Hunter Valley

To celebrate my birthday this year, we rented a car and drove down to the Hunter Region on a Friday, a couple of hours from Sydney. The region is famous for its wineries and nice food, and is a popular weekend destination. We rented a small bungalow in Polkolbin, which was lovely. The porch opened up on a lovely view of fields, a pond, and rows of grape wines.

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There was a tiny Shetland pony walking around in the field, and Mike decided to open the gate and go to say hello. The pony seemed friendly at first, but when Mike stood up it bit him in the leg! He got a big bruise, but found it very funny.

Mike had arranged to have a couple of rental bikes dropped off at where we were staying, and after a lovely breakfast in the sun we got on the bikes and went on a little tour.

Wine tasting

There’s about 150 wineries in Hunter Valley, and a lot of them offer drop-in wine tastings, either for free or for a $5 fee. We found a nice little loop to do on our bikes that would take us past loads of them, as well as some nice food shops. We ended up wine tasting at 3 different wineries and I think we ended up tasting 15 different types of wine. However I can’t say I remember anything that we learnt – I know as little about wine now as I did before. But we did get two very nice bottles of wine at the second winery – one of which I’m saving for my actual birthday on Tuesday.

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Fudge & chocolate factory

Right next to the second  winery, there was a Chocolate & Fudge factory. The shop was huge, with lots of delicious choice. Mike bought a chocolate and salted caramel fudge which didn’t taste like fudge at all, but rather like a very delicious soft of chocolate.

Smelly Cheese Shop

Apparently the Smelly Cheese shop is a bit famous in Polkolbin, and they had a very impressive selection of cheeses available. Mike did a little tasting, he loves cheeses with chili or anything spicy, and ended up buying three types of cheese. We also had lunch there, a sausage roll and a chili dog.

After that we biked home past lots of wallabies on a golf course. We ended the day with a lovely BBQ with some nice meat that Mike had bought specially from a butcher in Sydney. (It’s his new thing.)

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Sydney

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Photogenic

We arrived in Sydney and almost instantly fell in love with the city. We were originally planning on just visiting Sydney for four days, and then head up the coast to Brisbane to settle there – but after a day we decided to abandon that idea, and look for work in Sydney instead. Sydney is a beautiful and lively city, and of course it helped that it was really sunny and between 25 – 30 degrees when we arrived.

We stayed in a hostel in Potts Point, right next to Kings Cross station, for two weeks when we first arrived. The hostel was nice, but living in a dorm with 8-12 people quickly becomes old, so we were relieved to find a room to sublet for 2 weeks. We’ve now found a room in the area with a 5 month contract, so all we need now is jobs!

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There are many things to love about Sydney, the fantastic views of the harbour, the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, the Botanical Gardens and more. Here are a few of our favourites – but as we’ll be staying in Sydney for the foreseeable future, expect more!

Bondi Beach 

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Both Mike and I agree that one of the best things about Sydney is the proximity to the beach. We live two stops on the train and a short bus ride away from Bondi Beach – my favourite of the many beaches Sydney has to offer. After having watched many seasons of Bondi Rescue on TV it was great to see the place in real life – it looks just as good as it does on TV!

On our first visit to Bondi we did the Bondi to Coogee clifftop walk, which was great. The walk has some truly spectacular scenery and it also gave us the opportunity to see a few of the other beaches and explore the area. On a later visit Mike went surfing (his third time ever), which he found enjoyable but also exhausting. I enjoy just lying on the beach watching people, there’s so much going on!

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Surfing is exhausting

Watsons Bay 

In the Easter long weekend we took the ferry out to Watsons Bay, as the guide book had said that this is one of the best ferry rides in the Harbour. It was a great boat ride, and Watsons Bay was nice. We did a little walk along the cliffs, and saw the lighthouse, before we chilled in the park.

