down under again: a belated briefing of Brisbane – my favorite city in Australia (part 1)

For my second trip Down Under, I was lucky enough to check off another city on my Australia list: Brisbane!  Business trips can be long and stressful, but it certainly helps when you’re in a spectacular place with amazing people.

Oh yes, this blog post is quite late.  I have looked lovingly at these photos on my phone for months and meant to get around to posting but life of course got in the way.  I’m excited to finally sit down, reminisce, and share with you my very favorite city in Australia (so far!).

September 4, 2017

Off on another trip to Oz, I left IAD en route to Los Angeles on my favorite airplane, the 787 Dreamliner.  I had a long layover at LAX and the weather was spectacular so I stepped outside in the United lounge to have coffee in the warm LA afternoon.  Not too shabby for an airport view!

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The flight to Sydney was long but comfortable.  One of the most incredible moments of the trip was seeing the sun rise 40,000 feet in the air as it peeked over the Australian continent just before landing.

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I hopped a quick flight to Canberra on a prop plane (which did wonder for my aviation fears) but it was incredibly quick and you could see the ground the entire way.

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I took a short nap when I checked in to my hotel and met my coworker and his wife for dinner in Kingston Foreshore at an amazing contemporary Thai restaurant called Morks.  The food was incredible– pork belly buns, spare ribs, Thai fried rice… yum.

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The weirdest part was the dessert.  I ordered a banana ice cream dish that had all sorts of honeycomb pieces, and Darcy ordered something with “fairy floss” (kind of like cotton candy).  It absolutely looked like a pile of HAIR and the texture was similar, but it melted in your mouth.  So weird!

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Full and exhausted, I slept from 8PM until 6AM the next morning.


 

After a great day couple of days of training with my clients out about 30 minutes from the middle of Canberra, I was lucky enough to be driving home at dusk– or PRIME KANGAROO TIME.  Check out these babies in motion!

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The drive back from the client site was really stunning.  Canberra is a beautiful city!

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After work on Friday I hopped a flight to Brisbane where I was set to teach a course on Monday and Tuesday.  While waiting for my flight, I found my all time favorite food at the airport.  The caption says it all.  Nothing better!

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I arrived in Brisbane around 10PM, grabbed an Uber, and found my hotel in the center of the CBD.  I was on the 25th floor and the views of the city, even close to midnight, were spectacular!

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I went straight to sleep because I had to be up early for another all-day tour starting at 7AM the next morning.  Off to explore the city!


 

September 9th, 2017

Bright and early the next morning I left my hotel and walked a few miles through the city to the Brisbane bus station where my tour was leaving from.  It was a slightly chilly morning but the sun was just starting to come up. I took some shots of the city on my walk:

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I even spotted the “bin chicken”, or Ibis, which is cute upon first glance but can eat its weight in rubbish and are all over Brisbane.  I loved the little guy :)

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We boarded our tourbus, similar to the one I took in Sydney, and it was a small group of about 14 people.  We were on our way to Stradbroke Island for the day– an island that sits just off the coast of Brisbane.  We drove about an hour outside the city to Cleveland (haha) which is where the ferry left for Straddie.  It turned in to a really beautiful day!

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We cruised on the ferry for about 40 minutes and enjoyed the blue waters with a flat white the whole way.  Once we got close, everyone climbed back in to the bus and we drove off the ship to explore!

Our guide was fun and friendly and took us first on a koala hike to his secret koala spot on the island.  He was tucked in the crook of a tree branch, and super cute!

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The trail also led to a private inlet on the side of the island called Amity, with some of the most beautiful views I’d seen in all of Australia.  Just look at these colors!

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We headed to our hiking spot up on a higher peak of Amity.  The trail was about 5km long but a leisurely path around some spectacular sites.  This was easily my favorite part of the entire day!

We started at the overlook to Main Beach on North Stradbroke Island.  One of the most popular beaches on the island, and its easy to see why!  Our guide stopped to take photos of each of us at this picturesque spot.

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We continued around to a really cool spot on the North Gorge which had a blowhole.  You could hear the water and wind rushing in and out of the rocks and it created an amazing sound.

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Farther down there was a beautiful gorge that had sapphire blue waters.  We walked around the perimeter of it and felt a warm breeze and ocean air.  I could have spent all day in this spot!

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The end of the hike was unexpectedly full of wildlife.  A mama kangaroo holding a joey walked RIGHT in front of me!  Look at his little face in her pouch!

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And just as I turned the corner, I got about three feet away from another beautiful roo!  Look at this baby:

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After the hike we jumped in the van and headed to lunch at the Stradbroke Island Resort at Point Lookout.  It had a beautiful view of Shag Rock and we ate huge ceasar salads overlooking the beach.

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By this time I had made friends with two AMAZING girls– a Swede traveling on business and a British au pair working in Sydney.  My, Charlotte, and I became fast friends and spend the next hour relaxing on the beach in the sunshine after lunch!

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My and Charlotte braved the water and I caught the two goofing off in the waves! :)

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Our last stop of the day was an incredible tea tree lake.  Tea trees have leaves full of oils that are very popular in lotions and soaps because of their skin soothing and softening properties.  This lake, called Brown Lake, literally looked like the water had been steeped with tea bags– and thats almost exactly what happened!  The trees surround the lake and their leaves dry up and fall off in to the water.  They “steep” in the lake leaving the water full of tea tree oil!  Look at the color of the water– its just a little brown like tea!  I snapped a shot when the water was nice and calm.

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This photo (from this photographer) gives a great visual of the tea-colored water:

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The water in the lake was quite chilly but our guide urged us to put our hands and feet in the water for a few minutes.  I dug mine into the sand and waited.  10 minutes later my hands and feet felt unbelievably smooth and soft.  It sure works!

Over the course of the day I had turned My and Charlotte on to the wonders of jumping pictures, so we decided to get one together at Brown Lake.  I love this shot and these women!

