Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dunedin with a toddler - lots to love

We’ve just spent the first week of our three month New Zealand tour in Dunedin. It turned out it wasn’t enough time to experience all that the small city in the South West corner of the South Island has to offer, but realistically our budget wouldn’t have run to it all anyway, and we gave it a pretty good run for our money. Here’s a few highlights that helped to make our time there a great experience.

Sleepy Dunedin International Airport is 28km from the city centre with spectacular views over the mountains as you come in to land, what an exciting start to our trip! It’s quite a small airport so it’s quick to pass through and get on your way, and better still, we got a direct flight from Brisbane with Virgin Australia.

I hooked up with Sarah Bond Travel Writer through the travel community on Facebook and Twitter, and she gave me a personalised tour of Dunedin, meaning that I saw some of the hidden gems that other tourists would miss, we went at our own pace, and I got loads of history and info thrown in on the way. If you’re heading to Dunedin, and you know Sarah through the online travel community, I’d definitely give her a shout out!

I drank some really tasty coffee in a gloriously groovy environment at Strictly Coffee, hidden down a dingy back street. In keeping with it’s location, the fa├žade is unassuming, but inside is a treasure trove of delights and the constant queue of locals is reassuringly welcoming. 

Discovery World and the butterfly house at the Otago Museum is an absolute must for anyone with a child in Dunedin. There are loads of cool science experiments that are fun and educational, even when you’re knee high to a grasshopper, then you enter the butterfly house where you’re surrounded by a veritable flutter of foreign butterfly species, as well as a resident lizard, birds and some turtles.. The littlest hobo and I spent a good hour and a half in there and could have spent longer, had we not been heading off to reconvene with the third member of our travelling trio. 

Moana pool, set high on the hill overlooking the city and the harbour below it, is the most fantastic swimming pool for toddlers. There is a leisure pool with a sloped entrance, a lazy river, sprays, and a wave machine, and a separate ‘learners pool’ aside from the other non-little person focussed areas. We really enjoyed spending a rainy morning here, getting wet inside rather than outside.

We loved the views at Tunnel Beach, even though the tide was so high when we visited that there was no beach to be seen (cue disappointed little girl…). The walk back up is a little steep for small legs (and unfit adults, ahem) which meant tired arms for Mr T by the time we reached the top, but it was a beautiful clear sunny day and gave us a great introduction to the local coastline.

We stumbled upon Allan’s Beach on the Otago Peninsula when we went for a drive on a rainy afternoon. The rain cleared as we were driving and we found ourselves in Portobello. A quick consult with the guide book pointed us in the direction of nearby Allan’s Beach, and after a short walk over Lord of the Rings-esque farmland we were really excited to find ourselves on a beautiful expansive beach along with a handful of other tourists and 5 sea lions, lazing in the sunshine. The wind blew away the earlier rain clouds, making for a blue sky afternoon and some interesting shapes being blown in the sand as we played on the shoreline.

The suburb of St Clair had lots of things we liked too - the heated salt water pool was a big hit with Mr T and the littlest hobo, and coffees in the adjoined coffee shop afterwards, with views of surfers scattered along the curved sandy bay to top it off. Mr t also attended one of Judith Cullen's cookery classes here (somebody bought him a really thoughtful valentines present this year!).

We loved getting breakfast then schmoozing around the farmers market a the station on Saturday morning. We picked up some tasty local produce at great prices and there was a great atmosphere to soak up as we made our way through the throngs of locals and tourists alike. Then we headed along the platform and checked out the inside of the station which is rumoured to be the most photographed building in New Zealand.

Music to buy produce by, at the farmer's market

Our visit to Penguin Place was a real treat; we were able to see endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguins up close in their natural habitat while leaving them relatively undisturbed. We were also lucky enough to see a group of young male seals lazing around on the rocks and grassy verges, doing what teenage boys do best!

