Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas in Australia

I'll admit it, I was not really looking forward to our first Christmas in Australia. This would have been only the second time I was not at home in Canada with my family for Christmas. (The first was when I was 17, on exchange in France for the year). With my brother living in California, Christmas is the only time of year we can both get home, and it's always nice to catch up with my old friends in Canada. We also have lots of little traditions we do every Christmas as a family, which have changed over the years, but generally go something like this: On Christmas Eve we go to church in the evening followed by drinks at the St. Onge's, my mom's best friend and my oldest childhood friend. 'The kids' (that's us!) normally watch 'A Muppets Christmas Carole', and the adults chat and drink Bailey's and eggnog (eventually this part also included us). Then when we got home Michael and I would have to go straight to bed so that 'Santa' could come. 

Michael at home in Canada. Only 3 glasses this year :(
Christmas morning is normally just my mom, dad and brother, and now that we are both older it's a lazy and indulgent affair. Bailey's and coffee to start, and my mom's special cinnamon bun bread while we open our stockings. This is followed by a big breakfast, where my dad is 'allowed' to eat as much bacon as he likes! By now we have also moved on to champagne and orange juice to drink, and we fill up on our big breakfast before getting to the main present opening. My mom has 3 siblings that live in the area, and over the years various combinations of aunts, uncles and cousins have come to ours for Christmas dinner. Boxing day is for visiting my dad's side of the family, generally finishing in Burlington with my Aunt Barb and cousins Joanne and Aaron to watch the Canadian juniors play their first hockey match of the World Junior Hockey championships.

My mom and dad have always worked hard to make sure we have a special Christmas and I hope that when Andy and I finally have kids we are able to do the same for them, as I am full of happy memories of my last 31 Christmases.

This year was to be very different, as we were staying in Melbourne with no family to celebrate with. We do have a group of expat friends however, who are in the same boat as us, and our friends Laura and Dan kindly offered to host Christmas lunch at their house this year. 

In the morning we woke up and had some coffee and Bailey's and a FaceTime with Andy's parents. Then we opened a few small presents we had got for each other, along with my parents gift to us. Then we cooked a big breakfast and had our champagne and orange juice and FaceTimed my family. You can see I was desperately trying to hold on to some of my Christmas traditions... well the ones revolving around food and alcohol anyway! After that it was time to make our way to Dan and Laura's for lunch.

Laura's lovely Christmas table
We kicked it off with specially made cocktails by Laura: a beer cocktail for the boys and a champagne cocktail for the girls. Lunch was a BBQ featuring lamb, ham and beef, and after lunch we all went to the Middle Park beach. The weather was spectacular during the day, 31 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Apparently we were quite lucky with this; our friends that have been here for 5 years said this was the first warm and sunny Christmas they've had in Melbourne!

Laura and Andy testing out the cocktails

Middle Park Beach

Laura, Gemma and me

While at the beach I conquered a big fear I've had since coming to Australia: swimming in the ocean. I don't mean splashing in shallow water, I mean swimming out a few hundred metres and back as a work out. I swim 1km or more regularly in the pool in our building, but get freaked out swimming in water I can't see the bottom of. And I know, Port Philip Bay isn't really the open sea, and it's generally quite calm and devoid of sea life in and around Melbourne (except for the jellyfish). It has just been a mind over matter thing. Anyway, for some reason I just decided that afternoon that I would get over whatever was stopping me from swimming out there and just do it! Dan regularly swims out to the posts that are about 200m from the shore so he was happy to swim out with me, and Andy came along too. And I just did it! It was hard mind you, my breathing was very shallow and irregular (sort of like hyperventilating) and I was pretty shattered at the end even though it was less than 400m of swimming, but  I was super proud of myself! So much so that I went out with Dan again about an hour later, and this time I was calmer and it didn't feel quite so hard.

After a few hours at the beach we went back to Dan and Laura's and played a 'Stealing Kris Kringle' game that we play with my mom's family sometimes at Christmas. At the start of the game everyone was being super polite and not 'stealing' the presents, however by the end of it all pretences were dropped and there was lots of presents changing hands by the end of it! Andy and I also introduced my favourite party game, which friends will recognise as a variation of Taboo and Charades ("I have no idea what this is".... "Versailles!" - An inside joke for the Brixton crew). That too was super fun, and you could see 

some people's competitive side come out at this point! Andy's team beat mine and I think that was down to Andy's superb ability to act out words during the third round of the game.