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We got back to Brisbane around 7PM and all agreed that we wanted to meet up for dinner and drinks later in the evening.  Unfortunately, we were all zombies as soon as we hit our beds, so we rescheduled for the next day.  Sunday’s plans were to explore Southbank– after a much needed rest. :)

 

 

 

Síðustu daga á Íslandi með jarðhita, kökum og íslensku vodka!

July 14th, 2017

After our exploration of the Icelandic countryside the day before, the rain returned and we had a leisurely morning at home playing with Eva while we waited for the weather to break.

Ingun had ridden Icelandic horses with her sister growing up, so she found a tour that would take her back out in to the beautiful mountains and waterfalls on her very own horse. She was so excited and we got a few snapchats during her 6 hour riding adventure!

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While Ingun was out, the rest of us decided to explore downtown Reykjavik and do a little shopping.

First we passed by the Icelandic Phallological Museum which had an interesting display of things in the windows.  We might have stopped in just for laughs but we didn’t want to pay admission!

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Alec wanted to grab coffee at Reykjavik Roasters, so my parents and I went back to the big church to show my dad how cool it was!  It was also chilly outside so we went inside the church to escape the wind for a few minutes.  Such a beautiful hall inside!

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We made our way towards the water and weaved through the city all together.  There was a really cool clothing shop that had all sorts of Icelandic clothing words translated in English on a big plaque outside.  The language nerd in me was thrilled!

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Little Eva and I played as we walked and enjoyed the sights of the city.  There were some cute shops and painted buildings which made it look like a perfect Scaidianvian city, even though it was nice and cloudy out!

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We walked for a while until it was about ready for Eva’s nap.  We grabbed lunch on the way home but took it to go, so my mom and Eva danced while we waited and it was SO stinking cute!

Ingun came home that night and told us all about her day.  Unfortunately it rained a good deal (sideways!) but she said she had a lot of fun!  We were all ready for dinner and I cooked in our tiny Airbnb kitchen.  Pasta salad, grilled chicken, and sauteed spinach on the menu.

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By the way, don’t forget the eternal summer this far north!  Check out the level of sunlight at 10PM…

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July 15th, 2017

The next day was the last full day we had in Iceland, so we went to find a geothermal pool to play around in.  Before the pool, my dad and I went out, nice and early, to an amazing bakery we found the day before called Braud & Co.  It was, beyond a doubt, the best bakery I have ever been to in the world.

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The smell of beautiful, buttery pastries wafts down the street at the crack of dawn and we salivated just thinking about them on our 20 minute walk over.  Cinnamon buns, vanilla cream pastries, traditional and chocolate croissants… lord have mercy.  The shop was stunning inside– all wooden and cozy, loaves of bread with hard crusts on the outside next to the buttery delights, and the baker himself visible behind a small window inside the shop.

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You can’t miss this shop for two reasons: 1) the pastries are legitimately mouth-wateringly good, and 2) the outside of the shop is a stunning rainbow that stands out among the other painted shops on the street!  This is easily one of my favorite photos I took on the trip.

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My dad and I walked back with about 12 pastries in hand (we wen’t a little crazy!) and found a little cat who followed us halfway down the block.

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We brought the spoils home and I laid them out on a plate, still warm, and we had the most delicious breakfast.  JUST LOOK AT THESE BEAUTIES!  I only pray that someday I can make things as amazing as these sweets.

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After breakfast, we were lucky that the rain stopped for a little while, so we asked Johannes where we should go for a geothermal pool and he recommended a local bath called Laugardalslaug.  It was not touristy at all and Eva was allowed to come!  Ingun and I needed to grab some swim diapers for Eva, so we stopped for coffee and then trekked to a pharmacy to find her some.  The coffee, from Reykjavik Roasters of course, was delicious and I finally got to take a photo of their coffee flavor wall.  What a beautiful way to draw tastes!

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When we got home, we packed up the family and walked about 25 minutes and arrived at the pool.  We weren’t allowed to bring in cameras to the pool but this website had a great shot of the facility:

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There were maybe 1/4 of the people in this picture there when we were, so it was a lot less crowded.  Off to the right of this photo was a small circle pool where we hung out with little baby Eva who had never been swimming before!  The pool was shallow and really, really warm (around 38ºC) but felt amazing.

On the left side of the deck there were 5 hot tubs, all heated geothermally, at different temperatures.  Ingun and I wanted to try them all, the hottest being 44ºC.  We could hardly stand it for more than 60 seconds!  The final hot tub was filled with sea water from just down the street and heated to a comfortable hot tub temperature.  It was super cool to lounge in the saltwater.

After we swam, we dried off and got dressed while we waited for the boys to finish in their locker room.  Eva found a chair to push and was a total ham guiding it around the floor!

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We grabbed a quick bite on the way back home and Eva wanted to share my sausage.  Looks kind of like a Darth Vader grip going on there…

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We chilled back home for a while and Ingun went out to shop a little (since she missed the adventure the day before) and my parents went back to check out a small shop in town.  I was wiped out and blogged a little while Alec and Eva napped outside.

Later in the evening, Ingun and I went to Bonus, the grocery down the street, and got ingredients for the last dinner in Iceland.  I made a homemade tomato sauce, pasta, and meatballs (I found the SWEDISH KIND!), and some KILLER garlic bread using a baguette from Braud!

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Just before bed, Alec and Eva had a sweet moment with Eva’s new Icelandic book and he did his very best to read it to her… :)

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July 16th, 2017

I got up at the crack of dawn to take a bus to the airport the next morning.  I grabbed a quick breakfast at the airport of a coconut milk and chia pudding with coconut flakes and sour currants, and took one last snap of the Icelandic fact board that welcomes you as you enter (and exit) the country.  So cool.

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I also took advantage of Duty Free and stocked up on ALLLL the Icelandic vodka.  And a 6-pack of Somersby, of course!  I hardly had room in my backpack but I would have thrown out my clothing to fit in the Somersby :)

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After some technical problems with the first aircraft, we changed to a new plane and off we went.  I got put in Economy Plus (my airplane luck is incredible lately!) and sat next to two adorable Swedes heading to Maryland for a week.  We swapped stories and I gave them a few recommendations while they were in the city.  What a welcome sound to hear my beloved Swedish being spoken so beautifully in my ear the whole flight!

