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A Few Quick Trips: Blue Mountains, Sculptures and Hunter Valley

The Three Sisters and the Jamison Valley in HDR

Like most major urban areas, Sydney has plenty to do within the city limits, but there’s lots more to see if you’re willing to travel a couple hours away. Sydney has several popular day trip destinations, two of which we got to visit on consecutive weekends: the Blue Mountains, which I’ve already written about in a previous post; and the Hunter Valley, Sydney’s most prominent wine region.

This trip was Kristen’s second to the Blue Mountains, as she had visited when her parents were in town. I had never been though, and the opportunity to go with several of Kristen’s classmates came at the right time. Unlike the last trip, which was on a bus, for this trip we chose to take the train, which doesn’t take a whole lot more time and is a lot cheaper. We arrived Saturday morning and spent the afternoon touring via the hop-on-hop-off bus before meeting the rest of the cohort for dinner.

Boardwalk through the Jamison Valley rainforest

In addition to being rich in coal mining history, the Blue Mountains are also part of a large national park filled with hiking trails. We unfortunately arrived a bit late to join the rest of the class on a longer hike, but there are plenty of trails of varying lengths catering to all sorts of schedules. Given limited time, we chose one of the shorter hikes that took us along the boardwalks near the base of the mountains, where informational placards and prominent maps guide even the navigationally-challenged tourist from point A to point B past interesting sights.

A giant faucet, part of Sculpture by the Sea

After riding the Scenic Cableway back to the top of the ridge, we hopped back on the hop-on-hop-off bus and headed back to Katoomba, where we met the rest of the crew for an Italian dinner in the town before retiring to the Katoomba Town Centre Motel for the night and leaving the next afternoon.

The following weekend, the class planned a bus trip to the Hunter Valley, but before heading north to the vineyards, we stopped by Bondi Beach for a large outdoor art exhibit known as Sculpture by the Sea. Installed on the coastal walk between Bondi and a smaller beach called Tamarama, the exhibit included dozens of larger-than-life pieces of art, often constructed out of everyday things like tires and scrap metal. There were plenty of stunning pieces and even the occasional meta-art sculpture, but the most popular was easily the giant faucet. Seeming as though it might let loose and hose an unsuspecting child, the faucet sat prominently on a hill overlooking Bondi, encouraging visitors to engage in a hands-on experience despite frequent signage discouraging such things.

Lindeman's Wines in the Hunter Valley

After braving the crowds through the sculpture installation, we heeded an early wake-up call the next morning and caught a cab to UNSW to meet the bus that would take us to four vineyards and a spot for lunch. Though the bus driver didn’t seem to know where he was going and refused to go faster than 50mph on the freeway, we made it  to the Valley and started our tour of Sydney’s winemaking region. Though its primary export is coal, residents of the area began importing vines in the mid-1830s and was thriving soon after.

Our tour took us to four vineyards: Tulloch, Brokenwood, Lindeman’s, and, um, considering we tasted several wines at each vineyard, things were a bit foggy by the end of the day so I don’t remember the last one :) It was a great trip though, and a great chance to catch up with the classmates who would be leaving for exchange programs for the following term.

There are plenty more pictures from our trip on Flickr: Blue Mountains and Sculpture by the Sea.

Kristen and Ryan and Bondi Beach at night

Winter in Sydney: Festivals, Concerts and the Aquarium

A shark at the Sydney Aquarium

Coming from Chicago, it’s hard not to chuckle when people in Sydney complain about winter. Sure, it’s colder than summer and requires an additional layer of clothing, but compared to Chicago, Sydney’s winter is more like a moderate autumn. It never gets below freezing and there certainly isn’t any snow. That said, it’s not comfortable weather for the beach, so Sydneysiders need to find other ways to keep themselves occupied.

Ice Skating in Sydney

We took the opportunity to check out some of the indoor attractions around the city, starting with the Sydney Aquarium. Located on the east side of Cockle Bay near Darling Harbour, the aquarium is home to a variety of native Australian species inhabiting several different exhibits. Separately, each exhibit represents a different region of Australia; together, they host one of the largest collections of sharks in the world. The aquarium is also next door to Wild Life Sydney, so if you don’t have time to take the ferry to Taronga Zoo, you can knock off all of your Australian wildlife viewing in two quick visits.

