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Sydney Reunion: Cohen, the Bergmans and New Zealand

The Bergmans, Adam and Ryan in Darling Harbour

It’s been almost a year since Kristen and I first set foot in Sydney, and what better way to round out 2011 in Australia than with a hometown reunion. The latest addition to our visitor log was Adam Cohen, a childhood friend of mine, who planned to spend a couple weeks with us over Thanksgiving. This happened to coincide with another childhood friend finishing a study abroad program in Melbourne, where his family met him to begin a trip through Australia before heading home. Due to a little luck in timing and scheduling, we all were able to meet in Sydney and get together on the other side of the world.

Adam and the Bergmans then flew to Cairns for some diving before the Bergmans returned to the U.S.A. and Adam came back to Sydney, at which point he and I boarded a plane and began our trip to New Zealand.

After doing a bit of research and reviewing options for a good road trip, we decided on a loop through the South Island, beginning and ending in Christchurch. Our original intention was to rent a campervan for the long weekend and stay out in the countryside, but the logistics didn’t work out for our itinerary, so we just planned to rent a car and make a few stops on the way.

The Fergburger logo in Queenstown

After a late arrival, we left the guest house and drove off into the New Zealand countryside. Departing from Christchurch, our route took us through a variety of different Regions before we reached Queenstown that evening. In addition to the fields and rivers of coastal New Zealand, we drove the winding mountain roads past spectacular lakes (Tekapo and Pukaki) before reaching the Hotel Mercure in the Fernhill region of Queenstown. We checked into the hotel then got some dinner at that most popular of Queenstown burger joints, Fergburger.

No trip to Queenstown would be complete without a little thrillseeking and an adrenaline rush, so after a visit to The Station, Queenstown’s hub of everything extreme, we decided on hang gliding and drove up to the base of the Remarkables to jump off a mountain with only a guide and a wing. After catching a few thermals, taking in some stunning views, and getting a chance to pilot the glider (under careful supervision), we reached solid ground and continued on our journey through the Southern Alps.

Franz Josef Glacier meltwater heading to the Tasman Sea

Though the coastal plains of the island are nice, the real attraction is the mountains, and the next two days would not leave us disappointed. Our journey out of Queenstown towards the west coast took us past a pair of stunning lakes: Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. We then continued to drive through the first of a handful of national parks, stopping occasionally to check out waterfalls and other roadside attractions, before emerging from the Haast Pass and reaching the town of Haast on the coast. From here the road took us over and around the foothills on the coast before we reached the next of the South Island’s attractions.

An Otira Gorge Road Viaduct through Arthur's Pass

Descending from the mountains through temperate rainforests, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are among the most unique and accessible glaciers in the world. Visitors can drive to within a couple kilometers before completing the last part of the journey on foot, coming as close as 100 meters to the face of each glacier. While it’s possible to take guided tours onto the glaciers themselves, we contented ourselves with viewing them from the public hiking path before spending the night in the town of Franz Josef.

The final leg of our road trip took us back into the heart of the island, through yet another national park and an area known as Arthur’s Pass. Cutting across the middle of the South Island, the route is one of the few connections between the east and west coasts. As you might expect, building roads through the mountains can be challenging, but the Kiwis constructed an impressive set of viaducts to connect both sides of the island.

Devil's Punchbowl Falls waterfall in Arthur's Pass

We stopped again for a hike to a nearby waterfall before continuing back to Christchurch, where we stayed before our early morning flight the next day. We unfortunately were unable to explore much of the city, as the CBD is still closed off as a result of the recent earthquake. After an early wake-up call and a flight across the Tasman Sea, we returned to Sydney and began packing again, this time for the return trip to America for the Christmas holiday.

There are lots more pictures from the trip, check them out on Flickr!

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 ┬áto 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 ­čÖé 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

Tasmania: Launceston, Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and Port Arthur

Cataract Gorge near Launceston, Tasmania

The only state not part of the Australian mainland, Tasmania lies across the Bass Strait from the Australian state of Victoria. The Melbourne to Devonport ferry takes 9 hours to cross the 150 miles separating the two landmasses, but unless you need to transport a car, flying is a much faster (and sometimes cheaper) option. While one could easily spend a few weeks exploring the island, we just wanted a highlight tour, so we booked flights over a long weekend, hired a car, and started our road trip through the state.

Instead of flying a round trip to one of Tasmania’s major airports, we flew into Launceston in the north and planned to fly out of Hobart in the south. After arriving in Launceston on a Thursday evening, we spent the following morning exploring the surrounding area and got our first glimpse of the variety of landscapes in Tasmania. Only a couple miles outside of the city center lies a large national park and a recreation area known as Cataract Gorge. We walked to the mouth of the gorge from our hotel and hiked one of the trails to the main part of the recreation area. A large basin in the mountains surrounding Tasmania, Cataract Gorge includes a swimming pool, gardens, and a chairlift that carries visitors between the two sides of the gorge.

