Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rainy Weather Tries to Impede Fun in Sydney But Fails

It rains a lot here. Sydneysiders claim that recent weather patterns are anomalous; it's not usually this rainy, they say. I believed them at first, but I've been here for nearly three years now, three wet summers followed by three equally wet winters. I'm from Southern California so any weather other than sunshine and pollution is still a novelty to me, but Sydney's sneaky storms have nearly foiled some recent outdoor activities.

A couple of weeks ago we had a Monday off for Labour Day (the 'u' here is useful in distinguishing the American versus the Aussie holiday) and hired the Goget car for a drive up to Palm Beach. It was pouring by the time we reached The Boathouse, a charming cafe near the golf course recommended to me by Belinda, and we struggled to find a dry table indoors. When the weather cleared and the model-like waitresses reluctantly towel-dried a bench or two, we claimed a table overlooking the Hawkesbury. I'm sure this spot is absolutely magical on a clear summer day, but rain forced us back inside before our food was served. Still, we enjoyed our meals there and a lazy cuppa in Avalon, another posh northern beaches suburb. Not even locking the Goget's card key inside the car and then setting the alarm off could spoil that day.

Another day not spoiled by rain was the afternoon that Mickey and I decided to explore Art and About, Sydney's free public art festival consisting of installations hidden in remote laneways and the statues project. Believe it or not, local artists designed clothing for the likes of Queen Victoria, her consort Prince Albert, Captain Cook and others. This looked like a challenge because statues aren't obviously as flexible as mannequins; capes and hats were common. Something about this felt really wrong. Reflecting upon Queen Victoria's mismatched knitwear, I felt that her statue's overall look veered from appropriately regal to Rastafarian homeless. And yet, the whole exercise caused me to think about these statues that I hadn't before paid too much attention. Who is that again? What did he do? Wow, had no idea that he had anything to do with the founding of Sydney/Australia. My personal favorite was the cape that Ken Done designed for Captain Cook's statue in Hyde Park.

The day we were most concerned about the rain ruining was Mickey's birthday picnic at Bradley's Head on Saturday. The forecast predicted rain and thunderstorms after midday, but we woke up to crystal clear skies so decided to take our chances. We chose Bradley's Head as the perfect picnic spot while on a harbour hike the previous weekend. It has a direct view of the city, Opera House, scores of sailboats and there was almost nobody there. It turns out that the lack of a crowd can be explained by the difficulty involved in getting to Bradley's Head. Indeed, we rented a Goget car so that we could haul our picnic goodies a bit more easily.

Before 2:30pm, the picnic was ideal. The contributions of each guest amounted to a mouthwatering spread: stinky cheeses, fluffy rolls, salty beetroot chips, basil dips and crackers, quinoa salad with chicken and cucumber, fried rice, greek salad, fresh guacamole, prosciutto, cream sandwich biscuits, fudgey brownies and more. We dug in while deliberately ignoring the storm clouds that rolled across the harbour.

The highlight was watching little James play with a corn chip and a carrot while dutifully wearing his party hat. He couldn't decide which food/toy to play with and alternated between picking one up and putting the other down. His mom and dad wisely whisked him away before the downpour, but Dan and Estee weren't quite so lucky. They got a late start and arrived just as a huge thunderclap boomed across the harbour and the first drops of rain hastened the picnic clean up. Thankfully, we made it to the cars immediately before it started to pour.

We were mildly disappointed that we weren't able to enjoy a longer afternoon at Bradley's Head, but felt truly sorry for the bride whose wedding was meant to be in the same spot. I hope she had a plan B and a determination to not let Sydney weather interfere with her joy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Uluru: red dirt, blue sky, check and check!

Uluru, the aboriginal name for Ayer's Rock, that monolith in the center of this vast continent, is a must-see for many visitors from around the world. Indeed, some wouldn't book a two or three week holiday in Australia without making a brief stop at "the rock."

Well, we've been here two and a half years so when Virgin Blue began competing with Qantas on the Sydney/Uluru route, we decided to make the pilgrimage to the red center. Winter is a good time to travel to the Northern Territory because it is unbearably hot there many days of year. Tour companies really play up the beauty of witnessing the sunrise over the rock, but I think the real value lies in exploring the area before the desert reaches oven-like temperatures.

And before I write another word about value, I must mention that a major factor preventing us and many others from visiting Uluru was cost. Sure, we got a reasonable deal on our flights, but everything else at Voyages, the only resort near Uluru, is wildly, almost comically expensive. The regular fee for our room was over $400/night, but we got a "deal" for $230/night. Even this price was too much for what we got: an average room with no insulation. We had to run the fan all night to cancel the noise coming from the Lost Camel.

Visitors are constantly reminded that Voyages is a monopoly. Staff are friendly, but not especially helpful and the food is well below the Australian norm. Aussies are typically spoiled for choice when it comes to fresh produce and seafood, but in the outback, everything but kangaroo jerky undergoes a long, long journey on a truck before reaching your plate. Even the high-end hotel and restaurant, Sails of the Desert, doesn't cook your eggs to order. Like other restaurants at the resort, they offer a really-just-okay buffet breakfast for $33.

The most shocking prices of all, though, are attached to tours. Transportation via a shuttle van to Uluru from the resort and back (24km) costs $42.50 per adult, not including a whopping $25 per adult national park fee. I felt like a broken record when confirming this information with the concierge. "So that's just for one person? - Yes. And it doesn't include a tour guide, it's just transportation? - Yes." Transportation to Kata Tjuta, the other lesser known rock formation that shares the national park with Uluru was an additional $70 per adult. Mickey and I wanted to see both and worked out that renting a car was actually $120 cheaper than taking the bus. Who would have thought?

If you can mentally get past the price of a weekend at the rock, it's easy to enjoy the quiet beauty of the desert. I came for red dirt and blue skies and that's exactly what I got. Indeed, when I look at our Picasa album as a whole, those two colors dominate each photo. On our first night we splurged on the much-hyped Sounds of Silence dinner under the stars. I thought I was being clever booking our spots when the moon was quite new (and thus too dim to interfere with stargazing), but this was Friday the 13th and the universe decided not to cooperate. Clouds covered the sky for the entire evening and we couldn't see anything. The dinner wasn't anything special either, another buffet. Though our friends recommend the experience, at $159 per person, I can't say that I do.

I started that last paragraph with the word 'enjoy' and ended complaining about costs again. Let's see if I can focus on the positives. Walking the perimeter of the rock (9km) with Mickey was delightful, the weather was ideal: sunny but not hot. It took us about two and a half hours at a comfortable pace and we enjoyed watching the landscape and the position of the sun change as we walked anti-clockwise around the rock.

