Australia · Day Trips

Kangaroo Picnic in Morisset

I want to say that there were kangaroos at Taronga but I don’t recall any memorable encounters with them.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago: when a friend I met through Couchsurfing invited me to join in on a day trip and see these quintessential Australian creatures, I knew the moment had come.

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G’day mate! (nobody actually says that but this guy surely would)

Let’s backtrack a little more. I wrote of things to know about Couchsurfing after I joined the website/app earlier this year and had my first experience being hosted in Manila. However, it wasn’t until recently here in Sydney that I first used the “Hangouts” feature.

It was a Thursday afternoon and my schedule was open until later in the evening. With quite a few hours to kill, I thought I’d seek out something interesting.

Since I work from home, I have to find ways to get out and interact with people in my downtime; for example, by going to the gym. Granted, most of my interactions there involve punching people, but it still counts.

With the Couchsurfing app, you can set yourself available to hang out and find people–travelers, locals, and everyone in between–near you who want to do the same. And they won’t even try to punch you.

Instead of spending that Thursday evening at the gym, I ended up getting together with a group of Couchsurfers in Darling Harbour. Where I normally feel the odd one out, what with my multiple nationalities and mixed cultural identity, quite literally everyone in this group had a similar story to tell. Some were living in Sydney; some had arrived that day and were only passing through, and others were here for a year on exchange.

One of them, a new arrival to Australia, was responsible for organizing this fantastic day trip and hats off to her because it was a clever feat and lots of good fun.

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A unique blend of tame day-trippers and friendly kangaroos set against the backdrop of a quaint psychiatric hospital

Everyone got together at Central Station just after 8 AM to catch the train at 16 minutes past and it wasn’t until all the clusters got off the train in Morisset that we realized how large the group of mostly Couchsurfers had grown: I’m pretty sure there were about twenty of us.

I was almost unsure I’d want to give up my Saturday morning sleep in but I’m certainly glad I did. The trip was loads of fun and it was great to meet new people, and kangaroos too.

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There is at least one picnic table by the lake and it’s a beautiful spot for a picnic at a safe distance from the marsupial hubs (but maybe don’t bring kangaroo jerky anyway)

Day Trip Timeline

Here’s a rough time frame of the trip. This is with a fairly large group so it’s counting on things moving a bit slowly. It’s still an adventurous way to spend the day, and with a little nap on the train heading back you’ll still have the entire evening to enjoy in Sydney CBD.

08:16 Catch the train from Central
10:10 Get off at Morisset
10:30 Hike to Morisset Hospital (not Morisset Park)
11:30 See kangaroos; have a picnic (not in the same place)
13:00 Start heading back to the station
14:32 Catch the train to Sydney
16:29 Arrive at Central

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Walk around and not through the hospital grounds when heading to the picnic area
Australia · Day Trips · Travel Reviews

Hunter Valley Wine Tour

The first sighting of European settlers in the Hunter Valley was in 1798 when a lieutenant drifted into the Hunter River in search of escaped convicts.

While it is said that the region was named after Captain John Hunter, I’d say there’s a good chance the colonists chose the name for how well it reflected their motives in the valley.

Regardless, the region continues to attract hunters from around the world searching for some its finest fruity intoxicants.

Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours

Today’s tour took us to four cellar doors in the Hunter Valley and one chocolatier.

With pickup scheduled at 6:55 near Sydney Central Station and some road closures due to a gas leak in the city, we were on our way to Pokolbin around 7:30 and arrived at our first stop twenty minutes later than the planned 10 am arrival.

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I’ve seen the sunset over the Harbour Bridge numerous times but catching its rise this morning already made the day worth getting up for–that early, I mean.

The two-to-three-hour drive up to Hunter Valley was both scenic and informative, with our driver and tour guide occasionally popping up with interesting facts about the area.

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For example, as we crossed the Hawkesbury River on the Pacific Highway, he explained that the area was named Brooklyn because a New-York based company won the bid to build the bridge with their then-leading underwater welding technology.

More interesting still is how the bridge divides the fresh water of the river on one side from the salt water bay on the other–a perfect environment for bull shark, apparently.

Having arrived in Hunter Valley, we received more information about the winemaking region itself. For example, we were told that the area was home first to a penal colony and only to vineyards after the penitentiary was relocated to Port Macquarie.

Another change in the Hunter region with an equally monumental impact on its winemaking history was a Sydney hand surgeon’s decision to buy up over two dozen hectares of vine territory.

