Singapore: Where to Stay and Eat

Singapore is the perfect Asia layover.  It’s what I would call “Asia for the non-ambitious traveler.” What I mean by that is Singapore is incredibly comfortable, making it also incredibly standard.  It’s a very, very easy city to negotiate; it’s super clean, modern, and everyone speaks English.  The tap water is potable, and you really don’t need to worry about the food at all.  The money is in Singapore dollars (SGD) and the exchange is an easy 1 SGD for every 75 U.S. cents (essentially making everything there a tad cheaper).  Also, the subway is the most user friendly public system I’ve ever been on; it puts the subways in the U.S. to shame.

So would I go to Asia to visit Singapore specifically?  No.  But I would definitely use it as a jumping off point for the rest of the continent as it’ll help ease you into the area while you recover from jet lag.  Which is what we did for a weekend before heading off to Vietnam for 2 weeks.

Where to stay

The Quincy Hotel
22 Mount Elizabeth, Singapore 228517

I would highly recommend the Quincy Hotel, but only if you don’t mind walking about 20-30 minutes to get to the historical sights.  Keep in mind, it can get really hot in Singapore, so that 30 minutes walk gets pretty long. If you’re okay with that walk every day, then stay here.  Also, it’s located just off of Orchard Road, the main boulevard with dozens of shopping malls (literally dozens of 9 level shopping malls), so if shopping is your thing you’re right where you need to be.

This surprisingly chic hotel has super modern rooms with some perks I’ve never really seen at any other hotel I’ve stayed at. The first big perk is this: free minibar access in your room.  Yes, free. Every day they restock it with a few sodas, juices, and a couple beers that you can dive into without costing you extra.

Free minibar, restocked daily.
(If you don’t watch “Fresh Off the Boat”, you should. It’s funny as hell.)

The second perk is they’ll wash 2 pieces of laundry a day for you. Again, because you’re in a country that’s right on the equator, you’ll want to take advantage of cleaning up some of your sweaty garb. The breakfast buffet is excellent and the gym and pool are extremely nice.  The pool in particular is outdoor, but covered, and the water runs to the edge giving it an infinity pool feel right into the Singapore skyline. And the hotel is relatively affordable; it only cost us a reasonable $150 U.S. a night (through Expedia).

Where to eat

Singapore is world-renowned for having amazing food.  I don’t see why.  I don’t mean to sound snobby, but the reality, in my opinion, doesn’t live up to the hype. I’m not saying the food was horrible; quite the opposite, the food was actually very good. It all tasted very fresh, and was super cheap (most entrées are under $5 SGD).  And the Kopi coffee is delicious. But is it deserving of this whole, “Oh my god, Singapore has the best food in the world” reputation?  Nope, not in this travelers opinion.  But I’m fully willing to admit that maybe I didn’t go to the right places or maybe I am just a snobby dick. Who knows? But anywhoo…

Hawker Centers & Food Courts

These bad boys are where the local folks, tourists, pretty much everyone goes to get their grub. Many locals told me they rarely cook because it’s just cheaper to eat out. The Food Courts are usually located in the giant malls that I mentioned before on Orchard Road and other areas.  They are a step above Hawker Centers which are their own standalone collection of food stalls.  Both offer the same types of food, it’s just that the Food Courts are a little cleaner and a bit more expensive.  We went to both, and both had very good fare at a very cheap price. But again, a lot of the food that you find in the Hawker Centers and Food Courts you can easily find in an American Super 88 Asian market. People would rather travel 10,000 miles to get the “real thing” than go probably 30 minutes down the highway for the same thing in the U.S.…

Keep in mind, not all Hawker Centers are 24 hours (a mistake we realized after going to one and finding it closed for lunch), so check the times. Also, for some reason Singaporean food centers seem to hate napkins.  I don’t know why, but there were no napkins anywhere.  So either bring your own or I hope you like having food grease on your pants (thank god for the free laundry service at the Quincy…).

The Hawker Center we ended up going to is the popular Lau Pa Sat, which is open 24 hours, and got a slew of entrees including Char Sew Noodles, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Basil Chicken (from a Thai stall), and Fried Kway Theo (essentially chow fun noodles).

We also stopped into a Food Court chain called Food Republic and had their version of Hainanese Chicken Rice, and a roasted duck dish.

Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fungs are located throughout Singapore, and I later realized when we got there that it’s actually an international chain that we’ve been to! We went to the location in Sydney in 2015 (I clearly need to read my own blog more often…). So it’s not exactly a local spot, but the locals themselves seem to love it as the location we were at inside the Wisma Atria on Orchard Road was packed. As with most of the locations, the Din Tai Fung kitchen is open for all the customers to see the dumpling chefs hard at work.