There are so many things we didn’t fit into our visit, such as a wildlife trip out on the water, a ride on the Taieri Gorge railway, Speight’s Brewery and Cadbury’s World, but everything we did do made it a fun filled week, and it’s good to know that we have plenty to go back for next time too. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Standing room at Penguin Place

Penguin Place, set on the breathtakingly beautiful Otago Peninsula near Dunedin, is a conservation reserve, dedicated to helping the endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin - apparently the most endangered penguin breed on the planet. The reserve gives walking tours in small groups, which get up close and personal to the penguins while allowing them to remain relatively undisturbed in their natural habitat, which were probably the most compelling reasons for us to choose this particular tour above the other options.

Entry, like so many places in New Zealand at the moment (due to exchange rates and a relatively buoyant economy compared to some other parts of the world right now), seemed quite steep initially, at $49 per adult (the littlest hobo was free) but when you start the tour and realise that the money raised from tours alone funds the entire facility, the charge seems quite justified and reasonable.

Our group listened to a short talk from Ainsley, our guide, about the penguins and the centre before walking over to the penguin hospital. The centre receives rescue penguins from a wide area, being the only one of it’s kind in the vicinity, and we were lucky to see several chicks as well as a couple of different breeds of rescue penguin too.

A rescue penguin in the rehabilitation centre

A Yellow-eyed Penguin chick

From the rehabilitation centre, we went on a short, bumpy bus ride across farmland, with spectacular views spanning both sides of the peninsula, to the penguin habitat. We’d only been off the bus and heading down the track for a couple of minutes before we turned the corner to find a penguin couple standing right in the middle of the path preening their moulting feathers - they were a new couple, but according to Ainsley, if they moult together, they often breed together too, so this was an exciting sight in terms of protecting the species, especially as currently, due to predators such as sea lions, numbers are on the decline.

The couple who moult together, mate together (hopefully)

Monty the teenager with the distinctive Yellow-eyed Penguin markings on his face
They seemed completely unphased by our presence and we all snapped away gleefully. We continued on our merry way, and seconds later we were treated to the sight of several male seals lolling round on the rocks, and another penguin ducking in and out of the long grass on the hillside, only a couple of metres from where we stood. It was amazing to stand so close to these creatures which we had only previously experienced in the zoo and they carried on as if we weren’t there.

Standing with the seals

Camera shy seal!
Our tour took us down the hillside, past several penguin nesting boxes, most of which had penguins inside them to a series of bunkers leading to hides, which allowed us to get close to even more penguins while leaving them relatively undisturbed. We were lucky that most of the penguins we saw were standing - I got the impression that you would almost always see penguins on the tour, but the big deal is whether they’re standing or not; if they’re lying down it’s a bit like looking at randomly scattered rocks!

Visiting at this time of year was particularly cool because the penguins are moulting, and we saw fluffed up and partially balding penguins (the ‘ugly’ ones) right next to their beautifully sleek, neat and streamlined buddies with their distinctive yellow face markings at their very brightest (the ’pretty’ ones), who, it was incredible to hear, had been through the same appearance altering process just a couple of weeks earlier. 

Mr T and I loved the tour and would definitely recommend it. It was an absolute treat to get up so close to these gorgeous little birds without disturbing them; we felt really privileged. The littlest really enjoyed it too, she coped really well with keeping quiet, loved seeing the wildlife and trotting along the trenches, and the amount of walking, with the exception of the hill at the end, was ok for her to manage or else wasn’t too much carrying for us (in the loosest sense of the word… I had the camera around my neck) when the slopes got a bit too challenging. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sydney stole my heart (and still won't hand it back)

Mr Traveller has a theory - the Australian city you first arrive in (as a visitor) is the one that you feel the strongest affinity with. My first trip, in December 2004 was no exception. We arrived in the evening, and I was jet lagged and desperate for sleep, but the draw of the harbour was too much and we headed to Circular Quay for a nightcap and to bask in the breathtaking beauty before us. At that moment, I fell in love with Sydney; even though my eyes were drooping with the weight of too many sleepless hours on a plane, I couldn't tear them away from the spectacular view before me. We'd headed to Sydney to see how I felt about it; to see whether it would draw me in the way that it had Mr T, when he'd lived there as a backpacker a few years earlier - it did.