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All in all it was a fantastic trip to Iceland, but the family time was hands down the best part.  I loved seeing Alec, Ingun, and of course, my little niece Eva who stole the show.  I can’t wait to see everyone again this winter at our home this time!  <3

A fallegur dagur á Íslandi: Gullfoss, Haukadalur geysir og Þingvellir þjóðgarðurinn

July 13, 2017

We woke up Thursday morning ready to head out on our adventure at 9AM.  I made some breakfast with Icelandic eggs, bacon, and apple cake to get us started off on the right foot.  Our apartment’s kitchen is… “efficient”, to put it kindly, so I figured out how to make breakfast for 6 with only a few pots and pans.  There was a coffee shop, Reykjavík Roasters, down the street and Alec knew their coffee well so he popped down and brought some back for breakfast.

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I set the food out and had a little friend peeking at me from the end of the table!

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Our Airbnb host was also out tour guide for the day since we had the baby and didn’t want to commit to an 8 hour all-day tour with 100 other tourists.  We were set to leave at 9, but Johannes must have been on Iceland time so we didn’t leave until closer to 10AM.

We piled in to Johannes’ jeep and set out to see three sights: the Gullfoss waterfall, the Haukadalur geysers, and the Þingvellir National Park.  These were three stops on the “Golden Circle”, or a set of popular natural sights that most people like to see when they visit.  We were only going to these three, however, so we joked that it was the “Golden Line” tour :)

Since we had chosen this set of sights, we decided to go to the furthest first, about 2 hours away, and work our way back.  Little Eva took a nice snooze during the ride out.  It was overcast and a little chilly but even the clouds were beautiful!

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We arrived at Gullfoss, or the Golden Waterfall, which is one of Iceland’s most popular and beautiful waterfalls.  It is located in a canyon of the Hvíta River and is made up of water that melted from the Langjökull glacier.  It is truly spectacular; the view from the front is grand and the spray from the falls themselves blanket the area in a soft fog which adds to the mystery of the area.

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There is a path along the ledge where you can walk through the spray to get to the edge of the waterfall for even more spectacular views of the “staircase” and crevice that the water has dug itself over hundreds of years of rushing water.

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Here is the view from the edge of the waterfall, and then another pointing back to the staircase and crevice:

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We climbed back to the front of the falls and up a set of steep stairs to the overlook at the top of the cliffs.  It was a beautiful sight to see!  I snapped a selfie with some of the family…

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…and got my first jumping picture of the trip with the stunning landscape behind me.

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We piled back in Johannes’ jeep and made our way to the next stop, the Haukadalur Geysers.  They were only about a 15 minute drive back in the direction we came.

Haukadalur is a valley with tons of geothermal activity which has caused geysers and geothermal pools to form in various spots.  The biggest geyser is named Geysir, which is actually where our word “geyser” comes from to begin with.  It is said that Geysir has been active for 10,000 years and used to erupt frequently, sometimes as a result of earthquakes (or with the addition of soap!) but Johannes told us it hasn’t had a proper eruption since 2009.  It was nice and quiet on the day we arrived. When it DOES erupt, it can shoot boiling water up to 70 meters in the air!

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Since the geothermal energy also releases hydrogen sulfide, the area smelled fairly strongly of rotten eggs (the sulfur smell) when you got a puff of the steam emitted from the geysers.  Up close, once the steam wafted away, you could even see the hyperthermophiles, or organisms that can withstand incredible heat and live inside the springs.  This one was blue!

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There were several other geysers just a few meters from each other.  The most popular, Strokkur, faithfully erupts every 5-10 minutes and blows water super high in to the air.  I got the end of the eruption in the picture below:

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In total there are about 30 geysers in the valley.  It was really amazing to see them all, and the steam rising from the ground.

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My brother snapped this great jumping picture in front of the smallest geyser, LitliGeysir.  I got one of them just afterwards!

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After exploring for a while, Eva needed some lunch so we joined her in the rest area.  There was a nice cafe and shop with tons of tables and Eva crawled all around and made some new friends (and ate a bunch of our cheesecake!)

Finally, we made our way an hour back towards Reykjavík en route to our last stop. Even from the windows of the car I couldn’t resist taking pictures of how green everything was!  Look at these mountains:

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Our last stop was Þingvellir National Park (pronounced Thingvellir).  Althing, the national parliament in Iceland, was established here in 930 AD.  Today it is still home to a lot of historical artifacts and some truly spectacular natural wonders protected now as a World Heritage Site.

Johannes dropped us at the bottom of a ridge so we could hike around the park. Eva couldn’t find her hat so she borrowed my dad’s.  Newest generation of Capitals fans ;)

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Up at the top of some cliffs we found the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen called Öxarárfoss.  It was hidden away a little bit and surrounded by huge stones and rocks.  I could have stayed there all day!

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It was a spectacular place for pictures!

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And my favorite jumping picture of the entire trip!

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Even turning around from the waterfall in the other direction, the cliffs were green and lush.  I felt like I was in Scotland!

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We walked hiked along to another overlook where we could see the entire beautiful Icelandic countryside in front of us.  Breathtaking.

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At the highest point of the park we also saw the best view of volcanic activity so far: wrinkly and folded hardened lava rocks all around us!  Look how slowly that must have set over hundreds of years.  SO COOL. (Literally!)

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Tired and happy, we got back in to the car and made our way back to Reykjavík after a long day of exploring.  We relaxed for a while and my mom read with squishy Eva while Alec and I went to the Vinmonopolet (liquor store) and found some Thai for takeaway.

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What a fantastic day we had.  We were all asleep by 9!

Ferð til Íslands: komu, könnun og sætasta norska barnið í heiminum

July 11th, 2017

Not too much of a turnaround between Australia and Iceland, but I find myself traveling almost every July back to Europe to explore. Before I show you some of the beauty of this country, I wanted to reminisce for a moment…

I’ve been seeing some “On This Day” memories lately on Facebook… 6 years ago I made my first trip to Stockholm and visited my brother in Oslo:

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Oslo, July 2011

Then 5 years ago I got a reminder of my Spanish holiday in Madrid with family:

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Madrid, August 2012

4 years ago I spent 3 months in Uppsala living the beautiful Swedish life:

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Uppsala, June 2013

3 years ago I went back to explore Göteborg, Lysekil, and stopped in Uppsala (of course!)

