G’day from Melbourne!

We have settled into our new home away from home and couldn’t be more pleased. Our airbnb apartment, billed as “Fitzroy St with the WOW factor,” did not disappoint. The wall of glass doors open to a sweeping view of the Melbourne city skyline and the ocean. The one bedroom space is comfortable and seems to have everything we need for our 2-month stay. It is located in Melbourne’s St. Kilda neighborhood, a lively and eclectic area of restaurants, bars and great people watching. Directly across the street from us is scenic Albert Park. On our second day here, I took a bike ride around the park’s lake, utilizing the city’s handy bike rental system. Albert Park also has a golf course, sport fields and an amazing Olympic aquatic center. Frank is trying to stay in his routine with his new “swim heaven,” enjoying its many lap lanes (two 50m pools!). We have picked out our favorite grocery store (a Woolworth’s, which everyone calls “Woolie’s), identified a nearby church for Sunday Mass and are learning to navigate Melbourne’s convenient transportation system of trams and trains.

PS I haven’t actually heard anyone say “G’day” yet but there are some unique “Australian-isms” I will write about soon.

The Royal Melbourne Show – the “State Fair” of Melbourne

I missed the Wisconsin State Fair this year so was thrilled when I heard about the Royal Melbourne Show. In many ways, the two events are very similar but there are also some big differences. Both are family friendly, feature carnival rides and exhibit and judge animals. Both demonstrate products that everyone “must have” and each tempts fairgoers with countless food choices. Although you see the typical food stands and trucks, most of the food choices at the Show are in a really nice, organized food tent. A short-term, rotating pop-up restaurant featured a gourmet menu.

One big difference in events is the concept of “show bags.” At the Wisconsin State Fair you see people walking around with plastic bags, collecting assorted free trinkets and product samples. In Melbourne, they have taken this to the extreme. There is a huge gift bag pavilion, where fairgoers choose from almost 400(!) different  show bags, which could include toys, costumes, sporting goods, cosmetics, magazines, deli/wine, candy and more. Products inside amount to more — sometimes much more — than the selling price and bag prices go from $1 (for a candy or “lolly” bag) to $30. Almost everyone was happily carrying some kind of show bag!


Footy Fever in Melbourne – my perspective

Australian Football League. Australian Rules. Footy. Before I start, let me say that before I got here, I knew nothing about the game except that a friend asked us to bring him back an Australian Rules football — he plays on a league in Milwaukee! I still don’t much but it’s been impossible to avoid a bit of “footy fever” over the past two weeks. Frank and I watched the semi-finals last weekend to learn a little about the game.

This week, the sidewalks and trams were filled with hundreds of fans sporting scarves with the finalists’ team colors – brown and gold for the Hawthorne (Tasmania) Hawks and red and white (Badger colors!) for the Sydney Swans. Today was the AFL Grand Final or the Australian Super Bowl. The game is held each year at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, which holds over 100,000 people! For those who don’t know, Australian Rules is kind of a mix between rugby and football. The players wear tight little shorts with no protective gear, the field is huge, the game high-scoring and each team has 18 players on the field at a time. Frank loves that the game is void of video replays and that it keeps moving — when a player is injured, they play around him! I’m sure that’s pretty simplistic for AFL purists but what do you want from someone who makes the game secondary to the color and excitement of the fans?

Today’s Big Adventure: Driving!

IMG_5217Knowing we would eventually need to expand outside our mass transit comfort zone, we chose to give driving a try. The challenge? Australians drive on the left side of the road. Steering wheels are on the right. This was a new experience for both of us. We rented a small, automatic deciding that I would drive and Frank would navigate. It took a little getting used to traffic approaching from the right, making right turns into left lanes and maneuvering from the left through roundabouts. I drove Frank nuts because I kept flicking on the windshield wipers — the turn signals here are on the right and old habits die hard!!! We drove across the northern suburbs, into the mountains and back along the ocean. Other than a couple beeps, I am happy to report we made it back without incident!

Back to school – music to our ears

We are relaxing in the apartment when we hear random bursts of rock music. Is it those party-animal old fogies lawn bowling across the street? Nope. School is back in session. The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” calls the kids inside instead of a high pitched bell!

When we arrived in Melbourne, the kids were just beginning their spring break (yes, we are in the southern hemisphere!). Of course, kids were everywhere – on the trams, in the museums, etc. Now, they’re back in school. The school year runs from late January until mid-December. Schools are closed for public holidays (including the upcoming Melbourne Cup Horse Race!). 35% of the students go to private, rather than government run schools, but regardless of where they go, the schools require uniforms.

