Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Hunter Valley

Being a mere 2 hours drive north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley is a great option for either a day tour, or a place to stay and enjoy a bit longer at one of the Hunter Valley Hotels, Lodges or Retreats.  The region is most commonly known for its wineries, but you don't necessarily have to be a wino to appreciate the beauty of the area.  It is also known for its thoroughbred horse breeding, so horse riding options are quite plentiful.

The early stages of wine....
The region is named for the Hunter River - the main river that flows through the area, although there are several smaller ones also.  The mouth of river is found at Newcastle, the largest city in the vicinity, and the second most populated area in New South Wales.  The Port of Newcastle is of vital importance to the area, especially to facilitate the coal exports for which the area is also known.

There are a number of cultural festivals held each year in Newcastle, as well as a wide range of art galleries and theatres.  The area has a very active music scene, which spawned two popular Australian bands, Silverchair and The Screaming Jets.

Although the Newcastle metropolitan area has an extensive public transport system, to get a really good look  at the region I would suggest hiring a vehicle from our Car Rental page.  However, if you're going to be touring the a booze cruise so that you don't have to worry about drink-driving.
The Hunter Valley
If you don't have a lot of time to spare and want to combine The Hunter Region as part of stay in Sydney, consider doing the spectacular Hunter Valley Luncheon Tour by Helicopter (you can find the link for it on our Sydney Tours Sightseeing and Activities page).  You'll be picked up and dropped back at your hotel, so you don't have to worry about transfers.  It takes approximately 6 hours, but you get a breathtaking aerial view of Sydney Harbour, the city and the northern beaches before landing in one of the vineyards for a scrumptious three-course lunch.  Sit back, relax and absorb the peace and tranquility before heading back to the big city.

Should you choose to drive from Sydney to the Hunter Region, make sure you stop at Somersby (about 50km/31mi north of Sydney) to visit the Australian Reptile Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.  A great place for the kids, it's a hands-on zoo with lots of animal interaction and wildlife shows.  You can even have your photo taken with a python, koala or wombat - just not all at the same time!

Start planning your trip today!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Blue Mountains

If you've already spent time in Sydney checking out the glitz, glamour, nightlife, attractions and all of the wonderful things to experience, perhaps you're ready to venture outside of the city for a while.  One of my favourite nearby regions is the Blue Mountains.  They got their name from the distinctive blue haze that surrounds the area, created when the oil dispersed by the eucalyptus trees, combining with dust and water vapour, scatter short-wave length rays of light that are predominantly blue.   Incidentally, the region was listed as a World Heritage Area by UNESCO in 2000.  
The Blue Haze the area is known for
I took a train from Sydney to Katoomba, the largest city in the area, taking only 2 hours.  It was nice to sit back, relax and watch the scenery change from large, bustling metropolis to virtually untouched landscape in the Blue Mountains National Park.  It was June when I visited, and although the weather in Sydney had been quite nice, it was considerably cooler by the time I got to Katoomba, making me grateful for the jumper I had brought with me.  The main reason for my trip was to get a first hand look at the biggest drawcard of the area - The Three Sisters.
View of The Three Sisters from Echo Point
From the Echo Point lookout, I had a wonderful panoramic view of the Jamison Valley.  After taking a bunch of photos, I made my way around the other side of the gorge to Katoomba Scenic World, where I just had to ride the Scenic Railway and the Skyway.  The railway is the steepest cable-driven funicular railway in the world, with an incline of 52 degrees at the steepest section.  The ride was great and took us through some very dense rainforest, giving a completely different perspective of the area than I got from the lookout.  After getting off the train, I noticed that the wind had picked up considerably but thought "what the heck" and decided to give the Skyway a go.  Boy, am I glad I did!  The view was spectacular and the feeling of being suspended over the gorge and Katoomba Falls was heart-pounding (in a good way)!  As the cable car was returning, a huge cloud of mist started moving up the valley.  It didn't take long before The Three Sisters were obscured from view, so my timing was perfect.  Due to time constraints, I didn't get a chance to experience the Scenic Cableway or do any bushwalking (of which there are lots of options).  If you want a good workout, try the Giant Stairway walking track - it makes my legs hurt just thinking about it!

If you're thinking about visiting and looking for a place to stay, we have a section dedicated to this region on the Blue Mountains Australia Hotels page on our website.  From this page, you can also link to Day Trips & Excursions to the Blue Mountains.  Although Lilianfels is probably the most well known accommodation, there are plenty of other options to choose from.

My trip back to Sydney was uneventful, which I guess isn't all bad.  I have to admit, I did smile smugly as we got closer to the city centre and saw the gridlocked traffic as we glided by on the train.  Sometimes public transport really is a great option.  Stay tuned for my next Australian adventure....

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Iconic Sydney

Immediately, my mind conjures up the image of the harbour with the Sydney Opera House and the Coathanger (Sydney Harbour Bridge), one of the most recognisable scenes in the world.  I don't believe that any trip to Australia could ever be complete without a visit to Sydney.  Of course, for many international travellers, Sydney is often their point of entry, making it very easy to incorporate into their holiday.  I know that when that plane banks and I get a view of the harbour just after dawn, that I've finally arrived home again.
The Sydney Opera House
Let's start with a few facts.  After many years in the travel industry in the US, I've noticed that it's a pretty common misconception that Sydney is the capital of Australia.  As the most populous city in the country and the most well known, I can see where people get that idea from.  Although Sydney is the capital of the state of New South Wales, Canberra is in fact the nation's capital.