Uluru is famous for standing tall amid a sea of vast nothingness, but that isn't really the whole story. There are gum trees, wildflowers, boulders and roped-off sacred areas to the aboriginal people bordering the rock. Some people elect to climb the rock despite the danger (it's very steep) and a request from the indigenous caretakers/owners that visitors refrain from doing so.

A display in the visitors center and other places in the national park explain this request in kind of a curious way. All the signs seem to say 'we don't climb' in big letters because, I'm told, indigenous language/culture prevents them from telling visitors outright, 'please don't climb.' Apparently, telling others what to do is a no no in aboriginal culture. I'd be interested to learn more about the relationship between these people and the rock that they deem sacred, but much of this knowledge is secret and not shared with outsiders. The fact that Mickey and I didn't see a single aboriginal person while visiting the Northern Territory only added to the mystery.

We enjoyed our most memorable meal that evening at the Outback Pioneer barbecue, a restaurant that sells raw meat and allows you to cook it to your liking on the grills that they maintain. The crocodile skewer was tough and terrible, but the steaks were great. Of course, that evening the stars were out in full force and Mickey used a phone app to point out constellations.

En route to Kata Tjuta on our last day, I spotted a wild camel walking through the desert. I'm loath to admit that this may have been the highlight of the trip for me. How many other places in the world can you see a usually domesticated animal such as the camel wandering free in a landscape far too harsh for most creatures?  The legend goes that the first European explorers of the red center introduced camels when horses just couldn't cut it. Some escaped and still exist in the Northern Territory. This story called to mind the zebras at Hearst Castle immediately for me.

Anyway, we didn't have a lot of time to explore Kata Tjuta, but did enjoy a brief romp through Walpa Gorge and the Valley of the Winds. Mickey and I had a philosophical discussion on why Uluru is the star attraction of the region instead of Kata Tjuta. It's not one big rock, but was formed by the same geological processes that created Uluru. Kata Tjuta consists of 36 domes and hundreds more smaller boulders and resembles a sleeping Homer Simpson of all things when viewed from a distance.

Voyages asks guests to complete a survey about their experience at the resort upon checking out. Why they do this is a mystery, though, because they are a monopoly and thus have little incentive to improve. I imagine the replies going to a central office where a team are employed to laugh at the responses, 'yeah, you would like clean bathrooms, wouldn't you? Ha ha ha!'. Anyway, I dutifully completed this survey and answered one of the last questions about whether I'd recommend the resort to a friend. My answer was a resounding no, yet I would encourage people to see the majestic Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Watching the sunset over the rock was not exactly spiritual, but extraordinarily beautiful. So, if a decent competing hotel pops up, I'd encourage everyone to give it a go.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Byron Bay

This winter marked my mom's third trip to Australia. While here, she develops a routine and makes a life for herself: shopping, cooking, reading, going to meetings, etc. We don't feel compelled to entertain her, but did want to show her at least one part of Australia that she hadn't seen before.

We decided on Byron Bay, a gorgeous, hippie beach community on the north coast of NSW, much closer to Brisbane than Sydney. Visiting Byron made a lot of sense because Mickey and I hadn't been before either and it was low season (aka cheaper than summer), a definite plus when vacationing in a place as expensive as Byron Bay.

Mickey and I favor bed and breakfast type accommodations because they're usually good value: personal attention that seems to lend more authenticity to your experience. This trip was a bit trickier because we were traveling as a trio and required two rooms. Fortunately, the Cape Byron Retreat offered the perfect solution: a two bedroom, self-catering cottage on a quiet piece of land in the Byron hinterlands for about $200/night.

Only about 10 minutes drive from the beach and town, the Cape Byron Retreat offered country charms. The owners have a horse named Budget (whose favorite snack is white bread) and are regularly visited by peacocks, echidnas and wallabies. My mom was delighted to wake up on our first morning there to find a wallaby grazing in the field. My binoculars afforded a really good look at the creature's almost fox-like face.

We spent our first morning brunching and then browsing the food and craft market in Bangalow, a country town about a half hour from Byron. We anticipated a couple of quaint stalls selling the usual craft market goods: honey, soaps, T-shirts, etc. and found that and so much more. The market included at least 200 stalls and took at least an hour to circumnavigate. We walked away with fresh strawberries, a muddler made of native banksia wood and a spider ornament for our Christmas tree.

The sky was partly cloudy as we drove on a country road back to Byron to have a look around the lighthouse and beach. Parking there was scarce and expensive ($7), but worth all the trouble when we looked down from the cliff at a pod of thirty or so dolphins swimming around the headlands. Far out on the horizon, we also spotted a whale watching boat and glimpses of the whale it was tracking.

We spent Sunday in the country again (I guess that's what you do when visiting a beach town in winter). We stopped in the delightfully named Murwillumbah for lunch enroute to the Natural Arch, a beautiful but oddly little known waterfall in a national park across the Queensland border. The drive from Murwillumbah to the Natural Arch was spectacular and worth the trip in itself. We passed semi tropical farms selling lady finger bananas from unmanned roadside shelters. The passing clouds and happy cows reminded me of some of the farms we saw in Maui.

Because we had a late flight back, we had time to swing by the sprawling Gold Coast, a beach suburb dotted with highrise hotels and apartment buildings. The Gold Coast aspires to be a bit like Miami, a fashionable party scene, and achieves this in that it comes off as very un-Australian. Plenty of Aussies wouldn't go near a beach as crowded as Surfers Paradise. They have the luxury of thousands of miles of white sand beaches and only 22 million people with whom to share it.

We were feeling very upbeat about the Gold Coast, Byron and the whole region until we boarded our Jetstar flight back to Sydney. After spending 45 or so minutes on the tarmac, mechanical problems ultimately prevented us from taking off. We de-planed (I hate that phrase) and boarded a different plane, free of mechanical issues. We got as far as the runway when the captain said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news" over the PA system.

Incredibly, Sydney international airport has a curfew of 11pm. Airlines who miss the curfew get stuck with a hefty fine, in the neighborhood of $200,000. In other words, they are fined more than it costs to put a plane full of people up for the night in a Gold Coast hotel. It's funny that I'd had such a fabulous weekend and yet staying one more night was the very last thing I wanted to do. I guess I must give Jetstar credit in that they sent us to a decent hotel and paid for our buffet breakfast and got us back to Sydney in a timely fashion the next morning.

