Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mom's summer vacation highlight - a day trip to Palmie

This year marked my mom's fourth annual trek to Sydney to visit us. Her extended stays range from four to eight weeks and necessitate that she not simply play the tourist, but make a life for herself here: find friends, develop routines, exercise and generally become a local. I'm always delighted to retell stories describing just how much of a local my mom is here; she's befriended butchers, given directions, spotted celebs and even found a bargain or two.

from left to right: me, Helmut, Roxanne

Though she loves Sydney, we make an effort to show her other parts of NSW/Australia during her trips. We've taken her to Kiama, Berry, the Blue Mountains, Adelaide, the Clare Valley, the outback, Byron Bay and even Canberra (I know, we were really scraping the barrel of Australian destinations there). She's been to Melbourne once and there are still plenty of worthy winter destinations on her to do list including, of course, the rock and the reef.

I was in the red with vacation days when Mom showed up in June so we decided to stick closer to home. Palm Beach, a fashionable yet relaxed beach community, is just an hour north of Sydney and home to some of Australia's rich and fabulous. The fact that Australia's most iconic soap, Home and Away, takes place in Palmie solidifies its status as the premiere aspirational beach town. Anyway, it reminds me of Carmel and I knew that Mom and Roxanne would love it.

Mommy in Palmie
Sydneysiders sans cars can take the L90 bus all the way up to Palm Beach, but we opted to hire out a goget car to allow us greater flexibility. Sandra, our friendly neighborhood Toyota Yaris, was unavailable so we reserved Helmut, a tiny Suzuki Alto that boasts four doors and an amusingly dinky 50 horse power or something close to that. All jokes that day revolved around Helmut's German heritage and his lack of get-up-and-go, but ultimately he was a great sport and got us safely to and from Palm Beach.

The weather threatened to put a damper on our beach adventure, but the rain was off and on and fortunately while we were in Palm Beach, mostly off. In fair weather, Palm Beach and the Boat House in particular can be absolutely magical. The sun shined through the clouds while we dined on fish and chips, salt and pepper squid and steak salad alfresco. It became warm enough to ditch our jackets and don our sunnies while admiring the water views.

We couldn't have dreamed up a better day. Mom read her Kindle near Helmut while Mick, Roxanne and I climbed up to the lighthouse at Barrenjoey head. Mickey had done this walk before, but the gorgeous views of the headland, beach and isthmus were new to me and Roxanne. When it started to sprinkle, we carefully trekked back down the hill, avoiding slippery rocks and mud puddles.

fish and chips of the gods
We concluded our jaunt up north with hot drinks at Jonah's at Whale Beach, a snooty restaurant with great views. The wait staff didn't want to waste the heat lamp on patrons who were only paying for coffees, but they did give us some blankets.

I'm sure Mickey and I would visit Palmie more often if it were a bit easier to reach. However, I suspect it is this relative remoteness which makes it so attractive to the wealthy folks who call Palm Beach home.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Curlew Camp Artists' Walk

A view of the city from the bush
For the most part, this winter in Sydney has been mild and pleasant. It's not quite warm enough to swim in the ocean, but it's been an ideal temperature for short bushwalks and even tennis.

Horizon Building reflected by another
I was eager to take my mom on one of my favorite inner-harbour walks, the trail that stretches from the Spit Bridge to the Manly Wharf. The three-hour walk marked by plenty of ups and downs seemed a bit daunting, though, so we hunted online for a shorter inner-harbour option. It wasn't long before we stumbled on the Curlew Camp Artists' Walk (1.5km) which begins at the South Mosman ferry and ends at the Taronga Zoo ferry.

It begins with an intimidating staircase, but Mom bravely trudged up them. The rest of the walk, in fact the entire day, was simply gorgeous.

Roxanne's fantastic photo of two kookaburras

Sirius Cove
One feature that especially endears the inner-harbour walks to me is the variety of scenery you can experience over very short distances. Of course, there are great views of the city, bridge and Opera House, multi-million dollar homes, tiny coves dotted with sailboats and calm beaches, and surprisingly untouched coastal bushland.

Every time I take one of these charming hikes, I vow to return in summer with my cozzie (bathing suit) and a picnic hamper. Let's see if I remember this time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Whale Watching Outside Sydney Harbour

Mickey and I have recently visited a couple of prime whale watching destinations: Western Australia and Hervey Bay. Sadly for the former aspiring marine biologist in me, we were there out of season and didn't catch sight of migrating whales.

Katie and Becca waiting for our boat at Circular Quay

Katie and Becca's visit to Sydney, however, presented the perfect opportunity to spot some whales just outside the harbour. Katie scored some coupons and generously paid for the four of us girls to hop on the Discovery Whale Watching Tour. It departed a little after 10am on a spectacularly clear, sunny day from Circular Quay. We grabbed seats on the top level of the three-story boat and enjoyed the sun and fresh air as we motored beyond the Opera House, past the heads and out into the open ocean.

The kind lady at the ticket booth advised that our chances of seeing whales was quite good because the boats had been spotting them for several days straight and the company tracks the whales overnight via radar. Fortunately, if we didn't see whales, we would be allowed to take another chance on the Discovery Tour later in the season. I was reluctant to get my hopes up, but pretty satisfied with this guarantee.

Our boat wasn't in the open ocean for ten minutes before we spotted the first couple of sprays from blowholes along the horizon. We approached a group of whales and then followed them for the remainder of the two hour tour. The experts with the microphone explained that we were following a "competition pod," a group of presumably adult males pushing each other while jockeying for position as the top dog, er... whale.

Dorsal fins

The experts couldn't explain the whales' behavior with certainty, but the whales in the competition pod sure put on a show. There were four of them in the group that literally pushed up against one another and aggressively raised their heads and fins out of the water and smacked them down again.

To my delight and astonishment, the whales got really close to our boat. It is against the rules to get any closer to the whales than 100 meters, but if they approach your boat, you're meant to just stay there and let them do their thing until they move along. We were the biggest, but certainly not the only boat following that active pod. Much smaller boats (practically dinghies) broke the rules by getting too close to the whales and were lucky that they weren't accidentally capsized or killed. The whales don't know the rules after all.

Because the whales were so busy that morning, I began to hope that I might see one breach clear out of the water. I'd seen clips on the news of whale watching boats getting such a treat, but dared not hope for it until it started looking not just possible but even likely.

One of the whales turned on his side and began smacking his two meter long pectoral fin onto the surface of the water over and over again. We were so close to the whale that we could clearly hear the noise of the smack on the water. I felt like we were watching a Sea World show, but it's likely that the whale was sending a message to the three others in his pod, not us gawkers on the boat.

Indeed, the whales had something to express because not long after the fin smacking, another whale (or maybe it was the same show-off) breached! I couldn't believe our good luck. Watching the enormous humpback whale lunge clear out of the water was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen (I'm turning into such a nature geek as I age). Mom, Katie, Becca and I all squealed with delight and amazement. We had seen a whale breach; that alone would have been worth the $80 tour cost.

So, you can imagine how we felt when the whale decided to breach again. Yes, it was just icing on the cake at that point.
Mom and me on the top deck of the boat

As we motored back to shore, Mom excitedly began to plan another whale watching trip with her friend Roxanne. I had no interest in going again, though. The naughty whales in the competition pod had spoiled me with their boisterous show; I'm sure I'll never be that lucky on future whale watching trips and am happy to cement this one firmly in my memory.