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Uppsala, June 2014

I am finally back to Scandinavia and I missed it so much :)

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For this summer Scandinavia trip, we all decided to meet in Iceland to explore instead of just going to Oslo to see Alec.  For the first time on our family vacation, we had a new member along!  Alec and Ingun brought my 1 year old, absolutely precious, squishy, smiley, and perfect niece, Eva.

My parents and I caught a 2PM flight from Dulles to Keflavik which was about 5 hours in length.  We had some lunch at the airport pre-departure.

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Now that I am not flying bougie first class, I remembered just how cramped coach class feels (haha), but it was not a problem at all for a relatively short flight.

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We landed body time around 8, but it was midnight in Iceland.  Alec wasn’t leaving Oslo with Ingun and the baby until the next morning so we stayed at the Airport Hotel to get some rest.  Take a look at “midnight” in Keflavik at the airport (with the dragon’s egg type sculpture welcoming you to the country!).  It was even darker than it usually is because of the clouds, but this is truly the land of the midnight sun.

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I had completely forgotten (stupidly!) that since I was in Iceland, that meant there would be free access to Somersby, or my all time favorite drink in the world.  Its an alcoholic cider that I used to drink all the time in Sweden.  When we went through Duty Free on the way out of the airport, I made sure to pick up a pack for myself.  #priorities

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In the morning we got up and had breakfast at the hotel.  It was my favorite kind: the typical Scandinavian options with bread, cheese, and jam along with some soft scrambled eggs.  They had a plate of kleinur, or Icelandic donuts, that were not very sweet at all but had a very traditional twisted diamond shape.  Perfect with a cup of coffee!

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Alec’s flight landed and we walked the 2 minutes to the airport to wait for them in Arrivals.  After about 20 minutes, the fantastic trio emerged with my perfect baby niece, Eva, in hand!

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Our Airbnb host, Johannes, came to pick us up and even though he had a relatively large car, we were 6 in total and had a ton of baby luggage.  We just baaaaaaarely fit in to the car hugging the stroller and bags on our laps.  Ingun managed to get a snap from the car:

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We arrived at the Airbnb in the middle of Reykjavík about 45 minutes from the airport. It was what I expected– two bedrooms, a small kitchen (IKEA!), a bathroom, and a living room where I was to sleep.  It wasn’t fancy but its just what we needed for our stay.

Unfortunately it was set to rain every single day we were in Iceland, but we checked the weather and determined that the next day, Thursday, was the best day to spend outside seeing the national park, waterfalls, and geysers since it was the only day with no scheduled rain.

We spent the rest of Wednesday settling in and walking around the city which was only 5 minutes from the apartment and full of cute shops and restaurants.  Ingun and I took Eva out for a walk and a nap and went up to Hallgrimskirkja, a huge church in the city that is famous for its interesting architecture, and around the main shopping street, Laugavegur.

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We walked back home and I played with Eva for a while all throughout the apartment. We brought her a wooden iPhone toy (because she keeps stealing Ingun’s phone!) which was great fun.  I also realized that the snapchat filters work on babies…. game OVER!

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We found dinner at a local restaurant and I had the seafood soup which was DELICIOUS. And then we went back to the apartment and were all asleep by 8 :)

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Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventures to the waterfalls and national parks in Iceland!

day 9 down under: bondi beach, surfers, opals, and darling harbour

June 25th, 2017

On my last day in Sydney, I had a plan to maximize my day to see as many places as I could in the time I had left.  I slept in until 8am and got ready for the day.  The hotel had a really nice breakfast and I knew I would be out sightseeing all day so I needed a good energy boost.  It was pricey, as are most things in Sydney, so I had a bigger breakfast than I normally would have so it would tide me over until an early dinner later on.  I made sure to grab a tiny vegemite to bring back States-side at the end of the meal!

There was banana bread EVERYWHERE in Oz and I probably ate it 4 or 5 times on the whole trip.  Lucky for me, I am obsessed with banana bread.  So I couldn’t pass it up on my last breakfast either!  I also found some smoked salmon and cucumbers (an homage to my beloved Sweden), and soft scrambled eggs alongside roasted mushrooms.  I finished the meal with a flat white which was made perfectly (my coffee-professional brother would be proud!)

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My plan for the rest of the day was to take advantage of my Hop On Hop Off bus ticket, as well as my “Flexi 5” pass that got me admission to my choice of 5 out of a list of 40 attractions in Sydney.  I had purchased the pass Friday morning, before my flight to Sydney was cancelled from Canberra, so I had chosen 5 attractions to visit over two days. Since I only had this one full day in Sydney, I had to squeeze in as many visits as I could.

The Hop On Hop Off bus in Sydney has two routes: City and Bondi Beach.  I looked at the map and planned out my stops.  I decided to take the City tour just a few blocks around the main areas of the city and then swap to the Bondi tour at the Australian National Museum.  I wanted a good chunk of the day for Bondi, then I would swap back to the City tour later and finish at Darling Harbour.

The Hop On Hop Off, as touristy as it is, gave me a heap of information about the city itself and was a nice way to have control over when I wanted to explore or when I needed it to function like a taxi!  Downtown Sydney, although it is filled with high rises, is full of history and was calm and peaceful on a Sunday morning as I toured through it.

PS- take note of the tiny little dots up the side of that building— WINDOW WASHERS. Bless them, I would have had a heart attack.

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Originally I had planned to go to the Australian National Museum using my pass, but when I got there I quickly turned around.  There was a new exhibit, how fun, ALL ABOUT SPIDERS.  Nope.  Bye.

