Tag Archive | nature

Japan Jaunt Part 2 – Kyoto- gets its own section

Right, before we continue our tour let us take a moment to consider culture shock. Because, of course, a journey is not just a geographical jaunt but also a cultural one. This is especially true when you live in the Middle East and you go to the Far East. How shall I put this? The Japanese are good at respect. They love order. The Israelis…. less so. Order and respect are not high on the list of adjectives that spring to mind in the Middle East. It seems that everything in Japan was designed to make you feel respected, or at least  comfortable. This applies to the uncanny quiet on a crowded subway train, where nobody speaks in a loud voice on their mobile phone. They don’t walk and eat. There are designated places in the food market where you should eat (because … no trash cans anywhere). Similarly  the orderly lines of people waiting to cross at a busy intersection and being careful not to knock into anyone. And in the  ubiquitous  convenience stores (konbini) where there are footprints and arrows on the floor showing you where to line up. Wherever we went locals were quick to come to our assistance whenever we paused to examine Google Maps. They bowed profusely when addressing us.  The station guards, bowing, are happy to direct you politely and not ignore you. The newsreaders bowed on TV. And the toilets! Oh my god, the TOILETS are just awesome. They play music so as you won’t feel embarrassed by your bodily noises. They are heated and they squirt water at you from all angles. All of this was a cause of constant wonder. And so to Kyoto.

We got a fast train to Kyoto, but not the fast train we were meant to get. We had a short connection at Nagoya and I was so worried we would miss it that we belted on to the platform, stood at the correct place (marked so you know which carriage you are boarding) and hurried to our seats that were occupied by two Japanese gentlemen. I showed them my tickets and one shook his head sadly and said “Wrong train”. Aha. But this train IS going to Kyoto, right? I asked nervously. Yes he said, Nozomi. The Nozomi is the SUPER fast train not covered in our JR Pass because it is faster than the REGULAR fast train. A young guard hurried up when he saw our confusion and said that we could just walk through the carriages to the first one where the non reserved seats are, but by the time we found a seat we were arriving in Kyoto, 20 minutes before we were supposed to. Never mind. I learned a new thing, that the trains have names ( Sakura, Hikari etc) and that it was not enough to know the time, the platform, the carriage and seat number but one also has to check the name of the arriving train before boarding.

Our arrival in Kyoto was D’s birthday and to celebrate we went up the top of the Kyoto tower at night which was quite a lot of fun. We then repaired to a nearby izakaya and ate stuff.

 

Kyoto is a bit difficult to tackle because it has become a victim of its own success. By that I mean that it has hundreds of temples, but the really popular and famous ones are overrun with tourists so if you want to see them you have to get there at the crack of dawn. And Gion, the geisha area, is totally overrun with tourists at any time of the day or night. WE only tackled a few of the popular temples because after a while one gets pretty overwhelmed. SO we first picked Kiyomizu-dera which was pretty bearable when we arrived and totally packed by the time we left. It was nevertheless very impressive, even when swamped with tourists and school children.

WE then walked along the river bank up to Gion Corner, where we met an Israeli tour guide called Shimrit, from Kfar Saba, who is  married to a Japanese guy and lives somewhere near Kyoto. She directed us to the Geisha area, where we observed NO geishas. Moreover there are now signs up barring photography ,since the geishas are fed up with rowdy tourists shoving cameras in their faces when they try to enter a tea house or a taxi.There are countless police and guards trying to maintain order. The main street of Gion was so stuffed with tourists that you can hardly move and is not an enjoyable place in my opinion.  We beat a hasty retreat and set off for Nishiki Market which was utterly wonderful, and full of all manner of exciting things, both edible and whimsical.

Our next touristy site was next morning,Fushimi Inari, a short train ride from the train station near our guest house. This site, I had been warned, is highly popular with the Instagram brigade, so if you want to see it in its glory, be there early in the morning. We arrived there at around 8 am, which seemed to be early enough. The instagrammers, however were there and snapping away, with and without selfie sticks. There were also some school kids who asked us some questions. We then visited Tofukuji where the entrance to the gardens cost money but as you see was well worthwhile.

