From Hong Kong to Here, Dazed and Amused

I’m having a hard time writing about our week in Hong Kong, which is probably due to the fact we’re currently in Barcelona, a city that has me enraptured. I just can’t wait to descend the apartment steps, hit the narrow cobblestone street, stroll under one of Gaudi’s lamp posts here in the Gothic quarter, and decipher snippets of conversation that are the linguistic equivalent of paella — Catalan, Castilian, French, Italian and English all simmered together, wonderfully textured and heavily seasoned.

Plus, I’m still mentally recovering from the odyssey of getting here. We got ensnared by the weekend British Airways strike, which canceled our connection from London to Barcelona.

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A Little Bite of Hong Kong

I have lots to share about our week in Hong Kong, but family and friends seem most curious to know about what we ate there. Here, then, is a little taste of our dining (mis)adventures in Hong Kong, with more to come about our visit in the next post.

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Canberra: There’s Something To It!

A great place to start the day: drinking coffee outside the ambassador’s house.

Regular readers of this blog know of the National Lampoon Vacation-esque lodging we sometimes find ourselves in — establishments such as the Blackball Hilton (dorm-style rooms with recycled hospital beds) and the Abel Tasman Barn (two toilets to share with fifty other backpackers). More recently, we became aficionados of flimsy cabins at campervan parks. We now feel as though we’ve scored some fancy digs if we stay in a place that has carpeting made for indoor use only.

Imagine how we felt, therefore, upon arriving at the place we were invited to stay in Canberra: the United States Embassy! (Cue the banjo music as the Smiths, with beach sand still in their hair, drive through the security gates in their bird-poop-covered, packed-to-the-roof dented rental…)

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Changes Ahead

So long, Australia! This shot overlooks Canberra and Lake Burley Griffin.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about “how to plan a year-long family itinerary” as though I were some kind of expert on the topic. But far from being experts, Morgan and I are learning as we go — with mixed success. As soon as I published that post, we made the big, difficult decision to tear apart and rebuild the last leg of our itinerary.

The rebuilding part has been rather stressful and time consuming, with thousands of dollars and our last month of travel at stake. We ate up much of our limited WiFi access during the last few weeks researching where to go, how to get there, how much it’ll cost and where to stay. As is often the case with travel planning, these issues are maddeningly interrelated.

So here’s the scoop:

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Cracking Up On the Coast from Victoria to NSW

We’ve seen way too many pirate-themed mini golf courses around the southeast coast of Australia.

We’ve seen way too many pirate-themed mini golf courses around the southeast coast of Australia.

“Oh no,” Morgan said in a voice suppressing deep, demented giggles. We had just checked into a “deluxe cabin” at the Anchor Belle Caravan Park on Phillip Island and were thumbing through visitors’ brochures. “It says here that Phillip Island has so much to offer, it’s worth a whole day!” He unleashed his manic laughter. “Good thing we’re spending FIVE days here!”

We’re getting punchy on this swing through Australia. Perhaps we’ve spent too much time at mini golf courses and RV parks. Perhaps we’ve had too many budget meals at surf shacks with names like Doctor Food (where Morgan ate a half-cooked burger, dramatically clutched his stomach and said, “Call the doctor — I just ate at Doctor Food!”). Perhaps it’s because all the gum trees and little coastal towns inhabited by white retirees look so similar that we feel we’re driving in circles rather than northward.

The other day we were driving from a town called Lakes Entrance to our current spot, Batemans Bay, in torrential rain. A gummy gray gum tree forest dominated the so-called scenic coastal route. We pulled over to a picnic spot in the squall, where one sad, wet table stood surrounded by endless eucalyptus, and I announced, “Lunchtime!” Then I pulled out our picnic of P&Js and hard-boiled eggs. We all knew without saying that it was too wet to get outside, so we unwrapped our sandwiches and carefully peeled our eggs in baggies while sitting strapped in the car seats.