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Sydney view from Watsons

Botanical Garden 

Sydney has many great parks, and one of the things we’ve done a lot since coming here is having picnics in as many of them as possible. There’s no better way to spend a warm afternoon than in the park with a good picnic! Out of all the parks, the Botanical Garden is the nicest one, though. It’s got a great view of the harbour, and from many points the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. There’s also lots of interesting birds to watch, and plants to discover.

The park with the most interesting wildlife is Hyde Park, however, it’s the home of huge Fruit Bats and very tame possums that come out at night looking for food! It was a very fun and exotic experience meeting them unexpectedly in the park for the first time.

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Possum and rat friends

The Blue Mountains

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Three Sisters

During the Easter long weekend we discovered that you can take the train anywhere you want for $2.50 on Sundays – and we decided to use the opportunity to visit the Blue Mountains. The train from Central Sydney took a bit longer than expected – it made many stops – but after about three hours we arrived in Katoomba.

Echo Point

It was sunny but significantly more chilly than in Sydney, and the air was fresh and nice. We walked down from the train station to the viewing platform for the Three Sisters at Echo Point. As you would expect on a Sunday in the Easter long weekend, the place was packed full of tourists. But the view of the mountains is truly magnificent.

Prince Henry Cliff walk 

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Admiring the view

Mike had originally planned that we would go on a bush walk down into the valley – but the stairs down to the Three Sisters and further down were rammed full of tourists, and the line was barely moving. So instead we took the track to the left, and went on the Prince Henry Cliff walk. This walk was MUCH less crowded, after an hour and past Gordon Falls we almost had it to ourselves.

We went around the cliffs, through the Eucalyptus forest from one viewing point to the next. The mountains really look spectacular from all angles, and you understand why they are called the Blue Mountains. We ended up taking the train back from Leura, tired and satisfied after our first long bush walk.

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Echo Point view
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Cascades

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The Great Ocean Road

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The Wicked Van

We hadn’t originally planned on driving the Great Ocean Road in our first month in Australia. But the weather in Sydney was rainy, and there was a cyclone and flooding in Queensland, so we decided to stay down south for the time being. We looked for a campervan that needed to be relocated – so we wouldn’t have to pay – but no luck, so we went for the cheapest one we could find. Needless to say, we got what we paid for – a really old, really dirty van with some mattresses in the back and a whole lot of graffiti on the outside.

Still, we were lucky and had nice weather and  great 5 days 4 nights on the road, with lots of stunning beaches, marvellous scenery, and all the classic Australian wildlife we could wish for.

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On the road again

Our route: 

Day 1 Melbourne to Lorne

Day 2 Lorne to Apollo Bay

Day 3 Apollo Bay to Warrnambool

Day 4 Warrnambool to Ballarat

Day 5 Ballarat to Sydney

Read about our highlights below.

Lorne and Erskine falls 

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Mike feeding the local cockatoos

The first part of the Great Ocean Road contains a lot of beautiful but dangerous beaches, and pretty little costal towns. We decided to spend the night in Lorne, a beautiful town by the beach, right next to the forest. One of the first things we noticed on arrival were the massive and super noisy cockatoos that were everywhere! They must get fed at the camping grounds a lot, because they would descend in droves as soon as they saw a crumb of bread. Lots of them would even sit on people’s shoulders.

Erskine falls lies a few minutes drive from the town, and with Mike’s love for waterfalls we had to visit. It reminded me a lot of the waterfall inside the Cloud Forest Dome in Singapore!

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Erskine falls

Koalas and Otway lighthouse

One of my biggest wishes for the roadtrip was to get to see some Australian wildlife. We saw lots of kangaroos already on day one, on the golf course at Anglesea. (Our Lonely Planet guide book mentioned that there’s lots of kangaroos living there, and we were not disappointed.) On the second day we stopped in Kennett River on the lookout for koalas (also on a tip from Lonely Planet) and as we walked towards the camping ground we spotted one instantly! Koalas look even more cuddly in real life than in pictures, if that’s possible.

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Koala

Our other main stop that day was the lighthouse on cape Otway. The coast in this area is known for being really dangerous, and for being the scene of hundreds of shipwrecks. The lighthouse and the surrounding historical buildings have been very well preserved, and it was really interesting to learn about the history of the area. And the view from the lighthouse was amazing.

