Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Well Hello Melbourne!

So, I sincerely promise I have much more to write about Melbourne, but in the essence of time this is all I could produce since then (and i want to keep blogging as much as I can about Fiji).  Hopefully I will add more soon!

Melbourne has been so great so far, for so many reasons… We arrived last night late, around 11:10pm, to Avalon airport (in the middle of no where). When we booked our flights we simply booked them based on price, so we didn’t realize that Avalon was the airport outside of town.  We had to take an airport shuttle into Melbourne for AU$36 each (round trip) for about an hour to our hostel in the CBD, Nomads.
            Early Friday morning we were up and ready for our day; we had to wait until around 10am to book our tours for the weekend, but after that we headed to Queen Victoria Markets, about 2 blocks away.  The markets were awesome!!! They were cheaper than the Paddy’s Markets in Sydney with just as much selection, with everything from socks to souvenirs to salami.  There were people peddling their handicrafts, too, along with a huge organic fruits and vegetables market.  My favorite part was an area with lunch food; greek food, fancy sandwiches, home baked breads, and lots of lollies. Laura saw an American Doughnut Stand (in a big van) and had to splurge (absolutely delicious, rolled in sugar and filled with strawberry yummy-ness).  For lunch we split a chicken schnitzel on a big roll, and it was perfect.
            After a little too much time spent at the markets we headed down the main streets, like Elizabeth Street, and Queen Street, towards the center of the city and Federation Square.  On our way we found the ‘Graffiti Alley,’ a place where graffiti is actually appreciated as art; some other tourists where there at the same time, taking as many pictures as possible. The art was unbelievable!  It is really cool that there are graffiti artists that take what they do so seriously, and really while the graffiti in Wollongong is mostly just words, the graffiti at graffiti alley was all pictures and ideas, even some faces.
We really toured the city on foot, and saw as much as we could before we headed to Haights Chocolate store to begin our chocolate tour at 1:30. Our tour started at Haights, a family owned gourmet chocolate company that began in South Australia.  Everyone on the tour sampled dark and milk chocolates, and also fancy champagne truffles, and almost everyone bought something from the shop.  It was located in an arcade built into the city modeled after one in Europe- the architecture was beautiful, and it felt old and special.  The arcades really had a lot of character, and I could probably spend all afternoon wandering around them, or trying desserts, or eating snacks…  We went to some other chocolate shops, like a place called Chocolait, where we were served delicious liquid chocolate (disguised as ‘hot chocolate’), and Coco Black, where we were given fancy truffles rolled in chocolate shavings. Our tour guide, an older lady who was a self-proclaimed chocoholic, also commentated our walk around the city with fun facts about the history of the area and the history of the chocolate in the area.  Our tour ended at a fancy café, and we were happy to be served breakfast tea and fancy, pretty desserts that WEREN’T chocolate. 
After the chocolate tour we went back to Queen Victoria market and bought some bread (on sale because it was so late). We headed back to Nomads and made tomato soup for dinner, and then got ready for a Australian Football League game! We took the trams to Ethiad Stadium, which holds 50,000 people, and planned on buying tickets when we got there. Fortunatley for us, some people had three extra tickets and were happy to invite us in with them.  Their tickets were awesome, and we had a great view of the game. They also explained the game to us- the field is round, and it doesn’t stop like American football.  Instead, the players kick the ball around to one another and ultimately try to kick it between two posts. The game was a really close one between the Carlton Blues and Geelong Cats; it came down to the last 3 minutes on the clock, and the Geelong Cats won in the end.  It was so fun; I had the best hot dog that I have had so far, with lots of ketchup.  I think maybe it was the last one in the place, because when Laura went to get one a few minutes later they had run out! … The game ended around 11pm, and we were worn out, so we headed back to Nomads and were happy to get into bed.  

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gold Coast and 21st!

