Day 7: The odyssey

So, kangaroos were a pretty common sight now. They lounged all over the villa’s grounds in the mornings when we awoke, gnawing on grass, just like the sheep. Roos + sheep: it was confirmed, we were most definitely in Australia.

We started our day at a nearby beach, watching the waves crash into the western shore and taking a bit of a stroll. We very definitely saw a whale that day, breaching and blowing just off the shore, on a common migration route back to cooler waters.

We drove into the town of Yallingup itself for coffee and some bacon sandwiches. There we again saw waves crashing, and saw several people riding them — Yallingup being very much a surfing town. But surfing, whales and bacon be damned, today was about wine!

We visited eight wineries (!) in total:

  • Swings & Roundabouts, where they were very nice but we didn’t buy anything
  • Clairault, which looked stuffy but wasn’t (but we still didn’t end up buying anything)
  • Laurance, for which we had such high hopes after our Cab Sauv two nights previous but which was, in the end, terribly poncy and not very good at all in the wine department
  • Knee Deep, a very pleasant, friendly and proficient winery where we purchased a wonderful Cab Sauv and would have eaten lunch if we could have
  • Woodlands, which he happened into completely by accident but which ended up being maybe the find of the trip replete with charm, friendliness and a happy dog, and from which we took a spectacular Pinot Noir
  • The Growers, actually a consortium of several small producers which offered lots of wine at incredibly reasonable prices, though nothing quite remarkable enough to take home
  • Deep Woods, in which we met a lovely Belgian gentleman who spoke BBC-perfect English and who, quite generously, offered us a nearly-full bottle of Cab Sauv to take home for dinner
  • Swooping Magpie, our final (thank goodness!) stop of the day, where we had our favourite Shiraz of the trip to date, taking a bottle with us

In between cellar doors we stopped at Bootleg Brewery for an excellent sampler of beer, and returned to Swings & Roundabouts for a lunch of wood-fired pizzas on their outdoor patio. This, incidentally, was the first time during our first week in Australia that we had warm, sunny weather.

Earlier in the afternoon we’d decided to have a simple dinner back in the cottage, and so we picked up lots of meat, cheese, bread, pate and produce to go with all the wine we now needed to drink rather than carry it back on the plane.

You can’t see the many bottles of wine but trust me, they’re there.

Day 6: Lake Cave, two sheds, Stella Bella, warm breads

Before we began the day’s wine tastings we decided to expore another of the area’s features: caves. We drove to the southern end (more or less) of the region and booked in at Lake Cave. We had a little time to kill before getting started so we tried zooming down the road to Eagle Vale, but they weren’t open.

The cave itself was better than I expected. It wasn’t cheesy and, as the name suggests, featured a small lake on the floor of the cave. We had an interesting tour, saw some beautiful underground sights, even spent a few moments in complete darkness. It was a worthwhile visit, even though we had to climb some 300+ steps on the way out.

Our first winery of the day wound up being Redgate, which was okay. They were sold out of the Cab Franc that we’d wanted to try, but we picked up a very nice Chenin.

By this time our rummies were tumbling, so we stopped in the actual town of Margaret River for lunch at Must. It was very good — the brother claimed his burger was one of the best he’d ever had — but it took a long time. Not that we were on a tight timeline or anything, though, so we didn’t particularly care.

We hit four wineries in quick succession after lunch:

  • Watershed, which had a beautiful building and where we picked up a very decent Zinfandel
  • Howard Park, which had a serious reputation but which I found extremely haughty and disappointing (even so Nellie picked up a Moscato)
  • Hayshed, which was a hundred times friendlier and tastier and where we picked up a superb K+B Cabernet Sauvignon which is on the ‘take-back-to-Canada’ list
  • Stella Bella, a favourite of the brother’s and, now, of ours. We ended up ordering a case from them, six for the brother and six for us: two Cab Sauv, two Sauv Blanc and two sweet dessert wines. I don’t know what we’ll do with them all, but at least two of them are coming back to Canada with us. Here’s Nellie’s scoring system from the tasting sheet. No, we couldn’t understand it either.

It was late afternoon by this point, and we decided we needed more of that fresh bread. We returned to the bakery and saw people literally hugging their bread as they walked to their car. One gentleman was so hungry he began biting chunks off the bread cradled in his arms while walking to his car. After we picked up our loaves, Nellie took a page from his book and ripped into the white bread just as he had done. The bread would not be denied.