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Vacation from the vacation – Melbourne to Cairns

This week, Frank and I took our first major side trip from Melbourne to visit Cairns (pronounced “cans”) and the Great Barrier Reef. We arrived early evening to find our apartment’s backstreet reception area dark, quiet and deserted. We were able to check in by phone. After surveying our strange accommodations (large cylindrical glass shower visible to the kitchen?!), I decided to run out to get an underwater camera for the next day’s cruise. We took the elevator back downstairs. Still, not a soul in sight.

We opened a random side exit door and were blinded by the bright lights of an “alternate universe.” Unbeknownst to us, our hotel was located immediately above the Cairn’s Night Market. Countless souvenir shops, cheap massage kiosks and an international food court opened out to the busy beachfront Esplanade. There were people everywhere!

Nonetheless, we slept fine, discovered that a curtain could obscure the shower peep show and found that the apartment was perfectly located for the tours we had scheduled. What’s more, we had a balcony with a wonderful view. While our side of the Esplanade was populated with busy shops and restaurants, there was parkland — walking paths, picnic tables and a huge public pool — between the street and ocean. In the morning, you’d see people of all ages doing tai chi and yoga and every night, backpackers, retirees and families would swim, hangout and relax.

Cairns is tourist town and much larger than we anticipated — about 160,000 people, including some beautiful, upscale beachside suburbs. It is the major gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so is very popular for tourists (about 10,000 on any given day). Cairns is also located near the world’s oldest rainforest. We spent four days exploring this spectacular area of North Queensland, Australia.

Bucket List: Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. Check!

Clear skies. Mid 80’s. Smooth seas. The makings of a perfect day to sail and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. And what a day it was! The sea was a kaleidoscope of the most vibrant and beautiful blues I have ever seen. Donning wetsuits and flippers, we spent hours in utter amazement as we navigated our small slice of the incredible outer reef. I was a little surprised that the coral itself wasn’t as colorful as I imagined. Shades of yellow, brown and green were interspersed with only occasional smatterings of blue. The magnitude of various corals, sponges and rainbow of colorful fish, however, quickly dissolved any disappointment. I always dreamed of going to the Great Barrier Reef and here I was!

Did you know the GBR spans 1,250 miles and is the only living thing that can be seen from the moon? I knew it was big but wow! One of the best places from which to see it is Cairns because here, the outer reef is closest to the coast and the water isn’t too deep. After whittling down the large number of available boat tours, we decided to go with the Passions of Paradise catamaran. It held about 35-40 guests. The crew was friendly and fun. Although pictures can’t really do justice to what we saw, the pictures below can provide you with a little taste.

A Journey Back in Time – the Australian Tropics

When planning our adventure, the thought of visiting a rainforest in Australia never crossed my mind. My original impressions of the country included sunny beaches, unusual animals, the barren Outback, a few interesting cities and of course, the Great Barrier Reef. Travel reviews and research led me further.

Fact: Australia’s rain forests are the world’s oldest, dating back over 100 million years. They once covered all of Australia, back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth! Climate change and human “advancement” have caused the rain forest to recede down to a thin 375 mile strip along the coast.

Frank and I did two trips to the rainforest during our brief stay in Cairns. One was to Kuranda, “a cultural rainforest village,” which turned out to be pretty touristy. The trip there and back, however, made it more than worthwhile. We took a refurbished train through the rainforest to Kuranda and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway over the rainforest on the way back.

The second was an all-day journey through the pristine rainforest destinations of Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation. At high tide, this area is the only place in the world where the two most complex ecosystems meet. The tour was truly one of the highlights of our adventure so far. I will let the pictures do the rest of the talking…

Slip, Slop, Slap!

Over and over again, people cautioned us about the sun in Australia. Frank’s doctors strongly advised him to wear sunscreen and to avoid the sun as much as possible. So what’s the deal with Australia and the sun?

We discovered that Australia experiences some of the world’s highest levels of UV radiation and one of the world’s highest rates of skin cancer. Why? 1. Proximity to the equator; 2. Abundance of clear days; and 3. The southern hemisphere gets closer to the sun in their summer than the northern hemisphere does.

So what’s a careful Aussie to do? Slip, Slop, Slap! Slip on a shirt. Slop on sunscreen. Slap on a hat. This campaign by their Cancer Council has been very effective, changing Australians attitudes and behaviors over the past two decades. High SPF sunscreen is affordable and available everywhere. And knowing that skin damage begins in childhood, schools issue hats as part of their uniform and kids are required to wear them.