Para Para Paradise: 6 Days of Whitsundays

Joe and I were long overdue for a couple’s vacation. We realized that we haven’t gone away, just the two of us, for longer than an extended weekend since our honeymoon three years ago. We left work on Tuesday and geared up to start the celebration by watching the Coldplay concert in Melbourne. Their “Para para paradise” song sent us on our way with our pasty skin and beach bags ready for the wonders of Queensland, Australia to celebrate my 30th birthday and our first out-of-Victoria excursion together.

Colorful wristbands lit up the energy filled stadium at the Coldplay concert in Melbourne

Day 1

Our trip to the Whitsunday Islands started at Hamilton Island where we flew in just to catch a ferry to our first destination: Daydream Island. Upon our arrival, a bottle of birthday bubbly and some chocolate along with a note reading “Estas son las mañanitas…” (Joe thinks of everything) awaited us in our ocean front room overlooking the other islands nearby. Napping on a hammock is one of my favorite past times (not that I have many hammocks around my life), so luckily hammocks are easy to find along every corner of the island. Joe and I cozied up in a nice spot to watch the sun set on our first night of our much-awaited vacation. Some long legged birdies and wallabies even joined us for the fantastic view!

Arriving at the Hamilton Island Airport


Hammock time

Our sunset viewing party

Day 2

I met two sea turtles while paddle boarding in the ocean! Hard to believe our trip could get any better than this… but it does, just wait… it does! Joe went out on a kayak and I tried paddle boarding for the first time (LOVE!). While out on the water we burned some calories and saw some sea turtles come up for air. The small island had plenty of activities to go around including put-put golf, several pools, a nature hike, water sports, cricket, beach and pool lounging, and of course… hammock naps. Hammock nap No 2 happened on day 2! Elevated above the ground, feeling so light and unattached to any worries on earth, our vacation was doing exactly what it is meant to do. At least it was until a kangaroo running by at what seemed like 30mph interrupted our peacefully swaying hammock. No kangaroos or humans were harmed, but it was a close call.

Coral beach on Daydream Island

Stingrays at the live reef on Daydream Island

Sharks at the live reef on Daydream Island

Day 3

Nothing but gold skin and smiles as we boarded a “Cruise Whitsundays” boat, “Seaflight”, to the Great Barrier Reef. The cruise took 250 people out to the reef to snorkel, scuba and sightsee around the Reef World Pontoon floating just above the Great Barrier Reef. Scuba diving was the highlight of the morning while the 248 passengers departed in the mid-afternoon; leaving just Joe and I on the pontoon was the highlight of the afternoon. The ocean breeze kissed our sun drenched skin as we watched the tide drop on the reef, leaving the coral that was once below the crystal water visible above the ocean. Looking around we could see nothing but the horizon. The sun eventually met the sea and the stars shone brightly on what was a bright blue canvas throughout the day.  After the sun disappeared and the stars showed their bright lights, we had an amazing dinner in the pontoon’s underwater viewing room. Our butler babe (aka Nina) did an amazing job looking after us, cooking for us, and ensuring we had nothing to worry about during our overnight stay as the only “Reef Sleepers” that night. As a 400kg Grouper (largest boney fish in the Reef) watched us dine in style, we could not believe we were out in the middle of one of the 7 Wonders of the World. What an incredible life this is!

Cruise Whitsundays Boat

Exploring the pontoon

Ready for scuba diving!

