Saturday, December 18, 2004

Woke up to the smell of bacon and eggs from the hotel cafe. However in a rare attempt at frugality, we had to forego the $9 Vulcan Big Breakfast. Instead we went again to Paddy's Market, this time to the fruit and vegetable side that we missed yesterday. Cheap, fresh, fragrant stuff.

Found a $10 note on the sidewalk and used it to pay for our breakfast at McD's. Exactly the same as in Singapore except for the sausage that was probably pork and definitely not halal. I still want bacon and eggs though. Sigh.

Caught the Explorer to our 1st stop, The Rocks. Here, June was in her element -- exactly what she had been looking for in a weekend market: unique handicrafts and artworks made by authentic Australian hands. Here is a list of our purchases:

1 x display mobile made of twisted forks and spoons
1 x eucalyptus scented wooden puzzle block
2 x fridge magnets hand-carved from wood
2 x scented wardrobe protectors, guaranteed 3 years
1 x banana bread
1 x lemonade
1 x reproduction painting of Sydney landmarks
1 x book of collected Aboriginal folktales (my purchase)

This is the most shopping we've done since we arrived in Oz!

Loaded with our purchases, we hopped Explorer to view Sydney Opera House up close and personal. From afar, the overall structure is already impressive. Close-up and it's the texture of the tiling that grabs the attention. With all the ceramic layering its surface it looks set to be an alternative space shuttle design. Took lots of photos here.

Explorer to Mrs MacQuarie's Chair, a spot on the harbour that Gov McQ had designated as a garden and as a lookout spot for his wife (i.e., for his wife to look out of, not for him to look out for his wife). Her chair had been carved into the rocks here and it became her favourite hangout. Today women sit on her chair and make a wish. This place is also the best land-based vantage point to frame the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge in the same photo.

Explorer to Wooloomooloo and the site of the original Harry's Cafe de Wheels. Finally got to order our pies; a Tiger for me, and a chicken and cheese pie for June. Wow! Excellent stuff and reasonably priced too. They are substantial and taste great! Meaty and juicy, crust flaky and light. The addition of mash and mushy peas on the Tiger made it more of a meal. After guzzling our pies, we ordered another hotdog to share, I am unashamed to confess.

Explorer back to our hotel to dump our purchases and get ready for dinner with Charis, Samson and DotDot, their King Charles. We grabbed their pressies and stuff they wanted us to get for them. Went to Central to check out the timetable for our train ride up to Newcastle tomorrow, then went to meet our friends at the bus stop.

It's great to see them again after 2 years. They've settled down in the suburbs and DotDot still remembers us. She's such a dear. We saw their lovely house then drove out to Hurstville for Viet food. Our pho was big with good, lean beef and piles of sprouts and mint leaves. June was very happy to see the saucer of chilli padi. DotDot sat patiently in her seat while we ate, and attracted lots of "so cute" from passers by. Charis and Sam kindly drove us back to the Vulcan after dinner. Wonder when we'll see them again?

Friday, December 17, 2004

Caught the 0924 back to Sydney. The trip took a little more than 2 hours to arrive because of the morning congestion at Central Station. The train operator kept giving us periodic updates on the ETA while registering his own impatience with the system.

The Vulcan upgraded our room to a very modern furnished one. 202 even has a working fireplace, though this being summer, it's too hot to light it. Besides, it'll play havoc with the air-conditioning.

Today we spent most of our time hopping the Explorer bus and using the 1st day of our 3-day pass as much as we could.

On Friday, Paddy's Market opens for business, so we headed out there and saw... a big pasar malam, manned and operated mostly by more Asian folk. Hence, the merchandise was nothing unusual to us. Clothes, toys, stuff. After a short prowl we gave up and crossed the street into Chinatown...

... where we ordered a char siew fan, a siew ngap fan, and a soi gow tong from a Hongkonger run restaurant. Same thing: high prices, humongous portions. June and I were slack-jawed for a second then worked our way slowly through what looked like half a roast duck, a large fraction of roast pig, a vegetable side, and a number of huge dumplings stuffed with fresh prawns, minced meat and black fungus. Oh, for cheaper meals and smaller portions.