As winemaking in the valley had begun to whither, Dr. Max Lake’s brassy purchase brought new life to the region when the first boutique vineyard was planted in 1963.

Though the land changed hands at the turn of the century, this gutsy buy is reflected ironically on its wine label. Lake’s Folly is now one of 150 wineries peppering the Hunter hills.

On to our first tasting stop:

McGuigan Wines

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Although McGuigan only planted its first vineyards in 1992, it is now Australia’s largest wine producer and four-time international winemaker of the year.

If you are a lover of full-bodied white wines, a trip to Hunter Valley won’t disappoint. As the Bordeaux region is to its wine, so Hunter Valley is becoming to Semillon.

Though this French grape hails from Bordeaux, it is McGuigan Wines that has produced the best Semillon in the world for seven years straight. You’ll indubitably get a taste of their Semillon on your Hunter Valley wine tasting tour, along with sips of Portuguese Verdelho and German Gewürztraminer whites.

Tastings flow from whites–and sometimes roses–to reds and end with tawny-colored dessert wines.

Our wine of the day–since we’re both red drinkers–was McGuigan’s 2015 The Farms Shiraz, a limited new release provided for tasting at the cellar door.

Besides pouring the first glasses to quell the thirst of our drive from Sydney, the McGuigan tasting also provided some curious information on such things as Australian wine regions, the difference between American and French oak barrels, and the impact on local wines.

Hunter Valley Resort

At the Hunter Valley Resort, our wines were paired with cheese. At such occasions, one is reminded never to venture to the moon without crackers. Additionally, a Pinot Gris might not be a bad addition.

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At the cellar door, we tried a pleasant variety of wines, each paired with a different cheese–from labna to feta and cheddar to brie.

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These tasty bites of milk and yogurt curds certainly whet our appetites for lunch, which was also served at the Hunter Valley Resort.

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The meal was enjoyed by a blazing fireplace and the warmth was a more than welcome respite from chilling winds.

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Hunter’s Dream

After lunch and a cup of tea, we were ready to resume the sampling of inebriants.

Next on the tasting tour was Hunter’s Dream, a small vineyard now owned by Nature’s Care–a manufacturer of health food and skin care products.

This gorgeous, small-scale winery had a wonderful appeal to it but unfortunately its bottled goods were somewhat lacking compared to earlier tastings.

Mistletoe Wines

Our last wine stop on the tour was a true Aussie-family-owned vineyard with a defiant and somewhat loud overture into the winemaking world.

Mistletoe was certainly the most generous of the wineries, providing nearly a dozen wines for tasting. In addition to whites, reds, and tawnys, Mistletoe offered us our first and only rosé of the day.

As the third-generation daughter of this family-owned estate prepared tables for the tasting, her grandmother explained considered rosé to be old-fashioned. However, her husband–in his seemingly stubborn nature–chose to make it regardless.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from, by the way, but back in Europe, we love our rosés–especially on a picnic or a midday terrace stop.

My only complaint about the Mistletoe experience was that is was very text heavy, with signs, posters, and pamphlets filled corner-to-corner with black ink. It’s not that I don’t respect the choice to use refrain from the environmentally unsustainable use of cork or to give your Muscat the Aussie “Mozcato” twang, but why not let the wine speak for itself?

Hunter Valley Chocolate Company

After drinking our fill of Hunter Valley wines, a chocolate stop was well in order.

At the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company, Peter the chocolatier gave us a sampling of the fine Belgian chocolates used to make their tasty treats and we had a few bites of their fudge as well.

Remarkably, in the last moments of the day, as we stood near the van waiting for our return to Sydney, rain began to fall from a sky that had been otherwise perfectly blue since sunrise.

Just as all the members of our group were fastened in and the driver revved us on our way, the downpour began and we fell into a blissfully inebriated sleep.

Just after sunset, we found ourselves back in the center of Sydney.

In all honesty, after an entire day tasting wine, my man and I were ready for a beer. Having been dropped off on the outskirts of Chinatown just after 7 pm, we were minutes away from Chinese Noodle House–a favorite stop for dumplings.

The cold, crisp brew we picked up along the way paired fantastically with dumplings, braised eggplant, mapo tofu, and more.

So yet another beautiful day was concluded.

Signing off, with gratitude.

Cheers.

Day Trips · Luxembourg · Travel Tips

The ABCs of a Child-Friendly Weekend in Luxembourg

Animals at Parc Merveilleux

Parc Merveilleux is a wonderful place for children and adults alike in the way it bring wildlife and nature to your fingertips.