When we returned to live in 2007 (after another couple of visits), I was possibly even more spellbound with the city on the harbour, and launched into life there with gusto. We stayed for four and a half years, and there was never a day that I failed to be filled with wonder when I turned a corner to be greeted by the sight of the sparkling water glistening up at me. I never tired of jumping on a ferry to get somewhere and would opt to do so even if it took a bit longer than the bus. Unlike the majority of the people I meet, I'm not a fan of London or New York, I find them too big and impersonal  and just not my cup of tea, but I love the size of Sydney - big enough to have everything you need and a whole lot more, but small enough to feel at home. It's touted as the city of villages, and that rings very true, individual pocket communities balanced around the glistening harbour and into the urban and suburban sprawl beyond, with their own distinct characters, but by and large co-existing peacefully makes for an extremely comfortable environment. 

We're heading off to New Zealand next week, for the next part of our adventure, which I'm really excited about, but I couldn't let a visit to Australia slip by without some time in my favourite city in the world. So I packed my bags and waved goodbye to Mr T and the Littlest Hobo and took the short flight down. I've spent a fair amount of time in the Virgin Australia domestic terminal in my time, so arriving there was like coming home the moment that I stepped off the plane - a feeling that stayed with me for the entire visit. I made a beeline for the train and headed straight for Circular Quay - as it happened that tied in well with my transport needs, but even if it hadn't, I suspect I would have found myself there anyway. This is the way that everybody should arrive in Sydney for the first time, and if you are yet to visit, I urge you to choose this option. I checked the ferry times while I was on the train and knew I would have to dash to make the ferry, so I dug in my wallet for the ferry tickets that were still there from what had seemed mere minutes ago a dim and distant lifetime, and tore straight down to wharf 5 without a second thought that the departure wharves may have swapped around in the 8 months we'd been away - luckily they hadn't. 

Once I'd made it onto the ferry - last passenger on - I found a spot outside and allowed myself to take it all in. The same sights, sounds and smells were still there under the cloudless blue sky, dazzling me as I shrugged on the old familiar overcoat that shrouds the most iconic coat hanger in the world. Sydney was back under my skin. 

Not much has changed, and that is comforting and disturbing at the same time, because it makes it all the more comfortable to be there. I looked around me, as ever, seeing photographs to be made everywhere, and caught myself thinking that I'd come back and do it another day, when I had less to carry. It's hard not to get complacent when you are treated to such wondrous views on a daily basis and all too easily I appeared to have slipped back into that mantra. I didn't use my camera much - ultimately, I was there to visit friends, with a jam packed schedule, but I needed to remind myself that I wouldn't be going on a photography walk there next week or next month to avoid disappointment or regret later. 

Seeing my Sydney friends was a delight. Being toddler-free gave me the chance to hop from suburb to suburb and stay with a different person every night, sleeping on couches and fitting into the daily swing of my buddies lives with the added benefit of the very warmest of welcomes home at the end of it all. I always say that one of the things that makes the UK appealing to me is the long time friendships that can't be replicated without time, and while that still holds true, catching up with people in Sydney confirmed that four and a half years is long enough to build some very special friendships too. 

Captured with my iPhone, from Circular Quay station

So after a couple of crazy but pleasure filled days, I performed what is becoming a ritual of sorts again today and stood on Circular Quay station, looking out at the bridge, the Opera House and the every day comings and goings on the water below. Drinking in everything in my view, and committing it once again to memory before turning on my heal and hopping on a train. Until next time Sydney, because while you still hold a piece of my heart, I can't be a stranger forever.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Picnic days

I love picnic days. The kind of day when you wake up with the sun shining in the sky, and you don't really have any plans, but you know you want to do something. They're brilliant for spontaneity, the best ones always seem to be those that you set out for ten minutes after deciding that that's what you plan to do. And they can be a great, budget friendly outing too from a sandwich and a bottle of water, to all out five star dining with chairs, fold away tables, toys and games and even your own bbq.