Then back on the Explorer to Argyle place to take pictures at Garrison Church, Explorer to Campbell's Cove to take pictures of Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, Explorer to take pictures at the magnificent St Mary's Cathedral and surroundings, and a short walk to the Hard Rock Cafe where the t-shirts cost much less than the ones in Surfers'.

The Explorer bus is a lot of fun, particularly when the driver turns off the canned "tourist info" recording and launches into his own politically incorrect commentary on local politics, Sydney landmarks, famous Australians, and occasionally pointing out the more attractive female passers by whom we might otherwise have missed seeing.

At Circular Quay we had a change of driver. The new guy took over wearing a Father Christmas costume complete with fake beard and sunglasses. He distributed candy to the lone kid seated in the 5th row before driving on. Sydney -- lots of elderly folk, few kids.

Whoever designed Sydney must have been a conglomeration of artists and other people with an eye for the visually stunning. I love the designs that blend the old with the new, the geometric with the organic, the blending of different tastes from different times. What a fun place!

We saw the Giant Christmas tree in Martin Place and we marvelled at the splendour of the Westin occupying No. 1 Martin Place, a Colonial GPO building that the GPO is still operating out of. The Fullerton must have borrowed the idea from here.

We found an Internet cafe opposite Central Station for me to update quidestveritas while June scouted ahead for other attractions. The cafe is run by a PRC and the other patrons are likewise mostly Chinese playing Chinese online games. We've certainly reached far and wide.

June spotted a Harry's Cafe de Wheels at the Capitol and we went to sample their world famous meat pie. We were too late. All the pies had already been sold out and they were closing in 10 minutes. We had to settle for the only thing they had left, a hot dog, but what a dog! A bun filled with a scoop of mashed potatoes, a scoop of mashed peas, a scoop of Mexican chilli con carne, a large sausage topped generously with ketchup, mustard and hot sauce. Everything was spilling out into the paper tray it came in, so the counter dude gave us a fork to eat it with.

The hot dog was just and appetizer. Tomorrow we're off to Harry's main branch early to get us a pie! Count on it!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Doh! Woke up later than expected. Began the day with an all-you-can-eat cereal and toast breakfast at the Kurrara. Our plan was to take the walking path to Leura but we detoured first to see the view from Honeymoon Lookout. I thought we needed the delay because the road to Leura didn't seem that long on the map. Uh huh.

The path along the cliff turned out to be less trodden than the trails at Echo Point. The path descended deep into the valley in places, then sloped up steeply in others, making the walking tougher than yesterday.

We took another detour to view Leura Cascades which though not spectacular, was a pretty sight. The path then took a steep turn up a flight of steps cut into the sandstone leading to Leura proper and the path to the Gordon Falls lookout.

Once we got into the town centre (3 hours from when we started walking) we wandered around looking at the candy store, the toy store, the many handicraft stores, the 2 Christmas stores (selling Christmas ornaments all year round), then June developed a craving for pasta.

Now, it's not easy to find pasta in Leura. It's a more Anglophile town than Katoomba which is practically cosmopolitan in comparison. Eateries in Leura do English-style pastries and teas but eventually we found the BonTon Cafe with a menu that fit the bill.

BonTon served up a thick organic vegetable soup almost broth-like in consistency. June had a delicious Seafood Spaghettinni with fresh mussels, scallops and perch; and I had a Rigatonni Arribiata with spicy pork sausage in a tomato sauce.

At lunch we checked our guide book and discovered that we were too late to catch the last train through the Zig Zag Railway at Lithgow so we had to scrap that idea. It was still early afternoon, nevertheless, so we took the train instead to Wentworth Falls just for a look-see of the village. Small, not very exciting, but like everything around here, friendly and welcoming.

We caught the train back to Katoomba eventually and since the sun was still shining brightly even though it was about 1730 we walked back to Echo Point to find the Giant Stairway which we had missed yesterday.

The Giant Stairway is a 900-step stair that descends a vertical cliff face to the bottom of the valley. No way we would have made it all the way down and back by nightfall -- it's a 2-hour trek for healthy walkers. We only went far enough to reach a rocky ledge cut into the 1st of the 3 Sisters. Just looking down from the ledge makes the knees wobbly, so high up we still were.