A diprotodon at the Australian Museum

A few weeks later, we stopped by the Sydney Winter Festival, located just east of Hyde Park in Cathedral Square. Sponsored in part by the Switzerland Department of Tourism, the area was set up to look like an alpine village, complete with little wooden concession huts and an accordion player sporting lederhosen. None of this was quite as entertaining as the centerpiece of the festival, an ice rink. Nevermind that it was 60 degrees outside, people showed up in droves to try out ice skating, possibly for the first time ever. Since most people in Sydney don’t own ice skates, bright orange ones were provided for the brave souls who ventured onto the ice. For the slightly less brave souls venturing onto the ice, orange plastic seals were also provided as seats/walkers.

Darth Vader on stage at the Sydney Opera House

We left the Winter Festival and walked down the street to the Australian Museum, another attraction we hadn’t yet visited. The museum had a few interesting exhibits on Aborigines and extinct Australian animals, but was otherwise not especially remarkable, so it’s not recommended for shorter stays in Sydney (unless it rains the whole time you’re here).

The following weekend we had tickets for a performance at the Opera House.  But not just any performance, this was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing the music of John Williams, including classics like the themes from Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, E.T., and the Raiders March from the Indiana Jones trilogy. The highlight, however, was the last quarter of the show, where they performed an entire suite of Star Wars music. And what performance of Star Wars music would be complete without people in costume? The Sydney Symphony Orchestra did not disappoint, bringing Darth Vader up on stage during the Imperial March. There’s more than just opera at the Opera House… when you visit Sydney, make sure to book a show. I can’t guarantee you’ll be as happy as Kristen in the picture below, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience!

Kristen and Ryan with Darth Vader and a Stormtrooper

Vivid Sydney and our First Official Visitors

Customs House lit up for Vivid Sydney

Regular readers (who manage to keep up with my erratic posting schedule) know by now that Sydney is a city of many festivals. If you look hard enough, there’s something going on somewhere in the city almost every day of the year. That said, things to tend to calm down a bit in the “winter”, a term I use loosely coming from Chicago. Winter in Sydney is more of what I’d call a moderate autumn, but it still gets a bit chilly and tends to push people indoors. As a result, the beach and park festivals aren’t as prevalent, so the city puts on other events instead.

Sydney Skyline during Vivid Sydney

One of the most visually interesting events during this time was Vivid Sydney, a festival of “Light, Music & Ideas”. There were many displays all over the city but, as usual, the best ones out there were found in and around Sydney Harbour, the home of Sydney’s most famous landmarks. Hotels, office buildings, museums and other landmarks all came to life as giant projector screens, with animated light shows bringing new life to the facades. The Customs House, for example, filled up with water, flexed in and out, and broke to pieces before turning into a giant microprocessor (courtesy of Intel, the sponsor). Even the Circular Quay train station got in on the action!

Sydney Opera House during Vivid Sydney

As usual, the centerpiece of the display was the Opera House, which hosted a variety of different light shows. Some were more fanciful, showing sea creatures swimming around. The best displays, though, were the ones that highlighted the building’s structure itself. Light turned the famous sails into fans, glass mosaics and geodesic curves. I took plenty of pictures; prints are available if you’re interested! Look for an upcoming picture post to check out more shots.

A night out with Nicholas, Tarrah, Kristen and Tessa

A few weeks later, we welcomed our first official guests (a few friends had come through as part of separate trips). Tessa and Tarrah visited for a couple weeks and traveled to Brisbane and Cairns before returning to Sydney to tour the city and surrounding areas. While here, they held koalas, went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, and got to meet some of Kristen’s friends. They and Kristen also climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an extremely touristy and fun experience that we recommend to all incoming visitors. As is frequently the case, the two weeks flew by, but it was great to see familiar faces and share part of our life in Australia.