Having a picnic in Australia is all the more pleasurable, not only for the usually predictable sunny weather (I can hear everyone in Sydney at the moment groaning), but also for the provided facilities - many parks and beaches around the country are dotted with free to use bbq's, which are generally well maintained... just rock up and cook your food, all you need to do is clean the cooking surface before you leave, ready for the next person and to avoid temptation for the local wildlife.

Today was one of those days. It was warm when we woke. We had an appointment early this morning, but after that the day was ours and we didn't have any set plans. We've been into the centre of Brisbane quite a few times recently, so we wanted to go somewhere different. We've also spent quite a bit of money recently, so, mindful of our newly imposed budget, we wanted to keep costs low. And our nephew, who had to be at work at 5 this evening, was keen to come with us.

So we threw some salad and condiments into a cool bag, grabbed some plates and cutlery, a picnic blanket and a ball and jumped in the car. We stopped on the way for meat, bread and drinks, and headed to Rocks Riverside Park in Seventeen Mile Rocks. It's a beautiful, well maintained large park, by the river, with several bbq areas as well as a large play area and a kids water play area. Last time we went, on a weekend sometime last year, when we had to fight for parking and and a shady space to lay our picnic blanket, but today was different. There were only a handful of other people at the park, all using the water play area or the kids playground, so we headed straight for the barbie, where there wasn't a soul in sight, and got cooking.

It was a bit soggy underfoot down near the river, so I guess this area had suffered with the recent floods, but it wasn't enough to spoil our fun, especially as we had no problem commandeering a picnic bench that was raised on a platform off the grass.


After we'd eaten our burgers (and bagged about the same amount again to take home for later - got to hone our purchasing skills to help us keep to our budget, but at least we didn't have to cook dinner tonight) we headed to the water play area, which offered us a welcome opportunity to cool down, as it turned out to be quite a hot day. It's made up of a series of shallow pools, linked by streams and was perfect for toddlers (and adults) to paddle and splash around in.

There was only one other family there, so we made the area our own and chucked about a few buckets of water at each other then spent a while trying to create miniature tsunamis and dams in the streams. We've been trying to build the littlest hobo's water confidence recently, and we could see as she was jumping around and starting splashing fights with the rest of us, that she is much more comfortable than she was a few weeks ago.

Who was having the most fun??

It's a week tomorrow until we leave for New Zealand, and I'm looking forward to plenty more picnic opportunities. We've been keeping a keen eye on the weather, and we're preparing for a shock to the system having seen average temperatures of 13 degrees, after our last few weeks hovering around the 30's, but I am really keen to start what feels like the real 'travelling' part of our trip.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ten and a half travellers do Mooloolaba

I woke up to the Littlest Hobo coughing and crying in her makeshift bed of sun lounger cushions on the floor beside me. In a sleepy daze, I scooped her up in my arms and cuddled her next to me in my bed, and she soon drifted back off to sleep. I started on my journey back to the land of nod too, but somewhere through the sleep-induced fog I managed to piece together the fact that Mr Traveller wasn't in the bed, no light was shining under the door, and the sounds of laughter from the card game down the hall that had formed the background for my night time slumber were nowhere to be heard. I started to drift back off to sleep myself, but then decided I'd better go and investigate. I gently lifted the Littlest Hobo back into her bed, glanced at my watch - 3.10am, and then tiptoed to the door.


I pulled the door open and peered along the dark corridor.

Still nothing.

The apartment was still. In the living room, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law were sound asleep. I turned back towards the bedroom, but on a whim changed my mind and headed up the stairs to the rooftop and the pool area. I peered through the glass out past the still and empty swimming pool into the milky darkness beyond, where I could hear the waves crashing, 16 floors below, but everything else remained stupefyingly calm and still.