Just like in Sydney, I wasn’t blown away by the good, yet unspectacular food. However, their claim to fame in Singapore is the Truffle & Pork Xiao Long Bao, a steamed truffle/pork soup dumpling (I legitimately don’t remember this offering being in the Sydney location, and looking through the Aussie menu now I don’t see it). It ain’t cheap, even in American dollars. One dumpling is $5 SGD (to give you a reference, 6 of the regular pork dumplings is $8 SGD).  But that one dumpling…ooh boy…it was damn good.  It’s a delicious mix of truffle mushroomy, earthy, salty pork meaty, brothy, explosive flavor–all packed into one little bite.  I chewed very, very slowly and let the flavors just marinate on my tongue.

Truffle & Pork Xiao Long Bao

Video: The Great Barrier Reef

Finally!  I was able to get the underwater camera pictures/videos from the Great Barrier Reef uploaded from the camera memory card.  So as a break from the SE Asia posts, I present to you the scuba diving experience that was offered by Reef Experience out of Cairns, Australia.  I would highly recommend the Reef Experience tour.  It was well run, had enthusiastic and patient dive instructors, and offered some surprisingly good food and wine.

I truly believe that a trip to Australia is not worth it unless you go to the Great Barrier Reef, so make sure to add time for it if you’re gonna travel all the way over there.  There’s not much else to “say” about the reef, so please enjoy the videos and pictures.

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Ayers Rock/Uluru

 

After our few days in Sydney, we took a flight to central Australia to get a taste of what the real outback is like (minus the Aussie Cheese Fries and Shrimp on the Barbie, which, by the way, Australians don’t say “shrimp” and they don’t cook them on the barbie).  Ayers Rock is located about 3 hours flying time from Sydney and it was then that I realized just how big Australia actually is.

Ayers Rock is home to one of the signature natural highlights of Australia — Uluru.  From this point on in the blog post, I’ll call it Uluru as it is the indigenous name, whereas Ayers Rock was the given name by the Englishman who discovered it.  How do I describe the Uluru?  If you’ve seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, image Uluru as a much larger version of that mountain that Richard Dreyfus is trying to reach and located in a New Mexico-like looking desert.

Uluru is sacred to the indigenous aboriginal people and its place in their history is significant; it’s a place that is the site of ancient fables and there are certain parts of the rock that are prohibited from photographing.  You can climb the rock, but you’d essentially be a massive douchebag if you did as they request that you don’t to respect the wishes of the aborigines.

Aside from the legends that come from Uluru, the rock formation itself is an interesting geological formation.  What you see of the rock is only like 10% of the rock; most of it is underneath the surface.  So it’s like a massive land based iceberg of sorts.

The best times to view Uluru are at sunrise and sunset.  The sunset is the easy part obviously.  Sunrise though — ouch.  The Uluru tour picks you up at 4:30 am from the resort (there’s only one resort, I’ll get to that later), and drives you about 30 minutes to the rock.  Now, despite the early hour, there are significantly better views as the suns comes up.  It’s almost spiritual in a way as you’re driving towards the rock and it goes from a massive shadowy figure into the different colors as the sun comes up.  Here’s a tip, when the tour parks for you to take pictures – stay at the higher point.  That way you can look at the rock and see all the colors change, while at the same time see the sunrise behind you.  We did not do this and missed out on the sunrise part.

In addition to Uluru rock itself, you should go see Kata Tjuta which is another rock formation close by. Although Kata Tjuta isn’t as impressively unique looking from a geological sense as Uluru, we did see some wild kangaroos running around the crevice that the rock formations created.

Here’s another tip.  Actually it’s more of a warning.  The flies.  My god, the goddamn flies.  They’re everywhere and pretty relentless.  So, pack some bug spray, and if you desire, get a fly net to cover your head/face.  This applies actually when you’re in any part of the Uluru area (airport, hotel, wherever).

And here’s yet another tip.  The shuttle bus ticket into Uluru park is $70 (on top of the $25 admission you’re already paying).  If you’re in a group, just go ahead and rent a car.  Even if you’re not use to driving on the left side of the road, you’ll figure it out, and its the desert so you’re really not gonna crash into anything (probably).  Anyways, if you rent a car you’ll probably save money and you can come and go as you please into the park versus being stuck waiting on shuttle buses.

At night, I would highly recommend doing the BBQ the tours offer.  While the food wasn’t the greatest in the world (though it was perfectly good backyard BBQ), the real value of the BBQ was getting to sit with some Australians and getting to know the locals, which is something we didn’t get to do that much on the trip with all the moving around.