All in all, Byron isn't any different than most Australian beach towns. It's beautiful with clean white sand, clear turquoise water, mostly empty and completely worth a visit.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Katie and Jason Down Unda

My ten year high school reunion was last weekend in Orange County, California. Of course I didn't go because I'm here in Sydney, but may have considered attending if I had been nearer. However, back in July, my dear friend Katie from high school visited us in Sydney with her husband Jason. So, in a way, we staged our own stylish Troy High School reunion thousands of miles from the place where we donned our caps and gowns ten years ago.

Like most people, my life since high school seems punctuated by my different moves: Berkeley for college, Edinburgh while studying abroad, San Jose for Teach for America, Zurich when I got married and now Sydney. All the while, Katie has resided in different parts of Orange County, but visited me at each of my temporary homes. She has a keen sense of adventure that continues to inspire me.

I'll never forget the night we crammed eight people into my dorm room for a sardine-like sleepover, or when Katie lost her wallet at the cinema in Edinburgh or how she eased my anxiety when I didn't think I could sleep a wink in the 32 bed co-ed dorm room in Dublin. We've had a lot of adventures over the years and Katie has the pictures to prove them... somewhere. :)

Anyway, I was delighted that she and Jason devoted the time and funds to visit us here in Sydney over their summer holiday. They spent half a week in Cairns enjoying scuba dives off the Great Barrier Reef and bungee jumping in a rainforest canyon. Then they spent a calmer week and a half with us and my mom exploring Sydney and the surrounds. We weren't able to take any time off work, but my mom gave them excellent tours of the city and we packed the weekends full of Sydney must-sees: the Rocks Market for a Christmas ornament and a ferry ride out to Watson's Bay for Doyle's Fish and Chips and equally delicious views.

Jason's joined the US Navy and before long, he and Katie will move away from Orange County and embark on their own adventures away from home, family and friends. Katie expressed a little fear about this change and indicated that she admired my ability to pick up and create a new network of friends in a new city. I was surprised by her hesitation because I always considered her to be the fearless one. I am convinced that she won't just survive future moves, but will absolutely thrive. Indeed, I look forward to being a guest in her future home and taking a peek at the new life she'll build.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Incident

My blog posts are usually filled with smiling vacation photos and/or lush landscapes. And I do have more of those to share, but we have yet to upload the photos.

For now, I need to retell an anecdote that I mentally refer to as simply 'the incident.' I feel the need to record it now, a month after it happened, so that it doesn't morph dramatically over the years. Truthfully, it's dramatic enough without my imagination filling in the gaps of memory.

One crisp Saturday morning, my mom and I went to pick up my dry cleaning from a shop I'd used occasionally.
We handed the lady our claim ticket, but there was still confusion about where my items were. Eventually, the owner, an Asian woman in her fifties or so, found my blouse and work trousers.

Immediately, my mom and I thought that the shirt looked off in color. When I brought it in, it was close to an eggshell white, but now it looked pale yellow. We tried to discuss this color issue with the woman, but she didn't offer any helpful solutions. When she wasn't wandering away to help other customers, she told us, 'you need to speak to the dry cleaner.' Hold on a moment, we thought she was the dry cleaner.

It seems that the actual dry cleaning is done by someone else, but the woman didn't indicate when that person would arrive or if they could re-clean it. We were pretty annoyed by then because the woman kept ignoring us to help other customers while our issue remained unresolved. My mom asked what we should do and I decided we should pay for the trousers and either bring the blouse to another dry cleaner or try to hand wash it at home. For all I knew, the blouse was ruined.

When the woman realised we weren't paying for the blouse, only the trousers, she quickly turned her attention back to us and flipped out. She grabbed the dry cleaning out of my hands and we started in with a heated tug of war. She was adamant: yanking and yelling about 'you not pay!' I was stunned, but it was nothing compared to what came next.

I finally won the tug of war and we were about to walk out of the shop when she grabbed my mom's purse! Looking back, I still can't believe that this happened. She put it behind her on a shelf where we couldn't easily get to it. 'Excuse me!' we said. 'Ma'am, give me back my purse!' We were completely shocked.

My mom went behind the counter and tried to take it back and the woman responded by fighting her for it and moving the purse again. After prying the woman's hands off my mom's poor arm, we finally had the purse. Realizing she was fighting a losing battle, the woman started shouting that she'd call the police. 'Call them!' we shouted back. We knew that she'd likely be at fault as she stole my mom's purse and then tried to assault her.

Practically dazed but intact, we left the shop while the woman cursed after us. She screamed the 'f' word and then said something like 'second hand' meaning to insult my blouse.

Now here's where it starts to get interesting. In the light of day, yeah, you guessed it: my blouse was fine. Not discolored or ruined. I don't know what happened, but we could have sworn that the blouse looked absolutely yellow in the shop. Was it the yellow walls, fluorescent lighting or the plastic covering that made it look so off? I guess we'll never know, but we started to feel a bit bad at that point.

My mom considered slipping $7 (the absurd amount of money in dispute here) under the door the next day, but I told her we couldn't. That lady had taken her purse and assaulted her! Thoroughly shaken by the incident, we tried to laugh it off the rest of the weekend.

Mom's big takeaway from the incident is that $7 isn't worth a physical fight with a middle aged dry cleaner (although in the end it felt more like a fight for the purse). My lesson learned? I sure as heck don't live in the land of the customer is always right. This customer will never look at that blouse the same way.

Friday, August 06, 2010

One Week in California

The true purpose of our trip to California last month was to celebrate Nic's graduation, but after two days of that, we were left with five extra days to hit up some our favorite spots in the golden state.

About two weeks before our trip, I was possessed by a nostalgic whim to revisit Knott's Berry Farm, my favorite amusement park. Knott's earned the honor of being my favorite park not because it's the nicest (that's Disneyland) or has the best rides (that would be Six Flags). In fact, I like it precisely because, when compared to the Magic Kingdom, Knott's is a little bit grungy, almost grungy enough to be retro/hip, but not quite. Knott's is consistently cheaper and less crowded than Disneyland and sells their signature Knott's Boysenberry Juice alongside other soft drinks, so really, what's not to like?

Much like Wayne's World is my favorite movie, Knott's is also my favorite park because I've created a lot of fond memories there over the years. There's a sweet, drooly picture of a three year old me playing in one of those nasty ball pits in Camp Snoopy, the section of the park reserved for wee ones. I remember visiting Knott's with Allison and Debby O'Connor for Alli's tenth birthday and being completely terrified of "the big rides." Alli poured on the peer pressure and by the end of the day I was reciting the mantra 'there will be a tomorrow' to manage my fear of Montezuma's Revenge. I loved it.

