Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Driving around Australia

Bali marked the end of nearly three months in Asia. We were all ready for some cooler weather after those months of heat and humidity, and we were also excited to do something different.

We first flew to Perth in southwestern Australia, which was a lot greener than I had imagined western Australia would be.

We only spent two nights in Perth, and so we didn't have much time to see the town. We spent our day there reorganizing our luggage and shopping to replace some worn-out clothes. We were close to a lovely shopping street downtown, and we had a chance to walk around the city a bit. Unfortunately, I didn't take many pictures.

It was definitely nice to be in a cool place. It was late autumn there, and it felt like it. When we were in the airport trying to find our way to a taxi, I felt the cool air coming in through the doors and smelled coffee brewing, and had this amazing feeling of having been transported completely. 

Here is Carter having some tea with his breakfast.  He loves sweet, milky tea.

Another thing we did while in Perth was get haircuts. None of us had had a haircut since the cruise back in February, so we all needed to lose about half of our hair. Here is an after picture of me and Carter, though you can't actually see much of our hair in this.

And that was basically it for Perth! On the second morning we flew to Adelaide, in the southeastern part of Australia. This was the view from our room.

We were also here for two nights. On the first night we went out for Italian food and had a meal very much like you'd have in the US, very Italian-American in style. There was a group at a nearby table celebrating a birthday, and we all grinned at the sound of the Aussie accent coming so clearly through the song. We'd noticed in Bali that many of the hotel staff had a difficult time understanding us, and we'd finally realized that it was because of our accents. Most of the visitors to Bali are Australian, and that accent is quite different from an American accent.

We slept in the next morning and when we went out, discovered that our hotel was very close to Adelaide's Chinatown. So we had dim sum (which they call "yum cha" here), which is always fun. We had these adorable little custard-filled buns for dessert.

We took the tram to the beach for the afternoon.

It was cold, but it was a lovely afternoon.

There was a surfing lesson going on that day. I guess it's never too cold to surf!

Carter had fun running around in the sand. This kid loves the beach. If he could live on a beach, he'd be in heaven. (But then, many of us would agree with that, right?)

One of the things I've wanted to do for a long time was to go to Australia and rent a car and drive around. I've always had the impression that, like the US, you would miss a lot of the country if you only flew from city to city, and I really wanted to see more just the cities. Doug wasn't sure about the driving on the opposite side of the road thing, but I really wanted to try it. I think he was a bit stressed out about it in the weeks leading up to that part of the trip, but the big day finally came and we pulled out into traffic in downtown Adelaide.

It was a little weird at first, but honestly, it wasn't that hard. Everything in the car was backwards (I can't tell you how many times I turned on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal), but the hardest part wasn't that I had to drive on the opposite side or remember which lane to pull into when turning; the hardest part was that the mirrors were all in different places than I'm used to, and it took a few days of driving to get used to that. It took a heck of a lot of concentration for the first few days. I couldn't carry on conversations while driving; it reminded me of first learning to drive when I was a teenager. We brought our Garmin and had downloaded maps for Australia, and that made a HUGE difference, as you might imagine.

Another thing that was interesting was that I learned something about my perception of left and right that I didn't know before. I've always had a difficult time distinguishing between left and right, and have to use tricks like making an "L" with my hand to remember which is which. If you drive on the right side of the road, then you know that left turns are the hard ones to make because you have to cut across traffic. And of course, when you drive on the left, it's the opposite: left turns are easy and right turns are harder. But whenever the Garmin told me to turn right, the image in my head was of turning left, and it wasn't until I looked at the screen (with its handy little arrows showing you which way to go) that I realized I had it backwards. This happened so consistently over a period of several days that I finally realized that apparently I've codified right as "the direction in which it's easy to turn" and left as "the direction in which it's harder to turn." 

We drove out of Adelaide and headed north to the Barossa Valley, one of the many wine regions in Australia. If you know us at all, then you know we love wine. We've collected wine for years and, in the decade prior to having Carter, we used to host huge wine-tasting parties. We even once had an Australian-themed wine party! So this was our chance to visit wineries and taste some wines we can't get at home.  

The first day's drive was pretty short, just over an hour. The countryside was beautiful.

Our first stop was at Jacob's Creek, which is a wine many Americans are familiar with. The winery had a large visitor's center and tasting room (which they call a "cellar door" in Australia), and a very nice restaurant where we had lunch.

And of course, we tasted wine! 

One of the things we learned about Barossa wineries is that most of them have a box of toys and an area set aside for children to play while their parents taste wine. This is a fantastic idea, and something wineries everywhere should do!

We tasted quite a few different kinds of wine, though Barossa is mostly known for its shiraz. Before I go on to describe more of the wine tasting we did, I should probably note that when we taste wine, we literally just taste it and then spit it out again. We weren't actually drinking all of this wine. You just can't taste 15 different wines and be able to form an opinion about them if you're consuming all of that alcohol -- much less drive to the next winery.