All in all I had a really fun day with our friends. Did it feel like Christmas? No, not really. But maybe that's ok. I woke up feeling a sad that I wasn't with my family and tried to recreate our Christmas mornings. But really, those are not the things that  make it feel like Christmas to me. No amount of food and Bailey's can replace 

quality with family. Luckily we have Andy's parents coming to visit us soon, and next Christmas my family will be in Melbourne celebrating with us. But still, I am thankful for the friends we have here and that we were able to have a fun filled day with them this year.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Russ and Lauren picked us up from Wellington in their 20-year-old Nissan rental that has seen better days. However it has got them around the south island of New Zealand for the past 3 weeks for about a third of what it would have cost to have a new rental car, so totally worth it in my eyes!

On the way to our accommodation we had to stop in the nearest ‘big’ town to get some groceries for dinner and lunch the next day, as we were staying in the middle of a national park. Needless to say, it was pretty difficult to find anything healthy, definitely no whole wheat pasta or bread! Lauren and Russ told us they have pretty much survived the last 6 months of backpacking on a diet of pasta, which they must be pretty sick of by now. Our accommodation was called Plateau Lodge, and was $70 per night for a double room, with a communal bathroom and kitchen. We got a taste of the backpacker life, making some pretty bland pasta with broccoli, mushrooms, green peppers and tomatoes (the only nice looking vegetables at the grocery store we stopped at), pesto and shredded ‘tasty’ cheese (whatever that is, it seems to be the go-to cheese in Australia and NZ. I think its like a mild cheddar. It is really not that tasty). 

We woke up at 6am the next day to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km hike, which is allegedly ‘the best one-day walk in NZ’. The lodge has shuttle bus that dropped us off at the starting point, at Mangatepopo carpark at 7:30 am. Pick up was from the Ketetahi carpark at either 3:30 or 5pm. If we missed the 5pm pick-up, we would have to pay extra to get them to come out and get us later. Although we are all in pretty good shape, Andy and I were a bit worried as it is recommended you do the hike in proper hiking boots, but all we had were our barefoot running shoes! We briefly discussed the idea of renting some boots from a nearby shop, but decided we'd just risk it. After all, it is summer here so we weren't expecting any snow or ice to trek through. In the end doing it in trainers was ok, but we were lucky that we had pretty good weather conditions with no rain. The only time it was a bit annoying was a shallow river crossing at the end where our feet got soaked. 

The hike traverses an active volcano called Mount Ngauruhoe, which Lord of the Rings fans will recognise as Mount Doom in Mordor. The first couple of kilometers were pretty easy, and for the most part we were walking with lots of other hikers. The first challenging bit is aptly named 'The Devil's Staircase' up to the South and Red craters. This was a pretty challenging part of the hike, and served to thin out the crowds as the less fit hikers fell behind. We managed to get to the top with just one small break, and were rewarded with spectacular views of the craters and volcanos. 

After passing the red crater you descend on loose scree to the Emerald lakes. The key here is to almost 'ski' your way down, and at this point hiking boots would have been welcome as we ended up with lots of little rocks in our shoes by the end. The Emerald Lakes are turquoise crater springs, and their brillant colour comes from various dissolved minerals from the Red Crater. The contrast between the barren volcanic landscape and the lakes is pretty impressive, and we stopped to take lots of pictures before continuing on with our trek.

Lauren, Russ and I making our way to the Emerald Lakes

From the Emerald Lakes you enter the active volcanic zone, and pass steamy bubbling springs as you wind your way through the mountains. The landscape starts to become greener and lusher, until you enter a rainforest for the final few kilometres of the hike. 

In the end we made it in about 6.5 hours including our breaks and stop for lunch. We were pretty pleased with hour time, although we found out later that the record for completing the trek is 1 hour and 45 mins! When we got back we had a hot tub at the lodge to soothe our sore legs which was nice, although the hot tub didn’t have any bubbles which we were all disappointed with. More of a shared hot bath. When we asked the owner if there was a button we needed to push to get some bubbles she replied, rather rudely: “it’s NOT a Jacuzzi!” Ok, then. Andy and I opted to forgo the backpacker dinner that evening and eat out at a nearby lodge, although we nearly fell asleep in our dinner! We had an early night and a very deep sleep before getting up to drive to our next destination, Rotorua.