 

Tessa, Tarrah and Kristen climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Royal Easter Show: Sydney’s County Fair

Like catching fish in a barrel

As part of our ongoing quest to attend a variety of Australian events and festivals, we somehow stumbled upon Sydney’s Royal Easter Show. The name is a bit ambiguous really… what exactly are they showing? Turns out the answer is: all sorts of stuff. The Royal Easter Show is a bazaar, carnival and county fair all rolled into one massive event. For 10 days leading up to Easter, it takes over the Olympic Park grounds outside of Sydney. Since we were planning to visit Melbourne for the Easter weekend, we decided to go early.

Land on a lily pad, win a Kermit!

As is often the case, transportation was a breeze. A train from Central Station took us straight to the Olympic Park in 20 minutes and dropped us off right at the entrance. Upon entering the show, we checked out a couple demonstrations, like this guy showing off some new fishing tackle. We then made our way to the carnival area, where Kristen skillfully launched enough frogs onto moving lily pads to earn herself a brand new Kermit the Frog plush.

A banana stand but no Bluths in sight

In addition to the carnival games, there were aisles upon aisles of  storefronts selling everything imaginable. Most of it you probably wouldn’t want to buy, but there were plenty of people happy to sell it to you. There were also some rather entertaining takes on American culture at the concession stands, but I, an Arrested Development fan, found this one to be particularly fun.

A wood chopping competition

Next stop was one of the smaller arenas to observe the wood chopping competition. For those of you who have never attended a wood chopping competition, they, well, chop wood. Lots of it. Forklifts are required to cart giant logs into the arena and wood chips out. A job better left to the machines, you say? Not for these strapping lads, who managed to hack through a rather sizable stump in around a minute or so.

Moving on, we stopped by a fenced in area where several horses were running around getting some exercise. We would have moved on pretty quickly were it not for Frank the horse. Frank was hungry, but apparently he was supposed to be exercising. However, every time the supervising cowboy wasn’t looking (and sometimes when he was), Frank would attempt to steal a snack from a nearby bucket of food. Of course, the cowboy would catch poor old Frank and yell “FRANK!” I’ve never seen what I would call a guilty looking horse before, but they’re pretty easy to spot.

Caution: Cattle Crossing

As it turns out, the livestock on display was the, er, meat of the Royal Easter Show. There were warehouses and showrooms filled with cows, pigs, chickens and all sorts of other farm animals, often accompanied by displays and demonstrations educating the general public about various farmyard processes. Though most of the animals were confined to pens, they were occasionally moved around for various reasons, at which point you better stay out of their way!

Guess who's about to fall in?

One of the items on the afternoon agenda that caught our eye was the Husqvarna Lumberjack Show. We expected it to be something along the lines of a lumberjack skills demonstration. Turns out we were half right. While the lumberjacks in question were indeed skillful, they were also performers, so they had a whole Dumb and Dumber routine going on as well. Even so, it was still pretty entertaining.

The night concluded with a Australia vs. New Zealand rodeo competition (the Aussies won) and some automotive demonstrations (dirt bikes and utes) that unfortunately had to be toned down due to recent rainfall. A good show all around and felt just like home :)

The Royal Easter Show Rodeo!

All around Sydney: Botanic Gardens, Tropfest, Mardi Gras and Surfing

Posts have been a bit sparse as of late, but with good reason: we’ve been busy with a lot of rather uninteresting stuff. I started on a telecom project in Melbourne in the beginning of February, so I’m traveling there every week. Kristen has been immersed in classes, team meetings and coursework, so she’s been busy as well. Nonetheless, we’ve still been able to fit a few things in here and there.

A leisurely day at the Royal Botanic Gardens

At the end of January we took a walk up to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, starting at the north end of the Domain and going all the way up to the Opera House. The Botanic Gardens are host to a variety of native Australian plants and some wildlife as well (mostly birds and spiders). A great place for a picnic or just some general relaxation, the Botanic Gardens also hosts the St. George OpenAir Cinema, an outdoor theater with a spectacular backdrop.

