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Beware: Traffic Control

July 6, 2010

Weird Australia flag

In case you weren’t aware, Australia (or NSW at least) has traffic cameras pretty much everywhere, and since we rented a car with GPS this past weekend, the Australia woman speaking to us was constantly admonishing in her special Aussie accent, “Beware. Traffic control,” something that never ceased to be funny.

Anyways, my dad visited this weekend which meant it was pretty awesome. Friday night he arrived from Singapore and we went out to dinner at Churrasco, a Brazilian-Style BBQ. While it probably wasn’t the best of its kind in the world, it was a very filling and at least somewhat authentic meal. We had little round cards that you turn up green if you want the food to keep coming and red when you want to stop or take a break. Firs they bring out the bread, potatoes, and rice in an attempt to fill you up and have you eat less meat. Then the meat started coming. Chorizo, chicken hearts (yep), steak fillets, all kinds of beef, lamb, and chicken kept coming. I was stuffed well before Dad and Oscar, who got choosier but kept on eating.

After such a filling meal we were all ready to pass out and get a good night’s sleep before our big weekend, so we walked Dad back to his very nice hotel (his room with views of the Conservatory of Music on the edge of the Botanical Gardens, and if you leaned on the window at the right angle you could see the Opera House as well!).

The next morning we met up at the car rental and began our journey up to Hunter Valley. The drive was beautiful, past harbours and lakes and beautiful forested national park. We stopped and bought some fresh strawberries along the way, some of the best strawberries I’ve ever had — very fresh and juicy! Yum!

Cockfighters Ghost

All in all, it took us a little more than two hours to get to our hotel, which happened to be right in the center of things and just a second down the road from the tourist information center. We had made reservations at the Crowne Plaza Hotel because Dad had some Holiday Inn points to spare and they’re part of the same family. We had no idea the Crowne Plaza also happened to be the “It” hotel of the Hunter Valley! It was incredible, and huge. We were upgraded to a two-bedroom villa — nice! Too bad we were only at our hotel for one evening.

After a trip to the tourist information center for a pre-wine tasting wine tasting and some maps and brochures, we were off. First we picked a random spot on the map for lunch, the Firestick Cafe. It turned out to be a hot spot in the Hunter Valley as well. They were shocked to hear we didn’t have reservations, yet they found a place for us. We had a delicious lunch overlooking the Poole’s Rock vineyards. Then we simply walked down a path to the cellar door for some wine tasting of wines from Poole’s Rock, Firestick, and Cockfighter’s Ghost (a personal favorite!).

View of Audrey Wilkinson vineyards

And so began our day of wine tasting. After trying all the reds on offer (lucky for me shiraz is one of Hunter’s specialties, semillon being the other), we zipped off down a little dirt road to our next stop, the vineyards of Audrey Wilkinson. Talk about a winery with a view! The vineyards stretched out below us, an absolutely breathtaking landscape. We headed in to try a few more wines and peruse the museum. Many of the vineyards in Hunter are over 100 years old, with some vines being close to 200 years old — pretty historic for Oz! It was interesting to see how it all started and how it has evolved. They even had bottles of wine from over the years showcasing the different labels, which was interesting.

Then we were off again, this time to the shared cellar door of Rosemount and Lindemans. Never did we drive more than 5-10 minutes to get anywhere. There are so many vineyards (more than 80) in the Hunter, you don’t have to! Rosemount and Lindemans are both the big time, and are now both owned by Fosters, surprisingly (along with Penfolds). We were able to try a lot of wines there, including a number which they claimed were special premium reserves only available in Hunter Valley.

The sun was beginning to set and closing time was nearing (pretty much everything is open 10-5 in Hunter) so we ended our day with a stop at the Smelly Cheese Shop, where we sampled some cheese and picked up a delicious cheese and cracker tray to have for dinner with a bottle of wine we’d picked up earlier. Then we stopped at a Chocolate Factory so I could have a little chocolate-dipped strawberry snack.

Kangaroo and koala crossing

Back at the hotel we found we were invited to a wine tasting in the lobby! So we finished off our day with a few more reds from Allandale. Then it was cheese plate time and we watched some of Ratatouille (a little bit fitting!) on TV before heading to bed after an exhausting day of indulgence.