Instead, I walked across the street to St. Mary’s Cathedral which was lit up beautifully in the sunlight on the edge of Hyde Park.  As I got closer I noticed that there was an ice skating rink just in front of it, a pop-up one for the winter, and I was very tempted to rent some skates right there.  But I had a day ahead of me and instead laughed as the Aussies skated in full on winter coats and hats in the 70º weather :)

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The spot to swap to the Bondi tour was outside of the cathedral so I hopped on and continued on my way.  On the way there I saw buildings that have been marked as heritage buildings so they cannot be altered on the outside.  It kept the city’s charm as big modern high-rises came up around the sites.  We also saw the Coca Cola sign in Kings Cross which is the largest billboard in the Southern Hemisphere.  Fun fact: it was built in 1974 and remained lit every single day until it was switched off for the very first time for one hour in 2007 to observe Earth Hour.

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We traveled down Oxford Street where most of the nightlife is in Sydney.  It reminds me of Adams Morgan in DC.  There were tons of pubs and shops and restaurants and was super colorful!  Oxford St. took us directly to Bondi Beach, and I was so excited to arrive!

Bondi comes from an aboriginal word for the noise that the waves make on the rocks. It is a spectacular beach, even in the winter.  It was beautifully sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and a good 72º on the beach itself.  Bondi is one of the most popular beaches in Australia and I can see why– its about a kilometer of gorgeous sand and warm water.

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On the righthand side theres a swim club right on the seashore, home of the Bondi Icebergs. Started in 1929, there was a rule that to gain membership, you had to swim 3 of 4 Sundays of each month in the winter, (May – September) for five years.  If you did, you got access to the swim club which includes amazing baths right on the edge of Bondi itself.  Its a sea pool so the water comes directly in to the pool when the waves are high.  SO COOL.  I was there on a Sunday so the club was absolutely PACKED.

Check out this picture of their pools (taken as a still from this short YouTube video which you should also watch!)

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Here’s my view from up the beach:

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I spent the next hour sitting in the sand, working on my tan, and watching all of the surfers in the water.  It was “winter”, as I’ve said, but I got some funny looks when I showed up with my sleeves and pants rolled up and no jacket :)

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There were no less than 100 surfers out there as I watched, almost all in wetsuits to keep them warm.  The waves were not super high but enough for a fun day on the board I’m sure.  I was impressed as I watched!

 

I snapped some shots of the surfers around me as they paddled out to the waves.  They were of all ages– from young kids to older Aussies who had been surfing their whole lives.  It was amazing to think of this being a regular part of their weekend activities!  I wish I could say the same!

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I soaked up the sun for a few more minutes, not wanting to leave.  What a spectacular place.

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When I finally got up and dusted the sand off myself, I went to explore the town.  It felt like a perfect beachy town with shops, restaurants, and boutiques.  A friend of mine had given me a tip to go find some opal while I was in Oz, and I was excited to find the shop he mentioned in Bondi.  Opal is my birthstone and I have quite a family connection with precious stones and rocks via both of my grandfathers.  My grandpa Wally is a geologist and my abuelito Henry imported stones from all over the world to his jewelry stores.

The store was called Bondi Beach Opals, Minerals & Fossils and as soon as I walked in I met the owner, Edmond Lahoud.  He stopped me in my tracks at how much he reminded me of Henry.  I told him I was looking for a ring and he sized my finger and brought out the most amazing selection I’ve ever seen.  I told Edmond about my grandfathers and he was charmed that I had come by- a fellow mineral lover, he could tell.  He showed me black opals which I had never seen before– they present themselves in hundreds of different shades and colors.  I was drawn to a sapphire blue opal set between two zirconia and it fit perfectly.  Edmond said he knew, as soon as I saw it, that it would be the one I would choose!  I also picked out a white opal necklace for my mom which was set in a gold setting on a gold chain.  Beautiful.

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We talked for half an hour about stones, about his annual trips to Tucson, AZ for the Gem, Mineral, and Fossil show (the biggest on Earth, he says!) and about my grandfathers. He gave me his card and wrote his details on the back.  As I was about to leave, he pulled out a chunk of unrefined black opal (you know its a black opal, he said, because there is a black line on the outside of the rock!) to give to my Grandpa Wally as a gift from one stone lover to another.  What an incredible man!

As it was a Sunday and there were lots of things happening in Bondi, I checked out a craft market that was taking place at the local Bondi Beach Public School.  It had tons of handmade clothing, books, photos, artwork, and jewelry.  There was even a small “puppy parking” spot at the start of the market!  Ha!

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After the market I hopped back on the bus and headed back towards the city. We went through Rosehill, one of the most expensive zip codes in all of Sydney, that had insane views of both Bondi and Sydney Harbour.  We didn’t stop for photos so I didn’t get a great shot of the Harbour, but there were hundreds of sailboats out for a breathtaking Sunday afternoon!

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We wound around the city and I switched back to the City tour to continue on to Darling Harbour where more of the attractions were.  I hopped off and went to explore the bridge that takes you across the harbour to shops and activities.  It could not have been a more beautiful day!

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I started out at the Wild Life and Aquarium attractions which I mistakenly thought was the Sydney Zoo everyone had been raving about.  It only took me about 45 minutes to go through each one (taking my time, mind you) and they were interesting but not as cool as Featherdale which I had visited the day before.  Next time I’m in Sydney I’ll go to the REAL zoo, Taronga, for certain!

There were a few cool animals I hadn’t seen before, and some kangaroos ready for a pat. The aquarium had beautiful sharks, jellies, and rays, but was tiny for an aquarium in a city like Sydney.  I did get to see an amazing Mantis Shrimp, the one that has 100 color receptors (we have 3!).

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After I finished at the wildlife zoo and aquarium, it was about 4:30PM and I was hungry and hadn’t eaten since breakfast!  I walked around Darling Harbour at sunset before the restaurants opened at 5.

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When the did open, I found one right on the water that had a two course dinner offered for AUD$30, about $22USD, and it was a proper Aussie steak. I told myself I’d have a real Australian meal on my last night and I couldn’t have picked a more beautiful setting!  I started with the calamari, which were the biggest and most tender pieces of squid I’d ever had.  It looked as thick as the pieces I’d fish with in Tampa far out in the bay!