In this case, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Come face to face with animals big and small, enjoy a walk through nature–or a train ride, have a picnic along the way or perhaps a relaxing drink at the cafe while kids go wild at one of the many exciting playgrounds.

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Brunch at Le Paris

Le Paris in Mondorf is another place for everyone, with a fine-dining feel, (some) affordable food, and an outdoor play area for children.

Their menu is reasonably varied and has at least a few vegetarian items on it; by holding the cheese, they can easily be turned vegan as well.

Celts at Bealtaine

On May 19 and 20, the Bealtaine Festival was in Luxembourg town.

Whether you’re a medieval nerd, a sword fanatic, a leather head, a metal head, a child, or none of the above, you’re certain to find entertainment among the various stalls, activities, and shows at this Celtic-themed festival.

At Bealtaine, you can converse with the craftsmen and women on their trade, take your child  from activity to activity, drink local brews, and watch scantily clad grown men play at being gladiators–don’t worry, it’s child appropriate (enough).

If you’re willing to wait until the woods darken, you might catch a fire show as well.

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Check out their website to see if you can spot these traveling Celts in your neck of the woods this year.

 

Day Trips · Netherlands · Travel Tips

Dagje Amsterdam

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Suggestions on how to spend 24 hours in Amsterdam

09:00 Centraal Station to Oud-West

In under an hour, you can walk casually from Central Station to the most fabulous brunch in Amsterdam. You can pass the Dam, enjoy lots of canal scenery, and work up a solid appetite on your entirely doable 4 kilometer stroll. (My four-year-old daughter can do it and so can you.)

10:00 Brunch at Staring at Jacob

Get here when they open at ten and you’re guaranteed a table; any later and they might be packed. This American-owned brunch bar serves what they like to call “funky classics and daring dishes”.

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From the menu, we ordered Rasco (that’s fried chicken, waffles, soft scrambled eggs, maple syrup, and butter) and Fuckin Everything (that’s tons of vegetarian stuff with a fried egg on top). For the little one, a side of fried chicken, a side of waffles with syrup, and ketchup.

Besides an inventive menu and delicious food, I loved how every server who came to our table had a different accent, from Italian to British and Dutch to American. The staff were warm, friendly, and entirely accommodating.

11:00 Drinks at Cafe Lennep

While it’s lovely to catch an outside table for brunch along the canal, Staring at Jacob is on the shaded side of the street at this time of day.

Not to worry, walk to the other side of the canal and directly across from the brunch bar you’ll find Cafe Lennep, with benches literally along the water and in full sun.

Another reason to come here: they have an excellent selection of beers.

12:00 Shopping and tramming at Ten Kate Markt

Walk to the Ten Katestraat tram stop on the corner of Kinker and Ten Katestraat and, if it’s a Saturday, enjoy a typically Dutch markt with such treats as Hollands Nieuwe (fresh, raw haring), other fishes, poffertjes, and fried snacks to the tune of de hooiwagen (a street music wagon).

When you’ve had your fill of market goods, catch a tram to Nemo.

13:00 Exploring the Nemo Science Museum

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Nemo–Amsterdam’s big green boat–is a favorite spot in the city for all ages.

With six levels, each dedicated to its own area of science–elementa, fenomena, technium, elementa, humania, and energtica up on the roof–this hands-on museum has something to fascinate anyone.

Nemo is a place where babies and toddlers can perform their first scientific experiments and adults can learn new and amusing things about themselves and their world. I visited once at the age of six, once around sixteen, and again at twenty-six with my own daughter in tow; each experience stood out in its own way.

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17:00 An oasis in the city: Amsterdam Roest

Tired of the touristy bars in the city center? Head east along IJ (the waterfront separating Amsterdam Centraal from Amsterdam Noord) to Oostenburg and you’ll find Roest.

Inside, you can raid the coolers for drinks and snacks and simply pay at the bar. Not that you can’t order food and drinks as you would at any bar, but grabbing a bottle for yourself is certainly a cheaper and more convenient option.

When you are ready to order food, this is an excellent spot for dinner with great options for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Outside, you can chill at tables and hammocks in the sand along the canal until the sun sets and you’re ready to leave or head back to the bar and check out the nights’ lineup.

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22:00 Waterkant: the tropical canal experience

Whether the sun has set or not, this another place to be in Amsterdam. However, if you show up too late on the weekend, you might not get in–which exactly what happened to us on Kingsday. It is a fun spot and worth checking out though and only a 30-minute walk from Central Station.