Secondly — the stargazing.  The stargazing is AMAZING in the outback.  It also helped that we had a guide giving us a talk about the night sky with a legit (and I cannot stress this enough) lightsaber of a laser pointer.  The laser literally made it look like the tour guide was Captain Kirk firing a phaser into the sky; that’s how intense the beam was.  But with it, she was able to easily point out constellations and visible galaxies (yes, other galaxies) that we could see on the ground.  Seriously, this was one of my highlights of the whole trip.

And now my final point may surprise some of you.  While I really enjoyed being at Uluru (especially the stargazing), I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-do.  If you’re into geology or knowing about aboriginal history, then yes you should definitely go.  But other than that, I wouldn’t sacrifice other parts of your trip to make your way out there.  It’s not the cheapest excursion and I feel like you should make sure you way all your other options around the country before committing.  Again, it’s a great experience, but in my opinion not a priority.

Where we stayed

Ayers Rock Resort

There literally is only one place you can stay and it’s here.  This resort is actually 4 different lodges for every socioeconomic tourist there is.  The hotels range from a 4 star/high class hotel to a pitch your own tent campsite.  There’s also a town center in the resort complex with a few restaurants, grocery store, and retail and a complimentary shuttle bus that drops/picks up hotel guests at each hotel.  It runs throughout the day and evening.  Because its the only place to stay, the resort is actually a pretty well oiled machine.

We stayed at the Outback Pioneer Hotel which would best described as the motel of the resort complex (just one step above the campsite).  The accommodations were perfectly decent; comfortable rooms and friendly staff.  This hotel is actually the only one with activities that are geared for the younger crowd (outdoor bar, pool tables, arcade, etc) and the only hotel that offers take-away booze for sale, so that’s a plus.  They also have a giant BBQ area with about 10 grills and they offer raw meat of all kinds (including kangaroo and crocodile) for you to grill up on your own.

Sydney – Part III

Our third day in Sydney consisted of a bit more of the wildlife that Australia has to offer, so I’ll call it our Wildlife Day in Sydney.  We made our way down to Darling Harbor where you’ll find a wealth of restaurants and museums.  On a nice day, like Circular Quay, it’s a great place to just sit and people watch as most of the eateries offer outside seating/seating that looks out onto the water.  Here’s what the day looked like.

What we did

SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium

In Darling Harbor there’s a weird cluster of buildings that house the Aquarium, Wildlife Zoo (I’ll touch on this one next), and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum (skipped this because we’ve been to a few in other cities).  Of these three, I think the Aquarium is the only one really worth going to.  At first glance, you don’t think it’s that big.  But as you take the long ramps down there are very sizable tanks that house some amazing fish.  Easily the highlight of the aquarium are the tunnels.  The tunnels run through the tanks and have a glass ceiling that is about a 200 degree arch.  There you can get really up close with some sharks, stingrays, and some friendly and ginormous Dugongs (similar to manatees).  There are several other smaller tanks where you can see jellyfish, giant crabs, and a tank where you can touch various sea life creatures such as starfish.

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WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo

This zoo is actually adjacent to the Aquarium and I would say is probably not totally worth visiting.  Admittedly, we didn’t time our day right as we wanted to go to the much more famous Taronga Zoo, but it was too late into the afternoon by the time we wanted to get there to make it worth it (it’s a bit of a bus ride outside the city).  So we just settled on the zoo in Darling Harbor.  Now this zoo isn’t horrible, there are actually some pretty good ranger talks that we took advantage of at the kangaroo, crocodile and koala dens.  And the crocodile, named Rex, is a ridiculously large 6 meters and a neat animal to see up close.  My sister also really wanted to cuddle with a koala, but unfortunately in Sydney that’s now illegal or something, so you can only get a picture standing next to it (at a price of course).  Which is one of the main reasons why I’d say to skip the WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo.  The Taronga (even though we didn’t go) I heard is much larger and has more species of animals on display.  Also, if you go to different parts of the country, the laws there are not the same so eventually my sister did get that picture with her actually cuddling the bear.  So save a few bucks on the Sydney zoo and go to Taronga and/or if you’re looking to get a picture with a koala, pay for one where you get to hold the damn thing.

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Paddy’s Market
Market City
Cnr Hay St & Thomas St
Sydney NSW 2000

If you want to do some good souvenir shopping, Paddy’s Market is the place to go.  It’s really similar to the Cusco Artesian Market in Peru, where you can buy all sorts of trinkets, clothing, food, whatever for yourself or the folks back home.   They don’t really bargain as much at Paddy’s, but the prices are pretty low regardless.  The funny thing about Paddy’s is while the bottom floor is a flea market, if you take the escalators up, on the second floor is a legitimate, modern looking mall.  There you can find retail stores and a food court.

