Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sydney Part Deux (Day 1)

The first and last time I was in Sydney the weather was atrocious, so I knew I had to go back one day to get the full experience.  When Study Abroad Susanna planned her trip up to Brisbane I thought, with a free place to stay, this was my time to go back.

Susanna was in my first group of students when I worked in Norway back in 2007-2008.  She's five years younger than me, and I feel positively geriatric in comparison.  OK that's a bit of an exaggeration, but this girl knows how to seriously live life to the fullest in a short period of time!  We had roughly 50 [awesome] things to do in the 48 hours I was there, and Susanna saw to it that each awesome activity was accomplished.

This list can serve as a handy travel guide for anybody low on time in Sydney who wants to maximize their fun/sightseeing.  I'll split the two days into two posts, because I'm lazy and you don't want to hear me droning on for too long, anyway.

To build our energy for the day we started off with breakfast, right in the center of Sydney's universe, at the Sydney Opera House.

Opera Bar is one of the food and beverage establishments located in (actually under) the Opera House.  Usually dining at such a major tourist attraction is expensive, filled with clueless tourists, underwhelming and above all else, ill advised.  But I was so impressed with Opera Bar!

The food was perfectly fine and the prices were no more than you'd pay at a brunch spot in Brisbane.  Heck, I'd argue even less.  We were there about 9 a.m. and we virtually had the place to ourselves.  I don't know why the heck it wasn't packed!  It was raining a bit, so outdoor seating wasn't an option for us.  This is what the outdoor area looks like in good weather:

So nice!

After our breakfast and tiny coffees (my one gripe about Opera Bar) we took a hike through the Botanic Gardens so we could get a view of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge together.  When Martin and I visited previously we took a shot of us with just one of them:

Had I known a better angle existed I would've made the hike for our iconic shot!

The best view of both the opera house and bridge lies in the Botanic Gardens, close to Mrs. Macquarie's Chair (a.k.a. rock formation surrounded by Chinese tourists):

That view is only about 10 minutes walk along the harbour if you're not doddling.  Such a spectacular view!

We saw a bit more of the gardens in search of more coffee.  They're nice - and freaking huge!

Sus is obsessed with the Sydney Opera House, so it's a miracle she's been there 4 months but hasn't done a tour of it yet.  But she hadn't!  So we did it.  Yay!

Every Opera House tour is different, because where you can go depends on what events are happening in each theatre at the moment.  I didn't know before the tour that there are five theatres within the opera house, two big (Concert Hall and Joan Sutherland Theatre) and three small (Drama Theatre, Playhouse and Studio).

We got to see two of the theatres - one big, one small - but couldn't take pictures in either one because there were people warming/setting up on stage.  So here are some pictures I pilfered off Google of the two we saw:

Big: Concert Hall
Small: Playhouse
One of the foyers had hilariously hideous purple carpet:

But I loved it!  I thought it spoke to the era when it was built (it opened in 1973).

We also got to go into a small, private function room called the Utzon Room (after the dude who designed the building, Jørn Utzon):

I would get married today if I could do it in this room!  It was amazing!  And can you imagine saying you got married in the Sydney Opera House?!  It's my new goal in life.

One last thing I will say about the Sydney Opera House.  This is what it looks like up close:

1. It essentially made of bath tiles (but only 1 tile falls off every other year)

2. It's not really white (because if it was it would blind you when the sun hits it)

The area where the Opera House and bridge is located is called Circular Quay, inexplicably pronounced 'key'.  After our tour we left there and headed to Darling Harbour, another pretty, tourist-friendly, must-do area of the city.  When Martin and I were in Darling Harbour together we didn't get a single picture of it because it was raining so hard we literally couldn't take our camera out of our pocket for fear it would get ruined.  But not today!

Thankfully the light rain from earlier had stopped by this time so I could enjoy Darling Harbour in all its blue sky glory!

After a leisurely lunch (with wine!) we indulged in what can best be described as a Sydney (and Melbourne, but not Brisbane) institution: Messina gelato!

I don't want to embarrass anyone here, but one of us (ahem, not I) ate gelato three times in the 48 hours that I was there.  Now that's love!  I tried three flavors: salted caramel & white chocolate, milk chocolate with chocolate peanut fudge and pecan pie.  #beetus

Messina is located in The Star casino, but we didn't do any gambling while we were there.  We came back later that night, for Susanna's second fix of gelato for the day (and other reasons, I suppose).

After putzing around Darling Harbour for a while the sun was preparing to set so we prepared ourselves for the best sunset vantage point in town: the Shangri-La Hotel.  On the 36th floor they have a restaurant/bar called Altitude with an amazing view of the Opera House.

The sun sets in the opposite direction of this vantage point, but it's still an awesome view.  Pro tip: The elevator to that floor doesn't open up until the bar opens (5 p.m.) but there were already people up there when we got there right at 5.  I recommend trying the elevator every minute starting a 4:45, even if you look like an idiot, so you can be, as the Aussies say, "first in, best dressed".  That means the early bird gets the worm, and in this case the worm is sweet window seats.