On the way we stopped to see the Aratiatia Rapids. The rapids are formed four times a day when a hydroelectric dam opens its floodgates to release water from the Waikato river through the rocks. It’s incredible to watch the waterfalls form over about 10-15 minutes, and it really makes you appreciate the true force of water.
Aratita rapids prior to the dam openeing
Aratiatia Rapids after the dam has opened

We also went Jet Boating on the Waikato River from the base of the Aratiatia rapids to the Huka falls. This was the first time I’d been jet boating, and it was pretty thrilling! First of all the sceneary there is spectacular, and whizzing around on a jet boat, doing 360 degree turns  and jumping through rapids is pretty thrilling. It was a bit pricey, $105 for a 35 minute boat ride, but it was worth it!

Our Jet Boat

After that we left the Taupo region, a bit disappointed we weren’t staying in the area longer. I suppose that means we will have to return at some point!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Wellington, NZ

We are finally on summer holidays! No more school for a whole 6 weeks, yippee! Friday the 13th was the last day for both of us, consisting of a champagne breakfast and good-byes to leaving staff members, plus lunch in Port Melbourne for Andy. Pretty good end to the year!

We drove to the airport after finishing school Friday afternoon, stupidly not taking into account all the traffic we would get on the way there. We ended up getting to the check in desk 15 minutes later than check-in was meant to have closed, convinced we wouldn’t be able to get on our flight. (On a side note, I would normally check-in online. We weren't able to though, as we had booked two one-way flights instead of a return flight, so we had to prove when we got to the airport that we had flights out of New Zealand.) But we got lucky, check-in was still open and we made our flight, major crises averted! Despite all the travelling I have done, I have never once missed a flight (touch wood), and it was pretty stressful to think we might have missed this one. Majorly relieved we got on to our evening flight  on Air New Zealand without any further mishaps. Highlight was the in-flight safety video featuring characters from Lord of the Rings. Nicely done Air New Zealand, that was the first time I’ve actually paid full attention to the safety video at the start of a flight! The flight was 3.5 hours long, with a time difference of 2 hours between Melbourne and Wellington. This means we are now 21 hours ahead of my brother in California… almost a full day… which is kind of weird to think about!
Wellington Harbour

We stayed in a Quality Hotel on Cuba Street which was pretty good value for a mid-range, 4 star hotel. The rest of the trip was with Russ and Lauren who have been travelling for about 6 months, so we are stayed in more budget accommodation after this. So we thought we’d try and stay somewhere nicer for the first few days of the trip! I’d stay here again, the location is good, rooms are spacious, clean, the bed was comfy, pool, hot tub and fitness room.

Our day in Wellington started with a walk down Cuba St and a light breakfast at Midnight Espresso, a Lonely Planet recommendation. We were a bit disappointed though, the menu was a bit plain, however the coffee was excellent. We then walked down to the docks which was beautiful, turquoise blue waters surrounded by lush green mountains, exactly as you’d expect New Zealand to look! We went to the Museum of Wellington City and Sea museum which was a history of Wellington, and is rated one of the top 50 museums in the world by The Times newspaper. It was pretty good if you like that sort of thing, some particularly interesting info on crime in the early part of the 20th century (lots of it focused on racism towards Asians) and shipwrecks in Cook Strait.
Waiting for the cable car

Next we wandered over to the cable car that takes you up to the Botanical Gardens, where you get a pretty good view of the city. No need to buy a return cable car ticket, as you can walk back down to the city through the Botanical Gardens. Pretty cool how the gardens are on a hill. We ended up by the docks again and stopped for a  glass of wine and a snack overlooking the boatyard. We were pretty lucky with the weather, although it was windy it was about 21 degrees and sunny all day. Andy then realised that the Wellington soccer team were playing Brisbane, so he went off to watch the game while I did a bit of shopping!