The trip to the Gold Coast was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was our first planned trip where we planned for some downtime we could spend at the beach. I was happy to get out of Wollongong, especially because I had just finished some heavy duty work at school.  We arrived on Thursday night to many high rises and excitement of a very lit-up city.  Young people were everywhere, and the area we stayed in, at the Islander Backpacker (a high rise hostel + hotel), was a very busy place. Outside our balcony we could see the ocean far off (3 blocks away), and many the many high rises that surrounded the area.  I was pretty surprised; this is the first heavily developed place I have been in Australia (when I say heavily developed, I mean American style, with high-rises, and condo units, and neon lights- like Florida). Cairns was developed, but most of the hotels seemed to be smaller 3-4 story type places, and Airlie was sort of the same way.  Surfer’s Paradise, however, had it’s own Vegas style casino resort, hotels with penthouses, and luxury beachfront apartment buildings.
On Friday we spent the day on the beach.  We haven’t been able to get much sun lately in Wollongong, so we took full advantage of our time in Surfers to maintain our brown tans we got on the big Spring break trip.  The guys at the Gold Coast are also more American or Miami looking than those we have seen other places.  A lot of them even looked like guys on Jersey Shore, buff with big muscles (besides here, Australian guys are typically pretty scrawny). The beach was lined with mostly young people, and along the beach a boardwalk ran all the way down.  One cool thing about this area is the prominent Surf Lifesaver’s Club; surf lifesaving is an important aspect of the Australian beach lifestyle, and the club in Surfer’s Paradise is the central building on the beach.  While I was grabbing lunch some of the girls even saw a team of the lifesavers do a training demonstration down on the beach.
Three more girls arrived in the evening, and we all went and grabbed dinner down by the shore. There were A LOT of restaurants along the beach area, and their prices were really great.  For dinner we grabbed $5 fish and chips and sat by the water; the weather was so great, and eating outside listening to the waves was the perfect end to a such relaxing day.
During the day Saturday we sort of did the same thing; the weather was even better than before so we spent our time on the beach again.  It was even busier than before, and hard to find a great spot.  We left pretty early because we had booked all the girls to go on a ‘Wicked’ bar crawl to ring in my 21st ; we decided to do a crawl because bars in Surfer’s Paradise usually charge a cover, so by doing the tour we would only pay one fee and then get entry for the rest of our trip.  The crawl started around 5pm, with free drinks and dinner at the first bar and at each after.  I was also able to tell the bartenders it was my birthday to get free drinks. We danced the night away at clubs such as Vanity, Sin City and the Beach house. It was such a great girls night; I think everyone had a wonderful time, and we really got some good pictures. By 2am though we were worn out!
On Sunday morning I wanted to get crepes with ice cream for my birthday at a little breakfast place near our hostel.  Laura surprised me by ordering chocolate cake with a birthday candle on top, too, and they sang me happy birthday.  After breakfast we headed to a wildlife sanctuary just outside of town. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out til we got there that the sanctuary was having a special event: locals $5 entry for Mother’s Day.  It was an absolute MADHOUSE; there were screaming children, more people in attendance than the park was ever made for, and no specials for tourists.  There were so many people there that when you tried to feed one of the (at least) 40 kangaroos in the kangaroo area none would eat because they were all so full.  We did get a picture holding a koala, though, and that was really why we wanted to go. The koala handlers tell you to stand in a specific place, put your hands down by your belly button, and not to move at all.  Then they simply set the koala on you.  I was so happy to be holding a koala, though, I started bouncing it like a baby, and the handler got pretty upset.  Needless to say, she was very quick to take it from me, so I didn’t get a good picture on MY camera.  My professional picture turned out ok, though.  Maybe I should have told her it was my birthday, haha…
For the evening we rushed back to Surfer’s Paradise to take a $15 sunset cruise I had found a brochure for. Laura brought me some champagne to drink during the cruise, and I put my legs out over the side and enjoyed the wind in my hair.  The canals around Surfer’s Paradise are lined with Palm Beach style mansions, so riding up and down admiring the beautiful homes and estates was totally entertaining. A family ran the cruise boat, and when the captain’s wife found out it was my birthday she announced it to the whole boat, and everyone proceeded to sing me happy birthday.  The cruise was the ABSOLUTE PERFECT way to see the sun set on my birthday, and was probably my favorite part about Gold Coast.  Being on a boat renews my spirits, and from the water is a great viewpoint for seeing the sights.
After the cruise we headed to a Mexican restaurant nearby (where I received another free drink), and then to a bar close to our backpackers where Keri and Kaitlyn had visited earlier to arrange a birthday treatment.  The bartender took absolutely amazing care of our group! I wore a pretty white dress and a boa, and as soon as I got there he made me a huge fishbowl drink and poured all the girls champagne.  He also made us two rounds of shots, and another fishbowl when we finished my first one.  I was in no rush to drink a lot, and wanted to just enjoy the evening, but some of the girls took full advantage of the opportunity and got really drunk.  He continued to refill our champagne glasses, and eventually I handed my fishbowl off to more keen drinkers.  My day had been pretty great without an insane drunken evening, and I was pretty tired, so we eventually went to bed when the party girls had gotten their fill. I am so glad we went out, though, especially to Melbas, because we were all treated like royalty because it was my birthday!
On Monday it rained, and our flight out was around 2pm so we couldn’t do much around town.  We ended up holing up at the hostel with movies and popcorn, and watched ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’  A bunch of people were sitting around in the tv room, so it was a pretty relaxed movie day that we could all enjoy. I was ready to get back to Wollongong, though, and sleep in my own bed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Big Blue Mountains!