We spent several summer days there during my middle school years. A couple of friends had season passes and I remember showing up at the park with a complete change of clothing (socks, underwear, shoes) in my backpack. My dear friend April couldn't get enough of Big Foot Rapids, the white water rafting ride, and we'd run from the exit back to the end of the line, riding it until we were completely drenched.

Well, this year there was no running from the exit to hop straight back on the ride only minutes later. Unfortunately, the park was too crowded for us to ride anything more than once. In fact, we were at the park all day, but only got on six rides. Upon arriving I quickly learned that our tickets purchased online were cheap because we chose to visit the park on the same day that every other middle school in Orange County did.

This put a slight damper on the day because middle school students are well... middle school students. They think they're quite clever and adorable when they jump the queue and there was a lot of screaming; even for an amusement park with thrill rides, there was a lot of screaming. Our party of four decided early in the day that we wouldn't tolerate anyone cutting in front of us in line. We didn't accept excuses such as 'I need to go with my group' and nearly got into a scuffle because of our stubbornness.

We had just joined the snaking queue to ride Montezuma's Revenge when half a softball team tried to cut in front of us. We told them that this wasn't okay and their mama bear got really bent out of shape.  She was armed with plenty of nonsense arguments: 'they're just little girls and you're adults.' Yeah, and we think everyone, regardless of age should take turns. Anyway, she asked her male companion who we later began to call Number One Dad, to get involved. Though the words coming out of his mouth seemed to agree with us, he was angry and decided to teach us a lesson (and set an incredibly poor example) by cutting in front of us. As you can imagine, the rest of the wait in that line was awkward, but Number One Dad was from that point on an excellent reference point and butt of all jokes.

Knott's had changed, but not dramatically so, since my previous visit. Though a self-proclaimed 'huge weenie' about roller coasters, Kat summoned the courage to ride most rides with us. I even dragged the whole crew on Big Foot Rapids despite their reluctance to get wet. We tried out a couple of new rides, too: Pony Express which is poorly designed, uncomfortable and generally sucky and Silver Bullet which is perhaps the best roller coaster I've ever ridden. Silver Bullet is the type that suspends you from the top and leaves your feet dangling.  It took you through plenty of loops and corkscrews, but didn't bang your head around which was brilliant.

I wanted to stay until the park closed, but our visit was cut slightly short by Nic's need to see the Laker game and Mickey's desire to get the hell away from middle school students. I couldn't blame either of them, really. In the end, I still love Knott's, but made a vow never to return unless it was a random mid-week day in the spring or fall; school days at the park are just too hectic.

Almost two months later, the rest of our week in California was a happy blur. We shopped, went swimming and played games. We celebrated my birthday by going out for In 'N Out burgers and my brother taught me the coolest trick: ordering a neapolitan shake so that you don't have to decide between chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, you get all three!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nicholas Rennie, BA

Flying from Sydney to LA takes about 14 hours. If you count the return trip and time spent traveling to and waiting at the airport, the total travel hours involved in a round trip journey to LA numbers around 36.  Last month, Mickey and I took a week off from work and made that 36 hour journey to LA and back to celebrate my brother Nic's graduation, an occasion which was truly worth the trip.

Eight years ago, Nic almost didn't graduate from high school. He moved among a crowd to whom academics weren't important. He's always been bright, but at that time had neither the motivation nor the confidence to succeed in school. In fact, Nic was mentioned by name in a friend's commencement address: "we'll remember the bad boy antics of Nic Rennie and..." My mom recalls hoping my grandmothers wouldn't be too embarrassed by this claim to fame.

Nic spent a couple of years at the community college, enrolling in and then dropping classes, but making steady scholarly progress. He met professors and encountered issues that inspired him to not only learn, but act. Three years ago he gathered the courage to apply to the University of California, Riverside (UCR), was accepted and thrived. He graduated cum laude with a BA in Philosophy.

My family and I had never been so proud of Nic and my mom decided to commemorate the event with a big family party. Her friend in the embroidery business customized about 25 ball caps that said either "friend of NIC" or "relative of NIC." Because the word 'Nic' was spelled out in all capital gold letters on official-looking navy blue hats, my cousin joked that we'd be mistaken for a government agency with the acronym 'N - I - C' like SWAT or FBI.

My mom decorated the house with flowers from her garden, but the food and beverage for the afternoon reflected the tastes of the man of the hour: imported microbrews and Reece's Peanut Butter Cups and Twix on every table. Buca di Beppo catered the main meal, an Italian feast featuring a tray of lasagna for 40 and a similar sized tray of meatballs the size of your fist. As you can imagine, we were eating leftovers for a week.

The weather was sunny and warm enough for games of croquet on the lawn. At one point, my cousin's three children were each playing with a set of mallets, balls and gates, but none of them were playing the same game. We'll call it creative croquet. Most guests were content to catch up with each other, wish Nic well and pose for pictures wearing the 'NIC' hats. I believe that a good time was had by all.

We spent the next day, Nic's actual graduation day, with a smaller subset of family. Our two Rennie cousins flew all the way out from New York and Florida to celebrate with Nic so it was great enjoy a champagne brunch at Riverside's Mission Inn hotel with them, Nic, Kat and my mom. It's funny that I remember wanting to treat Nic to brunch at the Mission Inn since the moment I learned he was going to UCR. The quality of the food is decent, but it's really quantity and variety that are the restaurant's brunch buffet specialty. We delighted in the uniqueness of each plate that returned from the dizzying buffet hall: mussels, corn salad, roast beef and a danish or ceviche, breadsticks and rice pudding.

The commencement ceremony, honoring many social science graduates, was special despite our proximity to rude, low-class families. Someone needs to get a word about graduation ceremony etiquette out to the masses (perhaps via WalMart or truck ads). Though my humble blog resembles neither of these, I'll step up and be that someone. Proud families of graduates, please do not talk at normal conversation volume throughout the duration of the commencement. It's rude. Also, do not stand up for a half an hour waiting for your graduate's name to be called. It prevents those behind you from seeing their loved one. Thank you; I'll step down from my soap box now.

Anyway, even those bogans couldn't stop us from savoring Nic's shining moment. He deliberately kept his cum laude status a secret from us so it would be a surprise, the sneaky little smarty. Though his Lakers lost game 5 of the 2010 NBA finals (but eventually went on to win the title), I hope Nic was still feeling like a champion on June 13, 2010. You deserve it, Buddy. I love you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Vivid Sydney Returns

Well, really, Vivid Sydney returned and is now gone again; I'm just a bit slow with the updates.