After our fancy drink with a view at the Shangri-La it was time to hike back to The Star for more gelato...and our evening entertainment:

I had never heard of Strictly Ballroom the movie before.  Was I living under a rock in the 90's?  It's a 1992 movie directed by Baz Luhrmann, who also directed the Claire Danes/Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge.  These three films together are called The Red Curtain Trilogy, but the only connection I see between them is that the same dude directed them.  The other two movies were huge in America, but I don't know if this one ever made it big.

Anyway, they've turned Strictly Ballroom into a musical and it's been all over TV, billboards, buses, you name it, even in Brisbane though it's only showing down in Sydney.  When I told Susanna this she suggested we go, and I've never seen a musical I didn't like, so I agreed.  It was campy, over-the-top, theatrical fun with ballgowns flying all over the stage in perfectly choreographed manner.  They even had the theatre itself decked out, which I'd never seen before:

Sequined seat covers!
So much fun!  From what I can tell by hearing my colleagues talk Australians love their Strictly Ballroom, so I'll count this show as a cultural immersion experience.

By this time we had been out of the house for, oh, about 15 hours, so it was time to get on the bus back to Susanna's campus and crash hard.  Our feet and legs were killing us, and Day 2 would prove to be just as jam packed and fun filled as Day 1!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Team Fat Ass

You might be asking yourself, "How did she go from somewhat slim and svelte to that?"  The answer to that, my friends, is quite simple.  Allow me to take you on a culinary tour of Brisbane.

OMG I love Eat Street Markets!  I've briefly mentioned going there before, but I have since become obsessed with it.  Obsessed!  I want to go every single weekend, but Martin thinks that's a bit overkill.

It used to operate Friday and Saturdays only, from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. but they have recently extended into all day Sunday - and it is even more magnificent than it was before!  The crowds are non-existent and it's a good alternative to your standard brunch, a popular Brizzy weekend activity.  Going to ESM instead of brunch costs about the same and you can try a lot more variety of stuff.  I love this place!

This is lángos, a Hungarian dish consisting of deep fried flat bread covered with bacon and cheese and stuff.  Lord have mercy; so tasty.  This was merely one of many dishes Martin and I shared that day.  Do you see why I love my ESM so much?!

Martin was recently moaning that we haven't done a nice dinner in Australia - a fancy, nice dinner.  We've done them in lots of other places, but haven't prioritized the budget for a fancy feast here in Oz.  When I got an invitation in my work email to a "wine dinner" I knew I could shut the boy up by taking him to that.

Brisbane's Customs House is a heritage-listed, super pretty building on the river that once served as a place where people actually came through customs when they arrived.  Now it's a venue for weddings and events, with an awesome view of the Story Bridge.

Despite appearances, he is actually thrilled to be there
We got a 5-course meal, and a matched wine with each course.

I wasn't expecting them to fill up the wine glass after I'd finished the first one!  So I got nice and drunk on a Wednesday and had to go to work the next day.  Classy dining at its finest!

Now for a dining experience of Martin's choosing, here is how a Brazilian "churrasco" restaurant works:

You sit, a guy brings roasted meat to your table on what appears to be a sword, and cuts you off a piece of the meat.  Rinse and repeat with several different types of meat.

Needless to say it is an awesome, fun style of dining, and perfect for those with more self control than me who adhere to a low carb diet.  Churrasco is certainly meat-tacular (and not vegetarian friendly)!

Did you know that bacon, as it's known in America, doesn't exist everywhere in the world?  Both the UK and Australia suffer this same tragedy, and finding what we call "bacon" isn't as easy as it should be.  But I found some!

"USA Bacon"
What they call bacon is what I'd call Canadian bacon.  Basically, it ain't bacon.  Much love to Super Butcher for making this prize pig (literally) available at a decent price.

You know what else is cool about Super Butcher?  The whole building is refrigerated, so they give you jackets at the front door to wear while you're shopping.

Kindly note that bare legs kind of negate the usefulness of the jacket.  I can't imagine how the workers survive in there!

Super Butcher is a meat emporium; they've got everything your carnivorous heart desires.  Martin is cutely enamored with the dry aging room room:

In addition to stuffing my face with it, I also enjoy learning about food.  BrisScience holds public lectures on science-y subjects, and occasionally covers a topic that I'm interested in.  "Scientist in the kitchen: How science is changing how we cook" is one such topic.

I knew I could get my friend Laura to come with me, as she's the biggest foodie I know.  Her long-neglected blog is a fun trip (literally and figuratively) around the world through food.

This lovely shot is Laura with a mouthful of steak, and my piece that was seconds away from mastication.  The scientist/cook cooked the steak with a sous-vide machine, which he seems to think is the future of cooking.  I don't care how it gets cooked, as long as it gets in my belly!

