• Planning a budget trip to Cairns/Port Douglas? Herewith, my recommendations

    Yes, those are little kangaroos! We spotted these joeys on the way to Port Douglas. I like to think of this as kangaroo school in session

    Yes, those are little kangaroos! We spotted these joeys on the way to Port Douglas. I like to think of this as kangaroo school in session.

    Before this month, I didn’t even know what city one would fly into to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Once I figured it out, the question was: stay in Cairns, or venture up to Port Douglas? Cairns is cheap and cheerful but lacks a decent beach; Port Douglas is nice but expensive – and, as I suspected, turned out to be a little dull. Once I figured out it would be smartest for us to hire a car, the choice was made: have it both ways with two days in Cairns city and two in Port Douglas township.

    (I scrapped trying to fit in the Whitsundays – expensive, and more of a sailing than a snorkelling destination – and stopovers in Sydney/Melbourne/Gold Coast, due to time and money.)

    Here are fun things we did that I would wholeheartedly recommend:

    In Cairns

    michaelmas cay great barrier reef nzmuse

    Great Barrier Reef tour – Seastar Cruises

    Seastar may not be the cheapest Great Barrier Reef tour operator but neither are they the most expensive – and they are highly, highly rated on Tripadvisor. We chose Seastar for the small numbers and good reviews and did not regret it. They include everything you might need (even optical snorkel masks don’t cost extra) and take a bunch of photos throughout the day that get posted up on Facebook straight after, too. The staff are super friendly, the food is simple and tasty and it was a fun day all around.

    The only downside was the rough weather. I highly recommend buying seasickness pills for $3 onboard. Thankfully, I did not throw up, but it was a close call towards the end, even with the meds. Having ticked this off my life list, I think I’m well and truly done with all water-based activities; I am just too prone to motion illness. By the time we got out to Michaelmas Cay (Seastar is one of the few operators that go there) I was not feeling at all happy about being out at sea – and knew for sure I had made the right choice to stick to snorkelling rather than trying diving. The current was pretty strong – way more intense waves than any I’d ever snorkelled in before – and I spent most of the time following our snorkel group around trying to tamp down the rising panic and breathe slowly. We did see some cool fish and T enjoyed his introductory dive, where he got to see a moray eel, giant clam and touch a sea cucumber. (These do cost more – $75 for the first dive, $45 for the second.)

    Our second stop at the outer reef was at Hastings Reef – not as picturesque as Michaelmas Cay from the surface, but way cooler underwater. The current was a lot calmer, the coral was closer to the surface – and most importantly, we saw a turtle!

    prawns barnacle bills nzmuse

    Seafood – Barnacle Bills

    The sheer amount of dining options in Cairns is a tad boggling. T spotted an earlybird special at Barnacle Bills (order between 5-6pm and get 25% off) and I was sold. And what do you know – it turned out to be an all around stellar meal. Our dishes were huge and while nothing fancy, were perfectly executed. The salsa garlic bread appetiser was a standout: fresh but avoided falling into the soggy trap. The barramundi was beautifully seasoned with a healthy side of beans and potatoes. And you really can’t go wrong with Aussie size prawns. We loved them so much that in Port Douglas we went and bought some more prawns from the supermarket and cooked them up at our Airbnb rental. DIY seafood is a great option on a super tight budget.

    crystal cascades cairns nzmuse

    Greenery and swimming holes – Crystal Cascades

    You will need a car to get to the Cascades! It’s about 20 minutes drive from Cairns central. Head north to Redlynch then follow the signs for Crystal Cascades. It’s an easy paved walk through the rainforest and there are spots to swim amongst the huge boulders in the river. You might spot a few birds or other wildlife while you’re at it. If you don’t have a car, the Botanic Gardens in Cairns are a nice naturey alternative, sans swimming holes.

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    In Port Douglas

    Chips at Dave’s Takeaway

    We stumbled across Dave’s while strolling Macrossan St – the main drag. It’s cheap, but it’s also freaking awesome. Great burgers and the best chips I’ve had in a long time – delightfully crisp and just salty enough.

    mossman gorge rainforest walk creek

    Mossman Gorge

    The Mossman Gorge offers a free peek into the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. T bitched and moaned about walking the 2km from the carpark/visitor centre to the gorge, but at $8.50 a pop the shuttle bus fare was a bit steep for my liking. There’s a spot to swim and a few other places to get your feet wet but overall the idea is to walk the circuit trail through the forest. Not super exciting in my books to be honest, but no regrets.

    wags free wednesday sunset sail port douglas yacht club

    Free Wednesday sunset sail from the yacht club

    While we didn’t wind up going (probably a good thing; we popped down to the waterfront a little later on and saw the boats setting out and the seas were a little choppy) I had fully intended on doing this and had blocked out time for it!