Carter was so happily occupied that even when we were done, he wasn't ready to leave. Always a good sign!

Apparently visitors to this winery need the reminder of exactly where they are.  On a related note, apparently not everyone spits?

Doug had chosen most of the wineries he wanted to visit, and we managed to visit around six each day (three in the morning and three in the afternoon) before we really couldn't taste anything anymore. Below are some pictures of the wineries we visited and some of the wines we really liked.

This particular winery had a pet parrot.

When we were at the occasional winery without a kids' area, Carter made do by drawing or playing with his iPad.

Seriously, wineries everywhere should have a basket of toys like this. We were worried about the days we were going to spend wine tasting, because we thought Carter would be bored out of his mind and we'd only get to visit a few places. But since almost all of them had toys, each new place became an adventure. What kind of toys would they have? What games could he play? Carter was always excited to see what we would find, and it made it possible for us to visit twice as many wineries as we could have otherwise.

It was autumn and the trees were turning colors, and the scenery was just beautiful.

We really did see kangaroos, too! Unfortunately, we didn't get any pictures of them, but when we return to Australia in a month, we'll make sure we take a few.

Yalumba was a particularly beautiful winery. In fact, a week later we watched an episode of Master Chef (one of the top reality shows in Australia) that was filmed at this winery.

They had an IKEA train set in their play area. We stayed at this place until closing, partly because we wanted to try all of their wines, but also because Carter was having so much fun that we were able to take our time. Even when they were sweeping the floors, he wasn't ready to leave!

We stayed at a guesthouse on the grounds of Jacob's Creek. The property was really beautiful.

The white building below was a restaurant, but they only served breakfast there. We didn't think this would be an issue; after all Barossa is sort of Australia's equivalent of Napa or Sonoma, and so we assumed there would be lots of restaurants at which we could eat lunch and dinner. Except that there weren't many restaurants at all, and the ones that we found often weren't open. Many shops were closed too, almost as if they rolled up the streets at night. We ended up eating a couple of meals at Subway because we couldn't find anything else open. 

This is the real Jacob's Creek!

This was the main house on the property; it dates back to the 19th century.

We stayed in this little guest house. It was old, but really charming.

Here is Carter with our rented minivan, which he named "Vintar." He was upset at first that we weren't going to be taking Vintar back to Adelaide and that we were instead driving her all the way to Sydney. He was worried that she would miss her home. We had to convince him that Vintar had friends in Sydney and that she was excited to visit them. :-)

After two nights in Barossa, we drove to Coonawarra, a wine region about five hours' drive to the southeast. The drive was beautiful, especially the first two hours that we spent winding along country roads through the hilly farmland south of Barossa. I really regret that we didn't stop and take pictures, because it was incredibly beautiful.  As we drew closer to Coonawarra, the landscape opened up and we drove for a solid half-hour through vineyards that were half a mile wide. It was incredible, the largest stretch of vineyards I've ever seen anywhere.

One of the first things we noticed when we began the driving trip was that people in Australia take speed limits very seriously. Instead of being a suggestion of the minimum speed you ought to go (as it often is in the US), the speed limit was actually treated as a maximum. Most drivers went 5-10 kph below the speed limit. I decided early on that they must know something I didn't and was careful not to exceed the speed limit. I learned later that the speeding fines in Australia are excessively expensive, which is the reason people don't speed. Many states seem to use cameras to monitor speed, so you can't just avoid speed traps as we do in the US. There was also a massive campaign to discourage people from driving while tired. In fact, the rest stops along the highway were signed as "powernap stops". 

Another strange thing that happened along the drive was that there was a roadblock set along along a two lane road in the middle of the countryside, at 9:30 in the morning. There was a highway patrolmen going down the line of cars, and so I dug out my driver's license and waited my turn. When he got closer, I realized he was making every driver breathe into a breathalyzer! When he got to the car, I rolled down the window and he said, "Good morning, breathe into this." This is something I've had zero experience with before, but I was really surprised that you can just be made to take a breathalyzer test! I later read that it's a criminal offense in Australia to refuse to take the test when asked. Also, the idea that it would be necessary to set up such a roadblock at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning was more than a little strange. I could understand 9:30 at night, but in the morning? 

The Coonawarra region is known for its cabernet sauvignon, so we were very excited to taste wines there. We first went to check into our hotel, the Chardonnay Lodge, which is basically the only hotel in the area. There were a couple of places that looked sketchy and a few guest houses, but this was really the only hotel Doug had been able to find. When we checked in, we learned that not only were we the only guests, but we were also the last guests: the hotel was going to close as soon as we checked out!