Enjoying the view

Enjoying the sunset with the best compliments of wine, cheese, and Joe

Blue sky turns to gold as the night falls

Birthday dinner in the underwater observatory

Our friend George, the Queensland Grouper

Day 4

On our first day out at the Reef I noticed that most of the tourists didn’t look as excited as we were feeling to be out experiencing such an incredible place. Ticking off boxes is life’s way of tricking us into thinking we’re enjoying our experiences. Scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, sitting back and watching the sun set over the horizon, enjoying dinner in an under water observatory with a 400kg fish as our dinner guest, star gazing over the ocean and waking up to see the sun rise over the blue horizon, coloring all the clouds in the sky 50 shades of purple – no boxes ticked there, just memories engrained in my mind forever. The beauty and serenity out at the Reef is impressive, at least it was until the mid-morning when the cruise arrived with a new set of noisy tourists who were there to “tick off their box”.  Despite our disrupted silence out on the pontoon, we were able to escape the chatter for a quick helicopter ride to see the famous heart shaped reef.  No words can describe how surreal the experience was. All there is to see are endless miles of expansive bright turquoise reef and crystal clear water. The water is so clear you can see straight through, revealing even the stingrays hovering over the sand.  Truly incredibly natural beauty.

Sunrise over the Reef

Coral above the water during low tide

Ready for lift off

Heart shaped reef view from the helicopter

No wonder it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World

Our amazing crew helped make the Reef Sleep trip super accessible

Day 5

The best kinds of vacation days are those filled with absolutely no commitments… and great ocean views. We checked in to our last destination of the trip: Reef View Hotel on Hamilton Island. Our room on the 14th floor dawned over breathtaking views of the Whitsunday Islands and welcomed us again with a bottle of bubbly wishing me a happy birthday (Oh that Joe!). Our lazy day on the island consisted of lounging poolside, more paddle boarding – this time mixing it up with some yoga moves balancing on the water, drinking at the swim-up bar, and an afternoon snooze on the pool chair. We ended the day laughing our socks off at each other’s ridiculousness at dinner together.

View from our balcony at the Reef View Hotel

Lounging poolside enjoying some live tunes

Delicious and laughter filled dinner at Romano’s

Day 6

Whoever said all good things must come to an end must have gone on a lot of really great vacations. We made use of every last sunshine filled moment on our last day on the islands, but doesn’t it always seem like you could use just one more day of holiday? Heading to the airport we must have looked like the long faced tourists we saw in the departure lounge upon our arrival. Our fate caught up to us and the tables had turned – now envying the pale-skin, happy-faced new island dwellers just getting off the plane that was about to take us away from the lovely sun and sea we enjoyed all week.

Can’t we just stay?

Bike, rain, and wine

We ventured out of the Melbournian box and took a short little trip out to the Yarra Valley with our bikes and buddies, Gerardo and Diana, last weekend. The Yarra Valley is about 45 minutes outside of Melbourne and is home to a beautiful country side filled with rolling hills, delicious vineyards and vast farmlands. The area serves as a much-needed escape from the bustling city and concrete jungle.

In theory, biking on a trail from winery to winery sounds like a great way to spend a weekend, but the weather and steep hill variables were not considered before making these plans. If you are considering biking the Yarra Valley bike trail, hope for sunny and dry weather and plan your wine tasting tour on a separate trip. Joe and Gerardo rode up on the train to Lilydale with Joe’s wheelchair and hand cycle while Diana and I drove up in the torrential rain with our luggage and three other bikes. As the rain kept pounding on the windshield, we questioned our intentions to bike around the valley. The warning signs didn’t scare off the boys. From the Lilydale station, they found the Warburton Trail and headed through the mud to our first stop at the Whispering Hills Cellar Door. Soaking wet and covered in mud, the adventure seeking men dried up next to the cozy wood stove chimney and we all enjoyed some incredible Persian Feta (among other yummy cheeses) and a great selection of wine. The Chardonnay is a must try at Whispering Hills! We ended evening with a warm, delicious dinner at the Innocent Bystander in Healesville. Known for their Moscato on tap, the Innocent Bystander delivers multiple gastronomic treats from the cheese room to the artisan bakery and everything in between. Be sure to check them out if you’re in the area!

Joe booked us into a bed and breakfast home to some friendly pets: mini ponies and lambs, Baaarb and Baaart! Sue and Graeme at Woodhaven Park provided a comfortable and lovely home away from home.

The second day we rode on praying the rain had made its way out of the valley.