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My main course was a med rare steak with a gigantic prawn on top, sitting on potato mash and garlic butter.  So good.

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I hopped back on the bus after dinner, properly full, and went back to my hotel.  I was exhausted but had made the most of my one full day in the city.  Sydney is spectacular and I would move there in a heartbeat :)

 

day 8 down under: the blue mountains, cable cars, koalas, and a harbour cruise

June 24th, 2017

I woke up early on Saturday morning to walk to the nearby Marriott Sydney Harbour to catch my tour bus for the day by 7:45.  I had booked a full day tour of Sydney’s Blue Mountains using Viator on recommendation from my coworker who had been here before.  It was about $140 for the day but it included everything I wanted and more!  There was a packed itinerary but I was so excited to get started!

It was a small group tour so there were only 16 of us in total.  Our tour guide, Andy, was hands down the best guide I’ve ever had!  He was hilarious—reminded me of a slightly calmer Robin Williams in his story telling and cadence.  He pulled up to the hotel and there were heaps of us standing around. “I am looking for one lucky guest… Kara!”  I raised my hand and he welcomed me warmly to the bus where I was the last to be scooped up.  The bus was small but perfect for the day.

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Andy told us our first stop of the day was to be in a little town called Leura at the top of the Blue Mountains.  It would take just over 2 hours to get there so we were stopping for morning tea at a café called Loaves and Dishes in Leura.  There was a big festival going on that weekend, he said, so he phoned in our tea orders and off we went.

During the two hour drive, we were told stories ranging from the history of everything we passed, funny anecdotes about Aussie politics, environmental impacts of their reliance on coal, the reasoning behind the names of all of the places we were seeing (mostly Aboriginal), and we also learned that Andy is a Kiwi from New Zealand but he lives in the Blue Mountains and knows them intimately.  He also went above and beyond and had researched an interesting short documentary on the settlement of Sydney and checked it out from the local library for us to watch “on the boring bits of motorway”.  It was fascinating to hear how it turned from a penal colony first sailed to in 1788, to the building of the Harbour Bridge to keep unemployed men off the streets in the global depression, to today where it is pushing to be a real international capital city.

We passed through some adorable old towns along the way.  Most were named for some of the very first explorers to go over the Blue Mountains to find farming land, like Lawson and Wentworth.

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We entered the Blue Mountains and Andy started to point out the flora and fauna around us.  The gum tree, although not initially the most beautiful tree, makes up 90% of the foliage in the Blue Mountains and is an incredibly important tree in Australia.  Koalas, for example, dine exclusively on various types of gum trees.  He also told us about the leaves of a gum tree: they hang vertically (which was of great surprise to early botanists who had only seen horizontal leaves!).  They also have oils within the leaves that absorb most light but reflect the blue on the ultraviolet scale, thus making the mountains seem blue.  So cool!

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We arrived in Leura around 10:15 and all went in to Loaves and Dishes where our tea was waiting for us.  I had ordered the banana bread, which was lightly toasted with a pat of Aussie butter on top.  I also ordered a flat white to drink which is similar to a latte.  There was an empty chair at my table so Andy sat down and the two of us became fast friends.  We had until 11:45 to eat and wander around the shops and markets in Leura, but Andy and I talked until at least 11:30 like old friends!

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I walked around for the last 15 minutes and visited a few shops that were selling local items.  I picked up some gifts for friends and family and then hopped back on the bus.  Our next stop was Scenic World about 20 minutes away.

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Scenic World is set in the heart of the Blue Mountains and has four activities in total for guests to adventure along.  It is owned by a private family who simply have a license to operate in the mountains but everything is beautiful preserved.  It was originally the site of a working coal mine which Andy told us we would be seeing later.

As an idea of how the entire park looked, here is a map of Scenic World (borrowed from this site).  Just LOOK how steep the railway is…

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When we arrived, Andy told us that we were going to take the Scenic Skyway car across the Jamison Valley and he would drive the coach around and meet us on the other side.  The Scenic Skyway is a fairly large cable car that whisks you over the valley and is really beautiful to experience—if not slightly terrifying!

Check out the cable car (photo from the Scenic World website here)

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The Skyway took about 5 minutes in total and we got our wristbands on the other side.  We had the chance to take some pictures at a breathtaking spot at the tippy top of the mountains.  Just, wow.

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Once we all had pictures, Andy told us the story of an important rock formation behind us called the “Three Sisters”.  If you’d like to read more about it, click here, otherwise here is a retelling of the version of the legend I was told.  The legend of the Three Sisters is an Aboriginal legend involving a medicine man and his three daughters.  Some warriors from another village wanted to marry his daughters, Meehi, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo, but it was forbidden.  On the day they came to take the girls, the medicine man turned them in to three rock formations on the edge of a cliff to keep them safe using his magic bone.  The warriors came to find the medicine man but he had turned himself in to a Lyre bird as a disguise.  But in the bustle, the medicine man lost his magic bone.  To this day, the three sisters sit as pillars of rock and the medicine man still a lyre bird.  The legend goes, if you see a lyre bird in the forest, it’s the medicine man still and forever looking for his magic bone.

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To get down in to the deciduous rainforest in the Blue Mountains, we took the Scenic Cableway which dove over the edge of the cliff and down to the forest floor.  It was incredibly steep and I was able to get a spot at the very front to experience the drop!  Check out the video below and listen to the reaction of those in the car with me 😊

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At the bottom, Andy invited us to go on a nature walk through the rainforest.  There were a few paths but I went for the longest of them all and was in awe of the beauty of the forest.  There were trees everywhere, deep and green and lush, and the weather was a tad crisp which added to the fresh air all around.  Most of the trees we saw were gum trees, but there were also some fern trees which looked like palms from a distance, and snarling knots of tangled roots and vines everywhere.

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Andy told us to look out for the Lyrebird which resembles a female peacock but is half the size.  It has long feathers out the back but is not very colorful.  He said he sees them a little under 50% of the time he is in the mountains on a tour, but knows when they are near because they mimic the sounds of anything around them.  Lyrebirds know upwards of 20 bird calls and do them in succession to see if anyone of interest is around.

