Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Tassie Christmas

It may sound counter-intuitive to our friends and family in the States but in Australia, if you want to escape the heat, you head South. So while Santa was at the North Pole preparing for his journey around the world, we headed as close to the opposite Pole as we could get (and still be in Australia)—Tasmania.

Tasmania, or Tassie as it is known here, has been on our must-visit list since we moved to Australia. It is renowned for its beautiful coastline and ancient forests. Before we went, we sat down with two of our friends who used to live in Tasmania and based on their recommendations, we charted our 10-day course.
Tassie Ahoy!
Our trip around Tasmania

Drew and I decided not to have the typical vacation where you stay in one spot for a week. Instead, we flew into Hobart, the capital city, and hired a car in order to drive up along the coast. Our aim was to find a few beautiful vistas and some rock climbing. And, wow, Tasmania did not disappoint! I think we could have stopped anywhere along the coast to find amazing scenery.

Honeymoon Bay, part of Great Oyster Bay, at Freycinet National Park
We spent our first two days in Freycinet National Park, which is located on the Freycinet Peninsula. On one side, you get beautiful views of tranquil Great Oyster Bay and on the other side is the Tasman Sea, where waves crash against rock-strewn beaches and towering cliffs. In other words, it was a climber's dream.
Drew, on the rocks at Freycinet National Park

In addition to the beautiful vistas, my favorite part about Freycinet was the watering station at the Park office (Drew says this makes me weird), where you could fill up your water bottles with regular water or with sparkling water. It was a very posh hiking experience. =)
Filling up the bottles with sparkling water at Freycinet National Park

After two days of exploring Freycinet, we headed north again towards Bicheno for more climbing.

And penguins! The coastline along Bicheno is home to Little Blue Penguins.We took a nighttime tour and watched as they came out of the ocean and headed to their burrows. We were even able to see some of the young chicks, peeking their fluffy heads out of the nests. I learned that a group of penguins on land is called a parcel, and a group of penguins in the water is called a raft. It's the only animal that I know of to have two different group names.
Photos of penguins from www.bichenopenguintours.com.au

The last stop on our coastal tour was Bay of Fires, which was an unexpected gem. We ended up entering the National Park by way of a small fishing village on the southern edge, rather than the main entrance up north which required a 4-wheel drive vehicle. It was by far the most scenic of our beach days. Around every corner was a stunning coastal vista, alternating between sandy beaches, giant orange lichen covered boulders, and rugged cliff faces. After a half mile hike up the coast, we were the only ones out there. It pays to walk a bit away from the paths.
Drew, holding up a giant piece of kelp seaweed
A beautiful green butterfly that we found washing in with the tide. It was still alive so we put it up higher on the shore, hoping it would dry off and fly away.

It was hard to leave the coast behind, but eventually we headed inland to Mount Field National Park. Talk about a change in scenery—gone were the scrubby trees along the sea and in their place were giants of the forest. Mount Field is home to some of the oldest and tallest Eucalyptus trees in the world, Eucalyptus regnans. They are second only to the California redwoods in height. Some of the trees we saw were over 400 years old.

Along the way we perfected our 'Check out the ginormous tree' poses

Mount Field National Park is also home to several beautiful waterfalls.

Our last few days were spent in Hobart, taking in the culture. We visited the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, known as the MONA. If I have my facts correct, it's the only privately owned museum in Australia. It has an eclectic collection of ancient art and very, very new art. I can't say that all of the artworks were to my taste ("a very adult selection," says the MONA info), but they sure sparked a lively discussion between me and Drew. And after all, isn't that what art is about?

We also took a day trip from Hobart to Port Arthur, site of a convict prison in the 1800s. It was a spooky town, not only because of the stories of desperate men-turned-criminals, but also because many of the buildings are just shells due to a series of bushfires over the years. Adding to the somber atmosphere is that Port Arthur was also the site of Australia's last gun massacre in 1996. After that, the country enacted strict gun control laws and there hasn't been another mass shooting since then.