We made our painful climb back to Echo Point, hungry again. We found the Swiss Cottage on the way back to Kurrara. Here we ordered a thick tomato soup with garlic bread each and then because we were too full to down individual portions we split a saussicon vaudior (spicy pork sausage in homebaked pastry and rossti) and a banana split between the two of us.

The staff at the Swiss Cottage were very busy and yet very cordial, warm hosts. The blonde who attended to us (presumably Monique) was model-pretty and very charming, entertaining our meal-on-a-budget order. When the restaurant got too full, she even turned away other guests who were prepared to place a larger order than ours simply because we arrived first.

Wish I could have left a bigger tip but they didn't take credit cards [WARNING] so they took all the cash I had. I could only leave a 50 cent tip from the change I got back.

Staggered back to the Kurrara where today, it's too warm to light the fire.

One other thing about the Blue Mountains. Outside when it's warm, each one of us is issued with our personal cloud of houseflies who buzz around us and settle on us when they get tired. They literally make us feel like we're the centre of their little universe.

Leaving Blue Mountains for Sydney tomorrow. I will definitely come back here someday.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A day of walking. Left most of our luggage at the Vulcan and with our day packs walked to Central Station. We caught the 0822 which left exactly on time. The ride to Katoomba is nearly 2 hours long. We sat in the upper deck of a double deck train and napped on and off till we arrived.

In Katoomba we're back in small town Oz again. Lots of family run businesses in shophouses, most of which close at 1700. Passed a bakery on the way to our guesthouse and bought a cheese and olive roll and an apple and walnut scroll for brekkie 'cos the smell was irresistable.

Found our guesthouse just off the town centre. It's a beautiful rustic house, lovingly furnished with a mixture of antique furniture. With my day pack on I'm quite nervous walking around inside 'cos with a careless swivel I might just bring down a 19th century ornament or two.

The Kurrara Historical Guest House is run by a friendly middle-aged gentleman by the name of Anthony (his operating licence says, Antonio Minardi), evidently of Italian descent. The house has a few common areas. Where I am right now is the TV room that houses the only anomaly here -- a 42" flat-screen TV. I'm also seated next to a toasty charcoal burning fireplace which Anthony has kindly lighted for us to ward off the evening chill. Books galore, mostly about Australia, are scattered about just begging to be flipped through. Anthony is himself reading Zen and the Brain, such exotic, intellectual stuff.

Oh, right. Walking. We walked from the station to the guesthouse; from the guesthouse to Echo Point (Katoomba's main attraction) which offers the touristy view of the 3 Sisters, a natural limestone rock formation. We took the walking trails from Echo Point to Katoomba Falls, but today it was the getting there that was more than half the fun.

The path took us round the cliffs and into the valley for a spectacular view of the Australian Mountainside. Deep, deep valleys, awesome cliffs and sandstone and shale outcroppings. Trees and shrubs and flowering plants of the temperate variety at the top, and rainforest at the bottom. I kept thinking how much Geog students would learn if they could only see the landscape for themselves.

Katoomba Falls on the map and in pix looks awesome but today the Falls fell short of expectation. Instead of seeing a roar and a rush we saw 2 piddling streams of water falling down a cliffside.

Took the world's steepest railway back up to the top of Scenic World which operates 2 other cable cars besides the Railway. Unfortunately, the Skyway isn't ready yet (will be by Christmas). We did take the Flyway back down into another part of the valley and walked around some more before ascending by the Railway again. The Railway is such a thrill because the cars ascend almost vertically up the cliff. The seats are oddly canted so that on ground level our feet hang in the air, but moving up the cliff we're sitting upright again with a big drop below us.

We walked till about 1600 with only our breakfast rolls as our only meal. Refuelled at The Devino Cafe with a meat pie marinaded in red wine and herbs, and a penne with salmon and capers in a creamy white wine sauce, washed down with a home made choc milkshake each. Yep, every calorie we burned, we stuffed right back again with interest.

We'd been walking for more than 6 hours by then but it was still early so we shopped for souvenirs at K-mart and Coles supermarket.

Hmm... I hate to leave the fireplace. Think I'll sit a little longer.