Bondi Beach & Coastal Walk

Bondi beach (pronounced “bond-eye”) is the premiere beach in Sydney that most of the locals and tourists flock to in the hot summer months.  It’s a bus ride away from the center of Sydney and only takes around 20-30 minutes to get there.  Shops and restaurants line the road along the back of the beach and you can grab ice cream, swimwear, sunblock, anything you’ll need for the beach.  Because of the rainy weather though, we didn’t do much suntanning or swimming.  We did however partake in the coastal walk the runs along four of the beaches starting at Bondi.  The trail takes about two hours round trip to walk, and is a great way to see the coast, a few of the other beaches, and get some great shots of the Pacific Ocean.  Hopefully if you go to Australia, you’ll be able to soak in some sun more than us.  Tip: The public bus does go there.  You can take either the 333 or the 380 bus.  Take the 333 – it takes more of an express route and doesn’t make as many stops as the 380.

Where we ate

Sydney Fish Market

Ironically, after the aquarium, we were in the mood for some fish for lunch, so we took a walk to the Sydney Fish Market.  Unless you’re in Sydney for more than just a few days, this really isn’t worth seeing.  It’s a giant warehouse, and it is bustling, but there’s no wow factor or anything.  There’s just a bunch of stores selling fish, and while it’s cool to see so much of it in one place, it’s not anything you’d can’t see in most cities in the US.  We went to a sushi kiosk for food, and while it was good, it wasn’t great.    On a nice day though, I could see how locals, and visitors who are in Sydney for an extended period of time, would enjoy walking down there, buying some fish, and having a seat at the big picnic area along the water.

Spice I am – Surry Hills location
90 Wentworth Ave
Surry Hills Sydney 2010
CASH ONLY

Now this is the solid Lonely Planet place that we thought Din Tai Fung was going to be.  Small, local, with a group of people waiting on the sidewalk to get in, Spice I am has some pretty good Thai food that is relatively affordable for Sydney (though, the $3 for a bowl of rice really pissed me off).  The panang chicken I had was very spicy, but had very good flavor to it.   Because of the size of the place, the restaurant moves fast, so I wouldn’t go there looking for a long leisurely meal.   Full disclosure, I didn’t realize there were a few locations in Sydney until I looked up the URL for this blog.  Looks like their other locations are bigger, so those branches might be a little more casual.

Blackbird Cafe
Balcony Level
Cockle Bay Wharf Harbour Street
Sydney NSW 2000

After walking up and down Darling Harbour, we wanted to grab a bite to eat at a place with a view of the water.  We saw the menu of this place along the sidewalk, and it looked like it had a pretty good, standard selection.  The cafe was on the second floor, so from the ground we couldn’t really see inside.  We walk up and, BOOM, it was like we walked into a club.  It was loud, boisterous and full of 20-somethings enjoying themselves.  My first reaction was, “The food here isn’t gonna be good” as I assumed it was a place more for drinking than eating.  But we sat anyways because the hostess brought us to a table on the balcony with a great view of the water.  Our waitress was super friendly (she told us she was English and had been living in Australia for 3 years), and fast bringing us our food and drinks. I was pleasantly surprised when the food arrived.  The chicken burger I had was really, really good.  The other dishes my family members got were apparently very delicious as well (I didn’t get to sample them).  We chatted a little more with our waitress and she said all the food in Australia is pretty solid.  She said compared to other countries (specifically England), Australians really take good care of themselves and eat a lot of organic foods without a lot of fat or frying oils, and that included random club bars where you wouldn’t expect that.  Still, if you have little kids with you or grandparents, I wouldn’t go to Blackbird.  Otherwise, it’s a good place for a fun atmosphere, good view, and lots of drinks.

 

 “Australia from Beth”

-Take a day trip to Palm Beach. It’s Sydney’s most northern beach and it is beautiful and has great views by the lighthouse. This is where the Aussie show Home and Away is filmed.

-Roar & Snore at Taronga Zoo is incredible http://taronga.org.au/taronga-zoo/accommodation/roar-snore-more-information.  It is pricey but one of the coolest things I got to do in Australia. You get a private nighttime safari, great food, behind the scenes experiences (feed a giraffe, go into the chimp building), and you get to sleep over at the zoo in a tent/cabin overlooking the entire city skyline. Seriously amazing.

-DO NOT take the Pride of Airlie boat to see the Whitsunday Islands. I might have just had a terrible boat captain but it was the least enjoyable tour I went on. Research tour/boat options, there are tons leaving from Airlie Beach.