Andy watching the Wellington Phoenix Football Club

We had one of the best dinners I’ve ever had at a place called Duke Carvell's just around the corner from our hotel. The menu is made for sharing, with lots of big and small plates to choose from. The gnocchi with Gorgonzola and sage sauce was the best gnocchi I have ever tasted, and the flaming ouzo cheese was also fantastic. Service was so good that even Andy wanted to leave a tip, and that is saying a lot! We had a salted caramel chocolate pie for dessert that was well worth the calories, and went home happy and full. Eating out in new places is one of my favourite things about being on holiday, and this place was a definite winner!

The next day we woke up early to go on a run before Russ and Lauren came to pick us up, driving about 350km north to Tongariro National Park for the next part of our trip.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Night Noodle Markets

For the next 2 weeks Alexandra Gardens has been transformed into Noodle Market. Andy and I went to check it out on Tuesday night after work. It opens at 5pm every day, and by the time we arrived at about 5:45 it was absolutely packed! However queues went quickly and there was a lot to choose from: Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian foods all well represented. We were both starving so had some dumplings on arrival before getting a few beers and a place to sit. Luckily we got some red beanbags to sit on in front of a DJ playing some great tunes. Dinner was beef massaman curry and pork sliders from Chin Chin. When we left around 8pm it was even busier than when we arrived. The lovely weather and proximity to the city makes it an attractive option for a cheap dinner after work. I am sure we will be visiting again before it ends next Friday!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

City to Sea and Taste of Melbourne

On Sunday Andy and I woke up at the crack of dawn (5:30am to be exact) to do the 'City to Sea' 14km run in Melbourne. The route started at the Arts Centre on St. Kilda road, down to Albert Park where we did a lap of the lake, and then along Fitzroy Street and along the beach to Port Melbourne and back. What a fantastic route and race! Definitely one of the best runs I've ever taken part in, the Cardiff Half Marathon is the only route I can think of that compared in terms of how scenic it was. SO much better than 'Run for the Kids' which was another 15km run we did in Melbourne in March. (Which, I will not be doing again next year!)

Picking up our race packs the day before the race
The Yarra River, an hour before the race start. Lovely day, we were very lucky with the weather!

The route was pretty flat and the start of the race was very well organised, apart from the delayed start time. We were in the 'Red' start which meant we were expecting to complete the route in under 80 minutes. I figured I'd be right around 80 minutes so was a bit nervous that everyone else in our starting group would be super fast, so I got Andy and our friend Dan to agree to start near the back of the pack. Dan is a pretty fast runner and in great shape, so he took off like a shot as soon as we crossed the start line. Andy and I were a bit more conservative, aiming for 5:30 per km to start with.

This was the first race I've done without my iPod and a carefully selected playlist (Swedish House Mafia, Rihanna and Hot Chip usually feature heavily), and for the first few kilometers I was really regretting it! It felt pretty quiet running down St. Kilda road, the isolated sound of footsteps hitting the pavement reminded me of being on the tube in London at rush hour (pretty depressing). However once we got to Albert Park there were a few music stations along with big screens featuring Australian athletes' pre-recorded messages wishing us all luck which gave me a bit of a boost.

Albert Park Lake

In the end we finished in 74 minutes, with an average pace of about 5:15 per km, so we were both pretty happy with that given our (lack of) training beforehand. I would definitely run this race next year, and we are even thinking of signing up for the 'City to Surf' run in Sydney, as it is supposed to be a fantastic route as well.

Dan, Andy and me just after we finished

The only thing that kind of annoys me about races in Australia so far is the lack of goody bag at the end. I know this sounds silly, but I love picking up my goody bag full of sample energy bars, gels, running magazines and the odd banana at the end of a race. And also no t-shirts! (Well, no free t-shirts. You can of course buy a t-shirt from the race if you want.) Not that I ever actually WEAR the t-shirts I get from a race in public, like, ever... but still. And the entry fees to races are not cheap here... like $50-65 per race. Surely that kind of entry fee should include a free t-shirt?! Ok, I probably need to get over this...

After the race we went for brunch at The Stokehouse in St. Kilda with Laura, Dan and Dan's parents who are visiting from the UK. Seeing Dan's parents has made us very exited about our upcoming visit from Andy's parents in 2 months time!