Joe back on his bike, working on those biceps and staying dry on day 2.

Gerardo toting along Joe’s wheelchair on a questionably reliable milk crate. We’re classy down under!

It turns out that although the Warburton Trail doesn’t actually take the bikers, pedestrians, horses and pets enjoying the trail sights to the wineries’ front doors, a biking winery tour in Yarra Valley is possible… hard work, but possible. Engaging our powerful quads (and biceps), we muscled our way up steep hills to enjoy the free wine tastings the wineries have to offer (Free Alert: most things in Australia aren’t cheap, much less free, but all the wineries offer free tastings of their deliciously fermented grape juices!). The first stop was a bust with only two wines on the tasting menu, but at the second stop: Seville Estate a friendly winery dog welcomed us to wine room with a stunning valley view and big, bold award-winning wines. Home to some of the best wines I’ve had in Australia, Joe and I came home with a 2008 Shiraz and an Old Vine 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. After wetting our palettes and working up an appetite, we headed for winery No. 3 for the day.

At Seville Estates.

What goes up, must come down and (in the case of winery hunts on this trip)… must come up again. After a few kilometers of tough, calorie burning hills, our welcomed wine happiness started wearing off and muscle fatigue set in. Turns out that normal business hours aren’t necessarily standard in the valley, so winery 3, Ainsworth Estate, had no wine or cheese to offer us that day.

Diana and Joe owning the road (this was a nice hill).

Friendly tip: Call ahead of time to ensure tasting rooms are open (and serving food if you’re hungry).

With a 1 for 3 track record for the day we were hoping to break even with our last stop at Brimfield Winery.  We struck gold with the homey tasting room and café. Treated to a special home-made Dukkah (a delicious Egyptian spice and nut mixture) with olive oil and bread, the small family run winery provided the much-needed fuel we needed to bike back to the car and train station to begin our trip home.

Accessorizing with our helmets, we headed back after a nice, short weekend getaway.

Aussie is the new normal

We define new normals all the time, but when things like stores closing at 6pm on weeknights, saying “how you going” to greet people, and incorporating about 50 “no worries” into daily speech became more normal than not, I realized that I am home. I jump on the tram or train without hesitation (and actually know where I’m going). I don’t even look at wines from other countries on the wine lists anymore… local Aussie wine only for this lady please! Melbourne and the Aussie way are my new normal. Stress free, easy going, amazing food, city living, normal.

With a new normal set comfortably into place, I’ve also sinked in to a bit of nostalgia for the old normal. For outdoor wine nights with friends (with California wines), sunny beach walks, daily catch-ups with family (especially my drive home calls to mom), and slobbery kisses from my four-legged girls as a welcome home from work. The blog and facebook updates are also less frequent because of this normalcy. As exotic and adventurous as living down under sounds, the fact is that our day-to-day lives don’t differ much from when we were in L.A. Our lives have adopted the local culture and we’re considered… scoff… normal (but still totally rad of course). We work, eat out, grocery shop (not using the granny cart as much these days… must be learning some city living tricks of the trade), have poker nights, work out, do yoga, watch movies, check out live music venues, entertain with dinner at our place… you know, the norm. I miss miss miss all the amazing people we shared those lovely “normal” things with back in L.A., but it hardly seems like the daily activities are something to write home about… or a blog post at that (but here it is anyway).

 Dinner with me, Joe, Geoff, Vish & Emma. Mexican feast and blood orange margaritas on the menu!


Lazy dinner night with Jimmy and Colleen… wine, pizza and a very special cutie pattutie!

Did you pick up on the similar camera angle? Thank goodness for bar carts and self timers to help capture memories!

New normal or old normal, normal or not, life continues to roll on with amazing people coming in and out of it giving us exactly what we need in that moment. I miss my amigos back home more than I can describe, but love the new ones I’m making in Melbourne. We’re so lucky to have amazing people to pick up along our journey! I wish we could carry each amazing friend in our pocket like lucky pennies (or 5 cent coins for my Aussie friends) and never be so far away.