Power Plant exhibit at the Chinese Garden of Friendship

Later that night, we stopped by Darling Harbour for the last weekend of the Power Plant exhibit at the Chinese Garden of Friendship. A combination of light, sound and pyrotechnics, we were able to see and hear parts of it from the corporate apartment, so we made sure to stop by and see it for ourselves. It ended up having a bit of a outdoor Haunted Mansion feel, with sections eerily lit by old floor lamps, lots of fire and a variety of odd sounds coming from all over the place. Unique though, and worth the visit. Keep an eye on my photo gallery… more pictures are on the way.

Representing Glass City Films at Tropfest

Tropfest, the world’s largest short film festival, is held in Australia every year. The main event takes place at the Domain in Sydney and is broadcast throughout the country. Coming from humble beginnings at the Tropicana Cafe in Darlinghurst, it is now quite a sizable event, with a record national audience of 1,000,000 people this year (of which 100,000 were on site at the Domain). Films must be less than 7 minutes long and must premiere at the festival, where the top 16 finalists are screened and a winner is chosen. We stopped by for some of the films and were lucky enough to catch the winner on the big screens. Of course, we also had to represent our favorite film studio, Glass City Films!

Mardi Gras in Surry Hills

Sydney also celebrates Mardi Gras, but perhaps not in the same way as other cities. In Sydney, Mardi Gras is also the Gay Pride Parade and is billed as one of the largest (if not the largest) in the world. Featuring close to 10,000 participants and upwards of 300,000 spectators, the parade and ensuing after party are often cited as a must-see event for the worldwide LGBT community. We didn’t make it to the after party, but after getting past the barricades, we found some prime undercover real estate on Oxford Street to watch the festivities and stay out of the rain.

Kristen and friends at the MBA Cup after-party

Every year the students from AGSM in Sydney and MBS in Melbourne meet up for a weekend of friendly competition. Alternating between Sydney and Melbourne each year, this year’s competition (in Sydney) includes a variety of academic and athletic events, from debates to rugby. I didn’t attend most of the events, but I did tag along for the volleyball game and was happy to participate when they needed a couple extra players. Sydney ended up winning the majority of the events over the weekend, so to celebrate the victory (and help the Melbournians drown their sorrows), the after party was held at the Beach Palace Hotel.

Hawaiian Night at the ThoughtWorks Team Hug

Twice each year, all of ThoughtWorks Australia gets together for a staff meeting, affectionately called a “Team Hug”. This year the meeting was held outside of Sydney at Ettalong Beach and included a variety of talks from ThoughtWorkers and a rousing Social Justice-focused keynote from Roy, the founder. There was also a Hawaiian themed party on Saturday night, so I made sure to acquire a classy Hawaiian shirt and a hula skirt to complete my outfit.

Our first surfing lesson!

If you were to ask me before our trip what sport I thought I would become good/better at when I came to Australia, I probably would have answered something like “surfing” or “volleyball”. Turns out the answer is actually “bowling” … I was on the team for a corporate challenge and a weekly bowling outing has persisted in Melbourne for the travelers. We’ve still had time to try out surfing though, and while our first attempt was thwarted by rough waters, our second attempt was successful and we were both able to get up for at least a couple seconds. It’s not easy, but it sure is a lot of fun. If you plan to learn to surf when you visit (and you should!), Maroubra Beach is an excellent place to start. It has a nice sandbar that makes it easy to get out to where the waves start to break and it’s a bit less crowded than some of the other beaches.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of months. We’ve got a couple of exciting trips on the horizon though, so stay tuned :)

Chinese New Year: the Year of the Rabbit

Kickoff at Belmore Park

Culturally, Sydney reminds us in many ways of London and major cities in the U.S. You can find most of the same stores here and the standard of living is pretty much on par. One of the most noticeable differences, though, is the significant Asian influence – it is to a degree that you’re unlikely to find in those cities. Even outside of the sprawling Chinatown district, East and Southeast Asian restaurants seem to outnumber the others. It’s hard to walk more than a block or two without seeing a Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean or Japanese establishment, and many of the stores and bars are of Asian influence as well.

It’s no surprise then that Chinese New Year is a big event here, and since we live on the edge of Chinatown it was essentially unavoidable. The festivities started even before the official kickoff, with small entourages of dragons and drums occasionally passing by on the streets. The official kickoff was in Belmore Park on January 28th and included food, drinks, music and other attractions.