Last year, I was incredibly impressed by Vivid Sydney, our city's festival of light, music and ideas. This year's program offered some of the same visual treats (a series of slowly changing colorful images and patterns projected on the Opera House), as well as something new.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie's arrival in Australia and Vivid Sydney artists commemorated his achievements by projecting historical images and text on the facade of St Mary's cathedral. I personally feel there is no danger of anyone forgetting Lachlan Macquarie; indeed, you cannot travel two feet without running into a street, park, school or suburb named after the first governor or his wife, Elizabeth.

Still, I found the display absolutely stunning. A series of images, facts and diary and letter excerpts portrayed Macquarie as a compassionate man who showed mercy toward the convicts shipped to Australia against their will. Perhaps Australians are grateful to Macquarie because he granted their forefathers the dignity necessary to forge their new nation.

Though jetlagged, we insisted that my mom see Vivid Sydney on her first night in town and coincidentally the final night of the festival. And like last year, it was completely worth our while. Thank you so much, Sydney, for creating another piece of public art worth braving the chilly evening air.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Exploring Aussie Sports Part II: AFL

Months ago Mickey and I attended our first Australian Football League (AFL) game when we cheered the Sydney Swans in their decisive victory over the Richmond Tigers.

AFL players engage in a sport called Aussie Rules Football. I figure fans refer to the sport as AFL because ARF would be a little weird. 'My hobbies include painting, arf, karaoke...' Yes, better to refer to the sport by its league name, AFL, than have strangers assume you have some sort of canine Tourette's.

Anyway, the sport was designed to keep cricketers in shape in the off season. I find this puzzling because, in the words of Bill Bryson, 'cricket is the only sport in which the fans burn as many calories as players, more if mildly restless.' I can't imagine what sort of winter time activities would render one incapable of even cricket. Competitive eating, perhaps?

Though AFL is played on an oval-shaped cricket pitch, the similarities to cricket end there. While cricket is slow enough to make baseball seem positively thrilling, AFL is fast-paced and high scoring. To the untrained eye, it resembles a soccer/rugby hybrid sport. Players are allowed to kick and pass the ball, lift each other up and tackle. More than any of those actions, though, AFL involves running, so much running, you'd imagine it was designed to prep players for marathons not cricket.

I forget the rules, but recall sets of three goal posts on opposite ends of the field. When players kicked the ball through the center goal post, they score six points; if it goes through either of the side goal posts, they score three points. But because the Swans were so far ahead of the visiting Tigers, we didn't pay much attention to the scoring.

We spectators were more intrigued by the drunken fan who led cheers from the bottom of our tier. Mickey snapped as many photos of him as he did of the players. We also thoroughly enjoyed singing along to the victory song played at the end of the game and then joining our fellow fans on the pitch for photos and hundreds of simultaneous games of catch. It's as if the crowd couldn't wait another moment to burst on to the field and reenact their own moments of athletic glory under the harsh stadium lights. It was great fun until we almost got hit in the head by multiple AFL balls whizzing through the air.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Barefoot in Sydney

Whether or not pedestrians in any given nation/area wear shoes usually depends on wealth. Residents of rich countries generally wear shoes in public whereas those in poor nations often don't. Until very recently, Mickey and I believed that we had only lived in countries belonging to the former, shoe-wearing subset of nations.

But I've come to realize that Sydneysiders buck the shoe-wearing-in-developed-nations trend. Indeed, Australians are a rugged, adventurous sort of people who simply will not be bound by conventional foot protection.

Sure walking around barefoot in public makes a bit of sense in beach suburbs; you've just emerged from the surf and sand, forgetting the flip flops is okay. But what going barefoot further inland? What about going barefoot outside a beach suburb in a season that isn't summer? I've witnessed women going barefoot in precisely these circumstances and I must say I found the lack of shoes not charming, but alarming.

One woman emerged from a train barefoot at about 8:15am. Though I might describe her hairstyle as 'free' or 'untamed,' she certainly wasn't homeless. Likewise, I recently spied a woman walking barefoot to the post office near my office. I was shocked because a) my office is nowhere near a beach, b) my office is in fact clustered among other highrises in what you could call a corporate suburb and c) it's winter here! What letter needed posting with the sort of urgency that would cause one to leave her shoes at the office?

On another note, Mickey and I recently slipped on a type of footwear that we never imagined we'd need in Sydney: ice skates! Margaret, our circle of friends' own little Kristi Yamaguchi, organised an outing to what has to be one of Sydney's only rinks. Though we couldn't mimic her spins, we did get into the spirit of winter.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Australia's West Coast: our trip to Perth and the Margaret River

Before I give my verdict on Western Australia, this continent's vast golden state, I'll provide a bit of background to put it in perspective.
  • Perth, WA's capital, is considered the world's most isolated city. Perth is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney (4.5 hours by plane)!
  • Western Australia comprises one third the Australian continent, but only 10% of its population, a mere 2.2 million people.
  • 36% of Western Australia is covered by sheep stations. I didn't do the research, but surely some of these are bigger than small European countries.
You get the idea; WA is remote. And though Perth didn't knock our socks off, the Margaret River area with its rolling acres of vineyards and gorgeous beaches, really did. We loved it and I know you would, too. As long as you love wineries. Or beaches. If you don't like either of those, you're really missing out! Seriously, I felt I could have enjoyed a whole week or two in the region, and without recapping the whole trip, here's why.

The Foodie/Yuppie Scene

For some crazy reason I thought that once we got out of glamorous Sydney, prices for food and accommodations would go down. Silly me. That isn't the case at all, but I think I can sort of understand why. I've just been harping on about how remote it is; well, distance is one factor that can increase food prices. More importantly, though, WA is home to some really classy dining establishments: restaurants run by thoughtful chefs who care about serving fresh, local ingredients.

Mickey and I spent our first evening in Margaret River dining at Wino's, a restaurant and bar with an award-winning wine list and a tapas-style menu. The herby hand-cut chips were a treat, but we had to pass on the peach creme brulee... next time. We also enjoyed lunch at Wise, the only one of the region's wineries with an ocean view, and dinner at Must, arguably Margaret River's best restaurant. Our hosts at Llewellin's Guest House, Jo and James, hooked us up with free pate because they know the owners of the restaurant.

