I found myself in Sydney at the height of summer for a very special occasion: my sister’s wedding. That Sunday was absolutely beautiful — rain showers gave way to a sunny day, which led to a stunning evening celebration that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
In between wedding preparations, I fit in travel around Sydney, Byron Bay, and Melbourne. Australia thrives; it brims with talent and pulsates with positive energy. Those side trips delivered in spades.
Back in LA, feeling a tad homesick, I’ve jotted my top experiences to relive those happy days. I’m here to assist with specific information or tips if you’re planning a trip Down Under. Just ask in the comments section:
MY TOP 5 AUSSIE MOMENTS
- ABORIGINAL HERITAGE TOUR, SYDNEY
Ever since the Sydney Olympics of 2000, Australia has amplified its reconciliation efforts with Aboriginal people, and one of the most interesting ways to understand their heritage is on the Royal Botanic Garden’s Aboriginal Heritage Tour. I learned more in those 90-plus minutes than I can recall from history class in high school.
Reading about the tour by chance in a pamphlet, I signed up for a Friday visit before my flight back home (tours run a few times a week). That morning, our small group was led by guide/actor Leon Burchill (he starred in Wyrmwood), who shared his knowledge about Aboriginal life, specifically in relation to the Cadigal people, who’d lived on the land we were treading. Aboriginals have a strong attachment to Mother Earth and don’t take any more than is needed from nature, said Leon on a walk through the Cadi Jam Ora portion of the Garden. Here, he pointed out lemon myrtle trees, whose oil relieves headaches; bottle brush leaves, used to flavour food; casuarina trees, used to makes canoe; and lomandra grass, which used to be woven into bags. The best part? When Leon played the didgeridoo.
Leon Burchill on the didgeridoo
Me with the star: Leon Burchill
2. COSMOPOLITAN BONDI, SYDNEY
Yes, Sydney’s most famous beach is beautiful, especially when seen from Icebergs’ dining room or the downstairs RSL Club (both only serve lunch after 12pm, so order a drink while you wait). But, perhaps the most interesting food spots are located a short walk away, on cosmopolitan Gould and Hall streets. We stayed in the recently opened QT Bondi — so hip it sells a beard grooming kit in the mini bar — overlooking Gould, which made street access easy (the hotel has no ocean views). The pour-over coffees at Sensory Lab were excellent, which we enjoyed while feasting on coconut cake. Dining at the new Bills on Hall Street was on the agenda, as was dinner at A Tavola, but we missed both reservation as we ran out of time.
Views from Bondi RSL
Pour over coffees and cake at Sensory Lab
3. BYRON BAY, NORTHEAST NSW
I’ve been intrigued by Byron Bay ever since word started getting around about it being a mecca of all things hip and artisinal. And it is, when you travel away from its tourist-filled beach, where every accent other than Australian fills the air. I especially loved staying in the Byron hinterland near Newrybar, at Gaia Retreat & Spa (co-owned by Olivia Newton-John) that employs some of the most gifted healers and therapists I’ve ever met. I highly recommend the Intuition Massage with Gisele Faddoul, as well as the Kahuna massage, best experienced in the outdoor screened treatment room. Meals at the restaurant are fantastic — so fresh, innovative in their presentation and use of ingredients, and enhanced by superfoods. My favourite meditation spot was at Samira Lookout on a day bed by the Buddha statue. There’s something spiritual about this spot and I hope to return again.
Samira lookout at Gaia Retreat
Gaia’s version of the Caesar Salad
Dazzling sunsets at Gaia
4. NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA, MELBOURNE
Walking to the gallery from our hotel (Ovolo Laneways, located in the middle of Melbourne) worked up a sweat, so retreating into the gallery from the 40C temperatures made our visit very enjoyable. Jokes aside, the Ai WeiWei and Andy Warhol exhibit is fun and pretty extraordinary. It features 300 works by the artists that find parallel in their production values, and methods of social engagement. If you’ve seen Warhol’s Silver Clouds, an interactive balloon exhibit, you’ll like Ai Wei Wei’s Caonima Balloon Bird Balloon of llamas and twitter birds. Other standout artworks are Ai Wei Wei’s Blossom (2015), composed of thousands of white porcelain flowers, and his political project, With Flowers (2013-15), a collection of photographs taken of the bouquets the artist placed in a bicycle basket outside his studio for every day he wasn’t able to travel without his confiscated passport. The exhibit ends April 24, 2016. Go!!
Melbourne skyline and Yarra River, seen along the way to the gallery
National Gallery of Victoria
Ai Wei Wei’s interactive balloon exhibit
5. IL BACARO
The rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne is not dissimilar to the one that plays out between NYC and LA. Sydney is the flashier of the two, with her beautiful harbour and world-famous beaches, whereas Melbourne feels more cultured, with her European good looks, art-filled alleyways, and excellent Italian food thanks to its sizable Italian population.
My older brother travels a lot for work and recommended Il Bacaro for a modern Italian meal. We walked into the intimate, white-linen dining room and managed to score two seats at the bar. The food was fabulous: Wagyu carpaccio with dill mayonnaise; charred scallops (presented like flat spaghetti) with asparagus; rabbit cannelloni; and a dreamy agave nectar cheesecake made with airy ricotta. After my husband toured the kitchen (when the staff learned of his Italian restaurant in California, they took him by the arm), we finished off a memorable dinner with glasses of Amaro.
Cheers to Il Bacaro
And that, dear readers, is a snippet of my time in Australia.