About 10 minutes after telling us about the Lyrebird, someone spotted one!  It was small and not easy to see, but it sang and sang its bird songs.  It was amazing to hear how many it knew!  I managed to get a small video of its singing.  We sat and watched it for a solid 5 minutes before it scurried off to find its match.  What a rare and special treat!

We kept on the walk and came across a small pavilion.  We all stopped for a few moments of silence, taking in the sounds of nature around us peacefully.  I had to get a picture with the best tour guide ever!

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We then found a waterfall and started to see remnants from the old coal mining days.  They didn’t have to dig far to find the coal layer!

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The way back to the top of the mountain was by riding the… wait for it… steepest railway in the world.  We boarded a small car with rows of seats that went up at a 62 degree incline.  Holy crap.  I accidentally was at the head of the pack and got put in the first car— thrill seekers be warned!  This was intense!  We were looking straight down as this car pulled us at an incredible angle up the mountains.  “The coal never seemed to mind so you shouldn’t either!”  Andy said, laughing!

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Safe and sound at the top and needing a stiff drink, I boarded the coach again and we were off to the Conservation Hut for lunch, about 15 minutes from Scenic World.  It was a beautiful little cottage nestled in the mountains and I had bolognese and a long black and a much needed rest.

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With a few minutes to spare, I walked out on the veranda to get a good look at the mountains, and I was met face to face with a kookaburra!  It stared at me, I stared at it, and we just looked at each other for a few minutes in awe.  “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree” sure is accurate!

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The last official stop on the tour was the one I was looking forward to the most the wildlife park! We were in for an afternoon of interacting (read: HUGGING) koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats… you name it.  It was an hour back towards Sydney so we trucked along making our way.  On the way, Andy introduced us to an Aboriginal/contemporary musician named Xavier Rudd.  He played 6 or 7 songs and they were so good!  We mused that he sounded a little Paul Simon with a didgeridoo.  When he comes to Sydney, he sells out the Opera House!  I loved the music and bought his album when I got home that night.

We arrived at Featherdale Wildlife Park and had an hour and a half to play with the animals with a deadline back on the bus by 4:30.  I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  I jetted in the park and made a beeline for the koalas.  There was a law passed 4 or 5 years ago banning people from physically HOLDING a koala (dreams of hugging dashed…) but I was able to add on “koala encounter” for a few dollars extra.  This got me up close and personal with my new Aussie boyfriend, Victor the Koala, and a picture commemorating the event!  Victor happily munched on eucalyptus the whole time I patted his little legs.  SO CUTE.

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After the koalas and my excitement had been curbed, I went to see the wombats (big, fat, furry things).  But then it was time for the kangaroos.  AHH.  There was a big enclosure where tons of wallabies (smaller kangaroo looking animals) and real roos were hopping about looking for food.  You could get a cup and feed them from your hands while they looked longingly at you AND IT WAS THE BEST. Their claws look sharp but they are actually very gentle and sweet little guys!

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The Little Penguins were getting fed next and their tiny blue bodies waddled around their paddock while the adorable keeper fed them small baitfish (head first so the scales stay flat!).

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I actually follow Featherdale Wildlife Park on Instagram and knew that they had a fresh round of 8 week old DINGO PUPPIES which were the cutest balls of fluff you could imagine!  They really just looked like domesticated dog puppies but there were 9 males in total.  They rolled and wrestled and fought over a bit of food and were generally in great spirits.

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Finally, we saw a Tasmanian Devil.  These little guys patrol their territories so much that they work a track around the outside of it.  They are incredibly endangered, close to extinction, because most are infected with a terrible eczema that causes a disease and they die within 90 days.  There were two brothers who had been rescued here at the park and it was feeding time!  The devil I saw got a huge egg and worked for a good 10 minutes to get all the good stuff out.  We heard a brief story of how they got their names from the keeper: the Tazzie Devils make a horrid screeching sound when they are threatened and the tips of their ears change color and turn bright red.  The Englishmen long ago encountered a Tazzie and in the dark all the could see was a dark figure with flaming red ears screaming at them— they thought it was the devil incarnate!

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We ran out of time at Featherdale but I could have spent another 10 days there with the animals!  But, as Andy said, “we have a boat to catch”.  Off we went back in to Sydney for the harbor cruise.  We made good time back to the city (Sydney traffic is unpredictable), so Andy took us around the 2000 Sydney Olympic sites.  He had come over to Australia himself in 1999 for the Olympics and never left!

Finally we arrived at the ferry and Andy bid us goodbye.  What a difference he made.  The tour felt like the best family and friends together enjoying the day!  The harbor cruise was meant to take us back to Sydney by boat.  It was large and fit a 5 large tour groups plus our small group onboard.  Andy told us to make our ways to the left side of the boat for the best views (he has all the tips!) so I did just that.

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It was sunset when we launched so we enjoyed the sunset over the quadrillion dollar houses lining the shore all the way to Sydney Harbour. Everything was lit up and just gorgeous in the sunset.

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I snapped some shots of the bridge and the Opera House on the way in.  It was like I had front row seats!  What a way to cap of the day!

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It was 7PM when we docked and the tour was over.  I grabbed a chicken katsu burger at The Burger Project at Circular Quay on recommendation from one of my students that I taught in Canberra.  It was really good!

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I finally made my way back to my hotel and crashed on the bed.  It had been an incredibly long and busy day, but every single thing about it was spectacular.  I couldn’t have planned a better day in Sydney!

days 5, 6 & 7 down under: fine dining in Canberra and an unexpected bus ride through the countryside

June 21st, 2017

On Wednesday I had new students come in to my course and they were a super lively crew!  There were more of them this time and they had big personalities which made the day fun.  As usual, we ate through the day: scones in the morning, hot lunch in the middle of the day, and afternoon tea.

After work Wednesday was the first time since I arrived in Oz that I didn’t have plans after work, and I wasn’t bothered by it at all!  I had some work to catch up on, blog posts overdue to write, and a restaurant downstairs that came recommended by locals.