Another “must see” I had read about is called Arashiyama and it boasts a very widely instagrammed bamboo forest, a river with a “romantic train and cruise” and numerous temples. Again we set off early to avoid the hordes. Arashiyama was my first experience of being underwhelmed in Japan. Since Japan is such a highly tourist destination, there are many “must sees” and not all of them are what they are touted to be. For us Arashiyama was one such. There is a bamboo “forest” but it is more of a grove and no great shakes. The “romantic train” was packed and we could not get on it until 3pm ,so we gave it a miss. The area was ok but not wildly exciting. We returned to Kyoto city and decided to give Gion another try, but on the way we found Maruyama Park which was far more rewarding.

Day 5 of Kyoto (we allocated it 6 days because there is such a lot there) we headed for Nijo castle. Not overly crowded and rather lovely. Shoes were removed and photography not allowed inside, but the beautifully landscaped gardens were certainly worth a shot or three. Thankfully not the instagrammers were not in abundance.

We rounded off our time in Kyoto with a far less touristy site, in fact we were totally alone there. It was a rather quirky place, quite a long way from all the hot spots, mentioned online as “Monster Street”. There were not a whole lot of monsters, but hardly any people either which was a blessing. We rather liked it there.

And so to Hiroshima…. stay tuned.

At last- wacky Japan, the trip that finally was.

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Part One- Tokyo, Kanazawa , Takayama and Shirakawa-go

After much planning and three postponements for various reasons, this actually happened. With so much anticipation I was afraid we might be disappointed, but far from it. Japan turned out to exceed our expectations, and certainly was weirder than I thought in some ways. The weirdness expresses itself in an obsession with technology, and lifesize doll mascots for everything amongst other things.  It was definitely cleaner, ( ah Japanese toilets!) , incredibly organized and efficient.  So buckle up and prepare for the (probably long) ride. A 24 day trip to multiple cities will need a lot of words. Please feel free to skip the boring bits. If you are not actually researching your own trip you may find some of the practical info not to your liking, so I shall not be offended if you ignore those bits.

We specifically picked November to see the autumn leaves about which we had heard a lot. They did not disappoint and the timing of the route worked out perfectly. We were rewarded with mostly crisp warmish days and blue skies, with cooler evenings and only a couple of days of rain towards the end. On arriving back in Tokyo for the last few days trees were already bare, and rain falling, so I felt the timing was great. Our route was as follows: 4 days in Tokyo, then fast train to Kanazawa for 3 nights, bus to Takayama for 2 nights, then a long train ride to Kyoto (5 nights) , a 3 night stay in Hiroshima, 2 nights in Hakone (another VERY long trip) and return to Tokyo for a final 5 nights . Here we go!

WE flew LOT Polish airlines via Warsaw. Not much to report except that they  inaugurated the direct flight Warsaw to Sri Lanka that day, and were giving out free Indian food at the press opening with the Sri Lankan Ambassador! Yay for free food.

On arrival at Narita Airport Tokyo at 8.30 am we traded in our Japan Rail voucher for our wonderful JR pass, which would give us free rides on the JR railways for 21 days. Since our trip was 24 days we activated it from day 4 , as the first 4 days we would remain in Tokyo. This worked out very well. The whole process took 5 minutes, and we got our first taste of Japanese politeness and efficiency. We then hopped on a Keisei bus which took us to Tokyo central station. To say that the station is huge would be an understatement. It is massive and you could easily get lost in it for a week or so. Anyway we  eventually got out and walked to a subway that took us to our wonderful Red Planet Hotel Asakusa. This  fabulous place is located in the heart of Asakusa neighbourhood (not to be confused with Akasaka) near  the famous Senso-ji Temple  the oldest and most important temple in Tokyo. The little pedestrian streets around the temple are full of tourists and locals coming to pray, and also with little shops and restaurants.You can  also go to an owl cafe, or rent a kimono for the day.  At night the neighbourhood was quiet and had an old world charm.