Ryan and Kristen on a quad bike in Tasmania

After a chairlift ride and a hike out of the steeper side of the gorge, we walked back to town and started our road trip. Our first stop was Cradle Mountain, the centerpiece of┬áCradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair National Park. Given the nature of the landscape, it seemed best to see the area from the ground, so we booked a quad bike tour and followed our guide Ray along the trails through the national park. Though riding four-wheelers is practically second nature to Kristen, this was only my second time, so it took me a little while to get the hang of it again. But get the hang of it I did and I managed to successfully ford the large puddles in the track (since getting stuck meant owing Ray a case of beer). Unfortunately for me, however, Ray’s ride was a bit bigger than mine. This was fine for most of the trip, but when he flew past me through a puddle, I received a second shower for the day, much to Kristen’s (and Ray’s) amusement.

A Tasmanian Devil

We returned to the hotel after the quad bike trip, picked up our car and drove to the edge of Dove Lake, where the best views of the mountain can be had. We spent a bit of time there (and shot a few pictures, see below) before backtracking to begin our Devils@Cradle tour and meet Tasmania’s endemic carnivorous marsupial.┬áThe devils normally aren’t very tolerant of people, but a few of the animals bred in captivity have become acclimatized to our presence, so the keeper leading our tour brought one out and carried him around until he became a bit too excited and needed to return to his habitat. After observing feeding time and picking up a couple souvenirs, we returned to our room at the Cradle Mountain Chateau.

Wineglass Bay, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania

The next morning we got back on the highway and continued our road trip across the center of the island. We backtracked almost to Launceston before driving through the eastern part of the island on the way to the east coast. Along the way, our GPS accidentally directed us on a slightly shorter but unpaved route via the Old Coach Road through the eastern forests, so we were relieved to reach our destination and return to pavement.

After hunting down a gas station, we continued to the next part of the highlight tour, an hour-long hike to the Wineglass Bay Scenic Overlook in Freycinet National Park. While Wineglass Bay may seem to be named because it’s shaped roughly like a wineglass, the┬áetymology is actually rather morbid: Wineglass Bay was once a base for whalers and the blood from their catches would turn the water red, hence the name. These days the water in the bay is a lovely shade of blue, and if we had more time we would have hiked the rest of the way to experience it for ourselves. Our itinerary had us in Hobart by the evening though, so we hiked back down and continued our journey. Upon arriving, we checked into the Wrest Point Casino and Hotel and had dinner in the revolving restaurant on the top floor.

Port Arthur, Tasmania

Our next and final day in Tasmania was spent in Port Arthur, a historic convict site southeast of Hobart on the Tasman Peninsula. Home to British and Irish prisoners from 1833-1877, the grounds and ruins are now a tourist attraction, where visitors can explore the original and restored buildings and even stick around for a ghost tour. In addition to the more traditional halls, churches, and houses on the grounds, the site also contains a panopticon known as the “Separate Prison”, where visitors can experience solitary confinement and even a chapel with individual cell-like pews.

Once we finished touring, we jumped in the rental car for the last time before returning it at Hobart’s international airport and flying back to Sydney. Though Tasmania may not make it onto an itinerary for a shorter stay in Australia, if you’re interested in a variety of landscapes or want to do some hiking, Tasmania has plenty to offer. There’s lots to do beyond what we covered, but the travel guide in me felt vindicated when we were browsing the gift shop and found a postcard with three highlights of Tasmania: Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and Port Arthur.

More pictures are on Flickr: Launceston, Cradle Mountain, Freycinet/Wineglass Bay, and Port Arthur.

Ryan and Kristen at Cradle Mountain

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,┬áthe 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┬áby 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 ­čÖé

At the Nobbies on Phillip Island

Exploring the Coast: a visit to the Scarborough Hotel

Me and Pat

Our third weekend in Sydney marked our first excursion outside of the city limits. On the occasion of Pat Sarnacke being in town to start his sabbatical, Darren suggested a trip to the Scarborough Hotel for lunch. An hour drive south of Sydney, the trip took us through most of the Sydney metropolitan area before working our way through the Royal National Park. Though around 85% of Australians live within 50km of the coast, there are only a handful of large cities. Scarborough, like many of the coastal towns, is a small area situated amongst hills, cliffs, beaches and the Pacific.

The coast and the Pacific

The Scarborough Hotel isn’t actually a hotel, although it, like many other drinking establishments, has “hotel” in the name. This is a holdover from past liquor licensing laws that often required pubs to provide some manner of accommodation. Though this requirement has since been phased out, the license is still called a “Hotel license” by the Office of Liquor, Gaming & Racing. The hotel also holds the distinction of being the oldest licensed premises in Wollongong, dating back to 1886. In fact, according to the Scarborough Hotel website, the town was actually named after the bar, not the other way around.

Lunch at the Scarborough Hotel

The hotel has a nice restaurant and a few bars, but the real draw is the outdoor seating area situated at the top of the cliff. Overlooking the ocean and a few secluded beaches, the area is evidently a popular place for weddings and other events. We unfortunately didn’t make it down to the beach, but we saw a few people who had worked their way there, either via an adjacent beach or down the cliff somehow (we couldn’t quite figure it out).

Sea Cliff Bridge - photo by Jon Bragg1

On the way in and out, we passed over the Sea Cliff Bridge, a spectacular cantilever bridge built in 2005 to avoid regular rock falls on the existing portion of the coastal Lawrence Hargrave Drive. The bridge offers spectacular views of the coastline and has been featured in a number of auto advertisements. We unfortunately didn’t have time to stop, but I wouldn’t mind passing by again to take a few shots of my own.

 

Kristen and me

 

1. http://www.flickr.com/photos/festivefrog/1558301874/