Sydney was established in 1788 on January 26th (celebrated annually as Australia Day), by Arthur Phillip, as a penal colony for Britain.  From such harsh and humble beginnings, a true multicultural metropolis did grow.

There's plenty to see, do and experience in and around Sydney. For a start, you can check out the Sydney Tours Sightseeing and Activities page on our website.  One of my personal favourites is the jet boat tour on the harbour.  If you love speed, you'll love this!  Of course, for a more sedate pace, there's always a lunch or dinner cruise.  If you're not leery of heights, try the Harbour Bridge climb.  The view from the top is spectacular!  The regular climb takes 3 and a half hours, but they've added an express climb which can be accomplished in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

The Sydney Aquarium located on Darling Harbour is currently undergoing a face-lift and 3 new areas have recently opened.  This large complex is a great place to spend a day viewing and interacting with some unusual sealife.   Across the harbour from the Opera House you can find Taronga Zoo.  It's easy to catch a ferry from Circular Quay and be there in just over 10 minutes.  A word of warning,'ll probably be pretty knackered after a full day of walking around all the great exhibits since the zoo sits on an incline.  It's totally worth it though, as the views from the zoo, and my favourite spot - the amphitheater where they do the free flight bird show, will knock your socks off!
Sydney Skyline at Dusk
When you're looking for a place to stay, remember, it's a huge city.  It really does help to have an idea of what you want to see and do before picking a place to stay, so that you can find one conveniently located.  Have a look at our Sydney Australia Hotels page to get a better understanding of what's what and to book your hotels in advance at a great price. 

Sydney is a great city to walk around, and you could walk for miles and not see everything.  The Royal Botanic Gardens are right in the heart of the city, and just a short walk from there is Mrs Macquarie's Chair, located on the peninsular, a sandstone bench carved by convicts in 1810.  It's a good place to stop for a breather and admire the view of the harbour.  If you head east, you have to stop for a real Australian meat pie at Harry's Cafe de Wheels near Finger Wharf (the original location).  Or, if you're heading west, you can stroll around to Bennelong Point, where the Opera House sits, and continue on to Circular Quay.  To get a really top notch view of the entire area, zoom to the observation deck of Sydney Tower (sometimes known as AMP Tower or Centrepoint Tower), which stands 309 m (1014 ft) above the CBD.  A stone's throw from the tower is Hyde Park, a lovely, green respite from the concrete and buildings (although it's not quite on the same par as London's Hyde Park).  At the northern end of the park is the Archibald Fountain and at the opposite end you'll find the ANZAC War Memorial.

These are just a few of the many options of things to see and do in Sydney.  I could write pages and pages of stuff, but what fun would that be?  You need to get out and discover some on your own!  My next post will be about some day trips (or longer) that you can do in the general area while you're based in Sydney.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tassie - The End of The Line

Leaving Strahan in my dust, I point the car northeast, towards Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake, situated in the Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park 165 km (102 mi) northwest of Hobart.
Cradle Mountain
The National Park has lots of walking trails available, although I didn't schedule enough time on this trip to do one (I wish I could have stayed a month to fit it all in!).  Of course there's the well known Overland Track which takes at least 3 to 4 days on foot, but there are much shorter ones as well.  A couple of different options are listed on the Cradle Mountain page on our website.  Just click through on each walk to get more details or to book it.

The Park is a great place to view some local wildlife, as it is home to pademelons, Tasmanian devils, echidnas, wombats, quolls, possums and more.  It's also been designated as an Important Bird Area, being the habitat of quite a few of Tasmania's endemic bird species.

After stopping to wander around a bit looking for a few photo opportunities of the mountain, I didn't stick around too long thanks to a very brisk breeze that kept things cool, even though summer had begun.   The next stop was at my accommodation for the evening - Lemonthyme Lodge in Moina, about 30 minutes drive from the National Park.  This was the sort of place that you don't just stumble across, you really need to be looking for it.  Of course, I had booked it from the Cradle Mountain Hotels page before I arrived in Tassie, as I do with most of my hotels.  I'm so glad that I arrived in the daylight and was able to get a good look at this 'lodge'.  I use quotation marks because this place was actually a huge log cabin!  Set in the middle of the rainforest, blending in to its surroundings, I have to say I found a gem.  The cabins were extremely comfortable and very private.  Just outside the lodge that evening I was treated to a mini wildlife show!  Slowly, out of the scrub, I watched as several different critters made their way closer to the lodge looking for food.  Unfortunately, it was just on dark, so none of my photos came out very well.

Making my way towards Launceston the next day, I stopped en route to tour the Marakoopa Cave near Mole Creek.  I know some people who say that if you've seen one cave, you've seen them all; but I have to respectfully disagree with that.  The guide I had for this tour was very knowledgeable, but the best part was that he was funny.  For me, a little humour goes a long with with helping to learn about stuff.  I will warn you, it can get a little chilly underground, so I suggest taking a jumper with you, regardless of the outside temperature.
Stunning formations in the cave
The rest of the day (which wasn't much) was spent wandering around Launceston before heading to the quaint township of Evandale to spend the night.  Evandale is located just south of Launceston, and approximately 5 minutes from the airport, which made it the perfect place to stay when I had an early morning flight.  There was something very relaxing about Evandale - almost like the time passed slower there.  It's a bit hard to describe in words.  For some reason, the post office just enchanted me.  That is not what I consider a typical government building to look like...
Evandale Post Office
And so, my Tassie adventure drew to an end.  I flew out of Launceston back to Melbourne (my colleague, John Walters' old stomping ground), where I spent an afternoon sightseeing and dodging trams.  An uneventful flight back to the US had me home in time for a chilly Christmas.

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