The next day we walked to the Sumida River and got on a cruise down to Hamarikyu Gardens. On the boat with us were a whole class of school kids and their teachers. A guy started talking to us, and turned out to be the school principal. Talking to the kids was a lot more interesting than the cruise as the buildings along the way were mostly pretty boxy and modern. There were a lot of nondescript bridges. We all got off at the gardens which were quite lovely.

 

 

After that we took the metro to another neighbourhood called Akihabara, known as Electric Town or Geek central. This is where all the gamers and punks hang out, streets of gaming parlours. There are also the famed Maid Cafes, which are rather hard to describe. Let’s say they are where the very formal Japanese businessmen can let their hair down and indulge their fantasies. There are girls all along the street advertising these establishments, so it isn’t hard to find one. The waitresses are dressed as maids, and do all kinds of odd things like miaowing and singing in high pitched voices. On the spur of the moment we decided it was an “Only in Japan” moment, so for 500 Yen we entered the weird world of Maid dreaming   Let’s say it was a one time experience. Most of the time we had no clue what was going on, and we just laughed at it. It was simultaneously hilarious and disturbing.  We went home both amused and baffled.

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Next day we had arranged to meet Nobuaki Fujii, a friend from Servas, who said he would pick us up at our hotel and take us around the neighbourhood. We had a fantastic day with him as follows. First he took us to a Japanese pharmacy full of all kinds of weird and wonderful “natural” treatments some of which we got to taste (hmmm). Next we went walking around Kappabashi, the centre of kitchenware. That may sound kind of boring, but was in fact fascinating. Firstly the Japanese take their knives very seriously (think Samurai swords). Secondly, most restaurants and hotels display plastic versions of the food so you know exactly what you are getting (down to the correct number of peas) So there are shops that specialize in this stuff.

 

 

Next Aki took us to a massive upscale department store ( quick glance at a temple and the public library) where we each bought a bento box for lunch which we would eat at his office. There we met his partner Mayumi who is a jewellery designer and adorable person. Aki is a  freelance graphic designer. He then taught us how to make tea, did some calligraphy and we ate our bento. Then he announced we were going to a fire walking ceremony. This was simply amazing, as it was a neighborhood thing which we would never have come across if he hadn’t taken us there. The people gathered outside the temple, some priests built a fire, beat a path through it and then everyone (including small kids) walked through it, including Aki and Mayumi. We declined. It was all fascinating. They then walked us back to our hotel and we said goodnight , promising to be in touch when we returned to Tokyo at the end of our trip.

The last day in Tokyo (for this section) we got on a very weird monorail to visit Odaiba, an artificial island part of Tokyo known for its hi tech and robotic amusements, as well as various entertainments. It all felt like being in Blade Runner.  We passed over lots of impressive bridges and highways, and got off next to the Statue of Liberty and the giant Gundam robot. I can’t explain so I will just show you a picture. We wandered around stupefied for a few hours, and also talked to a scarily real robot information lady. ( apparently I can’t post that as it’s a video)

In the evening we walked back to see Sensoji at night and found it enchanting, even though the streets were deserted as the stalls and restaurants had already closed.

And so to Kanazawa, a city rightly famous for its wonderful Kenrokuen Gardens, and Castle, as well as for its Edo period Samurai houses and Geisha district. We stayed in the amazing Emblem Stay, a cross between a hostel and guest house, which had a bar. This turned out to be most fortuitous as the night we arrived there was a meetup in said bar, where we made the acquaintance of a lovely Portuguese couple Tiago and Isabella  and their daughter Madalena, who all spoke perfect idiomatic English. They run a museum in a place called Caramulo. After chatting with them for a while, we then sat with some local Japanese who came along to practise their English. All great fun.