-DO NOT fly with Tigerair. They are a budget airline but are extremely strict on baggage weight and other small print items. I ended up having a sort of yard sale at the Melbourne Airport giving away all of my toiletries to reduce my baggage weight and avoid checking my bag for $100. They are notoriously sticklers.

Melonhead at Coogee Beach (pronounced “Could-gee”) has the best smoothies in Sydney and great sandwiches too with reasonable prices.

 

Sydney – Part II

As I said, our second day was much more productive after a decent night sleep.  We woke up quite early and grabbed a coffee by a nearby cafe (Australians love their coffee) and set off to do a circuit of museums before embarking on one of the highlights of Sydney – the BridgeClimb.  Here’s a breakdown of the activities of this day.  Forewarning, I’m not kidding when I said we did a lot this day, so this blog post will be a tad longer than usual.

What we saw

ANZAC Memorial
Hyde Park, Sydney
Admission is free

This ANZAC Memorial (ANZAC stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”) was actually supposed to be a quick time killer while we waited for the Barracks Museum (discussed next) to open.  To our surprise, this memorial/museum ended up being one of the most interesting stops in Sydney.  It’s at the south end of Hyde Park, you really can’t miss it, and it’s well worth a visit.  The memorial itself is simple with only a Hall of Memory, Hall of Silence, and Well of Contemplation and the words on the ground simply say “Let silent contemplation be your offering”.  On the exterior, in a place generally where you’d find gargoyles at an old church, there are sculptures of different types of ANZAC soldiers such as doctors, engineers, infantry, sailors, etc.  On the bottom floor of the memorial is actually a free museum.  The museum provides a really interesting view of the life of an ANZAC soldier throughout history (the WWII stories were of particular interest), along with personal stories, letters and other personal effects.

Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Queens Square, Macquarie Street
Sydney, NSW 2000

After the ANZAC Memorial we made our way through Hyde Park, which is a lovely walk on a nice day, to the Barracks Museum.  The price to get in is $10, but if you’re planning on doing two or more of these select museums — Barracks Museum, Museum of Sydney, Justice and Police Museum, or Susannah Place Museum — I’d recommend getting the Sydney Living Museums pass which is $18.  The Barracks Museum gives a really nice history of how Australia started off as essentially a convict’s island and how the community built up from there.  The building itself gives a look at living conditions back in those days and is surprising interactive, allowing visitors to try on different types of clothing, or take a nap in a colonial bed or convict hammock.  The free audio guide is a nice plus as well.  Pretty neat experience.

Museum of Sydney
Cnr Phillip and Bridge Streets
Sydney, NSW 2000

Tell you something; I didn’t love this museum and probably wouldn’t recommend it.  Yes, it gave us a look at some more history of Sydney, but it only really touched upon things here and there (no pun intended).  The historical bits weren’t anymore in-depth than the travel guides we had.  There were two bigger exhibits, one of which was a giant room where kids could play with Legos (admittedly pretty cool, but that did cost extra) and an exhibit on a couple of Australian architects who I never heard of with displays of their work, which if you’re into architecture maybe that’d be cool for you.  There was however a cool theater in the museum which we sat in showing old 1940s documentaries on several things in Sydney, such as the building of the Harbour Bridge and such.  But if you’re only in Sydney for a few days, I’d spend the time you’d spend here on something else.

The Rocks Discovery Museum
Kendall Lane, The Rocks (enter via Argyle Street)
Sydney, NSW 2000
Admission is free

This is another free museum we went through on the way to the BridgeClimb.  The museum is quite small, but it’s free so it’s a nice little place to stop in and see a little history about The Rocks area of Sydney and a learn a little more about the indigenous culture.   One thing that really stood out about their displays was that the artifacts were in glass cases that also acted as touch screens.  It was pretty neat, looked like something out of Star Trek.  Outside the museum, you can find a lot of little shops and cafes that line the cobblestone streets.