We were a little too tired for a giant meal, and the first place we called was booked up anyway, so we visited a nearby wine bar and had tapas. Decent food, and blessedly small. The weather turned foul on the way home — lightning and heavy rain — so there was naught to do but hunker down and plan the next day’s visits.

Day 5: To the wine!

We returned to Tart, the previous night’s restaurant, for a coffee to fuel our drive south, toward the Margaret River. Within a few minutes of leaving Perth, the view turned far more countryside-y than anything we’d seen so far. We even saw kangaroos in the distance, though not nearly close enough for Nellie’s liking. We stopped off in Bunbury to see their beach and pick up supplies, and in Busselton to see their beach and ginormous jetty.

After leaving Busselton we drove up to the Eagle Bay Brewing Company, where we enjoyed great food, tremendous beer and amazing views.

Our first winery stop of the day was Wise Vineyards, just down the road from our lunch spot. It too featured incredible views, and was hosting a couple of weddings. We picked up a bottle of Verdelho, which was quite decent, and debated as to whether we’d seen a whale breaching in the distant Indian Ocean.

We then arrived at our heretofore-secret accommodations: the Wildwood Valley Villa. We had a nice 3-bedroom cabin to ourselves with a proper kitchen, grill, deck, etc. tucked into the rolling hills just outside Yallingup: a perfect base from which to launch our excursions.

Our host gave us the lay of the land, suggested restaurants for dinners and — perhaps most importantly — told us about a local bakery adored by locals and which would be producing bread fresh from their ovens in just twenty minutes. Fresh hot bread? Allons-y! We jumped in the car and headed that way with all speed, slowing only when we got a close-up of some roos hopping alongside the car.

The bakery was hard to find, but was swarmed by cars of people coming to get the bread. We took a sourdough loaf for later and a fruit loaf for breakfast and drove home to nap and strategize before dinner.

Our dinner that evening was at Studio Bistro. Because of the large lunch, constant snacking and tired bones none of us felt quite up to the gastronomic (read: tasting) menu, though it looked fantastic. Still, all our meals were excellent, and the red I randomly selected from the list — a Cab Sauv from Laurance — earned the winery a spot on our must-visit list over the next two days.

That was enough excitement for one day, so we drove home and crashed hard.

Day 4: Our new nicknames are Floaty & Tart

Ultra-touristy or no, we decided that we had to see the Sydney Aquarium. So we shlepped downtown again, paid our gazillion dollars, steeled our nerves for the onslaught of screaming children and ventured in. Afore-mentioned screaming children and rude tourists aside, I was actually quite happy with what I saw. There were lots of crazy fish and crabs (especially spider crabs…I would not want to see one of those suckers coming at me), but the best part was where you went underwater to see the sharks and huge rays and dugong and sea turtles. Speaking of sea turtles, one of them was named Floaty. She was cute. Also cute: little kids freaking out every time they saw a fish that looked like Nemo or Dory.

We were getting hungry (and, yes, thirsty) by this point so we walked a few minutes to the Redoak boutique beer cafe, and once again were not disappointed. Their wheat beer was one of the best I’ve ever had, and the bock and porter were nice as well. It all went well with the sausage and mash (as did Nellie’s three — Oktoberfest, wheat and organic lager — with her roast beef sandwich) and we left full, once again. We decided to end the day’s adventures there; it was time to head home and get ready for our flight to Perth.

We made it to the airport with plenty of time, except that a) a corkscrew had accidentally been packed in my bag (which security was not cool with) and b) they boarded the flight much earlier than most Virgin Blue flights, so we ended up being among the last passengers to board. No matter; we got on, and we were on our way following a seat change due to Nellie’s malfunctioning TV screen. And by ‘malfunctioning’ I mean that it literally fell out of the seat back in front of her when she touched the screen. And so: off to the west coast of Australia, and the delicious wine therein!

Once we arrived we picked up our rental car and drove to our hotel, having decided to spend the night in Perth rather than drive to the Margaret River in the dark. There was some minor trouble with the law, and I’ll save my comments about the hotel for Tripadvisor, but we did have a very nice meal next door at a place called Tart. So that helped improve the evening somewhat.