Kanazawa Castle and Gardens were nothing short of stunning. I will leave it to you to judge.

 

We continued to tour the Samurai district of old preserved houses and the Geisha quarter before going off in search of dinner, which we found in a stunning Chinese restaurant  called Mei Mei with a huge log fire, in which we were the only customers to devour a massive, delicious plate of something cooked inside a clay pot (chicken and rice?) Kanazawa also has tons of other things to see such as the Omicho Fish market , the 21st Century art museum (too packed and hot) and the wonderful Noh Theatre Museum which we visited the next day. Much hilarity ensued.

And so on to Takayama. The original plan had been to stop between Kanazawa and Takayama to visit the UNESCO heritage village of Shirakawa-go. But I could not get a bus ticket from there on to Takayama, so we took a bus directly to Takayama and bought bus tickets to see Shirakawa as a day trip from Takayama the next day. I was very excited to see the village as I had heard it was special, with thatched rooves and a traditional way of life and with wonderful autumn foliage. It was overrun with tourists but big enough to be able to stroll pleasantly around the carless village and get a sense of calm. It was indeed very beautiful. There were a few houses that you could go inside and see how the traditional lifestyle has been preserved here.

I now need to explain a Japanese phenomenon called the Onsen. Apparently the Japanese have a thing about nude bathing with strangers. They do it all over the place, in hot or cold water, outside or inside, and in any season. We were not really crazy about this idea .But I found a wonderful alternative. Some places do “family onsens” meaning you are not with a bunch of strangers. Our hotel, the Wat Hotel and Spa in Takayama had public onsens, but also 4 such private onsens where one can bathe in the open air (on the roof) in private with one’s significant other, or one’s children . People with tattoos cannot enter the public onsen, so this is also a good solution for them. We went in this onsen twice and it really was a relaxing experience after a long day of touring. Takayama was a nice small town which also had an old district full of little restaurants and shops. It was here that we met the Ramen Lady. We went into her tiny shop and she asked us where we are from. When we said Israel she immediately put on an Israeli song called Naomi’s Song  by Hedva and David, which was apparently super popular in Japan in the 1980’s .She played it in Japanese and then in Hebrew! What fun.

Let’s take a break here. We still have 15 days of the trip left! So will leave them for Part 2.

 

Eastern Fjords and North.. Iceland continued

After the drive along the south coast from Reykjavik we continued our journey from Höfn, where we spent the night after the Glacier Lagoon trip, up the East coast towards the North. There are parts of the Ring Road at this point that are a bit challenging- the road follows the coastline which you will see is very winding, and climbs along the edges of the deep fjords. The views are breathtaking, but the journey takes much longer than you might think, and there are few places to stop and look at the view. Also at some points we were driving in mist and low cloud so be very careful.

The fields were covered in blue lupins, and we saw many sheep and goats, often in the middle of the road. There were very few villages, sometimes just an isolated farmhouse. Nothing more. Eventually we reached the  twin towns of Egilsstaðir and Fellabær, on either sides of the fjord.  Before continuing on our way we made a small detour for a very important purpose. I had read that  at the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri there is a place where you can view puffins. The only other option to see them was to take a boat trip from Reykjavik, and I preferred to try this land option, as it was only an hour drive from Egilsstaðir , albeit on a somewhat bumpy and extremely winding road. We were rewarded with the sight of hundreds of puffins flying in from the sea to nest in the rocks. It was a fantastic sight!

Then we continued our drive inland, towards the area of Lake Mývatn. As you approach the area of the lake the scenery changes again dramatically. It becomes almost like a desert. There are strange stone formations, and the land looks vast and barren. No trees, bushes, animals or fjords. Everything looks like another planet again. The drive is long and there are hardly any places to stop, no settlement and no gas stations. Eventually we reached the area of the lake, which was characterized by huge swarms of midges. I had been warned about these and had considered buying a special hat with netting on it, but had not bothered. At the first available stopping point I got out at the toilets, and got mobbed by these pesky little flies which fortunately do not bite. Then the actual area of the lake is another weird volcanic area, full of strange georthermal manifestations. There are sulfur pools bubbling with boiling water, a strong smell and steam pouring out of the earth! It really is a most incredible sight!