We made a last minute decision to go to Taste of Melbourne in Albert Park after brunch (so basically, more eating to make up for the calories we burnt on the run). Lots of famous Melbourne restaurants offering small dishes for a fraction of the price of their regular menus. The sun was out and we had a great time tasting different foods and trying the different flavours of Rekorderlig cider on offer (apple and guava... yum!) It was pretty packed though, so you had to constantly queue for food, and also it ended up being pretty pricey - the dishes were between $6-16 on average but they were pretty small, plus the $25 entry fee. It was a really nice afternoon and experience but not sure I'd go again next year.

Mark, Gemma, Pete and me at Taste of Melbourne (I am still in my Skins from the race... nice)

On the way home while walking through Albert Park we noticed there was a Youth League soccer game on, Melbourne Victory's youth team playing West Sydney (soccer... ok ok we can still call it football). Of course we had to go in and watch the last 20 minutes! Not really my cup of tea - you'd have thought I would have learned to love football by now, but sadly no - however it the perfect end to a perfect day for Andy!

Just after crossing the finish line, very hot and sweaty!

Saturday, 5 October 2013


For the first part of our September school holidays we spent 4 days in Noosa, Queensland. Noosa is an easy hour and a half drive north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast. We started our journey by waking up at 3:45 am in order to arrive for our 7 am flight from Melbourne with Virgin Australia. We arrived in Brisbane at 9:15 am, picked up our rental car (a Toyota Yaris, which Andy hates and has made us miss our little Fiesta!) and drove up the coast.

We arrived in Noosa around lunchtime and spent some time in Noosa Junction looking around at the shops as we couldn't check in to our airbnb accommodation until 2 pm. We've booked all our accommodation for this trip through airbnb, which in my opinion is the most fantastic travel website ever. People rent out spare rooms in their house (or even whole houses and apartments) to travelers for a fraction of the cost of a hotel, plus you get the added benefit of staying with locals who can give you tips on where to go, what to do, and it's just generally nice to meet new people. When we first arrived in Melbourne we stayed with a girl called April through airbnb, who is now a good friend of ours.

Anyway, our airbnb place in Noosa was pretty special. In fact, we decided to spend an extra day in Noosa than originally planned purely because I liked the look of this accommodation. We stayed with a couple called Amy and Andrew, who have 2 kids aged 15 and 7. Their 'spare room' is actually a separate tree-house style room that has 360 degree glass windows and a view overlooking the national park. We saw some amazing sunsets and woke up every morning at 6 am to bright, beautiful sunrises.
Tree-house accommodation
Our outdoor bathroom
Amy and Andrew run a well-being business, teaching yoga and offering alternative therapies like massage. So the first thing we did was get a Hawaiian style massage each from Andrew, which was one of the best massages of my life! My back has felt so much better over the last week, I am determined to start getting regular, monthly massages in Melbourne.

One of many gorgeous sunsets

Waking up at 6 am on holiday might seem like torture to some people, but I loved it! We slept so well in the Tree-house waking up at this time was not nearly as hard as it is when we have to get up for work, and it meant we could do cool things like whale watch! Yes, it is whale migration season and it is quite common to see humpback whales off the coast at this time of year. The first morning we went to get an early morning coffee and drank it at a lookout and almost immediately saw some whales in the distance. You could see them breathing, water sprouting out of their blowholes, and slapping their tails onto the water.

Looking out over Sunrise Beach, where we saw whales for the first time

We got in a surf lesson with Andrew on that first morning as well. Noosa is the perfect place to learn to surf. Nice, easy 1-2 foot waves that are fairly consistent and not far off the beach, so you don't have to expend too much energy getting out each time. I absolutely loved it and can't wait to try surfing again. I had a nice long 8 foot foam board that I managed to stand up on a few times (stand up quite awkwardly I noticed after in some pictures Andrew took!) Andy was less enthused - I think being so tall it is harder to balance - but has agreed to give it another go. We have some friends that surf quite regularly along the Great Ocean Road which we could join, although this time of the year the water is still pretty freezing in southern Australia!

Andy looking good!
Need a bit of work on my posture!