Speaking of which, Llewellin's deserves a lot of the credit for us falling in love with Margaret River. Jo and James have decorated the rooms beautifully, made excellent recommendations and took extraordinarily good care of us. James even made gluten free chocolate and pistachio scones for me on our last day!

Lighthouse Tour 2010

Mickey and I never used to give a lot of thought to lighthouses, but on this trip we found ourselves visiting two: one at Cape Naturaliste and another at Cape Leeuwin, the point at which the Southern and Indian Oceans meet. Both offered wildly expensive tours ($15, dude, it's picturesque, but it's a lighthouse), but we did pay a smaller fee to walk around the lighthouses and poke around their tiny museums. I was fascinated by the lives of the lighthouse workers in the days before lighthouse maintenance was automated. They had to tend to the thing every hour, worked in shifts and almost never took a holiday.

Mickey and I try to pick up a Christmas ornament from every destination we visit. The natural choice would have been a tasteful little lighthouse, and we found dozens of lighthouse magnets, key chains, pencils, etc. but alas, no ornaments. We instead took home a cow figurine decorated in a mardis gras style. The international traveling cow parade, featuring life-sized cows decorated by local artists, had reached Margaret River so we took pictures with cows in front of almost every winery.

The Wildlife

Cape Naturaliste is even more worth a visit in the months of June - November, aka whale season. This is the time of year when pods of humpback, right and even blue whales migrate north to calve in warmer waters. And apparently you can see them right from the coast! Though I kept my eyes peeled when Mickey and I stood at Whale Point, we didn't spot any of plumes of water and air bursting from blowholes, only miles of white caps on the glimmering sea. Likewise, we struck out when we visited Penguin Island off Rockingham (only saw penguins in the sanctuary) and failed to see any dolphins in Bunbury.

Still, you can supposedly see all these animals in the wilds of WA! After reading a particularly interesting wine label when back in Sydney, we learned that we also missed the blue-ringed octopus, a little creature possessing enough sting to kill two soccer teams we learned. Ignorance was indeed bliss, because if we had known about it, we might never have dipped our toes in the Indian Ocean.

Though we struck out with whales, dolphins and penguins, we were lucky enough to see an enormous sting ray at the gorgeous Hamlin Bay. Fishermen use fish heads to lure these massive creatures (1 meter across!) close to shore not to catch, but to amuse kids and tourists like us. We were also delighted by our unexpected lorikeet spotting outside Perth. Lorikeets usually congregate in groups of two to three, but when the sun set over Cottesloe Beach, thousands flew from north, south and east to descend on a row of trees lining the shore. The noise was deafening.

The Caves

Most of the wineries in the Margaret River region are located just off Caves Road, so named because the region has over one hundred limestone caves! Only a dozen or so are open to the public and the guidebook advised us to visit Jewel Cave if we were to tour only one. We followed that sage advice and were thoroughly impressed with Jewel Cave.

I especially loved the unapologetically unscientific manner in which the mysteries of the cave were explained by our tour guide. After introducing himself, the guide said something like, "well, this cave is pretty damn good." Right, this guy was speaking my language! In the early part of the twentieth century, an adventurous gentleman discovered the cave when he noticed gusts of air coming up from the ground. He bravely explored it in the days before proper belaying and safety equipment: using ropes and candles. Interestingly enough, knowledge of the cave's location died with this man and it wasn't rediscovered until decades later. In the late 1960s, they added platforms and staircases and opened Jewel Cave to the public.

You could then navigate the cave via a raft because a couple meters of water pooled at the bottom. Then, in the 1970s, the water started to disappear by a couple inches each year our guide explained. He went on to say that caves go through wet and dry cycles (in fact, the cave up the road was in a wet cycle at the moment), but that no one really knows why the water disappeared. What?! Really? I honestly believe that the managers of Jewel Cave could invite a cave scientist to study the cave and get some real answers, but they just can't be bothered. 'Eh, we like our own stories,' I imagine them saying.

Instead of naming the Jewel Cave's five platforms after the different geological eras during which they were formed or employing another scientific method, they clearly subscribe to the 'nothing fancy' school of nomenclature. "You see that feature over there that resembles a pipe organ? That's why we call this the organ platform. You see how that kind of looks like broccoli and cauliflower? Well, we call this the vegetable platform." Surely, you can guess why it's called Jewel Cave? That's right, there's a feature that reminded someone of a jewel case. Who thought I'd learn so much about the Western Australian mentality by visiting a cave?

The Sunsets

I don't consider myself sunset deprived; I'm from the LA area where air pollution creates some of the most vivid sunsets you'll ever see. Still, it was a treat to watch the sunset over the ocean, a phenomenon that Sydney just can't experience.  Mickey played around with the settings on his camera to capture the beauty. Can you see why we didn't want to leave?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Jennie's Hens' Night 2010: She who has the biggest boobs, has the most fun

Our dear friends Thor and Jennie are getting married in June on a small island in Norway. Though we, their Sydney friends, adore them, a trip across the globe just isn't feasible (especially not with this volcanic ash business). So, of course we had to send them off with really spectacular Bucks' and Hens' parties.

I initially envisioned a marathon day of girly fun: spa treatments followed by cocktails, dinner out and an old school sleepover at a hotel suite with junk food, truth or dare and bad movies. As delicious as that would have been, we simply couldn't ask Jennie's friends to fork over hundreds of dollars for a Hens' Night. My more budget-friendly agenda went as follows: optional cocktail making class at Cruise Bar in the rocks, dinner at a dosa restaurant in Darlinghurst followed by games at my house and finally dancing at the Retro.

About two weeks prior to the party I read a brief interview with Sofia Vergara in People magazine. "Who has more fun?" People asked, "blondes or brunettes?" She gave the following playful answer that was to become the catchphrase of the night: "who cares?! It's the one with the biggest boobs that has the most fun." I found this silly quote particularly appropriate and printed it on the buttons I custom-made for the party.

Unfortunately, it was hard to notice these buttons because of the other Hens' Night accessory I forced on the girls: cheap feather boas in a rainbow of different colors. Purchased at the discount store for $4 a pop, these feather boas were itchy, but made for some fun photos. Upon bestowing each guest with a boa, I made no promises about the feathers not dyeing one's skin or clothes, but fortunately the only thing the boas shed was feathers. Indeed, our gaggle of girls was like Hansel and Gretel with their trail of breadcrumbs; we could trace our path backward by following the feathers.