The four of us sat quietly chewing until Morgan, in the driver’s seat, choked down a bite and broke the silence to declare, “Well, this is fun.” My shoulders started to shake as I looked over and saw that he was overcome by another fit of laughter as well. The kids, observing from the backseat, concluded that their parents were lost in more ways than one.

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The Phillip Island Penguin Charade

A couple of penguins on parade at Phillip Island (photo courtesy of wikimedia).

A couple of penguins on parade at Phillip Island (photo courtesy of wikimedia).

I told my family we should drive to the bottom of Australia and spend several days on Phillip Island mainly because of its star attraction: the Penguin Parade. I had this idea that we would stroll along a beach at sunset and watch waves of hundreds of penguins waddle up to burrow with their babies in the sand in quite possibly the most adorable display of loyalty and domesticity.

Predictably, Colly and Kyle said, “That’s sooooooooo cute!”

So we drove 90 minutes south of Melbourne, crossed a causeway and discovered an island about 16 miles long and 6 miles wide. It’s covered with grassy pastures, gum tree stands, a lot of roads used for racing, and a couple of villages with shops and restaurants overlooking the beach. The island has been a tourist getaway for over a century, and for at least half that time it’s been famous for grand prix car and motorcycle races. (Since we arrived only days before the Superbike World Championship, we saw and heard many men wearing padded leather pants who gunned their bullet bikes after every intersection.)

We got our first lesson on the penguins as soon as we checked into a cabin near the town of Cowes.

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Finding the Best and Worst in Daylesford

Daylesford is a charming little community about an hour and a half north of Melbourne. Set around a lake and ringed by forests, it’s an oasis in the countryside where miles of grassland and gum trees all start to look the same and the country roads seem to go on forever. The town sprung up in the 1860s after gold and timber prospectors flocked to the area, and then it had a second act as a “spa town” when visitors discovered the many mineral springs around it and the neighboring community of Hepburn Springs. Ornately detailed 19th-century storefronts house stylish cafes and day spas. Think of a cross between a Colorado mining town and Calistoga, and you get Daylesford.

Now Daylesford is making a concerted effort to broaden its economic base by marketing itself as “an outdoor adventure destination” for mountain bikers, campers and trekkers — which is what lured our family to spend four nights there.  We took part in a trail run/mountain bike/triathlon “dirt fest” in Wombat State Forest, on the edge of town, and you can read the details and see pics from it on my running blog.

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Byways by the Blue Mountains

It's the cliff faces and canyon more than the moutaintops that give the Blue Mountains their beauty.

The cliff faces and canyons give the Blue Mountains their beauty.

We met a family from Sydney who lowered our expectations of the Blue Mountains National Park when they heard we were spending several days there. I can’t recall their exact words, but they sounded apologetic — something along the lines of, “Don’t be surprised to find they’re not really mountains” and, “at least the cliff faces are rather nice.” They also expressed surprise that we wanted to spend more than a day or two there.

Then Morgan and I began to notice that whenever we saw brochures promoting the Blue Mountains, they featured the same photo of the famous Three Sisters rock formation, as if that’s the only thing in the whole national park worth seeing.

Uh-oh, we thought — why did we plan to spend a whole five nights at an eco lodge there? Then we experienced the upside of lowered expectations: We were pleasantly surprised.

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How To Plan A Year-Long Family Travel Itinerary

After I posted this, I wrote a different — and in some ways, better — version of the story for one of my favorite travel websites, almostfearless.com. That article is called, “The Biggest Mistakes to Avoid While Planning Long-Term Family Travel.” I hope you’ll check it out!

The lookout next to our lodge in the Blue Mountains (click to enlarge).

The lookout next to our lodge in the Blue Mountains (click to enlarge).

The alternative title for this post could be, “How We Ended Up Off A Beaten Path Near The Blue Mountains.”

Our home for the week is at the end of a road in a thick, misty gum tree forest where wild parrots fly overhead and the cliffs of the Blue Mountains plunge into a forested canyon. In the mornings, the parrots flock for a feast of birdseed offered up by Colly and Kyle’s outstretched hands.