Fun fact: The lowest monetary denomination in Australia is the 5 cent coin. So if you buy something at $9.96 the change gets rounded up and you end up paying $10… although few things in Australia actually costs $10.

 

Queen Victoria Market

We finally made it to the Queen Victoria Market this weekend. I can’t believe it took me over a month to walk 15 minutes to a market full of bliss! Heaps of baskets full of fresh produce with a great organic section welcomes you into the food market. Stalls of cheeses and olives and fresh organic breads line the inside of the deli. The fish, poultry, and meat market has everything from Tasmanian salmon to blue crabs to any cut of meat you could dream up.

The market is also great for those cheap nick nacks you never knew you couldn’t live without (like a nail drying fan for $2!). Coffee and lunch? Yup, you can grab that too! Other stores filled with candles and aboriginal art line the northern perimeter of the market as well.

I can’t believe I didn’t bring my granny cart (I finally got one) to this amazing place! My nearly daily trips to Woolworths are ending here… I found my shopping place!

What’s for dinner? Well cheese and wine of course. It was reminiscent of the time Joe and I spent in London in January of 2007. One night, Joe got to the flat after work and I prepared a cheese platter of decadent creamy goodness that I picked up at the market. We sat down, opened a bottle of wine and Joe said, “thanks, this is great! What’s for dinner?” We’ve enjoyed many wine and cheese dinners ever since.

Diving and danger in Queensland

From Sydney, Amy and I flew to Cairns (pronounced cans). Word of advice while traveling within Australia… JetStar is an inexpensive no frills airline (similar to Southwest Airlines in the States) but don’t expect it to run on time or get on with free luggage. Apparently you need to pre-book your luggage when you book your flight while traveling within Australia to avoid excessive baggage fees (and you’ll have to stay within the strict weight limit as well). One domestic travel aspect that works in a light traveler’s favor is that there are no liquid restrictions on domestic flights, but aerosols need to have a cap, otherwise they will get tossed (R.I.P. foaming sunless tanner).

After an incident at security (may or may not have had anything to do with Amy being scanned for explosives…twice) and a flight delay due to an airport fire in Cairns, we arrived at the much awaited Great Barrier Reef! Well, to the Cairns airport at least. We flew into Cairns and took a shuttle from the airport to Port Douglas (about 1.5 hours north), where all the boat departures and most area tours are based. Port Douglas is a cute beach town with no traffic lights and a main strip of restaurants and bars that entertain both locals and tourists at night. The area was not filled with the white sandy beaches I was expecting to relax on. The ocean water was a murky home to crocodiles and jellyfish. To experience the aqua blue waters you would expect to see, you have to travel about 2 hours by boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. The sights above and below water are more than words (or pictures) can eloquently express.

Scuba Diving in the Great Barrier Reef

After a lifelong dream of experiencing the land under the sea (did the Little Mermaid soundtrack play in your head too?), I finally got to scuba dive for the first time! Not certified? Don’t fret, you can dive through an introductory open water course. I felt a little more prepared since Joe and I went through an intro pool dive five years ago when he was in the rehab hospital in Denver. The pool intro definitely prepared me for what to expect in the open ocean. However, most in our group had never strapped on scuba gear before. On the ride out to the reef, a scuba instructor carefully explained the breathing technique, hand signals, and ear equalizing to the group.

I highly recommend taking the Poseidon Reef Snorkeling and Dive tour. I went on three introductory dives on my first time out! My first time down I was purely concentrated on three things: breathing in, breathing out, and not losing the scuba instructor. I’m not sure why I thought if I took my eyes off of him I might get lost in the great ocean. The next two times down I was really able to take it all in. Sitting on the ocean floor, getting kissed on the goggles by a big orange fish, and touching a purple clam the size of our bulldog, Gouda (oh, how I miss those girls), was surreal. Next up, scuba certification!

