Summer in Australia, 2016

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 had given 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 bursts with talent and pulsates with 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

  1. ABORIGINAL HERITAGE TOUR, SYDNEY

Ever since the Sydney Olympics of 2000, Australia has amplified its reconciliation efforts with the Aboriginal people. An interesting way to understand their heritage is on the Royal Botanic Garden’s Aboriginal Heritage Tour, during which I learned more in 90 minutes than I did in history class at high school.

Reading about the tour  in a pamphletby chance, 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. On a walk through the Cadi Jam Ora portion of the Garden, Leon told us that Aboriginals have a strong attachment to Mother Earth and don’t take any more than is needed from nature. Here, he pointed out lemon myrtle, used to relieve headaches; bottle brush leaves, to flavour food; casuarina trees, to make canoes; and lomandra grass, to make bags. The best part? When Leon played the didgeridoo.

Leon Burchill on the didgeridoo

Leon Burchill on the didgeridoo

Me with the star

Me with the star: Leon Burchill

2. COSMOPOLITAN BONDI, SYDNEY

Yes, Sydney’s most famous beach is beautiful, especially when it is 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, making street access easy (the hotel has no ocean views). The pour-over coffees at Sensory Lab were excellent, as was the coconut cake. Dining at the new Bills on Hall Street was on the agenda (so was dinner at A Tavola), but we missed our reservation as we ran out of time.

Views from Bondi RSL

Views from Bondi RSL

Pour over coffees and cake at Sensory Lab

Pour over coffees and cake at Sensory Lab

3. BYRON BAY, NORTHEAST NSW

Byron Bay is marketed as 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), which employs some of the most gifted healers and therapists I’ve 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 and innovative in their presentation and use of superfoods. My favourite meditation spot was on a day bed by the Buddha statue at Samira Lookout. There’s something spiritual about this spot and I hope to return again.

Samira lookout at Gaia Retreat

Samira lookout at Gaia Retreat

Gaia's version of the Caesar Salad

Gaia’s version of the Caesar Salad

Dazzling sunsets at Gaia

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), we worked up a sweat. Retreating into the gallery from the 40C temperatures made our visit more 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 include 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!!

Melnourne skyline and Yarra River on the way to the gallery

Melbourne skyline and Yarra River, seen along the way to the gallery

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria

Ai Wei Wei's

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.

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, made into 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 Amaro.

Cheers to Il Bacaro

Cheers to Il Bacaro

And that, dear readers, is a snippet of my time in Australia.

A Local Takes on Touristy Sydney, Australia

For me, one of the best things about coming home after a long period away was feeling like a tourist. Suddenly, I wanted to do the touristy stuff listed in guidebooks. I managed to coax various family members into strolling the sights with me. Ultimately, some of my favourite moments were spent on, or in, the city’s landmarks including: the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the botanical gardens, the Pacific Ocean, and hotel lobbies. I absolutely love the Westin Sydney’s lobby — it’s a microcosm of everything that is good about the city: spacious and sunny thanks to the glorious high-ceiling atrium, with great food, wonderful service, beautiful traditional architecture married with modern touches (it’s part of the redeveloped former General Post Office in Martin Place) and a high tea fit for two mad hatters –or chatterers — like us Chetner girls.  Enjoy the views.

SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE

If Bridgeclimb is too pricey, climb its sandstone pylon. Thirteen dollars, plus 200 steps, later and you’re treated to  270-degree views that span the North Shore, Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay and The Rocks — a historic precinct.

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Pool of the Park Hyatt in the foreground. This was taken on the pedestrian walkway leading up to the pylon.

Pool of the Park Hyatt in the foreground. This was taken on the pedestrian walkway leading up to the pylon.

THE ROCKS

My dad, sister, and I were led by the experts of The Rocks Walking Tours on a rainy Monday morning. That didn’t dampen our spirits, however. Over 90 minutes, we learned so many quirks about this 1788-established settlement — also the site of Sydney’s first Chinatown — that to this day, my dad continues to rave about it.

Fact: Had it not been for a green ban instigated by residents in the 70s, this precinct would’ve been demolished.