Day 3: Fleet flying foxes & gratis Achel

Now that we had the train system all figured out we struck out on our own, once more heading back into the downtown core of Sydney. We got off at St James station and walked through The Domain to the Botanical Gardens, a collection of plant and animal life that — ducks and grass aside — we just wouldn’t find back home. Like dozens of giant fruit bats, ibises, more kookaburras and gum trees so big they’d fill an entire house. The gardens also afforded us the best view we’d seen yet of the city…the high buildings of the CBD, the Opera House and the Harbour bridge rising over the trees.

We walked out the end of the gardens and onto the steps of the Opera House itself. Up close it doesn’t look as shiny white as it does from a distance, and we got a sense of how old it actually is. Sail roof design notwithstanding, it reminded me of my university library.

From there we walked back up into the Rocks and, after a little hunting, arrived at the Australian Hotel. This was yet another pub recommendation, and it turned out to be a good one. We drank our cold beer at a table outside, enjoying the sunshine (finally…up to this point it had been somewhat cool and mostly overcast) and feeling very much like we were on vacation. Nellie remarked that, so far, Sydney felt like a combination of London and Halifax. That seemed about right to me.

The food at the Aussie didn’t catch our eye, so we walked a couple of blocks to the Belgian Heritage Cafe, a somewhat more upscale establishment. This felt a bit like cheating, since the beer list was entirely Belgian, but we decided to eat there anyway. Nellie’s mussels were good, my steak was excellent, our beer was heavy and sweet (like good Belgian beer should be!) and there was more of it than I’d planned on. When the server brought our second round (Achels) he knocked my bottle over. Only for a second, and it spilled only on the tray and not us, but he was very apologetic. To make up for it, he brought me another bottle, free of charge, to go with the 80% or so of the first one still in the bottle. Not a bad deal, but I was more than a little full when we left. Just as we departed the bartender noticed Nellie’s Pony Bar t-shirt and wanted to talk craft beer. We should have sat at the bar, I guess.

We picked up some wine on the way home, made dinner for the brother and crashed early. Again.

Day 2: In which the upside-down eating and drinking continues unabated

Our first full day in Sydney. We woke up early, but slept very well overall, and had lots of energy to attach the day. My brother had taken the day off work to show us around and get us situated.

First stop was the Bourke Street Bakery, one of a few in and around Sydney. It’s this amazing bakery nearby where we got croissants and sourdough and probably the best mocha I’ve ever tasted. We took a loaf of fig sourdough home with us for dinner that night. If it were within walking distance we’d have gone back every morning.

After stuffing ourselves we (and by “we” I mean my brother, as any attempt by me to drive on the left side of the road would result in all of us dying) drove east through Newtown and Surry Hills and Paddington, down through Centennial Park (behold: black swans!) and Randwick and into Coogee. Coogee’s was the first of three eastern beaches we saw, and was decidedly not-busy, since it was a cool, cloudy Tuesday. Nellie opted to stick her feet in the surf (Tasman Sea: check) before we jetted off for more.

Next was the less-crowded, but much prettier, Bronte beach (seen above). We got some good pictures there, far better than what we got at over-crowded and touristy Bondi. From there we drove up to Watsons Bay and walked around the park at South Head, all the while enjoying the great views of the north and middle heads, the harbour and the city.

We decided that was enough driving and jumped in the car to head home. We stopped at The Local Taphouse to sample their beer, but it didn’t open until 4. We drove home, defeated, stopping on the way to fill up at some place in Newtown. Boo. We parked the car and watched as a bird promptly (and, some say, purposefully) shat on it.

My brother was kind enough to take us downtown on a train to show us the ropes, so we made our way down to Circular Quay. We walked directly over to the Opera Bar, a perfect venue from which to enjoy a beer whilst taking in views of the Quay, the Harbour Bridge, the harbour itself, and of course the Opera House.

From there we walked up through the Rocks to a pub that somehow escaped my beer-hunting gaze: Harts Pub. It was a fantastic spot, replete with tasty beer, and we sat and drank and laughed our asses off about who-knows-what until it was time to head home for dinner. Dinner, by the way, was a tasty curry whipped up by the brother, which was followed immediately by a great big crash into bed.

Day 1: Boots on the ground!