00:00 Highschool nostalgia at De School

There are of course all sorts of bars and clubs in Amsterdam but if you’re serious about pulling an all-nighter, this may very well be the place: a high-school-turned-night-club that stays open until 6 AM on the weekend. It’s is more than just a club and live music venue, too; besides the basement and concert room, they have a fine dining restaurant, a casual cafe, art exhibits, and a gym.

Arriving before midnight at De School will save you a potentially hour-or-longer wait at Amsterdam’s most popular alternative nightclub. People line up around the block to go to school but if they don’t look the part they can just as quickly be turned away. Standards for who gets in maybe not be what you’d expect.

Fun fact: once a month, De School hosts Het Weekend and keeps its doors open from Friday night to Sunday morning. With such a wide range of facilities, they say everything you need to last that out is right there.

06:00

Good question.

I would say: enjoy a quiet walk along the canals until you find something that’s open for breakfast.

As far as what’s open at 6 am in Amsterdam, I can’t say that I know. Any suggestions?

Day Trips · Netherlands · Travel Reviews

A Brisk Day at Burgers’ Zoo

Standing on a riverbank inside Burgers’ Zoo, it feels as though you’ve stepped right up to the edge of an African safari.

Not long along, the zoo announced the birth of a baby rhino and from here we watched the stout little creature chase giraffes ten times its size: quite a spectacle for a random passerby to take part in.

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A generational zoo with a myriad of ecosystems and Europe’s largest live coral reef, Burgers’ is unique for being managed by the same family since its meager beginnings as not more than a petting zoo over a century ago.

My daughter–who had never been here before–insisted that she had a number of secret places to lead us to as she mock followed the map and picked random directions. When we stumbled into a beautiful aquarium, she announced that this was it: her secret place at last.

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There’s a restaurant in “the bush”–a domed section mimicking the hot and sticky topics–where you can grab a terrasje even in winter. Coming from Manila, I found the humidity almost comforting on this otherwise chilly day.

(As Dutch as een terrasje pakken is–enjoying food and drink in the outdoor seating area of a cafe or restaurant–the wait for warm or at least sunny weather can be long.)

Besides the safari, tropical bush, and aquarium, there is a reptile area, a dessert zone and a vast expanse of outdoor enclosures with lions and tigers, no bears (oh my) but lots of other animals.

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There is a massive apenkooien playground, another smaller outdoor one, and an indoor playground by the restaurant as well.

(Literally, apenkooien translates to “monkey cages” and refers to an obstacle-course style play area where kids can climb, swing, and jump around.)

The zoo is a beautiful place where unexpected things can happen and when you’re watching animals in near enough their natural habitat every visit provides a new experience. We watch animals do crazy like be born, chase each other around, and get into fights, yelling matches, and displays of power.

But we people do crazy things there too. Maybe we carry to our day out ordinary worries and fears and maybe our time there is so otherworldly that it brings us to tears. We see the bond between human and animal and our mutual dependence on nature. We see children and parents and couples and maybe even proposals.

Burgers’ Zoo is a wonderful place for all of this because it is respectful to all: people, animals, and nature.

While I’ve only discussed snippets of Burgers’ here, I would strongly encourage making a zoo trip of your own if you find yourself near Arnhem.

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Australia · Day Trips · Travel Tips

Weekend in Sydney: Beaches and Bridges

With an outbound flight coming up this Sunday, my last full weekend was spent enjoying some of Sydney’s grandest attractions.

Saturday at Bondi Beach

After an interview with proactivist Lance Lieber of Transition Bondi, it felt important to spend the last chunk of daylight down by the seaside.

However, Bondi Beach itself looked as crowded as it would on a sunny Saturday afternoon and it already seemed a bit chilly for a swim.

Under such circumstances, one must hang a right from the beach and take the scenic Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk past Tamarama instead.

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You can catch some breathtaking views from Mackenzies Point and lounge on the Tamarama Rocks while watching the surfers out on the waves.

Sunday on the Bridge Bridge

On Sunday, you can ride trains, buses, and ferries all around Sydney for only $2 with an Opal card.

This last Sunday–in the company of a few good people–I took a train to Milsons Point, right on the northern end of the Harbour Bridge.

Before beginning the bridge walk, we lingered at the Kirribilli Markets under the bridge’s arch on Burton Street and enjoyed a little picnic in the grass outside to the tune of some smooth live jazz.