For New Year's Eve, we headed down to the harbor in Hobart to see the fireworks. Even though there was a huge food festival going on, we managed to get spots right on the water, next to all the sailboats that had arrived from the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.
The last stop on our whirlwind tour was the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart. It had an amazing collection of trees, orchids, alpine plants, and hundreds of flower varieties, all laid out beautifully. I didn't take my camera so I can't prove it, but it's the second best botanic garden that we've ever seen. (First being, of course, Norfolk Botanical Garden, where we were married.) ;-)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Kangaroos Guaranteed

The holidays can be a tough time when you're living abroad and separated from the festivities going on at home. It's the season when I miss my family the most. It's especially bizarre living in Australia because all of our friends back home are posting pictures of snow while here it's the middle of summer. Kind of makes it hard to get into the Winter Wonderland holiday spirit.

Luckily, Drew's parents and sister, Annette, visited us in late November. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to have them in town over Thanksgiving. We even managed to find a turkey to bake!

It was their first time in Australia so we were determined to show them the best that this country had to offer. I think we succeeded.

They hadn't been off the plane for more than one hour before we showed them the local wildlife. As you can see in the picture below, this kangaroo was having a rest (which I'm sure our guests wanted to do after traveling over 26 hours to get here!).

While they were here, we took them to one of our favorite places in Australiathe Great Barrier Reef. It was stinger season (AKA, deadly jellyfish were in the waters) so we had to wear head to toe stinger suits to protect ourselves. Despite looking more than a little bit silly, we had a great time.
Me and Drew, or as his sister affectionately captioned this photo, "Snorkely love bugs"
For this trip, we traveled to an island called Low Isles, which is just a little ways off the coast of Port Douglas in Queensland. It was one of our best reef trips yet, gorgeous weather and the water was full of fish and beautiful coral. We also saw sea turtles and right before we jumped into the water, a blacktip reef shark swam by. (Luckily, The International Shark Attack File reports that there are no incidents of unprovoked attacks by blacktips on humans in Australia. And just as a side note, despite Australia's reputation as having a lot of shark attacks, the U.S. leads by a mile. In 2012, there were 42 unprovoked shark attacks on humans in the U.S. compared to only 14 in Australia.)
Heart-shaped piece of coral. 
Typically, on our snorkeling trips, we've seen mostly small fish. But here, there was a mix of tiny fish and very big fish. The fish in the picture below looks small, but he was bigger than my head!

While in Queensland, we also spent a day in Daintree Rainforest which is the oldest living rainforest on earth. Everyone enjoyed hiking along the boardwalk.
Drew and his parents, taking in the sights in Daintree Rainforest
Colorful rainforest butterly
And of course, we had to make a stop by the Daintree Icecream Company. It's a great concept. They serve four flavors at a timewhatever fruit is ripe and in stock. You don't have to chose between the four. They just give you a cup with a scoop of all four flavors. While we were there, the four flavors changed though. Despite having almost finished our first cups, we just had to try the other four flavors. In all, we tried coconut, banana, mango, wattleseed (which tastes a bit like coffee), jackfruit, soursop fruit, and passion fruit. Yum, yum. As we were leaving, we noticed that the land and the company were for sale. Since it has been owned by the same couple for over twenty years and there was a steady stream of customers, we reckoned that they were retiring and not that business was bad. For a few seconds, Drew and I considered how great it would be to live in the rainforest and own an ice cream company...

Towards the end of their visit, I took Annette to the coast near Canberra. We spent the afternoon at the beach and the morning at a wildlife center, petting kangaroos and koalas and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get the cockatoos to talk to us.

My favorite part about their visit though was the way they filled our house with joy. It made me realize what we are missing by living a world away. I had fun watching Drew and Annette enjoy quality sibling time, teasing each other but also being supportive and sharing funny family stories.

Drew and his sister, enjoying the local flora
It was a whirlwind two weeks and we loved every minute of it. After their visit, I joked with Drew that we should open our own tour guide company. Our motto would be "Kangaroos Guaranteed on the First Day."

Oh, and the Great Australian Food Challenge we posted about a while back? Annette totally crushed it. In addition to eating everything on our list, she tried emu burgers and crocodile gumbo. And, she even liked vegemite!