The drive around the lake itself has several interesting places, one is Dimmuborgir, a park with strange lava formations arranged along lovely paths,and the second Grjotagja caves. We then continued to our place for the night, in the little village of Laugar, which proved idyllic as it had its own private hot tub with lovely warm water straight out of the mountain! We had a fabulous soak and went to bed, surrounded by amazing scenery.

The next day was a little rainy so our plan to hang around the town of Akyreyri (capital of the North, population 19,000) was not so successful. Took a few shots of downtown area (uninspiring) and of the church (closed) and sat in the car to eat our sandwiches. Generally I would say that towns in Iceland are not the thing- the thing is the countryside.

 

From there we continued on in intermittent rain to our next stop for the day Blönduós ( population 865) Very funny little place. Guest house was having the parking lot repaved, so we had to park outside the (deserted) church. View of the sea, right across the way. The only other guests there were a family of three from Givat Massua, Jerusalem! We sat with them in the shared kitchen and discussed our routes. The lady at the guest house also directed us to the supermarket where we stocked up with milk, orange juice, yoghurt and bread, and we made couscous with tuna for supper.

 

From Blönduós we had a day of mostly driving (fortunately it was raining) to reach the West coast and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This part of the country was less impressive but still beautiful. You become accustomed to endless waterfalls, snowy hills, tiny villages, sheep and horses. Eventually we reached our place for the night the small village of Grundarfjörður. Our apartment was supposed to be very fancy, but also shared kitchen and bathroom. On arrival we found a note with my name on and a phone number. When I called they said they had overbooked but not to worry they would show me to another apartment (better position in the village, with a view of the fjord). It turned out to be very nice, private bathroom and kitchen. After checking in we set out to explore the peninsula, and particularly the impressive Kirkjufell Mountain and waterfall.

The last leg of the trip, from Snaefellsnes Peninsula back to Reykjavik was the least interesting part of the Ring Road, with very little to see. We were happy to have done the Ring Road in the anticlockwise direction and seen the South coast first. In Reyjavik we did a free walking tour which was fun. But we did not really find it to be that impressive. The architecture is extremely minimalist and there is not a whole lot to do. Not sure why people love the town that much. The Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager statue were less impressive than I was expecting. It is not classical European architecture.So maybe just not my cup of tea. The last day of the trip before our flight home we went to chill out at the rather splurgy and touristy Blue Lagoon since we really didn’t have anything else to do and we were exhausted. This turned out to be an inspired ending to the trip and we thoroughly enjoyed it! Stay posted for next trip… Japan!

More sheep (and horses) than people- Amazing Planet Iceland

 

This trip was a rather unexpected one for me, especially after Krakow. My friends know I am not a big fan of the cold, and here we are doing TWO cold destinations one after the other. Anyway, the main culprit is my friend Ivette, whose blog on her trip in a campervan to Iceland set me off on this journey. What happened was that I saw Ivette’s pictures and my jaw dropped. D said “Ok let’s go” and that was it. We soon had a flight booked and I started on the itinerary and the accommodation.

I have to say that this part was way more complicated than your usual 12 day trip somewhere mainly because Iceland, a destination with only 300,000 or so people has very few towns and not many guest houses/ hotels. So you have to book at least 4 months in advance if you plan on going in the summer. We had originally planned to go in May for 12 days, but after a back injury this became end of June, by which time many of my accommodations were unavailable. In Iceland you can drive 200 km without seeing a single house, or gas station (or bathroom!) so you have to bear this in mind when planning. We booked almost exclusively guest houses or air bnbs with shared bathroom and kitchen, which was just fine. Icelanders are extremely fastidious and nearly all the places were spotlessly clean. The other consideration was that we wanted to cook for ourselves, as eating out is horrendously expensive in Iceland.