I opened the door, walked through it, and just as it was a couple of millimetres from clicking closed behind me, I grabbed a cushion and wedged it in the gap; earlier in the afternoon, before we had first arrived, a couple of our group had been locked on the roof when the door closed behind them and they couldn't open it again from the outside. I was surrounded by eerie silent stillness, and a chill ran down my spine.Not a soul to be seen. I turned on my heal and hotfooted it to the door. Just as I grabbed the handle, I sensed a slight movement barely within my vision over my left shoulder. The handle slipped through my fingers as I heard my name hissed in a hoarse rasp. Oh what had I got myself into?

Then I heard my name again, and the voice was a little clearer and more familiar. My eyes were gradually adjusting to the darkness, and the flapping that had appeared over my shoulder became a knee, and at the end of that knee my husband. 'We're locked out' he exclaimed. 'We're locked on the roof!' I turned to the door and glanced down at the precariously wedged cushion, glad to see that the door was still open.

'What are you doing up here? Are you on your own?' I asked. He repeated that he was locked out, then pointed to the others (our nephew and our niece's husband) lying further along the deck. As Mr. T hobbled to a standing position, ready to wake the two sleeping beauties, he promptly fell back onto the sun lounger, declaring his foot completely unusable (somewhat dramatic given that he was just experiencing pins and needles, having been lying with his other leg resting across the foot). My nephew jumped to his feet as the sweet smell of freedom invaded his dreams.He was visibly shivering and repeatedly informing me that he only had 'this tiny towel' to cover him. The third member of this unlucky and somewhat alcohol fuelled trio was shaken into wakefulness and I could complete my rescue operation without so much as a cross word (much to their surprise!).

The pool was great for building the Littlest Hobo's confidence in the water

Reacquainting with the pool the next day

But the dodgy pool area door had to be the only downside to this apartment. All we knew was that we were being treated to a weekend away by my brother-in-law and family and niece and her husband. On the day, we were told to drive to Mooloolaba and all would be revealed. Once we arrived in Mooloolaba we were directed on the phone into the Mantra apartment block, then we parked the car and headed for the lifts. When we stepped through the door of our holiday apartment, we weren't prepared for the amazing accommodation that was to welcome us. The roof top deck with private pool and spa was the first treat, looking out over the ocean below, and ours to enjoy all weekend.
Loving the pool!

So many remote controls for one room!
The panic button by the bed
Then we headed back downstairs and checked out the movie room, complete with mural painted ceiling and lots of overly technical looking Sony audio equipment. We checked out our bedroom, with a walk in wardrobe the size of another bedroom, speakers dotted the ceiling throughout and a marble-clad en-suite with views along the coast up to Noosa and beyond. I'm guessing this place belongs to someone important, given the panic button that was mounted near the bed.

The mural on the ceiling in the movie room

Our en-suite with views up the coast

We looked around the rest of the apartment then regrouped in the living room. Then we noticed a couple of doors off to the side of the room... the first one was locked. The second one opened, to reveal.... another door! Feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland, we opened the next door to find a large empty room with a hung ceiling, several cut off wires hanging out the walls and ceiling and a large one way mirror on one of the walls. Standing right up against the mirror we could see into the locked room - nothing much to see there, but we were fairly confident that this strange area we had found was a recording studio.

We think it's a recording studio

With all the musical evidence around and the panic button too, plus the sheer opulence of the place, it felt likely that someone famous may own it - I would love to know who! Between flashy penthouses, long-haul upgrades to business class, and the Intercontinental in Singapore, we've been having a jolly old time for long-term travellers the last few weeks. I'm sure we're going to come back down to earth with a thump in a couple of weeks time when we arrive in New Zealand with out budget leading our decisions! Still, I am sure that the wonder of the beautiful area we will be visiting will make up for any home comforts or little luxuries that we suddenly find are missing.

The view from the balcony off our bedroom