There were two teachers from my school who were also on holiday in Noosa so we managed to meet up with them for dinner for a few nights. We had some excellent meals, as has become standard for us here in Australia. It is hard to find a place that serves sub-standard food anywhere we have been (although you do pay for it!). Season was a great restaurant right on the beach in Noosa Heads where we had lunch, Thomas Corner Eatery in Noosaville was also excellent and served fresh, local produce and seafood. Little Cove Coffee roasts their own coffee which is the best coffee Andy reckons he has ever had, helped by the fact that they are all double shots. Andy has become quite the coffee snob since we moved to Melbourne. Quite different to the coffee-hater I met in London 5 years ago!

Highlight of the trip for us was on the last day. We woke up early so we could walk through the National Park to Alexandria Bay and along the coast. At Hell's Gate we stopped and looked for whales, at first not seeing much. However our patience was rewarded, as after about half an hour of waiting we saw two whales in the distance, what looked like a mum and her baby calf, breaching simultaneously over and over. One of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. A local was watching with us, who seemed just as excited as we were each time the whale came out of the water.

Alexandria Bay

Alexandria Bay from Hell's Gate

Walking through National Park

Looking down from Hell's Gate

After three nights we sadly left Noosa and drove back to Brisbane, where we stayed for the weekend. Stay tuned!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Our first visitor!

Ok first blog post in a while! We have been super busy lately, mainly due to the fact that we both had our Master's dissertation due in last week so every spare moment for the last few months was spent working on that. Thankfully we got it handed in on time and are now anxiously waiting the results. Anyway, on to more interesting things!

At the end of July we had our first visitor from the UK, our friend Alison, who we both worked with in London. Being a teacher, she was only able to visit in July/August during school holidays, which is unfortunate as that is the worst time of year here in terms of weather. Luckily, Alison is very easy going and managed to have a good time here despite the cold temperatures and rainy days. 

Here are some highlights of her stay and her favourite things about Australia:

1. Great Ocean Road

Twelve Apostles in the rain!

We spent a weekend on the Great Ocean Road. Based in Torquay we drove up along the coast to the Twelve Apostles. Absolutely gorgeous scenery, unfortunately very cold rainy weather all weekend. I guess that added to the atmosphere?!

Sunrise in Torquay

Lovely Sorrento

Cockatoo in Lorne

Kangaroos on the golf course

2. Yummy food!
Like us, Alison really enjoyed the cafe culture and amazing restaurants in Melbourne. Our first dinner was at Mama Baba, a Greek/Italian place near our flat that we'd been wanting to try and it did not disappoint! We also had an amazing meal at Spice Temple, near the Crown Casino, a Yum Cha place that was recommended to us by a teacher friend who's sister works there. However, for Alison, nothing beat Spud Bar. Spud Bar is a fast-food baked potato place, and it is AMAZING. You get baked potatoes (or sweet potatoes) topped with fresh, healthy ingredients. It's healthy fast-food and I really can't believe it hasn't expanded overseas yet. We think Alison should open the first London store.

3. Winning Money
Ok so above I mentioned the Crown Casino, where Alison and Andy played some poker, and Alison won about $100. Andy lost, no surprise there! I sat at the bar drinking wine with another friend who was in Melbourne for a visit, a much better use of money in my opinion. So, winning money is always a good thing, especially when you're on holiday and spending like crazy.

4. Whitsundays
Alison spent a few days sailing around the Whitsundays which looked beautiful. We unfortunately, had to stay back in Melbourne and go to work, however after looking at her pictures and hearing about it we would definitely like to go someday.

Some advice to anyone planning on visiting: July is the worst month for weather in Melbourne. Don't come then! Also Alison found it pretty expensive, although the Aussie dollar is weaker than when we first arrived.

We really enjoyed having Alison here. I can't believe that was a month ago, and now it's September and all our teacher friends in Canada and the UK have gone back to school. Meanwhile we have one week left of Term 3 before 2 weeks of holidays, yipee! Now that the Masters is done I am planning on re-invigorating this blog, so look out for new blog posts soon!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Cape Schanck

The second day of our trip down to the Mornington Penisula we went to Cape Schanck and walked a 2.6km trail to Bushranger's Bay. Again we were lucky to have some gorgeous winter weather and spent a good hour on the beach, watching the waves come in. Too cold and rough for swimming though!

Cape Shenck Lighthouse