden in Sydney at age 16. When I asked if we could take his photo, he said as long as he could borrow one of us to help hold a branch he was training. Alex happily volunteered. Nothing like hands-on experience to imprint a memory.
Then before heading to the plane (with plenty of time to spare), we spent a few hours at the Powerhouse Museum of science and technology, built in the old power plant, where the boys were thrilled to find a Star Wars exhibit, from the US of course (Boston even), which did a truly awesome job of illuminating the science and technology behind the models, sound development, robots, and concepts behind the movies including hands-on robot building. We got home to Wanganui at 3 am Tuesday morning, absolutely wiped, but very happy we'd hopped over the Tasman Sea to at least take a peek into Australia while we were down here.

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