The next morning we were back in the car and on another 2-2 1/2 hour drive, this time to Port Stephens. Along the way we saw tons of signs for kangaroo and koala crossings and started to get excited about possibly seeing some of the so-called Australian “Big 5” (kangaroo, koala, platypus, emu, and wallaby according to one brochure!). Our hotel in Port Stephens was Samurai Beach Resort, and it was special because it’s located in a so-called “koala corridor” on the edge of Tomaree National Park.

Stockton Beach

Again we were upgraded to a one-bedroom “villa” (not quite the same as our last hotel!). But we didn’t stay long at the resort before we were off again, eager to see the infamous Stockton Bight Sand Dunes, the largest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere and where Mad Max (among other movies, apparently) was filmed. The sand dunes form up off the beach, going back for almost a kilometer in some places, and stretch for a length of 32km (20 miles), all the way to down to Newcastle. Some of dunes are up to 30m (almost 100 feet) tall, and they are moving inland at a rate of about 4m (13 feet) per year!

Dad and Oscar at Stockton Bight sand dunes

But beyond the statistics, they were just awesome. I hadn’t really known what to expect, as they aren’t especially played up. But it was absolutely gorgeous, and once you wandered off the beach (which was beautiful in itself) and up into the dunes it was like you were in another world that you had all to yourself. It felt like you could be wandering in the middle of the desert, with nothing but sand dunes stretching for miles on all sides of you.

We had a lot of fun wandering through the dunes, making sand art and running up and down dunes. You can also take camel rides, 4WD  trips, and go sandboarding up on the higher dunes. If we’d had more time in Port Stephens we would have definitely done such, but we had fun wandering and then it was on to see what else Port Stephens had to offer!

Oscar, king of the sand dune!

On the long (three minute!) drive back toward our hotel, we stopped at One Mile Beach. It’s known for being a good surfing beach, and when we arrived we found there was some kind of kid’s surfing competition going on. We wandered the beach and watched the kids surf for a bit, but we were eager to do more and were starting to feel a rumble in our stomachs despite our delicious hotel buffet breakfast earlier.

So we headed into the center of Port Stephens, Nelson Bay. (Port Stephens is a general area, made up of smaller towns like Nelson Bay, Anna Bay, Shoal Bay, Salamander Bay, etc.) We grabbed lunch at Red Neds, a place offering up more than 50 crazy pies. It was absolutely delicious! I had an Indian Butter Chicken pie, Oscar had Thai Green Curry pie, and Dad had Kangaroo Teriyaki pie, and we were all very satisfied with our decisions. I definitely recommend it for a nice, snack-y lunch.

Shoal Bay - Rio, anyone?

We wandered around Nelson Bay for a bit, exploring the marina and checking out the big boats for sale. Then we hopped back in the car and drove out past Shoal Bay to the Tomaree Lookout. A 30-or-so minute walk (up a steep path and a lot of stairs!) to some absolutely gorgeous views of the surrounding harbors. On one side you can see the thin piece of land with a Rio-looking mountain that separates Shoal Bay and Zenith Beach. It was amazing.

Wallaby sighting!

Then up at the top you can see the Fingal Bay Spit, a gorgeous strip you can only walk across during low tide. We were almost so caught up in admiring the views that we didn’t notice a furry little friend eating down below us. Wild “Big 5” spotting #1: a wallaby! When we started to notice him he just looked up and stared at us for a bit, then went back to eating grass. He was super cute, and we were happy to have our first wildlife sighting.

Finally we tore our eyes away from the beautiful surroundings and headed back down. We drove back to the resort and decided to walk the short walk to Samurai Beach. Our main hope was to spot a koala on the walk, since it was a 10 minute walk along a little path through the forest to the beach. We walked slowly and quietly, staring at every tree (it was getting to be sunset and we’d heard dusk was the best time to spot koalas as that’s when they start waking up and moving around). Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any koalas but we were surprised by the beach.

