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Melbourne Road Trips: Phillip Island and the 12 Apostles

A resident of Phillip Island's Koala Conservation Centre

Like almost every city in Australia, Melbourne lies in close proximity to a variety of natural attractions and national parks. As part of our long Easter weekend in Melbourne, we set out to visit two of the most popular attractions in the area: Phillip Island and the world famous Twelve Apostles. Despite a minor mishap with the rental car (seems that the office closed earlier than we expected), we first set off on our day trip to Phillip Island, home of the Koala Conservation Centre, the Nobbies, and the Penguin Parade.

Check under your car for penguins!

Until this point we actually hadn’t seen any of Australia’s most famous marsupials in real life, so the trip to visit the koalas was particularly exciting. Though the koalas were the main attraction, the centre was also home to a number of other Australian animals, like wallabies and echidnas. Since koalas are difficult to spot in the wild, there were plenty of raised catwalks through the trees so that visitors could get up close and personal. Unfortunately, though there are places where you can hold a koala, this wasn’t one of them, so we had to be content with just observing.

After a quick stop at the Nobbies, a lookout point on the western edge of Phillip Island, we made our way to the Penguin Parade, the island’s most famous attraction. Every night, hundreds of Little Penguins make their way in from the ocean, up the beach and past bleachers of onlooking spectators to return to their burrows. We were lucky enough to arrive at the right time: the tide was on its way out and had just finished washing over the bottom rows of bleachers when we made our way toward the beach, so we got a front row seat. As camera flashes hurt young penguin eyes, photography was not allowed, but there were plenty of opportunities to get up close to the little birds. Some do travel pretty far inland though, so make sure to check under your car when you leave!

Driving the Great Ocean Road

After a day or two back in Melbourne, we left on our second road trip to the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles. Often listed as one of the world’s great scenic drives, the Great Ocean Road winds down the south-eastern coast of Australia and passes by beaches, rainforests and other natural landmarks. Built by soldiers coming back from World War 1, the road also holds the distinction of the largest war memorial, dedicated to the casualties of the war.

The Loch Ard Gorge

Starting in Melbourne, we worked our way down the coast past beaches and through little towns until we arrived in Lorne, one of the larger towns on the road, and stopped for lunch. From there we continued on, making a quick stop in Apollo Bay for gas, with the intention of reaching the Twelve Apostles just before sunset. Unfortunately, there was some traffic just as we were nearing our destination, so by the time we got to the area, the sun had already set.

The 12 Apostles

We continued on to Port Campbell to find our motel and crashed for the night, planning to get up early the next morning so we could both see the rock formations and ensure that we would make it back to Melbourne by noon (stores close pretty early on holidays in Australia, if they’re open at all). After an early wake up call, we were back on our way, stopping first by the Loch Ard Gorge, a natural inlet named for a ship that ran aground there in 1878.

Our last stop was at the Twelve Apostles, a collection of limestone stacks off the coastal cliffs near Port Campbell. The site has gone through a few different names over the years, but, despite the name, has never actually had more than 9 stacks. The current count is 8 stacks, as one of them fell down in 2005 due to the continued erosion that created them in the first place. It was rather cold in the morning, so we didn’t get to any of the beaches, but there are some great lookout points in the national park. Overall, absolutely worth the trip… the formations are pretty cool.

Our sightseeing over, we took the inland roads back to the highway on our return trip since they were a bit shorter and we were on a schedule. A great way to spend part of the Easter weekend though, just make sure to book your accommodations early and pick up your rental car before noon :)

At the Nobbies on Phillip Island

Visiting Melbourne: Touring the City

The Melbourne Skyline from Southbank

Though Sydney tends to represent Australia on the world stage, with its famous landmarks and endless beaches, it has not always been Australia’s most important or populous city. From the 1850′s gold rush through the early 20th century, Melbourne was larger and growing faster than Sydney and was the country’s capital prior to the founding of Canberra. As you might expect, this has led to a bit of a rivalry between Sydneysiders and Melbournians, often fueled by business developments or livability rankings. Though the balance has swung back to Sydney’s favor, Melbourne is on track to surpass Sydney in population within the next 30 years.

But too much time spent looking at charts, rankings and statistics does neither city justice; it is only by visiting (and you should!) that you can really understand what makes Melbourne and Sydney different. Luckily for me, while working on a project with a major Australian telecom, I spent a few months living and working right in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD.

Melbourne's free City Circle Tram

If Sydney is New York, Melbourne is probably San Francisco or Los Angeles. Compared to Sydney’s go-go-go business powerhouse-ness, Melbourne has an abundance of cafés, back-alley bars, restaurants and culture combined with an overall laid-back ambiance (which says a lot in Australia). As I’ve told a few different people, I’m happy that we’re living in Sydney for our temporary stay, but if we were to move here permanently we’d probably live in Melbourne.

Despite having spent a few months working there, I hadn’t really experienced the city as a tourist, so when the long Easter weekend rolled around at the end of April, I flew Kristen out so we could actually explore and see some of the sights. Though they are occasionally found in other cities, Melbourne is famous for its abundance of trams. In addition to the ones used by daily commuters, Yarra Trams also operates a free City Circle Tram. Using some of their historic cars, the tram goes in a circle around Melbourne’s CBD and includes an audio tour of some of the city’s highlights. We stopped at Federation Square and the Melbourne Aquarium before heading over to the Crown Casino for dinner.

Australian Rules Football (AFL) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)

If you had to make a list of things Melbournians are passionate about, the AFL would probably be at the top of the list. Though it’s called the Australian Football League, of the 17 teams in the league, 10 are located in or around Melbourne. As such, a proper Melbourne itinerary in the fall/winter isn’t complete without a footy game, and the place to see it is the MCG – Melbourne Cricket Ground. We attended the Geelong vs. Hawthorn game where, despite trailing in the first half of the game, Geelong managed to pull out a victory and remain undefeated in the season.

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant

Our long weekend ended with dinner on Melbourne’s Colonial Tramcar Restaurant. Though a little touristy, the excursion was actually a fun and unique way to see some of the city’s other sights. The experience is pretty much what you’d expect and, though the inside was a bit cozy, it was absolutely worth our while. Though that ended our holiday weekend and I had to return to work, Kristen still had the rest of week off, so she stayed in Melbourne and joined us for a few after-work events, notably Wednesday night bowling at the casino.

Though my Melbourne project assignment has since come to an end, I’m grateful to have spent a good portion of time there. It’s a wonderful place and absolutely deserves its position near the top of the world’s list of most livable cities.

In front of Melbourne's Southgate Footbridge

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 :)