Since our hotel's restaurant was closed, we were on our own for meals, so we asked around and learned that there were only a few restaurants in the small town, and really only one that was open for dinner. We ended up going to a grocery store and buying food we could microwave in our hotel room, because that seemed the easiest option. This is in a world class wine region, with dozens and dozens of wineries, all of which have large, expensive, beautiful tasting rooms. On top of that, Coonawarra is located a five hour drive from Adelaide to the northwest and a five hour drive from Melbourne to the southeast. People obviously aren't coming from one of those cities for the day to taste wine (as you could reasonably do in Barossa), so why all the fancy tasting rooms? Who were they expecting to show up when there's nowhere for anyone to stay and nowhere for them to eat?  We actually tried asking this question a few times, but didn't really get an answer. One person working the cellar door of a winery said that they weren't focused on tourism there, but still, I don't understand why you'd build all those fancy wineries if you weren't trying to attract customers.

At any rate, we enjoyed tasting wine in Coonawarra. We had some remarkable cabernets, and bought several to enjoy along the rest of our road trip.

This winery had a great restaurant, though it was only open for lunch.

The valley here is flat and the landscape is far less dramatically beautiful than in Barossa, but there is something about vineyards that I find so very beautiful. 

Majella had some remarkable wines, some of the best we tasted.

And they had sheep! The little lambs were about a week and a half old. So cute! 

Everything you see in this picture is a different kind of iced coffee. Apparently, Australians love iced coffee! And so do I -- one of the fun things about stopping for gas was going in and picking out which kind of iced coffee I'd try next.

In case anyone is curious about the price of gas in Australia, this comes out to be around $6 US per gallon.

After two nights in Coonawarra, we headed to Melbourne. We were only there for one night this time, and we'll be spending several days here in about a month when my mom joins us. We had a lovely view of the river from our room and spent a little time walking around the waterfront area after our long drive.

Our original plan had been to drive along the coast of Australia between Melbourne and Sydney, but we decided to alter the route so that we could see Canberra, the country's capital, along the way. So we got up the next morning and drove seven hours from Melbourne to Canberra. 

At this point, I should probably say that Carter is absolutely a road trip trooper. He never once complained, or asked if we were there yet. He watched hours of My Little Pony on his iPad and ate snacks and generally enjoyed the quiet time in the car. Doug and I enjoyed having a rare stretch of hours to talk without constant interruptions. And of course, I just plain enjoyed the driving. The countryside between Melbourne and Canberra was much more interesting than I expected: hilly and green and forested. Again, we didn't take pictures, sadly.

We arrived in Canberra in the evening. To our great surprise, it's a quiet little town! There is a university there and it's the location of the government, but otherwise, the city is incredibly small and quiet-feeling for the capital of a country. So many countries' capital cities are huge party towns, places where politicians are wined and dined by lobbyists and there is a lot of craziness and excess, but Canberra seemed to be just the opposite. 

We were surprised that the Parliament Building on Capital Hill was so easy to get to. In comparison to the security bunkers surrounding the government buildings in Washington DC, it was amazingly accessible. Apparently most of the Parliament building is actually under the hill.

We spent a chilly Sunday morning at a laundromat (ah, the joys of traveling!) and then an afternoon at a nearby park where Carter ran around and played. 

We went out for dinner in the old part of the town and generally found it all surprisingly quiet. This was probably because it was a holiday weekend and people had left town, but still, it was a really strange experience to be in the capital city of a country and to feel like the place was nearly empty. 

The next morning we got up and drove the last few hours to Sydney. We checked into our hotel downtown and parked the rental car and then headed out for a late lunch. We were only in Sydney for two nights before flying to Fiji, but this is a place we'll be back in in a month when my mom comes, so we'll have a chance to see more of it then. We turned in Vintar, our rental car, with minimal angst from Carter. He was a little sad, of course -- he gets very attached to places and things (not unlike his mother did at his age).

We did a few fun things, though. We went to Circular Quay to see the opera house all lit up. It was a holiday (the Queen's birthday), and I believe that the light show is only done on holidays.

The next morning we visited the fish market, something Carter always enjoys, and had lunch there.

Shrimp on a stick!

We rode the tram over to the Powerhouse Museum, which has an entire level of kid-friendly exhibits. There was a great area focused on space travel with a mock-up of the international space station. The exterior of the space station rotates around the platform where you stand so that you actually feel a bit weightless.  The big highlight was a huge Wiggles exhibit. Carter has never really been into The Wiggles, but he enjoyed all the interactive exhibits. We ended up spending the entire afternoon at the museum.

We also did a little shopping that day to replace some things. This flip flop vending machine was in the middle of a mall. I love it!

On the second morning, we got up and headed to the airport to fly to Fiji. We'll be back in Australia in about a month, so we'll have more photos then.

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