"A bird in the hand is worth a loo in the bush" -- the parrots make up for some of the funkier aspects of this eco lodge.

"A bird in the hand is worth a loo in the bush" -- the parrots make up for some of the inconvenient aspects of this eco lodge.

We’re exploring nearby trails, enjoying the offbeat towns of Blackheath and Katoomba, and unplugging at a cabin at the Jemby-Rinjah Eco Lodge, which is deep in the woods with no traffic noise, no Internet access and very few other guests. I love the simple, natural way of life — but I admit I was shocked to discover that the cabin’s toilet lacks what we all take for granted: running water and a flusher. It’s just a seat above a pit, a.k.a. “a roto loo composting system.”  At least I have good reason now to argue that the others should put the lid down when they’re done!

Whenever we find ourselves in a weird and wild place like this, I think to myself, We’re a long way from Piedmont how did we get here? The simple answer is that we reserved this cabin about two months ago. We figured we wanted a rustic setting after two weeks in Sydney, but didn’t want to drive too far or spend money on a flight to elsewhere in Australia. The Blue Mountains National Park seemed like a no-brainer. Our research turned up a New York Times article recommending this affordable eco-lodge, and that was enough to convince us to book it.

As the above example suggests, planning an itinerary is a very unscientific and subjective process that involves looking inward at values and priorities as well as looking outward at the world of possibilities. It’s always a balancing act between dreams and reality — that is, limitless interests versus limited time and resources. Sometimes it’s fascinating, but just as often it’s frustrating.

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Sydney Wet and Wild

Kyle and Colly steppin' out to see Sydney's production of the musical Wicked.

Kyle and Colly steppin' out to see Sydney's production of the musical Wicked.

When we got to Sydney, our friend Cheryl said she had heard that “Australia is the LA and New Zealand is the SF,” and she wanted to know if it’s true. My answer, based on seeing only Sydney so far, is yes — to a point. Sydney, with its string of famous beaches, has a surf culture that mirrors Santa Monica and a sense of style that channels Hollywood. Whereas Kiwi fashion looks earthy and understated, lots of people here dress as though they’re going clubbing — circa 1985. Morgan, who arrived here before me, emailed me on his first day in Sydney: “Make sure to bring high heels, tube tops and tight clothes since it seems to be what lots of other women are wearing. Sort of reminds me of the Aussie girlfriend in Spinal Tap.

But the LA-SF analogy falls apart when I realize that many of Sydney’s loveliest parts evoke San Francisco. In Sydney’s central business and shopping district, grandly refurbished and ornately detailed Victorian and Edwardian buildings stand next to sleek modern high-rises. Along the bustling waterfront, shops, exhibits, restaurants and, of course, boats are everywhere, as though San Francisco’s stretched-out Embarcadero had been compressed into a few distinct harbor areas.

Sydney also feels like San Francisco because of its large Asian population. But the demographic diversity doesn’t stretch much beyond Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Indian. We can buy egg rolls, sushi and curry on every block, but burrito places are few and far between. I can count on one hand the number of black people I’ve seen so far, and the only Latin American I’ve noticed is the wizened old street musician with the rainbow serape who seems to play the pan flute in every major city we visit. And the only Aboriginal I’ve seen yet is on a postcard.

As for the weather, it doesn’t match either city. You could call it “hog” — humid fog. It’s been overcast and rainy most of the time, but sticky hot, and then the sun broke out and it was scorching!

In spite of less-than-perfect weather and a high price tag on everything, we have grown very fond of this city. It’s urban yet easy to get around, flashy yet laid back. Of all the big cities we’ve visited, this is one of the most kid friendly. We’re staying in a high-rise apartment building in the central business district, next to Darling Harbour, where there’s a sprawling playground and easy ferry access. Catching ferries the way you catch cabs or subways in other cities is one of Sydney’s charms.

Here are highlights and recommendations for anyone visiting Sydney:

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