Tomorrow, the village of Leura, the Zig Zag Railway and Lithgow.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Another early riser to catch the 2nd Qantas flight out to Sydney. Had an omelette and coffee for brekkie at the domestic terminal's food court. June spotted Channel U's Michelle Chong seated at the table next to ours and took a pix with her.

Arrived at 1040 in sydney and after some deliberation, we bought a 3-day Sydney Pass ($100 each) for ourselves. The pass covers unlimited travel on most, I repeat, most public buses and trains for any 3 days within an 8-day period. It also covers airport transit 2-way even beyond the 3 days that the ticket is claimed on.

Sydney is the Big City. Lots of people in power suits talking business on their mobile phones; way tall buildings and a curious mix of concrete-and-steel with old red-brick, copper roofed low-risers from a century ago. Bustle and crowded streets... ah, city life.

Our hotel, the Vulcan Hotel, is in the Ultimo district. It cost $7.30 by cab from Central Station. I gave the cabbie $10 and he said, "thank you!" I never got to see my change, but that was to be expected.

Cabbie was Chinese like a lot of the people here. Evidently, Asians are not the minority. This was certainly the case in Darling Harbour while we were looking for dinner. There's no cheap food to be found anyplace. We finally settled on a food court in Harbourside. There's Mexican, American, Japanese/Chinese, Turkish, whatever, food on offer but behind every counter stood an Asian face. That sort of took the authenticity away from the menus but, hey, we're all over the place now -- making up for lost time.

Food at the food court is still expensive though. Large portions but high prices too. Starting to worry about our cash that seems to be drying up faster than expected.

Oops... time warp. Lunch was at Sydney Fish Market -- first place we hit immediately after checking in. June and I shared a dozen Sydney rock oysters and another dozen of the Tazzie variety. They were so fresh, just recently shucked by the guy behind the counter. Cold and briney, no sickening aftertaste. How can we enjoy half-shell oysters at buffets from now on?

Got ourselves sort of lost wandering around downtown with the Queen Victoria Building as our main point of reference. QVB is a beautifully restored old building turned shopping mall and its centrepiece is a massive 3-storey tall Christmas tree wich is a must-take photo op.

From QVB we visited St Andrew's Cathedral and dropped in on Woolworth's for munchies and on Border's where I bought R & G are Dead on DVD. Yay! I've been searching for it for so long.

Our hotel is quite a long walk away from the main action downtown. It seems to be located in something like the forgotten side of town so it's a bit dark and deserted where we are staying. The hotel is nice and comfortable, newly renovated so it's like an oasis this side of town. Fringe benefit from this holiday: good health from all the walking we're doing.

Off to the Blue Mountains by train early tomorrow morning!

Monday, December 13, 2004

What a great day! Caught the early X bus to Movie World without even stopping for breakfast. The chicken salad sandwich I split with June from the Mobil On-the-Run outlet doesn't count. Arrived almost 45 minutes before opening but they started selling tix at 0930 and letting people stream in anyway. Was greeted at the door by Mad Mike, more on him later.

Again, we went straight for the big thrill. Lethal Weapon is a suspended steel monster boasting 5 loops, big and small. A few hair-raising moments; it was a breathless ride, though I think we're getting a little spoiled. The rush isn't quite there anymore.

We made it just in time to the opening of the venue for the Police Academy stunt show where Mad Mike ushered us (i.e., everyone) to their seats. Watch out for him though, he's a trickster and it's his job to catch people off guard and embarrass them in full view of the public. With his arsenal of whistle, tickler, banana, water-pistol and a box labelled "Insanity Dept." he is a load of laughs at the expense of his victims : )

The show itself is action packed with skidding vehicles, pratfalls and explosions. I'm not sure what the "volunteers" from the audience actually did, but I guess it was a way to make us identify with the things happening in the arena >nudge< >wink<. The final explosion at the top of the PA building threw an awesome wave of heat in our direction. No foolin' about, the stunts are dangerous -- don't try them at home.

The Scooby Doo Haunted Castle was an easily underestimated ride by the both of us. It looks like just another haunted house on rails, and it began that way too. 4 in a car, being 'scared' by some cheesy animatronic spooks. The cars then enter an elevator 2 at a time, then with a scream-inducing surprise, the cars then start pulling some serious G's for an indoor coaster ride. What a thrill this ride was. Again!!! But later.