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Otway lighthouse

Twelve Apostles 

The Twelve Apostles are the most famous of the rock formations along the Great Ocean Road, but there are lots of other ones, including the Arch, the Gorge, London Bridge and the Grotto. The Apostles really do look spectacular, and are definitely worth a visit. Mike’s favourite of the formations was the Grotto. I quite liked London Bridge.

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Tower Hill Reserve

Tower Hill reserve is a nature reserve in a old volcano crater close to Warrnambool. According to Lonely Planet it’s ‘one of the few places where you can see cangaroos, emus and koalas hanging out together.’ The place is beautiful and teeming with wildlife, and on the nature trails we did indeed see all three species of animals. The view from the edge of the volcano crater is pretty cool too. However the emus in the picnic area were a bit to close for comfort!

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Views from the volcano
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Emus trying to steal food
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It was a windy trip – and yes I only have one set of warm clothes that I wear every day!

Melbourne

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View of Melbourne from St Kilda

We arrived in Australia really early in the morning after spending the night on the plane from Singapore. Needless to say our first day in Australia we were pretty tired and spaced out.

We’d both heard a lot of good things about Melbourne, so had quite high expectations. Arriving in Melbourne it definitely felt like being back in the West. The city has a very European feel, and we got there just as the temperatures dropped and autumn really got going. In a way it feels kind of natural after 3 months of ‘summer’, but it also feels very strange that it’s Easter soon, and winter is around the corner.

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Laneways in the CBD

Botanical garden

Our first full day in Melbourne turned out to be the last really warm day (at least so far – the weather here is famously unpredictable) and we brought a picnic to the botanical garden to meet some of Mike’s friends from back home. In the city in Melbourne it feels like being in Europe, but once you go to a park or out of town it feels strangely exotic and familiar all at once. The botanical garden is wonderful, full of exotic birds and great gum trees, and ponds and different paths. We only saw a small area of it, but if we were to live in Melbourne I’d go there as often as possible.

St Kilda

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Baby penguin

St Kilda is one of the most obvious destinations for tourists in Melbourne. We took the tram out on a windy day to walk along the famous promenade, and look for penguins. Mike saw a baby penguin between the rocks far out on the pier – apparently the time to spot them is around sunset, but we didn’t stick around for that. We had a nice walk and did some window shopping – there were so many bakeries with delicious looking cakes to choose from that I became quite overwhelmed, and I ended up buying nothing. For lunch we tried Parma, apparently an Australian specialty. It’s basically a chicken snitzel with ham and cheese – Mike was a bit underwhelmed by it. But we both thought St Kilda was a pretty cool place.

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Entrance to Luna Park

Sate Library of Victoria

I love libraries, and the State Library is a worthy tourist attraction in itself. It has a great big dome in the centre, and two levels of free exhibitions. One of them was about the history of Victoria, which was really interesting. The second was an exhibition of some of the antique books the library has in its collection, which is right up my street. After the exhibitions closed, we sat for a while on the steps outside the library in the evening sun, listening to street musicians.

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Love a good library

Singapore

Singapore is the most modern city I’ve ever been in. The central district looks like it’s all been dreamed up by an architect with unlimited funds, the underground is super cheap and seems brand new (especially compared to London) everything is very clean and everyone seems very well to do. It’s a novel experience, but it can also feel quite eerie and artificial at times. It was also really warm and humid at around 35 degrees, which was a nice change from Vietnam. It was quite an exotic experience, and we very much enjoyed it.

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Mike in front of the CBD

Gardens by the bay

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The super trees and the domes

One of the most famous sights in Singapore is the great ‘super trees’, metal structures covered in plants along the bay. They are part of a the Gardens by the Bay, an amazing park. At night there’s a light show with music at the trees which is quite fun to watch, and the gardens are also really nice in the day. The gardens are free to enter, and we paid to enter the ‘Cloud Forest Dome’ which is an amazing green house simulating a rainforest. Definitely one of the attractions that are a must do in Singapore!