The Rocks in the foreground. This photo was taken from the Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney.

The Rocks in the foreground. This photo was taken from the Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney.

ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS

By the harbour, smack-bang in the middle of Sydney’s CBD, and a quick stroll from the Opera House rests Australia’s oldest botanical garden (it will be celebrating it’s 100th birthday in 2016). This bounty of natural beauty is a sensational spot to get some fresh air, traverse flourishing gardens, relax on the lawn, and just take in the city views. After getting some sun, I recommend hitting the city for a spot of high tea at the Westin in Martin Place…

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After so many years of popping in for after-work champagne and cocktail peanuts at the Westin, my sister and I opted for the Alice in Wonderland-inspired Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea. White-gloved service, Ruinart champagne, a bustling lobby bar, and much to catch up on… it was a wonderfully drawn-out day tinged with lots of nostalgia.

SAMSUNG CSCEASTERN BEACHES COASTAL WALK

Though I went school and university oh-so-close to this area, my return heralded my first-ever walk from famous Bondi Beach to Coogee. No wonder it’s the site of the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibit. The oceanfront stroll is stunning! A good couple of hours were spent musing, photographing, and scribbling notes. It’s a must do, and I wonder why it took me so long to get there.

Start the walk with a swim and a beverage (champagne?) at Bondi Icebergs Club

Start the walk with a swim and a beverage (champagne, perhaps?) at Bondi Icebergs Club

A little way past Bronte Beach...

A little way past Bronte Beach…

The clifftop Waverly Cemetery has waterfront views.

The clifftop Waverly Cemetery has waterfront views.

SAMSUNG CSCTwenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did… so throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. ~Mark Twain

Coming Home. The Gold Coast, Australia

Visiting the Gold Coast after a 15-year hiatus felt weird. Arriving after a fifteen hour flight from Los Angeles, I strolled the promenade as the sun began its descent. Inhaling the thick sea air, I took in the familiar beach scene and listened to the roar of its crashing waves. The red-and-yellow lifeguard flags, symbols of a safe zone, didn’t draw me in — I had no desire to get in the water. Instead, I craved the company of my parents, sisters, and brothers, as well as my godmother, to recall memories of this part of Queensland associated with our wonder years. Walking alone didn’t feel right.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a good laugh on my own. Drawing from my own bank of memories, I remembered how my sister, Alana, and I had feared for our lives in a pedicab driven by a guy named ‘Spiro,’ whose hair-pin turns left our hair standing on end. I remembered when I’d been dumped so hard by a wave, that it instilled in me a lifelong fear of the deep. Oh, and the time a group of us had sneaked into the very same hotel where I was booked for the night —  the former Gold Coast International Hotel, now QT Gold Coast — to visit our new Melburnian “boy friends” (yes, we got caught). Later, looking down at the pool from the hotel balcony, I noticed the former hotel’s logo still splashed across its bottom. Directly in front of the QT, the Focus apartment building stands in its cylindrical glory. It’s where we’d holidayed for a number of years, right across from the beach. The clusters of condos inspired Rear Window action, and judging from the number of cranes against the skyline today, such activity is poised to continue indefinitely.

Apart from high-end brand stores like Prada and Louis Vuitton, a tram, a smattering of new hotels, and a couple of outdoor shopping malls, the Gold Coast felt the same to me — slightly dusty, touristy, with a penchant for neon lights and thrill-seeking rides that come alive at night.

The next morning, ooking out from the15th floor of the hotel, across the beautiful stretch of turquoise and deep blue water along the horizon, I was relieved of the previous day’s racing thoughts and anticipations. I felt more peaceful. I was in Australia, at home, and it felt really good to be back.

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Early Mornings…

To really see a city means to get up early before chaos renders it opaque. When I worked in Sydney, I’d catch an earlier bus just so I could grab coffee at Starbucks by Wynyard Station and watch the CBD unfurl into busyness. Crossing the Harbour Bridge at that time felt like I was waking up with the Pacific Ocean – I remember how it twinkled under the sun as if blinking it’s way out of a long slumber.