Since I no longer have the Food Network for inspiration I'm not nearly as adventurous in the kitchen as I once was (sad but true), but I still like to have fun in there sometimes.

As far as I can tell apple butter does not exist outside of the USA, so if you want it (as I do!) you have to take matters into your own hands.

It's actually quite simple!  All you need is a shitload of assorted apples, a few other ingredients, a stand mixer and a crockpot.  If you've got time to let the crockpot simmer, you can have apple butter.

The finished product
Ultimately I would rather eat all this awesome stuff than be super slim 'n sexy.  At the risk of getting my head chopped off, let me eat cake!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Top End: City Slickers

We had one day to explore the metropolis of Darwin (pop: 230,000).  One day is arguably plenty to see the city sights, but due to museums being located ridiculously far out of town and our lack of a car, I still didn't get to see everything I wanted to.

We started our day at the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory, a free museum that houses an exhibition on Cyclone Tracy, which was a massive storm (hurricane) that pretty much demolished Darwin in 1974.  There's a tiny dark room with a sound recording of the actual storm, and it's loud/scary as hell.  People died in that storm.  It was fierce.

I don't know why, but my favorite part of the museum was the recreations of 1970's living rooms, as they would have looked on Christmas eve 1974, the night the storm hit:

They also have a stuffed 5.1 meter (16.5+ foot) crocodile named Sweetheart, which they accidentally killed while trying to remove/transport, so they stuffed it and put it on display instead:

Fun fact: Despite his name Sweetheart is a dude
When we left the museum right outside the door we saw a place called the Darwin Ski Club, that consisted of ample seating, cold beer and shade provided by palm trees:


We continued on with the relaxing and the drinking at a different bar for a while, as the ocean view was just so nice and green!

Beware, though, that water is not for swimming.  There are crocodiles in there!  Not as many as in the Adelaide River (where we did the jumping croc cruise), but not a place I'd be comfortable swimming in!

If not for the shade and beer and snacks, we might have tried harder to get to the Defence of Darwin museum, which chronicles Darwin during WWII and the epic bombing it received.  I really wanted to see it, and learn more about Australia's involvement in WWII, but it was just too far out of town to bother with.  Darwin was the one and only place in Australia that got bombed during the war, I believe by the Japanese.  See, I don't even know because I didn't get to go there and learn stuff!  I'll be sure to hit up the museum if I'm ever in Darwin again.

After our ample chillaxing it was time to get back on the tourist/learning wagon, so we went to the Darwin Oil Tunnels.  WWII history, yay!  (I'm not being facetious here, I am legit interested in it.)

The oil tunnels are huge underground tunnels they built during WWII to house jet fuel, so bombs couldn't destroy the supply.  They never wound up actually storing fuel in the tunnels, as thankfully the war ended.

We then went to the Wharf Precinct, which is the place to hang out in Darwin.  They've got restaurants, a really kick ass wave pool, and they were setting up for a free concert in the park that evening.  This is the one part of town that would totally blend in in Sydney or Brisbane or someplace more metropolitan.

The Wharf Precinct houses a really cool restaurant area that faces the ocean, where you can order food from a variety of different places.  Everybody can choose a different place and there's communal seating.  There's even one storefront dedicated to the sale of booze!  A nifty concept.

My one and only culinary requirement while in Darwin was to eat crocodile.  Martin had eaten crocodile curry when he was first up in Darwin, so we sought it out and ate it again.

I've eaten croc in Brisbane before, but only a small bite on a fancy tasting platter.  It's a really tasty meat, not very different from chicken in color, texture and flavor.  I recommend it!

Our final city activity of the day was the Deckchair Cinema, which is hugely popular with the locals and is the #1 rated thing to do on TripAdvisor.

We had been to a similar outdoor cinema in Brisbane before, but when I looked at the schedule of movies playing I knew we had to make the trip.  We saw Tracks, an Australian film about the true story of a woman who walked - freaking walked - from Alice Springs (middle of Australia) to the ocean on the west coast.  There's no way she could be sane and do that, and I have absolutely no clue how she survived.  It is harsh, miserable desert out there.  It was a good movie, and I plan to read the book she wrote about her crazy experience.

The absolute one thing all visitors to Darwin must do on a Thursday or Sunday evening is visit the Mindil Beach Markets.  It's a little ways out of town (a common theme around here), so after our tour to Litchfield National Park we had the bus drop us off for dinner and "a show".  It is the place to kick back on the beach and watch the sunset from the best vantage point in (or should I say near) town.

Unfortunately our camera is rapidly crapping the bed, as evidenced by that big black patch you see obscuring the beautiful sunset.  It's not a UFO!

Australia loves a good market.  They do them well, too.  There's lots of interesting and exotic food to try (Sri Lankan!), people watching and live entertainment, and is generally a good place to kick back, relax and enjoy the view.