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Super trees by night
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Inside the Cloud

Botanical gardens

Mike loves to visit as many parks as possible when we’re in a new city, and the Botanical gardens is one of his all time favorites. Like you would expect the park is full of exotic plants and trees, and there’s also lots of birds, fish, turtles and big and small lizards. We went back to the park for a free piano concert on Sunday night, the atmosphere was great and it was still really warm and nice after the sun went down.

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Piano concert in the gardens

Marina Bay Sands 

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Nice views and infinity pool at the Sands

The hotel Marina Bay Sands is one of the most familiar buildings on the Singapore skyline. It is often described as a boat placed on top of three sky scrapers. The top deck contains an infinity pool and spa – unfortunately it’s only available for guests at the hotel, which we were not. But you can buy a 20$ voucher for the bar which gives you access to the top floor. The view is spectacular, and we thought it was worth spending a little extra on a drink and get to see it.

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Lightshow at the Marina Bay Sands
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Awkward selfie on the roof of the Sands
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The old Supreme Court, now a museum with some great free exhibitions

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh district

Having spent almost a week in Hanoi, Mike was getting a bit restless. We were flying out of Hanoi later in the week, so we didn’t want to travel too far away from town. The solution was taking the bus a couple of hours down to Ninh Binh, an area known for it’s natural beauty.

Trang An boat trip

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Rowing under the mountains

One of the main attractions of the area is a boat trip down the river. The boats are tiny, with room for no more than five people, and rowed by small Vietnamese women. The scenery is spectacular, with bright green rice fields and towering limestone mountains, but it is the caves that are the coolest part. The lakes and the river are connected by a seemingly endless number of caves going under the mountains. The caves are barely big enough to accommodate the boats. When you get out on the other side you’re on a lake in the middle of the mountains, seemingly with no connection to anywhere else, and when you think you’ve reached the end of the lake you go through another small crack in the mountain, and the whole thing happens again. Truly spectacular.

Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, Cuc Phoung national park

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Poor little monkey

Cuc Phoung national park lies about 1 1/2 hours from Tam Coc by scooter. When we were almost there we ran out of petrol, but luckily there was a petrol pump 10 minutes walk away! The main reason I wanted to visit the park was for the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. There’s also a centre for turtles – I’ve never seen so many species of turtles in one place.

The primate centre houses 150 individual apes and monkeys, (gibbons and langours mostly) that have been rescued from smugglers or private owners. The goal is to release the animals back into the wild, but the guide said that this is quite difficult, since there’s a lack of safe natural habitats left for them to be released into. It was wonderful to see the animals, many of whom had babies, but it’s also quite sad to see them in cages, knowing that many have to spend years or decades in captivity. The tour of the centre is quite quick, which I think is better for the animals, but I wish we could have stayed longer to watch the animals.

Bai Dinh temple complex

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Biggest temple complex in Vietnam

We’ve visited a fair few temples during our time in Southeast Asia, from temples in jungles and caves, in the big cites, and of course the temples of Angkor. However the modern Bai Dinh temple complex is by far one of my favorites.

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Buddhas

The complex was built from 2003 to 2010, and there’s also an ancient temple on the site. It is built on a hillside, there are three main temples, and the further up you get, the bigger and more impressive the temples get, and the more stunning the views. The three temples are fenced in by corridors lined with Buddhas.

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We almost had the whole place to ourselves

We were there quite late in the day, and there were almost no other visitors. This contributed to the peaceful and serene atmosphere of the place, which was also enhanced by the surrounding natural beauty. From the third temple on the hillside we had a view over the whole valley and the lake below, and the surrounding mountains. We also went into the stupa on the side of the complex, and the view was amazing.

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The 12 storey stupa

The vibe is probably quite different during busy religious holidays, but as the whole complex is so big it’s quite easy to feel like it’s empty. I thought it was a wonderful experience to almost have the whole place to ourselves.

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Lots of gold and snacks