    The basic idea is that you turn up at the yacht club at 4pm and if you’re lucky you might get to go along for a free evening  sail with a local skipper. Probably nice to buy them a beer in exchange.

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    Sailing at the Yacht Club – on Wednesday afternoon. Previously known as WAGS (Wednesday afternoon gentlemen sailing), now also known as WAGLS (Wednesday afternoon Gentlemen and Ladies Sailing) minimum age for participants is 18. This is a free sail. Arrive at The Yacht Club by 4.00pm sign in and a skipper will personally ask you to join their team on their private yacht for a sail. – See more at: http://www.tropicaltours.com.au/blog/free-activities-to-do-in-port-douglas/#sthash.oXzuLiiv.dpuf
  • Five first impressions from Cairns/Queensland

    nzmuse queensland great barrier reef

    Basically all everyday items were cheaper than they are here in NZ. I base this on a few separate supermarket visits, the price of petrol (and cars for that matter), and one ad I saw for unlimited broadband. The one bakery we went to, however, was stupidly pricey.

    Portions are huge. Check this out for an entree – this is a full size plate, and the bread is loaded up with toppings (Barnacle Bill’s – stay tuned for recommendations in my next post). I assure you that the equivalent here in NZ would be half the size for the same price. It was like being back in the US! Our hosts over in Port Douglas, who we had dinner with one night, had appetites that put ours to shame, too.

    barnacle bills cairns meal

    The water is delightfully warm. I don’t think I can ever snorkel in NZ again – it’s just too damn cold. It was so bizarre to be standing by the water’s edge and have the air be still and warm (rather than windy and cold). Jumping off the boat out at the reef was like slipping into a lukewarm pool. Even the outdoor pool at our Airbnb rental was surprisingly unchilly.

    But there are way too many things you have to watch out for. Everywhere there’s water, there’s a sign warning of crocodiles in the area. Most beaches have stinger nets you have to swim within. And bugs. SO MANY BUGS. Arrrgh.

    ellis beach queensland

    I saw more half Asian/half Caucasian couples and their offspring in a few days here than I’ve probably seen in my entire life to date. (If I was staring at your kid/s, I was only trying to get a glimpse into my future – sorry if I creeped you out.)

  • Sydney: Here, there and everywhere in the city

    There is something sacred, in my mind, about air travel. That moment when the wheels leave the ground and a momentary jolt of downward pressure as the plane embarks on its gravity-defying ascent. Of all human inventions, surely the aeroplane is one of the most marvelous and miraculous.

    I am not a particularly spiritual person, but the ascent into the heavens gets me every time. I’m sure those who travel frequently don’t take a second look or give it a second thought. They grumble about the inevitable flight delays. They take the aisle seat. They board first, as regular and valued flyers.

    The plebs like me stare out intently at the landscape of plush clouds – just daring us to take a dive into their midst. We delight in the woolly wisps and the dense wads so much like candyfloss. The brief but full whiteout that’s exhilarating, but could turn terrifying. The steep bank that makes you suck in your breath unexpectedly. Every slight change in pressure that indicates something happening altitude-wise. The descent, beginning with the stippled blue of the ocean clearing to the recognisable sheen of water, as the first shadow of clouds materialises on its surface.

    Last year I painstakingly planned a tropical birthday getaway in Rarotonga. I spent time splashing in the sea and sunning myself in hedonistic abandon.

    This year a business trip offered me my first taste of Australia, and while I spent most of my birthday in transit, a day and a half later I was digging my toes into the brown sugar sand of Bondi. (That type of sand, found in the middle zone between the finest grains closest to the road and the firm, compressed stuff that borders the waterfront, is my favourite.)

    I watched parents photograph their toddlers tripping along the beach. Surfers trying to ride the puny waves in. Lots more crazy people venturing out in their skimpiest togs (submerging my feet was enough – midwinter sea is about as icy as it gets. The one time I went swimming in the bitter cold of Raglan, in the crazy month of April or September or some other decidedly non-summer month, I was sick for days). I walked along the Bondi shops carrying my shoes, ignoring the Italian matron out front of her restaurant who gestured frantically and uttered distraught cries of some sort as she caught sight of my unshod trotters, and the other stares from, well, everyone (it’s a beach! Why on earth would you not go barefoot? Granted, I was perhaps a bit overdressed for it, but still. I’M FROM NEW ZEALAND). Oh, and then there was the ice rink up at the top of the beach for the local winter festival. An ice  skating rink on the beach, people.