Too many people stood along Main Street blocking each other as they tried to watch the Matrix action show. Luckily, I just happened to be standing right where the action was and caught a reasonably well-choreographed kung-fu fight sequence between Neo, Trinity and some Agents. They're no Shaolin exponents but they danced through their moves safely. Light entertainment.

We went to watch the Loony Tunes break into their own version of Christmas Carols, then joined the line for Batman the Ride 2. This ride is a simulated ride, so expect a lot of jerks and bumps as you explore Gotham City in a modified 'Batwing' along with 19 other fellow passengers.

Lunch was a club sandwich and a Coke, then over to the wild west zone where the ride we wanted happened to be temporarily closed for 'technical reasons.' Likewise the Matrix official exhibition, so we returned to Scooby Doo again. And again. And again. Whee!

Last zone to visit was the Loony Tunes Village at which we rode the Roadrunner coaster. A kids' ride, but the speed was enjoyable.

Managed to get photos with Wonder Woman, Catwoman, the Police Academy team, and Austin Powers, but lost an opportunity with Santa because there were lots of kids around him, and kids get priority. Why was I brought up to be so polite?

All parks around here close at 1700, so by 1600 we made our way back to the bus stop to beat the crowd. We were lucky enough to catch the X bus again without waiting. Back downtown for dinner at the Koreana BBQ Restaurant. June's favourite hot-sour beancurd soup and a small beef bul go gi. Stuffed now, yesterday's fruit still waiting for us back in our hotel room.

We're off to Sydney tomorrow, bus coming to fetch us to the airport at 0550hrs. Guess that means an early night for us. G'nite!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Another blast of summer heat. Already baked an uneven shade of pink on the forearms and on my face. A pretty colour, if somewhat sensitive, in the not-too-painful sense.

Having a nice, lazy Sunday afternoon sitting in the balcony of Room 108. Am listening to the rock fountain cascading into the swimming pool below. Not much else to see, hemmed in as we are by several other high-rise hotels closer to the beach front.

Woke up at 0530 this morning but the sun was already pouring through the gaps in our curtains. It was so bright I thought it was well past our wake up time. But no, it was bright, it was hot, and it was still an ungodly hour in the morning. We were right on schedule then, heading for the Carrara Markets which open at 0600.

Since the Markets open so early, we couldn't believe that the 1st bus there only started running at 0800. Our concierge told us to wait at the Marriott, the Marriott told us to wait at the ANA, the ANA gave us a bus schedule that confirmed in black-and-white that our pickup was indeed at 0808. We had plenty of time for breakfast and a short stroll along the beach to marvel at the surf.

Pancakes at the Platinum Cafe, a 24 hour place and one of the few eateries that served breakfast this early in the morning. Perhaps we should have been more specific with our order. Instead of getting breakfast pancakes, we got pancakes (good), syrup (ok), butter (fine) and chocolate sauce and ice-cream on top (arrgh!). They did serve a good coffee, though.

Bus came more or less on time. $1 return per pax, nice! Carrara Markets is wonderful for bargains. I expected fruit and veggies, but there was a lot more! Fresh produce from the local farms were in abundance and smelled wonderful. But there were also jewellery, headgear, local arts and crafts, candy, collectibles, gardening stuff, pet stuff, Chinese massage, toys... and if it wasn't for the heat we would probably have spent the rest of the afternoon there too.

I bought a shark's tooth pendant for myself and June got one tiny tooth attached to a tiny surfboard to wear around her neck. The fresh peaches we bought are now chilling in the minibar. For brunch we had 2 meat pies -- one chunky steak and one chicken and vegetable. Hand-sized for convenience. The meat filling was really chunky. The pies were rough and satisfying, and went well with the lemonade that we shared.

Lots of cheap sunglasses on sale too. $10 each, $15 for polarized lenses, but I couldn't find a design I liked. Pity.

Came back to our hotel to nap in the early afternoon. As I sit here and write (at the moment I'm handwriting my blog in my pen-and-paper format) I can see dark clouds returning . Thought we'd seen the last of the bad weather but it may just have been a temporary respite. Hope this doesn't bode ill for tomorrow and Warner Bros. Movie World!

Now transcribing my notes back at the Platinum Cafe. Until next time!