Last Friday, after we got home from New Zealand, we were picked up around 3pm to go to the Blue Mountains with CIEE.  I was pretty worn out, but excited going because CIEE always takes such good care of us.  We were driven about 2 hours away to Leura, a small, prestigious suburb in the mountains, to a beautiful, huge house.  The CIEE staff Wayne, his girlfriend Nicole, and our driver Scott prepared dinner for us.  We had delicious Brie cheese and crackers to start, with dips, chips, and finger foods. The royal wedding was live on prime time in Australia, so we all huddled around the huge television to watch Kate and William get married.  For the main they prepared grilled chicken and steak.  Everything was delicious, and it was nice to eat so well (especially after New Zealand!). There were at least 8 bedrooms in the house, and each bed had a heating blanket on it, nice sheets, and fluffy pillows. 
On Saturday we woke up relatively late and had quick breakfast, then headed to our abseiling adventure.  We were suited up and practiced on a small rock.  Abseiling is a bit scary, because your legs are basically completely parallel to the ground, but your body is parallel to the rock you are leaning on with your legs.  You have to lean back and ease your butt down, then you can move your legs down.  Each time you abseil, too, there is a spotter at the bottom who is holding onto your rope, so you won’t go down to fast or lose control.  It was raining, though, so in my mind things were going to get slippery.
We did five different abseils, and each got bigger as we moved on.  On the fourth one they taught us how to push ourselves off from the cliff when we encountered an overhang. I am not going to lie- abseiling was terrifying.  Just getting yourself off the top of the rock and trusting the ropes when you lean back to hold you safely was tough. I was pretty thrilled when I got down the big cliffs, but the views from the top were amazing.  Abseiling was an awesome activity that really tested my fears, but the experience was pretty rewarding, too.
After the abseiling activity ended we ventured into town to grab lunch.  We ended up eating all together at a little café in Leura.  Everyone was pretty cold after getting wet on the mountain abseiling, but we were all keen to warm up with hot chocolate and hot tea.  One popular thing here in Australia are the hot chai lattes, and sometimes a dessert chai beverage (like a milkshake) is offered.  I don’t absolutely love chai tea, but people who do LOVE the chai lattes and frappes.  After lunch we walked around the shops in the town a little bit, and I even picked out a Christmas ornament! Leura and the surrounding villages are very touristy, but they are tucked away in the mountains so each is a little bit isolated from the others. The shops were pretty unique; the specialty stores and boutiques had everything from French specialty soaps to custom stationary, and I think a lot of the shops were tailored to a wealthy crowd, as the prices were pretty steep.
In the afternoon we stopped at all the popular tourist lookouts, but because of the weather we could not see anything. The CIEE leaders had discussed letting us organize dinner and breakfast, so we took a trip to Woolworth’s grocery store and in groups purchased all the food we would need for the meals we wanted to prepare.  The dinner group decided they wanted to make Mexican food; they grabbed stuff to make quesadillas, fajitas, and chips and salsa. I was on breakfast duty, so when we got back to the house I immediately ran up and got into bed under the heating blanket (my pants and clothes had been wet all day, so I was ready to warm up!).
The group that made the Mexican food did a great job! Wayne, Nic and Scotty (the Australians) had never had Mexican prepared so well, and were surprised how much they liked it, especially the quesadillas. I was pretty worn out after dinner, so I watched a little bit of a movie and headed to bed early.
I was on breakfast duty, and was in charge of making French toast, complete with fruit toppings and whipped cream.  We also prepared scrambled eggs and bacon.  The bacon is Australia is really different from in America; the slabs of meat, or slices, are much bigger, and there is a lot more fat on them.  They also are cut a little thicker, so it doesn’t get very crispy (the way I prefer it at home). It is definitely more like ham. Anyway, everyone loved the breakfast, and the Australians kept asking if we had such sweet breakfasts normally in the states.  We reassured them that breakfasts this fancy were only on days like Sunday, when people have time to cook yummy breakfasts with so many items. It was so nice to have a kitchen to cook some familiar food dishes, and it was nice to have so many people who were so excited about eating what we cooked.
After we tidied up the house and checked out we headed to the famous lookout points to see the Three Sisters, a rock formation in the heart of a famous valley.  We also went on a short walk to see a waterfall, and got to see some of the flora up close.  The Blue Mountains are ‘blue’ because of the blue-tinged haze that comes from all the eucalyptus trees. They remain green all year (so there are no fall colors to see here!), but the mountains look blue.  The valley where the Three Sisters sit is the second largest valley in the world, only a little smaller than the Grand Canyon! It was truly spectacular, and definitely worth seeing.
I did not want to return to school, though because I knew my week (and the next 3 after it) would really academically stressful.  After the Blue Mountains, I had to turn 2 papers in, write a paper in class and take a test.  While that doesn’t sound like much, when you are in Australia (traveling around) it is a lot. We shall see how it goes…