I didn’t get any pictures of my dives, but just imagine the beauty under here:

The Daintree Rainforest

Just about 40 minutes north of Port Douglas you can explore the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world where the tropical plants grow straight out to the Australian shore. The Daintree is home to some pretty impressive species of plants and animals, including some crazy venomous snakes, cantaloupe-sized spiders, and killer birds.

As our tour guide described how almost everything that lived in the forest could cause possible human death, Amy and I kept guard out for lurking spider webs and thorny plant vines swinging overhead. What we didn’t expect was to encounter a rare and endangered prehistoric flightless bird called a Cassowary. As we strayed from our tour group to listen in on interesting forest facts other tour guides were sharing with their groups, a gigantic animal resembling a turkey, but with a blue head and dinosaur feet jumped out in front of us on the trail! “A cassowary!” I shouted. I only knew about this bird because about 15 minutes prior, our guide pointed out a Cassowary Plum, a seed that grows in the rainforest only after being digested and excreted by the Cassowary bird. The seed is toxic to any other animal that eats it, but the Cassowary bird and the Cassowary Plum have this interesting symbiotic relationship going that allows both of them to benefit off each other. The bird came and went, and our group missed it, walking ahead of us eager to get back in the car. A different tour guide, panicked by the surprise appearance of the bird, warned his group to stay away from the bird since they have been known to attack by jumping on people until they puncture the person’s jugular with their deathly claws if they feel threatened. We got to see it (and get a good picture)!

  

The Daintree is filled with Jurassic-age species of plants, gravity defying vines, and other interesting mosses and fungi:

  

  

The rain started to come down as we explored, but only a few drops of water hit our heads since the dense, multi-layered canopy was acting as a natural umbrella from the rain.

While lunch was on the barbie, Amy and I ventured out in a canoe down the river by ourselves. I’d like to say that we braved grand rapids (although we were the only two in the group who made it out of the small wading lagoon into the river), wrestled crocs, and fished for our lunch, but the ride was pretty uneventful… well, except for that large Eastern Water Dragon that plopped in the water in front of our canoe. Before heading out for our official river boat tour, I picked up a rainforest rock for my nephew, Tyler, who is fascinated by geology.

To wrap up our time in the Daintree Rainforest, we headed on a river boat and set out to see the mangroves and some Aussie crocs! We spotted 5 – 2 males and 3 females! Since it is the beginning of winter here, the crocs are pretty sedentary. They come in from the ocean and practically hibernate on the mudbanks. The mangrove-lined river displayed an intricate web of mangrove roots, home to spawning fish before they head out to sea. We were on the river at low tide, so we were able to really appreciate the shallow rooted trees.

  

We ended the forest tour with a stop by the famous Floravilla Ice Cream Factory, a biodynamic, organic and very tasty ice cream treasure in Daintree. It was a great way to rattle our taste buds and cool off with flavors like black sapote, pumpkin cinnamon, rhubarb, goji berry, avocado, and chili chocolate.

And then it was time to say goodbye… to beautiful Queensland and my friend. My first Aussie exploration would not have been as memorable without a partner in crime. Amy, thanks for being our first visitor and for being the best crazy repeller, dessert eating, spider killing, dolphin stealing travel buddy I could have asked for!

Look out on top of Mount Alexandra in the Daintree Rainforest

Sydney, sunny and delicious

Homesickness struck during my first trip away from our new home in Australia. Sydney reminded me so much of Los Angeles. The sunny weather, the beautiful beaches, and the endless supply of fun and active things to do made our time in Sydney pretty amazing.

We stayed near the Darling Harbour, a central and convenient location to most things in the city. Unlike Melbourne, Sydney’s public transport didn’t seem very popular (remind you of L.A.?), so the central location made it easy to get around the main areas of town. You can also find the best lunch deal in Sydney (and questionably in all of Australia) at Darling Harbour… A main (entrées here are actually appetizers and mains are their entrée), wine, coffee or dessert, and a nice view for $20!