Usually when I blog a trip I outline cities and sites that we visited, but Iceland being Iceland really the main thing to do is just drive round the Route 1 ring road and just stop wherever you fancy. There are only gorgeous beautiful sites to see, mostly a result of the weird geology of the island. The entire interior is glaciers, and around the road you find a massive array of volcanic features (craters, hot springs and geysers etc) impressive waterfalls and beautiful fjords and scenery. Everywhere you stop is amazing. There are a few must- sees, such as Kerið crater, Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir in Thingvellir National Park, and of course the awesome Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach. But generally what people do is just drive the ring road either clockwise or anti clockwise, and then book accommodations nearby at sensible distances so you are not constantly driving.

 

 

So instead of naming all the places on the itinerary (most of which are unpronounceable anyway) I will just outline the different areas that we saw. Actually one of the best descriptions of Iceland is my great friend Nas Daily’s one, where he says that Iceland is in fact like another planet, and that’s really accurate, and it is because of Iceland’s unique geological features. Some places look like the surface of the moon, or Mars, and sometimes you just feel inundated with waterfalls, snow capped glaciers, fields of bubbling sulphur pools, or weird lava rock formations. It’s all rather overwhelming. Iceland has more weird geological features than anywhere else on the planet. It also has an abundance of sheep, goats, ducks, sea birds, puffins, whales and cute Icelandic horses. What’s not to like? WE drove around the ring road anti clockwise and so we began with

Part 1   The South Coast

Some people go clockwise, and leave this area for the end. It is really the most touristy and “crowded” area of the country (a term which has little meaning in Iceland) . And some people come in tour groups and ONLY see this area. So you are going to see tour buses congregating along Thingvellir National park ( lakes, geysers and waterfalls), and near Seljalandsfoss, Vik and Reynisfjara Beach,  and especially around  Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. There were myriad groups of Chinese toting very fancy cameras and tripods.But even in June nothing was that crowded. People arrive at a place, stay about 30 minutes or so and move on. Kerið glacial crater is quite lovely. Reynisfjara Beach has remarkable black sand and strange rock formations. OF course if you like you can take a long hike around any of these site.

I highly recommend the boat excursion on the Glacier Lagoon because you get to see the  glaciers up close and you experience it in a different way, and even see seals sitting on the ice.

We stayed the night at Kirkjubæjarklaustur (don’t ask me to say that) in a wonderful place called NiceHostel, which had a brilliant Lamb soup with free refill, just what we needed after getting soaked with rain at Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls. After the Glacier Lagoon trip we continued on to stay at Hofn, a lovely little fishing town which would be our last stop along the South Coast.

Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef

As for many people, the Great Barrier Reef was an almost mythical destination on my travel wishlist, and one that I didn’t think we would manage to do. The distance and the expense seemed overwhelming. But eventually we just decided, as with this whole Australia trip, that life is too short to put off your dreams, and you should just go for them, before you regret not doing it. This has been the principle behind my thinking ever since we retired in 2011, and so you can imagine our excitement when we boarded a plane from Brisbane to Cairns to realize this dream.