All in all, the 15-hour flight wasn’t bad. Premium economy really was a godsend…big seats, more recline, decent food, excellent in-seat entertainment, top-notch service…I can’t imagine making that trip in economy. I even managed to steal a few hours of sleep, as did Nellie, so when we arrived we weren’t zombies. It took a little while to clear customs and collect our bags, but then lo and behold — Australia!

My brother met us at the airport, stuffed all our bags into his little VW convertible and drove us to his place, not far from the airport. We dropped our stuff and jumped back in the car, eager to take advantage of our energy while we still had it. He drove us through the CBD (central business district, aka “downtown”) and across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Kirribilli where we got some great views looking south across the harbour.

We did a walk around the Cremorne Reserve where we got more great views, and saw three kookaburras (which aparently is quite a big deal). I also nearly walked face first into a spider web, complete with large spider. Happily, I stopped just short; it would not have done to have begun screaming like a little girl just a few hours in to the visit.

We drove back across the bridge, parked in The Rocks (which is a neighbourhood and not, as Nellie had hoped, a pile of rocks on which to climb) and had lunch & a couple of beers at the Lord Nelson, thus beginning our effort to sample all the best beer places in Sydney. We also discovered that using the term “pot” of beer (which means a half-pint) doesn’t mean anything in NSW the way it does in Queensland, and combined with my Canadian accent, ordering one just gets you a full pint. So you go with it.

We drove back to my brother’s place where, despite my best efforts, I had a bit of a nap. I woke up long enough to shake off the woozy, eat some tasty salmon for dinner, and then crash hard. In Australia. W00t!

Day 0: Behold, Virgin virgins

We’re about 14 hours into this trip now. I’m typing this as we sit here in the Alaska Airlines Boardroom in terminal 3 at LAX, a godsend if ever there was one. More on that in a minute.

The early phases of the trip were a snap: no traffic facing the cab, barely a line at the Air Canada counter, and literally no line at customs so our spiffy new Nexus passes didn’t feel like major coups. But they’ll prove their worth yet, I’m sure. We had a bite, boarded and were off.

The flight went by quite quickly. The main excitement was when some crazy little Japanese man tried to force Nellie out of her seat and into his. Or his wife’s. Or something. Anyway, it got sorted and we were off. A few chapters of Game Of Thrones (I’m all caught up now!), a Saturday Globe and Mail and a couple episodes of Big Bang Theory later we were on the ground. Early, even.

Of course, early did us no good as we had a bloody long layover in LA. Not enough time to actually go into the city and see something, but too much to comfortably hang around the airport. Especially an airport as shite as LAX. Seriously, it may be the ugliest airport I’ve ever been in — at least what I’ve seen (terminals 2 & 3) and nearly devoid of things to do, especially before going through security. Luckily the Virgin Australia agent took our bags early and pointed us to the international terminal next door, which had restaurants and shops.

We were starving, so my burger and Nellie’s beef dip went down in a hurry, as did our Sierra Nevada pale ale and Pyramid hefeweizen. We took our time and observed the massive Turkish airlines queue and did a little shopping before finally resigning ourselves to return to terminal 3 and head to the gate. At this point we still had nearly five hours to kill.

Despite forgetting my Priority Pass lounge access card at home, I did manage to find my membership number, so we got access to the only lounge in the building: the Alaska Airlines Boardroom. And seriously, it’s so good that we did…comfy chairs, views of the runways and the mountains in the distance, free wi-fi, TV, snacks and coffee* and clean washrooms…it would have been a rough ~4 hours in the crappy-ass chairs downstairs by the gate.

In about an hour we’ll head downstairs and board our flight, and then begins the 15-hour flight. I’ve never been on a plane for that long, but I’ve never flown premium economy either. When I climb out from under the post-flight stupor I’ll let you know how it went.

* Apparently I drink coffee now?

Day 0: Allons-y!

It’s finally time. Later today we’ll begin the long, long journey to Australia.

We’re ready. We are so ready. Our plans are made. Our bags are packed. We have outfitted ourselves for 15 hours on a plane as best one can without a fifth of whisky. Work is sorted. The cats will be well looked-after. Our papers are in order. We’re ready.

And as if we needed an extra nudge out the door, this morning in Toronto it’s grey, windy and a chilly 8 degrees.

Here we go.