BridgeClimb

This was the highlight of the day, and one of the signature activities to do in Sydney.  The BridgeClimb takes you to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for some great views of the city and for bragging rights to say you hiked up to the top of the most iconic structure in Australia (there are a number of celebrities that they have photos of at the top who’ve climbed it).  Now before you get any ideas, the walk up is not dangerous even though it seems like it might.  You’re harnessed in, so you would literally have to unhook your harness, hop over a rail at your elbow, and sidestep like 3 yards to fall off.  So don’t be too afraid to go if you’re someone who is a little afraid of heights.  The guides are all excellent, have a great sense of humor, and provide some really interesting facts about the bridge, city, and Australia in general on the walk up (you’re wearing headphones that are connected to the guide’s headset).  They offer walks at all points in the day, but it does get more expensive if you want to go at sunset and the price will vary depending on which arch you want to take to the top.  They also go up even if it’s raining, they do make you take a breathalyzer, and you can’t bring your own camera, so keep that in mind.  The day we went up it was cloudy and windy unfortunately.  That being said, there was something to the unpleasant climate that kind of added to the “coolness” factor of going to the top of the bridge — it felt more like an adventure.  I would definitely recommend checking it out (give yourself at least 3 hours in your day for it).

Sydney Opera House

So, there’s not a whole lot to say because we didn’t go in.  It’s a really neat building though, and you do kind of have to see it if you’re in Australia.  Unless you pay for a tour inside, or go in for a show, there’s not a lot to do outside the Opera House other than take some pictures and read about it in your guidebook.  Actually a lot of what we learned about the Opera House we got from the BridgeClimb guy.

Where we ate

Buckley’s
East Circular Quay
Suite 18, 7 Macquarie Street
Sydney, NSW 2000

We actually came here randomly because we were looking for a place to eat lunch that was near the Sydney Harbour Bridge before the climb.  It ended up being a great place.  It’s got good views of the harbour with a good amount of outdoor seating (like most of the restaurants along Circular Quay going up to the Sydney Opera House).  They have a good beer selection of their own brews (I had their Little Creatures Pale Ale), and the food is pretty decent.  The fish and chips I had were really tasty and unlike in the US and London, the dish is surprisingly not greasy.  There was also live music playing for entertainment.

Chinatown

Sydney’s Chinatown is certainly a hopping place, and the night we went it was super busy.  It really felt like a going out place for people in Sydney.  There was no shortage of places to get noodles, dumplings, etc.  The place we chose was called Super Bowl Chinese and we chose it because there was a line 15 minutes long, so we figured it had to be good.  And yes, it was good, and cheap in Australian standards (remember everything there is more expensive to begin with).  But it’s not anything better than a good Chinese restaurant in the US, so I would go scouting it out, but if you end up there it’s not bad.  Let me know if you find a really good place in Chinatown if you ever go and I’ll post it.   Also, we stopped by the Australian-Chinese Ex-Services Monument because it had a bit of personal significance for my family.  If you have a couple minutes, it’s on the edge of Chinatown on the way to Darling Harbour and something to check out real quick.

 

“Australia from Beth”

Sydney Wildlife Day Tours – If you’re looking to explore more in NSW, this is an excellent tour option. The Whale Watching Spectacular tour with John far exceeded my expectations. The day was packed with stops to interesting and unique Australian sites including Royal National Park, Jervis Bay, Fitzroy Falls, Kangaroo Valley, among others. John is extremely knowledgeable and offered plenty of facts along the way. He explained the meaning and significance of each place, which really added a lot of value to the tour. The van was extremely clean and comfortable and there were plenty of snacks and drinks throughout the day. John was very attentive and considerate; he was more than happy to answer questions or offer to take our photo in front of the beautiful places we were visiting. During our whale watching cruise, we saw a large pod of dolphins and two humpback whales, which was an amazing thing to see! Visiting Hyams Beach was definitely one of the highlights of the day, as it is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  I would absolutely recommend this tour to anyone visiting Sydney looking to see more of New South Whales. The South Coast is often overlooked by tourists coming to visit Australia, but it is truly a beautiful and unique place. John manages to show many of the highlights in this region while educating and keeping a comfortable pace throughout the day

Sydney – Part 1

You may or may not be aware, but Australia is in the middle of its summer around December, so when we arrive the country is in its nice and warm climate.  However, the same months that it’s in summer also happens to be the same months as its rainy season.  Sadly, during our time in Sydney it rained quite a bit.  This did not dampen the time there however; we just ended up spending a little less time at the beach.

Luckily Sydney offers plenty to do other than the beach (which we did visit at one point as you’ll read about later on), but the first day was spent getting our bearings and recovering from the jet lag a bit.  Before I get into our zombie day of walking around, I just wanted to point out one thing about the Sydney airport.  If you’re flying into the international terminal and want to get to the domestic terminal, you have to take a shuttle bus that costs $5.50.  We weren’t alone in our flabbergast as most of the other travelers commented with astonishment and a fair amount of cursing for the fee just to go from one terminal to another (and if you’re thinking about walking, it’s not possible).  So just a heads up.