The flight from Brisbane to Cairns was longer than from Melbourne to Sydney, at 2 and a half hours. Unfortunately it was at night, so we didn’t get to see Cairns from above (we did when we flew out at the end of the trip). We arrived at Cairns at 7.30pm and quickly got our stuff (airport is tiny) and headed off by taxi to the Cairns City Palms Motel, where we were spending our first 3 nights. It was nice and clean and had all the things you need, but we particularly appreciated the friendly staff, and the breakfast room which supplied free juice and hot and cold drinks throughout the day, as well as home made pastries. The first day we just explored the Cairns Esplanade, and went to check on our car rental from Europcar. There was some kind of festival going on right on the Esplanade, and they were handing out free sausages, water bottles and other goodies, so that was fun. Then we set up the trip to the Reef for the following day. (Booking through our motel got us a 10% discount.) From the myriad tour companies available we chose Reef Magic which had been recommended to us by my cousin Yehudit. ( $215 AUD pp) The main pull for me about this company was that all the activities were included in the main price (glass-bottom boat, submersible boat, lots of snorkelling, buffet lunch) but also because the company has a pontoon, from which you do the snorkelling and diving, not from the boat itself. The boat takes you out to the reef, and stays there,and you have a good 5 hours or so of activities. You can snorkel the whole time or you can try all the other activities as many times as you wish. It was all well organized and the buffet was great. Everything was enjoyable and we had a great, memorable day despite me having a sore throat (so I limited my snorkeling time) and D had an aching shoulder but also enjoyed his time at the Reef immensely. WE decided not to do the optional helicopter ride, as this was really expensive. WE were satisfied with the things that we did, and it was certainly a memorable day. I don’t however have any photos of that day as I left my phone in the safe of the motel. D has a few but we were too busy having fun to take many pictures. It is possible to hire an underwater camera for the dive but we didn’t bother. You can look at the photos on the company website.

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Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Six weeks Down Under- from Melbourne to Cairns

Things I loved about Australia:

Friendliest and most open people in the world -Amazing scenery –  Ease of getting about -Clean and convenient ( never had to wait for a bathroom!)- the noise the traffic lights make (kind of like the spaceship doors on Star Trek) Cosmopolitan – you can get lots of different kinds of food like Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian in the cities – Everything is safe- trails are clearly labelled, information is freely available, nothing is mysterious or confusing

Things I liked less:

Prices- Everything is ridiculously expensive :The package tourist trips are ridiculously priced.  ( unlike Mexico for example)  Transportation is also not cheap  You can’t eat out cheaply like in Asia    Local  is not so healthy (everything seemed to be fried/ hamburgers – we missed a good Israeli salad and fresh fruits)  There are Chinese EVERYWHERE (more than we saw in China?)    I couldn’t get Uber to work (ok,not Oz’ fault)

We have just returned from what had seemed to be the “dream trip” for many people, and in many ways it was miraculous, and marvelous. and was certainly different from many other trips we have done. For a start it took us to the furthest eastern and southern point on the globe we have ever been, and was the longest flight we have done. It took over 24 hours, with one flight from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong and the second from Hong Kong to Melbourne (with a return from Cairns through the amazing Cathay Pacific).

Having said that, I was not expecting Australia to be “exotic” or “alien” in the same way that our Asian trips have been. The culture in Australia is so familiar, that for the first few days in Melbourne it felt like England- the sky and fields of Victoria looked like England, the houses in the city looked English and the roads and signage were the same. There were pubs called “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Charles Dickens” and of course many of the citizens are of British or Irish descent. WE could read everything written and understand everything said to us. So coming to Australia was physically but not culturally far.

I will divide the blog into sections, because of course a trip of 6 weeks is going to make for a very long blog post. So first, to Melbourne.

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Part One Melbourne  and Sydney ( and a bit further north!)

WE spent 6 days in Melbourne. The first day we arrived at night and the next day we spent having brunch with family, and that was really great. They gave us a few pointers about what to see around town. So we began by walking along the Southbank (a bit like the London South Bank) cultural area and this was indeed the part of Melbourne we enjoyed the most. It has a lovely walk along the river, with cafes and restaurants, and some cool statues. I didn’t think much of Federation Square, which was not as lively as I was expecting. Neither did I find the alleyways with the graffiti in Hosier Lane that impressive- the ones in Mexico were far more colourful and artistic. We did enjoy the colonial architecture of the buildings, the Victorian shopping arcades,  the fascinating Immigration Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the Old Melbourne Gaol House  experience, during which you go  through what a prisoner in Victorian times would have felt on being admitted to the Jail – it was fantastic, and the lady sergeant who “processed” us was deliciously scary.

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Southbank sculpture

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