It was called Lilo Tang, a contemporary Japanese restaurant at the base of my hotel. Unfortunately their tasting menu, which looked delicious, was for a minimum of two people so I had to order from the a la carte menu.  I was a little disappointed in the selection but was able to find some interesting options.  Everything was done by small plate so I ordered three for my meal.

I started with the chicken and pork belly yakitori skewers.  These were delicious but such a tiny portion.  There was no hope for sharing that dish and it seemed like a tease for even one person.

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I then ordered Japanese sauteed vegetables which were small broccoli and greens topped with bonito flakes that almost danced as they melted with the steam of the vegetables.  Very tasty.

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The best (and special) appetizer of the evening: waygu beef with burrata cheese.  The burrata just melted on the plate without needing any heat at all.  The waygu was fall apart tender.  That was a delicious plate.

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I went back up to my room at the end of the meal still slightly hungry but satisfied for certain.

June 22nd, 2017

I woke up Thursday morning and decided to get breakfast at the hotel.  It was quite pricey but worth it– it was a proper Aussie breakfast, complete with a little vegemite!  The breakfast is served on the top floor of the hotel overlooking the city of Canberra as it wakes up and the fog rolls over the treetops.

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My last day of the course was the best one of all.  We even ended the day with hugs, exchanging of information so we could get together again, and a very happy instructor!

As a last hurrah in Canberra, my coworker had planned a nice meal out at Akiba, a posh yet hipster small-plate Japanese restaurant in the city center.  Darcy had talked about this for the entire time I’d been in Oz, and most of my other coworkers who had made the trip were also treated to the delight that was Akiba.

We arrived Thursday night and Darcy and his wife, plus Nick, Ale and Rafaela joined as well.  We sat outside under heaters at a nice long table.  I was beyond excited for all of the food I was about to enjoy and almost laughed out loud when I read the first option on the menu: “Just Feed Me”.  This was the chefs choice of their 8 most popular dishes so we didn’t have to go about choosing one by one.  I was SO down for that!

I also saw that they had SOMERSBY!  I hadn’t had any since Sweden and I missed it, so of course I had to order myself a bottle.  Tastes like home.

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There are way too many dishes to name and show, but I will point out the ones in the Just Feed Me from the menu above:

  • Kingfish sashimi (very tasty)
  • Pork belly bun (**OMGOMG THIS**)
  • Prawn and chicken dumplings (very tasty)
  • Kimchi pancake (the only of 8 that I didn’t care for)
  • King prawn fried rice (this was really delicious)
  • Beef short rib (totally fall off the bone tender, mmm)
  • Chinese broccoli (a little strongly seasoned but good)
  • Lemon tofu cheesecake (super good!)

Pardon the quality of some of the following pictures– I was hungry!!

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The meal was insanity.  So good, so creative, so filling.  Its a MUST VISIT on your next trip to Canberra! :)

June 23rd, 2017

I got up at the crack of dawn to check out of my hotel and make it to the airport by 6AM.  My flight was scheduled for 8AM but I got there early enough that they got me on an earlier flight.  Sweet!  Except… there was a lot of fog.  A LOT.  It had been foggy most mornings that week, but it usually burned off by 8 and there wasn’t an issue.  Not Friday morning.

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I got a flat white and a muffin and settled in, not knowing what the weather would do to flights out of Canberra.

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There were 5 flights leaving from Canberra to Sydney before noon, and only the very first one got out.  The rest of us were delayed over and over for three hours and then cancelled completely, but no one told us the flights were cancelled.  One woman happened to check online and it had been cancelled for over 45 minutes, but no one at the airport knew.  I desperately wanted to lay down and take a nap on these big, soft pillows….

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I know weather is not anyone’s fault, and for two solid hours no flights were departing OR landing in Canberra, but it was still a huge bummer.  I was just feeling so lucky that this flight was the short one to get me started on holiday in Sydney, not the one taking me to a connecting flight.  Most people missed connections and one woman missed her cruise which left from Sydney Harbour that afternoon at 2PM.

Only those who threw an absolute temper tantrum got rebooked on flights, but not everyone could because those afternoon flights were still on as scheduled.  Instead, the answer from Qantas was: you shall take the bus.  I’m thankful that there WAS a bus option because Sydney is just over a 3 hour drive from Canberra.  But by the time we finally got buses arranged, retrieve our checked bags which were on planes that weren’t going anywhere, and physically load up, it was already 1:30 in the afternoon.  I had wasted 6.5 hours already.  Qantas gave us some water and provided “catering” for the drive.

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On the bright side, I made a few more Aussie friends and we made it safely to Sydney by 5PM.  The drive through the bush was really pretty so it certainly could have been worse.  I lost an entire day (of 3) that I had to explore Sydney but I was better off than some other travelers for sure.

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When I finally arrived in Sydney, I took the Link train to the center of the city and found my hotel. It was a quick train and saved me quite a bit of time (and money!) than taking a taxi or an Uber from the airport.  Looks a little like DC traffic here!

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I stayed at the Radisson Blu Plaza hotel which was nice but too expensive for a low maintenance traveler like me.  Unfortunately I was put on the first floor with the “view” of a nasty parking lot.  But I didn’t spend much time in the room anyway so it wasn’t a huge deal.

I decided to drop my stuff and go walk around Circular Quay, one of their downtown areas on the water with several wharfs and tons of things to see.  I had lost all light at that point as sun had set about 5 but I was able to get some beautiful shots of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House all lit up at night.

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I found dinner at a small Thai resto inside of the Gateway which is an indoors restaurant area.  It was called Chat Thai, and it had some decent food for reasonable prices.  I got my classic, Pad See Ew, and a Napoleone pear cider. The cider was delicious!  But absolutely nothing beats Somersby so… 😊

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I had a huge full day planned for Saturday, so even though I got to Sydney one week later in my vacation than I had anticipated, I was still confident I could see everything I wanted to see.

Stay tuned for a monster post about the Blue Mountains!