They made rabbits out of all sorts of things

This being the Year of the Rabbit, rabbit statues and rabbit-themed things could be found all over the place, ranging from the normal to the strange to the downright creepy. There also were a variety of activities and giveaways at the kickoff: at one point I was wandering around with a stick of incense, unsure of how to properly dispose of it without accidentally committing some sort of egregious cultural faux pas.

We managed to make our way back without causing too much trouble and ended our New Year activities for the evening and the weekend. The celebration was a week long, culminating in a big parade the following weekend and, you guessed it, fireworks!

One of many Chinese Dragons

The following weekend, we ventured out to secure a spot along the parade route, which took over a significant portion of George Street before continuing through the rest of Chinatown. The parade was well done and included a variety of acts from all over eastern Asia. Though the relationship has had its ups and downs, Chinese-Australian relations have historically been mostly positive, in part due to China being Australia’s largest trading partner and Australia’s significant natural resource exports to the country.

Leftover Floats: Year of the Pig!

The floats were quite elaborate and were interspersed between lots of performers, although we suspect that they started to run out of ideas once they started rolling out all of the floats from previous years: “Hey, we’ve got these things that are just lying around for the next decade, why not throw them in too?” I couldn’t include pictures of them all, so here’s a shot of the pig, the patron animal of mine and Kristen’s birth year.

We could definitely tell when the parade was near the end though, because they really started to run out of ideas at that point. Basically, anything that looked like a rabbit was a valid candidate for being paraded down the street. As a result, I will conclude this edition of “Life with Kristen and Ryan” with a game: Name That Cartoon Rabbit! First correct answer in the comments wins a prize, local pickup only :)

 

Name That Cartoon Rabbit!

Sydney Festival 2011: Symphony in The Domain

Our second week went by smoothly. Kristen officially started class and I’m still getting to know my way around the ThoughtWorks office and the CBD (Central Business District, for those of you just tuning in). Sydney, though not an exceptionally well-laid out city, has an abundance of high quality public venues and festivals to make use of them. One of the most prominent is the aptly-named Sydney Festival. Held every January since 1977, the festival includes close to 100 music, performance and art events spread throughout the city.

The Domain and the skyline

Some of the most popular events are the open air concerts in the Domain, an extensive set of parks, museums and monuments on the east side of the city. Only a 10 minute walk from most of downtown, the Domain is Sydney’s equivalent of Chicago’s Millennium and Grant Parks; an expansive green space for events, festivals and general recreation (I play soccer there every Monday). It is part of a larger downtown park system that includes Hyde Park to the southwest and the Botanic Gardens to the north, with the iconic Sydney Opera House at the northwestern tip. Check out the map for a better idea of the layout.

Music in the city

We attended the second of the three open air concerts, called Symphony in the Domain. An event that normally attracts upwards of 80,000 people, it combines the feel of Ravinia with the location of Pritzker Pavilion. This year the Sydney Symphony was accompanied by readings from Shakespeare and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

Bats in the Domain

We arrived pretty close to the start of the show, so we opted to grab a seat in the grass off to the side, though still in view of the stage. While waiting for the show to begin, Kristen headed over to the concession area to get us a snack while I took a few pictures of the area. One of the first things we noticed were the bats. Native to Australia, grey-headed flying-foxes, also known as fruit bats, are abundant in the parks of Sydney and can be seen roosting in the trees.

1812 Overture with Fireworks and Cannons

While the entire concert was great, what primarily attracted us (Kristen in particular) was the finale performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. A staple of Ravinia’s Labor Day Spectacular (which we’ve attended twice), the 1812 Overture is often accompanied by pyrotechnics of some sort. In this case, the performance was accompanied by fireworks, cannons, and fireworks coming out of cannons… an excellent way to end the show.

Like most major cities, there are always an abundance of events, shows, concerts and festivals going on in Sydney. For example, in a few weeks we plan to attend Tropfest, Sydney’s short film festival. You’ll find plenty to do when you come (and you should!)