The cocktail making class was excellent considering we didn't actually get to mix any cocktails. There were rules preventing us from getting behind the bar so the master bartender basically demonstrated technique while we drank. At the end we decided that 'cocktail appreciation' would be a more accurate title for the class. Still, we learned a few new tricks. The instructor explained the importance of using the right ingredients and how to spot a good bartender. He also explained the difference between Scotch and Bourbon (there is none, really, both are whiskeys, but created in certain styles named for their regions of production) and revealed that Southern Comfort is not whiskey at all, but merely a peach liqueur marketed as a whiskey. His catchphrase, though almost nonsensical, could also have been printed on a Bucks'/Hens' button: "never turn your back on alcohol."

As we were finishing up, we were delighted to see Shannon pop in with her newborn baby James. I'm not sure that he enjoyed the smell of alcohol on our breath while we tipsily cooed over him, but he was a pretty good sport about the whole thing. He patiently endured our amateur photo shoot near the bridge and Opera House until we bid his mommy goodnight.

We hopped in some cabs and made it to Malabar on time for our 7pm reservation. We devoured dosas and samosas while the other guests arrived. Jennie was pleasantly surprised to see each new face because the RSVPs were mostly unknown to her. Malabar did a brilliant job of accommodating our vegetarian and glutard diets so I was pleased in the end with this choice of restaurant. By Sydney standards it was pretty affordable and we all managed to chip in to the total bill without awkwardness and consulting iPhone apps. Someone commented that that never happens when we go out with the boys. 

The girls wandered over to Wow Cow (fro yo) and Messina (gelato) for dessert while I made a beeline for my apartment. I strung up a clothesline full of panties for a racy guessing game. Each guest bought a pair and Jennie had to guess who brought which one. If she guessed correctly, she could take them off the line, if she guessed incorrectly, she took a shot of Polish vodka. After a couple minutes of this game we learned two things: 1. Jennie believed (erroneously) that her American friends are more inclined to purchase cow-themed underwear and 2. Jennie has a mind-bogglingly high tolerance for vodka. She is from northern England after all.

We followed that with a Mr and Mrs Quiz (so sweet) and a Hen-friendly version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey: Plant a Smooch on Johnny. We took turns applying harlot red drugstore lipstick, being blindfolded and spun in ten agonizing circles before fumbling toward the wall and attempting to leave a lip print as close as possible to Johnny's own perfect pout. After taking my turn, my friends asked if I always go in for a kiss chin-first; I laughed so hard.

A couple of bellinis later, those among us with children or early mornings made tracks for home, while the energized other eight jumped in two cabs and headed for the Retro. Jennie initially vetoed the Retro idea; Michael Scott-esque trivia host "Blades" (who we see every Tuesday, but who also deejays at the Retro) was to have no part in her wedding celebrations. Who could blame her? She eventually caved to peer pressure, though, because the rest of us had an itch to go dancing. And we weren't the only hens out for a night on the town. No, Jennie was one of maybe a dozen brides to be celebrating with girlfriends that night.

Still, we had a great time sweatin' to Whitney Houston and oldies mash-ups. Jennie good-naturedly let us drag her to the dance floor where Blades is king and snap a photo of the two of them in the deejay booth. A good time was had by all and Jennie walked away with new undies so I can't complain.

Now the Bucks' Night that Mickey organized for Jennie's other half Thor, well, that's another story.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Easter in Mudgee

Believe it or not, Australia is in some ways more Christian than even the US is. Or, at least it maintains some traditions relating to the national holiday calendar that the American separation of church and state policy left by the wayside. In other words, Easter is a four day weekend in Australia; woo hoo! But because everyone has a lovely long weekend off (or more if you're on a school schedule), hotel rates are sky high; boo!

So, we replaced our grand plans to rent a fashionable beach house with more modest plans to spend the weekend in Mudgee, a wine-producing region of country New South Wales, four hours drive northwest of Sydney. (Quite a step down if you compare sand and surf to a town whose name starts with M-U-D). No, seriously there was nothing muddy about Mudgee. The weather was warm and clear and our accommodations at Wildwood Guesthouse were comfortable and relaxing.

Mike, Laura, Jennie, Mickey and I piled into Chris and Jess' car for the mostly traffic-free journey. We took a delightful lunch break at the Secret Creek Cafe in Lithgow, almost certainly superior to the "workie's club" in town, an RSL-type establishment offering "family food" (shudder). In addition to the restaurant, the Secret Creek property also includes a small, native animal sanctuary.

We were seated at a table on the porch and were enjoying watching a trio of brightly colored rosellas flit from tree to tree when the silence was suddenly shattered by a chorus of animal howls. It was probably just a couple of dingos and some dogs, but the way the yelps echoed in the small valley made it sound like a whole pack surrounded the restaurant. Yikes. Among those not joining in the chorus were a pair of emus called Dumb and Dumber. When I saw Dumb look through the window of the cabin where their food is kept while Dumber made a break for the open door, I wondered how apt their names really were. We met a small marsupial named Randy on our way back to the parking lot. The keeper explained that Randy was a wallaroo, neither wallaby nor kangaroo, but an entirely different species. When we started asking more questions about this species we had never heard of before, he backtracked, "yeah, it's like a kangaroo and a wallaby." Hmmm...

Because Laura was eager to see an Australian Big Thing, we stopped at the Big Miner's Lantern to snap a few photos before continuing on to Mudgee. We made our first wine tasting stop at Logan, a fantastically situated winery serving okay wine disguised by great labels.

We relied on Google Maps to guide us to Wildwood and had a good laugh when, 1.8kms down a dirt road in the middle of the bush, the friendly navigation voice stated "you have arrived at your destination." Oops. Fortunately, a woman who had more reason to be on that dirt road explained how to get to Wildwood. In a few short minutes, we arrived at our destination for real: a beautiful property with gum trees, ponds, birds and roos. Our little party rented three of the B&B's four rooms so we pretty much had the run of the place. Wildwood offers cozy beds and a healthy dose of peace and quiet, but no TV and only spotty internet reception so we were forced to entertain ourselves the old fashioned way: board games and actual conversation. I can't complain; I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Pictionary and learning Pass the Pigs.

I ordinarily would have been a mess after two days of wine tasting, but thankfully discovered the art of taking a sip or two and spilling the rest of the generous pour into the spittoon. That way I could taste a lot of different wines without the headaches and dehydration. It shouldn't have been such a revelation, but for me it was. We couldn't help but compare Mudgee to the Hunter Valley, the more commercial wine producing region only two hours outside of Sydney. I didn't detect any major differences in quality, but I have to give points to Mudgee wineries for their relaxed, inviting atmospheres. Many, Di Lusso especially, had patios with stylish tables and chairs for patrons to use while enjoying a bit of wine and cheese and contemplating the good life. Almost all of these patios looked out onto neat rows of vines and endless blue sky. I guess the spectacular weather didn't hurt either.

