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.