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At the end of our walk across the bridge, we climbed up the Pylon Lookout for a breathtaking view of the city sprawled across the harbor. We even watched a wedding take place beneath us on a small patch of green near Circular Quay.

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There are fascinating pictures and stories of the bridge building in a museum inside the lookout as well.

The bridge will take you from the north of Sydney to The Rocks–a narrow-alleyed, a cobble-stoned precinct reminiscent of old European towns.

Once across, we made our way to an authentic Bavarian beer hall, formerly known as Lowenbrau Keller and now named Munich Brauhaus.

Not only were all the wait staff dressed as though it were Oktoberfest; indeed, the barman was a real-life German.

We sat outside to enjoy the last few rays of the sun’s warmth and, as it set, noticed a street lamp with a gas-lit street lamp.

With beer (and some very tasty french fries) in our bellies, we walked past the Overseas Passenger Terminal and happened to catch a massive cruise ship waving its farewells while enjoying some live music from the Cruise Bar.

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In one random alley, we happened upon a small window which revealed what may very well have been the rock upon which the first settlers landed in Sydney.

Also to be found on a Sunday: The Rock Market, though, to our misfortune, we got there just as they were closing up at 5 PM.

Eventually, we found a spot in the grass to sit and enjoy the sunset with a bottle of wine.

Nearby, devotees turned towards Mecca and prayed Maghrib. We were approached by a security officer with the Hindi name Sanjay, who, in the most friendly manner possible, let us know that we were drinking in an alcohol-free zone.

There were five other officers in the area who, he informed us, were not as friendly as Sanjay and would readily issue a $200 fine for our offense. Sanjay was merciful, however, and simply asked us to cap the bottle and put it away.

At times like these, I am grateful for the dazzling and diverse city that is Sydney.

 

Australia · Day Trips

Train, Beach, Camp

And when I say train, I am referring to Sydney trains–the ones with wheels–and not the act of training.

Nonetheless, a beach trip was a good follow up to what has now been six weeks of boxing and martial arts at Darkside Gym.

Honestly, we didn’t do much planning for this trip other than deciding that we wanted to spend at least part of the long Easter camped out on a secluded beach.

All we needed to pull it together was:

  • A phone to check train schedules;
  • An overnight bag with beachwear;
  • A day or two’s supply of food;
  • A water bottle to refill;
  • A tent, sleeping mats, and a light blanket.

At this time of year, it wasn’t cold enough to need sleeping bags; we also didn’t have any.

With two people, the supplies were easy to carry.

For food, we brought plenty of fruit and veggies, along with some cold cuts and hummus, for salads, sandwiches, and dips.

We didn’t roll out the door until quite late in the day and had to make a few stops to get last-minute groceries (e.g. freshly baked bread) and pick up the tent and sleeping mats we were borrowing.

From Central Station, we caught the 6:36 PM South Coast Line to Kiama on Platform 25 and disembarked at Wombarra Station just after 8.

You can get the South Coast Line train schedules on Google maps.

Wombarra is the station just after Scarborough but it is the closest to Scarborough Beach–our camping site of choice.

On the train, you’ll likely be charged between 2 to 6 Aussie dollars on your Opal card each way. Spend what you please on groceries and the trip is highly affordable.

I suppose I should mention that camping is not technically allowed on Scarborough Beach; however, locals have confirmed that it is conventionally condoned. Don’t be leaving anything behind, is all.

We arrived at the beach after sundown but were fortunate to have plenty of light from a gorgeously full moon to set up the tent and have a bite to eat.

From the beach, there is also a pathway leading up to a well-lit building with bathrooms and showers that stayed open all night.

The next morning, we unzipped the tent to this spectacular view that made a somewhat uncomfortable sleep on mats that were, on the one hand, small and easy to carry but also just a bit too thin, entirely worth it.

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In all, a full 24-hour cycle was spent enjoying the beach-dwellers life at Scarborough.

At the break of dawn, surfers were out on the waves. As the morning progressed, flags were set up and Surf Rescue volunteers took their stations.

There never appeared to be more than two or three groups of people on the beach at any given time, from yogis doing handstands to couples walking their dog and families with young children playing in the swash.

Regardless, we had enough privacy on our end of the beach to feel quite comfortable doing as we pleased.

Although we had enough food to stay another night, we decided to leave at sundown that day so we could make it back to the city by 9 PM, buy alcohol (bottle shops had been closed over the holidays), and enjoy such luxuries and modern comforts as beds.

Nonetheless, being beachside was exhilarating and wonderfully relaxing at the same time.