Zenith Beach

All we’d been told about Samurai Beach was that it was “clothing optional.” Well, we were the only ones there so we didn’t have to worry about that. But the beach was hardly mentioned in anything I read about Port Stephens (as opposed to One Mile Beach, which was raved about even though I found it a bit unimpressive), so I assumed it was a small, average beach. In fact it was huge, beautiful, and isolated. It, too, was rife with sand dunes. It was incredible. I was excitedly running up the sand dunes for some views from above, then down to the beach to explore a little. Oscar did some epic sand dune jumping. It was fun.

Samurai Beach

We even saw a faint rainbow, and it was the perfect ending to another perfect day. Before it got too dark we made our way back through the forest to the resort area and wandered all around the grounds koala hunting, but none were to be found. We did, however, spot a million rabbits, a number of kookaburras (which I was excited to see!), and some different lorikeets from the kind we usually see in Sydney.

Kookaburra

After relaxing back at the room for a bit, we went into Nelson Bay again and grabbed dinner at Hog’s Breath Cafe at the marina. It felt very American, which was nice because it was the Fourth of July and all! (We’d nearly forgotten!) No fireworks for us, sadly.

I was exhausted and passed out fairly early, so the next morning I was up pretty early as well. First I woke up and looked out the window to see a white rabbit sitting outside our front porch. Then he saw me and ran away and I went back to bed.

Less than an hour later I couldn’t sleep anymore, so I decided to get up and wander around the grounds. I didn’t really expect to see anything, but I wanted to enjoy the special place we were staying in and the sights and sounds of “the bush.”

Koala sighting! (Can you believe how high up they sleep?)

Australia has a lovely smell and sound to it (especially in the forest) in the early morning and late evenings. The smell of gum trees and the sound of crazy whooping birds (I personally think the kookaburra sounds like a crazy monkey) and chirping frogs or insects or who knows what. I spotted some more kookaburras, lorikeets, and some ducks hanging out way high up in tall trees, which I thought was a little weird. Of course I couldn’t help myself searching for koalas, how cool would it be….but I didn’t expect to see one.

Then I was back beyond the resort’s tennis courts when I spotted a big lump in one of the trees. A huge number of trees have the same kind of big lumps, either nests or growths or who knows what, but I had a weird feeling about this one. I moved closer into the woods, but then I couldn’t find the lump anymore. I moved back out, reoriented myself and solidified where it was in my mind, moved back in, looked up and couldn’t help but semi-shout to myself, “Oh my gosh – koala!” I was so excited, I stared in awe and took a few photos, then broke into a run across the resort back to our room. I burst in the door shouting, “I found a koala!” and was met with silence.

Adorable koala

Oscar just covered his head with a pillow and my dad at first thought I was joking. But when I shouted again, “Hello, I said I saw a koala!” they finally took notice a bit. Dad came out and we went and gazed on our adorable furry little friend for a while. Wild Big 5 spotting #2: check. While I’ve seen koalas a ton of times in zoos and such, it is just so much cooler spotting in the wild on your own.

Sadly that was the end of our time in Port Stephens. We grabbed breakfast and then it was time to hit the road back to Sydney. For a while we could even still glimpse the sand dunes along the road as we drove down toward Newcastle. The drive was long, nearly 3 hours (though we’re fairly sure our GPS took us on some random extra-long route, hopping on and off of “The One” – the main highway). Dad had a little time to stop and see our apartment, but then he was off to the airport for a long journey back to Singapore. Only my dad is so skilled as to be able to (twice now!) make Australia into a weekend destination!

Stockton Bight sand dunes

It was a truly perfect long weekend (and I got to pretend I was home and take a 3 day weekend when everyone in America was taking one as well!), and the only downside was that it had to end. I admit that seeing Dad, and talking on the phone to family from home, definitely made me a bit more homesick. Going back to work today was extra hard, and I find myself imagining going home and seeing everyone more than usual. Plus, Oscar is going home to Sweden in a month (leaving me alone here for a week!) yet I have no idea when I will go home again. (Well, I can say now I’m pretty sure I will go home next March no matter what, even if it is just to visit before we go somewhere else.)

So I have to end with this, to all my friends and family in the States (and elsewhere), I love and miss you all, and I hope it is not too long before we see each other again!

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