So back to the summary.  We ended up wandering around to get a lay of the land.  My initial reaction to Sydney was this – it’s very similar to southern California.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re looking for something exotic when you’re traveling, don’t expect to get it from Sydney.  Like most metropolitan cities, Sydney has commercial buildings, shops, restaurants, museums, busy city streets, and some parks.  The best way I can put it is it felt a lot like San Diego.

Our hotel was located in a very good spot (see details below), and gave us easy walking access to most of the parts of Sydney that you’d want to see in a few days.  We also took the Sydney ferry from Circular Quay (pronounced “key” apparently) to Darling Harbor for only $6 — which, considering you pay $5 for a big bottle of water and $5.50 to go from a terminal to a terminal at the airport, is a pretty good deal.  The ferry ride offers stops along different points on the harbor and provides fantastic photo opportunities of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Other ferries take you to places such as Manly Beach and other spots near the city.

Like I said, our first day was just random wandering so I’ll just give you details of where we ate and where we stayed, and get into the more specific sights later on.  It’s a miracle I’m even able to read my notes that I wrote on that day with my jet lag — they look like they were written by a gorilla on a trampoline.

Where we stayed

Travelodge Hotel Sydney
27 Wentworth Ave
Sydney New South Wales 2010
Australia

Not a bad place to stay, it was clean and relatively new.  It’s got a good location right near Hyde Park, close enough to all the sights, but not right on top of them so it’s nice and quiet at night.  One not so good thing (and this applies to pretty much all the hotels in Australia I think) — no free wifi; it costs $10 a day.  You do get 15 minutes free in the lobby every 24 hours though…

Where we ate

Din Tai Fung
Multiple Locations

Before we left for Sydney, we heard from lots of people that there is a really good Asian cuisine scene.  So, naturally for our first meal we wanted to try out some Asian food and we looked to our Lonely Planet guide for a lead.  It pointed us to Din Tai Fung, which they said was a great, affordable place for good dumplings that locals love.  Now in general, Lonely Planet usually suggests local places, backpackers venues, things of that nature when they give a one “$” rating.  So when we showed up at an outdoor mall housing Din Tai Fung, we were pretty surprised at how “chainy” it felt.  It wasn’t until later in the trip when I had wifi access that I was able to discover that, well, it was in fact a chain.  Regardless, the food there wasn’t bad, just not great.  The best offerings that they had were the soup dumplings, so I would stick to those, but even those weren’t the best I had ever eaten (that’s reserved for a few places in New York City’s chinatown).  They did have a quote from Anthony Bourdain up that said, “I’d travel halfway around the world for Din Tai Fung’s soup dumplings.”  Personally Anthony, I wouldn’t.

Macchiato
338 Pitt St.
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

Here’s a place I’ll say to just do take out.  Don’t go there for table service.  The service there was horribly slow.  Yes, the waiter was friendly, but the service was so slow that whatever kindness the waiter had was kinda nulled out.  Yes, it was Christmas Eve, but the place wasn’t that busy (no busier than any typical weekend night), so I can’t really give that as an excuse either.  Our food, which was just a pizza, took an hour and a half to get to our table.  They had lost our order so had to put it back in once we reminded them, but to add insult to injury, the people who sat next to us, who showed up far after we were seated, still got their pizzas before us.   So why do I say just do take out?  Because the pizza I had once we did get it and ate at the hotel (we had them box it to go and to give a tiny bit of credit they gave us a 20% discount for the wait) was really, really good.  I had the Shanghai Pizza which consisted of roast duck, mushroom, snow peas, cashews, plumb sauce, and mozzarella.  It was delicious — I really can’t find anything bad to say about it.

So as you can see, there wasn’t a whole lot from Day 1, but Day 2 was much more productive.  And that’s coming up.

I have several friends who had visited or lived in Australia who provided advice on where to go, and what to do.  My one friend, Beth, who lived in Australia for a year, had her own experiences which she emailed to all her friends and gave me permission to add to my blog posts.  You can never have too many opinions when it comes to travel, and like I’ve said many times, this blog is meant to be as much for you as it is for me.  So at the end of my Australia posts, I’ll be adding Beth’s tidbits in “Australia from Beth”.

“Australia from Beth”

http://surfcamp.com.au/ (creatively named Surf Camp Australia). I did the five day “Ultimate Experience”. I would absolutely recommend it! I stayed at Wake Up hostel in Sydney and the bus for surf camps leaves straight from the hostel. The camp itself is situated in a trailer park oddly enough, but it has it’s own vibe with cabins of I believe 8-10 people and a separate bathroom block with showers/toilets. The common area is all outside; basically just rows of picnic tables and a TV that is constantly streaming cool surf videos. This is where the groups meet to talk/learn about surfing, eat, socialize, etc. It’s a very bare bones place, but you don’t need much because you’re spending most of the time at the beach or eating/drinking/playing games in the common area. Curfew is a strict 10pm because the camp is in a residential area, but everyone leaves to drink at the beach beyond that time. On a clear night you will see more stars than you can in the wilderness in Wyoming, they are absolutely stunning. I made a lot of friends here that I still keep in touch with (I was the only American strangely enough out of close to 100 people).  $100 and everything is included (food, lodging, beach, etc.)