We avoided electing a designated driver on day two of wine tasting by renting bikes. Laura, Mickey and I were lucky enough to score comfort seats, the big cushy kind for those of us who prefer beach cruisers. Another great reason to go wine tasting via bicycles is that the extra exercise helps one justify consuming more cheese. Win win.

Wine and cheese aside, though, we don't believe that Mudgee is the foodie town that it thinks it is. On our first night we ended up at the Wine Glass, a brasserie with the reputation of being one of the better restaurants in town. The food was decent, but they actually served a wine that had gone off. The fact that it was on special for $20 a bottle could have been a clue, but we were in a wine town, not a Shakey's Pizza in Canton, Ohio for heaven's sake. We scored a booking at Blue Wren for dinner on Easter Sunday, by some accounts the best restaurant in Mudgee. We were immediately impressed that they pick up and drop off diners at their hotels for no extra charge. Despite the extra service, though, the food didn't blow us away.

Though as an adult I haven't been way into Easter, I decided to organize an egg hunt for my friends on Sunday morning after breakfast. I scoured my favorite discount stores for plastic eggs, but they were nowhere to be found. It turns out that Australia's Easter traditions are cemented around chocolate; only chocolate bunnies, bilbys and eggs will do. I can't say they're missing out on much regarding Peeps (sorry, Jess), but jelly beans and plastic eggs would be lovely. Anyway, Mickey and I woke up early on Easter Sunday and tiptoed around the B&B's porch, stuffing eggs in planters, hedges and outdoor furniture. Sadly, the owner's dogs found a couple of the chocolates before our friends did, but they still appreciated the effort.

Overall, Mudgee is a great long weekend getaway from Sydney. Even if you're not into wine, the bird and roo watching were really rewarding. We saw four black cockatoos fly overhead one afternoon and I spied tons of tiny birds chasing each other through the gum trees. The sights and sounds of the country are appealing enough to make me ponder what life there would be like. Then again, the kookaburra's 5am cackle reminded me that Sydney's not so bad either.

Photos courtesy of Laura Wandke. Thank you, Laura.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Auckland: Visiting NZ's one and only Metropolis

About a month ago, Mickey scored a work trip to Auckland and bought a ticket for me to tag along for the weekend. After two previous trips to New Zealand, one to Wellington and the other around the south island, we were eager to explore Auckland, the city in and around which one third of the kiwi population lives.

Mickey arrived mid-week and I followed him on a delayed Jetstar flight (during which I did not possess my $10 entertainment unit long enough to finish The Blindside) late Thursday night. Taking the direct shuttle into town was easy (take note, Sydney) and cheap, too, thanks to a pre-printed coupon Mickey left for me. Can you see why I love this man? I joined him in a small, but comfortable room at Rydges, a recently renovated hotel conveniently located near the harbour.

While Mickey was at a work event, I spent my first day wandering near the water's edge admiring the sleek racing boats and yachts that line the quays. After some pretty intense shopping, I stopped for lunch at Mexicali Fresh, a restaurant Mickey swore was legit, "Californian owner," etc. Foolishly I believed him and wasted my appetite on dry, shredded beef wrapped in a plasticky corn tortilla, their version of a Tijuana taco. I guess that's what I get for believing I could get a taste of TJ in NZ.

Window-shopping on High Street afforded a unique opportunity to find unique kiwi-designed clothing. I would have loved to wow my Sydney friends with a one of a kind kiwi fashion treasure, but found the prices shockingly high ($400NZD for a sweater - I don't know the conversion, but it certainly wasn't affordable). I would have been happy to take home another pair of thundies, mega fun and comfy underwear, but alas found none.

Mickey was free from his work commitments on Saturday so we took the ferry to Waiheke Island, a gorgeous spot known for its wineries. Spectacular weather helped us instantly fall in love with the place as we traveled in a crowded bus from one end of the island to a beach on the other.

We stopped at a couple of wineries in the afternoon, the most notable of which was Saratoga, a winery owned by a couple from Saratoga, California of all places. They also offered a Mexican-inspired menu, but I talked Mickey down to just ordering a plate of chips and queso. We also stopped at Wild on Waiheke, a winery/brewery/activity center in one. I question the wisdom of the person who thought offering archery and drinking at the same time was a good idea, but everyone seemed to be having fun. In fact, we enjoyed observing separate groups celebrating Hens' and Bucks' parties. I never thought I'd witness a grown man perfect his laser clay shooting skills while painted blue and dressed as a smurf, but thanks to Wild on Waiheke, I have.

There aren't a lot of differences between Auckland and some of Australia's capital cities in terms of architecture, food and culture, but I noticed an abundance of Japanese restaurants in Auckland's CBD. We briefly searched the internet for recommendations before settling on Tanuki for dinner on Saturday. The atmosphere was cozy and authentic, but sadly the food left something to be desired. I found the rice way too sweet and was forced to face facts about my favorite sushi rolls not being gluten free.

But what Auckland lacked in the delicious food department, it made up for in the adorable penguin department. Mickey and I spent our last morning at Kelly Tarlton's, the self-proclaimed biggest tourist attraction in Auckland, which features an Antarctic penguin enclosure. The reviews online were mixed, but we totally dug it.

The penguin enclosure is designed to mimic Antarctic conditions so they keep it at 1C. Visitors observe the little cuties via a revolving snocat car so there's no need for parkas or snow boots. Kelly Tarlton's is home to two species of penguin: the King and the Gentoo. The Gentoo were quite active: swimming, waddling on to the snow and then diving in to the icy water again. Meanwhile, the King penguins just stood there very proudly. They were so lazy that the trainers had to hand feed them! I really admire that kind of attitude in the face of captivity.

Kelly Tarlton's other major exhibit is a reproduction of Robert Falcon Scott's 1911 Antarctic hut. I was completely captivated by his tragic story of exploration, starvation and death at the South Pole. I forgot to mention that Kelly Tarlton's provides a free shuttle to and from the CBD. The shuttle bus is shaped like a shark. I'm not kidding. In other words, I had a great time at Kelly Tarlton's.

Auckland consistently ranks among the top most livable cities in the world and I can see why. It's clean, beautiful, friendly and there's lots to do. Maybe next time I'll find it even more livable if I seek some pointers on where to eat.