The Sydney Harbour and view of the Sydney Opera House

Pictures you have seen of the Sydney Opera House don’t do it justice. It is an architectural marvel! I didn’t get to do the indoor tour, but Amy recommended it as a must! The multi-venue performance arts center was designed in 1957 by a Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, and finished in 1973, ten years late and more than fourteen times over budget, costing a total of $102 million.

  

  

Sydney Botanical Gardens

The Sydney Botanical Gardens is an incredible place to see some of the impressive birds of Australia. A walk (or healthy jog) through the gardens unveils Rainbow Lorikeets (see it hiding in the tree?), Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, flying foxes (aka bats), other wildlife and native Australian plants. I wanted to take a cockatoo home with me!

  

Taronga Zoo

Besides the great Harbour views on the ferry ride out to the Taronga Zoo, our trip out to the zoo fulfilled our need to see Australian wildlife (even if it was outside of the wild). My highlights: koalas, wallabies, (lazy) kangaroos, and cute meerkats.

  

  

Sunset bike ride at Manly Beach

We hopped on a ferry to Manly Beach, a fun surfing town across the Sydney Harbour. We arrived close to sunset and rented bikes near the ferry port and took off to bike along the coast into one of the national forests and then down to Shelly Beach.

Dine and drink musts

Manly Wines: On the Esplanade with a beach view. Don’t go without ordering the stuffed mushrooms, squid, bikini salad (prawns, beets, zucchini, and blood oranges)!

Ms. G’s: in Pott’s Point this modern Asian fusion restaurant is worth the nearly 2-hour wait! I don’t think they take reservations, so make your way up to their bar area for a cocktail or two while you wait for oen of the best dinners of your life (bold?). You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but order the Stoner’s Delight for dessert if you want to blow your brain with flavors that confuse your taste buds into thinking you are in food heaven.

Tio’s: A dark and hip tequila bar with free “spicy” popcorn… although our bag seemed to be missing the kick.

Baxter: An underground spot with 360 different types of whiskey! Vintage trendy scene.

The Ivy: Awesome vibe with cool décor by the same owners as Ms. G’s. An indoor/outdoor bar filled with beautiful people.

A trip back to this city is definitely in order!

Milk, eggs and blisters

Calling all New Yorker’s, San Franciscans, Bostonians… basically any of you most walkable cities residents! HOW DO YOU GROCERY SHOP??? No, seriously… how do you do it? A trip to the grocery store for me in LA consisted of driving my car to Trader Joe’s, walking out of the car, seeing the “Don’t forget your bags!” sign, walking back to my car to get the bags and then heading into the grocery store only to wheel out my cart full of goodies, put them in my trunk (or boot as the Aussies call it) and then drive home. Minimal bag carrying involved. Minimal steps involved. I would often challenge myself to carry all of the groceries into the house in one trip. That’s about as difficult as it got friends!

Melbourne is much different. Boy was I schooled on the grocery shopping technique sans car! I picked up as much as my little basket could fit thinking that if I could carry the basket around in the store my muscles could easily handle the walk back to the hotel.  Picked up some milk, eggs, bananas, some other essentials (yes, of course taking advantage and exploring the range of regional wines!)….

Checked out at the self check out stand (yikes these prices are painful), bagged my groceries (still have to get myself some reusable bags here) and walked to our temporary home in these cuties:

My shoes aren’t always the most comfortable, but I thought I’d change that since my new city requires a lot more walking than car dependent L.A. Look at that cushioned insole! Don’t they just scream comfort? Perfect for a cute but casual errand running trip? I thought so too, until 5 blocks later when I arrived back at the hotel waddling into the room with killer blisters on my feet and four plastic grocery bags cutting into my hands. I dropped the bags on the counter, kick the shoes off and collapsed on the floor. Ok… sorry for the drama. But I seriously remember whispering to myself “you can do it!” when I was only half way to the hotel. I eventually did manage to get it together and whip up the ingredients that had cause so much pain into a descent meal. I might need a granny cart after all.