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.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Honeymoon in Fiji - two and a half years after the wedding

Mickey and I are extraordinarily fortunate in that we travel for fun often. Thus, we didn't feel the need to take a honeymoon following our 2007 nuptials in Switzerland.

After returning from a quick trip to Fiji, though, perhaps our most relaxing and romantic trip yet, I asked Mickey, "can this count as our honeymoon?"

Booking the trip back in early December was easy; V Australia advertised a sale and twenty minutes later, we had purchased two round trip tickets costing only $600AUD all up. Booking accommodations, on the other hand, was trickier because the options seem endless. Did we want a super lux over-water bure (featured in that awful Vince Vahn movie Couple's Retreat) or a more affordable garden hut? Was the private plunge pool worth the money? Should we seek out a resort with all inclusive meal packages? What a lovely problem to have, right?

I consulted tripadvisor and our friends Chris and Jess who had recently visited Fiji for advice. Resort websites were no help; they all feature gorgeous pictures of white sandy beaches with crystal clear turquoise water so it's hard to differentiate between them. Tripadvisor wasn't too helpful in making a decision either. Every resort page featured glowing reviews declaring the place utter paradise peppered with the occasional but still worrying damning review along the lines of 'not worth the money.'

I was disappointed to learn that some of the resorts I liked best are hard to physically reach if your flight lands after 2pm. The last boats of the day destined for remote islands in the Mamanuca and Yasawa chains depart from Port Denarau around 3pm, leaving passengers on afternoon flights to either stay on the main island one night or take a private sea plane, jet boat or helicopter directly to their resorts. The first option didn't suit our needs as we were only staying four nights, and the latter two were a bit too extravagant. Private sea plane? What am I, Madonna or something? If I had mentally prepared myself for a splurge on an aerial tour, I might have opted for the flight, but I just couldn't justify spending the same amount as two nights accommodation on simply getting there.

To make a long story just a little shorter, I finally decided on Musket Cove, a resort in the Mamanuca chain that offers transportation on a 5pm catamaran. Perfect. It was pricey, approximately $320USD/night, but I compared resorts that were less and more and this seemed suit us best. When I rang the resort to make the reservation, the agent immediately offered me a 50% discount. I could have been jumping for joy, but instead I was skeptical. Other resorts I had called for quotes indicated they were booked out, not offering discounts. I asked the agent the reason for my (dubious) good fortune and she explained that it was "low season." What did low season mean? Was that code for cyclone season, disruptive hotel renovations or extreme political unrest? I optimistically decided that the GFC coupled with a genuine low season (neither US nor Aus/NZ have holidays at that time) made for a bargain, not a gamble.

Fortunately, I was right. Mickey and I were delighted with Musket Cove and Fiji in general. Spending approximately $160USD/night for a large, private beach bure (hut) in a 3.5/4 star resort seemed to be really great value. Snorkeling trips (and all gear) as well as an excursion to a native Fijian village were included in the price. Food and cocktails, of course, cost extra, but we didn't find these to be outrageously expensive. Likewise, I found great deals at the resort's day spa; my 50 minute massage was only $35USD!

Yes, we were pampered indeed. We spent our time between meals carving a triangular path between the pool, ocean and lounge chairs. Sunday morning started off quite differently, though, when we heard a loud knocking on the door to our hut at 7am. Mickey groggily answered the door and learned from the staff that we had to evacuate because of the tsunami warning following the Chilean earthquake. The funny thing about it was that we had three hours notice; the tsunami wasn't coming until 10am so we had time for a leisurely breakfast. The other guests didn't seem too worried. A local woman explained that the geographic location of our island and its reefs made us quite safe. One idiot piped up, "we think this is bad for us, think about the people in Chile." Comparing a mildly inconvenient evacuation to the total devastation of your town seemed ridiculous.

Anyway, after gathering the belongings that we absolutely didn't want to get washed away (passports, jewelry and my Bon Appetit magazines), we evacuated to a chapel on higher ground. The irony was too much to resist making bad jokes: how do you get two atheists into church on their Fijian vacation? Though it was very hot, the staff did a great job of keeping us updated on the tsunami-watch progress and provided everyone with food and water. After three hours in the chapel we were given the all clear. Hallelujah.

I thoroughly enjoyed our snorkeling excursion to the nearby reef. In some ways, it was superior to snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef in north Queensland. Reaching the outer reef takes an hour and 45 minutes whereas boating to an arguably equally beautiful reef in Fiji takes only ten minutes. Observing the brightly colored fish from the surface of the water felt like gliding over an alien landscape; there's nothing like it. Mickey wasn't as moved by the experience as I was, but he did extremely well with the open water.

We initially planned to go snorkeling on our last morning in Fiji, but thought better of it when we crossed paths with a black and white sea snake while wading near the shore on the previous afternoon. It was just a little thing, but Mickey and I both had nightmares about it. Scarier still, we couldn't get a straight answer from the staff about whether or not it was venomous.

Sea snake aside, we had a wonderful time in Fiji and talked about wanting to stay longer or return for Christmas with my family. We experienced the joy of a honeymoon, but didn't get ripped off the way honeymooners often do. Now that's what I call paradise.