    sydney food

    Spring rolls at Miss Chu. Kaya roti with ice cream / Murtabak at Mamak. Cookie dough ice cream at Baskin Robbins

    I ate at Mamak. Red Lantern, Luke Nguyen’s restaurant (I walked to Surry Hills from Darling Harbour in the dark and felt a cold stab of terror when I got there only to be told they had no tables … except these two tiny tables outside by the entry. I TOOK ONE.). Coast. Mother Chu’s Vegetarian Kitchen. Miss Chu. Baskin Robbins. All get the thumbs up – especially divine was the coconut mussel curry at Red Lantern, which I couldn’t snap a decent photo of as it was night time and my phone camera has no flash – even Photoshop couldn’t wrangle enough detail out of the shadows.

    If there was one colour I would associate with Sydney, it would be this.

    Overwhelmingly, the buildings were all brown or shades of beige.

    But there were exceptions, like this theatre or these cute terrace houses further out in Darlinghurst.

    I kid you not, this was the filming of a music video inside a water feature along the waterfront, one that spirals down into the ground. And seriously, that’s outdoor table tennis.

    And of course, there were bridges. Lots and lots of bridges. The very first night, we arrived in the back door of the hotel, and left the same way, none the wiser. We couldn’t for ages figure out how to get across the motorway – we had to turn back to find our way to the main road, and find a footbridge to take us over.

    But overall, I was really struck by the good urban planning. Granted, I come from Auckland where the bar is about as low as it can be. But the light rail, the monorail, the buses, the roads that are painted to say ‘look left’ or ‘look right’ on one-way streets for pedestrians, the fact that after every block along the waterfront, there are steps leading back up to the main street … It’s all well signposted, and there are maps all over the place. Even without the throng of azns leading the way to the fish market, I would have made my way there from the train stop with zero problems.

    Ah, foreign money. For all the overthinking I did about where to change my cash, I ended going the easy route and stopping at a booth between my hotel and the convention centre. I’ve fallen off the financial bandwagon a bit and need to regroup, including a Sydney tally.

    And of course I was amazed by the shopping. Gap! Nine West! And ING Direct! Plus check this sign at the Hard Rock Cafe shop.

    Every day I fell into bed with aching legs and feet, muscles getting that tingly feeling from unprecedented exertion. I packed in the sights whenever I could. The zoo, the museums, the parks, the Opera House, the bridge, the free ferry to Cockatoo Island as part of the Biennale – a stunning place, it’s an ex-convict island full of raw industrial beauty, just my thing. I have a ton of photos, so I’ll probably dump those on Tumblr this week. And I then got to come back to this view from my room.

    Americans, you have no excuse for postponing a European adventure. Flights are hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. (When looking to see if we could book a cheap flight to Sydney for T to accompany me, we were faced with fares of $500 plus.)

    Bridget just wrote about deliberately not cramming in all the tourist sights when you’re overseas. She can always go back, she says.

    This is true. Sydney is not far from New Zealand, and T has already been. I don’t feel a need to come back with him, though I’m not saying we never will.

    But truth be told, for most of the destinations we will eventually see together, we are only going to see them once. We live at the bottom of the world. We don’t make big bank. And we want to settle down and have a family, not design a perpetually peripatetic life. Places like Spain and Russia are going to most likely be a one-time shot.

    On a happier note, though, I have officially earned my big girl pants. I’ve flown alone, travelled overseas alone, and dined in a restaurant alone. *fist pump*

  • Things I have seen in Sydney so far…

    A girl (part of a gaggle) plumped down on a bench by the harbourside in a bra and, presumably, bottoms of some kind (I was too traumatised to look any lower than that). To be fair, it wasn’t lacy or see-through. If they make bras for outerwear, this was definitely of that ilk.

    A British guy steal a candle in a glass off the table outside a cafe on Crown St, keep walking along, then coerce his girlfriend into relighting the flame after it gave out.

    A Russian girl in denim boots.

    A performer swallowing an enormous red sausage-shaped balloon. I videoed the whole thing but haven’t watched it since. I plan to show it to the boy when I get back.

    A QR code on a church (QR codes are way bigger here than in NZ) that was captioned “Find forgiveness here”.

    Gap! Nine West! Citibank! ING Direct! Priceline!

    These freaky-ass birds. They’re everywhere. (I just googled “creepy birds in Sydney” but the hotel wifi is outstandingly dreadful. Giving up.)

    (ETA: Now at the convention centre, which has better wifi, where birdsinbackyards.net/finder informs me that this is an ibis.)