Note: Unfortunately, it was cloudy our first day.  Better pics and weather for the next galleries.

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Australia

Hello all, I’ve returned.  I know there was a bit of a hiatus there; 2014 was full of new things in my life (new condo, weddings, etc.), so I’ve been slacking a little on the posts.  But it’s 2015 now, and I’m back to tell you about my past trip to sunny Australia!

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Sydney Opera House

I don’t know many people who travel who don’t have the land down under on their bucket list, and it certainly was on mine.  My time in Australia was wonderful, and compact – we did A LOT in the few days that we had and we hit up so many different types of landscapes that it almost feels like it was several different trips (city, beach, desert, ocean, rainforest).  So it’s hard to sum up in one word everything we did.

Before I get into each segment of the trip, I’m going to touch upon some overall things about Australia:

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Kata Tjuta

I will say that at every place on the trip there were a few constants about the people in Australia, the first being that I felt like Australians are kind of like the Bostonians of England.  They’re very blue collar, down to earth folks who also don’t pronounce their “R”s (Car is pronounced “cah” for example).  Everyone was also friendly (which is where the Boston metaphor kinda goes away).  Regardless of how cheesy Paul Hogan is in Crocodile Dundee, his demeanor is a spot on representation (at least in the people I encountered).

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Scuba diving and snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

I also noticed this about Australia that I’ve never seen anywhere else — there are A LOT of Asians in Sydney.  Now, I don’t mean that I’ve never seen a lot of Asians in a city.  What I haven’t seen really is a Caucasian nation/city with such an integrated Asian society.  Sure, there are a lot of Asian Americans in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but even there it feels like they kind of live in their own world.  In Sydney, I didn’t sense any sort of separation at all – it felt like one really fused culture in one city.  Again, I only really saw this in Sydney, and I’m not sure if Melbourne and the other parts of the country are similar or not because we didn’t make it there.  But at least in Sydney, it was a very apparent blend and a new experience.  I legitimately felt right at home in a weird way.

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Koalas at Kuranda

Here’s a not so good observation about Australia.  Everything is expensive.  Getting there is expensive and being there is expensive.  This is not a scenario like going to Southeast Asia where you pay an arm and a leg and then everything is cheap once you arrive.  Food, drinks, lodging, tours — everything is pricey.  The Australians get by because they get paid higher on average, but you don’t get the salaries they do, so be prepared to shell out.

Now, the trip to Australia is a long one.  When you’re traveling from the US east coast to Australia, the whole trip will take around 20 hours (About 6 from New York to L.A. and then another 14 from L.A. to Sydney).  Here are a few things that’ll help that length of travel be a bit more comfortable that I learned.

Tip #1:  DO NOT wear dry fit underwear.  My initial thought process was that it would be a long flight, so maybe it’d be more comfortable to wear that Under Armor underwear for the travel.  I was wrong.  Yes it was dry and cool down there, but it was relatively uncomfortable after awhile because the elasticness would ride up constantly when you’re sitting.  So stick with the cotton underwear with Gold Bond.

Tip #2: Bring a small bottle of face wash soap in your carry-on.  I had prepped for the teeth by packing the toothbrush and toothpaste in my carry-on, but didn’t account for my face.  After like the 12th hour of not washing my face, it just felt really greasy and gross and all I wanted to do was rinse off.  I was wary of using the airplane soap because I have sensitive skin and didn’t want to breakout.  If you don’t have that problem, maybe that’ll be okay for you but for the rest of us, don’t forget the face wash.

Tip #3: Don’t go with Qantas Travel to put together your itinerary as your first choice (Qantas Airlines on the other hand was decent).  Now look, if  you do, they weren’t “horrible”.  But they did screw up a couple things, like not giving us a code to a lockbox that had our hotel keys for our stay in Cairns (I’ll get to that later when I talk about Cairns), leaving us out on the sidewalk with our suitcases late at night.  So based on our experience, I’d look at other options if you’re going to book your travel to Australia through a travel company.

I’ll get into Sydney, Uluru/Ayers Rock, and Cairns/Kuranda in my next few posts.  Happy reading and happy new year!