Early-morning walks make for good memories. One day in June, when we lived in New York, my husband and I wanted to dodge the breakfast lines at Clinton Street Baking Co., so we woke with the alarm, drove to the East Village, lucked a parking spot, and scored a table within 20 minutes. The ricotta pancakes soaked in blueberry sauce were divine and coffee never tasted so good (who doesn’t love an early AM jolt?), but what I particularly savoured were those moments walking to the cafe, when we’d had the streets to ourselves and seen beyond the well-trodden footpaths and summer haze that later descended. The village revealed hidden graffiti, artwork painted over unfolded roller doors, and above, fire escapes in an array of colours. The hosed-down pavements reminded us of how beautiful it is to start the day with a clean slate.

In late 2013, I’d made a pact with myself to wake up with the first sunrise of the upcoming new year. We were booked into a Santa Barbara hotel across from the ocean and at dawn on January 1st my husband slept while I, in my bathrobe and sneakers, ventured outside. Through the palm trees, I saw a sky brushed orange and pink. I crossed the street to watch the light ascend and breathed it all in — the salty air, the mist, the light. A few early birds and after-party stragglers still drinking beer were perched along the beach wall. We all shared in the awakening of a brand new year.

I’m flying home to Sydney in a few months’ time and can’t wait to experience its summer mornings; to see the sun-dappled Pacific and to watch the city prepare for the working day as I drink a cup of great Sydney brew. While I doubt I’ll be ordering from the aforementioned Starbucks, I wonder if it is still there. I’ll let you know.

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East Village mornings

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Pancakes at Clinton Street Baking Co.

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Roller-door murals

Up with the early birds in East Village

Up with the early birds in East Village

Santa Barbara sunrise

Santa Barbara sunrise

A new year in Santa Barbara, 2014

A new year in Santa Barbara, 2014

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Sunrise on the beach in Santa Barbara

Intermission II: The LA Tourist Speaks

I asked my sister, Katherine, to list her LA: Top 5. Being a first timer in the city, I’m not surprised that she responded with the following:

1. Hiking to the Hollywood Sign.

2. Walking Hollywood Boulevard.

3. Driving through Orange County – to Laguna Beach and San Clemente.

4. Exploring Beverly Hills and witnessing everything it is known for – the Lamborghinis; the brand name stores – Gucci, Prada; Rodeo Drive…

5. Drinking a Moroccan mint matcha latte at Urth Caffe in Santa Monica.

Though I’m a resident of LA, even I get excited when I glimpse the Pacific Ocean’s shimmer on a sunny day, take a Star Line tour of Hollywood stars’ homes, and hopscotch the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While Kath’s Top 5 may read like that of a guidebook, it’s a worthy list that reminds me that all that glitters in LA really is gold to the tourist.

My sis and me peeking over the fence at "that" sign

My sis and me peeking over the fence at “that” sign

Hollywood Sign c/o the iphone

Hollywood Sign c/o the iPhone

Top of the Sign

Top of the Sign

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Looking over LA

Kath looking over LA

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Lucille Ball's old home

Lucille Ball’s old home in Beverly Hills

Bijan's Bugatti

Bijan’s million+ Bugatti on Rodeo Drive

Harry Winston store on Rodeo Drive

Harry Winston store on Rodeo Drive

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Tourists

Tourists

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Oz premiere on Hollywood Blvd

Oz premiere on Hollywood Blvd

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Chilling at the pool at the Loews Hotel hollywood

Chilling at the pool at the Loews Hotel Hollywood

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach

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Warming the fingertips - Montage Hotel Laguna Beach

Warming the fingertips – Montage Hotel Laguna Beach

Photo Shoot at Treasure Island Park, Laguna Beach

Photo Shoot at Treasure Island Park, Laguna Beach

The Pacific

The Pacific

San Clemente - through Katherine's rose coloured glasses

San Clemente – through Katherine’s rose coloured glasses

My sis, Kath, with her fave Moroccan Mint matcha drink at Urth Caffe

My sis, Kath, with her fave Moroccan Mint matcha drink at Urth Caffe